Aurélie Cerveau stood at the far stern of the Mourning Reign and stared down at the water that rushed by in the ship’s wake. They had been out to sea for nearly three weeks since their escape from Mont-sur-Mer and the clutches of Vicomtesse Perrine Labelle. Captain Valerie, fearing for the safety of her crew and her passengers alike, decided to make a run to one of the small island settlements off the coast rather than risk returning immediately to a Foraine port, but the fog conjured by Elise LaRoux had hidden their escape, and Aurélie was eager to return to Fleche and assure the rest of the movement that she, Vocal Henri, and the Revolution were all still very much alive.
The day had started out like any other day on the tedium of the sea. Captain Valerie had graciously allocated three of the galleon’s five cabins to them. Aurélie shared one with Beatrix, Henri shared his with Remy, and Elise was given the largest of the three. That day, as usual, Aurélie, Beatrix, and Remy awoke early while Henri slept in. Aurélie had no idea whether Elise was sleeping or not, as the pale mage could never abide sunlight anyway. And that day was a particularly sunny day.
Aurélie exhaled sharply as she stared at the sea beneath them. She felt so useless. She couldn’t run a revolution from a ship somewhere in the middle of the ocean. And even if the crew of the Mourning Reign had needed her help, which they clearly did not, she had never been aboard a ship before in her life, and barely knew one side of the vessel from another. Even Vocal Henri seemed to know his way around a ship better than Aurélie did, something that frustrated her to no end.
As the revolutionary stared down at the water, she suddenly noticed that the ship’s wake had lessened significantly since she had started watching it. Aurélie turned around and glanced upward, seeing that the great sails were falling slack. She looked back just in time to see the ship’s stern lantern go dark. A sudden chill came over Aurélie Cerveau. Captain Valerie was sympathetic to their cause partly because of a debt to Elise’s sister Brigitte, and partly because her crew was made, in no small proportions, of mages, a rarity in Foraine. But the ship’s lantern was the responsibility of the ship’s navigator, a mage named Camille, who lit the lantern with a mage’s fire. It, supposedly, never went out.
Confused, Aurélie crossed the poop deck to look down at the rest of the ship. Just below her, she saw the ship’s wheel and the helmswoman, a tattooed woman named Gale who had come aboard even more recently than Aurélie and the others had. The woman looked confused and agitated, looking first to one side and then to the other, her movements becoming more frantic with each passing moment. Aurélie quickly descended the stairs down to the quarterdeck to ask what was happening, but Gale did not answer. She did not seem to hear. Instead, she was singing to herself, a low, desperate song. As she sang, her breathing seemed to speed up and she broke out in a sweat. Shaking her head, Aurélie gave up on the helmswoman and proceeded down to the main deck just in time to see Captain Valerie burst forth from the cabins.
“What the hell is going on around here?” The red-haired captain demanded of her crew.
The first mate, a short woman named Josette with golden hair that was half-dyed blue, moved to join her captain at the same time Aurélie did. “No idea, Captain. The winds just died down.”
“Winds don’t die down that suddenly,” Valerie noted with a shake of her head. “There’s something wrong. This isn’t natural.”
“The stern lantern went out, too,” Aurélie commented.
“Impossible,” Josette whispered as she and Valerie turned to confirm Aurélie’s report. They both climbed the stairs up to the quarter deck where they could see the lantern to find Gale clutching the ship’s wheel like it were about to fly away.
“Gale, are you alright?” Captain Valerie asked, approaching the sailor. Gale’s eyes were wide, but unfocused. “What’s going on?”
Gale said nothing. She looked as if she were trying to speak, her mouth forming shapes, but no sound came. Her eyes were wild, and searching, but they seemed unable to settle on anything.
The Mourning Reign was completely stopped now. The sails were slack, and even her momentum had completely stopped. Even more eerie was that the waters around them had become motionless. The ship did not bob up and down, nor did any waves crash against her hull. It was as if the entire ocean had suddenly and completely fallen asleep.
At the wheel, Valerie was trying to find some way to comfort Gale when a cry sounded out from the Crow’s Nest. “Ship ahoy! East, northeast and closing fast!”
Valerie took only a moment to glance at Josette and Aurélie before springing to the railing. She withdrew a silver spyglass, extended it, and put it up to her eye, scanning the horizon. Aurélie glanced around the deck, noticing several deck hands watching their captain anxiously. She also spotted Sir Ruth ascend the stairs to the quarterdeck, evidently also curious about what was going on, probably at the behest of the Comtesse. Aurélie sneered slightly as she returned her focus to Valerie. It took the Captain a few moments to spot her target, but when she did, her jaw clenched.
“It’s a royal corvette. Her heading will bring her directly into us, and she’s moving fast through still waters.”
“But how?” Josette asked. “There’s not enough wind to blow a strand of hair, let alone fill the sails of three masts!”
“I don’t know,” Valerie admitted. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” She directed her gaze a bit higher. “I’ve also never seen that marque before.”
“What is it?” Aurélie asked quickly. “A purple fleur-de-lis?”
Valerie glanced over at Aurélie and stared for a moment, but then shook her head. “No. A white glove against a blue background. You know it?”
Aurélie shook her head. “Never heard of it.”
“Me, neither,” Josette added. “Captain, what are your orders?”
“Not much we can do,” Valerie said. “But I suspect we’re about to have visitors. Tell the crew to make ready to receive them in whatever manner they arrive.”
“No misunderstandings. Not one of my crew will make the first move.”
“As you command, Captain.”
Tension mounted as they waited for the corvette to catch up to them. Valerie and Aurélie returned to the main deck to wait while word spread among the crew about what was happening. Sir Ruth wordlessly returned to her mistress. Henri joined them on deck shortly after, trying to hide his nervousness behind a mask of bravado, but Aurélie could see the fear in his eyes.
“What’s going on?” Henri asked, shielding his eyes from the sun as he tried to watch the royal corvette approach.
“We have no idea,” Aurélie said bluntly.
“But, how can they sail when we can’t?”
“Magic, almost assuredly,” Captain Valerie said calmly. “I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that the Mourning Reign isn’t the only ship willing to take on mages.”
“But that’s a royal corvette,” Henri pressed. “The aristocracy would never abide mages, would they?”
Valerie shrugged. “Who said they were aristocrats?”
“Well, the royal corvettes are part of the navy, aren’t they?”
The captain nodded once, her eyes still focused on the approaching ship. “It wouldn’t be the first time a navy ship was taken and repurposed.”
“Pirates?” Aurélie asked.
“We would be foolish to discount that possibility,” Valerie said stoically.
“I thought pirates usually sailed under the White Skull flag,” Henri said, scratching his head.
Valerie laughed a single, hollow laugh. “Pirates sail under whatever flag they want to, whatever flag will suit their purpose. Though I will admit, this standard seems a bit elaborate for most pirates’ tastes.”
“What standard is it?” Henri asked.
“No one seems to know,” Aurélie said.
“It is the Queen’s personal marque,” a soft voice sounded from behind them.
Surprised, Henri, Aurélie, and Valerie all turned around. Standing there, looking uncomfortable and miserable, was Elise LaRoux. Next to her was her chevalier, Sir Ruth, who was holding a parasol above the Comtesse, trying to keep the sun off of her lady’s chalk-white skin. Henri glanced up at the sky; there wasn’t a single cloud to be seen.
“Elise!” He said. “You shouldn’t be out here!”
Elise just stared at him, a confounded expression on her face.
“What do you mean, the Queen’s marque?” Aurélie asked. “The Queen’s marque is the Gold Griffin, everyone knows that.”
Elise turned toward Aurélie and nodded sadly. “The Gold Griffin is her official marque, passed from mother to daughter since the union of Amandine XVIII and Pierrette. The White Glove, though, is her personal marque.”
“That doesn’t explain what they want,” Aurélie said.
“I suspect we are about to find out,” Captain Valerie said. The others turned around and noticed that the corvette had pulled up alongside the Mourning Reign and, somehow, stopped dead. Captain Valerie and Josette stepped forward, and Aurélie and Henri moved to join them, while Elise, Sir Ruth, and the rest of the crew stayed well back. After a long moment, a boarding plank was extended, and six figures moved to board.
In the lead was an older woman in an official’s robe carrying a ceremonial staff that seemed to have been cut whole from a tree, and yet seemed to have a flowering iris flower at its top. Behind her, there were two heavily armored guards in white plate mail. They were both wearing full helms, and it was impossible to see their features. Behind these came two more robed figures, the female in green and the male in blue. The final figure was wearing a plain black cloak that hid everything about her apart from her feminine form.
The woman in the lead struck her staff against the wooden deck of the Mourning Reign three times, then cleared her throat, and spoke.
“Greetings. I am Claudine Gaumont, and I apologize for any inconvenience our arrival may have caused you.” She turned to the Captain and gave a deep bow. “Captain Valerie, please forgive our intrusion onto your fine vessel. We realize that our coming aboard is improper without your expressed permission, and we apologize, but unfortunately, it is imperative.”
Captain Valerie narrowed her eyes. “You and I have never met before.”
“Indeed not,” Claudine admitted, “But you have been made known to me.” The older woman shifted her gaze to the two revolutionaries beside Valerie. “Henri le Douce and Aurélie Cerveau, there is someone who would very much like a word with you.”
Aurélie looked over at Henri, who was beginning to sweat. Aurélie suspected that the blazing sun overhead was not the primary cause.
Claudine struck the deck three more times, and then held up her staff. “Presenting Her Most Royal Highness, Queen Lucienne II, Sovereign of all Foraine, High Baroness of Trone, Empress of the Scattered Isles, Ruler of…!”
At this point, the cloaked woman stepped forward and gently laid a hand on Claudine’s shoulder. The older woman stopped immediately and stepped aside, and the cloaked woman took one more step forward, brought her hands up, hesitated a moment, and then pulled her cloak back. Aurélie studied the woman’s face carefully. She was in her early or mid-thirties, and her face, though a bit plain and even a little kind, bore the unmistakable air of the aristocracy.
“My herald speaks truly,” she said, her eyes focused alternatively on Aurélie and Henri. “And I wish to repeat her apology at the manner of our interruption here. But I am afraid matters are gravely serious, as you are no doubt aware. Madame Cerveau, Monsieur le Douce, I must speak with you both privately. Please, if you will accompany me back to my cabin…”
She trailed off, and Aurélie scoffed. “You have got to be joking! Just how foolish do you think we are?”
The woman seemed taken aback by this. “Foolish? I do not think you are foolish at all, Madame, which is why I must speak with you.”
“Only a fool would accept an offer like that, regardless of whether or not you are who you say you are.”
“I assure you, I have come here only with peaceful intentions.”
“I’ve heard that song from the Aristos before.”
“Please, Madame Cerveau, I ask you to think about this matter. Had I wanted to kill you, would I not have had ample opportunity? Would I not have brought more warships, or boarded your vessel with more women-at-arms? And even now, surely you must see that your position is not a strong one. I know that there are mages aboard this ship, and they surely must have noticed that their magic is locked to them? Why, even your blades will not loose from their sheaths during this visit.”
Aurélie reached into a hidden fold in her clothes and grabbed the thin stiletto knife she kept hidden close to her. She pulled, but the knife refused to slide free of its case. It was as if the knife and its sheath were one solid piece. She glanced around and saw numerous sailors struggling, and failing, to draw their own weapons. Aurélie looked back at the Queen, her breathing beginning to quicken. Lucienne, surprisingly, had a sad sort of expression on her face, rather than the triumphant one Aurélie had expected.
“Please do not misunderstand me,” the Queen continued. “I mean none of this as a threat. My women and I are under similar restrictions.” She pulled her cloak to one side to reveal an ornate dagger hanging at her belt. Placing both hands on the dagger’s hilt, she pulled upwards, but the dagger refused to slide free. “Do you see?”
“What about your mages?” Henri asked suddenly. Aurélie glanced at him; his eyes were fixed on the two robed figures standing behind Lucienne.
“Ah,” the Queen said, looking downward. “They, I admit, are freer than yours. But you have my promise that you will not be harmed.”
“Thank you for your gracious offer, but we’re not setting foot aboard that ship of yours while we still breathe.”
“You may use my cabin,” Captain Valerie said suddenly. “If Your Majesty would be willing to conduct her business aboard my ship.”
Lucienne locked gazes with Aurélie. “Would that be acceptable?”
Aurélie stared back for a long time. It was clear that the Queen was addressing her, specifically, despite the infamous Vocal Henri standing less than an arm’s reach from Aurélie. She looked over at Henri’s face, but she could not entirely read his expression, beyond simply “uncomfortable.” Finally, Aurélie decided that they had nothing to lose that the Queen could not simply take if she wanted to. Slowly, Aurélie nodded.
Lucienne moved her mouth in a decent impression of an honest smile. “Thank you. And thank you, as well, Captain. I shall not impose upon your hospitality for any longer than is required. Now, if you will…” the Queen stopped dead in her sentence as she seemed to notice something behind Aurélie. “Oh, no, my dear, what are you doing out here?”
Aurélie looked behind her and saw Elise, her eyes downcast. The pale woman began to speak softly, and as she did, the Queen rushed past Aurélie, Henri, and Captain Valerie and up to the noblewoman, who knelt down even as Lucienne tried to stop her. Aurélie rolled her eyes at the mage, who was too engrossed in her toadying to notice.
“Your Majesty, I am your most humble servant, Elise LaRoux, the twenty-eighth of my name and Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer, and...”
“I know who you are,” the Queen said briskly, “and I know of your condition. Please, my dear, do not stay out in this sun one moment longer. Please, come inside.”
She took Elise by the hand and moved toward the cabins. As she did, she glanced over her shoulder towards Aurélie. “Forgive me, I shall meet with you momentarily. If you would wait for me in the Captain’s cabin.”
Without another word, the Queen and the Comtesse disappeared into Elise’s cabin, with Sir Ruth following close on their heels. Aurélie bit her lip. Of course the Queen would see to a noblewoman’s comfort before her business with a couple of peasants. Bitterly, she shook her head. They were at the Queen’s mercy for now, as their class always seemed to be. And, like usual, there seemed to be little to be done about it. Aurélie looked over at Henri, who was staring after the aristocrats, and sighed. When he noticed her staring at him, she indicated toward the captain’s quarters.
Henri just nodded, and they made their way forward, only to be stopped by Captain Valerie, who was blocking their way. She leaned in close so that only the two of them could hear her. “Whatever happens, do not kill her.” When Aurélie tried to protest, Valerie just shook her head. “None of us get out of this alive if you do.”
Aurélie exhaled sharply through the nose. She didn’t need Valerie telling her to know that. “Don’t worry,” Aurélie said, and brushed past the Captain, Henri four or five steps behind her.
They slipped into the Captain’s quarters, Aurélie striding directly to the Captain’s desk along the starboard wall while Henri hurriedly closed the door. Aurélie leaned against the table’s surface, partially trying to hide the Captain’s brandy from Henri. When the man turned around to face her, he was visibly shaking.
“What are we going to do?”
Aurélie shook her head. “What can we do? We don’t exactly have many options here, now do we?” When Henri gave no response, Aurélie shrugged. “She says she wants to talk, fine, we’ll talk. But Henri, you remember well that she’s the enemy. Believe nothing she says, and tell her nothing. No names, no locations, nothing.”
