Actions

Work Header

This Rider Crowned

Chapter Text

Karigan awoke slowly, drowsy and comfortable in the warmth. Then bloomed the knowledge that it was Zachary warm beside her. Despite her sleepiness, she opened her eyes and turned her head to see him.

The curtains were drawn, but the sunlight was creeping around them. They’d slept in for a while, then. In the dim morning light, she could see Zachary’s shape in the blankets. He slept on his side, one leg kicked out, and one of his arms was lying over her. She felt content, as though she wouldn’t need anything more for a very long time, or ever – and then her stomach rumbled.

Reluctantly, she sat up, trying not to disturb Zachary. She must have been sleeping in the same position for some time, because her back ached slightly and her joints felt stiff. Still sat in the bed, she rolled her shoulders and tried to get a little more comfortable. When she glanced around at Zachary, he had his eyes open and was watching her.

‘Good morning,’ he said softly.

~

Breakfast was waiting for them in the next room, Lia and Sethan on hand to serve or summon anything that was needed. Karigan took in Zachary’s manservant as he poured tea for them; she’d hardly had the chance to see him before, but like Lia was to her, he was primarily responsible for the more personal needs of the king. She supposed she would be seeing a lot of him. His expression was polite and respectful, and she thought she sensed genuine warmth beneath it. Lia, on the other hand, was obviously struggling not to beam too broadly. Karigan avoided her gaze, trying not to look too embarrassed. It felt strange that everyone today would know what she and Zachary had done… well, not the specifics, but…

She felt Zachary’s hand on her shoulder and turned to him.

‘All right?’ he asked gently. ‘You seemed to be drifting off.’

She nodded.

‘Still adjusting,’ she said. ‘Good, though. What’s happening this afternoon? We’re at the afternoon tea and then –’

‘Mm, lunch to ourselves, afternoon with the nobility, then dinner with both your family and mine. Then the evening to ourselves.’

She could see him struggling not to make that last phrase laden with meaning and intent, and grinned pointedly at him. He flushed and went back to his breakfast, but he looked pleased.

~

‘Ah, there the captain is now!’

Mara turned to see Captain Mapstone heading down the corridor towards them, with a small sheaf of papers. When she reached them, she stopped, and nodded to Colin.

‘Glad you could come down. This is all that’s needed for now, they’ll be down for lunch.’

Colin took the proffered papers and raised his eyebrows at her.

‘And?’ he prompted. ‘How are our newlyweds?’

To Mara’s delight, Captain Mapstone all but grinned.

‘High spirits,’ she said, her eyes glittering in amusement. ‘Not seen either of them that happy or that relieved for a while. They were joking around a lot, too – hard not to start laughing at them.’

Colin chuckled.

~

‘You’ll be on our way home soon, I assume,’ Estora said quietly. Estral nodded.

The two of them were walking through the gardens together. Estral moved more carefully than Estora had known her to before, her hand occasionally straying to the now-visible curve of her belly as though checking it was still there.

‘We’re going back with Lord L’Petrie’s party for most of the way, though it’ll be just father and I once they turn south.’

‘Is your father staying with you?’

Estral smiled faintly.

‘He’s promised he’ll only be travelling short distances – he has a few errands to run, but he’ll stay within a day or two’s travel of Selium. Until the baby’s born and I’m comfortable with him leaving.’ She sighed and, spying an unoccupied bench, went to sit down. ‘What about you? Will the Coutre family be staying at court for long?’

‘My family are leaving for Coutre Province in about eight days,’ Estora answered, taking a seat next to Estral. ‘But I might not be going with them.’

Estora smiled at Estral’s surprised expression.

‘Why?’

‘Well,’ she said carefully, ‘Father and I have been talking a great deal. And mother and I – all of us, really – about me. About my future, about what I want to do with my life. It’s strange; turning down the king seems to have thrown my whole life into question. Neither of my parents even hint at me getting married any more, though my father has said I have but to raise the suggestion of it and they will support me.’

‘That’s good,’ Estral said, and Estora could tell that she meant it. ‘I’m glad things with your family have settled down – but why won’t you be going with them?’

Estora took a breath and sighed it slowly out, thinking how to compress her long conversations with her family down into a short explanation; and then she realised she didn’t really need to. Estral always seemed to understand her, and Estral would ask for any details she needed.

‘I feel as though I’ve only ever been taught to be one thing – a powerful man’s wife. I would like to learn how to apply my skills in other ways.’ She watched Estral’s expression. ‘My father has written a letter for yours, and for the Dean. Pending acceptance, I’m to study in Selium for a time.’

Estral’s face lit up – she beamed at Estora.

‘I can’t believe you made me wait a whole half an hour before telling me that! You’re getting to be as bad as Karigan. Estora, it would be wonderful for you to be in Selium! I’m not going to be out and about much, but you’d be welcome to visit as much as you pleased – or…’ Estral faltered for a moment, and then pressed on more carefully, ‘…or you could stay with me again, if you would like.’

Estora put her hand on Estral’s.

‘I would like that very much,’ she said honestly.

They sat there in contented silence for a few minutes, taking in this new future.

‘I told my father about you,’ Estora said, after a while. ‘He’s been very sweet about it, though I don’t think he completely understands.’

Estral blinked at her.

‘And he doesn’t… well… mind if you come and stay with me? He does realise we’ll be…’ Estral coughed. ‘I mean we don’t have to do anything, I mean, don’t feel obliged, but…’

Estora took mercy on her.

‘I know what you mean,’ she said, only blushing slightly. ‘Father is… regardless of what it is, once he’s settled on a decision, he tends to follow through. He’s decided that I’m entitled to make a choice about how I spend my time, and who with. And he won’t argue with me. Actually, I think he was rather hoping we would stay together; staying with the Golden Guardian is a much more respectable way of doing things than hiring my own household, from a certain point of view. And it means he has less to glare at people for objecting to at home.’

‘Mm. What are you thinking of studying?’

Estora looked out across the gardens.

‘I don’t know yet,’ she said. ‘History and politics; maybe another language. I was hoping to ask Karigan for her thoughts, actually, as well as you. Both of you studied quite differently.’

Estral nodded.

‘All quite different to the topics you’ll have studied at home,’ she said.

‘I want to try something different. I’m not sure what it is yet. I don’t…’ Estora frowned, thinking. ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what I’ve learnt. I quite enjoyed most of it. But I want to find out if there are other things I’d enjoy more. If it turns out I was lucky enough to study my best topics originally, then,’ she shrugged, ‘I don’t think I’ll mind. But at least then I’ll know. For certain.’

‘Sounds like an adventure,’ Estral said softly. Estora met her eyes.

‘Yes, I think it will be.’

~

The second day they were married, Karigan attended the meeting that she had been anticipating with mixed feelings of curiosity and wariness. She met Councillor Dovekey in his office to begin her education on the Order of the Black Shields.

Zachary had informed her of the meeting a week or so before the wedding. It was a necessity, she was told, that the queen had a greater understanding of the Weapons than the rest of the country – aside from the king himself, of course. She was guarded by Weapons as the king’s fiancée, but only on his command. Once they were married she became an immediate member of the royal family, and therefore their protection of her needed no order. She would also have a degree of power over them that she had not had before, and needed to understand their emergency procedures, their obligations and what could not be asked of them, their scheduling, and their process of discipline. In order to gain this, she would have a series of meetings with Councillor Dovekey.

Karigan was intrigued by the idea of learning more, but also somewhat intimidated. Though she was friends, in a way, with individual Weapons, she had never become entirely comfortable with their order. But it was an inevitable part of the position she now had.

The meeting, however, turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic. It mostly focused on the intricacies of the schedule and their internal structure, which was interesting for about the first ten minutes. When she got back, Zachary grinned at her expression.

‘I thought it was going to be exciting too,’ he said as she threw herself ungraciously down onto the chair beside his. ‘If you’re born into the family you get the talk when you’re fourteen, and when Amilton had it he acted as though he’d been given the secrets of the gods themselves. And then…’ he spread his hands and sighed over-dramatically. Karigan laughed.

‘To be fair, it is sort of interesting,’ she said. ‘But just not… exciting.’

‘Mm. They do have exciting stories, I’m certain of it. But they thrive on being mysterious, and they keep that sort of thing to themselves.’

‘Even from the king?’ she asked, an eyebrow raised, even though she thought she knew the shape of the answer.

Zachary took a sip of his tea.

‘Maybe they told things to the Sealender monarchs, but somehow I doubt it. You know during the clan wars, the Order of the Black Shields held Sacor City Keep out of the hands of any of the clans? Until Hillander had clearly won the majority of them, and then they acknowledged it and let the keep be occupied.’

‘So they sort of stand apart?’

‘In some ways, yes.’

The day was quiet and peaceful; the half-open window let in a cool breeze and the very indistinct sounds of the city around them. Karigan shifted in her chair and rolled her neck to release some tension, and then caught Zachary’s suddenly attentive expression. She laughed again, but fondly, and reached out to him.

Now this, she could get used to.

Chapter Text

‘Have you thought what you’re going to call them?’ Estora asked.

They were walking through Selium on a rare free afternoon, peering at all of the more interesting shops and watching the people passing by. Estral moved slowly, one hand on her belly as she thought about Estora’s question.

‘I have a few possibilities written down, but nothing seems to stick,’ she said with a small frown. ‘I need to decide on something, otherwise it’ll be “the baby” for months.’

Estora laughed.

‘You’ll think of something,’ she assured her. ‘Have you… have you heard from your gentleman friend?’

Estral didn’t answer for a minute or so, and Estora let her be. She did not know who shared Estral’s affections, and she was not sure she wanted to. It was easy, somehow, for him to be a blank-faced gentleman. But…

‘Will he be coming to visit?’ she asked, suddenly struck by the thought. Her ignorance couldn’t endure for much longer, in that case. Estral seemed to have had the same thought, for she sighed.

‘I’m not sure,’ she confessed. ‘I’ve written to him, but I haven’t heard back yet – though he’s barely had time to receive the letter, so it’s mostly my impatience I’m struggling with.’ She looked at Estora, and then looked away.

‘You know I’d tell you who he was if you asked,’ she said softly.

Estora thought about this.

‘Does he know who I am?’ she asked.

Estral shook her head.

‘No. He may have worked it out, though, he’s likely to have heard you’re staying with me. Then again, he’s often away from…’ she trailed off.

They walked on in silence for a few minutes.

‘It’s not that I don’t want you to know,’ Estral said after a while. ‘It’s just that it feels odd to tell you when I haven’t told him who you are, and vice versa, and I worry that you’ll…’ she gave an uncharacteristically self-deprecating laugh that sounded unhappy, ‘oh, I don’t know. Judge my taste in men, or something silly.’

Estora considered this carefully. Estral was usually forthright and confident – for her to express this level of uncertainty was rare.

‘I think I see why it would make you nervous,’ she said eventually. ‘But if he comes to see the baby, we’ll probably end up meeting. Perhaps telling us both beforehand would be best? And… Estral, you have good taste in everything. Even if I do not like him, how can I not be happy, knowing that he makes you happy?’

Estral nodded. Estora continued, warming to her topic.

‘If he and I are dissimilar, then we shall know that we are fulfilling very different parts of your heart. If he and I are similar… then we shall know your taste very well, shall we not?’

Estral laughed at that.

‘Mm,’ she agreed. ‘Let me think about it. I have a few months yet.’

~

When she looked back on those first six months or so of her marriage, Karigan would always remember how enjoyable it was to learn something new about Zachary almost every day – and to realise, after a few weeks, that he was enjoying the same thing in reverse.

