Chapter 26

More charitable men dare claim,
preach and plead such old refrain,

look up when nights be darkest,
there to find the break of dawn,
yet what evening sun so heralds,
but inky shadow’s cold return,

cast weary eyes there about,
to those closest err at hand,
pray these might yet wake,
fear, who the night will take.

– Ewald of Rothan, circa 200 B.E.

Falling Hours

Estate 10th, 650 E.R.

To the right and left of the King and Queen sat twins who still bore much the same face, even if time had taken most other resemblance.  The banquet was laid out before those gathered.  It was an impromptu feast, held in honor of the return of Kiannae, and greatly to her embarrassment.  Her two fellow druids sat at the far end of the hall, and avoided the curiosity of court members as best they could.  Which was not all that well.  Much as Landri’s till then unknown skills at courtly dialogue tried to shut the pestering down.

Lady Catherine provided something of a buffer for Landri on one side, by way of alleviating her own curiosity.  Her pacing frustrated others nearby, who needed show her difference.  Still there was not as much to protect the younger druid from Marian’s inquiries.  At length almost everything dignified was pried from the two of druidic life.  A few details less dignified, offered in the hopes of quieting Marien’s questions.  It didn’t work.

As servants brought out bottles of wine Katrisha caught sight of Maeren, and smiled at her.  She had not heard she was been moved to the serving staff.  Seemed like something she would have mentioned, if she knew it was happening.

Maeren smiled slightly as well, and the whole exchange was lost on most.  Kiannae however, perked a brow at her twin.  The Court Mage, shrugged and smiled in a manner somewhere between nervous and smug.  It was such an odd mix of feelings.  Her sister, the Court Mage.  With silver hair.  At the left hand of the King, and her at the right of the Queen.  It had happened, maybe once, at some breakfast the royal children had been fast or slow to.  Her sister being a brat about the fact she was in love with multiple women.  It was a very odd mixture of feelings.

Catherine turned with a sharp glare to Maeren as she reached that end of the table.  “Since when are you a server?” she demanded, in a dramatic deviation from normal decorum.

“It was a.. an order, from a prince,” she said nervously.  “Could not tell you which, for that was all I was…told, Miss.”  She looked a bit bothered by that.  “I’d been training incase I was needed,” she added with a nervous jump, “on and off.  I know what to do.  Miss.”

“I see,” Catherine said.  It did not seem an answer that should have satisfied, or flummoxed her so.  Attacking the appointment did not seem unreasonable to many.  Most around her expected she would, having already been so brash.  No one expected her to leave it at that.  Maeren scurried on when it was clear her attention was no longer required.

When the last of the drinks were poured Mercu stood, raised his goblet high, and proclaimed in his best speaking voice, “To all we thought lost, not to return.  May we always hold hope, that as our dear Kiannae, they find their way home.”  There was a clinking of metal, and all drank to the toast.

“To these fine druids,” the King declared, looking to the far end of the table.  “Who have taken in a stray child, and treated her as their own.” He held out his drink, and another clatter of metal rolled down the length of table  “Let us eat!” he declared, and sat down.

Ten minutes into the meal the Queen began to look unwell.  Kiannae noticed first, and watched her with great concern as she tried to hide it.  Her whole aura was erratic, a strange sight to observe.  As the Queen tried to excuse herself from the table Katrisha rushed to her side, and caught her before she could fall.  Kiannae was only a step behind, and the King turned at the sudden commotion.

“What is wrong?” the King demanded.

Katrisha, and Kiannae both worked frantically, trying to find the cause of the Queen’s distress, even as she clutched at her chest.  Others moved to circle around them.  Two druids pushed through the crowd, but found themselves at sword point.

“I have it,” Katrisha said holding her hand over the Queen’s heart.  “Her heart is failing,” she said trying to steady it, and found herself responsible for every beat.  “Find a proper healer,” she growled as the Queen stopped breathing.  She struggled to take over that as well, forcing the muscles to expand and contract.  She barely had a clue what she was doing.  It was all guesswork, forcing organs to function as best she understood they should.  Some other force fighting her every move.  She used her own body for a template, which seemed to barely be working.  It was so complex, and confusing.  No, something else was wrong.

Katrisha was too focused to look at the sound of a thud behind her.  She was aware of it, but could bear no interruption if she was to keep the Queen alive.  She felt her own heart flutter.  She forced it to keep beating, forced her lungs to keep working, closed her eyes and focused with all her might.  She could tell how much harm she was doing, and yet how utterly it would all just stop if she relented.  It burned.  She knew on a level what was happening, but there was not enough left of her attention to dwell on it.  The same rhythm was all she could manage, for both of them.

‘Just a little longer, we’ve come this far.’  Echoed in the back of her mind as she worked.  Tears streamed down her face.  ‘So close.’  She didn’t even have the slightest will left to question the thought, just agony and exhaustion threatening to exceed will.

The distant sound of Kiannae’s voice penetrated the fog that clouded Katrisha’s mind.  “Let them help!” she heard her sister yell, and then there was only the beating of two hearts that wished to stop.  The in and out of breaths far too shallow.  She found her mind spiraling down, losing the wider picture.  She looked up form below trying to fight something horribly simple in its ruthless efficiency.  It was so easy to break something complex.  So hard to fix it.  It kept breaking.  It broke any pattern that tried to stop it.  Little crackles of energy doing damage.  Undoing that damage.  Making it work again.  Katrisha could not have been sure of the passage of time.  Only that it ran out.  She did not even feel herself hit the floor.                                

A shopkeeper half dressed in night clothes fiddled with the latches on his shop door, even as another insistent pounding made him grit his teeth.  “I’m working on it,” he protested.  It was well past closing, and he was beyond unamused to have been dragged from his wife’s warm embrace.

He released the last latch, and only a heavy chain still served as meager protection, should his uninvited guests mean him harm.  Three men stood in the moonlight beyond his door, and as one held a lamp up he recognized two royal guards, and Mercu.

“It’s a bit late to be getting paints,” he joked between nerves and anger.

“There has been an incident, Arahm,” Mercu said, and held up the goblet clenched in his hand.

Arahm looked confused for a moment, and then read the implication.  He fumbled as he undid the chain, and beckoned the men to enter.  Mercu held up his hand, and the two guards fell in beside the door as he entered the apothecary.

“Who?” Arahm said closing the door, and reached out his hand for the goblet, trembling.  “The symptoms?”

Mercu relinquished it, and followed as Arahm moved to his work bench.  “The King, Queen, and…Court Mage,” he said struggling.  “Their hearts and lungs, according to Kiannae, and the druids helping them.”

“Do they still live?” Arahm asked his eyes narrow.

“For the moment,” Mercu swallowed.  “Where it not for Kiannae’s return, or her new companions…”

Arahm sniffed the goblet cautiously, but smelled nothing amiss.  “Who would do such a thing,” he muttered to himself more than asked, looking over the shelves of bottles.  “Those poor girls,” he said, his finger perched on a bottle, and moved on, pulling down several others.  “Heart and lungs,” he muttered to himself.

He poured just a drop of the liquid from the goblet into each of several shallow bowls.  Took a dropper from each of the bottles laid before him, and placed a single drop with the wine in each cup.  He frowned more deeply with every drop.  He flipped through a thick book, pulled down two more bottles, and tried them each as well.  Still he seemed wholly dissatisfied, and began scratching his head feverishly.

A horrified look overtook Arahm’s face, and he bolted past Mercu across his shop to a locked cabinet.  He fussed with his keys, and opened the lock.  Various strange and exotic things could be seen amidst more bottles like those of the main workbench.  Arahm rushed back, a tiny vial with silver liquid clutched in his hand.  He removed the cork, plucked a pin from his table, and retrieve only the tiniest drop.  Mercu watched as Arahm did some subtle magic, a thing he had rarely seen the mildly gifted man do.  He placed the pin to one of the bowls with caution.  The bowl shook slightly.  Then a sudden burst of flame and crackling energy erupted, sending it clattering across the table.

“No, no, no, no,” he said shaking his hand as though stung.  “This cannot be.  Who would…who even could…”

“What?” Mercu yelled, his worry getting the better of what demeanor he had managed to that point.

“It’s no poison,” Arahm said recoiling at Mercu’s outburst.  “Not in a conventional sense at least.  This was done with mage blood, and with the strength of that reaction, I suspect the very blood of one you say has been targeted.”

“Who would know how to do such a thing?” Mercu demanded.

“I don’t know,” Arahm said, an ill almost hopeless expression overtaking his face. “Not many.  Mage blood is normally far too rare to use so…horribly.  There are so many poisons that will do the job.  The only advantage I could imagine would be near undetectability, to write it if off easily as natural causes.  If I didn’t have so much in stock…

“Yet under the circumstances…” Mercu pressed, white at the prospects that unfurled before him.

“This was not meant to be subtle,” Arahm said dierly.  “No simple assassination attempt.  This is a play against her specifically.  Using her own…  This is someone trying to sow doubt, and discord.  I can’t even say where it has all gone to.  I resold most of what she traded with me to passing caravans.  Ones leaving in every direction.  This would only take a few drops.  There are hundreds of times that on the local market.”

“Is there a cure at least?” Mercu demanded, trying to snap the man back to his own speciality, and away from the farther reaching consequences.  Those were his to deal with.

“No, no cure,” Arahm said with a grim expression.  “I didn’t even think of this directly.  It’s barely a footnote in an old book on poison cures.  A warning on a rare cureall made with mage blood.  One that would bypass any chemical interaction, when a poison is indeterminate.  The closest thing to a cure is what I just put in that bowl.  That…energetic reaction would not be good to have happen inside a heart, to say the least.”

“Oh,” Mercu said.

Arahm shook his head.  “The effects should wain with time.  Days, maybe more.  If they survive.  If they are tended sufficiently, they should recover.  I think.  Fates, I don’t know.  It’s magic.  To actually cure it would mean unweaving the spell laced through their blood.  Any attempt to counter it will create chaotic effects, like you just saw, on a smaller more diffused scale.  Direct healing, force of will is the only choice, and is surely still doing half the harm as good, but better than certain death.”  He threw up his hands.  “Once this spell dissipates there will be a lot of scar tissue to heal.  Slow, hard work in the best of cases.”

“What you have told me, must remain a secret,” Mercu said almost threateningly.  “Make something…beneficial.  Harmless, a placebo if it must be, and your sworn oath you will speak not a word of it.  Say it will only do what it can, no more.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Arahm said, and began working.  “My word.”

           

Estate 11th, 650 E.R.

Katrisha woke with a start, and her heart fluttered at the sudden shock.  “Where am I?” she demanded feverishly, even as a cold cloth met her forehead.  It was dark, and with her blurred vision she couldn’t quite tell who was tending to her.

“Hush,” Maeren whispered.

“Is she awake?” Kiannae’s murmured, sitting up, her hand still on Katrisha’s chest, her gift still wrapped around her heart.  A warmth that followed its beat, no longer sustaining it, but watching for any falter.

“Yes,” Maeren said, “but you need to rest as well, you won’t do her any more good if you don’t rest.”

“I wi…”

“The Queen,” Katrisha managed to interrupt.

“She’s alive thanks to you,” Maeren said, squeezed her hand, and kissed the top of her head.

“Neither she nor the King were awake last we heard,” Kiannae said, and checked the time with a spell.  “The others are tending to them while we wait for more practiced healers.  It’s been at least five hours.  Your heart has only been stable for maybe two.”

“What happened?” Katrisha asked, already fairly certain of the answer.

“Quite obviously poison of some sort,” Kiannae said and pulled her hand away.  “Something that seemed to burn as I healed you, and the King.  The goblets have been sent to the apothecary for testing, if he can even tell us more we will see.  It must have been placed in the goblets themselves, because only the three of you were affected.”

“No one else?” Katrisha asked, at once relieved and furious.

“Whoever did this wanted to undermine the throne in one fell swoop,” Kiannae said in a murderous tone.

There was a loud creek, and the clatter of a door being flung open.  Everyone turned to see who had barged in, but Katrisha still could not make anything out, her vision so much worse than she was used to.

“Is she?” she heard a familiar voice.  “Is she alright?” she heard Celia demand in a trembling voice.

“Yes,” Maeren answered, guessing who the girl might be.  “As alright as I imagine possible at very least.”

Celia ran to Katrisha’s side, and pushed past Kiannae who moved to stop then unknown girl, but found herself restrained by Maeren.

“Oh my love. I was so afraid,” Celia said sobbing.  “I only heard because I was out watching the stars.  They tried to stop me from coming, but the abyss itself couldn’t have kept me away.”

“I wish this were under better circumstances,” Katrisha said.

“What did they do to you?” Celia asked through her tears.

“They made me Court Mage,” Katrisha laughed, but felt dizzy for it.  “Apparently that comes with a large target on my back.”

Celia pushed herself up, and looked Katrisha in the eye.  “At a time like this, you can make jokes?”

“If I couldn’t,” Katrisha said with a half smile, “then they would have won.”

Celia leaned down, and kissed her softly, holding herself back for fear Katrisha’s state was as fragile as it seemed.

“We do have an audience you know?” Katrisha said as she lifted a trembling hand, and brushed Celia’s hair from her face.

“I don’t care,” Celia said her eyes puffy from crying. “I love you, and after waiting so long, to have thought…”

“Still,” Katrisha interrupted.  “I think introductions are in order.  Kiannae, Maeren,” she found herself just a bit short of breath, “my dear Celia.”

Celia’s looked between the two, her eyes finally resting on Kiannae, whose face was so familiar, and yet unexpectedly different.  It gave her a moment of disbelief.  “You’ve returned?” she asked incredulously, and turned back to Katrisha.  “You sister has returned, and you haven’t written?”

“It happened just this afternoon,” Kiannae offered, glad to finally get a word in edgewise.  “Then of course there was the…interruption.”

“I’m sorry, of course,” Celia apologized for her reaction.  “What impossible timing, to return, and…”

“Still here,” Katrisha protested.

“I know, my love,” Celia said, and kissed her again.  She lay at her side and clung to her tightly, her hand at her heart.  Katrisha could feel the magic flowing into her, as Celia sought for whatever she could possibly do to help her.

“Don’t think I haven’t answered to questions of the timing,” Kiannae sneered. “I believe most were convinced that neither I, nor my companions had anything to do with this.  Not after we worked so tirelessly to save the three of you.  Though I could not even get the guards to let them help, till you collapse.”

“Most?” Katrisha pressed suspiciously.

“Arlen was quite happy to mutter something under his breath,” Kiannae recounted.  “Wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t alone in his ridiculous suspicions.  I wouldn’t have even known what to do, but for copying you.”  She scrunched up her face, refusing to cry.

“You don’t have to prove it to me,” Katrisha laughed.  “The problem is, I do not think there is any coincidence here.  This move was made now, I think, precisely because you have returned.  The question is who?”

“Last I saw Mercu had jumped on a table, and begun barking orders over the directionless lot of useless knights, guards, and lords.  That didn’t go over well, not until Darion started to echo his commands.  That shut Arlan up quick,” Kiannae said with a touch of dark humor.  “I expect by now guards should be searching every room for anything suspicious.  Probably starting with the kitchen staff and servers of course.”

“If a servant did this, it was at the behest of another,” Katrisha muttered.  “Nothing to gain.  No motive.”

“Who though?” Kiannae echoed the earlier sentiment irritably.  “Was it a member of the court, or a spy for Osyrae?”

“Easy as it is to blame Osyrae, I won’t put this past Arlen, and his ilk,” Katrisha grumbled, “or Oradin.  There were those not happy with my appointment, or the lengths gone to, to insure it.”

“This certainly wasn’t subtle,” Kiannae said shrewdly.  “If they had gone for the King alone, this might have passed off as simple heart failure.  This screams of someone wanting it to be clear an attempt was made.”

“Then Oradin,” Katrisha laughed darkly.  “To make me look incompetent, or if successful, to outright hold sway over Darion when he ascended the throne.”

“If it’s that obvious, then he could be the intended scapegoat,” Kiannae said.  “Who would benefit from that?”

“Almost anyone,” Katrisha sighed, and groaned, grabbing her head.  “Osyrae would succeed in sowing discord between us and the Clarions, the Council, and through our court.  On the other side of it, those of us in the court who do not care for the Clarions, could be said to gain by framing him, to push out Clarion influence.  That could even be his game, to make it look like he was framed, to pin it instead on me, or the Sisterhood.”

“No Sister would do such a thing,” Celia protested.

“I know that,” Katrisha said hugging Celia with what strength she could. “Clarions are far from above purporting lies as facts regarding the Sisterhood.  Even so, just as Clarions may act unscrupulously, we have no proof that a single errant Sister might not scheme.  Even if we know it to be a fallacy.”

“Still it’s a pretty huge leap to assume you would poison yourself in some grand plan to frame the Clarions,” Kiannae said shaking her head.

“I don’t think that would have been a first option,” Katrisha grumbled. “I’m trying to think outside expectations here, about what contingencies our enemies might be planning.”

“She should sleep,” Celia interjected.  “This poison has done her a lot of harm.  It’s a wonder she’s even conscious.”

“If you think you can get her to sleep, when she has her mind on something, you are kidding yourself,” Kiannae laughed.  “Laurel and Mercu had over ten years to try and find a way to do that.”

“You were no…” Katrisha started tersely, and without finishing was asleep.

“Is she alright?” Kiannae and Maeren both demanded in unison.

“She’s fine,” Celia said with a frown, “or as fine as she was.  Your Laurel and Mercu may be smart men, but they are not trained properly in the living magic.  It can do so much more than heal.  It can also bend the will to do what it already is willing to.  In this case, sleep.  You should also, and you as well,” she said looking between Kiannae then Maeren.

“Yes of course,” Maeren said getting up to leave, but hesitated.

“Stay,” Celia said as the woman faltered in her attempt to turn away.  “She has written of you with such love.  You should be by her side.”   There was something forced to her words.  Yet to look at her face it seemed almost as much she might fear to be alone in her task after all.

“I…” Maeren started.

“You are a proper healer?” Kiannae pressed.

“Yes,” Celia answered with some hesitance.

“Then if you will forgive me speaking plainly,” Kiannae said.  “Much as I have no wish to leave her side, I have no intention of sharing a bed with my sister’s two lovers.  If there were even room,” she gestured exasperatedly.

She turned and strode out of the room, closed the door, and leaned on the windowsill outside.  She started to cry.  Unable to even think clearly.  She had her sister back, and had almost lost her in an instant.  Her sister was someone she barely knew.  Tangled up in strange affairs that made her uncomfortable.  Everything was balanced on a knife’s edge.  A prophetic line mocked her again.  She plucked through her mind being sure there were no dragons in play.  They could look like people.  She shook her head, convincing herself that none had such bright auras.  It was past, or future.  She suppressed a maddening laugh at how readily she had jumped again to the curse on her life.

Fear gripped her as she remembered her own mocking words.  That many would have to die around her, before she became a queen.  She turned to march back into the room, uncertain she should, or could bear to be away from her sister.  She struggled to stay upright.  Emotions, and exhaustion of every sort threatened to crumble her there to the floor.  Her heart fluttered.  She felt a shift, and arms wrap around her.

“Lean on me,” Taloe said.  “You were not poisoned, but…fighting it, it echoed in your gift.  In the traces of mage blood in you.  Only my presence kept it from doing as it did to your sister.”

“What?” Kiannae asked drearily.

“I did not know, not until you started to heal the King.  I felt it try to echo through you.  It was magic.  Yet it found no place with my presence.  Katrisha was not poisoned, her own gift betrayed her.  I could do, or say nothing. I was paralyzed by the power trying, and failing to take my place.  It came close when you moved to her.  It…” he hesitated searching for a word he had not used.  “Resonated between you.  The consequences are catching up.”

Kiannae rubbed her forehead.  “Why can nothing ever be simple?”  She was torn between directions.  Back into the room.  To carry warning to Landri and Aron of what they might risk.

“You should rest,” he said, and helped her towards the stairs.  A third option that had not been on her mind, however much her body protested the need.  She didn’t resist.  He tapped power from the elements around them, that she was too weary to seek.  He got her down a flight before he lost his form, and left her leaning against a wall.  There was only so much it seemed he could do for her.  Not at least that she could not do for herself.  Another will, but a shared power.  One that had become so much more finite, and drained from the ordeal of the evening.

Footsteps drew her eyes up, and Eran was there before her, considering her hesitantly.  “I do not wish to trouble you,” he started, “but I feel I must.  There are wolves in the courtyard, or at least…I am fairly certain there are.”

Kiannae rubbed her head.

“I presume it was for the best I gave an order for everyone to keep their distance?  Not that we can find them.”

“Yes,” Kiannae answered.  “Yes, but I suppose I must.  It’s only the one, very big wolf.  Shouldn’t be too hard.”  She laughed with little humor, and pushed off the wall.  Eran took her arm when she teetered slightly.  She gave him a look of mixed opinion, and nodded. She straightened herself.  “Help me to the courtyard.”

Katrisha woke to the feeling of Celia and Maeren curled up to either side of her.  Their hands both laid on her chest, protecting her in their own way.  She would have been utterly content.  If not for the pounding in her head, the uneasy tremble of her heart, or an ill feeling in her belly.  She added that ruined moment to the list of grievances to take out of the hide of whoever was responsible.  She wondered what had woken her just as another knock at the door made her winced.

“Enter,” she said, giving up all pretenses regarding the two women curled up at her side.  She decided if whoever had come to disturb her was going to have a problem, it was going to be theirs.

Two guards entered, and both adopted dubious expressions at the three young women that lay before them.  “We have been sent to inform you of the search for a servant,” the first guard spoke, “but I see that we have found her.”

“Why has she been searched for?” Katrisha demanded as the two at her side began to stir.  Mar looked up irritably from where was curled at her feet.

“A vial of what is believed to be poison was found in her chamber,” the guard answered.

“So,” Katrisha said with a cold determination. “Tou are telling me you suspect this woman of poisoning me, and then staying up most of the night fretting over my health?”

“It is not our place to judge,” the guard answered, “only to bring her into custody.”

“Then consider her in custody, and leave my sight,” Katrisha all but spat.

“Are you sure that is…wise?” the second guard questioned.

“Are you questioning me?” Katrisha snapped with enough anger to make her heart flutter, and she reconsidered the wisdom of further strain.  “I am Court Mage, and until this crisis is resolved, and the King restored to health, I am the one you answer to.”

“No,” the guard said, “we will inform the others that she is in your…hands.”  The first guard said.  He mulled over his word choice, and ushered his companion out the door.

“So it begins,” Katrisha said, and started to get up, fully displacing Mar who indignantly moved farther over on the bed, and curled back up.

“I’m not sure you should be moving yet,” Celia said firmly.

“What I should do, what I want to do, and what must be done, are all quite at odds right now,” Katrisha said torn between sorrow and fury.  “I would love nothing more, than to simply lie between the two women I love, and forget this miserable world.  I would be tempted to do more than…lie…”  She seemed to question her own insinuation.  Glanced between her two loves, who seemed quite sheepish, and shrugged the distraction off.  “Neither of these is on the table.  This game is on to the next move, and that move is mine.  I will not forfeit with the fate of both the kingdom, and Maeren in the balance.”

“You could have let them take me,” Maeren said meekly.

“No,” was Katrisha’s terse reply.  “Once your enemies are trying to kill you, the rules have changed.  They want to make you a pawn.  Just as they have made me all these years.  The thing is, this pawn has reached the other side, and it’s time to show them what happens.”

Katrisha emerged into the throne room with Celia at her side, and Maeren a short distance behind.  Prince Darion stood before the throne in his father’s absence, answering the various challenges laid before him.

“There the girl is, seize her,” Oradin commanded.

Maeren shrank back, but thought better of any instinct to run, moved towards Katrisha.

“You shall not,” Katrisha countered his command, even as a guard gripped his sword, and another did the same in response to the first.  “As the Court Mage of this land, this woman stands under my protection.”

“You have no more authority here girl,” Oradin declared coldly.  “By right as a High Council Mage, in such dire times, I rescind your ridiculous validation, and the waiver by which you have stood at this court.”

“Are we to trust you with such power, and authority?  You are the one in this kingdom with the most to gain from this heinous act,” Katrisha insinuated venomously.

“Do you accuse me child, even as you defend the one found to posses the very poison that nearly killed you?” Oradin laughed humorlessly.

“Yes, it was found with her things,” Katrisha said in a measured tone.  “Curious that, given she would have had to use the poison, then return it.  As any number of people can attest, she has been at my side since the moment I collapsed, and never left the banquet hall before that.”

“This proves nothing,” Oradin argued.  “She could have had extra, and failed to dispose of it.  Do not let whatever ‘attachment’ you have to her cloud your judgement,” he added with a disdainful sneer.

