1-21b: The Dragon – 2005

A few things I must preface with:

This is not a part of O&E.  So far from cannon it’s laughable, and yet deeply relevant to the world that came to pass.  This occurs in a hevily polished idea of a MMO world I once took part in through my late teens and early twenties.  That said this is best read after finishing the first book of The Storm Cycle.

I cannot say when this was written exactly.  The file claims it was created early in 2005.  This means it is likely a rewrite/edit in the wake of late 2003 first drafts of what would now be Book III’s opening.  The original may be forever lost.  Regardless, dates or drafts aside this is how it all began.  With a girl, a dragon, and a plan so crazy it just might work.

I have done some very minor editing, but this will show some evolution of my writing over the years since it was written nearly 13 years ago.


I shall tell you now a tale from when I was a young wizardess, seeking adventure and fame amidst the lands of the first world.  I have always been a proponent of seeking advantage in a fight, for there are only two kinds of fight in this world, the ones that you must win, or escape, and the ones that could have been avoided but for pride, ego, or a simple lack of skill.  My mentor oft joked that perhaps I missed my true calling in life as a rogue, regardless this was a fight of ego, to which I am no more immune than any.

Now I mention this for it is at the heart of my tale, in every age there has always been one great and defining legendary deed.  The slaying of a great and powerful dragon without assistance.  I was young, impetuous, and determined to do what was claimed by any sane minded person impossible, to slay a dragon with nothing but wit, magic, and potions if need be, at a point in my training where even a fine magical robe could not save me from one slight nip by the fierce breed I had set my sights upon slaying.

I studied long and hard, every text, every tome on dragons which I could find.  I traveled with many brave bands of adventurers seeking the glory of a group kill of the mighty beasts, some tales of which I might tell another time.  All of it came to not, there was no protection great enough but one’s own training, strength, or the fine armor of a warrior to save one from the might of an angered red dragon.

It had been a late night reading on the steps of the great central bank, with foreigners about speaking in broken common of the age, and their own native tongues.  My dear sister K’ia herself had slipped into a slumber amidst her night’s practice in the art of alchemy, and dear sweet K’it had long since sauntered off with some other young woman to discuss the finer points of the less applied uses of healing magics.  I was feeling disheartened, I was a daft fool but by no means suicidal. I was not going into a fight I knew I could not win.

As I plucked a freshly corked bottle of some potion from beside my sister’s sleeping form, I gazed at the blue green liquid within and turned it contemplatively.  It was labeled invisibility, and for a moment I simply stared through it at the moon, bits and pieces of thought slowly congealing into a mad plan, something no one had ever been so daft as to try, and I knew in a heart beat I must do it.

I quickly realized that while I might worm a few potions out of my dear sister without suspicion, to get as many as I needed I would have to turn else where, for I knew she would not approve.  I believe it was a colleague of hers, well practiced and recently mastered in his arts of alchemy that provided a generous quantity of the potions, and for a few coins extra asked no questions, and told no tales.

My supplies gathered my plan was all but complete, but ambitious as my primary undertaking was, a single great beast is perhaps less dangerous than the darkness that may lurk about their lair.  In those days the most reliable place to find dragons was deep within winding dank passages found to the east, infested with undead horrors and wild elementals.  What gave rise to the twisted pit of hell known to some as the bone dungeon was a mystery, no doubt it had once been a dark shrine of ill worship and blackest magery, but it’s masters were long since walking dead, if not simply dust.

After their passing though, and this was more well documented, the main hall of the deepest levels – which opened through caves inaccessible to man in high mountains above – became nest to a red dragon and her children.  To reach the main hall was no small feet but it had been done many a times, and many of her eldest children had fallen to groups of brave adventurers in the past.  Yet there seemed no end to the progeny of the red dragon, so gathering by my side two fellow wizardesses, and a young rogue, who thought me daft, but  was more than ready to amuse them self with my demise, I set forth to brave the forsaken depths.

We had reached the anti-chamber of that great hall that had been nicknamed the red dragon pit, and it was now that I set my plans into action.  Knowing that nothing would protect me from one mistake I striped bare.  It seemed a logical thing to do, if armor interferes with magic, then surely to be completely naked would only strengthen my magic.  The rogue was most amused, and his stares a bit to appreciative for my taste, I considered frying him then and there, but I still needed him for my plan.

The idea was simple enough, the rogue would run in, nab some treasure, his payment for his services, and the dragon who’s attention was caught would be distracted by me, allowing him to slip away and count his cheaply gotten gold.  That part went without a hitch, the rogue slipping into the shadows as I paralyzed then afflicted the dragon with a poison spell, and chugged the ready potion of invisibility, and sank to the floor next to my bag of potions and regents, careful not to jostle the bottles for fear of making a sound.

While dragons are intelligent you see, they are not geniuses, and most red dragons, it is my opinion, at their best barely give dogs a run for their money.  A dragon’s greatest weakness is its temper, they are all as fiery in spirit as they are in breath, and red are by far the worst when it comes to this.  To have been paralyzed, and then stung so impertently angered the beast beyond words, and it bellowed and belched small puffs of smoke.  My plan had worked, the beast was too enraged to focus clearly, its enemy had simply disappeared, had I drawn the mother of the brood I wondered if I would have been so lucky.

Little damage as I had done it worked, time and again having rested to pool my magical energies I would paralyze then strike the beast, little by little weakening it.  I could see the great beast begin to stager after nearly an hour of this trickery, once blinded by rage it was now badly staggering.  Little did I know as I crouched, invisible and slick with sweat from my efforts, fearful that my fragrance would overpower the smell of sulfur in the air and give the stupid beast a clue, that my normal companions were no longer the only ones watching my fool stunt.

For another party of adventurers had come to seek fame for them selves, and having stumbled upon my friends joined them in quiet observation.  In their number was a cleric, who’s name escapes me now, perhaps began with T, and far be it from me to speak ill of the dead, but I do still question if he truly sought a better view of the fight, or my unclad body.

Regardless it all went quite awry, the dragon, though half dead heard the cleric’s footsteps and caught sight of him.   Realizing his mistake he fled, and I, not yet composed for my next strike could do nothing to save him as the dragon crashed through the old weak wall and made short work of the poor man.  Though revenge was taken upon the beast in due course, it was not to be by me alone for my stocks had run too short, and my body too weary to start from scratch, for the beast had replenished it’s health from the cleric’s own life.

By the time all parties could regroup, word it seemed had spread amongst the red dragons, and such trickery never worked again, for even they can learn a lesson aptly now and then.  To you though I offer these lessons, the best laid plans of mortals and wizards may be set asunder by one fool, and no mater how attractive, a better view of a naked woman is not worth your life.

– a tale of K’at, Mage of Entropy

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Content Guidelines

The Storm Cycle was not written specifically for a YA audience, but if the shoe fits…

O&E as a rule but specifically The Storm Cycle will generally not be a “graphic” work.  That is there will not be a significant prevalence of blood and certainly not gore, nor detailed prose about sex acts.  Even as such events are implied (sometimes clearly) by subtext and surrounding conversation.  There will be battles, their natural consequences, and a great deal of exploration around romantic themes as the characters themselves mature.  The Storm Cycle will cover over twenty years through childhood, and into adulthood.

