I looked there upon a lonely spire,
tall tower of those highland plains,
solitary sentinel, ‘bove the harvest grains,
proud amber heart of sovereign vales,
on all sides there about secured,
no walls she needed, nor ever were,
fair and placid lands, of humble Avrale,
could turn a prince’s eye with want,
to toil golden summer fields,
this was what young eyes knew,
now err a city sprouted from such fertile ground,
buried ancient farms, ne’er again to be ploughed,
was it for I, who took the lands fairest daughter,
did I not think time could march on without her,
we left that land, in bickering old elder’s hands.
– Prince Markus, 98 E.R.
The Voices of South Rook
The tower of South Rook was the tallest, and broadest of all the great towers of Avrale. Standing above the near flat caldera of the southern highlands, it was a singular spectacle seen from miles in all directions. A beacon drawing travelers in towards the sprawling city that centuries had grown around it.
Small towns sprung up like satellites along the arterial roads through the plains, and looking out at any great distance one could see these towns as clearly as the city. It was a strange, and foreign place to those used to the deep shelter of the vales, and yet far off to all sides ridges came up to contain the vast southern farmlands. Though a broad brake in the ridges gave way in the south, a pass that lead to the Southern Steps and cascaded down out of Avrale into Niven.
For every little town was a baron, a man of seemingly great self importance. These invariably wished to greet, and offer food and comfort to the travelers. All it seemed, with little pretext to gain audience with Laurel, and to bend his ear to this or that concern, and imply that perhaps word might reach the King. The twins quickly understood why Laurel had been begrudgingly willing to take the more sedate northern route, which while even more rural, and typically ignored, avoided the officious sort of people they were constantly meeting.
Great shows of passing interest were heaped upon the twins, who quickly decided it was best to ignore the adults entirely, save to nod if directly addressed. Wren found it easier to escape into the shadows, and seemed to draw less attention than his sisters. The girls were painfully bored of it all, and spent a great deal of time each devising spells, and daring the other to do better, or find a flaw.
Even Wren participated in examining their work, and proved somewhat adept at spotting odd details, but was not altogether familiar enough with his sister’s magic to offer much concrete input. Laurel appeared fascinated by the boy’s vague aptitude, but seemed to have nothing to say on the matter. Wren’s interests seemed fleeting, even if there were signs of potential, and Laurel continued to have no interest in a third apprentice, and overly encouraging the matter was not to his benefit.
These were the highlights of the slow plodding trip. While Wesrook had been a slightly farther from their start at Broken Hill, it had taken only two long days. Four were taken to travel just as far as the city, which upon entry did have the three children’s full attention. South Rook was taller, prouder, and cleaner than Wesrook, and yet had a meandering quality like Brokhal, if in a dense and overwhelming fashion.
One felt as though they could easily get lost in South Rook, and yet all the way through the streets, winding in a pattern that defied quick understanding, the tower loomed above as a constant landmark. One always knew where the city center was if nothing else, and that spectacle only grew more imposing as they approached along one of the wide streets connecting to the inner promenade before the castle’s main gate.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 13th, 644 E.R.
Three children, and two weary men piled from their coach, and Horence lead it away to be stabled.
“It’s very big,” Katrisha finally remarked.
An understatement of the obvious, standing below the towers base it was evident how enormous the whole thing really was. The walls of the castle around the tower staked out land nearly as large as the castle on Broken Hill, yet with the stables outside, and the walls less fortified, and filled with windows and small jutting turrets, one wondered at the vastness that might lay within.
The tower itself was clearly several hundred feet across at the base, and slowly sloped up toward its high peak. There was nothing small or humble about the sight, and the great gate before them stood open onto what looked to be a terraced garden courtyard.
A man was hustling out through that gate, and whipped off his hat, bowing before the new arrivals. “My apologies, my Lord,” the man said slightly short of breath. “There has been some chaos this morning, and reports of your arrival were slow, and scattered. We’d thought it might be another day.”
