“Bring her to me!” Lady Cintia yelled. Three guards scurried from the hall as if she had struck them, and every one else fell into brittle silence. The echo behind her voice had seemed too loud. Their breathing wasn’t even quiet enough. A few people shifted toward the walls. Others stayed exactly as they were.
Cintia shoved herself away from the long table, stood, and whirled away from it. The table rocked on its legs. Glancing around the room, she seemed to realize how many were still gathered after the morning court. She looked at the wall rather than glare at them directly.
“Clear the room!” she shouted.
Everyone moved toward the door in an instant. Teo, her husband stayed in his seat. The two guards at the wall stayed. The Captain of her guard, Maurei stayed, standing on the other side of the table. The rest of the crowd clattered out, and left a greater echo in their wake.
Cintia looked to Teo, shaking her head. He looked back, his expression as sharp as her own, and said nothing as she turned away from him again.
It was a long minute before the doors squealed open. Two of the guards who had escaped so quickly hurried back in, holding Ersi between them. She was taller than either of them, dressed in her leather coat, sword belt loose around her hips with the sheath bent and empty at her side. They shoved her forward, as if they could disappear behind her.
Cintia whirled toward her. “Why?” she demanded.
The silence shattered at the impact of her voice, then, unnervingly settled back into place. Ersi took a breath. Looking from Cintia, to Teo, to Maurei, she seemed to hesitate on the edge of the bows and the nod each of them deserved. Quietly, she let the breath back out.
“You know why,” she murmured. Turning back to Cintia, she spoke slowly, each syllable almost an apology for the insolence she was delivering. “I already told you.”
Cintia’s jaw tightened. She blinked, once, but held it too long even while her sharpness remained. “You should have asked what I was talking about. You should have started your denial.”
“And you would have believed me?” Ersi asked. She almost smiled, but held it in check. “I didn’t think you could be that stupid. Yesterday, we stood here all day arguing about what to do with the Derristan boy. Last night someone releases him and puts him on the first boat out of the harbor this morning… You had other suspects?”
“Be careful how you speak to her,” Teo warned.
Ersi did smile then, head tilted, lips stretched. “You’re right,” she told him. “I’ve been sarcastic with her since we were five, but I should watch my mouth now.”
“He was our prisoner,” Cintia snapped.
“He was an eleven-year-old boy,” Ersi said, lower, more carefully.
“He was valuable,” Cintia returned.
“He was a rich Lord’s cousin’s son,” Ersi said. “Worth something to someone, but not to you. He couldn’t give you control of anything.”
“We are at war!” Cintia yelled.
Ersi nodded. “We are. But what were you going to do with him, my lady?”
“Whatever needed to be done!”
“You were going to hurt him?” Ersi asked. Calmly, she raised her eyebrows, expression blank as she waited for the answer. “You were going to hurt him so that his father would cry to his cousin and you could yank on the anchor chains of his fleet?”
“If I had to!” Cintia shouted, louder, one step closer than she had been a moment before.
“No!” Ersi shouted back, instantly, louder still. Teo jumped. Maurei rolled forward on her toes, hand on the hilt of her sword. Cintia leaned back, but Ersi stayed perfectly still, flat on her feet. “That is why I did this! Because they would have let you and I couldn’t.”
Cintia stared at her. For one breath. Then two. Then three, and the only motion in the room was Maurei’s hand sliding back to her side and Teo slumping forward against the table again.
“I know what war is,” Ersi said, now barely above a whisper, as if that was the only way to keep herself from shouting until every stone echoed it. “I know we’re all going to be someone’s nightmare before it’s done. You. Teo. Maurei. Me. If you let me walk out of this with my head. But I couldn’t let you become that.”
There was no echo, just quiet. Cintia stared, then blinked and looked away, still blinking.
“You’re dismissed,” she said, sharp and low. “Don’t leave the castle.”
Ersi paused. Then she nodded to Maurei, bowed to Teo, then bowed again, deeper, to Lady Cintia, and left.