“And what good will that do?” Henri demanded. “She’s here, Aurélie! There’s no way she could be here! It’s not possible! She knew my name. She knows yours! How?”
“If anybody in Foraine is going to have better spies than mine, don’t you think it would be the Queen herself?” Aurélie demanded. After a moment, though, she lowered her head. “I don’t know, Henri. You’re right, it makes no sense.” She thought for a long moment. “Mages,” she said. “It must be mages.”
“But, I thought the mages were on our side?”
“Mages are like anybody else, and like anybody else, the aristos will buy them if they can. After Mont-sur-Mer, they will probably side with us. Probably. But not all of them, and its nothing we can count on.”
“Forget about Elise!” Aurélie interrupted. “Get this through your head, Henri. Elise is here because she had no choice. We’re here because we had no choice. Elise is a mage, and while we may not know where they stand, she’s also a noble, and we’re damn certain where they do! She’s the enemy, Henri, every bit as much as the Queen is.”
Henri shook his head. “You don’t know her, Aurélie.”
“Neither do you,” Aurélie said pointedly. Henri turned away from her, and Aurélie just folded her arms over her chest. For a long time, she stared at Henri’s back. The Revolution, her Revolution, had risked much, and lost almost as much, to bring him in. The people of Foraine knew of him, they knew of his supposed passion for freedom, of his inflammatory rhetoric against the aristocracy. But few in Foraine knew the real Henri le Douce the way Aurélie Cerveau did. She found herself wondering how much longer she could keep him from them.
Her ponderings were interrupted by a gentle knock at the door. Henri glanced back at Aurélie, but neither made a sound, nor any move to open it. A moment later, the knock sounded again, and Aurélie shrugged. Finally, the door simply opened, and Queen Lucienne II stepped into the room, gently closing the door behind her. She looked from Aurélie to Henri and back again, as if trying to decide where to begin. Aurélie, already impatient, spoke first.
“Well, we’re here. And a captive audience if ever there was one. What can we do for you, Your Majesty?” Aurélie made sure to put more than a few drops of venom in the honorific.
“I know you think of me as your foe,” the Queen began, “and I cannot blame you for that. But please, if you will just listen to what I have to say, I believe we can do one another, and all of Foraine, a world of good.”
“Do we have a choice?” Henri asked, his voice sounding dejected, even defeated.
“You have no choice but to hear me,” Lucienne said softly, “but I ask that you listen.”
“And obey?” Aurélie added.
Lucienne sighed. “I have not come to give you orders. A suggestion, perhaps, but no orders.”
“Fine,” Aurélie said. “Let’s hear it. We’ll take it under advisement and we can all be on our way.”
“I know that life has not been easy for you, or for many…”
“You know nothing about me or my life, Majesty,” Aurélie scowled.
“I have lived a very different life from you, that is true,” Lucienne admitted. “But I do know of you. I know that you were born in D’arnaud to Thérèse and Marc Cerveau. I know that you were named after my own beloved mother, Aurélie II. I know that when you were thirteen years old, the local…”
“Stop,” Aurélie said suddenly, rage building inside her. “I get it.”
The Queen paused, considered, then continued. “And I know that, meaning no disrespect to you, Monsieur le Douce, that you, Aurélie, truly lead the Revolution currently brewing in Fleche.”
“How do you know that?” Henri asked, looking pale.
“Henri,” Aurélie warned slowly.
“But, the only way she could know that is if one of our women is…”
“Henri!” Aurélie snapped.
“Please, do not misunderstand me,” Lucienne said suddenly. “Your women are trustworthy, at least so far as I know. I know what I know because of the talented mages who have lent me their abilities.”
“I thought magic was frowned upon by the aristocracy,” Aurélie shot back.
“Officially, it is,” Lucienne said, then paused, looked down. “It is another injustice that must be addressed. Just one of many that something must be done about.”
“Then why don’t you do something!” Aurélie said. “You’re the Queen, aren’t you? How can you stand there and tell me that things need to change, when you’re the only one here who can change them?”
“Things are not that simple, Aurélie,” the Queen pleaded.
“A common excuse from the nobility,” Aurélie muttered.
“A true explanation,” Lucienne said, “to a noble commoner.” She sighed again, then moved closer to Aurélie, who stood up from the desk and took a step back as the Queen approached her. “Aurélie, please listen to me. I am Queen of all of Foraine, yes, but I lack the power you believe me to have. The Baronesses have grown strong since the time of my forematrons Amandine and Pierrette. They each house a private army, and each one is nearly as large as that loyal to me. And in the last century, they have grown bold. They still bow and swear to me, but they ignore my laws and edicts as pleases them. The Crown has been losing power in their eyes for generations. Even my mother told me once that she had become little more than a figurehead.” She looked over at Henri while saying this, and Aurélie frowned as she noticed him nodding.
“I don’t believe a word of this,” Aurélie challenged. “There is no higher rule in Foraine than the word of the Queen.”
“True authority does not always reside where it appears to. I would think that you of all people would know this, Aurélie Cerveau.” Lucienne paused as she gave Aurélie a knowing look. She sighed, then continued. “That is the law, yes.” Lucienne shook her head. “But as I said, the Baronesses have decided that they are beyond the law.”
“You really want me to believe that you, the Queen, the very top rung of the ladder, somehow and for some reason care more about the people than the rest of the aristocracy does?”
“You are an intelligent woman, Aurélie, and you have eyes in other parts of the queendom, do you not? Tell me, what do your spies tell you of life in Trone?”
Aurélie looked away. Trone was the barony that the Queen herself ruled, just as Baroness D'Arsien ruled in Fleche or Baroness Nicollier rules in Vigne. And, while Aurélie hated to admit it, all reports indicated that things were better there. It was said that even peasants were granted full trials, and that few went hungry in the streets. Aurélie considered this an anomaly, or perhaps some sort of arrogance from the Queen, as if her streets should look prettier than any others, but Aurélie could not deny the reports.
“I hear things are… better… there.”
The Queen nodded. “I can do as I please in Trone, because I am the power there. But if I were to attempt to intercede here in Fleche, the other Baronesses would view it as a threat to their authority in their own baronies. They would move against me, and my army is not strong enough to repel them all at once.”
“But if the Baronesses are so close,” Henri said, “why have they not come to D’Arsien’s help?”
The Queen shook her head. “The Baronesses have no more love for one another than they do for me, and less for the Baroness of Fleche than most. She has always been…abrasive. Further, they fear the Revolution will spread to their baronies. Thus far, your efforts have not spread beyond Baroness D’Arsien’s borders, which suits everyone’s tastes.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Aurélie asked, suddenly suspicious. “What exactly do you want from us, anyway?”
“I want what you want, Aurélie,” Lucienne said. “I want change in Foraine. I want a queendom where a woman’s life and property are valued, regardless of the station of her birth. If your revolution is successful, and if you can keep it restricted to Fleche, then I will be able to install a new Baroness, one who I know will be loyal to me, and hold to the same ideals that I do. I will all but control the coast, and with my army and a newly installed and loyal Baroness, the other baronies will have a far more difficult time opposing me, and I can begin to make the changes to this queendom that will benefit everyone.”
Aurélie rolled her eyes. “What on Thorneau makes you think we intend on stopping at Fleche?”
“Hope,” Lucienne said sadly before squaring up to Aurélie. “I admit, this is a gamble. You, Vocal Henri, all of your people, you are dangerous. All of Foraine speaks of the bloodbath you created at the Baroness’s Masquerade.” Aurélie looked away from the noble, but the Queen continued. “But I believe that you fight for the right reasons. I want a land where such bloodshed is never again seen, not what you did, and not the even greater violence that caused it in the first place.”
Aurélie looked back at the Queen, but said nothing. After a long pause, Lucienne spoke again. “Good or bad, aristocrat or commoner, woman or man, I do not wish to see more of my people die. Regrettably, this conflict has already crossed that point, and more deaths are inevitable.”
Aurélie narrowed her eyes, picturing the form of Perrine Labelle in her mind. “Some are a necessity.”
Lucienne hung her head. “Yes, I suppose that is true.” She took a deep breath, then looked back up at Aurélie. “But, if we can restrain the Revolution to Fleche, countless lives will be saved in the rest of the queendom. If you truly started this revolution to save lives, then that should be your goal, as well. And if it is, that is why you would stop at Fleche.”
The two women stood staring at one another for a long time before Aurélie finally moved, running one hand through her blond hair. “So that’s why you came here, then? To suggest that we hold our movement back?”
“No,” Lucienne said. “That is not my suggestion, merely my plea to your reason. My suggestion is something completely different.” She reached into an inside pocket of her cloak and withdrew a pouch that jingled with coin. She opened it, and Aurélie had to force herself not to react. She had never seen so much gold in one place. Lucienne pulled out a small gold ring that bore a tiny, raised image of a bird in flight on its surface. Then, she offered both the pouch and the ring to Aurélie.
Aurélie was almost too stunned to respond, but managed a weak “what’s this?”
The Queen indicated toward the pouch. “That is the most gold I could get you without anyone noticing. The Baronesses undoubtedly have spies even in my own home, and if anyone knows that I support you, I am as good as deposed, and likely far worse. My sister, Marielle, has long coveted my throne, and she lives in Vigne, a personal and long-standing guest of Baroness Nicollier. The Baronesses would not hesitate to put her in my place, and she has no love of me.” Aurélie frowned. The thought of an unloving sibling was not foreign to her. “Take that gold, and use it how you will. Your people have heart, Aurélie Cerveau, but they lack training and supplies, and the Baroness’s troops will tear them apart without both.”
“And the ring?” Henri asked.
The Queen took another deep breath. “I know what happened in Mont-sur-Mer. And, even more than you probably do, I know what happened afterward. The Baroness’s Grand Magistrate has issued an order of execution on any and all mages found in Fleche. It is going to be a witch hunt.” Lucienne turned away slightly from Aurélie, then continued. “If you are going to have any chance against the forces of Baroness D’Arsien, you will need two things: the help of the mages, and someone you can trust to train your women. That ring will get you both.”
Lucienne rubbed her eye briefly, and then turned back to Aurélie. “Tell me, are the two of you familiar with the Tower of Tears?”
Henri shook his head, and Aurélie shrugged. “Some sort of mage’s prison, wasn’t it? Something like a thousand years ago.”
“It was reopened about a decade ago, shortly after my mother died and the Crown passed to me. It was originally a prison for mages, built by mages. It rests on an island hidden by magic so as to make it virtually impossible to find. Growing up, my most trusted friend in the Palace was the captain of the guard, a gifted warrior named Nadia Deval. Shortly after my ascension to the throne, she was exposed as a mage, and sent to the Tower of Tears.”
“You sent your best friend to prison for being a mage?” Henri asked.
“Yes. Although, to be honest, I knew perfectly well that she was not a mage in the first place.”
“What?” Aurélie asked.
Lucienne allowed herself a brief chuckle. “It was Nadia’s idea. We reopened the Tower, not as a prison, although that is what everyone was told. We reopened it as a sanctuary for mages, a place where they can go to perfect their craft, and be safe. Nadia volunteered to run it, and that is where she has been ever since. That ring is a message to Nadia that you can be trusted. There is no other person on all of Thorneau who would know what that ring means, or that it was from me. My suggestion, therefore, is this: find the Tower of Tears, give that ring to Nadia, and tell her you need her help in the Revolution. She will go with you, and I suspect she will not be the only one in that tower who does.”
The three of them stood there in silence for a few moments before the sound of a horn shattered it. Queen Lucienne II looked behind her, and then back at Aurélie. She sighed. “I must go.”
She turned around and walked to the door, resting one gloved hand on its handle before turning back to the revolutionaries. “If you decide not to trust me, I cannot blame you. Use the gold as you see fit. But whatever you do, I leave you with one last request, one last plea. Whatever happens, please do not become the oppressors you seek to overthrow.”
Without another word, she opened the door and walked through. Aurélie and Henri stood staring at one another for a very long time before following her out, Aurélie making a quick stop at her cabin to hide the gold, Henri returning to his cabin. By the time she had returned to the main deck, the royal corvette was pulling away from the Mourning Reign and returning in the direction it had come. About ten minutes later, the wind returned to fill the sails, and the ship started to move, as well.
Later that night, Aurélie and Henri gathered once again in the captain’s cabin, this time with Captain Valerie. They talked over the events of the day, and Aurélie filled the Captain in on what the Queen had said. Captain Valerie was intrigued by the tale of the Tower of Tears, but no one was sure what to do about it. Eventually, Aurélie and Valerie decided that they had nothing to lose. Had the Queen wanted them killed, the corvette could have done that easily, and there was no denying that the Revolution could use all the help it could get.
That night, Aurélie lay in bed wide awake. On the opposite side of the small cabin, Beatrix slept silently, a master spy even in sleep. But Aurélie could find no such respite. She could still feel the stillness of the water from when the ship stopped. She could still hear the voice of the Queen echoing in her ears. She could feel the weight of the gold under her pillow. She wondered about the gold, wondered if accepting it meant that she had sold herself to the Queen.
A part of her wanted to drop the entire pouch into the ocean and scream toward the distant shore that Aurélie Cerveau would never be bought. Part of her wanted to keep it, and place one coin each under the tongues of every noble she killed before the revolution ended. A small, shameful, rarely acknowledged part of her wanted to take it and run and be done with the revolution completely. But Aurélie would do none of those things. She fought because she believed, and she would never do anything to weaken the Revolution. The gold was hers now, and no contracts had been signed for services rendered. Nobody owned her, and this gold would only make the revolution stronger.
But still, as sleep finally began creeping on Aurélie Cerveau, she had to wonder about Queen Lucienne II. There were games being played, and Foraine was the board. And if there was one thing that every part of Aurélie could agree on, it was that she felt very much like a pawn.
Henri le Douce, or Vocal Henri to the majority of Foraine, sat slumped on the edge of the bed in the small, cramped cabin he was forced to share with Remy, one of Aurélie’s most trusted revolutionaries. Mercifully, Remy was not there. In all likelihood, he was below decks, trying to convert everybody aboard the Mourning Reign to the cause. Henri scoffed as he thought about it, and ran one hand through his hair and down to his neck, which he then began to idly massage.
It had been a long three weeks. Henri spent most of his time in his cabin, only coming out to speak with the others when he felt like he had to. He still couldn’t get over everything that had happened in Mont-sur-Mer. Back at the Baroness’s Masquerade, people had killed and died in the name of Vocal Henri, something he had never been able to push out of his head. But it was different in Mont-sur-Mer. Those who had died there were not revolutionaries. They were not women and men who had chosen to fight. And yet, they had still been killed.
They had been killed for Vocal Henri.
That day still haunted his dreams. Ever since Henri le Douce had first gone to Raiker Venn, ever since he had first become the Vocal Henri who was spoken about across the queendom, he had had dreams of blood and violence, and they had always come true. But the dreams that tortured him now were not vague, disturbing flashes of the future. They were crisp, clear nightmares of the atrocities that had already happened. They were visions of the sins of the world, the sins of the aristocracy.
The sins of Henri le Douce.
