Queen of Salt and Blood (Part Two) by Nixx Winters
Read part one here.
‘But Angis will come. He’ll bring men, stop this!’
‘Halkirk is lost, Coran.’
Coran held her husband’s eyes across the small table in their apartments, and tried to make herself understand his words. It was too terrifying. She could only make space for safe, idle things or else the memories of the throne room got in.
Wasn’t it cold in their room, for summer? When had Cormac gotten old? Her consideration sank into the creases around his eyes, a snowy streak in his black hair heralding a change of season. He was fifty when they married but he had not been old.
She felt old, on the eve of her twentieth birthday. Coran pressed a fleeting hand over her face. She felt every day of the campaign like a soldier in the field. Maybe, like them, it was all that the war had cost her weighing down.
‘I’m sorry, little blackbird.’ Cormac took both her hands, his ring of office biting into her cold fingers. ‘And I’m so sorry you can’t mourn him.’
She was always mourning Angis denHaag. A lady in waiting and the king of Halkirk…what happy ending could there have been? But she understood Cormac’s meaning. Her teenage affair was now treason.
Everything felt like treason.
‘I mourn for us, Cormac. For Aubignon. The man who’s taken Angis from me has taken our kingdom. Our uprising has failed.’
He tutted. ‘Our rebellion has failed for now. We have to be patient.’
‘You’re such a politician,’ she uttered, getting up and moving to the bed.
‘Well yes. Someone has to decide who the soldiers fight…’
She weighted the bed, fixing Cormac with a look that said truth in his half-glib remark was the problem. Egos and contests of bollocks were always the problem. Women dragged along whatever remained. ‘Let’s be truthful; we didn’t even try to fight a war with the Islip.’
‘Who thought we had to!’ He calmed. ‘And we did. At the end, we did.’
‘The end seems the most asinine time to begin anything, don’t you think?’
Cormac was silent. What argument could he offer?
‘We stand alone,’ whispered Coran. ‘Halkirk was our only ally against Raulo Ironside, against the whole north kingdom.’
‘Is,’ he corrected.
‘Was.’ She wouldn’t tolerate correction, not even from Cormac. ‘Halkirk’s king is dead.’ She choked on the last word. ‘And everyone else will hold endless councils to decide if they want to draw Raulo’s eye. I’ll wager they enjoy the idea of war with him less than they enjoy fucking us while we’re broken.’ Justice, or all the salt in the world? The answer seemed terrifyingly plain.
Cormac took a fatherly posture she loathed, hands planted on the knees of his hose. ‘You’re missing the benefit here. Raulo has usurped our throne, but with the exception of the Halkirk and the Borders, we’re not at war with him anymore. That lends a lot of free time to construct his overthrow.’
‘Don’t! Don’t tell me to find the silver in a storm cloud. This is a heap of shite! Don’t tell me to eat a spoonful and like it.’ Coran gathered the tiny body from under her quilts and cradled him to her breast. She smoothed Anders’ closed eyes. Barely three and you’ve lost your father and both your kingdoms this night. I will do more than negotiate treaties for you, I promise. She clutched him tighter. Just that morning she’d sniffled over how he no longer fit entirely in her lap, and now he seemed too tiny to survive the week.
‘Coran.’ Cormac stood behind her and rested a hand on her shoulder. ‘Coran.’
‘What! What, Cormac?’
‘I think you already know. It has to have crossed your mind at least once during the campaigns.’
‘He isn’t safe here. There were already rumors, and they will reach the ears of an enemy king.’
‘You couldn’t ask this if he were your son!’ A single sob broke from her chest and she buried her face in Cormac’s doublet, velvet wicking away her tears. That wasn’t true. Anders was as much Cormac’s son as he was Angis’s. Coran ground the heels of her hands into her burning eyes and hated. Hated everything.
Cormac gentled her cheek. ‘I’ve already written Baldur. Anders won’t be with strangers. He’ll have his uncle.’
‘Baldur…? He has to rule Halkirk now! Not uncontested, either. Wage a campaign. He can’t care for a child!’ My child.
‘If Anders is going to hold the throne of one kingdom, let alone two, that’s probably the education he needs.’
Coran clung to her son and rocked away his sleepy protests. ‘He doesn’t need war. Or an education.’
‘He needs to live!’ Cormack smoothed her hair. ‘When we take back the throne, we can bring him home.’
