Commentary 1:8

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A Shadow Cast Backwards

One of the last chapters written new from whole cloth in Book I, this was the culmination of a need to smooth things out, and tie things together.  Rather than jumping on from political impact without really explaining it, we dive into the consequences head on, and draw out a lot of detail that had previously been missed.

This chapter really helped tie together the events of the bandit raid, with those that enter into future chapters.  Consequences, and political knock ons that ripple through the world, and play out in some way through the end of Book II.  It actually does make the early moves of Osyrae seem far more successful as I look back in retrospect, and the damage this chain reaction causes in the long run.

‘Yet what does that have to do with the price of silk in Nohlend?’  Positively everything, but that’s not the point, or certainly not worth much note to our story.  One of the first things we see here is a patterns of snooping.  This has some relevance to establish.  We also establish that however much of a nuisance Arlen is a functional, and accepted part of the inner circle of the court.  Which could have been ambiguous before.  A counter balance to the spiteful drunk we saw in Titles.

I can barely remember when I decided that the tower on Broken Hill was build on this ‘holy site’ of sorts.  It is a very old notion that has only grown more clear with time.  The importance utterly impossible to divine from this moment, that will tie with future events through several books.  Navi also has almost always had a certain clear relation to the underlying plot.  Though once more a passive manifestation, she wove herself into some interesting corners.

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Chapter 26

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

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

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

– Ewald of Rothan, circa 200 B.E.

Falling Hours

Estate 10th, 650 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is wrong?” the King demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” Mercu said.

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

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

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

           

Estate 11th, 650 E.R.

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

“Hush,” Maeren whispered.

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

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

“I wi…”

“The Queen,” Katrisha managed to interrupt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still here,” Katrisha protested.

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

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

“Most?” Katrisha pressed suspiciously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I…” Maeren started.

“You are a proper healer?” Kiannae pressed.

“Yes,” Celia answered with some hesitance.

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

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

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

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

“What?” Kiannae asked drearily.

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

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

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

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

Kiannae rubbed her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Commentary I:7

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A Ghost of a Chance

This is one of the few places where my memory gets pretty fuzzy about the evolution of the story.  I feel like most of Chapter 7 goes back to the original draft, whatever little adjustments happened over time.  The one section I am fairly sure came in just a little later was about Alara.  I’d really have to backtrack and search old copies to be sure though, and the earliest copies I still have easily acessible contain the scene.

The character of Alara had appeared it my musings well before this section was written.  She has long had a strange relationship with the tale of Sylvia Grey, though the details shifted over time, and this is perhaps the first time the handmaid was given a name.  It is even possible I am wrong, and this section was always here.  O&E can be sneaky on me like that.  I certainly know the impetus of this scene, as I think back on the evolution of my long term plans.  Characters we have not yet met, casting long shadows.

Ghosts also entered into the world at this point, and I decided on their nature.  I won’t say much about that nature, but they are certainly not the ghost of Harry Potter.  More mysterious, and more like our own world except that verification has proven much less elusive.  No one really knows what or why they are, or how they work.  Why mages seem to be the ones to leave them.

The Tale of Tethis is also very old, rooted in the first draft.  A bit of a dark tale for a bedtime story, but it played nicely with the ghosts of the day, and served it’s larger picture well.  With time it all came together, how it works, and underpinnings of the world are shared.  The mysteries of prophecies, ghosts, curses, and mages.

Commentary I:6

The Wedding, Knighting, and Other Titles

This chapter had a few titles, but never changed massively.  The beginning used to be part of Seasons, the ending was added later, but the middle has been pretty stable.  A collection of little things of reaching meaning happening as background to simpler events.  A wedding is like a forest, and if you notice the trees you’ll find the plot.

A lot of tertiary characters that who keep showing up get their start here.  Eran, Alice (though we met her before unnamed), Jeofrrey who did not get renamed after I watched Game of Thrones.  No you little prick you do not get to ruin perfectly good names.  Eran particularly was quite the accident.  A stray thought in banter as to where he came from.  It became a thing.

Wren’s little stunt of identifying his twin sisters by name, when he has not seen them since birth…  Nope.  Nothing to see here.

Then there is the interplay between Mercu and Renae, which I hint at in Seasons, but we get to really see here.  I find she is one of the few characters that seems to really disarm the clever aloof artist of the court.  One who makes the game of social maneuvering feel to him for a moment like it really is just a game, played for fun.

The wedding itself was something of a reaction to so many opinions I’ve hit over the year about ceremonies.  No one really cares about that.  What matters comes so much before and after.  A bit like the wedding night.  It isn’t the culmination of the event that means much, but all that it implies, and the trappings of joy that frame it.  Or in this case, quick political moves injected in the middle.

