Author's Note: This fic is a direct sequel to my oneshot So Much We Share. While it technically should be part of it, it's so much darker in tone that I couldn't quite bring myself to tack it on the end of a comedy piece. Major spoiler warnings for Loyalty and Legend, New Alliances, Time Heals, and So Much We Share, and minor spoilers for The Eastern Realm and A Song of Ice and Fire.
Enormous thank-yous to Rockerduck for proofreading, suggestions, and generally making sure this thing got written in the first place.
Maria del Cordillera clung to the rope, knuckles white, fingers numb. She looked down carefully. About another fifty feet. That should not be hard – as long as she could get her hands to release.
She was not scared. Of course not. She'd climbed trees almost as high as this. The trick was simply getting her sore hands to open. Pressing her shoes against the smooth white stone of Jumajir's castle wall, she took a deep breath and resumed her descent. Hand over hand, walking downward, slowly but surely –
Her hands slipped. She clenched her rope again, but not before searing pain ripped through her palms. Ow ow ow. She gritted small white teeth, hissing, tears springing to her eyes despite her best efforts to hold them back. A second to recover, then she kept going.
She glanced quickly up at the window, now miles above her head. The rope was still secure, and there was no sign that anyone had noticed her escape. Good. But it would not last long. There was no time to spare.
But for all her haste, it still seemed like a lifetime. Thirty feet, twenty, ten, five – then she was low enough to jump. She double-checked the distance, nodded slightly, then dropped. The fall lasted less than a second. She landed in a crouch like a little cat, then straightened and examined her stinging palms ruefully. Raw, red and blistered. She should have worn gloves.
A voice. Behind her. She started and spun, poised for flight.
Hakim sank into a chair, rubbing furiously at his temples. It had taken an hour to shake Kestral off without her realising what he was doing; normally, he'd shrink from such subterfuge, but right now he was past caring. He needed to think.
He'd been lying when he said he thought it was a coincidence, of course. Kestral was right: when it came to Crimson Sabatt, there were no coincidences. But the last thing he wanted was for the young woman to learn the truth. For some inexplicable reason, she liked Sabatt – was friends with her, even. He couldn't quite bring himself to destroy that, not unless Sabatt's behaviour warranted it. Right now, under the present circumstances, Kestral did not need to know.
But how he wished she did. He hadn't felt this desperately alone in years. With a sigh, he leaned back, closing his eyes, willing the maddening grief and fury away. He was only marginally successful.
When she had simply been Crimson Sabatt, all had been black-and-white. Hating the woman responsible for the death of your brother was easy when she was just a costume and an alias. He'd kept his anger suppressed, most of the time; schemed, plotted, and finally managed to bring her into the Knights of Darion and under his control. The perfect revenge: deny her the freedom she longed for without her even realising it was gone. Until it was too late.
But now … now, suddenly, he could see something else behind her eyes. She wasn't just Crimson Sabatt – she was Maria, his childhood playmate, and he could no longer entirely trust himself. He hadn't thought of the young Guerannan girl in years, but now that he did, the memories were racing back. Hide and seek, dragon slaying, long afternoons spent sitting in the shade concocting epic tales – she'd been his best friend, and none of his other playmates had ever quite replaced her.
Now everything was in shades of grey. How could he possibly hate her? But then. How could a girl who'd spent months befriending him and his siblings, playing games, learning the language, turn around and arrange the murder of her former friends? It was unthinkable, and as he tried to contemplate it, cold, hard anger began to form in his chest.
Very well, she was Maria. But that didn't alter matters. If anything, it made things clearer. Any woman who could do such a deed deserved the punishment he was dealing. The only difficulty would be controlling himself; he was not sure that he could trust himself to keep calm in her presence, now. Still, he would have to try.
He opened his eyes and stared unseeing at the bookshelves on the other side of the library. But that would come later. Right now, he just needed to be alone.
Standing a few feet away was a small boy about her age. He was Janubian, obviously, with tousled black hair and huge brown eyes. He was also staring directly at her, expression a mixture of admiration and total bewilderment.
