Chapter II

Roane pulled Lenti to a sudden halt and put one finger up to his lips to signal for silence, and even the horses seemed to obey. Laechlin and Quentin sank into their saddles, shrinking low against the backs of their mounts, not out of fear, but out of an abundance of caution, a lesson learned the hard way for them all from the attack in the pass. Roane did the same, bowing so low that he doubted he would even be able to be seen over Lenti's ears. He peered out carefully, watching, listening for the disturbance that had alerted his senses mere seconds before.

He could feel the tension in their small party. Just an hour before, they had seen the break in the mountains – just before them, now a stone's throw away, was the end of Craek's Pass. It opened into the Grael Tributary, their first sign of fresh water in days, and their first step outside of the mountains since they'd left Jolencia almost a month before. They wanted to be rid of the blasted rocks. He could feel it in the nervous way Lenti pawed soundlessly at the Earth.

The small swatch of the Grael Tributary they could see glistened crystal blue in the winter sunlight and was almost blinding after the month of gray. The Craek Mountains had stretched so high above them that their peaks had disappeared into permanent clouds—they hadn't seen the sun in a month. They still could not see it, but they could see proof it still existed, reflecting off of the surface of the water, and that had been enough for a momentary lapse in caution. They'd raced toward the water, whooping and cheering as they went. And now, so tantalizingly close to the end of perhaps the most difficult part of their journey, he'd stopped them.

He'd heard something distinctly unhuman, although neither could it have come from any beast. Machine, he thought. It sounded of the creaking and plodding of not-quite round wheels. A wagon, then? He strained his ears, and it took everything in him not to scream out in alarm when Quentin hissed in his ear, "A unit, Captain?"

"I don't think so," Laechlin whispered on his other side. "The creak is just one or two wheels at the most. Surely a unit would have multiple wagons to house their armory."

"A search party then?" Roane wondered, muttering low in his throat, still pressed laughably low on his horse.

They glanced at each other. Roane was dead, his body burned and his ashes scattered across the deserts of Sarlan—no one was going to look for him. Quentin was a high-enough ranking officer that Roane would have noticed his disappearance, but the King didn't concern himself with the names and whereabouts of his officers. Laechlin was only important in that he'd made himself important. In short, who would know to be searching for them?

"You don't think… for us, Captain?" Laechlin asked hesitantly, giving voice to Roane's exact thoughts.

The current passing between them was palpable. They all wanted to leave the mountains. But there was safety in the darkness and in the closed-in walls of the mountain pass. They'd scanned their surroundings, and this close to the lake, the only attacks could come from behind or in front. There was safety in knowing where their weaknesses were.

"No," he said at last. He lay his forehead on Lenti's neck, closing his eyes to listen. "No, I don't think anyone knows about us," he said. There was the unmistakable sound of plodding hooves, and then the steady creak thump of what could be nothing but a wheel. He had thought it was a wagon being pulled behind horses. Perhaps not a wagon, but—

"A farmer's plow," Quentin said as soon as it crossed Roane's mind.

He nodded. "Swords drawn, I think, just in case," he mumbled. Then, pressing his finger to his lips again, he slid silently off his horse. His men followed suit. Laechlin collected the reins of the three horses together and secured them around an outcropping rock. Once their mounts were secure, they drew their swords as one and began their silent creeping toward the lake and toward the supposed plow.

As they cleared the last rock face, Roane saw the glistening lake stretching in front and to the left of their position. To their right, stretching for a few hundred yards, was a field of short, stubby brown plants, sturdy in the cold winter weather. Roane groaned and shot a nasty thought up to the gods. A short field gave them no cover. Moseying along the side of the ridge was the plow, driven by a man with a thick, large beard and a mule that looked well past its prime. The farmer did not see them yet.

The three soldiers instinctively held their breaths, reluctant even to let the puff of white air escape their mouths and give their position away.

Roane's hands twitched on the hilt of his sword as he crouched low, pressed against the cliff face. There was no running for it – even if they didn't have the horses to consider, the farmer would see them… his short crop had seen to that. And while he was just a farmer, and posed little threat, Roane was still of the idea that they fewer people who saw him, the better off they were. Not to mention that his farm was positioned on good land, next to a lake and the mountains. He was certain that he was met by many travelers from all directions, and he didn't want him telling stories of the three Jolencians who charged from the mountain pass, swords drawn.

"Plan, Captain?" Quentin whispered, despite the fact that the farmer couldn't possibly have heard him over his plow. Roane twisted his hands around the sword grip.

They could always kill the farmer. He was of little consequence, really. But despite the sickening lurch in his stomach that told him the idea of the farmer's death at his hands was exciting, the rational side of his mind and soul recoiled at the very thought of mindless killing.

"We could take him as a prisoner?" Laechlin suggested, just as quietly. Roane kneaded his lower lip in concentration, and also to give him something to destroy. Maybe it would quell the inexplicable and maddeningly enraging bloodlust.

"No," Roane mused after a few seconds of silence. "No, we don't have a way to keep him safely. And we don't have enough food and water as it is."

The creak thump of the plow stopped suddenly, and Roane's ears, always on high alert now, registered the change with a rush to his belly. Still, he quashed the instinct to fight and pushed himself against the rock face, watching the farmer and listening. The man was still far off, but… was he looking at them? Roane could almost swear he was reaching back behind him slowly, watching the three of them… but for what?

