Estora still felt strange as she walked through the halls she had grown up in. It was bizarre to be here and yet to be… free.
Her relationship with her family was still fragile. But she and her father had had many conversations, some lasting deep into the night, and she felt that they, at least, were now on relatively stable ground. Her mother was tense and uncomfortable, and Estora knew that she felt as though Estora’s stance on political marriage was almost a direct attack on her; but she came to dinner, and she listened, and just yesterday they had walked in the gardens together.
Yes, everything was getting better.
Well, almost everything. At least one thing was becoming more difficult.
Estora glanced down at the letter in her hand. She didn’t need to open it again; she had read it so many times that the words felt embedded in her thoughts. A letter from Estral Andovian. Beautiful, impossible, shining Estral.
You were here so briefly, and yet I already miss your presence in the house. You were not loud, and yet now it seems unnaturally quiet. I grew fond of you so swiftly – too swiftly, perhaps – but believe that you felt much the same way. I have much to do here – classes to lead and students to rebuke – but I hope to travel some more in a few months’ time. I’m not overly fond of travelling, but I have found that good company and a good destination tends to encourage me. I plan to head East to D’Yer Province, and then cross the mountains to the sea before going further northward. I would very much like to see you when I reach Coutre Province, if you would welcome it (and if it would not cause any damage to your situation – I know that despite you and your father’s reconciliation things must be strange and perhaps still fragile).
She’d signed the letter, with all my love, Estral. Estora felt her heart speed up just thinking about it. All my love. Was that the truth, though? Hadn’t Estral herself told her that she had another love, a man of whom she was equally fond? Estora couldn’t quite imagine that, but Estral seemed to have an endless heart.
Then again… did she, Estora, not still love F’ryan? The two affections coexisted in her heart without diminishing each other, surely?
But all of these thoughts were just a distraction from the real problem. Yet again, Estora found herself in the position of having fallen for someone she could not possibly marry.
They had three more night-time conversations, each as intensive as the first. In the third and fourth, after some discussion, Estral and Captain Mapstone backed away to the other corner of the room to allow Zachary and Karigan to talk in some semblance of privacy. Karigan felt herself growing ever fonder of him, and she could see that his feelings were intensifying too. They didn’t talk about the potential marriage. Rather, they took the opportunity to get to know each other a little better. By the end of the fourth meeting, Karigan felt much more comfortable around him than she had before, and realised with a start that he had gone through the same change. Which meant… she had made him uncomfortable?
In the past that would have made her feel shaken and uncertain. Now, she just put the thought to one side, a curiosity to ask him about another time. Or maybe tease him about. She’d realised that the two of them had began to develop a more easy-going type of conversation, where she was relatively confident of her ability to prod at him without harm. It usually made him smile, especially if he’d been being a touch too formal before.
Captain Mapstone seemed to have come around. It had taken argument after argument, and Karigan had been impressed by the way she and Zachary pushed ideas at each other, both accustomed to the give and take of council meetings, neither allowing the debate to get heated or unreasonable, pulling back when things got tense. Karigan learned. Zachary and Karigan had just talked their way through the list of causes and effects, risks and opportunities, checks and balances – all of the components to making this matter a success – and Karigan had pushed Zachary hard to be honest, and clear, and practical. They slowed to a stop when they realised the Captain Mapstone had stopped speaking and was just watching the two of them with a curious expression on her face.
‘Laren?’ asked Zachary. ‘What’s the matter?’
The captain sighed.
‘All right,’ she said. ‘I’m on board. If only to watch the two of you work together like that. And because I think Karigan’s up to keeping you in line.’ She sat back. ‘But we’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do before this is practical. And you’ve missed out an important point.’
Karigan was still wide-eyed from the captain’s change of position, though she supposed it had been happening slowly through the meetings. But she frowned.
‘What have we missed?’ she asked.
Captain Mapstone gave her a wry smile.