He spoke again – completely unintelligibly. She thought fast. Maria did not speak a word of Janubian, and it was unlikely he'd understand any of her Guerannan. The only other language she could manage a phrase in was Westerlin.
"Quiet," she whispered urgently, hunting desperately for the words. "Please do not call out."
Would he understand? He had to understand. If he alerted anyone, her plan would be ruined.
His brow creased, and she thought for a horrible second that he couldn't speak the language – but then he whispered back. His accent was thick, but she could still make out the words. "What are you doing?"
"I am running away." She looked past him; the castle courtyard was deserted. That was a relief.
The boy raised his right eyebrow, an action which she thought made him look ridiculous. "Why?"
She thought that was a rather stupid question. "Because I do not want to be here."
"Oh." He seemed to accept that, although he still looked dubious. "Where do you want to be?"
The unfamiliar language was rapidly becoming easier. "It does not matter, silly, as long as I can get away."
"I am not silly," he said indignantly, fumbling for the words. "The – ship-place – is too far except with a horse. Do you have one?"
"No." She deflated momentarily, then perked up. "You could lend me one."
"I am not allowed in the … stable," he replied, rather resentfully.
"Then how can I –"
She cringed and turned. Not her father, mercifully. Estela, the nurse that had accompanied them to Sahir al-Awan. She was running towards them, face white. "Maria, what in the world do you think you are doing? If you had fallen –"
"But I didn't."
"Don't answer back." She reached them, panting. She was a little fat. "Come inside, now. If your father finds out that you tried something so foolish –"
She stepped back defiantly. "But he will not, because you will not tell him. And I wish to stay outside. There are hours until I need to be ready for dinner."
"Maria." There was a distinct warning note in her tone. "Do not make me carry you in."
The small girl very much doubted that Estela was capable of making good on her threat, but the prospect was still rather embarrassing. Particularly with the strange boy standing right there. She drew herself up with dignity. "If I have to."
"Which you do, missy." Estela seemed to spot the boy for the first time. She looked at a loss for a moment, then addressed him in Westerlin almost as broken as his own. "What is your name?"
Sunset hit rapidly in the late autumn. The small amount of twilight was vainly attempting to illuminate the less travelled halls of Castle Vestholm. None of the servants had made it here to light the candles yet, busied as they were with dinner preparations. So much the better. Crimson Sabatt, much as she enjoyed her newfound friendships, sometimes preferred solitude. There was precious little time to reflect while working for the Darion Empire.
She slipped stealthily down the corridor and into the darkened library, moving directly toward the back wall. No need for a light; her long hours spent searching these shelves had taught her the precise location of all her favourite volumes, including the work of Gethian poetry she currently sought.
Suddenly, out of the silence, a footstep behind her. She turned – and was slammed directly back into the books, her head connecting painfully with one of the shelves.
It took her a moment to reorient herself, and then another moment to wish herself elsewhere. Hakim – or Prince Ammar, to be strictly accurate – stood directly before her, face contorted with fury. His eyes, still very much the same as they had been twenty-five long years ago, blazed with uncontrolled rage. And pain.
She wondered briefly if he would kill her then and there; he certainly looked prepared to. But Crimson Sabatt was not easily cowed. The Janubian came surprisingly naturally to her lips. "That's a charming way to greet an old friend."
Based on his expression, she'd expected an explosion. She hadn't expected that low hiss. It was disconcerting, almost frightening. She kept her tone level. "I assumed so, but perhaps your memories are significantly different to mine."
"Evidently," he said coldly, taking a step back. "There seem to be rather large gaps in yours, Maria."
"Enlighten me, Your Highness."
He visibly flinched at the use of the title, fist clenching by his side, but maintained his control – barely. She decided she should avoid provoking him any further if she didn't want another bruised jaw by his hand. Or worse.
"I could have forgiven your locking me up," he whispered, tone dangerously low. "I could even have forgiven most of your other misdeeds. But the murder of my family?"
She stiffened. He couldn't possibly think – but, of course, he did. "You've been misinformed, Ammar," she responded evenly.
