Chapter 24

With the least less grace in step,
then perhaps of that sly lady fair,
who’s manner beguiles and foils,
to a bird in flight might compare,

two steps ahead can seem behind,
at three nor four feel any better,
five holds promise unfulfilled,
at six her moves still unfettered.

– The Game in Play, Varus Adessa, 73 E.R.

All’s Fair

Coria 32nd, 650 E.R.

The grand dining hall was a massive open structure several hundred feet long, and surrounded by broad forty foot columns.  A long line of tables short enough to be seated at on cushions filled the center, with an occasional gap for servants to pass.  Beside every third table a high arch skipped a column, but only the gaps at the end of the long hall had stairs. There were also no railings guarding these sheer drops, only barriers of pillows that kept foot traffic well clear.

Curtains of hot air hung before even the wider openings, enchantments between the vast columns holding it in place.  Even as a light snow swirled just beyond, flickering in the light of the hall, the chill was held back by clever magic that slowly etched the notches in the mighty columns deeper over centuries.  It was a grand work of hard to fathom art and luxury. A symbol of power fitting amids the rest of the Throne of Storms many wonders.

It was at a glance difficult to even tell bustling servants from guests or hosts, save for their activities.  Repetition of garments, or practicality of dress slowly caught the eye, though the presence of jewels made little obvious difference.  Servants, even many of the men, were nearly as drowned in sparkling adornments as the many ladies and lords of the hall, though the styles and form of presentation varied.

One could tell the men most quickly by their brightly colored coats, and the ladies most easily by their loose flowing gowns, and high elaborate hair.  The company of druids hesitated as a massive scaly head entered through the center most of many entrances around the tables, and rested on the piled pillows there with a soft sigh.

One of the more lightly clad women stepped away from her circle of conversation, and walked up to the dragon.  She ran her fingers along the jaw of the massive head that rolled towards her, and set her forehead to the dragon’s snout.  She turned her gaze up from where her head rested, after one of the dragon’s large eyes glanced towards Kiannae and the others.

The woman beckoned towards them, and with nervous glances the three druids approached.

“My, I would recognize our guest from my dear sister’s description alone.  Hair besmirched any likeness to a raven’s feather, eyes more precious than clear emeralds, fine exotic northern skin, and those barely there little freckles, so cute,” she said with a slight giddiness, and half bit her lip before recovering her composure.  “Forgive me, where are my manners. I am Aster, eldest daughter, and crown princess, to our noble sitting Queen, and this darling creature,” she said hugging the dragon’s snout tighter, and stroking along the scales to a low pleased rumble, “who says she has met the guest of honor, is Calista, our Empress’s eldest.”

Kiannae felt odd about it, but decided to bow rather than curtsy.  “I guess I had not yet imagined how a dragon might join us for dinner,” she began.  “To my left is the venerable Varmun of the Free North Alliance, and to the right, Landri, Druid of Lundan Grove.”

“Charmed,” the dragon spoke in what might have passed for a whisper.

Aster stood more upright, and strode towards the group, the scantness of her manner of dress more obvious as she approached.  She raised a brow, to notice their eyes were all fixed well upon her face.

“Mother,” Aster began weightedly, “insists that I am far too timid for an eldest.  So I try, in little ways. Do you like my dress?”

“It is certainly bold,” Kiannae offered.

Aster’s eyes flicked to the side.  “Ahh, here our fourth guest is,” she said addressing thin air, stepped towards the right of the group.  She reached out her hand, and a cheek swirled into being in her palm. A shocked look on Taloe’s face as his form wove together from the point of contact.  “Oh, how positively marvelous he is. Goodness, skin this smooth,” she bit her lip, and laughed slightly. “I never thought I’d find myself envious of a man.  If that is quite what to call you.” She glanced down. “Yes, I suppose it is.”

“Did you just…” Kiannae started a befuddled.

“Make the poor creature manifest?” the princess said with a coy glance over her shoulder.  “Yes. Wasn’t even hard really. I am the eldest stormborn daughter of our Queen. The elements, the very forces of creation are near to my flesh,” she drew her fingers languidly off his cheek.  “Thought I must say,” She shivered slightly. “Never quite so delightfully near.”

She drew an exaggerated breath.  “Goodness, all these pretty men,” she said glancing to Varmun whose expression was blank with shock in a manner that seemed to amuse her, “could turn a ladies eye.”  She laughed as though to some private joke. “Not for long though, with lovely flowers such as this in our midst.” The princes turned her gaze to Kiannae, who resisted an urge to back away as the princess stepped before her.  “My, you are lovely, and ever so tall,” Aster said looking her up and down. “I wear heels to rise above the commoners, but you are just…so delightfully natural at it. Is it true? Did mother offered you poor little Carmine, tiny man that he is, and you refused?”

“If that is the boy’s name, then I suppose so,” Kiannae answered, trying to understand the predatory glare the woman was giving her.  Playing ignorant of her two encounters with him. It seemed a proportional slight to being thanked for refusing, and whatever other games he was playing.

“Mother’s favor is at offer,” Aster said pointedly, “to which ever of her children might make you consider a place as our bride.  She’s not the least bit particular which, I think. An eldest such as I loves who she pleases, and marries who she’s told. I’ve not been looking forward to the latter part, you see.  Men,” her cheek tensed slightly, trying to hold a smile. “I’ll still need to produce heirs some day, but all a child of the line needs for her rank beneath the throne, is her mother, and her own power.  There is no mistaking either, after all.”

Kiannae was largely more confused than offended, Carmine’s prior warning mitigating some of the shock of the woman’s overly direct implications.  Yet the warning had only been for the one sister, not the other before her.

“You needn’t worry that I would be possessive,” she cooed, and leaned closer.  “I’m quite sharing, really, and ever so generous. Ask any of my servants.” Her smile was impenetrable, and belied no indication she was anything but earnestly making her case.  “Besides, I hardly think your little spirit will mind.” She shot Taloe an almost frightful look, which turned his head away in what did read as embarrassment, even if he could not blush.

“Leave them be, Aster,” the dragon grumbled.  “You are making them terribly uncomfortable.”

“Am I?” she asked of Kiannae, offering her an almost pathetic look.

“A bit,” Kiannae offered measuredly.

