Blackbird Flies: Chapter Eight

Reorient

Senara almost sagged with relief when she stood to leave the dining hall and found Eryl stationed along the wall behind her seat. Among everything else she’d gleaned from the night’s conversation, the fact that the delegation planned on remaining for a whole month meant she needed to talk to the guard as soon as possible. I need to escape Hakon.

But the Astrian prince seemed intent on keeping her by his side. “Perhaps we might go for a walk,” he suggested. “I hear that the palace gardens are a thing of beauty, and the night is perfect for it. So mild compared to Astra this time of year.”

Senara shivered, trying to come up with a good excuse to decline. She could feel her mother’s eyes from across the hall, just waiting for her to be rude to the prince.

“Hakon!” Gram called, gesturing for his son to join him.

“Ah,” Hakon said, eyes narrowing in annoyance, “but it seems I am required elsewhere. We shall have to have our walk tomorrow.”

“I look forward to it, your Highness.” She let her elation at escape infuse her voice so that he might mistake it for enthusiasm.

Hakon took up her hand and kissed it, again giving her that possessive smile. “Until tomorrow, then, Senara. May you have a pleasant evening and sweet dreams. Perhaps I shall see you in mine.”

Please don’t, Senara thought as he turned and left with his father, the Astrian guards trailing after them, paired with honor guards from the palace. Massen and Enyon joined them as they reached the corridor. She noticed her mother taking her leave and headed to intercept her. She definitely needed to talk to Eryl, but she also needed answers. The queen seemed her best chance of getting them.

Jenifry saw her daughter coming and gave her a long-suffering smile, holding up a hand before Senara could speak. “The feast was a wonderful success, dear,” she said, loud enough for the nearby courtiers to hear, “well done!”

“Mother,” Senara started, stopping at a sharp shake of her mother’s head.

“Tomorrow,” Jenifry hissed. “We will discuss it over breakfast.” Raising her voice again, she beamed down at Senara. “Good night, dear, and to everyone! Thank you for a lovely evening. We’ve a busy few weeks ahead of us, so I suggest we all get some rest while we can!” This was greeted by laughter from the milling courtiers as they began to file out of the hall. The queen slipped away among them, leaving Senara staring after her in frustration. She couldn’t help but wonder how much there was to discuss. From what Hakon had said, she feared that arrangements were already in place. All that was left was for someone to do her the courtesy of filling her in.

Unable to maintain her public face a moment longer, she slipped down a side hall and made her way for the closest stairwell to the solarium. Eryl’s silent presence behind her was the only thing that kept her feet moving forward. They were almost seen going into the abandoned corridor. She was so out of sorts she didn’t even see Duke Fernan and Duchess Renata strolling arm in arm at the end of the cross-corridor. Eryl reacted quickly, pulling her behind a statue while the couple passed out of sight. She was so lost in her own thoughts that he had to put a hand over her mouth to stifle her cry of surprise at his action. Leaning against him, she could feel his heart racing against her back, but as it slowed to a normal pace, she was at last able to come back to herself, reeling her thoughts in as the enormity of the evening’s revelations settled on her.

As soon as Eryl released her, she barreled toward the solarium, needing to reach its safety, needing to feel that brief taste of freedom.

“Your Highness,” Eryl started as soon as he stepped in behind her, “what–?” He cut off when he walked into her back, nearly knocking her over, and reaching out his arms to steady her.

She’d stopped short at the entrance, her eyes falling on the egg. Another fissure had appeared since last night. It wasn’t enough, though. It was too soon and not soon enough at the same time. While she suspected her presence was no longer required at the treaty talks, Hakon had made it clear he did not mean to let her leave his side more than was required of him by his father. The Astrians meant to stay for a month. The egg couldn’t hold out that long, which meant she wouldn’t be able to be there when the dragon inside finally broke free. Even Eryl would be under more scrutiny, with a foreign delegation in the palace. The Royal Guard was sharing its barracks with their Astrian contemporaries, and they were being given additional duties to ensure security remained in place. Every routine was about to be upended, and not just for the week or two that she and Eryl had counted on, but for at least a whole month. It was too much.

She strode across the room, setting both hands atop the gleaming shell. “Hatch today. Hatch now and fly away and take me with you.” She wrapped her arms around the egg and sank down onto the floor beside it, heedless of her gown. “I don’t think either one of us will make it out, otherwise,” she whispered, finally letting the tears free.

“Your Highness?” Eryl’s confusion rang clearer than crystal.

“My father didn’t want me to learn about Astra to help with the treaty, Eryl,” she managed to sniff. “He wanted me to learn about it because he’s sending me there. I’m the treaty. An arranged marriage to secure an alliance, isn’t that just wonderful?”

“Your Highness…” Eryl knelt beside her, holding out a hand as if he wanted to reach out an comfort her.

“From the way Hakon spoke and how Mother’s acting, the details are all worked out, only no one bothered to tell me about it.”

He finally gave in to his instincts and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Maybe it’s not finalized? Maybe that’s what the Astrians want from the treaty but the king hasn’t agreed yet. That would explain why he didn’t tell you, wouldn’t it?”

“No,” Senara shook her head. It was as if the puzzle she’d been putting together had been missing pieces and she’d only just noticed them under the table. “Father and Enyon have both been talking a lot more long-scale than the terms we’ve been discussing would have called for. An alliance of marriage creates far longer ties than trade alone. I was just too stupid to see it.” There was also the fact that, from everything she’d learned, Astrians didn’t value their daughters enough to consider them worthy trade assets. That was a Sunpeak custom, if one she thought she’d avoided due to order of birth. She rested her forehead against the egg again.

