‘To Lord Arey,’ Captain Mapstone said, handing her the message. ‘It’s not urgent, just an acknowledgment of some previous agreements. But don’t linger too long – I can’t face the accounts without you.’ Her voice was light, but her eyes slightly too intent to match them. Karigan gave her a half-smile in return.
‘Understood, Captain. I’ll have a word with Daro, if you like – we could do with one extra person to do them, at least when I’m not here.’
Captain Mapstone nodded gratefully.
‘Good. You’re to depart in the morning; I won’t see you before then, I’m up to my ears in meetings, so safe riding.’
Karigan thanked her, and the captain headed off down the corridor.
The journey was going steadily, and without much to report, until one afternoon when she was still west of the mountains. She was riding along the road, half keeping a watchful eye on her surroundings but half lost in thought, when someone called her name.
Karigan frowned at the familiar voice, taking a moment to place it – but then she saw the figure who had hailed her, the familiar lines of her face –
Karigan was stunned; she dismounted from Condor immediately and went over to her friend. Lady Estora was wearing fairly sensible boots and wrapped in what looked like a warm jacket, but she was still in her skirts and she looked soaked to the bone.
‘What are you doing out here? Where are you going?’
‘I thought Selium,’ Lady Estora said, and Karigan saw that she was shivering in the cold.
‘Selium?’ she asked, trying to make sense of the answer and the situation.
‘Well, I have no aptitude for manual labour but I do have an education; I thought perhaps I could try for some kind of teaching or administrative role.’
Her voice aimed for reasonableness, despite the bizarre nature of the circumstance; a sort of desperate reaching for practicality. Karigan registered the pack over her shoulder, and then the worn nature of her boots, and then the mud flecking her clothes.
‘Did you… come all the way from Coutre Province?’ she asked, hardly believing it.
Lady Estora sniffed, and nodded.
‘I paid my way on a trade convoy, and they got me through the mountains, but I ran out of money a few days ago,’ she said.
Karigan stared at her friend, feeling the weight of the message satchel on her hip. She should travel on to Arey – she was on king’s business, and not permitted to delay. But… if she were able to ask for advice in this moment, what would King Zachary say?
That made it very simple. Karigan nodded to herself.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘I can escort you. Selium’s a long way, and you shouldn’t be travelling without supplies or a guard.’
Lady Estora’s expression made Karigan almost want to cry in sympathy. The gratitude and the guilt…
‘Karigan, that would – that would be –’ She struggled for words for a moment. ‘Thank you. I cannot thank you enough; but surely…’ she looked at the message satchel, concerned, ‘surely you must be on an errand? Please, I could not possibly cause you any trouble –’
Karigan cut her off with a gesture.
‘My message isn’t an urgent one,’ she said. ‘I can get you as far as Sacor City in under a week, and then I can explain myself to the king. He’ll understand, I know he would rather I protect you than put my message first and leave you travelling alone. And then I’m sure arrangements can be made to get you to Selium – if I can, I’ll ask to take you myself.’
They took it in turns to ride Condor, Karigan insisting that Lady Estora go first, until they reached the nearest town. There, Karigan used her tokens to buy a horse – not strictly in her remit, but if she had to she could back it with her own credit. From there they travelled faster. Estora was quiet as they rode, and Karigan didn’t press her for information. She came to enjoy the silence between them; after a day or so it no longer felt formal or awkward, but like trust. They both knew that the other one would speak if necessary, but until then they were content to be quiet.
However, when they reached the marker in the road that indicated they were only a mile from Sacor City, they ran into something of a disagreement.
‘It makes sense to go through Sacor City. I should explain why I’m not delivering my message directly, and I’m sure King Zachary will be able to take you in –’
‘Forgive me, Rider Sir G’ladheon, but he will not. Or, rather, he will, but it will do him serious political damage. I am too grateful to him to cause that.’ Lady Estora’s stance was proud, her jaw set. ‘I have separated from my father. I will not go to my former betrothed for charity. If you need to ride into the city, then I will wait here for your return, or go on alone to Selium.’
