“Ha,” Milo murmured across the chess table. “See what you make of that!”
Then he froze. Did I …
Did I just say that out loud?
He had excellent reason to wonder about his choice of words — the fact that he chose to speak at all — if not his sanity. For there was nobody sitting across from him to hear it.
He cradled his head in his hands, his elbows sending the carefully set-up pieces flying. He chuckled. “You’re really losing it, aren’t you, Milo?”
There were some who were made for nights of solitude, for whom the voice between one’s ears was plenty of company. Not Milo. He needed people, damn it, he needed life and light and noise and action. There was a reason why he constantly sought out his friends and their entertainments: he would go crazy left here too long out on his own.
Maybe … The thought didn’t even need to complete itself to be toyed with. He knew Nicole was working tonight. He could pull out the old worn tunic and hosen and head down to the Onion. Surely she’d appreciate seeing him. And then he could walk her home, make sure she arrived safely.
Except … he sighed and looked out the window. The snow still fell, blustering and spiraling in the winds. No, tonight wasn’t a night for going out. If he showed up, who was to say he could get Nicole back home again? And if it was too bad, she could stay at the home of her friend Roma’s mother, or else sleep in the Onion itself. Milo couldn’t do either, not without raising questions for among Nicole’s friends that she wouldn’t want to answer.
He looked again at the chess table, sighed, and began to right the pieces. He had promised himself that the next snowy night he would study up on tactics and strategy, the better to be of use to his new country. That was tonight. It was either playing chess against himself, or studying the works of the great Glasonlander general Odoacer. Unfortunately, while Odoacer was a military genius, he was illiterate, so he had left the actual writing of his memoirs to the various monks and scribes who clung to his coattails as fleas clung to a dog’s behind. They also had a flea’s talent for sucking the life and blood out of anything. So chess it would have —
Knock knock knock!
Milo froze. Who could that be?
Knock knock knock!
“I’m coming!” Milo shouted, jogging to the door. Nobody knocked like that unless it was an emergency. Hell, nobody went out on a night like this unless the world itself threatened to end if they didn’t.
He threw the door open. “What is –”
Still, no matter what he might have been steeling himself for — news of invasion, of someone’s death, of a fire eating up half the kingdom — nothing prepared him for what he saw. “Nicole!”
She was shivering, her teeth chattering, body shuddering on his very doorstep. “What –”
She didn’t answer. She didn’t even wait for the question. She launched herself into his arms without a further word.
The wind blew the door shut with a slam. Nicole jumped against him like a frightened rabbit.
“Nicole!” Milo exclaimed. There was no other word he could have gotten out at that moment. He held her closer, his whole body trembling with every chatter of her teeth.
What happened to you? Snow had collected on her sleeves, melting under his fingertips. He brushed it away, then out of her hair, then off her bodice. But her skin was oddly warm — warm and flushed, slick with sweat. A couple of exploratory swipes through her hair proved that at least half the moisture in it was sweat, too, not melted snow.
She gasped and began to shudder against him. Milo fingered the ends of her hair. Just this side of frozen. Good Lord, but the cold must have only just been starting to hit her.
A fire. He needed to get her closer to the fire, away from the door that had always seemed snug and flush to Milo, but now seemed too drafty to be near Nicole. He started to move backwards, one hand on her waist to guide her with him —
Nicole sobbed and launched herself, if that was possible, once again against it. “Easy, easy,” Milo murmured, shushing her as he would shush a frightened horse. “It’s all right. I’m right here. Easy, easy …”
Nicole’s little chin nestled against his shoulder, fitting there as perfectly as if the two had been sculpted for each other. Milo began to rub her back. As he felt the freezing water drip down from her hair, he rubbed harder, hoping to warm her before he had a chance to grow cold.
Water. Water from the front of her hair dripped down the front of his tunic, snaking in between the two of them, leaving a shivering trail in its wake. His sleeves soaked the snow from her sleeves. There would be a puddle between them before all of this was over.
Water was dripping from her hair onto his shoulder, too, on either side of Nicole’s chin. But this water was warm …
Nicole suddenly sobbed, and it was all Milo could do to avoid pulling away with a yelp. “Nicole?” he gasped. “Nicole — what’s wrong?”
She wasn’t just shuddering with cold anymore. Those shudders were sobs left unheaved, unable to leave her mouth —
“Nicole …” Milo pushed both heavy sheaves of hair away from her face, trying to get a look in her eyes. “Tell me. What is it?”
She buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
He would not yelp. He would not panic. But nothing could stop his hands from trembling as they tried to push her hair away from her face, so he could look at her. Nothing could stop the tightness that closed around his throat. “Nicole, you have to talk to me. I can’t fix what I don’t know is wrong.”
Finally, finally, she spoke. Her words were hardly encouraging, but at this point, he would take what he could get. “You c-c-can’t.”
“Try me,” Milo said flippantly, before he could think better of it. In better times it would have made her laugh. Tonight it made her shake and shudder.
