A/N: In the previous chapters, we've been introducing little snippets of conversation with various characters who have a stake in what Golzar is planning. Now, the threads are brought together with William's late arrival and the aftermath of Lucretia's offer. Also, a conversation between Gerhard and Bryn about the latter's insecurities.
When Lucretia returned from crowd control outside, she closed the doors with a click. Golzar watched as she strode to one end of the room and parted the curtains that hid the more private section of her chambers. A pale glow streamed in. So this place did have windows after all, Golzar thought.
Lucretia pulled out a wooden screen, with carved patterns busy enough to hide the insides of her sleeping quarters but open enough to let in the moonlight, which was beginning to intensify, as outside, the sounds of rain became softer and more muffled. Golzar watched her struggle slightly with the contraption; it must have been twice Golzar’s height.
With a thump, Lucretia set down the screen, turning to Golzar with a sigh. “Those two outside. Are they with you or with William? Or just lackeys?”
“You mean Gerhard and Bryn? They came with me.”
Lucretia nodded, reassured. “I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want any of William’s men suspecting us.”
Her skirts swished around her as she sat down at the table again. “So. Have you thought about it? Becoming one of the palace guard.”
“I know it’s not exactly in your expertise,” Lucretia went on, her gaze hard with practicality, but also burning with some kind of overzealousness. Golzar found it overwhelming, but also intriguing. “You fought skirmishes in the war, and were mostly on the invading side of a fortress. But you won’t have to be doing any defending for the most part – I have the actual guards for that.”
As Lucretia went on, a tide of suspicion began to rise in Golzar’s chest. This couldn’t be happening. She couldn’t be plotting some kind of backdoor scheme with the Queen of Woodlands, of all people. What had happened to make Lucretia trust her so much?
“You were the one who ended Korvus, weren’t you? I doubt a noble would protest a role like palace guard for you.”
Sure, Golzar thought. That might be a good reason to appoint her as a martial instructor or personal bodyguard, that is, if Lucretia had some kind of concrete proof of her loyalty. But Golzar had never been sworn to Lucretia’s service specifically during the war. As a matter of fact, Golzar remembered, after the flower incident they barely even talked. A flush crept up her neck remembering that embarrassing occasion.
When Lucretia had finished, and Golzar had let a respectful pause whoosh past them, she clasped her hands on the edge of the table, mirroring the Queen’s posture. “Your Grace, I – I will need some time to think about this.”
A smile – small, barely perceptible – curved on Lucretia’s youthful face. She reached into her pocket, taking out a messy, loose-paper-filled notebook and a pen. Golzar could hear the scratching sounds as Lucretia scribbled something on a piece of paper and then put the royal seal on it, not like a Queen, but like some student at a temple putting together a memo.
“Then we’ll see each other again,” Lucretia said, sliding the paper over the desk to her. Golzar took it, eyeing the words as coolly as she could manage.
This was bound to be interesting, at least. Golzar couldn’t say how it would end.
William arrived looking flustered. His cheeks were practically tomato-coloured, and his usually neat hair was mussed up and in disarray. His narrow eyes widened when he saw Gerhard and Bryn, sitting there alone. This time, Bryn was the first to stand up, nodding at William, but skirting around the chairs so Gerhard would be a buffer between the two of them. Bryn didn’t like dealing with angry people, and William as a whole was as angry as a personality could get.
“What are you three doing here?” William said in a stage-whisper. So he knew of Golzar’s presence, Bryn noted irritably. William pointed a knobbly finger at the second door, opposite facing the corridor where they had all come from. He jerked his head in that direction as well, as if it wasn’t clear enough that he wanted the two to follow him in there.
Gerhard got to his feet, and began a slow, annoyed shuffle to the door.
Bryn suppressed a huff. They’d always wondered why Gerhard, usually so hesitant around authority, would behave this way with William. The two weren’t friends or anything – William was just inexplicably dense about any sign that Gerhard was irritated by him. Even now William was standing around letting Gerhard unlatch the door to the side room, unawares that he’d already pushed the advisor’s buttons.
