Chapter 5: Rain

She cannot die. She will not die. Surely her father will come for her and whisk her away to a magical place where all is healed? Surely his blood makes her different, more hardy? But she has been wishing for so long, and still he has never made more than the occasional perfunctory visit. She steps into the village, hand over her abdomen, beginning to feel light-headed. There will be a doctor here, somewhere. He thinks she is strange. They all think she is strange. But he will treat her.

As she stumbles up the steps onto the street, her slow eyes take in the sights with confusion; the farmer curls over a body and shuts its eyes with heaving sobs as an unfamiliar man creeps toward him, knife drawn.

“Knox,” she says, her quiet voice as loud as she can manage. The farmer’s head snaps up, locks of brown-black hair whipping around, and he sees the soldier in time.

He roars, and there is a tearing sound, white splitting open and it is just his bedsheets. Knox lurches into a sitting position and pounds his fists onto the downy mattress, eyes casting about wildly for an opponent even as his mind registers with a growing feeling of frustration that he was only dreaming. Just as his heart rate begins dropping, the door cracks open and Agnes pokes her scared face in.

“I… I heard… Well, is all well?”

Knox grunts, muscles taut. “Just leave, Agnes.”

She hesitantly steps into the room. “I could get you a cup of wa-”

Knox hits his still balled fist on the bedside table which shudders under the pressure. It feels good to let out some of the caged aggression. Agnes quickly cuts herself off and scurries out of the room, and he immediately feels drained and guilty. Sighing, he pulls his heavy body out of bed and stares at his hands, slowly unclenching them. The sheet falls from his grip, a messy, frayed rip extending about halfway down the middle.

“I’m going to hurt someone,” he says aloud, his voice hushed and full of horror.

He quickly dresses without even thinking about the clothes he is putting on and takes to the halls aimlessly, thoughts churning. His panicked footsteps bring him outdoors, and several minutes of circling bring him within earshot of  the clashing of swords. He jumps at the sound, then follows it with his eyes and sees young men sparring. For a brief instant they are bloodied and grim, but then he blinks and he sees the smiles, hears them teasing their comrades.

“C’mon, Xav, is that all you got?”

“You’re one to talk, asshole!”

Knox wanders closer. The boys don’t seem to notice him; their feet shuffle around the ground, more dirt patch than grass. He wraps his hands around a railing of the wood fence surrounding the enclosure and watches with fascination as their wrists flick and their bodies contort. He would not think violence to be so elaborate.

“Thinking of joining up?” asks an older man with interest as he sidles to stand next to Knox.

Knox furrows his brow and turns to face his new company. The man’s face is square and plain, the sort you’re sure you’ve seen before but haven’t. Thin creases warp his skin by his eyes and mouth. “Joining up with what?” Knox asks.

The man laughs. “This bucket of junk they call an army, ‘course. My name’s Hotch. People’re supposed to call me General though. Bullshit.”

Knox regards the man uncertainly. “I’m Knox,” he offers. “Honored to meet you, General.” It sounds like an important title, anyway, not that Knox would know.

“Pah!” says Hotch, frowning. He gestures to the closest pair of soldiers. “Watch them.”

They seem to wrap up their fight; the smaller one shoves the pommel of his knife into his opponent’s stomach, making him double over and wheeze, then brings the blade to his throat, whooping gleefully. Knox startles, moving to intervene before realizing the edges are dulled. The victor punches his fist into the air, cackling madly. “What was that about your undefeated streak, smartass? Wanna fucking repeat that?”

His opponent recovers his breath and rolls his eyes. “At least I don’t cheat, eh Xav?”

The pair make their way to a bench near Knox and Hotch, bantering. The smaller one – Xav – quickly straightens up and replaces his grin with a more polite smile when he sees the general, smacking his friend’s arm mid-sentence to elicit a similar effect. As they settle themselves down on the bench, Xav nods to the man. “Mornin’ General Hotch. Do I salute or…?”

“Fuck if I know, y’ lickfinger,” is the Hotch’s amused answer. He turns back to Knox. “See, it’s probably good you weren’t considering. You’d be out of place.”

Xav’s friend runs his eyes over Knox and grins. “I dunno, General, look at that scruff. He’d fit right in.”

“Doing my recruiting for me, Private Archibald?”

Archibald frowns. “Arch, General, it’s Arch…”

Embarrassed, now, Knox runs his hands across his unshaven jaw. “I ‘pologize, I just…”

In the same breath, Xav asks, “Long night?” and Arch asks, “Rough morning?” After a beat of silence the two smirk and thump each other’s shoulders twice with their fists in unison, some sort of secret gesture between friends.

“Er…” Knox rubs the back of his neck. “Yes?”

The three men laugh, and Knox stares at them nonplussed.

“Knox! Brother, I’ve been looking for you!”

Knox turns to look, but he doesn’t need to. He knows Mikhail’s voice. The other three follow his line of sight and Hotch’s face turns impassive, Arch pales, and Xav glances back at Knox and mutters, “Oh, shit.” The two soldiers jump to their feet.

Mikhail steps briskly over and smiles at the gathered men. “Good morning, Knox, General Hotcher. I see you’ve met already.” He glances to the two soldiers. “Good morning, Privates. I trust training is going well.”

Each of them bow as they are addressed, with Knox being no exception. As Arch and Xav nod vigorously, Knox icily responds, “Morning, Prince,” and begins striding away.

Mikhail follows. “Knox! I would speak to you, if you please.”

Knox grits his teeth, thin patience running low. It is difficult to remind himself that Mikhail is royal and should be afforded respect, when he remembers the man as a hopeful farmhand from Connerick.

All lies.

“Of course, Prince,” he says in as controlled a voice as he can manage, stopping in his tracks and turning to face his half-brother.

Mikhail’s smile falters, but remains. “I didn’t see you after the counsel, last night. How are you? What are your thoughts?”

Frustration flares in Knox’s gut. The meeting had shocked him; how could they bury their head in the sand so completely? Laughing bitterly, Knox repeats, “Knife Riverton, Mudwater, Daxville, Renaria, Langa. And Aedra.”

The smile drops from Mikhail’s aristocratic features entirely, wariness replacing his expression. “Knox-”

“No. No. Shut it, just shut it. That’s five towns came before mine. That’s five chances you had to stop what was happening before it came to my town, my family.” Knox doesn’t particularly care that the three military men are still within earshot; he almost laughs as they suddenly become uncomfortable and find other places to be. He continues coldly, “You’re guilty as the soldiers. You killed my people.”

