Hello, everyone! Well, now that life has settled back into its normal routine and all my family has left, here is the next chapter. Nothing belongs to me, of course, and all mistakes are mine.
The yells of pain from inside the tent cut through Edward as though the very air that carried them was tipped with sharpened steel. Jasper had been closed away with a medic for what to Edward seemed hours, though he knew that to be a gross exaggeration. His feelings of frustration and helplessness were not lessened by the reality that he could not join his brother to lend support. The king had taken that position and left it to Edward to oversee the cleanup of the battle site.
Emmett had already departed, having led most of the troops along with all the prisoners on the long march toward the castle. The majority of the army was required in order to sufficiently contain the vast number of men who had surrendered to them rather than fight. The rebels had been willing to follow Aro's leadership so long as the plan had been risk-free, but many of them were ill-prepared for the prospect of an actual conflict and had given themselves up rather quickly. The party was expected to make very poor time because of them.
Only two companies of Englasian infantrymen and one of cavalry remained behind to gather the dead, tend to the wounded, and tear down what remained of the campsite. They were to complete those tasks with all speed before making haste after the slower-moving company already on the road. If all went to plan, they would return to the castle as one.
Edward, unable to listen to his brother's cries of pain any longer, prodded his steed toward a distant part of the battlefield that he had been avoiding since the end of the conflict, a part that he had forbidden his men from touching as yet. As he went, his eyes scanned over the tents and the figures moving among them to ensure that all was, if not well, then at the least productive. Finally, he reached the prone figure he had been avoiding.
He saw the man at once, his blank face covered in blood, but Edward's eyes immediately slid to the figure kneeling over him.
"Soldier!" he called, a bit more harshly than the situation called for, perhaps. "I made it clear that this area was to remain as it was for the time being!"
The man looked up at his lord, and Edward immediately regretted his words. The soldier did not need to utter a single syllable to explain; the uncanny resemblance between the living, tear-soaked face and the pale, dead one was all that was required to garner his understanding.
"I apologize, soldier," he said quietly before the man could do more than open his mouth. Edward dismounted and slowly approached the two forms. "He was your brother?"
"Aye, my lord," the man said in an equally quiet voice. It seemed he had been there some time. He had no more tears, only deep grief to dedicate to the situation. "Brady was his name."
"And yours?" Edward inquired.
"Collin, my lord," he replied, not taking his eyes off of the one called Brady, "of Lapoulle. He was a good man, sire. Honorable, hard-working, selfless. Dedicated husband and father."
Edward felt a pang for the woman waiting anxiously at home for her husband's return, where no return would come. That could well have been Isabella's fate had Brady not stepped in.
"I know he was," Edward answered. Collin looked up at him in tired surprise. "I never saw him in life but for a second of time, but in that second he proved himself to be both courageous and honorable. He called out to warn me of an attacker whom I had not seen. I fear that the act diverted his concentration and cost him his life. He was gone before I could turn about and thank him."
Tears sprung anew to the man's eyes as he gazed at the face before him. "That is great comfort, my lord," he said gaspingly, "to know he died well. But somehow it makes the grief seem all the more near."
Edward merely clapped the man's shoulder as Collin quietly wept anew. Neither moved from that spot, gazing at the fallen soldier, until the sound of approaching hoof beats roused them. A cavalryman trotted toward them and stopped just before the prince.
"My apologies, my lord," he said swiftly, before Edward could scold him for the intrusion, "but the king calls for you in Prince Jasper's medical tent."
"How does he fare?" Edward asked immediately, rising to his feet and striding to his horse.
"I cannot say, sire," the man replied. "That was the whole of the message."
Edward nodded and turned his horse around. Before he spurred him to action, he cast one last glance at the dead soldier and his brother. "Well met, Collin," he said with a nod. "See that Brady is given the honor and respect he deserves, for I shall give word to begin cleanup here now."
Collin merely nodded. Edward and the nameless soldier rode side-by-side in silence, only stopping to tell one of the remaining captains to expand the cleanup. As they neared the tent, Edward noted with no small feeling of relief that his brother's cries had ceased.