She learnt that he slept quietly and almost completely still – the second night they had slept beside each other she had woken briefly in the early hours and felt compelled to roll over to check that he was breathing, he was so quiet. He learnt that she was a heavy sleeper who took several minutes to come to herself in the morning, and that she often sprawled out over the bed and anyone who was in it while sleeping; she learnt that he didn’t mind being sprawled over in the slightest. She learnt that he usually worked late into the evening, but also that the work he did then was extraneous rather than necessary and he was able and more than eager to put it down and spend time with her instead, even if he occasionally needed a reminder. He learnt that she muttered over difficult reading and grumbled over figures. And that was just in private.

In public, the world seemed both totally different and bizarrely the same as before. Karigan felt odd walking through the keep as the queen, noticed by everyone she passed; but at the same time it was the same keep she had been living in for the last few years of her life, and it contained much the same people. And more to the point, dealing with the nobility seemed to be getting easier…

She mentioned this to Zachary one evening when they were sat by the fire, tea cooling on the table between them. He gave a small, satisfied laugh.

‘Good,’ he said.

Karigan shot him a look.

‘Smug,’ she said accusingly. ‘And it’s definitely good, I just wish I understood why. I’m still not…’ she trailed off, knowing she didn’t have to explain this to Zachary again. She knew it was unreasonable to expect herself to be an expert in everything court-related this quickly, but that didn’t stop it being frustrating when she couldn’t see all the intricacies of it. Especially when Zachary understood it so effortlessly.

Zachary shifted position and looked at her.

‘I am smug,’ he said. ‘I’m pleased that this is happening the way I expected it to.’ He saw the sceptical expression on her face and laughed again. She liked the way it made his face open up.

‘The way you expected it to?’ she prompted.

Zachary shrugged.

‘All right, I’m being overly pleased with myself. But it is satisfying.’ He paused, collecting his thoughts. ‘All right. Premise: the nobility have opinions about everything. They dislike a great number of things. But what they hate most of all is change.’

Karigan thought about this, and then nodded. Zachary continued.

‘You, a commoner, are announced as my fiancée. Some of them like you; ignore them for the moment. Some of them dislike you. They may have a fairly neutral opinion on you personally, but they don’t like the idea of a commoner on the throne. Why?’ He ran a hand thoughtfully through his hair. ‘Because it indicates a change to the system. There are other, smaller reasons, but that’s what they amount to.’

‘But why would the nobility be afraid of change – or, more than commoners or anyone else?’ Karigan returned to him. Zachary raised an eyebrow at her and she thought about it for a minute.

‘Because they’re grounded in tradition,’ she said slowly. ‘Because tradition is a part of where their power comes from, their stability and their security.’

Zachary nodded, smiling.

‘Precisely.’

‘But what does this have to do with people suddenly being a lot nicer to me?’

Zachary shifted position, leaning more on one arm, and Karigan tried not to be too obvious about watching the way his shoulders moved under his shirt. She could get distracted later, she wanted to finish the conversation first.

‘Before we were married, you were just… a potential route that things might take. I didn’t think of you like that, but they did. A lot of people tried to put you off, either with social snubs or – well, Lord Barrett’s method.’ He reached for his tea. ‘You didn’t have solidity in their eyes. The route to stability, then, was to push for the marriage never to happen.’

‘But now it has…’

‘But now it has. And suddenly you’re the new stability. They want you to sink into your role so that your origins make barely a difference to anyone. And of course, those who felt that our marriage would be some kind of disaster for the power of nobility will now seek to solidify their own power by attaching themselves to you – well,’ he added sheepishly, ‘to me, through you, actually, but you see my point.’

Karigan nodded. She wasn’t offended by the point he had made – it wasn’t as though the idea that her connection to the king was more valuable to many people than she was as her own person was in any way a new concept. It was nevertheless a strange phenomenon to stand in the centre of.

Zachary finished the tea and set the cup back down on the saucer.

‘They’ll want to be like you, you realise?’ he said. Karigan frowned slightly.

‘How so?’

He shrugged.

‘When I was young, and my grandmother was on the throne, almost all the women at court that I knew were like her. Blunt, forceful, went riding and hunting in trousers, some weapons training, that sort of thing. When my mother became queen-consort, there was a shift – her ladies were the very, um, graceful and elegant types. Very focused on manners and decorum, like she was. And that continued after her death, partly because there was no one to replace her, but also probably because my father idolised her. They all knew what kind of woman he had chosen, and it wasn’t that many of them were aiming to be his second wife… well, I imagine there were a few of those. But many of them were married already…’ he trailed off thoughtfully, but Karigan had already begun to understand.

‘My father taught me that one of the most useful things you can do when entering into a trade arrangement with someone new was to find out something that you both had in common,’ she said. ‘It didn’t matter if it was related to the trade or not; maybe you both grew up in the same place, maybe you both like a certain kind of wine or enjoyed the same sport. If you couldn’t find something out ahead of time and the deal was important, you’d try to get interested in something the other person was interested in. Because people are much more willing to make a fair deal with someone if they think they’re alike.’

Zachary had been nodding slowly as she spoke, but now he gave her a surprisingly wicked grin.

‘You wait,’ he said. ‘One year from now, every lady around your age at court will have a favourite horse that they’ll profess to tend to personally. Three of them will manage to name theirs after the same type of bird and it’ll be a minor scandal.’

Karigan started laughing.

~

Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. There were still mutters when she walked in without Zachary by her side; still the occasional disapproving expression on the face of some lord or lady who had to stand for her arrival when before she’d been a mere message-carrier. But Karigan found that the privacy of the royal quarters was like a balm and, between that and her new status, she was able to handle the pressures of court socialising much more easily than she had during her engagement. She and Zachary did entertain in the royal quarters, of course, but mostly only family and closer friends; and the inner circle of the quarters was reserved for the two of them alone. As much as she missed the companionship of the rider barracks – it was strange, sometimes, to wake up to quiet instead of some Rider or other barrelling down the corridor or Dale and Fergal talking at top volume in the common room with the door open – the royal quarters felt like a much safer haven to retreat to after a busy day.

Her training continued; and six months after becoming queen, she was pseudo-kidnapped and left in a dark room where she fought off several attackers. The fact that this was the traditional form of the swordmaster’s exam did not stop her from describing it like that, still indignant, to Zachary that evening. He was very clearly trying not to laugh, and she came around reluctantly.

‘I can’t believe you swore at them,’ he said an hour or so later that evening, still grinning at the thought. ‘Wish I’d been there.’

‘The proper phrase is “cussed them out”, and I’ll do it to you if you like,’ she said grumpily, only half-joking. He stuck his tongue out at her and she shook her head, smiling.

It was delightful to see the more playful side of Zachary. He was prone to seriousness, but there was a certain level of mischief in him that she was slowly learning how to provoke. She knew that he, in turn, was sharing this side of himself more because he had realised how much she enjoyed it.

~

My dearest Alton,

Thank you so much for your gifts, they are truly wonderful. I am writing to tell you that the baby has been born, and she is perfect from the brush of the little hair she has right down to her tiny toes. I can’t quite believe she was something that we made together – she seems like some kind of impossible miracle.

I have been very glad for my father’s presence, as well as the warm support of the sweet lady I told you of before. I wish you could be here – perhaps, if your father permits it, you could visit? I’m sure I could find something useful for you to do in Selium if I think hard enough. If not, I shall try to brave some travelling to come to you myself – though I fear it will be some time before I feel ready to travel, and even longer before I am confident of taking the baby with me. Perhaps that sounds silly – I could hire half a dozen servants and full guard and travel in luxury, after all! But Fioris have always travelled like minstrels, and the thought of filling out an entourage is quite bizarre to me. Though I shall, if I need to. Though I will of course understand if it is better for us not to visit you – father seemed to think that your father’s temperament might have improved with time, but I will of course be discreet if you need me to.

Ridiculously, it is only now that I have realised I have not yet told you the most important part – her name. I have called her Calla, like the lily; though as we discussed you will be more of an uncle to her than a father, I nevertheless hope that you like her name. Do not think that your opinion is irrelevant to me simply because we must be apart.

Little Calla has eyes like mine, but I think she will have a D’Yer shape to her face as she grows. Her hair is downy and fair, but that might change. And I don’t know if she will be a singer yet, but she certainly has a strong pair of lungs!

As much as I love her, a piece of my heart remains always with you. I hope we may be closer soon – I hope you are well – I miss you.

All my love,

Estral (and baby Calla)

Chapter Text

In the privacy of the queen’s sitting room, Karigan and Ben were just sat there, grinning at each other. She tried to compose herself, but even despite the nervousness her spirits were soaring.

‘How. Um, how far along…’

‘About a month and a half, my lady,’ Ben said, still beaming. ‘I think normally it’s kept private until three months, but the chief mender’s supposed to be informed. Do you want to talk to her, or shall I? She’ll want an appointment to speak to you either way.’

Karigan licked her suddenly dry lips, thinking fast.

‘Could you tell her?’ she asked. ‘I need to tell Zachary…’ she groaned internally as she realised how little time alone with him she had today. ‘But I might not be able to get him on his own until this evening, so not a word to anyone else. And pass that on to Valenna too.’

Ben was nodding. Then he seemed to gather himself together, and stood. He gave the formal bow, but Karigan barely noticed.

‘I’ll see to it,’ he said, ‘my lady.’

She nodded vaguely and he left the room.

Sitting there alone, she tried to get her head around the idea. She put her hand on her stomach, then self-consciously removed it. She stood and walked over to the window; after gazing sightlessly out at the view for a minute, she turned and leant against the windowsill, staring just as blankly at the room she stood in, her mind too busy trying to get a grip on the situation.

Zachary. She needed to tell Zachary. It was intolerable to keep this to herself. Oh, but he was going to be so pleased. The excitement was tingling under her skin, but somehow not quite erupting. Karigan grinned at the empty room, and then tried to focus. Where would Zachary be now? He had training on the practice fields, she couldn’t tell him there and Drent did not like to be interrupted. Well? What on earth was being queen good for if she couldn’t occasionally overrule Armsmaster Drent?

Karigan’s grin became something more like a smirk before she contained herself again. She ran her hands down her clothes, glanced in the mirror to check she was presentable, and then swept out of the room on a wave of excitement, a Black Shield stepping forward to follow in her wake.

~

The king trained alone, always, and with no observer except the occasional passerby – who would be unlikely to recognise him from a distance, wearing the black of the Weapons – partly out of an elitist tradition, and partly to prevent anyone but the Black Shields from becoming too familiar with his fighting techniques and possible weaknesses. But Karigan knew where he would be. Not worrying about the ground (soft underfoot, not perfect for her indoor shoes), she strode across the field to where Zachary was exchanging moves with the Armsmaster. Drent held the fight when he saw her.

‘An interloper on the field,’ he said, in a tone that burned with disapproval. But as she wasn’t actually his student in this particular moment, there was a modicum more respect than before she’d been crowned.

‘Armsmaster,’ she said, not quite managing to hold back a grin. ‘I’m sorry, I need to borrow your student for a moment. Could you excuse us?’

Scowling, Drent gave a very perfunctory bow and walked away, allowing them enough distance for privacy. Zachary was looking puzzled.

‘Something wrong, Kari?’ he said calmly, rolling some of the tension out of his shoulders and watching her carefully.

