Vaun has returned to his kingdom to make his report to King Elden, who is also his brother. The news that he has brought an Alvian does not sit well.
The modest meal on the brightly woven tablecloth was nothing so decadent as even the most casual snack prepared for the previous king and queen, but times had not been so lean then. He imagined Gunar taking insult over the plain meal Vaun had arranged to be delivered to the southern colonel’s chamber, but it was reality and something the Southern Kingdom needed to see to understand.
With the whole of the Northern Kingdom starving, Vaun could have foregone this meal, but out of courtesy he reached for a plank and some dried fruit, noting he had missed a streak on his wrist when he had washed. Hopefully Athadia was being more thorough with her bath. She had argued his leaving her in the servant’s chamber with a wash bucket but he had set a pair of guards on the door and left, ignoring the guilt that assaulted him. She was frightened and had a right to be, but as uncertain as she was at his abandoning her, his people’s future was even more so. This meeting couldn’t wait.
“What news have you?” Elden sat again and lifted his feet to the fire.
“None so joyous as the news with which I am greeted,” Vaun said, smiling when the queen blushed. He sobered. “None joyous at all, I’m afraid. The heavy rains that ruined crops in the Eastern and Western Kingdoms leave those Kerfs contemplating taking in wealthy Shote traders so they can afford to buy from the south. Alliances grow strong while they ask what the rest of Kerfdom offers that the Shotes do not.”
“We starve alongside them,” the queen said.
“As I told them,” Vaun said. “They were not comforted.”
“What of this captive you brought back?” Elden asked.
“Hurrying my wash was obviously futile. Gossip still precedes me.”
“She wears Shote robes, but apparently you rescued her? So she’s Kerf? Southern, perhaps?” Elden asked with a lift of anticipation in his voice.
“I had hoped Kerf.” Vaun set down his plank and explained his error.
Elden grasped the consequences immediately but the queen was distracted by Athadia’s ancestry. She sat taller and became the imperious lady few dared cross. “Here? You brought one of those creatures into the castle?”
Elden turned to regard her, plainly surprised to hear her take such a tone with Vaun. Indeed, he couldn’t recall her ever aiming such temper at him.
“Don’t let old conflicts alarm you, Petal.” Elden reached for her, not patronizing that
Vaun could see, but she seemed to take it as such, snatching away her hand.
“I meant no insult, Highness,” Vaun said. “To the best of my recollection, my father always claimed we had no reason to fear Alvians.” He looked to Elden. “Is that not your memory? He said they were simply a people who once lived here and the stories of their bloodthirsty ways was a myth.”
“It’s not a myth,” Fallon stated with cold outrage. “Those animals slaughtered my great-grandfather’s village. Tell me you jest about bringing one here.”
“We needed her to make the journey. There was no food. Nights were cold, the marches long. We would have frozen to death in last night’s storm if we hadn’t held onto her as we crossed the pass.”
“You came through the pass? I wondered how you arrived without warning.” Elden tugged his beard plait. “Our watch should have noted that, even in a storm.”
“Where is she now?” Fallon asked. “Not in the castle? No, Vaun.” She stood.
“Petal--” Elden said, catching at her again.
“No, I forbid it.” Her lips whitened.
“Calm yourself,” Elden said with gentle command. “This hysteria isn’t good for the babe. And perhaps Vaun was mistaken.” He turned to his brother. “What makes you so certain this woman is what she says?”
Knowing he’d only incur more disfavor from his queen, Vaun nevertheless told the truth.
“She doesn’t have to say. Look at me. Not a scar anywhere.”
“You never scar easily. I’d like to see her.”
“Elden!” Fallon hugged her belly with her free hand. “They’re killers. I told you this would happen if you made me live here. They come through that pass to murder us in our sleep!”
“One, Fallon.” Elden held up a finger. “Not a fleet of boats looking to take back the lands of the Western Kingdom.”
