Chapter 1: The Burden of Expectations
Edit: This first chapter has been edited to include an fanart done by @louise_artist on twitter. Please check her and her grade A VieSolde content out!!!!
It was the early morning spring chill that woke him, the cool ocean air that lifted through the curtains and over skin. Viego opened his eyes, clearing the haze over them after a few blinks, bringing his wife’s back into focus, just the hint of the morning light catching in her long red hair that she had pulled over her shoulder. He watched her frame rise and fall once, twice, a third time. She hypnotized him. Her shoulder blades shifting with her breath, her curves still visible from under the sheet she had loosely tugged up around her chest, the way the light of dawn brightened her skin, all of it had him unable to look away.
The king smiled, wrapping his arms around his wife to pull her in close, pressing his lips against the back of her head with an affectionate hum.
What he got in return was more of a groan.
Viego grinned into her hair, leaning in to press another kiss to her cooled skin. “Come here my love,” he whispered.
Isolde shifted into the pillow with another groan.
“Come here,” he repeated, turning her towards him. She didn’t fight, throwing herself around and into his embrace, her face hidden against his chest. “There she is.”
She hummed, rubbing her face against his skin. “Cold…” she mumbled.
Viego rubbed her shoulders while he reached for the blanket down by their feet and tugged it up, covering them. He felt his wife’s body relax with the extra layer coupled with his warmth. “Better?”
“Mmhmm,” she said, snuggling up against him and then all at once pulling him on top of her. “Better.”
The King chuckled, wrapping her back up in his arms, sighing comfortably and leaving a gentle press of his lips against her neck.
“Is it morning?” she asked, yawning, her eyes still closed and hands up in his hair.
“Aye, it is. But we have a while longer still before anyone might disturb us.”
“A while longer I might have his Majesty to myself then?”
He smiled, moving to kiss her lips. “I am always here for you, first and foremost, my Queen.”
Isolde giggled as he kissed her, hugging him tight and kissing him back when his lips finally met her own. She, however, pushed him back just slightly when he tried to keep going, tapping his nose. “No,” she said.
“And why not?” He frowned, going to kiss her neck and shoulders, convince her further with a firm squeeze of her waist. She was so soft and the single sigh he got out of her was all he needed until she pushed him away again.
“ Because Viego, how many times have we gotten walked in on when we try and make love in the morning?”
The look on his face as he made some sort of attempt to count such an occurrence was enough to have his wife looping her arms around his neck and pressing him close into her chest.
“Hold me. Give me all your love tonight, but for now hold me.”
Viego didn’t complain past a small sigh, a concession, for now at least. He could be more than content with this, his face pressed gently between her breasts and her hands combing through his hair at a steady pace. It would have lulled him back to sleep if there hadn’t been a knock on the door.
Isolde called for them to enter and he heard a few servants file in and ask if they should prepare a bath for them to which she agreed. Viego remained quiet, simply listening to her. She’d come such a long way already. A year ago she dared not trouble anyone for anything. She fell over her words, unsure of what she could or couldn’t say. Now she handled it with the grace of a noble lady, minus the hints of her Northern Island’s accent slipping through. It made him smile. Her voice was so gentle and soothing, it only became more of what was putting him to sleep before she tapped his shoulder.
“Darling, let’s take our bath hmm? Before the water gets cold?”
Viego lifted his head up and nodded, leaning forward to steal a quick kiss before he got off her and swung his feet over the edge of the bed, stretching only to fall back against the sheets “Give me just a moment,” he yawned, rubbing his eyes.
His wife trailed her hand along his shoulders, patting them. “I’ll be waiting for you then,” she said. He watched her go with a smile on his face. Beautiful...as she always was.
Isolde stood in front of the full length mirror, her hand running slowly over her stomach How long before he might notice, she wondered. She couldn’t feel anything and as she turned to the side, there was no change to likely anyone's eyes but her own. But just ever so slightly she could see it, a raise in her skin.
She looked over her shoulder a moment before returning to the mirror. She would tell him soon, as soon as she was certain. She’d called for the royal doctor. He didn’t know about that either. She knew the moment she breathed a word of feeling ill he would have every physician from here to Shurima on their way to tend to her. So for now, it would remain their little secret.
“Don’t worry, he’ll forgive us for this one,” she whispered with another drag along her stomach. When her gaze moved back to meet her own eyes she saw him watching her with a smile on his face. Her breath caught.
“Why, yes, you are just that lovely, my Queen.” He said, coming up behind her, arms wrapped around her torso, and pressing a kiss to the back of her head.
Isolde giggled, relief washing back over her, much like the water in the tub as he picked her up and got them both down inside the basen. He lowered her down until just her face was above the water and for a moment she let that too dip under. She opened her eyes as she lingered a moment, watching the unsteady water fractured image of her husband. Even like this she could tell he had that gentle smile on his face. She wondered what sort of expression he’d have when he got the news.
She came back to the surface, taking a breath and leaning back against his chest. She could hear him reach for the glass bottle with soap in it, the cork coming out and then she felt his hands in her hair, working it in. There were times she felt they’d known each other their whole lives, never a moment apart. And there were moments like these where it was easy to remember not so many months earlier when he knew nothing of something like washing hair . He’d watched her do it to herself, to him. Her insistence that she didn’t need anyone to help her baffling to him at the start. But now...now it was another moment they could spend just the two of them.
Isolde tilted her head back as he poured water down her back, washing out the suds. When he stopped she knew to turn and push him in front of her to do the same, sitting up on the edge of the stone bath and getting him soaped up, humming the same tune she often did, the sound of the music box she kept on her bedside table.
“That war council is today.”
“Yes, it is,” she said. “Before noon.”
Even without being able to see him she knew the face he was making. “I see no point in revisiting all of it.”
“Well, I’d say those old fools didn’t get the message the first time. We had best make it crystal clear for them,” she said. “Camavor has been a country of conquest for eight centuries.”
“My father and brother would never lead toward the contrary,” he sighed.
“But Viego is king now. Not his brother or father. Don’t question your decision because of your family’s history.”
He tilted his head up, staring up at her with those bright blue eyes of his. “They claim I’m too hung up on being married to a forgein born girl.”
Isolde frowned. She knew that. She also knew it was the same court that had made it quite clear to her that she must produce a suitable heir to the throne…“And what do you think?” she asked.
“I think they’re fools, thinking only of upholding a name rather than the country itself. My love for you has done nothing to cloud my judgment,” the empty look on his face turned up into a smile. “In fact it has never been better. With you ruling at my side I think clearer than ever.”
“I’m glad Vieg,” she said, brushing the last few strands of his wavy hair out of his face. “You’ll do fine. And this evening, if we’re not too busy, perhaps we could go down by the water.”
He grinned, that boyish sparkle coming into his eyes. It really was just that easy with him. She barely had to try at times. Slowly, bit by bit, he was tending to more of his duties so long as she stood there beside him. She never minded. If it meant that awful hollow look in his eyes left for good then she would do anything.
“I look forward to it, my Queen,” he said.
“As do I.”
The morning continued to pass peacefully. They were dressed and began their walk down the corridors of the castle and sat in the dining room where Kalista was already waiting.
“Good morrow, Kalista,” she said, taking her seat.
The General looked up with a small smile on her face. “Good morrow, my lady. Uncle,” she gave him a nod. That he returned with a roll of his eyes.
“Good morrow to you too, Kali,” he said.
“Oh a good morning indeed. I heard you’re coming to the war council,” she said with a sort of triumphant smile that only ever started fights.
“Unfortunately,” he said, which was quickly corrected to “Of course I am.” with a gentle nudge at his leg from Isolde under the table.
“Good, then maybe we can finally get these old men to give it up already. It’s a good decision, Viego. The world is changing, best we change with it.” Kalista sat back in her chair as breakfast was placed in front of them and they took to eating their meal.
“Oh, Kalista, how did last night go?” she asked.
The general choked on her drink, coughing and slamming her fist against her chest. “F-fine!” she said, clearing her throat. “Excuse me, it was…a nice day. Thank you, my lady.”
“Kali, don’t you know dying at the breakfast table is bad manners?”
“Says my king who has his elbows on the table,” she said.
“Says my general talking with food in her mouth!”
Isolde listened to them bicker while eating her breakfast. This was another change since she’d gotten here. His best friend, like a sister , is how he’d described her. But they were distant, at odds with the word “duty” being the wedge between them. Now, however, they seemed…better. It made her smile into her cup of tea.
“Who invited you here anyways?” Viego demanded. “Ledros must be wondering where you wandered off to.”
Despite the distinct red on her cheeks Kalista didn’t back down, leaning in. “Apologies, your Majesty, but I have direct orders to join you for breakfast every morning.”
“Why, the Queen, of course,” she answered.
Viego lowered his head to the table. “My love, you have betrayed me.”
The two women laughed. His drama was nothing if not amusing. Isolde reached for his hand.“Vieg, darling,” she said, earning his attention once again. He lifted his head and took her hand in his. “Today after the war council I have an appointment that we need to attend,” she said. “It’s nothing to worry over but recently I’ve been—”
As she spoke, the gaze he held her in lifted to the doorway behind her once, and then again. All the color suddenly drained from his face, a look of horror twisting into his features as he shouted “Isolde!”
She hit the floor and she wasn’t sure what she felt more, the impact of Viego pushing her or the floor and her head bouncing off the tile. Chaos erupted in the room, voices and a deafening surge in noise like she was under water. Her vision too was fractured and distorted until she saw her husband on the floor clutching his arm.
“Viego!” She cried, scrambling to her knees and reaching for him, turning him over. Blood seeped through a gash in his upper left arm, spilling over his hand. “Darling, darling look at me!” she said, words falling from her lips in a panic.
Behind her the voice of Kalista was shouting something and servants crowded around them. Isolde however couldn’t understand a thing, and every word she spoke now somewhere between her own language and incoherent sobs. She pulled him into her arms. “Darling, look at me!” she pleaded, brushing his hair out of his face.
His eyes opened and that blood soaked hand of his reached for hers. “Are you hurt?” he asked, only making the tears spill over faster. “Isolde…”
“I’m fine, oh gods,” she whispered, cradling his head against her chest. “So are you, so are you, my love.”
“My lady,” a few of the servants kneeled down, going to pull her away. More had joined the room now, some taking him, others her. Isolde kept hold of his hand until she couldn’t any longer and Viego was rushed from the room. As she too was swept away from the scene she caught a glimpse of the man, pinned under Kalista’s knees, a knife at his throat, and the dagger on the ground that he had surely thrown. On his face was a smile that was more than enough to send chills up her spine.
Noise faded away again, the only thing she was capable of hearing being her own heart beat. And even as the servants lowered her into a chair and tried to calm her, her handmaiden, Felisa, taking her hand, she could only stare, her whole body shaking.
“Your Highness, his majesty is with the doctors right now, he will be just fine,” she assured her.
Isolde blinked, those being the first words that seemed make through the shock. “That man,”
Her handmaiden shook her head. “He will be dealt with, your highness. Please we must check you over to ensure you’re not injured.”
“Can I see Viego then?” she asked.
An uneasy smile spread across her face and she nodded. “Yes Ma’am we’ll take you to him. Now please,” she gestured to the changing screen. “We must be sure.”
“Yes...yes, alright…” Isolde nodded and walked with them, changing out of her clothes and letting them check for any sign that the blade had grazed her skin. Aside from a bump on her head and a sore shoulder, they found nothing. She was dressed again in no time, sitting with her handmaiden on their bed, Gwen, her doll, in her hands. She tugged anxiously at the doll’s curls and ruffles, fixing and straightening them again and again as they waited for news, and word that she may see him.
It was just a scratch, she told herself. Even a small cut can bleed terribly. She knew that well, having her own fair share of scissor cuts and scrapes from helping her parents on the farm. Just a cut, a scratch. Nothing more.
Finally after what felt like an eternity another servant entered the room with the guards. “His Majesty is asking for you, your Highness.” Isolde got to her feet, taking a step before leaving Gwen on the sheets and then following, walking down the corridor to another room. Guards lined the walls, parting their spears so that she may enter.
Viego sat on a bench, his arm wrapped tightly in bandages. Kalista stood beside him. For a moment they spoke in a harsh whisper until he caught sight of Isolde. “My love…” he said.
“Darling!” She rushed to him, throwing her arms around his neck and holding tight. It was just a scratch.
“Isolde…” he said, returning her embrace.
“How is your arm? Does it hurt?” she asked.
He didn’t answer, instead squeezing her tighter and then saying. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine love,” she said. “We’re both fine.”
A hand took a firm grip on her shoulder. Kalista leaned in and whispered. “A moment, your Highness,”
Isolde turned, glancing between her and her husband who held her in a death grip. “Kalista…? What is it?”
The General looked around and waved off the doctors, ushering them and the guards further back in the room, out of earshot. “It was poisoned,” she said.
Isolde felt her heart drop into her feet. “Poi--poisoned?” She looked down at her husband who had his face buried against her shoulder. “Vieg, look at me,” she said.
Slowly, he lifted his head. Dark lines had already creased themselves under his eyes. An hour had barely passed and somehow he looked sick beyond words. As soon as she got a look at him he pushed back, resting again on her shoulder.
“What can we do? An antidote? A cure?” she said. “Surely we must have something?”
The look on Kalista’s face grew dimmer, her hand coming in front of her eyes as she shook her head. “We haven’t any idea what was used.”
“The man that did this, we have him, yes? Make him talk, the apothecary in town, the--the healer in the temple up the hill—there must be someone who knows of these things.”
“They are all on their way. But the assassin...he had poison between his own teeth. He was dead before we could even get him down the stairs.”
Isolde felt a small flood of stomach acid in the back of her throat that she swallowed back down, turning her attention back to Viego and lifting his head up once more. “Let’s get you into bed my love,” she said, looking back over her shoulder and motioning for the guards to come.
Viego was lifted once again, brought back to their room where Isolde took it upon herself to make him comfortable, pillows, blankets, whatever she thought might help . In the closet, on the shelf where Gwen usually sat was a doll, a dragon of sorts. It was worn and well loved except for a new looking blue ribbon around its neck and some new stitching along the foot. Isolde took it, brought it back into the room, and sat on the bed, adjusting the covers over him. Viego watched her, she could feel his eyes on her but every time she dared to meet them it was that horrible emptiness staring back. “I got him out of the closet for you,” she said, placing the toy beside his head. “To keep you company.”
He smiled for a moment, but his hand only reached for hers, squeezing it. He hadn’t said another word. She could see a tightness in his jaw like he wanted to but not even so much as a whisper had left him. Isolde ran her hand along his cheek and he closed his eyes, letting out a deep exhale.
“My lady,” Kalista called, standing from her chair in the corner. “A word?”
She nodded and went to go, only to have Viego tug her arm back, squeezing tighter. “Shhh, darling,” she said with another gentle sweep along his face. “I’ll just be a minute. I won’t leave you a moment more.”
His eyes searched hers for a moment before his own hand went to her face, caressing it before he finally let go. Isolde got up and went with Kalista onto the balcony, past the curtains and up against the stone railing.
“More than just poison?”
Kalista shook her head. “This wasn’t an attempt from foregin soil. That man was from Camavor. This comes from inside.”
The stomach acid came back up Isolde’s throat and this time she very nearly didn’t hold it back. “The court?”
She nodded. “We have a traitor in our midst.”
Isolde sucked in a deep breath, trying to calm her shaking body. After a few more breaths she was steady. “We find them, we find a cure,” she said. “Kalista, I’m begging you, whatever we must do to save him I will do it. But I…” she trailed off, her hand going absentmindedly to her midsection. Tears spilled over the edges of her eyes again and she had no power to stop them. “I can’t lose him. This life is nothing to me if not with him, you understand?”
The General nodded. “I swear to you, my lady, I will do everything in my power to save him.”
She tried to smile, unable to hold it but enough she was sure that Kalista saw. Isolde brushed the water from under her eyes. “I’m going to stay with him. As painful as it is to see that hollow look in his eyes I cannot leave him.”
Kalista gave her another nod and followed her back into their bedroom. “I’ll see the apothecary and cleric here when they arrive.” She left one last squeeze of Isolde’s shoulder before disappearing out the door.
Isolde sat back down on the bed with Viego. His eyes were closed now. She reached for the bowl of water left on her beside and a cloth, dipping it in and wringing it out before laying it over his forehead.
“My love…” he said
“Yes,” she said, leaning over. “What do you need, darling?”
He shook his head, opening his eyes to look at her. He didn’t say another word, only squeezed her hand. He couldn’t say it. She knew that. Like so much about being king that he never said. She could see all that fear and pain in that emptiness behind his eyes. Truth be told she couldn’t bring herself to say it either. It was something she’d tried so hard to suffocate, but now it was the only thing that breathed in this room, growing and taking up every last nook and crack where it used to have to hide to exist.
Another hour passed before there was a knock on the door. Isolde had taken to sitting at his bedside, holding his hand while he sweated through a growing fever.
“Come in,” she called, not taking her eyes off him. But out of the corner of her periphery she saw Kalista and a man she could only assume to be one of the people they’d sent for.
“Your Highness,” Kalista said, bowing her head. The older man behind offered a deeper one in kind. “I’ve brought the apothecary.”
“How well versed are you in curatives, sir?” she asked, suddenly aware of how stained with tears her face felt.
“Plenty your Highness! We are the oldest apothecary in Alovedra, operating for seven generations,” he said with far too much enthusiasm for Isolde’s taste.
Her gaze slid to the side, eyeing the man. “My husband has been poisoned.”
“Yes, my lady. Worry not!” The man came forward. “We are more than equipped to handle such--unfortunate circumstances.”
Isolde watched him lay out several glass bottles, varying powders, liquids, and ingredients within them. “Have you been given the knife? The blade that poisoned him?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Have you seen this poison before?” She continued to watch him as he took a mortar and pestle and started combining the items. Isolde bit the inside of her lip at the sight of a few of them.
“No, your Highness, but I’m certain this mixture will be just the thing his Majesty needs,” he assured her.
“What is that red flower you’re using?” she asked, running her thumb along Viego’s hand.
“Oh this? An important element, my lady, it will help clean the corrupted blood in the King’s veins,” he explained.
Isolde’s eyes slid to a vial of pink liquid. “And this?”
“Ah, it is the nectar of the Rosado Flower. It will numb the pain he’s in while the rest of the medicine does it’s work.”
The Queen grit her teeth, a fresh tear spilling over and down her cheek. “And how , pray tell, will sugar water and more poison cure my husband?” she demanded.
