Cian heard Pyralis’s laugh echo from up ahead and couldn’t hold back a stab of annoyance. Kane had just died. How could he be laughing already? Cian couldn’t imagine it. He couldn’t imagine anything happy still existing in the world, not now. Not without Kane.
The guilt threatened to overwhelm Cian. It tried to swallow him, to drown him, to destroy him. He nearly let it. After all, why bother stopping it? Kane was dead. And it was his fault. The only thing which held him back was imagining the look on the White Queen’s face when he plunged a sword through her chest. Yes, that look was worth fighting towards. And after that, fate, karma, justice - they could do whatever they wanted with him. Nothing would matter.
All Cian had to do now was get the Black Queen to Esmira. Then, hopefully, things would be taken from there. He had a mission now, and that spurred him forward. He wouldn’t fail. He’d complete this mission for Kane. He’d kill the White Queen for Kane. He’d do it all for Kane.
And would Kane want you to be consumed with guilt?
Cian pushed away the voice gnawing at his mind. He deserved the guilt. It was justified, so why couldn’t he wallow in it?
I don’t blame you, Kane had said. He had flat out said that he didn’t blame Cian, so why couldn’t Cian believe it?
Because Kane didn’t know. Kane didn’t know that up until just a little while ago, Cian enjoyed working for the White Queen. Anything she asked, he did without hesitation. Anything she wanted, he got for her without wanting praise. He was under her spell. That’s what it was, wasn’t it? Was I under a spell? Cian wondered. He frowned. It certainly would make a lot of sense. But that didn’t change anything, not really.
Cian was a coward.
“Cian?” Pyralis’s voice cut through his thoughts, and it sounded like he had asked several times already. “Did you hear what I said?”
“I apologize. My thoughts were...elsewhere.”
“I said we thought to stop for lunch,” Pyralis said. “There’s a little stream up ahead; we can fill our canteens. Let the horses drink.”
Cian nodded distractedly. They steered the horses to the stream and let them roam, eating grass by the banks and slurping from the river. The Black Queen got out a bag of dried meat and passed it around. Cian declined.
“Cian, you should eat something. You didn’t have breakfast, and you refused the bread last night,” Pyralis pointed out.
“I’m aware,” he said dryly. There was a minute of silence. Cian could feel Pyralis scowling.
“Kane wouldn’t want you to starve,” he said quietly.
Cian’s anger flared. “How would you know what he would want? You knew him for a week.”
“Leave me alone,” he said sharply, turning away. He waited a few minutes, and when he turned back, the Black Queen was down near the river, filling the canteens, out of earshot. Pyralis was still sitting next to him.
“Will you allow me to finish?” he said patiently, albeit a bit coldly. Cian didn’t reply, but didn’t stop him. “I was going to say that it’s true, I didn’t know him very well. However, I did know him well enough to know he cared about you. And he was afraid that this would happen. He told me that he didn’t want you to feel guilty, that this was his choice and that you should honor his memory by enjoying life. Living it to the fullest.”
Cian gave Pyralis a sidelong glance.
“But if you’d like me to leave you alone,” Pyralis said tiredly, “I can take a hint. It’s just that, in the future, you might not want to snap at the people who are trying to help you.”
Pyralis rose to go, but Cian stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Wait. Don’t...don’t go. I’m sorry.”
Pyralis sunk back down onto the boulder on which he was sitting. “It’s alright. I get that you’re upset.”
Cian nodded. “Even so, I was out of line.” He paused. “Why are you trying to help me?”
Raising an eyebrow, Pyralis replied, “Because we’re friends, aren’t we?”
“You saved my life,” Pyralis said. “I think that qualifies. That is...if you want to be friends.”
Cian nodded. “I just lost my only one. I guess I have an opening,” he said miserably.
“I’m sure Nyx feels the same way I do,” Pyralis pointed out.
“The Black Queen,” he clarified. “Her name is Nyx.”
“Oh,” Cian said. “It must be a taken name.”
“I don’t know,” Pyralis said. “She didn’t exactly elaborate very well,” he said with a quiet chuckle.
Cian couldn’t help but crack a smile. “Right. Did she tell you anything else useful?” he asked.
Pyralis shrugged. “Not particularly. We just kind of talked, you know? Well, I talked, and she answered some questions. She’s really nice, you know. You should talk to her. Get to know her. Make a new friend,” he said easily.
Strangely enough, just sitting here with Pyralis was slowly easing Cian’s pain. It was a very subtle difference, but a difference all the same. There was just something…calming about him. Cian didn’t have to put on the air of authority which he had been wearing for so many years. He didn’t have to be in charge, or give commands. They were all equally lost out here.
Somewhere in him, Cian found light hearted words, “You just like her because you can talk as much as you want, and she won’t interrupt you.”
Pyralis laughed, his face lighting up. “You got me. Come on, you sure you don’t want a bite to eat? You have to be hungry by now.”
Cian gave in. “Alright,” he said, taking a piece of meat from the bag which Pyralis passed him. “And… I’m sorry for snapping at you. Really. I should have realized that I’m not the only one hurting.” He glanced over at Pyralis who hung his head. Even though he hadn’t said anything, Cian knew what grief looked like. When he looked at Pyralis, he saw his own grief reflected in his eyes, not as bad, and covered by other emotions, but there all the same.
