Short story and title art by Wanda Sonnemann
Aglaya was searching the castle for Parvena Demir. She had exchanged trailing sleeves and embroidered gloves for quilted armour and a helmet, an ugly, unshapely thing, but it fit well enough. Her hair was braided in a crown around her head, tied up with one of Parvena’s black silk ribbons.
The battle was about to start, she could see Imperial Raven banners on the plains outside the wall. Anxiety lay like a knot in her stomach, so tight it hurt. Hayrenik was in turmoil, tension covered the mountain and the plain like fog. Everyone moved with a purpose and Aglaya, who had never been part of the military found she was lacking one. So she decided to look for Parvena.
She found her at Yeul’s side, clad in black armour and armed with a shield instead of a ceremonial spear. Her expression was grim but composed. As Aglaya approached, the hint of a smile flashed across her face.
Yeul, once again girded with the matriarch’s ancestral blade was brooding over his maps, speaking to the Komandāns. He did not even acknowledge her arrival at his pavilion. His ashen eyes were fixed on his task, calculating hours ahead. She stuck to the corner closest to Parvena, away from the war table.
Her Grandmother was on the main gate, hearing out the empire’s envoy. Aglaya could see her from the command point and in her mind she could almost hear her rejecting the ultimatum. She could see the envoy’s banner now, returning to its own line. For a while all was still.
Signal horns sounded in the distance and single wave of thunder shred the silence. One of the stables exploded into dust and flying rubble. People in the courtyard started running, animals screamed. She could feel drum beats resounding in her bones and rattling her teeth. The sound of Hayrenik’s trebuchets made her jump, despite the fact that she had seen it being tested countless times before. She watched the fire fly and hit the ground far away on the plain with amazement and dread. The Komandāns surrounding Yeul were quiet now, standing at attention and waiting for their general’s first command.
Yeul spoke, his calm, cold voice resonating in the pavilion’s stone arcs: “This is the day we all knew would come. You all know the odds against us. You know what is at stake. And every one of you knows what to do. Let us show them that they belong in the desert.”
His callous voice, so different from what she remembered made her skin crawl. Suddenly she wasn’t sure if she really wanted to be here, seeing what was happening. The noblewoman touched the hilt of her barely used sword, wondering what good fencing lessons were in a war.
“I have a request.” She heard Parvena’s deep and composed voice. “Don’t get lost in the Battle. Don’t get hurt.” The guardswoman had turned towards the noblewoman, her dark eyes were fixed onto her. “Don’t die.” She added, and the graveness in her words made a shiver run down her spine. She could not hold Parvena’s gaze and averted her eyes, watching the banners in the distance instead.
“You too.” she stammered “You be careful as well. And don’t you dare to die on me.”
“I might not have anything to say in those matters.” Parvena admitted, setting down her shield and turning to watch the same banner fluttering on their poles. Her expression was dreary, her face was too calm. “I have a duty, and I will obey my orders, even if it costs my life.”
Neither of them spoke. Once more Aglaya turned back toward the soldier who had become dear to her. Minutes passed as the noblewoman watched Parvena breathe, and close her eyes. Finally they turned to face each other again
“Can I stay by your side?” Aglaya asked, trying to ignore the noises around her and a new gush of hopelessness flooded her mind. “I promise not to get in your way. But I need so see what is happening to you and to all of us. Being stuck in a Cabinet room with people to frail or to vain to pull their weight would kill me as surely as any flying boulder, bolt or spear.”
Parvenas face tensed a little again. “My duty is to Yeul. But stay close to him and I will try and shield you both from burning rocks and stray bolts.” She gave a strained smile, putting both armoured hands on the lady’s narrow shoulders. “We get through this alive, both of us and Satu.”
Satu was treating the first injuries of the night, unlucky archers, shrapnel wounds, an artillerist who had her arm mangled by a trebuchet. Those were the lucky ones, the ones that made it to the quieter parts of the castle in the back, from where one could not see how much the plain had changed its face. The ones for whom the fight was over before it truly began, if they survived the night. Above him fire flew through the leaden sky, crashing into the invader’s army. It stank.