We. Coran clasped his hand. ‘Do you regret marrying a wayward girl and raising a king’s bastard?’
Cormac pecked her temple and Anders’. ‘If I had regrets I wouldn’t be taking him to the Narrows myself.’
‘No!’ She dropped Anders and stood before her husband. ‘If I can’t be the one…No.’
‘It’s our side of the border. No one will know and if they do…I have to make a war report to the Privy Council. That will be my excuse. He’s my… nephew; no one will think it strange if I take him.’
‘And it’s not strange that the Chancellor of Tenths has to ride the battlefield?’
‘It’s my prerogative. A barbarian like Raulo Ironside won’t know to question it, anyhow.’
Coran decided, once again, that it was unfathomable the less-devious of the sexes were the ones with power. ‘I think you’re being very loose about this.’
‘You’re young.’ He slipped an auburn strand from beneath her hennin and smoothed it between his fingers. ‘It only feels that way.’
Coran imagined these had been the last words of so many dead men.
Coran led her horse and followed Cormac, who carried Anders over his shoulder. The pack beneath his cloak was obvious; she hoped dim light at the gate would grant them a blessing.
Soldiers teemed the bailey, the courtyards. Patrols ran in tandem but the world of the Aubignon kings was foreign to northern barbarians, and like blind horses mating, Coran thought there was a lot of furious activity for scant result. She held her breath, hating their Islip mutton stench, rancid blood and piss and bile of the battlefield. She hated the thump of their guttural words.
‘Hold!’ barked a guard as they reached the iron gate leading out to the high street.
‘My nephew is ill. I’m taking him out for night air,’ explained Cormac.
‘None one comes in! Or be out, no.’
Coran ground her back teeth. Subjugated by people who sounded like the village simpleton.
Cormac drew up six feet that had lost some of their intimidation, but not much. ‘Second on the king’s council and I am not free to go? To ride?’
The guard’s eyes darted wild on either side of his nosepiece. Coran couldn’t tell if he was letting them go, or going to summon a greater threat. By the specific kind of scurrying when he left, she guessed the former, but she wouldn’t take a chance. She kissed Anders, who didn’t stir under the gentle influence of herbs, and kissed Cormac just as quickly, before the tears came. ‘You’re old,’ she bit. ‘You haven’t been a knight for a very long time and you probably don’t remember how to use that sword…’ She kissed him again, full on the mouth, ‘So be careful.’
‘Stay in our apartments. Stay as much out of sight as you can while I’m gone.’ He mounted her dappled percheron with a groan. ‘These are tumultuous days. There are no laws.’
‘You don’t have to tell me that, Cormac.’ She stroked her son’s face. For the last time? It might as well be.
‘If anything goes wrong, you’ll know what to do.’
‘Will I?’ This was curious, because she’d spent two days coming to terms with the idea she had no clue what to do if their plan fell apart.
‘I promise, you will. And if that time comes, you trust no one but Elis Baynbridge.’
‘A duke, any duke, seems the worst person to trust just now.’
‘You’ve trusted me…’
‘Ugh. I suppose I have.’ She firmed, swallowing the knot in her throat. ‘Stop being rational. Go.’
‘I love you, Coran de Courcy’
‘And I suppose I love you too, your grace.’
‘More than all the salt in Auldearn.’ He smiled, and regarded her a moment before spurring Kella through the gates.
Coran grabbed her skirts and ran up the stairs outside the armory, all the way to the wall walk where she shoved between more hideous men to reach the south tower.
A guard hooked his hand at her, mail jingling like bells on an old horse. She got the gist: No women. Come away.
He planted his pike. Come. Obey.
‘Get a watch captain then!’ she shrieked. ‘If you even know what that is!’ She smoothed the high waist of her velvet gown, a reminder. Touch me. Dare it. Lay your hands on a noblewoman.
He didn’t. Coran was a little sorry.
She watched Cormac go, under torchlight from the High Street, and from sad thin light that spilled beyond the walls of Tainn. She caught him once or twice in shafts of moonlight over the leighs.
Then it was hope, just hope and nothing else. Everything else had been taken.