“Yes,” Katrisha said not caring anymore who knew what.  “I will not deny that I know this darling woman very well.  She has stood vigil by my side through the night, as I fought off the effects of this poison.  Not the act of a killer, to care for the one whose life you propose she tried to take.”

“Mercy, regret, a ruse to hide her actions, what does it matter?” Oradin cut back.

“A ruse you say,” Katrisha responded.  “This implies she is clever.  Clever enough to have realized the poison would be far more incriminating.”

“This is not proof,” Oradin said, “and if she is found innocent, then so it is, but she will be taken as suspect.”

“Tell me,” Katrisha said turning to the frightened Maeren, “where were you when the poison would have been placed?”

“I…” Maeren said, “I am not free to speak of that.”

“You see,” Oradin said, “she avoids the truth, the guilt pulls at her.  End this folly and remove these traitorous harlots from the court.”

“She was with me,” Prince Adrien declared, stepping from beside the dais.  “Thanking me, for a promotion.”

“So you admit being in league with the foul girl?” Oradin laughed.  “Did the two of you plot to see the King dead, and your father ascended to the throne?”

“You will not accuse my son of treason without consequence, mage,” Darion snapped.

“I can speak for myself, Father,” Adrien said forcefully.  “I was not obliged at the time to correct a most grateful, and beautiful woman that I had not given her this gift.  I wrote no such order, and if it can be found, I suspect we will find only a forgery.”

“Oh, a convenient claim,” Oradin said snidely.

“Your desperation to place blame on anyone seems transparent to me,” Darion said stepping towards the mage.  “You hang upon opportunity, and motive, but your reasoning is flawed.  The King has been preparing for several years to step down, that I might begin my reign.  It is only the threat of Osyrae that has given him pause in this course.  My son knows it, and has no motive, and so this girl has no motive.  Further their indiscretions, admitted to openly in court leave them with scarce opportunity.”

“You are either blind Darion, or involved,” Oradin said furiously.  “The Council will not allow a king to rise to his throne by murdering his father.”

“Do I sit upon my father’s throne?” Darion said with a fierce gesture to the throne.  “Do I wear the crown?  No.  My father lives.  I stand here, to defend that throne from the vultures that circle his kingdom even as he yet breaths.”

“It is not his kingdom,” Oradin laughed, “it never was.  You know as well as I the pretense of kings.  They are placed here by the Council.  They rule at our pleasure.  They manage the world, while we keep it in check.”

“So you propose to take the throne then?” Katrisha said shrewdly.  “You propose to be a mage King?”

“Clever words child,” Oradin said with a chilling laugh.  “I propose only to protect this land from an illegitimate pretender to the throne.”

“I propose to protect it from the brother of a madman,” Katrisha said taking a half step forward, and a guard moved back.  “Who for all we know may well be mad himself.  Who may have tried to poison its rightful king, or may merely be a deranged pawn of another.  I propose to do my duty, as Court Mage.  Whoever you purport to serve, it is my right to stand before all threats to the monarchy.  It is in law, that even the Council, may be counted in such number, if I deem them errant.  For Roshana knew men so very well.  She knew the Council would become corrupt, complacent, and misguided.  She knew men, even, who would claim such authority, would be the enemies of the people.”

“If you will not remove this girl,” Oradin said, “I will remove her myself.”  With no more warning he struck at Katrisha with lightning, which she caught in a spell, and threw back at him.  He in turn deflected the bolt into two guards that had moved towards him threateningly.”

“Clear the room,” Katrisha yelled, even as many had already begun to flee the ensuing fight.  “Go, your majesty,” she commanded Darion.

He hesitated to stand down, but relented after Katrisha’s spared him a fierce glance.  He grabbed his son’s hand to unexpected struggle.

“You two as well,” she said to Maeren and Celia.  Maeren backed away, but left only when Adrien broke away from his father, grabbed her hand, and dragged her into the Queen’s antechamber.

Celia for her part stood unwavering at Katrisha’s side.  “I told you, if the time came,” she refused with nervous determination.

“Faithful of Avrale,” Oradin said in a commanding, magically amplified voice. “Do not flee from this girl, who stands with harlots, and brings filthy druids to your court.  Stand with me, and cast out this corruption.”

Several guards, and four knights moved to his side.  Katrisha noticed Arlen was not among them, or even present.  She added cowardice to his long list of crimes.  Others hung back, either unwilling to join Oradin, or not daring enough to stand against him, and instead two moved to pull the first fallen out of the way.

“Do not lay down your lives for folly,” Katrisha boomed, her own voice amplified.  “I act only to protect the throne.  I can not promise you mercy, if you force my hand, and I can not speak for the King, if you should live.”  Two guards peeled off then, and ran past Mercu who had just entered.

“Stop this madness!” Mercu yelled, but saw the determination on the two mages faces, as neither wavered in their staring contest.  Mercu slammed his fist against the door, turned, and ran from the keep.

“Charge them.  I will protect you from their magic,” Oradin commanded those gathered near him.  The soldiers moved cautiously at first, but as Katrisha’s first wave of spells shattered they rushed forward.  The formation of her shield knocked them back as Oradin failed to tear it apart.

His face crinkled into a sneer, and his own defenses went up, as intricate as ever.  Katrisha glanced nervously to her own work.  Deceptively simple by comparison.  Not her usual style.  It was the same spell she had cast the day Oradin had returned to court.  One derived from Katherine’s.  Slowly over weeks, in the back of her mind she had folded into her own designs.  She knew she had been doing it, but had not intended to try under such circumstances, then instinct had taken over.

Soldiers who had only just gotten back to their feet were blown down again by sudden powerful gusts of wind that swept across the court.

“What witchcraft is this!” Oradin demanded, unable to tear apart the buffeting winds.

“A mage of the Council declaring witchcraft at the first sign of something he does not understand?” Kiannae yelled a challenge from the entrance to the throne room.

Oradin turned his head to follow the threads of power, as much as the voice mocking him.  His vision was suddenly filled with white as a massive wolf landed on his shield, and tore it with a snap of her mighty jaw.  An instinctive sweep of his arm threw the wolf back with force, but it seemed almost to vanish.  He shook his head dazed by the effect of his eyes slipping off a massive thing he knew must still be there.  His shield quickly repaired itself even as Katrisha tried to take advantage of the opening.

“Deal with these abominations,” Oradin growled, and refocused himself on magic he could defend against.  New structures wove into his shield, cutting the wind, on top of his already quick recovery under continued assault.  It was unnerving work to watch.

Several guards still scrambling to their feet turned towards Kiannae with little more certainty.  They dove aside, scattering as her hand came up with crackling energy around her fingers.  A bolt of lighting leapt across the room, but Oridan causally deflect the blinding bolt.  Even as an unfortunate pillar shattered from the heat.

Lunka pinned a man before he could get up again, and eyed the real target with her head low, ears back, and a snarl on her lips.  It was not clear how much the creature understood, but she knew her mistress’s enemy.  That he was not to be trifled with.

Oradin redoubled his shielding, even as wind roared against him.  All further lightning strikes were grounded into the floor.  Liquid stone spattered over those with less secure defences.  Knights and guards scramble out of the way, and rolled to put out ignited garments, or wailed at the searing of their skin.

A twist against Katrisha’s spell opened a hole in her shield to a physical assault, and what visibility it had to ungifted showed the gap.  Keeping the flaw from running away, and disrupting more esoteric protections distracted her as a guard closed on them, and took a swing.

Katrisha and Celia dove apart.  The guard focused on Celia who was closest, though unsure what threat she posed.  He hesitated though, as something made him question his resolve.  Question his will to hurt a woman who lay seemingly defenseless before him.  He was unaware of forces pulling at his will, making him doubt, and equally unaware of Katrisha who clobbered him in the head, knocking him from his feet.  She grabbed his clattering sword from the ground, rolled and came to Celia’s defense, her heart pounding.

Katrisha brandished her freshly procured weapon at the men who were learning to resist the wild winds tearing at them.  It was all she could do to keep her magical defenses up, as physical protections continued to fall.  She regretted she had never taken Horence up on his offer of training with weapons other than staves.  She deflected the first blow with her awkwardly held blade, and the second with a spell that Oradin failed to disrupt.

She found an old instinct.  A primitive spell, but she had used it so many times.  She found a way to wedge it into the intricate chaos her once perfect shield was becoming.  He was much better than he had seemed before.  Like he had gone easy on her in her test, but she did not trust it.  He was cheating somehow.  Yet how did one cheat the fundamentals of magic?

A knight assaulting Katrisha was suddenly thrown to the ground as Taloe entered the fray.  “Good of you to join us,” Kiannae yelled, and tried to keep Oradin on the defensive with her lighting.

The Knight to his right swung at the unexpected attacker, but his blade struck one of the guards.  Only vapors remained where the boy had stood.  The wounded guard turned on him in pain, betrayal on his face.  He struck out at his fellow, having never seen Taloe, but crumpled when his swing failed to connect.

Kiannae brought the guilt stricken and confused knight to his knees with a bolt of lightning to his leg.  The crack of which drowned out the clamor of four new arrivals.  Horence, Armon, Eran, and Alindra found themselves in befuddled horror behind Kiannae.  She worked with her sister to tear apart Oradin’s defenses.  Yet not only could the two combined not quite manage the task, they kept having to throw off attacks.  His capacity to weave offense and defense in constant contest, against two gifted opponents, seemed far beyond any common mage.  Kiannae was the second to conclude he was cheating.  She had felt it before.

“What madness is this?” Armon demanded, and drew his sword.  He turned to counter a guard rushing towards Kiannae, even as he seemed to fall for no reason.  The large white wolf on the man’s back gave the oddest impression that surely she had nothing to do with it.  She spared them a menacing glance, and shifted some of her weight to a paw on the man’s head when he tried to struggle.

“I act to stop traitors to the throne,” Oradin growled, and threw a spear of ice at Katrisha.  She deflected it into a wall, even as she parried another swing from a guard.  She point blank threw a burst of force into a knight that tried for an opening.  His flailing form landed at Oradin’s feet, stopped by protective wards, leaving the man rubbing his head.

“The only traitors I see,” Horence snapped, and drew his sword, “are those who stand against the Court Mage!”

A wave of fire and ice crashed into Kiannae’s quickly expanded defenses, causing those behind her to step back.  Lunka had leapt clear ahead of the attack, and the dazed man she had pinned took the brunt of stray magic aimed at the other side.  The man gave out a terrible cry, and one hit by the edge of the attack rolled desperately trying to put out the flames.

“Deal with these,” Oradin demanded of the groggy knight who still struggled to get upright at his feet.  He glanced at the mage with suspicion, more so as four new combatants charged them at once.

With a dismissive wave of Oradin’s hand a broad swath of force was tossed at the four, as the mage turned again to Katrisha.  Horence was thrown back hard into a pillar, even after leaning into the attack.  Alindra and Eran managed to break the spell around them, protecting Armon from the brunt of it, but still sending him tumbling across the floor.

The knight looked between Oradin and two standing fighters he knew to be of comparable skill.  He was no longer sure he trusted the mage, but fear of the man, and a disdain for his enemies were good motivators.  He stepped out of relative safety, rolling his shoulders.

Oradin focused fully on Katrisha.  Forced her more deeply on the defense as she fended off the remaining guard and knight.  She was growing less graceful with her already haphazard swordsmanship, and slowly less upright.

Celia abandoned her attempts to sow further doubt as she noticed Katrisha stumble.  With a brilliant flash of light she blinded the two instead, and dropped to her knees.

“This wasn’t the best time to start a fight,” Katrisha coughed as she tried to steady her own heart.  Celia took over as Katrisha threw up a new shield, letting the her old defenses collapse in on her last line of defense.  The tighter it grew, the stronger, but the assault was relentless.  She fought with Oradin’s attempts to unravel her magic, even as blindly thrust swords were deflected just shy of their mark.  She let Oradin’s assault on her shield win to explosive results, throwing back the attackers.  Then brought another up another before his attacks could land.

Lunka circled back to Kiannae.  A guard lunged, and swung at her mistress, only to have his throat ripped out by the unnoticed wolf.  Kiannae hesitated a sickened moment, and with renewed fury struck violently with lighting at Oradin.  She wanted the madness to end, and channeled all the power she could to that end.  She was dazed to feel it ripped out of her control.  Wrested away by Oradin who with a gloved hand cast the wild energy up into the ceiling.  A shower of stone, burning wood, glass, and molten rock exploded across the court.

Kiannae still off balance from losing control spread her defenses over others.  She realized too late she had pushed to hard, as the cost caught up, and her focus slipped.  The spell was unstable.  Half the flying wreckage slowed, or even stopped.  Among the other half, a stray brick sailed through her fragmented control, and struck her head.  She crumpled under the blow.

Combatants on each side cried out as they were struck, or clipped by debris.  The knight engaged with Eran and Alindra went almost untouched.  Even as his two opponents, struck in the face and arm, were forced back onto the defense.

Taloe wavered, and wafted away mid swing at a guard who lost his balance, and fell on his face in an attempt to counter a blow that never landed.  An already bloody mouthed wolf lept over her mistress, and snarled at any who dared move toward her.  With sudden intensity all eyes were drawn to the snarling wolf, save two combatants blinded by their contest of wills.

Katrisha struggled back to her feet, even as Celia worked to keep her heart steady, and adrenaline fought her every effort.  Her shield expanded again, even under renewed assault.  Her physical and magical defenses untangled, and grew.  She had made a breakthrough, learned from his defenses.  Addaping the self repairing mechanism had proved time consuming amidst everything else, but it worked.

Her vision was blurred beyond use, so she closed her eyes, and focused on the magic.  She could see the mark on the back of his hand in her mind.  It wasn’t his.  It was something stolen.  ‘It isn’t his,’ screamed in the back of her mind distracting her.  It focused her on how the magic was flowing through that hand.  It was giving him incredible raw power, but it was too focused.  One point of failure, ever so well guarded.

Armon had gotten back to his feet, as Eran was knocked down by a knight.   Alindra had broken off in the chaos to charge Oradin.  “Here boy,” Armon growled, challenging the man looming over Eran, “you’ve never bested me, why not try again?”

“I could never bring myself to strike an old man,” the Knight cut back. “I’ll not let that stop me today.”  He shifted his stance away from Eran, not trusting his position between the two.

“Proud words,” Armon said, “prove them.”  He swung at the Knight.

Eran scrambled to his feet in the opening, and looked between opponents.  He made for Oradin, who had turned from Katrisha to throw Alindra away, but found his spells ineffective.  He deflected Alindra’s first first strike with his staff, as she tore a hole in his shield.  Fragments of his frayed defenses ate Eran’s blow, buying him time to send lighting through the sword, and down man’s side, bringing him to his knees.

Katrisha knocked the already dazed men around her back down before they could recover.  Then returned to the complex shield spell damaged by Alindra’s skill with spell breaking.  A tiny part of her tried to learn more from it, even as she worked to tear it apart.  Yet her assaults were a feint, to get him to focus where she did.

Horence, who had hit his head hard from Oradin’s earlier attack had taken some time to get back to his sense, and join the others again in their assault.  He was able to avoid a wild spell, even as Alindra shattered the part directed at her.  Oradin’s outer defenses crumbled.

Horence could easily get around Oradin’s skill with a stave, but an inner shield slowed direct blows.  His enchanted robe kept grazing blows with common weapons from piercing him.

The precarious stalemate was broken as Oradin slammed his staff against the ground, shattering the floor.  All nearby were tossed from their feet feet, and some back quite a distance.  Alindra rolled out of the tumble in shock from the force of it.  It hadn’t been a spell.  There had been nothing to break.  Horence had partly adjusted to the force, but been thrown up instead of back, and was left dazed on the ground.

Mercu reentered the throne room breathless from his run.  He had found no more aid, and long lost his hat.  He barely kept upright at the outermost edge of the blast.  He saw Kiannae down to the side, and tried to approach, only to yank back and land on his rear at the snap of the wolf guarding her.

He looked around, considering his options, and that Amron did not seem to be faring well after being staggered.  Forgoing one intractable problem he leapt to his feet, grabbed a singed tapestry hung from the balcony above.  He threw it over the Knight fighting Armon, who used the opening to strike a devastating blow.  The man struggled to the ground, his blood soaking the cloth that covered him.

A guard blindsided Armon in the distraction, striking a piercing blow to his lower back.  Armon came around with his sword to deadly effect, but crumpled himself, even as his assailant died at his blade.  Lady Catherine rushed from the shadows, and fell to her knees at Armon’s side as Mercu joined her.  A hasty shield came up around them.  It was clumsy, primitive, but adequate to fend off two guards whose faith was failing in the side they had chosen.

A guard more bold rushed the two, but found his blow deflected by the shield.  This gave Mercu an opening to grab the man’s arm, elbow him in the face, and take the sword as he lost his grip.  Mercu spared a glance to Catherine who was doing something else he had no idea was within her ability.  There was a faint glow where she held Armon’s wound, and worked with great strain to heal it.

A knight who had once chosen the other side, and staggered back to his feet took one look at the destruction around him.  Then the man who had attacked Catherine.  His faith shaken he held the guard at sword point, and glanced towards the escalating contest at the far end of the room.

A new flash of magic barely registered at the edge of Katrisha’s senses, but she did not have time to decide if it was a threat.  Her effort to unravel Oradin’s protections were cut short again as he brought a new onslaught against her.  A strike of lighting to compare with the one Kiannae had thrown at him.  In fact it seemed somehow to actually be the same.  As though he had turned a channeled manifestation into a spell, a perfect mimicry.  ‘A perfect lie,’ she thought, and saw the flaw in it.  It didn’t belong to him.

The dazed, and battered combatants scattered away from a flailing arc of energy thrown with little care for their safety.  Something hotter than lighting arced around the room.  Pillars and more of the ceiling crumbled.  Parts of the wall above the throne fell, crushing it.  A few knights and guards who made themselves unfortunate prominences did not even cry as they were hit.  She tried to take control of it, to stop the wild destruction but it was all she could do to deflect the attack away from herself, or most other people.  She could feel Celia losing the battle to keep her heart in check.

Katrisha opened her eyes, but they were still useless.  Her knees gave way again even as she caught hold of the thread of it.  ‘It isn’t his.’  It was a path straight through his defenses.  Channeled through that right hand.  ‘It wasn’t his.’  He had learned to command it, but it wasn’t his.  She fed a simple fire spell back through the connection, into his stolen power.  His shield tore apart.  A blast of force its final revenge on any nearby.  Assailants were throw away, even as he fell to his knees.  He roared in agony, and clutched his hand.  A had rune burned through his enchanted glove, a smoldering mark that still glowed to gifted eyes.

Half the ceiling collapsed, striking downed combatants.  Some to devastating effect. Katrisha tried to deflect it all.  She could no longer tell who was who, and tried desperately to protect them all.  It was the last thing she saw, as the world went black.

She did not see what followed, nor hear Oradin’s final gurgled words, as an enchanted blade plunged through his chest.  “I have seen the Storm…and the one…”

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Chapter 25

A child bid her freedom, sworn not to return,
a mother offered her dowry, if such was sure,
six and ten years the girl was away and gone,
there returned a wee little babe in her arms,

were ye ne’re to return to us oh forsaken stranger,
a sister’s spiteful demand, four children at her hem,
were ye not done with us all, her brother’s cold stand,
not a word wasted before a mother held out her hand,

return to us no matter the years what is past is past,
return to me and I will always welcome you at last,
return a bastard in each arm, and each I shall love,
return always, for no failing is my forgiveness above,

I failed you sister, the girl did earnest and soberly impart,
I did abandon you brother, for I did not know my heart,
should I have so erred, I take comfort I might return,
yet I bare no bastard, but a prince’s honored son.

– The Wayward Daughter, 63 E.R.

A House United

Coria 33, 650 E.R.

Druids looked up from a midday meal as six of their missing members returned, a familiar northern man a step behind.  As their eyes fell on Kiannae she was uncertain which expression she liked least.  Distrust, fear, or reverence.  Each a fellow traveler, that had once shared some kind word, now looked at her as something other.  An outsider, an abomination, or some superior being.

She quickly caught a presence she could always feel when it was near, and turned from fickle human company, to seek a companion more reliable.  Even Kiannae’s eyes threatened to slip off the white shape crouched behind a tall bush.  She gestured to herself without hesitation, beckoning the wolf she had raised from a pup.

Lunka inched out of the forest timidly.  A manner far too sheepish for a wolf who was then nearly half again larger than one should be.  There was a sense that perhaps it was this she was deflecting for.  Knowing she had disobeyed, and grown.  After barely a moment of hesitation Kiannae stepped forward, dropped to one knee, and threw her arms around the wolf’s neck, clinging to her.  “It’s ok.  It’s ok, girl.  You needed to be stronger without him.  I understand.”  She hid her tears in the wolf’s fur.

Landri was more hesitant than ever, but she no longer knew what to think of anything.  She could almost still see what had happened that night, but it defied her memory to hang onto.  What she had seen after, was another matter.  Her wiser, rational self was filled with doubt, but in her heart she knew, there was neither point, nor sense in arguing again about dire creatures.  If nothing else, the girl herself seemed one.

“You are quite prepared to let such a beast on your ship?” Landri asked, turning to Varmun.

“I doubt she will be a popular addition, but I’ve no fear of the wolf.”  Varmun laughed.  “I already have delayed well longer than I meant to.  Will it just be the three of you, or did you wish another honor guard?” he said directing his gaze to Landri.

Landri grimaced at his mocking tone, and expression.  “Well, anyone wish a trip to Avrale?” she asked of the gathered druids.

“I’ve a sister at Lundan grove I would visit if it were convenient,” a young man offered, and stood up.  Kiannae gave him a dubious look.  Of all those present the man once introduced to her as Aron wore an expression hard to read.  Not quite reverence, or disdain, but certainly not indifference.

“Well, then plans can converge.  Though how you make your way from Wesrook is your affair,” Varmun offered.

Coria 40th, 650 E.R.

Kiannae gripped the rigging at the bow of a ship, and let out a long breath.  The wind shifted back against the sails, and slowed the great ship to a crawl as the crew heaved lines to dock workers, who tied heavy hawsers to be pulled back to the deck.  The power still came with ease, the state at the height of her comunion one of centered complete focus, but a weariness now set into her upon letting it go.  She would need to learn her limits, for she could not feel them until she had already pushed too far.

She leaned slightly on Lunka, who had made a rare appearance above deck.  The wolf was curled up behind her, perhaps hoping that their voyage was at last done.  Any worry by the crew about having a wolf half the height of a horse onboard had long passed.  It had however been replaced by dismay at cleaning up the sick around a disgruntled creature, that had yet to find her sea legs.  She had been willing to come above deck only with each stop into port, and with each stop been disappointed that the trip was not done.  Northport was the last of four scheduled trade stops before Wesrook, and by some rights – given proximity to the capital – one Kiannae should get off at.

“Have you made your decision?”  Varmun asked behind her.

She plucked a letter from her robe, and read it one last time.

Good Caline,

Let me beg your forgiveness in not sticking to the letter of our agreement.  What once was a relief to offer – a further delay in my return home – has since become a burden far beyond bearing.  My sister is alive.  I re-affirm, if it is your wish for me to visit the court of Niven, then I shall, at some near future date, and with your invitation, but I must with all haste return home.  I cannot stay away another day.  Not after having been so long mistaken.

A fellow daughter of such complicated privilege,

Kiannae.

“Can you see this delivered to Caline, the Court Mage’s daughter?  I fear it is far less than I owe, but the price I have agreed to is a matter of time, and that I cannot bring myself to spare just yet, or to ask of you to do the same.  Pomp and ceremony is something that will have to wait.”

“Should I worry as to what this might mean for our agreement?” Varmun pressed.

“Should my sister return from the dead, and the very world nearly end, I’ll afford you might have to wait a bit.”

“Not a good deal with you, I don’t think, but as with all things in my life, it is the deal to be had.”

“A convenient, convenience will just have to do.  After all, I have not asked any payment for my skills with the wind.”

“Though I will not deny the value, the desire for haste has driven you to such aid.  You could walk home from here too, on that offer.  Call all accounts square.”

“I could.”

“And I could tell whoever you are owing a debt, you are walking through their lands.”

“Don’t get too shrewd you old trader.  It’s not that kind of debt precisely,” Kiannae said.  “A favor, for a matter of discretion, I now gravely wish I had not bargained for.  My debt, is to permit myself to be properly repaid.  In a surely time consuming manner.”

“Still, an inconvenience.”

“Then, for your silence, let me wager I will do all in my reasonable power, save very specifically a matter of my sister returning from the dead, to make your convenience, convenient.”

“Good enough.”  Varmun laughed.

