Eating breakfast with Aeron in our new quarters has become my favourite part of the day. Lunches are always hasty and usually eaten with the war council. Dinners are always official ordeals, full of rich gowns and expensive velvet and silk tunics. But breakfast is ours. We eat fruit and pastries and talk in a light-hearted fashion that feels impossible once the trials of the day have started.
We sit at the breakfast table in the living room. The padded benches and low table are behind us as our chairs are angled slightly towards the balcony, so that we may look out over the gardens. The balcony doors are open as the day is already warm and promises to be scorching.
“You’re wrong, Annie!” Aeron laughs, eating a slice of peach. “Eleanora looks far more like a rabbit than a horse!”
“No! Surely you can see that those teeth don’t belong on anything so small!” I reply, taking a sip of my orange juice.
My pale hair is still not bound up for the day and is hanging in loose curls down my back. I’m wearing only my white underskirts and bodice- my makeup already applied- as the unseasonal hot weather has continued. Aeron is wearing only his loose cotton tunic with the cream leggings he likes to wear on warm days. I haven’t the heart to tell him that they look silly when he isn’t wearing his boots. At least no one else will- he’s my husband to tell.
My Husband. I can’t believe the change in my attitude towards him and that word and how quickly it has come about. I look at our lives now and, disregarding our impending doom, they don’t look too bad. I am glad than my final weeks will be the happiest of my life.
“Oh but you forget the nose!” Aeron’s smile is full of teasing. “Combined with the nose, her face is definitely that of a rabbit.”
“No, no. Her nose is far too long to resemble a rabbit’s,” I shake my head, still laughing.
His eyes are creased with mirth as he holds up his hands in mock surrender. I smile warmly in return and stand to begin twisting my hair in front of the mirror into its usual style.
“I prefer it down, you know,” Aeron comments from the other side of our sitting room. We insisted on rooms that joined a communal sitting room and balcony as opposed to living in separate wings of the palace as some ruling couples did. I know that Lord Ethyrir of the West-Lands and his wife sleep in separate buildings, even. It’s supposedly for security but everyone knows that they can’t stand each other. We both agreed that avoiding such a reputation would be beneficial for the both of us.
“Why? It just gets in the way,” I call back to him as I walk into my room to collect my hair pins and comb. There’s a long pause before he answers.
“It smells nice – a mixture of lavender and you,” his reply comes quietly from the room behind me but it makes me smile broadly to myself.
I don’t reply but he sees my smile as I re-enter the sitting area, already pushing pins into my hair. I wait until I’m in front of the mirror again before I slide the silver comb in to decorate and secure it all. I’m looking at it from several angles to check its position when Aeron comes up behind me. He wraps his arms around my waist and presses his face into my hair.
“I can still smell it but I’ll have to get right up close,” he says, his voice is loud beside my ear, despite his lowered tone and his voice being muffled by my hair. My heart stutters but I turn, look at him with playful disapproval and go to collect my dress from my room. I’ve thought of getting a mirror installed in there but then I thought why would I do that?
Aeron helps me into my dress- a fact that causes no end of both amusement and bemusement among my dresser, Helenia, and my other ladies- and I secure his neck tie. He still can’t do it for himself. We’re checking our clothes and hair over for the last time when we hear the usual knock at the door.
“Come in,” I call lightly after we’ve both moved away from the mirror and have picked something up to busy ourselves with. It wouldn’t do for the guide and her husband to appear anything but effortlessly perfect. The door opens and a boy I don’t recognise of about thirteen is standing just outside, clutching an envelope as though his life depends on it.
“Lady Annalisa, Leader of the Powerful Aeron,” he greets us, his voice wavering slightly as he inclines his head. “I have a message from Advisor Barnelle for Lady Annalisa.” He steps forward and presents the envelope.
“Thank you, Eritai,” I reply, reading the name sewn onto his lapel. I take the heavy envelope from him and smile reassuringly at him as he inclines his head once more and retreats out of the door, closing it behind him.
“I wonder what gruelling schedule Barnelle wants to suggest for today,” I muse, running my hands over the expensive paper of the envelope as I walk to collect my silver letter knife.
“No, the real question is how Eleanora will get the suggestion refused this time,” Aeron replies, smiling as he collect the notes he made during yesterday’s assembly.
I give a short laugh and open the letter with a crack. As I unfold it, I am surprised to find how few words are on the page. This note holds no suggestions, only a demand.
Please meet us in the Watchers’ Halls at your earliest convenience. It would do us all a great deal of good if you could make it sooner rather than later,
I hand the paper to Aeron to read as I collect my own notes and my fan while sliding my feet into a pair of shoes without heels in case Aeron and I go for our usual walk.
“Is he allowed to speak to you in such a manner?” Aeron asks, his brows drawn together but raised slightly in a mixture of outrage and puzzlement.
“It would be frowned upon but Arnaud is not a rude man. I can only presume that something we didn’t expect has cropped up,” I shrug it off. I must admit to being stung slightly by Arnaud’s terse note but I have gotten to know him well enough to know he probably wanted to ensure my swift arrival without giving away details.
“I wonder what it could be to cause him to forget his manners so completely,” Aeron wonders aloud. I smile at him being more insulted than I am, lean up to kiss his brow and then we sweep from the room, nodding to my guards as we pass.
“What is it, Arnaud?” I call, still storming down the walkway into the main chamber Watchers’ Halls. My voice bounces around the grey stone walls and my displeasure is evident from my tone. I may believe he has a good reason, but it wouldn’t do for him to become comfortable with using such a tone with me.
“Lady Annalisa, I apologise for resorting to such brusque words when requesting your presence. I wouldn’t have done it had I not been most...unsettled by a sudden turn of events,” Arnaud is immediately apologetic. I let my face soften slightly as I approach him. However, my brow soon furrows in a gesture so Aeron-like that I would have laughed had his words not have worried me.
“Lady Annalisa...”he starts before his voice trails off and he looks around nervously, not meeting my eye. “People keep dying in the streets.”
“The work of a murderer?” I ask, not relaxing in the slightest. There has to be a catch here. He wouldn’t have resorted to such rudeness had this not been especially concerning.
“In the conventional sense – no,” he says, his face grave as he shakes his head gently. “These people are being killed through magic, Lady Annalisa, in broad daylight. They just drop down without any obvious cause.”
“What kind of magic are we talking about?” I ask gently, my gaze flickering to Aeron as this is his area of expertise. He looks grim.
“That’s the problem. They have no physical marks on their bodies and no clear cause of death. There’s an indescribable feel of...nothingness that surrounds them, though. Once you’ve felt it, you can’t deny that it’s magic,” Arnaud’s expression is grim. I’m waiting for him to say the words that are obviously burning his lungs to escape.
“Is there anything else you’d like to add, Arnaud?” I ask, prompting him gently
“Lady Annalisa...this is my own speculation but I’ve seen some of the victims and I have to say...they don’t appear dead,” his voice is quiet.
My mind instantly jumps to the dead man in my room and the sickening sound of his head dragging across the floor. Bile rises in my throat.
“How do they appear, then?” I ask, my voice so quiet that my fear of his reply is evident.
“Well...it’s as though they were never alive.” As chilling as this news is, I relax. Not the creeping dead, then. If I have one, tiny selfish wish, aside from my country and people’s safety, it’s that I never have to see a corpse under a compulsion spell again. “The bodies don’t stiffen or decompose and there’s no sense that whatever is left was ever a person.”
“Oh...” I say impossibly quietly before letting my voice trail of completely. One glance at Aeron tells me that he’s as clueless as I am.