She couldn’t remember if she screamed.
“Quit pacin’, Your Highness, you’ll burn a hole in the ground with your heels,” Aloysius remarked, leaning against a gnarled tree, arms crossed over his chest.
Her stomach hadn’t settled. Her body was sent in another tempest; this time it was a tempest of confusion, not of sorrow.
This man was Finnian O’Glesey. She yelled it at the top of her lungs and tried to hug him, but he pushed her away. Obviously, he hadn’t remembered her. How could he not? She thought of him every day of her life. The least he could have done was reciprocated her motion.
“He is Finnian O’Glesey,” she urged as she stopped pacing for a second. After a moment of thought, she returned to walking halfway to Aloysius then back to her horse. “How come he didn’t remember me?”
“Maybe he didn’t want to remember,” mused Aloysius.
That thought, though she should have been open to its possibility, made her tear up. She swallowed hard and shook her head. “After all these years I worried about him? Nay! Won’t be true.”
Aloysius looked at her with concern, but said nothing.
Caislín sat down with her back to the waning fire and held her face in her hands. “I’m so confused. I thought I’d be reunited with Finn on a happy note. Look what I got: he doesn’t even remember me! To make things better, he has a grudge against me as well!”
The captain seated himself by her, at a restrained, royal distance, and rubbed his tired face. He glanced at his queen, who held either side of her face, exhausted. She could have very well walked a mile the way she was pacing, he thought.
“Your Highness,” he started. “I don’t know what words to use.”
“Don’t employ any, my dear captain,” Caislín ordered as she tucked a stray behind her ear, too taken by seeing Chance - no, Finn - tied to a tree, being guarded by Cairbre. Shay had gone back to Baric-Tref District, the training grounds of the Solitary, to send for a fresh section to hunt down the remaining terrorists. Niall, always the one to prefer the company of horses to men, rubbed down his stallion quietly. “I’m too confused to listen to words.”
Aloysius nodded and watched Cairbre guarding, though it did nothing.
Chance was tied to the tree by his cuffs, allowing him the torture of inspecting his hand as he sat, propped against his prison tree. He fingered the ring that the queen found on his hand, confused. There was nothing special to it, a simple silver band with a miniscule stamp of an eagle on the face. It was nothing exotic from the slavers of Úda or from the venerable fingers of the lords of the houses of Venéra, just a peasant’s one piece of value.
So the queen saw it and thought he was her long-lost love?
The last few hours left Chance’s head in a painful position. Anger and screaming confusion pounded against his temples, and his jaw tightened.
His guard, a young man obviously named Cairbre, had the looks of Venéran, but the attitude, accent, and name of a Northern Sábháiltean. He was strong and smart in fists and never wanted to settle down.
“Whatcha lookin’ at, ya snide dog?” Cairbre spat.
Chance rolled his eyes and inspected his ring more closely.
“Could I have an audience with your queen?”
Caislín opened her eyes to Aloysius softly shaking her to wake.
“What?” she asked in a very ‘waking up’ voice. Aloysius stood back up at full height, still not having fallen to sleep to leave the night watch to Cairbre and Niall. He still had even his cape on.
“The prisoner wishes to speak with you,” he stated. “Says it’s a matter of business.”
Caislín sighed. What business could she negotiate when her opponent was a man she loved, though he didn’t remember her? No, their conversation could never work. She couldn’t negotiate with a hateful face.
Nevertheless, she tugged on her boots and followed Aloysius to the prisoner.
He was no longer the man she once knew.
Finnian O’Glesey was lost. Only a criminal remained where an honorable, integrous soldier would have been and used to be. A hopeless, bitter prisoner sat, clothed in Finn’s skin, against the gnarled tree. His thick honey locks were overgrown, tangled, and strewn across his lean face, making him look like a corpse. The man was still and silent, having one believe he was not even there. His wrists were cuffed and tied to the trunk, giving him some leeway.
“Cairbre, Aloysius, leave me,” she ordered, not tearing her eyes from Finn.
The captain’s brow lowered. “With all due respect, Your Highness, I’d rather-”
“Enough.” She halted him with a hand and a dangerous glare.
Aloysius swallowed his reply and, tight-lipped, bowed and practically dragged Cairbre to the other side of camp to pack up and to avoid the queen.
Finn hadn’t moved once.
“I’ve come to ask you why,” the queen announced with as much firmness, disbelief, and frustration as she could muster. She knelt in front of the motionless figure before her. “We all thought you were dead for two years and you return as a thief and ruffian, just to steal from me and be implicated with those who killed my father?” Tears spilled out of her eyes with both heartbreak and anger. “I loved you, Finn, and you fail to return it! My love! I can’t believe I spent two years mourning you when you never cared to come back to me!”
Nothing. His breath was even, as if he had no negative emotions, which she had in an abundance. Caislín tried with so much effort to pull a word out of him, but to no avail. Soon her tears were spent and the queen, propped up against the tree next to him, tried to meet his gaze.
