Aric contends with the consequences of what he's done, and tries for a measure of peace.
Here is the last chapter of the novel! A clean chapter; I think that was probably a given considering the events of the previous one. I hope you enjoy it! Thanks for your support through the process of writing this (and your feedback, which has shaped some changes I made to this last chapter, hopefully for the better). Patreon subscribers, this should also be live for you with notes and maps and stuff. Thank you, everyone, and I mean that with all sincerity. You are wonderful <3
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The Valiant and the Bold by Rob Baird. Chapter 7, "At Morning"
I found Hallun Couthragn waiting on a velvet-cushioned bench outside the queen's room. That was where Ivra was sitting, it struck me. When I first met Queen Ansha, and the colonel asked me if it was everything I expected from royalty.
How long ago had that been?
It didn't matter. There was now a 'before' and an 'after,' and what came 'before' would have little relevance for me now that this great, terrible barrier had been crossed. All the same I thought of the Border Collie sitting there, waiting the way Hallun was now, and I heard myself choke.
“Sit," the badger told me.
“Yes." I handed him the empty bottle.
“There is nothing I can say to comfort you." He took a deep breath. “Nor should I thank you for sparing me this task. But I want to. Think of me however you like, for that."
“I understand, at least," I told him. Unsavory—horrible—as it might've been, the badger would've done the job himself if it came down to it. There wasn't any reason to lose respect for him, not if I permitted myself to retain any of my own.
I had my doubts about that. Nothing in Dhamishaya—none of the things I'd done, or seen without stopping—rose to any comparable level. There could be no redemption, and I did appreciate Couthragn avoided any attempt at subjecting me to that. Perhaps it was his way of repaying me.
A minute or so of silence had passed between us. When I spoke, Hallun looked over and set his jaw. “Can you walk?" I joined him when he got to his feet. “We need to find the arkenprince and make sure our tracks are covered."
I asked what that entailed, but all he did was shake his head. Further explanation waited until Arkenprince Tullen met us in a quiet room near the main entrance of the Iron Hall.
“The palace is quiet," Tullen reported. “I don't think anyone will suspect anything, other than a visit of the usual sort from Colonel Laner. I gather, Mr. Couthragn, that this will be seen as nothing out of the ordinary."
“Nothing, no. I'll have one of the aides find her. Nara is loyal. I have ways of guaranteeing that."
I blinked. “Lady Suttin? Lady Suttin is in your guild?"
“Nara, Lady Suttin, is loyal," Hallun repeated. There was neither acknowledgment nor denial, but at least now I knew how he'd found out so quickly about what went on between the queen and I. “She'll probably report to… who should be on duty, colonel? Do you trust Sergid?"
“Then to Sergid. The baroness will need to be arrested, but Captain Sergid should see to that. There'll be some period of confusion while everyone tries to figure out what's happened."
“Are there any other witnesses? Anyone dangerous?" Tullen asked.
“No. It's not much of a plot, thankfully."
Tullen nodded, apparently satisfied. But then he caught himself. “What about the new guard captain? Selva—he knows, or at least he can guess. Have him dealt with."
“Selva is a good man," I interjected quickly. “He doesn't know anything."
“He was the queen's courier. He knows that much. He's too dangerous. Mr. Couthragn, the colonel shouldn't be the one to handle this."
I opened my muzzle and Hallun shook his head, holding up a paw to silence me. “Selva knows only that he was delivering a message—nothing else. That said, he'll come under suspicion immediately. If you want to save him, colonel, now's the time to make sure he does know nothing. Because it will come out."
“And if he doesn't?"
“Ensure it," Hallun said. “And I'll find a way to keep him out of the worst of this."
I couldn't allow the stoat to be punished for my own crimes—certainly not for any reason as inconsequential as the arkenprince's concerns that he knew too much. Swallowing, I hastened back to Cassalmure. Dawn broke as I reached the gate—light, soft and orange and glorious, painted the red walls invitingly.
Selva had nodded off, and didn't even notice me entering his quarters. He startled awake with a yelp when I knocked at the inside of the door. “Oh! Sir—terribly sorry, sir."
“Don't worry about it. I didn't expect that to take so long. Do you mind if I sit?"
“No, sir." He adjusted himself on the edge of his cot.
“How long has the queen been having you take messages like that?"
“Not very long, sir. I was going to tell you as soon as I got back, but that badger…"
I forced a smile. “Accept my apologies for Hallun's behavior. He's quite protective of the queen. Sometimes, she…"
I trailed off, but only for a second. Now that I'd started lying, continuing became much easier. You'll hate yourself—later, I thought, and it was enough to keep me going. Enough to make the laugh seem genuine.
“She doesn't realize how things look. She's interested in… you know, certain topics? One of them is magic. Yes," I nodded, seeing him grimace. “Exactly. I think she was expecting a parcel."
“That's what I was supposed to get?"
“Maybe. But she wrote to the Railroad depot directly. Mr. Couthragn was displeased, to say the least—it doesn't look very good for her to be corresponding with them."
Selva sighed, only deference to his queen keeping scorn from the sound. “Of course it doesn't. Did you have to do this kind of thing, too, sir?"
“I did. I went to speak with her. She wasn't in the mood to offer apologies for putting you in this position. But, if you would be so kind: the next time she asks, please tell her that you would like me to handle it—or, at least, someone else from Cassalmure."
I stood. “Thank you. That will be all, captain. Get some sleep—her schedule for the day is fairly easy, isn't it?"
“Yes, sir," he repeated. “A luncheon this afternoon. I'm supposed to attend."
“You'll want to be rested for that," I told him, smiling again.
I had my paw on the doorknob when he cleared his throat. “Sir. The… the politics, sir. How am I supposed to know when something that simple becomes such a problem?"
“You won't. Ignore as much of it as you can," I told him. “I'll tell you if it's something you need to know."
“Thank you, sir."
I left him in his quarters and half-considered my own. But I knew that sleep wouldn't come; I returned to my office, instead. Sunrise filled the little room, tinging every corner and surface with hints of color.
The city, I thought. At morning.
It was half an hour later when, over the sound of my quiet, panted sobbing, I began to hear the peal of the alarm bells.
I'd lost all track of time. Not that it eluded me of necessity—there was a clock on the far wall of my office, crafted by Aernian mechanics in crude imitation of the Otonichi style—but no two parts of that day and the one after seemed to be related to one another. Someone brought me lunch; someone else delivered a report to my office. Depositions from the palace guards. A request for information from the constables.
Lunch must've taken place some hours prior to Siron Yanisca's arrival: night had fallen by the time she came to Cassalmure. I nodded for my aide to let her in; nodded again in the direction of a chair.
“Good evening, colonel. It took me a while to get over here—the city's a bit of a mess right now. I wanted to convey my condolences. I know you and Queen Ansha were close."
“Thank you," I said. “It's all a little surreal."
“She was the reason you were brought to Tabisthalia, after all," Lieutenant Commander Yanisca pointed out. “I suppose she's not the reason you've stayed. You'll continue to remain here, I hope?"
I shook my head. “I don't really know, commander. It will depend on what the Old Council wants to do, but I think they've got more to handle right now than what becomes of me. At least, I hope they do."
That wasn't strictly true—I hoped they would decide to be rid of me soon. I would be quite content to never see the inside of the Iron Hall again. Of course, I knew I was unlikely to be so fortunate. And there was no way I could tell Yanisca what I'd done: I could only shake my head, again, when she asked if anyone knew what had happened.
“Not yet. It might've been a quick illness, since one of her ladies-in-waiting also became sick—but she's recovering in a hospital, I think. We'll find out when the doctors make their report."
“It might also have simply been stress, you know? She must've been under a lot of pressure."
“True. As I said…"
Siron nodded. The otter was quiet for a spell, in which I finally became aware once more of the clock and the dreary steadiness of its ticking. A minute passed. “Aric, I won't ask that you tell me anything. But if there's anything I can do—anything the Royal Navy can do, for that matter… if there's anything at all, you can ask me."
“There's nothing you can do. There's nothing to tell you, either."
“Will you manage? Will you be safe?"
I wondered how much she guessed—how far she might've intuited that we'd fallen. Or, perhaps, she was simply perceptive. I played it safe. “I don't know. The Old Council… as I told you, the Old Council has many things to consider. I shouldn't be a priority."
“Who's the woman? Someone named Danveller—she's on the Valing right now, a supply ship in the harbor. Should I be worried?"
My ears pinned briefly. Had I put Siron in a difficult position, just like I'd done to Teya? All of that came before, though. “No. She's from my hometown—just some local woman from around Stolvan. I met her in the Butcher's Quarter shortly after I came to the city."
The otter cocked her head thoughtfully. “And you became, uh… close? She's worth that much to you?"
“Wasn't anything like that. We never—we—we just talked, commander. You know how hard it can be to find friends. Confidants?"
She shrugged, gesturing to me. And then she pointed to the whiskey glasses on my desk. “May I?" As I handed her the bottle, it struck me they hadn't been washed since Couthragn and Arkenprince Tullen had used them. She didn't question that, and she didn't ask before pouring a measure into the second cup. “How much did you confide in her?"
I ignored the whiskey for the time being. “I didn't, except that I was confused by the city, and a little unhappy. But, ah… I think some people got the wrong idea. I didn't want them to use her for leverage."
The otter took a sip, closing her eyes in thought. “Callenbaw? I didn't look at the label. I'm guessing Callenbaw, though. What do you say?"
