March 17, 2024


Previously: Shades of Darkness

Bayford Hall was lit up when Gabriel arrived, much to his surprise. The chandelier was lit, along with the fire and multiple candelabras. The servants had decked the gloomy hall in flowers, and now they milled about the room, carrying trays of wine goblets.

It was an improvement upon the dreary hall; he could see now that the walls were actually painted blue; set against the backdrop of the blue walls, the colorfully dressed guests were actually quite elegant.

He spied the Viscountess Bayford near the window with a tall, slender man who was admittedly very handsome. Lord Thorley had tousled blond hair and a dazzling smile, and he looked the dashing hero in his cerulean doublet embroidered in silver and gold...while the Viscountess was still wearing black.

Gabriel paused before going over; he wondered if perhaps the Viscountess was a shallow woman, taken in by flattery by good-looking men. If so, it would explain her problem actually getting them down the aisle to the altar.

The young couple was accepting greetings and well wishes from guests, so Gabriel got in line and waited until it was his turn. As he waited, the musicians finished setting up and began to play lively music with flutes, lutes, and drums.

"Lord Walling," Elodie greeted when she finally saw him. "You came. This is Lord Thorley of Kamden, a city even further north than Bayford, if you can believe that."

"My lady," he nodded. "Congratulations on your betrothal."

"So this is the famed lord from Liria," Thorley grinned broadly. Now that he was close, Gabriel could see the young man was quite pale and drawn, with dark circles under his eyes and a slight shakiness. Not knowing if it was plague or nerves or simply a lack of drink, Gabriel chose to keep his distance. "I hear your cousin the prince woke up this evening."

"Did he?" Gabriel's eyes widened, full of hope. "Is he walking? Talking?"

"Talking, yes," Elodie nodded, "if not coherently. He should be walking by tomorrow."

"I should attend him them," Gabriel nodded, shoulders relaxing as an invisible weight lifted. "I'm sorry to leave early, my lady."

"Floria!" Thorley cheered suddenly, as a very young girl came forward, bearing a pewter goblet. She greatly resembled the Viscountess, but wore priestess robes and flowers in her hair.

"My sister Floria," Elodie introduced. "Floria, this is Lord Gabriel Walling of Liria."

"My lord," Floria smiled brightly, before turning back to Thorley.

"Floria is tasked with keep me sober," Thorley grinned again, accepting the cup from her. Gabriel noted the lack of humor this time. "She's making sure I only drink water tonight."

"You can drink wine later, Thorley," Floria assured him, before leaving to rejoin her fellow priestesses.

"I'll send a cask to your chamber," Elodie rolled her eyes.

Gabriel knew he ought to leave to check on his cousin, but found himself pausing. "I hear you're staying at the temple."

"My betrothed doesn't trust me unless I'm under watchful eyes, day and night," Thorley shrugged, sipping his water and wincing. "Water is vile." Even so, he promptly drained the cup, as if by sheer habit.

"We live in a town where brothels burn down, my love, and you have been no saint," Elodie reminded him, her tone subtle yet biting.

Gabriel blinked rapidly, caught off guard.

"Oh, look," Elodie raised her chin, "Mother Dorgan's taken the dance floor with her little birds."

Gabriel turned to see the old woman on the floor, smiling and laughing as she led her priestesses in a jaunty line dance. Despite being surrounded by girls a third her age, she was every bit as spry and nimble as they.

"She looks happy," he remarked.

"She loves being 'Mother'," Elodie snorted. Her tone softened and her eyes became distant. "She does it so well. She would've been a good mother." Her eyes flickered back to Gabriel. "She lost her own quite young, you know."

"Explains why she dotes on her 'little birds'," Thorley snickered. "Doesn't force them to do anything they don't want to. Lord Walling, have you ever heard of a temple where the maidens are actually discouraged from being chaste?"

Gabriel took that as his cue to go. "My lord, my lady...apologies for my early departure, but I must see to my cousin. Thank you for having me."

He turned and left quickly before anyone could object. Behind him, he could hear Elodie calling for her sister to bring Thorley more water.


Prince Cyprian was not awake when Gabriel arrived, so the young lord sat by him and waited. The prince's wounds were healed, his fever was broken, and he breathed easily, comfortably in his deep sleep. When the prince did not wake an hour later, Gabriel grew restless and began to explore the temple.

The maidens were gone, but the older priestesses had remained behind. They paid him no mind as he wandered the ancient halls. The temple was mostly empty as this hour; the sconces weren't even lit on the upper floors. But moonlight streamed through the wide stone windows, bathing the halls in ghostly light.

"Four little lords climbing a tree
One falls down and now there are three...."

Gabriel's ears pricked up at the familiar voice. He drifted towards it as if in a dream, following its echo through the halls as it grew louder.

"Three little lords all wrapped in blue
Plague takes one and now there’s two...."

He eventually found Thorley alone on a balcony overlooking the inner city; the groom-to-be swigging from a bottle of wine.