Henri didn’t know how long he had been sitting there thinking, but he suddenly noticed an odd sensation, or rather, the odd lack of one. Confused, Henri looked around him, but the tiny cabin seemed the same as it had every day since they had left port. Henri stood up and walked over to the small, circular porthole and looked outward, his mouth hanging open wordlessly. The Mourning Reign had stopped. He hadn’t heard any order from Captain Valerie, nor had he felt the anchor drop.
Outside his door, Henri heard heavy foot falls walk past. He walked over to the door, opened it, and looked out just in time to see the form of Sir Ruth disappear around the corner and out onto the main deck. Looking the other direction, he noticed that the door into Elise LaRoux’s cabin was open a crack. His mind immediately fluttered to Aurélie and Sir Ruth, who seemed to have nothing in common but a singular desire to keep him from speaking to Elise alone. With neither of them there, Henri smiled and approached her door. He took a deep breath, then knocked softly.
He could hear a startled sort of gasp from inside.
“Elise, it’s Henri. Do you mind if…that is, may I speak with you?”
There was a very long pause, and Henri almost considered knocking a second time, when he heard Elise’s quiet voice again. “You may enter.”
Henri opened the door and stepped through. Elise was sitting in a chair near the center of the room, situated in front of a porthole that was covered with a makeshift curtain of some sort. Her pale skin and straight-backed posture made her look like an aristocrat’s doll, so fragile and perfect that they were never played with. Henri fought the urge to smile, forcing himself to keep his expression serious.
After a long moment of silence, Henri realized that he didn’t know what he had wanted to say in the first place. He shifted his weight from one leg to the other as he realized Elise was staring at him. Finally, he spoke, not really knowing what he was saying.
“Are you well?”
She continued to stare at him, frowning. “Yes, Monsieur le Douce. I thank you for asking.”
“Henri,” he said, still forcing himself not to smile. “Please, you can call me Henri.”
“As you wish,” she said. Henri noticed that she didn’t use either of his names.
Trying to think of something else to say, he asked, “Is ‘Elise’ alright?”
The pale aristocrat tilted her head to one side, her brow furrowing. “Yes, as I have said, I am well.”
Confused, Henri looked down at the floor before he realized what she was saying. “No, no, what I’m saying, or, I mean, what I meant to say, was, well, is it alright if I call you ‘Elise’? You know, rather than ‘Madame LaRoux’ or ‘Comtesse’ or something.”
She looked back at him, and then, in a moment that surprised Henri, started laughing. At first, it was a small, stifled, polite laugh, but as Henri started joining in, she laughed louder and more freely. They stayed there for a few long moments, laughing, until they both quieted down again. Elise composed herself and actually smiled at him.
“Yes, ‘Elise’ shall do nicely. Henri.”
Henri smiled back, then gestured toward the porthole. “Do you have any idea why we’ve stopped?”
Elise shook her head, her shock-white hair waving slightly at the movement. “I have no idea. I have asked Sir Ruth to go ask the Captain.” She paused there, looking away from Henri. “She should return any moment.”
Henri nodded and looked behind him. He hadn’t even noticed that he had closed the door. Suddenly afraid that he was sending the wrong message, Henri fumbled for something to say. “Sir Ruth is, um, a good protector. I’m…glad that she’s here. We are all dedicated to protecting you, and she will certainly help with that.”
Elise continued to look away. “Why?”
Caught off guard, Henri again stammered. “W-what do you mean? Why what?”
She still would not look at him. “Why do you want to protect me? I am one of your enemies, am I not? A noble? A Comtesse?”
“I…” Henri began, then stopped. “I promised your sister that I would protect you.” He straightened his back and did his best to stick out his chest. “I take my word seriously.”
Elise nodded slowly, but still did not look his way. “You do…seem the type who would.”
There was something in her voice that seemed to tug at Henri’s heart, something that struggled to break it. “Elise,” Henri said, softening his voice. “You are not my enemy.”
“Perhaps not yours,” she said, then paused for a long time as Henri’s posture slowly deflated. Finally, she looked at him, slight tears forming in her pink eyes. “But what about…your friend?”
“My friend?” Henri asked, confused.
“Your friend,” she repeated. “With the scar.”
Elise nodded. “Yes. Aurélie. Am I her enemy?”
The noblewoman trailed off. Henri clenched his jaw. “Elise, you are under Captain Valerie’s protection, and mine. Nobody is going to hurt you, if we can stop it.”
“But can you stop it?” Henri looked down at the floor, wishing he had an answer for her. He wanted, perhaps more than anything else, to protect her, to be able to protect her. But he had wanted to protect the people of Mont-sur-Mer, too. But that did not keep them from dying at the end of a rope. Henri was just about to say something when suddenly, surprisingly, Elise was moving. She crossed the small cabin quickly and stopped directly in front of Henri, laying both her hands on his right arm. “Henri, I beg you to be honest with me. Back in Mont-sur-Mer, when Aurélie had my sister…when she had her knife to Brigitte’s…I know that you spoke out, then, that you spoke for my sister, and, for that, I shall thank you for so long as I draw breath, but, your friend, Aurélie…if you had not spoken? Would she have…would she have really…?”
Henri stared into the mage’s pink eyes and saw her tears. He saw her pain, her desperation, her yearning. His voice caught in his throat. He knew her question, and he knew the answer. Aurélie was driven. She wouldn’t let anything get in her way, and the former Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer was Aurélie’s enemy, at least in her mind. Aurélie, for all she claimed to detest the shedding of innocent blood, also didn’t shy away from it. He still remembered, in waking thoughts and in his nightmares, the bloodbath of the Baroness’s Masquerade. But none of that would help Elise. None of that was what she needed to hear. Slowly, Henri shook his head.
“No. I do not believe she would have.” He brought up his left hand and laid it gently on top of hers. “Brigitte LaRoux was innocent, and the innocent are the people we’re trying to protect.”
The two stared at one another for a long moment, and then both went to speak at the same time. In that instant, though, the door behind Henri opened, almost slamming into his back, and Sir Ruth’s voice overshadowed both of theirs.
“Madame la Comtesse…”
She stopped, noticing Henri, and her hard eyes narrowed. Henri gulped slightly. “I suspect I may be needed on deck,” Henri said, letting go of Elise’s arm and squeezing past Sir Ruth, who made no motion to get out of his way. The moment Henri was outside the cabin, the door shut hard behind him. Shaking his head, Henri made his way onto the main deck. The sun was almost blinding after having been in Elise’s dimly lit cabin, so he shielded his eyes as he walked out. Aurélie and Captain Valerie were standing at the railing, watching something in the distance. Following their line of sight, he spotted a sleek ship cutting through the still waves, heading directly for them.
Trying to put on a brave face, Henri pointed toward the approaching ship and spoke, hoping his voice wouldn’t crack. “What’s going on?”
Aurélie exhaled sharply. “We have no idea,” she said harshly.
“But, how can they sail when we can’t?” Henri pressed, noticing the slack sails above them.
Captain Valerie spoke without looking his direction. “Magic, almost assuredly. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that the Mourning Reign isn’t the only ship willing to take on mages.”
Henri had never spent much time on the sea, but he had sailed enough to know that a ship didn’t move without a wind in her sails. He also knew enough to know what sort of ship they were dealing with. “But that’s a royal corvette. The aristocracy would never abide mages, would they?”
“Who said they were aristocrats?” Valerie said dismissively.
Henri, confused, said, “Well, the royal corvettes are part of the navy, aren’t they?”
The Captain nodded. “It wouldn’t be the first time a navy ship was taken and repurposed.”
Aurélie frowned. “Pirates?”
“We would be foolish to discount that possibility,” Valerie said, her voice calm. Henri found himself jealous that she could show so much confidence even given the circumstances.
“I thought pirates usually sailed under the White Skull flag,” Henri offered.
Captain Valerie laughed at him. “Pirates sail under whatever flag they want to, whatever flag will suit their purpose. Though I will admit, this standard seems a bit elaborate for most pirates’ tastes.”
Henri, his pride stinging a bit, asked, “What standard is it?”
“No one seems to know,” Aurélie said stoically, as if in attack on Henri’s concern.
“It is the Queen’s personal marque,” Elise’s voice spoke softly from behind him. Shocked, Henri wheeled around, seeing the noblewoman as he had just moments earlier, yet drastically different. She had changed out of her gray robe, the only piece of clothing Henri had ever seen her in, and changed into a white sundress. Her white skin seemed almost luminescent in the bright sun, and Henri’s eyes bulged as he realized what the sun must be doing to her, even with Sir Ruth next to her, holding a parasol to create some small degree of shade.
“Elise!” Henri let escape. “You shouldn’t be out here!”
Elise’s pink eyes just stared back at him, her expression blank. It was as if she did not even understand his words, like he were speaking some other language. Something tugged at Henri, and he suddenly wished he could block the sun himself, or tear it from the sky. He had promised to protect Elise, but nothing could protect her from what she was doing to herself now.
“What do you mean, the Queen’s marque?” Aurélie asked suddenly, making Henri realize he had not truly heard what Elise had said. “The Queen’s marque is the Gold Griffin, everyone knows that.”
Elise turned away from Henri to face Aurélie. Her face looked pained, and Henri noticed that she was not so much looking Aurélie in the eyes as she was staring at her forehead. “The Gold Griffin is her official marque, passed from mother to daughter since the union of Amandine XVIII and Pierrette. The White Glove, though, is her personal marque.”
“That doesn’t explain what they want,” Aurélie pressed, annoyance creeping into her voice.
Captain Valerie interrupted. “I suspect we are about to find out.”
Henri turned around just as the royal corvette arrived. It stopped in the water with control that defied explanation. Captain Valerie and the first mate moved toward the boarding plank, and Henri, reluctantly, moved to join them, Aurélie doing the same on the other side. Behind them, Elise and the others stood and waited to see what would happen.
It was a strange, motley crew that boarded the Mourning Reign from the royal corvette. The first was an old woman dressed in the garb of a court herald. Behind her were two armed guards in white armor, and, more disturbingly, behind them came a female and a male mage, dressed in robes of green and blue, respectively. Henri stared at these two primarily, and only barely registered the sixth figure, a woman in a black cloak.
Before Henri could make much of the mages, the foremost woman struck the deck with a staff, cleared her throat, and spoke, her voice booming across the ship.
“Greetings. I am Claudine Gaumont, and I apologize for any inconvenience our arrival may have caused you.” She bowed in the direction of the Captain. “Captain Valerie, please forgive our intrusion onto your fine vessel. We realize that our coming aboard is improper without your expressed permission, and we apologize, but unfortunately, it is imperative.”
“You and I have never met before,” Captain Valerie said. Henri could hear annoyance in her voice.
Claudine nodded. “Indeed not. But you have been made known to me.” She shifted her gaze to stare at Henri, which gave him a chill even in the blazing sun. Henri suddenly worried for Elise and her skin, but Claudine’s voice drew him back. “Henri le Douce and Aurélie Cerveau, there is someone who would very much like a word with you.” Claudine paused for a moment, and then struck the deck several more times before holding up her staff. “Presenting Her Most Royal Highness, Queen Lucienne II, Sovereign of all Foraine, High Baroness of Trone, Empress of the Scattered Isles, Ruler of…!”
Suddenly, the woman in the black cloak walked forward and placed a hand on Claudine’s shoulder. The herald immediately ceased her list of titles and moved away. The other woman stepped forward again and slowly withdrew her hood. Henri was dumbstruck as she began to speak. Part of him feared for his life, but part was simply amazed that he would ever be in the audience of the Queen herself.
“My herald speaks truly,” Lucienne said, her eyes moving back and forth between Henri and Aurélie. “And I wish to repeat her apology at the manner of our interruption here. But I am afraid matters are gravely serious, as you are no doubt aware. Madame Cerveau, Monsieur le Douce, I must speak with you both privately. Please, if you will accompany me back to my cabin…”
Henri cringed as Aurélie interrupted her. “You have got to be joking! Just how foolish do you think we are?”
The Queen was visibly surprised by Aurélie’s audacity. “Foolish? I do not think you are foolish at all, Madame, which is why I must speak with you.”
Still, Aurélie pressed the issue and Henri wondered just how short the rest of his life was likely to be. “Only a fool would accept an offer like that, regardless of whether or not you are who you say you are.”
Lucienne seemed strangely calm despite Aurélie’s hostility. “I assure you, I have come here only with peaceful intentions.”
“I’ve heard that song from the Aristos before.” Henri could hear the venom in her voice.
“Please, Madame Cerveau, I ask you to think about this matter. Had I wanted to kill you, would I not have had ample opportunity? Would I not have brought more warships, or boarded your vessel with more women-at-arms? And even now, surely you must see that your position is not a strong one. I know that there are mages aboard this ship, and they surely must have noticed that their magic is locked to them? Why, even your blades will not loose from their sheaths during this visit.”
Henri risked a sideways glance at Aurélie, who seemed to be considering. He then risked an even more obvious glance at the rest of the crew, all of whom were trying, unsuccessfully, to draw their weapons. Henri gulped. He looked back at the Queen, who had a strangely melancholy expression on her face.
“Please do not misunderstand me,” Lucienne said. “I mean none of this as a threat. My women and I are under similar restrictions.” Henri watched carefully, trying to keep his eyes on both the Queen and her guards, as she pulled her cloak to one side and tried with both hands to draw a dagger hanging at her belt. She couldn’t. But Henri’s eyes immediately darted back to the guards, who hadn’t moved. “Do you see?”
“What about your mages?” Henri asked, staring at the robed woman and man.
“Ah,” the Queen said. “They, I admit, are freer than yours. But you have my promise that you will not be harmed.”
“Thank you for your gracious offer,” Aurélie said sarcastically, “but we’re not setting foot aboard that ship of yours while we still breathe.”
Suddenly, Captain Valerie broke in on the conversation. “You may use my cabin. If Your Majesty would be willing to conduct her business aboard my ship.”
Lucienne looked over to Aurélie, expectantly. “Would that be acceptable?”
Henri stared at Aurélie while she considered. She seemed to be taking a long time, and with each passing moment, Henri felt his life slip away just that much more. Aurélie glanced back, but her face was unreadable to him. Finally, slowly, she nodded.
Lucienne smiled in honest relief. “Thank you. And thank you, as well, Captain. I shall not impose upon your hospitality for any longer than is required. Now, if you will…” She stopped suddenly, looking past them. “Oh, no, my dear, what are you doing out here?”
Henri turned around, his eyes falling instantly on Elise, who had an uncomfortable, even pained expression on her face. Henri felt her expression like a knife in the heart. Lucienne approached her quickly, and as she did, Elise dropped to her knee and grimaced as she bowed even further.
“Your Majesty, I am your most humble servant, Elise LaRoux, the twenty-eighth of my name and Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer, and..."
Lucienne interrupted her, clearly unwilling to see her spend another moment in agony. “I know who you are, and I know of your condition. Please, my dear, do not stay out in this sun one moment longer. Please, come inside.” The Queen held Elise’s hand and helped her to her feet, immediately leading her in the direction of the cabins. Henri felt a lump form in his throat at the gesture. Lucienne glanced back at Aurélie as she walked. “Forgive me, I shall meet with you momentarily. If you would wait for me in the Captain’s cabin.”
