Captain Laren Mapstone shifted position as the meeting continued. King Zachary sat in an attentive posture, listening to Lord Adolind detail recent changes in his province due to the unseasonable warmth. It looked to be the last matter of an unusually – but blessedly – conflict-free meeting, and Laren was greatly looking forward to heading back to her quarters after the short post-meeting council. Lord Adolind finished his point, and Zachary leaned back in his chair.
‘Thank you, my lord,’ he said. ‘I appreciate your thoroughness on this matter. Do let me know if there are any further developments. And now, may I ask if anyone has any final matters to raise?’
He waited. Silence from the table. Laren heaved an internal sigh of relief, and Zachary opened his mouth to close the meeting, but suddenly –
‘My lord, I have a matter I wish to raise.’
Lady Estora spoke calmly, but there was an edge to her voice that made Laren frown. When she placed her hand on the table, there was a faint tremble in it.
From his profile, Zachary seemed surprised, but he kept his bearing.
‘Of course, my lady – speak as you will.’
‘Thank you, sire.’ To Laren’s surprise, Estora rose gracefully from her seat to address the room.
‘By now I imagine that many of you have heard of the occurrence in Bairdly Province – I hope my Lord Bairdly will not mind my speaking on it. I refer of course to the death of Lady Yvette.’
The mood of the room became immediately solemn, and one or two of the lords nodded in agreement. Lady Estora went on.
‘A true tragedy, the loss of someone so young – the loss of so much potential and so much joy. And all because of tradition.’
At this, Lord Coutre’s expression became oddly fixed. He did not speak, but nor did he take his eyes off his daughter. Lady Estora took a breath, and continued.
‘Tradition is a fine thing, and one that I have a great deal of respect for. But I do not believe that we should hold to it at the expense of lives, or indeed of happiness. We have but one brief time upon this earth, and to be forced to waste it in sadness and misery, however well-born, is a disgrace. For us to use it to enforce unnecessary restrictions upon each successive generation regardless of its true and practical benefits and disadvantages, is a disgrace.’
Lady Estora set her shoulders firmly and looked around the room. The assembled nobility were quiet and attentive, but Laren spotted a few tense expressions and several glances at Zachary. The king kept his face neutral, but focused on Estora.
‘This matter – the matter of not just Lady Yvette, but of person after person who must be forced into loneliness, or hidden away, or fear social exclusion or even abandonment simply for being honest and true – has long rested heavy on my heart, for I am intimately entangled with it.’ She licked her lips as though her mouth had gone dry. Laren felt fear rise in her chest; Zachary had gone absolutely still, his eyes fixed on Lady Estora.
‘Several years ago, I fell in love with a Green Rider, a man called F’ryan Coblebay,’ she said quietly. ‘We became intimately close, in secret. To my great sorrow, he died in the course of his duties some three years ago. I grieved without ever being able to reveal it. My lord King Zachary is aware of this, and has chosen not to hold it against me. I have nothing but gratitude for this.’ She nodded to him, and he gave her a grave nod of acknowledgement in return, his face solemn. Laren wondered if he, too, didn’t dare interrupt Lady Estora. The words seemed to flow from her, steady but unstoppable, as though she had held all of this within her for so long that it had nowhere to go but out. Lord Coutre’s fists were clenched, his knuckles white.
‘I have been fortunate. But others are not. For a long time I counted myself lucky – and still do – to be attached to a man who was willing to understand, to not hold this information over me. But the more I have considered it the more I have realised that by remaining as I am, I am only perpetuating the terrible force of tradition. My father selected a match for me, and I am honoured by it. But it is not what I desire, and I believe that my wishes in this matter – and by extension the wishes of all those in the process of betrothal or courtship – should be respected. I cannot stand for those such as Lady Yvette, I cannot stand against the placing of traditional values over real persons, and yet allow my own will to be subsumed under political intent.’
There was a very fine tremor in her voice now, but she lifted her chin and spoke on.
‘King Zachary, Your Excellency,’ she said, turning to him. ‘I would like to thank you for the great honour you have done me, and the immense grace and generosity that you have shown. However, if I am to remain true to my morals and my beliefs, I cannot marry you.’
The air in the room felt like ice to Laren, and even as she could hear the truth ringing in every word that Estora spoke she could also sense the rising uncertainty in the room. They were at a point of imbalance; what was done and said next in this room would affect everything.
Zachary met Lady Estora’s eyes.
‘I understand, and I accept this,’ he said softly. ‘Thank you for your honesty.’