He wiped a spray of blood and fatigue from his face with his sleeve, casting a glance up to the command tower. He could see Parvena and another Black Guard in front of the general’s pavilion, dark and stout; ready to jump into action at any given moment. He had seen Aglaya when she had climbed the tower, unfamiliar in her quilted armour, the helmet hiding her hair. He could see Yeul.
The strategist seemed calm, staring over the besiegers spread out in the distance. From this far away none of the weariness in his face was visible.
But when the evening bell rang and Yeul turned away to retire for the night, Satu could see the truth in his broken movements. The healer left it to his assistant to clean his tools and left for whatever place his patient would hide himself tonight.
Parvena was sitting between mountains of supply crates in the Matriarch’s hall, her sword next to her and a bowl of steaming stew on her knees. She was alone on duty for the night and Yeul had hidden himself here despite the fact that the hall was empty at this hour. Aglaya had not moved from her side and even followed her when Night Kommandān Tural Suzmeyliak took over the strategist’s duty for the night. The Lady had taken off her helmet and unfastened the quilted armour. Enveloped in Parvena’s cloak she sat close to the dark warrior, her own stew bowl held close to her body for warmth. Yeul had not touched his bowl, eyes fixed on the limestone floor as if searching for the shapes of the strange animals long turned to stone and enclosed into it. Ser Elçin, who was in charge of the outer wall’s defences had sat with them earlier, sharing stories of the day, trying to convince Yeul to eat: “You cannot forget your meal, Yeul. Just look at you. Be at ease, the Night Kommandān will hold the wall while you sleep.” He left after finishing his dinner. Yeul barely noticed, just as he either didn’t notice Aglaya or was too spent to object to her presence.
When Satu appeared out of nowhere in the deserted chair next to Yeul, Parvena almost didn’t recognize him. The Healer took the stew from the strategist’s indifferent hands, added something from his satchel and handed it back after tasting it. “Remember, you are not alone. I made a promise.”
A Glint of long lost fire woke in the Strategist’s ashen eyes. He did not speak, but the stiffness in his spine slowly melted away. He leaned into the healer’s open Arm, resting his head on his shoulder. Slowly, as if he had forgotten how he took the spoon from the bowl to his mouth.
When, Parvena thought, suddenly aware of the Lady Aglaya’s weight against her own shoulder. When did Yeul become one to lean on someone? And how was that someone Satu Aşlin?
The Healer met her eye, smiled and raised a finger to his mouth. “It’s a secret” he hushed. “And you are now part of it.”
“Why?” She mouthed back, but did not listen for an answer. Outside the bell for the rotation of the patrols rang. There was thunder in the distance. A candle died, hissing in a puddle of its own wax.
“How can I protect all of you?” She silently asked Satu. “How do I choose between you?” His wordless gaze did not provide a solution.
“How can he still lead us through this night?” She asked at last, but Satu refused to meet her eye. “How did I not notice until now?” Aglaya, finally asleep, stirred at her shoulder, as if she had heard her thoughts in her dreams.
It was the fifth day of the siege and Aglaya, watching a fire spread inside the castle, imagined she had become a shadow, more transparent with each passing day. People didn’t see her; she might as well have been invisible. She had no appetite, but then ghosts did not need any nourishment. She probably looked like a spectre as well, sleepless nights of thunder, smoke and trickling dust had drained her face, and she almost didn’t recognize her own eyes when she looked at her reflection in the mirror. Parvena, like a pillar on her post by Yeul’s side could see her, but her eyes had changed as well. The guardswoman did not smile at her anymore, but instead looked worried, or just sad. She only saw a shadow as well.