The End is Nigh(ish)

Baring anything unexpected, Chapter 28 (three more weeks) will mark the end of Book II of the Storm Cycle.  They will not be tame wrap up either, but start fires that will burn through the remaining arc, and on into possible future works.

Curiously, if I were to recombine Books I & II as they were originally written, it would come out to a conspicuous 49 chapters.  I did not do this on purpose.  I swear.  Still, numbers aside, I find myself at a crossroads.

I began this serial publishing experiment with two (mostly) complete books in hand, and a few chapters of a third.  I had hoped to make progress on the third through release of the first two, but did not account for having to re-write so much of Book II when I set into it.  Nor that it would grow roughly 20% from where it started.  I remain all the more sure of most of the coming story, and going forward have a great deal of freedom to let those events play out on the time scale that makes the most sense.

I could, with plot in hand, take Book III and possibly IV by the seat of my pants.  A scary high wire act to embark on.  The question I have to answer in the coming weeks, is if that is how I want to play this out.  I have roughly four chapters, with I think a fifth or sixth needing to intrude into the existing flow.  Also a lot of little, or more significant re-writes needed.  I think I could do it, and stay on schedule, but I want to hear what my readers think.  Should I take this by the seat of my pants, or come back to you all with something more carefully planed after a few month hiatus?

Is this work, this world really working for you all?  Have I written characters that you want to see how this plays out for?  Are you anxious to know where the story goes, what turns it takes, or just pot committed by the 300k+ word monster I have already unleashed, and wanting to know how in the abyss it ends already?

Did I lose any of you with the metaphysics that wanted to take over Book II?  Or is this finally turning into the story you hoped it would?  Do you have theories, and speculations you want to share? (Politely in little spoiler warning bubbles please.)

Please, share your thoughts in the comments.

Chapter 25

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

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

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

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

– The Wayward Daughter, 63 E.R.

A House United

Coria 33, 650 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coria 40th, 650 E.R.

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

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

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

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

Good Caline,

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

A fellow daughter of such complicated privilege,

Kiannae.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I could.”

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

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

“Still, an inconvenience.”

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

“Good enough.”  Varmun laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Estae 4th, 650 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Would you not mention me?” Kiannae asked.

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

“I will take it,” Kiannae nodded.

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

She took the stone, and considered his words uneasily.

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

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

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

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

Estae 9th, 650 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t we all?”

“Some more than others,” Kiannae countered dismissively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Estate 10th, 650 E.R.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiannae got out, and stood staring into the woods.

“What is it?” Mercu asked.

“Another friend,” Kiannae answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see,.” Katrisha sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Kiannae said simply.

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

“You are kidding,” Kiannae said incredulously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you married then?” Katrisha asked hesitantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katrisha did not remotely understand.  

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

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

“How?  What?” Katrisha muttered.

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

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Commentary I:5

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With Every Season…turn turn…

Seasons was a very early concept, though it originally only lasted one year.

This first collision with Charles was where the boy originally came into being.  I think I knew from this point almost exactly how his future would play out.  But, you know, spoilers.  Yes this first moment of an odd, very specific difference between the twins was always here.

The Avatar, as far as I can remember, came in part and parcel with Roshana, and the Dragon War.  I’m not quite sure why I remember it that way, but I recall the idea of his ascension very well, and it was closely tied to how the dragon war turned.  He seemed a great point to glimpse some of the trouble around the Sisterhood, through two Lycians speaking of the the living demi-god of a rival faith.

Seasons was always meant to capture this winter and summer impact on the twin’s comfort.  Kiannae being at once troublesome and standoffish, and Katrisha throwing all decorum to the wind.  It’s a nice preview.  Mercu…is just Mercu.

Katirsha and Charles autumn encounter was the first of the new sections.  It was a nice bit of interplay between the two.  When self importance collides with the immovable object.  That odd juxtaposition of telling a girl not to hit back, because she might break the boy.  Fortunately she didn’t.

Wren and the wisps letting me bring in some fun hints, and earning Sasha a second appearance (in my head) long before she was named as the girl above in the courtyard.

The candy theft I think had existed in some other location, and gotten moved, but I’m fuzzy.

Then of course we wrap up with another mater of the weather, and Mercu’s philandering.  Curious thing, the word philandering has rather odd etymological roots.  A bit upside down from what you would expect.  Doesn’t seem like a word properly applied to a straight man.  Eh, language, what are you going to do.