“What?” Kalista hissed, grabbing the man by his collar.
“M-my lady, no, you are mistaken! This--this is a cure my family has used for generations!”
Isolde let go of Viego’s hand, getting to her feet as she glared down at the man. “The Rosado flower is used to make tea sweet where I come from and this,” she hissed, grabbing the twig with it’s brightly colored petals. “We have this too in Noiah. This, sir , is a flower field hands chew on to stay up for days at a time while they work. It’s addictive and it’s poisonous if you take too much! And you are little more than a snake, preying on the pain of the desperate. Get him out!” she ordered.
Kalista and two other guards pulled the man from the room. Servants came and took away his “curatives” and Isolde took her seat again at Viego’s side, taking his hand as she tried to compose herself. “I’m sorry darling. I wish for you not to see me like this. We’ll get you real help.”
He smiled at her, but kept his eyes closed. “Your accent gets thicker when you yell.”
Isolde couldn’t help but crack a smile of her own. “Still charmed by my country girl accent hmm?” she said, speaking for a moment in her own language.
“Ah, my heart,” he said.
She laughed, but even still, the tightness in her throat returned. He looked so sick. Even cracking a joke he looked pale, exhausted. “Viego…I love you.”
“I love you, my Queen,” he said, his body tensing immediately after as he fought through a wave of pain.
“Shhh, It’s alright, rest, sleep. I’ll wake you when the cleric comes,” she said, leaning over to leave a kiss on his forehead. Viego exhaled another deep breath, turning onto his side.
Isolde readjusted the covers and reached for her sewing on the bedside table. It was a square for a quilt, the one she’d been working on since she was a girl. As it had been for so long this square was a symbol of the two of them, a sunset they’d watched one night. It kept her busy, focusing on one line of thread to the next and not the uncertainty ahead of them.
Days began to pass. Kalista stayed close. Healer after miracle man after alchemist was brought in with nothing to show for it. Most were con men, hacks, snake oil salesmen looking to profit off the desperation of the crown. And those who offered true help did little but ease Viego’s pain. The assassination was home grown but whatever coated that knife came far from the shores of Camavor and all its territories, leaving them with nothing that might cure it.
The General sent her men as far as she thought they might reach in search of a doctor, a cure, even just the rumor that one might exist. Meanwhile at home the noose tightened around two members of the court and a score of others from a noble house. It was plenty to keep her busy, her thoughts off the rope around their own throats, especially that of her Uncle.
He was getting worse. The poison left him delirious, running fevers, chills, and coughing up blood. Most recently he’d started having violent convulsions, like he was possessed. Nothing helped. All Isolde could do was hold him until it stopped and beg him to come back. And all she could do was keep sending anyone, and everyone they could find in hopes that just one person could help.
Kalista leaned her head against the double doors leading into Viego and Isolde’s room. It was quiet. She’d already heard from the Queen’s handmaiden that today was yet another dead end. Every day that continued to be the report it got harder to walk in. As she opened the doors she found Isolde sitting in her spot beside Viego, but this time with her head down, seemingly passed out over the edge. Kalista lightened her steps along the tile floors to the end of their bed. She hadn’t left his side in days. Kalista knew from reports from servants and staff that she had barely eaten or slept, choosing to stay up all hours and tend to him herself. She didn’t blame her. Paranoia was palpable in the halls. Who could be trusted was a dice roll and not one that neither she nor Isolde wished to play.
Viego’s voice startled her. She hadn’t heard him say her name in a week. But sure enough his eyes were open and he was looking at her. Kalista took another step towards the end of the bed.
“Kali,” he said, his voice strained. “Can you lift Isolde up into bed? I can barely move. Please. And try not to wake her...”
The General nodded, coming up beside her and slowly lifted the Queen into her arms and carried her to the other side of the bed where she laid her down beside Viego.
“She hasn’t left.”
Her uncle reached out, his hand shaking as he stroked her cheek. “She is in so much pain…”
Kalista frowned. “She’s strong. You should be more worried with yourself, old man,” she said, taking a seat on Isolde’s chair. Viego only kept his attention on his wife, caressing her face, pushing back stray strands of hair.
“You think I’m not,Kali? I’m so scared it takes every ounce of strength I have to not scream every conscious moment. I’m going to die and leave Isolde here, alone. I’ve searched my whole life for something to care about, to live for, beside this ridiculous image Father and my brother left behind. Finally I found something I love and I’m going to die.”
Kalista bit the inside of her lip, pressure building up behind her eyes. “We’re still looking, we’re not giving up.”
“I know,” he said. “But if I don’t make it, please, take care of her, protect her. Run.”
“It’s an order,” he said, trying to muster some strength behind his words. “We both know what’s going to happen to her, to you, to everyone loyal to my regime if I don’t make it. Please don’t let anyone hurt her. She’s already in so much pain.”
One tear spilled over that she was quick to wipe away by the time he managed to turn his head to look at her
“Swear to me.”
“I will protect her. But Viego, there is something…” she trailed off, her eyes going to Isolde, still fast asleep. She was almost certain. That day, and several times since she’d caught her, the Queen’s hand absently over her stomach. A day or so ago she’d found her in the wash room, sick, coughing up what little was in her body.
Stress, overwhelming anxiety, the fear of losing him. She explained it away and said not a word more, but even if no one else had seen it, she had. “Her Highness, she…”
Worry took over the exhaustion etched into his face. “What’s happened?”
Kalista stared at her. She hadn’t told him. She hadn’t told a soul. Unwilling to risk the life of their child, unwilling to take care away from him. The General shook her head. “She is fine, Viego, she is strong. And she loves you, more than anything. Don’t worry about her. Just hold on a little longer until we find something.”
Her uncle’s eyes searched hers for a moment before turning back to his wife. “Darling…”
Isolde’s eyes flickered open just a bit to see him reach for her. “Vieg,” she whispered, moving in close, and latching on to him. “You’re awake.”
“Shhh,” he hushed her. “Back to sleep,”
Isolde didn’t fight, dozing off in a matter of moments.
Kalista watched them a moment longer before getting up, going to the door. She couldn’t watch. And in truth, as she closed the doors quietly behind her, they deserved just a moment to each other, to be alone when it was growing more uncertain how many more of those moments they had left.
Another three days passed. Isolde watched in silent agony as her husband continued to waste away in front of her eyes. He stopped waking up between all of his convulsions. She could barely get him to drink. It was all she could do just to change the blankets, and the cloth on his forehead. Every person that they sent was equally useless. Neither medicine, nor magic, not even her pleas to the gods made a difference. She was losing him.
Isolde gripped the fabric of her dress over her stomach. Their baby, they would be born having never met their father, never to meet him. All she would ever have would be stories, fairytales of him and how wonderful he was. The thought was enough to make her scream. And she did, silently. Tears poured down her face as not so much as sound left her. Every muscle in her body screamed with her, twisting and contorting in the grief of knowing there was nothing she’d been able to do for him so far. Nothing . Her Viego who had cared for her with such devotion since the day they met, was there truly nothing she could do?
After a few moments, alone, in her washroom, the Queen leaned over, splashed some water on her face. Not yet, she breathed into her reflection. There was hope yet. An apothecary from Ionia. Chance had him not so far and they’d received word that he would come, see the king. Isolde knew little of the First Lands, other than their stories of magic and wonder beyond all she could imagine. Perhaps this was just the thing. Perhaps he knew and could help him, save him, save them both.
Isolde took a deep breath and stood up straight, smoothing out her dress and then returning to his side, taking her seat on the stool with her craft work. This panel of her quilt. It no longer resembled that which she originally intended. Now it was a prayer for the future. Her and Viego’s silhouettes against the sunset, but with a third figure between them. She could not decide if she would risk predicting a boy or girl so their baby was just a shadow, a solid mass of question marks like everything else. But she continued to pour in detail, far beyond what any other square in her quilt possessed. With every thread she prayed, she bought more time, more of a chance to see it a reality.
Beside her, Viego woke in a start, jolting from a nightmare, or perhaps just the pain. Isolde instantly stood up and took his hand. “Easy, my love,” she said, taking his face, waiting for him to see her.
“Isolde…” he said. “I--I was...I…” he trailed off. “I can’t remember.”
She hushed him softly, settling back in her seat and taking his hand. “It’s alright darling, you don’t need to remember. I’m right here.”
That seemed to sooth him. Slowly he caught his breath and settled back against the pillows. “Yes, yes, you’re right,” he said. “But I--I have to see Kali? That meeting?”
“Shhh, Kalista is coming here, remember? She’ll be here in just a few hours,” she said. His memory was getting worse, his mind seeming to be going completely. Sometimes he talked of the day he was stabbed, other times he asked if she would marry him. Her only joy in any of it was the look of relief on his face when she said “Yes, and a million times over again.” or anything else to ease his worries.
“My love,” he said, watching as she took up her needle and thread again. “What are you sewing?”
Isolde smiled, scooching her stool over just a touch closer. “You remember my quilt darling?”
“This is for the month,” she said, turning to show it to him. “Last week,” she said, as if it did not feel a lifetime away, we went out onto the cliffs and watched the sunset. We had a picnic and brought your guitar. It was very romantic.”
He smiled. “Can I take you there again?” he asked. “Tonight--tonight I’ll cancel my meeting with Kali. Oh, and the music box.”
Isolde paused. “Do you want me to play it for you?” she asked.
“No, no,” he said. “I’ll play it. I wrote it. For you. For our wedding,” he said.
“You...did?” she said. He’d never said a word of this before. But she remembered suddenly. Long before they were married, when they were swept up in meeting after dark, under only starlight, that first time he played for her, it had been that song...hadn’t it? A simple little tune that had her laughing.
“They asked, what song should we use? I gave them the notes. Because you, you said it was beautiful. And I said--”
“Like you,” she finished the sentence, which had him smiling even brighter.
“So beautiful,” he said. “I’ll play for you again tonight.”
She couldn't help it, Isolde smiled too. “Very well, my love. We’ll go out by the water, and you can play for me. I look forward to it.”
Viego relaxed then, letting his head fall back against the pillows once more. “As do I…”
Isolde pulled her quilt back to her lap again. “Vieg, darling...I need to tell you something,” she said, tracing the shadow that sat between them, feeling the threads under her finger tips. “I didn’t want to make things harder on you. I know you’re in pain, and you’re scared, but I should have told you. I--I’m pregnant. I’m sorry. I was going to tell you that day, but everything...see here, on the quilt, I sewed them and--” Isolde lifted the square back up to him, pointing to the shadow of their child.
But he was still. His eyes had fallen closed again and he was still.
He often fell back asleep like this, suddenly, from one word to the next. But this was different. Always, she could see his chest rise and fall under the covers. He was still.
The sewing circle fell out of Isolde’s hands, clattering on the floor. “Viego…?” She took his face again, brushing back hair, touching his neck, his shoulders. “Darling? Darling! No, Viego, please, come back, come back to me! No, no, no, no! Wake up, please Viego! Viego! Gods, please, don’t take him! Viego!” She cradled him in her arms, pressing his limp body against her own. “Don’t take him!” she begged, tugging and pulling at his clothes, his hair, anything she could hold.
But he was gone, taken. And taken with it was everything that suffocated her, everything that held sound back when she needed to scream. Now as her voice rang through this room and down the halls, sending guards and servants running to her side, she was anything but silent, crying, and begging for anything to bring him back.
Chapter 2: Hesitation
The traitors responsible for Viego’s murder are executed, but it does little to fill the void his death has left. Isolde and Kalista look at the past for comfort and, to escape the looming future and all its uncertainty.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Isolde watched the wood fall out from underneath the feet of each of the traitors, the men responsible for her husband’s murder. She took no joy in it. One by one they hanged for what they had done but what difference it made came and went in a cycle in her mind. Killing these men would not bring him back. But nevertheless she had their sentence carried out so that at the very least they would never come close to holding what they sought to steal.
But this execution was a private affair. She’d insisted on that despite the court’s advice to make a statement. A statement of what she had to wonder. Isolde remembered when a group of traitors to the crown were executed in her village. She remembered the spectacle. And she remembered how it only fed the fires of unrest for many months until they were inevitably snuffed out. Isolde wanted none of that. These men would pay for what they took but they would do it without a wisp of acknowledgment. They would fade into obscurity, nothing to notice except that of the empty space. It was all she would allow them. It was all that they deserved.
“Your Highness.” Kalista came up beside her. She looked so different. They both did. The black and green mourning attire aside she looked exhausted, her face distorted in grief. Otherwise She hid it well. But they both knew what it was to pretend to look the other way at their red eyes and stained cheeks.
“If only a life for life was a currency that death accepted. But all these men who took him from us are gone and it’s nothing near enough,” she said. She was so tired of crying, but tears slipped silently down her cheeks regardless of her wishes.
The General placed her hand on Isolde’s shoulder. “You need to rest,” she said. “Tomorrow--”
Isolde sniffed back tears, lifting her hand behind the black veil to wipe away what had fallen. “I know…” she whispered. Kalista turned her away from the gallows and back inside, down the corridors, towards her room. The palace was far from empty, but it felt it. Everyone walked around dressed in the same black clothes with their heads down, all of them shadows that stood to the side as they passed and came to the door. The guards parted their spears so Isolde could enter, but she stopped, looking over her shoulder. “Come in, won’t you?” She didn’t need to ask. They’d barely been apart in the two days since he passed, but still she did, afraid and unwilling to be in this room alone.
Kalista followed her in, the doors closing behind them. Anxiety welled up in her stomach in the silence. Everything looked the same. Isolde had barely touched a thing, but then again she’d barely been here at all. Between funeral arrangements, and the punishment of the men who took him she had plenty of excuses to avoid this place.
Isolde took a deep breath, swallowing down the pain in her throat and chest. She took off the veil and her crown, placing them along the dresser and then going to a cabinet, tugging it open and pulling out a bottle of wine. “I don’t care to think anymore today,” she said.
At first the General frowned, but ultimately shook her head and followed. “Neither do I.”
Isolde grabbed two glasses and walked out onto the balcony, taking a seat on the couch on one side of the railing and pouring what was surely too much wine for the both of them. Kalista took her seat, taking her hair down before reaching for her glass. Both of them had given up on maintaining appearances for the other. They were sisters in mourning now. Isolde stared at her reflection in the wine glass. Drinking wouldn’t solve a thing. She’d told her father as much when her brother died. But right now with the funeral looming there wasn’t a thing she wanted to feel. Nothing she wanted to say. Even still she couldn’t stop the words from falling past her lips, “Do you think he’s still here?” she asked, twisting the thin part between her fingers.
“Oh gods I pray not,” she said, swirling the wine in her glass before taking a big gulp down. “I don’t wish him to see me like this. Do you?”
It took her a moment for her to shake her head. “I don’t want him to be in pain anymore. Whether that’s physical, or emotional in watching us grieve. I don’t want him to see. But I--I miss him Kali, so much.”
Kalista noticeably stiffened at the nickname, fighting back a twist in her expression.
“Forgive me,” she said. “Viego always called you that.”
“Since we were children. I don’t mind. It’s actually rather nice to hear it again. Feels like a lifetime.”
Isolde smirked. “It’s been three weeks. Three weeks ago we sat at breakfast and talked about that meeting he didn’t want to go to and I--” she caught herself, her free hand running over her stomach. All at once she felt a little sick and placed the glass down, pushing it away. “I shouldn’t be drinking.”
Kalista nodded as she looked out over the city, dusk settling in. “We have to be up early. It’s going to be a long day and we haven’t time to nurse headaches.”
“I’ve had one for days. I always get them after I cry, but I don’t think I’ve stopped.”
“I’m much the same, sadly.”
There was a moment of noticeable silence then. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but it breathed, having gained a life of its own since there was nothing else in the room to kill it.
Kalista finished off another two glasses, including the glass Isolde had originally poured for herself. It was only half way through that one that she broke their silence. “I wasn’t sure what to make of you when my uncle brought you here. I thought it a joke. I thought he was toying with you. Viego was never a bad man, but growing up the second son made him bitter,” she said, filling her glass up one more time. “His mother died before he could remember her and he received nothing of any sort of love from neither his father nor mine. Neither did I. I suppose I just handled it better.” She downed half her glass in one go before leaning back in her seat. “And when we were older he seldom chased after the company of others but when he did he was quick to learn why they paid him any sort of mind. It broke him. Time and time again I saw him hurt and let down. So truly when suddenly he spoke of a woman I thought it was just next in the line of a lifetime of mistakes. But then I met you. And I watched how you two talked. Suddenly it made all the sense in the world why he had been sneaking off to meet you for so many nights. He loved you so completely. He would have torn the world apart if that was what it would take to keep you safe.”
Isolde laughed, though not a word of it was funny. “He was so lonely. And I know so many called him selfish, but never so with me. When that awful emptiness behind his eyes finally faded you could see the gentle heart of a sweet man beat in his chest. He just wanted someone to care,” she sighed, tilting her head up to stare at the stars, tracing the constellations with her eyes. She didn’t believe he was up there. If he was anywhere that she could see it would be just behind her, sitting with them, or on the bed, where he died. He would never stray so far as the stars. “There’s one thing you have wrong, Kali.”
Kalista tilted her head to the side, raising an eyebrow. “I do?”
A smile started to form on Isolde’s face. “We met before he brought me here.”
She paused, crossing one leg over the other, her mouth open like she intended to speak but nothing came out.
“You wouldn’t remember,” she laughed. “But I met you and Viego on the same day.”
The General leaned back against the cushions a moment. Isolde could see the wheels frantically turning her head as she searched through every available memory, finishing her glass while she was at it, as if that would help.
“The toy store,” she said, watching the exaggerated look of realization spread across her face.
Kalista slid down in her seat with her hands over her face. “I forgot…”
Isolde laughed. Her expressions were so honest when she was drunk compared to the composed woman that had been standing beside her the past three weeks. “Why would you remember?”
“Because I teased him about it for weeks afterwards, but by then you two--”
“Oh I think he was already trying to decide what we would name our children.” She laughed, tears in her eyes that only became sad when the weight of those words settled on her tongue. “I miss him...” Isolde rubbed her eyes, fighting back the tears without much luck until Kalista’s arm came around her shoulder and brought her in. Isolde didn’t fight it, hugging back and pressing her face into Kalista’s shoulder.
“I miss him too,” she said. “So much.”
