True to Ghia’s word they rode into Atton as night fell, their horses barely breaking into a sweat. The latest leg of their trip had been passed in silence, both ex-Bellica and Chief Medical Officer deep in thought.
Yarrow reined in her horse as they reached the main street in town. She surveyed the surroundings, ignoring confused stares from townsfolk not yet gone home for the night. News hadn’t reached them yet. She didn’t want to be the one who told them the truth of her arrival.
She turned to Jules. “We need a place to stay. Preferably where we’ll both get a night’s sleep.” He nodded, understanding her meaning. “It’s your town, Jules. Lead the way.”
The look on his face said it wouldn’t be his town for long, but he urged Suki into a walk. Yarrow clicked her tongue and Pyrrhus followed medic and mare up the hilly streets. Up and up they went, until at each turn Yarrow had a spectacular view of the countryside. Her breath caught in her throat as she glimpsed the sparkle of the Spire in the fading light.
Athering truly was beautiful. Too bad it wouldn’t stay that way. Not with Zardria holding the Sceptre.
She shook her head and continued to follow Jules up the hill, hoping there wouldn’t be too many more. Soon they’d run out of Atton. Despite her bloodrights, she had no wish to stay at the Lihin Manor that overlooked the town.
Reaching the turn, they stayed on their course instead, Jules leading them up a small dirt road to a tavern that perched on a rocky outcropping of the hill, the back of it leaning against the cliff. Yarrow had seen its lights when they’d first arrived in town and it was obviously a busy establishment. A large sign out front proclaimed the tavern’s name in bold letters:
Yarrow suppressed a groan. Not only was the place high class, it was famous, known across Athering as the best tavern to stay since the decadence of the Second Age. Tyvian, it was the reason to go to Atton at all!
“Jules,” she said, unable to keep the growl out of her voice, “isn’t this place a little conspicuous?”
He looked over his shoulder with his first real smile since the day before. “Exactly. They won’t expect it. Besides, I know the people who run the place. Aurora and Dion will keep us safe for the night.”
She glared at him, unwilling to concede although she couldn’t argue with his logic.
“Look,” he continued, “if they do catch up to us tonight there’s not much we can do about it. We may as well enjoy what may be our last night, and Bacchanalia is the perfect place to do it.”
Yarrow snorted. “You sure know how to hit me in my vices. Lead on, then. I want a bath, a meal, and a wench on my lap.”
He smirked and turned back around. “Yes Ma’am.”
Bacchanalia lived up to its reputation. As soon as they rode up, a servant came to take care of their horses, leading the beasts to a very large stable around the corner from the entrance. Impressed, Yarrow tossed the man a gold piece. He bowed low but said nothing; only gave her a piece of leather with a number etched on it. She raised her eyebrows at Jules.
“For claiming our horses later,” he explained as they climbed the staircase to the grand doors. She merely grunted.
Upon entering the main doors, Yarrow gasped.
The foyer was as large as the one in Lihin Manor, with parquet flooring cut from the finest deathtree and polished to a high gloss. A golden chandelier wrought with a grapevine motif hung over the room, illuminating every corner. A grand staircase directly opposite them curved upwards to the second floor and, presumably, the rooms. To the right, a door led to what looked to be an equally gorgeous dining room. Before she could take a closer look, her attention was taken up by the man who now approached them.
Older, but not frail, and impeccably dressed, the man curtsied low before them. “A very good evening to you both, Dama and Sir. Will you be dining only or staying the night as well?”
Yarrow raised her eyebrows but said nothing, and Jules laughed a bit.
“Edward, you don’t recognise me? It’s Jules deTania,” he said, and the man did a small double-take before smiling in a decidedly more friendly fashion.
“Forgive me, son, but you’ve changed so — you’re all grown up!” Jules laughed again and the two men clasped hands, old friendship easily picked up again. “What brings you here after all this time?”
Jules leaned in and lowered his voice. “Achi and I need a safe place to stay for a few days,” he said, and Yarrow almost jumped at the sound of her middle name. Made sense. ‘Achi’ was a far more common name in Athering than ‘Yarrow’ and not many people knew it was her middle name. At least she didn’t think they did. “Do you think you can arrange that with some discretion, Ed?”
The man smiled. “But of course.” As if by magek he produced a key from his jacket pocket and handed it to the medic. “Fifth floor,” he said, and Yarrow frowned in confusion when Jules’ face lit up in understanding. “Now if I may have your slip, I’ll have your bags brought up.”
