XXVIII. The Spoils of War
“Dead.” Alice slammed the report onto the table, scattering the sheets onto the floor. “Eight hundred and twenty-seven thousand people. Dead.”
Rémann swallowed hard and attempted to keep an imperturbable mien, as Alice shook with rage beside him, and the Queen and her guard loomed before them. Aislyn, however, had an impertinent snarl on her lips as she feigned interest in trimming her nails. Her two guards were in full regalia, flanking her and making the already cozy office even more confining. The deafening roar of the ticking clock marked an eternity in the ensuing silence.
“You killed them!” Alice screamed with the chiming of the hour.
“Lady Templeton, I need not remind one such as yourself that a certain level of decorum is required when addressing a Queen.” Aislyn droned as she held her nails up to the light. “To say nothing of levying unsubstantiated charges with such abandon.”
The air took on a distinct smell of ozone as Alice balled up a sheet of paper in her fist. Static burst intermittently around her as she glared at the impudent child who called herself queen. Rémann loudly cleared his throat as the sheet of paper began to smoke and blacken in Alice’s grasp. Alice relaxed her grip, closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“I represent the kingdom of Aes Sidhe, I am the mouthpiece for king Céolsige. the people of Sorn have always been our allies and protectorate, and by sending them to their deaths- “
“I’ve done no such thing.” Aislyn scoffed.
“-you’ve committed an act of aggression against the Kingdom of Aes Sidhe.” Alice finished, ever so slightly raising her voice.
“Understand I am only here as a courtesy lady Templeton, and you and your forces are here as guests. Please do not do anything to jeopardize this beneficial relationship.”
“They were civilians!” Alice growled through clenched teeth.
“They wanted to go home, who am I to stand in the way of a sovereign people trying to reclaim their homeland? They felt emboldened by that Sorn Commander Lord Aichlan sent down.”
The casual way in which she looked Alice in the eyes as she blatantly lied sent shivers down Rémann’s spine. He had heard tales of the “ice princess” before, but now that she was ice Queen, it put her previous exploits to shame. The degree to which she could switch between her personas was also quite jarring, from loving and doting wife to remorseless murdering bitch from one room to the next.
“Your actions may have jeopardized our operations in the region.”
Aislyn laughed and waved a hand in dismissal. “Hardly. If anything it might have pulled some of the pressure off of your friend Fiora. I heard they had run into a bit of trouble.”
An arc of lightning rippled up from Alice and danced off of her head to the chandelier, causing the guards to flinch and reflexively reach for their weapons. Aislyn smiled and held up her hand, urging them to stay theirs.
“Lady Templeton, the union between my house and that of Odell’s could bring about unprecedented cooperation between our two nations. I should hate to see that union broken by such a tragic and unavoidable event.” Aislyn stood and allowed her guard to put on her scarlet cloak. “When my husband returns, you can discuss things with him, I am certain he will be able to put this all into perspective and allay any, misgivings you may have.”
Alice stood trembling, her fists planted firmly on the desk, as Aislyn and her retainers left the small office, ostensibly to rule her kingdom. Rémann exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding in, and leaned back against the wall. Overhead, the chandelier was still swinging precariously, and several crystal bobbles crashed against the stone floor.
Between handling the affairs of the army and traveling between Marquez and Vergas, The Countess Templeton had also immersed herself into her studies. She had taken on a single mindedness that he had not seen before in her, and she was one of the most stubborn women he had the pleasure of knowing. On the surface, her devotion to the arts could be a means for her to destress, or stem from a desire to be more useful in a military capacity. Rémann’s fear however, was that she intended to challenge Osric. Now that queen Aislyn had essentially played her hand, revealing her to be self-serving at best and obstructionist at worst, they could no longer count on the kingdom of Duvachelles resources in the coming battles.
“That woman is insufferable…”
A chain holding up the chandelier snapped, and the whole rig canted to the side.
“I see you are focusing your efforts on mastering the lightning magics.” Rémann said drolly. “Though you may wish to reign it in a tad, my lady.”
Alice crumbled the scorched paper into ash. “Don’t be an ass Rémann.”
“Of course ma’am. Apologies.”
Alice summoned her cloak with a snap of her fingers, and a wave of her hand caused the garment to affix itself. “Come, I wish to see my nephew, and clear my head.”
* * *
The halls of the central palace were unusually busy, with servants bustling to serve nobles and city leaders awaiting an audience with the queen or her advisors. Several times Alice was accosted by some lord or lady demanding soldiers be sent to one province or another. By the third, she simply directed all complaints to General Eth, and hurried on her way with a wicked grin.
“Pardon me for asking My lady—“
Alice rolled her eyes with a mirthless chuckle. “I probably won’t, but you’ll ask regardless.
Alice glanced back at him with a half-smile. “Ask your question Master Rémann.”
