The Invitation – A Free Short Story

 

Before You Read!

This is a short story based around the characters from ‘The Duellist’ series. It picks up eight years after the events of Hannac, and it offers a little foretaste of what is to come in Part Three.

If you haven’t already read the previous novels, it does contain some spoilers. Therefore, in what I realise is a shameless plug for my earlier work, I can tell you that the full versions of both Hal and Hannac are available on Amazon.  

Hal on Amazon: http://geni.us/B00TQCH4VQ/

Hannac on Amazon: http://geni.us/B00U4W40LY/

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story. I’m always open to ways of improving my work so any critique is welcome. And I’ll begin posting the third part of The Duellist series on Wattpad towards the end of July.

Kate X

The Invitation PDF

The Invitation – Word

2nd-attempt

 

Contents

Chapter One: Exaggerating 

Chapter Two: Arguing 

Chapter Three: Remembering 

Chapter Four: Grovelling 

Chapter Five: Griping 

Chapter Six: Showing Not Telling 

She lunged…and missed. With a grate of steel on stone, Hal’s sabre slid down the wall. Cursing, she took position, aimed, lunged…and missed again.

It must be the rain, she decided. It had started in the morning: ­ a fine, persistent drizzle. By midday, that drizzle had become a torrent. Picked up on a rising wind, it lashed the walls of Hannac, cascading down gutters and pooling on the floor of the courtyard. And now it hurled itself into her eyes, soaked through the tanned leather of her jacket and somehow even found its way inside her boots.

But the target was still there taunting her:­ a tiny cross nicked into the wall of the stables, camouflaged so well by the folds and creases of the stonework that only she knew where it was. And anyway, she couldn’t go back inside, because…well, she just couldn’t.

She glanced upwards, raking a wet lock of coal black fringe from her eyes. Arec was standing on the ramparts, the hood of his cloak drawn up against the weather, water dripping from his armour. He observed her for a moment in silence and then carried on, shaking his head.

Sensing the cold, she turned her attention back to the target. If she stopped, even for a moment, her fingers began to freeze, closely followed by her toes, her feet…and gradually the numbness worked its way inside her body. But she couldn’t go back inside. Not yet. Because they were wrong, all of them –  ­ Meracad, Leda, Marc – they could not seriously expect that of her. Not them.

Dragging a shaking hand across her face, she wiped away the rain, narrowed her eyes and aimed again. Then, with a low growl, she lowered her sword. Someone was tugging the back of her coat. And she knew immediately who that someone was.

Hal closed her eyes, refusing to turn round. “Go back inside, Leda. You’ll catch your death out here.”

“No.” Leda’s voice was muffled by the rain. “I won’t go in until you do, Hal.”

And with those words, Hal’s resolve splintered. The sword slipped from her hand, clattering to the ground. She was aware suddenly of being wet, cold, miserable and tired.

“Hal?” Leda plucked the hem of her coat once again.

“It’s alright, Leda. I’ll come inside.” Reeling around, she crouched down before the girl and held her hands.

At eight years of age, Leda seemed wise beyond her years. Tangled dark curls framed a pale, pinched face. Her hazel eyes were all Meracad’s, for which Hal thanked the spirits almost every day. And although she was not powerful in build, she moved with an innate, light grace, like a young cat or colt.

“Mother’s worried about you,” Leda said, frowning.

“Your mother’s always worried about me. Come on.” Rising, she led Leda by the hand. “Let’s go back inside.”

The rain seemed to have penetrated even the thick, stone walls of Hannac. The air was heavy and damp, and candles did little to pierce the gloom. A few sleepy crofters stirred as Hal and Leda entered the great hall, but it was almost as if the storm had sucked the fortress of all life. Shivering, Hal drew two chairs up to the hearth, ushered Leda into one of them and then wrapped a blanket around the girl’s shoulders. Leda’s woollen dress was sodden, she noticed. She would get ill, and it would all be Hal’s fault.

“But why, Hal?” Leda leant forward in her chair, her face flushed with the fire’s heat. “Why can’t we go? I don’t understand.”

“Please, stop this, Leda. We’re not going to Colvé and that’s final. The place is…it’s a nest of vipers.”

“As usual, exaggerating.” Soft footsteps fell behind her. Fingers raked her wet hair. Meracad leant over the back of the chair and rested her chin on Hal’s shoulder. “What were you thinking of, training in the courtyard on a day like this? You’ll get sick.”

“I thought it was the only place people would leave me alone.”

Meracad responded with a brief nip to her ear lobe, causing her to jump.

“Ow! That hurt!”

“You deserved it. And as for you, Leda…” she shook her head. “We can always count on Hal to misbehave, but I thought you had some common sense.” She moved to the hearth, stretching her hands to its warmth. In the fire’s dim light, her tawny hair glowed almost red. A simple grey dress clung to her slender frame. She resembled a crofter, Hal thought, with that frayed blanket draped around her shoulders.

“I wanted her to come inside,” Leda protested.

Of course you did, darling.” Kneeling before her daughter, Meracad cupped the girl’s face in her hands. “But you could have just shouted to her from the doorway.”

“She wouldn’t have listened.”

“Tsk. How fast they learn. Now go and get changed before you freeze to death.”

Leda jumped down from the chair. “But why can’t we go to Colvé? Marc said we have to.”

Seizing the poker, Hal took her irritation out on the hearth, provoking a few angry flames. “Because, young lady, if you’d ever been there, you wouldn’t even be asking that question.”

“Hal, she ought to make up her own mind about that. Leda, now. Upstairs. Ask Elis to find you something dry.”

Leda crossed her arms, her lips tight and pale.

“Now, Leda!”

Muttering under her breath, the girl stamped away. Meracad lowered herself with a sigh into the empty chair. They sat in silence for some time, the only sounds those of the howling wind, of rain thrashing the windows and the pop of the fire in the grate. At last, Meracad said, “You can’t protect her forever, Hal.”

“I know, but…”

“Look,” she leant forward, taking Hal’s hands into her own. “We both know of the expectations people will have of her. She’s the heir to Dal Reniac, for the spirits’ own sake. One day she’ll be the most powerful woman in the North. She’ll arbitrate, make decisions, navigate her way through the mire of the Court. How can we expect that of her when she’s no experience of life? You know as well as anyone, Hal, that the young nobility in Colvé are instructed at Court at half her age.”

“She has Marc to tutor her!”

“That’s theory, Hal. Not practice. Besides, this isn’t just some whim of mine. We’re sent for at the Emperor’s own request!”

The invitation had arrived two months earlier:

On the occasion of his seventieth birthday, his Imperial Majesty Diodiné, third of that name, requests the attendance of Leda Nérac, heir to Dal Reniac, her mother Meracad and Halanya Hannac, Mistress of Hannac.

Hal had taken one glance at the parchment, stuffed it into a drawer and gone hunting. When Marc, arriving to tutor Leda, had asked her if she knew about it, she had denied all knowledge. Right up to the moment he presented her with the duplicate, which had been carried by messenger to Dal Reniac. Their argument had concluded with him storming from the fortress, muttering about the idiocy of the Hannacs.

Hal shivered and sneezed, dragging a sopping rag of a handkerchief from her pocket. Disgusted, she threw it into the fire. “But they’ll eat her alive, those monsters.” Lowering her lips to Meracad’s ear, she whispered, “and what if they…what if they tell her?”

Meracad froze, squeezing Hal’s fingers tightly. “We’ll just have to tell her first, Hal.”