‘Nothing’s wrong,’ she said, knowing she probably didn’t sound entirely like herself. But then she had no real template for this. ‘Everything’s wonderful, actually. Ben says there are no problems, and he’s going to keep an eye on it but he thinks everything should be fine.’

Zachary’s brows creased and Karigan realised that she hadn’t said the most important part yet. She took his hand and watched his face.

‘Zachary, I’m pregnant.’

~

Armsmaster Drent was well-versed in not reacting to anything, but he looked around when he heard the… well, it was a squeal, really. King Zachary had picked his wife up in an embrace and spun her around. Drent rolled his eyes. Young love.

~

Laren and Colin exchanged glances across the council table. Colin cleared his throat gently.

‘Sire?’ he prompted. ‘You were saying?’

Zachary came back from wherever he had drifted off to and seemed to fumble for a moment while he found his place in the conversation.

‘Yes, the delegation to Rhovanny,’ he said. ‘Where were we?’

Laren caught Colin’s eye again and then leant forward.

‘Lord Horemby’s illness,’ she said. ‘We can delay the delegation or replace him.’

‘Mm. I feel like it might be worth delaying a little while to allow him the chance to recover – he is the foremost expert on the negotiations and as the Rhovans are not sticklers for schedules…’

The conversation continued. Laren glanced at Karigan. The younger woman seemed to be paying her usual careful attention to the topic, adding comments here and there but mostly listening. However, every time she glanced at Zachary – particularly when he seemed to drift away from the conversation for the fifth time – Laren caught the sparkle of laughter in her eyes. Laren determinedly turned her thoughts away from it. Whatever it was that Zachary kept thinking of, it was evidently between him and Karigan, and none of her business. She wished he’d drift off thinking about it outside of council meetings, however.

Eventually, the meeting drew near to a close. Laren managed to stifle a yawn – she had been up unreasonably early that morning for no good reason.

‘As we’ve covered most of today’s business in a shorter than usual time, I have one more topic. More of a future consideration than a current issue, but something I would like us to be aware of.’

The council shifted. They were familiar with the king’s “future considerations”, but there had not been one in a while. Zachary liked perfecting systems, making improvements, sometimes changing entire processes to make them more efficient. And he had learnt early on that the best thing to do was to introduce the idea considerably ahead of time to allow people to get used to it. Laren did not know what this one was, but Zachary had been asking her a lot of questions about Rider logistics lately, so she was braced for some kind of change to the Corps.

‘I have been paying a great deal of thought to the topic of communication across the kingdom,’ he began, and Laren knew she had guessed correctly. ‘At the moment, with the greatest respect to the Green Rider Corps, necessity and resources force it to be spotty, intermittent, slow and generally unreliable – with the exception of royal messages. And even with the use of the Green Riders, the dangers of solo travel across the country mean that even a relatively safe message can go astray.’

Laren nodded. This wasn’t news. She glanced at Karigan again, who looked interested but not entirely surprised, and wondered how much influence she had had on this.

‘A healthy country – good trade, good tax system, good law – depends on good lines of communication. The middle classes and up can pay for their own messengers, who all work privately and to varying qualities. Most of our people rely on passing traders. If they’re lucky, they might catch a generous Green Rider travelling the right way, but that’s rare.’

Zachary allowed a moment for everyone to nod in agreement to this. Classic tactics: start with what you knew everyone agreed with. Get people in the habit of agreeing and they were more likely to carry on.

‘We have some systems in place – the independent messengers, and the Green Riders. Both of those systems work, in their own way. And the best way to improve anything is usually to start with what works.’

Laren caught on perhaps a second before the rest of the table.

‘You’re talking about expanding the Rider Corps?’ she said, almost without thinking.

Zachary gave her a small smile.

‘Yes. Rather drastically, actually.’

Colin had the smallest hint of a frown, but he cleared his expression when Laren looked at him. She knew what he was thinking: if the king made a move like this too obviously, it would be seen as solely due to his new wife’s influence. That didn’t necessarily mean it was a bad idea (on the contrary, Laren had been rather enjoying Karigan’s extremely practical inputs in council meetings for the last six months or so), but it did mean that the rest of the nobility might dismiss any other reasoning behind it and treat it as a vanity project.

‘In what way, sire?’ Colin asked cautiously.

Zachary smiled again.

‘Very carefully, I assure you,’ he said, and Colin looked slightly chastened. ‘But in the long-term… the Rider Corps is an extremely valuable group of people, and they are not being used to their full potential. Especially with the Second Empire threat ongoing. With an enemy hidden among us, the certainty of the Rider Call gives us a solid ground to stand on.’

Colin nodded thoughtfully, and Laren held back a satisfied expression. That caught Colin – as head of security that fitted extremely well with his priorities.

‘In a perfect world, waiving for a brief moment the logistics of finances and time,’ Zachary continued, ‘we would have two Riders at every tower on the Wall, and the capacity to change them out after set periods of time. The D’Yer Wall is a target point for the Second Empire, and we cannot afford to allow our security there to be lax. Riders are the only people who can access the towers. I would also revive the Rider Waystations, and if at all possible prompt a better enforcement of the law along the roads. The quality of the roads, too, is something we only keep to on the larger trade routes. But our people live scattered across this whole country, and they all have business to be about in one way or another.’

There was a few moments silence.

‘We’ve always avoided regular message runs,’ Laren said slowly. ‘They’re dangerously predictable.’

Zachary nodded.

‘This is why this would have to be a series of changes across a number of issues,’ he said. ‘We can have regular message runs if there are more riders – they can be paired for safe travelling – and especially if there are improved waystations and better general security on the roads.’

‘And I assume you would want to allow a certain amount of common use of the message routes? But how do you stop the messengers from being overwhelmed?’

The conversation went on for another half an hour. Karigan broke her silence to add in commentary about the roads and possible Rider logistics, but mostly she let Zachary and Laren speak. Laren wondered again how much influence she had had on this one, but wondered more why Zachary seemed to be forcing himself to concentrate. What secret did the two of them have?

Of course, later, when she found out, she could have kicked herself. But that wasn’t for another month.

~

Karigan spent two hours working on the Hillander family finances that afternoon. She had never particularly enjoyed the work when it had been for the Rider Corps, but it was an entirely different matter when you had three clerks who had already done all of the fiddly bits and you could hand it back to them if you got bored. She didn’t hand it back, but it was nice to know that she could.

Her thoughts that afternoon kept straying back to Zachary, and the warm feeling in her stomach never entirely went away. A baby – she was going to have a baby – Zachary’s baby. A prince or princess, but also theirs.

The only dint in the afternoon was the return of Rider Hemmon, one of the newer Riders who Karigan did not know so well – he had been waylaid by Eletians in the north and given a message from them to the king.

The necromancer known as Grandmother is believed dead. But something is coiled and waiting for its time.

Karigan was briefly reminded how much she disliked the vague and unhelpful manner of the Eletians. But she pushed the thought away. Only another hour of finances, then she had a meeting with Sperren – she was studying the ins and outs of the legal system, and while Zachary tried to find time to teach her himself she often ended up studying with Sperren or one of the clerks.

Fortuitously, her studying finished earlier than she had anticipated. She felt her excitement build up again as she made her way back up the stairs to the royal quarters. Zachary had a free hour – he would have found himself something to do, but she was certain she could distract him. They would barely be able to see each other all week, with the tax season coming up and Zachary up to his eyeballs in paperwork and demands for his time. But for now they had an hour – an hour! – all to themselves…

Her grin got more difficult to conceal as she pictured Zachary’s expression.

A few minutes later she was dismissing the Weapon at her side and slipping into Zachary’s private study.

‘You’re early,’ Zachary said, looking something between crestfallen and sheepish. Karigan’s brow creased. This was not the reaction she had anticipated. Zachary was sat at his desk, which was covered in a number of books. She took a few step closer, and Zachary’s sheepishness appeared to increase.

‘Um,’ he said, somewhat uncharacteristically. Karigan picked up one of the books and looked at the title.

Caring for the Gravid: A Healer’s Guide to a Woman’s Condition.

She raised her eyebrows and then looked at the rest of the books scattered across Zachary’s desk. There was a very distinct theme. Zachary coughed.

‘Well, I realised I really have no idea – I mean, I’ve never had to know – I’ve not really had the extended acquaintance of anyone carrying a child, I mean, obviously briefly but you’re not brief, I mean –’ he straightened his spine and took control of his words, ‘I thought I ought to – well – understand better. So I went to the library.’

Karigan put the book down, and walked around the desk. Perching on the arm of his chair, she leant down and kissed him gently. When they parted, Zachary kept his eyes closed for a moment before looking at her.

‘I love your approach to ignorance,’ Karigan said frankly, with only the smallest hint of a tease in her voice. ‘But I was wondering…’

‘…if there were other ways I’d like to spend my time?’ Zachary answered, his eyes lighting immediately, and she laughed.

‘Bold, very bold,’ she teased, and Zachary pulled her down into a deeper kiss.

~

Back at the Wall. Always, back at the Wall.

Alton paced along the rough path and back, his eye ever drawn back to the dangerous emptiness of the breach. The letter from Estral was folded in his pocket. By this time he knew it by heart.

He had started half a dozen letters to her in response, all earnest and caring. But they all seemed to dissolve into poor excuses for his absence. Father is concerned about the WallI have my duties hereperhaps I will be able to visit soonwhenever I think I will be able to travel, some duty or other comes up…

He made himself stop in his tracks, and took a slow, steadying breath. It was just bad timing, that was all. He would see to the men at the Wall, check that they could mange for a month or two without him, and then come the hells themselves he would ride to Selium. Father would understand. Estral would understand. She had to.

He turned back to the Wall.

Chapter Text

Mara sighed as she shuffled through the requisition forms. Why was it that the way-stations always seemed to all need resupplying at once? That wasn’t true, of course, but it felt true. Well. At least this was the last bit of work of the day. Then she would be done, and she could join the others in town. Drinks to celebrate Karigan being pregnant.

The thought alone brought a smile to Mara’s face despite her work. Karigan was still sheepish and quiet in front of large numbers of people, but the happiness had seemed to shine on her face. And embarrassment – it wasn’t public news yet, but the Riders had all worked it out pretty quickly. Honestly, had she expected them not too? Mara’s smile broadened, but then faded slightly as she looked back at the paperwork.

Steeling herself, she started on the work. The faster it was done, the faster she could go.

~

Dear Estral,

I don’t know why you’re asking me for advice. But I get the impression (correct me if I’m wrong) that neither Estora nor Alton know who the other one is? This seems silly. Have you considered telling them? They’re both perfectly sensible people, maybe you could work out some kind of accommodation.

As for how I am… adjusting. Slowly. Painfully slowly. I still don’t react straight away when people call me “my lady”, and then I feel stupid. I can keep up with Zachary’s plans and politicking when it’s just the two of us, but when I’m actually at a dinner or a party it feels overwhelming. I feel like a stupid little girl, playing dress-up. I can hold my own in front of the nobility, and Zachary seems to think that I’m holding the respect of the majority – I trust him, but I wish I could see it. Maybe then I’d stop feeling like such a fake.

It’s strange, you’d think that this feeling would have kicked in before, when we were engaged. But that was different – now I have the title and am faced with living up to it every day, I’m painfully aware of all the ways in which I can’t quite do that yet.

