The Exile

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A Journey Over Land and Sea

It was the dead of night, hours after sunset, when a large troupe of travelling entertainers approached the mighty city of Anaem, nestled between the Great Rolling Sea and the gaping maw of the Raging River. The Carlisle Stronghold, as ever, sat apart from the main city which sprawled in the middle-distance, standing sentry over the little town that lie within its walls; black and blue Shadowcat banners fluttered in the night breeze on the ramparts.

The king would not leave the stronghold, and his guests would not enter it; a visit from a strangely-garbed king, ally or no, in the middle of the night would attract an astounding amount of attention, the last thing anyone desired.

Trystane, as was Clío and everyone else in their party, had donned dark clothing in preparation for this surreptitious last leg of their overland journey. As had already been discussed before breaking camp this morning, Sir Ryman brought his mount to a halt the moment the stronghold came into view, dismounting; thirty-nine others followed suit. Sixty riderless horses walking made considerably less noise than they would otherwise. Lanterns were extinguished, and the party turned toward the seashore just short of crossing the river.

“There,” Ryman announced quietly, pointing ahead. Sitting inconspicuously near the shore was a lone ship with dark sails. Sir Edric, leading Arrow, walked briskly ahead to alert the ship’s bare-bones crew that their passengers were approaching.

Clío wondered idly if this was how pirates might board a vessel, when it wasn’t done violently at sea. At any rate, it felt decidedly sinister to be sneaking around this way; it occurred to her that the passage of Altair and his men through the Wooden Grove to access the Fortress must have been similar. Her mood, already unpleasant, darkened.

“Welcome aboard,” was all the greeting the ship captain, a greying retired navy officer named—fittingly—Moody offered for now, though politely. He would speak with his passengers and greet them more formally once everyone had been tucked away in cabins, out of earshot of shore.

Trystane’s original plan to summon two active vessels to the shore had been deemed too risky and scrapped; King Julius, upon returning to Anaem, had quietly called upon this one and her crew instead. The ship, dark and lonesome though it was, was an enormous retired naval cargo ship, sturdy as a rock, outfitted for weeks at sea, lightly armed and with enough stalls on the lower deck for the horses, though they were pushing its capacity to the max. The main and gun decks had been outfitted as cabins for the people aboard, just as the lower had been outfitted with stalls for their mounts. The crew would live on the main deck, as it often became draftier and provided more ready access to the upper deck; their passengers would occupy the gun deck, as it was roomier and more secure, being centrally located and, as the name implied, possessing firepower close at hand.

After silently ascending the boarding ramp, Clío lifted the skirts of her simple dark gray gown and cream-colored lace slip beneath to step onto the great ship’s deck; she was immediately pointed politely toward the bow with a quiet gesture by a crewman. They were to get inside as quickly and quietly as possible before anyone was to remove a hood or speak a word, and that only once the decks were secured, doors closed and windows shuttered. Just as Clío breached the threshold of the small plain wooden door leading into a relatively roomy cabin within the forecastle, the skies outside opened up, and a torrential summer rain was upon them. Those left outside did their best to move below decks more quickly still without causing a ruckus.

The downpour would provide some extra cover when the carrack weighed anchor and moved off.

The incognito king and queen would stay here in the forecastle, while Ryman, posing as master bard and thought to be the most important passenger aboard, had been invited to stay (and no doubt spend his nights drinking and telling stories) with Captain Moody in his multi-room quarters. Trystane and Clío were perfectly content with this arrangement. Their temporary home at sea was more-than-accommodating, even comfortable—and best of all, private. While Sir Edric, with Captain Moody and his crew chief, partied the evenings away and the rest stayed two- to four-to-a-room on the gun deck, they could spend their evenings alone together whenever they chose.

Captain Moody was the only sailor who knew exactly who would be sleeping under his proverbial roof in the coming weeks; the crew, while no doubt curious about the surreptitious nature of their boarding and possibly wondering just who the couple in the forecastle who seemed so important was, simply did as their captain and their king commanded, as did all good seamen. As they helped their living cargo aboard, the horses led on and to the lower deck using a wider and stronger ramp near the stern, they were as discrete and efficient as… well, as exactly what they were: lifelong, duty-bound shipmen.

