Eliza couldn’t wait to leave that cold, awful, horrible, mean, cold, terrible, sticky, annoying, awful place. Ser Lister must have felt the same, because she never looked as cheerful as she had when she told Eliza to pack their horses. She must have been extra cheerful, because she instructed Eliza to make sure Queen Ann’s servants packed her majesty’s bag correctly, too.
Eliza was happy to be busy, to be useful . She had as many irons in the fire as a ten year old could handle: her usual duties as a squire, responsibility for the queen and the future queen consort’s bags, tracking down Ser Tiny, and squiring for Ser Lister for the Queen’s Hunt.
And, most importantly, today was her birthday. She didn’t need to tell anyone—the energy of it hummed in the air, infusing everything nearby like magic. The good kind, as evidenced by Ser Lister’s rare, beaming smile.
Turning ten was a big deal; each number provided double the magic. Eliza walked, light on her feet, lifted by it. The only thing that tethered her to the earth was Ser Tiny’s absence.
It made sense that Ser Tiny didn’t realize the importance of the day—he was an animal, obviously, and more magical within himself than any human being could ever hope to be, no matter how old—but it still hurt. She missed him. She missed the way his spine had begun to emerge in sharp, black spikes down his back, his fur curling around them like a trellis. She missed trying to ride him, and how her dream of becoming the knight whose steed was a dragon-wolf seemed more real every day. He was wild, and free, and those kinds of dreams were ones she had to earn—but she missed him.
Stupid thing. He could rot in the mud for missing her birthday. She didn’t want to treat him with kindness or try to understand—she was lonely, and he abandoned her, whatever the reason was.
Eliza smacked the first of Queen Ann’s bags on the wagon harder than she intended. The wood groaned, and a horse grazing nearby casually increased the distance between them. She grit her teeth. She would finish her tasks early if it killed her, just to have fun and spite him.
Eliza spun round with renewed determination, fighting a flutter of exhaustion at the tower of Queen Ann’s many belongings. They hadn’t even been at the castle long—how did she already have so many things ?
“Do you want help?” A small voice asked from behind her.
Eliza puffed out her chest, ready to say no, she absolutely did not need help, especially in a task assigned to her and her only by the queen—through Ser Lister—and how dare they even suggest —
But she didn’t. She didn’t, because the owner of the voice stood in front of her, and she was the prettiest girl Eliza had ever seen, and she didn’t know what to do. Her tight black curls, amber skin, and simple, pink cloth dress enchanted Eliza instantly.
“Sorry,” Eliza settled on, channeling her gruffest memories of Ser Lister. “Can’t. This is the queen’s business. Er—Queen Ann, I mean.”
“Oh! You’re the, um, you’re—you’re Ser Lister’s squire, aren’t you?” she said.
Her light brown eyes widened in excitement. Eliza swelled with pride. So far, the entirety of her squiredom was spent in rural villages and on quiet roads. Here in the Sutherland’s castle was the first time she was ever recognized as the squire to a knight as esteemed as Ser Lister—and the nice rooms, warm food, and respect from other servants that came along with it.
Grinning, Eliza said, “I am.”
“What’s it like?” the girl asked, stepping closer.
She looked like a lady’s maid of some kind. She smelled nice, and her clothes—though simple—were crisp and clean.
“Hard work,” Eliza answered. “Ser Lister is tough. But I’d never want to learn from anyone else. I—we’ve encountered everything from wild animals to dangerous men to a plague together. She can defeat anything. And someday, I will too. I’m going with her on the hunt.”
“That sounds pretty dangerous,” she said, breathless.
“Ser Lister said even an adult could get gored by a boar if they weren’t careful,” Eliza explained. “But I’m pretty fast. I’ll be safe.”
“Do you have anyone...to check on you, when you get back? To miss you? And m-make sure you’re safe?”
The question took her aback. Eliza blinked, searching her suddenly-empty brain for anything to say. As she searched, she realized—too late—that she’d entirely forgotten what her new admirer had asked.
“I—er—um, y-yes. No! I mean, well, Queen Ann knows me pretty well. She’d notice if anything happened to me. B-but she’s busy, obviously, and Ser Lister—“
The girl interrupted, “Would you mind if I looked for you after? Just so I—I don’t worry that—you know—if anything were to—“
“Yes! I mean—sure. Yes. I’ll find you,” Eliza said, a blush coloring her cheeks.
The girl leaned forward and kissed her cheek. Before Eliza could process what happened, the girl dashed away, returning to a friend that waited for her by the trees. Her friend was talking fast, but she quieted her with frantic, waving arms, before finally tugging them both out of sight.
