Rien’s Rebellion 17 – 5 Imbris 1138 Rien

Rien

5 Imbris, 1138

“Go,” I said for the ninth time as Avah and I checked off the manifest of records and legal books for the carter to take to the docks. The steam launch to Celestan would take us tomorrow at noon, and I, for one, anticipated the three days of enforced leisure. “It’s your family party, please, if you don’t go enjoy it, I will be highly irritated.”

“Rien, you’re leaving, too. We skipped your birthing day and I shan’t let you sit alone in an empty house while I  — “

I spun her around and gave her a small shake. “Avah, all I want tonight is a cassia bun and a book and a night’s sleep. I already told Ethene and Mina and Meri goodbye, that I cannot manage more and they entirely understood, so please, follow their examples. I’m exhausted.”

“At least have supper with Ragin,” she wheedled. “You shan’t see him for at least a half-year.”

“Ragin can’t avoid this meeting with the Minister. If he’s finished before ninth hour, I promise I will accompany him to a tavern for a little while, all right?”

We continued to argue desultorily as the afternoon wore on, but eventually, Avah agreed to go without me to her farewell party. In part, I didn’t want to accompany her because I was tired — mortally tired, and I counted my continued ability to construct sensible sentences a minor miracle — but also because I knew what would happen were I present. Her family event would turn into a political symposium and ruin it for everyone. Sometimes, I think the Selenars, Haelens and Linschots are more offended by my deposition than I am. That’s what I get for having the daughter, niece and cousin of three Royalist Teregenis as my companion. Thanks again for that, Da.

I acceded to Avah’s wishes and took a cab instead of walking alone, but mostly because cold wind had brought early spring rain. Ragin, too, would soon return to the west; if his meeting tonight went well, the Minister of War would transfer his charges to the Courts Martial. Six tendays after Da’s death, the world was settling into its altered rhythm.

My route always took me past the circle where Reginal Tiwendar lived, and again, I was tempted to stop. I wanted to understand what they had so feared in me, and to know why he apologized when he too had declared me illegitimate. Perhaps he had argued against their decision, lost and remained compelled by his own shames or crimes to keep silent. I couldn’t help him now, but he didn’t need my help. The corruption file had been moved from the Judicatura back to the Recordia under Prava House where all disused documents slowly turned to dust. I still wanted to know why I saw two men in his body. And I wanted to tell him that someone, somewhere managed to alter his perceptions. I’d seen it three times and seen it break three times. I couldn’t decide why a touch brought him back to himself. Was it just mine? That seemed absurd. I am a barely competent Ingenia in most things except Advocacy. Perhaps I could warn Reginal to make use of his aide and his bodyman more, or convince him to find a Mind Healer or an Ingenia tutor to monitor him. But I didn’t stop, as I had never stopped. The whole notion of a… what? A spell? An incantation? That was nonsense, something out of a saga. The House of Galene tends towards half-mad to begin with — telling him what I’d seen would just convince him I’d lost my way over the twist. Which might not be a bad rumor to spread. But I doubted I’d even get the chance to ask Tiwendar why, so I didn’t stop.

The baker near our office provided me with a ham and cheese bun and the cassia bun I craved; when we took over number six, I wasn’t surprised to learn that I could not be permitted near the kitchen. I can assemble foods like fondal and salads, and cut bread, but if it requires that strange alchemy called cooking, I’m actively destructive. Fortunately for my purse, I liked the Cimenaran specialty of buns stuffed with sliced, cured meat and cheeses, and the vast variety of hot noodles in an infinite array of sauces from the noodle shops. Such sustenance made up a good half of Cimenarum’s diet, and perhaps the novelty appealed to me; the Karsai kitchens had run to high formality.

I assembled the last of a net bag of glasshouse greens and cucumber and a pot of fondal, then cleaned up and let the warmth of the sitting room’s oil stove draw me in. After the chronic chill of the Karsai, I’d fallen in love with oil stoves’ reliable, steady heat.

Though the book I’d chosen contained an enthralling story, vivid characters and language, I’d spent six tendays sleeping poorly, walking far more than I ever had previously, and in a constant state of tension. Human bodies just aren’t built for sustained anxiety and mine finally gave up the fight. After all, I was safe in my own house, leaving my uncle’s ambit. In the quiet solitude of home, I let myself first doze, then sleep, the first true, deep sleep I’d managed since Avah woke me in the middle of the night.

