“Royal Straights” – The Order: Book 6

Chapter 1

Coming home

Enric and his son both lifted their gaze from the board game between them and looked towards the two women on the grass, who were attacking each other with swords in a rather brutal manner. It was the sound of Pe’tala’s triumphant cry which had replaced the background noise of clanging steel that had caused them to look up.

“What is a setic exuse for a fighter?” the five-year old boy asked out of curiosity, mouthing what he thought he had just heard his aunt spit with gleeful malice.

Watching his mother and his aunt training their sword fighting was a never-failing source of funny new expressions. For some reason, however, his father usually didn’t appear particularly happy about having to answer his questions regarding their meaning. Every now and again he even suggested they go inside and continue their game in the main room, but Vedric shook his head vigorously every time, unwilling to give up the entertainment.

“A pathetic excuse for a fighter,” Enric corrected him absent-mindedly while watching how Eryn ducked behind a tree after having lost her sword. “It means your aunt thinks your mother is not particularly good with her sword.”

“I think she is very good with her sword,” Vedric uttered loyally, though his facial expression showed clearly that he didn’t consider his mother’s hiding behind a tree much of a heroic move.

“Come out from behind that helpless tree and surrender, you arrant coward!” Pe’tala called out, brandishing her sword as if she were about to fell the aforementioned helpless tree with a single blow.

“Arrant coward,” giggled Vedric and covered his mouth with both hands while his brown eyes sparkled with the joy of hearing all these unfriendly words he wasn’t supposed to use hurled around by grown-ups.

Enric sighed, aware that his son’s attention was unlikely to return to the game anytime soon. On the one hand he didn’t at all mind the boy’s watching the two women spar, since it would give him a basic understanding of a discipline he himself would have to start training in about half a year. Then again Eryn’s and Pe’tala’s understanding of swordplay was not exactly what the Order considered… adequate. There was a lot of cursing and name-calling involved, and also a rather unusual degree of creativity. Those two women showed a flagrant disregard for any and all rules of what was agreed to be honourable conduct in sword fighting. If Vedric followed this example, he would try the patience of his future combat trainer back home in Anyueel considerably.

Boy and man watched from the terrace as Eryn took a few deep breaths, before she raised a shield, shot several magic bolts at her sister and then dashed for the spot where her sword was lying in the grass. Pe’tala shielded herself hastily from the shots and cursed as Eryn grabbed the weapon and so denied her an easy victory.

Enric cleared his throat, then raised his voice, “May I remind you that a child is present? Again?”

Pe’tala smiled apologetically in his direction and approached her older sister anew.

Vedric observed the quick exchange of blows for several seconds, and when nothing interesting seemed about to happen, he returned his attention to his father.

“Why must we go away from here? I want to stay. Can’t we stay?”

Enric held back an exhausted sigh. They’d already had this very discussion at least ten times in as many days. And six months ago it had been exactly the same when they were about to leave Anyueel and go to Takhan. It was not as though the boy were unwilling to go to either Takhan or Anyueel, it was just that he was reluctant to move from where he was currently staying.

“I understand why you would like to stay longer. But I’m afraid it’s not in my power to grant you that wish. Your mother and I would get into serious trouble with Lord Tyront and the King if we just refused to come back.” He tousled his son’s brown hair, which was brighter than usual after half a year under the Western Territories’ sun. “There are good things as well. You will see Plia and your grandmother Gerit again.”

Vedric nodded slowly while watching his aunt swiftly dodging an attack as if he were weighing the disadvantage of not seeing her for six months against the benefit of having Plia and his grandmother again.

“Damn it!” they heard Pe’tala curse and once more looked towards the grass, where she lay on the ground while Eryn held the tip of her blade against her sister’s throat, a smug grin on her face.

Vedric jumped up and clapped his hands excitedly. A casual observer might have found this obvious pleasure at his mother’s victory endearing, yet he reacted just like that when his aunt was the one to win.

“What was the big mistake Pe’tala made? Why was your mother able to win?” Enric asked his son. He could just as well use this occasion to teach Vedric something that was bound to come in handy some time.

The boy stared at him for a while, then at the tree behind which Eryn had hidden. After about half a minute he shrugged.

“Pe’tala took away your mother’s weapon, but she just left it lying on the ground instead of making sure your mother couldn’t get it back again.”

Vedric didn’t seem to consider this a particularly interesting revelation and watched the two women approaching the seating island on the terrace. Eryn collapsed down the shield they had raised to separate the terrace from the temporary fighting ground and so keep the boy out of harm’s way.

Pe’tala sank down on the cushion next to her nephew and nodded at the game. “Who won?”

“No one,” Enric replied. “Somehow he was too distracted from your insults to concentrate properly on the game.”

She waved him off. “They were harmless. You should hear me when there are no observers around.”

“Do you know why you lost?” Vedric lectured her in a superior manner.

His aunt snorted. “Listen to you! Just like your father. He also enjoys forcing the doubtful benefit of his insights on people. Go on, then; why did I lose?”

“Because mother got her sword back! That was your fault,” he shared his borrowed wisdom.

Pe’tala leaned forward, her smile slightly edgy. “Really. Well, since you are such a bright young man you can surely tell me how I could have done it better?”

Vedric’s self-assurance faltered from one moment to the next. That was not the reaction he had expected. He had just wanted to say something smart and grown-up so he could shine for a moment, nothing more.

Enric smiled indulgently at his son’s slightly pleading look. “That’s what happens when you profess other people’s opinions as your own. Let it be a lesson to you.”

The boy was clearly none too happy about how the conversation had developed and decided to bestow his attention to the only adult who had not yet fallen out of favour with him: his mother.

Without a word he got up from his seat between his father and his aunt and walked the few paces to Eryn with ostentation. He sat down next to her.

“I’m glad you won,” he muttered with a sideways glance towards his aunt.

“As am I,” Eryn agreed and hid a smile. It seemed she was now the lucky sole recipient of all his affection. Well, she would make the most of it. “And you know what? She really shouldn’t have let me grab that sword again. I mean, I was hiding behind a tree without a weapon! She should have positioned herself between me and my sword so I couldn’t get it back.”

Vedric nodded emphatically. “Yes!”

Pe’tala rolled her eyes. “Oh please, sister! It is plain pathetic how hungry for affection you are. Simply embarrassing.” She looked around. “Where is my spawn, by the way? Not still asleep, is she?”

Enric shook his head. “No, she woke up about an hour ago. Rolan took her to visit your father.”

“And the two of you wanted rather to stay here and watch us fight,” Pe’tala enquired, “instead of joining them?”

“We decided to spend a few peaceful hours here since we are due to leave Takhan in two days. And we will see Valrad tomorrow anyway at the little get-together Malriel has arranged to send us off.” He smiled as Eryn groaned – her usual reaction to the mere mentioning of such events.

“Shouldn’t you be on your way to that exam of yours?” Eryn asked sullenly, as if sending him off would at the same time rid her of that unappealing prospect of not only having to attend a social event, but in addition to that one her mother hosted.

Enric nodded. “I’ll leave in about half an hour and should be getting myself ready now. Wish me luck.”

Pe’tala grinned. “Were you not the one to tell me once that luck is for the unprepared? That diligent people with the good sense to study sufficiently did not require that abstract concept, that it was a matter of cause and effect?”

He sighed and got up. “Trust you to throw my words back at me at a moment such as this one.”

She leaned forward. “Do not tell me you are nervous, Order Lord? Such a puny little exam is hardly likely to ruffle you, is it?”

“This is no puny little exam, as you like to term it,” he countered, annoyed because her words were not entirely untrue. He was indeed a fraction nervous and appreciated neither that she noticed it nor that she made fun of him. “After passing it I will be recognised as a full practitioner of the law in this country,” he replied with dignity.

“And what a life-changer that will be,” Pe’tala sneered. “It is not as if you did not have access to first grade legal advice already considering that your companion’s brother and your close friend Ram’an both are lawyers.”

Eryn lifted her hand to close it around his fingers. “Don’t listen to her. You will do fine. This is what you have been working towards these last four years. Go and dazzle them!”

“Nice timing, by the way,” Pe’tala went on to tease him. “Finishing your great final exam just before you leave the country where you could have made use of it.”

“Shut up, Tala,” her older sister growled.

“Shut up, Tala,” Vedric crowed happily, earing himself a cool stare from his aunt.

“She can say that, you cannot,” she admonished him.

Dejected, the boy sank back in the cushions, contemplating how unfair grown-ups generally were. If it was a bad thing, then nobody should be allowed to say it. If it was not a bad thing, then why couldn’t he say it? He suspected that they just made up the rules as they went along. When he was all grown-up one day and therefore allowed to invent rules as he pleased, he would never act unfairly towards children, he swore to himself. He would be like Vern. Vern was old, but he was nice.

“Make me proud, beloved,” Eryn smiled up at her companion. “Make the world a better place by giving it what it needs so desperately: another lawyer.”

Enric ground his teeth and pulled his hand from hers. “Thank you for your support, you two.”

Pe’tala sniggered as he turned around and disappeared inside through the terrace door.

Eryn eased herself up from her cushion.

“Going after him to hold his hand and ease his nerves like a supportive, devoted companion, sister?”

“Of course, you dolt,” Eryn replied and followed him inside.