“You two enjoy bargaining far too much,” Landri chided, and moved out of the way of a scurrying deckhand.

“I find it a necessary part of living,” Varmun said calmly, and took Kiannae’s letter.  “Even friends far to easily take advantage left to their own.  Better to make sure things are agreeable.”

Landri had grown fond of Varmun hesitantly.  In the end he had many tales to tell she had never heard, and lore was a weakness for the old druid.  Still they did not always see eye to eye.

Getting little in the way of reaction for his words, Varmun returned his attention to Kiannae.  “I take it you will not be leaving the ship at all this stop?”

“No,” Kiannae said.  “After the trouble in Narrows Deep, I wouldn’t want to do anything to encourage Lunka to get off the boat.”

“Wise,” Varmun nodded, and saw that plank was being moved into position.  “I will see to the letter, as you ask, and perhaps you are right, I do owe you something for your further aid.  Though I will count a courier fee into such consideration.”  He tapped the page twice.

Estae 4th, 650 E.R.

No docks were free at Wesrook, and while the others prepared to board a landing boat, Varmun pulled Kiannae aside.

“I will offer you two things before you go,” Varmun said solemnly.  “I have remembered you well, because I dreamed of you, and your sister long after we met.  I saw you wear a crown, and welcome me to your court.  I saw a silver girl with your eyes, stand amidst the sun.”

“Prophecy,” Kiannae muttered irritably.  “It was prophecy that has separated me from my sister, and set me against the trials I have faced.  A prophecy that promises the same things you do, you will forgive me, if I find no comfort in this.”

“Nothing is certain,” Varmun nodded.  “What a wise woman once told me; ‘watch what changes, and what endures.’  These are the signs, these tell the nature of a vision.”

“I’ve heard such before, but I will remember,” Kiannae said.  “Though I would prefer no more visions at all.”

“We do not choose what we are shown,” Varmun said, “only what we do.”


“And what will you do?” Kiannae asked, avoiding further discussion of her future.  “You have dodged that question all through the trip.”

“I will visit the Lady of Wesrook for a day, or more.  She has been quite cross with me any time I have not,” Varmun said.

“Would you not mention me?” Kiannae asked.

“Hmm,” Varmun wobbled his head.  “I can save the tale a day.  Were I to say nothing at all, I do not think the lady would ever forgive me.”

“I will take it,” Kiannae nodded.

“Then after, I shall visit Carth,” Varmun added.  “As I have said, a lady waits for my return.  One who more than has my heart, but has pledged to plead my case, to bring as many people as  place can be found for, from my home land.  Her land has always struggled not to dwindle in numbers, and fresh blood one hopes is welcome.”

“That is good news,” Kiannae said.  “Why have you not mentioned it before?”

“Because what good does it do me to spread hope, that may yet be false, when I seek aid of hearts already hard.” Varmun laughed sadly.  “Oh yes, the other thing,” he said, and fished through his pockets procuring a small green gem with odd fathomless depths.  He held it first between two fingers, and then out in his upturned palm.

“What is it?”

“Calite,” Varmun said.  “It’s worth a bit, but nothing grandiose.  It’s a rare stone from my homeland, found in the same quarries of Amberite.  Can suspend a spell almost indefinitely with little decay.  A perfect enchanting medium.”  He fed some gift through the stone, and a shimmering wolf head appeared above his palm.  “A gift for a friend.  A trinket for a girl I do not imagine having much need of coin in her future.  To remind you of our bargain.”

“Are you trying to change those terms?” Kiannae asked.

“Not in any agreed way, but perhaps if you are fond of me, it will offer a little benefit.”

Kiannae laughed.  “Be careful what you bargain for.  My fodness does not always work out well for others.”

“One risks what they may,” Varmun nodded.  “Let me offer some final advice.  From one who barters often on others good will.  Do not avoid the Duchess, because you are embarrassed.  Do not let fear slow your steps now.  Not when you have come so far, with such urgency.  I shall, as agreed, wait till tomorrow to mention your company, less you permit me to make the re-introduction for you.  Surely, even if she insists a night of your time, it will be less for a carriage inland.”

She took the stone, and considered his words uneasily.

By Aldermore Kiannae had regretted not having taken Varmun’s advice, but the thought of being fawned over by a virtual stranger, and facing her humiliation of having fled, any more than necessary, was too much.

Whatever assurances she had of her sister’s health, she still held doubts.  She was  of mixed opinion by that waypoint if her willful sabotage, and delay had not in part been a fear to learn it had all been a lie.  That she was indeed gone after all.  As much as the prophecy had once been forgotten, the entreaty to beware ‘the dragon who lies’ mocked her every step.

Three druids walking in from the west drew some attention, but none paid them much mind.  An unreasonably large white wolf might have made for more of a spectacle, if for some reasons she did not seem unimportant.  Eyes slipping off of her to some other distraction.  A young woman in a white robe seemed to have everyone’s attention that evening any way, be it an amiable nod, or a scornful glare from a few, she met each with the same smile.

To the north, the cloister Kiannae had once glimpsed under construction when still a girl, had long been finished.  Another group of walking down the well worn path stopped as the groups met at a crossroads.  In quick conversation, the young man Aron had arranged with the courtesy of a red robed young woman that three weary travelers with little coin might beg the kindness of the cloister the evening.  Landri had tried to protest, but found no good argument against the readily offered shelter for a night.

Estae 9th, 650 E.R.

Kiannae found that even a comfortable bed did not let her sleep that evening, and so wandered out into the courtyards, all nearly empty so late at night.  She stared up at the stars, and considered that they had never been the same fascination to her, as her sister.  Distant points of light with no meaning.  So far that many, even brighter than their sun, were reduced to pinpricks against the dark void of the cosmos.  She found no comfort in that sky.  Boundless depths holding only more of the same.  The world beneath her feet had always felt closer, more important. Yet that night she found her eyes cast up instead.

“Would you mind some company?” a woman asked.

Kiannae glanced down at the presence she had felt approach, but given little notice.  Her robe was a white that caught the moonlight in blue hues, her long hair a nondescript pale halo.  Kiannae shrugged.

The woman seemed less than satisfied with the answer, but sat down on the bench opposite.  She glanced up at the sky herself, though Kiannae did not notice.

“You seem troubled?” the woman pressed after a moment more of silence.

“You might say that,” Kiannae offered almost snidely.

“I could offer an ear to listen.  Some stranger you’ve nothing to fear from, and perhaps shall never meet again.”

“I think all my troubles can be summed up quite simply,” Kiannae said.  “I’m a fool.”

“Aren’t we all?”

“Some more than others,” Kiannae countered dismissively.

“Every step we take is blind,” the woman said.  “If we do not trust.  Yet every trust is offered on not but the scarcest evidence of the goodwill of others.”

“Sounds about right,” Kiannae offered, and relented to look back down at the woman, only a few years her elder.  “Even what we see of what will be, may be truth or lies.  Everything we see, everything we are told, all suspect.”  She plucked a green gem from an inner pocket in her robe, and held it up, the partial illusion of a wolf forming above her palm.  “I’ve seen ghosts, and flesh made of no more than water.  I have seen nightmares that walk, and a terrible thing made of hate.  Dragons stand again as women, and the mirror of my own face staring back at me in dreams.  Yet now I wonder if it is all an illusion.  One crafted more carefully than our lying senses might perceive.  We have only our senses, and if they can be false, if one can be false, then can all the rest be trusted?”

“Goodness.”  The woman laughed, but her smile was painfully disarming.  “Here I had expected some boy had broken your heart.”

Kiannae laughed in turn, though darkly.  “Oh one or two perhaps.  I fear I broke theirs more harshly.”  She put the gem away.

“You are haunted by prophecy?” the woman pressed.

Kiannae gave her an incredulous look, but it did not seem she had some idea who she might be.  She considered very carefully if she could avoid giving such away.  “Yes.  One said my sister would die, and I thought she had.  I ran away.  The prophecy also promised a ‘dragon who lies,’ for me to fear.  So now I sit and worry that I have been lied to.  That the claim she lives is a cruel falsehood.  Whatever assurances I am given.”

“That does sound a horrible spot to be in,” the woman said understandingly.

Kiannae breathed a sigh of relief, that it seemed she had not given herself away.  “I have passed up my best opportunity to get home with any haste, in fear of so many things.  So I say again, I am a fool.”

“Things happen in their time.  All journeys ends the same.  We find love, in its time, though we longed for it long before.  We find ourselves, in our time, though it feels we should have known, long before.  What lays ahead moves our steps, and yet every journey ends the same.  The end is not the point, and when we stop to look around, each moment, even the ones that are not what we hoped, are one moment more that we are not at that inevitable conclusion.”

“Doesn’t seem the most reassuring sentiment,” Kiannae said measuredly.

“Oh, but for one so dour in her views, anything more polished and shiny would be dismissed as foolish.  In this moment you are alive.  In this moment, if you believe it, your sister is alive.  If you dwell on uncertain shadows, and live in a world made of your fears, not your hopes, then you only suffer.  You think this some kindness to your heart, that the pain will somehow be less to suffer more of it now.  That it will spare you disappointment.  Yet it seems of no worth to worry over what is beyond our grasp to control.  It seems living in futures you do not wish, is only asking for them to come.”

“My greatest hope still demands that she will die,” Kiannae said angrily.  “My greatest hope is that I have not already lost, her, and still will.  This, is the cheery world you ask me to live in.”  She gave the woman a spiteful look, that she felt bad about, but could not let up on.  “Unless it is I to die first.”

The woman stared back at her with a measured expression.  “That end is inevitable,” she repeated.  “Unless it has already passed.  We gifted, our greatest power in the world is not magic, or healing, or any grandiose practice.  It is that our lives are long, and healthy.  That we perceive the world as it truly is, and yet these long lives so easily hide the truth.  We all die.  We have only these moments, whatever their number.  So we live them, each as best we can.”

Kiannae looked back to the sky.  “No, the end is not inevitable.  For I have stood before a dragon, three centuries my elder.  Perhaps a weary soul, but one still quite youthful in her way.  This end can be cheated, as an Avatar who stands opposite your order can attest.”

“Were the world herself eternal, then perhaps I might believe you are right, and I wrong.  Yet I do not think you quite so foolish.  Everything ends.  Even stars die.  Did you know that?”

Kiannae looked back down.  “Yes, I did.  You know astronomy?”

“Oh no, hardly,” the woman laughed.  “Just something I heard from a girl up in Highvale, going on about her lost love so far away.  She was the one troubled as I first thought you might be.  Regaling me of tales of glimpsing deep into that night sky in her lovers arms, of seeing the filaments of dead stars, as beautiful as all of their lives combined.  That she had consumed every book upon the sky she could find, and claimed to have read we are all made of stars.  Endings beget beginnings.  Nature carries on.  What is born dies, and so perished, is made anew, replaced with new life.  Surely a druid might appreciate that.  I say everything ends, but, here we stand.  Every cause has one preceding it.  So can there be a first?  Is everything just infinitely old?  Do the cycles go back forever through time?”

Kiannae did not quite know what to make of the line of thought.  “Is the goal that I should feel small?  That through the scope of everything my troubles feel diminished?”

“No, the goal is to ask a question, and get an opinion.”

Kiannae closed her eyes.  “I once heard that people are like snowflakes.  Perhaps that I never cared for the winter skewed my judgement, but I never liked the trite idea of it either.  That we are all so very unique, and valuable.  With time though, I decided it was true.  We are all just a set of rules, played out to their natural conclusion, the product of the circumstances we faced, all as unique as we like to think we are.  We are all so very fond of that familiar presence in our lives, that unique mark upon the world that someone else is.  She and I.  We aren’t so unique, and yet I am afraid, because we were blown apart, that who we are will be so different, that even if she lives, it will be like she is no longer my twin.  I have seen her face.  My fears are lies, easier to bare than the truth.  I know she lives, and I know she will die young, unless I take her place, or I foil the hands of the Fates themselves.  I rush to the end you say cannot be avoided.  For I shall either regret in that long life you promise is ours, or die, to let someone I love live.”

The woman wove a mage light a bit clumsily, and  Kiannae’s eyes glimmered an almost luminous green in the new light.  “I see,” the woman said measuredly.

“Are we now to speak in deep prophetic terms?” Kiannae asked snidely.  “If so, then I would bid I no longer wish company.”

“I had not recognized you,” the woman answered.  “Though we have never met, those eyes are unmistakable, with enough light to see them.  I’ve met your sister, if only in passing.  I can assure you with no prophecy, she lives, and sits as Court Mage.  if you still hold doubts, I can only assure you I may be many things, but I am no dragon, and no great fan of lies.”

“And that, as I have said, does not quiet the half my fears,” Kiannae protested.

“There are those who think that a vision’s endurance is some sign of inevitability,” the woman offered kindly.  “I don’t like that answer.  I’ve seen dragons sweep into Avrale since I was a girl.  I left Highvale not a year ago, and I still see such visions, but they have changed.  I am here now, and though I still see a dragon in my dreams, it passes in the skies to the east, and does not stand before me.  What we see, so very often, the dreams that do not let go, are not inevitable, but what we try with all our might to change, or to cling to.  I cannot believe that we live in a world without free will.  That all knowledge, and meaning are illusions.  That we are bound to a predetermined course.  There is always a choice.”

“So I should ignore the prophecies of a thousand years?”

“No,” the woman laughed.  “Defy them.”

Kiannae huffed with amusement.  “At last some sensible words out of you.”

“Careful, I am the one who might be able to help you get home much sooner.”

Estate 10th, 650 E.R.

Two horses on loan from Aldermor, and bound on after to Highvale, bore three druids into Brokhal mid afternoon.  Had one not worn her brown hood pulled down almost over her face, they might have attracted little attention at all, though perhaps someone might have recognized the girl, then almost a woman.  The horses were left with a stable hand near the north end of the village, and several days trimmed off their journey they began the final leg through the village, and up to the castle visible above the Broken Hill.

Kiannae looked around the familiar streets of the village.  Several years had changed little she thought.  She stopped to stare at the sign for the Grey Lamb with an indecisive expression.  She had never fully gained a taste for alcohol, but her experiences over dinner in Napir had given her some understanding of the expression liquid courage.  Landri thought to object, but fell silent as their third companion only picked up his step in the moment of indecision, and strode toward the tavern.

“Head into the north wood,” Kiannae commanded Lunka, and pointed east towards the castle.  Reluctantly she obeyed, and wove through the streets, barely noticed by a few keen sighted individuals that jumped back with a start making more of a spectacle with their reaction than a little noticed wolf.

She exchanged a mutually indecisive look with Landri, and headed in herself.

The tavern was packed, and Aron seemed to be making up his mind on where best to take a seat.  Only the man behind the bar seemed vaguely familiar, the others all strangers.  Kiannae pulled back her hood as a grey haired man turned to her curiously, his drink still in hand.  She noticed then the feathered cap that sat beside him on the bar.  He noticed her eyes, the like of which he knew there to be but one other pair in all the world.

For a moment his expression was strange.  For a heartbeat Kiannae did not fully recognize him.  Then grace, wit, and words failed a man for what might have been the first time she had ever seen.  His tankard clattered to the floor barely an instant before he joined it.  He stayed there on his hands and knees, motionless, staring at the beer splattered warn boards.

Kiannae wondered who was more afraid for him to look up.  She held back tears, but he did not.  He leapt up without even really looking, and rushed towards her.

Landri, and Aron moved to intercede, mistaking what might be happening, but Kiannae threw her arms in front of them.  Mercu embraced her furiously enough that both nearly fell.  For the first time Mercu realized the girl was a few inches taller than him.  For a moment he thought what a fool he was surely making of himself, till he heard her voice.

“I’m back.”  They were the simplest words, said with such effort.

“You stupid girl,” Mercu snapped, and pulled back, tears streaming down his face.  He put his hand on her cheek in disbelief.  “It is you.  Where in the the abyss have you been?”

“Around,” Kiannae choked out as Mercu hugged her fiercely again.  “I met some friends I never knew I had, down south.  Funny folk with eyes stranger than mine…” she trailed off.

“We must get you back to the castle at once,” Mercu declared almost thoughtlessly, and held her more tightly. as though nothing could ever be wrong with the world again.

“I think first I could use a drink,” Kiannae said.  “As long as it’s been.  I don’t think another half hour or so will hurt. ”

“No,” Mercu said, and held her out at arm’s length again.  “I suppose it couldn’t.  Though you will begin explaining right this minute, and start with who your friends are.”  He looked back, and forth at the two druids that stood behind Kiannae, and still eyed him suspiciously.

“Of course.  Then, perhaps I’ll finish with where in the abyss I have been…funny that,” Kiannae said with a grimace that said plainly there was very little funny about it.

“Stop,” Kiannae said, but the coach driver didn’t seem to hear.  She was staring out the window.

Mercu gave her a funny look, but her expression told him not to question.  He rapped on the ceiling behind him, and gave the command again.  The coach pulled to a halt.

Kiannae got out, and stood staring into the woods.

“What is it?” Mercu asked.

“Another friend,” Kiannae answered.

Mercu just looked at her bewildered for a moment as she gestured, as though calling someone closer.  He followed her gaze until finally his eyes reluctantly fell upon something he was surprised he hadn’t noticed.

A wolf much to large strode up hesitantly, and settled on her haunches in front of Kianne obediently.  Mercu snatched his hat from his head.  “By the fates she’s big,” Mercu muttered.

“Much smaller than her mother,” Landri said getting from the coach behind him.  “Her obedience to Kiannae is so complete she even maintained her size for some time, at her command.”

“Truly?” Mercu said turning to regard the woman doubtfully.

“Your surprise in the matter is no greater than mine,” Landri offered tersely.  “Events in Napir seem to have changed that, though she has not grown noticeably since.  Though given she could not keep food down on the voyage, I do not see how her growing would have been a possible thing.”

“Lunka,” Kiannae said in introduction.  “This is Mercu, he is family.”  She stressed.

The wolf got up, and moved to sniff around Mercu who held his hat more tightly to his chest.

“She has never harmed anyone,” Kiannae said reprovingly.

“Are you forgetting the bandits?” Landri cut back.  “It would have been better if she had remained in the forests of Napir.  It is a land friendly to dire creatures.”

Lunka nudged Mercu’s dangling hand, and hesitantly he ran his fingers over the wolf’s large head.

“Speaking of staying in forests,” Kiannae said, and crouched down, gesturing for Lunka to return to her.  “I will be up in the castle,” she pointed behind herself to the spire of the western tower.  “Stay here, stay away from people.  Don’t cause trouble.  Understood?”

The wolf dropped her gaze.  An act that had always meant she understood, but was not thrilled with the command.

“Good girl, off with you,” Kiannae said, and rubbed her head.

The wolf trotted off, but gave a glance back before seeming to vanish in plain sight.

“How in the abyss does she do that?” Mercu cursed.  “I had heard some of the stories, but…incredible.”

“Not a clue,” Kiannae said standing up, and straightening her robe.  “It’s not magic in any conventional way.  She isn’t actually invisible, just a trick of the senses, an impression they…’  she grimaced.  “She, isn’t important.  I think.  How it really works though is beyond me.”

“Any other impossible things you’ve glossed over?” Mercu asked sternly.  “I’ve heard so many absurd tales, but now I do not know what of them might not be true.”

“Several,” Kiannae offered with a smirk.  “You were anxious to get back after all.”

“We’ve time on the ride,” Mercu said sternly.

“Shall I start with my boyfriend?” Kiannae asked.

Landri huffed.  “So you are admitting that now?”

Mercu gave each a funny look, and considered the young man in the coach who gave him an incredulous look in turn.  Without answering Kiannae got back in the coach.

There was only mild interest as the doors to the throne room opened.  Though many did find Mercu’s abrupt interruption with a hooded figure in tow, and two more robed strangers cause for raised eyebrows.  Murmurs began to grow however as he marched directly towards the dais without delay, and gave only the slightest difference to a minor baron who was speaking.

The King held up his hand, cutting off the man speaking.  “What business brings you before the court this day, Mercu?” the King demanded.

“If it pleases your Majesty,” Mercu said with a bow, “druids have come from the south, or was it west.  Oh what a tale, but it is a matter of significant interest to many members of this court.”

“Very well,” the King said hesitantly, “they may speak.”

The hooded figure approached.  She drew back her hood, knelt at the dais, and then after her eyes had been seen, bowed her head.  The Queen was seen to cover her mouth, and the King stood, and stepped down the dais in what many thought an unseemly display.  Katrisha simply stood in shocked silence, not believing her eyes.

“Raise your head, that We might see you, girl,” the King commanded firmly.

Kiannae looked up at the King, and then hesitantly over to a woman she did not quite recognize at first, except from a dream.  “I have been told,” Kiannae said hesitantly, “that my sister lives.  More recently, I have been assured she stands as Court Mage.  Yet it is not until this moment, that I look upon her face, a face I can now barely recognize…” she faltered, and looked down again.  “That I truly…”

Her words were cut short as Katrisha all but pushed past the King, threw herself to her knees, and grabbed hold of her sister fiercely.  “Why did you run?” she cried, as murmurs swept the court.  “Why did you run you stupid…”

“Because I believed the lies of a mad old woman,” Kiannae said soberly.  “Because I never questioned my own foolishness.  Because I thought you were dead, Ka.”  She broke down in tears, and clung back.

“Where have you been these years?” the King asked recovering some composure, the display of the two sisters before him adequate distraction from his momentary lapse of control.

“Many places your Majesty,” Kiannae said.  “Which I will gladly speak of, at length if it is your wish.  It is a long, and meandering tale I fear, but if I were to be brief, I have lived with several groups of druids, as one of them.”  There were some extra murmurs, but nothing that did not quite quickly.

“The court is adjourned for an hour,” the King declared.  “We will speak with these druids, and the Court Mage in private.”

Kiannae looked around the tower chamber she had once shared with her sister for so many years.  It seemed almost a world away as she walked through a place at once familiar, and half forgotten.  “I almost didn’t return,” Kiannae said hesitantly.  “I almost didn’t believe, and let myself listen to the prophecy again. ”

“I’m glad you weren’t fooled, at least not again,” Katrisha said firmly, eyeing her sister shrewdly, “but what changed your mind?”

“A dream,” Kiannae laughed darkly, “the same damn prophecy changed my mind.”

“I don’t understand,” Katrisha said hesitantly.

“I recognized you,” Kiannae said, “when I saw you in court, even with the hair.  I saw you in a dream, though before I learned you lived, I thought perhaps it was me.  Some vision of my future…”

“I see,.” Katrisha sighed.

“I’ll speak no more of it,” Kiannae said, “but what twist of fate is it that the same prophecy that lead me away, brought me back.  Brought me home.”

“Then I’ll curse it only half as much?” Katrisha indecisively, grabbed her sister and hugged her tightly.

“I’m such a fool,” Kiannae said looking away in embarrassment.

“You couldn’t have known,” Katrisha said consolingly, setting aside all the hurt it had caused her.

“I could have…checked, even considered?” Kiannae said harshly of herself.

“You can’t be sure,” Katrisha said.  Fleeting memories of nights that never were returning.  “If you had stayed, perhaps something would have gone worse.  You could have gotten in the way of the fight.  Laurel or others might have died.  You might have been hurt, and I might not have lived.  Perhaps by fleeing, because you believed the prophecy, you saved me, or yourself.”

Kiannae glanced dubiously at Katrisha as she partly let her go.  She didn’t want to believe those words, but they had a weight of sickening truth.  Something in her was haunted as she looked at her twin, now so different from her.  She was shorter, her hair a strange shining silver, while Kiannae knew herself to be a shade darker from the sun, and there were slight differences now in the shapes of their cheeks from muscle tone, and weight.  That miserable prophecy wasn’t done with them.  She wanted to ignore it, to do as she had always been told, but she believed, and it killed her to think that one day she would lose her sister again, or a moment might come where it was a choice between them.  Defying it felt impossible.

“Perhaps you are right,” Kiannae lied, and tried very hard to convince herself, “perhaps that old woman saved you, that the price of the time we have lost, was paid for the time we may yet have together.  But if only I could have returned just a little sooner, to at least have seen Laurel again.”

“He will be back,” Katrisha said reassuringly, “and he will be so glad you are here.”

There was a long pause, and Kiannae started to wander, reminding herself of a room she had spent so much of her life in.  Though it did seem half the furniture had been rearranged.  It was odd.  There didn’t seem anything convenient about the new positions.  Slightly worse perhaps, but if she had not known the room so well, it wouldn’t have even stood out.  “Did you redecorate?” Kiannae asked hesitantly.