‘You’re both already breaking a very important social rule – Karigan’s family haven’t been consulted,’ she said. ‘If you do this you’ll already be stepping away from convention in a dramatic way; you need to stick to it like glue along some other lines, to compensate. Stevic G’ladheon would need to be spoken to – ideally, he needs to give you two formal, written permission to court. And it would need to happen before any of your finagling with the Province-Lords does.’
Karigan looked at Zachary, and almost laughed despite herself. He looked distinctly nervous. He caught her expression and cleared his throat.
‘You’re right, of course.’
‘Write to him,’ Karigan suggested. ‘I’ll take the message, there’s nothing strange about that – especially if you have anything else that needs taking to L’Petrie. I’ll go, talk to him first, explain why things are being done the way they are, and then give him your letter. Then I carry back his response, and if it’s a yes then you start your politics work.’
The three of them were all looking at her. Estral looked amused, but proud; Captain Mapstone’s eyes glittered; and Zachary had moved from nervousness to… what? Surprise? Then Karigan’s mind caught up with what she’d just said.
‘Um,’ she said, and swallowed, and tried again. ‘I just basically said yes to you, didn’t I?’
‘It is the first time either of you have talked in firmer terms than the hypothetical, so effectively, yes,’ said Estral, obviously fighting the urge to laugh at Karigan’s surprise.
‘I’m flattered to know my agreement carries that much weight with you,’ Captain Mapstone said, poker-faced. Karigan blushed. Zachary coughed, and then met her eyes but said nothing.
Estral rolled her eyes, and pointedly engaged Captain Mapstone in a conversation about the weather.
‘I meant it, you know,’ Karigan said quietly. ‘I mean, I didn’t mean to mean it, but…’ She breathed out slowly, trying to still the flurry of emotions inside her. ‘The more we talk about it, the more I think of it as a real thing that we’re actually doing. And I keep thinking – over and over again – about if there’s anything that would make me say no. And nothing comes up. I feel like something should. But there’s nothing. And…’
And I want to be with you. Even if it means I have to be queen. Even if people resent me. And even if all of that makes me horribly selfish.
It was a few tries before she could get those last few thoughts out as words. Zachary was silent, waiting. When she stopped again, he smiled faintly.
‘I don’t think it makes you selfish,’ he said. ‘Or if it does, then I’m just as selfish as you are. More, even. This means more changes to your life than it does to mine. And there are so many complications; your inheritance, your oath to the Green Riders…’ He stopped. ‘I don’t want to push you. But I… I love you, and I don’t want to lose you. And I think you’d make an excellent queen.’
She raised her eyebrows slightly, even as her heart thudded in her chest.
‘You’re biased,’ she said. He laughed.
After that, it was real. Really real. She was going to be courting the king – pending his gathering of a substantial amount of political support, of course. And pending her father’s approval. After their fourth meeting, Zachary penned a letter for Stevic G’ladheon, which he allowed Karigan to look over before gathering it with a number of other minor missives to L’Petrie Province and handing them over to her formally.
Karigan set out.
Estora looked up. Her father was standing beside her on the balcony. She had been so wrapped up in her thoughts she hadn’t noticed him approach.
‘May I join you?’
She nodded, and he sat down next to her. For a minute or so, they both gazed out at the view – an exemplary one of the heart of Coutre Province. Then her father spoke.
‘You seem both happy and sad to be home,’ he said gently. ‘I wanted to know if there was anything I could do about the latter.’
Estora smiled, and cast her eyes down.
‘Father, you have been wonderful,’ she said softly. ‘I don’t need anything, I’m quite well. Just taking time to readjust.’
Lord Coutre nodded to himself.
‘Estora,’ he said again after several minutes thought. ‘I want you to know that you can… that despite our previous disagreements, you can confide in me. Even if it’s something difficult. Even if you fear I will disapprove. I give you my word I will listen, and I will not lash out in anger at you.’
She could feel his gaze on her, and turned to meet his eyes.
