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2011.09.08 01:02 Aubrey Plaza

For fans of the actress/comedian Aubrey Plaza. Pics, vids, news, quotes, trivia. 18+ only.
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2016.02.14 06:29 Sammy_Samuelson Elizabeth Turner

Subreddit dedicated to professional model Elizabeth Turner.
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2023.05.30 19:44 Lazy-Personality4024 Orphan Chapter 14

First Previous
Chapter 14: A Pleasant Game of Skirmish
Due to the distance between Earth and Cradle, multiple jumps were required. As such, major worlds in between the two points were designated and added to the jump list. While it extended the time it would take to get there, it would be worth it to gather more information on humanity. When jumping into a system, the Into the Black would do a detailed scan on every major planet, circling them if need be. Each system would take hours to record, but the new potential discoveries more than made up for it.
Meanwhile, life on the ship continued. Vigil in particular found himself wandering the upper decks, as Glevar had forbidden him from “escorting” Irudo while he was at work. Hesitant at first, Vigil left, believing he was in capable hands. Now, with no purpose, he was left to his own devices.
Thoughts of the garden kept popping up in his mind. Wishing to sate his curiosity, he gradually made his way over to it. Passing through the checkpoint, he was greeted with a wall of greenery. Small paths meandered through the small forest, while larger paths ringed the exterior.
Picking one of the smaller paths at random, Vigil walked down it, surrounded by life and serenity. The vegetation was both alien and yet familiar at the same time. Large trees with rough brown bark stretched upwards, topped by green leaves. Some were not completely the same as Earth vegetation, however.
Some of the tree trunks had a much darker, reddish hue, and wicked looking spikes lining them. While others had red or even purple leaves. Those with spikes had signs with foreign words set in the ground beside them, adorned by artwork depicting a mouth eating the tree with a large X. Going by this, Vigil assumed they were not edible. Why anyone wanted to eat the trees, he could not fathom. Apparently, though, the signs did not pertain to the wildlife transplanted onto the ship. A small creature with eyes nearly as large as its head, a jet black body covered in fur, and a long bushy tail, sat munching on the leaves of the tree. All the while staring at Vigil, curious as to who was intruding on its lunch.
Another oddity was the “grass”, if one could call it that. The plant in question blanketed the forest floor. It was bluish green with razor thin blades, more filament than proper leaf. Though it was extremely thin, it grew so dense that fallen debris, such as leaves and twigs, seemed to float above it.
Possibly deadly tree’s and strange grass aside… it was… enjoyable. It was nice to be so far away from war, yet confusing at the same time. He had no purpose here, no reason. Was it truly fine for him to stop? To lie down his sword, so to speak?
A beautiful flower off the path caught his eye. It had yet to unfurl its white petals for the day. Wanting to observe the flower in greater detail, Vigil stepped off the path and walked over. He kneeled down before it, taking in every aspect of its design. He reached out and stroked a petal. He did so agonizingly slow and gentle, yet even that was not enough to prevent harm to the frail life before him.
His finger ripped away one of the pure white petals, revealing a crimson red interior. Liquid, whether nectar or something else, leaked from the injury. It too was red, blood red. Surprised, he stood quickly. He did not want to harm the small flower further. Turning away, he paused. He saw his tracks, deep and obtrusive to the natural scenery. Wherever he walked, he had brought death to the surrounding life. Crushing the small filament like vegetation that covered the ground, killing it with each step.
He was reminded then, what his purpose was. He was a weapon, nothing more, nothing less. His purpose was to stand ready, so when the Nemesis came, these new people could wield him. Until he met his end, his purpose was to fight and kill. Forgetting this only brought harm to the world around him, and those existing peacefully within it. He walked back to the path, retracing his steps so to no bring further harm to those undeserving of it. He went back down the path to where he had come and left the garden and all the life within. Lest he bring death to them as well.
-
Elsewhere on the ship, Hran was forbidden from strenuous activity, being injured as he was. Which meant that he was practically useless in the engineering department. Thus, he was given a few of the data banks to work on.
He normally wasn’t able to pick up anything heavy as is, but now he wasn’t even allowed to so much as think of lifting anything that weighed more than him. Since he usually tinkered on things, he had created a sort of nest in the back of the large engineering bay. So, secluded in his little hideaway, he rummaged around in the data banks. Hoping for something useful.
While technically every scrap of information was crucial, he was finding fairly basic things. Knowledge that even the average denizen of the GU knew. Skipping this data bank, he moved on to another, and struck gold. Well, gold to him anyway. The importance of his finding would be graded by his superiors at a later date.
When he had opened the data bank, he had found hundreds of thousands of hours of footage. Not like communicator footage someone would record when something exciting happened, but of combat footage! Combat footage with the Nemesis! If they wanted to learn about the Nemesis and their tactics, this was the best way, aside from Vigil.
Opening the first file, Hran was immediately met with the sounds of gunfire and explosions. He quickly turned down the volume, afraid someone had heard. When no one came snooping, he relaxed and resumed the video.
The gunfire resumed, and a human male barked out some strange words and the wearer of the camera looked to the side. Hran’s eyes widened. He saw only men, dozens of battle-hardened and experienced soldiers. They were in some kind of natural depression in the dirt. Lines of men were running hunched over, keeping their heads low. All around them was dust and smoke, obscuring their view of the battlefield, but they fought regardless. Peeking from above the clouds of dust, were burned and blasted out buildings.
Then, suddenly, a man in armor ravaged by battle pointed behind the soldier with the camera and raised his weapon. The camera whipped around to see several terrifying four armed creatures dashing out of the smoke. Though the human men were already taller than him by several centias, the Nemesis towered over them. They did not hesitate though. They did not run or shirk their duty; they met the charging aliens head on.
Soldiers before the cameraman fired and were cut down by both blade and gun. The Nemesis seemed to favor holding a firearm in their upper two arms and blades in their lower two. Given the close proximity, Hran could see the advantage.
But the humans did not back away, they held their ground. Every bullet or bolt of energy caused the Nemesis to shine at the impact site. Hran ogled the works of engineering. They had personal energy shields! A man directly in front of the cameraman ducked under the blades of one attacker, and shoved the barrel of his weapon into the Nemesis’ side, and pulled the trigger. Circumventing the shield.
The Nemesis roared in pain and outrage, and cut the man in half. Hran choked back vomit. The viscera and gore were not censored of course, giving him a front-row seat to the brutality of war.
The unknown soldier’s death would not be in vain. The cameraman and another soldier rushed the wounded alien and tackled it. The man with the helmet cam straddled the creature and pressed his weapon directly into the underside of the Nemesis’ four eyed helmet.
Hran looked away as brain matter and yellowish alien blood explode from the now dead Nemesis. He felt sick to his stomach watching the battle. This wasn’t some make believe fantasy, some fictional war movie. This was real footage from real people struggling to survive just one more day. Yet… he couldn’t stop watching.
The soldier was back up, and continued to fight, but his time did not last. Another Nemesis took the place of the first, and now it was the cameraman’s turn to be cut down. Hran watched as the world turned sideways, and crimson blood painted the soil. The soldier did not stir. And all the while, the Nemesis and human warriors continued to battle eachother, staining the sandy colored soil with their blood. The video ended soon after the soldier’s death.
Hran was stunned. He had never seen anyone die. And now he had just witnessed the death of dozens. He was lightheaded, and his stomach ached. He gulped down the bile which threatened to pour from his mouth. Humanity had given their lives in defense of an undeserving galaxy. It was because of them he and his people were alive today.
