DISCLAIMER:

"Lots of people ask ... what happens to Finn and Claudia [after the end of] Sapphique. I don't know, and I don't think about it. If you enjoyed the book, you can carry on the story the way you want to, in your imagination. I'm usually too busy trying to think up the next thing." - Catherine Fisher


AUTHOR'S NOTE:

MASSIVE SPOILERS for Incarceron and Sapphique, including some of the best bits. Please read the books first!

This story is dedicated to Cirtholien, my wonderful beta-reader and fellow Incarceron enthusiast, who helped me brainstorm some of the central ideas for this story and also did a fantastic job of critiquing it once it was finished. Thanks also to M. and D-Chi for reassuring me that I was not alone in my love for Jared and Claudia, or my desire to see their story resolved in a more romantically satisfying manner. And to all those other readers who feel the same way - this is for you, too.


THE WARDEN'S DAUGHTER
by R.J. Anderson 2011

Six weeks, in a Realm without power. That was all it had taken to bring her father's lofty ambitions, all the painstaking craftsmanship of her life, crashing into dust. Claudia stalked through the ruins of the Wardenry, chin high and hands clenched in the folds of her faded skirts.

When the Privy Council had banished her from Court two days ago, she had been angry at first, then humiliated. As though she had failed, and had only herself to blame. But after the first shock of realizing just how badly the Warden – and she and Jared too - had miscalculated, she had felt a fierce and sudden liberation.

Why should she be disappointed? She had what she had always wanted: a world without Protocol, free of the stultifying restraints of Era. The missing Havaarna heir found and restored to the throne. The door to Incarceron open to anyone who cared to pass. And one more thing she had not even dared to dream of: Jared cured of his deadly illness, and raised to full life and strength again.

And if the cost of all these things was the queenship her father had coveted for her, the position she had been raised to believe was rightfully and inevitably hers, then so be it.

Claudia picked her way through the abandoned husk of her childhood home, stepping over fallen beams and heaps of crumbled plaster, until she reached the crude ladder that had replaced the staircase to the upper floor. She put one foot on the bottom rung, stood still a moment. Then in one savage motion she ripped her heavy skirts off at the waist and flung them away. Beneath it she wore breeches, close-fitted but supple; with a tight smile she gripped the ladder and began to climb.


Her father's study remained as she had left it, a cool grey space humming with light and energy, though there was no such power anywhere else in the Realm. She touched the panel and spoke. "Incarceron."

The screen flickered and there he was, dark hair drawn back from an austere face, his temples and narrow beard shot with silver. "Claudia," he said. "What is it?"

Of course he could tell at a glance that something was wrong; he knew her too well. She resisted the urge to wipe her dirty hands and smooth her unruly hair, to make herself presentable for his inspection, and said instead, "Giles will be crowned in three days."

"Excellent," said the Warden. "And the plans for your wedding?"

This was the moment she had dreaded. She took a deep breath and spoke the words. "There will be no wedding."

A cold silence, while his eyes raked over her. "Impossible. Finn needs you; he is obligated to you. He would never put you aside."

"It wasn't his decision," said Claudia. "The Privy Council made it for him. They support Finn's kingship because they believe he is truly Giles, because the common people embrace him as one of their own. But two days ago, Keiro caught a man trying to put poison in Finn's food. And when they searched the assassin, he was carrying the emblem of the Steel Wolves."

"I gave no such order." The Warden's voice was brittle with contained fury. "None of the Wolves would dare to act without my authorization-"

"I know. I talked to Medlicote, and he denied any knowledge of the man. But it was enough to raise the Council's suspicions about your loyalties - and mine."

Which was what Keiro had wanted, she was sure of it; if he had not orchestrated the assassination attempt himself, he had certainly been quick to turn it to his advantage. By now everyone knew that the Wolves were loyal to the Warden, and Claudia was the Warden's daughter. She was already known to be haughty and self-willed, and few people liked her; now, with such close connections to an apparent traitor, she had ceased to be an asset to the throne and become a dangerous liability.