Hours or minutes later, I woke gasping for air, my face pressed into Ethene’s brocaded settee cushion.  Sharp corners — my book — dug into my upper right arm and breast; my left was wedged between my body and the unyielding settee frame. Both ran with pain and the prickles of constriction.  I could not breathe, but the world seemed to smell of incense and beeswax, lilac and lavender. This was wrong — Ethene’s furniture had absorbed her lemon and laurel scent.

Then I felt the cold, as if the oil stove had failed or I had been transported back to the Karsai. A draft snaked up my legs to my hips. I remembered falling asleep; I had not changed from my long, narrow black skirt and matching waistcoat when I arrived home. I could feel one stocking top still mostly in place above my knee, but the other felt crumpled around the top of my low boot.  Worse, there was weight crushing me to the silk-covered cushions. A harsh wool utterly unlike the smooth worsted of my suits scraped against my naked leg.

I came awake at once, entirely aware that my lungs were straining for air and the rest of my body was screaming for notice. The edge pressing into my calf — a boot-heel. The line of tiny pressures against my spine, almost lost in the greater crush — buttons. The circle of pain drilling into my scalp — fingers — meant someone was pressing me into the cushions. For a half-second, I knew this was the assassination attempt that would succeed and despair swept me into its tide. No matter how insignificant I make myself, they’re never going to stop. Maybe it’s time to just get it over with.

One final report from my various bits finally outshouted my laboring lungs. Something hot, moist and sinuous lay between my thighs. Despair’s fickle tide swept out and the knowledge of what was happening swept in. I am being raped. This isn’t murder. For another half-second, the realization stunned me and nonsensically, the Advocate who lives inside my head began scribbling down every sensation for use in some future case. Fortunately, my lungs reminded the rest of me that we would all die if I did not breathe very soon now. That meant a fight — everything else can wait until I can breathe.

Simin’s long years of training took over. My first defense in an attack is my ingeniae — but I can’t breathe, I can’t inhale puissance! Without puissance, I couldn’t invade the mind and send it into a fit or summon fire to light my attacker’s clothing and drive it — him — off me. More pain, then — deep and sharp in the muscle of my thigh, grinding at the bone, trying to wedge my legs, bound in my narrow skirt, apart. I bucked my hips up against the body lying atop me and thrashed hard, using my last air to get more.

“Why don’t you love me?” he whispered into my ear. “It’s always someone else for you, but I’m the only one who loves you.” His movements — thrusts — sped. I clenched my thighs together with all the strength of twenty years in the saddle and convulsed again. No guards, no hallyer, no librarian downstairs. No Avah. Nobody to hear. I fought harder, even as I recognized my cousin’s voice.

My lungs caught fire as I writhed, trying to get my arms free. Numb and prickly they might be, Savrin might outweigh me, but — just get one arm free!

I had no air left with which to scream, no puissance to ravage his mind into a seizure, no assistance —

The hand left my head and the weight lifted. I arched my neck, drawing greedy gulps of thick, cloying air. It didn’t matter. It was air and puissance.

But the puissance felt wrong, jagged and sharp, as if it would hurt to use. I’d never encountered anything like that, and it startled me for just a second too long.

I never felt the blow. It came as a sun-bright light in my dark sitting room, then a heavy grey fog that turned me limp. Nausea followed almost at once, and pain radiated from the back of my skull down my neck, along my spine, out into my already straining shoulders. It knocked me defenseless, save for that tiny Advocate somewhere in my mind.

It was she who noted dispassionately the wet heat flooding the back of my legs, and my cousin’s groan. She felt his spasms and pointed out that with each one, the top of my head banged lightly into the arm of the settee.

A panicked nausea took hold then, a combination of my concussed brain, disgust and horror, and the twisted, sickly puissance still circulating in my Ingeniae. My rebelling stomach did what nothing else — not a superior mind nor years of training — could do. Stinging stomach acid filled my nose and throat. I couldn’t cough. No air. But that pain in my nose brought clarity.

Savrin will smother you on your own vomit while he rapes your warm corpse if you don’t fight now.

Nonsensically, I almost laughed. Avah, we were nowhere close to the bottom of the well of desperation.