Finally, the farmer began to whistle, and the tune carried on the cold air to their ears. He began to spread something that he pulled from a bag behind him onto the crops at the mule's feet, and made no other indication that he'd seen the soldiers. Roane sighed heavily.

"We could wait until dark, Captain," Quentin said, and that was the most logical answer. They glanced as one back at the darkness of the pass, and he knew that none of them wanted to retreat back into the stony depths of the mountains. Still, it was the safest and best route, and so he flicked two fingers toward the mouth, and the three men silently slid back into the pass. The farmer was none the wiser.

Roane released the breath he'd been holding. "Well that was disappointing," Laechlin said. Quentin slumped against the rock, sighing heavily and staring longingly at the crystalline water.

"What I wouldn't do to jump in that lake right now," he mumbled.

"But we can't," Roane snapped, rather unkindly, "so quit thinking about it, will you?"

"Oh sure," Quentin answered sarcastically, "let me just turn off my mind to appease you, Captain."

"I'm not your Captain," Roane growled as an automatic response. He began to pace, and Laechlin took a seat next to Quentin. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, like a fish, looking as though he had something to say. Finally, Laechlin spoke.

"It would be too cold, anyway. Your toes would freeze off." Quentin raised his eyebrows. "In the lake," he said, nodding his head to the Tributary. "Jumping in would be suicide."

"Not the worst thing," Quentin grumbled, rolling his eyes in Roane's direction. Roane ignored him, allowing him his gripe. After all, it was his fault they were here… in the Craek Pass, or even Benoit at all.

They'd been in the Craek Range for almost a month – much longer than he'd anticipated this leg of the journey taking. It was cold, and they were numb and tired. Their food was running thin, and their water skins were empty. The water would be easy enough to rectify, what with the Grael Tributary directly in front of them. And he supposed that they could try to harvest what they could of the farmer's crop after nightfall. But if the crop wasn't in season, they would be eating half-developed vegetables or tubers, and that idea made his stomach churn.

"We need supplies," he said finally. "Food, water, winter clothing," he said, looking pointedly at Laechlin's uncovered hands. The tips of his fingers had turned a permanent, nasty shade of blue. "There was a storage shed to the left of the property, did you see? We will sneak in there, steal what we can carry… and may the Gods have mercy on us all."

There had been much arguing between the three of them. Quentin thought they could easily overpower him, but then the question of what they would do with the farmer stilled his tongue. Laechlin wondered if the man could be reasoned with, as he was certainly not in favor of thievery. Both Roane and Quentin, being of a much more cynical worldview, had dismissed this idea with a derisive laugh. And so it had come back to stealing what they could by cover of darkness, like a bunch of common thieves.

And so the soldiers muddled around the mouth of the mountain pass all day, waiting for the sun to set, despite the hugely inviting and tempting Grael Tributary. It glistened in front of them tauntingly, dancing in the wind as if to celebrate its freedom while they remained in shadow. Roane gritted his teeth at the lake, but thought he could survive one more day.

When night finally fell, Laechlin stole from the Craek Pass and slinked away. Until the farmer was asleep, Roane did not want to risk breaking into the shed. He did not want to kill the farmer—after all, it was not his fault that he lived right in their path—but he would if he absolutely had to. In order to avoid the confrontation and inevitable outcome, they would wait until he retired for the night.

A few hours after sunset, Laechlin returned, reporting that the lights had been doused in the house. The time had come. As one, Roane, Quentin and Laechlin took a deep, exhilarated breath and stepped from the Pass, leading their silent mounts.

Roane stole a quick glance back at the Craek Mountains. He could hardly see but for the looming, black shape that completely engulfed his vision. He said a silent prayer for any gods who would listen—a prayer of thanks for their safe passage, and a prayer of hope that he would never have to traverse those mountains again.

The moon was almost full, but entirely covered by clouds—great for thievery, not so much for traveling. Still, he supposed it was another stroke of luck, and wondered when that luck would run dry.

The answer to his musings turned out to be about ten minutes. On Roane's instructions, they had stuck to the edge of the crop field, taking advantage of what very little shelter the small plants could afford. On the eastern side of the farm was the farmhouse, and, as Laechlin had reported, there were no candles lit. The wind was nonexistent, which helped with the steadily dropping temperature. They picked their way carefully past the farmhouse after leaving their horses by the crops, munching on grass. Roane thought it must feel like heaven for the horses, after living for a month or more on the stale feed they'd brought with them and the sprouts of grass that managed to grow sporadically in the pass. The clouds parted, allowing the moon to illuminate their way. When they reached the shed, Quentin broke the lock quickly and easily, and the three stole inside.

"Quickly now," Roane instructed in a whisper as they shut the door. It was slightly warmer that way, but also darker. They peered around the black, one-room shed, using their hands for eyes. He had just found his way to what felt like a pile of fruit when he heard it.

Roane was quick, but so was the farmer. He whorled around, whipping his sword from its sheath and pointing it at the man, but he found a sword pointed at his neck as well. Roane stared down the weapon of the man with narrowed eyes.

