Chapter 17

As the child grows,
any parent knows,
so too the troubles go,

yet a common child,
shall never be so wild,
as those gifted born.

and so mages well beware,
the children you might sire,
or to be mother of the storm.

– Lament of Araena Grey, circa 100 E.R.

Young Troubles

Estae 25th, 645 E.R.

Katrish and Kiannae stood side by side on north balcony above the throne room, watching the proceedings below impatiently.  It was far from the first time, but invariably they grew bored with all the formalities, and repetition.  Grain reports and petty grievances, petitions for justice for minor crimes, and worries both that too much, or too little is spent on the Osyrean border in the north.  Mercu’s tales of Clarion political maneuvering had however piqued their interest to try again, waiting to see if anything would happen.  Nothing really had, not at least on the four occasions they had taken an hour or less to watch since.

That day though Idolus was in court, standing at Arlen’s side as Mercu had implied was often the case.  Arlen’s place in the order for the day had yet to come up, to Arlen’s clear frustration, as much as the girls.  They were growing painfully bored with the minutia of running a kingdom, but something of the airs the two men possessed spoke of trouble they were not ready to miss.

“The court recognizes Sir Arlen, of Wesrook,” the court herald declared, bringing the twins back from their own musings.

“Your Majesty,” Arlen said with a bow, “a matter of some concern has arisen.  It has come to my attention that the Court Mage’s twin apprentices are likely being poisoned against the merits of Clarion teaching.”

Both girls glanced at each other, uncertain what to make of the accusation.  They certainly had not expected to be the subject that Arlen opened on.  Kiannae looked to the king for a response, but Katrisha caught a brief sneer of Idolus up at them.  Even after South Rook she was not sure she had seen such a look of hate.

“Will this be the point at which you claim Lycian influence behind this attitude?” the King asked with an obvious lack of amusement.

“One can not be sure,” Arlen said shrewdly, “yet they do most vehemently besmirch our beliefs.”

“That is an interesting, but not uncommon viewpoint,” the King said drolly. “I have never known the Sisterhood to walk the streets proclaiming much of anything for their order, or against any other.  They will of course lend their own version of wisdom, to those who ask, without much hesitation.”

“They do walk the streets,” Arlen offered sharply, and overly proud of his own jab from the look on his face.  There were a few chuckles through the court.

“As do we all, at times,” the King cut back with much less pleasure, “or do you mean to imply that the Sisterhood sell their…attentions.  Then We would need ask who besmirches who, since this is both less than true, and breaks no law of the land.  Even if it were.  Moreover it is the attentions of a Clarion healer that must most often be paid for.  We should know, for how much of Idolus’ time this court has paid.”  There was more uncomfortable laughter at this.

Katrisha tugged at Kiannae’s sleeve, feeling that leaving might be best, but Kiannae stood firm, and gave her a look that said she had no interest in shrinking from the argument below.

“If We might, my King,” the Queen interjected, “perhaps the girls in question could speak for themselves?  They were more than capable of felling a mighty dire beast bigger than a horse, We doubt a few questions will give them all that much trouble.  Certainly they can speak more authoritatively to the matter of their educational sources and leanings.”  She looked up to where the two stood on the balcony above.  Katrisha reluctantly stepped back beside her sister.  “Please, do speak plainly girls, what have you been taught of the Clarion beliefs?”

The two exchanged an uncomfortable glance, and stood there a bit longer than was perhaps dignified under direct question.

“We have been taught that the Clarions believe in the Path of Ascension,” Katrisha offered, when Kiannae in spite of her stubborn insistence to stay did not jump to speak. “That through casting off the unnecessary distractions of the flesh, all which is not needed to continue life, and propagate the species.  To the end that we might better focus on moving towards becoming one with the light.  They believe this is the one true path, and the only valid use of one’s life.”

“What have you been taught of the beliefs of the Lycian Order, or perhaps you know them better as the Sisterhood?” the Queen asked.

“That the Lycians believe, as is the official position of the Council,” Kiannae began, finding her nerve again, “that there is no proof that Ascension is even possible, let alone desirable.  They chose instead to focus upon the merits of this life, rather than the promises of another.  They do not begrudge the Clarions the core tenants of their faith, only their doctrine to force this upon others, purportedly for their own good.”

“Anything more?” the Queen asked, “what do you believe, and from what source do you draw your conclusions?”

The girls again exchanged looks, and after a moment Kiannae spoke first.  “I believe that the Council’s assessment is accurate in that there is no proof of the functional possibility of Ascension.  The Clarion argument that the flesh itself is the sacrifice that allows the soul to ascend is plausible, but does not answer any questions of the nature of existence beyond the Veil, not a testable conclusion that it works.”

“And you?” the Queen prodded.

“I believe that there is no practical answer to either Ascension being true, or false,” Katrisha said hesitantly.  “We concern ourselves with that which is known, that which can be determined to be human nature.  If the Light made us with a true path, whatever that might be, then it must be in our natures to follow it, not against that nature.”

“What of the pull of the Abyss?” Arlen interjected after a quick whisper in his ear from Idolus.

“Is this a material pull, or an intelligent manipulation?” Katrisha demanded irritably.

“The Abyss is the void, without thought, or intent, it is nothing but endless hunger,” Arlen said without further prompting.

“Then does it change our intelligent nature, or does it anchor us down by force?”  Katrisha cut back.  “If you argue it is unintelligent, then the latter must be true.  Our nature should then be unaffected.”

“We must be prepared to sacrifice the physical to attain Ascension,” Arlen said again prompted by Idolus, “as the Council itself is prone to pointing out, if Ascension is possible, then something must descend to give the soul the power to rise.”

“Enough,” the King declared coldly. “I will not allow further ideological debate in my throne room.  Nor have you continue to pester these fine young women who have so recently done a great service for the crown, and this nation, at grave risk to their own health.  We will have answers to the charge of the willful teaching of these two against the Clarion faith.  Answer now girls, from where have you drawn your conclusions regarding Clarion teaching?”

“From Laurel, who has instructed us according to Council practice,” Kiannae answered.

“What proof do we have that Laurel himself then is not adherent to the beliefs of the Sisterhood?” Arlen demanded.

“We know it to be the case that Laurel was raised by parents who were staunch Clarion adherents,” the King said dismissively.

“Yet he is known to consort with, and bring the Matron of Highvale here to court!” Arlen proclaimed, seemingly off Idolu’s leash, and enraged to his own ends.

“For the purpose of allowing his adopted daughters, and aprentices to know their younger brother.  A poor child afflicted with unfortunate circumstances of birth, who was left to their care,” the King stated firmly.  “Would you begrudge these children to know their own blood?”

“If he is a corruption, if he brings in the false teachings to the court,” Arlen said without as much fire as before, “then unfortunately yes, such it must be.”

“Tell me girls,” the King said glancing up to the twins, “what has the Matron Renae, or Wren told you of their order?”

“Little of note,” Katrisha said finding it curious herself that such topics had rarely come up.  “Day to day life, chores, that some days are free, and others set aside for meditation.  Of his trials with a belligerent young man of the order.”

“Do you attest to this also Kiannae?” the King pressed.

“Yes,” Kiannae said curiously, “Renae has been nothing but kind to us, asked us of our lives, but told us little of hers.  I know she traveled with caravans once, and saw much of the world.  I have not known her to preach as I have seen Idolus do as he walked the street the other day.”

“So it would seem,” the King said flatly, “that the girls have attained their opinion of Clarions from the teachings of the Council.  Whether or not We agree with these opinions, or how they are stated, the Council’s authority is officially recognized in this kingdom, by treaty.  If you wish to take issue with their teachings, We recommend taking your grievances to Mordove, you will find it well east of this court.  If you are in a hurry, might We suggest the east pass.”  There was more uncomfortable humor at this, and Arlen stepped away from the dias with a less than graceful bow, clearly still fuming.

Idolus for his part eyed the girls spitefully, and then slipped back into the crowd, and out of the throne room.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 17th, 645 E.R.

Mercu stepped aside as an irate Katrisha tore past him in a fit.  He glanced down the hall where she had come from only to catch a snide look from Lady Catherine, who turned, and marched away in her own more dignified huff.  Mercu sighed, shook his head, and turned around to follow Katrisha.  It had been a good morning he thought, and that it seemed would not continue.

By the time Mercu caught up with Katrisha she had climbed the stairs halfway to the her tower chamber, and sat beneath one of the many windows off the spiral stair.  “Might I enquire as to the meaning of that scene?” he asked in a kind yet chiding tone, that drew a remarkable look of disapproval from the tear streaked face of the girl sitting before him.

“Who died, and made her Queen?” Katrisha demanded.

Mercu was a bit taken aback by Katrisha’s question, but finally settled on a response.  “Her father, actually,” he said stroking his chin, and watching Katrisha’s expression change to one of confusion.

“What?” she asked still half sobbing, and shaking her head for the lack of sense the statement made to her.

“Didn’t you know?” Mercu asked with a laugh. “Haven’t you ever wondered why Catherine holds so much sway in the court?  Catherine was the elder sister of the King.”  He watched with some amusement as confusion melted to an unmistakable expression of doubt, and disbelief.  “It’s true,” Mercu insisted.

“Then why…isn’t she Queen?” Katrisha asked, clearly caught somewhere between her current distaste for the woman, and a sense of injustice at this knowledge, that she seemed not entierly prepared to believe either.

“In part because her father was not,” Mercu said searching for the best way to explain.

“Then why is the King…” Katrisha started, but was not quite sure how to finish her question.

“The proper heir to the throne of the Elder King was his first born son,” Mercu said trying to recall what he had learned over the years.  “He died at a young age, leaving the heir apparent his brother, but the King had lost control of the influences some of the knights held over his younger child.”

“But they are his knights,” Katrisha protested, “why would he approve of them, but not their influence?”

“Just as the throne is inherited, so are knighthoods,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “At least in Avrale, I’ve always found the titles of this land quaint.  No Earls, or Counts, every duke’s younger brother automatically a knight commander.  Some other knighthoods inherited, others not.  At any rate,” he said with a dismissive gesture for his own train of thought, “the children of your father’s friends, are not always your friends.  Yet in noble circles you are oft obliged to pay difference nonetheless.  So it is with the court, not everyone who bows to the King does so with love in their heart, some do it out of grudging duty.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Katrisha said momentarily distracted from her prior upset.  “Though perhaps it explains Arlen,” she said thoughtfully.

“Yes, quite,” Mercu laughed.  “Regardless, so it was with the chosen mentors of Theodore, the Elder King’s second born.  He did not trust his son would be the heir he wanted.  As King he had the power to choose his successor, to a point, but there is always a chance of discord, or even civil war when breaking from traditional inheritance.  So choosing between his grandchildren to groom, he picked the younger, who as a male child might lessen the potential strife.”

“That’s hardly fair,” Katrisha grumbled irritably.

“In private, with a few glasses of wine in her,” Mercu offered with a knowing smile, “Catherine might agree with that sentiment.  The ways of things however are not always fair, and for Catherine the slight of being passed over for the throne was not the end of her indignity.  Her father, having his son’s instruction taken out of his control, took it out on her, pushing her twice as hard to be a proper Clarion child.”

“So that’s why she is such a nasty old woman?” Katrisha demanded disapprovingly.

“I’ve seen her softer side,” Mercu chided gently, “…on occasion.  But yes, things were not always easy for her – and she was forced to choose a side in the scramble for the succession.  I’ve never been quite clear which she took, I suspect she sided with her father, and so later styled herself down.  It was fortunate – if still tragic – that Theodore died soon after his father, before things could progress too far.”

“That seems an awful thing to say,” Katrisha said a bit stricken.

“Awful things are sometimes nonetheless true,” Mercu noted.  “I’ve only heard the rumors, but things might have gotten very ugly.  Theodore’s timely death likely saved lives, since a war over successions is not a pretty affair.  Not that any war is, but cousins and brothers wind up on opposite sides in such wars.  Or sisters, and brothers, as it were.  Then there is no telling what would have happened, when, if, or even after the Council finally stepped in.  To date the Council’s resolve in these matters has been suspect.”

“How horrible,” Katrisha said, and looked down.

“As I said, it didn’t happen – fortunately,” Mercu said stooping down before the girl, and lifting her chin.  “Now that I’ve answered your questions, might you do the same for me?”

“I suppose…” Katrisha said uncertain what Mercu was asking any more.

“What did you fight with Catherine about?” Mercu asked.

“She was being very mean to one of the servants,” Katrisha said with a stern frown, “made her cry.  I told her she shouldn’t be mean, and she yelled at me for spying…but…I wasn’t, not really…not much.”

Mercu laughed.  “Spying isn’t nice.  This is why you should never get caught.  Not that it’s stopped you so far.”  He looked thoughtful for a moment.  “How did she make the servant cry?”

“I couldn’t quite hear.”  Katrisha frowned.  “Something about getting something.”

“Well, that is what servants generally do,” Mercu said distantly, obviously working something over in his head.

“She still didn’t have to be so mean,” Katrisha said stubbornly.  “She was threatening the girl, something about a secret.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mercu said with a convincing false smile.  “Go play with your sister.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“I’ve one account as to what that was about, but I find I am curious of yours,” Mercu asked kindly of Catherine, who had been staring out the window in the middle of the grand stair behind the royal antechambers.

“I will see the girl dismissed, and assure she never finds a position again,” Catherine said in a measured, but vehemently furious tone.

“And then how will she eat?” Mercu pressed.

“The little thief can rot for all I care,” Catherine growled.

“Did you find something missing?”

Catherine glared at Mercu.

“Someone put her up to finding something, didn’t they?”

“Yes.”

“Then blame whoever coerced the poor girl, not her.  She is hardly the first in these halls to find herself a victim of you all scheming against one another.”

“She claimed not to know who had demanded it of her, nor could I wrest what secret was being held over her head from her lips, before that little spy interfered.”

“I’ll note her spying has been of some use,” Mercu countered.

“Yes…use,” Catherine said with displeasure.

“Do you object that justice was done?” Mercu asked rhetorically.  He knew her better than that, or at least he liked to think he did.

“You know that is not my concern,” Catherine said, and turned to glare out the window again.  “It was justice at a cost, one that we cannot yet judge, but is already very high.  Arlen is up to something new after that falling out in court, I do not know what, but I know that he is, desperation is making him bold.”

“It was justice, plain and simple,” Mercu said flatly.  “We cannot play the game of placation forever.  Something will give, and Arlen is holding a losing hand.”

Catherine looked at him, her expression hard to read, anger touched with sorrow.  “I do not know what to do with you,” she finally said.  “Sometimes I think you a better man than most in these halls…and others…”

“I do aim to be trouble,” Mercu bowed slightly.  “Yet always in the best sorts of ways.”

“Yes…trouble.”  Catherine sighed exasperatedly, and looked back out the window with less ire, softening to something that seemed more sadness than her former rage, though her nails still dug at her thumb in a bad habit, one Mercu had caught before playing cards against the woman.

“Do you know at least what she was looking for?”

“No,” Catherine said firmly, but Mercu suspected otherwise.  The fidgeting with her fingers was like when she was bluffing.

“Well that is peculiar,” Mercu acknowledged, hiding that he knew she was lying.

“Very.”

“Did she find it?” he said doubling back, trying to catch her off guard.

“I am through being questioned,” Catherine snapped, her fists clenched at her sides.

“I shall simply wait for a servant girl to be dismissed, and question her.”

“Then I will bide my time, and see her dismissed when you can no longer be certain,” Catherine cut back.

“I am sure Katrisha can identify the girl for me.”

Catherine glared at him again, and then looked back out the window.  “If you wish me to permit the girl to stay, then leave me be, but I will not have her enter my chambers again.”

“As you wish, fair lady,” Mercu bowed.

Catherine huffed in protest.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 23rd, 645 E.R.

A bolt of lightning shattered a glimmering shard of ice high above the cliffs below the west tower at Broken Hill.

“Hey!” Katrisha snapped at her sister.

“Sorry,” Kiannae sighed.  “I just wanted to see if I could do it.  You are better at that spell than I am, and I’m bored.”

“Well try the fire again, leave my spells alone.”

Kiannae conjured a sputtering ball of fire, and sent it zipping into the distance, though it whiffed out only a few hundred feet away.

“Better,” Katrisha said encouragingly.

Kiannae shrugged, and leaned back against the wall of their window seat.

Katrisha reached out again.  The weaving of an icicle was an oddly natural thing for her.  It was almost the form of her magic to begin with.  A small crystalline arc, a thing that slipped from her finger from a jagged web that had woven up her hand, a shape just as the form would be, roughed and faceted and sharper than any razor.  Air frozen denser than diamond, the atmosphere before it collapsed, the pressure behind it pushed forward.  It slipped frictionless, a perfect mirrored surface cutting through the vacuum left as it formed.

As it zipped away it was again shattered by lightning.  Katrisha gave her sister a dirty look, and Kiannae just shrugged and smriked.

“Well, you are better at that than I am,” Katrisha said crossing her arms.  “And with raw force.”

“Not much fun without a target,” Kiannae countered.  “Are you sure those ice shards are safe to be shooting off like that, won’t they come down somewhere?”

Katrisha shook her head.  “My math says they will reach escape velocity well before the spell wears off.”  Katrisha sent another one flying, this time much faster, Kiannae’s bolt missed and formed a ball that wove about a bit in the air before it dissipated.

“That was interesting,” Kiannae remarked, and tired to repeat it to little results.  The charge she had formed did not want to leap to the empty space.  She carefully grounded it into the stone of the castle slowly, lest it leave a mark.

“What are you two doing?” Laurel demanded having entered the room unnoticed.

“Just practicing,” Katrisha said defensively.

“We want to be prepared if we have to fight again,” Kiannae added.

“After South Rook, and the cougar,” Katrisha added.

Laurel sighed, and rubbed his forehead.  “Please don’t throw spells out the windows.  I’ll see if I can get you some time to practice with proper targets, where you can’t do any harm.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 24th, 645 E.R.

Katrisha peered down over the parapet she sat upon, and into the courtyard below.  “Are you sure about this?” she asked uncertainly.

“I haven’t had any trouble so far,” Kiannae said perched on her toes at the very edge.

“I have,” Katrisha said nervously.

“You stopped yourself just fine, you just didn’t account for forward momentum,” Kiannae chided.

“And almost slid off the roof,” Katrisha grumbled.

“Well, that’s not a problem here, is it,” she said pointedly.  “Besides, I’ll catch you if you get it wrong.”  With that she jumped, and and rolled into a tight ball as she fell a good thirty-five feet before spreading her arms in a sweeping gesture, and stopping about three feet off the ground.  Katrisha could see the grass and surrounding bushes blow about wildly for just a moment as Kiannae gracefully stuck the landing from the last few feet.

The guards at the keep door turned to stare at the young mage who seemed to have simply appeared out of nowhere only a few dozen feet away.  They looked at each other, and then up where Katrisha was now standing, just in time to catch a glimpse of her perched on the edge before she jumped.  Katrisha did just as her sister had before her, but stopped a good seven feet up, instead of three.

Realizing her mistake, Katrisha quickly tried again as she started to fall the rest of the way.  She stopped just an inch above the ground, but failed to keep her balance as she landed, and fell flat on her back.  “Ow,” she muttered, and and reached to rub her head.

“Good work,” Kiannae laughed, “except for the landing part.”

“I’d say you do better…but I guess you already did,” Katrisha growled.

“Come on then, on to the archery range,” Kiannae laughed and headed on.

“Can we skip the rest of the shortcuts please?” Katrisha asked hopefully, getting to her feet.

“You can if you want,” Kiannae said with a shrug, “I intend to practice.”

“Oh, so it’s going to be like that,” Katrisha said as she dusted herself off, and then sprinted past her sister.  Kiannae blinked with surprise, and ran after her.  A hand full of people around the courtyard watched the ensuing race curiously, and all with equal disbelief gasped as Katrisha vaulted over the rail at the edge of the upper courtyard, with her sister following close behind.

Katrisha timed her deceleration better, stopping only two feet off the ground, but failed to get all of her forward momentum, and was forced to roll out of her landing.  She scrambled to her feet with what was left of her grace, as Kiannae landed just behind her.  “Sloppy landing again sister,” Kiannae yelled.

“Still ahead,” Katrisha called back as she ran on.

As the pair bolted past the castle gate they were given strange looks by guards who opted not to interfere.  Katrisha leapt from the steep hill beside the road leading out of the castle gate, and this time rather than trying to stop herself turned her fall into more forward movement, clearing the bottom of the slope of the hill, and then a bit awkwardly stopped herself at the bottom, sending a wild shock wave out through the air.  The air snapped back with enough force that she stumbled on her landing.

Kiannae watched the maneuver, impressed with the ingenuity, if not the execution.  Refusing to be outdone she did the same, and leapt from the hill, propelled herself forward, and rolled gracefully out of her landing when she slowed herself at the bottom.  Katrisha had already managed to get back to her feet, and the two were now tied as they ran into the archery range.

“Not bad Kat, not bad,” Kiannae laughed between gasps for breath.

“That was an interesting show over there,” a man with a bow slung over his shoulder said as he approached the pair.  “Can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone  jump off that hill before.”

“You should have seen us off the keep wall,” Kiannae laughed.

“Indeed,” the man said with a raised eyebrow.  “I do not believe we have met, I am Bern, and I assume you are the infamous twins.  I was told you had been granted use of the archery range, to practice things other than archery.”

“Yes,” Katrisha said rubbing her neck that was a bit sore from her tumbles, “Laurel has given us permission to experiment with offensive spells.  Though he stressed ‘no giant balls of fire’ rather strongly.”

“That would be appreciated,” Bern said with a dark laugh, “as the targets are mostly straw.  As you will ladies, I’ll be watching if you don’t mind.”

“I never mind an audience,” Kiannae said with a smug grin.

“Shall we start with ice?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“You would chose ice,” Kiannae muttered.

Katrisha eyed the distant target, and carefully started to form the spell, which flew from her hands and accelerated to the target.  The narrow shard of ice nicked the edge of the target, and flew past shattering on the base of the castle wall.

“Well, you gave it enough force, but the aim needs work,” Kiannae remarked, building up her own spell.

“That is what we are here for,” Katrisha shrugged, as Kiannae released her spell which stuck in the second outer ring but bounced off, and slowly steamed away on the ground.  “Not bad, not as much force, but better accuracy I must admit.”  Katrisha began to wind up her spell, and released it with as much force as the first one, but this time landed a hit on the second inner ring that passed right through the target board, and buried itself in the ground behind.

“Very good,” Kiannae acknowledged grudgingly, as she prepared her next shot.

Katrisha considered the way it formed, there was a coiling nature to the magic, rather than crystalline.  It worked all the same, it was just the shape was wrong.  The curls sent the thing spinning which only made it fly straighter, but the initial direction was uncontrollably in question.  By chance more than anything Katrisha was sure, it struck with enough force to push its blunted end through the board in the second inner ring.

“Likewise,” Katrisha said unleashing her spell with more force than the first two.  The spear of ice was also much larger this time, and shattered the target board outright through the bullseye, and stuck the castle wall shattering in a glimmering cloud, and leaving a small mark.

“Hmph,” Kiannae said admitting momentary defeat on that one.

“Sorry about the target,” Katrisha said turning to Bern with a slight bow.

“It happens…I guess,” Bern said a bit bewildered.  He had watched Laurel practice once or twice, but he was always more reserved than it seemed the two twins before him were inclined to be.

“Fire next?” Kiannae asked.

“Alright, but keep it small, and we’ll take turns putting it out on impact,” Katrisha said flatly.