They sank back in their chairs, digesting this bitter truth. “We can’t keep it a secret forever. Better from us than…”

“I know. Better from us than some rat of a courtier.” Stiff, tired and sniffling, Hal rose. “I’m going to bed.”

“So soon? It’s barely evening.”

“I’m soaked, Meracad. I need a hot bath and rest.”

She had tried so hard to keep their world safe and simple. Of course, news reached them from Colvé ­ of the Emperor’s failing health, the internal feuding of courtiers who, sensing an uncertain future, plotted for precedence. Diodiné’s nephew Castor sought the crown, while others disputed the claim. There were public riots as factional rivalry spread out amongst the populace. But here in Hannac, none of that touched them. For eight years they had lived, farmed and loved in peace. The invitation had changed all of that, had threatened to ensnare them in Colvé’s political web. It was a prospect she dreaded, and one against which she had determined to fight with all her strength.

***

Outside the wind still howled and moaned, hurling loose leaves and rain at the walls and windows. Crofters had brought word of trees felled in the forest, of roofs lifted clean from crofts, of streams bursting their banks. But here, in this tiny room with its tapestried walls, a fire burning and the warmth of wine spreading through her veins, Hal felt safe. The bath water had been so hot it had nearly scorched her skin. Enveloped in towels, she had clambered between blankets and sheets and waited.

When the door at last creaked open, Hal pretended to sleep, screwing shut her eyes, burrowing further beneath the bedding. She heard Meracad disrobe, slip into the bath tub and gasp lightly, sinking into the rose-scented steam. After all these years, Hal revelled in those sounds – water spilling over her lover’s body, the abrupt splash as she rose before patting herself dry and slipping into bed beside her, her hair, her face, her limbs, her entire self cleansed and fragrant. They moved closer, arms and legs weaving together, Meracad’s lips against her ear. “Are you alright, Hal?”

“Yes.”

“I can tell when you’re lying.”

Hal drew herself close to Meracad’s warmth, clutching her tightly. “I’m afraid, Meracad,” she said at last.

“You? Halanya Hannac, you are telling me that you’re afraid?”

“Yes. I am.”

Meracad kissed her forehead. “It’ll be alright, Hal. Believe me. It always is, in the end. But Marc will be arriving tomorrow to take us to Colvé. We have to tell her, Hal. We have to find the courage.”

“I know.” Her lips sank onto Meracad’s. They were soft and sweet and warm. “I love you.”

“I know.”

Feeling Meracad’s smile, she kissed her harder. “Don’t laugh at me when I bare my heart.”

“Me? Laugh? At you?” Her hand slid down Hal’s arm and curled around her waist, their breasts pressing together.

“Yes. all the time. All…all..”

“Hal? What’s wrong?”

“All…all…aaachooo!”

“Ugh.” Meracad rolled onto her back and sighed. “Oh, Hal.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two: Arguing

Leda thought her stomach might burst with excitement. Or perhaps her head. Was that possible, she wondered, halting breathless on the stairs. Could a person die from being so thrilled? She would ask Marc later. He knew everything, what with being Castellan of Dal Reniac, and a Senator and old and wise. But now he was talking to Mother about the Court and politics and successions, and Mother had said, her face grave, “go and wake Hal.”

Happiness surged and popped in her chest once more, like fireworks exploding on a summer’s night. They were going to Colvé! To the heart of the Empire, to the imperial city itself, with its people and palaces, its shops and squares. Dal Reniac was also a city, of course: her city it would be one day, and she loved it too. She loved the way it coiled upwards around its hillside as towns always did in stories. And she loved University Green, and the market place, and the fortress ­ – her fortress – ­ perched right at the top. But Colvé! They were going to Colvé! How typical of Hal to sleep on such a day as this.

She didn’t stop when she reached the top. Running full tilt at the door, Leda windmilled into the bedroom yelling “Hal! Hal wake up! Uncle Marc’s here! We’re going to Colvé!”

“Go away, Leda.” Hal’s disembodied voice muttered at her through layers of blankets.

“No! Mother said to wake you.” There was nothing for it. This was her mission, and she would see it through. “Get up, Hal!” She took a running jump at the bed, landing astride Hal’s half-sleeping form.

Normally when she did this, Hal would laugh and she would laugh, and then they would fight amongst the covers until Mother got irritated and told them to stop. Today, nothing happened. Instead, Hal’s hand appeared over the edge of a blanket and waved limply.

“Hal?” Leda peeled back the layers of wool and linen until she was peering into Hal’s face. “Hal, what’s wrong?”

“Ugh,” Hal said. Her nose was red and so were her eyes. The rest of her, however, seemed very pale.

Leda pressed her fingers to Hal’s forehead. “Hal,” she said, climbing off the duellist to sit cross-legged beside her, “you’re very hot.”

“I know.” Hal sneezed violently and wiped her nose on the sheets. Disgusted, Leda jumped off the bed, opened a drawer and passed her a clean handkerchief.

“Thank you,” Hal croaked.

“Hal, Marc’s here. We’re…we’re going to Colvé.” For some reason, the excitement had turned into something else, had tipped over into disappointment. Hot tears welled; she bit down on her lip to stop it trembling.

“It’s alright, Leda. I’m coming.” Hal reached over the covers to pat Leda’s arm. “Just wait for a moment while I get dressed.”

Confused and anxious, Leda tiptoed outside the room, listening as Hal groaned, sneezed and then shuffled around the chamber. After a few moments, she reappeared dressed in a tired old woollen tunic, leather breeches and unlaced boots. “Come on, then. Let’s go and meet your Uncle,” she said, taking Leda’s hand.

Hal usually bounded down the stairs two at a time. Today she trudged shivering towards the great hall where Marc sat at breakfast with Mother, ladelling porridge into his mouth and washing it down with water from the well. Uncle was still dressed in his travelling cloak, his eyes ringed with shadow and his grey hair mussed and untidy. Rising, he patted his mouth clean with a napkin, spread his arms wide and said, “My girls! Are we ready?” Then he frowned and peered at Hal. “By all that’s holy, what’s wrong with you? You look like death.”

“Thank you, Marc. And how are you?” Slumping down on a bench, Hal called out, “Elis! I need wine, not water!”

“It won’t help you, Hal.” Mother snaked her arms around Hal’s shoulders and kissed the back of her neck.”

“It might take the edge off.”

Elis bustled over with a stern, disapproving look, and handed Hal a glass. She drank it down in one, screwing shut her eyes.

“Now look, Hal, if this is some ruse to prevent us from going…” Marc contemplated Hal again, his wrinkled, kindly face wrinkling even further with suspicion.

“Does it look like a bloody ruse, Marc?” Hal snapped. “If I say we aren’t going, then we aren’t. I’m not in the habit of dissembling to get my way.”

“Alright, alright. I’m sorry, you’re right.” Marc raised his hands defensively. “You could no more lie than pay an old man due courtesy.”

“If it’s courtesy you’re after, you’ve definitely come to the wrong house. I suggest you journey on to the Court. You’ll find plenty of it there.”

“Hal…” Marc’s voice had risen a sudden octave. This, Leda knew, was a sign that his mood was not a pleasant one. Instinctively she pressed close to Mother, who threaded her arm around Leda’s waist and kissed her head.

“Hal,” Marc said, his tone clipped, “I suggest we continue this conversation in the privacy of the solar.”

“I think that would be better too,” Mother said hurriedly. “Leda, go and make your preparations for the journey.”