She sighed, and turned away, marching back to the dragon’s head.  “Mother keeps telling me I’m too timid, and then I scare people when I try to be bold.  Whatever am I to do?” She glanced back over her shoulder. “Please do not permit my forwardness to dissuade you from considering being forward yourself.  You needn’t agree to anything, permanent, to share the luxuries of my apartments for a night. Lovely creature such as you are. Just a small taste of what it could be to wed the heir apparent to the Bound Storm.”

Aster lingerlingly ran her fingers along the dragon’s snout as she returned to her former circle of conversation.  The dragon turned her eye again towards the druids, and very sheepish looking elemental as the princess left. She coughed in what seemed almost a laugh.  “Please do not mind dear Aster, she was far too timid as a child, indeed, but when the first brush of womanhood came over her, and she learned the sway she could hold over others, she became anything but timid,” the dragon rumbled.

“I heard that,” was called out by the princess who did not turn from her company.

“You were meant to,” the dragon chuckled, and her eye turned curiously across the room, just as a colorfully dressed man walked up, and threw a table cloth around Taloe’s waist, and tied it like a loose skirt for him.

“Do forgive me if I have overstepped my bounds, but I’ve become, I think quite a good judge of when one my sisters have made a poor young man’s life overly uncomfortable,” Carmine said standing before the taller man, each offering very reserved glares to the other as Carmine checked the knot.

“Thank you,” Taloe said measuredly.

“And here we have little Carmine,” the dragon added.

“I do not know who you think you are helping you troublesome old beast,” Carmine called out pointedly, turned and bowed.  “I doubt calling me little will do anything to change her mind.”

“I’m helping my own good humor,” Calista said with a powerful huff that Carmine caught in a spell, and dispersed before it could disrupt too much of the linens on the table.  An act so quick, and deft it left Kiannae a bit taken aback.

“You’re good,” Kiannae laughed.  “My mentor always found wind very hard to control with magic.”

“One does not control the wind.  One negotiates. Magic just makes the agrement a little cleaner,” her offered.

“An interesting position, but one expects perspective from stormborn,” Landri offered.

“Ah, finally, someone who properly appreciates how unspectacular we all are.  When spectacular is the expectation, it means little to accomplish it. Not that there have been so very many to represent us to the world.  Certainly not until mother came along, and had to be special. Seven children over sixty years. Been twenty since little Selene, so I think she’s done at last.”

Kiannae gave him a curious look.  “How old are you?”

“Forty three,” he answered, and returned her look, expecting surprise.  He was not disappointed.

“I’d never have guessed,” Kiannae said a bit awkwardly.

“It was another reason I was grateful for your refusal to mother,” he said measuredly.  “You are lovely, but, barely more than a child, for all your great deeds. Trust, that I mean no offense by it.”

“None taken, I guess,” Kiannae answered measuredly.  “Though I am of age by the laws of most lands. This land, as your mother insisted while threatening to deprive me of choice in the matter.  Irony.”

“And you would not find it odd, an old fool like me?” he said with a wry grin.

Her eyes narrowed a bit, but the fun of it was better in her mind.  “I’ve chosen older, it seems, technically.” She glanced to Taloe. “He’s held up even better for his millenia, I’d say.”

Carmine simply laughed.  “Come, sit with me, I’m afraid that part of the arrangement cannot be changed.  Though I did manage to place Calista, and myself between you and Aster. For your comfort, of course.  Your guests will sit opposite the darling crown princess, for better or worse. Little Selene has managed to worm her way in on your right.  Be wary of that one. Your…extra guest, if he wishes to sit, will have to find a place.”

“I’m not quite sure that I can, or should eat,” Taloe answered.  “Perhaps I shall just stay back a bit, and watch.”

“Ah, yes of course,” Carmine clapped several times and a jewel clad woman with red hair stopped, and bowed to him.  “Please, have a seat brought, and placed behind, and between our honored guest and myself.” The servant nodded, and scurried off on her mission.

“I do not need to sit,” Taloe protested.  “Even when I was as you, I could stand comfortably for hours.  It is holding my form that takes endurance. More since…recent events, though your sister has done something…odd.  I feel that if I were try to let go I would just be here, as though dangling on strings.”

“Sister has been trying to master the art of draconic projection for years,” Carmine said.  “I suppose she might have used some of what she learned on you.” He leaned closer, as though trying to tell.

The great dragon yawned, and swirls of light wiffed off the closing huff, and trailed away like wisps of smoke from nostrils, forming a luminous human form that strode towards Taloe, and coalesced into a robed ghostly woman who began pacing around Taloe.

“Vashiel…” Varmun proclaimed under his breath in awe, not having yet fully recovered from the spectacle of Taloe’s initial forced appearance.

The woman gave him a funny look.  “My, it is always so strange to be smaller than men again,” she glanced at Kiannae.  “Or maybe you are all just very big,” She said in a lo curious tone, and shook her head.  So did the dragon, before nestling down again into the pillows. “No pup, your great lady is far more fascinating a construct than I.  More like him really. Yes… Aster saw what she thought were missing pieces in your technique. Arguably they are. This is the one here,” she said putting her index finger to the back of his neck.  “This little knot we tie keeps us together, even when both our minds sleep. I can undo it if you like.”

“Calista?” Kiannae asked.

“Ah, yes.  Sorry, did you not know we could do that?” she asked somewhere between startled surprise, and smug superiority.

“I think, maybe I read a fleeting mention somewhere,” Kiannae said a bit taken aback.  “You look like a ghost.”

“Funny, coming from you,” she said with a curious smile.  “I was human once, well, dragonborn, details. Much like your boy here, the essence of my original pattern remains, housed somewhere within that massive skull.  Deep in those old bones are traces of how I was hatched. I’m a bit…thinner though.” She said craning her head closer to the ever more uncomfortable elemental.  “He’s recursive, all the way down. Finer than I can read. Substance and consciousness in perfect union. You were a waterlogged wreck when I picked you up, and I believe I heard something about nearly drowning?  A spirit claimed by the abyss? One saved? So many little stories.”

“Yes,” Kiannae answered.

“Good move,” Calista nodded.  “As much as the material of his substance is conjured, it was an anchor.  If you had just tried to hang onto the energy it would have shredded his very being to incoherent filaments.”

“I…” Kiannae blinked several times.  “Oh. That’s why everything else failed.”  She remembered that feeling from the blight, of every sensible plan she had tried being useless.