Vedric bit his lip. His impulse would have been to repeat the unflattering term from sheer joy of having heard it.

“Do not dare,” his aunt warned him with narrowed eyes as if reading his thoughts. “I would not react any more favourably to your calling me a dolt than I did to your telling me to shut up.”

The boy folded his arms and glared at her. “I don’t like you right now.”

Pe’tala nodded, apparently understanding his feelings well. “That is alright. It will pass.”

*  *  *

More or less hiding in the Aren main room from Malriel’s guests and particularly from Malriel herself, Eryn let her gaze wander over the extensive gardens, holding on to her glass of sweet white wine. Yet another one of those tedious occasions the Head of House Aren insisted on hosting at regular intervals. To maintain the social structure, Malriel didn’t tire of explaining to her daughter time and again. And, of course, the impending departure of Eryn, Enric and their son after their most recent six-month stay in Takhan was a fabulous excuse for this one here.

For five years they had now been forced to divide their lives equally between the cities of Anyueel and Takhan. Though in Enric’s case not much forcing had been required, as he admitted quite freely. He was content with the arrangement which allowed him to pursue business interests in both countries and at the same time to enjoy a little freedom from the Order every few months. And now he had, only a day ago, completed his training to be a lawyer by passing his final exam with honours. Not that anybody had expected anything else from him. The Order – or rather his superior, friend and mentor Tyront – had done everything to turn Enric from a lazy young wastrel into a man who pushed himself into giving the best he could. An attitude Eryn didn’t share. She had a more economic approach towards accomplishments. The prospect of a good grade was hardly sufficient to propel her into making more of an effort than she felt a subject warranted in her opinion.

And then there was Vedric, who had never really known anything other than travelling between his two homes. Eryn hoped that wouldn’t turn out to be a problem one day. What if this constant uprooting destroyed any sense of home he would otherwise have developed? What if he grew up to be a man restless and tormented by the mere idea of having to settle down in one place with a family one day, being damned to wander the lands for the rest of his life?

These were precisely the kind of gloomy thoughts that tended to take hold of her whenever she had to endure another social occasion, pretending to get along with her mother just famously despite the fact that every single person present – as well as quite a number of people absent – knew it to be different. They were probably just waiting for another of these tense interactions or short outbursts between mother and daughter which those around them considered so very entertaining. It would keep the gossips going for at least another week. That was the one thing people on both sides of the sea had in common, no matter what other differences divided them – this love for wagging their tongues.

Eryn released her breath warily as her gaze landed on Malriel, who was walking in her direction. Malriel, Head of House Aren and Triarch of the Western Territories, was a beauty – very much to her daughter’s chagrin. Upon entering into a companionship with Eryn’s father only a few years ago, he had asked her to no longer manipulate her exterior in order to make herself appear younger. Eryn was convinced that the laws of nature did not intend for people to look more appealing with old age, at least not in the way Malriel did. Ten additional years had done nothing to diminish her dangerous charisma, sex appeal and natural grace. In some inexplicable way, the opposite had happened. It was as if her immense self-confidence, her sense of entitlement and her formidable reputation merely matched her age now. That Eryn’s facial features were almost her mother’s mirror image didn’t help. Not at all. Unfortunately, it just served to remind Eryn of their close connection and make Enric more indulgent towards his adoptive mother – and more receptive to her wishes.

Malriel approached the terrace door while dragging an immensely reluctant Vedric behind her, her fingers clenching firmly around his slender wrist. The boy’s face showed a slightly panicky expression as if he were expecting impending doom. His grandmother looked grim and determined. And upset.

If trouble had a face, it was probably that very one. And that meant that the short break from this tiresome gathering Eryn had managed to steal for herself by sneaking inside was about to come to an abrupt and hardly very peaceful end.

Malriel stopped right in front of her daughter and gave her a stony glare. “Why did my grandson just refer to me as Queen of Darkness – in front of my friends?”

Eryn suppressed a grimace. She really, really had to be more careful with some of her remarks around and to Vedric. With five years he was old enough to pick things up easily, but he could not yet fully grasp which better to keep to himself to avoid giving offence. Or getting his poor mother into trouble, as at this very moment.

She looked down at her son, then back at Malriel and shrugged.

“Because he is an unusually keen judge of character considering his age?” she ventured, deciding that insolence could not make this situation much worse and that she might just as well try and enjoy herself a little at Malriel’s expense.

Malriel pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes as though she were fending off an impending headache. “Is he really? So it seems as though he came up with that term all alone and my assumption that he must have heard it from you was incorrect.”

Eryn sighed and crouched before Vedric, who had followed the two women’s exchange with an uncertain frown as if he were aware that somebody was in trouble, but he wasn’t sure who and was fervently hoping that it wouldn’t turn out to be him.

“What did I tell you about that term, Vedric?” she asked pointedly.

He thought for a brief moment, then recited obediently, “Not to use it in polite company.”

She nodded and straightened again, looking at Malriel with an expression that was supposed to convey that there was no controlling a child’s tongue.

Vedric spoke up again, his voice matching the confusion on his face when he added unbidden, “But you said to father that bloody Malriel of House Aren was no more polite company than a pack of rabid street mongrels.”

Silence ensued. It had an edge.

Malriel’s lips were squeezed into a pale, angry line and it was evident that only the boy’s presence kept her from airing clearly none too friendly thoughts which were hardly suitable for polite company either.

The boy had recalled her words accurately enough, Eryn thought with an odd mix of dismay and pride. Even the explanation of the word rabid had clung to his mind. She had to give him credit for that. He had a good memory, that much was clear. Now they would just have to fine-tune his judgement when it came to putting words to which statements in front of what audience. But in this case the damage was already done.

“But Malriel’s friends are polite company,” she told him mildly.

The Head of House Aren shot her a devastating look before crouching down before her grandson.

“Vedric, my Heart, your mother was only joking when she said that. She would certainly not wish to make you think that this was an appropriate way of talking about one’s own mother.” Her eyes focused on her daughter again. “It would not make her a good role model and might lead you to believe that this is the way she wants to be treated by you one day. Now go off and play with your cousin. There is something I need to talk about with your mother.”

She waited until Vedric had rushed off towards Rolan and his daughter before returning her attention to Eryn.

Her brown eyes held a dangerous spark as she admonished her daughter, “This is not acceptable! I will not have you talk about me to the boy in such a disparaging manner! You have no right to do so. Just because you and I had certain… difficulties in the past, this does not mean that you are justified in trying to make him dislike me.”

“I am not doing anything of that kind,” Eryn shrugged, knowing fully well that Malriel was right – pulling her son into this was anything but mature. “He just likes the sound of Queen of Darkness. It sounds grand to him. Consider it a compliment.”

“I would infinitely prefer it if his compliments were less insulting, especially since every single person who heard him knows perfectly well where such a phrase came from,” she hissed.

Eryn’s mood brightened considerably at that. “So there were many people around to hear it?”

Malriel narrowed her eyes. “I see there is no having an adult conversation with you. I shall have a word with your father about this.”

The younger woman groaned. Valrad would certainly have a thing or two to say about having his grandson repeating Eryn’s insults to his companion, whether in public or private.

“Seriously? The mighty Head of House Aren runs to her companion for help when she is at her wit’s end with her own daughter? Isn’t this rather pitiful?”

Her mother smiled thinly. “I know what you are trying to do and it will not work. Seeking my companion’s help in a matter where I have little chance of succeeding is nothing to be ashamed of. I will have something done about your attitude, and as I am not getting through to you, I need to delegate this to somebody you will listen to. I may even point out to your own Head of House that his heir’s insulting me publicly does not serve to keep the relationship between our Houses as harmonious as it has been these last few years.”

“Vedric is no more than five years old!” Eryn groaned. “You are exaggerating this beyond all measure!”

“He may be, but you are not. And we both know that Vedric is not the issue here,” Malriel pointed out, having found her serenity again now that she had gained the upper hand in the conversation. She turned to walk down the terrace steps to the garden to join her guests again, smiling when she threw back over her shoulder, “Do not walk off, Theá, Valrad will be wanting to talk to you shortly.”

Eryn ground her teeth. Drat it.

* * *

Enric sighed when he looked at the terrace door and saw Valrad of House Vel’kim coming out of the room where he knew Eryn had been hiding these past twenty minutes. Her father looked a tiny bit tense around his mouth even though he was trying to hide it, not wanting to give away any clue that something was amiss. That just wouldn’t do at an occasion like this. Not that any of the guests really counted on peace and harmony as long as Eryn and Malriel were tarrying at the same place for more than a few minutes at a time.

Eryn followed several steps behind Valrad. In contrast to him she didn’t bother with any efforts at masking her personal discontent. There was what a well-meaning observer might designate a smile on her lips, yet her eyes were narrowed and left little doubt as to its sincerity.

So it seemed Eryn had been on the receiving end of a talking-to of some sort. Enric had little doubt that it had something to do with Malriel. Valrad had in these last five years been trying hard not to let himself be pushed into this position between his new companion and his newly discovered daughter. An endeavour doomed to fail in his case. The smart thing for him would have been to simply turn away from their squabbles, bickering and snide remarks to let them figure their issues out on their own. Yet Enric knew that this was for Valrad as impossible as choosing one side. He was stuck in the role as their eternal conciliator.