“Did you know Dene Skyroot is babbling to everyone about how she shook hands with you, gloves off?”
Gerhard didn’t look at him, opening the door with a click. “But she didn’t.”
“Well, no one will believe that now!”
Gerhard turned around. He fixed William with his level grey eyes. “Her Grace was looking for you, by the way.”
With a sharp intake of breath, William whipped around to look at the doors to Lucretia’s chambers. Still closed. His brow twitched. He struggled to school his expression back to his usual stern neutrality. “I wouldn’t have been late if it weren’t for Ariga.”
Bryn saw Gerhard raise an eyebrow.
“Had a bone to pick, apparently, about the raiding incident.” William’s face blanched. “Been giving me the cold shoulder e’er since.”
He ushered the two of them into the room, then closed the door until just a sliver of the tiles could be seen. Bryn resolved to keep an eye on the Queen’s doors – not for William’s sake, but for Golzar’s.
The room was a startling puzzle of mosaics. Bryn scanned each of its corners, trying to draw an outline of where it began and ended. They watched as William found a torch easily and lit it using a flint he kept in his pouch. The torch fit into a spiralling metal contraption in the wall, fancier than any torch holder they had seen before.
Their gaze drifted, and then come to rest on the puddle of light by their feet, where the faded chips of ceramic spiralled in a swirling pattern of turquoise and white.
“. . . You had something to tell us, sir?” Gerhard said, folding his hands over his walking stick.
“Well, no, jus’ figured if we were going to talk, we’d better do it somewhere – beside – right outside the Queen’s door,” William huffed.
“But doesn’t hiding in a room like this look suspicious, sir? Here, let me help,” Gerhard said. He turned to look at a corner of the room. “Hey, if there are any eavesdroppers out there, we’re just talking about grocery lists and tavern parties! Nothing worth listening to!”
If there was potential for William to look even more scandalised than he did now, Bryn didn’t want to see it.
William didn’t respond to Gerhard’s jest. Instead, he continued. “You know, any business should be discussed with the rest of the Council first. Golzar isn’t even formally inaugurated yet until after the dinner and ceremony, as far as I’m concerned. Don’t tell me you and her plan to invite the Queen?”
Bryn felt a flicker of hope. So he didn’t exactly know why they were here. They saw Gerhard’s mouth curl into a smile. “Couldn’t hurt to try,” Gerhard said.
There was a row of potted plants in towards the back of the room. Bryn circled around the two verbally sparring men and went to inspect the dark green leaves. The currently-curtained window was large, big enough to allow large amounts of sunlight in during the day. Gently, they thumbed the edge of a heart-shaped leaf. Still, the plants must need replacing every once in a while. Indoors was no place for a plant like this.
“Gerhard, what is your captain doing?” William said.
“Looking at plants,” Gerhard said, civilly.
“They’ve not said a word since we got here.” William folded his arms. “And come to think of it, they never talk in meetings.”
“Forgive us, sir, it’s late in the night.”
Before William could shoot back, however, Bryn heard footsteps and a click. “They’re done,” they said, looking up at the Queen’s doorway. This time, Golzar was there. Shoulders relaxing, the tension from the earlier surprise encounters finally seeping out, Bryn squeezed past William to greet their commander.
She left the room slowly. First, Lucretia lingered by the door, and waved the handmaiden away. It was strange to be this casual in the presence of the monarch, but it wasn’t like they had had a precedent for proper monarchy in a long time. All Golzar knew of the typical sovereign was from ancient books written on fading yellow parchment.
“You’ll receive a letter soon,” Lucretia whispered, close enough for Golzar to hear, before she released her. Golzar could only nod stiffly and bow.
William’s voice was hushed, but she could hear him nonetheless. As she watched him hurry into the Queen’s room after her, greeted by a handmaiden, Golzar wondered if Lucretia was just playing with her. Something cold fell in her stomach. What if Lucretia just prattled to William all they had discussed privately? The whole point of this, after all, was to circumvent William’s hold on the Guild by getting Lucretia on her side.
