Sedhuin scans the darkness underneath the trees as though he suspects a hidden threat to lurk there, summoned by his candid words about the queen of Baramond.
“Only tyrants pass judgment without grounds,” he says at last. “Emperor Thedric was not one. He required proof for the accusations Ellyan and his allies leveled against Queen Ingharad. They never found it. Worse, Ingharad learned of their efforts.”
“Were they betrayed?” Stellia asks.
“Perhaps. Ellyan’s visit to the Emperor was a secret known to few besides himself. But the need to secure Thedric’s support was desperate, and so all of Ellyan’s allies were called upon to use what resources they had to find evidence of the queen’s guilt. It was only a question of time until her spies discovered what was going on.”
“I imagine she struck at once.”
“Ingharad is nothing if not patient. She bided her time, waiting for the right moment. Like a spider. Fortune—ill fortune—favored her. Thedric died. Prince Ansil disappeared. Ingharad went to Jontar to quell the Okasti uprising, and rose from mere benefactor of the clergy to Defender of the Faith. She could have attacked the conspirators then, flush with glory as she was. And yet she waited. Two years and a half she let go by. Hope for Ansil’s return dwindled, and still the Guardian refused to name a successor to the Imperial throne. Uncertainty spread among the people of the Realms. Who would protect them, if there was no Emperor? Uncertainty turned to fear, which is the kindling of hatred. The time was ripe for a holy warrior to uncover a nest of vipers in the midst of Ingharad’s kingdom, and smite them without mercy.”
Sedwin exhales heavily. “Ingharad’s patience was uncanny. It seems almost as though she foresaw the calamities that would pave her way to vengeance, and the days in which we now live.”
Stellia pulls his cloak more closely around her shoulders. “What days are these?”
“Days where none bother to question the motives of a murderous zealot, even when she puts the execution before the verdict.”
“So the queen finally killed her opponents?”
“She struck everywhere at once, without warning,” Sedwin says. “In the same night, at the same hour. Many a castle gate was opened to the queen’s soldiers from within, for she had long planted the seeds of betrayal, turning servants against their lords, friends against friends. Ingharad showed no mercy. Every man, woman, and child in the households that supported Ellyan was slaughtered. Some of the rebellious lords were supposedly taken alive and brought to Ingharad’s torture pits, where it is said they pray for death to this very day. But aside from such rumors, we had no news of survivors from any noble house that opposed the queen. Until today.”
“Then perhaps Ingharad does not know that Nevynne is still alive,” Stellia says.
“The queen would never have failed to ascertain whether any of her enemies’ heirs escaped the slaughter,” Sedwin says. “And even if Nevynne was reckoned among the dead by some error, any servant of Ingharad’s would stand to be rewarded for correcting it. Nevynne will never be safe, Stellia. Not while the Stillborn Queen rules in Baramond.”
“Did the people of Baramond not wonder why their queen would commit such an injustice?”
“Most of them saw little cause to wonder,” Sedwin replies. “The morning after that bloody night, Ingharad’s heralds announced that a conspiracy had been uncovered among heretical Baramondine nobles with the aim of assassinating their queen, seceding from the Empire, and renouncing the Faith. Signed confessions were produced implicating everyone even remotely linked to Ellyan’s alliance, and giving proof of treasonous attempts to make common cause with Okasti rebels. So immediate and pernicious was this threat, the queen asserted, that no time could be lost, and no warning to the traitors risked by bringing formal accusations, lest they escape their rightful punishment. And what did the people of Baramond do upon hearing this? They cheered their virtuous and heroic queen, whose wisdom and valor had saved them from such evil.”
“Even though her soldiers slew entire families, including children?”
“I hear Ingharad wept for their fate to great effect, even as she declared that the offspring of infidels are the seed of heresy, which must not be suffered to sprout. Frightened people are quick to close their hearts to pity, Stellia. Most could never with their own hands hurt or kill another, but they will readily applaud more ruthless creatures who do so in their stead. Those who did abhor Ingharad’s ferocity soon learned the dire price of speaking out. The Stillborn Queen brooks no dissent, and I’ve heard all I need to hear about her to believe that for all her displays of piety, she is no less savage now than she was in her youth. She has spies and minions everywhere, in her own land and beyond. The spiders in the rafters are said to be her eyes and ears, as are the rats in cellars and sewers. Do not hold it against Nevynne that she is slow to trust anyone. Death is the least she would have to fear, if she revealed herself to the wrong person. Even a face like yours might be nothing more than a lovely mask.”