Malriel was the love of his life who he had admired from afar for decades. Only a few years ago he discovered that she shared his feelings, after her confinement in foreign parts and the threat of her life being taken away gave her the courage to declare her love for him.

And on the other side there was Eryn. Only a few months prior to his commitment to her mother had he discovered Eryn to be his natural daughter instead of his niece, a daughter for whom he’d had to fight hard so she might finally overcome her resentment for his betraying his only brother in such a way.

His profession as a healer and his position as head of the clinic came with a certain inclination towards helping, fixing problems, making things better. A noble yet in Enric’s view certainly self-destructive attitude when it came to Malriel and Eryn.

The two women had arrived at a stage where they couldn’t engage in open warfare any longer due to their shared affection for Valrad since this would hurt him greatly. The fact that the same man was near and dear to them both kept them from going for each other’s throats. And that was about the scale of it: tensions were generally kept at bay, yet occasionally erupted and became visible in their body language or through sarcastic and at times hurtful remarks.

There was a lot Eryn couldn’t quite bring herself to forgive, such as Malriel’s failed attempt to have her charged with the death of the man who had back then been considered her father and also her successful attempt to suspend Eryn’s contraceptive measures with the aid of a particularly effective – and highly illegal if administered without the recipient’s consent – magic fertility potion.

Malriel in turn still was a little resentful owing to Eryn’s renouncement of the House she had been born into. And the fact that Eryn got along splendidly with her grandmother Malhora, who Malriel herself had been having considerable trouble with for decades, provided for some additional friction.

All in all, the peace in this family was about as stable as a parchment roof in a thunderstorm. It seemed to Enric that only the men – namely Valrad, his son Vran’el and himself – kept things from escalating if not always placid.

“What has she done now?” Pe’tala murmured under her breath after stepping next to Enric. “Father is marching her somewhere. Do you see how his left nostril is twitching? A sure sign that he is upset underneath that unconvincing smile of his.”

“Malriel came out of the house several minutes earlier, so I assume those two had been exchanging words again,” he whispered back.

Pe’tala’s companion Rolan joined them. “Vedric just told me that Malriel seemed to be angry because he referred to her as Queen of Darkness.”

Enric stifled a groan. “I told Eryn to be careful when using that term in his presence. But I suppose bearing the consequences is a more effective way of curing her of that habit than anything I could say to her.”

They watched Valrad leading Eryn to the group of people around Malriel. Supposedly those were the witnesses to Vedric’s words. It seemed as though Valrad was insisting on some attempts at damage control from Eryn’s side.

Eryn smiled at the assembled group, said something, nodded and then laughed. Her hand gestures suggested that she was trying to explain away her son’s slip of the tongue. After less than two minutes Eryn excused herself and pointed towards Enric, very likely using him as a pretext for leaving them.

“Malriel looks satisfied,” Pe’tala sneered as soon as her sister reached them. “You obviously performed some convincing grovelling over there.”

Without much ado Eryn plucked Rolan’s glass from his fingers and drained it in one go by tipping her head back before saying, “I did. And now I feel dirty. I can’t tell you how glad I will be after tomorrow to get rid of that woman for six months.” She looked around. “My kid was supposed to be playing with yours. Where are they? It’s not a good sign when they are out of sight and things are so quiet.”

Rolan nodded towards the trees in a secluded corner of the garden away from breakable items such as glasses and plates. “Vern is playing hide and seek with them over there. He said he wanted to let us have a last quiet evening with you before we are deprived of your company again.”

Eryn snorted. “He finds these occasions about as joyful as I do. That was just an excuse to get away from these people for a few minutes. And one that made him appear considerate when he was actually being selfish.”

Pe’tala shrugged. “I know. But since this means that I can stand here with other adults for a few minutes without disturbance I am more than willing to let him get away with it. I imagine he wants to escape the same questions over and over: Does he look forward to going home again after such a long time? Will he miss Takhan a lot? What are his plans over there when he is back?”

Yes, Eryn had to admit that those very sentences had been popping up regularly in the course of these last few weeks. No wonder he was tired of hearing and answering them. For more than one reason, she suspected. He had waved off her attempts at talking to him about his return with a smile, telling her that everything was fine and that the prospect of going back to Anyueel was a happy one for him. Eryn didn’t believe that he was quite as relaxed as he wanted to have her think, but then at twenty-two years he was surely old enough to decide whether or not he wanted to share what bothered him.

“What are your plans for your last morning here?” Pe’tala asked.

“Ram’an invited us to his residence to have breakfast with Valcredy and himself,” Eryn said without much evident pleasure. Valcredy was the second person she wouldn’t mind leaving behind. Back in Anyueel, she had been Enric’s lover before Eryn had come along, and now she was joined with Ram’an for no other reason than the comfortable life and exalted status he could provide. That Ram’an had offered her just that in exchange for bearing him children who would be members of his House and be able to succeed him and take over the lead of House Arbil one day didn’t make much of a difference to Eryn.

She swiftly snatched herself another glass of white wine from a tray when a servant passed by.

“It seems I’ll be taking Vedric to bed tonight,” Enric said, resigned. “Chances are that you’ll be fast asleep before him if you keep up that intake of alcohol.”

“I’m being civilised and sociable despite the Queen of Darkness’ presence,” Eryn growled. “You can’t expect me to keep this up much longer and at the same time stay sober.”

“Wouldn’t have crossed my mind,” her companion smiled and clinked his glass with hers. Whatever she needed to endure Malriel without going spare for one last evening.

* * *

“Hm?” Eryn said and lifted her head from the hand on which she had propped it. A head that was incredibly heavy today and wouldn’t stay upright on its own.

“I was asking whether you had a nice evening yesterday at the Aren residence,” Ram’an repeated his question.

Eryn narrowed her eyes at Valcredy and the barely discernible sneer at Eryn’s hungover status.

“Fine. Lovely as always,” she deadpanned and reached out for her glass of juice.

Enric quickly leaned forward, picked it up from the table and pressed it into her hand, obviously slightly distrustful of her coordination skills right now.

Vedric, having finished his breakfast earlier and having been permitted to get up from the table, stormed towards them and flung himself into his mothers’ arms, narrowly avoiding catapulting the glass out of her hand.

“Mother!” he complained loudly, “Akalee bited me!”

Eryn flinched at the volume of his statement and then absentmindedly corrected him, “Akalee bit me.”

The boy’s brown eyes became round with astonishment. “You, too?”

His mother frowned, confused by the turn of conversation. “What?”

“What?” Vedric said, equally perplexed.

Enric’s lips were curved in slight amusement as he addressed his son to save his companion from having to engage in any even halfway meaningful conversation. “No, she didn’t bite your mother. You were just saying it wrong. Now, why did she bite you?”

Vedric’s gaze quickly landed on Valcredy and Ram’an as if unwilling to go into detail while the culprit’s parents were listening.

“I don’t know,” he finally uttered, deflated.

Enric knew better than to give up just yet. “What did you do or say before she bit you?” he insisted.

Judging from his son’s facial expression he seemed to have changed his mind about spilling the beans on his playmate, since it unexpectedly now entailed getting himself into trouble as well.

“Um… nothing,” Vedric stammered.

“Really?” Enric enquired, his brow drawn together. “If this is the truth you surely wouldn’t mind repeating it under a lie filter.”

The boy’s horrified expression gave him away even before he opened his mouth to quickly amend his prior statement. “Maybe I called her an ugly stone.”

“Did you now. Then maybe her biting you was not completely undeserved, don’t you think?” Enric replied reasonably.

Vedric didn’t meet his father’s gaze as he nodded wordlessly.

At this point Akalee, a delicate girl of four years with her mother’s blonde hair, appeared from around a corner. As soon as she beheld the group her large eyes teared up and only moments later her wide open mouth, showing all her teeth and pink gums, released a wail of agony.

Quite an accomplished little actress, Eryn couldn’t help but think, despite the pain the sound unleashed as it reverberated inside her head. Either boys generally didn’t do crying on demand or Vedric had decided not to resort to such measures out of male pride. Though judging from his astonished look, she rather suspected that he hadn’t mastered it yet.

Ram’an and Valcredy both rose in an instant, looking at each other rather sheepishly as if unsure who of them was to comfort their daughter.

Ridiculous, Eryn thought sourly. Those two had made two children together and must have seen each other naked, so how was it possible that they still behaved as if shy together? How business-like could an arrangement remain if it required living under the same roof for several years and raising children together? Not that it was any of her business, she reminded herself grumpily.

This was an old argument, one she had brought up with Ram’an every now and again since he had announced to her a few years back that he had offered Valcredy what amounted to a job as his companion and mother of his children. The discussions never led anywhere and more often than not ended with a fight, after which they usually didn’t talk to each other for at least a week. Every time this happened Eryn promised herself never again to speak of it. So far she had been holding fast to this resolution for more than a year. That was counting the six months she had not spent in this country, of course. One had to grasp little victories where they could be found.

Valcredy finally stepped towards her daughter, lifting the girl up and taking her to the sitting cushions.

“I am not an ugly bush!” Akalee sniffed.

“I didn’t say bush!” Vedric interjected, clearly appalled at having his words recounted inaccurately. “I said you were an ugly stone!”