Don’t get me wrong, Zachary is… perfect. Well, he’s not. But imperfect in the perfect way that humans are? Something like that. I still daydream about him all the time, even though we’re married. And if I’m feeling worried or stupid, a smile from him is usually enough to lift my mood. So being married to Zachary is everything I could have hoped. Especially when it’s just the two of us (get your mind out of the gutter, I see you!) in the royal quarters, talking, or walking through the gardens, or reading. You know I said once I thought we had the same sense of humour? I’m sure of it now. So there are so many good things in my life. It feels churlish, complaining. And I suppose I’ll grow into the position. I just wish it had already happened!

I’m not being a great friend today, either – you asked me for advice and I’ve just written three paragraphs about my own problems. Well, I won’t strike them, but let’s go back to you. I think you’ve got two very good things there – Alton and Estora are wonderful people. They’ve got a lot of responsibility, though, and maybe you need to talk to them about that more. They want you in their lives, don’t they? So follow the advice you gave me last year (is it only a year ago??) and TALK TO THEM. You’ve always been so good at being frank. I’ll act as arbiter if you want me to, but only because I owe you, and not because I think I’d be any good at it.

A happier note: how is little Calla? I know it’s not that been long since the wedding and you’re extremely busy – but I’m missing you already. I still don’t have a lot of friends here – at least, not that I can talk to like I can talk to you. Mara and I are growing closer, though, which helps. Write back soon, tell me all about Calla, and classes, and Alton and Estora and all the rest of it. Looking forward to hearing from you!

Your friend,

Karigan

PS: big news of my own on the horizon. Not supposed to announce it officially yet, but I bet you can guess!

~

Former Lord Barrett captured at the Rhovanny border, correctly identified, and executed. Conducted an investigation as to his level of knowledge on the S. E. prior to his death. Results were mixed, but will not confine them to paper to be safe. Due to arrive at my anticipated date barring incidents, will report in full at that time.

The note was not signed, but Zachary recognised Rider Spencer’s neat, clear handwriting. He sat back, thoughtful. That was one loose end tied up. And possibly more, if Barrett had given away any valuable information, though that seemed unlikely. Barrett was a dupe, albeit a willing one. The Second Empire had been extremely quiet in the last year, and Zachary itched to know what they were planning. Surely they hadn’t just quietly faded away? Groups like that ebbed and flowed, certainly, but they seemed so quiet as to be almost forgotten. It was worrying. Not least because it was impossible to remain as vigilant as he needed to over an extended period of time without a clear target. And the longer they were quiet, the harder it was to keep the Lord Governors mindful of the danger.

~

Alton did his best to focus on the beauty of the architecture as they rode into Selium. And it was beautiful, particularly the older parts of the university. He remembered his lessons and tried to identify different periods, styles, materials… it was difficult to maintain, however. His eyes drifted and he reviewed his memory of the city’s layout. Around that corner, up that street, the left again and then past… and there was the Fiori household, and Estral. And little Calla. Calla Andovian – it had sounded a little awkward to Alton’s ear until he had realised that the name was in fact chosen to sound best with Fiori as a surname, when the little girl eventually became the Golden Guardian. He tried not to smile to much. His little girl. Oh, he had adjusted to the idea of being more of an uncle-figure than a father, and he was determined to be sensible about not being able to see her often. But that did not mean she would not be important to him. He shifted slightly in the saddle, wondering where Estral was at this time of the day. Teaching? At home with the baby? Out and about?

It took time for them to get to their lodgings, and then become settled, and then decide the plans for what was left of the day. Alton chafed at every delay. He wanted to walk straight out, to run, to rush to Estral like an arrow. It seemed intolerable that he could be so close to her and yet have to stay waiting where he could neither see nor hear her. But his father would undoubtedly hear back from the guards about this trip, and Alton did not doubt it would be harder to get another one if Lord D’Yer felt his son was being reckless with the family reputation. As it was he was already expecting a rebuke. He had not sought his father’s permission to come here, merely picked out a small guard from the excess at the wall and set off. Evening. He would go to her in the evening.

~

‘Lord Mirwell. Welcome back to Sacor City. Please, do have a seat.’

Lord Timas Mirwell sat down gingerly on the other side of Zachary’s desk. Zachary gave him a polite smile and nodded to the servant by the door, who poured a small amount of brandy for each of them. Not a typical drink for a meeting, but Zachary felt that they would both be needing it. As the servant left, he settled more comfortably in his chair, watching Lord Mirwell.

‘I was sorry not to be able to greet you when you arrived, but I’m afraid petty court took up a great deal of my time this morning. I trust you’ve made yourself at home in your quarters?’

Mirwell nodded.

‘Yes. Thank you, my lord.’

‘Good.’

There was a pause, in which Lord Mirwell did his very best to conceal his nervousness, and then Zachary took pity on him.

‘Mirwell, I am not one to hold a grudge. Neither is Karigan,’ he said, watching the young Lord-Governor’s expression carefully. ‘You behaved inappropriately, your punishment has been declared, and I won’t allow it to escalate beyond its bounds. You’ve been in your… shall we say propationary period? For eight months now. Lord Kester has been writing to me frequently.’

Zachary sat back in his chair. Timas Mirwell’s expression was guarded, but somewhere in there he could see nervousness and a little bit of hope. Good. Time to encourage him back into position.

‘You’re a damn good Lord-Governor, Mirwell,’ he said frankly, and watched the other man’s eyes widen slightly in surprise. ‘When you’re managing your province, you do it to a high standard. I have no problems with that. What you need to work on – what we need to work on – is your relationship with your peers.’

Lord Mirwell’s expression darkened slightly. Zachary waited.

‘They would rather not associate with me,’ the young lord said after a short pause. ‘Father’s behaviour – my recent…’ he looked away from Zachary, his expression sullen. ‘They have never made it easy. My duty is to my province, and my priorities are there.’

Zachary nodded.

‘I won’t deny that, Mirwell. And I’m glad of your priorities. But Mirwell must integrate better with the rest of the country. You’re under the shadow of distrust now, but you respond to that by skulking in corners and avoiding people. You’re only allowing the shadow to grow.’

He let Timas sit with this thought for a few moments. Then he added,

‘It’s not purely about better dinner conversation,’ he said gently. ‘Building friendships, connections, with the other Lord Governors – particularly those whose lands border your own – brings benefits to your people. More support during difficult times. Better trading. Mirwell does not have to stand alone.’

Mirwell shook his head, frustration on his face.

‘How am I supposed to deal with them now? Strike up conversation as though nothing’s wrong?’ he said bitterly.

Zachary smiled wryly.

‘Yes,’ he said. Mirwell looked at him in confusion, and he tried to explain.

‘It’s as I said to begin with,’ he said. ‘You did something wrong. You were put through your punishment. Now we start afresh. I will be treating you as though the matter is entirely behind us. You speak to the others as though it is. It will take a little time, but I think you will be surprised at how swiftly they adjust.’

Mirwell still seemed uncertain, but Zachary could see what was behind it now.

Your father never taught you to unbend, he thought. Never taught you to accept a mistake without losing your dignity. You’re learning, but it will always be hard.

He turned the conversation to province logistics, noting Mirwell’s relief. But it was a start.

Chapter Text

Here. Finally.

Alton knocked on the door of the Fiori household, having left his guards behind him. A servant let him in and led him down a corridor to a study, and opened the door after knocking.

‘Estral, I –‘

Alton stopped himself. Estral was not alone; Lady Estora Coutre sat next to her at the desk, apparently interrupted in reading something over her shoulder. Of course, he had known she was here – studying, yes? Or something. Surprising for her to still be here at dusk, though.

‘Alton,’ Estral said, smiling nervously. ‘I wasn’t expecting you.’

Alton felt as though something fundamental inside him was losing stability.

‘No. Well. I had to slip away somewhat abruptly. I’ve been trying to since I heard –’ he stopped himself again, glancing at Lady Estora.

‘I believe the two of you have already met,’ Estral said, her usually musical voice sounding somewhat stilted. Alton nodded, not quite understanding her expression as she looked between the two of them – and then understanding bloomed.

Estora was Estral’s lady friend. And she was staying near her – with her? – while studying at Selium, which allowed them a great deal of privacy. Alton felt a burst of jealousy that they could so easily spend time together, but forced himself to dismiss it. It wasn’t their fault; and if she, Estora, had been able to be with Estral when he hadn’t, and could he wish for anyone more graceful or kind-hearted to do so? Clearly not. Obviously. He reached somewhat desperately for his manners.

‘Of course, Lady Estora. It’s wonderful to see you,’ he said. ‘I hope you’ve been enjoying your time in Selium?’

Lady Estora rose gracefully from her seat.

‘I have, Lord Alton. It is good to see you too,’ she responded, with much more grace and warmth than Alton felt able to summon. ‘How was your journey? Here, come and join us by the fire.’

~

Alton had never been more grateful for his lessons in formal social interaction. And he found himself in much admiration of Lady Estora, who smoothed over the conversation remarkably, sent for tea, and settled both Alton and Estral by the fire before excusing herself “for a few minutes of air before it’s entirely dark”. He and Estral sat in silence for a few minutes, sipping tea and staring at anything other than the other person. Then Alton realised how much calmer he was feeling. He gathered himself, and met Estral’s eyes.

‘Estral, I am sorry for dropping by unannounced,’ he said softly. ‘Every time I started to make plans to leave to come west, some issue or problem would come up that father insisted I deal with. In the end I decided I wouldn’t ask his permission; I had to see you. But if I hadn’t been abrupt, he might have stepped in.’

Estral nodded, her expression softening.

‘I’m glad you’re here,’ she said, and Alton felt warm relief spread through him. ‘I’ve missed you. And of course you must meet Calla.’

‘Is she…’

‘Sleeping, at the moment. Blessedly.’ A quirk to Estral’s smile told Alton she was joking. ‘Are you… will you be staying long?’

‘A week is probably the most I can manage. I don’t dare anger father more than that, he’s likely to come down on me like rock as it is. It’s not that I mind,’ he added, trying to explain, ‘but the worse terms we’re on, the harder it is for me to get away to see you.’

Estral nodded again, but their was sadness in her eyes.

‘I understand,’ she said softly.

There was another silence.

‘So,’ Alton said, shooting her another look. ‘Estora Coutre?’

~

The man passed the main gates of the castle and continued around; his normal walk, a parcel slung over his shoulder. The parcel was the same every day, but no one needed to know that. It was a good disguise, in that it was not a disguise at all. It simply indicated that he had a purpose, and that was enough to have him immediately dismissed from the minds of anyone who noticed him.

He stopped on the corner to change shoulders, watching the guards on the gate out of the corner of his eye. There was the change; three guards on each side of the gate, now doubled to six. Same time every day.

He nodded to himself. He’d need to slip inside again soon, to double check his findings. The guards shouldn’t be an issue; nor should the servants, or the nobility. Their patterns were predictable, confined to certain bits of the keep. The Green Riders were tricky, but there weren’t too many of them at the moment. It was relatively easy to keep approximate track of their numbers. The Black Shields were a different problem.

But all he had to do was report back in as much detail as he could. The actions from there were not up to him.

He continued on his way, completely unnoticed.

~

Dear Karigan,

Your poor feet! I was lucky, I didn’t have too many problems in that area when it was my turn. Which is quite unfair, really – after all, out of the two of us, I’m the creature curled up at a desk with my feet up all day, and I can only imagine how frustrating your swollen feet must be to you with your fidgety ways. Still, an excuse to sleep in, surely? And I reserve the right to remain jealous of your distinct lack of morning sickness, because that is completely unjust.

By the time this letter reaches you, it’ll only be a month away, so hopefully your feet will be feeling a little better soon. I’m aiming to be there around the time you’re due – or at least, just after – and I can’t wait to meet the little one! You’ve been very reticent on the topic – have you and Zachary chosen any names? Estral, I’ve always thought, is an excellent name for a girl. Just as a suggestion, you know, in case you’re stuck.

