From the author: Allegra is a war bride, married to the man who conquered her family's lands and slaughtered those she loved. Now, twelve years later, a loyal retainer offers hopes for revenge - but it will cost Allegra everything.
As her husband grunted above her in the darkness, Allegra lay back and thought of home. The scent of apple blossom was sweet in the air, drifting in through the open shutters. It took her back to when she was a child playing hide-and-seek in the orchard, slipping behind a shrine before she could be spotted, peeking out from behind the smooth yellow stone to see her older brothers moving away in the other direction.
Cold sweat dropped onto her neck and she stiffened. Verus began to move faster and a moment later it was over. He rolled away and pulled a robe closed over his sagging belly. Placing a kiss on her brow he left her chamber, still sweating and breathing heavily. You're getting old, she thought. One day your heart will give out and you'll die. She hoped it would be soon. Being a widow would suit her.
As soon as the door closed behind him she rose from her bed and crossed to the dressing table. The ties of her night-gown--Verus had left her that much dignity at least--came loose easily and the garment pooled at her feet. She left it where it lay, reaching out with sure hands to the perfume bottles on the tabletop. Taking one of the ornate bottles, knowing its shape even in the faint light from the sliver of moon outside, she drank.
The contents were sweet smelling but bitter, and she grimaced. Usually she preferred her tisanes sweetened with honey, but to do that with this one would spoil the look. She needed her maid to think her perfume bottles contained nothing but perfume.
In truth most of them did. She filled her chambers with a vain noblewoman's clutter in order to hide the medicines she used to aid sleep and prevent conception. Her husband would not be pleased to learn why she had not provided him with a second child. Tomorrow she would have hot water brought for her morning tisane and would make another batch using the dried herbs hidden in the hem of the thick curtain which divided her rooms.
Beside the dresser a ewer of water waited for her. Allegra kept her mind carefully blank she washed the sweat and stink of Verus from her skin. Finally she was clean, but she still felt soiled. Even twelve years of marriage couldn't change that. She paused as her face stared back at her from the mirror, a pale smudge in the dark. For a moment she saw her teenaged self again, a face no longer seen by the light of day. A face from before her family was killed and she was taken away to wait until she became a woman and a wife. To his credit Verus had not touched her before then, but the wedding had come swiftly after her menses had started. Then he had claimed his due as her husband, and although he was always gentle she had never once gone to him willing. The face blurred and the image was gone. Ignoring the tears on her cheeks she went back to bed, and pulled the coverlet tight around her despite the heat.
When the morning came, Allegra was seated in the dining hall almost before breakfast was served. As always the table was spread with enough food to feed a poorer family for days. Steam rose from porridge and pots of tisane, jam and honey gleamed like jewels in crystal bowls. Boiled eggs shared a platter with smoked fish, while on another fried bacon and sausages glistened with oil. Allegra preferred a simpler start to her day and took a slice of bread that was still warm from the oven. This was her favorite time of day, the only time she could be by herself as Verus was usually abed until late morning.
There was the sound of running feet and the door to the dining hall burst open. Allegra paused, the knife halfway to the butter.
"Good morning, Theor," she said.
Her son slowed his headlong rush as he saw her, and came to sit opposite.
"I'm sorry for disturbing you, mother."
She watched as he piled his plate high with sausages, eggs, and bacon. He has his father's appetite, she thought. He was lucky not to have inherited his father's physique. Where Verus had once been stocky and had run to fat, at eleven Theor had a thin, wiry frame. It was a rare source of pride to her that he had the looks of her family. With his dark hair and eyes and olive skin he could almost be a replica of the younger of her two brothers, a constant reminder to Verus of his son's blood.
"You're at breakfast early today. I thought you'd be with your tutors." She began to spread the butter.
"Going to the trading fair," he mumbled around a mouthful of food. "Father said I could."
