Chapter 4

Twas a daughter of moonlight,
a girl born of winter frosts,
to fleet step ‘n quick bow,
a prince’s heart was lost,

she would not have him,
O’ prince of summer glades,
nor Sylvan Lords permit,
such a union to be made…

– Collected Folklore, Book II, Mercu Peregrine 642 E.R.

Lessons & Stories

Once the girls were settled Laurel left again for Nohrook, and the border.  He found his chosen escort had been replaced – with little explanation – by a young fresh faced soldier named Eran.  He felt bad only briefly, that perhaps Horence was being punished for matters beyond his control.  Yet decided not to concern himself too much, as he was quite sure who was responsible for a circulating rumor – technically true – regarding him having spent a night in the company of Lycian Sisters.  Politically inconvenient as such rumors were, there was a certain benefit to them as well.  It all balanced out in the end.  Still, his next sparring match with Horence would be a good opportunity to even the score.

Laurel’s time in the north was uneventful.  The wards spaced along the border gleamed with all the power they had been forged with centuries before.  There were no signs of unusual activity – no artifacts of magical workings.  All was quiet, for the moment, and prepared to give warning should conditions change.

The closest thing to excitement was a day when three scouts of the northern horse tribes trotted along a distant hill, and watched Laurel and Eran for several hours.  Laurel bore them no ill will, for he knew they would suffer first if the worst ever came.

When Laurel returned to the castle he gave himself another week to sort out where to begin, and become better acquainted with his young charges.  He learned that the girls had in fact spent nearly half of his absence in the care of Horence, when Mercu had other more important matters to attend to – excused entirely on the grounds that members of the court were very demanding of his time, and skills with brush and paint.

Laurel had smiled quite in spite of himself to overhear, “He’s even evaded this responsibility without reproach.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 39th, 636 E.R.

Laurel considered his new pupils as they glanced about his vast tower study absently.  It was more library than anything else.  Two tiers of bookshelves lined first the ring of the lower chamber, and the outer walls of the upper.  A few more stood precariously placed above the lower shelves, but appearances aside were quite well secured.

Laurel himself could not name half the books therein, but Mercu had taken stock several times over the past decade.  Though the only tomes that had ever been missing were due to his own absentminded borrowing.

Understandably the girl’s gaze returned repeatedly to the workings of an immense orrery that hung from the rafters high overhead.  It was a strange conglomeration of mechanical, and magical parts whose function and meaning would be lost on most adults.  Even this complex display did little to keep the girl’s attention for long – the slow arcs of its motion too gradual for childlike fascination, but many orders too quick to represent current celestial positions.

Laurel wondered how hard it would be to focus such young children.  He had given the girls time to settle, and mourn.  Not that it could have largely been any other way.  Still he had only the most cursory of plans, gleaned from the faded memories of a childhood long past.

“I had never sought to be a teacher,” he started, “yet twice now in my life it has come to be my fate,” he reflected.  “My choice I suppose, one I have accepted again.”  He watched to be sure he had the girls attention. “You are young, and I have no doubt too young for fancy words, I shall not however speak down to you, you will learn.”

Laurel could tell he had their attention for a moment, but it quickly waned.  “You are though it seems ready enough to learn magic, unusual as that might be for your age,” he said, and saw that he instantly had them focused – though with no illusion it would last.  He put out his hand, and with a wiggle of his fingers a translucent ball of blue light swirled into being, with a pale rune at it’s center.

“The first lesson, is not how to do this, that is a bit of a trick.”  He smiled.  “The first lesson is to learn to touch magic.  It’s not something that can be explained, simply felt and known.”  He leaned down, and stretched out his hand before the girls, offering them the orb.

Kiannae reached out her hand first, and tried to touch the sphere.  It swirled like a mist around her fingers, but at once rolled like it had been nudged.  Perturbed Kiannae reached out with both hands, and tried to grab hold of it.  She frowned as her hands sank into the immaterial form, but just short of giving up in frustration she lifted her hands upward, and it followed, slowly pushing up from her skin.

She could feel it then, lighter than a feather, rested in her hands, and slowly it seemed more solid, but no more heavy.  It really didn’t have a weight precisely, so much as a sense of cold air falling over her skin, a downward pressure more an effect on its surroundings than a property of substance.

“Now hand the ball to your sister,” Laurel said, surprise written plainly across his face, and uneasiness in his voice.  He stood back and watched.  Kiannae scrunched her nose, obviously not ready to give up her pretty new possession, but at last relented, turning to Katrisha who held out her hands expectantly.

As Kiannae let the ball go it drifted downward.  It slowed as it swirled around Katrisha’s hands, and danced over her fingers as has happened to Kiannae before.  Katrisha tried again to catch the ball, still not quite successfully, though it almost stopped for a moment.  She dropped to her knees, and tried a third time before it could disappear into the floor, and though it nearly sank through, it stopped in her hands, and wavered unsteadily as it pushed back up.  “Very good girls,” Laurel said with stern reservation. “I had to try for weeks before I could do the same, and two years older.  I am most impressed.”  He rubbed his forehead.

Kiannae smiled proudly at the praise, and watched as Katrisha held the ball up close to her face to look at the small rune that glowed within.  At first Katrisha just saw the rune’s simple graceful curves, but as she looked closer she saw threads, a web of faint light hidden within the glow of the luminance the spell was meant to provide.  Slowly she saw how the strings radiated outward, forming a swirling latticework, and then into an almost smooth shell that shifted and changed before her, and radiated much of the visible light.