While the others were led to cabins two decks below, Captain Moody followed Edric Ryman and the king and queen into the forecastle, allowing no one else to be privy to their meeting. Closing the door firmly behind himself, he glanced around to be sure the window shutters were also firmly in place. Noting that they were and hanging a hastily lit oil lantern on a hook beside the door, the aging Anaemari turned to his guests of honor and inclined his head graciously. “Your Majesties,” he murmured in a low voice. “Sir. I offer my sincere condolences for those whom you have lost and the circumstances under which we meet. It is an honor to have such revered and precious guests aboard the Avaricia—so christened during my time as a seafaring merchant, as we tend to have reputations for being quite, well, avaricious.” Smiling humbly, he added, “I am quite proud of her, as you can easily tell, but I digress. I felt it important to greet you formally, and express how honored I am to host Your Majesties. But this will be, as requested, the last time I expressly mention your true identities. Is there anything at all Your Majesties, or you Sir, require at this time? Despite the roles you play, your every need will be met with the greatest of haste, as do those of all my passengers.”

Trystane and Edric, being knights used to bare-bones living when it was required, both swung their eyes discreetly in Clío’s direction. She offered a bright smile to their captain. “No, I think this will suit us quite nicely, thank you, Captain. I cannot speak for the men, but I am quite exhausted; I think I shall retire before long.” Trystane gestured his agreement.

The captain nodded. “Then I shall take my leave; however, please don’t hesitate to summon myself or any of my crew, should any need arise.” Turning to Ryman, he beckoned, “Shall we, Master Wordsworth?”

“We shall,” Ryman affirmed, quietly bidding his “son” and his wife a good night as the two grizzled men exited the cabin.

“My ladies must not know what to do with themselves,” Clío commented conversationally as she removed her dark cloak, laying it gingerly across a small hemp hammock that was suspended across one corner of the cabin.

As the Avaricia was built to haul cargo and not passengers, it lacked the bolted-down furnishings of your typical sleeping cabin. Everything was kept low to the floor to minimize sliding and toppling as the vessel gently rose and fell in compliance with the water beneath it. Clío was hardly about to complain; their quarters were still quite luxurious, with a large, thick feather mattress dominating one of the two walls which were lined with shuttered portholes. The mattress was piled high with down-stuffed pillows, fur blankets and satin and cotton coverlets. The heavy—worn, but polished—wooden table on the other side of the room had had its legs cut down by half, to accommodate big fluffy cushions which substituted for chairs. There was a large, well-kept mirror mounted on the wall beside the door, and the chamberpot occupied it’s own little closet for privacy. In a chest under the mirror sat a large ornate washbasin and half a dozen thick, soft lengths of toweling. An enclosed cabinet near the table contained bottles of whiskey, rum and ale, accompanied by stout metal steins made to withstand heavy use and remain upright even on the roughest of seas. Clío thought it quaint and comfortable, cozy and homey.

Trystane hardly seemed to notice their surroundings. He was watching his wife take in the room, that familiar fire burning in his dark eyes. When her gaze landed on him, she felt a quiet, knowing grin begin to spread across her features. During the two weeks on the road between Ashworth and Anaem, they had kept their intimate encounters to quiet kisses and soft caresses before drifting off to sleep in each other’s arms each night. Canvas walls, even heavy ones made for a lord commander, did not make very sound-resistant barriers, and both possessed far too much class to embarrass the forty people they were closest to, who slept in tightly constructed camps in the woods right outside each night, by engaging in noisy, heedless lovemaking.

Although that one night, when they had decided they could bear it no longer and made love anyway—that night had been a lot of fun. Lying under thick blankets, he had taken her from behind, clamping his hand across her mouth at her heed to keep her cries of passion from escaping her throat. With his other hand, he had caressed her nipples. The fact that she couldn’t vent her passion by crying out lustily had intensified her ecstasy to near-unbearable levels. Finally, he had slipped a hand between her thighs and coaxed a soul-rattling orgasm from her as she clawed at his forearm with one hand, reaching around to clutch desperately at his hip with the other.

“You don’t… always need handmaids to undress you, now, do you?” he murmured teasingly, putting his arms around her to tug at the ribbon that laced up the back of her dress.

She grinned. “Don’t I know it,” she acknowledged softly. He had removed his own slate gray summerweight cloak to reveal the simple tunic he wore under it. She slipped her hand beneath it, stroking up slowly over his exquisite body. “You know…” she mused. “We’re wearing far fewer layers now; I could really grow to prefer that.”

