Chapter VI:11

The second is born,
and the first to die,
over life and death,
of stars presides,

speak of the heir,
a Sylvan first born,
the one whom crown,
shall one day adorn,

fear for the schemes,
of a dragon who lies,
and the coming of age,
when men wail and cry…

– The Black Book, date unknown

The Measure of a Wyrm

It was a large round table, though there was a head, by virtue of a throne. At the left and right hand of a would be liege sat a dragonborn, and an elemental. An extra pair of eyes, peered out low over the plates, at the right of the white haired woman with silver eyes.

“Who’s the kid?” Ambrush asked of Katrisha as they filed down into the hall.

“At a guess, Mayari’s,” Katrisha offered. “Did no one mention him?”

“I think they were too busy arguing about geometry,” Etore interjected, “and who am I to ruin their ‘fun.’”

“A child that young, she’s over three centuries old, if she is who she claims…”

“Perhaps for once, immortality is what it’s cracked up to be?” Katrisha obliged.

“It is,” Mayari said. “My hearing is also quite good.” The hosts all stood, a boy getting up on his chair. “Introductions, please,” she added as the others lined up across the table. “Someone perhaps, other, than Heron’s sharp tongued whelp.”

“Oh, my sharp tongue can manage,” Etore cut back, when the others hesitated. “It is the etiquette of a courtly settings, after all, for the one most familiar, to speak introductions.”

Mayari sat down, smiled, and the other three followed. “Very well, it’ll be entertaining at least.”

“To my right, the Little Bird, Wren Ashton. He flew in Mordove, and laid a challenge before the Council none dared to be seen to attempt. Until his sister. I presume you know that, and so no one tried to take his staff. Then again, for all that mostly useless. Except patching up the odd scratch, bump, or more bumping, in my evenings.”

“It was a reason, yes,” Mayari agreed with a casual flick of her wrist. “Though it is usually as useful as him, by now. He does have other powers, but… by all means, do not speak, of them.”

“After him,” Etore continued, her gaze narrowed at the tone. “I presume you know, is the leader of his gaggle of white women pets, Dahlia of the Sand. Yes, like the flower, and like her mother before, hers has seen plenty of use.”

Wren elbowed her for this, Dahlia stood unfazed.

Etore ignored it. “The next of course, Mr. Sund. The owner of a cargo ship, an elemental so politely deposited where such vessels are not meant to go. Upon what is so common as his name, but some call him Mister, and I forget all but this polite address. Otherwise, not noteworthy, except for being flower girl’s brother, from another… same mother. However that works.”

“Yes, names, and so much else might vary,” Mayari offered with droll annoyance. “It’s why introductions are important, even though we are all but family here.”

“Speaking of family, there are of course the twins. You’ll forgive me, if I can never tell them apart. One of them is probably a god, but that’s pale in this company, I suppose. Not sure if my money would go on the one who bleeds gold, or silver. The one with a living staff, or the one that carries a mind of its own. What were the translations of their names again? Soul-honored-little-girl, and Unendurable-light-of-ashtree?”

Mayari laughed knowingly.

Katrisha and Kiannae both crossed their arms.

“See, can’t tell them apart, not at all. Well, past them, we have the actual interesting one. Ungifted lycian trollop that she is. You’d be forgiven, for thinking her as young as any of us. Ms, Erin Ambrush. Captain that is. I’m told though, the owner has some doubts on the chain of command, after a peculiar bid for the affections, of the former.”

“I’m sure it will come up,” Mayari obliged, running her finger up and down a spoon handle. Her eyes were intent, hard to tell her look between annoyance and amusement.

“That leaves golden haired, and fair, chosen successor of the Avatar, speckles and all. Daughter of the goddess Rhaea. Yet another contender to the throne of Osyrae, whether she likes it or not. My high general, once we come to some terms.”

“Ah yes, and we all know your common name, but why not introduce yourself properly, princess?”

“As you will. Then you may call me her royal highness, The Unseen, Queen Etore Eudora Laen, of Osyrae, first of her name. Some fools call me the Shadow Rose, and I’ll answer to it as well.”

“Queen Shadow Rose, does have a ring to it,” Mayari picked up her glass, and sipped her whine. She closed her eyes. “Of course you’ve a long road to claim such title.”

“As Katrisha already introduced,” Etore cut back. “Might I give you all the petulant immortal Mayari. A clumsy snoop, but dragons, are hard to hide. About as graceful as one.”

“If you’ve never seen two feral drakes in a mating dance, you know nothing of grace,” Mayari intoned, her lips thin.

“Aren’t drakes all technically male?” Ambrush whispered to Katrisha.

“More or less, Ms. Ambrush,” Mayari answered instead, pulling her glass from her lips, shy of another sip. “Common misuses of the word, for any small immature dragon aside. Problem is, feral drakes are as bad at identifying females as humans. There aren’t a lot of traits to go on between young juveniles. They go at it a bit. You know how that is, don’t you Mr. Sund? One oft finds they like it, and the other… not so much. Course animals that they are, doesn’t always stop it from being a… top dragon sort of thing. These are put very carefully, in their place, since power is all they understand. Any way, the introductions?” She looked across them. “Fine, I’ll do it, we skipped one before any way.”

