The princess’s Father always said that she should’ve been born with hooves. Except wasn’t a princess anymore. And her Father was dead. The revolution killed everyone in the palace. All except her and me.
She swayed, back braced against me, in my horse’s saddle—Stinger has always been gentle when a member of the Varangyan House sits on her back.
I could smell the leaves of rust as they peeled away from the gate to Aysgarth in the light breeze. It was a solid and impenetrable wall. We followed the cobbled road to the edifice. The princess studied the dark grey, rectangular container that housed the wraith that guarded the walls. “They say that Aysgarth is full of gateway ghosts,” the princess murmured.
“Don’t worry, Aos,” I told her. “The ghosts won’t hurt you. Watch.” I booted Stinger on just a little further forward, close enough to the stone wall that her movement made the gateway ghost stir: her glowing green light passing back and forth along her flat, grey prison.
“Welcome to Aysgarth,” the ghost said. A woman’s voice. The light of her Being bled onto us. I shielded my eyes. “Identification, please.”
“Do you have access?” Aos asked me, whispering, so that the ghost could not hear.
I told her to take the reins and swung down from Stinger’s saddle, kicking up dust with my landing. ““The ghosts may yet respond to someone who represents the Imperium.” So I stepped up to the ghost’s, her green glow searching for me. I stood still in front of the shimmering specter and waited for her proclamation. “Well?” I asked the ghost. “Do you?”
The ghost spoke again: “Identified: Sir Desmon Harcourt, Chief Imperial Guard to the Varangyan House. Your authority is recognized. Access is granted.” The gates slid open with with a sound like grinding doors of stone. I walked alongside Aos as she led Stinger within at a canter. I hooked my arm against the horse to keep from stumbling.
It had been a long journey.
The people of Aysgarth were a mass of flesh crowding the streets, stinking of a siege whose effects had not left them. It would return soon, with more revolutionaries. The common folk sluiced around either side of Stinger.
“The men on the watchtower have crossbows,” Aos told me. Before my hand could close around my hilt, she ordered me against it, “Don’t reach for your weapon. Are you foolhardy enough to think you could take down a few crossbowmen with a sword? You of all people should remember the folly of that.”
“I remember, dammit,” I told her. “Bloody cowards.”
A smirk played across her Grace’s lips. “Don’t go cursing them for being smarter than you.”
“They’re not—” I began, but I saw them fidgeting with their weapons from the corner of my eye. Best not to cause a scene, I decided. “As you say, your Grace.” I stole of look at the watchtowers. They were built atop pieces of statue welded together: a torso here, an arm there. Two legs melted into one pillar. And atop all that: the crossbowmen, guarded by thin fencewire. They were skeletons with only a shadow of skin that pocketed deep-sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. Part of me pitied them.
“We need to find Lord Musa,” I told Aos.
“Help me down. I can walk the rest of the way.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “There are so many people. If you fall, you’ll be trampled.”
Aos laughed. “I’m more like to trip over a tree root than let myself be felled by someone else. Do you honestly think after all these years I haven’t learned to be aware of my surroundings?”
She leaned in the saddle until I could reach her. With a grunt, she pulled one leg free of its stirrup and I eased her to the ground. She had to crane her neck to look up at me. She was seventeen and still only just taller than a dwarf.
“I brought your cane,” I told her.
“I know you know, I just thought—”
“I’m not a child. I can remember this information, you see.”
“My ability to walk does not affect my ability to remember.”
“Apologies, your Grace.” I pulled her cane from the saddlebags. And the dagger. I knelt to give it to her.
As soon as she held her cane, her knuckles turned white around it. I pressed the dagger into her hand. “In case you need it,” I told her, and closed her hand around it.
“Focus on walking Stinger,” she said.
So I curled the reins around my fist and led my horse after us. Much of Aysgarth was made up of slithering worms of metal carts, each with two aisles for the chambers within that housed two beds. The merchants set up shop in their own wheeled metal carts, offering thaumaturgical artifacts that most were not like to have the license to sell.
Aos lurched as folks dropped down from the metal carts, maneuvering about the town. She pressed forward, careful with every step to be sure her footing was firm, always watching for others.
Her Father had always danced around calling her affliction palsy; as if naming her condition might strike him with it—the same way superstitious men avoid naming the Lord of Bones. “She was born to be a faun,” he had told me once. “How else could you explain her height? Her love of tea? She is a faun, I tell you.”
I’d never been sure how she would take the jape if she’d heard it herself, so I never bothered to repeat it.
She snapped an order that wrenched me out of my own thoughts: “Stop touching your blade.”
