SCARS OF THE SEA / book two /// chapter 45 - Aid
Posted May 15th, 2017 by Garrett
in a city drinking coffee
a/n: This chapter hints at some possible future romance ;) ;)
| 45 |
Early morning sunlight dove headfirst through the wide windows overlooking the private dining room on their hall. The golden sheen it spread over the room like butter made everything aglow. Eileen stabbed a dangling piece of fried egg with her fork and set it on her tongue. It rested there for a moment, as she let the flavors seep into her mouth. Then she chewed and swallowed. And repeat. Across from her Castor was spreading clumpy jam across a piece of toast. He had a fleck of the purple sauce jiggling on his chin, and Eileen decided not to tell him. Beside Castor, Finn chatted away with Jack, who sat at Eileen’s right. The two discussed everything from war to politics, to Daenysi—Jack’s home country south of their continent—and even ventured as far as to talk about the weather. Eileen was utterly bored with their conversation.
So while she ate her breakfast bit by bit, she kept a mental conversation going with Castor, seeing how long he could keep up with the flicks of her eyebrows and the shifts of her eyes.
Finn and Jack are so boring, she side-eyed them and rolled her lavender irises.
Castor half-smiled and nodded, seemingly following the two men’s discussion on—Eileen tuned in for a moment—on the lack of imported fish coming into Kaede from Xanthe. Jack proudly exclaimed that he’d never had Xanthe’s fish. Finn gawked.
Eileen rolled her eyes again.
Eileen and Castor’s nonverbal banter went on through the entire meal.
When they were finished, when Jack and Finn were still droning on and on about the gods knew what, Eileen folded her napkin and rose.
“This evening we will reconvene here to discuss our matters with Ejiri.”
Like a child, Finn raised his hand. Eileen’s eyes were starting to ache from all the rolling they’d done just that morning. “Yes, Finn?”
He laughed as he said, “I’m going to ask Ren to join us, to give input on what her father may think of our ideas.”
Eileen nodded. “That sounds like a…a great plan.”
Finn nodded to himself and submerged back into conversation with Jack. Servants came and stacked their dirty plates. Eileen felt uncomfortable watching them clean up her messes, so she attached her eyes to Castor’s and beckoned that they leave. He lifted his head in answer, and followed her out. Neither of the men remaining noticed as the two slipped away.
Once they were pacing side-by-side down the corridor, Eileen’s shoes whispering on the stone, she realized how unlikely it would be for them to rally an entire army before…before Serilda inevitably attacked Acantha. Eileen knew the day would come when the Witchen forces swarmed Kaede’s capital—she’d tried to warn Ejiri the first day they met but he wouldn’t listen. But maybe—impossibly—they could gather an army, gain King Chaka’s armies, and march on Berea before Serilda had a chance to attack Acantha.
She’d traded one of her usual pastel gowns for a thick sweater, pants, and a fur-lined coat. Pale light, shining through the morning mist, painted the corridors in hues of ivory. Eileen’s shadow interrupted the white patches, rippling over the stone and light.
Castor followed at her heel; they’d already planned today’s events. Eileen desperately wanted to get out of the keep, the palace, to go into the city. To see the people. To help them. She wound down a narrow staircase and opened the door at the bottom. A bustling kitchen met her; heat from the stoves along the far wall and the smell of uncooked meat wafted over her. She drove past both senses and asked the nearest apron-wearing person for a sack of assorted foods.
“For what?” She asked.
Eileen shrugged. “I want to distribute them to the needy people in the city.”
The woman paused, opened her mouth as if to say, “No,” but then closed her lips. She left and returned a moment later with a bag full of food. Eileen smiled and slung the sack over her shoulder.
“Thank you so much,” she said.
The woman nodded, and then Eileen was off. Castor had waited for her at the top of the small staircase, and once she was back, his eyes widened at the bulging sack.
“How’d you get them to give you the food?” Castor asked as they walked.
“I used my charm,” Eileen grinned.
She punched his shoulder. “I just asked. It’s amazing what you get if you just ask sometimes.”
That statement seemed to send Castor into a haze of thoughts, because he didn’t speak again until they were saddling horses in the stable. Eileen was climbing onto her stallion’s back, checking the reins, when Ejiri Roku passed by the stable door. His flash of black hair beneath that white circlet made it clear who he was, what he was.
He stepped inside, nose scrunching at the stench of horses and manure.
“What are you two doing?” He asked. Eileen scanned his words—pure curiosity, not suspicion, lingered there. Could it be that King Roku actually trusted them?
Eileen gestured to the bag she’d tied to her saddle. “I was going to give out food to your people. I just needed to get out.”
“Ah,” Ejiri said.
“Is there a problem with that?” Castor asked.
The king shook his head and opened his mouth. “Why don’t you take our carriage—our royal carriage?”
Eileen furrowed her brows. “Would that be much trouble to have done?”
“Not at all,” the king smiled, his lips reaching from ear to ear. It was unnerving, somehow, that elongated grin.
“Well,” Eileen slid off her horse and began unbuckling the saddle. A moment later she set it aside and untied her food bag. Her shoes crunched on the hay carpeting the floor as she walked past Ejiri and said, “Lead the way.”
