Captain Mapstone rolled her shoulders as she strode down the corridor, trying to get some life back into them. Standing at Zachary’s shoulder was becoming more physically demanding as she got older, and her joints were in much indignation.
As she turned the corner, she saw Mara headed in the opposite direction. The younger Rider’s expression lifted when she spotted her captain.
‘Captain Mapstone!’ she exclaimed. ‘I’ve been looking for you. Did you change the schedule to send Karigan out with the Selium message, rather than Sandy? I just caught Sandy in the corridor and asked her why she hadn’t left already, and she said that Karigan had been switched with her and left a couple of hours ago. But I don’t have any paperwork about it.’
Mara’s expression was confused, but not overly concerned; expecting confirmation. Of course. She trusted Karigan. Captain Mapstone jumped to a series of possible conclusions, thinking quickly, before she spoke.
‘Yes, sorry. Must have missed you on that one – something just came up.’ It was a pathetic lie, really, but Mara brightened and nodded in relief.
‘I just wanted to check, in case I’d missed something important. Were you on your way back to the barracks?’
Captain Mapstone nodded, and the two of them fell into step. Mara began to talk about the minor events of the morning, but Captain Mapstone was barely listening. Karigan had taken another Rider’s message. That was serious, and under other circumstances would warrant a reprimand. But Karigan’s loyalty was unwavering and her judgement to be trusted. She would not have done such a thing without an excellent reason. So for the time being, Laren would cover for her – until she could discover what was really going on. But what would make Karigan take a different message? Private instructions from the king, possibly, but it would be unlike Zachary not to discuss them with her first. Very unlike Zachary… Zachary. Zachary, who always had eyes for Karigan when she walked into the room. Zachary who kept track of the Riders’ schedule much better than ever before and always knew when she was due back at the keep. Zachary, who when Karigan had not returned from her errand to Arey Province in time had been brusque with his councillors and tense in his manner, his brow falling into frown lines whenever he was left to think, his eyes always on the window, watching the approach to the keep. Had he said something to her? A message? An exchange of words… something more?
Laren held back a groan. Zachary should know better, he really should, but she’d watched him grow more and more thoughtful in the wake of Lady Estora’s declaration. Each time they had news of a commoner-noble marriage his attention seemed more distracted, as though he was considering…
‘I’d better get back to my work – thank you, Captain!’
‘Good luck with it, Mara,’ Laren replied automatically as the two parted ways. Laren entered her office and closed the door.
If Zachary had approached her, what would Karigan do? Run. Laren felt her face settle into a worried frown. Karigan would get as far away from the keep as possible, as fast as possible. Unless she chose to reciprocate… but no, Karigan was too cautious, too wary. Two words she’d never before used to describe her but while Karigan might be wilful and risk-taking in the field her social life was always characterised by wariness. As though she wasn’t quite sure why people wanted to befriend her.
Laren paced her office, her temper rising. Really, it was Zachary’s responsibility to keep his feelings under control. Yes, Karigan was an adult and could make her own decisions, but Zachary held too much power over her. He was older, more experienced, higher ranking… did he not understand the danger he could put her in by not containing himself? He was a good man, she knew that, but even good men could be careless and wilful when their emotions were concerned. Even good men could feel… entitled.
And what could she do about it? Well, she might not be able to order him about, but she was certainly capable of giving him a piece of her mind. She wasn’t his councillor just to nod along, especially not when he was acting so rashly.
It took her twenty minutes to get Zachary on his own in his study. Fury had leant her considerable speed, and he had obviously read her temper immediately. Even so he still had to formally pause his work and send his assistant out politely, and then Laren checked to make sure they would not be overheard by anyone before she began.
‘Excellency, may I be granted permission to speak to you entirely frankly, and without regard for rank?’
Zachary seemed to hesitate for a moment and then steel himself.
‘You may,’ he said, frowning at her slightly.
Laren had a moment of doubt, but her anger allowed her to overcome it.
‘What in the hells makes you think you can approach Rider G’ladheon?’ she burst out – Zachary’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth to speak but she put up a warning finger to stop him and spoke on. ‘Karigan is twenty-two years old, she is a long way from home, she has no family here and she is under your care. I don’t know what you’ve said or done, but it was enough to push her to leave for Selium and risk serious trouble with me for doing so.’
Zachary’s expression darkened, but he knew better than to interrupt Laren before she spoke again.
‘I’ve known the two of you had feelings for each other for a long time,’ Laren continued, ‘and I can’t imagine that it’s been easy. But I thought better of you than this – I’ve never known you to be disrespectful before. You should know better – for gods’ sake, Zachary, you’re thirty-four. You know it’s not possible. You should be leaving it alone – for her sake, and for yours. There’s damn little she can do about it, she needs you to step back. Nothing can happen between you, and you have no right to put any pressure on her – and they may be your Riders first and foremost but they’re also mine and if I have to protect them from you when there is no one else to do it then Aeryc damn me I will, do you understand? For your benefit as well as hers.’
Laren ran a frustrated hand through her hair.