Henri watched as the Queen and the Comtesse disappeared into the shade of the cabins. He was amazed. Baffled, really. He had never expected someone like the Queen of Foraine to have cared in the slightest for someone like Elise, a deposed Comtesse and a mage. Maybe, he thought, they would all survive this encounter after all. Maybe Lucienne was a decent and kind person. Maybe she, unlike so many of her kind, actually cared. Suddenly, Henri felt the weight of Aurélie’s gaze on him, and he turned to find her staring at him, displeasure mirrored in her scarred face.
“Let’s go,” she said, gesturing toward the cabins.
Henri nodded, and they started moving, only to be stopped by Captain Valerie, who was blocking their way. The red-haired captain leaned in close to them and spoke softly. “Whatever happens, do not kill her. None of us get out of this alive if you do.”
Aurélie scoffed. “Don’t worry.”
She pushed past the captain, and Henri found himself doing just that. Worrying. Aurélie, alone in a room with an aristocrat, even without the use of a dagger, worried Henri. He could see that same worry reflected in the eyes of Captain Valerie. Still, Henri followed Aurélie into the Captain’s quarters which, though far more extravagant than the cabin Henri shared with Remy, was sparse and open. Aurélie walked over to the captain’s desk while Henri turned around to close the door, trying to collect himself. After a few moments, he turned around. Even he could hear the desperation in his voice.
“What are we going to do?” He asked her.
Aurélie just shook her head. “What can we do? We don’t exactly have many options here, now do we? She says she wants to talk, fine, we’ll talk. But Henri, you remember well that she’s the enemy. Believe nothing she says, and tell her nothing. No names, no locations, nothing.”
Henri resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “And what good will that do? She’s here, Aurélie! There’s no way she could be here! It’s not possible! She knew my name. She knows yours! How?”
Aurélie’s cheeks flared. “If anybody in Foraine is going to have better spies than mine, don’t you think it would be the Queen herself?” She paused, and when she continued, her voice was softer. “I don’t know, Henri. You’re right, it makes no sense. Mages,” she said after another pause. “It must be mages.”
Henri shook his head, disbelieving. “But, I thought the mages were on our side?”
“Mages are like anybody else, and like anybody else, the aristos will buy them if they can. After Mont-sur-Mer, they will probably side with us. Probably. But not all of them, and its nothing we can count on.”
Henri thought suddenly of their escape from Mont-sur-Mer. Surely, now, no mage would side with the aristocracy. “But, Elise…”
“Forget about Elise!” Aurélie interrupted, her voice rising so quickly that Henri jumped. “Get this through your head, Henri. Elise is here because she had no choice. We’re here because we had no choice. Elise is a mage, and while we may not know where they stand, she’s also a noble, and we’re damn certain where they do! She’s the enemy, Henri, every bit as much as the Queen is.”
Henri felt his temper flare, and shook his head. “You don’t know her, Aurélie.”
“Neither do you.”
Henri turned away. Aurélie was letting her hatred blind her, just as she would have in Mont-sur-Mer with Brigitte, had Elise not afforded them an escape from the city. Elise had saved them, and despite Henri’s promise to her, so far, she had protected them more than they had protected her. But Aurélie refused to see that, and Henri had no idea how to open her eyes. Perhaps there was no way.
Suddenly, there was a quiet knock at the door. Henri glanced back at Aurélie, but did not move to answer the door. The knock came again, and Aurélie just shrugged at him. Then, tired of waiting, the Queen opened the door herself and stepped through. She looked first to Aurélie and then over to Henri and back to Aurélie. But before she could say anything, Aurélie spoke.
“Well, we’re here. And a captive audience if ever there was one. What can we do for you, Your Majesty?” Aurélie stressed her last words emphatically.
Lucienne gave a slight sigh. “I know you think of me as your foe, and I cannot blame you for that. But please, if you will just listen to what I have to say, I believe we can do one another, and all of Foraine, a world of good.”
Henri, realizing just how trapped they were, said, “Do we have a choice?”
“You have no choice but to hear me, but I ask that you listen.” As she spoke, she glanced in his direction. Henri saw a look of sincerity in her soft eyes.
“And obey?” Aurélie said bluntly.
Lucienne glanced back at her. “I have not come to give you orders. A suggestion, perhaps, but no orders.”
“Fine,” Aurélie said pointedly. “Let’s hear it. We’ll take it under advisement and we can all be on our way.”
“I know that life has not been easy for you, or for many…”
“You know nothing about me or my life, Majesty,” Aurélie interrupted scornfully.
“I have lived a very different life from you, that is true,” Lucienne began. “But I do know of you. I know that you were born in D’arnaud to Thérèse and Marc Cerveau. I know that you were named after my own beloved mother, Aurélie II. I know that when you were thirteen years old, the local…”
“Stop,” Aurélie said suddenly. Henri had seen that look in her eyes before, and it was not one he enjoyed seeing. It usually meant that she was about to do something he was going to regret. “I get it.”
Lucienne backed off, regrouped, and continued. “And I know that, meaning no disrespect to you, Monsieur le Douce, that you, Aurélie, truly lead the Revolution currently brewing in Fleche.”
Henri’s world seemed to stop moving just as much as the seas around them had. That was a secret that no one should have known outside of himself, Aurélie, and her most trusted revolutionaries. Most of the Revolution, even many of those who had been with Aurélie before the Baroness’s Masquerade, thought she had stepped down in favor of the more charismatic Vocal Henri. It was an illusion Aurélie had carefully crafted in order to draw in as many people to the Cause as possible. Henri stared at the Queen in shock. “How do you know that?”
“Henri,” Aurélie said, almost below her breath.
Henri shook his head as he looked over at her, his eyes wide. “But, the only way she could know that is if one of our women is…”
“Henri!” Aurélie interrupted angrily.
The Queen held up her hands. “Please, do not misunderstand me. Your women are trustworthy, at least so far as I know. I know what I know because of the talented mages who have lent me their abilities.”
Aurélie gave her a glance filled with the daggers she was not able to draw. “I thought magic was frowned upon by the aristocracy.”
“Officially, it is,” Lucienne admitted. “It is another injustice that must be addressed. Just one of many that something must be done about.”
“Then why don’t you do something!” Aurélie erupted suddenly. “You’re the Queen, aren’t you? How can you stand there and tell me that things need to change, when you’re the only one here who can change them?”
“Things are not that simple, Aurélie.”
Aurélie scoffed. “A common excuse from the nobility.”
“A true explanation to a noble commoner,” The Queen said with another sigh. She took a step or two closer to Aurélie, but Aurélie backed away. “Aurélie, please listen to me. I am Queen of all of Foraine, yes, but I lack the power you believe me to have. The Baronesses have grown strong since the time of my forematrons Amandine and Pierrette. They each house a private army, and each one is nearly as large as that loyal to me. And in the last century, they have grown bold. They still bow and swear to me, but they ignore my laws and edicts as pleases them. The Crown has been losing power in their eyes for generations. Even my mother told me once that she had become little more than a figurehead.”
Lucienne paused for a moment to glance over at Henri. There was a strange sort of pleading in her expression, and Henri suddenly realized what it was. It was a woman reaching out. She knew that Aurélie couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand her. But in this matter, at least, Henri could. He knew what it was like to have to pretend, every day, that he commanded something that he didn’t. Henri nodded slowly, in understanding.
“I don’t believe a word of this,” Aurélie spat. “There is no higher rule in Foraine than the word of the Queen.”
“True authority does not always reside where it appears to. I would think that you of all people would know this, Aurélie Cerveau.” Lucienne paused as she gave Aurélie a knowing look. Henri felt a momentary slap at the comment, but he realized the Queen hadn’t meant it as an insult. Undoubtedly, she felt that sting as much as he did. “That is the law, yes. But as I said, the Baronesses have decided that they are beyond the law.”
But Aurélie still shook her head. “You really want me to believe that you, the Queen, the very top rung of the ladder, somehow and for some reason care more about the people than the rest of the aristocracy does?”
“You are an intelligent woman, Aurélie,” Lucienne challenged, “and you have eyes in other parts of the queendom, do you not? Tell me, what do your spies tell you of life in Trone?”
Henri watched with interest as Aurélie turned her head away. She seemed to consider this until finally, slowly, she said, “I hear things are… better… there.”
“I can do as I please in Trone, because I am the power there,” Lucienne explained. “But if I were to attempt to intercede here in Fleche, the other Baronesses would view it as a threat to their authority in their own baronies. They would move against me, and my army is not strong enough to repel them all at once.”
Confused, Henri interjected. “But if the Baronesses are so close, why have they not come to D’Arsien’s help?”
“The Baronesses have no more love for one another than they do for me, and less for the Baroness of Fleche than most. She has always been…abrasive. Further, they fear the Revolution will spread to their baronies. Thus far, your efforts have not spread beyond Baroness D’Arsien’s borders, which suits everyone’s tastes.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Aurélie asked sharply. “What exactly do you want from us, anyway?”
The Queen shifted her focus back to Aurélie. “I want what you want, Aurélie. I want change in Foraine. I want a queendom where a woman’s life and property are valued, regardless of the station of her birth. If your revolution is successful, and if you can keep it restricted to Fleche, then I will be able to install a new Baroness, one who I know will be loyal to me, and hold to the same ideals that I do. I will all but control the coast, and with my army and a newly installed and loyal Baroness, the other baronies will have a far more difficult time opposing me, and I can begin to make the changes to this queendom that will benefit everyone.”
“What on Thorneau makes you think we intend on stopping at Fleche?” Aurélie asked, indignant.
“Hope,” Lucienne said simply. “I admit, this is a gamble. You, Vocal Henri, all of your people, you are dangerous. All of Foraine speaks of the bloodbath you created at the Baroness’s Masquerade.” Henri found himself nodding again as Aurélie looked away from the Queen. “But I believe that you fight for the right reasons. I want a land where such bloodshed is never again seen, not what you did, and not the even greater violence that caused it in the first place. Good or bad, aristocrat or commoner, woman or man, I do not wish to see more of my people die. Regrettably, this conflict has already crossed that point, and more deaths are inevitable.”
Henri lowered his head. He knew it was true, but it was something he didn’t like to hear. Aurélie, speaking in her typical, blunt fashion, said, “Some are a necessity.”
Lucienne bowed her head. “Yes, I suppose that is true. But, if we can restrain the Revolution to Fleche, countless lives will be saved in the rest of the queendom. If you truly started this revolution to save lives, then that should be your goal, as well. And if it is, that is why you would stop at Fleche.”
Henri watched, holding his breath, as Aurélie and the Queen stared at one another. He felt as though he was watching the fate of Foraine be decided right before his eyes. “So that’s why you came here, then?” Aurélie asked, her expression hard. “To suggest that we hold our movement back?”
Lucienne shook her head slightly. “No. That is not my suggestion, merely my plea to your reason. My suggestion is something completely different.” Suddenly, she reached into an inside pocket of her cloak, and Henri tensed, wondering if she were drawing a weapon. Instead, she removed a small coin pouch. She opened it and withdrew a gold ring. She held the ring up for a moment, and then offered both the pouch and the ring to Aurélie.
“What’s this?” Aurélie asked quietly.
“That is the most gold I could get you without anyone noticing. The Baronesses undoubtedly have spies even in my own home, and if anyone knows that I support you, I am as good as deposed, and likely far worse. My sister, Marielle, has long coveted my throne, and she lives in Vigne, a personal and long-standing guest of Baroness Nicollier. The Baronesses would not hesitate to put her in my place, and she has no love of me. Take that gold, and use it how you will. Your people have heart, Aurélie Cerveau, but they lack training and supplies, and the Baroness’s troops will tear them apart without both.”
“And the ring?” Henri asked, more curious about it than the coin.
Lucienne hesitated, as if deciding on her words. “I know what happened in Mont-sur-Mer. And, even more than you probably do, I know what happened afterward. The Baroness’s Grand Magistrate has issued an order of execution on any and all mages found in Fleche. It is going to be a witch hunt.” Lucienne turned toward Henri slightly, though she was looking away from him. There was the beginning of a tear forming in her eye. “If you are going to have any chance against the forces of Baroness D’Arsien, you will need two things: the help of the mages, and someone you can trust to train your women. That ring will get you both.”
Lucienne wiped the tear away from her eye before turning back to Aurélie. “Tell me, are the two of you familiar with the Tower of Tears?”
Henri had never heard of it, and shook his head. Aurélie shrugged. “Some sort of mage’s prison, wasn’t it? Something like a thousand years ago.”
The Queen nodded. “It was reopened about a decade ago, shortly after my mother died and the Crown passed to me. It was originally a prison for mages, built by mages. It rests on an island hidden by magic so as to make it virtually impossible to find. Growing up, my most trusted friend in the Palace was the captain of the guard, a gifted warrior named Nadia Deval. Shortly after my ascension to the throne, she was exposed as a mage, and sent to the Tower of Tears.”
Henri furrowed his brow. “You sent your best friend to prison for being a mage?”
“Yes,” Lucienne admitted. “Although, to be honest, I knew perfectly well that she was not a mage in the first place.”
“What?” Aurélie said suddenly.
“It was Nadia’s idea,” The Queen said, laughing slightly. “We reopened the Tower, not as a prison, although that is what everyone was told. We reopened it as a sanctuary for mages, a place where they can go to perfect their craft, and be safe. Nadia volunteered to run it, and that is where she has been ever since. That ring is a message to Nadia that you can be trusted. There is no other person on all of Thorneau who would know what that ring means, or that it was from me. My suggestion, therefore, is this: find the Tower of Tears, give that ring to Nadia, and tell her you need her help in the Revolution. She will go with you, and I suspect she will not be the only one in that tower who does.”
Henri was dumbfounded, and he stared in silence for a long moment before a horn blared out. The Queen looked toward the door, then back at Aurélie. “I must go.”
Henri watched, still unsure of everything he had seen, as Lucienne walked to the door and began to leave. She stopped herself briefly and turned back around to Aurélie and Henri. “If you decide not to trust me, I cannot blame you. Use the gold as you see fit. But whatever you do, I leave you with one last request, one last plea. Whatever happens, please do not become the oppressors you seek to overthrow.”
Henri felt that lump in his throat reemerge, larger than before. In his mind, he again heard the yells and the screams at Baroness D’Arsien’s Masquerade, the screams of “For Vocal Henri” that roared out as people killed and died. If there was a single thing he wanted to agree with the Queen about, it was that.
Before either of them could respond, Lucienne opened the door and left. Henri turned back to Aurélie, but she seemed to have nothing to say. After a long time, they seemed to silently agree to something, and they both left. Aurélie took the pouch of gold and the ring to her cabin, presumably to hide them from the rest of Valerie’s crew. Henri considered stopping in to check on Elise, but Aurélie would undoubtedly notice him, and Sir Ruth was with her, so instead, he simply returned to his cabin to lie down. He tried to think through everything that had just happened, but before he knew it, he was asleep.
His dreams, as always, were troubled and bloody, but they didn’t last long. A few hours later, Henri was woken up by Aurélie and ushered back into Valerie’s cabin, where Valerie herself waited. The wind had apparently returned shortly after the corvette had left, and they were again sailing through the seas as if nothing had happened. Aurélie recounted the majority of the Queen’s words to the other two, and they all debated whether they should trust the Queen or not. Eventually, Aurélie and Captain Valerie decided that searching for the Tower of Tears would be the best idea, and they dispersed.
