Jourd’Muerta, 37th Duema
“Jules is leaving.”
Yarrow dropped the stance she was in and turned around. Thadea – whose speech had improved considerably, thanks to Yarrow’s gentle tutoring – stood with an impassive look on her face, arms crossed over her chest. Yarrow had finally persuaded the woman to stop watching her while she slept, which she’d apparently been doing since Yarrow had arrived at Mt. Impri. Yarrow’s sleep was much better now, and soon the three of them fell into a routine. She convinced her aunt to start calling Jules by his name, and she and the ex-CMO now had an extra sparring partner – someone they could teach more things to, which alleviated the boredom of living in a hollowed-out mountain.
Yarrow wiped the sweat from her brow and took a drink of water. “What do you mean?”
Thadea gave a jerk with her head behind her, towards the far right door in the banquet hall, which they used for sparring and training. “Packing. Get ready for a trip.”
“Getting ready,” Yarrow corrected absentmindedly, placing her knife back in her boot and walking past Thadea, towards the suite. Her aunt rolled her eyes.
Jules was indeed packing, calmly and methodically. Yarrow leaned against the doorway to his bedroom until he favoured her with a glance.
“My loyalty,” he said, a small sigh escaping his mouth.
“That’s unexpected.” She tried to ignore the pang of hurt his words brought to her heart.
Jules tossed things in his bag less calmly, frustration lining his features. “You knew this day was coming, Yarrow. We both did. Don’t deny that.”
Yarrow rubbed her forehead, dispelling the itch from her sweat. “Ghia’s dead, Jules.”
He paused, only for a second, then continued with his task. “You don’t know that.”
Yarrow sighed, not wanting to tell him like this – not wanting to tell him at all, actually, but it was time. “Yes I do. Do you know what she planned, upon returning?”
He looked up at her, face stricken. “She didn’t tell me anything. How do you know?” His tone was accusatory. Yarrow weathered it with ease.
“Because she did tell you, only you didn’t get the meaning behind her words. Think, Jules.”
Realisation dawned on his face and he closed his eyes as if in pain. “Molly,” he said. One word. The confirmation of his worst fears.
“Even so,” she said, and sighed. Jules didn’t stop his packing, however. “Jules, what are you doing?”
“I go to join my betrothed.”
She raked her hand through her hair in frustration. “They’ll kill you, Jules.” Dammit, you’re family to me.
His bags packed, he hefted them and headed to the door. “Exactly,” he said, his face a mask of stone.
She stepped aside to let him pass. “Will you at least wait until morning?” She hated that she was pleading, but what else could she do? He was determined to get himself killed.
He shrugged, and his words confirmed it. “Doesn’t really matter when I leave, does it, if I’m only heading towards certain death.”
She stood in front of him again, not letting it go so easy. “Is that what she’d want, Jules?”
He paused, not meeting her gaze. “No,” he said at length, and then looked up at her. “But it’s what I want.”
“You’re damned stubborn, you know that?” She let a small smile curve her lips.
“I’m a medic,” he replied, an answering smile on his face.
She laughed and enveloped him in a comradely hug. He returned the embrace with one arm, the other holding a bag in hand and on shoulder. “Good riding, Jules. Goddess-speed.”
He thanked her, then stepped back. “So this is it. You’re staying here.”
Her smile turned rueful and she moved away to lean against the wall. “Yeah. Turns out I’m just a feckless coward after all.”
“You’ve never been a coward, Yarrow.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. But I am feckless right now – don’t know about you, but exile has killed my sex life.”
He shook his head, a soft laugh escaping him, and headed for the door to the suite, where Thadea had watched the proceedings from her position leaning against the wall, arms folded over her chest. Jules flipped his free hand up to his forehead in a mock salute. “So long, Thadea. Keep Yarrow safe.”
Thadea looked unimpressed and said nothing. In the awkward silence between them Jules left.
Thadea’s eyes met Yarrow’s, the snow-gray orbs showing as little emotion as the woman’s face. “Just family now.”
The ex-bellica pushed herself off from the wall and walked to the door, intent on continuing the training she’d interrupted to say goodbye to Jules.
“No,” she said, pausing at the doorway with a smile at her aunt. “It’s just blood now.”
Thadea nodded. “Thicker.”
He was back in under half an hour.
Yarrow, already on her third set on forms since she’d started her exercises again, raised her eyebrows at his re-entry but did not stop her work out.
“Forget something?” she started to ask, then stopped dead at the sight of who accompanied Jules. “Dion!” she shouted, her heart and stomach both doing that flip-floppy thing that only the tavern-owner could cause in her.
Thadea already had her knife in hand and was gliding across the floor with deadly grace.
Yarrow sprinted across the room to stop her aunt. “No no no no no no–” she guided Thadea’s knife away from the direction it had headed. “Dion is a friend. He is no threat.” Thadea glared, but subsided and went to take her place against the wall again, making the “I’m watching you” sign to Dion as she did.