He would bear witness to their final moments and learn all he could. So that if the Nemesis came, they would be ready. Steeling himself, Hran clicked on the next file. Great cannons the size of skyscrapers fired, parting the clouds in waves. As the clouds split, an endless sea of ships were revealed descending from the skies. Hran prepared himself to witness even more death and carnage than before.
-
Kitern was fuming. She understood Tentzonta’s worries, because she herself was wary of Vigil when they first let him wander as he pleased. But after he had literally carried her to safety, that opinion had changed drastically. Vigil was a soldier, just like her. She had killed people in the line of duty, yet no one feared her. Well, maybe a little, but it wasn’t because she had spilled blood. More because of her charming personality.
To top it all off, her damn arm was aching from not being moved in so long. Some might say she was overreacting, but having her arm in a sling felt more like she was being caged, like she was being tied down. It was unnatural to have her body hindered like this.
Of course, it was for her own health. Klofaa had scanned her arm and made certain nothing was broken. The blow had simply dislocated her shoulder and pressed it against the main nerve in her arm, preventing her from being able to move it. Once her shoulder had been re-set, she was able to move it like normal. But that wasn’t enough for Klofaa. She wanted to make absolutely certain Kitern was in no danger, so forced this stupid sling on her.
The feeling in her chest, of being confined and restricted, kept increasing. It was irritating, to say the least. She wanted to blow off some steam, but there wasn’t much she could do with one hand. Kitern paused. She did like watching sports. She could try to start a game of bailok between the crew?
She shook her head and continued walking. No, that required too much work for her to only sit on the sidelines. Besides, most of the crew wouldn’t bother participating. She wondered if Vigil knew any sports? She was sure plenty of people would be interested in playing a human sport.
“Hmmm,” she hummed and scratched her jaw. She couldn’t imagine Vigil playing anything. Even if he did, he would have to play against other mega bipeds, otherwise, he would absolutely destroy the average biped like her. She laughed suddenly. ‘Imagine their faces when they realize the person who whooped their asses is a guy! They would never be able to live that down!’ she thought. The image of a bunch of whiney bailok players came to mind. They already fell over at the slightest touch. If Vigil ran into one of them, armor or not, he would pulverize them.
She stopped again, an idea coming to her. Forget sports like bailok, what about skirmish? It was a simple game, but a blast to play and watch. Easy to set up, too. All you needed was an energy rifle with a dampener on the end to lower its power and a sensor to ping whenever the laser hit. They had all the ingredients they just needed to put them together.
She knew Asteli would jump at the opportunity to play. The spunky Venanian absolutely loved the game. Gre’Namra would follow along with her, and she could always order Onsa and Dentala if they didn’t want to join. She could even play with one arm if she wanted, skirmish laser dampeners worked on nearly all energy weapons after all. The only hard part would be finding everyone.
Grinning, she got to work scouring the ship.
-
Vigil was peacefully watching the blackness of space, his mind set at ease by the void. Something that many found unsettling. The Into the Black was scanning another system, on its way to Cradle. He didn’t recognize it, which was a small blessing. He kept recalling the past and his purpose as of late. Looking at the dead husk of a world he and his brethren had spilled their blood over would do no good.
“FOUND HIM!” a familiar voice screamed, loud enough to scare some of the nearby crew. The observation deck had, well, observation windows to look out into space. In this case, Vigil was at the very end of the large main corridor which ran the length of the ship. As Deck One held numerous amenities for the crew, it was frequented by many. Thus, there were more than a few startled faces.
Vigil turned as Asteli came bounding up to him with Gre’Namra following close behind. “Hey big guy! Captain wants you!”
Vigil looked down at her, “I will report to the bridge immediately,” he replied.
“Not that captain. Commander Kitern,” Gre’Namra clarified, stepping in front of him.
Vigil tilted his head. “Understood. Where am I needed?”
“In the hangar bay! Come on, you’re going to love this!” Asteli practically sang, as she went behind him and attempted to push him along. Her efforts were futile. She simply walked in place, feet slipping on the deck plates. She grunted in excretion. “Come on!”
“Affirmative. I will report to commander Kitern at once.” He stepped forward, causing Asteli to lose her balance and almost fall. Gre’Namra reached out to help stabilize her, before they began following Vigil to the lift.
As soon as the lift doors opened, Asteli rushed out screaming, “I found him!” Before she and Gre’Namra ran into the locker room. Vigil marched orderly to the hanger bay, to find the rest of the marines idly standing around in their armor on the edge of a symmetrical field of crates and containors. Strange black devices decorated their armor. One side was flat to adhere to their armor, while the other had a slight bulge. They were stuck at intervals, correlating with vital areas.
Vigil walked up to Kitern. “Has there been an emergency?”
She shook her head. “If me being pissed as hell counts, then yes. Otherwise, no, there hasn’t been. We’re setting up for a game of skirmish. That’s what the sensors are for,” she said, pointing a claw at a device on Dentala’s helmet, nestled between her horns.
“What is skirmish?” Vigil asked.
“It’s a game you play to simulate a firefight. You put the sensors on your chest, back, head, arms, and legs.” She lifted a laser pistol with a bright blue block on the end of the barrel. “Then you put a dampener on an energy weapon of your choice and shoot eachother. The dampener lowers the power of the beam so that it can’t kill you, just trigger the sensors. It takes five shots to ‘kill’ someone, two if you shoot them in the head. Forgot how many you need if the species has more than one head, though.” She returned her sidearm to its holster and waved a hand dismissively. “Doesn’t matter. Point is, you want to play?”
He thought for a second. While labeled as a game, it would be an efficient tool to maintain combat readiness and test his new allies’ capabilities. They would need to be an efficient fighting force to have a chance against the Nemesis. “Affirmative,” he finally replied.
Kitern chuffed. “Good. Onsa, get this man a gun! Never thought I’d say those words.” She shrugged. “Oh well. If you need me, I’ll be with Shavan putting bets on the winners.”
“Hello down there!” the ship’s quartermaster said upon hearing her name. She waved down at them from a platform being held aloft by a crane which ran along the tracks embedded in the ceiling. She began lowering the platform via a linked data pad.
“Don’t tell the captain about that. It breaks several safety regulations,” Onsa said from the side, handing him a pack of sensors and an energy rifle with a dampener already attached. Vigil looked at them curiously and began putting them on various parts of his body. Meanwhile, Asteli and Gre’Namra returned, now fully armored, and grabbed two more rifles and packets of sensors.
Now high above the “battlefield”, Kitern announced. “If the contestants are ready, you may take your positions!” she said in a haughty voice. She leaned over and elbowed Shavan in the side. “Make sure you record this.”
Shavan chuffed and drawled, “Already ahead of ya.” Then linked her data pad to the hangar’s cameras, pointing them so they covered every inch of the field.
Asteli ran off to one side of the makeshift arena while Onsa and Dentala went to the other. Gre’Namra walked up to Vigil and said, “You’re on our team to help balance things out.” He nodded and followed the two privates to their designated starting point.
Kitern leaned over the hastily assembled railing of her platform, observing the playing field. It was a simple rectangle marked by lines of crates. Each side’s base was ringed by a wall of boxes and containers with gaps to get in and out. Cover was scattered periodically, with head height walls spread around the arena to break line of sight.
Seeing that everyone was at their bases, she called down, “If everyone is ready!” She paused, looking between the two opposing sides. “Begin the slaughter!” There was no bell, shot, or buzzer. Just a simple shout and the two sides were off.
All except for Vigil, who was still standing there while Asteli and Gre’Namra split and ran in opposite directions around a wall that defended the front of their base. Vigil looked back and forth between the two before randomly choosing to go to the right.
Turning the corner, he saw Gre’Namra hunkered behind cover. She was pressing a hand to the deck, concentrating on something. She looked back and saw him and made a hand motion, telling him to get down. Distracted by Gre’Namra, he did not see the two quick flashes from between a stack of crates, which spelled his doom.