"Then I won't keep you." She let Theor eat the rest of his food in silence. He wolfed it down and was on his way before he'd finished the last mouthful. Allegra ate at a more leisurely pace. She had hours yet to wait until Verus was up and she could ask his permission to go to the fair.
"I want to look for some cloth for a new gown," she told him. "For our wedding celebration." Which would be a humiliation, as they always were, where Verus's friends would leer and gloat and comment it was a shame her sisters had chosen to take their own lives rather than be captured by their father's enemies. She always wondered if she'd have done the same, given the chance.
Verus frowned and muttered something about women and expensive gowns. Allegra waited patiently, knowing that eventually he would agree. Where was the joy in parading a trophy wife unless she looked her best?
Finally he nodded. "Try not to bankrupt me," he remarked. "Last year's gown cost more than the celebration."
"Twelve years of marriage should be marked," she replied sweetly, and took her leave of him.
Less than an hour later she was moving through the crowd, flanked only by her maid. She enjoyed the sense of freedom, even though she knew Verus's spies followed her. Even after all these years he still feared she would meet some sympathizer, who would incite an uprising and restore her family to power. Her lips quirked in a bitter smile. Verus was a fool. The Fahrosi line was dead; the last male heir murdered on the same day the name was stolen from her. There was nothing left to restore.
She saw the perfect fabric almost as soon as she laid eyes on the first cloth trader's stall. It was a deep blue silk, and she wondered if she'd have the courage to wear it. Her family's livery had been that exact shade: if she wore blue silk to her wedding celebration it would be a goad to her husband like nothing she'd done before. The trader watched her run the fabric through her fingers.
"You take a risk bringing this here," she murmured, and turned her attention to another bolt of cloth. "If Lord Verus were to see it…" She let the threat remain implied and the trader bowed his head.
"It is not for his eyes, my lady," he replied softly. He was watching her directly, too bold for a trader speaking with a noble customer, and she looked up to reprimand him.
Her heart seemed to stop as she recognized him. She felt herself flush and he bowed his head in acknowledgement. She dared not say his name aloud lest it reach her husband's ears. Itano, her father's most trusted retainer. He should have gone on to serve the oldest son and heir as he came to rule. Instead he had served Rafael, the youngest son and a fugitive until the day he died. She thought he'd been killed long ago. A half smile quirked on Itano's lips and she returned it sadly.
"It's perfect," she told him. "But I fear my husband will object."
His smile faded. "You should remind him who you are, Lady Allegra." His voice was barely loud enough to reach her ears. "There are others who are still loyal. It's taken years to find them all, but find them I did. If you will it, we'll move against Verus and crush him like he did your father."
The silk crumpled, forgotten, in Allegra's fingers. She could hardly believe Itano dared to say such things here, in a public place with the eyes and ears of Lord Verus all around them.
"We have a son."
"I know, my lady. But he's yours as much as his father's." Itano reached out and placed his hand on top of hers. Something bumped against her and she saw a tiny hourglass hanging from a leather thong around his wrist. "Find Renaea. She'll tell you what you need to know," he said. With that he was moving away, nodding and smiling at another customer.
Confused and terrified, Allegra stepped away. Her maid waited a few paces from her.
"The blue was very nice, my lady," she ventured. "It suited you."
As well it might, Allegra thought. The girl was too young to know of the Fahrosi livery, she would only have been a child when the family was thrown from power. "Let's look elsewhere," she said.
They moved on and Allegra tried to put the blue silk from her mind, but nothing else would please her. Silks felt too oily, velvets too heavy, colors were too bright and patterns too gaudy. Always she could still feel its smoothness between her fingers, see the way the light rippled on it. A cut for the gown was already in her mind, and the blue was perfect. But her husband did not like her to wear blue.
For a while she moved among the stalls looking at trinkets, buying a bottle of perfume here, a string of beads there. Her chambers were full of such trivialities, seldom used. She had long ago learned that while her husband might complain about the amount she spent he would never rebuke her for acting as every other noblewoman did.
