By some coincidence, or the grace of thoughtful planning, Karigan would leave with the Eletians directly after the announcement party. She had wished them to be away sooner, but Ealdean had told her that the king's invitation had already been accepted. They could not leave now without giving a great affront, and that was not acceptable. Especially in light of the treaty that the king and the Eletians had entered into when they'd first arrived.
Karigan had plenty of time to pen a letter to her father and aunts explaining the situation, and another to Estral – and Alton – at the wall. She regretted that Condor was not here and that she'd have to spend even longer away from her beloved horse, but there was no way to get him here fast enough. She left Mara with strict instructions to spoil and love on him whenever possible.
The day before the party, and Karigan's subsequent departure, she found Captain Mapstone standing in her doorway. The visit wasn't particularly unexpected, but Karigan could not say that she'd been looking forward to it. For reasons that Karigan could not place, or dared not examine, the knowledge that she'd be gone soon had only amplified Karigan's anger. Misdirected and unjust as it was, Karigan couldn't seem to get rid of it.
"Ready?" Captain Mapstone asked. She had stopped just inside Karigan's door and now surveyed the space.
"Yes," Karigan replied. She moved to retrieve the small stack of letters from her desk. "Will you see that these get delivered for me?"
The captain glanced down at the first name on the pile, and Karigan had a sneaking suspicion that she knew what the older woman was looking for.
"It'll be strange not having you here."
"I'm gone all the time," Karigan pointed out dispassionately.
"Yes, but this is different."
The fact that it was different was one of the things Karigan found herself most looking forward to. She'd not had a chance to learn who she was outside of her duty to country and king for years; not since she'd first gone to school in Selium.
"I'm sure you'll adjust." It wasn't a kind thing to say, but Karigan wasn't overly concerned.
"The king plans to call one last meeting to go over the details. We'll need a way to reach you in an emergency, and to know that you'll have a way back if your brooch deems it necessary."
Karigan was taking her brooch, of course. It had not abandoned her and leaving it behind would be folly.
"I'll expect the summons."
Karigan didn't notice the concern that sparked in her captain's eyes, or the wary turn of her countenance. "Have you spoken with him?"
Karigan didn't bother with playing stupid. "Of course not. I have not seen the king since yesterday's meeting."
"Estora told me she came looking for you earlier, but you were nowhere to be found."
"The queen may find me whenever she wishes."
Laren couldn't take it anymore. This terse, closed off young woman was not the Karigan she had come to know, and she didn't need her brooch or its amplified powers to feel the growing anger and coldness that radiated off of her Rider.
"Karigan, I know that you're hurting, but leaving like this … if something happens, you'll regret it."
Karigan's eyes were harsh when she faced Laren. "Hurt? What do you care how I feel? What do you know? I thought you'd be relieved to see me go. You have your political marriage and royal baby, and now I won't be around to be a complication. You should be thanking me, Captain, not lecturing me."
Truth, her brooch whispered. Then it sent her a wave of anguish so sharp it almost made her shake.
Laren had known about how Karigan and Zachary felt for each other for years, and actively worked to keep them apart. There could be no hope for them in light of their respective stations, and Laren had prayed that with time and distance they'd simply … stop loving one another, or find someone else, or at the very least learn to let it be.
None of those things had happened, though, not in the way Laren had hoped. They continued to love each other despite the difficulties and the distance – or because of them, perhaps - and Zachary was married now but only because he had to be, because he'd been forced into it by a council of treacherous advisors who trapped him when he was too ill to know the ground from the sky.
And they'd labored admirably, truly they had. Zachary had taken no other but Estora, though plenty of monarchs in the past had set a precedent for the opposite, and Karigan … Karigan had pursued no one. They each simply existed in this state of could not have, despite how fervently they wanted, and in her folly Laren had missed – or been unwilling to see – how it had hurt them. How it continued to hurt them.