The sensor on Vigil’s helmet flashed blue twice in quick succession, and all the sensors lit up. Indicating he was out.
“You’re dead Vigil, go sit on the side,” Kitern called down from her perch. Confused, Vigil did as ordered and observed the brief firefight. Gre’Namra, now revealed, had a small shootout with Onsa who had taken out Vigil. Gre’Namra returned fire, attempting to suppress Onsa.
When Onsa stopped shooting, Gre’Namra attempted to pull back get behind taller cover. The moment she left her stack of boxes, Onsa resumed firing and tagged her back three times. Though she was hit, she was not out. Cursing and slapping her tail on the deck in agitation, she elected to pull back and meet up with Asteli on the opposite side of the battlefield from her, rather than continue fighting Onsa. Gre’Namra fired blindly over cover, causing Onsa to duck down and give her a chance to escape.
Meanwhile, Asteli had pushed far forward, quickly being pinned down by Dentala. Already hit twice, she was reluctant to return fire. Until Gre’Namra appeared, she kneeled and leaned around cover, hitting Dentala and forcing her back. Now relieved, Asteli advanced with Gre’Namra’s over watch.
However, in their haste, they failed to ensure their flank was secure. As out of nowhere, Asteli was gunned down by Onsa firing diagonally from across the field.
Asteli stomped her foot and cursed, before trudging over to the side. Gre’Namra, now alone, pulled back to her base. She wanted to use the tight confines to her advantage, forcing her enemies to come to her. However, Dentala had other plans for her. Using Asteli’s tactics, she pushed hard, going down the center of the field where Gre’Namra had no sightlines.
As Dentala was advancing, she lept over low cover, set in between two walls. Waiting on the other side of the walls, was Gre’Namra. Gre’Namra had stopped retreating, when she realized she would only be trapping herself. Guessing that her seniors would assume she was running with her tail between her legs, she decided to lay a trap of her own. Using her species’ advanced sensory organs to track Dentala, even without line of sight, and set up where she would least expect.
Dentala was mid jump, when Gre’Namra opened fire. She was ‘dead’, before she even landed. “Tsk. That was smart, too bad you’re dead,” Dentala said with a bitter undertone.
Gre’Namra scoffed. “What? Look who talking!” As soon as the words left her mouth, her sensors flashed and stayed lit, indication she was dead.
Someone tapped the barrel of an energy rifle on the back of her helmet. “Remember your opponents. Lioranians have excellent speed and agility. If you aren’t paying attention, we can run up on you before you have time to react,” Onsa bragged from behind her.
Gre’Namra thumped her tail on the ground. “I could have sensed you anyway if I wasn’t wearing this armor! It reduces my sight time too much!”
“True,” Onsa nodded. “But without that armor, you would have been dead already.”
Kitern suddenly began clapping a hand on a section of railing, drawing everyone’s attention. “You did good privates. Better than I had thought. Vigil, you did about what I expected for your first time,” she said, looking down at everyone. Asteli was busy punching Vigil in the arm, blaming him for their loss. Vigil barely even registered the blows, let alone was harmed by them.
“Everyone, go back to your bases and get ready for round two. I’m hoping to see some improvement,” she said merrily, enjoying the show.
Taking up the same position as last time, Kitern began counting down. Asteli punched Vigil’s arm again. “Use some of that ass kicking energy you showed us on that Nemesis ship this tim-”
Kitern had finished counting down. The moment she did, Vigil practically disappeared. Startling Asteli and Gre’Namra, even Kitern and Shavan were wide eyed when Vigil darted around the container walls, making up their base.
They grew even wider, and their jaws appeared to hit the floor as they watched Vigil dash across the battlefield. He was a blur, rushing over and around cover. Already nearing the enemy base. He jumped on top of a waist high stack of crates and used both of his powerful legs to jump straight up and over Dentala’s and Onsa’s front wall.
The two marines hadn’t even left the confines of their base, when the light was blocked out by Vigil sailing above them. In an instant, the sensors on their heads flashed twice, then remained on, signaling their demise.
Vigil landed on both feet and went into a squat to help transfer some of the energy from his impact. He cleared the entire base and ended up on the outside of the arena. The deck reverberated from the force of his body slamming into it and created a mini avalanche of poorly stacked boxes. As the various boxes and crates fell away, Onsa and Dentala were graced with a view of Vigil’s back, as he slowly rose to an upright position.
They stared at him, flabbergasted. “How?” Dentala whispered in disbelief.
Kitern watched, just as stunned. “Uhhh… the match is… over,” she said slowly.
“What?!” Asteli shouted from her side of the field. She stuck her head out from behind cover, making sure it wasn’t a trap, before approaching the other base. Seeing that Dentala and Onsa were really out, she walked up to them and chuckled. “Remember your opponents. Humans have excellent speed and agility,” she mimicked Onsa’s earlier statement mockingly.
Onsa scowled at her. She then rotated her rifle with one arm and shot Asteli. Asteli returned the gesture by blowing her species’ equivalent of a raspberry. “Alright, alright. Settle down children,” Kitern announced as her platform lowered. “Normally you would be tied one for one, but now that Vigil seems to be trying. I doubt you’ll be getting any more points.” She directed the tail end of her sentence to Onsa and Dentala.
Dentala protested and gestured to the large imposing man who was now gathered with the others. “We can take him. Now that we know what he can do, we can beat him.”
Kitern waved her off. “I love the enthusiasm, but we couldn’t take him when we had actual guns. And he was literally dying. You can’t take him on now. Not the two of you atleast.” She then did something not characteristic of her species. Kitern grinned, barring her teeth. To a Lioranian, showing one’s teeth was a declaration of war, that you wanted to fight, that blood would soon be spilled. They also did it subconsciously when faced with a foe or extreme challenge. And right now, Vigil was both.
Kitern reached over and took off her sling. She rolled her left arm, causing it to pop. “You aren’t supposed to move your arm!” Onsa nagged.
“Yeah, yeah. What the doc don’t know won’t hurt her.” She picked up a pack of sensors and began putting them on. The sensor for her head looked stupid sitting on top of her head, like a little hat. “I’m joining in now, kiddos.”
“Um, captain. You aren’t wearing armor,” Gre’Namra pointed out.
“And?” Kitern scoffed. “Unless you take that dampener off, I can be as naked as the day I was born and not get hurt. At most it’ll singe my fur.”
Asteli spoke up, a nervous undertone in her voice. “Even with Vigil, ma’am, we can’t beat you.”
“You two won’t, but Vigil could. So it’s a good thing you won’t be fighting me,” she replied cryptically. The other four marines looked at her confused. Seeing their reactions, she chuffed and laughed. “Watching you all go at it made me excited. And since we’re still O for one against big boy over there. I think it’s time we evened the score.”
“You mean…” Dentala said, catching on.
Kitern nodded. “Yep. It’s going to be a five versus one. We’re going to have a grudge match.”
All eyes turned to Vigil. He simply tilted his head, not sure why everyone was looking at him.
First Previous
Hello, I am back! For how long? I have no idea, but until I have to leave again, I'll be uploading as normal. Also, after this point, you may occasionally see stories called Orphan: Tales of the Past, where I give a bit more backstory or just write "bolter porn", (I hope I'm using that correctly) essentially just action packed wabattle scenes from the Human Nemesis war. To be honest, 99% of it is bolter porn. I have backstory chapters for several characters set up, but haven't actually written any yet.
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2023.05.29 17:35 TheScribe_1 [The Book of the Chosen] - Chapter Eleven - The Room of Doors

Previous Chapter - Read 10 weeks ahead on Patreon - Read the story so far on Royal Road
*
Chapter Eleven - The Room of Doors
‘Get moving!’
