The rhythm of the horse’s trot kept her from thinking, lulling her as a ship would her friend Anala.
She couldn’t allow herself to think. If she thought about what had just happened, about what she’d just lost, she’d be unable to function. She’d be unable to continue her inexorable journey to the North. To exile.
Beyond Athering, beyond her life — past everything she’d known for thirty years. It was almost too much to take. If she thought about it, a weight pressed against her chest until she couldn’t breathe and felt as if she should just get off her horse, lie down on the road and die.
So don’t think about it, Yarrow. Don’t think about what’s gone. Don’t think about it.
That became her inner chant, the words she said to herself to keep her sanity, as she and Jules rode on towards Atton.
She glanced at the medic, his horse keeping pace with hers, the fading light casting shadows on his face. His loss was as great as hers. Perhaps greater. He had a fiancé waiting for him in Atherton, a woman he’d likely never see again. She had a man who’d left her for her sister, a man who, even if she were not exiled, could never be touched by her again. She probably wouldn’t even be able to look at him with the longing she felt in her heart, lest her sister become jealous. Perhaps exile was preferable to that living Tyvian.
Instinctively her hand drifted to her pocket; pressing, she felt the crinkle of paper and reassured herself that Caelum’s note was safe. It was all she had of him now, and she didn’t intend ever to give it up.
The reasons didn’t matter. She didn’t care why he’d made his choice. She just wanted him back.
There must be something that makes this worth it.
She didn’t think she could hold on to that kind of hope anymore. They wouldn’t make Atton in the two days she had. The Empress’ assassins were probably already after Jules. How or why they hadn’t caught up to Ghia, Yarrow couldn’t fathom. She did know she and Jules were fecked for time, with nothing to look forward to but sleeping on the cold ground and hoping that those who were after them didn’t find them in the night.
Feck that. She wanted her last night to be in a warm bed with a warm wench beside her.
Spend yourself in sex, Yarrow. Forget the sorrow, she thought sardonically. Lose yourself in meaningless liaisons. Try to forget your pain in a man’s flesh. She grimaced as the full truth hit her: whatever sex had been before, a fun activity she liked to share with many different people, sometimes simultaneously, it would never be the same again, because all she would see would be Caelum’s face in every one-night lover.
Such was the danger in falling in love so deeply.
She hated herself for it. She was Bellica Yarrow — or had been — foul-tempered, bedding anything with a pulse, always ready for a drink or a fight. Not some silly young noble with starry eyes and a head filled with notions of romance. That had always seemed ridiculous to her.
Always? No. Not always. Since mother died — but it may as well have been always. When Zameera left Yarrow’s life, the young princess had locked the door on emotions. It hurt too much to love someone that much, and she’d vowed never to do it again.
No wonder the Goddesses hate me so. I can’t even keep a promise to myself.
She shook her head in disgust. Well, then. Not even casual sex to look forward to. Nothing except Jules’ company. She glanced at her ex-CMO, his horse cantering beside hers. Could be worse. At least he was a good drinking partner.
She felt damned awful about dragging him down with her. Damn my obsession with legality. None of this would have happened if she had just done as Ghia suggested and said, Bugger the law.
She never could have done that. The law, fickle and sententious as it might be in Athering, was the only thing stable and true in her life. It had been that way for years. Law is the only thing that keeps a society together. It may not work perfectly, or at all in some cases, but we are much better off with it than without it. And if I am ever to be Queen, I will not start by pissing all over it.
As if in response to her thought, a big drop of rain splatted on her head and rolled down her face. She held her hand out and another drop landed on her palm. Of course.
“Jules,” she said out loud. “Rain,” though she failed to see how he could have missed it.
He nodded, looking up and blinking quickly. “Damn. Time to find a place to camp, then.”
They slowed their horses to a walk and kept their eyes open for a likely camping spot. “Are we near one of the mail caravan’s stopping places?” she asked, knowing nothing about this road. The last time she’d been in Atton had been the occasion of her uncle’s suicide.
He looked both ways down the road before replying. “Maybe another quarter klick. We’ll be soaked by the time we reach it, though.” The rain was coming down heavily now.
“We’ll get soaked anyway. At least the caravan’s rest point has some shelter. Let’s hoof it.”
They spurred their horses to one final gallop and came upon the campground in a matter of minutes, by which time the rain was coming down in sheets. Quickly, they rode under the shelter and dismounted. Yarrow set to work on their horses and Jules immediately started to set up camp. By the time their poor, overworked horses were resting and eating comfortably Jules had a roaring fire going and water boiling to make their soup. A vent at the top of the roof allowed smoke out but kept the rain from getting in; below this were several bars, high enough to safely catch the fire’s heat but not the flame. Whoever built this shelter thought of everything, Yarrow thought as she hung her damp woollen cloak on one of the bars. Next she stripped off her jerkin and wet linen shirt; the jerkin she put back on, letting the fur on the inside warm her cold skin, and the shirt she hung above the fire to dry.
“Pass me your shirt, Jules,” she said, making the medic jump. He’d been staring into the fire dazedly for the past few minutes; Yarrow saw exhaustion on his features.
“Oh,” he said, seeing her shirt where it was. He ripped his off and tossed it to her, and she quickly hung it to dry. Good thing she was the one still buzzing with energy. Had Jules been the one to hang their clothing, it would have been an awkward comedy of errors for him to reach the considerably high bars. Yarrow, standing just under two meters, could reach them with ease.