That brought forth an even louder cry of distress from the little girl while her tanned little arms clung to her mother’s neck.

Eryn covered her eyes with one hand. Quite the diplomat, her son.

“As if an ugly stone were any improvement over an ugly bush,” she sighed and then let her head tilt back. “Neither article is particularly ugly. They are both not really suitable for an insult. Why not just call her ugly?” she murmured louder than she had intended.

“Do you think this is funny?” Valcredy’s voice was deadly, as was her stare.

Eryn shook her head, watching as the blonde singer cradled her child in her arms to give comfort. “No, not at all. The insult itself was unimaginative, and the response is too noisy by far for my taste. There are nothing but downsides to all this.”

Ram’an’s companion narrowed her eyes at her guest. “This is how you deal with your son’s rude behaviour?”

Eryn rolled her eyes. “What am I supposed to do, in your opinion? I mean, he got what he deserved – your daughter bit him! Why not let them figure this out among themselves? It’s a valuable occasion for them to develop problem solving skills.”

“Incredible,” muttered Valcredy and shook her head while continuing to soothe her sobbing daughter’s back. “But what did I expect of a woman obviously suffering from the consequences of too much alcohol? Some role model you are!”

“Well, we can’t all excel at making a living by being pretty and having a uterus, can we? How fortunate for your daughters that there is so much you can teach them,” Eryn said in a flat voice, too tired and annoyed to bother with false smiles and veiled insults. Even though insulting one’s hosts was not considered polite at all, this here at least was neither a member of the Senate in Takhan, nor of the Magic Council in Anyueel, so there would be no consequences other than a few ruffled feathers.

Enric and Ram’an exchanged an urgent look before both of them got to their feet as if on cue.

“It’s time for us to get back,” Enric announced. “Our ship leaves in less than three hours, and we need to make sure everything is packed.”

“Good riddance,” Valcredy griped almost inaudibly.

“What was that?” Eryn barked.

Wide, innocent blue eyes looked at her. “Nothing.”

Eryn took Enric’s hand and let herself be heaved up from the cushions on the floor. With a malicious look at Valcredy she stepped towards Ram’an and pulled him into an embrace. A long and tight embrace. When Enric cleared his throat, she kissed both Ram’an’s cheeks and ignored the hostess completely as she turned towards the gates.

Enric kissed Valcredy on one cheek, then clasped Ram’an’s arm, his expression apologetic.

Ram’an waved him off before he could say anything. “Do not worry, my friend. They will not be seeing each other for six months. Then we will try another civilised get-together. Have a safe journey home. Please be kind enough to send me a message bird to let me know that you have arrived safely, as always. Fare well, esteemed colleague.”

Enric smiled and nodded before scooping up his son and following Eryn down the path to the nearest exit. Unfortunately, Eryn had not chosen the most advantageous route for wandering off with her head held high. They would have to walk around the property and thus accept a considerable detour. But who was he to ruin her purposeful exit?

* * *

Enric looked out over the sea while leaning against the ship’s rail. Sunsets at sea always put him in a relaxed yet pensive frame of mind. The sun was dipping towards the horizon, getting closer to the sea, ever so slowly.

Without turning his head, he smiled as Eryn stepped next to him. That meant that Vedric must finally have fallen asleep, affording his parents a little alone time with each other.

Eryn and the sea had arrived at a fragile truce in the course of the past few years. The waves no longer made her seasick, and she in return refrained from emptying her stomach into the sea and colourfully cursing everything maritime.

Wordlessly, she hooked her arm through his and leaned her head onto his shoulder while watching as the sun touched the horizon. Even though ships were still not exactly her favourite things to be travelling on, this was the time of day when she actually understood the merits of being at sea.

Tiny waves reflected the weakening light of the disappearing sun in a column of dancing sparkles interspersed with shadows. Bands of clouds above them partly reflected and partly swallowed the dimming light as if painting a soothing picture for the world, gradually preparing it for the darkness that would soon envelop it.

The ship was gliding through the darkening waters almost silently, not at all hampered by the absence of wind to billow the sails and aid their progress. Magic had taken its place, making sure there was adequate propulsion.

Eryn looked up at her companion as she felt his nudge at her side. He lifted his chin towards the ship’s bow, where Vern was standing several paces away from them, his arms folded, his expression contemplative.

She nodded once and straightened to walk towards the young man.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he said without taking his eyes off the setting sun. “I was just thinking back to when I sailed across the sea for the first time, six years ago.”

Eryn smiled. She remembered it as well. He had been a boy of sixteen, excited about the adventure he had managed to get himself included in. Back then nobody would ever have imagined that it would take him six years to return to Anyueel. Six years – in the course of which he had trained to become a healer in accordance with the standards of the Western Territories, explored whatever artistic directions were open to him and had gained quite a reputation as a ladies’ man.

It was strange watching him grow up. As she had been changing location every six months it was always a surprise to return to Takhan and see how much Vern had changed both in physical appearance and mental maturity. He had grown and was now even a little taller than his father. But that was fairly much the only resemblance between them. The warrior had the muscular, lean body of a fighter. Vern, though far from scrawny, was clearly not of the athletic persuasion. He had long, slim, sensitive fingers that were proficient both in healing and crafting masterful art. His blonde, slightly wavy hair reached down to his shoulders in the style Takhan artists liked to wear.

His eyes were not quite as serious as they used to be. Takhan society had welcomed him with open arms, celebrated him as a prodigy while at home in Anyueel he had been an outcast, a strange boy with unusual interests and talents nobody really appreciated.

He had pretty much left his life in Anyueel behind him without even having to think about it as he had decided to prolong his stay in Takhan upon Valrad’s offer.

Apart from his family, of course, there had been little to hold him back. Too great were the chances and opportunities Takhan offered.

Orrin had visited his son twice a year for a few weeks and brought his companion Junar and his daughter Téa with him every time. He had timed it so he could join Eryn and Enric when they left Anyueel and go a second time shortly before they returned from Takhan. This time was an exception, though; he would be waiting on the pier to welcome his son back.

Eryn wondered if the warrior had been edgy and moody these last few days or even weeks preceding his son’s eagerly awaited return. And she was curious about what Vern’s living arrangements would be like. Would he move back in with his father or instead have his own quarters? He certainly could afford his own place with the money he had made selling his paintings in Takhan, and the wages he would draw when he resumed his work at the clinic in Anyueel.

“How are you getting along with Loft these days?” Vern asked into her thoughts after a few minutes of silence.

Eryn blew out her cheeks at the thought of the Head of Administration at the clinic in Anyueel. Loft. He used to be the King’s advisor, one of two. King Folrin had decided to find him a different position after the man had turned out to be rather less able to adapt to changes than would have been advisable in this position. Pe’tala had stolen Rolan, the clinic’s first Head of Administration, away to Takhan when she’d had to leave and return to her home. Following that the King had, after consulting with Rolan and Lord Poron, the clinic’s head, appointed his former advisor as his successor.

Eryn’s own history with Loft didn’t make for an amicable tale. He resented Eryn from the day she had been brought to the city as the King’s captive, had even suggested that the King utilise her to bear his children and return to the banned practice of having magically gifted heirs to the throne. His taking over Rolan’s position had not been a happy revelation for her. But then with Lord Poron as Head of Healers, she as an ordinary healer had hardly anything to do with the Head of Administration.

“I keep out of his way, and I think he employs the same tactic with me,” she shrugged. “If there is anything I think should be addressed I approach Lord Poron and have him deal with Loft.”

“He is doing a good job from what father told me last time.”

“I suppose,” she admitted reluctantly. “But then he just needs to make sure to keep what Rolan established running.” That was not entirely true, she knew. The clinic kept growing and had undergone constant change, so merely retaining what was established a few years ago wouldn’t have been adequate. Yet everything inside her tightened at the thought of saying something even remotely positive about that man, of acknowledging that he might actually be useful or capable.

“Do you already know where you will live? If you want, you can spend some time in our guest room until whichever place you may chose is ready,” she said, changing the topic.

He shook his head. “That’s really pleasant of you to offer, but father already arranged for quarters for me. I can move in there right away.” A smile curved his lips. “That will be a whole new experience for me, living completely on my own. Well, as much on my own as having somebody else do all the cooking and cleaning for me allows me to be. After your father moved in with Malriel and I stayed with Vran’el, your brother took Valrad’s promise to my father to look out for me really serious, even after I came of age.”

“That’s lawyers for you. They avoid breaking binding promises on principle. Mostly because they are too idle to deal with the consequences, I suspect,” she joked.

Vern smiled and looked out over the sea. The sun had completely disappeared now, leaving only a hint of a reddish glow in its wake that would be gone in no more than a few minutes.

“I look forward to getting home. The lost son is returning, keen to share all the wisdom he has collected from afar,” he said grandly.

“Oh boy,” she sighed and shook her head, “you are so full of it.”

Chapter 2

Re-adapting

Enric, leaning against the deck railing, lifted his arm in greeting when he made out the four people standing on the pier who were waiting for them. Orrin’s own hand lifted in an equally composed manner, while Junar and their five-year old daughter Téa waved with considerably more excitement. But for two Order magicians such an unwarranted display of emotion wouldn’t do. It just wasn’t proper. People would natter about it just the way they talked about every other piece of nonsense that offered some minor distraction from their drab daily routine.

