Chapter III:14

A light there stands ‘bove eastern plain,
a timeless testament to hope and pain,

cold stone in likeness of a noble hand,
by flame calls the weary time ‘n again,

oh such pride that ancient mixing pot,
where downtrodden found new lot,

a statue stands where towers never fell,
in Torchlight the lost my at last be well.

– Roshanara, 93 E.R.

Roshanara’s Call

Rhaeus 16th, 655 E.R.

Zale sighed.

Kiannae was sitting among cargo crates at the rear of a wagon roof, and he was riding backwards halfway to the front. He had followed her up after noticing her climb on an unexpected coach. Questions as to why she was riding that one, were met only with deflection. Claims she just liked riding there, and the roof of her wagon was full. A lie, he was fairly sure, and nothing to say why she had chosen the caravan master’s. Though he’d caught enough to know they were acquaintances of some sort.

He’d tried a few times before, to get the hang of what she claimed to feel. A rhythm. A nature in the sway to attune with, even though it was ever changing. That hadn’t been why he’d followed, but with Kiannae not at all talkative, he was left to that old quest. To make the endless bobbing and rock not nauseating.

It still wasn’t working, and he was bored. If talking to himself was all he was doing, it would be distraction enough. “The road,” he mused dourly. “I swear the only thing that keeps it more tolerable than being stuck inside for the winter, is the scenery changes out the window . Course it isn’t winter, and you live in a border town, and wars keep rolling through. Ok, maybe not the best analogy, but all things considered, close enough.”

Kiannae opened her eyes and glared at him. “Listen, we’re friends again, ok. All’s forgiven, doesn’t mean we have to talk all the time.”

“Oh, how magnanimous of me.” Zale gave her a childish expression to match her own.

“I’m sorry, if I ever gave you the wrong impression, by treating you like the nuisance that you were.” Kiannae huffed.

“Did you ever actually tell me to go?” Zale pressed. “No. I always got the very specific impression that you like difficult, and hearing your story about your two fathers…” He laughed. “Not, that you ever seemed to get that part. I did, but wasn’t my place to say. Fates. I may love you, but you can be daft, for how brilliant you are. I know where you got that idea. Ribbing, and little barbs as a form of affection. I’ve seen how you are with your sister. Someone you have been quite plain, you love more than life itself. So don’t tell me, you ever really told me to go.”

“That night, after the dryad grove, when you were watching me.”

“Oh, yes. The wounded bird, asks to sleep alone. No, you were always too much trouble, in your own eyes. Fates, you are trouble, but you got one thing wrong. That it’s too much. I’m your friend, ‘cause I sure don’t envy that spirit in you, not any more. You, are trouble enough to be a friend, even one I’d walk to the end of this world with.”

“Then why did you leave?” Kiannae challenged his claim, more painned than defiant.

“Because it was the right thing to do,” Zale answered. “So please, don’t tell me I’m the only one who had untenable ideas. I think Sasha was quoting you exactly on that.”

“I don’t know, my sister seems to make it work,” Kiannae chided. “Runs off with any lass, or sometimes lad that pleases her. Even just passing through a town, finds herself a warm bed.”

“Yeah,” Zale said, in a tone that was less that admonished. “I’ve been with plenty of women, who can make that work. It helps. It feels good, but, it’s not who I am. A man of the wind, sure, but a seed on that wind, ready to take root.”

Kiannae froze. It stuck, a memory from the Blight, an image of herself as a leaf, that had carried a seed on the wind, and down a river. “When did I tell you about that vision?”

“Vision?” Zale said incredulously. “I imagine you heard it from the same place as me, druidic proverb.”

“Druidic proverbs?” Kiannae pressed. “You never seemed the sort. Even I couldn’t stomach that book, and I don’t recall Landri ever lecturing on the point.”

“Lots of this.” Zale gestured at the slowly passing farmlands. “On the road. Between the scary parts, it is worse than being stuck in your house, because it’s so much smaller. So yeah, I got bored enough. Let me tell you, I took a crack at reading Clarion texts after that, because I wanted to see if it could mean any more or less. The Red Book is more sensible I think, so much more pragmatically of this world.”

“Yeah, I get where you are coming from, and yet know how wrong we both are. It may not make sense, but it’s real,” Kiannae said. “It makes no sense, and perfect sense at the same time. Yet, which of a dozen ambiguous meanings do I take from any of it?”

