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The Truth and the Dark

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The truth can’t hurt you, it’s just like the dark
it scares you witless, but in time you see things clear and stark

Alster, 765

"I'll be out for a while," he said, once the children both had been carried to bed.

"Have fun planning your secret war," she replied, not looking up from her needlework. "Could you be home by sunrise? Leif cries if you're not there when he wakes up."

He watched her hands for a moment as she stabbed a pattern of small crosses into the hem of a child’s blouse. He could have given her an assurance that he’d be home well before dawn, could have pointed out that the “secret war” would lead to a day when their daughter could exit this cramped apartment and wear her pretty clothes outside in the sun. But they’d been over this already so many times before that there was little left to say.

“Lock the door behind me,” he said out of habit.

“Mm,” she replied through a mouthful of pins.

-x-

Finn did his best to forget about the strained farewell with Lachesis as he walked toward Alster’s university district. His destination, one of the many taverns near to the Queen’s College of Magical Studies, like quite of few of those taverns had a reputation for vice, but the particular vice of the Wild Pegasus made it a surprisingly good place for Finn to meet up with Glade. It wasn’t known as a place to fence stolen goods, and it most definitely wasn’t known for seditious acts, and no one on the premises showed the least bit of surprise when young men would arrive separately and then go off together.

The red-haired barkeep winked at Finn as he slipped into his usual seat at the far end of the bar.

“Your friend’s not here yet.”

“Thanks,” he said, though a ripple of apprehension passed along his neck at her words. Glade was always on time, if not early.

Finn passed the time by staring at a bottle of whiskey from Connaught’s most legendary distillery; he drank the mild dark ale that was actually within the reach of his wallet without truly tasting it.

“Hey.”

“One day,” Finn said, without looking at Glade, “We’re going to order that. The entire bottle, just to share between us.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Glade said as he jingled the few coins in his own near-to-empty pockets. “Could be sooner than you think.”

“Hm?”

Tonight, though, Glade showed no inclination to talk. They drank a few rounds of ale apiece in something close to silence.

“You’re not yourself,” Finn ventured at last.

“That makes two of us.” Glade leveled a sharp stare over the edge of his tankard. “When’s the last time you even pretended to laugh at one of my jokes?”

“They’re not funny.”

“Well, I’m not joking around tonight,” Glade said as he set two small coins down on the bar for the red-head’s gratuity. “Are we done here?”

“Sure.”

Finn followed Glade to a boarding-house some blocks away from the Wild Pegasus where Glade rented a garret room from an elderly woman who accepted the story that Glade was studying magic at the college.

“Well?” asked Finn, once it was the two of them behind a locked door.

Glade pulled the window shut, brought down the curtain, and stood with his back to that window before he said a word.

“Three weeks from now. We’re doing it. Bloom’ll be in town on what would’ve been Lord Quan’s birthday, and we’re going to make the most of it.”

Finn might have expected to feel excitement, apprehension-- something-- at the news that what Lachesis called the “secret war” was about to break into open rebellion. What he did feel on hearing Glade’s words was something dull and cold, something akin to disappointment.
  
"Why Lord Quan's birthday?"
 
"Why not?"
 
"Won't their guard be up? Bloom's men, I mean. Isn't that the day they'd be expecting anyone faithful to Lord Quan to make a... make a demonstration?"
 
"Sure, and we'll have that. It'll be a good distraction to keep their attention off the real show going down that night."
 
"Distraction," Finn repeated.  "I don't know, wouldn't it make more sense to have the demonstration and do nothing for a couple of days, and then have the- the show then, when it's not expected?"

“Yeah, maybe.” Glade had shadows falling across his face that made him look a decade older than he was. “Look, that’s just what I was told. They’ll tell me more next week.”

“Ah.”

“Your hands are shaking,” Glade observed.

“It’s an icehouse in here,” Finn replied. “How do you stand it?”

“Firewood costs too much. I’d burn these damned books, but then I couldn’t pretend to be a mage in front of the old lady.”

“Well, you won’t have to keep up that front much longer, will you?” Finn said. “Throw one on the hearth next time you have me over.”

-x-

He made it back to their apartment shortly after the church bells struck one.

“You’ve been drinking,” Lachesis said upon unlocking the door. She stood up on her toes so that her nose bumped against his. “Good.”

“Yes, I was drinking. Whatever does one do in a tavern?”

“Depends on the tavern.” She cupped one of her hands around the back of his thigh and began to slide that hand upward. “Sometimes there’s a room upstairs, a place where you and your friend could go to discuss all your exciting plans.”

Finn didn’t feel like denying anything tonight. He slipped past Lachesis into the apartment, but she followed close behind him and provided a low-voiced monologue as he hung up his coat.