Hal threw Meracad a sour look. “I shouldn’t bother, Leda. We’re not going.”

“But Mother, I want to speak to Uncle too.”

“Now, Leda!”

She started to protest but thought better of it. Mother’s eyes were stern, her lips tight and pinched.

“Alright,” she muttered, slinking away. That was all anyone ever said to her. Leda, now. Leda, now. As if she didn’t know what they were going to talk about. One day, she would be Lady Leda, the most powerful woman in the North. Then no one would say to her, Now, Leda. If they did, it would be her turn to get angry, and she would throw people into dungeons as her father must have done. If her father were alive now, he’d let her listen, she was certain of it. But he had died long ago, when she was a baby. She didn’t know what had happened to him. Perhaps, she thought, with a sudden impulse of fear, he had woken up like Hal one morning, sneezing and hot. Spirits! What if Hal were going to die too?

Now thoroughly miserable, she decided to find Edæc. He would cheer her up; he always did, with his stupid jokes and his laughter and his mad ideas. But where was he? She turned around. Hal, Mother and Marc had left the hall. It was risky, but…

Leda took a deep breath and ran back, ignoring Elis’s shouts. Tearing across the threshold at the far end, she sped around the corner, dragged open the massive door which creaked and groaned on its mighty hinges, and burst out into the courtyard.

All traces of last night’s storm were gone, save for the puddles welling between the stone slabs and stray branches and leaves which had been whisked over the northern wall from the forests below. The sky was a bright swathe of cloud-flecked blue, and she inhaled the autumn scents of damp earth and brisk, chill air. Scanning the yard, she observed a small group of croft boys and a few girls practising at arms, Edæc in their midst, a mock shield strapped to his arm and a blunt wooden sword in his right hand.

She watched for a moment, fascinated, as he hurled down blow after well-timed blow, forcing his opponent  -­ Luc’s son Davic – into a pitiful defence. This was good, because neither Leda nor Edæc liked Davic. He laughed at their secret games, hid Edæc’s weapons and called Leda names when he thought Mother wasn’t listening. Now she watched with satisfaction as Davic stumbled, tripped and fell. In spite of her earlier gloom, she laughed so hard her stomach started to hurt and she felt sick. Edæc smiled, and then he laughed too, and then all the crofters were howling and clutching their stomachs, tears of mirth sliding down dirt-stained cheeks as Davic pulled himself from a puddle and stamped away into the stables.

Leda raised two fingers to her lips and blew: a high, piercing whistle. Edæc’s smile grew even broader, and he padded across the yard to join her, a stray lock of chestnut brown hair tumbling across his forehead. Edæc was much, much older than Leda. He had seen twelve summers and sometimes she worried that he would start to behave like one of the adults and say, “Now, Leda!” But he always joined her on her adventures, exploring Hannac and its fields and forests. It was Edæc who had taught her to swim, how to ride without a saddle, and where the best crops of bilberries were to be found in the woodlands below. She liked the way he laughed with his entire body, and the fact that his face was a constellation of freckles, and the way she always felt safe with him. And one day, she told herself, she would probably marry him, and they would live together as rulers of Dal Reniac, and love each other as much as Mother and Hal loved each other.

“What is it, Leda?” Edæc grinned down at her.

“You know how, once we were exploring, and we climbed up into that attic with all the old bits of armour and maps and things?”

“Ye…eess.”

“And you know how, if you lie on the floor up there, you can see down into the solar?”

His smile withered.

“Well, I want to go up there now. And you have to help me.”

Edæc cast an anxious glance around the yard and then, pulling back the great wooden door, he ushered her through into the entrance hall. “Why?” he whispered.

“Because Mother, Marc and Hal are talking in there.”

“But you can’t spy on them, Leda. That’s wrong.”

“Edæc, Marc always tells me that knowledge is power. How can they expect me to rule Dal Reniac one day, when they won’t even let me decide if I should go to Colvé or not?”

“Ah. So that’s what this is really about. You want to go to Colvé.”

“Of course I do. And they ­- well, Hal – keep on going on about how dangerous it is. But how will I be able to look after myself if I don’t know what dangers are there in the first place?”

Edæc scratched at his cheek speculatively. “I see your point.”

“And anyway, I want you to come.”

“What?” His eyes rounded in surprise. “Me? To Colvé?”

“Yes. I won’t feel safe without you, Edæc,” she pleaded. “And besides, your sister’s there, isn’t she? Magda? Wouldn’t you like to see her? It’s ages since she last came here.”

Edæc’s sister Magda was a fine duellist, just like Hal had  been. In fact, Edæc had once told Leda that Magda was better than Hal. All Colvé turned out to watch her duel. Leda thought he was probably lying. Marc and Mother both said there’d never been so great a duellist as Hal. And they knew far more of the world than Edæc.

His face lit up with a sudden grin. “Yes. That would be good.” The smile fell away again. “But they’ll never let me into a place like that. I’m a nobody. It’s the Emperor’s birthday party, Leda.”

“Edæc, Marc is a Senator. He can get you anywhere you want. But please, just help me get up into the attic.”

He shook his head. “Sorry, Leda. It’s just not right. We’d get into all sorts of trouble if they caught us.”

“Fine.” She pulled away. “I thought you were my friend. I’ll just have to climb up there myself, then.”

“Leda,no!” He ran after her, horrified. “Leda, you can’t do that.”

“People are always telling me what I can and can’t do, Edæc.” A prickly anger wormed its way under her skin. “I thought you were different.

She rushed away, pacing across the great hall with Edæc in pursuit. “Leda, stop. You mustn’t do this! Stop!”

But she was already up the stairs, tripping over the hem of her dress in her eagerness to reach the top. After all, it was a mere matter of scrambling onto a wardrobe in the room next to the solar, then reaching to the ceiling, pushing back the trap door above it, and climbing through that.

She threw open the door and bit her lip. The wardrobe seemed much higher than she had remembered. Behind her, Edæc burst in, breathless. “Leda, you can’t.”

“Ssshhh!” She put a finger to her lips. It was just possible…yes, if she listened carefully, she could just make out conversation seeping through the wall from the solar. Leda crept across the room and put an ear to a square of wooden panelling.

“Marc,” Hal was saying, “you don’t understand. Colvé will chew her up and spit her out again. She’s too young…just give it a few more years.”

“She doesn’t have the luxury of a few more years, Hal.” Uncle sounded tired and angry. “I have taught as much as I can to a child of her age, but…there are some things which must be seen. And experienced.

“Marc’s right, Hal,” Mother said. “We do her a disservice by keeping her so secluded.”

“But Meracad you know very well it’s not just about Colvé.” Hal’s voice was gritty and hoarse.

“She has to find out some time.”

“But not in that way!”

She pressed her ear closer to the wall. Edæc was listening too now and frowning, his eyes troubled.

“You’re not trying to tell me…’ Marc was spluttering. Never a good sign. “But I assumed she knew. I never broached the subject because I thought you would have discussed it with her.”

Broached what subject? Discussed…what?

Hal groaned. “Marc, do you honestly think it’s an easy thing to explain to a child of eight? Oh, incidentally, darling, your mother and I killed your father? And you can’t possibly believe that if she goes to Colvé she won’t find out.”

Leda’s face grew hot. She felt dizzy and sick and hurt and confused all at the same time. And before Edæc could stop her, she wailed out, “No!”

Chapter Three: Remembering

Meracad froze. A muffled clip of running feet came from the adjacent room, and she heard Edæc yell out, “Leda! Come back!”

