Chapter Thirty

Anari finished a silent prayer before she rose, sliding from beneath the soft sheets with a sigh. Even after weeks of sleeping in a proper bed, she still felt exhausted long after waking, as though phantom roots and stones pressed into her spine and robbed her of rest. Yet the day ahead must be faced, and it would do her no good to malinger. She knew this, yet sighed all the same.

The light through her familiar windows was slanted and strong, a clean bright gold shining hard against the rich blue of the sky. Cobblestoned and gilded though Dranthe was, she thought she could detect that spicy odor of rot from the few falling leaves of the trees in their courtyard. It was a poignant reminder of just how much time had passed since the war had come to an abrupt—and rather embarrassed—end.

And it was over. The armies had been disbanded, save soldiers who remained to safeguard their various monarchs. The dead had been buried according to the customs of their countries. Councils had been convened; resolutions had been motioned, seconded, and passed.

Today would see to the very last order of business.

Anari shrugged off her nightdress and reached for the gown Anisa had laid out for her the previous evening. It was the finest garment she owned in the Mato'i'yan style: thick-woven wool died black as the sky on a moonless night, scattered across with seed pearls embroidered in swirling spirals to serve for stars. The neck reached high on her throat, fastened by buttons carved of whale bone.

It was the same dress she had worn to bury Ri'a'na. It was only fitting that she wear it now for a funeral of another sort.

He was not to die that day. Anari had not yet sorted her feelings to tell if this was for good or ill. Regardless, her feelings mattered not at all. The entire Peninsula had bayed for his blood, and all their cries had fallen of two implacable, deaf ears. King Makizan had ruled at the end of all testimony that Vye's crime was treason against his monarch. He alone could take his life, and he would…once they had returned to the Capitol city of Argon and a proper spectacle was made of his offense.

Her hands fumbled on the delicate buttons as she thought yet again of what her history texts had taught her on the subject of such executions.

Not for the first time, she thought she might have served him better by killing him outright as he had asked. She wondered—also not for the first time—about whether he saw it the same way. Did he blame her for withholding the mercy of her own, swift execution?

There was no way of knowing. There would be no opportunity for conversation on this, the last day of the talks. Makizan departed that evening while Anari remained in Dranthe to salvage what remained of their Family and discuss how to proceed in the wreckage of the old order. There were new relationships to be forged among the new players on the board. Makizan had left a staff of twenty or more agents to oversee Yanoy's compliance with its burden of reparations, and some distant cousin of Vye's would take the reins, heavily monitored by those very agents.

The same presence would oversee all doings on the Peninsula, at least until—as Makizan put it—he could trust them to 'manage their own affairs as adults rather than petulant children'. Not a soul had taken kindly to that, but what could they do? Vye was the only scapegoat he demanded for the loss of so much life, and they must be grateful for it.

Anari struggled with the idea of gratitude in the face of insult.

She finished dressing, knotting a long sash of black silk around her middle with a vicious jerk. She then turned her irritation to the subject of her hair, brushing it out with tugs and yanks and a few muttered curses.

"So much for facing the day on a pious note," Anisa took the brush from her hand and sat her down before the mirror.

"I thought you liked my spirit," she said, smiling at the familiar face of her old maid in the mirror. "Or has that changed along with everything else?"

"Never, my Lady," Anisa had changed, certainly. Her face was thinner—the war had drained Dranthe of many resources—and she walked with such a stiff upright pride Anari often might have taken her for a clockwork doll. She had heard the story of Anisa's challenges in bits and pieces from the woman herself, and a good deal gleaned from the hearsay of other servants.

Anari's former maid had been Marina's sole support in the struggle to maintain calm—not just in the household, but in the city. Together they had coordinated privation relief efforts for the Mato'i'yan diaspora of Yanoy, recruited troops for the conflict, and arranged a private postal service between the two nations. Anisa had kept Marina alive after Natan's death—which occurred six weeks after Anari's departure—for days at a time praying with the woman and hand-feeding her like a child.

Anari could not have been more grateful or proud of a sister.

"There," Anisa said, twisting the coils of hair around into a smooth bun on the back of her head. A few ebony pins held the mass firmly in place. "Is there anything else I can help you with, my Lady?"

"There is, though you may have to think a bit before giving me an answer," Anari turned in her chair and looked up. She took one of Anisa's thin hands between her own.

