Hey! I'm on time this time. Make sure you've read ch. 31, which posted late on monday, if you missed it.
Strangely, as much as I didn't want to relive my time with Lord Barrett by talking with Lord Solomon and Lord Federic, I was in such as state of bliss over the last three days, that I barely remembered the questions. I had worried over some of the intense questioning, but Ash constantly reminded me they were just searching for the truth. The magistrates were often rather fierce in their interrogations, and sometimes their sharp, quick scrawl with the fountain pen over the paper had me questioning what I'd said wrong.
Ash spent each evening and each morning though, reminding me that he thought I was beautiful, that I was strong. He'd overcome my nerves and reservations with his slow and careful explorations of my body, kissing and worshipping nearly every inch of me. And that he'd allowed me to do the same to him, left me in awe and wonder.
Therefore, I was only vaguely aware of other things going on in the house. Ash, Rowland, and Liam apparently had been working on plans to secure their next cargo. I'd visited again with Tareth while they had ensconced themselves in Liam's study each day. The Regent's magistrates were still pouring over Charlie and Lady DeLyle's papers, as well as interrogating the prisoners. They had become quieter over the last three nights at dinner. They seemed to share odd knowing looks between them, and I couldn't help but notice the way Federic's calculating gaze seemed to be constantly assessing me.
Ash said they were working on determining what sanctions would be leveled at each of the guilty parties. They had learned more a little more from Charlie about the possibility of the former Count Sterling's death perhaps not being accidental, and that concerned them greatly. It had Ash and Row on edge as well. The problem was in proof. They only had Charlie's word that Barrett, or maybe even Huxton, may have planned the former count's murder to remove him as an asset to the Crown in their plot to overthrow the Regent, and remove the heir apparent from succession.
They had talked at length about the stolen shipments, as well as Barrett's plot to poison Lord Rowland. I told them everything I knew, and I hated the frowns that came when they realized how much I had heard of Barrett's plans; it seemed like every time they asked another question, it dredged up more memories—memories of sitting on his office floor while Barrett and Richard discussed everything. From some of their questioning—such as, did I try to run, did I attempt to tell someone what I had heard—I couldn't tell if they thought I was helping Master Barrett, maybe protecting him. Yet telling them I couldn't, didn't seem to have much effect. Everyone always seems to believe it's so easy to run, to escape. But it's not.
And Barrett had done so much. And I had known about it.
So I was excited when Lord Federic announced three days later at the morning meal that they would be leaving that afternoon. I didn't want to face anymore of their questioning. They were dressed in their formal garb, and looking even more imposing. I wished Lady DeLyle would leave with them—Liam probably did too—but of course, that was not going to happen. She was still firmly latched onto Lord Rowland, although now Liam simply smirked at her antics to get the count's attention. I assumed Rowland had reassured the man of his place in his heart.
There was a thick sense of uneasiness threatening to stifle the room. Perhaps it was the formalness of the magistrates leaving soon with the two prisoners to present to the Regent. Only Alric offered a slight smile once and a while.
As the morning meal ended, Federic requested a formal state audience with Lord Rowland and Lord Ashton in private. His official tone caused prickles to race up my spine since the last few days had been uneasy for me. It didn't help that the man seemed to have a residual frown on his face lately.
Rowland had nodded, schooling his concern, but Ash's brows drew together, clearly displaying his apprehension. He squeezed my arm, reassuringly as he rose. I had believed Ash each evening there was nothing to worry about, that the magistrates were just doing their job, and being as thorough as possible.
When the three magistrates all glanced at me before heading out of the dining room, my anxiety intensified. Had I done something wrong? Had they determined I was guilty of aiding in Rowland's poisoning as I'd always thought? Or maybe they thought I should have done more to stop Barrett when I was privy to his plans? Was I about to be branded a traitor as well? What had I told them that might have caused them to appear so stern now?
As soon as they closed the door behind them, I ran. I could have run anywhere, but I ran to the only place I felt truly safe—the room I shared with Ash.