Mayari stood back up. “My little Prince, Yamaer.”

Etore took a step back suddenly, hand at a hilt.

“He’s older than he appears,” Mayari continued, a smile to the woman’s reaction. “Much like me, a bit slow to grow. I was over twenty before my figure stooped being mistaken for a boy’s. He’s quite clever, a very… good boy.” She ruffled his hair.

The child was unfazed. His eyes on Etore.

Mayari followed the gaze back to a woman still at the ready. “Calm yourself girl, I’m not on — his — side. Just a good lay, and strong seed. He will be his own undoing, however much damage he does on the way out.”

“I don’t like the way he looks at me,” Etore said coldly, but released her short sword. “I thought you lot taught your men how to behave?”

The boy looked down.

Mayari leaned forward, and rested her palms on the edge of the table. An act that could have been mistaken for flirtatious, in a low top, if not for her stern composure. “A lady has every right to be looked at as she pleases. A hungry stare, should only threaten, if you think you do not have the power. Besides, he’s not just some boy.”

“He is Vharen’s isn’t he?” Etore pressed. “That’s what you imply, or does older than he looks understate the mater?”

“He’s not your half sister, no. Heron… was already in love by the time I had any opportunity. Then a war happened, as they do. A war that could have been averted, if only I had been his bride.”

“Then I wouldn’t be here,” Etore cut back. “Finish your introductions.”

Mayari smirked. “The Ruby Queen, heir of Rosecrest, and Roseskull. Hidden, by a cousin during the war, for the prophecy that one of such line would take the crown. Hidden by herself, living the life she pleased, to seem best ignored.”

“There’s a prophecy?” Katrisha demanded suddenly. She looked around. “There’s a prophecy, you are fighting, and… we agreed to help you? Of course we did.” She covered her face.

“I don’t call you all idiots, lightly,” Etore offered.

“Did anyone know?” Katrisha demanded, looking around.

Wren raised his hand.

“How did you know?” Etore narrowed her eyes. “I didn’t tell you.”

“I read the books,” Wren answered.

Etore rolled her eyes. “You do know about a third of those is made up, right?”

“It was good odds,” Wren answered. “All things considered.”

“Of course you all know, Laset,” Mayari interrupted. “Some, more intimately than others.” She glanced to Liora, who looked away.

“Now, now, dear, none of that. I know it can be a bit unnerving, the first time she undresses you, in a hurry. If she was being truly untoward, she wouldn’t need bother. That’s when she is in a real hurry.”

Laset smirked.

“Shall we sit,” Kiannae said coldly, seeing the grimace grow on Liora’s face.

“By all means,” Rihonae said, and gestured across the table.

There seemed an extra chair, as they all tried to settle on their seating. It caused some perplexed looking about.

“Your elemental should join us,” Rihonae added. “Sit at your side, where he belongs.”

“I don’t think he really matters,” Laset protested.

“Of course you don’t, but you’ve chosen me, have you not?” Rihonae chided.

“Fine,” Laset said with some dignity. “Call him forth.”

“I’d rather not have him be a drain upon me, just now,” Kiannae countered.

“Nonsense, she’ll show him how not to, properly this time,” Rihonae answered. “He needn’t be a tax upon you at all. The world provides.”

Laset swirled under the table, and up before Kiannae. “I promise, I mean no trouble this time. Call him up, and I will show him the piece he has lost.”

Kiannae looked around with doubt.

“Please, let me offer gifts without making this a thing. I could conjure him up, quite well if I needed to, but I won’t. I am giving this gift, against my better judgement, if that gives you any ease.”

Taloe appeared at Kiannae’s side, and glared at Laset. Her own expression was not much more friendly. She stepped towards him, her distaste turning to something of a seductive leer. His own gaze narrowed, distrusting.

She reached out a hand, graceful over his shoulder like a dance move, and brought her form up against his. “Here, feel it, very slowly as I twine.” She said at his ear, well more than loud enough for others to hear. She placed her hand behind, and a finger at the back of his neck.

Taloe’s form shuddered slightly, and he gasped.

“Tie the next loop,” Laset intoned. She twirled around him, her finger dragging down between his shoulders. “Just repeat the chain, there. There. Good, good. Perhaps I have underestimated you. You are a quick study. You are what she wished, wherever you stole the pieces from. I want to hate you, but you are the perfect man, aren’t you? Demure, with just enough bite to be fun. You could give a girl other ideas in her plans.”

Laset stepped away. Taloe and Kiannae still glared at her. She turned with an amused huff, and strode back around the table, with fewer dramatics. There swirled into her chair, and looked across their company.

Taloe looked bewildered. He ran his finger along the back of his own neck, and swallowed. With a breath he shifted into mist, and formed in the center seat.

Kiannae looked like a great weight had been taken from her shoulders, at once as though a new worry settled. She stepped forward, pulled out the chair, and sat beside him, as the others all fell in as they were. It was a large table indeed, but even so tight seating. Only a small gap left between the sides as arranged. The hosts were most assuredly outnumbered, but looked far more confident.