“Very well,” Kiannae said carefully weaving a spell that ripped the air up into combustible materials, which burned in a continuous chain reaction.  Slowly a small spark grew into a fist sized ball of fire, which she directed forcefully towards a new target, but it sputtered out just short of impact, making it’s accuracy impossible to judge.

“Not a bad first try,” Katrisha said weaving her own spell, which she sent flying into the target.  A distinct burn mark was made across several of the inner rings, and smoke began to waft from inside.  Kiannae quickly snuffed out the fire transferring all its heat to a spot on the ground next to her which turned black, and briefly smoldered.

Kiannae frowned, and tried again, building the ball of fire, and releasing it.  It veered off course just before the target, and clipped the edge which immediately burst into flame as the spell dissipated.

Katrisha reached out her hand, and the flames extinguished, and a shimmer of frost formed on the target as a scorched spot formed on the ground before it.  “Better than the first try,” Katrisha said consolingly.

“Bah, lightning then,” Kiannae said irritably, and almost before the words were out of her mouth there was a tingle in the air.  Lightning was not at all the shape of her magic, which seemed more like the forces of swirling air, friction knocking loose energy, a charge built along the a coiled line, and then snapped to the path of least resistance as it was discharged into the target.  To gifted senses it was there barely a moment before the flash, a spiraling tree of spell lines that spelled powerful doom for whatever was on the other end.

The bullseye sizzled for several seconds, blackened with little embers, but it did not quite catch fire.

“Um, good shot,” Katrisha said, and tried to replicate the feat, but her spell took longer to form, and struck the outer ring rather than the center.  “I guess we each have our strengths,” she laughed.  “Still I’m two for three dear sister.”

“Oh really,” Kiannae said picking up a small rock from nearby, and sending it flying through the inner ring of the target, which splintered slightly on impact.  The rock carried through, and hit the castle wall with enough force to shatter.  “I count two and two now, your turn,” Kiannae challenged.

Katrisha picked up a stone as well, and tried, her shot hit the outer ring, with enough force to pass through, but not enough to quite reach the castle wall.  “Yes, it seems you are right, two and two.” Katrisha turned to the archery master behind her.  “Bern, would you be so kind as to fire some arrows for us.”

“Um, I suppose,” Bern said a bit confused by the request, and grabbed a bow and quiver from a rack near where he sat.  He plucked an arrow from his quiver, and drew his bow string with practiced grace.

“What are you playing at?” Kiannae asked curiously.

“Defensive magic,” Katrisha said as Bern released the first arrow.  Katrisha’s hand shot out at the same moment, and the arrow fell, encased in steaming ice just short of the target.

“Not bad,” Kiannae admitted, “but what did you do with the energy?”

“Nothing yet,” Katrisha said and threw a ball of fire at the ground before the target.

“If you would fire another one,” Kiannae said turning to Bern, who had a bit of an annoyed expression.  He obviously did not like being shown that his well honed skills with a bow were effectively useless against even these two young mages.

“Very well,” he said nocking another arrow, and let it fly.  This one though was struck by an arc of lightning from Kiannae’s hand, which continued down into the ground as the arrow disintegrated in flight, the head flipping off, and landing in the dirt.

“How quickly can you fire those off?” Katrisha asked.

“Fairly,” Bern said with a touch of irritation.

“Would you be so kind as to fire as quickly as you can?” Katrisha asked, “don’t worry about accuracy, just speed.”

“If you insist,” Bern said with a sigh, and quickly began knocking and releasing arrows at about a rate of one every second and a half.

Katrisha closed her eyes, and the arrows began dropping one after another, all covered in a thin shimmering layer of frost.  Slowly a glimmering haze formed around the target, and Kiannae realized that Katrisha was simply pulling all of the energy out of that region, rather than focusing on any one arrow.

Not ready to be beaten Kiannae began flicking the arrows off course, causing them to miss the target, and the protective shield Katrisha had formed around it.  Katrisha took all the energy she had stored up, and quickly started incinerating the deflected arrows, until finally Bern stopped, and walked away.  “I’m through feeling useless, do as you will,” he said cutting off any question.

Katrisha released the remaining energy she had stored up in small plume of flame that burst from the ground a short distance away, and left a small patch of black glass in its wake.  “So, I’m better with ice, and fire, you seem to have lightning, and good old kinetics down, but who’s stronger?” Katrisha asked curiously.

“Seems like comparing apples, and oranges to me,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“Well, it’s not about which one tastes better, it’s about how big a hole it can make,” Katrisha laughed.  She gathered all of her strength, and threw a spear of ice as big as her head, and as long as her arm at the castle wall.  It cut into the stone like clay, and sat there steaming.

Kiannae picked up a small stone, and looked at it with an underwhelmed expression, refusing to give up without trying she sent it flying with all the power she could muster.  The stone struck the castle wall and simply disappeared in a large cloud of dust.  As the dust settled, the crater the impact left could be plainly seen, as well as cracks radiating out along the stone.

Not quite satisfied that her feat merited a tie Kiannae threw a huge arc of lightning at one of the targets, which burst into roaring flames.  Katrisha took just a moment to focus, and the target next to Kiannae’s burst into a pillar of fire, just as Kiannae’s was snuffed out, and a thin shimmering layer of frost formed on the ground around Katrisha’s target, and out in a great circle that encompassed the other.

Kiannae glared at Katrisha and made lightning jump between all of the targets, which all billowed smoke, and then fire.  Katrisha quickly responded by snuffing all the flames at once, leaving a thick layer of frost on the ground, then completely incinerated one the the targets in a flash that left nothing but smoldering ash.

“What in the abyss,” Bern yelled waving his hands, “get off my archery range, both of you!  Laurel will hear of this.  Go!”  Both girls seemed suddenly to come to their senses, realized what they had done, and bolted.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

“Unacceptable,” Laurel growled, and resumed drumming his fingers as he had been since the girls entered the tower library.  He ignored the old kitten Mar trying to nuzzle his head under his hand, which did nothing to help his attempt to look stern and disapproving.  “But not unexpected, I suppose.  Still, for getting carried away you went a bit farther that I had feared.  Destroyed target dummies, I expected, though not all of them, still it is what they are for, but holes, however small in the castle wall…dear fates do you have no sense between you?”

“I…am sorry,” Kiannae started.

“I did more of the damage,” Katrisha said with just a touch of disingenuous pride creeping in.  “It just didn’t seem…like a big deal.  We didn’t put holes through the walls, just…some small dents in a couple of stones.”

“No, and had you actually put holes through the wall…this would be another conversation entirely,” Laurel sighed, as he also relented to absently pet the insistent cat.  “I sent you out there in part because I needed to know just how carried away you would get.  However, I did not hope for this result.  Even if to a degree I expected it, this still does not excuse the behavior.”

“I’m sorry,” Katrisha finally added in turn to her sister’s prior apology.

“Even if I accept these apologies as fully genuine, there is also the issue of jumping off walls, and hills…no, something must still be done,” Laurel grumbled.  “You need discipline, and I have been considering for some time sending you to Horence for training.  Starting tomorrow, every morning, and every evening you will be learning stave fighting techniques.  You will need to be up at dawn.”

“Why?” Kiannae protested.

“Because I said to, it’s part of the whole discipline thing,” Laurel snapped, and then sighed.  He picked up the cat that was rooting at his hand protesting the crime of not being petted for even a second, “now go to your room, and stay there.”  He watched as Katrisha moved as though about to speak again, and cut her off, “Now.  And no more ‘short cuts’ either.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 25th, 645 E.R.

Horence eyed his two new recruits with clear frustration.  “I will make no pretenses that I am not fond of the pair of you,” he growled, “but I’ve heard of your antics, and I will have none of it.  I will train you as any new recruits, though the specifics of the request for your training are…not something we normally specialize in.  Still the general principles of close spear, and polearm combat should carry over well enough to staves, and I’ve spared with Laurel enough to know what he wants you to learn.”

“I still don’t understand what we are to gain from this,” Kiannae protested.

Horence picked up one of the staves that was leaned against the wall near him, and without warning swung at Kiannae, but stopped just short of landing the blow, she flinched far too late to have done herself any good.  “For now, you will ask permission to speak like any recruit.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” Kiannae said meekly, and gently pushed the stave away from her shoulder.

“It’s not that the question isn’t fair, mind you,” Horence said beginning to pace before the pair.  “Ignorant, but as Laurel has told me in the past, ‘ignorance can be cured.’  I’ve heard you can stop an arrow in flight, and perhaps your magic in time could bring down an army.  Perhaps this is all true, but stopping ninety-nine out of a hundred men will still leave you dead, by the one who got through.  At close quarters, blind sided by a strong man with a sword your magic may not save you.”

Horence paused to see if either girl would speak up again, “Rely on your magic if you will, make it the heart of your defense, but it won’t protect you from the blow you didn’t see coming.  You will learn to see it coming, you will learn how to fight, so that you can know how your enemy may attack you.  Am I understood?”

“Are we expected to fight?” Katrisha asked with a touch of confusion, and quickly added at Horence’s reproving glare, “if I might ask.”

“You are expected to know how,” Horence lectured.  “Avrale has an army not because we are at war, or even have been in centuries, but because we must be prepared to defend ourselves.  There will always be those with ill intent, or who will act violently to take what they want, if you haven’t been paying attention Osyrae is no longer our friend, and bandits have plagued the north.  The army protects us not just from threats beyond, but from within.  These skills shall be to you as the army is to Avrale.  They shall keep the peace, and protect you, if the worst is to come, even if the ‘diplomacy’ of your magic keeps such dangers at bay.  Now, am I understood?”

“Yes,” the girls said in unison.

“Good, then we begin,” Horence said and tossed a stave to Kiannae, who caught it, and another to Katrisha who fumbled the catch.

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Chapter 6

As it is and always was,
shall now and forever be,
we seek to cleave to another,
in this find our true reprieve,

and by these ties that bind,
the whole is more secure,
and by these better virtues,
tame fickle nature and endure.

– wedding speech, circa 400 E.R.

Titles

Jovan 10th, 638 E.R.

Renae walked through the upper courtyard, a cumbersome child in her arms, and two soldiers escorting her casually.  “Do you think you can walk dear?” she finally asked growing weary of the boy’s weight.

“Ok,” Wren replied, and Renae set him down gently, and took his hand.  If anything the march slowed for the toddling steps of the little boy, but it was easier going.

“How old is he, if I might ask Mam?” one of the men enquired as the group slowly marched on.

“Just few days over two,” Renae said regarding the man kindly.

“A bit big for his age,” the other man remarked with some surprise.

“He’s a lot of things for his age,” Renae laughed, but her expression shifted.  “Do I know you sir?” she asked uncertainly of the first guard.

“Name’s Eran,” the man nodded, “and yes, we’ve crossed paths quite a lot.  I grew up in the cloister.”

“Ah, yes, Lanie’s boy,” Renae nodded.

“Have I heard right that he’s the brother of the two young lasses the Court Mage has taken in?” Eran asked.

“Yes, you’ve heard right,” she said with a slight smile.

“If you’ll beg my pardon mam, why was he left with you, and not brought here with the other two?” the second guard asked, and Eran gave him a questioning look for the tone of his inquiry.

The man shrugged as though to say he meant no offense.

“He was very unwell,” Renae said sadly.

“Yet he’s so big?” the second man repeated.

“Not every kind of sickness stunts your growth,” Renae laughed.

“No, I suppose not, sorry ma’am,” the guard said apologetically, and Eran elbowed him gently.

“Don’t worry, was a fair question, and not common wisdom,” Renae said shaking her head.

“Allow me ma’am,” Eran said as Renae bent down.  Renae stepped back as Wren was lifted into Eran’s arms, and carried up the stairs to the keep door.  The guards stationed at the doors opened them wide, as Eran set Wren back down, and the procession continued into the keep.

Renae took Wren’s hand again as the guards at the throne room door opened it in turn.  Eran nodded to Renae, and she walked into the throne room with Wren, and the doors closed behind them.  There were very few in the throne room that day.  The King and the Queen sat on their thrones, with Darion at their side, and Laurel stood below the dais.  To the side in the shadows under the balcony stood Mercu, with two identical little freckle faced girls by his side.

“My King,” Laurel said as Renae and Wren approached, and the throne room doors closed behind them, causing Wren to turn back and stumble.  Renae helped him back up as Laurel continued his introduction.  “Matron Renae Somavera of the Lycian Sisterhood, and the young Wren Ashton, brother to the girls Katrisha and Kiannae of the court.”

“King John,” Renae said with a curtsy, letting go of Wren’s hand for a moment, “Such a formal greeting for such a private audience.”

“It has been a long time Renae,” the King said leaning forward.  “We did not greet you at all on your last visit, and felt it…appropriate.”

“As you will my Lord,” Renae said.  “I have brought young Wren that he might meet his sisters, while they might still remember him.”  Mercu lead the girls from the shadows, and up to Wren who they hesitantly considered.

The boy’s presence was a curious thing, like heavy satin, something stifling and yet unreasonably smooth.  All at once it retreated from one’s awareness shyly, like a giant afraid to break the little things around him.  It was a striking and yet fleeting impression that did not match the tiny form it belonged to.  Though shy certainly fit.

Renae knelt down beside Wren, and gestured to one of the two.  “Wren, this is…”

She was interrupted from her awkward pause, having realized that she didn’t know which was which, not by Katrisha identifying herself, but by Wren offering, “Kat.”

“That’s right,” Katrisha said eyeing her brother suspiciously.

“Kia,” Wen said biting his robe, and turning to look at his other sister.

“That is remarkable,” the Queen said astounded, “how did he know which was which? I’ve never been able to tell.  Save if it’s the one running through the snow, or huddled under running water on the hot days of summer.”

“I…I really can’t be sure,” Renae said awkwardly, “I believe it is his mother’s influence.”

“That…matter regarding how she died?” the Queen asked uncomfortably.

“Yes,” Renae sighed, and stood up.  “He speaks far far too well for his age, when he isn’t being timid and quiet.  Which I must admit is most of the time.  Ever so often there is the glimmer of something more as well.”

“I see,” the Queen said measuredly, “but he is not his mother then, reborn or any such witchery?”

“No my Queen,” Renae said reassuringly.  “Just gifted, and cursed.  He learns fast, but rarely offers things he was not presented with first – as he did here.”

“Mercu,” the King interjected, “would you take the children elsewhere, I would speak to the Matron at length, regarding other matters.”

“Of course your Majesty,” Mercu said taking Kiannae and Katrisha’s hands, and before he could ask Katrisha had taken Wren’s in turn.

When the four were out of the throne room the King regarded Renae shrewdly.  “We have been told you know of the trouble in the north, yes?” he asked.

“Yes,” Renae said without elaboration.

“How much do you know?” the King asked leaning back.

“The King, Queen, and heir apparent of Osyrae are dead,” Renae recounted from her memory of pieced together accounts.  “There was a fire in the wall that held the royal chambers…but not all believe that is the whole story.  They were mages after all – unlikely to succumb easily to such an event.”

“They were beloved by their people, and the Queen herself was a beloved relative of the crown.” The King grimaced.  “I had hope, for the first time since the great war that a true prosperous relationship with Osyrae could be upon us.”

“The new King is respected, for his power, and is considered a good ruler, at least by the upper class,” Renae continued, “but not beloved.”

“Nor as friendly to our emissaries,” the King added, “they are not turned away outright, but are lucky to get audience with lower officials, or even set foot in the palace itself.”

“Yes,” Renae confirmed, “I have heard similar.”

“Directly no doubt,” the Queen said with only a touch of distaste.

“I have seen the odd emissary, taking time away within our walls,” Renae said measuredly, “but have not spoken with any personally.”

“Please, let us stick to the business at hand,” the King commanded sternly.

“My King,” Renae said solemnly, “what is the business at hand?”

“Osyrae has not gone to war – in our direction at least – since the fall of the Empire,” the King said with false calm.  “Yet We are unsure of this new King, Vharen We find to the north.  If it were to come to war, We fear for the casualties, to the wounds that would be inflicted upon our people.  We ask if our long acceptance of the Sisterhood within our borders, has earned us your services if such dark days come to pass?”

Renae closed her eyes, and bowed her head for a moment, before looking up again sternly.  “We will heal any wound, that is our calling.  There are even those of us who would place themselves where the need is greatest, no matter the risk.  That is where we must draw the line, we can not sanction the following of troops onto foreign soil, however justified the act might become.”

“We cannot ask more,” the King said solemnly, “though We might have hoped.”

“My King,” Renae spoke again, “I must ask something though, not as a prerequisite for what is simply our duty, but that we might be better able to perform it.”

“Speak your request, and it will be considered,” the King said shrewdly.

“The Clarions go too far, they insight the people against the Sisterhood,” Renae said flatly.  “We are driven from our homes, our shops, and other places we might reside beyond Highvale.”

The King’s dour expression only deepened.  “We have heard a few such troubling reports, of incidents stopped by my men, and a few who went so far that they are now indentured servants to the crown as penance for their crimes.  Yet I know not what more We can do, the Clarions do not speak directly against the Sisterhood, and they are popular with many.”

Renae bowed her head, “As I said my King, not a demand, a request.  I know that you do not share your father’s views…that you have never spoken against us, but might it be too much to speak openly in our favor?”

“You ask something dangerous of Us,” the King said firmly, “but it will be considered.”

“There is one more thing I might ask,” Renae began hesitantly.  “A more trivial matter, but one that treads the same ground I fear.”

“Speak it,” the King commanded.

“There is disused land near Aldermor.  We’ve the tentative blessing of local baron to begin construction of a new cloister, but he is uncertain if he has that authority,” Renae began.

The King hummed thoughtfully, and Renae continued, “Sister Marin has resided there for the past two years, with no incident.  Clarion influence in the area is at least lacking venom.  If you could assure the Baron Woren that he has the authority to sanction the use of land.”

“Yes,” the King nodded, “that is within reason.”  He paused a moment, and considered another thought.  “Enough of such wearisome topics.  We will know how long you plan to stay?”

“A few days,” Renae said without much consideration.

“Have you heard that there is to be a wedding in a week?” Laurel interjected.

“I might have heard mention of some affair to be held at court,” Renae said glancing at Laurel curiously.

“The twins have been asked to be flower girls,” the Queen said leaning forward, “a place might be found for the young Wren as well.  Horence credits them, I am told, with allowing him to catch the eye of his bride to be.”

“Interesting,” Renae said.  “I suppose I might extend my stay, at the King’s leave of course.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 19th, 638 E.R.

Renae stood along the rampart of the western wall, leaned out, and watched the birds flock to and fro about the lake far beneath the the castle.  As the third flight she had seen that morning took wing to the north she heard footsteps behind her, and turned to see Mercu strolling casually toward her.

“What brings you to the west wall, so far from the growing excitement?” Renae asked perking a brow.

“I might ask you the same,” Mercu replied coyly, stopping to lean against the parapet a few steps away.

“Such would be fair, but decorum would require questions to be answered in the order asked.”  Renae offered a playful smile.

“Just a stroll to clear my head,” Mercu said with a tip of his hat.  “All the romance in the air, gets quite heady after a while.”

“If you will give me no real reason, then I shall say the same,” Renae offered with a nod, and turned back to the swirling flocks below.  “I simply longed to rest from all the commotion.”

Mercu considered Renae for a moment.  “It’s hard to explain…” he said with a slightly melancholy tone.  “I do love a good wedding, the traditional romantic feel of it all, but at the same time they remind me that I am unlikely to ever have one, not that I’m sure it’s quite fit for me.”

“You speak as though there is someone specific on your mind,” Renae said glancing back to Mercu, who then stood looking into the sky wistfully.  “You, who have spent the past week flirting with me mercilessly…and no, do not apologize, I quite enjoyed it.”

“And what if it is you?” Mercu laughed. “My darling lovely Renae, divine gracious beauty of the Sisterhood.  Why wouldn’t it be you that I dream of wedding?”

Renae sighed, but smiled appreciatively at the thinly veiled dodge in the form of a compliment.  “You do not have to tell me, you owe me no such confidence.  As for me, I could be wed, if I wished.  I have little doubt Andria would accept the offer, though such a union would be recognized only by the Sisterhood.  It’s not what I want though.  While I do adore and care for her, ours is an arrangement of convenience.  A respectable pairing – in our circle at least – but I do not deny a part of my heart lies elsewhere.  Quite foolishly, I should add.”

“Such tantalizing hints, but no clues,” Mercu laughed, “well played dear woman.”

“Oh if it were at all well played,” Renae said shaking her head.  “So many mistakes, so many tragedies that I am hard pressed to forgive myself for.  Even were the world itself not between us, even if he were still…no it could never have worked, and certainly can never be now.”

“Oh a man, how delightful.  Perhaps there is hope for me after all.”  Mercu laughed trying to draw Renae from her obvious dire train of thought.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”  Renae laughed.  “All tales, most particularly your own, tell of how utterly hopeless you are.”

“Oh, yes, there is that,” Mercu mused.  “No, it was more that I had wondered if you even fancied the more rugged sort.”

“You, rugged?” Renae chuckled incredulously.

“Do you besmirch my manhood?” Mercu declared in mock indignation.

“Oh, heavens no,  Just the use of rugged in any sentence pertaining to you,” Renae said trying to restrain her good humor, “and further absent of the word not.”

“I am wounded, dishonored, quickly I must find a dragon to slay with my bare hands – such that my virility be proven to the fair maiden!” Mercu declared raising his clenched fist to the sky.

“Bah, I am no more a maiden than you are rugged,” Renae offered in melancholy humor, but smiled warmly.  “Besides, I am sure you are quite virile.”

“Fine then,” Mercu said, and leaned lazily back against the parapet, “as long as that much is settled.”  There was a long silence, and at last Mercu stood up straight, adjusted his vest, and with hesitation returned to the earlier topic.  “I will grant you in kind, to be fair.  If I were to consider wedding, to give up my gallivanting ways, it would be…well it could never be, not in this day and age.”

Renae considered Mercu shrewdly, and a puzzled expression crossed her face.  “You don’t mean…”

“I do mean…or don’t mean, quite entirely based upon what you might guess,” Mercu chuckled, “but I’ll not be lead into revealing my secret.  Not with no guarantee yours is at least as grand.  So who’s is bigger?  I do wonder…”

“I thought we were through questioning your manhood?” Renae said with a wry playful grin.

“Bah,” Mercu said leaning back against the wall in a huff.  “I like you Renae,” he said after a moment had passed, and turned his head towards her with a crooked smile, “you are such very good sport.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Lady Catharine considered the bride to be examining herself in a full length mirror, and wondered at the troubled expression on her face.  “You look lovely Alice,” she said reassuringly, assuming she was fretting over her appearance on her wedding day.

Alice turned to Catharine a bit surprised at the sudden comment, a strand of her red hair rebelliously coming loose as she turned.  “Thank you Catharine,” she said after a moment, as though confused, but her expression still seemed ill at ease.

“What troubles you dear?” Catherine asked with genuine concern.

“Nothing of importance,” Alice said turning back to the mirror, and fussing with the loose lock of hair. “Idle chatter of idle minds.”

“Do share dear niece,” Catharine pressed kindly.  “it surely could only help to get it off your mind on such an important day.”

Alice looked down for a moment, then turned back to her aunt and considered her shrewdly. “There are those who do not approve, who think Horence is beneath me.  I pay them little mind, but…it wounds me none the less that they speak ill of my beloved.”

Catherine frowned, and for a moment it showed her age, not with frailty, but an imposing sense of knowing clarity. “I will not deny I was amongst those who questioned the courtship, at first – albeit only to myself I will stress.  He’s a good man, and though he has no title, I believe it is only for a lack of opportunity to distinguish himself.”

“Not all with title have truly done anything of distinction,” Alice said with some venom.