Mikhail glances down at Knox’s hands, and he realized they’ve balled into fists. He wants to swing. In the theater of his mind he pushes Mikhail to the ground, lands one on that delicate, princely face to split his cheek open, punches his teeth in, leaves a shiner – leaves two shiners –

With difficulty, he pulls himself away from the image. The violent urge scares him. He is no stranger to ugly anger hot in his belly but this…

Mikhail is quiet for a moment, then simply says, “You’re right.”

Knox studies his face and finds sincerity in those eyes; the fight goes out of him and he feels limp. Groaning, he crouches to the ground and puts his head in his hands. “Look…” he says. “I don’t know what you’re doin’ exactly. But it sounds like you’re doing somethin’. That’s all I wanted, and I’ve got no part in the rest.”

“Actually,” Mikhail cuts in, “I wanted to talk to you about that.” Knox takes his head from his hands and stares wordlessly, so the prince crouches to his level and continues. “You’re… you’re a fighter, aren’t you?”

Knox might not have said so a week ago though he’d been in a bar brawl or two. But he thinks back to the night that paints his dreams red even now, to the morning before when he brandished a letter opener at the maid, to this morning when he destroyed his bedding. What if it is Charity in his grip and not a piece of cloth? What if a door suddenly opens as he holds Junior in his arms? What if someone surprises him when he has worse than a letter opener at hand?

Tiredly, he nods.

Mikhail presses on. “You can use that. You can fight back. Father and I, we thought you may want a part in it… to lead the soldiers from your area. We would put you on the border-”

“I’d be far from my family?” Knox interrupts.

“It… it would be a bit of a ride, yes, but your soldiers would be from the same area – even some from Aedra. I got word last night that there were several enlistees.”

Knox stands and stares into the sky as it turns to pearl. It would be for the best for him to stay away, he thinks.

“You keep your head in a crisis. You’re watchful, pragmatic-”

“Pragmatic?”

Mikhail takes Knox’s second interruption in stride, clarifying patiently. “Practical. You would be well suited to it, Knox, and anything you needed to learn we could teach you.”

It would be best to channel his rage, Knox thinks.

“Would you do it?”

This is for the best.

Knox nods.

Chapter 4: Lightning

Arc 1: Coming Storm

Chapter 4: Lightning

“This is unexpected.”

A dim part of her mind recognizes the irony in her habit of thinking aloud, recognizes that it is the quintessential Achilles heel for someone of her profession. Still, she starts her thoughts off best with an audible bookend, and as she returns to cleaning, her mind works.

Her orders: ingratiate and observe. It was easy enough to establish herself here, unnoticed and unquestioned. It was a simple matter, hanging around the archaic vents of the castle.

Her orders: do not engage. It’s no trouble to keep mute with the royal family and their nobles. They are kind, which complicates things, but she had expected as much, and in any case theirs is a distant kindness.

Her orders: report. Any who ask why she writes so much mail are told she has a lover, and indeed her correspondences do seem like love letters. One such missive sits folded in the pocket of her apron.

Darling,

Thank you for your sweet words. The other girls can’t compare to you. I am very pleased to know that Paul is feeling well; I do so worry about his ill-tempered health. His body seems to act with a mind of its own. Keep an eye on him for me.

I recently had to spank Felix quite ferociously for hitting another boy outside of boxing club. He is getting quite rowdy and over-eager. Do let me know if Finley says anything about it; I don’t suspect he’ll hear the news, but you know how I value his opinion. As always, if you think he’s caught onto the boxing tournament we’re planning for him, send word so we may make adjustments. It’s very important that we surprise him with it.

A nice gesture of our appreciation for him, don’t you think?

I have been thinking longingly of you and the curls in your hair. I should like to sing a song for you when next I see you.

All the best,
Randall

She does not like being so soppy, but it is an effective cover. Where others see idle chatter she sees business. The praise is good; it means she is invaluable to her motherland and exceeding the usefulness of others in similar positions. This pleases her. It should not please her. She knows she is as strong as her weakest comrade, but some allowance must be made in the chain for human emotion in the end.

Indeed, all is going well, and it is of little consequence, but… The King’s bastard son is not as she imagined him. She saw a cold instinct in his face, and though it was quickly drained and replaced by shock and guilt, the imprint remains. She likes killers, likes the way they see the world as a battle. She did not expect to like the King’s son.

She must remind herself that if the love letters say to fix knife upon throat, that is what she must do. It is best not to get attached. So inspired, she has made plans to take care of an errand tonight which she has delayed too long.

The time becomes the right time. She uncurls herself from her crouch on the floor, dusts her dress off with her hands and places the cleaning supplies in her bucket. After putting the pail in its place, she leaves the castle, head down. She does not tell anyone she is going, though she is supposed to. Nobody will ask after her, and if they do broach the matter she will apologize profusely, tug at her dark hair, stammer, and explain that she is just so brainless that she forgot.

She likes to watch them judge her.

When she steps into her destination, slipping the key back into her pocket, she’s greeted by warmth. The room is cast over with the orange glow of the fireplace as it battles off the settling nip of autumn, and someone is baking bread if her nose is anything to go by, and it is. The strains of a guitar plink to a stop as someone hears the door open. She peers through an ajar door to see the family gathered around in the picture of comfort, guitar in the father’s hand. As she pushes the door open slowly, the woman seated nearby sets aside her sewing, rises, and turns. Her puzzled expression turns to happiness shortly.

“Agnes!” she cries with a cheerful clap. “You came to visit!”

In a rush, the roomful of people rises to greet Agnes, and before long she is sat down with a slice of cake on a plate in her lap, the children gathered around her feet, the woman who has so gladly greeted her at her side. Only the man remains where he is, his solid arms cradling his instrument as he smiles lightly. He’s only a pretty face, but that’s what will be on her conscience at the end of the night. She is out of practice in this.

“I-I’m sorry I took so long to come back…” Agnes offers, putting on the shy girl like a suit. “The job at the palace has kept me so busy! You’d think, an expensive place like that, it would almost clean itself… But it’s such an old, big building… Thank you, though, for getting me the position. I-I don’t mean to sound ungrateful…”

The woman laughs. “Don’t be silly, we know it’s thankless. But we’re glad to help a fellow fugitive.”

Agnes straightens, smiling a little more sharply. “The homeland does not allow unauthorized travel.”

“Believe me, we know. It was such a trial to get out!”

“In particular the homeland does not allow unauthorized travelers to make deals with a certain Lord Pachis.”

It goes as silent as stagnant water. The adults stiffen their backs and tighten their fists; a string on the man’s guitar breaks and the woman recoils from the body contact she has hereto been maintaining. The children look around curiously.

“Girls,” comes the mother’s tight voice, “go upstairs. Do not come down no matter what you hear. Do not make a single peep.”

The youngsters scurry up the steps. Agnes waits until their footsteps stop tapping overhead, then continues, “The penalty for such an action is death.”

