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the morning after the night of the gods
Rhys jolted awake from his unsettling dreams, forehead tinged with sweat. Consciousness came to him, and he took in the dimly lit room he'd been renting out. Barren walls and little in the way of furnishings beyond the basic necessities, but that hardly mattered to him or to the woman laying beside him.
After leaving the celebration, he and Bren returned to his room, far enough away from the keep and the nobles that he could put his worries out of mind. Those worries, as ever, returned when his restless mind found sleep.
Folland. A name he'd once loved, a name that had doomed him and then haunted him, that he'd been forced to reject and run from - a name that he'd heard again last night in hushed, curious tones; he'd seen only a glimpse of the woman laying claim to it.
Bren didn't know, and Rhys never thought he'd have to tell her. He thought it a different life that had been lost to him forever. Yet, he was not dead; was it possible his sister had survived, too?
No. He felt so strongly that it was an imposter, a fake, not a ghost but an actress. He felt angry that anyone would have the audacity to play at being Carys Folland, but in the same breath, there was doubt. Madder things had happened, and if he were wrong...
He couldn't ignore it, even if he wanted to. He knew what he needed to do; he'd known the minute he'd heard his family's name.
Rhys sighed, bringing a hand up to wipe at his face. He glanced over at Bren, curled up beside him, and smiled, despite his dark thoughts, at her peaceful form.
He hated to disturb her slumber, but not as much as he would hate lying to her.
Rhys turned slightly, rolling from his back onto his side, and brought up a hand to brush a strand of hair from her face.
"Bren..." He whispered her name, his voice soft but a bit strained, and pressed a kiss to the skin below her ear. "Bren, wake up. It's early, love, I'm sorry." Another kiss, against her temple. "I need to tell you something."
She knew where she was upon waking. There was never any wondering where she was upon waking, because Bren always knew. She never thought much about it, but even that had changed lately. She liked waking up next to Rhys, and the days when she didn't wake up next to him, she was not disoriented, but she missed being where Rhys was too. That feeling had yet to become disconcerting. Bren squinted into the pillow and sighed. Feelings or no feelings, mornings were not among her favorite things.
Rhys's gentle touch ensured she wasn't too cranky, though. Bren huffed out another sigh and rolled over, tucking herself close to him and pushing his chest with her forehead. "No, thank you," she said very politely and hoped that would be the end of this waking up business. It wasn't, of course, because now she was fully awake for having spoken.
Bren mumbled something unintelligible and petulant into the air between them before rolling onto her back and squinting at him. For perhaps the first time in the span of their relationship, Bren had had more to drink last night than Rhys. There was a very angry little man drilling a hole between her eyes who told her so. Instead of dealing with him, Bren dropped her arm over her eyes. She recalled having an excellent time in that sleek black silk, so headache or not, she wasn't going to regret it.
"Alright, I'm awake," she announced finally. "And if this isn't important, I will kick you out of your own bed and not feel the least bit sorry." She belied her threat by scooting a touch closer to him on the bed, so that one of her knees bumped his and she could feel the warmth of him. This room was a tad bit drafty, after all.
But she didn't leave him to that fate, and in the next breath had muttered something - he couldn't quite make out what, which was a shame - and all but flopped over, fixing him with a look that made him properly guilty for waking her prematurely.
Bren was devastatingly cute in the mornings, even more so when the mornings came so early.
Rhys nodded seriously in response to her rather empty threat, though he doubted she could see it from underneath her arm. He studied her for a minute or two, admiring the whole of her being, and wanted nothing more than to sink back down beside her and drift into a deep and dreamless sleep... not that those were often his to have, and even if they were, he couldn't back out of his honesty now.
He stalled for but a moment more, savoring the warmth and pressure on his body where hers met with his own, and then drew a deep breath that released as an uncertain and altogether worried sigh.
