Part I: Exile
"We carry on our back the burden time always reveals
In the lonely light of morning, in the wound that would not heal
It's the bitter taste of losing everything that I've held so dear."
- Sarah McLachlan, Fallen.
They brought me before them, dripping with chain, on my knees and reduced to less than nothing. My head bowed and back stiff, I prayed in a way thought unbecoming for my people, not for vengeance, but for merciful release.
There was no heart left in me to wish for revenge.
"Read the charges," said Lord Carcarron, his voice deceptively soft, timbre so like his son's that I flinched from a fresh wave of inner pain. I hoped that Aion would see fit to strike me dead upon the spot; the tattered shreds of my pride could not withstand this public tribunal, this exposure of my grief to all and sundry who cared to visit Carcarron Keep in its time of loss.
Long before this moment, I had asked the soldier stationed outside my cell door for the white band. He had refused, face stricken, both shamed and sorrowful as he turned away. There had been no other chances to end my existence honorably, and my gaolers had taken such care that I appear before the Lord in the best of health - washed and well fed, my dove-grey garments in good repair - that I could only believe that it had been on his own orders.
The days had passed as if a waking nightmare. They had not allowed me attend Raum's funeral, though I had heard the chanting of the house clerics faintly through my barred window.
The Herald cleared her throat; her angel's voice flowed across those gathered at my trial, dulcet tones giving voice to my crimes. I looked up then, and locked eyes with Avarran Carcarron, whose heir I had guarded with my life - and whom I had ultimately failed to save from his fate.
Studying Lord Carcarron's face, burning into my brain the image of what Raum would have become had he lived to see the day, I scarcely heard the Herald as she decried the litany of crimes both real and imagined. Carcarron's inhabitants, indeed all of my people, needed a reason, someone to blame for the death of one of their favored sons. At their baying, every fell action that could have even vaguely been ascribed to me had been placed into record, and I was held responsible for acts I had never committed. Yet, I would contest none of them. Raum was dead, and nothing, not even my own end, could bring him back, or lift the stain from my honor.
As the Herald finished, Lord Carcarron's face turned implacable and hard, his voice strident and furious. "How do you plead, Azhdeen?" He knew the answer, read it in my face as surely as if I were a book in his library, but his pride as Lord and his love for his dead son demanded the reply, demanded closure, such as only I could give him.
A piece of me laughed in crazed and blackest humour then; how low I had fallen, in the shadow of my mother's grace, but still I had the power to make the mighty Avarran Carcarron fail to sleep soundly at night.
I broke our locked gazes, cast mine own to the granite floor. The words were practically whispered, my voice rusty with disuse and weeping. "I am at my liege's mercy." Such little as there was, and would be, for me. I was counting on it, for him to end my misery.
Lord Carcarron could not be alone in his judgement - no, the law required a full seven lords and ladies, each witness, judge and jury, to hear the accused's crimes.
Carcarron did not speak first, blessedly. Instead the Herald went down the line of nobles attendant, beginning with Ciella, the healer who had delivered me of my mother's womb with her own hands. I, the oathbreaker, was forbidden to look upon their faces as I had Avarran Carcarron, so instead I watched, desolate, from the corners of my eyes. A delicate fist extended, a thumb canted for the sky, a surprisingly gravelly voice: "Mercy," pronounced she, and the whispers rippled outward from the court like tide.
Next Asric, captain of the Lord's guard where I had been Raum's, his voice deep and his hands callused and striped with scars, one thumb for the granite floor: "Death."
And Callyan, mistress of blades, Avarran's sometime lover since his wife's death years ago, hands ringed with black and red and white where the tattoos of her station showed; another thumb for the floor, and a powerful "Death!" for those attendant, her voice echoing unbearably in the chamber.
He will not marry her, that morbid, distant part of me thought, and that is why she is mad all the time.
A snort of manic laughter escaped my twisted lips, almost soundless, but Carcarron saw, and raised his eyebrow. I bowed my head again and shut my eyes, identifying the remainder of my judges by voice alone.
Pentarus Lockstep next, Carcarron's spymaster, a slender man with a quiet voice concealing a will of steel: "Mercy," said he unexpectedly, and the wave of whispers was twice the noise and depth of the first. I wished I could have seen Avarran's face when his most ardent ally spoke in my support.
Fifth was Sryddan Redfeather, master of falcon, built like a blacksmith and the tallest man in all of Carcarron, with ferocity to match: "Death," he rumbled, basso-profundo, and my heart rose. Perhaps I would be granted release after all.
After him came blind Kyaran, Carcarron's high sorceress, aged and wise. Her soprano warbled with the wight of the years, but her wisdom and mind were still sword-sharp: "Mercy," cried she. "I leave the decision with you, Avarran. Aion guide your heart." I heard her cane tap the flagstones as she turned away.
