Present day – Ninove castle
They carried Margot to the throne room on a stretcher. King Henri had insisted she be present, Lucas said, when he came to sit with her after Tess left.
King Henri entered the room alone. He walked with limp, moving slowly, and he winced when he sat in one of the two thrones that had been placed on the dais. Queen Therese came last. She met King Henri’s eyes as he rose and bowed. She gave him a stiff nod, and continued regally to the other throne, her eyes straight ahead. His eyes followed her all the way.
Lucas stood beside them. He was tracing a seam in the marble floor with a toe of his boot and toying with one of the clasps on his jacket. But he glanced up and met Margot’s eyes. He grinned awkwardly and she glanced away, feeling the first fingers of anxiety grip her heart, over the thing she’d been contemplating all evening and morning. She bit her lip.
And then Alexandre was there. He walked slowly between his guards. He was limping, with chains on his ankles and wrists between guards. They brought him to a stop in the center of the room. He offered a mocking bow to the king and queen.
“Lorraine.” Queen Therese began. Her voice wasn’t strong, but it carried a note of power. “You have attacked our city unprovoked. You have murdered our people, and by any law, we would be fully justified to end your life.”
Alexandre raised elegant eyebrows. “Would be?”
She glanced at Margot. “We are still deciding. We have little reason to spare you, other than from gratitude to your sister.” She turned to Margot. “Princess Marguerite. Do you still wish for your brother’s life to be spared?”
She nodded, and Alexandre seemed to notice her presence for the first time. He grinned, nastily. “Ah, yes. Still little –”
Queen Therese spoke again. “We have no other reason to preserve your life, but, we give you a choice: release the Magician, and you will live, be it in a cell, for your natural life. Refuse, or attempt to harm him or any of us, and you will die, instantly.”
He laughed, bitterly. “You make it sound so appealing. So – death or free Jeoffroi. Anything else? What do you plan to do with Lorraine, if I’m to stay here forever? My dear sister has insisted she doesn’t want that throne. Even if she did, the daemon won’t have her. Of course – if you leave me alive, it won’t have anyone.”
Margot spoke up. “I stand by my word, Alexandre. I don’t want that throne – but –”
Jeoffroi, in the few minutes they’d risked allowing him to be awake, had given them all the horrifying news. Under her brother’s control, the Lords and Guilds – the rich and powerful, who’d always been taken care of by previous members of Margot’s family, were on the edge of revolt. Commerce was failing. The city was starving, and even the rich were feeling the effects of his shoddy, careless rule.
“I know there’s no history of it,” Margot continued. “But – I’m going to find a way to break the city away from you anyway. Somehow.”
Here it was, time to present the idea she’d been quietly pondering. Her belly twisted nervously. She opened her mouth, and almost lost her nerve. “Your Majesty, Queen Ninove, as heir to the throne of Lorraine, I’d like to propose an alliance by marriage. I will not take the throne myself, but the contract would require that my first child from this arrangement would be born in Lorraine, to assume the throne in my place, when the child is of age.”
The room went perfectly still. And then Alexandre started laughing. That laugh.
Queen Therese shot him a glance that contained daggers, then met Margot’s eyes, thoughtfully. “To our grandson and heir – Prince Lucas?”
Margot nodded, feeling her face flush with heat. She didn’t dare look his way, now. The queen considered, pressing her lips together, then, she turned. “Prince Lucas. I will not speak for you. I will only say that I believe the city approves of this. What do you say to this alliance?”
Margot bit her lip, focusing on a green drape above her head, her stomach churning. She’d rarely thought about marriage before – and, not like this. She barely knew Lucas. And now – with her legs – would he turn her down? Flinch away in pity and horror at the thought of being bound to such a person? She should have waited to suggest this in privacy. Not here – in front of Alexandre.
His voice was low, halting, when he spoke. “The Princess Marguerite – she’s lived with a Magician for a year, and – Adele – she calls her a friend – her best friend. I can think of nothing that speaks more about her character. And – then to risk her life to save my city – that –”
Margot finally found the courage to look at him. Lucas had turned bright red, and he was speaking to his toes.
He raised his eyes, shining with admiration, and met hers. “That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Alexandre snorted. “Saints save us,” he muttered. “If this is what you’re going to curse Lorraine with.”
A smile hovered on the queen’s lips. “Very well, we accept.” She focused on Margot’s brother again. “You see how things stand. You can free Jeoffroi and place yourself on our mercy, or we will have your head this day.”