Nantor, Duke Cirth-Arren, gave me the bottle as a token of his appreciation and in recognizing my promotion when I took over the Royal Guard. I hadn't looked at the label either: Arrenshire, as Tullen said, wasn't known for whiskey so I assumed it was from somewhere in Barland and knew nothing beyond that. “Ivress and Weirrett, BW?"
She opened her eyes again, as though what I'd read from the bottle made sense. Apparently, to her, it did. “Really? Wrong fork of the Bar, then. I was courted by a man from Brecklan Wash, a few years ago. This could've been my life."
Having never been to Barland, it mattered little to me. Brecklan Wash sat astride the River Sheal, the largest of the Bar's tributaries. At least they were known for something useful, unlike my own hometown. “It still could be, right?"
“The moment I saw their excuse for a harbor, I decided it wasn't for me." She took another drink. “The bit about confidants—it's all a lie, really. Though… well, don't get me wrong, Aric: the useful thing about Tabisthalian prostitutes is they've chosen the least destructive of the Iron City's sins for their own."
“How do you mean it's a lie, then?"
“It's nothing special about us, Aric. It's not like… the water they use for this?" She tilted her glass towards me. “It doesn't come from the Sheal. No, no, they use some brook with a special taste to the water—if you believe that. I certainly don't. It's just water, after all. The Tabis isn't special, either. The reason they say you can't trust anyone here is because all those poor souls look in the mirror and they have to ask if they'd trust their own reflection. None of 'em would say yes. Can't blame 'em. Can you?"
“There's plenty of people you can confide in. You're a good man, Aric. I saw that on the Atosha. I don't know everything that happens in the Iron Hall. I don't want to, and the way you're looking at that glass… it's been a long day, I guess."
“Didn't you say the Old Council would be occupied with important things?" She reached her arm out, nudging the glass across the desk towards me.
The clock said it was nearly midnight; Hallun, doubtless, was still awake, but the rest of the city drowsed. I let the whiskey prickle my sensitive nose as penance for the drink that followed. “Is this good?"
“Ivress and Weirett is the best on the Sheal River. Don't tell me that you really can't tell the difference between this and… whatever they dumped into your rations in the south."
“I can't." It tasted like alcohol. Smoky; perhaps a little less coarse than what we'd had in the barracks, but my palate wasn't refined enough to care. “I'm not a member of the aristocracy like some of us, Lady Enari."
She froze, staring at me. “How did you know that?"
“Arkenprince Tullen addressed you that way."
“Did he? So he did—cargal'th, it feels like weeks. I trust you, Aric. I think of you as a friend. Even if you don't pay me." She tipped the glass back, downing the rest of the whiskey in one healthy swallow, and bared her teeth at me. “So don't call me that again."
It didn't seem to have been a slight; the otter's muzzle was curled in a suppressed smile. “Is it true, though?" I asked, while she refreshed her glass. “It doesn't—sorry, obviously, I don't doubt that you're highborn…"
“I'm not. My illustrious husband, however, was the eighth Baron Enari: the kind of fool who would take a commoner for a wife. And I was the kind of fool who would marry him—how else do you see the world at sixteen? Quite strapping. A horse threw him six years ago, when I was at sea."
“I'm sorry to hear that."
“I made sure the horse was well taken care of, in retirement. The baron was dumb as a post, and not particularly good at keeping his estate. It could've been a minor scandal that we never had children, or that I stayed in the Navy, if not for that stallion—only good horse I've ever met. The estate covered his debts, and almost nothing more."
“But the arkenprince…"
She snorted. “It's their code. All the rules about address and decorum. The same way there are plenty of officers you salute and call 'sir' even though you know they're not worth the word. I don't use the name."
'Lieutenant Commander' suited the otter better. “And you're a noble I can trust in a city full of them? Thank you for protecting Miss Danveller."
“Of course. Thank you, for your help with Tersinia."
“Was it helpful?"
“We'll see, but I think so. They seem to have been… chastened, which makes them much easier to deal with. I know that can't have been easy for you, and I appreciate that we had your support."
“As you just said: of course."
“You would know that." Yanisca sighed before finishing her drink. “As a soldier. The difference between necessary and easy is a difficult road to travel."
“The doctor's report will say that she died in her sleep, of unknown causes. The Royal Guard was prudent to detain Lady Keovan, the person who last saw her. You're very apologetic about the way it looked, of course."
Hallun nodded. “I've written it all down, though the letter itself should be in your tone of voice, so I'll kindly ask you to draft it yourself."
“What am I to say?"
“Everyone was panicked. The queen was in such good health that it briefly seemed possible to assume the worst, in that kind of panic, and Lady Keovan is from a town in Garsteadshire…"
I skimmed the note he gave me. Lady K. denies all knowledge. Rumors of harsh treatment by guards overstated but understandable. Guards only wanted to know truth. Doctor confirms natural death now. Royal Guard was under great pressure. Disciplinary action taken.
“It will assuage the worst of the criticism, and Lady Keovan is happy to be free of any scrutiny," the badger explained. “Indeed, after me, she's probably the happiest to know that there was nothing untoward about Queen Ansha's passing."
“What sort of 'harsh treatment' was she forced to endure?"
“The dungeon, for one. They also removed her clothes and forced her into prisoners' robes. I gather this process was… less than gentle."
“That's it? Nothing else?"
“Nothing else—but if I were you, I wouldn't bother to deny any rumors. Implying the guardsmen went further is good for the story that they were upset. And it justifies the disciplinary action—you'll have an officer transferred to a regiment in Martal, and discharge four men for their unbecoming conduct. All five soldiers are unremarkable, and compromised for various other reasons. They've agreed to be compensated. I'll handle that."
“Do I have the names?"
“You'll get the paperwork later," he promised. “For now, please write a letter explaining this course of action and apologizing to the baroness. The Old Council will be more than satisfied when it's read before them. The quicker the better, colonel: King Chatherral returns in three days and you'll be busy."
“Very well. I'll get to it. Do you know what will come after that?"
“For you? No. The king's fondness for you makes it unlikely that any decisions will be made for the next few weeks… certainly not until after the state funeral, and the period of mourning to follow. Do you have a preference?"
“I assumed it wasn't really my place to have one, Mr. Couthragn. I'd like my family name to be safe, so if natural causes don't work for you, at least rather something reasonably decent."
Hallun smiled distantly. “Having you killed would be politically challenging, colonel. The…" The badger's smile faded and he snorted a resigned laugh. “Fuck, colonel, what does it matter? You already know the Artem-Jana Guild is a real society and not a child's story."
“I only suspect, Mr. Couthragn." The guild—couriers, spies, assassins—kept no visible offices and acknowledged no members. Their existence was a matter of rumor. I believed they were real, and I believed Hallun belonged to them—but had I not known him, I'd have had no idea of how to find one of them. “You've never confirmed it, yourself."
“Of course not. The guild endures because we avoid exposing ourselves. Our exposure is guaranteed by our—to borrow Arkenprince Salda's phrasing—usefulness to various parties. Sometimes the calculus is… complex."
“I'm useful to the guild, then."
“Yes, but that's not the point. We are loyal to the sovereign—we take an oath, like you did. If we betray that oath, the disfavor of the gods themselves will be visited on us, thanks to the sovereign's divinity. As a consequence, the idea that we would have anything to do with the queen's death is beyond audacious. If the Old Council or the Governor's League suspected anything, they can't. Not now."
“They'll assume—rightly—that the Artem-Jana Guild was directly consulted in finding a doctor, because one of the arkenprinces would've demanded it. The only way the doctor's report can be questioned is if the guild was somehow involved, and that would be unthinkable. Your death, however, would be the cause of speculation. You're important, but not invulnerable. Your connections are high-placed—you've been seen with the king himself. What did you know? Who could you have compromised? What game is afoot?"
I was starting to get the idea, perhaps. “If, after apologizing for the guard's actions, I was to meet an unfortunate end… the coincidence might be too much for some people. And if they assume that your guild also approved of my hiring, then maybe—late one night after plenty of drinks at one of their secretive parties… maybe they'd ask an unthinkable question?"
“Yes. We've taken care of people in the guard before, but any rumors would've been about their threat to the monarchy. This, pointing in the opposite direction, would be catastrophic. And as the society gossip mill is inclined to puzzle over every death, someone would eventually find yours. The guild won't take that risk."
“Fortunately for my head, at least."
“Yes. If things change, of course, I'll let you know. Is there anything else I can do to help you, Mr. Laner?"
“Perhaps one final thing." I handed him the envelope I'd been given earlier in the morning. “I also have this letter from Colonel Carzal Loryddan, in the Iron Corps. He's asked for an audience with me, down at the railyard."
Hallun nodded, taking the envelope without opening it. “Responsible for the Tersinia depot and the garrison it's not supposed to have. I assume he's upset, and he wants someone to yell at; he's already filed a formal complaint with the Governor's League."
“And? What will they do? Do I have the Old Council's backing?"
“Yes. On this point, they're quite united. Arkenprincess Chavan tabled a resolution of support for the Royal Guard already this morning."
“Chavan? Colonel—General—K'nSullach told me not to trust her."
The badger sighed, rolling his eyes. “Kindly do me a favor, will you? Leave the politics to me. Nobody else I advise listens, so I won't expect much out of telling you this, but… as a courtesy to me, if you wouldn't mind…"
“Alright. I'm happier that way. But can you explain?"