I scared poor Amelia who was tidying up as I raced in. She let out a small shriek as I dove for the bed, crawling under the covers fully clothed and nesting myself into a cocoon.
"A-are you feeling unwell, sir?" Amelia asked from somewhere near the edge of the bed. "Should I fetch Dr. Fulbert?"
I shook my head, but I didn't know if she could see. "No, thank you. I—I just..." Need to feel safe, is what I truly wanted, but I knew that would sound silly. "I'm just a little tired."
"Aye, then I'll leave you be, sir," she said.
The door opened and closed, and I focused on breathing, on Ash's scent on the sheets, on his face this morning as I watched him sleep...
Had Charlie or Gerard convinced them that I was Barrett's lover and therefore his ally? What if they found me guilty of treason? What if... what if I never saw Ash again? Or Tareth? What would they think of me then, being hauled off to the dungeons, to rot in a cell as a traitor—or worse to—to be... put to d—
"Kye." It was Ash, thank the Gods.
Maybe the magistrates had gone already, and I wouldn't have to see them again. I knew they were taking Gerard and Charlie with them to the capital, where they would serve as witnesses in Huxton's trial, as well as Barrett's when he was apprehended. Both men had agreed to tell all they knew to serve lighter sentences. Maybe the meeting had been about preparing the prisoners to leave.
And hopefully, they hadn't decided I had to go too.
"Kye. I need you to get up and come with me."
I peeked out from the edge of the covers. Ash's lips were pursed, his jaw tight. There was something in his tone that seemed wrong. As I reluctantly pulled myself from the bed and approached him, I noticed the corners of his eyes were moist.
Oh, gods... maybe they had...
He reached for me abruptly, pulling me into a tight embrace, burying his face against my neck. As he kissed me deeply, I felt the dampness on his cheeks. He suddenly pulled back, wiping away the evidence of his emotions from his face.
"Ash?" His distance and abrupt schooling of his emotions had my anxiety ratcheting up again. Something was definitely wrong.
"Come. Follow me." His jaw worked as if he was fighting not to say more. He reached out but didn't touch me before he turned to lead me out the door.
My throat went dry. He was formal and distant. "Is everything alright?" I asked his broad shoulders as I hurried to keep up.
My mind raced as I wrung my hands together. Where were we going? It appeared to be outside. Did that mean I was being handed over to the Lord Chancellor? Had he determined I had to be punished under the laws of the realm? Had I become a traitor without realizing it?
"It will be," was all he said, and because I couldn't see his face, I had no idea what that meant.
I wanted to ask more, to grab his arm and make him tell me what was going on, but we had reached the doors to the courtyard. He flung them open striding out. I was a few steps behind him when I stopped. And stared.
Oh, Gods, why were all these people gathered here?
I sucked in a sharp breath as I realized most of the household was standing out here—Tareth, Gavin, Donnelly, Marcus, Beatrice, Patricia, Evander, Alicia, Sam, Tom... and so many others I couldn't yet remember their names....
Why? Why were they all here?
I struggled to swallow as I took in the Lord Chancellor standing strict and proper in the middle of the crowd. He was flanked by Lord Alric and Lord Solomon as well as their guards, all of whom looked starkly formal with their bright sashes indicating their appointment as magistrates—judges and juries for the Regency. Ash had stopped next to his brother, a few feet in front of the Chancellor. Liam hovered slightly behind the Sterling brothers.
There were so many people... so many faces, I couldn't even focus on any of them as I started to feel a little dizzy. I hated they were mostly all staring at me. Probably because I'd come out with the viscount. Maybe here they did a formal departure when nobles left...
"Kye, come here." Lord Federic indicated the spot right in front of him.
Oh, Gods, this was about something I'd done. I blinked, trying to blank my face of my turbulent emotions. Be strong. Be good.
I flicked a look at Tareth as I dragged my leaden feet forward. His hands were fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. It was hard to see his face in the shadows cast by the trees, so I couldn't even see if he was smiling or frowning, or even crying.
With a final glance at Ash, Rowland and Liam, all of whom looked like they were fighting to keep their emotions hidden behind masks of formality, I turned to the Lord Chancellor.
