Author’s Note: So I thought about what to do for Three Word Wednesday, knowing that the prompts would not work for the scene I’d written to follow the last one I’d posted of this story, and forcing the words in would not work at all.
Then the idea of Agache watching the nitage and this came about. It doesn’t really fit with the rest of the story because he has not shared his thoughts since the prologue, but it is set at the same time as The Queen, the Bird, and the Cage.
The words for this week were: believe, penitent, and tribute.
He stood, watching the others pay tribute to a man who was not dead, wondering how much of him was a coward and how much was weak. Were he a stronger person, a better man, he would not be standing above the crowds, would not be a mere observer. He would be where he would be of use, would have announced his survival and made it hold some kind of purpose, but he was not there. He was where he knew he would not be seen.
True, he had been noticed, once, but he did not think that he was seen so much as sensed, and he had been impressed by that. Even now, he felt his lips curving into a smile. He had known the woman was different, but he had not known how until he caught her in the middle of her routine. He had been taught some rudimentary swordsmanship when he was younger, but he had not half the skill or grace that she had displayed when she walked through those steps. No, she danced through them, giving the movements an elegance that they should not have had. He could have watched her for days, not hoping to learn anything from what she was doing, just admiring it.
He shook his head. Perhaps if he had more training, he could use it in the quiet as she did, renewing his strength, but he did not possess it. He did not know that he had any strength at all.
He closed his eyes, listening to the hymns coming from below. He had heard them sung before, once a year for every year of his life, but this year he felt condemned by it. They mourned, all of them grieved, and they sang for someone who did not deserve their esteem. Their love was given to an idea, a myth, and he wondered when it had been created. Upon his arrest? When they were told that he was dead? Was that all it took to become a martyr?
He was not worthy of such honor, and even if he managed to succeed in his recent campaigns, he did not believe that he ever would be. He put a hand against the wall, leaning back against it. He felt weak in more than spirit. His body had not yet healed, and all those aches had chosen to manifest themselves now, joining the chorus coming from the outside.
“Let the nitage end,” he whispered, shaking his head. “Let us never mourn again.”
He knew that was not possible. They would lose more of the Nebkasha even if they managed to overthrow the king. The king and Malzhi. They had to be certain that no one with Malzhi’s amount of control and cruelty was there to step into the king’s place.
Agache opened his eyes, stepping across the balcony to look the one where Malzhi stood with the queen. If she was not foreign, perhaps she could have been the one to succeed the king, but the land would never accept her as his heir. Not with their prejudice. Anyone who was not Biskane was not worthy of their attention. That was what they believed, what they had always believed.
He saw the queen pull away from Malzhi, leaving the balcony, and he stepped back, lest Malzhi’s attention come toward her window and spot him there. None of the Nebkasha should be here—they should all be down with the mourners. He could not join them, though. What they grieved was false, and he could not be a part of it.
He looked up as the queen shut the door behind her, betraying her relief at being alone. He had not thought she’d reach this room so quickly, but if she had run or he’d been too distracted, too slow in his movements, it was possible. He turned to leave, but the floor creaked, revealing his presence. She blinked. “Shouldn’t you be down mourning with the others?”
He did not—could not—respond. He was not ready to reveal that he was alive, even if he had thought that he wanted her for an ally. He lowered the shade that kept the sun out, hearing her sigh.
“I didn’t know any of you had been kept behind to see to my needs. If I had, I would have sent you to join the others.”
He frowned. Something in her voice bothered him. She did not sound as she should. He grimaced, cursing himself for not thinking of it sooner. She should have been warned. He poured some water from the pitcher and carried it to her. She sipped from the cup, and he watched her with concern, thinking that she might just collapse on him.
“I lied,” she said. “I do care about the ones he calls worms.”
That made him smile, though he doubted that she had meant to say anything to him. “I thought you would.”
The queen frowned, but the herbs that Malzhi used were already taking effect. “What…”
“Rest, Esibani. You are safe here.” Agache moved forward, catching her as she faltered, lifting her up into his arms. His body protested, his arm in particular objecting to the weight as he carried her over to her bed. He did not care. He should hurt. That was what he deserved.
He set her down on the bed and sat beside her, looking down at her face. He could not let this happen to her again, not to her or any of the others. He lowered his head and took a deep breath. He would do this, do what was necessary to protect her and the others. That was his duty. His penance. He had lived, and he must make his continued existence worth something after his failure to do so with the first chance he’d been given.
“You are safe,” he repeated, knowing he would do everything that he could to keep her that way. Her and the rest of the Nebkasha. What happened to him did not matter, not even if Malzhi came through the door now. Agache would stay and ensure her safety, and while he did, he would try to find a way to help the others. His hand went to the scar on his arm, and he cursed, knowing that he would fail at this task as well.