CHOREID DHELEREI, ROYAL CITY OF MARLOVEN HESS – 4760
It was generally understood in Marloven Hess that the counterattack truly began when the old king Ivandred rode back out of Norsunder at the head of his First Lancers, and charged the enemy at the northern border. It was equally understood that the war ended the day the bloody-handed Norsundrian captain Aldon died in the middle of Choreid Dhelerei’s main square.
That next day, very early, Fenis Senelac was shaken awake by a delegation of two graying women and one man: the women had run the resistance in the royal city, and the man, stumping on one leg, was a veteran light skirmisher from what had been East Army.
“Wha…” Fenis said stupidly, for she felt she had shut her eyes heartbeats before. (And she was not far wrong. She’d been asleep for a little over an hour.)
“You have to be the one,” Daltan said, her voice gritty. “The king just left my basement, where he spent the night. He hasn’t been upstairs yet. You know that’s got to be where he’s going.”
“No!” Fenis expelled a breath as if she had been punched. “Not me. Not me.” She was still struggling to accept the death of her husband, Retren Forthan, but she could see in all three faces that they knew that.
“It has to be you,” Daltan said, the other two opening their hands in agreement. “You’re the only one among the handful of people he trusts whose loss is as bad.”
“Almost as bad,” Fenis forced herself to say. “The worst is losing a child.”
No one argued.
There was no perfect person to speak about what everyone knew would stir up grief. But there were degrees, from the least painful to the worst possible. Fenis believed that the Little Girl would have been the least painful, except she had not turned up but once in the past few years, that day right before the invasion.
Oh yes, Liere was not the Little Girl anymore. She, like the king, had grown up. And apparently she had grown away, despite their years of friendship. Once, she had been the only person the king laughed with, and even played with, what seemed a lifetime ago. When Ret was young, new to the academy, and Fenis herself had been young.
She waited for the spasm of pain to ease enough for her to say, “The best would be Keriam.”
“He had another syncope last night, this one bad,” the old cavalryman rumbled, eyes down. “He can’t hide them from the king anymore. I don’t think he’ll last out the week.”
“But he understood what happened? That we won our freedom back?”
“I think so,” Daltan said. “But I really think what was more important was finding out that that never-to-be-cursed-enough Aldren Rodac was dead. Scragged by their own company. Along with Tdanerend Sindan. Who everyone knows put him up to it.”
“Rodac,” Fenis repeated, then had it. “You mean Aldren Keriam.”
Daltan crossed her arms. “The Commander accepted Aldren into the family, but after he tried to sell the king to the Norsundrians, and claim he was heir to the kingdom, no one wants to acknowledge him being a Keriam, legal paper or no legal paper. And Dannor says, she kicked him out when she found out about the plot, and threw his clothes out into the snow. Ripped his name out of the family register.” She dusted her hands together. “Gone.”
Fenis had slept in her clothes, as they all had, these days; as Daltan spoke, she pulled on her boots and then her gloves, giving in to the inevitable. Like it or not, the demands of the world were rising with the winter sun over there behind the castle.
Seeing that she would not deny a duty absolutely no one wanted, the others slipped away to their own tasks, leaving Fenis uncertain what to do first. See to the horses, or go straight away to face the king? How did the animals understand what had happened to them? All very well to tell each other that the First Lancers had ridden out of the Night Gate of Norsunder to their rescue, but in fact, it seemed that they had been imprisoned in timelessness, released once early in the war—many of them had had half-healed cuts from that experience—forced into captivity again, then released once more on home ground. Home ground, she amended, after four hundred years. With orders to fight their own people, and when they refused, some evil mage had poisoned the riders’ blood. But they fought anyway, more than half of them dying of wounds that wouldn’t heal.
How do you explain that to horses? She yanked on gloves and cap, then went around to make sure the horses’ water barrels had no ice filming the top. These might be the same stables—not a lot had changed in the royal castle, the First Lancers had said—but surely it must smell different.
The horses were fine, she knew. She scolded herself out of being a coward and leaving Senrid to face those rooms alone.
By now he would have crossed most of the city from Daltan’s shop. The sun had not yet paled the northeastern sky as Fenis crunched from the garrison stable yard toward the castle. It seemed strange to walk in the open like this. Her body wasn’t even sure it was safe yet; the back of her neck tightened until she reached the harskialdna tower, with a few chunks missing, otherwise intact. The brutes who’d gone around trying to destroy things had given up on that tower. It was just too thick, and probably laced with magical protections, however that worked.
Fenis ducked her head as a gust of sleety wind howled around the corner. She shouldered the heavy door open, noting that hard-working hands had already swept up the broken crockery and other litter left by the Norsundrian occupiers. Someone had even wanded the area, which had smelled like pee, probably from Norsundrians too drunk, or too brutish, to bother with the Waste Spell. Who would live like that if they didn’t have to? But she didn’t have to understand them. They were gone.
Think out your words, she told herself as she started up the spiral staircase. Plan it carefully—
She halted when she heard footsteps one turn above her. Habit brought out the knife she’d learned to carry everywhere as she walked on her tiptoes—to find the king himself on the first landing, waiting for her.
“I thought I heard the door,” he said.
“I was coming to find you.” She ran up the rest of the way, then put the knife back into the wrist sheath that Retren had made for her himself. Her fingers lingered there on the leddas that he had touched, then she dropped her hand, remembering that the king could hear thoughts if he tried. He looked too tired to try.
Here it was. Her stomach clenched. “I—none of us—wanted you to see the little princess’s room alone. We sneaked up here three days ago, when the news came that the First Lancers were riding to free the royal city, and that Aldon and his band tried to go to ground.” Fenis made a spitting motion. “Someone had been living in her rooms. Her things had been flung into a corner, along with broken dishes.”
Fenis sneaked a look at Senrid’s profile, his utterly still profile, then away, fast. A hissing breath, and she made an attempt to ease the atmosphere. “I don’t know what they had against dirty dishes. Judging by the mess, they broke everything after every meal.”
Senrid remained still. Fenis waited for him to say something. Anything. An order concerning Crystal Ingrid’s clothes—her heartbreakingly small clothes—but when the pause racked itself into a painful silence, she threw words out, as fast as she could speak them, “We scoured out all the rooms in the residence wing. We also have the throne room banners. When you want them rehung along with the First Lancers’ banner, just say the word. Lnar-Steward has all the things we saved.” Including the princess’s things.
“Thank you,” Senrid said—and that was when she understood he was still because he was waiting for her to leave. He wanted to be alone.
She slapped her fist to her chest and withdrew, every word of that painful, clumsy attempt at conversation echoing in her ears the entire way to the stables, where she went to find Clove, the sweet, grandmotherly mare on whom Fenis had taught the Little Girl to ride. She put her forehead against Clove’s warm neck and wept, hard, until her eyes stung. Then she splashed her face with the shockingly cold water, grabbed a wand, and moved along the stalls: the only anodyne to grief was work.
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