“Everything else indeed,” Calista laughed, and gave Carmine a pointed look. The dragon rumbled a bit absently.  “Did you want me to remove this?” she repeated to Taloe.

“I think I would like to learn from it first, being able to relax more in my form could be of worth,” he seemed to be shifting from embarrassed to annoyed.

“Good, good,” Calista said, and swirled apart, the later repetition of the word echoed by the dragon that raised her head, and rocked her neck to a couple pops that could be heard aloud at some distance.  “I do so abhor being small. I don’t know how you lot put up with it.”

“Not all perspective is a blessing then,” Carmine offered.

“Hmph,” Calista rumbled.  “You would know better than most.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Dinner itself was elaborate, fanciful, and made of many tiny courses that seemed to add up to a bit too much.  Various ciders, wines, and even a mead rotated through with each, and politely sipping them had left Kiannae a bit lightheaded.  Taloe had hesitantly tried some of these as well, accepting a dragons assurance that a form such as his would leave little but a fragrance on the breeze.  He claimed however to feel no effects, save the taste, and to quite prefer the wine to others.

The dragons part in enjoying dinner was itself a curious sight.  Whole serving plates of food were gently tipped onto her tongue with each course, and she would hmm delightedly, and swallow some minutes later when others had finished their course.  She explained that ancient dragons actually ate very little, and by mass mostly stone to replenish scales. The longing for flavors however could become quite compelling.

Selene, true to Carmine’s warning had made many little subtle moves.  Carefully balanced compliments, well timed reaches for the same item, leading to brushed hands, and hard to read glances.  Kiannae felt very flustered by the deftness, and yet with warning, it seemed woefully transparent. Eventually her moves not working Selene had retreated, and begun to sulk slightly in a way that could almost make Kiannae feel bad.  It nagged to offer her some bone of conversation, but other things had her distracted.

“What’s happening?” Kiannae asked, as plates were cleared, and some significant activity had picked up on the far side of the hall.

“Preparations for a show,” Carmine answered.

“What kind?” Kiannae asked.

“Storm-monk duel, I presume,” Selene wagered, and gave Carmine a rather sharp look.  “Yes, that’s Grand Master Serval, and his second.” She pointed down the length of the hall where a man and a woman in modest but curious clothing chatted with several others.

“Sounds like a bit of a violent sport,” Kiannae offered uncomfortably, “for after dinner entertainment.”

“In an, energetic sense, I suppose,” Carmine countered.  “Practically given if either were to injure the other, it would be a foul, and very poor form.  These are grand masters, probably on orders to make the show impressive. They will certainly break a sweat, but I guarantee, not a drop of blood, or a bruise on either.”

“So they will be holding back?” Kiannae pressed.

“You are a cheat Carmine,” Selene said, and stood up fuming.

“You are the one who can’t make her mind up on what rules you want to play by,” Carmine answered.  “Nor terribly careful who gets in the way of your schemes.”

“He’s not telling you everything, whatever he tells you, he is not telling you everything,” Selene said, turned on her heal and stormed off to find another seat.

“The long game’s always harder,” Carmine said almost tiredly, and rubbed his neck.  “You want an explanation for that, don’t you?”

“I guess?” Kiannae said giving him a dubious look.

“She loves storm-monk show fighting, and figures the show was my idea, to distract her.  Half right. Coupled with you brushing off her every move tonight, which she also blames me for.”

“I could tell,” Kiannae said.  “Although all at once, it didn’t seem like much.  I don’t see how that would ever work.”

“You were far more of an opponent than she was prepared for.”  He hummed. “Any way, your question. They are not exactly holding back, but I guess in a manner of speaking.  At their level, at the level of anyone show fighting, it’s more like a very frenetic game of chess. They just have to stay within the rules.”

“I’ve never read much about storm-monk practices.  Is it purely martial, or does it blend in aspects of channeling, or evocation, as the name implies?”

“No, nothing quite so simple,” Carmine said eyeing Kiannae thoughtfully.  “If one were being very disrespectful, you could imply it is primarily a martial practice of course.  That is after all where it must start. Since not a one of them are born with the gift. It is a prerequisite for training.  Almost no gifted individual has ever been able to master it.”

Kiannae glanced back at the two, who’s auras were quite bright.  “You can’t give the gift,” Kiannae countered incredulously.

“One fallacy at a time,” Carmine chided.  “We do not give them the gift. They take it.  Through pure martial training they tease out the fragment of gift born in every living thing.  They grow it as surely as any mage, or healer, and focus it, amplify it, expand it faster than any other discipline I could point to.”

“Why have I never heard of this part of the practice then?” Kiannae protested.  “If it is so, effective.” The brilliance of their aura was an utter mismatch to the claim of giftless birth.

“Because the Council does not like it.  It hollows out an inconvenient hole in their simplified world view,” Carmine said.  “Though it does not help that it has never been accomplished anywhere outside of Napir.  Further our own name for them, storm-monks, doesn’t dissuade one from the interpretation.  It is all taken as a property of the Bound Storm.”

“It is easy to presumptively draw cause from correlation,” Kiannae offered, becoming distracted by her own doubts in recent events.

“Maybe they are right, or maybe we both are,” Carmine conceded.  “Perhaps the principle works regardless, but here, beneath a mountain containing such a great power.  Why would that not impart an advantage.”

“Do…” Kiannae hesitated.  “Do you really think, that I am not, or that somehow…” she sighed.  Having muddled starting a topic she normally would have avoided with intent.

Carmine gave her a rather long look.  “A pale freckled face, certainly a description that could belong to a woman of these lands.  You aren’t quite pale, yourself. Even this last winter did not rob you of this suntouched skin.”  He gestured reachingly, coming short of actually touching her cheek. Which made her grow stiff.

“I’ve spent so much of my life avoiding it, that I never even considered, all of this, all of these things here in Napir, that bare that same mocking affix of Storm.”

“This is one of the first lands the Maji came to,” Carmine said.  “Their leader, already obsessed with an apocalyptic vision. He saw our Queen as part of it, but even in the oldest copies of the Black Book, those made by our ancient scribes, leave the heritage of the storm child an open question.”

“Yet, whose face have you seen?” Kiannae said giving him a cold glare.

Carmine smiled.  “Who says I’ve seen only one?”