Coran passed Elis Baynbridge in the upper corridor, a gallery outside the council chambers and State offices. He was Cormac’s protege and they could have been father and son, the same bold nose and searching blue eyes, same firm line of their mouth. Except Cormac always seemed on the edge of a smile, while Baynbridge seemed ready to spit profanity. It made her more wary that he never did it, just regarded everyone and everything with something like a spymaster’s gaze. This was the man Cormac wanted her to trust? A man who’d shared their table a handful of times and still felt like a stranger.
He was giving that same stare to members of what passed for the king’s staff. Leathery, wild haired men in silk tunics and primitive Islip straw boots took down paintings of the Aubignon kings. Removing Halkirk pottery, or destroying it. She flinched at a crash and a shower of shards from further down the gallery. Furnishings in purple oak and gold gilt were dragged to the center of the long room, haphazard like prisoners of war. One turned a salt cellar upside down atop his grubby halo of hair and laughed.
‘What is this?’ she said to Baynbridge, turning in a slow circle.
He raked a shock in his dark hair. ‘Me not getting a night of sleep.’ She couldn’t tell by his tone if he disapproved of their activity or just his deprivation.
‘These are treasures. Masterpieces. Is Ironside so proud that he can’t display foreign art?’
Elis’s head snapped round, and he pierced her. ‘They’ve been sold to fill the treasury.’
Coran sputtered. ‘This is Auldern! Tainn whisky, glasswork, leather goods…we can fill the treasury.’ They could not replace any of what was being stuffed into crates.
‘His Grace has closed the tanner’s guild. The Torbrem distillery. The glazier’s guild. Every craftsman is being sent to the salt mines.’
Hundreds of miles. Harsh winds and wraiths. Deprivation and salt poisoning. There was a reason the Salax Guild was the most powerful, and the most hardened. The most revered. Barren Coast salt dens would serve as crypts for comparatively soft tanners, brewers, masons.
‘This–’ Her mouth snapped shut in realization. Culture, history, especially Auldern’s, was as expendable to Raulo as her men. How would he wring money from the people when his treasury sat bare next time?
The same way he’d taken everything else.
‘We’re being punished,’ she whispered, watching the arm wrenched from a statue of King Filip’s lithe mistress Clauda. They were being punished for Adela.
‘No,’ uttered Baynbridge. ‘This is administration. Punishment has yet to begin.’
She shivered. Would Elis suffer it, or mete it out? She could never read him. Coran stood in the gallery like a drop of water in oil, separate from the world, and wondered. ‘Cormac told me to trust you,’ she blurted out.
Tell me if I can’t. Just tell me. It was better to know she was alone, than to discover it too late.
Elis took her hand, held it to his chest and brushed the ridge of her knuckles, her ruby wedding ring, with his thumb. He watched the movement and didn’t meet her eyes. ‘I don’t know if you should,’ he murmured. He seemed to remember himself, and jerked his hand away.
Coran had been a lady of the court since sixteen, steeped in the world of men and politics, seduction and deception. When Baynbridge met her eyes she knew, but she didn’t believe. She snatched her hand away, too, putting it behind her back.
It didn’t change the heat of his eyes, or a warmth on her skin she couldn’t dispel.
‘Cormac is my mentor. My only friend.’
His defense sounded flimsy to Coran. ‘And yet you keep secrets from him.’ One secret, at least. A man so deceptive, one who could deceive his best friend and even her all this time, was exactly the ally she needed.
Baynbridge recovered, hardened. ‘I swore to Cormac I would do anything required. I stand by it. For his sake.’
Coran smirked at his renewed defensiveness. She stepped away, putting space between them that was more than physical. ‘It won’t come to that.’
But she didn’t believe the words even as she spoke them.
The Second Day
Coran sat at the work table on one side of her antechamber, with the fireplace for light, and imbued the ruby red dragon with her alchemical pen. Her saltwork had fallen away after she’d taken her place as lady in waiting. Now there was no queen to attend, hardly anything to eat and no evening banquet thanks to war privations. In a matter of days there was hardly a court left to speak of, thanks to Raulo.
She wondered, etching another rune into the dragon’s back, if her magic would become as much a danger as her child, something to hide and love in secret. She dabbed a tear from the corner of her eye. It was just exhaustion; there was so much upheaval. That was all. And she didn’t have Cormac to hold her.
