The days stretched out. Zachary tried to force himself not to worry. Karigan was a capable adult, with a strong mind of her own. Perhaps she’d just taken the errand so that she had time away from him to think; she’d come back, and she’d find him entirely respectful and well at a distance from her. Permanently.
Zachary may have felt muddled and uncertain about his relationship – or lack thereof – with Karigan, but Laren’s opinion was rock-hard, and so he leaned on it. He had been out of line, to ask her to meet him alone. Of course. That was the end of it. The best thing to do now was nothing; continue as normal, throw himself into his work, and in a year or two (or three, or four, and what if she stayed for years like Laren did?) she would finish her term as a Green Rider and return to Corsa, safely out of reach.
These sensible, logical thoughts didn’t seem to prevail late at night, however, when he lay with his eyes open wondering if she was safe. Sacor City to Selium was a safe run – the King’s Road took you all the way, highly populated, and Karigan was not carrying any message worth stealing. But there were still a hundred things that could go wrong, and if they did it would be his fault for pushing her.
By the light of day he knew this to be ridiculous, but that didn’t help. This whole thing had been ridiculous, and now it had to stop. It had to.
When they started up Winding Way, Estral reached over to briefly pat Karigan’s shoulder.
‘I’ll stay at the inn nearest the keep. What’s it called. The Silver Star. You go and get settled and find out if you’re in trouble. But send me a message by tomorrow noon, or I’ll come up there and badger every Green Rider I find until I get to you.’
Her tone was playful but her eyes were serious. Karigan nodded, gratitude swelling in her chest.
The meeting with Captain Mapstone did not go anywhere nearly as badly as Karigan had expected. The older woman treated it like a normal report on a normal run, until right at the end when she met Karigan’s eyes seriously.
‘I expect you know that changing rides without discussing it with myself is not behaviour I expect from my Riders,’ she said.
‘Yes, Captain,’ Karigan replied quietly, dropping her eyes.
Captain Mapstone regarded her for a long moment.
‘Don’t do it again, because then you’ll be in real trouble.’
Karigan looked back up at her, surprised; there was concern in Captain Mapstone’s expression, but Karigan didn’t know what else she was expected to say.
‘I won’t, Captain,’ she said.
As soon as she could, Karigan headed through the keep, aiming vaguely at the barracks of the Black Shields but meandering enough to see most of them at their posts, hoping the one person she was looking for was not guarding King Zachary. She got lucky, and found him just outside the barracks.
The Weapon turned to face her.
‘Rider Sir G’ladheon?’
Karigan fought to keep her expression as neutral as Fastion’s.
‘Could you please inform the king that I agree to speak to him as he requested a few weeks ago. In the western corridor, the last room at the end; as soon as he is available after the last bell.’
Fastion’s expression did not betray a flicker of surprise – or of any other emotion.
‘Certainly, Rider Sir G’ladheon.’
Karigan turned and walked away abruptly, not able to hold the cool blankness of expression in the knowledge of what she was doing.
It had been difficult, even with Estral’s help, to figure out how to get Captain Mapstone involved – Karigan didn’t want to get caught up in explanations before they actually got to the meeting, but neither did she want the captain to feel deceived. In the end, they settled had with a simple approach which came off better than Karigan had expected. She just dropped back in to the captain’s office near the end of the day with a nervous expression, and asked that the captain meet her later that evening as there was something that she needed her advice on. She was quick to speak and even quicker to disappear out of the office again and down the corridor, to avoid any objections.
Finally, everything was in place. She and Estral were waiting in the chosen room, having got the fire going already and brought up the necessities for tea. Captain Mapstone arrived next, and raised her eyebrows when she saw Estral.
‘Karigan, what’s this about?’ she asked cautiously. Karigan wasn’t sure how to answer, but she didn’t have to.
‘We’re just waiting for one more, captain, if you don’t mind – tea?’ Estral’s tone was bright and confident, and after a moment Captain Mapstone nodded cautiously.
It was only a minute after that that the king arrived. He was preceded by Fastion stepping into the room – Karigan thought she detected a minute raise of his eyebrows at the unexpected guests – and then entered himself, looked around, and froze.
Karigan steeled herself, and delivered her opening line as rehearsed.
‘They stay, or I leave and this conversation doesn’t happen.’
There was a moment’s pause that seemed, to Karigan, to stretch out forever. She had prepared herself so much for the idea that he would walk straight back out again that when he did not it felt like a shock. Instead, he gave a single nod of concession, his expression still guarded but now touched with worry.
‘Then they stay, of course,’ he said softly. Karigan looked away from him.
After another pause, Zachary sat himself down on one of the older chairs by the fireplace. The Weapons faded into the corners of the room, unobtrusive, and the three women took their seats without looking at each other. The air felt thick, lifeless.