With care Katrisha balanced the ball on one hand, and reached out to touch one of the gossamer filaments, which seemed to twang like a string of the old lute Mercu kept in their chamber.  As one shivered, all vibrated, and like a soap bubble that had been punctured the whole thing popped with a bright flash, and a spattering of twinkling light.  This started Katrisha into stumbling backwards, and she fell on her rear with a look of complete shock on her face.

Laurel simply stared at the girl, as Kiannae grew visibly cross with her sister for breaking the pretty ball.

“That was,” he said trying to compose himself, “very good.  You saw the web of the spell, and touched it.”  He didn’t mention it had taken him a day of careful instruction his first time to even see, let alone touch a single filament of a spell.  Having managed it he wasn’t that surprised she had disrupted it, a simple light orb was not built for stability.

Katrisha smiled proudly, though was still a bit shaken by the sudden burst of light right in her face.  Laurel looked to Kiannae who was looking very agitated, but still stood quietly.

“Here,” he said, and leaned down, reached out his hand to Kiannae, and formed a new orb with less flair than the first.  “See if you can do the same.”

Kiannae did as her sister had, taking the ball and holding it up close.  It took her a moment to see how the threads wove through, and around the rune.  There were two things there she saw, a larger web, and a smaller.  One set of filaments grew bright at the edges of the orb, the other set glowed at the edges of the rune, forming a faint outline, just like the halo of the ball itself.

Balancing the ball on one hand she reached in, and touched not one of the outer filaments, but the inner ones.  The rune flickered, and seemed to come apart like thread unraveling from cloth before the girls’ eyes.  Laurel watched in mild disbelief as the rune disappeared, but the orb remained, though wavering unsteadily.

Kiannae looked frustrated for a moment, sure she hadn’t gotten it right.  Noticing the look on her face however Laurel was quick to reassure her.  “You did well, very well.  Did you see that there were two parts there?” he asked being sure he had witnessed what he thought.

“Yes,” Kiannae said scrunching up her face and looking at the ball in her hand, which finally unraveled from the center out, and whiffed away.  “I saw the middle bit was the same, but…not.”

“Runes are markers, and memory tools, they aren’t strictly needed,” Laurel said with a laugh covering his uncertainty with how to proceed.  He had planned to have a few weeks, even months to think up a proper lesson plan as he got the girls to simply learn to touch and see magic properly. “They just help us remember and keep our place, and recall something common.  They are like names,” he said drawing out a series of glowing runes in the air.  “If I call you Kia, or Ki, as your sister does, Kiannae to be proper, or even little girl to be diminutive.  You are still the same, but others might take a different meaning at my choice.  Further the one I use most often, I will remember more quickly.”

Laurel looked at the girls, and while it seemed he had their attention he was quite sure he’d gone very much too far the other way.  Still he was flustered, and a bit off put by his gifted pupils, so he continued.  “This one here,” he said pushing forward a rune from the line, “it could mean fire, power, light, or anything I chose, though sticking to conventions makes things easier.”

Laurel touched the rune he had pushed forward with the tip of his finger, and it grew brighter, and slowly was enveloped in a fuzzy warm glow, “now it draws power through the Veil from the Aether.”  He drew a circle around the growing light, and it seemed as though the thin filament bound it.  Quickly he moved around the other runes, and drew circles around them, arcs between them, and then connected them to the ring that had become quite brilliant at the center.

Tiny shimmers of light moved along all of the filaments, and at each of the outer runes something different happened.  From one tiny shimmering speckles fell as vapor froze from the air, dust, and some of these crystals were whipped into a swirl amidst another.  From a third a small flame grew, and wavered.  One remained which seemed to do nothing at all, until Laurel picked up, and placed a quill at its center, which hung there and wobbled.

The girls watched the show of light, and power, entertained, but obviously far out of their depth, till at last Laurel simply waved his hand through the middle, and the whole thing whiffed out in quickly fading swirls of dissolving light.  Only the quill remained, which he caught with his other hand.   “That was far over your heads, I know, but you are clever, and observant, I can tell.  Let us go back to our first, lesson, and move on a few steps.”

Laurel sat cross-legged on the floor before the two girls, and drew out a rune in the air.  “The first thing to learn to do, is to form a filament,” Laurel said in his lecturing tone.  “Even when you do not see it, do not think of it any more, filaments are there.  They are the basis of all magic, abundant in nature, and all around us.  You must learn to pull them from the air, to bind many strands together, and form an extension of your own will.”

Laurel began to draw out many runes, arcs, circles, and connecting lines all around him.  He watched as the girls moved their hands as he did to no avail, and then began to prod at the ones he left behind. Sometimes nothing would happen, others came apart when touched too forcefully.  Katrisha was the first to take hold of a filament Laurel had made without breaking it.  It drifted behind her finger like a strand of spider silk caught on the tiniest of breezes, and she quickly became distracted twirling it about.  It began to grow a bit as she went, grew longer, slightly brighter, but eventually dissolved.

Kiannae managed to do the same soon after, but seemed to get less thoroughly distracted by the novelty, and shook the captured strand loose after only a moment.  After a minute or so of trying Kiannae had formed her own, which grew quickly – however her first attempt to let the filament go failed, and it broke apart instantly.  Katrisha seeing her sister’s success frowned, and stopped playing with the filaments Laurel had left behind, and began to try to make her own.

Laurel had stopped the construction of his own intricate web, and simply watched the girls, their progress easily as astounding as before.  After a quarter of an hour the girls were surrounded with crude aimless patterns of light without any real purpose, and Laurel’s work had long since faded away.  “Very good.”  He sighed.  The girls looked at him a bit surprised, and their work instantly came apart.