A day two years ago in a toy store started like any other back then. Alovedra was not the sleepy village she grew up in and with it and her family behind her Isolde was up with the sun every morning, pouring a glass of milk, sitting by the window with her breakfast until the bell downtown sounded eight when most days she would make for downstairs where she worked. This morning however she had other things to tend to. Her eyes slid to her most beloved doll, sitting on her desk. Isolde placed her empty cup by the wash bin and grabbed for her basket, taking an old key and locking up her apartment as she left.
Out front the sun was just about over the buildings on the other side of the street. She had plenty of time to get to the market and back and then--
“Isolde my girl!” a voice called behind her.
The seamstress turned on her heels, greeting the older man with a smile. “Good morrow, sir.”
“Out and about already I see. Where you off to?”
“Market’s already been open a few hours now. Thought I’d get there before it got any busier.” she said. He was the owner of the tailor’s shop below her apartment, owned the whole building in fact. He’d been kind enough to give her a job and let her rent out the room. No one had been sweeter since she’d been here.
“It’s your day off dear, try not to stay cooped up all day,” he chuckled, getting up from the bench he sat on.
“I won’t,” she said, though in truth, it wasn’t as if she had any other plans. Friends were few and far between here in the city with how much she worked. A few nights out at the tavern with the other two girls that worked in the shop was all it ever amounted to. Not that she minded. Sewing the days away made her more than content.
“On your way then, dear. Oh and might you pick me up some white thread while you’re there?”
Down the road she came to the market, a busy and overwhelming structure of shops. One built into the next, all hawking their wares, goods, odds and ends. Spices wafted through the air and up her nose with more intensity than her mother’s kitchen. Overhead the canopy blocked out the sun, somehow making an already cluttered space feel like a mountain of things pulling her attention every which way. Even a year and a half after she’d moved here she did not deny her eyes drifting from place to place as she filed back towards one of the fabric shops.
Isolde slipped around the bolts of brightly colored cloth to where an older woman sat behind a makeshift desk.
“Ah there she is! Up bright and early.”
“Is it in today?” she asked.
Juliana got up from her seat and turned around, sifting through paper packaged cloth until she pulled one free and laid it out on the crates, pulling back the paper to reveal a beautiful blue color. “You, my dear, have quite exquisite taste. Expensive too.”
“It’s isn’t too much to be a problem,” she said.
“Hardly enough to dress a doll.”
A smile spread across her face. “That’s the idea,” she said. “An old doll of mine needs some adjustments. This is just enough.” Isolde reached into her apron and retrieved her coin purse, stopping to add “You have white thread?”
“Aye.” Juli reached down this time and placed two spools of thread beside the cloth.
“Tell you what, Isi, you always doing good business with me. I’ll cut you a deal. 5 gold,” she said.
Isolde shifted her weight onto her left foot, crossing her arms. “2 aaand 2 silver.”
Juliana shifted on her seat, sighing. “Oh come on now, hon, I gotta make a profit here. Four gold, keep it even.”
“2 gold, 8 silver.”
A deeper and more exaggerated sigh left the older woman, crossing her own arms now. “3 and 8. I can’t go lower than that. You don’t have kids but when you do, you’ll understand. I got mouths to feed, Isi, c’mon now.”
Isolde’s composed smile didn’t falter. “3, keep it even,” she said.
There was a pause in the flow of negotiation. Behind the smile she could feel her heart beating with her nerves. “3 and 2, for the thread. Final offer.” Juli extended her hand.
The smile on Isolde’s face brightened a bit, taking her hand in a firm shake before unclipping her purse and pulling out the three gold coins and two smaller silver ones, placing them in her hand. “Thank you,” she said, placing the thread and package of fabric into her basket, under a blanket.
“Tell that old fool, Antonio, not to work himself to death, dear,” she said with a smile.
“Oh he’ll do it whether we tell him to or not. Bye Juli.” Isolde gave her a wave as she stepped back out into the main walkway and started back towards home and the open air part of the market.
The seamstress took her time walking back, stopping at one of the farmer’s stands to pick up some milk and a few other things, placing them on top of the blanket and continuing on her way, stopping mid-step, however, in front of one last shop. Isolde glanced at the sign and then the small window display. Dolls. It had been a few weeks. Surely, she thought, that was enough time. She took a deep breath and stepped forward, grabbing the door handle and stepping inside, A bell chiming as she passed through the doorway.
The shop was empty aside from the old woman sitting at the counter, a needle in thread in hand as she was sewing a doll’s dress until she heard the bell and looked up.
“Good morrow, Ma’am.”
“Ah there you are. Thought you didn’t want to get paid after all.” The woman adjusted her glasses and laid her tools down.
Isolde tried to swallow the excitement bubbling up in her chest. “I thought I would wait a bit this time.”
“You sold three, one of the nicer ones is left.” the woman said, reaching for a small coin bag, tied off with string. “One little girl has checked in twice since then, saving up her pocket money for it. You’re gaining quite the following, young lady.” she said. “Do you have any others ready?”
“Y-yes! I do. I can bring them down perhaps later or first thing tomorrow?”
The woman took up her sewing again. “Come by before we open tomorrow and we’ll get you set up,” she said. “There’s your pay for the three dolls.” She nodded to coin purse on the counter. Isolde hurried to collect it and tuck inside her apron.
“Thank you so much!” she said, unable to control her beaming smile any longer.
The old woman cracked a small grin of her own. “I assume you’re going to look around.”
Isolde nodded. “Yes, just for a minute. Always gives me some ideas,” she said, turning to the left and walking around to take a look at all the dolls. Some were made by people like her, aspiring doll makers. Others were from the owner, a woman who had been at this for many years. Her dolls were breathtaking. Elegant, and detailed like nothing she had ever done.
Isolde picked up one doll she didn’t recognize. Her dress had hand stitched roses along the hem. Beautiful. She ran her finger along the craft work, feeling the waves of thread.
Behind her the door opened, the bell chiming again, heavier footsteps followed it.
“Can I help you sir?” she heard the woman ask.
For a moment there was only silence and then a young man’s voice. “Oh, I’m looking for a present for my niece, you see,” he said. His accent made Isolde pause, even glance over her shoulder. Camavoran for sure but smoother than any other she’d ever heard. He was tall and sported a cloak over his shoulders with the hood pulled up. But the detail in his clothes, his boots. A nobleman?
The shopkeeper said nothing else, returning to her work as the young man started to walk around, coming towards her. Isolde averted her eyes, looking back to the doll in her hands. The hair was so much finer than the yarn she’d used on some of hers, including Gwen. It felt like silk, smooth and slippery on her fingers. The time it took to make such a thing. She hoped one day that she would make something so beautiful.
The young man was standing beside her now, his head tilted up and then down, taking in everything. He picked up one doll and turned it over in his hands. Isolde couldn’t help but watch him. A nobleman in this part of town. Such a rarity. Her eyes then fell to the doll in his hands. It was a newer one as well, soft and plush. The curls were made of thick rope like yarn. “That’s a fine choice,” she heard herself spit out, practically biting her tongue when his head jerked up.
Blue eyes stared back at her. He had strong features, but looked exhausted, the bright color of his irises gave way to an emptiness that pulled at her chest. “I know very little about such things,” he said, not taking his eyes off her.
“How old is your niece?” she asked, taking a small step closer.
“Older,” he said. “Perhaps too old for things such as dolls.”
“Nonsense, I still have them!”
The young man placed the doll in his hands down and turned his attention completely towards her. “Then what would you suggest?” he asked.
Isolde looked around the room, her eyes settling on one to her right. She thoughtlessly took the cuff of his sleeve, tugging him over before letting go and picking up a drifftent doll off the shelf.
“The woman who makes this one designs dolls for older girls. A bit more for presentation than for playing around with. You see this material,” she said, lifting up the hair. “It feels almost real.”
She handed the doll off to the young man who smirked. “You are well versed in this, it seems.”
Isolde felt some red rush to her face. “Well, I am...I’m an aspiring doll maker myself,” she said. “I’ve sold a few here.”
He smiled at her. “Would you show me?”
The red on her cheeks deepened as she led him to the other side othe store and took down the doll she still had for sale off the shelf. It was similar to Gwen, but with Auburn hair and a pink dress. She handed this one off to him as well.
He turned it over and then held it up. “You’re awfully skilled,” he said.
“Oh, well I’ve been making them since I was a girl, but I’ve got a long way to go,” she said, tucking a strand of her own hair behind her ear. His voice and those eyes of his, despite the exhaustion, made her blush. He was so hard to look at and she could not even see anything past his eyes.
“I don’t believe you’ll have any problem with that, Miss--?”
“Isolde!” she blurted out and then again, more quietly. “My name is Isolde, sir. How do you do?”
“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Isolde. I--”
Before he could say another word the door opened again and in strode a woman, tall like him with jet black hair and fine, but simple clothes. “By the Aspects, I’ve been looking all over for you! Everyone has been looking all over for you!”
The man’s expression twisted into something exasperated as he turned around after placing the doll back down. “Can I not go for a walk in peace, Kali? A moment or two to myself is all I ask!”
The woman crossed her arms. “We are late.” She hissed.
“Ah, yes Gods forbid I don’t attend every pointless affair. I will be along in a moment.”
The woman pinched the bridge of his noise, rubbing into his eyes. “Old man,” she spat back, taking a step forward. “I know the meetings are dull--”
“I’d rather run head first into a pit full of spikes, chew on broken glass, listen to my niece lecture me for three more hours, just about anything than sit in that room, with those fools, on such a beautiful morning.”
Isolde couldn’t stifle a laugh, a sound that had both of them stopping to look at her. “So this is your niece?”
The man stuttered, his composure faltering. “Y-yes…she is. She is older, as you can see.”
She laughed again, smiling at how quick all his confidence melted away into something so cute. “You’re funny,” she said, walking past him with one last smile up at him. “Something else might be better. Good day, miss,” she said with a nod to the woman as she left, laughing to herself as she made the remaining stretch home.
Isolde tugged open the door to the tailor, a bell chiming a little higher than the one in the doll shop. In front of a form stood Antonio, adjusting a dress into place, one of hers.
“Ah, there you are, girl,” he said. “What has such a bright smile on your face?”
Isolde giggled, her mind slipping back to that strange man at the shop. “Just an interesting encounter. You like the dress?”
“Fine work, my dear. Perfect for a spring day.”
Isolde grinned down into her basket. “It is a nice day isn’t it…oh! I got your thread,” she said, pulling the two spools out from under the blanket. “It also comes with a reminder from Juli to not work yourself to death.”
Antonio laughed, accepting them and bringing them to the back wall where he tugged open the thread drawer. “Says the young lady I saw working by candle light again last night.”
“I am just the messenger, sir!” she said, dramatically sweeping her hand over her heart. “Take it up with the lady who sends it.”
Another chuckle left the old man as he shook his head. “My what am I to do with the both of you on my back now?”
Isolde giggled, shifting her basket to one hand. “Do you need help today?” she asked. “That dress order is due in two days.”
“Giving up your day off already?” he asked with a sigh. “Well if you’re intent on it I would be more than willing to accept a little assistance.”
A bright grin spread across the girl’s face. “I shall go put my things away and be right down!” she said, already hurrying back out the door and upstairs to her apartment.
The morning continued steadily. Isolde took her place at her desk and resumed her embroidery she’d been working on the last few days, humming a soft song to herself as she went. It was peaceful. They had a few customers that Antonio tended to but her day off was one of the less busy days in the week, leaving the shop to mostly the two of them. As morning turned over into afternoon she was fairly certain she’d be done with the hem of the dress by the day’s end.
The bell above the door chimed again. Isolde did a quick glance up from her work once and then a double take as it was the man from this morning, the nobleman, walking into their shop. Isolde’s jaw dropped, unable to look away. After a brief glance around his eyes met hers, his body stiffening.
“Good afternoon, sir!” Antonio greeted him, but not even earning a glance. “Can I be of assistance?”
Isolde lowered the dress down onto the table, getting up from her stool and walking forward. “Good afternoon, sir…”
“Might I have a word, Miss.” he said, his voice sending a shot of pink straight to her cheeks.
She took another step forward, keeping her hands wrung together, squeezing tight. Even with the hood of his cloak obscuring part of his face she could see he was handsome. Those blue eyes felt as though they could look right through her. It made her heart quicken as she took another two steps. “W-what can I do for you?” she asked.
“It is the same as before, but I had not realized I would be seeing you again this day. I beg you forgive me and my niece’s rudeness earlier,” he said.
As he spoke Isolde could feel her shoulders relax. She even smiled, laughing into her hand. By chance, he would have her believe, but she doubted. Yet it was...sweet. “She is not with you. All done with your pointless affair then?”
He chuckled, nodding. “I am, though I pray she not find me again, for I had another one to attend.”
Isolde laughed again, with him now. “By the book type then is she?”
“Perhaps. Kalista has always been sworn to duty of a kind,”
Her laugh came to a sudden halt. He’d called her a nickname before, Kali, but…her eyes fell, taking a better look at this man. She’d noted his clothes, of course she had, the clothes of a nobleman. But it was not any color that peaked out from under his cloak, but blue, not so different from what she’d picked up this morning. And his belt. It was not any old decoration. That was the mark of the royal family. Isolde’s eyes widened. “Kalista,” she repeated. “Then you…” she trailed off.
He noticed, his own eyes widening and then casting to the side briefly. “Ah, yes, I suppose that was inevitable.” The man lowered the hood of his cloak, revealing not only his brown hair but the golden crown on his head.
Something between awe and anxiety twisted in her gut. “I--” she said, finding not another word, except--“Your Majesty…”
Antonio, who had wandered back, must have dropped whatever he was holding because she heard a loud clatter of metal on the floor, but she didn’t look away. The King of Camavor stood before her, King Viego, and with such a gentle smile on his face. Her whole body was a flutter to match the heart in her chest.
“You need not make such a face, Miss. I am not here to cause you any trouble.”
Isolde shook her head. “N-no of course not. I could not think so, your majesty, but then, why would you have need of a small tailor all the way out here, if I may be so bold to ask?”
The king took a step towards her, taking her hand. “True, I have no need for a tailor in this part of town, you however,” he said, kissing the top of her hand and simultaneously wiping the air right out of her lungs. “May I trouble you for some of your time this afternoon, my dear?”
There was a pause. His voice was scarcely audible over the sound of her own heart. “My...time?”
He nodded. “I don’t--get out as much as I would like. If it’s not too much to ask, I’d like your company. The butterfly gardens are in full bloom this time of year and perhaps you might let me take you to dinner? Kali and I used to go to the tavern a few streets down from here not so long ago. They have beautiful music and--” he cut himself off as his words were getting fast. “If you like.”
Isolde only stared a moment. Those empty blue eyes of his, there was something else behind them now, a small hint of anything. It had another wave of heat washing up her body as she slowly nodded, hearing herself speak. “Y-yes, I’d like that very much.”
A boyish sort of joy came over him in the form of a big smile. “Shall we then?” he asked.
She nodded only to turn around for a moment, looking at Antonio.
“I-it your day off, Isolde, dear. Go on now,” he said.
She gave another nod before turning back to him and letting his arm come around her shoulder as they walked out of the shop.
The afternoon existed in a sort of whirlwind. She felt as though her legs had been swept out from under her and what carried her was the wind that blew with him. In the butterfly garden they walked and sat on the stone wall overlooking the bay, watching ships come and go with the setting of the sun. And the more they spoke, the lighter she felt until she thought the only thing holding her down to earth was his hand taking hers. This was unheard of. The king, asking for the company of a peasant girl, and a foregin born one at that, but somehow past the initial wariness she felt so comfortable on his arm. He really was...sweet.”
“Do your parents live here, with you?” he asked as they were leaving the gardens. He had his hood back up allowing them to pass unnoticed as they took down the steps and back towards the other side of town.
“No,” she said. “If they had it their way I’d still be back home, married to a local boy with a couple of kids by now,” she said. “I came here because...I remember.” she said, looking down with an embarrassed smile on her face. “A certain king and his family came to my village once. I saw him and the prince, and the princess of Camavor, riding through town from up on a roof.”
He laughed. “Up north,yes? Noiah.”
Isolde’s smile only seemed to brighten at the name of her home. “Is it my accent?”
“Yes,” he said, glancing down at her and tugging her in close as he led her further down the road. “Our language sounds so beautiful hearing you speak it.”
“I could say the same,” she said, feeling her cheeks burning again.
The king let go of her arm, placing his hand around her shoulder. “A shame we did not meet those year back in Noiah. I should have liked to meet someone like you back then.”
That comment made her look up. On the surface it sounded like any other flattery, but his tone had fallen. It sounded genuine, heavier, betraying the smile on his face. Instead it matched the hollowness of his eyes. Isolde, leaned into him, and watched it chase away the darkness in his expression. “Oh,” she said. “There’s the tavern.” She took his hand again and led him, finding them a seat towards the back, away from much of the noise.
He pulled out her chair for her before taking his own, but the hood of his cloak stayed on as it had most of the day. She couldn’t blame him. If any of what she’d already gathered over the past few hours was true the very last thing he wanted was to be recognized.
“So, if I may ask, your majesty?”
“Viego,” he corrected, reaching for her hand again. “Please, it is just you and I. I’d hear you say my name before any title, Miss Isolde.”
She smirked. “Then please, Viego, I don’t need the Miss, either.”
The smile on his face turned up a little more. “Isolde, then. It is a beautiful name.”
“Why thank you,” she said, “I had nothing to do with choosing it.”
That made him laugh. “No, I suppose not. What is your question, my dear?”
Isolde studied his expression for a moment. He was looking at her so intently, he had all day, in fact. Even when she turned away she could see in the edges of her vision his eyes still remained focused on her. It had and no doubt would continue to make her blush. “Why ask me here this evening? I have very little to offer you apart from my company.”
“You think I seek something else?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I can’t imagine what a king would seek out in a poor seamstress from the Northern Territories.”
Viego kept her hand in his, that attention drifting for a moment as he studied her hand. They were rough from scissors, needles, a childhood on a farm. They were callused and worn. But he held it gently, studying the wear like she might a doll. “You are kind,” he said. “It’s quite seldom that I am this far into town anymore. The duties that accompany that of a king were never something I intended to hold. And since I took them up people who never paid me much mind seek my attention. Yet still there is not any kindness in them. Facing the crown make people dishonest. In that shop I simply wished for a moment alone, away from Kalista and that incessant war council. What was there instead was you. Kind to a stranger. And even as you found out who I was you’ve not changed apart from that initial worry on your face. You are still kind.”