That one word had my heart threatening to beat out of my chest. Oh, Gods, please...
I dropped. More awkwardly than I should have considering my training, but I managed to straighten my back as I placed my hands on my knees. I had to force myself to keep my eyes lowered, because I really wanted to know what I'd done wrong and what they were about to do to me. I prayed they didn't whip me for my crimes, not here, not in front of everyone... Would Rowland do it? Would Ash? Maybe Liam...
"One knee would have sufficed, but this is just as well," Lord Federic commented, fracturing my thoughts. I saw his body turn slightly. "Your sword, Sir Gilliam."
Sword? My eyes shot up to see the man's guard drawing his sleek, gleaming blade from its sheath. Oh... oh... Gods... No... no... how could... why...
I couldn't breathe. My head dropped as tears licked my cheeks. My hands fisted in my pants as I fought to be strong, trying not to imagine my blood marring the pristine shine of the elegant weapon. Apparently, the instrument of my execution.
But why here, why in front of all these people... my brother... Ash...
No wonder Ash was so emotional back in the room; he knew what sentence the magistrates intended to deliver for my crimes.
I tried to be strong—I really did—but when the sharp sword touched my collar bone near my neck, I couldn't help the harsh gasp that escaped. It was a good thing I was already kneeling because my body was shaking so badly I know my knees wouldn't have kept me upright.
"This young man," Lord Federic's voice rose loud over the courtyard, "has been instrumental in a treasonous plot against our Regent."
The tip of the sword weighed heavily on my shoulder, and I thought for sure that I could feel the sharp edge already biting into the side of my neck. As scared as I'd been when Lord Barrett put the glass to my throat, this moment didn't even compare. My body started trembling almost violently. Back then I'd been ready to die, to escape Barrett, but now... now I had Ash... I had felt love... I had my brother... I didn't want it to end this way...
"We all know of his part in Count Rowland's near poisoning..."
Just finish it, please... I didn't need my crimes spelled out for everyone, for Ash and Tareth to have to hear again.
"Wait!" Ash shouted, and I heard movement behind me. "He's shaking..." Suddenly, Ash was kneeling next to me, his eyes wide with panic as he lifted my tear-streaked face to his. "Kye, what...?"
I gripped his wrists as they cupped my face. "I'm so sorry. So very sorry, but please... p-please d-don't do this here."
"Why's he so upset?
"Kye, listen to me." Voices buzzed in the background, but I could only focus on Ash. I wouldn't beg him to save my life, but I would beg him to spare my brother the sight of it. "Breathe for me."
I couldn't. Although I tried to drag in some air. "Please, have them take me somewhere else to—to... do it. Not in front of Tareth, and... and not... you..."
Ash's distressed gaze flickered, his brows drawn tight as his held me. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Amari, please, you must breathe, and tell me what you mean."
My hand lifted to my neck. "May... may I please be granted a p-private e-e-execution?" I begged.
Ash jerked back, eyes wide with horror. "Oh fucking hell..." he gushed out on harsh whisper, just before he wrapped me up tightly. "Oh, Gods, Kye, how could you have thought—" He broke off in a self-deprecating huff as he seemed to realize what had happened. "Fazito enferni, sino supito..." he muttered to himself, shaking his head, "what else would you think after all you've been through..."
"Ash?" Rowland's voice was hovering, and I sensed the magistrates were closer as well.
I was buried against Ash's chest, trying to make sense of his words. My hands fisted in his shirt, clinging to him, praying he'd help me.
"He... he thought..." Ash's voice was broken by sniffs as he lifted his head. "He thought he was being... executed."
"What?!" Lord Federic roared, causing everyone to jump.
Suddenly, another body was on the ground next to me, and I flinched as the Lord Chancellor reached for me. The horror and sadness etched on his face confused me. "Oh, my dear, dear, boy. I have no idea how you even came to believe that you were being punished."
I slowly lifted my head, trying to sort through the confusion I had swirling around me. It took me several moments before I realized they were trying to tell me that I wasn't here to be executed. Worried faces hovered over me, even that of the Knight whose sword had been at my throat.
