When Ria walked into the king's camp, she saw rows of disgruntled and worn faces. The soldiers were working to dismantle their tents and shake off the heavy snow. Inside a sagging purple tent, King Litus looked as discontent as his men, but his face brightened at the sight of her.
"Where is Minister Jillet?"
Almost as if summoned by the words, the minister entered the king's tent, dusting snow from his hair. "I went for a walk. My daughter…"
Ria inclined her head. The king may as well hear it. "I have lost Nicolais' favor, my lord. How, I do not know, but it may be his lust for Jeanne."'
Litus lifted both eyebrows. "No offense, Jillet, but how could your girl provoke the lust of a man like that?"
Jillet adjusted the crooked button at his throat. His dark blue suit looked rumpled today as if living in a tent were disagreeable with him. "Are you implying that this wench is lying?"
"I wouldn't lie."
For a moment, Litus looked beyond the woman's beautiful face and found familiar contours. "Anea. You look like Anea!"
"She was my aunt," Ria admitted.
The king and the minister exchanged glances.
Ria gave them a pretty pout. Minister Jillet did not react though the king's face turned red. "Then you know I am on your side. I will return if anything significant occurs."
"Tell Hecket to start placing the explosives," Jillet said, and Litus gave a weary nod. "If Nicolais disgraces my daughter, then we end this waiting game. He will have nothing more to hold over us."
So it ends. Ria turned away to control her expression. Before she could step out of the tent, Jillet snatched her wrist. The grip was firm but soft: the hands of a man who hadn't lifted a finger to do a day's labor in his life.
Jillet gave the king a side-glance. With a weak smile, Litus left his friend to business though it was far from Jillet's usual business. The man never slept around, not even with prostitutes.
"You're as beautiful as the women of Gareth Gladwell's descent were famed to be. With the same, unusual dark hair."
A shudder suddenly broke her stillness. Ria turned shadowed eyes towards the minister. "Are you hoping I would sleep with you, my lord? In the king's own tent?"
"It is my tent as well," pointed out the minister, looking dismayed by her rebuke. "That is not at all what I meant."
Ria pulled out of the man's grasp. "Then what do you mean to gain by complimenting me? You are not the sort to waste time with flattery for no reason."
"How could Nicolais refuse you for my daughter? That is all I wondered."
"I would like to know the 'how' as well."
"Does he know who you are?"
Ria hesitated. "He should not. I must return before I am missed." With the minister's not entirely sane eyes burning into her back, she fled. An uneasiness followed her back to the fortress doors. There, she knocked the proper code: seven quick taps and three long ones. The soldier Hallen opened the door, offered his cheek, which Ria kissed gratefully, and ushered her inside the snowy courtyard. "Miss, you're taking awful risks for nothing."
People were shocking her today. She didn't like it. Hallen had never offered a bit of advice; given her attention, he was happy enough to be her accomplice in sneaking in and out of the fortress.
"I'm doing what my mother would have wanted me to do." No matter how wretched it made her feel to betray Nicolais. Only the thought that it would hurt Jeanne spurred her to continue.
"Seducing Lord Nicolais? That would have been your mother's great plan?"
Hallen took a step back at her next words. "This is the only way a man like him would ever listen to me." She clamped a hand over her mouth at the bitterness of the statement.
"Hallen!" Jago's bark caused them both to jump. "Return to your post! Was your duty assignment listed as 'chat with Lady Ria'? If so, I'll want a look at that list."
"No, General. Sorry, General." Hallen crept away meekly.
"Out and in! Out and in! When will you stop?" Jago thundered. Despite her anger, Ria felt her head and shoulders, her entire body, in fact, bending under the weight of the man's voice. "What are you doing?"
"I've never been cooped up for so long. Forgive my weakness." Ria tilted her entire body forward to give Jago an interesting view.
Instead of giving her the glazed, lust-ridden look she expected, Jago laughed. "I'll tell you a secret if you tell me yours."
Jago shrugged. "I've never been interested in women."
Ria remained bowed, unable to come up with a response.
"Don't go spreading it around, or I'll have you hanged from the roof. You'll be surrounded by your beloved fresh air forever."
Jago's voice softened. "I've trusted you. Don't betray our Nicolais."
She curtsied so deeply that the general reached out to stop her. "Of course, I would never," she said. A hot pain spread from her heart to her extremities. Nicolais would have to be pushed to give up his captive. As much as she didn't want to, she would have to tell Jillet everything.
