What would you do if you were forced to choose between two promises--one to your country, and one to its people? Would you be brave enough--or coward enough--to kill the Queen you swore to protect?
My lady Damascena's study feels much colder now than I remember it.
This is not only because the fire in the hearth has been allowed to die, though it has--something that never would have been permitted back before Halion's death. It is late summer, and such things normally would not matter. But the carefully hand-painted wallpaper begins to peel just a little at the corners, and the thinnest layer of dust accumulates on the bookshelves. Disorder, I imagine, draws heat away from the body.
Damascena must be thinking so too, for she shivers and tugs her sleeves down over her bare forearms. Like her study, she has changed since her son's execution. Her once lovely face is now a harsh landscape of angles and shadow. When she speaks, her voice comes as a dry whisper.
"Do you have a plan?"
"Not yet," I say, shifting on my hard wooden chair. "I need more time. An oath like mine is hard to go back on."
Damascena snorts at my words, but she cannot deny their truth. She was at Queen Almea's Naming sixteen years ago: she heard me swear my life to the service and protection of the royal family. She knows better than anyone else just how hard a position I trapped myself in.
"You have already broken half of it," she says. "You helped Halion poison Astrum and Sola. Their daughter is the last obstacle: when she is dead, there will be no more Latarya Queens. Power will belong to the people once again."
"Yes, but I'm not so sure that's what I want anymore," I say. My hand moves to toy with the clasp on my cloak, a nervous habit. "Things were much simpler before the rebellion."
"What?" Damascena snaps, her eyes contorting hideously. "Will you nullify the sacrifices of so many, just because it's your turn to do something distasteful?"
"Killing the woman I've sworn to protect is not merely distasteful, my lady."
"Killing that selfish little brat is hardly murder. Do not forget, it is her fault Halion is dead."
"Maybe if Halion had the sense not to be caught with his hand halfway between the King's cup and a vial of poison, he needn't have died." It is cruel of me to say such things a grieving mother, but I cannot help it.
Damascena's mouth twists as she tries to think of a retort. Her reddened eyes move about the room, finally fixing on an empty patch of wall above my head.
"Do you know what used to be there?"
I shake my head, though in truth, I can remember every detail of this office as it was so many months before, the night we plotted the King and Queen's assassination.
"It used to be Halion's portrait." Damascena smiles wistfully. "He was such a handsome young man, you remember?"
"Yes," I say, "I do."
The lady's smile turns to a snarl. "I don't. I can't remember anything of what he looked like. That's why I took the portrait down. You've never lost a child, have you? Then you can't know what it's like to see his face every morning, see all the features perfectly captured in paint, and then to realize just how fast they're fading from your own memory."
"You know I am sorry for your loss, my lady. But you cannot take Almea's life out of revenge for your son's death--"
"Yes," she says coldly. "I can."
Damascena stands and crossed the room to a large standing chest. She unlocks the top drawer with a key from her belt and pulls out something long and bulky. From the way she carries it, I know it must be heavy.
"This is Halion's sword," she says, laying the bundle down on her desk. "I want you to take it. The people's army if gathering in the square before the Latarya Palace at dawn tomorrow. Will you lead them?"
I look down at the cloth-wrapped blade. It reminds me of a body covered in its burial shroud. "If I say yes, will you demand I kill Almea?"
"I thought that obvious."
"But surely she would be of more use to you--"
"The only useful Queen," Damascena says with great certainty, "Is a dead one."
And if I don't kill her, someone else will. At least I can give her a clean death. With a shudder, I pull the cloth away from the sword and wrap my hand around the hilt. A traitor's sword. It fits my hand perfectly.
"So be it," I say.
Damascena's smile has all the softness of a thorn. It is a horrible thing to see on the face of a woman who has just lost her son. "So be it," she agrees, with a hungry snarl. "May the Peace of the Goddess go with you."
I bow and follow her to the door, Halion's sword a dead weight in my hand.
"Perhaps," I say. "But I sincerely doubt it will."
It is not yet dawn, but the night sky in late summer has a way of making you forget the darkness. I stand on the steps of the Latarya Palace. On either side of me, rows of stone lions stare inwards with cold ruby eyes. They have been silent witness to much, as have I. Together, we watched Astrum and Sola recite the marriage vows on these very steps. We all listened as I swore my oath to serve the Latarya family until death. We all watched unmoved and unmoving as Halion's life ended in the square below.
Now, they alone will bear witness to my final act of treason.
There are only sixteen steps from the square to the palace door. Just sixteen steps. Only sixteen years since I knelt here and took the vow I am so soon to break. By the Goddess, it feels so much longer than that.
I climb the stairs, Halion's sword pounding against my side with every step, and open the doors at the top. They are not heavy, though they look like they should be, and they are never locked.