“Ailaragh often feels they're the least valued of the Aultlands. Not without cause, I should say. They're an island, after all; they keep to their own affairs. Have you never heard Chavan called 'empress'?"
“I can't say that I have, no."
“That, Mr. Laner, is why you need to leave the politics to me. They're from Hutwick, you know? They conquered Ailaragh and the surrounding islands, and in the second century, the Raghish Empire turned its eye back on their home. That was the War of the Four Rivers—which you have heard of. Right?"
I nodded. “Yes, and the First Concord. I just didn't know anything about an empire."
“The emperor gave up his imperial title to become Prince Machaver, yes. But the war was a stalemate. They didn't lose, did they? No. So if you get them drunk enough, the Raghish call Machaver a traitor and Chavan an empress—and even sober, they're skeptical of the king."
“So why support me?"
“They don't always like the king, but the Royal Navy having its homeport in Giral Moss is something they're proud of, and they recognize what you've done to help thwart the Railroad's ambitions in the north. They're sending a signal. It's good for you to have support from the Raghish and the northwest."
“'Good' from the perspective of my meeting?"
Couthragn nodded. “Feel free to enjoy yourself."
The carriage driver told me that she'd been born in Tersinia. “First time going there? Nothing like it was when I was growing up," the lioness said; I couldn't tell if she was proud of the changes, or disappointed.
“What changed it? Is it because of the Railroad?"
“You too, eh?" I perked an ear. “Y'know, but I can't read ye sometimes, Royal Guard folk. Some of ye's born with the stick up yer arse, ask me to call 'em lord this an' whatever."
I didn't really follow the line of argument. “I'm not a lord anything. I'm from Stolvan, in Overkiath."
“Not heard of it."
“That's my point."
She laughed. “Well, then: fuck the Railroad, Kiather—carnival barkers turned stokers, if y'ask me. Tersinia didn't need them. It's older than Tabisthalia."
“Is that so?"
“By the church records, aye. That church there." It was just barely visible through the haze; I thought I saw the stylized wings of a firefly, parted over polished bronze that would—in sharper sunlight—glow for miles.
That was the symbol of Artem, goddess of the smaller moon, venerated by older Gerenants like my father. “Is that church that old, too?"
“Dunno. Don't think so." And, by her dismissiveness, it didn't seem to have been the point. “The town paid for it ourselves. Tersin Bay was one of richest fisheries on the north coast. An' when we fished it out, we turned to farming. Wheatfields gold as that church, far as the eye can see…"
Carregan Transcontinental Railroad purchased huge easements along the coast forty years before. Now, the lioness explained, Tersinia was where they repaired their locomotives and rolling stock; where they processed coal and stored supplies for the entire northwest of Aernia.
“Can't hardly see the sky, some days. The water's not much for growing things, except the Pelishan, and they've got that dammed up and don't bother thinking ye can afford the prices for irrigation. Railroad don't go to Kiath, right?"
“The main lines end at Marrahurst. Spal and Æsheral, of course, but nothing close to my hometown." I hadn't seen a train up close before my journey north to Tabisthalia.
“Not worth it. They claim they're the future, but really, they just want y'like this." She held up the reins, and brought the horses to a stop. “We're here now. Gonna bow to 'em, Kiather?"
“I don't think so, no."
Brass, block-print letters indicated the Tersinia Depot Main Office. Outside, my ears were assaulted from all directions by the sound of heavy machinery, and the shouts of workmen. Inside, the office seemed quiet as a schoolroom.
A young man, placed behind his wooden desk and stately as the furniture, cleared his throat. “May I help you?"
“I'm Aric Laner, from the Royal Guard. Mr. Carzal Loryddan requested an audience?"
“Ah, yes. Colonel Loryddan will see you now." The man guided me from the front desk down thick-carpeted hallways to a door whose plaque identified the office of C. LORYDDAN, GENERAL DIRECTOR. Not quite the same as 'colonel,' I thought. But it seemed unlikely the man had misspoken.
The door closed behind me. Carzal Loryddan was, like many in the Carregan Transcontinental Railroad, a fox. Also like many in the Railroad, he was immaculately dressed, and his dark claws were neatly polished and without a single chip. “Colonel Laner," he said—addressing me almost as if he expected me to return a salute or order him to ease.
I did not; I was willing to render honors to foreign militaries, but the Iron Corps was neither. “You asked to speak with me, Mr. Loryddan?"
“Yes. Yes, I did. Please, colonel—you may sit, if you'd like. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me outside your barracks."
“It was no trouble," I told him. “It's good for me to get away from Cassalmure."
And, as he probably knew, I wasn't interested in allowing someone with ties to the Iron Corps into the barracks. Who knew what information he'd try to glean? Not that I was under any real illusion about the capabilities of their spies to ferret out whatever they wanted—but no point in making their job easier.
If he knew, though, he said nothing. Carzal pulled two glasses of fine Tiurishkan crystal from a cabinet, and poured a measure of Wauklausian brandy into each. There was no toast.
“I hope you know that your actions won't be excused," Carzal said.
“What do you mean?"
“Commandeering our depot in Tersinia? Absolutely unacceptable—an absolutely unacceptable violation of our rights as owners of that land. You may serve the king, but there's no excuse for your… for your bald expropriation of our equipment."
“You serve the king as well, if I'm not mistaken." The fox's expression tightened. “The Old Council has already agreed that I acted within my rights, sir. The capital could've dissolved into utter chaos. What would've happened if some… I don't know, some unruly mob had descended on Tersinia? It could've happened."
“No, fortunately." I'd brought with me a folder and a stack of papers, which I placed on the table between us. “This is an itemized list of everything we removed from your depot, countersigned by one of your employees. It's all being kept under guard at Cassalmure."
Carzal flipped in irritation through the first two pages. “They must be returned, at once."
“I understand your desire for swift action, sir. As you've likely heard, though, the Royal Army is presently engaged in Garsteadshire, and the Royal Guard has volunteered much of its transport capability to assist them. I don't have many wagons right now."
“That's a convenient excuse, isn't it?"
I cocked my head. “For what? Tabisthalia is quiet for the moment, and even when it wasn't, nothing affected you in the Railroad. As far as I know, you're not engaged in fighting anywhere other than the Whistling Pale—and Tersinia is a long way from the Dalrath. You have closer depots, Mr. Loryddan. I apologize for the inconvenience, but I think you can wait a few days for us to spare the transport."
Carzal's eyes narrowed, boring into me. He was not, though, about to admit to anything about the Shrouded Rocks, and that was the only alternative explanation—that the Carregan Transcontinental Railroad, for some reason, needed weapons to respond to a customs dispute with the Royal Navy.
“Alternatively, if you have wagons of your own, I can arrange for them to be loaded at Cassalmure. In either case, of course, I don't intend to charge you for storage or transport. It wouldn't be proper."
The fox's throat worked as he bit back his growl. “So it wouldn't be. Fine. We'll find you wagons, Mr. Laner."
It was the last of anything that could distract me—anything I could convince myself was truly a pressing matter. Major Harrell signaled by telegram that the king's party was returning, and would be back in Tabisthalia in two days. Beyond that his update was taciturn: mood grim.
It was grim in the capital, as well. For the fifth day in a row the front page of the city's paper was given over to Queen Ansha's death. Without further details on what had happened—a sudden illness remained the unquestioned explanation—they'd started exploring more tenuously related subjects.
I read, for example, of a spontaneous gathering in Chenwyck Park where a hastily composed elegy had been presented. “She was popular," Hallun remarked. “For the common folk, especially. It's reasonable to ask what will happen in her absence."
“Does anyone know?"
“You mean, because His Majesty is not likely to remarry, given his… advanced condition? That is the subject of many coffeeshop discussions, colonel. But no, I do not know. His Majesty is said to be despondent, of course."
“Their mood is more difficult to gauge. I know you're still concerned about this, but, regretfully, I have no answers."
“Can I be blunt with you, Mr. Couthragn?"
“You've earned the right to be however you like with me, colonel."
“What is the… worst-case scenario? Are you worried about what Prince Cædor might do?"
Hallun frowned. “Yes. Of course I am. But we will find a way to manage that when it comes. Don't involve yourself in this when you don't need to, colonel. And you don't need to—not yet, and hopefully not ever."
I had to take him at his word, uncomfortable as I was. I was not in a position to know anything about how the monarch would react. And, certainly, I had no idea what might become of Cædor now that the younger prince no longer had his mother's stabilizing influence.
That worried me more than the prospect of succession alone.
Siron Yanisca agreed to meet again for dinner. I made the offer under the guise of catching up on the ongoing Railroad crisis; my real purpose was simpler. “I need some good news. Tell me you have some good news."
“About the fighting?"
“The fighting counts, if you ask me: we stopped them. Bastards," the otter added, under her breath. “The Shrouded Rocks are under a tight blockade. We inspect every ship, and they don't have a choice in the damn matter."
“What was the cost?" There was always a cost.
Siron gently shook her head. “The barque Talon was the only ship lost. 'Accidentally' rammed by a Carregan… 'armed merchant.'" The otter carefully chose the words she highlighted. “And about forty sailors and marines killed in various other actions."
“At least it's settled down, for now."
She spun her wineglass slowly, looking at the reflection of candlelight in the crimson liquid. “That won't last. Lord Ashenar was told to expect a visit from the leader of the Iron Corps."
“The leader? General Carregan?"
“Your old friend," the otter confirmed. “Have you ever actually met her?"