Laurel reached out both hands, and formed a ball of light in each, almost identical to the ones he had made earlier, but each this time without the rune at it’s center.  Though this took slightly more effort, it was not obvious to an observer.

“Here,” he said leaving them floating before the girls who noticed these did not fall as the others had.  “Try not to break them, but to copy either what you see before you, or what you see me do.”  A small part of Laurel hoped this would stump the girls completely, but he had maddening doubts.

Laurel formed a third orb in his hand slowly.  He made it with care, so that it was possible to see the filaments weave together.  He waited a moment, and with a flick of his wrist it whiffed away.  He did this again, waited, and waved it away.  He repeated this, over, and over again, eventually closing his eyes, and meditating as he continued the task instinctively.

Ever so often Laurel would open his eyes and watch as one of the girls made a sound of amusement or surprise as they made progress.  Kiannae was the first to make an unstable mesh of filaments, which curled, and peeled apart in little spirals even as she tried to stop it.  Katrisha was the first to get a small marble sized orb to form, but it seemed at once too rigid, and too brittle.  It shattered under the slightest strain, and fell away like dust.

After an hour and a half Laurel had to get up, and stretch his legs.  He encouraged the girls to continue as he paced around the room working out the kinks in his back.  He felt like he was missing something, and from some distance back tried to look past the girls attempts, and at the underpinnings.  The subtle details of their work.  Katrisha’s filaments grew almost like crystals, rigid, little spurs fanning out along the lines, angular kinks and jogs.  Kiannae’s seemed similar at first, but on closer examination the forms were smoother, they wove loosely, and coiled off easily in graceful spirals rather than spurs.  The results were so much the same, much like the girls themselves superficially identical, and yet they weren’t.

Kiannae’s giggle of excitement brought his focus back to the wider picture just in time to see her fully formed orb, still half the size of the one hovering before her, but still larger than her tiny hand.  It quickly dissolve as all the others had, to her obvious frustration.  Yet there was something about the way it failed that reminded Laurel of a blooming flower.

“Very good,” Laurel applauded, having gotten over some of his frustration, relieved at having seen something finally take effort for the two of them.  They were still outpacing him, but on this task not quite so wildly.  It had taken him only a day to learn the orb once he had gotten the rest well in hand – though he had watched his parents make countless lights before.  He ignored that detail.

Katrisha managed to do the same as her sister, but was more careful to keep her orb together.  She held it up on one hand, and smiled proudly.  It then came apart with the carelessness display, crumpling under its own rigidity, and turning to a shower of luminous dust.  She frowned obviously disappointed, but Laurel reassured her, “No, no, very good, you almost had it there.  But come you two, let’s go down to the kitchen, and get some food.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Night had fallen, and Mercu had been playing for almost an hour on an old lute with frayed strings.  He watched the girls from the old chair he sat in, as they continued to be engrossed with making the same spheres of light they had practiced all afternoon.  They were getting quite good at the making part, but keeping them together was proving more challenging.

Kiannae had taken up residence on the bed, and Katrisha sat on the floor below her.  Katrisha protested when Mercu suddenly swooped down, and lifted her into bed next to her sister, causing her to lose her concentration.  He quickly pulled the covers over the pair before they could squirm far.  “You two must sleep,” he sighed.  Laurel had made it quite clear he was responsible for seeing the twins to bed, without exception, and so Mercu had politely, and reluctantly excused himself from other entertainments, and his hopes of returning had vanished some time before.

“We aren’t tired,” Katrisha said managing to quickly re-form her orb.  Kiannae made her own again as well, and tried to balance it above the tip of one finger to show off, only to have it whiff out on her.  She frowned, reformed it, and held it possessively.

Mercu sat back down in the old chair, picked up the lute again, and strummed it absently.  “What must I do to get you two to sleep?” he asked as much to himself as the girls.

“Tell a story,” Kiannae demanded.

“A story!” Katrisha agreed excitedly, “daddy always told stories!”  She seemed to sadden at her own remark, but quickly returned to playing with her own little ball of light.

“And what kind of stories would your father tell you?” Mercu asked hopefully, though he doubted the girls would remember anything significant.

“Ummm,” Kiannae said trying to remember.

“The huntress and the prince,” Katrisha said absently trying to get the ball of light to stay stable without her needing to focus on it.

“I’ve not heard that one, would you tell me?” Mercu asked sweetly, his curiosity piqued.  Everything he heard said that few Sylvans spoke the common tongue, yet the girls did not seem to have learned the Sylvan language either.  It was one of many curiosities – but a story from their father seemed more than likely to be a Sylvan story, and that could be a rare treasure.

“There was a young prince,” Kiannae said, forgetting her orb which whiffed out again, “who adored the daughter of a common hunter…and um…”

“She was the most beautiful girl in all the forests,” Katrisha continued having gotten her ball stable without realizing it, and let it drift away.

“As pretty as the moon,” Kiannae said remembering another detail.

“As calm and cool as winter frost,” Katrisha mused.

“The king didn’t approve,” Kiannae said direly, “she was beautiful, but common.”

“She also didn’t like the prince,” Katrisha laughed, “thought he was clumsy.”

“The prince tried to impress the huntress,” Kiannae continued, “he went to hunt a great boar.”

“The bore was mean,” Katrisha frowned, “and nearly killed the prince.”

“The hunter’s daughter scared the boar away, and saved the prince, but told him he was dumb,” Kiannae said sleepily.

“The prince said he wanted to impress her,” Kiannae said wistfully, “and the huntress said she would teach him to do better.”