Considering a woman the spitting image of a long-dead queen had just tried to skewer him, Dion bore it all with remarkable grace.
“Sorry, Dion,” Yarrow said, feeling embarrassed. “My Aunt Thadea is…protective.”
“I gathered,” he said dryly, and didn’t comment further on the matter.
Impulsively Yarrow grabbed his hands. “What brings you up here? I gather it’s not a pleasure visit.” The gravity of his trip she could see in his face. She smothered that small, unworthy part of her that was upset he hadn’t come up just to see her.
“It’s always a pleasure to see you, Achi,” he said, and she felt her face heat up. “But not the reason for my trip, no. A group of soldiers – almost a whole regiment – has arrived in town, horses hard-ridden and themselves starving. They claim to be the First Regiment of Athering, in search of their bellica.”
His eyes searched her face, which she kept blank. She dropped his hands and moved away. “Then they should go to Atherton – ’tis Bellica Anala they seek.”
“Actually I hear it’s Admiral Anala now,” he said casually, and Yarrow rounded on him, unable to contain her surprise. “And Captain Coalette asked specifically for a Bellica Yarrow Achi deZameera Zarqon,” he went on, a small smile on his face, “about yea high –” he held his hand up to Yarrow’s height “–prone to drinking, cursing, and wenching. Of course I know no one who fits that description and I told her as much, but they continue to stay in the tavern.” His smile grew and his eyes twinkled. Yarrow glared down at him.
“Of course,” she muttered, then turned to Jules. “Zardria knows we’re no match for an entire regiment. Could be a trap.”
He shrugged, not looking surprised at the goings-on in front of him, and she sort of felt like punching him again. “Could be.”
“But we’re going anyway,” she said, finishing the thought he left unspoken.
“Death in Atton, death in Atherton, or death in Mt. Impri. Decisions, decisions, decisions,” he said, and Yarrow laughed against her will.
“Fine. But tomorrow,” she said, punctuating her words with a glare at Jules, “because it’s fecking late and if I have to meet my ex-regiment after riding down a mountain all night I’ll stab one of them. Probably Lt. Peter,” she added.
“He is quite stabbable,” Jules said equably.
“And you,” she said, rounding on Dion, suddenly very angry with him, “what were you thinking coming up here at night? When you didn’t even know if we were here or not? Did you want to get eaten by a Flesh Screamer?”
He caught the finger she was shaking at him and kissed it. “Those are just a legend, my dear,” he said, pulling her close.
She resisted, but only tokenly. “No, they’re not. Ask Thadea.”
“Thadea kills Flesh Screamers,” the woman chimed in from her side of the room.
Dion released Yarrow and curtsied deeply before her aunt. “I believe it, Madam. And I am grateful, for the world would be a sadder place if a Flesh Screamer were to eat the lovely Yarrow.”
She gave him a light swat even as her heart skipped a beat to hear the cadence with which he said her first name. “Charmer.”
“Aye,” and he pulled her close again, “one of princesses, it seems.” Her mouth formed a protest, but he covered it with his and she quite forgot what she had been about to say.
At some point she got him to let her go so she could bathe, and then the four of them retired to three separate rooms to rest before the trying day before them.
Yarrow and Dion, having much to talk about that night, woke the next morning with shadows under their eyes – but very large smiles on their faces.
Jourd’Umbra, 38th Duema
The ride down was incredibly easy compared to their treacherous journey up the mountain. For one, Thaw was over, and the passes were firm again. For another, they knew where the feck they were going this time. Yarrow was quite grateful for that, for if she’d had to spend another night on the side of the Goddess-forsaken mountain she would have screamed.
Thadea rode with her niece, having no horse of her own, and Yarrow decided it would be best if all of them took their belongings with them. Thadea agreed with little protest, for her attachment to Yarrow had grown bigger than her attachment to her mountain home, and Yarrow had assured her they could always return. Not that I’d fecking want to after this. After all, if it was a trap she’d die in Atton, and if it wasn’t – like Tyvian she’d run back to Impri, tail tucked between her legs, when she had her regiment back!
They arrived at the tavern about an hour after the midday meal. Yarrow’s heart had beat hard in her chest as they’d passed her grandmother’s house, for Lady Lihin was sure to be home by now, but they escaped without notice and she breathed a large sigh of relief as Bacchanalia came into view.
Once it had been decided by Yarrow that her regiment was, in fact, there in support of her, and not for her head on a plate – Coalette falling to her knees at Yarrow’s feet and weeping had been unnecessary melodrama but it had lent strength to the case her women presented – she arranged for them all to continue to stay in the tavern, adding herself, Jules, and Thadea to the mix, and consequently occupying every single room.
