Sioned was growing tired of the life she had chosen.
Breixo wasn’t around much anymore, as he was leading the Emperor’s countless armies and had no time for her, a simple spy. Four years ago, it was different. They had begun to love each other deeply. Two years after that, Breixo had asked her to marry him. A few months later, they were bound in the palace. Now, she had a baby to care for and hardly enough time to herself. If she wasn’t feeding the baby or keeping their apartment up to par, she was assigned on an espionage mission through the country. Sometimes, if she was gone much too long, she would take her son with her.
However, though she had what she wanted - a husband who cared for her, a family of her own, and a way out of the life she used to lead - she felt yet again she was a slave. She was bound to her duties to the Emperor and her duties to her child at the same time. She was running a full-time job with the baby on her back.
That night, as she laid Aran down in his crib, she fell back on her bed, thoroughly exhausted. Breixo wasn’t home yet, and he wouldn’t be until very late. His work in the barracks kept him there almost until the sun rose yet again.
Her brown hair pooled around her and her hazel eyes closed. Aran was fussy while he slept, and he wouldn’t do well if his mother was not awaiting his every need. Sioned loved her little boy, but she was tired of having to stay up all night with him. He needed to be fed very frequently, and Aran would not get to sleep unless his mother bounced him on her shoulder for minutes.
The baby fussed slightly and, still asleep, nuzzled his head on his blanket. Sioned sighed and fell deep asleep.
She only woke up when Breixo shook her shoulder softly.
“My love,” he whispered, “the Emperor calls you and me to his throne room.” When she didn’t reply, Breixo shook her a little firmer. “Now’s not the time to wait,” he said quietly. “It seems urgent.”
Sioned yawned and stretched. “Aran?” she groaned.
Breixo looked into the crib and softly brushed his hand on his son’s cheek. The baby resembled him, with deep brown skin and soft black hair. He bore Sioned’s green brown eyes.
He smiled. “Asleep. If this is a stretching mission, then we’ll have to take him with us.”
She nodded and rubbed her eyes. “What time is it?”
He looked out the window. “It’s not morning yet,” he said with a shrug. “C’mon. Or do I need to carry you there?”
Sioned sat up and chuckled at the idea. She looked down at herself and noticed that she fell asleep still dressed from yesterday. Breixo tucked her hair behind her ear and kissed her forehead.
“I love you.”
Breixo held her face in both hands close to his, and he smiled. He had successfully surprised her. At first, at the time of their first meeting, she was a job. He pretended to admire her. Over the years, however, seeing her and truly appreciating her talents, morale, and beauty, he began to see why he had chosen her. It had taken a while to understand what he felt when he saw her, as he had only felt love when he was with Nadia, who was now six years dead. Breixo guessed it was time to love again.
Sioned smiled. “I love you, too, my soldier.” She put her hair in a high tail and picked up Aran. The baby cooed in his sleep and nestled against his mother, who bundled him up in a leather scarf that wrapped around the trunk of her body. She tucked her black trousers into her boots and they left their apartment.
Bryngaer was unrecognizable, now. It was no longer the paradise that smelled sweetly of almonds and was dressed in blossoms in the Spring, that was clothed in crisp, sparkling white in the Winter, that was the warm sapphire home in the Summer, or that was the fiery, blazing red from the velvety leaves in the Autumn. It was a husk of the people who used to know such a place, which now seemed a fairytale. Sioned, however much she was relieved that she no longer had to work for her mother, missed what she did have in old Bryngaer.
She shook her head and tucked her arm in her husband’s as they walked through the corridors of the palace.
In the throne room, Sioned and Breixo instinctively stopped walking and went down on their knees.
What used to be splendor and awe-filling had become chilly and unfamiliar. She had seen the throne room before Crofton’s siege on Bryngaer, and she felt at home. Golden light would stream into the rosewood hall through the paced pointed arch windows and warm her, and the faces of past rulers would welcome her. Sapphire draperies embroidered with gold thread would flow like waterfalls from the back of the room, contrasting the walnut wood throne.