“Bout the size of it.” Zale laughed. “Listen, I left… because it was the right thing. For both of us. What your sister is, I think it works for her, works for some, but I really don’t believe it’s you. So me staying, I think it was eventually one, or both of us betraying ourselves. Because I don’t think it’s me, either. More doubt after a few years, and a dozen odd, very amiable women.”

“Bragging now?”

“As if you haven’t,” Zale chided. “Though no, not really, I’m rounding down,” Zale said narrowing his eyes. “I think I want to just be with someone though. Someone who would walk to the ends of the world for me, as well. That’s… not a jab at you, so drop it. It’s just a fact. Doesn’t change how I feel, just, informs what I do with it. I’m glad, you didn’t choose me, because, I would have chosen you, and I don’t know if it would have ended well. Just pretty sure it would have ended.”

“I’m sorry,” Kiannae said, far more earnestly than she felt she had in some time.

“Then all is forgiven,” Zale said, a bit too cheekily. “I’m not sure I have any interest in fighting a war for you, but, well, if it comes up, you can, ask.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Kiannae said with a less than pleased smile, and rolled her eyes. “Now, you listen. You’re going to Mordove, to start a new life. I’m going there, to try to hang onto the one I have, and my sister’s. To be as far away from any war as I can get us.”

“You know what happened the last time you ran from prophecy.”

“This,” Kiannae stressed, “is different. I wasn’t running, I was lost. Aimless. If this is something that follows us anywhere we go, then where we have the best chance, is among the greatest minds of this world. In a city of mages and libraries, and even seers. For all they’re worth.”

“Yet your sister thinks your motivations are to find Laurel.” Zale crossed his arms. “Big moves, are dangerous when you are dealing with prophecy. I’ve read that much. How many years has war been coming with Osyrae? Since the fall of the Empire, really. Centuries, of come and go peace. Oh they’ve made moves, and they are horrible. I was there. They should be stopped. Yet if you are looking for the start of a war, then look for a battle. One you gave them, and one you two, three I guess, won.”

“So, surender, that’s your option?”

“You left your homeland, and you are a woman of prophecy. If that shadow has cast over lands far and wide, then maybe they will finally make a real move. Particularly with the excuse of imprisoned royalty to work with. You may be running from a war, but you also may have just started it. If not, you plan to ask the Council for support, what is that, if not starting it. I see only two answers, war, or surrender.”

“I’m not sure, if I really plan on petitioning for support,” Kiannae said quietly, and looked down. “If that would make me a traitor, then so be it. Lets see them make a queen of me then. Surrender, the thought makes me ill, and yet…” She shook her head. “We have received word, that a war in this age, might be worse than the Dragon War ever was. Growing forces, rising gifted, stirring dire things. A Surge, some are calling it. A powder keg, might be more accurate.“

“The exact kind of thing, that could accompany a pair like you?” Zale asked. “Prophecy, right? You’ve told me some of the theory. Practically speaking there must be immense energies involved. The kind that could make a tree, the size of a mountain, spring from the heart of a dead blight. One you claim to be responsible for. Also, don’t think I haven’t noticed the hair. A white streak like all of hers, once she burned off the mage blood. Neat trick that. One she pulled to contain, ‘something stupid,’ that mad prince called it? Aether tear, yeah I heard during the duel back in Avrale. Think twice, before you make any other big changes.”

Kiannae hesitated.

Zale bit his lip, and drew two lines, crossed by two others, a hash mark often used for enumeration in spellcraft. He struggled a bit to keep it in tow, but it stabilized between them.

She gave him a funny look.

“Not a spell, not very good at that, but simple filament strands are easy.” He drew an X in the center. “You know this game?” he asked.

“More of a puzzle,” Kiannae said. “You can’t win, but you can lose. If you don’t know the moves. Solving it was a challenge one of our instructors taught us, when we were kids. Kat figured it out first. Beat me like four times before I saw it. So, she forever gets to be the winner.”

“Humor me,” Zale said kindly.

Kiannae drew a circle in the upper left. He drew an X without even thinking, Countered, and through predictable repetition, draw. He waved it away, and started again, gesturing for her to begin.

She took the upper left, he lower left, and again, in the end, draw. Repetitions in variation with the same conclusion. Then, to Kiannae’s confusion, she won.

“Ok, you know the rules,” she said. “Why did you throw that?”

He said nothing, and began again. Another loss for him.

He started again, but Kiannae just crossed her arms at the obtuse game he was playing at.

“Fine,” she finally said, and took her move. “This better be going somewhere, or you can jump off in a ditch.”

Zale smirked, and took his move. Countered, countered, countered, lost.