Kiannae glanced away from his dodge of her question as people began shifting in mass to sit at the edge of the long clear area marked out along the south side of the hall.  The two combatants step in opposite each other, and bowed before assuming two similar but noticeably different fighting stances. This position endured a good ten seconds as more onlookers settled in.  Suddenly they each struck. Quick blows that seemed to connect almost without crossing the space in-between. The sense of it itched a bit each time Kiannae noticed how absurdly quick a movement seemed.

There were filaments shifting with their attacks, forces moving along their bodies. Every blocked strike was dissipated harmlessly over a broad area, and much of the energy directed perpendicularly into the air along their skin.  Kianane found herself leaning forward, trying to understand the construction of it.

“It’s arguably a form of gestural magic,” Carmine answered her curiosity.  “A millenia at very least older than the maji though, so, gestural spell craft?  If one wants to get pedantic. The gestures function both as spells and runes depending on intent, focus, and structure.  The show fighting itself is an act of absolute discipline. If either were to actually injure the other it would be an automatic disqualifier.  You really do have to think of it like a game. Quite a harmless sport of combat, as long as you play as intended. Don’t start stabbing one another with the pieces, and swinging the board about, as it were.”

“How are they moving so fast?”

“They aren’t,” Carmine answered.  “Or well, not all of the moves you think you are seeing are happening.”

“What?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

The fight seemed to almost freeze through a series of poses with barely a motion caught between them.  There were crackles of energy, and moments it seemed one would suddenly be in a completely different position.  The sum of these moves carried them across the floor in a dance that would sometimes tumble over, and there it would be.  One back to where they had started the roll. That was odd. Kiannae tried to make sense out of it. It wasn’t what it looked like.  Not a move at all, but an unwinding. It was a physical manifestation of battle mage technique, changing position by not having changed position.  The energy of it creating a momentary shadow to outside observers, and to the opponent.

“I see what they are doing,” Kiannae said hesitantly.  “I think.”

“Interesting,” Carmine said, and pursed his lips.  Kiannae thought nothing of the reaction, focused on the acrobatic sparring match put on by all accounts in her honor.  Although honor was an uncomfortable framing, for whatever uncertain games she was caught up in.

When Kiannae did not take his leading tone, he pressed again.  “How many times have I asked about your family?”

“What?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“I don’t think you have,” Kiannae said doubtfully.  She couldn’t remember it, but having mentioned it she almost felt like he had.  She spared him a glance, but quickly returned to the fight as another series of moves did and undid themselves before her eyes, and yet the two fighters positions were reversed.

“I just asked you three questions, what were they?”

“What?” Kiannae said, and almost looked away as a quick series of tumbles ended with one monk down, the others hand to his chest.

“Well, there went round one,” Carmine said.  “Stop, think. Three questions. What were they?”

“You…” Kiannae stopped herself.  “If you told me that you could ask me questions I would forget answering, what would I think?”  She said with a grimace. Not quite sure where the words fit with anything that had been said.

“Yes.”

Kiannae winced slightly.  She glanced away as the two monks bowed to each other again.  “You asked me if there was anything in this world I would want enough to stay…”

“That phrasing, was Selene, earlier, but let’s call it two,” Carmine nodded.

“You asked me…if you would have more luck trying to win my favor, by being a friend.”  She took a measured breath. “Of course you wouldn’t really be, if you had ulterior motives.”  She countered his words, distracting herself for a moment for the fact she knew he had said them, but she could not fully remember it.

“Not that kind of favor.”

“You…just claimed you were being earnest.  Said, you always were.” She tilted her head, and her voice rose as she tried to remember to repeat the words exactly.  “You take what you can get from life, and so if honest friendship is on offer… Wow, that is strange,” she said, and saw three positions of both monks at once, and almost how each aligned with half remembered words.  She barely spared him a suspicious glance.

“I would ask if you have heard of battle mages, but I think you are one.”

“Yes,” Kiannae answered, as one monk was thrown to the far end of the ring, and stopped herself quite spectacularly.

“I like to think of myself as a…love mage.”

Kiannae did not let herself be baited into looking away, but her face tensed at the absurd phrase.

“No, that never comes out quite the way I mean it to,” Carmine said with a well practiced nervous tone.  “But this, confesion, works wonders almost every time, and on a girl like you, being honest about it, almost does the trick.”

“There are layers in there,” she said barely flicking her eyes to the side, not wanting to miss the techniques of the fight.  The chance to pick them apart. Yet wondering if she was looking the wrong way. “You joked about not meaning it that way…’not that you would, object,’” she bit her lip.  “Oh fates, you are terrible.”

“Just the right amount,” he said.  “You learn it quickly. There is a precise ideal level of terrible, that varies from…game to game.  Darling Aster is nowhere near that right degree, and she’s just too cute acting out like that trying. She is utterly insecure, and defying it viciously.  Don’t let Calista fool you about it. Old girl refuses to believe, but mother has said it many times. I just figure it’s my job to give her someone appropriate to focus her reasonable viciousness on.”

Kiannae felt herself blushing, and wasn’t sure, why, she touched her cheek, and turned as a frantic series of attacks threw the opponents apart to opposite ends of their marked ring, lightning crackling along their paths.

“Now that whole thing of feeling flushed, that is the utterly unfair part of it all.  I made it a game, made it fun, poking around for how we’ve danced through this conversation more times than I can really count.  Made it a game, so that all the little bits that worked for you, piled up on the good mood playing can give.”

Kiannae opened her mouth to speak, still caught a bit on wanting to pick apart the storm-monks moves, but utterly convinced the real technique to study was right beside her.  Yet it itched of going well beyond battle instincts, and into prophecy. There were other suspect aspects that she found she wanted to challenge.

“No, I don’t really think it’s taking advantage.  Sorry skipping some of the conversation. No more than any seduction.  Besides, who do you think is embarrassed in all this? You? Tell me honestly, which one of us should be embarrassed?”

“You… You are, making a total fool of yourself,” Kiannae said, and glanced at him, his cheeks were turning a crimson that his pale complexion showed all too plainly.

“So, I don’t mind being left blushing, if it gets me what I want, but I really, honestly, am just being friendly.  I figured you needed to see how it worked, to really, feel like I was being fair. I may have my own…reasons to consider what I have already passed on, but mother’s favor is worth preciously less to me, than my sisters.”

