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The worst thing about funerals was the smiles, Morna Provin thought. The wary, tremulous, uncertain smiles that never reached the eyes. The hesitant, insincere, I-don't-know-what-to-say-to-you smiles that everyone wore when attempting to express their sympathy, while inside they recoiled from this blatant reminder of their own mortality.
Morna walked behind the carriage bearing Wallin's body down toward Elcast harbor feeling numb. The first sun was high in the red-tinted sky. Perspiration stained her black silk gown in dark, unsightly patches under her arms and across her back.
Why do we wear black in this heat? she wondered idly. Or clothes with so many layers?
What half-witted fool invented the petticoat?
The Duchess of Elcast wore a dark veil over her face, which provided her with some small measure of privacy, but she knew every eye was on her. Did the onlookers think her dignified in her dry-eyed composure--or cold and unfeeling? She had not allowed herself to cry or even grieve yet; had not allowed herself to contemplate the future. Morna simply refused to think about it.
Rees Provin, her eldest son and the new Duke of Elcast, walked in front of her. Beside him was his bride of three months, Faralan. Rees had assumed his duties as duke with a competence that made her feel proud--and more than a little obsolete. He had organized the funeral, seen to it that his father's bequests were distributed in accordance with his wishes, done everything that needed to be done, efficiently and gracefully, without once asking for her advice or counsel.
Of Morna's missing youngest son, Dirk, there was no sign; no news for the past two years. Morna grieved the loss of her second son more than she could describe. To lose a child was a pain no parent should bear, she thought. To lose the son she had borne to Johan Thorn had been exquisitely painful, a fact that undoubtedly gave the Lion of Senet and the High Priestess no end of amusement.
There had been no word of Dirk for so long. There were rumors, of course. Rumors that he had fled to Sidoria or Galina; rumors that he was in the Baenlands. The only thing she knew for certain was that Dirk had supposedly raped a Shadowdancer, killed Johan Thorn and then fled Avacas a wanted man.
She could not imagine what had driven him to do such terrible things. Antonov had written to her after it happened, positively gloating as he described the events that had forced Dirk to flee.
What did you do to him, Anton? What evil did you infect my son with that he would turn from the intelligent, thoughtful boy I loved into a murderer and rapist in a few short months? She had thought about trying to get a message to Dirk, but she had no idea where to find him. Even if she did, the risk was too great. Dirk would come home one day, she was certain.
Morna ran her eyes over the crowds that lined the streets, half-hoping to see him. She had delayed the funeral for as long as she could, in the hopes that word would reach Dirk, wherever he was. He would not be able to appear openly, she knew, but surely he would not miss this day. Dirk had loved Wallin like a father. For most of his life, he was the only father Dirk had known. Dear, patient, understanding, forgiving Wallin. It was Wallin who had tried to comfort her when she learned about what happened in Avacas. It was Wallin who reminded her that things were not always as they seemed.
And now he was gone, struck down by the very thing that made him what he was--his heart. One minute he was sitting at the High Table, sharing a joke with Rees; the next he could not breathe. He had died in her arms on the floor of the Great Hall of Elcast Keep, and taken a part of her with him when he left.
Morna Provin had not merely lost a husband. Wallin's death meant she no longer enjoyed the protection he provided. She had lived these past twenty years because Wallin had begged for her life, and now he was no longer here to shield her. She glanced over her shoulder as the funeral procession wound down the steep road toward the town. Tovin Rill walked behind them with his youngest son, Lanon. His expression was grave. The Senetian governor had done nothing but express his sympathy so far, but Morna knew she was living on borrowed time. Her fate was inevitable and, in some ways, she thought, not undeserved.
If she felt anything, it was a deep sense of disappointment, mostly in herself.
She had promised to do so much. But in the end I was no better than you, Johan, she admitted silently. For all my noise about freeing Dhevyn, about carrying on the fight, what did I end up doing? Exactly what you did, my love. I hunkered down somewhere safe and let the world pass me by, fooling myself into believing that I was just waiting for the right time, the right circumstances, before I acted.