“Too true,” Catharine offered.  “I have often debated my wisdom all those years ago to style myself Lady.”

“I had never considered,” Alice said a bit taken aback, “that it had been a choice.”

“It was, and one that caused quite a stir,” Catharine laughed slightly. “Which at the time pleased me greatly, but in retrospect it was a childish gesture.  If anything I believe it meant I was not worthy of the title I discarded.  As such I have since dedicated myself to insuring the grace, and sanctity of the court.  I say again, while your betrothed has not been honored with title, I for my part have deemed him worthy, at least of the hand of my dear niece.”

Alice took a moment to ponder Catherine’s words, “I suppose I can find peace in that, even if your approval here in these chambers will do little to quiet those insistent on the useless wagging of tongues.”

“No, it will take more to quiet such decent.  Remember that when the time comes, and do not take offense at the disruption, it is for the best,” Catharine said with a smile.

Alice considered pressing the matter further, but was distracted by the arrival of two small girls with baskets, and pretty dresses, ushered in by one of the younger ladies of the court.  Both girls clearly fussed a bit in their dresses, more used to robes.

“Oh they look positively darling,” Alice declared ecstatically making as much haste as she could towards the girls without stumbling in her gown.

The twins looked up with equal suspicion at the great white shrouded woman that crouched before them becoming an amorphous lump of fabric with a head, and arms that seemed to exist for no other purpose than to pinch at their cheeks.

“I have before me the two best flower girls that any bride could hope for.  Fates I remember the first time I saw these two arrive at court.”

“As do I,” Catharine said taking Alice by the arm, and gently urging her to stand again.  “They have grown ever so much in those two years, though I do swear it seems far longer.”  Katrisha gave Catherine a funny look, but for once Catharine seemed to be smiling at her, and she relented to do the same.

A knock at the door brought all around to attention.  Alice quickly checked herself, and all others present before hesitantly commanding, “Enter.”  The door opened with caution, and an older man with deep red hair peppered in strands of gray peaked in.  “Daddy!” Alice yelled as she hustled back across the room towards the new arrival.

“I hope I am not intruding.  I only just arrived, and it has been a very long trip,” the man said, obviously a bit uncomfortable to enter the bridal suite on such short notice.  His nervousness visibly lessened when pounced upon by his daughter.

“It’s good to see you could make it, Jeoffrey,” Catherine said with some reservation in her voice. “It is always a shame to have a wedding without the father of the bride, bad enough her mother could not attend.  I am surprised however they could spare you.”

“For my part I will continue to not miss her,” Jeoffrey said a bit coldly, but managed to smile again as he looked to his daughter.  “As for me, I am of no use up there, they could only be less receptive to diplomacy now if they outright expelled us from the country, or declared war,” he added with dark humor.  “Besides it would have taken no less than a royal decree to keep me away on this day, and I dare say a defection, an army, and an unexpected general at its lead might have come before that stopped me.”

“You speak boldly in such company,” Catharine said with just a touch of humor.

“I speak plainly, and in good humor to my dear, and ever pompous cousin,” Jeoffrey said tersely.  “You know my suspicions of their King, even if I have no proof…it would be a warm day in the abyss before…” He shook his head, and stopped himself.  He was clearly rattled.  “Though over throwing his light forsaken reign…that I might consider,” he added in awkward humor, his tone forced, his smile quite thin.

“Oh come here,” Catherine said, and reached out to hug Jeoffrey, forcing Alice to reluctantly make way.  “I miss her too,” Catherine said kindly.  “There are others who can take up the role.  You should return home, and stay.”

“I will not,” Jeoffrey said plainly.  “I can play my role, I can keep my temper.  I will know the truth,” he said softening, but not relenting.

Catharine pulled back from the embrace, and held Jeoffrey at arms length, examined his state of dress, and nodded with approval.  A thin veneer of propriety sweeping back over her face as she let the subject go.  “Not quite full knightly attire, but it will do for such short notice.  It will never cease to amaze me how well you travel dear cousin.”

“It is a necessary prerequisite to diplomatic service,” Jeoffrey laughed putting aside his troubles with practiced skill. “It does not make an appropriate impression to arrive disheveled, or otherwise undignified.”

The sound of music started in the distance, and Catharine turned to the Lady attending the the twins, “Marry, find a Boutonniere for Jeoffrey, quickly.”  She turned back to Jeoffrey. “You really did arrive at the positive last moment, I do hope you aren’t too tired from your journey, to finish what you have started.”

Catharine slipped past Marry, as the woman made haste out the door in search of the requested adornment.  She double checked each of the girls.  “It’s time little ones, just as we discussed, are you ready?” she asked.

“Yes,” the twins answered in unison.

“Then let us begin,” Catharine said ushering the three past her.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The wedding procession moved into it’s final position before the dais, where the King and Queen sat in their most regal attire on their thrones.  As silence descended the King stood before the the wedding party, and looked across the gathered crowd.

“People of Avrale,” the King spoke in a firm, and practiced tenor.  “We have gathered here today to bless the union of two valued subjects.  In accordance with their wish, and the consent of their elders that they be joined in marriage before the sight of all.  That sacred union, most treasured and adored when taken in love, but most fruitful when taken up in good council, and for the betterment of all.  It is always with great joy that these two purposes of marriage’s sacred vows can find convergence, as they have on this day.”

The King looked over the court for a moment.  “Before we may commence, it is custom that a question be put before those gathered.  That should anyone present on this day see fit reason that these two should not be wed, they speak now, or forever hold their peace,” the King paused, longer than would have been custom.  There was a palpable but silent stir as some wondered if the King expected a response.

“No objections?” the King continued in a demanding tone.  “None dare speak their mind openly to the face of these good servants of King, and Country.  It would be unseemly wouldn’t it?  Yet We have heard such mutterings nonetheless.  That it is questionable that a relative, if distant, to the crown should marry to a common soldier.”  The King looked to Horence and Alice, and seeing the hints of distress in their eyes nodded ever so slightly in each of their directions.

“A dilemma has been placed before your King, We approve of this union, yet We can not ignore the descent of the court on this matter.  Not,” the King stressed firmly, “because We believe there is merit to this idle bickering, but moreover because We think it brings to light a keen oversight that has gone on, for far too long.”  The King paused for several seconds, and then continued, “Commander Armon Anders, of the King’s Royal Guard, step before your Lord, and kneel.”

From the groom’s side of the wedding party a gray haired man with sharp features stepped forth, and knelt beside the bride and groom, and before the King.  The King reached out both hands and waited, as the Queen gracefully brought forth his sword, lain across her palms.  Taking it firmly by the hilt he raised it, and gently lowered the flat of the blade to the left shoulder of Armon.

“For long, and faithful service, and for insuring the keen training, and skill of more than half of the sitting Knights of the realm this day, We name the Sir Armon of Anders,” the King spoke, raised the sword, and lay it on Armon’s right shoulder, “Royal Knight of the Realm, Defender of Avrale, and Keeper of the Sacred Trust.  Stand good Sir, return to your vigilant post, you are honored this day, but other pressing matters remain at hand.”

The King looked back, and forth across the court as Armon returned to his place in the wedding party.  “On this day these two stand before us now as peers, in law,” the King paused, “as much as they already had in merit.  They stand each with titles inherited by birth, not earned by their own deeds.  In their union they shall be expected to work together to uphold this privilege, and earn the blessings given to them by fate.”

“Now we shall continue, on a more traditional note,” the King said, and turned to Alice.  “Lady Alice of Lansly, please take the hand of your betrothed.”  Alice took Horence’s hand, and with great relief and pride in her eyes, looked into his.  “Do you Lady Alice Lansly, daughter of Sir Jeoffrey of Lansly, take this man to be your lawful husband, to love, and to cherish, to follow, and abide, for as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Alice said on the verge of tears.

The King turned to Horence, “Do you Sir Horence of Anders, son of Sir Armon of Anders, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, to love, and to cherish, to respect, and defend, for as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Horence said happily looking into Alice’s eyes.

“Are the ring’s present,” the King asked as a formal cue, upon which Wren held them up with tiny trembling hands – he had spent much of the service to that point distracted, and staring at them intently for reasons he could not quite place.

“With these rings,” the King continued as the bride and groom took the rings, and slipped them in turn onto each other’s fingers, “which represent the cycle of life, of love, and the unbroken nature of this bond, these two are united.  Let no man put asunder what has been joined together here today.  I pronounce you man, and wife, you may now kiss the bride.”

A cheer rose across the crowd as the bride and groom threw themselves into each other arms.  Everyone present took their own points from ceremony, but three small children each for their part saw something different from one another.  One saw love defy the foolishness of its dissenters.  One saw a King humble his arrogant court in the defense of loyal subjects.  Lastly there was the smallest of the three, who for his part felt things he couldn’t quite understand, but in part, some where far at the back of his young mind he felt cheated, and he did not understand it.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel stood leaning against the rail of the balcony overlooking the wedding ball, a musical company occupying the one opposite him.  He absently noticed the father of the bride dance start, but was far more concerned with other matters.  He turned to face the sound of slowly approaching footfalls, after having ignored them for several seconds.

“I was fairly certain it was you I saw up here,” Renae said with a good deal of cheer.

“Too much commotion below,” Laurel laughed, “but it’s still nice to enjoy the ambiance, and merriment of a good party without being trapped within.  Rather like a roaring fire, nice to sit by, but I’d prefer to keep my distance.”

“Fair enough,” Renae said moving beside Laurel, and looking down as well.  “Doesn’t seem like Mercu to go missing mid party though.”

“That would be my fault,” Laurel said with a smirk, “and no I suppose he wasn’t too happy about it, but I asked him to take over watching the girls for a bit.”

“Aren’t they to bed already?” Renae asked perking a brow. “I lay Wren down two hours ago,”

“No, they should be…but it would also be a change if they were,” Laurel chuckled. “I swear those two do not sleep save by the combined will of the fates themselves.  Perhaps they will be tired enough after their present to fall asleep quickly, for once.”

“Oh,” Renae remarked with interest, “what present could they be giving that is so exhausting?”

“That,” Laurel laughed, “would be telling.  You’ll see.  They’ve been at it for an hour, I figure one more they should be ready.”

“Very well,” Renae said a bit bored with the secrecy.  After a moment she seemed to consider Laurel carefully.  “I can tell there is more on your mind than avoiding the party.  What troubles the Court Mage of Avrale this fine evening?”

“The same things as trouble the King.”  Laurel sighed.  “Though I, for my part have heard more rumors, that I do not know what to do with.  I have yet to decide when I should bring them to the King’s attention.”

“And yet you mention such sensitive information to me?” Renae asked a bit perplexed.

“It’s less sensitive…than curious, and concerning.  There are whispers that the new King of Osyrae seeks to capture a dragon, or even dragons,” Laurel laughed darkly.

“That almost sounds like good news,” Renae remarked with a nearly ill expression.  “They will kill themselves off long before we need worry about a march on Avrale.”

“Doesn’t it though?” Laurel sighed.  “It’s so crazy, so suicidal, so hard to believe.  The things is, I have understated the facts.  It’s more than just rumors, the sources are quite credible, save the content.”  He shook his head.  “Even raised from hatching wild dragons are hard to tame or control, too powerful, too intelligent, what could those fools think they would do with a full grown one?  If I believed their new king dim, or lacking in sense it would not trouble me so.  I do not believe him to be as idiotic as this appears, and so…I am concerned.”

“No,” Renae grimaced, “nothing I have heard inclines me to believe that Vharen is a fool.  Unstable perhaps, but no fool.”

“I shall trust your discretion for the moment Renae,” Laurel said eyeing her shrewdly.  “I shall tell the King tomorrow when the festive air has cleared.  It’s not information which can be acted upon, but it is my duty to inform him of what I have learned.  Regardless, if it is Mercu you seek, he is in the upper courtyard, outside the keep.”

“I shall seek him out momentarily then,” Renae smiled, “for now I shall enjoy your company as we observe the joyous atmosphere from afar.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Renae made her way from the ballroom, two drinks in hand, one for herself, and one for Mercu.  She found herself face to face with a stately man with pale hair in knightly attire, and a grim expression, going the other way.  “Terribly sorry,” she said having nearly bumped into him.

The man simply eyed her coldly, and pushed past her, nearly causing her spill one of the drinks.  “That was completely uncalled for,” she declared after the impertinent knight.  He walked on for several steps, then stopped, turned, and stared at her with distaste.

“Your presence is uncalled for apostate,” the man said darkly, “not all at court appreciate that we entertain Lycian whores.”

Renae glanced up, and down the main corridor in slight surprise that no one else was present to hear such remarks on such an active night.  “You speak boldly sir,” Renae laughed shrugging off the insult.  It had been some time since she had found herself personally in that vein of confrontation.  “Would you speak so plainly before your King?”

The man was silent for a moment, and Renae continued to consider his posture.  He was a bit drunk she decided.  “I thought not,” she continued.  “Where do the Clarions stand on excessive drinking?” she prodded rhetorically.  “A distraction of the flesh, unfit, unworthy, as I recall.  No less a corruption than ones of passion.  So tell me, that I might know those who set themselves up as my enemies, and hypocrites no less, who are you Sir?”

“Sir Arlen, of Wesrook – for what business it is of yours,” the man said, and turned promptly to continue down the hall.

As Renae turned she saw what might have prompted Arlen to depart suddenly.   Mercu could be seen approaching.  “Well met,” she declared, and offered him the second drink.

“So thoughtful,” Mercu said with a bow, and accepted the glass.  “What was that exchange about?”  He asked politely, taking a sip.

“Nothing worthy of your attention,” she said with restrained irritation.  “What brings you in?” Renae enquired.  “I had heard you were in the upper court watching the twins prepare some secret gift.”

“I was, but I have been commanded by the young ladies to acquire their intended audience.  Would you be so kind as to go keep an eye on them, I doubt they will burn down the castle in my absence, but one is never sure of such things.  I shall be along shortly when I can pull people away from the party, for the show.”

Renae nodded, and made her way to the keep doors, which stood open.  As she emerged she was struck quickly enough by the singular out of place sight.  Every bush seemed to be lit with countless glowing pale blue orbs.  A few people strolled about the courtyard, or sat giving little new interest to the sight, though three stood, and examined the bushes with great interest.

Katrisha and Kiannae could be made out faintly as they darted about the brightly illuminated bushes.  Renae found a bench, and sat to watch the girls work their magic, to some unknown end.  Certainly it was pretty enough in itself, but she suspected there was more to it than met the eye.

Several minutes passed, and finally a slow trickle of people began to emerge from the Keep, and descend the stairs.  Some went to examine the bushes more closely, while others stood back, chatted, and pointed.  When at last the bride, groom, King, Queen, and finally Laurel all stood atop the keep steps, Mercu wove his way down, and through the crowd.  He turned at its head, and launched into an overly dramatic and flourished bow.

“Ladies, Gentlemen, your Royal Highnesses, honored bride and groom,” he declared in his best speaking voice, as the twins hustled up to his side.  “I present to you, the gift of the young ladies Ashton.”

The two girls curtsied, then bowed their heads in concentration.  Renae caught the brief flicker of the filaments that still connected the girls to the spells they had woven in the bushes.  Then slowly the lights began to rise, and scatter, until the courtyard was filled with drifting balls of light.  The crowd murmured appreciatively, and from atop the steps clapping began.

As those gathered realized it was Alice applauding the spectacle the ovation spread, and the girls curtsied again.  Renae just barely caught the glance between the girls, and Katrisha’s quick nod.  There was a tiny flash of light above, and as everyone focused on where it had come from.  Tiny shimmering sparks were raining down and fizzled away.

There was another, that everyone saw this time, as one of the orbs burst and sent tiny ribbons of light outward which dissolved into sparkling dust.  Slowly more began to pop in brilliant showers of swirling light.  As the number of lights dwindled to about a third of what they were at the start, all that remained let lose nearly at once in one final dazzling cascade.

Through it all the crowd had oohed, and awed, and as the last brilliant burst faded away the previous applause returned with far more vigor, and a growing cheer.  There was a tear in Renae’s eye as Laurel walked down the steps, and sat next to her.  

“That was impressive,” she said approvingly – wiping her face discreetly.  “You’ve done a fine job teaching them.”

Laurel seemed to be eyeing the girls curiously, and finally spoke.  “I wish I could take more credit, but I didn’t even know they could do that last bit.”

“Oh,” Renae said with surprise.

“Oh indeed,” Laurel said with a nervous laugh.

The girls for their part curtsied each way to the crowd, and then at last simply started bowing in a less dignified manner, and with the same excessive flourish Mercu had used when introducing them.  Mercu for his part smiled proudly, and clapped along with the crowd.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 21th, 638 E.R.

“This – right here,” Mercu pointed insistently at the page he had turned to in a dusty old tome.  It was a bit of a faded manuscript, written in the hand of some court member long gone, and so not present to answer for near illegibility.

Laurel stared at the text, doing his best to make it out.

The Duke of Ashrook has chosen to wed the woman Alimae, an old farmhand of about his age, and unwed mother from the area he was born to.  There is more than a little talk that her grown son is in fact his.  The boy has no gift to speak of, and this quiets some, but the Duke was an emergent, and the mother ungifted.  My grandson, rightfully, has more pressing matters to consider, but as I prepare to step down as Regent, I do worry what this will mean for succession in the north – now that all the Duke’s legitimate heirs are gone.  I wish I could say few similar circumstances weren’t looming all around.  For all I have already lost, I must now contend with the greater costs.  Not just those to my weary old heart.  Oh Anton, if only you would have let me stand alone at Midrook.  Yet you would not run, my dear boy.

Laurel looked up dubiously.  “This alone doesn’t mean much,” he challenged.

“I’ve looked into it, this really is just the most conclusive statement on the matter,” Mercu said with a huff.  “All together it paints a fairly clear picture.  The Ashtons are not just relatives, or names sakes of the extinct line of Ashrook – they are his heirs.”

“It would explain their finances, but It’s a bit of a leap,” Laurel said shaking his head.  “What good does it do any way?  Being of royal lineage would only draw the eyes of the Council, and being descended from the bastard of a Duke would do them few favors in the eyes of the court,” he gestured emphatically.  “If we can even trust the source of this,” he added dubiously.

Mercu flipped to the front of the book, and tapped at the name written on the first page.  Most names of the heredity of Avrale would have meant little to Laurel, but there, written a bit more cleanly than most of her exaggerated script, was the name of the Emperor’s youngest daughter Gwendoline – first Queen Regent of the Midrook Dynasty.

“I will concede the point then,” Laurel sighed, “but please, I do stand by what I just said.  It does them no good.  Keep it to yourself.”

Mercu seemed satisfied at that, and nodded in acknowledgment.  “Of course,” he said, but with some reluctance.  “All at once, I will see this book preserved, and copies made in a more legible hand.  I’ve heard a bit of the tale before, but this journal…”  He trailed off tapping it.  “It is more than just the aftermath.  It contains a personal account of the fall of Avrale – the defeat of Empress, the start, and even end of the Dragon War.  It is a crime it has been locked away this long, it is a treasure fit for far more than to sit on a dusty old shelf.”

Laurel sighed.  “Very well, but please do not call any undue attention to this passage?”

“That I can do,” Mercu agreed.  “Really, I doubt anyone will take note of it.  Amidst the rest it is a fairly trivial matter.”

Laurel seemed thoughtful.  “Something still is bothering me.  It said the Duke was an emergent, and implied at least he was a commoner before?”

“Yes, there is more clear record on that.  He was a farmer’s son, nothing much to be said of the line before him,” Mercu said, rattling off what he remembered.  “His gift was so strong that he was discovered quite easily, pulled away, and pressed into service.  Somehow he caught the eye of the King’s third born daughter.  She managed to arrange that they be betrothed.  Before it became Ashrook it was something of a backwater, all farmland, far up north.  They were given it as a Duchy – had two sons, both died in the war, as did his wife.”

“His presumed son, according to the Queen,” Laurel began, “was not gifted, it says…”

“Nothing strange about that, flip a coin if a gifted father means a gifted child given a common mother,” Mercu shrugged.  “You know that.”

“Standard assumption yes,” Laurel nodded.  “There are other ideas though – recessive gifts.  Take two parents that each carry the the recessive trait, but did not manifest it, put them together, and you explain some of the stronger emergents that crop up.”

“So you think it’s not because they have Sylvan blood then?” Mercu frowned.

“Oh, no, I think that has everything to do with it still, just…something is bothering me, and I can’t place a finger on it.  Which means I’m probably chasing something prescient, and should stop.”  Laurel sneered.

“I have as much reason as you to be cautious of such things,” Mercu shrugged, “but I’ll never understand why you are so hesitant to even consider them.”

“Would you laugh if I told you I was once warned I would meet ill ends chasing prophecy?” Laurel laughed uncomfortably.

“Somehow I don’t think you are joking” Mercu frowned with some concern.

“No – sadly, I’m not.”  Laurel sighed.

“Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Mercu said picking up the book, and closing it.  “Since if you listen to that, you are still chasing one, or at least being chased by one.”

“I try to take it with the grain of salt that I’d already told her where she could stuff her visions.” Laurel laughed.

“Which of several entertaining places did you choose?” Mercu asked with a grin.

Laurel rolled his eyes.  “I wasn’t so specific,” he offered, “though to be fair I think I’d mistaken some of her remarks as a come on.”

“Oh, now I’m twice as interested,” Mercu chuckled, and leaned a bit on the table.

“She said I’d meet the love of my life, over the visions of a teller,” Laurel said with a half smile.

“Oh,” Mercu said, looking uncharacteristically at a loss for words.

“Indeed,” Laurel laughed.  “Now you see how much trouble prophetic visions cause me?”

“I swear you are almost as much fun as Renae,” Mercu said with a snide grin.

“Am I now,” Laurel said crossing his arms.

“Ok, ok,” Mercu waved dismissively.  “As much fun.”

< Previous || Next >

Chapter 5

The seasons pass without fail,
bring forth winds of change,
in ageless rhythmic cycle,

what comes around again in time,
is as has been before in days gone by,
and for all life’s shifting changing way,
familiar troubles seem to ever stay.

– Writings of King Andrew of Avrale, circa 610 E.R.

Seasons

Winter

Styver 19th, 636 E.R.

The first winter snow lay thick over the Castle on Broken Hill.  Twin girls stood with trepidation on the steps of the keep, with Mercu between them.  In the courtyard below, Darion and his brother played jovially with their young children in the snow.  The wife of the younger prince looked on from the base of the steps, a parasol in hand to keep off the continued fall.  Several other children, the sons of knights were off in their own corner of the courtyard.

Katrisha was the first to step forward, as Kiannae still clung to Mercu’s leg.  The Princess turned as the snow crunched under foot on the first step, and she frowned at what she saw.  “Now then, Mercu, are you really going to let her do that alone?”

“No, Aria…ummm,” Mercu said as he carefully wrested his leg from Kiannae’s grasp, as she still did not wish to move.  “Just my attention divided a bit between the pair,” he said and took Katrisha’s hand, steadying her before she could slip.

Kiannae for her part shrunk back against the keep door as Mercu helped Katrisha down the steps.  Aria still regarded Mercu unfavorably.  “You left the other one, you know?”

Mercu looked back up the steps where Kiannae stood with her back to the door, and Katrisha slipped from his grasp, taking the last bounding step on her own, and ran off into the courtyard.

“To be fair I don’t think she’s in any danger staying up there,” he said a bit flustered, and glanced to see where Katrisha had dashed off to.

Aria gave Mercu another reproving look, and climbed the steps.  At the top she gracefully dropped down closer to Kiannae’s level, who looked up at her with unhappy eyes.  “Are you alright, dear?”

“It’s cold,” Kiannae said pulling her winter cloak more tightly around herself.