Finishing the dragon, she set him on the back of the table to let the hot blue lines of magic cool, and went to the window again. Shadows beyond the east wall clung tight at midday to the feet of their creators. Coran squinted, stared at the point where the road met the sky and willed her eyes to see Cormac’s approach. A horse and rider separated from a band of trees at the horizon, near the eastern watchtower. Three riders, she saw, when they came into the open of the leighs beyond the city gates. Coran recognized her beautiful Percheron flanked by two soldiers of the Old Guard in escort. At least Cormac’s rank still merited some privileges.
She paced the room waiting for his arrival. On each pass she slid the silver salt cellar she’d magicked for Cormac, a ship at full sail with blue salt-glass waves. Coran traveled it across the cloth, avoiding the stark space beside her bed where Anders’ trundle had sat. With her mind, Coran followed Cormac’s progress into the city, up the High Street through the east and west quarters, the high town. He would stop at the stables, the herald’s hall.
All these imaginings came and went, and still she paced. Cormac had to know the wait was killing her. Was Anders safe? What had Baldur said? Men never had a sense of urgency about anything but fighting and bedding. Maybe the idea of one of those would hurry his steps to their apartments.
It was on her tongue to say this when their chamber door swung open.
Elis covered the space, and her mouth, in seconds. ‘You found a letter of your husband’s?’
She nodded, trying to pull her face away and tell him she hadn’t found anything, that it had been left for her.
Elis crushed his palm harder against her lips. ‘Get it for me. It’s to be taken to Lord Taunton.’
Taunton was a friend; what could be the harm? Coran backed away and opened a hidden panel on her inlaid cabinet, sliding the glass knobs inside. ‘Where is my husband?’ she asked, passing the letter to Elis with shaking fingers.
He stuck the paper into his doublet. There were guards in the doorway, just visible over his shoulder. ‘Lord de Courcy is being held as a traitor to the king. He has been found guilty. His fate is being decided as we speak… as is yours.’
‘Lord Baynbridge please, ladyship.’
‘You bastard. Is this what it comes to, wanting a man’s wife? A friend’s wife?’
He bowed. ‘I suggest you remain in your apartments.’
The hell she would. Coran stared at the empty doorway when they’d gone, trying to breathe, swallow down a too-tight throat. Cormac’s escort – where had they found him? Was Anders delivered to Baldur?
She needed answers. And she needed to admit the truth. If she explained, owned the blame, Cormac would be freed. Any man, even Raulo, would give some grace to a mother, wouldn’t he?
She’d get her husband. And then she’d set to fucking Elis Baynbridge until he begged her for mercy.
Heedless of his words, she gathered her skirts and ran from the apartments. Coran didn’t see the passageways, the stairs. The great hall was just an inconvenience to be passed through.
Guards stopped her at the privy chamber door. ‘I will see his grace! I will see Lord de Courcy!’
‘Back to your chamber.’
She beat at the thick oak doors. ‘Let me through!’
‘Back!’ The soldier jabbed her gut with the butt of his pike, stealing her breath. Spots exploded at the edge of her vision.
Coran slapped him. Flesh and metal cracked her hand. His head snapped over.
The blow to her face was seismic, shifting her teeth, leaving her skin throbbing and wet. His partner hit her a second time in the shoulder, for good measure, collapsing her to the cold stones.
Coran scrambled, tangled in her skirts and half blinded. Barely on her feet, she ran. Not from them, but to the grand vestibule and out into the bailey. She would get into the privy chamber through the courtyard. She knew a way.
Running pounded like a heartbeat in her swollen lip and nose. Coran clutched her face, slick with mingled blood and tears. The wall was so high, and she was so small, trembling and squinting in the sun at light that tore her brain. She wiped bloody hands on her skirts and tried again for purchase. Her foot found a thick stone, and she hoisted herself to the top.
Cries filled the air, barbarian and bloodthirsty. Their sound struck her before she lost balance. The ground came up to meet her, punched the breath from her and left her sprawled, pierced on crumbled stones below the courtyard wall.
She was nearly claimed by the blackness; then her lungs filled, and her eyes blinked. She would swear, years later when she could dare into this moment in her memories, that Cormac had turned his head against the wooden block and met her eyes, smiled at her in such a beatific way.
But he hadn’t. The executioner’s sword came down like nightfall between the words Am and Innocent. Iron hitting the block sounded like her scream, dull and echoing.
Coran could only sob as the soldiers dragged her away.
END OF PART TWO