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A Common Knight

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Lady Estora Coutre sat alone in her bedchamber. In a few minutes, a chambermaid would knock and then bustle in, followed by another and probably one of Estora’s sisters, and there would be at least half an hour of giggling and chattering and excited anticipation of the dance that evening. She would smile, and make herself beautiful. And the dance would be delightful – the wine perfect, the clothes stunning, the company charming. She would be observed having a wonderful time. Everything about the evening would be in precise, flawless good taste.

And it would be as flat as a sewing sampler and just as lifelike.

She closed her eyes and breathed slowly through her nose, trying to think. Most ladies would be delighted. And she was, of course. On the surface, at least. Years of projecting the most appropriate reaction to any circumstance regardless of her true feelings had blurred the line between the two in her mind, and it became difficult to sort out. Of course she was delighted. It was wonderful to be safe again in the king’s keep in Sacor City, wonderful to be back with her family, to have servants instead of saddlesores and afternoon tea instead of rations at swordpoint. And yet…

Well, nothing had changed. She’d had a week of feeling nothing but relief, and it was good to be back among family and not under threat, but now it felt as though she was back to exactly where she had been before the abduction: trapped.

She was the eldest daughter of Lord Coutre, and she’d never had any choice about that. But she had never known any different, either. She had been taught very firmly that thousands of girls would do anything to be in her place, that she should be grateful, that her clan had given her everything and that it was only right and proper that she should therefore do as she was asked with grace and in appreciation…

And then she had met F’ryan. Oh, F’ryan. And despite her station and despite her limitations, she had been free. She’d seen the edges of the world beyond her own, and she had longed for it. A world where what felt good and right and true could be placed above what was appropriate or mannerly or ladylike, instead of the other way around. And then he’d been taken from her, and that world had gone dark, and now she was to be married to a man she had not chosen and did not love and gain a position that she did not want…

Oh Zachary was kind, if a little distant. A good man. She was very lucky, given the circumstances. But it wasn’t enough. Not after having tasted so much more.

There was a quiet tap on the door. Estora opened her eyes and carefully set her facial expression to something less revealingly sad – the last thing she needed was questions and fuss.

‘Come,’ she called. The door opened and in came the anticipated two chambermaids and not one but two Coutre sisters. They were talking, but there was no laughter at all – the expressions on all four of them were sombre. Estora frowned slightly.

‘What is it, what’s the matter?’ she asked, looking from one sister to the other. Eveny, the elder, spoke first.

‘Oh, Est, it’s awful,’ she said, and Brinna nodded. ‘You know Lady Yvette, from Mirsway?’

Estora nodded slowly. Lady Yvette was the daughter of a middle-ranking noble of Bairdly province.

Eveny looked at little Brinna and then back at Estora, and lowered her voice.

‘Well, apparently she’d been seeing this young man – one of the household guard – and she’d promised to run away with him. But her father found out, and he dismissed the guard and confined her to her room, only when he came back in the morning to check on her she’d – she’d –’ Eveny broke off, shaking her head and composing herself before speaking again. ‘She’d hanged herself. The news just reached Lord Bairdly today.’

Estora belatedly raised a hand to cover her open mouth. She felt ill. Swallowing back the bile, she turned and walked over to the window, staring sightlessly at the darkening sky.

‘That is truly awful,’ she heard herself say softly. ‘Beyond words. Will father be sending his condolences?’

‘I think so.’

Estora missed whatever it was that her sisters said next. She was too preoccupied in her thoughts – reeling from the shock. She hadn’t really known Lady Yvette, not any more than she knew the hundred other young noble ladies who did not quite equal her social standing but attended many of the same gatherings. She tried to picture a face but somehow everything was blurred… she was crying, she realised, and blinked suddenly to try and clear her face before her sisters or the chambermaids made note of it. Though they would probably think she was just tender-hearted, and not wondering what she would have done in Lady Yvette’s place…

‘… and I don’t think father knows quite what to say, he was fussing over the two of us something awful this afternoon. Well, fussing for father, anyway.’

Estora let out a slow breath and gathered her stillness and dignity before she turned around.

‘It is terrible news, and I don’t take it lightly,’ she said gently. ‘But neither can we keep the rest of the court waiting if we spend our time discussing it rather than getting ready.’

Eveny and Brinna took the soft rebuke gracefully, and they all went to their tasks in thoughtful silence. Estora suspected that the two of them – and particularly Eveny – were caught up in the romance of it. Star-crossed lovers, never able to be together, tormented by their forbidden love… even the chambermaids’ eyes seemed moist. But despite her earlier tears, Estora realised gradually that the news did not provoke sadness in her. No. It took her a few minutes to recognise that the feeling growing inside her like an iron bar was anger.

~

Karigan slid from Condor’s back with a grateful sigh. The skies over Sacor City were clear, but she’d travelled through rain two thirds of the way from Corsa and it felt as though the water had soaked clear through to her bones. She led the horse to the stables and slipped into the easy routine of getting him settled, playing over her last message errand in her mind.

Hardly a real errand, from her point of view, though she supposed all it took to make one was a message from the king. She had been delivering the news of her recently gained title to her father, along with the information about the lands available for her to select from. Officially a real message-errand, but also a chance to go home and visit her family with express permission to take her time doing so. More gratitude for the rescue of Lady Estora, she suspected.

Stevic G’ladheon had been pleased for her – well, once the shock had worn off. Karigan grinned to herself as she brushed Condor down. Her aunts had been instantly delighted, and absolutely confident that she had deserved such an honour, and very quick to prod her father out of his daze and into congratulating her. It had been good to be home. And they’d spent much of the five days that she’d been there talking. They’d cleared a lot of things up.

Well, even advice from her father hadn’t helped her be absolutely happy about the land ownership, but at least he’d helped her work out a spot that would be beneficial to the clan in the future.

That wasn’t the only thing they’d worked out. Karigan felt mixed emotions when she recalled the conversation they’d had about the brothel. And the piracy, but mostly the brothel. He’d stormed out the first time she’d brought it up – well, thrown it in his face, in a way. Two G’ladheon tempers in one room could make it rather… overheated. But the second time, when both of them were more cool-headed, had been more productive. Karigan still wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea, but she felt embarrassed by her initial reaction to the news – and her father had also managed to explain, with a strong blush, that there were women and men who chose the profession willingly, and that he supported no brothel that compelled people into the work. The idea didn’t quite make sense to Karigan, but the sincerity on her father’s face and the lengthy (if awkward) discussion afterwards convinced her to respect it.

She shook the thoughts from her mind as she finished seeing to Condor and started to walk back to the Rider barracks, picturing the hot bath and dry clothes that waited for her inside.

~

‘Estora, in your absence… it occurred to me that I do not express to you enough how much you mean to me. I love you dearly, and I want you do know that I will always put you first.’

Her father’s words seemed to go round and round in her head. Zachary had been charming tonight, as always. Polite and charming and well-mannered. The perfect gentleman. And she had been the perfect lady, and everyone had smiled at them, how perfect they were, how well suited, don’t they look wonderful together, that’s our future queen, and she had smiled and smiled and smiled until her face ached almost as much as her heart. The dance, the dresses, the jewels, the compliments and the blushes and the curtseys and the damn smiling, there was nothing underneath it. She remembered F’ryan, remembered how real she had felt then. As though she was rooted to the earth, bathed in light. Now all she felt was a hollowness in her chest, and oh how the nothingness ached.

And it would be this way for the rest of her life.

Bitterness surged in the back of her throat. She kept her face neutral as she walked the darkened corridors. Why? There was no one to see her, besides the two Black Shields that followed her like shadows. They never commented on her habit of wandering at night. She wondered if they reported her restlessness to King Zachary; surely not, they were famed for their discretion, but if he asked them they would tell, she was certain of it. King Zachary. Estora tightened her jaw. It wasn’t fair, it really wasn’t. If she’d not met F’ryan, if she hadn’t known any different… Zachary was good, and kind, and under other circumstances she would have been growing fond of him. But every gesture he made just bound her tighter into this hollow future. Every compliment, every attempt to include her. Every smile. One tiny piece at a time they fixed her life in place. Zachary was a good man. He deserved better than this, didn’t he? Deserved a truth of affection that Estora was slowly despairing of ever being able to summon.

She reached the end of a corridor – a dead-end, with only doors to offices and chambers. How appropriate. She turned on her heels and strode back the way she had come, the Black Shields wordless in her wake.

But there was nothing she could do to stop it now. Had there ever been anything? No, there was no way out. She bit back something that might have been a dry sob before it could show. No way out of marrying the King of Sacoridia. No way out of the most desired position in the country. How ungrateful, how selfish, how childish was she that… but not even imagining her mother’s rebuke made the feelings stop. No way out. Well, one. Estora shivered slightly and drew her shawl more tightly about her shoulders. Lady Yvette… but no. She could not; did not wish to. To refuse a marriage was one thing, but to end her own life was beyond her.

Refuse the marriage? Estora stopped in her tracks, lost in her thoughts. The idea had risen in her mind simply as a contrast to Lady Yvette’s choice, not as a feasible alternative. Could she refuse it? The marriage contract was signed, but it was between her father and King Zachary. They could choose not to release her from it, and force the issue, but there would be an uproar – contract or no contract, marriage was supposed to be a free agreement. And Zachary would not force her, would he?

The castle was silent around her as she considered him. No. No, he would not. He would release her from the contract. And her father?

Estora felt as though snow was settling along her spine. Her father would be furious. He would cast her out. Hate her forever. Disown her, so she would never see him or her mother or her sisters again… and then what would she do? She could not work in any meaningful way, or earn her own living. And no noble would take her in, for fear of her father’s enmity. It would be like a death sentence.

But his words came back to her, over and over; ‘…that I will always put you first’. Would he? Would he understand her decision, would he respect it? His marriage to her mother had been a formal one, and they were perfectly happy. Was she, Estora, simply failing to live to the standard expected of her? A standard that all others easily reached?

Not Lady Yvette, she thought. She remembered the anger she had felt, hearing about her death. How petty and stupid and terrible, to die for not behaving exactly as everyone around you did – not even that! To die for not concealing your behaviour as well as they had. To die because the world could not make room for you, make allowances for you. To end your life at sixteen years old because tradition kept your heart in a box and made you smile about it…

Her sister Eveny was only sixteen.

She could feel the anger rise in her again, until it felt as though she was made of the same cold stone as the castle walls. Something inside her gripped her heart.

Tradition had killed Lady Yvette. Tradition, and formality, and silence. It could not – should not – be allowed to happen again.

Resolute in her decision despite the trembling in her skin, she walked on through the corridors.

Chapter Text

Captain Laren Mapstone shifted position as the meeting continued. King Zachary sat in an attentive posture, listening to Lord Adolind detail recent changes in his province due to the unseasonable warmth. It looked to be the last matter of an unusually – but blessedly – conflict-free meeting, and Laren was greatly looking forward to heading back to her quarters after the short post-meeting council. Lord Adolind finished his point, and Zachary leaned back in his chair.

‘Thank you, my lord,’ he said. ‘I appreciate your thoroughness on this matter. Do let me know if there are any further developments. And now, may I ask if anyone has any final matters to raise?’

He waited. Silence from the table. Laren heaved an internal sigh of relief, and Zachary opened his mouth to close the meeting, but suddenly –

‘My lord, I have a matter I wish to raise.’

Lady Estora spoke calmly, but there was an edge to her voice that made Laren frown. When she placed her hand on the table, there was a faint tremble in it.

From his profile, Zachary seemed surprised, but he kept his bearing.

‘Of course, my lady – speak as you will.’

‘Thank you, sire.’ To Laren’s surprise, Estora rose gracefully from her seat to address the room.

‘By now I imagine that many of you have heard of the occurrence in Bairdly Province – I hope my Lord Bairdly will not mind my speaking on it. I refer of course to the death of Lady Yvette.’

The mood of the room became immediately solemn, and one or two of the lords nodded in agreement. Lady Estora went on.

‘A true tragedy, the loss of someone so young – the loss of so much potential and so much joy. And all because of tradition.’

At this, Lord Coutre’s expression became oddly fixed. He did not speak, but nor did he take his eyes off his daughter. Lady Estora took a breath, and continued.

‘Tradition is a fine thing, and one that I have a great deal of respect for. But I do not believe that we should hold to it at the expense of lives, or indeed of happiness. We have but one brief time upon this earth, and to be forced to waste it in sadness and misery, however well-born, is a disgrace. For us to use it to enforce unnecessary restrictions upon each successive generation regardless of its true and practical benefits and disadvantages, is a disgrace.’

Lady Estora set her shoulders firmly and looked around the room. The assembled nobility were quiet and attentive, but Laren spotted a few tense expressions and several glances at Zachary. The king kept his face neutral, but focused on Estora.

‘This matter – the matter of not just Lady Yvette, but of person after person who must be forced into loneliness, or hidden away, or fear social exclusion or even abandonment simply for being honest and true – has long rested heavy on my heart, for I am intimately entangled with it.’ She licked her lips as though her mouth had gone dry. Laren felt fear rise in her chest; Zachary had gone absolutely still, his eyes fixed on Lady Estora.

‘Several years ago, I fell in love with a Green Rider, a man called F’ryan Coblebay,’ she said quietly. ‘We became intimately close, in secret. To my great sorrow, he died in the course of his duties some three years ago. I grieved without ever being able to reveal it. My lord King Zachary is aware of this, and has chosen not to hold it against me. I have nothing but gratitude for this.’ She nodded to him, and he gave her a grave nod of acknowledgement in return, his face solemn. Laren wondered if he, too, didn’t dare interrupt Lady Estora. The words seemed to flow from her, steady but unstoppable, as though she had held all of this within her for so long that it had nowhere to go but out. Lord Coutre’s fists were clenched, his knuckles white.

‘I have been fortunate. But others are not. For a long time I counted myself lucky – and still do – to be attached to a man who was willing to understand, to not hold this information over me. But the more I have considered it the more I have realised that by remaining as I am, I am only perpetuating the terrible force of tradition. My father selected a match for me, and I am honoured by it. But it is not what I desire, and I believe that my wishes in this matter – and by extension the wishes of all those in the process of betrothal or courtship – should be respected. I cannot stand for those such as Lady Yvette, I cannot stand against the placing of traditional values over real persons, and yet allow my own will to be subsumed under political intent.’

There was a very fine tremor in her voice now, but she lifted her chin and spoke on.

‘King Zachary, Your Excellency,’ she said, turning to him. ‘I would like to thank you for the great honour you have done me, and the immense grace and generosity that you have shown. However, if I am to remain true to my morals and my beliefs, I cannot marry you.’

The air in the room felt like ice to Laren, and even as she could hear the truth ringing in every word that Estora spoke she could also sense the rising uncertainty in the room. They were at a point of imbalance; what was done and said next in this room would affect everything.

Zachary met Lady Estora’s eyes.

‘I understand, and I accept this,’ he said softly. ‘Thank you for your honesty.’

Lord Coutre could remain quiet no longer; rising from his seat, his voice was shaking with anger and what might have been a hint of fear.

‘My lord, my daughter –’

‘Has just demonstrated a level of personal courage that I do not believe I could match, Lord Coutre. I have nothing but respect for her decision.’ Zachary’s voice was level and steady, but the undercurrent of emotion in it took Laren by surprise – and it seemed to check Lord Coutre, too. The older man looked furious, but said nothing, his eyes moving from Zachary to Estora and back again. Zachary took his pause for acquiescence and spoke to the room as a whole.

‘My lords, ladies, and counsellors, thank you for your attendance. I will see you all at dinner later this evening. If you’ll excuse me, I have matters I must attend to. Lady Estora – thank you, again.’ He gave her what might have been almost a bow as he stood, and swept out of the room while the others were still getting to their feet. Laren knew she was expecting to follow the king, but she took her time by gathering up some of his papers with Sperren and watched Lady Estora and Lord Coutre as discreetly as possible. They said nothing to each other, but when Lord Coutre strode out of the room without a word Lady Estora lifted her chin and followed him, her bearing regal. The Weapons who had been standing on either side of her paused and glanced at each other, obviously conferring briefly, but did not follow. Instead they turned and went after the king. Laren followed them, Colin close behind her.

~

Estora felt light-headed as she walked out into the corridor, and light-hearted despite the dread looming over her at her father’s reaction. No Weapons behind her. No marriage ahead of her. No life of lies and political performance and inner loneliness. No soul-wrenching inescapable destiny that she could not avoid. She had no idea what was going to happen next, and it made her giddy with relief. And maybe, just maybe, the example she had set today would protect one or two others in the future. Then she would know she had done the right thing, and not just the right thing for herself.

Her father was ahead of her. And that storm… well, she had made her decision. He had said he would put her first? Well, perhaps he would, perhaps he wouldn’t. But she would walk into that conversation with her head held high, and no matter what he did she would not apologise.

With that thought she reached the door of their chambers, and stepped inside.

~

When Zachary reached his private study, he knew he had only a few minutes with which to compose himself before the counsellors caught up with him. He couldn’t stop Estora’s words ringing in his ears.

and yet allow my own will to be subsumed…

‘Damn, damn, damn.’ He kept his voice low, but knew his breathing was heavy and there were tears pricking at his eyelids. No, not now. No. He drew in a steadying breath. Now was not the time for an over-emotional response; there would be enough of that from Clan Coutre. Now was the time to be calm, and respectful, and to attempt to anchor the event in dignity in order to protect Lady Estora and prevent too much political upheaval. But even as he recognised that he had to damp down the anger rising in his chest. She was right, damn it. What was the sense in holding onto form that only damaged, that only hurt? Hadn’t their contract been coercive from the start? He resolved that, although he may have to retain a stately manner on the subject rather that allow his emotions to dictate his response, he would ensure that Lady Estora was protected as much as he could. Would Lord Coutre be foolish enough to cast her out?