It was all gone, now. The throne room was a war planning tower. A massive map was spread coldly over a long table that had taken the place of the throne, and the paintings of past kings and the tapestries that told their stories were ripped down. The sapphire draperies were replaced with black ones, each bearing Crofton’s insignia of a white hand. Twisted ebony candelabras outfitted with icy candles made the only cold light.
Aran fussed slightly against Sioned, and Breixo softly shushed him. The father and son were close and Breixo adored little Aran. He didn’t want Crofton to frighten him, or worse, be found as a threat.
As Crofton rose in power, his mind was crippled and tortured by paranoia. His already weak form was losing its strength and Breixo knew it was a matter of time before the emperor died. He seemed like he was turning to dust.
Speaking of, the crazed Emperor slinked into the light, scaring Sioned half to death. Indeed, Crofton was dying quicker with the worry of Caislín still being alive.
When the Yīnyǐng had come back with Empress Skadi’s crown from Alpene, it was the plan to extract the Emerald from it. Apparently the Empress was ready for it and the Emerald was long gone. Also, just a few years ago, they had discovered that Princess Caislín’s crown was simply a facsimile. The real Sapphire was nowhere to be found. It tore the Emperor into pieces of sanity and he ordered Destrea to be mercilessly dissected for the gem. As of four years later, the population began to believe the real gem did not exist.
Breixo’s arm curled around Sioned protectively.
“Al-Izz,” Crofton wheezed, “I want you and your wife out in minutes.”
Breixo nodded. “Yes, Your Eminence. Where to?”
“Your first question should be ‘with whom’,” the emperor coughed, “Margäm.”
Another man, hands properly behind his back, strolled into the room. In the light, he was a powerful Anaheran with a large frame and strong arms. His thick black hair was tied in a customary topknot. He was dressed in simple grey braccae trousers and a closed vest made of leather.
His whole face was a canvas of intricate tattoos that ran down and covered his arms. Not only was he from Anahera, he was a southern warrior, who were known for being ruthless.
“This is Anakoni Foa’i, and his Destrean name is Margäm,” said Crofton, “he is my successor.”
Margäm nodded his acknowledgement.
“The rebellion is striking again,” said Crofton, gliding to the map. He pointed out the area that used to be the province of Flint-Meredydd. “Sector six south of Baric-Tref. They’re headed by that boy who calls himself Strydr.” He scowled. “Uproot them.”
Sioned nodded. She had dealt with the rebellion before, in the northern reaches. They were ultimately all headed by an unknown being, who was nicknamed Kef-du, meaning ‘Black Hood’. She had heard in her espionage missions that the rebels called Kef-du by another name: Rhydr- ‘Liberator’.
Breixo carefully watched Margäm, as if he was going to eat them alive, but he ultimately bowed. “Yes, Your Eminence. We will be gone.”
On the way to the stables, they found out Margäm obviously didn’t like to talk. It was all fine by Sioned, who strapped her baby’s carrier to her horse’s saddle. Aran woke up and cooed at her while he tangled his chubby fingers in her hair, but he quieted down and stared at his father, who mounted the horse right next to where Aran was perched. His black cloak settled around him like a cloud. He straightened out the cowl and smiled at Aran, who let out a loud laugh and bounced in his perch.
“It’s an hour’s ride to Flint-Meredydd,” Margäm said, mounting his own black stallion. “No stops.”
At that Aran whined. Sioned guessed he was getting hungry. She kissed his forehead and mounted her horse.
Ash and Tesni entered the warehouse and shut the large, heavy doors behind them. They were very used to the excruciating manual labor, as they had grown stronger with the rebellion that they joined. All of them were now stone-built fighters, their hearts stripped from their chests after the proclamation was sent out that Queen Caislín was dead and that Crofton was coming in so he could lay siege on Bryngaer.
No one felt anything anymore. There was no need. Ever since Caislín was pronounced dead, everything wept and mourned. The trees didn’t seem to grow the same way. Bakers didn’t allow the aromatic scents of sweet almonds leave their shops. Smiths didn’t let their hammering and bellowing sound joyful anymore. What was work was work, and what was joy was fairytale. Not one child came to play outside after school, and not one minstrel was found playing blithely on the streets.