It worked. I craned my neck enough to inhale again, hard, despite the cold raking my throat and nose. The first breath made me cough, the second threatened another retch. I knew then that I dared not use this puissance. If merely breathing it made me ill, using it might very well make my brain bleed. First defense down. Savrin’s bigger and stronger, but he’s distracted — he’s just shattered. Use it.

I had no weapons, not even my arms, but he was balanced atop me with his most vulnerable points exposed. This settee wasn’t wide; if I could overbalance him, I could get free enough to run, or at least fight. I pressed my face and toes into the cushion for leverage to wiggle my arms out. They might be numb, but I needed them free.

My movements caught Savrin’s attention, and his hand returned to the back of my head. He didn’t press down this time; he wound his fingers into my coiled, braided hair and pulled. New pain shrieked through my scalp and neck. My body bent backwards from the waist in an arc, but it freed my arms. Blood surged back into them, so painful that I cried out from the combined agonies. “Good,” he said, his lips at my ear. “I want you to hurt. I didn’t want to force you, but you won’t listen, you won’t obey. You gave me no choice.”

He thrust me down, hard and my face bounced against the arm of the settee. I knew what was coming and turned just enough that my nose wasn’t shattered. But it broke nonetheless. The world turned white again and the hand, still clenched in my hair, yanked me up again. The other, too heavy and hard to be empty, crashed into the side of my face. And again. And again. Back. Sides. Face. 

His prong against me stirred again as he tried to pry open my legs, but even half-maddened, desperate to escape, I wanted him thwarted. My muscles burned as I held myself together long enough for my arms and hands to regain some sensation.

Nothing save a blade could have made that cold, sharp line against the back of my neck. “You’ve no right to this, my beloved,” Savrin said, sounding far too rational. “You’re no Prazia. I’m your only peer, your only equal. What is wrong with you? Just a whore like my mother. You’d spread your legs for a treaty, but not me. Love’s meaningless to you. Why do I want you? Why can’t I purge you from me? Do you know how often I’ve prayed to be relieved? He told me what to do. When I’m done, I won’t want you anymore. Nobody will.”

The hiss came through my skull rather than my ears, like a worn banner ripping in the wind, without pain. It was an advantage for me — without my hair, Savrin could not get a good grip on my head again. I had been more or less limp since his first blow, which I now supposed had been delivered with the hilt of his knife, but that had been intentional. I needed Savrin to think me mostly incapacitated. As my still-coiled hair thumped on the floor, I took my chance. He had my hips pinned beneath his own, but I only needed to twist my upper body. The rest would come on its own.

Rolling my shoulders wrenched something deep and low in my back, and as my left arm came up, he caught my wrist and wrenched, but that, I expected. New pain joined the others as a deep throb of bass, but I’d felt it before in swordwork, and I knew it could be Healed. I pulled hard against Savrin’s grasp, not caring if I hurt myself,  but using that resistance to further distract him. My right arm would not punch well, thanks to the angles, but all I needed was to get my fingers to his face. A thumb in the eye, or a hard twist on his nose and I’d be free.

I twisted my left arm free, feeling something pop and tear in my shoulder. Brief, terrible pain shot down my arm and up into my neck, followed almost immediately by a more frightening numbness. I couldn’t feel my hand, and half-pinned and twisted, I lacked power, but I threw the punch as taught, explosively from the shoulder.

The shock when my knuckles met Savrin’s jaw sped up my arm to mix sickeningly with the nausea. I pulled back for another and in that moment, heard running footsteps. In less than the time it took for me to register the change, the weight on my legs vanished and Ragin hauled Savrin off me. He threw Savrin to the floor.

“Rien — ” he started.

Savrin bounced to his feet. I looked away, having already seen too much. Half-disrobed, entirely aroused and utterly shameless. Incomprehensible fury, lust and — is that madness? — showed on his face.

Horrified comprehension and recognition crossed Ragin’s face as he turned on Savrin. He couldn’t summon words as his fists lashed out. Jabs to Savrin’s middle, hard blows to his chin. Ragin,  always the better warrior, drove him towards the wall but rage made Savrin formidable.

They were so deep inside their mutual hate that I managed to creep painfully upright and rasp repeatedly before I realized they wouldn’t hear me. Their hands were round each other’s throats, knees and foreheads flying, all technique forgotten as they both sought blood.

I could summon neither breath nor strength to stop them. My throat burned, my body ached and standing made the world spin. My voice in my ears turned my head into a puddle of pain like the cooling slick between my legs. I almost let them kill each other. It solves several problems.

