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Fighting Fair

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She took a step back and scanned him from head to toe, with that cold, assessing look he knew so well. With a twist of her lip she smiled and said, “You still think you're the hero, don't you?”

This was the end of the road, he knew that. Even he could see that there was no escaping from here, and he hardly expected her to take a sudden turn to nobility and release him. Everything he'd done, everything he'd sacrificed, and every mistake he'd made along the way, they all led him here, to this edifice of dead stone. A prison, and a curse. Some thought it legend but Braugan knew better. He was familiar with the fortress and its history, and all that it stood for.

All that was left to him was isolation, and the certainty of death.

“Why?” he asked, his voice cracking in his dry throat.

She raised an eyebrow. “Were you expecting me to spread my arms and wait for the spear to pierce my heart, Braugan?” she asked. “I thought you knew me better than that.”

“Survival at all costs,” he said.

“You didn't seem to mind,” said Aya, “when that survival included you in it. None of you seemed to mind. How many times did I save your life? You all survived because of me.”

“Really?” he asked. “I think Jaylen might dispute that, if he were here.”

“Maybe so,” said Aya, “but Jaylen was a fool. He thought the war could be won bloodlessly. You saw the cost of his foolhardiness, same as I did.”

“It could've worked,” he insisted.

“But it didn't!” said Aya. “Braugan, the war is over. Why do you insist to keep fighting it? Why can't you just–“

“Just shut up and get in line?” he asked. “Kneel and accept you as Duchess? Take your bribes and keep my mouth shut, even when I know what you're–“

“–I offered you the treasury because I thought you were qualified,” she said, “not as a bribe. Now I must wonder whether I was mistaken. I had thought you a sensible man, Braugan.”

“Aya–“

“–And why do you call me that?” she asked, pursing her lips. “That's not my name.”

“I'm not about to let you forget where you came from.”

The Duchess threw back her head and laughed. She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye with a broad, theatrical gesture and said, “How strange you are. You think you know me very well, I suppose, because we fought side by side for all those months. This was not the first name I took up, and I doubt it will be the last I discard. Small wonder, I suppose, that you are so stubborn about such trivialities.”

He gritted his teeth and said, as close to a hiss as ever he had gotten, “That is why. If you did not consider them trivial, perhaps we could have come to some sort of compromise. You're not a bad person, Aya.”

Her lip twitched.

“And I don't think,” he went on relentlessly, “that you are a bad queen, not as such.”

“Merely that I require your guidance,” said the Duchess, “to keep me in check.”

“I can tell you're mocking me,” he informed her with a raised eyebrow.

“Yes, you've always been bright,” replied the Duchess.

“And you have always thought you were cleverer than anyone else,” said Braugan. “I don't know how I didn't see it before.”

“It's really rather a waste to keep you locked up in this place,” said Aya, glancing here and there around the vast, bare edifice, and he could not tell if she was speaking in earnest.

Braugan wondered whether he'd ever really known Aya at all. She'd always been a bit ruthless, but he'd thought that they valued the same things, that they were on the same side. Instead it seemed she had merely treated him and his cause as a stepping stone to power, to grasping total dominion over the land and the people he held dear. And he'd been the one to hand it to her on a silver platter, even as he hadn't known that he was doing so.

The Duchess had turned away from him while he sank into gloomy rumination. She seemed disinterested in continuing their philosophical exchange. She would leave him here to gather dust like a piece of statuary and return to Brighthaven, to the Dawn Palace and to her iron-fisted rule. She would pick off his allies in the city one by one. Braugan had very little hope that they could keep fighting without him, though they were the ones who had approached him, recruited him. Underestimating the Duchess's cunning and brutality was how they had managed to get caught to begin with. The other men who had been with him were surely hanged.

Only he survived, due to Aya's inexplicable fascination with him which afforded her to keep him alive, if she possibly could, so long as he was prevented from murdering her and taking her throne. It occurred to Braugan that in a way, he was her weakness. But he quickly extinguished this thought. More likely, it meant that she considered him no material threat. In her shoes, he would be sure to hang the traitor, albeit with a heavy heart. He knew that if their positions were reveresed, she would stop at nothing to tear him down, and so long as she was alive, no prison could stop her from coming for his blood, and his throne.

Through the window to the barren courtyard he could see her riders mounting their horses, her personal guard drawing up her carriage, ready to leave. She turned around then, and looked back in his direction. Whether she could see his eyes at this distance, he couldn't be sure. Her fine, transparent veil obscured her own. She paused only a moment before exiting the courtyard with a confident stride and he could hear the sound of hooves striking stone and see the cloud of dust they kicked up. Because when she wanted something she went after it without qualm. He supposed that was why she was Queen and he was rotting in Winter Sun.