Karigan stared at her, torn between exasperation and respect. She really should go and report to the king, at least to give her message for Lord Arey to another Rider; but she looked at the set of Estora’s jaw and knew that if she departed the lady would not wait for her.
‘Then we ride on,’ she said, conceding. ‘But if I find someone I’ll send them back to the king with a message; my delay will be noticed and I shouldn’t give them cause to worry.’
Lady Estora nodded. Karigan, thinking longingly of her own bed in the barracks, remounted Condor and led them along that route that would allow them to bypass the city.
Zachary frowned again at the brief message in Karigan’s handwriting.
Encountered Lady Estora travelling alone and in need of aid. Agreed to accompany her to Selium for her safety. In doing so, delayed message to Lord Arey; will return immediately upon reaching Selium to complete errand, and then return to Sacor City to report fully and face any appropriate consequences.
It had been given to Captain Mapstone by a merchant trader who had apparently encountered Karigan on the road, and she had handed it to him. He had read it over several times, trying to organise his thoughts as his councillors discussed the matter.
Had Lord Coutre cast his daughter out? Karigan was not specific. Zachary needed to know; if his Rider had provided support to someone shunned by the Eastern Lords, he needed to be very careful. Not that Karigan had done the wrong thing – far from it. He wondered if they had managed to obtain a second horse. He wondered how far along the road they were. He wondered, very quietly in the back of his mind, if they discussed the broken engagement. Karigan had been avoiding him even more pointedly than usual since that had happened; after some thought, he had begun to suspect she thought he had told Estora about his feelings for Karigan. But perhaps he was over-thinking it. Following any thread of thought about Karigan seemed to land him in knots. Not because she was a particularly tricky or mysterious person – but because so much of what was between them could never be discussed or acknowledged.
He sighed. And then he almost stopped breathing as it occurred to him.
Why couldn’t it be acknowledged?
It was a dangerous thought, a very dangerous thought. But Zachary couldn’t help but follow it. More and more nobility had been discussing Lady Estora’s impassioned speech as the weeks went by. It seemed to have staying power. To declare that the world need not and indeed should not work the way it did was a powerful thing. But what if it were vindicated? What if some commoner-noble marriages did take place? What if, what if, what if…
But it was ridiculous, of course. The risk to Karigan, even if she did say yes which was in no way guaranteed, was tremendous. And how could she say yes or no? How could he ask her such a question from the position they were both in? She was sworn to him already, as a Green Rider; the balance was hopelessly tipped in his favour. It was unjust and unreasonable to ask anything like that of her.
Hypothetically, though, how would one level the playing field? Surely there was some logical method, even if it was impractical or complex. It would have to involve a willing surrender on his part, of at least some aspect of power… perhaps some kind of vow, kept in written form by a neutral party, to ensure Karigan’s safety should she withdraw…
But even if that all worked out. Even if it did. What about Karigan’s safety as his fiancée? As his queen? Lady Estora had not been safe. And she had the might of the Eastern Lords behind her. The Eastern Lords might well be against Karigan.
Zachary shook his head slightly, trying to clear it. To even consider this was madness. But he found he couldn’t quite rid himself of the idea. What if…
He almost visibly started as Colin’s voice jerked him back to the present moment.
‘I’m sorry, Colin,’ he said apologetically. ‘I’m afraid I lost my focus. What were you saying?’
Colin began to re-explain his point. Zachary paid attention this time. But still, ticking under his thoughts… perhaps he should seek a conversation with Karigan. Just to clarify where they stood. He would emphasise of course that she was welcome to refuse it, and if she did he would respect that entirely. That was the key. To have one, clean, clear conversation, and resolve things there. Rather than this constant wondering and repression. If she turned him down immediately he’d know there really was no chance.