Servers walked into the hall just then. They were a strange sight. Six in all, each tall and lanky, with slow feminine curves that left no doubt they were female. They made Kiannae’s height seem a bit middling. Their slit eyes unnerving to those not familiar with half of such effect in the mirror. Fur adorned ears with black tufts on the end settled it.

“They’re Sylvan,” Kiannae said with amazement. “Though taller than any I’ve ever met.”

Each held two trays. Every other one laden with carafes of wine. They circled around the table, placing first the drinks, or covered tray between. All fine polished silver, from the look of them.

“Oh, more or less,” Rihonae admitted. “They are bread, as they prefer to be. Work out the odd unkin trait, usually from the wrong father.” She hesitated. “The result of breeding oft much less to their liking. Such are sold off, or freed, depending. It helps keep the whole affair stay legal, as it were.”

Extra trays were set before all but Taloe, who had one of the wine trays set in front of him instead.

“Sell!?” Katrisha demanded, almost standing up.

Lids were all lifted at once, and the servers stepped back, unmoved by the conversation’s tone.

Rihonae held up her hand. “Calm yourself, these are my servants. Free women, in practice, even if I own them by Osyraen law. I am presently a bit outside that law. Paid when possible, loyal regardless.”

“Slavery is against the treaty,” Kiannae said with cold reserve. She settled back herself into her seat.

“Rightly so,” Rihonae agreed. “Alas, what the Council, or the men of Osyrae consider human, is sometimes suspect. They did not, after all, emancipate the cattle.” She did not look pleased by her own words, and shook her head. “Still, you breed a people to a role for… however many generations, since we stole a small piece of their great nation. Though some owe blood to fresh exiles in the mix, who fled their own civil war.” She looked very decidedly to the three Ashtons. “They have asked to remain with me. Servants, to a worthy Queen. I do not deny them this, but they will be, well-kept, servants. I would ask them to join, but the table is tight enough. Go girls, enjoy yourselves until it is time for a second course.”

“They’re still your slaves,” Wren challenged. “Just accustomed to it.”

“No,” Etore interrupted, “to a woman such as her… vassal and slave are just a very thin distinction. One hung upon how much she thinks they get out of it. They after all, want her. Want to make her happy. Owe her, because she has given them this place at her side. That their lives, are somehow better for her. Perhaps they are, if only that her missuses, would not so ill breed them.”

Rihonae’s cheek twitched. “Do I deny, that half of them have known my touch. That I have healed the scars left by men. Taught them the natures of their strengths, and weakness. You never complained, though I could tell you wished to. Problem was, you could not decide, which you wished to complain of, my attention, or inattention.”

“By design,” Etore said, grabbed a carafe of wine, and poured. If her hand shook a bit with fury, or something else, was impossible to say.

Soup sat before all in attendance, except Taloe. Even Laset had a bowl. The boy at Mayari’s side grabbed some bread, twirled his knife between small fingers. He buttered it with a deftness that belied his need to have reached, or seeming age.

“No,” Rihonae said. “I much prefer you to like, and care for me. I gave you all I could, and you enjoyed the luxuries of that care. My gifts. That you weren’t satisfied I understood, but never the hate. You seemed to nurse it with such adoration.”

“Have you seen how you treat people?” Etore demanded. It was almost a plea, so much as snide condemnation.

Rihonae sighed ever so lightly, and relaxed in her chair. “About three or four times better than the world has treated them. Good and evil, given intentions can be meaningless, must come down to being better than that world. Not a high bar to meet, I admit, but then, that is cynical. Not all of you, I’m sure are, so let me offer this. Working with what you have, to leave a better world than when you began, day by day. Can you define for me, good, another way?”

“You make them whores,” Etore said, fuming with defiance.

“I don’t make whores, girl. I make courtesans. I show people how to be strong, in a world that will only accept them to bow. I show them the only reason a pen is ever mightier than a sword, is the soft hand that holds it. That when all else fails, lips, might speak far more plainly than words ever can.”

“Is that what you showed me?” Etore asked.

“I think so,” Rihonae answered. “You turned out alright, for a wanted fugitive. An enemy of the crown, by birth, in a capitol you called home. A fool idealist, who could never keep herself from getting involved when she shouldn’t. However much you were good at finding others to blame, or reasons to do as you pleased. I loved that about you. You still knew how to get what you wanted, I approve of your choice. One should always keep a god, close at hand. They can prove ever useful.”

Laset smiled. “You did alright without me. Other, than winding up in my embrace. Fleeing upon a merchant vessel, that had the poor fortune to bumble into pirates. She decided to take her chances with the deeps, than being sold out. What with how she obsess over the story of her heritage, I suppose one cannot be blamed.”

“What is that heritage?” Katrisha asked.

“Do you know the story of Redmane?” Rihonae asked.

“I do,” Ambrush spoke up.

“Do, tell us, Captain,” Rihonae implored lightly. Sund looked displeased, but did not argue with the address.