“What happened to you, Finn?” Caislín breathed, fearing if she raised her voice only a little, it would break. She touched his dark, gaunt cheek tenderly, but he recoiled. She pulled her hand back as he slowly looked up at her.
“I’m not Finn,” he said evenly. “Will you please stop calling me that?”
“You’re Finnian Rhith of Anglesey,” Caislín half shouted. “I met you when you first were brought to Baric-Tref, when you were fourteen. You earned the name Rhith because you were fast and silent, and you climbed up to the rank of commander in a span of five years. I remember because you were half the height and age of all the other leaders of the Primary Companies. My father, the king, took an immediate liking to you and had your company become the Watchmen.
“You took this honor with great humility and you asked my father that, if you were to be around the keep so much, would it be any royal humiliation if the princess courted with you? You confessed your love for me at an archer’s tournament, and only a year later you had your prize arrow melted down to make these rings.” She took off her promise ring and compared it to Chance’s. It was identical. “Then you and the Watchmen, the Grey Company, were ordered to march on the Údaen border to defend our kingdom. You never returned to me, until now.”
The last sentence was a dagger in Chance’s heart. No, this Finnian, the lost man whom the queen cared so much for, could not have been him. He was a strategic mercenary, not some heroic prodigy. Obviously the queen was desperate. There was no way to know if he even looked like him.
Still, the woman was looking at him in such a way that he was tempted to agree with all of that. She was so very beautiful, with sad, bright blue eyes, and luscious black hair. He was sure that her smile made her all the more captivating.
“What happened?” she asked again, calm now.
Chance sighed. “I’ve never been in love with a monarch, and if I was, you’d think I’d remember.”
Caislín was caught there. “I don’t know your story past you disappearance, Finn. If you could-”
“I’m not Finn!” shouted Chance, his expression hard. “My name has been Chance since I can remember!”
That wasn’t a lie, but he wished to say it in such a way that she would just stop making him feel worse. He felt almost sorry for the queen, who had lost someone so important to her.
He could almost say that, after his ordeal, he could relate.
Caislín shut her lips and sat down coolly. “You called me over. What do you want?”
Finn - or Chance, whatever he called himself - sighed and adopted an official tone.
“Your Highness, I know we got off on the wrong foot. I’m afraid I don’t know this Finnian person you speak of, nor have I heard of him. I can’t be your past, but I’m prepared to offer you a deal.” He cleared his throat and laced his fingers together. “I know your terrorists personally and I know their mannerisms. I can help you find them and imprison them.”
Caislín frowned. “What would you want in return?”
“I’d really, really, really appreciate bypassing jail.”
She glanced at her captain and the two others, who spoke lightly and laughed heartily. They heard nothing of the exchange - either that, or they pretended. Caislín thought the latter, for their voice raising had to have woken the eagles.
“Fine,” she answered shortly. Her tone was sharper than the tip of a sword and pricklier than a bushel of briars. “I’ll consider your offer, Chance.”
She stressed the name to make him buckle, and it worked, as if he were guilty.
“Now I know her plans are crazy!” Aloysius again ran a hand through his hair, hazel eyes wide.
Their queen had relayed the deal to them to talk about, and then she went back to sleep on the far end of camp. Aloysius, Cairbre, and Niall had been up for hours arguing both sides of the question whether to trust this waif or to simply imprison him, and they had gotten nowhere as of late. The fire had gone down, but the sky was lighting up just enough to justify continuing their debate.
“What’s gotten into our queen’s head to trust such a cursed adyn? I can’t even trust him with my back!” Cairbre's expressions played an important role in his argument.
Niall nodded slowly. “I trust the queen, though.” He looked up with soft brown eyes. “Who wouldn’t?”
Aloysius sat and rubbed his scruffy beard. True, the queen had helped all of them along. Shay and Cairbre were refugees from despots in their country of Venéra, and Caislín helped them down to registering them for Destrean Sábháiltean names and even paid for their language learning. Niall’s wife and two sons had found themselves dying from the Black Death, and it was Queen Caislín who distributed medicine during that frightening episode. Each of them had a story in which their queen played part. Each of them had nothing and she gave them their lives back.
“Well,” Cairbre seemed to search for a reason not to trust their queen’s judgement, but he ended up slumping and conceding. “I guess you’re right. Proviamolo.”
No one understood when Cairbre slipped into Venéran speech.
“Besides,” Aloysius said as he came up with a great idea. “This could be an interesting endeavor. I had word from the stables that there were mysterious and suspicious figures there the day before the attack. Perhaps the workers can help.”
“Stables?” Cairbre echoed with a laugh. “The only people there are humble milkmaids!”
“Capable humble milkmaids. Just you wait, Cairbre Abatangelo. You’ll be surprised.”