‘Well, shall I be the one to break the awkward silence?’ Estral asked cheerfully, looking from Zachary to Karigan to Captain Mapstone. When none of them answered she nodded, her expression unsurprised.
‘Right then. Karigan invited me here – well, I invited myself, and she agreed – because she has a high opinion of my ability to mediate a discussion. And it seems like a discussion is needed.’
Karigan watched Zachary, noting the uncertainty creeping into his expression. This wasn’t what he had expected. What had he expected?
‘I suppose it is,’ he said quietly, meeting Karigan’s eyes. She broke his gaze and looked back to Estral, who folded her hands together thoughtfully.
‘If this is going to work, you need to speak to each other as equals. In this room, no rank or station, just honesty.’ Estral looked from Zachary, to Karigan, and back again. ‘Do we agree?’
Again, a pause; Zachary’s expression was back to neutral and Karigan wondered what he was thinking. And then he gave a nod.
‘Very well,’ he said. And then, to her surprise, he spoke to his two Weapons.
‘Fastion, Istell, you may leave us. Wait outside the door, but don’t draw attention to it.’
The two Weapons bowed and left, the door closing softly behind them. Zachary leant back in his chair and let out a sigh.
‘Zachary it is,’ he said quietly. ‘Well, Estral Andovian, where do you think we should start?’
His tone was light, but anxiety thrummed beneath it, and his eyes flicked from Estral to Karigan. She didn’t meet them, but Estral gave a smile.
‘I think we start with working out where both of you stand,’ she said. ‘From what I can tell there’s been far too much guesswork and not enough understanding.’ She thought for a moment, and then nodded to herself before turning to Zachary. ‘Zachary, how do you feel about Karigan?’
Karigan was watching him again; he seemed torn between maintaining a respectful sort of neutrality and letting his guard down entirely. His brow furrowed and he closed his eyes briefly in thought. Then his expression smoothed out. She could almost see him building his nerve up a little before he spoke.
‘I feel… admiration. Gratitude. Respect. And… a great deal more affection than perhaps I should.’
He kept his tone mild, but to her surprise Karigan could see the effort it took. Somehow, that was reassuring. Even despite his description of his feelings, which seemed to roar inside her head. Estral turned to her.
‘Karigan, how do you feel about Zachary?’
Karigan calmed herself as best she could, and tried to think of the right words.
‘Complicated,’ she said quietly. ‘Nervous. Admiration, too, and respect… affection. But also frustration.’
The air in the room was thick and uncomfortable. Karigan prayed she wouldn’t blush.
‘Why frustration?’ Zachary asked. He was fidgeting with his hands a little, and Karigan realised that he was genuinely worried. She tried to think how she could explain this to him. But how could he understand? The silence stretched as she thought hard, looking for some kind of handle on her feelings that she could use. Then she had it. She looked across at him.
‘Why did you make me a knight?’ she asked.
Zachary’s brow creased.
‘You deserved the honour,’ he said slowly, as though he was trying to see some trick in her words. ‘You did a great thing in rescuing Lady Estora, and it deserved to be recognised. The knighthood… your connection with the First Rider, your acts in defence of myself and this kingdom… it seemed fitting.’
‘And I was grateful,’ she admitted. ‘And flattered. But you didn’t just do that. You didn’t even see what else you did.’
All of Zachary’s attention was focused on her, normally enough to make her nervous, but all of the months of frustration and confusion had built up now and she could push through it. She leant forward slightly as she spoke.
‘You made it impossible for me to walk away from you. And you didn’t even give me a warning, or ask my opinion, or consider that you might be offering something I didn’t want. And you tied me to you so that I cannot ever entirely leave.’
Zachary’s mouth opened slightly, almost in protest, and then Karigan saw the understanding bloom on his face. And the guilt that followed it. She realised that both Captain Mapstone and Estral were also watching him closely.
After almost a minute, he seemed to pull himself back together. He met Karigan’s eyes.
‘Karigan, I would like to apologise. I am truly, honestly sorry for my behaviour. I should have asked you, and I should have allowed you the space to make the decision that you needed to make without attempting to influence it. I have been careless and arrogant, and I am sorry for having hurt you.’
The apology was formal, and slightly awkwardly spoken – but it was honest, and heartfelt, and Karigan didn’t need Captain Mapstone’s ability to tell her that.
Estral leaned back in her chair again.
‘So, that’s cleared the air a little,’ she said softly. ‘Karigan, do you have anything else you want to say?’
Karigan shook her head, and then thought better of it and spoke again anyway.
‘I know how you feel,’ she said, feeling as though her stomach had turned into lead. ‘And I can see that you were trying to… you had good intentions. But you’re right at the top. You can’t always…’ she lapsed into silence, trying to think of how to phrase it.