Isolde listened to him talk, words suddenly spilling out of him like a leak in a bucket. Suffocated was the word that tumbled around in her mind. He just wanted someone to talk to. She knew that pain. Small villages breathed and lived in suffocation.
“This morning, when I left,” she said. “You asked the owner who I was?”
A guilty look came over his face, but nevertheless he nodded. “I wanted to speak with you again.”
The honesty made her smile, squeezing his hand. “I’m glad,” she said. “I admit I’ve rarely been in the presence of a noble, much less a king, but I...I have had a wonderful time today.”
He squeezed her hand back, that childish grin from earlier coming back to his face, free of any lingering darkness.
They ate dinner at the tavern, talked over food and wine until the crowd started to thin. Yet the idea that they would part only briefly entered her head before they began to wander, talking and joking under the moonlight. They found themselves by the sea cliffs, past the gardens, stepping up and over rocks, her hand in his.
“You know, I heard that there would be falling stars tonight,” she said, her accent a little thicker with the assistance of the wine she’d drank.
“I had not,” he said, laughing and going to hold her at her waist. “Do you believe that old tale? To wish on one is to offer a piece of your soul in exchange?”
She shook her head “It’s different in Noiah. You offer a piece of yourself,” she said, suddenly sweeping back his hood to reveal all of his face. “But once the gods grant your wish it falls back down and returns to you.”
“So every star is just another person’s soul?” he repeated.
“A piece of it, yes. They have been granted their wish and you replace what was lost with yours until yours too comes true,” she explained.
“Have you had a wish granted yet?” he asked, tucking some hair behind her ear.
“Once,” she said. “I’m here, am I not?”
He grinned and then hugged her close. “So you are. I am glad the gods saw it granted.”
“Shall I bet that you say such pretty things to all the girls, your majesty,” she teased, resting her head against his chest.
“And if this king were to tell you that he’d not done this before, what would my lady say?”
Isolde looked up. His expression was so gentle. The buzz from the wine wiped clear out of her mind. She wasn’t sure she believed that, and yet she could not truly doubt him when he looked at her so sweetly. Isolde raised her hand, hesitating a moment before she caressed his cheek. The thought of how she ended up here made her head spin. She elected to toss out why and how and simply let herself enjoy this man’s presence. Even if only for a night, her fairytale came true.
Viego started to lean in and she lifted up on her toes to meet him until they stopped short. Her breath felt so quick, shallow, but neither able to close the gap, turning back to the sky instead. Stars had begun to fall.
“You have a wish?” he asked, clearing his throat.
“Y-yes, and you?”
“I do. I hope the gods are kind enough to grant me it.”
“Me too.” The moment had passed. Part of her was grateful, fearing what would become of the heart in her chest if they had closed that distance. Isolde leaned back into him. He was warm, and smelled so soothing. She was content to be held like this. But…
“Viego,” she said.
“Yes, my dearest?”
“Will you forgive me if I need to go?” she asked.
He was quiet for a moment, one of his hands moving up into her hair. “I suppose, but on the condition you might let me walk you home.”
She giggled. “Yes, you may.”
He held her tightly for another moment before stepping away and taking her arm once again and putting his hood back in place.
The streets were quieting as they moved through town. In some places it was just them and she felt no shame in holding onto his arm tightly, enjoying this last bit of her fairytale. But eventually outside her door they stood and Isolde stepped away, the line she imagined between them reforming, carved in the cobblestone.
“Thank you for today,” she said. “I had a wonderful time.”
A bittersweet smile lingered on his face, only that being visible in such little light. He looked the part of a stranger as he did this morning.
And yet he stepped closer again, pulling her back into one more embrace. “Thank you, my dear. I can’t remember the last time I felt so at ease. I...I’d like to see you again.”
Isolde’s eyes widened against his chest. Again? She hesitated a moment, her heart thudding in her chest louder than ever. “I--I’m off every third day of the week. I would like to see you again as well, if you would have me.”
“Really?” he said, with that boyish excitement she’d caught glimpses of throughout the day. “You would?”
“Y-yes! I would. The crown betrays you, your majesty. I’ve never felt so comfortable--forgive me that is a strange thing to say when we met this morning.”
“And yet I could say the same,” he said, lifting her head up by her chin. Viego leaned in again, pressing a kiss to her cheek. “Goodnight my darling, I shall write you till I can see you again. Wait for me, yes?”
“Yes…” she whispered, letting their last embrace linger, his forehead pressed to hers. “I will. I look forward to it, my king.”
Isolde remembered that day. She remembered how she felt when she got his first letter from him and how she’d held it against her chest. Their first kiss, the first time they whispered their affection for the other, the first time he made love to her in the small apartment, all of it spun around in her head, making her unsteady. Holding on to Kalista was the only thing to keep her steady. But she knew, despite how true they’d been with each other she held back. Duty ran too strong in her veins and Isolde knew that at least for now, she was not the same comfort her.
“Kali,” she said.
“Yes my lady?”
“You denied Ledros because of duty didn’t you?” she said.
She stiffened again. “I thought it unwise.” She admitted. “My obligations came before my feelings. Despite how much I know you tried to get us in the same room at every available opportunity.”
They both laughed a moment. Isolde had never been exactly subtle in her assorted plans in match making. “I’ve seen how he looks at you. And you at him. Kalista, if these past three weeks have taught me a single thing beyond heartbreak it’s that tomorrow means nothing. Today is all you have for certain. Use it. Before you can’t.”
There was more silence that followed that, but she didn’t let go, instead holding her tighter, whispering. “Will he forgive me?”
“Kali, I doubt in his mind there is anything to forgive…”
Kalista remembered that day in the toy shop as well. Maybe it was the smile that stayed on her uncle’s face for days afterwards or perhaps it was his death that allowed so many memories of him to run free in her mind but she remembered. She remembered Isolde too, but only in retrospect did she realize how obvious the magnetic pull between them was from day one. She knew he had a preoccupation of sorts in the ten months that followed but she didn’t question him. Even while neglecting his duties she remembered being almost thankful that something was making him happy for a change. Kalista looked down at her queen, asleep on her shoulder, exhaustion and grief having made a mask of her face. The General’s mind was hazy from the liquor but she didn’t need to be sober to see that she was killing herself. She still wasn’t sleeping or eating. Kalista didn’t dare to think what would happen should her suspicion be confirmed and then she lose the baby. Her uncle’s words echoed in her head on unfortunate repeat. She’s in enough pain.
“Forgive me,” she whispered, holding the woman she’d sworn to protect just a little bit tighter, and cursing the tears slipping down her cheeks while she was at it. There was nothing here she could fight, nothing she could fend off. The rope around their own necks would soon begin to tighten and she feared there was nothing she could do to stop it. Isolde would not remarry. And she would not run. And the threat of an unconfirmable heir would only serve to kill them sooner. Kalista knew that. Camavor would tip over the edge soon and despite her promise she would be powerless to stop it. And she, this woman whom she had grown to care for outside of duty, a friend, a sister, would be the first to feel the ground under her feet give out.
The General held her a moment longer before she sighed and lifted Isolde up, bringing her to her bed and laying her onto the sheets. Kalista brought up the covers around her, smoothing them out before she stepped away. The Queen’s words had taken up root in her mind now alongside her uncle’s.
She had today. Before tomorrow could knock the wind out of her again she had just a little more time in today.
Kalista left the room, walking down the empty corridors to an entirely different part of the palace, not so many halls away from her own room. But she stopped short in front of a door and lifted her hand. Today. There is no tomorrow.
She bit her lip and let her hand fall, knocking once, twice, a third time and then returned it back to her side, waiting. She wasn’t sure if it was the liquor or Isolde’s words that made her brave, but there was no turning back now. Inside the room Kalista heard him, the sound of him moving and then coming to the door before it opened.
In the doorway stood Ledros, the King’s Shield, champion of Camavor, the man who sought her affection and in duty’s name she declined. He was tall, a man who towered over even Viego and was built like solid stone. His long hair was tied back out of his face and the faint shadow of a beard growing more defined showed his own exhaustion.
Kalista stiffened, her chest tightening as she looked up at him, feeling something, like water, building up in her throat. “I lied to you,” she blurted out.
His lips parted, furrowing his brow but she didn’t allow him to speak.
“Some time ago you came to me and offered me your affection. I refused,” she said, her words tumbling out of her suddenly in a flood to match the building the pressure behind her eyes. “I told you, I told myself, it was duty that demanded it. My uncle would never approve, it was undignified, it got in the way of training, and battle, and reason. But that was a lie. Viego could not be bothered to refuse us and the only thing my feelings for you stood to cloud was my own mind. I hid behind him and the demands of the court. But Viego is dead. I can no longer hide in his shadow. I--Ledros can you ever forgi--?”
The commander didn’t wait for her to finish that last sentence, pulling her into a tight embrace. “Kalista,” he whispered. “There is nothing to forgive.”
She stood there in silence, a moment of hesitation before looking up at him again and reaching out to take his face in her hands. She did not love like Viego had. It was not this all consuming thing that ruled her thoughts and actions. But looking at him, feeling his arms around her, the idea that it had consumed him as it had made just a little more sense.
Kalista lifted up on the balls of her feet to meet his lean down to her, kissing him. It was brief but it had the heart in her chest fluttering. She did it again, holding it longer.
“Come in?” he asked, squeezing her tighter when they parted.
She lowered back on to her feet, pressing her face back against his chest and nodding. “Yes.” Kalista stepped into the room with him, letting the door close behind them just as Ledros swept her up and into his arms.
The next morning Kalista woke up to the sound of the clock tower in town chiming to the sixth hour, her head on the commander’s chest, and one of his arms draped over her waist. A thin sheet tugged up just over her hips was all that covered their bare skin. She groaned, rubbing her eyes, something that made the man under her shift, turning onto his side, keeping her close.
“Ledros,” she said.
“We have to get up.”
A small sigh left him before he opened one eye. “What time is it?”
“Six,” she said. “Today is the funeral. Her Highness, I need to get back to her.”
Ledros’ expression strained, running his hand down the back of her head. “I know. How is she?”
Kalista sat up, sitting on the edge of the bed as shook her head. “She is...unwell. She keeps up a brave face but you and I both know what’s to come. I worry.”
“She has you,” he said. “And she has me. I’ll defend you both until my last breath.”
A small smile formed on her face. “I am grateful,” she said. “You have her Highness to thank for this, however. It was she who reminded me that denying this would only end in tragedy.”
The commander sat up, shifting the mattress under them and hugged her from behind. “Don’t disappear on me Kalista. Our fate is not sealed. We have options left to us and I cannot go back to denial.”
“Nor I,” she said, placing her hands over his arms. “But though I have you, our Queen has been robbed of what we’ve been given. And she bears a bigger burden, I fear. We must keep her safe.”
“We will. I swear on the life of our king I will not let any harm come to her.”
“Thank you,” she said, turning around. “Forgive me, won’t you, I have to go.”
Ledros pressed a kiss to her lips before he let go. “If you must. But--” he said, getting up and going to his desk. “Will you accept this now?” he asked, holding up the pendent he had offered her at his confession.
Kalista felt red rise back to her cheeks seeing it and now him, in daylight. “Y-yes, I will.”
He smiled and sat back down beside her, draping it around her neck and fastening it. “Off you go then. Her highness needs you beside her.”
The general hugged him once more as she finished getting dressed and left a kiss on his cheek before she left, closing the door softly and looking around as she stepped into the corridor, hurrying to her own room to get dressed.
Kalista placed her hand over the pendant as she went down the hall, guilt burning in the back of her chest now. Guilt, and regret. Not for Ledros. There was nothing in her that regretted being beside him after all this time, but rather that she sought his comfort last night of all nights. They drowned their sorrows together on the night before her uncle’s funeral when she knew that there was no such respite for their Queen. She was alone and facing down what was another day in a series of worst days of her life.
It was shameful. She was not so emotional, not like Viego. And yet...this nightmare of three weeks that didn’t end neither when she closed her eyes nor opened them had every last seam of herself unravelling. It was maddening. Seeking out Ledros was all that could have put it all to rest for one night.
As she closed the door to her own room, Kalista leaned up against the wood, taking a deep breath. Not today. The wine had let too much of what she’d spent her entire life trying to contain spill out, but it would not continue today. She had a duty to perform and no greater day to see it done. She got changed, tucking her pendant under the collar of her dress as she stared into the mirror. How she detested dressing this way. Viego would laugh at her for it. He wouldn’t recognize her. Would he recognize any of them? No, he wouldn’t. Kalista pulled the dress back off, going for her armor. She was the King’s Spear. This was the last time she could call herself that, she had better look the part.
Across the palace Isolde woke with a start, jumping in bed, looking around in a momentary panic. “Viego?” she called out searching the other side of the bed for him, finding nothing. The knowledge that reality was no less cruel than nightmares settled quickly. More so than the day before and the day before that. Isolde gripped the sheets on his half of the bed, lowering her head to them. She had not touched his pillow since he died. Laying beside it, if she closed her eyes, she could almost see him. It smelled like him, like the cologne he wore. The old glass bottle still sat in the closet. She hadn’t touched that either. Knowing she could put him back beside her with just a drop was too heavy a thought. She feared getting used to it, losing it for good when it was gone.
But this morning she knew what waited for her in a few short hours. Isolde pulled his pillow into her grasp and breathed in deeply, his scent dulling the ache in her chest for just a moment.
Her hand went to her stomach, running her palm along it gently. “Darling,” she whispered, keeping her eyes closed. “I had a dream of you. We were walking in the gardens like we used to when we first met. And our child, she, we had a daughter, and you had her up on your shoulders. And it was...so lovely,” she said with a momentary smile that quickly twisted down. “But then the both of you were gone. I looked everywhere. I--” she stopped, unwilling to speak of the emptiness that stretched out before her. She opened her eyes against the fabric of the pillow and swallowed back the tightness in her throat. “Watch over us, darling, please.”
Isolde let go of the pillow, straightening it back into its place and sitting up, getting out of bed just as there was a knock on the door. “Come in,” she said.
The door opened and in stepped Kalista, dressed in her ceremonial armor. “Good morrow your Highness.” she said.
Isolde felt another wave of relief wash over her, the tenseness in her shoulder giving out. “Good morrow, Kali…” she said, smiling as she noticed a few details out of place. The Queen walked up to her. “The Commander?” she asked, eyeing the pendant around her neck.
Kalista blushed, nodding, going to pull down the cloth around her neck to tuck it away, revealing a red mark on her neck that made Isolde’s smile brighten. She reached to touch her skin without thinking. The general jumped at the sudden touch, and looked down. “Forgive me, my lady.”
She shook her head. “I’m happy. You deserve happiness and you look rested.”
“You do not,” she spat out, taking Isolde a bit by surprise, but only making the smile on her face falter for a moment.
“I can sleep when we put him to rest,”
“I will be fine Kalista,” she said. “Trust me, will you not?”
There was a moment of hesitation before she nodded. “Yes, your Highness.”
Isolde went for the closet, taking down another black gown, with the green accents. She stared at it, felt it and the breathing silence in this place stare back. This nightmare, today would only mark it’s next chapter. One that would seek more than just her husband’s life this time. She felt sick. “Kali?”
“Yes?” she answered.
Isolde gripped the dress, her hands shaking. She didn’t want to put this on. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t fine. Isolde let out a shaky breath. “Will you walk with me? Please? I cannot do this alone.” Behind her she heard footsteps. Isolde couldn’t help it to turn and hug her, shaking in her arms.
“Yes,” she said, holding her. “I swear on Viego’s life, I won’t leave your side. Neither today, nor tomorrow, never.”
The Queen forced a smile that no one could see and nodded. “Thank you, Kali, thank you.”
Welcome to chapter 2! I hope you enjoyed it. It was originally going to be much longer but I thought this a good stopping point. Next chapter will cover more lead up and the big choice Isolde makes itself!
Edit: this chapter now includes art from @Ekko_tv on twitter! Thank you so much for drawing this. It made my day.
Chapter 3: The Silence
The day of the funeral arrives and leaves Isolde and Kalista no more prepared for what is to come than before. In the face of knowing certain death or a life of running awaits them Isolde begins to search something, anything that might save them.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Today of all days the silence that was born in the wake of Viego’s death was louder than ever. While her handmaiden draped the black veil over face she could feel it, and how it made a home for itself in the back of her throat and in her ears. And even as Kalista came to her side with her hand firmly on her shoulder and said, “Are you ready your Highness?” The silence didn’t disperse. It simply absorbed it. Leaving only the assumption of words for either of them to hear.
“Yes,” she said, standing up and turning to face her friend.
Kalista’s arm came back around her shoulder guiding her from the room and down the corridor, guards following just behind. The silence had only grown in these last three weeks. It was no longer bound to the confines of their room. It spread, swallowing everything and all it could. Even as they came to the steps where the city gathered for the funeral procession, the hollowness of his death took it all.
Waiting for them was Ledros, who walked with them on her other side. The three of them came to the edge of the overlooking platform and then down the rest of the stairs each of them mounting their horses and passing through the crowd, following the platform that she knew held her husband’s body. It took digging her nails into her palm to keep herself from trying to see him.
An open view of the fallen was customary in Camavor. She’d been told this. It was the public and the family's last chance to see their loved ones before they were sealed away to await the following life. She could not help but find horror in it all. It was strange and in her mind, cruel. She did not want to see her husband’s face. It was not him. It was a husk, an abandoned nest for his soul. It carried none of his warmth, his gentleness, or wit. It was not how she wanted to remember him. As painful as it remained, her last memory of him was still a hopeful smile and a promise for a night under the stars.
Isolde swallowed a brief threat of stomach acid and kept her head lowered, following just the edge of the platform and watching their people stand on the street sides, candles in hand as they passed. They were equal parts a comfort and an insult. Few here knew him and as they rode by the houses of nobility it was even fewer still that mourned. They hated her husband. They hated her . They hated what she was and what he sought to do, enough to see him killed for it. Isolde was not stupid, nor was she blind. She knew many more than just whom she’d seen put to death would have paid for that knife, and likely did. It would not surprise her, in fact, if nearly all of them had tossed a coin or two to this treason. And yet they dared to stand at his precession and dab dry cheeks.
Again, Isolde gripped the reins and dug into her palm to keep and even face. It would not be much longer. The burial itself was not public. She needed to only ride till then.
And slowly that moment came where they arrived at the docks. Isolde was helped off her horse and brought on the ship with his body. Others joined one by one. Kalista, Ledros, the Commander of the Iron Order, Hecarim, and a few servants Isolde trusted boarded the ship.