Satu was down in the courtyard somewhere, in a crowd of people struggling to extinguish the fire, tending to those wounded by the collapse. Fire had all but consumed the ruin that had been the servant’s quarter not long ago; she could only guess how many more, sleeping in the building during the evening hours had died. Satu’s tiny chamber, with its single window, the narrow bed and the chipped washing bowl, where she had hidden herself away from the world so many times was gone now, buried beneath rubble and smoldering beams.
She passed the Ailar guard who watched over Yeul together with Parvena and climbed down the stone stairs of Yeul’s towering pavilion. Surely even someone like her could be a link in a line of firebuckets.
Someone was watching, like she had been, from a ruined window hole of the cave castle above her, the very same window where she had waited for Parvena, where they had kissed. The man was not watching the fire, or the people in the courtyard. He was watching her, or maybe aiming not at her but the tower behind her. She froze, noticing the crossbow she had not seen before. She drew breath to call out to Parvena, but someone grabbed her from behind. Her warning became a wordless squeal. A blade flashed like a fatal precognition in the edge of her Vision. Her knees gave way, all strength sucked out of her knees by fear. She dropped to the floor like a sack of grain, to afraid to even breathe. She wanted to close her eyes, but couldn’t look away. She saw Parvena, throwing herself between the marksman and the Strategist. She heard the impact of the bolt, saw it buried deep in the black wooden shield. She saw the form of the second attacker bolting past her, and a third storming towards Yeul. The pair of black soldiers blocked their path with their blades drawn. She heard Yeul shouting orders, running feet. She saw the gnashed face of the woman who had yanked her off her feet, one remaining eye staring into nothingness. Her throat was split open; blood was slobbering out of the gash, her mouth, her nose. The second attacker screamed under the weight of the Ailar’s black, plated boot, and then suddenly stopped. The stranger’s own blade was covered in his blood as it slipped from his fist. The smell of death, closer than ever before penetrated her senses and made her gag. She blinked away the dread, noticed blood on her knuckles as she scrambled to her feet, supporting herself by leaning on the wall.
“I need a messenger. Report in.” she heard the Strategists voice: “Someone has to warn the Matriarch that there has been another assassin, and fast.” “I can warn her.” Aglaya heard herself call out. She pulled away from the wall, and repeated, looking straight into the strategist’s eye: “I will go, now. I’ll report back afterwards.” Without waiting for an answer she started to run towards the inner parts of the castle.
Satu was restocking his Satchel. He was preparing herbs for Yeul’s evening meal when Parvena all but tumbled into the storage room, still in armour, her damaged shield on her back. Beneath her crumbling calm exterior she was shaking. Something had happened.
“Yeul?” He asked, more harshly than he intended. “Alive.” Parvena answered breathless, but in a soldier’s tone. ”And safe. The situation is under control.” She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. Her fear pooled in tears she tried to hide behind closed eyelids. He sat her down on a crate. “Parvena, Look at me.” He implored her, and she slowly opened her eyes, the hidden tears flowing unhindered down her cheeks. “Tell me what happened. No worry, only I will see you wavering.” “There was another attempt on Yeul’s life,” she told him, sobs clawing their way into her voice, the entire soldier’s behaviour forgotten for a breath: “He was up in the caves, and more of them were hidden on the wall. We noticed them far too late.” With every word her voice became steadier. She was regaining control. “Aglaya warned us from a marksman in the window-hole, and others attacked. They are both dead. Only the man with the crossbow vanished into the upper halls of the cave castle and they are still searching for him. They closed off all entrances, so he cannot get down.” “You blocked the attack?” Satu asked, gesturing at the damaged shield. Remains of the crossbow’s bolt were still buried in the wood. “I did.” She confirmed. “I am unsure how, though. It all happened so fast.”
