Chapter 3

We are who once we were,
but never again the same,
as the world changes do we,
and cycles pass without name,

rely not on man to alter his way,
nor on the individual to remain,
we ghosts are believed eternal,
yet even ageless,
I have changed.

– Writings of Theseus Moria, circa 410 E.R.

State Decay

Estae 7th, 647 E.R.

The room was lush yet stark, dripping with showy regal splendor, from the tapestries on the walls to elaborate carpets with floral and geometric patterns.  Fine rare vases held flowers along the walls, if their ancient cracked surfaces could bear water.  Others – often in prominent positions – were clearly too old and fragile for actual use.

A blond haired man with a soft olive complexion considered the priest pacing his quarters.  His expression was hard to read, but seemed perhaps concerned for the agitated older man.  The priest, Idolus, wore a grey robe, and had recently shorn his hair down to the skin.  This in itself was arguably an improvement, as he had been balding for years.  Still, it seemed part of a larger, more unnerving pattern.  One that included the way he was pacing frantically, his arms behind his back, his hands wringing fervently.

“Arlen, you must listen to me, she is the void itself I tell you,” Idolus implored more than said to his host.

“A wild half Sylvan thing, surely.  A young woman of erratic nature without question, but the void itself, Idolus?” Arlen almost seemed amused past the look of concern that took over his face.

“What happened on that mountain…that she fought the dragon…naked…that is the least of it,” Idolus stopped, spun on his heel, and stared at his companion.  “The very ground where we found her – the stone where she fell – it had been reduced to something like brittle clay beneath her.  Like the very substance of the rock had been corrupted.”

“Perhaps it was merely an odd property of the area?” Arlen offered.

“No, no, no,” Idolus refused.  “It was the same stone as everything else, but brittle, crumbled at a touch to a fine powder.  Like the loadstone of an enchanted fire lamp.  Laurel, the fool did not see it for what it was…and the way…she burned into my mind.  I cannot think of anything but her.  She is like a scar on the world.  I see her face in dreams amidst a sea of light…but her hair…it has turned something wild, and more unnatural than those cursed eyes of hers.  I feel something in my very bones at the thought of it.”

“We all stray to the thoughts of the flesh,” Arlen said consolingly.  “Even the strongest of us.”

“No,” Idolus snapped, and slammed his fist on a table, his eyes wild.  “I have found it in the Black Book.  I have felt it since the first time she touched my hand in the square.  The storm child walks among us, and she is the abyss, the void.  She will tear this world into oblivion.”

“Idolus,” Alren said firmly.  “She is just a girl.  A mage, a troubled child, yes, but harmless.  I have even consented to my wife’s wishes that Charles seek her favor.  If her sister remains missing, then she stands to inherit a great swath of the north.  My family could control two duchies, we could rival the King to reign in this land, and perhaps one day cast out the heretics.”

“Are you not listening?” Idolus all but screamed.  “She is not what she appears.  She is not.  If you tie yourself to her…I will have no part of it.”

“Please,” Arlen said measuredly, “old friend.  Find your senses.  We will watch her, but consider her sister too bares the same face.  Have you not possibly mistaken one for the other?”  He did not really consider that any more likely, but it seemed an easy way to cast doubt.  Normally he had high respect for Idolus, but his behavior had become slowly unstable for some time.  Arlen no longer trusted his judgement as he once had.  He worried if the ordeal with the dragon had broken the man for good.

Idolus sat down stiffly, and then wept.  “I do not know, but the world is wrong.  Something terrible is shifting.  I must consult my books, I must understand.  Do not let her be your undoing my friend.  Be cautious of this one.”

“I will,” Arlen said, and set his hand on Idolus’ arm.  His pity was honest, and what was more he thought little of Katrisha’s character.  “Do not think I trust her,” he offered.  “My son is erant, and I fear there is no bastion of correction left to send him too within Avrale.  Wesrook is a cesspool that my brother can barely restrain.  South Rook has fallen to that miserable man Perin…that they now call him, Duke…”  He seemed ill.

“So what?” Idolus said trying to recover himself.  “You have given up on your child?”

“I am attempting to make the best of many bad situations,” Arlen said.  “If the boy is to be corrupt, then I shall at least exploit it for the greater good.  If he can wed the wild creature, then there is at least potential to tame her, and use her dubious birthright to accomplish better things.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 13th, 647 E.R.

Katrisha picked at her plate idly, not even looking up at those seated around her at dinner.  To her left sat princess Maraline, as was often the case.  The princess considered the melancholy girl with some concern, and brushed back an auburn lock that had come loose.

“You really should eat,” Maraline offered.  “You’ll do your sister no favors starving yourself.”

Katrisha looked up, and seemed almost startled.  “Sorry,” she said, “merely lost in thought.”

“You have been quite a lot of late,” the young man to Maraline’s left offered.  “Though I dare say there is no blame to be had for such distraction.  Were any of my dear relatives missing for so long, let alone a twin…” he seemed quite affected by the thought.

“Quite so Adrien,” Maraline said, “though it does for me present some trouble.  I have been thinking to ask Katrisha to stand as my maid of honor, but if she is so distracted…”

“I think I could manage to focus,” Katrisha offered with only a touch of excitement, tinged with a hint of bewilderment, and her persistent malaise.  “Though I had no idea I was being considered.”

“We’ve always been quite amiable,” Maraline offered.

“We have,” Katrisha agreed.  “Still, I would think you to have closer friends than I.”

“My brother, of course, dear cousin Philip,” she nodded across the table to another young man, “but they are hardly maids.  I dare say we are closer than any of my other cousins, or than I am to any of my servants.  My mother’s efforts to find me proper handmaidens, ones I could call friend, have been…mixed.  Yet all this aside, truly, to have a dragon slayer at my side, few brides could be so honored.”

“Attempted,” Katrisha corrected awkwardly.

“Yes,” Maraline agreed, “but that is not quite the tale being told in many quarters.  Still, I think we can find more appropriate attire for you in the wedding party.”  She smiled a bit coyly.

“I should hope,” Katrisha agreed, with a mixture of humor and embarrassment.  “I would be honored if it is your wish.”

“Then it is settled,” Maraline smiled.  “Perhaps you might even catch the eye of an eligible young nobleman.”

“I should hope Laurel would dissuade any such interest,” Katrisha countered.  “Truly I agree with his current refrain.  I am far more trouble than I am worth.”

“Nonsense,” Maraline protested, “you are becoming quite lovely, and I dare say I would give my title to be as capable as you.”

“Capable of misadventure,” Philip cut in.

“Cousin!” Maraline snapped, aghast.

“I merely agree with the young lady,” Philip said in lieu of apology for his poorly considered jab.

“Surely not all young men long for delicate flowers?” Maraline questioned.  “Truly, I am such a prize – I will not deny – but if a young woman’s heart can flutter for a dashing man, why not a man’s for a fiery young lass?  Surely you are as delicate as I, Philip,” she said with some restrained amusement.

“Alas,” Philip countered, “my delicacy, prefers delicacy.  Though I do not deny the lady is lovely, and that her roguish nature is not without charm.  What of you Charles?  Want you mouse, or lion?”

Charles had been quiet, and seemed thoughtful when questioned.  “Though we have not been without our differences,” he answered diplomatically, “I do agree Katrisha has some admirable qualities, and among them a budding beauty.  I’m of mixed opinion on the affair with the dragon.  On the one hand foolish, on the other quite brave.”

“Perhaps,” Adrien began, “there is little difference between the two.  I’ve heard that our dear girl thought herself acting in the interest of her mentor.  So brave then, for acting against the better judgement of her own well being, which then some would label foolish.  Perspective.”

“Was that the reason?” Maraline asked.

Katrisha looked unhappy to answer, but felt she must.  “Yes.  A dream told me that Laurel would return dead, and Kiannae had the same vision.  In that dream we were here when he returned.  This told us that if we waited…still it was foolish.”

“And brave,” Adrien concluded.

“Agreed,” Charles laughed.  Katrisha gave him a funny look, but found his expression amiable.  She looked back to her plate.

“Now surely,” Maraline said, “you’ve some interest in a fine young man to wed?”

“I’ve not thought much on it,” Katrisha answered.  “Not in some time anyway.  Such daydreams were more my fancy when I was small, but I’ve had other interests with age.”

“How contrary,” Maraline shook her head, “that with the blooming of womanhood you have lost interest in love.  We must see if we cannot get someone to catch your eye then.  I’m sure if your heart was in it, your lovely charms could win any young man you wished.”

Katrisha gave Maraline a funny look.  It all seemed to her a very misplaced endeavor, but the compliment suiter her a little all the same.  If Marline, who had always seemed to her very pretty, thought she could have her pick, that surely was worth something.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Estae 42nd, 647 E.R.

Katrisha blocked the sun from her eyes as she moved to exit the coach that had carried her, and the Princess for the last leg of their journey.  She had not been pleased that accepting a place as Maraline’s maid of honor had meant traveling to South Rook.  Her last visit had not gone entirely well.