I didn’t realize I’d been cradling the pommel in my palm. Deliberately, I let my arm fall to my side. “I wasn’t,” I lied.
“You want to be prepared for any threat that comes our way, as if you could not kill an oncoming man in the same moment you free your sword from its scabbard.”
“That’s not a skill you should be voicing aloud.” She listened to my caution, and we walked together in silence. It took a conscious effort to match her pace. At length, I asked, “Do you know where we’re going?”
“We’re trying to be noticed by the right individuals.”
“Which individuals? Can you at least be specific?”
“You haven’t heard them?” She asked.
On instinct, my hand twitched to touch the pommel of my sword, but as I paused to correct my mistake, I knocked the sheath toward the princess, who shoved it aside. She let out an involuntary whoop as she teetered on the edge of her balance.
I reached out to catch her, cradling the small of her back until she found her footing. She shoved at me, uselessly. “Dammit,” she cursed. “I know how to keep my own balance. I don’t need your help,” she spat.
“Isn’t that the reason I’m here?” I asked with a smirk.
“I require your skill with a blade, Sir Desmon,” she said. “…And mayhaps your legs, should we need a fast getaway,” she added. After a beat, she mused, smirking “Though I suppose Stinger is of just as much use in that regard, if not more useful. And a charging horse surely works just as well as a sword. I can’t quite say why I keep you around to be honest.”
“I can leave—” I began, playfully turning.
She seized my cloak with her free hand as the one holding the cane came down into the dirt, hard as a hammer. “I’m kidding, you fool,” she said as I turned around.
“So was I. Now what were you saying about being noticed by the right individuals?”
“Ah yes,” she said. “That. They should be here shortly. Or did you think I cursed at you for my own amusement?”
“No,” I told her. “That was your Father’s job.”
I checked the road ahead. It was a mass of grimy, greasy faces with hollow eyes and sallow cheeks. All around us was the sound of grumbling stomachs…and then came a clatter coming closer with a sound like an avalanche of colanders.
“They’re here,” she said, as the crowd broke apart. The sight of it reminded me of arrows tearing through flesh—three days of raining arrows down, down, down—
Just as I wrung the thought at the neck, Aos and I found ourselves surrounded by pikemen. They maneuvered us until we were back-to-back with our hands in the air. I surveyed the pikemen shelled in armor. Their captain was on horseback, behind them. “May I touch my sword now?” I asked Aos.
“You may not,” she told me. To the pikemen, she said, “You serve Lord Musa, yes?”
They did not answer. Mail and armor clattered as they fidgeted with their pikes.
“I see,” Aos said. “We’re going to do things this way. Very well: I wish an audience with Lord Musa.”
“Lord Musa does not wish to be disturbed,” their captain said.
“I shall only be a small disturbance, sirs,” she said. “I cannot say the same of my friend, but he is familiar with court etiquette. He knows when he is allowed to speak.”
“Lord Musa does not wish to be disturbed,” their leader said again.
Aos sighed through her nose and sheathed her patience. “Then you may tell him,” she explained slowly, “That he has an audience, and we will await him in his hall.”
“Lord Musa does not wi—”
“Have I asked what Lord Musa wishes?” The pikemen bristled at that. My hand went to my sword and stayed there. “Lord Musa has an audience with the Lady Aos of the Varangyan House.”
More bristling. More eyes, all on us. Cormag was coming. We didn’t need this attention. Foolish little girl, I thought. Your pride won’t buckle until your life does. But I stayed my tongue. I was the Chief of the Varangyan House’s Imperial Guard. It was not my place to speak.
“The princess is dead,” said the captain.
“Is she?” Aos asked. She made a show of checking her hands, then running them alone the seal etched into her cane. “Well…someone forgot to tell me.”
“Cormag’s revolutionaries besieged the palace. They rained down arrows for three days. She managed to escape for a short while, but Cormag has caught and killed her. Her body lies on a stake outside the palace walls.”
Screams of slaughter echoed through my head. I choked down the bile of my thoughts, and waited for my Grace’s response.
“Did I do all that too? Well, I must be a very busy woman, so if you’ll excuse us—” She stepped forward and I whirled around, freeing my sword from its scabbard and placing my arms in front of her. The pikemen crossed their weapons to block our way.
“I tried playing nice,” Aos said. “but I no longer have time for these games. Cormag’s revolutionaries are on their way here. And when they bypass the ghost at the main gate, as they have done before, this entire town will be put to the torch. Your wives will be raped. Your men will be murdered. Your food and coin will be stolen. I would like to prevent that. If you refuse, then we will be on our way. But if you think even an inkling of what I said is true, then I suggest you take us to Lord Musa with all haste.”