Sara watched the men readying their horses, squinting at the brightness of the stone. The courtyard was full of the sound of boot-steps and creaking leather. Overhead, a thin veil of rippled grey hung over the early winter sky, and the dawn sun tugged gleaming at its edges. Overhead, the dull black shape of an old stormtower bled the sky. Empty, just like the rest of them. There was something very jarring, Sara decided, about the worn jerkins and stubbled cheeks of her father’s men, ensconced in a pillared courtyard of vast stone. They were out of place, and they had been every moment since arriving in Uldoroth, she realised. They didn’t belong here. Her own anxiety was mirrored imperfectly with the relief on their weary faces, and the dark rings under their eyes seemed just a little less deep. There may be Black Hand to deal with, back in the Westmere, but it was home. At least there your enemies had the decency to show themselves. Sara realised she was chewing her lip. At her back, two of the Black Guard waited wordlessly in their gold-touched armour, much more in keeping with the finery of the courtyard, and everything else in the capital. They were waiting to escort her away to the Queen, unaware they found a girl not so eager for the honour as she had been, just a few days before.
‘Father!’ She called out, spying him across the writhing mass of men in their moss green cloaks, but he seemed not to hear her. He was standing near the arched cloister at the far side of the square, cloaked and ready for travel, in hurried conversation with a shaded figure standing beyond the marble facade. She squinted, trying to make out the other man, but there was nothing but a dark shadow to trace.
‘Well then, M’lady.’ A voice said beside her, and she turned to find Halin looking down at her, a kind smile on his broad face. ‘You’ll be a right proper Princess when I next see you, methinks.’
Sara smiled at him and shook her head sheepishly. ‘Uldoroth is not my home, yet, Halin. I won’t forget.’
‘Be careful you don’t, Lady Sara.’ Halin glanced distrustfully at the Black Guard behind her. ‘Lots of fancy folk here. Fancy folk with fancier lies.’
‘I’ll be careful, Halin.’ She told him seriously.
He smiled again, and the sternness dissolved away from his face.
‘Take care, M’Lady.’ He told her, dipping his head politely. She returned the gesture, dropping into a small curtsy.
‘Look after my father, will you?’
‘Always, M’Lady.’
Halin hurried off into the throng in the square, and Sara watched him go, feeling her the knot in her belly tighten. The conversations with her unexpected visitors had left their mark, a nagging uncertainty gnawing at the excitement that had carried her through her first few uneventful days in the capital. The little comfort she had taken in the presence of her father and his men was a loss she could ill afford. She watched her father’s back, frowning softly to herself. Her thoughts were not what she had imagined, when she had thought of him leaving. A hundred different times, and more. Had she expected tears, grief at the parting? Relief? Instead, there was only the fear, a dull, leaden weight in her belly, clammy-cold as marsh-water.
‘Come on, you whoresons! I want to be on the road before lunch!’ Halin roared, and the men quickened their work. Her father had not moved, still deep in conversation, just out of sight. She peered a little closer, and for a moment the pale sunlight crept over the top of the square, flashing against a colourful doublet marked with a silver brooch. The Fox’s lips barely moved as he spoke from the shadows of the cloister, and her father was scowling. Sara frowned.
‘Mount up!’
The ornate wagon that had been her home all those weeks trundled into the square, then, drawn by a pair of stout horses. Sara saw her father turn reluctantly towards it, striding out into the square. Sara peered past him into the cloister, and for a moment Lord Bywood’s sharp eyes caught hers. Then he smiled, dipping his dark, smooth head, and vanished himself away into the shadows.
‘Father!’
Sara hurried out into the crowded square, leaving her escort behind, darting between the shifting limbs of the horses. Her father turned towards her as she approached, and smiled small smile, in two parts, one weary, one sad.
‘Sara.’
She threw her arms around him and pressed her head against his chest for a moment, and he put an arm around her shoulders. She knew her role, and the knowing of it made her safe for a moment. Then she stepped back, looking up at him.
‘I thought you were going to leave without saying goodbye.’
‘I… There was much preparation to do.’
Sara did not reply. His eyes had that same distance that they had had since they arrived in the capital. Uldoroth had worn at him, as if all the brightness and finery had made his skin dull, eyes darkened like the contrast of shadows in bright sun.
‘Will you write?’
He blinked as she spoke, then smiled, and the tiredness fell away from him for a moment. He took her chin gently in one hand, tilting it up to meet his eyes.
‘Yes, I will write.’ He told her, and she saw again that fierce ambition in his eyes, the look she had known so well on their journey from the Westmere. Swollen around the soft, lazy ease of diminished strength. ‘And I shall expect news in return. The Rose of Westmere will show these fools how a real lady charms.’
Sara smiled and lowered her eyes self-consciously.
‘I… I will not disappoint you, father.’ She said quietly, and found, in spite of herself, that there were tears in her eyes.
‘See that you do not.’ He replied. Then he let go of her chin and climbed quickly into the carriage. He leaned out from the window for a moment, before they were gone, banging a hand against the wooden panels of the door impatiently.
‘Move out!’
‘You heard him!’ Halin bellowed in response, holding his horse in check beneath him. ‘Back to Westmere, before your wives go straying!’
With that, her father’s men spurred their horses away into the white corridors of the citadel, bound for the sky-cages and the city below. They had arrived on foot, leading their steeds, but they left by horseback, hurried by grave purpose towards the long road west. She watched the window of the carriage as it trundled away with the horses, but her father did not appear again. She stayed there, staring after them, until the party were out of sight and the great gate of the keep heaved closed behind them, slamming into the distant stone with a resounding thud.
‘M’Lady.’
She turned to find the Black Guard waiting, watching her with dark eyes through the narrow slits of their polished helms. For a moment, the suddenness of the departure threatened to overwhelm her. What was it he had told her, slurring over his unfinished dinner, in the pristine perfection of their lodgings, surrounded by invisible eyes? Power belongs to the strong. To those who take it. Just then, standing in the courtyard, watching alone as her father departed, she realised that he was right. And he wasn’t strong enough. She took a deep breath, smiling for the Black Guard, and followed them out of the ancient courtyard into the halls beyond.
*
The broad, open avenues and garden-ways of the Keep of Eranor closed in to interior corridors rather quickly, when you knew the way, and soon Sara was following her black-gilded escort through pale passageways lined with statuettes and tapestries, ceilings lost far overhead to the flickering light of amber flames. An occasional glimpse of pale sunlight leaped out across the stone floor, shimmering through shifting motes of dust. Sara was her Lady-self again, graceful and poised, gliding over the polished floor after her escort. The giant corridors were a maze of twists and turns, past fragment-views of gardens and libraries and sitting-halls and galleries, but she was dimly aware they were moving towards the Hall of the King. The thought made her a little giddy.
‘Will I be received in the King’s Hall?’ She asked as they walked, but the Black Guards didn’t reply, and their armour clinked in the quiet. Sara frowned, following them. The passage curved, rising, and she found that the wall on her right side suddenly gave way to the hall below. One of the galleries, set high in the rafters of the King’s Hall. She stopped, putting her hand on the balustrade and peering out over the ledge, into the vaulted, silent emptiness of the hall. Some fifty foot below, the patterned black and white marble of the floor gleamed in flashes of reflected amber, quiet and empty. At the far end, pale sunlight caught the Night Throne, setting fire in the mirrored stone. Overhead, the matching nightglass ceiling gleamed like a lake in starlight, and swirling figures swept back and forth across it in the shifting light of the chamber. Sara felt a little thrill run over her neck.
‘Sara.’