It had been an ever shifting set of plans, but ultimately it was decided that the wedding should occur there, to ease the lingering tensions from the events that had displaced the former duke.  The reasoning – as it was explained – was that it must be perceived that South Rook gained a princess, not lost the heir to the seat.  All very political, and Katrisha could not disagree with the premise, though she prefered the comforts of home.

She surveyed South Rook, and looked up to the tower that loomed high above.  It hardly seemed any less grand than when she had been much younger.  To her surprise, Katrisha found Charles offering her a hand down, which only earned an odd look from her.  She slipped from the seat without accepting the hand, and landed with grace.  She nodded to him more challengingly than cordially, and stepped aside.

The princess for her part took his hand, and got down more carefully.  “I do adore South Rook,” Maraline declared as she looked around the city.

“That is fortunate,” Katirsha laughed, “since you are marrying the man destined to rule it.”

“It is certainly some comfort,” Maraline agreed, ”given I must leave Broken Hill behind, and only visit.  Still, that the city and the man are a pair….  Yes, I dare say my heart is content in this.”

Charles bowed to Maraline, and showed almost as much difference to Katrisha, who found it more than a bit odd, but consented to nod to him politely as he walked off to see to his own affairs.

“Why is Charles here any way?” Katrisha asked quietly of Maraline as they began to walk towards the keep’s outer gate.

“Appearances, mostly,” Maraline answered.  “His whole family was invited.  His father had no interest, but I expect to see the Duchess of Wesrook, and…”  The princess covered her mouth, laughed, and Katrisha followed her gaze in the direction Charles had gone.

“Charlie!” could be heard as a blond haired girl a head shorter than the young man finished her run at her brother, and to even Katrisha’s amazement lifted him off his feet.

“My, she’s getting quite strong,” Maraline said trying to reign in her humor.  “I think she got that one from you.  The only other young woman I can think of who lifts her brother off his feet.”

“At least Wren is smaller than me,” Katrisha laughed, “and younger.”

“Millarae!” an equally fair haired older woman yelled as she walked up on the scene.  “Show some dignity, please!”

“Duchess Meloria,” Maraline nodded as she and Katrisha approached the family reunion.

“Princess Maraline, Lady Ashton,” the Duchess nodded.  “Curtsy dear,” she said nudging Millarae, who did as she was bid.  “It is Katrisha, I presume?  Do forgive me, I never did learn to tell you from your twin…who I believe I have heard is still, absent.  Oh dear… Forgive me, that was poorly done, wasn’t it.”

Katrisha was stony faced.  “Yes, on all counts,” she took a breath, “and you would not be the first to raise the issue in precisely that way.”

“Again, my apologies,” Meloria offered.  “Still, it is very good to see you.  It has been several years since I have found cause to visit Broken Hill.”

“And it is good to see you as well,” Katrisha nodded.  “I barely remember little Millarae from my visit to Wesrook.  Not quite so little any more, she seems to have caught up to me.”

“I remember you,” Millarae laughed, “mostly ‘cause Charles could not be quiet about you.”

“Only because you would not stop asking questions about her,” Charles cut back.

“I asked about both of them,” Millarae scrunched her face up at her brother.  “You were all Katrisha did this, Katrisha did that.  You would swear her sister wasn’t even there.”

“Millarae,” her mother chided with false calm.

“Oh,” Millarae said uncomfortably.  “Sorry…”

Katrisha was already over it, but found the stony look on Charles’ face perplexing.  She was interrupted from her curiosity as Mercu arrived.

“Lady Meloria,” Mercu declared as he walked up on the exchange.

“Oh, good Mercu,” Meloria said.  “A pleasure to see you.”

“More so on my account, I assure you,” Mercu offered his hand, and Meloria obliged for him to kiss hers.  “I’d hoped you might attend the wedding.”

“I would not miss the opportunity,” Meloria said with a wry smile.  “Not every day a princess marries the heir of South Rook, and clears up this whole mess about succession.”

“Indeed,” Mercu obliged.  “I’m sure you have no other designs in your visit.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Meloria said with a laugh.  “Never to early to nudge things along in the right directions.”

“Any particular directions in mind?” Mercu asked conspiratorially.

“That, would be telling,”  Meloria said with a smirk.  “Let us head in, so much to do.  So many details to wrap up.  Most unfortunate that so much of the affair has been left to the last minute over political waffling on locations.  Men,” she muttered.  “So worried about how things look, that they undermine getting everything to look right.”

“I’d know nothing about that,” Mercu offered with a chuckle.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Katrisha glanced across the ballroom.  She had begun to lose interest in balls some years before.  She loved the dresses the women wore, the grace of some of the dancers, but the pomp and posturing had worn thin on her.  She was also not terribly fond of dancing any more herself, though perhaps it was the game implied with the coming of age.  She had other interests, the whole thing seemed a frivolous distraction, and she had enough of those.

As much as she admired many of the dresses she had rejected all of the options presented to her, and gone for her finest formal black robe, with silver trim.  She wore her favorite silver pin, gemmed with green glass.  While cheap in fact it held up quite well in practice.

She had accepted, with less reluctance, a loan of emerald cuff earrings, and and a necklace to match.  Her hair was up, held in a bun with pins.  On the whole she looked like a more refined version of her usual self.  She had successfully avoided being asked to dance, and stood along a wall simply watching the affair absently.

Millarae had largely dominated her brother’s time on the dance floor, and Katrisha was oddly heartened by how much the girl adored him.  That he showed her a remarkable amount of deference stood in odd contrast to Katrisha’s usual opinion of the boy.  Certainly it seemed he had some virtues that had escaped her, though she was little more capable of naming them for the observation.

Katrisha sipped her drink, and began idly forming an arrangement of orbiting spheres.  This drew passing attention from the other guests near her.  She quickly became lost in her idle entertainment, and barely noticed as someone approached her.

“I do not believe I have seen you dance at all tonight,” Charles commented.

It took Katrisha a moment to even realize the words had been meant for her, and she gave the hand being held out to her a rather curious glance.  “I would not wish to deprive your sister of a partner,” she opened with, in an attempt to politely reject the extended offer.

“She has already found one,” Charles said gesturing across the ballroom where Millarae danced with a young man of about her age.

Katrisha considered her options, found a place to set her drink, and rather than dispel her array of spheres, scattered them out into a slow moving cloud around them.  She raised an eyebrow, and took the hand, permitting Charles to lead her onto the dance floor.  “I never had the impression,” she began as the song started, and Charles took her other hand, “that you, and I were on such amiable terms.”

“We’ve certainly had our issues,” Charles answered, “but you, I believe made the first efforts long ago to mend that.”

“And you have continued to bungle matters,” Katrisha counterrd frankly.

“Through no intention, I assure you,” Charles replied as they moved through the crowd that gave some space to Katrisha’s orbiting light show.  “I admit though that I have little understood how to speak with you.”

“Presumptions, I think have always been your problem,” Katrisha offered.  “You presume that the world is, as you have been taught.”

“To be fair,” Charles countered, “I have been taught, what I have been taught.  Am I to think otherwise?”

“Are you incapable of considering things for yourself, and reading of your own accord?”

“Fair,” Charles offered, with some displeasure to admit.  Failing to find a good argument he moved on.  “My mother, and sister certainly think highly of you.”

“Curious,” Katrisha said.  “I barely know either.”

“Ah, but they have made it their business to know of you,” Charles countered.

“Whatever for?”

“Mother’s reasons are her own, but I think you, and your sister have become something of an inspiration to Millarae.  She has refused all efforts to dissuade her from practicing with the guard trainees.  At first of course they would go easy on her, when she would jump into a practice against orders, and start swinging.  I hear however, that she has begun to require more serious effort to avoid embarrassing them.  My father is fuming that it has been permitted, my uncle disgusted with her behavior.  He even gave the order to knock her down in any way that wouldn’t leave a mark, which has only lead to her getting better,” he laughed lightly.  “Mother I think has made peace with it at least.”

“Have you spared with her?” Katrisha asked.

“I have.  No challenge, but I have many years on her,” Charles offered.

“You do not think it is merely because she is a girl then?” Katrisha challenged.

“She is younger, yes, but you are both of these as well, and have bested me.”

It seemed only a slight dodge.  Katrisha let it slide.  “No excuses this time?”

“Less an excuse, than a fact,” Charles answered.  “You are still the only opponent I have faced armed with a stave.”

“We could try again,” Katrisha offered.  “Perhaps in the morning?”

“Not enough dancing tonight?” Charles asked with nervous humor.

“More fun in the ring, I’m allowed to knock you on your rear,” Katrisha countered.

“Won’t you be busy though?”

“The wedding is not for another day,” Katrisha protested.  “Are you making excuses?”

“Only making sure.”  Charles laughed uncomfortably.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 1st, 647 E.R.

It was very early, but this had not stopped a collection of curious onlookers from gathering.  Word had spread quickly of a duel proposed between the young mage who had fought a dragon, and the heir of Wesrook.  Many whispers had curiously mentioned that it had been arranged over a dance, and the novelty of that alone had something of a draw.