Noting that he had no jerkin and that his chest was bare, she grabbed their bags from the horses. “Did you bring your cloak?”
“In my pack,” he replied automatically.
She frowned and tossed it at him. “After you eat, go to sleep. I’ll take first watch.”
He only nodded, so she set up her bedroll and blankets.
During their sparse meal she watched his head nod several times until finally, done with his soup, he crawled into the makeshift sleepsack and was instantly unconscious.
Yarrow’s mouth quirked slightly as she took up her watch, patrolling the perimeter of their camp much like the animal her sister was often named after.
Jourd’Umbra, 3rd Duema
It had to be the most boring two-and-a-half hours of watch she’d ever spent.
After prowling for a bit and checking their surroundings, she’d sat by the fire for a bit, before restlessly getting up to prowl again. After a more thorough check of the campground, she’d sat yet again, knowing that there was no reason to worry, yet. The rain made the road to Atton, the least-developed road in the country, nigh-impassable, thick with mud and sludge and guck that would trap the best of horses. The only person who could catch up to them now would be a Magi; therefore Ghia, who was back in Atherton. So Yarrow stayed by the fire, keeping warm, until the heat made her lethargic. Then she got up again and walked the perimeter, checking on the horses, trying to avoid the rain as much as possible, and occasionally talking to her sword. Boredom descended.
Traveling with only one other person was not that much fun, especially when said person was off-limits for fun and games in the bedroll. Not that she particularly wanted Jules in that way, but his recent engagement to her cousin made it more than a little improper to consider the thought and made exile seem bleaker than before. No promises waiting for fulfillment back home, plus a long time alone with her fellow refugee, normally meant they’d start to look mighty good to one another. But he now had something to keep him going. She would have been happy for him if she had the same benefit. As it was, she felt bitter and jealous.
She stoked the fire a few more times and sat down again, nothing in her possession to entertain her — not even a deck of cards with which to play solitaire. She’d given her only deck to Coalette, as she and Caelum always used his deck on watch anyway.
Her face twisted in tandem with her heart, and she banished thoughts of him once again. Sighing, she drew her sword instead and started to clean it absently, holding it in her lap. Soon her hand stopped moving up and down the blade, and she stared into the fire, an abundance and absence of thought in her head simultaneously. Shapes and forms leapt out of the flames and danced in front of her weary eyes, and her head started to nod forward when there was a step behind her.
One fluid motion had her on her feet, facing the darkness and blinking furiously as she cursed her stupidity in staring into the fire.
First rule of basic and I break it.
“Who’s there?” she asked out loud, trying to point her sword at someone she couldn’t see.
“Put down the sword, cuz. It’s me.”
“Ghia?” she said, hardly able to believe her own ears and, now, eyes as Ghia stepped into the light. “How in Tyvian did you get here?” she asked, sheathing her sword.
Ghia shrugged and gave a little smile, but she was soaked through and shivering. “I’m a Magi, remember?” she said as if that answered the question, and sat in front of the fire.
“I hadn’t forgotten,” Yarrow growled.
Ghia looked over her shoulder at Yarrow, a sheepish expression on her face. “I flew,” she said, and turned back to the fire.
Yarrow stopped in her progress towards her seat, trying to absorb that information. “Alright,” she finally said, deciding to just go with it and sit down. “You know you can’t travel with us, Ghia,” she started to say, sitting beside the girl.
Ghia was already shaking her head. “That’s not why I’m here. I have something for Jules.” She gazed over at her sleeping fiancée, and Yarrow felt her heart twist for the two of them.
“I’m sorry,” she said after a minute.
Ghia looked at Yarrow, surprised. “For what, cuz?”
“Everything. For not acting sooner. For bringing your hopes up only to dash them. But most especially for taking him away from you.”
“Jules is an adult, Yarrow. He’s perfectly capable of making his own decisions,” she said, looking back at her sleeping betrothed. “It’s not your place to apologise for him. I know why he’s out here with you.”
“Really. I don’t.”
“Loyalty,” the healer said simply. “When you get right down to it, it’s loyalty. Yes, he wants to bury his father properly and yes, that’s what drove him to such madness in the throne room, but his main reason for being here now is loyalty to you. He has a need to protect you, despite your being perfectly capable on your own. That’s why he followed you at Nucalif, and that’s why, even after you hurt him so deeply in Mudflat, he still follows you, he is still by your side.”
Yarrow sighed. “Shouldn’t the same be true for you? Isn’t it?”
Ghia let out a small sound that could have been a laugh or a sigh. “Yes, it is. Which is why he is so torn now. But you have a longer claim than I, Yarrow, so for now, yours will prevail.” She gazed at him fondly. “Sooner or later, though, he will leave. He will come back for me, and if he comes back alone, he will die.” Ghia fell silent, sadness on her face.
Yarrow looked from healer to medic, a cold lump settling into her stomach. “Do your Magi powers include prophecy, Ghia?”
A small shake of her head. “No. I just know Jules too well.” Suddenly she got up and walked over to where the horses were tethered. “They’re tired,” she said, running her hands down Pyrrhus’ flank. “You won’t get far tomorrow.”
“I know,” Yarrow said. They’d run out of time before even reaching Atton.
There was a prolonged silence. When Yarrow looked up, Ghia had both hands on Suki’s side and her eyes were closed in concentration. “What are you doing?”
The healer didn’t open her eyes. “I’m making sure you get to Atton.”