My frown deepened. Then what was going on? Why was I here? Why did Ash seem so solemn, like he was hiding something when he came to get me? Why were they putting a sword to my neck?
"You... you brought me out here, in front of everyone, and everyone was so... formal... and... you made me kneel... then you put a-a sword to my throat... I don't know what..." My heart continued to race, even though my mind was slowly realizing my life wasn't in danger of ending at this time.
Abruptly, Lord Federic smiled congenially. "Perhaps making this a surprise was not my best plan."
I watched him curiously, only to find others nodding as well. Apparently it was infectious, because soon Solomon, Alric, Rowland, Liam, and the Knights serving as the magistrates' guards were also sharing in the Chancellor's amusement.
Only Ash didn't join them. He continued to hold me, allowing me to sink into the safety of his arms. While he didn't laugh, he did smile down at me warmly before kissing my forehead. "I promised you I would keep you safe. If I thought for one second the Lord Chancellor intended you harm, I would never have brought you out here."
"But if he ordered it—"
"Then I would defy those orders," Ash stated firmly. "I'd take you and run if I had to. You are mine, teh amari."
"You were so solemn... I don't understand then what...?"
"I was sworn to secrecy," Ash stated. "I was only trying not to give away any of the surprise. Yet... I should have known you might expect the worse... although I would never have thought you'd think I'd allow you to be killed, right in front of me, and do nothing about it."
"I-I didn't think you had a choice."
"Hell, I'd fight the magistrates and all their knights if that was their intention," Ash reiterated.
Lord Federic finally slowed his guffaws as he knelt back down next to me. This time when his hand patted my shoulder, I didn't flinch quite as badly. "Dear boy, I am greatly aggrieved to have upset you so. That was most certainly not our intention at all. I'm so used to performing these ceremonies with gravity and majestic dignity that they tend to seem rather somber."
I cocked my head at him. Ceremony? What ceremony?
"Come, rise, young man," he urged, and Ash helped me to my feet. I still felt a little shaky, yet as I glanced around I noticed more smiles instead of solemn decorum. "You are being endowed with knighthood status for your loyalty, valor, and virtuous acts of merit resulting in the protection of the Regency and its citizens."
My mouth fell open. What? His words jumbled together and made no sense. Because it sounded a little like he wanted to make me a knight. And that was just ridiculous. Virtuous acts of merit? What did that even mean?
"Hmm, I don't think he understands," Alric said, his smile widening. "Young Kye. This council has deemed you worthy of the Order of the Knights of the Dragon."
I gaped for a few more moments. "B-But..." I almost asked why, except it really didn't matter, because it most certainly had to be a mistake. "No, no, that can't be right. A knight? Me?"
Ash's chuckle rumbled in my ear, as he stood behind me. "Oh, teh dulcine, you have no idea how much you deserve this."
"No, I haven't done anything to deserve an honor like that," I said more sharply than I'd intended, earning a frown from Lord Federic.
His eyes narrowed at me, piercing me with his gaze as his chest puffed up, and he reverted to the imposing presence of Lord Chancellor. "Are you suggesting I have my facts wrong?"
"Uh," I swallowed under the man's harsh tone. "You must, sir."
His frown deepened. Oh, damn. "Did you or did you not stop Count Rowland from ingesting fatal amounts of poison?"
Huh? Well, maybe just... "I—uh... yes, sir?"
"Did you inform Lord Ashton that Barrett had integrated a spy in his midst?"
It took me a moment to figure out he meant telling Ashton about 'Lee'. "Y-yes, sir."
"And did you or did you not then help lure the spy into revealing himself?" Federic crossed his arms over his massive chest, self-satisfied.
I tilted my head, squinting. "Yes?"
"And when this spy was supposed to hand you over to Barrett's steward, did you then offer yourself up as bait to catch the man?"
"I—I d-did, but—"
"And..." he cut me off sharply, "wasn't it you that informed Lord Ashton and Lord Rowland of Lord Barrett's ties to Lord Huxton and the rebellion?"
