Brutus settled his scruffy head in Mauve's lap as she ran her fingers over him comfortingly. He wined contentedly, and Mauve snuggled him into her feeling as if the Captain could finally rest in peace.
"Write to your brother," Calder said, taking a seat next to her on Aine's bed. "If he is loyal to you as you say, he might risk this for you."
Mauve chewed her lip softly. "I fear he would be putting his own life at risk if he were caught."
"We are already at war," Calder said, "we all live equally at risk. The Nors would have slaughtered you, Horsesettle, and all other innocent free beasts if Aine hadn't sacrificed herself. Before the freepeople were too short handed to fight back, to defend your sister, but with the trolls on your side, horsesettle on your side, we can overthrow them together. Sever the alliance to the Nors and their cruelty, realign yourself with freedom."
"Malachi? Brandis? Are they willing to fight the brutality of the Nors?" Mauve asked. "If we break our contract, take Aine back…the retribution will be cruel, they will come for the Wilfkins...Ralfamere will not stand back and lose his bride, he will attempt to burn us to the ground, I just know it."
"No different a threat then the trolls were," Calder clarified, "one absolute enemy, leaving Aine no more than a prisoner of war," Calder said, "If Graeme is willing to sneak her out, I can easily get her passed the border with my teleportation. If Graeme's life is also at risk by doing this, he could come too if he wished, leave the bloody heathens to their fate, fight for the free-people and their continued freedom. No High Kings, no absolute leader, continue the treaty of mutuality that the Nors so thoughtlessly broke."
Mauve secured her arms around Brutus for further comfort. "How do you plan on telling the trolls all this? Telling them they now have to ally with the freefolk? They see us, the Wilfkins, the Dwarves, all of us as trespassers as well…? Once the Nors are defeated…how do you maintain peace? Keep the trolls from slaughtering the Nors and all of us with them."
"Let me worry about that for now…" he said, "The snow has come and the war will slow. Travel and fighting are impractical in a blizzard. We have time…I have time to come up with a better plan, determine more allies within my people. The gift of the minds ear will be helpful on that end."
Mauve inhaled and studied her friend, she attempted to force the anxiety from her mind, but failed forcing her eyes to drop.
"I'm not reading you," he said quietly, perhaps sensing her worry. "I don't need too anymore…besides its different now, Its not even like hearing…I just, I feel you. Its why I'm here now…I tried to get away from you more then once, but no matter what I did, you found your way back to me, and I you."
Mauve took his gaze again. He had brought up their connection yesterday, the strange power she seemed to promote in him. It was certainly a concept she didn't understand due to the magical element, but for some reason she was not entirely lost in his assessment. In a way, she thought she could feel him too. His energy like a warm fire, soothing her cold bones. She had felt it especially strong the night he had saved her from Christopher, the burst of pure energy channeling through her. It was intense and unusual feeling, most powerful when he used his magic, but present even now; oddly natural and comforting, she wouldn't even have noticed it had he not brought it up.
"Do you trust me, to keep my word, to keep you safe?" Calder asked upon her continued silence.
Mauve looked up at him and nodded without hesitation. "I trust you."
Their gazes locked comfortably in each other and they both grinned softly.
"Write to your brother," he said, touching her hand softly, one hand large enough to gather both of hers beneath it, yet the touch as gentle as her own.
An hour or so later Mauve watched the crow swoop away in the pale, snowy sky towards the North. She had kept the letter short, asked for discretion and proof she was writing to him alone and would further her request upon that sign.
When Mauve dressed and went looking for Thomas she found him already with Tristan. The prince turned from where he sat at the bedside and smiled softly. He stood and went to her slowly. There was only a moment hesitation before they embraced warmly.
"I'm so glad you are ok," he said, pulling back and taking her hands, "I can't believe Christopher would do such a thing…it was right before my eyes, I'm such a blind fool."
Mauve gripped his hands tighter. "You see good," she assured as she often did, "you wanted to see good. You loved him…we are often blinded to evil in those we love."
Tristan cast him eyes away momentarily before finding her gaze again with set brows. "Well I promise you, no more latitude will be given to my cousin on my behalf. I will stand in his way no more, upon his return to Horsesettle his punishment will be fitting of his crime, Thomas will see to it."
Thomas made an odd sort of scoffing noise from behind them at this comment making Mauve look round at him. He was sitting upright watching them with an annoyed expression.
"Thomas, I told you my decision," Tristan said, with a quick roll of his eyes, "I'm not changing my mind."
Mauve looked at Tristan now with confusion feeling as if she had intruded upon an argument already in progress between them.