I suppose the other two have told you by now – or one of them has – but I have never mentioned to you how grateful I was for your advice. After a slightly bumpy start, Alton and Estora have been very good about knowing each other (a strange phrase, but how else do you phrase it?) though Estora has taken to teasing me that I have a taste for Lord-Governor’s children. I think this is somewhat unfair, and told her it’s more in spite of their positions that I loved them. Alton seemed to think this was very funny. And apparently they now write to each other, ostensibly just as friends but they keep teasing that they’re writing about me. What have I done?

In all seriousness though, I’m much happier this way, as you quite rightly predicted.

Karigan put the letter down, smiling to herself. She was sat in the royal quarters, her swollen feet propped up, waiting for Zachary to get back from greeting… oh, whoever it was this time. She had been excused due to what Sperren had delicately referred to as ‘the effortful work of carrying on’ (she’d nearly laughed, but it seemed unfair to the old man, who was trying to be helpful in an area he had very little understanding of). But it was only three weeks until her due date, and the nobility were trickling back into the castle. Everyone wanted to be there for the royal birth. If all went well there would be a formal naming ceremony and every province lord would expect to be there, not to mention as many of the upper nobility as could fit in the hall. After all, this was their future king or queen.

Karigan rested a hand on her stomach. That was the strangest part of it. She had a hard enough time imagining the curled up little kicker inside her being outside her, in a cot, as a child – let alone as an adult. As an adult wearing a crown.

Ben’s healing ability meant that they could have found out if it would be a boy or a girl, and Ben himself already knew. But Karigan and Zachary had chosen not to know. After all, they couldn’t tell anyone without explaining Ben’s healing ability, and finding out on the day seemed to be all part of the experience.

She chewed her lip thoughtfully. Her father and aunts were expected in a week. Then the province lords. The keep would be full and busy again.

And then she would have the child.

She sat quietly, trying to fit it all in her head.

Outside, the man was walking past the city gates again. And in the south-east, something was stirring.

Chapter Text

Fergal Duff was on his way back from an errand, halfway up the Winding Way, when the world started to twist in front of his eyes. He leaned forward and held on to Sunny, trusting that she would take him the rest of the way. Shaking his head didn’t seem to clear it, neither did drinking water; worried that he would black out, he clung onto Sunny more desperately. The world continued to twist, like a heat-haze or like someone was trying to wring the world out like a towel. He shut his eyes, but it didn’t help; he could still feel the twist, as though it was happening in some way that was independent of sight or normal rules…

Magic.

Fergal felt his heart speed up. Gritting his teeth, he nudged Sunny into greater speed and checked his sword and throwing knives were all in their places. The twist was centred on the keep.

~

For the people in the castle, it was with an odd crack of sound – like slender wood falling on stone – that everything changed, in a heartbeat. The keep was full to the brim with people waiting for the royal birth. The wind – and it could not be a natural wind, no natural force worked like that – swept through the keep like a vengeful god. People were helpless in its wake. Guards were thrown against the walls, their fellows barely calling to seal the keep before they too were knocked aside. Servants and nobility alike fled it down corridors, but no one was fast enough. When the wind caught them it pushed them with a much greater intelligence than the winds of a common storm. People sheltered in small rooms, in broom cupboards, in wardrobes, and found doors locked behind them or heavy things blocking their exit. In the larger halls, people were swept into the air for a few seconds before falling down into a crumpled heap.

Laren counted herself lucky – she was in her study when the winds rose. The moment she realised that the force that had slammed open the door was not a person, she threw herself under his desk and braced herself against either side of it.

In the royal quarters, the wind was more intense, whistling and shrieking as it stormed through the corridors and rooms, knocking Black Shields and servants over like puppets.

Zachary, in his study, stood in surprise as the wind swept through. He dodged the bookcase as it fell but the swinging door, loosed from its hinges by the weight of the wind, caught him on the back of the head and he fell like a stone.

The entire keep was in chaos – and when order came, seemingly from nowhere, it was the wrong kind.

Men and women, all armed, all masked, all bearing the mark of the black tree – they strode through the corridors. The people of the keep were already overcome, for the most part. It was hardly a battle at all.

~

Zachary came back to consciousness as someone jerked his arm, but he kept his eyes shut and his body lax, and just listened.

‘Dead?’

‘No, just out cold.’

He felt someone begin to lift him, and allowed himself to open his eyes a crack and get an idea of the number of people in the room. He made three before he closed his eyes again. Three wasn’t too bad. No Black Shields, obviously, and he didn’t have a weapon, but surely one of these people would have one he could get hold of…

His arms were roughly slung over two peoples’ shoulders and he was half-carried, half-dragged from the room, his feet scraping along the floor as though he still had no use of them. He waited until they were definitely in the corridor and the men carrying him were starting to breathe heavily under his weight, and then he moved.

He pulled his feet under him again, leaning back and bringing the two heads that were conveniently under his arms to collide in front of him with an unpleasant thud. Then he pushed them forward and turned to run towards the staircase.

He made it to the end of the corridor before someone tackled him, shouting – they were both pushing to get the upper hand, but Zachary was disoriented, his head still aching, and as he struggled out of their grip he stepped back into empty air –

~

Condor’s hooves thudded across the ground. Karigan tried desperately to keep herself from moving too much, almost standing in the stirrups, trying to absorb the bounce of Condor’s momentum in her knees. It wasn’t working. She didn’t even know for certain that it was the right thing to do. But she had to keep going.

Chapter Text

Yates had been on his way down from his newly-found painting spot when the wind hit; luckily he had been able to pull himself into a niche in the stone wall and avoid any real damage. When it stopped and the keep fell eerily quiet, he straightened up.

Leaving his paints and paper behind, he walked softly down the corridor, checking carefully around each corner before turning it. Something had happened. Emergency rules said return to barracks for instructions, but that was if the keep was attacked by an invading army. Magical wind had not been covered.

Slowly, Yates made his way to the more well-used corridors; when his sharp eyes caught movement, he darted through a side door and held still. Through the crack of the barely-open door, he watched as the people walked down the corridor. He recognised the mark of the black tree and scowled. Second Empire. There were a lot of them. And they’d used some kind of magic, which they might be able to use again. He considered his options, and took a look around the room he had found himself in. Some visiting noble’s drawing room, he didn’t know which one. It seemed to be empty. Yates padded over to the fireplace and found the poker. Not very sophisticated, as weapons went, but better than nothing.

~

Zachary came to again. He had a moment to screw up his eyes against the sudden light, and then the pain hit. His leg felt like it was on fire. He fixed his eyes on a point in the ceiling, heedless of the light now, and tried to steady himself. Right leg. Definitely broken. He had fallen, hadn’t he – he remembered the feeling of stepping into nothing but not the actual drop. Must have.

He made himself look around.

They were in the throne room – he had been left on the floor by the foot of the throne. The Lord-Governors were there too, bunched into a corner, quiet. More than one of them looked relieved to see him awake. Spread out across the rest of the room were men and women bearing the black tree, armed and masked. A coup, then. His second. He looked around the room again, turning his head only slowly. No guards. No Black Shields. No small council. No Karigan.

Karigan will be fine, he thought hazily. Karigan had a tremendous knack for solving problems like this, she fought and she worked and –

His mental picture of Karigan the knight in shining armour met the current, pregnant Karigan with a jerk, and his heart turned over. No.

Surely she had found somewhere to hide. Perhaps the Shields had managed to get her down to the tombs, they would be rallying there to retake the keep. Karigan would be there, giving orders and seething with frustration that they would not let her just go up there herself. She’s fine, he told himself, aware that his internal voice was sounding hysterical. She has to be.

~

Heart thudding so loud he was almost surprised they couldn’t hear it, Yates followed the Second Empire group at a safe distance until they reached the throne room. He didn’t dare try the main doors, so he slipped around through a few different corridors until he found the monarch’s side entrance. The bolt had been thrown on the inside. He swore under his breath – then he heard a soft hiss.

‘Psst, Yates.’

He turned.

‘Connly?’ he more mouthed than said. ‘You okay?’

Connly emerged into the light, and Yates winced – it looked like he had taken a bad beating.

‘Damn wind shoved me into a cupboard, I hit the wall pretty hard,’ he said. ‘I’ll be fine. I saw them herding the Lord-Governors this way earlier, remembered this entrance. Thought I could see what’s going on.’

‘It’s bolted,’ whispered Yates. ‘But I just thought – there’s a minstrel’s gallery in there somewhere, right? Is the way to it on the inside or the outside?’

Connly’s eyes gleamed.

‘Outside,’ he said. ‘They won’t have bothered with it, you couldn’t attack through it. But you can spy. Come on.’

They took a slightly meandering route to get to the other side of the throne room without passing any Second Empire guards.

‘There’s not many of them,’ Connly whispered to Yates. ‘Just thirty or so. They’re counting on their magic to make this work. If we can stop that, they’re done for.’

Yates nodded.

‘How can we stop it?’ he asked. ‘And we’ll need to get the guards and the Black Shields if we can.’

‘I saw one of them,’ Connly said. ‘He had this… device. I was with Fergal, but I sent him to go see how many Riders he could round up. Fergal said the whole object was flaring off magic, they were channelling that wind with it, controlling it. Looked like glass.’

‘So we either smash it or steal it,’ Yates said, thinking. ‘Or one of us does. The other one should head to the Weapon quarters, see if any of them are stuck behind doors or something. If they managed to direct the wind, they’ll have aimed to the Weapons first, it’s only common sense.’

Connly nodded, then held a finger to his lips. The two of them had made it to the door to the minstrel’s gallery. Yates tried the handle and scowled.

‘Locked,’ he mouthed, disheartened. Connly, however, grinned.

‘Not a problem,’ he mouthed back. He pulled a small piece of metal from his pocket, knelt down in front of the door and inserted it into the lock. Yates raised his eyebrows. He knew some of the Riders picked up odd skills, but lock-picking? And from the upright and thoroughly respectable Lieutenant Connly? Now there was a story to ask about if they all got through this.

The lock clicked softly and the door swung open. Yates followed Connly through and pulled the door closed behind them. They climbed the narrow staircase cautiously, crouching as they reached the top and emerged onto the gallery so that they stayed below the balustrade.

There were about ten people bearing the black tree scattered about. The Lord-Governors were huddled in one corner, and the king was lying at the foot of the throne, his right leg bent at an unnatural angle. Yates swallowed.

One of the second empire people was indeed bearing a glass… object. About the size of a human heart, it was twisted and seemed to bend the light around it in an uncomfortable way. The woman holding it seemed uncomfortable with it; she kept it held away from her body and her posture was tense. They all seemed to be waiting for something in silence. A leader? Yates wondered. He spotted Lord D’Yer in the crowd of Lord-Governors and wondered where Alton was. And then Karigan, who was conspicuously absent from the collected nobility.

He met eyes with Connly, and nodded to the staircase again. They both made their way down in silence. Then Yates led the way to a store room a few corridors along, and they shut themselves in to talk.

‘I think splitting up is the best plan,’ Connly said. ‘But breaking that glass thing is going to be damn tricky. Or stealing it. They know it’s their weak point.’

Yates nodded.

‘We need more people,’ he said. ‘But we’re all separated. What if we could draw them out from there, get them running?’

‘The glass woman won’t go.’

‘She might,’ Yates countered. ‘If there was a good enough reason to leave the room.’