“Not a problem,” Laurel said reassuringly. “It is good to see you, Parin.”
“Ah yes, yes, sorry – Laurel. I find it safest most of the time to stay in the more formal address with the locals.”
“You aren’t their servant,” Laurel chided.
“Please do not tell them this,” Parin laughed nervously. “I prefer to play the part, and be able to do my job, than pretend to position, and be powerless.”
“Wise,” Mercu agreed with humor.
“Regardless, as you see, I am sent to greet you,” Parin noted, “and I would not have, if iI did not play along – even with this morning’s unrest.”
“The candid state of things?” Laurel pressed, but followed as Parin gestured for them to.
“The root of the commotion has been the collision of all our troubles I fear,” Parin said as they started to walk through the gates. “Northern farmhands,” he said, and gave a tap to his own cap, “have rallied the others along with them, and are protesting slow payment. They are sitting on bales, and locking silos. Meanwhile several squabbles have lead to injuries. Three Sisters have been tending to the wounded, and were given a small house by a baron siding with the workers.” He grimaced. “Then it all went so very much more wrong this morning.”
Laurel stopped. “Tell me what has happened before we go farther.”
“There was a fire, at the house the Sisters were given. Two dead in their care, and all are recovering from burns sustained both escaping, and trying to rescue the others.”
“Suspects?” Laurel asked harshly.
“Many,” Parin said. “Lots of finger pointing. I’m doing what I can, but I’ve lost any real hold over my people. They think I’ve become one of the masters because I play the game, to get things done. The Knight Commander has set up a camp near the area to keep the peace, but he’s going to have to start bloodying one side or the other, or he’ll just wind up fighting both.”
“Fine, take me to the Duke,” Laurel said tersely. “Mercu… find someone to set up our lodging. This must be taken care of now.”
Mercu nodded, and Laurel was off even ahead of his guide.
“What’s going to happen?” Kiannae asked.
Mercu took a moment to think of the best response, but before he could even try to quiet the children’s fears, Wren offered his thoughts, “Bad things.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Night had fallen, and Laurel had not returned. Mercu put the children to bed, and though suspicious of the twins being agreeable to lay down, he was not ready to question good fortune. Such dubiously set aside suspicions were quite founded, and after Mercu had retired, the twins slipped from their room in secret.
After being cooped up for days with officious adults, and the rest of the time in a stuffy coach they had a new castle to explore, and every intention of doing so. Katrisha peaked into Wren’s room, but found him sleeping, and Kiannae poked her.
“Leave him,” she whispered tersely.
Katrisha pursed her lips thoughtfully. She had wanted to bring Wren along, but decided it was best to let him sleep when her sister simply continued to glare at her. She closed his door, and the two slunk off down the hall, dodging into alcoves, and tapestries at the slightest sound of footsteps.
One such evasion took them onto a balcony overlooking the lower gardens, which they had only fleetingly seen during the day. By the moonlight, and cast in the amber glow spilling out the tower windows it was breathtaking. Their position high in the western wall of the castle let them see the many terraces, fountains, trees, and flowerbeds of the gardens. Some fountains formed streams which cascaded in soft waterfalls between tiers.
The splendor of the place made Broken Hill seem quaint, and primitive, and all of it caught between blue and amber hues was vividly serene. Even Kiannae, oft less taken by the night stared down beside her sister in abject wonder. “Fates it’s pretty here,” she whispered appreciatively. “Why isn’t this the capitol?”
“I don’t know,” Katrisha shrugged. “I mean the view from the tower is very nice, high up above the valley. They could do more with the court I suppose. Move the stables outside the walls, cascade the upper court into the lower like this. Then it might be better.”
“Eh,” Kiannae remarked, and peaked back into the hall they had ducked out of. All was quiet, and with reluctance Katrisha followed Kiannae back inside. The walls were covered in paintings, and tapestries everywhere they went. It had an effect of being too much, and a single glance between the two confirmed they agreed on this. Broken Hill might have needed some love in the landscaping, but the more sedate decoration was better in the twins opinion.