This is far from an antiseptic tale, but I aim to make it a fairly safe one.  That said themes of coming to terms with sexuality will be prevalent through Book II.  Fidelity, jealousy, desire, rejection, betrayal, social prejudice (make of that what you will), and the vast array of emotions involved will at times take center stage.  Even as a great deal occurs off page to extents that will not always be clear.

I think of far greater concern should be the gradual escalation towards war.  That by the end of Book IV there will be blood on the hands of all central characters, however justified it may seem.  Dealing with the very aspect of if violence can be justified will also be a theme, as well as having killed someone who likely or certainly would have killed others.  That even justified force can be deadly force.

There will be little in the way of harsh language, and that which occurs will normally be for specific purpose, or social/linguistic commentary.  On the other side there may be big words, complex turns of phrase, metaphysical and existential quandaries, strange explorations of magical physics, and concepts of all things, tied to order & entropy.  It can be mature and challenging as such in a very intellectual sense that alone should rule out the particularly young.

Parental Guidance is recommended – and that means if you really care, read it yourself, and then decide.  That said, here are my rough guidelines.

Book I: Recommended 13+

Focal Characters: 4-14
Violence: Infrequent but moderate in intensity, several minor battles.
Sexuality: Primarily subtext, but descriptions of strong youthful desire near the end.

Death and Loss are notable themes.  Political and religious strife apparent.

Book II: Recommended 15+

Focal Characters: 15-18
Violence: Moderate in both frequency and intensity.
Trauma: Dealing with the consequences of ones actions in battle.
Sexuality: A central theme for one character, as are social rejection, heartbreak, and complex ideas about fidelity, and identity.  Multiple frank conversations occur.

Book II is very much about the line between responsibility to oneself and to others.  About doing what is necessary, even if one is rejected for who they are.

Book III: Recommended 16+

Focal Characters: 18-20s
Violence: Moderate in both frequency and intensity.
Sexuality: Prevalent as a background element, but generally off page, and unspecific.

Book III is a tale about leaving home, and finding a place in an uncertain world.  It was the first book started in the series, all the way back in 2004, but floundered without building the history that fell out of Book I & II.

Book IV: Recommended 16+

Focal Characters: Mid 20s
Violence: Notable.  There will be a war, and quite a lot of death.
Sexuality: Likely muted due to the urgency of events.

Book IV is a story about facing what one has been running from, and standing up in time of need, even knowing it could cost one everything.


As a closing thought, I will switch from the difficult case to make for why content may not be appropriate for a given audience, to the even more trecherous case to be made for why it might be.

The human experience, is the human experience.  Though it varies by circumstance, social pressures, and prejudices.  Being gay for instance can be much harder than being straight, and that can be hard enough.  Being cheated on, or for that matter cheating.  Even harder ideas like arrangements that aren’t cheated, but can still be painful.

The shadows of adult troubles are present throughout every child’s life.  They can be missed or noticed in the actions and words of adults, but eventually they become the troubles of a young adult, and at last an adult.  We can pretend they do not happen, but I think often such pretense exists only in the minds of adults, and to blatantly quote myself: “Seeing the stones before us, is not what makes us stumble.”

The value of YA fiction is often considered to be the chance to provide context for the experiences they face, and while I will proudly say I have not written a message work, it does contain a lot of incidental messages that I think are both positive, and measured.  Ideas about the nature of knowledge, questioning preconceived notions, and the dangers of unexamined beliefs.  Dealing with being rejected for being different, or being hated for things that are beyond ones control.

The Creative Process & Young Love

The core story of O&E has been settled for about six years now, but they say the Abyss is in the details.  When Cassandra first uttered her prophetic ramblings in the streets of Brokhal, was when I first truly grasped the underpinnings of the tale I was weaving.  All at once I would argue my interest has always been in the simple humanity of my star crossed heroes.  Destined to uncommon deeds, and troubling ends.

The whole of the first draft for the original Book 1 (now Book 1 & 2) was a “mere” 135k words.  Each of the halves I split the tale into are now as long, or longer than the original manuscript, and sometimes I still feel that I am rushing things.  Telling a story woven across decades, following the course of my heroes from practically birth to their prophesied fates has certainly proven a challenge to balance.  I may one day do yet another pass, adding more abridging text to the longer stretches of skipped time, or where dates alone do not convey the break between events.  Evening out my mysterious narrator, who usually does a good job of staying neutral.  If anything I long to show some more subtle cracks in that facade, than clean up the ones that appear.

There have been many changes along the way, but as the analogy occurs for poor old Ezik, all has been in service of cutting the course deeper, and defying the rains to change a thing.  That said, Book 1 got far more love than Book 2 in the years I sat, and noodled with the manuscript and dates (I trimmed 400 years off the calendar at some point.)  Book 2 I have found around the middle, and into the latter half developed some problems.  Logistical miss matches of time.  While I am excited about the content that is filling the gaps, and think with some confidence that I am telling an even more compelling story, and will hopefully meet my deadlines, I do worry.

I am currently racing the clock, and trying to complete Book 2 by adding roughly two chapters worth of content, maybe a little more, into the middle.  Hopefully without dropping publishing cadence.  All in an effort to smooth out time, and make the twins years apart feel more substantial, and meaningful.  I do worry though that this fresh content, however compelling, may show some seams.  It will not have the years of editing passes behind it that earlier content has.

This further puts at risk Book III’s time table, since all my free time and energy is going into Book II currently, when I had hoped to perhaps finish Book III while I was publishing Book II.  A task that looks less, and less likely, but a bridge I will just have to cross when I come to it.

At any rate, I hope you will all indulge me some failures, and please, offer critique where something seems confusing, or out of place.  I really do want to hear what my readers think, and get this right.  So let me tackle some things that are troubling me:

Spoiler Warning: Discussing content for readers up to Book II: Chapter 8, slight allusions to future content without specifics.

I particularly hesitate around some moments that make me as an author uncomfortable.  I honestly get angry that they make me uncomfortable.

From such things as daring to even allude to menstruation, and there will be one more mention that naturally falls out of dialogue in Chapter 11.  This shouldn’t bother me, it actually doesn’t bother me, but it does make me self-conscious.  It actually makes me very mad that it does.  I fret, and worry about making silly squeamish male readers cringe, and on the other side that where it occurs in The Winter Frost is meant to be a painfully awkward, touching, and yes intimate moment between two friends who wind up (later) lovers.  This all gets inextricably tied up with so many hangups in our society, and I grudgingly embrace that all the more means it needs to be there.

I am literally playing here with the fantasy for many women of being rid of this nuisance in their lives (which in our world can sometimes be done with alternative versions of birth control – oh wait, relevant…) all the while shifting the trouble onto something that requires time, and attention.  While I totally romanticize this scene, I do so more as a stumbling block, because dear fates how ever much Celia is more certain at the end she loves Katrisha, and however little shame has been put on her over the topic, she just can’t bring herself to reveal her heart under the circumstances.  Which makes it harder over all.