Vern squeezed his eyes together to identify the fourth person standing with his family. After a few moments, they widened.

“Is that Plia?” he gasped.

Eryn glanced at him sideways. “Of course that’s Plia. She always shows up to meet us here when we return from the Western Territories.”

Vern still stared straight ahead at the small group that swelled a little with every minute. “She has certainly grown up,” he remarked.

She chuckled. “Well, what did you expect? She didn’t stop ageing to facilitate your re-adaptation, if that’s what you were expecting.”

“No, I just…” he started, then broke off, at a loss for words.

Eryn grinned and forced herself to refrain from commenting on his reaction. She remembered that there seemed to have been a certain… attraction between Plia and Vern before the boy had opted for leaving his home for such a long time. A sweet, innocent admiration between two young people who were only starting to discover what wondrous sensations accompanied the process of growing up.

Plia had been no more than fourteen years old at that time – too young for him to act on whatever draw he might have felt towards her. Eryn had warned him about keeping his hands to himself until the girl was older.

After Eryn had reconstructed Plia’s face by healing away the damage some fire had done when she was a baby, the girl had reclaimed the innate beauty which nature had originally endowed her with. She had only recently come of age and had grown into a serious, rather reserved young woman who took great pride in her work. This was the only area where she actually stood up for what she believed in, unwilling to accept anything she considered detrimental to the quality of her medicine. Even Loft, the clinic’s Head of Administration and her superior, had more than once experienced unforgiving stares from her green eyes in combination with her sternly folded arms when he attempted to establish something the young woman considered unfavourable to her work.

“Does she still live with Enric’s mother?” Vern then asked, unwilling to take his eyes off Plia.

“Sure. Though I don’t know for how much longer she plans to,” Eryn replied, then looked at him, surprised. “How come you don’t know that? Wouldn’t she have written to you about moving out?”

Vern gulped, his expression suddenly pained. “Well, we didn’t really stay in contact.”

Eryn blinked. That was unexpected. “You haven’t written to her in all this time? Why not? Did you have a fight or anything?”

He shook his head. “No. There was just so much to do, to see, to learn…”

She squeezed her lips together to hold inside the reproof that was ready on the tip of her tongue. So he had simply not bothered writing to Plia, virtually the only friend his age he’d ever had in the Kingdom. He had been too busy enjoying his new life, his status of artistic genius, of healing apprentice, of being the target of numerous women’s attentions and hadn’t taken the time to stay in contact with little Plia, who had never shown him anything but kindness and esteem.

In all these years Plia had never even once mentioned this to Eryn, never uttered a single word of complaint or shown resentment when Eryn talked about him. Even though such neglect must have hurt. And now he was returning, just like that, deciding now that he laid eyes on her again she was pretty enough for him to show interest in her again after more than five years. Just swell.

Eryn swallowed the anger at such thoughtless abandon, determined not to express her sentiments in any way. This was not her problem, but Plia’s. She would neither advise the girl to treat Vern any less well than he deserved, nor would she scold Vern for his behaviour – no matter how tempting. They were both of age, both officially grown up.

She looked down as two small arms wrapped themselves around her thighs. Vedric was too short to peek over the railing to see what was going on.

“Are we there yet?” he wanted to know.

“Almost,” she replied, glad to be distracted from her anger at Vern. This was a joyous occasion, she didn’t want to feel peeved right now.

“How much longer?” Vedric persisted.

“Not much longer.”

“Are we there now?”

“Yes.”

His little face, which bore such great resemblance to his father’s, brightened. “Really?”

“No. Stop asking me that or I’ll send you to sleep and you won’t be able to say hello to Téa,” she threatened. She saw one of the sailors give her a disapproving glance. This exchange might have appeared a tiny bit heartless, yet she knew with certainty that not cutting Vedric off in time would result in lengthy discussions which involved unending repetitions of the very same question.

Finally, the massive anchor was dropped with a clatter of noisy chains and busy hands put the gangplank in place, allowing the passengers to disembark after they had been two and a half days at sea. Eryn was glad they had established shipping traffic between Bonhet and the city, saving them the time of travelling by road. Thanks to magically gifted mariners, going upstream was no problem at all, all without employing animals to pull the heavy vessel along at hardly any discernible speed.

“You may now hold on to my hand and be the first to leave the ship with me,” she offered. Vedric eagerly gripped her fingers and made to dash towards the gangplank.

“Easy, Vedric. There is no rush. Instead, be careful you don’t slip and fall into the river,” she warned him, but knew even before she had finished speaking that he wasn’t listening to her. He had spotted Téa who was being kept under control by her father in a similar manner so she wouldn’t simply rush off to welcome the newcomers without being careful of her footing so close to the water.

“Téa!” Vedric called out and tried to pull on his mother’s hand to induce her to speed up her steps.

Junar laughed as the arrivals joined the small welcoming committee. “Your whirlwind is just as eager as ours! Welcome back, everyone!” Eryn hugged first the seamstress, then Plia. Téa, her little namesake, seemed to be engaged in some kind of battle of words with Vedric. Both of them chattered at each other with astonishing speed, and Eryn wondered if either of them understood what the other was saying or if the objective was rather to just get rid of one’s own news as quickly as possible.

She turned towards Orrin, who was slapping his son on the back in a wholehearted, manly greeting, just the way he tended to greet Enric after they hadn’t seen each other for some months. It seemed an oddly distant way for a man to greet his own son after such a long time, but Eryn knew that this was about keeping up appearances. The topmost warrior in the Order was not supposed to appear too human in public. And hugging another man might have conveyed just that impression, no matter that it was his son. Yet she knew for sure that this was exactly what Orrin would do as soon as they were behind closed doors.

Fortunately, such restrictions did not apply when it came to interactions with women, so she was able to hug Orrin in public without destroying his carefully cultivated reputation of the fearsome fighter. Everybody knew that the weaker sex almost depended on being touched and hugged – as opposed to men who, of course, would rather shave their eyeballs with a rusty razor than admit to such an intense and embarrassing weakness as a fondness for physical contact.

Eryn unobtrusively observed from the corner of one eye how Plia gave Vern a polite smile and stretched her hand out for him to shake.

“Welcome back, Vern. It has been a while,” she said pleasantly.

Eryn applauded inwardly. That had been done exceedingly well. Plia had shown him that this absence of correspondence in these last six years didn’t bother her in the least, that they were nothing more than acquaintances who hadn’t met in a while. Eryn doubted that this reflected how Plia truly felt, but it was very well played nevertheless.

Vern appeared flummoxed by the greeting. He had probably expected either a teary welcome or coolness stemming from hurt feelings, Eryn suspected. Well, well; if that already threw him off track, he wasn’t going to respond very well upon learning that Plia was in a relationship with a charming young carpenter.

“So, Orrin,” she said to the warrior and then greeted him with her usual question every time they met after a longer absence, “has that terrible Order finally been terminated or transformed into anything useful? Such as a group of travelling musicians or something of that kind?”

“No, still intact,” he replied good-naturedly and asked in return, “How about resuming our combat training tomorrow morning? I bet you have been neglecting it in foreign parts, just as you always do.”

“Tomorrow?” She pretended to think it over. “I don’t think I’m available tomorrow. That demanding superior of ours and the Royal pain-in-my-neck will want to see us right away, I’d bet you anything on that.”

Enric shook his head slightly, but saved himself the trouble of – once again – pointing out to her, how imprudent it was to utter such remarks as long as their son was within earshot. It seemed the little encounter with Malriel only a few days ago had made her none the wiser.

*  *  *

Back at their home, Enric opened the door to the yard to let the mountain cat outside. He had woken Urban a few minutes ago after she had spent the last four days in a magically induced sleep in a wooden crate. Now she needed to readapt to a different climate, to cooler temperatures. That usually took her a day or two.

Adapting was always an issue whenever they changed locations, for all of them. Six months might not seem long to be gone from a place, yet there were always little changes both to the respective societies they returned to and also in themselves. Vedric was an impressive example for that. Every time they arrived either in Takhan or in Anyueel, they had to exchange his entire wardrobe because nothing suitable for the local climate fit him any longer.

He went into his study, picking up the messages which had been delivered in the course of the past few days. Anything prior to that had been forwarded to their residence in Takhan. One message from Tyront, another from the King, both ordering him very politely to come and see them on the day after his arrival. This had turned into a routine, one he would have adhered to even without being summoned. Eryn would find the same messages on her own desk, with maybe a third from Lord Poron. That last one, however, would really be a friendly invitation to sit down, drink a cup of tea and discuss the goings on at the clinic.

Eryn’s position when it came to healing was a slightly complicated one and had been for the last six years since Lord Poron had been made Head of Healers – the position Eryn herself had initially counted on taking over. Lord Poron was number five in strength, while Eryn was number three. In an institution where rank depended on magical strength this made her his superior. Yet as Eryn also did some work at the clinic in her capacity as a healer that made her in turn answerable to Lord Poron, since he was in charge of the discipline. So she was her own subordinate’s subordinate.

