Tassry, off Sisolo—2.19.1206
I was right. I did not want to be, but I was. The responsibility of that is nearly more than I can bear.
The archipelago is secure. Sisolo is once again the sentinel of Ealiels Bay. Everything Ben has accomplished for the love of Diandra and in her name now has a chance of true success. Time will have to decide if that is to be.
They celebrate here on Tassry and on Rilse. Even on Sisolo, where so much treachery was at work, those who knew nothing of the intrigue celebrate the annihilation of a royal house gone wrong. The Larguessa’s head adorns the square, on a pike higher than her cohorts. Hers is decorated in violets, a crude and cruel mockery of her given name. I will never again set foot on Sisolo, or her islets.
I cannot celebrate with them. I cannot rid myself of the blood. The carnage was brutal. Magnificent. Clean. Again and again I must ask myself; am I capable of such butchery? Can I kill so gently? And I am left to believe that I must be, because I was the last one standing.
Ben’s been to this room three times to bid me come. Each time he appeared, he was a little more drunk, a little less insistent. I believe he understands. I hope that he does. Even if he does not, he will forgive me. He owes me a life debt that even a king must uphold.
The blood waits for me somewhere. It will wait as long as it must for redemption, or reparations; right now, I don’t know which. Ben is alive. Vales Gate is saved. That must be enough. That is what I will celebrate, in my own way, in my own time.
“Oh, Linhare! Have you ever seen such a thing?”
Fire danced on fingers, up arms and across shoulders. It leapt like toads aflame from mouth to mouth. The Thissian fire-eaters howled and twirled, feeding the flames that whooshed higher, sparked brighter, and died away just as the next burst flew from between smiling lips.
“Linny.” Jinna nudged her. Linhare blinked but could not pull her eyes from the stage.
“No, Jin. I’ve never seen—”
“Linhare!” The nudge became a shove toppling her from the stone bench. Her friend pointed desperately to the aisle. Righting herself, the angry retort died on Linhare’s tongue.
Her heart bobbed like a ball from belly to throat and back again. She had successfully avoided him since returning home; and now there he stood: queensguard. Dakhonne warrior. Wait. Her hand moved to her pocket. Instead of reaching inside, she smoothed the front of her simple dress. He could not know it was there. No one did. Not even Jinna, and she knew everything.
“What do we do now?” Jinna leaned closer to whisper. On stage, the fire-eaters were singing, urging their audience to sing along.
“I don’t know. Pretend we didn’t see him?”
“And what are the chances that is going to work?”
Linhare sighed. “I knew we should not have stayed for the show. We made it through the whole day without getting caught. Why do I listen to you, Jinna? Why?”
“Oh, don’t start that.” Jinna waved her away. “It has been ages since we’ve done anything wicked. Your mother will understand.”
“It has been ages since I have done anything wicked.” And it is not my mother I worry about. “You are another matter entirely. Stay, Jin. No sense both of us missing out.”
“Don’t go, Linny. There’s still the Vulgar Raven after the show. I can’t go without you.”
“Of course you can. You have been for years.”
“Whose fault is that, eh? Besides, the Thissians invited us not me.”
The old guilty pang was no less severe than when she first went up the mountain—without Jinna. Linhare patted her friend’s hand. “A particular Thissian invited you.”
“Us! You’re already in trouble! Just come with me!”
“I should not have stayed out so long. My mother needs me. This pregnancy is very difficult for her.”
“Your mother is too old to bear. She should have listened to my mother and taken the proper precautions.”
Linhare’s body tensed. “Her husband wanted an heir. She knew that when she agreed to the marriage. It…it is his right.”
“He’s not the one who has to bear the little frog. Oh, please, Linhare. Come with me. I promise we won’t stay long. And your darling sister Sabal is there if your mother needs comfort. Just look at my Thissian there.” She pointed. “Isn’t he the most delicious cut of flesh you have ever seen?”
The fire-eaters finished their song. The young man currently tickling Jinna’s voracious fancy bowed low, his long hair now unbound and sweeping his boots. Jinna got to her feet with the rest, whistling and cheering. Wait was still there, at the end of the aisle. There would be no escaping him as she might have at least tried, when she was a girl. Such carefree days were over. She had changed; and so did life in the Vale. Father dead, Mother remarried and pregnant, her little sister a woman—none of that had been so when she left for university. It all happened without her.