~

In the throne room, Lord Timas Mirwell had strode out from the group of Lord-Governors and drawn himself up to his full pomposity.

‘Which one of you is in charge, here?’ he said. ‘You’d damn well better answer, after everything I’ve done.’

Zachary watched him as he spoke on. There’s that potential, he thought through the haze of pain. Get him out of the nasty habit of bullying other people, and he’s got just the thing he needs. Clever, too. Playing on their manipulation of him, acting as though something was prearranged.

Either that or it was and he’s a lot more subtle than I thought.

‘No one told us about anyone working with you,’ said the woman clutching the glass object, her expression surly.

‘Well clearly you haven’t been fully informed,’ Lord Mirwell responded, in a tone that made hers seem positively subservient. ‘Perhaps you should check with someone who actually has authority in your bag of mistfits.’

‘He’s just trying to talk us out of the room,’ said a young man lounging by the door. ‘Ignore him.’

Mirwell threw him a disdainful look. Then he turned back to the woman.

‘Look, you’ve got what you need. You used the damn wind thing you were all so proud of. There’s nothing they can do. But if you don’t do something now, it’s all going to fall apart.’

Nonsense, though Zachary dazedly, but well-performed nonsense. Encourage them to break with whatever their plan is, it will make it more likely to fail; the unprepared make the most mistakes.

No amount of so-called preparation is going to change the facts of the real world! The amount of time you spend huddled up in that damn library, it’s a wonder you even know what the rest of the world looks like!

His father’s voice, echoing down the years. Not good. He tried to focus on Lord Mirwell’s voice, but found himself slipping into darkness again.

Pull yourself together, Zachary. No one is going to do it for you.

He glimpsed Karigan’s face in his mind before the darkness swallowed him again.

~

They were back in the minstrel’s gallery again, just in time to see one of the second empire folk storm out of the room and Lord Mirwell smirk in satisfaction.

‘Nine, then,’ murmured Connly. Yates nodded. They were crouched behind the balustrade clutching the results of their kitchen raid. It was a dangerous and probably stupid plan, but anything meant to induce panic probably fell into that category. Yates just hoped they’d pull it off without hurting any of the Lord-Governors or the king.

Connly put a hand on Yates’ shoulder.

‘I can manage now you’ve helped me get them up the stairs,’ he said softly. ‘You go around the side corridor. Use the knife the way I showed you to lift the bolt, go in and carry the king out. The Lord-Governors will have to sort themselves out.’

Yates nodded. The Second Empire folk were clustered closer together now, having some kind of argument that he couldn’t quite hear.

‘Get the king somewhere you can lock, leave the string tied to the door handle so I can find you. Then wait there. I’ll set off the chaos, and go after glass woman. Once I’ve got it, or if I have to change plans, I’ll head to Shield barracks and see if I can find any of them. I’ve got my pins. I’ll unlock anything I can.’

‘Got it. Good luck, Connly.’

‘You too.’

Yates slipped down the staircase yet again.

~

The first sack of flour hit the ground with a thud. The second one caught one of the second empire on the back of the head and knocked him down.

‘What –’

Then Connly sent the lit match down, and there was a bang, and a lot of shouting. At the same time, Yates slipped in via the now unbolted side door, and pulled hard on the rope that connected to the heavy velvet drapes. The room was plunged surprisingly quickly into darkness except for the flames where the flour had caught.

Yates’ vision was perfect in darkness, but also tended to have no problem with contrast – most of the people in the room would be effectively blinded for a few seconds, but he had no problem. He darted across the room, picked up the king and pulled him over his shoulder. Then he got to the door, shut it behind him, and moved as fast as he could down the corridor. There was shouting behind him. He made a few random turns, trying not to be too predictable, then found a store cupboard with a latch.

He put King Zachary down as carefully as he could manage. The man was pale and sweating, his hands trembling. Yates wondered if he should do something about the leg – it looked awful – but decided that it was probably better to find a mender. He knew basic first aid, but not much more than that.

Running feet sounded in the corridor. Yates held his breath.

‘He couldn’t have run on his own – someone grabbed him!’

‘One of the Black Shields?’

‘They’re all shut up downstairs, or elsewhere.’

‘Are we sure?’

‘Selmi, set the creature on the keep again. The one who threw the flour went west; him, at least, we should deal with.’

Glass woman. She was outside. Yates listened hard, trying to work out if the sounds outside indicated more than three people. The two had been talking, and then Selmi as the third. He drew his poker out from where he’d thrust it through his belt.

If he leapt out now, they’d find the king. Not acceptable. But he would have the advantage of surprise. And he might not be able to tell which way they’d gone if he tried to follow them afterwards.

Then the woman, Selmi, spoke.

‘It’s getting harder. The creature is not… pleased, to be so controlled. I will need more space than this corridor to do so properly.’

‘Fine. Let’s move. Head up to one of the bigger rooms.’

Yates could hear their footsteps moving away. Holding his breath, he eased the door open, edged out, and then shut it softly. The piece of string tied to the handle would tell Connly and therefore the Black Shields where he was. He could go after the glass magic.

The three people were still in sight at the end of the corridor. Yates waited until they had turned a corner and then ran as quietly as possible after them, stopping just before the corner to peer around carefully.

There they were.

Two of them were armed, but not the woman. She held the glass thing in one hand now, as though it pained her to touch it. Yates thought to pull off his jacket. He didn’t want to touch the thing with his bare skin, in case he set it off somehow. Better to cover it. He could run quietly; the corridor was short, and led up to the ballroom. If he ran, took them by surprise, grabbed it, kept running – they had swords but not bows –

He decided, overruled his fear, and ran.

He took the one at the back by surprise, knocking him down with a metal poker to the head. The others turned around; the man drew his sword but Yates was faster, just about. He jabbed the man hard in the ribs so that he bent over, then turned on Selmi. She turned and fled.

He chased her down the corridor, ignoring the shouting behind him. This was easily the stupidest thing he had ever done, but it might just work. At least, it might delay them from unleashing the magic again before Connly could get to the Black Shields.

She had taken a different route, heading down rather than up, dashing like a hare down into the less-used part of the keep. How did she know her way around so well? Or maybe she didn’t, Yates realised as he recognised where they were. Because there was no way she would find help or lose him down here. This wasn’t far from the original barracks, and the room with the Green Riders in stained glass. A regular rabbit warren, but one Yates thought he just might be able to beat her at.

~

By the time Connly arrived in the throne room with a group of Black Shields whose barracks door had been blocked by two tables and a suit of armour, the members of the Second Empire were… no longer a problem. It looked very much as though they had been thrown about by the same wind that had swept through the keep – except much more violently. Connly didn’t look at them too hard, directing the Black Shields to find the room with the string on the door handle. Yates wasn’t with the king, and Connly was sharp enough to wonder about what happened when something powerful and magical breaks…

But there wasn’t time to worry about Yates, not then. The Black Shields broke threw doors and Connly picked locks until their were enough people to guard the keep properly again. Connly organised and shouted and nudged frightened people into getting to work. The mending ward came back to life and started taking patients. The king was given something for the pain and hit leg was set. Various Riders and guards reported in to the king as he got a grip on the situation. Then Fergal came.

~

Fergal Duff looked more like he’d been dragged through the woods – his clothes were  scuffed, his hair in disarray – but it was his expression that set Laren’s heart racing.

Zachary went to him without hesitation.

‘You’ve seen Karigan? Where was she?’ he demanded roughly, and Laren could hear how he was fighting against panic.

‘They – they went out through the city, sire, into the Green Cloak. West.’

‘They?’

Fergal swallowed, and Laren suddenly noticed how pale he was under the mud that streaked his face.

‘They pulled her out into the corridor and she was being really tough with them and they said – they said seeing as she was a rider it’d be more fun to chase her down.’ Everyone in the vicinity was listening to Fergal. He licked his lips, looking ill.

‘They got her on Condor and she just took off, sire, they were chasing her. I went after them but I had to sneak through the city and then I was following tracks and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do much but I thought at least someone should figure out where she went, but the tracks got all jumbled at the crossroads and I couldn’t find where she’d gone –’

Fergal looked down. He was shaking.

‘So I came back, sire – I couldn’t find her, but I couldn’t find them either. And Karigan’s one of the best, if she vanished with Condor…’ he trailed off. There was some hope in his words, but none in his voice, and Laren knew why. Karigan was heavily pregnant, and injured with it. The Second Empire soldiers were well-rested and greater in numbers. Karigan’s chances were incredibly low. She watched this realisation hit Zachary. It was a minute before he found his voice.

‘Captain,’ he said, almost calmly, ‘find her. Bring her back to me.’ His voice broke on the last word and he closed his eyes in an attempt to contain himself.

~

Ben Simeon fought back a yawn as he walked through the lower corridors, exhausted. The ward was full; everyone with a non-urgent injury had had to be moved back to their own quarters. And there were still many parts of the keep to search. He would check this lower warren as far as he could, and by now he knew to open every cupboard, every trunk, every small space that could possibly hold a person of any age. Most of the trapped people had been largely unhurt – dehydrated, bruised, and frightened, but otherwise well – but they were still picking up people with head injuries and broken bones. The keep might have been full, but it was a big keep – people could still have been alone when the winds came.

He was glad he only had this small stretch to search. He had been stuck in the ward since the attack, his ability vital to the head trauma cases in particular. But Valenna had noticed his preoccupied air and the shaking in his hands, and though she could not spare him to sleep yet, she had deemed it better that he go out on the casualty hunt for a short time instead of sitting in the ward. Ben knew she was right – gods knew he needed a rest, and a change of pace was the closest thing he could get to that at the moment. But he couldn’t help resenting it, feeling as though the energy he spent on every step would be better spent channelled through his ability in the mending ward.

He bunched his fists and walked on, the guard behind him carrying the stretcher and looking about nervously. He’d check this section, then he’d be able to get back to being properly useful.

Left here, and then around. There was the top of the staircase to the next level down – did this part of the keep go on forever? Ben supposed he had better check the staircase, at least, in case someone had fallen. It seemed unlikely, though, this wasn’t a busy part of the keep.

The candles in the wall sconces were out, so Ben lifted his own to see better as he made his way carefully down the staircase. Dark step after dark step – and then an odd shape against the flagstones –

‘Here!’ Ben called, even though the guard was only a few steps behind him. He sped up down the steps – and found Yates Cardell at the bottom, white as a sheet and unconcious. A heavy wooden object – with a sinking heart, Ben identified it as one of the cabinets that lined this corridor, old furniture not wanted anywhere else – lay across his legs. There was shattered glass on the floor. He dropped to the floor next to Yates, put his hands on his neck – bare skin was easiest – and sent his senses out into his body.

The head injury was minor, good. Dehydration. Exhaustion. Lots of bruises. Fractured ribs, two. All manageable. Right leg: bruised, the knee joint damaged, but an easy thing for Ben to fix. The left leg… Ben swallowed. Don’t think beyond the problem. First step, get the patient accessible.

‘Help me move this,’ he said to the guard.

~

Zachary’s face had taken on an almost grey pallor that never seemed to lift. He went about his duties mechanically, his expression dark but not angry; in odd, distracted moments, Laren could see the terrible fear in his eyes slowly becoming a terrible certainty. It had been two days. Then three. Then four. Then six. With each day that passed, the chance that Karigan would make it back to the keep alive dropped further and further. Green Riders attached to the search parties came and went with more grim faces than news. People spoke to the king in hushed voices, as though at a funeral. Even Valenna, checking on the king’s recovery or adjusting his splint, lowered her eyes and kept her comments to a minimum. Laren was vaguely grateful that there was a lot of work to be done. Even so, Zachary had moments of peace, and every time he stopped and his thoughts turned further inwards Laren worried that he would never come back to himself again.

