I am a coward. I dismissed Aeron because I was scared of appearing weak. I want to send someone from the war council to execute Lina because she scares me. However, not even Lina scares me as much as potentially finding out that I am capable of killing my best friend.
I have decided to take back some control though, starting today. I love and care for my people in a way that the Watchers do not. They care only for the preservation of their power. It’s a shame it took Aeron for me to realise it as for too long my ruling over the Watchers has been symbolic only. Despite coming to this realisation, I am still fearful of executing my plan.
Sitting in the gardens usually brings me a sense of ease but today I feel a chill in my veins, despite the warm weather. I think of the day I came walking here with Aeron...the day he kissed me on the forehead. Something even more powerful than the fear washes through me and I’m taken aback by the realisation that I miss him. I can’t ask him to resume his duties, though. Indecision also looks weak and it’s not been long since I dismissed him.
I can see Barnelle searching for me in the rose garden, my usual hideaway. I chose the wild flower- the section of the gardens furthest from the palace- patch to give me a little extra time to myself before he summons me to my meeting with the Watchers. I have avoided this meeting for so long but now Arnaud is forcing my hand. I have no choice but to meet with them
The preparations for the meeting were horrific enough. I had to have my soul and body cleansed by an acolyte in the holy spring before they dressed me in these robes so that I am pure enough to enter the Watchers’ Halls Inner Sanctum. They’re white to show the purity of my body and soul. I used to take delight in these rituals, rich with tradition as they are; now I just find them laughable. Their reaction when they see the grass stains won’t be, though. Perhaps rolling down the hills in the robes is just one act of defiance too far... Oh don’t be a coward, Annie. You’re only doing this because you couldn’t find a way to bring up your anger vocally.
“Lady Annalisa!” Barnelle hails me, one arm raised in greeting. “You’re meeting with the Watchers stars in a few minutes!” His round face is red with the effort of finding me. Its colour nears purple as he takes in my dishevelled appearance.
“Thank you for reminding me, Arnaud. I had forgotten,” I say as I smile, my voice laden with faux sincerity. I blow one of the many loose strands of pale hair out of my face. Very little of it must still be secured in the decorative net at the nape of my neck and at the edges of my vision, I can see bits of wildflower tangled into the mess.
“Lady Annalisa...” his voice trails off disapprovingly. I wave my hands dismissively.
“Arnaud, I do believe we’re late for an important appointment,” I say, mock horror in my tone. “Do you not think we ought to go?” I widen my eyes innocently and place a hand over my heart melodramatically. He grunts in response.
He mutters about his wife being just as wilful as he winds his way back through the gardens with me in tow. I take this moment to remove the net from my hair and replace it in a way that looks artfully messy. I want them to think I’m being defiant, not that Arnaud caught me rolling around with Aeron in the woods. It could be worse, I muse. They could believe it was someone else. They probably would with the rumours of trouble in our marriage running rife.
I’ve straightened my grass-stained robes and am just finishing pulling the larger twigs out of my hair when we reach the door of the Watchers’ Halls. I nod my thanks to Arnaud for escorting me as is expected of me because, after all, I want to be seen as independent, not rude. I brace myself and open the doors.
Shocked stares follow me as I breeze through the cavernous main room. My bare, thorn-scratched feet pad noiselessly across the patterned marble floors but I couldn’t be attracting more attention. I smile my most serenely regal face and lift my chin confidently. Acolytes, apprentices and the usual congregation of worshippers, confused Students of Power and intrigued visitors from the other lands are all staring at me. Some are openly gaping. Word will spread. People will know that their Guide does not bow and show deference to anyone but King Jorleif —not the Watchers, not Arlenfen.
“Would you kindly escort me to Nikolai, Min?” I ask the apprentice nearest the door. I know her from the controversy she started in the palace a few months ago. She was to be a Student of Power but couldn’t cope with their teachings- the Wizards don’t believe in spirituality- and so retreated into her devotion, joined the Watchers and turned her back on her Power. I always respected her devotion but now I find myself questioning everything. I’m still not sure if my disillusionment with the Watchers is what’s causing me to turn my back on the spirituality I have thrived on for my entire life.
She looks horrified but nods mutely. I smile a very wide smile and gesture for her to lead. I also note- with some satisfaction- that she looks as though she might throw up. I do hope Nikolai is just as rattled.
The warren of corridors feels like it goes on forever and it’s only my carefully applied make-up that keeps me from becoming red in the face. Despite the marble floors remaining cool, the air is warm and humid down here. We’ve gone down a couple of flights of stairs and so I know we’re already quite deeply underground. The walls and floors are plain but still made of marble. Not even the palace is this grand underground.
We arrive at the Watchers’ Halls Inner Sanctum. Min doesn’t acknowledge my thanks and she stalks away, obviously furious at my appearance and lack of respect. I run my hands through my hair and over my dress to make sure I look crumpled enough and push open the door without knocking. I take a deep breath and ignore the racing of my heart.
“Anna—”Nikolai turns around and nearly chokes. “What is the meaning of this?” His voice is low and dangerous. The gathered assembly rumbles with unease.
My nerves are silenced by pure anger. He was going to address me as Annalisa. I realise he addressed me as Annalisa last time as well...before I threatened him. He honestly believes that he out-ranks me. A repeat of this slip shows my departing threat of our last meeting was ineffective.
“The meaning of what, Nikolai? You summoned me and here I am,” I say, my tone sweet aside from the one contorted word.
“How dare you defile the most important place in all of the North-Lands?” He voice is beginning to grow louder. It rumbles with his fury.
“Oh Nikolai, you really have lost sight of reality, haven’t you? Do you really believe I’ll let you take my role from me?” I say this in the same tone that I would use on a madman with an extra bit of condescension added for good measure.
“Take it? Oh, Annalisa—”
“Lady Annalisa,” I correct.
“Lady Annalisa,” he begins again, his tone shows that he feels he is merely indulging a child, “I have no need to take it from you. You run from your duties and leave gaps that we can easily fill. You’re handing your power to us of your own free will.”
“I do no such thing, Nikolai. I don’t know what you have told your assembly, but I always rule for the good of my people. The people know that and appreciate it.” I refuse to allow the anger I feel to seep through. I need to appear the calm and collected leader here.
I’m taken aback by his laughter. It echoes and rumbles through the cavernous room. Some of the assembly joins him but most just titter nervously. “Oh how naive are you, my dear? You think that your people will appreciate you allowing the girl who murdered their friends and families to escape because you’re too scared to go after her yourself? You don’t really think that Eleanora Weston and Erden Lyle will kill her, do you? They’re as cowardly as you are!”
I’m talking before I know what I’m saying. “Dear, dear, Nikolai. It appears your spy on the council is either keeping things from you or simply isn’t up to date. It’s been decided that I’m going to be going to the Lamoura Mountains with Aeron. We depart in the morning.” Oh no. Well, this’ll make Aeron happy. He’s been trying to convince the council that he ought to be one of those to go for ages. Although I think it might have been him wanting to avoid me...Maybe he won’t be too pleased.
“Ah, well go and save your people, Lady Annalisa. I look forward to your return,” he says, smiling. He thinks I’m going to die. I might die. Aeron had better be pleased with this turn of events.
I smile at him in a way I hope conveys how violently I’d like to behave towards him in this moment. He smiles at me in a way that conveys how much he’d like to kill me here and now then steal my circlet and dance on my secret grave. Maybe I’m reading too deeply into things.
Closing the door behind me, I realise how badly grass makes my scalp itch.