‘…see where I’m putting my big feet?’ Zachary said. Karigan was startled into laughter, and a hint of a smile came to Zachary’s face.
‘Exactly,’ Karigan said, a little awkwardly, and Zachary nodded.
‘I’m lucky I have people like you and Captain Mapstone to tell me when I’m out of line,’ he said. ‘I will try to do better in future.’
Karigan smiled properly this time, and so did Zachary. The air between them felt cleaner. She looked to Estral expectantly.
‘So, that clears that up. But you’re both a little… restrained,’ she continued, making light mockery of the way Karigan and Zachary had both hesitated over their feelings for each other, ‘when it comes to talking about how you feel about each other. We need to draw a line. What kind of affection is this? Are you just fond of each other? Admiration from a distance? Would you want to just be good friends? Or is it love?’
Estral had a minstrel’s ear for turning a phrase. If Karigan had said something like that she would have felt ridiculous, but Estral made it sound practical and reasonable. She could also recognise when two thirds of the conversation were going to need a more direct nudge.
‘Zachary, are you in love with Karigan?’ she asked.
Zachary swallowed, and then nodded.
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Karigan, are you in love with Zachary?’
Karigan couldn’t meet his eyes at first, but then decided she’d be damned if she’d answer that question like a nervous school child and forced herself to look up.
‘Yes, I am,’ she said softly, and saw the tiny hitch in his breath.
Estral shifted position, tucking her legs up underneath herself on the chair.
‘If you were both free from rank and responsibility, would you want to court each other?’
Zachary nodded; so did Karigan. She couldn’t stop looking at him now, and wished vaguely that the light in here was better.
‘And so the next logical question is: even with your respective ranks and such and all the complications they would entail, do you still want to court each other?’
Laren’s eyebrows shot up
‘It’s impossible –’ she began, but Estral interrupted her firmly.
‘Maybe, yes. But right now the biggest problem is that it’s a mystery. Everyone’s treating it as though it’s this huge… cloud of impossibility, rather than a possible course of action. I think actually talking through the logistics of it – discussing it in real terms rather than imagining hypothetical, end-of-the-world scenarios – is what needs to happen.’
Captain Mapstone sat back in her chair, her mouth in an unhappy line. She radiated disapproval, but didn’t voice it.
‘So, is there any actual law preventing the two of you from doing this?’ Estral asked.
Zachary sat back in his chair.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Strictly speaking, as king I’m at liberty to marry whoever I wish, with their consent.’
‘And if you did, what’s the worst that could happen?’
He looked thoughtful.
‘Well,’ he said after several minutes of thought, ‘it’s the same as the worst that could happen of any decision I make. Total collapse of the power of the monarchy. But that’s extremely unlikely.’
Karigan felt suddenly light-headed. Total collapse of the power of the monarchy.
Zachary must have seen her expression, because he winced slightly and then began to explain.
‘Hypothetically, any decision I make could go badly. If people – particularly the nobility and even more particularly the Province-Lords – lose faith in my ability to govern, then the ultimate, worst-case, end result is me getting removed from the throne.’
‘How can you say that so lightly, like it’s nothing?’ Karigan burst out, completely thrown by how calm he was. He gave a faint smile.
‘Because that’s any decision I make,’ he said. ‘Part of my job is walking the line between options I want to take and options that other people will accept. There’s more leeway there than you think, provided you present things carefully and you understand how people tend to work. I live with that risk all of the time, it becomes normal.’
‘Do you think that that risk is higher with this particular decision than with any others?’ Estral asked curiously.
Again, Zachary thought about this for several minutes.
‘Riskier than some,’ he conceded after a while. ‘But with careful work, it might be within the realm of acceptable risk.’
‘Karigan would never be accepted,’ Captain Mapstone said flatly, though some of the harshness had gone from her voice. ‘Minor commoner-nobility marriages are one thing. But you have to understand all the implications – it’s one thing having a lord in the middle of nowhere marry a commoner and have the two of them manage his lands and properties. Those duties are no different, really, than those of rich commoners. The line between them is thin. But it’s entirely another thing getting people to accept the idea of a commoner on the throne. Karigan wouldn’t just be your wife – she’d be queen.’
Karigan felt winded. How had she never thought of it like that? Because she’d never really, properly thought about it before, that was how. The tiny hope that had sparked in her at hearing Zachary’s initial optimism was flattened. But Captain Mapstone didn’t stop.
‘Even if you disregarded all of their reactions and married her anyway, there’s no way she would be respected as a Queen Consort. She’d be at high risk of assassination, and that’s if she made it alive to the wedding.’ Captain Mapstone turned to Karigan. ‘I’m sorry, Karigan; none of this is meant to reflect on you. Personally, I think you’d probably be pretty good at being queen. But the world is not going to allow that to happen.’