The second that he pulled away the flap to enter, his eye's sought out Jasper. His brother looked grim, and his face was ashen, but he seemed to be in pain no longer. Edward's eyes fell to the sling wrapped around the injured arm, but he had no time to ponder its implications.
"Son," the king called pointedly. Edward looked to his father and was startled to see a herald standing next to him. While he wore Englasian colors, his appearance seemed somehow distinct from the soldiers of his father's army, as though he had dressed in the same clothes but with his eyes closed. The king continued, "This is Sir Embry, who serves Lord Charles." Sir Embry bowed in acknowledgement.
Edward's interest was immediately diverted. "What news?" he asked hastily.
"Lord Seth reached us with news of Aro's deceptions and Demetri's betrayal," he said without preamble. The king and Jasper looked on with disinterestedly, having already heard the news. "Why the k— why Lord Charles believed him, I cannot tell, as we had been told by your previous messenger that he was a traitor. Nevertheless, Lord Seth convinced him somehow of his veracity, and King Carlisle has just confirmed the tale. I was sent to inform the king that our armies are ready and await further instruction, but it seems no aid will be necessary."
He gestured around to the cold battlefield.
"Yes, time was scarce. Had we a few more days before Aro's plan was to come to fruition, we would have been able to call for the Arizian armies," the king said diplomatically. His last wish was that the Arizians should take it as a slight that they were not included in the battle plans.
"My lord will also be relieved to know that his daughter is safe once again," Sir Embry continued. "His anger and grief on hearing the news that she was missing was terrible to behold. And Leonardo's death will be sorely felt among all our people. How did such a thing come to be?"
"Let us sit, and I shall tell you the happenings as Isabella relayed them to us," the king said, gesturing to a small table in the corner of the tent.
As Carlisle began recounting the events of the last several days to Embry, Edward finally moved to his brother. Jasper's eyes had strayed to a lamp placed in front of him, though he clearly was not seeing it at all.
"And what news of you, brother?" Edward asked quietly.
"I shall live," Jasper said wryly, still with his unfocused gaze on the lamp. "But not well. The medic was able to save my arm from infection, but I see nothing to celebrate in the saving of a useless arm."
"Pardon?" Edward asked cautiously, a feeling of dread settling in his stomach.
"I cannot move it," Jasper said bluntly. "The medic did all he could to invigorate it to life, but in vain. I could not even feel the exercises as he performed them. I feel nothing below where the sword struck me. The arm might as well be absent."
"I am sorry, brother," Edward said, not sure what else to say. He could not fathom what Jasper was feeling, suddenly having no use of his sword arm, the arm with which he defended himself and his family. "Is there no chance of recovering it?"
"The medic said exercising it may help it to heal somewhat, but it is unlikely to ever be anything more than passably functional, if that," Jasper said despondently, still unwilling to tear his gaze from the dancing flame before him. "Either way, I shall never be whole again."
His tone of finality made it clear that he wished to put the matter to rest for the moment.
Edward had naught to say that did not seem contrived in his own mind, so he simply clapped Jasper on his uninjured shoulder and sat down at a nearby table, allowing himself to relax, however briefly. When Jasper was ready to deal with what had happened, he would do so. Edward saw nothing to gain from pushing him now.
He himself was unsure how to process this news, and the ramifications were only just occurring to him. Jasper would be removed from the king's active service as a knight. And though he would retain his titles and little would change in his actual duties given his position as prince, the demotion would be a vital blow to Jasper's pride. And Alice. She was little more than a child at heart, innocent and naïve as a princess of the realm could be, unused to hardship and sorrow. How would she cope now, with an embittered husband who would need a great deal of help adjusting and who would resist that help at every turn? She and Jasper both had much learning and growing to do in the coming months and years, and Edward prayed that the difficulties would see them stronger as a result rather than tattered when all was said and done.
Edward rode at a brisk trot along the road to the village in which Isabella had been concealed. Lord Charles's messenger had departed for his lord's house, armed with a letter from the king. The cleanup had finally been completed, and the king had started leading those that had stayed behind toward the castle, carts full of fallen soldiers with them. Edward was to gather Isabella and chase them along the road.