“My lady,” Kalista called, guiding her further on, towards the wall, away from Viego’s body.
Isolde looked out toward the horizon and the rising sun. Still she held her breath, feeling the silence, like a wall behind them. It would follow them to the Island. Isolde had to wonder if it would follow her for the rest of her life. Her hand went to her stomach absentmindedly.
“Do you want to go inside, ladies? It will be about two hours before we reach shore,” the voice of Ledros joined them.
Isolde shook her head, turning to look at him as the ship left the bay. “I’ve not left the palace in nearly a month. I would like to stay out here for just a bit,” she said. “Care to stay out here with us, Commander?”
He glanced to Kalista who offered him a small nod and smile. “Yes, your Highness, if I may.”
The two women shifted to the side, letting the Commander stand beside Kalista to join them as they watched the harbor disappear off the horizon and then turn and silently pray that land would never come, allowing them their own limbo, their own peace, for just a little bit longer.
But despite anyone’s wishes land came. And the time came again for Isolde to stare at the platform holding her husband's body and resist going to him, thinking only of that moment when he smiled, just before he died, holding on to it to fight the temptation.
Kalista took her hand once again, the two of them leading the small procession behind his body off the ship and onto the island, the Royal Tombs of Camavor.
Trees lined the walkway, enough to make you forget where you were for just a moment, though just as quickly as she might have dismissed reality it settled back in her ears. Silence. Neither bird song nor the scampering of a squirrel to disturb it. It funneled back down her throat, making it tighten. The reprieve of seagulls and waves could not be further behind them as they came to the only building on this island. Stained glass, grand archways, the same striking lines of the palace. It resembled a temple, one of worship for the gods most in Camavor held in reverence. Isolde admitted she knew little to nothing of it, other than the strong and unwavering belief in rebirth these gods promised. And this, this specific temple was to house the bodies of Camavor’s most treasured; the kings and their loved ones, with the solemn prayer that they would rise again in the next waking world to rule and guide Camavor in whatever lay ahead. Viego’s brother was buried here, as was his father, mother, and so many more before them. Now he would find rest here as well.
The doors to the temple were pulled open and they continued inside. Passing under the archways and the inscription that read “ And you will reign again at my side .”
But not hers .
The thought passed suddenly and noticeably through her mind, making her grip Kalista’s hand tighter. Something she returned as they entered.
As Isolde’s eyes adjusted to the darkness she saw the light filtering in through the stained glass windows cascading along the tombs, lighting them up with fragments of color. The first six generations were here. A statue and plaque on their stone coffin. At the front, under the largest window with the most dazzling colors was the first king in Viego’s family. His carved image lay with a sword in his grasp as all the others, but the colors made him appear ethereal.
They passed by his coffin to another entryway and staircase, taking them down to another level and then five more. Viego was the forty second king to find rest here. And he would be the last. The dynasty was done. There was no more family to take up the reins. As worthy as Kalista was she would never rule. And Isolde...she shook her head, banishing the thoughts for the time being. These were thoughts she wanted to consider as little as the reality that this would be the last time she would see her Viego, at least in this life.
They brought his body to the front of the room. It was empty, and would be reserved for the final person on the floor but there would be no one to follow him. He was to be the last page in this chapter of Camavor.
Viego’s body was placed on top of the stone coffin, in his hands a sword, like the statues, but it was not his sword, not the sword forced on him by his brother’s death. She was equally saddened and relieved to not see it. This life was never meant to be his. It killed him. And even being the final heir to the throne he was not granted this. Isolde bit the inside of her lip. Just the last in a long line of insults to the man she loved.
The men carrying his body stepped to the side, kneeling to allow them to approach. She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to see him hollow and empty. She didn’t want to say goodbye.
Kalista leaned in, whispering. “This is our last chance, my lady.”
“He is not there anymore,” she said.
The General nodded, squeezing her hand. “It is up to you.”
She paused. “Come with me...please?”
Kalista gave her another nod, taking the first step that she followed. Together they approached his body and stood over him.
He was dead. There was nothing to deny that. He was stiff and pale. She could not pretend he was asleep. Her husband slept tangled up in sheets and her. He was dead.
Isolde sucked in a shaky breath feeling all the tears she thought had dried up, suddenly welling up again and instantly spilling over. “My love,” she whispered, reaching for him and touching his cold hand. It made her jump, but she didn’t pull away.
The Queen lowered herself onto her knees, resting her face against his sleeve, one last time. “I’ll take care of our child, my love,” she said, barely even a whisper. “Please, watch over us, give me strength to raise her, tell her how wonderful you were, and how much you would have loved her.”
There was nothing to answer, not his voice, and not even a feeling. Truly he was gone and the only thing to disturb this silence was the sound of her trying not to cry, a splinter that even it could not drown out.
The trip back to Alovedra was equally quiet as the trip there. Their final goodbyes left Isolde more or less exhausted. Kalista was too. She could see it in how little of the usual formality she was willing to display. The two of them sat side by side half asleep like they’d been up all night with their heads leaned together.
Ledros sat next to them like a guard, allowing them just a little peace. Isolde appreciated it. She was exhausted. The weight of his death was not lifted but with him laid to rest she could no longer hold up the front. Hunger, exhaustion, the physical aching of her body from neglecting her pregnancy. It all wracked her body into near unconsciousness. Still she prayed to the gods their child was fine. She had to be fine…
Just as the boat docked heavy footsteps came into the room, making both the women open their eyes and sit up straight.
“Your Highness, General, Commander, we’ve arrived,” the man said.
Isolde looked up at him. Commander of the Iron Order, Hecarim. She hadn’t spoken much with him, despite him being among Viego’s inner circle.
Kalista was back on her feet in an instant, Isolde followed suit, following her to the door where she stood to the side, letting her pass. She and Ledros walked behind her, back up to the deck and on to the docks where servants were waiting to bring them back to the palace.
Hecarim stood patiently against the stone wall, stepping beside her, as they walked. “My Lady, I hope you’ll forgive my absence in these difficult times,” he said. “My men and I returned from a journey out west but two days ago to hear the news of his Majesty’s passing.”
“Please don’t trouble yourself over it. There was nothing to be done,” she said, watching him out of the corner of her eye. He was smiling. It was a smile she knew well by now, like those of the court when insults were thinly veiled as compliments.
“King Viego was an inspiration to all of us in the Iron Order. I know you and I are not especially acquainted but he and I were quite close once I took up my post as commander,” he said.
Behind the veil Isolde’s eyebrows furrowed, her lips creasing into a frown. Isolde knew who was close. She knew who wasn’t. Part of her husband’s inner circle he might be, but not by choice. The Iron Order was a necessary part of the kingdom, enforcers of law by the sword and spear. Or at least that’s how it was explained to her. How necessary they were was evident in Isolde’s mind by how little Viego called on him during their marriage.
“I see. Thank you for standing with my husband, Commander,” she said.
“But of course, your Highness. Please, if you have any need for me or my men, we are at your service,” he said, stopping at the end of the docks.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ledros approach, stepping up beside her. “My lady,” he said. “General Kalista and I will escort you back to the palace. If you will excuse us Commander Hecarim,” he said.
She watched the smile on Hecarim’s face strain for a moment and heard him sigh. “Of course. I dare not keep you from your duties, my Lady. Be well. And remember The Order is here to serve you,” he said, taking her hand and bowing his head, leaving a kiss on her knuckles that made a horrible shiver go up Isolde’s spine before he turned and left, heading off down the road.
Ledros scowled. The two of them turned her away, back towards home where they continued along the narrow side street. “Be weary of that one, your Highness,” he said. “His intentions are far from honorable.”
“Ledros, Hecarim is a soldier of great renown, what issue could you possibly take with him?” Kalista demanded.
“If it were only the efficiency with which a man held a spear that his merit were judged I’d take no issue at all, my dear. But that man is a snake. I have heard how he speaks of battle when his tongue is a little looser. He is not our ally. He will back any ruler so long as they allow him to kill without consequence,” he hissed. “I’d have neither of you near him, especially with what’s to come.”
Isolde bit her lip, nearly drawing blood this time at just the thought. How long did they have, she wondered. How long before the city became a battleground? An even better question was how long did she have until she could no longer hide their child?
“My lady,” Kalista’s voice dragged her back from her thoughts, all but making her jump.
“Yes,” she said, realizing she was halfway up a set of stairs, a back entrance to the palace that she and Viego used quite a bit when they snuck off to have some time out in the city.
“There is a feast being held in Viego’s honor tonight, a celebration for his life. But truthfully neither I nor Ledros have any intention of attending. You’ve done your duty to appear publicly today. I’m sure no one is going to question it should you decide to be absent. Would you care to join us for dinner? Something a little more private?” she asked.
A small smile came to Isolde’s face. “Will you forgive me another night for stealing Kalista’s attention, Ledros?”
The commander laughed, the first genuine one she’d heard in weeks. “Aye, I shall. Tonight is a night to remember his Majesty. I’d not have it without you, my Lady.”
Isolde nodded and continued up, through a gate and past the guards into the palace where the three of them went to change and then met again in a small study that had a balcony overlooking the bay.
Isolde arrived there after Kalista but before the commander. Her friend was sitting out on the balcony, getting to her feet when she entered, and coming back inside.
“Forgive me for taking so long, I needed to take care of something,” she said, that something being a horrible wave of nausea that had her needing to lay down for a short while. Truly her days of ignoring of feigning perfect health were over.
Kalista did not ask questions, though she could see them in her eyes, she instead lead her to a seat by the fireplace and bookshelves. “Ledros has duties to tend to before he can join us, regardless. Worry not. It’s still early. I don’t believe you’ve been here before have you?”
She shook her head, sitting down across from Kalista who had fetched three wine glasses. “No, I have not, though I’m sure I don’t even know what even half the palace is, even over a year later.”
The general chuckled, twisting the cork out of a bottle of wine, pouring them both a glass. “This is my study. I come here when I need a break after training, or from Viego ruining my very last nerve. But, yes--that was always the best part growing up here. Viego and I could get lost for hours, running from room to room. This place is a maze even to those who know every nook and cranny, I assure you.”
Isolde laughed, reaching for her glass and clinking it to Kalista’s but not drinking. “I can only imagine what growing up in a place like this was like.”
“What was growing up in Noiah like?” she asked, taking a sip of her wine, leaning back against the cushions.
Isolde’s smile strained a bit. She and Viego were the only two to ever have the courtesy of calling her country by name. It was one of the things that struck her that day they first met in the toy store. Isolde looked back to her friend. She was dressed not so different from that day. Kalista was not one for the finery that one might expect out of a royal. She wore trousers instead of skirts, simple but well made tunics, sturdy riding boots. All of it was just as straightforward as she was, although now she had Ledros’ pendant around her neck. That much had changed since then. “Noiah is peaceful. We’re craftsmen. I’m not sure how much you know--”
“Beyond the details of Camavor’s acquisition, very little. I’m sure you’ve figured out by now we care very little for what territories do so long as they do it under our name and our coin.”
“Oh I remember that . My father came in the house that day after going into town, raising up a storm about how Camavor was having us hand in our coins for Camavoran gold, silver, and bronze,” she laughed, her hand over her mouth. “ Eilis, this is it , he said. I told you one day they gonna wipe us right off the map here !” Isolde lowered her voice to mimic her father.
Kalista sputtered into her drink. “Gods, how old were you?”
“Young, the war was before I was born, and it’s as you said we were left unbothered for years. And my country didn’t exactly fight back much either. Bigger fish to fry, as they say.”
“That much I know. My grandfather said that Noiah was Camavor’s easiest conquest in three hundred years, with nearly no resistance.”
Isolde nodded. “Camavor was more a blessing to us in the end. We benefited from it more than most, I imagine. Trade improved slightly. There was a school built in the village.”
“Did you go?” she asked.
“I walked two hours every day to town and sat at my little desk,” she said, putting her hands on her lap, folded neatly, as if she was right back there, sitting on the bench. “We learned all about Camavor and our benevolent rulers.”
Kalista choked again. “I would have paid you any amount of money to say that to my father. The look on his face would have been worth its weight in gold.”
It was Isolde’s turn to laugh genuinely for the first time in a while. “It is true! We learned about you, and about Alovedra. Not too long after that lesson said royal family paid our humble territory a visit. It was because...your father came to power,” she said, snapping her fingers once it came to her. “There was a parade and you and Viego rode behind your father. My friends and I were up on a roof, watching you pass.”
Kalista made a loud humming noise into her wine now, placing it down. “That trip was miserable. Viego and I were practically kept under lock and key the entire time. My father feared we’d run off and get kidnapped in the forest.”
“Would you have run off?”
Isolde threw her hand back over her mouth as she laughed. “Oh if only...if I’d run into you and Viego back then. I would have lost my mind. My friend Anya thought your father was the most beautiful man alive!”
The general had to catch her breath for a moment, waving her hand in a frantic stop, stop , tears slipping out of the corners of her eyes. “Gods, and to think that’s essentially what happened. Viego wandered off and got swept up by a woman.”
“In a toy store.”
“In a god’s forsaken toy store…”
At that moment the door opened and in stepped Ledros who was dressed equally casually, but not without at least a small blade on his hip. “Late to the party, am I ladies?”
They shook their heads, Kalista waving him over.
Ledros came to join them, taking a seat in the middle chair, between the two couches. The general poured him a glass of wine that he tapped to theirs.
“To Viego,” he said.
“To Viego,” they repeated. Kalista and Ledros drank, Isolde only stared into hers, lowering it back to her lap. She shouldn’t. It was rude and even if Kalista didn’t seem to notice she could see Ledros eye her for a moment. But before she could make any excuse, her friend spoke again.
“We were talking about her Highness’ homeland. As it happens we’ve all crossed paths more than once before we knew each other.”
“Kali, for the love of the gods,” She groaned, leaning her head back, and then pulling off her crown, dropping it on the table. “Isolde, my name is Isolde! I’ve not heard anyone say it in over a week. I am no queen here. There is only Isolde now.”
The smile on Kalista’s face strained for a moment but only just before it turned back to that teasing smile she’d grown to know. “Isolde, what I want to know even more is what you thought the first time Viego brought you here ?”
“You mean after we were engaged and offended every noble in Camavor?” she asked.
Kalista nodded with another sip of her wine.
Isolde smiled down at her drink. “D-did Viego ever tell you how he proposed?” she asked.
Kalista’s brow furrowed. “I was there. Ledros was there. Half the city was there. I remember the whole thing, the whole spectacle. I couldn’t forget it even if I wished to.”
Isolde, tipped back her wine glass, taking just one sip for liquid courage as she shook her head. “No, no. I mean the first time.”
Again Kalista’s eyebrows furrowed, Ledros’ to match. “The first time?” she repeated.
Isolde took one more sip before placing the glass down and pushing it away. “That day with the whole thing , as you put it, was not the first time I was in the palace, nor was it the first time Viego asked for my hand,” she said with a big grin on her face.
Kalista sat back in her seat a moment, her own grin appearing on her face. “He snuck you in here?”
Once more Isolde shook her head. “No, though not for lack of trying. I snuck in here. I scaled the wall, fell in line with a few servants and found out where his room was and surprised him. He had a terrible day, wrote me to say he had to cancel our date. So I decided I would do something stupid, and come to him.”
Both Kalista and Ledros sat with their mouths hanging open, not a word from either of them until Kalista erupted in booming laughter. “The both of you! How impulsive and reckless could you be? Utterly made for each other! Only a woman that loved Viego would risk her life to cheer him up. You would have been killed, Isolde!”
“Some people are worth risking it all,” she said, looking away. “I just wanted to be beside him. Always. Sometimes I feared he would do away with me in those first few months, that if I couldn’t keep up he would just find someone else, someone not so...unfit for his company. He swore up and down that he wanted no one else. Offered to bring me here more times than I could count but I always declined. I told him if he would come to me one time without the cloak on and said he loved me I would believe him. The very next day he did. Granted he left the crown off and was not dressed as king but to see him do that for me--I never openly doubted him again, I only thought that one day no matter our love we would be separated. A girl like me doesn’t marry a king... ”
Kalista’s mix of amazement and anger fell off her face. She got up and sat down beside her, pulling her back to her shoulder. Ledros also came to sit on the same couch. “I would have seen you two grow old together. No one else would have ever made him happy, Isolde.”
Isolde smiled into Kalista’s shoulder, taking her hand. “I wanted to live and die with him. With all my heart. I still do”
“I know. I know…”
A year and a half before tragedy struck stupidity did not even begin to cover what Isolde was attempting. She stood outside the door of the king, her lover, and wondered what in the name of the gods she was doing. She’d lost it, surely. Sneaking into the royal palace, talking her way around guards and servants till she learned where to go and now she stood in front of his door, knowing full well that her beloved was behind it.
His letter that came in the afternoon sat in her apron. In it he begged her forgiveness for having to cancel, promising her the sun, moon, and stars in a few days when he would be able to see her again. She’d never heard him so upset, and stressed. It hurt to simply read the words. Isolde resolved herself, looking at his frantic handwriting. If he could not get away to see her, she would go see him.
But now standing here in front of his door, hand ready to pull it open, she wondered if she was not making a mistake. What if...what if he didn’t want to see her? What if he threw her out or, called the guards, or worse ? Isolde looked up and down the hallways one more time, taking in a deep breath. She was here and although she was far from certain of her choice she knew that this was what she wanted to do. Sense be damned this was her resolve. This was for him.
Isolde tugged open the door and stepped inside. It was dark where she stood. Oil lamps lit up much of the rest of the room although most of it was concentrated at a desk, pushed up against the far right corner where he sat with his head down. Curtains were still pulled back, the doors to the balcony were open with the ocean air blowing through them. His bed was a mess, his proper clothes thrown on the floor and over a chair. He sat in only a tunic and his trousers, even his crown lay off to the side. Her poor Viego...
She took one step before she stopped again, hearing him groan. “For the love of the gods do you not know how to knock?” he demanded, but did not look up. “My order for quiet the rest of the night applies to everyone. Get out.”
The sharpness in his voice made her jump. He’d never spoken to her like that. Even when they bickered those few times he never raised his voice. Isolde hesitated. This was foolish. Not to mention dangerous. She should leave. But...she couldn’t. She kept going, walking across the floor, coming just behind him, opening her mouth to call to him only to have no words come out.. Isolde took a few more steps. If she could just touch him, he would know.
Viego sat up, his posture stiffening. “Are you deaf? I said get--” he whirled around to see her, standing there, with her hand outstretched to touch him. He stopped, the anger on his face falling away instantly, his pupils shrinking.
