‘Good morning, Lord Coutre.’ Zachary kept his tone neutral. Lord Coutre seemed composed this morning, his fury of the previous day either abated or well-concealed.
‘Thank you for seeing me, sire,’ he said. ‘I wish to offer my apologies for the events of yesterday and the manner in which they were conducted. It seems I must, whatever my personal opinions,’ at this Zachary saw his jaw clench briefly, ‘ask for a formal reneging of the contract of marriage.’
He gave a curt nod to his aide, who with Zachary’s permissive gesture placed it on the desk. Zachary nodded.
‘Very well, my lord,’ Zachary said quietly. Formally, and determinedly ignoring the air of awkwardness, they went through the document and signed for its mutual revoking. When they were finished, Lord Coutre was the first to speak.
‘Thank you, sire. And now with your permission, I and my household will be returning to Coutre Province. There is no reason for us to remain here, and there will be many things in my province that should be given my attention.’
Zachary nodded slowly, unsurprised. For the Coutre Clan to remain in Sacor City would only prolong any potential embarrassment. Better for the nobility as a whole to disperse back to their home territories and start afresh.
‘Of course, Lord Coutre. I wish you all the best on your journey home, and hope that it is both safe and swift.’
‘My thanks, and my good wishes to you. If you will excuse me, I need to attend to our departure.’
Zachary nodded again and Lord Coutre left, his carriage upright and, despite his mostly neutral expression, something somewhat stricken in his eyes.
Alton sat with his back against the D’Yer wall, side by side with none other than Estral Andovian.
‘I wish you could stay longer,’ he confessed, leaning his head back and looking up at the sky.
‘So do I,’ she replied. ‘But a travelling minstrel is supposed to – well, travel.’ She slipped a hand into his, and he felt the warmth spread up his arm. He turned to her and gave her a soft smile.
‘You’ve made everything here… I feel like I can breathe properly again,’ he said quietly. 'There’s still so much work to be done, but it feels… manageable, somehow. Though it will be hard without your music. When… when will I see you again?’
Something like a shadow passed over her face, and she looked away from him. He frowned slightly.
She sighed, pushing the air out slowly, then turned back to him. Her expression was wary, but resolved.
‘Alton, you know that I love you,’ she said, and Alton felt as though the sun had come out. ‘But… I’m worried.’
‘What about?’ he asked, squeezing her hand gently. She carefully separated their hands and folded hers in her lap.
‘Alton, I’m... I’m not like you,’ she said carefully. ‘I love you very dearly, but I don’t – there’s nowhere for us to go.’
Alton frowned in confusion.
‘Your rank is close to mine, you’re the daughter of the Golden Guardian,’ he said. ‘My father would have no objection –’
‘But I would,’ she said, her eyes serious. ‘Alton, I love you, but I don’t – I don’t have any desire to be a nobleman’s lady, much less a Province-Lord’s wife. I don’t plan to marry at all.’ She sighed again as he watched her, frozen. ‘I should have brought this up before, when things were still small between us, but you were so alone and I just… I was a coward, I suppose. And I’ve hurt you, and I’m sorry.’ She seemed to re-gather her resolve. ‘I love you, and I love being with you, but I cannot commit to only you. I can’t promise marriage, nor can I promise I won’t fall in love elsewhere. I’m sorry, Alton.’
Alton felt as though he had lost his footing and was falling; almost, he expected the ground to come up beneath him and shatter him to pieces.
‘I will understand if you don’t want to see me again,’ she said, her voice very small.
Alton licked his dry lips, and swallowed. The truth was that he had known, hadn’t he? Estral was not one to be pinned down. Knowing his words now would matter more than anything, he forced himself to examine his feelings. He was hurt, yes – the future he had began to imagine had shattered, and it would take him time to heal. But his time with Estral had done him more good than he had realised; he felt much more stable than he had even a month ago, much more able to handle a little pain if necessary. Perhaps it did not have to be the end of the world.
