The city was busy and loud, which for some reason I did not expect. I had not before considered that others would be going about other business while I was being cast into exile. It simultaneously irritated me that it would go unnoticed, and comforted me that I might go unnoticed. But my comfort was short lived; although some of the people we passed as we came to the city kept to their business, many more stared at me, in my fine gown and regal bearing and well-known face, and nudged each other and murmured. Surely, I thought, they could not all have heard what had happened yet, and stared only for the rare treat of seeing the princess out of her castle.
I pretended not to see them, but as we walked farther, and came upon more and more people and more and more bogglers, it became more and more difficult. I was miserable. By the time, many uncountable minutes later, that we had reached a main crossroads that I guessed was near the center of town, I was convinced that everyone knew of what had happened, and that even those who did not look did so only out of pity. My unsteadiness of earlier, defeated temporarily by the presence of a plan, had returned in full, and I felt hot and sick with all those staring eyes on me.
"Of course the road to your kingdom passes through the center of the city," I muttered to him sarcastically.
"I am a stranger here," he said, without answering my acid, "and the main ways are the simplest to navigate. But we are far from the center of the city."
His reply only humiliated me more, if that were possible. Without knowing why, I did not like to admit to him that I, too, was a stranger in this place. It occurred to me, for the first time in my life, how little time I had ever spent outside of the castle. I had ridden many miles southward on Tabitha, to be sure, but that was all countryside or forest, and were considered as part of the castle grounds. Seldom had I ever been in the royal city, and when I had it had been on the rare diplomatic visits abroad on which I was invited, and that from the window of a carriage. I could not remember ever having walked the streets before as I did now.
The bard paused before a four-way signpost at the corner, and I stood silently, burning under a hundred eyes and meeting none, as he inspected it. Then he looked up at the sky, where the sun was still several degrees from noon. He nodded down the road that lay in the sun's direction.
"We're bound that way," he told me. "But as I said, it's a long way to go and I'm not even stocked for the journey for one. You'll have to wait. I suppose you haven't any coin with you?"
"No, I haven't. You were the one that turned away coin for the honor of playing before a king," I shot back through my teeth, still trying to avoid attention and still failing. I had never realized how enormous this gown was, how garish the red taffeta was, how the gilt thread embroidery flashed in the sun like a signal mirror. Finn hummed a little in unruffled acknowledgement.
"Well, then," he said mildly, his brow only creasing a little, "we shall have to make do, I suppose. Perhaps I can beggar a flask for water." Two women about thirty strides away talked in murmurs to each other. I knew they were talking about me. I needed desperately to either know what they were saying or not have to know they were saying it.
I jerked from my hair the mother-of-pearl comb, shiny but modest, that held my hair from my face, and thrust it at the bard.
"Get your flask," I mumbled. "I'm going on." I did not wait for his answer, but hurried down the path toward which he had nodded.
I was glad for the curtain of hair around my face as I near stumbled along the road. People still stared, I am sure, but I saw less of them, and perhaps less of them recognized me. I tilted my head forward so that my hair would better hide my eyes, and moved grimly forward, breathing heavily and stifling behind my curtain, looking only at the stone-paved road before my feet. Thus did I pass for the first time through the royal city of Asynnia, so possessed with the thought of escaping attention that I might as well have been blind of even that road.
It was my ears, rather than my eyes, that first understood, after a long while of walking, that I was clear of danger. I noticed that the bustle and noise of the city was no longer around me, and I stopped suddenly. The road was empty, and on either side were fields of some crop of green stalks, about shoulder high. I looked west, in the direction from whence I had come, and saw a ways off the last few dwelling places that were the eastern edge of the royal city.
I sighed deeply and, stepping off the road and just into the field on my left, sat down among the shade of the green stalks to wait for the bard. I rubbed each hand in turn restlessly. I wished I had a book to hold.
It quickly became very warm, even in the shade, and I was beginning to seriously entertain a thought of slipping further into the privacy of the field and trying to loosen up the laces on my gown when Finn appeared on the road in front of me. He was clutching a parcel and hurrying greatly.
"Here, bard!" I cried after him, for he was moving with such haste that by the time I spoke he had already passed me. "I'm here." He turned toward me, looking relieved, as I stood and brushed off my gown.
"There you are! I thought you'd gotten lost," he said. I scoffed.
"The road is straight and paved and without fork," said I. "Where would I have gotten lost?" I laughed scornfully. "You must really think I'm useless, mustn't you?"