“Agnes,” says the man, the first word he has said this whole conversation. He is crying. “How long? Since the start? Even when…?”

Agnes stares at him for a moment. He has served her well.

“From beginning to finish I complete the Chain,” she confirms.

His guitar clatters to the floor as he buries his face in his hands, sobbing. Two men step into the drawing room; Agnes does not turn their way, only waves them to stand behind her guests. Setting her plate aside and rising, she turns to address both of them. Slowly, she reads them their execution sentences. They do not have the decency to face death bravely, she notes with disgust, and it is with gladness and a wonder at why she took so long that she lets her hand fall and the men drag their knives.

“The children?” asks one after the bodies have gone still. Agnes shakes her head.

“Leave the children. You have done well; I will inform the Coupler of your efficiency and restraint.”

As the men bow and slip away, Agnes retrieves the plate she had been given mere moments ago and takes a bite from the cake upon it. “Impressive,” she says, thinking aloud once again.

Chapter 3: Thunder

Arc 1: Coming Storm

Chapter 3: Thunder

At age twenty, Prince Mikhail is ripe for marriage, and Lilah Tiller knows it. He watches her with expertly concealed disgust, smiling lightly as she bats her eyelashes at him. “Won’t you spend some time with me?” she is cooing.

He bows – a shallow thing, but then so is she. “My dear Miss Tiller, had I not the duties of a Prince I may while away some hours by your side, but I’m afraid I have tarried long enough. The Inner calls me.” He is playing the game, making eyes at every side, but it’s always more difficult with Lilah, who is vapid, who he hates, who he will likely be wed to in the end.

She giggles, fanning herself at the mention of his influence. “Why, my Prince! I am shocked you have let me delay you this long, if that is the case.”

Yes, he thinks, so am I. He takes her hand, presses his lips against it mechanically. “One cannot help himself, in good company. Good day, Miss Tiller.” With that, he sweeps from the parlour as quickly as he can.

“Good day, Mikhail!” the girl calls after him impertinently.

He suppresses an eyeroll, even now, not because he worries about being seen but because he must clear his mind. Seek positives. In some ways, it is an enjoyable pastime to put these masks on, to arrange situations to suit him and corall dull minds like Lilah Tiller’s. House Tiller is not known for its brains, but it is the most powerful – second only to the royal House of Montbat. Mikhail’s own House.

Kinder positives. If all goes well, things in this kingdom will be changing for the better. Decades of oppression will be cast off, the chains of traditionalism tossed aside in favor of progress, the people coming into an age of such profound joy that Mikhail quivers to think of it – if the war is waged. If the war is won.

Surer positives. The weather, at least, is refreshing and brisk. His cloak shields him from any bite the cold might have, and the air keeps him cool in his many layers. Autumn is quickly changing colors.

Good enough.

He throws open the doors to the council room as he reaches it, entering without breaking stride, and he flashes his brightest smile at those present. He spoke of being late before, but it was a white lie; there are very few yet gathered here. His father is at the head of the table, and Mikhail is quick to take the seat by his right. Further down the line sit Lord Pachis and Lady Glenn.

Mikhail’s attention is drawn to the door as it opens. In walks Knox. Mikhail had hoped the man would change into something more appropriate, but he’s in the same plain clothes that graced his back this morning. At least they’re clean now. As Knox seats himself, seemingly as far as possible from King Gareth, Mikhail thinks back to their conversation in his room.

“What? What’re you thinkin’?”

“All in good time, my brother.”

“I’m not your brother, and stop bein’ so damn hedgey!”

“You’re still rejecting us?”

“…Quit trying to change the subject.”

The vehement denial had hurt Mikhail, and he can only imagine what Knox’s stubbornness is causing in his father’s heart. But for now, there’s little to be done. Sometimes, he muses, you have to let go of the things you love.

Other lords, from the select oldest or most powerful Houses, file in. A small messenger boy drafts in behind the last, making a beeline to Knox. Murmured words are exchanged and Mikhail catches a few of them: “from Aedra,” “wife,” “thank you.” A folded piece of paper changes hands, and then the boy hurries out, head lowered. Knox looks down to read whatever it is he’s just received, and chokes out a surprised ha! of laughter just as the King stands to begin the meeting. Anything that can make a man like Knox laugh in sour times is worth investigating for no other reason than Mikhail’s personal interest. Mikhail almost doesn’t rise in time with all the other lords to show his father respect, such is his curiosity towards the note.

Knox almost fails entirely to rise, looking around at the standing nobles with a bemused expression before pushing his chair out and straightening with an air of reluctance.

There’s a solemn pause before the King begins to speak. “Are there any not in attendance?”

The scribe sitting at a small table nearby bites his lip, then sighs in relief as Lord Tiller pipes up with, “All are in attendance, Your Majesty. You issued an absolute summons.”

“Ah, yes, so I did.”

Mikhail feels a hint of annoyance at his father, regent or not. The man tries so hard, but he is not much for protocol… Or, Mikhail privately thinks, for leadership.

It’s the sort of sentiment that would merit punishment even for a Prince if said aloud.

Lord Godoy leans over to whisper something in Lord Orbeli’s ear; Orbeli laughs. Their gazes travel over to Knox, who meets them with his own challenging stare, the bloody fool.

“Yes, so I did,” the King repeats. “Well, I wrote in my letter about the current situation. What happened on our soil. Prince Knox is in attendance to give a first-hand account. If you would, Knox…?”

“Father,” Mikhail murmurs gently, tilting his head at the men (and solitary woman) standing about.

“Oh, yes!” exclaims King Gareth. “All may be seated,” he says, lowering his heavy body into his own chair.

There is a bustling and scrape of feet and furniture. When the room settles into stillness once more, Gareth gestures to Knox and says, “Son?”

Mikhail watches Knox carefully. Anger, grief, and perhaps a hint of nerves flit across it, for reasons Mikhail can only guess. The farmer-prince-whichever clears his throat. “Right. Well. It… It started when I was ‘sleep. Asleep. It started when I was asleep.” He shakes his head as if to knock his informal speech out of it.

“I woke up because I heard knocking on my door. No, it was more like pounding. It was so loud.” Knox swallows, face pale. “I was slow to get to the door. The noise woke the baby up, Charity went over to soothe it and me?” He laughs bitterly. “Me, I started to put clothes on. Called out that I’d be there in a mo’, but she said it had to be now. Etta, I mean. She was the one at the door.”