“Sometimes I lie here and wonder if you get down on your knees in front of him and actually use that pretty mouth of yours for something. Or does he flip you over and take you from behind with his spear?” She pantomimed an obscene gesture. “Maybe it’s both. Maybe you use your mouth to get the shaft of his spear good and hard and then let him nail you to the wall.”

“Why do you think any of these things?”

“Because you’re far more excited to spend time with him than you ever are to see me.”

And then Finn had to do what he always did to prove his affection, even if neither of them really believed it anymore.

-x-

“I’m going to Isaac at the end of the month,” she said as her fingers tapped out a dance along his breastbone.

“No.” It was refusal, not a plea, but Lachesis being Lachesis didn’t take it as such.
 
"Arvis has made the country roads safe enough for a woman to travel alone. Isn’t that lovely?” she said, still trailing her fingers over his bared flesh to prod a reaction out of him.
 
"Not safe enough," said Finn, feeling as unresponsive as stone in that moment. “Not in Yied. Those aren’t roads... just a wasteland of sand and death."
 
"I crossed it once.  Alone.  I can do it again."

“This isn’t the time."
 
“I think you’re going to miss me,” she said, and pressed her lips over his so he couldn’t protest anymore. He didn’t enjoy it, really, but after all this time there was little point in protesting, so he parted his lips and let her do as she pleased.

-x-

Glade did not have one of his books on the hearth the next time they withdrew from the Wild Pegasus into the rented garret.

“Why don’t we just have a sniper shoot him?” Finn asked once the door was bolted.

“Huh?”
 
"The goal is to kill Bloom.  The ultimate goal is to tip the balance of power here in Northern Thracia, but the specific goal that we're working towards is to kill Bloom."
 
"Yeah."
 
"I just don't understand why we're doing it like this."
 
Glade said nothing, gave him only an uneasy smile. His hazel eyes glittered in the low candlelight and Finn thought again how his friend looked strangely aged.
 
"You want to kill a king?” said Finn then as the tension made him bold. “You kill him.  You strike in the dark.  You don't send in a force to storm a castle and then stage a grand battle.  Knife him between the ribs, cut off his head, make it look like someone else was responsible.  Blame the Thracians.  Blame some other faction in Grannvale."
 
And Glade frowned, shook his head, but didn’t have the words to rebut Finn yet.

"I don't know anything about planning something like this,” Finn added, “but I know how it’s been done. I’ve seen it done. And this isn’t the way to do it.”
 
"If you win without honor, nobody respects you for it afterward,” Glade said after what seemed to Finn like several intolerable minutes. “All those people whose plots were so clever-- Reptor and Lombard and that king in Agustria you guys fought-- how'd they end up? Dead. And good riddance. We can't be like those people."

“No. Of course not.”
 
But they could very well end up just as dead as Reptor and Lombard and King Chagall were now.

-x-

“Come on, bring me along this time,” Lachesis said while Finn fastened his coat.

“Whatever for?”

“I don’t care about your little secret war,” she said. “I want to see what you and he get up to. It’s unfair to keep me in the dark.”

“You’d find our conversations of very little interest,” said Finn as he adjusted his collar.

“How much talking can you possibly do about something that doesn’t exist? You don’t crawl home at sunup after chatting over imaginary battles all night long.”

“You might be surprised.”

“Show me a good time before I leave,” she said, dropping her voice into a purr aimed at overt seduction. “I want to see you enjoying yourself. I might like it.”

“You can’t leave.”

“Oh, yes I can.” The carnal buzz still laced her voice.

“You can’t leave because we’re moving against Bloom eight days from now and I need you to help escape with the children if it all goes to pieces.”

It was almost satisfying to shock her, ever briefly, into silence.

“Well,” Lachesis said, and she tossed a stray lock of hair over her shoulder. “At least you need me for something.”

“Come along. It’s best that you hear everything. Selphina won’t mind watching the children for an evening.”

-x-

Glade threw one of his tomes on the fire in deference to Lachesis and her comfort, then relayed the essence of the plot for her benefit.

“When you see the banner of Nova flying from the top of Alster Castle, then you’ll know it’s time for Lord Leif to claim the throne.”

“Unless it turns out that someone’s slain you, taken the banner, and run it up to set a trap for us,” said Finn.

“Okay. Enough of this, seriously. It drives me nuts when you start talking like this.”

“I can’t shake the feeling that I’ll never see you again,” replied Finn. With his peripheral vision he could see Lachesis smile as she looked from one of them to the other and then back.

“You are so weird,” was all Glade could say then.

At this Lachesis cleared her throat and proceeded to ask why they couldn’t dispense with demonstrations and just slip into the bedchamber that Bloom shared with his queen and do them both in with one efficient stroke.