Hal slumped forward, cradling  her face in her hands. “Well if she didn’t know before, she certainly does now. What a wonderful day this is turning out to be.”

“I think I may need some air,” Marc said quietly, his expression grim. “Forgive me, ladies.” He got up and left the room.

They sat in silence, aware only of the clash and thump of the crofters’ children practising in the courtyard below, of their laughter and the conversations of the tenants. Autumn sunlight filtered through the mullioned windows of the solar, throwing into relief portraits of Hal’s ancestors: of her grandparents and her father Franc, who frowned down at them from above the fireplace. At last, Hal sneezed five times in succession, groaned and sat back in her chair. “Should we both speak to her?” she asked.

“No, Hal. It’s better if you don’t. I’ll do it.”

Hal nodded, tugged her handkerchief from her pocket and blew her nose. “Alright,” she said. “I’d probably only make it worse.”

This was not meant to happen. They had both agreed that they would wait until Leda was older – much older – before they discussed Nérac and his fate with her. Now she realised how wrong that decision had been. It was inevitable she would find out. Leda was intelligent, curious and sensitive to a fault. No matter how loyal the Hannac household was, it would have slipped out eventually.

She squeezed Hal’s shoulder and then left the solar just as Edæc pushed past her, his good natured face twisted with bitterness.

“Edæc,” Meracad stretched out a hand to him, but he ran down the stairs. That wounded her almost as much as Leda’s outburst had done. She had sworn to Magda that she would raise the boy as a member of the family. That he, too, should discover the truth in such a clumsy manner was unbearable.

There was nothing for it. With a deep sigh, Meracad made her way along the corridor to Leda’s room which lay next to the chamber she shared with Hal. She waited outside for a moment, her ear to the door, holding her breath. There was a hollow bang as a cupboard door slammed, the grate of a drawer being jerked open and in between, her daughter’s soft sobs. Her heart heavier by the second, Meracad quietly eased open the door.

What little clothing Leda possessed now littered her bed. She was stuffing a travelling sack with books, her face wet and shining with tears. “Go away,” she muttered, as Meracad slipped inside.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to live with Marc and Lavinia in Dal Reniac.”

“Why?”

Leda stared at her, her lips trembling, her eyes welling. “You know why.”

“Leda,” Meracad said carefully, “please listen.”

“No.”

“Are you seriously telling me that you want to leave us all? Me, Hal, Edæc…all of us?”

A blue rag of a dress in her hand, Leda froze. “No,” she said quietly, before breaking into a long wail. “No. I don’t.”

“Then why are you doing this?”

“Because…you…lied…to me,” she cried, sucking in deep breaths between words, her face now swollen and red. “You and Hal…you…killed…my father!”

“Leda,” Meracad reached out to enfold Leda in her arms, but the girl flinched from reach.

“Stay away from me!”

Overwhelmed by a sudden hot wave of shame, Meracad struggled to keep herself from breaking down. “Leda, do you think Marc or Lavinia would be our friends if they thought we were murderers? Would Magda or Marta?”

Leda shook her head.

“Listen, Leda, we were always going to tell you. But we wanted to wait until you were older, because there are some things which are very hard to understand.”

“Like…like what?” Leda sniffed.

That was better. At least she was no longer on the defensive. Perhaps logic and reason would be the best approach. “You remember when you once asked Arec why the south wall had been rebuilt?”

Sniffling, Leda nodded.

“What did he tell you?”

“He said a bad man attacked Hannac once with an army.”

Meracad picked at the woollen weave of a blanket before looking at Leda. “And do you know who that bad man was?”

Leda shook her head.

“It was your father, Leda. It was Bruno Nérac who attacked the Nests.”

Leda stared, her tawny eyes rounding in disbelief before she collapsed on the bed, convulsed in sobs. Meracad put a hand to her daughter’s shoulder, distressed as the girl cried so hard she could barely breathe.

“Why?” she stammered, her grief at last subsiding. “Why did he do that?”

“Oh, Leda,” Meracad gathered her daughter in her arms, smoothed down her hair and kissed her forehead. “It is very complicated. Your father loved power. Dal Reniac wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more. He wanted the Nests too. But there was another reason.”

“What?” Leda peered up at her, suddenly much younger, even more vulnerable than her eight years.

“He hated Hal, Leda. He hated Hal because she loved me.”

“So why did you marry him?”

“I had no choice, darling. My father decided that I must, and that was that. And Hal…she came to find me. We ran away from Dal Reniac together.”

“Like in a story,” Leda breathed.

“Perhaps. Nérac was furious. And although he couldn’t take Hannac, he captured Hal and he…he hurt her.”

Leda stiffened in her arms. “What did he do?”

“I don’t know exactly. She never said.” She never had to. The bruises and broken bones she had borne back from Dal Reniac told their own tale. Even now there were nights when Hal woke, sweating and begging for air, her dreams having dragged her back to Nérac’s dungeons.

“Marc and I…we rescued her. But then the Emperor decided that the war between Dal Reniac and the Nests had to end. And so he ordered Hal and your father to fight a duel.” How raw that memory still was. The crowds pressing in on the sides of the pool as Nérac wrapped his arms around Hal’s throat, her blood leaking into the water. How Hal had twisted, striving to breathe as he squeezed ever tighter. And in those few, fateful seconds, with the mob screaming for Hal’s destruction, Meracad had slipped Marta’s dagger between Nérac’s ribs; ­ had felt the blade tear first through fabric and then flesh. “Nérac nearly killed her,” she said. “And I couldn’t bear it…the thought of life without her. And so I stabbed him. People thought she had killed him, but it was me.” The past and all its pain proved too powerful. She crumbled beneath its weight, her own tears running freely as Leda pressed against her, burying her face into Meracad’s side.

After some time, Leda said, “I don’t want to leave Hannac, Mother.”

Meracad smiled through her tears. “That’s good, Leda. I’m sorry, darling. I’m sorry.”

***

Hal shifted uncomfortably as Marc returned to the solar. “Feeling better?”

“No.” He sank back into his chair, a glass of wine in his hand. “You?”

“Not likely.”

“Listen, Hal.” He took a deep draught of the wine before continuing. “This is not just about Leda. You’ve barely been back to Colvé since…”

“Since when?” she asked, acidly.

“You know since when. And your absence has been…well, it’s been noted.”

“What on earth do you mean?”

“Given the Hannacs’ penchant for rebellion, your distate for Colvé is, shall we say, viewed with a degree of suspicion.”

“Why?”

“Oh don’t be so naive, woman!” Marc snapped. “Diodiné is not getting any younger. Sides are being taken, and your silence is interpreted as a sign that you may well be plotting something yourself.”

“Me?” she choked. “Do those courtly cretins seriously think that I would be interested in their succession wrangling?”

“You have no choice, I’m afraid. I’ve been spending far too much time in Nérac’s library than is probably good for me, uncovering all sorts of gems.”

“Such as?” she asked, a fresh, feverish sweat breaking across her forehead.

“Such as the fact that the Néracs share the blood of ancient emperors. And Leda is, of course, their heir. The longer you keep her from public sight, the greater the suspicions grow. Perhaps, it is rumoured, you plan a coup in her name.”

Incredulous, she snatched the glass from his hands and drank deeply. “They’re mad,” she gasped. “All I want nowadays is a bit of peace and quiet.”