Aurora had protested Yarrow’s paying with most of her gold, saying it was too much and Yarrow had already been too generous to them.
“Too much! I’d say it was too little for such a fine establishment,” Yarrow had argued, but Aurora would hear none of it.
“No – I could never take money from you at a time like this,” the woman said, smiling.
Yarrow tried another tack. “Please, Aurora – you don’t know my women. They’ll easily bankrupt you.”
Aurora laughed and waved Yarrow off, saying it was truly not a big deal.
Despite the woman’s continued refusal, it eventually was settled: Yarrow left a bag of coin and a note somewhere the twins wouldn’t find it until after she and the regiment had left.
Yarrow then went into town – not bothering to hide her identity anymore – to purchase a horse for Thadea and a few other small items with the rest of her gold. She ordered her women to carouse and generally have a good time in the tavern, and retired to her room in the Queen’s Suite – which she shared with Jules, Thadea, Captain Coalette, and a few other senior officers–to tackle her next problem: planning the attack on Atherton. Her women back and raring for a fight, she couldn’t well continue to mope around, doing nothing – but one regiment was no match for the combined forces of the rest of the army stationed at the capital.
That was where Thadea came in. Thadea was the key to the attack she planned – not much of an attack, really. The march would proclaim, in effect, “Get out of the way because Queen Zameera has come back to life–and is she mad!”
Yarrow would have felt terrible about using her aunt in such a way had Thadea not suggested it herself.
Once the bellica – I truly am Bellica again, for I have my regiment back – had pulled Coalette to her feet again and calmed the tears of the younger woman, the regiment had been chomping at the bit to go back and take the capitol.
“And how do you propose to do that, you mutinous bunch?” Their faces had fallen at the glares she’d rained on them. “One regiment – missing numbers, even. Going to take down the remaining thirteen?”
No one spoke. They hadn’t thought that far ahead – all they’d thought about was rejoining Yarrow. Then, to her surprise, she watched them step back as one, shock and fear on their faces. They made signs of blessing and murmured prayers.
She turned around to see Thadea had stepped into the dining hall. It was the first time the regiment had seen the woman. A glance passed between the two women, and then Thadea spoke.
“Atherton would bow before Zameera.”
“You read my thoughts, Aunt.” Yarrow smiled and turned back to her women. “Looks as if my Aunt Thadea has solved the problem, girls. We’ve got a plan.” A cheer, along with some confusion on their faces, went up. Yarrow had gone to complete her errands in town, leaving Jules to explain. It was his job, now, as her new Major.
Thadea had hovered near her for her errands and also when she returned, but finally Yarrow had convinced the woman she was safe, and that Thadea should go and get to know the regiment. Starting on the morrow, she’d be marching with them for a while. Better they lost all fear of her now, and learned for good that she was not Zameera but only looked like her.
Thadea acceded and left Yarrow alone to her thoughts. Just like old times, Yarrow thought as she looked at the still blank piece of paper. She’d always been terrible at actually planning her attacks – Bellona knew how she’d made bellica in the first place. Right now she missed Anala more than she could say, for in their campaigns together Anala had always been the one to think ahead, and Yarrow had flown by the seat of her pants. The two women made a great professional team.
Admiral, huh, she thought, forcing herself to write something – anything – down on the page. How did you manage to swing that, you old card?
It had been confirmed by her women – Anala was now admiral. By rights Yarrow should have been upset, but she found she wasn’t. If anyone deserved the title it was certainly her old friend and not her sister. If I succeed with my plan, old friend, you may keep that title.
She didn’t think Anala could hear her thoughts, but part of her waited for an answer. When it didn’t come she sighed and sat back, looking at the markings she’d made on the page.
There were too many unknown variables. Her regiment had given her what news they could, but they’d been on the road since the night of the fifth. Anything could have happened in that time. She didn’t even know if her cousin lived or not, though Coalette had said she’d heard Ghia had been thrown in the dungeons and was still alive when the regiment had fled the city. Yarrow hoped that was a good sign. She knew Anala would try and get the girl out as best she could – but Goddess only knew how much the admiral could do now.
She leaned back and stretched in her chair. When she looked up, she saw Jules was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest, staring at her.
“What?” she asked, turning back to her papers.
“They want their bellica,” he said.
She grabbed the leather sheath that held her sword from where she’d rested it against the desk. “Here. Take my sword and pretend to be me.”
He came closer and rested one hand on the back of her chair and the other on the desk. “I would,” he said, and she could smell that he’d been enjoying the party for a while already, “but Dion and Aurora would not appreciate it if I danced on tables and broke glasses.”
She turned her head slowly to glare at him, but he merely kept the same grin on his face. She made a sound of exasperation and stood, making him stumble back. She buckled on her sword before heading to the door, where she paused and looked back at him.
“And for the Archives, Jules,” she said, “dancing on tables was your idea.”
He just laughed.