They reached Selium at around the time classes ended for the day. Karigan led Estora through the streets to the Fiori household, had their horses settled in and then asked Biersly if Estral was available.
‘She has just returned, Rider Sir G’ladheon,’ said Biersly. ‘I will fetch her. Please be –’
Karigan and Estora turned to see Estral coming down the staircase.
‘It’s good to see you, I wasn’t expecting you but – it’s wonderful!’ she said, beaming. She looked from Karigan to Lady Estora expectantly. Karigan stepped in.
‘Lady Estora, may I introduce Estral Andovian, daughter of the Golden Guardian,’ she said formally. ‘Estral, Lady Estora.’
Biersly looked mildly affronted and Karigan belatedly realised that she was probably supposed to have referred to Estral as a Lady as well, but Estral just smiled.
‘Welcome, then, to both of you. Will you be staying here?’
‘If you don’t mind,’ Karigan said.
‘Not at all.’
After a little bit of fuss about the weather and the journey, they made their way into the library; on the way, Karigan fell back, explaining the situation to Estral in an undertone as Estora had the general orientation of the house described to her politely by Biersly. Estral nodded a lot but didn’t say much; when they reached the library doors, however, she excused herself.
‘If you two are all right to just settle yourself in the library, I just need to make one or two arrangements before I rejoin you. I’ll just be a few minutes.’ She nodded at Karigan in reassurance. ‘Biersly, some drinks for us all, I think.’
The library was quiet and warm. Estora smiled when Estral came back in, Biersly behind her bearing a tray of hot drinks.
‘No Kauv, I’m afraid, just tea,’ Estral said cheerfully as she sat down. ‘But good tea.’
‘Yes, please. Thank you, Biersly.’
Estora took the cup gratefully and sipped the tea, feeling the warmth inside her and almost closing her eyes in satisfaction. After all the cold and the travels and the exhaustion, to be warm and dry and know that tomorrow she would also be warm and dry, and not have to walk any real distance…
Karigan and Estral were watching her; she straightened slightly in her chair and set down her cup, unsure of what to say. After a glance at Karigan, Estral leant forward to speak.
‘My lady, Karigan has told me about your circumstances. I want to reassure you that you are welcome to remain here for as long as you may need to.’
Estora felt tears well up in the corners of her eyes, and blinked them back.
‘Thank you,’ she said quietly. ‘That is incredibly kind of you. But I really don’t want to cause you or your father any kind of inconvenience, monetarily or politically or –’
Estral shook her head and waved Estora to silence.
‘No, no. You’re in the Fiori household now. I know my father, and I know he’d be happy to take you in. Besides, I’d love the company! As long as you don’t mind me being out teaching for a lot of the day, of course.’
Estora smiled as she shook her head, still on the brink of tears, overwhelmed with emotion. She gathered herself.
‘I was actually hoping to make some use of myself,’ she said nervously. ‘I’ve no real experience of working, but I do have an education – perhaps there is some way that I could develop a useful skill?’
Estral smiled, and sipped her tea thoughtfully.
‘Mm, I’m sure there’s something we can find for you. But not until the morning – you’ve travelled a long way, and you need the rest! Karigan, I assume you’re staying tonight?’
‘I’ve got start my return tomorrow, though,’ she said reluctantly. ‘It’s a long way back to Sacor City, and I still have a message to deliver to Arey Province.’
Estora felt the guilt well up inside her. If Karigan got in trouble because of her… surely King Zachary would understand. But even so, her friend had done an awful lot for her, and had much journeying ahead.
‘Karigan,’ she said haltingly, ‘I really am very grateful for all you’ve done. I –’
But Karigan was already shaking her head with a smile, albeit a tired one.
‘We’re friends,’ she said. ‘I was just doing what any decent person would do. Don’t worry about it.’
The rest of the evening they spent in conversation, and Estora felt, despite her exhaustion and her worry, that she had not been more at home in months.