“No. The Royal Army didn't really start fighting in Dhamishaya until after that phase of the rebellion, when she'd been arrested."
“Some arrest," she said with a snort, and took a drink. “Not even a trial, either, as I recall. You never really get punished, if you have the right friends… it doesn't matter what you've done."
“No," I agreed, my appetite suddenly gone. “It certainly seems that way sometimes."
“Lord Ashenar is certainly looking forward to it. He asked if I'd be willing to sit in, but I don't like sparks quite that much. And, apparently, it's supposed to be a private meeting anyway. Maybe he'll tell her to go fuck herself."
“Maybe." I smiled; it would not be until much later that I recognized how alien the moment of levity had even felt.
Arkenprince Tullen requested an audience in the Iron Hall, though without saying what he wanted to discuss. It could've been about the fighting in Garsteadshire, or about the Railroad. I didn't know what to expect, but finding the stag leaning against the window took me by slight surprise.
“Your Highness?" I prompted, quietly.
Arkenprince Tullen turned away from the window and walked unsteadily towards a sofa along one of the other walls. As he took a seat, I saw the bottle of liquor waiting on the ornate oaken table before him. “Join me," the stag commanded.
I did, settling carefully into the plush cushions. “I was told that you wished to speak to me, sir."
“Yes." He refilled his glass, and then picked up one of the empty ones next to it. “Whiskey?"
“No, sir, thank you. I have a staff meeting after this."
“Suit yourself." Tullen did not sip carefully: a quarter of his drink vanished in the first swallow. “His Majesty's coming back tomorrow. The… th'telegram said he wanted to talk… I'll bet he does, eh? I'll bet he does."
“Who knows? About what happened. We… we are the oldest allies of Tabis-Kitta. Do you know why? They say we're related. I'm kin to Hal, somewhere back… centuries and centuries. When I became Prince of Arren, he said…" Tullen's fingers quivered on the glass. “He said I had his father's eyes."
I didn't know how to respond—indeed I didn't know if I was even meant to do so. The stag was clearly quite drunk, for I'd never heard anyone but Ansha pronounce the king's first name, Halru, aloud.
“That wretch Couthragn… I imagine he thinks… he thinks it's difficult for him. No. No, it's difficult for me. And for you, colonel. For you," he repeated softly. “You sure you'll not have a drink? It's good. I got it from…"
Silence. Was he still trying to recall, or had his thoughts wandered? “I'd prefer not to partake, at the moment."
“A good soldier. You're a good soldier, Aran. No," he correct himself. “Aric, that's what it is. Isn't it? Aran…" He snorted; the sound was thin, and melancholy. “An ailment took him, twenty years ago. A good friend. Not as good as Hal, but a good friend… I wish I'd been able to see him before he passed, but I was on Ailaragh and by the time we heard…"
“I'm sorry, sir."
“You've lost friends, too, I'm sure," he observed. “The war in Dhamishaya was so bloody stupid. It was all so bloody stupid. Wasn't it?"
You could say anything, I realized. He wouldn't remember. But who knew? We were still in 'public,' and I held my tongue. “The Royal Army does not make policy, sir; we are merely the instruments of its enforcement."
The stag's bleary gaze sharpened. “Don't be polite, Aric. Was it stupid? Was it utter folly? Did we send hundreds of young iron folk to their grave for nothing?"
“Why? Why did we do it? Where did we lose our way?" This question, at least, was definitely rhetorical, because the stag's muzzle stayed open. He took another drink, though, before he managed to continue speaking. “I told her she'd have no luck, prising Hal away from Tokeli Carregan."
“Told… the queen?"
Tullen nodded. “Tokeli might as well have had a bridle on him for all Hal could resist her. Told him whatever he wanted to hear, and if he needed to be distracted… well, she had her ways to distract him. Of course it was a scandal. It was a scandal when Queen Vella didn't give him a child, too, though—that was when they met."
It took effort for me to piece together the story, between the prince's slurred speech and the rambling digressions. The gist, at least, was that Chatherral had met Tokeli Carregan at a festival, and then she'd invited him on a rail journey in her private carriage, and from that point forward the king was in her thrall.
Queen Ansha put a stop to it not by challenging her husband but by leveraging the rest of the Iron Hall: arranging the king's schedule to keep them separate; denying Tokeli access to the court when she could invent no official reason to be there.
Tullen began a new story, about his long friendship with the king, and how he thought the Old Council had let the sovereign down in failing to control Carregan before it was too late. Further, how he thought he'd let Ansha down, too, by trying to dissuade her.
“But she kept going. Never knew when to stop… when she needed to stop." He stared bleakly into a half-full glass of whiskey. “And now this. Now this. Did she know, Aric? Did you tell her what was going to happen?"
I flattened my ears. “You mean…"
“She knew. I told her. I explained, or… I tried to."
“How did she meet her fate?" My ears pinned further, and I hesitated until the stag lifted his head to stare at me, expectantly. “Bravely? Did she accept it? Did she ask you to spare her?"
He wanted more than an answer, I thought. He wanted some kind of absolution from me, and that was not something I could give. “She accepted it," I said. “She understood that it was not to be avoided."
“We did it for the good of the country," Tullen whispered hoarsely. “Didn't we? Hal will believe anything I tell him. I'll tell him that. It's the truth, isn't it?"
“Yes, sir. You'll tell him… what, sir?"
His eyes became gauzy; unfocused, as he thought through what he'd said. “That you told me the truth. I… I asked you… what did I ask you, colonel?"
“You asked me if Queen Ansha was a good person, sir. And I said yes. She held the good of the country above all else. And she will be missed."
“Yes. Yes," he murmured. “That's what I'll tell him. The truth…"
“And what do they expect me to do?"
Major Elith Granjan was the only member of the Royal Guard to regularly wear a suit instead of his uniform. This was a matter of politics—he was liaison to the constables, who didn't appreciate what they took to be an implicit threat to their sovereignty over law and order in the city.
But, while I understood the reason, both Granjan and I knew that it made him seem like an outsider. This was never more true than when he came from the Armory, bearing a letter whose ornate seal stressed the importance of its maker.
The otter looked at the others around the table, and then to me. “Nothing, sir. To acknowledge their complaint, I suppose."
“Tersinia is not within the mandate of the Tabisthalian police department. They had no reason to be involved with how I handled the Railroad."
“Yes, sir. I know. The real problem, sir, is they feel… ignored. They've discussed opening a separate investigation into the night of the queen's death, as well. That is, naturally, not part of the letter."
“Oh, fuck off," Major Cavell grumbled. “What would they investigate?"
Granjan could only shrug. “Why they weren't informed immediately when the guards were taken into custody? Why the guards were released? That rumor about the barbarian?"
“These are all closed topics," I reminded Granjan.
“Yes, sir. I know," he said again. “Obviously they do not intend to draw new conclusions."
“They're going to wind up murdering her," Cavell muttered. “And blaming a foreigner for it. First time in our history—could get us into a new war, even. Would that make them feel important enough?"
“Major," I cautioned her, gently. “The constables want the same peace and order as we all do."
I saw her eyes darken. The lioness shook her head. “With respect, colonel: no, they don't. If they cared about peace and order it wouldn't have been us facing down the Alurethians in Chenwyck Park. And what's more, they know Queen Ansha thought they were useless. Isn't it convenient to use her as an excuse like this?"
“More like a disgrace," Captain Sergid said. “They should be happy with the blood they got."
I cleared my throat, sharpening my expression. “That's enough. Major Granjan, that does raise a question to me: do they understand, at the Armory, how unpopular they are with the rank and file of the Guard?"
“They do, sir. I think. But I don't believe they care much."
“Lovely. Then let them know I have received their complaint and… acknowledge it. No action will be taken."
“Good. And that brings us to… Captain Sergid, standing in for Major Vandan. How is the mood in the Iron Hall?"
“Among us or them?" Sergid asked. I shrugged. “The shock has worn off for the aristocrats; their attention now is turned to the business of gossip. They wonder if the king will take a new bride and, if so, what it will mean for their relationships. I don't have the sense that they're worried, though, sir—only curious."
“And what about your men?"
“Morale is low. It will not impact our performance, nor our readiness, but that fact remains."
I nodded. “For the reasons you cautioned me about?"
“The Royal Guard needs to know that the Old Council stands with them. They understand what happened. It was a political move, that's all. Make that clear, captain. They can't be discontent about that."
Sergid gritted his teeth. “Yes, sir."
We'd already had that conversation, and I would not rehash it with the other commanders present. Captain Sergid strongly felt that his guards had been unfairly blamed for detaining Lady Keovan, and that punishing soldiers who'd done nothing wrong was a grave miscarriage of justice.
It was all he could do to keep his temper when I told him they were being dismissed. The queen was dead! Can you blame us for being jumpy? Yes, perhaps we acted quickly—but what else could we do?
I'd told him that, while I understood, it was not the Royal Guard's place to interfere with court politics. The fox had asked me point-blank if I thought they'd been in the wrong. “No," I'd said. And I'd reminded him that the guards would be compensated; that they were not simply a convenient sacrifice.
Lying had become easy enough that this was convincing, and Sergid directed his protests at the abstract concept of “politics" instead of at me—truthfully, he blamed the constables more than anyone else. He would say nothing more than the terse yes, sir.
“Major Harrell, what about the king and the princes?"
“In mourning, like the rest of us. His Majesty is especially troubled. I must request that what I'm about to say needs to be held in complete confidence: there are rumors that he is no longer fit for the throne, and that he'll yield it in the coming weeks."