“You survived, all of you. That’s what matters” He turned away, looking through his jars. “I will give you a tranquilizing medicine, so you can sleep. Your responsibility has ended for today, your brothers in arms will guard the strategist now.” The healer wrapped winter cherry roots and lavender petals in paper. She nodded. Some part of her soul pulled more fear from her mind and allowed it to flow down her face. “I am sorry I cannot give you more of the time you deserve. I am worried for Yeul. They tried again so soon, and more boldly than the last time.“ He handed her the medicine and she accepted it. “It was you who found the poison, wasn’t it?” She asked. “By mere chance.” He explained, remembering the vibrating waves of crystal, or glass, in the Fyr where there shouldn’t have been any. It had taken him a long moment to realize what would happen if someone was to eat this meal, and all strength in his hands had vanished. The bowl he had held shattered on the floor. “Whoever did this knows Hayrenik well. That’s why I need to go.” He drew her into an embrace. “You can get through the night.” He told her, reluctantly letting go of her. He shouldered his satchel and turned to leave.
“Satu,” She called out: “What about you? It’s been five days. I don’t think I have seen you even take a break.” “I haven’t taken any.” He turned back to look at her. “People die when I sleep, and I hear their pain in my dreams.”
The thundering sound of cannon fire made Parvena brace for impact. A tower close to the command pavilion collapsed into rubble and dust. Markers on the war table were toppled over, candles were puffed out, dust and splinters clattered on her armour, and she shielded her face with a gauntlet. The blare echoed away. She looked up. Next to her Yeul hadn’t moved, he stood alone at the war table while the sun cut rays through the dust. His face and coat were stained with dust as well, but he did not bother with it. He took one of the toppled cast-iron markers and turned it in his hand “The false reports from the northern road.” He murmured, barely even aware of his surroundings. “But who was it. How could the enemy‘s troops get there so soon without me knowing if not with help from within?” He turned to the aide who was relighting the lamps: “Find out which scouts gave reports on the situation on the north. I need to speak to them in person”
“Aye, Ser!” The tremulous boy saluted and vanished into the castle, his steps swallowed by the thumping of their own ballistae, answering the enemy. Below them a boulder smashed into the courtyard, the impact shook the tower. “Who?” Yeul muttered, a blast swallowed what he said next. “Who has betrayed us?” He started searching stacks of reports with jittery hands, moving around the table and then fell still, Arms set on the table, eyes gazing into nothingness while mortar shells exploded around him like thunderbolts.
“They know we are here.” He called out, the gnawing realization his icy eyes. “They know my position.” He abandoned his maps and rushed towards her: “We need to move, Demir. Immediately!”
She turned to relay the order to her Comrades who were guarding the tower pavilion’s entrance, but her words were swallowed, together with her brothers in arms in a cascade of rock and dust. She threw herself in front of Yeul, throwing them both to the floor in pure instinct. The impact was deafening. Dust obscured her sight. A second explosion in the distance lit the pavilion for a single breath. The stairwell was gone in a mountain of loose rock, as were both of her comrades. She was alone.
Yeul was back on his feet before she was. “They know,” He repeated, his voice colourless “where we are.” She scrambled to her feet, scrutinizing the heap of rubble that had replaced the stairs. “We need to get down.” Without waiting for the strategist’s answer she jumped over the gap created by the collapse in full armour and turned back: “It is going to collapse, sir!” Yeul stared at her for a breath, and then gave a single nod. He jumped, with more momentum than she had, but she caught him when he tumbled towards her. She held onto his arm, shielding them both behind black wood until the tower’s ruin was behind them and were down in the courtyard, protected by walls no siege weapon had broken yet. He was bruised, his armour dented in, but the fatigue she had witnessed in Satu’s presence was concealed as yet. He was still the strategist, still standing and still in command. “Follow me.” He ordered her: “I need to speak to the Komandāns.”
He’d known his Komandāns for years. There was familiarity in the way he spoke to them, underlining the formal exchange of tactical information. Most of them were older than he was; scions of house Suzmeyliak, kin to the matriarch or leaders of the klans loyal to her. Yet Yeul suspected Treason among these men and women.