Allegra wandered further from the main concourse, amongst stalls that sold more specialized goods. Behind her the maid hurried to keep up, fearful of thieves and cut-throats no doubt. Allegra was unconcerned.
She stopped suddenly, which earned her a curse from a young couple behind her who were forced to change direction. She paid them no heed. There, set back between a stall selling dried herbs and another of occult-looking charms, she saw the ornate sign that bore the name Itano had given her. Her maid, seeing the object of her attention, was bold enough to tug at her sleeve.
"My lady, you mustn't! She's a witch!"
Allegra regarded the sign, which proclaimed the lady's trade as well as her name. A sweet smoky smell drifted from inside the tent. She met the maid's gaze and saw the girl was genuinely afraid.
"Don't fret," she told her. "I shall be quite safe. This is something I have to do." After what Itano had said that much was true, but the maid came up with her own reasons. "Oh my lady, are you seeking a charm so you can get with child?" Allegra knew her apparent barrenness was the subject of much gossip amongst the servants. The girl's eyes were wide, and Allegra favored her with a gentle smile.
"I've nothing left to try. Wait here." Then, tugging her sleeve free, she made for the dark triangle of the entrance.
It was just as she expected. Thick tapestries adorned the floor and walls in bright colors. The air was wreathed with incense smoke that wound its way around the shiny, dangling charms that hung from the wooden framework. A low table stood in the centre of the tent, something draped with silk upon it and two chairs beside. At the back was another table, this one littered with decks of cards, candles, and a handful of stones painted with strange symbols.
One of the tapestries had twitched aside to reveal another room, and from it stepped Renaea. She was not at all what Allegra had expected. She was just shy of plump, her dark hair cut short. Instead of diaphanous robes she wore black trews and a deep blue shirt with the sleeves rolled back. Her eyes twinkled as she crossed the tent in three easy strides and sat down.
"Do you have a question you wish to ask?"
Allegra nodded and cleared her throat. "I'm very much wondering why... a friend of mine asked me to come to you." Let the witch answer that, if she could.
"Itano asked because I have a question of my own. Would you like to see your brother Rafael again?"
Allegra's breath stopped. She stood, her lips pressed together in fury. "Do you offer tricks or necromancy? I'll have no part of either."
Renaea watched her calmly. "Neither. I offer you the chance to redress one of the wrongs done to your family. For you to change what happened on your wedding day. If you'd rather I'll answer the question your maid would have you ask. If you had asked it I would wave my hands thus…" she made a few passes over the item on the table, one of which let the square of silk slip from it. "I would stare into my crystal ball…" She did so, inspecting it as it lay revealed on its ornate wooden stand. "And then I would tell you to stop drinking the contents of your perfume bottles." The witch's gaze was piercing.
Allegra started, staring at her in sudden fear. For one wild moment she thought of the spies who followed her, half expecting them to burst in at this talk of treachery and deceit. Renaea just waited in silence.
"What do you offer?" she asked finally, sitting down with apprehension fluttering in her stomach like a swarm of butterflies.
"You would have a chance to relive that day, and do it differently. To kill your husband-to-be, or to escape instead of waiting for Rafael to rescue you."
"I was a child!" Allegra flared. "He overpowered me easily!"
"And if you had been armed?" The soft words stopped her, and Renaea continued. "You could have killed your husband before he killed your brother. If you'd had a key you could have escaped. Things could be different. That chance is what I offer you."
Allegra felt as if she were being suffocated. The incense was cloying and her vision wavered. "How?" she breathed.
"On the eve before your wedding celebration you must go back to the room where they held you captive. Take anything you wish to go back with you, and this." Renaea hooked a pendant from around her neck and held it out. The chain was silver and a miniature hourglass hung from the end of it, although the sand was unmoving in the top bulb. "Turn this over--on that night and not before. You will be fifteen again. What happens after that is up to you."
"Even supposing you can do that much, why not move me further back? I could stop my family being murdered. I could warn them and change everything!"