My water-glass smashing into the wall a yard from their heads got their attention. Silence.

“Ragin, back away,” I croaked. “Stand down, both of you, or neither of you will move for a couple hours.” They both knew I could reduce them to twitching, mindless lumps on the floor with one inhalation of puissance. I think they believed I would. I considered it. I’m already sick, in pain and half-dead. More won’t hurt. Much. But that sensation of wrongness in the air lingered, and right now, the threat stood.

“You’re defending him?” Ragin shouted as he took three steps away, staring at Savrin like a weasel fixed on a snake. “He — “

“Did not,” I said, watching Savrin. His… actions were brutal, but stupid. He hasn’t been Razin long enough for the country to grow complacent. The slime he left on me and what’s in my mind can — will — turn the nation against him. I can’t depose him but I can make his reign almost impossible.

He knows it, too. For the first time in my life, I saw Savrin fear me. I lack land, title, money… but he just sprayed power on me.

Power I must use to protect Ragin. He’d become Prim Ascendar when I ceased to be Prazia, but he hadn’t been confirmed yet. Right now I’ve nothing, but Ragin has everything to lose. The Prava would gleefully use assault on the Razin to bar him. Ragin balanced on a legal tight-wire. The Prava can only take my life now, but Ragin must remain Prim Ascendar. Galantier requires an heir.

I made my voice cold and flat through my burning throat. “Yes, General Revinsel, I am defending the Monarch of Galantier.” And saving your hide from a treason charge.

“Get out, Ragin. I’m ordering Rien to marry me. Immediately.” Savrin tucked himself into his clothing and tried to smooth his hair, though his shaking hands just disarrayed it further.

“No, Savrin.” My words sounded mushy and indistinct and my jaw sent lances of fire into my head with each movement. Something was definitely broken. “I’ll go directly to Royal Traumatic,” I said, moving my mouth as little as possible, “and levy a charge of rape and attempted murder. A Perceptive will read my mind before dawn and confirm it. I’ve enough allies in the Metropolita, the Judicatura and amongst the broadsheet editors to ensure you’re charged and tried. You’ll overturn the sentence, but even the Monarch can’t stop a trial with this much evidence. You’ll lose Prava support — maybe even the Reformists. They hate me, but probably not enough to withstand popular opinion. You’ll remain Monarch in name only. They’ll appoint a Regent — maybe me, probably Ragin, certainly not Mathes.”

He looked defiant, so I lobbed my last weapon. “Were I you, I wouldn’t worry about the Prava. I’d fear the Brumalis of Lethis. He won’t tolerate a Lethian priest caught in rape. They’ll condemn your soul, probably incubilate you. Your new order hasn’t yet supplanted the old and rape’s the worst sin a Lethian priest can commit. Wrath and unchastity.”

He’d gone pasty as I spoke, his face reflecting the moonlight falling through the window behind me. He looked impossibly young, a child playing in cast-off robes, not a man of almost twenty-four, but I didn’t trust the appearance. I knew better.

“Unless,” I started.

“No,” Ragin snarled. He snatched my coat from the wall-hook by the still open door. “We’re going. Now.” He threw it at me, but I let it fall to my feet.

“Unless I have your agreement,” I said. “Ragin and I leave tomorrow. The charges Mathes filed will be dropped and you’ll file none. You won’t harm Ragin. Your Minister of War won’t move Ragin’s command into direct peril. Ragin remains Prim Ascendar. He retains my former lands and his own. You let me live as a private citizen. Tell the world I’ve gone into seclusion with my mother.”

“I didn’t get it in,” Savrin said crudely.

“Close enough for rape charges,” I said. “Your incompetence doesn’t alter intent. The Prava and people won’t care. I’ve nothing to lose — “

“You can’t sacrifice yourself — ” Ragin said, picking up my coat and setting it on my shoulders. “Come now, Rien.”

“Shh.” I put my fingers to his lips.

“Except your honor and your precious virtue,” Savrin sneered.

“That’s mine,” I challenged. “You couldn’t take it if you held me down and let every man in Cimenarum rape me bloody.”

“Why shouldn’t I? You’re a whore — “

“Never — ” Ragin started but I clamped my hand over his mouth.

“Because I will ruin you, Savrin.”