After some initial difficulties regarding responsibilities Eryn and Lord Poron had settled into a comfortable, semi-official routine. Lord Poron reported to Eryn – which he had to do. And he asked for her opinion and advice and shared his private thoughts with her – which he didn’t need to. Eryn in turn didn’t treat him as a subordinate but accepted his decisions even if she herself would have done something differently. They managed to keep the clinic running and constantly improve it in a spirit of cooperation and equality. That Eryn was no great friend of hierarchies made matters a lot easier, Enric imagined. Even though Lord Poron had never even once expressed any sentiment that would hint at his being dissatisfied about being subordinated to a woman less than half his age, Eryn’s aversion to flaunting her rank doubtlessly made things more uncomplicated.

“The usual?”

He looked up when Eryn strolled into his study, holding a couple of messages in her hand.

“Yes, the King and Tyront.” He nodded at the sheets in her hand. “And you had one from Lord Poron as well, I assume?”

“As always, yes.” She let herself sink onto the sofa next to his desk. “For me this has turned into some kind of welcoming ritual – coming home, having the same three messages waiting in my study every time. I suppose I’d be seriously troubled should there only be two of them waiting for me one day.” She lifted one of the papers. “The King wants to see me twice. Once with you and once with Vedric. That’s new. Any idea what that could be about?”

Enric thought for a moment. “He is Vedric’s guardian. And the boy is now getting old enough to have halfway sensible conversations with.”

“So you think he wants to start playing the nice uncle? Why does he want to see me with the boy, why not you or both of us?”

“Well, he’s always been attracted to you more than to me,” he replied, his tone somewhat brittle.

She laughed. “I doubt that this is his primary motivation. He just finds me easier to manipulate than you.”

He smiled. She was right about that, though her own skills in political strategy or as she liked to term it the discipline of manipulating and lying to others to make them do what you want had improved over these last few years as well.

He watched her as she was scanning the King’s message once again. A beautiful, dark-haired woman in her mid-thirties, her skin tanned from their stay in a desert country, her brown eyes tracing the written lines on the paper in front of her. They had been together for about seven years now. The best seven years of his life so far. They’d had to overcome a few substantial obstacles and difficulties in the past, yet so far they had remained victorious.

She had enriched his life beyond imagination. There was, of course, the matter of having a person with him he loved more than life itself. That alone was a remarkable improvement compared to the first thirty-four years of his life. But being with Eryn had turned out to involve quite a bit more. Thanks to her brother Vran’el, the Head of the House she had let herself be adopted into, they had to spend six out of every twelve months in Takhan since Vran’el wanted to be in close contact with Vedric, the current heir to his position. As well as with his sister from foreign parts. Had it not been for the King, who had an equally powerful hold over both Eryn and Enric, Vran’el might even have tried to force them to relocate to the Western Territories permanently.

In short, being Eryn’s companion had bestowed upon him a whole new family, new friends, a new culture, new business opportunities and also a change of perception about various issues. She had been raised in modest circumstances and been taught by the man she had considered her father, meaning that she saw being in possession of a large amount of money not an aim in life worth striving for. This had in the past resulted in numerous discussions between Eryn and Enric. He had finally managed to soothe her conscience by letting her use part of their considerable financial resources to establish and run an orphanage and dedicate to whatever other charitable matters she saw worthy.

And then there was their son she had gifted him with – even though not exactly voluntarily. He had for a while hoped to have another child, but Eryn had initially not even wanted her first one, and had ensured that there wouldn’t be another. Ever. She had taken permanent measures which no fertility potion, however powerful, could ever overcome.

“I’m tired,” Eryn sighed.

“Then go and have a lie-down, my love. Vedric will be with Orrin and Junar for a while yet, and the servants will handle our luggage. Would you like to take a bath first?”

That made her smile longingly. A bath. She loved baths. Yet spending half a year in a country where water was rather scarce didn’t present her with that opportunity very often. At least not without pangs of guilt when she thought of people in the city who were in need of it.

“I think I will, yes. I’ll just pick a book to fall asleep over afterwards.” With that she got up and walked out of his study, absentmindedly leaving behind her messages on his sofa.

*  *  *

“Lady Eryn. As always after your stay in Takhan, I am glad to have you back among us. Life in the city tends to be rather more rich in variety and entertainment during the months you spend here with us,” the King smiled and reached out to take both her hands and pull her close enough to kiss her cheeks.

She gave a heavy sigh within herself. She had nobody but herself to blame for that. Five years ago she had very boldly demonstrated to him that she no longer feared his touch, since which he had decided to adopt the traditional greeting from her home country and make it his own every time he met her more or less alone. She found it a little too forward considering their relationship of king and subject, but she understood that this factor – overstepping that boundary – was the very thing which made it so enjoyable for him.

“Your Majesty,” she replied, “It certainly is good to be back.”

The King’s gaze wandered over to five-year-old Vedric, who only now remembered that he was supposed to follow a certain protocol when meeting the man with the golden crown on his head and performed a hasty, slightly jerky bow.

“Young man.” The monarch acknowledged him with a nod. “How were things in Takhan?”

The boy thought for a moment, then his face brightened. “There was a big sandstorm! There was sand everywhere, even in my underwear and between my toes! And in my ears!” Then his face fell. “But then the magicians just made it stop.”

“We didn’t really stop it, my love,” Eryn smiled at his disappointment at having that particular force of nature rendered harmless before he’d had a chance to sufficiently explore all the potential terrors it could bestow. “We were merely shielding the city.”

Vedric shrugged at that, obviously seeing little sense in having that useless detail pointed out to him when the result was the same from where he stood. He looked back at the King. “And I spent a night at the orphanage! It was so great – they can sleep in the same room with other children, and there is always somebody who wants to play! But I had to go home again next morning after breakfast,” he added, having once again been deprived of a chance for amusement.

“You were not supposed to enjoy it,” his mother pointed out with a slightly irritated undertone. “It was meant to be educational and show you how privileged your own life is compared to other children’s.”

The King smiled. “I see. Obviously your son appears to share your own disregard for luxury, my dear Lady. I imagine that the adventure of spending a night in a house full of children more than counterbalanced the missing grandeur he knows from both his own homes. An only child has different priorities than one with siblings – such as having ready playmates available at his place at all times, for once.”

Eryn smiled insincerely, tired of having that topic brought up yet again. As if Malriel’s pressing her to procreate again and other people’s well-meaning hints weren’t irritating enough. But of course the King wouldn’t ignore such an opportune chance of vexing her. It just wouldn’t be like him.

“Oh, of course,” she nodded and then added in a voice heavy with sarcasm, “Then I’d better take care of providing him with a sibling to fill that terrible void in his life.”

“A brother!” Vedric jumped up and down, clapping his hands. “I want a brother!”

She turned and looked down at him, wondering how he managed to make every conversation he participated in so strenuous for her lately. “Firstly, that was a sarcastic remark. We talked about sarcasm – it’s when you don’t really mean what you say, but the exact opposite. I have no intention of having another child. And secondly, even in the unlikely case of your getting a sibling, there still is the chance that it would be a girl.”

“But we have so many girls already!” he protested, completely ignoring the part where he had been told that there would be no sibling. He used his fingers to recount the list of females his age on both sides of the sea. “There is Téa, Ha’im, Akalee and Zahyn!” It sounded as if Orrin, Pe’tala and Ram’an had only produced girls to make his life as hard as possible.

“I assume there were boys at the orphanage?” the monarch enquired with a knowing smile.

“Yes, many!” Vedric confirmed eagerly, his eyes wide with joy at the memory. “One of them could burp my name!”

The King nodded, obviously not in the least surprised by Vedric’s admiration for that particular skill. “An impressive feat really. A pity that your parents do not seem to be willing to oblige you in the matter of gifting you with a brother, my young friend.”

“Father would. Mother says No,” the boy sighed and shot her an accusing glance.

“Who says that?” Eryn snapped.

“Grandmother,” he supplied triumphantly as if he had just proven the truth of the statement by quoting a particularly trustworthy source.

“Speaking of your grandmother,” King Folrin cut in before Eryn could reply. “How is Malriel doing?”

Vedric sighed. “She says I mustn’t call her Queen of Darkness, it’s not nice.”

The monarch nodded slowly. “She is right, it is not. Your mother will certainly work on guarding her tongue in your presence from now on, I would imagine. Keen young ears and a mouth that shows little restraint in sharing delicate tidbits are never an unproblematic combination.” He looked down at the boy thoughtfully before asking, “What terms does your mother apply when taking about me?”

Eryn’s eyes widened in alarm. She gulped, then quickly took her son’s hand in hers and gave it a warning squeeze. This was not good.

“Your Majesty, I think…” she started, but the monarch lifted a silencing hand without sparing her a glance.

He kept his eyes trained on the boy and smiled. “Please, Lady Eryn, do not interrupt the conversation I am having with your son. It is not polite.” He pointed at the thin gold band on his head. “Now, young man, you are aware what this means, are you not?”

Vedric nodded and supplied happily, “You are the King and everybody has to do what you say.”

“Very good. A lesson a young person cannot learn at too early an age in my opinion. You also have to follow your mother’s instructions, of course. Yet should my wishes and hers not be the same, you would have to bow to mine. Do you understand?”

“Yes. You are more important than her,” the boy stated solemnly.