Almost absent-mindedly, Zachary took off his silver fillet and turned it about in his hands, running through the possibilities. His cousin would stand with him, for certain. And he felt that some of the other Western provinces could be brought in line on the subject – D’Yer, certainly, probably Penburn – Adolind? L’Petrie? He shook his head. Too many variables to know for certain. Plans would have to be drawn up for all possibilities. Inevitably his thoughts ran to the chambers the Coutre family were currently occupying. They’d be all alone in there now. Would Lord Coutre shout, condemn, vilify? Would he be silent? Would there be tears and reconciliation, or fury and rejection? Would he be asked to step in?

He heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor and gathered himself. Well-practiced, he replaced the fillet on his head, and adjusted his expression to something less brooding.

‘Councillor Dovekey, Castellan Sperren, and Captain Mapstone, sire.’

‘Show them in.’

Zachary did not turn to face them when they entered but continued to gaze out of the window, less than confident of his ability to retain his neutral expression. After a few moments’ struggle with himself, he walked over to his desk and sat down, gesturing to them to do so also.

‘An unexpected development,’ Colin ventured, after a minute or so of silence. Zachary did not answer, but leaned back in his chair.

‘There will, of course, be political consequences,’ said Sperren slowly. Captain Mapstone nodded.

‘Which ones, though?’ she asked. ‘It all depends on Lord Coutre’s reaction, first and foremost.’

‘He may well cast her out,’ Colin said, disapproval etched onto his face and sorrow in his voice. ‘The Eastern lords are rather conservative, and Arey and Bairdly will likely expect it of him.’

‘If so, she’ll have nowhere to go,’ Captain Mapstone replied. ‘None of the lesser nobility will take her in, and it would be incredibly dangerous for her to try crossing the Wingsong Mountains alone. Even if she did, there’s no guarantee that any of the other Province-Lords would support her, for fear of Coutre’s reaction.’

‘Leonar would take her in, if I asked,’ Zachary said quietly.

Colin sighed.

‘That is undoubtedly true, sire, and certainly preferable to you protecting her here. But the danger is – she has chosen to step away from you, and if she is unable to maintain that…’

‘You might safeguard the Lady’s wellbeing at the expense of her reputation, and your position with the other Lord-Governors.’ Captain Mapstone finished Colin’s point for him.

Zachary clenched his jaw. He knew that.

‘I can hardly do anything else,’ he said through gritted teeth, leaning forward. ‘If Coutre casts her out, can I leave her to struggle on her own? No. Not as a person with any kind of moral grounding.’

The room was silent at that. None of them could disagree with him, though he knew that Colin, at least, was a little more ruthless and undoubtedly felt that the king’s standing with his Province-Lords was worth abandoning one lady for. Zachary leant back in his chair again, still seething. He found most of his anger was for Lord Coutre. Did the old man care nothing for his daughter’s wishes? Zachary tried to imagine giving away his own daughter’s hand in marriage to someone she hardly knew, and his stomach roiled. It was normal, it was traditional, he had been reasonably content to go along with it not half an hour ago – so why was it suddenly so difficult to contemplate?

Because Lady Estora is right, he thought. Just because we’ve all adjusted to it doesn’t mean it’s right, just because it’s traditional doesn’t mean it’s good.

And besides, had he really been content? Had he not considered his marriage to Lady Estora something to bear, to adjust to, a challenge to overcome? Was that really the best way to spend a life?

He shook his head slightly, almost to himself. It was a mess. Now wasn’t the time to argue about who started it or why it happened; now they had to think ahead, and plan.

~

Lady Coutre looked up when Estora entered, her face difficult to read.

‘He’s in his study,’ she said abruptly, and then turned around to chivvy out Brinna and Eveny, who were peering out of their rooms.

‘Estora, what did you do?’ Brinna asked in astonishment; but she must have spoken too loudly for the door to their father’s study opened again. Lord Coutre stood in the doorway, his face like thunder.

‘How dare you,’ he began. ‘How dare you! After everything I have worked to do for you, you ungrateful, treasonous little witch!

‘Aven,’ Estora’s mother murmured, but her rebuke went unheeded.

‘Consorting with a commoner when we sent you to Sacor City to be considered by the king! And even then – even then! You risked everything to tell him of your – your – your disgrace and then you humiliate me in front of the court. You could do no less, I suppose? You have made a mockery of me, and you have betrayed the values of your clan!’

‘Brinna, Eveny, to your rooms, now,’ snapped Lady Coutre, and Estora’s two younger sisters disappeared back into their own rooms, wide-eyed and silent.

Estora knew that she was trembling, but she stood still in the face of her father’s rage. When he said nothing more, she licked her lips and began,

‘Father, I –’

‘Father? You call me father, after this? After destroying everything we have tried to give you and rejecting everything we stand for, you walk in here and call me father?’

Estora felt some of her former anger come back, and took it for strength.

‘Does Clan Coutre not stand for honesty, father?’ she said, ignoring her mother’s silencing expression. ‘For integrity? For the importance of remaining true to one’s values? Or is that rendered empty as soon as my values do not match yours?’

‘You speak of honesty and integrity! You, who gave yourself away like some common slattern and then practically accused me of cruelty in front of the court, simply for wanting to raise your position and keep you safe!’ He shook his head in disgust. ‘You don’t understand what honesty or integrity are, you know nothing of –’

‘I know myself,’ Estora returned, her voice raised and tears welling up in her eyes despite her efforts to deny them. ‘I know what I believe. I know the truth of love when I feel it, and I could not bear to live a life so hollow without it. For me to have gone through with this contract despite my feelings would have been a betrayal of myself, and the worst kind of lie to a man who has shown me nothing but kindness and respect.’

But her father was shaking his head again, not even looking at her.

‘Go to your room,’ he said, his voice low and flat. ‘Get out of my sight, and stay there. Now.’

She paused, the pain searing her chest at the way her mother also looked away from her; and then she gathered her dignity and walked out at a sedate pace, retreating to her room. She sat on the edge of her bed for a few minutes, wondering if one of them would come in to speak to her, or rebuke her again; but when no one came, she curled up on her side on the bed and began to cry. 

Chapter Text

‘Good morning, Lord Coutre.’ Zachary kept his tone neutral. Lord Coutre seemed composed this morning, his fury of the previous day either abated or well-concealed.

‘Thank you for seeing me, sire,’ he said. ‘I wish to offer my apologies for the events of yesterday and the manner in which they were conducted. It seems I must, whatever my personal opinions,’ at this Zachary saw his jaw clench briefly, ‘ask for a formal reneging of the contract of marriage.’

He gave a curt nod to his aide, who with Zachary’s permissive gesture placed it on the desk. Zachary nodded.

‘Very well, my lord,’ Zachary said quietly. Formally, and determinedly ignoring the air of awkwardness, they went through the document and signed for its mutual revoking. When they were finished, Lord Coutre was the first to speak.

‘Thank you, sire. And now with your permission, I and my household will be returning to Coutre Province. There is no reason for us to remain here, and there will be many things in my province that should be given my attention.’

Zachary nodded slowly, unsurprised. For the Coutre Clan to remain in Sacor City would only prolong any potential embarrassment. Better for the nobility as a whole to disperse back to their home territories and start afresh.

‘Of course, Lord Coutre. I wish you all the best on your journey home, and hope that it is both safe and swift.’

‘My thanks, and my good wishes to you. If you will excuse me, I need to attend to our departure.’

Zachary nodded again and Lord Coutre left, his carriage upright and, despite his mostly neutral expression, something somewhat stricken in his eyes.

~

Alton sat with his back against the D’Yer wall, side by side with none other than Estral Andovian.

‘I wish you could stay longer,’ he confessed, leaning his head back and looking up at the sky.

‘So do I,’ she replied. ‘But a travelling minstrel is supposed to – well, travel.’ She slipped a hand into his, and he felt the warmth spread up his arm. He turned to her and gave her a soft smile.

‘You’ve made everything here… I feel like I can breathe properly again,’ he said quietly. 'There’s still so much work to be done, but it feels… manageable, somehow. Though it will be hard without your music. When… when will I see you again?’

Something like a shadow passed over her face, and she looked away from him. He frowned slightly.

‘Estral?’

She sighed, pushing the air out slowly, then turned back to him. Her expression was wary, but resolved.

‘Alton, you know that I love you,’ she said, and Alton felt as though the sun had come out. ‘But… I’m worried.’

‘What about?’ he asked, squeezing her hand gently. She carefully separated their hands and folded hers in her lap.

‘Alton, I’m... I’m not like you,’ she said carefully. ‘I love you very dearly, but I don’t – there’s nowhere for us to go.’

Alton frowned in confusion.

‘Your rank is close to mine, you’re the daughter of the Golden Guardian,’ he said. ‘My father would have no objection –’

‘But I would,’ she said, her eyes serious. ‘Alton, I love you, but I don’t – I don’t have any desire to be a nobleman’s lady, much less a Province-Lord’s wife. I don’t plan to marry at all.’ She sighed again as he watched her, frozen. ‘I should have brought this up before, when things were still small between us, but you were so alone and I just… I was a coward, I suppose. And I’ve hurt you, and I’m sorry.’ She seemed to re-gather her resolve. ‘I love you, and I love being with you, but I cannot commit to only you. I can’t promise marriage, nor can I promise I won’t fall in love elsewhere. I’m sorry, Alton.’

Alton felt as though he had lost his footing and was falling; almost, he expected the ground to come up beneath him and shatter him to pieces.

‘I will understand if you don’t want to see me again,’ she said, her voice very small.

Alton licked his dry lips, and swallowed. The truth was that he had known, hadn’t he? Estral was not one to be pinned down. Knowing his words now would matter more than anything, he forced himself to examine his feelings. He was hurt, yes – the future he had began to imagine had shattered, and it would take him time to heal. But his time with Estral had done him more good than he had realised; he felt much more stable than he had even a month ago, much more able to handle a little pain if necessary. Perhaps it did not have to be the end of the world.

‘And if I said,’ he said quietly, the words forming on his tongue only just after the thought, ‘that I was willing to accept you as you are? That I love you, as you are? And I will not ask you to change?’

She looked up at him, hope in her expression but also uncertainty. Alton, in contrast, felt steadily more sure of his decision. Gently, he put a hand on her arm.

‘Estral, I love you. I don’t want to lose you – I don’t know… I don’t know how to handle this,’ he confessed, a little sheepishly, but rallied, ‘but I know that I want you in my life, in whatever way you feel most comfortable. If we have to separate at some point, then we will – but please don’t leave because of my rank, or because you feel I won’t accept you.’

‘What if I fall in love with someone else?’ she asked, and he bit back a wince. He looked at her, considering the question seriously. How would he feel? Jealous, surely. Resentful. But… he thought about it again, imagined her in the arms of someone else, some handsome man… and how happy she would be. Wasn’t that the message behind Estora’s declaration? That happiness should come first, that it was one’s duty to oneself and to the people one loved? If she was happy, could not he be happy for her? Even if, he admitted to himself, it would take some work on his part.

‘Then I will accept it,’ he said firmly. ‘I will be sad to lose you, but I don’t wish us to end our companionship simply because of what might happen – it will happen when it happens, and not before.’

Estral raised her eyebrows a little.

‘And if I fell for someone without falling out of love with you?’

Alton stared at her. She gave him a wry smile, and a shrug.

‘I’ve never understood why everyone seems to love within so many boundaries,’ she explained quietly. ‘The whole world is there to love – different kinds of love, maybe, but love all the same. How can I confine that to just one person and say you, and you only?’

Alton took in a breath and let it out slowly, giving himself time to think. This was… what was this? Not something he had ever considered. Honesty, then.

‘I… I don’t know,’ he confessed. ‘I’d like to think… I would choose to handle my feelings on my own terms, but I don’t know exactly what those feelings would be. I’m willing to try, though.’

There was a pause, and then Estral leant over to him and kissed him, gently.

~

A month or so passed. Then another. The castle seemed abnormally quiet after all of the fuss of the wedding – or as Tegan kept referring to it as, the wedding-that-wasn’t. That was about the only joke Karigan had heard about the whole event, though; in general, everyone seemed quite solemn about it. There were whispers that Lady Estora was going to be disowned, though nothing of that nature had been heard about officially and Karigan suspected that Zachary would be paying careful attention. The gossip also varied in its description of Zachary, from a gratefully released man to a secretly devastated spurned lover; she even heard a few people speculating that perhaps King Zachary was in love with someone else, and that was why Lady Estora had really refused the match. These rumours didn’t get very far, for which Karigan was extremely grateful.

The weather began to brighten. Karigan received a letter from Estral about Alton, and felt as though her eyebrows were going to raise themselves right off the top of her forehead for a few minutes. But the more she thought about it, the more it made sense – and she was reluctantly impressed by Alton’s apparent acceptance of Estral’s more non-traditional preferences. She wrote back, congratulating her friend. And then she wrote to Alton. And then her father.

There were one or two incidents; King Zachary’s cousin Amberhill was found sprawled in the street one morning, having apparently drunken himself into a stupor and been robbed. When the thieves were caught – there had been plenty of witnesses in the inn – among the jewellery had been something that appeared to have magical origin. Captain Mapstone had been non-specific, but confirmed to Karigan and Mara that it had been taken to the tombs to be kept safe from misuse. Lord Amberhill vanished back to his country estates in embarrassment. Chief Mender Destarion also left, due to a family matter, and a new Chief Mender had been sent for from Selium.

Otherwise, life seemed to be settling back into its normal routine. King Zachary was rarely to be seen, constantly hidden away in study somewhere, stuck in what appeared to be endless meetings. Karigan felt sorry for him, but also, finally, that she might stand a chance of moving on. It was easier when she didn’t see him so often.

Of course, she thought later, she should have known that nothing stayed that simple in her life for long.

Chapter Text

‘To Lord Arey,’ Captain Mapstone said, handing her the message. ‘It’s not urgent, just an acknowledgment of some previous agreements. But don’t linger too long – I can’t face the accounts without you.’ Her voice was light, but her eyes slightly too intent to match them. Karigan gave her a half-smile in return.

‘Understood, Captain. I’ll have a word with Daro, if you like – we could do with one extra person to do them, at least when I’m not here.’

Captain Mapstone nodded gratefully.

‘Good. You’re to depart in the morning; I won’t see you before then, I’m up to my ears in meetings, so safe riding.’

Karigan thanked her, and the captain headed off down the corridor.

~

The journey was going steadily, and without much to report, until one afternoon when she was still west of the mountains. She was riding along the road, half keeping a watchful eye on her surroundings but half lost in thought, when someone called her name.

‘Karigan?’

Karigan frowned at the familiar voice, taking a moment to place it – but then she saw the figure who had hailed her, the familiar lines of her face –

‘Lady Estora!’

Karigan was stunned; she dismounted from Condor immediately and went over to her friend. Lady Estora was wearing fairly sensible boots and wrapped in what looked like a warm jacket, but she was still in her skirts and she looked soaked to the bone.

‘What are you doing out here? Where are you going?’

‘I thought Selium,’ Lady Estora said, and Karigan saw that she was shivering in the cold.

‘Selium?’ she asked, trying to make sense of the answer and the situation.

‘Well, I have no aptitude for manual labour but I do have an education; I thought perhaps I could try for some kind of teaching or administrative role.’

Her voice aimed for reasonableness, despite the bizarre nature of the circumstance; a sort of desperate reaching for practicality. Karigan registered the pack over her shoulder, and then the worn nature of her boots, and then the mud flecking her clothes.

‘Did you… come all the way from Coutre Province?’ she asked, hardly believing it.

Lady Estora sniffed, and nodded.

‘I paid my way on a trade convoy, and they got me through the mountains, but I ran out of money a few days ago,’ she said.

Karigan stared at her friend, feeling the weight of the message satchel on her hip. She should travel on to Arey – she was on king’s business, and not permitted to delay. But… if she were able to ask for advice in this moment, what would King Zachary say?

That made it very simple. Karigan nodded to herself.

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘I can escort you. Selium’s a long way, and you shouldn’t be travelling without supplies or a guard.’

Lady Estora’s expression made Karigan almost want to cry in sympathy. The gratitude and the guilt…

‘Karigan, that would – that would be –’ She struggled for words for a moment. ‘Thank you. I cannot thank you enough; but surely…’ she looked at the message satchel, concerned, ‘surely you must be on an errand? Please, I could not possibly cause you any trouble –’

Karigan cut her off with a gesture.

‘My message isn’t an urgent one,’ she said. ‘I can get you as far as Sacor City in under a week, and then I can explain myself to the king. He’ll understand, I know he would rather I protect you than put my message first and leave you travelling alone. And then I’m sure arrangements can be made to get you to Selium – if I can, I’ll ask to take you myself.’

~

They took it in turns to ride Condor, Karigan insisting that Lady Estora go first, until they reached the nearest town. There, Karigan used her tokens to buy a horse – not strictly in her remit, but if she had to she could back it with her own credit. From there they travelled faster. Estora was quiet as they rode, and Karigan didn’t press her for information. She came to enjoy the silence between them; after a day or so it no longer felt formal or awkward, but like trust. They both knew that the other one would speak if necessary, but until then they were content to be quiet.

However, when they reached the marker in the road that indicated they were only a mile from Sacor City, they ran into something of a disagreement.

‘It makes sense to go through Sacor City. I should explain why I’m not delivering my message directly, and I’m sure King Zachary will be able to take you in –’

‘Forgive me, Rider Sir G’ladheon, but he will not. Or, rather, he will, but it will do him serious political damage. I am too grateful to him to cause that.’ Lady Estora’s stance was proud, her jaw set. ‘I have separated from my father. I will not go to my former betrothed for charity. If you need to ride into the city, then I will wait here for your return, or go on alone to Selium.’

Karigan stared at her, torn between exasperation and respect. She really should go and report to the king, at least to give her message for Lord Arey to another Rider; but she looked at the set of Estora’s jaw and knew that if she departed the lady would not wait for her.

‘Then we ride on,’ she said, conceding. ‘But if I find someone I’ll send them back to the king with a message; my delay will be noticed and I shouldn’t give them cause to worry.’

Lady Estora nodded. Karigan, thinking longingly of her own bed in the barracks, remounted Condor and led them along that route that would allow them to bypass the city.

~

Zachary frowned again at the brief message in Karigan’s handwriting.