“I am weary,” Taloe said in a measured tone, and Kiannae looked to him a bit concerned.  He nodded with a well masked expresion. “I figured out how to untangle what Aster did, and to put it back.  I shall speak with you, when you call me again.” He wifed away, leaving the tablecloth he had worn, and a thin dust that swirled on the wind with a fragrance of wine.

The monks went through a spectacular series of feints that practically forced Kiannae to turn and watch them as she felt the slippery disruptions in her perceptions.  The opponent always knew when they had been fooled, and would strike the copy frustratedly dispelling it with incredible force.

<STOP!> it echoed strangely, the sound warbled, a man mid kick hovered, slowed, as his opponent rolled under the kick that swept by.

“What was that?”  Kiannae demanded wide eyed, recognizing the prickly feel of it, the sense of meaning superseding the unknown sound, and yet far more like an old memory from South Rook than the nightmare of recent days.

“Word of power,” Carmine answered.  “Part of that other fallacy, about not being able to give the gift.  You can, it’s just the last thing you’ll ever do. Old monks at the end of their life often give the last of their strength to honored students.  Imparting upon them even deeper discipline, and the ability with practice to speak words that the elements, people, and the forces of nature themselves obey.”

“But, it only affected his opponent?” Kiannae pressed.

“It does not reach far.”

“So, not the entire hall?”

“Goodness no,” Carmine laughed, and gave Kiannae a funny look.  “Maybe the High Grand Master of Azure Peak. Perhaps she could, with all her might.  But she is a thirty fourth generation soul.”

Kiannae swallowed, unsure what to do with any piece of that information.  “How do they determine who wins?” she asked, changing the subject, and looking back to the fight.

“Same as most any spar.  There are end positions. If one is forced into one, they lose the round.  There are also at least three draw positions, but they are considered poor sport outside of competition…except…”

An escalating series of blows, back slips, and an growing crackle of energy suddenly stopped in a thunder clap between their two strikes that they held, before bowing.

“Wait which one wins?”

“Technically neither.  Cadaman’s Draw is the exception to the usual rules,” Carmine added.  “It’s rarely used in competition, because it’s a forced sacrificial draw, but is considered quite good sport in a friendly fight.  Particularly in round two, since it insures a round three.”

“Rarely though?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“Oh, yes.  The bottom bracket advantage is highly prized, and when going into a final round some competitors in position will throw a draw or two. to gain the advantage.”

“What’s the advantage?”

“The last spot is a wild card, and does not fight till the second round.  It’s one less chance at elimination.”

“Sounds almost like cheating.”

“Not cheating if it’s part of the game,” Carmine countered.  “It is a sport about honor, control, clever maneuvers, and fooling your opponent.  Letting a less skilled player get the advantage is almost a slight. Every few decades though, you’ll see a Sandoval Faint.  Those are the best. Slightly sloppy, brash kid comes along, rises much too fast, but just doesn’t seem good enough to be where they are.  Then suddenly they are in the second round spot, and they dominate the final matches.”

Kiannae gave him a brief incredulous look.

“Seriously, it’s a real thing.  Named for the first guy who did it, and yet there was still somehow a third, fourth, fifth…twenty-fifth.  It gets harder the more times someone makes it work, but, ever so often.”

“How does one wind up learning to use precognitive fighting techniques in casual conversation?” Kiannae pressed, as the monks resumed their starting positions.

“By living every day as a battle.”

“How so?”

“Because someone needed to step up as a rival to my sister,” Carmine said plainly.  “Aster may joke about mother thinking she is too timid, but when she’s not just trying to foil me for spite, dear Selene makes her look like a dragon.  Markus is a good submissive boy. Cora ran off to Mordove to be a Council Mage or something. That’s why mother is on such cross terms with them. The middle twins have no ambition, and nor do most of the cousins, except perhaps the wrong kind of ambition.”  He gestured across the hall.

One of the collection of dragon born watching the fight had large intricately segmented coiled horns growing back from her scalp, a rather prominent tail snaked behind her as she turned suddenly and gave Kiannae a penetrating look.  There was a bit too much of the nightmare spirit in her appearance for Kiannae’s comfort, and she fixed her eyes back on the fight.

“Narisa, lovely woman.  Incredibly powerful. Her parents put a dragon scale before her at the age of two, and she became that.  Some are born, more often hatched, that way of course, but not her. She’s a full blooded ascendant dragon, in compact human form.  She suspended the transformation mid way. It will be fascinating to see her try and take the Storm. I have no doubt she will try. She has ambition, and I think the wrong kind.”

“Mother is very concerned with how profoundly the Storm calls to her,” Carmine added.  “Why I am not sure, but I think she prefers one of us. Even me I think.” He laughed. “No that would be well beyond unconventional, but perhaps she also senses the arrogance of it.”

“You see.  Just a game, played within rules.  Though problems can still arise if the wrong one wins.”

“You do realize you are the only one talking, right?” Kiannae asked.

“Sorry, happens when I get nervous.”

“I don’t see what reason you have to be nervous,” Kiannae said tersely.  “You have me at a very server disadvantage after all.”

“Do I?” Carmine pressed.

Kiannae glanced away from the still escalating final round of the match to give him a doubtful look.  Yet it didn’t seem like he was kidding.

“Alright.  Tell me how the advantage is mine,” she said and turned back to the fight.

“Do you wonder about mother worrying you could be a rival?  It has happened before. Twice, in recorded history. Always a distant relative,” Carmine said plainly.  “A woman who returns to challenge our queen for the throne. It is a contest of will to take the Bound Storm in the first place, but once it is held, once it has chosen a queen…far more than two have tried.  In fact every daughter, every sister, is encouraged to. To contest her. To remind all of her absolute dominion over Napir.”

“I see,” Kiannae said.  “Perhaps that was the better explanation for why every day has been a battle for you.”

“We are a deeply traditional people.  Our traditions may however not match your expectations.  If you have not noticed, there are some ironclad aspects of matriarchy in our culture.  It is tradition, to live one’s life to the fullest. We do not quibble over desires, so long as they are mutual, and agreements are honored.  A gifted woman after all has near complete control over whose child she might carry, and certainly it is her business what she chooses.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Kiannae asked, not even dignifying his rambling justifications by looking from the fight.

“A great many things.  However privileged my position, I am at the height a man is permitted in this land.  You have more right to challenge for the throne than I do.”

“How unfair,” Kiannae said dismissively.  “How will the men of the world ever recover, that one post has been denied to them.”