“Not intentionally,” Katrisha said nervously.  “I’ve had fits of casting mostly harmless spells in my sleep.  There are so many things I want to tell you,” she added, “but I don’t know where to begin, and I am afraid to share some of them.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Kiannae said, turning back to her sister with an uneasy laugh.  “There is so much I left out of the tale I told the King.  Some of it, none of his business, some…however important, would not help him to know.”

“Oh really,” Katrisha said, the tiniest glimmer of their old competition in her eye.

“I fell in love,” Kiannae said, “but it’s complicated.”  It seemed like more of a dodge than the just being vague.  An easy opening in questionable waters.

“Likewise,” Katrisha laughed, “and she,” it was stressed with a stern look, ‘is kept far from me.  Because it ‘threatens the stability of the court,’” she finished in an angry mocking tone.

Kiannae took a moment to process her sister’s words, but after Napir, after everything, it seemed a pale revelation.  Not however to appear beaten she wagered more of her predicament.  “Mine is never far, because….” she hesitated, “he isn’t human.”

“One of those two who came with you?” Katrisha asked not understanding, “they seemed human enough, is one Sylvan?”

“No,” Kiannae said, and wondered if she was ready to quite explain.  “I also fought a dire bear almost as big as that dragon.  I won that fight,” she said deflecting the conversation, and making her words almost an accusation.

Katrisha saw through the dodge, but let it be, taking the bait instead.  “I took my trial to become a council mage naked, before the gathered crowd,” she said in a manner resembling pride.

“You would,” Kiannae said shaking her head, and remembered the night they had parted.  “I’m sure that caused a stir.”

“A bit,” Katrisha said, but waited for Kiannae to try and trump her.

“I stopped practicing magic for a while.  Though I’ve found it still has uses,” Kiannae said.  “That dire bear I killed was by channeling.  Not a spell, or even conjuring.  I bent the will of the world around me.  Some say I am some mythical thing called a stormwalker, others scoff.  I don’t really know what to think.  Not after the things I’ve seen.”

“Do you think I could learn to do the same?” Katrisha asked curiously, though nervous about the term itself.

“I couldn’t tell you.  We were twins. It would seem likely, but in our gifts we were always different.  What’s more look at us now, and how much we have both changed, who knows.  It may also have something to do with an angry old spirit I literally helped send to the abyss.”

“One of the other things you left out of the tale?” Katrisha pressed.  She could almost see it, and it bothered her.  She felt she knew the night with all certainty.  The very night that she had done the unintentional decorating around them.  It was a certainty that refused to be ignored.  The lights in the sky, everything converged in her understanding.

“Yes,” Kiannae said simply.

Katrisha stared at her sister for a moment, she wanted to press for more, but found the topic as unpleasant a prospect as Kiannae clearly did.  “My hair is worth my weight in gold,” Katrisha said with a laugh, avoiding the subject, and returning to easier competition.

“You are kidding,” Kiannae said incredulously.

“Surely you suffered at least a bit from mage blood?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“A bit,” Kiannae said, “the druids removed a small vial from me when I first came to them.  I heard them say it was worth quite a bit, but I did not really care at the time.”

“They removed at least eight vials from me,” Katrisha said, “and there was enough left over that I did this to my hair rather than give up any more.”

“You are as mad as ever,” Kiannae laughed.

“Says the girl who started jumping off roofs,” Katrisha cut back.

“I’m glad I did,” Kiannae said fiercely.  “I’m glad I made you practice that.”  She started to cry, and Katrisha walked up to her, and held her again.

“I gave mother’s ring to the girl I love,” Katrisha admitted hesitantly, as Kiannae seemed to calm again, “and she gave me hers.”

“I see,” Kiannae said and hesitated for a moment.  “It’s alright.  My…love and I are bound a bit more tightly than that.  I won’t begrudge you claiming the ring.”

“Are you married then?” Katrisha asked hesitantly.

“More permanent than that,” Kiannae laughed nervously, and looked away when Katrisha pulled back, and tried to look her in the eye.  “I don’t really think we could ever be married.”

“Would it help if I revealed just how sordid and complicated my love life really is?” Katrisha asked nervously.  “Would that make you feel more comfortable telling me this secret you dance around?”

“Sordid?” Kiannae asked hesitantly, “you two exchanged rings.  However…unconventional the union, that seems straightforward enough.”

“And we are kept far apart,” Katrisha said meekly, “and…we each could not bare to know the other was left alone.  We have other lovers, by our agreement,” Katrisha admitted fretfully, “who we have also come to love dearly.”  She had a hard heart to anyone else’s opinion on the matter, but the idea of her own twin’s rejection, that was a fear she could not turn so easily to indignation.

“I…” Kiannae started, “I don’t know what to say to that.”

“I’ll understand if you don’t approve,” Katrisha said sadly, and stepped away.  “You won’t be the first.  But it is who I am now, so I do ask that you accept it.”

“I won’t pretend to understand what has lead you to this,” Kiannae said hesitantly, “but I suppose I can give you that much.”

Katrisha looked back at her sister, who turned away herself for a moment.  “Are you that embarrassed by me?”  Katrisha asked on edge.

“No,” Kiannae said sternly. “I found a fondness…hold good memories of a man, who by all reports was quite the same.  What is more I love Mercu like a father.  Who am I to judge?  No.  Since you have been willing to share the truth of your affairs with me…” she hesitated, “I feel obligated to do the same.”

“What greater secret could you have to hide than mine?” Katrisha asked with a nervous laugh, and gently made her sister look at her.

Kiannae closed her eyes, and whispered, “Taloe.”  

Katrisha did not remotely understand.  

“Do not be frightened,” Kiannae added firmly, “he is a friend.”  

A form appeared at the corner of Katrisha’s vision, and she stumbled backwards in surprise, and almost fell if not for Kiannae catching her hand.  She watched as boy fully formed before her, something resembling a robe hanging off his narrow frame.

“How?  What?” Katrisha muttered.

“Do you remember a ghost story Mercu once told us?”

< Previous || Next >

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.

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 23

Let the cards fall how they may,
for the Fates play only in chance,
no certain outcome awaits,
only hands already dealt,

a poor draw dictates no end,
for who’s to say what is held,
not the options laid before you,
but what is made of unknowns.

– Playing Fates, 135 E.R.

The Hand Dealt

Coria 40th, 650 E.R.

Mercu ran his fingers through his hair, and eyed the two letters on his desk suspiciously.  Two troubling pieces of news arriving on the same day.  He picked one up again, and reread it.

Dearest Mercu,

I have been a horrible traveling companion, and suffered for how my distraught state has kept me from others.  We were only at Highpass that night.  I tossed, and turned, and buried my head.  I ignored the murmurs of night owls of the troop outside my wagon. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.  I did not hear – for my self imposed seclusion – until Minterbrook.  A midnight sun.  The southern lights brighter over the north pass than they have been known to shine in Napir.  Madness grips me.  I do not remember more than a silver of the dreams that wake me, and yet I know what they are.

I am much beyond troubled.  A face, far too familiar.  A face one could mistake for a girl our tower.  Yet one knows their children better than this.  I have tried to ignore it.  Tried to forget.  Stopped myself from taking a carriage horse, and riding south.

I have seen a mirror in the dark.  A  reflection of a mark long cast upon the ages.  I have seen a child before the sun.  The words want to flow in poetry, and my tears threaten to smear the ink.  I look east with dread, and south with frantic urgency.  Yet a mad voice tells me not to return, that my instincts spiral towards only greater peril.

It gives me no comfort to see Oradin returning to court in close company to a courier I recognize as one of yours, who can tell me nothing of the correspondence he carries.  I ask for word from the council, and the illustrious mage waves a gloved hand, and offers me reports weeks old, and nothing of recent events.  The man wishes me well on my journey with a grin like a dealer in a rigged street game.  Watch yourself, and all sides around.  Watch our appointed guardian that she is not trapped by forces beyond our control.

Your hopeless companion,
Laurel Grey.

Laurel – a man more distasteful of prophecy than any Mercu had ever met – complaining openly of troubled dreams on the night of the midnight sun.  Of visions and portents.  This alone would have worried him deeply, but unconfirmed reports that the mad priest Idolus was no longer in the care of the Clarion cloister near Nohrook, only deepened his sense of impending crisis.  There was no confirmation of the absence, and no proposed location for this new wild card.  Yet Oradin had again returned to court, and been seen discussing something with Arlen that had reportedly displeased the man greatly.

Time had taught Mercu caution around portents.  Yet when circumstances and instincts converged, he was not one to be blind.  His instincts had so rarely failed him.  The right moment, and manner to nudge friend or foe.  Yet who needed nudging, what to do with the signs before him seemed an open question with no answers.

He riddled over other factors.  Katrisha’s continued mischief had escaped most, but not him, and while he knew himself to be clever, he did not make a habit of underestimating his opponents.  If he knew, there was a good chance others did.  The scandal of an impetuous and gradious Court Mage’s love affairs was manageable, alone, but the new lovers other affairs had him worried.

Pieces were in motion, but what games, and how many was not yet clear.  Finding nothing new in Laurel’s words he set the letter aside.  He opened an inkwell, and plucked a quill from its holder.

Dearest Laurel,

We do not trust prophecy.  Yet however blurry the vision, one sometimes can see the cliff ahead.  I cannot parse better than you the direction events are moving, only that they are.  There has been no word from another troublesome mage, or her father.  No sign our ally has caught wind of our suspicions.  My instincts do not disagree with your course.  The spiteful fickle moves of the east are more reliable than the vague hand of Fates.  Stay your course, for if schemes move against us on the levels you fear, then defying orders cannot help.

Your trusted fool,
Mercu.

He considered his words carefully, blew to dry the ink, and turned the page over as a knock came at his door.

“Enter.”

Katrisha stepped in, closed the door and considered Mercu silently a moment.  “You are acting suspiciously,” she finally said.

“No, the world is acting suspiciously, I am merely in it.”

Katrisha’s measured expression turned to a frown.  “You will tell me, if there is something I should know?” she pressed.

“I will tell you, anything that will help you.  That which will not, I will weigh cautiously against the harm it might do.  Though I will offer you this, for I think you do need to know.  Idolus is missing.”

“Not good news,” Katrisha said measuredly.

“No.  Though I am hard pressed to say how bad.  What harm a babbling madman can do, I am not sure.”

“I presume as much as he ever could,” Katrisha wagered in dark humor.

“Quite a lot then,” Mercu said, and rubbed his temple.  “Laurel sends his love,” he added.

“May I see?” Katrisha asked.

“You’ll forgive a man his private correspondence, I hope?” Mercu pressed.

“As you will,” Katrisha frowned.  “I came because the King wants your council.”

“Goodness, not half a month and the kingdom is already in so much disarray.”

“I do not think it is anything dire.”

“Laurel always kept some distance between myself and the crown,” Mercu said.  “Not much, of course, but it has helped in my ability to move freely through the court.  Makes it easier to play the fool.”

“Being one, I’m told also helps,” Katrisha teased.

“Indeed,” he said, and followed her gaze to his desk.  He snapped up the three letters, and tucked them into his vest.  “Very well, I presume the king is in his antechamber?”

“Yes,” Katrisha answered.

Estae 8th, 650 E.R.

Katrisha checked the spell work Lauren had constructed before him.  It wasn’t particularly functional, but he had matched the structure she had laid out.  Katherine’s on the other side, had taken half the time, was wildly off the mark, and yet strangely seemed closer to actually doing something.  Which the lesson had rather explicitly been designed not to.  Lauren was very good at following instructions, slowly.  Katherine quick at going completely sideways of the plan, and intuiting her way towards future lessons.  Her work though, far more unstable.

Katrisha made a few adjustments to Lauren’s work, pushed a new conversion through the framework, and flicked a conjured orb into the then functional trap spell her sister and her had devised as little girls.  It worked flawlessly, capturing the orb which bounced around harmlessly inside.

“Very good,” Katrisha said, and ruffled the boy’s hair.  The process of training the two felt glacial, it had been much slower than Kat herself could recall learning.  Yet what few hints Laurel had dropped about his theory of escalating powers in the world itched at how fast they were moving compared to what the books would lead her to expect.

She eyed Katherine’s spell dubiously, unsure what would happen if she even tried to activate it.  It looked almost like it might work without further meddling, but work was perhaps a generous estimation.  She added the necessary conversion to the spell, and watched it transform unexpectedly, fold in on itself, and send wild arcs of force out through the room whipping hair and clothes about.  That should not have been happening.

Lauren’s nearby spell tore apart and threw the captured orb out in a long arc.  New spell lines tracked out along forces the quasi stable spell was forming, and caught the orb pulling it in a spiral into the center of the configuration.  Katrisha was about to stop the escalating chaos when the whole thing tore itself apart, and dispersed on the residual gusts.

“Structure is important Kathy,” Katrisha said measuredly, and straightened her hair and robes.  “Also, what did you even use that was producing that much force?”

“It captured the orb,” Katherine protested.

“And destroyed it,” Katrisha chided.

The girl crossed her arms in a huff, and looked at the floor iritably.  “I didn’t use anything clever.  It was just the structure.”

Katrisha eyed the girl dubiously at the assertion.  “You are clever, but you need to learn the rules before you try to break them,” Katrisha said crouching down, and placing a finger under the girls chin gently, forcing her gaze back up to meet her own.

“But I do get to break them?” Katherine said with an odd ernesty.

“Once you’ve proven you can follow them,” Katrisha said measuredly.

“I don’t want to break the rules,” Lauren protested.

“Not even the ones about bedtime?” Katrisha teased, glancing at the boy.

“I get tired at bedtime,” he said without any particular humor.

“No set of rules are perfect,” Katrisha lectured.  “Yet one must begin somewhere.  Rules give us the basis by which to accomplish reliable results, but are like railings.  They keep us from going over edges, but sometimes those edges need to be crossed, and quickly.  Knowing how things work, and why things work, knowing expected behaviors lets one invent new ones.”

Katrisha threw up a complex web of spell work that looked little like either of the children’s spells had before.  If anything it bore more resemblance to Katherine’s, though far more clearly stable, and all the more ready to do something.  “Lauren, if you would throw an orb in here.”

The boy took a moment to form a sphere of light, and gently tossed it into Katrisha’s spell.  The spell caught the orb, pulling it along a track that formed, and spiraled as the cage folded, and gently collapsed until the orb was held tightly at the center, utterly imobile.  The captured spell was then replicated at several points around the central configuration.  Each slightly different than the original.

“The fundamental design was not on a bad track,” she said examining the result.  “The collapse needed to happen in a structured way however.  It’s a lot like my favored shield technique, disruption causes reconfiguration.  Did you copy my spell?”

“Maybe?” Kathrine said.  “It felt like something I knew.”

“Why did it copy the orb?” Lauren asked.

“Oh, just being clever,” Katrisha said, and walked curiously around the array.  “Variant replication is a technique I’ve been working on mastering.  Getting a spell to replicate with intent, but different structures.  I’m not sure if it’s viable in combat, but it has been an interesting way to explore alternate spell structures quickly.”

She plucked one of the orbs out.  “Hmm, this one is overly stable.  Seems like it picked up some of the trap spells construction.  Actually…” she tossed the spell to Katherine.

“It’s my spell,” she said almost excitedly.  “This was what I was trying to do.  Just much smaller.”

“That’s a shield spell more than an orb,” Katrisha said measuredly.  “Try to dispel it.”

Katherine focused very carefully, and managed to pluck a major branch of the spell, only for it to shrink, and shed the filament she had plucked.  She tried again, and it shrank again, but did not disperse.  She plucked and pulled at the now marble sized ball of light to no avail.

“I can’t,” she said irritably.

“It’s not quite as good as my current shield, but at scale that would take a skilled mage some time to fully dismantle.  This really was what you were trying to build?”

“Yes,” she said tersely.  “I could almost see it, as I started the lesson.”

“I’m going to try something,” Katrisha said measurely.  “I want you to know I would never hurt you, ok?”

“Ok,” Katherine said dubiously.

Katrisha threw an orb at the girl’s face suddenly.  A harmless act, though one that would surely startle her dramatically.  Her hand had already been up however to catch it before the orb even left Katrisha’s fingers, and Katrisha found herself staring at the little girl before her with some concern.

“What did you feel?” Katrisha asked.

“I saw a bright light, and…blocked it,” Katherine said.

Katrisha did not like the implication one bit.  “Lauren, I’m going to try the same with you.”

“Ok,” the boy said, and moved to block.

Katrisha waited till he lowered his guard cautiously, and looked at her confused.  She threw the quickly conjured orb when he seemed fully off guard, and though he reacted, not nearly quick enough.  The orb clipped off the side of his hand, and swirled across his face in bright, but harmless arcs of decaying light.

“Katherine,” Katrisha said measuredly.  “I want you to practice your spell for me, carefully.  Lauren, you too.”

Estae 12st, 650 E.R.

Katrisha stood beside the throne.  She had been far too absent to date in her tenure.  One of the unwritten duties of a court mage was to sometimes simply be present.  To put in a certain degree of time simply standing in court, as a reminder that they were there.  That they could always be there.  It was painfully boring, but as she did not really need to do anything, she occupied her mind running over the past month.

Mercu acting squirrely.  Signs in the night sky.  Oradin hanging about the court, rather than occupying a post along the northern border.  The slightest hint that Katherine had the instincts of a battle mage.  Even with all this on her mind it was she could do not to fall asleep on her feet by the fifth hour, having spent half the night digging through various books Laurel had acquired in her youth.  After a near fatal incident between her twin and her.

The possible implications of the girl’s talent as a another portent, was hardly the end of her concern.  The worry of a runaway emotional situation – as she had once experienced – was a very unsettling prospect.  The girl was very obstinate after all.  Yet she was hardly prepared to suggest to Horence he begin training his young daughter to spar.  Particularly given it hadn’t really worked until Laurel had shown a willingness to connect with some force.

Training with harmless light orbs had shown some promise, but she was not at all sure if it was a viable means to train her to control the instinct properly.  If that was even really battle mage instincts she was dealing with.  Suden breakthroughs, and occasional precognitive reactions were normal.  Particularly in those who came into their gift very young.  She didn’t like the lack of obvious answers.

“The court recognized Council Mage Oradin Syberus,” the court herald announced, and drew Katrisha from more abstract concerns, to a present one.

“Your Majesty,” Oradin said with a bow.  “I felt it was in order for me to inform you that the council has asked I remain at Broken Hill for the foreseeable future.  They do not believe Osyrae has any intention to attack overtly, based on their observed, and claimed behavior to date.  Yet, it has been deemed wise that the court have further protection in Laurel’s absence.”

“Our standing Court Mage did defeat you, did she not?” the King asked in an even tone.  “Sent you flying when you pulled some unexpected stunt.”

“She passed her test…to some spectacle,” Oradin said with thinly restrained distaste.  There might have been a few laughs, but the tension in the room held most back.  “It is not quite the same, to pass a controlled test, than to actually fight in combat.  Surely though, even the greatest mage, cannot suffer to have assistance, should dire times befall the court, and the girl cannot be everywhere at once.”

“Allies, are always welcome, of course,” Katrisha said measuredly.  “Though a long lack of change does not preclude it.  Osyrae has seemingly attacked, and subjected every neighbor not covered by council treaty.  Except of course the Sylvans.  They have intruded on our sovereign territory, repeatedly, and burned innocent caravans.  Stopped perhaps only because the one power they have never been able to asail, did not like how close they were to their lands.”

“Allegedly,” Oradin countered.  “The one band caught with outside assistance were outlaws from Helm.  Even if the others were as you say, it seems Osyrae is intent to play games of subterfuge.  There is little I can do to prevent such acts, only respond.  Clearly the Council has some concern they might bypass simple border disputes, and try something more direct.”

“Once again you bring such matters to open court,” the King said with thinly restrained anger.  “One wonders why you persist in stirring the fears of this court, rather than holding proper, and private council.”

“Your resistance to Council wishes has been noticed, and noted,” Oradin said standing up very straight.  “It was deemed appropriate.  That an open announcement would prevent any attempt to quietly dissuade me, from my appointed presence.  Have your Court Mage, verify my orders.”

“Your appointed presence, then can be with the gate guard,” the King said coldly.  “Feel free to ward the walls, and sleep very near, to keep watch.”

Oradin’s cheek twitched.  “Of course, your Majesty.”

“Katrisha, if you would see to the Council’s official word on the mater.”

“Of course,” she said, and bowed.  “At once, my King.”

Katrisha and Oradin exchanged one last hateful glare, before each turned, and walked in opposite directions out of the throne room.  She was fuming as she reached the top of the royal stair.  Her temper got the better of her, and she struck a stone in the wall with far more force than she meant to, a spell weaving instinctively around her fist, the only thing that kept her from shattering the bones.  The stone, did not fair nearly so well.

She stopped, and stared at the web of cracks that radiated from the point of impact.  She was distracted from feeling bad for the damage, and her lost temper, by the strangeness of it.  She traced the cracks with her finger, and tried to figure out what she was looking at.  It looked familiar.  She wasn’t even sure what the spell she had used on instinct had been.  She tried to form it again, but it didn’t quite take proper shape.  Like a half mocking image of the damage she had done to the wall.  It looked more like the work of her sister, or Katherine’s unstable clever experiments, but more rigid.  Like she wasn’t getting it right.

She shook her head, and wove a spell to knit the damaged stone back together.  Some had been lost, or turned to dust, but only a hair’s thickness spread across the uneven stone.  Once the damage was repaired she could barely tell it had been done, save how smooth the patch was.  She moved on, more measured in her ire, but even more bothered by her outburst.

Laurels parting words were not helping her mood, and yet felt all the more necessary.  She would confirm as ordered, but she had no doubt of the response.  She did not trust the Council.  Less though, did she trust Oradin.  The single glove he wore bothered her.  It was mildly enchanted, but the enchantment seemed to not do anything.  Maybe a standard protection spell to keep it clean and durable.  Why the glove though?  She had not really noticed it before, but in retrospect it seemed he had been wearing it only since his return.

Stopped, mulled her own thoughts over on last time, and turned suddenly off the stairs of the west tower.  She stepped through a door distractedly, words already coming out of her mouth.  “Have you noticed the glove?” Katrisha asked, having burst into Mercu’s room, and froze as she found a naked middle aged woman posed half covered by a blanket, and quickly more covered.  Mercu pursed his lips, and made several more brush strokes on the canvas, before rinsing the brush.

“You’ve seen her in less, you know,” Mercu finally said to his guest.  “I saw you at the testing.”

The woman’s mortified expression slowly cracked, and Katrisha – red as she was – laughed as well nervously, and averted her gaze.

“You can dress behind the screen,” he added, and she clutched up the blanket, recovered her clothes, and scurried across the room.  He turned, and glanced at Katrisha.  “You really do need to remember to knock,” he said in only the mildest chiding tone, clearly amused himself, somewhere under his measured expression.  “I have found it to be a very inconsistent trait in your character.”

“I…sorry, I was on the way to the tower, to confirm Oradin’s permanent appointment to the court, and it occured to me.  He’s wearing one glove.”

“That’s news,” Mercu said in a forced even tone.

“It is a lower appointment.  Still, the glove though, have you noticed it?”

“I’ve seen it as a style before.  Often clarion.  One hand in this world, one hand out.”

Katrisha pursed her lips.  She thought about it, and had seen a few people in South Rook do so.  All very high lords, and barons.  Castor himself.  She didn’t buy it though.  Oradin had not on all prior meetings adopted the style.  He had been visiting the Nohrook Cloister, and his brother before arriving, or so the rumors said.  Some deeper suden devotion was possible, but she didn’t like it.  There was something about the enchantment, that all easy explanations failed.  It didn’t seem like it did anything.

The maid outfit stepped out from behind the screen, and finished straightening her hair and uniform as walked across the room, leaned down, and kissed Mercu’s cheek.  She stood back up, and fixed Katrisha with a hard to read look.  She strolled toward the door purposefully, and Katrisha stepped out of the way.  The woman caught the door, and leaned closer.  Using the door to draw Katrisha to her.

“Did you like what you saw?” she asked, and Katrisha balked at her.  The maid held her gaze a moment, seemed unsatisfied by the reaction, left, and closed the door behind her.

Katrisha screwed up her lips, and glared at Mercu.  “Have rumors gotten out?”

“Not that I’ve noticed,” Mercu said plainly.  “Yet one need not be betrayed, to betray oneself.  Extra sheet changings for a tower chamber.  One maid on call for the work.  She’s posed for me too, if you want me to break the rules to give you comfort.  She is a loyal girl, but far too young for my tastes.  Still, a lovely subject.”

He got up, and walked across the room.  He shuffled through some paintings, plucked one out, and revealed a painting of a woman who Katrisha all to suddenly knew she loved, as a small pang of jealousy undercut how perfectly Mercu had rendered her sheepish expression.

