Authors: KateMarie Collins
The capital looked different than he remembered it. The white stone no longer reflected the afternoon sun. Instead,
it was a dull grey,
lifeless, and bare of the green vegetation that’d been there six years earlier. Soot from forges blanketed the streets. Kaerdan’s war machine was in full swing.
Emile stopped. “Things have changed.” His words conveyed the same concern Alaric had. He whispered something in Fin’s ear, and she slowly eased out of her customary spot in front of him. “Alaric, Fin’s going to ride in with you. If anyone asks, she’s your betrothed and her horse went lame.”
Nodding, he reached down to help Fin up into his saddle. She settled in against him, making his heart race. “Can I ask why?”
Emile turned back to him, “I’m too old to be marrying her. Trystian wears the token of another. At her age now, she needs to be protected in that way. Your brother’s let his army take over the city. If she’s not attached, they’d consider her fair bait.” He paused. “You’ve got a nephew, Alaric. That’s why we’re in town. To pay homage to the newborn prince.” Sarcasm dripped from his voice. “Let me do the talking. We go directly to a place I know that’s safe. Only then do we do anything else.” He smiled grimly. "I wouldn't go bragging about the relationship if I were you, though."
Emile's warning brought Alaric back to his senses, and the feel of Fin's body next to his became less of a distraction. "Don't worry, Emile. I'll be avoiding the spotlight."
Following the older man, the group made their way toward the city gates. Alaric didn't even try to hear the exchange between the guards. He felt Fin's body tense up as their gaze passed over to her. Thinking swiftly, he placed a quick kiss on the top of her head while meeting their gaze. Satisfied, the guard made notes on a piece of paper while Emile handed the other one some coins. Once the transaction was complete, the guards waved them onward and moved to the next in the line.
Emile led them through the crowded streets. Litter and mud cluttered the drainage lines, causing an overflow into the streets. The paved stones no longer cleaned by anything but the rain. The houses and shops were in varying stages of decay, as well. This didn't surprise Alaric much. Kaerdan never cared much for how those in the village around their father's castle lived back on the island. He thought Erien would've done more, though. She'd been so caring, so conscientious, back in Antioch. Though there was a good chance that marriage to Kaerdan had changed her. He shoved the thought from his head. That his friend would change her nature that drastically scared him.
By the time Emile stopped them in front of an inn whose owner took pride in its' appearance, Alaric shuddered. He knew things couldn’t be good for Erien, and his brother wouldn’t see the suffering. But that they allowed the populace of their capital slide into the despair and misery he'd seen shook his very soul.
The inside showed some changes even Alaric didn't expect. The common room was divided by a heavy tapestry, with a large man stationed at the end. "Ladies must go to the right," he intoned as he gestured. "This is a proper establishment. The house ladies will attend to them while you check in this way." His right arm pointed to Alaric's left.
Emile bowed slightly. "We mean no disrespect, good sir, to either the owner or his family. However, I would prefer my daughter and her companion remain with us. This gentleman," he put a hand on Alaric's shoulder, "is her betrothed. I can assure you that nothing improper would occur should we have adjoining rooms."
The large man shook his head. "If they were husband and wife, it would not matter. We follow the rules set down by the new Queen, ones that have consequences if not obeyed."
Gwen put her arms around Fin's slender shoulders. "I will watch over her, Master Amain." She used a name Emile had in the past. One of his many aliases. "Do not fear for her safety." Without another word, the two women disappeared between the hanging swaths of dark silk.
Alaric watched them depart, then looked at Emile for a clue of what to do next. The other man's face seemed relaxed and unconcerned, but his jaw was tight. A brief nod passed between them before heading through the other entrance.
The dark wood tables and chairs gleamed in the warm firelight in the room. Few patrons sat at the tables or bar that dominated the other side of the room. An older man stopped wiping at the counter. "Master Amain! My friend! It has been too long!" His greeting to Emile seemed genuine, not forced, as he moved around the bar.
"Grendal! Too long, you're right." He embraced the other man.
Laughing, the men broke apart. "What of your daughter, Sera? She is well, I hope?"
"Indeed. She is next door," he gestured to the heavy tapestry splitting the room in half. “But I don’t understand. It
was never an issue before for us to have adjoining rooms.”
“It’s the queen, Amain. She and the king—” Grendal spat on the ground, “—they do not get along well. She has enacted certain laws so that women are
protected from the likes of his soldiers. If an establishment follows the laws voluntarily, any kingsman who disrupts the women’s quarters is dealt with swiftly and severely. But have no fear. I will put you in a room where you can still communicate with her.” He clasped Emile’s shoulder. “Now, who are your friends?”
Emile smiled, “Tyrone and
Alaric. One's good at keeping us safe as we travel, the other is Sera's betrothed. I'll let you figure out which is which." He laughed.
"Welcome, friends. If you travel with Master Amain, you are safe here. Come. Your journey, no doubt, has been a long one. I'm sure you wish for a good rest, better food, and perhaps clean clothes." He grabbed at a set of keys hanging on the wall. "Namine runs the women's side for me. I'm certain Sera and her companion are being well taken care of already. I will take you up to your room and you will be able to know for yourself."
They followed Grendal up the staircase, the older man far more spry than Alaric expected. He stopped before a room at the end of the hall. "This room was set up for instances like yours, Amain. I'm sure you'll feel all is well soon." He handed a key to Emile. "I'll have someone bring up meals in about an hour." The man brushed past Alaric as he headed back down the stairs.
Alaric caught a look on Trystian's face, and looked back at Emile. He moved a single finger to his lips, signaling for silence. Alaric eased a dagger out of the sheath at the small of his back as Trystian moved toward the door. He didn't know what was on the other side, but Emile's cautious stance made him more than wary. But he knew the man wasn't buying Grendal's reasons.
