With clear skies and calm seas came a missive from the Empire’s capital. Word had travelled to the House of Rambaldt about their heir, Jirall, and they sought an account of his passing from Calista, now Countess Arganan with all the responsibilities that entailed.
In the rebuilding of the castle, Calista had taken the opportunity to arrange for her uncle’s study to be remodelled to allow for a much larger window. Before, the room had been illuminated by lamps that had siphoned power from the Outsider. Now, light suffused her study from the large glass window set behind her desk, making everything glow with a warm light. The window was two-thirds her height and opened to the secure courtyard that was nestled in the heart of the castle. As the land rejuvenated, the heady scent of fresh greenery wafted in through Calista’s open window, reminding her that in saving Lazulis Island, they had also saved the world. How strange it was, to think that her sneaking away in a cart to see her own city had led to them freeing the Outsider to continue its journey in space and stop it draining their world.
She kept her window open when she had difficult questions of state to answer, to remind her why what she was doing was so important.
Her uncle would never have kept his window open. He would have said that a true leader needed no reminder of why he led, and that it was a sign of weakness. Perhaps he thought that was true, but unlike her uncle Calista was also unafraid of a knife to the back. The open spaces were a delight for the caged pretty songbird Calista had been, the sound of people laughing in the courtyard a balm for her tired soul. She needed that, especially given the missive written on expensive parchment that lay on her desk.
It had come to her with the arrival of a trader’s ship from the capital, mixed in amongst its cargo of dyes and fabrics to trade with the Gurak. Lazulis Island, once the sword of the empire, had retired from the battlefield and taken up business with the Gurak. The Gurak of Fortress Island had harnessed their volcano to its full potential, and that drew the attention of trading houses from all over the Empire, eager to see what kinds of deals could be struck. Correspondence flew thick and fast now between Lazulis Island and the mainland, and it was now within even the House of Rambaldt’s depleted offers to write to the Countess of Lazulis Island and have it arrive expeditiously.
The envelope, its once pristine bleached whiteness stained with salt and sea, looked so innocuous. If Calista had not grown up on the floor beside her uncle’s feet, face stinging from where he had slapped her to the ground, she might have believed that it was as innocent as it looked, rather than the first feint in a battle of words and power. The letter itself was equally deceptive. Its ornate script, clearly written by a steady-handed scribe, indicated that House Rambaldt thanked House Arganan for informing them of their heir’s untimely passing, and wished to know how he had acquitted himself in the battle against the Gurak.
Jirall had told Calista that he had been trained by the finest swordsmen in the Empire and his skills were second to none. Calista had felt the planes of his hand as he seized her wrist and pulled her from place to place like a child’s doll, and there were no calluses there from holding a sword. Unlike Zael, whose hands bore the marks of fighting for his life, Jirall’s hands were more soft and pliant than Calista’s own. Calista had wielded blade and magic against the Gurak, but the only time Jirall had used a sword for anything other than a prop for his own theatre was the battle that resulted in his death. The family that had had the raising of him would know this too.
It was a dangerous letter, all the more for how insultingly transparent it was. Jirall had always seen Calista as a prize to be won, rather than a student player of politics. He was hardly the only one. Her uncle had, when he thought he was being kind, referred to her as the Jewel of Lazulis Island, something ornamental to be traded away for power and influence. It was little wonder that a family close to the Emperor would assume that an untried girl from a faraway island would be naive to politics. After all, nowhere in the letter did it say that they had known that Jirall had been imprisoned for treason. Calista knew that they would have been told anyway; Jirall’s fall from her fiancé to her uncle’s prisoner had been very public, after all.
Calista would have to play this carefully, and that meant she needed more information. In the past, she had been content to know that Jirall had died during the Gurak invasion, and that Zael regretted taking his life. She had passed on her condolences to his family by way of the first ship that set sail from Lazulis Island, saying that he had died in the invasion, and that death paid all debts. She hadn’t wanted to dwell on how Jirall had died on a Gurak ship, wielding a Gurak weapon, against Lazulis Island’s primary defender in part because it wasn’t politically expedient. It was also because that was the limit of what she knew about Jirall’s death. She had not wanted to push Zael for details, as his heart had been sorely wounded by Dagran’s betrayal, but it seemed that even this small kindness would be taken from him.
Calista picked up a small silver bell resting on the corner of her desk and rang it twice. As the sweet chime of the bell rang out a second time, the side of the bell lit up with blue glyphs. A few moments passed before there was a knock on the door, which opened at the hand of a maid dressed in the ubiquitous uniform of a white blouse and black ruffled skirt. “Yes, m’lady?”