"If you don't like what I have to say," he said first, absently reaching over to trail a few fingers down her arm and rest his hand on her thigh, "I give you permission to kick me out of my own bed." His tone not as light as he'd have liked, and it almost made him wince. He'd never had to do this before, and finding the right words in the right order was more difficult than he imagined it would be.
Rhys swallowed his nerves and continued haltingly, "It's about me - well, before I was me. Before I was Rhys Dubhghall." He paused, then asked in a more even voice, "Bren, is the story of House Folland familiar to you?"
She mouthed the words House Folland silently, eyes skipping up off his face and onto the ceiling as she thought back. The Follands were a tale she knew, but she wasn't sure how she knew it. She had been very young then. And it was one of those legends that everyone seemed to know without having been told. Bren didn't remember who had told her first, recalling only the remnants of cold horror upon knowing children were murdered. There was more to the story, but Bren remembered that particular evil the most.
"Yes," She said, looking back at Rhys. "One of Cenric's most heinous crimes." She pushed her arm under her head and squinted at him, replaying his words over in her mind. It occurred to her to ask if he had been there for the downfall of House Folland, but she bit her lip to trap the question unasked and rubbed her eyes instead, trying to fully wake up. Rhys never talked about his past; she should let him talk at his own pace.
She caught at his hand on her thigh with her free one, fingertips skidding over warm knuckles until she covered his hand with her own, gently anchoring him to her without saying a word. Silent encouragement didn't count as interrupting. And she probably wouldn't throw him out of his own bed, but she wasn't saying that out loud either.
He responded with a noise that fell somewhere between agreement and acknowledgement, a thoughtful but altogether vague hmmm. He felt the warmth of her hand on his and automatically gripped her thigh a bit more tightly, acknowledging and welcoming the reassuring touch, before relaxing again.
Rhys nodded then, and said, "It wasn't pleasant, no." He shifted into a more comfortable position, sitting up a bit more but taking care not to separate any part of himself from Bren, and sighed softly.
"Bren, before I was a Godblade called Rhys Dubhghall, I was a mercenary, in my youth, who went by many other names," this was new information to her, but he did not want to linger on it or overload her with revelations, "but before that, I was a nobleman named Ennis Folland." He struggled to control the thickness of the emotion in his voice, knowing that he was safe with Bren but fighting against the instincts he'd built over the last decades that told him to keep his mouth shut and his head down. "That's the short version of the story, at least."
He paused, almost shrugging apologetically as he struggled to process the mix of a dozen or so emotions flooding his mind, but did not let his eyes drop from hers.
"There's more to it, of course, but I..." Rhys faltered again, not sure how to express the fears he had of the conversation scaring her away from him. Instead, he concluded, "I think perhaps this is a story best told in parts, and I should pause there for now."
Abruptly, Bren didn't want to be lying down. She sat up, breaking eye contact to rub her eyes again. She was nowhere near sleepy now, but it gave her something to do with her hands. Rhys was once noble, once a son of the House Folland, once driven from his home, once a mercenary... Absurdly, her mind skipped back to a joking conversation she'd once had with her older sisters: the four of them debating over who would be most likely to sleep with a nobleman. The possibility of Bren landing in a nobleman's lap had been laughable. It had seemed hysterical in retrospect, but now Bren's stomach turned over, because nothing about this was funny at all.
She grabbed Rhys's hand again from where she'd come out from under it, threading their fingers together. "I'm so sorry," she said, twisting in order to look at him again. The words were painfully inadequate in the face of everything now slotting into sense in Bren's mind. No wonder Rhys was uncomfortable in Windemere Keep, no wonder she'd had to coax him here. His sense of honor, manner of speaking, and gentleman's attitude towards women had been endearing traits before; now, they made perfect sense. No wonder he's never opened up about his past. All of the pain and loss in his voice caught like hooks in her stomach. He'd suffered so much. "I can't imagine what it must have taken to survive that," she said. Bren couldn't imagine such a thing. All the rumors and stories she'd heard seemed abruptly even more horrible in her memory.
