March 17, 2024

Prologue: The Thing You Hate

Previously: Dramatis Personae

What a horrid place.

As the sun slowly died in the west, Lord Gabriel Walling looked out upon the barren wastes of the North. He saw no rivers, nor trees, nor even animals roaming the wild. He briefly wondered if the North always looked like this, or if the people had simply killed and cut down everything of use.

The wind was harsh and brittle as the lands it swept over. It was barely Autumn's End, yet he could feel the cold sinking into his bones. Gabriel leaned out the carriage window and as they rolled towards the great walled city of Bayford. Having stood for centuries, it was likely once a small settlement built out of immediate necessity, because the placing made no sense to him. Instead of standing atop a hill, it lay within a dip. And it wasn't built upon a lake or near a river.

City of Bayford, deep in the North Wilds
Closing the carriage window, he sat back against the seat and said reassuringly, "Not much longer now."

His older cousin, the towering Crown Prince of Liria, couldn't hear him, of course. His body had been riddled with arrows, and though all his wounds were bandaged, the healing was going poorly and he was trapped in a fever that wouldn't break.

It made no difference. They'd finally made it to Bayford, where the famed Blue Priestess could heal any wound. Cyprian would be healed, and the line of succession would remain intact.


The doors of Bayford Hall
It was nighttime in Bayford. The bells of vesper had long grown silent as the skies turned black, brightened by the ten stars of the Winter Constellation, the only constellation visible this time of year.

In Bayford Hall, supper was served late in the main hall, after the sun. Despite the Bayford family's newfound fortune, little about the hall had changed; it was the same gloomy room with a hearth and long, thin dining table. Lady Alinor, fondly dubbed the Widow Bayford, refused to redecorate. She feared it would inspire yet more visitors to her hall.

And after the fall of Aurea, she couldn't abide visitors. As it was, she all the 'visitor' she could stand.

"We got more donations today," Mother Dorgan was saying, cutting her meat with gusto. Even as she stuffed a large piece into her mouth, she kept talking. "The usual coin and livestock, but what caught my attention above all was the blue dye, finest I've ever seen. Seems my little birds all be getting new robes at the temple this winter."

Lady Alinor Bayford, on the other hand, was eating nothing. This was usually the case whenever the temple mother came over to dine. Lady Bess Dorgan was an infamously avid eater, digging and cutting into her food with zeal, then loudly chewing and savoring every bit. It robbed Alinor of her appetite. She clutched her silver goblet, occasionally sipping her wine and tasting naught.

"How fares Floria?" she asked in a leaden voice, before turning her dark eyes back to the dying embers of the hearth. Thankfully, her new servants were most attentive. One girl stoked a fire while another refilled her cup.

"Same as always," Bess shrugged. The two women were similar, yet nothing alike. Bess spoke with an accent of some Southern tribe, while Alinor sounded like a proper lady of the North. Bess's voice was husky, rusty; her temple maidens mused that in her youth she'd probably inhaled too much incense smoke. They were both full-figured and dark brown, yet despite being older women, they still had jet black hair. "She's warming to me, I think...though her studies keep her well occupied."

"And Elodie? Has she met with any new suitors? I haven't seen her in days."

"The temple keeps her busy, and as for suitors, don't be ridiculous, Alinor," Bess rolled her eyes slightly. "Her betrothed is still alive."

Alinor's face soured even further. "Right. Thorley. I forgot."

Bess gave deep giggle. "He is quite a forgettable one."

"Is he still drinking the temple into a draught?" Lady Bayford scowled.

Bess chuckled, holding her goblet for a refill. "You know he is. Flawed as the boy is, he knows his wines." She drank deep of her filled cup, savoring the rich taste. "Such pleasures, such pleasures." Her eyes widened suddenly, remembering. "You got more letters today."

"Another Duke proposed to me," Alinor grumbled. "Offered to whisk me away to the capital, of all places."

"And you said no."

"I can't abide royals, Bess," Alinor spat. "You know that."

Bess attempted to be soothing. "Not all kingdoms are like Aurea. If they were, there'd be no kingdoms."

"My daughters need me. Bayford needs me."

"Your daughters?" Bess scoffed. "Elodie is a woman grown; Floria has sworn off men and marriage. The town is flourishing, despite its dreadful location." Her eyes widened further. "Ah, but the location is the appeal, isn't it?  When you gaze out upon the cold and barren plains, you feel safe, don't you?"

Alinor refused to answer. Of course, she felt safer here. It was her home. In her youth, she'd wished it was more famous, but now she preferred the days when everyone left Bayford well alone.

"Under normal circumstances, I would gladly leave," Alinor finally said. "I would happily marry a Duke and move far away, just as I always dreamed as a child. But Aurea changed everything, Bess. My daughters and I are very different people now."

Bess's head slowly rose and fell. "So I've noticed. You should be careful, my lady. The last thing you want to become is the very thing you hate."

It was Alinor's turn to scoff. "And what of you, Mother? Haven't you become the very thing you hate?"

Bess's dark eyes were suddenly unreadable. "I suppose that remains to be seen."

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