Knox pauses a beat longer than appropriate, then continues. “She was crying. I’d never seen her crying before, she’s soft as a sword so I knew it wasn’t good. She told me that… Annie was gone, and about the soldiers, that they were coming this way, and then Charity was crying too, and the baby, and everyone was crying, so I just… couldn’t. And I told Charity to take Junior to the beach house and tell Ida, and hide, and stay there. And I told Etta to help me get everyone else there too. She’d take one side of the town, I’d take the other…

“We didn’t have anythin’ in the way of weapons, but we went to the smith first anyway, to check. He got a gleam in his eyes I’ve sometimes seen. Wasn’t happy, but it wasn’t disagreeable either. He had a stash like you never saw before. There were guns. Well, Etta took half and I took half and we split up, tryin’ t’ arm folks and get them to the beach house too. We’d figured the soldiers wouldn’t go there real quick.

“Problem was, they weren’t taking their time, so… They came stormin’ through my half, an’ I fought them but I couldn’t save everyone, I couldn’t do enough and-”

Knox’s voice breaks. He falls silent for a moment, tilting his head back and blinking several times, then recovers and continues. “A handful of us made it to the beach to meet up with Etta’s group, and then they came that way. Shot through walls, tried to throw flaming torches into the house but our people put those fires out right quick and once we took a bunch of ‘em down they… gave up, I s’pose. They left.”

It’s quiet for what feels like eons. Mikhail feels tense; he knows this is when foolish men will pick apart an honest man’s account and invent reasons for it to not mean what it means. He knows he hasn’t prepared Knox for it, not enough. He prays for a miracle.

A miracle is not to be had.

Lord Godoy speaks first, addressing Knox. “What suggested to you that these men were Rendelese soldiers?”

Knox bristles. “They came from the south and attacked us. Who else would they be?”

Godoy holds up a hand as if to calm Knox down. “It is certainly possible they were soldiers from Rendel, but it is just as possible that they were bandits, or-”

“They wore the uniform. With the symbol, the… the chain link. Right on their hearts,” Knox says bitterly.

It’s silent for a beat, and then Godoy counters with, “How do we know those soldiers were not acting on their own accor-”

“Oh for the Highest Kings’ sakes, Godoy, are you really going to debate something like that?” Mikhail bursts out, exasperated.

The smirk Mikhail receives in response heralds a dull headache. Lord Godoy leans forward, thin fingers clasping together as his long, dark hair sweeps in front of his face. “I would hate to wage war on a country with no malintent, my Prince.”

“Down, Vasco,” says Lord Pachis. Vasco Godoy’s face sours, and he leans back in his chair. Mikhail takes some satisfaction in seeing the man bite his tongue, but he’s wary of Pachis, who is always too quiet to not be planning something.

Franklin Tiller, who at the very least is smarter than his daughter, clears his throat. Mikhail and the Lords surrounding him turn their gazes on the man, who smiles and rests his hand on his large belly. “All this talk of whether it was Rendel… What I’m not seeing is a why. Rendel has no issue with us; they could not possibly have attacked.”

Knox stands and stares at Lord Tiller, shaking with anger before seeming to remember where he is and sitting down. Mikhail lets out the breath he was holding as Knox says in a voice that is careful but straining, “You think I’m lyin’?”

Tiller fixes a sympathetic stare on the man. “With all you went through, I’m sure it is hard to keep details straight-”

“I know what I saw!”

Hastily, Mikhail jumps in, hoping to defuse the situation and still move the conversation forward. “Aedra is not the first instance of violence on the border we share with Rendel.” He sees Knox whip his gaze around to pierce him, but presses on. “Knife Riverton, Mudwater, Daxville, Renaria, Langa. Three of those were burned to the ground, no survivors.”

“So there are some bandits raiding border towns,” Tiller fires back, but Mikhail will have none of it.

“In soldiers’ uniforms?”

“They can wear whatever they bloody well want, but there’s still no motive-”

Pachis’ quiet voice intercedes with a smug tone. “Rendel is slowly approaching famine. Surely you, Lord Tiller, with your farming empire, would understand why a rationing country might wish to conquer a fertile land such as Findal.”

Tiller frowns, confused. “We have a trade agreement with Rendel… We send them food regularly.”

Pachis smiles. “Do we?”

Mikhail casts a glance at his father, who looks uncomfortable, mouth open as if he would speak but is unsure of what to say. In his place, the Prince redirects. “The point is, Rendel has been spilling our people’s blood all year. They have a history founded on spilling our blood. Rendel has never been our friend and the tenuous peace we had with them is coming to an end. If we do nothing, they will grind us into dust.”

“Even if we don’t do nothing, they will grind us into dust,” mutters Lord Godoy.

“Don’t say that. You don’t know that,” Mikhail counters.

Godoy snorts. “They’re the single largest military force in the world! Are you mad?”

Mikhail sighs, rubbing his face. “I’m not mad, Lord Godoy, and I’m not blind either. Rendel is coming with their military whether we rise to face them or not. I’d rather rise.” Peering through his fingers, Mikhail surveys the room.

Neither Lord Orbeli nor Lady Glenn have spoken. Mikhail expected it of Orbeli, but military and seafaring have long been the purview of House Glenn, and he assumed the Lady would have more to say. But then, Findal hasn’t maintained a standing army in centuries, and the girl is young, having taken on the mantle after her mother’s premature death. She looks tired and terrified.

Godoy and Pachis are whispering to each other. Godoy’s an arse, but he’s an honest arse. Pachis on the other hand looks far too pleased with himself. He’d brushed a line, Mikhail knows – had touched on a secret he shouldn’t have even known – and the Prince isn’t sure what retribution should be brought down on his head but he hopes to have no part in it.

Tiller looks thoughtful for a change, but then that might not be a good thing.

Knox is slowly clenching and unclenching his fists, which Mikhail knows to be a bad sign. The man fidgets in his seat, tongue working in his mouth, until finally he speaks. “I’m a simple man. I’m a farmer. And I don’t know about your politickin’. But I do know that when something attacks you, you fight back or you run or you die. And when something attacks you that’s bigger’n you, you fight smart or you run or you die. But y’ can’t really run from a war.” His hands continue to squeeze in on themselves as he speaks, which means there’s something else weighing on him. At least, that’s what Mikhail thinks it means. He hopes he’s soon to find out.

After a silence, Lord Pachis leans forward and traces his finger around the border of Rendel on the embroidered map set on the table under a layer of glass. “Rendel maintains the largest military, but they are not the largest land.” His fingers travel to Findal. “We are the largest land. We have more men; it is only a matter of putting weapons in their hands.”

“And training them,” says Lady Glenn. She too is studying the map, though her small figure is quivering. Pachis nods.

“But who would work the land, then?” asks Tiller. “Pachis, you should understand. It wouldn’t be good for you, either; who would work the people? Who would be left to craft or trade?”