Encountered Lady Estora travelling alone and in need of aid. Agreed to accompany her to Selium for her safety. In doing so, delayed message to Lord Arey; will return immediately upon reaching Selium to complete errand, and then return to Sacor City to report fully and face any appropriate consequences.

K.G.

It had been given to Captain Mapstone by a merchant trader who had apparently encountered Karigan on the road, and she had handed it to him. He had read it over several times, trying to organise his thoughts as his councillors discussed the matter.

Had Lord Coutre cast his daughter out? Karigan was not specific. Zachary needed to know; if his Rider had provided support to someone shunned by the Eastern Lords, he needed to be very careful. Not that Karigan had done the wrong thing – far from it. He wondered if they had managed to obtain a second horse. He wondered how far along the road they were. He wondered, very quietly in the back of his mind, if they discussed the broken engagement. Karigan had been avoiding him even more pointedly than usual since that had happened; after some thought, he had begun to suspect she thought he had told Estora about his feelings for Karigan. But perhaps he was over-thinking it. Following any thread of thought about Karigan seemed to land him in knots. Not because she was a particularly tricky or mysterious person – but because so much of what was between them could never be discussed or acknowledged.

He sighed. And then he almost stopped breathing as it occurred to him.

Why couldn’t it be acknowledged?

It was a dangerous thought, a very dangerous thought. But Zachary couldn’t help but follow it. More and more nobility had been discussing Lady Estora’s impassioned speech as the weeks went by. It seemed to have staying power. To declare that the world need not and indeed should not work the way it did was a powerful thing. But what if it were vindicated? What if some commoner-noble marriages did take place? What if, what if, what if

But it was ridiculous, of course. The risk to Karigan, even if she did say yes which was in no way guaranteed, was tremendous. And how could she say yes or no? How could he ask her such a question from the position they were both in? She was sworn to him already, as a Green Rider; the balance was hopelessly tipped in his favour. It was unjust and unreasonable to ask anything like that of her.

Hypothetically, though, how would one level the playing field? Surely there was some logical method, even if it was impractical or complex. It would have to involve a willing surrender on his part, of at least some aspect of power… perhaps some kind of vow, kept in written form by a neutral party, to ensure Karigan’s safety should she withdraw…

But even if that all worked out. Even if it did. What about Karigan’s safety as his fiancée? As his queen? Lady Estora had not been safe. And she had the might of the Eastern Lords behind her. The Eastern Lords might well be against Karigan.

Zachary shook his head slightly, trying to clear it. To even consider this was madness. But he found he couldn’t quite rid himself of the idea. What if…

‘My lord?’

He almost visibly started as Colin’s voice jerked him back to the present moment.

‘I’m sorry, Colin,’ he said apologetically. ‘I’m afraid I lost my focus. What were you saying?’

Colin began to re-explain his point. Zachary paid attention this time. But still, ticking under his thoughts… perhaps he should seek a conversation with Karigan. Just to clarify where they stood. He would emphasise of course that she was welcome to refuse it, and if she did he would respect that entirely. That was the key. To have one, clean, clear conversation, and resolve things there. Rather than this constant wondering and repression. If she turned him down immediately he’d know there really was no chance.

~

They reached Selium at around the time classes ended for the day. Karigan led Estora through the streets to the Fiori household, had their horses settled in and then asked Biersly if Estral was available.

‘She has just returned, Rider Sir G’ladheon,’ said Biersly. ‘I will fetch her. Please be –’

‘Karigan?’

Karigan and Estora turned to see Estral coming down the staircase.

‘It’s good to see you, I wasn’t expecting you but – it’s wonderful!’ she said, beaming. She looked from Karigan to Lady Estora expectantly. Karigan stepped in.

‘Lady Estora, may I introduce Estral Andovian, daughter of the Golden Guardian,’ she said formally. ‘Estral, Lady Estora.’

Biersly looked mildly affronted and Karigan belatedly realised that she was probably supposed to have referred to Estral as a Lady as well, but Estral just smiled.

‘Welcome, then, to both of you. Will you be staying here?’

‘If you don’t mind,’ Karigan said.

‘Not at all.’

After a little bit of fuss about the weather and the journey, they made their way into the library; on the way, Karigan fell back, explaining the situation to Estral in an undertone as Estora had the general orientation of the house described to her politely by Biersly. Estral nodded a lot but didn’t say much; when they reached the library doors, however, she excused herself.

‘If you two are all right to just settle yourself in the library, I just need to make one or two arrangements before I rejoin you. I’ll just be a few minutes.’ She nodded at Karigan in reassurance. ‘Biersly, some drinks for us all, I think.’

~

The library was quiet and warm. Estora smiled when Estral came back in, Biersly behind her bearing a tray of hot drinks.

‘No Kauv, I’m afraid, just tea,’ Estral said cheerfully as she sat down. ‘But good tea.’

‘My lady?’

‘Yes, please. Thank you, Biersly.’

Estora took the cup gratefully and sipped the tea, feeling the warmth inside her and almost closing her eyes in satisfaction. After all the cold and the travels and the exhaustion, to be warm and dry and know that tomorrow she would also be warm and dry, and not have to walk any real distance…

Karigan and Estral were watching her; she straightened slightly in her chair and set down her cup, unsure of what to say. After a glance at Karigan, Estral leant forward to speak.

‘My lady, Karigan has told me about your circumstances. I want to reassure you that you are welcome to remain here for as long as you may need to.’

Estora felt tears well up in the corners of her eyes, and blinked them back.

‘Thank you,’ she said quietly. ‘That is incredibly kind of you. But I really don’t want to cause you or your father any kind of inconvenience, monetarily or politically or –’

Estral shook her head and waved Estora to silence.

‘No, no. You’re in the Fiori household now. I know my father, and I know he’d be happy to take you in. Besides, I’d love the company! As long as you don’t mind me being out teaching for a lot of the day, of course.’

Estora smiled as she shook her head, still on the brink of tears, overwhelmed with emotion. She gathered herself.

‘I was actually hoping to make some use of myself,’ she said nervously. ‘I’ve no real experience of working, but I do have an education – perhaps there is some way that I could develop a useful skill?’

Estral smiled, and sipped her tea thoughtfully.

‘Mm, I’m sure there’s something we can find for you. But not until the morning – you’ve travelled a long way, and you need the rest! Karigan, I assume you’re staying tonight?’

Karigan nodded.

‘I’ve got start my return tomorrow, though,’ she said reluctantly. ‘It’s a long way back to Sacor City, and I still have a message to deliver to Arey Province.’

Estora felt the guilt well up inside her. If Karigan got in trouble because of her… surely King Zachary would understand. But even so, her friend had done an awful lot for her, and had much journeying ahead.

‘Karigan,’ she said haltingly, ‘I really am very grateful for all you’ve done. I –’

But Karigan was already shaking her head with a smile, albeit a tired one.

‘We’re friends,’ she said. ‘I was just doing what any decent person would do. Don’t worry about it.’

The rest of the evening they spent in conversation, and Estora felt, despite her exhaustion and her worry, that she had not been more at home in months.

Chapter Text

When she passed nearby Sacor City again, Karigan struggled with the temptation to ride in. She had a message to deliver, and she was passing Sacor City at midday – there would be another place to stop, further east, by nightfall. Going into the city would lose valuable time, and she was already lagging well behind. She ignored the voice in her head that pointed out this also meant she could avoid being in any kind of trouble for a few weeks longer.

Guilt buzzing in her mind, she forced herself to ride on.

~

Estora was adjusting well to life in Selium. In fact, she felt more relaxed and comfortable than she had for a long time. She did miss her family – immensely – but she was determined to be sensible and practical and focus on what she was doing.

She had had three listless days initially, unsure of what to do with herself while Estral was busy working; and then one evening Estral had sat her down.

‘So,’ she had said. ‘You wanted to do something – teach, or work?’

Surprised by Estral’s abruptness, Estora had simply nodded. This was unknown territory for her. Noblewomen didn’t work.

Estral had proceeded to coax out of Estora all of her education and her skills, and then to make a list of the possible options. Estora had been both delighted and flattered by her focus and attention to the task.

After some discussion, they had concluded that Estora would help Estral with some of her workload and act as an assistant for the time being; and while she was doing that, Estral would look for opportunities for Estora to take a position of her own. Perhaps a teacher of history for the older students, or of manner lessons – they were becoming increasingly popular with a certain brand of merchant who felt his or her child should be able to stand up to scrutiny in any kind of company.

Estora had been nervous that she would not be able to keep up with Estral’s work, but between the two of them they soon worked out a system. It was companionable, sat side-by-side at Estral’s desk, passing work between each other, their arms brushing as Estral explained things to Estora and Estora listened, watching the way Estral expressed herself with her hands, the way whatever mood she was in took over the whole of her expression, the way she had one piece of hair that always slipped out from where it was pinned back and brushed against her cheek.

After a few weeks they were so wrapped up in each other that Estora would later suppose she should have seen it coming. But she didn’t.

~

Karigan reached Arey Province in a kind of exhausted satisfaction. Finally, she’d actually get her message delivered. She hoped Captain Mapstone had been right in saying it wasn’t particularly urgent.

Leaving Condor in the stables to be fussed over, she made her way up into the Lord-Governor’s keep; it was quite an artful building, surprisingly so for something built for defence. She wondered vaguely if the D’Yer family had had anything to do with that, and made a mental note to ask Alton when she saw him next.

In the main entrance-way, she asked a guard to direct her to Lord Arey. Her green uniform got her not just polite directions, but an escort – perhaps he could see how tired she was.

When they reached what she assumed was some kind of council chamber, the guard rapped on the door and waited.

‘Come!’

The guard stepped smartly forward and opened the door for Karigan, who passed through with a murmur of thanks.

She stopped in front of Lord Arey and bowed, before taking the message from its bag and handing it to him.

‘To Lord Arey, from King Zachary. Unfortunately my delivery of it has been delayed, for which I apolo…’

Karigan’s voice faded out as she realised who was next to Lord Arey.

With an almost grey face and devastated expression, Lord Coutre sat beside Lord Arey. They had evidently been in the middle of some discussion – a map lay upon the table in front of them, with certain sections marked.

Estora, she thought numbly. He’s looking for Estora. Nothing told her that, other than his expression – she’d seen a shadow of it on her father’s face when they’d been reunited after her first, and very unofficial, message errand.

She swallowed and realised they were both staring at her.

‘For which I apologise,’ she repeated, and cleared her throat. ‘With your permission, Lord Arey, I will return to Sacor City tomorrow; is there anything you will wish delivered back to King Zachary at that time?’

Strictly speaking she didn’t have to offer this, but most riders did. And asking the question gave her a chance to think furiously. Estora had been very quiet about the events in Coutre Province. Karigan had, eventually, wriggled out of her that she had left of her own accord and had not been thrown out. She also knew that Estora missed them very much.

‘I’ll have anything for you to take back sent to you before midday tomorrow, Rider,” Lord Arey replied, still looking curiously at her. She forced herself not to stare at Lord Coutre, but Lord Arey glanced over at him consideringly before turning back to her.

‘That is all that I have to add, I believe,’ he said. ‘Lord Coutre?’

Karigan allowed herself to look at him and saw how drawn he was, how sad.

‘Rider Sir G’ladheon,’ he said, and she bowed again. ‘I will ask you to carry back an urgent message to King Zachary, but also to speak to your fellow Riders and, if you would oblige me, ask in the villages you pass through. My daughter is…’ he caught himself, and seemed to need a moment to contain his emotions, ‘…my daughter is missing. Estora is nowhere to be found. I know this is not, truly, within your remit but if you hear anything…’

His words faded as he stared into her eyes, examining her expression. Old he might be, but he was as perceptive as any politician, and he read the lack of surprise on her face as well as the uncertainty. He leant forward suddenly in his chair, his eyes fixed on hers.

‘You’ve seen her? Where, when? Is she safe?’

Karigan fumbled for an answer, thrown by Lord Coutre’s obvious desperation as much as his sudden leap of logic.

‘I encountered her on the road to Sacor City, several weeks ago, my lord,’ she said hesitantly. ‘She was travelling alone, so knowing that King Zachary would understand I suspended my message errand to escort her to her destination. She’s safe and settled in Selium with a friend of mine, last I saw her.’

Lord Coutre stood, waving away the aide at his side.

‘You are returning immediately, westwards?’ he asked.

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Very well. I will accompany you, and go to her myself.’

Karigan felt her own mouth drop open, but she closed it again quickly.

‘My lord,’ Lord Arey interjected, ‘it is a hard journey across the mountains. If your daughter is safe, there is no harm in taking a slower route. Allow me to provide you with a guard and some comforts –’

But Lord Coutre was already shaking his head.

‘No, no. We’ll be faster just the two of us. Less fuss. Dawn tomorrow. And I won’t delay any longer, safe be damned – I won’t let her wait around a moment longer than necessary, thinking that I…’ He caught himself, and spoke nothing, but Karigan felt as though the words ‘…hate her’ were echoing against the stone walls.

‘Lord Arey, I would appreciate it if you would arrange to send a message back to Coutre Province immediately. And if you could supply us –’

‘Of course. Of course.’ Lord Arey was still frowning, but he turned to Karigan.

‘Rider, you will be shown to your quarters for the night,’ he said, gesturing for a servant. ‘I will have messages for you to take back –’ he glanced briefly at Lord Coutre ‘– by dawn tomorrow. Thank you.’

Recognising the dismissal, Karigan bowed and exited, following the indicated servant out into the hall. She found she couldn’t shake Lord Coutre’s expression from her mind.

~

Lord Coutre was ready and waiting for her at dawn. He was dressed well, but not excessively so, in sensible clothes for travelling that did not draw attention to his rank or station. His expression was still drawn, but also grimly determined. They both mounted without a word to the other, and Karigan found herself leading the way out of the keep and towards the road.

They travelled in silence.

When night fell and they were approaching a village, Karigan slowed so that their horses were level.

‘My lord, will you be recognised at the inn?’ she asked carefully. ‘I have no doubt that the villagers will be honoured by your presence, but I am concerned that allowing it to become public knowledge that you are travelling almost alone and without a guard will attract more danger to us than I may be able to handle.’

Lord Coutre nodded slowly to himself.

‘A good point. Yes, it’s possible – likely, even – that I’ll be recognised. What would be your suggestion?’ His tone was formal, but oddly empty. Karigan supposed he was dwelling on the Lady Estora.

‘It’s a cool night, my lord,’ she said. ‘If you raise your hood, and are willing to wait with the horses while I step inside and request a room, we should be able to enter without attracting much attention. I’ll ask for food to be brought to the room, rather than the common area. And we can leave just before dawn.’

‘Very well, then.’

The days began to blur into one another, passing largely in silence and without incident. Lord Coutre often kept his hood raised, and in his practical if well-made travelling clothes he passed easily as a travelling merchant or similar person, Karigan thought.

When they passed into the arms of the mountains and spent their first night outside an inn, Karigan was surprised by the old lord’s uncomplaining nature. He had packed two stout blankets and plenty of sufficient supplies, and took care of his horse before himself. She wondered if he had had some role in the guard as a boy, but didn’t quite have the nerve to ask. It would have explained his discipline, though.

The mountain route was fairly familiar to Karigan, though it wasn’t one she had taken often as a Green Rider. They often passed trade convoys, one of which she recognised as her father’s – usually she would have paused to greet them, but given her company she elected to keep her hood up and pass them in silence.

~

It was a rainy afternoon – one of Estral’s days off. They had spent most of the morning in the library, and found themselves still there after lunch, reading and talking. Estora had never been able to talk quite so easily with anyone as she could with Estral. Except, perhaps, F’ryan. That thought might have given her pause, had she not been so focused on ostensibly reading a history of Selium while really watching Estral’s fingers play absently with the slip of paper she’d been using as a bookmark.

‘I’ve never been happier than when I’ve been here,’ she said softly, surprising even herself. Estral looked up from her book, and met her gaze. There was something unexpectedly intense in her expression and Estora broke eye contact, looking down. She heard Estral move closer and felt her place a hand on the back of Estora’s.

Estora looked up. Estral really was very close… the expression on her face became almost solemn, considering. Then Estral leant in a few inches further and kissed Estora softly on the lips.

~

Alton ,

So good of you to write to me! I hope this message will not take to long to reach you. I wish I could be there in person, for something we discussed might happen has come to pass. You know I have never been singular in my affections; and I want you to know that I still consider you to have my heart. But my heart must have a double, for another has it too. I think she feels the same, but I am not certain it will last; it is difficult for us, as we have known each other but briefly and I do not think she has ever considered someone like me to be a possibility before. Perhaps I am mooning over nothing. But the two of you have me all at sixes and sevens - when I am not thinking of her, I think of you. When I am not thinking of you, I think of her. I hope you are not too terribly lonely at the wall – I hope father is able to visit and give you aid with your work. I miss you greatly. I have some hope of travelling again in several months time, and may well come by the wall to see you if I can. I hope – how many times have I said that in this letter? So far apart, I can do nothing but hope – that you are not too heart-sore, and even that you have found a new bright companion, though knowing your solitary nature it seems unlikely. Know that I love you still, and truly, and that I will understand if you now are grateful for the distance between us. Please write back to me; if you cannot, I hope to see you come my next venture.

Yours, always,

Estral

Chapter Text

By the time they approached Selium, Karigan felt like she’d give almost anything to stop being on horseback. It wasn’t that she’d never travelled this far before – far from it – it was just that the presence of Lord Coutre felt as heavy as a stone, and the repetition of a journey with hardly a rest was playing tricks on her mind. She kept waking up expecting to be at a different point in the road.

The journey was tiring Lord Coutre, too, but he didn’t discuss it. He remained silent and grim-faced as the entered Selium and she led the way towards the Fiori household.

Karigan still wasn’t sure what she should do next. She had been bouncing between possibilities as they travelled, and she hadn’t settled on anything. Should she install them in an inn and then go and ask Estora if she wanted to see her father? Should she ride right up to the Fiori house, and if so should she leave Lord Coutre outside? Would Estora even be in when they arrived?

