I wake to the smell of incense. It is way too early in the morning for incense—for anything except cuddling back up in bed. But there is incense, and I am curious and wide awake. I slip out the door, not wanting to wake anyone who is still able to sleep, to see one of my guards adding another handful of leaves to an incense burner then fanning the resultant smoke toward the sleepers scattered throughout the main hall. I start toward him before I remember my Sword is still lying beside my bed. “Oh well,” I think, “Let it sleep.” Then I realize what I am thinking and decide either I am still asleep and having a really weird dream or I have gone completely crazy.
“They were having bad dreams,” my guard explains without my having to ask. “One of the priests started this, and I told him I would take over so he could get some sleep himself. It helped.”
“Good.” Just as I am thinking about going out to the kitchen, one of the staff comes in with tea and porridge. So we sip tea, eat and watch everyone sleep. I’m wide awake with nothing to do.
“We are sorry we didn’t realize.”
“What?” I Just stare at him; now I’m back to the bizarre dream theory.
“We should have known that you wouldn’t have allowed Alan to stay if he didn’t have Stormborne blood.”
“Ah.” I try to sound bland, non-committal, and definitely not ‘what the hell’. Despite my long familiarity with the ease with which rumors are generated, this one catches me completely by surprise. I use Taver stirring as an excuse to say absolutely nothing. I really don’t know if I should encourage this story or not.
“You are up early, Princess.” Taver ignores the smoke, as he joins us.
“I want to go home.” Hadn’t expected that to come out of my mouth. I have been thinking it a lot, but not saying it out loud.
“Me too,” Taver admits. “But there still things we need to do.”
I fight the urge to wake everyone up and get them to doing ‘things’. Completely useless without knowing what the things are.
“We will meet as soon as it is true morning, and discuss what is left to be done. Right after we help Conners move into the keep.”
“Help?” I ask. “Or drag.”
“Either, both,” Taver doesn’t pretend to misunderstand me. “The staff have worn layers off the stones cleaning both rooms, and the Priests have used a normal year’s worth of herbs cleansing it. There is no reason for him to not move in.”
“Other than not really have accepted the weight of the authority he has just assumed.” I can certainly understand that. “We also need to tell him it is likely, more than likely, the missing seventeen men are dead.”
“We need to tell all seventeen families before we leave.” Taver says ‘we’ but I know he means ‘you’. I don’t really think bad news is less bad if delivered by a royal personage; maybe the families will believe their loved ones died for some worthy cause if I am involved in the notifications. I will certainly do all in my power to keep them from learning how their loved ones died.
“Do you think I should tell them singularly or in a group?” I ask, knowing very well singularly is the right answer before Taver says it. But he surprises me.
“In a group, in one of the chapels.” I start to protest, but Taver continues, “If you go to each family, you can’t possibly spend less than an hour. By mid-day, all of the other families would have heard by rumor.”
He’s right. I start thinking about what I will need to say.
Alan is blurry-eye and barely awake when he takes the seat Taver has just vacated.
He whispers, “Did you start a rumor I have Stormborne blood?”
“No, it generated spontaneously. Did you deny it?”
“No, I just stared at him until he went away.”
“Good answer. That’s pretty much what I did.” Damn secrets. “Just keep doing the same until we get home.”
“Because?” There were a lot of questions in that one word.
“Because everything has to be a damn secret.”
He doesn’t answer, just hands me his ribbon for me to tie. The ends are burned. For a moment I consider asking Dame Lassa to help me cut off the burned pieces and set in new ribbon, but decide not to. It won’t hurt to remind people dangerous things are happening in Blythe.
“At least we are rid of Destroyer.” Alan sounds tired but satisfied.
We spend a long time just sitting and feeling comfortable with each other, until Taver disrupts things by towing in a disgruntled Conners followed by people carrying things. Some of them are battalion, some city guard, and some look to be just average citizens either drafted or volunteered. The keep Steward and staff join the mob, and Conners is officially moved into the keep.
Conners and I are at the chapel early, sitting side by side, mostly silent. We are about to tell seventeen families their loved ones are almost certainly dead, and that there will probably never be proof. Neither of us likes this lack of solution, but it is all we have. How do I persuade people to give up crippling hope without telling them why—and I will not lay the burden on them of knowing what Alan’s group found. But I have to say something, and it will be me, not Conners. He is going to have enough problems after we leave without leaving him open to misplaced anger against the messenger.
There are priests and nuns discretely around the edges of the chapel, to provide comfort. The families file in slowly, from their faces they already suspect what I am going to say, but it needs to be said anyway.
“Telling the next of kin is never easy,” my Sword whispers. “My maker believed it didn’t matter what you said, only that you cared.”
He was probably right, my speech is poor, stumbling. In a lot of words I say “Give up hope.”
Conners and I speak to each family individually; maybe it helps a little. Then I turn craven and leave, letting the priests take over. They are suppose to be good at these things, aren’t they? My guards are behind me, as always, so it takes me a moment to realize Conners has also left. I slow to let him catch up with me. Neither of us has anything to say.
We are on the broad street leading to the keep when I heard the first blare of the deliberately off-key hunting horn. We move to the side, my guards and I recognizing it, and Conners following us.
A royal herald, on a showy horse wearing a red tabard races by blowing his horn to assemble the people to hear the proclamation of the king. Actually, a royal herald is just a courier but noisier and with brighter clothing and a public message rather than private.
The herald mounts the wooden steps in front of the keep and waits silently until a suitable crowd forms.
“Orsin of Blythe is proclaimed traitor, for the attempted assassination of Princess Adava, for the attempted assassination of the royal family, for allying with an Outlander fleet to attack Misthold, and for attempted theft by force of the royal Sword.”
Well, he has their attention. No one even breaths loudly as he continues with the details of the half-wolf assassin, the disgraced ShadowWalkers and the attack on the city. At the end, he proclaims, “Hear the names of the heroes who died fighting against Treason.”
After he finishes, I move beside him and continued, adding seventeen more names, for the small comfort it might bring their families.