“Please fetch Sir Zael for me,” Calista said. “I wish to see him at his earliest convenience.”
The maid nodded, and closed the door, leaving Calista alone with her thoughts. She thought about reading the letter again, but thought it was unnecessary. Instead, she gazed down at the courtyard, and reminded herself that for all that she was inexperienced with the politics of the Empire’s court, she was used to using her words to remain balanced on the knife’s edge.
Her tea was cool enough to drink by the time Zael arrived, sweaty from his climb up the stairs from the Great Hall to her study. Unlike everyone else, who knocked before entering, Zael simply pushed the door open. It had taken her weeks to convince him that this castle was his as much as hers, and so it would be silly to knock at the doors of his own room.
He stopped at the centre of the room, where he might have stood once when in an audience with her uncle. Then, he might have waited for her uncle’s commands. Now, he caught his breath. In the light from the window Zael looked like a shining hero in legend, the midmorning light sparking blond highlights from his tousled light brown hair, his greaves polished to a mirror-brightness, and his eyes the same blue as early spring morning. Sunlight suited him, as did the trappings of knighthood. The effect was ruined somewhat by his smile, puzzled and a little bemused, as he noticed Calista’s regard.
“What is it? Is there something on my face?” he asked, head cocked.
“Oh, no,” Calista said, feeling her face flush. She smiled. “I was just thinking how you look like a knight in a storybook.”
It was Zael’s turn to blush, which he did quite becomingly. He ducked his head as the flush spread across his cheekbones, and Calista laughed to see it.
“Calista!” he protested. “Surely you didn’t bring me here just for that!”
“Maybe I should…” Calista mused. She stroked her chin thoughtfully. “You do look very nice right now.”
“Uh … erm … thank you?” Zael managed, his blush reaching his ears. “I mean, you do too! You always look nice.”
Calista smiled in appreciation. “Thank you to you too,” she said. This was something she had never dared to hope for, growing up under her uncle’s thumb. She had never dreamed of laughing and teasing someone out of love, or marrying out of love.
“All right, but I know you,” Zael said, once the bright colour started to fade from his face. “You wouldn’t have called me if it wasn’t important. Is something the matter, Calista?”
“Yes,” Calista said. She slid over the letter. Zael read it, his frown deepening as he untangled the ornate script and flowery language. He placed it down and looked back at Calista, his frown mirroring the deep pain in his eyes.
“He didn’t die fighting the Gurak,” Zael said. “You know that.”
Calista inclined her head. “I do,” she agreed. “But what I don’t know is what truly happened. All I know is that he died, using a Gurak weapon, and that he wasn’t truly a traitor.”
“Did no one tell you?” Zael shook his head after he spoke. “Of course not. I guess I just assumed one of the others would tell you.”
Calista pressed her hands together, hard enough for the skin to whiten, and looked at Zael steadily. “Please. I know how hard it is for you, but I need to know and you’re the only one who I can ask. How did Jirall die?”
Zael looked sick, and swallowed convulsively. His hands unclenched and clenched; not as if he wanted a weapon but as if he wanted something steady to hold onto but that there was nothing to be had. Calista hurried to his side and took his hands in hers.
“I’m sorry,” Calista said, and meant it. Zael felt things far too keenly — it was why it was always such a surprise that he was a mercenary — and she knew that he held fast to his vow to protect everyone. It would have been truly very difficult for him, and she wished that she didn’t have to ask.
Zael took a breath, and then started to speak.
“He had a cursed sword — one from Zangurak — and it broke his mind,” Zael said. His voice was heavy, and he didn’t quite look at Calista. “He was fast, real fast, but reckless too. I tried to get him to listen to me, but it was like he couldn’t hear me at all. He rambled a lot. Mostly about how he hated me. I had to kill him in the end, and then he disappeared. It was like … it was like the Outsider’s power had consumed him.”
As he spoke, Calista could imagine the duel as it played out on the rain-soaked deck of a captured Gurak vessel. Zael, ducking and weaving from Jirall’s wild strokes, desperately pleading with him to listen. Jirall, wild and insane, swinging his cursed blade without care for life or limb. The smell of seawater overpowered by the acrid stench of the sword’s curse, the thick, heavy smell of spilled blood. Jirall babbling about Zael. Zael’s sick resignation as he understood what he had to do, and striking Jirall down as a coup de grâce. Jirall dissolving into cursed motes of dull light, leaving behind that ridiculous blue rose that he compared her to, and the hideous sword that destroyed him.
She closed her eyes against the horror of her imagination. How would it have been for Zael, to have had to live it?
“How terrible,” she breathed. “He was an awful man, but no one deserves to die like that.”