“It is, isn’t it,” Aria said with a smile, “but it is pretty yes?”

“Suppose,” Kiannae permitted begrudgingly, still hunkered up against the door.  “I like flowers better.”

Aria turned and looked at Katrisha who ran happily through the snow, and who when pegged by a snowball from the Aria’s nephew, returned a volley with no hesitation.  The boy’s father quickly found it necessary to step between the escalating arms race, and took blows from both sides.  The two combatants soon thought better of plastering the Crown Prince, and parted to different corners of the courtyard.

“Your sister seems to like it well enough,” Aria said with a touch of confusion.  “I thought you two were the same?”

“D’no,” Kiannae said with a shrug.

“You should come down, and try to enjoy it,” Aria said offering her hand.  “It’s warmer if you move around.” Mercu decided Aria had things well enough in hand, and wandered off to converse with Darion, who was dusting himself off from the children’s assault.

“Ok,” Kiannae agreed dubiously, took Aria’s hand, and let herself be lead slowly down the stairs.  Aria glanced to her nephew as they too the first step, and noted he seemed deep in conspiratorial proceedings with the other boys.  With Kiannae’s reluctant progress, the two were only half way down the stairs when the keep doors opened a crack, and Laurel emerged, himself wrapped tightly in a fur lined long gray winter cloak.

Aria regarded Laurel curiously.  “What brings you out of your warm tower all of a sudden?”

“A misplaced message has just reached me,” Laurel muttered, chattering against the cold.  “A fine time she picks to finally visit.”

“Do speak clearly?” Aria demanded lightly.

“Matron Renae,” Laurel grumbled, “who has been taking care of the twins’ younger brother.  S expressed a wish to meet them, and has decided that today would be a good day to finally get around to visiting.  This message however went first to the King, who was indisposed, was then misplaced by the Queen, and has come to my attention on the day that she is to arrive…if of course she has decided to travel in the snow.”

“Do you think she would?” Aria asked, a bit surprised at the possibility.

“I don’t really know her well enough to be certain.”  Laurel sighed, and watched his breath swirl before him.  “The King seemed inclined to believe she would arrive on schedule.  And for my part, I think her more than capable of keeping herself and a horse both warm, and well through the pass.  So it is a reasonable possibility.”

Kiannae’s hand slipped from the Aria’s grasp, and she descended the remaining few steps unattended before the Princess could protest.  “Well, at least she’s finally decide to join her sister.”  Aria shook her head.

“Oh, what was holding her up?” Laurel asked half interested.

“Seems she doesn’t like the cold,” Aria shrugged.

“I can relate,” Laurel said pulling his cloak tighter.  He lifted the hood, and pulled it forward over his head in an effort to stay warm.

“Her sister seems to like it well enough,” Aria said looking back to the twins who were now playing together, after a fashion.  Though Kiannae continually stopped, and bundled up for a bit against the cold.  “Curious that they are identical,” she mused.

“They are curious, yes,” Laurel said watching the girls thoughtfully.  “They can be fairly competitive, yet finish each other’s sentences.  One day one will take charge, and the next day the same one will be the timid follower.”

“How ever to you keep track?” Aria asked in a weary tone from the very thought of dealing with two children she couldn’t tell apart.

“At first, I must admit I couldn’t,” Laurel shrugged, “but now I usually just know, and couldn’t tell you how.  I think it is their gifts, still so alike, and yet…”  He mused over how to describe it, their presence was complex for young children.  He mused over how Mercu might describe it if he could feel it so clearly.  One the winter wind, one the sea.  One the sun on a cloudy day, the other the moon on a clear night.  One written in stone, the other…  He frowned.

Laurel shook his head, the musing had gone more than far enough.  A signal flag on the wall above the gate pulled his distracted attention, and prompted him to descend the stairs.  “Your leave, your highness,” he said as he passed her, forgetting quite intentionally his unfinished thought.  ”It appears we will soon have a guest.”  As Laurel marched across the courtyard to see if it was in fact Renae arriving, Mercu moved to follow at his side.

“What brings you out into this lovely weather?” Mercu asked jovially.

“Renae Somavera,” Laurel grumbled, “or nothing at all.  One of the two.”

“Oh the lovely Renae,” Mercu said with a pleased smile.  “You had mentioned some time ago she might wish to meet the twins.  I’d given up hope she would finally come around to do so.”

Laurel stopped, and eyed Mercu incredulously.  “You do know she already keeps a lover?   I met her when I took Wren to the cloister.”

“You say that as though it should dampen my spirits,” Mercu said feigning injury, as Laurel turned and walked on.  “Who says I do not simply relish the idea of lovely conversation with a beautiful woman, who, on our last meeting told such charming stories.”

“I know you more than well enough,” Laurel answered tersely, “to be quite sure you would like to share more than stories with Renae, even if she is well more than a decade your elder.”

Mercu stopped, and eyed Laurel as though the latter point was quite odd given the source.  An antic entirely lost on its intended target.  “And just as you,” he said catching up, “she does not look it, blessed gifted.  You would swear I was a few years hers, so can you blame me?” Mercu laughed.

“Can, oh yes, most certainly.  Will…no, probably not,” Laurel sighed.  “Just because I have long come to terms with the way you are, and it even has its use, doesn’t mean I don’t reserve the right to shake my head disapprovingly.”

“Shake away good sir, shake away,” Mercu prodded.

The pair reached the edge of the upper court just as a lone horse trotted in through the gate, bearing a rider wrapped in white.  The horse slowly circled the large fountain in the lower court as Renae waited for some sign of a stable attendant to emerge.  She was not anxious to dismount into the snow, only to wait.  The horse impatient with standing about in the cold kicked at the snow, its white spotted legs blending with the blanket of white it scratched at uncomfortably.

Renae looked up as Mercu waved from the upper court wall, and nodded in acknowledgment, her face obscured beneath her white hood, and in its thick fluffed trim.  When at last an attendant reluctantly emerged from the shelter of the stables, and hustled towards her, Renae relented to slide from her saddle, and into the freshly fallen snow.

“Gather the girls,” Laurel commanded, and Mercu gave him a look as though to protest, but quickly hurried off to do as he was bid.  “Your sense of timing could use improvement,” he hollered to Renae as she climbed the stairs.

“There is merit to that.”  Renae laughed, once close enough to be heard. “The weather was clear when I sent word, but things change.”

“I’ve just wondered what took you so long,” Laurel pryed of the woman ascending the steps below him. “You had requested to meet the girls months ago.”

“Wren has been…difficult.”  Renae sighed, and stopped a moment directly beneath him.  “It is harder that weaning a child, much harder given there is no tapering off, just constant vigilance.”

“I see,” Laurel said, “and I take it that he is better now?”

Renae finished her climb, turned to Laurel, and nodded with a huff.  “Yes.  I waited a two weeks before I even committed to the trip…I’m sure he is cured.  He also said his first words just before I left.”

Laurel looked shocked.  “But he’s not three months old.”

“It wasn’t exactly a sonnet.”  Renae laughed nervously, and surveyed the courtyard, “but it worries me nonetheless.  I’ve read the books we have, books written mostly by mages.  None of them can really tell me how much of a consciousness can be carried in the soul.”

“I would assume the Lycians or Clarions would know more than us,” Laurel said with his own uneasy laugh.

“We don’t believe in chasing ascension,” Renae said shaking her head, “and the Clarion dogma hasn’t really worked out for them, has it?  No, mages have the more useful texts on the matter, they have studied the elementals, the half-flesh, and ghosts more thoroughly than anyone else.  That one fellow was a mage after all.”

“I suppose you are right on that to some extent,” Laurel offered, and shook his head in turn, “but what of the Avatar?”

“The Clarions would never admit it,” Renae laughed, “but his methods seem more like those of a mage…or so the rumors say any way,” she added quickly.

“I have heard that rumor,” Laurel mused, “but no council mage has ever been granted an audience, that I am aware of at least.”  Laurel perked a brow as Renae seemed to glance away at that statement.

Mercu had become distracted in conversation with Aria, not half way to gathering the girls.  Any thought on this was cut short at a decided yelp, and all turned to see three boys pegging Kiannae and Katrisha with snowballs.  Katrisha for her part took evasive action, scooped up handfuls of snow, and began returning the assault in kind, but Kiannae cringed under the onslaught, and as the easier target was taking far more hits.  Mercu rushed to intervene, but stopped short as several snowballs burst in mid air, and a sudden flurry of blown snow accompanied the closest boy being knocked soundly on his rear.

The other boys all looked quite stunned, and Katrisha took the opening to plaster them thoroughly.  After taking several hits in their startled state the two still standing, including the young prince, ran.

“It’s not knightly to attack defenseless younger ladies, Charles, “ Mercu said, walking up to the slightly stunned boy sitting in the snow.

“She’s not defenseless,” Charles said pointing at Kiannae who was struggling to rid herself of residual snow, and shivering.

“When they aren’t defenseless, it is only more unwise,” Mercu smiled, just as Katrisha walked up, and slapped a handful of snow on top of Charles’ head.  He squeaked, and flailed slightly as he tried to get the cold melting snow out of his hair.

“Was that quite necessary?” Mercu asked in a mildly reproving tone.

Katrisha looked at her shivering sister, and nodded firmly.  Mercu restrained a laugh at her defiance, but a wry smile crept in at the corners of his lips nonetheless.

Mercu turned at the sound of crunching footsteps, and nodded at Renae, before taking a graceful bow.  “Might I introduce the young ladies Katrisha and Kiannae, if not at their most dignified.”

The two girls stepped up, and Renae stooped down before them, and looked each in the eye.  There was an obvious sadness in her expression that prompted an exchange of glances between Mercu and Laurel.  “It’s nice to finally meet you both,” she said sweetly, “you two have such lovely eyes, like your brother.”

The Crown Prince, his brother, Aria and their young children – one of whom still bore signs of winter combat – walked up on the gathering.  Charles for his part made a quiet exit as he noted no one was paying much attention to him.

“Matron Renae,” the Prince said with a twinge of surprise in his voice, “I was just now informed of your visit.”

“You must forgive the lack of a proper welcome,” Aria added with a nod of apology.

“It’s quite all right Darion, Aria,” Renae said glancing up from the twins, “Avery,” she added in acknowledgment to the remaining prince who stepped up close beside his wife.  “My visit is not a formal one by any means.  I came to meet the sisters of a little boy that has been left to my care.”

“So I am told,” Aria replied, “still a proper welcome would not have been too much to ask of us.”

“It’s alright,” Renae said looking back to the girls.  “I know the King has had a lot on his mind, since word came of the latest change of power in Osyrae.”

“You’ve heard?” Darion said with interest, “my father has been reluctant to speak even to me of it.”

“We Sisters hear many things,” Renae said dismissively, and quickly pulled the girls close.

“I suppose you might,” Aria said perking a brow.

“Come, let us go inside,” Renae said with forced cheer as she stood up.  “I would get to know these two darlings somewhere warmer.  Do give my understanding to the King if he does not have time to meet with me on this visit.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Spring

Vhalus 26th, 637 E.R.

Renae cradled the young Wren in her arms and stared absently at the icicles melting outside her window.  She closed her eyes, and let the child’s presence wash over her.  It was a sense of inestimable distant warmth, that somehow defied examination at even the smallest distraction.

“I don’t know why you rock him so much,” Andria said behind her, “not like he cries.  Even from the day he came to us he has been quiet…strange for a boy who has started to form almost full sentences.”

“Maybe I do it more for me than for him?”  Renae sighed.

“You could rock me in your arms,” Andria laughed playfully.

“Yer sweet, dear,” Renae said shooting her a funny look, “but it’s not the same.  As pleasant a distraction as that is, remembering my own daughter of so many years ago is…”  she trailed off.

“She wasn’t a quiet one,” Andria said shaking her head.  “Never in all my years have I seen a daughter of the Sisterhood so intent not to be calmed.”

“I’m almost surprised you remember, you were ten then, weren’t you?” Renae said perking a brow.

“I was right across the hall from you,” Andria laughed, “that wailing is burned into my ears to this day.”

“She wasn’t that bad,” Renae said tersely, looking back out the window.

“No, I’m sorry,” Andria apologized realizing how poor her humor had been.

Rene closed her eyes, and tried to still her frustrations on the matter.  Her daughters wail had indeed been a piercing thing, she admitted to herself, less than inclined however to do so aloud.  Standing there she felt Andria’s ever familiar presence.  It was a shifting thing, soft and feathery like a warm bed, alternated with the feel of the most supple well worn book binding.

For a while there was awkward silence, and then Renae changed the subject.  “Abigail returned today, she was a bit shaken up.”

“I thought I’d seen her,” Andria said with a touch of concern.

“Had a very uncomfortable run in with some locals in the village up north, last of many it seems,” Renae continued in a pained tone.  It was not a thought quite far enough from other unpleasant musing.

“Clarions still stirring people up against us?” Andria muttered rhetorically.

“Of course,” Renae said tersely.

“Do they really hate us that much?” Andria sighed leaning back against the door frame.

“Maybe,” Renae said turning back to her, “or maybe it is all just about power, and influence.  Perhaps a convenient convergence of the two?  Either way, they learned well from the Empire they turned their backs on.  If you can’t win over the King, win over the people.”

“What do they get out of it?” Andria growled, “what do the Clarions offer that we don’t?  We give them more if you ask me, more kindness, more aid.”

“We don’t offer them a purpose larger than themselves, as sad as that may seem.”  Renae furrowed her brow.  It was easy to forget how little Andria had ever ventured beyond Highvale.  How rooted her worldview was in the only way of life she knew.  “We don’t offer them the tantalizing idea of eternity.  We also don’t have a cursed Avatar as a shining beacon of immortality.”

“They have all of one of those,” Andria laughed incredulously, “and he didn’t exactly follow orders, now did he?  Stood with the Empire and all that.”

“They gloss over that bit.”  Renae laughed darkly.  “Say he chose the lesser of two evils, and parted ways when the job was done.”

“Still what good is he?” Andria demanded.  “He proves nothing.  I’ve never seen him as anything different than the dragons the Clarions so abhor.”

“He’s not,” Renae said, looking at Andria sadly, “not in my opinion any way.  But him, and their lies…well, are they lies?  It’s faith, that’s all any of us have, and he makes a convincing spectacle.”

“Not that anyone ever sees him,” Andria countered snidely, and crossed her arms as though she had won the argument.  Not that she really wanted to be having an argument, or knew why it had become one.

Renae’s stance shifted, and she was quiet for some time, and looked back out the window.  “I have,” she offered weighted.

“Wait, when…you never…” Andria sputtered in disbelief, her arms falling back to her sides.  She took a half a step forward, but stopped, and shook her head.  It had to be a joke, or something.

“You should remember,” Renae said glancing back.  “It was after Adel went away…long before you and I.”

“You went on a journey,” Andria said stepping away from the door frame, “but you never told me, not in all these years.”

“I never told anyone, not a single soul,” Renae said tersely. “I questioned a lot of things in those years.  Along my travels I went to the High City, to see it, to feel what it really was at the heart of the Clarion’s power.”

“They let you, a Lycian Sister, see the Avatar?” Andria said stepping closer again, still not quite believing her own ears.

“I hadn’t gone there to…or…at least hadn’t expected…” Renae said staring out the window, the troubles on her face almost showing her age.  “And I wasn’t stupid enough to tell anyone my affiliations.  One day though – as I was walking down a street, minding my own business – three paladins swept me off.  I was terrified…”

Andria rested her hand on Renae’s arm, and Wren stirred slightly.  They both looked to the boy, and Andria wrapped her arm around Renae waiting for her to finish her story.  After a long pause she continued.  “I was held for a day…I wanted to protest, ask why I was taken in, but I held my tongue.  I was too afraid.”

Andria squeezed Renae tighter.

“As suddenly as I was taken, I was whisked into the grandest chamber I have ever seen, or could even imagine,” Renae said distantly.  “There were six men there, all dressed in the heaviest and most formal of robes.  All kept their distance, though they obviously knew I was there.  Finally he swooped in from out of the corner of my eye, and hovered before me…” she trailed off.

Renae swallowed, and turned her head to look at Andria.  “I’ve never decided if he was the most beautiful, or tragic thing I have ever seen.  Beauty certainly struck me first, the light, the halo around him was brilliant, so bright it should have been blinding, and yet it didn’t hurt to look upon him.  Finally I saw through the light, past that brilliant aura, and saw him…the strange thing inside.”

“So he has aged then?” Andria asked, thinking she understood.

“I don’t know if aged is the right word,” Renae responded.  “Changed certainly, shriveled might almost be right, but no, as impossibly slender and skeletal as he has become his skin was tight, smooth, impeccable…and I can say with little doubt ‘he’ is no longer the right word,” she laughed darkly.

“So what, the Clarions precious Avatar became a woman?” Andria laughed.  “That would be rich irony.”

“No, it wasn’t a woman either.  It just was, and for all its strangeness, even the sad bizarre form within was elegant, and beautiful in its own bizarre graceful way…” Renae seemed to search for the right words. “Yes sad is accurate.  I’m sure his grand assembly read it as something else, something more noble and perfect, but I saw sadness, a odd kindness as well, and more still that I couldn’t even put to words…but definite, heart rending, sadness.”

“What then?” Andria asked taken in by the story.

“Nothing,” Renae said in an angry detached tone.  One could have almost mistaken it for dismissive, as though the point had been missed, and she was not inclined to explain.

“What?” Andria demanded confused.

“He drifted off, no explanation, just nothing.”  Renae shrugged as though she wanted Andria think she didn’t care, or as if she was trying to convince herself.

“There’s more, isn’t there,” Andria pressed.

“I’m here, of course there is more.  I lived after all,” Renae countered with thin humor.

“You don’t have to tell me,” Andria offered.  “Did…I don’t even want to ask.”

Renae sighed.  “Nothing,” she repeated.  “After a few minutes of standing there gawking in the direction he had gone, and looking around at the impassive assembly of Clarion Cardinals…I was just lead away with as little explanation as anything else.”

Renae glanced at Andria, whose expression said she knew there was more.  There was she joked in her head darkly again, always more, if you live.  It hurt to think those words.

She took a long breath.  “Three days later – as I prepared to leave the city – a note arrived where I was staying.  It was addressed to me by name, sealed in white wax with a sun seal, but there was no sender, no signature.”  She trembled slightly.  “Just a single word in immaculate, perfect, and yet almost illegibly flowing script.”  Renae started to cry.

Andria squeezed Renae tightly, and let her sob.  She saw a tear fall from Renae’s cheek onto Wren, who seemed to cringe at the intrusion.  He was awake, and still silent, just staring up at Renae.

“What single word can hurt you after so long?” Andria asked stroking Renae’s hair.

“Condolences,” Renae said calming herself, forcing it back down.  “At first I didn’t understand, I didn’t even imagine, as I unknowingly hurried back here.  I didn’t realize, not till months later that I was even was hurrying.  I passed from caravan to caravan without stopping anywhere, without staying with any journey to its end.  But when I arrived…”

“Your daughter, and your mother,” Andria added understanding suddenly.  “I knew you were not here for the funerals, that you returned from your travels to that news.  I never imagined you had received word…and from such a strange source.”

“I’d already heard about mother, she had been dead nearly a year, word had reached me, and it had made me even less inclined to return.”  Renae took a deep breath.  “We’ve all had those dreams, the ones that come true, or almost come true,” she muttered.  “I had seen his light before, and never understood.  It always hurt, and yet…I didn’t think it would happen, I didn’t think the dream really meant…and yet I went to the High City anyway.” She struggled a moment.  “My daughter was still alive when I received that note, I did the math, countless times…she died three days after…” she paused for moment, and let herself breath.  “Her husband never forgave me for not being here, never trusted me with his daughter.”  She looked down at the boy, in her arms.  “I have this now, and I can remember rocking my daughter to sleep just a little better.  So yes, it helps me.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Summer

Rhaeus 37th, 637 E.R.

Mercu sat indifferent in the summer sun on a bench in the upper courtyard of the castle.  “Where are the girls?” Laurel asked behind him.  After a moment he gestured to his right, and to his left where stood Prince Darion on one side, and Lady Catherine on the other, both looking quite cross.

“I don’t understand?” Laurel said a bit confused by the response.

“Look closer,” Mercu sighed, “and leave me to the sun.”

Laurel looked back and forth, and finally opted for the Prince first, but as he approached he saw the cause of his displeasure.  Perched on a branch above his head was Kiannae, her nose in a large book.  Laurel was at a loss to explain how she had gotten up there, let alone with a book she surely could barely carry on flat ground, or for that matter up a tree.

“How did she…” Laurel started.

“I saw it, and I couldn’t explain it,” Darion said shaking his head.

“Why?” Laurel said perplexed.

“You tell me,” the Prince said turning to look at Laurel incredulously, “you are the mage, their mentor, even their father by law.”

Laurel shook his head, and looked up at Kiannae, who he thought he caught peeking down for a moment.  “Ok, so what is Catherine looking so cross about?” he asked turning to face the fountain in the middle of the courtyard.

“That, would be the other one,” Darion sighed, “not nearly as clever a trick, but less dignified to be sure.”

“What?” Laurel asked again.

“Go look for yourself,” Darion muttered walking away,. “I’m getting a gardener, and telling him to bring a ladder.”

Laurel crossed the courtyard, and poked Mercu hard in the shoulder as he passed.  Mercu for his part barely acknowledge the interruption.  As Laurel walked up to Catherine she sat down from her pacing, and fanned herself under her parasol.  “I’m told Katrisha is somewhere here, causing your present frustration?” he said questioningly, and looked about.

Catherine simply pointed with a huff into the fountain.  “Oh,” Laurel said catching sight of Katrisha sitting in it’s shadow, with water running over her.  “What are you doing in there Katrisha?”

“It’s hot,” she muttered after a bit of silence.

“It’s undignified is what it is,” Catherine grumbled.

“I suppose it is a bit,” Laurel laughed, “why not use the ladies bath at least?”

“Warm, water,” Katrisha enunciated firmly.

“Ah…I could teach you a spell to fix that,” Laurel laughed, “it’s uh, actually almost the same spell as the lights.”

“Really?” Katrisha said leaning out of the water for a moment.

“Whatever it takes to get her out of that fountain,” Catherine sighed.

“Come on,” Laurel said putting his foot on the edge of the fountain, and offering his hand to Katrisha.  “Let us stop antagonizing the good Lady with our undignified presences.”

Katrisha took Laurel’s hand after staring at it for a moment, and let him pull her, drenched robe and all from the fountain.  Her short legs, and sloshing footsteps slowed their approach to where Mercu still sat.  “Prince, gardener, or whatever help you need I leave the other one for you to retrieve.”

“So long as I’m not stuck between the two,” Mercu shrugged.

“Katrisha wasn’t hard to get out of the fountain,” Laurel chided.

“I was talking about Catherine, and the Prince,” Mercu sighed.  “I was perfectly happy to sit, and enjoy the sun while the girls were occupied on their own.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Autumn

Harfast 25th, 637 E.R.

Katrisha sat cross-legged on a bench in the upper courtyard, with freshly fallen leaves all around her.  She was staring up at a crescent moon hung high, as sunset faded to dusk.  The courtyard was empty save her, and she did not seem to mind.  She closed her eyes as a cool late autumn breeze washed over her, blissfully content even as most would have been uncomfortably cold.  She lost track of time for a moment until she heard footsteps crunching through the leaves towards her.

“What are you doing here?” asked a blond haired boy not a year her elder.

