breakfastofchampions: (chester)
[personal profile] breakfastofchampions
Title: Evening Falls
Universe: Goldenhour
Characters/Pairings: suggested Chester/Matthew
Rating: PG13 (mentions of death, mutilation of shrubbery)
Wordcount: 2160
Spoilers: Various, for the novel, but things might change, as I'm always revising.
Summary: When the king falls ill, Chester is left to deal with the wreckage of Eastland's court, but Chester has his own wounds to deal with as well.
Notes: for [community profile] origfic_bingo, for the prompt "Sunset Stroll".

Chester was an old man already. Days of negotiations with High King Cibran's messenger had left him feeling worn and thin. He found it difficult to believe that he was not far past the twentieth year of his life, yet he had already been named King's Sentinel, by far the youngest man to ever hold that title. He did not deserve his new position, and more than that, he did not want it.

His wants were immaterial. The king had chosen him, so he had been asked to represent Eastland in the talks following the tragedy at Best-Loved.

"Where are the children?" he had asked, it felt like a thousand times, though for diplomacy's sake, it had not been nearly so many, and he had phrased the question differently every time. Carefully. A diplomat had to be careful. A diplomat: was that was he was now? He had never sought that role. He had wanted to be a knight like his father, nothing more. "Where is his wife?"

The Aetherian would not answer either question. The Aetherians were furious with Eastland, after what they saw as a lapse of judgment and a lack of watchfulness on the part of its citizens and its government. After naming Chester as his advisor, poor Eastland's king had fallen ill, and no one could say what the cause of his illness was, so he could not speak for himself or his nation. The next dawn might see his death or his recovery.

Chester feared that the Goldenhour family had been spirited away. He had heard rumors that such things happened--no, he had seen proof, of a sort--but he did not know what became of those who were so taken. Did they die? He almost hoped they did, although mere months ago, he would not have entertained such a thought for as much as a moment. Now, things had changed. Now, he was a different man. He had grown old.

This day had been a long one, and he was relieved when the sun began to sink toward the horizon of its rest. Aetherians did not work at night. He was not sure where they went at night, and he did not ask, for he did not wish to know. He was glad to be free of them.

He should have eaten, but he waved off the attendants who suggested as much. He no longer had to do what anyone suggested. With the king sick, he was, amazingly, the most powerful human man in Eastland. He should not have been, but since he had that power, he would use it to be alone. He ordered his attendants to leave him. He ordered the center gardens cleared: those fields and flowers and fountains at the palace's heart. Would his power go to his head? Would he order that the palace, and then the city, be emptied of people? A part of him wanted to, but that would be mad. He would not go mad. He was not mad.

In the silent garden, not even the birds were singing, and he knew why. The Aetherians were angry, and much like the ailing king, the whole of Eastland lay under a strange spell no one could name. Though few, if any, people were affected as severely as their ruler, most were aware of the change. It made them uneasy. The air itself was tense. It was charged, like the air before a storm, but the sky was empty of storm clouds.

What clouds there were were high and thin, and the setting sun turned them scarlet. That light turned his skin the same color, or almost. It should have made the world seem warmer, but Chester found it cold. He shivered. Strolling through the abandoned garden, Chester could imagine that he had truly emptied the city. He could imagine that he might walk alone for miles and not see another human. He wished that were possible. He had had his fill of people.

Chester had seen things no one should see. A sword sliding deep into his body. His own blood spraying from a fatal wound. The man he had thought of as a second father lying on the ground in a dark red pool, his face soft in death, its expression as kind as always. Worst of all, he had seen that man's hand on the hilt of the sword that had killed him.

He should not be alive, not after what he had seen.

What he hadn't seen was what he would have most wanted to see. Matthew. What had happened to Matthew? No one knew what had become of him. Chester had awakened from--death, his eyes opening like a miracle. His body had been whole, his tunic covered in blood, but no wound on him anywhere. When he had risen to his feet, he had found Bertrand lying dead and Matthew gone. Now, days later, he still did not know what had become of Matthew.

Perhaps the problem was not that Chester had grown old too soon, but that he had died. Death had changed Chester, or perhaps the act of dying, the manner in which he had been killed. Chester had died, so who was he now? Not the same man. Once, he might have felt hopeful that Matthew was still alive, but in this world, everything died. There was no hope or joy.

Matthew had done something to return him to life. What exactly had he done? Chester could not say, but he knew that Matthew must have been lost in some way, or Matthew would be with him still. A thought came to Chester; it was not the first time he had entertained it. I wish I had died instead. You should have let me die instead. Wherever you are.

In the middle of the garden, with no enemy in sight or even likely to appear, Chester drew his sword. With a shout, he attacked the nearest plant. It was covered in blue flowers. The stroke of his sword sent leaves and petals flying. It was a foolish stroke that accomplished nothing, but Chester struck again. Again. He did not stop until the foliage surrounding him was in ruins, then he sank to his knees and let his sword fall. What kind of knight was he? Slashing at the shrubbery like an angry child. His sword was covered with sap and scraps of leaves, but he didn't pick it up and clean it, as he should. He let it lie.