He inquired about their situation, but each one assured him they had the situation under control. “They might burn our outer courtyards, but they cannot breach the wall, no matter what they throw at it.” A grey-haired Komandān from the Vērten klan told him. She grinned and pointed at the mortar behind her: “We’re taking out their siege guns. They might have more artillery than we do, but we have the mountain on our side.”
Yeul informed her of his new position, a different one than he had told the last Komandān. “Be alert.” He ordered her, his voice carrying far despite howling mortars and rattling trebuchets “All this bombardment might be to conceal something else they are planning. Report, if you see suspicious activity.”
He went to meet with Elçin Suzmeyliak on the outer wall. Being only eighteen years of age Elçin was the youngest of the Komandāns. He had received his spores only days before the siege, yet he was one of the brightest tacticians.
The Enemies camp, spread like weed on the plain lay in the shadow of the mountain.
“The scout reports warn of more troops that will cross the river soon,” Elçin told his Mentor as they both stood on the battlements, bathed in evening sunlight while a roaring storm of human making was arround them. “Fresh troops and supplies. Siege guns so heavy they need eight pairs of oxen to move them. They will tear through these walls as if they were paper.” Yeul’s face showed no surprise, no emotion at all. His voice was placid. “We need to reclaim the north road.” He emphasised, “Our saboteurs are masters of their craft, but they need a way out without being seen.” “I agree,” Elçin answered: “But we also need the Hinterlanders’ support. And Ekh’s cavalry, if we are to break the siege.” “Ekh won’t come before winter.” replied Yeul. “And the Hinterland Clans are still undecided. I fear the matriarch will have to offer a lot if they are to join us.” The rivalry between Yurrde’s klans was as ancient as Hayrenik itself. Only time would show if the Empire did prove a danger fatal enough to unite them. The Klans of the neighbouring planes of Ekh however hated the empire, but the northern nomads were patient as well as proud. They would help, but on their terms. The Empire’s troops would suffer from the cold, and Ekh would use that.
They stood in silence, watching fires burn in the distance until Elçin was called by one of his soldiers. Yeul left him to his duty and turned back towards the inner gate. She followed him trough the labyrinth-like castle until he found Elnure Suzmeyliak, the Komandān of the Black Guard. Her superior. She watched the courtyard while they spoke in hushed voices, arguing.
“Guardswoman Parvena Demir.” The Komandān called her over. “Your Shift is over as of now. I’ll give the Strategist a fresh trio of guards. You are on standby until tomorrow noon.” Parvena bowed to her commander. Fatigue washed over her, her Vision blurred now that the responsibility lasted on a less battered trio of Black Guards. “I still have need of her, Komandān.” Yeul’s voice yanked her back into duty. She tensed up, breathed dust, and listened to muddled shouting in the distance. The commander gave him a dark look. “My guards are people, General, not tools do be thrown into a fire. And that one is done for the day.”
Yeul gave him a half smile. “Your concern for your soldiers is admirable. But this is hardly a time where such things matter as you surely have noticed.” He turned to Parvena. “I expect you are capable to perform your duty, Demir?” She nodded, ignoring the throbbing of strained muscles.
Night had fallen. The Black Guards marching with her were quiet. Their names would not come to her mind, only the names of those who had breathed their last below the pavilion’s rubble. Fidān Ailar and Irina Suzmelyiak. She had known Fidān for more than a decade, had trained with him every other day. She had hated his smug behaviour, his superiority despite the fact that he had never in a battle and she was a veteran. Now she wished that he had never needed to see war.
The pounding of the enemy siege guns made her teeth rattle. Or maybe it was the cold, or the dread of having a traitor in their midst. Faces started appearing in her mind, each more unlikely than the last.
She shut out all thought, concentrated on the sound of their feet, echoing in the hallway louder than the distant siege.
Satu was surrounded by dying soldiers. The woman by the arched window would not live through the night, and neither would the arbalest boy he had just finished tending to. Two more people, wasted in war when they would have had a whole life before them. He had given them a drug to steady their breathing, but to no avail. He checked the boy’s pulse, but it was almost extinct. The youngster had already stopped fighting. Satu turned away to tend to the next soldier, a man who had not yet given up on life, despite his bleeding shoulder and cracked ribcage.