Isolde’s hand came back to her chest, her heart pounding. “My love…”
The king stood up, nearly knocking his chair over as he looked down at her. He glanced from the door and back to her, his hands out stretching.
“I--I missed you. And your letter, you sounded so upset. I worried about you. I thought that you--that you would be happy if I came,” she said. “So I did. My love--”
Viego grabbed her face, pulling her into a sudden and intense kiss, instantly moving to hold her, squeeze her waist and work up into her hair.
Isolde threw her arms around his neck, kissing him and holding tight, just happy to be back in his embrace. “Veigo,” she sighed, between their lips.
“My darling, my love--” He lifted her up, spinning them around. He kissed her face, her head, her neck, back to her lips. “You came to me? You did this for me? Do you love me so much? Truly? My darling Isolde risked herself to come to me?”
Isolde squeezed him tight, nodding against his neck. “I would do anything for you, my king, for I love you enough to conquer all of Camavor itself.” she said, pulling back just enough to see his face. He had tears in his eyes, and still he looked so tired but never had she seen a brighter smile on his face.
Viego laughed, twirling her around again before sweeping her back up bridal style and carrying her to his bed where he pressed her down, hovering over her with nothing but joy in those once hollow eyes of his. “My lady, neither war nor the end of the world itself will ever keep me from you again!”
“Then have I earned your love tonight?” she asked.
“You have always had it,” he said, pressing another deep kiss to her lips.
This was not the first time he made love to her. Far from it. But perhaps this was the most passionate. He drowned her in his affection for hours. The whole time he whispered his devotion to her in her ear, saw that every last bit of her knew his kisses, his touch. It was pure euphoria, happiness like she’d never known to have him like this. He loved her. He loved her so much. And so did she.
In the earliest hours of the morning as they lay spent at each other’s sides Isolde hung on the edge of sleep when she felt his hands on her waist again, pulling her back against his chest. He hummed in her ear, leaving a kiss on her cheek.
“No,” she groaned, turning further away. “Viego, I can barely move.”
“Mm come here my love. You are so beautiful,” he whispered, leaving kisses up and down her neck.
Isolde giggled, pushing him back. “Viego! It is late. I cannot stay much longer. Hold me for what time we have left won’t you?”
He held her, his hands in her hair as he fought for another kiss. “No, my love. Stay. I’d have you never leave my side again,” he said. “I cannot let you go. Never. Let me know the joy of my Isolde beside me come morning light. ”
She giggled again, tugging him on top of her, pressing his face between her breasts, going to carve lines back through his hair. “And what am I to do then? Stay here in your room till the end of days? Where would you have me?”
Viego hummed contently, leaving little kisses over her heart and then pausing. He raised his head, a new look on his face, one she knew well. He’d thought of something.
“I am not living in your room, Viego,” she said.
He shook his head, reaching for her face, caressing it gently. “Marry me,” he said.
Isolde felt all the air leave her lungs. “Viego…”
“Marry me, Isolde. Be my wife, my Queen! Never would I see sadness cast its shadow over you again if there was never any need for it!”
Her lips parted, only able to stare up at him. His wife. Her husband. Words reserved for her daydreams. “Darling y-you cannot mean that,” she whispered.
Viego kissed her, holding her tight to him. “I have always wished for it. I only waited for when I could make it true, my love. But to hell with plans. Do you not wish us together?”
“Of course I do, but--”
“Then say yes, be my mine--”
“Be my Queen!”
“Stop!” she pushed him back, tears slipping down her face. Isolde stood up, hugging her own waist, and sweeping her hair back. “Stop, please not another word, my love. Do not promise me what can never be ours.”
“Please!” she cried, looking up at him. She could see the heart breaking in those blue eyes of his. And indeed she felt it in her own chest. “Do not think for one second I do not want this. I love you so much. I would die for it, Viego. But I am just a peasant girl! And I am no daughter of Camavor. The court that has mocked you, been ashamed of you, shoved you in a corner nearly all your life, would they accept a low-born Noian girl for their queen? Would they bow to her?”
“Darling, please don’t say such things.” Viego got up, reaching for her. She stepped back. His touch had been her comfort for ten months, always she wanted it. But now? It was a reminder. This could never be real like they wanted it. Fairytales, the stories they wove together, did not come true no matter how many times they wished on falling stars. And they certainly did not come true for someone like her. Not in Camavor.
“I am sorry my love,” she said, reaching for her clothes and haphazardly throwing them on, tying back her hair while he only stood there and watched.
“Dearest,” he said, taking her hand as she went to go, trying one last time to pull her back. He was crying, shaking. “Please, do not leave me…”
Isolde felt her whole body tremble. This isn’t what she wanted. She wanted that life, that promise, she wanted him . But she knew better than most how he was treated and never in her wildest dreams could she see a future where this country bowed to anyone but themselves. “Forgive me,” was all she could say before she pulled her hand away and was gone.
A week passed. But it could have been a year and Isolde would have never known the difference. It was something she always felt around him. Time slipped, and weaved around her like a breeze. Months and minutes passed in reverse of each other. But now there was no joy to be had in it. She had left. And with that departure, left him. She’d not seen him, not received a letter, nothing. Silence was all that was left and it tore her apart. Every day she told herself she’d made the wrong choice, and five minutes later she became sure of it again. It revolved and repeated endlessly and not even sleep gave her reprieve. He waited for her there in her dreams. Always, she was so relieved. He held her and kissed her and made her swear to never leave his side again. And she swore. But when her eyes opened the ceiling of her small apartment was quick to remind her of what she had denied, and the empty space beside her equally willing to tell her what she would never have again.
Isolde threw herself back into her work. Sewing, on more than one occasion, until she passed out at her desk, only to have Antonio wake her early the next morning.
“Go upstairs, my girl,” he said just a few hours earlier. “Your fingers may be numb to the pricks of needles but not your heart. Rest and come back when you are ready.”
Up the steps she went. But little rest found her. Instead she resolved to spend some time on her dolls, but even that could not hold her attention for long before she found herself staring out the window. Her mind drifted and wandered back to him, long enough to make her smile before she caught herself and returned to her work. After the fourth repetition Isolde threw down her needle and thread and put her head in her hands, crying out. She missed him. She missed him so much.
The seamstress lowered her arms and head down on to her desk, shutting her eyes. She needed sleep. For just a few minutes she should try again to sleep. But as she rubbed her face against her sleeve she became acutely aware of all the noise out on the street. She’d heard it for a little bit now. Music, and people. They were laughing, carrying on with excitement in their voices. It made her press harder against her arm until she saw white behind her eyelids.
A festival. Antonio hadn’t mentioned such a thing. She should be down there to help if it got busy she should--she should be there with Viego. A kingdom festival with him. They were always the most fun, dancing and running around the streets where with just a hood over his head they blended right in.
Isolde groaned, slamming her forehead against the desk now, but the ability to push the thoughts out of her head was growing slimmer by the minute with the music getting louder. More people were in the street now and more musicians. Above the flutes now she could hear fiddles, and drums starting to take up the beat. A smile betrayed her. Those songs were always her favorite. If Viego wasn’t playing his guitar for her she loved nothing more than a fiddler in the tavern. He would pull her to her feet and spin her around, stepping to match the slide from one note to the next. Her foot started tapping despite her best efforts. The song felt familiar. Comforting, enough that she was even humming just a bit.
People were clapping along now, laughing, it turning to gasps and excited cries as the song seemed to be reaching its height. They were yelling something in time to their claps. “Gods!” Isolde threw herself back in her chair. It was practically right outside her window. But no sooner was she about to get up then there were frantic footsteps running up the stairs and then knocking on her door before it flung open, her coworker, Pia rushing in, out of breath.
“Isolde! You need to get down there!”
“Are we that busy?” she asked, getting to her feet, rubbing her eyes.
Pia shook her head, grabbing her hand and dragging her to the window, flinging them open and pushing her all but out of them to see the biggest crowd she’d ever seen outside of the market gathered outside on the street. Musicians, flowers, the perfect setting for a festival, except, on a platform erected right in front of their shop there he stood. The King of Camavor, Viego, her Viego.
The crowd roared when she came into view and Isolde’s knees very nearly gave out at the sight. Now she realized, she understood, they were chanting her name. And this song, it was one of his. The fiddles, her favorite instrument, the flowers, all ones she loved. And him, her beloved, with such a beautiful smile on his face.
“Isolde my love!” he cried out to her. “Come down here my darling, won’t you?”
The seamstress grabbed for the fabric of her dress over her heart. He did this...for her. He called for her even after everything. Isolde gasped, and fell back down, ducking under the window sill with her hand over her mouth to stop herself from crying out in joy.
“Isolde, that is King Viego! You must go down there!”
She must. But her legs were shaking so terribly she knew not how she would stand. But her coworker didn’t let another moment pass before she grabbed Isolde’s hand once again and tugged her to her feet, dragging her down the steps and out the door where the crowd cheered again at her appearance.
“My love!” Viego cried, extending his hand. “My darling come to me!”
She nodded, the crowd parting as she ran and was then lifted onto the platform to stand beside him, and brought into a tight embrace that had the crowd in another uproar.
Viego stepped back, however, holding his hand to the side and silencing the music, followed by a hush falling over the crowd. “Isolde,” he said, taking her hand and then lowering himself onto one knee.
She was already crying, using the sleeve on her free hand to wipe away the tears. “Yes, my love?”
“You worry about the thoughts of others and how they will see our love. I am here to tell you that their cares could not be further from my mind. I want nothing with some foreign princess. I have no need for a marriage of politics to a girl of noble birth. If I am not to marry for love, I shall not marry at all. The court will not allow us? They will not bow to you? My darling, my word is law and should I wish to marry the girl I love then I shall. I need only for her to say yes.” Hope and that unmistakable look of adoration lit up his eyes. Gone was all the pain and hurt she’d seen in him that day they met and that morning a week ago. “Marry me Isolde of Noiah! Marry me and be my queen!” he exclaimed, loud enough for everyone to hear, and then more quietly. “Won’t you?”
Isolde nodded, practically breaking down into full sobs. “Yes! I will!” she cried, throwing herself back into his arms where he held her and then in front of everyone, members of the court, guards, nobles, and peasants alike, he kissed her sending a new wave of cheers and applause through the crowd as the music picked up again. All of it fell away around her however, as Viego, the man she loved, held her tight.
That morning where he swept her off her feet in her old life and brought her into this one felt a lifetime ago without him in it. She had been so happy that day. His love made him immortal, all powerful. Even the gods could not stand against them. But in reality, nothing changed. Their marriage had never been an easy road. He stood at every turn to defend his choice to have her beside him and because of it all his other choices fell under question. They weathered it all and we’re stronger for it but she wondered, not for the first time, if she had been a part of what killed him.
But they didn’t linger on such thoughts the rest of the night. They toasted to his name, ate their dinner, and spoke of all the things they loved of him, the joy he brought to their lives. Kalista recalled how it was he who pushed her to a career in the military, vouching for her when her father had refused. Ledros told the story of how on the day of Viego’s coronation he named Ledros his champion, gifting him his sword and his title. Isolde listened and wondered, even as she told her own story of how he found her journal filled with silly fairy tales and demanded to know every single detail and how they crafted those stories together from then on, she wondered if he had any idea how much they loved him.
It was a thought that continued on into the night. Ledros excused himself later on to take care of some more military business, leaving just the two of them to go sit out on the balcony like the night before.
“Do you not need to join him?” she asked as she leaned back in her seat.
“Not this time, but he asked me if he would see me in an hour or two after he was done.”
Isolde gave her a knowing smile and eyebrow raise that had Kalista blushing. “Marry him.”
Kalista genuinely choked on her drink then, leading Isolde to put her hand on her friend’s back while she tried to stifle a laugh. “Gods you sound like my mother all of a sudden!”
“Oh come now,” she laughed.
“Have you ever met my mother?” Kalista asked.
Isolde shook her head. “No, I have not,”
“Count yourself lucky,” she said.
Isolde’s smile saddened a bit. “Not the warmest of women, I take it?”
Kalista nodded with an affirmative hum into her wine glass, finishing it off. “Try frigid. My birth was her duty as my father’s wife. Viego and I are cut from the same unwanted cloth. Being born a daughter to the king is no better than being born second. But my mother could not have further children. Viego would have come to reign eventually unless I married. Which my mother was oh so kind to remind me whenever she could spare a minute to see me. Needless to say I was not in any rush .”
Isolde watched her a moment as she leaned back in her seat before she looked out over the bay, her hand moving to her stomach again. She was starting to feel it more now, the rise in her skin. She was beginning to show. “Do you...want kids?” she asked.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kalista look at her and then back out over the railing. “Would you be surprised if I said yes?”
“Not entirely,” she said, cracking a smile. “I think you’d be a better mother than you think.”
That made her smile, in a way she’d never seen, something almost shy. “I wouldn’t mind it...with him,” she whispered and then all at once shoved that look back down and looked back at her. “And you?” she asked, making the blood in Isolde’s veins run cold for a moment. “Do you want kids, Isolde?” Each word felt like a knife. And it was slow, delibrate.
She gripped the fabric of her dress over her midsection. “I...I--I don't think that kind of love has anything to do with me anymore, Kali.”
There was silence for a moment before the General got up from her seat and went back into her study a moment only to come back with Isolde’s wine glass in hand, still full, only those two sips taken from it earlier. She got down on her knees in front of her. “I have known you, Isolde, for a year and a half. And you can out drink me under the table any day of the week. But today, and yesterday, and every day in the last month, what is arguably the worst month of your life, you have refused it. You haven’t taken more than the two sips you took earlier tonight. I’ve seen how sick you are nearly every morning. Your handmaiden apparently even suggested we call for a doctor and you’ve refused. And do you really think I’ve missed those times you placed your hand over your stomach, I have not .” Kalista put the glass on the railing, taking her hands, squeezing them. “You are carrying his child are you not?”
Isolde felt a stray tear slip down her cheeks, staring at her as she questioned her. “How long have you known?” she asked.
“I’ve had my suspicions since just after Viego...fell ill,” she said. “Isolde--”
“You musn’t tell!” she said. “Kali, you musn’t!”
She frowned. “Isolde, this child could save your life.”
Isolde shook her head. “No, Kalista you know better than anyone how much a lie that is! Viego did not die, he was murdered! What would protect us as well as my child will also be what kills us. Do you think for a single second that we will not be next to find a knife in our backs even if we do step down?”
The hold on her hands tightened, as she grit her teeth. “I will protect you. I swore to. Even if--”
The queen shook her head, fighting back more tears. “Please, I don’t want anymore blood on my hands Kali. I don’t want Ledros to lose you. I do not want to lose you.”
Her eyes widened, horror seeping into them. “You did not kill Viego!” she yelled, making Isolde flinch. “Your marriage to him did not kill him. How could you even think that? Viego was killed because he--he was never supposed to be king! If anyone killed him, it...it was me…” she trailed off, lowering her head. “I could have...I could have married. I--I could have courted, gotten a husband, spared him a role he was never meant to have, but I...I didn’t want it. I never wanted to be queen. I knew Viego would have to rule eventually and I let it happen. I let him die.”
Isolde stared at her. Kalista was the strongest woman she’d ever known, not just in her skill as a fighter, but in her spirit. Nothing shook her, or cracked her resolve. In the face of tragedy and the collapse of everything she’d ever known she appeared steadfast and certain in her duties and beliefs. But it was a lie. Veigo’s death had shaken them to their core, all of them. Isolde slipped down onto the floor and pulled her in close, hesitantly taking one of her hands and slipping it down the back of her head, smoothing out her hair. At first she stiffened and then all at once seemed to let go, what felt like years of tension suddenly making her go limp in her arms.
“Forgive me,” she said. “No one should see me like this.”
“I am not Queen of Camavor right now, Kali. I’m your friend.”
“We have to run. I made a promise that we would run. Alovedra is going to collapse,” she mumbled against her shoulder. “The court has no doubt started to divide themselves already, preparing for the coup, backing the noble houses with the most power. It won’t be long. You and I will be found guilty of treason and executed, Ledros will be stripped of his title and sent to any death trap they can find. Anyone and everyone loyal to our regime will be killed and discarded. They won’t risk any exile,” she said.
“We can go to Noiah. My parents will take us in,” she said, her voice quivering.
“No, Isolde. Your people will have the chain tightened around their necks and if they are found to be harboring traitors they will torch it. Your family will be killed. You can never see them again.”
Isolde just barely swallowed down the fear in her throat, holding her friend tight. “Then what do we do? Where do we run where Camavor will not look?”
Kalista sighed, still limp against her shoulder. “I do not know.”
She laughed. Though there wasn’t a thing about it she found funny. She hadn’t been stupid enough to think it ended this morning when they buried him. But this? “This is insanity,” she muttered. “Throwing away eight hundred years of history for what ? Money, power? For a country that is built on the idea of resurrection and--” She stopped, the suddenness of it enough to make Kalista raise her head.
Before her thoughts could stray further Isolde’s attention snapped back to Kalista, her hand coming in front of her eyes, rubbing into them. “I--I’m sorry Kali. I’m a bit nauseated.”
She sat up, instantly lifting the back of her hand to her cheek and then her forehead. “Let’s get you back to your room. You need to rest. These past weeks you’ve neither slept nor eaten much at all.”
“She will be ok…” she said, getting to her feet, and returning inside the study, to collect herself before they walked back.
“Oh!” She covered her mouth, glancing to the side. “I...I had a dream, several dreams, actually, that it’s a girl. I know it is a bit silly to assume but, I just have this feeling...”
A mix of emotions swept across the General’s face, settling on something near a smile. “He would have loved a daughter…”
Isolde smiled, placing her crown back on her head. “Yes, I think so too.”
The night slowed once Isolde returned to her room. She told Kalista to go see Ledros, to worry about herself for a night and was left alone in her room with the emptiness. It kept her up. The nothing rang in her ears and she couldn’t help but try to talk to it, talk to him. But empty air that was born here swallowed everything until everything except one word was drowned out.
“For a country built on the idea of resurrection and preservation of its history, how quickly they seem to want to burn it…” she said, finishing that thought from earlier. Isolde wasn’t so sure she believed in the second life the gods of Camavor promised. It sounded like much she knew of their traditions and stories: twisted and tangled myth. But where she came from every mother knew to teach her daughter the story of The Life Quilt on her 6th birthday, and to tell her that why she must take up the needle and thread herself is that every tall tale has at least one tiny grain of truth to it.