Kiannae blinked, and looked at the obvious move. “You cheated,” she said. “You…changed it.”

“If I did, I’m a much better mage than you,” Zale teased.

She just narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously.

“You were playing the wrong game. Stop, and look at it, really look at the move you thought I made.”

“Who in the fates…” Kiannae demanded as she saw it. It was, like the memory of dodging something, but it wasn’t a bad thing, or even noticed. Just, harmless. The whole thing was an annoyance at best, and then, knowing the move to make, she made it. It was a feint. “Seriously, when did you learn to do this?”

“From you,” Zale said. “Well, more or less. I never could get the complete hang of it. Trying to ride the sway. I kept trying though, and failing. Till one day, a few years ago I was walking through a town, and it hit me. The whole world was spinning, and the moon, and the sun, and everything, everywhere, is spinning. I tried it backwards. Not metaphysically, just, really to feel it all happening, and not just tuning it out. I don’t think it worked, exactly, but, I felt something. A shift in step, just a bit more level. Weirdest sensation I ever had, till I had it again. I was distracted trying to recreate it, walking around, to be another thing in motion, and yeah bumped into someone I shouldn’t have. Then I didn’t. Stumbled to the left, and into the shoulder of this pretty blond woman in a red. I was terribly sorry, she wasn’t.”

“So, you going to try flirting like Carmine?” Kiannae asked. “You can also jump off in a ditch if this is some ploy.”

“Listen, I’m not even good at it. You told me the whole story, you bragged about your third option. Figure, either cause you thought of me as just a friend to brag to, or because you were still mad at me for making you choose. I listened though. I got the real message. The only way it could really work, was to walk away. A draw, in a solved game, and he solved it. Third option indeed. There are only two ways to win your heart. To give oneself completely to you, or to opt out. One’s a little easier, I’ll leave it to you, to figure out which that is, and which I did. Yeah, you told me, and that’s not the point. You also told me, you would do anything to save your sister. Even die, to take her place, that she might be a queen instead. Look at what you’re doing, and becoming.”

“A thief?” Kiannae challenged, more than asked. “Because I think they have it all wrong, and I will take either outcome. That I am saving her, or that I am winning the game. Fates, there it is, are you happy.”

“Grandfather told me once,” Zale started, swallowed and shook his head. “He told me, that he would, hand the staff on to me. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want it. I did not want to be rooted, to that grove. To that kind of power, and responsibility. I wanted to see the world. It just hurts, that, he didn’t even ask. Maybe he knew my heart, or maybe he forsook me, but I’ll never know. So yes, you’re a thief, who stole that from me. No malice, just clumsy. You made him choose you, by being the spectacular woman that you are. Can’t fault you for that. So yeah, just ask yourself; what game are you playing, and what do you really want? Because I learned to change moments, well enough to trick you. The one I learned it from, by just trying to attune to what you do by instinct.”

“So, how do I know which one is real?” Kiannae asked.

“The one that feels like you,” Zale answered.

“Cute.”

Zale put his hand in his robe, and pulled out a little tan book, and tossed it to her. “Got that off some bordertown merchant near the Ascension. Locally made, caught between the pull of three lands with a very mixed history. You would expect everyone there to be so angry all the time, but they weren’t. This man in white, local priest, Clarion of course, ‘but don’t let that fool you.’ Sorry, how he put it, to the word. He had the local press make these little books. I don’t know what his scheme really is, but that bit, where he describes his idea of freewill. That got me, because once you can do it, sometimes it just happens, and you barely notice. You make the choice, that is you. Freewill is the ability to project, to make choices, and understand consequences. Even without gift, it is intelligence. The ability to notice the patterns.”

Kiannae looked more thoughtful than annoyed, and gave Zale a glance he at least read as appreciation. She opened the little book, and flipped through its pages.

“I like it,” she finally said. She leaned her head back, and closed her eyes. “I see it. In the waver of the sway. Borrowing from the moment before, shedding the moment after. Energy on loan, in proportion to the counter force needed. I made it easier, by making it harder. Another thing in motion, like you say. In tune with the motion, but countering it. More energy, more awareness. I could feel it, without feeling it. My mind in the rhythm, my body a fixed extension. Nicely done, you got it. I mean, I sort of knew all that, but wasn’t seeing it clearly enough to explain, or put it into words. It was how I learned to fight Kat. I always thought I was beating her because she wasn’t trying, but, maybe…” She shook her head.