Karigan glanced up at the sky. It was evening, surely she would be in. Well, she would knock, and then things would just have to happen as they happened.

Biersly opened the door, looking somewhat surprised. Karigan knew there was form she should stick to but at this point she could not bring herself to care.

‘Biersly, is Estral here? And Lady Estora?’

Biersly looked from Karigan to the hooded Lord Coutre with a frown.

‘I shall see if the ladies are available,’ he said smoothly. ‘Please come in to the entrance hall.’

As they did so, Karigan glanced at Lord Coutre. What was he thinking, she wondered? Was he nervous? Angry? She didn’t have time to puzzle it out, however, before there were footsteps in the hall. Two sets of footsteps. And then –

‘Father?’

‘Estora?’

There was a frozen moment between them – Estora had paled in shock, and Estral behind her was looking worried. But Lord Coutre broke the moment.

‘Estora, I am so sorry,’ he said. ‘I have been so worried, I thought I had lost you – I will understand if you cannot forgive me, but I am truly, truly sorry –’

Estora seemed to have a moment of pure shock; and then she ran forwards into her father’s embrace.

‘Father, I…’

‘Estora I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Estora, my child, my Estora –’

Karigan caught Estral’s eye, and the two of them slipped quietly away down the corridor and into the study to allow the Coutres some privacy.

~

The following morning, Karigan rose early and slipped into the stables. She’d said her goodbyes the night before, intending to get away with as little fuss as possible. Nevertheless, in her message-satchel was a letter from Lord Coutre to King Zachary, thanking him for the use of his Rider and explaining the situation; and another from Lady Estora.

As she led mounted and got herself what passed for comfortable in the saddle with a weary kind of satisfaction, she sighed.

‘Condor, we’re going home,’ she said quietly. ‘Finally.’

~

Sacor City had never looked more homey. Karigan rode slowly up the Winding Way, wondering what her reception would be like. The king was not the irritable type, so it was unlikely to be negative; but she suspected that she would have worried some people with her long absence.

When she got into the stable yard, she gave Condor over to a stable hand and walked up through the castle to deliver her message to the king. Half-way there she ran into Captain Mapstone.

‘Karigan!’ she exclaimed. ‘I’m glad you’re back. Do you have letters for the king?’

Karigan nodded.

‘From Lord Coutre and Lord Arey,’ she said. Her tiredness must have shown on her face; Captain Mapstone frowned.

‘I’ll take them to the king for you,’ she said unexpectedly. ‘You go and refresh yourself before the king summons you for your report.’

This was highly unusual, but Karigan didn’t have the energy to worry about it. She handed her message satchel over with a grateful expression, and headed down to the barracks.

~

Captain Mapstone watched her go. She was glad Karigan was back – she’d been worried about her long absence. But it might be better to delay her meeting with the king, if only slightly. He’d been much more worried than Laren, and she was concerned that if Karigan entered without sufficient warning Zachary would not conceal his feelings as well as usual. Frowning to herself, and dreading the conversation she knew she would have to have with the king, she headed to the royal quarters with Karigan’s message satchel in her hand.

~

The door opened, and Karigan entered.

‘Report, Rider Sir G’ladheon.’

Karigan straightened her spine, and began to describe the recent events, beginning with encountering Lady Estora on the road to Arey Province.

‘I know that under all ordinary circumstances, my priority should be my message,’ she said, ‘but the occasion was unusual, and I felt sure that, had you been present, your instructions would have been to return Lady Estora to safety first.’ She licked her dry lips to continue, but was interrupted by King Zachary.

‘And so they would have been,’ he said quietly. ‘You were correct in your decision, Rider Sir G’ladheon, and I thank you for it. Please continue.’

Karigan nodded, and continued with her report. Most of the pertinent information was in the letter from Lord Coutre, but King Zachary nodded through the events. When she had finished, he let out a long, steady breath and looked at her thoughtfully.

‘Rider Sir G’ladheon, Lord Coutre insists on me thanking you for your assistance and wishes to ensure that any penalty or punishment falls on him rather than you. I want you to know that his insistence is entirely unnecessary – I am very grateful for what you have done.’ He shifted in his seat slightly, and Karigan kept her expression as stoic as possible. ‘We shall have to think about a suitable reward for your work. In the mean time, please consider yourself as having a week’s leisure to do as you will. I won’t hold you any longer, I’m sure you are looking forward to a well-earned rest.’

Karigan bowed, recognising the polite dismissal, and left the room. Once outside it she felt herself relax again. It seemed to get harder to be in the same room as the King every time – or perhaps it was just because she was tired. He had been nothing but polite, but there was an intensity in his gaze that… it was probably nothing.

Forcing herself to think of something else – anything else – she made her way back to the barracks and her much-longed-for bed.

~

After four days of blissful peace and quiet, and an amount of sleeping that Tegan called ‘impressive and a little bit intimidating’, Karigan could feel herself getting bored.

It was nice to have the time to herself, and almost certainly good for her. But she wasn’t used to it, and it was easy to fall into sitting around in her room, daydreaming, rather than doing anything. Perhaps she’d go down into the city this afternoon, and actually see some of the sights she rode past on a regular basis. In the meantime, she had a shirt to repair.

She sighed, and took out her needle and thread to mend the tear. As she stitched carefully, she paused occasionally to take a sip of her tea.

There was a knock on her door.

‘Come in,’ she called, without looking up. She heard the door open and then close again.

‘Rider Sir G’ladheon?’

Karigan looked around. Fastion was stood by the door, his stony expression observing her at work.

‘Fastion?’ she said. ‘What is it?’

‘A message from King Zachary,’ Fastion stated quietly. ‘He would like to meet with you to discuss a matter.’

Karigan frowned, and stood.

‘Of course, I’ll come immediately –’ she started, and then stopped when Fastion gave a single shake of his head.

‘King Zachary specified that this was not an order, but a request which you are permitted to deny if you so wish. He would like to meet with you discreetly, later this evening, to discuss a… private matter.’

Karigan felt as though the world had jerked to a stop. Surely not – he wouldn’t – he wouldn’t

But she remembered their conversation on the tower top. The hand mirror. And after Lady Estora’s declaration… he would.

She licked her lips, her mouth suddenly dry.

‘Thank you, Fastion,’ she said, her voice sounding as though it was coming from far away, ‘but will you tell King Zachary I am unable to meet with him this evening, due to my duties?’

Fastion hesitated for a fraction of a second and Karigan almost thought she saw something akin to concern in his expression, but it was gone as soon as it had appeared and his face was stone-like once more.

‘Very well, Rider Sir G’ladheon. I will convey your response to him.’ He slipped out of the room in near silence, save for the soft click of the closing door.

Karigan sat motionless for almost a full minute. Then, as though someone else were operating her limbs, she pulled on her greatcoat and boots and headed out into the corridor, thinking only to get away, away, away

Perhaps she would have got no further than the edge of the castle grounds if she hadn’t run into Sandy. The younger Rider was headed out of the barracks to the stables, carrying a message satchel – bound for Selium, Karigan realised. The king’s thanks to Lord Fiori and Estral. Estral. Sandy smiled when she saw Karigan, and nodded a greeting.

‘Captain Mapstone’s changed the errands around – I’m to take yours to Selium. I imagine she’ll have another one for you shortly.’ Karigan spoke without allowing herself to think about it. Sandy looked puzzled for a moment, but then shrugged, and handed Karigan the message satchel.

‘Can’t say I mind,’ she confessed. ‘I was out a bit late last night and my head is killing me. Safe journey.’

Karigan nodded and headed down the corridor, praying she wouldn’t bump into Mara or Ty, either of whom would be harder to lie to. Her heart was racing under her tunic. But the barracks was pretty quiet, and she made it all the way to the stable without incident. When she got there, she explained her invented situation to the stablehand who helped her transfer the supplies from Sandy’s horse to Condor.

She mounted, her palms sweating, and rode slowly out through the keep and then the town, expecting at any moment to be called back by another Rider, by a guard, by someone. But nothing happened, and she left the city without incident.

As soon as she was out on open road, she leant in to Condor’s neck and urged him to speed.

Chapter Text

Captain Mapstone rolled her shoulders as she strode down the corridor, trying to get some life back into them. Standing at Zachary’s shoulder was becoming more physically demanding as she got older, and her joints were in much indignation.

As she turned the corner, she saw Mara headed in the opposite direction. The younger Rider’s expression lifted when she spotted her captain.

‘Captain Mapstone!’ she exclaimed. ‘I’ve been looking for you. Did you change the schedule to send Karigan out with the Selium message, rather than Sandy? I just caught Sandy in the corridor and asked her why she hadn’t left already, and she said that Karigan had been switched with her and left a couple of hours ago. But I don’t have any paperwork about it.’

Mara’s expression was confused, but not overly concerned; expecting confirmation. Of course. She trusted Karigan. Captain Mapstone jumped to a series of possible conclusions, thinking quickly, before she spoke.

‘Yes, sorry. Must have missed you on that one – something just came up.’ It was a pathetic lie, really, but Mara brightened and nodded in relief.

‘I just wanted to check, in case I’d missed something important. Were you on your way back to the barracks?’

Captain Mapstone nodded, and the two of them fell into step. Mara began to talk about the minor events of the morning, but Captain Mapstone was barely listening. Karigan had taken another Rider’s message. That was serious, and under other circumstances would warrant a reprimand. But Karigan’s loyalty was unwavering and her judgement to be trusted. She would not have done such a thing without an excellent reason. So for the time being, Laren would cover for her – until she could discover what was really going on. But what would make Karigan take a different message? Private instructions from the king, possibly, but it would be unlike Zachary not to discuss them with her first. Very unlike Zachary… Zachary. Zachary, who always had eyes for Karigan when she walked into the room. Zachary who kept track of the Riders’ schedule much better than ever before and always knew when she was due back at the keep. Zachary, who when Karigan had not returned from her errand to Arey Province in time had been brusque with his councillors and tense in his manner, his brow falling into frown lines whenever he was left to think, his eyes always on the window, watching the approach to the keep. Had he said something to her? A message? An exchange of words… something more?

Laren held back a groan. Zachary should know better, he really should, but she’d watched him grow more and more thoughtful in the wake of Lady Estora’s declaration. Each time they had news of a commoner-noble marriage his attention seemed more distracted, as though he was considering…

‘I’d better get back to my work – thank you, Captain!’

‘Good luck with it, Mara,’ Laren replied automatically as the two parted ways. Laren entered her office and closed the door.

If Zachary had approached her, what would Karigan do? Run. Laren felt her face settle into a worried frown. Karigan would get as far away from the keep as possible, as fast as possible. Unless she chose to reciprocate… but no, Karigan was too cautious, too wary. Two words she’d never before used to describe her but while Karigan might be wilful and risk-taking in the field her social life was always characterised by wariness. As though she wasn’t quite sure why people wanted to befriend her.

Laren paced her office, her temper rising. Really, it was Zachary’s responsibility to keep his feelings under control. Yes, Karigan was an adult and could make her own decisions, but Zachary held too much power over her. He was older, more experienced, higher ranking… did he not understand the danger he could put her in by not containing himself? He was a good man, she knew that, but even good men could be careless and wilful when their emotions were concerned. Even good men could feel… entitled.

And what could she do about it? Well, she might not be able to order him about, but she was certainly capable of giving him a piece of her mind. She wasn’t his councillor just to nod along, especially not when he was acting so rashly.

It took her twenty minutes to get Zachary on his own in his study. Fury had leant her considerable speed, and he had obviously read her temper immediately. Even so he still had to formally pause his work and send his assistant out politely, and then Laren checked to make sure they would not be overheard by anyone before she began.

‘Excellency, may I be granted permission to speak to you entirely frankly, and without regard for rank?’

Zachary seemed to hesitate for a moment and then steel himself.

‘You may,’ he said, frowning at her slightly.

Laren had a moment of doubt, but her anger allowed her to overcome it.

‘What in the hells makes you think you can approach Rider G’ladheon?’ she burst out – Zachary’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth to speak but she put up a warning finger to stop him and spoke on. ‘Karigan is twenty-two years old, she is a long way from home, she has no family here and she is under your care. I don’t know what you’ve said or done, but it was enough to push her to leave for Selium and risk serious trouble with me for doing so.’

Zachary’s expression darkened, but he knew better than to interrupt Laren before she spoke again.

‘I’ve known the two of you had feelings for each other for a long time,’ Laren continued, ‘and I can’t imagine that it’s been easy. But I thought better of you than this – I’ve never known you to be disrespectful before. You should know better – for gods’ sake, Zachary, you’re thirty-four. You know it’s not possible. You should be leaving it alone – for her sake, and for yours. There’s damn little she can do about it, she needs you to step back. Nothing can happen between you, and you have no right to put any pressure on her – and they may be your Riders first and foremost but they’re also mine and if I have to protect them from you when there is no one else to do it then Aeryc damn me I will, do you understand? For your benefit as well as hers.’

Laren ran a frustrated hand through her hair.

‘I think what I’m most concerned about it that she’s in your care – you are responsible for her well-being, ultimately, and for you to pursue something that cannot possibly become a reality is irresponsible in the extreme, and not something I would expect from you. I thought you’d managed to turn away from this and recognise Lady Estora – I know that won’t happen now but that’s no excuse for this behaviour. Karigan deserves an apology first, and then an assurance that you will not pursue the matter and that you can return to your formal positions without her taking any further harm. I appreciate that it’s difficult, but you’re more than capable of doing the right thing. When she gets back from Selium you need to act as though the matter is over, and then stick to it.’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t like rebuking you like this. You’re not a child. And you know I respect you. But it’s my place to tell you when you’re being a damn fool, and that’s what I’m doing.’

There was a long silence before Zachary spoke. He did not look at her.

‘Thank you for sharing your view, Captain Mapstone.’

She waited. When he did not say anything further, she took a step forward.

‘Well?’ she burst out. ‘What are you going to –’

‘Thank you, Captain Mapstone,’ he said, speaking firmly over her without turning to look at her, ‘for your input. I will take your advice to heart and consider it closely. You are dismissed.’

She opened her mouth, and then closed it again abruptly. Fine. It had been hard to hear, no doubt. She’d leave him to consider it, and nurse his wounded feelings in private.

‘Good day, your Excellency,’ she said formally, before bowing and striding out of the room.

~

When Captain Mapstone had left, Zachary sank into a chair by the window, his face in his hands.

She’d left for Selium? To get away from him?

Zachary felt the panic pulsing through him and tried to breathe more steadily. No. No, he didn’t know anything for certain. Perhaps she had just needed some time to think. Or was he deluding himself? Had he truly overstepped his mark? He dreaded the thought that he had upset her, even unintentionally – unintentionally? Carelessly was more the word.

Arrogantly, too. To assume that they could have an easy conversation, that their difference of rank and age was something that could be hand-waved away. By him, perhaps, but that was easy for him to say, wasn’t it? But then hadn’t he wanted to meet her to discuss matters specifically in order to erase this confusion? Surely that was helpful, sensible?

Zachary felt as though a tide had gone out with unnatural suddenness, leaving him stranded on damp sand without orientation or shelter. Wasn’t this what he had always hated? The arrogance, the stupid, careless, arrogance

I’m not as bad as that, a small part of him volunteered. Making a mis-step like this doesn’t make me… not if I apologise. If I listen to Laren, and walk away.

It seemed inevitable – it had always seemed inevitable that they would be apart but it hurt so much more now, because for a brief time he had had hope. Stupid, pointless hope. Too much of an optimist. Not practical. Zachary breathed out shakily. All right. No sense in making a fuss about it now. Spilt milk. Was that the right phrase? It didn’t matter. Get back to work, that was the key. Concentrate on something normal and sensible and real.

But it was a long time before he moved from his position by the window.

~

‘Karigan! I wasn’t expecting to see you again so soon! It’s good to see you, do come in.’

Estral was all smiles as she chivvied Karigan into her office and shut the door.

‘I’ll just get us some tea – have you come straight off an errand? You look exhausted. What are they thinking, sending you straight back here – it must have been practically straight back here – after all the business with Lady Estora? Honestly. Unless something’s wrong?’

Karigan shook her head.

‘No, no, Lady Estora’s fine,’ she said. ‘On her way back to Coutre Province with her father, this time with a guard company and staff. She’ll be fine.’

‘Well, that’s something.’ Estral watched Karigan expectantly. Remembering her excuse, Karigan fumbled awkwardly with the message satchel.

‘I bear a message from the king, to be received by yourself or your father,’ she said, holding it out. ‘His gratitude for your sheltering of Lady Estora.’

Estral took it, still watching Karigan curiously.

‘Well, that’s very kind of him,’ she said slowly. ‘Karigan…’

The explanation rushed out of Karigan in a torrent; all her worries, all her concerns, everything. Estral listened with a furrowed brow, one hand on Karigan’s arm. When Karigan fell into silence, Estral nodded to herself slowly.

‘Let’s see. I know at least three people owe me favours, and I have a good reputation with the administrators. With a bit of convincing, I think I could manage to be away for… oh, say, up to six weeks? It’s a long time, but I only hope it will be long enough.’

‘Long enough for… what?’ asked Karigan, completely at a loss. Estral raised her eyebrows.

‘For me to come back to Sacor City with you,’ she said, as though it was obvious. Then, more kindly, ‘Karigan, you’re all alone there. I know, you have a lot of friends in the Green Riders and I’m not trying to diminish that, but they’re all sworn to King Zachary. You’ve got no one who’s able to stand entirely on your side. I can do that. Even if all I can do is be someone for you to talk to. Now, let’s see. I’ll need to speak to Fernand first, I think; it’s late now, so I’ll have to catch him in the morning. First thing, I think. And then Reesa, and then… yes, I think I can manage six weeks.’ She smiled at Karigan brightly. ‘The advantage of always being willing to cover other people’s classes – I’m owed a lot of favours.’

Chapter Text

The days stretched out. Zachary tried to force himself not to worry. Karigan was a capable adult, with a strong mind of her own. Perhaps she’d just taken the errand so that she had time away from him to think; she’d come back, and she’d find him entirely respectful and well at a distance from her. Permanently.