Renaea shook her head. "That much is beyond my power. Could you be in your family's stronghold in time for the anniversary of their deaths?" When Allegra shook her head she continued. "I can move you through time, but not to another place. All that would happen is you would be here while your family died."
Allegra put her head in her hands, fists clenched in her hair. Her thoughts raced. To finally be free of Verus, and to have the chance to live her life again without him! But there could only be one conclusion. She followed her thoughts to the end and her hopes were dashed.
"If I never marry Verus, I won't be here now. We'll never have this meeting, for you to offer me this. How then, when I'm fifteen, am I to find a weapon?"
To her surprise Renaea chuckled.
"An intelligent question," she answered, "and one you need not concern yourself about. Time is more robust than you might think. Like a river it will flow no matter how we might try to dam it or alter its course. The deal need only be made once, in this course. Then, for you, the knife will always have been there."
Allegra stared at her, wanting to believe but unable to. If a knife or a key had always been there, then why was she here now? She saw the witch follow the play of emotions across her face.
"There's no need to make up your mind now. Go home, consider, decide. Then if you agree, all you have to do is go to the room and do as I told you. In the meantime when your husband asks what I told you--and ask he will--tell him I said to bathe yourself naked in the rays of the waxing moon."
"Wh-what payment would you have?"
"For that, nothing. It was advice unasked for, after all. For the other, your son."
"My…Theor?" She thought of him, so much like Rafael but so much like his father. "Or do you mean the son I'll have if I don't marry Verus?"
"I mean Theor."
"Why? Why Theor? It's more traditional to cross your palm with silver, surely?" Allegra babbled.
"I have no children of my own," Renaea told her simply. "If you don't marry Verus the boy will never be born. I can keep that fate from him."
She picked up the square of silk and covered the crystal ball once more. Allegra stood, feeling drained.
"I don't have to decide now?"
Renaea inclined her head.
"All I have to do is go to the room and turn the hourglass. But how will you know?"
"If you trust I can do what I say, why ask me that?" she smiled.
Allegra stared, fumbling at her belt pouch with awkward fingers. A silver coin landed on the table between them. "For the other advice," she said faintly. "I'm sure it will profit me." Then she turned and stumbled from the tent, feeling Renaea's gaze on her as she fled.
Her maid followed her in silence as they headed away, her brow creased with concern. For her own part Allegra was glad the girl had the sense to hold her tongue. She moved aimlessly, hoping the walk would clear her head. Without intending it she found herself back among the cloth traders.
Itano was gone, and with him the blue silk. Her heart sank even as she felt a dizzying relief that the choice had been taken from her. As she approached the stall to look over the other wares the other trader nodded and smiled.
"The silk has been wrapped, my lady, and sent up to your seamstress as instructed."
"What?" she blinked, then as his expression turned to one of concern she caught herself. "Oh, yes. Thank you." Feeling numb she walked away. The blue silk was on its way ahead of her? For a moment she wondered at Itano's presumption, but then she understood. He was still loyal. All those he had found were still loyal, and they expected the same of her. She wondered where Itano would be on the night before her anniversary.
"What did the witch say to you?" Verus asked her when she returned. Allegra started, although she was more surprised Renaea had foreseen this than at her husband's question.
"That I should bathe in the rays of the waxing moon. Naked."
One of Verus's eyebrows went up. "Why?"
"So that I might have another child."
Her husband's gaze softened, and in that moment she hated him for his pity. "It's superstition, my love," he told her.
"Maybe so, but I want to try."
"The servants might see you. Or the guards."
"Not if I go to the tower. It hasn't been used since I--since we were married. No one will see me there."
Verus sighed. "If you're set on it, I suppose there's no harm. But you're to lock the door behind you, and you're not to sleep there."
"As you wish." Allegra agreed demurely.
Later that afternoon, he gave her the key to the tower.