Glade had the same protests he did for Finn, that this wasn’t the honorable course of action, but Lachesis proceeded to puncture his arguments one piquant sentence at a time and Finn backed her up because Lachesis simply had it right. It was strange to feel in that moment so fully one with Lachesis, facing down Glade and the ideals they’d both sworn to embrace so long before. But Finn and Lachesis had received their education in Lord Sigurd’s army and they knew where honorable knights met their end, and so together they bore down on Glade until he admitted that they had a point, that a straight-up murder of Bloom and his queen Hilda would do the job as surely as any open rebellion, and that he’d convey this back to Count Dorias in the morning.

“Well, if that’s settled,” Lachesis said and she rose to her feet, her cloak slipping down from the back of the chair as she did so. Finn stared blankly at the heap of cloth on the floor because he could hear that burr in her voice and he thought that no, she couldn’t possibly intend to start something, not here, not now…

And Glade, unflappable Glade, froze at her approach because he’d almost certainly never experienced anything like this, a princess radiant with the aura of her crusader heritage bearing down on him one deliberate step at a time as the red light of the hearth cast her shadow on the opposite wall. Then she put out her hand for him to kiss and said, “The fate of my daughter is riding on this, Knight of Leonster” and the strange moment resolved as something almost ordinary as Glade dipped down on one knee.

“Well, that was stimulating,” said Lachesis from under her cloak as they made their way back to the apartment where young Selphina was watching the the children.

Finn didn’t say that he’d told her, time and again, there was nothing more to his visits with Glade than straight-up military conspiracy. He saw she still didn’t believe him. She’d never let go of a particular self-satisfied smile as she watched his interactions with Glade.

-x-

“That thing you want? It’s not happening,” Glade said when next they met in the garret. “Count Dorias says there’s no chance of taking that path.”

“Then everyone is going to die,” said Finn without even needing to ponder it. In the cold clarity of that realization there was no anguish, no sense of denial. It simply was. “I’m never going to see you again after tomorrow.”

“Why do you have to be like this?” Glade didn’t say to explain what “like this” encompassed, as they both knew full well that “this” was everything that kept Finn apart from their peers, everything that set him on his isolated course with Glade as his tether to the ordinary world once his lord wasn’t there to give him shelter. “I will personally give you word of Bloom’s death and our victory. I swear to it.”

“Glade… that’s another vow that can’t possibly be kept. I’ve heard too many by now. I’ve already promised too much myself,” he said, thinking of his reassuring words to Lord Sigurd so long ago in Silesse, his implicit promise of a vindication that never came. But Glade hadn’t been there in Silesse in the presence of the holy knight and martyr, and he didn’t feel the weight of it, and so they simply did not comprehend one another.

“Can you answer one thing for me?” Glade said at last.

“Sure,” replied Finn even as he dreaded the question that surely would follow.

“Who were your parents, really?”

That was not the question Finn expected.

“My parents were exactly the people I’ve always claimed them to be. Anything else you’ve ever heard about either King Calf and a mistress or Queen Alfiona and the ambassador from Chalphy is just lies.”

“Right. I figured if you were so convinced we’d never meet again then I had the right to find out. I’ve seen a hundred things by now that disappeared into there—“ and Glade tapped Finn on the brow— “never to surface again. I had to ask.”

“I’m not offended,” said Finn, because he wasn’t. He knew by now this was somehow both one of his greatest strengths and strangest weaknesses.

The other question, the one Finn dreaded, wasn’t voiced. Not exactly.

“Okay then. ’Til death us do part,” said Glade, and when Finn made no reaction he narrowed his eyes and added, “That was a joke. You can laugh at it.”

“You’re still not funny.” And though his mouth was so dry that speaking almost hurt, Finn managed to get out a few more words. “Glade… thank you.”

“For what?” And those hazel eyes went wide in what seemed to be honest surprise, because they both should’ve been well past the point of thanking one another.

“Everything.”

-x-

Glade kept to his promise, or at least the technical terms of it. As the sounds of tumult in the streets seeped into the place where Finn and Lachesis were hiding he turned up at the door, eyes ablaze and shouting “Go! Just go!” and Finn and Lachesis knew in that moment things had gone as poorly as they both expected. What followed was a mad rush whose individual moments of clarity seemed so terribly familiar— taking up the children and the handful possessions they’d packed up in preparation for the worst, fleeing from Alster Castle on horseback, glancing back from a remove to see fire and thunder illuminating the walls of the city.

A week and more passed before they even spoke of the disaster, before they could focus on anything beyond surviving the next hour. They’d found refuge in a loyal farmer’s barn, and Nanna was sleeping in her mother’s arms while Lord Leif was tucked safely into a pile of straw for the night with all the honors given a newborn foal.

“I’m sorry. About Glade.” For once she called him by his name instead of “your friend.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

He could see the silent protest in the crease that briefly showed between her brows and wondered why she wasn’t, in some sense, pleased at this turn of events; they were, after all, now equally alone.

The End