He smiled. “Always have, if I’m honest. Especially on you.”

Both had been speaking slightly differently as well, without dozens of ears constantly on them, listening for instruction, gauging emotions, waiting for some hint of weakness, a touch of vulnerability to betray the monarchs’ true meaning. Trystane was a literal king of nonchalance; he had always had a cool, unrattled demeanor, even during the most tumultuous of times. But for Clío, it was new and freeing. And when her gorgeous husband shed his royal mask, he was even more beautiful than he was anyway. She loved the fact that he could do it—indeed, he had to do it—almost all of the time now. Grateful as she was for their lives of privilege at home, in many ways, she preferred this simpler existence.

It would almost be a shame when they reached the Shield of the Heavens in Candora and had to re-assume their royal identities.

The bodice of Clío’s dress loosened and fell away as Trystane worked his way down her back, relieving the frock of the ribbon that secured it in place. He pushed it down over her hips while Clío’s own hands moved upward, removing her husband’s tunic. After a minimal amount of foreplay, the queen fell backward, naked, onto the mattress, pulling her king—her charming prince, her knight in shining armor—down on top of her. Within seconds, he was inside her, but that is where their haste abated.

It would be hours before sleep came that night.

The Hostile Shore of Ashemar lie ahead, the perpetually snow-covered peaks of the Iceberg Mountains looming in the far distance. Even in the midst of summer, Anaemar’s northern coast remained cold, so far north as it was. Angelique knew, as she stood on the ship deck staring out at the endless sapphire blue of the Tempest Sea, that it would only get colder as they swung north to semi-circumvent the realm of King Renn Alysson on their way to warmer Candora.

She pulled her cloak tighter around herself in anticipation. At least, as of yet, the Tempest had not done much to live up to its name; poor Adora, as if she hadn’t been through enough, had nonetheless been confined to the cabin they shared with Talia for days with seasickness. Talia, as ever, stayed constantly by her side, mothering. Angelique liked that about her; she wished she could find some maternal instinct within herself, but lately she felt more like a lost child than a fully-grown woman. Adora was too sick to really miss her duties at the queen’s side, and Talia had Adora to care for, filling her days much as normal. Angelique, however, found herself wandering the ship more often than not, with nothing to do and at a loss.

Thank the gods for the way Talia took care of people as a matter of course. And Ollie, who had been so lovely. Oliver–

“Angelique.” The voice behind her was soft, and she had heard someone approaching from behind; she jumped out of her skin because the voice belonged to Trystane. He hadn’t addressed her as Lady in weeks, but she liked that somehow—it seemed… pleasantly familiar. Indeed, he had spoken more words to her in the last week alone than he had in a lifetime before.

But he still caused her heart to flutter and her head to swim.

It suddenly occurred to her then, that she had spent years dreaming of becoming closer to him; but now that the opportunity arose, temporary as it was, it didn’t seem such a great idea. One of these times, she might get flustered and just fall right overboard.

“Y–” Damn, she cursed herself, only just managing to cut off before uttering an ill-advised Your Majesty. It hadn’t happened yet, but it still rankled that she would come even that close to blowing everything. However—“Dominic,” she greeted meekly instead—that felt wholly unnatural, and very nearly scandalous. “What brings you out on such a gloomy day?” Only a lifetime of breeding as a servant of royals allowed her to recover and make conversation as quickly as that. Her heart still pounded against her ribs though.

“I could ask you the same thing,” he replied lightly, amusement rather than annoyance flashing across his perfect dark features.

Why was he like that, so… both far less serious, and yet so far above other kings in some unnamed way? How did he manage his particular brand of confidence—or was he, fittingly, simply an exceptionally talented actor?

“Oh,” she sighed. “Just a little… restless, I suppose.”

“Tell me about it,” he commented wryly. “This sort of confinement becomes monotonous after a time.”

“How long until we reach Candor?”

He considered a moment. “I imagine we still have twice again the length of time we’ve already been at sea.”

“A whole fortnight?” she replied incredulously before she thought. Regardless of what name she called him, she still didn’t exactly make a habit of addressing him in such a precipitous manner. She glanced out to sea, muttering, “Sorry,” under her breath.