Sneaking into the main tower was mostly possible due to a dozing guard, and even as the twins slipped inside they heard a startled mutter behind them. The door creek, and they had only just managed to duck out of sight before the guard took a step into the hall behind them. He walked around a bit, but missed the displaced curtain the two had slipped behind, and Kiannae peeking out from it. He returned to the door, took one more look around, and closed it properly.
The hall the twins had entered was a large ring inside the exterior walls of the tower, and overlooked a central chamber below that was mostly deserted. Another guard was walking below, his heels making smart little clacks with every step. The round lower chamber looked something like a mixture of the throne room at Broken Hill with the ballroom, yet grander and finer than either. Overhead great stone arches came up to meet with the center of the chamber to support the roof and rooms above.
The twins found stairs down into the lower chamber more quickly than those that lead up, but were not interested in going down. Checking that the stairs seemed clear the two hustled up into the next level of the tower. It was a long two story climb that permitted the vast open area below, and the two were a bit winded from their haste.
Peaking out at the top of the stairs revealed a guard standing some distance away. He seemed distracted, his ear to a door, listening to yelling that could be heard all the way from the stairs, and he easily missed the two as they bolted across the hall, and out of sight.
Katrisha stopped short, and listened at the corner. She was fairly sure one of the voices she heard yelling was Laurel, and then confirmation as the guard moved out of the way, and the doors burst open dramatically.
“Do your duty you spineless cowards,” Laurel snapped, and turned angrily to face the room again. “I want those responsible for this crime brought to justice. Do not think that the Council’s authority ends at the King, and let me remind you the man that he is. This is not merely an arson, but an assault, and two murders. Two men died in that fire, and what company they kept, what linage they could claim is not your concern. I want this handled with all the seriousness if they had been your own sons. Do you hear me?”
Laurel pivoted again on his heel, and marched towards the stairs. Katrisha and Kiannae scurried away down the hall they were hiding in, and well out of sight. They leaned behind a pillar, huffed a few times excitedly, and when it was clear they had once again evaded detection they nodded approvingly to one another.
Footsteps coming their way caused the pair to hurry up the closest set of stairs they could find, and into another level filled with hallways, and doors. Footsteps could be heard following them up the steps, and they rushed to one end of the hall where a balcony opened out over the gardens far below. They hid with their backs flat to the wall, but there were still voices and footsteps coming their way.
“These northerners are heathens,” one man said angrily. “They are wanton, and crass, yet they act as though they think themselves part of the nobility, with their dirt stained hands. I do not know what madness the King has fallen under that he continues to permit their ‘representative’ at court. He is perhaps the most common, and low born of the lot. Worse than Perin, who at least shows proper deference, even if I still see in his eyes he thinks himself clever.”
“This is the travesty that we get for allowing such people to think they know anything of what is good for them,” another voice answered. “They do not have the education, the refinement, the lineage for such thoughts. When the drought ends, something must be done about the north. They can not be allowed to continue like this.”
“There is another lowborn tavern now on the edge of the city. Disgusting, and filled with women of ill repute. Worse still some of them Lycian by their own admission. Bad enough if such a place exists in some far corner of the farm lands, but here, in South Rook. We are sinking lower even than Wesrook. To think, worse than those fishers, unconscionable.”
The first man walked out onto the balcony, but did not notice the girls hiding in the dark. He strode up to the rail, and leaned on it to stare out across the city, somewhere towards the horizon. His attire, however subdued seemed of regal cut, his baring one of imposing command, under his barely restrained rage.
The second man had stopped just inside the tower. “Their influence is out of control. I caught one of my footmen swearing up a storm to the scullery maids, and them laughing it up. I fired them all on the spot of course, and it is proving difficult to replace them on such short notice. The state my house is in.”
“To think – I have been ordered to investigate the burning of that whore house. Justice has already been served that it was burned to the ground.”