“You want to win,” Zale said. “Even if winning is dying. Winning, at playing the martyr. Sounds about like the girl I know. Now that I’ve heard tales, of when you weren’t even in this game. I think you’re all just passing a torch. Paying for mistakes you didn’t make. I didn’t know your mother, of course, but, I know you. I’ve seen your sister, and your brother. You lot, want to do better. So yeah, really, I mean it. If it comes to a war, ask. Because I don’t promise not to be a coward, but I’ll promise, I won’t want to be.”

“What is, it, though,” Kiannae protested. “The Storm. Just power? Another aether tear?” She didn’t expect him to have an answer, just musing, frustrated, but he surprised her.

“Songs of the Sun,” Zale said. “The one I’ve seen you reading from. My mother read it to me, when I was a kid. What Vhale could not hold, nor his daughter. Power itself, sure, what ever that means. Power enough, to hold the whole world in your sway, and burn away a half of it. An aether tear, maybe, like you say, or something more. Ask yourself, are you sure whose turn this is. Is it a game, or a puzzle. Who learned to draw the match first. Don’t trust even your moves, because how we change, is by deciding, to be someone different. One choice, at a time, until that, becomes who we are.” He shook his head. “Sorry, that’s from a book. I fell hopelessly in love with you. I decided, to be your friend. Because, that, is the amount of trouble you are worth.”

“Kat,” Kiannae started. “My dear twin,” she added as her hesitation drew out. “She’s afraid of something in Wren, like the spirit that followed me into the blight. That there is more than mother in him. I’m afraid she’s wrong. That mother is all, that is in him. That, if there was a world in which we never were, like Wren says… I’ve seen Wren, and I’ve seen Kat, and a little girl with blue eyes, like mother’s. Yet eyes more Sylvan than any of us. She said, she always liked the little birds. He’s kept the name, but his given one was Rene, after our great-grandmother. So yeah, I don’t think this started with us. Nor am I sure I trust my own brother, or the mother that is in him. She loved Sasha after all, fates. What do I even make of that?”

“Apples and trees,” Zale offered, and shrugged.

“What does that make me, then?”

“Choosy?”

“Not that…” Kiannae shook her head.

“Not, what?” Zale pressed.

Kiannae took a long breath. “I remember Highvale,” she said, and it seemed a dodge. “I’ve never gone, and Kat described it so well. I could almost… fool myself. She told me about it, and it felt like home. At least, as much as Broken Hill ever had. I was tempted to go, but I didn’t. Not sure if that was foolish, or if going would have been more so.”

“So, in the scope of, everything?” Zale questioned, wondering where she was going.

“I remember when mother would go off to the north wing. With, her friend. Red hair, the only thing I really remember of her. I remember that friend, coming with us to Broken Hill, and the day I figured out…” She pursed her lips, and nearly closed her eyes. “They were like Celia, or well, not at all, really. More like Kat.” She tried not to cry. “I remember stargazing with my best friend, youngest girl in the class, who I looked out for. The night before we were to leave, I remember her telling me, she was in love with me, and… I wasn’t… I didn’t. I adored her, but I didn’t feel what she felt. It broke my heart, I think more than if it had been the other way. Because I hurt her, and, I don’t remember her, at all after that.” She sniffed.

“Fates,” Zale said and rubbed his neck. “I’ve heard that name, though never before from your lips. You lot live tangled lives, don’t you?”

“I…” She drew a breath, straightened, and steadied herself. “I wanted things to work out for those two, but Kat, I guess she is who she is. She let her go, to be who she is.” Kiannae shook her head. “The kind of love, of someone, who would walk to the ends of the world for you. Foolish.” She gave him a look that said her dig was nearly so much at herself.

“Or, maybe the kind of love, that would not ask anyone, to walk to the end of the world for them,” Zale offered.

Kiannae rubbed her face on her sleeve. “Well, when you put it like that. Maybe I’m being an ass about it all.”

“I still think you dodged, what you were trying to say,” Zale said giving her a challenging look.

“I didn’t feel it for Celia, but, that other woman, a princess now, by way of marrying a prince, and letting my sister go. Think you met her. I don’t remember much, but, I remember an attraction, a gravity. Another friendship, that wanted to be more, and I’m not sure if it was.”

Zale just shook his head.

“It’s like Kat took the parts of my life, I didn’t want.” She rubbed her temple, sadness fading to thoughtfulness, or anger, it was hard to tell. “If it’s all real, I did this to her. I killed my mother, by meddling in something, that… Maybe it killed her, maybe she became something more. Maybe, like Wren says, she made us, and that killed her. I blamed Wren, but, I think she died in any world he was or wasn’t in. It’s a blur of moments, the day that they took our father. Kat pulling my hand, mother stepping in front of a spear. Kat stepping in front of it. Me. Us. Us, both falling to the floor, stumbling, over defending her. I try not to think of that moment, because in most, in most, one of the other Sylvan’s pushes the spear away, and yelled something at the man.”

