Chapter 9

It is oft spoken of fruits forbidden,
that they be sweetest of them all,
yet love that’s worth lay forsaken,
be a bitter thing bound for our fall,

what pain to adore upon virtuous merit,
yet be condemned of novel frivolous vice,
what can stand before such blind hearts,
who reprove by err more cyclical device.

– Allara Vera, Circa 140, E.R.

Summer Glades

Coria 30th, 648 E.R.

Kiannae sat in a dark clearing, and waited.  The moon was no more than a pale sliver in the sky, providing little more light than the stars.  In the morning she would leave, and though Taloe often seemed to know most of what she did, there had been no discussion of the mater.  Taloe had not visited her in the night for over a week.  She had been too distracted with preparations to seek him out.  At first there was a awkward relief, but slowly this shifted to worry for the spirit that shared her physical bond to the mortal world.

A harsh unintelligible whisper cut through the air, like the sounds of the dryad forest, yet harsher, and more unnerving, for they were not at all familiar.  They did not even sound quite Sylvan.  Kiannae opened her eyes, and what stood before her was not Taloe, but something else.  An old woman glared at her in the moonlight.  She was as naked as the boy always was, but somewhat less substantial, like a hollow shell of thin threads.  The harsh whispers repeated, threatening, demanding, but beyond comprehension save the emotion behind them that could be felt in the bones.

She pointed at Kiannae, and continued what seemed to be a broken rant in some long forgotten tongue, and started to march towards her only to have a hand thrust through her, and scatter her to the wind.  Taloe stood where the woman had, but looked beaten and winded.  He dropped to his knees after a moment.  “I am sorry,” he barely managed.

“What, was that?” Kiannae demanded hesitantly, and then finally moved to him when he continued to look broken, and unable to quite recover.

“Anger,” he said, and winced as Kiannae looked him in the eye. “She is nothing more but hatred, and rage.”

“Who, or what was she?” Kiannae asked anxiously, worried that she carried more than just Taloe within her.

“The high shaman…of my tribe,” Taloe said obviously trying to remember or find the words.  “She cursed the line of Avrale on her death, cursed the waters of our home.”

“Curses…aren’t real,” Kiannae said uncertainty.

“Words,” Taloe muttered, “no better words.”

“I’m sorry,” Kiannae said hesitantly, “but…does she dwell within me as well?”

“Within you, within me,” Taloe said unsteadily, “she dreamt longer, faded farther.”

“Why did she wake now?” Kiannae asked with a great deal of concern for what this could mean.

“Love,” Taloe said awkwardly, “and power, woke the old hatred.  I have bound her, but when you called, I was unprepared, she seized your power to become…”

“Is she the only one?” Kiannae demanded, willfully ignoring part of what he had said.

“She is the strongest, save me, the others…” he trailed off, “are whispers.  They were cries once, of anguish, of hatred, of fear.  Only we two remain whole, and she much less so.  I am sorry.”

“Did you know she would come?” Kiannae asked pointedly.

“No,” Taloe said, “not…until the last time I dreamt.  I was too busy fighting her to tell you.”

“Then don’t be sorry,” Kiannae said hesitantly.  “Thank you for stopping her.”  She moved closer, hugged him tightly, and he lay his head against her’s tiredly.  After several moments of mulling over all he had said, she was forced to finally ask.  “You said…’love,’ woke her?”

“I…” Taloe sighed, pulled back, and looked Kiannae in the eye, “my love brought the blood of my people.”

“The prejudice, and the folly of the people of Avrale did that,” Kiannae said firmly.

“The spark, and the tinder, make the fire, not one without the other,” Taloe said slowly, trying to remember and translate an old aphorism.  “A thought, a moment in my mind woke her.”

“What moment?” Kiannae pressed gently.

“That…” Taloe started, and smiled meekly, “that it could be…things could be far worse, than to be bound to you.”

“I see,” Kiannae said hesitantly, sitting back for a little distance, and reading his joking attempt as it was, an attempt to diffuse what he was admitting, but quite unsure what to think of it.