Mail clattered as knights tensed. I tensed. Every muscle ached to spring into action. I watched their captain, his jaw set, staring down at the princess; her knotted hair; her ragged cloak and clothes; the stains on her tunic that might’ve been dirt or splashes of rainwater or something far, far worse. I waited for his order.
“All haste,” he said, then nodded.
It was the last thing I’d ever hear him say.
* * *
Lord Musa’s court was guarded by three gateway-ghosts, I put Stinger in the stables between the first two, then followed the company within; where Lord Musa sat upon a humble chair. Most Lords would use something more extravagant. But his hall was tall and plain, with leftover walls of chewed-up glass and steel from the time when the ghosts still lived. The door to his court was sealed shut by the sliding door of an old wheeler.
A pikeman pulled it aside, and I had to push past a tangle of vines–an overgrown garden neglected by his servants that blocked our way. I made sure to tramp down on anything Aos might not be able to step over.
I came to face Lord Musa, and found that he was not a man overly concerned with the latest of court fashions. He preferred a simple tunic and cloak, and a circlet around his shiny bald head. His face was wrinkled in a way that made him look like a bowl of mashed potatoes, save black, beady eyes deep-set beneath all that loose flesh. The captain of his guard stood next to him
Aos hobbled into the room, after me. Lord Musa raised his eyebrows at her. “Do you know what they’ve been calling you of late?” he croaked. He had a rusty voice, as if he’d spent so long speaking that he had worn it thin. “The Princess of Goats. The Cobweb Emperiess…” he regarded her a moment, almost looking through her. As if he expected her legs were a ruse, and she would leap at him with furious vengeance. “…The Cripple Queen,” he finished.
She smacked her cane against my wrist without bothering to look. “Don’t,” she told me, swaying only slightly, before settling on her cane.
I lowered my hand away from my blade.
“You make a wonderful host, Lord Musa. Has your captain told you of the treatment we received?”
“No matter,” Lord Musa said. He waved the matter aside with a gnarled, long-fingered hand that looked like the end of a tree branch. “To hear it told, Cormag put you on a spike.”
“So I’ve been told,” Aos said. “But let’s not pretend you’ve seen it yourself.”
“I know,” she said, “Because no Lord in the land would dare set foot in Cormag’s territory. The people have taken it for themselves. They’d hardly suffer your presence with impunity. Cormag is an intelligent man, and a spreader of rumors.”
“And now the Emperion’s daughter comes to grovel for help in reclaiming her Father’s throne.” The wrinkles on his face twisted, but all that loose flesh could only move so much. Whatever emotion played across his face was difficult to discern.
“Grovel?” Aos echoed. “Hardly!” She gestured at her legs. “My knees were not meant to kneel, you understand. I’ve not come here to grovel my Lord. As much as you would enjoy the sight, I’ll not beg you for help with my cause.”
“Then why have you come?”
“My Lord,” she offered the stiffest and curtest of bows. “My only aim is to save you. Cormag’s men sweep the land as his message grows. I trust you wish to maintain your power?”
He squinted, so that his face was an indiscernible mass of wrinkles. “Set aside the formalities. Tell me: is there anything you can do to save me from your fate?”
She shrugged. “Nothing, I suppose.” Lord Musa opened his mouth to call for his guards, but Aos interrupted. “Save one thing: you can give them my head. That would surely appease them.”
“Aos,” I breathed.
“You aren’t giving me much cause to help you,” Lord Musa said.
“Or,” she stretched out the word, “Instead of giving them ideas for what they can do to you when they breach your gates…and they will breach your gates…have you considered that I may still wield power?”
Lord Musa laughed aloud at that, for a long time, such that even his pikemen began to wring their hands and look at each other. “What power do you have, little girl? Your are the last of a broken line. Your father–the Emperion–is dead. You are nothing.”
“As long as their is a royal ass to sit the throne their will be soldiers there to kiss it,” she told Lord Musa. “I may not have the throne in my reach, but my station is known. Cormag’s men were half a day behind us. They will be upon you by nightfall. Your city has just lifted their last siege. You cannot survive another one. Do not draw this out. Sending my head might ease their desire to overthrow you. Maybe. But only for a time. Eventually they will return.”
He stirred in his chair, smacking his lips and now sounding like mashed potatoes, too. “You say this is all but inevitable, yes?” he asked. “Then what is your solution?”
