Note: Well, surprisingly this is drawing close to the end of this arc. I have been writing my NaNovel in arcs instead of chapters, and after November ended I took a tremendous leap forwards plot-wise and started writing scenes that I thought would be fun/interesting. Of course, the Big Reveal was among them (though there is some assorted random cuteness/culture/battles and shenanigans). But this is coming close to the end of the longest chain I have of uninterrupted writing before all I have is notes before the would-be-epilogue. I think that what I might do is, when I come to the natural end of the content I have now, start from the beginning. That might also help make much of this make more sense, as I did start posting content from about 3/4 of the way through the novel’s plotline. Sound good? Hurrah! Well, there’s still just a bit more to go here. For now, enjoy!
Rubbing the lingering ache from his knee, he slipped into the bed prepared for him and sighed, closing his eyes and settling down for a long-awaited rest.
And he waited some more.
Minutes slipped by and Edmond lay there, heart pounding with adrenaline. He had pushed himself in crisis mode for so long that it was difficult to unwind even now, when he knew that there was nothing he could do for the moment to affect the situation.
Edmond let out a groan of frustration and draped an arm over his forehead, trying to block out all distant light sources. He intentionally deepened and evened the breaths he took, attempting to slow the pounding of his heart. But even after several minutes of controlled breathing, Edmond felt his heart racing. Lingering doubts and concerns whispered frantically in the corners of his mind, refusing to be soothed or silenced.
Ages passed as Edmond lay on the bed, suspended in a state of wakefulness but craving sleep so deeply that he abjectly refused to move. The monks had provided him the finest feather mattress that they possessed, but the softness was unusual to a back accustomed to wooden berths and swinging hammocks.
Even in his fortress in the Wild, even in the home of Fraenir, he had always provided himself a hard bed. Something within him resisted the opulent living of his youth and would not permit him to relax in such surroundings. His disgust at the wrongness of the way he had lived and the way he had treated others had attached itself to the trappings of the lifestyle. It was enough to turn his stomach even now. He never wanted to go back to being that same person, not when he knew the price of his comfort.
The exhaustion was like a physical ache throughout his body. Desperate for sleep that would not come, frustrated that he was awake and awake because he was frustrated, at last Edmond mustered his strength and pushed the covers back.
If he was going to be awake, he might as well do something useful, Edmond mused.
From the mutely glowing coals of the fire Edmond lit a candle, carried it to the washbasin and pulled out his looking-glass.
When he was young and foolish, he had prided himself greatly on his appearance; his noble features, the rich magnificence of his true black hair, his moon-pale skin that bespoke his lack of need to labour in the open sun. The ladies of the court followed him silently with their eyes and tittered mysteriously in his presence. He was altogether too aware of his handsomeness. His major flaw (physically, at least) were the pale blue eyes that marked him as forever imperfect in the perspective of the rest of the court.
As a child, he had wished and prayed that his eyes would spontaneously darken, that he could discover a way or an herb to consume that would change his eye colour.
But now, as a man, Edmond had less time to spend thinking about his appearance except the time it took to alter it in order to maintain his anonymity. Years of blazing sun and freezing cold on the open seas had darkened his skin. Of course, he had to spend an unfortunate amount of valuable time shaving and dying his blasted traitorous hair. His eyes were the easy part – and thus his favorite part of his appearance. There was no need to disguise them.
It pleased him because he felt as though he spent much of his time covering up and hiding from the legacy his father left him. But when he peering into a looking glass, he saw his mother’s eyes. And he would pause. He would think. He would wonder about what would never be. And he would thank his mother, wherever she might be, for giving him these eyes.
Although it seemed like he had scrubbed a layer of skin off removing the grime from their journey, Edmond still looked absolutely terrible – and that was without considering the interlacing network of scars. Normally weather-darkened skin was pasty and his bloodshot eyes were two dark holes in his face. Incriminatingly thick black hairs covered his chin, too black to the educated eye. Although he had revealed his identity to the conclave, a Hunter who saw him at one hundred paces could place this beard as true black and instantly mark him as a target.
Aggravated at his beard, aggravated by the Hunters and the Rebels and the bed and everything that kept him from sweet unconsciousness, Edmond took his pocket knife, wet his face and began to shave. Even in this state of hyper-exhaustion, his skill with a blade kept him from anything more than a few nicks here and there. Unfortunately, those nicks served only to aggravate him further.
The cool water on his face only served to wake him further, and now the deed was done. Edmond let out a long sigh and pulled the spare cloak and boots left for him by the monks over his nightshirt and breeches, wrapping his belt about his waist almost as an afterthought. Perhaps a walk would help ease his troubled mind.