Both men turned to look at her, and before she could protest she didn’t wear a slip, she remembered the leather piece the servant at the stables had given her. Hastily she shoved her hands in her pockets, searching for it, and then thrust it at Edward, who took it and disappeared as silently as he’d arrived.
“Why didn’t he give us a room number?” she asked when they were halfway up the staircase and out of earshot of the dining hall.
“Only one room — well, a suite of rooms really — on the fifth floor,” Jules said in an equally low voice. “Nicknamed the Queen’s Suite. Most people don’t know about it. Reserved for royalty usually.”
“Does he know who I am?” she asked, worried.
Jules gave a brief head shake. “No. He just understands we have special needs for our stay.”
Yarrow fell silent, understanding what hadn’t been said, and changed her initial opinion about staying in such a ‘conspicuous’ place.
She thought she’d been impressed with the servants for her horse and the beauty of the foyer, but upon seeing the suite she realised she needed to revise the facts as she remembered them. That had been merely unexpected. This — this was impressive.
There was an antechamber where a guest could hang coats and kick off muddy boots. Once she and Jules had done so and gone into the drawing room, her eyes widened. The drawing room was a common room, extravagantly decorated, that linked four bedrooms and the balcony. The doors that led to the balcony were made in the style of the Third Renaissance, when beauty had been revered along with the Goddesses. Large panes of glass, tinted in various colours, were joined by small panels of wood painted white. Gold handles adorned the two doors that opened out onto the equally beautiful balcony. Yarrow had no idea how Aurora and Dion had gotten their hands on such an out-dated style of furnishing, one that not many people could replicate in the present day.
Upon further investigation of the balcony, she saw it joined all the bedrooms as well, with each room having its own set of beautiful glass doors. The balcony itself looked out on Atton, Black Forest, the road to Atherton, and the rolling countryside of Athering. If she walked to the far right of the balcony she could see the tall peak of Mt. Impri, cold and forbidding looking in the shadows, with the little silver moonlight that fell on it. The far left revealed a further view of Atton and the East Wood, and the land that stretched towards Aeril. So fine a view she’d seen nowhere else but Lihin Manor.
Luna and Hecate were full and rising on the eastern horizon, and Selene was gibbous and at her meridian already. In the silver light, Athering looked clean, scrubbed and fresh, and Yarrow gripped the railing in front of her, tears coming to her eyes as she wondered if she’d ever have this view again.
A step through the doors behind her and Jules joined her, the same melancholy awe on his face.
“Who would have thought things could get so fecked up, eh?” he said, and against her will she smiled.
“Count yourself lucky,” she said, and he raised his eyebrows at her. “At least your lover didn’t leave you for your sister.”
He snorted, laughter more to ease tension long-held by both of them than out of mirth. “No, she didn’t. But my sister has been held captive by yours. So I think we’re even.”
“Fair enough,” she said and they fell into a silence less strained than the one shared on the road, running for freedom or maybe just another breath.
“It truly is a gorgeous land, isn’t it?” he said after a while, but before she could respond there was a noise behind them.
An instant return of tension and fear had Yarrow drawing her sword and and leaping back into the common room, making the poor servant drop their saddlebags with a squeak, hands flying up in defence.
“S-s-sorry, Dama,” she stammered, pale and looking ready to bolt but unsure if it was a wise idea or not.
“Don’t worry about it, kid; you were just doing your job,” Yarrow muttered, as close as she’d get to apologising to the girl. She sheathed her sword and Jules went to calm the girl down.
“For your trouble,” Yarrow heard him say. A flash of gold went from his hand to the girl’s before she, too, flashed from the room.
“That reminds me,” she said, grabbing her bags as he lifted his, “you didn’t get a chance to withdraw your savings before we left, did you?”
He shook his head and led the way to the main bedroom, on the far right hand side of the suite. “Most likely been seized by the Empress by now.”
“Bank here wouldn’t know that,” she said, tossing her bags onto one bed and immediately looking for the escape route she knew must be in the room.
She glanced back to look at his silence and saw he was giving her a reproachful look. “That would be wrong and you know it.”
“It’s your money –”
“And what would the Empress do to the poor teller who thinks she’s only doing her job?”
She didn’t say that she didn’t particularly care either way, but stopped arguing the point. “It’s in the bathroom,” he said suddenly, and she stopped her search of the room.
“Could’ve said that before.”
“Yes, but this way you were distracted long enough for me to claim the bath first,” he said, grinning as he closed the door.