“She was the eldest daughter of Osir, the second,” Ambrush answered the challenge. “Eldest child, altogether as it were. Stronger, faster, smarter than any of her brothers, so they say. Some weeks before her younger brother was announced as the heir, she took seven ships from the Royal Navy. Days, before the treaty of Avrale was to be signed, and the war ended.”

“Remarkable she managed that, don’t you think?” Rihonae asked. “Seven ships, that’s a lot to just walk, or sail off with.”

“The story of Osyrae, was always she went rogue,” Ambrush answered. “That she did not accept, that her brother would be King. That her people — her pirates — were loyalists to her claim, enemies of the crown. A crown, that never went all that far out of the way to bother them. Whatever fool shows they put on to gain. A king that showed no compunction, of squashing any other rival, except for her, the Dread Redmane.”

“Makes a good story, inherent denials and all,” Rihonae agreed. “Of course, the implication is wrong, of exactly who betrayed who, to what ends.”

“Do tell,” Ambrush pressed.

“I mostly know it to be true, that it was not her failure to accept who would hold the throne. Rather, that such throne, would fall in complacency, with the Empire, as a chain around her neck. That it was in her view, Osyrae’s right, to retake what she lost. That she was to be Queen. Chosen by her father, for only a fool would not have.”

“A bold claim,” Kiannae obliged.

“It was in part, because a woman, would set a softer tone in the eyes of the world,” Rihonae frowned. “A move to placate a new peace, as they considered their options. That perhaps the unwed Crown Princess, could woo a son of the Emperor. She was beautiful after all, and headstrong enough to bend any man to her will. Irony, such irony. She called her father weak, and took her seven ships, gold and gems enough to make her way, and begin her conquest. Fool dreamed, to take the world. Started with one neutral isle, here. The Empire retreated, the peace, held. Even with the pirates that plagued their waters. Do you know how the story ends?”

“Men, being men,” Ambrush answered, and looked a bit peaked.

“That could almost say it,” Rihonae answered with a tremble in her voice. “Almost, but you are sparing men, to hear a word they hate so much or more than any woman ever will, and we do hate it. Because while it is by majority inflicted up on us, they know what men are. The ones to perpetrate the most of this evil.”

All were silent, and resumed.

“Osyrae would not rein her in, but her brother looked the other way, as they took her. Took her ships. Killed her people, and took, her. That’s what the history books always record. Such polite words, for such crimes. Rape, by dozens of men. If such a meager word could suffice. Do you know, how much mage-iron they had to cut, skewer, and bind her with? A woman that powerful, and proud, that they could use her body for their sick revenge?” Rihonae’s face was a mask of rage.

Only one would not look down from her gaze, Etore. “Quite a lot I imagine, bout as much as your uncle had to be bound in, to keep him from butchering people.”

“Your uncle too,” Rihonae said with disgust on her face. “Yes, the Dread Redmane, earned the fear she had. Even death. She lived by war, and so prophets say, should she have died. Let us not deny that there are fates worse, that none deserve. Better to put a rabid wolf down, than let it be a plague, you cannot contain.”

Kiannae remembered something, and looked disturbed.

“It is not my story that has moved you,” Rihonae pressed. “What troubles you, girl?”

“None of your business,” Kiannae dismissed it, and looked to her plate.

“We are all family here,” Rihonae offered in a consoling tone. “Some more distant than others. The line of Avrale, and Osyrae are joined. It was a daughter of Osir that brought the red hair to your land. It was a nice by marriage, to your great grandfather, who wed good Heron.”

Kiannae grimaced. “It’s… I never considered that the wolf might be rabid.”

“What?” Katrisha asked.

“Lunka, and Shadow’s mother,” Kiannae said. “She was so vicious, so unlike her children, and somehow, now I know. She was rabid. I’ve always felt guilt for it, held it against Zale, that he killed her. Just, like I put down the bear, but… it was beyond saving… and she wasn’t showing clear signs.”

“You didn’t know?” Laset interrupted. “You’ve truly hidden that much from yourself? Yes, she was rabid. Bit you badly, before you finally relented to kill her, or your boy, Zale you say, did the deed, to spare you. Oh, how sick you got, or so I’m told. She got it, fighting that dire bear you killed. Protecting her young. Followed you at first, seeking your help, but it was too late.”

“The pups were fine,” Kiannae protested. “They never…”

“Immunity perhaps. A dire mother’s womb can impart strange miracles. She might not have been so far gone, and forced you to kill her, before she spread it to her young. Before it took her.”

“You are saying she knew?” Kiannae demanded.

“The very gifted, may know their fate. Yes?” Laset asked. “After all, it was Estae’s plan, that she must die, but you could not end her, until she forced your hand. The boy, for all his flaws, spared you again. The pain of saving her. That woman, her turned lover, spared you, the pain of baring her as a daughter. A woman you loved, forever beyond, your affections.”

Kiannae stared crying, however stern a face she tried to hold.

“Please, do take care not to cry in the soup.” Mayari chided. “The fish makes it salty enough already.” She took a narrow loaf of bread from the tray between her and Rihonae, and swirled it.