“It’s okay,” Pyralis said quietly. “I didn’t know Kane for very long but…Well, this may sound weird, but I considered him one of my best friends.” He gave a hollow laugh. “That must make me sound like a loner, huh?”
“Not at all,” Cian said. “I think Kane had that effect on a lot of people. It was one of the things which made him a good leader.” He ripped another hunk of meat off with his teeth and chewed it contemplatively.
With a nod, Pyralis said, “I can’t even imagine…I have a sister. I love her to death. She made me this,” he said, pulling the gold leaf pendant from under his shirt. “If anything ever happened to her…Well, I think you’re handling this as best as you could be expected to, and I know that you need time. Probably a lot of it, I’d guess.”
Cian didn’t reply immediately. Idly, he brushed some dirt off of his pant leg and shook his hair out of his face. “Thank you for understanding. We should probably get going,” he said. “After all, we don’t know how long it’s going to take us to get there. Heck, we hardly know where there is.”
Standing, Cian moved towards his horse, waving to the Black Queen before realizing that Pyralis wasn’t following. He glanced back and saw him still sitting, staring at the ground with a scowl on his face. Pyralis wrung his hands together and bit his lip.
“Are you alright?” Cian asked.
Pyralis’s head snapped up. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Let’s go.”
Nyx gathered up her skirt and trudged up the hill, leading her horse behind her. Pyralis came walking over, seeming back to normal.
“Isn’t it cumbersome to ride in a dress?” he asked the Black Queen. With wide eyes, she nodded vigorously. Pyralis chuckled and mounted his horse. Cian settled upon his own and they rode off, following a little trail that they had picked up a while back. They were driven by the mere hope that it was leading in the right direction.
After a few minutes of riding in silence, Cian dropped his horse back so that he was parallel with Nyx. Pyralis had made him realize that he had truly been neglecting his comrades since they started out, he’d simply been too withdrawn to notice.
“Um…” Cian started off eloquently. He kicked himself. Why was it so much harder to act naturally than it was to give off an air of self-importance? Maybe he had become too accustomed to the act. “I’m not sure if I properly introduced myself before,” he said, offering a hand for her to shake. “I’m Cian Sarmithsa, former knight of the White Army.” He winced slightly.
The Black Queen studied him for a second, and then shook his hand. She mouthed “Thank you.”
“For rescuing you?” Cian asked. Nyx nodded. “Of course. It was the least I could do.” He pushed down the guilt which once again threatened to overwhelm him. How much would it take before he could make up for the terrible things he’d done? “So..um…I guess you’re wondering what you’ve missed in the past year or so?”
Nyx nodded eagerly, her huge black eyes glinting. She tucked a loose curl behind her ear and looked at Cian expectantly. “Well, after you were imprisoned, the White Queen installed Czar Salvatore as acting ruler, unbeknownst to the people, of course. Slowly, she had him increase the taxes, loosen the rules on the soldiers while tightening them on the people. It got to the point that the government was taking nearly everything the people made, but if anyone tried to protest, the guards would arrest them, or beat them.”
Cian’s face was grim. How had he not seen the truth sooner? Or had he simply ignored it. The more he thought about it, the more Cian actually hoped he had been under one of the White Queen’s spells. It would relieve at least some of the crushing guilt he felt.
The Black Queen frowned, her delicate features overcast by sadness. Cian went on, “The people of the Black Kingdom began to hate you. They thought you had, for some reason, abandoned them, left them at the mercy of the unchecked guards. There was speculation about where you had gone, but the rumor that you were still in the castle was spread by the White Queen. That you were in the castle, hiding, not helping your people.” Cian gauged her reaction. Nyx’s face was grim, but calm. “It was all part of the White Queen’s plan. She thought to turn public opinion against everything Black, then swoop in and save the day. Her high taxes would still be less than the ones they were used to, and they would gladly give it to their saviors. She planned to use the Black Kingdom to support the White. Let her kingdom prosper.
“There was one group that was strong enough to stand up to the Black Soldiers, and that was the rebels. I didn’t know it at the time, but my brother was one of them, their leader eventually. They protected the citizens, fought against the guards, but it wasn’t enough. The White Queen sent…people to capture them, and they did. That is why we were in the Black Kingdom just before we rescued you. She ordered the execution of the beloved rebels to be public, seemingly orchestrated by you. She wanted to make the situation as bad as it could be,” Cian finished.
A single tear ran down Nyx’s cheek. Cian couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be her. One day she was the well loved Queen of a stable kingdom, and the next, she had her magic, her voice, and her people taken from her. Her kingdom had been driven into the ground. People hated her. And none of it was her fault.
As if he didn’t already have enough to feel bad about, there was something new.
“I’m sorry, Nyx,” Cian said. “I’m so sorry that I helped her. I…I don’t know why I did. If I could take it back, believe me, I would. If I could have saved my brother…”
She turned to look at him, eyes glistening. Nyx gave him a watery smile, then reached out and took his hand. Cian returned her smile and a sudden warmth spread through him, easing some of the guilt, some of the sadness.
Giving her hand a gentle squeeze, he said, “We’re going to take her down and get your kingdom back, Nyx. I swear.”