The palace is dark inside, but I know my way around. There are no guards: they have all sided with the rebels. Almea is only safe because she is hidden, but like the lions, I have seen all there is to see of this place.
I find the eastern stairs and begin climbing. Though it is pitch-black, I know every detail of the paintings along these walls. It is the Latarya family line, from the first Queen down to the last. I feel their eyes following me, accusing. As I pass Astrum and Sola, the sword in my hand becomes so heavy I fear I will drop it.
But I don't.
For the first time in months, I allow myself to wonder just what my foolish pact with Halion has started. I should have known better than to listen to him, but he could be so persuasive when he tried. The picture he had painted, of a world where no man need bow to another or suffer for no more than an accident of birth, had been so beautiful.
His methods were not.
Queen Sola died in my arms. While my assassination had been quieter than Halion's, it was far more bloody. I wasn't brave enough--or coward enough--to use poison. The look in Sola's eyes as my dagger pierced her heart is one I can never forget. She had been so beautiful in life, but in death...she was no more than a corpse.
At last, I reach the end of the stairs. A hallway opens off to my left, and it leads to Almea's old chambers. I know she isn't there tonight. Farther on down the corridor, another lion statue lurks in the shadows: I hid in the alcove behind it while Halion was arrested. No one has searched there since then, but if they do, they will find my dagger still stained with Sola's blood.
I clutch the sword with one hand and twist my cloak clasp with the other. Another staircase now, this one blank-walled and drafty. I wonder if it's too late to turn back. But no, already the wind has a taste of morning to it: if I don't kill Almea now, someone else will. And I know Damascena would not rest until my blood is spilled as well.
That does not make it any easier. Nothing will. Yes, Almea is young, and naive, and selfish. Yes, she is unworthy of the throne--but if it hadn't been for us, she would never need to be. If we have a fool for a queen, it is only because we gave her the crown.
So does she really deserve to die? Is death truly the price we must pay for inability to act the part Fate has cast us in? If so, no one is more deserving of execution than I.
Almea's door looms before me. Stone lions crouch before it, shielding it from view, but I know this palace well. I cover Halion's sword with my cloak and knock softly.
No answer comes. I push on the door with my fingertips, and it swings open.
The room beyond is black. I grope along the wall beside the door until I find a candle and bit of flint. Lighting a candle single-handed is no easy task, but I manage.
Almea is curled up on a sleeping couch with her back to me. I feel a rush of relief, quickly followed by guilt. How can I strike her down from behind?
How can I strike her down anyway? My whole body begins to shake. Almea, with her clear young face, her night-black hair, the scent of roses cling to the air around her--she may as well be her mother.
My mind floods with memories I cannot fight. I stand there, tormented, struggling to stay afloat. All I can see is Sola's face as it was the moment before she died, the moment she looked up at her murder and knew it was me. I hear her dying, and beneath the screams I can hear her daughter's quiet breathing.
And then I hear another mother screaming for her child. I hear Damascena's ragged sobs as the treason charges are read in the square. I feel her struggling to break my grip as I drag her away from the scaffold. I see her standing beside me on the palace stairs, mourning without tears, her eyes as cold and red as the lions' around us.
I raise Halion's sword.
One downward thrust. Just one, and this will all be over. Damascena will have her revenge, the people will have their rule, and no one can ask anything more of me. This is all I have to give.
I turn the point towards my heart.
But no, I must make preparations first. I must explain things to Almea. Sighing, I toss the sword to the floor at my feet and gently wake my Queen.
The bed is soft, but I refuse to let myself sit down. If I begin to rest, even for a few moments, I know I shall fall asleep, and I need to stay awake. Only for a few moments longer, I must stay awake.
Almea is gone. My hand moves to my neck, to the place where my cloak clasp was less than an hour ago. But the clasp is gone: Almea needed the disguise more than I. What have I to hide from anymore?
My arm trembles with fear and pain. The gash on my wrist has stopped bleeding, and I know my blood has dried on Halion's sword. When Damascena finds it on her doorstep this dawn, she will not question whether it is mine or Almea's. She, who has questioned so much, will not question that.
I wonder where Almea will go after she delivers my message. She will leave the city, of course, but where is there for her to go? What will she do, now that she has lost the only home she has ever known?
I shouldn't think about it. I shouldn't think about anything. Dawn is nearly here: there is a small window beside the bed, and it faces east. East, towards the sunrise: east, towards the square. The army is gathering. Sunlight glints off their drawn swords, staining them with red.
I watch. Watch the sun rise over the ragged palace skyline, watch the army gather and mill about. I watch a shadow dip between two buildings in the distance, and though it is a long way off, I imagine I can see the detail of my cloak clasp.
I close my eyes, and smell the air of a late summer's dawn.