“You need not,” Taloe said hesitantly, “feel the same.  The dream has given me much time to think, time to see who you are, and to consider.  This life is what it is, so I say this as I have.  I can be content with this fate, whatever comes.”

“I suppose,” Kiannae said uneasily, but smiled, “I may be able to agree to that.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 31st, 648 E.R.

There had been little ceremony with the departure, though perhaps it might be better said there had been only ceremony.  Quiet nods, brief words, and the new members of that traveling group pressed on with them to the south.

The first part of the trek followed a rough, and overgrown trail which eventually joined the main road cut east and west through the western forest of Helm.  A small village stood to the east, and some of its residents considered the party of druids curiously as they crossed the road.  Kianne pulled her hood over her head, which earned a strange look from Zale.  He had insisted to join the company, despite his father’s protest.  A nod from his grandfather it seemed overruled this, and there had been no further contest on the matter.

“Why are you hiding?” Zale asked.

“I’ve put my past behind me,” Kiannae said.  “I would like it to stay there.”

“You think anyone here would recognize you?” Zale pressed almost incredulously.  He’d seen caravan merchants children more elaborately dressed when they first met.  Though he considered the robe had lasted a good long time, and been abandoned for being outgrown, though the golden sash she wore as a belt endured.  He considered for the first time how much she had grown, she was almost taller than him.  He doubted anyone would recognize her anyway, unless it was for the eyes that glared at him a bit irritably that moment.  He wasn’t even sure why.

“Leave her be,” Landri commanded.

The druids passed on between outlying houses.  The owner of one gave them a displeased glare, but otherwise ignored the procession.  The man’s property gave way again to forest, and the druids walked on.  A woman ran out of the house, and up to the druids.

“Sirs, madams,” the woman called out.  The party stopped.

“What is it?” Landri asked.

“Something has been lurking in the south wood.”

“More than the usual?” Landri pressed.

“No one is sure,” the woman said.  “The game has been scarce, and bones plentiful.  There have been howls either closer, or louder than normal from the south.  My husband, he’s no love for druids, but I take my faith to mean – whatever a traveler might believe – it is unfit not to warn them of danger.”

“Thank you,” Landri said.  “Light be with you, good madam.”

The woman bowed, and walked back past her sneering husband into the house.

“Light be with you?” Kiannae pressed a bit tersely.

“Some Clarions favor such a blessing, it seemed no harm to wish her well on her own terms.”

“We are walking into the territory of another dire beast, aren’t we?” Kiannae asked.

“Perhaps,” Landri answered.

“There used to be a pack of dire wolves far south,” Zale said.  “It was one of many things that kept the southern forest intact, and untouched.  They were wiped out nearly a century ago at the order of Helm’s king.  Bloody affair by all accounts, the king lost favor on all sides for it, and the forest still stands largely undisturbed.”

“As Zale says,” Landri continued, “they have been gone a long time.  Still, we should be cautious.  Even if it is just regular wolves, they could get testy over our passing through their land.  Unlikely to bother a party of this size however.”

“If it is dire,” Zale said.  “Then the size of the part will be as much the problem I think.”

“I fear he’s not wrong,” Landri agreed with displeasure.  “Two or three, we might be able to talk the beasts back, but nine of us.  We could be viewed as a threat.”

“Lovely,” Kiannae muttered, and the group moved on in relative silence.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 33rd, 648 E.R.

The druids had made camp for the fourth time, that evening beside a small stream that to the best of Kiannae’s guess came down from one of the foothills of Mt. Navi.  The East pass was vaguely recognizable in the south, if only for that most prominent landmark.  Rationally Kiannae had little worry that Laurel would come charging over the pass to scold and claim her.  Reasonably she considered speaking the truth, and making the perilous trek to return home.  Yet after a year, it felt a bridge too far.  Laurel had been a good man, so had Mercu.  They had each treated her like a daughter.  They had each taught her in their way, yet what were they really to her?  To face the consequences of her actions, all of them.