She loved Zachary and Karigan both in their own ways, and it was impossible for Laren to deny what she knew to be the unequivocal truth: they each were doing what was asked of them at the expense of themselves, and they were miserable.
It was tearing them apart.
Such a precious, tender thing to share, and the gods had seen fit to give it to the king and a commoner. It was cruel.
And perhaps Laren had been cruel too, in her way. Though she'd only been trying to protect them.
"I am grateful, Karigan."
The younger woman didn't want to hear it and turned her back on her. "I'm sorry, but I have nothing more to say, Captain."
Laren nodded to herself. She did not see how she could have done anything differently, but maybe she should have tried. Maybe it would have been as simple as giving Karigan someone to talk to that knew what was happening. She had hidden her love for Zachary like the highest order of secret, as best she could. That had been a mistake. Laren should have talked to her.
"I know you don't believe me right now, Karigan, but I am grateful. For everything you've done – and I'm not just talking about as a Rider. You have behaved admirably for all that it's cost you and raised no argument against it. Unjust as it is. I hope you know that I only meant to protect you – both of you – and I'd change it if I could."
Karigan was so tired of hearing that. It neither helped nor changed anything, so was useless. Still, beneath her anger she knew and accepted that her captain meant what she said, and it was worth something. Laren Mapstone was a good captain, and a good woman, and Karigan's anger would pass soon enough. Things would go back to the way they were. No, they'd get better, once Karigan could learn to accept this as well.
The captain did not linger after that.
Some of Karigan's fellow riders had returned from delivering their messages, so most of the rest of Karigan's day was spent with them in the common room. Mara slipped away from her duties for a bit to join them, so a handful of them passed the day in companionship and laughter. Mara, Fergal, Tegan, and Trace were there, and even Connly managed to slip in at one point. They were stunned to learn where Karigan was going at first; she left out any mention of possibly dying and said only that they thought they could teach her to use what she'd been given.
Mara wanted letters, of course, and then sent them all into a huge discussion that turned into wild speculation when she wondered if they even had paper in Eletia.
"But we've never seen them write!" Mara exclaimed.
"That doesn't mean they don't," Connly replied. "There's lots of things we don't see them do."
"Or maybe they can just read each other's minds," Fergal suggested.
"Wouldn't that be nice," Tegan said.
"It has its advantages," Trace agreed.
Mara was stuck on the letter writing, though. "But how do you think they send them anywhere? Oh, do you think they have horses? Karigan, you have to find out! Think of it: an Eletian horse!"
"I bet they're beautiful." Tegan's tone indicated that she was already daydreaming of such a creature.
"What if they're not, though? What if they're … I dunno, weird."
"Weird? It's a horse, Fergal, how could it be weird?" Connly was trying to hide his laugh.
"I said I don't know, didn't I?"
Karigan laughed more that afternoon than she had in a long time. In the company of her friends and compatriots, it was easy to forget the reasons she was leaving. For those few hours she was just a Rider enjoying a bit of respite before her next assignment, and the world made sense again.
Karigan was returning to her room before the dinner hour when the sight of Fastion outside her door sent her stomach spiraling down to her feet. Her pace slowed, as if that would do her any good; there was no sense in trying to slip away, because Fastion had already seen her and watched her progress with his tell-tale lack of an expression.
"Fastion," she said by way of greeting.
The Weapon inclined his head. "Rider G'ladheon. The king wishes to speak with you."
Of course, he did. "Is this an official summons?"
"No. The king asked that I relay that this is not an order, and you are free to do as you wish."
"Then please inform His Majesty that I am indisposed with travel arrangements."
They all knew that she wasn't, her and Zachary and Fastion; just as they all knew that neither Zachary nor Fastion would call her on it. Staying away was easier and, hopefully, more merciful.
Though it felt like a blade being buried in her chest.
"I have also come to share our wishes for your safe journey, and eventual return."
Karigan knew that the we Fastion was referring to was himself and his fellow Weapons, and not the king.
