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Antemeridian

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“You can’t be serious.”

Meria laughed, her voice as harsh as a crow squawking, and Willimgard let her, smiling indulgently. (Behind him, he was fairly sure that Alighierie was massaging her temples.) Only when she was quite done did he speak again:

“I am entirely serious, of course.”

She looked at him, still half-grinning; apparently she found the idea of his telling the truth just as funny, or maybe it was the idea of the thing in general.

“I think your girlfriend’s gonna dump you in protest if you mean it.”

Alighierie’s aura of offended propriety intensified so much that Willimgard could have sworn his skin was prickling with the force of it.

“She won’t. I’m certain that she will have faith in my decision.”

From the way Alighierie coughed behind him, that faith was rather shaky, but Willimgard magnanimously chose to ignore it and focus instead on his conversation with Meria. He knew Alighierie well, after all—she would eventually come around to his point of view.

“So then what gives?” Meria turned and walked a few paces down the ramparts, stilettos ringing against the ancient stone. “This isn’t another one of those silly learn responsibility, it builds character! exercises, is it?”

“At least not entirely.” She knew him so well, and if he was a fool to be pleased by that fact then he was a happy fool. “You’re the most capable among everyone at my disposal, and the captains of the twelve Orders already have more than enough on their plates for the foreseeable future.”

Meria half-turned so that she could stare at him over her shoulder. Her expression was as blank as it ever got, and her eyes were wide and intense, making her look like an especially curious child.

“I don’t want this kingdom to become sedentary again. If the people aren’t kept moving, kept thinking, then the social order will simply shake down to where it was before the Nightmare, and all the old problems will come back. As a sovereign, I owe them more than that. You can keep the Knight Kingdom young, keep it adapting.

“And beyond that—you are my sword; you are my right arm. I would entrust this role to no other.”

Meria pivoted to face him and crossed her arms, still giving him that curious look.

Willimgard felt Alighierie’s hand pat at his shoulder, and when he glanced toward her she was stepping forward to stand next to him.

“What milord means is that—within reason, mind you—he is giving you free rein to turn the country upside down,” she said evenly.

Meria’s eyebrows went up. And up. And then she started to grin again.

“You can’t take this back no matter how much you wind up regretting it,” she trilled, and her face was positively alight with wicked-looking glee. And before Willimgard or Alighierie could say anything, she whirled on her heel and was prancing off down the balustrade.

“Our new grand marshal,” Alighierie sighed, and gave him a look.

Willimgard just smiled. “She’ll be perfect.”