If anyone noticed, yes I am intentionally playing with seasons and cycles here.  With winter ending, spring coming, and “skipping the fall.”  I also very much wanted to explore the mechanics of how people use their gift having subtle effects.  From mage blood poisoning screwing up Katrisha’s health, and delaying development, to Wren developing very early, to Celia being ahead of Katrisha even though she was behind Wren.

Now – onto the other side here.  Yes, lesbian (or should I say Lycian) romance.  I am apparently intent on making this labor of love as niche as I can.  I do not want to spoil anything, but I will be plain.  It is going to get so much more complicated than that, and I will be dodging around the minefield of dealing with complex sexuality in what is arguably (if accidentally) young adult fiction.  While moralizing far more ambiguously about society than about the actions of individuals.

I cringe half as much for what I will be cutting out, as for what I will leave in.  So many things that are tempting to lay out flatly, and challengingly, and all at once I am unwilling to derail my content rating on.  I will leave a great deal to the imagination where it belongs, and on the topic of things Katrisha will learn from Celia, I will suffice with the railings of a young Sylvia Grey, some centuries before:

“To think I had imagined not knowing a word for a part of my own body.  I should almost find this preferable to the realization that I knew full well at least three expressions for parts of a boy, and could not say from whence exactly I learned them.  No, worse, was the fact that I did – without context – know a word for my own anatomy.  A word that was a favored slur on my father’s lips for women and men alike.  That so plainly highlighted his innate hatred for women, to at last attach proper definition.  I rail between spite for the abusive misuse, and a wish to scream it from the rooftops until there is no power left but to describe simple fact.  All at once I am bereft of specifics, on the parts, the complexity, of an organ that even the most detailed medical texts reduce inaccurately to a vessel for other things, and not as I have found, a source of joy, particularly in aspects they have willfully forgone to even mention the existence of.”

Fates I love writing in the voice of Sylvia.  So delightfully and justifiably angry that one.

Afterword

< Book 1 || Book 2 >

With the final chapter of Book 1 now published, I thought I’d share my thoughts.  A small peak behind the curtain follows, so read if you like that kind of thing, or don’t if you prefer to maintain a deeper level of mystique.  Certainly finish Book 1:21 first!

This is far more about the author, and why the tale is as written, and not necessary to understand what is to come.  There may also be a very tiny spoiler in the middle for the highly observant, but it really is quite insignificant, and only a chapter away at that.

Continue reading “Afterword”

About the Author

The Past:

I wrote my first book when I was six.  I’m not saying it was Shakespeare, all that much longer than a few tweets, or that I remember any more than someone in a ship did something terribly important – probably saving some world of fuzzy things.  It was also illustrated, however poorly as a six year old is apt to do.  Alas that great manuscript is forever lost.  That’s where it started though.  I’ve spent my life obsessed with building worlds, the histories behind the people that live in them, and struggling with the challenge that is taking a setting and characters that compel me to a meaningful destination.  The journey is important, and most assuredly hard.

I took my first stab at writing a proper novel sometime around ten, and spent years re-writing those first chapters of two books over, and over again.  I added quite a few more to the list of endless re-hashing over the next decade or so.  I’ll get back to those worlds some day (as if I don’t visit often,) but for now I am here, and the tale of the Ashtons and the world that grew exponentially around them is farther than anything else I’ve ever tried before.

Even my currently profitable career as a tech-artist is a path I stumbled down out of my desire to tell stories, and my frustrations with the tools presented to me.  Be it the organizational process of redesigning history, society, and the interpersonal events of day to day life, or the want to craft tales that do not tell so much as show.  (Character illustration is also notably time consuming.)  Or just the uphill battle of vision that always exceeds scope.  I don’t do small, simple, or short easily, and almost every time I try it gets away from me.

I have always been a daydreamer, drawn inexorably to the gravitational pull of the mysteries in human existence.  A fundamental philosophical agnostic, far beyond the bounds of theology and into the realm of knowledge itself.  Nothing is truly knowable, but it sure is fun to try.  More honestly I long ago came to the conclusion that no knowledge is absolute, no truth perfect.  There are only questions and turtles, all the way down.

I readily ponder the point in our fascination with fantasy.  The pull of magical thinking that permits us to embrace the idea of mages, dragons, spells, and occasionally even moral government.  Really no more fantastical than swords made of light, engines that warp space time, and little blue boxes that are bigger on the inside.  I write that kind of fantasy too.

I can only presume that there is some fundamental survival value in our determination to ask “what if,” even if what follows is close to gibberish.  A determination to challenge the status quo even if that might be gravity itself.  What if I flap my arms?  No.  What if I use a sling shot?  Probably not.  What if I light literal tons of oxygen and hydrogen under my ass? Sometimes.

The Present:

In my day job I write code and make art.  I deal both in the quantifiable certainty of mathematics (not always as certain as you might think,) and the ephemeral chaos of fudging it till it feels right (which some would argue is a science!)  The strange reality that while a single switch gives you black and white, eight give you a couple hundred shades of gray, three ‘channels’ of these and you have millions of colors.  Then maddening as it is, the fuzzy organic mechanisms of the human eye can still see hard lines between them.

I like to approach magic rationally.  There is no distinction between magic and physics within the context of a fantasy world.  Magic is in that sense Science, mysticism on the other hand is the cargo-cult of failing to test what parts of the process actually achieve a result, or even to ponder if correlation is not equal to causation.  It is the failure to check if our accepted understanding of how space is shaped or light works, is not an over simplification of something gloriously more complex.  Dogma is available to all possible world views, and all worlds filled with emotional beings.

Which is not to say I do not obsess over mysticism, and religious ideas.  How we arrive at our faiths, and scientific certainties, that are always just a little off fact (what ever that might be.)  I am however far more interested in switching the pieces around to make something new, than believing in something unknowable.  I am more interested in exploring the divine mysteries, than accepting someone else’s answers to them.

I am deeply fascinated by how things work.  Less the very particular parts of chemistry, the resistors, how the switch works, but rather to grasp the fact that under all that, there is a switch.  If black and white make up the system, it informs what that system will become, as surely as shades of gray change the game.

We are fuzzy organic systems filled with quantum uncertainty, living in a binary world.  Not just the technological age that we are now in, but the monotheistic construct of binary morality we have built western civilization on for centuries.  Although I like to assert it is really dithiestic, as god and the devil represent polar opposites.  Any distinction of ordinal or power disparity between them is trivial in the actual application of how it informs world views into discreet buckets of good and evil.  Black and white.  On and off.

The world of O&E is one shaped by a very different moral conflict.  It is not a battle between gods for the worship of mortals, but the more direct struggle of mortals in abstract of clear personal gods, over the very idea of morality.  The pragmatic Clarions obsessed with an idea of a march towards a perfect being – in essence to create or become god – and the “chaotic good” view of morality above progress or rules.  Set further again against even more upheaval from greed and ambition with or without faith.  For some, greed and ambition are their faith.