‘I think what I’m most concerned about it that she’s in your care – you are responsible for her well-being, ultimately, and for you to pursue something that cannot possibly become a reality is irresponsible in the extreme, and not something I would expect from you. I thought you’d managed to turn away from this and recognise Lady Estora – I know that won’t happen now but that’s no excuse for this behaviour. Karigan deserves an apology first, and then an assurance that you will not pursue the matter and that you can return to your formal positions without her taking any further harm. I appreciate that it’s difficult, but you’re more than capable of doing the right thing. When she gets back from Selium you need to act as though the matter is over, and then stick to it.’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t like rebuking you like this. You’re not a child. And you know I respect you. But it’s my place to tell you when you’re being a damn fool, and that’s what I’m doing.’
There was a long silence before Zachary spoke. He did not look at her.
‘Thank you for sharing your view, Captain Mapstone.’
She waited. When he did not say anything further, she took a step forward.
‘Well?’ she burst out. ‘What are you going to –’
‘Thank you, Captain Mapstone,’ he said, speaking firmly over her without turning to look at her, ‘for your input. I will take your advice to heart and consider it closely. You are dismissed.’
She opened her mouth, and then closed it again abruptly. Fine. It had been hard to hear, no doubt. She’d leave him to consider it, and nurse his wounded feelings in private.
‘Good day, your Excellency,’ she said formally, before bowing and striding out of the room.
When Captain Mapstone had left, Zachary sank into a chair by the window, his face in his hands.
She’d left for Selium? To get away from him?
Zachary felt the panic pulsing through him and tried to breathe more steadily. No. No, he didn’t know anything for certain. Perhaps she had just needed some time to think. Or was he deluding himself? Had he truly overstepped his mark? He dreaded the thought that he had upset her, even unintentionally – unintentionally? Carelessly was more the word.
Arrogantly, too. To assume that they could have an easy conversation, that their difference of rank and age was something that could be hand-waved away. By him, perhaps, but that was easy for him to say, wasn’t it? But then hadn’t he wanted to meet her to discuss matters specifically in order to erase this confusion? Surely that was helpful, sensible?
Zachary felt as though a tide had gone out with unnatural suddenness, leaving him stranded on damp sand without orientation or shelter. Wasn’t this what he had always hated? The arrogance, the stupid, careless, arrogance…
I’m not as bad as that, a small part of him volunteered. Making a mis-step like this doesn’t make me… not if I apologise. If I listen to Laren, and walk away.
It seemed inevitable – it had always seemed inevitable that they would be apart but it hurt so much more now, because for a brief time he had had hope. Stupid, pointless hope. Too much of an optimist. Not practical. Zachary breathed out shakily. All right. No sense in making a fuss about it now. Spilt milk. Was that the right phrase? It didn’t matter. Get back to work, that was the key. Concentrate on something normal and sensible and real.
But it was a long time before he moved from his position by the window.
‘Karigan! I wasn’t expecting to see you again so soon! It’s good to see you, do come in.’
Estral was all smiles as she chivvied Karigan into her office and shut the door.
‘I’ll just get us some tea – have you come straight off an errand? You look exhausted. What are they thinking, sending you straight back here – it must have been practically straight back here – after all the business with Lady Estora? Honestly. Unless something’s wrong?’
Karigan shook her head.
‘No, no, Lady Estora’s fine,’ she said. ‘On her way back to Coutre Province with her father, this time with a guard company and staff. She’ll be fine.’
‘Well, that’s something.’ Estral watched Karigan expectantly. Remembering her excuse, Karigan fumbled awkwardly with the message satchel.
‘I bear a message from the king, to be received by yourself or your father,’ she said, holding it out. ‘His gratitude for your sheltering of Lady Estora.’
Estral took it, still watching Karigan curiously.
‘Well, that’s very kind of him,’ she said slowly. ‘Karigan…’
The explanation rushed out of Karigan in a torrent; all her worries, all her concerns, everything. Estral listened with a furrowed brow, one hand on Karigan’s arm. When Karigan fell into silence, Estral nodded to herself slowly.
‘Let’s see. I know at least three people owe me favours, and I have a good reputation with the administrators. With a bit of convincing, I think I could manage to be away for… oh, say, up to six weeks? It’s a long time, but I only hope it will be long enough.’
‘Long enough for… what?’ asked Karigan, completely at a loss. Estral raised her eyebrows.
‘For me to come back to Sacor City with you,’ she said, as though it was obvious. Then, more kindly, ‘Karigan, you’re all alone there. I know, you have a lot of friends in the Green Riders and I’m not trying to diminish that, but they’re all sworn to King Zachary. You’ve got no one who’s able to stand entirely on your side. I can do that. Even if all I can do is be someone for you to talk to. Now, let’s see. I’ll need to speak to Fernand first, I think; it’s late now, so I’ll have to catch him in the morning. First thing, I think. And then Reesa, and then… yes, I think I can manage six weeks.’ She smiled at Karigan brightly. ‘The advantage of always being willing to cover other people’s classes – I’m owed a lot of favours.’