So what was my goal?
Images fled through my mind, chased by phantom emotions: my descending on Shevraeth to inform him of whatever it was the Marquise was planning; my sending him an anonymous letter with the same information. Fine, triumphant gestures, but to what end? And why?
I shook my head, as if that would dispel the images. If I was going to dip my hand into public affairs, then I had to dismiss personal considerations.
"To help the new king," I said. "To make certain that no Merindar sits again on that throne, because none of them are worthy."
Azmus smiled, clapped his hands to his knees and bowed with slow deliberation. "I shall communicate with you as soon as I know something, my lady," he said, and slipped out.
I woke suddenly in the night with a horrid thought, one so appalling I sat up in bed with a gasp. The spring rain, beating what would have been a soothing tempo against the window, did nothing to ease my nerves. It reminded me of my ill-planned visit to Flauvic, which in turn reminded me of the Merindar plot. Which reminded me of Shevraeth.
I'd had visions of triumphantly presenting him with the details of whatever it was Azmus learned, but now those crumbled to the ground as mere delusions. What reason would he have to believe me? For all he knew—and there was some evidence to support the idea, I remembered with a blush—I was on the other side.
I knew what I had to do, but I didn't want to do it. I wanted to spare myself the humiliation. But Remalna was more important than my pride; hadn't I sworn to my father to do whatever I could to see it prosper? If I was going to dip my hand into public affairs, then I had to dismiss personal considerations, I reminded myself, throwing my own words back in my face. I knew what I had to do. I knelt at my table, and in a hand so shaky it was barely readable, wrote a note to the Marquis, asking him to meet with me.
I received no reply that day; I wondered if it was because Shevraeth was disgusted at the very idea of speaking to me. Then I shook my head and banished that thought. We might not be on the best terms, but he had never been anything less than polite to me. He was busy; surely that was all that was delaying his reply, I told myself as I went to bed. Or, perhaps, he was trying to judge my motives. I winced; whatever conclusions he drew about my political or personal motivations were sure to portray me in a bad light.
Stop it, I told myself firmly. I'd just asked to speak to him, nothing more. He couldn't possibly have any idea as to why. Perhaps it would be better if I chanced to encounter him, somewhere where we could speak in relative privacy. Then I winced again. My deliberate avoidance of him had made such an encounter with Shevraeth all but impossible. And that avoidance had probably been construed to have a political meaning, making it look again like I was on the other side—
Stop it, I said again. Since sleep would not come, I stared at the ceiling, laying out in my mind what I would say to the Marquis.
By the next morning, my desk was still empty of a reply. There was a letter from my Unknown, but for the first time I ignored it; I could not concentrate on anything.
Life, Meliara, I thought. If you're like this now, how are you actually going to talk to him?
Ignoring Mora's worried looks, I skipped breakfast and dressed for the day. I wandered out of my rooms, not knowing where I was going, save that I didn't want to meet anyone, until I found myself in the State Wing, outside of the archives room.
I hesitated outside the tapestry. Well, why not? The Marquis would not be here; he would be either riding with Lady Trishe's party, or fencing at the practices Yora Nessaren said he never missed. I took one of my favorite memoirs from the shelves, and settled down with it, hoping to pass the time until I could reasonably go back to my rooms and check for a reply. Slowly, as I read, the butterflies in my stomach dissipated as I was drawn into the Remalna of three hundred years ago.
A soft sound at the tapestry drew me back to the present. I looked up, and saw Shevraeth, informally dressed as if he'd just come from the practice matches. "I was hoping to find you here," he said. "You wanted to speak to me?" He stepped inside and seated himself on one of the cushions by the window.
I nodded dumbly, my heart pounding. "Yes-- " I finally managed to croak. Yes, I did want to speak to him, but not here, where we'd had more than one—ah—well, argument. Or rather, where I had argued with him.
I put the book back on the shelf, my hands shaking so badly it took two attempts. He must have seen that I was nervous, for he said nothing, only waited for me to turn back around.
Honesty, I promised myself, and turned to face him.
"I owe you—apologies," I said. "Apologies and explanations. Only, I didn't want to do it before, because I thought you'd think I was trying to repair our relationship because you were going to be king." Well, that was honest, alright. The Marquis raised his eyebrows a bit, but was still silent, for which I was very thankful. "But Azmus—our old spy—came to me. He's trying to find out things about the Merindars, and I was going to tell you. Only, I thought you mightn't believe me, because you thought I was with them. So— well. That's why I'm speaking, now." I took a deep, shuddering breath, and clasped my hands together in a death-grip behind my back.
"I see," he said slowly, all traces of court drawl gone.
I didn't give him a chance to continue—I had no wish to know what he was thinking. "At first I thought you were a lying fop of a courtier—" I saw him wince, just a little, and reminded myself that while honesty was good, unstinting truth could be brutal—"and I was slow to change my mind because, well, partly because I was stubborn, and partly because of your reputation, and partly because the rebellion was too important for me to be wrong if I trusted you." I hesitated. Honesty. "And, partly I suppose—no, I know—because you brought me before Galdran."
He opened his mouth to say something, but I cut him off. "I know you had no choice," I said quickly. "I know, now, but then I thought you really were on his side. If I'd known then what I know now, I might have given you a fairer chance, but I didn't. And then I was embarrassed about how wrong I was, and—" I was rambling. On to the next thing.
"I'm sorry I threw that candlestick, by the way," I said hurriedly. "I was—well, I was mad."