Even worse, I gave birth to the son you never knew you had, and then raised him so well, he killed you . . .
The procession reached Elcast Town, wending its way through streets lined with mourners. Wallin had been a good man, a good duke, and his people genuinely grieved his passing. Some of them threw petals on the carriage as they passed; a few smiled those uncomfortable smiles Morna had come to loathe. She kept her eyes fixed on the back of the carriage. It was easier not to look them in the eye.
When they reached the harbor, the procession came to a halt and the Guard of Honor stepped forward. They lifted Wallin's body from the carriage and bore it down to the water to the mournful beat of a lone drummer. The guard placed Wallin's body on the floating bier that was anchored near the beach. Rees stepped forward, accepting a flaming torch from the Sundancer Brahm Halyn, who waited by the bier. Her son waded into the shallows, hesitated for a moment as he said a silent farewell to his father, and then touched the flame to the pyre.
The wood had been drenched with oil so it caught immediately. Rees waited, to make certain the flames had taken hold, and then, with the help of two of the guard, pushed the bier out into the water. The silence would have been complete, but for the monotonous drumbeat, the distant squawking of gulls and the crackle and hiss of the flames as they consumed Wallin's body.
Morna wished she could cry. She wished her numbness would go away and leave her free to feel the pain. Wallin was a good man. He deserved to be mourned properly.
They watched the bier floating on the harbor, the tall column of thick smoke pouring from the oil-soaked wood. Morna found herself fascinated by the smoke. It was an allegory for her whole life. An angry fire that had burned so brightly for such a short time until eventually, like her dreams and ambitions, her whole existence ended up as nothing more than a smoky haze that dissipated into the red sunlight, gone and forgotten.
Morna looked down at the beach. Rees was wading back to shore, his expression grim, his shoulders stiffly set.
"My lady?" Tovin Rill repeated from behind her.
So soon, she thought. They're not even going to wait until the fire is out?
Rees walked up the beach and stopped in front of her. He was so like Wallin to look at--solid, stocky and dependable--but he did not have Wallin's heart. Or his compassion.
"I'm sorry, Mother."
So Rees had known about this in advance. She heard Tovin Rill snap his fingers behind her, heard the guards moving to surround her.
"Please go quietly, Mother," Rees begged. "Don't make a scene."
Morna lifted the veil and looked around. There were a dozen or more Senetian soldiers waiting to take her into custody. Tovin Rill was looking at her expectantly.
What does he think I'm going to do? Whip out a sword from underneath my skirts and fight my way to freedom?
Young Lanon Rill refused to meet her gaze, obviously uncomfortable with his father's role in this. Faralan was crying silently. The townsfolk looked on in wordless dread, too afraid to object. Or maybe they don't want to object. Maybe they feel I am finally getting what I deserve.
"Where are you taking me?"
"To the garrison in town, my lady," Tovin informed her. "You'll be held there until Landfall."
Landfall. They're going to burn me alive.
Faralan bit back a sob. "I'll have your things brought down to you, my lady," she promised, as if having her own hairbrush handy would somehow ease the terror of knowing she was to be executed.
"Thank you, Faralan," she replied graciously, and then turned to the captain of Tovin's guard. "Captain Ateway? Could I lean on your arm? I seem to be a little unsteady this evening."
Why aren't I screaming? Why am I not afraid?
Ateway glanced at Tovin Rill, who nodded his permission, and then stepped forward to offer the dowager Duchess of Elcast his arm. "This way, my lady."
She didn't know what to say to him. What does one say when they are being led away to die? Why don't I feel anything?
So she smiled at him.
She smiled at them all. She smiled at Tovin Rill, who had sat like a vulture for the past three years, waiting for an opportunity like this. She smiled at her son, Rees, who wore Wallin's face, but had inherited nothing of the man. She smiled at her daughter-in-law, Faralan, who was just eighteen and far too inexperienced to assume the responsibilities of a duchess. She smiled at Lanon Rill, who had once been Dirk's friend. She smiled at the townsfolk, who did nothing but stand and watch her being led away.
