in which Rhema falls
Ghosts were her bedfellows, her dayfellows, her comforts and vixens. The oil-rendered Annabelle cast a shadow, unassisted by light. The shadow painted Rhema with a chill, but she could not shiver. She lifted a cold hand to her hair, braided tightly, Becky style, over the nape of her neck. The bumps of the braid were as cold as death on her fingers.
“Is there something you need, Your Highness?” said Adele. Her face and voice projected a cruel mimicry of her absent twin.
Gwen’s mother had called her home, presumably after receiving warning of Rhema’s forthcoming fall of reputation. Adele served as poor substitute. She fidgeted with her glove and assessed with tight lips the ring on her left hand. Her fiancée, Lord Beckley, had paid a fine sum for it, one that would likely leave him in debt for many years. Adele looked on it with bored distaste.
Rhema dealt a pack of playing cards on the table before her, trying to numb the great weight pressing down on the space behind her forehead. There was nothing else to do in the blue room as she waited on the Council of Dukes to end their session.
There is nothing. Nothing but me and each flip of the cardboard kings and queens.
Perhaps playing cards was not such a good idea.
Her hands felt empty. She needed Bastion to fill them.
As if hearing her thoughts, the door silently swung inwards and the dark hall spit Bastion out of its throat. The heaviness he carried with him was visible on his face. Adele bowed to him. He ignored her. Rhema folded the cards.
“The Dukes are still discussing our situation,” he said.
“I understand,” said Rhema.
“We are not invited.”
She reached out to him. He clasped her hands as if they were his own. She remembered the earliest touch of his hands, how light and unsure they had been at first, and how over time every knuckle, finger, and palm had grown together as if they had never been separate.
“What can they do to us? There is no law for this,” said Rhema.
“No legal stipulation, no, but we have both Gallia’s history and her future to think about. The Dukes can suggest... strongly. Are you all right?”
Rhema’s sweat was cold. Her hands as well. But when she sensed a tremble in Bastion, a mad calm took over her being.
“We will be all right. We have been so far,” she said. Her voice faded with every word.
“How can you be so calm? This is not all right. This should not be how things are done. I am not going to give you up—“
Adele’s eyes drank their conversation like a vulture waiting for its prey to expire. Bastion stopped talking and glared at Adele until she lifted her nose and left the room.
Rhema hugged him. “Do you think we have enough time to climb out that window and run away?”
“Climb out the window, certainly. I do not think we would get far past the wall though.”
“I have friends on the wall guard.”
“Then maybe we have a chance.”
“Do you mean it?”
Rhema looked at the window, calculating its height. Bastion let out a weak laugh.
“Of course not,” he said. “If we tried to climb out those windows, they would hang us from them”
Rhema gasped. Her fingers touched her neck.
“Metaphorically! What is wrong with you?”
“Just a notion.” An invisible hangman’s noose choked Rhema’s throat.
“A notion?” said Bastion. He hugged her and suddenly laughed, a sad, cruel sort of laugh.
“You are sure we can’t just fly out the window?” said Rhema.
“Then we will have to face the day. Will you play cards?”
Eleven hands of One-Eyed Jacks later, the windows glowed red as the sun and the evening cool silenced even the air, making each slap of a playing card as sonorous as a canon ball.
“Jacks!” cried Rhema, triumphantly snatching the pile of cards between her and Bastion.
“You cheated. You saw it before I turned the card over,” said Bastion.
“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,” teased Rhema in a sing-song rhythm.
“We will see about that,” said Bastion with a wink.
“He is the prince,” they heard a voice say on the other side of the door as Rhema lay down her next card. “Let him take the girl as a lover if he likes her, but we need someone fit to be a mother for his wife. “
Rhema’s smile faded. Bastion’s eyes glared a hole through a table. He absently let one of the cards from his hand fall onto the discard pile without looking at it.
The voice continued, “This girl will single-handedly bring down what we have, what you, Your Majesty, have been building in this kingdom.”
Bastion immediately dropped his deck, stood up, and walked to the doors.
“It is not yet time, sire,” said Mr. Highwater, patiently pushing himself through the gap in the door and blocking Bastion from it.
“I will force my way,” said Bastion.
“If you hit me,” said Mr. Highwater, “Then you will lose your only ally here.”
“I do not wish to harm you. Step aside.”
“Sit down. Your turn will come.”
“After they have torn her apart!” said Bastion. Rhema’s hands shook. She folded her cards in a pile on the table. Bastion shoved Mr. Highwater away just in time to be missed by the doors slamming open from the inside.
Duke Brys marched out. Behind him, Rhema could see the conference room doors open and half the dukes on their feet bickering with each other. The conference door swung closed again.
“A nation of fools!” said Brys, pausing only long enough to look Rhema in the eye and say, “I am sorry. I tried.”
Bastion chased after Brys. As they quarreled out of earshot, Mr. Highwater sat down opposite Rhema and carefully gathered the playing cards. Rhema did not notice.
When Bastion came back, his face was as red as a hawk over a bleeding hare. He paced furiously in front of the doors before lowering himself into Rhema’s chair and shackling his arms around her.
The dukes exited the council room shortly after. Each bowed in turn to Bastion, but few acknowledged Rhema. Lastly came Harold, his great cheeks sore with defeat. He held out his hand to Bastion. Bastion relinquished one hand’s grip on Rhema only long enough to shake his father’s hand. Harold clutched his son’s hand with both of his.
“My son.... you must consider, both of you must consider what is best, not for the country, but also for yourselves. I cannot disagree with the council, but you know that I will try to support your decisions as well.”
Harold let go of Bastion. With a surprisingly gentle gesture, he stroked the side of Rhema’s face. “My lovely daughter, you are exceptional. I would not wish any harm to come upon your person. So I beg you to consider your own future when you talk of this among yourselves later. Think of your health, and if not your own health, then the effect it will have on your loved ones should your next attempt to have a child prove to be even more dangerous than they already have been. No matter what, you will always be a cherished daughter of this state.” He kissed her hand and left.
Rhema looked to Bastion, who had fallen once again into a sea of his own grief. She looked to Mr. Highwater instead.
“No, child. I cannot choose for you this time. I will stand outside while the two of you talk.”
Mr. Highwater moved in exhaustion.. He arranged for all the servants to leave the room and closed the doors behind him.
Rhema slipped out of Bastion’s grasped and looked out the window. She found no answers on the night sky.
“I am undone,” said Bastion finally. “What do you think we should do?”
There was an answer to everything. There was always an answer to everything. If Rhema could only see it! No lights came to her mind. She was lost. Neither thoughts nor emotions stood so firm that she could hold to them. Her mind – oh God! – it was a shipwreck. She wanted more than anything to cling to her Bastion, but he was hardly more than a ghost: broken, bewildered, lost.
This had no answer. The way, once steady, divided itself into a thousand terrible possibilities. Yet, as she considered them, she knew there was only one course. She tried to set it in her mind. She pushed it through a mental door, set the lock, and turned the key. It wouldn’t click. It couldn’t click. The key didn’t fit, and it never would. Now all her doors loomed wide open. She was free.
Freedom without love? It seemed a pointless proposition.
She folded her arms, hugging herself against her own thoughts. Bastion clenched a hand in his hair as his eyes pleaded for her to speak.