She felt that Katrisha had always been the one they really loved.  It wasn’t rational, and she knew it, but she believed in her heart, much as she tried to doubt it, that they had at least loved her more.  On some level she knew she was making excuses, and yet accepted them anyway.  She loved them, in a strange sort of way, but that made it all the more impossible to imagine facing them again.

Kiannae found herself a spot beside a short fall, and listened to the water.  Most of the other druids had gone off to hunt for dinner, yet she knew too well which had remained.  She wanted to be left alone with her thoughts, and perhaps sensing this, Landri had not stopped her from wandering a short distance from the camp.

“Shilling for your thoughts,” Zale said as he walked up, and sat on a rock opposite her.

“I fear they might be worth less than that,” Kiannae said glancing at him.

“Then give me a half-pence, and I’ll listen.”  Zale laughed, and sat on a nearby stone.

Kiannae looked back the other way into the forest.

“Sorry,” Zale offered.

“No,” Kiannae said.  “It was a fair jest.”  She sighed.  “I am just in a less than personable mood it seems.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Not really,” Kiannae said.  “I could tell you my troubles, but I do not think that would help.”

“I’ll listen,” Zale offered.

Kiannae looked indecisive a moment.  “No,” she said flatly.  “You kept my secret well enough before, but not this time.”

There was movement suddenly behind Zale, and Kiannae turned quickly to see Landri, and another druid standing very still there.  Zale’s eyes went wide a moment later, and Kiannae heard a twig snap before the growl.  She turned slowly to where the others were faced.

The wolf was large.  Not so large as the bear, or even so large as the lynx she had once fought, but it was clearly much larger than a wolf should be.  Were she standing, it would have been just barely shorter than her, prone on a rock by the stream she felt very small indeed.  It was midnight black, its eyes silver, like two moons hung above brilliant peaks of sharp fangs, shown off in a menacing snarl.

“Fates,” she muttered, and barely threw up a spell before the wolf was upon her, and tumbled back.

Kiannae jumped across the stream without missing a beat, and grabbed Zale’s hand, pulling him to his feet.

“How did it get so close?” Zale asked much too loudly as they fell in beside the other druids.  “I didn’t even see or feel it till it was almost on us.”

“I felt it before I saw it,” Landri said hauntedly, “and I was looking right at it.”

The wolf leapt to the side, and seemed to disappear, or at least like their eyes slipped off it.

“What in the abyss?” Kiannae growled, and tried to find the missing behemoth.

“Did it just vanish?” Zale demanded nervously.  “Did the bloody wolf the size of a horse just vanish?”

“No,” Landri snapped.  “I can still feel it,” she was grimacing fiercely.  “It’s like trying to feel a fish in a river, but it’s there.”

“Two can play at that game,” Kiannae said, reached her arms to each side in front of the others, who disappeared.

“What the,” Zale yelled.

“What are you doing,” Landri could be heard in a harsh whisper.

“This is taking a lot of focus,” Kiannae said measuredly, “but do any of you see it?”

“Maybe,” Landri said.  “No, lost it.  What are you doing?”

“I used this spell on my sister to fight the dragon,” Kiannae said.  “She could see under it.  The beast may still be able to see you, or it may not.  Hard to say.”

“To the left!” Zale yelled, and Kiannae spun, throwing up another spell that barely caught the wolf.  It flew back far less this time, catching itself by digging its hind legs into the dirt.  It was a slippery thing, black against the darkening forest, but that wasn’t it.  It wasn’t vanishing, or just hard to see, it was something else, like the eyes wanted to look anywhere but it.

“I’ve never felt anything quite like it,” Landri said nervously.  “It’s almost like a spell, but…primal, wild.”

“This isn’t magic,” Kiannae said certainly.  “Nothing like it, even looking right at it, it’s almost like the sense of someone watching you out of sight.  I almost want to forget it’s there.  No spell lines, not obvious filament rays.  I think if it was any smaller…”

The wolf lunged again, and the spell barely stopped it in place that time.

“We mean you no harm,” Landri said.

The wolf glanced at her, it tried to lunge, but could not move, snapping at the air.