I scowled. 'Rumors' of that nature were troubling, not the least because they implied a troubling lack of respect for the throne. “We need to be better about tamping down on that. Where are the rumors coming from?"
Harrell cleared his throat. “From the king, sir."
I heard a few quiet gasps, and held up my paw to still them. “To you? Directly?"
“Yes. And Captain Wainsmet will confirm that he's told the same thing to Prince Enthar. I expect they'll begin discussion over the succession with the Old Council in the next few days."
“Prince Enthar will succeed him?"
“I think so. But much will need to wait until after the memorial service. As I know more…"
I nodded. “Yes. And tell your men to keep this as quiet as they can for as long as they can. Not that I expect much success. Sometimes I think rumor is this city's chief export."
An enthusiastic sailor described the HMS Valing to me as an Rothuran brig. “You can tell from the mainmast, sir." And the badger pointed, though I could only shake my head. “Older brigs, they've got square topsails. In Rothuring, where I'm from, sir? They started making 'em with fore-an'-aft sails on the mainmast."
“Is that… better?"
“Improves the handling a bit, aye, sir. We've set two records now on the run to the Meteor Isles. The regular run, that is, sir, not the special ones. Those are handled by the newer ships. Have you seen the Zelvan, sir?"
“A beauty," the badger assured me, with a sigh. “Well, anyway, looks like they've finished tying up the boat. Anything else I can do for you, sir?"
I told him there wasn't, and held out my paw to help Teya Danveller from the Valing's boat onto the docks. “I was wondering when you might pay a visit," the dog said. “It's good to see you, Aric."
“You, too. How are they treating you?"
“Well enough. It feels quite odd being back on land, I have to tell you. What's been going on ashore? I've only heard rumors, beyond… well…" Black curtains hung from nearly every window along the dock, and in the civilian neighborhood beyond it. “It's a shame."
“Does it have anything to do with why you had me come here?"
I looked over at the dog, wondering if I could tell from her expression what she was really asking. Wondering if she expected more than a blunt affirmative, and the obscure explanation that I could say nothing further. Teya had never seemed much for spreading gossip, so I doubted that was her aim.
“How much danger was I really in?"
“Enough, though I hope it's over now. Difficulties with the Railroad came at a bad time for the Guard; we've been stretched thin, what with the fighting in Garstead. I was asked to deal with their depot over in Tersinia."
“I think I heard about that. The sailors talked about fighting, actually, in the Shrouded Rocks."
“Yes. When I told someone I couldn't spare the men to deal with Tersinia, they hinted about my knowing you—I feared you might become a bargaining chip."
Teya nodded. “And when the queen passed away, the Railroad didn't matter any more, but you had other things to deal with. That makes sense. Even if I…" She caught herself, laughed softly, and gave me a sly grin. “Even if it was better for my ego to think I'd been wrapped in court politics."
“No, I'm afraid."
I'd known that I would have to lie to Teya, but in the end it didn't matter, because she accepted the explanation without questioning. “At least I was a threat to the great Carregan Transcontinental Railroad. That should count for something. Am I free to return home?"
“Is the Valing comfortable enough?"
She shrugged. “Yes. Just boring. And Meydria will be expecting dues for my room at the inn this week."
“I can take care of that. If you don't mind, I'd like to know it's all settled and done—and I won't be sure for a few more days."
“You're the oddest client I have, Aric." Teya stopped walking, turning to give me a gentle hug. “Thank you, though. For looking out for me. When this is over, I'll make it up to you."
“That isn't necessary, don't worry."
“Not like that. I mean, unless you want. But when things have calmed down—when they're better again? I want to show you the city. I've meant to for a while now. I think you're missing out on it. I think it would do you good to see what it's really like, outside Kenley Hill."
I agreed to take her up on that—when things had 'calmed down.' Before any of that, though, I had to get through the next day. Two companies of the King's Own Army joined the Royal Guard to stand at attention, flanking the procession that ran from the Iron Hall to the Galithian Cathedral.
As commander of the Guard, I and my counterpart in the 2nd Regiment stood at the gate of the cathedral: wordless, alone with my thoughts. The 2nd Regiment had been raised in the province; they were known as 'the Riverminders,' and it was the Tabis they'd 'minded' since the founding of the Iron Kingdom.
The commander's face showed no emotion; nothing to suggest he regretted his attendance. Nothing to suggest he and the rest of the 2nd belonged at the front in Garsteadshire, instead of before the cold white stone of the cathedral.
Did he think it was an odd choice, too? A Vondean service would surely have been more appropriate, given Queen Ansha's own beliefs. But no, he wouldn't have known that. The solemn pomp of the carriage that drew to the gate almost certainly seemed completely appropriate.
Deference prevented me from turning my head; my final sight of the queen lasted only a few seconds. Enough to know that, if I heard anything, it would be how completely peaceful she appeared—how regal, how glorious—and I would need to nod my agreement.
Through the open gate, I caught brief snatches of the service. —shall have any claim on her. But I am sure she will speak to each, in turn, with that same gentle wisdom we were so privileged to hear. He was speaking of her journey down the River Bellag, and its progressive judgment.
'Each, in turn,' meant the rulers of the five hells, and the speaker suggested what she might tell them. Ræsh claimed common animals and heathens: to him, she might speak of compassion to our inferiors. Sar claimed the conspicuously indolent: she might remind him of that potential that remains within each of us.
Kutsar claimed thieves—and traitors. To her, the speaker went on, she might counsel the constant possibility of redemption. I wasn't devout enough to know if Gerenants actually even believed that—the Iron Kingdom certainly hung its share of bandits.
In my distraction I missed what Ansha might have told Eber or Wadaly. Now the speaker described her soul washing up in the Windless Fen, the world between worlds; his voice rose in volume and I could understand him more clearly. Here, here I know with absolute certainty her course of action.
She will not tarry. She cannot wander that dim moor aimlessly. It is not her way. No sooner will she see the path to Avoss than she will begin to climb. If she pauses it will be only to help the ascent of others. Soon enough she will reach its peak. She will rejoin us.
And her soul would be blown back into our realm, to be part once again of that nameless, weightless, deathless matter that drives us all. Ansha will be no more, but our world will hear her essence in the words of a thousand poets, and see it in the work of a thousand artists, long after we are gone.
Nantor Berdanish was waiting for me at Cassalmure, when I returned. He brushed off my apology, saying that he'd only been waiting a few minutes. “I came right from the ceremony as well, colonel. What did you think of it?"
“I couldn't see anything, but what I heard of it sounded appropriate. Of the speech, that is."
“Yes. For a Gerenant, it was a very… service-minded remembrance," the duke said. “I wonder if Prince Enthar had anything to do with it. Queen Ansha would've liked it, I think. Do you?"
“Yes, Your Grace. I think so."
My judgment appeared to please him; the bear smiled wistfully before recomposing himself. “I won't keep you long, colonel. I'm sure you want to be out of the ceremonial uniform. I only wanted to ask how you were managing."
“With Ansha's passing. You were closer to her than I was. I know the last few weeks were… well, they can't be the most pleasant way to remember her."
“With time, I'll be better at not dwelling on that, sir," I answered. “Probably a great deal of time."
“No doubt. His Majesty the Arkenprince Tullen is completely despondent, almost as though he'd failed the king somehow. I can't console him. Would that I were able to—we're all under so much pressure."
“We'll get through this, colonel. You're a good man."
I thanked him. And when he left, I stayed in my office. Nantor was right: the ceremonial uniform was uncomfortable. But I ignored it, and as the evening light slowly vanished, I thought of the constant possibility of redemption.
I looked to find solace where I could, and military affairs proved to be the most effective of these. Consulting with my peers about the threats facing the crown permitted me to feel, almost, like a soldier. I took every opportunity to avail myself of that.
General K'nSullach, racing to move her forces to support the main body of the army, had caught sight of the Plowmen on the other side of the Lemmish River. She'd guessed their intentions and, that night, K'nSullach crossed the whole of her command over the river.
The battle, shortly after dawn, was brutal and decisive. Half the Plowman's Army had been killed or taken prisoner; the rest fled, leaving behind nearly all of their supplies. Of necessity, it brought an end to any serious uprising in Garsteadshire, even as General Olmor pursued the few remaining stragglers.
The latest dispatch included a letter from Ivra K'nSullach herself. At last a chance to bring some consequences, it began, and later: I hope that teaching this lesson in Garsteadshire means it does not have to be relearned in Tabisthalia.
I'm sorry to hear of the queen's sudden illness and passing, which—in truth—has broken the back of the rebellion just as much as the bayonets did. The city must be in mourning, by now. The most astute will be looking to you, colonel, to ensure none take advantage of the mood.
Thus far, none had, and with the queen's entombment, I thought it likely that none would. The moment had passed. As word of the rebellion's final defeat spread, along with word of amnesty for common civilians, Tabisthalia sighed in relief and began to carry on.
Inside the Iron Hall—and, by extension, at Cassalmure—the rumors focused on the inevitability that Enthar would ascend the throne before summer's end. Major Harrell told me that King Chatherral did not venture much from his room, except to spend his days in quiet, contemplative walks through his garden.
We were all contemplative, though. Queen Ansha's death settled over the city heavily, like smothering fog. It kept Tabisthalia subdued—and yet, at once, this wasn't without its benefits. I no longer felt that we were living in a tinderbox, no longer felt that every raised voice was a dangerous spark.