The second man stepped out, and looked up at the sky, before moving to stand beside his companion. Katrisha and Kiannae glanced at eachother, softly stepped towards one another, and then slipped back into the tower, hiding again on the inside. They were not done listening.
“Laurel, in the King’s name of all things, wants them punished…punished. I’ll punish them with ranking positions in the guard I tell you. Pin the whole mess on some degenerate farmers. Sad I will not be able to give credit where it is due, but the least I can do is right by those cleansing the filth from our midst. Perhaps they can do more good work, and with some subtlety, if placed properly. Maybe that tavern can have an accident.”
“You’ve already determined who is responsible?”
“A short list at least,” the more regal man gave an absent gesture. “Most I have seen attend sermons. Good men.” He turned, and leaned back against the rail, looking up, and closed his eyes.
“Are you sure you can shift the blame?” His companion asked, and turned to look to his superior with doubt. The twins each got a good look at their faces in the moonlight, before deciding it was better to duck back completely out of view.
“If a few fools can’t be bought, they can be made to look like liars, and accomplices. There are always more peasants in need of coin, than those determined to stick out their necks. When they see the way the wind is blowing, we will settle this mess.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
When the twins arrived outside their room they considered their options. They had to tell Laurel what they had heard, which would mean explaining how they had heard it. Reluctantly they check Laurel’s room, but found it empty, and considered that it might be better to wait till morning to tell him any way.
Distracted thinking over her options, Katrisha collided with her sister when she stopped halfway through their chamber door, and nearly knocked both of them over.
“And what have you two been up to?” Laurel demanded, seated on their bed. Mercu sitting beside him, looked groggy, and more unhappy to be awake than with the girls likely mischief.
“We heard some men talking,” Kiannae said defensively.
Laurel did not look impressed.
“They said they are going to blame the fire on people who didn’t do it,” Katrisha added hastily.
Laurel did not look less angry, but both twins were reasonably convinced he was no longer concerned with their sneaking out, and would listen to what they had to say. Mercu also looked far less sleepy, and even less pleased.
“Can you identify the men who you heard talking?” Laurel demanded.
The girls glanced at each other. “Yes,” they answered in unison.
“Good.” Laurel stroked his beard. “I will be arranging to present you tomorrow to the court of South Rook. I had hoped to avoid all the pomp of formal introduction, but that will be our best opportunity to be sure you see everyone of note.” He took a breath, and steadied himself. “Now you will tell me every single word you remember.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 14th, 644 E.R.
Laurel looked weary as Parin entered his room. He gestured for the man to close the door behind him, and Parin did.
“Who here could replace Duke Fenlin, or Baron Castor?”
“Under what circumstances?” Parin asked shrewdly.
“Let us say, any.”
“Not many,” Perin answered. “The Knight commander would of course be the logical replacement for his brother. Yet if there is a problem with Fenlin, we will likely have it in time with James.”
“James is corrupt?”
“No,” Parin said firmly. “He has been faithful in his duties, but strongly I feel he is his much the same man as his brother. Put in his position, he will become more like him. I also do not think in his heart he would want it.”
“Parin – you have been here for some years now. Do you think you could do what these men do?”
“Either?” Parin asked.
“Both,” Laurel answered.
“Possibly,” Parin said, his grimace a bit hard to read. “Though I do not know if I could rely on the same men they have. In fact I know I cannot. I know Baron Thomil to be embezzling, and Baron Comlin to be taking bribes. I have other suspicions as well, but those are just the things I am certain of.”
“You haven’t reported this?”
“Just because I know it to be true, does not mean I’ve had sufficient evidence to make it stick.”
“You could still have reported your suspicions.”
“Your pardon Laurel, but let me be frank. You and the King are good men, you would not have endured this, and the cost of rectifying the matter was easily as high as allowing it to endure. Principle, and practicality do not always mix.”
“I am aware…”
“Regardless I have not been idle, I have been working to build the case in the event it becomes necessary.”
“Good – it may be.”
“What, if I may ask is happening?” Perin pressed. There was a seriousness, and authority that slipped through then that belied his usual demeanor. It would be useful, if things played out as Laurel expected.