Katrisha, for once, had been up very early, and been waiting for Charles for some time.  She was meditating as the crowd had gathered.  Meditation had never been her strong suit, so she was surprised to notice that she had missed the gathering, and Charles’ arrival.  She did her best to hide her foggy frame of mind as she glanced about.

Katrisha considered that there was quite a royal audience at the front.  The Duchess of Wesrook, and Millarae were behind Charles.  The King, Crown Prince, and Maraline to her left.  The Princess looked as though she was worried that her maid of honor might be bruised for her wedding day, in spite of Katrisha’s assurances that she could heal anything unsightly.  In of course the implausible event Charles could even land a blow.

The groom to be, and the sitting Duke Parin were to Maraline’s right.  Mercu stood a few steps behind, and had an uncharacteristic expression that was hard to read.  Something less than jovial, shrewd certainly.  She doubted he entirely approved of her little challenge, but had kept his silence.  He had no power to dissuade her, and wouldn’t think to do so now that a crowd had gathered.  Katrisha was less certain of the rest of the gathered onlookers, but she intended to put on a good show.  Mercu might not approve, but he had certainly taught her showmanship.

“So, sticking with sword and shield?” Katrisha asked as charles moved to arm himself.  She lept up, and struck a fighting stance, a little more exaggerated to be showy.  “The stave does still have the advantage of reach.”

“Though you said I was the only one you’ve fought with a stave,” Katrisha observed teasingly.

“Wasn’t really proper matches, just pointers.”

“And have you beaten Horence?” Katrisha asked.

“Once,” Charles said.

“Twice,” Katrisha smiled, and bowed to her opponent.

“Who opens?” Charles asked, and bowed himself.

“The one with the guts,” she taunted, and before Charles could set himself to it, she had already struck.  He was more than able to catch her blow, the shield providing defensive advantage, where the stave had reach.

Charles of course could not remain defensive, and maintain face, so made his own cautious move.  This was easily deflected into a counter strike, taken again loudly by his shield.  Neither move had been serious, not merely testing, but there was an unspoken showmanship that went with dueling before a large crowd.  You open slow, not merely to avoid overcommitting, but also to not finish quickly.

The following series of traded blows were faster than the first.  Charles parried with his practice sword, and tried instead an attack with the shield.  Early for such an opening gambit, but the surprise did earn him more effort, and some dramatic movement by Katrisha to deal with the threat.  Charles attempted to exploit this and get a thrust in, but she evaded it, and brought her staff around hard into another successful block.

“No magic,” Charles taunted.

“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction,” Katrisha laughed, and another series of quick blows were traded, parried, blocked.  Katrisha made ample use of the flexibility of the staff to deflect a blow, and carry through an attack with the other end.  Charles easily dealt with this, the independance of the sword, and shield showing advantage.

Katrisha came down from above with a swing, Charles brought himself under the wild move, blocking above, and thrusting forward, but Katrisha was already out of the way of the thrust, and flicked the sword away with the other end of the staff.

“Sure you aren’t using magic?” Charles laughed.

“Magic,” Katrisha said, “is spells.  The gift is in the blood, the bone, and the flesh.”

They exchanged more blows quickly to no advantage.  “Still seems like cheating to me,” Charles said.

“Would you have me hold back?  Tie a hand behind my back?”  Katrisha chided.  “You even use a bit of gift yourself, the blood of dukes, and all that.  Nothing worth training for magic, but I can read your stronger strikes before you make them, because you are channeling it.  Typically, I expect you would think you have an advantage in strength, being a man.”  She moved quickly, striking several times with great force, and pushing Charles onto defense.  “But I have the greater gift by far, so I can actually hit harder than you.”

“Still sounds like cheating,” Charles countered.

“Whatever helps you save face,” Katrisha laughed, and parried a series of his blows with no thought to counter any of them.  “Here, let me help.  I will tie a hand behind my back, more or less.”  She threw out a series of light orbs with sweeps of her staff that hovered around the edge of the ring.  “I’ll maintain these, while fighting you.  Just a little distraction to keep things interesting.  Of course if you get distracted by them too, that’s your problem.”

Charles dubiously tried several more attacks, but found Katrisha still more than capable.  He hardly trusted that what she had just done did not help her in some way.  She had however been honest, it was a distraction to do so, but the temptation to have some fun crept in.  She absorbed some of the force from every blow she blocked, storing it off into the orbs, making new ones if any showed signs of overloading.

“What are you up to?” Charles asked after their dance had gone on a while longer.

“Just a little fun,” Katrisha smiled.  “Nothing I’ll use on you, promise.  Really quite distracting.  I might have to start trying to fight you soon.”

Charles got more aggressive at the taunting, and true to her word Katrisha did have to start struggling with some of his blows, but not so much as to keep her from counter attacking frequently.  One particular parry let her get her staff behind his shield to strike his shoulder, and knock him off balance.  She parried a counter stroke that he tried anyway, and swept his leg landing him on his rear.

Exhilarated Katrisha came out of the sweep, and struck the ground hard, using all the stored energy she had to launch herself upward spectacularly, shattering the spheres, and cresting a good ten feet in the air.  She lacked the actual grace to control the resulting tumble, and had to use magic to correct it.  She shed the force of her fall into the air around her as she landed some distance behind the already downed Charles.  In truth she nearly toppled from the landing, but quick use of her stave for balance made the whole thing look quite nearly flawless.

She huffed several times wondering what had come over her.  It had felt so natural, riding a wave of adrenaline, but it had been wildly impetuous.  The stunned crowd started clapping for the finish.  Katrisha straightened up, and walked over to offer Charles her hand.  “Sorry, got carried away.”

He took the hand reluctantly.  “Shall we try that again, without showing off?”  He said.

“If you insist,” Katrisha laughed, “but it will only go worse for you.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“What do you all say?” Katrisha hollered, turning to look over the crowd. “Would you like an encore?  Without the flourish?”

“With!”  Someone yelled back.

“I’ll take another challenger after I give Charles his boring round,” Katrisha laughed.  Mercu’s expression underwent a barely perceptible shift.  “Or three!”  She turned back, and bowed to Charles, who returned it.  Already warmed up the two went quickly into real attacks, no longer really needing to test the other.  It was evident to Katrisha that Charles was putting everything he had into the match then, and she kept it simple, making sure that there was no chance it looked as though she did anything but fight him fair, and square.  However in simple truth he was at a disadvantage.

The match ended almost the same – save no dramatic aerial performance – but with a twirl that took her out of the path of a swing, and brought her staff behind Charles, knocking him forward.  She offered him her hand again, and he took it.

“Let’s hear a round for Charles,” Katrisha said, and there was some modest clapping, though more enthusiastic from his sister.  “Alright.  I’ll need three volunteers.  Let’s help the boy save some face by showing what I can really do.  I’m the girl who fought a dragon, who wants a go?”  What had become at times a thing of some embarrassment, right that moment, high from victory, was an almost giddy badge of honor.

The knight commander of South Rook stepped forth, as did two of the guard.  “You sure it’s a fair fight?” he asked.

“Only one way to find out,” Katrisha laughed, and grinned a bit impishly.  “But I will be going all in this time, magic and all.  Nothing too rough of course.”

The commander nodded.  “Alright, swords, and shields boys.”

“Little more room everybody,” Katrisha yelled out.  “Don’t want any bystanders getting in the way.”  She rolled her shoulders, and the three men armed with practices swords, and shields surrounded her.  Her barrier went up, a simple enough spell that would slow anything inert except her own stave, which she quickly enchanted to counter the effect.  She made sure though not to slow the incoming attacks too much, just for the sake of show.  It would give her a strong advantage, but not directly tip off ungifted observers what was going on.

“Gentlemen first.”  Katrisha laughed, and bowed.  Her three opponents returned it, though only two were in view.  Taking Katrisha’s comment as an instruction the commander opened.  His attacks were testing, and no real threat.  “Come on,” Katrisha chided the other two, “join in.  I want to make this interesting.”

The barrier slowed the strikes of her attackers just enough to allow Katrisha to deflect two separate blows with a single swing.  To them it felt as though they were striking molasses, and they could feel a chill in their blades.  The guard behind her, seeing she was distracted tried for obvious advantage, only to find his thrust parried, as Katrisha could sense it entering her field.  Though she largely had to guess where precisely the strike was, her staff made a broad sweep effective.  

She turned into the single opponent, gave him a quick thrust to the chest that he failed to block, and put him on his rear.  Pulling out of her previous attack, she came around again with a wave of force stored up in her barrier.  This knocked the other guard from his feet, and staggered the commander.

She dueled with the commander momentarily for fun, while the other two got back up.  He was good, much better than her, and in a fair fight she wouldn’t have stood a chance, but she wasn’t arranging a fair fight, she was showing off.  He was also gifted, even more so than Charles, which was still to his disadvantage.  She could read his moves before he made them, while he had to read her body language, and tells.  Something that decades of experience made him quite good at.

On the whole Katrisha suspected the man to be Horence’s equal at least, if not slightly his better.  He did not however have the same talent for reading the moves of gifted, and this in turn was in Katrisha’s favor.  On the whole it was only managing two other opponents that was making it a nearly fair fight.