Linhare stood up beside Jinna, touching her arm. She raised her voice above the applause. “Go to the Vulgar Raven with your Thissian fire-eater. Have fun for both of us.”
“I’m not going without you,” Jinna shouted back. Arms crossed and strawberry curls bouncing on fair and freckled shoulders, she pushed through the cheering spectators to the aisle where Wait stood, burnished golden in torchlight, attracting every female eye in the vicinity. Jinna’s life goal was to see the man in all his naked, sinewy glory. Sabal giggled whenever he entered a room. Linhare understood the universal reaction to him. He was a heroic figure, handsome, brave and loyal. He saved a king, and all of Vales Gate in the process. She had been as smitten with him as the rest, until…
The secret in her pocket dragged her down. Linhare excused her way to him, henhairs prickling her skin. Wait’s eyes, as blue-green as Ealiels Bay in summer, drew her, fixed on her and only her even if Jinna’s finger wagged in his face. By the time she reached the aisle, Linhare could no longer hear the cheering crowds or Jinna’s haranguing.
“Good evening, Linhare.”
“Good evening, Wait.”
An automatic response; a nicety ingrained since childhood. Linhare’s face burned and not because she was caught outside the Vale without him. Her hand reached into her pocket. The cover, appropriately red and sufficiently scarred, was familiar to her fingertips; comforting and disquieting all at once. An adventure tale of some young man traveling the provinces of the main island, all her isles and islets, forging peace with a newly-made king. The author could have been any of his men; until the line that made it his.
—because I was the last one standing.
So many years in her possession, this secret, this betrayal, the temptation to delve further into his story was never as great as the need to stop at that treacherous line. One day, she would give it back to him. She had made that silent promise. One day. Not today.
Linhare straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and looked him in the eye for the first time since finding his secret stashed in a crevice behind a broken windowsill in the university library.
“Have you been here long?”
“Long enough. You do have a royal box at your disposal.”
“I didn’t want to be recognized.” Plain enough to go unnoticed, pretty enough to blend in, Linhare was, on these occasions, glad she had not inherited her mother’s rare beauty. Sabal’s temperament was more suited to it. But there was no mistaking a man of Wait’s size and fame. If her people did not know her by sight, they did know her queensguard; and now, whether Jinna liked it or not, the game was over. “I’m sorry for running off.”
“No you’re not.” The corner of Wait’s mouth lifted into something that might have been a smile, holding out his hand to assist her from the row of seats. “You’re sorry you got caught. Come. I will escort you out of here.”
“We don’t need an escort.” Jinna claimed his other arm. “We were fine all day, weren’t we, Linny?”
“I know,” Wait said. “You were fine when you stole the pony and cart. You were fine browsing the markets Dockside. And on the beach, the skewered meat stand and all through the show.”
Followed. Of course. “Then why did you not simply fetch me home earlier?”
“And have you miss the Thissians?” Again that almost-smile. Linhare clamped her lips closed. Her fingers on his arm tingled madly. On the other side of him, Jinna was waving her free arm over her head.
“There he is! Wait, please. One cup at the Vulgar Raven and then we’ll go back with you, meek as baby lambs.”
Wait halted, gently extricating himself from Jinna’s grasp. “Princess Linhare does not need my permission. I am queensguard. I await her command.” He turned to Linhare, those serious eyes absorbing her like a sea-sponge. “Linhare?”
“Linny?” Jinna bounced on the balls of her feet. “Please, please, please? It is still early. We can be home before Ta-Diandra takes her bed-time tea.”
Linhare bit her lip, her gaze lifting from Jinna’s hopeful expression to Wait’s quiet patience. At home, Mother waited. If she were lucky, her stepfather did not even know she’d gone missing. Yet. And if he did, Linhare knew who would bear the consequences.
“One cup,” she said at last. “And I mean it, Jinna. One cup and we go home.”
“Hurrah! I knew you’d see reason.” Flinging herself onto Wait’s arm, she jostled him as if a woodmouse could jostle an oak. “You’ll have a cup too, won’t you, Wait?”
“I don’t drink fermented spirits,” he told her, but let her keep his arm. Offering the other to Linhare, he said, “Your father was a well-known face in the Vulgar Raven.”
“A man of the people. They loved him. They will love you, too.”
“A man of the people,” Linhare echoed. She smiled up at him. “Thank you, Wait.”
“You are welcome, Linhare.”