“Does that ever work?” Kiannae growled trying to figure out why the spell wasn’t pushing it back.  It seemed almost like the wolf was cutting straight through it, filaments collapsing as quickly as she could weave them.  She shifted her focus, and just as her spell broke wind whipped over them, blew the wolf back, and Zale offblance.

“Where’s your damn pet?” Zale yelled from the ground behind her.  “I think we could use some help.”

“I don’t know,” Kiannae said trying to grab hold of the elements as she had in the past, but they were fleeting, almost as slippery as the wolf itself.  She hadn’t tried since the dryad grove, it still unnerved her, and that was keeping her off balance.  “Busy I guess,” she said angrily.  “Come on,” she whispered under her breath.  Half to Taloe, half to her own tenuous grasp over what powers seemed might work on the wolf.

It was no use, the elements were not responding.  She threw up another spell as the wolf charged again, and caught it in the air.  It was all she could do to hold it there.  It flailed slightly, and there was a rustling to her left.  “Any ideas?” Kiannae yelled, just as she started to get a grasp on how her spell was unraveling, and secure the wolf better.

“Just one,” Zale yelled, and Kiannae balked as she saw him out of the corner of her eye charging the wolf.

“Wait!” Landri yelled.

“No, I think I…” Kiannae said too late.

The spear pierced the wolf’s suspended chest, and it yelped terribly, which turned to a gurgle, and twitching.  Zale was thrown back as the spear was ripped from his hands.

“You stupid…” Landri started.

“What, I’m fine,” Zale snapped, struggling to his feet.

“No,” Landri said.  “Kiannae had it, I saw her spell strengthening.”

“So what?” Zale said.  “Were we going to just hold it forever,” he said turning towards Landri angrily.  “Respect nature and all, great, I get it, I grew up with this stuff, but it was trying to kill us.”

Landri grabbed the boy by the shoulders, and forcefully spun him around, and pointed.  Two smaller wolves, barely larger than a domestic dog were slinking towards the fallen one, cautious of the humans that had just killed her.  One was pure white with frightfully blue eyes, the other a dark grey with white on its nose, chest, and paws, as well as the mothers silver eyes.

“Oh fates,” Kiannae said.

“I did what I had to,” Zale said defensively.  “She seemed like she was losing it.”

The two wolf pups nudged at their mother.

“Maybe they can take care of themselves?” Zale offered.

Landri walked forward cautiously, slowing as the two young wolves backed away from her.  Kiannae could see her gift at work, calming the pups.  Landri knelt beside the wolf, it twitched slightly, making her draw back a moment, and then she touched its belly.

“Still nursing,” she muttered loud enough to be heard

All looked at the little wolves, who crept behind their mother’s body, and hid.

“Did you really want me to do nothing?” Zale tried.  “To…”  He turned and marched away furiously.

“He’s not wrong,” Kinnae offered.  “I almost did lose control there.”

“We still have a problem,” Landri said.  “These pups, I think they have started on meat, but not fully.”

“So what can we do?” Kiannae said.

“Come here,” Landri said calmly, but firmly.

Kiannae did so reluctantly.

“Kneel next to me, and feel what I do,” she said with measured breaths.

Kiannae could feel the woman reaching out with her gift, it was a calming sensation, almost magnetic.  She almost forgot to try replicating it for the distraction of the pull.  Kiannae shook her head, and closed her eyes, trying to feel the shape of it, the rhythm.  It was a heartbeat, and the warmth of a gentle summer sun all at once.  She tried to replicate it.

When she opened her eyes the young wolves were tentatively moving around their mother.  Their expressions uncertain, their ears, and posture low, their tails between their legs.  She closed her eyes, and redoubled her efforts.

“Well…” Landri said in a surprise tone.  When Kiannae opened her eyes again, the two wolves sat in front of her, looking up expectantly.

“I guess I did it right?” she said uncertainty.

“I think they think you are her now,” Landri said with a bewildered expression.

“You are kidding, right?”

“I was replicating what was left of her aura,” Landri said, “mixed with a calming effect…you…almost pulled me off my feet with that last part.  You felt more like her than her body does.”