Castor trailed her, and Eileen turned around to see him share an apologetic glance with the king of Kaede.
She paused so that Ejiri could be in front. He walked them across the outer bailey, Eileen’s feet crushing the brown, frosted grass. As they passed the inner gate, Eileen peered inside at the courtyard, the Wind Keep beyond it. There were still makeshift buildings set up all throughout that massive courtyard, the centerpiece of it the massive statue of Paue. But the flagstones, the once beautiful arrangement, was now a deep scarlet.
She tore her eyes away and stopped just before she would have slammed into Ejiri’s back. The inner wall curved around formed an alcove Eileen could not see from where she stood. It was from there that a large carriage, hauled by two horses, came wheeling out. It stopped just before them, towering high above their heads. Eileen eyed the door warily. It was painted with smooth black, floral designs printed on the rim and on the pane of the door.
Ejiri stepped forward, wrapped his hand around the gold handle, and pulled it open. “After you,” he said.
She ascended the little step and seated herself on one of the plush benches inside. She pulled back a curtain to see the world beyond. A light flurry started, flakes drifting down like fallen angels.
Castor sat beside her. And to her surprise, Ejiri Roku climbed into the seat opposite of them and shut the door behind him.
“You’re joining us?” Eileen asked.
The king nodded, but paused. He reached to his head and gently removed the white circlet, as if he’d just realized it was there. “I want to see my people—I want to help them.”
“You haven’t been out here? For how long?”
Ejiri’s throat bobbed. His dark eyes shot to the floor between them. It was a weird sensation, Eileen thought, the rumbling of movement but not being able to see where she was moving to.
“Too long,” he said.
She decided to push down the fact that he was a selfish ruler and any of her men could’ve made a better king. Or he had been selfish. Maybe now he was trying to make it up—make up all the times he’d been scared behind two mighty walls to protect him, while his people were slaughtered and ravaged.
Eileen blinked. She wasn’t any better than those Savages. Maybe she was just as bad as one of the Savages in Ejiri’s eyes. She had killed hundreds of his men, had scorched his little courtyard town—but she’d also saved his castle from being sieged. If it weren’t for her—for Castor making her—then there would be not Acantha anymore. There would only be ruin.
“Now you have a chance,” Castor said. Eileen turned to him, surprise flickering in her violet eyes.
Ejiri’s eyebrows flicked up.
“This—all of this—is your chance to make it up to your country. To your allies.”
The king scoffed. “I don’t think I need to make anything up to my allies—”
“Kaede is not the only country who has been tainted with Savages,” Castor spat. Ejiri flinched. He actually flinched at Castor’s words. “I saw them firsthand—the Savages in Euanthe. They’re just as ruthless as the ones here, and their numbers are growing. Always growing…spreading.”
Castor looked away from the king of Kaede, but Ejiri’s piercing brown-black eyes held strong.
It wasn’t until Castor met Ejiri’s stare once more that the king finally spoke. “Stop.”
Eileen was puzzled for a moment, but then the carriage lurched to a halt and the king climbed out. Bright daylight spilled through the door, blinding her for a moment. So different from the darkness of the carriage. She follow Ejiri out of the carriage and down the street. Gloom shadowed the snow-glazed cobbles. Piles of brown slush were pushed to the sides, allowing for carts and people to walk up and down the road. The full bag on her back swayed side to side as she walked, as the coat hugging her body shielded her from the biting cold.
People who were not in homes were huddled in alleys or on the street. And the shops—almost all the shops had a closed sign swinging from the boarded front door.
The king stopped right before a couple. Soot and grime covered their skin—their matted hair. They wore scraps, almost nothing against the snowy wind. But it was the way they held each other, as if he was the moon and she was the sun, that must have captured the king’s attention. He knelt before them, his knee buried in the murky dip between two cobbles. They looked at him as one unit, two pairs of voids, staring down their ruler.
And then, with shaky, half-frozen lips, they cursed him. Right into his face. Ejiri blinked, ran a hand through his feathery hair, and stood. Eileen met his eyes. He shook his head and looked away, hurt flashing in his ebony irises.
Eileen reached into her bag and pulled out a loaf of bread, a block of cheese, and two fruits.
She stood over the couple, looked each one in the eye.
They stabbed her with them…the grief they’d endured evident from each wrinkle creasing their skin.
Eileen handed over the food and murmured, “May the gods be with you.”
Castor gave a few words to the people, though she couldn’t make out exactly what he’d said.
The rest of Acantha was the same. Sad, hurt person after sad, hurt person. Each one individually scarred by the Savages—both physically and emotionally. Trauma etched each of their faces, such despair and anger and all the emotions that festered in the darkest corners of the world.
When the bag was empty and all the food distributed, Eileen felt a weight of exhaustion pushing her down. Doing this, helping these people, had drained her. Their scared faces and hopelessness.
How would she ever convince them to fight?
Eileen stabbed her blackened trout and nibbled on it. She’d pushed her peas around, not really bothering to scoop any up. Her appetite had been nonexistent since they’d returned to the Wind Keep, and every option for dinner had twisted her stomach.