Katrisha felt another strike coming from behind, and dodged, sweeping the leg of the second guard who had only just gotten back up, and returning him to the ground.  She struck the back of the man who had come from behind, and pushed him forward, forcing the commander to back off.  All three were then in front of her.  She brought her staff around for several more swings with reach, each of which were parried.  She made a move that was better to dodge than block, and forced the commander into position for a blow of force that teetered him, and forced the others to the ground.  He almost recovered before her next staff swing brought him down.

Katrisha bowed again, and the crowd clapped.  “Now that,” she laughed.  “Is how you cheat.”  She offered a hand to a guard who was still down, and then to the commander.  “Thank you,” she said, “I’ve never gotten to do that before.”  He did not look particularly more pleased.

Katrisha walked over to Maraline who was particularly enthusiastic with her applause.  She curtsied to the princess.  “So, still worried about me being marked up for tomorrow?”

“No, but I do have some concerns about my other guests,” Maraline laughed.

“Why?” Katrisha grinned, “I’ll protect them.”

“But who ever will protect them from you?”

“Their own good sense not to fight me?” Katrisha suggested.

“After today, I should hope.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rahst 2nd, 647 E.R.

The wedding was a lovely affair.  Far grander than anything Katrisha had witnessed, and even for all the regal airs it did touch something in her.  Still, even a more spectacular ball than the one which had first welcomed the wedding party to South Rook, could not hold her interest for very long.  She had heard that there would be fireworks, and retreated to a higher floor, where from years past she recalled a public balcony.

The view out over South Rook was a lovely thing, and for a moment it brought Katrisha some peace.  Though a moment of calm from the storm growing in her mind, only provided opportunity for her to grapple with what was truly troubling her.  She was happy for Maraline, she was, she assured herself.  There was no question in her mind that Lukus was dear to her, and that she would be content in South Rook.  It was South Rook that bothered her.

Katrisha remembered all too well the conversation that she and her sister had overheard in that very spot years before.  The schemes of a duke and baron to elevate criminals, and blame the innocent.  As distasteful as that aspect was, it was her sister that bothered her.  Kiannae was gone, somewhere far away.  That was if she still lived, and Katrisha had to believe her sister had not come to some terrible end.  Yet believing so at that moment took far more effort that she was comfortable with.  Effort, that if Laurel’s theories were correct, Kiannae had not given to imagining Katrisha could have survived.  She waffled from sorrow, to anger, and then settled on thoughts of Maraline.

She was honored, and touched that Maraline had chosen her to stand as maid of honor, but also troubled by it.  Katrisha was unsure if she really considered Maraline a friend, but if she was not, then Katrisha had to accept she had none.  Wren counted, surely, even if he was blood, but the distinction whittled away at the thin comfort.

Even if Maraline was Katrisha’s friend, she would no longer reside at court on Broken Hill, and Wren lived in the north with Renae.  The wedding meant that Katrisha would be alone, with no confidant at all, save Laurel and Mercu.  However much she loved each they were like fathers to her, not the easy comfort of friendship, or her bond with her sister.

“I thought I saw you head up into the tower,” Charles commented behind her.  She was almost startled, but even distracted by her own thoughts, on some level she had known someone had approached, and stood there for some time.  Maybe even on some level knew who, Charles did have gift enough that his presence gave a unique impression.  Not unlike the feel of soft piled hay, a fleeting memory from a childhood home long gone.

Katrisha turned irritably to the young man, who for his part looked to her with none of the venom she offered.  He wore a kind smile, and regal attire appropriate to the day’s festivities.  His blond hair was swept to the side, and on the whole he was very put together.  For just a moment she could forget how often in her life he had annoyed her.  He had been trying so very hard to be better it seemed, yet she was ill at ease to release the grudges she held.

“I sought solitude,” Katrisha began, but then thought better of it, “and have come to question if I truly desire it.”  She was not inclined to encourage Charles to remain, nor as she thought on it entirely ready to be alone anymore.  She leaned against the rail, and crossed her arms, giving him a look she couldn’t have read herself.

“Tell me what it is you would prefer,” Charles offered.

“That I have any friends left in this world,” she offered in confidence that she immediately reconsidered.

“Surely you are Maraline’s friend,” Charles questioned, “she did name you her maid of honor.”

“She and I,” Katrisha began with some reservation, “are somewhat in the same predicament.  I’m not sure if either of us would readily say friend of the other, save to be polite, and not split hairs unnecessarily.  Yet what real confidence we have, I cannot say.  No, perhaps I am unfair.  She has often offered me confidence more than once regarding her beloved, now husband.  I’ve had nothing similar to offer in kind, nor do I know if I would have.  However much we have been raised in the same court, I feel none the less like we are part of different worlds.”

“I see,” Charles nodded, and stepped further onto the balcony.  He leaned on the rail a respectful distance away.  “Who has my confidence, I am also less than certain,” he offered.  “I’ve sparring partners certainly,” he said thoughtfully, “and a camaraderie of sorts that comes naturally with my fellow heirs.”

“What of Philip?” Katrisha pressed.  “The two of you have always seemed quite amiable.”

“Perhaps,” Charles seemed quite dubious on the suggestion. “Yet what interests do we really share?  Polite conversation over affairs of a nation that one day will actually be our responsibility?  He’s more favorable of the views my father holds than his cousin, or you…or the King.  It seems a losing proposition altogether.”

“Do I hear doubt in your voice for Clarion teaching?” Katrisha asked cautiously.

“Doubt…certainly,” Charles offered.  “Who in this world is without doubt?  Yet who am I to question, and all the more who am I to ignore that my betters question.  I cannot say that I do not find a sense of peace in the teaching, and yet there is so much fire that belies the harmony promised.”

“Life is suffering,” Katrisha mused.

“Not words I would imagine to hear from your lips,” Charles pressed curiously.

“And why wouldn’t I?”  Katrisha countered.  “My sister is lost to me, and I must cling defiantly to the hope that she lives.  I have no true friends, save my own brother who spends much of the year far away.  Further I have not felt entirely right since the mountain.”

“Surely your injuries were an ordeal, and the strain of the circumstances would linger,” Charles suggested kindly.

“I keep feeling it is more.”  Katrisha shook her head.  “That something other than the obvious is wrong.  Not even the shadow of a war that ever looms, but never comes, seems to answer the call of what troubles me.  I find that… I am drifting, losing focus.  That time sometimes slips by, and I fail to even notice.”

“You seemed focused enough in our duel,” Charles countered, “or when you defeated three grown men, expertly trained to fight.”

“When I have something to focus on,” Katrisha said, “particularly something as invigorating as a sparring, it is not so difficult.”

“Does conversation help?”

“It would seem,” Katrisha consented, and looked back out over the city.

“Then perhaps I will remain here with you.”

Katrisha glanced at the young man.  She was still not sure she liked him at all, but there was something pleasant in the way he looked at her.  She nodded, and turned back to the city.  “As you will.”

A series of fireworks began to light the darkening sky, and as lovely as they were, Katrisha found herself closing her eyes, and listening to the sound.  She felt a hand beside hers on the rail, nothing quite so forward as to place it atop hers.  She barely looked down, somewhat willfully ignored that Charles had moved closer, and returned to the display in the sky.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Rhaeus 12th, 647 E.R.

Laurel considered with some curiosity the complex array of orbs that buzzed about Katrisha’s tower chamber.  It filled most of the room, and was to his eye the most detailed recreation of the solar system he had ever seen, rivaling anything he had ever done himself.  Planets, moons, and even asteroids moved along projected arcs, and a great many arcane symbols followed, or labeled the courses.  Though he recognized most of the symbols, the notation meant nothing to him.  It seemed likely something of Katrisha’s own devising.

He dodged planets as he made his way towards where Katrisha sat, seemingly absent mindedly in bed.  His passage slightly disrupted the projected paths, but seemed to do little to the overall function of the spell.  He stopped to consider a number of runes that moved on their own curious paths not seeming to label anything obvious, but quickly became more concerned with Katrisha’s acknowledgement of his presence.

Taking less care to avoid the moving parts of the spell he waked to Katrisha’s bed.  Still she just sat there, staring distantly past the center of the room.

“Katrisha?” Laurel pressed, and received no response.  He grabbed her by the shoulders gently, still nothing.  He gave a light shake.   “Kat, wake up.”

Still Katrisha sat there unblinking, and Laurel could barely have cared less as a large planet and accompanying moons crashed into him, and dissolved in swirls of light that washed over them.

Katrisha blinked, and looked around.  “What?” she asked.

Laurel got down on his knees.  “Are you alright?”

“I think so,” Katrisha seemed confused.  “What’s going on?”

“That’s my question,” Laurel demanded.

“What?” Katrisha looked around even more confused.

“What were you doing?” Laurel asked in a measured tone.

“I wasn’t doing anything…I…”  She looked bewildered.  “I was just laying down for a nap.”

“When was the last time you ate?” Laurel asked befuddled, and worried.

“Breakfast,” Katrisha answered.