"No, not useless," he said in that infuriating calm manner. "I'm sure you've many fine uses in a castle." Then "Here," he added without giving me a chance to rebut him, and handed me something from the parcel in his arms.
It was a crude water pouch, tied at the neck with a piece of twine, and two small bread rolls in what looked like a dishrag but was probably meant to be a napkin. I curled my lip and held it back out to him.
"No thank you," I said. "I'm not hungry."
"Good," he replied, pointedly failing to take them from my hands. "Because they have to last us until tomorrow evening."
He was having me for a joke. A laugh on the useless little princess. "Excuse me?"
"Your desire for haste rather limits our options," he explained in a tone of insufferable patience. "If you'd like to wait a while longer, or perhaps if you have some other bauble to pawn, we might be able to scrape up better provisions for the trip, but I can't make any promises."
I wasn't sure what I found more appalling: the idea of eating this, the idea of eating nothing but this on a day-and-a-half journey by foot, or the idea of the day-and-a-half journey by foot itself.
"Just how far away is your homeland, bard?" I asked, and to my irritation his expression turned so amused it looked as though he was barely suppressing a laugh.
"As close as homelands come," he returned. "It's another country! Did you expect us to get there by nightfall?"
I looked into his face, smirking so awfully, and I found that it was suddenly more than my composure could take.
"I do not know," I burst, "why I any longer expect anything. I had thought I might be spared further humiliation today, after being cast from my home before an audience and then made to parade through my royal city as an exile. I'd thought that might be enough. But I see now that even that assumption was too hasty of me." I trembled in spite of myself. "I see I'm yet obliged to be mocked at the hands of my mockery of a husband before I can have any peace."
There was a silence. The bard's smirk had quickly faded, and he said nothing when I paused.
"Well?" I prompted a little wildly. "Let's have it! Maybe some jape about how my feet will blister on the road, or how reluctant I will surely be to get my dress dirty. Whatever you want to torment me about I wish you would have out with it now and just… just leave me to my shame."
He continued looking startled for a moment, and then… Oh, forbid that there was pity in his eyes.
"Forgive me," he said. "My last intention was to mock you. I didn't…" He paused. "I suppose it would sound remarkably stupid for me to say that I hadn't considered how difficult this might be for you."
"Yes, it would," I snapped. "What, did you think yourself the inconvenienced party? Stuck with a useless princess wife?"
"No," he replied quickly, then paused again. "I only… I didn't really believe it, perhaps. I just couldn't believe that your father wasn't going to send someone to catch up with us, that he wasn't going to take it back."
"Well, you should believe it," I countered. And the moment after I said it, I realized it was true. He should. I should. I did. I realized that I knew my father well enough to know that he wasn't taking anything back.
Then, to my lasting mortification, I wept.
There was nothing I could do to stop it. The provisions fell out of my fingers and air stuck in my throat like a sharp rock. My knees wobbled, but might not have buckled had not the bard, seeing the wobble, moved in to support me. With that assurance, my knees allowed themselves to fold, and leaning on the bard's arm all the way down, I sank to the dusty road, sobbing. There is no other word for it. My breath seized and shuddered, and my eyes streamed, and I sat in the middle of the road out of the royal city and wept loudly.
My husband knelt beside me, his arm still imprisoned in my grip, waiting uncertainly. My husband. This was real. This was real and I was crying in front of him, but it wasn't enough to make me stop. I started out thinking about how miserable I was, but after a few moments all I was thinking about was crying. For a couple of minutes, my gusty sobs were all I needed to concentrate on. It felt good. It felt simple.
The tears slowed, finally. I didn't want them to. I knew once I stopped crying I'd have to face his sneers or, worse, his sympathy. I knew that right then, while I wept, the world made perfect sense—I was sad, and so I was weeping, and this was reasonable and good—but it would get difficult again as soon as I wiped my eyes. I tried to keep it going, but it's very hard to cry crocodile tears once you've used up all your human ones.
I gave it up. I took a few deep, shivering breaths and, carefully avoiding looking at the bard, rose to my feet.
"We should go," I said in the steadiest voice of which I was capable.
"Yes," he agreed, exactly as though nothing at all had happened. "We have a long way to walk."
I glanced over at him. He neither sought my gaze nor avoided it. If it were not for the hot feeling in my eyes, I might not have known how dreadfully I had just behaved. His poise was as gracious and complete as that of any of my former courtiers.
I found myself grateful. But even more surprising was that, for the barest of moments, I admired him.