Finn had defended her before the Council, reminding them that Claudia was the one who had found him and brought him back from Incarceron, and had no reason to wish him dead. But under this fragile new regime, where the luxuries and intrigues of Court were a thing of the past and the skills that mattered most were the simple ones of daily survival, it was hard to see the merits of making Claudia queen even if her loyalties had not been in question. If she had loved Giles, or he her, the Council might have been swayed to sympathy. But there was no chance of that, and never had been.

"This is unacceptable." Her father's gloved hand curled into a fist. "Without you Finn cannot succeed, and everything we have worked for will be undone. I will find a way to expose this plot against you, and restore-"

"There's no point." She spoke firmly, determined not to let him change her mind. "In a world where Protocol still reigned, I could have helped Finn. I could have smoothed his way in court, guided him through its schemes and taught him to avoid its dangers, as you trained me to do. But there is no power outside Incarceron anymore, and the courtiers of the Realm are reduced to huddling around bonfires and begging the common folk for their next meal. If Finn succeeds in holding onto the throne, it will be because the people believe in him, because they think he can show them how to survive. Not because of me."

"What a relief it must be to you," said her father acidly, "to have such a burden lifted."

She stiffened, anger sparking to life. "I would have married Giles," she snapped. "Without complaint, without question. Because I believed it was the right thing to do. But in all my life, there was one thing you never asked me. Whether I wanted to rule, or whether I only accepted the task because my whole life had been crafted to that purpose. Because the two men I loved best in all the world had taught me it was my destiny."

The Warden was silent a moment, as though her words had given him pause. When he spoke again his voice was softer, though far from gentle: "You were made to play this game, Claudia. You will never be content to sit idle and watch others control the board, whether you are queen in name or not. And you also know that Finn will never be safe, or his kingdom secure, without a powerful ally to protect him and guide him on his way."

"I know," she whispered.

"Then I leave it to you to devise a solution. My hands are bound at the moment, it would seem." He gave her an ironic nod, and his image winked out.

Claudia leaned on the desk, letting out a slow breath. Then she smoothed her bodice, passed a hand over her hair, and spoke to the console a second time.

"Sapphique."


"I can't do it, Master."

Claudia spoke quietly, her eyes on the dim lamplights that dotted the far-distant horizon. There were no stars here in Incarceron, but she had grown up studying the constellations with Jared in his tower room, all of them blazing bright in her memory, and she did not miss them.

"Marry Finn, you mean?" His voice was mild, without surprise, as though he had anticipated all of this: her call to him through the Portal, her return to the Prison-world that had given her birth, and now the two of them sitting together, high on a wall with the plains of Incarceron spread out below, side by side as though they had never been parted.

"Giles," she corrected automatically, more for herself than Jared. Part of her still wondered if Finn truly was the lost prince or not, but it made no difference now. "And yes. That is what I mean. But I don't have to explain, do I? You heard what I said to my father."

Jared was silent, his spare, delicate profile clean as a statue's, and as unreadable. His right hand, the one that still wore Sapphique's glove, rested on his updrawn knee, silken scales and metal claws catching the light. How much of Jared was mortal flesh now, and how much the undying circuits of Incarceron? She wondered if even he knew.

"I did hear," he admitted finally, "though I didn't mean to pry. I apologize."

"Don't. I wanted you to hear it." She wanted to touch his ungloved hand, but her pulse was beating fast and she was afraid he would feel it. She had to be careful, very careful, now. "Master, I can't help Giles by becoming his queen, but I have to help him somehow. Keiro is jealous, and dissatisfied, and that makes him dangerous. I know they swore an oath to each other, and Finn seems to think he can count on Keiro because of that. But I don't think oaths mean anything to Keiro. And if he decides he wants the throne..."

She left the sentence unfinished, knowing Jared would understand. Keiro was handsome, confident and ruthless; he might not be able to win the common people's hearts as Finn had done, but he could easily raise an army, and possibly sway a number of dissatisfied courtiers to his side as well.

"The Realm is fragile already," said Jared. "Civil war would destroy the little that remains."

"And yet Keiro has the Privy Council convinced that the Steel Wolves, and my father, are the greatest threat." She clenched her hands in frustration. "If I could stay close to Finn, and keep an eye on Keiro, then I might be able to get to the bottom of this, but-"

"There is a way," said Jared. His voice was oddly flat and remote; it frightened her a little. "And you know what it is."