The crowd parted for them. Linhare noted the spectators now whispering behind their hands. Their future queen sat among them, and none had known. Now she smiled, nodded to those who dared meet her eyes, and wished…
There were no other carts or carriages on the road leading out of Dockside. Linhare’s heart hammered. One cup became two, and two cups became bawdy songs sung with the Thissian fire-eaters. Somehow, Jinna kept talking her into staying longer and longer. The Vulgar Raven held her patrons tightly and close. Many told stories of her father, stories that made Linhare laugh even if a few tears escaped as well. Now, after midnight and long past her mother’s bed-time tea, Linhare drove the stolen pony and cart out of sleeping Upper-Dockside. Wait’s massive mare clomped behind. Jinna snored on her shoulder. Her breath tickled Linhare’s neck. Six years had not banished the dear familiarity of the sound, the sensation. Comforting. Amusing. Beloved. It meant Jinna. Linhare rested her head atop her friend’s, and let her stay.
The clomp of echoing hooves woke her. Linhare startled upright, blinking. Jinna grumbled in her intoxicated doze but did not wake. Somewhere between Upper-Dockside and the Gate, Wait had taken her reins, and was leading the pony and cart. Her cheeks warmed. How easily she fell into old ways, even after the safe independence of university.
Linhare waved to the guard at the mouth of the tunnel as her cart passed. The Gate separating Dockside from the Vale had been standing ageless for as long as history recorded life in the archipelago. It was older than all the cities on all the isles from Esher to Danessa. Folktales said it was fae built, fae protected. It needed no guards. As far as Linhare was concerned, it was a guard in its own right and far more effective than the bored and yawning boy she passed.
Her stepfather, apparently, thought otherwise.
Coming out of the tunnel and into the Vale, cobbles gave way to a well-worn forest road that muffled the creak-clomp of cartwheels and hooves. Gone was the briny scent of the sea and in its place, green.
The Vale smelled green. It tasted green. Even moonlight-doused, the eerie light glowed green. Crickets and nightbirds chirruped in canopy and brush. In daylight, woodland flowers splashed scarlet or curtsied white in some attempt to prove that there were other colors in the Vale, but the sunlight-dappled green swallowed them quickly. In such a light, it was possible to believe faefolk dwelt in secret places. In moonlight, it was impossible to deny.
“Wait,” she called softly. The man stopped instantly, turned in his saddle. “I wish to go through Littlevale, please.”
He only nodded, clucked to his horse, and continued on. Littlevale appeared like mushrooms in the forest mulch. A house, then two, then a cluster of homes mimicking but not identical to one another, lined the dirt road. Gardens thrived. Window-boxes overflowed. All windows were dark; the good people of Littlevale rose and slept with the sun.
Wait turned off the road and onto a familiar side track. Was he so attuned to her thoughts? Or had his traveled the same path? The track narrowed to the width of a single cart. Though few enough traveled it of late, the trees and brush seemed to know not to encroach any further.
The stone and timber cottage appeared as they rounded a familiar bend. The yard was all stakes and twine supporting vines bearing pods and peas and summer squash; beds of herbs and racks to dry them upon. Linhare did not have to see the potter’s shed to know it sat slightly tilted in the yard. This was a place she knew as well as her own rooms. It meant comfort and peace and love. For that year after her father’s return, of her mother’s confinement and the birthing that nearly killed her, Linhare lived in all ways as a peasant girl with Jinna and Ta-Yebbe, in this forestwife’s cottage in the wood, cleaning and weeding, harvesting and brewing. Many traveled the track back then, seeking remedies and wisdom. For that year, she was happier than in all her other years combined.
Ta-Yebbe stood on the front stoop, arms crossed, and trying to hide a smile, as if she had known all along they would arrive; as of course, she did.
“Jinna.” She jiggled her friend. “Wake up. You’re home.”
“Home,” Linhare told her. The cart rolled to a stop. On the stoop, Ta-Yebbe opened her arms. Linhare leapt out of the cart to embrace the forestwife as bony as Jinna was curved. Still fair and freckled, her cap of strawberry curls had dulled to a rich copper over the years; but she smelled the same. Lavender and mint. Linhare breathed her in.
“Ten days home,” Ta-Yebbe said. “It’s about time you got here.”
“I’m sorry, Ta. I’m lucky I even get a few hours to sleep these days. My stepfather is determined to make my homecoming grand.”
“I imagine he is.” Yebbe let her go. “I see you have brought my wayward daughter home to me as well, and at this hour, that can’t mean anything good. What mischief is she up to now?”