It was one of those I-don't-know-what-to-say-to-you smiles.
Kirshov Latanya turned on his bunk with a muffled groan as the Kalarada trumpets announced rising of the second sun. Every muscle he owned was aching, and he was sure his body must be a mass of black and purple bruises. He pulled the pillow over his head, wishing for just a few more moments of blessed sleep before his day began again.
All his life, Kirsh had been looking forward to joining the Queen's Guard. He had dreamed about how proud he would be as he rode at the side of his queen, ready to give his life for her in some noble and glorious cause. Of course, in his dreams, the queen had been some faceless, vague and regal figure--nothing like bossy little Alenor. And he had never had to deal with politics. The dream had been his driving force for as long as he could remember.
Reality was proving to be vastly different.
Kirsh had always reasoned that if he kept out of the political games his father delighted in, he could somehow escape their consequences. He didn't really care about the High Priestess Belagren, or the fact that she and the Queen of Dhevyn were frequently at odds. It made no difference to him at all that his father was admired and despised in almost equal measure. The power struggles between the islands of Dhevyn and the mainland kingdom of Senet held no interest for him. What had happened in the past had happened, and there was not a damn thing he could do about it. Kirshov wanted to be a soldier. He wanted to make a name for himself so that he would be something more than a superfluous second son.
Dirk had tried to warn him, on more than one occasion, that he could not maintain such a position for long. He'd had several heated arguments with him when they were both in Avacas, as his cousin from Elcast had tried to awaken his political conscience. Kirsh would have none of it. He was going to join the Queen's Guard. He was not going to be a ruling prince, so it didn't matter what he did. Dirk had called him a fool. He had tried using Alenor as an excuse. Dirk had even given him several very eloquent and logical reasons why, as prince consort, he would at least need to make an effort to understand what was going on around him.
Dirk had been ignorant of the true role of a consort, Kirsh reflected bitterly. As he was frequently reminded by his brothers-in-arms in the Queen's Guard, his role was to stand at stud, nothing more.
It was obvious that they considered him barely up to even that task.
It was two years since Kirsh had presented himself to the Lord Marshal the day he arrived on Kalarada after an awkward reception held in the palace, to (supposedly) welcome him to Dhevyn. The Lord Marshal had droned on, explaining his duties in the Queen's Guard and the training regime he would undergo before formally being given a commission as an officer.
"You'll find things a little different here on Kalarada, your highness," Rove Elan had explained to him. "You'll be just another soldier, I'm afraid. Rank is earned on merit in the Queen's Guard. Your civilian rank, that of the Princess Alenor's consort, or even our future regent, counts for nothing here."
"I know that, my lord. I expect no special consideration because of who I am or who my father is."
Rove Elan smiled faintly. "Oh, you'll find yourself judged on who your father is, your highness, but it may not be the reaction you imagine. This is the Queen's Guard. The Queen of Dhevyn, not Senet, and you would do well to remember that."
"I'm not ignorant of the political situation, my lord," he said, which was not entirely accurate, but neither was it actually a lie.
"You're likely to be sorely tested here, until the others have accepted you. You will be judged on how you react to that testing."
"I believe I can look after myself, my lord."
Rove nodded. "From what I hear, you're more than capable of taking care of yourself, but we're not like your father's Palace Guard, full of mercenaries and men seeking fortune and position. Here, you are expected to put your comrades and the protection of the queen above personal glorification."
"And you think I can't do that, sir?" he asked, a little offended.
"I've no idea if you can do it or not, your highness," Rove said with a shrug. "But it will be up to you to prove that you can."
The training grounds of the Queen's Guard were located inside the small keep that guarded the steep access road to the palace. The shadow of Kalarada Palace loomed over the keep, its bulk concealing the sun for a good part of the day and most of the night. Kirsh had found the gloom a little disconcerting at first. He still remembered the first time Rove Elan had led him toward the high paling fence that surrounded the fighting arena in the shadow of the gray stone outer wall.