Gabriel's shoulders fell in disappointed. "Aren't you supposed be at your party, my lord?" he asked, barely hiding his annoyance. It seems so tasteless that Thorley had not only left, but had done so for the sake of drink.

"It's a lie, you know," Thorley replied, turning unsteadily on his feet. "I'm no lord. I'm not even from fucking Kamden. She deserves better than me," he confessed after a pause, before drinking again. "The Viscountess has been most generous since my arrival in Bayford. I haven't even paid for a single thing."

"You could still walk away," Gabriel told him. "Spare her the unhappiness of a drunken husband."

"I thought I'd get under control once I got here," Thorley mumbled. "But I can't. I just can't. My father couldn't either. Nor his father."


"I can't leave her, Lord Walling," Thorley pushed back, his voice suddenly deep and firm.

"Why?" Gabriel asked. "Because you need a home? Money? If you require employment, I can easily--"

"I can't leave her because so many others have already left her," Thorley cut him off. "She's been disappointed too many times, and I can't...I can't just...."

Gabriel's voice was leaden, heavy with disgust. "You're already disappointing her. You left her at a celebration thrown in your shared honor, all so you could drown yourself at the bottom of a bottle."

"Once we are wed and I give her an heir, none of this will matter," Thorley sniffed deeply, nodding resolutely. "What happens to me won't matter. She will be finally free, and everyone will stop ridiculing her."

It quickly dawned on Gabriel that this man was holding on to life just long enough for Elodie, and he couldn't stand to be near him. Gabriel turned and left without another word, returning to his cousin's side. He hadn't known what to expect upon arriving in Bayford, but all of this wasn't it.

And it was none of his business, after all.


At Bayford Hall, Emily entered the kitchens just before dawn to find the Widow Bayford herself already up and aging a large slab of meat with butter.

"My lady," the serving girl blinked, "that's for us to do."

"Nonsense," Alinor replied. Her hair was bound in a scarf and she was still wearing her a dressing gown. "Butcher's cart arrived early, which means Mother Dorgan will be arriving for her breakfast soon."

"But that meat won't cure in time," Emily frowned slightly, half-amused.

"I'm aware of that, Emily," Alinor nodded. "That's why I took out the ham she likes so much."

"We can prepare your breakfast for you, my lady," Emily insisted.

"'My lady,'" Alinor snorted, echoing the young girl as she layered the butter. "You know I was born a rope-maker's daughter?"

"Finest in the city, ma'am," the servant nodded politely.

"I had no talent for ropes, of course," Alinor continued, "but I could work wonders in the kitchen. I often thought I'd end up cooking for a great house. Never imagined that great house would be my own. Is Elodie awake?"

Emily nodded. "She requested a bath."

"Of course she's awake," Alinor sighed in weary irritation. "You know what? Maybe we'll get lucky today. Maybe that idiot betrothed of hers will attend breakfast and offer an apology."

The servant said nothing, betraying her doubt, but the widow didn't care.

"Put the meat in the larder, and start breakfast," she ordered. "And have Wilona send up a bath for me as well."


"Fuck the gods."

Gabriel opened his eyes to sit his cousin sitting up and grimacing. Jolting awake, he rose to his feet and came to stand by the prince's side.

"Highness," he bowed slightly, beaming bright, "you've returned to us."

"How long was I out?" Cyprian grimaced.

"Not long," Gabriel shook his head. "The priestesses were able to heal all the arrow wounds, just as I said."

"Any word from my father?"

"Liria's a great distance from here," Gabriel assured him. "But I can send another messenger. If it pleases you, we can leave tomorrow, at first light."

"Gods, no," Cyprian shuddered. "Not that soon. I feel as though I journeyed to the underworld and back."

"You very nearly did, cousin."

Cyprian looked about himself. "This is the temple at Bayford."

"Yes, Highness."

"Hm," the prince murmured. "Do they have jasmine tea in this godforsaken place?"

Gabriel grinned. "They do at the inn. I'll have you moved at once. I've secured comfortable lodgings."

Cyprian lay back down and Gabriel practically skipped downstairs to the main floor. Now that the prince was awake, all attention would be on him. And with the war still raging in Aurea, their stay would be short-lived.

For Bayford was indeed a godforsaken place, and he couldn't wait to leave.

"Galeran," he commanded a knight, "send our fastest remaining rider to the king, and bring our carriage to the temple. His Highness is ready to relocate to the inn."

"My lord," the knight bowed slightly, before leaving to obey. The priestesses were in a huddle this morning, trading frantic hushed whispers until Mother Dorgan came to disperse them and remind them of their duties. She spied Gabriel and came over to greet him.

"My Lord Walling," she said brightly.

"Mother," he bowed.

She chuckled. "I never get tired of hearing that. I take it your prince is well?"

"He is, madam."

"Good news," she nodded. "Though not so good to counter the bad, I'm afraid." She paused. "Thorley is dead."

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