Eliza returned to her task, trying her best to look cool and tough, but realized with a sinking stomach that she never thought to ask the girl’s name.
Anne stole an early breakfast from the kitchens, swiping two slabs of bacon the size of her head for herself, and two more for her betrothed for good measure.
She had already had a productive day—Eliza set to work on a list of small, benal tasks that were impossible to complete in the time allotted, so she’d leave Anne alone; Ser Washington, Ser Sowden, and she consulted with King Sutherland’s hunters on the boar population and movements near the border where they would be hunting; and finally, she helped the royal florist prepare a bouquet for Ann of the brightest flowers available in the greenhouse and sent it to her rooms.
Ann was awake earlier than usual, and summoned Anne with a note:
Thank you for the flowers.
Meet me when you can. Don’t rush .
Anne eyed the servant with a raised eyebrow. “Did she say anything else?”
The servant shied away from her, training his eyes on the floor. “Er—no. But she seemed...tired.”
“She just woke up,” Anne snapped.
He bit the inside of his cheek, as if deciding whether to challenge her. He said, “She...did, but perhaps the better word is...weary.”
Interesting. The night before, Ann remarked that her cheeks hurt from smiling. When Anne left her betrothed earlier that morning, she was sound asleep, snoring louder than thunder, happily nestled in her thousand pillows. What had happened in the few hours since?
Anne crumpled the note in her pocket, then waggled the bacon at the servant.
“I’m taking these, but I need another breakfast sent to the queen’s room. That’s Queen Ann , mind you. Not the other one. And bring something sweet,” she ordered.
“Yes, ser,” he said, bowing.
A thousand terrible possibilities stormed her mind, each worse than the last. Her heart raced. The worst case scenario took hold of her quickly—was this a note sent by a member of her family, holding her hostage until she called off the wedding and married her to someone else against her will?
When Anne burst into Ann’s room, her sword half-drawn, Ann jumped from her makeshift desk near the hearth, holding her hand to her chest.
Ann was alone, and fine, if suffering from a little shock. Anne let out a breath.
“What’s happened?” Anne said, checking the windows out of habit.
Ann smiled, but her eyebrows knit in the first look of true concern she had worn since the ball. Ink stained her wrist and pinky finger. Crumpled up bits of parchment littered the hearth, blackening as they caught fire and turned to ash.
“I knew you’d worry and come right away. I shouldn’t have sent,” Ann sighed.
“What are you writing?” Anne blurted.
Ann pursed her lips. “My messenger to Duke Henry returned.”
Anne read the tension in the air. She bristled with rage. “And he’s refused to host the wedding of his queen , whom he declared his allegiance to years ago, and who generously—“
Ann shook her head. “No, he’s accepted. And with his acceptance, he’s asked when we plan to march against Rawson as well.”
Anne studied her betrothed’s troubled expression.
“That’s...good. Why are you so upset?”
“Because!” Ann began, exasperated. “It means the Sutherlands—at least Prince Sutherland—have been working against us the entire time . And not in an ignorant way. He’s—he’s withheld information, he’s possibly communicating to the dukes on my behalf, saying gods-know-what! Anne, this is worse than refusal. I can’t—I can’t undo this mess, it’s—ugh!”
Ann smacked her own forehead. Anne took her trembling hand, smoothing her thumb over Ann’s until her breathing steadied.
“Everything will be okay,” Anne promised gently. “Look at how far we’ve come. Duke Henry seems to harbor no ill will, and perhaps the others don’t, either. We don’t know the extent of the damage. Let’s take this in small steps.”
Ann’s shoulders sank, her flourishing anxiety wilting to exhaustion. Anne understood; their peace seemed so fragile, every disturbance felt like a scout in the trees, signaling an army closing in. Happiness was a precious thing—trusting their hearts to it left them vulnerable.
“You’re right. And—and I know it seems silly of me, but I’m worried about your hunt. What if something goes wrong?”
“Nothing will go wrong. Royals talk up the ferociousness of boars to make themselves feel more valiant for slaying them. I’ve hunted dragons, my love. Every knight in your service has. A little piggy will be no problem for us.”
That teased a smile from her. Gods, the twist of her lips was more radiant than the sun.
“If you say so,” she said, resting her head on Anne’s shoulder.
Anne kissed her hair. “I do. And I promise, for you, we will take it very seriously.”
“I’ll be worried sick all night,” Ann admitted shyly.
“You’ll be far too busy to worry. Elizabeth will keep you so busy, you’ll forget I’m even gone,” Anne said. “And then when we return, you’ll be so full of wine and fresh vegetables that you won’t want to eat anymore. In ten years, you’ll be asked, ‘How was the boar Ser Lister slayed for you?’ and you’ll have to tell them you didn’t even eat it.”