I glanced over to the Sterling brothers, both of whom were grinning at me broadly. I closed my eyes as I tried to remember. "I—maybe?"
"And in doing so, also revealed a second minor estate where Barrett had likely been hiding?"
"I didn't know it was a secret—"
The Lord Chancellor paced lazily in front of me as he stared down at me. "And just because we can..." he announced with a wide sweep of his arms. "Let's add exposing Gerard's alliances with Barrett to the list of extraordinary deeds you have committed." He paused, dramatically gazing over the gathered crowd, before pinning me with knowing eyes and a slight quirk to his lips. "Now, which of those facts do I have wrong?"
I squirmed under his gaze. "Well, none, sir," I reluctantly admitted, "but those aren't worth... I mean, I just did them, they aren't... they don't make me worthy of being... knighted, sir."
A few abrupt chuckles broke out around me, and I frowned. Even Lord Federic appeared to be holding back his amusement. I glared through the wisps of gold falling over my face. It wasn't funny; it was true.
"And that, Sir Viscount Consort Kye, is exactly why you are worthy," Lord Federic countered, eliciting smiles and nods from his own knights flanking him.
Oh, Gods, he'd added 'sir' to the title he'd already inflicted on me.
"However, if you still insist on doubting my judgment and the opinions of my colleagues..." He swept his arm to indicate Alric and Solomon. "...then how about we put the question to everyone here?"
What? My eyes widened as he raised his voice even more—as if everyone here couldn't already hear him.
"My fellow countrymen, you have all been privy to the deeds of this young man, providing information relevant to putting down an eminent rebellion, aiding in the capture of spies in your own home here, and his self-sacrifice in abating the attempted assassination of your lord, Count Rowland. As designees of the Regent himself, my fellow magistrates and I have unequivocally chosen to bestow the Order of the Dragon upon this young man. He claims he is not deserving of the honor. So I put it to you, do you deem him worthy? What say you?!" he ended on a shout.
A raucous chorus of "Aye" jolted me, and I spun to see the gathered crowd jumping and cheering. Donnelly, Sam, Evander, Gavin... everyone... just...
My breath caught in my throat, my eyes blurred. Tareth's affirmative scream was drown in the rest, but the pride radiated from him as tears leaked from the corners of his eyes.
"Do I have any 'nay's?" Lord Federic asked as the cheering abated, clearly not expecting any by the amused look on his face.
I spun, as my heart dropped, knowing that voice intimately. Ash.
His lips lifted in a slight smirk before looking over my shoulder at the Chancellor. "I believe he deserves more," he said, my heart soaring at his praise. When he looked back at me, his eyes shone with pride. "But the Order of the Dragon knighthood will do, for now."
I hardly remember being turned back to the Lord Chancellor and dropping to one knee, flanked by Ash, Rowland, and Liam. Sir Gilliam deftly handed over his sword once again, and Lord Federic lifted it before slowly lowering it to my shoulder. I trembled, but this time it wasn't from fear. I almost thought I was dreaming, as this couldn't be real. Not to me. Not a whore who'd been thrown away by his own parents.
I don't know what words he said, my mind was racing, still trying to accept that this was happening. The sword lifted to my other shoulder, and he was announcing me as Sir Kye.
I was mobbed by so many people offering me their congratulations, I hardly knew what to do. But then Tareth was suddenly in front of me, grasping my shoulders and looking at me through his tears.
"I always knew you were special, Kye. Now everyone knows it too." He gripped me in a fierce hug, and I broke down in tears again. It's a wonder I had any left.
There was an afternoon feast, along with more congratulations and accolades before the Regent's men began their journey back to the capital. Ash stayed by my side, offering small kisses and holding my hand when I felt overwhelmed. He knew exactly when I was beginning to feel distressed and how to refocus and calm me with just a touch.
As Ash curled in the bed next to me, my heart and soul still pounding with joy, I knew my life could not get any better. And that, of course, brought on dark thoughts.
I was too happy, too content. Something would happen, I was sure, because it was me, and I was never allowed to be so loved and accepted as I felt now. Something would happen, and my life would fall apart. Again.