He laughed again, but Margot could hear the edge in his voice. He was beaten. He knew it, and he hated it. He offered a dramatic bow. “As you say, your Majesty. I place myself on your mercy. Bring me to the Magician, and I will revoke all Obligations.” He offered Margot a second, mocking bow. “Enjoy married bliss, sister. Take lots of long walks together,” he added, nastily.
She met his eyes, and smiled. “I’ll figure a way, I’m sure.”
He – Adele had told Margot why she’d spared him, and she was right. There just wasn’t enough of Alexandre for his words to hurt anymore.
When they’d carried her back to her room Tess joined her, followed by a bouncing Jacqui. He grinned. “Mama says you an’ Lucas are gonna be married.”
Margot blushed, and he clambered up beside her on the bed again, and laid his head down on her pillow, facing her.
Tess carefully sat beside him. “Margot. I don’t know how much this means – but I think Jacques would be deeply proud of you this evening.”
Margot flushed. “No – it – I,” she tried to think of something to say. “Thank you.” Then, she grimaced. “Tess? What – what if we have children – or grandchildren – who turn out like Alexandre? How do I protect Jacqui?”
Tess sighed. “You can’t protect anyone from the future, Margot. The future is an inherently dangerous thing, and your children and grandchildren – they will each have to decide what kind of a world they want to build and pass on. All you can do is to start a new legacy. Show the Dusk what justice and mercy can do. No matter what the future holds, I believe such things can never lose their power.”
Margot nodded, frowning, and then her deeper fear spilled out. “Do you think – will I –? I never wanted to be queen, and now – can I be a good queen for Ninove – without –” she glanced down at her legs. “Will they want me?”
Tess reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “You were injured protecting these people and this city. They will be proud to have you as their queen.”
“But – but Lorraine? What –?”
“Oh Margot.” Tess smiled, but there were tears in her eyes. “The powerful and safe may despise weakness – but – the people beneath them – show them your heart, and they will love you for it. The Dusk doesn’t need more warrior kings. The Dusk needs people who’ve been broken – who can heal its wounds.”
Margot tried to smile, but it turned into tears. Jacqui, from where he lay beside her, reached out and wrapped his little arms around her neck.
She laughed, sniffed, and reached out to squeeze him back. “Thank you,” she whispered into his little ear.
● ● ●
Three years later
Walking over a garden path in leg braces was hard no matter what. It didn’t help that Margot’s husband kept obsessively reinventing the braces several times a year – just when she’d gotten used to the last pair. Never mind that Ninove had a thousand more pressing needs for his growing skills.
But pregnancy made her feel even more off balance, so she clung to Lucas’s arm.
After years of negotiations between Ninove and the Guilds and Lords now running Lorraine, they’d formally invited Margot to return and deliver her baby within their walls. She’d been accompanied by Henri, Jeoffroi, and Lucas.
She’d become especially grateful for Henri’s force, as he’d tackled the more recalcitrant voices.
Now, she’d finally had a chance to slip away from Lorraine for a few days – the baby wasn’t due for another cycle – and visit Tess, Adele, and Jacqui.
Stepping onto the manor grounds, Margot had felt that instant welcome from the old manor. It knew and remembered her. But she could also feel how its soul had changed. She’d read about the orphanage in Tess’s letters but now, she could see and feel how Tess had transformed it from an imposing, empty building filled with frightening memories, to a bright home filled with children’s voices.
Out here, their shouts and laughter was muted by the trees and bushes. These, too, remembered her.
She shot Lucas a grin. “This – these were my friends. When I was little.”
Lucas gazed up at the trees, eyes wide. “Do you want to go on, alone?” he asked, softly, as they reached the end of the path. She shook her head. “No, I want to introduce you.”
The grass was short and even around a clump of simple bushes and a single young tree, ringed by evenly placed stones. So this was what grew out of that handful of seeds she’d thrust into Tess’s hands, nearly nine years ago.
The sunlight filtering through the leaves seemed to glow unusually green.
“Hello Jacques,” she whispered. “I miss you.” She was shaking, she realized. She closed her eyes. Something about the quality of the rustling wind seemed to change. Was she just imagining that feel of his arms around her?
The words seemed to float into her mind.
Well done, Margot. Daughter of my heart.
● ● ●
... I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long. ...
... And thus we rust Life's iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.
And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper's house
With the scent of costliest nard.
Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in? …
“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde