One week before:
“Brekke is a powder keg, Gloriane, and the fuse is set. Who knows what will spark the flame?” Damien shook his head, frowning down at his hands clasped on the table. “A revolution is brewing. The people are primed and ready, and I doubt it will be long before their rage erupts. We know that the military will be ordered to act against the citizens, and that will be bloody.” He tapped the table with his clasped hands, and looked up at his Queen, his pale blue eyes shadowed with concern. “The Directors care not a whit for any but themselves. They are planning something, but we have no hint of what it is. Whatever, we think it will be soon.” He spread his hands in a gesture of uncertainty. “My man should have something for me by now.”
“Then go,” Gloriane said quietly. “Learn what you can.” She shook her head as he rose, then looked up. “And Damien—”
He had already bowed and turned to go, but now turned back, hearing an odd note in Gloriane’s voice.
“Be careful, Damien,” she said, meeting his eyes intently, “Be careful. I am… uneasy. Something is very far wrong.”
“I will take care, Your Majesty.” His voice was sober, taking her warning seriously. He laid his hand on his heart and bowed again, then turned and left.
* * *
Damien took the handful of papers from his contact and scanned through them. His hands froze on one, and he read it again, his breath caught in his throat. “You’re sure this is genuine, Marczyn?” he asked hoarsely.
The other man nodded. “I copied it myself. Is it important?”
“Desperately…” Damien said in a fading whisper, then took a sharp breath. “I need a horse.”
“Take mine,” the man said, and gestured across the way to where a horse was tethered.
Damien was already crossing the allée, shoving the papers into his scrip. He mounted up and turned the horse, then tossed a purse to his friend. “They are going to start a war, Marczyn! Take your family, go somewhere safe. Don’t go back there.”
Damien put heels to the horse, and it leaped away. “Don’t go back!”
* * *
He drove the horse hard, all that day and through the night, his fears riding him just as brutally. He tried to be moderate, tried to keep a sane pace to spare the horse, but the date on that paper pounded in his heart and brain as the horse’s hooves pounded the road. Too late, too late, too late…
It was a gallant beast, and gave all he had and more at Damien’s asking, but nothing could survive the brutal pace he demanded. Damien screamed out his anguish and rage as he felt the horse falter and sink beneath him; he kicked his feet out of the stirrups and jumped free as the horse fell.
He sprawled in the dirt for a moment, stunned, then crawled to the horse that lay dying in the road. “Rest, great heart,” he said, and stroked the horse’s cheek. He took out his knife and severed the great blood vessel in its neck, soothing it and waiting until the harsh breaths stilled and the blood ceased to flow. “I am sorry…”
Then he settled his scrip securely over his shoulder and began to run.
* * *
Within the hour he saw a man riding toward him. When they were close enough, Damien sprang in front of the horse, making it rear. He caught the reins and hauled the man off the horse and down into the dirt. He vaulted up into the saddle, and with two slashes of his knife cut the man’s belongings from behind it, then booted the horse into a dead run.
* * *