The final set of wooden doors opened up to the garden, which was bathed blue in night time. Water shone on the cobblestones, but the drizzle had mostly faded away. Golzar, Bryn and Gerhard walked along the main path at first, but then turned into a side route that would take them out through the back of the palace. They walked under arches of wooden structures, surrounded by dark earth, no doubt planted with creepers and ivy meant to climb over the arches and make a canopy. Here and there stood a few large clay pots with plants in them, delicate round leaves swaying in the cool breeze.
“I don’t know what’s going on either,” Gerhard said, once they were all securely outdoors. “I think he was probably scheduled to come much earlier, but he ran late.”
So it was just bad luck that they had seen William, huh? She frowned. That seemed like the only explanation. She looked at Gerhard, saw his jaw clench. He was probably more worried than she was, at this point, and was just trying to come up with a story that – didn’t – involve Lucretia spilling the information about their meeting to the Guild Chief.
Beside Gerhard, Bryn walked, staring at their feet. Golzar glanced at them from time to time, but they didn’t seem to be about to volunteer their two cents without her asking. The mantle around Golzar’s shoulders felt heavy and oppressive. If she took it off while Gerhard was there, however, she was sure he would throw a fit about her catching a cold.
Golzar let out a sigh, rubbing the back of her neck. “Bryn?”
Dark eyes, shining like olives in the moonlight, turned to look at her curiously.
“Ah. Never mind. I’ll tell you later.” Golzar was having second thoughts. Should she tell Bryn about the offer Lucretia had made her? Or – and at this point she glanced at Gerhard – should she tell Gerhard? Both of them?
Neither would think it was a good idea, she was sure. She could see the tension melting out of both her friends’ shoulders the further away they got from the palace buildings. By the time the gate was before them, and the night guard had cracked it open for the three to slip through, Bryn was even ready to talk again.
“You know, if even Ariga is givin’ William the silent treatment . . . ‘s gotta be the end of the world.”
Golzar laughed. “We’ll have to check the sky early tomorrow,” she declared. “Make sure fire and ash aren’t raining down on us.”
The metaphor was apt, she thought. They would all have to watch their backs now. Not only William would be bad news, but the nobility as a whole. No doubt the lords outside would remember Lucretia dismissing them to extend her discussion with Golzar, a chevalier. But Golzar couldn’t afford losing the Queen herself as a potential ally. What luck it might have been, Golzar thought, that this was Lucretia and not any other young lady of royal blood. It was a strange thought to have, she knew, given that Lucretia and her were strangers beyond that one encounter. But Golzar imagined some other royal could not care less whether armed folk were raiding peasant huts, so long as their taxes were not interrupted. Lucretia seemed at least to be against it on principle.
Golzar contemplated kicking at a pebble in her path, but then decided to step over it instead. The rolling greens of the hill fell away before her, as the three of them made their way down to the stables where their horses were kept.
At the same time, Golzar pondered, brows drawn together. Lucretia seemed to trust her so easily. She must have gotten into the Queen’s good books somehow without realising it, or that meeting a year ago had left an impression. But for how long? Lucretia didn’t seem the type to hold a long-term camaraderie over a whim.
“I could smooth things over tomorrow, with William,” Gerhard said, trotting along beside her. “Give him a false report of what you discussed with her Grace.”
Before Golzar could reply, Gerhard continued.
“William and I have a strange relationship, Golzar. But he’s used to receiving reports from me and having them be accurate.”
She frowned at him. It would be a good idea, she acquiesced privately. But there was something strangely desperate in his eyes – clear in the moonlight – that she didn’t like. Still, Golzar nodded. “Thanks.”
The ride back home was long and silent. Bryn rode ahead of them, not bothering to slow Dapple down. Everyone knew she was the fastest mare in the company, but Bryn would usually pace her to walk abreast with the rest of the horses.