“What are you, Charles?” she cut back.  Katrisha did not much care for him.  She felt he thought himself far too important, and that he was much too nosey, but most of all there had been bad blood between them since the last winter.  She knew full well he had gone to his father, claiming Kiannae had attacked him with magic, and that Katrisha herself had ground snow into his hair.  Both claims quite true, technically.  Not much had come of it though, and really Katrisha believed he’d gotten the worse of it from his father, for being humiliated by ‘two little girls.’  She would rather have been in trouble.

“I asked first,” Charles said adamantly.

“Just looking at the moon,” Katrisha sighed.

“Why?” Charles demanded with a funny look.

“Because I love the moon,” Katrisha stated crossly.

“That’s silly,” Charles said dismissively, but didn’t leave.

“You’re silly,” Katrisha retorted no less childishly.  “I answered your question, now mine,” she demanded, tough she really didn’t care.  She just wanted him to go away, but it was the principle of the thing at that point.

“My father sent me with a message to the gate,” he said all too proudly.

“Boring,” Katrisha yawned mockingly.

“And the moon isn’t?” Charles cut back quite hurt.

“No, she isn’t,” Katrisha stated emphatically.  “She’s beautiful.”

“Silly girls,” Charles muttered, and walked away.

Katrisha became very cross then, got up, and marched after him.  Just before she caught up to him he turned, and glowered at her.  “What?” he demanded angrily

Katrisha wrinkled her nose and pursed her lips.  She resisted the urge to call him silly again – that was too awkward, even she realized.  That in mind she really didn’t know what to say, and she thoroughly didn’t know why she hadn’t just let him walk away.  She had wanted him to go after all.

“The moon lights the night, and guards us from the dark.  She is the tranquil lady, who rules the ocean tides, and the rhythms of the world.  She is the tranquil mirror of the sun’s daunting fire.”  It was bits and pieces of poetry and stories Mercu had told her, or her father.  It all blended together.  “And…and I am her daughter – the daughter of the moonlight,” she protested.  It was what her father had called her, daughter of the moonlight, and the winter frost.  It was almost the only thing she could remember of him any more.  Those words meant the world to her.

Charles honestly did not know what to make of the outburst, though something nagged at the edge of his thoughts to comment that there was nothing tranquil about this girl, yet he didn’t quite bring himself to say it, and he wasn’t sure why.  Perhaps a touch of wisdom, or simple startled silence.  Instead he just stood there confounded, and oddly moved by the intensity with which it had all been said.  Though no less annoyed by its perceived impertinence.

It seemed neither had much more to say at that point.  After a moment more of the awkward standoff, Katrisha turned around, folded her arms, and said, “You can go.”

This further irritated Charles – who was she, this little farm girl – to tell him when he could go?  He marched up to her, grabbed her by the arm, and yanked her around.  “I am the son of a Knight – more by right,” he growled.  “I am an heir of title – and you are nothing.  Just a lucky little brat with a gift, and a half bread no less, a Sylvan bastard.”

Katrisha had been in a huff before, flustered and on edge, but with that she was absolutely furious.  “You take that back,” she said narrowing her eyes.

“No,” Charles said, “because it’s all true.”

Katrisha wrested her arm from his grasp, and just as quickly pushed Charles, and to his surprise he was knocked from his feet.  If Charles was to be thought less of for any reason, it was not for falling from that blow.  The force behind it was not to be underestimated, and by far he had no idea the strength the gift could give those who possess it, even on instinct, and in the heat of the moment.  Even aware of these things a grown man would have more than likely fallen.

Charles for his part landed violently on his rear more than a foot farther back, and flopped over hitting his head against the reasonably soft grass, and leaves.  The impact was still more than hard enough to rattle his teeth, and hurt – the wind already knocked out of him from the blow itself.  It had been only a moment before that the keep doors had opened, and Laurel had witnessed the end of the exchange from a distance – the power behind it, and all, but had not quite had the presence of mind to stop the unexpected event.

“What is the meaning of this?” Laurel yelled as he marched down the steps quickly.  Katrisha’s expression shifted as she looked up.  She went from anger to worry, as she realized she was about to be in trouble.  Charles simply lay before her rubbing his head, and holding his ribs – she had hit him much harder than she realized, intended, or imagined she could.

“He started it,” Katrisha protested thinly in shock.

“It certainly did not look that way,” Laurel said stepping up next to the pair, and looking down at Charles.  He leaned down, and offered him his hand.  Charles took it, and got to his feet.  Laurel swept his hand over him briskly, finding no major damage, though it seemed likely a bruise would form by morning.  “Are you alright?” Laurel asked with some concern, sweeping his hand over the boy’s head more slowly.  Still nothing, it seemed, but he realized how volatile the incident alone could prove.

“I’m fine,” Charles sneered, brushed Laurel’s hand away, turned, and marched off fiercely.

Laurel thought to protest, but turned instead to Katrisha.  “What happened?” he demanded angrily.

“He grabbed my arm, and called me a bastard,” Katrisha declared defiantly, her nose scrunched up once again.

Laurel looked to see how far away Charles had gotten.  “That is still no reason to strike him,” Laurel scolded.  “You could have hurt him badly – and you would have had to live with that, even if it were not for the trouble it could cause us all.”

Katrisha looked away.  “I’m not a bastard,” she said starting to cry.

“Of course not, dear,” Laurel said, dropped down to her level, and pulled her close, not entirely sure what to do.  “But you are better than him, more powerful than he could ever be.  You must not abuse that power, however much in the moment you feel like he deserved it.  He isn’t worth it – his insults aren’t worth what hurting him could do to you.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Winter

Styver 25th, 637

Snow lay heavy a cloister courtyard at Highvale, and fresh snow continued to fall in large loose clumps.  Amidst the swirling snow stood Wren – not indifferent to the cold, but in spite it nonetheless.  It was the kind of gray morning that saw most denizens of the Highvale cloister sleeping in, tucked into warm beds, preferably not alone.  But Wren was not entirely alone in the courtyard, for not only snow hung in the air about him.

Faint lights could be seen shifting in a slow dance among the falling flakes.  It was not unheard of for wisps to be seen in the woods around the cloister, or even to wander into the orchards, or dance near an outer window.  It was rare, but not unheard of.  What was strange, what no one in living memory had seen was what had caught Wren’s attention when he woke, and followed from bed that frigid morning.

No other brothers or sisters had yet noticed.  The only other people at that point who should have been out of their beds were those on kitchen duty, content near their warm stoves – unless they were late – preparing the morning meal.  Another had dragged herself from warm comfort, in something of a fright.  Renae rushed into the courtyard, and wrapped a blanket around Wren, not even having noticed the strange sight that had the boy’s eyes fixed upward.

Her hurried arrival seemed to drive the wisps higher, so she might have been forgiven for not noticing their faint glows, her attention entirely on a tiny barely dressed boy hip deep in the snow.  “What are you doing?” Renae demand holding him close.  Wren shivered, and then wrestled an arm free of the blanket to point up.

Renae did not understand, until a faint glow drifted along the top of her field of view, and she looked up.  Renae had seen a wisps before, several times in her long life, but never once closer than a dozen yards.  This one hovered not a foot above her, drifting ever so lightly back and forth, but not without it seemed disturbing the snow, which seemed to swirl about it slightly.

Then Renae was as rapt as the boy she held.  The wisp was not alone, she counted, four, five, and as she focused she thought she saw a sixth, and seventh farther up.  There were no less than three remarkable things that struck her, competing for which was most out of place.   All conventional wisdom on wisps it seemed had gone out the window before her eyes.  Wisps were presumed intangible, and yet these disturbed the snow.  They do not wander where people dwell, yet they were there in the cloister courtyard.  Lastly they do not appear in winter, and yet there they were, amidst the snow.

“They are singing,” Wren said, but Renae could hear nothing other than her breath, her heart pounding, and the gentle sound of wind over the rooftops.

“It’s just the wind,” Renae guessed.

“No,” Wren protested.

Renae finally had the presence of mind to lift the boy out of the snow, and wrap his surely freezing feet in the blanket.  The wisps backed off at the motion, and she watched, hesitantly.  It was painfully cold, and yet such a strange opportunity was hard to pass up so readily.  She closed her eyes, and turned to head back into the cloister, but just as she was about step through the door, she thought she heard something, faint, like a woman’s voice humming upon the breeze.

She turned back, and watched as the wisps slowly drifted up, and away, and with them went any hint of the song – and yet it lingered, strange, distant, and painfully familiar, more memory than sound.  Where had she heard it before, why did she feel that she knew it, and why did she want to cry?  Why did she want to cry, and never stop?

Wren was playing with the button clasp of her robe.  “Button,” he said.  Then Renae wept, she collapsed against the pillar of the arch she stood under, and cried for almost a minute, clinging to the small boy in her arms.  He didn’t know, he was just saying the word.  He couldn’t have known, she chided herself.  Could he?

She had managed to gather herself, and reach the door back into the cloister when Andria found her, and ushered her in.  “Are you alright?” she demanded, her face stricken with worry.  There was no hiding that Renae had been crying.  “Is Wren alright?” she added.

“He’s fine,” Renae managed, “I’m fine.”

“What’s wrong?” Andria asked.

“Nothing,” Renae deflected plainly, it was too much to explain, or put into words.  “We should check his feet, and legs though,” she said changing the subject.  “He was standing bare foot out there.”

“What were you thinking child?” Andria asked staring at Wren in disapproval.  “Wait how did he even get out there?” she asked taken aback.

“I think he walked,” Renae answered uncertainly.

“But down the stairs, and all?” Andria said dubiously.

“They were singing,” Wren protested.

Andria looked to Renae in confusion, who simply shook her head, her eyes pleading ‘not now.’  She hugged Wren close, and whispered under her breath, “What am I to do with you little bird?”

Outside, on the upper level of the cloister walkway, a young redhead woman watched curiously as the last of the wisps moved away.  She was late for her duties, and had come upon the strange scene just as Renae had first rushed out to the boy in the snow.   Sasha, was fascinated.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Spring

Vernum 3rd, 638 E.R.

The spring festival was well underway, and twin girls sat side by side high atop the east wall of the castle.  Katrisha’s head was leaned on her sister’s shoulder, and their feet dangled down from the notch in the wall where they sat.  Each sucked at hard candies on sticks, stolen from the royal kitchen through subterfuge, and misdirection – the ill-gotten gains of the morning.

“There you are,” a slightly winded voice called out from behind them.  Mercu seemed a bit cross when they turned to look.  “I have been looking everywhere for the two of you,” he grumbled, “charged most vehemently with your apprehension, no less.”  The girls each bit their lips, looked at each other, and then Kiannae offered Mercu one of the candy sticks.

Mercu considered the offering suspiciously for a moment, looked about, shrugged, and took it, opting to lean against the battlement behind them to catch his breath.  “This doesn’t seem a very safe spot,” he added, and began enjoying the candy himself.

“It’s a good view,” Kiannae contested.

“And the patrols don’t often come all the way to the north tower,” Katrisha noted.

“No, I suppose they don’t,” Mercu agreed, “not much need really.”

It was a warm spring already, after a very cold winter.  Flowers dotted the fields below, where grazing sheep had not yet eaten them.  Mercu looked from the fields below, to the girls sitting just before him.  He was really only cross with them for the imposition of being put upon to find them for punishment.  They hadn’t done anything he wouldn’t have, or didn’t when he was much younger.  Though he dared say he caused less commotion, and fuss in a candy heist, and did a bit better not to get caught.

“You know you shouldn’t steal candy,” Mercu said in way of reproval.

“There was so much of it,” Katrisha protested.

“No one would miss a couple,” Kiannae added.

“Yes, well, perhaps, but your little light show distraction didn’t leave much guessing who was to blame, did it?” Mercu chided.

“No,” Kiannae admitted.

“I guess not,” Katrisha echoed her sister’s tone.

“First lesson,” Mercu intoned, “don’t steal.”  The girls wrinkled their noses.  “Second lesson,” Mercu said more earnestly, “don’t make it so obvious who stole.”  He held a very serious face for a while, and then slowly his expression broke into a smile, and he laughed.

“Third lesson though,” Mercu nodded approvingly, “if you get caught, bribe the one who catches you.  Good job there at least.  It’s only going to buy you time though – I can be bought off, Laurel, I don’t think will be so easy.”

“Fourth lesson,” Mercu said leaning in, and whispering quietly, “lay low.  I’d say make yourself scarce for a couple more hours.  Let everyone cool down, and stay out of any more trouble.  You hear?”

The girls looked at each other, then back at Mercu, and nodded.  “Very good then,” Mercu said, and walked off.  “Now where did those troublesome whelps get to,” he said somewhat loudly, mostly for the girl’s benefit, as no one else of note was in earshot.

The girls went back to watching the scenery below, and enjoying their candy, and another good fifteen minutes passed before they peeked back at the sound of approaching footsteps.  Charles did not notice the girls look out from their notch in the battlement, as he had already turned to climb into another crevice of the wall himself.

Nothing had ever come of Katrisha’s altercation with Charles, except for the two avoiding each other.  Katrisha figured he had learned better than going to his father for help concerning either of them.  Katrisha pursed her lips, and wrinkled her nose like she was considering something she didn’t much care for.  Then before Kiannae could protest she leapt down from the parapet, the sound of which caught Charles’ attention.

Charles watched Katrisha approach guardedly.

“Hello,” she finally said standing just below where he sat on the wall.

“Yes?” he asked demandingly, and perhaps just a bit afraid that if this lead to her pushing him as hard as the last time they spoke, he would sail clean off the wall.

“Is your father making you run errands again?” Katrisha asked, not trying to sound mean, but it came off that way any how.

“What do you care?” Charles asked incredulously, and eyed Kiannae with equal suspicion as she stepped up beside her sister.

“I wanted to say I was sorry,” Katrisha said changing her tact.  Charles didn’t quite know what to say to that, really overall he seemed a bit taken aback by the concept, and not keen to believe it.  After a long pause Katrisha offered him one of the candies she was holding.  With a timidness that did not quite match his conventional demeanor, Charles took the sweet, but still eyed it with some suspicion.

There was another long pause, and when it seemed no one else had anything further to say, Katrisha curtsied slightly – not quite mock, but not quite respectful either, more an odd acknowledgment, and then she turned to walk away.  Charles tentatively tasted the sweet, and found it was precisely what it appeared.  Just before the twins were out of earshot his heart softened, and he yelled back, “I’m sorry too.”

“What was that about?” Kiannae demanded, as they passed through the north tower.

“Laurel said we are better than him,” Katrisha said with a shrug.  “So I thought…I would be better than him?”  Kiannae scrunched her face thoughtfully, and nodded agreement without too much reluctance.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Summer

Raehune 41st, 638 E.R.

It was a terribly, and unreasonably hot summer afternoon as Mercu walked the upper corridor towards the west tower.  He had already undone several buttons of his shirt, and relished the idea of being rid of his garments, and collapsing by his window for the rest of the miserable day.

There were two entirely valid options when making for his room in the tower.  The lower path along the base of the wall, or the upper corridor that lead past the ladies bath.  He always favored the latter, not that there was anything to be seen, or anything quite so unseemly in his reasons.  He nodded to a young freshly bathed woman who walked past him.  It was more simply the company one might run into along the way.

Just as he passed the bath however he could not help but notice a slight yelp from within.  Nothing dire, nothing concerning, but it had been very distinct, and made him stop.  He hesitated a moment, then walked on as there was nothing he could do to sate his curiosity.  Half way down the hall he heard the door open, and looked back.  Marian stood there, looking a bit flustered, and still rather damp.  She stood there stewing a moment before she noticed Mercu out of the corner of her eye.

She gave him a rather hard to read look, and he simply gazed back bewildered by it.

“I can appreciate it is a hot day,” Marian started loud enough for him to hear as she walked towards him, “I truly can, but there is such a thing as too cold.”

When Mercu seemed no more clear on where she was going about her sudden line of conversation, Marian simply gestured back towards the door.  “There is no one else in there, except those two,” she started, “perhaps you should deal with her.”

Mercu sighed, and wondered what new mischief the twins were causing.  He set that aside, and decided this was as good a chance as any to see the inside of the ladies bath, he had always been curious.  He walked back, opened the door with some timidness, and entered.  Around the wall that blocked immediate view from the hall, he found the twins on opposite sides of the room.

On one side Kiannae sat, her feet dangling in the water, reading a book.  On the far end Katrisha was floating, only her face above the surface near one of the curtains of water for showering.  At a glance nothing seemed entirely out of place, and Mercu let himself get distracted pondering the room itself.  It was about as grand as he had envisioned, certainly more ornate than the common bath for the men, and decidedly more open.  Women he decided must mind seeing each other less than men.

Looking back at the twins he was still unsure what the issue was – until at last he noticed that there seemed to be something white around the spout behind Katrisha.  Mercu walked closer, and upon examination it appeared to be frost – if he tried he could make out a hint of the spell.  He dipped his finger in the curtain of water, and found it very cold indeed.

“By the light girl, how can you bear it?” Mercu asked noticing Katrisha had opened her eyes, and was looking at him.

“I like it,” she said.

“I could almost understand, but really, this cold?” Mercu protested shaking his finger.

“I think she’s crazy,” Kiannae said from her end of the room.

“Why did Marian yelp though?” Mercu asked shaking the water from his finger.

“She stepped into the stream,” Kiannae laughed.

“And you didn’t warn her?” Mercu chided.

“Didn’t think to.  No,” Katrisha mused.

“I was reading,” Kiannae protested.

“Well, next time warn someone.  Ok?” Mercu said sternly, “Oh, and do make it a little less cold,” he said with some concern, testing the water again, “for your own good.”

“Ok,” Katrisha sighed.

He stood up, looked around once more, and walked back out.  Marian was waiting outside.  “Well?” she asked impatiently.

“I told her to warn people in future, and that it can’t be good for her to be that cold either,” Mercu said with a shrug.  “I’d assume the far spouts are untampered with, if you were still wanting to bathe.”  He tipped his hat, and turned to walk on.  “Though…” he said stopping, and looking back, “if you are in no hurry, such charming company as yourself, could never go amiss, even on such a dreadfully warm day.”  He smiled, in his most devilish sort of way.  Marian, decidedly did not frown.

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Chapter 4

Twas a daughter of moonlight,
a girl born of winter frosts,
to fleet step ‘n quick bow,
a prince’s heart was lost,

she would not have him,
O’ prince of summer glades,
nor Sylvan Lords permit,
such a union to be made…

– Collected Folklore, Book II, Mercu Peregrine 642 E.R.

Lessons & Stories

Once the girls were settled Laurel left again for Nohrook, and the border.  He found his chosen escort had been replaced – with little explanation – by a young fresh faced soldier named Eran.  He felt bad only briefly, that perhaps Horence was being punished for matters beyond his control.  Yet decided not to concern himself too much, as he was quite sure who was responsible for a circulating rumor – technically true – regarding him having spent a night in the company of Lycian Sisters.  Politically inconvenient as such rumors were, there was a certain benefit to them as well.  It all balanced out in the end.  Still, his next sparring match with Horence would be a good opportunity to even the score.

Laurel’s time in the north was uneventful.  The wards spaced along the border gleamed with all the power they had been forged with centuries before.  There were no signs of unusual activity – no artifacts of magical workings.  All was quiet, for the moment, and prepared to give warning should conditions change.

The closest thing to excitement was a day when three scouts of the northern horse tribes trotted along a distant hill, and watched Laurel and Eran for several hours.  Laurel bore them no ill will, for he knew they would suffer first if the worst ever came.

When Laurel returned to the castle he gave himself another week to sort out where to begin, and become better acquainted with his young charges.  He learned that the girls had in fact spent nearly half of his absence in the care of Horence, when Mercu had other more important matters to attend to – excused entirely on the grounds that members of the court were very demanding of his time, and skills with brush and paint.

Laurel had smiled quite in spite of himself to overhear, “He’s even evaded this responsibility without reproach.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 39th, 636 E.R.

Laurel considered his new pupils as they glanced about his vast tower study absently.  It was more library than anything else.  Two tiers of bookshelves lined first the ring of the lower chamber, and the outer walls of the upper.  A few more stood precariously placed above the lower shelves, but appearances aside were quite well secured.

Laurel himself could not name half the books therein, but Mercu had taken stock several times over the past decade.  Though the only tomes that had ever been missing were due to his own absentminded borrowing.

Understandably the girl’s gaze returned repeatedly to the workings of an immense orrery that hung from the rafters high overhead.  It was a strange conglomeration of mechanical, and magical parts whose function and meaning would be lost on most adults.  Even this complex display did little to keep the girl’s attention for long – the slow arcs of its motion too gradual for childlike fascination, but many orders too quick to represent current celestial positions.

Laurel wondered how hard it would be to focus such young children.  He had given the girls time to settle, and mourn.  Not that it could have largely been any other way.  Still he had only the most cursory of plans, gleaned from the faded memories of a childhood long past.

“I had never sought to be a teacher,” he started, “yet twice now in my life it has come to be my fate,” he reflected.  “My choice I suppose, one I have accepted again.”  He watched to be sure he had the girls attention. “You are young, and I have no doubt too young for fancy words, I shall not however speak down to you, you will learn.”

Laurel could tell he had their attention for a moment, but it quickly waned.  “You are though it seems ready enough to learn magic, unusual as that might be for your age,” he said, and saw that he instantly had them focused – though with no illusion it would last.  He put out his hand, and with a wiggle of his fingers a translucent ball of blue light swirled into being, with a pale rune at it’s center.

“The first lesson, is not how to do this, that is a bit of a trick.”  He smiled.  “The first lesson is to learn to touch magic.  It’s not something that can be explained, simply felt and known.”  He leaned down, and stretched out his hand before the girls, offering them the orb.

Kiannae reached out her hand first, and tried to touch the sphere.  It swirled like a mist around her fingers, but at once rolled like it had been nudged.  Perturbed Kiannae reached out with both hands, and tried to grab hold of it.  She frowned as her hands sank into the immaterial form, but just short of giving up in frustration she lifted her hands upward, and it followed, slowly pushing up from her skin.

She could feel it then, lighter than a feather, rested in her hands, and slowly it seemed more solid, but no more heavy.  It really didn’t have a weight precisely, so much as a sense of cold air falling over her skin, a downward pressure more an effect on its surroundings than a property of substance.

“Now hand the ball to your sister,” Laurel said, surprise written plainly across his face, and uneasiness in his voice.  He stood back and watched.  Kiannae scrunched her nose, obviously not ready to give up her pretty new possession, but at last relented, turning to Katrisha who held out her hands expectantly.

As Kiannae let the ball go it drifted downward.  It slowed as it swirled around Katrisha’s hands, and danced over her fingers as has happened to Kiannae before.  Katrisha tried again to catch the ball, still not quite successfully, though it almost stopped for a moment.  She dropped to her knees, and tried a third time before it could disappear into the floor, and though it nearly sank through, it stopped in her hands, and wavered unsteadily as it pushed back up.  “Very good girls,” Laurel said with stern reservation. “I had to try for weeks before I could do the same, and two years older.  I am most impressed.”  He rubbed his forehead.

Kiannae smiled proudly at the praise, and watched as Katrisha held the ball up close to her face to look at the small rune that glowed within.  At first Katrisha just saw the rune’s simple graceful curves, but as she looked closer she saw threads, a web of faint light hidden within the glow of the luminance the spell was meant to provide.  Slowly she saw how the strings radiated outward, forming a swirling latticework, and then into an almost smooth shell that shifted and changed before her, and radiated much of the visible light.

With care Katrisha balanced the ball on one hand, and reached out to touch one of the gossamer filaments, which seemed to twang like a string of the old lute Mercu kept in their chamber.  As one shivered, all vibrated, and like a soap bubble that had been punctured the whole thing popped with a bright flash, and a spattering of twinkling light.  This started Katrisha into stumbling backwards, and she fell on her rear with a look of complete shock on her face.