Although she watched for him, Allegra didn't see Itano again. She spent extra time with her seamstress in fittings for her new gown. Her wedding dress was brought out from a closet and used for a pattern, and she stood still for what seemed like hours as the silk was draped and folded, pinned and measured. She spoke with the cook about the food to be served on the day, arranged the invitations for their guests, and chose the flowers and decorations. Through it all, Renaea's offer waited at the back of her mind and the hourglass waited on her dresser.
With less than a week to the celebration, word finally reached Verus of what Allegra intended to wear. He burst into the room with his cheeks mottled with rage. The seamstress was so startled she pricked Allegra's side with a pin, but Allegra paid it no attention.
"Out," he snarled. They both stood motionless as the servants hurried away, and Allegra watched him calmly from the chair she was stood on. "What do you think you're doing?" Verus demanded once they were alone.
"Having a fitting with my seamstress," she replied.
"That's not what I mean, and you know it."
Allegra shrugged. "I liked the color."
"Of course you liked the color! Are you doing this to humiliate me?"
"No more than you humiliate me every year, parading me in front of your friends. You take great pains to remind them of the circumstances of our marriage, why shouldn't I?"
For a moment surprise chased the anger from his face. "It will draw the attention of every supporter of your father…"
Allegra laughed at him. "What supporters? Verus, it's been twelve years! They're long since dead or scattered. There's just me."
Verus shook his head. "I forbid it. Why can't you wear that one? I'm sure it can be altered." He gestured to the wedding dress that hung on the other side of the room. Allegra went cold.
"I'll never wear that dress again," she whispered. Verus's gaze was steely as he looked up at her.
"Well you're not wearing this one either."
"Then I'll go naked."
They stared at each other. Verus turned his back and jerked the door open. "If that's your choice," he said, and slammed it behind him.
Allegra gave a sob and stumbled down from the chair. It teetered behind her and fell. The door cracked open again and she whirled to confront her husband only to find Theor staring at her with wide eyes. He slipped inside.
"Why were you fighting?" he asked.
Allegra took a moment to pick up the chair and gather her thoughts.
"Your father doesn't like my dress."
"Why not? It's pretty."
She gave him a smile and let him slip in under her arms to hug her. "Mind the pins, Theor. He thinks it would be prettier if it wasn't blue."
"I like it. It's much nicer than red. Father always wears red."
"That's because red's his family's color."
"Is that why you want to wear blue? Because it's your family's color?"
The question stunned her: she hadn't thought Theor knew. She leaned back to look at him.
"How do you know that?"
"Master Devi told me, when we were studying history. He told me about right of conquest," he said the words slowly, as if trying to remember. "And he said the old ruler's daughters were made to marry the new ruler, to make people like him, and I asked him if that's why you hate father."
"And what was Master Devi's answer?"
"That it wasn't his place to say. That's what grown-ups say when you guess right but they can't tell you. Then we learnt about heraldry and things, and he told me your family wore blue. I think you should wear blue. They're my family too, after all, even if they're all dead."
Allegra choked a sob. She hugged Theor tight to her, ignoring the prickle of pins, and only released him when he squirmed in embarrassment.
"I have to go back to lessons," he protested. Allegra let him go and returned his smile as he left. Does he deserve to have this life taken from him she wondered. But he looked so much like Rafael it broke her heart.
Then finally the day came to choose. Allegra felt strangely disconnected as she put the finishing touches to the preparations. Theor helped, sometimes gravely courteous and sometimes alight with the kind of joy only a child could have. It made her wonder which was crueler: to leave him knowing his parents hated each other, to wonder if that meant they hated him, or to hand him over to a stranger who would care for him. She had no answer. As the sun set, she took her leave of the preparations and returned to her chambers. Her new gown awaited her, her wedding dress turned dark.
"It's beautiful, my lady." Her maid had come in behind her and her voice was barely a whisper. Allegra had to agree.
"Help me try it on," she ordered and the girl did so, her eyes wide. Allegra walked the length of the room, feeling how the silk caressed her and brushed against her ankles. As she turned her gaze was caught by her reflection, her body clad in deep Fahrosi blue. Behind her the shutters were open to reveal the twilight sky, and the sliver of moon that hung there like a knife. She froze.