Yeul entered the hospital, four Black Guardsmen in tow. Parvena was among them, her armour grey with dust. Only First Healer Aysel, her warm face unusually tense interrupted her work to bow. But Satu was not the only one to look up, wondering what drove such a high ranking officer here.
The strategist was bruised and battered, his coat full of dust and his armour dented in. He wore the face of a general like a tightly fitted mask. “How is the situation?” He asked the First Healer, “Are you still supplied?” Satu turned back to work on his patient, carefully palpated the shoulder but continued to listen. “We still have enough supplies at this moment.” The chief physician informed Yeul: “But the wounded keep pouring in. We do not have enough healers to tend to all of them.”
“Then treat those first who have a chance at a recovery. We will lose soldiers, but I’d rather not lose those who might be able to fight again before this siege is over.” The physician swallowed. “We will do whatever is possible.” She stared at the ground, searching for the courage to object, anger pounding in her chest so hard it upset Satu. “I am sure of it.” Yeul stopped her before she could speak. “Carry on.”
Satu was deep within thought, in a place of dislocated bone shards and pain that was not his own, he didn’t notice right away when Yeul appeared in front of him.
“His shoulder was pierced by a siege gun’s shrapnel.” Satu explained without looking up. “He is strong. They only managed to get him out an hour after he was injured. The projectile did not hit him, but it still did a lot of damage.” Yeul nodded as Satu turned to face him.
“You are in pain as well. Do you need me to look at it?” “I will not take much of your time” The strategist replied: “I can see this is dire.”
Satu rose from his kneeling position. “My assistant will take over for me and prepare the man for surgery. Best follow me inside.” He left his satchel and led the way out the back door, past crates of supplies in the herb garden trough the double doors of the pavilion that was reserved for treating the royals of the Suzmeyliak Klan. Yeul, carrying the Matriarch’s own heirloom girded to his hip certainly deserved to be treated away from prying eyes.
He turned around to speak to Yeul, but instead faced a duo of jet black blades pointed at him. He jumped back. Something was very wrong.
Yeul’s voice was like ice. “Why don’t we talk? You can drop your mask now.” Satu struggled to find words, tried to breathe. A distant crashing impact shattered all his thoughts. “What?” He croaked instead, backing off as the duo of guards slowly advanced on him. He had known their names at some point, but the weapons pointed at him dissolved them into beating anxiety.
“Did you think I didn’t see? What did the empire offer you? Yurrde, once the matriarch is gone? One more throne in Tien hand?” The healer bit his lip, fear and confusion burning in his eyes. He reached into the darkness beyond his own being, finding Yeul. But he could not see past the general, the iron strategist that even storms could not move.
He searched for Parvena, her eyes were wide with confusion. She had not drawn her blade.
He could not form words, the absurdity of his racing thoughts could not even convince himself. “I am no traitor,” was everything he managed. He wanted to blink away the shame of the accusation, but did not dare to let it run down his cheeks in front of the strategist. He took another step back, and another. “I am just a healer. I never craved power.”
The armoured glove of one of the guard knocked him to the ground. Parvena gasped. “He is really just what he claims, ser. I have known him for years.” She pleaded, stepping in front of Yeul: “It was him who found the poison.” “Shush, Demir.” He shoved her aside and drew his Blade. “It was him who tried to get close to me just a week before the siege. And the poison? Well, I couldn’t die of poison when he was next to me.” Satu hold his breath, feeling the cold steel against his throat. His head throbbed; he wouldn’t be able to hold back the tears much longer. He met Yeul’s eyes, sought for something, anything familiar in them. Yeul held his gaze with a stranger’s eye until the healer closed his eyes, forcing tears down his cheek at last.