Captain Selva said that he'd been approached, during the funeral procession, by someone from the Republican Society asking to meet with the Royal Guard. At my prompting the stoat agreed to go; it was his suggestion that he travel to King Rawlon's College with an escort.
I didn't think it would be necessary for the captain's safety, but it did send the right sort of message. So did dispatching Selva instead of myself: not only was the stoat an unknown quantity to the republicans, he was also far less empowered than I had been in my time as Ansha's guard.
He returned from the meeting without incident—but with his jaw set, and his eyes dark. “What happened? Are they planning on causing trouble?"
“No, just questions. It was a… well. Dr. Kirchvar spoke for them, mostly, sir."
“He seems to be their mouthpiece, yes. What did he have to say?"
“He asked what I knew about the queen's death." The stoat's look of disgust was plain and sharp. “As though there was something to know. I wasn't there. I'm not a doctor."
“Surely, they can't think that you could've helped."
Selva shook his head. “No, sir, it's worse. He wouldn't say it, but he all but accused me of making her sick, ya? Talking about how convenient it was, happening with the rebellion and all—what does the queen have to do with them?"
Even K'nSullach had known that; I decided it was fine, anyway, to keep Selva in the dark. “They're just upset. Ansha was their friend, like she was mine. And they love to speculate, even when it's madness. What did you tell them?"
“Nothing, sir. There's nothing to tell. I didn't call them out for their awful rumors, if that's what you mean, though?"
“It's probably for the best that we keep our mouths shut," I agreed.
Not that it was anywhere near as simple as that. I dismissed Selva, turning over in my mind the other thing K'nSullach had said: some would be inclined to take advantage of the city's mood. Kirchvar's speculation, in that light, went beyond rumormongering.
He was causing trouble. And, in the end, it would need to be taken care of. Here, though, I encountered more difficulty. Prince Tullen was even more despondent than King Chatherral: according to Major Harrell he had not been sober in more than a week. Duke Cirth-Arren spoke for him on the Old Council, and this was a full-time commitment.
With nowhere else to turn, I asked Hallun Couthragn for advice. The badger listened to my summary of Selva's meeting, and nodded. None of it surprised him; Couthragn explained that the Republican Society had been stewing over such rumors since shortly after the queen's death.
“So what do we do about them?"
“Do? Nothing," Couthragn said. “What would we do? And why?"
“They appear to be implying that the queen's death was no illness or act of fate. Isn't that… worrying? Couldn't it be thought of as seditious?"
“It could. But it's all talk, colonel. They have no proof—there is no proof. Did Captain Selva find their conspiracy appealing? No. You said yourself he was disgusted by it, and who can blame him? It's vile. And when you come across it, you will—like me—condemn it for being vile."
“They don't know anything?" I asked.
“There's nothing to know. Ansha died in her sleep: peacefully, and quite naturally. If you have any evidence to the contrary, please, speak up."
I stared at him. “Evidence?"
“Was she stabbed? Where's the knife? Or was it poison, perhaps—from that look you're giving me, you clearly think it was. You have the bottle of course, don't you? It must be tested by the court's doctors at once."
“I don't have a bottle. But I do have some memories—don't I? Was I not…"
“Not what? You were present, I suppose, is what you're saying. And will you swear to that, Colonel Laner? No, of course you won't; it would be madness. We don't do that sort of thing in Aernia, colonel, and you know that as well as I do. The much-beloved Queen Ansha passed, unexpectedly. And if anyone says anything to the contrary, you'll be horrified by the affront of that awful suggestion."
“It's not the only thing I'll be horrified by," I told the badger.
His answer began with a dismal snort. “No. Nor I. But it's what we have to live with, colonel. I can't give you a better answer than that."
“Can you be honest with me, just for one question? Who is aware of the truth? Not Duke Cirth-Arren, which surprised me."
“No. Why do you want to know?"
“I've had a long time to think about what it means to be responsible for someone's death, Mr. Couthragn. Dhamishaya saw to that. I will find a way to live with myself—eventually. And I'll lie to everyone, but… I want to know who'll see through it."
“Me, but I won't speak of this again and I'll not be so kind the next time you ask me. Prince Tullen, though I doubt he'll ever be sober enough to understand the meaning of a lie. Lady Suttin, who also will not speak of this. There was another, in the guild, but he chose a… somewhat more honest path."
“The rest of eternity in the underworld? A shared fate."
“Yes. We're monsters, colonel. One day we'll pay for it—but not today. Now, before I leave: you're speaking to Rescat Carregan tomorrow, as I understand it. Be careful. Her aims are often… inscrutable."
“What do you mean by that?"
“Her loyalties are confusing. And without understanding her goals, it can be difficult to know how to thwart them."
My head tilted. “Confusing? You mean you don't know what the Railroad wants?"
“I mean I don't know that she wants what they do. My brother Arlen was in Dhamishaya all through the rebellion. I asked him for advice, as a fellow member of our guild, and he said he couldn't give it to me. Then I asked him for advice, as my brother." Hallun shook his head. “That, he said, was not the problem. Be honest, colonel, but cautious—that is the best I can tell you."
General Rescat Carregan, senior commander of the Railroad's mercenaries, suggested I meet her on what she called 'neutral ground': the commercial area of Tabisthalia's saltwater harbor, midway between the rail depot and the berths occupied by the Royal Navy.
It was, I thought, a strange place to meet—apart from being, in purely geographical terms, equidistant from either of our allies. But then, I didn't know much about the vixen, and what I did know suggested her personality was somewhat idiosyncratic.
When I'd served in the south, barracks rumor held that Rescat was the dubiously legitimate child of a Carregan Transcontinental scion and an eastern baroness. She entered the Iron Corps because she would not be permitted to assume control of the Railroad's profitable, powerful mainline operations.
The same rumors said she was unspeakably competent: she'd bested the Shah of Kamir in only a few months of fighting, and she'd blasted a track through the ancient trees of the Dalrath, and finally suppressed the nomadic raiders of the Menapset desert, driving them inland from the coast to protect Carregan Transcontinental's famed Lodestone Meteor.
I knew her as the instigator of the Southern Civil War, and whatever the rumors had been, the Iron Corps and its native allies had, in the end, been defeated. She left the frontier in chains, even if—as Siron quite correctly pointed out—nothing had ever truly come of the vixen's arrest, or of the thousands dead in Dhamishaya.
I didn't know what to expect, but recognized the approaching figure at once by her even, quick stride. She wore the grey service uniform of the Corps, trim but mostly unadorned. Stiff wind on the docks whipped her hair, but the cap settled smartly atop it remained completely motionless, as though she'd somehow managed to command its obedience.
“Good afternoon, Colonel Laner," she said, and held out her paw. “Don't take it as a sign of good will, if you don't want—think of it as a formality."
I shook her paw, nodding. “We'll see. Good afternoon, general."
“Dr. Carregan, if you need to be formal. I'm a civilian, after all." Her muzzle turned in a wry grin. “Aren't I?"
She certainly didn't look like it, but the gesture was appreciated. I'd used the title reflexively, in a way that hadn't seemed appropriate with Carzal Loryddan; her willingness to abandon it perversely only made that reflex seem more understandable. “Dr. Carregan, then. Your message didn't say what it was that you wanted to speak to me about."
“I didn't have a fixed agenda." The vixen turned towards the water, where gulls wheeled above a packet ship slowly unfurling its sails as it made its way to the harbor mouth. “I haven't seen this harbor in years—I don't care much for boats, if it's all the same to you."
“No. I don't, either."
“Does Tabisthalia finally feel like home, though? Did Dhamishaya?"
“No, to the latter. As for the city… I don't know. Perhaps."
She nodded. Her paws were clasped behind her back; she kept watching the laden freighter. “It's a strange place, though it has its moments. The commerce, I suppose. I would like to say that I appreciate your handling of the Tersinia incident. I understand that Mr. Loryddan wasn't nearly so happy."
“Rather combative, yes," I admitted. “But he provided the transportation that I requested. I believe there were no further disputes—nothing missing or damaged. At least, nothing I heard."
“Nothing I've heard, either. Of course, it shouldn't have happened to begin with. Tersinia is a terrible place for a garrison. Isn't it?" She turned to look at me, eyebrow cocked. “Rank provocation—for no good reason, at that. I'm not particularly impressed with the Royal Army, but even a third-rate baron could overwhelm a hundred quartermasters and their artillery."
'Idiosyncratic,' I began to think, did not go far enough in describing her. “Why did you do it, then?"
“Me? Or do you mean the railroad that shares my name? The division president did it because they're used to gambling, and they hoped soldiers at Tersinia would provide disproportionate leverage over shipping routes in the Shrouded Rocks. That's my assumption."
“You don't know?"
“And they wanted to make a name for themselves, of course. Yearly reviews are coming up."
I blinked, my muzzle briefly hanging open. “That's it? All of this—all of what happened—because someone wanted… because…"
“History doesn't turn on grand decisions made by grand people, Colonel Laner." Her smile was distant, its very wryness carrying the grim implication. “And metaphorical fires, like their real-world counterparts, don't care who lights them. Nor do they burn at the direction of the arsonist's intent. They just happen. Tabisthalia was balanced on the precipice of catastrophe already. I'm not sure I could've stopped it, even if I'd been here."
“Would you have tried?"
“Yes. But I was otherwise occupied, colonel. Fighting in the southeast consumes a great deal of my attention. Why else would I say I'm not particularly impressed with the Royal Army? Not as a personal slight, I assure you. I came when I could, hoping to prevent anything… foolish from being done with the garrison."