There was a thump as the pillow she’d flung hit the door, and then she grabbed her clothing and stalked off to search the suite for another place to bathe.
Two showers and changes of clothing later, Yarrow and Jules were down in the foyer, walking into the dining room. They were both dressed semi-formally, Yarrow wearing one of the few peplos she owned — not her mother’s, which was far too telling as to her station. Who else would own Nucalif silk? Or dare to wear it, in the current political climate? No, she wore a simple black long-sleeved piece, tailored to fit her strange form with grace and beauty. It would have been modest, for it was ankle-length, had it not had a long slit in the skirt, and had the back not been so low cut. As it was everyone could see most of the tattoo she had down the right side of her back, though few if any would know what it meant.
She’d been tattooed at fourteen, at some shady back-alley tattoo parlour on the seedy side of The Tracks. Tattooing had still been relatively new to Athering — a Suncoast import — and in the sixteen years since she’d gotten hers the art had disappeared from the city completely, and most likely the rest of the country. She was glad she’d done it when she’d still been able to. She’d done the research for some tredicems before, finding various words in Nighttide hieroglyphics. When she’d been satisfied with the design she’d gone with her savings of gold and convinced the artist that she was of age to get something inked on her body. Doubtless the man had probably been willing to take gold from anyone. In retrospect, he’d likely known exactly who she was and how old she was. Tattooing had never become popular in its short life in Athering. Well, not with the nobility.
The design was a large piece and three pain-filled hours had passed before the artist was done. She’d heard no end of reprimands from Head Healer Helene, whom she’d gone to when it had become infected. She’d never regretted it. It was a far more permanent shrine to her mother than the one she’d set up in the West tower. It gave her an edge in the barracks — a girl who could withstand that sort of pain was not one you trifled with.
She snorted in memory, and Jules raised his eyebrows at her in query. She shook her head. “Nothing.”
Jules wore his dress greys, though the top three buttons of his jacket were undone. She doubted anyone but she understood what that meant — that he was currently in military disgrace or exile but wore his uniform anyway. She wondered that he bothered to make the distinction at all. Who here would care one way or the other? She certainly didn’t. We’re all level now.
She scanned the dining room, which was full not only with the upper echelons of Atton society but the lower as well. That was a surprise. “Where are your friends?” she asked Jules sotto voce.
It was an unnecessary query. In the next second Jules was enveloped in an enthusiastic hug from a short, buxom, vivacious woman. “Jules,” she said, but not loudly, for which Yarrow was grateful. “We’ve missed you so — come on up and sit at the bar and talk to me and Dion, why don’t you?” Jules was already being led through the dining hall to the back, Yarrow following close behind, a smile on her face.
“Good to see you too, Aurora,” Jules said warmly as they reached the bar and took their seats. “Dion,” he added, with a nod to the tall man who was working the bar.
Dion — who was solid as a boulder, but not fat like some tavern owners, smiled, his teeth shining white from under his dark beard and moustache. “You sure have grown, boy,” he said before turning his warm gaze on Yarrow. “Finally brought a woman home, I see!” He laughed, a deep rolling chuckle.
Jules said nothing, just smiled and shook his head. Yarrow extended her hand to Dion. “Achi,” she said by way of introduction.
Dion took her hand and lifted it to his lips for a gentle kiss, his eyes never leaving her face. “Enchanté,” he said, and Yarrow felt a small flip-flop in her stomach. She said nothing as she reclaimed her hand; feeling her face heat up she wondered what in Tyvian was wrong with her. She hadn’t blushed since…well. Ever.
Aurora appeared beside Dion then and gave him a swat. “Dion! Jules is your friend,” she said reproachfully, and now that they stood side by side Yarrow could see they were definitely related — same gorgeous eyes that she’d first noticed on Aurora, the colour of the forest in sunlight, a veritable sea of veriditas. Their hair was the same shade of dark brown, almost black, with hints of gold and copper within its depths — though Dion’s was mostly on his face, receding as it was from his forehead, while Aurora’s was long and braided back, reaching down to her generous hips. Though she was much shorter than Dion, both had that same refreshing, comforting solidity to their figures, reflected in the high cheekbones and generous mouths of their faces. All in all, a very pleasing pair to look at. She guessed they were siblings.
“You’ll have to excuse my brother,” Aurora said then to Yarrow, confirming her speculations. “He tends to think he’s Desirelle’s gift to women and men alike.” She glared good-naturedly up at her brother, who smiled unrepentantly and embraced his sister in a one-armed hug. Aurora laughed and asked the pair of weary travellers what they’d like to drink.