“No, those were all bad moves, and I feel bad for making them.  It’s almost hard not to do this right now. Those two going at it, their moves, give me openings, I have to try not to take them.  I see these matches the way few can. Though they see far more. The most disciplined monks can glimpse ten, twenty moves out. The big moves are the ones that try to collapse the whole prediction tree.  Hard moves, moves that…there, beautiful.”

Kianae gasped as she saw twelves positions of each fighter, some high in the air.  The elder tumbled backwards from one point of contact, the attack blocked, but uncountered.

“How many did you see?” Carmine asked as clapping spread across the hall.

“Twelve…”

“Six of each?”

“No, twelve of each.”

“Oh, you are good.  I only caught fifteen.  I think there were eighteen.  Even the ungifted will see three, or four on a move like that.”

“Really?”

“Doing that kind of move is more spectacle than practical.  Thats show fighting at its greatest. It’s a big score though in point competitions, to counter the cost.  You can’t afford to do that in regular competition though, not unless its the finishing move of a final bout.  That move could have just lost her the match, or won it. It’s hard to tell.”

“They are really born giftless?” she asked as the two began a final, ever escalating spiral of motions.

“Perhaps not fully.  There is gift in all living things, but the practice does not appear to require an appreciable, even noticeable amount extra.  Though it builds it, as surely as any practice, and…well look, a hundred times more. They could all become mages, if they wanted, but why would they?  If magic is being clever with leverage, it is failing to understand fulcrums, compared to this art.”

Kiannae did not react outwardly, hard pressed to argue the assertion, and determined not to miss anything of the remaining fight.

“It’s silly, how particular some mages are about the word magic, and yet they arrogantly claim battle-mage.  Those instincts are older than magic. The storm-monks have existed since before the maji ever cast their first spell.  Yet they try to claim this art. One that requires less given gift than theirs, or the witches, and only pure, unshakable will.

“Witches?” Kiannae asked, annoyed as she was almost tempted to take her eyes off the fight.

“The other side of the coin I think.  The highest cleverness, combined with great gifts.”

“I’ve heard the word before, as a slur.  I didn’t know there really were such people.”

There was a throw to the ground, and then the woman was back above, turning, and the blow was blocked, but the second monk was pinned to the ground by the strike.  There was a round of clapping, and both got to their feet, and bowed to the crowd.

“So what are witches?” Kiannae asked curiously, turning to Carmine.  Ready to pick apart his craft instead.

“The shamans made them outcasts, but they did not trust mages any more.  Magic won by numbers in the end, but legends say witches could do almost impossible things.  Some imply they were the first and greatest shapers. Others claim weavers as the Sylvan practice.  A few speculate that they were the sum of all practices. Through perhaps just grandiose stories, masking things we no longer understand.  Perhaps nothing so simple as one thing at all, just lost knowledge, lost practices, given a common name.”

“You really think there are great, lost practices out there?”

“I’d almost more say I know it.  The records of the Throne of Storms are older than the writings of the Maji, and still do not stretch back far enough to tell clear stories of our first Queen.  Up there, before the great hall. Those first statues were erected from memories, and legends after the Maji came. Symbols of our might, for a coming age of strife.  There are at least ten, maybe twenty generations between our version of Laune and Yaun, and the Mage Queen of the Maji era, the Architect some call her for all her building.”

“And the rest of the world does not know of this?”

“We had been a people of oral tradition in those ancient days.  It was was when the Maji came that we committed most of those traditions to record, as we learned knowledge is power.  So we guard it as we do any power. Only an heir is permitted in to those libraries, or an heirs spouse. As you have been told.  You are one of only three, exceptions, that have ever been made.”

“You’ve already tried this temptation on me,” Kiannae countered.

“Yes, but it’s the one that almost works.”

“Not helping.”

“I disagree.  We’ve been talking for hours from my perspective.  You like difficult.”

“Do I?  I know a boy, and an elemental that might disagree.  Given the one I chose,” she said. “The one that has been made very uncomfortable, I am certain, and who listens still, with little choice in the mater, as you make these seeming moves to change my mind.”

“Did you choose?  Not the impression I got.”

“That really isn’t fair, you know.”

“I needn’t pry too deeply to know, many a man would not consider the circumstances fair.  No. Forced to share you, on some level, no matter how faithful.”

“No, it wasn’t fair, to anyone.  Still, I’ve made my choice. A bit more permanent than marriage.  I do not even know if death will part us, and I suppose he accepted under some duress.  Facing oblivion itself.”

“If you haven’t noticed, my family is not at all…possessive, however demanding.”

“Are you, or are you not arguing for yourself?”

“Given that to you, it is clearly not an argument in my favor, consider it only an intellectual observation.”

Her expression didn’t imply she was buying his answer, and he shook his head.

“Indeed, you bow willingly to any woman to look your way,” Aster said having somehow displaced a dragon’s head to sit down beside her brother.  The displaced dragon still watching with quiet curiosity.

“And why would I not?” Carmine ask fixing her with a stern look.  “Oh, but not to you, or the other rightful heirs. Someone needs to challenge you.  Yet any other woman, particularly one amiable to me, why would I not show my propper deference?  Oh yes, men can reign well as women in this land, but for one station, that I am forever just below.  A prince is less than a common man. A common man can rise, but my only role, is to bow.”

“So dramatic,” Aster said with a light clap.  “Darling brother, do I hear right that you’ve no wish to be the one to win the prize of the day?”

“I am not a prize,” Kiannae said tersely, well past her limit on the matter.

“A prize?” the princess said giving her a look.  “Oh I suppose you could be, but no. No. You are the competition.”  She said resting her hand on her hip. “Mothers favor goes much farther.”

Kiannae winced slightly, and looked between the two.  “It’s only good natured, till it’s not,” she found herself saying, remembering some perable from her youth.  Was it a parable, or just a corruption? Sitting before those two she could almost see a young wolf and lynx fighting for the Storm Queen’s favor.  The name of that first queen rearing its head again, and too clever for her own good intruding. Analogy collide with reality, and became slippery, but though the detail faded, the impression stuck.

“Seven,” Carmine said nervously.  “What even was that? I can’t remember them all, but I can count them.  They didn’t even feel like moves, just…repetitions.”

“Ugh,” the princess said, stood, and straightened her dress.  “No, I am not getting in the middle of this. I do not play these games you and Selene like.”

