Chapter 19: Bitter Endings
The Empress Celene stood still in the wind, waiting for the end. Demond Travansil had splintered the gate in seconds, despite all the young Sorcerer behind it could do. He too, had fallen before he could even protest. The white flag the Empress had raised in the tower had been ignored. Lords and Captains who had served Travan their whole lives fled in every direction, or were cut down where they stood. The invaders reaped the capital city of the Empire like ripe wheat.
“Empress,” a fluid voice spoke, unexpectedly. “It is time. Follow me to the temple.”
“Francis? Now you come?” She asked scornfully. She refused to use his new honorific. Not after his betrayal, not after he had abandoned her to the war, despite all her help. She had kept her bargain, but she had not spoken to him since he had advised she give way to the inevitable. Well, today the inevitable had arrived.
“Do you wish to live?” Francis asked intensely. “Heaven has allowed me to offer you sanctuary, and it took no little doing. We must go!”
When she ignored him, Francis grabbed her arm - the arm of his Empress - and began to drag her toward the temple. His grip was, of course, stronger than steel, and he was proving his willingness to use it. There was nothing to do but summon the tatters of her dignity and follow. Down the stairs they went, and across the keep into the city. There, fighting men filled the streets, but most ignored them. The magister was forced to club down a particularly stubborn soldier in his haste to reach the temple.
The great doors opened easily at his touch, leading to a hall decorated with all the beauty of the firmament, with nebulae swirling above. qt any other time, the Empress would have been awestruck.
Inside, there were beds, dozens of them, filled with wounded men and women: lords, ladies and common soldiers. She could only imagine what crimes might lead women to seek medical help in time of war. Nearby was a middle-aged northern Lord she recognized. Yes, Joranthan. She had been furious that he had not sent for his daughter. Now, she was grateful. His wounds did not look serious, and Francis’s young students were tending them expertly.
Francis did not stop, though, but led her, past accusing eyes, into a small sitting room, where sat two cups of steaming tea. The Magister bid her drink.
“Why, Francis?” she accused. “Why couldn’t you help me? Why did I have to see all this fall, all this end? So many lives.”
“For much the same reason that you charged me with treason and stripped me of my Captaincy,” Magister Francis explained softly, “when I had saved you from rape and death. As you lacked the power to protect me, so I was unable to protect you, except at the cost of your old life. I take no pleasure in it, I assure.”
Celene Alessendara Whitstone, formerly Unbroken Empress of Travan, buried her porcelain face in her hands. “Did it hurt so much?”
Francis, with his gentle blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair, smiled sorrowfully past the robes of his authority, and gently took her left hand. “I believe it did, but I survived, and you will too, my lady. I’m sorry.”
The woman who had until recently been the most powerful woman in the known world, slid her chair next to that of her old friend, laid her head on his shoulder, and wept.
Athena smiled, though it was laden with fatigue. “The town is ours, my Lady, and most of Brightblade’s supporters have scattered, though his widow sues for mercy in the name of Redhold. How does it feel to be both Countess of Talyk and Regent of Northspire at once?”
Laranna allowed her expression to soften, if only for a moment. “Good work, though I suspect I will have to give Talyk to Lord Morgren, once I’ve won a few promises from him. I don’t really have the authority to keep it, I’m afraid.”
“Oh?” Athena replied, disappointed. Twenty hours and more after she had arisen, she was still decked in her steel armor as well as her Marshall’s blue. Taking the city and keep had cost the lives of several of her soldiers, despite the relative lack of resistance, and despite Laranna’s help. “What’s the point, if the Count was correct, and the Empress has fallen?”
“We can’t stay here forever,” Laranna replied, “That means we have to give Talyk some kind of continuity. Unless you want to be Regent in my stead?”
“Oh no,” Athena objected raising her hands against the though. “Not me!”
“Me either,” Gelan replied, “but thank you for asking.”
Laranna’s healing had been effective, and the Marshal moved with barely a twinge. The Regent, of course, was exhausted, though she refused to admit it. “We really only have two options, though, surrender to the Travansils and hope they take us in. Or we fight. Killing Brightblade and capturing the Count might have hurt our chances at the first, though.”
“We still don’t have a message from the South, do we, my Lady?” Gelan asked.
“No,” Laranna shook her head. “Nothing, unless you trust Ervallyn.”
“Not as far as I can kick him,” Athena interjected.
“Nor I,” Laranna admitted. “But there have been rumors of stirring among the Kharshe according to a Kull messenger the Count kept from us, until today. He claims Kharshe Sorcerers have conquered every other clan but them, and they will be next on the chopping block. He says the Kharshe’s ultimate aim is to destroy Travan entirely, and so he’s asking for Talyk’s help. Ours now.”
Gelan whistled. “The two most powerful armies in the continent are going to war, and neither have cause to love us. Is there any way we can simply hide until they’re done?”
“That,” Laranna admitted with a sigh, “would be lovely. But I doubt it.”
“Pity,” Athena mourned. “Are you going to eat that chicken leg?”
The darkness was endless and cruel. Jacob was unable to count the hours he had spent in the silence, but they felt like weeks. Ceann had followed Dorgann’s word to the letter, adding nothing, not even the kindnesses of lighting the torches or allowing visitors, as usually was done for prisoners. He shivered again in the dark. The only part of him that wasn’t freezing was his back, and its lines of fire that pulsed with his heartbeat. It might have been the hunger, but he was beginning to feel feverish. More likely, the lacerations had grown infected.
How could Jacob have miscalculated so badly? Was torture the mark of a man of honor? Jacob could have ridden with his father to Marin. He could have ignored the news in Sarronen, and simply come home rather than madness of trying to infiltrate a Kharshe camp. He could have stepped forward, or been a fraction more alert, and then Thaddeus would be alive. Thaddeus. How long had he known his friend? Ten years? All his life, it seemed, all that counted. He, Jacob, and Athena had been thick as thieves. Now he had no friends left. Not Daniel, probably, who he had let down time and again. Not Athena, whose friendship had been sacrificed in the name of a marriage that would never happen, to a woman he’d never speak to. Not that bastard Ceann, for God’s sake, who had not tended his wounds, and only brought him gruel. His father and brother were gone by now, to Marin. What on earth had he been thinking? What lies was Dorgann spreading about his absence, or did he simply say nothing?
Emptiness, emptiness, fire and pain. The cold and the fever were driving him mad, and the silence punctuated only by the nightmares of his fitful sleep and the rustle of digging mice. Even now, he thought he heard footsteps in the darkness, but no, who would come even to speak to him?
A warm, feminine voice drifted through the darkness. “Oh Jacob, what has he done to you?”
Jacob winced, then his whole body spasmed as a warm hand slid along his back. “As I thought, it’s infected. Hold still.”
The warmth became a wracking anguish, and then subsided. The hand remained, sliding down the smooth skin of his side, sliding around to massage his chest, removing aches and scrapes as it went, bringing an ecstasy of relief, of comfort. The Queen’s other hand joined in, caressing his torso from every direction, healing. Her voice was pure bittersweet symphony. “Oh, my prince, you still trust me. After all you’ve been through, your healing was nearly effortless. If only your friend had felt the same, I might have been able to save him.”
The tears that had so long been delayed began to flow, hot and salty down his cheeks in the void. He couldn’t help it: the pain, the pointless loss, the loneliness, the deprivation - now punctuated by the kindness of a beautiful woman. A sob escaped him. “I - thank you.”
“One more night here, and you will be a prince again, Jacob” her voice whispered in his ear, delicate and sensuous.
Then her mouth met his for a long moment, sweet and salty, gentle but insistent. “But it doesn’t have to be alone.”
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