Sara blinked, starting, and found Dana standing beside her.
‘Sister!’ Sara took hold of her sister’s hands and rose onto her tiptoes, pressing a kiss against her cheek. ‘Here to welcome me into the fold?’
She was struck again by the strangeness of her sister, the difference in her. Dana wore black, a dress of simple lines and inlaid jet, at once relaxed and taut as a lute string. Her pale hands were folded over her belly, and her muddy dark hair was pulled back into a bun. The Black Guards halted behind her, waiting.
‘I am to escort you to the Queen’s chambers.’ Dana said simply. With that she turned and began to walk away along the balcony, towards a closed door at the throne-end of the hall. Sara frowned, hurrying after her.
‘Do the King and Queen not share chambers?’ She asked as they walked, and the hall below drew on beside them.
‘Their Majesties prefer… to keep their own space.’
The Black Guard fell into step at a respectful distance behind them, armoured heels clicking against the stone.
‘How many others are there?’
‘How many what?’
‘Handmaidens. How many does her Majesty keep?’
Dana did not break stride. ‘Two others, and the Matron.’
‘I suppose we shall not have servants of our own.’ Sara said quietly, eyeing the shadows shifting over the nightglass ceiling. ‘No need to spy on us when we are so close.’
‘Sara-’ Dana began, but Sara cut her off.
‘Father is gone, you know. This morning.’
‘I know.’ Dana replied, looking ahead.
‘You did not come to see him.’
Dana did not turn.
‘I’m sure he will miss you terribly, sister.’
Sara bristled suddenly, grabbing her sister’s arm.
‘I did not ask for it!’
Dana looked down at the hand on her arm, frowning. ‘What?’
‘Any of it!’ Sara told her, angry now, her whisper cracking. ‘I didn’t ask to stay. I didn’t ask him to send you away. I would have given anything to go with you. I thought he would never let me leave.’ She lowered her voice, flicking an eye back towards the waiting guards. ‘I did not ask for the way he… the way he…’
She took a breath, swallowing, and straightened, looking her sister in the eye.
‘There are worse things than being ignored, Dana.’
Dana’s hand folded over hers.
‘Let’s… let’s put it behind us.’ She said quietly. ‘You are here, now.’
Sara blinked at her, nodding. She wanted to say more, but her words would not come, locked away from her tongue by the choked gulping of her breath. She lowered her eyes, and Dana squeezed her hand.
‘Sara, listen to me.’ Dana murmured, leaning close. ‘You must be careful. The Queen-’
The door at the far end of the gallery swung open, creaking on its hinges. The pair fell silent, frozen, and whatever Dana might have said, she held instead.
*
‘Wait here.’
The Matron, the head of the Queen’s Keepers, was an elderly woman with rounding hips and hair the colour of ash tied into a tight bun behind the worn-leather creases of her forehead. She was wearing black, same as Dana, though her smock was somehow plainer, when she opened the door onto the gallery, ushering the sisters wordlessly into the corridor beyond. Dana had bowed her head deferentially, withering under the Matron’s hard eyes, and quickly disappeared into one of the many doors of the hallway. Sara almost asked for her to stay, but instead she steeled herself, remembering her lessons, and followed the stern old woman down the long, flickering hallway. The corridors of the keep were all severe, all lit by weak, flickering torchlight and gleaming the gleam of cold stone, but here they were particularly bare. There were no busts, no tapestries, no mosaics. Nothing but cold, dead rock, lent a little life by the dim thrustings of infrequent braziers. In her own apartments, she had understood the quiet, but here, in the keep proper, there was an eery silence to the corridors that jarred with Sara’s anticipation. Where were the nobles in their gay clothes, where was the music and laughter of a King’s Hall? Sara frowned to herself, and kept walking.
The room at the end of the hallway was broad and rounded, like a kind of circle made out of many flat edges, each holding the low light of a brazier. The marble floors were black and white and patterned like a gamesboard, empty but for a broad nightwood table at its centre, matching the room itself for its odd roundness. On the far side, a wall of shutters opened out onto a large, bare balcony, and over the intricately wrought stone balustrade, Sara could see the City of the Moon below, sweeping away towards the edge of the Heartspire, empty stormtowers stabbing black into the sky. Beyond, the great emerald plains of Valia stretched out into the west, past the fiery line of the river Arq, scored with jagged, dark rock and silver streams. Sara swallowed, realising she’d never been so high up.
‘Wait here.’
‘But-‘ She protested, frowning, but the Matron was already gone, turned on her heel and disappeared back the way she had come. Sara flinched as the door slammed shut behind her, and the silence of the room prickled at her skin. The breeze rustled over the balcony, swirling about the pillared windows, but the air inside was still as the grave. She stepped slowly over to the table, touching the polished wood. This much nightwood would have cost more than a wagonload of gold. She traced the knotted lines across the black surface, trying to ignore the cold weight churning in her gut.
Time stretched on around her, and the minutes dragged by like years. Despite the open air flooding through the windows, the chamber was not cool, warmed by the subtle glow of the braziers, and she felt a little wetness beginning to build under her arms. She looked about herself, trying to calm her heart. There were four other doors in the room, besides the one they had entered through, all dark and heavy looking, and each bore a pattern of silver on its face. There was a cradle, and opposite it, a pendant with teeth like a wolf. Beside the cradle door, a small drinks table, a glass jug of purple wine atop it, with a pair of matching glasses. The two doors closest to the balcony bore a sun and a crescent moon. She looked a little closer, and realised that the markings were not moonsilver, merely an imitation in gleaming silver paint, and the door she had entered through bore no markings at all. Sara watched them, imagining the rooms that lay behind each. Which one was the Queen behind, she wondered, and her heart quickened at the thought, stomach churning. She was stranded, here, now, in the capital. What if the Queen didn’t like her? What if she said something wrong? Would she be sent away again, back to her father?
‘Lady Westmere.’
The crescent moon had swung open, and the Queen glided through, a beautiful shadow in a studded black dress, arms glistening with little sharpened sequins the colour of midnight. Her hair had been contorted into an elaborate maze of raven curls over her pate, and her pale skin took on a translucent sheen in the pale light from the balcony doors. The throat of her dress was open, as it had been in the King’s Hall all those days ago, and she wore the same golden necklace, its myriad points sharp like daggers with their drops of ruby blood.
Sara blinked, then remembered herself, and dropped into a low curtsy, bowing her head.
‘Your Majesty.’ She said quietly, keeping her eyes on the floor.
The Queen did not reply. Sara was dimly aware of her shadow moving across the floor, crossing to the drinks table beside the cradle door. Sara risked a glance up, then, and found the Queen’s slender back to her. When she at last turned, she had a glass goblet of wine clutched in her narrow fingers. Sara lowered her eyes again.
‘You are a pretty one, aren’t you.’ The Queen said quietly, as if to herself. Her voice was cold, like ice leaking over lakewater, deep and still. She took a sip from her cup, and Sara could feel the cut of her eyes against her skin. ‘What did the Weasel of Westmere do to sire such a pretty daughter. Your sister, maybe, I understand, but you…’
Sara forced herself not to frown.
‘Well trained, I see.’ The Queen murmured, smiling coldly. She took another sip of her wine. ‘Your mother’s touch, I assume, not your father’s.’
Sara hesitated. She glanced up at the Queen, then lowered her eyes again, nodding.
‘I hear she is unwell.’
Sara looked up again, braver this time, and found the Queen’s dark eyes watching her over the rim of her glass.
‘She has an affliction, Your Majesty. She does not eat, and rarely sleeps. The Keepers say it is a disease of her mind.’
‘The one thing none of us can escape.’ The Queen sighed, toying idly with her glass and looking out of the window over the city below. ‘Still, there are worse places to be sickly than a Lord’s hall.’