The Future:

The Storm Cycle has four planned books – tentatively titled (no spoilers):

  • Rain in Avrale (Complete & Published – aka Children of Avrale)
  • Dust the Wind (Publishing in Progress)
  • The Weathered Road (20% written)
  • Stormfall (fragments and the end written)

There are also two supplemental books I strongly intend to write in the same time period, and involving secondary characters:

  • The Rose of Osyrae: (general outline)
    • A tale split between the schemes of the palace and the streets of the capital.
  • Liora’s Lament: (general outline)
    • A defiant young girl’s path through an order that thinks little of women.

Other books set on Thaea that I hope to get to – many tentatively titled:

  • Path of the Maji:
    • The Last Witch (40% written)
      • Set in ancient Lycia at the dawn of the age of Kings.
    • Lady of the Vales
      • The rise to power of First Queen Navi.
    • The First King
      • The beginnings of magic, and the overturning of the old order.
  • The Empire Chronicles:
    • The Wolf and the Imperator – the fall of Lycia and the founding of Corinthia.
    • Heirs to the Wind – how a nation became an Empire to span the world.
    • The Shape of Dragons (many fragments written)
      • The rise of dragons, and fall of an empire’s golden age.

However all consuming O&E tends to be – is far from the only world I want to share with the people of ours.  Here is just a small peak at a few notable for being close to completion or publication.

The Granddaughter Paradox: (first draft complete)

A tale of first contact and political maneuvering in the thirty-first century.  Pondering the nature of a ‘post singularity’ near immortal humanity, and inspired by one of the more chilling solutions to the Fermi paradox.  One of several completed manuscripts in my back pocket.  Other books started, and under consideration.

The Architect of Babylon: (first book 60% written)

First book in a series re-imagining Judo-Christian and other myth by fragmenting the role of the devil, and leaving God an uncomfortably open question no one might like the answer to.  Two or more books currently planed.

The Roses & The Raven: (completed short story)

An unconventional stab at a conventional fairytale format.  Following the schemes of a witch to over throw a Witch Queen who has cursed and conquered a once great and (ig)noble land, and two young friends that find themselves the crucial pawns in a dangerous game of magic and prophecy.  This has spawned further exploration of the youth of the Raven Witch, and the fall of that once proud land, that is so far incomplete.

And dear god – far too many more.

1-12b: Afternoon in Aldermor

This is quite a bit sexier than anything else in Book 1, and about on par with a number of sections in Book 2.  That’s not quite the reason it didn’t make the cut for Chapter 12, and more that while I like the scene, and consider it cannon I felt it broke the flow a bit, and threw, actually quite a few things in the reader’s face more than I wanted to.  It was also written well after Chapter 12’s first draft.

While there is nothing here I would consider a true spoiler (for anyone up through Chapter 12,) the very observant among my readers may feel a bit more clever, and the slightly less observant might go, “oh.”  Anything else is mere speculation.  Read or don’t, at your prerogative.

PG-13 for adult themes, and conversations.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Continue reading “1-12b: Afternoon in Aldermor”

Chapter 14

I looked there upon a lonely spire,
tall tower of those highland plains,
solitary sentinel, ‘bove the harvest grains,

proud amber heart of sovereign vales,
on all sides there about secured,
no walls she needed, nor ever were,

fair and placid lands, of humble Avrale,
could turn a prince’s eye with want,
to toil golden summer fields,

this was what young eyes knew,
now err a city sprouted from such fertile ground,
buried ancient farms, ne’er again to be ploughed,

was it for I, who took the lands fairest daughter,
did I not think time could march on without her,
we left that land, in bickering old elder’s hands.

– Prince Markus, 98 E.R.

The Voices of South Rook

The tower of South Rook was the tallest, and broadest of all the great towers of Avrale.  Standing above the near flat caldera of the southern highlands, it was a singular spectacle seen from miles in all directions.  A beacon drawing travelers in towards the sprawling city that centuries had grown around it.

Small towns sprung up like satellites along the arterial roads through the plains, and looking out at any great distance one could see these towns as clearly as the city.  It was a strange, and foreign place to those used to the deep shelter of the vales, and yet far off to all sides ridges came up to contain the vast southern farmlands.  Though a broad brake in the ridges gave way in the south, a pass that lead to the Southern Steps and cascaded down out of Avrale into Niven.

For every little town was a baron, a man of seemingly great self importance.  These invariably wished to greet, and offer food and comfort to the travelers.  All it seemed, with little pretext to gain audience with Laurel, and to bend his ear to this or that concern, and imply that perhaps word might reach the King.  The twins quickly understood why Laurel had been begrudgingly willing to take the more sedate northern route, which while even more rural, and typically ignored, avoided the officious sort of people they were constantly meeting.

Great shows of passing interest were heaped upon the twins, who quickly decided it was best to ignore the adults entirely, save to nod if directly addressed.  Wren found it easier to escape into the shadows, and seemed to draw less attention than his sisters.  The girls were painfully bored of it all, and spent a great deal of time each devising spells, and daring the other to do better, or find a flaw.

Even Wren participated in examining their work, and proved somewhat adept at spotting odd details, but was not altogether familiar enough with his sister’s magic to offer much concrete input.  Laurel appeared fascinated by the boy’s vague aptitude, but seemed to have nothing to say on the matter.  Wren’s interests seemed fleeting, even if there were signs of potential, and Laurel continued to have no interest in a third apprentice, and overly encouraging the matter was not to his benefit.

These were the highlights of the slow plodding trip.  While Wesrook had been a slightly farther from their start at Broken Hill, it had taken only two long days.  Four were taken to travel just as far as the city, which upon entry did have the three children’s full attention.  South Rook was taller, prouder, and cleaner than Wesrook, and yet had a meandering quality like Brokhal, if in a dense and overwhelming fashion.

One felt as though they could easily get lost in South Rook, and yet all the way through the streets, winding in a pattern that defied quick understanding, the tower loomed above as a constant landmark.  One always knew where the city center was if nothing else, and that spectacle only grew more imposing as they approached along one of the wide streets connecting to the inner promenade before the castle’s main gate.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 13th, 644 E.R.

Three children, and two weary men piled from their coach, and Horence lead it away to be stabled.

“It’s very big,” Katrisha finally remarked.

An understatement of the obvious, standing below the towers base it was evident how enormous the whole thing really was.  The walls of the castle around the tower staked out land nearly as large as the castle on Broken Hill, yet with the stables outside, and the walls less fortified, and filled with windows and small jutting turrets, one wondered at the vastness that might lay within.  

The tower itself was clearly several hundred feet across at the base, and slowly sloped up toward its high peak.  There was nothing small or humble about the sight, and the great gate before them stood open onto what looked to be a terraced garden courtyard.

A man was hustling out through that gate, and whipped off his hat, bowing before the new arrivals.  “My apologies, my Lord,” the man said slightly short of breath.  “There has been some chaos this morning, and reports of your arrival were slow, and scattered.  We’d thought it might be another day.”