Laurel simply stared at the girl, as Kiannae grew visibly cross with her sister for breaking the pretty ball.

“That was,” he said trying to compose himself, “very good.  You saw the web of the spell, and touched it.”  He didn’t mention it had taken him a day of careful instruction his first time to even see, let alone touch a single filament of a spell.  Having managed it he wasn’t that surprised she had disrupted it, a simple light orb was not built for stability.

Katrisha smiled proudly, though was still a bit shaken by the sudden burst of light right in her face.  Laurel looked to Kiannae who was looking very agitated, but still stood quietly.

“Here,” he said, and leaned down, reached out his hand to Kiannae, and formed a new orb with less flair than the first.  “See if you can do the same.”

Kiannae did as her sister had, taking the ball and holding it up close.  It took her a moment to see how the threads wove through, and around the rune.  There were two things there she saw, a larger web, and a smaller.  One set of filaments grew bright at the edges of the orb, the other set glowed at the edges of the rune, forming a faint outline, just like the halo of the ball itself.

Balancing the ball on one hand she reached in, and touched not one of the outer filaments, but the inner ones.  The rune flickered, and seemed to come apart like thread unraveling from cloth before the girls’ eyes.  Laurel watched in mild disbelief as the rune disappeared, but the orb remained, though wavering unsteadily.

Kiannae looked frustrated for a moment, sure she hadn’t gotten it right.  Noticing the look on her face however Laurel was quick to reassure her.  “You did well, very well.  Did you see that there were two parts there?” he asked being sure he had witnessed what he thought.

“Yes,” Kiannae said scrunching up her face and looking at the ball in her hand, which finally unraveled from the center out, and whiffed away.  “I saw the middle bit was the same, but…not.”

“Runes are markers, and memory tools, they aren’t strictly needed,” Laurel said with a laugh covering his uncertainty with how to proceed.  He had planned to have a few weeks, even months to think up a proper lesson plan as he got the girls to simply learn to touch and see magic properly. “They just help us remember and keep our place, and recall something common.  They are like names,” he said drawing out a series of glowing runes in the air.  “If I call you Kia, or Ki, as your sister does, Kiannae to be proper, or even little girl to be diminutive.  You are still the same, but others might take a different meaning at my choice.  Further the one I use most often, I will remember more quickly.”

Laurel looked at the girls, and while it seemed he had their attention he was quite sure he’d gone very much too far the other way.  Still he was flustered, and a bit off put by his gifted pupils, so he continued.  “This one here,” he said pushing forward a rune from the line, “it could mean fire, power, light, or anything I chose, though sticking to conventions makes things easier.”

Laurel touched the rune he had pushed forward with the tip of his finger, and it grew brighter, and slowly was enveloped in a fuzzy warm glow, “now it draws power through the Veil from the Aether.”  He drew a circle around the growing light, and it seemed as though the thin filament bound it.  Quickly he moved around the other runes, and drew circles around them, arcs between them, and then connected them to the ring that had become quite brilliant at the center.

Tiny shimmers of light moved along all of the filaments, and at each of the outer runes something different happened.  From one tiny shimmering speckles fell as vapor froze from the air, dust, and some of these crystals were whipped into a swirl amidst another.  From a third a small flame grew, and wavered.  One remained which seemed to do nothing at all, until Laurel picked up, and placed a quill at its center, which hung there and wobbled.

The girls watched the show of light, and power, entertained, but obviously far out of their depth, till at last Laurel simply waved his hand through the middle, and the whole thing whiffed out in quickly fading swirls of dissolving light.  Only the quill remained, which he caught with his other hand.   “That was far over your heads, I know, but you are clever, and observant, I can tell.  Let us go back to our first, lesson, and move on a few steps.”

Laurel sat cross-legged on the floor before the two girls, and drew out a rune in the air.  “The first thing to learn to do, is to form a filament,” Laurel said in his lecturing tone.  “Even when you do not see it, do not think of it any more, filaments are there.  They are the basis of all magic, abundant in nature, and all around us.  You must learn to pull them from the air, to bind many strands together, and form an extension of your own will.”

Laurel began to draw out many runes, arcs, circles, and connecting lines all around him.  He watched as the girls moved their hands as he did to no avail, and then began to prod at the ones he left behind. Sometimes nothing would happen, others came apart when touched too forcefully.  Katrisha was the first to take hold of a filament Laurel had made without breaking it.  It drifted behind her finger like a strand of spider silk caught on the tiniest of breezes, and she quickly became distracted twirling it about.  It began to grow a bit as she went, grew longer, slightly brighter, but eventually dissolved.

Kiannae managed to do the same soon after, but seemed to get less thoroughly distracted by the novelty, and shook the captured strand loose after only a moment.  After a minute or so of trying Kiannae had formed her own, which grew quickly – however her first attempt to let the filament go failed, and it broke apart instantly.  Katrisha seeing her sister’s success frowned, and stopped playing with the filaments Laurel had left behind, and began to try to make her own.

Laurel had stopped the construction of his own intricate web, and simply watched the girls, their progress easily as astounding as before.  After a quarter of an hour the girls were surrounded with crude aimless patterns of light without any real purpose, and Laurel’s work had long since faded away.  “Very good.”  He sighed.  The girls looked at him a bit surprised, and their work instantly came apart.

Laurel reached out both hands, and formed a ball of light in each, almost identical to the ones he had made earlier, but each this time without the rune at it’s center.  Though this took slightly more effort, it was not obvious to an observer.

“Here,” he said leaving them floating before the girls who noticed these did not fall as the others had.  “Try not to break them, but to copy either what you see before you, or what you see me do.”  A small part of Laurel hoped this would stump the girls completely, but he had maddening doubts.

Laurel formed a third orb in his hand slowly.  He made it with care, so that it was possible to see the filaments weave together.  He waited a moment, and with a flick of his wrist it whiffed away.  He did this again, waited, and waved it away.  He repeated this, over, and over again, eventually closing his eyes, and meditating as he continued the task instinctively.

Ever so often Laurel would open his eyes and watch as one of the girls made a sound of amusement or surprise as they made progress.  Kiannae was the first to make an unstable mesh of filaments, which curled, and peeled apart in little spirals even as she tried to stop it.  Katrisha was the first to get a small marble sized orb to form, but it seemed at once too rigid, and too brittle.  It shattered under the slightest strain, and fell away like dust.

After an hour and a half Laurel had to get up, and stretch his legs.  He encouraged the girls to continue as he paced around the room working out the kinks in his back.  He felt like he was missing something, and from some distance back tried to look past the girls attempts, and at the underpinnings.  The subtle details of their work.  Katrisha’s filaments grew almost like crystals, rigid, little spurs fanning out along the lines, angular kinks and jogs.  Kiannae’s seemed similar at first, but on closer examination the forms were smoother, they wove loosely, and coiled off easily in graceful spirals rather than spurs.  The results were so much the same, much like the girls themselves superficially identical, and yet they weren’t.

Kiannae’s giggle of excitement brought his focus back to the wider picture just in time to see her fully formed orb, still half the size of the one hovering before her, but still larger than her tiny hand.  It quickly dissolve as all the others had, to her obvious frustration.  Yet there was something about the way it failed that reminded Laurel of a blooming flower.

“Very good,” Laurel applauded, having gotten over some of his frustration, relieved at having seen something finally take effort for the two of them.  They were still outpacing him, but on this task not quite so wildly.  It had taken him only a day to learn the orb once he had gotten the rest well in hand – though he had watched his parents make countless lights before.  He ignored that detail.

Katrisha managed to do the same as her sister, but was more careful to keep her orb together.  She held it up on one hand, and smiled proudly.  It then came apart with the carelessness display, crumpling under its own rigidity, and turning to a shower of luminous dust.  She frowned obviously disappointed, but Laurel reassured her, “No, no, very good, you almost had it there.  But come you two, let’s go down to the kitchen, and get some food.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Night had fallen, and Mercu had been playing for almost an hour on an old lute with frayed strings.  He watched the girls from the old chair he sat in, as they continued to be engrossed with making the same spheres of light they had practiced all afternoon.  They were getting quite good at the making part, but keeping them together was proving more challenging.

Kiannae had taken up residence on the bed, and Katrisha sat on the floor below her.  Katrisha protested when Mercu suddenly swooped down, and lifted her into bed next to her sister, causing her to lose her concentration.  He quickly pulled the covers over the pair before they could squirm far.  “You two must sleep,” he sighed.  Laurel had made it quite clear he was responsible for seeing the twins to bed, without exception, and so Mercu had politely, and reluctantly excused himself from other entertainments, and his hopes of returning had vanished some time before.

“We aren’t tired,” Katrisha said managing to quickly re-form her orb.  Kiannae made her own again as well, and tried to balance it above the tip of one finger to show off, only to have it whiff out on her.  She frowned, reformed it, and held it possessively.

Mercu sat back down in the old chair, picked up the lute again, and strummed it absently.  “What must I do to get you two to sleep?” he asked as much to himself as the girls.

“Tell a story,” Kiannae demanded.

“A story!” Katrisha agreed excitedly, “daddy always told stories!”  She seemed to sadden at her own remark, but quickly returned to playing with her own little ball of light.

“And what kind of stories would your father tell you?” Mercu asked hopefully, though he doubted the girls would remember anything significant.

“Ummm,” Kiannae said trying to remember.

“The huntress and the prince,” Katrisha said absently trying to get the ball of light to stay stable without her needing to focus on it.

“I’ve not heard that one, would you tell me?” Mercu asked sweetly, his curiosity piqued.  Everything he heard said that few Sylvans spoke the common tongue, yet the girls did not seem to have learned the Sylvan language either.  It was one of many curiosities – but a story from their father seemed more than likely to be a Sylvan story, and that could be a rare treasure.

“There was a young prince,” Kiannae said, forgetting her orb which whiffed out again, “who adored the daughter of a common hunter…and um…”

“She was the most beautiful girl in all the forests,” Katrisha continued having gotten her ball stable without realizing it, and let it drift away.

“As pretty as the moon,” Kiannae said remembering another detail.

“As calm and cool as winter frost,” Katrisha mused.

“The king didn’t approve,” Kiannae said direly, “she was beautiful, but common.”

“She also didn’t like the prince,” Katrisha laughed, “thought he was clumsy.”

“The prince tried to impress the huntress,” Kiannae continued, “he went to hunt a great boar.”

“The bore was mean,” Katrisha frowned, “and nearly killed the prince.”

“The hunter’s daughter scared the boar away, and saved the prince, but told him he was dumb,” Kiannae said sleepily.

“The prince said he wanted to impress her,” Kiannae said wistfully, “and the huntress said she would teach him to do better.”

“The King heard his son was saved, and made the huntress a great lady,” Katrisha said with a smile.

“She taught the prince, and fell in love,” Kiannae giggled.

“They wed,” Katrisha sighed, “and the common girl became the Queen of the forest.”

“That’s a lovely story,” Mercu said softly, hoping the sleepiness in the girls voices would take hold.

“Your turn!” Kiannae said perking up again.

“Horence told us stories too,” Katrisha prodded.

Mercu sighed, and laughed.  “What kind of story would you have me tell?  Adventure, love, lore from long ago?”  He wasn’t about to be upstaged by Horence, it was bad enough in his opinion that the man had seemingly caught the eye of a charming young ginger haired lass he had been teaching to paint.

The whole matter seemed a loss, her affections lay elsewhere, and he had a great deal of doubt – given her history of losing interest in occupations – that she would follow through with painting.  Still, Alice’s company had been charming, and the mere possibility had stirred the intended whispers.  So there was that at least, not a total waste of time.

“Love,” Katrisha said sleepily, interrupting Mercu’s stray train of thought.

“With magic,” Kiannae interjected.

Mercu hummed thoughtfully.  “Have you ever heard the story of the Dragon Empress?”

“No,” Katrisha said.

“Tell us!” Kiannae demanded.

“Very well,” Mercu said, and leaned back strumming the lute he held thoughtfully.  “Very long ago, and very far away, when a great Empire stretched from sea to shining sea – there lived a beautiful princess in a palace grand.  She was the Emperor Markus’ eldest daughter, and though he had six others, they were all wed away to fine and noble suitors.  She alone refused to marry, for no suitor had ever impressed her – though many had tried.”

“Roshana was her name, and she was said to be the most fair of all women, and a mage of power to rival even her father.  Most importantly,” Mercu paused for effect, “at least to all who had sought her hand, she was the heir to the throne.  It was little wonder no suitor had caught her eye.  She was not amused by men seeking power through her.  Not flattered to be told she was beautiful, for she knew it to be true.  Further she was bored by those who were not her equal as a mage – when few if any were.”

Mercu softly strummed the lute again.  “This state of affairs continued for years.  Until one day, when a handsome young prince from a distant occidental land came to the palace.  At first she thought no more of him than any other, and dismissed him with mockery that had sent others scampering from her presence in disgrace.  This one though, was clever, confident, tempered, full of wit and amused her.  In time she began to fall for the wily prince and his charms.  Almost too late she realized that he was not the sweet man he seemed to be.  The clever prince barely escaped the princess’ wrath, and fled back to his kingdom far away.”

“That’s not much of a love story,” Katrisha protested in a sleepy disappointed voice.

“Nor much magic,” Kiannae grumbled.

“The story isn’t done,” Mercu laughed softly.  “The princess locked herself away in the tallest tower of the palace, and devoted herself to her magic.  She would no longer come to court, and consented to see only her closest handmaidens, her most gifted pupils, and the Emperor himself.  Then one day her father had to go away to war.  For the prince’s father had broken away from the Empire.  His rebellion and aggression had to be stopped.”

“Alas the Emperor failed, and his daughter, in sadness, in rage – and with no more desire to be sought after by men a wove a spell as grand as any the world has ever seen.  Her tall tower shattered as stone was torn asunder, and woven with flesh.  As the sun set that fateful day, the first of all dragons stood perched atop the broken spire, her silver scales shining, roaring her might.”

“Many saw, and would long remember as the great creature long foretold flew into the west.  Many lands for days on were witness as she passed through, till at last she stood before her father’s murderer – his armies scattered like toys before her.  She avenged her beloved father, almost without contest.  Their greatest mage, all his armies, had shed from her a single scale.  She reminded the errant Kingdom of it’s place – though the prince was not to be found.  She returned home, announcing her reign all the way.  She claimed the throne, and ruled with fairness, wisdom, and power…but in many ways was quite alone.”

Mercu eyed the girls, and saw that they were still just barely awake, he strummed the lute once again, very softly.  “In time, the clever prince – who had slipped away as his father perished – copied the spell the princess had woven, stealing her magic from the single scale she had lost.  He became the second dragon of our world, his scales formed of the black granite of Osyrae’s high mountains.  He had done it for power, to reclaim his kingdom, and take the Empire in turn.  The Empress was afraid, she stood then against another of her kind, who had in turn made more like himself.”

Mercu strummed idly for a bit, before continuing.  “There was one though, a pupil she had taught long before, when she herself was still young.  A common man who had loved her always from afar, but who had learned well from her.  Seeing his Empress troubled, alone, and in need of allies, he too wove the spell as she had, and became a great dragon born of the forest, and green as emerald.  He did it not for power, nor greed, but for love and loyalty.  He pledged himself to her service, and the Empire.”

Mercu paused for a bit and looked to the girls, who seemed to be asleep.  He walked over to the bed, made sure they were tucked in tightly, and saw the flickering ball of light Katrisha had made drifting by.  He watched it for a moment as it wavered slightly, but persisted.

He finished on principle.  “So it was,” he whispered as quietly as he could, “that dragons came into the world.  With vengeance, ambition, and rage…yet also, with love, and nobility,” he reached out and focused on the unstable spell before him, and with the tip of his finger popped it.  “So it is, that they are the best, and worst of all that what we are, or can be.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

In the hall outside the girl’s tower chamber Laurel was deep in thought.

“You could have helped me get those two to bed,” Mercu said behind him, having quietly slipped from the girl’s room.

“Perhaps,” Laurel said with the faintest touch of an apologetic tone, “but I had much to think upon, and when I arrived you were well into your story.  I thought it best not to intrude.”

“Forgiven,” Mercu said, and leaned against the door frame.  “I’m jealous of those two, you know.”

“You?” Laurel laughed, and turned to face Mercu.  “I think I am jealous.  I was almost seven before I could form a spell even that simple, and had trained for over a year.  Those two both got it on their first day…”

“Yes, well I never said I wasn’t jealous of you as well,” Mercu chuckled. “I’ve trained with you for over fifteen years now, and the best I can do is to light a candle with a few tries, or break a not particularly stable spell if I focus very hard.”

“You make light,” Laurel protested, “but I am to train two girls who might surpass me well before they are of age.  Their age,” he sighed, “is still a factor of course, it will hold them back in some ways.”

“Will it?” Mercu scoffed.  “I’m guessing you missed the part where they told me a story.”

“Do not misunderstand me, they are gifted in ways more than power,” Laurel said turning to look back out the window. “Fates, even young prince Philip with all his tutoring barely spoke as intelligently at their age.”

“Are we now to use royalty as a measure for intellect?”  Mercu laughed somewhat derisively.  “I suppose there is merit to measuring in the smallest possible increment, for accuracy.”

Laurel laughed slightly in spite of him himself, but shot Mercu a stern look.  “Philip may be a tad foolish,” he begrudged, “but his father has grown up wise and clever enough, Darion more so.  The King, even for all his heirs and pretense is not a man to be easily outsmarted.”  He paused thoughtfully.  “Children will be children, except I may not be able to allow these two the luxury.  With their potential, maturity will be a necessity, not a grace, or I fear for the harm they could do in a childish outburst.”

“You don’t plan to be too hard with them, do you?” Mercu said a bit worried.

“Not too,” Laurel said with a shake of his head.  “An angry vengeful child with that kind power would be far worse.  We will just have to teach them well, right from wrong, and the necessity of restraint.  Long before they have the need to restrain themselves.”

“Is that all,” Mercu laughed.  “Good for you, dear sir, that you have a professional storyteller in the wings,” he said with an overly elaborate bow.

“Oh, and you are the very measure of restraint?” Laurel said turning to eye Mercu incredulously.

“Those who can’t,” Mercu cut back, standing upright properly again, “teach.”

“Oh really, and that I now teach?” Laurel growled feigned indignance.

“Well, from all you say, comparatively…it is appropriate,” Mercu offered in a friendly mocking tone.

“If only it were not so true.”  Laurel laughed with ill humor.  “I think bed is in order for more than little girls.”

“What if I am a little girl!” Mercu snapped in a mock snit.

“I have it on very good authority,” Laurel said as he turned to walk up the stairs, and shook his head, “that appearances aside, you are neither little, nor a girl.”

“Would you have me any other way?” Mercu called after him.

“Feh!” Laurel said throwing up a hand dismissively.  “It works for you.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 40th, 636 E.R.

“There is a matter of some delicacy that sits before us.”  Catherine was somehow, more than usual, very serious.

Laurel considered her, standing at his study door.  Hers was an unusual presence, it seemed to change on almost every meeting.  Sometimes she was fire, others old weathered stone.  That day she felt almost like fresh leather, and aged partment.  Laurel gestured into the room.

She nodded and passed him.  It was always a dance between the two of them, complex at best, amiable perhaps in the vaguest sort of way, but never fully.  Her deference to him was proper enough, given each their odd and politically textures positions, but there had never been a warmth between the two.

He knew at least that she rarely approved his closest choice of companion.  Certainly there was less complexity to her opinion of him, than Mercu – a subject he had more occasion to hear of, from both sides.  This had at least implied a candor she was willing to offer Laurel, if not in regard to her direct opinion of himself, then of those close to him.

“I fear there are usually many of these to attend to.  I’ll need the list narrowed down.”

“I’ll say I have no objection of the matter – the law certainly does not forbid a Court Mage from holding great stake in a kingdom’s lands, even if it might frown upon it.”

“I take it some has been overlooked in my charge’s estate?”

“More than a little.  As you know, much of the north has been left to the management of the people.  Official records are a bit muddied, and though there was some sense of importance regarding the Ashton line – after the mater of the dragon – no one thought to look closely at the dispensation of holdings.”

“And you found?”

“I thought first it proper to check something that might go unconsidered, as it seems it has.  Wealth that was owed to the grandfather.  He had – as I suspected – made some loans of interest to various individuals, who, upon seeing only three bastards, thought themselves justified in quietly forgetting the proper ownership of it.”

“I do not consider them bastards, the mother was found to wear a ring as a wedding band should be, and though I never met the late Mr. Ashton, the ages of the children, and their certain shared linage speaks of a long relation with the father.  I do not imagine him tolerating a continued inappropriate state – whatever some think of northern ways.  Certainly, even if they were, the maternal law on this is clear.  As children of a legitimate, and only heir, their status cannot be legally questioned.”

“Yes – technically this is true, but the justifications some might seek when they think it possible to miss lay records to their own benefit, are not so stringent.  Not when this much is involved.”

“And you found a substantial sum entitled to the family?”

“Really quite a lot – in matter of fact I am still struggling to ascertain the scope of the estate.  The records are not well kept, and this has been made all the worse by recent, and quite apparent mishandling.”

“How does this affect me, other than some degree of necessity that I look after the interest of my charges?”

“Well – the source of the money is important.  Generations of careful management could hardly explain the extent of the late Mr. Ashton’s reach.  You know that the crown, as a matter of tradition, little interferes in northern affairs.  They have their own system of governance, long deprived of dukes, lords, and barons – by title that is.  While Mr. Ashton, and his father, and grandfathers before him were never given the honorific, it is now more than certain that they have been acting the proper role of barons, if not dukes.  Holding an estate of some six thousand acres or more – possibly all the land from the farm south of their residence, to the old ruins of Ashrook.”

“Good fates,” Laurel said slightly stricken, “they seemed barely more than peasants.”

“As is the northern way.  Really I am impressed with the decorum of it all.  Not many knew.  Taxes were paid, properly, in all the ways they should be, but not in a way that made it at all obvious the consolidation of interest.  I do not believe even the individual debt holders had the slightest notion of the extent of it.”

“Decorum?” Laurel seemed confused.

“It’s nature is not always the pomp, and circumstance of our way of life, surely you of all people can understand?”

“I am more than aware – my life has seen me more abroad than you.  I was more surprised to hear the opinion from yourself.  A woman of certain stately taste, as I have ever known.”

“Then I will forgive you – kindly – your lack of understanding that I am a woman of proper decorum.  Which is to say I suit the company I keep, but am not ignorant of its textured truths through our world.”

“Yet why then has this tragedy been visited upon the family.  Why was the mother alone?”

“Pride, I fear – or perhaps secrecy, or some mixture of the two.  Northerners do not tolerate to keep servants, they despise the relationship of it as much as any proud house in the south would be mortified to be without them.  It would be intolerable to a northerner.  Further the parentage of the children is altogether odd on many levels.”

“Many.  I have thought on it often, and shared my thoughts with the King, but if you have your own, I would gladly hear them.  Since it seems you know more of that local culture than I had yet gleaned.”

“It is less the culture, than the man that gives me pause.  I had met Mr. Ashton more than once after his wife’s passing – though perhaps I should do him the favor of calling him James, he did demand it in our passing acquaintance.  Such formality is almost rude to them.  The preference of heredity to person, and agency.”

“I had somewhat gathered this – but that does cast a clearer light on those now at court.”

“Yes – and to their credit they have adapted well.  As much as their tone has forced change upon us.  Not all things can stay the same with such an endeavor, as the King has rightly undertaken.  Regardless, I do not imagine James to have tolerated – not for a moment – if his daughter had been misused by some Sylvan man, willingly or otherwise.  He had more than the means to send her away.  Had it been at all unwilling – or even uncouth – I dare say we would find ourselves now at war with that people.”