Isolde threw off the covers and got out of bed. Resurrection. If Camavor was a country built on it’s history then history was surely written down somewhere.
She got dressed, tugging a shawl over her shoulders and reaching for a candle stick and lighting it before she left the room, making her way down the empty corridors towards the other side of the palace grounds through the courtyard. Tonight more than most nights the halls much like the streets were empty. Today was a day of mourning. To her knowledge even the market had closed in prayer for him. It gave her the privacy to make this journey in peace. She didn’t want to have to explain why she was paying such a late night visit to the library. Not that she’d be particularly compelled to provide such a thing to anyone except Kalista and possibly Ledros, though she doubted running into them so late.
The courtyard was a beautiful garden to pass through late at night. She remembered plenty of nights she and Viego sat by the pond to watch the stars. It was a peaceful place. But tonight that peace felt stiff as she passed through. She felt...watched. For most of this walk in fact she could could have sworn she felt someone near. More than once Isolde looked over her shoulder and quickened down the path, making for the entrance to the next building and pressing the door solidly behind her with a deep breath. This was...silly. And perhaps not just the fear of someone following her. Nevertheless she continued on down the corridor and into the library, lowering her candle to an oil lamp off to the side and exchanging the two.
The Royal Camavoran Library was the most impressive Isolde had ever seen. And although not the place she’s spent the most time there had been afternoons where she and Viego had gone looking for something in here, namely old fairytales of Viego’s childhood. With that in memory Isolde had a vague idea of what she was looking for and Where.
To the left and up the steps were the royal archives, records of Camavor. If this was anything other than sheer wishful thinking then this was the place to start. Isolde began walking through the stacks, weaving up and down the shelves until the bound books began to turn to scrolls and looseleaf paper that had been compiled with simple thread. Now the work began.
Slowly, scroll by scroll Isolde worked through the materials, gathering anything with mention of the Gods, of burial accounts, and traditions. When she had just about as much as she could carry she spilled everything out onto a table and lit more lamps and candles before she began to read.
1st year of King Luciano’s rule 372CE
On this, the fourteenth of the seventh month, King Rosendo has fallen in duel with his brother for right of succession. Let it be known here and throughout all record that this remains the bloodiest year in my time as keeper. Not only has their father, King Vinicio fallen to the eldest, but now three have been crowned in his place in no more than six months since their father’s death. King Luciano stands now as sole survivor of this legacy.
As the young king’s body was laid atop his tomb I considered briefly what sort of world awaits us at the end of this one. Will our kings know order or will royal blood once again be spilled on Camavoran soil in search of a true king. I fear not even The Three can tell when water has turned from blue to red.
Isolde placed this scroll aside, reaching for the next. The current age of Camavor went back nearly eight centuries. This was too late to find anything that might tie to the Gods. She needed to go back further, possibly before Viego’s family if such a thing existed.
By order of King Silvio in this the 34th year of his rule 127CE
Let it be known throughout all of Camavor that on the 17th of 8th month a festival shall be held in reverence of the second of The Three. The bounty of the land has been never brighter than this year. May the Gods bless the king, the coming harvest, and may the water run ever blue in Camavor.
She paused. Perhaps this was closer to what she needed but not by much. Isolde reached for another scroll, and scanning down the parchment again. And so on it continued this way long into the night. Scroll after scroll, one documentation after the next. The Queen’s head blurred with names and dates and words . Perhaps this was not the right angle. Documentation of the crown, although filled with reference to “The Three” noted nothing of the beliefs and not even the names of the Gods. Such steep reverence made her head spin. Godhood was such a different world here compared to Noiah. Maybe the more logical approach would be looking for actual religious texts, something written more closely to the founding of the current state of the empire.
But as she gathered her materials to return them and start again she turned around to see soft blue light coming through the window. It was nearly dawn. Time had slipped away from her and there was no more of it for this today.
Isolde packed up the scrolls and returned them to the shelves of the archives, taking her candle that was burned down with her as she walked back to her room as she went.
Servants were beginning to walk through the corridors, all of them stopping to bow their heads as she passed, which she could have done without. She felt a bit like a guilty child coming home from being out all night. Despite the looks she continued on with her head up, only stopping when she turned the corner and standing in front of her was Ledros, who immediately stepped backwards.
“Your Highness,” he said, bowing, any of that informality of the night before packed back away. “Forgive me.”
“It is fine,” she said, realizing as she spoke how exhausted she sounded, and in fact how tired she was. As if to prove it, she yawned, and went to rub her eyes. “Excuse me, it has been a long night.”
“My lady, are you feeling ill? What has you up at such an hour?”
Isolde only smiled at him, feeling the strain in her face as she did. “I just went for a walk. Don’t worry yourself. I’ll head back to bed.”
“Allow me to escort you,” he said, instantly taking up the space beside her.
“Have you not training to get to?” she asked.
“My men are self-sufficient enough to begin without me. I’ll see you back safely before getting down to the barracks.”
She nodded, there wasn’t much point in arguing when she hadn’t the energy for it. “Did Kalista sleep?”
A smile spread across the Commander’s face. “She did, all but collapsed. She said if she wasn’t careful she would have fallen asleep on your shoulder.”
Isolde giggled into her hand, which incited another yawn. “Good. She deserves to rest.”
“As do you, my lady,” he said. “I worry.”
“I will rest soon, Ledros,” she said, stopping now in front of her door. “Thank you for walking me. I had best get to bed before Kali finds me out.”
“Sleep well my lady. I’ll speak with the court to ensure you get your rest undisturbed.”
“Thank you. Good night, Ledros,” she said, going inside her room and leaning back up against it when it shut. Her eyes fell to the bed, blankets still messed from her earlier attempt at sleep. This place was not the home it used to be, but right now she was too exhausted to hear the silence that still swirled where her husband once was. Instead Isolde fell into the sheets, curling up with his pillow and hugging it tight. “Please, darling,” she whispered to him. “Watch over us, and show me where I need search if this is more than just a dream…”
The morning came late and with it not much else. Isolde was asked to attend very few of her already slim duties. The court assured her they would handle everything in these most tragic of days. She knew better. It was as Kalista said, sides were already being taken and that fake smile the court had always regarded her with felt even more like a mask when it tried to mimic her grief. She spent most of the day in a haze, when she finally woke. She went for a walk, sat out in the garden with her handmaiden, sewing, and made half-hearted attempts at eating a meal or two but Isolde’s thoughts strayed continuously to the library and the studies she’d begun the night before. Whenever her thoughts cleared long enough for a coherent thought that was what she thought of. And this did not change until a hand came over her shoulder and there stood Kalista. Only then did she become aware of the orange tint in the sky and her friend’s voice.
“Will you join us for dinner again?” she asked.
Isolde stood up, blinking away the last of the fog and hugging her. “Yes,” she answered perhaps more enthusiastically than warranted but in truth she was grateful to see her. For over a week Kalista had been at her side. Today marked the first day that she hadn’t. She’d mentioned it the night before. A visit with her mother or something to that effect. She dared not stop her but she also couldn’t deny that the only time she felt the weight of Viego’s passing lift even a little off her shoulders was when she had Kalista beside her.
The general hugged her back. “Forgive me, Isolde. I meant not to take so long,” she said.
She smiled, hearing her name despite it being a new day was something of a relief. “No it is fine, Kali.” she said, taking a step back. “How was your visit?”
Kalista grit her teeth and shook her head, guiding her out the door and towards the dining room. “Oh we shall talk of that later, not before a meal. It will only upset both our stomachs. For now, come, let’s eat. Falisa told me you barely touched your lunch this afternoon.”
“Nonsense, I ate.”
“She also said you slept till nearly noon.”
Isolde froze, her words immediately coming out in a stutter. “I--Kali, I was--”
“I am thankful you are finally getting some sleep,” she said. “You need it.”
“Ledros said you were practically asleep before your head hit the pillow.”
Kalista’s face reddened, and instantly she grabbed Isolde’s shoulder and pulled her against her, half of something that she used to see her do to Viego, the punch upside the head distinctly missing, but still enough to make her laugh. “Did he now? Does my dear Commander say anything else?”
“No-no-no! Perfect gentlemen! I swear it!”
“Good!” she said with a smile, the somewhat awkward hold turning more natural before falling off.
In the dining room Ledros was waiting for them, rising from his seat as they entered. The servants pulled out their seats and they took them, Isolde at the head.
This was not the same room that Viego had been attacked in. Isolde refused to return there, but still it felt wrong to sit at the head of the table where he once was. But before that thought could settle in her mind Ledros began to talk to her, the three of them taking up a conversation from the previous night, the past. The future was on far too shaky ground and the present, too painful to speak of. And just like the night before once Ledros had to excuse himself she and Kalista spent the rest of the night out on the balcony of her study, talking until they parted ways in front of her room and Isolde was alone once more.
This time, however, the door had not been closed more than a minute before she had her candle in hand and began her walk to the library, this time relieved that whatever she had felt watching her the night before was not there to do so tonight.
Isolde entered the library and got to work. Down a set of steps into a basement area of the library where the oldest texts in the library were kept. Most were not permitted to enter this area aside from scholars and of course, royalty. That was a privilege she could not risk slipping out of her hands with what little time she had left. Isolde raised her lamp as she scanned the shelves. Towards the back was one scroll that caught her attention. Without even unrolling it, it was beautiful to look at.
The handles were golden with sapphires that flashed against the light in her hand. Isolde placed the lantern on a hook and pulled the scroll from its place and unrolled it. The calligraphy was stunning, unlike anything she’d ever seen. This was neither the relaxed script of documentation by a member of the court nor was it the tight print of anything official. This was grand and embellished lettering.
Her eyes drifted up and down the parchment, catching at least a few mentions of the The Three. This was where she needed to start. Isolde looked out from behind the shelving and saw a few tables laid out like on the main floor. There she laid the scroll and the lantern and began to read.
--And at the end when the skies are to lose their golden shine and the seas sit even darker, The Three will return to our lands, rising those to rule and return light to sky and sea alike--
Halfway through the page she came to this. This , she was certain, was what she had been searching for the night before. This was the promise of the gods. Life after a life. And there was something else. The colors. A prayer for blue water and golden sky was repeated, and she recalled it from the documents of last night as well. In fact it was in nearly all of them
“And may the waters of Camavor run ever blue…” she repeated to herself. This had to be the answer, the lead she was looking for. This document and the ones among it, something in them, if not this one, would detail the why and perhaps more importantly the how . Even this scroll was dated in it’s corner as 72 years after the founding of Camavor. This was not the first. There had to be more. If Camavor was truly an empire blessed by gods then someone somewhere would have recorded it, even if only, in a story. She was certain of it. This would lead her to it, a way to bring him back . Isolde returned to the stacks, now, with at least some direction to point her search.
But it was not so many nights later that Isolde sat back on the ground floor, scrolls and book spread out to cover three tables that she realized that this was nothing more than a dead end. The colors were simple, sea and sky, it was reflected in the clothing of royalty. Camavor attributed its power to the gods because the founder of the country declared it so. They claimed a half dragon lineage that supposedly dated back to the founder too. And the deeply held belief in resurrection seemed to be little more than an evolution of a claim made by the third king of Camavor that they would live on past the end of days. Slowly this twisted itself over the last 800 years into what it now stood as and left Isolde, with the better part of four days wasted. This was not her answer. This was not the thing that would save them, and it would not bring him back. She sat back where she began and with less time to find her way. Or perhaps there was never anything to spend it on in the first place...
The silence that coiled around her parted for a moment as she let out a single ounce of her frustration in a sort of cry. The history of Camavor would not help her. It was a complicated and detailed web of rule and conquest but as far as she could see, ordained by gods it was not.
Isolde sat back in her seat, her hand falling over her stomach, feeling the slight raise in her body, their child. She would not be able to hide her for very much longer. Soon a servant would notice, if they hadn’t already. It was all she could do to insist on dressing herself to keep even this much hidden. But she knew soon, clothes would do little to hide her. And she knew the very moment their baby was revealed, though she was certain she would be kept behind guards and locked doors, her life and the life of their baby would be over.
Kalista was busy with her own mission. She sought for them a place where they might escape, a place where Camavor could not reach. And if all her efforts failed she knew that would be their only choice, but Isolde neither wished for death nor to force her child into a life where they may only run until it ended. She wanted a life, her life, the life with him. And Camavor be damned she would search for it until the very last second.
A deep and composed sigh left her as she stared down at a scroll from the 3rd century of Camavor. It was the account of the court mage and--Isolde’s thoughts suddenly snapped back together.
Camavor had a long and admittedly difficult history with magic. Though it did not shine as a beacon of magic like The First Lands of Ionia, magic was indeed a presence here. The wealthy dealt in magical artifacts like the rest of the people dealt in coin. Magic was to be possessed and harnessed into something powerful, like Viego’s sword. But in all her studies these last few days never was there a record of anything that might revive the dead. Or if there was surely it had been used already. There was nothing like that within these borders, but perhaps there were people who knew where one might need to look.
Isolde got to her feet, a new resolve filling her chest as she headed back to the shelves, this time to the third floor, where all the books documenting and telling of magic were kept.
These studies proved no easier than the first. In fact they proved more difficult. Isolde was not versed in magic. The ramblings of a politician were easy enough to decode given enough time but this was a great deal more unknown to her than the dealings of an empire. Still she continued on, keeping books of reference ever at her side like the key to a code to grant her understanding of one concept to the next, piece by piece. It was days of pouring over countless documents, old stories, and magical research before things began to make some semblance of sense and a few days more before one name began to stand out among the rest.
There was a cleric among the court some four hundred years ago. Notes to him addressed him as Lord Faron. From what she gathered he was not of Camavoran birth, a thought she confirmed when she came across his own research papers. His grammar was occasionally broken any time the stroke of his pen reflected any sense of urgency. It took considerably longer to make sense of and perhaps if not for that first letter from the king’s advisor during his time on the council she might not have bothered.
-- My Lord, while his Majesty appreciates the secrecy of your previous order, it is within ours that you now practice. His Majesty is willing to offer any price if it means his daughter’s life be spared. If the sacred waters of which you’ve spoken to can do as you say, it may spare truly no greater tragedy than that of a parent losing their child --
The words on this piece of parchment sat in Isolde’s stomach like solid stone. Healing waters? The letter remained in her hands a moment or two longer before she was up again and all but running back to the stacks. Faron, Faron, F-a-r-o-- His name was everywhere within a period of thirty years she now realized. This cleric...his detailed notes on restorative magic and his dealings with the court, she gathered all she could carry as she raced back to her table, clearing space and frantically beginning to read again. Letter and document one after the other until--
17th year of King Luciano’s rule, 389 C.E.
Today is to mark my 3rd year in King Luciano’s court as Chief Cleric, and it will not be much longer till this marks five years since my departure from Helia in search of the line of dragon lineage that is said to flow in the veins or royalty here in Camavor. In Helia lies the greatest curative in all the known world, but by sacred order it will never be of reach outside its very borders, and to very few within it still.
Legends here tell of the first king of Camavor and his most grand heritage to that of dragon kind. My previous dealings in the northern isles has shown me more than plenty of what the blood and essence of dragon form can provide in terms of healing. This, however, still pales in comparison to the isles. Truly it is Runeterra’s greatest loss that it should be sealed in Helia and now even to myself, lost.
Isolde could feel her hands shaking. She dropped the paper back on to the table and let out a restrained cry. After nearly a week and a half of pouring over all these old things here sat an answer. And surely it was the beginning of the answer.
Isolde was up again, this time running back for something, a journal. A story. She’d already read it in fact. In two days ago she’d glanced over what was easy to see as an old song perhaps, a children’s tale. It was not from Camavor. Nearly two weeks of pouring over books that did originate here revealed a distinct style of binding that wasn’t present here. The stitching was far more elegant and decorative, enough for her to remember. Isolde flipped back through it, once, twice, the passage evading her until finally--
O by the Waters of Life
Are our lands blessed
Spared for cuts and cures
We know peace
Deep are the wells
But Free are our fears
For the waters spare
All who would know death
In place of life
Guard us O Helia
O Mist, Water, and Stone
Guard us O Helia
as we guard you
Lost beyond all known
Things that may disturb
What dwells in water’s
Isolde fell back against the bookcase. This...this was it. The Waters of Life. Isolde flipped through a few more pages. This was another journal of Lord Faron’s. By records Isolde could gather that he did not lead the old king to these waters, the king’s daughter dying because of it. And he suffered the same fate. All these old materials, they were stashed in a heap in the back of the magical research, forgotten, the fate, perhaps of one deemed a traitor to Camavor’s crown.
The further pages spoke of more songs, more tales, all that seemed too fantastic to be true. And indeed without that earlier account that spoke in his own voice of the waters one would dismiss this as simply legend, a fairytale. But with every word Isolde’s knew their truth and this time put her hand over he mouth as she cried. It was true. It was true. There was hope yet. Camavor was not lost and neither was she nor Kalista, or Ledros or…
Isolde’s hand came over her stomach. “Forgive me little one. I’ll not put you through so much now. And thank you, my love, for showing us the way,” she whispered, a single happy tear slipping down her face.
But no sooner had the relief of hope finally let some of the tension she’d carried for weeks in her chest release than she realized the early morning light pouring in from the skylights. She’d overstayed.
She cursed under her breath and hurried back down to the first floor, stashing away her materials, save for the journal and the loose leaves of parchment that had found her here. Those she kept in hand as she hurried from the library and back towards her room. She, however, could feel it not but a few steps outside the library and into the courtyard. The eyes were back on her again. Though it was not always there when she traveled too and from, more frequently as of late she could feel someone watching her.
Isolde swallowed down her anxieties. Of course people were watching her. She was the widow of the late king, and soon to be the subject of an upheaval. She would not be surprised if little of her movement were not kept under watch. It made her findings all the more urgent. Kali, she must tell Kalista. She could not achieve such a thing as necromancy on her own, and she was the only one whom she was certain could be trusted.
As she walked, head down, lost in thought, she turned a corner and bumped solidly into someone with enough force that she found herself gasping and having to hold back anything louder as the journal and notes fell from her hands onto the floor.
In front of her stood Hecarim, staring down at her with worry written into his expression. “Your Highness are you hurt?”
At first she didn’t answer. But seeing her things on the floor was enough to snap her out of it. “Ye-yes, forgive me, I wasn’t looking where I was going,” she said, kneeling down to grab the papers.