“We all have to make choices,” Rihonae said. “Sometimes, they are hard. Sometimes, we accept evils, even at our own hands, because we cannot fight them all.”

“That’s him talking,” Katrisha said, eyeing her sister’s attempt to reign in her sorrow. “Cadith.”

“We do not ignore wisdom, to spite the lips that spoke it,” Rihonae answered. “I have more reason for spite than most.” Her voice took on a haunted tone.

“What reason, do you have to spite him?” Etore pressed. “He’s been imprisoned most of your life.”

“Not quite most,” Rihonae stressed. “I am older than I look. He told me, he’d stop, if I bore him an heir. I refused, until one day, they locked him in the darkest dungeon. You can put whatever ever word you like on it… What he did. The only cruelty, I could have in return… was he didn’t want anything but power from me. So I used him, I learned to use men. Won’t say, I regret they didn’t put him out of his misery, but for that he is free again. You cannot kill them all, there are too many monsters, not to become them, slaying them. So you must choose, the ones that can be tamed, and you must end. I assure you, wisdom, was for him to end. For even the lot of you, could not do the deed.”

Etore looked down.

“Don’t be surprised girl,” Rihonae said, and took some bread. “The road behind, may bear a great resemblance to that ahead. I learned to want the power he might give me, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction, of an heir. My fury when one took root, has all but insured I’ll never bear any child. It was that, that stopped him, not mage-iron. So here you see, where I might name a successor, who has her own claim. I might even, choose, to remain in the shadows where we both belong. I’ll keep a place warm for you, where others, do not deign to look.”

“Why lurk in the shadows?” Katrisha asked. She looked from Etore’s stricken expression, to the cold fire in Rihonae’s eyes.

“Why do we have safes and banks, guards and armies, keeps and castles? There will always be, those who must play arbiter between the squabbling masses. Who will be cared for, that we remain impartial. There will always be wolves, nipping at the door, unless we put them down, or tame them. All the world is out for a queen, those who do not want to destroy her, want to use her. I prefer, to be loved, and wanted.”

“Worshiped?” Katrisha challenged, but it was thin. The woman’s candor had left her uneasy to malign her, no matter the tone, or trappings she maintained.

“Those worthy, are worth worshiping back. Given, my best, that they are rewarded. There must be an order to the world, for if we do not provide it, ones far less scrupulous will. Men, more oft than not, and the wants of men, are all the more easily, brutish.”

“Yet how do we know you are any better?” Kiannae pressed. “We’ve seen this song and dance before. Women, who seek the play the game of those who once shackled them.”

“I’ve never killed my own brother, nor sacrificed him to the wolves, which ever did the deed,” Rihonae answered. “Oh, that varies. Who you owe vengeance dear Etore, need yet be determined. Though I will not fault you, to end Vharen just as well. He’s done it before, he’s unstable. Committed to the ideas the monster put in his head. I worry what he did to him, given everything.”

“Let us take good Princess Eudora’s mirror in the east,” Mayari interrupted in a lingering silence.

“What of her?” Etore narrowed her eyes at the dragonborn, instead of the insinuations of Rihonae.

“Long ago, she surely found the man who hurt her, and likely killed him, or took the parts he hurt her with. Hard to say, but she is not the one to judge in this. Are you any less vengeful?”

“No,” Etore answered.

“Do you really want to hurt our good Rio?”

Etore looked to her bowl.

“You fear her. You fear the power she has over you, but she never hurt you. Not in this, or any other. She failed you, she failed herself, and those you might both have loved. What part of her, would you take as revenge? All of her? Her life? Deep down, do you just wish she’d chosen you?”

“I wish she’d left me out of it,” Etore said with dwindling fire, swirling her wine. “I wish she’d left me be.” She drank.

“Who spied on whom?” Rihonae asked. “Who protected whom, from the schemes that roil around the other by birthright. Oh, I would have gladly taken your protection, but you were not even born when I needed it. I could have sent you away, kept you safe, for a little while. Yet if you were not made strong, how would you survive what is to come?”

“What is to come, is unknowable,” Mayari offered. “There is what was, and what seems the path ahead. Yet, there is no telling the turns we might take, or who might stand around the bend. All of you, arrive here eventually. Every one, has left. Every one, has stayed.”

“Eat, before it grows cold,” Rihonae implored, and took up her spoon. “You would not wish to show disrespect to my girl’s hard work, or do you fear the food as much as the water?”

“Do you eat?” Taloe asked glancing to Laset.

“I do not need to, but dear Rio does insist I partake of the pleasures I can know.” Laset ran her finger along the top of her soup, and put it to her lips. A pleased smile crossed her clear lips. “You know, there is something special, to food prepared by Sylvan hands.”

“When they love the ones they serve,” Rihonae added. “There is a spite I have tasted in some dishes, prepared for lords back home.”

“You sure it wasn’t poison?” Mayari asked, and it was not clear if she teased.