“Go get some lunch,” Laurel ordered, and Katrisha nodded somewhat absently.  She got up, and Laurel got out of her way as she walked out of the room.  There were no traces of the spell, and Laurel was less than certain if she had dispelled it, or if it’s decay had been what had finally woken her.

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Chapter 13

Upon the rock we stand,
above the sheltered bay,
watch over passing ships,
come with war or trade,

none shall carry us away,
ever we stand our own,
ne’er harm from the sea,
come to Avrale our home.

– The Watches of Wesrook, circa 40 B.E.

The Tower of Wesrook

Entering the courtyard of the Castle of Wesrook was not entirely unlike entering the lower court at Broken Hill.  Though as there was no upper court above, the keep doors stood prominently at one end, and the main tower loomed above, and drew one’s eyes up.  It was in fact slightly taller than the western spire at Broken Hill, slightly wider, but gave the illusion of being much more so.

The castle was situated just north of the rocky breakwater that formed Wesrook bay.  Even over the clamor of the city behind them, still murmuring into the evening, one could hear the crash of waves beneath the cliffs.  Four children piled out of the coach, followed by Mercu, and Laurel, as Horence dropped from the front, and patted, and rubbed the horse reassuringly.

A well dressed older gentleman walked up to greet the company, bowed to Charles, and nodded to Mercu curiously.  “Young Lord, and good sir,” he addressed Charles, and Mercu.  “Welcome to Wesrook – our Lady shall be along shortly, but the Duke Regent is indisposed for company this evening.”

“Chamberlain Faren,” Charles said in a manner that almost seemed pleased.

The twins were still on the far side of the coach with Laurel, and when Faren looked to Wren, with his long hair, he came to the wrong conclusion.  “Ah, is this one of the twins we’ve all heard of?”

Charles looked at Wren, and then laughed.  “That’s their brother,” he said just as the other’s rounded the coach.  “Though I can understand the confusion, he does rather look like a girl, doesn’t he.  Probably his upbringing.”

“Ah,” Faren said a bit embarrassed, “my apologies young sir.”  Wren nodded to Faren, but gave Charles a bit of an unkind look, as Laurel and the twins emerged from behind the coach.  “Court Mage Grey,” Faren said with a bow, “and these then, must be your twin apprentices.  We were not informed their brother would be joining them.”

“A last minute addition to our company, my apologies if it cause any trouble Faren,” Laurel nodded.

“No,” Faren said, “there is plenty of room in the tower, and the Lady does adore children.”

“That I do,” said a woman approaching from the direction of the keep.  She was tall, and elegant with flowing blond hair that wafted about as she walked.  She carried herself with a grace, and purpose, that contradicted the readiness with which she knelt down, and hugged Charles as she reached him.

“Hello mother,” Charles muttered with a clear air of embarrassment, but returned the embrace nonetheless.  She kissed her son on the forehead, and then stood up, taking stalk of the new arrivals.

“Laurel, Mercu, so good to see you,” the Lady said with a nod.

“Likewise Lady Meloria,” Mercu said with one of his more exaggerated bows.

“The twins are growing up quite nicely I see,” Meloria said with a smile, “They put on quite the show last I saw them.”  Katrisha, and Kiannae each shot each other a confused look.  “We were not properly introduced, so I am not surprised you do not recognize me,” Meloria added with a smile.

“You do look familiar,” Kiannae said.

“I believe I saw you dancing with Prince Darion,” Katrisha added.

“Ah, very good,” Meloria said.  “Yes, Darion was so sweet to offer to dance with me when my husband left early for the evening.”

“I’d have done the service myself,” Mercu said apologetically, “alas I was otherwise occupied.”

“Yes, with these two lasses here.”  Meloria laughed.  “The show was quite worth it, I assure you.”

A little golden haired girl about two years younger than the twins bounded across the courtyard, and all but pounced onto Charles.  “Charlie!” the girl squealed.

“Hello, Millarae,” Charles acknowledged with further embarasment, and hugged her.

“Your sister has been ever so anxious for your arrival,” Meloria commented.  “Then of course she took forever getting ready.  You should however call your brother by his proper name,” she admonished the girl lightly.

“Sorry Charles,” Millarae said sweetly.

Horence handed the reins of the horse over to the stable attendant, and came around to where the group was standing.  “My Lady,” he said with a bow.

“Horence, good Sir!” Meloria proclaimed, to Horence’s obvious surprise.  “How is your dear Alice?  Any children on the way?”  Horence looked more than a little uncomfortable.  “Have I been too forward?” Meloria asked apologetically.

“No,” Horence said.  “It is not something we had chosen to share yet.”

“Ah,” Meloria remarked thoughtfully.  “My apologies.  Come,” Meloria said gesturing towards the keep, “dinner will be served shortly.”

Katrisha tugged at Horence’s coat hem as the group walked towards the keep.  “Alice is having a baby?” she asked when Horence acknowledged her.

“Yes,” Horence answered simply trying to smile at the inquisitive little girl.

“Why haven’t you two told anyone?” Kiannae chimed in.

“Leave Horence alone you two,” Laurel scolded lightly, as he could see the poor man was a bit put out by the questions, and he suspected why.

“It’s alright,” Horence said somberly.  “It’s cause the first didn’t take, and we wanted to give this one time, to be sure.”  Horence said in a matter of fact tone, but his face betrayed his even demeanor.

“Why…” Katrisha started to ask, but stopped as Mercu gave her a stern look, which actually carried more weight than any scolding from Laurel, as it came so rarely.  Mercu patted Horence on the back consolingly, and they all walked into the keep.

Within the doors things were quite different from Broken Hill.  Rather than a corridor, with a throne room past it, a round room greeted the visitors upon entry.  It was not entirely unlike the throne room, as a balcony overlooked the lower floor, but there was no throne, and only a few benches were set against the wall, between stands holding vases, and other decorations.

At the far end of the foyer stairs followed the curve of the wall up to the balcony, and this was the way Meloria lead her guests.  “I hope you do not mind that we will be dining upstairs,” Meloria commented.  “I much prefer the rear dining hall for smaller affairs, it’s more intimate, and has a view out over the water.  You’ve arrived just in time for the last of sunset.”

“That’s fine,” Laurel said, “our apologies for the late arrival, it’s a long way from Aldermor, but we thought it better to try in a day rather than stop along the way.”

“Yes, it’s a tricky choice that,” Meloria acknowledged.  “I swear every other time I make the trip I change my mind on it, and neither way quite feels right.”

“One of these days they will have to invent a better horse,” Mercu suggested jokingly.

“They’ve already done that,” Laurel noted.  “Not many have bothered with the expense though.  So few people have the knack for shaper magic any more – though I have heard there may be a wild dire herd in Lycia that has promise for a sustainable breed.”

“I’ll have to have my steward look into that,” Meloria commented.  “My husband will give me some hassle on the expense I am sure, but to be able to more regularly visit my son would be worth bargaining with him over.”

Katrisha eyed the way young Millarae hung on her brother’s arm, and wondered if maybe Charles wasn’t as bad as she often thought him to be, if the little girl adored him so.  The girl looked up at her curiously, and Katrisha smiled back.

At the top of the stairs the party turned right down a well adorned corridor, and promptly arrived at double doors that opened on a small dining hall, big enough to seat about twelve.  The room was bathed in deep orange light from the setting sun that licked the distant hills of Carth, and flashed off the waves crossing the vast expanse of water below.

Though this sight held everyone’s attention for a moment, but it was impossible to ignore for long a well dressed man with pitch black skin who sat at the right end of the table.  At a glance one not familiar with his countrymen could be forgiven for mistaking him for the man from the city square.  Such however was clearly impossible, as that man could not have arrived before the coach that had passed him.  Further, upon closer examination he clearly had a much squarer jaw, and then all else could nearly be forgotten for a glimmer of his violet eyes.

“Might I introduce his Lordship Varmun Iverhn,” Meloria said addressing the new arrivals.  “He’s something of a remarkable man.  Born a royal to a tribe of the deep Northern Wastes, he has become a man of the sea, a trader, a diplomat, and even a musician.”  The man stood, and bowed.  “These,” Meloria continued in turn, “are Court Mage Grey, Sir Horence, Mercu, the young Ladies Ashton, their brother, and of course my son Charles.”

“A pleasure,” Varmun said in an almost frighteningly deep resonant voice with a thick unfamiliar accent.  “The Lady speaks far too kindly of me.”

“On the contrary,” Meloria protested, and guided her guests toward seats. “I dare say your story is more remarkable than I have let on.”  The three siblings were seated on the near side of the table, with Kiannae nearest the curious foreigner, Katrisha beside her, then Wren, and Mercu.  Laurel was offered the seat at the left end, and Meloria took a seat between her children with their backs to the view, leaving two seats open for Horence who sat at the far right of the table next to the stranger.

“Do please, tell your story again,” Meloria said insistently.

“It’s not so much,” the man said in his thick voice.  “I did only what many men so placed might have.”

“If many men of your land are so bold, or talented as you,” Meloria refuted, “I do not think you would be seeking allies so.  Osyrae would not stand a chance.”