Jago crunched snow under his boots. General Hecket was meeting him halfway between the fortress and the king's camp for the second time. The disturbing presence of Ria outside the fortress doors flitted out of mind as the king's general hailed him with a genuine smile. The man who thwarted Valerius time and time again could afford to be condescending, but Jago sensed no gloating from the man who might have been born in armor.
Jago offered a polite bow.
"If you had a heart, you would free the Jillet girl," Hecket began.
Holding silence like a weapon, Jago considered the figures in the distance – one round and squat, the other thin and rigid. The king and Jeanne's father stood out of earshot but still lurked.
Hecket pulled a hand through his graying beard. "You kept her alive this long. There must be a reason."
It's because my lord is a childish young man who has fallen in love with his captive. Jago sighed so heavily that Hecket took a step forward in concern. He retraced that step as Jago placed a hand on the hilt of his sword.
"Blood must be exchanged for blood. Mielind belongs to my lord. You can have Lady Jillet back for the throne. That is non-negotiable."
"That makes no sense!"
"What is an heiress to a throne without the throne? You have lost."
"Not yet." A flash of determination in the other general's eyes made Jago tense. "It's clear that we cannot come to an agreement. You may return to your fortress and hide. We will retreat for now." Hecket turned to go and then froze as Jago spoke again.
"I over-estimated you. In unfamiliar territory, without a numerical advantage, you aren't the great general that defeated Valerius. He should have won, but the king's resources were too much."
"Valerius was brilliant," Hecket admitted, back still turned. It was an odd gesture of trust in their situation. "Or perhaps the one behind his ideas was you?"
"I was but one of many," Jago said. "He lost his generals over time—to battle but also because of his madness."
Hecket almost turned to see the expression on the other man's face. "You stayed, and you survived."
"Yes, and I will see it through to the end." No matter what end Nicolais brought them to.
Jeanne had not intended to stroll into the dining hall when Ria was eating. Since Nicolais shut himself away, the two women alternated dinner times. It had driven Thanne crazy, so Jeanne agreed to a time set by the cook. Was it due to Thanne's mischief that she now faced this woman's piercing stare?
"Lady Ria." With a nod for her dinner companion, Jeanne settled in her usual spot, four seats down from Ria, who sat huddled to the right of Nicolais' empty chair.
"You've turned Nicolais against me. You must be happy," Ria said.
Rather, it was an overwhelming relief. Until now, Jeanne hadn't realized how painful it was to see him with Ria. Still… "I didn't want him to shut both of us out." For the past few days, she had visited his door to leave meals. Sometimes, he spoke a few words, but mostly he kept his silence.
"The moment you stepped into this fortress, I knew you loved him." The words were filled with resignation.
"Yet I've done nothing but fight with him," Jeanne realized. "Is that love?"
Ria's elegant head snapped up so fast that Jeanne felt a sympathetic throb of pain in her neck. "Clearly, you had common sense enough to recognize he was your enemy. Just as he is mine." Ria threw a fork across the table: a reflexive gesture of anger, not meant to maim. "I can't forget. Valerius came here and destroyed everything. The people of the fortress died at his whim."
No, somehow, those people had survived to build a village in the Hinterland, where Yulia and Martin bickered peacefully. With reluctance, Jeanne held to the promise not to mention them to anyone.
"Your family as well?"'
"Mother was allowed to live so she might run this household while my father was forced into Valerius' service as a soldier. My elder cousins were executed, my aunt Yulia tossed into the cold as a corpse like the others of the fortress. And the only one who might have stopped him couldn't find the courage."
Did she mean Anea?
Suddenly, Ria slammed her hands on the table. "Gods, why am I telling you all of this?"
Jeanne wondered that as well. "I'm so sorry."
"Please pardon me." Face composed, Ria abandoned the dinner table and left Jeanne to listen to the echoes of her departing footsteps.
Yulia and Martin's concealment of their survival placed a heavy burden on their niece. Yet she wouldn't want to pull them back to this place, where they had likely seen their four children murdered. Yulia and Martin had built a new life, where they were, despite all their snipes at each other, happy. They found happiness despite their tragedy.
Valerius left his legacy, not in Nicolais, but in perpetuating tragedy. The ones he harmed would never forget his name or escape his shadow. Nicolais and Ria were prisoners paying his crimes. And ever since Estelle Jillet's death, Jeanne had lived like a prisoner too and allowed her father, yet another victim, to take out his anger on the kingdom. She saw that clearly now.
No more looking back then. She would focus on the future. "I want to…" She tried the words out loud and finally realized how to finish them: I want to help Nicolais find that happiness too, to unshackle him from his father's legacy. If she could be with Nicolais and become queen as well…That would be more than enough. She would start by telling Nicolais she loved him.