“The King heard his son was saved, and made the huntress a great lady,” Katrisha said with a smile.

“She taught the prince, and fell in love,” Kiannae giggled.

“They wed,” Katrisha sighed, “and the common girl became the Queen of the forest.”

“That’s a lovely story,” Mercu said softly, hoping the sleepiness in the girls voices would take hold.

“Your turn!” Kiannae said perking up again.

“Horence told us stories too,” Katrisha prodded.

Mercu sighed, and laughed.  “What kind of story would you have me tell?  Adventure, love, lore from long ago?”  He wasn’t about to be upstaged by Horence, it was bad enough in his opinion that the man had seemingly caught the eye of a charming young ginger haired lass he had been teaching to paint.

The whole matter seemed a loss, her affections lay elsewhere, and he had a great deal of doubt – given her history of losing interest in occupations – that she would follow through with painting.  Still, Alice’s company had been charming, and the mere possibility had stirred the intended whispers.  So there was that at least, not a total waste of time.

“Love,” Katrisha said sleepily, interrupting Mercu’s stray train of thought.

“With magic,” Kiannae interjected.

Mercu hummed thoughtfully.  “Have you ever heard the story of the Dragon Empress?”

“No,” Katrisha said.

“Tell us!” Kiannae demanded.

“Very well,” Mercu said, and leaned back strumming the lute he held thoughtfully.  “Very long ago, and very far away, when a great Empire stretched from sea to shining sea – there lived a beautiful princess in a palace grand.  She was the Emperor Markus’ eldest daughter, and though he had six others, they were all wed away to fine and noble suitors.  She alone refused to marry, for no suitor had ever impressed her – though many had tried.”

“Roshana was her name, and she was said to be the most fair of all women, and a mage of power to rival even her father.  Most importantly,” Mercu paused for effect, “at least to all who had sought her hand, she was the heir to the throne.  It was little wonder no suitor had caught her eye.  She was not amused by men seeking power through her.  Not flattered to be told she was beautiful, for she knew it to be true.  Further she was bored by those who were not her equal as a mage – when few if any were.”

Mercu softly strummed the lute again.  “This state of affairs continued for years.  Until one day, when a handsome young prince from a distant occidental land came to the palace.  At first she thought no more of him than any other, and dismissed him with mockery that had sent others scampering from her presence in disgrace.  This one though, was clever, confident, tempered, full of wit and amused her.  In time she began to fall for the wily prince and his charms.  Almost too late she realized that he was not the sweet man he seemed to be.  The clever prince barely escaped the princess’ wrath, and fled back to his kingdom far away.”

“That’s not much of a love story,” Katrisha protested in a sleepy disappointed voice.

“Nor much magic,” Kiannae grumbled.

“The story isn’t done,” Mercu laughed softly.  “The princess locked herself away in the tallest tower of the palace, and devoted herself to her magic.  She would no longer come to court, and consented to see only her closest handmaidens, her most gifted pupils, and the Emperor himself.  Then one day her father had to go away to war.  For the prince’s father had broken away from the Empire.  His rebellion and aggression had to be stopped.”

“Alas the Emperor failed, and his daughter, in sadness, in rage – and with no more desire to be sought after by men a wove a spell as grand as any the world has ever seen.  Her tall tower shattered as stone was torn asunder, and woven with flesh.  As the sun set that fateful day, the first of all dragons stood perched atop the broken spire, her silver scales shining, roaring her might.”

“Many saw, and would long remember as the great creature long foretold flew into the west.  Many lands for days on were witness as she passed through, till at last she stood before her father’s murderer – his armies scattered like toys before her.  She avenged her beloved father, almost without contest.  Their greatest mage, all his armies, had shed from her a single scale.  She reminded the errant Kingdom of it’s place – though the prince was not to be found.  She returned home, announcing her reign all the way.  She claimed the throne, and ruled with fairness, wisdom, and power…but in many ways was quite alone.”

Mercu eyed the girls, and saw that they were still just barely awake, he strummed the lute once again, very softly.  “In time, the clever prince – who had slipped away as his father perished – copied the spell the princess had woven, stealing her magic from the single scale she had lost.  He became the second dragon of our world, his scales formed of the black granite of Osyrae’s high mountains.  He had done it for power, to reclaim his kingdom, and take the Empire in turn.  The Empress was afraid, she stood then against another of her kind, who had in turn made more like himself.”

Mercu strummed idly for a bit, before continuing.  “There was one though, a pupil she had taught long before, when she herself was still young.  A common man who had loved her always from afar, but who had learned well from her.  Seeing his Empress troubled, alone, and in need of allies, he too wove the spell as she had, and became a great dragon born of the forest, and green as emerald.  He did it not for power, nor greed, but for love and loyalty.  He pledged himself to her service, and the Empire.”

Mercu paused for a bit and looked to the girls, who seemed to be asleep.  He walked over to the bed, made sure they were tucked in tightly, and saw the flickering ball of light Katrisha had made drifting by.  He watched it for a moment as it wavered slightly, but persisted.

He finished on principle.  “So it was,” he whispered as quietly as he could, “that dragons came into the world.  With vengeance, ambition, and rage…yet also, with love, and nobility,” he reached out and focused on the unstable spell before him, and with the tip of his finger popped it.  “So it is, that they are the best, and worst of all that what we are, or can be.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

In the hall outside the girl’s tower chamber Laurel was deep in thought.

“You could have helped me get those two to bed,” Mercu said behind him, having quietly slipped from the girl’s room.