“Surprise us,” Jules said as Yarrow asked for a glass of water. That earned her a quizzical look from him.
“Not in the mood for alcohol,” she murmured, noting the strangeness of it herself. She’d thought she’d want to drink upon arriving, but she had no more desire to. Probably for the best, at any rate. Keep my head clear.
“And you’ll want a meal, of course,” Aurora added, almost to herself, and sent a piece of paper with the order through the window to the kitchen. Mouth-watering smells already wafted out of that window and set Yarrow’s stomach to rumbling. “So,” she added, her eyes twinkling as she regarded the two of them, “when do you two braid the rope?”
Jules choked on air and Yarrow had to stifle a laugh. “We’re not –” they both started to say, and then Yarrow did laugh. “We’re just friends,” she said earnestly.
“Glad to hear it,” Dion said, setting their drinks down with a wink at Yarrow. She smiled at him warmly, feeling that strange sensation in her stomach again, and Aurora frowned.
“What about your ring, then?” she asked Jules, not to be dissuaded.
Jules looked caught between safety and honesty to some of his oldest friends, so Yarrow leaped in to save him. Again.
“He’s engaged to my cousin, but she had to stay and work in Atherton, so I agreed to accompany him as his trip couldn’t wait,” she said, glad of her ability to lie convincingly, honed by years as Bellica to her aunt and sister. The trick was to weave truth and lies together until even the teller could no longer tell the two apart.
Aurora made a small “o” with her mouth while Dion busied himself with wiping down the bar, a sadness present on each of their faces. Aurora grabbed Jules’ hand supportingly then. “We heard, Jules — can’t believe it didn’t occur to me till now! I feel a right idiot.” She made a sound of frustration in her throat. “Nathaniel came in and told us on the first. Seemed doubtful you’d make it up for the funerary rites, but I assured him you wouldn’t miss it. Glad to see you proved me right,” she said with a sad smile.
Jules returned the smile and gave Aurora’s hand a squeeze. “I take it you’ll be there?”
“Not even a direct order from the Empress could keep us back,” she said, and then headed back into the dining hall to take care of other patrons, not noticing how Jules blanched at her mention of exactly what was keeping his sister away.
Yarrow said nothing, just placed a hand on his leg to let him know she was there. He gave her a brief smile and she removed her hand, leaning forward to engage Dion in conversation.
“Tell me about this building, Dion, for I’m quite curious. How did you two come by it?” She smiled winningly to show that all she meant by her question was a genuine curiosity, though she didn’t think she needed to bother. Dion was more than willing to converse with her at length about the tavern. Or anything else, I gather.
The building had once belonged to the Lihin line, and had been the family manor. That piece of information suddenly clicked with something Yarrow had learned as a child, and she suddenly understood her family history much better. Eventually, as the town grew, a new manor was built on the northernmost edge of town, where it stood today, overlooking everything in Atton and beyond. It was easily defensible, with escape routes into the mountain behind. The old manor was kept on as an auxiliary home, for guests and the like, but it was impractical and unnecessary as the new manor grew larger. Soon it was abandoned altogether although still kept on as a family asset.
Then, around the time of Yarrow and Zardria’s birth, Lady Lihin finally decided to be rid of it, and put it up for auction. Dion and Aurora, having just come of age and into their inheritance, were in the right place and the right time.
“So we snatched it from Lady Lihin quick as fire. It took considerable fixing up, abandoned for so long as it was, to bring it to its current state, but we got it done — eventually.” He flashed her his quick and easy grin.
She smiled and took a sip of her water before speaking again. “It’s truly beautiful — the two of you did a wonderful job.”
He shook his head. “That was Jules’ da’s work there. Carpenter, you know. He helped us from beginning to end with the place — Tania too,” and here his voice dropped considerably, “making sure all was safe and defensible as could be. Jules and his best friend spent their boyhood running underfoot of us. Eh, Jules,” he said, his voice lifting a bit, “whatever happened to Aro?”
Yarrow choked on her water.
Jules responded without missing a beat. “Thought you’d heard he’s become major of the Second Regiment.”
Dion shrugged, his shrewd eyes on the ex-bellica who now was the picture of absolute composure. “Didn’t know if it was the same boy. You stopped talking about him at some point. You two still friends?”
Jules stared at his drink for a long moment before replying. “No,” he said, taking a swig. “We’re not.”
Yarrow didn’t say anything.