“I have gathered that Mr. Ashton was fiery.  No, I do not imagine any such thing being permitted.  I believe the ring, as worn, though likely the elder Mrs. Ashton’s in origin, implied what it might seem.  Though there is no record, I am certain that to the late Miss Ashton – or whatever Mrs. might be better attributed – considered herself married, and that the others involved agreed.”

“Yes.  We can all rationally attest to this, and the King will surely sanctify the opinion.  There is none the less quite the mess entailed.  Legal status is muddy, the proper scope of holding indeterminate, and as their guardian you are now chiefly responsible for the disposition of it all.  Which while legal…the extent of it will be frowned upon by the Council.”

“Must no good intention go unpunished?” Laurel mused tiredly.

“I bring this to your attention because it is proper.  Just because you have this authority, does not mean you need trouble yourself with every detail.  That is if you can trust others to handle it.”

“Who would you recommend?”

“I can speak for my own trust, surely – but not yours.  I know certainly – and though I will disagree with it – where your trust most adamantly lies.  I do not think him a proper person for the task.  Surely on this we can agree?”

“Certainly.  Though, for what it is worth, he would never forgive me the confidence in his character, nor the strain upon his leisure.”

“Were it that I could recommend him to it then.  I would gladly see him suffer under the weight.”

“Honestly then, those I most trust fall to the King, the Queen, their heirs, and yourself good Lady – perhaps above any of them.”

“I am honored, and shocked.  I did not imagine I had such confidence from you.”

“You do.  You have certainly brought this to my attention, worthily – and your honor, and initiative in undertaking the venture to discover it in the first place speaks even more highly of your character than I was already inclined.”

“Perhaps, I have misjudged our standing with one another?”

“That we do not approve of each other in all things, hardly means that in some we do not hold trust, and respect.  I have surely never believed that you object to me in this position.”

“Certainly not.  I would not question the King’s appointment lightly.”

“Yet we do not see eye to eye in every way?”

“I wonder this at times.  Surely I am not without affection for the one I consider your greatest blemish.”

“Surely indeed,” Laurel said pointedly.  Catherine’s eyes narrowed, and Laurel considered that his response had been more terse than he meant.  “Obviously I am not one to judge on the matter – I have my own feelings, which have perhaps tinted my words.  I meant more to imply mutual familiarity.  As you have in the past.  Let us not dwell upon it, and rather the point that you have my trust, implicitly, on this.  Would you – as you have already shown the inclination – be my representative in the matter?  That I might continue to focus on my duties both to the court, and my new charges.”

“Yes.  You are right – let us focus on that, and yes I accept the role.  I liked the late Mr. Ashton, such as I knew him.  I wish nothing but the best for his grandchildren.”

“Thank you.  I will trust you to give me brief accountings.  Preferably very brief.  I wish as little entanglement in it all as is reasonable.  As you say, I want no part of the Council’s displeasure, which I already earned by adopting them.  The more outside the mater I appear, the better.  In fact, the more that you keep this from public knowledge, such as it is practical under the circumstances…”

“Yes agreed – and I thank you for your complete confidence.  Though I remain uncertain in our dealings how I have so thoroughly earned it.”

“You have never done anything less than what you feel best for the good, and dignity of this kingdom.  I have observed this not only in act, but record, and tact.”

“Not always,” Catherine corrected almost irritably – her admonishment somewhere between pride, shame, and some other unfathomable contradiction.  She also seemed more than displeased with her own candor, a snap out of her character.  There was resounding hurt evident in it, a wound clearly far deeper than anything Laurel could account for in his knowledge of the woman.

“I mean only to honor your steadfastness.  If always is too generous for your pride to bare, then may I instead speak to the ardent ferocity with which you have taken care of not only the court, but the interest of the people?”

“No – I am sorry.  I let your compliment stand as you will.  I am human, and I must often remind myself of this fact, lest I forget my failings.  Sometimes my anger at my own follies gets the better of me.”

“We are all human dear woman.  Surely there are none without flaw, failing, or misstep.”

“I thank you – and I apologize again for my undue ire, better directed at myself.”

“And I assure you it is better not at all.  Whatever mortal follies, or differences we have, you are admirable as any I could name.”


Catherine smiled cordially, in a way that betrayed nothing more.  “I shall gather what I have learned so far, that you might examine it, and will not bother you again on the matter until I have a better resolution.”

“That will do fine – yes.  Is there anything else I can do for you while you have my attention?  Surely I owe you something for this favor on my behalf.”

“I will hold you to your word, that it is a favor,” Catherine said shrewdly, “yet I have nothing else at present.”

“Of course.”

She moved to leave, and then hesitated.  “There is one thing I will say.  As to the matter we have avoided.  Neither of us, clearly, are blameless.  Let us agree that there is a singularness in play, even if no specific quality could ever be established as most estimable, or infuriating.”

“On this, we can agree.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Aunum 1st, 636 E.R.

It was a cool clear autumn evening, just warm enough to be comfortable.  The twins sat beside Mercu in the upper courtyard of the castle, each with their own caramel dipped apple.  The courtyard was a busy place, filled with invited guests, and other members of the court attending the first of many banquet nights, and the lighting of the lanterns.

As twilight began to take hold, red and yellow lights lit in sequence along the walls, starting from the gate, and wrapping around the keep.  Chains of lanterns were strung together in spirals around each of the towers.  Lastly a single brilliant burning streak flew up with a whistle from above the gate, and at the height of it’s arc there was a burst of red and orange sparks, and a thunderous crack.

There was a round of polite clapping, and the guests began to file their way into the keep.

“That was pretty,” Kiannae said between bites of her apple.

“What was it?” Katrisha asked her mouth half full.

“A firework,” Mercu said with a yawn.

The twins had been particularly obstinate the previous evening regarding sleep.  They had been too excited by the coming of the Autumn festival, and Mercu knew he shared some blame in that.  He was in truth unsure exactly when the twins had finally drifted off themselves, as he had woken beside their bed some time before dawn, covered in one of their blankets.

He was quite struck by the sweetness that the two had tucked him in after he had drifted off.  He was none the less cross that they had kept him up so very late in the first place, and at how stiff the floor had left him.  It all balanced out he decided.

“How does it work?” Katrisha asked.

“Perhaps you should ask Laurel,” Mercu suggested.

“Are you saying you don’t know?” Kiannae goaded.

“They pack a tube full of a powder that burns quickly,” Mercu sighed, “the fire expands into gas that pushes it up, and then the last bit explodes, sending out smaller pieces that burn as well.”

“Why not just use magic?” Katrisha asked.

“Not everyone has magic,” Mercu shrugged.  “I’ve seen enchanted fireworks that do quite spectacular things, but Maron, the village enchanter is a very pragmatic man, quite dull really.  His apprentice shows some promise, but his master keeps him on a tight leash.  So we are left to the skills of the alchemist instead.  Good man Arahm, not afraid to put some flare into life.”

“Why doesn’t the King have his own enchanter?” Kiannae asked, and bit again into her apple.

“The King is a practical man himself,” Mercu said thoughtfully, “not in the same way mind you.  He walks a fine line of maintaining dignity, and regal splendor, without seeming to ask too much of the people.  The cost of keeping a royal enchanter is simply too much in his estimation.  Not when there are rich barons in the west, and richer kingdoms afar to lure them away.”

“How can Avrale be poor?” Katrisha asked with a cross expression.

“Avrale isn’t poor,” Mercu corrected, “but nor is it the richest of nations.  And many of the dukes, and barons do not show the same restraint as the king.  It is a point of some contention in fact.”

“Couldn’t Laurel do it?” Kiannae asked.

“Oh, that he could,” Mercu laughed, “and some years he’s added his own twist to one of the rockets, usually for the mid festival.  He’s been busy this year though, I don’t think he’s had the time.”  He looked about, and almost all the guests had filed into the keep.  “Come my ladies,” he said standing up, “dancing, and food await.”

“We don’t know how to dance,” both girls protested together.

“Then I’ll have to teach you, won’t I?” Mercu smirked.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 1st, 636 E.R.

“What is that?” Katrisha asked pointing up at the orrery that slowly turned over Laurel’s head.  Laurel was actually quite surprised it had taken so long for one of the girls to ask, they had seemed to ask everything else imaginable, often twice as one ignored the other’s answer, and yet somehow the orrery that often caught a glimmer of their attention, had not till that point been directly questioned.

“It is a model of the movement our world, the moon, and others that share our sun,” Laurel said looking up, and admiring his own handy work.  “Took me four years to build it, though I sometimes wonder why I bothered.  Guess it was something to do, and I was inspired by one of my…old instructors.  He was obsessed with the sky.”

“How does it work?” Kiannae asked.

“It’s…complicated,” Laurel said thoughtfully. “The mechanical parts are there to support enhancements that drive the simulation, and aid the timing.  It is kept running off the core of an old elemental that I inherited from my grandmother.  It pulls energy in, and the spells draw off that flow to maintain the whole thing.”

Laurel watched the girl’s expressions, and could tell he had lost them completely.  He never could quite tell where the line was.  They were incredibly clever, but they were also just shy of four he was quite certain, though he could barely believe it.  He tried not to focus on that fact, as it frequently made him nervous.  “Alright, let’s start with the basics,” he said, and sat down in front of the girls.  He held out his hand, and formed the same orb that the girls had largely mastered making.

“This,” Laurel continued, “is just the same old spell.”  He reached his hand inside, and formed a new structure around the core.  “Now it will attract any other orb like it,” he said, and with a wave of his hand a copy pulled out of the first with scintillating brilliance as both sought new equilibrium.  He set the copy in an orbit around the original, and leaned back.

Katrisha and Kiannae watched the arrangement with fascination.  “Well, go on, you try,” Laurel encouraged, almost mockingly, and watched as the girls started to experiment.  Laurel regarded the results with some satisfaction as each tried and failed several times to even start to make a change inside of their spells without tearing them apart.  He had hope for the first time, that their pace would now slow to something he could keep up with.

Yet as the day wore on they began to make progress, to the point where near the very end  of the day Katrisha’s orb managed to stay together long enough with it’s new addition to pull Laurel’s example apart, and cause the whole affair to explode in a shower of swirling twinkling light.  He shook his head, and decided that pressing again for time from the royal tutors was in order.  Conventional academics would quickly become the barrier, but could also prove a useful distraction from continuous progress on magic.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Harfast 7th, 636 E.R.

Katrisha and Kiannae watched the curious gray haired old man they had been left with as he walked up to a large black board, and scrawled out his name in large letters.  He was a bit funny looking, rather short for a man, stocky, and a little pudgy, particularly in the cheeks.  At a glance one could mistake him for jovial, but this illusion vanished at the flat, thin lipped shape of his mouth.  What stood out to most however was the singular oddity perched quite precariously on his nose.

“Now then,” he started, “can you read this?”

“What is that?” Katrisha asked, pointing at the man.

He followed the finger toward himself, and his eyes narrowed on the bridge of his nose a moment.  “They help me see better,” he answered.

“Do your eyes need to be healed?” Kiannae asked.

“No,” he said flatly.

“But if your eyes don’t work right, shouldn’t they be healed?  Why wouldn’t you?”

“Whatever the Path might say,” That sighed with reserved frustration, “I am not so pious as that.  The natural condition of my eyes is unfocused, and any amount of healing does not help, because they are perfectly healthy.  There are no shapers I would trust with such a delicate task west of Mordove.”  He took a breath, and exhaled.  “Now then, can you read this?”

“No,” Kiannae said, and Katrisha repeated the sentiment a moment later.

“This is to be expected,” their new teacher continued, “it says Moriel, it is my name, but for now you may address me as Instructor.  I am told the two of you are not quite four, but that you speak very well for your young age.”

“We do,” Kiannae agreed proudly.

“Yes,” Katrisha concurred.

Moriel paused for a moment, and then continued.  “Let us begin by determining exactly how old you are.  Tell me of the month of your last birthday?”

“It was cold,” Kiannae offered.

“There was snow on the ground,” Katrisha added.

“Do you know the name of the month?” Moriel asked.

“No,” each girl said in turn.

“Do you recall if it was before, or after the winter solstice?” Moriel asked.

The twins seemed to think for some time, and finally Katrisha said, “Before.”

“Just before,” Kiannae added.

“Very well,” Moriel said, and turned back to the blackboard.  “It would seem the two of you were born in the last month of the year,” he said as he began to write near the bottom of the board at a bit of an angle.  “This is the month of Styver, the first month of winter, named for the rivers Styx that flow from the Aether to the Nether.”

Moriel turned his head a moment to be sure he still had the girls attention.  “A month is six weeks, that is forty-two days, so I would guess you two were born around the middle. I recall however that last year that the snows fell late in the north, not until the thirty-eighth, so unless a more accurate date can be found, this will suffice for your birthday.”  He began to draw a big circle on the board, starting and ending from the point he had drawn near Styver, which he crossed again to make sure it was still clear.

“After Styver, as you seem to know, is the winter solstice, the week of Hivern,” Moriel said beginning to write in each name as he went, placing Hivern at the bottom.  Then the month of Laeur, named for Laeune the moon.  The spring season follows, comprised of the months Vhalun, named for the Light Bearer Vhael, the morning star.  The week of the spring equinox, Vernum, and the month of Coria, named for the Coronation of Emperor Corinth.”

Moriel divided the circle up into pie wedges before continuing – eight large, four very small.  “Summer of course follows spring, with the months of Estae, named for Estaera the protector of mothers, and the summer solstice Rhast named for the sun Rahn.  Then Rhaeus named for the Light Bearer’s daughter, who perished, and whose embers light the late summer sky.  Lastly we come to the autumn season, comprised of the month of Jovan, named for the mythical father of many children, the week of Aunum for the autumn equinox, and the harvest month of Harfast.”

Moriel considered the twins carefully.  “Now let us move onto a basic alphabet,” he said, and began writing it out, “and come back to sounding out the names of the months later.”

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Chapter 3

High atop that Broken Hill,
‘bove shining waters calm ‘n still,
strong noble walls there defend,
lines of kings of varied kin,

‘n though lineages were broken,
of all the same shall be spoken,
fair ‘n true rulers be they all,
O’ venerable keepers of Avrale.

– old folk song of Avrale, circa 300 E.R.

The Castle on the Broken Hill

Jovan 10th, 636 E.R.

From daybreak it was a quiet five hours from the High Pass Lodge to the village of Brokhal.  It was a large village, sprawled lazily across a broad deep valley basin.  Brokhal would not at a glance be mistaken for a capital city, though it was. What it lacked in density, or elaborate architecture typical of such places, it made up for in sheer land area, and a serene meandering quality not easily gaged from the main road.  Not that any of the four travelers were looking.  Laurel and Horence were well acquainted with the sight, and the twins for the most part slept.  Permitting those hours to be quiet.

Laurel had worried when the girls again insisted to sit on the front of the coach, and had attempted himself to slip into the back.  He thought better of it after a very cross look from Horence, and sat instead opposite him with the twins nestled between.  To their mutual relief the two had huddled up together, and promptly returned to slumber.  

At some point the pair shifted, and Katrisha’s head wound up against Laurel’s arm, and subsequently she had claimed it with a tight embrace, her sister in turn clinging to her.  Laurel had smiled at the pair, and apologized to Horence for having left him to their pestering the prior evening.  Horence had smirked in a somewhat concerning manner, and said it was “all right” in a weighted tone.  He had finally thought of his revenge.

Thick mists hung above the village in spite of the late hour of the morning, and Laurel was quite aware as Katrisha woke, and began to look about curiously.  Her attention was fleeting, so many things were new to her; the bustling people in the street, moving quickly from the path of an oncoming coach.  The large shops, and town homes of the village.  Even the mist that rolled lazily over the rooftops was a strange, exotic creature for a girl that had spent her scarce few years in the drought gripped north.

The buildings of Brokal were a far cry from the almost vacant village where she had found Laurel, or the small lodge near Silverbrook.  Midrook’s buildings were comparable, perhaps grander, but this was not evident from barren track of the main road.  Katrisha would not have begun to fathom the idea that many found Brokal a tragically humble place – given its role in the larger scheme of things.

There was however good reason for this.  While it lay very near the seat of royal power in the land, and along a marginal trade route, it had little else of great significance to offer.  Most who lived there thought it struck a good balance between rural and city life, and were content enough to bear the scorn that came with being quaint.

The distance Katrisha had walked had seemed forever, endless, and yet with the ease of a coach and horses, in little over a day she had been carried farther from home that she had ever imagined existed.  For even if she had been told a few tales of long ago, and far away, she had perspective on neither, and barely an inkling even then.  Vast distances were pushed from Katrisha’s thoughts again by the faces, and the curious glances of strangers.  Most wore indifferent or inconvenienced expressions, but a few seemed to look up inquisitively, with the same look of what she correctly guessed was recognition.

This struck Katrisha oddly, but was quickly forgotten as the coach rounded a corner, and passed from under a bank of rising fog.  She shot upright in surprise, startling her sister awake.  Kiannae rubbed her eyes sleepily, and looked at her sister with mild consternation, only to follow her transfixed gaze into the distance.

Above the still broad waters of a steaming lake rose imposing sheer cliffs.  There top by gray stone walls, framed by lofty towers, one taller than all the rest.  Laurel looked down at the two awestruck girls and smiled.

“It is an impressive sight isn’t? I’ve seen many wonders in all my travels 0 and perhaps this pales to some – but I’ve always had a fondness for the simple majesty of the castle on Broken Hill.  I’ve been proud to live here for many years, and I hope you will find it a pleasant home as well.”

The girls looked up at Laurel in disbelief.  He had quite intentionally failed to mention certain key details of their destination.  He had told Horence as well to hold his tongue, a request the man had thought strange until around the thirtieth inane excited question of the previous day.  Laurel smiled and ruffled the girl’s hair each in turn, and they looked back to the towering sight before them.  He was glad to see them excited, distracted from grief, but of equal importance to him that moment, stunned into further silence.

The coach rolled on down the road towards the lake shore, and over a small bridge across a river feeding the north end.   The road wound along the base of the great hill, till the cliffs, and walls disappeared from view, but the tallest of the towers could always be seen, save briefly in the shadow of tall groves of trees.

Eventually the road rose higher, and snaked slowly upwards till the hill’s slope grew more level.  There trees gave way to manor houses, stables, and small fields.  A man herding sheep on horseback stopped, and noticeably stared at the coach as it passed.  Soon two armored men approached on adorned horses, and moved to each side of the cart.  A moment passed without a word before the tallest, and most well adorned man spoke from the back of his white steed, “Your quick return is unexpected, Laurel…Horence.”

Horence avoided the gaze of his superior, and remained quiet.  He reconsidered his choice the previous morning.  That he didn’t try the poor old donkey at the farm as a means to continue on to the border.  Though there was no reason for him to go without Laurel.

“There was an unfortunate turn of events Arlen,” Laurel said calmly, though Horence thought perhaps he heard something annoyed in the way the Knight Commander’s name was said, “and more pressing matters have brought me back.”  Laurel glanced informatively down at the two little girls.  “I think the King will be most understanding, under the circumstances.”

Arlen looked the two in the middle over.  He had noticed them, made note of them curiously, but mostly ignored them to that point.  He was notably unimpressed by the look of them.  Katrisha and Kiannae each glanced only fleetingly at the middle aged man, and as small children are apt to do, immediately decided they did not like him.  This made the unspoken opinions of those on the coach unanimous.

The procession passed beneath the castle gate together, and into the lower courtyard.  Stables and servant quarters lined the walls, and people moved about on their daily business.  Many stopped briefly on recognizing the two men on the coach, then hurried on at even the slightest glance from the Knight Commander.

Laurel halted the coach as stable hands gathered round.  He stepped down as the two knights that had come out to greet them dismounted in turn.  He offered a hand to Katrisha who crawled from the blanket she and her sister were wrapped in.  The knight’s horses were lead away as Horence got down, and helped Kiannae to the ground as well.  Arlen ordered his companion back to the wall, and then lead the way up the stairs to the upper court.  Horence and Laurel each took a girl in their arms to spare the time and effort of the two climbing the many steps.

At the top of the stairs three well dressed women sat beneath a gazebo overlooking the lower court, and regarded the group with great interest.  Horence nodded to the ladies as he set Kiannae down at the top of the stairs.  The shortest of the ladies smiled at him warmly, and brushed back a strand of her red hair.  The tallest, and eldest woman in the middle spoke, “What poor wild creatures do we have here?”

Laurel turned and regarded the three ladies passingly.  “They will be introduced to the court shortly, if you wish to come and observe, Lady Catherine.”

Catherine gave Laurel an odd look with the slightest hint of indignance, and stood, her two companions moving in step.  “Yes, I think we shall,” she said coldly.

Catherine followed several paces behind the group as they crossed the upper courtyard.  Her companions were closely in tow behind her as she chose to walk right around the fountain, and the others went left.  I was somewhat remarkable that Catherine herself did not seem to have rushed at all, and yet had managed enough haste that the two groups met equally at the opposite end.

Arlen nodded to the ladies a bit tersely, and gestured on.  Catherine nodded in kind, with a certain air that said she had shown them all their place, and moved towards the keep.  Of the ladies only the red haired woman at the rear seemed at all bashful about the exchange, and a bit rushed to keep up.

Guards opened large wooden doors that lead into a wide corridor that lined the front of the main keep.  Another door stood opposite, and upon seeing the procession the guards standing to each side opened it as well.

The ladies and Arlen filed off to opposite sides of the hall a short distance from the dais.  People shuffled to give Arlen and Catherine a good deal of space, though little difference was given to Catherine’s two companions.   Laurel, Horence, and the two girls continued towards the throne.

The King and Queen looked up from the regally dressed man who had been speaking, and considered the new arrivals.  The King gestured for the petitioner to step aside, and make way.  He did with only the slightest hint of displeasure, considering the new arrivals with curiosity that slowly melted his expression to one of interest, as much as dissatisfaction.

As the base of the dais cleared Laurel stepped up to it and bowed.  He waited what might have seemed a bit long for those not familiar with court proceedings, and then the reason became more clear.

“The court recognizes Court Mage Laurel Grey,” the herald announced in a perplexed tone, having come back to his senses.

“A very proper bow for such an improper return,” the King remarked as he leaned forward, and focused on the two girls that now stood at either side of Horence, each clinging to a leg.  “We did not expect to see you again for at least two weeks.  What strange state of affairs has returned you to court so soon?”

“A tragedy I fear your Majesty,” Laurel said looking up as he began to speak.  “You surely recall Adel Ashton, the hero of the north.”  Laurel himself had only quite recently learned the name, though he believed he had heard it before in passing.  It however did something for his at times dubious air of authority, to speak as though he knew everything.  The King of course was expected to know such things, and for Laurel it was a win either way the King’s memory swayed.

“Of course,” the King said in a matter of fact tone, though with a breath of hesitation as he searched his memory.  “We were there when the Elder King honored her posthumously, though We have not heard the Ashton name in…” he paused thoughtfully.  “There was mention that the man and his daughter had remained last year when place was offered for them in the south.”

“I fear the honor bestowed upon the Ashtons at their farm has seen more occupants this year,” Laurel said taking on a dire tone.  “Of those we knew, two more have passed from this world.”  He paused as a murmur passed through the sides of the court.  A rough looking man in none the less fine clothes took off his hat, and lowered his head somberly.  Horence recognized him as the elected representatives for the displaced northern farmers.

The King’s face grew more firm.  “This is troubling news on such a fine morning.  What has happened?”