And then a thought, swift and terrible as the lightning, coursed through him. For a heartbeat he gasped and clutched her closer to him. It wasn’t — it couldn’t be —
“Nicole.” His voice echoed, as if on the far end of a tunnel. He wasn’t hearing this. He wasn’t saying this. Because what he feared — even if it was the only reason he could imagine why she would run to him from halfway across the kingdom, through the freezing snow to boot — it could not possibly be true. He pushed her hair behind her ears. “Nicole, look at me.”
She wouldn’t. So Milo, gently, caught one of her hands in his and drew it down. Surprised, she finally looked at him.
But that only made that horrible moment come onto him all the sooner. Milo refused to gulp. Now was not the time to show fear, not if — not if what he prayed wasn’t true was true. “Did –” His voice was going to break no matter what he did. “Did someone — hurt you?”
That Onion — so many rough customers. So many drunks. So many dark corners into which one could push a serving maid, not understanding that “no” meant exactly what it said …
There was no hiding the wide eyes, the slight gasp of surprise. “You …” Nicole started. “You mean …?”
She shook her head.
“Are — are you sure?” Milo asked. Lord, what a stupid question. This was hardly the kind of thing one couldn’t be sure about. “You — you can tell me. I’ll protect you.” Somehow.
“I am.” Tears still streamed freely down her cheeks; Milo carelessly wiped a few away. “Truly,” Nicole murmured. “Nobody’s — nobody’s touched me.”
He knew he believed her because of the way relief washed over him like the water from a gentle stream. His knees were knocked half off-balance from it.
But that was only the most horrific possibility out of the way, and the way she said touched … “What happened, then?” Milo asked.
Nicole shuddered and covered her face with her hands. “They — they …” Now her knees buckled, and Milo had to dive for her to keep her upright. “They’re here …”
Um … Who was “they”? And for that matter, why were they here? And why —
Milo’s heart almost stopped as the memory of the second time they met flashed across his mind. She had said that night that she knew what he was going through, that she too had been hunted. If the people who had hunted her were after her now —
“Where?” Milo asked, voice clipped and short. His hand went to where his sword would be, if he had been wearing one.
“The — the Onion!” she wailed. “Three of them! Even Rodnius! They got him to come after me!”
Rodnius — why was that name sticking out to him as familiar?
“I didn’t kn-know who the other two were,” Nicole admitted in a softer sob. “They — they — I didn’t recognize them …”
“Who?” Milo asked again. “Tell me what they looked like. Anything to help me find them.”
“Find them?” Nicole shrieked. “Why?”
It’s a bit hard to run them through if I don’t know where they are?
“They — they — I can’t go near them! They’ll put me in the salt mines! With — with –”
The salt mines — that was where the Remans put their worst criminals! What — who could think to put Nicole, sweet Nicole, in the salt mines? She couldn’t have possibly done anything to merit that!
“Mater!” Nicole blubbered.
Mater — that was Reman for “mother.” Well, who wouldn’t want their mother if they were half as terrified as Nicole? “Shush,” Milo murmured, pushing Nicole’s hair back again. “It’s all right. I’m right here. I’ll keep you safe.”
“She died there,” Nicole blubbered. “She — it’s been four years! She must have … she can’t have survived … and my nieces, and my nephews … oh, Lord! And now they know where I am!”
What? Who? Milo kissed her temple and tried to rub some calm into her shoulder.
“Mater …” Nicole murmured again. “I’m sorry …”
“She understands,” Milo babbled, because he had to say something. Nicole looked up at him in shock. “She must,” he continued. “Mothers always do.”
“You — you think so?”
“But … I abandoned them … they were sent to the salt mines, and I ran away …”
Her whole family was sent to the salt mines?
And then Milo remembered: he remembered how power worked in the real world, not in this safe little enclave Arthur had carved out for himself and those who came to his banner. In the real world, it was not only the most vicious, vile criminals who were taken and given the cruel death they deserved. It wasn’t even just those who who had committed an act some would say was patriotic and others treasonous, or who had unwittingly annoyed the monarch, or even had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, in the real world, when the crime — real or imagined — was serious enough, then the powers that be rounded up the offender’s family as well, and inflicted the worst punishments on them. What better way was there to keep the rest of the country in line?
And if that was what King Vortigern of Glasonland was capable of, if Milo could think of five families off the top of his head who had had their goods confiscated, sometimes thrown into the Tower, then what might the Remans do to those who displeased them?
The salt mines.
Milo shuddered. But he had to say something to Nicole. “If your mother knew — knew that you ran away,” Milo answered, “then she was probably glad of it.”
Nicole startled. “What?”
“What mother wouldn’t be happy to know that her child escaped a horrible fate?” Milo asked.
“I …” Nicole’s face scrunched, as if she could not quite understand the logic.
“Come,” Milo said, leading her to couch. “Let’s — let’s sit down, and you can tell me all about it.”
And so she did.
She told him how she had run away four years ago. Her father had been accused — and in Reme as in Glasonland, accused was the same thing as tried and convicted — of treason. Nicole said that she didn’t know what it was that he had done. Milo was not surprised. Even now, four years after her harrowing escape, Nicole had the soul of an innocent.