He’s lost people before, she reminded herself. It’s hard now, but he’ll survive it. We all will.

But she couldn’t bring herself to believe it.

Chapter Text

When Yates opened his eyes, he found himself in one of the well-lit solitary rooms in the mending ward. Sunlight was streaming in through the window, and he gazed mindlessly at the way it hit the wall for a little while. Taking the time to come back to himself.

After a few minutes that could have been hours, there was a gentle knock on the door. It opened without a pause for Yates to reply – and Ben Simeon entered. He smiled when he saw that Yates was awake.

‘Good to see your eyes open,’ he said, taking the seat by the bed. ‘You’re the hero of the hour, you know. Connly caught everyone up about rescuing the king and that you probably destroyed the… glass magic? I didn’t catch the whole story,’ he said sheepishly. ‘Been in here working too much. But it sounded pretty impressive.’

Yates gave him a faint smile.

‘Yeah, well,’ he said. ‘Sort of.’

Ben nodded.

‘You’ve been out for a few days. It was a nasty bump on the head you had – I’ve fixed that up, but you still needed the rest. And not everything was… fixable.’ Ben took a disconcertingly shaky breath, and met Yates’ eyes. ‘Yates, I’m sorry. You were down there a long time. I couldn’t save it.’

Yates stared at Ben, trying to make the words make sense. Save what? He was here, wasn’t he? He was… he remembered…

Suddenly he was afraid to look. Ben seemed to understand – he reached out and took Yates’ hand.

‘I know it’s frightening,’ he said. ‘But you’re going to be okay.’

Yates swallowed, and turned his head.

His legs, two lumps under the blanket. One ended distinctly before the other. He swallowed again, his throat dry. He wondered if he was going to throw up. He realised that he was squeezing Ben’s hand too hard, but he couldn’t make his grip relax.

‘Easy, there,’ Ben said gently. ‘It’s healing very well. And the throne will look after you – as soon as Karigan hears, she’ll be at Valenna asking what the best options for a prosthetic are. At the king and Captain Mapstone will make sure of it. You’ll be up and about faster than you think.’

Yates forced his throat to unstick. Now that he had looked, he couldn’t look away.

‘Will I still be able to ride?’ he asked, his voice very small.

‘I think so,’ said Ben. ‘We might have to do some figuring out with prosthetics and saddles, but you’d be amazed what people can manage. And you’ve still got the knee joint, which is really good. The biggest thing is adjusting to how to move differently. But you’ll get there.’

Yates nodded, still staring, trying to make sense of it.

‘Do you want to see?’ Ben asked. ‘There’s nothing gory, it’s just a big bundle of bandages at the moment.’

Yates shook his head. Ben didn’t press the matter.

‘Do you feel like you could eat? We could do with building up your strength. The keep’s back to functioning almost normally, so you can have whatever you fancy. And I’m on reduced duty at the moment – Valenna says I’ve been working to hard – so I can stay here with you for as long as you like.’

Yates nodded vaguely. Then something Ben had said earlier finally came to his attention.

‘What do you mean, when Karigan hears?’ he asked slowly.

Ben looked away. But just then, there was the sound of a commotion in the hallway, and a sudden knock on the door.

‘Mender Simeon and Chief Mender Valenna to the courtyard,’ puffed an out-of-breath Green Foot. Ben was out of the door almost before the girl could get out of the way.

‘Wait!’ called Yates as she began to leave. ‘What’s going on?’

The Green Foot gave an apologetic shrug, and vanished down the corridor. Yates stared after her, at a loss as to what to do now.

~

Tegan bolted down the corridors, ignoring the twinge in her ankle. She rounded a corner and saw that the next corridor was full of nobles. Well, nothing for it.

‘URGENT MESSAGE, CLEAR THE CORRIDOR!’ she bellowed. Then she sped up, ignoring the sudden noise and dodging and ferocious expressions that would have cowed someone less confident in their position.  

~

They moved drily through the small council business. Laren felt for Zachary. This had to be the last thing on his mind; but a kingdom did not stop needing to be run. And more than ever, in the wake of this attack, the keep required the attention of the king. Possibly the distraction was helping; Laren was torn between being glad that Zachary had something with which to occupy his mind, and worried about how much he threw himself into it. Housemaster Rethum had found him asleep at his desk this morning. He had been working until late into the night. Zachary had always sought solace in his work, but this was a new level. And Laren wasn’t sure what would happen if the worst news would come.

A Weapon opened the door, stepped through, and bowed. Zachary looked up from gazing almost blankly at the papers in front of him.

‘Yes?’ he said.

‘Sire, there is a Green Rider running the length of the corridor in this direction. Shall I show her in?’

Zachary nodded once, sharp, and Laren felt her own inner tension rise. News, but of what kind? Karigan? The Second Empire? The Eletians? Something entirely different?

Tegan practically skidded into the hall, almost colliding with one of the Black Shields in what was probably one of the most undignified entrances of a Green Rider Laren had ever seen – but all thoughts of rebuke were tossed aside when she gained enough breath to speak.

‘Sire, Queen Karigan has arrived in the main courtyard!’

~

If Tegan’s mad dash through the corridors hadn’t attracted attention, Zachary’s certainly did. He was on crutches but he seemed to be faster than those on two working legs – or perhaps simply more careless. Laren’s heart was in her mouth as she followed after him, watching him tackle the stairs with a clear disregard for his own safety. She could see the Black Shields spreading out around him warily and hoped they would be able to catch him if he fell.

They reached the main courtyard and quickly spotted the huddle of people near the gate. Zachary did not slow down. The group shifted slightly, and then they could see her. Laren almost swore with relief.

Karigan looked like she had been through hell and back – she was dirty, parts of her clothes were torn, she was wrapped in an unfamiliar cloak and holding her right arm tight to her side. But she was there, upright and alive. Zachary reached her.

‘What did you do to your leg?’ she said abruptly, as soon as she saw him.

He blinked at her, joy and confusion running headlong into each other, wanting to pull her into an embrace but unable to without risking a fall.

‘He broke it, but it’ll be fine,’ Laren said, seeing that the king was not really up to explanations yet.

Karigan nodded, and then turned to the little cluster of Riders around her.

‘Fergal, could you – could you bring a chair over here? Now, please.’

Fergal nodded, bowed haphazardly, and dashed into the guard station by the gate. He came out with a wooden chair and brought it to Karigan, who shook her head impatiently.

‘It’s for Zachary.’

This threw everyone into puzzlement. Laren and Colin exchanged glances, just as Ben Simeon reached Karigan’s side.

‘Karigan, I don’t need to –’ Zachary started, but Karigan interrupted him.

‘Zachary. You’re on crutches,’ she said.

Zachary’s brow wrinkled.

‘Yes?’

‘Which means your hands aren’t free when you’re standing.’

‘That’s right, but –’

‘Which means that you need to sit down if I’m going to hand you our daughter.’

Laren felt her eyes go wide. Everyone around them stared at Karigan.

The silence seemed to ripple out through the crowd of people around them. Slowly, unspeaking, his eyes on Karigan’s and uncertainty warring with hope on his face, Zachary sat down on the chair Fergal had brought. Karigan ignored everyone else, taking a painful step towards him, and began to untwist the cloth that bound her shirt under her belly.

‘Give me your hands, I can’t take her weight safely with my right,’ she said distractedly, and Zachary reached out. She moved his hands where they needed to be, and then pulled the material carefully free. Zachary’s mouth opened, and he took their daughter into his arms. Karigan breathed out. There, she’d done it. Now she could get some sleep.

~

Zachary couldn’t keep his eyes off the baby as they made their way through the castle to the royal quarters. Fergal still looked mildly stunned to be holding her, and Zachary could see his fear of making some kind of error in the tension of his shoulders and the way he kept scanning the floor to check for trip hazards. The people that they passed, servants and nobility alike, gossiped and whispered and peered, trying to see, but Zachary barely noticed them. Karigan’s breathing was steady, but pained; he glanced up at her and saw how creased her brow was as she forced herself to keep up with the rest of them. He deliberately slowed his pace, and she gave him a faint smile of gratitude but said nothing.

When they reached the inner circle of the royal quarters, Lia was just passing with a bucket of hot water – Karigan’s eyes lit up and Zachary almost laughed. He stood quietly while Valenna and Lia and Ben fussed over Karigan and the child, not sure that he could really contribute anything but content to simply be present. Well, more overwhelmed than content, but contentedness was in there somewhere.

Karigan was ushered gently over to the bathing room, and Valenna carefully took the little baby girl from Fergal’s arms.

‘Goodness me, isn’t she beautiful?’ she said, and Zachary had the urge to shout yes, yes she is, she’s perfect but restrained himself.

‘Do you want to hold her while Queen Karigan gets herself cleaned up?’ Valenna asked, looking at Zachary. In answer, Zachary sat down immediately and put down his crutches, reaching out.

Valenna smiled and handed her over, then disappeared to help Karigan.

Zachary sat quietly, holding the miracle of the hour. Well, one of two – who could call Karigan anything less than a miracle? He knew he wanted to know what had happened and how she had survived and returned to the keep. But he didn’t need to know that right now. Right now, he could just sit here, his sleeping daughter in his arms, trying to take her in.

When Karigan finally returned, clean and bundled up in her night-things and a blanket, she took the seat next to him and leaned up against him.

‘Sorry I was abrupt when I saw you,’ she said softly. ‘Too tired for anything else.’

Zachary laughed quietly.

‘You could have shouted me down and I wouldn’t have cared,’ he said honestly. ‘I was just so glad to see you.’ He paused. ‘I thought I’d lost you,’ he added softly.

He felt Karigan move to be as close to him as he could, and he very carefully shifted the baby into one arm so that he could put the other one around Karigan.

‘How long was I gone?’ she asked in a quiet, nervous voice.

Zachary turned his head to see her expression. She looked scared.

‘Six days,’ he said. He thought he might be able to guess the shape of her worry, but decided it would be better to let her explain herself.

‘What happened?’ he asked.

Karigan closed her eyes as she explained, and Zachary stroked her arm reassuringly.

She hadn’t got far from the keep when she realised it was hopeless to keep going. Her pursuers would undoubtedly catch her. The best option was to make sure they caught her at a time and a place of her choosing.

She had dismounted from Condor and sent him running off to the west, hoping it would buy her more time if they followed her horse. Then she had circled around, back towards the keep. She had run into one straggler and beaten him, taking his sword. But then they were behind her again, and the pain came.

‘I could have handled the fighting,’ she said, almost grumpily, ‘and I could have handled giving birth in a forest. Just not at the same time.’

Zachary gave her shoulder a squeeze, and she carried on.

Her options were narrowing now; there was nowhere to hide, and no way she could achieve anything by running. Fighting? She would try it if she had to, but she knew that it would be the end of her. So, eventually, reluctantly, she chose her only other option.

She called on her ability with everything she had; the world swayed and shimmered, and she walked into whiteness.

She lapsed into silence for a little while. Zachary had heard her describe this phenomenon before, and again tried to picture it. A white world, with no discernible features save the feeling of ground underfoot. And the images of nightmares scattered through it. No threat could follow Karigan there – none that they knew of – but neither did Karigan fully understand it. To walk that way was to throw everything to chance.