She huffed angrily.

“Grandpa, was already dead. He’d already fought, and died. There was no stopping that, but, in any world mother had that big round belly with Wren, that was a world in which she lived, and then died giving birth.”

“Just when I thought it couldn’t all get heavier,” Zale said with a forced expression.

“It’s slippery, most of the time,” Kiannae said letting the tension go in a heavy breath, and leaned her head back again. “I’m glad when it’s vague, but when it’s clear… Makes me feel mad. I mean crazy, but so very angry too. Wren has her soul, her memories. Of our mother, and a woman who never was, who had no children. In any world, where Wren wasn’t in her, someone else died, and I’m not so sure she did die, not in the end. Kat, said it once, when I was still blaming him for losing her. That he reminds her of our mother. I’m a lot more worried, that the only thing in him, is her. Because, she may know what this is all about, and she might be the one who learned first. Do I trust her? A woman I never really knew. Do I trust my brother? If this power, is one that can rewrite history, wash away all that you ever were. It’s the kind of power that I’m not sure I trust anyone with.”

“Even yourself?” Zale asked mostly as a tease.

“Not really,” she answered in kind, but it was clear was more serious than joking. “So, you sure you want me to ask, when the world threatens to come down around our ears?”

“Ask,” Zale said slowly, and with a half smile.

Rhaeus 18th, 655 E.R.

Roshanara had seen better days. As a city it existed more out of tradition, than pragmatic cause. A proud history that stretched from the very dawn of the Empire. The first conquest of what would become a rolling campaign of liberation, and reconstruction.

A foothold, settled by refugees. People fleeing into the arms of an invader, less terrifying than their ambitious sovereign. Who accepted citizenship under the protection of Imperator. It was there that the common Anderhale corruption of the word, Emperor took a final root with the people. With a cry of ‘all hail Emperor Corinth.’ A mixing pot of the world, that had once served as the gateway to the heart of a great nation, long gone.

The place got its name for a tall tower, and an ever burning mage-flame. A beacon that shone for miles. The original enchantments, part by part, had been long been replaced, but the magic it was claimed, is still that of the Emperor. A power renewed, and restored by careful hands. That so long as the Torch, that northerners called Roshanara, yet burns, the good he did would endure. Still, in all this proud history lay a muddled confusion of what to call the place. The rural Torchon of other meaning, had long fallen out of favor. As had Torchon’s Light, which became Torchlight. The archaic Roshanara brought by foreign settlers was the proper name to most. Yet it depended on who you asked, and what the definition of most was.

Such were the local traditions. A faith, almost. The last people to revere Corinth as more than a man who lived. Though the city had long been returned to Helm, the Corinthian banner flew along the broad lane that cut the city in half east to west. The Torch, tall slender tower that it was, had long been subsumed. Over centuries a great statue had been built to the First Emperor, holding his brilliant light aloft. A call to the people, to a new freedom, under his reign. An arbiter who kept councils both inherited, and elected. Whose manner of governance became the model of the Council, though no longer with an all powerful head of state.

As the caravan rolled to a stop beneath the high statue, music played across the great central square. Like Forks, the place seemed designed for the purpose of housing such traveling markets. Kiannae peered down off side of the wagon where well-dressed dignitaries and musicians were gathered. “Hello,” an almost bizarrely round, and formally dressed man with short curly hair, and tan skin called out. “Baron Caldwell, at your service. Is this the Caravan Master’s wagon?”

The shutters opened beneath her, and Samantha leaned out. “Aye, it is, what’s all the fuss?”

A little fox hopped up beside her shoulder, but neither she, nor the baron paid Tock any mind. Katrisha however plucked him out of the way, to get a better view. The fox squirmed free of her grasp, and jumped up on her shoulder, where he balanced precariously.

“Ah, more of the fabled travelers we are hosting, bound for Dustwatch. We just wanted to show our appreciation, that it might be remembered we treat caravans well here in Torchlight.”

“That’s lovely,” Samantha said with mild annoyance. “Though the band is taking up part of the square we will need to set up shops.”

“Of course, of course.” Caldwell waved, and people started moving. They rolled up carpets, and carried away temporary banner stands. “There will be a ball tonight, all travelers are welcome. Come, mingle, discuss business with all the merchants of the city.”