“Perhaps,” Laurel said with the faintest touch of an apologetic tone, “but I had much to think upon, and when I arrived you were well into your story.  I thought it best not to intrude.”

“Forgiven,” Mercu said, and leaned against the door frame.  “I’m jealous of those two, you know.”

“You?” Laurel laughed, and turned to face Mercu.  “I think I am jealous.  I was almost seven before I could form a spell even that simple, and had trained for over a year.  Those two both got it on their first day…”

“Yes, well I never said I wasn’t jealous of you as well,” Mercu chuckled. “I’ve trained with you for over fifteen years now, and the best I can do is to light a candle with a few tries, or break a not particularly stable spell if I focus very hard.”

“You make light,” Laurel protested, “but I am to train two girls who might surpass me well before they are of age.  Their age,” he sighed, “is still a factor of course, it will hold them back in some ways.”

“Will it?” Mercu scoffed.  “I’m guessing you missed the part where they told me a story.”

“Do not misunderstand me, they are gifted in ways more than power,” Laurel said turning to look back out the window. “Fates, even young prince Philip with all his tutoring barely spoke as intelligently at their age.”

“Are we now to use royalty as a measure for intellect?”  Mercu laughed somewhat derisively.  “I suppose there is merit to measuring in the smallest possible increment, for accuracy.”

Laurel laughed slightly in spite of him himself, but shot Mercu a stern look.  “Philip may be a tad foolish,” he begrudged, “but his father has grown up wise and clever enough, Darion more so.  The King, even for all his heirs and pretense is not a man to be easily outsmarted.”  He paused thoughtfully.  “Children will be children, except I may not be able to allow these two the luxury.  With their potential, maturity will be a necessity, not a grace, or I fear for the harm they could do in a childish outburst.”

“You don’t plan to be too hard with them, do you?” Mercu said a bit worried.

“Not too,” Laurel said with a shake of his head.  “An angry vengeful child with that kind power would be far worse.  We will just have to teach them well, right from wrong, and the necessity of restraint.  Long before they have the need to restrain themselves.”

“Is that all,” Mercu laughed.  “Good for you, dear sir, that you have a professional storyteller in the wings,” he said with an overly elaborate bow.

“Oh, and you are the very measure of restraint?” Laurel said turning to eye Mercu incredulously.

“Those who can’t,” Mercu cut back, standing upright properly again, “teach.”

“Oh really, and that I now teach?” Laurel growled feigned indignance.

“Well, from all you say, comparatively…it is appropriate,” Mercu offered in a friendly mocking tone.

“If only it were not so true.”  Laurel laughed with ill humor.  “I think bed is in order for more than little girls.”

“What if I am a little girl!” Mercu snapped in a mock snit.

“I have it on very good authority,” Laurel said as he turned to walk up the stairs, and shook his head, “that appearances aside, you are neither little, nor a girl.”

“Would you have me any other way?” Mercu called after him.

“Feh!” Laurel said throwing up a hand dismissively.  “It works for you.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 40th, 636 E.R.

“There is a matter of some delicacy that sits before us.”  Catherine was somehow, more than usual, very serious.

Laurel considered her, standing at his study door.  Hers was an unusual presence, it seemed to change on almost every meeting.  Sometimes she was fire, others old weathered stone.  That day she felt almost like fresh leather, and aged partment.  Laurel gestured into the room.

She nodded and passed him.  It was always a dance between the two of them, complex at best, amiable perhaps in the vaguest sort of way, but never fully.  Her deference to him was proper enough, given each their odd and politically textures positions, but there had never been a warmth between the two.

He knew at least that she rarely approved his closest choice of companion.  Certainly there was less complexity to her opinion of him, than Mercu – a subject he had more occasion to hear of, from both sides.  This had at least implied a candor she was willing to offer Laurel, if not in regard to her direct opinion of himself, then of those close to him.

“I fear there are usually many of these to attend to.  I’ll need the list narrowed down.”

“I’ll say I have no objection of the matter – the law certainly does not forbid a Court Mage from holding great stake in a kingdom’s lands, even if it might frown upon it.”

“I take it some has been overlooked in my charge’s estate?”

“More than a little.  As you know, much of the north has been left to the management of the people.  Official records are a bit muddied, and though there was some sense of importance regarding the Ashton line – after the mater of the dragon – no one thought to look closely at the dispensation of holdings.”

“And you found?”

“I thought first it proper to check something that might go unconsidered, as it seems it has.  Wealth that was owed to the grandfather.  He had – as I suspected – made some loans of interest to various individuals, who, upon seeing only three bastards, thought themselves justified in quietly forgetting the proper ownership of it.”

“I do not consider them bastards, the mother was found to wear a ring as a wedding band should be, and though I never met the late Mr. Ashton, the ages of the children, and their certain shared linage speaks of a long relation with the father.  I do not imagine him tolerating a continued inappropriate state – whatever some think of northern ways.  Certainly, even if they were, the maternal law on this is clear.  As children of a legitimate, and only heir, their status cannot be legally questioned.”

“Yes – technically this is true, but the justifications some might seek when they think it possible to miss lay records to their own benefit, are not so stringent.  Not when this much is involved.”

“And you found a substantial sum entitled to the family?”

“Really quite a lot – in matter of fact I am still struggling to ascertain the scope of the estate.  The records are not well kept, and this has been made all the worse by recent, and quite apparent mishandling.”

“How does this affect me, other than some degree of necessity that I look after the interest of my charges?”