Startled by the sound, Quentin and Laechlin also drew their weapons, but were warned from advancing further by a shake of the farmer's head, as his sword inched closer to Roane's face. "I would ask what you're doing in my shed," he growled, "but I'm not a simpleton and wouldn't want you to think I was."

Roane's eyebrows shot into his hair. He'd heard the threat, but, with even more surprise, he'd heard the threat with a distinctly non-Benoitian accent. "You're Jolencian!" he exclaimed.

The farmer's face flickered ever so slightly, but then returned to its sneer. "And you're a thief," he said. The farmer and Roane circled each other, taking slow steps in a circle to face off in this tiny shed. But as they did, the man's body moved away from the open door, and the moonlight streamed into the shed and fell on Roane's face.

The stranger's expression lifted immediately. "Are you… but… it can't be… Lord Deilliad?"

Roane was so surprised that he immediately lowered his sword in shock. Thinking better of it, he raised it again, but he assumed if the farmer had really meant to kill him, he'd just missed his golden opportunity.

"Who are you?" Quentin asked. "How do you know that name?"

"You are Captain Roane Deilliad, aren't you?" he asked. Roane glanced pointedly at the sword which was still pointed at his face. The farmer, or whoever this man really was, lowered the weapon.

Roane's mind raced. Was there danger in telling this man who he really was? Of course there was danger—anyone who knew he was alive was in danger. But this farmer, this Jolencian-Benotian man, who lived on the very farthest reaches of Benoit? What harm could he do? And he'd already recognized him.

"I am," he said finally.

The farmer hesitated for just a moment, apparently torn between two decisions, but finally, making up his mind, nodded resolutely, sheathed his sword with practiced grace, and said, "Follow me, Captain. And your men," he said, nodding back to Quentin and Laechlin. "Quickly now."

Without waiting for them to follow, the farmer opened the door and popped his head out. Looking left and right, he silently slinked from the shed, ducked low and began to half-walk, half-crawl to his farmhouse. There was nothing else to be done. They were already found out, and even if they wanted to make a run for it, they would have to pass right by the house for the horses. The farmer had had ample time to kill them, and he hadn't. Roane took a quick glance at Quentin and Laechlin, shrugged his shoulders, and followed the farmer, slinking in the same manner and along the same path.

"Inside, quickly," the farmer said, ushering them into his farmhouse. "Before they see you."

"Before who sees us?" Roane asked in alarm.

"The villagers… I told them you were here," he said without apology or explanation, glancing out the window. Quentin looked too, and swore. Torches and pitchforks were heading their way.

"What of our horses?" Roane asked.

"They won't be disturbed. Hide now," he said, looking back out the window. "In the back room… my wife, she will help you. And take this with you. It could be tough to explain to them…" He shoved the sword into Roane's arms unceremoniously, gestured to the hallway, and slipped out of the door after grabbing a candle and a cloak.

The three men stared around at each other, and then Quentin and Laechlin turned their attention to Roane. Roane sighed, cursing the strange situations that always seemed to find him, shrugged again, and hurried into the hallway which the farmer had indicated.

At the end of the hallway was a closed door. Roane reached for the doorknob but then paused. What if his wife was sleeping? He had said she would help, but what if she wasn't prepared to help? He didn't want to disturb her. Or worse, surprise her into screaming.

But before he could make up his mind, the door was wrenched open. A very small woman, presumably the farmer's wife, was standing in the doorway, a dressing gown thrown over her shift and buttoned askew. Her dark hair tumbled about her shoulders. She was curvy and stout, but not overweight, with a pleasant face that, at the moment, was screwed up in urgency. "Well?" she demanded with a slightly accented voice that didn't seem to fit her small stature. "Get in here!"

The three men, baffled, allowed the tiny woman to drag them into her bedroom. She shoved them into a closet, closed it, and ordered them not to speak until she came for them. The moon shone through a tiny window above their heads, illuminating their faces and little else. Roane heard heavy furniture being dragged across the floor, and realized she was putting a chair, or something even heavier, in front of the closet.

It occurred to Roane that this could have been an elaborate ruse to lock them up until they had enough men to take them down safely. It might not have been the wisest to let the woman lock them in the closet. Nervous glances at Quentin and Laechlin told him he wasn't alone in his thoughts. But the farmer had given him his sword. Why arm him if he was just going to fight him later?

"Did they come for you, Hal?" a voice asked.

"What did they want?"

"Is Baela alright? They didn't hurt her, the scoundrels?"

"I thank you, my wife is perfectly fine. As I told you outside, the men I saw in the pass earlier went west."

There was some mumbling, and then a voice said, "But the lock on your shed was busted! And what of the three horses in your field?"

"The horses belong to my wife and me. And I was forced to break the lock on my shed this afternoon when the keys were lost somewhere in my field."

Pitied murmurings could be heard, and Roane pushed his ear against the door, the better to hear. Then, "Well, if they come back for you, we'll be here. No one threatens one of our own."

More mutterings, whispers, and then hurried goodbyes. Finally, the house fell quiet. After a lengthy pause, he heard the tell-tale signs of furniture scraping across the floor. They were being released. The door opened and Laechlin, Quentin and he stumbled out of the closet, Roane still clutching the Jolencian farmer's sword.

