"Maewin," Mitt yelled.
Alk heard the statue drop and swung back to see that Maewin had disappeared. Given everything else that had happened, he wasn't terribly surprised. "I suspect she's been sent back where she belongs." He bent down to pick up the statue and dumped it unceremoniously in Mitt's - in Amil's arms. "If she's gone, you're the best one to care for this."
Ignoring Mitt's protests, he wandered off to find Luthan's scribe. It was better than thinking about what awaited him at home.
He was unprepared to find his Countess waiting for him in Luthan's camp. "I thought you'd stay home."
She never liked to get her hands dirty, which is why the news that she'd attempted to bully Mitt into killing Noreth hadn't surprised him too much. He'd always known deep down that she could be ruthless, even though she had never turned that trait on him.
She gave him a look that was more tired than anything else. "I can see which way the wind is blowing. Keril can cling to his illusions that Mitt might be grateful for the way I took him in and educated him, but I know better. I'll be gracious in defeat and perhaps I can salvage something from this disaster." Always practical, his Countess.
However Alk wasn't in the mood to help her with damage control. Not after what he'd seen and heard. He might have left his law career behind when he married her but he'd always believed that the law should apply to all equally, and that included his wife. He spotted Luthan's scribe and made some brusque excuses.
The worst part was that despite everything that happened, he still loved her.
Brid dismounted and surveyed the chaos. She knew both her brother and Kialan were around here somewhere. She was tired of being placed in a corner and told to stay there for her own safety. No one told Noreth to stay where it was safe. Feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the world in general and her brother in particular, she picked her way over the rough ground.
"Morning. I don't suppose you know where Moril the Singer has wandered off to." She addressed a big man who sat on a rock drawing. She was surprised the pen hadn't snapped in his big hands, but once she got close enough to see what was on the paper, she was surprised at the complexity of the drawing. "Oh, I thought you were drawing the mountains."
"Mitt set me to designing his palace. Or more accurately, I offered. You must be Moril's sister, Brid." He smiled at her. "I'm Alk."
Brid couldn't help staring. "The one who married the Countess of Aberath? You're a legend at school."
Alk winced. "The things people remember. Dare I hope that I'm known for something other than grittling?" Brid sat down on another rock without being asked. "Did you really try to build a flying machine and launch it from the roof?" Her brother could wait. This was apt to be much more interesting.
Alk hadn't had much contact with the lawschool in years, and though people had told him that some day he'd look upon his time there as the happiest years of his life, he'd moved on to new things. Studying the law had been interesting, grittling was fun, but what he'd really wanted to do was build things, and there had never seemed to be enough time for that.
"I did. It didn't work very well." He laughed at the memory. "I broke my leg in two places and missed the entire grittling season that year. I didn't mind, but it caused some long faces among my grittling-obsessed friends."
Brid snorted. "I can imagine. I've got a few friends like that myself. And don't get me started about the slang." She understood it well enough after a few years at the school, but she couldn't be bothered to speak it unless she had to. It just seemed to get in the way of what they were really there for. "I'm sometimes surprised anyone finds time to study."
Alk considered this gravely, absently adding a few lines to his sketch as he spoke. "There never seemed to be time for anything. Always lectures and ceremonies and games and every minute of the day programmed. They were supposed to be teaching us to think and reason but I had more time to think on the farm."
"Brid? What are you doing here?" Moril came racing over.
"I got tired of waiting at Hannart while you ran about having adventures and crowning kings. And what's this about a King anyway. I thought this whole quest was about crowning a queen?" Brid smiled conspiratorially at Alk, and then led Moril away so that the other man could get back to his drawing.
"It's a very long story," Moril started.
"And you're a storyteller. Give." Brid crossed her arms and glared at him until he gave in and told her everything that had happened since they'd left the Lawschool.
Just as Moril was finishing the story, Mitt joined them, bread and cheese in hand. "I thought you might like some lunch."
Brid suddenly realised she was ravenous. "Thank you." "So the fake Noreth just disappeared three days ago with no warning? And now you're king." He didn't act like a king, which she considered a point in his favour. She wondered if she should be angling for a post but she wasn't certain that was what she wanted and she still had years to go in her schooling. "How did you explain that?"
Moril and Mitt looked at each other and then Mitt said, "We didn't really. Everyone knew the real Noreth was dead. We've just been attributing it to the One. Like everything else that's happened."
"It's about all we could do," Moril added. "Tell the truth and trust that the One knows what he's doing."
Mitt stood then. "I actually came out here looking for Alk. He's been coming out to draw from dawn to dusk and forgetting to eat. I think he's avoiding the Countess."
