Realization that we were free of the swamp was slow in dawning. I felt the attitude of my companions change first, realized then that we were stopping, and finally understood why. Prevot was eyeing me critically, but I didn’t engage her, instead pondered our next actions as well as I could in my muddled, fatigued mind.
“Don’t,” Prevot warned Vana as she started to stop her pack. “We’ll carry on a bit farther.”
The relief of our survival didn’t lighten our steps any, but with mechanical motions we convinced our bodies to continue the journey. It was easier now to fall behind, however, and Prevot won the staggering race to a circular space that already held a stack of wood for fire, encircled by low stones. She lit it without hesitation and Ele unpacked some food for us. I swayed on numb feet but only dropped my pack so I could gather more firewood. We would have enough for tonight, but I didn’t want us too delayed replacing the pile in the morning.
I kept my mind as engaged as I could, hunting for twigs and small branches in the star-lit darkness, but the echoes of sensation bloomed through my palm and fingers and wrist every few moments. I imagined the feeling carrying up through my elbow and shoulder and into my chest where it stopped my heart. She’d been so pale. What had she looked like before? I imagined her laughing, giving orders; I wracked my memories, but every time I saw her face, she had spittle on her lips and her eyes and cheeks were sunken with pain.
I brushed the back of my hand against my mouth and gathered up the sticks I’d dropped to vomit. Dry leaves filled my pockets and when I couldn’t gather another piece, I turned back to the fire. Tiago helped me set down the load and sorted the pieces by size and use while I turned the kindling out of my pockets and finally accepted some kind of meat from Vana. I chewed and swallowed and stared into the darkness. When I heard my name, I faced the direction it came from.
Prevot said, “Dawn is in a few hours. We need to reach the town soon, to rejoin your retinue, yes?”
I blinked and saw her eyes dart down to my hand. I stopped the twitches and shakes with my other and answered, “Yes, that’s right.”
“They should have the supplies for Tiago’s ointment there; his burn is getting worse, but it will be fine for a few days yet.”
After a pause, she asked, “What would you like to do then?”
I squeezed my hands together and glanced at— Dumas wasn’t there, of course. I tried to picture my father, hear his words, but I couldn’t. Finally, I said, “I’m tired. I’ll have answers after I rest.”
Prevot and the others looked satisfied enough with that.
* * *
My eyes opened to the first rays of light. It looked different here, free of the swamp. I eyed the surrounding trees suspiciously, but they made no move, save those the birds created. I stood, ignoring the stiff and sore muscles through my body, and took Ele’s map from her bag. No one shifted from their sleep as I unrolled it, weighed the corners with stones, and traced a finger across its face to find our location.
Prevot joined me after a few minutes. “Do you think they’re waiting?” she asked.
I shrugged. Once, I’d held every answer in the palm of my hand. Now… I gripped my trouser hem to keep my fingers from trembling.
“You came from here,” she indicated, then traced our route. “If they started out at the same time as the rain stopped, they’d be about here.”
“Perhaps not so far, depending on the wagons,” I agreed.
“If they were bound to meet you here,” she pointed, “we might arrive at the same time, or a bit before. The bog slowed us, but only by road-travel standards. They’ll go to the next crossing, which we’ve the lead to, and you’ll reach Galli in only a day or so after. Depending on the wagons.” She smiled and I tried to match it, but I could tell I’d failed when hers fell.
“People die, Pietro,” she said softly. “It’s never easy, but you can’t stop it happening.”
I closed my eyes and steadied my racing heart. “I haven’t had to help facilitate their passage,” I pointed out and stood. She rose with me. “I’ll gather more wood; let’s get everyone up and moving. We’ll eat on the march and send Vana ahead to scout our way or find tracks of our group’s passage.”
I hesitated and glanced back at her. “I expect we’re parting ways then. My apologies, Emeline; I’d grown used to your presence, but never intended to put expectation upon you.”
Her expression shifted subtly. “Of course not, Don Gentillini.”
“Consider a fitting compensation for your services as guide, and it will be yours.” I turned back to my task of collecting firewood and heard the soft chorus of voices waking behind me.
We did make good time despite our exhaustion. Prevot, Emeline, kept a close eye on Tiago’s burn from the untu’ik encounter, occasionally probing and prodding at the tender, blistered skin. Ele gathered plants that were good for burns whenever she found them and helped make a paste. Tiago made no indication that it helped, but he was gracious with his words of appreciation.
It seemed we didn’t have much to speak of, even after our time travel. My mood was still clouded, a match to the sky’s constant threat, but I mirrored its inaction and focused my attention inward on what I would do upon reaching House Galli. I had no sworn subjects, except for Tiago. If I failed with Galli, I could not imagine succeeding with Oscuro, or any of the others, least of all Renaud; they would never willingly release their hold on the throne.
I pictured my father, Barone Tiziano. In my mind, he sat at our kitchen table. The pitcher that had shattered was whole beside him and the sky was brilliantly blue. Colorful birds skipped and jumped across the sheets of warm wind so easily I imagined I could almost see the gusts myself.
Why should you rule?” he had asked.
It is my birthright. I’d foolishly answered.
He only stared at me, hands folded in his lap while I stood for our lesson. When I realized he wanted another answer, I’d said, I want to strengthen my people. I want to lift them up and give their lives meaning.
He still did not answer.
I do not know, father.
Tiziano scooped a thin layer of sugar into a saucer and poured water from the pitcher to dissolve the crystals. With barely a glance he placed it in the windowsill behind him.
He asked, What meaning can you bring to my life, more than I bring for myself? I have my duties. I have my birds. I have a beautiful home and music and food. How would you strengthen that, Pietro?
You cannot hold your focus to a person – a king’s duty is to lift all of his country together. Those below you will lift their share, and those below them all the way down to the smallest of subjects, who will lift themselves. What is necessary for the country is not always necessary for one. What benefits the country does not always benefit one. But it means, Pietro, that you should never fear one, because you have the weight of a country across your back, and the weight of that is unstoppable.
* * *
My retinue was somewhat depleted but while I would miss my cook, my quartermaster’s accounts showed that I did not lack in any way that would hinder me. With him sat with Lieutenant, now Captain, Raffaella Collo and we shared the table with Emeline and Tiago.
A doctor came with the supplies Emeline needed, but didn’t stay past, “Your parents will take good care of you.” She smiled at me, and then Emeline, but before leaving added, “Your boy looks so much like his father.”
Tiago looked at me with a tilted chin, then at Emeline beside him. “Most nobility looks alike, given our ancestral familiarity and only the newer Houses have the coloring that bolsters our health and longevity, but sets them apart. Can I have a cup of cider?”
I pushed my cup across to him while Emeline unwrapped his burn and mixed the salve. The boy listened closely to our discussion of logistics, and I expected that were she a fox, Prevot’s ears would give themselves away. Still, I did not send her away; she knew more than enough to damage me if she wanted.
“We’ll leave at first light,” I concluded. “A quick march to Galli but stay ready to pay visit to Oscuro if our visit is unwelcome or ineffective; I don’t want to lose more time than we already have. Good night.”
Everyone stood and bowed their heads as I rose, save Prevot who simply watched me. I didn’t know the look that followed me to my room, but it did bloom a budding curiosity in my stomach that kept me awake despite my earlier fatigue. When Prevot joined my company and claimed my shoulder for a pillow, I didn’t so much mind the loss of sleep.
August 16, 2021