“Yes, and no,” Rihonae shook her head. “I’ve asked my dear girl, after I bought her from that lord. Oh, the gratitude she showed, when she learned what life would be in my house. She told me, what I tasted was a drop of her blood, cursed with all her hate. Would not affect anyone but the man she wished to suffer, and to him taste sweet, even as it shaved years off his life. I paid, a pretty pence for her, oh but worth every sov, and hour to heal her sweet heart.”

The others tentatively considered their food. Etore poured herself more wine. “Trained her, did you?” She drank sharply.

“Head to toe,” Rihonae said, and raised her own glass. “Sylvans, take so much better to it. All that gift in them, and all that animal. They are so very alive, such passions for life. Oh, but to watch Laset work, ’tis nearly more lovely than to be the one worked upon. Though why choose? Ever so skilled, this darling creature.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Etore said. “Much as she has threatened to show me, or you have offered me to her. Unless you were planning to do with me, as was done with Redmane.”

Rihonae sat up a bit straighter, her face lined with fury.

Laset held up her hand. “I threatened, I admit. I said what would stay your hand, and what I would try, before resorting to your death. Yet do not compare…”

“What is done by force, however gentle?” Etore interrupted. “How velvet the glove of women conquerors. I’ve seen enough, of the ways of men, to know they use our bodies to subdue us, as much, as for any want of their own. This, is why they are so cruel. These games of power, are about power. Why a father might scar a daughter, for what need has he, of insuring her mate’s progeny. She, is already his seed.”

Both Rihonae and Laset glanced away.

“Rightly said,” Mayari replied with casual ascent. “It is about power, and how we wield it. It is about finding a gentler course to correct a broken world. To lay low, those who would take, and take, until there is nothing left for some. I could be a dragon. I could be more powerful than I am. I would not fail, but I have chosen to walk, as a woman. To remain small, to work in the shadows, and not the light. For men of power, and pride, think nothing of it. May be bent, to kinder course, if we can restrain their enemies, other ways. Ignorant, that it is them, we truly restrain.”

Katrisha tapped out a rhythm on her spoon, gently stirring her soup, until the world went gray. It was strange, the shadows that loomed behind Mayari. More subtle, and serpentine, than the form that had seen puppet Selene.

«Clever, is the child of moonlight.» It echoed sweetly from nowhere in particular. «Cold, a warm heart, that has seen the bitter truth of winter.»

Mayari blinked. “Was it the prophecy?” she asked. Color returned to her form. That was new.

“Yes,” Katrisha answered. “You said, you could be a dragon, but you already are. You lied.”

Mayari smiled. “You should be wary, I admit. I have stared into the shadows, peered beyond the Storm, longer than you have lived. Even to add together all your lives, I have been here. I have always been here. Through Kings of the world, and ageless Empresses. Through the rise of the consumer of worlds, and the fall of Avatars. I have watched this world torn apart by fools. I will lie, for I must. I have lied, but I speak the truth in this. You will know, this is true. My vote, was cast with you, Child of the Storm.”

Katrisha winced. She knew to her bones, that the vote was cast. She could see shadows standing around her. Three cast their vote for her, and three against, and she decided the fate of the world. Though what was that fate. She could not see, only a ring of light. It was the first time she had ever glimpsed it.

“What do you want?” Katrisha demanded, as the world faded more around. A long trailing shadow grew more distinct behind the other woman. A scintillating thing that moved in impossible ways, indifferent to gravity, walls, and seemingly only beholden to the idea of form.

“In truth, this useless dinner to be over. Nothing, will be accomplished here at this table. It never was, and never will be. The squabbling of families over dinner, is a pleasantry, that rarely gains ground. You do not trust me. Your sister is clever, and not far behind in realizing a presumed warning. The mortal, fears for his fallen blood. He does not understand has risen. The little bird, too noble to consider what must be. The assassin, too biter from this worlds failures. The paladin, too faithful, to an enemies promises. The new bloomed flower… My only hope, should you prove too stubborn to convince.”

“So, convince me,” Katrisha said with a heavy heart.

“We cannot hang on this moment long enough. Go about this fool charade, and meet me beneath the sun, at midnight.”

The world returned to color. Katrisha and Mayari stared at one another. Etore, gave them each a suspicious glance.

“Why don’t we get to the proposal you all wish to make,” Katrisha spoke up, and took a spoonful of her soup.

“The Age of Queens,” Rihonae answered. “Until we may find something better.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhast 6th, 1 S.R.

Guards had seen her leave. None had stopped Katrisha from walking free, or even into the chamber where an orrery hung. Some had even looked away in a very pointed manner. She walked down the steps, and looked around. The only notable sun to be found in the sky at midnight, hung above. More distant stars, a useless alternative that gave her nothing to go on. The tick was incessant.

There was no sign of Mayari. She gripped her staff, and considered the wisdom of well near anything. Did she trust prophecy, and doubt the dragonborn? Did she trust the dragonborn, that she would lie? The irony abounded. To fear for her schemes however, was the warning. She had refreshed her memory from a copy of the book they carried. It was phrased differently than she recalled. Kiannae had given her a displeased look for delving into the cursed old thing, and Katrisha had not told her what she was up to.

The tick was annoying, more so, when it skipped the off beat.