“Not a problem,” Laurel said reassuringly.  “It is good to see you, Parin.”

“Ah yes, yes, sorry – Laurel.  I find it safest most of the time to stay in the more formal address with the locals.”

“You aren’t their servant,” Laurel chided.

“Please do not tell them this,” Parin laughed nervously.  “I prefer to play the part, and be able to do my job, than pretend to position, and be powerless.”

“Wise,” Mercu agreed with humor.

“Regardless, as you see, I am sent to greet you,” Parin noted, “and I would not have, if iI did not play along – even with this morning’s unrest.”

“The candid state of things?” Laurel pressed, but followed as Parin gestured for them to.

“The root of the commotion has been the collision of all our troubles I fear,” Parin said as they started to walk through the gates.  “Northern farmhands,” he said, and gave a tap to his own cap, “have rallied the others along with them, and are protesting slow payment.  They are sitting on bales, and locking silos.  Meanwhile several squabbles have lead to injuries.  Three Sisters have been tending to the wounded, and were given a small house by a baron siding with the workers.”  He grimaced.  “Then it all went so very much more wrong this morning.”

Laurel stopped.  “Tell me what has happened before we go farther.”

“There was a fire, at the house the Sisters were given.  Two dead in their care, and all are recovering from burns sustained both escaping, and trying to rescue the others.”

“Suspects?” Laurel asked harshly.

“Many,” Parin said.  “Lots of finger pointing.  I’m doing what I can, but I’ve lost any real hold over my people.  They think I’ve become one of the masters because I play the game, to get things done.  The Knight Commander has set up a camp near the area to keep the peace, but he’s going to have to start bloodying one side or the other, or he’ll just wind up fighting both.”

“Fine, take me to the Duke,” Laurel said tersely. “Mercu… find someone to set up our lodging.  This must be taken care of now.”

Mercu nodded, and Laurel was off even ahead of his guide.

“What’s going to happen?” Kiannae asked.

Mercu took a moment to think of the best response, but before he could even try to quiet the children’s fears, Wren offered his thoughts, “Bad things.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Night had fallen, and Laurel had not returned.  Mercu put the children to bed, and though suspicious of the twins being agreeable to lay down, he was not ready to question good fortune.  Such dubiously set aside suspicions were quite founded, and after Mercu had retired, the twins slipped from their room in secret.

After being cooped up for days with officious adults, and the rest of the time in a stuffy coach they had a new castle to explore, and every intention of doing so.  Katrisha peaked into Wren’s room, but found him sleeping, and Kiannae poked her.

“Leave him,” she whispered tersely.

Katrisha pursed her lips thoughtfully.  She had wanted to bring Wren along, but decided it was best to let him sleep when her sister simply continued to glare at her.  She closed his door, and the two slunk off down the hall, dodging into alcoves, and tapestries at the slightest sound of footsteps.

One such evasion took them onto a balcony overlooking the lower gardens, which they had only fleetingly seen during the day.  By the moonlight, and cast in the amber glow spilling out the tower windows it was breathtaking.  Their position high in the western wall of the castle let them see the many terraces, fountains, trees, and flowerbeds of the gardens.  Some fountains formed streams which cascaded in soft waterfalls between tiers.

The splendor of the place made Broken Hill seem quaint, and primitive, and all of it caught between blue and amber hues was vividly serene.  Even Kiannae, oft less taken by the night stared down beside her sister in abject wonder.  “Fates it’s pretty here,” she whispered appreciatively.  “Why isn’t this the capitol?”

“I don’t know,” Katrisha shrugged.  “I mean the view from the tower is very nice, high up above the valley.  They could do more with the court I suppose.  Move the stables outside the walls, cascade the upper court into the lower like this.  Then it might be better.”

“Eh,” Kiannae remarked, and peaked back into the hall they had ducked out of.  All was quiet, and with reluctance Katrisha followed Kiannae back inside.  The walls were covered in paintings, and tapestries everywhere they went.  It had an effect of being too much, and a single glance between the two confirmed they agreed on this.  Broken Hill might have needed some love in the landscaping, but the more sedate decoration was better in the twins opinion.

Sneaking into the main tower was mostly possible due to a dozing guard, and even as the twins slipped inside they heard a startled mutter behind them.  The door creek, and they had only just managed to duck out of sight before the guard took a step into the hall behind them.  He walked around a bit, but missed the displaced curtain the two had slipped behind, and Kiannae peeking out from it.  He returned to the door, took one more look around, and closed it properly.

The hall the twins had entered was a large ring inside the exterior walls of the tower, and overlooked a central chamber below that was mostly deserted.  Another guard was walking below, his heels making smart little clacks with every step.  The round lower chamber looked something like a mixture of the throne room at Broken Hill with the ballroom, yet grander and finer than either.  Overhead great stone arches came up to meet with the center of the chamber to support the roof and rooms above.

The twins found stairs down into the lower chamber more quickly than those that lead up, but were not interested in going down.  Checking that the stairs seemed clear the two hustled up into the next level of the tower.  It was a long two story climb that permitted the vast open area below, and the two were a bit winded from their haste.

Peaking out at the top of the stairs revealed a guard standing some distance away.  He seemed distracted, his ear to a door, listening to yelling that could be heard all the way from the stairs, and he easily missed the two as they bolted across the hall, and out of sight.

Katrisha stopped short, and listened at the corner.  She was fairly sure one of the voices she heard yelling was Laurel, and then confirmation as the guard moved out of the way, and the doors burst open dramatically.

“Do your duty you spineless cowards,” Laurel snapped, and turned angrily to face the room again.  “I want those responsible for this crime brought to justice.  Do not think that the Council’s authority ends at the King, and let me remind you the man that he is.  This is not merely an arson, but an assault, and two murders.  Two men died in that fire, and what company they kept, what linage they could claim is not your concern.  I want this handled with all the seriousness if they had been your own sons.  Do you hear me?”

Laurel pivoted again on his heel, and marched towards the stairs.  Katrisha and Kiannae scurried away down the hall they were hiding in, and well out of sight.  They leaned behind a pillar, huffed a few times excitedly, and when it was clear they had once again evaded detection they nodded approvingly to one another.

Footsteps coming their way caused the pair to hurry up the closest set of stairs they could find, and into another level filled with hallways, and doors.  Footsteps could be heard following them up the steps, and they rushed to one end of the hall where a balcony opened out over the gardens far below.  They hid with their backs flat to the wall, but there were still voices and footsteps coming their way.

“These northerners are heathens,” one man said angrily.  “They are wanton, and crass, yet they act as though they think themselves part of the nobility, with their dirt stained hands.  I do not know what madness the King has fallen under that he continues to permit their ‘representative’ at court.  He is perhaps the most common, and low born of the lot.  Worse than Perin, who at least shows proper deference, even if I still see in his eyes he thinks himself clever.”

“This is the travesty that we get for allowing such people to think they know anything of what is good for them,” another voice answered.  “They do not have the education, the refinement, the lineage for such thoughts.  When the drought ends, something must be done about the north.  They can not be allowed to continue like this.”