“The young and the old. The women,” says Pachis. He glances at Glenn. “The ones who don’t work already, that is. If we work closely with the Silver Tongues-”

Godoy snorts, Orbeli pales, and Mikhail himself frowns, feeling uneasy. Pachis continues undeterred.

“If we work closely with the Silver Tongues, we may be able to minimize the amount of work needed.”

Mikhail looks down at his clasped hands, thin brows drawn together as he considers. “The Tongues are… difficult to read. One can never be sure just what they are capable of, and I prefer our direct work with them be limited. However…” He sighs and nods. “It is necessary.”

There are several reluctant nods mirroring his own. King Gareth clears his throat. “Gentlemen, I have heard your concerns on all sides. We cannot ignore the threat from the South, but we cannot act hastily, either. I am, therefore, enacting a vote to mobilize for, but not declare or instigate, war. House Montbat says aye.”

Mikhail nods appreciatively. He and his father had discussed it beforehand. They had gone over the nobles and their likely objections a dozen times and rehearsed this compromise. The meeting, really, was more a formality than anything.

One by one the Lords cast their votes.

“Hang you all! Oh, alright. House Tiller votes aye.”

“House Pachis votes aye.”

Lord Godoy frowns and does not speak immediately, sighing as Pachis fixes him with an expectant stare. “House Godoy votes aye.”

“House Orbeli votes nay!”

Mikhail quirks a brow. It is quiet for a moment, and the King helpfully prompts the room. “And House Glenn?”

The girl is staring down into her lap, fingers twisted into the fabric of her dress. “House Glenn…” she begins, but then trails off.

“Yes?”

“…House Glenn abstains.”

There is a collective shrug among the room’s inhabitants. Gareth stands. “There it is, Lords. Lady Alana. We will prepare. Shall we convene to discuss details over dinner?”

There are nods and murmurs of assent, Orbeli sourfaced and Pachis sanguine, Glenn frightened and Tiller resolute. Godoy scoffs. “I agreed to it happening, but I want no part in it,” he says. “I’ll be heading home, myself.”

Gareth looks alarmed. “What? No – Lord Godoy, if we are to prepare for war-times than your knowledge in medicine will be most invaluable. I entreat you to join us.”

Godoy’s unpleasant face looks slightly less unpleasant than usual; Mikhail suspects he enjoys the stroking of his ego. “If you insist, Your Highness.”

The King beams. “Yes, well, until tonight then, my friends. The castle halls and grounds are yours, as is all the hospitality House Montbat is known for. Please, make yourself at home or attend to any business you have within the Capital.”

“Father,” Mikhail murmurs, prompting.

“Oh, yes! All may rise. You are dismissed.”

Mikhail, for his part, sighs.

The Lords and Lady don’t immediately file out; many gather together, speaking amongst themselves. Mikhail steps closer to his father. “Walk with me?”

Gareth peers down at his son curiously and nods, beginning to stride toward the large glass door opening into the royal gardens. “Something you want to talk to me about, son?”

Mikhail just smiles until they are safely among the flora, then speaks. “It’s Knox. He… Have you noticed he isn’t in his element?”

Gareth sighs heavily. “Who hasn’t? I had hoped he would take to this life, but he seems unhappy. Has he spoken to you about our offer?”

“He intends to reject it.”

“I cannot say I am surprised. In confidence, my son, I must admit to you… I am scared. If he returns home, what is to stop him from severing all ties with us? How can I earn his love if he simply… disappears into the foothills?”

Mikhail shares the sentiment, but his father’s vulnerability makes him want to frown, or laugh, or rage. He isn’t quite sure which. Keeping his features neutral, he responds, “You are the King. You may command those around you to enact your will.”

Said king looks uncomfortable. “I am aware, son. But… that is no way to reach a man like Knox.”

Mikhail knows that. He wishes the man before him had a firmer grasp of his power, though. “I have an alternative.”

Gareth peers down and waits patiently.

“It isn’t foolproof,” Mikhail continues. “But it’s something. We compromise, the same as we do in the Inner Council. We accept that we will not be able to keep him here in City High with us, and we instead offer him a position more in line with his skill set… something that will at least keep him linked to us by service.”

“You’re speaking of a military position.”

“Indeed. Nothing flashy – a lieutenant, perhaps, or even a captain. He has the mind for it, Father, you heard it for yourself.”

“It is an enticing proposal… Our army is organized by location.”

“It is.”

“He is respected in his area.”

“He is.”

“I should have thought of it myself. Thank you, Mikhail,” says Gareth with a smile, patting the young man’s shoulder. “We’ll speak with him tonight.”

Chapter 2: Wind

As We Knew it

Arc 1: Coming Storm

Chapter 2: Wind

A breeze could knock her over.

That’s how Charity feels, at least. With all that has happened, she is shocked that her feet are still somehow attached to the ground. But it’s the Highest Kings that keep mankind on the earth, and they do not blink their eyes at their subjects’ strife or suffering.

So she stays upright.

Most everyone has converged upon either the hospital or the beach-house, depending on their healthiness, and Charity is no exception. She stands by the shattered window, hands on the sill as if to brace her, and inhales the smell of brine, watching waves wash the sand. Behind her, others are stirring. All of them are no doubt stiff from their sleep on the hard floor, except perhaps Ida and Austin who haven’t slept at all. Charity glances back at Junior, who is sleeping in the same blankets she has just vacated. She couldn’t imagine losing him. She wants to say it was her love that kept him safe, but then she doesn’t think Ida and Austin loved their son any less than she loves hers.

The viscera don’t just disappear after a massacre. Someone has to clean them up. Charity had not wanted to be one of those people, but duty and a certain sense of shame changed her mind. She couldn’t stop puking at first, horrified and overwhelmed by the task at hand, but after the first few hours, it became a little easier. Still, now that the task is done, she feels too drained to mourn properly.

She envisions Knox padding across the floor to stand behind her and wrap his arms around her waist from behind, kissing her cheek. The act might have been enough to tear down the numbness, but the thought merely tinges it with longing. She is not alone, though.

A woman sits up among the sleeping figures and starts to rub her face. Somewhere in the middle of this, a sob shakes her frame, and she covers her face with her hands, breathing deeply. After a moment, she rises and reaches for a nearby bundle of clothes, beginning to dress. Charity watches the reflection in a shard of glass still clinging to the window frame. The dressing woman glances at her.

“Charity… Do you need to go anywhere? Er… your father’s house? I can watch Little Knox for you.”

Charity manages a smile. “You may regret that when he wakes up.”

The woman doesn’t laugh. “Not even he would make trouble today.”

After a moment of silence, Charity sighs and responds. “Yes, I should visit. Thank you, Elvira.”