“That is because you can’t,” Carmine said his gaze narrowed at her characterization.

“I’ve better moments relive in this life, than the annoying ones, and better ways to do so.”

“Then do,” Carmine said flatly.

She huffed, turned, and walked away.

“Seems you’ve managed to drive the others off.”

“Have I?” he asked.  “Wouldn’t take all the credit.  The move that got rid of her was yours.”

“If you say so.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

It was very late as they stepped from the dining hall.  All but a few servants had long since left, and more prosaic entertainments than show flighting had been largely ignored in favor of conversation, and a few more drinks. A cold wind caused Kiannae to pull her cloak tighter.  With a flick of his wrist Carmine summoned an intricate spiral of spell lines that enveloped them in a warm glow. Kiannae found herself trying to learn its nuances. Not the simple pragmatic aspects, but the art of it. Form and function in perfect harmony with intent.

“How do you do that?” Kiannae asked mesmerized by the sight.

“Three times,” he said, stopped, dispelled the bubble with a flick of his wrist, and recast it.

“Huh, that’s a bit clumsy,” Kiannae said bewildered as she paid attention to the echoes of the first drafts.

“I exaggerated it,” he said tersely.  “Though no, I suppose in some ways I’m quite mediocre as a mage.  Because I can be sloppy, and get away with it.”

There was a moment of silence, and he lead on.  A thoughtful melancholy expression settling on his face.

“In all of our history, only two stormborn have ever not ascended the throne.  A younger brother who became an Emperor, and an elder sister, each to Queens who reigned in their respective day.  In this generation we will increase that number four times. Six storm born who will not reign as Queen, unless another – not among us – takes the crown.  Well, then all the math is off. Seven failures. How perfect would that be.”

“Perfect?”  Kiannae asked, a bit surprised by the degree of sarcasm.

“Seven.  The perfect number,” he said, as though trying to prod her memory.  “Perfect of what I have no idea. Seems a lot of lovers – at any one time – an excessive amount of shoes.  A very odd number of meals. Perhaps if they were quite small. Maybe courses at diner?”

“Nine,” Kiannae corrected.  “Though it was a bit much. Seven might have been better.”

“Oh, I have it,” he proclaimed with an oddly nervous excitement. “The square root of the number of freckles around your nose.  That must be it.” He touched his lips in an almost comical fashion.

“What?” Kiannae laughed incredulously and put a hand to her cheek almost as though to hide them.  She could almost remember him leaning close, and asking what he was doing, but it was slippery. It made her want to laugh for some reason.

“I counted,” Carmine said, stopped, and leaned closer, flicking a brighter light into being near the unhidden cheek.  “Forty nine in that distinct, adorable, little splash there. Clearly, perfect. It is only explanation for the historical significance of the number seven.  There can be no other reason. Mystery solved.” He stood backup almost absently from the antic.

Kiannae found herself smiling quite in spite of herself.  “Goodness, you are almost as bad as Mercu.” she said blushing.  Flattery rarely worked on her, and it seemed perhaps absurdity was the key.  It was being difficult, after all. She pursed her lips smugly at the realization, and cautiously of the idea he might have explained it.  Something in his words wanted to make her very angry all at the same moment. The implication underneath starting to show.

“Who’s that?” Carmine pressed, and leaned back.

“Don’t you know everything?” she asked, pulled off catching what had nearly made her mad.

“Not really, but I can ask enough times, get an answer I can use…and…  Funny fellow, taste for the ladies…hmph…”

“What?”

“Nothing, sorry.  Loves company in an amiable mood.  Loves to tell stories, greatly embellished, and yet somehow more true for all the exaggerations.  Yes, I’d love to meet him one day. If you are to be believed, he might be able to give me a match, without much gift at all.  I wonder. Did you ever consider all the funny little ways gifts sometimes manifest? He might be like me. It’s not…power that matters at this.  It’s cleverness, It’s a determination to play the game.”

“You are kidding right?  Mercu a…battle mage? We are supposed to be rare,” the asertion jostled around awkwardly.  Laurel could do it.

“Instinctual ones, yes,” Carmine said measuredly, “but you just put that together, didn’t you?”

“Are you?” Kiannae asked and then though to clarify.  “Instinctual.”

“Almost certainly. Also prone to prophecy, but then half of us are.  I’ve always been a bit better than Selene, who is the only one that ever manages in the least to compete.  That is part of our squabble. She is also very prone to prophecy, though never much useful. She’s certainly seen you.”

Kiannae grimaced at the connection, and the plain return to the reason she hated the topic so.

“Two moves, three if you are lucky,” he said.  “Not very often either. Only if I get too fancy, or tip my hand.  If I push you on them, ah, a fourth move, beautiful. Selene gave up when I proved you could do two.  Four, that’s literally my limit of perception, anything past is a guess. A hundred moves, that I could feel having made, or made against me.  A weariness hanging on my soul. Detail though, that’s only first one or two, the rest fade away to context, and fragments.”

“Oh, sorry, I was just…  I wanted to know. Other than Selene, I’ve literally never met anyone who could play at all, more than once or twice a day.  Except the storm-monks of course, and… Well, they don’t play. Still, I can sometimes give an order, and only have them notice.  That can be fun. Something sneaky that will redirect someone where I want them. Perhaps just an opening, or opportunity.”

“You do know you are the only one talking, again, right?”

“Sorry.  Nervous, like I said.  It’s a poor play, but when I’m being friendly, when I’m just talking about how it works, it comes so naturally.  I wind up answering questions unasked, rambling on about subjects.”

“I asked before why you were nervous, and I didn’t like your answer.  You are better than me at this, so why do I have the advantage?”

“That would be telling, wouldn’t it?”

“Seems I’ve been forthcoming enough.”

“I have literally never had to work this hard to get anything, once, in my entire life.  I bested a grand master swordsman on my first go in the ring. Give yourself some credit woman!”

Kiannae blinked twice, glanced at the finger he was holding to the sky, and literally fell on the ground laughing when she lost her balance.  She considered she might be more affected by the drinks from dinner than she had realized.

“Worth it,” he said holding out his hand to help her back up, his cheeks redder than cherries.  “You were even flustering Selene without my help.”