‘I was lucky,’ she said eventually. ‘I came out yesterday afternoon, about ten miles away. I stayed put until I’d had the baby, and then I bundled her up and started walking back here.’

She had drawn on her ability to become invisible on her way through the town, as she did not yet know if the keep was still occupied by the Second Empire. However, once she had stepped into the main courtyard, Fergal had spotted her aura and come running. He had raised such a fuss that she had known that everything had, somehow, been handled.

Zachary took his turn then, and explained what they knew of the attack. Karigan’s indrawn breath at Yates’ injury made Zachary wince himself, sorrowing on her behalf.

Then there was little more to say. The two of them watched the tiny sleeping face of their daughter, content to simply be safe together.

‘We haven’t given her a name yet,’ Zachary said softly.

‘Mm,’ Karigan said, moving carefully to press herself against him.

‘She’s a brave little girl,’ he said, thinking. ‘Born in the forest, to her daring mother… she needs a brave name.’

‘I have a few ideas,’ Karigan said. She told him. He smiled.

‘Perfect.’

Chapter Text

Ben’s healing ability may not have been able to return Yates his foot and lower leg, but it had taken weeks away from his recovery. Three days since waking up, he could move around by himself with the crutches, even if it tired him out quite quickly.

He had seen the end of his leg when they redid the bandages. Ben’s work was very apparent. It had the healed-over smoothness of an injury three times older, though the skin was still very sensitive and uncomfortable.

Still, he had been able to get a few tasks done this morning, and now he was sat in the Green Rider barracks with Dale, Garth, and Connly, resting and enjoying the company. Or at least, he had been, until a Weapon opened the door to the common room and stepped inside.

‘Rider Yates Cardell?’

Yates cleared his throat.

‘Yes sir?’

The Black Shield looked at him.

‘You spoke to Arms Master Gresia today about returning to sword training?’

‘…yes,’ Yates said, confused. ‘She said that she wouldn’t be able to teach me, that I’d have to be taught independently and she didn’t have the time or the expertise.’

She had also indicated surprise that Yates wasn’t being invalided out of Rider Corps; he had just shrugged at her, knowing he couldn’t explain that that wasn’t exactly how it worked. His brooch still sat on his jacket, slightly warm to the touch. One leg or two, he was still a Rider.

The Black Shield gave a single nod.

‘She is correct.’

Yates held back a sigh. Did you come all the way over here just to tell me that?

‘We have liaised with Captain Mapstone. You will attend the Black Shield Barracks at fourth hour this afternoon, and at seventh hour tomorrow morning each day following. Your schedule will allow for this. This matter is not to be the subject of gossip, nor disclosed to anyone outside of the Green Rider Corps.’

With this, the Weapon turned and left the room. Yates stared after him.

‘…what in the five hells was that all about?’

The other three were staring at him.

They are going to teach you?’ Dale said in a hushed voice. ‘Wow.’

‘Can’t be,’ Yates said. But he couldn’t think of anything else it could be.

~

In Captain Mapstone’s office, Laren was in the midst of a task that she both loved and regretted. Sending a Rider home when they had finished their service was always simultaneously joyful – she was always proud to see them come to the end with their heads held high, knowing that if they survived this they could handle anything that life threw at them – and also sorrowful, as she knew that they were leaving the family and would likely not be seen again.

‘It has been an honour to have you with us, Miss Oldbrine,’ she said, signing off the paperwork for Tegan’s last pay. Tegan grinned her usual grin, but it had a glimmer of wistfulness to it.

‘Miss, now that’s going to take some getting used to,’ she said. ‘And thank you, Captain. It’s been… incredible. And terrifying. But also one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’m going to miss everyone.’

‘Oh, I’m sure Karigan will be finding excuses to see you – and ex-Riders are always still part of the family.’

Tegan nodded, and neither of them said how it would not be the same.

‘Well, that’s you cleared to leave,’ Laren said, handing over the paperwork. She had already taken Tegan’s brooch – it lay on the table, where she knew Tegan would no longer be able to see it. ‘If you take your papers to the clerks’ offices they’ll see that you get your pay. You can arrange to have it sent more securely, or you can take it with you – or you can split between the two. As you know, Rooster is yours for life. Please make sure that your belongings are cleared from your room when you leave, and that your uniform and sword are signed back in with the quartermaster. On a less official note, make sure you drop in on Karigan before you go. I know she’s busy with the birth of the baby, but she insisted. Are you staying for the celebrations tonight?’

‘I was going to,’ Tegan said. ‘Am I clear to make my way home tomorrow and stay in the barracks tonight, or do you need me out of the room today?’

‘No, you can stay in the room until tomorrow. Will you need us to send anything on to you at a later date?’

Tegan thought about this, then shook her head.

‘I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘I should be able to bring everything with me on Rooster.’

She started to salute, and then stopped. She gave a respectful nod.

‘Thank you, Captain,’ she said. ‘I’ll see you tonight.’

‘Miss Oldbrine.’

Tegan left, paperwork in hand. Laren sat back in her chair and gazed at the door. Another one safe. Another one gone.

~

Just before fourth hour, Yates straightened his uniform and made his way over to the Black Shield Barracks. He still felt very unsteady on the crutches, his arms aching, but he tried to put it from his mind. He could get from place to place, that was what was important. Ben was walking beside him.

When they reached the entrance, they looked uncertainly at one another.

‘Do we… knock, or something?’ Yates said. Ben shrugged, and opened the door. He held it for Yates, and then fell in behind him.

The Black Shield Barracks was a surprisingly open space – at least here, which appeared to be a dining hall. Yates realised that he had never seen Weapons eating in the kitchens or with any of the servants or guards, and had never thought about where they would do so.

Two Weapons were waiting by the end of one of the long tables, male and female. The man, the same Weapon who had visited the Green Rider barracks earlier, stepped forward.

‘Black Shield Carro, this is Rider Yates Cardell,’ he said, his voice clipped. Then he simply walked away. The other Weapon, Carro, gave Yates a nod, and looked at Ben.

‘And Rider-Mender Simeon. I assume you have come to ensure I do not over-tax your patient?’

‘You assume correctly,’ Ben said wryly. ‘We weren’t intending for him to start any sword training for another week or so, if anyone would teach.’

Carro nodded, and then led the way out of the dining hall to a much emptier room beyond it.

‘We will have the training room to ourselves today,’ she said. ‘This is a one-off. Afterwards there will be other Shields using the space with us, and you will have to learn to ignore them.’

Yates nodded.

‘I understand that your injury is much newer than it appears. I will not enquire why. But I know that in the early stages of having received it, you will be grappling with the emotions that accompany such a change.’

Yates blinked; he had never heard a Black Shield talk about emotions before, even in so cold a way. Carro went on.

‘You feel weaker, diminished. You feel uncertain. You worry that you are no longer capable of matching those around you, that you will never be as capable as you once were. You fear that this will place limitations on your life that you do not yet fully understand. Others will express these opinions about you, either sympathetically or critically – they may have already done so.’

Yates swallowed. He felt as though he had been stripped bare. He could see Ben’s narrow-eyed expression in the corner of his eye, and straightened his spine. Carro took another step back. Then she bent down, pulled up one leg of the black trousers of her uniform –

– and detached her prosthetic leg, in its boot.

Yates felt his mouth drop open in surprise. She met his eyes.

‘These opinions are wrong.’

She gave him a moment to process, which he was grateful for. He couldn’t stop staring at the point where her leg ended – just below the knee, the same spot that his did. And at the way she stood, balanced on one leg as though it was as easy as standing on two.

‘You are not incomplete, Rider Cardell,’ she said. ‘Your shape has simply changed. The world does not account for this, so hence the prosthetic becomes useful. But if you learn to function both with and without it, your confidence will return. Will you train with me?’

Yates did not need even a moment to make the decision.

‘I would be honoured.’

~

The gathering in the courtyard was already buzzing with excitement. Some of the kitchen servants were handing out little cakes; the baby had been born a few days ago, but it was only at the formal announcement that everyone got a chance to celebrate.

The Green Riders were a bundle along the eastern wall. Most of them would be riding out tomorrow, bearing the official announcement of the birth of the next monarch. But for now, they were together.

‘Hey, Tegan, looking good!’

Tegan, back in civilian clothes, grinned at them.

‘I always look good,’ she said, and stuck her tongue out.

Meanwhile, Alton was talking quite earnestly with Mara and Connly about Estral.

‘…it’s actually really good to know that even though we can’t be together very often, she’s not on her own all the time. And Lady Estora has been very understanding of my father’s disapproval. I think perhaps there’s a small chance she might encourage her father to speak to mine, though I don’t know if it would do any good.’

‘It’s a shame, really,’ said Fergal, who had been listening to the conversation. Alton frowned.

‘What is?’

‘Well, that you and Estora can’t get married. Your parents would be pleased and visiting Estral would be a lot easier, right?’ Fergal shrugged. ‘But I guess it wouldn’t work out.’

His words were met with stunned silence. Alton’s eyes were so wide Mara thought for a minute they were going to fall out of his head. Fergal looked confused.

‘What?’ he asked. Mara cleared her throat, suppressing a grin.

‘Why can’t they?’ she asked, and watched Alton turn slowly pink.

‘Well, I guess… I assumed they hadn’t because they didn’t get on well enough, or something. Or they just didn’t want to. Wasn’t that Lady Estora’s whole thing?’

‘Mm,’ agreed Mara, still watching Alton in amusement. The young lord was looking distinctly un-lordly as he gaped at Fergal. The conversation, however, was broken off by cheering from another part of the courtyard.

The King and Queen had arrived. Coming to the top of the steps, Karigan holding a tiny white bundle, they moved like a single unit. For the first time, Alton realised he was seeing Queen Karigan before he saw his Rider Corps friend. It wasn’t the baby. It was the way she stood next to the king as though she belonged there. And of course, she did.

The herald blew a short string of notes, and the crowd fell into silence. King Zachary, swinging carefully on his crutches, stepped forward.

‘My people,’ he called. ‘I present to you the newest member of the royal family. I hope you will welcome her as much as we have.’

Karigan lifted the bundle carefully, exposing the little girl to the crowd. The herald stepped forward.

‘Princess Lilessa Kariny Hillander, Firstborn of King Zachary and Queen Karigan, Heir Apparent to the Throne of Sacoridia!’ he announced.

The cheering rose to the skies.

~

Karigan curled up as much as she could in the biggest chair by the fire. She looked around. A year ago she had worried that this place would never feel like home, that she would always feel out of place and unwanted. A year ago she had been uncertain.

She wasn’t uncertain anymore.

Zachary was sat in the chair opposite her, his leg with its splint propped up on a footstool. Baby Lilessa – Lila – was sleeping in his arms. He had closed his eyes around half an hour ago, not with the intention of falling asleep. But nevertheless.

Karigan couldn’t blame him – it had been a bad week. Two weeks? Something like that. It felt longer. There were things she needed to do, she knew. She would go and visit Yates again tomorrow, and see how he was feeling. She wondered if the Black Shields had spoken to him yet. The idea had come from them, rather than her, but she had found out nonetheless. Tomorrow, too, she would speak to her father again, who had arrived the day before looking distraught. And she would visit Condor, who had turned up by himself an hour ago looking as though he had had an adventure and was only deigning to come home because for the sake of sugar lumps. Later, undoubtedly, there would be paperwork. There was always paperwork.

People to speak to, people to see. But for right now, Karigan was content to sit there in the warmth of the fire, watching Zachary and Lila breath gently as they slept, and feel… at home.