"I'll take that, Captain, thank you," the farmer said. Roane handed the weapon to him with a bemused expression on his face, his mind racing. What was going on? Who was this man? And how did he know who he, Roane, was?

"You were in the Guard?" Quentin asked him.

"I was," he admitted, nodding once. "Come, we will speak in the kitchen. Baela, if you would make us some tea?" The tiny woman nodded and bustled out. They followed her.

Roane hadn't had the chance or the wherewithal to take in his surroundings when they'd first been ushered into the house, so he took his time now. It was a cottage, small but homely and quaint. The walls and floors were a cheap, light wood, and the ceiling was thatched. A large, wood-burning stove took up most of the kitchen, but it cast the entire room in a gentle glow, and it was warm and cozy. There was another fireplace tucked into the corner of the house, around which a few rickety chairs were assembled. It wasn't much, but Roane thought it was something of which to be justly proud.

They sat around a large, rough table, and no one spoke while Baela, the farmer's wife, busied herself with tea. The Jolencian farmer sat beside him. He had long black hair which had been pulled hastily back with a leather strap and brown eyes. He looked young, perhaps in his mid-twenties.

Finally, when the tea was prepared and set before them, Roane looked to the farmer for answers. After some silence and a squeeze of Baela's hand, he said, "My name is Halvin Greysson, and this is my wife, Baela. I was born and raised in Jolencia, and was a trainee for the Guard—I started at fourteen. For a very short time, I trained," he lifted his mug, "under you, Captain Deilliad." Roane looked apologetically to him, embarrassed to not recognize him, but the farmer shook his head. With a rueful smile, he said, "I was of little consequence, Captain, and preferred it that way. After my training was complete, I chose to join the ranks of the royal naval forces, and I served for four years. I met Baela on a mission to Benoit." He gave her a gentle, loving smile. "I thought my work was admirable," Greysson added quietly. He glanced at his wife, who gave a small nod of encouragement. Roane and his men were rapt with attention.

"But then, almost a year ago now, I was enrolled in a top-secret mission, of which I was forbidden to speak. We were given only the barest of details. We were to sail, not under the King's colors, but under those of a neutral trade ship, headed for Benoit. We would leave before dawn. We would tell no one."

Roane glanced at his men. Such secrecy was not unheard of for the King, although it had been their experience that secret missions weren't always what they originally appeared to be.

"What was the mission?" Roane asked quietly.

"Slaves," he said, his voice quiet. Laechlin sucked in a breath, and Quentin's eyes flashed. Slavery had been outlawed in Jolencia. That didn't seem to stop their king from practicing it. "There were perhaps a hundred of them when we left Jolencia. They didn't… they didn't all make it. Those bodies we dumped overboard."

Baela laid her hand gently on the farmer's shoulder. Halvin took a deep breath, and continued his tale. "Most of the slaves were from Sarlan, Arcatia and the like. But there were some, around nine or ten, and they were Jolencian. I could tell their clothes were of fine make, even under the dirt and tatters. They huddled together, away from the others, just terrified. They didn't belong there." He shook his head, but then his head snapped up. "That isn't to say that any of them belonged there, Captain," he said apologetically.

"Those must have been the Chosen," Laechlin said quietly. "We know that they are shipped from Jolencia to Benoit every March, and a new batch brought in every June. They must be sold into the slave trade."

The farmer shrugged. "I don't know what they're called. I just know that they were scared and I felt…" he sighed. "This is terrible, and I hate myself for it every day," he prefaced. "But they looked like me, and they talked like me… and it affected me more than the Sarlanis or the Arcatians. So I talked with them, briefly, but just some kind words. I thought they'd probably not heard any kindness in some time. One boy was tall…And one of the girls..."

Roane was sitting on the edge of his seat. This was more than he could have dreamed to have learned from a random farmer in Benoit. "The girl was dirty, and without shoes. But I could tell she was lovely. Blonde, curly hair and gray eyes, like lightning."

He almost fell off his chair. This farmer, this Jolencian soldier, had met Aeleisa. He'd spoken with her, and had seen her much more recently than he had.

"She went to the slave hold, and started at twenty kod." When none of the men looked impressed with the figure, he continued, "According to the seasoned sailors, most slaves start under ten kod."

"So… why?" Quentin asked.

"My best guess?" he asked, staring unseeingly into Quentin's light blue eyes, "is because she was beautiful, and the seller thought a great beauty like her would fetch a higher price from some of the wealthy Benotian families. And it worked."

"You saw her get sold, then?" Roane asked urgently, his voice catching in his throat. He hated the idea of speaking of Aeleisa like this.

"I did," he said sadly. "I tried to buy her… to give her back her freedom… but I didn't have enough." He hung his head.

"Do you know where she went? Who bought her?" Laechlin prodded gently.

"I couldn't tell you," Halvin said. "The rich families of Benoit send servants to collect their slaves from the underground market… most wouldn't be caught dead in a place like that."

Roane exchanged excited glances with his men. "Do you know where the underground market is?" he asked.

"No, he does not," the farmer's wife cut through like a sharp knife. "My husband will not be going back to that life." Halvin remained silent, but then sighed.

"My wife is correct. I left that world right after that group was sold. I resigned from the King's naval forces and sought a new captain to sail under. While at port, waiting for someone to hire me, I reconnected with Baela. Now we are here."