"Have I?" A scornful laugh. "I suppose you are the innocent victim in all of this, then."
"Innocent of what you accuse me of, yes."
He glowered. "Kindly explain to me how, when you and your dear friend the Red Prince were behind every other rebellion of the past ten years, you can claim to be innocent of inciting the uprising in Jumajir." He bit off each word, speaking rapidly, voice taut, not even giving her a chance to respond. "Your actions are reprehensible enough without factoring in the concept that you were a childhood playmate of one of your victims. Considering that –"
Anger built within her swiftly. If there was one thing Sabatt hated more than being caught, it was being caught when she was genuinely innocent. She cut him off, voice raised. "I was not the Red Prince's only general, remember! I won't deny that he was behind your brother's murder, but I had no part in it whatsoever." Strange how she was so repulsed by the thought. Stranger still that she hadn't ever expected this – hadn't thought that now, when she was one of the Knights of Darion, all this would be dragged before her conscience for inspection once again.
He snorted, pacing to the other side of the room. "And you expect me to believe this."
"It's the truth."
"The truth? From you?"
"Of the two of us," she snapped, "I'm not the one who has been lying about his actions and allegiances to the one he professes to serve. Therefore, it's my word we'll be trusting."
He whirled to face her, and she winced. It was as if he'd dropped a visor over his face, obscuring all emotion, and it was more frightening than all the rage he could possibly unleash. "A little hypocritical, don't you think?" he said, very quietly.
She fought to keep her voice steady. He was right, she had to admit; until recently, her loyalty to any cause had never been unconditional. They were both well aware of that – so why did the accusation catch her off guard? "Perhaps, but that doesn't make it any less true."
His voice stayed low. "I see. If you have such a low opinion of my moral standards, and have known my identity for all this time, why haven't you exposed me?"
"I didn't think it was necessary." After all, what reason could she have possibly had? There was no benefit for her in doing so – on the contrary. It was because of him she was one of the Knights of Darion in the first place, though she now had a suspicion his motives had been less than altruistic. "If you're so convinced I'm responsible for the Jumajir uprising, why did you attempt to recruit me for Westerlin?"
He froze. The piercing glare he'd previously worn was replaced by something she couldn't quite identify. And it genuinely scared her. For a split second she considered bolting for the door, but she stood firm. All her life she'd brazened her way out of situations like this. Perhaps that wouldn't be possible on this occasion, but there was no way she was going to turn and run. Crimson Sabatt deserved every bit of censure that she got, accurate or no, and it was time she accepted it.
"Just what are you accusing me of? Revenge?" He chuckled unpleasantly. "Maybe you're right. And frankly, if you think a childhood friendship is going to erase the fact that you murdered my brother –"
"Let me explain. I didn't –"
Now he exploded. "Didn't you? What about all the people who died because you spread the Ghost Plague through half the globe? I imagine you didn't kill them either!"
He wasn't shouting, but he was close to it, and she bit her lip. Under any other circumstances, that comment would be enough to send her directly over the edge. But right now, it was far too dangerous to lose her control, and she maintained it with an effort. "Ammar, someone will hear you."
"Let them hear!" he bellowed, and she hoped against hope this wing of the castle was deserted. "You think I care what happens to me? I care about my country, my family, and you took them and –"
Her voice hadn't been loud, but it was enough to halt him mid tirade. He stared at her for a second, then opened his mouth to speak – but closed it again as the door creaked. Sabatt's gaze shot automatically in that direction.
Kestral was standing in the entrance, face white. "This doesn't sound much like a happy reunion," she said shakily.
It took a moment for Sabatt's brain to switch back to Westerlin, and the Southerner responded first. "We're fine," he said curtly.
"Princey, you can be a really bad liar sometimes."
So the bandit did know. Sabatt had been almost sure, but confirmation was useful. She cleared her throat. "The Southerner and I disagree on some of my past actions."
"'Past actions'?" he repeated incredulously. "Is that all you can say?"