“Is treats, yes?” Tock whispered in Katrisha’s ear. She laughed.

The ball was held in a large open courtyard, which almost passed for a second town square. People of every size, shape, color, and style mixed with somewhat bewildered caravan merchants. Show dancers wove in amongst milling guests, and even took drinks from passing servers themselves.

Kiannae had grown weary, and chosen a table of the least talkative people to hide at. A table that had only shrunk in number after the massive white wolf arrived and took an open space. Most, seemed to ignore it was there, and yet avoid the table. Feeling nervous, and chalking it up to the strange and stern faced guest. Her mysterious staff, and almost regal poise, an excuse for caution, because the wolf could not have had anything to do with it.

Katrisha however had flitted through the local court like a butterfly, all smiles, and laughs, and more than a few drinks in her belly. She felt warm and light, and flashed the most amiable sort of smiles at the slightest hint of a flirt, and laughed if she made anyone blush in retreat. She was only being agreeable, as Caldwell rattled off about his plans to restore dwindling trade. Went on, about expeditions into scarlands to seek lost treasures of bygone age. It was a fanciful plan to say the least, but he seemed ever so earnest about it.

“Oh, can someone please introduce me,” she heard cooed nearby. The voice caught her attention, and drew her eye to a tan woman with tightly coiled threads of crimson hair. Leaned on a high table between three women, and a very nice local lord.

“Restoring the statue, of course is a priority,” the Baron said, trying to regain Katrisha’s attention.

“Yes of course,” Katrisha obliged. “Historic, and holding the namesake of the city. Whichever name you please. It would not do to let it grow unsafe.”

“Well, the boy does like a certain, Osyraen aesthetic,” one of the women offered. Katrisha had to restrain a laugh, the poor lady had blushed so furiously at her flirting, after she had failed several times to catch Wren’s eye.

“Oh, little danger of that,” Caldwell reassured Katrisha, though clearly frustrated by her lack of attention. “Still, a bit worn, and weathered. Appearances, if we wish to be a destination of travel again.”

Katrisha had missed something, but heard the answer. “A few sharp-eyed, clever people have put together that the Osyraen he’s been seen with, is the Shadow Rose, of recent legend.”

“Oh, I was going to ask to be introduced to the silver one. She’s so exotic, but the Shadow Rose? Really, she’s here?” The woman toyed with her thick crimson locks.

“Seemingly the least interesting person in the place, who has one of the most interesting in her sway. No one can quite spot her, except Marian here, and only cause she’s jealous. You, tell me, who else could it be. A full crimson locked Osyraen woman, that no one can spot,” the man chided with almost a titter.

“Any chance I could get introduced to her?” the tan woman asked biting her lip.

“Right after I do,” the man countered in a playful growl.

Katrisha gave the Baron an apologetic glance for her distraction. “Yes, appearances, are worth something, of course. Though, some weathering shows the age, and adds a little mystique.” She bit her lip thoughtfully. “Back home,” she cringed a bit, at whom the memory was of, but pressed on. “One of the knights, he loved to collect these urns and pots. Some of the most, faded, well, they were the most valuable, if you trusted what he paid for them.”

“Fine, the silver one,” she overheard. “Ex-court mage right? Have I heard, Goddess of Eastroad, batted about? Rumors of prophecy?”

“Yes, yes, she’s a proper Dame, though, only once adorned, unlike her sister,” another woman answered. “Though, she is your better bet, if that’s your fancy.” That one had been less blushing about the mater, but no more interested.

“A reasonable point,” the Baron agreed. “Maybe restore the inlays, leave the stone. Though, I do think we are about to be interrupted. Properly, that is.”

“I say they should have given her another,” the young lord offered, and his approaching voice made Katrisha turn back again. “Did you know she fought a full-grown dragon, naked, when she was just fourteen?”

The two both paused with surprise to find Katrisha already looking their way.

“Elise Maerain,” he said with a gesture. “May I introduced Dame Katrisha of Ashton, a Mage Knight of Avrale.”

“Goodness,” the tan woman said putting her hand over her heart as though startled. “Is that entirely legal?”

“Technically,” Katrisha answered, and held out her hand.

The woman took it, and kissed the knuckles.

“Oh, formal.” She captured the hand in turn, drew the woman close, and kissed the back of her palm, holding her gaze only inches away. “I can play the courtly game, though I always play by my rules.”

“Oh, my,” Elise said with a positively gleeful, if startled grin.