"His life is good," Baela said. "Our life is good. We are good people. We don't want trouble from a King. Not the King of Benoit or the King of Jolencia," she stressed.

"I assure you, Madam… we don't want any trouble either," Laechlin placated.

"Especially from the King of Jolencia," Quentin cut in, smirking.

"What you have to understand, Madam Greysson…" Roane paused, but decided the truth was the best policy. "The truth is that we are all ex-soldiers of the Crown… and traitors to the King of Jolencia. We have lied and committed treason. He believes us dead, and we would very much like to keep it that way." Baela narrowed her eyes at him, but remained silent, albeit with pursed lips. "The thing is, the girl you described, with blonde hair and gray eyes, she's…" Roane's voice cracked, and he furrowed his brow. What was Aeleisa to him? How to explain her—explain their relationship—to these strangers?

"She's a great friend of ours," Laechlin said kindly. "She, and her fellow Jolencian slaves, are the reason we've travelled to Benoit… to find them. And bring them home."

Halvin narrowed his eyes. "If Jolencia sold them into slavery, perhaps they would be better off naming a new home."

"That is probably a true statement," Roane said. "But she—they all—have family. And those families are missing them."

"Are you among those families, Captain?" Baela asked, eying him shrewdly. "You speak of this girl like I speak of Halvin." Roane might have blushed. He did feel very warm all of a sudden. He took a large swig of the scalding liquid in his cup to avoid the question.

The problem was, he knew he loved Aeleisa. But saying it out loud felt treasonous to her memory. She should be the first to hear it, even if she was the last to find it out.

So he answered her truthfully, but carefully. "I am not a blood member of her family, Madam. But we were good friends in Benoit, and I…"

"So you do not chase a wife, but a future wife," she said simply, seeing straight through his stammering.

Quentin smirked at him, raised his mug to his lips and said, "Sounds about right."

"The important thing now is not my relationship with Aeleisa," he said, "but to find her. You are certain you don't know where she was sold?"

Halvin shook his head, biting his lip. "As I told you, the nobles do not buy their own slaves. However… I could show you where the hold is."

"Halvin!" Baela admonished.

"Baela, my love," he said, taking one of her hands in his. "How would you feel if one person was all that was standing between you and finding me?" She pursed her lips, pulled her hand out of his and crossed her arms, but remained silent. Halvin smiled, and Roane assumed that meant she was giving in. "I will help you," he said. "I will show you how to enter the slave hold. But I cannot do more than that. My wife is correct—I do not belong in that world any longer, and I cannot risk all that we have built here."

"We would not ask for more," Roane said gratefully.

"But we will give more, regardless," Baela said, not unkindly. "You will rest here tonight. We will house, feed and water your horses. My husband trusts and respects you, Captain," she said. "Otherwise you would have been gutted in the shed." She said it with finality, and Roane found himself wondering how proficient the farmer was with wielding his sword. "Our home is your home."

"We are eternally grateful, Madam," Laechlin said. Roane felt such a rush of gratitude to the Jolencian farmer and his wife that he wanted to hug them. It had been more than a month since they had enjoyed a roof over their head, and a warm, safe place to sleep. It would be the first night in more than a month where one of them did not have to remain awake.

"We accept your hospitality with everything we have to offer," he said feelingly. She nodded curtly and stood.

"Halvin will find your horses and stable them. I will make up beds."

Two plush chairs were pushed front-to-front, and Quentin claimed his bed for the night. Extra pillows were propped comfortably into a lavish bed of cushions, and Laechlin sank into it with bliss. As Captain, Roane was given the small, extra bedroom with the lumpiest, most tattered mattress he'd ever seen. Warmed to his core, he slept like the King of Jolencia.

The King of Jolencia took another bite of his breakfast before he allowed a glance at the terrified messenger standing in his chambers. The boy could not have been older than twelve, and was quivering from head to foot. Fitting for being in his presence, but annoying nonetheless.

"Didn't your father pass any kind of backbone down to you, boy?" he said through half-chewed potato hash. "You're shaking like a leaf!" Haemon laughed while the boy stammered a response, and waved him off in the middle of his pitiful rebuttal. "I don't care to hear your sob story. What news do you have for me that was so important it couldn't wait until I had finished my breakfast?"

"Y-y-your Majesty," he stammered, sweeping into a low, clumsy bow. He raised his head slightly to stutter, "W-we were instructed t-t-to alert you at once if any S-Sar-Sarlani rebels were c-captured and b-brought to the p-p-palace."

The King raised his eyebrows. This was news indeed, although perhaps not important enough to interrupt his potato hash. Still, if the boy was going to speak to his King, he should learn to give a message properly. So he raised his eyebrows and prompted, "And?"

The boy looked like he would be sick. "S-Sarlani rebels were c-c-captured and brought to the p-palace, Sire. Three of them."

The King took another bite of his breakfast, chewing over the news. After Roane Deilliad's failure to capture the country for him and pitiful death at the hands of the savages of Sarlan, he'd been sorely lacking in news and information from the cesspool of dust and scum to their south. The people of their land had proven themselves surprisingly difficult to capture. He might have been impressed, if it weren't the insufferable Sarlani people and their equally nauseating Sultan.