“There is another lowborn tavern now on the edge of the city.  Disgusting, and filled with women of ill repute.  Worse still some of them Lycian by their own admission.  Bad enough if such a place exists in some far corner of the farm lands, but here, in South Rook.  We are sinking lower even than Wesrook.  To think, worse than those fishers, unconscionable.”

The first man walked out onto the balcony, but did not notice the girls hiding in the dark.  He strode up to the rail, and leaned on it to stare out across the city, somewhere towards the horizon.  His attire, however subdued seemed of regal cut, his baring one of imposing command, under his barely restrained rage.

The second man had stopped just inside the tower.  “Their influence is out of control.  I caught one of my footmen swearing up a storm to the scullery maids, and them laughing it up.  I fired them all on the spot of course, and it is proving difficult to replace them on such short notice.  The state my house is in.”

“To think – I have been ordered to investigate the burning of that whore house.  Justice has already been served that it was burned to the ground.”

The second man stepped out, and looked up at the sky, before moving to stand beside his companion.  Katrisha and Kiannae glanced at eachother, softly stepped towards one another, and then slipped back into the tower, hiding again on the inside.  They were not done listening.

“Laurel, in the King’s name of all things, wants them punished…punished.  I’ll punish them with ranking positions in the guard I tell you.  Pin the whole mess on some degenerate farmers.  Sad I will not be able to give credit where it is due, but the least I can do is right by those cleansing the filth from our midst.  Perhaps they can do more good work, and with some subtlety, if placed properly.  Maybe that tavern can have an accident.”

“You’ve already determined who is responsible?”

“A short list at least,” the more regal man gave an absent gesture.  “Most I have seen attend sermons.  Good men.”  He turned, and leaned back against the rail, looking up, and closed his eyes.

“Are you sure you can shift the blame?”  His companion asked, and turned to look to his superior with doubt.  The twins each got a good look at their faces in the moonlight, before deciding it was better to duck back completely out of view.

“If a few fools can’t be bought, they can be made to look like liars, and accomplices.  There are always more peasants in need of coin, than those determined to stick out their necks.  When they see the way the wind is blowing, we will settle this mess.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

When the twins arrived outside their room they considered their options.  They had to tell Laurel what they had heard, which would mean explaining how they had heard it.  Reluctantly they check Laurel’s room, but found it empty, and considered that it might be better to wait till morning to tell him any way.  

Distracted thinking over her options, Katrisha collided with her sister when she stopped halfway through their chamber door, and nearly knocked both of them over.

“And what have you two been up to?” Laurel demanded, seated on their bed.  Mercu sitting beside him, looked groggy, and more unhappy to be awake than with the girls likely mischief.

“We heard some men talking,” Kiannae said defensively.

Laurel did not look impressed.

“They said they are going to blame the fire on people who didn’t do it,” Katrisha added hastily.

Laurel did not look less angry, but both twins were reasonably convinced he was no longer concerned with their sneaking out, and would listen to what they had to say.  Mercu also looked far less sleepy, and even less pleased.

“Can you identify the men who you heard talking?” Laurel demanded.

The girls glanced at each other.  “Yes,” they answered in unison.

“Good.”  Laurel stroked his beard. “I will be arranging to present you tomorrow to the court of South Rook.  I had hoped to avoid all the pomp of formal introduction, but that will be our best opportunity to be sure you see everyone of note.”  He took a breath, and steadied himself.  “Now you will tell me every single word you remember.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 14th, 644 E.R.

Laurel looked weary as Parin entered his room.  He gestured for the man to close the door behind him, and Parin did.

“Who here could replace Duke Fenlin, or Baron Castor?”

“Under what circumstances?” Parin asked shrewdly.

“Let us say, any.”

“Not many,” Perin answered.  “The Knight commander would of course be the logical replacement for his brother.  Yet if there is a problem with Fenlin, we will likely have it in time with James.”

“James is corrupt?”

“No,” Parin said firmly.  “He has been faithful in his duties, but strongly I feel he is his much the same man as his brother.  Put in his position, he will become more like him.  I also do not think in his heart he would want it.”

“Parin – you have been here for some years now.  Do you think you could do what these men do?”

“Either?” Parin asked.

“Both,” Laurel answered.

“Possibly,” Parin said, his grimace a bit hard to read.  “Though I do not know if I could rely on the same men they have.  In fact I know I cannot.  I know Baron Thomil to be embezzling, and Baron Comlin to be taking bribes.  I have other suspicions as well, but those are just the things I am certain of.”

“You haven’t reported this?”

“Just because I know it to be true, does not mean I’ve had sufficient evidence to make it stick.”

“You could still have reported your suspicions.”

“Your pardon Laurel, but let me be frank.  You and the King are good men, you would not have endured this, and the cost of rectifying the matter was easily as high as allowing it to endure.  Principle, and practicality do not always mix.”

“I am aware…”

“Regardless I have not been idle, I have been working to build the case in the event it becomes necessary.”

“Good – it may be.”

“What, if I may ask is happening?” Perin pressed.  There was a seriousness, and authority that slipped through then that belied his usual demeanor.  It would be useful, if things played out as Laurel expected.

“I have sent for the King.  Legally, I have the authority for what needs doing here without him, and I still need to settle some details, but I want his support.  This will be messy enough without relying only on the Council’s authority, and my position with the King.”

“Good fates.  The King is leaving Broken Hill?  He has not done so in decades.”

“I have sent a fast courier, but even if the King rushes, and he will, it will still be three days before he arrives.  We need to keep things from getting out of hand until then.  Who do you trust?”

“Baron Joshua,” Parin answered.  “No others with certainty.  He has been on our side from the start.  He is a good man, he gave those women the house, and now keeps them safe in his own.”

“Whoever Fenlin brings charges against I want them protected.  Use Joshua to make sure of it.  It may take things longer than three days to come to a head, but if they do, I will have the peace maintained, and I would prefer to know I am not acting alone.”

“You have me,” Parin nodded, “and you will have Joshua.”

“Good – you are dismissed, I have much to think on,” Laurel waved.

Parin nodded, and left promptly.  Laurel sighed when he was gone.

“Educational, you two?” he asked after a moment.

Katrisha, and Kiannae stepped out from behind a curtain.  “You knew we were here?” Kiannae asked.

“I could see your auras,” Laurel chided.

“Oh,” Katrisha said awkwardly.

“Other than that, I would not have known,” Laurel reassured them.  “I figured however if you were hiding in my room, you would not be skulking about the castle.”

“The King is coming here?” Kiannae asked.

“Yes,” Laurel said.  “I will still need you to identify for certain who you heard speaking last night, but I have strong suspicions.”

“The Duke, and Baron?” Katrisha asked.

“Perhaps I should not have let you listen,” Laurel frowned.  “Be sure of who you identify, do not let what you heard here skew your opinions.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

A small ball was held in the twin’s honor that evening.  It was officious, and filled with introductions.  Neither had any doubt that the men introduced as Duke Fenlin, and Baron Castor were the men they had heard, and seen, and heard talking.  This was established almost immediately, and then the rest of the evening was lost to formalities.