“Which is, I’m afraid, a luxury you can ill afford. So if you have any sense of self-preservation left at all, you’ll get your bony backside down to Colvé before the rumours spread. It is impolitic to snub the Emperor at his own birthday party.”

Her arms crossed, she scowled. “You’ve become very crude in your old age ­ do you know that, Marc?”

He took back his glass and drained the dregs. “And you, my dear, have grown even more pigheaded in yours.”

“But I’ve seen barely more than thirty summers!” she protested.

“And if you wish to enjoy a few more, I suggest you take my advice, however hard that might be. Agreed?”

She sank further into her chair, stretching out her legs before the hearth.

“Agreed?”

The door burst open and Leda ran inside with Meracad on her heels. Instinctively, Hal rose, and the girl wrapped her arms around her waist. “I’m sorry, Hal,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry too, Leda.” Her hand resting gently on the girl’s head, she glanced at Meracad whose eyes were glazed with unshed tears.

“We’re going to Colvé,” Hal said. “I was wrong. Very wrong.”

“We both were,” whispered Meracad as she embraced her daughter and her lover tightly. “And one other thing, Hal.”

“Yes?”

“Edæc’s coming with us.”

Hal peered down into Leda’s face, relieved to see her smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four: Grovelling

“Ow! That hurts!” Leda squealed as Mother laced up the back of her dress.

“Leda, keep still. Do you want to look nice for the Emperor or not?”

Leda looked at her mother, and then at Hal. “Hal’s wearing trousers and a shirt,” she said sulkily.

Lazing on the bed, Hal raised an eyebrow and grinned. “Have you suddenly taken a liking to trousers, Leda? I’m sure we can find you some.”

“No!” Leda stammered. “But I don’t want to wear this stupid dress, either.”

“Leda, we’ve already spoken about this. You can’t wear the same dirty old frocks you have at Hannac,” Mother said. “This is Colvé, and as I’m sure as Uncle has taught you, Colvé is all about appearance. Anyway, I’ve finished now. You can take a look.”

Leda stamped over to the mirror. These chambers were the grandest she had ever seen: a high, stucco ceiling, tapestries and paintings gracing the walls, a huge four poster bed at the very centre. From the windows she had looked down onto a long, ornate knot of gardens through which well-dressed, elegant people wandered arm in arm.

She peered curiously at her reflection. A different girl stared back – not Leda with her wild mess of curls and grass-stained frocks. This girl’s hair had been coaxed into a long, thick plait and she wore a dress of pale yellow silk. She turned around, admiring herself in the mirror. Raising herself on one arm, Hal whistled. “You’ll be stealing hearts, Leda.”

“I don’t want to steal hearts. I’m going to marry Edæc.”

Mother threw Hal one of her special looks. “Yes, well,” she said. “All in good time. Are we ready?”

“I suppose so.” Hal dragged herself from the bed. Her nose was red from sneezing, and she looked tired. “Your hands, ladies?”

Smiling, Meracad took Hal’s right hand, and Leda her left.

“You know, Leda,” Hal said, “you’ve been in these chambers before.”

“I have?”

“Yes. They used to belong to my mother. And one day they’ll be yours, because everyone ought to have rooms at court.”

When she said that, she sneered slightly. Leda looked at her. Was she being serious, or sarcastic? It was often hard to tell.

Edæc was waiting for them in the corridor, hot and uncomfortable in a grey satin frock coat and breeches, his face crimson with embarrassment. “This won’t work,” he moaned. “They’ll never let me in.”

“Edæc,” Hal patted him on the shoulder. “You look every bit the courtier. Of course they’ll let you in.”

They passed down a wide, curving flight of marble stairs: the bannisters carved into strange shapes, like winged babies or fish dancing on their fins. Leda wanted to stop and touch them, but Mother wouldn’t let her. “Come on, Leda! We’ll be late!”

And then at last they were standing before a massive pair of glossy white doors, guarded by an old man in a funny gold coat and breeches. In one hand he clutched a gilt mace, in the other a scroll, and he peered at them through a monocle, his eye swivelling behind the lens like a frog’s. Leda wanted to laugh. She sucked in her cheeks and held her breath, but the urge grew and grew inside her until she could no longer stop herself.

“Quiet, Leda!” Mother hissed. Hal grinned and stared at the ceiling while Edæc gnawed on his knuckles, tears of mirth welling at the edges of his eyes.

“Lady Nérac?” inquired the man.

No one replied, which Leda thought was strange.

“Lady Nérac?” he asked again, his voice cracking with impatience.

Hal sighed. “Leda, that’s you.”

“But I thought…I thought I’m Leda Hannac?”

The old man peered at them with curious disdain.

“Not here, Leda. Here, you’re Leda Nérac.”

“Oh well,” she said, confused, and raised her hand. “That’s me, Sir.”

“Very good, very good.” Clearing his throat, he held his scroll at a distance and read out, “Meracad Nérac and Halanya Hannac.”

“Any mistaking us?” Hal asked slyly.

Ignoring her, he turned his attention to Edæc. “And you would be?”

“Edæc,” Edæc muttered, sweat beading his forehead.

“Edæc. Just…Edæc?” Through the doors came the confusion of conversations and laughter, the strain of an orchestra and the clink of glasses. “No,” said the man with a cold smile. “You’re not on my list, young man. I’m afraid you’re not invited.”

Edæc appeared almost relieved, preparing to slink away. Gripped by sudden anger, Leda stepped forward and said, “Please put him on the list then.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said put him on the list.”

The old guard crouched down before her and chucked her under the chin, his lips peeling apart to reveal rotten teeth and gapped gums. Repulsed, she edged backwards. His eyes hardened. “That cannot be done.”

“Leda…” Mother put her hand on Leda’s shoulder.

“No!” she snapped. “I am the Emperor’s guest, am I not?”

“That is correct.” The man’s eye darted about behind his monocle.

“That means he wants me to come to his birthday party. But if Edæc isn’t allowed, then I won’t come. And then, I believe, you’ll be in a spot of bother, won’t you?”

She liked the phrase, a spot of bother. Marc used it a lot. It made her feel old and wise. And it seemed to work, because the doorman’s face clouded, he pursed his lips and at last he said, “very well. But the young gentleman should make himself scarce. And avoid being mistaken for service.”

And with that he hobbled, irate and glowing to the doors and jerked them open with the proclamation, “Lady Leda Nérac, her mother Meracad, Halanya Hannac of the Eagles’ Nests, and…Edæc.”

Leda stepped through, aware of Mother’s astonished gaze and Edæc’s red face and Hal shaking her head, and they were met with…silence.

It were as if Lake Brennac lay before her, and its waters were composed of human faces which bobbed and rose and waved, all desperate to look at her. The music died, dancers froze mid-vault, knives clattered onto plates. She twisted her head up. A series of grand chandeliers swung from the ceiling, their gold rings lined with hundreds of flickering candles. Frescoes and tapestries bedecked the walls, and at the far end of the room an old man sat upon a raised dais in a marble throne, flanked by an aging, matronly figure whom Leda took to be the Empress, and a sallow-cheeked young man – probably Castor, his nephew.

The silence grew in its intensity – thickening and curdling, becoming bitter. And then Hal sneezed.

Fumbling inside her trouser pocket, she pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose extravagantly as the Emperor rose.

“Mistress Hannac. You always did have a way of making your presence felt. Please, come forward.”