‘And if I said,’ he said quietly, the words forming on his tongue only just after the thought, ‘that I was willing to accept you as you are? That I love you, as you are? And I will not ask you to change?’
She looked up at him, hope in her expression but also uncertainty. Alton, in contrast, felt steadily more sure of his decision. Gently, he put a hand on her arm.
‘Estral, I love you. I don’t want to lose you – I don’t know… I don’t know how to handle this,’ he confessed, a little sheepishly, but rallied, ‘but I know that I want you in my life, in whatever way you feel most comfortable. If we have to separate at some point, then we will – but please don’t leave because of my rank, or because you feel I won’t accept you.’
‘What if I fall in love with someone else?’ she asked, and he bit back a wince. He looked at her, considering the question seriously. How would he feel? Jealous, surely. Resentful. But… he thought about it again, imagined her in the arms of someone else, some handsome man… and how happy she would be. Wasn’t that the message behind Estora’s declaration? That happiness should come first, that it was one’s duty to oneself and to the people one loved? If she was happy, could not he be happy for her? Even if, he admitted to himself, it would take some work on his part.
‘Then I will accept it,’ he said firmly. ‘I will be sad to lose you, but I don’t wish us to end our companionship simply because of what might happen – it will happen when it happens, and not before.’
Estral raised her eyebrows a little.
‘And if I fell for someone without falling out of love with you?’
Alton stared at her. She gave him a wry smile, and a shrug.
‘I’ve never understood why everyone seems to love within so many boundaries,’ she explained quietly. ‘The whole world is there to love – different kinds of love, maybe, but love all the same. How can I confine that to just one person and say you, and you only?’
Alton took in a breath and let it out slowly, giving himself time to think. This was… what was this? Not something he had ever considered. Honesty, then.
‘I… I don’t know,’ he confessed. ‘I’d like to think… I would choose to handle my feelings on my own terms, but I don’t know exactly what those feelings would be. I’m willing to try, though.’
There was a pause, and then Estral leant over to him and kissed him, gently.
A month or so passed. Then another. The castle seemed abnormally quiet after all of the fuss of the wedding – or as Tegan kept referring to it as, the wedding-that-wasn’t. That was about the only joke Karigan had heard about the whole event, though; in general, everyone seemed quite solemn about it. There were whispers that Lady Estora was going to be disowned, though nothing of that nature had been heard about officially and Karigan suspected that Zachary would be paying careful attention. The gossip also varied in its description of Zachary, from a gratefully released man to a secretly devastated spurned lover; she even heard a few people speculating that perhaps King Zachary was in love with someone else, and that was why Lady Estora had really refused the match. These rumours didn’t get very far, for which Karigan was extremely grateful.
The weather began to brighten. Karigan received a letter from Estral about Alton, and felt as though her eyebrows were going to raise themselves right off the top of her forehead for a few minutes. But the more she thought about it, the more it made sense – and she was reluctantly impressed by Alton’s apparent acceptance of Estral’s more non-traditional preferences. She wrote back, congratulating her friend. And then she wrote to Alton. And then her father.
There were one or two incidents; King Zachary’s cousin Amberhill was found sprawled in the street one morning, having apparently drunken himself into a stupor and been robbed. When the thieves were caught – there had been plenty of witnesses in the inn – among the jewellery had been something that appeared to have magical origin. Captain Mapstone had been non-specific, but confirmed to Karigan and Mara that it had been taken to the tombs to be kept safe from misuse. Lord Amberhill vanished back to his country estates in embarrassment. Chief Mender Destarion also left, due to a family matter, and a new Chief Mender had been sent for from Selium.
Otherwise, life seemed to be settling back into its normal routine. King Zachary was rarely to be seen, constantly hidden away in study somewhere, stuck in what appeared to be endless meetings. Karigan felt sorry for him, but also, finally, that she might stand a chance of moving on. It was easier when she didn’t see him so often.
Of course, she thought later, she should have known that nothing stayed that simple in her life for long.