Kiannae looked again to the wolf pups.  “Now what am I supposed to do?”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 1s (May 7th), 648 E.R.

Katrisha woke with a gasp.  She had become accustomed to doing so, over two last two months.  She pulled Celia closer, and tried to recover from the work of clever fingers that quite suddenly wandered more innocently.  Celia all but invariably woke before Katrisha, and was apt to take advantage of that situation.  A state of affairs Katrisha largely had no qualms with, save that waking to a state of bliss, and contentment did little to help her get out of bed in the morning.  Celia had long since moved into Katrisha’s room – unofficially – and it was her general understanding that a boy named Andrew now resided with Celia’s former roommate in a similar arrangement.  The detail of his name had put together for her why Celia was not a fond of the boy.

“I love you,” Katrisha whispered after recovering, and then with little warning vanished under the covers intent on paying back mischief in kind.  Celia’s helpless squeal at an incidental tickle all but covered the sound of a knock at the door.  The two were left looking at one another uncertainty, Katrisha for her part peering up from beneath the blanket draped over her head.  To date they had possessed the good fortune to not be interrupted, and were uncertain what to do.

“Just a minute,” Katrisha yelled as she lept from bed, fished her robe from the floor, and slipped into it as quickly as she could.  Celia for her part simply hid beneath the covers.

Katrisha opened her door a crack, and instinctively grimaced, which she quickly thought better of.  Laurel and Rennae stood side by side, and neither seemed pleased by the expression she greeted them with.  It was Laurel’s third visit in almost a year Katrisha had resided at the cloister, and his first in since before the winter snows.  She knew that Laurel and the King had been pressuring for her return to court, though good reason had never been brought directly to her.

“I hope we are not…interrupting too much,” Laurel said obviously uncomfortable with what he had heard upon knocking.

“Not…too much,” Katrisha lied, and glanced back with one eye at Celia who peaked from beneath the covers, and stuck her tongue out at her.

“If you are sufficiently decent, would you walk with us,” Laurel said with a sigh.  “There are things I wish to discuss.  That should give your…friend ample time to scurry off to wherever she may need to be.”

Katrisha turned to Celia, frowned, and blew her a kiss, before stepping into the corridor.  She followed as Laurel and Rennae began to walk down the passage.

“I had heard of your…hair,” Laurel said uneasily.  “I must say, it is quite striking.”

“It took several days,” Katrisha said absently, “but I started on a whim.”

“I see,” Laurel said shaking his head.  “So, no grand inspiration then.  At least there is that.”

“What?” Katrisha asked slightly confused.

“Nothing of importance,” Laurel muttered, stopped, and looked around to insure that no one was in earshot.  “Most of what I am about to tell you is quickly becoming public knowledge,” he said sternly, “but you will forgive me if I keep my voice down.  Listen closely.”

“Ok,” Katrisha said shrewdly.

“You may have noticed that I have not been to visit you in some time,” Laurel said rhetorically, but still paused for a response.

“Yes,” Katrisha said, and nodded.  She had noticed, but had been far too contented to have worried much at the passage of time.

“I have been busy with an ever mounting pile of concerns, and troubles,” Laurel continued.  “Though I still lack proof, there is little doubt in my mind that the dragon you, and your sister fought was the same one captured by Osyrae, and seen again to meet with their King some time later.  The council will not listen to reason, and has begun to make ridiculous demands.”

“I had not heard…all of that,” Katrisha admitted.

Laurel rubbed his face.  “With no proof of their intent, or any direct act we have little to take to the council for support.  This, however, has not stopped the council from repeatedly requesting my personal return, to make a direct report in closed session regarding the situation with Osyrae.”

“Are you leaving?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“To date I have been able to dissuade them, by insisting that I am needed here to train you,” Laurel said leaning against a nearby column.  “Further that I have no more useful information to report in person.  They have sent a new mage, who has taken up residence at the border, but who has checked in several times at court, where he found you absent.  As it stands if I am forced to leave the kingdom, he will be my replacement…the King does not approve, and nor do I.  We do not trust this new placement.”