Claudia bit her lip. "Yes. I have to disown my father, and take over his position as Warden. Become the sole liaison between the Realm and Incarceron, so that no one can contest my right to be at court. But I don't know how to do that, Jared. The Privy Council could just appoint someone else to be Warden in my father's stead, and I think – I think they are considering that, even now."

Jared's green eyes turned distant and she knew he was thinking, his Sapient's mind weighing all the possibilities and drawing out each to its logical conclusion. At last he said, "We know that your father conspired with Queen Sia to have Giles sent to Incarceron and her son Caspar made king in his place. We know that Sia ensured the Warden's cooperation by threatening to expose the truth, that you were not his natural daughter but a child he brought out of Incarceron. You have kept those things secret, because making it public would endanger your position as Giles's betrothed, but now..."

"Yes. It's time the truth was known." If exposing the full extent of John Arlex's treachery was not enough to prove that Claudia was not the Warden's pawn, then renouncing her blood relationship to him would be. It sickened and excited her at the same time, to think of denying everything she had been, everything her father had made her. "But if I admit that I am not the Warden's daughter, what right do I have to take his place?"

"You are the only heir he has. Even if you disown him, he cannot disown you or the Wardenry will die with him. And he loves you, Claudia, as much as a man like John Arlex can know of love. He will understand. He may even approve."

I leave it to you to devise a solution, the Warden had told her. Was that his cryptic way of telling her that he accepted his own failure, and giving her his blessing? She could only hope so. Otherwise he would never forgive her.

"But the Warden was appointed to rule Incarceron," she said. "And the Prison is yours now. It's an empty title, unless-"

She could not say it, could not bring herself to ask. Jared had always been hers, loyal to the death, but if she tried to compel his obedience now it would destroy everything. She stretched out her toes into empty air, flexing the worn leather of boots that would not last much longer, and finished lamely, "unless we can convince the Privy Council otherwise."

For a moment Jared remained motionless, eyes still on the far-off lights of the village. Then he reached into the shining grey folds of his Sapient robe and drew out a single feather. His slim fingers twisted it into a circle, metallic rachis bending smoothly beneath his touch, ends merging into a seamless whole. Then with formal gravity he took her hand and slipped the bracelet over it.

"My token," he said. "Wear it well, Claudia Arlexa. Be my eyes and ears in the Realm, and speak with my voice. Tell the Council you are Warden of Incarceron... and I will have no other."

As he spoke the last words, his voice and the Prison's eerily doubled, the bracelet molded itself to her wrist. It shimmered darkly in the artificial light, strange and beautiful as Jared himself, and she realized that this was no mere symbol; she could feel electricity running through it, a power only Incarceron could bestow. Claudia's heart swelled with incredulous joy. "Thank you, Master," she breathed.

He turned to look at her then, a smile on his lips. "It's good to see you happy again."

She longed to hug him, but an odd, unfamiliar shyness made her hold back. She touched his hand instead, fingers resting lightly on his skin. "Remember when we used to dream of Incarceron, when we thought it was a paradise?"

I am Incarceron, whispered the Prison through Jared's lips, and I will be everything I was meant to be. Then his green eyes turned upon her, fathomless, and she felt a stab of fear. Attia had said that Incarceron would corrupt Jared, that he was too gentle to control it. What if she had been right?

No. Jared was stronger than anyone had given him credit for, the most resolutely selfless and courageous man she had ever known. And Incarceron needed him. Before they merged Jared had been dying and the Prison mad, but together they were whole. She tightened her grasp on his hand. "I believe you," she said. "You are Sapphique."

Jared blinked. Then the alien light faded from his eyes and he said, "You should go, Claudia. Finn needs you."

She nodded reluctantly. The Privy Council had already gained too much control over the kingdom in the confusion that had followed Queen Sia's death, and if Finn did not stand up to them soon it would be too late. "I'll come back," she said. "As soon as I can."

"You are always welcome," he said. "But there's no hurry, Claudia. As long as you wear my token, I will be with you."

She slid down from the wall, wiping the grit from her palms, and turned to face him as he climbed down after her. "I know," she said. "But I still want to come back."