Henri returned to his cabin again, but this time, sleep eluded him. The Queen seemed to be a good person, and he wanted to trust her, but something she had said stayed with him. Even she had admitted that further bloodshed was now unavoidable. Henri’s dreams seemed to confirm it. But all of the Queen’s hopes seemed to hinge on keeping the revolution within the confines of the Barony of Fleche. Aurélie, he was sure, had no such intentions. And Henri, as always, was stuck in the middle, front and center in the revolution he was supposed to run, but couldn’t control. He thought about Elise again, and his promise to her, and wondered if he would truly be able to protect her. He wondered if he could protect himself.
He wondered if he could protect anyone on Thorneau.
Elise LaRoux spent her days aboard the Mourning Reign the same way she spent most of her days: In a dark room, alone.
Over the years, the rooms had changed. Growing up in the chateau, Elise had had a wonderful bedchamber at the top of the grand staircase, with a canopy bed, and shelves of books which stretched so high she needed a ladder to reach them. But, even in that room which she had thought of as her sanctuary, the windows had been forever covered with dark, velvet curtains – sewn shut, lest she try to open them – and even the lamps had shades so thick that they barely cast enough light to read by, so that Elise would have to hold her books just inches from her nose, and, even then, she squinted to read them.
Her room at the chateau had been her sanctuary. But it had also been her prison.
Later, after she had been cast out by her mother, and was living in secret in the house of the old weaver, her jail had been more obvious. Black paint had replaced the velvet curtains, and her only light during the day came from the sooty flame of a kerosene lamp, which gave off more smoke than illumination, and which stained the ceiling black even as Elise passed the time with the daily paper, or the village notices, or anything else that her hosts could find for her to read.
On the days when there was nothing else to do, Elise would recite to herself the poems she had memorized as a youth, or would build little castles from her deck of Aubedore cards, challenging herself to see how many stories she could construct atop one another before they finally collapsed, which they always did.
On some days, she would simply lie on the ground, with her ear pressed to the floorboards, and would listen for sounds of life from the room below. Small sounds, mostly – domestic sounds. Like a kettle whistling for attention on the stove, or a sneeze, only partially covered.
The sounds of everyday life. Everyday life for everybody who was not Elise LaRoux.
The rooms had changed over the years, but the loneliness had stayed much the same.
Aboard the Mourning Reign, the sole porthole inside Elise’s cabin back towards the stern of the ship had been covered with a sailcloth, which Sir Ruth had folded over again and again, until it was thick enough to block out the sun, and had fixed across the window with the aid of several large tacks. There was an oil lamp which hung on a short chain from the ceiling, and which cast strange, drifting shadows across the length of the room as it and the ship swayed from side to side, and, beyond that, there was a bed, and a small chair.
If there were any books aboard the ship, Sir Ruth had been unable to find them.
So Elise LaRoux mostly spent her days sitting quietly, and staring at the ceiling, thinking thoughts that she would have preferred never to think again.
At night, when the sun was no longer her jailor, Elise should have been freer to move about the ship, and, on more than one occasion, she had found her thoughts drifting towards Henri le Douce, whose face she could picture clearly in her mind, and whose voice had something in it that she liked. But, whenever Elise had thought about attempting to visit Henri, she had found herself shackled by a new set of restraints.
For one thing, it would be a gross breach of protocol to call upon a gentleman – in his cabin, at night, alone, and unannounced. Even though she had not lived among the nobility for years, the rules and rituals of etiquette had been drilled into Elise with an urgency and precision that time could not fade, and the mere thought of committing such a breach conjured images of her mother’s disapproving scowl, unbidden, from the depths of her memory.
For another thing, wherever Henri was, his friend – the woman with the scar, Aurélie Cerveau – was never far away. And Elise still could not look at Aurélie Cerveau without seeing the look of cold, undisguised hatred that she had seen on the scarred woman’s face in that moment when she had been holding a dagger to Elise’s sister’s throat.
That was a look that had frightened Elise then, and it still frightened her now.
Besides, Elise, too, found herself perpetually encumbered by a chaperone of her own: Sir Ruth. Ever since their narrow escape from Mont-sur-Mer – from that day of terror, which had taken Brigitte, and so much else – Sir Ruth had hovered over Elise like a mother bear, and had clung to her new Comtesse as though her life depended upon it.
Which, it turned out, was more literally true than Elise had at first assumed.
On that first night, as they sailed away from the coast, and as the smoke from the burning village had faded in the distance, Sir Ruth had knocked upon Elise’s door, and, after being granted permission to enter, had walked – still bloodied, still limping, with her face blackened by bruises, and her broken arm held stiffly at her side – into the center of the room, where she had knelt at Elise’s feet, and, with her eyes averted, had drawn her sword from its scabbard, and had offered it to her new Comtesse.
“Blade, rope, or poison?” Sir Ruth had asked, as she knelt unsteadily on one knee, and held her sword out to Elise.
“I beg your pardon?” Elise had asked, not understanding.
“Madame, I was your sister’s chevalier,” Sir Ruth had said, eyes still averted. “I was sworn to her, yet she died under my protection, when it should have been I who died in her stead. Honor requires that I offer you my sword.”
The chevalier paused for a second, before clearing her throat, and continuing.
“Honor also requires that I offer you my head, should you wish to take it,” Sir Ruth said, and, again, she held her sword up to Elise. “To that end, Madame, I must inquire again: blade, rope, or poison?”
Elise had cleared her throat, and had taken a step backwards.
“You are not the one responsible for my sister’s death, Sir Ruth,” Elise had finally said.
The chevalier shook her head.
“She was my Comtesse. I was responsible for her.”
“And responsible you were,” Elise had said. “You followed her orders, to the last.”
“I abandoned my Comtesse.”
“Because that was what she ordered you to do.”
“That is no matter. I am alive, and she is dead.”
Sir Ruth was silent for a long time. When she at last spoke again, there was something in her voice which Elise had never heard from the armored woman before.
“It is… beyond impertinent for me to suggest this, Madame,” the chevalier said, as she struggled to hold her sword aloft with only one good arm, “but, if you will forgive my saying so, I would prefer either the blade, or the poison.”
Again, for a second, Sir Ruth fell silent, before clearing her throat.
“I would prefer either to the rope.”
Elise had stepped forward, then, and she had taken the sword from the chevalier’s outstretched hands.
“Sir Ruth,” she had said, quietly, “I am now your Comtesse, am I not?”
“You are, Madame.”
“And are you sworn to obey me?”
“I am, Madame. On my honor, and on my life.”
Elise had given her head a small nod.
“Good,” she said. “Then my first and only order to you is this: You are to fulfill my sister’s wishes. My sister wished for you to protect me, and that is a wish which you will find very difficult to fulfill if you are dead.”
Then Elise had offered the heavy sword back to Sir Ruth, pommel first.
The chevalier had accepted the sword, and had risen, and then bowed.
“As you command, Madame,” she had said.
That had been that. And Sir Ruth had barely let Elise out of her sight since.
Elise was grateful for the chevalier’s devotion. But, at times, she had also begun to find Sir Ruth’s watchful protection a bit overbearing. And the fact that Sir Ruth only grew even more vigilant when Henri was close at hand only made an already complicated situation even more so.
Which was why Elise LaRoux was taken quite by surprise when, one day, a knock came at her door, and it was Henri’s voice which called out to her from the other side.
The knocking came just after the ship had seemed to come to a halt, if the lamp which hung from the ceiling of her cabin, and which had grown suddenly and unexpectedly still – was any indication. This had struck Elise as odd, and so she had asked Sir Ruth to learn what could be learned from the Captain, but all thoughts about the ship and its progress vanished from her mind when she heard Henri speak.
“Elise, it’s Henri,” he said. “Do you mind if… that is, may I speak with you?”
Elise did not hear the end of what Henri said because, suddenly, she was on her feet and looking desperately around her small cabin, which was in no way a proper place to receive visitors. Her bed, at least, had been neatly made – the sort of task which a small army of servants had seen to at the chateau, but which Elise had learned to do for herself during the years of her exile – and the fact that she had no possessions to speak of meant that, at the very least, there was no disorder among her few affairs. But there was only the single chair in the room – Sir Ruth was the only woman who visited Elise with regularity, and the straight-backed chevalier always stood – which meant that, were Elise to offer Henri a seat, she herself would be forced to stand.
Or, perhaps, she could sit on the bed, but that would be unthinkable.
Of course, were she to suggest to Henri that he should sit on the bed, that would be even more unthinkable.
Elise tried desperately to remember whether any of her governesses had ever instructed her on the proper protocol for such a situation, but her mind drew a blank. Lack of proper seating had never been a concern at the LaRoux estate.
How was a Comtesse required to comport herself in such a situation? For Elise, such a question had never before been anything but academic.
Oh, Goddess, she suddenly thought, how long had Henri been standing outside her door, while she tried to decide what to do?
Elise slid the one chair across her cabin so that it was positioned in the center of the small room, and she sat herself down atop it, arranging her body almost reflexively into an acceptable posture. Then she cleared her throat.
“You may enter,” she heard herself say.
The door opened, but only just enough to allow Henri le Douce to slide through sideways, before the man whom everyone called Vocal Henri slipped into her cabin, and shut the door carefully behind him. He did not step forward. In the dim halflight of the windowless room, it was difficult for Elise to make out his face. Her eyesight had always been poor – yet another consequence of her condition, she had been told, by one after another of the cavalcade of physicians whom she had been paraded past during her youth – so she had to squint to try to make out Henri’s expression. He looked… grave.
Elise waited for Henri to speak, which, for some unknown reason, he did not seem inclined to do.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Henri le Douce clasped his hands behind his back, and he opened his mouth.
“Are you well?” he asked her.
Something about that question again put Elise in mind of the physicians, with their bright lights, and their white-gloved hands.
“Yes, Monsieur le Douce,” she said, feeling unsure of what was happening. “I thank you for asking.”
“Henri,” he said, his face still a study in stoicism. “Please, you can call me Henri.”
Elise was quiet for a moment. If Henri wished her to address him by his given name, then, well, that could mean any one of several things.
“As you wish,” she said, and, as Elise said it, she felt as though she were venturing into uncharted waters.
She heard Henri clear his throat, although he did not move. “Is Elise alright?” he asked.
Elise felt herself blink. Why was Henri so concerned for her health? Did he have some reason to worry, some reason to suspect that she might be anything other than well?
Or was it her condition? Was that what had him so ill-at-ease?
Inwardly, Elise sighed. If so, then he would hardly be the first.
“Yes,” she said, quietly, feeling her heart begin to sink. “As I have said, I am well.”
As well as I shall ever be, Elise thought to herself.
She saw Henri frown, and she wondered to herself if he was going to leave, just as suddenly and unexpectedly as he had arrived. But, instead, Henri le Douce shook his head.
“No, no,” he said, bringing his hands out from behind his back, and holding them up for emphasis. “What I’m saying, or, I mean, what I meant to say, was, well, is it alright if I call you ‘Elise’? You know, rather than ‘Madame LaRoux’ or ‘Comtesse’ or something.”
Oh, Elise thought. Well, that was something altogether different.
Elise felt herself smile, and, to her own horror, she heard herself laugh. She was about to cover her mouth, only, before she could, Henri laughed, too, and, then, they were laughing together, and, well, that was alright.
As the laughter died down, Elise could feel herself relax. She leaned forward a bit in the chair.
“Yes,” she said. “‘Elise’ shall do nicely.” Then she added: “Henri.”
Henri smiled back, which would also do nicely, Elise thought. Then he gestured towards the cloth-covered porthole.
“Do you have any idea why we’ve stopped?” he asked.
Elise did not turn to follow Henri’s gaze. The reflex to look out of windows when unusual things happened – which she had noticed that other people tended to do – was not a habit which she shared.
“I have no idea,” she said, and shrugged her shoulders. “I have asked Sir Ruth to go ask the Captain.” This time she did glance away – not towards the porthole, but at her own hands, which lay folded in her lap. “She should return any moment.”
The mention of her chevalier seemed to set Henri on edge, Elise noticed. Her visitor fidgeted noticeably, and spared a quick glance back at the door.
“Sir Ruth is, um, a good protector. I’m… glad that she’s here,” he said, sounding unconvinced at best. “We are all dedicated to your protection, and she will certainly help with that.”
Elise continued to stare down at her hands. She believed that Henri meant what he said, but it was not Henri’s face which kept her up nights.
“Why?” she eventually said, and the question seemed to catch Henri off-guard.
“W-what do you mean?” he stammered. “Why what?”
“Why do you want to protect me?” Elise said. “I am one of your enemies, am I not? A noble? A Comtesse?”
Elise fell silent for a moment. Then she opened her mouth again, but closed it, allowing her next thought to remain unsaid, lest the quaver she could feel growing in her voice would betray her thoughts.
“I…” Henri began, then stopped, shook his head, and began again. “I promised your sister that I would protect you.” He straightened his back and did his best to stick out his chest. “I take my word seriously.”
After a long moment, Elise nodded her head.
“You do… seem the type who would.”
“Elise,” Henri said, “you are not my enemy.”
“Perhaps not yours,” Elise said. Then, finally, she looked at Henri, and she felt the tears that she had been trying to prevent for the last several minutes forming against her wishes. “But what about… your friend?”
“My friend?” Henri asked. He looked confused.
“Your friend,” Elise said. “With the scar.”
Henri’s look of confusion deepened.
“Aurélie?” he said.
“Yes. Aurélie.” Elise looked down at her hands again. “Am I her enemy?”
She looked up again, and she could see Henri tense.
“Elise, you are under Captain Valerie’s protection, and mine,” he said. “Nobody is going to hurt you, if we can stop it.”
“But can you stop it?” Elise asked, and she could feel now that her tears were flowing. Before she fully knew what she was doing, she had stood up, and had crossed the small room to stand in front of Henri. Taking him by the arm, she forced him to look her in the eyes as she spoke. “Henri, I beg you to be honest with me. Back in Mont-sur-Mer, when Aurélie had my sister… when she had her knife to Brigitte’s… I know that you spoke out, then, that you spoke for my sister, and, for that, I shall thank you for so long as I draw breath, but, your friend, Aurélie… if you had not spoken? Would she have… would she have really…?”
Elise could tell that she was gripping Henri’s arm harder than she meant to, but she did not let go, as she looked into his eyes, and waited for an answer that seemed to take far, far too long to come.
“No. I do not believe she would have,” Henri said, shaking his head. He brought up his left hand and laid it gently on top of hers. “Brigitte LaRoux was innocent, and the innocent are the people we’re trying to protect.”
Elise LaRoux looked at Henri le Douce, and she wanted to believe him. She wanted to believe him as much as she had wanted anything for a very long time.
Before she could speak, though, the door behind Henri opened, almost slamming into his back, and Sir Ruth stepped quickly into the room.
“Madame la Comtesse,” the chevalier began to say, before she noticed Henri, at which point Sir Ruth’s mouth drew closed, and her eyes narrowed.
Elise saw Henri flinch. His eyes darted to Sir Ruth, then back to Elise, then back to Sir Ruth again, before dropping down to look at Sir Ruth’s sword, which the chevalier’s gauntleted hand had suddenly drawn close to.
Sir Ruth cleared her throat. Henri flinched again.