“Then what will you do?”  Katrisha asked.  “Remain against the wishes of the council, or ask for another mage to be sent to replace you?”

“Were it only so simple,” Laurel grumbled.  “The King is allowed his preference of available Council Mages – I stress – available.  Currently that is me, and Oradin.  The council will not send another option for what is to be a temporary assignment.  This leaves one more option, that is only slightly conventional.  The King has requested that I finish your training, and you be tested, and sworn as a Council Mage, to take my place during my absence.”

Katrisha simply stared at Laurel in shock for several seconds.  “I’m only fifteen,” she protested, but was at once exhilarated by the prospect.

“Women have sat as queen beside their king as young, though rarely.  One or two even reigned.  Two more years, and you will be seventeen,” Laurel added.  “Still unreasonably young for a proper court mage, but I believe the council may be persuaded at that time to concede to the King’s wishes, on grounds of a temporary appointment.  Two years is all the remaining time I believe I can stave off the increasing demands of the council.”

“I have been, happy here.” Katrisha protested noncommittally.

“As I have been made aware,” Laurel said looking to Renae with some frustration.  “The King’s wishes in this are very clear.  This is not a request, it is a royal decree, and one Renae and I are in agreement on.”

“Your, situation has not been unconsidered,” Renae added consolingly, “but dark times loom on the horizon.  I have spoken with Renoa on the matter, and with Laurel at length.”

“I am hardly placed to condemn your choice,” Laure added with strong reserve.  “What I must do, however, is warn you that if this affair is to continue, you must do so with absolute discretion, and the utmost of secrecy.  We can not afford any aspersions on your character at court, not under these conditions.”

“Does that mean…” Katrisha trailed off nervously, but hopeful.

“Renoa has given permission for Celia to accompany you to Broken Hill, and remain,” Rennae said in a reserved tone.  “Officially, and by all outward appearances she is to be there to insure your continued health, and further to benefit from Laurel’s instruction, since she has expressed such strong interest in the methods of mages.  She is placed to graduate from all of her primary studies, and was to be considered for apprenticeship to the head arcanist, otherwise this would not be acceptable.”

“If rumors arise,” Laurel added sternly.  “I warn you that this could become unfortunate for all parties involved, most particularly, the pair of you.”

“Is that everything?” Katrisha asked biting her lip.

“For the moment,” Laurel said eyeing her sternly.  “I presume you wish to inform…Celia – was it – personally.”

Katrisha nodded.

“Go then.” Laurel shook his head.  “Do please speak of it in private.”  Katrisha ran back to her room with all haste, and caught Celia just as she was about to leave.  She kissed her, and pushed her back into the room, closing the door behind them.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 7th , 1149 E.R.

Katrisha watched the proceedings of the court with moderate interest from the balcony above the throne room.  The day to day grind of official royal business had grown no more interesting in the time she had been away, but there was palpable tension in the air.  She had not been reintroduced at court officially, which she mulled over between relief and disappointment.  She settled on relief as she recognized a man in Clarion robes who stood not far from the dais.

There was also a strangeness for Katrisha.  The girl that stood beside her then as she watched was Celia, and not her sister, as it had so often been.  Katrisha turned to her for a while, who for her part was clearly fascinated.  What was routine and uneventful to Katrisha, having spent over a decade at court, was still filled with novelty for Celia.

“I love you,” she whispered after looking around to check that no one was in earshot.

“What?” Celia laughed nervously under her breath.  “What brought that on?”

“I’ve just gotten so used to all this,” Katrisha said shaking her head.  “Seeing you now, brings me back to when I was a small child, new to the court.”

“I…” Celia shook her head more vigorously.  “Thank you.”  She froze, and winced realizing how she had responded.  “I love you too,” she added in a whisper.

Katrisha caught a curious exchange of glances between Sir Arlen, and Idolus, and found herself suddenly drawn into the proceedings just as the court herald declared the next audience.

“The court recognizes James Lancaster, of Barrier Lake.”

“What is your report this year,” the King asked of a somewhat nervous looking man that stepped up to the dias.