Haemon took a swig of wine and swirled it in his mouth, siphoning it between his teeth. Capturing three rebels was a feat rarely accomplished by his soldiers. Many Jolencian soldiers had reported seeing legions of them around their shared border, but they rarely allowed themselves to be taken, much less taken alive. Their bravery and loyalty might have been noteworthy if it wasn't so damned stupid. What a pointless and wretched country over which to end your own life.

He took another bite of his meal and then realized he was still being watched by the messenger boy. "Tell me," he said without looking up. He took the sharp knife and pointed it at the boy. "Is there a reason you are still interrupting my breakfast?"

The boy squealed, bowed so low that his nose almost touched his breakfast table, and scampered to the door. With a start, he realized he was still holding the message. The King growled as the raced back, placed the scroll beside his arm and bowed again.

"If you are not gone from my sight in three seconds, I will see you swinging from the gallows."

The boy was out the door before he could swallow the rest of his hash.

After breakfast, during which the King of Jolencia did not think about the Sarlani rebels, he left his chambers, three armed Royal Guards flanking him. King Haemon first went to the training room, but the one he sought was not there. He could have called the man to him rather than seek him out, but Cleeona had been simpering that he should get more exercise, and her constant whining grated on his nerves. This would shut her up for a few days, at least.

Haemon considered the angle of the sun and the day of the week, and then set his course for the south gardens. They did not have a Temple for the Goddess Kinae, the Goddess of War. Most religious sects, even those that had splintered from the true religion, centered on Zenis and Haysha, the Mother and Father. There were many temples around the palace grounds devoted to the Mother and Father. Haemon was not a devout believer, but nonetheless usually insisted everyone in the palace follow his lead when it came to the gods.

But Baelin Ruinem was different. Baelin worshipped the Goddess of War, Kinae, over all others. And Kinae was an unforgiving deity. The religion required weekly self-flagellation and mutilation, followed by ritualistic ablutions. Once a year, the Goddess Kinae demanded a sacrifice of blood and flesh. Most followers slaughtered their livestock, if they had any. Others bought chickens at the market, or captured an animal in a trap. Haemon wasn't certain what Baelin did for his blood sacrifice, but he somehow thought it had little to do with an animal. The religion was brutal. The King saw no reason to forcibly remove any aspect of his new Captain's life that might lend itself to his rage and ruthlessness. And so he allowed him to practice, and had even lent him use of the south gardens, ensuring no one stepped foot in the gardens for forty minutes beginning at seven in the morning.

He was the King, however, and the King could go where he pleased. He opened the gate to the south gardens and glanced around him, wrinkling his nose.

It was just barely the second month of the year. The sky, ground, trees, surrounding bushes—everything was gray. He'd never been one to rejoice in the bright colors of a garden like his wife, but he couldn't deny that the gray of the winter months could take its toll.

Everything was dead. Briefly, he wondered if he, the King, had something to do with it.

He wouldn't have been surprised, given his dreams as of late. Every night he dreamed of the dead. They came for him, surrounded him and clawed at him with dead hands. Sometimes the pain was so great he would awake with a start, yelling. Other times, the dead hands would not claw, but would lift him up, high above their heads, exalting him.

It would only be fitting that his dreams transcended his sleeping world and destroyed his palace grounds.

Haemon followed the trail of grass wiped clean of the light sprinkling of snow on the ground. He heard him long before he stepped around the tall hedges and saw him. Baelin, his Captain of the Guard of Jolencia, was on his knees in the pergola, a whip with two leather straps and barbs attached to the ends in his hand. His right arm shook as he prepared another blow. His back was criss-crossed with scars from years of weekly flogging, and while the barbs did not cut so deep as to cause any permanent damage other than scarring, Haemon could not help the small curdle in his stomach.

What a strange man, he thought. Why ever would one believe so fully in a Goddess whose only demands from her followers included self-mutilation and annual sacrifices?

The man on the ground flicked his right arm, and the weapon came down upon his back. The barbs at the end of the leather strips tore into him, hooking into his skin and ripping small flecks of flesh from his ruined back. Haemon watched with mild interest as his Captain flogged himself twice more before collapsing onto his hands. The blood from his back stained the snow around him.

His breathing was ragged and labored. Slowly, he reached for the bucket of water. The water would be ice cold, as they were used to counteract the fires of sin. Baelin took the pail, raised it over his head, and overturned it. The cascade of icy water flowed down his back. With a loud hiss and sharp intake of breath, Baelin sputtered out from under the deluge. His back still bled freely. Later, when the wounds had clotted, he would wrap himself in bandages. Until then, he would remain shirtless.

The Captain turned to the King. If he was surprised to see him, he didn't show it. "Yes?" he asked. There was no reverence and little respect to his tone. Any other man, and his behavior would have him swinging from the gallows. As it was, Haemon rather liked Baelin's coarse attitude. He appreciated that he wasn't afraid of him. If Baelin wasn't afraid of the King, then he wasn't afraid of anyone.

The King supposed one earned the right to be fearless when one was whipped once a week starting at age fifteen until death.

Haemon frowned as watered-down blood drained from Baelin's back. "How long does it take to clot?" he asked with morbid curiosity.