‘I suppose… I suppose that is true, Your Majesty.’
The Queen raised an eyebrow. ‘Suppose, do you?’
Sara squirmed for a moment under the weight of her eyes, but then the Queen turned away, stepping slowly around the edge of the table till she was standing beside the open windows. She took another sip of her wine, back to Sara again.
‘Your sister met you, this morning.’
Sara hesitated, thrown for a moment by the abruptness of the statement.
‘Yes, Your Majesty.’
‘And she came to you yesterday, in the apartments Bywood found for you.’
‘Yes.’ Sara felt the cold weight return in her belly. She thought of what the Fox had warned her. There is always someone watching. She cast her mind back to her conversations with Dana. Gods. What had they spoken of? Had she said something out of turn?
‘Curious, that she did not seek out your father.’
Sara let out her breath slowly. That was not a particularly well-hidden curiosity.
‘Dana must have been very busy, Your Majesty.’
‘She is as busy as I make her, and that is rarely too taxing.’
Sara sighed. ‘They have… sometimes not seen eye to eye.’
‘And you?’ The Queen turned as she spoke, fixing her eyes to Sara’s again. Behind her, the distant sounds of the city drifted lazily up through the air, swirling around far-off columns of wispy smoke. ‘What do you say of him?’
Sara hesitated again, stuttering. ‘He is my father, Your Majesty. I trust that he always knows what is best for his daughters.’
‘In my experience it is fathers who know the least about their own daughters.’ The Queen replied dryly, sipping again. ‘Come, let me look at you, then.’
She came back around the nightwood table, her long, narrow limbs gliding over the polished floor, and stopped in front of Sara, setting her glass down beside them. She took Sara’s chin in two spindly fingers and tilted it upwards so that she was looking her in the eye, only a few inches from her face. Sara realised again how tall she was, as tall as her father, at least, though her slender frame made her seem much smaller. She tried not to squirm, but she found that the Queen’s fingers dug uncomfortably into her chin, dark eyes flitting back and forth across her face like a hungry wolf.
‘Yes, very pretty.’ She said at last, not releasing her chin. Sara could feel her breath on her face, smelling softly of dark wine. ‘No wonder. You look like her, you know.’
‘Who-‘ but the Queen had already turned away, back to the table, picking up her wineglass in one bone-stretched hand.
‘The Matron will meet you outside. She will give you your tasks and show you to your chamber. You will begin tomorrow.’
Sara flinched, realising she had been holding her breath. She curtsied to the Queen’s back, suddenly a little giddy.
‘Thank you, Your Majesty.’
‘You may go, girl.’
Sara turned to go, not at all sure what to make of the encounter. She paused at the door, looking back over her shoulder, but found the Queen looking out over the city silently again, wineglass in hand, black dress glistening with jet. Sara hesitated a moment longer, then hurried out into the corridor beyond the unmarked door, closing it behind her.
*
The night before her father leaves, she wakes in darkness.
She does not open her eyes, but she knows it is not yet dawn. The sounds of the garden beyond her shutters are soft and murmuring, wind-stirred and drip-spotted.
She can feel him over her, the tense stillness of him, closer than shadows. He smells of wine. Sweat. She is cold, but she does not move. She dares not move. She can feel the weight of his eyes, dulled with drink, tracing the lines of her. His breathing sounds like anger.
She does not know how long she waits there, frozen. But she does not open her eyes. Not once. Time stretches out before her in that moment, an eternity of breathless terror.
Then he leaves. The smell of him lingers long after the door has closed behind him. She lays there a while longer, motionless, dead as stone. Then she curls into her own arms, and weeps silently until the dawn.
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2023.05.29 17:33 TheScribe_1 [The Book of the Chosen] - Chapter Eleven - The Room of Doors

Series Page - Read 10 weeks ahead on Patreon - Read the story so far on Royal Road
*
Chapter Eleven - The Room of Doors

‘Get moving!’
Sara watched the men readying their horses, squinting at the bright-ness of the stone. The courtyard was full of the sound of boot-steps and creaking leather. Overhead, a thin veil of rippled grey hung over the early winter sky, and the dawn sun tugged gleaming at its edges. Over-head, the dull black shape of an old stormtower bled the sky. Empty, just like the rest of them. There was something very jarring, Sara de-cided, about the worn jerkins and stubbled cheeks of her father’s men, ensconced in a pillared courtyard of vast stone. They were out of place, and they had been every moment since arriving in Uldoroth, she real-ised. They didn’t belong here. Her own anxiety was mirrored imper-fectly with the relief on their weary faces, and the dark rings under their eyes seemed just a little less deep. There may be Black Hand to deal with, back in the Westmere, but it was home. At least there your ene-mies had the decency to show themselves. Sara realised she was chew-ing her lip. At her back, two of the Black Guard waited wordlessly in their gold-touched armour, much more in keeping with the finery of the courtyard, and everything else in the capital. They were waiting to es-cort her away to the Queen, unaware they found a girl not so eager for the honour as she had been, just a few days before.
‘Father!’ She called out, spying him across the writhing mass of men in their moss green cloaks, but he seemed not to hear her. He was standing near the arched cloister at the far side of the square, cloaked and ready for travel, in hurried conversation with a shaded figure stand-ing beyond the marble facade. She squinted, trying to make out the oth-er man, but there was nothing but a dark shadow to trace.
‘Well then, M’lady.’ A voice said beside her, and she turned to find Halin looking down at her, a kind smile on his broad face. ‘You’ll be a right proper Princess when I next see you, methinks.’
Sara smiled at him and shook her head sheepishly. ‘Uldoroth is not my home, yet, Halin. I won’t forget.’
‘Be careful you don’t, Lady Sara.’ Halin glanced distrustfully at the Black Guard behind her. ‘Lots of fancy folk here. Fancy folk with fan-cier lies.’
‘I’ll be careful, Halin.’ She told him seriously.
He smiled again, and the sternness dissolved away from his face.
‘Take care, M’Lady.’ He told her, dipping his head politely. She re-turned the gesture, dropping into a small curtsy.
‘Look after my father, will you?’
‘Always, M’Lady.’
Halin hurried off into the throng in the square, and Sara watched him go, feeling her the knot in her belly tighten. The conversations with her unexpected visitors had left their mark, a nagging uncertainty gnawing at the excitement that had carried her through her first few uneventful days in the capital. The little comfort she had taken in the presence of her father and his men was a loss she could ill afford. She watched her father’s back, frowning softly to herself. Her thoughts were not what she had imagined, when she had thought of him leaving. A hundred dif-ferent times, and more. Had she expected tears, grief at the parting? Re-lief? Instead, there was only the fear, a dull, leaden weight in her belly, clammy-cold as marsh-water.
‘Come on, you whoresons! I want to be on the road before lunch!’ Halin roared, and the men quickened their work. Her father had not moved, still deep in conversation, just out of sight. She peered a little closer, and for a moment the pale sunlight crept over the top of the square, flashing against a colourful doublet marked with a silver brooch. The Fox’s lips barely moved as he spoke from the shadows of the cloister, and her father was scowling. Sara frowned.
‘Mount up!’
The ornate wagon that had been her home all those weeks trundled into the square, then, drawn by a pair of stout horses. Sara saw her fa-ther turn reluctantly towards it, striding out into the square. Sara peered past him into the cloister, and for a moment Lord Bywood’s sharp eyes caught hers. Then he smiled, dipping his dark, smooth head, and van-ished himself away into the shadows.
‘Father!’
Sara hurried out into the crowded square, leaving her escort behind, darting between the shifting limbs of the horses. Her father turned to-wards her as she approached, and smiled small smile, in two parts, one weary, one sad.