"Now that everything is so different, we will need to have more assistance in matters of government. I will remain here in Dranthe, but my Aunt will return to Mato'i'ya to oversee the integration of Makizan's new inspection bureau in Mato. She will have no one to help her, unless you agree to be her assistant."

Anisa blinked, stunned. Anari waited a moment for a reply, then bit her lip and went on.

"I know it is a challenge, and one you may have no inclination to undertake, given all you have been through these last few months. But I remember you once remarking that we in the Yuno'a Family didn't consider anyone else having a contribution to make to government, and I thought…well, I thought it was time to rethink such foolishness."

"I—" she hesitated, "I would be honored, my Lady. Only…I have never been trained to this. Running the house while you were not here, helping my countrymen…that was simple. I cannot even begin to imagine all I do not know in the day-to-day of running a country!"

"What you do not know, Aunt Marina will teach you," Anari smiled, standing, "The most important thing is that you are willing. Do not underestimate what you did for all the Mato'i'yans here. You gave them hope and help when they most needed it. To see a need and to fill it is all we do."

Anisa nodded, but there was still a shadow of uncertainty in her eyes.

"Very well," she said at last, nodding firmly, "I will try, my Lady."

"None of that anymore," Anari corrected her, drawing her in for a hug, "If only those of my Family may rule, then we are sisters now, are we not?"

She laughed. "I suppose we must be, my—Anari."

"Good," she released Anisa and stepped back. "Then if that's agreed, I suppose nothing else remains but asking if you have ordered the carriage?"

"It will be standing ready for you as soon as you have eaten. Your Aunt is already in the breakfast parlor; the only one who remains to be gotten out of bed is your brother and his wife, I believe."

"Hmm. Better to leave them abed as long as you are able. The war has been forceful separation for far too many couples, and she had many fears on 'Raso's behalf," Anari smiled in wry amusement. "But perhaps a tap on their door would be wise? We should not keep the assembly waiting, especially since any resistance against Makizan might smack of further rebellion."

"Is he really as strict as I have heard?" Anisa followed her as she left the room, walking slowly down the barren corridors—they had had to sell much of the furniture and nearly all the art to fund their relief efforts—towards the parlor.

"He intends to have his pound of flesh, make no mistake," Anari replied. It was difficult to quantify her feelings for Makizan since they ran so contradictory. "For centuries the Peninsula has made little trouble and hardly any noise in the Argonian government. He has always thought of us as a poor province, content to give little in return for even less. This insurrection was a rude awakening for him, and I do not doubt he means to see that we make no more noise for the next five hundred years."

Anisa snorted. "I wish I could say that was unlikely, but given how little objection anyone made to all the new tariffs he has laid on us—"

"We had little choice," Anari corrected her. She kept her tone gentle, the same patient teaching tone so often employed by her Grandmother, Uncles, Aunts, and Mother. "We were in rebellion, though duped into it by Vye. Makizan would have been within his rights to round up every ruling party on the Peninsula and execute us all. We would have been able to offer no more than token resistance if he had. Instead, he has been comparatively merciful, though these economic demands will weigh more heavily on us in time than an equivalent measure of blood."

"Do you think we ever shall raise resistance again?"

"I could not tell you," Anari said, "I wish I could say yes. But having met him now…I should not like to put Makizan to the test. One gets the feeling that he grants mercy but once."

Anisa nodded, but had no time for more questions; they had arrived at the parlor and were interrupted by a weary tide of greetings. Not one person sitting around the long table seemed to have any heart for more than a gentle "good morning" and a weak smile. Yuno was glued to her mother's side, practically sitting in her lap as she picked at a bun. These months—nearly a full year from the time of Ri'a'na's death—had been a sore trial from which they were all reeling.

Aunt Marina seemed to have felt it most. She was dressed with all due consideration, but the body swathed in rich velvets seemed too heavy for her fragile frame to support. Her hair had thinned and could not be dressed other than in fine braids; her face was drawn and wrinkled like a long-forgotten handkerchief. Even in the simple act of lifting her teacup, her hands trembled like a woman's twice her years.

Anari slid into the empty chair next to her and dropped a kiss on one of those shaking hands. "I have good news," she murmured gently. Marina could not bear any loud noises; even laughter was a trying irritation, "Anisa has agreed to accompany you back to Mato and serve as your aide."

Marina's bleary eyes raised to the woman who stood awkwardly behind her niece. "Is this true?" one hand groped along the back of Anari's chair, searching for Anisa's. The maid met it with a squeeze and a kiss of her own. "God be praised," she sighed, "He has answered my prayers at last."