He saw the village before him, and he urged his steed faster. He did not pause to acknowledge the townsfolk who called after their crown prince as he sped toward the inn in which Isabella was ensconced.
He rounded a corner and, at the sight before him, immediately felt the tension that he had subconsciously been harboring since he had left Isabella's side melt away. There she stood with a dazzling smile, having heard the calls of the villagers and run out to meet him. He dismounted at her side and swept her up into a tight but brief hug. He was not so demonstrative as to kiss her as he desired, but he knew that the swifter their departure, the sooner such overtures could take place.
"My lady, I cannot say how overjoyed I am to lay eyes on you once more," he said softly and tenderly. "You are well?"
"Quite," she answered in kind. "But between us, I am not the one who has seen battle since last we spoke. Are you unharmed?"
"I am, though I cannot say the same for all," Edward said ruefully. "I shall inform you as we travel to the castle."
Soon, all in Isabella's party had gathered up the sparse belongings with them and had begun the journey home. Isabella listened in both wonder and horror to Edward's recounting of events, unable to process the ramifications. She instead added each event to the growing pile of happenings through which she would have to sort once all was finally said and done. The knowledge that the three mistresses along with the unnamed accomplice were still at large and inside the castle was never far from her thoughts.
They soon caught up with the king's slower-moving caravan, and mere miles away from the castle they joined Emmett's as well. Isabella and Edward, exhausted and in no state of mind to indulge the vain crowing of their prisoners, gave them a wide berth as they took their positions in the front with the king for the final stage of their journey. No herald was sent to announce their approach, for they wished the spy still in the castle to have as little warning as possible.
With the royal parties at the helm, the united army somberly reentered the castle courtyard at last. A crowd had already gathered after seeing the army approaching along the road, and their arrival was met with cheers mingled with cries of joy from the families who saw their loved ones among those returning and worried, panicked ones from those who did not.
The queen and the two remaining princesses stood on the castle stairs, each looking much older than they had when their husbands had departed, but each with a wholeheartedly relieved smile on her face. It was customary for the king to send back regular updates on the goings-on of the army when it marched, but not a word had reached them for fear of the spy, and their worry had been great.
"My lord!" said Sir Benjamin as he ran to the king's side, Sir James a step behind him. The latter's eyes were widened ever so slightly. "I see you are victorious."
"We are," Carlisle answered gravely, "at some cost. I shall need you to organize the securing of the prisoners and the sorting of the fallen. My sons and I have business to attend to. Sir James, find Ladies Tanya, Kathryn, and Irina and bring them to the throne room, by force if necessary. Take some men with you if you judge it to be necessary."
"My lord," said James simply with a bow. He turned and strode toward the castle, passing the queen and princesses as he did. He saw the royal family joyfully greet one another when the king, his sons, and the shockingly resilient Isabella reached them, but he did not pause to watch. His mind was abuzz with thought.
It would be no large task to locate the three mistresses, for he had been the one to tell them where to hide when news of the approaching army reached the castle. Upon realizing that not all had gone according to plan, they had panicked and begun fretting over whether their involvement had been exposed. James had stashed them in a hidden chamber known to few and promised to return after ascertaining the situation.
He briefly considered poisoning them and leaving them in the nook. They would be discovered eventually, of course, but he would have returned to the king proclaiming them missing long before that. Nothing would tie him to them. But he discarded the idea quickly. The three, while not intelligent by any stretch, were not so stupid as to accept anything to drink from him given what they knew or suspected about his previous such acts. They would cause a stir in resisting him, and he had no desire to be found out in such a way.
With that settled, his thoughts turned again, not to their fate, nor even truly his own. He was overtaken with the knowledge that he had failed utterly, for his part in the debacle would now come to light. He had failed his Victoria, despite his years of dedication to vindicating her. All that work now came to naught, and shame and anger welled inside him.
He approached the nook in which he had stashed the ladies and schooled his features into his mask of indifference.
"Ladies, it is safe to emerge," he called.
The tapestry that concealed the door behind which they had been hiding moved aside to reveal three dishevel figures.
"Finally!" exclaimed Tanya. "It was getting rather uncomfortable in there."