“I have sent for the King. Legally, I have the authority for what needs doing here without him, and I still need to settle some details, but I want his support. This will be messy enough without relying only on the Council’s authority, and my position with the King.”
“Good fates. The King is leaving Broken Hill? He has not done so in decades.”
“I have sent a fast courier, but even if the King rushes, and he will, it will still be three days before he arrives. We need to keep things from getting out of hand until then. Who do you trust?”
“Baron Joshua,” Parin answered. “No others with certainty. He has been on our side from the start. He is a good man, he gave those women the house, and now keeps them safe in his own.”
“Whoever Fenlin brings charges against I want them protected. Use Joshua to make sure of it. It may take things longer than three days to come to a head, but if they do, I will have the peace maintained, and I would prefer to know I am not acting alone.”
“You have me,” Parin nodded, “and you will have Joshua.”
“Good – you are dismissed, I have much to think on,” Laurel waved.
Parin nodded, and left promptly. Laurel sighed when he was gone.
“Educational, you two?” he asked after a moment.
Katrisha, and Kiannae stepped out from behind a curtain. “You knew we were here?” Kiannae asked.
“I could see your auras,” Laurel chided.
“Oh,” Katrisha said awkwardly.
“Other than that, I would not have known,” Laurel reassured them. “I figured however if you were hiding in my room, you would not be skulking about the castle.”
“The King is coming here?” Kiannae asked.
“Yes,” Laurel said. “I will still need you to identify for certain who you heard speaking last night, but I have strong suspicions.”
“The Duke, and Baron?” Katrisha asked.
“Perhaps I should not have let you listen,” Laurel frowned. “Be sure of who you identify, do not let what you heard here skew your opinions.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
A small ball was held in the twin’s honor that evening. It was officious, and filled with introductions. Neither had any doubt that the men introduced as Duke Fenlin, and Baron Castor were the men they had heard, and seen, and heard talking. This was established almost immediately, and then the rest of the evening was lost to formalities.
Though the pomp, and circumstance was grating, and boring, neither girl minded too much when young men, all mostly a year or two their elder asked them to dance. Each did passably, but had never had much practice. Katrisha at least once stepped on a young man’s toes, who to his credit pretended nothing happened.
The ball gave way to banquet, and the banquet to more milling. Though everything was prettier, and grander, the twins each found something lacking in the atmosphere. There was a jovialness to balls at Broken Hill that was absent in South Rook, and each were glad enough to return to their room in the end.
The next day brought commotion, as arrests were made over the fire. Some men protested their innocence, but otherwise went quietly, and though it seemed a mob might break out among the commoners, peace seemed to hold by a thread. Just as quickly two men were commended publically for their part in identifying the culprits, and others came forward to attest to the innocence of the arrested.
Laurel saw personally to the accommodations of the accused, and though he was resisted, further chaos cut the matter off as Baron Thomil was brought up on charges of embezzlement, and Baron Comlin was found to have fled the city. Amidst all of this word arrived of the King’s hasty travel to South Rook, and everything went into an awkward state of suspension preparing for his arrival, and trials were all but forgotten as haste was made to prepare for a grand banquet.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 18th, 644 E.R.
King John arrived to great fanfare in the streets of South Rook, but none could miss his displeasure as he stepped from the royal coach. He was lead into the castle, and up the many steps, and tiers to the main floor of the tower. Where upon the completion of formalities, including the herald announcing him, the King was in the mood to waste no more time.
“Where are the Ladies Ashton?” the King demanded harshly.
Katrisha and Kiannae stepped from the crowd nervously, all eyes upon them. Ther curtsied to the King, as they had been told to maintain as much formality as they could.
“Good – then we can begin,” the King snapped, surveying the regality of South Rook. “Tell us all what you heard dear girls.”
“The night of our arrival we were exploring,” Katrisha began, “and came upon the end of Laurel’s meeting with the Duke, and Barons of South Rook.”
