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.”
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,
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?”
“…Ah. As I understand it, he claimed his seat in the Middle at last and has left for the capital.”
“Then you are handling the estate and surrounding lands?”
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.