“Well – the source of the money is important.  Generations of careful management could hardly explain the extent of the late Mr. Ashton’s reach.  You know that the crown, as a matter of tradition, little interferes in northern affairs.  They have their own system of governance, long deprived of dukes, lords, and barons – by title that is.  While Mr. Ashton, and his father, and grandfathers before him were never given the honorific, it is now more than certain that they have been acting the proper role of barons, if not dukes.  Holding an estate of some six thousand acres or more – possibly all the land from the farm south of their residence, to the old ruins of Ashrook.”

“Good fates,” Laurel said slightly stricken, “they seemed barely more than peasants.”

“As is the northern way.  Really I am impressed with the decorum of it all.  Not many knew.  Taxes were paid, properly, in all the ways they should be, but not in a way that made it at all obvious the consolidation of interest.  I do not believe even the individual debt holders had the slightest notion of the extent of it.”

“Decorum?” Laurel seemed confused.

“It’s nature is not always the pomp, and circumstance of our way of life, surely you of all people can understand?”

“I am more than aware – my life has seen me more abroad than you.  I was more surprised to hear the opinion from yourself.  A woman of certain stately taste, as I have ever known.”

“Then I will forgive you – kindly – your lack of understanding that I am a woman of proper decorum.  Which is to say I suit the company I keep, but am not ignorant of its textured truths through our world.”

“Yet why then has this tragedy been visited upon the family.  Why was the mother alone?”

“Pride, I fear – or perhaps secrecy, or some mixture of the two.  Northerners do not tolerate to keep servants, they despise the relationship of it as much as any proud house in the south would be mortified to be without them.  It would be intolerable to a northerner.  Further the parentage of the children is altogether odd on many levels.”

“Many.  I have thought on it often, and shared my thoughts with the King, but if you have your own, I would gladly hear them.  Since it seems you know more of that local culture than I had yet gleaned.”

“It is less the culture, than the man that gives me pause.  I had met Mr. Ashton more than once after his wife’s passing – though perhaps I should do him the favor of calling him James, he did demand it in our passing acquaintance.  Such formality is almost rude to them.  The preference of heredity to person, and agency.”

“I had somewhat gathered this – but that does cast a clearer light on those now at court.”

“Yes – and to their credit they have adapted well.  As much as their tone has forced change upon us.  Not all things can stay the same with such an endeavor, as the King has rightly undertaken.  Regardless, I do not imagine James to have tolerated – not for a moment – if his daughter had been misused by some Sylvan man, willingly or otherwise.  He had more than the means to send her away.  Had it been at all unwilling – or even uncouth – I dare say we would find ourselves now at war with that people.”

“I have gathered that Mr. Ashton was fiery.  No, I do not imagine any such thing being permitted.  I believe the ring, as worn, though likely the elder Mrs. Ashton’s in origin, implied what it might seem.  Though there is no record, I am certain that to the late Miss Ashton – or whatever Mrs. might be better attributed – considered herself married, and that the others involved agreed.”

“Yes.  We can all rationally attest to this, and the King will surely sanctify the opinion.  There is none the less quite the mess entailed.  Legal status is muddy, the proper scope of holding indeterminate, and as their guardian you are now chiefly responsible for the disposition of it all.  Which while legal…the extent of it will be frowned upon by the Council.”

“Must no good intention go unpunished?” Laurel mused tiredly.

“I bring this to your attention because it is proper.  Just because you have this authority, does not mean you need trouble yourself with every detail.  That is if you can trust others to handle it.”

“Who would you recommend?”

“I can speak for my own trust, surely – but not yours.  I know certainly – and though I will disagree with it – where your trust most adamantly lies.  I do not think him a proper person for the task.  Surely on this we can agree?”

“Certainly.  Though, for what it is worth, he would never forgive me the confidence in his character, nor the strain upon his leisure.”

“Were it that I could recommend him to it then.  I would gladly see him suffer under the weight.”

“Honestly then, those I most trust fall to the King, the Queen, their heirs, and yourself good Lady – perhaps above any of them.”

“I am honored, and shocked.  I did not imagine I had such confidence from you.”

“You do.  You have certainly brought this to my attention, worthily – and your honor, and initiative in undertaking the venture to discover it in the first place speaks even more highly of your character than I was already inclined.”

“Perhaps, I have misjudged our standing with one another?”

“That we do not approve of each other in all things, hardly means that in some we do not hold trust, and respect.  I have surely never believed that you object to me in this position.”

“Certainly not.  I would not question the King’s appointment lightly.”

“Yet we do not see eye to eye in every way?”

“I wonder this at times.  Surely I am not without affection for the one I consider your greatest blemish.”

“Surely indeed,” Laurel said pointedly.  Catherine’s eyes narrowed, and Laurel considered that his response had been more terse than he meant.  “Obviously I am not one to judge on the matter – I have my own feelings, which have perhaps tinted my words.  I meant more to imply mutual familiarity.  As you have in the past.  Let us not dwell upon it, and rather the point that you have my trust, implicitly, on this.  Would you – as you have already shown the inclination – be my representative in the matter?  That I might continue to focus on my duties both to the court, and my new charges.”

“Yes.  You are right – let us focus on that, and yes I accept the role.  I liked the late Mr. Ashton, such as I knew him.  I wish nothing but the best for his grandchildren.”

“Thank you.  I will trust you to give me brief accountings.  Preferably very brief.  I wish as little entanglement in it all as is reasonable.  As you say, I want no part of the Council’s displeasure, which I already earned by adopting them.  The more outside the mater I appear, the better.  In fact, the more that you keep this from public knowledge, such as it is practical under the circumstances…”

“Yes agreed – and I thank you for your complete confidence.  Though I remain uncertain in our dealings how I have so thoroughly earned it.”