The second Settlement Wars, Vaun recollected. The Kerfs had succeeded in expelling all Alvian tribes, driving them into the lower plains. The Shotes had pushed upward, squeezing the Alvians east and west. They’d attempted to come into Kerfdom again by sea--through Fallon’s grandfather’s village, apparently.
“It only took one to wipe out my grandmother’s people,” Fallon said. “When they had an outbreak of lung croup. A so-called healer agreed to help them then disappeared, leaving everyone to die. You can’t trust them, Vaun.”
He set his jaw against insulting the queen by defending Athadia. He didn’t think her capable of such treachery, but how well did he know her?
“What did you intend by bringing her here?” the queen asked. “You’ll only have to...well, you’ll have to kill her.”
Vaun’s jaw slacked open, but he found no words. He had known there would be unseen costs to snatching Athadia the way he had, but... “I would have lost men to starvation or cold if she hadn’t been with us. I’d sooner take her back through the pass once it opens and leave her on the other side.” He appealed to Elden.
“And she would come straight back with an army of her kind,” Fallon said. “She knows the way now.”
“They’ve always known the route,” Elden said, steady and calm while his wife trembled and Vaun’s heart climbed to pound in his throat. “I’d begun to hope they’d forgotten it existed, since they haven’t used it in two generations. But you have shown this one a direct route to our door,” Elden pointed out with a troubled frown. “She’s seen the size of our village. Give her a few days of waiting for the pass to open, and she’ll have a sense of our routines and arms. That’s a few too many secrets for me to be comfortable releasing her.”
“I had hoped she’d increase our knowledge of Shote arms, but she didn’t know much,” Vaun admitted, which was a pity. It would have given her value in Elden’s eyes. “I don’t think there’s a danger of invasion,” he added, fighting to keep his tone steady and empty of anger or plea. “She looked for her kind constantly but we saw none.” He suspected her tragic weeping yesterday had been provoked by severe disappointment over that and now almost wished she’d had a better outcome. “Terc’s blood, Elden, I can’t countenance killing her when I brought her here by force.”
It wasn’t like him to look to his brother to countermand his queen, but--
“You really couldn’t survive without her?” Elden tilted his head, his gaze keen.
Vaun smoothed a hand over his freshly shaved jaw and what was likely a bleak expression, trying to disguise the terror he’d experienced when Athadia had dropped over the cliff edge yesterday, or the distress he’d experienced when she’d seemed lost to hysteria until this morning. “We wouldn’t be here otherwise. I stand by that. She deserves to live.”
“Let’s see,” his brother said.
~ * ~
Vaun had locked her in a little cell of a room with a tiny basin and a bucket of water. A wide-eyed maid brought a stiff gray cloth and a brown dress, then escaped past the pair of giants guarding the door. The guards wore a banner of honor and carried long spears they weren’t afraid to point at her to keep her in the room.
Vaun had told her to bathe, but she wasn’t about to fall for that trick. Not until the whips appeared. A lack of personal cleanliness didn’t stop all men from using a woman, but it turned away some. With her gift, she had no trouble overcoming the infections provoked by eating from dirty hands or closing a wound over dirty skin, therefore, dirty and repulsive she’d remain.
Except, when the knock came and the door opened and Vaun looked at her with disappointment, she felt embarrassed. He had cleaned up well, despite still wearing his traveling clothes. His hair hung loose and damp, but the angles of his cheek and brow seemed less harsh, his shoulders less tense.
He held the door for another man, one of rank if his furred robes and brightly colored sash were anything to go by. There was great similarity of coloring in the men’s dark hair and green eyes, in their bearing and jaw shape, though the other man was shorter by half a head. He looked of a close age to Vaun, and she wondered which one was older. It was always hard to tell because Alvians didn’t show their age as readily as Nulls. Was he Vaun’s brother? Was this man a Latent Alvian as well?
The ranking man frowned in assessment and circled her.
Athadia caught her breath in shock. She knew what this kind of inspection meant and closed her eyes against the sting of betrayal. Vaun meant to sell her.
~ * ~