Varmun laughed lightly, though even this was a bit of a low rumble.  “There are many quite bold in my land,” he replied, “but those of Osyrae are cold, cruel, and just as bold.”

“So they are,” Meloria nodded, “though not all of course.”

“No, not all of course,” Varmun admitted.  “Those who I am unfortunately most acquainted, have harassed, and enslaved my kind since before living memory.  Even the eldest shamans say it was so before their fathers, fathers, fathers.”

“You still have shamans in the north?” Mercu asked curiously.

“Oh yes, many,” Varmun nodded.  “I think there are more shamans left than free common men in the north.  Osyrae has enslaved all who can not fend for themselves.  The shamans have lead the free together, and ever farther north, to the deepest oasis.  I myself have the blood, as a chieftain’s son.”

“Does that make you a prince?” Katrisha asked.

“Much less I think,” Varmun said thoughtfully, “my father is Second Chief of the combined tribes, and I his fourth child, and third son, by his second wife.”

“Second wife?” Kiannae asked incredulously.

“You have not yet heard of our First Chief,” Varmun said with a flash of white teeth between his deep burgundy lips.  “She has three husbands, and is the most powerful of all the shamans, she is.”

“How a woman could ever bare even two husbands I’ll never imagine,” Meloria laughed lightly, drawing a chuckle from Mercu.

“I was not so important by my birth,” Varmun continued, “not the most gifted of my father’s children, or even the strongest.”

“Yet the most clever,” Meloria offered.

“Hmm, yes,” Varmun nodded, “or so my mother would tell me.  Perhaps she is right, I can not say.  I did find I had more a way for the mage’s tricks, which did not earn me much more love.”

“I can not imagine why, your magic is spectacular,” Meloria protested.

“I have been told it is a gift all my own,” Varmun admitted, “but illusions are not much use – not compared to my eldest brother who’s strong as a wild dune walker, or my sister whose voice can bring any man, or woman to their knees, and call the wind to dance.”

“What’s a dune walker?” Katirsha asked.

“Perhaps I should show you,” Varmun hummed, and closed his eyes.  A swirl of dancing light formed to his right, and traced out the contours of a great horned head, and ears which hung as large sheets that flapped back, and forth occasionally.  The light traced back along a stout neck, to thick shoulders, and down legs at their narrowest point as hefty as a grown man’s chest.  A low slung belly, and high humped back formed last, and vanished back through the wall.

“They are noble, but fierce beasts of burden.”  Varmun smiled, and looked over the awestruck party.  Horence could be seen to lean slightly away as the apparition shifted its stance in his direction.  It started to unravel, and began to reform into a tall, broad shouldered man whose chest was indeed wider than the former illusions legs.  “This of course is my eldest brother, do you see the resemblance?”  He laughed leadingly.

The second form came apart in a swirl of birds that swooped around Varmun, and formed another luminous image to his left, that took on the face of a slender woman, with short densely curled hair.  “My sister,” Varmun said, and the woman bowed, before dancing across the room, and vanishing through a wall.

“That is a very impressive technique,” Laurel said shrewdly.  “I must say, I’ve only once seen the like.  A mage who fancied himself an entertainer.  His illusions were almost as elegant, but much smaller.  That swarm of birds would have been past his limit.”

“Yes,” Varmun said.  “You see, I am nothing special, even my gift is not unique.”

“Yet what you have done,” Meloria protested.  “Taking your small share of wealth, and turning it into a trading empire, all to travel far, and wide in search of allies for your people.”

“Wealth I have found,” Varmun nodded.  “A good life even, but allies, less so,” Varmun said sadly.

“I fear the Duke Regent, and myself each lack any authority on the matter,” Meloria said looking to Laurel.

“I can not say I agree with the Council on this,” Laurel offered carefully.  “Yet the treaty does not cover the lands north of Osyrae, and I fear they have lost the will to act, even if it did.”

“Yes,” Varmun said.  “So I have been told.  They will march south again you know, it is their way.”

“I know,” Laurel answered, “it seems inevitable.  Their great interest in your lands is resources, the deep desert mines are filled with rare, and precious stones.  Not the least of which is Amberite.  If they intend war, they will want as much of that as they can have.”

“Indeed,” Varmun agreed.  “We are nothing more than a practice war for them, in preparation for their real goals.  For the moment at least they remain unwilling to commit to more, so your Council, and your Kings ignore them.”

“We do not ignore,” Laurel said solemnly, “but we cannot act.  At best we start a war without support, at worst we find ourselves between Osyrae and the Council.”

Varmun looked sadly out to the darkening sky.  “As I say, I am not so much.  I try, and try, but this is always the answer.”

“What will you do?” Katrisha asked.

“As I have,” Varmun said looking to the little girl.  “I shall continue my travels, head south to other lands again.  Seek audience with the White One.”

“I wish you luck,” Laurel said hesitantly.

“I know I have little chance of gaining such favor,” Varmun said sternly.  “Yet as you say, if the Council will not aid us, only the former Empress sits beyond their authority.”

“There is little hope of her involving herself, unless the Black Flight joins Osyrae’s campaign.”  Laurel grimaced at his own framing.

“So it is, but what other choice do I have?” Varmun shrugged.

“None I fear,” Laurel admitted.  “It is no more a fool’s errand than to head east to Mordove, and there is the frightful possibility that Vharen will somehow drag the Black Flight to his side.  That I could only hope would move her…”

“A terrible thing to hang hopes upon,” Varmun said with displeasure.

“Yes,” Laurel said with a nod.  “It seemed he thought his conquest of a lesser dragon would win them over.  If anything, I personally expected the capital to be burned to the ground for the slight.”

“I have heard of this madness,” Varmun said narrowing his eyes.  “It is true then?”

“Yes,” Laurel said.  “Though nothing has happened so far, either way.  It is almost like the whole thing never happened – though reports say he has less humor than ever.  I consider that a good sign, such as they come.  That he won no favors for his theatrics.”

“Enough of such trying matters,” Meloria interjected as food began to arrive.

“Quite right,” Varmun agreed, seeming more cordial than genuine, there was still a sternness to his air.  “I am delighted to see what new your chef has created.”

“Of all the accomplishments Meloria listed,” Mercu remarked, “I fear we heard nothing of your music.”

Varmun’s posture softened, and he let out a long breath.  “Yes.  Though I was of music long before I became a man of the world.  I fear I left my instruments in my room.”

“You play more than one then?” Mercu asked.

“Three,” Varmun said thoughtfully, “more or less.  There is a flute like instrument native to my people, I learned to play when I was a boy.  The captain I hired for the first ship I bought played a violin, and taught me in the time he was in my employ.”

“And the third?” Mercu asked curiously.

“Well, that I do carry with me,” Varmun laughed.  With a wave of his hand strings of light formed before him of varied lengths, he plucked several experimentally.  There was a barely audible ring with each, halfway between a plucked cord, and a rung bell.  He ran his fingers along several of the strings, and then without further hesitation began to play a haunting melody, as food was placed at the table.

“Is it not spectacular?” Meloria asked pointedly.

“Quite,” Mercu remarked.

“It’s very clever,” Laurel nodded.  “Strung spell filaments tuned to musical chords, and solidified enough to interact with the air.  Much more portable than even the lightest instrument.”

“I think it’s lovely,” Kiannae said leaning against the table, and listening intently.

“It sounds like the lights,” Wren said with a furrowed brow.

“The lights?” Laurel asked curiously.

“The ones from the woods,” Wren said staring at the strings.

“I think he may mean wisps,” Mercu said incredulously.

“Wisps don’t…” Laurel started before Mercu interrupted.

“I know.”  Mercu sighed.  “Renae might have mentioned something about seeing wisps around him.  Though that was several years ago.”

“That is also something Wisps do not do,” Laurel shook his head.

The music stopped, and Varmun seemed to be considering the boy who was staring at him intently.  “Wisps,” he said thoughtfully.  “There are lights in the desert, as well as your forests.  There was a girl who’s mother died in childbirth, she was touched all her days, and would be seen to walk into the night, and the lights would come to her.”

Wren looked away.  “I see,” Varmun nodded, “my apologies.”

“A terrible business that,” Meloria nodded.

Katrisha pulled her brother closer.  “It’s ok,” she said softly.

“Let us eat,” Merloria suggested.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 7th, 644 E.R.

Katrisha lay staring out into the night – she had been for some time.  It was well after midnight, and she could not sleep.  She rolled over gently, and looked at her twin in the moonlight.  Kiannae was fast asleep, her face half buried in a pillow.  Katrisha closed her eyes, and listened to the rhythm of waves breaking far beneath the tower as she had for hours.  A faint melodic sound could be heard somewhere far away.  Completely frustrated, she slipped out of bed carefully, so as not to wake her sister.

Katrisha’s robe hung in a wardrobe by the door.  She put it on, gently opened, and then closed the chamber door behind her.  The hallway was very dark, and with a wave of her hand a bright blue orb illuminated her surroundings.  The distant sound of music could still be heard, and she strained to tell which direction it was from.  Deciding it was right she headed that way, and down a flight of stairs to a lower level of the tower.  As she passed westward windows out over the ocean she could hear the music more clearly above the rumble of crashing waves.