“You’re the last person I would ever consider stupid,” Eryl said. From the corner of her eye she saw him frown.

“Call it shortsighted, then. I was so excited to be involved with something other than the entertainment, I didn’t bother to consider the implications.”

“Do you know when?”

“Not for sure. I’m having breakfast with Mother tomorrow. I’ll likely learn all of the details then. At a guess, I’d say right before the Astrians leave. But Eryl,” she shot him a worried look, “Hakon said they’re staying at least a month.” Senara stroked the egg. “There’s no chance the egg won’t have hatched by then, and neither one of us will be able to be with it as much with the Astrians here.” She drew a shaky breath and met his eyes. “I don’t know what to do.”

Eryl rested his hand beside hers on the egg, head bowed in thought. After a moment he stood and began pacing. Senara watched him, waiting. “Can we slow the process?” He stopped in front of her, looking at them both. “If we move the egg to a storage room like you suggested before, at least until they’re gone–“

“I don’t think it works like that.” Senara interrupted. “The dragon’s begun to hatch. I don’t know if the process can be slowed at this point, or if it wouldn’t hurt the dragon to move them somewhere colder at this stage.”

“So that’s out.” Eryl sighed in frustration and rubbed the back of his neck. He paced for a few more minutes then stopped and looked at Senara again. “Is it just the timing that has you so upset?”

“What do you mean?”

“If your family hadn’t kept this from you, if you didn’t have this going on,” he gestured to the egg, “would you be all right with the marriage?”

Senara’s first instinct was to shout out that no, never in a million years would she be all right with it, but she forced herself to give the question careful consideration. She’d grown up assuming that, as second child, she would be her brother’s right hand. Her duties would be by his side or in the palace. Mother had seen to it that she was trained to manage the palace’s day to day needs, reinforcing her belief that this was where she would stay. If she’d ever thought about marriage or family, she had pictured that happening here, and she’d accepted that path without question.

Being married to a foreigner and sent away had never even crossed her mind. What would her role be in Astra? From her studies, she’d learned that women played no part in their politics. She supposed she could manage Hakon’s household, but she didn’t know for sure, and there was no guarantee anything there would be run as it was here. Hakon was no reassurance–he hadn’t needed to have a real conversation with her for his nerves about the match to subside. He just wanted to see her, and learn she could do something entertaining such as play the flute. It didn’t bode well for her future there.

“No,” she answered at last. “I don’t believe I would want this, even without everything else. There’s something about Hakon that sets my teeth on edge, and what I know about Astra makes it sound like I’ll be miserable there.” She played with a strand of her hair, tugging the curl until it was straight and then letting it bounce back into place. “It doesn’t matter, either way. I don’t have any say.”

“If you don’t want to marry him,” Eryl said moving to kneel in front of her, “you shouldn’t marry him. That makes the answer to what to do about the egg pretty simple, I’d say.”

“How so?”

“We leave, and we take the egg with us. We get it somewhere safe where it can hatch, and then we figure out what happens next.”

“Run away?” She stared at him, aghast. “Moon and stars, Eryl, that’s a terrible idea!”

He frowned and crossed his arms. “I’m not saying it would be easy.”

“That’s not what I mean,” she said, shaking her head. “If we disappear together, Father will hunt us down. When he catches us, not only will he have the egg, but he will kill you Eryl, and I’ll be lucky if marrying me off to Hakon is the worst he does to me. Stars, for all I know, the Astrians would be so offended by my attempt to avoid the marriage that instead of a trade alliance, we could end up with war.”

He looked skeptical. “War? Really? How likely is that, your Highness?”

“They’ve been fought over less,” she said, dropping her hand into her lap. “Did you miss the part where I said my father would kill you?”

“He’d have to find us,” Eryl insisted.

“He would.”

Eryl snorted. “Well, what’s your idea, then?”

“Are you really willing to leave your post to take the egg somewhere safe?”

“I–,” he frowned and sat beside her, reaching out to lay a hand on the egg. “Yes. We’ve brought the dragon this far, it wouldn’t be right to abandon them now.”

Senara reached out and took his hand. “Then you go, take it. Don’t disappear in the night. Resign from your post. No one else knows about the egg. That way you won’t raise suspicion. I’ll give you all of the coin I’ve got, and anything else of value that can help you get where you need to go. No one will notice if my things go missing, they’ll just think I took them with me to Astra.”

“It will raise suspicion if I’m trying to barter with something I have no reason to own, your Highness.” He frowned, staring down at her hand. “But coin isn’t really the issue. You’re the one who knows what to do, where to go.” He stroked the egg. “What if I mess it up?”

“You won’t. I’ll tell you everything I know before you go. You can do this, Eryl. I trust you.”

“But what about you?”

She tried to offer a reassuring smile but for once her social mask faltered. “I’ll make do,” she managed. “I just need to know both of you are safe.”

“I don’t like it,” Eryl said. “We’re in this together. Leaving you behind, especially to a fate you don’t want, it feels wrong.”

“I don’t have the freedom to leave,” she told him. “You do. It’s the only way I can see for this to work out.”

“For everyone but you.”

“I’ll be all right,” she insisted. She almost believed herself.

If I may, a new voice broke in, I have an idea.

Eryl jumped to his feet, hand going to the sword at his belt. “Who said that?” His head swiveled as he tried to find the intruder. “I don’t see anyone. Where are you!”

I’m right here, the voice replied.

Beside Senara, the egg rocked.

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