Zachary may have felt muddled and uncertain about his relationship – or lack thereof – with Karigan, but Laren’s opinion was rock-hard, and so he leaned on it. He had been out of line, to ask her to meet him alone. Of course. That was the end of it. The best thing to do now was nothing; continue as normal, throw himself into his work, and in a year or two (or three, or four, and what if she stayed for years like Laren did?) she would finish her term as a Green Rider and return to Corsa, safely out of reach.

These sensible, logical thoughts didn’t seem to prevail late at night, however, when he lay with his eyes open wondering if she was safe. Sacor City to Selium was a safe run – the King’s Road took you all the way, highly populated, and Karigan was not carrying any message worth stealing. But there were still a hundred things that could go wrong, and if they did it would be his fault for pushing her.

By the light of day he knew this to be ridiculous, but that didn’t help. This whole thing had been ridiculous, and now it had to stop. It had to.

~

When they started up Winding Way, Estral reached over to briefly pat Karigan’s shoulder.

‘I’ll stay at the inn nearest the keep. What’s it called. The Silver Star. You go and get settled and find out if you’re in trouble. But send me a message by tomorrow noon, or I’ll come up there and badger every Green Rider I find until I get to you.’

Her tone was playful but her eyes were serious. Karigan nodded, gratitude swelling in her chest.

~

The meeting with Captain Mapstone did not go anywhere nearly as badly as Karigan had expected. The older woman treated it like a normal report on a normal run, until right at the end when she met Karigan’s eyes seriously.

‘I expect you know that changing rides without discussing it with myself is not behaviour I expect from my Riders,’ she said.

‘Yes, Captain,’ Karigan replied quietly, dropping her eyes.

Captain Mapstone regarded her for a long moment.

‘Don’t do it again, because then you’ll be in real trouble.’

Karigan looked back up at her, surprised; there was concern in Captain Mapstone’s expression, but Karigan didn’t know what else she was expected to say.

‘I won’t, Captain,’ she said.

‘You’re dismissed.’

~

As soon as she could, Karigan headed through the keep, aiming vaguely at the barracks of the Black Shields but meandering enough to see most of them at their posts, hoping the one person she was looking for was not guarding King Zachary. She got lucky, and found him just outside the barracks.

‘Fastion?

The Weapon turned to face her.

‘Rider Sir G’ladheon?’

Karigan fought to keep her expression as neutral as Fastion’s.

‘Could you please inform the king that I agree to speak to him as he requested a few weeks ago. In the western corridor, the last room at the end; as soon as he is available after the last bell.’

Fastion’s expression did not betray a flicker of surprise – or of any other emotion.

‘Certainly, Rider Sir G’ladheon.’

‘Thank you.’

Karigan turned and walked away abruptly, not able to hold the cool blankness of expression in the knowledge of what she was doing.

~

It had been difficult, even with Estral’s help, to figure out how to get Captain Mapstone involved – Karigan didn’t want to get caught up in explanations before they actually got to the meeting, but neither did she want the captain to feel deceived. In the end, they settled had with a simple approach which came off better than Karigan had expected. She just dropped back in to the captain’s office near the end of the day with a nervous expression, and asked that the captain meet her later that evening as there was something that she needed her advice on. She was quick to speak and even quicker to disappear out of the office again and down the corridor, to avoid any objections.

Finally, everything was in place. She and Estral were waiting in the chosen room, having got the fire going already and brought up the necessities for tea. Captain Mapstone arrived next, and raised her eyebrows when she saw Estral.

‘Karigan, what’s this about?’ she asked cautiously. Karigan wasn’t sure how to answer, but she didn’t have to.

‘We’re just waiting for one more, captain, if you don’t mind – tea?’ Estral’s tone was bright and confident, and after a moment Captain Mapstone nodded cautiously.

It was only a minute after that that the king arrived. He was preceded by Fastion stepping into the room – Karigan thought she detected a minute raise of his eyebrows at the unexpected guests – and then entered himself, looked around, and froze.

Karigan steeled herself, and delivered her opening line as rehearsed.

‘They stay, or I leave and this conversation doesn’t happen.’

There was a moment’s pause that seemed, to Karigan, to stretch out forever. She had prepared herself so much for the idea that he would walk straight back out again that when he did not it felt like a shock. Instead, he gave a single nod of concession, his expression still guarded but now touched with worry.

‘Then they stay, of course,’ he said softly. Karigan looked away from him.

After another pause, Zachary sat himself down on one of the older chairs by the fireplace. The Weapons faded into the corners of the room, unobtrusive, and the three women took their seats without looking at each other. The air felt thick, lifeless.

‘Well, shall I be the one to break the awkward silence?’ Estral asked cheerfully, looking from Zachary to Karigan to Captain Mapstone. When none of them answered she nodded, her expression unsurprised.

‘Right then. Karigan invited me here – well, I invited myself, and she agreed – because she has a high opinion of my ability to mediate a discussion. And it seems like a discussion is needed.’

Karigan watched Zachary, noting the uncertainty creeping into his expression. This wasn’t what he had expected. What had he expected?

‘I suppose it is,’ he said quietly, meeting Karigan’s eyes. She broke his gaze and looked back to Estral, who folded her hands together thoughtfully.

‘If this is going to work, you need to speak to each other as equals. In this room, no rank or station, just honesty.’ Estral looked from Zachary, to Karigan, and back again. ‘Do we agree?’

Again, a pause; Zachary’s expression was back to neutral and Karigan wondered what he was thinking. And then he gave a nod.

‘Very well,’ he said. And then, to her surprise, he spoke to his two Weapons.

‘Fastion, Istell, you may leave us. Wait outside the door, but don’t draw attention to it.’

The two Weapons bowed and left, the door closing softly behind them. Zachary leant back in his chair and let out a sigh.

‘Zachary it is,’ he said quietly. ‘Well, Estral Andovian, where do you think we should start?’

His tone was light, but anxiety thrummed beneath it, and his eyes flicked from Estral to Karigan. She didn’t meet them, but Estral gave a smile.

‘I think we start with working out where both of you stand,’ she said. ‘From what I can tell there’s been far too much guesswork and not enough understanding.’ She thought for a moment, and then nodded to herself before turning to Zachary. ‘Zachary, how do you feel about Karigan?’

Karigan was watching him again; he seemed torn between maintaining a respectful sort of neutrality and letting his guard down entirely. His brow furrowed and he closed his eyes briefly in thought. Then his expression smoothed out. She could almost see him building his nerve up a little before he spoke.

‘I feel… admiration. Gratitude. Respect. And… a great deal more affection than perhaps I should.’

He kept his tone mild, but to her surprise Karigan could see the effort it took. Somehow, that was reassuring. Even despite his description of his feelings, which seemed to roar inside her head. Estral turned to her.

‘Karigan, how do you feel about Zachary?’

Karigan calmed herself as best she could, and tried to think of the right words.

‘Complicated,’ she said quietly. ‘Nervous. Admiration, too, and respect… affection. But also frustration.’

The air in the room was thick and uncomfortable. Karigan prayed she wouldn’t blush.

‘Why frustration?’ Zachary asked. He was fidgeting with his hands a little, and Karigan realised that he was genuinely worried. She tried to think how she could explain this to him. But how could he understand? The silence stretched as she thought hard, looking for some kind of handle on her feelings that she could use. Then she had it. She looked across at him.

‘Why did you make me a knight?’ she asked.

Zachary’s brow creased.

‘You deserved the honour,’ he said slowly, as though he was trying to see some trick in her words. ‘You did a great thing in rescuing Lady Estora, and it deserved to be recognised. The knighthood… your connection with the First Rider, your acts in defence of myself and this kingdom… it seemed fitting.’

Karigan sighed.

‘And I was grateful,’ she admitted. ‘And flattered. But you didn’t just do that. You didn’t even see what else you did.’

All of Zachary’s attention was focused on her, normally enough to make her nervous, but all of the months of frustration and confusion had built up now and she could push through it. She leant forward slightly as she spoke.

‘You made it impossible for me to walk away from you. And you didn’t even give me a warning, or ask my opinion, or consider that you might be offering something I didn’t want. And you tied me to you so that I cannot ever entirely leave.’

Zachary’s mouth opened slightly, almost in protest, and then Karigan saw the understanding bloom on his face. And the guilt that followed it. She realised that both Captain Mapstone and Estral were also watching him closely.

After almost a minute, he seemed to pull himself back together. He met Karigan’s eyes.

‘Karigan, I would like to apologise. I am truly, honestly sorry for my behaviour. I should have asked you, and I should have allowed you the space to make the decision that you needed to make without attempting to influence it. I have been careless and arrogant, and I am sorry for having hurt you.’

The apology was formal, and slightly awkwardly spoken – but it was honest, and heartfelt, and Karigan didn’t need Captain Mapstone’s ability to tell her that.

Estral leaned back in her chair again.

‘So, that’s cleared the air a little,’ she said softly. ‘Karigan, do you have anything else you want to say?’

Karigan shook her head, and then thought better of it and spoke again anyway.

‘I know how you feel,’ she said, feeling as though her stomach had turned into lead. ‘And I can see that you were trying to… you had good intentions. But you’re right at the top. You can’t always…’ she lapsed into silence, trying to think of how to phrase it.

‘…see where I’m putting my big feet?’ Zachary said. Karigan was startled into laughter, and a hint of a smile came to Zachary’s face.

‘Exactly,’ Karigan said, a little awkwardly, and Zachary nodded.

‘I’m lucky I have people like you and Captain Mapstone to tell me when I’m out of line,’ he said. ‘I will try to do better in future.’

Karigan smiled properly this time, and so did Zachary. The air between them felt cleaner. She looked to Estral expectantly.

‘So, that clears that up. But you’re both a little… restrained,’ she continued, making light mockery of the way Karigan and Zachary had both hesitated over their feelings for each other, ‘when it comes to talking about how you feel about each other. We need to draw a line. What kind of affection is this? Are you just fond of each other? Admiration from a distance? Would you want to just be good friends? Or is it love?’

Estral had a minstrel’s ear for turning a phrase. If Karigan had said something like that she would have felt ridiculous, but Estral made it sound practical and reasonable. She could also recognise when two thirds of the conversation were going to need a more direct nudge.

‘Zachary, are you in love with Karigan?’ she asked.

Zachary swallowed, and then nodded.

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Karigan, are you in love with Zachary?’

Karigan couldn’t meet his eyes at first, but then decided she’d be damned if she’d answer that question like a nervous school child and forced herself to look up.

‘Yes, I am,’ she said softly, and saw the tiny hitch in his breath.

Estral shifted position, tucking her legs up underneath herself on the chair.

‘If you were both free from rank and responsibility, would you want to court each other?’

Zachary nodded; so did Karigan. She couldn’t stop looking at him now, and wished vaguely that the light in here was better.

‘And so the next logical question is: even with your respective ranks and such and all the complications they would entail, do you still want to court each other?’

Laren’s eyebrows shot up

‘It’s impossible –’ she began, but Estral interrupted her firmly.

‘Maybe, yes. But right now the biggest problem is that it’s a mystery. Everyone’s treating it as though it’s this huge… cloud of impossibility, rather than a possible course of action. I think actually talking through the logistics of it – discussing it in real terms rather than imagining hypothetical, end-of-the-world scenarios – is what needs to happen.’

Captain Mapstone sat back in her chair, her mouth in an unhappy line. She radiated disapproval, but didn’t voice it.

‘So, is there any actual law preventing the two of you from doing this?’ Estral asked.

Zachary sat back in his chair.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Strictly speaking, as king I’m at liberty to marry whoever I wish, with their consent.’

‘And if you did, what’s the worst that could happen?’

He looked thoughtful.

‘Well,’ he said after several minutes of thought, ‘it’s the same as the worst that could happen of any decision I make. Total collapse of the power of the monarchy. But that’s extremely unlikely.’

Karigan felt suddenly light-headed. Total collapse of the power of the monarchy.

Zachary must have seen her expression, because he winced slightly and then began to explain.

‘Hypothetically, any decision I make could go badly. If people – particularly the nobility and even more particularly the Province-Lords – lose faith in my ability to govern, then the ultimate, worst-case, end result is me getting removed from the throne.’

‘How can you say that so lightly, like it’s nothing?’ Karigan burst out, completely thrown by how calm he was. He gave a faint smile.

‘Because that’s any decision I make,’ he said. ‘Part of my job is walking the line between options I want to take and options that other people will accept. There’s more leeway there than you think, provided you present things carefully and you understand how people tend to work. I live with that risk all of the time, it becomes normal.’

‘Do you think that that risk is higher with this particular decision than with any others?’ Estral asked curiously.

Again, Zachary thought about this for several minutes.

‘Riskier than some,’ he conceded after a while. ‘But with careful work, it might be within the realm of acceptable risk.’

‘Karigan would never be accepted,’ Captain Mapstone said flatly, though some of the harshness had gone from her voice. ‘Minor commoner-nobility marriages are one thing. But you have to understand all the implications – it’s one thing having a lord in the middle of nowhere marry a commoner and have the two of them manage his lands and properties. Those duties are no different, really, than those of rich commoners. The line between them is thin. But it’s entirely another thing getting people to accept the idea of a commoner on the throne. Karigan wouldn’t just be your wife – she’d be queen.’

Karigan felt winded. How had she never thought of it like that? Because she’d never really, properly thought about it before, that was how. The tiny hope that had sparked in her at hearing Zachary’s initial optimism was flattened. But Captain Mapstone didn’t stop.

‘Even if you disregarded all of their reactions and married her anyway, there’s no way she would be respected as a Queen Consort. She’d be at high risk of assassination, and that’s if she made it alive to the wedding.’ Captain Mapstone turned to Karigan. ‘I’m sorry, Karigan; none of this is meant to reflect on you. Personally, I think you’d probably be pretty good at being queen. But the world is not going to allow that to happen.’

Karigan nodded. But somewhere in among the gloominess, a thought caught her attention. Pretty good at being queen?

Aloud, she just said,

‘I understand.’

But Zachary was frowning again.

‘I don’t think it’s that black and white,’ he said slowly. ‘Laren, I know you feel I’m being overly idealistic about this. But the world is changing, and there are ways to sway opinions.’

‘Such as?’ Estral prompted, when Zachary didn’t continue.

‘There would have to be… incentives,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘We’d have to work out what advantages there would be for members of the nobility. Province-lords, specifically. L’Petrie would be pleased, I suspect, noble blood be damned. Leonar would support me…’

Captain Mapstone was shaking her head.

‘You’re supposing on little to no evidence,’ she said. ‘The matter hasn’t been discussed enough, you don’t know where the cards will fall. And if you announce your decision and their reactions are all against you, you have nowhere to go.’

‘Would it have to be like that?’ Karigan was almost surprised to hear her own voice, but pushed on. ‘Isn’t there any way of gauging opinions before announcing something? Seeing how things are, and maybe…’ she faded out, uncertain, but Zachary took up the thread of her argument, nodding.

‘If we had a period of time… six months, say? Or a year? In which we could test the waters, get a better idea of opinions, maybe even nudge a few people closer to our perspective; I don’t think opinions are as fixed as you say, Laren. And there are advantages to a commoner as queen.’ He stopped, and looked so sheepish that Karigan thought he was going to blush, but he didn’t. She thought she could guess why.

‘Talking about it in practical terms is why we’re here,’ she said awkwardly. ‘It’s better to be straightforward about these sorts of things.’

Zachary looked grateful.

‘What kind of advantages, though?’ Captain Mapstone asked, leaning forward and frowning.

‘Neutrality?’ Zachary suggested. ‘Not tipping the scales – especially now when the nobility are quite well-balanced. Karigan doesn’t belong to a particular faction of politics.’

‘Merchants aren’t entirely neutral, though,’ Karigan pointed out. Zachary conceded with a nod.

‘I’ll grant you that, but while I think that’s important most of the nobility do not.’

Karigan could see his point. Most of the nobility couldn’t give a damn what the merchants thought about anything, as long as they kept trading.

The conversation seemed to last for hours. Zachary and Captain Mapstone went around and around for quite a while about the various Province-Lords and where they might stand – as usual, it all hinged on the opinion of the Eastern Lords and, therefore, Lord Coutre. Neither Zachary nor Captain Mapstone seemed to think they would directly oppose the match – ‘Coutre can’t, not without making a hypocrite of himself and taking away his support of Estora’ – but only Zachary seemed to think that they could be brought around to directly favour it instead of remaining neutral. Karigan’s input in the conversation was minimal to start with, but as the awkwardness dissipated in the intensity of their discussion, she found herself contributing more and more, from both the negative and positive perspectives. Once or twice, she caught Captain Mapstone looking at her appraisingly.

The fire burned low. The curtains were pulled most of the way across the window, but through a small gap at the top Karigan could see a lightness beginning to come back to the sky. Dawn was on its way.

Zachary had noticed as well, and the conversation petered to a halt. After a few moments’ silence, Zachary spoke to the room at large.

‘What do we do now?’

Estral, who had been mostly quiet except for asking the occasionally clarifying, probing question when she felt someone was being oblique, shifted position, looking thoughtful.

‘You think about things,’ she said firmly. ‘Take some time, both of you, and think everything over. Maybe meet again, like this, so that you can talk. And if you decide not to do anything, then you make a clean break from that point. And if you decide to do something, you choose what it is and how to go about it.’ She shrugged. ‘Either way, you both have big decisions to make – Karigan more so than Zachary, because it’s her life that will change the most.’

Karigan still had that knot in her stomach, but oddly she felt lighter than before. She supposed Estral was right – it was better to discuss things clearly, even if they still were very difficult.

Zachary stood first, stretching, rolling his shoulders back. Karigan took a sudden and deliberate interest in the smouldering fire, and thought she saw Estral bite back a smirk.

They went their separate ways in near silence, Istell and Fastion slipping into Zachary’s shadow as he headed towards the royal quarters, and the other three unspeaking until they reached the Rider barracks. Estral gave Karigan a quick hug, and reminded her of the inn she was staying at. Then she slipped off into the breaking dawn, and Karigan was left alone with Captain Mapstone.