“Send out the white raven. Act quickly, before the revolutionaries are here to shoot them down, and tell the nearby Lords who yet cling to their power who you hold in your possession: the Emperiess. The only surviving heir to the Empire. You now have two options: First, you can give the revolutionaries my head and possibly keep yours on your shoulders…until they return. Second, you can send white ravens to other Lords, now, before there are men to shoot them down, and tell them you have the heir to the Imperium and the only way to keep her alive is with their aid. As I said–as long as there is a royal ass to sit the throne there will be folk to kiss it. Cormag’s men are not like to return after such a show of force.”
Lord Musa was silent for a long while, hrming and hming. After some time, he turned to a servant, said, “Fetch a scribe and some white ravens. We must act quickly.”
The pikemen turned to lead us away. One of them tried to push Aos past her walking pace. I pushed him back in turn. “We’re going,” I told him. “We still have time.”
“I’m surprised you said nothing, Sir Desmon,” Aos said.
“I’m not some nobleman,” I told her. “I’m only a sword.”
* * *
The wind blustered my cloak as I stood vigilant. Lord Musa had decided to hide Lady Aos in the worm of metal carts. He had decided no one would look for her there. I guarded the door to her chambers. The thunder of boots had long since passed. There was now shouting as the men atop the watchtower attempted to negotiate with the revolutionaries.
From the screams that followed, I don’t suppose it went well. I was the last of the Varangyan House’s Imperial Guard. I was all the stood between Aos and the end of her line.
So when I heard the bloody wails; the terrified screams and calls for mother and mercy, I stayed where I was. I’d already heard them before, back in the capital. I knew the sight each scream belonged to.
Aos sat in her small chambers. She began the night strong enough, tall and regal. She knew what to expect, unlike her time in the palace. But each battle brings with it different horrors. She had yet to learn that.
This time she could not see who the screams belonged to.
She produced her dagger, which gave her strength in the beginning. After an hour, her hands started trembling around its hilt. She was crying, snot and tears running down her face. Her eyes were wet and beady. But I turned my head and faced the door. I couldn’t help her. I had to save her.
I heard the ground shake even louder than before. I knew the sound of cavalry, too. Lordess Janna held the nearest fief, and was most likely to have cavalry at her command. I knew which screams belonged to men cut down by cavalry. I heard cries of surrender that were ignored.
The wet sounds were the worst. Squelching over things with the sound like boots through mud, a sound like a bucket falling into a well, like fish dumped out of a barrel.
And a stink that rankled and brought back battle-memories I had long forgotten.
Still the princess cried. But she had only my back for comfort. She was seventeen. I tried to remember what battles I had seen at her age. I told myself that I would have acted differently in her position. That my generation was raised to be stronger.
But all through the night, my fingers flexed on the hilt of my sword. How far is it between a flex and a tremble? I maintained my composure, but I’d been a sword for years. I’d honed my edge for years. Her edges were rounded and unwieldy. She needed to hone herself. I wished it weren’t so.
Sometime in the night, she started pounding on the door. She was screaming for me to open it. She was a little girl who needed comfort, and my rebukes had left her cold.
The night wore on, and the Lords Derrion and Veris came to the aid of Aysgarth. In our little cart, Aos’s screams turned into demands, turned into threats. She told me she would have me beheaded if I didn’t come inside.
But I didn’t. And the night dragged on. Until there were only the embers of shrieks and scattered moans.
I remembered a similar sound after Cormag’s soldiers had raided the palace. I hid with Aos and what few company survived. I had given her the knife she held again that night in the cart. I left her in an empty hearth and told her to stay put.
But she saw a revolutionary advance on me from behind, axe raised. She had seized him by the ankle and pulled from where she sat, unsteadying him. And with a feral growl she had plunged the knife into the back of his leg and out through his kneecap. And when he fell she dragged it unsteadily along his throat as she cried–with shaky hands that were not sure how much pressure to apply. The palsy did not help in this regard. She had wailed more then than in the cart.
When the deed was done I had scooped her up and fled the palace amidst the chaos. I carried her away as she sniveled and cried. And I told her the only words of comfort I’ve ever known.
I was pulled from my thoughts when a figure burst into the cart. I raised my sword, but his shield was ready, and as he stepped forward I saw Lord Musa’s sigil displayed on his breast. “It’s over,” he told me. “Bring her out.” He turned to leave.
When I opened the door she threw herself at me, punching uselessly on her knees, soft as hitting a pillow. I let her continue until her knuckles were blue and purple. Then I carried her out of the cart and into the morning sun. Her face was red, but the tears had stopped. “Desmon?” she asked. “Was I a good soldier?”
“Yes,” I told her. “You were very brave. You were a good soldier.”