Down another flight of stairs Katrisha came to double doors, one of which stood half open onto a large moonlit balcony.  She waved away her light, and peaked through the open door.  There in the moonlight stood Varmun, leaned against the railing casually, staring up into the sky.  He strummed at his conjured harp, which scintillated with ethereal light.  It took a moment for Katrisha to notice he was not alone on the balcony.  Wren was lain against a wall, seemingly asleep.

“Come in,” Varmun said in his deep resonant voice.  “Or out, as it were.”

Katrisha had a start that she had been discovered, and sheepishly stepped out onto the balcony.  “Your brother came not so long ago,” Varmun nodded towards the sleeping boy.  “It seems none of us three could sleep, though it seems I have helped him in that regard.”

“I am sorry to intrude,” Katirsha said with a bow.

“Do not be,” Varmun said, and continued playing.  “This is a public place after all.”

“Why couldn’t you sleep?” Katrisha asked, but then thought perhaps the question was impertinent.

“Why couldn’t you?” Varmun asked in turn.

“I often can’t,” Katrisha admitted, “but I asked first,” she pressed childishly.

“We are much the same in this,” Varmun replied.  “I have always been a night walker.  This was how I knew the girl who called the lights.”

“I’ve heard of wisps before,” Katrisha said thoughtfully, “but never seen one.”

“Most only see them from afar,” Varmun hummed.  “It was only because of Eshai that I have seen one more closely,” there was a strange wistfulness to his voice as he spoke the girl’s name.

“Were you and Eshai close?” Katrisha asked.

“Perhaps,” Varmun said with an odd wobble of his head.  “She did not speak much, but when she did…”  He hummed deeply.  “She was a beautiful girl,” he sighed.  “Even those who scorned her could not deny this.  A delicate desert flower.  I loved her of course, I was a fool in many ways for this.”

“Why?” Katrisha asked walking closer to the large man whose face was almost a void against the twinkling stars.

“Why did I love her, or why was I a fool?”  Varmun laughed.

“A fool of course.”  Katrisha laughed more awkwardly.

“It is not polite to speak the reason,” Varmun frowned.  “I shall say only she was for no man.  Yet this, he said strumming the luminous strings before him.  One of many tricks I learned from an exiled foreigner, who lived amongst us.  It won me her friendship, if not more.”

Katrisha was curious what he had avoided, but held her tongue on the point.  She asked something else instead.  “Did she hear something else in the music, like Wren seems to?”

Varmun nodded.  “She said the lights whispered secrets, and sometimes those secrets were like a song.”  He ran his fingers along the strings, rather than plucking them.  The sound they made was hard to hear, distant and wavering.  “She said it was like this, but as though words – if not all she could understand.”

“What kind of secrets did they tell her?” Katrisha asked rapt.

“Warnings, portents, true names, and forgotten deeds,” Varmun shrugged.  “The things of seers, but also things they do not see.”

Katrisha frowned.  “I’ve been told not to listen to prophecy.  It’s unreliable.”

“Yes, it is,” Varmun nodded.  “Or so I am told.  To glimpse the future is not to see what will be, but a shifting thread in motion.  Most often you see only where it is, and not quite where it will land.  There is solace in this, that the future is not set in stone.”

“Where is Eshai now?” Katrisha asked leaning against the rail next to Varmun, and peaked over it at the distant shimmering waves below.

“Still home, and safe I hope,” Varmun replied.  “My sister guards her, and none refuse my sister – not father, not the shamans, or even the First Chieftain.  I have seen her voice bring great warriors to their knees.”

“How?” Katrisha asked.

Varmun shrugged.  “Your mages do not know everything, nor our shamans.  There are secrets still in the world, old, potent, and subtle too.  Eshai told me this, and I believe her – I believe also it is she that taught my sister this gift.  For I heard it first from her, to call wisps, wind, a tone command that could move the world, and tremble the land.  She even once called the Lady of the Sands herself.”

Katrisha’s eyes lit up.  “I’ve heard of her, she’s real?”

“Oh yes,” Varmun nodded.  “She comes like snakes whipping across the dune, and then rises ageless, beautiful, and naked as the day we are born.  No shame, and profound pride.  She gave a kiss to each of us three that night, and only I could not hold her gaze.  She made us a castle from the desert sands that stood for two days before it returned to dust.”

“How strange,” Katrisha said.

“Hmm, yes, the castle made the tribe whisper many things,” Varmun agreed.  “The kisses…” he shook his head, thinking better of his musings.

“What of them?” Katrisha pressed curiously.

“They showed me where ever my heart lay, it would have to lay elsewhere,” he answered, and resumed his playing thin lipped, and wove a mournful happy tune.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Kiannae stirred, and pulled her blankets more tightly around her.  As her eyes opened she was struck by the empty bed beside her.  It was not like Katrisha to wake before her, and most mornings, at least cool mornings such as it was, Kiannae would find her sister curled up to her.  She sat up groggily, looked around the room, and saw that Katrisha wasn’t in the room at all.

Kiannae walked over to the wardrobe, which had been left partly open.  She Pulled out her own robe, and slipped it on, before opening the door.  No one was around, though she thought she heard voices somewhere.  Taking a guess she walked towards the stairs, and down to a lower level of the tower where she found Laurel engrossed in conversation with Varmun.

“Will you truly not petition the Council on our behalf?” Varmun said a bit irritably.

“You misunderstand me,” Laurel said wincing in frustration.  “I will tell the Council all that you have told me.  Yet I am certain they have heard it all before – even from me they already have third hand reports that Osyrae had turned aggressive towards the north.”

Varmun looked like he wanted to protest further, but did not.

“Where’s Katrisha?” Kianane asked.

Laurel simply shrugged.  Varmun however looked to the little girl, and smiled.  “I believe your twin is in young Wren’s room.”

“Thank you,” Kiannae said, and turned towards the chamber doors.  She found however she wasn’t sure which room was Wren’s.  Mercu emerged from one, and Kiannae walked up to him.  “Which room is Wren’s?” she asked.

Mercu pointed to the room opposite his own, and rubbed his neck.  “Thank you,” Kiannae said again, walked across, and opened the door without knocking.  Katrisha, and Wren were both asleep, curled up together.

Kiannae had a twinge of jealousy.  Katrisha was her twin after all, and though some mornings extracting herself from her sister’s sleepy embrace was a bit of frustrating effort, it always felt nice to wake up to being held.  Kianane was also more than a little perplexed how they had wound up that way.

Kiannae walked over, nudged Katrisha who stirred only slightly.  This however woke Wren who was momentarily startled, and sat up with a start, which threw Katrisha’s arm off him, and rolled her onto her back.  This at least partially woke her.

Katrisha made an unintelligible murmur, and blinked up at her twin.  There was nothing particularly new about this to her at first, as Kiannae was often awake before her, and would wake her up.  She slowly realized that not only Kiannae was dressed, but she was as well.  Slowly she remembered having been too tired when Varmun had carried Wren back to bed, and rolled her head to the left where Wren was rubbing his eyes.

“Morning,” Katrisha half mumbled.

“Why are you down here?” Kiannae half demanded.

“Mmm, couldn’t sleep.”  Katrisha yawned.  “Heard music, and went down stairs, found Varmun playing, and Wren asleep on the balcony.  I think he put us both to bed up here.”

“Ok.” Kiannae frowned, there was still just a twinge of jealousy.  “I’m hungry,” she said putting it aside.  “I hope breakfast is soon.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Breakfast in the westward dining hall was much the same as dinner.  Though with fewer light shows, and far more disheveled children, particularly Katrisha, and Wren who had slept in their robes.  All three had failed to brush their hair by the point Kiannae had insisted she was too hungry, and so Mercu had fetched a brush which they had each been using in turn as food was served.  It not completely up to the best standards of decorum, but was passable for children.

Katrisha, and Kiannae had brushed their own hair in turn, and Katrisha was in the process of brushing Wren’s as their food was set in front of them.  Kiannae continued to having pangs of jealousy, but was feeling stupid, as she hadn’t offered to brush Katrisha’s hair either.

“I know you are not scheduled to stay long,” Meloria asked as her children began poking at their food.  “But what are your plans?”

“I have unexpected matters to attend to with Daven, if the Duke Regent has nothing of importance to report, and remains too unwell to speak with me,” Laurel answered.

“I do wish he would submit to healing, there is no cause to suffering through this cold he has,” Meloria said with some displeasure.

“He’s as devout with his convictions as his brother it seems,” Mercu said in an even, metered tone.

“Oh, I assure you,” Meloria smiled in a faintly disingenuous fashion, “no one is as devout as my husband.  Alas I fear the Duke Regent does not have his brother’s constitution.  No common ailment would dare challenge his noble form.”

“I do believe you are right,” Mercu remarked.  “I do not think I have seen Arlen sick a day in the past fifteen years.”

“I think I saw him sniffle once,” Katrisha offered.