“You do know you are not the only one who’s sheet’s she’s changing, don’t you?” he pressed.

“Yes,” Katrisha said measuredly.

Mercu shook his head.  “Laurel is right, you know,” he said with a sigh.  “You are more my daughter than I surely could have sired myself.  You are ok with it, aren’t you?”

“Mostly,” Katrisha said.  “I have to be.  My whole heart can’t belong to her…to either of them,” she admitted a bit pained.

“But you can’t help it if a bit does, can you?” Mercu said, and put the painting back away.

“No.  Almost the moment I lay my eyes on…  Even cursed Charles,” Katrisha said with clenched fists.  “Even after.  No matter how much I want to hate him.”

“There are those of us,” Mercu said.  “Well, my philosophy.  You are welcome to your own.  Who are far too good at seeing the humanity in people.  Who even under all the parts that agitate us, we still somehow love.  Love almost everyone really.  Some like brothers, daughters, fathers, mothers…some, far more…longingly.”

“Yes,” Katrisha said.  “I think that sums it up.  You, too?”

Mercu wobbled his head.  “It’s not instant, but it is very quick.  Not the moment I lay my eyes on them, as you say, usually, but by the end of a conversation.  Yes.”

“I know on sight,” Katrisha said more non-comitally.  “I don’t know how I feel about it, but I know.  It’s sure not always a simple feeling.”

Mercu shook his head.  “The glove,” he said changing the subject.  “Now that our little spy has stopped listening.”

Katrisha glanced behind her at the still closed door.

“The glove is concerning, yes.  Enchanted, but I’m going to guess you will tell me it doesn’t seem to do anything?”

“Yes.  You could notice?”

“Sometimes.  Confirm for me.  The shoes?  Anything of the robe above the hem?”

“No,” Katrisha said, thinking back.  I don’t think so, just the cloak, the glove, and the hem of his robe.”

“Actual tradition is not to enchant the gloves.  To show you how filthy, and filled with decay the world is, and challenge you not to dirty it I think.  Some favor black gloves, but most white.  Particularly in Nohrook.  Many high adherent Clarions keep enchantments away from their skin.  Fearing the entropic influence.  The hem, and the cloak.  Typical.  Not the shoes, but the glove?  No, it doesn’t fit.”

“So he’s hiding something?” Katrisha asked.

“Oh, that man is hiding a great many things,” Mercu said, rubbed his chin, and tapped his lip.  “He’s better at most.  This is not planned as well as he wanted.  You’ve disliked him enough without my help, but if he has been appointed to court, and nor the border.  Well, it’s time you knew that.  However suspicious you are, be more so.”

“What should we do?” Katrisha asked.

“Confirm with the council, and use backup codes,” Mercu said with a more serious expression than Katrisha was used to seeing.  “Set wards on the door lock that you can tell if they have been disrupted.”

Katrisha put the stone back in it’s case, and rubbed her forehead.  Every code confirmed, backups switched, new backups provided.  Even if Oradin had hijacked the stone, it was very unlikely he had done so long enough ago to have that information.  Unless he had gotten it from the council in the first place.  It wasn’t a replacement appointment, supplemental.  Supplemental appointees had ranks lower than knight’s adorned.  It was a dangerous move closer, if he had plans, but it was not a bald faced grab for power either.

She looked up at a knock at the door.  She walked over, and felt a familiar presence through the door.  She hadn’t really noticed it before.  Ungifted so rarely had one.  Her’s…it was strange, it was that moment with her hand on her cheek, a warmth there, and the warmth of a living thing near, but nearer than she actually was.  Katrisha unlatched the door, opened it, and stared at Maeren who was holding her arm nervously.

“Mercu said, you were up here,” Maeren said through pursed lips.  “He was waiting in your room.”

“I’ve not betrayed you, anymore than you have me,” Katrisha said.  “By that, I mean we betrayed ourselves.  The sheets.”

Maeren winced.  “How many know?”

“Probably just your fellow maids who know the rules, and Mercu,” Katrisha answered.  “Who it seems does too.  Guess I always should have known.”

“He was only interested in me for my beauty,” Maeren said tight lipped.  “Which I protested was nonsense, but…I probably would have,” she added.  “He made me look so beautiful in that painting.”

“You’ll forgive me if I’m glad you didn’t, that would be awkward for me,” Katrisha said measuredly.

Maeren stepped closer, and took the very position her presence promised.  Stood looking into Katrisha’s eyes, her hand on her cheek, her lips close, but not touching.  Perhaps it was because she so unfailingly went to that moment, and held there.  Her presence could be recognized, and that became a memory of how she so often placed herself.  Like a rune in a spell, a sequence unfolding into expected conclusion. It was an odd thought.

“Is it too awkward?” she asked.

“They’ve all seen me naked,” Katrisha countered.  “Is that too awkward for you?”

Maeren bit her lip, and shook her head.

Estae 13th, 650 E.R.

“Don’t go.”

It was earnest, sincere, but not quite desperate, as Katrisha caught Maeren’s shoulder before she could escape her bed.  It took the woman a moment to meet Katrisha’s eyes, and riddle over what lay behind them. They weren’t entirely human, and those little things that didn’t quite belong, they made one have to look all the longer, and see all the more deeply just how human they were.

“Nothing matters beyond this bed, these walls,” Katrisha added.  “This, this is life. Stay with me, and forget the world.”  She was trying to sound playful, it wasn’t working.

“You said you did not wish to be possessive,” Maeren chided.

“Then possess me,” Katrisha teased, and nervously smirked.

Maeren brushed back Katrisha’s hair, and half smiled at her.  “What of your other love, not really even so far from here?”

“Let her come, and join us, and together we will all forget that anything else exists.”

“Cheeky girl, you would have us share you?” Maeren pulled away, and crossed her arms.

“Do you not already?  Do I not share you each with others already?  Let us all fall together, and belong to one another.  Nothing else could matter.”

“And Osyrae, and its ever looming war?”  Maeren pressed.

“Should they want it, then let them not have it,” Katrisha said firmly.  “Let them have the world instead. Seems a fitting headache for them.  They cannot fight us if we do not contest it.”

“A plausible argument, but you would trust them to rule?”

“Need I trust anyone?  Even the King? He abides the Clarions.  The Council abides them, and sends them to our court.  I dare say let the Osyraens deal with them.  I do not imagine they would be kind to these endless games. Do you know the Sisterhood walks Osyrae unimpeded, but the Clarions are kept on the tightest of leashes?  Even then their words most often fall on deaf ears. Osyrae for all their scheming, for all their evil deeds…they treasure this world. They do not wish to abandon it.”

“Yet they do – as you say – such evil things, to claim their prize.”

“I have heard the words of evil men in our lands all the same.  Surely you know of affairs in South Rook? It was Kiannae and I who heard a Duke and Baron plot to punish innocents, and reward the crimes of killers.  There will always be evil men in this world, what do I care what banner they stand under? They just need to learn, once they have it, that they were fools to ever want it.  Forget them all, and stay with me.”

“I would love nothing more, than to lay in your arms, and belong to you, or even you and your other little miss,” Maeren said, bit her lip, and kissed Katrisha softly.  There was such joy in her eyes, but it was tempered. “You know I must go,” Maeren responded kindly. “What power you have, cannot keep me in this court, if I do not play my part.  No more than it has yet returned your Celia to your bed.”

“What if I can? What if I do?” Katrisha half teased, but meant it more so.

“Accomplish this impossible thing, and the other, and we will discuss all that is then surely doable.  Reign as Queen, and I shall gladly stand your concubine.”

“Not Queen Consort?” Katrisha countered, smiling smugly.

“Would you raise me so?  I seem ill fit.  What of Celia?  Why not her?”

“Who – so long as we dream of impossible things – is to say I need have one consort?  Nay if a land may have two Queens, I say let it have three. Then who better to be the voice of the people, than my consort who has lived as one of them, and at my other hand a kind, wise, spiritual advisor.”

“Then you shall need to fight Osyrae, if not the Council to keep your trice anointed Queendom.”

“Then at last I shall have one, worthy to fight for.”

Maeren kissed Katrisha long, and hard, till she was thoroughly disarmed, and the maid could slip quickly from her lover’s bed, and bound away playfully.  “You’ve your task, my Queen.”  She bowed with absurd extremity. “See it is done, and you may keep me so long in your bed as you please. Till then, in the mornings I must go.” She gathered her clothes, and began to dress.

“You tempt me,” Katrisha said, laying across her bed, leaned on one arm, and watched appreciatively.

“Tempt, tempt,” Maeren laughed heartily, and glanced back over her shoulder.

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Chapter 22

Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown,
however light and airy the great ladies gown,

oh how a man born to throw down lines of kings,
would gladly bargain to raise the world her queen,

yet what honor have I to offer she who rivals me,
a line millennia more noble stands opposite these,

I relent to purchase but a lonely male heir,
the price a princess, for a queen coy but fair.

– Prince Adrian of the Empire, circa 60 E.R.

The Court of Storms

Coria 30th, 650 E.R.

All was a swimming sea of darkness, and vague shapes in shimmering light.  There were sounds, distant, muffled, like wind through the trees, or the groaning of a ship at sea, and a low droning ring under it all.  Scattered things coalesced into half formed thoughts, and one burst forth above the rest.

“Taloe!” Kiannae shot upright, her head spun, or the world revolved around her, she couldn’t tell, and collapsed back into bed.  She clutched a shoulder that still ached, but was not nearly as wounded as she recalled.  It hadn’t sounded right – her own voice –  that of all things stuck out.  She partly focused on a face that was hovering over her in a dimly lit room.  It was a woman, white as snow with long curly black hair.

The woman held up two fingers, and mumbled something.

“What?” Kiannae groaned.

“Can you hear me?” The woman asked much more forcefully, and in truth Kiannae almost couldn’t.

“Barely,” she said wearily.

She felt fingers dig lightly in behind her ears, and life flow into her through those delicate points.  There was another face then, or a silhouette of one further back in the dark room.  Kiannae had trouble telling, and yet there was a vague familiarity to it, then she realized why.  It was the eyes, a striking violet hue that caught even in low light.  A color she had only seen eyes be once before in her life, but the name was eluding her.

“It is her,” she heard, still slightly muffled.  “I met the girl but once, her, and her twin, but I tell you it is her.  A little princess of Avrale.”  Every word became clearer, low, and thick with an accent that was as distinct as his eyes.

“I’m no princess,” Kiannae muttered.

“No, no,” the deep male voice agreed.  “Apprentice then, to the man Laurel, great Court Mage of the land.”

“That perhaps,” Kiannae groaned.  “Taloe?” She asked pleadingly, closed her eyes and searched her senses, nothing else able to seem important.

“Your spirit lingers,” Tora said sternly.  “Though I saw him but once, standing fragmented but defiant before a dragon in silence, till an agreement was struck.”

“Good,” Kiannae said, and sank into the bed she was lain on.

“I do not care what the healers say,” Tora said sternly.  “Now that you are awake, you will not be sleeping again on us so soon.  Not till you answer my questions.”

“Leave the girl be,” the shadow of a man said stepping forward angrily.  “Just to look at her it is clear she is not well.  To hear your stories, it is a wonder she lives.”

“Varmun?” Kiannae said under her breath, not sure she was remembering his name right.  It had been so briefly, and so long before that she had known the man.

“Yes, girl,” the man answered with a nod.

“I don’t understand,” she protested.  “Where am I?”

“Still in Napir,” Tora said angrily.  “In the capitol, the very Throne of Storms.”

“Why?” Kiannae groaned.  “How?” She tried to sit up, and again thought better of it.

“Because one does not say no to dragons,” Tora snapped.  “It has been maybe ten hours, but it was far less before four dragons were upon us.  Great daughters of Roshana, come to find out why a midnight sun split the sky in the north of their land.”

“I still don’t understand,” Kiannae protested.

“Then all hope is lost for the lot of us to do so,” Tora growled.  “I abided to keep the secret of your spirit, when Landri informed me.  He sounded harmless, but then…that.  What was that?  What forces even could…magic?  It was far beyond any magic.  No work of mages.  No work of any practice I have ever heard of.”

“Something angry, and old,” Kiannae said tiredly.  “I saw the abyss take her.”

“The Abyss, yes,” Tora muttered, and threw up her hands.

“Varmun,” Kiannae said.  “Why are you here, how?”  She looked to the man, trying to pick out his features in the dim light.

“The same reason I ever am,” Varmun laughed darkly.  “To petition to speak to Queen and Dragon on behalf of my people.”  He crossed his arms.  “After years of entreaties, with every visit, at long last I was granted audience with one of the royal line.”  He gestured to the pale young woman that sat to Kiannae’s left.  “Princess Selene, youngest daughter of the Storm Queen.”

Kiannae glanced at the girl, bewildered.  She nodded demurely back.

“Three days I waited, with no sign of my audience,” he said with an emphatic gesture.  “Then as the woman Tora says, the last night, a midnight sun, a spectacle wondrous and terrible to behold.  The southern lights more brilliant than they have ever been.”  He shook his head.  “I waited again this morning, and even as the fair princess did descend the steps of the court where I waited, dragons swept down from the sky.”  Varmun laughed again in mixed humor.  “Then there was yelling, and hurrying, and an injured woman demanding others take care of a girl first.  A girl she called, Kiannae.”

“Landri?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes,” Tora said.  “She will be fine, she is being tended to by others.  In spite of being closer than any of us, save you, or her own reckless part in the start of…that…  She almost seems better off than others who were still deaf, blind, and being healed as we speak.  The princess here offered to see to you personally, to calm her, and the man Varmun who claimed he might know you offered to move you.”

“Why are we here?” Kiannae repeated, starting to piece back together everything from the past few days.

“Have you not been listening girl?” Tora growled.  “That…fight, that explosion of energy.  It was seen all the way in the capital, Fates know how far away in other lands.  We are here to answer questions.”  She rubbed her forehead.  “The dragons arrived when only a few of us could barely see again.  They demanded someone come with them to answer.  I agreed if they also bore our wounded to more skilled healers.”

“And it would seem you have few answers to give,” the princess interjected.  “More it seems you bring further questions even.  An apprentice of the court mage of Avrale, so far south, traveling among druids, accompanied by dire wolves, and fighting with, or against spirits amidst a terrible blighted land.”

Kiannae winced, and tried to clear her head.  “The spirit we fought,” she said, “was another of Taloe’s tribe.  She woke after my fight with the direbear.  I learned of her just before we left Lundan Grove, but he believed he had her bound.  It has made his presence more erratic to keep her in check.  There is nothing more, or less to be said about her.  She’s gone now.”

“You are certain?” Tora demanded.

“I saw that thing, that center of the blight, take her,” Kiannae said, avoiding other parts of what she had seen, if she was not asked.  “It was all that I could do to save some, I hope all of Taloe.  There was no room in me left for her.”

“Who, or should I ask what is Taloe?” Selene pressed.

“A spirit, a ghost, half flesh I think.  A…friend who comes to my aid.”

The princess did not look overly satisfied with the answer.  “The light then?”

“Were I to guess, and your’s is as good as mine.  Her great power was enough to disrupt whatever had gone wrong there.  A backlash of proportional effect followed…just all at once.”

“Proportional effect?” The princess laughed dubiously.  “There is a mile of grass land etched in intricate spirals and spell like circles, in the middle of the dead heart of the blight, and a sprouting tree that could be observed to grow in unreasonable haste.  This is what you call a proportional effect?  Proportional to what?”

“Well, it could be that the world spell itself was collapsing, so, all things being relative?  Maybe?”

The princess grimaced slightly at the explanation.  She clearly did not like it, but did not protest further.  “That will do, for now,” the princess said, and stood.  “She will be fine, and I will report to my mother on the matter.”

“What about our meeting?” Varmun implored of the girl before she could leave.

“Wait again on the morrow,” the princess offered.  “If there is time, I will find you,” she said, and left, closing a door behind her.

Varmun huffed.

“I’m sorry,” Kiannae said weakly.

“Do not think this is your doing, girl,” Varmun said in a deep grumble.  “I do not think she had come to meet me at all, but in expectation of the dragons return.”

“So you really are the daughter of the court mage of Avrale,” Tora sighed.  “I had heard the rumors, and yet still somehow did not believe it.  I had thought, with certainty that if it were true, you would not still be among us.  That you would have with all due sense, and haste been returned to your home.  I ignored it, because even if I knew Ezik to be a mad old fool, I presumed Landri still had some reason left in her.”

Kiannae closed her eyes, and sighed.  “I was his adopted daughter.  Apprentice I sometimes felt.  Mercu really raised us.  Not that I wasn’t willing to die for him, to risk my own life…my sister’s life on that mountain.   I ran away because I was angry, because I could not face him, blaming me for her death, when I felt like it was his fault.  Because he wouldn’t listen.  Because…everything would have been a reminder…because…I’d have to accept Wren, and cry on his shoulder, all of these things, and I was wrong.  I was wrong about everything.  Because…she was there…” Kiannae trailed off.  It hadn’t been Wren.  It clawed at the back of her mind, the most impossible thing.  It had looked like Wren, but even when he was little, his voice wasn’t that girlish.  “Mother…” she said much to quietly to be heard.  It had been like a child’s version of her voice.

“That almost explains the rest of that…story with the dragon born,” Tora said wearily, mistaking Kiannae’s regression for actual silence.  “I should have pressed Landri on the rumors that evening.”  She rubbed her head.  “No, but of course, again I presumed it too preposterous with the rest.”

“What story is this?” Varmun asked curiously.

Tora folded her arms, and looked uninterested in answering any more of the man’s questions.

“We might have tried to slay a dragon,” Kiannae laughed, as much for what she was still madly considering, as for the madness she had previously been part of.

“But you are, even now, barely more than a child,” Varmun said incredulously.  “However you have grown.”

“It was a few years ago,” she offered with a wry but uncomfortable smile.

“Vashiel!” He proclaimed wide eyed.  “And you both lived?  Or is it only you now?  Is that why you are so far from your twin?”  His face grew grim, and worried.

Kiannae swallowed.  “For a long time I thought she had. I…” she closed her eyes.  “I ran away, I hid myself in another life.  I told some of what happened at first, but never who I really was though…”  She shook her head.  “It is only, what –  two days, some more – I have known she is still alive.”

“Poor child,” Varmun shook his head.  “I sensed from the moment I met you that troubles lay ahead.  Never could I have imagined.”

“Would you leave us?” Tora asked.  “Though it seems you know the girl, I do not wish to leave her in the company of a man I do not, and I must check on the others of our company.”

Varmun looked at her with a wounded expression.  Then with a shake of his head he bowed it.  “Very well, but I will speak with her again before she leaves.  I will know more of this tale.”

“Yes of course,” Kiannae said, and winced again as she tried to move.

Varmun nodded, and left, giving Tora one last cross look.  For her part she ignored it, and stared at Kiannae disapprovingly still.  She turned to leave a moment later, but just as she did Kiannae remembered something else.

“Wait,” Kiannae said.  “Lunka, is she alright?”

“There is nothing right, about those dire creatures you keep as pets,” Tora said sternly.  “The white one was very protective of you, last I saw.  The dark one, I do not know.”

“He…died I think, fighting the spirit,” Kiannae said, not sure what else to call what she had seen.  If the others hadn’t seen it, she was not prepared to explain,

“The white one made it very difficult for us to move you, but even that cursed creature knew better than to fool with dragons.  Unlike your spirit.”  She held the door a moment.  “If it remained with the other druids I do not know.  If it followed, I expect it is lost now, somewhere deep in the woods to the north.”

Coria 32nd, 650 E.R.

The Throne of Storms was an almost humble name for the grandiose vista that spilled blindingly across Kiannae’s vision.  She shielded her eyes and squinted as she stepped into the bright midday sun.  Light gleamed blindingly off white and polished grey stone, and terraced courtyards blanketed in a late spring snow.  Towering statues rose all around.  The grandest of these by far flanking a massive stair that stretched to the edges of ones vision.

These central statues – all elegant, regal women – each bore timeless faces that starred out across a valley far below.  Curled lips and fierce eyes granting cold sneers of command that seemed at times in stark contrast to styles of dress both elaborate, and spectacular in their rendering of opaque stone into seemingly translucent veils.  Amidst them stood others whose bare chests easily made eyes cast down in humility to look upon such regal continence in all their glory.  A matter she had read of intent, and surprisingly effective in person, she found.

Even as eyes adjusted to the light, and will determined to scan the surrounding landscape without humility, it was almost impossible to tell where to look.  The nearest statue flanking the great stair nearly filled her vision, standing thirty feet high, it was among the smaller third of their number, as they grew higher upon each tier above, and smaller down into the terraces of city and gardens below.  It was as strange, and more glorious sight than Kiannae had ever seen, and a few partial sketches in books had hardly given her an imagining of it. 

She stepped up to a near rail of the terrace she was on, and down a hundred feet where gardens and man made rivers cascaded in waterfalls down the mountainside, nestled amidst tall stone buildings with arched elaborate roofs.  For every tier, or exit off the stairs were a pair of statues, forty-two in total.  A partial record of the line of Queens that had reigned since before even the lands own records.  Since before Maji, or kings, and long before the time of the Empire.

One of the storm-monks sent to gather the druids gently set a hand on her shoulder, and gestured to the entrance to the stair ahead.  Kiannae gave him a look to compete with one of the statues above, but she relented to the unspoken command, and joined the others.

Over a thousand steps, much more than a thousand feet long, and half as high the great stair and its statues stood.  At the top were two much taller than the rest, that loomed imposingly as they approached.  One carved from dark grey stone, bare chested, her hair formed into thick strands that seemed amiss against the detail of the piece – or – Kiannae reconsidered, perhaps a style of hair she had never seen before.  The statues arms were outstretched as though giving a gift.  Her expression perhaps sadder than others.

To her right stood a statue that did not match the others.  Her robes heavier in style, no less delicately carved, but they lacked the translucent illusion, and gave her a modesty that seemed out of place, along with her more measured, almost wistful expression.  She held an arm to the sky, and coiled about it was a winged serpentine lizard.  Her gaze was cast up to her immortalized pet.  A first draft of what the greatest shaper the world had ever known would become.

Kiannae glanced from the statue of the princess Roshana, to another tall figure that stood in a side garden at the top of the stair, where history lessons said the statue of the second Storm Queen had been moved to make room for the only figure flanking that stair to reign not as Queen, but as Empress.

To the left past the first queen stood another side garden, and a huge statue of a dragon there, or at least so it seemed.  The presumed statue turned its massive head, glanced at the ascending party, and then shifted to launch upward.  Even hundreds of feet away a sweep of its great wings made rumbling flaps that could be heard as the dragon flew off along the valley.

As they climbed the stairs Kiannae glanced at names etched beneath each statue.  For all she had read of the Throne of Storms, the names were little mentioned.  The name Yun was etched beneath the first Queen, and Kiannae found herself staring at it.  She was done feeling too clever for her own good, and did not stop, nor speak her thoughts on the mater as the party proceeded through a grand doorway carved from the mountainside itself.

The Hall of Storms was an unnerving place to enter, the air stiflingly heavy, and oddly warm.  Vast passageways arced off to the sides away from the entrance, and another pair of statues – again of the first two queens – held up the very ceiling high above.  Forming the door into the next chamber, where a hint of ozone undercut everything.

The throne room stretched above for six stories, with balconies dotting the walls.  All of it hewn from the interior of a mountain, and polished down like glass.  Pillars several arm spans around stood evenly along the main path to the throne, twice as far from the great entry doors, as the ceiling hung above.  It all seemed too much, a spectacle that laid pale any description of it.  Only the throne room of the Dragon Empress Roshana was claimed to have ever been grander.  Yet Corinthia was lost, and the Halls of the Storm Queen endured.

For all its vastness, the great hall was nearly empty, save three druids, the storm-monks that ushered them, and the Queen herself.  She sat on a grand, and singular throne upon a great dias.  Her dress a flowing thing of white satin, pooled in a pearlescent sea about her feet.

“Greetings,” the Queen said, as her guests stopped before her, and she shifted from a more languid repose to gaze down upon her visitors.  Her crown was an imposing thing of black, fanned out above her head with long arcs joining seven sweeping spines.  It seemed an unreasonably heavy ornament.

“Why are we still kept here?” Tora demanded.  “We have answered every question put before us, truthfully. There is nothing more we can tell you.”

“You are believed on this,” the Queen said dismissively with a wave of her long fingers.  “The very nature of that terrible place has changed, my scouts have confirmed it.  Even from here, I can feel it, and the growing tree at its heart.”  She tensed, drew a breath, sighed, and gently shook her head.  “You have been kept at my leisure.  I wished to meet you, this girl between you most of all.  I wished also our Empress to wake, and do so herself, and yet all the stories that can be told have not made the old girl stir.  The green one did open his eye curiously, for a while, but said nothing.”