"Here,"Anari relinquished her chair and all but forced Anisa into it, ignoring the woman's jumbled protests against joining the Family for breakfast, "I insist."

Leaving the two to comfort each other, she found a vacant seat next to her mother. Tirena had born up better than all the others and seemed ashamed of it. She had still not been able to give her sister-in-law more than empty condolence on her husband's death. Hers was the only branch of the tree that had lost no branches. She greeted her daughter with a kiss on the brow and a long, searching look.

"Have you slept, my love?"

"Well enough," Anari said, reaching for a scoop of porridge and the bowl of molasses to flavor it with. "The beds here are too comfortable. Around the third hour of wakefulness I did consider sleeping on the floor."

"I have done that more than once," she replied. "The next time you cannot sleep, join me in the library. I would be glad of the company."

Anari's throat swelled with sorrow, shame, and gratitude. She answered with a nod and no more, turning to devour the breakfast that her stomach didn't want but her head told her she needed.

The meal took place in silence, the silence of distraction and meditations on pains past, present, and future. There was a heavy tension that everyone longed to break, and everyone knew better than to do so. For one more day, they had to restrain their griefs, however those griefs were circling like buzzards.

Anari cast about for something to say, hand coming to rest on the Roundel she touched for comfort. Like a rainbow spreading across a stormy sky, the answer presented itself.

"Shall we pray?" she asked aloud, her voice breaking.

Everyone looked her way, their pale and drawn faces stunned. Then, from her Father:

"Yes," he said, reaching out to join their hands, "Yes."

One by one, their hands clasped around the table. The oppressed and the grateful, the shamed and the grieving all could come together in this one expression of something they all shared—one way or another.

"Dear God, who gives hope in times of suffering, hear our prayer…"

()()()

Makizan had naturally taken up residence in the finest house available to him in Dranthe; the Chancellor's mansion. During his stay there, the fine gardens had been maintained, the furnishings and ornaments kept as fine as though their first master was there to give orders. But the gates and walls were guarded by rows of Capitol soldiers, their colors jarring and discordant to the memories of everyone in the city.

It was a strange thing that though Vye had not been loved—and had tricked many of his citizens to death—the residents of Dranthe still took it as a personal affront that the King should have imprisoned the man in his own house while simultaneously sleeping in his bed.

There was also a matter of the public garden days being cancelled indefinitely. Many resented that.

Their carriages crunched the swept gravel of the main road from the gate through the gardens, rolling without obstruction between the trimmed geometric hedges and flower bushes Anari had once criticized as cold and artificial. Here and there a tent was set up to house the officers of Makizan's army; the other soldiers were bivouacked in other public gardens around the city, the better—Anari assumed—to quell the 'restless rebels'.

Familiar faces—the head footmen, among them—met the Yuno'a Family at the front door. Even those faces took on a shade of the unreality with the new Capitol livery they were forced to wear. Anari thanked the man and he nodded at her with no more recognition than at a perfect stranger.

The housekeeper met them in the foyer and—after a typical bustle with shawls and coats—escorted them to the grand council chamber.

It was a room that Vye had rarely used. His brand of politics relied on the small dinner, the intimate garden party…the gatherings of a few influential men and women that were far easier to gauge and tempt in the more private setting. He kept power by influence.

Yet the mansion had been built to his grandfather's needs, which included intimidation and fear.

The grand hall encompassed all three stories of the building, with entrances on each level. The ground floor was where all the diplomats stood, milling about between small tables set with trays of dainties and late-blooming fruit. A few chairs and benches were the only concessions available to comfort or the human needs of any below. Herded into the pen with all the others, Anari had no doubt that her first impression was the one intended.

They were mere beasts, requiring strong rule from above to be managed. If they listened, well and good. If not…

Well. The second floor was staffed entirely of soldiers, none of whom made any secret of the heavy crossbows they carried.

Anari huffed, rolling her eyes at the first sympathetic glance she caught from one of the Guild lords of Iofari.

He shared the expression but, nodding towards the refreshments, said, "At least he found a good recipe for fish fritters. Not quite as good as in Raaf, but close."

He wandered off. After a moment, Anari took up a skewer of fritters; she might as well stifle her anger with batter rather than revolution. Perhaps in the short term at least, it would be safer.