“I suspect I may be needed on deck,” Vocal Henri said, and, with only that by way of parting, he extracted his arm from Elise’s grasp and, without meeting Elise’s gaze as he left, he somehow managed to slip past Sir Ruth – who made no movement to ease his escape – and out through the door, which the chevalier closed behind him just as soon as he had departed.
Elise felt a pang of sadness, followed by a surge of annoyance, and she was contemplating giving voice to as much when she caught sight of the expression on Sir Ruth’s hardened face, which stopped her dead in her tracks.
“What is happening?” Elise said, feeling her nervousness from before returning. “What have you learned?”
“Madame,” Sir Ruth said, moving slightly so that her armored frame barred the door, “the ship is becalmed as if by magic, yet a royal corvette gains on us, and shall come alongside presently.”
Elise felt a lump at the base of her throat.
“This ship,” she asked. “What are her intentions?”
“Madame, we have no way of knowing.”
“Whose marque does she fly?”
“Madame, she sails under a white glove atop a blue lozenge.”
At Sir Ruth’s description of the approaching vessel’s flag, Elise LaRoux felt herself go stiff as a board. As a youth, she had spent many nights in the chateau’s grand library, where the starlight reflected back and forth between the mirrored walls, and the shelves nearly sagged beneath the weight of books on every imaginable subject. One tome which Elise had taken a shine to at an early age – a great, gilt-edged volume so large that it covered an entire reading table when she lay it open, and which she liked particularly due to the size and beauty of its color engravings – was a history of the heraldry of the noble lineages of Foraine. Elise had turned the book's pages again and again, studying the marques and crests and banners until she knew each by heart – it was one of her few feats of scholarship which had ever earned a word of approval from her mother, the Comtesse.
“Satisfactory,” her mother had once said, after Elise had sorted an entire season’s worth of Margot’s invitations to grand balls, grouping the cards into two piles – attend, or decline – based purely on the nobility of the marques embossed upon the thick stationery, and that single word of praise had, for one, precious moment, made Elise feel as though she were wanted.
So, when Sir Ruth told her that the approaching ship was flying a white glove atop a blue lozenge, that news brought Elise to the brink of panic.
“It is the Queen,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.
Sir Ruth raised an eyebrow.
“The Queen, Madame?”
“The Queen,” Elise repeated. “The Queen herself.”
For a moment, Sir Ruth mirrored Elise’s look of surprise. Then, the chevalier’s expression hardened into one of action.
“Madame, we must dress you,” the armored woman said.
Elise glanced down at herself. She was wearing the same simple gray robe which she had been wearing on the day of her escape from Mont-sur-Mer. She had fled the city with nothing but the clothes on her back, and, even if she had had time to retrieve any of her things, she had grown into a woman while living in an attic, and she owned no gown that would have been remotely suitable for a royal audience.
As though she could sense Elise’s growing panic, Sir Ruth held up a steadying hand, then turned quickly on her heel.
“I shall search the ship, Madame,” she said, as she opened the door, and made to leave.
“How much time do we have?” Elise called out after her.
“Very little, Comtesse,” the chevalier said, as she vanished into the passageway beyond.
There was no mirror in Elise’s cabin, and, anyway, she had no brush, so there was no hope of doing anything suitable with her hair. The best she could manage was to smooth her long white tresses with her own fingers, and she resigned herself to the fact that it would have to do. There was a shallow basin on a stand next to her bed, so Elise wet the corner of her robe in it, and scrubbed violently at her face. The water was salty, and it left her smelling vaguely of the sea, but, again, it would have to do.
She had no combs, no jewelry, no adornments of any kind.
She glanced down at her feet, which were bare. Her toes were small, and ghostly pale atop the unnaturally still deck.
At least her nails were trimmed. Sir Ruth had given her a small knife.
Presently, Sir Ruth came barging back in through the open doorway. Her arms were piled high with clothing in every conceivable color and style, and a pair of tall leather boots hung by their laces from one of her pauldrons.
Elise had to suppress a giggle as Sir Ruth emptied her spoils out onto the bed.
“Where did you find it all?” Elise asked, as she began gingerly to sort through the tangle.
“The locks aboard this ship not very strong, Madame,” Sir Ruth said, as she locked the Comtesse’s own door.
Elise’s hands stopped moving. She glanced up at her chevalier.
“You did not break into the other cabins?” she asked. “…Did you?”
Sir Ruth ignored the question.
“I shall offer my apologies later, Madame,” the armored woman said, and she began helping her Comtesse to sort the sundry clothing into piles.
As thorough as Sir Ruth’s ransacking of the Mourning Reign had been, Elise’s options left much to be desired. Once those articles which were obviously the wrong size or clearly unsuitable for a royal audience had been placed off to one side, Elise was left to choose between a leather coat and matching britches which had the look of a uniform, and which Elise suspected belonged to Captain Valerie, and a simple white cotton sundress, with lace ruching along the seams, and a pleated hem, the origin of which seemed a deeper mystery.
“My mother always forbid me to wear white,” Elise said, with one hand resting on the dress, and the other on the leather coat. She glanced up at Sir Ruth. “She said it made me look like a mouse, even more than I already did.”
“You are the Comtesse now, Madame,” Sir Ruth said. “You may do as you please.”
Elise sighed, and she picked up the cotton gown.
“For me to appear in uniform would be to misrepresent myself,” she said. “Better an honest mouse than a false officer.”
Sir Ruth nodded her approval, and, as best she could, the chevalier helped Elise to dress.
The armored woman was tying up the laces on the borrowed pair of boots when Elise glanced across the room at the covered porthole.
“What time of day is it?” she asked.
“Almost midday, Madame,” Sir Ruth said, as her gauntleted hands struggled with the thin laces.
“Is the sun out?”
Elise felt her heart skip a beat.
“Is it… very bright?”
Sir Ruth glanced up.
“Yes, Madame,” she said, with a note of apology in her voice.
Elise closed her eyes, and sighed.
“It cannot be helped,” she said, softly.
Sir Ruth finished with the bootlaces, and she picked up a small, white parasol, which she had presumably commandeered along with the clothes.
“I will protect you, Madame,” the chevalier said.
“Thank you, Sir Ruth,” Elise said. “For everything.”
Then Elise LaRoux took a deep breath, and – under the protection of a woman clad in full plate armor and armed with a white lace parasol – she made her way up onto the deck of the Mourning Reign.
In the end, though, it made no difference.
Elise LaRoux’s eyes burned.
Elise LaRoux’s everything burned, really. But, somehow, it was her eyes which hurt worst.
When Sir Ruth had opened the door onto the deck for her, Elise had felt the daylight come washing over her like a sea of fire, even before she had left the darkened confines of the hatchway. The noonday sun hit her with the force of a physical blow, and she could feel herself reel beneath it, as though struck with a red-hot iron.
Sir Ruth had opened the small parasol, and had held it protectively over her, and that, at least, had some small and palliative effect. But it was equivalent to emptying a thimble of water onto a raging bonfire. The sunlight seemed to come from everywhere – it beat down from the sky above, and, somehow, impossibly, it seemed to beat up from below as well, where it reflected off the still ocean and the polished wood of the Mourning Reign’s deck, until Elise felt as though she were assaulted from all directions, as though she were standing in the maw of a great furnace.
But the Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer did the only thing she could do: She stepped out onto the deck, and she waited for the Queen to address her.
Everything that was happening around Elise seemed to pass as a kind of searing, white blur. She could recognize voices – barely – through the haze of her discomfort, and she was vaguely aware that she and Henri had exchanged words, but, no sooner had she spoken, than the thought was gone from her mind, swallowed whole by the sheer sensory misery of being outside in bright daylight for the first time in many, many years.
Elise’s eyes – weakened from birth by their lack of protective pigments, and weakened further since by a life lived almost entirely in darkness – could barely focus amid the brightness of the outside world. She could hardly see past the end of her own nose, and, in place of ships, and people, her world was one of hazy gray outlines against a universe of burning white. Elise blinked, and blinked, and blinked, desperate to relieve the pain she felt whenever her eyes were open, but her body could not make tears fast enough to have any effect.
Meanwhile, wherever her bare skin was exposed to the sun, Elise could feel herself burning. She almost imagined that she could smell it, too – like a side of bacon, left too long in the pan – but she knew that must have been a figment of her imagination.
Or that was what she hoped it was, anyway.
Her face burned. Her cheeks burned. The tip of her nose, and the tops of her ears, they burned. The back of her neck burned. The sundress she was wearing did not cover her shoulders, and they burned too. Even beneath the thin fabric, Elise could tell that her whole body was burning. Her back, her chest, her stomach, her legs – they all hurt, they all burned.
And, all the while, she was sweating. Elise was sweating more than she had ever sweat in her life. She could feel it beading on her forehead, could feel it running down her arms and legs, could feel it soaking through her dress down at the small of her back. Elise shuddered to think what the effect on her appearance might be. But, even if she had wanted to look down, and to see for herself, she would hardly have been able to tell.
So, instead, Elise LaRoux focused every single fiber of her being on one single, solitary goal: She tried to stand at attention, with her back straight, and her face a careful blank, while she waited for Queen Lucienne II of Foraine to address her.
Which, Elise hoped against hope, would be soon. Because Elise was not sure how much longer she could remain as she was without collapsing, or screaming, or worse.
But the rules of etiquette were simple, and they were clear: In the presence of a sovereign, one stood at attention until bidden to sit, and one did not speak until spoken to.
So Elise LaRoux waited, and she burned.
Finally, just when Elise feared that she could stand it no longer, the gray outline who she took to be the Queen turned towards her, and, through a haze of confusion and pain, Elise heard words that sounded as though they were addressed to her:
“Oh, no, my dear, what are you doing out here?”
Taking that as her cue, Elise LaRoux dropped to one knee – an act which made her grit her teeth with pain – and she bowed as deeply as her body would permit.
“Your Majesty,” Elise said, launching desperately into the introduction she had been rehearsing inside of her own head, over and over again, as minute after agonizing minute slipped by, “I am your most humble servant, Elise LaRoux, the twenty-eighth of my name and Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer, and—”
“—I know who you are, and I know of your condition,” Elise heard the Queen say. “Please, my dear, do not stay out in this sun one moment longer. Please, come inside.”
And, before she fully realized what was happening, Elise felt a hand taking hers, felt it guiding her back towards the hatchway.
Silently grateful, Elise LaRoux followed her Queen out of the sun.
It was only once she was back below deck, in the merciful darkness of her own cabin, that Elise LaRoux caught her first real glimpse of Queen Lucienne II, sovereign of all Foraine. She was younger than Elise had expected, somehow, even though Elise knew Lucienne’s age to the date, and there was something about her face that was disarming – her eyes were not kind, exactly, but there was empathy in them, Elise thought. Understanding, even.
“Please, my dear,” the Queen said, withdrawing her hand from Elise’s and gesturing to the nearby chair. “Be seated, if you would be more comfortable.”
Elise shot one wary glance at the chair, and winced, before shaking her head.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said, “but, if it pleases you, I would prefer to stand.”
“Of course. As you wish,” Lucienne said.
Slowly, gingerly, Elise walked across the cabin, moving in small, measured steps. Sir Ruth, meanwhile, hurried in front of her, and slid the chair out of Elise’s path before bowing deeply to the Queen, then to the Comtesse, and then to Queen a second time.
“Your Majesty,” the chevalier said, “Madame la Comtesse, I shall withdraw into the corridor. Should you require anything at all, you have but only to call for me.”
Then, after another series of careful, practiced bows, the armored woman let herself out through the door, and drew it closed behind her.
Elise suddenly found herself alone with Lucienne. Standing stiffly in place, she averted her eyes, and she waited for her Sovereign to speak.
“It brought me great sorrow, to hear about your sister, and about the fate of your city,” the Queen said. Walking to stand next to the covered porthole, she ran her hand along the folded canvas, before turning back to face Elise. “I know that, at a time such as this, mere words can bring little comfort. But, for whatever such words are worth, you have mine.”
Elise bowed as best she could – a gesture which was even more painful than it had been just minutes earlier, when she had stood above deck – before looking up to meet the Queen’s eyes.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Elise said, softly. “Your words mean more than you realize.”
The Comtesse hesitated for a second, then continued.
“Madame,” she said, voice shaking, “to whatever reports may have reached your ears about the conduct of my sister, Brigitte LaRoux, the Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer and the twenty-seventh of her name, I wish to add my own testimony.” Elise could feel that she was about to cry, and, grossly overfamiliar as shedding tears in the presence of the Queen might be, Elise knew that she was helpless to stop them. “My sister was loyal to the last,” she said, her words gathering force, and pace. “She was good, and she was loyal, and she sought only to do her duty, both to her people, and to her Queen. Anything you may have been told to the contrary is—”
“—a lie,” Lucienne said, silencing Elise with one raised hand, and a small nod of her head. “Yes, my dear, I know.”
The black-cloaked woman sighed, and drew a step closer.
“At present,” she said, “I fear that those who would blacken your sister’s name with such lies have me at a disadvantage. There is… little I can do to counter their slanders, without revealing my own disposition, and the time for me to do so has not yet arrived.” Lucienne sighed again, and she looked Elise in the eyes. “But I give you my assurance that, when the time is right, I will see your sister’s honor restored.”
Elise made no effort to dry her tears. It would have been too painful to do so.
“I thank you again, Your Majesty,” she said. “You offer me more kindness than I could ever dare to ask.”
For just a second, a thin smile flashed across the Queen’s lips, before it quickly vanished.
“I fear that your companions aboard this ship do not hold my promises in such high regard as you seem to,” she said. “But strange times make for strange bedfellows, one supposes.”
The Queen looked at Elise, then, and, as she did, the Comtesse felt as though she were being studied.
“Tell me,” Lucienne eventually said, “these strange bedfellows of yours – do you believe they can be trusted?”
Elise hesitated before answering. In her mind, she thought of Henri, but she also thought of Aurélie Cerveau, and of a knife pressed tight against pale skin.
With a start, Elise realized that she had been staring off into the distance, while the Queen waited for her answer.
“I cannot say, Your Majesty,” she said, carefully. “I trust Henri le Douce. I trust him with my life. Perhaps you will consider me mad, but I do. I believe that he is a man of his word, and he gave his word to my sister that he would protect me, so the fact that I yet live suggests that his word is not without sway.” Elise glanced up at Lucienne. “But it is not Henri le Douce who I fear… if you catch my meaning?”
Lucienne was quiet for a moment, before nodding.
“Yes,” she said. “I believe that I do.”
“I do not mean to cast aspersions, Madame,” Elise hastened to add. “It is just, you see…”
But her voice trailed off before she could finish.
The Comtesse and the Queen stood together in silence for a moment, before the Queen nodded her head.
“I thank you for your candor,” she said. Then, glancing down at Elise’s skin, which, in places, had turned the color of a boiled lobster, and was beginning to blister, Lucienne added: “And I am truly sorry that my arrival here today has caused you such discomfort.”
Elise shook her head, but slowly.
“No, Madame, the fault is not yours,” she said. “The weakness is mine. It has always been mine.”
The Queen of Foraine raised her eyebrow.
“Were you as weak as you claim, Elise LaRoux, I very much doubt that we should be having this conversation.”
Again, Elise shook her head.
“I owe my survival to my sister,” she said. “And to Sir Ruth, and to Henri.”