He watched, his thumb nervously caressing the hilt of his dagger, as Emile waited for Trystian to take up position in front of the door. The older man grasped the doorknob firmly. When Trystian nodded his readiness, Emile twisted the handle and threw the door open in a fluid motion. Alaric followed Trystian as he charged into the room.
"The theatrics weren't necessary, Alaric. I've known you were coming for a week or more now." A female voice called out from a ring of chairs in front of a fireplace.
He stopped. Gwen and Fin sat facing him, their faces a mask. He didn't need the other woman to turn around. He'd recognized Erien's voice the moment she spoke.
Emile broke the silence. "Hello, Your Majesty. To what do we owe this honor?"
She rose, as graceful as Alaric remembered. His heart sank when he saw the bitterness on her face. The softness replaced with a stony coldness. She'd changed. Or Kaerdan had changed her.
"You can drop the pretense, Emile. I know who you all are. What you are." She didn't even try to disguise the threat. "We can make this easy, or hard. I only need to have a word or three with Kai.” Alaric started at her use of his old name. “Alone. Once that discussion is complete, I'll go the way I came in. None need know I was here. Or you were, for that matter."
"And if we don't agree?" Emile had moved closer toward Fin. Alaric knew he'd try to grab her and run. And that Gwen and Trystian would provide cover for their escape.
"It's fine. I agree." Alaric spoke. He locked his gaze with Emile's. "I'm willing to talk. And listen. Provided I have your guarantee my companions will not be harmed or detained in any way while we do."
A tired smile crossed Erien’s face. “But of course. You have my word as Queen.”
Emile and Fin looked at each other, then the older man nodded once. “I take it the door over there leads to the women’s half of the room?” Alaric watched as Gwen led Fin toward the door. Trystian followed. Emile gave him one last look before he departed and closed the door behind him. Alaric knew he’d be listening in as best he could.
He turned back towards Erien. “What do you—” his question was interrupted as she flew into his arms, kissing him.
For a brief moment, he enjoyed the feel of her lips on his. Her body
clung to him. It wasn’t right, though. And he knew it. No matter how many times he’d longed for her to come to him when they lived in Antioch, this wasn’t right. He broke free of the kiss, only to have her bury her head in his chest, arms locked tight around his waist.
“I’ve missed you so much,” she whispered. “Every night, I go to sleep wishing I could turn back time and run off like you suggested. Honor be damned, I should’ve listened to you.”
“But you didn’t, Erien. Is this why you wanted to see me?”
She pulled away slightly, but did not fully let go of him. Raising her head, her eyes locked with his. “I can’t leave him. I know that. But give me one night, Kai. One that I can take with me every time your brother comes to my chamber drunk. A memory I can treasure. Then you and your friends can take your pet and go.” Her hand began to pull at his shirt.
Disgusted, he pushed her hand away and grabbed at her wrists. “My name’s not Kai. It’s Alaric. And Fin is no one’s pet.” His voice echoed harshly in his own ears.
Confusion ruled Erien’s face for a moment. Then, her eyes widened in shock. “You love her.”
Alaric let go of her wrists and walked around a chair. Leaning on the back, he exhaled slowly. “It’s complicated, Erien.”
She laughed, but there wasn’t any mirth in it. “You love her, and she doesn’t love you. Or you can’t gather the courage up to tell her.” She sneered at him, “Kaerdan’s terrified of you, and you’re letting some Amari witch control you. All you would need to do is raise your hand and the entire kingdom could be yours. He’s a bully. The people know it. And they’re tired of his brutality.” She crossed the room toward him. “I’d be yours, as well. Challenge him to a duel and you win me. You win a kingdom. I’d even let you keep that one as a pet if you must. But don’t think for a moment you can turn your back on me and walk away, Kai. You’re destined for so much more than some mercenary with a bow.”
“I swore an oath, Erien. To keep her safe and out of chains. I’m not going to turn my back on that for any reason.” His fingers grasped the chair firmly. “Kai’s dead. He and I were on the same boat, yes. But he died. I saw him be buried at sea. Kaerdan has no fear that his half Amari brother is going to show up to challenge his rule.” Inhaling deeply, he weighed his next words carefully, knowing they would be the most painful for her to hear. “I’m not sleeping with you, Erien. I’d rather find myself in chains kneeling before your husband than give up Fin.”
Shock played across her face, followed by grief. He’d once thought he loved her, yes. A few years ago, he would’ve jumped at what she offered. But that was then. He’d changed too much.
She was right about something, though. He loved Fin. The idea of betraying her, even if she never looked at him that way, chilled his very soul. Any hope of a relationship with her rested on her choices, her terms. He wasn’t about to jeopardize his chances with Fin. She had a very good memory.
Erien’s face became a stone mask, unreadable and unyielding. “I give you two days, Alaric.” Her voice, defeated, was barely above a whisper. “Conclude your business and quickly. I won’t stop him from finding you or your friends.”
Without another word, she turned and slid aside a panel of the wall. A man stood there, gold eyes reflecting the torch he carried. “Take me back to the palace,” she said.
The Amari stepped aside to allow her to pass, then closed the door behind her. Alaric turned the chair around in one swift motion, falling into it without a thought. His heart raced. Did he just condemn them all to being hunted?
He heard the others come back into the room, but continued to stare into the fire. He wasn’t sure if he was numb or overwhelmed knowing that Erien’s life was beyond any horror he might have imagined. Kaerdan sober was bad enough. Drunk would’ve been even uglier.
“We have two days. I say we leave in one.” Emile’s voice pierced the fog in his head. “Fin and I will do what we must tonight. We leave again at first light.”