“You do know, that if you are being this wonderful ‘friend’ to me,” she took his hand, and got up, finding herself very close. “Under false pretenses, it isn’t being friendly,” she said calmly, trying to hold onto that measured point she had made before.

Carmine sighed.  “I’m not dodging that question this time.  I’ve diverted you the last six, when you were going to press it again.”

Kiannae pursed her lips.  “And is that because you do have other ideas?”

“I do not think the words ulterior motives, or other ideas begin to describe it,” he said measuredly.  “Three moves deep, that’s where we are, right now.”

Kiannae could feel the slightly different positions she had leaned; toward, away, defensively, assertively.  She just stopped.

“Oh, that is an interesting move,” he blinked.  “Well played, that’s five, and I can remember it.  Ok. Yes. Fine. The truth.” He took a deep breath.  “The moment I saw your face, I loved you, and knew that I would not have you.”

“Loved?” Kiannae said uneasily.

“Childish infatuation, really.”

“You are fourty, you said so.”

“I did.  Yet when a boy sees a face in dreams from the age of five.  Is raised to envy, and respect women of power. Then visions of such women, such power, can turn a boyish heart.  Age, however can bring wisdom, and temperance, and true young loves wash away the power of such, fancy. Of dreaming of my green eyed goddess.”

“From my own words, you know that is as easily my twin.”  It wasn’t a line of reasoning she liked, and she had already professed her fool intention to steal that fate if she could.  Would she really? Was she willing to die? Was she so casually considering the weight of prophecy behind her. She didn’t like it.  He was disarming, and she did not feel safe, off guard around prophecy.

“Oh, I’ve seen both faces, and with time knew each from the other.  I know how to read them. You think I depend just on stolen moments?  I have prodded in every direction, every kind of person you will ever know.  I know faces. One…is trouble. An imp sparkling in such laughing sad eyes.  One…” he hesitated. “A wounded sort, who weeps for wolves, and fights a midnight war against a thing of darkness, and the power of the storm, perhaps even our Storm, at her command.  I found my youthful longings leaned to the dark one. The moon that rose to meet the sun. Yet there are two faces still amidst the light. One who stole a place from the other. Yet which, is which.  I have so long wondered, and cannot answer.”

He reached out a hand, just shy of brushing her cheek.

“You saw…”

“Your great battle?  Yes.” He withdrew the hand to gesture.  “The wolf god of legend, there beside you.  Yet was he the shadow cast? The white one I am told still endures.  Then there was that thing of nightmare. My, nightmares. All my life.  A monster, that displaced many lovers from my mother’s bed, to comfort a weeping child.  Yet other nights. Other nights I saw the face that delivered the world from such spiteful horror.  Yes. To even say I loved you would be pale. You were my savior, my champion, my goddess, and ideal.  The woman that slew the monsters, and who other nights perished, burned out by the light of the sun. You were my tragedy, my secret, my joy, and my sorrow.”

“I do not like prophecy,” Kiannae protested, a thin defense for his intensity, or the tears that wanted to well up at his words.  That was what he had been dodging, pushing, pulling, pretending. He had seen it…but not just it. So much more.

“Yes, but what of the past?”  He said softly “We meet here, beyond that moment, and I have seen what only you endured.  What only we two, know. I say, and will say again, thank you. For refusing my mother’s demand we wed.  Yet I would say the same, for you to accept. A man is permitted to be complicated on such matters. As much as any woman.”

“Why would you know this, and not others?” Kiannae demanded.  “Why have you, seen it?”

“Were I to guess?” he asked, and got no help. “When battle mages fight, it leaves a mark.  So close, so fresh from such a contest, and now again in battle, of sorts, with me. This moment, that is so many more than it is.  You are playing back, quite well. A friendly game, I assure you. Some of your moves so quick I almost miss them as much as you do.  Instincts, trained to fight, not to dance. Raw power, goodness,” his breath caught, and he leaned slightly forward. “Forgive me, power can be so alluring.”

“Are you sure I am so powerful?  I gave up a great deal in that…” she found no word that felt right for the experience.

“You closed a door, and perhaps set a heavy bar on it.  It may be sealed beyond your knowing how to open, in this moment, but that does not mean the door is not there.”  He leaned back slightly. “Even should you forever find that path closed to you, I can tell you have not yet in all your great deeds, reached your remaining potential.  Mother has underestimated you. You will rival her for her power…in her own halls.” His face found some way to go paler.

“I’ve no intention to,” Kiannae protested.

“Forgive me.  Prophecy, as you say,” he stepped back, and shook his head.  Breathing heavily. “It is a troubled thing. Forgive me, you will have reasons, if all plays out as I have now seen.  That is not a future I wish, and to spiral around a vision, is to know you are bringing it closer. So the best seers have told me of such gifts.”

“We do not choose what we see,” Kiannae offered. “My…Taloe has told me this.  We only choose what we do with it. We can only own our intent, not our outcomes.  I’ve no ill will to you, or any member of your court. Perhaps…quite the opposite.  So consider this spiral at an end.”

“No.  I can tell you.  You have no ill will to us.  So, thank you.”

Kiannae frowned, reading his meaning far too well.  “Why always the gratitude?” Kiannae asked, trying to solve the intellectual riddle, rather than face the rest.  “I don’t believe your excuses.”

“That’s the problem.  Neither do I. I say thank you, because I would not have even tried,” he answered plainly, “and it is so much easier here.  As your friend, rather than the man you rejected. To say goodbye.”

“I say again,” Kiannae tried, part deflection, part playfully.  “It’s not friendship, if you have other motives.”

“Quite right,” he said, nodded, and gestured almost comically.  “For you see there is the man, who would never press such advantage.  However hard won. Two. Three.” He took, and let out a long breath, a smile creeping across his lips again.  “Draw. There is also the one who would. I choose, to be neither.”

He nodded, turned on his heel, and strolled away without another word.  Kiannae bit her lip. Fumbled with her door, and stepped in only to find an elemental being standing before her.  She smirked at him.

“Jealous?” she teased.  Of mixed opinion how she felt about his likely feelings on the matter.  She was not going to apologize for having enjoyed herself.

“I won’t lie to you,” Taloe said measuredly.

“So, yes?”

“I said I would not lie, and to try fruitlessly to describe my feelings on the matter, could never convey the truth.”

“Scale or complexity,” Kiannae countered, and crossed her arms at his grandiose claims.

“Yes,” he simply answered, and she closed the door.

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