“Yes, why not?” the King agreed after a moment’s thought. “Let us put it like that for simplicity’s sake. Now, what does your mother generally call me when she speaks about me?”

A bloody nuisance if ever there was one,” Vedric answered like the well-behaved little boy he wasn’t but could at times impersonate so convincingly when it suited his purposes.

“I see. Anything else?”

Royal pain in my neck,” Vedric added after a moment’s thought, then shrugged.

Eryn closed her eyes. She should have temporarily impaired his vocal cords to keep him from answering as soon as the King addressed him. Why did she think of that only now?

“How very interesting. Thank you very much, Vedric. You did well. Let me ask you another question: what does your father call me?”

“His Majesty. King Folrin. Or the King,” the boy replied without hesitation.

“Indeed. And how does he refer to your grandmother?”

“Malriel.”

“Always? There is no other name he likes to call her? Not even when he is angry?”

Vedric thought for a moment, then shook his head.

“Very well. I admit I am not surprised at Lord Enric’s providence when it comes to the expressions he employs, even in private. I imagine there is a lesson in this for both you and your mother. Namely that referring to a person with the proper name or title at all times, even when in anger, may in time serve to avoid trouble.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Eryn murmured, demurely keeping her gaze on the floor to hide her frustration about being lectured together with a five-year-old.

“Vedric,” King Folrin continued, “I have an important task for you. I need you to assist me in helping your mother deal with her… difficulties with showing respect. So I am asking you to correct her every time she uses a term that might not be considered polite or respectful. Can I rely on you for this?”

The boy squared his shoulders and nodded, clearly thrilled at being considered important enough to be granted the privilege of being of service to the King himself.

“Excellent.”

* * *

Tyront indicated for Enric to take a seat in the parlour, while filling two glasses with the wine Enric was known to prefer. Even though the reason for this meeting was Order business, he didn’t want to hold it in his study. His first get-together with Enric alone, after several months apart with nothing but written exchanges, needed to take place in more amiable settings. Since their first and so far only altercation several years ago when Enric had ignored his superior’s order and nearly choked the King lifeless, Tyront had been careful to make sure that they always separated on friendly terms when Enric had to leave the country and to reunite with equal cordiality.

“So,” Enric said after accepting the glass, “out with it.”

Tyront didn’t bother denying that there was something he wanted to address. Something he hadn’t wanted to bring up during their meeting earlier that same day when Eryn was present.

“I need you to go to Bonhet to have a look at how things are going at the newly established Order outpost. I want our colleagues there to keep in mind that just because they are now at a different location than our headquarters doesn’t mean they are any less answerable to us here.”

Enric nodded. He wasn’t thrilled with that assignment, yet knew that it was a sensible one. And it hadn’t exactly come out of the blue. This was the very first time in centuries that magicians were allowed to leave the capital in order to settle somewhere else. Well, not completely wherever they fancied but in a designated order outpost, but even so. It had to be made clear from the start that this new location did not afford them any autonomy from the Order’s regulations or the duties they entailed. And who better to remind them of this than the number two of the Order? Tyront wasn’t free to travel, he needed to be available at short notice and keep the Magic Council in check.

“You could take Eryn and the boy with you,” Tyront suggested as if to soften the blow of sending him off again so shortly after his return from the Western Territories. “A few healers will be stationed there as well, after all. She might be of service when it comes to getting them settled in.”

The younger man smiled in appreciation of the gesture, but shook his head regretfully. “It wouldn’t be fair to take her away from here again so soon. She needs some time to reconnect with the people dear to her, follow up on all the changes that have happened during our absence. There are always a few difficulties that don’t find their way into any of the messages we are sent and need to be uncovered bit by bit after our return here. And Vedric also needs to adapt to his routine here quickly. He is supposed to be starting his first lessons in a few months, after all.”

“I know you would rather not go, either,” Tyront said and leaned back with his glass. “And I appreciate that you have abstained from complaining or trying to change my mind. I won’t send you there for long. Two or three days should suffice to make sure everything is in place there.”

For now, Enric thought. The second new outpost in Rokhstend was supposed to open in a few months’ time, and he had little doubt that he would be sent there as well. And be despatched whenever there was trouble at either location and his authority or expertise were required to handle it. But at least there were birds available to communicate with the outposts expeditiously and solve minor issues quickly and without the need to travel there whenever something went amiss.

“Then I would suggest you leave here within the next few days so that you are able to return soon and finally start settling back in here. I hear Vern has already moved into his new quarters,” Tyront posed, changing the topic away from the inconvenient deployment.

“That he has, yes. They are not far from the clinic so he doesn’t need to walk far to get to work. The money he earned with his artwork in Takhan enabled him to pick lodgings not many others his age could afford without depending on their parents’ financial support.”

The Order’s leader nodded. “I know. At least he’ll be able to live comfortably. It is the one positive aspect, since I would expect that returning here to having his artistic talent underappreciated won’t be easy for him.”

That was exactly what Enric was concerned about as well. Vern had not been back in Anyueel even once since starting his training in Takhan. Apart from the occasions when his family visited him in Takhan he’d had no contact with his homeland. There were limitations to what he could do in here Anyueel which simply did not exist in Takhan. He wondered whether this would cause Vern frustration – and whether the boy, or rather young man, would be able to overcome it.

“Orrin is immensely glad to have his lad back,” Tyront chuckled. “I cannot even count how often he made me assure him that there was no way for Vern to prolong his stay after passing his certification exams, that the Order would not agree to any potential request of that kind. Not that the boy made one, mind you. He either missed his home and wanted to come back, didn’t want to break his father’s heart or knew that there would be little hope of our letting him stay there any longer.”

“We will have to grant him permission to return to Takhan for occasional short visits, though,” Enric pointed out. “He made many friends there and will also want to stay in contact with his colleagues and fellow artists.” Which was another matter which might cause Vern grief – he was leaving a lot more friends behind in Takhan than he returned to in Anyueel. But at least he hadn’t been required to leave a lover behind. Being heartbroken, in addition to starting out again in Anyueel, would have made things considerably tougher for him. Vern’s affairs, however, were known to have been brief and numerous, never lasting long enough to form any serious attachment to any of his partners in pleasure.

“That won’t be a problem. We will insist he times his visits there in such a way that he is able to return together with you to Anyueel.”

Enric swirled the wine in his glass, watching how the dark liquid swallowed the light. “So you fear he wouldn’t return voluntarily without somebody making sure he boards the ship?”

“I wouldn’t put it quite that drastically, but it doesn’t hurt to err on the safe side, does it?”

Enric nodded. His sentiment exactly.

*  *  *

Eryn pushed the clinic doors open for the first time in six months. The action generated a feeling like coming home for a second time. No matter that Lord Poron had been made Head of Healers – all of this was still hers. She had started it all, set it up, watched over it and aided its growth. Though there was a pang of sadness at the thought that rather a lot of growth and many changes now happened in her absence. Certainly, Lord Poron had kept her updated with everything that had been happening during her stays in Takhan in his messages, yet it was a difference whether one could actively participate in shaping the place or merely be informed about how others were doing so.

Even now after her return she wasn’t really in a position to take decisions, but merely advise Lord Poron and the King and see whether or not they considered her ideas workable enough to implement. Not that she could complain about their not heeding her advice. Quite the opposite – they took pains to involve her and avoid giving her the impression that she no longer belonged. Nonetheless things had become so very bureaucratic these days. Sure, a growing number of healers from two different countries working at the clinic as well as the first group of non-magical healers they had started training a year ago required a certain structure, that she was aware of. Though in her opinion there was also quite a bit of the Order’s handiwork apparent. If things were rather complicated already, the Order managed to render them almost incomprehensible after insisting they be done their long-established, dusty, red-tape laden manner.

She continued her way to the upstairs kitchen they had furnished two years ago. That was when, thanks to the growing number of healers both from Takhan and Anyueel, the little room downstairs just hadn’t been up to the task of providing space for them all any longer.

Newcomers quickly adapted to the routine of starting the day with an informal get-together in the kitchen, sharing a warm drink and gossiping about this and that. It was an effective way of strengthening a feeling of camaraderie amongst the healers and aided in quickly introducing new additions to the entire team.

Cheers went up as Eryn entered the room, and Lebern – one of the first healers she had taken on and trained when she had opened the clinic several years ago – called out, “Look who’s returned from across the seas! Lady Maltheá of House Vel’kim!”

Eryn scowled at him. He knew very well how much she hated being addressed with her title and with her official name in Takhan. The name which still connected her with Malriel of House Aren as it showed that they had started out from the same family.

“You go on like that and I’ll send the things I’ve brought along back to Takhan.”

Lebern perked up. “You’ve brought gifts?”

“Of course I did. Several sets of instruments for diagnosis and treatment, two more books on healing herbs my father wrote and several barrels of this terrible drink you fancy because it keeps you awake and alert.”

Onil laughed. “You go on like this and we will have to celebrate every return of yours from Takhan with a parade.”

Eryn shook her head, glad that despite the growing number of healers and her long absences she fell back into place among them all so effortlessly. “Opportunistic bunch. Get out of my way, I need something to drink.”

“The usual?,” another healer asked. Seeing her nod, he took a mug, filled it with water and shook in some of her favoured herbal powder from a glass jar, before heating it with a little magic then handing it to her.

