Phaedra DeGhym sat on a precipice, staring out onto the frozen cliffs and into the wind, Yueming‘s song playing softly in her mind. Before leaving Vorreiter in the spring, she had enjoyed sitting in its crenelations during a gale, the sound of the wind and sense of isolation providing her comfort. For a time the comfort came from the memories it stirred of her time in the Alhazikar Desert, before Shazihar, before Koda, before Matthew. It had been a time of quiet hope and possibility. Upon escaping there, for the first time in her life she was free from the machinations of others and free to build whatever life she chose. She hadn’t yet had the lives she built come apart as she felt powerless to save them. Later, after she had begun to feel at home in Vorrieter, the crenelations simply became a place to be alone with her thoughts, the wind and the cold drowning out all else unless she allowed it in.
Now, she felt, the crenelations would remind her of these past few weeks instead. They had been trudging through the mountains for weeks in the wet snow, struggling to avoid notice from the wandering patrols of Halledar and capture from those hunting them sent by the Council of Stars. The memory of the haunting, heartbreaking song Yueming had composed just days ago near the mountain’s peak was the only thing that kept her calm. It sung of having been betrayed by love, of having fought and struggled only to have the one to whom she had given her heart turned against her, her only consolation being that she had done all she could, that she had not strayed or erred, only loved. It suited her mood well.
She stared out a moment longer. Too little stirred on the frozen cliff. Nothing had moved for too long a time save a distant mountain hawk. Their eyes. With a sigh she resigned herself to waking Lavonne and Yue Ying. Their hunters were coming.
It was a giveaway they had never been very good at hiding; though, catching it required knowing both them and the land you were in well. Phaedra knew both. The scouts trained by The Council of Stars were among the best in Tyria, perhaps the among the best in all the world. Still, when faced with animals they could not be certain they could make ignore their passage, they silenced them. Better that, they were taught, then to have some unfamiliar animal alert someone familiar with them with its inexplicable behavior. While The Council’s scouts were trained to handle a wide variety of animals, none were trained in the mountains, and they always carried their birds, their eyes above to help them scout a path. It had been decades since she trained under them, but decades were nothing to the elves, not enough to reconsider their techniques and certainly not enough to have changed them even if they had.
She still remembered her time with The Council well. She had stumbled across them, wandering her way out of the Alhazikar Desert after weeks alone, a bare stripling of an elf; a drow who had just escaped her mother after her grandmother’s ambitions had bent the woman toward Lolth. She had been shunned upon her arrival in The Glades and might have been chased out had it not been for Shazihar. Shazihar, who took her in and saw her trained. Shahizar, who fought for her acceptance. Shazihar, who years later looked at her with eyes full of the shock of betrayal when her mother arrived at The Glades and received the same clemency through Shahizar’s influence only to be attacked by Phaedra. “Have you learned so little?” Shahizar had asked Phaedra after stopping her. “Have I taught you so poorly?” Heartbroken, Phaedra had tried to accept her mother as Shahizar wished her to, but her mother would not leave things in The Glades unchanged.
With one of the Council recently wed into the royal family, some had begun to question what their place in this human kingdom could be. Suddenly, her mother’s skill with political intrigue had become an asset. Months later, the place she had come to love no longer feeling safe, no longer feeling like home, Phaedra left. Her mother would leave not long thereafter, newborn Shri-Inidia in tow. Phaedra never learned if her mother had been with child before arriving in The Glades. She no longer cared. She had never returned. Her mother eventually would and became one of their agents, or perhaps she had been for some time. Phaedra did not know and would not let herself care.
“Mother, is it you they sent for me? Will this be our reunion after grandmother’s ruin?” Her grandmother, who had nearly killed her in an attempt at regaining Lolth’s favor. Her grandmother, whom Shri-Inidia had slain. Her family seemed a tangle, one that kept snaring her, one that never let her be free of them for long.