Stellia is so chilled by his account that the flattering remark almost fails to register with her. She casts a look at Nevynne sleeping quietly by the small fire.
“What must it be like,” she whispers. “To lose everything and everyone that ever meant anything to you. To be hunted everywhere you go, never knowing if a friend is not an in truth an enemy.”
“Let us hope you never find out.”
Stellia turns back to Sedwin. “But what of the Guardian? She can’t simply have done nothing.”
“Can’t she?” Sedwin’s lips curl in a bitter smile. “It seems the Guardian values the unity of the Faith above all principles of justice. Why would she question the actions of her loyal servant, the Scourge of the Faithless, whose ardent resolve already broke one uprising of heretics in Jontar?”
“Because Duke Ellyan and his allies deserved a chance to defend themselves, to clear their names!” Stellia barely manages to keep her voice down lest she disturb the sleepers. “Instead of being butchered in the night along with their families, by their own queen!”
Sedwin’s expression, turned dark during his account of Ingharad’s cruelty, brightens a little. “Thedric would have said the same.” After a pause, he adds, “And Prince Ansil, as well. It is good to see that in their absence not all of their subjects have ceased thinking for themselves.”
“It’s not something many people value where I come from,” Stellia says. “Especially in a girl. Women with thoughts on matters other than marriage and children are deemed peculiar at best, and a liability at worst. As for the men, the Parson does their thinking for them.”
“That is a shame,” Sedwin says. “I think they might have much to learn from someone like you.”
“You’re kind to say so,” Stellia mutters, hoping that the sudden heat rising into her face does not cause it to redden. They stand together silently for a while, gazing into into the sky, where the first stars are blinking through the receding rain clouds. At last, Stellia feels a touch of sleepiness. But she does not want her time alone with Sedwin to end.
“How is it that you know so much of all these things? Of Ingharad’s rise, and the truth about Ellyan’s alliance against her?”
“Travelers hear many tales, if they care to listen,” he says. “And one should always listen. Much of what one hears is idle gossip, some rumors, some utter fancy. But not all. Over time, one learns to tell the difference. It is a worthwhile skill. Some tales are as valuable as gold.”
“Or someone’s life, in Nevynne’s case.”
“Or someone’s life, indeed. A good lesson to remember.”
Stellia hesitates before asking the question now on her mind. He may think her overly inquisitive, and perhaps even be irritated. But a better moment may not come along anytime soon. “And was it through listening to tavern talk and gossip that you learned what you know of Lord Osdath’s mission? My brother can’t be the only reason you are following Lord Osdath. Will you not tell me what connects you to this man?”
Sedwin’s expression grows very stern. Stellia braces herself for a terse response and the end of their conversation. But he takes a deep breath, and when he turns toward her, the look in his eyes is grave but gentle.
“Perhaps one day,” he says. “Tales that are worth lives are a heavy burden, Stellia. Do not be so eager to learn too many of them. Now go and try to sleep. I’ll wake Garroth to take the next watch. Perhaps if you don’t have to listen to his snoring for a while, you can at last find some rest.”
“I did not mean to pry,” she mutters. “It’s just—”
“I know.” To her great relief, he smiles again. “Good night, Stellia.”
“Good night.” She returns to the fire and lies down. She is sleepy now, but for what seems like a long time, her thoughts keep returning to the slaughter Ingharad committed in Baramond. Entire families, women and children. Extinguished in the name of the Faith. Because they sought truth, and justice.
How can the Guardian be so blind?
At long last, Stellia’s troubled musings give way to the haphazard jumble of images and visions, some dark, some meaningless, some pleasing, that mark the boundary of sleep, and in the last moment before she crosses it, she realizes that she is still wrapped in the warmth of Sedwin’s cloak.
In spite of everything, she falls asleep with a smile on her face.
NEXT: Tales Worth Lives