“It was my mischief this time,” Linhare told her. “I made her come with me Dockside and I don’t want her blamed for it if I get caught. I thought it best to leave her here with you.”
Wait had dismounted and was trying to rouse Jinna, who was having none of it. He lifted her out of the cart.
“I won’t pretend I don’t know what this is about,” Yebbe said quietly. “And I won’t pretend I’m not grateful. But you cannot protect her from your stepfather any more than your mother can protect me.”
“It’s just that, with the baby coming and my return, things are so chaotic. It really was my idea to steal a pony and cart like we used to. She didn’t force me to stay out so late. You know Jinna, always up for a lark. I’m the one who’s not supposed to be out without an escort. She is free to—”
“Wait is with you.” Yebbe hushed her with a finger to her lips. “You are to be queen, Linhare. Remember that.” Removing her finger, the forestwife called to Wait coming down the walk. “Bring her in. I’ve a bed ready for her.”
Linhare moved out of the way to let Wait pass. As he did, Jinna opened her eyes and grinned at her, then snuggled into the crook of Wait’s neck, purring feigned slumber.
Yebbe led Wait further into the tiny cottage. He bumped his head or a shoulder on the low doorway she gestured him through. Linhare let them handle Jinna; instead, she stood in the kitchen that took up the rest of the cottage. It sparkled with moonlight coming through the enormous, Therkian-glass window spanning the far wall. Linhare rested her cheek to the rare glass shimmering muted rainbows wherever the light touched it. A priceless gift from her father to the woman who saved the lives of his wife and baby daughter, and the source of the never-ending gossip it sparked since.
“I am in your debt once again, Wait,” Yebbe was saying as they entered the kitchen. “Can I offer you tea? Something to eat?”
“No, thank you. It’s time I got the princess home.”
“So soon?” Yebbe sighed and beckoned Linhare to her. Wait bowed to both of them and ducked out the door. The women followed more slowly behind.
“Do the villagers still believe you contracted with boogles to get your window?” Linhare asked.
“Of course.” Yebbe squeezed her arm. “Just as I took a boogle lover to get Jinna. But better that than the other gossip floating around back then.”
Linhare bowed her head, cheeks flushing. Those whispers linking the forestwife to her king, spoken behind hands and rarely louder, had resurfaced of late.
“I don’t know what sparked such fascination with boogles.” Linhare’s voice wobbled only slightly. “Hairless, stumpy things. Why not a dark and handsome Drümbul Lord?”
“Because then other women would have to envy me instead of whisper about my fatherless child. Don’t let wagging tongues bother you, poppet. Such silliness is a drawback of my trade. I am used to it.”
You should not have to be. When my father was alive, your trade was honored. When my father was alive—
“How is Diandra?” Yebbe’s softly spoken question halted Linhare on the walk.
“Not well,” she said. “I fear for her, Ta-Yebbe.”
“It is late in her life for childbearing.” Yebbe shook her head. “But she is a strong woman, and healthy. It is more taxing for her, that’s all. She will be fine.”
“But when she gave birth to Sabal—”
“Hush now.” Yebbe kissed her fingertips and touched them to her heart. “Don’t speak of such things.”
The screamed agony. Her father, who feared nothing, trembling and holding her so tightly it hurt. Young as she had been, Linhare remembered it all, including that moment Yebbe came out of the birthing room, a smile on her pale face and a squalling infant in her arms.
“Come see Mother,” Linhare burst. “She would welcome you.”
“Oh, child.” Yebbe took both Linhare’s hands in hers. “Of course she would, but no. The days a forestwife could call upon a queen uninvited are gone.”
“They don’t have to be. You said it yourself. I am to be queen. If I command it, my stepfather cannot—”
Yebbe grasped her by the arms. “If she calls for me, I will come. Nothing will keep me from her side. But she must summon me, not you. Understand?”
“Good girl.” Yebbe kissed both cheeks. “Now go home.”
Wait stood beside the cart, waiting to assist her onto the seat. Linhare took his hand and climbed in. He gave her the reins.
“Thank you, Wait,” she said. “For everything.”
Again that stoic nod, that hint of what might be a smile. Legging up onto his mare’s back, he clicked her into motion. Linhare slapped the reins to her pony’s back. She turned to wave to Ta-Yebbe, but, except for moonlit flowers and vines, the yard was empty.
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