“Angelique,” he murmured, placing subtle but deliberate emphasis on his use of her informal, title-less name. “No need to be sorry.” His voice rose back to a more conversational level as a crewman happened by. “It is a long time to be away from the stage; but we’ll find a way to cope, I’m certain.”

“We haven’t much choice, I suppose,” she agreed, understanding the meaning behind the light charade. As she sensed the crewman moving past behind her, she noticed Trystane’s gaze remain on the man’s back, narrowed slightly in thought. Her eyes followed his in a casual glance, curious. She didn’t know Trystane well, but she knew people, and one didn’t stare at another in that way without reason. “What occupies your thoughts during these long days of sailing?” she asked, keeping her reference vague in case the crewman might still hear her.

“As much as possible, to avoid mental atrophy. Practicing monologues and such. I think,” he added thoughtfully once the crewman was well out of earshot, “that one has his eye on Clío.”

Angelique couldn’t help tossing him the briefest of odd glances in response. Was Trystane, His Majesty, King of Aesha’an, confiding in her? That would be a whole new unfamiliar realm of communication. “He wouldn’t dare touch her,” she nonetheless announced, softly but with absolute sincerity. “The other women and I would never allow it; you’d never even have the chance to defend her honor.” In spite of herself, she flashed an amused grin to go with her half-jest.

He smiled back, and her knees would have given way beneath her, had she not been leaning lightly on the deck railing.

“Oh,” the king in actor’s clothing remembered abruptly. “I nearly forgot my purpose in seeking you out.”

She blinked. He had been looking specifically for her?

“Oliver, the– birdman– asked after you this morning.” The verbal stumble was nearly undetectable; but then, Angelique tended to notice minutiae that most would not, especially where certain people were concerned.

“‘Birdman’?” she giggled softly.

“He’s so good with them,” he replied casually. “At any rate, he seems particularly interested in your whereabouts, I’ve noticed.”

“Is he?” she asked, cocking her head to the side curiously.

“He is. And normally, I am not one to bother with gossip, but the well-being of my wife’s companions is of particular interest to her, and therefore, to me. One’s well-being tends to be directly affected by those courting her. Besides,” he glanced at her pointedly. “I am told that hearsay is a specialty of yours.”

Angelique’s mild shock at his use of the descriptor those courting her flew out of her head as she felt herself color. “I– just–”

“There’s nothing the matter,” he assured her gently. “Someone has to do it. In fact, I would like you to do it for me, if you will agree to it.”

Her blink this time was accompanied by a raised eyebrow. “I’m sorry?” she implored.

He moved slightly closer in order to speak more quietly. Her breath caught at his proximity—not that she minded.

“I’d have spoken with you of this somewhere more private—but a man spending even a moment alone with his wife’s friends tends to start rumors all on its own. I need someone with an affinity for hearsay and the passing along of such to keep an ear trained on anyone and everyone around her. I must know of any plotting or any reputation that may proceed me.”

She frowned in concern. “‘Plotting’? Is that likely?”

“Not necessarily likely, but always possible in sensitive situations. It is only an unsavory precaution one must take. At times,” he explained pointedly.

“Of course I’ll do whatever is needed of me by– anyone,” she replied without hesitation. “But why me? You must have more capable ears at your disposal.”

“I do,” he confirmed. “But an extra trusted mind cannot hurt. I have been betrayed by those considered ‘more capable’ rather recently.”

She thought of Eldrin Dane, and her heart broke once more for Adora. “I understand.”

Trystane straightened. “Thank you. Understudies are always appreciated, especially when they already have much to do.”

Her momentary confusion was alleviated at the sight of another member of the ship’s crew bustling by on some errand or another. Trystane all but ignored this one.

“Of course,” she murmured sincerely. “It is no trouble at all.” It really wasn’t.

Trystane touched her forearm lightly as he turned to go, causing that gods-damned flutter in her belly that had become so familiar in recent years. “Think about that other thing. Captain Moody. Looks like rain.” He moved off in casual conversation with the captain.

She frowned after him a moment. Not that she was offended, but why in the Realm would he have any concern about anyone who might be… did he say courting her? Oliver Rudgaard, the falconer? Well if he was, he certainly had a subtle way of going about it, at least as of yet. She began wandering in the direction of her cabin below decks, considering the notion. It was far from an unwelcome one; but she simply could not for the life of her imagine falling for anyone as thoroughly as she had her king.

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