Bren rubbed the heel of her palm over her forehead, trying to push the headache away. Her previous petulance at having been woken up was now mortifying in retrospect. Rhys's revelation felt enormous between them and she looked down again. I can't believe that happened to you was right on the tip of her tongue but she did not say that. She had a thousand questions. If the rumors last night were to be believed, Rhys not only had a living sister, but also a niece and nephews. Bren had never been an expert on the genealogy of Eldur's noble houses, but this surely meant he had relatives in other noble houses too. There was so much to him that she did not know.
Bren took a deep breath, trying to fortify herself past the headache and shock. She had every intention of respecting his desire not to move the conversation along until he was ready. Yet in the wake of his news... her own ignorance stung. Why hadn't she paid more attention to the stories of Cenric's cruelties? "Last night at the ball, the woman who said she was your sister... is that why you're telling me this now?" She asked softly, deciding that was safely respectful of his chosen stopping point.
Dumb luck and a strong stomach, Rhys wanted to say, but the thought died without utterance. It had taken far more than that to escape his family's fate, and Bren would see past his dark humor; he wouldn't cheapen this conversation with it now.
Bren's soft apologies and comforting touch were reassuring - she couldn't have been expecting such a revelation and certainly hadn't asked to become embroiled in the messes of nobles and politics, yet she was bound to it now because of him. He'd feared she might recoil from this revelation, and he wouldn't have blamed her for not wanting to be burdened by someone else's ghosts, but her response now - her comforting touch and soft words - showed him that had been a foolish thing to fear.
Rhys was contemplating which part of his story to delve into next when Bren's words gave him pause. He hadn't realized she, too, had heard that name last night, but perhaps it made things easier.
"Carys Folland," he nearly whispered, the name feeling foreign and strange; when had he last spoken it? "I got only a brief glimpse of the woman and heard whispers of her supposed story but..." He shook his head, letting his gaze drop from Bren's eyes while he contemplated. "It is a story I do not yet believe. Yet, I cannot ignore it."
His eyes moved up again, seeking something in Bren's own. "If that woman is Carys Folland, should I go to her and greet the sister I abandoned to the world? And if she is a pretender, will I remain in the shadows and let her lay claim to the dregs of my House, or will I expose us both to the kingdom that once sought to kill me?"
And still might, if the death order yet stands as law. His jaw tightened, and he moved his thumb absently across the back of Bren's hand. "I cannot ignore this, but my next steps are not going to be easy. Whatever path this takes me down, I thought you deserved to know the truth about the man you're involved with. Should I reveal my true identity, it could make things uncomfortable for you... for us."
But Bren did not share this opinion yet. She watched the emotions, stark in their heaviness and grief, move across his face. She ached for him. His concern for her might have moved her to an expression of exasperation at any other time, but now she resisted that urge too. That he wished to look out for her, even in this moment of emotional revelation, was as touching as it was bemusing. She looked down to where their hands joined and squeezed his gently.
"Whatever you decide, I am with you," she told him, cupping his hand in both of hers and pressing a kiss to his knuckles. "Whatever path you choose, you will not walk it alone." There was no discomfort she wouldn't bear for his sake, especially not if it was the right thing to do for him. Saying this, repeating herself, seemed necessary between them now. And there was another reassurance she could offer him, albeit carefully.
"I hesitate to offer you advice, because I cannot possibly know what it is to be in your position, deciding how to proceed. But you should know, Edric is a good man," she said, taking care to hold his gaze so he would see the strength of her belief in her eyes. "He is not his uncle. I know he would hear your story and treat you fairly." She knew this like she knew the sun would soon rise. "If you do choose to step forward, the danger would not be what it was years ago."
Bren stopped there, closing her mouth against further promises. In this situation, so unfamiliar to her, she could only vouch for herself and her king. To carry on further would be foolish, especially when he might have more to say. She drew her legs beneath her, so that she was kneeling on the bed facing him, his hand still held between hers. All thoughts of sleep and dreams were far away now.