He stroked her face, wiping her tears as best he could with his fingers. If Nicole’s father, treason or no treason, was halfway worthy of the daughter he had, he never would have allowed her to find out about his plots and schemes. And now, so many years later, what did it matter?
Nicole told him everything. How she escaped. What she imagined had happened to her mother, her father, her brothers, her nieces and nephews. How she prayed her sisters and their children were still alive, but how she could not fix her hopes on it, because she did not know what she would do if those hopes were dashed. She told him her full name, too: Nicoletta Augusta Cornelia Quarta Saquinarius. He rather preferred Nicole Saquina, but he would save that confession for another day.
And then she got to the men at the Onion.
“I saw Rodnius,” Nicole whispered. “He — we –” She bowed her head and blushed. “He was a suitor of mine … before …”
Some other time, Milo would make a joke about Nicole not letting him know about the competition. But not now.
“He must have recognized me,” Nicole murmured. “At least — I knew him — I saw him, and I … I panicked.” She shuddered. “I ran. And now … I don’t know …”
Rodnius … Rodnius … Why was that name —
The significance hit him with the force of a frying pan to the brain. “… Nicole?”
“He — he wouldn’t happen to be Rodnius of Jung, would he?”
“He’s Quintus Rodnius Jung–” she started, but clearly thought better of it. Milo was glad of it. The last thing he needed was to have to try to figure out the Remans and their thrice-damned, convoluted names. “Aye. That’s — that’s how it would be translated. Rodnius of Jung. Why?”
Milo stared at her and wondered how he could possibly say this.
“… Milo?” Nicole whispered.
Milo swallowed. “Nicole … I think those three men you saw were the Reman envoys.”
“What?” Nicole gasped.
“Aye. They’re here because of … well, because of Vortigern’s death, and all that’s led to …”
“And now they saw me!” Nicole yelped. She threw herself against him, shaking all over again.
“Hey — hey … easy, Nicole. It’s — it’ll be all right.” He rubbed her back. “Somehow. Look — look, Arthur wouldn’t let them take you away. There — there’s no slavery in Albion. So, if the Remans claimed you for their slave, you were freed the moment you crossed over the border. Aye? He won’t let them touch you. You’ll be safe. And even if — if he wouldn’t do it on principle — I’m his bloody nephew, for heaven’s sake! He’ll do it if I ask him!”
“You c-can’t be sure …”
“Aye, I can be. And if he won’t step in — so what? I’ve got my sword. We’ll board the first ship to Simspain; they always need knights there. We’ll get well out of the Remans’ reach.”
“I can’t ask you to do that.”
“Ask? Who said anything about asking?” Milo kissed Nicole’s lips, briefly, the barest peck. “You didn’t ask me. I’m telling you: I’ll get you out of here if that’s what you need.”
“You’d run again?” Nicole murmured. “You … you have a life here …”
“I wouldn’t,” he replied, “if it weren’t for you.” Nicole blinked. “I mean it,” Milo continued. “If — if I hadn’t met you at the Onion — the second time — I never would have never realized that I needed to ask my cousin for help. I never would have found a home here. I never … I never would have found you. We would have never had this.”
“You … you mean it?”
She smiled. And that was all the encouragement Milo needed to ease her from his lap and help her stand.
“Come on,” he said, leading her upstairs. “It’s late … you’re exhausted … we can worry about this more in the morning.” He half turned, smiling at her. “You can take my bed. I’ll sleep on the sofa. It’ll be nice and warm up there.”
“It — will?” Why did she sound so lost, so disappointed?
“Of course,” Milo agreed. “Do you think I’d sleep in the coldest room in the house?” He turned to her again, half-grinning, asking her to share in the joke.
Nicole did not laugh. She didn’t even smile.
Perhaps it was to be expected. He led her up the last of the stairs, then ushered her into the bedroom. “Well, this is it,” he said. “It’s …” He looked around. “Well, it’s a man’s room. I’m sorry, Nicole, I can’t put it any better than that.”
“It’s lovely,” Nicole replied. But her voice was as still and dead as the snow outside.
Milo hurried to the dresser. “I’ve got some nightshirts — long ones — they should be big enough to fit you –”
“Please don’t go,” Nicole interrupted.
Milo froze. “Er …”
“Please,” Nicole repeated. “Please don’t leave me all alone up here. I can’t — I — please don’t leave me alone. Not — not tonight.”
Milo turned to look her in the eyes.
And it was her eyes that did it. They were shadowed, red-rimmed from all her crying. She looked exhausted. She looked afraid.
“Are you …” Milo caressed her cheek. “Are you sure?”
“We can do anything you want –”
“After, after everything you’ve done — everything you said you will do — it’s the least I can –”
“Nicole! I’m not that kind of man!”
“Please don’t leave me alone,” Nicole repeated. “Please?”
Milo kissed her forehead. “Of course I won’t. I promise. Here — you can use the privy to wash up and change. Is that all right?”
Nicole nodded, and that was an end of that. He did not leave her alone.
At least … not until morning broke.