‘Sara.’
She threw her arms around him and pressed her head against his chest for a moment, and he put an arm around her shoulders. She knew her role, and the knowing of it made her safe for a moment. Then she stepped back, looking up at him.
‘I thought you were going to leave without saying goodbye.’
‘I… There was much preparation to do.’
Sara did not reply. His eyes had that same distance that they had had since they arrived in the capital. Uldoroth had worn at him, as if all the brightness and finery had made his skin dull, eyes darkened like the contrast of shadows in bright sun.
‘Will you write?’
He blinked as she spoke, then smiled, and the tiredness fell away from him for a moment. He took her chin gently in one hand, tilting it up to meet his eyes.
‘Yes, I will write.’ He told her, and she saw again that fierce ambi-tion in his eyes, the look she had known so well on their journey from the Westmere. Swollen around the soft, lazy ease of diminished strength. ‘And I shall expect news in return. The Rose of Westmere will show these fools how a real lady charms.’
Sara smiled and lowered her eyes self-consciously.
‘I… I will not disappoint you, father.’ She said quietly, and found, in spite of herself, that there were tears in her eyes.
‘See that you do not.’ He replied. Then he let go of her chin and climbed quickly into the carriage. He leaned out from the window for a moment, before they were gone, banging a hand against the wooden panels of the door impatiently.
‘Move out!’
‘You heard him!’ Halin bellowed in response, holding his horse in check beneath him. ‘Back to Westmere, before your wives go stray-ing!’
With that, her father’s men spurred their horses away into the white corridors of the citadel, bound for the sky-cages and the city below. They had arrived on foot, leading their steeds, but they left by horse-back, hurried by grave purpose towards the long road west. She watched the window of the carriage as it trundled away with the horses, but her father did not appear again. She stayed there, staring after them, until the party were out of sight and the great gate of the keep heaved closed behind them, slamming into the distant stone with a resounding thud.
‘M’Lady.’
She turned to find the Black Guard waiting, watching her with dark eyes through the narrow slits of their polished helms. For a moment, the suddenness of the departure threatened to overwhelm her. What was it he had told her, slurring over his unfinished dinner, in the pristine per-fection of their lodgings, surrounded by invisible eyes? Power belongs to the strong. To those who take it. Just then, standing in the courtyard, watching alone as her father departed, she realised that he was right. And he wasn’t strong enough. She took a deep breath, smiling for the Black Guard, and followed them out of the ancient courtyard into the halls beyond.
*
The broad, open avenues and garden-ways of the Keep of Eranor closed in to interior corridors rather quickly, when you knew the way, and soon Sara was following her black-gilded escort through pale pas-sageways lined with statuettes and tapestries, ceilings lost far overhead to the flickering light of amber flames. An occasional glimpse of pale sunlight leaped out across the stone floor, shimmering through shifting motes of dust. Sara was her Lady-self again, graceful and poised, glid-ing over the polished floor after her escort. The giant corridors were a maze of twists and turns, past fragment-views of gardens and libraries and sitting-halls and galleries, but she was dimly aware they were mov-ing towards the Hall of the King. The thought made her a little giddy.
‘Will I be received in the King’s Hall?’ She asked as they walked, but the Black Guards didn’t reply, and their armour clinked in the quiet. Sara frowned, following them. The passage curved, rising, and she found that the wall on her right side suddenly gave way to the hall be-low. One of the galleries, set high in the rafters of the King’s Hall. She stopped, putting her hand on the balustrade and peering out over the ledge, into the vaulted, silent emptiness of the hall. Some fifty foot be-low, the patterned black and white marble of the floor gleamed in flashes of reflected amber, quiet and empty. At the far end, pale sun-light caught the Night Throne, setting fire in the mirrored stone. Over-head, the matching nightglass ceiling gleamed like a lake in starlight, and swirling figures swept back and forth across it in the shifting light of the chamber. Sara felt a little thrill run over her neck.
‘Sara.’
Sara blinked, starting, and found Dana standing beside her.
‘Sister!’ Sara took hold of her sister’s hands and rose onto her tip-toes, pressing a kiss against her cheek. ‘Here to welcome me into the fold?’
She was struck again by the strangeness of her sister, the difference in her. Dana wore black, a dress of simple lines and inlaid jet, at once relaxed and taut as a lute string. Her pale hands were folded over her belly, and her muddy dark hair was pulled back into a bun. The Black Guards halted behind her, waiting.
‘I am to escort you to the Queen’s chambers.’ Dana said simply. With that she turned and began to walk away along the balcony, to-wards a closed door at the throne-end of the hall. Sara frowned, hurry-ing after her.
‘Do the King and Queen not share chambers?’ She asked as they walked, and the hall below drew on beside them.
‘Their Majesties prefer… to keep their own space.’
The Black Guard fell into step at a respectful distance behind them, armoured heels clicking against the stone.
‘How many others are there?’
‘How many what?’
‘Handmaidens. How many does her Majesty keep?’
Dana did not break stride. ‘Two others, and the Matron.’
‘I suppose we shall not have servants of our own.’ Sara said quietly, eyeing the shadows shifting over the nightglass ceiling. ‘No need to spy on us when we are so close.’
‘Sara-’ Dana began, but Sara cut her off.
‘Father is gone, you know. This morning.’
‘I know.’ Dana replied, looking ahead.
‘You did not come to see him.’
Dana did not turn.
‘I’m sure he will miss you terribly, sister.’
Sara bristled suddenly, grabbing her sister’s arm.
‘I did not ask for it!’
Dana looked down at the hand on her arm, frowning. ‘What?’
‘Any of it!’ Sara told her, angry now, her whisper cracking. ‘I didn’t ask to stay. I didn’t ask him to send you away. I would have given any-thing to go with you. I thought he would never let me leave.’ She low-ered her voice, flicking an eye back towards the waiting guards. ‘I did not ask for the way he… the way he…’
She took a breath, swallowing, and straightened, looking her sister in the eye.
‘There are worse things than being ignored, Dana.’
Dana’s hand folded over hers.
‘Let’s… let’s put it behind us.’ She said quietly. ‘You are here, now.’
Sara blinked at her, nodding. She wanted to say more, but her words would not come, locked away from her tongue by the choked gulping of her breath. She lowered her eyes, and Dana squeezed her hand.
‘Sara, listen to me.’ Dana murmured, leaning close. ‘You must be careful. The Queen-’
The door at the far end of the gallery swung open, creaking on its hinges. The pair fell silent, frozen, and whatever Dana might have said, she held instead.
*
‘Wait here.’
The Matron, the head of the Queen’s Keepers, was an elderly wom-an with rounding hips and hair the colour of ash tied into a tight bun behind the worn-leather creases of her forehead. She was wearing black, same as Dana, though her smock was somehow plainer, when she opened the door onto the gallery, ushering the sisters wordlessly in-to the corridor beyond. Dana had bowed her head deferentially, wither-ing under the Matron’s hard eyes, and quickly disappeared into one of the many doors of the hallway. Sara almost asked for her to stay, but instead she steeled herself, remembering her lessons, and followed the stern old woman down the long, flickering hallway. The corridors of the keep were all severe, all lit by weak, flickering torchlight and gleaming the gleam of cold stone, but here they were particularly bare. There were no busts, no tapestries, no mosaics. Nothing but cold, dead rock, lent a little life by the dim thrustings of infrequent braziers. In her own apartments, she had understood the quiet, but here, in the keep proper, there was an eery silence to the corridors that jarred with Sara’s anticipation. Where were the nobles in their gay clothes, where was the music and laughter of a King’s Hall? Sara frowned to herself, and kept walking.