“I wanted to save him,” Zael confessed. “I tried so hard to save him, but I couldn’t get through to him to get him to understand. I never liked him, but I didn’t want him dead.”
“And in a way, it was our doing that pushed him to that,” Calista said. “If not for my uncle being so quick to believe that Jirall had betrayed us to the Gurak, he might never have been driven to such straits.” As she said this, though, she thought that Jirall’s reasoning might have been a bit more complex. He had been a weak man, trying for power and glory and seizing at opportunities more honourable men would have spurned as beneath them. His fixation on Zael might have driven him to the same place, even had he not been locked in the dungeon. She cannot imagine the Jirall she knew refusing a chance to kill Zael, regardless of whether he was housed in the chamber next to hers or a bare prison cell.
“Is that why his family wrote to you? To find out what happened?” Zael asked. He nodded at the letter as he spoke.
“In part,” Calista said. “But there is more to it than that, see?” She gestured to the dark red sealing wax that had held the envelope closed, stamped with the seal of the House of Rambaldt. “That is the seal of the head of the House Rambaldt, and Jirall was his heir. Jirall was imprisoned, wrongfully, by House Arganan and then died.”
“I don’t understand,” Zael said. His brow knit in confusion. “What difference does that make? Surely his mum’d still want to know what happened to him.”
“His grandfather is the head of House Rambaldt,” Calista said. She spared a thought to wonder how Zael knew that Jirall’s father had died in the war, and that his only surviving close relative was his mother, before deciding that it was not important. “And he has made it clear that House Rambaldt knows their heir died while still falsely accused. That’s why he wants to know how Jirall fought against the Gurak, even if everyone who knows him knows that would never have happened.” Her shoulders slumped as she sighed. “Everything would be ever so much easier if I could just tell the truth. But I can’t do that to Lazulis Island.”
“Surely they can’t blame you for what your uncle did,” Zael protested. “You had no control over what happened!”
“They won’t see it that way,” Calista said. “Jirall was many things — ” weak, cowardly, a bully, lonely, and unhappy, her mind supplied, “ — but one thing he was not was a traitor to the Empire. That is an insult that cannot be allowed to stain his family name.”
“No,” said Zael unhappily. “But won’t it be worse if you tell his mum that he died crying for her and wishing he could have been happy?”
Calista was quick to notice that that detail had been omitted from Zael’s previous recitation. She wondered what else Jirall had said that Zael was keeping from her. She assumed that most of it had to do with her. Still, that was enough, she thought.
“I won’t say that either,” she said. “I’ll tell them that he died fighting for what he believed him, in a way that was true to his noble lineage.”
“Calista,” Zael said, sounding troubled. “That’s … that’s true but it’s not.”
“No,” she agreed. “It’s a truth that will comfort them, and keep peace between our Houses. I can’t hope for anything more than that.”
“I know,” Zael said. “I just worry what it will do to you, having to pretend that’s true.”
For you, I’ll do anything I have to, Calista vowed. The Empire had yet to recognise her marriage to Zael as being legitimate, which it wasn’t, truly. They had promised to her parents’ graves to love each other and cherish one another, but it was not a legal marriage. She knew that as a young Countess there would be people eyeing off her marriage bed and thinking that it could be won, when she had already given her heart and bed to another. She knew also that in order for Zael, a commoner, to be granted permission to marry her by the other counts, she would have to start trading off political favours. House Rambaldt was only the first. She would use whatever political influence she could to win freedom and happiness for all that resided on Lazulis Island, herself included.
“I’ll be fine,” she promised, resting her head against Zael’s shoulder. “As long as I have such a valiant knight guarding my heart, I can’t see it ever being damaged.”
She had expected Zael to laugh. Instead, he had rested his chin gently on the top of her head, cradling her with his body. Or, perhaps, shielding her with his. “I promise you, Calista, your heart will never be damaged while I’m here.” For anyone else, these words would have sounded cheesy, if not ridiculous. For Zael, though, whose words were backed up by his own blood, sweat, tears, and determination, they were an honest promise. Nestled in the cradle of his body, she thought she might believe it.
Calista, her heart lightened by Zael’s heartfelt words, was able to write to House Rambaldt telling them that Jirall had died fighting for what he believed in, and that it was true to his heritage. True enough, the Head of House Rambaldt understood the meaning behind her words, and was appreciative of the young Countess’s efforts to restore the Rambaldt name. While Calista may not yet have friends in the Imperial Court, she had made an ally in House Rambaldt, and though their fortunes had fallen their connections with the Emperor were not something to be trifled with. She had taken the first step in ensuring that Lazulis Island and all of its residents, human and Gurak alike, were able to live freely and in peace.