“Thank you my lady. I am merely curious as to your renewed interest in studying your craft.”
“When have I not been thorough in all I have done master Rémann? My studies are not yet complete, and don’t wish for this sordid affair to affect my receiving a title befitting my standing and skill.”
“Ah, of course my lady, however…”
“Yes?” Alice said with an irritated huff.
“Well, I would be remiss if I did not remind you that you are effectively the heir to the throne, and it is my sworn duty to prevent any harm from befalling you. No matter what the source of said harm is.”
A pregnant pause hung between them before she answered. “Noted, I have no intention of engaging Osric in direct combat.”
Rémann scrunched his face in annoyance. He knew full well what that minor distinction of “direct” combat could entail for a woman like her. Still, a half victory was the best he could hope for under the circumstances, at least until he could broach the subject again.
“Thank you for your understanding My lady.”
“I get the feeling this isn’t the last I’ll be hearing on the matter, is it?”
“Your deductive skills are without peer my lady.”
Alice waved her hand in a dismissive gesture, and several tendrils of lightning leapt from her fingers and struck several lamp fixtures on the wall. She jumped in surprise and clamped her hand over her mouth to stifle a startled yelp. Fortunately, the only person’s present were two maids, who quietly continued with their duties once through casting angry leers their way. Rémann did not profess to know magic, but he did know that spells could not be cast without the accompanying words and or symbols.
“This is not the first time this has happened today even.” Rémann glanced over his shoulder as he hurriedly ushered Alice around a corner. “Is there something I need to know?”
Alice shook her head and quickened her pace. “No, I’ve just been experimenting with new ways to cast quickly, it will dissipate in a few hours.”
Rémann frowned, he knew her well enough to know when she lied. “Do we need to worry about any other elements? Will you spontaneously combust the drapes? Or bring a deluge upon the davenport?”
Alice scoffed, her eyes flashing with anger and annoyance. “That isn’t how it works.”
Rémann grabbed Alice by the shoulder and spun her to face him. “Then please, enlighten me, my lady.”
Alice struck him across the face. “How dare you!”
Rémann blinked, his cheek stung and he felt a tear welling, the strike had a bit of magic behind it. Be it intentionally or not.
“Apologies,” Rémann said stiffly through clenched teeth, “I shall accept my punishment once I am assured that I am fulfilling my duties.”
Alice put a hand to her hip and jabbed a finger in his face. “If you were anyone else…”
Rémann bowed slightly at the waist. “You humble me, my lady.”
“Oh, shut up. As I’ve said, I am experimenting with faster casting, as our enemies appear to be able to cast without incantation or symbol. It will pass in a few hours, or a day at the latest.”
“Will you only be manifesting, lightning?”
“Yes.” Alice sighed and took off her glasses to clean them. “Each person has an element they are most aligned with. By nature of being fey folk, most Aes Sidheans are aligned with either water or air, I am aligned with lightning.”
“I see, and is this dangerous?’
Alice smirked, though there was uncertainty in her gaze. “Only for those who don’t know what they are doing.”
Rémann frowned. “That is hardly reassuring.”
Alice rolled her eyes and continued down the hall. “Stop being an ass Rémann.”
* * *
Alice halted immediately upon entering the bedchambers of lord Aichlan and his wife, causing Rémann to bump into her and mumble several apologies. Upon spotting Siegrun by the fire, cradling the young lord, he groaned and placed a gentle hand on Alice’s shoulder. Alice quickly shrugged off his hand and stormed into the room.
“And what are you doing here?” She demanded.
“Oh, let her be love.” Ashe said as she entered the room, carrying a steaming mug and wrapped in her fur. “I invited her.”
She still had a maternal glow about her, dressed in a white chiton adorned with gold starburst patterns and meandros. Her feet were still bare, and her bosom seemed rather swollen.
Alice recoiled and aimed an accusatory finger at Siegrun. “What the devil for? Her mother murdered his grandfather!”
Ashe rolled her eyes and gave Alice a one handed embrace, holding her mug out to the side. “Good tae see ye too lass.”
Alice glared at Siegrun as she rocked the child, an uncharacteristic look of serenity on her face. Alice opened her mouth to protest, but Ashe silenced her with a finger whilst taking a sip from the mug.
“Ye need tae play nice if yer gonna keep comin’ here.”
“Hmph.” Alice crossed her arms across her chest and furrowed her brow even further. “First Aichlan, then Francis, and now you. Has this witch cast a spell on everyone?”
“I can’t speak fer Aichlan love, but as fer me an’ the Pie-rut, well…” Ashe shrugged. “In her own time perhaps she’ll speak to ye as well.”
Alice cut her eyes towards Ashe. “And what is that supposed to mean exactly?”