“Seven,” she heard Mayari say from the shadows somewhere. “Six,” she added on the short. “Seven,” on the long. “Six,” again on the short. “Five. Six. Five. Eight.”

Katrisha settled on the direction the voice came from, and stared up into the dark. The voice was right. She felt it in her bones. The pause was ever so slightly longer. She’d missed it, in the gap. It had been lost in the strangeness of the pause.

Mayari strode down the stairs with confidence, and a smug smile. “Do you want me to tell you how long it took me to notice? It might make you feel better.”

“Could I trust your answer?”

Mayari laughed. “In this lifetime alone, it took me two hundred years. I’ve lived more lives than you. You always noticed, but you never understood.”

“Understood what?” Katrisha demanded, wary, to kept to the other side of the throne.

“It’s all just numbers. It’s all just devices, and means to keep a world ticking, along to a rhythm. Predicable, reliable. Clockwork, counts out a human idea of time. A sun tracker, tells you when it really is… mostly. The flaw is then in you, to read an analogue to digits, or fractions. Helio, most forget, got her name in pre-ascension lands. A namesake for the highest daughter of the Sun. Names vary, between worlds, and nations. We choose one, to make life simple, but life is not simple.”

“Do you know who built this place?” Katrisha asked.

“A man with silver eyes, and a predilection for his own sort,” Mayari answered. “A King of the World, who chose his true love’s wife, as heir, for what such could weary loins produce, that lay with no lass. However many tried.”

“Laurel?” Katrisha asked, unnerved.

“Is that his name, this time?” Mayari asked, a thoughtful finger to the corner of smiling lips. “The one adorned for his achievements? Resting upon them.” She laughed again. “He saw his way clear of our fleet. Chasing some story already told. All the seers are blind. An old fool, told him to open his eyes, and he closed them instead. He was already seeing the world, as it is. Unpredictable, chaotic, born of entropy and powers of the Storm. Warring, to no end, until there will be nothing left, for any. I could have showed him, I could have born him an heir.”

“Are you a Grey? Is that bloodline in yours, somehow, dragon?”

“No, child. I am a mirror, who saw the folly of the one who cast a reflection.” She stepped closer, and ran her fingers along the back of the throne.

Katrisha, as casually as one could, stepped around, keeping the chair between them. “You’re older than him, by centuries.”

“Am I older than Vael? Truly? That would be impressive. Older than the first man. Still, younger than the old bird. Perhaps I’m her, or was it him? Oh Rhan, what parts has one who’s touched the Sun… A hollow thing, full of fire. No seed could take root, but such seeds she might sow. Eggs of wisdom in branches stay, and glow like the sun, in mothers boughs so far above. Faun, you call them, but they were dryads first, or after. They heard the song, but only one, could sing along. Was that the beginning, or the end. The praise of birth, or a dirge in death. There is a path that leads here, and back, cross a bridge that threatens to burn.”

“What do you mean to imply,” Katrisha pressed cautious to put stock in the suggestion.

“We are not our shadows, but we cast them. Lest it was a god, who held up the Sun, when a daughter shirked it, that cast a man at the end of time, to catch what would fall? Though did the daughter let go, or did he take it? Did he force it upon her, or deny her divinity? As he had his mate. Oh poor Laeune, who watched her man tear himself in two. Could not love the wretched thing, that slew his own animal, and yet her shadow, came to heal him. The short path is sometimes around, the longer back.”

“The longer?” Katrisha pressed.

“Forever forward, forever on. Beyond a parabolic orbit, or the wild dance around one little sun. It is all numbers, this frenetic folly, so close as you can get it, but never quite. So close as you can calculate, but too much, is not a number, it’s an uneven line in the sand. A boundary, once crossed, plain, and true, that you cannot go back.”

“Is that what I’ve done?”

“No. We’ve gone back. Again, and again, and again. You’ve been at this so long, as any god. They all think you died. They all think your empty heart, one that no longer beat, was the end. They scramble, and clamor over one another to take what they think you lost, but I hear your heart beat. In the world itself, you marvelous cheat.”

Katrisha could feel it, each doubled stroke, long short, long short, long short, long long. She trembled as it matched.

“This isn’t now,” Mayari said, “and yet it is. You’re still trying to let go. You’re still trying to believe, what you chose, and what you convinced us of.”

“What do you want?” Katrisha demanded.

“What I was promised. The bargain I made. A world free of this endless revisionist folly. One free at last, to grow beyond cycles of futile rebirth. You cannot fix the past, however much you try. No path leads to the same flawed moment, that is not flawed.”

“You’re her, aren’t you?”

“Estae, you mean?” Mayari shook her head. “No. I’ve seen her folly, and I choose my own. I am closer to a shadow of the other sister. Seen in her precious mirror. You all quibble about the morality of this game, but you are the one who made it a game. A game, where we must all be hurt, again, and again. A rough sport, but all heals in time, except the world.”

Mayari strode, and Katrisha kept her distance.

