Jourd’Aradia, 22nd Primera
Two days they had been in Aeril, and still Anala, ‘Aradia’, and Yarrow were locked in negotiations. When it became apparent that the three women could discuss things much more efficiently without the four men around, the boys had been banished from the hacienda. They stayed at the tavern, along with a few units of the First Regiment. Those soldiers not on duty who could not fit in the tavern made camp in and around town.
Everything had been discussed, really. The main sticking point was what they were to tell Empress and Empreena — they needed to bring back at least one rebel leader for execution, mayhap more. It had already been decided that ‘Lucy’, ‘Aradia”s partner in insurrection, would stay on to lead Aeril in this ‘time of crisis’ — Anita and Leala did not know of her participation in the rebellion, and so her ‘coming forward’ as one ‘loyal to the Empress’ would be a believable sham, so long as the town played along. They hoped.
It still left the problem of whom to bring back as ‘rebel leaders’ for execution. If she could, Yarrow would just tell her sister and aunt that she had killed the leaders in Aeril — that it was over and done with. Unfortunately, Anita and Leala were here — so no stories of a vicious struggle ending with a necessary slaying, regardless what their orders were, could be spun.
So the two bellicas and the rebel leaders sat, trying to decide the impossible: who would be sent to die. Never mind the plan was to break out from the dungeons whomever they chose before the actual execution was to take place. There was still a chance that whoever was chosen would die, either by execution or in prison–or by any of the myriad dangers between here and that future date of death, especially Zardria’s quick temper and her decisions based on whim.
Shaking his head free of such thoughts, not to mention thoughts of what he still needed to tell Yarrow regarding her sister and himself and had been putting off as much as possible, Caelum went in search of Major Aro. Duke Aro, I suppose, he mentally amended. The truth of Aro’s past had come as a hard-hitting shock to everyone, especially Yarrow, who had seen the truth behind her mother’s murder confirmed in the major’s story. Anala couldn’t be happy about having so important a fact about Aro hidden from her for so long, either, but for now the bellicas were locked in the hacienda with ‘Aradia’.
Something else about Aro’s revelation was bothering Caelum. He took this opportunity to speak to the other major privately.
He found Aro in their shared room — the bellicas had slept in the hacienda the past two nights, and so Aro, Caelum, Jules, Lares, and Dagon had bunked down together in the tavern. Their other roommates were nowhere in sight and Caelum thanked Whoever had arranged it so. Aro stood looking out the window, back to Caelum, surveying the town. Now that Caelum thought about it, Aro did have an almost lordly air about him; he did look the part of the noble as he stood and looked out at the town of his birth.
Caelum knocked gently on the door frame, and Aro turned to face him immediately.
“Caelum! A pleasant surprise. Come in,” he said cordially, and Caelum again mentally noted the nobility with which Aro carried himself.
The first major stepped in and closed the door. Now he was here, he didn’t know how to begin with what he wanted to say, or ask. Feeling for a stepping stone on which to start, he hedged. “How does it feel, being back in your home province like this?”
Aro shrugged before sitting on the edge of his bed. “I don’t really know. Seeing the town looking so good — better than it did just over a month ago, by Amora — brings joy to my heart. And I can’t help but feel things will be better for Smoke, too, for it lies within this province. But I feel a certain trepidation of the future — that without the Ylfen family to guide things here, all may fall to ruin again.”
“What do you mean? You’re here,” Caelum began, but Aro was already shaking his head.
“I’ve never been destined to rule — not here, and not anywhere else. That changed when my name was changed from Jared to Aro.”
Caelum blinked. “Jared? As in Jared the — ”
” — the True-Hearted, yes. I was named for him,” Aro finished for Caelum. The first major let out a low whistle. That was not a name given lightly. Jared was a famous legendary figure from Athering history. Everyone, even those with no education (Caelum included himself in that description), knew the story of Jared: how, even when his bellica was accused of treason, he stood by Bellica Evana, refusing to believe what all evidence pointed to as the truth. Bounty hunters came after her, for there was a huge price on her head, but he slayed each and every one, protecting her with all his devotion. At the end of the story, his bellica’s name was cleared, and those who had spread the lie — the true betrayers of the Sceptre — were put to death. When everyone had doubted his bellica — even Evana herself, gone into madness — Jared stayed true to her. He was considered the pinnacle of their profession — what every major should aspire to in his oath to his bellica.
“Well, you were named true,” Caelum said, meaning it wholeheartedly. Aro’s devotion to his bellica was almost as legendary as Jared’s.
“Thank you, friend,” Aro said, accepting the compliment. “But I am no longer he; I’m Aro deSarah of Atton — major to Bellica Anala, not Jared deNia Ylfen, Duke of Aeril. I have no wish to rule anyway. I do want to know what happened to my younger sister, Chloe,” he said after a brief pause. “She was sent for fostering shortly after I was. I have not heard of her since.”
This was it then — time for the confirmation of his fears. “Do you know where she was sent?” Caelum asked, silently praying for any other answer than the one he was sure would come.
“Southland, to some distant branch of the Ereven family. I never knew which, however.” A pause, during which Caelum was sure Aro could hear his heart beating so rapidly. “You’re from Southland, are you not?” Aro said suddenly, and Caelum stopped himself from flinching just barely. “Do you happen to know where my sister went?”
There was no guile on Aro’s face, and Caelum knew the other major truly did not know — that this was not a game to make Caelum feel more guilty than he did already.
He let out a gust of air, knowing he could delay no longer. “My mother and uncle were of the Ereven family,” he began slowly, and it hurt to see Aro’s face light up. “My mother was a bellica, before she married and settled down in her hometown. They had one child — myself — and when I was young, we were sent a girl from Aeril for fostering. Mother named her Stella. I’m not sure what her name was before that, Aro, but if it was your sister…I’m sorry. There was a bandit raid, several years past now. She and our mother and father did not survive. I’m sorry, Aro.”
Caelum had never seen such an evolution of emotion played out on anyone’s face. Aro went from hope to despair to resignation and acceptance, and all the little feelings in between, in a matter of seconds before nodding sadly. “It is not your fault, Caelum. I do thank you for telling me.”
“If it is any consolation,” Caelum said, desperate to ease the emotional blow he’d just dealt, “I loved her as I would have loved a sister of my own blood, and while she lived she never wanted for anything.”
Aro gave him a small smile. “I am glad to know that she had a brother who would have loved her as I did, and a family that was not destroyed from within, as the Ylfen was.” He sighed and looked outside again. “Times like these, I wish I could drink.”
“Would you take the company of a friend who would have been your brother had things turned out differently?”
Aro gave Caelum a self-deprecating smile, and let out a bark of mirthless laughter. “Yes. I would.”