“Seems, they are played by different ones around here. Gossiping aloud in the open. While in earshot of the subject of such rumors, you seemingly wish to impress.” She let her eyes fall to the woman’s tight open-top, and corset. Seemed rather impractical, but as was so often the case, it was hard to argue with the effect. She looked the woman back in the eye.

“Well, it’s about what you ask, and the way you ask it. Good on you for listening, some just tune it all out. There really are people calling you a goddess, you know, though I’d believe it. Goodness, those lovely eyes, and that hair.”

“Easy flattery, easy flattery,” Katrisha chided her.

“Oh, maybe so, but it can still be true,” Elise said with an impish smile. “Makes me feel like a great lion, is about to pounce me.”

“Temping,” Katrisha said, and released the woman’s hand. “I am sort of courting someone just now, though I don’t know what ideas he has, and I’ve never been so formal about attachments.”

“Men, are not much my taste,” Elise offered in a tone at once leading, and warning.

“I’ll agree they can be more fuss than they are worth,” Katrisha obliged. “Mercenaries more than most. Almost as bad as knights, or for that matter, ladies with such smiling eyes.”

Elise laughed. “I’m harmless, mostly.”

“I try to be,” Katrisha said with an awkward shrug. “Trouble likes to follow me though. I joked once that trouble is an old friend, but it’s become a rocky relationship.”

“So, you heard the rumors that I have, which ones are true?” Elise pressed.

“Oh, all of them. Dragon was a fool stunt, but it made sense at the time. Goddess, well, I was trying to put the fear of one, into some prisoners. While offering some shred of kindness on a very cruel day.” She took a measured breath. “Worked, for what it was worth. Prophecy, is a lot of rubbish that happened once, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll make my own destiny, thank you. Not let the past, dictate my future.”

“Humph,” the woman mused with a pleased smile. “So if the stars align, I might steal a bit more of your time?”

“I could give them a nudge,” Katrisha offered playfully.

“I’ll leave you two too it,” the young man interjected. “Come along Caldwell, I think the ladies wish to speak of, astronomical phenomena, wandering stars, waxing moons. You know, that always bores you.”

The baron laughed, and obliged to walk away with the young lord, who lead him off to make introductions with an older woman. The enchanter of the caravan.

“So what, would you have the stars say of us?” Elise pressed.

“Well,” Katrisha started, and bit her lip. “Goddess of autumn, matron of mothers. Fear I cannot offer you seven years. Still, your namesake is in the house of summer, perhaps we shall play by her rules.”

“Goodness.” Elise laughed. “I’m not sure I understood half of that.”

“Sorry,” Katrisha obliged with some humor. “Your name sake is the goddess of autumn, for whom a wandering star, a planet that is, with many moons was named. She was known for seven year marriage contracts. First with a man, to have a child, and then with a woman to rear it. The house of summer, on the other hand is the constellation of Rhaea’s crown, or the horned circlet. She was known for, other habits, or, so I’ve read.”

“What rules does she play by?” Elise asked, and leaned closer conspiratorially.

“Next to none,” Katrisha offered with a smirk. “The saying goes, where does summer lay her golden crown?”

“Where?” Elise said biting her lip.

“Wherever she pleases.”

Rhaeus 19th, 655 E.R.

Katrisha ran her fingers between the rows of tightly coiled hair on Elise’s head, as the woman dozed lightly on her chest. They had climbed on a roof at Katrisha’s insistence. Likely unwise tipsy as they were, but the endeavor had proven safe enough. Stargazing had given way to other things more Elise’s interest. Katrisha’s only complaint was a swirl of memories, that haunted her of another night, so many years before.

What had made her suggest the roof, and the stars. It had been so long, since she had done so with anyone. Was it something Tock had been musing the prior day. Missing his mate, and wistful about stargazing with her, then growing quite pouty about wanting belly rubs.

“I’ve never seen hair like yours,” she mused.

Elise laughed. “One to talk, oh moon goddess.”

“Only her daughter,” Katrisha chided, “her and the winter frost. Though, really just her. Laeune was actually the goddess of winter and the moon. Kind of redundant, like everything else in my life.” She sighed. “Do you mind me asking where your family comes from?”

“Oh, no of course not, but almost everywhere,” Elise said. “Like most social climbing families of Roshanara, I’m about as mixed as you can get. No, you’ll probably not see hair quite like mine again. Osyraen and Napirian gives me the shade, like that Red Sister, with your caravan I’m sure. The curls though, some mixture of Thebian and Ascension heritage, though the style is of the prior, for those with hair like mine. I’ve got just about everything but Sylvan, almost all high-dominant traits. If I have a kid, ever stomach the trouble of a man long enough for that, odds are it won’t matter much what the father looks like. Probably come out just like me.”