The woman being addressed nods as Charity straightens her spine, smooths her dress, and leaves.

As she steps carefully over the sand and toward the stairs up to the road, she tries to pinpoint the last time she entered her father’s house. Not during the aftermath: she had tried, but after standing unmoving by the door for what seemed like hours, Knox took her aside and gently told her to sit this one out. She had nodded, dazed.

It’s not long before she finds herself there again. She doesn’t pause, doesn’t take a moment to stand and collect herself. She knows if she stops here, she’ll never go in. So, without breaking stride, she pushes the door open and enters the foyer.

Here, she does stop, stricken by how everything seems in place, unchanged, like nothing ever happened. The door swings shut slowly behind her as she stares at three mugs hanging on the wall, one noticeably dustier than the other two.

She supposes all three will collect dust, now.

The last time she visited this house must have been Junior’s birthday, just a couple weeks ago. Her father’s face was lined, but he’d been as spry as usual, just as poised and bright as when she was a sickly girl. When Knox came out of the house, shook his head, and hugged her – knowing, of course, that she had held out hope that her father had survived despite what she had seen – she hadn’t been able to cry or break down, and she still can’t. She has a child of her own to think of.

Slowly, she makes her way up the stairs, to her father’s bedroom and study area. This floor is less surreal – there are items missing or broken from the struggle. The mattress is gone from the bed. The study, at least, is untouched, and it is with trepidation that she enters. Even after she had grown into a woman, she had always shied away from her father’s study; he seemed to resent intrusions. Now that he’s gone she supposes it’s moot, and she’s hoping to find… well, she’s not sure. Letters? A journal? Any relic of him will do, really.

His desk is as cluttered as she remembers it. Idly, she picks up a stray paper and casts her eyes over it, scanning. Something in it catches her attention: “debt.”

Mayor Godfrey,

In previous letters you have expressed your concerns over what you termed “debt.” My good man, it is not a “debt” you will be incurring but an investment! An investment in your town’s very future! You would pay back any necessary loans in a trifling instant, and then continue to improve Aedra besides. Surely you have not wasted my time with fruitless consultation?

I have enclosed a contract with this correspondence. Do sign and return.

Your sincerest partner in business,
Alexander Pisan

Charity groans. She had always considered her father to be a good mayor, wise and cautious, but she had never seen these letters. She is afraid to keep searching his desk. If she finds more of them, it’s a good indicator that her father was not the most fiscally judicious. His ledger would confirm. She should have known he was too soft-hearted to rat out a con man. In most ways, she sees herself as very much her father’s daughter, but there is a shrewdness to her that he never possessed. It could only ever have come from her mother.

In the wake of her father’s death, Charity has made many of the big decisions for the town. There may have been others better suited, namely the minor nobility presiding in the area. But Baron Basil Fitzroy had never much cared for responsibility, and his daughter Rosemary, for all her usual bossiness, was stricken with silence and uncertainty when this magnitude confronted her.

The town is so small, Charity thinks, frowning and staring at the letter still in her hand. Father never had to have any procedure to these things. He just… did what worked. With him gone, nobody seems to know who to answer to. But, Charity determines as she slips the letter into her pocket and sighs, the Crown would certainly point to the nobility. So it is Rosemary she seeks out next.

She finds the Baroness standing in the wide, chipped doorway to her villa. Heirloom vases lie shattered on the floor, bottles of fine wine have been smashed against banisters and left in shards on the stairs, and priceless paintings are slashed and rent. Rosemary watches her maid with an expression that’s difficult to read as the uniformed girl begins sweeping the mess, gives up, and then renews her motivation in an unproductive cycle.

“Milady,” begins Charity to announce her presence. Rosemary turns and stares, still with that ambiguous expression. At a glance, it seems blank, perfectly neutral, but a closer look reveals some singular thing happening behind those eyes. It discomfits Charity, but she presses on politely. “Have you had word from your father?”

“No.”

“…Ah. As I understand it, he claimed his seat in the Middle at last and has left for the capital.”

“Yes.”

“Then you are handling the estate and surrounding lands?”

“Yes.”

Charity sighs at the girl’s haughty brevity. “The town’s in a difficult place, milady, and not just with that night. With milord gone and the mayor… gone, we’ve got no leaders.” She makes a face. “I was raised well, but I am still only a farmer’s wife. I don’t know who is meant to take charge now, but I assume… it is milady.”

Rosemary’s mouth twists into a pout, her arms crossing. “I don’t want to.”

Charity manages not to shake her head. She channels her frustration into focus, and her focus onto something small – good posture. She already stands straight, hands clasped gently, head slightly inclined, but now she makes sure there is never a lapse. “Then what are we to do?” she says evenly.

Rosemary thinks about it. “An election. For a new mayor. You can tell them all I decreed it.”

Charity nods. “Very well, milady.”

Rosemary makes a sudden noise of dismay, pressing a hand to her chest and sinking onto the stone steps, surreptitiously brushing aside a piece of rubble to do so. “Really! Call me Lady Rosemary! This is a small town; there is no point to pretense.”

Charity almost feels glad to see the dramatic showing with all its familiarity. With a smile, she dips her head. “Of course, Lady Rosemary.” And with that, she takes her leave.

Her path takes her through the farm. It’s a sorry sight, the blackened frame of what was, days ago, Charity’s home. About half the field is reduced to ashen remnants of crops that were once close to harvesting, and unless her eyes see things that aren’t there, two figures are trudging across the devastated expanse. Brows drawing together with concern, she picks up her skirts and rushes over.

“Wait! Who goes… Austin? Ida?”

The two smile at her sheepishly when she identifies them, turning to greet her. “Yes,” says Ida softly. She looks up at Austin. “Maybe we should have asked her first?” The man shrugs.

“I… What?” A confused frown tugs Charity’s face down. “Ask me what?”

Austin clears his throat. “We’d like to work the farm,” he says. “If you’ll let us!” Ida adds.

Charity looks at them, thinking. Knox had left instructions with her to hire farmhands, but until now she hadn’t given it much thought. There was so much else to do. “Why, if I may ask?”

There’s an uncomfortable silence. “Well,” begins Austin, “my cows all got split open and left to die.”

Charity nods, a grimace twisting her features. “Ours as well.”

He grunts. “And… and I think Ida feels the same… well, everywhere is just a little too familiar right now.” Ida nods and whispers, “With him gone.”

Sympathy floods through Charity once more for the parents’ plight. “You’ll be paid,” she says, extending a hand. There is a heavy silence before Austin shakes it. She can’t quite place what it is full of, but it doesn’t seem like the gratitude she would have expected.

She watches them closely as they pick their tools back up and move along. Their forms are tense, but she has other places to be right now. She too is a mother.