"About ten minutes, Majesty," he said. "The barbs tear away more than the top few layers of skin, and those take longer to heal over."

"Plus you're ripping away old scabs," he said, frowning again. It would not do to have his Captain indisposed once a week.

Baelin barely nodded. "What is it, Your Majesty?" he asked. His voice held a barely contained rage, making Haemon second guess his concerns. "I am supposed to have forty minutes uninterrupted time to devote to Kinae."

"You had thirty-five," Haemon said dismissively, with a bit of a growl in his throat. "I think Kinae will forgive you these five minutes, especially when she learns why you were interrupted."

"Kinae is not a forgiving Goddess. What is it?" he repeated again.

"I had an interesting message this morning," Haemon said, stuffing his hands into fur-lined pockets to keep them from freezing. How was his Captain of the Guard shirtless, after dumping frigid water over his head? He shivered slightly. Baelin was right – Kinae was unforgiving. His captain was silent, waiting. The King told him of the three Sarlanis, and where they could be found. He handed the still-wet man the message the boy had given him earlier that morning.

Baelin glanced at the text on the scroll, and Haemon watched with fierce pleasure as a feral grin spread over his features.

"There have been rumors, Majesty, that the Sarlanis are gathering forces." His eyes danced with barely contained aggression. Baelin gathered his tools for Kinae, took up his shirt, and joined the King where he stood.

"I have heard the rumors," Haemon said, beginning to walk. Baelin fell into step. "I feel this is a good omen, then, to determine the validity of these rumors."

"I would agree with your assessment, Sire." Baelin stopped as they reached the edge of the gardens. "I will finish my devotions now, Majesty. Then I will visit our Sarlani guests."

"Treat them with the utmost… respect."

The Captain smiled wickedly, and turned back into the gardens. He did, after all, have five more minutes of prayers and mutilation to tend to. King Haemon left him, wondering if he could clear his schedule later that afternoon to personally show his guests only the best in Jolencian hospitality.

"Do you like it?" Princess Jaeda Deavereaux asked, peering around the rooms with a territorial grin on her lips. "I decorated it myself."

Aeleisa quirked one brow. "You moved that settee by yourself?" She ran her eyes over the dark wood and deep velvet cushions of the bench. It had to weigh four times as much as the princess.

"Well I told people where to place things then," she said with a casual wave of her hand. "So do you like it?"

"It's… big," Aeleisa said. These rooms were even bigger than her rooms had been in the Jolencian palace. There were six rooms in all – a sitting room, off of which there was a small breakfast nook, a gaming room, a large bathing chamber, a clothes closet, her bed chamber and, to her surprise and delight, an indoor garden, not to mention the greeting hall in which they now stood.

"It befits a queen," Jaeda said very seriously. After a deep breath, she smiled. "I must go – Father wants me to sit in when he holds court today. He seems to think the people will be more receptive to bad news, if he must deliver it, if their Princess is in the throne room."

"And will they be?" Aeleisa asked.

The princess shrugged. "I suppose it cannot hurt. And I enjoy watching my father rule. He is a good, fair king. He rules as he ought to." Aeleisa wondered if she was saying all of this because of the King of Jolencia.

Aeleisa nodded her agreement. There wasn't much to say to that anyway.

"Mother will be here at ten, for your first lesson." The princess squeezed her hand and was gone, leaving Aeleisa to her cavernous rooms.

Jaeda had done a very nice job decorating her rooms – or rather, telling people where to place things. Aeleisa steppd alone into the sitting room and peered around again.

It was sparsely decorated, but Aeleisa found that suited her. There was the settee with dark blue seats, and a few plush chairs surrounding the large, ornate fireplace. Aeleisa was glad to see the addition of a large rug covered most of the wooden floor. The prospect of walking barefoot in her rooms was appealing. A small desk and chair was nestled against the wall in front of a large window to the left of the fireplace, so that she could conduct whatever business befit a queen while peering out at the grounds. To the right was a set of doors that led out to a patio, covered with potted fronds, leaves and blooms.

The sitting room appeared to be the main thoroughfare for the more public of her personal rooms – the sitting and gaming rooms. She pushed open the large, ornate door and peered inside. The game room had a billiards table—not that she'd ever learned to play when she'd had access in the Jolencian palace—four large bookcases, and a playing cards table with four chairs. It was lovely, but Aeleisa didn't think she could scrounge up four friends with whom to play. And even if she did, Aeleisa had never learned the games.

On the other side of the apartment were her private chambers. Her bedroom was not very large, but she found it suited her. There was a huge four poster bed with midnight blue drapes hanging between the posts. The sheets were cream with blue stitching and the blankets were plush. There was another fireplace, for those drafty Benotian winters and early mornings. Another desk was in the corner, and there, beside the bed, was a small bookshelf. It was only one row, and only long enough to stow about ten books. Her favorites, then. There were already three books on the shelf. She drew closer to read the titles. Two were novels that she'd read more than twice each. The third was a book on early architecture in Bienne, a book whose spine was so stretched and worn that it was hardly a book anymore. She pulled it gingerly from the shelf with a small, shuddering gasp.