“Three feet your Majesty, two just last month,” he said with with a soft almost lyric old vale accent, and took off his hat, holding it in his hands tightly.  “It might be more by now, takes me over a week to get here from our vale.  Well get by, I’m sure, but it will be tight this year.”

“That is most concerning,” the King nodded.  “We will discuss later what can be done.”

The man bowed, and backed away to the side of the throne room.

“The court recognizes Sir Arlen of Wesrook,” the herald added.

Arlen stepped before the throne, and bowed before the King.  “It has come to my attention your Majesty, that a Lycian Sister has been given a placed at court.  Though I do not see her present, I must express my concern that this could be viewed as an official favoring over the Clarion faith, if it were true.”

“We fear that you have been misinformed,” the King said firmly.  “The truth of matters has obviously been distorted through whatever rumor mill you have overvalued.”  There was a slight laugh from some corners of the court, while others remained staunchly quiet.

“If you would please then inform me better, that I might no more humble myself in ignorance,” Arlen said with thinly disguised ill humor in his voice.

“A young woman has been offered training by the court mage, in exchange for her continued service in ensuring the health of his pupil,” the King answered simply.

“I do understand better now my King,” Arlen said with a bow.  “Though I am concerned that not all will view this distinction as clearly, and might still see favoritism towards an order that is questionable in the minds of many.”

“We shall offer, good Sir,” the King said, his own ill humor far more poorly disguised, “that if an equally young, and gifted man of the Clarion Order has wishes to learn from the court mage, We might speak on his behalf to Laurel.  We believe that this would be a useful experiment in, shall We say diplomacy.”  There was slightly more universal humor at this statement.  “Did you have any further business for the court, Sir Arlen?”

“No, your majesty,” Arlen said stepping back.  “I believe my business for the day has been addressed sufficiently.”

Katrisha glanced at Celia who was obviously troubled, and discreetly slid her hand down the rail onto hers supportively.  Celia looked at Katrisha, and smiled.

“They will have to do better than that,” Katrisha said with authority, “the King is far too clever for them.”

“Does he know?” Celia asked hesitantly.

“He…” Katrisha started hesitantly.  “Laurel didn’t say specifically that he had told the King.”

“Then are we so clever?” Celia asked pointedly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 28th, 648 E.R.

Katrisha watched closely as Celia tried to recreate the tiny lens spell held between her fingers.  It was a good excuse to stand extremely close beneath the moonlight, without being locked away behind closed doors.  Not that anyone was nearby on the rampart at that moment.  The occasional guard would walk by every half hour, but their boots announced their approach well ahead of them.

“I think I have it,” Celia said hesitantly.  “Ok, yes, it’s working.”

“Try adjusting the magnification like this,” Katrisha said slowly tweaking the spell back and forth while Celia watched.

There was a tiny fizzle between Celia’s fingers.  “Oh.  No, but this time,” she said confidently.  “I think I saw where it gave way.”  Celia concentrated very hard, no longer even paying attention to Katrisha’s spell, and worked instead from memory.  “I think…” she started, “yes, it worked!” she exclaimed.

“Very good,” Katrisha said proudly, and leaned in to kiss Celia on the cheek, only to find lips, and a firm embrace holding her a very willing prisoner.  A single moment of indiscretion beneath the moonlight was enough to distract the two.  They were well practiced in listening for the sounds of guards boots on the rampart.  If a guard had been approaching they might have noticed, and stopped their kiss in time, but the soft soles of a lady did not make much noise.

“What are you…” Lady Catherine declared, and realized all too clearly what she had stumbled upon.

“Nothing,” Katrisha declared with a start, and jumped back.

“That was not nothing,” Catherine said squinting at the pair.  “I had my suspicions, but now…”  She glowered.  “This is unacceptable, and the King will hear.  Do you know how much trouble this causes?”

“You could…” Katrisha started hesitantly, “you could pretend you saw nothing.”

“Even if I were to do so,” Catherine said firmly.  “I have no guarantee that someone else will not catch the two of you again.  This ends, the court can not afford it.  We need you acceptable dear girl, we will not be forced into accepting that mage’s appointment at court.”  Catherine turned and marched away.

