The heat is uncomfortable in the conference room. I shift the skirts of my dress from one side to the other for the umpteenth time and Aeron, sat on my right, rearranges his legs and messes with his collar. Forming a war council was harder than I’d expected, especially with so few dignitaries or people in positions of power surviving my wedding.
The minimal part the Watchers were playing, aside from speaking out in support of the war, has raised a few eyebrows and started some suspicious talk.
“Our position will be stronger if we lie in wait for them here! We have defences we can build up around the castle and we’ll be able to pick them off from the walls as well!” our newly appointed Tactical Adviser, Arnaud Barnelle, shouts as he bangs his fist on the circular table. The maps that litter it flutter slightly.
“No! We can’t allow them into our cities! It’s too dangerous!” Our resident naysayer, Eleanora, adds hotly as she throws her hands up in the air.
I glance across at Aeron, who is already looking at me intently. I know that look; we need a break. I stand up and all eyes turn to me.
“I’m calling a recess. We meet back here just after dark. It’s too hot to do this now,” I start in my best Guide tone but it gradually fades into weariness. The two women present, Elise Barnelle and Eleanora Weston, look relieved. A few of the men look put out at having to return at night but if it keeps them out of the brothels, all the better. It wouldn’t be good for confidence for the leaders of the war to be seen in such a way.
The room empties and I lean back in my chair, exhaling heavily. I roll my head back and look at the intricate tile patterns on the ceiling. Scouts have told me that we have a month before Arlenfen’s armies arrive. We don’t have nearly enough time.
I’ve been touched by the outpouring of support though. So many men have been arriving at the makeshift barracks we’ve built that I doubt we’ll be able to fit them all out for gear. Our armies will be poor by comparison and King Jorleif has sent word that his armies won’t be with us for 6 weeks. At least there will be someone to clear our bodies from the streets...or outside of the city walls if Eleanora gets her way.
“Perhaps we ought to go for a walk in the gardens, Annie?” Aeron asks, running his hand through his hair. A walk does sound good. The breeze outside keeps the heat bearable but indoors it’s stifling. I don’t want to go into the gardens, though. I’ve not even looked at it through the windows since all but a few of my wedding guests were slaughtered there by Arlenfen’s men.
“You have to go sometime, Annie,” he says softly. “It won’t look any different to how it did before.”
“You’re right. What kind of Guide is afraid of her own gardens?” I force a smile and joking tone.
As I stand, he takes me by the hand in the fashion he has adopted in public. I curtsy slightly to him, smiling genuinely now. He grins in return and surprises me by spinning me around as though we’re at a dance. Despite the tense times, I laugh somewhat giddily.
The breeze winds its way through the trees as we walk. He was right, though; it doesn’t look any different to how it did before the massacre. After leaving The Watchers’ Halls, we had gone to stand in the main hall, which has glass panels running the length of the wall facing the gardens. Cloaked in the relative darkness of the grand room, we watched as men in black leather armour killed all but the few of my guests who fled into the woods or hid in the more elaborate planting. The flood of relief when Laneau and her husband crawled out of her favourite hiding spot from childhood was enough to make my knees buckle and a burble of emotion had escaped as I sank to the floor. I haven’t seen her since that day, though.
Aeron and I had sat huddled together on the wooden floor as tears ran down both of our faces for what seemed like an eternity. His family had never approved of him coming to Alnora Palace and so they hadn’t attended the wedding, nor had they allowed his siblings to attend. I had felt another surge of relief when I remembered this.
Ever since that day, the act of being his wife has come easier and easier to me. Even though I don’t know everything about him, I feel as though I know enough.
“If we survive this ordeal, I think I’ll have to make sure Eleanora doesn’t,” I break the silence, somehow feel as though it was mine to interrupt.
“What is her job, even? Actually, where did you find her?” He teases, picking up on my tone.
“She was listed in one of my mother’s many notebooks as someone who would be good in a situation such as this. I see my mother’s judgement was as strong as ever,” I raise an eyebrow and smirk gently.
“She made worse mistakes,” He retorts, holding up the hand with his silver ring on. I affect horror and pretend to sulk.
“Huh!” I turn my back to him, raising my chin in mock defiance.
“Taking a poor country boy, forcing him to marry her daughter and then leaving him in charge of a country on the brink of disaster,” He closes his fist over his heart and looks away wistfully, dragging his toe on the floor.
A plan occurs to me and my mouth draws up in mischievous delight. He’s still affecting emotional pain as I crouch down in the grass, my skirts billowing out in all directions. Like a coiled spring, I leap on him, knocking him into some shrubs at the edge of the lawn.
“Annie!” he shouts as he goes down, his face full of pure astonishment.
I can barely breathe for laughing. After a moment, he rolls over and joins me. Lying flat on his back, his laugh sounds as though it comes from the pit of his stomach. A hand grips my ankle while my eyes are closed and before I know it, I’m lying beside him. I squeal and throw a handful of grass at him but it only makes him laugh harder.
Gradually our peals of laughter die down and we find ourselves lying side-by-side in comfortable silence. The worries of the day fade back into the foreground of my mind and I could cry as the full weight of it comes crashing back to me.
“We’re going to die,” Aeron murmurs, quietly. I know he’s right so I can’t argue but I make a sound of denial.
“We don’t know anything for sure, Aeron,” I reply, staring at the grass beside my hand. I feel as though I’m looking for evidence of what happened here but all the time dreading finding it.
“We have no trained army, Annie. How can we possibly win?” He doesn’t infuse this question with anger, only despair.
“I don’t know, Aeron. Perhaps because we must,” I sound equally hopeless.
“We’re asking these boys to die for nothing,” he sounds bitter but in a way that seems beyond anger.
“They will die no matter what action we take, Aeron. If we don’t ask them to fight, then the people will know there isn’t hope and panic will set in. By having them here, we are sheltering the people for as long as we can from the truth,” I sound like a protective mother. I guess I am, though.
He stops talking and looks at me as though he can’t figure me out. I stare back at him, quizzically. It takes me a moment to realise that there’s pride in his look too. A small, long repressed, part of me jumps and dances in my chest.
“The people couldn’t ask for a better Guide, Annie,” he whispers before he rolls over, leans in and softly kisses my forehead.
The worries and troubles and fear melt away and I feel as though I melt with them until I am one with the sunshine.