“As we hid,” Kiannae added, “we heard a discussion between the Duke,” she pointed to Fenlin, “and the Baron Castor.”
“They were not happy to be asked to investigate the fire. Saying that as,” Katrisha frowned, “in their words it was a ‘whore house, and justice had already been done.’”
“And which specifically said this?” the King asked.
“The Duke,” Kiannae answered.
“They then conspired to blame others for the crime they had been asked to investigate,” Katrisha added clenching her fist.
“And offer positions in the guard to those responsible,” Kiannae said furiously. “Which they have.”
“They hoped to have the same happen to a tavern on the edge of the city,” Katrisha finished.
“What say you?” the King said facing the Duke fiercely.
“You take the word of these half breeds – these mongrels?” the Duke snapped venomously.
“Give us reason to doubt them?” the King answered unmoved.
As the Duke hesitated, trying to formulate a plan, the Baron stepped forward. “We have done all that has been said, and it was right. To punish those guilty of nothing more than the light’s work, of preserving us from the darkness in our own midst, those protected by a corrupt King.” Guards rushed from the King’s side, and brought the Baron to his knees. “Unhand me, I am of the faithful. The King brings abominations into his court, whores, those of Sylvan blood, and one that can consume souls.” Few saw a small boy looking down from the balcony above sink to his knees, torn between guilt and fury.
The Duke looked frozen, halfway between fleeing, and siding with the man who had just sealed his fate. “Unhand the good Baron,” he commanded finally. “We have committed no great crime, malcontents were to stand in the place of those who did right by this nation, and only a King unfit to rule would decree punishment for their actions.”
At least one of the guards holding the Baron looked uneasy, and some began shifting to stand behind the Duke, even as the King’s own guard moved more tightly around him.
“Your position is well known to Us. There is nothing the twins have said that is found out of character, but these acts force Our hand. You have abetted criminals, killers, and defied a direct, and lawful decree by a Court Mage. You seek to reward those who undermine the sanctity of private and public property, and worse, even life. You have spoken directly against the throne, and preached dissent against Our sanctioned rule. Your position, your title, your land, and holdings are forfeit.”
The Duke lurched forward, but found himself tossed backwards into the guards behind him who caught him, and staggered themselves, one falling off balance. There was a thunderous discord through the crowd, and though it was hard to make anything out, an undertone of sentiment for the Duke was suspect.
“Thank you, Laurel,” the King said quietly as the man stepped to his side before any other moves could be made. “If it wouldn’t break any rules, it would be good to speak a bit louder, please,” the King asked kindly.
Laurel nodded, and formed a spell before the King, invisible to most.
“Were that We had spent my years on the throne in constructing jails enough to accommodate the lot of you,” the King’s voice echoed unnaturally across the chamber, and a slight smile tried to creep into the corner of his lips. “Do not make Us begin such a task now.” He turned to survey the crowd gathered around. “Ours is a nation of free faith – without one decreed, or preferred. If these are the actions upon which Our hand is to be forced, then you will not like the outcome.”
He turned back to the Duke, who suddenly had fewer guards standing behind him. “We believe both of you could use a lesson in hard work, you were born to your wealth after all,” the King’s voice still echoed. He waved his hand slightly, and Laurel dismissed the spell.
“I was born…” The Duke sneered, and almost spat. “You were born to royalty. You sit on a throne inherited wrongly in the place of a good man, one who would have done right by this Kingdom. You know nothing of hard work – of managing the wellbeing of a people under a King that would let them fall to ruin. You sit on your throne from on high, proclaiming this, and that to your whim. All that you have was handed to you. Even your whore of a sister would have been better, time has at least brought her to grace.”
“Every day,” the King said taking a great breath, “a King must deal with petty, greedy, arrogant fools.” There was fire in his voice, and it carrying well of its own accord across the chamber. “Fools who cannot see the fields for the crops. You, and your ilk, petty, grubbing, pious, and blind. You will not even be given the dignity of sanctioned labor. Find someone willing to hire you – not that you have any skills to ply as trade. You will not have gifts, or take refuge in some ally’s back room. A royal decree shall bar you from all such places. No court, no noble house may take you for six years.”