"Go on and tell her then," Thomas said grumpily, proving her theory. "Tell Mauve what you told me."
Mauve turned back to the prince who was already fidgeting uncomfortably and avoiding eye contact.
"What is it?" Mauve said bouncing her gaze curiously between the awkward pair.
"Thomas should be the one to tell you," Tristan said, his voice growing encouragingly, "after all, he's the one with the real secret…and the one who has now made my decision possible."
He smiled confidently at Thomas and folded his arms across his chest as if he'd won the debate.
"Secret?" Mauve said, looking at Thomas incredulously, and Thomas looked at Tristan with a familiar scowl saying nothing.
"Secret? What is going on? Someone speak for gods sake," she said, shivering anxiously from the unspoken tension.
Thomas scoffed again and put his head back against the wooden headboard. "Its not so much a secret as it is a not so unusual, unsaid fact…that I happened to share with Tristan and I am now greatly regretting doing so."
Mauve released Tristan and stormed up to Thomas, plopping into the open chair determinedly. "Speak freely then," she said, looking at him seriously. "Share the unsaid fact again."
Thomas fitted his gaze in hers probably knowing she was testing their new found intimacy, but hesitated an answer.
"Its not a secret," he repeated, "I told you I was a bastard…I just didn't specify as to whose…"
Mauve looked back at Tristan in hopes of further clarifying the ambiguity and Tristan raised his eyebrows and nodded for Thomas to continue.
"C'mon," he said, "get it all out."
Thomas sighed and scrubbed his hair aggressively followed by a grunt of pain.
"Its not uncommon," Thomas continued slowly, "for a King to have bastard children. Even Kings as noble and great as King Rupurt."
Mauve shook her head confusedly at his vagueness and looked back at Tristan, "What is he on about?" she asked, but Tristan only nodded calmly and encouraged Thomas to continue.
Thomas sighed again. "She was a beautiful young girl, my mother, an innocent red-headed whore working in a freeland brothel in a peaceful borderland city, a slum, entirely reliant on Horsesettle for trade. The industry near solely brothels and pubs, frequented often by Knights and lonely men from the Imperial city. The way my mother told it, he was only a lad himself, the King off adventuring as young Kings do, the Queen and him only recently married still uncomfortable together, not yet in love, he frequented my mother many times, was it love or desire…I do not know…but she bore him a bastard either way…"
It took Mauve a few minutes before she understood what he was insinuating. She inhaled, her gaze bleeding into Thomas's.
"She never asked for finery or recognition, only that I would be taken care of when she died…"
"Wait…are you saying?" Mauve breathed.
"Thomas is my brother, he is King Rupurts illegitimate son," Tristan finished for her, coming to her side, "my older bastard brother. Apparently, my father favored the whore and took pity on her when she passed taking Thomas in, not as a son though, as a squire and later as my protector…my friend…and neither one of them thought it would be a good idea to tell me we were actually blood."
Thomas sighed at the clearly irritated prince. "I couldn't tell you, your father made me promise…it would have shamed his prefect reputation…shamed the Queen…it was his biggest regret, he never wanted to hurt your mother- she was a good women…besides, I never minded not being legitimate…the King was always kind, he trusted me…and my life in Horsesettle was far better as a bastard then it ever was in Siy'na, my mother loved me…but she was just a girl, and the only memories I have are of sleeping in dirty corners in a whorehouse."
Thomas's eyes fell into Mauves and she felt like she was seeing him for the first time. Everything was falling into place. Thomas's implicit trust of the King, his motivations and driving loyalty to Horsesettle despite the rising tensions. He was like her, offered something better than poverty and undyingly loyally blind to any mistreatment. His need to be Captain, his need for approval, he had spent his whole life trying to prove his worth to his own father who hid him away due to his own shame.
"Why tell me now?" Tristan asked.
"Because it doesn't matter..." Thomas said, "I thought we were having a moment, perhaps near death has made me sentimental, but non of this matters...I thought you ought to know is all, I didn't think you'd make such an irrational decision upon learning it."
"Its the furthest thing from irrational, it might be the most rational i've ever been," Tristan corrected.
Thomas garbled a laugh and scrubbed his face. "Tristan..." he chortled, "you're being ridiculous, you belong in Horsesettle."
"I am staying here," Tristan said without a beat, "because my father may not care about legitimizing you, but I do. I never wanted to rule…and now I don't have too, because I have an older brother who will rule for me. Someone much better suited for it."
Mauve caught her breathe and looked at Tristan. "Is that possible?" she said.
"No," Thomas scoffed, "its not, and its foolish."