The room at the end of the hallway was broad and rounded, like a kind of circle made out of many flat edges, each holding the low light of a brazier. The marble floors were black and white and patterned like a gamesboard, empty but for a broad nightwood table at its centre, matching the room itself for its odd roundness. On the far side, a wall of shutters opened out onto a large, bare balcony, and over the intricate-ly wrought stone balustrade, Sara could see the City of the Moon be-low, sweeping away towards the edge of the Heartspire, empty stormtowers stabbing black into the sky. Beyond, the great emerald plains of Valia stretched out into the west, past the fiery line of the river Arq, scored with jagged, dark rock and silver streams. Sara swallowed, realising she’d never been so high up.
‘Wait here.’
‘But-‘ She protested, frowning, but the Matron was already gone, turned on her heel and disappeared back the way she had come. Sara flinched as the door slammed shut behind her, and the silence of the room prickled at her skin. The breeze rustled over the balcony, swirling about the pillared windows, but the air inside was still as the grave. She stepped slowly over to the table, touching the polished wood. This much nightwood would have cost more than a wagonload of gold. She traced the knotted lines across the black surface, trying to ignore the cold weight churning in her gut.
Time stretched on around her, and the minutes dragged by like years. Despite the open air flooding through the windows, the chamber was not cool, warmed by the subtle glow of the braziers, and she felt a little wetness beginning to build under her arms. She looked about her-self, trying to calm her heart. There were four other doors in the room, besides the one they had entered through, all dark and heavy looking, and each bore a pattern of silver on its face. There was a cradle, and opposite it, a pendant with teeth like a wolf. Beside the cradle door, a small drinks table, a glass jug of purple wine atop it, with a pair of matching glasses. The two doors closest to the balcony bore a sun and a crescent moon. She looked a little closer, and realised that the markings were not moonsilver, merely an imitation in gleaming silver paint, and the door she had entered through bore no markings at all. Sara watched them, imagining the rooms that lay behind each. Which one was the Queen behind, she wondered, and her heart quickened at the thought, stomach churning. She was stranded, here, now, in the capital. What if the Queen didn’t like her? What if she said something wrong? Would she be sent away again, back to her father?
‘Lady Westmere.’
The crescent moon had swung open, and the Queen glided through, a beautiful shadow in a studded black dress, arms glistening with little sharpened sequins the colour of midnight. Her hair had been contorted into an elaborate maze of raven curls over her pate, and her pale skin took on a translucent sheen in the pale light from the balcony doors. The throat of her dress was open, as it had been in the King’s Hall all those days ago, and she wore the same golden necklace, its myriad points sharp like daggers with their drops of ruby blood.
Sara blinked, then remembered herself, and dropped into a low curt-sy, bowing her head.
‘Your Majesty.’ She said quietly, keeping her eyes on the floor.
The Queen did not reply. Sara was dimly aware of her shadow mov-ing across the floor, crossing to the drinks table beside the cradle door. Sara risked a glance up, then, and found the Queen’s slender back to her. When she at last turned, she had a glass goblet of wine clutched in her narrow fingers. Sara lowered her eyes again.
‘You are a pretty one, aren’t you.’ The Queen said quietly, as if to herself. Her voice was cold, like ice leaking over lakewater, deep and still. She took a sip from her cup, and Sara could feel the cut of her eyes against her skin. ‘What did the Weasel of Westmere do to sire such a pretty daughter. Your sister, maybe, I understand, but you…’
Sara forced herself not to frown.
‘Well trained, I see.’ The Queen murmured, smiling coldly. She took another sip of her wine. ‘Your mother’s touch, I assume, not your fa-ther’s.’
Sara hesitated. She glanced up at the Queen, then lowered her eyes again, nodding.
‘I hear she is unwell.’
Sara looked up again, braver this time, and found the Queen’s dark eyes watching her over the rim of her glass.
‘She has an affliction, Your Majesty. She does not eat, and rarely sleeps. The Keepers say it is a disease of her mind.’
‘The one thing none of us can escape.’ The Queen sighed, toying idly with her glass and looking out of the window over the city below. ‘Still, there are worse places to be sickly than a Lord’s hall.’
‘I suppose… I suppose that is true, Your Majesty.’
The Queen raised an eyebrow. ‘Suppose, do you?’
Sara squirmed for a moment under the weight of her eyes, but then the Queen turned away, stepping slowly around the edge of the table till she was standing beside the open windows. She took another sip of her wine, back to Sara again.
‘Your sister met you, this morning.’
Sara hesitated, thrown for a moment by the abruptness of the state-ment.
‘Yes, Your Majesty.’
‘And she came to you yesterday, in the apartments Bywood found for you.’
‘Yes.’ Sara felt the cold weight return in her belly. She thought of what the Fox had warned her. There is always someone watching. She cast her mind back to her conversations with Dana. Gods. What had they spoken of? Had she said something out of turn?
‘Curious, that she did not seek out your father.’
Sara let out her breath slowly. That was not a particularly well-hidden curiosity.
‘Dana must have been very busy, Your Majesty.’
‘She is as busy as I make her, and that is rarely too taxing.’
Sara sighed. ‘They have… sometimes not seen eye to eye.’
‘And you?’ The Queen turned as she spoke, fixing her eyes to Sara’s again. Behind her, the distant sounds of the city drifted lazily up through the air, swirling around far-off columns of wispy smoke. ‘What do you say of him?’
Sara hesitated again, stuttering. ‘He is my father, Your Majesty. I trust that he always knows what is best for his daughters.’
‘In my experience it is fathers who know the least about their own daughters.’ The Queen replied dryly, sipping again. ‘Come, let me look at you, then.’
She came back around the nightwood table, her long, narrow limbs gliding over the polished floor, and stopped in front of Sara, setting her glass down beside them. She took Sara’s chin in two spindly fingers and tilted it upwards so that she was looking her in the eye, only a few inches from her face. Sara realised again how tall she was, as tall as her father, at least, though her slender frame made her seem much smaller. She tried not to squirm, but she found that the Queen’s fingers dug un-comfortably into her chin, dark eyes flitting back and forth across her face like a hungry wolf.
‘Yes, very pretty.’ She said at last, not releasing her chin. Sara could feel her breath on her face, smelling softly of dark wine. ‘No wonder. You look like her, you know.’
‘Who-‘ but the Queen had already turned away, back to the table, picking up her wineglass in one bone-stretched hand.
‘The Matron will meet you outside. She will give you your tasks and show you to your chamber. You will begin tomorrow.’
Sara flinched, realising she had been holding her breath. She curt-sied to the Queen’s back, suddenly a little giddy.
‘Thank you, Your Majesty.’
‘You may go, girl.’
Sara turned to go, not at all sure what to make of the encounter. She paused at the door, looking back over her shoulder, but found the Queen looking out over the city silently again, wineglass in hand, black dress glistening with jet. Sara hesitated a moment longer, then hurried out into the corridor beyond the unmarked door, closing it behind her.
*
The night before her father leaves, she wakes in darkness.
She does not open her eyes, but she knows it is not yet dawn. The sounds of the garden beyond her shutters are soft and murmuring, wind-stirred and drip-spotted.
She can feel him over her, the tense stillness of him, closer than shadows. He smells of wine. Sweat. She is cold, but she does not move. She dares not move. She can feel the weight of his eyes, dulled with drink, tracing the lines of her. His breathing sounds like anger.
She does not know how long she waits there, frozen. But she does not open her eyes. Not once. Time stretches out before her in that mo-ment, an eternity of breathless terror.
Then he leaves. The smell of him lingers long after the door has closed behind him. She lays there a while longer, motionless, dead as stone. Then she curls into her own arms, and weeps silently until the dawn.
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