The Queen tapped a nail on her throne.  “I ask you?  What use is it to have dragons behind your throne, when all they wish to do there is sleep?  Not even to greet those who fight battles with ancient spirits on our very doorstep, who walk with dire wolves, call powers that light the night sky, and fight black drakes as children.”  The Queen shook her head.  “Still, she is my Empress.”  She tapped her nail frustratedly again.  “Come closer child.”

Kiannae glanced at Landri, who shrugged, and then nodded.  Hesitantly she took several steps up the dias, and stood before the Queen.  The Queen leaned forward upon her throne, and tilted her head side to side, an act that looked like it would be uncomfortable under such a heavy crown.

“They call you Stormwalker?” The Queen asked.

“Some have,” Kiannae answered.

The Queen reached out, and took Kiannae by the chin firmly.  There was a crackle high above, one that she felt in her bones.  There was something in the Queen’s eyes that flashed almost like an arc of lighting, and held Kiannae’s gaze, mesmerized for a moment.

“Curious,” the Queen said, and leaned back, releasing Kiannae’s chin.  “The Bound Storm agrees.  I had never thought to see an outsider that the storm called to.  It has happened, lost children of the throne returning.  Yet you are not one of us.  Not by any reliable record.  A half blood Sylvan of northern lands, and no title I am told.  Yet it likes you, I think nearly as much as any of my daughters, each stormborn, blood of the Queen.  Concerning.”  Her cheek twitched.  “Perhaps I should insist you marry my youngest son.  He’s a good boy, well tempered, for a man.”

“You’ve no authority to compel the girl to wed,” Landri said angrily, stepping forward.

There was a crack overhead that echoed through the halls.  “Haven’t I?” The Queen laughed.

“She is the daughter of a Council Mage, the Court Mage of Avrale,” Landri said measuredly.

“Do you think the Council has any authority here?” The Queen seemed quite amused.  “Do not mistake my permission for them to enter my lands, as anything more than my welcoming of foreign dignitaries.  The Empress may have forged their order, but she gave them no hold here.  Nor do I find the thin bond of foreign law, over an orphaned Sylvan bastard, of age, in my lands, all so terribly binding.”

“I am spoken for,” Kiannae said flatly.

“Your spirit, yes?” The Queen said shrewdly.  “Very well, show him to us.  He is one of several unproved parts of the tale.”

“Come on Taloe,” Kiannae whispered under her breath.  Nothing happened for a moment.  She had tried several times to call him up, and only a fleeting touch to her cheek had given her any confidence he was still there.  Even that, she worried she had imagined.

“Well?” The Queen pressed.

It was a subtle shift, and then from mist a boy appeared kneeling, and leaned on his hands for support beside her.  There was a low crackle that crawled across the ceiling high above.

“Spectacular,” the Queen said, clasped her hands together, and leaned forward curiously again.  “So the creature does exist, and just like I prefer my men, bowed at my feet.”

Taloe struggled up, and Kiannae helped him.

“Naked too,” the Queen laughed.  “You claim this girl, spirit?”

“I am her servant,” Taloe said hesitantly.  “I do all that I can to be a welcome presence to her.  She is no more mine to claim, than yours to give.  Though I believe it fair to say, she has claimed me.  She stole my very essence from beyond the veil, and defied things I cannot call but gods, on your very step.”

“Then it is her affair if she wishes to marry my son,” the Queen said with a wicked grin, ignoring the grandiosity implied.

Kiannae just stared bewilderedly at the woman before her.

“Well, what will it be girl?” The Queen pressed.  “My son will abide what I tell him.  If he must share you with this spirit, it is of little concern to me.  I doubt such a creature capable of…muddling things.  If I am wrong in that, well, I’d be quite fascinated to observe the occurrence.  Regardless, love who you will, as any proud woman of my court should, bare me a few fine heirs, and I will not mind the rest.”  She had her hand up in a gesture Kiannae had seen Mercu make many times, when he was being mockingly magnanimous.

“I’ll not marry a boy I haven’t met,” Kiannae said with forced calm.

“You would meet him, surely.”   The Queen countered in wry amusement.

“And meet the boy I will, if is your wish, but I will not wed him.  I will marry only for love, and my affection is not so easily won.  Ask the one before you who has.  What is more, I have a sister, far from here, one I long thought lost. I intend to return to her, to Avrale.  My home.”

The queen held still a moment, a terrible tension filling the air.  “Very well,” she said, and waved her hand dismissively.  “After you have met, and dined with my children this eve, you may all go at your leisure.  Should you decline their offers in person, then consider such rescinded.”

Taloe whiffed away, and Kiannae hesitated before stepping back down the dias.

“You did well,” Landri offered quietly, and fell in at her side to leave.

After only a few steps however the Queen called after them.  “Do not think I have not recognized your face.  You will wear a crown girl.  It may not be mine, but I agree with my young daughter’s vision.  Stormchild or Stormwalker, Sylvan blood or human, all your fates converge.  If you live, that is.  I suppose the Fates can always be foiled in some ways, or have other plans.”

Returning to terraced exterior of great stair let Kiannae breath a sigh of relief.  It had become a familiar and repugnant feeling, a terrible power calling to her, offering her greatness, and servitude in equal measure.  She had felt the tension between herself and the Queen, like lighting ready to strike.  It had only grown every moment, that feeling, until the Queen had relented in her demands.  Kiannae was less than certain if it had been a retreat of satisfaction, or strategic.  She did not wish to consider it an open question in her mind, and she was glad the contest was not had.  She had refused, and with that, the matter seemed settled.  With no need for anyone to prove anything.  Though not settled enough to just let her go.

Leaned against the base of First Queen Yun’s statue was a man of dark skin that stood out plainly among the other people that moved about the royal grounds.  “There you are,” Varmun called out, and marched towards the three druids.  “It is good to see you are better.”

“Did you get your audience at last?” Kiannae asked, forcing some calm over her troubled thoughts.

“Yes, for no good it did me,” Varmun said with a distasteful sneer.  “I was told, with some sympathy by the young princess, that there was nothing she could do.  Napir can offer no aid herself, and the white one sleeps, and will not wake.  Not even for you.  What hope then do I have?”

“What will you do now?” Kiannae asked somberly.

“What I will do?” Varmun laughed.  “I think I shall take a young mage, or druid home.  It will be a faster journey surely than waiting for a caravan, or walking as these lot would have you do.  Presuming you are now freed of the Queen’s demands?”

“I’ve one last…command to attend to this evening, but I would be grateful if you would truly do that for me,” Kiannae said a bit bewildered.

“I would, and not for nothing,” Varmun said shrewdly.

“And you ask?” Landri interjected.  “We druids cary little coin, and I do not think the girl has anything to promise you.”

“An honest, and just way she does,” Varmun said.  “A favor the girl will owe me, and I shall accept perhaps it is one that she can never repay.  If so, then it is as all things in my life.  I think otherwise though.  Accompany her if you will, protect her honor if this is your fear.  I’ve no designs on the child.  My heart belongs to a woman of Carth, a fair lass of silver eyes, and coils of golden hair.  Bring a few others if you like as well.  Your fellows have taken up residence in the forest north of the city.  Dire wolf, and all.”

“You know the wolves follow Kiannae, don’t you?” Landri pressed.

“I fear only one remains, if that would lessen my potential debt to you at all,” Kiannae offered, but gave Landri a sharp look.

Landri seemed like she wanted to protest, but relented she had crossed a line on the matter, and held herself from further comment.

“I do,” Varmun smiled.  “This white one likes me.  Though I have always had a way with touched creatures.”

“Let me wager I might have sway to place you before more of the royal family,” Kiannae offered.  “If that might even any debt.”

“In practice no, but I think in satisfaction.  Yes.  Let us say, only a little favor one day.  Some small concession of use, and no real harm.  A gratitude.”

“I accept,” Kiannae said shrewdly.  “Though dinner – going by the sun – is some hours off.  I am unsure where I am permitted to be until such time.”

“The public spaces of the grounds are surely open to a guest, fresh quarters if you wish,” one of the monks answered.  “You have been offered a place at this court after all.”

Varmun looked as though he wished to question the point, but held his tongue.

Kiannae took a deep breath, and looked out to the courtyards at either side.  “Then perhaps I shall wait in the east garden, and take my continued…status as ‘guest,’ as an excuse to admire this beautiful place.  I would like a message given to one I might negotiate with, for Varmun’s proper invite to the feast.”

There was a great flap, and several quick thuds as a wild wind wiped up around Kiannae, who spun as a profound presence like the sun washed over, her hair still caught in the chaotic eddies.  The storm-monk that had stood behind her barely titled his head as she stared wide eyed at the dragon that had landed in the central stonework of the garden.  Her great form nearly filling the open space.

“Ah good, you are awake, little one,” the dragon rumbled.  Her voice oddly feminine in spite of its incredibly low tone.  Her high horned brow, and spiked chin tilted down as she adopted a seated pose.  “I am glad I did not do any great harm to you, carrying this tiny frail form from the blight.”  She gestured with a claw to Kiannae’s shoulder.  “Less than it seemed had already been, at very least.”

“None…at all, so far as I know,” Kiannae stammered.  “I must imagine you are quite gentle to have done so.”  The talon barely poked her shoulder as if to prove several points, and retreated.  “Forgive me, introductions must be in order.”  She curtsied with a readiness she had not in years.  “Kiannae Ashton of Avrale, daughter of summer glades and the passing storm, ward of the Court Mage Laurel Grey, and apprentice druid, of Lundan Grove.”

“Passing storm?” the dragon intoned curiously, a great scaly brow pulling back slightly.

“Sorry, childish fancy, really.  No certain meaning, but…a good friend would never forgive me, if I passed on the opportunity to introduce myself so, under such remarkable circumstances.”

“Some call you Stormwalker,” the dragon pressed.

“Yes,” Kiannae said with a half smile.  “Some.  It is unrelated, probably.  Fates know with these things of course.”  She ran her fingers slightly through her hair with one hand.  “Forgive me, I fear I’ve little to go on, so I must ask what greater dragon I have the privilege of addressing?”

“Calista’etten,” the dragon intoned.  “First daughter of the Empress, steward of my mother’s brood.”

“Ah yes, named for the paladin Queen, your sainted aunt,” Kiannae obliged with another curtsy, unsure if it would ingratiate or displease. “A privilege by far to make such an esteemed acquaintance, and to have been carried by your great… personage.”  She struggled to figure out why she was so nervous.  She reconsidered that perhaps she wasn’t really certain if she had fought something on par with an ancient greater dragon.  Even forgetting that she felt like she had lost much of that seeming power.

“Likewise,” the dragon intoned in a stern manner that demanded it meant more.

A much less than pleased expression crossed Kiannae’s face, replacing nerves with annoyance.

“If it troubles you, we will not speak of your mark upon the ages.   A face that haunts even the dreams of dragons.”  Calista leaned her great head closer, and sniffed slightly.  “Though one wonders if it is past, or hence.  What powers a small girl might have toyed with to make a midnight sun, brighter than the work of two dragons at high festival.  Though ever more fleeting.  A great many questions, that she played some part in bringing three lost whelps to our step.  A great many questions about a great many things, beg, to be asked.”

“I’ve little in the way of answers, and yes, some of it is matters that trouble me.  Though I would offer you my tale again, such as it is, if you wish.  For one of your grand stature.”

The dragon perked a brow again at her choice of words.

“Are you bothering our guests great aunt Calista?” a sharp faced man in colorful and elaborate attire asked, still strolling down the path from the main keep, arms behind his back.

“It is what dragons do, boy.  We bother,” the dragon rumbled in what might have been an amused tone, but turned her vast head quite quickly to the little man who did not even flinch as the horned snout stopped not a foot from his face, easily large enough to swallow him whole.  She huffed slightly on him, tussling his hair a bit, and his loose vest significantly.

He reached out, and gently patted her snout with a hand dwarfed by the bulk of her.  “You’ve never bothered me dear, but not all are quite so sure around dragons.”

“The girl is handling herself fine,” the dragon rumbled.  “Better than you did the first time we met, little boy who broke down crying, and however much you deny it, wet himself.”

“I was five.”

“Excuses,” the dragon chuckled.  “Yes, sorry, permit me to introduce our Queen’s youngest son, and the most talented mage in the family, Carmine.  Carmine, Kiannae of Avrale, a skilled mage, druid, and Stormwalker honored by dryads, and the subject of so many little…rumors, shall we say.”

“Charmed,” Carmine said measuredly, and bowed.  “I suppose I should thank you,” he added after Kiannae returned the courtesy.

“I worry what for,” Kiannae said measurdly.  “Offers have been put before me that I did refuse, though I am not at all certain if the Queen can be refused.”

“Not easily, and that is why I offer my thanks.”

“If my refusal has pleased you,” Kiannae said with an odd look to the somewhat funny, but not unattractive shorter man.  “Well, I shall try not to be insulted, but I won’t mind I suppose, whatever your meaning.”

“I’m sure I would have been ever so honored,” he said in a manner that could have been mocking, but seemed otherwise.  “To find myself mother’s pawn to snare an outsider she deemed rival enough, to be so concerned.”

Kiannae let it stand, and glanced back at the dragon who considered their interaction curiously.  The dragon made a low hard to interpret rumble.  “I’ve other places to be,” she spoke measuredly.  “I will see you both over dinner,” she added, and thrust into the air with a force of wind that Kiannae found the need to disperse around herself, again sending her hair into spirals.  The prince seemed unphased.

“Forgive her,” he offered.  “She schemes to leave us alone, surely.  She is loyal, as her name implies.  To her mother, and her Queen, she abides their wishes, even without order.”

Kiannae huffed, and straightened her hair, and robe.  “If I have your gratitude, then might I bargain for a small favor?”

“Depends how small,” Carmine said curiously.  “Is it one I already have been told you might wish?”

“Perhaps. I presume I already have some spots for other companions – guest – as I am of the crown,” Kiannae wagered.

“A druid or two could be permitted to attend dinner with the court, yes,” Carmine nodded, “and if you wished to exchange a potential second for a persistent northern dignitary, then consider Varmun my personal invitation for the evening.”

“That seems agreeable,” Kiannae answered, and glanced at the monk who’s head had turned suddenly to the side, and then back to the prince.

“Good, then it is settled.  I was in the middle of other affairs when I learned of my fleeting engagement, and pending requests of our honored guest.”  He bowed.  “Will there be anything else?”

“No, I think that will do.  I wouldn’t wish to encourage…schemers as it were.”

“Indeed. Then I will leave you to the gardens,” Carmine nodded.  “Do consider exploring a bit.  Some of the lower terraces are quite lovely from within.  The great dining hall is sixth tier right, ask your guard if you get lost.  I doubt you will misplaced him easily, but there are first times for everything.”

After another half hour, and with the sun still high in the sky Kiannae enquired what all she might see that was unusual.  It was at this point she was told she provisionally had most of the access of an heir.  It seemed a change from his previous indication, but he would answer no questions why.  Only insist that even the royal library was open to her.  A place normally closed to outsiders, and she could not resist the opportunity.

She was indeed not even questioned by a guard at the door, down one of the vast side chambers from the main entry.  She merely strode in, and began pursuing tomes organized by some system she did not recognize.  Which left her wandering aimlessly down isles looking for something to catch her eye.  Some books were locked under glass, though stood open, proudly presented.  Others were roughly chained to walls.  At least two seemed to be permanently weightless, and so tethered to prevent them from drifting away.  Their contents indecipherable attempts as recording spells, and instructions in a long forgotten dialect.

Around another seemingly ordinary stack of books she found Carmine, who looked up from his book a bit startled.  “You are persistent.”

“What?” Kiannae asked, slightly confused by the attitude.

He gave her a very odd look.  “Oh, sorry, have you only bumped into me by chance, not here to pester me about Varmun?”

“Just so,” Kiannae said trying to make sense out of his demeanor.

He closed and reshelved the book he was holding.  “You’ll have to forgive me, I am used to having more of an advantage.  Nor did I expect to encounter you here.”

“What advantage do you think I have?” she pressed.

“Far more than you think,” he said almost sharply.  “Two, three,” he added almost under his breath.

“What?” Kiannae demanded again.

“Sorry, just getting the measure of my opponent,” he said, and rubbed his chin.  “Three again, quite impressive.”

“If you do not tell me what you are on about shortly, I will become quite cross.”

“I don’t usually,” he said.  “Not unless I am courting a very certain kind of woman.  Which I guess I am.  Well, right kind of woman, not courting, as it were.”

“Yes, I think we established that.”

“Did we?” he said.  “I certainly tried to convince myself of that.  You had made it so easy, saying no.”

“Yes, and it stands.”

“Two. Three,” he said again.  “How many times have I asked you about your family?”

“None,” Kiannae answered, but felt like it might be wrong.  She wondered why he would even ask, if he hadn’t.  “None that I can recall.  Did, we meet while I was recovering, and…  perhaps I do remember you asking me some things, yes, maybe.  I’m just a bit confused when exactly.”

Carmine crossed his arms.  “I promise I will explain at dinner, right now I have a war to win.”

“War?” Kiannae asked uneasily.

“Nothing quite like you are thinking,” he mused.  “Just trying to foil my little sister’s latest plot to undermine me.”

“Why is she doing that?”

“Out of spite for letting her win our last little contest,” he sighed.  “I actually have to win this one to make her not feel slighted.”

“Kat would do that to me,” Kiannae offered a bit annoyed, “or I always felt like she did.  She denied it, and so I fought harder, and watched her, every time, keeping up.”

“Or you were better than her, but the harder you pushed her, the more you forced her to use her own gifts,” Carmine countered, snapped a book off the shelf, and flipped through it.  “That’s what I did, and when she improved, I let her win,” he said a bit tersely.  “As a reward, and out of guilt for…it was so petty, and stupid, and neither of our faults.”

“What happened?” Kiannae asked.

Carmine rubbed his forehead.  “Two, three.  Ok.  I need to start at the top.  Do you know what stormborn means?”

“No, I’ve been wondering,” Kiannae answered.

He simply turned the book he was holding towards her.

Stormborn – a given title to any heir conceived and born to a sitting Storm Queen of the land of Napir.  (Including the Third Emperor Markus, the Stormborn.)  Most of what is known of stormborn heirs is legend, and hyperbole.  Few have ever been born, as most Queens ascend the throne at an age beyond practical fertility.  Beyond Markus and his sister Queen Aster of Napir there is little well recorded history.  Napir’s own claims indicate a history of their mastery of multiple practices, unusual levels of gift, and an excessive frequency of high precognition and skill as battle mages.

Limited study of the phenomena leaves many open questions, but based on findings in the condition and infertility of Emperor Markus, and Napir’s own records of such tendency it is the position of the council as of 357 E.R. that such abnormal levels of gift, as normally only seen in Sylvans and dragonborn, coupled with high rates of infertility indicate the probability that such individuals are effectively another species.

“Seems a bit…sloppily written,” Kiannae said measuredly.  “And why did you just happen to be holding a book to answer your own question?”

“Not a coincidence.  I knew – by the third time I moved to avoid running into you again – that I would wind up needing to explain this to you.  As to the sloppiness of this text, we are not overly fond – you might imagine – of council depictions of what we are.  We have not curated this part of the collection as well as we might have.”

“What…oh yes, the Queen implied that you all are.”

“You need to further understand how much of an anomaly that is,” he turned some pages, and a list of thirteen stormborn was presented, second to last was Emperor Markus himself.  “The list is out of date of course. Missing one sitting queen, and the children of her currently reigning daughter.  Few of us are ever born.  Few Queens ascend while still able or wanting to bare further heirs.  Most have been born to Queens in their early seventies.”

“I see,” Kiannae obliged curiously.

“No, I suspect you do not grasp the madness of this court.  Our mother ascended her throne at ten years old.  An anomaly.  The consequences…unpredictable.  Queens have reigned from thirty to almost two hundred years.  The Storm a tempermental force that grants and takes in equal measure.  Ancient women near their second century have taken it, and reigned another ninety years.  Young girls have taken it, and grown weary after only sixty.  To lose such power takes a terrible toll, the nature of age often catches up harshly.  Queen Anasi the Second was two hundred and sixty when she failed, and it is recorded very flesh turned to dust within minutes.”

“I’d never heard,” Kiannae said with a dubious expression.  “I thought the record was one hundred and eighty five.”

“The Council – as this says,” he closed and tapped the book, “does not consider us human.  They ignore us, in such records, and seers ignore the most reasonable conclusion. Stormborn, children of the storm.  Why would the prophecy not be one of us?”

Kiannae hesitated at that, considering what game he was truly playing.  “I’m afraid that role is taken,” she offered. “It seems my intent to be the woman of that vision.”

“Ambitious,” he said and reshelved the book.

“Not so much.  I have spent my life running from it, and yet, I have seen it, for all the meaning it does not give me.  I have seen the face. My face, or a mirror of it. If this fate is one that cannot be avoided, then let it be me, and not my sister that must perish.  Let her be a Queen, and not me.”

“Selfless then.”  He sighed. “Sorry, I was explaining the contests within the court. It’s good natured, usually,” the prince said with a laugh.  “Every sister, every daughter of the queen is raised either to compete, or to bow. Oh, some are clever, lowering their heads till the time is right.  They would never hurt each other. Even a deposed queen is offered the same place as any sister to the throne, and the same love. Anything less would seem a sign of weakness, of fear, in as much as cruelty.  We are not like your kingdoms. We do not think cruelty as some proof that we are stern, but compassion, the ultimate sign of strength.”

Kiannae gave him a conflicted look.

“You think us all a pit of Vipers?”

“I would try not to judge so harshly,” Kiannae answered measuredly.

“Little wars, Corinth wrote of them.  The little wars we fight, to avoid the big.  It is human nature to strive, to struggle, to achieve.  Ambition. It’s a wolf, ever circling at the door. Some of us tame them, some of us fear them.”

Kiannae frowned at his analogy, recognizing his allusion to her circumstances as an attempt at further distraction.  “You are going to answer my original question, aren’t you?”

“Sorry…that happens, sometimes.” He took a deep breath.  “Do you think we are cruel? It’s not backstabbing, if its expected.  You spared with your sister, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” Kiannae answered, but didn’t like the rhetoric of it.

“You wouldn’t hit her outside of the ring, you would never want to hurt… Oh, I’m sorry.  Yes, I suppose that’s a danger I’ve face myself. I’ve gone too far. I’ve spent years making it up to my dear little sister Selene.”

“What did you do?” Kiannae asked, unsure what to make of his sudden shift.  She hadn’t said anything. He kept doing that, and it bothered her. Further his reaction had been far too specific to events he should not reasonably have known.  He also kept leading her from the question of how he was doing it.

“Something petty, and dumb, but with no malice.  I accidentally stole the man she was dreaming of, to be her first any way.”

“What?” Kiannae asked a bit bewildered.

“Northerners,” he rubbed his head.  “Not that it’s a crime to do as you well please in Napir, but not like that.  I mean, that I arranged him to wind up with another girl, who, it turns out was very possessive.  I hadn’t… realized. She never told me where her fancies might lay. Not a relationship we had, being chatty about such matters.”

“Hardly the same.”

“Your sister forgave you in a heartbeat, and was not wounded.  Mine,” he gestured. “Mine all these years later is taking it as a slight when I let one of her schemes work.  I just made a point of note there. What you took falsely as so shocking, is not an issue here. She will make a play for you, even though she doesn’t like ladies in the least.  Just out of spite. Because she thinks I fancy you.” He shook his head. “She’s done it before, and won. Wasn’t a prize she wanted, but winning sometimes is the thing. Poor girl came crying back to me when she broke her heart.”

“Perhaps my earlier prejudice was correct, and you are all terrible.  You’ve no need to worry about her succeeding, or your self.”

“Hmph.  Not perfect, but saints compared to most of the rest of this world, and perhaps to the saints themselves.  Some were rather awful people by many accounts. We live this way, because if we don’t, we don’t get to. Someone finally ruins it for the rest.  We train, every day, we spar, because we need to be strong. Besides, admit it, you did want to hit her a few other times, just not overly hard.”

Kiannae winced.  “A few.”  Her expression shifted quickly to suspicious.  “You distracted me from my question again.”

“Four,” he mouthed almost soundlessly, and bit his lip, closed his eyes and sighed.  He gave her a rather difficult to read look.  “At dinner.  I promised I would explain there, and I never break my promises.”

He reached out his hand in a sign of deference, and Kiannae permitted him to take hers, and kiss the back of her palm.

“I promise you, the explanation will be more conducive to understanding after dinner.  Also there are more moves in this game than chance encounters in a library.  By all means though, browse.  Peak into places normally reserved for heirs, and their spouses.  Places we normally hide even from the Council.  Surely one of many reasons they do not always like us.”