"We hope that you will continue to train, if your situation permits you to do so, and that said training will continue to serve you faithfully whenever you have need of it."
Karigan smiled, a real smile full of fondness, and dared to touch the back of Fastion's hand. If he were anyone else, she might have hugged him. "Thank you, Fastion."
"I would also give you this." Fastion retrieved a plain black cloth from somewhere that Karigan could not name. She had never known the Weapons to have pockets before.
Karigan took it curiously. The Black Shields were not an order for giving gifts, and those they did she'd already received: her bone wood staff.
When she peeled back the first layer of the cloth, she found a plain but polished piece of obsidian attached to a piece of leather cord. It did not shine, exactly, but pulled in any surrounding light to almost give off the illusion of doing so. The edges were beveled, so that on her palm the middle stood raised. It was the shape of a shield.
"It's beautiful," Karigan said, stunned. She had a notion that it had been so carefully crafted that the edges would be sharp enough to cut, if she turned it so. Ornamental and practical; a weapon, should all others fail. "I've never seen you wear jewelry."
"It is a traditional pilgrim's badge, worn by many initiates who must travel before taking the oath."
Karigan didn't bother asking why some of them might need to travel and others didn't, or where they traveled to.
"It is a talisman, meant to protect and remind."
"Remind them of what?"
"That I cannot say. It is different for everyone."
The little shield didn't have to be worn as a necklace, she supposed, but the leather cord was long enough. Karigan had never worn much in the way of jewelry, but this was different.
"Would you mind?" she motioned to her neck, and when Fastion nodded in agreement she handed him the necklace and turned around. Her hair was in its customary braid, so it was easy to sweep out of the way while Fastion secured the leather cord around her neck.
When he was finished, the shield hung just below the hollow of Karigan's throat. The obsidian was cold against her skin and would take some getting used to, but she liked the weight of it.
"Thank you," she said as she reached up to brush her fingers over it.
His message answered, and the gift given, Fastion excused himself and disappeared down the hall on silent feet. Unexpected as it was, Karigan was going to miss Fastion and the other Weapons that she had come to consider friends. Though it had not occurred to her to say goodbye to them, she was glad that Fastion had.
Karigan spent the rest of the evening in her room making sure that she hadn't missed anything, and that there were no last-minute preparations to be made.
Try as she might, though, she couldn't keep herself from wondering why the king had summoned her, or what might have happened if she'd gone. Whatever it was, it probably would have been painful – and only would have made leaving harder (and staying impossible).
She had made the right choice by declining.
That brought her little comfort, however, and by the time the first fingers of dawn were reaching in her small window Karigan couldn't say with any certainty that she'd slept more than two hours together. She knew there was no point in trying to go back to sleep, however, so she decided to start the day.
When she was clean and dressed in her usual Rider green, Karigan made sure to set her travel gear next to the door. She'd only need to swing by her room and grab it to be on her way. Now that the day of departure had arrived – and the day that the king and queen would announce the existence of the future prince or princess – Karigan found that it couldn't pass swiftly enough.
She tidied her room and made sure everything was where it should be and, with a last glance around, shut the door and went to find something to do.
Tegan nearly ran into her at the end of the hall.
"Oh! Sorry, Karigan."
"No harm done. Why the rush?"
"The captain has us on last minute chores and duty checks for the announcement party tonight. Haven't had a minute's peace since I woke up this morning."
"Isn't it a bit early for that?" She'd thought for certain she'd be one of the first people awake.
"Apparently not," Tegan responded with a grin. "You've left your hair down?"
"Just letting it dry before I braid it."
"It looks nice, I like it."
"Thanks. I give it ten minutes before I get frustrated with it and braid it anyway."
Tegan laughed. "I'd love to chat, but I better get on with it before the captain comes looking for me. See you later?"
"Yep," Karigan agreed, though she was looking forward to it a lot less than her tone indicated.