First imperiousness, then insults and now, on cue, just like the last three years, he turned craftily apologetic. I knew the pattern, and in pain and the cold emptiness where my bottled feelings should have been, I heard the lies. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. You know I love you. I can’t bear for you to leave, I can’t do this alone. Don’t go.”

I pressed my fingers into Ragin’s jaw. The last thing I needed was his temper — or his protective streak. I said nothing, waiting. Sav will tell me what he thinks I want to hear. At least he’s predictable.

“Rien, I’m sorry. I was stupid and frightened — I came to thank you, to ask you to reconsider — I couldn’t help myself. Please don’t leave. Stay with me. Marry me.”

I controlled — barely — my horrified laugh at his grotesque proposal. You nearly killed me and now this? I’m supposed to accept?

“You’ll be Razia. You’ll rule. Don’t go.”

I had to consider it, though Ragin’s shudder and the subtle shake of his head told me his opinion. Marrying Savrin would be easiest. I’d control Savrin with my body while I consolidated my power.

But the most important reason I’d consistently refused him remained — I have one chance to bear a healthy child. My cousins couldn’t waste their chances on me and were I restored to my place, I can’t be easily divorced. Galantier’s future demands we all marry others.

Then again, I’ve survived the worst. I’ll survive it again. If spreading my legs and reciting fiduciary law keeps Savrin happy while I subvert the Prava and keep Galantier functioning…

Ragin shook his head again, harder. He’s right. The path of ease runs straight through the sewers to hell. But the wager marker’s valuable even if Savrin’s just telling me what I want to hear. So I’ll tell him what he wants to hear.

“Right now, no. Give me a year of quiet solitude to grieve while you prove tonight does not indicate your best intentions. Prove I can trust you. Grant my safety and Ragin’s. Use your Royal Prerogative to overturn the Prava decision and restore my rights. Attempt to rule as my father’s successor. If you do, and ask for my hand again in one year, I’ll agree.”

To my mild astonishment, it worked. Savrin looked like I’d given him his first warhorse, the keys to every treasury in the known world and an iron-bound treaty with Spagna. He crossed to me. Ragin stiffened, but I permitted Savrin to take my free hand and kiss my palm. Even that gesture caused pain; he wrenched my my shoulder.

“Whatever you want,” he whispered into my cupped hand. “I’m so sorry.”

True. A sorry specimen. “If you’ll please withdraw — “

“Of course — Please, Rien, I’m so sorry — “

“I know, Sav,” I said. I inhaled puissance — still a little strange, but no longer poisonous — and flared the room’s lamp. My head spun, but I needed light. I glanced at the clock. Just past midnight. “Go home. Your days begin early.”

“I love you, Cazerien. Don’t forget. Forgive me?”

I’d say anything to make him leave so I could handle Ragin, but honestly, I lacked the energy to hate him. Hate would harm me far more than him, and I couldn’t let anything sap my strength. “You’re forgiven. Please go.”

I watched him back away and realized a little late that I could have made him sign the writs immediately. He’d revoke his writ by writ when his advisors learn anyway. He might be Razin of Galantier, Raz Civitata and Dux Martiale, but it doesn’t matter. He needn’t heed my orders, despite my feeble threats. Except that a lifetime together, two decades of deference, don’t die in a moment or even three tendays.

I still hold authority. The Prava doesn’t realize it, but I’m Razia. Right now, anyway. It won’t last and if I stay, it’ll drip away faster. Had I believed it would last even a tenday, I’d have called him back and summoned a priest.

The moment Savrin has what he wants, he’ll revert to what held me down. I can’t turn the Prava that fast and I’ll go mad before I can.

Besides, as tired and sick as I felt, I wanted nothing less — I didn’t want to be in the Karsai, in Cimenarum… if I could take a ship to the far side of the Endless Sea, I’d have chartered it instantly.

But I couldn’t leave. The Prava had seen to that. If the deposed Prazia of Galantier set foot on any quay, she’d certainly be headed for allies, money and mercenaries. Celestan will have to do.

A full minute passed after the door closed before I released Ragin’s face. A ton of woolly weariness fell over me as blood from my broken nose filled my mouth. My stomach churned and lurched, but it was empty. I doubled over heaving while my poor muscles screamed in protest. Had I strength or breath, I’d have added my voice.

“What in the names of the bleeding Ancestors are you thinking?” Ragin barked.