Lord Coutre could remain quiet no longer; rising from his seat, his voice was shaking with anger and what might have been a hint of fear.
‘My lord, my daughter –’
‘Has just demonstrated a level of personal courage that I do not believe I could match, Lord Coutre. I have nothing but respect for her decision.’ Zachary’s voice was level and steady, but the undercurrent of emotion in it took Laren by surprise – and it seemed to check Lord Coutre, too. The older man looked furious, but said nothing, his eyes moving from Zachary to Estora and back again. Zachary took his pause for acquiescence and spoke to the room as a whole.
‘My lords, ladies, and counsellors, thank you for your attendance. I will see you all at dinner later this evening. If you’ll excuse me, I have matters I must attend to. Lady Estora – thank you, again.’ He gave her what might have been almost a bow as he stood, and swept out of the room while the others were still getting to their feet. Laren knew she was expecting to follow the king, but she took her time by gathering up some of his papers with Sperren and watched Lady Estora and Lord Coutre as discreetly as possible. They said nothing to each other, but when Lord Coutre strode out of the room without a word Lady Estora lifted her chin and followed him, her bearing regal. The Weapons who had been standing on either side of her paused and glanced at each other, obviously conferring briefly, but did not follow. Instead they turned and went after the king. Laren followed them, Colin close behind her.
Estora felt light-headed as she walked out into the corridor, and light-hearted despite the dread looming over her at her father’s reaction. No Weapons behind her. No marriage ahead of her. No life of lies and political performance and inner loneliness. No soul-wrenching inescapable destiny that she could not avoid. She had no idea what was going to happen next, and it made her giddy with relief. And maybe, just maybe, the example she had set today would protect one or two others in the future. Then she would know she had done the right thing, and not just the right thing for herself.
Her father was ahead of her. And that storm… well, she had made her decision. He had said he would put her first? Well, perhaps he would, perhaps he wouldn’t. But she would walk into that conversation with her head held high, and no matter what he did she would not apologise.
With that thought she reached the door of their chambers, and stepped inside.
When Zachary reached his private study, he knew he had only a few minutes with which to compose himself before the counsellors caught up with him. He couldn’t stop Estora’s words ringing in his ears.
…and yet allow my own will to be subsumed…
‘Damn, damn, damn.’ He kept his voice low, but knew his breathing was heavy and there were tears pricking at his eyelids. No, not now. No. He drew in a steadying breath. Now was not the time for an over-emotional response; there would be enough of that from Clan Coutre. Now was the time to be calm, and respectful, and to attempt to anchor the event in dignity in order to protect Lady Estora and prevent too much political upheaval. But even as he recognised that he had to damp down the anger rising in his chest. She was right, damn it. What was the sense in holding onto form that only damaged, that only hurt? Hadn’t their contract been coercive from the start? He resolved that, although he may have to retain a stately manner on the subject rather that allow his emotions to dictate his response, he would ensure that Lady Estora was protected as much as he could. Would Lord Coutre be foolish enough to cast her out?
Almost absent-mindedly, Zachary took off his silver fillet and turned it about in his hands, running through the possibilities. His cousin would stand with him, for certain. And he felt that some of the other Western provinces could be brought in line on the subject – D’Yer, certainly, probably Penburn – Adolind? L’Petrie? He shook his head. Too many variables to know for certain. Plans would have to be drawn up for all possibilities. Inevitably his thoughts ran to the chambers the Coutre family were currently occupying. They’d be all alone in there now. Would Lord Coutre shout, condemn, vilify? Would he be silent? Would there be tears and reconciliation, or fury and rejection? Would he be asked to step in?
He heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor and gathered himself. Well-practiced, he replaced the fillet on his head, and adjusted his expression to something less brooding.
‘Councillor Dovekey, Castellan Sperren, and Captain Mapstone, sire.’
‘Show them in.’
Zachary did not turn to face them when they entered but continued to gaze out of the window, less than confident of his ability to retain his neutral expression. After a few moments’ struggle with himself, he walked over to his desk and sat down, gesturing to them to do so also.
‘An unexpected development,’ Colin ventured, after a minute or so of silence. Zachary did not answer, but leaned back in his chair.
‘There will, of course, be political consequences,’ said Sperren slowly. Captain Mapstone nodded.
‘Which ones, though?’ she asked. ‘It all depends on Lord Coutre’s reaction, first and foremost.’
‘He may well cast her out,’ Colin said, disapproval etched onto his face and sorrow in his voice. ‘The Eastern lords are rather conservative, and Arey and Bairdly will likely expect it of him.’
