friends

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"Lord Fearghill," said Duncan, leaning into the oubliette. "I am here to rescue you. Your sister and Clara sent me."

The amber eyes narrowed. "Clara sent you?" said Fearghill, then cleared his throat, "and my sister?" Fearghill's gaze skirted up from the princeguard uniform to the white strands wound through Duncan's hair.

"That is correct," said Duncan. He frowned down into the oubliette. "How do they get you out of there?"

Fearghill's expression became ironic. "I do not know. At the outset, they simply hurled me in."

"Oh. Are you injured?"

"Aches and bruises, only. Is there a rope or ladder about somewhere?"

Duncan pushed himself upright and cast around the corridor. He heard Fearghill speak: "You're Mistress Clara's halfblood. I recognise you."

"Duncan."

"Mm. A good Shayn name."

"Is it? A friend chose it for me." There was a wooden cupboard against the end of the corridor. It wasn't locked. Inside was a long rope, as thick as Duncan's fist. He took it and uncoiled it. "Here you go," he said, lowering the end into the oubliette. "Let me find something to fix it to." There was an iron ring embedded in the wall near the cupboard, which he tied the end of the rope to.

When he went back to peer into the oubliette, Fearghill had taken the end of the rope and was trying to haul himself up. His teeth were bared in a grimace of pain. Duncan set the torch in a sconce and took hold of the rope and tried to help by pulling Fearghill up, but he wasn't strong enough to do much. He saw one of Feargill's hands grapple for the rim and reached out to grab it. Then he pulled, while Feargill swung his shoulder over onto the stone. When it was done, Fearghill lay on his side on the floor, and Duncan watched his ribcage expand and contract.

"Well," said Fearghill, not looking at Duncan. "Having got this far, how do you propose to get out of the dungeon?"

"It would take too long to explain," said Duncan. "I got in, and I can get us out again, if you follow my lead. There will be some princeguards that may need killing."

"Then allow me to offer my assistance," said Fearghill, rolling over and revealing to Duncan a grim expression.

* * *

In the hush that followed Clara's entry to the throne room, even the figures on the tapestries seemed all to have turned their attention to her. She looked back at the marble figures of the Prophets above the throne. Aelas, gazing over their heads. Inne, listening intently to the murmur in the room. Merciful Thandi: from this angle, it seemed as if he were nodding in approval to Clara as she walked past.

Clara clasped her hands in front of her as she looked down at them. She was acutely aware that Zarinel walked a few paces behind her, heard the swish of his robes as he turned to mount the dais.

"Friends," he said as Clara took her place at the front of the crowd of nobles filling the room. 

Friends. She had heard Duncan and Aithne use that word often. When they said it, it sounded like, comrades, allies, family. When Zarinel said it, it sounded like, subjects.

"Today we have a great deal of business to attend to. However, before that, we have granted Clara of Vallebrion's petition to stand before us and give her accounting of the actions of Lord Fearghill of the Kinwood, whom we have so recently had--to our great distress--to sentence to death for treason." Zarinel steepled his fingers and raised his eyebrows at Clara. "Well?"

"I..." Clara looked around. She was surrounded by strangers. Some curious, some hostile, contemptuous. No friends. "Might I hear the evidence that was put to your majesty on the matter first?"

Zarinel's lids lowered over his eyes. He flicked a finger towards the Steward, who nodded to another lackey. A scroll of paper was produced, and the Steward intoned, "Fearghill of the Kinwood, nephew of its Lord, and emissary from the Kinwood to the Throne at High Rock, came before the Prince of Teleahn on the forty-ninth day after King's Day of this year. The charge put to him was treason, the Prince having cause to believe that the prisoner had plotted to pair with Clara of Vallebrion and thereby bring into his power the lands, resources and men belonging to that holding. The lady's role and knowledge in this matter was not known."

The Steward looked over the scroll at Clara before continuing. "The prisoner put it to the Prince that he had no such intentions, and had only undertaken to assist Clara of Vallebrion as a result of her request and some small feeling of friendship arising between them. The advocate put it to the prisoner that the prisoner had been observed to be wearing Clara of Vallebrion's favour, a yellow ribbon, on the day that he was asked to escort her back to Vallebrion, and that Clara of Vallebrion chose his aid in preference to that of a suitor preferred by her parents--Lord Enrico of Castilsur. Shall I read the verdict?"

Prince Zarinel waved his hand in assent.

"All facts being before the Prince, his majesty judged that for the protection of the realm of Teleahn, the preservation of its laws and order, and with due consideration to the mercy with which Thandi charges all judges to hand down judgement, that Fearghill of the Kinwood was guilty of treason and should be taken to the dungeon, there to await execution of the sentence of death."

So little. Scarcely enough time in the telling to drink a cup of wine. So little to determine whether a man lived, or died.

Throughout the recitation, Clara had bitten her tongue to stop herself launching to Fearghill's defence. It would be easy to pour out her heart, to reveal Enrico's scheming and his cruelty, the reasons underlying her giving that yellow ribbon to Fearghill and her clutching at him when the prospect of another fortnight in company with Enrico and his men raised itself. But that wasn't the way to free Fearghill, or keep suspicion for his escape from falling on her and her family.

Instead, she had to become what they all seemed to think she was. Mentally, she gathered to herself the story she had rehearsed with Aithne and Siona around the table at the safe-house.

Zarinel watched her with a mixture of curiosity and cruel amusement in his expression. It had been silent for too long. She took a deep breath. "Your majesty," she said. "Here is what happened."


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