The steel disappeared from his skin; he shrunk further to the ground in fear. With a grinding sound the blade was sheathed and he dared to open his eyes. Vision still blurred he saw Yeul, his face placid. The strategist offered him his hand, and the duo of Black Guards stepped back to the pavilion door. Parvena’s panicked face cracked, a laugh bubbled to the surface, relieved. The tension seeped from her faster than she could deal with, she caught herself on a table carved from solid marble when she lost her balance. Yeul gave a single nod. “Reason tells me you are either the best trickster I have ever met, or you are a friend.” He cast Parvena a glance. “You are dismissed for tonight. Be watchful of your Komandān. I am not sure of him yet.” Parvena bowed, not as low and less composed than usual. “I am thankful, ser. I will heed your warning.”
Satu’s face burned. Blood dropped from his temple onto his robe. He took the hand offered to him and scrambled onto his feet. He bowed, still holding Yeul’s hand. “I will follow you until the end.”He vowed. When he looked up he could see Yeul again, but he could also see the general who hat pointed his blade at him. “I will not misuse your trust.”
Yeul nodded in acceptance, the slightest of smiles brushed his lips. There was less ice in his eyes now. He freed his hands.
“My bruises will have to wait. And you are not short on work either, as I see it, and I have kept you from your patients.” He turned away to leave, flanked by his entourage. “Carry on.”
Satu watched him leave. He had given up on fighting his tears, and he gave up on standing as well as soon as Yeul was out of sight. He bruised his knees when he hit the ground, pain shooting up his spine, but it didn’t matter. His reflection, ghostly mirrored in the polished stone floor tiles stared back at him helplessly. He touched the wound on its temple, smearing the blood, leaving an ugly streak of red on his cheek.
With a creaking Parvena moved. “Are you aware what an honour the General bestowed upon you?” She asked, he voice as firm as she could manage with her seeping exhaustion. “What do I know of honour?” Satu replied, his throat hurting with each sob. “I am Tien, not even truly a part of Yurrde’s klans. I have never tried to be more than a simple healer.”
“And yet you are not just any healer. Don’t you understand, my friend?” She kneeled next to him, taking a handkerchief from her satchel, wiping the blood from his face. “You are the only one he confronted in this way. He wanted you to be worthy of trust.” She said softly. “He has precious few of whose loyalty he can be certain.” Satu shook his head, turned away from him, but she caught his chin with her hand.
“I think General Yeul Sarvirakan considers you more than just a surgeon. He leans on you. I might have entered this circle of people he seems to trust through assigned duty, but you have approached him on your own volition. And he has tested you in the way he needed to, and has allowed you to stay close. Now get a grip on yourself and act accordingly.” Her voice had caught fire, and Satu stared at her with watery eyes. He understood. If it had been me, he imagined, the Traitor who wished to see him end, I would have soon given him the final push into despair.
She let go of his chin and he allowed her to pull him to his feet. “I am sorry.” He murmured. “I was being selfish. Of course he needs to make sure I will not shatter him.” He gathered his hair that had come loose and pulled it back into its knot.
“It still hurts.” He admitted. Parvena understood, her eyes becoming soft again. “It will hurt again. Body and being.” She reminded him. “And that you will have to endure.”
He nodded. Part of him, the part that ignored the throbbing pain in his head and joints had known all along. He had known and deemed it a worthy price for a chance to heal their Strategist. The Strategist who was just a man in the end, still young, who hurt and bled like any other, perhaps more.
Thunder daunted Parvena from sleep. Dust tickling from the ceiling forced her to shut her eyes the moment she opened them. She blinked the grains away, eyes burning. Aglaya sat next to her, her head resting on her knees. So many buildings had collapsed to either bombardment or fire, the outer courtyards were in ruin. Only the walls themselves withstood the storm. The caves of the first castle were an uncomfortable and dirty place to sleep, but the weather did not reach them here.
“What are you doing here?” Parvena mumbled. “You still have a bed, in a room that has windows.”