It was the closest she dared get to saying the words aloud, though she had already spoken them once. I love you, Master. He had heard her say it, and yet he had still put on the glove and merged his consciousness with the Prison's, had bound his life to its power, had sent her away to marry Giles and live the rest of her life without him. Queens don't have tutors, he had said.

Perhaps becoming Sapphique had put him beyond human feeling. Or perhaps he had never loved her in that way. Perhaps he had already given her all that she could ever have of him, and she must learn to be content. She forced a smile. "Goodbye, Master."

She lowered her eyes and would have walked away but for Jared's sharp intake of breath, as though he had just remembered some vital detail too long forgotten. Surprised, she looked up.

He said, "In the legends, Sapphique has no consort. His whole life is bent on Escape, and he is always alone."

His expression was quizzical and a little wistful, and her heart began to pound again. "But you were born outside the Prison," she said. "I was the one who Escaped."

Under the wing of a black swan, mused Incarceron, in the voice that was and was not Jared's. But this time it did not frighten her.

"Yes," she said. "It caught me up and carried me away. But I came back, and brought Sapphique with me." She moved closer, laying a hand on his arm. "Everything has changed, Jared, don't you see? We make our own legends now. We are the legends."

Jared did not move. His dark head was bent, his features drawn in a frown, as though she had presented him with some insoluble riddle. This was the true game, Claudia realized, the hardest she had ever played – because it was not a game, and if she failed they would both lose.

"Just because you want something doesn't make it wrong, Jared," she said quietly. "The Realm won't suffer if you love me. And you already know how I feel about you."

For a moment he did not answer, and she feared she had gone too far. Then his expression softened into something wry and unexpectedly tender. "The look on your father's face, when you said that," he murmured. "After that, I could never be frightened of him again."

But you never saw that, she wanted to protest. Only Incarceron did. Except he was Incarceron, and now he saw everything.

She held her breath as he took her hand and raised it slowly to his lips. Then he drew her closer. "Claudia," he whispered. "My brilliant, fearless, beautiful pupil. My queen. My love."

Exultation leapt inside her, but with a fierce effort she kept her body still. "Tell me what you want," she said.

He exhaled, his eyes darkening, and now she saw he was a man after all. "I want you."

"Now?"

"Always." His fingertips traced the curve of her cheek, and she trembled. Then with aching slowness he bent, and pressed his lips to hers.


Later, but still too soon, they stood together at the edge of the Portal, Jared's arm around her waist, her head on his shoulder. "I'm so selfish," said Claudia with a shaky laugh. "I want to forget Finn, the Realm, everything, and stay here with you."

"But you won't." He smiled down at her, a smile no longer haunted by sadness. "You're not as selfish as you think."

"Only because of you. You taught me everything I know of duty. Of loyalty. Of love." She turned her face against his throat and kissed it, relishing the way the muscles of his neck tightened, the hard beat of his pulse beneath the skin. "Will you tell my father, when I am gone?"

"Of course."

She was quiet for a moment. Then she said, "He said you were too lenient. But I don't think that's true. You still have all the power Incarceron took from the Realm, and you haven't given it back."

"No." His face sobered. "The people of Incarceron have suffered too long while the courtiers of the Realm lived in luxury. For now, that power is needed here. But whatever help Giles may need to secure his throne, I will give him." He touched the feather bracelet on her wrist. "My Warden will."

"Always." She raised her face to his and they kissed again, lingering. Then Jared took her hand and helped her down into darkness, and the warmth of his fingers faded as the Portal took her away.

But there was no bitterness to the parting this time, and as Claudia stepped up into the grey light of her father's study her eyes were bright and her mouth curved in a confident, secretive smile. It might be weeks or months before she returned, but that did not matter. Jared was hers, as she was his, and the token she wore would keep him close until they could truly be together again.

And more than that, it would prove to Finn and to Keiro, and everyone else in the Realm, that she was the Warden of Incarceron, now a kingdom more powerful than all the houses and lands of the Havaarna dynasty. All that would have been empty without Jared. But with him... it was all she could have wished for.

Lightly, tenderly, Claudia touched the bracelet on her wrist. Then she lifted her chin high, and walked out to take up her destiny.

THE END