“Oh, I plan to stay away from the wine! I’m already worried about staying up all night,” Ann giggled.
Anne kissed her, relishing the breathy laugh against her lips. “That’ll be the easy part. We’ll make it to dawn without getting a wink of sleep,” Anne drawled.
“Dawn…” Ann sighed. “Our wedding. I can’t believe it’s really happening.”
Anne said, “It is. Feels a little unreal, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” Ann agreed. Then she eyed the unfinished letter on her desk. “I should finish responding to the duke before we leave.”
Anne grinned mischievously. She said, “You know, I don’t think we need to address Prince Sutherland’s meddling just yet. Why don’t you show me how you’re going to kiss me again?”
Ann sank into her arms, deepening their kiss. She wrapped her legs around Anne’s waist, the letter forgotten, and their hot breakfast growing cold.
When Anne had suggested not to confront Prince Sutherland, Ann stared pensively at her tea for a long while.
Anne understood her hesitation; the timing of it all was terrible. They would leave the Sutherlands’ kingdom—with no intention to return—tomorrow, and marry when they arrived in Lidgate. They fell into bed that morning and never left, enjoying each other’s company into the early evening. Any letters Prince Sutherland might have intercepted had long since been burned, and all the damage was already done. There was also little proof they had to accuse him; one vague letter from one duke wouldn’t be enough, and even if it was, the avalanche of implications couldn’t be resolved over breakfast.
“If we ignore it, it won’t go away,” Ann finally said.
Anne set her own cup on the nightstand, then swivelled in the bed to face her betrothed. The blanket clung to her bare waist and calf, twisting her leg at an awkward angle, but she didn’t care. She lifted Ann’s chin with a finger so the girl would look at her. When Anne met her gentle, sky-blue gaze, they both softened. Anne hadn’t even noticed the tension in her own shoulders until it left her like a long, deep sigh.
“It won’t,” Anne agreed. “But now we have the advantage. We don’t know the extent of the damage he caused, of course—but I think our best course of action in that regard is to consult Duke Henry. Have he and Prince Sutherland had any correspondence, who was the messenger assigned to him, that sort of thing.”
“If you say so,” Ann said. Then she flashed a shy half-smile. “I’m glad you’re here. You’re good at this. I’m...not so confident when it comes to strategic choices. I feel paralyzed with the ever-expanding web of decisions.”
Anne pet her cheek with the back of her hand. It was sometimes impossible for her to comprehend that the woman before her didn’t know how precious and intelligent she was.
Anne murmured, “I’ve lost to you in chess hundreds of times—you know how to make decisions. This is the same—you think, and when your thoughts overwhelm you to the point where they become meaningless, you act, and then you do it over again. For you, that means until you win.”
“Chess is a game. This is—there are people’s lives at stake! I’m taking us to war, and I wonder if I will never sleep peacefully once it begins. I can’t think of this like a game. It feels wrong to erase the gravity of every choice,” Ann protested.
Once, Ann’s infuriating ability to empathize with anyone, even in theoretical situations, frustrated her. When others struggled to strategize any decision from road taxes to war like a chess game, Ann added to her hardship by lighting fire under the chessboard and moving her pieces through spinning hoops. Now, Anne understood that that was why the gods had charged her with their kingdom.
“You’re right. All I mean to say is that you can do this,” Anne said.
Ann took a deep breath, and nodded.
“I’m glad we’re leaving tomorrow,” Ann said, rubbing her temple. “I feel safer in the woods. Here, I feel like—” She made a squeezing gesture with both of her fists. “—like wolves are closing in.”
Anne hadn’t trusted the Sutherlands from the start. The revelation vindicated her and heightened her fury all at once. His treachery proved to her that the Walker’s strategic marriages weren’t foolproof. Thinking about Ann’s narrow escape from one numbed her. Did a reality exist where Anne—more in control of her feelings and far less stupid—had never indulged in her affection for her queen, and she had to watch Ann marry someone she didn’t love, all while Prince Sutherland betrayed her anyway?
No. Anne would be dead before she allowed that to happen.
“Never. I won’t let them,” Anne promised.
She returned to her place next to Ann, and Ann tucked her face into the crook of her neck. Anne stilled, then reached for her journal to review their preparations for the coming week. Everything was packed, invitations—the few that could be delivered—were sent, and crossbows, rations, and horses for the hunt were accounted for. While Anne checked and rechecked everything off of her list, Ann’s breathing slowed, and her muffled snores kept Anne awake for another hour.