Aglaya’s entangled hair and smeared face seemed to belong to a different, wilder lady than the one she had met before the siege started. Though it could not extinguish her beauty, it was a broken, bitter beauty now. “I cannot sleep. Not there.” Her eyes met Parvena’s, guilt shining in them. “I did something bad. By not doing anything. You remember the diary we read?” She whispered, handing the time worn leather journal to the warrior:
“I read the rest of it, to forget the siege for a moment. It made me realize that I know something I have withheld from the strategist.” Her eyes were locked onto the floor. “It might be of importance. There are tunnels beneath the cave castle. A city… you already know that.” She drew breath, closing here eyes to focus. “But that’s not the point. I’ve been down there more than once. I know my way around there. And there are Tunnels that go all the way down to the falls at the foot of the cliff. The book mentions them, and I know at least one.” Parvena stared at her. Around them soldiers and servants lay sleeping. Or did they? “You knew about it, and you only tell me now, after nine days?” She hissed. Glaya drew breath to speak, but Parvena silenced her, motioning at the snoring people on their mats. “Not here. Don’t tell anyone else except Yeul.” She whispered,
“We don’t know who might be listening right now.” Aglaya, mute and with dread mirrored in her face stared at Parvena, her mouth agape. “I…sorry. It was years ago. I had forgotten about it.” She stuttered, her eyes gleaming in the dim light. “Hush, my Lady. I am sorry.” The dark warrior drew the shivering lady close, arms wrapped around her as if she could squeeze out all the fear. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” Her eyes burned. The lady`s warmth against her body flooded her with hope. She did not let go, and neither did Aglaya. She buried her Face in her hair, let the tension in her spine melt away.
“I will tell him tomorrow, Glaya.” Parvena hushed, struggling to keep her voice steady. “I promise. I cannot wake him now.”
She held her in her arms until the lady had fallen asleep, and she wrapped her in her blanket and sat by her side until the bell called her to take up her shield once more. The remains of the assassin’s bolt were still buried in the wood.
The absence of the Lady’s warmth could not be compensated by the layers of her uniform. The shadows cast by her small lantern painted the hallways black, with specks of shivering light guiding her way through the castle and to Yeul’s quarters in the keep.
She all but stumbled across the dead servant boy. At a first glance he seemed to be sleeping, slumped against a wall but she smelled blood and stopped to turn look at his face. His eyes stared into darkness for eternity, his throat was slashed, his collar was drenched in crimson. There was no reason he should even be here, between the keep and the Cave castle at this hour. She hastened her step, armoured feet echoing in the hallways, and shoved aside a night servant who appeared in her path out of nowhere. Whoever had killed the servant boy had not even bothered to hide the body. The Assassins were getting bold, or maybe desperate.
The Black Guards at Yeul’s quarters were on their post, confused by her early arrival. “Is the strategist here?” She hissed, breathing heavily, “Is he save?”
“Everything is in order here.” One of the guards replied: “Nothing has occurred.” “A night servant has been murdered. I suspect another assassin.” She passed the pair of guards, entered the quarters and took position by the window. The guard on the post saluted to her in a cautious, soundless motion. Yeul was sleeping, his blankets rising and falling calmly.
“You are dismissed.”.” She told the third guard. “I’ll take your post early. Alert the barracks, and find out who that servant was. He might have been there by chance, but we can never be certain.”
The guard, half a decade younger and three ranks below her saluted and turned on his heel. His hasty steps faded away. Parvena listened for noises in the castle, tension again encrusting her spine, more tightly than her armour. The midnight bell rang. A fresh pair of Black Guards took the post by the door, blocking the Entrance, blades drawn. A patrol of Black Guards passed through the courtyard below, armed with torches.
Yeul was awake now she realized, and staring at her, eyes glinting in the darkness. “Midnight has passed,” She told him: “There was an incident, but our people are already investigating. I have just taken this post over from them. There should be a report by morning.” He nodded, mumbling something unintelligible and sank back into his cushions. Maybe he had not even been truly lucid.