"We were not found out?" Kathryn said eagerly.
"No, you were not," Sir James answered easily, "though you may wish to join the rest of the court in the throne room. The king is addressing the people, and your absence may become suspicious."
"So Edward's tart is dead?" Tanya demanded as they began walking briskly in that direction. The three patted at themselves, trying to make themselves presentable once again. "Otherwise she would have told them of our ambush."
James shook his head in partially-genuine confusion couched in a lie. "I cannot say what happened," he answered. "Nothing is as was planned. But she did not return with the army, so I suppose she must have been a casualty."
He hid his exasperation at the smiles that were suddenly upon all three faces.
Once they reached the throne room, the four entered confidently, James hovering stealthily behind the mistresses. The ladies moved to hug the perimeter of the room toward the other ladies of court but froze when they heard the king's voice.
"Tanya, Irina, Kathryn," he called commandingly, his voice teeming with barely subdued ire, "approach the throne that you might receive your due. My newest daughter has regaled me with quite the tale."
There was a pause as the three stood immobile, disoriented and unsure of what was occurring. Then, as one, they turned and began running at the doors, but the royal guard had already closed ranks to bar their escape. Sir Benjamin grabbed Ladies Tanya and Kathryn and Sir Peter grabbed Lady Irina by their arms and marched them toward the throne. Tanya clawed and shrieked, Kathryn cried and Irina merely stood in dumfounded horror, each desperate in a way that she had never before experienced.
The odd procession reached the throne, and Tanya finally quieted down, seeming to suddenly realize the dire straits she was in.
"You three stand accused of high treason by means of the willful endangerment of a member of the royal family by kidnapping and by means of aiding those seeking to overthrow the crown," Carlisle said with deadly calm. "How do you plead?"
"I – I do not know what you could m-," Tanya started.
"Do not lie!" the king suddenly roared, making them jump and cower.
Edward and Isabella remained expressionless from their places by his side, though the rest of the royal family were not so reserved. Isabella was hiding the morbid satisfaction she was somewhat ashamed of at watching the crumbling of the three women. Edward was masking his disgust that he had ever taken up with these horrible beings.
"Did you not assist in the kidnapping of the princess?" the queen asked with fire in her eyes.
"No, we did not," Kathryn said firmly, tears still streaming down her face.
"Are you calling Princess Isabella a liar?" the king asked, his lethal calm reclaimed. Tanya and Kathryn wracked their brains for some way out of the mess they had fallen into, but Irina had already come to the correct conclusion that no such path existed.
"No," Irina whispered. The other two turned to her in shock. "We did kidnap her."
Her show of defiance and honesty did not impress Tanya and Kathryn.
"You little traitor!" Tanya screeched. She made to lung at Irina but was held in place by Sir Benjamin's firm grip.
"If we are to be hanged for our actions, and it is clear that there is other fate for us, then I will do so proudly rather than spending the rest of our time simpering and whining and begging for reprieve," Irina rejoined, her voice gaining confidence and taking on a ringing quality as she did so. "And I will ensure that all responsible parties are given the same treatment as I. Your majesty, the plan did not originate with us. It was Sir James who instructed us on how to proceed." Her voice was thick with sadistic relish.
"Sir James?" the king repeated with unmitigated shock, an emotion that was mirrored on the faces of all in the room.
Edward and Isabella glanced at one another in stunned disbelief. Sir James? Of all the people who could be responsible for aiding Aro from inside the castle, neither of Edward's groomsmen had even crossed their minds.
Carlisle recovered quickly and called loudly. "Bring him forth!"
Every eye in the room began scanning for the man, and the whispers of interest grew louder and louder as the pause stretched on. Finally, all in the room reached the same realization.
Sir James was gone.
There you have it!
Again, sorry for the wait. We're almost done, so I hope you hold on till the end, even if it's been a bit rocky with me as a writer.
I acknowledge that I am not sure if Jasper's arm could be paralyzed because of the hit he took, so I'm sorry if that bothers the anatomical sensibilities of anyone out there.
Drop a review to let me know what you think!
Up next: James meets his fate