As Avarran Carcarron pondered my judgement, tie-breaker in the decision of my fate as he had always been, I silently blessed old Kyaran. Carcarron's decision would surely be death, surely be the kind of mercy my people do not wish for nor contemplate, but happily mete out -
"Mercy," said the Lord, so softly, like a lover's whisper. I looked up in shock and despair, feeling the blood drain from my face, my cheeks turn ashen, my eyes widen. It was the one thing I could not have guessed. Carcarron was a warlord, liege of armies of soldiers, a general first and foremost, lauded for his thirst and skill in battle -
"No," I gasped, unable to prevent its escape. Carcarron's eyes bored holes in me, pupils the size of pinpricks, his will more obdurate than the very mountains. He had discovered the desire to make me suffer.
"Yes," he said, louder, more forcefully. Whether Aion was with him that day or not, I will never forget him pushing himself out of his chair to stand tall and strong, his voice ringing through the court, echoing across the granite and bouncing through the rafters. I did not see the reaction of the crowd, nor the lords and ladies; my eyes were only for him, Avarran Carcarron, the spectre of what Raum was to become. He laid judgment upon my penitent form and never regretted a moment of it. "Jaya Azhdeen, formerly of Carcarron, I strip you of all rank and title and banish you from my lands. You will be taken by convoy to the White Barrow, interred there as a prisoner, and remain there for as many years until I or another liege of Pandaemonium chooses to grant you freedom. Though little enough has come of it as yet," he growled, narrowing his eyes at me, "the bloodline must be preserved."
It struck me like a physical blow, a spear through the chest. I had taken an Elysian gladiator's sword full through my shoulder at Rivenstone, and though that wound had long since healed, the arm once more capable of battle due to Ciella's art, it pulsed then, raw and fiery as if it had been newly struck. The agony chained me to earth when my mind would have flown from anguish, pain radiating down my arm and across my back like molten metal.
Staggered, I managed an uncertain pair of words, palms pressed to my left shoulder over the pink scars beneath my garment. "M-my brother?"
"Is of far more use and talent than his sister," said Carcarron, easing back down into his throne, but how his eyes burned in his chiseled face! "He will remain at the Academe; I will send a courier notifying him of your fate."
So I would not be allowed to even say goodbye to the sole person in all Atreia who would be grieved by my absence. I set my chin, forced my head down once more; Jareth would not be allowed to leave Synedell until his graduation as a mage, and it was clearly Carcarron's intent that I not visit.
I recited the coraline then for the first time in days, one step at a time, not needing my beads to keep track of the stations, praying at last for something other than Raum's life, my death. I prayed Jareth would be happy, that he would see sense and resist the temptation to come for me. I prayed he would do well, and not let his heritage or his nerves ruin his chances at a life greater than mine would have ever been. He had inherited all of our mother's talent; thus I had been left with none, and see where that had gotten me.
"Yes, my liege," I whispered, and pressed my hands harder to my shoulder to hide my trembling fingers.
That seemed to be the sign, the cue that the court was waiting for, my acquiescence to my fate. Activity resumed immediately; the Herald spoke, and Carcarron issued orders, and the lords and ladies dispersed. I heard none of their words. I instead remained kneeling on the granite, hunched on on myself, cold and alone, awaiting my guards to escort me to the White Barrow, a place where Asmodian and Elysian children alike are told they will be sent if they do not behave.
The touch at my burning shoulder was gentle, however, not rough; I looked up and there was Ciella, her hair turning white with age and lines seaming her face. She had been a friend of my mother's, I remembered then, terribly. She had not been at Carcarron during the siege long ago, could not have saved her. Perhaps she was attempting amends with Aion, then, by caring so lovingly for her children.
Ciella did not speak. Instead she flashed me a haunted, taut smile, the wan look of those reconciled to the damned, slipped something cool and knobby under my tremulous hands, and then turned away, the last I ever saw of her. When I opened my fingers to examine it, tears at last spilled over the boundary of my lashes, and shamefully I wept in the bright view of all of Carcarron, pressing the beads of my jade coraline to my chest so hard they left bruises.
Raum had given then to me as a birthing-day gift, when he and I and my brother were children. I wept over them as soldiers were delegated for the journey to the Barrow, wept as I was shepherded into my wheeled cage filled with straw and pulled by beasts of burden, wept as I left Carcarron for what I knew would be the final time.
I managed one clear glance at the shadowed tor later, far off from the Keep I had been born and raised in, fixing its image in my mind as my escort toiled us away from all I had ever truly known. Raum was dead, Avarran had made certain of my suffering, and Ciella's kindness had made me undone.
I curled up in the straw and slept, still weeping in my dreams, not looking forward nor back. I cast myself on the winds of fate, and hoped half-sleeping that something terrible would befall me before I reached the White Barrow.
Ah, foolish child that I was, I should have known better than to wish for something I did not know the depths of. Aion must have been laughing.