Lucienne smiled a wry smile, which caught Elise by surprise.
“Then I shall have to thank Vocal Henri for as much, when I see him next,” she said. “For myself, I can only hope to earn his trust half as well as you seem to have done.”
Lucienne’s smile widened, for just a second, before it vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
“Now, if you will excuse me,” she said, and she turned towards the door, “I must take my leave, if I am to accomplish that goal for which I came here in the first place.”
The Queen was halfway to the door when Elise cleared her throat, and called quietly after her.
“Your Majesty?” she said.
Lucienne glanced back over her shoulder, but she did not turn around.
Elise felt as though she could not look her Queen in the eye and still say what she felt like she had to say next, so, instead, she stared down at the floor as she spoke.
“Earlier, you asked me if Henri le Douce could be trusted,” she said. “Before you see him again… Madame, I would ask you the same question.”
Lucienne raised an eyebrow.
“Are you asking me, can I be trusted?” she said.
Elise LaRoux did not answer the question.
How could she?
“I did not mean it like that, Madame,” she said, hurriedly. “What I meant to say was, well…” Elise swallowed to wet her throat. “What I meant to say was, I would be very sorry, were any harm to come to Henri le Douce. That is all.”
Queen Lucienne paused with her hand upon the door.
“My allies have nothing to fear from me, Comtesse,” she said.
“And is Vocal Henri to be your ally?” Elise asked.
Again, Lucienne smiled.
“That is what we are about to find out, Madame la Comtesse,” she said. “That is what we are about to find out.”
And, with that, she left.
Elise waited until the Queen was gone, and the door had closed behind her. Then, silently, she counted to ten inside her head.
Then, once she was sure that she was well and truly alone, she gritted her teeth against the pain, and she screamed.
Elise LaRoux would never forget the last time she had been burned so badly. It had happened when she was a girl of twelve, on a day that had begun so auspiciously: It was early spring, and the morning had brought a rare treat, for Elise had woken to find the grounds of the chateau blanketed with a sea fog so thick that, against their own better judgment, her governesses had allowed her to go outside with Brigitte and Margot.
The three sisters played a game of tag in the hedge maze, which Elise even won – although she knew, in her heart-of-hearts, that it was because Margot had let her win – and then they summoned ponies from the stables, and went riding across the lawn. After that, they had chased each other through the gardens – not even a game this time, just pure, simple fun – until the rising sun had begun to burn the fog away, and Elise had heard voices calling to her from out on the terrace, ordering her to return inside.
But Elise had not wanted to go back inside. Elise would have given anything to make the day last forever, to make the fog last forever, to be – for just one, perfect morning, a normal girl, like Margot, or Brigitte, who could run and play outside with her sisters whenever she wanted to, instead of spending her life inside a darkened room, with the curtains drawn, and sewn shut.
So, instead of heeding the calls to return home, Elise LaRoux had run. She had run, and she had tried to hide in the maze.
She had not gotten far, and not much time had passed before an exasperated governess had discovered her hiding, miserably, behind the shade of a hedge, as the strengthening sun exacted its toll for her show of defiance, but Elise was exposed for long enough, and the price she paid for her freedom was dear. She could still remember the agony of that night, as she lay awake in her bed, writhing in pain, unable to sleep, unable to find any way to position herself atop the bed that did not send pain burning through her red, blistered skin wherever it touched the sheets, the pillow, anything. Elise had cried and wailed so piteously that a physician had been summoned, who had given her brandy, and an oily, milky tonic, which tasted foul, and chalky, but which had finally dulled her pain enough that she could sleep, although the dreams Elise dreamt that night were strange, and terrifying, and she had had a strange sense that they were not her own.
That lesson had been painfully learned, and Elise LaRoux had avoided repeating that particular error – until now.
This time, as Elise screamed through gritted teeth inside her tiny cabin aboard the Mourning Reign, it was not a physician who came to her aid, but Sir Ruth.
After letting herself back in, the chevalier took several quick steps towards her Comtesse, but Elise held up a hand to stop her.
“No, please,” Elise said, shutting her eyes tight for a moment, and trying to regain control of her own breathing. “Do not touch me. I beg you not to.”
Sir Ruth looked solemn, and her voice was empathetic. “Let me help you undress, Madame.”
Elise shook her head.
“I shall manage on my own,” she said, although she did not relish the prospect.
“Madame, there must be something I can do.”
“There is,” Elise said, as she started the slow, agonizing process of extracting herself from the sweat-stained cotton dress. “If there is brandy aboard this vessel, you may bring it to me.”
Sir Ruth nodded her head.
“I shall bring you a snifter,” she said.
“You shall bring me the whole bottle,” Elise said.
Elise somehow managed to get out of the dress and back into her robe while the chevalier was searching the ship for relief in the form of a strong libation. When Sir Ruth returned with a three-quarters-full bottle of apple brandy, Elise was lying on her back atop the bed, with her head angled awkwardly, so that the back of her neck did not rub against the pillow, and she was crying silently.
Sir Ruth offered Elise the brandy, which she took. She spilled almost as much as she drank, but she did not stop until the bottle was empty.
Then she handed the empty bottle back to Sir Ruth, who bowed, and, showing an intuitive sensitivity that belied her outward demeanor, the chevalier retreated from the cabin, leaving Elise with the dignity of her privacy.
Elise LaRoux was grateful for the chevalier’s tact. She had cried enough in front of others that day, and she wished to shed the remainder of her tears in the manner with which she was most comfortable: in a darkened room, alone.
The day seemed to drag endlessly into night. Time passed in a muddy, undifferentiated haze, as Elise tried to lie as still as she could, but it made no difference. If nothing else, she had to breathe, and even that small movement was enough to send waves of pain shooting through her body. It was her shoulders that hurt the worst. There, every inch of her skin felt like a raw nerve, and even just the slightest touch from the fabric of her robe, or from the edge of her pillow, made her bite her lip in agony.
After hours spent lying on her back, trying impossibly to sleep, Elise forced herself to sit up, to see if that posture was any better. It was – a bit – and, after yet more hours, she managed to drift into a shallow, fitful sleep, only to be jolted awake moments later after her unconscious body had leaned back against the headboard, which roused her from her insipient dreaming with a muffled scream.
At a loss for what else to do, Elise LaRoux eased herself down from the bed and – slowly, carefully – she shuffled her way across the cabin to the door, which she opened.
Outside her room, the ship was quiet, and dark. It was night.
Elise LaRoux let herself up onto the deck of the Mourning Reign. The nighttime air was cool and damp, and, mercifully, it gave her some small semblance of relief.
As Elise’s eyes adjusted to the moonlight, she realized that she was not alone. Off towards the ship’s prow, she could make out the shape of a woman leaning against the railing, silhouetted from behind by the ocean waves, and their reflected starlight. But, although they could not have stood more than a dozen paces away from each other, Elise felt as though she and the other woman were oceans apart.
Elise was not sure just why she felt that way. Maybe it was down to the pain, which had formed a kind of barrier inside her own mind. Or maybe it was something about the way the other woman stood – dead-silent, and preternaturally-still, as though she weren’t even there, as though she were worlds away.
Elise had caught glimpses of the woman before, but she did not know her name.
Cautiously, Elise made her way across the deck, until she stood almost shoulder-to-shoulder with the silent woman, who did not so much as twitch in acknowledgement of Elise’s approach.
The woman’s eyes were open, Elise could see, but she was facing out towards the sea.
“You are different, aren’t you?” Elise said, quietly.
Next to her, the woman flinched, as if broken from a reverie. She turned to look at Elise, and her face was hard.
“Different from what?” the woman asked, with an edge to her words.
Elise took a step backward, surprised by the woman’s reaction. She tried to hold the woman’s gaze, but found that she could not. So, instead, she turned to face the sea, and she spoke her next words to the gently-rolling waves.
“I just meant that you seem different from the others,” Elise said, her voice barely louder than the sound of the waves breaking against the side of the ship. “I was watching you, you see, and, well… I just had this sense that you were different, somehow.”
Elise looked up, and she saw that the woman’s eyes had narrowed.
“Different, how?” she asked again.
“I do not know,” Elise said, and she started to shrug her shoulders, only to abandon the gesture halfway through, as her body howled in protest. So, instead, she pointed back towards the hatchway, where she had been standing moments ago. “I was just watching you, watching the way you were watching the sea, watching the way you looked at it, almost as if you owned it, or as if it owned you.” Elise paused, searching for the right expression to explain the strange sensation that seeing the woman had given her, but finding that she could not quite put it into words. “You somehow seemed so present, so connected,” she finally said. “And yet, you also seemed so apart. So… alone.”
The woman was staring at her now – intently – and Elise suddenly felt herself growing nervous. She wondered where Sir Ruth was, and if the chevalier would hear her if she called.
“What is it that you want from me?” the woman eventually asked.
“Nothing,” Elise said, quietly. She took another step back. “I want nothing. I just… I could not sleep, and I came to get some air.” She bowed her head, and she sighed. “That is all.”
For another minute that felt like an hour, the woman continued to stare at her. Then, slowly – almost imperceptibly, at first – her face softened.
After drawing a deep breath and then exhaling it slowly, the woman turned away. Her eyes drifted skyward, and she leaned back against the railing.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “This was a painful day.”
Elise gave her head a small nod.
“Very,” she said.
The woman glanced back at her.
“You could not sleep?” she asked.
“No,” Elise said, quietly.
The woman laughed a strange, hollow laugh.
“Me neither,” she said.
The woman turned and leaned forward, with her arms braced against the railing, and she stared out across the water. Elise moved to stand next to her, and, for a moment, she did the same.
“I am different,” the woman said, breaking the silence.
Elise looked up at her.
“What do you mean?” she said.
The woman shook her head, and sighed.
“I don’t know what I mean,” she said. “Sometimes, I feel like I don’t know anything at all.”
Reaching up, the woman brushed a hand across her cheek. Elise could see that something was drawn there, on the woman’s skin, but, in the darkness, she could not make out what it was.
“I know the sea,” the woman said. “I know the sea better than I know myself. And this sea is not my sea.” She hesitated for a moment, before turning to look at Elise. “I’m from a place very different from here – I know that. And I love my home. I love the songs it sings. I love the taste of its winds, and the embrace of its waters. I love it more than anything. But it was… taken from me.” The woman hesitated again, before shaking her head in frustration. “Or, I was taken from it – I don’t know. I don’t know why, and I don’t know how. I just know that my life is gone, and I’d give almost anything to have it back.”
As the woman spoke, Elise found herself thinking back again to the day when she had been twelve, when she had gone out in the fog. Only, this time, she did not think about how she had burned in the sun, or the agony she had felt afterwards. Instead, she found herself thinking about Margot, and about Brigitte – about how they had played together, about the pure and simple joy of having sisters, and about how, for one precious morning, they had been together, and how happy it had made them.
And now they are both dead, Elise thought to herself. Margot and Brigitte are both dead, and I am the only one left. I am the only one left to remember.
Elise felt tears welling in her eyes, and she hated herself for crying again.
The woman was looking at her with a strange expression on her face. Elise bowed her head before she spoke.
“I know how you feel,” she said. She tried to brush her tears away, wincing at the way just that tiny contact hurt her skin. “I had a very different life once, too. I was surrounded by everything anyone could want, but all I wanted was my father, and my mother, and my sisters.”
Elise’s voice broke as she spoke that final word aloud, and she looked down at her hands, as though she expected to see Brigitte’s blood on them. Her skin was red, but only from the sun.
“Then it was all taken away,” she said, “one piece at a time.” She was crying now, and the tears showed no signs of stopping. “Now I have nothing.” She glanced back toward the cabins again. “Almost nothing, anyway. But sometimes I think I deserve even less.”
Elise LaRoux looked up at the woman.
“I did not deserve to be the one who lived,” she said.
The woman shook her head.
“We don’t deserve the things that happen to us,” she said. “Life is not fair, and has never claimed to be.”
Elise sniffled a bit, and she cleared her throat.
“So what do you do?” she said. “How do you go on?”
The ghost of a smile appeared on the woman’s face.
“You weather the storm,” she said. “You trim your sails, you tack into the wind, and you ride it out.”
The woman’s smile grew wider, and there was almost a sort of music in her voice.
“You sail into the storm,” she said, “and you trust your mates to pull through for you.”
Elise looked at the woman.
“And what if you have no… mates?” she said.
“Aboard a ship, you always have mates,” the woman said.
Elise felt the Mourning Reign moving beneath her feet, and she thought about Sir Ruth, and about Henri.
Meanwhile, the woman extended her hand.
“I’m Gale,” the woman said.
Elise looked warily at the woman’s waiting hand. Shaking hands was hardly proper, and, besides, just the thought of doing so made her wince.
“I am Elise,” she said, a bit nervously, hoping to leave the matter at that.
But the woman offered her hand again.
“Mates?” she asked.
As Elise LaRoux looked at Gale, she thought about propriety, and about pain.
Then she thought about sisterhood – about mates – and she decided that neither propriety nor pain mattered.
“Yes,” Elise said. “Mates.” And, leaning forward, she kissed the woman called Gale once on each cheek.
The gesture hurt, but it hardly mattered.
Because, while Elise LaRoux was still surrounded by darkness, she was no longer alone.
The songs of the seas of Thorneau were bizarre symphonies to Gale. They rose and fell in strange patterns, hitting high and long notes even under blue skies, and quieting into whispered arias during storms, when the wind and the waves of her home would have bellowed out in boisterous celebration. They seemed to be of many voices, too, an entire chorus of breezes and seaborne ripples that cascaded into a concert that even Gale, at times, found overwhelming.
She had fallen in love with it almost immediately.
Gale was standing on the quarterdeck of the Mourning Reign, the ship’s wheel held loosely in her hands. She had been aboard the great galleon for just over a fortnight after literally dropping out of the sky into this strange, lively world. Captain Valerie had plucked her out of the drink, and offered her a place aboard. Gale could have hardly refused even if she had wanted to, but from the moment she felt the smooth decks of the Mourning Reign, she knew that she wanted to sail her.
Gale knew ships. She could feel their personalities from the way they rode the waves, from the way they rocked in a heavy wind, or the way they bobbed when they sat at anchor. She had served on temperamental vessels that bucked at every attempt to control them. She had served on docile, domesticated ships that were eager to please their crews. She had even served on sluggardly, slothful piles of sticks and tar that seemed to care little for anything at all. But she had rarely known so well-built a ship as the Mourning Reign.
The ship was a friendly, passionate thing. She didn’t cut through the waves so much as ask them to part for her, like a dancer in a crowded hall. She didn’t harness the wind to push her so much as invite it to run with her in a wild love affair. The crew loved her, and she loved them back. She was inviting. It had taken Gale only a few short hours to learn her ways, to hum along to her rhythm as the Mourning Reign sang out to the elements around her. And then the ship had begun to reveal her secrets, too. It was a seduction, almost, and Gale relished every moment of it. Within a week of her arrival, Captain Valerie had offered Gale the helm.
And Gale did not steer the Mourning Reign so much as dance with her.