The crowd below was restive, heaving and surging like great ocean waves, with a gentle rumble that ebbed and flowed like the same. The rumble grew in depth and volume with every moment that passed, punctuated here and there by a laugh that was too brassy, or a cough that was too pointed. The balcony above on the third floor remained empty of all save the two guards dressed in heavy, brilliant armor. They stood so stolid that they might have been statues than living beings.

Anari maintained her silence, standing as still as she could in the flowing crowd. She would not be baited like an animal; she would be patient, whatever happened.

The room filled to capacity. The noise from the crowd grew, changing from the slow pulse of the ocean to the irritated snarl of a wounded beast. The noise reached a fever pitch—and then hushed.

A sharp tinkle of shattered glass—from someone's dropped goblet—was all the announcement of Makizan's presence anyone needed. All heads canted back, straining to see the figure of the King who stood so far above them…and who receded into insignificance thereby. Any one of them might have blotted him out with a thumb.

She swallowed her laugh at the thought. He wanted to be so intimidating and removed, and only made himself tiny in the doing.

Makizan let the silence drag on until Anari felt her ribs swelling with suppressed chuckles. Many around her had the same reaction; the atmosphere of forced solemnity mixed with the great sigh of relief they were all anticipating. On every side, Anari heard snickers hidden by coughs and snorts concealed in sneezes.

Finally, the great King spoke.

"My people," he spread his hands, "So I greet you, for so you are. I hold none of your recent sins against you. Deceived you were by a man who wanted more power than his lot allowed him; deceived even into forgetting my great love for you. Such will not happen again."

He spoke each word with definite finality; the humor in the room snuffed out as though he'd closed a coffin on the crowd. Now the emotion of the assembly was more sullen than anything. No one greeted Makizan's declaration with the cheer his long pause told them he was expecting.

Nevertheless, he continued undaunted.

"Though we have all suffered by this man's deception, I know we all take comfort in the knowledge that his lies will be punished with all severity. He will serve as the perfect lesson to all in the land of Argon; a lesson that—to my sorrow—I have had to teach you myself. Know that every life lost in this conflict is one that I will never forget."

Anari snorted. She doubted he could pronounce many of the names on the lists of the dead, let alone recall even a small fraction of them.

"I do not expect any of you to feel their losses as I do," he went on, voice strong and monotonous despite his so-called remorse, "You do not have the responsibilities that move my heart for you. Yet I pray for all our sakes—for our future peace and prosperity—that you may know an inch of the suffering I do on your behalf. Then, I could leave this Peninsula assured that such bloodshed need never again occur."

Anari felt the lines of her face freeze in a furious scowl; freeze so solid that she could not even glance to anyone around to see how they were reacting to this pile of horse dung. Makizan, feel more for their dead than they could? If it weren't for the unflinching solemn cant of his lips, Anari would suspect him of playing a very cruel game.

Thank God the next shot was also his last.

"What I ask is that you all reflect deeply on this offense, and guard yourselves lest it happen again. Now," he grew thunderously loud, "the traitor Leo Vye will be taken tonight with my entourage as we depart these lands. I encourage each and every one here to remain until that time. Enjoy the refreshments set forth on my goodwill."

He gestured below to the tables the assembly had already picked rather thin; at his remove Anari did not doubt he couldn't see their scarcity. That did not mean she extended him the benefit of an unwitting error. She merely assumed that he cared as little for their comfort as he did their grief.

It would be of a piece with the little she knew of him.

Nevertheless, everyone in the hall knew what he was due and what he expected. In groups and huddles, each dignitary, royal, leader, and official, went to their knees.

Heads bowed, they murmured a hail to their King.

()()()

"Anari Yuno'a?"

She did not bother to correct him. One did not unnecessarily antagonize a small giant of a man wearing enough iron to armor a fishing boat. With an audible gulp she swallowed the last potato croquette on the tray.

Wiping grease from her lips, she tilted her head back to meet the mountain's eyes and said, "Yes?"

"Follow me."

He turned and walked through the crowd, perhaps counting on the agility of the tiny creatures beneath him to scamper out of his way. Or perhaps he just did not care if the odd one here or there bounced off his steel flanks. Anari kept to his wake, wincing apologetically at those who did not leap to safety in time.

"Where are we going?" she panted; his stride was longer than hers by far. When he did not answer, she raised her voice and repeated the question.

However, it wasn't until the third repetition that he finally halted, turned, and glared through a brusque reply.

"The King wishes an audience. Now hurry."