"Yes it is," Tristan said, "I recede my title to you…I legitimize you…you will be King of Horsesettle in my stead, that is my wish and I will see it done, no matter what I must do."
Thomas fell silent, and Mauve studied their exchanges quietly. Brothers. She thought she could see it now, the familiarity in their faces, their unswaying loyalty to one another, Thomas passionate protection for the Prince, his little brother all along. She couldn't imagine holding such a secret in her heart for so long all in hopes of remaining loyal in the Kings eyes, his own father begging his son to hide his true heritage. The pain it must have caused him, even if he never dared admit it.
"You don't really want that," Thomas said softly.
It was Tristan's turn to scoff. "I was never meant to be King…" he said, "It's the one thing I've always known…but you, you could be a great leader."
Thomas chuckled at this, but stress haunted the cadence. "I think this journey has more then proved I'm a shite leader."
"No," Tristan growled in protest, "how could you lead already poisoned men? You were set up to fail, Thomas. Even a great leader falters in the snares of evil. If it had been me making the decisions, we would all be dead. We were all blind, you did the best you could."
"Cept' Mauve," Thomas corrected, "scratch Captain, she should be King."
"No argument there," Tristan added lightly, touching Mauve's shoulder. "Mauve is the beautiful exception, thank gods- she has helped me see in more ways then one, thanks to her, I can make this decision with clarity."
Mauve blushed at their kindness, but remind silent despite the desire to protest. She could feel this moment was needed between them alone, and her presence only made vulnerability easier between them.
"Think on it," Tristan went on, "With the right power, you wouldn't have to fight for respect anymore…you would have it. You wouldn't need to prove yourself, or bought over power with jealous evil men. Your whole life you attempted to show my father, the men, you were good enough to be an Imperial leader. You are good enough, Thomas. You have the qualities of a King, discerning and forthright, you have experience …you are capable of making hard decisions…I am lost in the romance of life, more then once you have stepped up and spared me embarrassment in such decisions…between us, you are the true King."
Thomas shook his head. "Your father…he would never…"
"You are his son too," Tristan said, boldly, "bastard be damned…you are my brother, I am not ashamed of you. The further away I get from my father…the more sin I see in him. Mother is dead, he has no need to hide you away anymore, though I know my mother…she wouldn't have punished you for her husbands sins, he was only trying to protect his own reputation. She would have raised you as a son, as you should've been…not kept from your destiny. As the oldest, the throne belongs to you…not me."
"I am a bastard," Thomas said, "nothing belongs to me."
Tristan shook his head. "We must learn from the Wilfkins, look at Mauve...they did not blink on handing her her power, bastard, true-born, you are the son of the King...therefore you have just as much worth to hold the throne as I."
"Tristan," Thomas exhaled, still attempting to argue reason, "and what would you do here? What life would you have without your title?"
Tristan smiled. "The life I always should've had…with the woman I love, at peace without the responsibility of a Kingdom. I could breathe for the first time knowing no ones life was in my hands, that I would never have to pass judgement on someone…I feel for the first time, with full lucidity…this is my fate."
Thomas's eyes temporarily flickered to Mauve's where she listened politely to the intimate exchange. She nodded softly, smiling at the corners of her mouth in agreement. Surprised as she was by all of this, she knew Tristan spoke his truth, Thomas would be a much better King then he ever could.
"You really want this?" Thomas said, "are you really ready to give up everything, for love?"
Tristan laughed quietly and beamed. "I've never been more sure of anything in my life."
Thomas sighed again, resting his head back against the headboard. To Mauve's surprise, he looked at her as he answered. "Perhaps I understand…the romance of leaving everything behind, everything you know... for someone else...someone you love."
Surprised despite herself, Mauve blushed and cast her eyes away, until she felt Thomas's gaze move off to Tristan again.
"You will have to return to Horsesettle at least temporarily, your father will want to speak with you in person on this matter. He will want to see you again, assure these wants are yours and not coercion."
"Fine," Tristan said calmly, "but I will return here. I will marry Aine and live a simple life. You must give me your word that no matter what my father attempts to do to keep me there, you will do everything in your power to get me back here. Even if I must coronate first to earn the power of legitimizing, and recant the crown to you…you will accept it with a willing hand?."
Thomas held Tristan's passionate gaze and Mauve could see the annoyance slowly being tempered with understanding.
"You have my word," he said finally.
Tristan reached out his arm and Thomas slowly took it, securing their grasp at the elbow.
"I look forward to calling you King, brother," Tristan smiled.
"And I look forward to getting the hell out of this place," Thomas said.