Laurel turned and nodded at Horence who brought the two girls forward before the King, and Queen who each regarded them with curious scrutiny.  Their clothes were very simple, and though they had been cleaned up from the previous days it was most unusual for such underdressed, or young children to stand before the King at court.  They moved to hide in the folds of Laurel’s robes, trying to escape the intrusive gaze of strangers, which they were most unaccustomed to.  They had always been told to stay out of sight when visitors came to the farm.

Laurel gave a moment and then spoke again, “Not all of the details are clear, but this much we know.  Earlier this year James Ashton passed, but Meliae, his daughter, continued on at the farm in his stead.  Without her father, or it would seem the father of her children at her side.  The young Meliae died after bearing her third.”

The King considered his questions for a moment.  “And what has become of the third?  You said two Ashtons are no longer with us, not three.”

Laurel nodded.  “Astute my King. The woman Meliae it seems had the gift, and though untrained was able to give greatly of herself to sustain her weak newborn.  The result was tragic, though the boy lives, the mother does not.  I have left him in the care of the Lycian Sisters, for fear only they could properly handle his condition.”

Fresh murmurs washed over the court as the King sat back in his throne, and stroked his beard thoughtfully.  After a moment he leaned forward again, and considered the two scared little green eyed girls who peered up at him, half hidden behind Laurel’s robes.  “We assume that these two have been brought before us with a request, that something is to be bestowed upon them?  Surely they do deserve better as the descendants of a hero than to be relegated to an orphanage.”

Laurel gave the King’s words a moment, and then spoke plainly.  “These girls, as their mother, have the gift.  Their potential is not insignificant, and I wish permission to raise them here at court, and train them to be mages.”

The King leaned back and pondered at length.  “An unusual, but not unreasonable request – though I do worry how much of a drain upon your time they might be.”

“A wise concern of course,” Laurel nodded his understanding.  “Though there are personal resources at my disposal, at times there may be need of assistance from the court.”

The King thought for bit.  “Given the circumstances We are inclined to oblige.  Though We know nothing of the trouble young mages might be, to have more full grown at court could be desirable – a privilege so far from Mordove these days – though a tricky one.  What of the Council?”

Laurel bowed deeply in appreciation, and spoke humbly, “At your will my King.  I know the treaties well, adopted as my daughters the council can have no official quarrel.  I thank you for this indulgence, and for the girl’s sakes.”

“So long as it is more your indulgence, than the courts, it is We who will thank you,” the King intoned such that it was hard to tell if it was more a warning, or a matter of respect for Laurel’s generosity in tanking them in.

Laurel nodded.

The Queen then leaned forward, watching to be sure it was apparent to all she intended to speak.  “Before you usher them away to begin some arcane study or another, We think they should be dressed more appropriately for members of the court,” she began sternly.  “The royal handmaidens shall attend to them, surely there are some clothes fit for young girls to be found.  I believe young Princess Maraline has outgrown a few.”  She motioned for her attendants, four of whom emerged from behind the crowds at each side of the dais, and approached the girls who hid more deeply in Laurel’s robes, and then inched backwards towards Horence.

Laurel tried to turn as he felt the girls shift behind him, but found the attempt awkward at best, and clumsy more so with his robe firmly in their grasp.  Horence knelt down and regarded each girl in turn with a steady kind gaze, and then up at the approaching ladies.

Laurel shuffled around in as dignified a manner as one can when two children are clinging to your clothing, but soon realized Horence had the matter well in hand.

“Go with these nice women,” Horence said with a reassuring nod.  “They will give you baths, and some pretty new clothes.  Everything will be fine.”

Katrisha bit her lower lip as she looked at Horence intently, then to her sister.  Kiannae hesitated, and then nodded.  They both let go of Laurel and were lead swiftly away through the parting crowd.

Laurel’s attempts to face the girls had left him standing a bit to the side, and most of this exchange was observed by the Queen, who leaned back thoughtfully.  She decided she would do well to have a word with Arlen, to insure who would bear the brunt of any extra care the girls needed in Laurel’s inevitable absences.  It was not precisely that the Queen did not trust the man she knew to be Laurel’s intended second, more it was that she trusted him in a very particular kind of way.

The Queen was not the only member of court who had keenly observed how Horence had handled the girls.  A lovely young woman who stood at Lady Catherine’s side, had also watched with a different sort of interest.  She brushed aside a perpetually unruly – to the point of seeming intentional – lock of red hair, and smiled just long enough to be sure he had seen her do so.  He bowed to the King, and nodded to the lady before following Laurel’s lead, and made himself scarce so that normal proceedings could resume.

The lead handmaid moved a curtain aside, revealing a door into the Queen’s antechamber, and on into royal complex that dominated the west wall of the castle.  The girls were lead down a well adorned corridor, and up a flight of stairs.  At last they came to a large double door, not so grand as the throne room’s, but larger than any they had passed along the way.

The door opened quite curiously onto a wall, set back a few feet from the entrance.  Both girls boggled at this rather incongruous discovery for a moment, and even as they tried in unison to ask  “Why…” they were pressed on ahead, and around the offending wall which served to obscure the room from any prying eyes that might pass.

Within lay a large U shaped basin that wrapped around the majority of the room, with tall columns laid evenly along its arc, and gentle steps descending into it.  Green leaved vines covered trellises on the walls, around flowing water showers that fell in perfect unbroken curtains feeding the pool.  A small stone bridge crossed the middle of the arc, and at the far end of the room amidst huge flowering potted plants sat a massive porcelain tub, laid before a broad stained glass window.  Clear central panels would give the occupant of that tub an unobstructed view of the distant valley below.

The girls were awestruck, and barely noticed the women moving quietly around them.  Two that had removed their own fine outer garments already knelt, and stripped the girls without effort or ceremony.  They then lead them into the shallow, gently flowing water at the pool’s edge.  The twins were urged to sit, and resisted only very slightly.  Soaps were brought by a third woman who remained fully dressed.

The smell of lavender and vanilla filled the air as soap was lathered, and a pitcher was dipped into the flowing water.  Glimmering runes could be seen beneath the rippling surface, and Katrisha wanted to move closer, fascinated by the pale blue light.  Before she could investigate however her head was pulled back, and water poured over her hair, and a moment later over the rest of her.

The fragrance of the soap grew stronger as hands worked through Katrisha’s hair, and massaged her scalp.  She glanced over at her sister who wrinkled her nose as a trickle ran down her face.  Katrisha smiled, laughed, and then squinted as she felt soapy water creeping down her own forehead.

The women washing them would occasionally lean close and whisper into each other’s ears conspiratorially, not quite loud enough for either girl to make out.  It seemed quite infuriatingly intentional, as curiosity begged to know what they were saying.  Particularly after any well restrained titter.

The head handmaiden, who had left in search of clothes returned, and conversed in similar private fashion with the fourth, who had gathered large towels that were draped over her arms.  The towel bearer stepped forward as insistent scrubbing changed to multiple pitchers of water being poured over the girls to notable protest.

The girls were lead up from the waters, and great warm towels wrapped around them from head to toe.  When at last their faces emerged they were presented with two lacy multi layered dresses, about a size too big for them.  There was another whisper from one of the handmaidens addressed to their leader, who seemed too busy showing the dresses to be cautious, and simply said, “Darion insisted.”

Katrisha was distracted by having finally heard something – which she then decided had been meaningless – and Kiannae picked first, pointing to the green one.  This left the pale blue for Katrisha, who decided she would have prefered it anyway.  Brushes were run through their dark hair, catching on small knots, and drawing yelps of protest.  Once their hair was passably straightened the dresses were put on over the girl’s heads, and the handmaid’s considered their work, as the two who had bathed them finished redressing.

The head handmaid took a pin from her hair, allowing a bit to fall free in a still dignified manner, and grabbed one without asking from her closest companion, who shot her a dirty look.  She bundled each girl’s hair up at the backs of their heads, cocked her head to the side and nodded approvingly at the results.

A tiny rumble from Katrisha’s belly drew a quick exchange of glances between the women – some quite amused – and they promptly lead the girls from the great bath, and back down stairs.  They crossed the corridor at a bit of an angle to another door, which opened onto a great hall dominated by long tables laid end to end, and many chairs.

A high ceiling rose above with chandeliers dangling from broad rafters.  Light streamed down through skylights high above, and an old woman in the gallery overhead paused in her cleaning to watch the procession as they left the grand dining hall, and entered the kitchen.

Staff worked to clean dishes, and a tall slender man in a puffy white hat adorned pastries carefully at a central work space.  He turned to consider the Queen’s handmaids coldly, and looked down at the two small girls they surrounded with some confusion.  Their leader moved quickly to the man’s side and whispered in his ear.  His expression softened.  “Of course Lady Marian,” he said with a hint of a sigh, and gestured for one of his subordinates to come closer.

More whispering transpired as the girls watched the curious exchange.  Suddenly the young kitchen attendant grabbed a large platter, and scurried to a huge wooden door which he opened only a crack, and disappeared behind.

Marian returned and ushered the girls to a small table in the corner of the kitchen, situated beside the mysterious door from which a chill could be felt.  She dismissed the others with a wave, and leaned down to help the girls up onto tall stools.

Through the large door to was still open the girls could see the apron clad servant scurrying in and out of view, the platter he had taken rested on one hand.  At last he emerged, pushing the heavy wooden door open with his shoulder, stepped around and leaned back against it to close it firmly.  With less haste he strode towards the table the girls sat beside, and set the platter before them with a bow.

The girls looked hungrily at the array of meats, cheeses, and small pieces of bread set before them.  The servant smiled, and nodded to Marian who considered him in a not altogether aloof manner.  However before he could properly read the woman’s demeanor he fled at a sideways glance from the kitchen’s master.

Indecision quickly was overcome by hunger, and the girls each grabbed randomly, nibbling at the pieces individually with no mind to try and put them together.  Some drew delighted little sounds, while others resulted in wrinkled noses.  As each was on about their sixth piece the servant breezed by again, setting small metal cups before the girls, each filled with fresh cider.

As though not to be upstaged by a subordinate in the service of the honored young guests – or before the Queen’s chief handmaiden – the head chef set a fresh pastry before each girl causing their eyes to go wide.  The man nodded to the Lady who smiled at him slightly, and he returned to his work.

As the girls ate their pasty with great delight their attention began to wander to their surroundings, to hanging pots and pans, racks, knives, and chopping blocks.  They could recognize most of the parts from home, and watching their mother cook, but at such scale and quantity they were bewildered.  They had seen all the people in the throne room however, surely they all needed to eat, so a kitchen that vast made some sense to them, even if they could not imagine so much food.

Their eyes were drawn particularly to faint glowing runes on the bottom of every pot and pan, and similar forms that glowed dimly on counter surfaces.  There were no obvious stoves, or fires for cooking, which puzzled them.  Their pastries picked apart, and finished the girls nibbled at more of the meat and cheese from the platter, though with less excitement as they began to grow full, and ran out of the ones they liked.

Kiannae was the first to notice as Laurel entered the kitchen, and dropped from her chair, catching Her sister’s attention, who quickly followed behind.  The two wove between counters, and  pounced onto Laurel’s robes, slightly teetering him.  Marian walked gracefully up to Laurel and considered the girls clinging to him.  “You seem to have made an impression,” she remarked breaking her near silence to that point.

“I guess all levels of familiarity are relative,” Laurel said patting each girl on the head in turn.  “Had Horence been at my side I might suspect the girls would accost him instead, as he has spent more time with them to date.”

Marian repressed a laugh.  “The day I see a woman, or girl, of any age pounce upon Horence with such intensity, is the day I check to see the sun still rises.”

“You judge the man far too poorly, Marian,” Laurel chided.  “He is of good heart, and strong sinew.”

“This may be, I do not deny,” Marian said regarding Laurel shrewdly. “Yet I stand by my assertion as to the level of excitement inspired.”

“Perhaps,” Laurel said playing along, “yet to all their own tastes I suppose.  Surely should he have a daughter she might love him so, and so too perhaps a good wife, who knows him for better virtues than the most superficial.”

“Hmph,” Marian dissented.  “Yes, perhaps as well.  I shall leave you to your little lasses, and return to my Queen’s side.”

Laurel looked down at the girls clinging to him, and gingerly took a step forward until they moved in tow, still loosely hanging onto his robes.  He walked to where they had been seated, and took some of the leftovers, drawing a displeased look from the cook.  He shrugged as if to say, ‘it was there.’  The cook said nothing, it was not quite his place to protest, as much as he felt it should be.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Laurel stood in quiet meditation, leaned against the curved wall of a large tower chamber.  He opened his eyes now and then to make sure the two girls still sat in one of the three window seats.  He was glad that for the moment they seemed transfixed by the spectacle of looking down on the valley below.  He had no illusions this distraction would last even the remainder of the day – or hour – and considered that amidst the myriad responsibilities he had taken on he would also need to insure the girls remained reasonably entertained.

Laurel became keenly aware of how little thought he had ever put into rearing children.  It wasn’t something that had ever seemed to be in his plans, much to his parents dismay.  He hadn’t thought the arrangement through beyond the horizon – at every turn it had simply been a matter of the right and practical thing to do.

He allowed himself some solace in the idea that he could get some help from the royal tutors with raw academics.  Then there was Mercu, surely his flair for drama, art, and all things unconventional would help.  ‘Thank the merciful fates for Mercu,’ he mused.

Almost as if summoned, a familiar voice chimed in at the open door.  “To say that I was surprised to hear you had returned so suddenly, would be an indifferent misstatement of the truth.”  His presence had snuck up on him, a thing like a gentle yet intemperate breeze, easily missed till it was upon you.  Oddly soothing once it was.

Laurel turned to regard the thin well dressed man that stood at the chamber door.  His feathered cap was ever so slightly, and intentionally askew atop a sweep of hazel hair, that might have shown the first strands of gray.  He had the look of a man that took great pains to insure he appeared to have given it no thought at all.

“You of all people,” he started with mild amusement, “should appreciate the unexpected, dramatic turns of life.”

Mercu considered a dusty old chair that had been left sitting by the door.  He tilted it, turned it, patted the seat, and waved away a cloud of dust futilely before sitting down.  “Appreciation for such twists does not necessarily make them any less unexpected.  When I first heard from a fellow patron in a shop down in the village, that he had seen the Court Mage coming back through town today, I brushed it off as a mistake.”

He looked to the window seat where two sets of curious green eyes were focused upon him.  “When however I overheard a mildly inebriated young soldier in a tavern speaking of two little girls introduced – most under dressed – at court by same said mage, then I knew investigation was in order.”

Before Laurel could make a retort, two servants entered, a huge down bed sac carried awkwardly between them.  The leading servant looked to Laurel as if for direction, who simply shrugged, then gestured to beneath one of the windows.

Ignoring the interruption, Mercu continued his little rant. “Now, if all these strange affairs were not enough, upon arriving at the castle, and while passing through the upper court I witnessed something to make me question if I still resided in the same world I woke up to this morning.  For there, amidst no less than five charming young women stood Horence, who seemed to have their full and quite undivided attention.  I do not think even one noticed me bow as I passed.”

Laurel scoffed as the two servants extracted themselves quickly.  “You are as terrible as Marian.”

“Oh, and now you are flattering me,” Mercu shot back.  “To be compared to lovely Marian, however chidingly.  Truly I have indeed stepped foot into some other realm, perhaps not entirely unlike my own, yet so keenly different all the same.”

The girls, disinterested in the exchange of the two adults had jumped into the soft recesses of the great down filled sac, and rolled about giggling.  Drawing the gaze of both their elders, and distracting them from their own fun.

“So tell me please,” Mercu continued, looking back to Laurel, “what in the King’s name is going on around here?”

Laurel sighed and moved to close the chamber door.  He leaned back against it, insuring for the moment at least there would be no more sudden intrusions.  “Some of what I am about to tell you,” he started in a cautioning tone, “I have yet to tell the King.  I did not wish to announce every detail in open court.”

Mercu simply nodded his understanding.

“While I did not really know the story of Adel Ashton until quite recently, I assume you are well versed?” Laurel continued questioningly.

Mercu thought for a moment.  “Yes, yes.  Hero of the north, farmer’s wife.  She tried to fight off an immature black drake with a pitchfork, and did better than most knights probably would have with a sword.  Died for her troubles though, leaving her husband and daughter.  Though the tales say the daughter probably would not have survived otherwise.”

“Well those two over there”, Laurel intoned, his inflection implying disapproval of Mercu’s callous version of events, “are her granddaughters.”

“Oh,” Mercu said, and then frowned.  “Why do I feel there is more tragedy to be added to that family line?”

“I fear so.”  Laurel sighed.  “Their grandfather died sometime earlier in the year, and according to their limited account, I do not believe of natural causes.  In the same incident their father I believe was taken back by force to his people, and the mother’s fate is even more grim.”

“Dare I ask either what you mean by ‘his people,’ or what could be ‘more grim’ than death, or abduction?” Mercu prodded with morbid curiosity.

“I am quite certain the father was Sylvan,” Laurel paused for effect and watched Mercu’s expression shift.  “Based largely on a mixture of circumstantial statements, and the girl’s eyes and ears.  As to the mother, she had the gift, but was never trained, or trained properly.  Her efforts to save her newborn were…catastrophic.”  He glanced to the twins who did not seem to be listening, to his relief.

Mercu was obviously mortified at the thought, but found the presence of mind to ask, “Did the child live?”

“Yes,” Laurel said obviously clinging to one of the few positive details of the story.  “Mercifully we found the boy in time, thanks in large to the bravery of those two little heroes over there.  Katrisha walked a good ten miles, half of it alone when her sister sprained her ankle.  She stumbled upon me in Minterbrook, almost delirious, and quite dehydrated.”

Mercu glanced over at the girls who were now peaking over mounds of down bedding.  He simply shook his head for a moment, and then moved on to something less dire.  “How ever do you tell them apart?”

“If I try quite hard I think I can tell them apart by their auras,” Laurel paused, considering for a moment, “I would not however stake my life, or anything else of notable value upon it.  Further telling them apart, and which is which are not quite the same thing.  Still the different dresses help, but that’s hardly reliable.”

Mercu leaned the old chair he sat in back against the wall, and sighed. “Well, certainly I understand a great deal more.  I will even wager a guess as to why Horence was so accosted by fine young maidens – he has the gossip to share.  Good for him, the boy deserves a break.”

Laurel rolled his eyes.  “You did not ask however why they are here in the tower,” he prodded trying to catch Mercu in having not thought something through.

Mercu perked a brow.  “Oh that part seemed painfully obvious with the rest.  Mother had the gift, you plan to teach them to use it.  I know all too well – you remember – how these things work.  Try as I may, I’ll never be a mage, wasn’t born with it, largely because in turn neither of my parents were.”

Mercu sighed, and leaned the chair forward with a creak, and a thud.  “I also won’t pretend I’m happy about the obvious implication you expect me to help, or you damn well better.  Those girls need more in their heads than academics, and you dear sir are not the one to teach things such as art, poetry, or music.”

“Why no,” Laurel said in a sarcastic tone, “it had not crossed my mind.  However since you offer – accepted.”

Mercu scoffed.  “Fine.  Settled.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Jovan 13th, 636 E.R.

There had been some debate if the young twins were ready to sit at a royal table, and Mercu had been on the dubious side.  He tested their etiquette at a few private dinners, and decided that it was reasonable enough, if lacking in any semblance of refinement.  They were tame at the dinner table, and so he made the case to include them at evening meals.

The cost of this consideration displaced Mercu from a more favorable place at the table, and often with company he was less fond of.  That evening he found himself across from Arlen, and his son Charles.  The boy had arrived seeming sweet enough the year before – his mother’s influence Mercu was sure – but was slowly adapting to the disposition of his father.

Mercu helped Kiannae into her seat, and noted that Charles was conversing with Prince Philip to his right, and did not look away until chastised by his father for speaking at all.  Kiannae seemed simply transfixed by everything, and oblivious to any one person.  Neither child seem to have any interest in the other, which Mercu decided was by far for the best.

He helped Katrisha into her seat next, and she waved slightly to the prince across from her.  Mercu gently urged her hand down, but there seemed no harm as Philip smiled cordially.  Mercu then moved to his own seat, and exchanged less than pleasant nods of recognition with Arlen.

“Hello,” said the girl to Katrisha’s left, and she looked up at her.  She was about four years older, and at that age much larger than Katrisha, though her more upright posture exaggerated the perception.  “My name is Princess Maraline,” the girl introduced herself, brushing back an auburn lock of hair.  “You must be either Katrisha, or Kiannae,” she offered with a nod.

“Kat,” Katrisha said.

“A pleasure to finally meet you,” Maraline nodded.  “Though I do believe I’ve seen you about.  Are my old dresses treating you both well?”  She asked, glancing to Kiannae who noticed she was being spoken to, and nodded.

“Yes, thank you,” Katrisha said.

“That’s good.”  Maraline smiled.  “Mother says the moths would surely have gotten them soon, and I do remember being fond of them once.  They look good on you both, if a bit big, I’m sure you will grow into them.”

“I don’t mind,” Kiannae said.

“They have both been grateful,” Mercu offered.  “I think though they are obsessed with getting robes like Laurel’s.”

“Why would you want stuffy things like that?” Maraline asked.  “Dresses are so much prettier.”

Katrisha shrugged.

“I think robes look nice,” Kiannae offered.

“I hear Laurel is off again?” Arlen asked from across the table, if for no other reason than to talk over the chatty children.  “Now that unfortunate delays have been dealt with.”

“Left this morning, yes,” Mercu answered.

“Wards or not, I feel like we should certainly restore Andersted,” he said grimly.  “It simply is not good that we have left the border there so unguarded.”

“Andersted?” Mercu said curiously.  “Is that the name of that old ruin?  I thought it was Ashrook.”

“Both,” Arlen seemed unamused.  “It was renamed for some northerner back during the late Empire.  Not even a proper rook really, just an over glorified barracks on a hill.  At its height there was a small village around it.  I guess there still is, if you can even call it that.  Most locals call it Anders, though that ruin goes by either name.  It is where Armon and his son herald from.”

“And the northerner?” Mercu pressed curiously.

“Gifted of course, cropped up on some farmland.  Received a duchy to legitimize his marriage to a princess that fancied him.  The area was such a backwater, caught between Osyraen aggression, and Avrale proper since…always really.”

“Why was the duchy never restored?” Mercu asked curious of a new take on the matter.  He had heard vague versions of the tale before, but there seemed new details to be had.

“Ashton lost his wife and heirs in the war, but lived on himself.  He returned to the farmland of his birth, and married some common woman.  Which he should have done to begin with.  He had the audacity however to leave it all to common people, and the king of the day permitted it.  Or was it Queen…I’ll admit I’m fuzzy who had authority at the time.  The recovery after the war was so chaotic.  Such a mess, but they managed tolerably I suppose.  Eaking out a living without any proper governance.”

“His name was Ashton you say?” Mercu pressed.

“Yes,” Arlen said with some displeasure.  “It is more than possible that the name passed down, or it was just the name of the people in that area.  He came from there after all.”

“Are you talking about us?” Kiannae asked.

“Your ancestors possibly,” Mercu said.

“An…cestors?” Katrisha asked a bit bemused.

“Your father’s father’s,” Maraline offered helpfully.

“Our father came from the forest,” Kiannae offered.

Arlen gave Mercu a curious look, and Mercu was shrewd.  “It is a suspicion.  We are being quiet about it.”

Arlen nodded, but Mercu did not like the attitude of it at all.

“A Sylvan?” Maraline asked with rapt curiosity.

“Grandfather called him that sometimes,” Katrisha said.  “Only when they fought though.”

“How curious,” Maraline said, as food began to arrive.

Mercu was glad of the distraction, though the damage was mostly done.  Still, he had his own curious avenues to explore from it, and was thoughtful for some time.

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