So Jaeda had known – she had mentioned as much three weeks before, when they'd first told Caeleb's parents about the engagement. She'd practically cornered her in her rooms, accused her of not loving her brother, and then bombarded her with her worst memories. All of that time that she thought she'd been careful with her remembrances of him, Jaeda had watched and learned. Caeleb had known too, and he had used it to forcefully shake her from her despair after Roane—

Aeleisa took the book off the shelf and let it fall open, right to page two-hundred and eleven. Even after all this time, she couldn't take the pain of change, even if just to move the letters to a bigger, better bound book. There were the letters, just as she had put them away after Caeleb had proposed to her that day in the gardens. She'd blushed as she'd done that, carefully and lovingly stowing letters from a man for whom she'd cared deeply just after accepting a marriage proposal from another.

Her eyes pored over the handwriting on the first page, and knew immediately, without reading, the contents of the page and the entire letter. But for once, she did not read them. With a deep sigh, Aeleisa closed the book and slid it back into its place on the small, personal shelf.

Continuing her tour, Aeleisa poked her head into the bathing chamber – it was beautiful, built out of marble with dark wood detailing. However, these were queen's chambers – of course the washroom was pristine.

The clothes closet was much the same as the bathroom – beautifully designed and much too large. Aeleisa thought all of the clothes she'd ever worn in her entire life could fit on one shelf. She didn't allow herself to dawdle in the closet, as she knew that, sometime soon, it would be stuffed with gowns, jewelry, and trinkets that only a queen would possess, ad that thought made her scared and sad.

Just as in her sitting room, there were double doors leading from her bedroom to a balcony, but unlike the outdoor space, this balcony had been enclosed with windows, and hundreds of plants had been brought in. Despite the cold temperature outside, the room was warm, as it had the benefit of full sunlight for most of the day, and the bushes and flowers were in full bloom. There was a bench tucked into the palace wall, where she could sit and read surrounded by the flowers, and a watering can was on the bench.

It had been a gift, and was the reason why her rooms had taken so long to prepare. Caeleb had wanted to surprise her with the indoor garden – a greenhouse, he called it – as an engagement gift. It was, without a doubt, her favorite place in the entire palace. She sank onto the bench then, feeling wildly guilty about the gift, and how much time and energy Caeleb spent on making her happy, when she could still recite Roane's letters off by heart, and still had the broken shards of the glass necklace he'd gifted her in a tin of treasured belongings.

Before she could delve too deeply into her guilt, however, a delicate clearing of a throat jolted her from her thoughts. Aeleisa jumped from the bench. "Queen Lari," she said, dipping into a curtsey.

"Aeleisa," she said with a small smile. She gestured to the door of the greenhouse, and Aeleisa mentally followed the path out and around her bedroom, through the sitting rooms and into the greeting hall. "I knocked, but there was no answer. The door was unlocked." She did not seem too sorry, and Aeleisa couldn't blame her – this was her palace, after all.

"I sincerely apologize," Aeleisa said with a blush. "I didn't realize how much time had passed."

"It is of no concern. I've been itching to see this greenhouse on which Caeleb has worked so hard. It is lovely here. And so warm!" she exclaimed with delight.

"I am very lucky," Aeleisa agreed. The queen smiled warmly at her.

"Shall we start your lessons?" she asked.

They sat in the front room, the queen in one of the plush armchairs, seated like it was a throne. Aeleisa settled into the cushions of the settee. They started with a history of the Deavereaux Family and how they had come to ascend to the throne, and with what little time they had left, Queen Lari began to explain the many roles she played as the King's wife.

"And of course, I entertain Reuyn's court," she finished. Aeleisa's head was spinning. "You seem overwhelmed," she said kindly.

"It is… a lot, Your Majesty."

"It is," she said, nodding gravely. "But I do not face it alone. I have my ladies in waiting, of course, and my servants, all of whom are my dearest friends. But most important of them all is my lady's maid, Margot." Aeleisa did not speak, waiting for the Queen to get to her point. "We have many servants in the palace. Many of the ladies are very adept at dressing and doing hair, and they will do for present. But before we announce the engagement, I want you to have your own lady's maid.

"As you know, we plan to announce your engagement to the Prince at the Light Festival of Isandre." Isandre, the Goddess of Warmth and Bringer of Light. How fitting that their country would learn of its royal family's happy news at such an event. "That is in two months' time. We will begin to interview lady's maids for you in the interim."

"I had a lady's maid in Jolencia," she interrupted quietly, not really looking at the queen, but into the empty fireplace. "Leina." She hadn't thought of Leina in a long time. Nor had she thought of Hayden, her best friend from Helonce, or Maryn, or any of her other friends. Was she so selfish that she could not even remember her friends, who had done so much for her?

"I see," Lari said simply. "I will ask my ladies in waiting if they know of anyone—"

"No," Aeleisa said sharply. The Queen raised her eyebrows. Aeleisa backtracked quickly. "No, I mean… yes, I will need a lady's maid. But I have someone in mind."

She had spent so long wrapped up in her own petty problems that she had forgotten all of her friends. The only one she deigned to dig up from the dregs of her memory was dead. But this was a step on the road to recovery – reconnecting, where possible. She might never see Maryn or Leina again, but Yani was here, he was hurting, and she could unexpectedly help.

"Her name is Lita Maetera. She was a Chosen."