When she reaches the beach and walks into the impromptu community quarters, she is immediately tackled with all the force a five-year-old can muster. Chuckling, she lifts the boy up onto her hip.

“You’re getting a bit big for this,” is her quiet greeting.

“NO, Mommy! I’m just right. You’re too small,” is his not-so-quiet greeting.

She laughs a little louder. “Sometimes I think you’re right!”

Her babysitter stands a few steps away, smiling tiredly. “You weren’t kidding. He really is a ball of energy.”

“He slept through a lot of what happened,” Charity offers.

he woman’s smile drops. “Lucky boy.”

“Mommy, can we play outside?”

Charity thinks of casings, of glass shards, of accidentally skipped viscera. Her heart skips a beat. “No, sweetie, we need to stay in for now.”

“Like how long?”

“For a while.”

“Yeah but how long?”

“It might be a few days, sweetheart.”

She winces as her son begins to wail. At that moment, a young man of maybe sixteen years, one she doesn’t recognize, peers through the broken window and then disappears, knocking upon the door. Warily, she opens it a crack.

“Yes?” she says, perhaps a little brusquely.

“I-I have a delivery for Charity South? Connerick got a bird from the Capital.” The boy struggles to make his mild voice heard over the toddler’s crying.

Charity throws the door open, causing the boy to squawk a little and jump out of its trajectory. In his hand is a folded note. She holds her hand out for it. He hesitates. “I’m Charity,” she says impatiently. “Knox South is my husband, we lived on the farm south of here.” He places the missive in her open palm, and she promptly shuts the door, trying to slow her racing heart and wondering if she’ll ever trust a stranger again.

She takes a deep breath, then bounces Knox Jr. on her hip, shushing him softly. “A letter from Daddy, Junior!”

With a few fake sniffles and half-hearted yells, he settles down. “Did he, did he, did he say anything about me?”

Charity opens the note with one hand a little awkwardly and scans her eyes over the words, not sure whether to frown or laugh. “Yes,” she says, bending down and setting the child’s feet onto the floor. “He says he loves you very much.” It’s a gapingly loose paraphrase, but no less true for it. Knox has never been good at adjusting his topics of conversation to assume Junior will overhear.

Hastily, Charity opens the door again. “Wait!” she calls out to the messenger, who is a few feet down the path. He stops and turns, puzzled, and she beckons him over. “I’ll be right back,” she says, and disappears back into the house. “Writing, writing, I need a quill,” she mutters. Somebody hands her one. She thanks them distractedly and holds the parchment against the wall, tip poised, then sighs. “Ink, I need ink too.”

“No,” says her benefactor. Soren, the librarian. “It’s enchanted.”

“Oh.” It must be precious to him, or expensive at the least, Charity thinks, and she makes a mental note to do something nice for the man later. She drags the tip along the page, and ink flows without ever having dipped. It’s disconcerting, but she continues regardless.

It’s just a short phrase in response. She’ll write a proper letter later. But for now, this should make her husband laugh. High Kings know the man could use something to crack that stoic front he puts up.

She returns the quill to Soren and walks to the open door. “Here,” she says, handing the mail boy a coin along with the letter, her note scrawled on the back. “Please return to sender.” He bows and turns to leave. Charity shuts the door, this time with finality, and draws her son close to her, looking at the gathered villagers and wondering how things will ever go back to normal.

Chapter 1: Clouds

As We Knew it

Arc 1: Coming Storm

Chapter 1: Clouds

She survives the slash to the throat, which seems to her miraculous until she has to live through what comes after. It’s a noiseless shriek, a muffled sob, a grunt of enjoyment, and the scraping escape of a body pulling itself out the window. Her housemate hits the leaf-strewn ground bodily, bolts upright, then runs outside the limits of her frame, able that it is. She knows she has to go north, north, north like a chant, north like a worn-down hymn. As a glow of flame tints the sky behind her with plumes of smoke, she runs past crop-sown fields and skids to a halt, banging on the farmhouse door.

Knox startles awake, swinging out a fist, knocking over the water basin on the bedside table. Swearing, he leaps from bed, pulling his nightshirt off to crudely wipe up the mess. There is no smoke on the wind. There is no fire in the distance. There is no-one panting at the door. Only water puddled on the stone brick floor, threatening to dampen the plush rug inches away.

The bedroom door opens, and a maid peeks her head in. “I heard noises, Prince Knox. Is all well?”

“’s fine. Just spilled water, I got it. And don’t call me-”

“Oh! No, no, let me!” she interrupts. Pulling a rag from the pocket of her nightgown – Are castle workers ready to clean even when they sleep? he wonders – she shoos him away. He sighs and abides, sitting himself back onto his bed. When she finishes wiping the floor dry, she stands, reclaims the basin from the floor, and says, “I’ll refill this for you, Prince Knox.”

“You don’t hafta… And really, don’t call me-”

As she walks out the door, she chirps, “I’ll bring a fresh nightshirt, too, Prince.”

“For the love of the Highest Kings, I’m not a Prince!” he calls after her, a little hopelessly.

Whatever else there is, the closing of the door is greeted with relief. He slumps, pinches the bridge of his nose. As if living through it himself wasn’t bad enough, his sleeping mind continues to recreate that night through the eyes of all involved, one by one…

He can’t possibly go back to sleep after this. He never can, after the nightmares, and the accumulation of four hour nights is not helping him in his present situation.

Sighing, he stands and approaches the room’s writing desk, fumbling around the surface for matches. Finding them, he strikes one into flame and holds it to the wick of the nearby lantern. Eyes squinting against the sudden light, he twists the knob so it burns low – no sense in wasting oil – and sits down. There is an ink well built into the desk, and an ornate feather quill lays beside it. It never ceases to amaze him, how fully equipped the many rooms of the castle are.

Just as he reaches for the writing utensil, the door pops open, pushing his heart up into his throat as he startles in his seat, seizing and brandishing a nearby letter opener and before realizing it’s only the maid again. She squeaks, miraculously not dropping the bowl in her hands, then apologizes for surprising him, saying with a tinge of fright, “I should know better than to sneak up on men like you.”

He doesn’t ask what she means. He doesn’t need to. He just sets the improvised weapon down and hangs his head.

She places a fresh washing basin on the bedside table and pats his shoulder after a moment’s hesitation, then leaves. He wrenches himself out of his wallowing and finally takes the quill, pulling paper to him and writing.

Dear Charity,

I miss you. Only been here a day and they are already trying to make me stay more. They want me to be an advizer. What am I to advize them of? I am good at living quietly, happily, with my wife and my son and with my hands in the dirt. Nothing else. If they think I will take their stupid offer they are wrong. I just want to come back to you. I hope I will soon. His Highness wants to meet Junior, wants to call him grandson. I do not want to make a King angry, but I think I would rather die than have Junior exposed to this. There is so much extra. That is the best word I know for it. Not extra like a big dinner by the fire. Extra that is waisted and pointless.

