Ventus – Day 79 of 135


Lavin ignored the glares of hate that followed him. He and his honor guard of two were safe, he knew. Galas would never let him come to harm. So as he walked he did not look at the soldiers ranked on either side of the narrow courtyard that led to the citadel, but cast his gaze above ground level to examine the damage his siege engines had caused to the buildings. The defenders had hung bright banners across the worst of it to frustrate such scrutiny; the festive cloth looked incongruous against blackened stonework, above the pinched faces of grim soldiers.

He felt more optimistic than he had in weeks. Galas had agreed to parley. Now that her situation was hopeless, she was finally seeing reason. This madness had to stop, and there was no reason it should end with deaths, hers included. All the while she hid in her fortress, and he threw men and stones at the walls, Lavin had been in an agony of fear that some one of those stones would find her, or that dysentery would run through the palace, or her own people assassinate her to escape. He couldn’t live with the thought.

But he couldn’t live with the thought of anyone else being in charge of this siege, either. She would lose; he had always known that. There had never been any question of his joining her cause, because all he could do for her was delay the inevitable. He might win her admiration and love, but she would be brought down at last, and he wouldn’t be able to stop it.

This way, the outcome was in his hands. And though she might hate him, this way he might save her.

In his late-night conversations with Hesty, Lavin had lied about all these things. He had claimed to hate Galas, and the fact that he hated the things she had done leant credence to his words. But it hurt him to talk so, and he often wondered if Hesty saw that, and doubted.

Maybe it would all end today. The thought was uplifting, and he had to restrain himself from smiling. To smile, while walking through the ranks of the enemy, would be cruel. Lavin did not think he was a cruel man.

He ran his gaze across the battlements anyway, measuring for weaknesses. All responsibility lay on his shoulders, after all; he had won this far because he was able to plan for hard realities without flinching. If Galas rejected his ultimatum he would need to know what walls to throw his men against.

One of the banners hung by the defenders caught his eye. This one was bright blue, with a gold-braided knot as its central design. The banner had been unfurled above the gate to the palace citadel, on a wall that appeared quite undamaged. He would have to walk under it to enter.

Lavin had only visited the summer palace once, many years ago. The visit had coincided with the spring festival, and there were many banners flying at the time. Strange coincidence, that they should be hung again now, for such different purpose.

But, the banner over the citadel gate was the spring banner itself. On that earlier occasion, it had hung in the palace’s reception hall, alone in a shaft of sunlight.

Under it, he had told Galas he loved her.

“Are you all right, sir?”

He had stopped walking. The courtyard seemed to recede for a second. He leaned on the arm of one of the guards.

“I’m fine,” he grated. Then he stepped forward again, eyes now fixed on the banner.

She must have had it hung in his path deliberately. It was an intimate, hence cruel, reminder of all that they had once meant to one another. Now his chest hurt, and he could feel the muscles in his face pulling back. I must look like these men, he thought, just another soldier with pain indelibly stamped on his face.

Yet below the banner stood an open door. She had reminded him of their past; and she had opened a way for him.

Maybe things would work out. Somehow, though, nothing had prepared Lavin for what he was feeling now. In all his planning, he had been able to avoid his own feelings, lest they stand in the way of his saving her from herself. By this one gesture Galas had let him know that whatever happened during the next few hours, for him it would be like walking through fire.


Inside, the citadel showed no signs of the siege. The sumptuous furnishings were still in place, and liveried servants waited to guide Lavin and his guide up the marble flights to Galas’ audience chamber. Last time he was here, there had been nobility everywhere, posing lords and ladies smiling and exchanging the barbed words of their intrigues. The candelabra overhead, now dark, had blazed brightly, bringing life to the fantastical figures painted on the ceiling. He remembered Galas, on his arm, pointing up at the images, and telling him stories about them. She was girlish for once, and his heart had melted so that he barely heard the words themselves, so entranced was he by their tone.

He steeled himself to his purpose, and looked down to floor level. The thief Enneas had schooled him in the layout of the basements of the palace. Enneas had never been above ground level here; Lavin never below it. Together, they had assembled a rough map of Enneas’s secret path into the building. Lavin had only moments as he walked to try to spot the entrance they believed led down to the catacombs.

He was nearly at the top of the marble flight when he spotted it, below and beside the stairs. The archway was invisible from the main entrance because it was behind the immense sweep of the stairs’ bannisters.