‘I have failed you in the past,’ he said softly. ‘Give me the chance to do better, and I promise I will not disappoint you.’
Estora nodded, overcome with sudden emotion. She turned to look out across the view again, and then spoke quietly.
‘There is… a lady.’
‘So. Um. Well. There’s… a man.’
Karigan had been at her father’s house for about a day, and finally had the opportunity to talk to him alone. They were sat in his study and it was quite late in the evening.
Stevic G’ladheon let out a long breath that he seemed to have been holding like a sigh, and then gave a short laugh.
‘Well,’ he said ruefully. ‘I can’t say I wasn’t expecting us to have this conversation at some point.’ He nodded to himself. ‘Go on then, let’s hear it.’
Karigan swallowed. Her palms were sweating. Her father seemed so reasonable now, but there was so much he didn’t know yet. Stick to the plan, she thought to herself.
‘We met… a few years ago,’ she said carefully. ‘And over time we’ve developed strong feelings for each other. Very strong.’
Her father nodded but didn’t speak, allowing her to continue. She cleared her throat again.
‘He’s… well. He’s older than me, and we’ve had very different lives, but we seem to have quite a lot in common. I know he cares about me. And. Well. He wants to seek your permission to, um. Formally court me.’
Karigan thought she’d never felt more awkward in her entire life. Why did all her feelings about Zachary, which were so true and important in her thoughts and her other conversations, seem like stupid nothings when she voiced them to her father?
‘How much older?’
Karigan kept her voice neutral as she answered, knowing that this was the first hurdle.
‘Twelve years,’ she said quietly. Her father made a considering noise.
‘So he’s thirty-four, going on thirty-five,’ he said slowly. ‘It’s a fairly large gap, but not entirely unreasonable. As long as his intentions are proper.’
She nodded mutely, not quite daring to speak. Her father looked at her.
‘Why do I get the feeling there’s something you’re not telling me?’ he said. ‘Besides his name, and other trivial details.’
Her father’s tone was light, but she could hear the concern underneath it. She gathered her courage.
‘I’ve not told you his name because I think you might already have an opinion on him, and I wanted you to hear me out first,’ she said. Her father raised his eyebrows.
‘I see,’ he said. ‘You’d better carry on, then.’ His brow furrowed. ‘Wait. Karigan. This man… merchant class? Or…’ he trailed off, looking at her expectantly. Karigan steeled herself.
‘No, not merchant class,’ she said. ‘Nobility, actually.’
The silence that followed was very, very still. Karigan held herself to it and waited for her father to break it first.
‘So he’s titled,’ he said slowly. ‘And he wants to marry a merchant’s daughter?’
Karigan winced internally.
‘I know it sounds…’ her shoulders sagged in concession. ‘It sounds like I’m being naïve. I know. But he’s… he’s really been very respectful, and he doesn’t seem like he’s taking advantage. He’s the head of his family, so there’s no one to ask permission at his end, but he’s been –’ she stopped herself, aware that she was starting to sound pleading. ‘I trust him. Maybe I’m right, and maybe I’m wrong. But after Lady Estora’s walking out on her contract with the king, a lot of the nobility are reconsidering the old rules. There have been a few minor noble-commoner marriages already.’
Her father still said nothing; he gazed out at the view, though Karigan doubted he was paying much attention to it.
‘I understand the concerns,’ she said quietly. ‘I’ve had all of them. And I’m being very careful. But this feels… right. It feels genuine. And the more I think about it the more right it feels. It’s not been just a secret between me and him, either; I’ve had Captain Mapstone to go to for advice, and Estral Andovian, and both of them are in support of it.’ She didn’t mention how long it had taken for Captain Mapstone to come around to the idea. ‘I wasn’t sure for a while, but I’ve had time to think about it and time to discuss it with him and with them, and we do think it could work. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. But I trust this.’
She stopped again, and this time forced herself to wait for him to speak. It took several minutes – she watched the sun sink a little further into the sea. Eventually he shifted position and cleared his throat before turning to look at her.