They stood unmoving for a moment. Then Captain Mapstone spoke.

‘Get some sleep,’ she said quietly. ‘You’ve got the rest of your leave to use up, and you could do with the rest.’

Karigan nodded mutely and began to walk towards her room.

‘And Karigan?’

She turned. The expression on Captain Mapstone’s face was reluctantly impressed.

‘Well-handled,’ she said gruffly, before turning and heading to her own quarters.

Chapter Text

Estora still felt strange as she walked through the halls she had grown up in. It was bizarre to be here and yet to be… free.

Her relationship with her family was still fragile. But she and her father had had many conversations, some lasting deep into the night, and she felt that they, at least, were now on relatively stable ground. Her mother was tense and uncomfortable, and Estora knew that she felt as though Estora’s stance on political marriage was almost a direct attack on her; but she came to dinner, and she listened, and just yesterday they had walked in the gardens together.

Yes, everything was getting better.

Well, almost everything. At least one thing was becoming more difficult.

Estora glanced down at the letter in her hand. She didn’t need to open it again; she had read it so many times that the words felt embedded in her thoughts. A letter from Estral Andovian. Beautiful, impossible, shining Estral.

You were here so briefly, and yet I already miss your presence in the house. You were not loud, and yet now it seems unnaturally quiet. I grew fond of you so swiftly – too swiftly, perhaps – but believe that you felt much the same way. I have much to do here – classes to lead and students to rebuke – but I hope to travel some more in a few months’ time. I’m not overly fond of travelling, but I have found that good company and a good destination tends to encourage me. I plan to head East to D’Yer Province, and then cross the mountains to the sea before going further northward. I would very much like to see you when I reach Coutre Province, if you would welcome it (and if it would not cause any damage to your situation – I know that despite you and your father’s reconciliation things must be strange and perhaps still fragile).

She’d signed the letter, with all my love, Estral. Estora felt her heart speed up just thinking about it. All my love. Was that the truth, though? Hadn’t Estral herself told her that she had another love, a man of whom she was equally fond? Estora couldn’t quite imagine that, but Estral seemed to have an endless heart.

Then again… did she, Estora, not still love F’ryan? The two affections coexisted in her heart without diminishing each other, surely?

But all of these thoughts were just a distraction from the real problem. Yet again, Estora found herself in the position of having fallen for someone she could not possibly marry.

~

They had three more night-time conversations, each as intensive as the first. In the third and fourth, after some discussion, Estral and Captain Mapstone backed away to the other corner of the room to allow Zachary and Karigan to talk in some semblance of privacy. Karigan felt herself growing ever fonder of him, and she could see that his feelings were intensifying too. They didn’t talk about the potential marriage. Rather, they took the opportunity to get to know each other a little better. By the end of the fourth meeting, Karigan felt much more comfortable around him than she had before, and realised with a start that he had gone through the same change. Which meant… she had made him uncomfortable?

In the past that would have made her feel shaken and uncertain. Now, she just put the thought to one side, a curiosity to ask him about another time. Or maybe tease him about. She’d realised that the two of them had began to develop a more easy-going type of conversation, where she was relatively confident of her ability to prod at him without harm. It usually made him smile, especially if he’d been being a touch too formal before.

Captain Mapstone seemed to have come around. It had taken argument after argument, and Karigan had been impressed by the way she and Zachary pushed ideas at each other, both accustomed to the give and take of council meetings, neither allowing the debate to get heated or unreasonable, pulling back when things got tense. Karigan learned. Zachary and Karigan had just talked their way through the list of causes and effects, risks and opportunities, checks and balances – all of the components to making this matter a success – and Karigan had pushed Zachary hard to be honest, and clear, and practical. They slowed to a stop when they realised the Captain Mapstone had stopped speaking and was just watching the two of them with a curious expression on her face.

‘Laren?’ asked Zachary. ‘What’s the matter?’

The captain sighed.

‘All right,’ she said. ‘I’m on board. If only to watch the two of you work together like that. And because I think Karigan’s up to keeping you in line.’ She sat back. ‘But we’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do before this is practical. And you’ve missed out an important point.’

Karigan was still wide-eyed from the captain’s change of position, though she supposed it had been happening slowly through the meetings. But she frowned.

‘What have we missed?’ she asked.

Captain Mapstone gave her a wry smile.

‘You’re both already breaking a very important social rule – Karigan’s family haven’t been consulted,’ she said. ‘If you do this you’ll already be stepping away from convention in a dramatic way; you need to stick to it like glue along some other lines, to compensate. Stevic G’ladheon would need to be spoken to – ideally, he needs to give you two formal, written permission to court. And it would need to happen before any of your finagling with the Province-Lords does.’

Karigan looked at Zachary, and almost laughed despite herself. He looked distinctly nervous. He caught her expression and cleared his throat.

‘You’re right, of course.’

‘Write to him,’ Karigan suggested. ‘I’ll take the message, there’s nothing strange about that – especially if you have anything else that needs taking to L’Petrie. I’ll go, talk to him first, explain why things are being done the way they are, and then give him your letter. Then I carry back his response, and if it’s a yes then you start your politics work.’

The three of them were all looking at her. Estral looked amused, but proud; Captain Mapstone’s eyes glittered; and Zachary had moved from nervousness to… what? Surprise? Then Karigan’s mind caught up with what she’d just said.

‘Um,’ she said, and swallowed, and tried again. ‘I just basically said yes to you, didn’t I?’

‘It is the first time either of you have talked in firmer terms than the hypothetical, so effectively, yes,’ said Estral, obviously fighting the urge to laugh at Karigan’s surprise.

‘I’m flattered to know my agreement carries that much weight with you,’ Captain Mapstone said, poker-faced. Karigan blushed. Zachary coughed, and then met her eyes but said nothing.

Estral rolled her eyes, and pointedly engaged Captain Mapstone in a conversation about the weather.

‘I meant it, you know,’ Karigan said quietly. ‘I mean, I didn’t mean to mean it, but…’ She breathed out slowly, trying to still the flurry of emotions inside her. ‘The more we talk about it, the more I think of it as a real thing that we’re actually doing. And I keep thinking – over and over again – about if there’s anything that would make me say no. And nothing comes up. I feel like something should. But there’s nothing. And…’

And I want to be with you. Even if it means I have to be queen. Even if people resent me. And even if all of that makes me horribly selfish.

It was a few tries before she could get those last few thoughts out as words. Zachary was silent, waiting. When she stopped again, he smiled faintly.

‘I don’t think it makes you selfish,’ he said. ‘Or if it does, then I’m just as selfish as you are. More, even. This means more changes to your life than it does to mine. And there are so many complications; your inheritance, your oath to the Green Riders…’ He stopped. ‘I don’t want to push you. But I… I love you, and I don’t want to lose you. And I think you’d make an excellent queen.’

She raised her eyebrows slightly, even as her heart thudded in her chest.

‘You’re biased,’ she said. He laughed.

After that, it was real. Really real. She was going to be courting the king – pending his gathering of a substantial amount of political support, of course. And pending her father’s approval. After their fourth meeting, Zachary penned a letter for Stevic G’ladheon, which he allowed Karigan to look over before gathering it with a number of other minor missives to L’Petrie Province and handing them over to her formally.

Karigan set out.

~

‘Estora?’

Estora looked up. Her father was standing beside her on the balcony. She had been so wrapped up in her thoughts she hadn’t noticed him approach.

‘May I join you?’

She nodded, and he sat down next to her. For a minute or so, they both gazed out at the view – an exemplary one of the heart of Coutre Province. Then her father spoke.

‘You seem both happy and sad to be home,’ he said gently. ‘I wanted to know if there was anything I could do about the latter.’

Estora smiled, and cast her eyes down.

‘Father, you have been wonderful,’ she said softly. ‘I don’t need anything, I’m quite well. Just taking time to readjust.’

Lord Coutre nodded to himself.

‘Estora,’ he said again after several minutes thought. ‘I want you to know that you can… that despite our previous disagreements, you can confide in me. Even if it’s something difficult. Even if you fear I will disapprove. I give you my word I will listen, and I will not lash out in anger at you.’

She could feel his gaze on her, and turned to meet his eyes.

‘I have failed you in the past,’ he said softly. ‘Give me the chance to do better, and I promise I will not disappoint you.’

Estora nodded, overcome with sudden emotion. She turned to look out across the view again, and then spoke quietly.

‘There is… a lady.’

~

‘So. Um. Well. There’s… a man.’

Karigan had been at her father’s house for about a day, and finally had the opportunity to talk to him alone. They were sat in his study and it was quite late in the evening.

Stevic G’ladheon let out a long breath that he seemed to have been holding like a sigh, and then gave a short laugh.

‘Well,’ he said ruefully. ‘I can’t say I wasn’t expecting us to have this conversation at some point.’ He nodded to himself. ‘Go on then, let’s hear it.’

Karigan swallowed. Her palms were sweating. Her father seemed so reasonable now, but there was so much he didn’t know yet. Stick to the plan, she thought to herself.

‘We met… a few years ago,’ she said carefully. ‘And over time we’ve developed strong feelings for each other. Very strong.’

Her father nodded but didn’t speak, allowing her to continue. She cleared her throat again.

‘He’s… well. He’s older than me, and we’ve had very different lives, but we seem to have quite a lot in common. I know he cares about me. And. Well. He wants to seek your permission to, um. Formally court me.’

Karigan thought she’d never felt more awkward in her entire life. Why did all her feelings about Zachary, which were so true and important in her thoughts and her other conversations, seem like stupid nothings when she voiced them to her father?

‘How much older?’

Karigan kept her voice neutral as she answered, knowing that this was the first hurdle.

‘Twelve years,’ she said quietly. Her father made a considering noise.

‘So he’s thirty-four, going on thirty-five,’ he said slowly. ‘It’s a fairly large gap, but not entirely unreasonable. As long as his intentions are proper.’

She nodded mutely, not quite daring to speak. Her father looked at her.

‘Why do I get the feeling there’s something you’re not telling me?’ he said. ‘Besides his name, and other trivial details.’

Her father’s tone was light, but she could hear the concern underneath it. She gathered her courage.

‘I’ve not told you his name because I think you might already have an opinion on him, and I wanted you to hear me out first,’ she said. Her father raised his eyebrows.

‘I see,’ he said. ‘You’d better carry on, then.’ His brow furrowed. ‘Wait. Karigan. This man… merchant class? Or…’ he trailed off, looking at her expectantly. Karigan steeled herself.

‘No, not merchant class,’ she said. ‘Nobility, actually.’

The silence that followed was very, very still. Karigan held herself to it and waited for her father to break it first.

‘So he’s titled,’ he said slowly. ‘And he wants to marry a merchant’s daughter?’

Karigan winced internally.

‘I know it sounds…’ her shoulders sagged in concession. ‘It sounds like I’m being naïve. I know. But he’s… he’s really been very respectful, and he doesn’t seem like he’s taking advantage. He’s the head of his family, so there’s no one to ask permission at his end, but he’s been –’ she stopped herself, aware that she was starting to sound pleading. ‘I trust him. Maybe I’m right, and maybe I’m wrong. But after Lady Estora’s walking out on her contract with the king, a lot of the nobility are reconsidering the old rules. There have been a few minor noble-commoner marriages already.’

Her father still said nothing; he gazed out at the view, though Karigan doubted he was paying much attention to it.

‘I understand the concerns,’ she said quietly. ‘I’ve had all of them. And I’m being very careful. But this feels… right. It feels genuine. And the more I think about it the more right it feels. It’s not been just a secret between me and him, either; I’ve had Captain Mapstone to go to for advice, and Estral Andovian, and both of them are in support of it.’ She didn’t mention how long it had taken for Captain Mapstone to come around to the idea. ‘I wasn’t sure for a while, but I’ve had time to think about it and time to discuss it with him and with them, and we do think it could work. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. But I trust this.’

She stopped again, and this time forced herself to wait for him to speak. It took several minutes – she watched the sun sink a little further into the sea. Eventually he shifted position and cleared his throat before turning to look at her.

‘Kari, you know that… I worry about you, and there are things about this that make me a little… uncertain. But ultimately,’ he added, watching her carefully, ‘I trust your judgement. And I’ll support whatever decision you make.’

Karigan felt as though a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She stared at him in shock. He raised his eyebrows.

‘What?’ he asked.

Karigan shook her head.

‘I thought this conversation was going to be harder,’ she confessed. ‘I thought I’d have to do a lot more to convince you.’

Stevic G’ladheon turned properly in his chair and leant forward, looking at her.

‘You’ve still got a lot of talking to do, no doubt about that,’ he said sternly, and then his tone softened. ‘Karigan, I want you to be happy. I made a mistake when you joined the Green Riders – I made it all about me, and what I’d expected for you, and I know that made you unhappy. But your life isn’t about me, just like my life wasn’t about my parents.’ He grimaced slightly. ‘I won’t deny I’m not very happy with what I know so far. I’d like to meet him before I confirm anything, I’d like to understand all of this a lot better. And I’m not sure I approve. But ultimately I’m not going to force you to change your mind – if you do something I don’t like or I disagree with you’re still my daughter, and I will always love and support you.’

Karigan swallowed. Her father, whose voice had gotten quite gruff towards the end of his speech, cleared his throat and sat back in his chair.

‘So, do I get to hear the name of this mystery man who might become my son-in-law, then?’

Karigan took a deep breath, tying all her fear up into a knot and pushing it down out of the way. She watched her father as she spoke.

‘Zachary Hillander,’ she said quietly.

Stevic G’ladheon froze, looking at her like she could not possibly have said what she’d just said. He opened his mouth, and then closed it again, and then shook his head slightly.

‘When you say Zachary Hillander,’ he said slowly, in the tone of one just checking that they really had just been offered the chance to trade in a coinage that definitively did not exist, ‘you mean the king? King Zachary. Of Sacoridia.’

‘Um. Yes.’

‘Oh.’

Silence again. Karigan couldn’t read her father’s expression, and wondered what he was thinking. She knew he had a great deal of respect for Zachary as a man, and also as a king, ever since Prince Amilton’s coup. But she didn’t know how that would transfer to King Zachary as a son-in-law. She waited, trying not to fidget.

‘So that letter,’ her father said eventually. ‘That you’ve got there. That’s from King Zachary? Asking for… my permission?’

Karigan nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Her father seemed to feel largely the same way, for he nodded in response and returned to his silence.

‘If you marry him,’ he said again after a long few minutes, ‘you’ll be queen.’

‘Yes.’

‘Mm.’

The silence stretched again. Then Karigan noticed something odd about her father’s expression. It took her a moment to realise he was trying not to laugh – and then he stopped trying.

‘What –’ she began, but then she was laughing as well. It was the tension that had done it. And her father’s surprise and bewilderment. 

When Stevic G’ladheon got his breath back, he took her hand.

‘Sorry, Karigan,’ he said. ‘It’s just… surreal, I suppose. I can’t quite take it in. But I won’t take back what I said. If this is really what you want…’ But then he frowned. ‘But what about the Lord-Governors? Your safety…’

Karigan talked him through Zachary’s plan, and of the methods he would use to shift public opinion. He nodded.

‘And Captain Mapstone supports this?’ he asked.

Karigan nodded.

‘She took a while to warm up to the idea,’ she said, and described their meetings with Estral and Zachary over the course of two weeks. ‘But she’s in support of it now. And she and King Zachary are going to talk to Councillor Dovekey while I’m here – they’ll already have done it by now, I think.’

‘Right.’

The two of them fell into silence. Stevic G’ladheon looked at his daughter. Then he sighed, but not without good humour.

‘All right. I suppose I’d better write back to him. While I do, you can tell me everything about how this all came to happen. From the beginning. And don’t miss anything out.’

Karigan tried not to look too nervous as her father extracted his letter-writing box from the draw in his desk, and cocked an eyebrow at her expectantly.

‘Well,’ she began, ‘I suppose everything started at Lost Lake…’

Chapter Text

‘Rider Sir G’ladheon, bearing messages from L’Petrie Province.’

Zachary held his neutral expression, but couldn’t stop the muscles in his shoulders from tensing. He nodded.

‘Show her in.’

Karigan entered the council chamber and bowed appropriately before handing him her messages.

‘Thank you, Rider Sir G’ladheon; anything further to report?’

‘No, sire. An uneventful journey.’

Karigan’s expression was carefully neutral, and Zachary fought the urge to immediately open the messages. Not with his extended council present. Instead, he set the two messages to one side, to open in private.

‘Very well, you are dismissed.’

Karigan bowed again and left, not a movement out of place. He wondered what she was thinking. She gave no sign of her father’s response in her expression.

The rest of the meeting seemed to pass interminably slowly. Finally, it was over – he nodded for Colin and Laren to join him in his private study to ‘tidy a few details’.

Once the three of them were in privacy, he broke the seal on the first message and looked through it. Lord L’Petrie’s response to some suggested taxation adjustments. All as expected, perfectly ordinary. Fine. He picked up the second message and broke the seal with his thumb. Letter from Stevic G’ladheon. He skimmed over the formal greeting to the main body of the message.

Given the delicate and deeply significant nature of the circumstance you have asked me to consider, I would prefer to speak to you in person before confirming my opinion on the subject. This may be somewhat presumptuous of me, but with the idea of avoiding too much delay as we exchange messages I am planning to journey to Sacor City as soon as is reasonably possible for a man of my responsibilities – I will arrive perhaps two weeks after my daughter, and will be staying with friends in the city in order to discuss possible changes to trade routes and new ventures in their vicinity. While I am there I would be grateful if you would consider meeting with me (discreetly, of course) to discuss the matter raised in your letter.

I have asked that Karigan not give any indication of my views on the subject until I am able to address them with you in person, and I would ask that no pressure be placed upon her to do so. I have chosen to share the information in your letter with my sisters, who were very much partly responsible for Karigan’s upbringing and whose opinions I rely upon for counsel and support, but it will go no further than that.

I hope to see you in the coming month.