Over so many long months of traveling together, he had grown used to Matthew's calm presence, a constant at his side. He would not have guessed that the disappearance of the tall, silent man would feel this way, this ache he could not touch or ease. His shadow had been stripped from him. He would sooner have lost a limb or an eye.

Chester made himself rise. He left his sword behind. If the Aetherians noticed and wished to fault him for it, let them. What could they do to him? He half-wished they would take him away, so at least he could see where the missing had gone. At least one thing, then, would be made clear to him.

Perhaps he had gone mad.

The pale gray arch of the long-gate rose before him, and he was drawn to it. Long-gates were Aetherian in make. This one was as old as Best-Loved itself. They were called long because a single step through one could take one a long way, however far the Aetherian builders had wished.

Chester stepped through. His next step was into another kind of garden: the Garden of the Dead. Here the monuments stood. More than a thousand years of Eastland's lost were remembered here. Their bodies had been honored with burning, but the stone spires and statues and slabs that had been planted in their memory remained, bloomless flowers that did not die. Chester barely glanced at the monuments, for these were not the dead that concerned him.

He was miles from the city now, though a mere step had taken him so far. He had farther to go, for the place he wanted was on the edge of the garden. Over the centuries, the dead had taken up a great deal of space, but he would travel through all of it, if that were necessary.

Traitor's Yard was not a part of the garden proper. Here lay those dead who had not been done the honor of being burned and joining with the air. They were buried in the earth. The yard was kept clear, but no particular care was bestowed upon it. Weeds grew there. The individual graves were unmarked, for the most part, but the yard's borders were made clear by the four standing stones: one at each corner. Past them, the forest rose, standing watch. The garden of the dead honored the lost, but Traitor's Yard was a warning for the living. Chester found the particular spot he wanted easily enough. Two graves had been dug there very recently, set apart from the rest by freshly turned earth.

Chester stood above the disturbed earth. Burned or buried, the dead did not leave the living.

Bertrand and Sir Ardent lay under the soil. Though they had wanted to kill him, they should not have died. No one should die. Not like this, killed before their lives reached a true end. The brightness and sound left in them made dim and quiet. The idea should have been anathema to a knight. Knights were made to kill. Yet that idea was his belief now, as it had been Matthew's before him.

Couldn't Matthew have brought those two back to life, too? In life, they had meant to kill Chester, but Chester did not think they had sought to kill him out of malice. They had been mistaken. He forgave them.

"Their lives weren't mine to give or take," said a familiar voice, speaking at Chester's side, where he was used to hearing it.

Chester did not turn to see if someone was there. His gaze was on the dark earth, and he kept it there.

"Each of their deaths was a choice, made by another. There was nothing I could do. I'm sorry."

Chester did not speak. If he were mad, he wanted to be mad, if madness meant that he would hear that voice, speaking to him so softly.

"No one should die," said Matthew, echoing his own thought, "but nothing has been lost."

"I wish I had died instead of you." Chester spoke to the cold soil.

"What would have happened," asked Matthew, "if you had died?"

If he had died, the Aetherians would still have come. There would have been no one to reason with them. They had listened to him, because of his name, because (they believed) he had killed the traitor, Bertrand. If he had not been there, they would have taken Matthew, and they would have killed anyone they saw as a danger to them. This could have been anyone: the royal family, the other knights, the people of Best-Loved. Yes, the king was ill and two knights had fallen, but if Chester had died, there would likely have been more graves dug in Traitor's Yard.

"You saved them, Chester," said Matthew.

"I saved them," he said. At this, he could bear it no longer. He turned toward the sound of Matthew's voice, hoping to see--

The yard was empty. He stood alone, possibly mad and possibly not.

The sun was setting. Chester knew he had to go. They would understand, if he visited the yard, but if they saw him stay there too long, they might suspect him of harboring a treachery of his own. Perhaps that was true, and he was. He was a new man. He did not yet know himself. He turned his back on the graves. By the time he made his way back through the long-gate and into the palace garden, night had fallen. The garden was illuminated by the soft white glow of the magic lanterns, which were lighting one by one.

The sword lay where he had left it. Following his orders, no one had entered the garden in his absence. Chester surveyed the wreckage of the bushes he'd attacked with regret, but he could not undo his foolishness. The gardeners would tend to the wounded. Chester picked up his blade again. He wiped it on the loose fabric of his tunic, then sheathed the weapon. He would not use it to kill again. The Aetherians could order him to do so as much as they liked.

He'd saved them. That meant something. The sky showed its first stars. For the first time since he had become the man he was now, Chester believed that the next dawn might be a better one.
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