"You can't blame him for that," Moril said. "After what she did to you and to Noreth."
"It's more than that, I think. He did love her. Maybe he still does," Mitt replied. "And now he's seeing her more clearly than he'd like. It was good to see you again, Brid." He waved and turned to make his way down the rocky path to where Alk had been sketching.
Alk had been using his sketching as an excuse to avoid his Countess, the way he'd used his Irons to do the same thing at home. And to some extent, it worked. She was mostly closeted with the other leaders these days, and politics had never been his strong suit.
Movement to the left caused him to look up from his drawing. "Mitt. Come look at this and tell me what you think?" He suspected he knew what the other man was going to say, and this might forestall it for a little while.
Mitt made all the right noises, which was good. But then he'd been fascinated by Alk's work since he arrived in Aberath. However, the distraction didn't last nearly as long as Alk would have liked. "About the Countess," he said awkwardly.
"You're going to commute her sentence, aren't you?" Alk didn't want to drag this out any longer than it needed to be. "You still need her." He wished he didn't feel so relieved at this.
"And Keril. We're going to need them both if this is going to succeed." Mitt laid a hand on Alk's shoulder. "I know you think the law should apply to all equally. I do too, but we have to be realistic here. They were on the wrong side and they both know it. They'll never regain what they lost in the way of political power and they know they went too far for me to trust them with anything vital."
"I don't think she'll betray you to Kankredin, if that's what you're worried about," Alk said. 'That isn't her style."
"Ruthless but not stupid." Mitt laughed humourlessly. "That sounds right from what I've seen of her. She had sense enough to marry you."
Alk didn't know how to take that. "I won't claim she was different then, but she isn't always obsessed with politics." He'd known from the start that she was ambitious, but she'd also been kind and she'd humoured him about his machines. Still did, though he sometimes thought she did that to get him out of the way.
"She couldn't be if she married you. You told me once you were nobody before Lawschool. And," Mitt paused to emphasize his words, "her first interest when I agreed to parley with her was to make sure you wouldn't pay for her crimes."
It might have been a kind lie, coming from anyone else, but Alk knew he could trust Mitt to tell him the truth. She might still be using this to her own ends, but that had never been the whole of what she was. "Why are you telling me this?" Alk had his suspicions, but he needed to hear it from Mitt.
"Because you need to hear it. It isn't easy when someone you love betrays everything you stand for. I've been there myself."
That was low. From what Alk had heard, Mitt's father had betrayed him far worse and much more personally than Alk's Countess had betrayed him. "So you're asking me to make peace with her."
"That's up to you. The marriage can be dissolved if that is what you want."
He knew that. He'd just needed to hear Mitt say it. "I'll meet with her. I won't make any promises, though." That would have to be enough.
Alk didn't seek the Countess out immediately. Not until the light had faded to dusk and he could no longer see to draw. When he could wait no longer, he headed back to camp.
He found her talking to Brid about Lawschool. His Countess had listened to his stories too, once. "Countess." It sounded formal. Too formal, perhaps.
"Alk." She smiled at him, and he almost forgave her right then and there.
Brid absented herself discreetly, leaving him alone with her. Alk wasn't sure he was ready for this, but he couldn't put it off forever. "You've made your peace with the new king."
"I have. I know you don't approve but he, at least, is wise enough to put aside personal feelings for political necessity." After a moment, she added, "I may have misjudged him badly," offhandedly.
Alk thought that was an understatement. "He's made of stronger metal than you realized. And I am just an old fool." He didn't know why he said that.
"The heart is not always aligned with the head. If it were, I would never have married you. If it were, perhaps I would have come to you for counsel before this foolish scheme ever came to fruition. I have lost what I thought I wanted, and had fewer regrets than I thought. And yet, the thing I gave up, thinking it worth less to me, has been gnawing at my conscience. I have missed you more than I expected, my love." If she'd been manipulating him she would have met his eyes. She didn't.
"There are things that cannot be forgiven. Murder." He placed a finger under her chin and forced her to look him in the eye. "But I am willing to accept the edict of the king you would have made a pawn in your game. Forgiveness may come in time, but not just yet. And I'll not be returning home with you, Countess." He could not bring himself to dissolve their marriage. That would have to suffice for now.
"That is better than I had hoped." When he removed his finger she didn't look away. "Once you would have used my name. Have you forgotten it?" She didn't wait for an answer but stood briskly and headed up the hill.
He stood too. "For what it's worth, Enna," Alk said to her retreating back, too softly for her to hear, "I haven't forgotten a thing."