"For what purpose?" Anari squeaked. For all there had been many conferences and meetings where they were both present, she had never spoken two words—or even one—to the man. In God's name, she had barely gotten near enough to get a clear view of the man's heavy features and caterpillar brows.

The soldier did not appear to hear her and Anari saved her shortening breath. It seemed as though she would have more call for it when she met the King.

Makizan had apparently retired to Vye's private study, a room the Chancellor had formerly held sacrosanct. The soldier ushered her in and stationed himself just inside the door; Anari took his silence for encouragement to proceed.

The room was done in a cool slate blue, the stateliness of the shade offset by massive furniture in warm maple brown. Huge bookcases dominated the two long walls, stacked high with volumes bound in matching leather. A locked cabinet held older editions and the odd scroll or two.

Despite everything, Anari knew she could spend a happy afternoon examining this collection.

She wandered deeper into the room, standing awkwardly between a chaise and a long, low table.

"Thank you for joining me, Anari,"

She jumped. The King strode in through a disguised door in the back of the room. She caught sight of a shadowed corridor before the door swung shut.

She stifled the impulse to shake her head. Just like Vye to sneak around, eavesdropping on all his guests. Why would he have told Makizan such a secret?

Then it hit her. Of course he would have. He must have. The Capitol was not known for its gentle treatment of prisoners—even less those convicted of crimes against the crown.

Now it was another impulse that needed stifling.

She curtseyed in the formal style, one that brought memories of Master Mori's cane tapping her knees and elbows in correction. This was the first time she had ever used it outside the classroom.

"It is my honor, your Majesty," she spoke to the floor.

"Rise," he said. As she stood upright, he sank into the cushioned armchair behind Vye's great writing desk. Makizan poured himself a drink and sipped it, heavy arms crossing then to rest over his rounded belly.

As the King was in no mood to speak, and as Anari could raise no topic not broached by him first, she spent the next minute studying him. His face was as square and decided as she remembered, even more so from the unquestioning assurance that saturated his every expression. She knew his history; his accession was never in question. He had never had to doubt his power, had never had to fight for what he had.

All Makizan had to do was endure. And like other forces of nature intended for such a purpose, he seemed especially constructed for it. Hard, uncompromising…he was as solid and warm as a block of granite.

And like a stone, he bludgeoned rather than cut.

"I hear you were instrumental in uncovering Vye's scheme."

She acknowledged it with a nod, "I had the honor to do so."

He did not ask for further details. "I also hear that, despite that, Vye was quite fond of you."

Her smile verged on a grimace, but she doubted he would notice the subtlety. "Such rumors, if any there are, were greatly exaggerated."

He sipped, shadowed eyes never leaving her face. "Here is what I know of you, Anari Yuno'a. I know that you are the brightest of the younger generation of your family. I know that you hold the future of a country whose existence sets a dangerous precedent for my rule. I know that the man who threatened my sovereignty was fascinated with you."

She dropped her gaze and folded her hands, posing like a chastised child. The emotion that suffused his words was genuine, and she could not remember any instance of the King losing control like that before. Who knew he had such fury to spend?

"I know that you are a danger to me," he pressed both hands onto the desktop and leaned forward. "But consider this: I know your weaknesses. You would do anything for your Family, would you not?"

She nodded, not looking up. The threats landed hard, but each broke on Anari like slate. Somehow, knowing the King was afraid of what she might do—to the point where he would make such bare-faced threats—gave her more confidence than fear. She wanted to laugh in his face; she might have if she knew his regret over hurting her people wasn't a sentimental fantasy.

Mockery was only a step or two below treason.

"Answer me," he ordered.

"Yes, Majesty," she replied, meek as a dormouse.

"Then we understand one another?"

"Yes, Majesty."

"Good."

She heard, rather than saw, the King sink back into his seat and take up his glass. Though he said nothing more, he had not dismissed her either; Anari was in etiquette limbo, and convinced he meant her to stay there awhile.

Fine. Better than fighting the Viennese courtiers over the last six cinnamon drop cookies.

A knock sounded at the door.

"Enter," he said. Anari dropped a little bit lower, trying to see who it was by canting her head under her armpit.

The guest spared her a wrenched neck by immediately drawling, "And here I thought there wasn't a sentimental bone in your body."

Anari swallowed. Of course he would be there. As merciful as God might be, Anari suspected He had a very nasty sense of humor.