“So not completely impervious,” Meloria laughed, “just insufferably close.”  She turned to Laurel, “What is your business with Daven?  If it is not too sensitive of course.”

“Not at all,” Laurel nodded.  “Just a small matter I was asked to see to personally.  I have enough apprentices of my own, and a gifted young man has manifested in Aldermor.”

“Oh,” Meloria said shrewdly, “you may not have luck there.  He’s two already, taken on just in the last three months.  Plus his own children, it’s slowed down his more complicated work.”

“Who were the parents?” Laurel asked more than a bit curious.  “Not a traveling mage I dare hope?”

“No, no.”  Meloria shook her head.  “Nothing so scandalous.  Stranger in fact, a blacksmith’s daughter on one hand, and a fishing captain’s son on the other.  Neither of them have linage, but each of their parents are contentedly married by all accounts.  It seems there is a rash of emergants.  Daven has expressed some consternation on the matter, he says they are quite strong too.”

“How peculiar,” Laurel said stroking his beard.  “The mother of the young man I am to speak for confessed that while she did sleep with a traveling mage – she suspected the father was actually a local boy.  She blamed the mage for his sake.  Three strong emergents in one generation in Avrale.  That would be more than peculiar.”

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

The inside of Daven’s flame was as curious a sight onto itself.  Most of the floors were open framework surrounded in tinted glass – with abstract arrangements of mirrors that helped it glimmer at dawn, and dusk.  It was no more stairs than Laurel was used to climbing back home, but still a tiresome endeavor to reach the study on the top floor.

“Ah Laurel,” an elderly man said as Laurel ascended the last step.  He began to walk over to his guest.  “Do forgive me for not coming down.  I do not trust these two alone for a minute.”  He gestured to a young man, and woman who sat opposite each other at a workbench, visibly glanced up at each other, and giggled.

“It’s most alright Daven, and I am glad you remember me.  We have only met the once when you visited Brokhal some years ago.  Are your new students troublemakers?” Laurel asked curiously.

“After a fashion,” Daven glared at the two, and any hint of giggling ceased.  “It’s no place of mine to judge, but I’ll not have their parents set upon me for them dallying under my roof.”  He offered a hand to Laurel.

“Ah the troubles of youth.”  Laurel nodded, and shook the older man’s hand.  “Initially my visit was to be on behalf of a young man from Aldermor, but on hearing the news of your two students – giving my word aside – curiosity insisted that I visit.  Is it true they are both emergent?”

“So it would seem,” Daven nodded.  “The fathers both trust their wives implicitly.  None the less…well let me show you.”  He walked over to a shelf, and picked up a rod, and a large instrument with two curved prongs.  “Strictly speaking this is all conjecture, but do you know what this is,” he raised the pronged object.

“I’ll wager it measures something,”  Laurel said with the tilt of his head.  “I don’t recall precisely what, it’s been years since I’ve dabbled in advanced enchantment.”

“Simply it measures strand density in magical effects,” Daven said absently.  “It’s not exactly a precise science, as it must be calibrated to ambient sources.  This here,” he indicated the rod, “is a calibration tool.  It’s an old one, but doing the math for decay I know precisely how strong it should be.  Now fluctuations happen all the time, we enchanters mostly ignore them, since they are hard to find a baseline to measure against.”

“And you think a fluctuation happened recently?” Laurel wagered a guess.

“Well, recently being a relative thing,” Daven nodded.  “You are aware of Vemdel’s law are  you not?’  Laurel searched his memory, but upon taking too long Daven simply sighed at him.  “Court mages, you always forget the basics.  Too caught up in politics, and flashy showmanship to really appreciate the academic.  Vemdel’s law says that the rate of decay of an enchantment is inversely proportional to the ambient strands available during infusion.”

“So the age of the rod is the key here?” Laurel wagered another guess.  It had been a long time since someone had lectured him on anything magical, and he had forgotten how much he did not like it.

“Yes, quite,” Daven placed the rod between the prongs, and a rune formed above it.  “Twice as strong as it should be, give or take.  That implies exceptional excess ambient strands at the time.  Now this rod, it’s old, usually I’d have thrown it out, but it was made by my daughter, her, first notable enchanting success.  As such I also know precisely when it was made, and that was within weeks of when these two,” he gestured at his clearly distracted students, “hypothetically would have been conceived.”  He stood up a bit straighter.  “Now, I’ve done some measurements against some of my own work at the time, under the guise of ‘checking in.’ All of it, within about a two month period has decayed about half as much as it should have.  With results to either end trailing off to within margins for error.”

“So there was a significant spike,” Laurel mused.  “You think that caused a rash of emergants?”

“The rash of emergents I can confirm,” Daven said firmly, “the rest remains speculative.  What is not speculation is the farther west, the more one can find.  Two here, fifteen on Carth.  That’s just counting the major ones, I think there are a lot extra minor gifts kicking around, that no one has, or will notice.”

“A third major one out east in Aldermor,” Laurel added.  “Assuming the mother is right, and the father wasn’t a passing caravan mage.”

“Is that so,” Daven mused.  “There is a bit more to my speculation.  You are a student of the sky are you not?  I seem to recall hearing you have quite the orrery built up in your tower at Broken Hill.”

“Yes,” Laurel admitted.  “A hobby of sorts.”

“You know then of the dark companion?” Daven pressed.

“The hypothesis, yes,” Laurel said curiously.  “There have been some theories put forth, mathematical proofs based on orbital anomalies that claim to predict the path, but no observation has been made to prove it’s existence.  That is in part why it is called ‘dark’ because if it is there, it cannot be seen.”

“There have been several major bursts of emergent gifts recorded since the dawn of the Empire, and a few implied by pre-imperial record,” Daven started again.  “Now the date ranges are all very fuzzy for most of these surges in gift, but checking against them, and the period of the observable spike, and conception of this latest batch of emergents – then checking it against several of the projected orbital paths, one matches up.  Or rather it matches up with approximately when Thaea would pass through the path of the ‘companion.’”

“Have you submitted your findings to the Council?” Laurel asked suddenly quite interested.

“Not yet,” Daven shook his head, “nor am I sure I will bother.  The council has been no fan of mine since I resigned, and further has taken a dim view on conjectures regarding the ‘dark companion’ for, truthfully as long as I was in their number.”

“Unfortunate,” Laurel said disappointedly.

“Yes,” Daven nodded.  “Perhaps I will get around to it.  I need to project the course forward a bit, and make some observational attempts.  I don’t expect to see anything, no one ever has.”  He paused for a moment.  “So the boy in Aldermor, what of him?  It seems he was the original reason for your visit?”

“I’m a obliged, as a matter of course to ask if you would take him on as an apprentice,” Laurel said with a shrug.  “Yet under the circumstances I have no illusions you will do so.”

“No,” Daven shook his head.  “Much too busy with those two,” he gestured at his students again.  “I saw that,” he raised his voice slightly.  The two pulled their hands apart quickly, and pretended to have been working the whole time.  “I will put the two of you in separate labs if you can’t stay on task.”

“I wish you the best of luck with that,” Laurel laughed reservedly.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

Coria 9th, 644 E.R.

All were gathered in the courtyard at Wesrook Tower to bid goodbye to guests.  It was still early, and the twins were their usual sleepy selves.

“You are sure you can not stay longer?” Meloria implored more out of polite manner, than any real pressure.  She was actually quite aware of the schedules to be kept.

“Much as I would like to avoid South Rook entirely,” Laurel laughed, “I fear I must attend my appointments there.  At least by virtue of taking the western road I will have to stop there only once.”

“You must visit again,” Meloria said insistently.  “And bring these darlings with you again,” she added leaning a bit towards the twins, and Wren.  “And good Mercu as well,” she said with a smile.

“Wild horses could not keep me away my lady,” Mercu said with a nod of the head.

“Ah,” Meloria grinned, “but might they bring you?  I really must learn more of this breed from out east.”

“I will see you all at Broken Hill in a few weeks,” Charles said with a bow, seemingly directed particularly at Katrisha.

Millarae trotted up to Katrisha, and pulled slightly on her sleeve.  Confused Katrisha relented to lean closer.  Millarae got up on her toes, close to Katrisha’s ear, and failed entirely to whisper in spite of all other efforts to be conspiratorial, “My brother likes you.”

“I don…” Charles started defensively, and then cut himself off.  “I think you, and your sister are becoming fine ladies of the court.  Nothing more.”

“You like her,” Millarae said snootily, and stuck her tongue out at her brother.

Meloria covered her mouth to try and contain her laughter.  Katrisha narrowed her eyes at Charles – something seemed very fishy to her about the whole thing.  She was distracted however when Meloria spoke up.  “Should such a thing come to pass, it has my blessing.  Either of you girls would make darling additions to the family!”

“That might be a bit politically complicated,” Laurel offered, wary of Katrisha’s history with Charles, if not so many other issues.

“Ah but not strictly forbidden,” Meloria offered.  “If it is true love, ways can be found.”

“I assure you there is some distance to be walked along that road.”  Mercu cautioned, with humor.

“Ah, but that there is a road at all,” Meloria mused, “a lady can dream.”

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