“You side with the harlots – the degenerates dragging us all into the abyss. You are not fit to be King – you are old, and addled, and the dalliances of your youth clearly cloud your judgement,” the Baron said in defense of his Duke.
“Yes – we’ve all heard the rumors,” the Duke added, “that you took up with a Lycian whore when barely more than a boy. Now in your dwindling years you prop them up, you let one of their perverse leaders walk through the halls of your court, honor her as a guest. Does she sleep in your bed, does she have her way with you, and your Queen? It is madness that the council does not see fit to purge you, and your lineage from the throne.”
The Duke rushed again, but even as Laurel moved to repel the attack he was assailed himself, from all sides. The King’s guards blocked the Duke, and others moved to intervene on his behalf. The Baron broke free, and drew his blade on the men that had held him.
Laurel threw the men off him with enough force that several collided with the crowd. There were screams, and panic. Blades were drawn, and Guards clashed without clear idea who was on which side. One took this opportunity to stab one of the king’s guard from below, and behind, knowing well the weaknesses of their armor, and join the Baron, and the Duke in a tight circle. Laurel scattered all of them to the floor with force, but again was made to defend himself from one of the men that had tried to restrain him before, who was charging him with a sword.
Kiannae knocked the man from his feet, but another was quickly then upon her. Katrisha grabbed the man attacking her sister, and he shrieked in pain as ice formed over his arm. He threw off Katrisha, but Kiannae knocked him back with enough force to send him sprawling across the floor. The crowd had begun to flee the hall, or press back against the walls, away from the growing fight. A few had stumbled, and were already been trampled.
“STOP!” a terrible voice boomed across the hall louder than the King’s had been moments before. It was like getting caught in ice, it slowed even the heart, the senses, sound itself. It trailed off, the tone changing under its own influence. All did as the voice commanded. Swords clattering to the floor, a few tipping over stiffly.
After a moment the combatants drew away from one another, more dropped their swords intentionally. Some of the crowd fell to their knees glassy eyed. All felt a terrible grip on them, even Laurel struggled against the power, and barely got to the King’s side as he teetered. The Baron after a moment fainted, and the Duke trembled, and fell to his knees, wide eyed, and defiant, but unable to stand.
Kiannae shakily broke free, and rushed to her sister.
Katrisha had been more dazed by the fall than the voice. It clung to her more like molasses than something rigid. Like something borrowed rather than from outside. She looked up, took her sister’s offered hand, and was pulled a bit unsteadily to her feet.
“What was that?” Kiannae asked glancing around.
“I don’t know,” Katrisha said looking over the silent, chaotic, and all but motionless crowd.
The King shrugged off Laurel’s assistance, and marched at the Duke, taking advantage of the illusion of subservience. He grabbed a sword one of the guards had dropped, and held it to the man’s throat. “You fools, you rail, and spit venom, and would dare to lay hands on the sanctioned King of these lands. Most dishearteningly you have each born not a single word for your families, for your wives, and children. In the event you do find a moment to spare a thought for those who you should be defending – and you shall have a great many of those to spare – rather than the persecution of those who have done you no harm, then know your King is not so cruel as to hold your families responsible for your actions.”
He took a steadying breath – resisting the urge to look around for what had caused the current dazed state of the crowd, and also the impulse to flick the sword he held across the throat bared before him. “The Queen has nothing but good things to say of your wife. She will take your place in title, as We will find a deep, and dark dungeon to hold you. It is left to her, if she seeks freedom from your union – surely she deserves no punishment such as to bare an empty bed for however many decades We lock you away. Your children will come to court at Broken Hill, to continue their education, and insure that your poisonous ideas do not lead them to your fate. Take them both away, forcefully, if they resist – find them a cell, and lock it well.” He commanded, and even guards who had previously backed the Duke moved to take him by the arms, and force him to his feet.