“You are, trying to tempt me,” Kiannae said with shrewd humor as he released her hand.

Carmine shrugged, and slight smile crept across his lips as he turned to walk away.

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Chapter 21

The like of our kind are ever too hard to find,
whom have seen those same follies of men,
know their prejudice and reject such premise,
never to pronounce or malign without merit,
those of good character yet odd demeanor.

– Sylva Grey, circa 160 E.R.

Kindred Spirits

Coria 25th, 650 E.R.

“Is everything alright?” Mercu asked as he entered Laurel’s study, and considered the way he was leaned on the central table.

“They are hiding things from me,” Laurel said tersely.  “And don’t be cute, and try and comfort me with how absurd that sounds.  You are losing your touch, if you think that will work a third time.”

Mercu rubbed a folded page between his fingers, and put his knuckles to his lips thoughtfully.  “Very well. I agree. Let us start with what.”

“I have been trying to get word out of Niven regarding the spread of the blight,” Laurel sighed, and rubbed his head.  “Officially the reports are sealed confidential at the request of Niven, which while not impossible… I have doubts.”

“And a direct appeal to the Court Mage of Niven is off the table,” Mercu said shaking his head, again rubbing the pages of the letter he was holding between his fingers.

“Years of trying to build some report with the man again after…and all cast into the abyss over three stupid eggs.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Oh, no, it was not,” Laurel said tersely.

“It wasn’t mine either,” Mercu said his expression growing sharp.  “I, was being a perfect gentleman, who when asked by a lady, obliged her to dance.”

“Yes, a Lady.  You mean the court mage’s daughter.”

“Not, a crime.”

“Even if for some reason she saw fit to ask aloud if you were, ‘as good with your silver tongue in other ways.’  Those were the exact words, as I recall, spreading around the court,” Laurel fumed.

“Again, that is not my fault, just because a girl reading the Red Book for the first time gets impertinently bold during some harmless flirting, and does so loud enough to be heard by another nearby dancer, is not my responsibility.”

“Oh no, far be it from you to ever accept responsibility.  Who sold her the forsaken book?” Laurel snapped.

“She was twenty three,” Mercu said measuredly.  “It was perfectly legitimate business. You think you would be prouder of your own great, great, oh however many aunt.”

“Yes, business, and you were just being clever asking back if she was bargaining then for your time?”

“This is not about that,” Mercu said.  “You aren’t really angry about that.”

“I am angry about consequences,” Laurel snapped.  “Everything – I can’t even make sense of it all rationally – but it feels like absolutely everything is trying to collapse around me.  I am being called to the Council. No further exceptions will be granted. No more delays. Katrisha’s appointment though temporary is official.  Thank the Fates for small favors, but we still do not know where in the Abyss Kiannae is, and… I’m going to miss you damn it.”

Mercu stepped closer, and held out the page folded in his hand.  Laurel took it dubiously, and unfurled the short letter. His expression not at first pleased, and slowly bewildered.

Vhalun 12th, 650 E.R.

Darling Mercu,

You will forgive such a familiarity, I hope, from a girl who willfully stole but two kisses on our prior meeting.  To far more trouble than they were worth to either of us. What is past, is past, but let me wager that missing futures might have traveled in unexpected directions.  That troubles here, and across the border to our south might draw the most gifted of all the world, to rectify them, and the most clever might find solutions. I’ll say no more.  Mere, hypotheticals, skirting well past the lines of agreements I have struck, with one clearly trained by the very best. You have my deepest condolences, to have lost another surely as gifted, and charming.

Father, and the King remain obstinate, but playing spymaster all these years has its privileges.  I cannot guess when this letter will arrive. Perhaps quicker than I intend. Yet I can only imagine it will reach you some time well before good news.  I hope it is good news that reaches you, for I do admit a sense of dread. A cloud of trouble around the smallest things. Pawns who will be Queens. Women who walk with wolves.  One goes out of their way, for the favor of such notables. Even well placed betrayals, to be forgiven, when perpetrated in earnest service to common goals.

An allie in troubled times,
A Daughter of Niven

“I am less than certain…” Laurel handed the letter back, rubbed his face, and steadied himself.  “You are not one to throw salt in wounds, in such a blatant manner. So I shall presume whoever the woman is…”  A glimmer of understanding crossed his face.

“Two kisses, stolen as she says, and not a bit more,” Mercu said folding the letter.  “More trouble than they were worth indeed. Rumors from the dance floor aside. It was sealed with a nondescript rose insignia, and arrived through private channels from the south.”

“Are you certain of her meaning?” Laurel asked with a  false reserve.

Mercu was thin lipped a moment.  “Let me put some pieces together for you.  A drunken mercenary last year retelling a tale of a ‘kid’ who could fight with a staff, lighting, and the wind, who might have stopped a brigand mage, however exaggerated the tale, or his part in it.  A string of reports out of Thebes and Niven that you have heard as well. Unconnected reports of druids down from Lundan Grove, stopping in Thebes to help with the flood, then moving on towards Niven for the blight.  It was all little things I didn’t pay much attention to, until this.”

“Did we not send word to Lundan Grove?” Laurel asked with a sneer, his fists tightly clenched.

“To the Arch Druid,” Mercu said, “directly, last year.  Covering the oversight. It is so far east, after all. I…”  He shook his head. “I do not know what reasons he might have had, for not answering.  I do not even know that all of this adds up the way I think, but if it does, then she almost certainly left before then.”

Laurel snapped the letter back of Mercu’s hand, and unfolded it again.  “Did she not know? Did she not…”

Mercu stepped up, and hugged Laurel tightly.  “We cannot be sure what Niven knows about our girls, even their purported spymaster.  With all the affairs of a kingdom, the condition of two girls in a little foreign nation on poor terms with them, could easily slip her attention.  I have always been certain Kia presumed Kat dead, this letter I think proves the theory. She took a grieving sister’s word, because she had no reason not to.”

Laurel broke the embrace, turned, and slammed the table several times.  He started unlocking the chest for the amberite stone.

“When are you leaving?” Mercu pressed, putting his hand on the other man’s shoulder.

“To the south, to tear apart Niven till I find Kiannae?” Laurel growled, stopping.  “The moment their cursed Court Mage refuses my message.”

“Laurel,” Mercu said in an even tone.

He struck the table several more times furiously.  “You show me this. You… Why couldn’t you just play your stupid games, and keep this to yourself.  Why did you have to tell me,” he started weeping.

“Because I am always one to be cruel with kindness,” Mercu said in thin jest.  “Because I love you, and even if you might have some day forgiven me, I knew in your heart you would want me to.  She’s alive. Dear fates, take this as good news, she is alive, and by all accounts a hero. Caline even implies she may be finding solutions to the blight.  The very thing you have been worrying about. To distract you from every other cursed thing you have to worry about.”

Laurel set the letter aside, and reset the lock on the stone.  He turned, and looked Mercu dubiously in the eye, closed his, and shook his head.  “I will take a breath, and formulate my message. I will appeal to him as a father.”

“When, are, you, leaving?” Mercu asked again firmly.

“With the caravan that almost surely brought that letter to you,” Laurel answered.  “Unless I wish to be declared renegade. Small temptation there. Just a little desire to burn down the whole world right this very moment.”

“Leave that to those of us better suited to starting fires,” Mercu teased.

“I would take a messenger horse, and ride all the way there, cut months off my journey, but my orders are explicit, and I do not know what consequences breaking any letter might lead to at this point.  If I am to play the good soldier, oh the irony, then I must do as I am told. I have been ordered to make my passage seem, normal. What ever normal looks like for a court mage recalled fifteen hundred miles to Mordove, against royal wishes, from a kingdom in the shadow of the one nation everyone in the light forsaken world fears.  Yes, whatever normal looks like for that, but slow, is certainly on the list. Slow, plodding, waste of time, keeping everyone here without my protection, and everything on that little girl. Our, little girl. Our other…off doing what? What is a child going to do? A child…”

Mercu embraced him again, and they stood there a long while before Laurel returned it.

“I will respond to this letter.  You will appeal to the instincts of a father.  As to our more troublesome child, it’s not all on her,” Mercu said.  “She has the King, the Queen, the whole royal family behind her. She has me, and you know what happens to people who cross me.”

“A slow plodding demise by embarrassment and dismay, has that been your plan for me all these years?” Laurel joked past the tears.

“No,” Mercu said with a sad smile and wiped the tears from one.  “You know me better than that.”

“Oh, yes, and I am ever so grateful to,” Laurel chided him a bit agitatedly.

“We can both, be difficult,” Mercu intoned, pulling back and giving the other man a stern look.

“Then perhaps we deserve each other?”

“I think so, so you best be coming back.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 26th, 650 E.R.

Katrisha waited as Laurel descended the steps from the upper court, Mar hopping down step by step behind him.  An adorned royal coach waited to take him down to the village, and join the caravan north, and then east. The King, Queen, and a few other members of court had arrived only a few minutes before to see him off.  Horence, and Eran both saluted as Laurel reached the bottom of the steps.

He looked back and forth over the small crowd that had gathered to see him off.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve been away for more than a few weeks.”

“You will be missed,” the Queen said with a nod.

“Good speed,” the King said, “and Fates favor you on your journey, and return.”

Laurel looked to Katrisha.  “So we come to it,” he said awkwardly. “I have surely made missteps. I’d never thought to be a mentor, nor a father, until all too suddenly I was.  You’ve been a daughter to me, and as great a daughter as I could have hoped for, no matter how mad you’ve driven me. I only hope,” he hesitated, “that you will be able to forgive me my failures.”

Katrisha stepped up to Laurel, hugged him firmly, and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek.  “You’ll be back in a year at the most,” she said firmly, “don’t be so dire.”

“I know,” Laurel laughed, but it was hollow and forced, “but I decided I wouldn’t leave with it unsaid, and I don’t trust the Council not to delay me.  I don’t trust them at all,” he said in a small whisper while she was still close.

“They best not, or they will have me to contend with,” Katrisha said sternly, leaned back, and giving him a worried look.

“I would use that as a threat,” Laurel said regaining his composure, “but I fear it would be insufficient warning to grant the doomed, without the proper context.  Perhaps I would better to simply tell them that the Abyss itself comes to claim them if I am not returned promptly.”

“And me,” Mercu said, and also hugged Laurel.  “Though I still protest that you will not let me accompany you.”

“We need your eyes, ears, and big clever mouth here at court,” Laurel repeated, and picked up the insistent cat rubbing at his leg, and handed it to Mercu.  “Besides someone needs to take care of this little mongrel.”

“I know,” Mercu said shaking his head, and took the cat.  “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Just don’t burn the kingdom down while I’m away,” Laurel joked darkly, “either of you.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha felt weightless, stars flecking her vision, her hands drifted over the lines of a spell.  It was a very complex spell, and she wasn’t quite sure what it was. Whoever had made it was a genius, that she was sure of.  There were muffled cries. Someone asking questions, and making demands. She was very sad, but the spell was far more important, just a few things wrong.  Just a few more tweaks. There was a twinge in her shoulder, like someone trying to yank her around to attention, but she was too focused.

She thought she said something dismissive.  She was so very sad.

“No.”

It was such a fierce, commanding word.  So, determined, but she was almost done, she almost had it.  She was so sad. It had to be done though. Didn’t it?

The world spun, and stars swirled around a common center.  There was almost a face there, but it was so dark beyond the light.  It was just another shadow. There were so many shadows all around. So many hands rested against her barrier.  Was it hers? It seemed like it had been there when she arrived.

“No.”

“Ki?” Katrisha asked bewildered, and then felt like the back of her head shattered.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 31st, 650 E.R.

Katrisha woke with a start, and grabbed the back of her head.  She felt weightless, lights flecked across her blurred vision. Spell lines arced, and spiraled around her.  The whole room was tumbling, books, nicknacks, chairs, her bedding. She wasn’t even sure where the energy to do it all was coming from, let alone who was doing it.

She threw a drifting blanket out of her vision, and twisted forcefully around, scanning the room for an attacker, or a source of the spell.  There were planets, moons, asteroids, markers and tracks for so many things in the cosmos. The whole room was bathed in an eerie blue light from the spell.  It looked like Laurel’s work. His most intricate conjured orrery of the solar system, and yet several times larger, brighter, and vastly more complicated. It was also upside down.  No wait, that was her she realized sudenly, and it all collapsed.

Chairs, bookcases, tables, blankets, a bed, an old lute that rung like an unhappy bell amidst the chaos, everything in the room crashed to the floor along with a dazed girl who barely caught herself, the back of her head still throbbing.  She looked around at the dark, and disheveled room, still trying to make sense out of it. She felt woozy, and unclear, and that was when it made sense.

She checked herself, checked deep inside for a build up of mage blood, but found…nothing.  She had long learned the simplest, and easiest way to tell it apart. It felt hot, much hotter than anything else in her should feel, and though the top of her head still had that warm, tingling heat, where she had stored it in her hair, where it draped over her shoulders like a blanket…inside of her…was only her.  There was always a hint, and in that moment there was none.

Katrisha staggered to her feet, but the world still did not feel fully upright.  She caught a glimmer of green light through her window, and looked out, towards the west.  It was the west, not even the south. The sky was cut with ribbons of light, brilliant blues, greens, purples, swirling into a pattern.  She dashed for her door, and out, down the stairs not stopping. She burst from the tower in her nightgown, her bare feet slapping against the cold stone of the north wall.  She looked across the castle to the south. She traced it up above her, and spun north. She looked every direction, and saw the southern lights shining, brighter than they had the previous summer, and covering the entire sky.  She ran her fingers through her hair trying to understand it, but it made her skin crawl.

It unraveled before her eyes, the filaments of light becoming scintillating falling stars, even as a light like the rising sun broke over the southern mountains, grew ever brighter, and then vanished.  The wind went still. The stones under her feet were terribly cold, and course against her bare feet.

There was no trace of any of it.  She felt cold for the first time she could remember since the mountain, and huddled against the night air.  Unsure what she had seen, and uncomfortable to stand there half naked after recent stunts, she moved back towards the tower door.  She gave one last look to the south, unsatisfied, she headed back inside.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 33rd, 650 E.R.

Katrisha sighed as she opened her chamber door.  She was sore from sparring against both Horence, and Alindra.  Alindra proved impossible to ever truly beat, and the escalation of their sparing seemed to drive the enthralled onlookers back farther every time.  Horence remained a more surmountable challenge, though he was also improving. Even learning to spell break with Alindra’s help, and training.

She had left the sparring ring just as Mercu had arrived.  He walked often with Alindra since the two had realized he had known her mother for a time, nearly twenty odd years before.  There had been some amusingly artful questioning, as the pieces fell into place. It became clear however that Mercu was not in fact her father – of whom Alindra’s mother had never spoken a great deal.

As Katrisha stepped through her door she wasn’t entirely surprised by the ginger haired servant girl who was gathering up her bedding to be taken to the castle laundry.  The girl however was startled by her, and turned with a start. What did catch Katrisha uneasily was a glimpse beneath the girl’s long hair, styled over her face on a side.  It swung readily back over the scar it hid, after her initial startled turn, leaving almost no sign of the mark which marred one cheek, and ran across her left eye.

The girl quickly mistook Katrisha’s stunned expression for displeasure with her presence.  “I’m sorry miss,” she said nervously. “Didn’t know you would be back so soon.”

“No, no it’s…quite alright,” Katrisha said, bothered by what she had just seen.  She had witnessed some of the knights and soldiers bear scars that could have been easily healed.  They kept them as marks of honor. This girl though, maybe a few years her elder – whatever had caused that scar was surely no proud war story.  Was her family adherent to the Clarions? Katrisha wondered unhappily at the thought. Imagining she had been left to bare the scar for a lack of sizeable donation to that self righteous order.

“I’m sorry the room is in such disarray.  I’ve been trying to straighten it up since…never mind,” Katirsha said with a shake of her head.  There was no point trying to explain what she still did not really understand herself. However clear headed, and alive as she had felt since that night, it had left her utterly bewildered.

Queries to the Council had only returned the same report from everywhere.  Though mentions of a midnight sun ended north and east of Corinthia. This, with triangulation of reports of south, south west, or nearly west placed the event in Napir, for what little help that was.  Napir had offered no comment, save the light had been in the north, and like a moment of daylight in the land, as well as in Niven.

The girl was obviously growing more uncomfortable with Katrisha’s penetrating gaze.  “With your leave miss, I’ll get out of your way,” she said trying to make for the door, and move around Katrisha.

“Just a moment,” Katrisha said as the girl tried to pass.

She stopped hesitantly when commanded, and looked at her uncertainty.  “Yes, miss?” she said questioningly, not sure what the powerful lady of the tower wanted with her.  She had witnessed her testing in the snow, her bettering a mage far her elder, wearing little more than sandals.  Had heard the rumors long before the proud claim she had faced a dragon in no more. The girl flinched as Katrisha reached out and gently brushed aside her hair.  It was obvious she did not like her scar seen, but was feeling too timid to flee under a direct order from a Lady, and Court Mage to stay.

“I could heal that,” Katrisha said softly, seeing that the eye itself appeared fine, and let the hair fall back into place.  “If you would let me.”

The girl’s eyes went wide, but her hesitation was apparent, and all too quickly she was backing from the room, curtsying, and refusing.  “You…you are too kind miss. I…I couldn’t accept such generosity,” she said, and then she was gone, and the door closed behind her. Katrisha frowned with frustration, she had wanted to help, but what could she do if the girl refused.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 39th, 650 E.R.

It was nearly a week from Katrisha’s chance encounter with the servant in her chambers, when a gentle knock came at her door.  Not wishing to pull herself away from her window seat, or the book she was reading she called for whoever had knocked to enter.  There was a significant delay before her chamber door opened, and when at last it did, she recognized the maid from before, as she timidly stepped in, fresh bedding folded over her arms.

“Sorry to disturb you miss,” the girl said nervously.  “Time to change the sheets again.” She held them up for emphasis.

Katrisha knew it was a lie.  The standard rotation on bedding for most chambers was at least two weeks, except on request, and she had made no such request.  Katrisha eyed the girl thoughtfully, and pretended to resume reading. She hopefully surmised one likely reason for the girl’s early return, but wondered how to broach the subject without sending her off again in humility, and embarrassment.

“I’m sorry if I was forward when we met before,” Katrisha said without looking at the her directly.

“What miss?” the servant asked obviously off balance.  “You’ve nothing to be sorry for. Your offer was…just too generous.”

“Still I pried into something you obviously would rather hide, and made you uncomfortable,” Katrisha offered.  She plucked the spectacles from her nose, marked her place, and closed her book to watched the girl who busied herself with changing the bedding.

“I…” the girl blushed, and made useless motions to seem as though she was still working.  It was cute, but sad, Katrisha decided. “I’ve had it a long while,” she managed to squeeze out.  “Just an accident when I was very little. Mama always wanted to take me to a healer, but father would only accept if it was a Clarion priest…and we couldn’t afford that.”  There was overwhelming sadness in her voice that she was trying to hold back. “Sorry, not something you need to be bothered with, miss. So sorry.”

“No,” Katrisha said softly.  “No please, do tell me. It sounds like it must have been hard.”

The girl simply stood there for a bit, and bit her lip uncomfortably.  “Mama died some ten years back. Fever took her, and the local priest was away on some business in the north…by the time father’s pride and faith gave way, and he had brought a Sister to her…she died.  He…” she cried then, dropped to the foot of Katrisha’s bed, and sobbed openly, unable to finish.

Katrisha felt awful for having stirred the poor girl’s pain so, and moved to her side to hug her.  At first she seemed reluctant, then simply accepted the embrace. After a while the girl spoke again. “Sorry, just, couldn’t help it, remembering father.  He blamed himself you see, I blamed him too, but…” she hesitated again trying to get out the words. “He jumped off a cliff, and then…there was just me. If not for a cousin who brought me here to the castle, I don’t know what I’d have done.”

“I’m so sorry,” Katrisha said consolingly, “I had no idea.  I didn’t mean to cause you to face all that again. Had I known I would have approached it…differently.”

“I…” the girl trailed off, her sobs stopping quickly enough that Katrisha knew she had forced herself.  “It’s not…not so bad, if I don’t think about it. Life’s not so bad here.”

“Still, I dug up your troubles, and I apologize for that.  Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?” Katrisha asked in as kindly a voice as she could manage.

The girl looked away, still obviously unable to ask.  She clenched her fists in the crumpled bedding, and at last blurted it out.  “Did you mean your offer before?”

Katrisha smiled.  “Yes, I’m not so cruel as to offer, if I didn’t think I could,” she said, but saw the girl was still hesitant to accept.  “And I very much would like to, if you would let me,” Katrisha added reassuringly. “What good are such powers, if I cannot do something kind with them?  Not just slay frightful beasts, and fight angry old men.”

“You really can do both?” the young woman said with a mixture of fascination, and doubt.

“We all have our own trials, that lead us to our roles in life,” Katrisha answered.

“Yes of course,” the servant said, and glanced away, before looking back hesitantly.

Katrisha watched the girl’s face as she considered.  There was something there more than just timidness and humility behind the one brown eye she could see.  There was a subtle hint of determination, and stubbornness fighting with what she clearly seemed to want.

“Yes,” the girl said at last, “but I can’t offer you anything much in repayment for your generosity.”  She said hesitantly.

“Then let me propose a trade,” Katrisha said with a small laugh, but thought better of her phrasing when she saw a hint of shrewdness in the girl’s expression.  “Your name,” she added quickly with a smile. “I’d like to know your name, since we will be here together for an hour or two.”

“Oh,” the girl said with what seemed relief, yet almost sounded like disappointment.  “I’m sorry, I should have told you that already shouldn’t I… Before blathering on about my mother, and father…” she hesitated again, flustered.  “It’s Maeren,” she said looking to Katrisha sheepishly and trying to smile.

“It’s very nice to meet you Maeren,” Katrisha laughed.  “Go sit in the window, I’m going to bring over a chair. This will take time, and the light will help.”  Katrisha walked to an old chair sitting against a column, and started carrying it over to the window as Maeren moved Katrisha’s book aside in the window seat and tried to get comfortable.

Katrisha noticed Maeren eyeing the book beside her as she worked to get the chair into just the right position beneath the window.  “Do you read?” Katrisha asked trying to make polite conversation as she realized to be at all comfortable she would have to suspend the chair several inches above the floor.

“A bit,” Maeren replied absently, watching the quickly improvised spell work nervously.  “Mama taught me when I was younger, but I don’t get a lot of chances to practice.”

“Feel free to read while I work,” Katrisha offered, taking a seat that bobbed slightly under her till she adjusted the spell.  It wasn’t particularly good for either chair or floor, but no one would notice the difference from an hour or two. “Though I won’t promise my hands won’t be a bit in the way.  Still, you might like the distraction. This will take a while, and while I will try to make it pleasant, it may…itch a bit.”

“What’s it about?” Maeren asked curiously, fingering the plain leather cover, and still eyeing the hovering chair legs with suspicion.

“Some collected old lore from down south,” Katrisha said brushing aside Maeren’s hair and examining her scar.  “One of quite a few such books Mercu has gathered over the years. Much work as he put into collecting them all, he does tend to leave them lying about.”  She wound the hair up, and bound it back with another quick spell.

Maeren picked up the book carefully and turned it over in her hands, examining the aged leather.  She opened it as Katrisha started to work, and she felt the deep reaching warmth in her face. It was like stepping into noon sun on a hot summer day, or as though her cheek was being cupped lovingly and firmly, though only the faintest touch of fingertips could actually be felt at the surface.  It was very pleasant she thought, even as she noticed a twinge of an itch that was quickly drowned out by the other sensations that were new and hard to define. She began to read, and let the time pass, and was surprised at how happy she suddenly felt.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“There,” Katrisha said after thoroughly double checking her work.  There were still some spots where the pigmentation was half a shade darker if she looked very closely, but she was quite unsure if she could force it to match, and decided they added character to the girl’s lovely young face.  She let the hair fall from her other hand, the fleeting enchantment having decayed several minutes before.

Maeren was pulled from her reading at Katrisha’s remark, and the hair falling across her vision.  She instinctively reached for her cheek, which she could already tell felt so different. She smiled and looked at Katrisha almost in disbelief.

“Oh thank you, miss,” Maeren said her voice strained with emotion, and then intched the skin instinctively before yanking her hand away after thinking better of it.

“Here, come, I have an old mirror here somewhere,” Katrisha said getting up and taking the girl’s hand.  Maeren absently set the book on a floating chair, and followed Katrisha, bringing her other hand again to her cheek, and running it over where the scar had been for so many years.