"I didn't think you wanted your entire family history advertised, but if that's what –"
"Oi!" The gypsy planted her hands on her hips. "Shut it, both of you." She took a deep breath. "You're going to discuss this like a pair of rational adults, otherwise I'll get Alandra in here and no one wants that."
"Perhaps it would be wise for Lady Alandra to be made aware of certain events," Ammar said stiffly, folding his arms. Sabatt's anger resurfaced. Was it all an act, or did he truly believe himself to be a paragon of virtue?
"And tell her who you really are?" She raised a single eyebrow in imitation of his usual gesture. "Yes, Ammar, I am sure she would be very accepting of a man who has lied to her for almost four years."
"Snark not needed right now, Crims." Kestral closed the door behind her, eyes flicking between her two friends, loyalties clearly divided. "You guys want to explain?"
Sabatt folded her hands behind her back, taking a breath. She needed to be calm for this. "The Southerner accuses me of –"
"Don't you dare," he snapped abruptly, voice hoarse. "You've taken everything else I've ever loved, Sabatt, so if you so much as consider trying to turn her against me –"
Whatever dire threat he had been about to express died mid-thought. Halfway through his statement, Kestral marched across the room and put her arms around him, squeezing tightly. "It's all right, Princey," Sabatt heard her murmur, voice muffled by his tunic. "I'm not gonna turn around and hate either of you. I just want to understand what's going on here, okay?"
He closed his eyes and rested his head on hers, response inaudible. Sabatt, slightly embarrassed, shifted her eyes to the shadowy forms of trees out the window, rapidly rehearsing explanations in her head. It was fortunate that Kestral had intervened, otherwise Ammar would likely have continued to be entirely unreasonable. He probably still would, but at least now someone would listen.
"Right," Kestral said authoritatively after a few moments, and Sabatt returned her attention to the couple. "Crimmy, explain. And no interruptions please, Wise Boy."
The Southerner grimaced, but inclined his head in agreement. Sabatt pressed her lips together briefly, preparing herself yet again. Would this ever end? "I believe His Highness thinks I'm responsible for the uprising which killed certain members of his family." There. It was out. Cold and emotionless, with as little recall of unpleasant memories as possible.
"And are you?"
"No. Not in the slightest." She hesitated, watching Ammar carefully. His face was blank. "It was, however, organised by the forces of the Red Prince. But by one of his other generals; I had no involvement."
Kestral nodded. "But you knew, I guess?"
"Yes, I did. I thought it ill-advised – quite aside from my personal acquaintance with the victims, Raudrlin did not need to be fighting on a third front – but the Red Prince never gave much weight to my opinions."
The Southerner snorted, completely ignoring Kestral's warning glare. "You could not talk him out of it, so you just let them die. Commendable."
"Openly defying him would have been tantamount to suicide."
"I see," he said icily. "I should have expected that your sense of self-preservation would overcome any shred of principle you have in you."
Sabatt flinched. The accusation hit far too close to the mark for her to respond rationally. Fortunately, Kestral removed that necessity.
"You didn't need to say that, Princey," the younger woman said quietly, and Ammar looked faintly guilty. But only for a moment.
"Perhaps not," he said levelly. "But you could have done something."
And that was it. She'd explained, she was willing to accept responsibility – what did he want from her? How could he keep doing this? And why wouldn't he understand?
"I kept you out of it, didn't I?" she flared up, anger finding words. "If I hadn't locked you up and forced you to take on that ridiculous alias, you'd have marched straight back into Jumajir and been killed with the rest of them." She took a deep breath. "I think you might consider that to be doing something."
He stared back, dark eyes locked with hers. Silence stretched on.
"You knew even then," he whispered after a moment, voice taut. "When did you guess?"
"I recognised you the moment I saw you in Narlind." But he hadn't known her.
"Then why didn't you say something earlier?" Kestral asked, and Sabatt almost jumped. She'd completely forgotten the gypsy's presence.
"I didn't think it necessary. And it still wasn't necessary today, not really – call it a mischievous impulse." She cleared her throat. "I didn't realise how much you blamed me for al-Awan's sufferings, Ammar."