At last, she’d let Finn or Jack decide what they were to eat as they discussed their plans. Trout had been Jack’s first preference. Eileen didn’t care for it much.
She reached for her glass and sipped at her wine, the liquid swirling down her throat.
“What happened to King Hadar’s army?” Castor asked.
“Destroyed,” Finn said. “When Serilda sieged Berea. Either killed or forced into poverty. There’s no way we’d be able to gain their help.”
“Do we have word from King Delmar?” Jack asked Eileen.
She blinked. “Not yet.”
He turned to his food, speared his fish, and cursed the king of Xanthe.
She couldn’t stop seeing those people—their entire worlds had been shredded and burned and demolished. While Eileen sat up in this castle and ate a fine meal, there were hundreds—maybe thousands down in the city starving.
It made her sick.
Ejiri claimed he wanted the best for his city, for his country, but he didn’t do a single thing to help. He wanted it done, but he didn’t want to do.
“What about your home, Jack?” Castor asked.
The scarlet-haired man laughed. “Those prejudiced fools wouldn’t even help each other, much less another continent.”
Eileen had no idea what he was talking about, entirely clueless on the history of Daenysi.
“We need to focus on ending the Savages first,” Eileen said. It was the most she’d said all night. “I made a deal with Ejiri. If we help him stifle the Savages, heal his country, then he will fight against Serilda with us. And he will convince King Delmar to join us, too.”
Finn set down his fork and stared her down. “When did you agree to that?”
Eileen shrugged. “A few days ago.”
“And you didn’t think of telling us until now?”
She opened her mouth to speak, but Finn cut her off.
“We need to know what is happening,” he said. “You can’t keep us out.”
Eileen closed her mouth and nodded.
“Okay then,” Jack said. “How’re we going ta stop the Savages?”
Her shoulders sagged as she sighed. “I have no idea.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Strands of Eileen’s hair tumbled away in the open breeze blowing through the large window. Through it, she could see the crescent moon like a little sliver into an ivory world. And the thousands of stars glittering across the massive sky. Eileen had been in Acantha for almost a month, and she realized that this was the first night she hadn’t spotted the glow of open flame. Hadn’t seen fiery beasts consuming buildings.
Eileen turned the Jack, who had just shoved his last bite of trout into his mouth. He chewed. Swallowed.
“You know that’s imported from Xanthe, right?” She asked, cocking an eyebrow.
He gaped at his clean plate. “Ye should’ve told me that before I ate!”
“Why?” She asked, laughing.
“’Cause then I would’ve enjoyed it more,” He guffawed. Eileen giggled, draining the rest of her wineglass.
She and her three men talked for hours that night, exchanging stories and jokes. Wishing they’d asked for desert. After midnight, Eileen and Castor stole a few minutes to descend the stairs to the kitchen. Once inside the dark room, the counters empty for the night and pantries stocked with goods, Eileen felt the tension between them.
They’d forgiven each other—forgiven themselves, but still…there was something taut between the two, something unsettled.
“What’s wrong?” Eileen asked him as she piled snacks into the same bag she’d used earlier.
He was brewing a kettle of tea over the stove, having claimed that he made tea for his father in Berea almost every night.
Castor sighed and turned to her. “It’s nothing.”
“No,” she said, clasping the buckle on the bag. “It’s something.”
“I just…it’s more than one thing.”
Eileen felt the need to talk about all the things that troubled him, to help him through his problems. She slung the bag over her shoulder and raised an eyebrow.
“Do you remember the night we first came here?” Castor asked.
Eileen’s chest tightened. “Yes.”
“You kissed me.”
“Did it…did it mean anything?” He asked the question she’d been silently asking herself for weeks.
“Yes,” she said. The tightness in her chest unraveled and dissipated. Castor seemed to experience the same sensation, for his shoulders relaxed and the aura around him felt somehow looser.
He stepped closer to her, and Eileen let that strap fall down her arm, the bag hitting the table. She could feel his warm breath stirring the air before her. Her lips parted.
“Should we…?” His voice trailed off.
Eileen finished him, “Kiss again?” She raised an eyebrow.
He leaned closer. She could smell him now, the warm coziness of him. She leaned forward, hands pressed on the counter behind her, facing him. Her eyelids fluttered. Inches apart—their lips were inches apart—
The kettle on the stove started screaming. Howling at them, either in amusement or scolding. The abruptness of it sent Eileen and Castor into an awkward pause. Then she laughed. He did too, shoulders shaking as he turned around to pour the tea into a large jug. She picked up the bag, slung those straps over her shoulders, and opened the door. Castor walked out, carrying that jug of sloshing tea with both hands. Steam slithered past the lid and into the air.
Eileen shut the kitchen door and followed Castor back to their hall, to the dining room nestled at the end of it.
When she opened that door for him, saw that Finn and Jack had already left and abandoned their dirty dishes for the servants, she laughed once more.
Castor poured the tea into their wineglasses. Steam hissed off the brown surface of the liquid. Eileen lifted her glass, the warmth seeping into her skin, exciting her Witchen powers.
So her and Castor talked through the night, drank all the tea, and devoured every single one of the snacks.
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