During this time, with them separated slightly, Golzar drew the reins on her own stallion and drew close to Gerhard.
Meaningfully, she glanced at Bryn’s turned back. Gerhard met her gaze, and nodded. He would talk to them later.
Golzar breathed a sigh of relief. Above, the stars glowed white and said nothing.
At dawn, Gerhard liked to clean the compound. He usually brought one or two of the others with him, because it was nice to have company. It was also nice to have someone who could comfortably climb up a step stool, without needing to balance a ‘third leg’ on the abysmally tiny surface of said stool.
Soft orange light touched the stone floor. The training grounds were empty. Gerhard strolled along the corridor bordering it, noting with a shake of the head that the training dummies were all askew. Sure, the boys always remembered to keep their wooden swords back in the sword racks, all neatly in a row, but for some reason the fact that the dummies needed sorting too always escaped most of the Miscreants.
Gerhard set to putting Bob, the first training dummy from the left, upright. “You coming?” he called over his shoulder.
Bryn’s light footsteps emerged from the door. They had their arms folded, just beneath their chest, fingers rubbing at the elbow of their sleeve nervously. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist, Old Shrew,” they muttered, and then they hopped down the two steps to the training ground.
They moved to work on the last dummy from the left, the one that Tanya had called Regina, complaining that none of the dummies had girl’s names a couple of nights ago. Gerhard patted it on the head-shaped lump of straw at the top, once the dummy was once again standing up and not leaning back on its post like a particularly startled cat.
He looked at Bryn, a small smile on his face.
Bryn sighed. “You wanna say it, jus’ say it.”
“You didn’t call me out here to help you move the dummies.”
Gerhard nodded. “And you don’t want me to talk about ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is.”
Their brows raised on their forehead as they sighed a second time, this time with more frustration. It was a gesture of defeat. “What did Golzar tell you?”
“Nothing much,” Gerhard said, looking down to fiddle with his walking stick. His hands were starting to sweat, as they always did, and sometimes he worried his grip would slip if he wasn’t careful. From the inside of the building, he could hear the footsteps and waking murmurs of those that slept closer to the walls of the common room.
Bryn’s voice was quieter than usual. “I jus’ . . . Sorry ‘bout earlier.”
For a moment, Gerhard inspected Bryn, like they were some kind of strange puzzle, the sort that kept the entrances of temples from being opened by just anyone. With the light outlining their face, they looked the part, too. “What for?”
Bryn pivoted to the side, leaning their back against one of the dummies. “I just get the sense I was dragging you two down.”
Gerhard frowned in silence. Bryn had that irritatingly and worryingly self-deprecating look on their face, the one where their brow crinkled slightly in the middle and their lips were turned slightly upward in more of a grimace than a smile. In truth, they hadn’t been dragging anyone down at all.
“Ah, I dunno,” Bryn continued as if they could hear Gerhard’s thoughts. They seemed to consciously flatten out that crease in their face. “I jus’ think I did better fighting, s’ all.”
Gerhard followed their gaze to the purple shadow of the mountains, in the distance. He pressed his lips together. “I thought you would say something like that.”
He thumbed his walking stick, feeling the rough circles of bark.
“If you want to stay with us . . . you know you’re never a bother, right? But if this place is making you unhappy . . .”
The thought of Bryn being unhappy with them was like a piece of terra cotta rolling into the middle of the forest grove of his mind. All the time they’d spent together since Gerhard had started driving that beaten-up old cart as a war chariot seemed to roll with that slab of red clay. Gerhard could see where the self-deprecation came from – Bryn had always been like this, much to his chagrin and that of everyone who knew them well – but if Bryn no longer wanted to keep company with the Miscreants, then . . .
Bryn shrugged. “D-Don’t worry ‘bout it, hey? ‘S only somethin’ I was thinkin’ ‘bout.”
Gerhard looked up at the pale sliver of the moon, fading away before the sun’s light. The white circle like a fragile veil.