Mother ushered them onwards through the harsh stares and faint mutterings, the muted snickers of scorn and sharp, pointing fingers. A nest of vipers, Hal had said. Perhaps she hadn’t been exaggerating as Mother claimed. Whatever exaggerating meant.

Now they were at the foot of the dais, all staged curtseys and awkward bows, and the Emperor had risen, the Court with him. He was somehow far more ordinary than Leda had imagined – his hair grey and faded, his shoulders slightly hunched, his limbs spindly and his paunch held in check by a rich, brocade doublet. Beside him the Empress unsqueezed herself from her throne, a mass of curling white locks and purple silk, while the nephew slunk with reluctance from his seat to stand a few feet behind his uncle.

“You are a little under the weather, I perceive, Mistress Hannac?”

“A mere cold, your Majesty,” Hal sniffed.

“I recall the last time we met you were somewhat out of sorts.”

“A coincidence, your Majesty,” she muttered.

Leda stared at the Emperor, confused, but he continued. “And you seem somewhat averse to the Court.”

Hal shook her head stiffly. “My duties at Hannac keep me busy, your Majesty.”

“Too busy to remember your duties to the Crown?”

“I never forget my obligations to…to your Majesty.”

“Hmm.” His eyes softened, Leda thought, when he turned to Mother. “Meracad, my dear Lady.” He extended a hand.

Curtseying, Mother kissed it. “Your Majesty.”

“Life at Hannac seems to have favoured you. You are fairer even than I remember.”

Mother inclined her head and smiled. “Your Majesty is too kind.”

But Mother did look beautiful, Leda thought, with her fawn coloured hair streaming down her back and her dress of pale blue silk.

“And this must be the young Lady Leda, heir to Dal Reniac: our jewel in the North. Step forward, child.”

“Go on, Leda.” Prompted by mother, she edged forward.

“Your Majesty.” She curtseyed again, as Mother had taught her.

The Emperor appraised her, his hand clasping his chin. “You have your mother’s eyes. And your father’s bearing.”

“What…what does bearing mean?”

A few stifled snorts of laughter issued around the salon, but the Emperor appeared stern and thoughtful. “It means, my dear, your poise, your countenance. Your appearance.”

“I see. But…isn’t it true that my father was a bad man?”

Hal stiffened beside her, Mother froze, the court held its collective breath and Diodiné frowned. “Who told you that?” he asked, glaring at Hal.

“I just…I don’t know.”

“Well…your father loved power. He liked to control. Too much for his own good, I suppose. But you wouldn’t be like that, would you Leda? You wouldn’t challenge my authority?”

His stare was fierce, interrogating. She looked up and said, “No, your Majesty. I wouldn’t want your power.”

“And mine?” The sallow faced boy slunk out from behind his Uncle, long yellow hair dangling limply to his shoulders, his eyes furtive and restless.

“But…but you’re not the Emperor!”

“Leda!” Mother laid a hand on Leda’s arm as a few murmurs of disapproval echoed around the chamber.

“No…” Castor sneered. “But I will be one day, little girl.”

She surveyed him coolly. Never betray your own weakness, Leda, Marc had once told her. A good politician might feel afraid, but he’ll never show it. And instinctively she knew that, in front of the entire court, Castor had revealed a weakness: an uncertainty. She would remember that. “Well, in that case, Sir, I’ll be sure to pay you all due respect.”

Diodiné raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure you will. And who…” his brow furrowed again. “Who might this be?” He indicated Edæc with a cursory flick of his fingers.

“My name’s Edæc your Majesty.” Edæc’s gruff, crofter’s accent elicited a few high pitched squeals of laughter from the courtiers. Leda felt cold and angry and sad all at the same time.

“Indeed? Edæc?” The Emperor rocked back and forth on his heels, his eyes lit with amusement.

“I’m Magda Brighthair’s brother,” Edæc offered hopefully.

“Is that so?” Diodiné’s face lit up. “Your rival, Hannac.”

“I don’t duel on the Circle any more, Sir.”

“Well, be that as it may, she must be sent for! I love a reunion. And now, let us return to our festivities. Orchestra…” he clapped his hands and the musicians struck up. They all trudged over to Marc who was waving at them frantically from the other side of the room, his face flushed and anxious.

“How did she get to be so undiplomatic?” Hal glared at Leda, who glared back at her.

Mother shrugged and shook her head. “I can’t imagine.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five: Griping

“Well that went remarkably well,” Hal sneered, spearing a chicken leg on the end of her knife. “The Court embraced us to its bosom like its long lost children.”

Marc fixed her with a severe stare. “Well you hardly did your part in endearing yourself, did you? A little grovelling on such occasions never went amiss.”

“What?” She choked down a mouthful of red wine. “Even by your standards, Marc, that is appalling. Respect I understand, but grovelling? Never.” She surveyed the skewered chicken leg for a few moments before sinking her teeth into the flesh. Meat juice dribbled down her chin and onto the plate.

Marc looked on in mild disgust. “I don’t think getting drunk is likely to improve your situation, either.”

“For the spirits’ sake, I’ve not even started yet!” she said through a mouthful of chicken.

Dabbing delicately at his lips with a napkin, Marc shook his head and rose. “I’m off to do politics, which is what you’d be doing too, if you had half a brain. By all that’s holy, even Leda conducts herself with better sense than you do, and she’s eight years old!” He nodded over at Leda, who had thrown herself with relish into a series of rounds, jigs and reels, often as not with a frightened looking Edæc, occasionally with some other member of the infant nobility. “Watch her, Meracad,” he warned, drilling a finger into Hal’s shoulder. “Don’t let her disgrace herself any more than she already has done.” And with that, he was off, threading his way amongst the dancing, plotting, jostling groups of senators, aristocrats and merchants, stopping only to exchange a polite word here, a handshake there, darting the occasional scowl back in Hal’s direction.

“Hal, you’re still not well.” One arm draped around Hal’s shoulder, Meracad gently prised the wine cup from her lover’s fingers. “Perhaps you ought to rest?”

Meracad’s hair hung loose about the shoulders of her pale blue dress. Her cheeks and lips were now flushed from the wine and heat, the colour creeping down her neck. Hal pressed her forehead to Meracad’s and said, “that’s the first sensible thing I’ve heard all night. Cara’s chambers are empty, we could…”

Smiling, Meracad shook her head. “I meant you. One of us has to stay here to make sure Leda doesn’t get herself into trouble.”

“Oh.” Disappointed, she poured herself another cup of wine and poured it down. “I suppose so.”

The wide, white doors to the imperial salon were suddenly thrown open, and the myopic doorman hobbled in, hammered the mace three times on the marble floor, and uttered: “Magda Brighthair.”

“Well this is going to be interesting,” Hal breathed.

She strode in with all the swagger of a pirate from the eastern seaboard, bowing deeply to the Emperor as the chamber erupted in peals of applause. Now one of the finest duellists Colvé had ever seen, her feats upon the Circle legendary, it seemed that Magda had even won over the Court; that same Court which had scorned Hal, at times baying for her blood.

Magda folded her arms, absorbing the cheers with an easy grin, her cropped chestnut hair framing a cheerful, freckle-flecked face. Her breeches were of tanned leather, her shirt a pristine white and her frock coat of darkest velvet. Hal hastily gulped down another mouthful of wine. Beside her, Meracad stiffened, the breath catching in her throat.

“Magda!” Edæc left Leda’s side to run to his sister, catching her in a rough embrace. At this, the Court applauded even harder, having apparently forgotten their earlier mocking of the crofter.