“By you, or by me?"
The vixen laughed. “Armed conflict in the capital city of the Aernian Empire? For that kind of folly, it didn't really matter who started it. Fortunately for both of us, Carzal Loryddan is a bit of a coward."
“More fortunately, it didn't matter. You're right, about the Tersinia depot garrison. It isn't in my authority, but if it were up to me, I'd banish them permanently."
Dr. Carregan nodded, returning her attention to the harbor. “It isn't up to you, though, and the Old Council doesn't even know how to begin that argument. I'll disarm the depot—conditionally. Are you staying in command of the Royal Guard?"
“I don't know that yet."
“While you remain its leader, and while the Royal Guard keeps a proper force stationed at Cassalmure, I'll make sure Tersinia stays demilitarized. If either of those things change, I might have to re-evaluate this decision."
“Why? Why do you care about me?"
“As a person, I don't. But as a leader, you're predictable, and effective. And you're not a hothead, like K'nSullach was. She fought in the Harvest Rising. You fought in Dhamishaya, and that's a key difference."
I ventured a guess that she saw them as different because the Rising had been fought between the March and the King's Own Army. The Southern Civil War, on the other hand, involved Carregan's own railroad. She had a vested interest in that and so, in a sense, did I.
But the vixen shook her head. “That's not it, colonel. The Rising pitted a few hundred cavalry skirmishers against the king's militia—little more than play-fighting and posturing. You saw what a modern war would truly look like now. A real war, with real consequences. I've seen it, too."
“You did start it, after all."
“At the time, yes, I did. I thought it was worth it, and I hadn't seen the full extent of the consequences. The colonial government was useless—I haven't changed my opinion on that, mind you. They're a little better now. At least compared to the Iron Hall."
I didn't know how I wanted to respond. Reminding the vixen that—whatever her opinion—Chatherral remained her king wouldn't matter; she obviously didn't care. Arguing that she'd in any case escaped the 'full extent of the consequences' would be entirely beside the point. Honest, but cautious. I stayed quiet.
“And," she continued. “I don't yet know how things might change, when the leadership does. I suppose we'll find out soon enough." I tilted my head. “I don't expect the king to remain on the throne much longer—yes, yes. That's his decision and not mine; I'm just a simple commoner. It's still true."
“And I'll serve whoever succeeds him, if I stay with the Guard."
“Indeed. But 'whoever' needs to be Tabent Enthar. His brother would be unacceptable. Don't imply to me that this isn't my place to say, either. And don't pretend you don't know it's true. My God—I'm sure the stories you've heard are even worse than the ones I have."
I twitched an ear. What was the point of arguing with her? This wasn't an area where I saw any point to standing on principle. “Prince Enthar is, in any case, next in line to the throne. Beyond that, I'm not sure there's anything we can do. I'm not about to join you in another insurrection."
The vixen offered me a muted smile. “I'm not about to stage one. Do you think the Carregan Railroad really was behind the Plowman's Rising?"
“You're telling me you weren't?" I asked it meaning the question to be rhetorical, but once it was out of my mouth I realized I no longer had any idea of what I should think of the vixen, or her motives.
“We were not. I was not, at least, and I doubt the Iron Corps would defy me. That's what I said about arsonists, colonel. Our country doesn't need more fuel to explain how easily those fires rage. It certainly doesn't need mine. Though who knows—perhaps this is one of those areas where someone else will intervene. As you've learned, plenty of cutthroats in Tabisthalia are willing to shed blood for what they believe in. Or, failing that, for a suitable price."
“As I've learned?" The tilt of my head sharpened. “The rioters?"
“I was thinking more about your attackers in the Coopersrace market. They were hired by the Alurethians, who saw you as being a little too… effective. They had hopes of getting someone more controllable close to the queen. I presume she knew—or they told her, eventually. But by that point, you weren't to be separated. So they gave up."
In the moment, I allowed myself to ignore the implications of what she'd said to focus on safer questions. “Who was it that saved me? Was it the Railroad?"
“Yes. I didn't order Internal Security to protect you, not directly. I was having you followed, and they chose to act of their own initiative. I'm thankful for that."
“I suppose I should be, too."
“As you like. You can still find plenty of things to feel I haven't made up for. You are effective, Colonel Laner, and I hope you remain that way. I hope you'll believe what I say next, too. Can you try?"
“I can try," I said, nodding.
“I don't intend this to blackmail or gain leverage over you. I don't even mean what I'm about to say as a favor. But if the Railroad can help keep the peace in Tabisthalia, find some way of communicating it to me."
“Stay out of politics," I suggested. “Then again, that's what I was always told."
“And it can't be done. Not for me, any more than it can for you. If you think of something more… actionable, I'll be waiting. Good luck, colonel."
Two days later, and without having thought of anything close to 'actionable,' I received an invitation to meet with Prince Enthar in the gardens of the Iron Hall. The invitation was sparse on information, save for the request that I go at once. I found the prince with Valmer Wainsmet, in quiet conversation.
It stopped at once when he noticed me. “That will be all, captain. I'd prefer to speak to Colonel Laner in private." Captain Wainsmet bowed, and headed back towards the Iron Hall. Enthar turned, pointing towards the gardens. “I hope I didn't distract you from important things, sir. I'm sure there's much that occupies your attention. The Royal Guard is busy, isn't it? The whole Royal Army, for that matter."
“Yes, Your Highness. But nothing so important that I wouldn't make time for you, of course."
The prince closed his eyes, turning his head up and towards the morning sun to enjoy its warmth. “I do appreciate it. I hear that Garsteadshire is quieting down, at last. After too long, and too much suffering."
“The rebels have been defeated," I told him. “I have yet to see full reports on the extent of the casualties."
He nodded. Eyes open again, he turned onto one of the winding paths that led deeper into the garden. “It will be said, though, that it was worth it. And I'll have to hope that they're right."
“That is all we can do, Your Highness."
“No. We can endeavor to do better in the future, too. We can examine where our subjects have been let down, and what we can do to right those wrongs. My mother was very insistent on that point. She said it was our responsibility."
The young prince paused, and brushed his fingers over the petals of a pale yellow rose. His throat worked, and I saw his muzzle tense.
“I still can't believe she's gone, colonel. I have to remind myself, or I'll forget. Why did it have to happen?"
“I don't know." I shook my head; kept my voice low. “Sometimes, there is no reason why these things happen. They just… do. And we have to live with them."
“I don't want to. I want her back," he murmured, and for a long spell he was no longer royalty. He was not a prince; the robes bore no significance. He was simply a child, and utterly lost. “If I could… if there was something I could do—is it wrong to feel like that?"
“No. No, Your Highness, I don't think it is."
“She liked you. She often said you were one of her only friends in the whole mess of Tabisthalian court politics. I know you were fond of her, too."
I nodded. “Yes. Queen Ansha was… special to me. She was a good person."
“A complicated person," the prince suggested softly. “Many of her affairs were complex. When I say you were fond of her, I… I am aware of the form that fondness took, on certain nights when she desired company. I'm not completely naïve. And I know that my mother… I know she did not always make things better, in the court—it could be said. Particularly with her more radical ideas."
“It could be said, yes."
“She trusted you, and I suppose I must also trust you. I haven't told anyone yet: my father will yield the throne. Between he and I, it is not decided yet whether I will take over immediately, or whether some advisor will step in to assist me until I'm old enough. But the reign of King Chatherral the Fourth is coming to an end, and mine will begin at some point in the near future."
“You'll forgive me, Your Highness, if I don't know what I should say to this. Is it an honor? Should you be congratulated?"
Enthar smiled. “I don't know, either. It is probably an honor, though at once it is also a profound responsibility. I would like you to stay on as commander of the Royal Guard, if you're amenable to that. Are you?"
I took a deep breath. “I will, of course, serve the crown in whatever capacity it asks of me, Your Highness."
“Right now, what it asks is your opinion, colonel. My mother was fond of you, which makes the princes of Hutwick and Arren fond of you. From what I hear, Arkenprincess Chavan has also spoken highly of your abilities. This is odd; Ailaragh is often difficult and the arkenprincess has a reputation for being captious. For her to speak on your behalf, you must've done something significant."
“Shutting down the Railroad's depot in Tersinia, sire. It proved to be a boon for the Royal Navy."
“Ah! That makes it a bit clearer, yes. Notwithstanding, you have the Old Council behind you, and it doesn't look like a decision of political convenience. I'd appreciate your continued service, colonel. What would make it worthwhile?"
“I must beg your pardon, sir. I—"
“If you need to think about on your own time, feel free." He laughed softly. “I won't even know when I'm to be king for a few days yet. But please do think about it. A clear-minded, decent commander of the Royal Guard would be a great tribute to my mother's memory."
The ceremony, I'd read later, was beautiful. I heard none of it. I didn't hear the oath being offered and accepted; I didn't hear the choir. All I heard, in the end, was when a cheer rose up from the gathered crowd.
“It's done, I suppose?"
I nodded to Major Harrell. “I think so."
“Do you remember his grandfather, sir?"
“No." I was still a pup when Chatherral took the throne. “You, major?"
“I was in that crowd. My first glimpse of royalty." He smiled, before I could ask the obvious question. “Aye, it's why I asked Captain Wainsmet to handle it. I was there when he became king; I'd rather that be my memory of him."
