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Authors: Mae Ronan

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XI:

At the Foot of the Throne

 

T
hey were woken by a knock at the door.

“Oh, they’ve come!” Greyson hissed. “They’ve come for us!”

“Don’t be daft,” said Anna. “If they were come for us, they would not bother to
knock.

He looked far from convinced; but still Anna stood up, smoothed her garments, and told him to be gone.

“You said you would not leave me!” he protested.

“You cannot be seen in my chamber, you lout, at this time of day. Now go!”

But he would not cooperate. Instead he shifted from his seat, to a little hidden nook behind the long, thick drapes. Anna would have argued against this – but there was no time. She flew to the door and yanked it open.

Ephram stood, quite alone, in the hall. “Hello, Anna,” he said; and it was impossible to interpret what he may have been thinking, simply by the tone of his empty voice. “I am sorry I have taken so long to come to you. I suppose you have been wondering what is going on?”

“I have,” replied Anna sincerely. “Do you wish to tell me?”

“Yes, I –”

He paused, however, in the midst of his sentence, and leant a little farther into the room. “Are you alone?” he asked.

“I see no one else,” Anna answered with a smile.

Ephram shook his head, and passed a hand over his face. “I’m sorry, Anna,” he said. “It’s been a very long night.”

“I’m sure.”

“Will you come with me?”

“Of course.”

She followed him out of the room, and closed the door quickly behind her.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“To Byron Evigan’s study,” said Ephram. “He is waiting for us there.”

“And Valo?”

“Not him. Not yet.”

Anna gave him a look of mild perplexity.

“Vaya is his sister, you know,” he said. “I would like him to meet her under different circumstances.”

“And will – will the Princess be with the steward?”

Ephram frowned, and his face darkened. “Yes. I spent half the night hunting her up – she was crouched out in the woods, almost as if she were waiting for me – and the other half persuading her to return to the castle. I know not what will happen next, but Valo, at any rate –”

He paused; and resumed, “You shall be more level-headed, I think, anyway. That is what I need now.”

“I shall do whatever you ask.”

“I know you will, Anna. I know you will.”

There was but a single corridor remaining between themselves and the steward’s study. They did not shift, but merely continued on at a slow ramble. Of course Ephram thought that to do so was only his own preference; but indeed, the crawling of their feet was still too quick for Anna. Almost as if to view the steady approach of their destination was more than she could bear, she crossed more than half of the distance with her eyes closed. She hoped very earnestly that Vaya Eleria would not recognise her face. Perhaps – perhaps having only just awakened, when she saw Anna, she would not . . .

But her train of thought was cut short, as they arrived at the fastened door of the study, and Ephram knocked upon it. It was opened straightaway by the steward himself, a single one of whose eyes could be seen to peer out at them through the very narrowest of cracks.

“Come in, you two! Come in!” said he, with a wild waving of his hands, as he drew the door back to allow their admittance.

The room was in shambles. The steward’s great desk had been overturned, and several chairs along with it. The curtain-rods hung dangling from the windows, and two rows of bookshelves had been pulled down from the walls. The numerous casualties of these separate incidents, all of various shapes and sizes, lay scattered over the floor.

A bright ray of sunlight shone in at the bare window. So bright was it, that Anna had to shield her eyes with her hand, and so could not see very well into the little shadowed corner where the Princess must have been sitting. She saw only the steward, bustling round the room, attempting to tidy it; and Ephram there beside her, looking very impatient.

“You have had another tantrum, Vaya, I see,” said he, “since I have been gone.”

There was no response.

Ephram sighed miserably, and went on into the room, to the place where Byron Evigan had stood a chair for him. Anna drew another up beside him, and sat down very lightly, in the nonsensical hope of keeping from Vaya Eleria’s notice.

The steward himself remained standing, now with his arms crossed over his chest; now with them hanging limp by his sides; now with his hands in his pockets; now with his feet
tap-tap-tapping
on the floor.

“Byron,” said Ephram finally. “Won’t you sit down?”

“Of course!” replied the steward. When he drew up his chair, however, he placed it some six feet from the place where the others sat. He then began to gnaw at his fingers nervously.

Till now, Anna had carefully avoided looking at the Princess, in that angle filled with murk. All she could see from the corner of her eye, were the tips of her boots, crossed over the floor. She could feel, now, that the Princess’s eyes were fixed full upon her face; but still she did not look.

“And who is that?” asked the voice of Vaya Eleria – which Anna had heard for the first time, raised up in a scream in the mausoleum; and for the second time, with all the others in the dining hall. She wished with all her might, that the Princess herself would not remember this first instance, anywhere near so well as she herself did.

“This is Anna von Wessen,” answered Ephram.

“And who is
Anna von Wessen?

“This is not the time for that conversation. There are more important matters at hand.”

“So there are,” replied Vaya Eleria, leaning out of the shade with an angry leer. “But tell me this, at least. Why won’t she look at me?”

Ephram ignored this question, and sat forward in his chair. “I want to resume, Vaya,” he said, “at the place where we left off. We were talking –”

“Of how I came to be awake,” concluded Vaya. “And I told you, Ephram, all that there is to tell.”

“You told me,
two people,
” said Ephram. “But you told me not who they were.”

“I did not know their names.”

The tone of voice in which she uttered this last sentence, made Anna swerve her head round about, so as to look her full in the face. She found, however, that Vaya Eleria was already staring at her.

“Of course you didn’t,” said Ephram. “But – could you identify them, if you saw them again? Do you remember their faces?”