Shoulders slumping in relief, Lavin let himself be guided forward down the palace’s main hall, and thence to another flight. The archway was there, and if Enneas was right, below it the maze of halls contained a chink that led to a ‘spirit walk’. The spirit walk would be just a narrow gap in the masonry at the palace’s wall, an exit for ghosts who could slip through an aperture only centimeters broad. According to Enneas, this walk had once lain under the processional causeway that ran through the east gate and to a temple complex that was now ruined. Over centuries, thieves had widened the spirit walk so that one or two people at a time could squeeze through it into the precincts of the palace.

The ruins existed, and so did the hole Enneas had said led to the tunnel. In any other situation, Lavin would have dispatched sappers into it, to undermine the east gate. Bringing the gate tower down would save a lot of lives he would otherwise lose storming the walls.

There was only one life Lavin wanted to save. Knowing that Enneas was right both about what lay in the ruins, and about where a certain door existed within the palace, heartened him. He had an extra force to use to outflank Galas, if it came to that.

The audience chamber lay at the top of the second flight of stairs. The sweep of the main hall lay behind him, and Lavin heard the sounds of men massing there. He would not give them the satisfaction of seeing him turn to look, but he knew they were there to kill him at the slightest signal. More soldiers flanked the entrance to the audience chamber. They had taken his weapons at the palace gate, but obviously still feared an assassination attempt.

Two men carrying halberds stepped in front of him at the door. One of them scowled, and said, “She insists on seeing you alone. None of us trusts you for a second, general. I’m going to be waiting with my hand on the door handle, and the archers’ bows will be cocked. If we hear the slightest sound we don’t like, you’ll be dead in a second. Do you understand?”

Lavin glared back. “I understand,” he said tightly. His heart was pounding, but not because he was afraid of this man, or in fact of any man. Again, he felt himself becoming disembodied, and strove to breathe deeply to anchor himself in the moment.

The door opened. Lavin took one step forward, then another. And then he was inside the room.

The hall looked exactly as it had that other time. The weight of memory threatened to crush him for a moment; he blinked, and saw the queen.

She stood near the throne, hands clasped together. She appeared composed, but, he supposed, so did he. With age, one showed less and less of the emotions one actually felt, and hers had never been easy to read.

He moved tentatively toward her. In the autumn light flung by the tall windows he could see lines of care around her mouth that had never been there before, and streaks of grey in her hair. She looked very small and vulnerable, and the ache in his heart grew almost overwhelming.

He cleared his throat, but now that he was here, he couldn’t speak. He had even rehearsed a speech, but the words seemed vapid and irrelevant now. Falling back on ceremony, he bowed.

“Lavin,” she said almost inaudibly. He straightened, and they made eye contact, for only a second before each broke off.

“I am glad to see you again,” she said. He could hear the guardedness in her voice.

“I, too, am… glad,” he said. His own voice sounded husky to his ears. She seemed to listen intently as he spoke, as if she were trying to discover something behind the actual words.

She held out her hand. “Don’t stand so far away. Please.”

He came to her, and took her outstretched hand. Slowly, he raised his eyes to hers.

“I see lines,” she said, “that weren’t there before.”

“You haven’t aged at all,” he replied with a smile.

“Lavin.” The reproach in her tone was gentle, but it stung him deeply. “Don’t lie to me.”

Face burning, he let go of her hand.

“Come,” she said, gesturing nervously. “Let’s not sit in this drafty place. It won’t help.” She led him to a door at the side of the chamber. Beyond this was a small room with a lit fireplace, single table and two chairs. Galas clapped her hands, and the room’s other door opened. Two serving girls approached timidly.

“Have you dined yet today?” she asked. Lavin shook his head. She waved to the girls, who curtsied and exited. As Lavin and the queen seated themselves, the girls returned with mutton and stew, a bottle of wine and two goblets. Strange, Lavin thought, that he had never dined in such privacy with the queen, in all the years he had known her. Did it really take the total overthrow of tradition and royal honor for them to reach such a simple act? He shied away from the thought.

The girls left, and they were alone again. Galas gestured at the food, and smiled.

The simple act of sipping the broth released a knot of tension in Lavin’s shoulders. He indulged himself in the food for a moment, while she poured wine for both of them. By the time she had reached for her own spoon, he felt in command of himself again.

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