He turned abruptly and strode to the window, folding his arms against his chest. "Leave. Now."
Sabatt made a noiseless exit.
"You are the Prince's son?" Maria had never seen Estela look so flustered. It was gratifying – or would have been if it wasn't for the nagging suspicion surfacing in her mind that she would get in trouble for calling him silly.
He nodded, watching her shyly. "Is Maria going in?" It should have been irritating to hear him mispronounce her name like that, but, bizarrely, she did not mind.
"Yes, she is," Estela said firmly, taking her hand. The girl flinched at the pressure on her wounded palm, but Estela seemed oblivious.
His face flooded with disappointment. "Oh."
Estela softened both her grip and her expression. She pursed her lips, then gave Maria a glance of warning. "If I let you stay out an hour," she asked in Guerannan, "will you promise to behave yourself and avoid breaking your neck?"
"Yes, Estela," Maria said meekly, hiding her triumph.
"Very well, then. You may play for an hour if you wish. But come inside directly when I come to fetch you." Estela released her hand, nodded to Ammar, and walked off.
Maria giggled. "You must show me how you look all sad like that."
Ammar crossed his arms. "I did not look sad."
Oh, what was the point? She smiled mischievously. "Do you like to climb walls?"
Hakim could barely breathe. His mind was in a whirl, and, curiously, he made no attempt to control it.
How could he have been so wrong? For he didn't doubt her honesty. He could reject the story, of course – insist that she was lying and continue his vendetta. Yet he simply couldn't find it in him. It was far easier – and, in a way, a relief – to believe that Maria del Cordillera had not been involved, and allow a thousand childhood memories to remain untarnished.
But in order to do that, he had to admit that, for the past few years, he'd been pursuing an unjust vengeance, clinging to every vestige of resent and hatred he'd ever possessed because it was a way to escape from accepting that Ghalib – and Jamila, and little Naji – had simply died. They were gone, there was nothing he could do, and it was time to let go.
And it hurt. So very badly.
A touch on his shoulder. He turned slightly, looking down. Kestral stood next to him, biting her lip, her eyes filled with quiet sympathy. On an impulse, he gathered her into his arms and buried his face in her hair, gasping as he tried and failed to hold back sobs.
Kestral was murmuring softly. In his confused state he couldn't quite make the effort to translate her Westerlin, but the sound was nevertheless comforting. His thoughts slowly but surely began to order themselves. Sabatt – Maria – was innocent: not of the whole, but at least of what he'd abhorred her for for so long. He wasn't certain that he wanted to deliver an apology, exactly – forgiveness was still beyond his power – but he could at least stop trying to destroy her life.
And he wouldn't be alone. He exhaled, shifting so that his head lay against Kestral's. "Thank you."
"'Sokay." Kestral squeezed him gently. "You gonna be all right?"
"Yes," he answered after a few seconds, releasing her. "I think I will."
"Hey." Maria scooped up a handful of sand and let it trickle between her fingers. "Tell me something."
Ammar rocked back, sitting down from his crouch. The elaborate sculpture was almost complete: another bucketful of water and a few more minutes' patience, and it would be an accurate replica of the white stone castle behind them. "Does that mean you're about to ask a question, or you just want me to blurt something out?"
She stuck her tongue out at him. "A question, silly. When you're all grown up, what are you going to do?"
"Not stay here," was his simple response. Honestly, he hadn't thought it through much beyond that point. Seeing the world was top of the list, sensible planning second. "What about you?"
She grinned, moulding the sand before her into a little mound. "I think I might come here."
"Well, there wouldn't be a lot of point in that, if I'm not here," he said, secure in his importance."Maybe we should take turns. Or just travel the world. Or –"
"Or." Maria slapped the mound with her palm. "Finish this sandcastle. Hurry up and get some more water."
He glared at her, scrambling to his feet. "Maybe we should take turns in that as well."
"Nuh-uh. You're the dogsbody. Go hither and fetch buckets, Your Highnessness."
So he did.