‘If so, she’ll have nowhere to go,’ Captain Mapstone replied. ‘None of the lesser nobility will take her in, and it would be incredibly dangerous for her to try crossing the Wingsong Mountains alone. Even if she did, there’s no guarantee that any of the other Province-Lords would support her, for fear of Coutre’s reaction.’
‘Leonar would take her in, if I asked,’ Zachary said quietly.
‘That is undoubtedly true, sire, and certainly preferable to you protecting her here. But the danger is – she has chosen to step away from you, and if she is unable to maintain that…’
‘You might safeguard the Lady’s wellbeing at the expense of her reputation, and your position with the other Lord-Governors.’ Captain Mapstone finished Colin’s point for him.
Zachary clenched his jaw. He knew that.
‘I can hardly do anything else,’ he said through gritted teeth, leaning forward. ‘If Coutre casts her out, can I leave her to struggle on her own? No. Not as a person with any kind of moral grounding.’
The room was silent at that. None of them could disagree with him, though he knew that Colin, at least, was a little more ruthless and undoubtedly felt that the king’s standing with his Province-Lords was worth abandoning one lady for. Zachary leant back in his chair again, still seething. He found most of his anger was for Lord Coutre. Did the old man care nothing for his daughter’s wishes? Zachary tried to imagine giving away his own daughter’s hand in marriage to someone she hardly knew, and his stomach roiled. It was normal, it was traditional, he had been reasonably content to go along with it not half an hour ago – so why was it suddenly so difficult to contemplate?
Because Lady Estora is right, he thought. Just because we’ve all adjusted to it doesn’t mean it’s right, just because it’s traditional doesn’t mean it’s good.
And besides, had he really been content? Had he not considered his marriage to Lady Estora something to bear, to adjust to, a challenge to overcome? Was that really the best way to spend a life?
He shook his head slightly, almost to himself. It was a mess. Now wasn’t the time to argue about who started it or why it happened; now they had to think ahead, and plan.
Lady Coutre looked up when Estora entered, her face difficult to read.
‘He’s in his study,’ she said abruptly, and then turned around to chivvy out Brinna and Eveny, who were peering out of their rooms.
‘Estora, what did you do?’ Brinna asked in astonishment; but she must have spoken too loudly for the door to their father’s study opened again. Lord Coutre stood in the doorway, his face like thunder.
‘How dare you,’ he began. ‘How dare you! After everything I have worked to do for you, you ungrateful, treasonous little witch!’
‘Aven,’ Estora’s mother murmured, but her rebuke went unheeded.
‘Consorting with a commoner when we sent you to Sacor City to be considered by the king! And even then – even then! You risked everything to tell him of your – your – your disgrace and then you humiliate me in front of the court. You could do no less, I suppose? You have made a mockery of me, and you have betrayed the values of your clan!’
‘Brinna, Eveny, to your rooms, now,’ snapped Lady Coutre, and Estora’s two younger sisters disappeared back into their own rooms, wide-eyed and silent.
Estora knew that she was trembling, but she stood still in the face of her father’s rage. When he said nothing more, she licked her lips and began,
‘Father, I –’
‘Father? You call me father, after this? After destroying everything we have tried to give you and rejecting everything we stand for, you walk in here and call me father?’
Estora felt some of her former anger come back, and took it for strength.
‘Does Clan Coutre not stand for honesty, father?’ she said, ignoring her mother’s silencing expression. ‘For integrity? For the importance of remaining true to one’s values? Or is that rendered empty as soon as my values do not match yours?’
‘You speak of honesty and integrity! You, who gave yourself away like some common slattern and then practically accused me of cruelty in front of the court, simply for wanting to raise your position and keep you safe!’ He shook his head in disgust. ‘You don’t understand what honesty or integrity are, you know nothing of –’
‘I know myself,’ Estora returned, her voice raised and tears welling up in her eyes despite her efforts to deny them. ‘I know what I believe. I know the truth of love when I feel it, and I could not bear to live a life so hollow without it. For me to have gone through with this contract despite my feelings would have been a betrayal of myself, and the worst kind of lie to a man who has shown me nothing but kindness and respect.’
But her father was shaking his head again, not even looking at her.
‘Go to your room,’ he said, his voice low and flat. ‘Get out of my sight, and stay there. Now.’
She paused, the pain searing her chest at the way her mother also looked away from her; and then she gathered her dignity and walked out at a sedate pace, retreating to her room. She sat on the edge of her bed for a few minutes, wondering if one of them would come in to speak to her, or rebuke her again; but when no one came, she curled up on her side on the bed and began to cry.