I think it was a mistake to leave. The blood hadn’t even dried. I can already hear you telling me not to be so morbid, so I will stop there, but I know you know my thinking.

The meeting is today. I guess they needed to give everyone time to get here. It feels strange, being asked to attend a counsel of the Inner. Everyone here is calling me a Prince and giving me special treatment, but I am just a farmer.

The sooner I leave here, the better. I will write again soon.

Kisses,
Knox.

He folds the missive in half and rises from his chair, stretching. It is early enough that his clothes have not been laid out for him – a practice he has yet to grow accustomed to, and certainly would not engage in if he knew where to get them himself. Shrugging, Knox slips into the simple affair he wore on arrival, folded on the nightstand after being cleaned. They are simple garments, but that’s how he likes it. As he leaves his chamber and makes a beeline for the staircase, the thought of how his estranged family will react to his choice of wear brings a satisfied smirk to his face.

Knox rounds a corner onto a landing, then stops short upon seeing a figure looking out the window, gold glinting around his waist and cloak brushing the floor, colors dark and fabrics fine. The figure turns his head, and Knox recognizes him.

“Mikhail.”

The man in question smiles. “Knox, my brother. You’re up with the birds.”

Knox bites back a blistering comment on Mikhail’s familial terms, keeping his tone neutral. “Yes. Good mornin’, Prince.” With that, he starts up the rest of the staircase.

He does not stop when Mikhail calls his name.

After several more flights Knox reaches the Kit – a room at the top of the tower, with wide openings in the wall baring the room to the chill of autumn and full of caged pigeons. In neat script over each cage, the city that the enclosed pigeon delivers to is engraved. A handful are simply marked with a star, and these are locked; few people carry a key. They are magically augmented pigeons that may deliver anywhere – one of the most complex and difficult Spoken achievements. The birds are priceless.

That’s what Knox overheard the servants saying, anyway.

Knox does not have one of those coveted keys, so he slips his letter into one of the small bags kept in a basket by the door, takes a nearby quill, and scrawls on the label:

Charity South
Farmhouse, Aedra

His directions given, he approaches one of the cages labeled “Connerick” and opens it, coaxing the bird onto his hand. Gently, but clumsily, he ties his delivery to the bird’s leg and holds it out one of the spacious windows. With a ruffling of feathers, it is off.

Knox watches it go from bird to dot to invisible in the pale dawn, then stays a little longer to watch the sun slide up the smokestack over the city wall. He thinks longingly of the trees back home. Is this what it’s like in Rendel, the nation to the south, or in parts of Qu’an which skirts the desert? Even this place, City High, is “quaint” and lacking in technology, but he is used to his rustic town where the hedgespeaker accounts for what otherwise is missing.

His stomach rumbles, rousing him. Sighing, he descends the stairs to face the day – and, hopefully, some breakfast. After finding his way back to his room, he is pleased to see the maid – not because she is cleaning, but because he has a question for her.

“Where’s the kitchens?” he asks, smiling when he notices her give him a surprised once-over. “I like these clothes better,” he offers by way of explanation.

She shrugs, lowering her eyes. “The kitchens are just outside the castle – but your breakfast is here, my Prince, at the table.”

“I’m not a Prince,” he says stubbornly, though not with much fire. “Please, just… talk t’ me like I’m normal. I’ll go crazy elsewise.” He glances at the table and sure enough there’s a simple fare of bread and water.

The girl stammers, her tucking of the bedsheets slowing. “I-I’m n-not sure that’s a good idea… Prince.”

He sits down. “Why not?”

“I might get in trouble for such a thing, my Prince.”

He takes a bite of his bread and chews in thought as the maid fluffs a pillow nervously. “What’s your name?” he asks after swallowing.

“Agnes, my Prince.”

“Hallo, Agnes. I’m Knox. If others’re around you can treat me like some prince, but otherwise, I’m just a farmer. How’s that sound?”

“…A-alright. If that’s what you prefer, I guess that’ll be fine…”

He winks at her. “You’re an angel, Agnes.”

She flushes and picks up her pail and rag, starting to curtsy but stopping herself. Instead, she inclines her head. “I’ll be going, then.” She retreats from the room.

Knox takes another bite of his bread. “Well, that’s one problem down,” he says to himself, mouth full.

“But there’s still the small problem of a war on our hands, yes?” The voice rings out crisply, its owner leaning in the doorway with a small smile on his face.

Knox’s face sours to see Mikhail a second time. Swallowing, he shrugs. “There’s that.” In truth, the idea sickens him; his gut seems to drop from his body when he so much as thinks about it. But a faraway battle can’t measure up to what had already occurred just three nights ago. “Why are you here?”

Mikhail enters the room, sitting at the table with Knox. “I wanted to prepare you. For the Council.”

Annoyance stabs through him. “I’m not a dope, Mikhail, I don’t need you schoolin’ me.”

The prince raises his hands. “I know, I know. I only wanted to make sure we were… singing from the same songsheet, yes?”

“And what songsheet’s that?”

Mikhail seems to hesitate before speaking. “The Council will want to know about… about what happened.”

Knox sighs. Taking another bite of his bread, he ruminates, letting the silence draw out for a moment. He can’t blame Mikhail for his apprehension, or for faltering. There are no words to describe what had torn its way through his memory. Attack, massacre, bloodbath, battle – they don’t call to mind the way blood had stained Annie’s pale hair pink, or the tremble in Ida’s hand as it closed her son’s staring eyes.

He has yet to talk about it. But for retribution, he will. “Yes,” he says. “We’re singin’ from the same songsheet.”

“Good,” says Mikhail, letting out the breath he was holding. “Good.”

For a moment, Knox feels no animosity. Only quiet mourning and a certain sense of awe that the sun still rose today, in spite of it all. It’s a long time before he speaks again. “I’m not going to be an advisor.”

Mikhail’s eyebrows tug upward like they’ve been caught by a pair of fishhooks. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

The animosity that had lifted so briefly falls back into Knox, making him roll his eyes in spite of himself. “What would I advise you of? I don’t know anything. I can tend to my crops, I’m a fair hand in a fight, and a good friend. That’s all. I don’t belong here.”

Mikhail strokes his clean-shaven chin. “You do seem out of your element,” he admits reluctantly.

Knox laughs; it’s a brief sound of disbelief. “You think?” But he’s uncomfortable. Mikhail has the look of someone who’s just had an idea.

And that can’t mean anything good.