Caron waited for them inside with a candle, and she lit their way to the staircase that led underground. The light didn’t chase away the laughing shadows that tormented the poor women. Ash closed yet another heavy door behind them as they continued descending.
Caron knew better than to ask questions about their mission. Ash and Tesni were the elitist, next to Shay and Afton, who worked in higher confidentiality. Ash’s husband, Shay, was home just about now, and Afton, Tesni’s betrothed, had been relocated in Powys. Tesni would soon join him, as she was setting out so that she would be there on their marriage date.
Caron ushered them into a large cavern that was brightly lit with hundreds of candles and furnished with a map table and targets. One man stood at the table with Morrin by his side. Their four children, all young still, were fast asleep under the table.
“We’re back, Niall,” Ash called.
Caron set the candle down on the table and the man looked up. “Anything new?” he asked in his quiet voice.
Tesni sat at one of the chairs before the table. “They’re catching onto you, Rhydr,” she said. “They’re going after Blaine in Flint-Meredydd.”
Niall chuckled. “They won’t catch him.”
“Best to be prepared,” Ash replied. “With your permission, I’ll go up to Flint-Meredydd and warn him.”
The door opened again and Lane, the former palace healer, opened the door and a tall Venéran came into view.
“Good evening, Shay,” Niall said as Ash went to greet her husband. “What news from upper north?”
Shay kissed Ash on the forehead and reported to his boss. “Anaheran warriors are dripping in from all sides,” he said solemnly. “They’re reporting to Breixo and they’re climbing their way up to acknowledgement from Crofton.”
Ash heard the name Breixo and scowled. It seemed so long ago that she had almost fallen in love with a man who matched the description of the mercenary and general Breixo Al-Izz. That was before she met Shay, whom she had given her heart to completely.
“I saw Sioned,” she said, her voice just above a whisper.
Caron and Tesni’s backs both straightened and their faces hardened. “Whose side?” Caron asked icily.
“She was with Breixo and a new character,” Ash replied. “She was carrying a baby.”
Tesni sighed and shook her head. “Does this mean there’s hope for Wynne?” she inquired. “What if that’s where she disappeared of to?”
Morrin softly shook her head. “She was too close to Captain Carmody to betray Destrea,” she countered. “Aloysius would have done something about her disappearance.”
All the girls tried to suppress grins. It was too obvious that Aloysius and Wynne loved each other.
Ash sighed and rubbed her arms. “I wonder where they are now.”
Shay wrapped her in one arm and shrugged. “Let’s hope they didn’t share my brother’s fate,” he said quietly.
Out of the desecration of Vårthjem, only a few Destreans could be identified, including Cairbre, Shay’s brother. He didn’t survive. Cahir, Ignatius, and Iolo returned with Niall, though they were too injured to return to duty. Iolo, now that his legs were healed enough to walk, was an avid navigator and strategist. Cahir had grown into an invaluable spy under Blaine’s command, despite his speaking impediment given to him by the explosion. Ignatius’ job didn’t change much, as he could be a healer with one arm.
Speaking of the trio, Iolo opened the heavy door for Cahir, now sixteen, and Ignatius.
“Blaine’s… he’s, he’s…” Cahir tried to get the words out of his mouth but he only frustrated himself.
“Captured,” Ignatius finished, placing his one hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Blaine’s been captured by Anaheran Toa warriors.”
Iolo uncomfortably shifted on his uneven leg. Being a born Anaheran, to hear of his people’s allegiances with the Emperor was torture. His father was a Toa, or a warrior, and he would not have been surprised if his six brothers were now partaking in the chumminess with Crofton.
Niall nodded and looked down, disappointment in his face. “We’ll need more help than I thought.”
While I dislike it when people sympathize for the bad guy a little too much, I decided, because I do like Breixo, to give him a life. Since he thinks he's correct and the life he's chosen is for the good of others, you don't see him as a monster. Honestly, he wouldn't brood and cackle evilly on a daily basis if he IS a family man. | Also, Strydr literally means 'street rider' in Welsh, pronounced (strid-YOOR); Rhydr means liberator, pronounced (rid-YOOR); Kef-du is derived from the Welsh words for 'black' and 'hood' and are pronounced (KEF-DOO)