“All the reason you should then,” Katrisha teased. “Besides, some of them aren’t so bad.” Something seemed odd to her, but she was too distracted to say what.

“I hear your brother is quite pretty,” Elise mused.

“Are we really having this conversation?” Katrisha said giving the woman an irritable look.

“Sylvan blood is hard to come by, I’d ask you, but alas, I’ve not heard of anyone making that work. Yet. Oh, Goddess of Eastroad.”

“Rumors about Sylvia Grey, but if she did it, she left no record.”

“Shame.” Elise sighed, and ran her fingers lazily up Katrisha’s robe.

“I’ll warn you off causing my brother any trouble,” Katrisha pressed.

“I’m not looking for a father, just, a donation. Helm doesn’t allow women to wed one another, no laws against anything, but no support either. If I have a child, it will be out of wedlock, and I’ll, as you say, find myself a woman, to contract, to help raise the little bug.”

“We lost our father. Through, no choice of his own. You’ll have little luck, I think, convincing my brother to, donate, to your cause. You’ll have less luck, suggesting it in my presence again. Lovely as our evening has  been, or might yet be.” She caught the wandering hand to make herself clear.

“Then I shall make no mention of it, ever,” Elise said. “Just around here, well, I’ve traveled a bit. I know how odd this city can seem. We pride ourselves on being mixed, not pure. I’ve been proposed to by two baron’s sons. Alas, not my interest. That is, if you were wondering why, there was so much interest around the three of you. Half Sylvans, from little Avrale. Oh, a rare opportunity. Two of you dames no less, though none of you looking.”

“Oh, looking, for somethings,” Katrisha said running her finger up the woman’s arm, and getting her to shiver. It finally clicked. High-dominant traits, the very use of the word implied something her existance  seemed to deny. She had a gift, surely, notable, probably a mage, or even a healer. Katrisha hadn’t asked how she made a living, of if she had it had been dodged. Yet the term high-dominant ascribed to the theory of magical inheritance being bound to such traits. If she had so many…

Elise laughed. “Charmer.” She pulled her close, and intellectual curiosity floundered under a kiss.

Sasha flopped down on a wagon bunk, and stretched her neck. She noticed the fox sitting opposite only when it sat up, golden eyes glinting in the low light. “Good night?” Tock asked.

Sasha’s face twitched slightly. Normally she would have no qualms with such a question, but the source had never spoken directly to her. “I’ve had better,” she answered cautiously.

“Yes,” Tock said with a slight lip curl on only one side, and a narrowed eye. “You had deal, is not done. Torta arrange nice girl, yet as is, she not stay.”

“My deal,” she started, and eyed the fox suspiciously, not sure what it did, or did not know. Had it just seen what had happened. Been in the wagon all along? They were slippery little creatures, and unlike Etore, she did not easily see through their illusions. She had barely even thought of the fact the fox had sat in Katrisha’s lap for days, except when he spoke. “I was not given a time table. You sit there, day after day, quietly, for the most part. You’ve seen me try.”

The fox flopped his head down. “Is so. It need occur soon. Around, and around it goes, like grathity. Soon, too late. Soon, it is struggle, and an end unknown. Do, as you agreed.”

“If you have ideas, I’m all ears.”

Tock scratched his head with a paw. “Not as all ears as Tock,” he teased her.

“Actually, mine are bigger,” Sasha protested crossing her arms.

“Is closer to all, though, yes, in scale.”

“So helpful,” Sasha groaned and leaned her head back against the window sill. “I’m not even sure what…” She held back specifics, lest she offer something the fox did not know. “If what has been claimed, is real. Yet here I am, talking to a fox. A torta. Another thing of legend. Around and around indeed.”

“Real.” Tock made a little high-pitched laugh. “All real. All not. All changing. Has noticed her read? Read, read, read, read. Yes. Look there.”

“If you say so.” Sasha sighed. “Don’t suppose you care to tell me what Sam is hiding in that box?”

Tock hummed in something short of a whine. “Seen it, yes.” Tock said. “Like suntear, or Rhan’s golden crown. Our lady strung these like  jangling dew on shining thread, hung across the slender roughs on her head.”

“Fates,” Sasha muttered. “That, was even less useful.”

“Tock tell.” The fox laughed. “Is yer concern to understand.”

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