“Allow me, my lady.” He knelt down beside her, picking up the papers faster than she could keep them from him.
Isolde got back to her feet only feeling her nerves climb as she watched him shuffle through the papers for a moment before handing them back to her. “Doing some light reading are you?”
“Y-yes, I am. Sleep had little to do with me this evening. Why not make the most of it?” she said with an uneasy smile.
His response was to smirk. “You should not be out without an escort, my lady. With the tragedy that stole his Majesty from us I could not bear the thought of anything taking our Queen from us too. I beg you be more careful, your Highness.”
“Ah, yes,” she said, clutching her material back to her chest. “You are right, no doubt. And what has you up at such an early hour, Commander? Perhaps your own light reading?” The question came out with a harsh edge she couldn’t fight. Ledro’s words lingered in the back of her ears. This was not her ally. And he was not to be trusted. Isolde’s eyes glanced out past the arches on her right, a gentle breeze blew in with the early morning air. It was nearing dawn, but not so late that she expected to see anyone up and about, even less so Hecarim, who by all rights had little business here unless called upon. He and his order had their own hall separate from the soldiers that were under Kalista and Ledros’ command. In fact it was off palace grounds. That alone was enough to stick like a thorn in the back of her mind.
The commander chuckled, the smile on his face not faltering. “General Kalista was granted temporary leave in light of King Viego’s death. I have simply been offering my services while she recoups.”
Isolde forced a smile, it felt as false as it surely looked but it was all she could manage with the unease nesting in her chest. Despite the truth that was more than likely in his words she couldn’t fight the familiar sense of dread that came from his stare. “You have my thanks,” she said. “It is a relief to hear that there’s someone who can help us during such uncertain times.”
The smirk on his face lightened into something almost genuine. “But of course, my lady. It is an honor to be of assistance.”
“Well then--” she said, her own abruptness catching her off guard. “Have a good start to training, Commander. I had best get back to my reading,” she said, walking around him and starting back down the hall.
“Shall I be your escort, your Highness?”
She paused. There wasn’t a single thing about him that she trusted. Every word out of his mouth matched the ice in his eyes. “I’m fine thank you, Hecarim. Please, see to your duties.” she said and didn’t waste another moment before continuing on, not looking back to see if he was still there or not.
He watched her go, the little mouse scurrying off with her books. He’d caught only a glimpse when he’d picked up some of those papers that had slipped out of her grasp and it hadn’t told him much, a few words here and there but otherwise gibberish in his eyes.
But it was strange. Two weeks she’d been at this, almost to the point of obsessive, or at least he could assume. He’d not been here every night when she slipped back and forth from the library. But the feeling in his gut told him this was the first time she’d actually gone to the trouble of taking her studies with her. Certainly they must be important, or at the very least, worth reporting.
Hecarim turned his attention to the courtyard and past it, the library where he pushed open the doors and strode over to a table with a lamp and a candle still sat. He had to wonder what the hurry was. What was so urgent in that bundle of scrap paper that she would forget to take her candle back with her. But then, perhaps…
The Commander scanned over this first level, back and forth, walking around until he spotted a small shelf crammed with scrolls and a few books, even some looseleaf parchment like what she had been carrying. There it was. Hecarim leaned down and pulled a few of the things out, and began to look through them as he brought them back to a table and laid them out. These were journals, old writings, documentations, and all of one thing: magic.
He smirked. Just what was there to find in these old scrolls and books? As far as he knew the Queen was not magically inclined. In fact no one of her known inner circle had the faintest affinity for magic to his knowledge. But as a few more pages flipped by what became clear was the sort of magic she appeared to be in search of. These were not spells, nor were they magical items of interest. Restoration, healing. Those were the only words that his quick skim across the pages picked up in repetition. Laughter broke the silence that lingered in here, bouncing off the walls with a boom. Now he understood. It was desperation that littered all of her actions.
No matter. He collected her findings and stowed them back away in the hole she hid them in. Nothing would come of this. There was no magic that could restore the line of kings. Of that he was certain, or at the very least he would make it so.
As the door fell shut behind her, Isolde let out a sigh of relief. All those nights she felt the eyes of someone watching her in the halls--She dreaded to think it him. If that were true then their time was much shorter than either she, Kali, or even Ledros, had hoped.
Perhaps it was time to bring this to the light. With all she had gathered, her own little notebook of scribbles that she kept locked away in her nightstand. With uncertainty turning to a known fate with every passing day, it was time to at the very least tell Kalista of her plan. She just prayed her dear friend would hear her, and see a life running was not all that remained to them.
Isolde sat down on her bed, pulling a key from underneath her black dress and twisting it into the nightstand where she retrieved her notes and began to copy down everything she was certain of, everything that would save them, and--she looked out her balcony doors, feeling and swallowing down the silence that had spread so very far past palace walls--and perhaps this would save Camavor too.
Not but a hallway or two away Kalista was laying awake with Ledros’ arm securely around her waist. Sleep had not come easy this past night. It was the first in nearly two weeks that she’d found herself unable to quiet the mess of noise in her head with the help of the Commander’s embrace. It was not so many hours ago that he’d been able to calm her enough for her to fall off and yet still, how quickly her eyes opened come the first toles of the clock tower in town.
There was some time yet that she might be able to close her eyes. With Isolde sleeping a bit later than usual these past few days she could afford perhaps another hour of shuteye, but it didn’t come. Instead she found her peace in the hand combing back her hair as her lover slowly woke up.
“What troubles you, my sweet?” he asked, his thumb running along her cheek. This was his third attempt in trying to pry it out of her.
Kalista sighed, turning her face into his shoulder. “It is nothing of consequence.”
“Says she, who stayed up all night worrying about whatever it may be. What is it?”
“We...we will have to leave soon,” she said. “I’d give us another two months at the very most, provided the fighting among the houses remains quiet. But we should not wait so long. We must go.”
Ledros let out an equally troubled sigh. “Have you spoken with her Highness about where yet?”
She shook her head. “I worry. Sometimes I watch her stare off into space and it’s like she’s slipping away. As soon as we talk she comes right back but I fear Viego’s death and the stress of--everything is too great for her to bear.”
The arm around her waist squeezed her tightly. “She is carrying his child, isn’t she?”
Kalista did not answer. Even to him she would would never betray the trust Isolde put in her. Not when all their lives depended on it. But that silence was enough an answer by itself and she knew that.
“Her Highness has us to lean on. We will bear this weight together, Kalista, and find a place where we might be safe. It may take time, but I am certain.”
“I know. I have nothing but faith in you,” she said. Though in truth it was not her lover’s ability to stand beside them that she worried over. She worried for Isolde and the child she carried. She worried if both of them did not survive if there was any hope for the other.
Ledros continued to comb back her hair, another sigh, this one more relaxed, leaving him. “Close your eyes, dearest. I need to get up soon, but you can sleep.”
A smirk spread across Kalista’s face. “Please, I’ve wasted enough time sleeping these past two weeks. If you’d like to help me bear the burden of our future, Commander, I should see you in the training yard before our men arrive. I may still be on leave so that I may see to our queen but that does not mean I am not still capable of besting you.”
He raised an eyebrow, but didn’t fight the smile on his face. “Such an invitation General. I could never decline,” he chuckled, going to pull her to him for a kiss, her hand falling over his mouth just a moment before they met.
“You may have that if you win,” she said, sitting up and swinging her legs over the edge of the bed.
“I’ve never been so motivated.”
She laughed, pulling her tunic over her head. “I should hope so, Commander, or else it would not be any fun. I shall see you down there soon.” Kalista leaned down and left a press to his forehead before she was gone, out the door with what felt like an exceedingly rare smile on her face. She hoped that once they put Camavor behind them, rarity would become commonplace for them all once more.
It felt good to hold a spear again. Even better perhaps was the feeling of holding it over Ledros’ head as she stood the victor in their little sparring match. Whatever was to be said for the nature of battle she knew no one whom answered its call that did not feel that rush between victory and defeat.
Ledros stared up at her, lying still, breath held at just the moment where her spear met his throat. That same wide eyed shock sat in his eyes as it did the first time they fought. Amazement and awe blended with just the right amount of disappointment. “I am bested,” he said, the words pressing the metal just enough to indent on his skin.
“So you are, my love,” she said, enjoying the way his pupils dilated at that word perhaps a little too much. “A shame, I would have liked to lose.”
He scoffed, knocking the spear aside. “If you ever allowed such a thing I would not believe you to be my General.”
That made her smile. He knew her well. “Wonderfully put, Commander.” She moved off of him and extended her hand to help him up.
“Gods,” he cursed, sheathing his sword once he got to his feat. “Should I have known that one time I beat you would be such a profound experience I might have--” before he could finish his sentence the lighthearted look on his face turned to stone. He glared at something just over her shoulder, making her turn around.
On the edge of the yard stood the Iron Order’s Commander, Hecarim.
“Commander,” was the only greeting Ledros offered as he approached them.
“Ledros, General Kalista, good morrow,” he said. “Forgive my intrusion on your match,” he said.
“We just finished,” he said, stepping out ahead of her. “Do you have business with us?”
He smirked and shook his head. “The soldiers will be out here any minute, Commander. I was simply interested to see if the General was rejoining us today?”
“No, I am not. So long as her Highness has need of me that is where I will be,” she said.
Hecarim turned his attention to her, though the way he stared did not differ between them. Something about it was unsettling, and without any of the regard for their difference in rank he once seemed so keenly aware of. He stared at her as he did an insect, someone he detested, an--an enemy. Kalista’s grip on her spear tightened. “A shame. But worry not Ledros and I will continue to see to things in your absence. However long that will last.”
“Indeed…” she said, letting the spear spin loosely over her fingers. “If you’ll excuse me gentlemen, I have other matters to attend to.”
She didn’t offer another word before leaving the field, falling inside the barracks and tossing off her sweat soaked clothes for fresh ones.
She had always held Hecarim in the highest regard. He was a warrior of considerable skill. Though he did not rival her mastery with the spear he was plenty deadly to any enemy and she had a sinking feeling in her gut that Ledros’ comments to his character were not something to be taken lightly after all. If he did not stand with them then it was against and there would never be any room for her to turn her back.
Once she was changed the General made for Isolde’s room. That interaction with Hecarim had her uneasy. They needed to speak about their plans to leave with time running so thin.
Kalista let her hand fall against the doors with three knocks. It went unanswered. It was early yet, and more than likely that she was, in fact, still asleep. She’d been sleeping late these past days, though the extra rest did nothing to alleviate the exhaustion that seemed to plague her. Kalista had grown accustomed to waiting her out, lingering nearby for word that she was awake but her own nerves were too far gone from the long night. She opened the door and stepped inside, closing it softly behind her.
While Isolde was indeed asleep, it appeared anything but restful. She slept curled into a tight ball, the wrong way around, having seemingly collapsed in a spread out of papers and two journals, a pen still in hand and the inkwell beside her bed still out.
Kalista came to her side, taking a closer look. Seeing her like this, the dark circles under eyes suddenly began to tell a very different story than the one she had believed of a woman who was trying her best to seek rest for both her and her child’s sake.
She reached down to begin collecting the pages when suddenly Isolde jolted awake, grabbing Kalista’s wrist. “No!” she shouted.
Kalista didn’t jump, though inside her, her heart could be no deeper in her body. Instead her reflexes had her turn the hold around and bring Isolde close. “It’s me, it is alright, it’s me,” she whispered, sitting on the edge of the bed.
Slowly she relaxed and turned her face into Kalista’s shoulder. “Forgive me,” she mumbled. “I thought that you were…” her sentence fell off. “Gods I fell asleep.”
“Isolde, what is all this? Is this why you’ve been sleeping so late?”
A strange sort of smile formed on her face. She shifted out of Kalista’s grasp, taking up the older looking of the journals. “I--I was going to tell you. But I wanted to be certain. I wanted to have a plan, so that you might listen.”
She took up her other journal, and flipped to the beginning of it and then a specific page in the other. “These past two weeks I’ve...I’ve been studying,” she admitted. “The court knows better than to think I would remarry, and in truth I do not want to curse us to a life where we may be running for longer than we live. And so I began--” she picked up a sheet of paper and handed it to her. “With The Three. I thought with a country so built on the idea of resurrection, that idea, it must come from somewhere. Why are the kings said to rise up at the end of days? I thought it a dead end until!” She flipped further into both sets of notes. “Camavor claims a half dragon heritage, tracing back to the first king. And half dragons, and all dragon kind are said to be gifted with all sorts of gifts not known to just humans.”
Kalista looked over the papers as they were handed to her, her expression darkening with each one. “Isolde...I don’t understand, why--”
She held up her hands, shaking them. “Please, Kalista, I beg you listen to me. Please, I have not done this for nothing.”
A frown still creased her face but she nodded, trying her best to ignore the awful pit in her stomach that told her where she knew this was to lead.
“Four hundred years ago there was a cleric among the court. Lord Faron of Helia.”
“Helia?” she repeated. “That is not Camavor.”
“No it is not. This was a man of foreign birth. He came to Camavor to study other forms of restorative magic than those of his home country. He came to study the line of kings to see if the blood of dragons did indeed exist and if it did, was there still any effect on those who claimed it’s heritage,” she said, flipping to the next page.
“What did he find?”
Isolde shook her head. “It was never concluded. From what I can gather from records Lord Faron was executed for refusing to aid the King in saving his daughter by taking him to Helia, to a place called the waters of life,” she said. “But before his death, he had accounts of Helia, of these waters.” Isolde raised the journal up for her to see.
Kalista took it and began reading through it -- In Helia lies the greatest curative in all the known world, but by sacred order it will never be of reach outside its very borders, and to very few within it still--
“This place, Kalista, it has healing magic beyond anything else in Runeterra, greater than even the magic of the Firstlands. Here, in this poem,” she said, showing her now another page in her notes. “ Deep are the wells, But free are our fears, for the waters spare, all who would know death, in place of life,” she read. “I believe that if we journey here, Kalista, we can bring him back.”
Isolde looked up at her with such hope in her eyes she could feel the heart climbing back up into her chest start to shred itself. She shook her head. “How did this happen…?” she whispered, her voice cracking. “Isolde please, this madness.”
“It is not! Kalista please do not look at me like I am something to pity. Not you. Not you who has stood with me in this same grief! I know you’ve not forgotten it so soon!” She grabbed her shoulder, gripping the fabric of her tunic.
“He is dead!”
“And so are we if we do not act!”
“We are to run! Isolde, please!” she took her face, holding it as tears started slipping down her cheeks. “Do not lose yourself to this. I cannot bear to lose you both I cannot, please. No more of this!”
The look of determination in her eyes only grew as she took her hands from her face, but did not throw them off, instead taking them and squeezing them. One stray tear slid down her face. “I am not mad. I know why you think it. And yes, I am exhausted, I am terrified, and I am grieving, but mad I am not,” she said, her voice quieting, but not without its own breaks as she fought off further tears. “Come.” Isolde got off the bed, keeping one of Kalista’s hands and pulling her to the balcony, stopping just short of the doors. “What do you hear Kali?” she asked.
Kalista looked at her and then out ahead, over the harbor. “The city,” she said.
“Do you really? Close your eyes, Kalista,” she said.
With a bit of reluctance Kalista did as she was asked, closing her eyes and listening. She heard seagulls and--nothing. She heard nothing. Her eyes opened and she walked out onto the balcony, placing her hands on the edge. It was so quiet. As quiet as it had been the day of the funeral. There was no noise from the docks, people going about their day. It was silent .
“It has been like this since he died,” she said. “Slowly all of Alovedra has fallen into silence. Everyone knows what is to come. But they know not how. Will there be fighting, civil war? Will all that Camavor has built crumble under its own weight? How many will die for this new regime? How much blood of theirs will be spilled in the crossfire. Word is, no doubt, reaching the territories if it has not already. All of Camavor holds its breath now and walks in silence waiting for what change will come and how. If we stay this way we are dead, Kalista. You, me, Ledros, my child. We will all die. Camavor will die too. It is not strong enough to weather this. This is a country of warrior kings that knew only of conquest. It will tear itself to shreds before it goes quietly to the next age.”
Kalista listened quietly as she spoke, knowing she was right. Kalista knew in her heart what the fate of this country was the moment her uncle died. But as they crafted their idea to flee, seek shelter somewhere far from Camavor’s reach she willed herself to swallow that fate as not her own. And yet thinking of it now was no more terrifying than the prospect of losing the two she now cared for most.
“I want this not only for myself, for my baby, for you, but also for Camavor. I don’t want the home I made for myself, the people who were kind and accepted me as their Queen despite the noble’s disdain to die and crumble with this country. Viego was never meant to be king but he is the only one who can save us, Kalista. Please, I am certain of it. This place, these waters, it can bring him back. Camavor would have it’s king, I would have my husband, our daughter would have her father, and you Kali would have your best friend, and the man you thought of as a brother, back.”
Kalista did not fight the steady stream of tears down her cheeks, ones she’d been fighting for weeks. The thought, the very idea that she could say anything of what she’d never said, hug him, be the spear of the king once more, it hurt like nothing else but she could not deny how deeply she too wanted it. “There is no certainty in this, Isolde,” she cried. “There is nothing that can guarantee this place will bring him back.”
Isolde, took her hand once more, squeezing it, her other over her stomach. “Uncertain hope is better than certain death, at least, it is for me.”
A deep but shaky breath was all she could manage before she squeezed her hand back and nodded. “I miss him, and I don’t want to see my home burn. But if we do this, we do it right,” she said. “You will not destroy yourself for it. No more nights awake, no more skipping meals, no more of the things that will kill you and your child. Without you in this world, returning Veigo to it means nothing. He’d jump right back in just to be with you or burn the world trying.”
Isolde smirked. “Yes, you are probably right about that...forgive me little one,” she said, looking down at her stomach. “I swear, I’ll not lose myself again, I only need your help, Kali.”
“I’ll follow you wherever you lead, your Highness,” she said, not without her own halfway smile.
“Thank you Kali. I know it, when we find it, Helia, the waters, he will return,” she said, hugging her. “We will bring Viego back.”
holy crap it's done! Welcome to chapter three everybody! This chapter is so much longer than I originally anticipated but it is complete! Thanks to everyone for you support thus far. I look forward to providing you with further chapters (I'm expecting two more). But I will be taking a small break to work on some other projects for a week or so before I start on chapter four. Thanks for your patience and if you want to keep track of what I'm writing and even get excerpts on what I'm working on you can follow me on twitter @StringsNBullets. I post lots of content and various screamings. Thanks again!