“Please,” Celia begged, and ran after her, “this will not happen again, we will not get caught.”

“No.” Catherine stopped.  “I’m sorry, but this cannot be.  You have my sympathies.  Return to the tower.  This night is all I can allow you.  I will not wake the King for this matter, but he will know soon after first light.”

“I hate you,” Katrisha yelled, “you’ve always hated me.”

“Then that, can’t be helped,” Catherine said sadly.  “I’ve borne far worse for the good of this land.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha lay in Celia’s arms crying as she had been for over an hour.

“I’m sorry,” Celia finally said, her own tears having dried up.

“Why?” Katrisha sobbed helplessly.

“It’s my fault,” Celia said.  “I kissed you, I distracted us.”

“No,” Katrisha said softly.  “No we are both to blame.”

“The King will send me away, won’t he?” Celia asked, already sure of the answer.

“Then he can send me too,” Katrisha declared.

“What if they won’t?” Celia demanded, and made Katrisha look her in the eye.

“I’ll make them, I’ll be such a nuisance they won’t want me,” Katrisha declared defiantly.

“I don’t believe this has all been a whim,” Celia said hesitantly.  “Not with how hard they are trying to keep you in Laurel’s place.”

“Why, what is so important about me being a useless court mage?” Katrisha asked desperately.

“I don’t know,” Celia said distantly, “but…”

“I won’t let them take you away from me,” Katrisha said firmly.  “I won’t lose you, they don’t get to do this.  They don’t get to take you away from me.  I’ve given up enough.  I’ve done enough.  I’ve saved lives, I’ve risked mine.”

“How will you stop them?” Celia asked sternly.

“I’ll fight them if I have to,” Katrisha growled.

“No,” Celia said flatly, as a haunted look came over her eyes, “and do not speak so again.”

“What?” Katrisha demanded confused.

“These people, whatever you think of them right this moment,” Celia began sadly.  “They are your family, would you really hurt them…just to be with me?”

“I…” Katrisha started, but suddenly shrank into Celia’s embrace.  “No…I wouldn’t.  I didn’t mean…please, let’s just run away, far away.”

“A dark time may be coming for us all,” Celia said distantly.  “If Osyrae really acts against Avrale…”  She let out a long breath.  “The Sisterhood will serve the King, we will heal the wounded, even though that might cost us our lives.  We all swear an oath, to do no harm, you were there when I took mine.  Yet I might break that Oath to stand beside you at the end…if it came to that.  But I can’t abandon the Sisterhood, my mother, Wren, and Audry – not now.”

“Then what?” Katrisha said hopelessly.

“I love you,” Celia said looking Katrisha firmly in the eye.  “No distance they put between us, can change what I feel.  Perhaps when you are court mage, things can change.  Perhaps when they have accepted you, we can fix this, the real problem.  Surely there is some official capacity, some power with such position.”

“Some yes,” Katrisha started thoughtfully.  “It’s all so terribly messy though.  I…” Katrisha hesitated, then sat up suddenly.  She started to move, but then to be sure there was no confusion quickly kissed Celia fleetingly, and ran across the room.  She grabbed a small box from a bookshelf, and ran back to the bed with it.  “This box,” Katrisha said hesitantly on her knees beside the bed, “it was given to us years ago by Horence.  He helped to clear out the farmstead where we were born, and kept it safe for us till we were older.”

Katrisha opened the box, and amidst miscellaneous jewelry was a simple gold band, with a garnet set in it.  “This was my mother’s, and…by all accounts my grandmother’s as well.  I want you to have it,” she said firmly.

“I…don’t know what to say,” Celia said gently reached into the box and touched the ring.

“Say yes,” Katrisha pleaded simply.

“Are you sure?” Celia asked nervously.

“If this is to be, if we are to be separated, then I will give you this promise that we will be together again.  No matter what,” Katrisha said softly, and picked up the ring with a trembling hand.

“Yes,” Celia said meekly, and Katrisha slipped the ring on her finger.

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