The King glanced to the wounded member of his guard. “Will some healer do their bloody duty?” he roared pointing to the wounded man. A priest got up from his knees, rushed to the man’s side, and began healing the wound.
The crowd was slowly slipping free of whatever had gripped them, and some had begun to file quietly out of the hall, while others stood, and looked around, uncertain what to do. The King seeing this returned to Laurel. “The spell again,” he said tersely. Laurel nodded, and did as he was bidden.
“People of South Rook,” the King began, his voice booming once more, but still like a whisper to the command that had stopped the fighting, and brought many to their knees. “Corruption has visited the great houses of South Rook. Though We hold the Duchess blameless in these matters, the corruption surely runs deeper than this incident. As such we ask Representative Parin to step forth.”
Parin did as he was commanded, and wove from amid the chaotic gathering. He knelt before the King, trembling.
“Rise,” the King said softly, but it still boomed above any normal voice. “As an outsider, a man of the North, but familiar with the workings of South Rook, you are named Grand Baron, and commanded to aid the Duchess in her new duties.”
“As you will my King,” Parin nodded.
The King waved across his lips, and the spell was again removed. “Now someone will tell me what in the burning heavens just happened here,” he growled in a harsh whisper, mostly looking to Laurel.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
No clear answers were come to easily. The voice by all accounts had come from everywhere at once, and only the most gifted had resisted the power at all. Many in the upper balcony remained dazed for hours after the event, and though the Clarion faith held no specific deity – however revered the Avatar – the event quickly became known as ‘the voice of god,’ in many a hushed whisper. It was heard across half the city, though had no great power beyond the grand chamber of the tower.
Security proved a troublesome issue. All of the visitors were moved to rooms surrounding commendations for the King, located high on the sixth level of the tower, and everyone above was ordered out. Wren was found after the incident hiding in his room, sobbing, and refused to speak. Katrisha spent much of the following days comforting her brother, while Kiannae often prefered to be near Laurel.
Katrisha did not mention her suspicions, least of all to her brother, but she remembered well what Varmun had said on that moonlit balcony. She feared to tell anyone, for his sake. Even if it was true she did not know what good it could amount to.
There was pomp, ceremony, and chaos in the long two weeks after the King’s decrees turned South Rook on its head. The Duchess for her part was cordial through the whole matter, clearly torn deeply by the realities she faced. The suspects in the fire we released on new testimony that placed them elsewhere, and two men given position in the guard were arrested, and tried for the crimes.
The King for his part personally visited those wounded in the fire, which caused a further stir, but most publicly accepted it as proper. The twins continued their snooping, but caught wind of no more conspiracies, though Mercu did listen with interest when they spoke of Parin comforting the Duchess after a trying day, and her taking his hand.
The idea that the voice that had stopped the fighting was indeed somehow divine proved useful, as it seem to carry some weight in calming turmoil. That the King had come out ontop under the command seemed proof to many that he was a ruler sanctioned above even the authority of the Council. This view was not much loved by either the King or Laurel, and even less by their would be enemies, but the usefulness outweighed any discomfort.
When at last departures were arranged it was a far grander company than had set into South Rook not long before. The Royal coach carried Laurel, and the King, while the twins and their brother were with Mercu. Two more coaches joined the caravan to carry five more children – three of the Baron, and two of the Duke. All of this was surrounded by knights, and soldiers on horseback.
Such a large group did not move quickly, and returned to Broken Hill almost a week after departure. Renae waited very impatiently, and hugged the twins almost as fiercely as Wren. She had been expecting her adopted son to be present when she arrived, and only learned from broken accounts that the King had left in great haste for South Rook several days before her arrival.
Renae was both furious, and relieved to learn of all that had transpired, and thanked the King emphatically for his interventions before departing with Wren in tow. This left things to slowly settle back to normal, but there remained lingering disquiet in the court. What had transpired, the King’s stand, a mysterious voice, had all left a mark that would not easily fade.