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.
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.
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?”
Gerhard and Bryn? They came with me.”
nodded, reassured. “I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want any of William’s men
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.”
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
“You were the
one who ended Korvus, weren’t you? I doubt a noble would protest a role like
palace guard for you.”
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
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.
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.
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
“Did you know
Dene Skyroot is babbling to everyone about how she shook hands with you, gloves
look at him, opening the door with a click. “But she didn’t.”
“Well, no one
will believe that now!”
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
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
is your captain doing?” William said.
plants,” Gerhard said, civilly.
said a word since we got here.” William folded his arms. “And come to think of
it, they never talk in meetings.”
sir, it’s late in the night.”
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
a letter soon,” Lucretia whispered, close enough for Golzar to hear, before she
released her. Golzar could only nod stiffly and bow.
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.
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?”
shining like olives in the moonlight, turned to look at her curiously.
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?
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
“You know, if
even Ariga is givin’ William the silent treatment . . . ‘s gotta be the end of
“We’ll have to check the sky early tomorrow,” she declared. “Make sure fire and
ash aren’t raining down on us.”
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.
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
“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.”
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.
time, with them separated slightly, Golzar drew the reins on her own stallion
and drew close to Gerhard.
she glanced at Bryn’s turned back. Gerhard met her gaze, and nodded. He would
talk to them later.
a sigh of relief. Above, the stars glowed white and said nothing.
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.
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
Gerhard set to
putting Bob, the first training dummy from the left, upright. “You coming?” he
called over his shoulder.
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
He looked at
Bryn, a small smile on his face.
Bryn sighed. “You
wanna say it, jus’ say it.”
call me out here to help you move the dummies.”
“And you don’t want me to talk about ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is.”
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?”
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.
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.”
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.”
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 . . .
“D-Don’t worry ‘bout it, hey? ‘S only somethin’ I was thinkin’ ‘bout.”
up at the pale sliver of the moon, fading away before the sun’s light. The
white circle like a fragile veil.