“Laset, she has shown it can be done. That your work is sound. Death is not the end, so let us end, this timeless suffering. Let us bring the fire, that at last will cleanse these wars. Subject the masters, to our more gentle hand. Let the men, wail, and cry, and gnash their teeth for they have lost, and you, have won. They will not go quietly, but you have won, you have held it till the end, and count it if you will. Seven, seven times, and seven times. One more, this is the last. This is the end, and begging.”

Mayari stepped around the throne, and Katrisha did not retreat. She put her hand on Katrisha’s cheek, and her eyes were like a hall of mirrors she could become lost in. The dragon born leaned closer, her lips ruby in a world gone gray.

“Have you counted them out?” Mayari asked close, warm, and inviting. She felt soft, and practiced, refined, and elegant. She felt like no choice had ever been more right. Even the wry, knowing smile of power, and brinksmanship, promised she was the right choice.

“Forty-eight,” Katrisha said uncertain, but knowing the meaning of the question. “As I count, but it’s only just a number, isn’t it?”

“Who was she, this time? Forty-nine,” Mayari clarified.

“What?” Katrisha demanded. “I just said…”

“Some things are unpredictable, but your heart is not, girl. I think it’s self sabotage. I believe, you are trying to save all these people you love, from yourself. You’re right, it’s just numbers, and you count, as you always do, and you always forget, one.”

Katrisha swallowed.

“Do you need me to say it?” Mayari tilted her head. “The first one whose hands explored. The first who touched parts she would admit she did not know the name of, but for a joke, you finally got. What know we, of the parts of trees, or the role of bees.”

“Me,” Katrisha answered, but worried deeply for Mayari’s precise words. It showed on her face her suspicions, and doubts. The one that never was, that she also did not count, but loved.

Mayari let go, and stepped away. “Don’t worry. Not all is lost. It’s all just a game, you are playing with yourself. The only opponent you must defeat, your own regret. Your own left hand, that does not know what the right is doing. The numbers, are just messages, unless you cling to the folly they mean something more. This one, means you must let go. That skipped beat, that one extra. A threshold, beyond which lies, escape.”

“Escape?”

“As prosaic as obtuse, as mundane as velocity, and trajectory, with one clear path.”

“Beyond a hyperbolic orbit… velocity… escape velocity?” Katrisha demanded her eyes going wide as it made sense.

“Yes, that’s it. One last ‘catch,’ and on into the void between the stars. You’ve been building to it for eons, while they all thought it was up for grabs. Your fumbling, your humanity… Entirely real, except that you are stuck in a rut so deep, you can’t see out, and nor can anyone else. Except, those who saw you do it. Who made the deal, or still rail against it. The best feint, is one you’ve already followed through on, countless times, until you make your real move.”

“Then why did I have to forget?”

Mayari hummed, and ran her fingers along the back of the throne. A side eyed smiling glance was withering. “I don’t think you did. I think you wanted to. I think you wanted what was born of all this to be… humble. Human, such as you are, or could ever be. To start again, without these old ugly roots. Such stories at dinner, not fit for eating. I’ve lived amongst them long enough, I’ve grown to cherish most follies, but not all. A great wyrm, nibbling on the roots of the world tree.” A bewitching grin promised absolutely everything one might want, good and ill.

“Wyrm…” Katrisha furrowed her brow, searching her memory. A distraction her from the effect of the creature. She clung to implication, and wedged herself free of a power so casually exerted. Effortless, it seemed she could make Katrisha question all good sense.

The dragonborn seemed to simply wait for her to put it together.

“Thebian mythology, right? Their dragons, in the oldest tales were the wyrms. The slithering things of the dark deeps, that turned stone to soil, until the world was flat. Rose up from the depths, to nibble on foundations of castles, and their bite sized corner stones. At war with the world tree, for it was too tall.”

“Clearly you haven’t forgotten everything.” Mayari laughed amiably, and shook her head.

“Not a reassuring tale to draw upon.” Katrisha narrowed her gaze. “You pretend to indifference, yet you want to be caught, don’t you? You want passage on this voyage you say is to come.”

“I’ve been a noble without a crown, an heir denied for eons. As my dear Rihonae might say, I’ve grown used to the dark. I would take it or leave it. To stand amongst the gods of a world again, or whatever lies beyond. When the Sun sets, old things may play.”

“Yet I must trust, your plan is not to subvert the whole, and begin again,” Katrisha challenged.

“A thing you cannot do. A thing I cannot convince you of, but let me try my one last pinnacle in the hole. You must trust, just as much, to leave me here. I do mean it, I will take, or leave divinity. Because, I can still make a bid for other things. I promise though, I would make forever… interesting.”

Mayari turned, and strode up the steps, stopped, and glanced into the shadows. “Hello.”

There was a glint in the dark.

“Strike me down, and you’ll never know, how long I knew you were there.”

“Do you mean to imply I could?” Etore demanded, stepping out.

“Perhaps, and I’ll be fair, the answer is not one you’ll like.”

“Try me,” Etore challenged, and with a sharp ring shoved the sword back in.

Mayari smirked, and walked up the stairs without answering. She looked back at the arch though. “Before she even asked you to.”

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