The people sailing aboard the ship had taken a bit more getting used to for Gale. After everything that had happened on the Blazing Star, Gale was guarded with her new crewmates, and avoided telling them anything about herself apart from what the captain demanded. Mercifully, Captain Valerie seemed eager to see Gale comfortable, and pressed her for information only once, and in the privacy of the Captain’s quarters. And even then, the information she had required did not stray beyond Gale’s experiences with ships, which had earned her the helm.
Josette, the first mate, was also helpful, ensuring that the rest of the crew curb their curiosity at their newest comrade. Surprisingly, the crew seemed to have little problem doing so. It seemed as though most of the crew was used to minding their own business except when needed. Gale wondered if that was common on this new world she had found herself marooned on, or if it was more a function of the Mourning Reign’s crew, which was a diverse crew, to be sure. There were people from every walk of life Gale had ever heard of, and several she hadn’t. But the strangest of all were the mages.
Gale knew almost nothing about magic. Growing up, there had always been whispers of wizards and witches, but few ever seemed to go to sea, and Gale had never met one. She had heard stories of some mages’ exploits on some of the worlds she had seen since her home had cast her adrift, but again, she had never crossed paths with one. The closest she had come was that snake, Raiker Venn. As she thought back, she realized he must have been a mage, to have opened a porthole in reality itself, and given her that one, heart-aching gaze at her home seas, only to snatch it away from her again. But that was the only magic Gale had ever seen, as far as she knew.
And because of that experience, Gale found herself wary of the mages aboard the Mourning Reign. And there were several of them. Camille, the ship’s navigator, could conjure flames that blazed without oil or kindling. The ship’s cook, Jocelyne, could apparently keep food fresh for weeks or even months without the use of salt. Zuton, the man in charge of the Mourning Reign’s brig, could conjure ice, and Gale had even been told he could freeze someone solid without killing them. Pierrick, who spent most of his time in the crow’s nest, could reportedly even transform into a bird. Gale had never seen it happen, and she didn’t particularly want to.
The ship’s passengers were also a strange lot. They were led by a man named Henri le Douce, who most of the crew called Vocal Henri, although Gale had no idea why. He did not seem to speak much, and when he did, it always seemed to be about the Cause, whatever that was. Gale wasn’t interested, and so she never asked. Captain Valerie never gave any indication that she was part of, or even sympathetic to, whatever that Cause was, but she allowed him to talk, all the same. Still, it seemed almost as though the woman with Henri, Aurélie Cerveau, held more respect in the eyes of the others than he did.
But the worst of them, the one that set Gale on edge, was the white-skinned woman. Gale had never seen her. Apparently, she was some sort of noblewoman, and the crew described her as a pale woman with mysterious powers who stayed constantly in her cabin. Gale’s mood soured as she thought about it. That exact same description could have been applied to someone else, someone Gale would rather not think about. It was as though night fell upon her whenever she thought about Captain Vasco’s “little pearl,” even if it were in the middle of a bright, sunny day like today. Her ears still echoed with the accusations of Amargo and that one, unforgivable word.
Gale shuddered at the recollection and pushed it out of her mind. Instead, she tried to focus on the song of Thorneau. She listened for several long minutes as a broad smile crossed her face, the melody building up around and within her. It was a good song, a clear song, and Gale loved it. She did not know how long she stood there, listening, humming, allowing the Mourning Reign to dance along with it. The sun beat down on her tanned skin and the wind teased her hair. It was a good feeling, and Gale loved it.
She noticed the sound of the song dying before she felt the ship begin to slow. Gale’s eyes snapped open and she looked around her, confused. The song of Thorneau’s oceans changed and shifted, but in the two weeks she had been here, they had never fallen silent. But now, one voice at a time, they were doing just that. Each piece fell away one after another, like coats of paint stripping from a hull. At first, the sailor was merely confused, but with each voice falling away, she became more and more desperate. She looked all around her, but there was nothing to see. The sails were falling limp, the waves still as a painting.
And then, suddenly, there was no sound at all.
Gale’s heart seemed to stop. She had no idea what had happened to her since being tossed from her world, but she had seen several since. The first ones she had found herself in had had no seas, no oceans. It had been torturous, but not a single one of them had ever been silent. The winds still blew on those worlds, and they still sang their songs. They were lonely, hollow, unaccompanied songs, sung without feeling or passion or companionship, and they had broken Gale’s heart every time, but at least they had been there. At least she could hear them. But now, here on the vast, untamed oceans of Thorneau, all voices had stopped. The wind was mute, the waves stifled.
And Gale, for the first time, was truly and utterly alone.
Panic gripped Gale, and Gale gripped the wheel of the Mourning Reign. The ship was all she had now. She looked from side to side, searching for anything to bring her back the song, but her eyes did not truly see. For a moment, she thought she saw something, a face perhaps, but there were no answers there, so she kept looking, blind and desperate. She could feel her breath quicken, but she could not hear herself exhale. Hoping in vain to draw the song back, she began to sing as she had her entire life.
But she heard no sound escape her lips.
Gale’s chest began to tighten, and in response, she tightened her hold on the wheel. She could feel her knuckles whitening, and could register the strain her fingers were putting on themselves, but she didn’t let up. She couldn’t. She had to find it again. She had to hear it. It had to be there, somewhere. The winds and the waves, the sky and the sea, these things did not sleep, they did not rest, and they did not die. That song had to be there, somewhere. It had to respond to her song. They always had before. They had to now. They had to.
Gale felt something like a hand on her arm, but it wasn’t the song. She momentarily thought she saw a shock of red hair in her unfocused vision, but the moment passed, and Gale was left alone again. Time lost all meaning for the sailor. She was searching desperately, her entire being devoted solely to finding what she had lost. But like so much else in her life, she couldn’t. The Mourning Reign was still as a stone, run aground in warm, deep waters. Wherever the song had gone, Gale couldn’t follow.
She would have liked to say that everything went black for her, that she had lost consciousness and awoken some time later when everything was normal again. She would have given nearly anything she had to be able to say that those minutes or hours had passed her by painlessly and quickly. She would have loved to say that it had been just one more challenge that she would laugh off. But Gale was no liar. For the rest of her life, those shackles of silence would live on as the worst torture she had ever endured, the worst she could ever imagine. For those heart-drowning minutes, Gale as she knew herself ceased to exist, and in her place was a breached and empty hull.
After what must have been three eternities, though, a voice appeared in Gale’s ear. It was soft, and low, and tentative. Shy. Then it was joined by another, and then a third. Then, above them, higher voices sounded on the wind, and breathed life back into Gale’s body. Tears rolled down her cheeks, one cutting straight across the four points of her Speaker’s mark. Soon, the entire chorus had returned, singing out loudly and fully, as if rushing to fill the void like the waters of a whirlpool. Gale joined in, as well, her voice barely a whisper, and shaking like the rest of her body.
A moment later, she felt a hand come to rest on hers. This hand grabbed Gale’s fingers and pried, as hard as they could, until Gale’s grip on the wheel was finally broken. The sailor looked down at her right hand. Her fingers were white and curved, as if still grasping the wheel, and they were shaking uncontrollably. She felt pressure on the fingers of her left hand and looked over to see Josette trying to free the wheel complete from Gale’s grip. She looked back to her right and saw Captain Valerie standing there, a horrified expression on her face.
“Gale, are you alright?”
Gale struggled to speak, but only managed a weak “No,” as her left hand came free. Then, gathering herself slightly more, she added, “No, Captain.”
Valerie looked past Gale. “Josette, get her down to a hammock immediately.” Turning back to Gale, Valerie laid a hand at the side of Gale’s face, her thumb brushing away a tear from Gale’s four points mark. “Listen to me, Gale. You’re going to be fine, do you hear me? You’ll be back at the helm by tomorrow. Everything will be back to normal. Okay?”
Gale, still shaking almost to the point of convulsion, nodded. “Yes, Captain.”
Captain Valerie stepped away, and Gale allowed herself to be led down to the mess by Josette, who was speaking softly to her, but Gale could not concentrate on the first mate’s words. She was listening to the song, letting its music fill her ears and chase away the silence. Before she even knew it, she was in her hammock, her eyes shut tight but her mind wide awake. For every moment of cold, torturous stillness that had gripped her earlier, her mind now compensated equally with maddening, chattering chaos. Gale tossed and turned ceaselessly, as though even her body rejected the quiet of sleep.
Gale did not know how long she had been lying in her hammock, but it was dark when she eventually gave up on sleep and made her way topside once again. The song was quiet, but present, and Gale breathed in the music like the cool night air. The moon was a small sliver of a crescent, its pale light skipping and dancing on the black waves below. The deck of the Mourning Reign was mostly empty. The night crew was only as large as it needed to be to sail the ship, with two or three of the mages standing guard against the possibility of attack. The main deck, though, was completely empty, and Gale, wanting nothing more than to look out at the sea and hear its song, walked over to the railing, and stared.
She stared out over the wide, black ocean and let the motion of the Mourning Reign soothe her. Half of her just wanted to forget what had happened, but the rest of her wouldn’t let her. Her mind and imagination just kept reliving it, the stillness and the silence choking her in a way she had never, in her entire life, imagined. She briefly wondered if that was what it was like to drown, but she immediately dismissed the thought. To drown was likely the opposite. It was to be smothered, overwhelmed, and enveloped in the song and the movement of the waves. It was to die in a lover’s embrace. What she had felt was to have that lover torn brutally and violently away.
Gale watched the waves for a long time. Every surge of every wave was beautiful to her, more so now than ever before, and she had always loved them. The water danced like a suitor, approaching first boldly and then retreating shyly, daring her to dance yet not daring to ask. The moonlight was the silver in an experienced man’s hair, the flash of a young woman’s smile, the glow in a lover’s eyes the morning after. And above it all, the winds danced in their own patterns, their tune at once moving away from and harmonizing with the sea’s. Gale just stared, not even risking a smile for the fear that it would all be taken away from her again.
Suddenly, Gale became aware that she was not alone. Someone was standing next to her. Forcing herself to turn away, if only momentarily, from the dance of the sea, Gale glanced over. Her expression fell into a frown. It was the pale woman, the mage, who had, as far as Gale knew, never left her cabin. She was staring out at the ocean, too, but looked over at Gale as she did.
“You are different, aren’t you?”
Gale winced. Captain Vasco’s “little pearl” had asked her precisely the same question.
“Different from what?” Gale asked flatly.
The woman took a step backwards and returned to looking out over the sea. She looked uncomfortable, even pained. “I just meant that you seem different from the others.” She paused, looking back toward the cabins. “I was watching you, you see, and, well...I just had this sense that you were different, somehow.”
Gale’s eyes narrowed. Again, this was all something she had heard before, and it wasn’t a pleasant memory. Stiffly, purposefully, Gale turned toward the woman. “Different, how?”
The woman seemed to shrink away further, but pointed back toward the cabins again. “I do not know. I was just watching you, watching the way you were watching the sea, watching the way you looked at it, almost as if you owned it, or as if it owned you.” She stopped for a moment, and Gale considered her words. She supposed that, ultimately, the woman was not far off. “You somehow seemed so present, so connected. And yet, you also seemed so apart. So…alone.”
“What is it that you want from me?” Gale asked. She could almost see the woman who had killed Vasco staring back at her now.
“Nothing…” the woman said, inching away just a bit more. “I want nothing. I just…I could not sleep, and I came to get some air,” she said, her voice dropping to a dejected whisper. “That is all.”
Gale stared back. She didn’t trust this woman. She was a small, pale mage, and too many other similarities besides. But, as Gale stared at her, she saw the differences, as well. While Vasco’s pearl had skin the color of cream, this woman’s was so white that it almost glowed in the moonlight, although in places it looked red and irritated. While the woman aboard the Blazing Star had wild eyes that couldn’t focus on anything, the woman aboard the Mourning Reign stared intently at the ground. But the biggest difference was the feeling Gale got. When she had looked at Vasco’s pearl, Gale felt like a murderous storm was about to find landfall. When she looked at this pale mage, she felt like seas were about to calm.
Gale took a deep breath and turned away, slumping against the ship’s rail. “I’m sorry,” Gale said. “This was a painful day.”
From the corner of her eye, she could see the other woman nodding sadly. “Very,” she agreed.
Gale glanced back. “You could not sleep?”
“No,” she said.
Gale laughed once. “Me neither.”
The two stood there for a long moment, staring out over the water. Then Gale, feeling a surge within her, turned back and spoke. “I am different.”
The other woman looked over at her. “What do you mean?”
Gale shook her head. “I don’t know what I mean. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t know anything at all.” Gale reached up and, gently, touched her Speaker’s mark. “I know the sea. I know the sea better than I know myself. And this sea is not my sea. I’m from a place very different from here – I know that. And I love my home. I love the songs it sings. I love the taste of its winds, and the embrace of its waters. I love it more than anything. But it was…” Gale hesitated, looking back over the water. “Taken from me. Or, I was taken from it - I don’t know. I don’t know why, and I don’t know how. I just know that my life is gone, and I’d give almost anything to have it back.”
When the other woman didn’t speak, Gale looked over at her. The pale mage was staring at her, tears welling in her pink eyes. She lowered her head and, after a long pause, spoke. “I know how you feel,” she said, then moved to brush the tears away. “I had a very different life once, too. I was surrounded by everything anyone could want, but all I wanted was my father, and my mother, and my sisters.” Her voice broke on that word. She looked down at her hands. “Then it was all taken away, one piece at a time.” She was crying freely now. “Now I have nothing.” She looked back toward the cabins again. “Almost nothing, anyway. But sometimes I think I deserve even less.” She looked up at Gale, her eyes blurry with tears. “I did not deserve to be the one who lived.”
In Gale’s mind, she pictured her crew, her mates on her beloved cutter. She remembered each of them in turn as they were lined up by those raiders and put to the sword the day that all of them died. All of them, except of course for Gale. She shook her head. “We don’t deserve the things that happen to us. Life is not fair, and never claimed to be.”
“So what do you do?” The pale woman asked. “How do you go on?”
Gale smiled. “You weather the storm. You trim your sails, you tack into the wind, and you ride it out.” Gale suddenly became aware that the song of Thorneau’s seas was growing louder, singing out with the full force of their voices. It was a celebratory sound. A triumphant sound. It was the sound of joy, and freedom, and friendship. It was a sound that made Gale glad to be alive, no matter what world she was on. Gale’s smile widened. She had lost much in her life, but she had a ship beneath her, she had the song, she had the wind and the waves. “You sail into the storm. And you trust your mates to pull through for you.”
The woman looked at her. “And what if you have no…mates?”
“Aboard a ship, you always have mates,” Gale said as the song filled her. Then she extended her hand to the pale mage. “I’m Gale.”
The woman looked down at her hand, confused. “I am Elise.”
Gale extended her hand further. “Mates?”
Elise smiled one of the most genuine smiles Gale had ever seen. “Yes. Mates,” she said, then moved in, past Gale’s hand, and kissed Gale, first on her bare cheek, and then on her mark.
Smiling, Elise turned and walked back toward the cabins. Confused, Gale scratched idly behind her head and turned back toward the ocean. The black sea danced, the wind sang, and the Mourning Reign greeted them like lovers. “Thank you,” Gale said to them as she sat down again, and started to sing to the depths and breadth of the ocean, and the four points of the wind.
Aurélie Cerveau and Henri le Douce are original characters created by RavenoftheBlack for the Expanded Multiverse.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
All works copyright their respective creators.