Yours sincerely,

Clan Chief Stevic G’ladheon

Zachary set the message back down on his desk and looked at it.

‘Stevic G’ladheon has asked to meet with me to discuss the matter in person before he gives an answer,’ he said, already considering the logistics in his mind. ‘He intends to arrive in Sacor City in approximately two weeks. He also asks that we not press Karigan for knowledge of his position in the meantime.’

Colin nodded slowly.

‘Very reasonable,’ he said. ‘I can certainly understand his concern. His daughter is a very long way from home, and this message from you comes entirely out of the blue.’

‘Mm.’

‘It’s also not an outright denial,’ Laren added, leaning forward to look at the letter after a glance at Zachary for his permission. ‘He wants to discuss it with you; I’d say that’s a positive step.’

‘Yes, that’s possible,’ Zachary responded, still gazing at Stevic G’ladheon’s letter. It was a very reasonable request, of course it was. And there was no reason for Stevic G’ladheon to travel to Sacor City at all if his mind was set on denying the suit, which meant that he was at least considering it. He told himself that he was not nervous, and straightened in his chair.

‘I suppose all we can do now is wait,’ he said. ‘Though I’d like to continue working through possibilities for the fallout so that I can be as prepared as possible for any questions he might have.’ He didn’t miss the brief expression of amusement on Laren’s face, however quickly she concealed it; he suspected she found it somewhat entertaining to see him as a nervous suitor. He also suspected that the appearance didn’t suit him, and as he changed the subject he tightened his manner with more formality to compensate.

‘Captain, I’d be grateful if you could speak to Lord Venin as per the earlier discussion…’

~

The next two weeks went incredibly slowly for Karigan – she suspected it was just as bad for Zachary, too, if not worse. After all, he had no idea what her father would say. Fortunately Councillor Dovekey had, after some consideration, come to support the idea – or at least, he supported testing the waters. Karigan was reminded rather forcefully of his former status as a Weapon when he contrived to catch her alone on more than one occasion in order to discuss the subject with her – always, somehow, somewhere no one else would hear them and she never seemed to see him coming, despite his age. She supposed some skills stayed with you for life.

The conversations they had weren’t long, and Karigan felt very much as though she was being tested somehow, but Colin was always polite. He seemed to be trying to judge not just her motives and her feelings for the king, but also her reasoning skills and her confidence. She was glad when those meetings stopped, though on balance they were probably more enjoyable than training with Drent, which seemed to have intensified. She threw herself into it, willing the time to pass faster.

~

Finally, the day was here. Zachary fidgeted in his private study. Captain Mapstone would meet Karigan and her father at a smaller, westward door, on the pretence of having drinks with them in her office – after all, Stevic G’ladheon outfitted the Green Riders. In reality, they would then meet with two Weapons, who would escort all three of them through the least used parts of the keep up to the Royal Quarters and into Zachary’s private study, so that they could talk.

Colin was already there, but he seemed content to wait in silence. Zachary fought the urge to pace. He remembered Stevic G’ladheon from their encounter at the keep, several years ago. Both of them had been rather distracted, Zachary by Amilton (and then by cleaning up after Amilton) and Stevic by the well-being of his daughter. What had he been like? Straight-forward. Honest. Protective. Zachary took a steadying breath, and took a seat by the fire with rather less grace than usual. Colin raised an eyebrow curiously, but he elected to ignore it.

~

Karigan and Stevic followed the captain and the two Weapons through the darkened corridors, pausing occasionally in the shadows so that servants would pass without noticing them. Karigan caught her father’s eye, and he pulled a face at the dramatics. She tried not to laugh; she couldn’t quite believe how glad she was that he was here. She didn’t feel nearly as nervous as she had expected to. After a few minutes of castle navigation, they were at the door to Zachary’s private study. Willis knocked.

‘Enter,’ came Zachary’s voice from the other side of the door. Willis turned the handle and held the door for Karigan and her father as they entered.

Zachary stood behind his desk, and then stepped around it to greet them. Both Stevic and Karigan gave their bows, and he nodded to them gravely; but then he offered Stevic his hand. Stevic took it.

‘Well then,’ Stevic said. ‘I suppose we’d better get to business.’

Karigan fought another urge to laugh. The situation was beyond bizarre. Remembering her agreement with her father, as they exchanged the pleasantries and everyone was seated she took a place next to Stevic and slightly away from Zachary. She didn’t dare catch his eye. She’d had to virtually ignore him for two weeks to avoid giving away her father’s answer – not because she couldn’t keep a secret, but because it was so hard to bear keeping him in suspense when he was so clearly worried about it.

Fortunately, Stevic didn’t make Zachary wait too long. He let the younger man talk a little, explaining his intentions in what, if you knew King Zachary well, you could see was a high level of nervousness. And then, when there was a convenient pause, he cleared his throat.

‘Sire,’ he said. ‘I’ll be entirely honest with you. There are a lot of things about this situation that concern me – the power imbalance, for one; the fact that Karigan is already sworn to you, for another; and the potential danger she could be in from angry nobles, for a third. But…’ and here he glanced at Karigan, who gave up trying to hide her smile, ‘as I said to Karigan back in Corsa, if this is the decision she chooses to make, then I will support it. My duty isn’t to stop her, it’s to make as sure as I can that she’s safe, and that you’re honest.’

He smiled on the last phrase to take the sting out of it, and Zachary’s face broke open into a relieved smile.

‘Then I think we all have the same aim in mind,’ he replied. ‘Including Karigan.’

Karigan grinned at him, feeling the giddiness rise in her heart. But the meeting would go on for a while yet.

There were reiterations of the safety discussions that had been had before. They went over details. They discussed all of the ifs and maybes of the potential support from the Lord-Governors, the risks and the ways to minimise them. The things that Stevic could do before any official announcement in order to help.

‘What about Karigan’s position as a Green Rider?’ Stevic asked at one point.

Captain Mapstone leant forward a little.

‘As you know, membership of the Green Riders is not simply a case of choice,’ she said. ‘But there’s no need, specifically, for Riders to go out on message errands, provided they’re also working for the country – take me. I haven’t been out in a message errand in well over a year, and then only down to the nearest village. But I’m an officer, and I work for the corps here. We don’t see there being any problems with Karigan’s membership provided she continues to work for her country – and that is, of course, what a Queen Consort will do.’ She gave Karigan a rare smile. ‘Sooner or later, her membership will end, and that will be that.’

Stevic glanced at Karigan uncertainly, but when Karigan nodded he shrugged and accepted it.

‘Regarding Karigan’s protection,’ he said, changing the subject, ‘I had a suggestion.’ He took a scroll from his pocket and held it out.

Zachary took the scroll from Stevic G’ladheon and unrolled it, skimming through its contents with a focused expression. He gave a small nod.

‘This seems reasonable,’ he said quietly, ‘though I’d like to look over it more closely and discuss some of the wording. Colin?’

Colin moved closer and looked at the scroll over the king’s shoulder. Karigan frowned; she hadn’t seen this before.

‘What is it?’ she asked quietly.

Zachary looked around at her and gave her a faint but genuine smile.

‘It’s a set of formal terms for – well, it’s an agreement to cover the logistics of the eventuality of if we should separate, either before or after marriage,’ he explained. ‘It’s a good idea – it puts some protection in place for you.’

Karigan nodded her understanding, and Zachary turned back to Stevic G’ladheon.

‘I assume all three of us would hold copies of this?’ he asked. Stevic nodded.

‘And one with a more neutral party,’ he said. ‘I thought – if he agrees – the Golden Guardian?’

Zachary considered this for a moment, and then smiled.

‘Yes, very appropriate,’ he agreed. ‘Lord Fiori is nobility, but he has a reputation for fairness and is well-positioned to publicise any breaches of faith or contract if necessary.’

Colin stepped back from reading.

‘I would agree, sire, that the principles seem reasonable, but I would also like some closer discussion of the details to make sure there are no loopholes or other problems.’

Zachary nodded again, and so did Stevic G’ladheon.

‘I believe you said two conditions?’ Zachary said. ‘May I ask what the second is?’

Stevic nodded again.

‘Karigan’s on her own here,’ he said. ‘That’s neither right, nor fair. I brought one of my sisters with me – ostensibly to look after my new trading interests in Sacor City when I return to Corsa. I’d like Karigan to be given time to visit her regularly, as much as won’t notice with her duties. And once the courtship is announced, members of Karigan’s family should be present in the keep.’

Zachary seemed to relax slighty, nodding in response.

‘Of course, I completely agree,’ he said. He looked around to be sure to include Karigan in the conversation. ‘I had a thought about the announcement, though obviously everything is changeable at the moment.’

‘Oh?’

‘One matter I’ve been considering for some time – it was actually suggested to me by Lord Penburn some months back – is the idea of a festival, of sorts, specifically designed to connect the nobility with the merchant and lower classes. The Lord-Governors would attend, and a number from the merchant’s guild – significant members of the community, and so on. All intended to bring down the barriers a little more.’

Stevic G’ladheon looked pleasantly surprised.

‘That sounds like a good idea,’ he said. Zachary smiled.

‘We need more connections between the two classes,’ he said. ‘There’s too much distance, too much dislike. And as an example of classes working together, the Green Riders will be invited to attend…’ He raised an eyebrow at Karigan, who smiled back nervously and nodded.

‘You’re very quiet, Kari,’ said her father.

Karigan shrugged a little awkwardly.

‘I know where I stand,’ she said, quietly. Zachary caught her eye and then both of them looked away, embarrassed; they both missed Captain Mapstone exchange amused looks with Stevic.

~

Bizarrely, after having passed like treacle for two weeks, time then seemed to speed up. Karigan waved her father off down Winding Way; he left her Aunt Gretta staying in town with the strict instructions that she was to visit at least once a week if her duties allowed.

Captain Mapstone seemed to have read Karigan’s mind, because Karigan was rushed off her feet with message errands. She relished them, even in the rain and mud, because she knew that each one could be her last. She was still, occasionally, slipping in private visits to King Zachary – in the presence of Captain Mapstone, of course, and usually Councillor Dovekey. They would discuss Zachary’s progress with the nobility, and usually there would be a few minutes, sometimes more, for Zachary and Karigan to talk in relative privacy while the two councillors discussed something else. Karigan felt as though she was living for two things – evenings talking with Zachary, and rides through the woods with Condor.

The months passed.

Zachary had discussed the matter (obliquely, with no names) with his cousin, the Lord-Steward of Hillander Province (‘cousin Leonar’), and felt sure of his support. Lords L’Petrie and D’Yer were given just enough information for Zachary to work out their stance – only after they had spent enough time with the king to be talked around into considering what was being commonly referred to as ‘Lady Estora’s Position’. And after due consideration, Zachary wrote an extremely carefully worded letter to Lord Coutre, and received an equally cautious but nonetheless amicable letter in return. In amongst his work with the Lord Governors, Zachary was also stirring up the lesser nobility – one of the commoner-noble marriages had taken place not too far away, so there were friends of friends at court, and piece by piece Zachary drew lines, evoked empathy, deftly and discreetly gave favour and withheld it, shuffling the political deck to his advantage. Karigan listened to the descriptions of events at first with awe, and then intimidated, certain she could never follow events on this level. But the more she listened, the more she began to understand – and after a few months she was not just asking intelligent questions, but adding comments, and guessing several steps ahead of Zachary’s descriptions.

The Merchant’s Ball, as it was dubbed, was announced to a surprisingly warm reception. The tide of opinion had begun to change. Arrangements were made; guest lists were drawn up. Even the Green Rider schedule was monitored closely, to have as many Riders as reasonably possible able to attend. Karigan’s nerves grew; but her confidence grew, underneath them, and almost beneath her own notice.

Finally, it was her last errand. A short one, to a nearby town, just five days before the ball. Karigan organised her pack herself, and Condor. Captain Mapstone was there to see her off. They didn’t speak – they didn’t need to.

Karigan rode down Winding Way and then out into the countryside, seeing it all with fresh eyes. One more trip, and then she would be accompanied everywhere. There was no one else on her road. She smiled, and nudged Condor into a gallop – why not, after all?

Chapter Text

‘All right, everyone quiet down and listen.’ Captain Mapstone did not have to wait more than a few seconds before the hush fell. She nodded.

‘Now, I know all of you are very excited for tonight’s festivities. And you’re right to be – it’s a great honour that King Zachary is granting you, and it is meant to be an enjoyable evening. However.’ She looked around the room, and her voice became stern. ‘There are a few things I need to make absolutely clear. Firstly, this is not a party, nor a casual celebration – it’s not like going down to the tavern with your friends. All the lords and ladies attending tonight, all the nobility, and most of the merchants, will be working. More power will shift and counterbalance in the hall tonight than in your average council meeting because this is where it happens.’

She heaved a breath and looked around at her riders, all attentive.

‘This means you cannot afford not to take it seriously. This event is intended to be enjoyable, but it will not be relaxing. I expect you to be on your very best behaviour, and all demonstrating the manner that befits the Green Rider corps. I’m not going to stop anyone from drinking,’ she continued, and ignored the relieved sigh from Yates at her words, ‘but I will say now that I won’t tolerate anyone drinking to excess. If I think you are exceeding your limit even slightly, I will have you removed and you will spend the next month scrubbing down the entire barracks.’ At this, she glared around the room. There were a few winces. She continued.

‘I also expect you all to keep to perfect form and manner when you interact with members of both the nobility and the merchant classes. Be polite. Be respectful. I have always backed you against any criticism from members of the nobility, and I still will, but tonight I ask that you do your utmost to avoid me having to do so.’

Ty and a few of the others nodded.

‘King Zachary –’ here Laren hesitated a moment before plunging on ‘- you are sworn to King Zachary, and your duty is first and foremost to him. King Zachary is, as of this afternoon, beginning a series of very delicate political manoeuvres. I’m sure some of you have heard the rumour that the King is considering the courtship of someone not of the nobility. I can confirm that this rumour is correct, and the details will be announced to the Lord Governors at today’s meeting.’

The Riders started whispering, but when she held up a hand they fell silent again, watching her intently. She fought the urge to look at Karigan.

‘While I completely support the king’s decision in this matter, tonight and the next few months will require a great deal of work – and all of you are part of that. The Green Riders come from all stations of life, and all ranks,’ she continued, looking from Fergal, to Tegan, to Alton, ‘and you are a shining example of how the classes can work together as equals and find respect for one another. Your behaviour tonight will be very closely observed by the nobility, and any problems – no matter how trivial – may be used against Zachary in the months to come. Certain members of the nobility – perhaps even Province-Lords – may try to provoke you, or be deliberately rude or offensive. If so, I want you to consider it an attack on your king – and you defend him by staying calm, by not rising to the bait, and if needs be by excusing yourself politely from the conversation. I will try to keep an eye on you all and be there to support you, but there’s only one of me.’

She sighed, and then gathered herself again. The whole room felt solemn now, serious. Some of the younger Riders in particular looked nervous.

‘In addition to supporting your king, you will also be representing myself and the Green Rider corps, including those Riders who are not able to attend tonight. The reputation of the Green Riders is what keeps you safe when you are out of the King’s reach and direct protection. King Zachary’s decision to invite you tonight will greatly support that, and may in all reality save lives in the future – the more the king demonstrates his respect and regard for the Green Riders, the less likely they are to be attacked or killed for fear of his response. That said, there is only so much he can do, and your behaviour tonight is absolutely essential in maintaining our reputation and therefore your safety.’ Laren allowed a little reassurance to enter her voice. ‘I have great faith in your abilities, all of you – and you should know that both I and King Zachary have no doubts that including you tonight is the right thing to do. We know what you’re capable of. But I have to make sure you understand the gravity of the situation.’

She met eyes with each Rider and felt proud at the determination she saw there.

‘Finally,’ she said, hyper-aware of Karigan in her peripheral vision leaning against the wall, ‘finally, though I know that I’ve given you reason enough to do your very best this evening, there is one more part to it. If supporting your king is not enough of a reason, if protecting each other is not enough of a reason, then I ask that you demonstrate the best of the Green Rider corps in order to support your friend, fellow Rider, and, if all goes according to plan, your future queen –’ the room went absolutely still, and Laren took a breath ‘- Rider Sir Karigan G’ladheon.’ 

There was a moment of complete shock and awe, and Laren capitalised on it before it could dissolve into a frenzy of questions. She held up both hands to stop anyone else from speaking.

‘That piece of information will be given to the Province Lords at the end of today’s meeting. I have special dispensation from King Zachary to pass it on to you all now, as I will not have time to meet with you between the end of the meeting and the start of tonight’s event, and it was important that you all knew before you attended. However, it is vital that it does not leave this room – and I mean that literally.’ She looked around at all of them. ‘You do not discuss it anywhere outside of this room, not in the corridor, not in your own rooms, not anywhere, and you only discuss it in this room if all the doors and windows are shut and there are only Riders present. Do you understand me?’

There was a mass of wide-eyed nods; most of the Riders were dividing their attention between listening to their Captain and sneaking glances at Karigan. Laren glanced briefly at her too; she was still leaning against the wall, her face neutral, but her position not entirely concealing the tenseness of her body. She was watching Laren, who gathered herself again and looked back at the others.

‘Now, I’m going to have to leave for the meeting. You know I expect you all to be dressed and ready and waiting in formation at a quarter to seventh hour. Ty, I leave that to you.’ She looked at Karigan, properly this time, and gave a little half-smile. ‘Karigan, King Zachary asked that I give you one last chance to change your mind about today.’

Karigan didn’t quite roll her eyes, but it was close, and Laren had to bite back a real smile.

‘I’m not going to change my mind,’ she said simply. Laren nodded, unsurprised.

‘Very well. Well, I’d best –’

‘May I say something?’

Laren turned at Alton’s voice, and after a brief hesitation, nodded. He stepped forward, and cleared his throat a little, watching Karigan.

‘Karigan, I – I can’t guarantee what my father’s stance will be. And I cannot influence it. But for what it’s worth…’ he moved one hand a little upward in a faint echo of the bow of a nobleman ‘… you have my support, and always will.’

Karigan met his eyes; there was a pause, and then she gave him a small but genuine smile, her expression grateful.