“Little brother!” She grinned, hands clasped around his shoulders. “It’s been so long. And you’re so grown. And Leda…” she bowed to Leda, who curtseyed shyly in response. “The last time I saw you, you were no more than a babe. And now I see…a young lady.”

Leda giggled uncertainly and Hal groaned.

“Hal!” Meracad hissed, jabbing an elbow into her waist. “Remember what Marc said. Show some grace.”

The Court had resumed its gossiping and griping, briefly distracted by this new spectacle. With one arm around Edæc’s shoulder, Magda picked her way across the room as Hal rose somewhat unsteadily.

“Magda!” She enfolded the girl in her arms, sensing the hard leanness of her physique.

“Hal, let go!” Magda laughed. “You’ll suffocate me! Meracad…”

The easy smile dropped briefly from her lips, Hal noticed. Meracad rose and submitted to Magda’s awkward hug. “Magda,” she said. “You’re looking well.”

“Yes, well…” Magda grabbed a chair and threw herself into it, helping herself to the wine. “Colvé suits me.”

“So we see.” Hal took a swig from her wine cup, discovered it was empty and refilled it, ignoring Meracad’s frown. “Is it true you took on two Easterners together at your last duel?” It seemed to be getting very warm in the salon. She thought of how pleasant it would be in the palace gardens with nothing but Meracad and the scent of cut grass and box hedge for company.

“Two young, inexperienced Easterners.” Magda winked.

“No Easterners are inexperienced, Magda. There’s no need for modesty. I know well enough how the Circle works.”

“Of course you do, Hal.”

Was that condescension in her voice? Or disinterest? Or mockery? Certainly, her eyes seemed to laugh.

“You never think about returning to us, Magda?” Meracad asked, suddenly. Why had she asked that? Why would Magda want to return to Hannac?

Magda bit her lip and then with a laugh, she said, “No, Meracad. Leave this all behind to do what? Scrub pots?”

“You know you’d never be doing that at Hannac.”

“I know, but…maybe one day. Not now.” She shook her head, folded her arms and glanced down at the floor. Hal buried her nose in her wine glass again, Edæc stared in silent wonder at his sister and Meracad picked listlessly at her food. And then something strange and awful happened. Magda suddenly said, “Would you care to dance, Meracad?”

Meracad hesitated, stared at her fingers and then looking up with sudden certainty, without a glance at Hal said, “Yes. Why not?”

Hal almost dropped her wine cup in shock, but Meracad was already on her feet, Magda leading her towards the other dancers.

“I’ll bet she’s a good dancer, my sister,” Edæc said proudly. Hal didn’t respond. Words formed and froze in her throat. And as Leda coaxed out another infant aristocrat into a clumsy waltz, she looked on at Meracad and Magda, Magda’s fingers curling around Meracad’s waist, the two swaying in gentle time to the music.

“That ought to be you, idiot.” Marc slipped into the empty chair beside her.

“What?” Hal spluttered.

“She was itching to get you out there all evening. And you’ve just sat here like death itself warmed up and indulged in self-pity. No wonder she’s dancing now with Magda.”

Hal bestowed on Marc a look so sour it could have curdled milk. “Any more helpful observations you’d like to make, Marc?”

“No,” he said, almost cheerfully. “Well, apart from the fact that Magda looks remarkably…sober.”

When they returned from dancing, Magda and Meracad were both breathless, glowing and laughing. That riled Hal even more. And as Meracad sank back into her seat, Hal said, “would you like to dance, Meracad?”

“No, I’m tired now, Hal.” Meracad mopped at her brow with her sleeve. “Magda’s very…energetic,” she smiled. Magda grinned back at her.

“Is she?”

It was the wine which had wormed its way within, she told herself. It was the wine making her think that Magda’s eyes softened when she looked at Meracad. She sneezed and shivered.

“Oh…oh dear.” Meracad shook her head. “I think I’d better rescue that…that poor child.”

Leda was coaxing a fresh, trembling young victim out to dance. The boy looked petrified, twisting around to seek help from his parents who only urged him on. Clearly the prospect of nurturing ties with the future heir to Dal Reniac was worth a little public humiliation. Rising, Meracad strode out into the fray.

“Hal, Hal, Hal.” Magda’s eyes mocked Hal from over the rim of her wine glass.

“Magda, Magda, Magda.” She leant across the table and said, “Why did you just do that?”

“What?” Magda asked innocently. She plucked a grape from a tray of fruit, slung it into the air and caught it between her teeth.

“Why did you ask her to dance?”

Magda’s smile was crafty. “Because she looked like she wanted to. Listen, Hal…do you seriously think one dance and she’ll succumb to my winsome charms?”

“It’s not just that,” Hal replied sulkily.

“Well what is it? Don’t you trust her?”

“I don’t trust you.”

“Well that’s gracious of you.” She leant back in her chair and crossed her arms, feigning offence. “Would I not be right in thinking that I saved your skins once? And that I fought for Hannac, when…”

“Yes, alright, alright,” Hal snarled. “So you did. And I appreciate it. Every day, I give thanks to the spirits for it, Magda.”

She turned her attention back to the centre of the salon. Meracad had succeeded in prising Leda from her new conquest and they were dancing together, Leda’s tiny arms clasped around her mother’s waist.

“You know what you need, don’t you, Hal?” Magda forced her attention back to their argument.

“What?”

“You need to duel.”

Hal snorted. “Don’t think I’m not practising up there, Magda. And one day, I’ll come back here and take a few rounds with you in the Circle. Colvé’s darling.”

“Why not now?”

“Eh?”

“Why not now? Or perhaps you’ve grown so fat and lazy up there in the North that you know I’ll knock you down in minutes?”

“Magda…” Hal’s smile was thin and tight. She glanced back to the dance floor. Meracad and Leda were hopping about like mad monkeys, much to the general disapproval of those around them, and Marc had vanished once more, probably fraternising with the nobility. “Why not?” she grinned. “But I had to leave my swords in my chambers.”

“So go and get them, then. There is, however, one thing I will concede.”

“And what’s that?”

“I’ll get no joy from beating you when you’re drunk. So…” she plucked the wine bottle from the table, put it to her lips and drank. And drank. Hal stared, astonished, as Magda slammed the vessel back down, now three quarters empty, before wiping her lips on the back of her sleeve. “Ready, Hannac?”

“Ready.”

Magda stood up…and then sat back down again. “Alright, Hal. Just a moment.”

“It’s strong stuff.”

“Stronger than I thought.”

“Seaboard. Fortified. Potent. Ready?”

“Let’s try again.”

It took them some time to navigate their way across the room. A few minor members of the Court were knocked aside in the process, and Hal couldn’t quite remember where the door was. When, however, she encountered the frog-eyed guardsman, she knew they were in the clear. He stared after them, his giant pupil rolling and sliding behind the lens as he muttered curses and imprecations.

Then it was a mere matter of working their way back to Cara’s chambers. They staggered down several winding corridors, throwing open doors only to reveal copulating courtiers who yelled at them in shock, or card players engaged in illicit gambling sessions. “I don’t know where we are,” Hal moaned, slumping against a wall, breathless.

“Think, Hal. Think!” Magda put a hand to her chest to hold her upright.

“Up. We have to go up another slight of flairs. I mean another flight of stairs.”

And there it was, as if it had been in front of them all along: the trim oak door of her mother’s old apartment. She leant against it, fell across the threshold and dived towards her travelling sack, tugging out a pair of sabres. “Here.”