She shook the thoughts from her mind and went to rouse her companions. Lavonne looked up at her sleepily and, seeing something in her face, began to prepare to move without a word. Yueming woke and sat for a moment, seeming to study her.
“The past again?” Yueming asked, though she needed no answer. “It has ever been the past with you.”
Phaedra signed, affection and annoyance mingling in her. At times she regretted having Yueming as her confidant. At times she regretted not having allowed them to become something more and having introduced her to Adaia instead.. She would have avoided spending so much time close to Yueming if she could have. She was was not sure whether or not she was glad to have had little choice in the matter.
“I thought I’d grown beyond this maudlin wretch, but…Is it any wonder, really? That I thought myself more than I am yet again?"
“You have always been more than you’ve given yourself credit for. It is no wonder that any person’s family can weigh on their emotions. Family are those we are blessed and cursed to have pull at our heart with greater strength than ever we expect. Being no exception to this does not make you less. It makes you mortal. Still, you should not let the shadows of your past consume you. Study them. Learn from them what you need, then let them go.”
She grimaced, wanting to argue, to cling to her sorrow, but she could not. Yueming was right, of course. She often was in such things. It was part of what drew both Phaedra and Adaia to her and held them tight, even when they wished they could get away, each to the other’s chagrin. “I will worry about my feelings later,” she said, “For now, we move.” Yue Ying looked at her with concern a moment, then began to ready herself.
The day was spent as all their days recently had been, with Phaedra scouting ahead through the frozen cliffs while Yue Ying kept watch over Lavonne. After checking which of the paths ahead were still clear, Phaedra doubled back and lead them through the most direct one left as fast as they could travel. The paths were disappearing rapidly, marked by mountain hawks watching more closely than any hawk should. It had become a game of finite moves. The Council’s scouts were travelling through unfamiliar territory. They had neither the numbers to cover all paths nor could they risk approaching openly from below, but they moved faster than Phaedra’s party and were gaining steadily. Eventually the land would level out. Eventually, if they could keep her from breaking away, they would close the gap. Each path closed was another attempt to corral her, to keep her contained. Each of Phaedra’s moves was spent limiting their attempts to do so. It meant avoiding roads that left few escapes and forging her own paths, sometimes backtracking over potentially dangerous terrain. It couldn’t continue. If she couldn’t break free soon, The Council would have them. She ran through the list of caves and crevices she knew in her mind, considering again sheltering in one. There were a number of them here ideal for sheltering in, but this was a storm of a different sort. She again discarded the odds as too slim. They would press on.
Evening came. They ate again to the melancholy plucking of of Yue Ying’s lute. She had just finished a song the night before, and already it sounded as though she were again composing a new one. Phaedra has lost count of how many songs she had already composed since their trip began. Might it have been six by now? More? However many it had been, neither she nor Lavonne objected. Phaedra could rarely find it in herself to object to Yue Ying’s music, and Lavonne seemed captivated. Phaedra could not blame her. Lavonne had known of Yue Ying, certainly; Yue Ying had been the lover of Adai Barshai, Lavonne’s closest and dearest friend; but she had never known her well, and she had rarely before heard her play. Hearing Yue Ying now, raw and heartbroken, filled with emotions she fought to give voice through her music, the only voice she was ever truly able to express herself in, she could not help but be swept up in her mastery. As they finished preparing camp, Lavonne took Phaedra aside.
“When will we send her?” Lavonne asked. Phaedra’s brow wrinkled in feigned confusion.
“Send? There are only three of us. Why would I send any of our number anywhere?”
“It’s time to stop pretending.” Lavonne answered. Phaedra felt something twist inside her at the words, a raw mixture of pride and betrayal. Just days before she had received a sending from Oops…LLC. Lavonne noticed her expression shift in what had become a familiar way and smiled broadly.
“It was them.” Phaedra had said. She looked to her pack and continued to ready it. “They are delayed.” Lavonne’s expression did not change.