Though the pomp, and circumstance was grating, and boring, neither girl minded too much when young men, all mostly a year or two their elder asked them to dance.  Each did passably,  but had never had much practice.  Katrisha at least once stepped on a young man’s toes, who to his credit pretended nothing happened.

The ball gave way to banquet, and the banquet to more milling.  Though everything was prettier, and grander, the twins each found something lacking in the atmosphere.  There was a jovialness to balls at Broken Hill that was absent in South Rook, and each were glad enough to return to their room in the end.

The next day brought commotion, as arrests were made over the fire.  Some men protested their innocence, but otherwise went quietly, and though it seemed a mob might break out among the commoners, peace seemed to hold by a thread.  Just as quickly two men were commended publically for their part in identifying the culprits, and others came forward to attest to the innocence of the arrested.

Laurel saw personally to the accommodations of the accused, and though he was resisted, further chaos cut the matter off as Baron Thomil was brought up on charges of embezzlement, and Baron Comlin was found to have fled the city.  Amidst all of this word arrived of the King’s hasty travel to South Rook, and everything went into an awkward state of suspension preparing for his arrival, and trials were all but forgotten as haste was made to prepare for a grand banquet.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 18th, 644 E.R.

King John arrived to great fanfare in the streets of South Rook, but none could miss his displeasure as he stepped from the royal coach.  He was lead into the castle, and up the many steps, and tiers to the main floor of the tower.  Where upon the completion of formalities, including the herald announcing him, the King was in the mood to waste no more time.

“Where are the Ladies Ashton?” the King demanded harshly.

Katrisha and Kiannae stepped from the crowd nervously, all eyes upon them.  Ther curtsied to the King, as they had been told to maintain as much formality as they could.

“Good – then we can begin,” the King snapped, surveying the regality of South Rook.  “Tell us all what you heard dear girls.”

“The night of our arrival we were exploring,” Katrisha began, “and came upon the end of Laurel’s meeting with the Duke, and Barons of South Rook.”

“As we hid,” Kiannae added, “we heard a discussion between the Duke,” she pointed to Fenlin, “and the Baron Castor.”

“They were not happy to be asked to investigate the fire.  Saying that as,” Katrisha frowned, “in their words it was a ‘whore house, and justice had already been done.’”

“And which specifically said this?” the King asked.

“The Duke,” Kiannae answered.

“They then conspired to blame others for the crime they had been asked to investigate,” Katrisha added clenching her fist.

“And offer positions in the guard to those responsible,” Kiannae said furiously.  “Which they have.”

“They hoped to have the same happen to a tavern on the edge of the city,” Katrisha finished.

“What say you?” the King said facing the Duke fiercely.

“You take the word of these half breeds – these mongrels?” the Duke snapped venomously.

“Give us reason to doubt them?” the King answered unmoved.

As the Duke hesitated, trying to formulate a plan, the Baron stepped forward.  “We have done all that has been said, and it was right.  To punish those guilty of nothing more than the light’s work, of preserving us from the darkness in our own midst, those protected by a corrupt King.”  Guards rushed from the King’s side, and brought the Baron to his knees.  “Unhand me, I am of the faithful.  The King brings abominations into his court, whores, those of Sylvan blood, and one that can consume souls.”  Few saw a small boy looking down from the balcony above sink to his knees, torn between guilt and fury.

The Duke looked frozen, halfway between fleeing, and siding with the man who had just sealed his fate.  “Unhand the good Baron,” he commanded finally.  “We have committed no great crime, malcontents were to stand in the place of those who did right by this nation, and only a King unfit to rule would decree punishment for their actions.”

At least one of the guards holding the Baron looked uneasy, and some began shifting to stand behind the Duke, even as the King’s own guard moved more tightly around him.

“Your position is well known to Us.  There is nothing the twins have said that is found out of character, but these acts force Our hand.  You have abetted criminals, killers, and defied a direct, and lawful decree by a Court Mage.  You seek to reward those who undermine the sanctity of private and public property, and worse, even life.  You have spoken directly against the throne, and preached dissent against Our sanctioned rule.   Your position, your title, your land, and holdings are forfeit.”

The Duke lurched forward, but found himself tossed backwards into the guards behind him who caught him, and staggered themselves, one falling off balance.  There was a thunderous discord through the crowd, and though it was hard to make anything out, an undertone of sentiment for the Duke was suspect.

“Thank you, Laurel,” the King said quietly as the man stepped to his side before any other moves could be made.  “If it wouldn’t break any rules, it would be good to speak a bit louder, please,” the King asked kindly.

Laurel nodded, and formed a spell before the King, invisible to most.

“Were that We had spent my years on the throne in constructing jails enough to accommodate the lot of you,” the King’s voice echoed unnaturally across the chamber, and a slight smile tried to creep into the corner of his lips.  “Do not make Us begin such a task now.”  He turned to survey the crowd gathered around.  “Ours is a nation of free faith – without one decreed, or preferred.  If these are the actions upon which Our hand is to be forced, then you will not like the outcome.”

He turned back to the Duke, who suddenly had fewer guards standing behind him.  “We believe both of you could use a lesson in hard work, you were born to your wealth after all,” the King’s voice still echoed.  He waved his hand slightly, and Laurel dismissed the spell.

“I was born…”  The Duke sneered, and almost spat.  “You were born to royalty.  You sit on a throne inherited wrongly in the place of a good man, one who would have done right by this Kingdom. You know nothing of hard work – of managing the wellbeing of a people under a King that would let them fall to ruin.  You sit on your throne from on high, proclaiming this, and that to your whim.  All that you have was handed to you.  Even your whore of a sister would have been better, time has at least brought her to grace.”

“Every day,” the King said taking a great breath, “a King must deal with petty, greedy, arrogant fools.” There was fire in his voice, and it carrying well of its own accord across the chamber.  “Fools who cannot see the fields for the crops.  You, and your ilk, petty, grubbing, pious, and blind.  You will not even be given the dignity of sanctioned labor.  Find someone willing to hire you – not that you have any skills to ply as  trade.  You will not have gifts, or take refuge in some ally’s back room.  A royal decree shall bar you from all such places.  No court, no noble house may take you for six years.”

“You side with the harlots – the degenerates dragging us all into the abyss.  You are not fit to be King – you are old, and addled, and the dalliances of your youth clearly cloud your judgement,” the Baron said in defense of his Duke.

“Yes – we’ve all heard the rumors,” the Duke added, “that you took up with a Lycian whore when barely more than a boy.  Now in your dwindling years you prop them up, you let one of their perverse leaders walk through the halls of your court, honor her as a guest.  Does she sleep in your bed, does she have her way with you, and your Queen?  It is madness that the council does not see fit to purge you, and your lineage from the throne.”

The Duke rushed again, but even as Laurel moved to repel the attack he was assailed himself, from all sides.  The King’s guards blocked the Duke, and others moved to intervene on his behalf.  The Baron broke free, and drew his blade on the men that had held him.