Ashe pulled Alice from the doorway and pushed her towards Siegrun. “Just go talk to her. Do ye want anything?”
“Don’t trouble yourself, you really ought to still be resting.” Alice handed her cloak to Rémann and ordered him off with a curt wave. “Rémann, go fetch us some coffee if you please.”
Rémann smiled tightly and turned crisply on his heels to carry out her request, tossing the cloak on the back of a chair as he left. Ashe joined Alice on the settee across from Siegrun, who looked down at the precious bundle in her arms and sang in the tongue of her mother. The very same mother that slew the infant's paternal grandfather. Alice felt her blood boil and quicken to her cheeks.
“What are you saying to him?” Alice demanded.
“I weave no spells, lady Templeton.” Siegrun planted a kiss on the child’s forehead. “It is just an old song my mother sang to me, one that all mothers sing where I am from.”
Alice held up her finger. “One, you aren’t his mother,” she held up a second finger for emphasis, “Second, he is not nor will he ever go to Rhodarcium, so stop poisoning my nephew’s virgin ears with that filth.”
Siegrun looked up, locking eyes with Alice. “He is my nephew as well, more so than he is yours even.”
Alice was silent for a moment, unsure if she had heard correctly. “What?”
Ashe pointed her mug in Siegrun’s direction. “That’s Aichlan’s half-sister.”
Alice’s face blanched, her eyes wide and mouth agape. She looked from one woman to the other, her mouth flapping like a fish as she struggled to find a voice and words to express her confusion.
Ashe laughed aloud. “That’s what I said!”
Alice closed her mouth, took a deep breath and drew herself up into a refined posture. “Prove it.”
“General Garrick and my mother were more than just adversaries, they were lovers as well.”
Alice closed her eyes and shook her head. “Lies, slander and blasphemy. Proof woman.”
Siegrun sighed and adjusted the weight in her arms. “Admiral Donnelyn can confirm everything-“
“No,” Alice said vehemently as she shook her head, “That man is a known liar and a drunk, I require more substantiated proof than that.”
“When General Garrick first met my mother, it was when they first made landfall in the port of Rheia. My mother’s battalion was essentially routed, and many surrendered, but she fought on. With two hundred soldiers, she held off three thousand for a day and a half, enough time for word of the Aes Sidhe invasion force to reach the main army. That delay cost the invaders the element of surprise, quickly putting them on the defensive as they attempted to push forward into now alerted enemy territory. He kept my mother captive, to be used as a bargaining chip later. It was during this time that I was conceived.”
“Lies!” Alice leapt up and shouted, causing the baby to stir.
A spark leapt from Alice’s head, causing Siegrun to flinch in surprise. Alice took a breath, clenching and unclenching her fists as current rippled across her body sporadically.
Alice sat back down and softened her voice, but not her tone. “Lies. General Garrick was not the kind of man to take advantage of a hostage so, and he was married. Happily, too, according to all accounts, including Aichlan.”
Siegrun handed the child back to its mother as he began to fuss all the more. “You misunderstand, General Garrick did not force himself upon my mother, if anything, I imagine it was the other way around. You see, as the situation turned dire for the invaders, and they were making preparations to retreat, my mother escaped her cage. She snuck into the general’s tent, and instead of killing him, she made me.”
Alice scrunched her face in disgust. “Stories, no matter how vulgar, do not constitute proof.”
Siegrun shrugged and gently rocked the infant. “There is more. When he left, he freed my mother.”
Siegrun surrendered the child to his mother and unfastened her jacket. She then unbuttoned her collar, reaching down into her chemise to pull out a pendant attached to a necklace. Siegrun looked to Ashe, who subtly nodded, and pulled the necklace over her head and held it up to the light. Alice recognized it immediately, for she was in possession of a similar pendant, with the same silver fasteners with emerald settings around a small white stone. And though he likely never wore it, she was certain Aichlan held one as well. It was a genealogy stone, the silver and emerald identifying it as belonging to an Aes Sidhean noble house. Siegrun removed a military insignia from her coat, and used the pin to prick her finger. She then dipped the stone into the blood, before she handed the necklace to Alice.
Hesitant, Alice took the jewel in her hands and closed her eyes. In her mind’s eye flashed names and faces going back twenty-five generations. The first dozen or so were pure fey, and the fifteenth was a name and face Alice recognized, the first human in Aichlan’s line, and the common ancestor between his lie and her own. The list narrowed, General Garrick appearing as a young knight in full regalia, his wife Cecilia, a fey woman of Tir nan og and their son Aichlan. Where that line should have ended, it split, connecting Garrick and an unknown woman as parents, and Aichlan as brother to Siegrun. Alice opened her eyes and was surprised to find them filled with stinging tears.
“My mother tracked him down, and while Garrick did not deny me, he refused to leave his wife for my mother.”