He finally got a word in. "So I gathered."
I gave him a sharp look. The hint of humor in his eyes did not ease my apprehension. "But I was wrong about you then, too—life, I was wrong about everything!" I took another deep breath, and continued. This was not going to get any easier. "I believed you, I think, at Rensalaeus, but I didn't trust you. That dislike of courtiers, again. I should have—my brother did-- but you hadn't chased him halfway across Remalna, either." A definite wince this time, and I hurried to speak again. "I—I thank you for that, too. Even if I didn't appreciate it at the time. I—well. It would have been unpleasant to die at Debegri's hands." For a moment, I was sucked into the past, and I saw again that dark prison, the huge brute of a man heating brands over the fire, the chains and the instruments of torture—No. That was past. With a shake of my head, I brought myself back to the present, and Shevraeth's intent gaze. He looked concerned, which I suppose was better than amused.
"Then Debegri's men ambushed Bran, and I guess I was too grief-stricken to be thinking clearly. And, after—well, it's hard to make peace with someone when you've just attacked his fortress, meaning to kill him."
Again, the Marquis started to speak, his eyes crinkled slightly in amusement. I swallowed my embarrassment and cut him off again. "I knew, for sure, finally, that I was wrong about you at the battle. I was embarrassed about how wrong I'd been, and I couldn't bring myself to face you. I thought you must think I was stupid, or foolish. That's why I left—well, and because I wanted to go home. But I left the letter."
I swallowed, and turned away, addressing the rest of my words to the bookshelf. "That's about it, I guess. Oh—I didn't come to Court because I thought you'd told everyone about our—conversations, and encounters, to make them laugh. I didn't want to be laughed at for being rustic and ignorant when I came, even if I'd been trying to learn. And—coming to Court would have meant facing you, and having this very uncomfortable conversation which we're currently having." I let go of my skirts, which I'd been holding in a death-grip through the last part of my talking, and bravely turned back to look at Shevraeth. "And you probably still think I'm ignorant and rustic, and stubborn, and I don't really care. Well—actually, I do. But—that's what I had to tell you. For Remalna." My face burned.
He didn't look at me, but at some point on the floor. "I see," he said again, slowly. "I—begin to understand." Finally, he looked up. "Am I to understand that the reason for your avoidance of me has been that you thought I was laughing at you?"
"Well, yes, partly," I said. "And—you were. Partly."
"Never at your expense," he said. "Had I known I was causing you so much discomfort, I would have curbed my mirth." Shevraeth fell silent.
I turned to go, wanting to leave the room as quickly as possible, but he held up a gloved hand to stop me. "Wait." He paused, and seemed to be searching for the right words. "I—thank you for telling me this. I know it wasn't easy." Suddenly, I felt a lot better. He wasn't laughing at me, or mocking me, and he even seemed to be believing me. "Let me state now, as it obviously needs to be said, that I don't think you are rustic or ignorant, not at all. Unlearned, perhaps, when I first met you—but your great pains to correct that speak highly in your favor." I blushed, remembering our conversation around the supper table in Tlanth. "As for stubborn—well, yes, I do think you are that." He smiled a little. "But also courageous, loyal, and sharp-witted."
"As for your allegiance," he continued, "there have been times when I feared you'd be drawn into a plot without thinking it through, but your willingness to perform such an obviously distasteful task shows humbling loyalty to Remalna."
"Humbling?" I repeated.
"You'll notice it was you who had the courage to broach the subject, not I."
"Yes, but I had things that needed saying," I said. "You can't have had anything to say to me." I stopped, struck by the odd expression in Shevraeth's eyes; he was staring at me intently, but it was more than that. What had I said? "As for my loyalty, it wasn't such a distasteful task," I said, trying to lighten this strange mood. "Facing you isn't very much worse than getting my foot nearly broken in a trap set by my own people, being dragged before a tyrant, condemned to a horrible death, running halfway across the kingdom on one good foot, and seeing my brother shot, and I did that for Remalna."
He looked startled, then bowed, his eyes narrowing in amusement. "I'm glad you don't find me formidable, then."
I started to speak again, but this time he cut me off, his eyes turning serious again. "I also owe you an apology. If I'd known why you felt this way about me, I would have done everything I could to show you the untruth of your assumptions."
"But you didn't know," I said, "because I didn't tell you. Because it was—well, complicated."
"I've obviously caused you a great deal of pain," Shevraeth said, "and I'm very sorry for that." He smiled tentatively. "You looked like death when I walked in. I'm sorry that things have come to such a state that the thought of speaking with me makes you so apprehensive. If I can do anything to spare you such pain in the future, I will."
"Thank you," I whispered, relief finally flooding me. I was still embarrassed, of course—I seemed to spend half my days experiencing that feeling, sometimes—but I was also strangely elated.
"We've both dreadfully misunderstood the other," Shevraeth said. "Will you—is it too much to hope that we can start over?" He extended his hand.
"Not at all," I said, taking it and smiling. "If you can forgive me for being horribly stubborn, and blind, I suppose I can forgive you for winning the war."
He laughed, the same laugh I remembered from the time I'd called him a Court decoration. I winced at the memory, more out of habit than anything else; the old recollections had somehow lost their power to embarrass. Shevraeth really did have a nice laugh, I reflected.
"Do you have any questions for me?" he said, his mouth quirking in a grin. "I don't want to leave you with anything that might cause a misunderstanding."
I thought. "Yes," I said. "Actually, I do. Why didn't you answer my note?"