Wandering the blackstone halls freely, Edmond followed only the path laid before him by his feet. One corridor blended into another quickly, and in the early morning hours the only folk stirring were singular monks going about their duties. They greeted him briefly in passing, and if any wondered about his appearance, they kept their comments to themselves.
Boots as heavy as his eyelids, Edmond found his way to the open tower at the top of one of the monastery’s many steeples. There were no windows, just open arches letting the wind pass through the small enclosure, ringed by benches that beckoned the visitor to these high reaches to stop and rest a moment. Beyond the tower, lanterns winked from the courtyard and other distant steeples.
The skies were clear, hundreds of stars sparkling brilliantly in the deep blue and reminding him of the ancient tapestry that once had hung in the Grand Entrance of Castle Fortinbras.
Below, the valley of slums was a pitch hole brightened only occasionally by the distant glow of a fire.
And the clamouring voices of his anxieties faded to faintest whisper as he thought about his mother.
Edmond’s mother, the infamous concubine who had birthed the Common Heir and so besmirched the Northern throne, had been born and raised in Barrow, in a slum not too distant from this valley. It was said that her beauty was enough to stop the King in his tracks as he passed through the city on a tour of the southern provinces. The king sent away for the peasant girl to be brought to his palace as a concubine.
While searching for a new bride to replace the barren queen, the king fell into the arms of his concubine. Instead of finding comfort, he found an heir – a lowborn heir with blood contaminated by his mother’s commonness.
She died in what many described as a display of weakness, while giving birth to Edmond.
But he preferred to think of it as a gift of love. It was her only gift to him, besides these pale blue eyes that eternally marked him as a commoner amongst kings and nobles. She gave her life to usher him into the world.
And this city was her world – the place she had spent the majority of her life.
Had she stared up at the night sky, spellbound by these same stars?
Had she glimpsed the sun rising over those mountains of the Southern range and dreamt what lay to the north?
Could she imagine the king himself captivated by her presence, spiriting her away to the castle at the other end of the kingdom?
Edmond wondered sometimes if his father had truly loved his mother. If the king had, for any of his few remaining days, loved him.
Mrs. Tibbetts, his father’s chamber matron, used to tell him stories about how King Richard would visit his mother while she was pregnant and how he would fuss over her. The Grand Duke had always denied this, insisted that the king had always maintained the rules of propriety and kept his distance.
Ultimately, everyone who might have known the truth was now dead, so trying to compare stories was a futile endeavor.
So Edmond chose to believe in his quiet moments, in his softest of hearts, that his father had loved her in his own way; that the king had fallen for the peasant girl and lifted her from the ashes and sat her at his side. And if they both had lived…
Would they approve of what he was doing?
King Richard had been a small boy when his own father, Mason IV, succeeded with a hard-fought battle for peace amongst the kingdoms. Edmond’s grandfather had been instrumental in establishing the tenuous truce that lasted nearly forty years. King Richard laboured intently to keep the peace, even to the point of compromising certain standards in ways that might harm his own people in order to prevent another bloody war.
What would he think now of his own son’s effort? Trying to prevent another war, yes, but what would be the overall cost of the counter-revolutionary movement? At what point would he decide that preserving life was more important than preserving freedom?
Indulging himself in a private moment of reflection, Edmond wondered what his father would have done in his circumstances. Alas, ultimately if King Richard were here, there would be no dilemma as the aristocracy never would have leant their power to strengthen the rebels; no, he was in uncharted waters at the moment, and maps from other territories would provide no valuable insight.
A chill ran down his spine as he felt for a moment as he considered the weight of opposition – he felt so insignificant, so alone – but no, Edmond reminded himself. He had his friends, Jaster, Tika, and Cael, who had been with him for years now; Sebastien and Jocelyn amongst his allies in the counter-revolution; Captain K’Tel, Warrick and the rest, his former shipmates in the Conscientious Dissenters, and so many more…
No, Edmond smiled, they were not so alone after all.
And as the stars danced across the velvety blue-black, his thoughts turned once more to his mother and how she might have lived.
Lost in these fond musings, Edmond sat on one of the benches and leaned his chin against his fist, a distant, sorrowful smile tracing the edges of his lips.
And his eyes began to close…
What seemed an instant later, footsteps from down below and the slight creak of the door announced the approach of another. Absent-mindedly, Edmond’s hand flew to his belt. The rich blackness had faded into heather gray and tendrils of light slid across the horizon, illuminating the eastern sky in a hazy glow. Shadows lengthened and the smoke of distant firstfires drifted from the slums
His gaze rested on the horizon, but his mind calculated that the enclosed space might not favour his saber and his dagger would provide the proper element of surprise and deadly force…