Year of the Reaper
Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.
—William Congreve, The Mourning Bride
They rode for hours, through the night and into the dawn, stopping for nothing, not even to rest the horses. They knew what hunted them. A threat that could neither be seen nor heard nor felt, until one turned around and there it was. Too late to run then. Plague was spread through the air, you see. Everyone knew this.
Jehan struggled to stay awake on her horse. Weariness dragged her chin to her chest before she caught herself, jerking upright in the saddle. Bleary eyes took in the tall, stately cypress lining their route and the sun rising above the mountains in the east. Ten guards rode before her, ten in back. So few of them remained. The others had been left behind in towns and villages along the way. Her people. Shed like snakeskin.
Dead like snakeskin.
Jehan could not think of them now. If she did, she would scream. On and on forever. And that would not do, here, in front of the others.
Mari was alive. This she could give thanks for. Just then, Mari looked over from her own horse. She wore a traveling cloak the same midnight blue as Jehan’s. Her hood had been pushed back, and long dark hair blew free in the wind. The smile she gave Jehan was tired but reassuring. Not long now, she mouthed.
Despite everything, Jehan smiled. Mari had been saying the same for days. Not long now. Almost there. Jehan started to tell her so just as one of the guards ahead slid from his horse. He did not wake and catch himself but fell out of the saddle entirely, hitting the earth with a thud and the unmistakable sound of bone cracking.
“Stop!” Jehan shouted.
Dust rose, pebbles flew. The cortege ground to a halt. Without waiting for assistance, Jehan dismounted. She grabbed Mari’s hand and they raced to where the Brisan ambassador already knelt by the fallen guard.
The ambassador flung out an arm to ward them off. “Stand back!”
He was normally a mild-mannered man, gray-haired and dignified. The ferocity of his tone stopped them in their tracks. That, and the panic that lay just beneath the surface. They obeyed. Jehan, Mari, the guards, the envoy from Oliveras. The old nurse and the court painter, wringing their hands in dread.
As for the fallen guard, he sprawled on his back, barely conscious. From the way one arm lay on the ground, the angle hideous and unnatural, Jehan knew it was broken. Just as she understood shattered bones were the least of his troubles. Sweat poured off a face that had turned a familiar mottled red. Pity filled her, sorrow too, but not surprise.
“Plague?” Jehan asked quietly. Mari’s hand tightened in hers.
“He’s feverish.” The ambassador busied himself removing the guard’s tunic. Rather than yank it over his head and broken arm, he took a dagger from his belt and sliced through leather and wool.
Mari reasoned, “A fever, then. It doesn’t mean . . .” She trailed off in dismay as the ambassador pushed aside the guard’s tunic, exposing the pit of his arm, where a boil the size of an egg nestled among downy black hairs. A strange gurgling sound emerged from it. The boil shivered and pulsed, as though the blood and pus and poison within were living things struggling to break free.
Sickened, Jehan stepped back. Everyone stepped back. Fear sent shivers racing up her spine and trailing along her limbs. Plumes of smoke rose in the distance. Another village burning its dead. Jehan could almost taste the bitterness of the ash, thick at the base of her throat.
The ambassador remained crouched by the guard’s side. He closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them, they settled on her. Red-rimmed from exhaustion, the smudges beneath grown darker with each passing day.
“Princess Jehan. This can go on no longer. You must leave us.”
Jehan exchanged a quick, startled glance with Mari. Jehan said, “What are you saying? Leave whom? And go where?” All around them were anxious mutterings.
“We’re hindering you.” The ambassador stood, knees cracking. “Every one of us is a threat. Go with Lord Ventillas. Take Mari, take the women—and find King Rayan.”
“Father, no!” Mari burst out. A look from the ambassador had her swallowing her words.
Jehan had no intention of riding to the capital of Oliveras without him. “And leave you here? Of course I won’t go—”
“Princess Jehan.” The ambassador spoke with steel in his voice. “How many years have we been at war with Oliveras?”
A history lesson? Now? “Why does that matter?”
“How many? Tell me.”
Jehan could not remember the precise number. Who could? Everyone watched, waiting, and a mortifying heat spread up her neck. Mari squeezed her hand. Under her breath, for Jehan’s ears only, Mari murmured, “Fifty-two.”
Jehan squeezed back. One could always depend on Mari. “Fifty-two,” she repeated in a louder voice.
“As many years as I’ve been alive.” The look the ambassador gave her and Mari made it clear he had not been fooled. “I’ve never known a life without war. Countless dead. Your brothers. My sons. This war ends the day you marry the king. You must survive this journey, and your odds are greater if you move quickly. If you avoid all threat.”
A traveling quarantine of sorts. It made sense. “But why won’t you come? You’re the head of this delegation. Father sent you.”
Beside her, a hitch to Mari’s breath. She knew the answer to Jehan’s question. She saw it on her father’s face.
“I cannot.” The ambassador pushed aside his collar to show the boil just beneath his ear. Like an overripe berry, wine-colored, ready to burst.
Jehan bit her lip so hard she tasted blood. Mari’s hand slipped free of hers, but when her friend stumbled forward, Jehan caught her arm and dragged her back.
The ambassador did not look at his daughter. Instead, he watched Jehan intently to see what she would do. Church bells rang out in the village. Tolling endlessly. A warning to all who heard to keep away. They would find no shelter there. Fighting a rising panic, Jehan thought about what the ambassador’s illness meant. For all of them. She hated Oliveras, this kingdom where she would be queen. It had brought nothing but pain and death to those she loved. She wanted to go home, to Brisa. But she had promised her father. She had given her word. Very quietly, she asked, “What will you do?”
Approval flickered over the ambassador’s expression. He studied the woods beyond the road. “We’ll stay here, make camp.” Glancing down at the doomed guard, he added, “No one will take us in as we are. If we can, we’ll follow.”
“When you can,” Jehan corrected.
“When,” the ambassador agreed. Humoring her, she knew. And now he looked past her. “My lord Ventillas.”
Year of the Reaper