Alice looked down to the bloody trinket in her hands as sobs wracked her body. They were essentially impossible to forge, so there was little doubt it was genuine, but still she felt deceived and betrayed. She had looked up to Garrick, loved him as an uncle, and grew up on stories of his valor. Her cousin never shut up about him, about how he was an honorable man and great friend. Alice laughed at her naïveté, given some of the mischief Céolsige got into, it should have come as no surprise Garrick had a bastard.
“My mother was…”
“Fookin’ crazy from what ah hear.” Ashe said as she shushed and rocked the still fussy child. “What d’ye want from me child? Ye just had the titty.”
Alice clutched her dress in her fist, tears pooled in her glasses as she stared at the floor. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, these sorts of scandals were a common occurrence in courts across the continent, she had just thought Garrick to be beyond such petty, and daresay mortal trappings. It was wrong of her, but his legacy had come under fire before and made it through unscathed. Garrick was a hero in every sense of the words, and this…for her, this was a personal attack against what she held most dear.
Siegrun gently took back the necklace. “I suppose one could say that…”
Alice sniffed and wiped her nose on the back of her sleeve. “Why did she kill him then?”
Siegrun looked away, the room was silent save for the crackling fire, Ashe’s cooing and the child’s cries. Alice took off her glasses and wiped them on a cloth. She knew why the woman killed such a great man, jealousy; if she couldn’t have him, then no one would. Such was the mind of madness and Rhodarcians.
“Ah!” Ashe thrust the child into Alice’s arms. “Ye take lil’ Aelfric for a spell, I’ll get the herbs.”
Alice looked up in shock, tears flowing anew. “Aelfric? You used my name?”
Ashe smiled before rummaging through a satchel for the herbs she used to put the baby to sleep.
“Aelfric Ofir Idir Aibhneacha.”
Alice cut her eyes at Siegrun reflexively, but let the vitriol poised on her tongue subside. “Idir Aibhneacha means land between rivers, it’s more of a title than a proper name. If I recall, there are at least ten Idir Aibhneacha in metropolitan Briartach alone.”
“Oh…” Siegrun blushed and cast her gaze to her feet. “I just felt he should have some kind of surname.”
Alice continued to rock young Aelfric, who had settled down considerably. “He’ll be educated in Briartach, many fey only have the first name, he’ll have two in addition to being the grandson of General Garrick. I think he will do fine.”
“And who says we’ll be living in Briartach?” Ashe demanded. “I’m nae fond o’ city laif, too busy.”
“Of course you won’t. You and Aichlan will live at his estate in the country, Aelfric will attend Saint Nur’s for primary, and Labhraidh Lorc Preparatory school before going to university.”
“The country? What makes ye think I want tae live in the country any more than I’d live in the city?” Ashe teased. “Ah’d be more friendly tae a wee town or the like.”
“When you go to Westfaire, you’ll understand.”
Siegrun laughed. “And me? Where will I be staying.”
Alice flicked her hair back. “I don’t bloody well care where you go.”
“Cheeky!” Ashe chided. “I thought ye two worked this oot?”
“When?” Alice drew back and sat up straight, her nose to the ceiling as she channelled all her self righteous pomp. “I’ll grant her she may be Garrick’s bastard by some nefarious means, but by no means have we ‘worked this out’.”
The doors opened and Rémann backed into the room carrying a tray of coffee, followed by two servants carrying the pastry.
“And what the devil took you so long?” Alice demanded.
Rémann surreptitiously rolled his eyes as he set down the tray. “Apologies ma’am, I had a bit of difficulty procuring chocolate for the lady’s hot cocoa.”
Ashe nabbed one of the pastries as the servant set down the tray. “Didnae ye ask fer coffee?”
“The mark of a good servant is to anticipate their master’s needs, even when they say the opposite.” Alice said matter-of-factly.
Rémann pursed his lips in a thin smile. “You flatter me too much…”
Alice adjusted the precious bundle in her arms and accepted the cocoa from one of the servants. “Speaking of, do you know who this woman is?”
Siegrun abruptly stood. “If you’ll pardon me, I must be going. We can discuss this in greater detail later, privately.”
“Oh, I think not.” Alice took a sip of cocoa. “You cannot make such grand proclamations and then slip out when it comes under scrutiny.”
“Perhaps, Rémann should step ootside fer a moment while we clear this up…” Ashe said cautiously. “It’s a rather sensitive and personal matter this.”
“No, Rémann shan’t be going anywhere.” Alice trilled.
“I wasn’t…” Rémann said with only a hint of annoyance.
Alice set down her cup and gestured for Siegrun to remain. “Now go on, present him your evidence.”
Siegrun looked from Ashe to Alice, to Rémann and back to Alice. With a heavy heart and defeated sigh, she removed the pendant once more.