Magda caught one by the hilt just in time, as it flew across the room. “Ready.”

It was such a relief to be out in the palace gardens. The cold, autumnal air was sobering, and the strains of conversation and music grew ever fainter as they stumbled across the knots of box hedge and flowerbeds until at last they reached the Emperor’s bowling lawn. Attempting en garde was somewhat difficult, as the ground didn’t seem to stay still and so, eventually, Hal just lunged, only to discover that Magda had already moved. “Behind you, Hannac,” she sighed.

“Oh.” Hal staggered around, and fell on her backside.

“Here.” Magda stretched out an arm to help her up, but Hal pulled her over. They crawled on hands and knees for a few moments, searching for their swords before clambering to their feet and trying again. At which point, Magda toppled backwards over a box hedge and remained there, her boots sticking out through the foliage.

“Magda?” Hal whispered. “Magda? Are you alright?”

A slightly crazed giggling erupted from the other side of the hedge.

“Magda!” She launched herself over it, landing splayed and winded on the other side. That made Magda laugh even harder. And suddenly, she couldn’t hold it back, either. The night sky span around her head in ever faster, wonkier circles. Her stomach ached from laughing, tears streamed from her eyes, but it was all too insane and wild and funny, lying on her back in a hedge beside Magda.

“What in the name of all hell is going on?” Marc’s voice thundered across the lawn at them. Hal twisted onto her side and put a hand across Magda’s mouth to stifle her giggles.

First a shock of pomaded grey hair hove into view over the topiary, followed by a powdered face and wild, incandescent eyes. Then three other heads followed – Meracad, Leda and finally Edæc. “Are you alright, sister?” he asked, his brow wrinkling with worry.

“Edæc, your sister is perfectly alright,” Marc snapped. “She’s just drunk. Magda, Hal’s reputation is  beyond repair, but yours is still intact. I suggest you restrict your duelling to the Circle. And as for you, Hal…”

“Oh come on, Marc. You’ve been on at me since we got here.” With enormous effort, Hal extricated herself from the hedge, flicking leaves from her hair and shirt. “Thank you, Magda.”

“For what?”

“For reminding me that Colvé does have its virtues.”

Meracad ran her fingers through a long lock of tawny hair, pushing it from her face. Her cheeks were still flushed, her eyes bright with amusement. “What am I going to do with you?”

“I’m sure you can think of a few things,” Hal grinned, swaying slightly.

“You know what, Hal? Perhaps I will have that dance, after all.”

The rising strains of a reel floated out through the palace windows high above them. She entwined her arms around Hal’s neck, kissing her as she led her out into the middle of the lawn.

“Have you all gone utterly mad?” Marc cried, indignant. “If they catch us out here, putting holes in the Emperor’s bowling lawn, we’ll be…”

“What, Marc? What will we be? Slung into prison for creasing a few blades of grass?” Magda smirked.

“Stranger things have happened.”

“Come on, Senator. You look as if you need to enjoy yourself.” And with a wild whoop, she dragged him out onto the lawn, forcing him into a bizarre mockery of a dance.

“You too, Leda?” Edæc offered a hand to the little girl. Her impish face lit up with delight, and they sprang about the gardens, leaping over hedges and splashing through fountains as the Emperor’s birthday party ran its genteel course into the early hours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six: Showing Not Telling

The coach bobbed its weary way along the Colvé road, accompanied by the lapping of waves on the shores of Brennac, the caws of birds hovering over the lake, and Hal’s fitful sneezing. Meracad surveyed her worriedly. “Still feeling bad?”

Red eyed and hung-over, Hal managed a lazy smile. Leda lay sleeping across her lap and Edæc had also succumbed to exhaustion, while Marc snored imperiously in a corner of the carriage. “Better,” she whispered.

“Let’s stop for a moment.” Leaning through the carriage window, Meracad called out to the driver. The clip clop of hooves slowed and halted. She opened the door and stepped outside, leaving the others to slumber in peace. The air was warm enough for an autumn day, the sun high, and leaves swirled down from trees on faint eddies of wind in shades of scarlet, amber and gold.

Behind her, Hal yawned, stretched, and then wrapped her arms around Meracad’s waist, kissing the nape of her neck. “Let’s go down to the lake,” she said.

Grateful for a rest, the carriage master jumped down to tend to his horses. Meracad and Hal strolled hand in hand to the water’s edge, stopping beneath a massive ancient oak, its roots spreading out even as far as the lake, its bark and branches knotted and gnarled with age. They sat down between a cleft in the roots. Hal busied herself with skimming stones across the surface, while Meracad lay propped up on her elbows, watching. After a while, she said, “But you are a fool, you know.”

“So people insist on telling me.”

“I don’t mean for getting drunk. I even expected that.”

“So what, then?” Her blue eyes grave, Hal lay down at Meracad’s side.

“For your jealousy.”

“I wasn’t jealous!”

“Of course you were. I could see it the moment Magda asked me to dance. Hal, do you honestly think that I could love anybody in the world more than you?”

Hal plucked a blade of grass from the soil and twisted it around her hand. “No,” she said at last.

“Are you sure? Look at me.” Meracad slid her fingers beneath Hal’s chin, forcing her to squint up into the sunlight as it forged its way between the leaves.

“I know you love me. It was stupid of me. I’m sorry.”

“Say that again?”

Hal flopped onto her back. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“Oh that won’t do, Hannac! That just won’t do!” Something mischievous, wicked even, seemed to have wormed its way beneath her skin. She leant over Hal, her hair tickling the duellist’s face.

“What do you mean it won’t do? I apologised, didn’t I?”

“An apology is not enough. Don’t tell me you’re sorry, Hal.” She lowered her lips to Hal’s. “Show me you’re sorry.”

Hal smiled beneath her kiss. “Like this?” she breathed, running her tongue over the tips of Meracad’s teeth.

“Not nearly enough. Try harder.”

“Well maybe like this?” They continued to kiss. Meracad lay back, allowing Hal to snake an arm around her waist, to trace the grooves of her ribs and collar bone before running her fingers around her breasts in ever tighter circles. “Is that better?”

“Not even close,” Meracad gasped.

“Oh, you are a demanding woman.” Hal cast a swift glance over at the carriage and reached down to the hem of Meracad’s dress, raising it inch by slow inch. The world was suddenly reduced to the wind’s whisper, the rattle of shingle on the waterline and the rise of her own body to Hal’s touch. The linen of her dress grew wet with kisses which travelled lower and then lower until Hal’s lips grazed skin, not fabric. Meracad moaned, only to find her mouth stopped with another kiss. Time slipped away, pushed from thought by the shivering heat, the swift pulse of blood. And as Hal pressed her lips to Meracad, pushed her way inside Meracad, she tried to draw away – the joy was almost unbearable – but then Hal’s hands were on her waist, holding her down. She covered her mouth behind tight fingers, willing Leda, Edæc and Marc to sleep, until suddenly the aching scream of her body rose, and she with it. And then it were as if she were one with the falling, swirling leaves – the world merging with those ambers, golds and scarlets, her entire self hollowed out, emptied and cleansed, and Hal lying panting beside her.

“Was that enough of an apology?” she breathed.

Drawing close, Meracad kissed her forehead, her eyes, her cheeks and at last her lips. “It’ll do. For now.”

With a groan, Hal collapsed back onto the grass.

And there they lay, knotted together like the roots of the oak, the leaves still falling and carpeting the ground with gold, and Colvé already a distant memory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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