“He'll still need protection. I was expecting you to continue in your current role as guard to the king. Would you prefer that I find someone else?"
Major Harrell shook his head. “Enthar is a good lad; I'd like to think he deserves the continuity. I'll see enough of his father." The bear's gaze lowered slightly. “It's been difficult for him. I hope he can find some peace now."
“So do I. So—hold on." A procession was coming our way, led by Enthar himself. Harrell and I came to attention, standing straight and flanking the door to the inner Iron Hall.
Beyond Enthar, I recognized only a few of the nobles. Duchess Masseler was the Royal Treasurer; next to her was a wolf whose ornamental robe marked him as arkenvonde Barnard, senior leader of the Kasteri Church and the religious official sanctifying the ceremony.
Enthar stopped. Harrell and I dropped to our knees. I looked up at the young stag, the crown heavy on his antlers, his expression impossibly boyish. “Your Majesty," I began. “May your reign be long and storied."
“I hope so, too," he said. “Will you come with me, colonel?"
I rose to my feet. To my surprise, the others stayed behind, too; the king and I were the only ones on the walk towards the throne room. He closed the door behind us, staring apprehensively at the chair itself.
“In time. Right?"
“Yes, Your Majesty."
He walked up the dais, bidding me to follow him with a wave of his paw. “Will you sit? Try it out."
“In—in the throne, sire?"
He nodded, running his fingers along the velvet highlights of the metal chair. “In the throne. If it makes you uncomfortable, you don't have to. But I'd like to see it."
It did make me uncomfortable, but the boy was my king, now; I did as I was asked. The seat was too big for me, and the metal made its chill known within only a few seconds. Enthar watched carefully.
“You don't look different," he decided. “It's what I thought. The throne doesn't make you the Lodestone Sovereign. This thing…" He took the coronation crown off, turning it so the jewels caught the light. “This thing doesn't make me the king, either. But I am now, in any case. Can I try?"
I vacated the throne at once, grateful to be freed of it; Enthar took my place. I could tell that he was feeling the cold, too. He looked over at me expectantly. “It will come to fit you, Your Majesty, I believe."
“Over my 'long and storied' reign. The ceremony isn't for me—it's for them. The people, as my mother…" His breath caught; he swallowed heavily. “As my mother would've wanted. I hope, wherever she is, that I've made her proud."
“I'm sure you have," I promised. “And I'm sure you'll continue to do so."
“I've decided to keep my name. I hope it sends the right message. Did I tell you that? About the reigns of Enthars? They've been good for the peace and stability of Aernia. I think we could use that. And speaking of stability… have you thought about what I asked, colonel?"
“If you'd like, Your Majesty, I will serve as long as you'll have me."
“I would like that." His fingers traced the throne idly. “Tabisthalia might not be your home, Colonel Laner. Some day you might want to leave. If you feel that your service binds you to me, remember that… that only one of us is truly leashed by our service to this place, colonel. I'll understand if our paths diverge. I'm only a man. Don't live your life for me."
“I appreciate that greatly, Your Majesty. You have my service freely."
“Until the day I don't. Don't let me forget that. I saw how my father allowed himself to be controlled, and I see how my brother allows himself only the control of others. There must be a middle ground."
They were mere words, but even acknowledging them made it easier for me to trust the stag—easier to believe his sincerity. So I nodded, thanking him again.
“And you will advise me, like you did my mother?"
“If I can, certainly."
“What must I do about Scad Kirchvar and the others?"
He nodded. “She was enthralled by their philosophy. It captivated her, but I'm not sure she was… right. Like her, I think my place is one of service to the Aernian people. I don't think that rises to subservience."
“I wouldn't either. You can't serve them by pretending a mob has the same—pardon me, I know our religious traditions differ, but… but the same authority as one ordained by the gods of the Coral Valley themselves."
“I should use that authority well," he suggested. “But I should use it."
“Yes. And sometimes, you'll know what their best interest is, even when they do not. In my opinion, Dr. Kirchvar would sell the city out to the highest bidder, if they promised him it was the people's will. Who knows that? I don't trust them, sir."
They had given me no reason to do so. And for all the wooly thinking about how 'the people' had the right to self-determination, I had no faith at all in the ability of that mob I'd faced down to govern itself. I had no faith in shopkeepers and socialites to do anything more than 'elect' a caste of shopkeepers and socialites to do their bidding.
Most assuredly of all, I had no faith in the wealthy aristocrats pontificating at King Rawlon's college. They were the ones who'd taken Ansha's naïveté and betrayed it—though, of course, King Enthar could never know that. I did, and it added to the heat in my condemnation.
The stag nodded. He'd been holding the crown in his lap. Now, carefully, he settled it back on his antlers. “Then it's agreed. Something will have to be done about them."
“As a soldier, I'm never happy to dwell on the implications of those words, Your Highness. But as an Aernian, and a loyal one, there are some problems I feel it's best to deal with before they get out of hand."
“I don't think you should have to deal with this one. It's not for the Royal Guard—this is for the constables to manage. My mother found them unreliable, and I think she was right… they've grown too comfortable. And they're not a small bit corrupt, either, I hear."
I had heard that as well, and told him so: the city was assuredly imperfect. The constables did nothing about the attack in the Coopersrace market; the fire department hadn't been able to stop the destruction of Tallachet. Most of the dock officials, to hear Siron tell it, were willing to look the other way no matter how severe the transgression, as long as the money was right.
Something would have to be done about them. King Enthar gave me yield to leave; he still had much to do on his first day as the Aernian Empire's new leader. I bowed, and rejoined Major Harrell outside.
“A good meeting, sir?"
“I hope so."
Danharral Street ran along the edge of the city's old quarter, and I didn't know what to expect of it. Some of the buildings dated back all the way to Tabisthalia's founding, nine hundred years before.
“Here." Teya pointed to the open wooden door of a bakery. “The best giltcake in the city."
The smell filled my nose as we entered the shop—the tantalizing, mouthwatering spices of the rolls, and the rows of fresh bread stacked behind the counter. The baker clearly knew Teya: he grinned, and knocked a full shilling off the price of the two rolls I ordered.
Back outside, the mongrel dog gestured with her paw to the growing activity along Danharral. “It has its own kind of beauty, I think," she said. “There's no place like this, Aric. Only one Tabisthalia."
“And is that good, or bad?"
“Take a bite."
I did, while the giltcake was still warm. Teya was right in praising the baker, for the taste was exquisite. The icing lent just enough sweetness to soften the edge of the spice—next to me, Teya licked a bit of it from her muzzle. “It might be, ah…"
“Better than the ones in Stolvan?" She grinned, and took my paw in hers. We'd walked a good six blocks on Danharral Street before the bakery that way, with nobody so much as raising an eyebrow.
“Better than back home, yes. I'll admit it."
“This is home."
“You think you'll stay?" I took another bite of my roll, letting myself savor the sweet, soft texture melting slowly against my tongue.
Teya nodded. “Now that the city is calming down, yes, I think I will. I'll go back to work tonight, or tomorrow night, perhaps. I can't live off your patronage; that wouldn't be right."
“I'm just… I'm glad you're safe. I had no idea what was going to happen."
“Many bad things, all at once," she declared, before finishing her cake and daintily licking the last crumbs from her fingers. “But that's just life. It could've been anywhere, Aric. At least here we have the bakery. And the city."
Her grip on my paw tightened. We'd reached the corner where Danharral Street intersected the Procession, one of the city's major avenues. Teya was smiling, her head turned to look down the Procession.
In one direction, the road ran straight south, crossing the Martel Bridge to end at Chenywck Park and what had once been the Silk Row. In the other, it made a grand loop in the direction of Darlan Hill; this was where Teya's kept her focus, and the direction she guided us in.
Three blocks later she halted again. Kenley Hill and the Iron Hall were just visible above the buildings to our north. She ignored the palace: ahead of us, the Procession led straight down to the docks, and I saw why she had paused.
The sky had already brightened; the tallest spires and weathercocks had caught the sunrise. But from our vantage point, the Procession ran perfectly west to east: orange light flooded through the old buildings, every carriage and pedestrian cast a long shadow, and as Teya tugged me forward and into the light so did we.
For a thousand yards between us and the Tabis River, everything glowed. The water itself seemed afire, with a few ships slicing their way through the last of a lifting fog. “I'm not sure what the World Before looked like," my companion began. “But of all the towns on the continent, this is the greatest now. It gets inside you. Never leaves…"
“I was told," I remembered, “that nobody comes here who doesn't wind up wishing they hadn't."
“They're wrong." Teya let my paw go, raising hers and slowly tracing the horizon. “This is ours. It's our city, Aric. It's what we make of it. Nobody comes here who doesn't wind up changed by it, that's all. You've been changed."
“Yes." That, most assuredly, was true. “I have."
“For the better."
“I don't know about that."
“You will. They only say they regret it because they're blind. To this. To the city at morning," she continued, nodding her head to the spreading, golden glow that crept from doorstep to doorstep, window to window—and then to Teya herself, leaving her ears fringed in amber. “It's magical, Aric. There's magic here—the good kind. The proper kind: the magic we use to build any future we want from what we find in the dawn. Do you see it?"
Sparks glinted from the sunlight on the Iron Hall, streaming down through the clouds at sharp angles around its edges. It was beautiful, yes. Surreal, even. Magical? “Glimpses," I finally said. “I see glimpses."
“Then you're not one of the blind ones." She slipped her fingers through mine, and squeezed softly. “And that's how it starts."