Karigan nodded. But somewhere in among the gloominess, a thought caught her attention. Pretty good at being queen?
Aloud, she just said,
But Zachary was frowning again.
‘I don’t think it’s that black and white,’ he said slowly. ‘Laren, I know you feel I’m being overly idealistic about this. But the world is changing, and there are ways to sway opinions.’
‘Such as?’ Estral prompted, when Zachary didn’t continue.
‘There would have to be… incentives,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘We’d have to work out what advantages there would be for members of the nobility. Province-lords, specifically. L’Petrie would be pleased, I suspect, noble blood be damned. Leonar would support me…’
Captain Mapstone was shaking her head.
‘You’re supposing on little to no evidence,’ she said. ‘The matter hasn’t been discussed enough, you don’t know where the cards will fall. And if you announce your decision and their reactions are all against you, you have nowhere to go.’
‘Would it have to be like that?’ Karigan was almost surprised to hear her own voice, but pushed on. ‘Isn’t there any way of gauging opinions before announcing something? Seeing how things are, and maybe…’ she faded out, uncertain, but Zachary took up the thread of her argument, nodding.
‘If we had a period of time… six months, say? Or a year? In which we could test the waters, get a better idea of opinions, maybe even nudge a few people closer to our perspective; I don’t think opinions are as fixed as you say, Laren. And there are advantages to a commoner as queen.’ He stopped, and looked so sheepish that Karigan thought he was going to blush, but he didn’t. She thought she could guess why.
‘Talking about it in practical terms is why we’re here,’ she said awkwardly. ‘It’s better to be straightforward about these sorts of things.’
Zachary looked grateful.
‘What kind of advantages, though?’ Captain Mapstone asked, leaning forward and frowning.
‘Neutrality?’ Zachary suggested. ‘Not tipping the scales – especially now when the nobility are quite well-balanced. Karigan doesn’t belong to a particular faction of politics.’
‘Merchants aren’t entirely neutral, though,’ Karigan pointed out. Zachary conceded with a nod.
‘I’ll grant you that, but while I think that’s important most of the nobility do not.’
Karigan could see his point. Most of the nobility couldn’t give a damn what the merchants thought about anything, as long as they kept trading.
The conversation seemed to last for hours. Zachary and Captain Mapstone went around and around for quite a while about the various Province-Lords and where they might stand – as usual, it all hinged on the opinion of the Eastern Lords and, therefore, Lord Coutre. Neither Zachary nor Captain Mapstone seemed to think they would directly oppose the match – ‘Coutre can’t, not without making a hypocrite of himself and taking away his support of Estora’ – but only Zachary seemed to think that they could be brought around to directly favour it instead of remaining neutral. Karigan’s input in the conversation was minimal to start with, but as the awkwardness dissipated in the intensity of their discussion, she found herself contributing more and more, from both the negative and positive perspectives. Once or twice, she caught Captain Mapstone looking at her appraisingly.
The fire burned low. The curtains were pulled most of the way across the window, but through a small gap at the top Karigan could see a lightness beginning to come back to the sky. Dawn was on its way.
Zachary had noticed as well, and the conversation petered to a halt. After a few moments’ silence, Zachary spoke to the room at large.
‘What do we do now?’
Estral, who had been mostly quiet except for asking the occasionally clarifying, probing question when she felt someone was being oblique, shifted position, looking thoughtful.
‘You think about things,’ she said firmly. ‘Take some time, both of you, and think everything over. Maybe meet again, like this, so that you can talk. And if you decide not to do anything, then you make a clean break from that point. And if you decide to do something, you choose what it is and how to go about it.’ She shrugged. ‘Either way, you both have big decisions to make – Karigan more so than Zachary, because it’s her life that will change the most.’
Karigan still had that knot in her stomach, but oddly she felt lighter than before. She supposed Estral was right – it was better to discuss things clearly, even if they still were very difficult.
Zachary stood first, stretching, rolling his shoulders back. Karigan took a sudden and deliberate interest in the smouldering fire, and thought she saw Estral bite back a smirk.
They went their separate ways in near silence, Istell and Fastion slipping into Zachary’s shadow as he headed towards the royal quarters, and the other three unspeaking until they reached the Rider barracks. Estral gave Karigan a quick hug, and reminded her of the inn she was staying at. Then she slipped off into the breaking dawn, and Karigan was left alone with Captain Mapstone.
They stood unmoving for a moment. Then Captain Mapstone spoke.
‘Get some sleep,’ she said quietly. ‘You’ve got the rest of your leave to use up, and you could do with the rest.’
Karigan nodded mutely and began to walk towards her room.
She turned. The expression on Captain Mapstone’s face was reluctantly impressed.
‘Well-handled,’ she said gruffly, before turning and heading to her own quarters.