Laurel threw the men off him with enough force that several collided with the crowd.  There were screams, and panic.  Blades were drawn, and Guards clashed without clear idea who was on which side.  One took this opportunity to stab one of the king’s guard from below, and behind, knowing well the weaknesses of their armor, and join the Baron, and the Duke in a tight circle.  Laurel scattered all of them to the floor with force, but again was made to defend himself from one of the men that had tried to restrain him before, who was charging him with a sword.

Kiannae knocked the man from his feet, but another was quickly then upon her.  Katrisha grabbed the man attacking her sister, and he shrieked in pain as ice formed over his arm.  He threw off Katrisha, but Kiannae knocked him back with enough force to send him sprawling across the floor.  The crowd had begun to flee the hall, or press back against the walls, away from the growing fight.  A few had stumbled, and were already been trampled.

“STOP!” a terrible voice boomed across the hall louder than the King’s had been moments before.  It was like getting caught in ice, it slowed even the heart, the senses, sound itself.  It trailed off, the tone changing under its own influence.  All did as the voice commanded.  Swords clattering to the floor, a few tipping over stiffly.

After a moment the combatants drew away from one another, more dropped their swords intentionally.  Some of the crowd fell to their knees glassy eyed.  All felt a terrible grip on them, even Laurel struggled against the power, and barely got to the King’s side as he teetered.  The Baron after a moment fainted, and the Duke trembled, and fell to his knees, wide eyed, and defiant, but unable to stand.

Kiannae shakily broke free, and rushed to her sister.

Katrisha had been more dazed by the fall than the voice.  It clung to her more like molasses than something rigid.  Like something borrowed rather than from outside.  She looked up, took her sister’s offered hand, and was pulled a bit unsteadily to her feet.

“What was that?”  Kiannae asked glancing around.

“I don’t know,” Katrisha said looking over the silent, chaotic, and all but motionless crowd.

The King shrugged off Laurel’s assistance, and marched at the Duke, taking advantage of the illusion of subservience.  He grabbed a sword one of the guards had dropped, and held it to the man’s throat.  “You fools, you rail, and spit venom, and would dare to lay hands on the sanctioned King of these lands.  Most dishearteningly you have each born not a single word for your families, for your wives, and children.  In the event you do find a moment to spare a thought for those who you should be defending – and you shall have a great many of those to spare – rather than the persecution of those who have done you no harm, then know your King is not so cruel as to hold your families responsible for your actions.”

He took a steadying breath – resisting the urge to look around for what had caused the current dazed state of the crowd, and also the impulse to flick the sword he held across the throat bared before him.  “The Queen has nothing but good things to say of your wife.  She will take your place in title, as We will find a deep, and dark dungeon to hold you. It is left to her, if she seeks freedom from your union – surely she deserves no punishment such as to bare an empty bed for however many decades We lock you away.  Your children will come to court at Broken Hill, to continue their education, and insure that your poisonous ideas do not lead them to your fate.  Take them both away, forcefully, if they resist – find them a cell, and lock it well.”  He commanded, and even guards who had previously backed the Duke moved to take him by the arms, and force him to his feet.

The King glanced to the wounded member of his guard.  “Will some healer do their bloody duty?” he roared pointing to the wounded man.  A priest got up from his knees, rushed to the man’s side, and began healing the wound.

The crowd was slowly slipping free of whatever had gripped them, and some had begun to file quietly out of the hall, while others stood, and looked around, uncertain what to do.  The King seeing this returned to Laurel.  “The spell again,” he said tersely.  Laurel nodded, and did as he was bidden.

“People of South Rook,” the King began, his voice booming once more, but still like a whisper to the command that had stopped the fighting, and brought many to their knees.  “Corruption has visited the great houses of South Rook.  Though We hold the Duchess blameless in these matters, the corruption surely runs deeper than this incident.  As such we ask Representative Parin to step forth.”

Parin did as he was commanded, and wove from amid the chaotic gathering.  He knelt before the King, trembling.

“Rise,” the King said softly, but it still boomed above any normal voice.  “As an outsider, a man of the North, but familiar with the workings of South Rook, you are named Grand Baron, and commanded to aid the Duchess in her new duties.”

“As you will my King,” Parin nodded.

The King waved across his lips, and the spell was again removed.  “Now someone will tell me what in the burning heavens just happened here,” he growled in a harsh whisper, mostly looking to Laurel.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

No clear answers were come to easily.  The voice by all accounts had come from everywhere at once, and only the most gifted had resisted the power at all.  Many in the upper balcony remained dazed for hours after the event, and though the Clarion faith held no specific deity – however revered the Avatar – the event quickly became known as ‘the voice of god,’ in many a hushed whisper.  It was heard across half the city, though had no great power beyond the grand chamber of the tower.

Security proved a troublesome issue.  All of the visitors were moved to rooms surrounding commendations for the King, located high on the sixth level of the tower, and everyone above was ordered out.  Wren was found after the incident hiding in his room, sobbing, and refused to speak.  Katrisha spent much of the following days comforting her brother, while Kiannae often prefered to be near Laurel.

Katrisha did not mention her suspicions, least of all to her brother, but she remembered well what Varmun had said on that moonlit balcony.  She feared to tell anyone, for his sake.  Even if it was true she did not know what good it could amount to.

There was pomp, ceremony, and chaos in the long two weeks after the King’s decrees turned South Rook on its head.  The Duchess for her part was cordial through the whole matter, clearly torn deeply by the realities she faced.  The suspects in the fire we released on new testimony that placed them elsewhere, and two men given position in the guard were arrested, and tried for the crimes.

The King for his part personally visited those wounded in the fire, which caused a further stir, but most publicly accepted it as proper.  The twins continued their snooping, but caught wind of no more conspiracies, though Mercu did listen with interest when they spoke of Parin comforting the Duchess after a trying day, and her taking his hand.

The idea that the voice that had stopped the fighting was indeed somehow divine proved useful, as it seem to carry some weight in calming turmoil.  That the King had come out ontop under the command seemed proof to many that he was a ruler sanctioned above even the authority of the Council.  This view was not much loved by either the King or Laurel, and even less by their would be enemies, but the usefulness outweighed any discomfort.

When at last departures were arranged it was a far grander company than had set into South Rook not long before.  The Royal coach carried Laurel, and the King, while the twins and their brother were with Mercu.  Two more coaches joined the caravan to carry five more children – three of the Baron, and two of the Duke.  All of this was surrounded by knights, and soldiers on horseback.

Such a large group did not move quickly, and returned to Broken Hill almost a week after departure.  Renae waited very impatiently, and hugged the twins almost as fiercely as Wren.  She had been expecting her adopted son to be present when she arrived, and only learned from broken accounts that the King had left in great haste for South Rook several days before her arrival.

Renae was both furious, and relieved to learn of all that had transpired, and thanked the King emphatically for his interventions before departing with Wren in tow.  This left things to slowly settle back to normal, but there remained lingering disquiet in the court.  What had transpired, the King’s stand, a mysterious voice, had all left a mark that would not easily fade.

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