"I suppose you want me to thank you," Vye went on. She heard his footsteps dragging against the carpet as he approached, and smelled the sour odor of baked on sweat and unwashed blood. She swallowed again and stared intently at the silver-shot rug, glad she did not have the freedom to stand. If she saw Vye like this, she wasn't certain she'd be able to maintain her façade of indifference.

"I do nothing for the gratitude of traitors," he said, "And what I do here is not for your benefit, but your paramour's."

"How many times must I say it?" Vye dripped laconic sarcasm, "This girl was nothing more than a piece on my board. And surely you can see she has few enough attractions to be anything else?"

Anari bit her tongue as the King replied, "Indeed. Still, though you might have been false in any…professions of passion," the words were so ludicrous on such a man's tongue that Anari nearly tasted blood as she kept quiet, "women are susceptible to such blandishments. Rise, Anari,"

Her neck creaked audibly as she straightened it.

"Look at this man."

She turned. And immediately wished she could go to her knees again. Vye's face was mottled in more colors than a fresh-butchered steak, the flesh livid and swollen. One of his eyes was caked over with dried blood and pus; his lips were split in so many places each scab bled fresh when he spoke. They had only put him in a rough tunic and trousers, neither one particularly clean and both stained with more than his blood.

Even if Anari still loathed him as she used to, this comedown was too far and too vicious for any pleasure.

They looked upon each other like strangers. If he hated her, if he blamed her for not sparing him this agony, there was no sign of it on what remained of his facile features. So too she knew that whatever seedling tenderness she'd nursed in the warmth of her hidden heart was concealed from the two men who studied her.

"Repeat what you told me," the King said.

"Your Majesty?" she took the opportunity to look away.

"About the rumors regarding the two of you. Tell him what you told me."

Her thoughts were so jumbled, confused, and saturated with horror that it took her a moment to recall. "Such rumors, if any there are," she said, repeating her words as though pressing them through a vice that would strip them of any emotion, even scorn, "were greatly exaggerated."

Makizan blinked twice, stolid features otherwise unmoved. "Do you believe her, Vye?"

"I do,"

She did not—would not—look at him unless forced. Her heart only submitted to the iron bands she placed on it because she could not see his eyes.

"Lady Yuno'a Anari has far better judgment than you give her credit for. All my 'blandishments', as your Majesty so eloquently puts it, never swayed her for an instant. From the moment she discovered my duplicity, she never wavered when bringing me down. Her devotion to her Family is absolute."

Her eyelashes fluttered unbidden, hiding a sudden rush of tears.

God bless you. You never believed in Him, but I beg Him to bless you all the same.

"Very well," Makizan leaned back; the chair creaked in shrill protest, "you may go. Feed him whatever is left from the hall."

"Your Majesty is ever gracious," Vye pulled the deepest bow he could manage, lips twisting bitterly. A dribble of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. "My Lady," the sarcasm of his words thinned slightly; again, a distinction the King had not the wit to discern. "May you enjoy the fruits of a victory well-won."

He smiled. He did not smirk, or grin, or chuckle…it was an outright smile, as sweet as those she remembered from those rare moments they shared when neither of them was trying to conquer the other. She could not return it—the King's interest, while satisfied, was hardly absent—but she let the tears well so that her eyes gleamed.

They were too pale to match his, but in the sunlight they sparkled.

Was it her imagination, or did he manage a wink with his good eye? He was gone too soon to tell. Slowly, painfully, he retraced his steps until his guards took pity on him and shoved their mail-clad arms beneath his shoulders and dragged him away.

The door slammed behind.

"Is there anything else I can do for your Majesty?"

"No," his interest had now waned completely. He drained his drink and poured another. "You may go."

Anari backed away the requisite number of steps before turning and slipping from the room.

The hallway was deserted, only a faint smear of blood marking where Vye had gone. She followed the trail with her eyes, lingering on each trace that proved he still lived.

Was there hope? Would they meet again?

Did she want that even if he did escape?

Anari did not know. She did not even want to think of it just then.

She turned and started to walk, each step ringing through the empty corridor. With each sharp click, the tangle of cobwebs in her head started to clear. Vye's future was out of her hands; the only thing she could control was her own. And she intended to do just that.

After all, if the coming year was as complicated as the one just past, she would have much to prepare for.

And…

She grinned, thinking of Makizan's heavy toad face.

If someone did not try to sweep that man's country out from under him, it would be an insult to her Grandmother's memory. And his.

Yuno'a Anari did not suffer insults to those she loved.