“Very well,” answered Vaya with a sneer.

“Can you try to describe them?”

“I suppose.”

She turned from Anna, then, and looked to her father. “Two people,” she said. “One man, and one woman. The man was rather a small, mousy-looking creature, with a great mess of hair atop his head. Had I not been there for the purpose, surely he would have been frightened enough by his own shadow.”

Ephram had been nodding, all the while she spoke; but by the time she had finished, and her words began to register, his wide brow was furrowed deeply.

Anna considered, in that insufferable moment of silence, placing her head under the window sash, and lopping it off herself.

“No,” whispered Ephram. “Surely it can’t be.”

He covered his face with his hands, for a very long while; and when finally he looked out from behind them again, he looked desperately into the Princess’s face. “And the woman,” he said. “Do you remember the woman?”

“I told you already I do,” snapped Vaya. But then she laughed, and threw her head back. She slapped her hands upon the arms of her chair, and said, “She is sitting right beside you.”

 

~

 

Certainly you can imagine the scene that ensued. Ephram was horrified, and could not utter a syllable. Byron Evigan was skeptical, and began tirelessly to question both Vaya and Anna. As you would suspect, the former had plenty to say – was in fact a flowing fount of helpful information – while the latter was as lost for words as Ephram himself.

Anna could only stare into the Princess’s face, and beseech her wordlessly to say just one thing, one single simple thing, that was only half as damning as all the others which she had said thus far. But she was quick to understand the situation, and was soon left without doubt that the Princess was indurate to her present helplessness, and in fact desired no less than her head.

At the end of this long question-and-answer session, after he had heard more than enough to burn his ears and sting his heart, Ephram regained his voice. He rose from his seat, and looked gravely down at Anna.

“You sit now in this room,” he said, “in the place by my side which you have earned. Here you have heard and understood all claims made against you. Have you not?”

Anna nodded stiffly.

“Then I will ask you once, and once only.” His eyes bore deeply into hers; and the sharp corners of his frown were enough to cut through a melon rind. He leant down nearer to Anna, and whispered, “Do you deny them?”

Anna answered him nothing. She thought of the weak and defenceless Greyson, cowering alone in her chamber, awaiting her return; and she could not betray him. If it was his fate to die, then she would die alongside him.

She braced these thoughts against Ephram, and would not let him in. He stood long before her, attempting to do just that; but finally he was obliged to leave off, and to turn to other courses of action.

“Very well, Anna,” he said. “Remain where you are. In one hour, someone will come to fetch you – but in the meantime, you shall remain under the watch of the steward.”

He looked away from Anna, and did not favour her with another glance. More than grief-stricken, then, or even despondent, she was simply livid. To be cast from his good graces, and from the circle of his trust – to have his love for her so quickly vitiated – by a deed which she herself had not even committed, and by the mere testimony of the ignominious, three-centuries-dead Vaya Eleria? It was more than she could tolerate.

“Come, Vaya!” Ephram said suddenly. With infinite grace and pride (but also with a sharp look towards her father, which rebuked him for addressing her so familiarly, and seemed to warn him against making the same mistake twice) the Princess stood to join him, and to go with him out of the room. It seemed
she
had nothing more for Anna, either, and did not even turn her eyes in her general direction, the better to see what effects all her truthful but malicious demonstrations had brought about.

So Anna was left alone with the steward, who still was very obviously baffled, and who stared at her with wondering (yet notably ingenuous) eyes, for each and every second of the sixty minutes which followed.

 

~

 

Ephram was true to his word. A group of attendants (or shall we say handlers) arrived just on time to collect Anna, and took her up between them, to shepherd her out into the hall. Not even once did she contemplate shifting to Greyson, and fleeing with him from the castle. What life was there for her, alone in the world of humans? No. Better to die here, than to toil and despair out there, forever and ever. Better to make an end of
forever,
and receive a gift rare and precious – the gift of peace.

She was ushered down to the royal chamber. It stood opposite the great dining hall, through a high stone arch in the West wall, and was without question the very largest enclosed space within the castle. Its ceiling was not just dim, but utterly invisible. Massive stone pillars ranged all down the chamber on either hand, each like a mighty Samson supporting that indiscernible ceiling. Between the pillars there stood a goodly number of armed guards, who eyed Anna carefully as she was brought in, and who followed her every move with their hands upon their sword hilts. Anna could see
Greyson there ahead of her, surrounded by his own set of guards, and moving slowly in the same direction as she.

The space between the arch and the throne was a vast one. The tall throne stood at the very end of the chamber, and was wrought all in ivory and jet, a curving chessboard whose King sat sullen atop it. His Queen was no more; but the fighting Knight his son stood behind him, and the manipulating Bishop his daughter was nowhere to be seen. His Pawns stood all before him – down either side of the room with their blades at their waists, and two more just before the throne. These last were Anna and Greyson. They were trapped at the King’s feet, and had no move left to make. They needed only wait, now, to be cut down, and sacrificed for the furtherance of the game.

Anna stood unshaking before Ephram, with her eyes trained on the wall just behind the throne. Her face betrayed nothing. She took not even a single glance at her ireful benefactor, to gauge what he may or may not have been thinking. In truth, it all made very little difference now. Nothing could alter the outcome.              

Greyson, however, was less resigned to his doom. He quailed before the formidable eye of Ephram, and was a pitiful sight to see. But what could Anna say, to bear him up? Surely nothing would.

BOOK: Anna von Wessen
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