Birthright: Ascension

Death in Midwinter

Eve of the Dead, MR 550

Damned strange weather.

The mutters had sounded in Proudglaive for weeks, fogging on the lips of the dockworkers at Theoren’s Landing, whispered at the River Gate, down Spider River Road to the market at Daensmarch Square, echoing in the halls of Blacktower Castle. Marlae could not argue. The weather had been passing strange for the Southern Coast of Anuire, with a first frost in Sehnir and bitter cold marking the short days of Emmanir. The leaves of the apple and oak trees in Blacktower’s courtyard, ordinarily as ostentatious a red and gold as the sunburst of Haelyn, had browned and shriveled in the chill, and now lay scattered across the flagstones like casualties of a slaughter.

By the Eve of the Dead, the stone chambers of the castle, built for defense rather than comfort, were nearly unlivable. The few courtiers who remained in Caercas huddled around the braziers in Baron Teried Roesone’s stark throne room, heedless of their fine, flammable garments as they sought to catch any breath of warmth. Marlae joined them as they pulled tables closer to the fireplace in the Great Hall, wearing a heavy fur-lined cloak over her leather armor, listening as Vaesin Isilviere and Traese Noelon debated the provisioning of the troops garrisoned in Proudglaive proper. Even the two military men, ordinarily fiery opponents in discussing matters of warfare, were hushed, hesitant in their arguments.

Eventually Marlae excused herself. The third-story windows overlooking the courtyard and Proudglaive below were sealed with real glass, for all the good it did in this weather, and afforded her a view of Haelyn’s upraised sword arm as its last star sank below the horizon and left the world defenseless. Despite herself, she shivered.

“Damned strange weather,” Michael Agnelie rumbled from behind her.

“Cursed weather, people are saying,” she replied, not turning from the window.

“And do you believe that?” He was so close that she could smell him, the rough soap he used, a hint of oil and steel from his blades.

“It’s kept Ghoere from increasing their demands,” she mused. “Tael wouldn’t march an army in this weather, not even to enforce whatever exceptionally generous diplomatic offers his dog Behaemon has tossed at us.” Her mouth quirked in half a smile.

“Aye. And yet…and yet you seem to have no more time for…”

At his urgent tone, Marlae turned from the window at last. “My father needs me, Michael.” She realized the harshness that had crept into her tone only when he flinched away from her. “I…look, I’m sorry. You know how father is. With Vilnik off doing gods-knows-what at the Abbey, I’m all he has.”

“You’re not the heir, Marlae.” Gently, he took her arms in his massive hands, muscular frame looming over her. “You still have your freedom. Why toss it away with both hands when this is all Vilnik’s responsibility?”

“For now,” she replied. “For now, it’s his responsibility. But I…but, Michael, there is a chance, a very good chance, that someday I will have to shoulder the responsibility of the Barony. If that happens, you and I…”

The mayor of Proudglaive released her arms, stepping back with his face closed. “Yes. And then it will be you and…Rogr Aglondier. Well.” Michael sketched a bow, slightly awkward given his bulk. “Aglondier may be more of a commoner than I am, by birth, but I cannot pretend to his wealth or his lands. My lady.”

Marlae turned back to the window as Michael Agnelie’s footsteps retreated, feeling suddenly as cold and empty as the sky outside.</cut>

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