“I really am sure it’s around here somewhere,” Katrisha said, somewhat sheepishly.  “It didn’t seem broken last I looked.”

“I do not want to pry, after everything you’ve done, but what did happen?” Maeren asked.  “I’ve serviced this room a dozen times, and…well it wasn’t spotless, but always tidy. Those two bookshelves used to be on opposite sides, and…your bed was under the other window.  Now all the books are in piles, and…no sorry, I’m. I’m prying, and you’ve just…”

“Honestly?” Katrisha laughed nervously, interrupting the girls uneasy patter.  “I’m not really sure. I apparently had a habit of casting spells now and then in my sleep, back while I was ill.  It went away when I learned to treat my condition, hasn’t happened since, not until the other night.”

“You did this in your sleep?” Maeren asked incredulously.

Katrisha found a hand mirror set on a pile of books, snapped it up, turned held it out to her with a smirk.  “Maybe.”

Maeren hesitated for a moment, took the mirror, and then cringed as her hair was brushed gently aside for her.  Katrisha smiled as she watched Maeren turn her head back and forth, her look of ecstatic disbelief growing, until most unexpectedly she turned to Katrisha and set her hand on her cheek.  Awkward smiles deepend, with humor, and uncertainty until Maeren suddenly leaned into Katrisha and kissed her firmly, and lingeringly.

Katrisha was in shock for a moment, having misread the searching gaze she had received, and went rigid.  Just as she started to melt helplessly into the warm wonderfulness of feeling a woman’s lips again, Maeren again misread her reaction, and pulled away.  “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said apologetically, covered her lips, and backed away.

A chair fell to the floor behind them with a clatter that startled them both to turn and face it.

“I…oh forgive me…Thank you,” she Maeren stuttered, glancing between the chair and Katrisha, and started curtsying, bowing, and continuing to back away with terror in her eyes.

Katrisha was still in a daze, her finger held in a pointed but unclear gesture, catching up to the chain of left turns, herself having half spun with a start to the chair, and barely managed to get out the words, “No, please…don’t go,” just as Maeren grabbed hold of the door.

Maeren hesitated, handle in hand.

“Please,” Katrisha repeated, steadying herself.  “I’m sorry. I was just…surprised.”

Maeren stood there for several seconds, fingers tracing the handle, and then slowly closed the door the inch she had opened it.

“Come, sit,” Katrisha said softly, and pulled the chair from the window, to the foot of her bed.

Maeren walked back across the room, and hesitantly sat.  She alternated between almost looking at Katrisha, and down at the floor.  “That was very nice,” Katrisha said reassuringly after deciding the awkward glances had gone on much more than long enough.  “I just…didn’t expect it.”

“I was just so…grateful,” Maeren said looking away.

“What made you think that was the best way you could show me your gratitude?” Katrisha asked in as kind a tone as she could muster.

“I…didn’t think,” Maeren admitted.  “It just happened. I thought. I wasn’t sure, there just before, and you are so lovely, so kind, so powerful, and…brave with what you did at your testing…  I thought…just for a moment that you might want…something of me in trade. I think I wished it. I’m terrible to have thought it, please do not think it a judgement of you, just my own erent way.  The way of…some others. Though I admit I’ve suspected you to be a woman of…certain passions, maybe I’ve heard wrong. No, no. I’m sorry. There are rules, and I am terrible at them.”

“What have you heard?” Katrisha asked a bit worried.  After all she had been through, she no longer relished the idea of an open scandal.  The mention of rules was almost brushed off, though it struck memory.

“I overheard Lady Catherine swearing miss Holly to secrecy, regarding your affair with a girl of the Sisterhood, and…I’d seen you sneak off with that stable boy…but he’s gone down to live in the village now…and…”

“All true…” Katrisha admitted, looking away herself a moment.  “Though I worry to know how Holly has learned…”

“Holly is a terrible snoop, and Lady Catherine’s granddaughter.  One can learn quite a lot they are not supposed to know, from overhearing Catherine lecturing Holly on what she should not speak of.  I do not believe it has spread farther, certainly not by my lips,” Maeren added earnestly.

“Lady Catherine has a granddaughter…she even has children?  Lady Marian…” Katrisha asked in shock.

“You really didn’t know?” Maeren said a bewildered surprise creeping across her face.  “I would assume someone as important as you…”

“I have not been treated as important,” Katrisha said measurely.  “I have been a pawn. A means to keep the Clarion influence at bay, even as I pay the price for their games.  While others are free to keep entire illegitimate broods a secret it seems,” Katrisha finished with an exasperated wave of her hand, then ran her fingers through her hair.

“I’m sorry, miss,” Maeren said shrinking away.

“Please, don’t be sorry,” Katrisha said resuming a reassuring tone, though somewhat forced demeanor.  “Your appreciation was…” she hung on that a moment, “appreciated.” She laughed, the same inscrutable smile Maeren had misread as permission returning.  “My anger is at the court’s hypocrisy, not you.”

“Yes, miss,” Maeren said with some relief in her voice

“Please, call me Kat,” Katrisha said putting her hand softly on Maeren’s knee.  “You have heard right. Cathrine did catch me on the wall, with my love Celia. For my carelessness she was taken away from me, back to Highvale, and only thanks to Mercu can we even exchange letters.”

Maeren set her hand on Katrisha’s, and frowned at the sadness in her voice.  “So you still love her?” she asked in spite of her better judgement.

“Very much,” Katrisha said, leaning back in her chair a bit, but careful not to pull her hand away.

“But…the stable boy?” she questioned, a bit confused.

“She insisted I find comfort where I could,” Katrisha admitted with some reluctance.  “He was a sweet boy…and after Ch…” she trailed off realizing what she had just nearly admitted, something about Maeren’s presence was far too disarming.  Rules had been mentioned, but he had already broken them, so what did she care. She grimaced and decided to bare all, “Charles. Matthew convinced me that men are even worth a moment of my time.  He wanted more than I could give though, because my heart still belonged to Celia.”

“Oh…” Maeren said, obviously taking it all in, and then it was as if a light went on in her eyes.  “You!” she declared with a nervous laugh. “You were the one who humbled Charles…weren’t you?”

“Maybe,” Katrisha laughed.  “I assure you he deserved it.”

“More than you know…he told about me…that I…” Maeren started, but couldn’t say it.

“What did he tell?” Katrisha asked, her expression growing shrewd.

“That I lay with him, and that I…pleased him in other ways,” she looked mortified with embarrassment, and then was defiant.  “I insisted. By the rules. I made it quite clear, that if I gave him such…special treatment,” she visibly swallowed, “he would do the same for me.  Those are the rules…and he wasn’t half bad at it, I must admit,” she said blushing, but with a coy smile.

“You!” Katrisha said in turn, now laughing almost to the point of tears.  “You were the one who gave him that idea.” She took a moment to catch her breath.  The repetition of rules had not gone unnoticed, and the implication was then plainly clear.  “Oh of all the cursed things to find we have in common, it had to be that little rat bastard.”  Katrisha laughed again.

“He’s no bastard,” Maeren corrected without much conviction, and then smiled wickedly, “that would be an insult to bastards, rats too for that matter.”

“Quite,” Katrisha agreed.  “He’s much worse than that, he’s the legitimate son of a Knight, or duke…cursed Arlen.  He makes even titles and rank more trouble than they already are with his games.”

Maeren visibly stifled her laughter, and smiled sweetly.  “They aren’t all as bad as him,” she said.

“Aren’t they?” Katrisha asked, pulled a bit out of her good humor.

“Some of them are quite, sweet…” Maeren said, looking away embarrassed.

“Oh…” Katrisha said, not sure if she had offended.

“It’s a lonely life sometimes in the court, propriety can scar the young heart as much as any hot stove a girl’s face…” Maeren said wistfully.  “I said it’s not so bad here. I might not be wedable, but I am safe, discreet. I make some of the young men…” she hesitated frightfully, “and women,” she added, refusing to look at Katrisha at all, “not feel so alone…and they do the same for me.  No names, no titles, always in kind.”

Katrisha didn’t quite know what to say, a part of her was put off, and she was back to the dubiousness first expressed by Maraline over such arrangements.  It further took her a moment to separate the prejudices that had haunted her own behavior, from the sadness of this poor sweet girl having to substitute the fleeting affections of knights’ sons, and young women of the court for love.  At the same time she knew it was no different.

“You’d certainly be wedable now,” Katrisha offered trying to be sweet, “even to some blind man who foolishly had not seen how beautiful you were before.”

Maeren finally consented to look Katrisha fully in the eye, her look impenetrable.  “I…I guess so, but a part of me likes this life. It scares me though, to be found out, or get pregnant, and be thrown out to preserve the image of the court.  It would be so much easier of…the boys were not so pleasant, or so amiable What would become of me then? Would I need to become a common whore to survive…am I any better than one now?”

“I want to say yes,” Katrisha said awkwardly, “but it gives me pause that you would think them lesser.  Please do not take that too harshly, it’s just…something I have thought upon.” Maeren looked away in embarrassment, and Katrisha squeezed her knee reassuringly.  “I risk offense only that you might stop to think better of yourself as well. You said it yourself, you make others feel less alone, and they do the same for you.”

When Maeren still did not speak, Katrisha continued.  “You might have no magic, but you are still a healer, of hearts.  A whore, and it’s such an ugly word, so please do not think of it again, is at worst no not even so bad as the Clarion priests who turned a blind eye to your suffering.  They make their attentions a service, a way to get by. On that point I think them far better than those Clarions. Because it is necessity, not greed, or pious nonsense.”  She had been trying to convince herself she found, as much as Maeren. “Besides, now there is little doubt in my mind you could be a proper courtesan…in a less prudish kingdom.  If it came to that of course. Also I am sure the cloister would take you in, if you had such need. I have some sway there.”

There was a slight smile that came, and went on Maeren’s lips, but still she was quiet, and could not seem to look Katrisha in the eye.

“Have I been too frank with my words?” Katrisha asked nudging for some form of relief from her own discomfort.

“No, miss…Kat.  No you are right…I think,” she looked up, and smiled.

“I’m usually right, even when I’m not.  It’s easier that way. I’ve done some damn fool things in this life.  Much more so than sharing affections too generously with young members of the court…but I’ve lived to tell the tale, more than once, so I refuse to call them mistakes,” Katrisha said with thin, playful conviction.

“Is it really true you once tried to kill a dragon…naked?  Like the rumors say, like you implied at your trial?” Maeren asked hesitantly.

“Yes,” Katrisha said the last shred of humility she felt for the incident showing briefly on her face, before melting away to a smug smile.   “Though as Laurel was so kind to point out, a bit more than tried. I’d already damn well succeeded…in the long run at least. Then cursed Idolus set everything on it’s side.  Still, I’d never have gotten so close if it wasn’t for my sister…”

“There is still no word, is there?” Maeren asked squeezing Katrisha’s hand tightly.

“Almost three years now.  Just a few more days. I have to believe she’s still alive, but…I also must believe she thinks otherwise of me – that I died on that mountain.  Why else would she have left me, and not returned,” Katrisha said, stubbornly fighting back an urge to cry. “If I have one regret, one single regret, it is that something I could have done would have kept her from running away…and meeting whatever fate she has.  There is a deathly fear that grips me. Nights I wake, haunted by vague portents I try in equal measure to understand or ignore. Things one cannot know from prophecy, or insecure fear. Maybe she’s found happiness, I don’t know, I hope so… I managed to find some after all.  Ever so briefly, even if it was taken from me. Stolen moments with two others, and as with all things borrowed, there are consequences.”

Maeren knelt down in front of Katrisha and looked up into her eyes.  “You asked me earlier, if you could help me,” she said sweetly. “Now I ask you, might I kiss you again.  This time with your full permission, and…might it help you? That given, earnestly, is not stolen, and none will come looking for it.”  She wagered cleverly on her words.

Katrisha hesitated, she worried how the expression on her face might read.  Almost every part of her wanted desperately to say yes. She had come to terms with her two male lovers, with using them to fill urges, and feel less alone.  Terms not always untroubled, but she had found a measured peace. This was the first time though she had truly considered another girl than Celia. It felt different, a more real test of her feelings, resolve, and such strange arrangements.  She needed it though, once it was there before her, offered freely, nearly pleadingly, she found could not bring herself to refuse.

“Yes,” she said meekly.  “Please,” she added with a nervous breath.  The woman’s seeming cleverness offering her equal parts caution and attraction.

Slowly, hesitantly, and yet with a certain grace Maeren rose up to Katrisha, let her fingers brush her cheek in a practiced and skillful way.  Searching her eyes kindly again for several seconds, and then when it reached a point like gravity, kissed her. There was a lovingness about this woman, who admitted to her wandering dalliances, who she had only just met, and yet she felt loved, and desired.  The skill and art of it was nearly as plain as the earnest honesty. Celia and Matthew were timid creatures who showed her reverence, Charles had skill, but she had rendered him powerless in every encounter. Maeren, it seemed, could do the same to her. It was wonderful, and wounding all at once, and as she embraced her, and returned the kiss in kind, she hoped that she could make her feel the same.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Vhalus 16th, 650 E.R.

Katrisha lay contently, blissfully enjoying the feel of a woman in her arms again, and in her bed no less.  It had been so long since she was able to simply lay with someone, and enjoy the feel of them close in comfort.  Her dalliances with Charles, and Matthew had been secret affairs, conducted in clandestine locations far from prying eyes.

Though things with Maeren had been their own kind of sneaky, in a way that had oddly added so much.  She mused over the flustered state she had been left in all day when Maeren had begged forgiveness, after several long minutes of lingering kisses, and hurried of to attend her duties, lest there be questions.  Katrisha had done the same herself, watching the court in her official station, simply for a distraction.

Maeren had returned though, very late in the evening to Katrisha’s chamber door.  Leading into a delicate dance in which Katrisha had learned things she had not expected.  Things that she still riddled over a blissful two hours later. It was nearly two in the morning by Katrisha’s guess. She turned her head to gaze at the moonlight streaming in her window.  She moaned as Maeren took the opportunity to attack her exposed neck with soft kisses. “You are insatiable,” Katrisha murmured softly.

How glad she was to let go of the pretense of power, and how equally glad she was for that power to sway back in her favor.  With Celia it had gone almost unnoticed, lost in the newness of such feelings at all. With the others she had maintained complete control.  With more perspective it had felt somehow profound.

Two sides of a coin had met.  That felt terribly important to Katrisha, and she could not say why.  Yet it felt like love wanting to intrude. She had loved Celia, she had understood it was that specific kind of love, when Celia had introduced her to her animal self, by appealing to her emotional connection.  The animal had run free, it had taken whatever lover it pleased, and then this woman, had appealed to her higher self, through the animal. They had each introduced a part of her to herself, and helped her understand; ‘Two sides of one coin.’  The words themselves were bothersome, like remembering it, but from where she could not imagine. They also spoke of something much bigger, than a moment that felt far more important to her.

It smacked of prophecy, but it did not make her mad, only a little sad, and a lot determined.  There had always been a drive there. To defend, and to cling, looking for shelter. To hang on, and to let go.  It wasn’t simple, but it wasn’t really complicated either. It was just contrary, and exactly what it was. Forces in opposition, making her who she was.  Something in the middle, but never exactly. Complexity came out of it, but it was not itself complex. It seemed the most profound but obtuse thoughts always struck her at the oddest moments.  She legitimately wondered which was more important. The moment, or the thought, and puzzled over the idea they were the same thing. One did not exist without the other.

“I just…” Maeren trailed off nuzzling into Katrisha’s neck, distracting the meandering line of thought.  Trying herself to find the words, and given plenty of softly murmured half silence to seek them in. “I just want to repay you somehow for that. It was…I have no words.  I never imagined how magic could feel. But how could I ever…”

Katrisha’s squeezed the woman in her arms tightly, and sighed contentedly.  “You’ve done more for me than you can imagine.” It was true in ways she couldn’t even really describe, and she tried not to laugh at that.  Distracting herself with other honest truths. “I’ve missed the joys of pleasing a woman, the sound, the grace of subtle feminine curves writhing in the moonlight.  Men just aren’t the same. So easy to please, and yet…so easily…no that’s not even it. It’s just not the same. It just isn’t.”

“Some are better than others,” Maeren giggled.  “I like it, the way it feels to be with one…not that it isn’t a pale imitation for what you have given me,” she added, thinking better of it.

“Oh, I do understand,” Katrisha laughed.  She did, and sometimes found it frustrating.  “It can feel quite nice, particularly if I’m tricky, to keep things going, much, much past anything they’ve experienced.”  She bit her lip and laughed again. “At least…with Matthew…Charles never got so lucky.”

“Oh,” Maeren said a bit shocked.  “That sounds…at once incredible, and frightening.  Wouldn’t you be awfully sore after that?”

“Gifts of living…magic,” Katrisha laughed again.  It was all so funny, but at that moment it was how sore a sore subject it had always been with Laurel.  The proper use of the word magic. She ran her finger along Maeren’s cheek, letting the gift flow. Nothing was ever done with true brute force.  Everything matters of leverage. How complex did not matter, how many layers of it. Social interaction was magic if you toyed with the etymology enough.  ‘Teachers of peace,’ had been the original meaning of maji, or so she had read, and been told. With all the irony it brought. It was the origin of the game of chess.  The agreement on rules, the manipulation of strategy. Teasing was part of the game. “Just as I keep them ready, and able, I keep myself…well,” Katrisha smirked, blushing as her demeanor of calm power collapsed under its own weight.

“I’m jealous then,” Maeren said impishly, returning her own skilled caress that needed no magic to be profound.  It wasn’t even a game one needed gift to play. “I’ve been thinking about what you said. That the cloister would take me.  You would, be sure of it…”

“If it came to that, if you had no where better to go,” Katrisha sighed and squeezed her new friend and lover close.  Weighty concerns intruding unwanted on her stolen moment of joy. Her intellect offering odd glimpses that were at once elating, and a bit distracting.  It wasn’t a game about winning, and she was letting herself get competitive in her head.

“I…was hesitant at first at the idea, but I suppose after what you showed me tonight it wouldn’t be so bad,” she said hesitantly. “I would miss men though…or would they put me to work pleasing them?”

“It doesn’t work that way,” Katrisha chided.  In a friendly game you teach, after all. “There are men in the Sisterhood, as contrary as it sounds.  It’s the wrong word I’ve been told, and I knew already, but all parties admit it has stuck obtrusively, and oft self imposed.  Most are born to the life, and they have the gift as much as any Sister. Further, the Sisters do not please anyone for money. They heal anyone who is hurt, scared, or sick without charge, and accept donations of any size to their cause.”

“Then why…the reputation?” Maeren pressed with an almost annoyed sound.  The rules were what they were, but perhaps they could be changed. It was part of the game.  That was what persuasion was. Changing the rules. It had been done before.

“Those who donate without any appreciable malady may be allowed to stay with them for a time…without further earning their keep.  That in itself is no guarantee of a single thing but a roof, and a meal, and maybe some amiable conversation. There are not as many men amongst them as women…and a great many of them who do appreciate, or even prefer men.  At least that is my understanding. From what I have been told, and read in the Red Book. The model their Lady laid down for them. Way back when she stole away prostitutes, cloistered women, and high born ladies from their harsh lives in equal measure, to her rebellious cause.”

“Oh,” Maeren said awkwardly at first, “I suppose that might not be so bad at all.”

Katrisha snerked.  “No, I suppose it wouldn’t.  Seems a better fate than being stuck with this bickering court of malcontents, all jostling for position, and playing games of faith, be it for their own sake, or merely for advantage.  I can’t always tell, and I wonder if they even know themselves. One in the same in their minds, I’m sure. For to press their faith on others, gives them more power, to press their faith upon others.”

“Still it would be strange to live amongst them without magic,” Maeren pressed, trying to redirect conversation from a sore subject.

“Gift,” Katrisha finally corrected.  “Gift is a long way from magic, though there is something there in the full practice, and a lost magic that could do the same.  Yet all such things aside, don’t sell yourself too short,” Katrisha laughed, and looked down into Maeren’s eyes. “Much of day to day life is maintenance, manual labor, meditation, book learning, and conversation.”

“But how could I ever feel I have given a lover with…gift…how can I even repay you for what you have done for me tonight?” Maeren said sheepishly.

“How can I repay you for what you have done for me?” Katrisha countered.  It was flattering, but not dishonest. “I think you actually have a lot to teach them.  To teach me, at very least. We are spoiled by our gifts. I doubt many of them know such clever ways, or are as…deft as you.  I was amazed when Charles first…you…make him look like the useless lump he is. Not as overwhelming as the pleasures of gift, I’ll grant you, but just as satisfying, maybe more so in a simple earnest way.  Such dedication, to the act of giving.”

The look in Maeren’s eyes was a priceless mixture of absolute embarrassment, and a touch of pride at the praise to be called even comparable.

They lay in silence again for some time, and each was almost asleep when Maeren finally got up the nerve to ask something that troubled her.  “You said you still love your Celia?” she started awkwardly.

“Hmmm…yes,” Katrisha said stirring. “Though it is a strange love.  So far apart, and each free to share our intimacies with others…though I am not sure if she has yet relented to her own wants.  I think a dear friend of hers there is smitten with her though.”

“I’m sorry if I pry,” Maeren said uneasily.  “I just wish to be sure of what this might be.  I said I am terrible with rules, and I did not assert any properly.”

“I’ve heard them before,” Katrisha said.  “I suppose ‘in kind’ can also mean, exclusive as well?”

“It can.  It is a hard one to enforce, but under such a rule, breaking it has consequences.”

“I shall press you more on these rules, later,” Katrisha stressed.  “I am not possessive, if that’s what you wonder,” she offered uncertainty in her voice.  “The hypocrisy alone would ruin me. I would hope very much though that there might be many more nights like this.  But if there are other…affairs that you wish to maintain, I will not begrudge you that, certainly. We’ve only just met, and as silly as it sounds, I know you only well enough to be almost certain I will be happy to know you a great deal better.”

“I would like that,” Maeren said, and cuddled closer.  “I’ve learned something of you today of course. Yet so much of what I might know is still just rumor, and reputation.  Things which are as meaningful as title, and station. I’ve long come to realize that they make good walls, and lousy windows.  They show you nothing but what others see, or pretend, not the truth.”

“I said before,” Katrisha yawned sleepily, “that you give yourself far too little credit.  That was positively profound.”

“Thank you,” Maeren yawned herself, and soon both had drifted off to sleep.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

When morning came Katrisha felt around her bed groggily searching for Maeren’s missing form.  Disappointed she opened her eyes to glimpse Maeren through strands of her silver hair, nearly dressed, and inching towards the door.

“Must you go?” she murmured after her.

“Were it up to me,” Maeren said, and turned back.  “I would stay in your arms all day, but the life of a servant girl starts early, and often ends very late.”

“Then, servant girl,” Katrisha said impishly, “the lady of the tower would demand another task of you this morn.”

“And what does miss require?” Maeren asked curtsying properly enough to almost hide the light mockery in her air.

“Another kiss, to tide me over till I might have the pleasure of your company again,” Katrisha said crawling to the edge of her bed, and leaning on her elbows.

“If miss insists,” Maeren said kneeling down beside the bed, and looked Katrisha playfully in the eye, her clever fingers again tracing the curve of a cheek.

Katrisha reached out, and tapped the tip of Maeren’s nose. “Kat, insists,” she reminder her, and brushed aside Maeren’s hair so she could see both eyes.  There was a small instinctive wince, as Maeren reminded herself that there was no longer a scar to hide.

“But what if I like calling you miss,” Maeren said playfully, doing all she could to hide the slightest timid insecurity that showed in the corner of her eyes.  “Oh miss, oh miss please…yes miss, yes, yes,” she feigned, and bit her lip, trying not to laugh less her whole facade crumble.

“I did hear you say such on more than one occasion last night,” Katrisha countered craning her neck closer.  “You mustn’t tease me, less I insure I hear such lovely sounds far sooner than you tell me I might.”

“Oh, you tempt me so,” Maeren said, closed for the kiss, and lingered.  “But that power of yours,” she said pulling away at first slowly, then with haste.  She backed away with careful steps. “Should I even escape your chamber before the day is through, you would leave me of no use to the world.”

“Tempt, tempt,” Katrisha said, rolled over on her back and sprawled out before Maeren who smiled appreciatively, and backed slowly to the door admiring the view until she could slip out.  Katrisha sighed, and rolled back up in her blankets, bundling the extra in front of her and snuggling it close. “Dear Maeren,” she whispered to herself. “Dear Celia…” She sighed, a twinge of guilt and doubt snuck in as it often did.  She resolved herself to write to her love of her wonderful new friend, that she would feel better for it, as she usually did.

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