"Run along and heat me water for a bath," she commanded. "I'll be along shortly. No, don't fuss; I can manage to change into my bathrobe myself."
The girl nodded and hurried away to obey. Allegra threw on a cloak to cover her dress and hung the hourglass around her neck. There was a knife under her mattress, hidden there days before, and she picked it up even as she wondered what she was doing. The corridor was empty as she hurried across it and down the stairs, closing the door behind her as she slipped into the courtyard.
The tower seemed barely changed in the gloom and she stood before it like a child waiting to be chastised. She remembered the last time she had stood here, wearing the white of a bride. A guard had held onto her tightly as she sobbed, Verus standing silently beside her. Rafael knelt before them, his eyes unfocused and blood crusted down his face from the wound Verus had given him. They hadn't even given him a sword, not even a chance to fight back. Her eyes closed as the blade swung down, and she screamed as his head thudded dully to the ground.
With shaking hands she unlocked the door. The air inside was musty and dim, and she wished she'd brought a lantern. The room on the ground floor was full of boxes, used for storage where once it had housed the men who guarded her. She began to climb the long staircase, her fingers trailing along the cold stone of the wall. Her feet echoed on the steps and she felt claustrophobic, thinking how difficult it must be to fight a way up this spiral. There were dark stains on the floor and she wondered if they were blood, and whose. She remembered the sound of battle as Rafael and his men fought, screams and cries, people hammering on the door below, and over it all her brother's voice calling out her name.
Verus had come to her room to guard her himself, forcing her back as she tried to get past him. She had bitten and clawed at him and he had given her a backhanded swipe that sent her sprawling. It was the only time he ever struck her. She had looked up through her tears as the door swung open, and Rafael had stood there in fury like some dark avenging angel. He had locked swords with Verus, their family's name on his lips, even as a guard grabbed at her and dragged her away.
She didn't see what happened next, although she heard about it often enough from soldiers' tales and servants' gossip. How Rafael had fought fiercely, driven on by the need for revenge. How he had almost won, giving Verus the scar he wore to this day. But then his luck had deserted him. Somehow he stumbled, or found himself cornered, pinned, weaponless, distracted by his sister's cries—the tales were always different--and Verus delivered a blow that had knocked the wits from him.
The door to her room swung open and Allegra half expected to see herself standing there. The furniture was as it had been those twelve years before. A low narrow bed, now devoid of covers, was pushed under the window, with a chest at the foot of it. A single chair stood beside the table at which she had eaten all of her meals. Sometimes Verus had joined her and spoken gently to the girl, ten years his junior, who was to be his bride. It was a political marriage, to show the new rulers of her family's lands held no grudges. They would allow her father's children to live—so long as they weren't male—and make a new life elsewhere. It was for the best Verus had told her; she was too young to waste her life on regret. She had eaten in sullen silence with the food tasting like ashes in her mouth.
Allegra knelt on the bed and peered out of the window. She could hear the sound of fighting below, wooden swords knocking against each other as Theor sparred with a friend. The door at the foot of the tower banged in the breeze, and she remembered she hadn't locked it. She drew back and placed the hourglass on the table, and the knife and key inside her bodice. Theor's voice drifted up to her, yelling in triumph as he scored a hit. She would have called him after her brother if Verus had allowed it. The deepening sky outside was the same color as her dress.
The silk whispered as she moved back to the window.
"Theor!" she called into the twilight. "Come up here, I've got something to show you!"
She heard his practice blade clatter to the ground. A moment later there was the sound of his feet on the stairs. As he entered the room she reached out a hand to him, while the other turned the hourglass.
The sand, now in the bottom bulb, began to trickle upwards. Allegra closed her eyes as she wrapped both arms around her son, and waited to be fifteen again.
This story originally appeared in Lorelei Signal.