“You have never done anything less than what you feel best for the good, and dignity of this kingdom.  I have observed this not only in act, but record, and tact.”

“Not always,” Catherine corrected almost irritably – her admonishment somewhere between pride, shame, and some other unfathomable contradiction.  She also seemed more than displeased with her own candor, a snap out of her character.  There was resounding hurt evident in it, a wound clearly far deeper than anything Laurel could account for in his knowledge of the woman.

“I mean only to honor your steadfastness.  If always is too generous for your pride to bare, then may I instead speak to the ardent ferocity with which you have taken care of not only the court, but the interest of the people?”

“No – I am sorry.  I let your compliment stand as you will.  I am human, and I must often remind myself of this fact, lest I forget my failings.  Sometimes my anger at my own follies gets the better of me.”

“We are all human dear woman.  Surely there are none without flaw, failing, or misstep.”

“I thank you – and I apologize again for my undue ire, better directed at myself.”

“And I assure you it is better not at all.  Whatever mortal follies, or differences we have, you are admirable as any I could name.”


Catherine smiled cordially, in a way that betrayed nothing more.  “I shall gather what I have learned so far, that you might examine it, and will not bother you again on the matter until I have a better resolution.”

“That will do fine – yes.  Is there anything else I can do for you while you have my attention?  Surely I owe you something for this favor on my behalf.”

“I will hold you to your word, that it is a favor,” Catherine said shrewdly, “yet I have nothing else at present.”

“Of course.”

She moved to leave, and then hesitated.  “There is one thing I will say.  As to the matter we have avoided.  Neither of us, clearly, are blameless.  Let us agree that there is a singularness in play, even if no specific quality could ever be established as most estimable, or infuriating.”

“On this, we can agree.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Aunum 1st, 636 E.R.

It was a cool clear autumn evening, just warm enough to be comfortable.  The twins sat beside Mercu in the upper courtyard of the castle, each with their own caramel dipped apple.  The courtyard was a busy place, filled with invited guests, and other members of the court attending the first of many banquet nights, and the lighting of the lanterns.

As twilight began to take hold, red and yellow lights lit in sequence along the walls, starting from the gate, and wrapping around the keep.  Chains of lanterns were strung together in spirals around each of the towers.  Lastly a single brilliant burning streak flew up with a whistle from above the gate, and at the height of it’s arc there was a burst of red and orange sparks, and a thunderous crack.

There was a round of polite clapping, and the guests began to file their way into the keep.

“That was pretty,” Kiannae said between bites of her apple.

“What was it?” Katrisha asked her mouth half full.

“A firework,” Mercu said with a yawn.

The twins had been particularly obstinate the previous evening regarding sleep.  They had been too excited by the coming of the Autumn festival, and Mercu knew he shared some blame in that.  He was in truth unsure exactly when the twins had finally drifted off themselves, as he had woken beside their bed some time before dawn, covered in one of their blankets.

He was quite struck by the sweetness that the two had tucked him in after he had drifted off.  He was none the less cross that they had kept him up so very late in the first place, and at how stiff the floor had left him.  It all balanced out he decided.

“How does it work?” Katrisha asked.

“Perhaps you should ask Laurel,” Mercu suggested.

“Are you saying you don’t know?” Kiannae goaded.

“They pack a tube full of a powder that burns quickly,” Mercu sighed, “the fire expands into gas that pushes it up, and then the last bit explodes, sending out smaller pieces that burn as well.”

“Why not just use magic?” Katrisha asked.

“Not everyone has magic,” Mercu shrugged.  “I’ve seen enchanted fireworks that do quite spectacular things, but Maron, the village enchanter is a very pragmatic man, quite dull really.  His apprentice shows some promise, but his master keeps him on a tight leash.  So we are left to the skills of the alchemist instead.  Good man Arahm, not afraid to put some flare into life.”

“Why doesn’t the King have his own enchanter?” Kiannae asked, and bit again into her apple.

“The King is a practical man himself,” Mercu said thoughtfully, “not in the same way mind you.  He walks a fine line of maintaining dignity, and regal splendor, without seeming to ask too much of the people.  The cost of keeping a royal enchanter is simply too much in his estimation.  Not when there are rich barons in the west, and richer kingdoms afar to lure them away.”

“How can Avrale be poor?” Katrisha asked with a cross expression.

“Avrale isn’t poor,” Mercu corrected, “but nor is it the richest of nations.  And many of the dukes, and barons do not show the same restraint as the king.  It is a point of some contention in fact.”

“Couldn’t Laurel do it?” Kiannae asked.

“Oh, that he could,” Mercu laughed, “and some years he’s added his own twist to one of the rockets, usually for the mid festival.  He’s been busy this year though, I don’t think he’s had the time.”  He looked about, and almost all the guests had filed into the keep.  “Come my ladies,” he said standing up, “dancing, and food await.”

“We don’t know how to dance,” both girls protested together.

“Then I’ll have to teach you, won’t I?” Mercu smirked.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 1st, 636 E.R.

“What is that?” Katrisha asked pointing up at the orrery that slowly turned over Laurel’s head.  Laurel was actually quite surprised it had taken so long for one of the girls to ask, they had seemed to ask everything else imaginable, often twice as one ignored the other’s answer, and yet somehow the orrery that often caught a glimmer of their attention, had not till that point been directly questioned.

“It is a model of the movement our world, the moon, and others that share our sun,” Laurel said looking up, and admiring his own handy work.  “Took me four years to build it, though I sometimes wonder why I bothered.  Guess it was something to do, and I was inspired by one of my…old instructors.  He was obsessed with the sky.”