“Don’t,” I managed. “I can’t fight you, too.” When I straightened — with difficulty, at least one rib on each side was cracked — I continued. “You could be grateful. I just saved your career, maybe your neck.” He’d understand when his mind wasn’t rage-clouded, but for now it made him stupid. “You were assaulting the Razin. That’s treason, Ragin.”

“He was raping you — “

“Trying to do, yes, but he could order me to marry him — all he has to do is reverse the Prava ruling without restoring my power. Then I’m not freeborn and destitute. I cannot marry without the ranking male’s permission nor may I refuse to marry as he orders. He hasn’t remembered, but he will if I remain here. Just like he hasn’t remembered I can’t order him away from me.”

“What are you doing then?” Ragin demanded, shaking my shoulders.

“Don’t touch me,” I cried at the pain. I’ll be purple from neck to knees by dawn. I gagged again, but held back the bitter bile.

He dropped his hands. “Did he — “

“No, for the third time. I’m in about a thousand pieces. I bought us time. You haven’t been here for the past few years. I know his patterns and when we’re not an immediate presence, he’ll… forget. He always ignores what’s not right before him. Ever since the Lethians…”

“And a year from now — “

“Please, Ragin. Don’t be dense. I can’t think for you.” I limped to the bathry and opened the tap. The gushing water was just short of boiling, but the tiled basin would temper it. Ragin followed and faced a corner while I added sufficient powdered soap to clean several grubby children.

“He won’t follow through,” he said to the wall.

“Not all of it,” I agreed. “He won’t use the Royal Prerogative, but he won’t file charges and you’re safer on the border.”

“Right. Being in the midst of a war is safer.”

“There’s no safety for us,” I said, “but nobody approaches the border without clearance. If you stay at your garrison, you shouldn’t meet an untimely but convenient accident.”

“It happened once.”

“So it won’t happen again. They daren’t use the same method.” I tried to raise my hands to the buttons at my throat, but my arms would not cooperate. Nor did my back want to let me bend over to unlace my boots.

Be a lawyer, I reminded myself. Someone must witness the state of my body. Memory’s imperfect, and should I ever levy charges against Savrin, I’ll need a witness. I should call a Healer or a midwife, but when she sees me, she’ll demand I file charges now… and put herself at risk. I need the bargaining chip too badly. Ragin couldn’t be at more risk. “Ragin,” I croaked. Tears finally sprang to my eyes and my voice caught. “Help me… and… um…”

He understood what I couldn’t say and came at once. I stared at the cork floor as he unbuttoned my torn and crumpled skirt, waistcoat and shirt, then eased them off. I dropped my head so I needn’t see him seeing my naked body. I wished for my concealing hair while Ragin’s memory recorded the rising bruises, the tacky slick, my shorn head. He exhaled and gritted his teeth in the silent bathry.

“Bleeding Ancestors,” he muttered, his own voice breaking. “Your face, let me go kill him. You’ll be Razia — they’ll have no choice. Commute my sentence to life at hard labor — or execute me — I’ll go joyfully — “

I considered it, if only to still the tremor in his voice, but we’d be both committing treason. I had no loyalty left for Savrin, but I couldn’t waste all our lives. I can’t let the House of Galene fall. “Who are we to end a thousand year legacy over a banal, momentary foible?” I said bitterly. “Duty to nation above all, Ragin. You recognize the… substance?”

He didn’t reply for a long moment, then inhaled deeply and exhaled. His breath stirred my short hair. He inhaled again. “Yes,” he said. “It’s in my memory. Are you positive you won’t go to Royal Traumatic?”

“I’ll heal,” I said. “I just want to leave.” He folded his arms around my shoulders and held me for a long moment. I let myself indulge in a few tears, though I kept my bloody face away from his grey coat. “It’s partly my fault, anyway. I know that the most dangerous time for a woman who leaves an obsessive suitor is just after she escapes. It’s not like I haven’t seen the results a thousand times. I just forgot that the odds apply to me, too.” I steeped in scalding water, wincing at the heat but relishing it, too. It boiled my tainted skin and perhaps cauterized my wounded soul. No more. Another disaster will tilt me into madness. I’m already off center. More will shatter my mind into a thousand pieces. I’ve reached my limit. I just need to get away.