‘Thank you,’ she said sincerely. Alton nodded. Laren released a breath she’d been holding.

‘We’d better get going,’ she said to Alton, ‘or we’ll be late. The rest of you, not a word outside this room, and I’ll see you all in a few hours. Karigan – good luck, and I’ll see you later. You’ll know when he’s made the announcement.’ Karigan nodded, and with that Captain Mapstone left the room, Alton following behind her.

The door closed behind them with a soft thud. There was a moment’s silence.

‘Aeryc and Aeron, G’ladheon,’ said Tegan in awe. Karigan shrugged awkwardly, and then Tegan burst out laughing. The others quickly joined her, including Karigan. When the laughter faded out, it was Garth that spoke first.

‘You’re going to be our queen,’ he said, as though he couldn’t quite believe it. Karigan pulled a face, and Tegan started giggling again. Ty threw her a disapproving look.

‘Congratulations, Karigan,’ he said to her sincerely. Karigan gave him a nervous smile in response.

Mara seemed to finally find her voice.

‘Karigan, congratulations – but you’ve been holding out on us!’ she said. ‘How long has this been… well, going on? You must have known for…’

‘Months,’ Karigan confirmed sheepishly. ‘Zachary wanted to do a lot of political manoeuvring before it was announced. And we both wanted to take time to think it over before it happened.’

‘Oh I like that,’ said Yates, with a grin. ‘He’s ‘Zachary’, is he now – no title or anything! Very romantic.’

Karigan tried to glare at him but Tegan’s giggles were getting to her and she didn’t entirely succeed.

‘Are you really going to marry him, Karigan?’ asked Fergal, sounding stunned.

Karigan nodded.

‘Aha!’ Dale exclaimed. ‘Your father was here, what, six months ago? Was that why?’

When Karigan nodded again, Dale grinned.

‘I knew something weird was going on,’ she said confidently. Mara rolled her eyes.

‘You knew no such thing,’ she said, and ignored Dale as she stuck her tongue out at her. ‘He’s telling the Province-Lords tonight? Does he think they’ll support him?’

Karigan leant back against the wall again as she reiterated the discussion she’d had with Zachary a thousand times.

‘He thinks that over half of them will definitely not stand against it,’ she said. ‘and that most of the others will be neutral. I know he’s been talking to a lot of them recently about noble-commoner marriages and he’s confident he knows where they’ll stand.’ She shrugged.

‘I guess that’s partly why this event’s happening tonight, then?’ Mara asked.

Karigan nodded.

‘He said it was something he was considering anyway – he’s been trying to support Lady Estora’s stance as best he can, so something like this was always going to happen. But partly. Yes.’

‘Captain Mapstone said – how will you know when he’s made the announcement?’ Fergal asked. Tegan answered before Karigan could.

‘Because she’ll pick up a couple of shadows, right?’ she said. ‘King Zachary’s bride-to-be has to have Weapons on hand.’

Karigan nodded, fighting back a slight blush at Tegan’s conspiratorial tone. Some of the younger Riders looked awe-struck.

~

And now it came. Months of preparation, and it all came down to this. Laren forced her expression to stay neutral.

‘Do my lords have any other matters to bring to the attention of the meeting before I draw it to a close?’ Zachary asked. There was a general shaking of heads. Zachary nodded.

‘Very well,’ he said, and with barely a moment to steel himself he continued. ‘I myself have one final matter to raise before we all separate to prepare for this evening’s festivities. I am aware that there have been rumours circulating – certainly in the keep here in Sacor City and undoubtedly elsewhere – that I am considering to court a young lady who is not of noble origins. I can confirm to you today that this rumour is correct.’

A susurration of murmuring passed through the room, but all eyes stayed on King Zachary. Laren watched the Province Lords, trying to gauge their reactions. Some seemed intrigued, one or two disdainful, but most retained their carefully guarded neutrality.

‘Part of the purpose of this evening’s celebration is to allow her to be introduced formally, though she is known to most of you already,’ Zachary continued. This prompted some expressions of surprise, and those with less patience frowned slightly as they tried to guess ahead.

‘The young lady I intend to court is Rider Sir Karigan G’ladheon.’

The murmuring again, quickly silenced as Zachary opened his mouth to speak once more.

‘She and her family will be attending tonight’s festivities together. I believe that as that is the last matter to be raised, that this meeting can now be concluded. Of course if there is anything you wish to discuss with me I will be glad to speak to you tonight, or you are welcome to arrange a meeting with me for tomorrow. Thank you, my lords.’

With that he stood, and the rest of the room came to its feet in response even as he made his way to his exit. Laren needed to leave swiftly too – she had to ready herself for the celebration and there was little time in which to do it – but nevertheless she lingered, appearing to help the minute-taker and clerk gather King Zachary’s papers for him.

The three eastern Province-Lords left quickly and together, their heads bent to facilitate their murmured discussion. Predictable. Whatever their response would be, it would be unified. Lords Wayman, D’Yer, and Oldbury held their neutral expressions and left the hall separately. Lord L’Petrie was the only Province-Lord who looked openly pleased, but then Karigan was from his province and no doubt he was already considering the benefits of the future queen’s father operating merchant trade from within his territory. The young Lord Penburn looked thoughtful, as did Lord Adolind. Zachary’s cousin, the Lord-Steward of Hillander Province, had lingered as Laren had but when he met her eyes he only gave her a courteous smile and excused himself. Lord Mirwell was scowling and Lord D’Lvary approached him as they both left the hall, but Laren didn’t see anything else.

Going over everything she had just observed in her mind so as to be able to report to Zachary later, she hurried from the room. Fortunately she had had the presence of mind to have her change of clothes ready in an empty room nearby. A little undignified, but no one would notice, and it would save her the trip all the way back to the barracks.

~

The dress was lovely, of course. It was in soft, deep shades of purple and midnight blue, and layered over with silk ribbons and beautiful fine embroidery. The corset fitted perfectly, though Karigan had to breathe slowly a few times to make sure, and the whole ensemble… she had to stare at herself in the glass for a long moment before she worked it out. Unlike what she had worn to her ill-advised meeting with Braymer Coyle, this dress had been designed not to force her into the most fashionable appearance, but to work with hers. She had asked for more flexibility and more movement, and here it was – the colour suited her skin and made her eyes stand out – the skirts were light without being indecent, and had plenty of give in them for ease of movement.

Karigan didn’t realise how caught she was in her own reflection until she heard Mara make a soft, pleased noise. She looked around.

‘What is it?’

Mara gave a gentle laugh.

‘You,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen you be pleased with your appearance like that before.’

Karigan looked away from her, embarrassed.

‘I didn’t – I just thought I’d look different. That’s all.’

There was a rustle of movement, and then Mara was stood behind Karigan’s shoulder, looking at them both in the mirror.

‘Karigan, look at me.’

Karigan met her eyes in the glass. Mara’s expression was fond, but firm.

‘You’re beautiful,’ she said plainly. ‘You’re allowed to enjoy that, it doesn’t make you arrogant. And besides,’ she added, ‘it’s good that you feel right in the dress – I imagine you’re pretty nervous about tonight, let yourself enjoy this one thing, okay?’

Karigan swallowed, then squared her shoulders and lifted her chin.

‘I will, then,’ she said, trying to inject into her voice the confidence she didn’t feel. Mara laughed again and put an arm around Karigan’s shoulders. Their dresses brushed together, green and blue.

‘You’ll get there eventually,’ she said confidently, then grinned. ‘Especially when you realise that King Zachary’s struggling to keep his eyes away from you.’

‘Mara!’

Mara just laughed.

‘Don’t worry so much. You’re going to be wonderful. Come on, shoes, and then we’re both ready to go.’

A few minutes later they emerged back out into the barracks corridor. It was strange to see so many Riders here, and even stranger to see them in different colours. There were a fair few dress uniforms in evidence – many of the Riders would not be able to afford much in the way of formalwear. But there were also a handful of formal gowns – Tegan was in a soft peach dress, and Dale in light blue – and some of the men were wearing their own clothes including a very awkward-looking Fergal Duff, who was wearing a restrained shade of grey that made him look much more mature than he normally did. He pulled a nervous face at Karigan from across the corridor, and she shrugged at him uncertainly.

‘Form up,’ Ty called. The Riders shuffled into position, two by two, with Mara and Ty leading. Karigan took up her place at the rear, her two Weapons flanking her without a sound. She tried not to look as though she found them unsettling. The whole evening was starting to feel a little surreal.

They proceeded through the corridors in a respectable manner. Their dress and the size of their group garnered a few stares, but most of those were reserved for the two Weapons on either side of Karigan – and then for Karigan herself. She wondered how far the information had spread by now, now that the Province-Lords had been told.

Captain Mapstone was waiting for them just outside the doors to the great hall, and Karigan almost started in surprise – the captain was dressed in a formal gown, not her dress uniform, and it was a shade of bright amber that almost exactly matched her hair. The embroidery was in gold, as were the ribbons in her hair; she looked like a candle-flame. Karigan saw the same surprise on the faces of the other Riders as Captain Mapstone walked along their formation, checking they were all in place. When she reached Karigan, she gave her a grim smile.

‘All right?’ she asked.

‘Just about,’ Karigan said in response. The Captain nodded, but before she could walk away Karigan spoke again.

‘You look beautiful,’ she said quietly. To her surprise this provoked a genuine smile from Captain Mapstone.

‘Well, I’m not exactly youthful these days, but I polish up okay,’ she said. ‘It was a gift, from King Zachary. For all my help.’ She shrugged, and Karigan smiled back at her.

‘Okay everyone, stay in form, ready to proceed into the hall,’ she called, before taking her place at the head of the formation. The Riders shuffled back into their places. Unexpectedly Alton D’Yer, all clad in his clan’s blue and gold but with a Rider-green sash around his waist, emerged from the hall and found himself a place in the line with the others.

There was a brief pause while they waited for their moment, and then the column began to move and they entered the great hall.

Dressed as they were in their finery rather than their regular uniforms, they did not march in step like soldiers – not that the Riders ever did anyway, of course. Instead they proceeded into the hall at a respectable pace, fanning out into two lines as they reached the dais to pay their respects to their king. Karigan looked up to the dais.

Zachary looked flawless as usual, wearing the Hillander black and silver. The embroidery on his jacket was exquisite, and prevented his appearance from being too sombre – so did the smile that appeared on his face when they met eyes. He was too well-mannered to be so rude as to stare, but she did catch his slight intake of breath when she smiled back at him. After that moment of connection, he looked away from her and across the ranks of Riders.

‘My welcome to the Green Rider Corps,’ he said. ‘Please be at your ease, and join the celebration.’

At his words and a nod from Captain Mapstone, the Riders melted from their formation into smaller groups. Alton immediately attracted one or two members of the nobility and drew Mara, Fergal and Daro with him. Karigan envied him his ease, but did not stop to watch them. Instead, ever aware of the two Weapons walking softly behind her, she headed to where she knew her father would be waiting, nodding respectfully to those she passed without beginning conversation.

‘Kari, you look wonderful,’ her father said when she reached him, his face proud. She smiled, trying to keep her nervousness out of her expression.

~

The whole world seemed to be buzzing around her. She was fairly safely ensconced in her conversational group – Mara, Councillor Dovekey, and two of her aunts far outnumbered the three less familiar members of the nobility who had decided to join them. Zachary had asked her to stay with familiar faces for the evening while she got used to her new status. The greatest surprise had been the Coutres.

Lord Coutre’s approach had made Karigan’s heart feel like it was going to thud right out of her chest – if she said the wrong thing, if she made a mistake or caused offence –

But then there had been someone very familiar beside him.

‘Karigan!’

Lady Estora had pulled Karigan into a hug, and Karigan had returned it – grateful, but confused. Lady Estora had released her and stepped back, beaming. She was beaming.

‘Karigan, I’m so happy for you,’ she had said sincerely. ‘Are you happy?’

Karigan had managed to get enough of her wits together to nod, and Estora had smiled back at her.

After that little display had caught the attention of the surrounding nobles, everyone seemed to want to talk to her. She stayed close to her family and her friends; but then she saw King Zachary approaching through the crowd. He reached her; she curtseyed, and he smiled.

‘Rider Sir G’ladheon, will you dance with me?’

Karigan gathered her nerve and tried not to show it.

‘I’d be honoured, sire.’

Zachary offered her his hand and she took it, and he led her out onto the dance floor. With one hand holding hers and the other resting politely on the small of her back, he guided her into a fairly simply waltz-step. When she looked up at him gratefully, he smiled.

‘No need to make it more difficult than it is,’ he said, low enough not to be overheard by those around them. ‘When I was learning to dance I used to hate it. Spent the entire lesson sulking.’

Karigan felt a grin start to spread on her face.

‘You, sulking?’ she said teasingly.

He shrugged.

‘Only thing that helped me learn was thinking of it like the footwork in sword drill. Now I’m better at it, I find it more enjoyable.’

‘Is that supposed to be some kind of moral lesson?’

He laughed, and she watched the way the creases formed in his face, hardly aware of the movement of her feet as they travelled across the floor. His hand on the small of her back suddenly felt very intimate, and she hoped she wouldn’t blush. 

A number of other guests had joined them on the dance floor, she realised, registering the swirl of fabric as they passed them. She wondered what they saw.

‘You look beautiful,’ Zachary said quietly.

Karigan felt a blush start in her cheeks, and raised her eyebrows at him.

‘You’re biased,’ she retorted equally quietly, and this time they both laughed.

~

Quite a different conversation, however, was occurring in the opposite corner of the hall, between Lord Oldbury and Lord Wayman and a small number of the lesser nobility.

‘A merchant’s daughter for our queen, then.’

‘So it would seem.’

‘Hmph. Well. She’s pretty enough, I can certainly see why she caught his eye.’

‘I hear Stevic G’ladheon’s quite the shrewd bargainer. What do you suppose he’s exchanging for her?’

‘Oh now, don’t be crude.’

‘Well, you know what merchants can be like. We can only hope that she has some capabilities other than showing well in a gown – though it seems plain to me that King Zachary’s not been thinking with his head.’

There were several nodded heads and murmured sounds of agreement.

‘Rider Sir G’ladheon is the most courageous person I have ever known. Her nerve, her loyalty, and her integrity are impeccable, and she is a credit to her family, her friends, and the Green Rider Corps. I am honoured to call her my friend.’

The lords and ladies in the small group all turned to see Alton D’Yer, who had spoken, standing beside Lady Firell. Lord Oldbury raised his eyebrows and scowled.

‘Do you seek to rebuke me, boy?’ he demanded.

Alton felt his father’s hand, gentle but warning, on his shoulder. He spoke again, choosing his words carefully and keeping his tone respectful but not placating.

‘My lord, I do not presume to do anything to you. But Rider Sir G’ladheon is not just a good friend of mine – I also owe her my life. If I did not defend the lady’s honour in her absence, I would consider myself to be failing her both as a gentleman and as a friend, not to mention disgracing the manners with which I was raised.’

There was a slightly awkward pause, and then Lord Oldbury nodded a grudging concession. His wife placed a soothing hand on his arm.

‘Well said,’ she said to Alton. ‘Regardless of our opinions on the matter, there is no need for gracelessness.’

Alton gave her a respectful nod in thanks, aware that the rest of the small group was watching the three of them avidly. Lord Oldbury’s expression was still less than pleased.

‘Hm,’ he said. ‘I suppose I put you in an untenable position. But then; so, you seem to have a high opinion of the girl – the young lady, rather. Will you share it with us, so we can gauge some kind of understanding?’

His tone wasn’t exactly sarcastic, but it wasn’t exactly in earnest either. Alton considered for a moment, and then concluded that it would be best to respond as though the request had been both genuine and polite.

‘Well, my lord,’ he began. ‘I don’t know how much you know about Rider Sir G’ladheon already – no doubt information about her will soon be circulating – but I will tell you what I know, and hope there is not too much redundancy.’

He paused briefly to allow Lord Oldbury to nod in agreement, and then continued.

‘Rider Sir G’ladheon joined the message service in something of an unusual fashion; she was travelling alone from Selium to Corsa when she encountered a badly wounded Rider, dying on the road. Upon his request she took his message and his horse and completed his errand – and braved many dangers to do so. The message she was carrying contained information about Prince Amilton’s coup, without which the Green Riders would not have been able to come to King Zachary’s defence at Lost Lake.’

‘Admirable indeed, but this is common knowledge,’ interjected Lord Wayman. ‘Her history as a Rider was circulated when the king knighted her.’

Alton nodded in concession to this.

‘Very well, then,’ he responded. ‘Perhaps not a summation of her actions; rather my opinion of her character?’ He shrugged. ‘It is possible that I am biased. Rider Sir G’ladheon saved my life, and life of a number of people I care about. She is a highly respected member of the Green Rider corps, and I believe…’ he hesitated for a moment, wary of revealing too much, but plunged on ‘…she is also highly regarded by the Black Shields due to her actions in defence of the king’s life during Prince Amilton’s coup.’

‘Highly regarded? By the Weapons?’ said Lady Firell. Alton shrugged again.

‘All I know is that they permit her to wear the black, if circumstances demand.’

There was some fascinated muttering at this.

‘Black Shields are notoriously discerning on the subject of loyalty,’ said Lady Wayman speculatively. Lord Oldbury harrumphed again, though some of the others nodded in agreement. Alton had a slight twinge of unease; was that information about Karigan confidential? Perhaps he should not have shared it; but it was too late now. He spoke on.

‘I don’t know that there is much I can say that can convince you, my lord, beyond what I have expressed already,’ he said. ‘I have a great deal of faith in Rider Sir G’ladheon; I believe she deserves this honour, and that she has the integrity, resolve, and the wit to see it through. I hope that in time you will come to understand why I hold her in such high regard.’

‘I hope we do too,’ said Lord Wayman, sounding unconvinced. But Alton saw one or two of the nobles break away into discussion, looking intrigued, and hoped he had shifted the winds in Karigan’s favour at least slightly. It would be a hard road for her, and the fewer opponents she had, the better.