“How does it work?” Kiannae asked.

“It’s…complicated,” Laurel said thoughtfully. “The mechanical parts are there to support enhancements that drive the simulation, and aid the timing.  It is kept running off the core of an old elemental that I inherited from my grandmother.  It pulls energy in, and the spells draw off that flow to maintain the whole thing.”

Laurel watched the girl’s expressions, and could tell he had lost them completely.  He never could quite tell where the line was.  They were incredibly clever, but they were also just shy of four he was quite certain, though he could barely believe it.  He tried not to focus on that fact, as it frequently made him nervous.  “Alright, let’s start with the basics,” he said, and sat down in front of the girls.  He held out his hand, and formed the same orb that the girls had largely mastered making.

“This,” Laurel continued, “is just the same old spell.”  He reached his hand inside, and formed a new structure around the core.  “Now it will attract any other orb like it,” he said, and with a wave of his hand a copy pulled out of the first with scintillating brilliance as both sought new equilibrium.  He set the copy in an orbit around the original, and leaned back.

Katrisha and Kiannae watched the arrangement with fascination.  “Well, go on, you try,” Laurel encouraged, almost mockingly, and watched as the girls started to experiment.  Laurel regarded the results with some satisfaction as each tried and failed several times to even start to make a change inside of their spells without tearing them apart.  He had hope for the first time, that their pace would now slow to something he could keep up with.

Yet as the day wore on they began to make progress, to the point where near the very end  of the day Katrisha’s orb managed to stay together long enough with it’s new addition to pull Laurel’s example apart, and cause the whole affair to explode in a shower of swirling twinkling light.  He shook his head, and decided that pressing again for time from the royal tutors was in order.  Conventional academics would quickly become the barrier, but could also prove a useful distraction from continuous progress on magic.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 7th, 636 E.R.

Katrisha and Kiannae watched the curious gray haired old man they had been left with as he walked up to a large black board, and scrawled out his name in large letters.  He was a bit funny looking, rather short for a man, stocky, and a little pudgy, particularly in the cheeks.  At a glance one could mistake him for jovial, but this illusion vanished at the flat, thin lipped shape of his mouth.  What stood out to most however was the singular oddity perched quite precariously on his nose.

“Now then,” he started, “can you read this?”

“What is that?” Katrisha asked, pointing at the man.

He followed the finger toward himself, and his eyes narrowed on the bridge of his nose a moment.  “They help me see better,” he answered.

“Do your eyes need to be healed?” Kiannae asked.

“No,” he said flatly.

“But if your eyes don’t work right, shouldn’t they be healed?  Why wouldn’t you?”

“Whatever the Path might say,” That sighed with reserved frustration, “I am not so pious as that.  The natural condition of my eyes is unfocused, and any amount of healing does not help, because they are perfectly healthy.  There are no shapers I would trust with such a delicate task west of Mordove.”  He took a breath, and exhaled.  “Now then, can you read this?”

“No,” Kiannae said, and Katrisha repeated the sentiment a moment later.

“This is to be expected,” their new teacher continued, “it says Moriel, it is my name, but for now you may address me as Instructor.  I am told the two of you are not quite four, but that you speak very well for your young age.”

“We do,” Kiannae agreed proudly.

“Yes,” Katrisha concurred.

Moriel paused for a moment, and then continued.  “Let us begin by determining exactly how old you are.  Tell me of the month of your last birthday?”

“It was cold,” Kiannae offered.

“There was snow on the ground,” Katrisha added.

“Do you know the name of the month?” Moriel asked.

“No,” each girl said in turn.

“Do you recall if it was before, or after the winter solstice?” Moriel asked.

The twins seemed to think for some time, and finally Katrisha said, “Before.”

“Just before,” Kiannae added.

“Very well,” Moriel said, and turned back to the blackboard.  “It would seem the two of you were born in the last month of the year,” he said as he began to write near the bottom of the board at a bit of an angle.  “This is the month of Styver, the first month of winter, named for the rivers Styx that flow from the Aether to the Nether.”

Moriel turned his head a moment to be sure he still had the girls attention.  “A month is six weeks, that is forty-two days, so I would guess you two were born around the middle. I recall however that last year that the snows fell late in the north, not until the thirty-eighth, so unless a more accurate date can be found, this will suffice for your birthday.”  He began to draw a big circle on the board, starting and ending from the point he had drawn near Styver, which he crossed again to make sure it was still clear.

“After Styver, as you seem to know, is the winter solstice, the week of Hivern,” Moriel said beginning to write in each name as he went, placing Hivern at the bottom.  Then the month of Laeur, named for Laeune the moon.  The spring season follows, comprised of the months Vhalun, named for the Light Bearer Vhael, the morning star.  The week of the spring equinox, Vernum, and the month of Coria, named for the Coronation of Emperor Corinth.”

Moriel divided the circle up into pie wedges before continuing – eight large, four very small.  “Summer of course follows spring, with the months of Estae, named for Estaera the protector of mothers, and the summer solstice Rhast named for the sun Rahn.  Then Rhaeus named for the Light Bearer’s daughter, who perished, and whose embers light the late summer sky.  Lastly we come to the autumn season, comprised of the month of Jovan, named for the mythical father of many children, the week of Aunum for the autumn equinox, and the harvest month of Harfast.”

Moriel considered the twins carefully.  “Now let us move onto a basic alphabet,” he said, and began writing it out, “and come back to sounding out the names of the months later.”

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