I ducked under the water, smoothing my jagged hair. My head felt too light, my neck unprotected, but it wouldn’t be a snarled mess when I rose from the water. Small blessings. The back felt almost shaved, the front longer, but certainly ugly. I surfaced with a brittle chuckle.

“What in hells can you find amusing?” Ragin asked the wall.

“Imagining the expression on your barber’s face in a few hours,” I said. From the corner of my eye, I saw him startle. He had observed, but not seen my shorn head.

“Your hair — your Royal hair — “

“Holy Fire, Ragin. It’s a symbol, not a particularly appropriate one. My commitment to Galantier’s future is far better symbolized by my commitment to Galantier, not a mass of dead fluff. Perhaps the hours wasted fussing over it could have been put to better use. It has nothing to do with commitment. It’s just a means of controlling women.”

Ragin’s back looked skeptical, but I warmed to my subject. He’d heard my tirades about women’s unequal treatment since I’d discovered egalitarianism. He agreed with me, but I needed the distraction. If I did not distance myself from this night’s disasters, I would count my remaining hours of sanity on one hand. Even as I started ranting, even as my jaw screamed, I knew my egalitarian ethics were but one of the radical notions that vexed the Reformists and their Progressive allies, but impersonal philosophy became solace and the pain of speaking a distraction. “Yes, control,” I said. “Savrin used my hair as a weapon, to hold me down. It wastes my time, forces me to rely on others. It can always be used against me — if it’s too tidy, I’m vain, if it gets windblown, I’m a sloven. If long hair is in fashion, I’m unable to resist a trend, but I cannot follow a style for short hair, so I am dowdy. It keeps me from — “

Ragin cleared his throat pointedly. “Why did you let him in?”

Because victims never bear enough shame on their own. Everyone else needs a reason she caused it, so they can delude themselves it won’t happen to them if they just follow some simple rules. “I didn’t,” I said. “I must assume he had a key. Getting one wouldn’t be difficult. Or he trusted someone enough to pick the lock.”

You’ll just excuse burglary and attempted rape?” he demanded.

“Yes.” I put my face in the water again — the heat stung, but it made my jaw hurt less — until I had to breathe. “I’m truly beaten. I’ve agreed to marry him. He’ll make Mathes leave me alone which gives me time. I couldn’t have asked for a better favor.”

He sighed, sounding disgusted. “Sometimes I wonder about your sanity.”

“You’re not alone, but I am Royal, so half-mad to start.”

“Care to explain how you came to look like you’ve been bar-brawling, Brat? Once we have a notion of the next few hours, you may rant to your heart’s pleasure.”

I wanted to retreat into the neutral subject of egalitarianism until the water cooled, but he was right. Not now. At least he realized I’d need it. We need a plan, and in this case, Ragin needs a supreme commander to develop the war plan so he can take the enormous, belligerent chunk. He’s an extraordinary war strategist, but this is political. He needs me, the diplomat.

Even six years ago, we three could have ruled the world. Savrin’s strategic mind is faulty, but immediate tactics and minutiae are his strengths. Ragin has a consummate military mind and I thought — we all thought — I was the political adept to follow Da.

Tears I lacked time to shed rose. Think about now. Until now, a chance remained for me to find a political solution, to emulate Aunt Bella or convince Savrin to follow Da’s plans to elevate me to co-regnant Razia in the spring. That’s gone. I can’t serve Galantier if I’m nightly terrified of what’s coming through my door.

I’d already planned to leave Cimenarum, so I’d keep that plan. As for my face…

I dragged myself from the water and wrapped my bedrobe around me. The mirror was not kind. No wonder I can’t breathe. My nose wandered first left, then right. As long and narrow as it was, it had never been beautiful, but now, swollen and crooked, it would fit right in with a cadre of guards. At least it had stopped bleeding. Both of my eyes were black, though they weren’t swelling too badly. My jaw hung crookedly on my skull, and my mouth wouldn’t open. I wore a stranger’s face now, not terribly different than the one I’d always seen, but not mine. It was like looking in a cracked mirror. Just give me one anchor, a little stability. Please, Archilia, heretic I may be, but I need something to hold.

Avah. My anchor. Whom I’ll have to tell, and who will insist on a Healer. But we can’t stay in Cimenarum — the walls seem to be closing in already. I’ll be mad in a matter of tendays if I don’t escape Savrin’s eye. It’s only three days to Celestan. We’ll find a Healer there. There. A plan.

NEXT

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