She'd need to eat soon, but it was early still, and she wasn't hungry yet. Instead, Karigan made her way outside and down to the stables, where she perched on the top rail of the paddock again. Blue Bird and Carrots were grazing in the early morning light, and they had several companions with them now that more Riders had returned. The sight of their varicolored hides made Karigan grin. This was one of her favorite spots on the castle grounds.
There was a bit of a bite to the breeze. Another reminder that fall was here, and that the weather would soon turn cold and harsh. She had packed her cold weather gear just in case, but it made her wonder if it snowed in Eletia. Did the weather follow the same patterns there, or would that be different as well?
To Mara's point, would there be horses there for her to sit and watch like this?
For a moment, Karigan felt the sting of trepidation. She was leaving everything she knew behind – what if that included more than she'd bargained for?
There was no point in worrying about it now. She had agreed to go, and indeed needed to go. She would adjust as necessary.
The wind had done an admirable job on her hair. Karigan gathered it over one shoulder and started to hum a tune her aunts had often sung to her growing up. Her fingers combed through her hair mindlessly in preparation to braid it; she had barely started when her ministrations were interrupted by several curious horses.
Blue Bird nosed her way right into Karigan's lap. The mare rested the weight of her head on Karigan's thighs and then heaved a great sigh, blowing bits of grass and horse breath at her. Karigan laughed and scratched the area between her eyes and behind her ears.
"Silly mare," she teased quietly. "I'm supposed to be staying clean today, thank you."
Blue Bird flicked an ear forward to listen but didn't move. Karigan wished again that Condor were here. The journey would be more bearable with a friend at her side.
"You'll take care of him, won't you?"
Carrots and Sunny, not to be left out of the attention giving, had trotted over to join their companion. Blue Bird lifted her head and glared at them but turning her attention on Carrots had left an opening for Sunny. The palomino mare pulled parallel to the fence and nudged Karigan's pocket with some force, unbalancing her.
"Hey!" Karigan chided. "A little easier, will you? I didn't bring anything, I'm sorry."
Carrots whickered in disappointment.
"I think they'll forgive you."
All at once the air disappeared from her lungs. She closed her eyes and wished that she were somewhere else, or that she had gone to get breakfast first instead. Of all the times and places, what were the odds of him finding her here?
Karigan glanced over her shoulder. The king was standing just a few steps from the paddock fence with the Weapon Donal behind him.
There was no one else out here to witness them, but her manners and duty were more muscle memory than thought, so she pushed the equine heads away from her and clambered down from the fence.
Blue Bird, helpful trouble maker that she was, shoved her head into Karigan's chest and pushed. Karigan let out a surprised oomph and glared at her whilst shoving her away again.
"Shove off you overgrown dog," Karigan muttered at her.
When she ducked between the fence rails and straightened herself, there was a streak of slobbery grass up the front of her shirt.
Annoyed that she'd have to change – and that the king should find her this way – Karigan tried not to scowl as she made to bow.
"Don't," Zachary said before she could do more than flex. Then, softer, "Please."
Freed from the necessity of bowing, Karigan didn't know what to do. Zachary was in the plain black clothes he wore when he trained with Arms Master Drent; that, at least, explained what he was doing out here.
"You must miss Condor."
Karigan glanced at him in surprise. "More than you know."
She didn't miss the way Zachary's eyes flicked down to the spot where her new necklace rested. His expression changed minutely, but it was gone too quickly to decipher.
Then, rather unexpectedly, Zachary gave her the tiniest smile. "I think someone is looking for you."
"What?" Confused, she glanced over her shoulder to see that Mara had just stepped out of the stables.
When she looked back, Zachary had already turned and started back toward the castle. In all of the interactions they'd shared, Karigan was chalking that one up to the strangest. Confused, and disappointed that she didn't feel more relieved, Karigan stared at Zachary's back for another heartbeat and then turned to go join Mara.