‘Kari, you know that… I worry about you, and there are things about this that make me a little… uncertain. But ultimately,’ he added, watching her carefully, ‘I trust your judgement. And I’ll support whatever decision you make.’
Karigan felt as though a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She stared at him in shock. He raised his eyebrows.
‘What?’ he asked.
Karigan shook her head.
‘I thought this conversation was going to be harder,’ she confessed. ‘I thought I’d have to do a lot more to convince you.’
Stevic G’ladheon turned properly in his chair and leant forward, looking at her.
‘You’ve still got a lot of talking to do, no doubt about that,’ he said sternly, and then his tone softened. ‘Karigan, I want you to be happy. I made a mistake when you joined the Green Riders – I made it all about me, and what I’d expected for you, and I know that made you unhappy. But your life isn’t about me, just like my life wasn’t about my parents.’ He grimaced slightly. ‘I won’t deny I’m not very happy with what I know so far. I’d like to meet him before I confirm anything, I’d like to understand all of this a lot better. And I’m not sure I approve. But ultimately I’m not going to force you to change your mind – if you do something I don’t like or I disagree with you’re still my daughter, and I will always love and support you.’
Karigan swallowed. Her father, whose voice had gotten quite gruff towards the end of his speech, cleared his throat and sat back in his chair.
‘So, do I get to hear the name of this mystery man who might become my son-in-law, then?’
Karigan took a deep breath, tying all her fear up into a knot and pushing it down out of the way. She watched her father as she spoke.
‘Zachary Hillander,’ she said quietly.
Stevic G’ladheon froze, looking at her like she could not possibly have said what she’d just said. He opened his mouth, and then closed it again, and then shook his head slightly.
‘When you say Zachary Hillander,’ he said slowly, in the tone of one just checking that they really had just been offered the chance to trade in a coinage that definitively did not exist, ‘you mean the king? King Zachary. Of Sacoridia.’
Silence again. Karigan couldn’t read her father’s expression, and wondered what he was thinking. She knew he had a great deal of respect for Zachary as a man, and also as a king, ever since Prince Amilton’s coup. But she didn’t know how that would transfer to King Zachary as a son-in-law. She waited, trying not to fidget.
‘So that letter,’ her father said eventually. ‘That you’ve got there. That’s from King Zachary? Asking for… my permission?’
Karigan nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Her father seemed to feel largely the same way, for he nodded in response and returned to his silence.
‘If you marry him,’ he said again after a long few minutes, ‘you’ll be queen.’
The silence stretched again. Then Karigan noticed something odd about her father’s expression. It took her a moment to realise he was trying not to laugh – and then he stopped trying.
‘What –’ she began, but then she was laughing as well. It was the tension that had done it. And her father’s surprise and bewilderment.
When Stevic G’ladheon got his breath back, he took her hand.
‘Sorry, Karigan,’ he said. ‘It’s just… surreal, I suppose. I can’t quite take it in. But I won’t take back what I said. If this is really what you want…’ But then he frowned. ‘But what about the Lord-Governors? Your safety…’
Karigan talked him through Zachary’s plan, and of the methods he would use to shift public opinion. He nodded.
‘And Captain Mapstone supports this?’ he asked.
‘She took a while to warm up to the idea,’ she said, and described their meetings with Estral and Zachary over the course of two weeks. ‘But she’s in support of it now. And she and King Zachary are going to talk to Councillor Dovekey while I’m here – they’ll already have done it by now, I think.’
The two of them fell into silence. Stevic G’ladheon looked at his daughter. Then he sighed, but not without good humour.
‘All right. I suppose I’d better write back to him. While I do, you can tell me everything about how this all came to happen. From the beginning. And don’t miss anything out.’
Karigan tried not to look too nervous as her father extracted his letter-writing box from the draw in his desk, and cocked an eyebrow at her expectantly.
‘Well,’ she began, ‘I suppose everything started at Lost Lake…’