“But they will come!” She said, earnestness thick in her voice. “We need not worry. The heroes will save us.”
Phaedra turned to continue repacking her travel bag. “No. I plan to send them on.”
“What?” Lavonne asked, her voice full of shock, her face beginning to color with fear and confusion. “Why? You should tell them to hurry to us.”
“You know their mission?” She asked, continuing to avoid Lavonne’s gaze.
Lavonne grabbed Phaedra’s shoulder and pulled Phaedra to face her. “I know their promise!” She shouted, hysteria creeping into her voice. Phaedra met her eyes and held them. Her own were hard, cold and unyielding.
“They chase a man who bears the eye and hand of Vecna. You know what it would mean for the north if he went unchecked. Would you risk that for your sake?”
Lavonne hesitated, looking away. Her lips trembled for a moment then suddenly set into place, hysteria and confusion gone. “No.” She said firmly.
“Nor would I.” Phaedra had said. Surprise painted Lavonne’s face. It was feigned surprise, Phaedra knew. She knew not because there was any flaw in the emotion as Lavonne expressed it, but because she knew Lavonne too well to believe her to be surprised. If she had been uncertain at the start of the conversation, she would have puzzled it before now.
“The wide-eyed young noblewoman you use needs to be put aside.” She had told her. “There is no use for her here. Neither you nor I are fooled by her any longer. We both know who you really are. It’s time to stop pretending.”
And now, here was Lavonne, telling her the same. “Fine. I’d considered sending Yueming but decided against it.”
“To what benefit?”
“From what you’ve told us, there are possibly two, more likely three squads after us. If they saw her being sent away, they would have no way to tell who she was. They would send at least one squad after her. Maybe two, if we’re lucky. However many they sent, they would be able to cover fewer routes, and the fewer routes they can cover, the greater our odds of escape.”
“And if they sent none?”
“That is very unlikely to happen.”
“And what do you suppose Yueming’s odds are?”
“I’ve seen her on the mountain. She had a good chance of escaping a squad.”
“And if they send two as you hope?”
Lavonne paused a moment, then answered. “She has a good chance of escaping one squad.”
Phaedra did not answer. She had expected Lavonne to be more serious after their earlier exchange. She had expected her to stop playing the quaintrelle, but, she told herself, she had not expected this. Try as she might to convince herself, however, she knew it was not true. She had feared this woman emerging since the day Lavonne was born. This woman who had wrangled a military company not her own and convinced two prominent noblewomen to put themselves in harm’s way and march into the western territories to rescue her when Phaedra had been taken by the drow. Phaedra had done her best to make it unnecessary, done her best, unfairly, to keep her buried for fear this women would eventually strangle out the light and joy in Lavonne with the bitterness that risked growing inside her. But now here she was. The queen who would never be crowned.
After the silence stretched on for a moment Lavonne continued. “That will just have to be good enough. The council is working with my uncle, and I cannot let him have the throne.”
“Do you really think him the worse of the two options?”
“I don’t know this boy who sits the throne now, not really. But my uncle…he’s grown hard. He’s nursed feelings of betrayal against Tyria for all the years I’ve known him. He’s a good man, but I cannot let him be king.”
The two stayed quiet for a time before speaking again.
“I will speak with her tonight.” Phaedra said.
Lavonne nodded, then turned and went to the nest of pine thicket that would be her bed for the night, the burden she bore clearly visible in her steps.
Phaedra thought again of the caves in the area. There was a particularly good ravine not a few days from where they now were. The descent to it could be treacherous for the unfamiliar or unskilled, but once in, the narrow path to the end made it secure against all but the worst weather. It should still have a steady stream of fresh water at this time of year, and the way out was far easier to navigate than the way in, or it would have been were the cliff not more likely than not to be blocked should they enter it. She discarded the notion again.
A short time later she approached Yueming as she sat by the fire, strumming her her lute and softly singing another mournful-sounding melody. This one, however, sounded somehow tinged with hope to Phaedra’s ears and nearly complete. Yueming would claim none of the songs she had written on their journey were yet complete, Phaedra knew. They were only formed enough, she could already hear Yueming say, to safely move on from them for now. Whatever the state of the song Yueming was now playing, however, she did not turn from her music. Phaedra waited in silence. She did not know when she would hear music from Yueming again, and so drank in every sound.
Finally Yueming rose and locked her instrument away, then turned to face Phaedra expectantly. Phaedra drew a deep, ragged breath. If the Council caught Yueming, would they simply let her go when they realized who she was, Phaedra wondered. Would she be “questioned” by Phaedra’s mother for answers? Might she be killed as an expendable loose end? Yueming smiled sadly. “I forgive you.”
Phaedra’s breath caught. She could feel the lump in her throat. “For what?”
“For whatever it is that you find so difficult to say.”
“You find it difficult, but necessary, and it pains you to do it. I remind you I knew what coming might mean, and I would never hold it against you. Nor would I ever believe you would do this if you had any better choice. You’re a good woman, Phaedra. I love and trust you.”
Tears began flowing down Phaedra’s face. She fought to hold back sobs she felt threatening to rise. Yueming enfolded Phaedra into her arms. No. Phaedra thought. This isn’t fair. What of her hardships? What shoulders are left for her burdens to rest on? She fought to stay strong. She thought for some way to make this fair. But she could not.
“I’m sorry.” She cried into Yueming’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
Morning came, and with it came goodbyes. Lavonne hugged Yueming warmly. She could not help but feel guilty, Phaedra knew, about her decision.
“Thank you.” Lavonne said. “For everything. I’m sorry for what we ask you to do.” Yueming shook her head.
“No apologies. I do what I must, as do we all.”
Phaedra hugged Yueming fiercely.
“I’ll speak to Adaia myself, promise be damned.” Phaedra said. “I’m asking her to follow her heart, not reason.”
“There was nothing left for me in Naugard but a slow death from grief.” Yueming answered. “You saved me by bringing me here. If I can save you in turn, I will.” She squeezed Phaedra’s shoulder before they separated.
“May you hold your honor.” Yueming said, then turned and walked away.
Phaedra watched her, wanting to keep watching her until she disappeared from view. She turned away to scout ahead instead.
Travel went well in the days that followed, and tensions eased. Phaedra was gladdened to see some of Lavonne’s humor return. “If things continue at current pace, we should be out of Halledar’s lands within the week.” She told Lavonne on the third night after Yueming had left them. “From there it’s only a few days to The Haven of the Light. There’ll be no safer place to rest and restock, and I’m sure Aieia will help see us home from there.”
“Aieia?” Lavonne laughed. “You have gotten desperate, haven’t you?”
Phaedra returned the laugh. “She won’t let me hear the end of it for years, I’m sure. I can already hear her snideness now. Haha, oh, how has that become something to look forward to. You really must work on you social skills if spending time with you has made me look forward to that.”
Lavonne snorted and rolled her eyes.
The next morning Phaedra set out and found all paths blocked.
How…she thought to herself in shock. Had there been more squads in reserve? Had they sent for reinforcements? She had no way to know, and didn’t dwell. That day was spent trudging through dangerous paths and sliding down poorly scouted steep slopes. At the end of the day, they had made little progress and only barely avoided capture.
There was no conversation that night, and as Phaedra kept watch, she went over all options again and again in her head. In the morning, instead of scouting she led Lavonne down a path she had spent a good deal of the night considering. It led to an outcropping with only one other path away. She looked out from the outcropping and saw hawks covering all escapes below.
There’s nothing left then, she thought as she led Lavonne down the path and into a ravine. We shelter the best we can in the storm. There was no escape from here. No hiding without notice. Only water, shelter, and highly defensible terrain. The Coucil’s scouts would follow, but they would not take them easily.