Eryn smiled gratefully, enjoying the warm feeling of having returned to a place where people made her feel she belonged, where they knew what she liked to drink in the morning and welcomed her back every time she returned.

“Are you off to see LP?” Lebern asked with a grin. LP was how they referred to Lord Poron these days, at times even in his presence. He didn’t mind, though, but considered it a term of endearment.

“Yes, why?”

“Be prepared for a tiny surprise, then.”

At her questioning look he just grinned, obviously not intending to let her know what to expect.

“Alright, I’ll be off then and see what that cryptic remark is all about. The things from Takhan should be delivered some time today from the port. Make sure somebody signs for them and then puts them where they belong.”

With that she turned and walked the few steps to Lord Poron’s study.

“Enter,” she heard him answer her knock and opened the door.

Loft with his bald head and perpetual frown was standing in front of the desk, casting nothing more than a fleeting glance in her direction. He was obviously just as unenthusiastic about encountering her as she was about seeing him. They exchanged a curt nod, then Loft went towards the connecting door and disappeared into his own room.

Lord Poron rose from his chair, smiling broadly at the sight of her.

Eryn smiled back, then blinked. Goodness gracious. He looked different, radically so. That was obviously what Lebern had hinted at. Lord Poron no longer had the appearance of a man in his eighties, but had shed about twenty years.

“You look…” She paused, wondering how to address the obvious change in a polite way. Some people became testy when somebody commented on an obvious cosmetic alteration.

“Younger?” Lord Poron suggested with a humorous twinkle in his eyes.

Good. At least he didn’t fool himself into thinking that people wouldn’t immediately notice such a dramatic change in appearance.

“Yes. Younger.” She approached his desk and took a seat when he indicated the chair in front of his desk. “How come? You were always rather reluctant to even heal away the ailments that came with age, saying you found using your magic and healing knowledge for such things frivolous. What changed your mind?”

He chuckled. “There were several factors. Once, there was Aurna.”

She grinned. So his companion was less concerned about using magic for purposes outside medical necessity, it seemed.

He continued, “A few months ago she made me rejuvenate her a little. Well, not just a little, to be completely honest. She looks as old as Vyril now.”

Eryn’s brow shot up. As old as Tyront’s companion? That meant Aurna now looked twenty-five years younger!

“I never minded Aurna’s wrinkles,” he sighed. “Getting old together is a privilege when you find a person you care deeply for. Refusing the ageing part and just embracing the together-part still feels a little like cheating, as if we were unwilling to pay the price. Yet after several months of refusing to do it, Aurna finally talked me into it. She is my companion, how could I keep refusing what she so dearly wished for when it was within my powers to grant such a transformation?”

She nodded. “Of course you couldn’t. And that was what induced you to change your own appearance as well?”

“Not initially. I was content enough with looking my natural age. But one day we went to one of the shops at the other side of town where we don’t normally go and people don’t know us. Some friend of Aurna referred her to a little porcelain shop for particularly artful bowls. That day I wasn’t wearing my robes.” His expression darkened. “The shop owner asked me whether I wouldn’t want to purchase a lovely set of artfully crafted and painted vases for my charming daughter.”

Eryn laughed, seeing the indignation the memory still conjured on his face.

“Well, I’m glad you agreed on a solution which makes you both happy.”

“In my case I am still not entirely sure about happy. I still consider it a rather frivolous thing to do, yet my vexation about being mistaken for my own companion’s father weighed considerably heavier than my reluctance at employing cosmetic corrections.”

She grinned. “Choosing the lesser evil may not always be the path to reaching true happiness, yet at times we must be content with avoiding unhappiness.”

The old man smiled, now showing considerably fewer wrinkles while doing so. “Wise words, my dear. So, tell me what your plans for the clinic are now that you are back. Things never remain unchanged for long whenever you return from the Western Territories. I just want to know what to prepare for this time.”

Shrugging, she took a sip from her mug. “Believe it or not, I’m running out of revolutionary new concepts. I think this time we can focus on the changes you mentioned as being necessary in your letters. Such as enlarging the premises now that we keep accepting new healer trainees as well as interns and healers from Takhan.”

“I admit that is a relief. I am not sure we’d have the resources to deal with several innovations at once. The King let me know that I am basically free to do whatever I please as long as he doesn’t have to pay for it or has to deal with any trouble afterwards,” Lord Poron informed her. “Unfortunately, the space surrounding our building is limited, so we are not at liberty to reconstruct and enlarge the clinic to our hearts’ content. Though we may achieve a similarly feasible arrangement by acquiring nearby buildings. That would entail transferring areas that work mostly independently to the other location.”

“Such as cosmetic alterations,” Eryn said thoughtfully. “Or pregnancy and health examinations intended to prevent problems.”

He nodded. “That’s what I was thinking. I’m glad to see we agree. I was also considering moving Plia and the herbs over, but that would make little sense. We need her where the need for medication is largest. We might in the long run also consider dedicating another location to teaching. The teaching space currently takes up five entire rooms, and if we want to take on additional non-magician healer trainees, that is not going to suffice.”

Eryn bit her lip. A healing school… That sounded astonishing.

The older healer smiled at her expression. “I can see that this idea appeals to you. I admit I expected nothing less.”

“Since you mentioned taking on more non-magicians I assume that the first intake of students is doing well? The concept shows promise?”

“I am happy to report that this is definitely the case. Sarol of House Roal was a great help in this regard. We are in regular correspondence, and he has visited twice since we took on the non-magician trainees. Beneath that rough demeanour it was still evident that he sees a lot of value in what we are doing here – even though it’s magicians doing it.”

That was true, Eryn knew. Sarol himself had had to overcome more than his share of obstacles as a healer possessing no magical abilities, in a city where healing was mostly done by magicians. And where as a consequence non-magicians were subject to discrimination. Not officially, of course. At least not in a clinic where Valrad of House Vel’kim was in charge.

“I wrote to you that I was considering abandoning our arrangement with the apothecaries, if you remember,” he went on. She nodded and he continued, “They keep making Plia’s life as hard as they can. Most of them feel unfairly treated when she orders more of one type of medicine from one source than from others. They claim she chooses her favourites. Which is complete nonsense. I asked Loft to check the expenses and number of prescriptions, and she orders the products in accordance with what is needed. She has become rather skilled in predicting the demand with great accuracy, by the way. A very capable young lady.”

Pride and pleasure at the praise welled up in Eryn. It felt good to hear Plia’s hard work and skills being valued. She would pass on the praise to the girl later.

“Has the situation improved since then?” she wanted to know.

With a sad sigh he indicated the opposite. “No, not at all. I decided to terminate our cooperation and enlarge Plia’s area. It was a shrewd move when you hired her as medical herbalist several years ago. Otherwise we would now be highly dependent on the apothecaries. However, one of the apothecaries I would like to keep working with; I will make him an offer to work at the Clinic. If he agrees to working under Plia, that is. Then I will consult with Plia about how many more people she thinks will be needed to provide the required quantities and assortments of medicine.”

“Sounds excellent to me. I think we’ve been observing their constant squabbles long enough now. Have you decided which healers you will send to the new Order outpost in Bonhet yet?” she asked.

“I have, as a matter of fact. Felden asked me to send him, and I think he is a good choice. As one of the original healers here he has enough experience to handle the practice of healing away from the capital without constant supervision and while having rather limited resources. Two of the three healers from Takhan also volunteered for the assignment. I suspect that they would prefer a location closer to their homes. It would reduce their travel time for a visit to Takhan by about a third. I will send one of them along. Plus one of the recently graduated healers. Three healers should be enough for now. If there is temporary need for more, we can meet that when the occasion calls for it.”

Eryn nodded slowly. She would certainly miss Felden, yet agreed that he was a good choice to send there. Somebody would have to take over his classes. But with two qualified healers from Takhan with ample healing experience remaining, that wouldn’t be much of a problem. She would rather not have the first class of newly graduated healers take over teaching assignments. They first needed truly to settle into their new profession instead of attempting to convey experience they didn’t yet have to others.

Lord Poron lifted his hands. “That was pretty much all from my side. I assume you will be resuming your work here soon?”

“Tomorrow, if that’s alright for you. I already have most of the tiresome meetings that always await me upon my return behind me, so I can devote my time to doing something useful now.”

“I’ll let Loft know to include you in the duty roster from tomorrow on. Your usual preferences? Three times a week, one of them night duty?”

“Yes, same as always,” she confirmed. “Will I be seeing you tonight at Inad’s evening event?”

“Certainly will. Aurna would never stay away from a gathering you attend, as well you know, my dear Eryn.”

Eryn clucked with her tongue. “Still hoping for any scandals or entertaining mishaps, is she?”

He lifted his hands helplessly. “What can I say? No matter how polite and restrained you have turned out to be after these last couple of years, she still believes there is this untamed part of you that will lash out again one day. And she is determined to be present to watch.”

She snorted. “That is certainly not a very amiable attitude, I have to say. At least not when it comes to people she claims she likes.”

Lord Poron shrugged. “You won’t hear me contradict you. That’s Aurna, always ready to enjoy herself at other people’s expense. But in your case she infinitely prefers it when you are not at the receiving end, I feel I should add.”

Getting to her feet, she sighed. “That doesn’t make much of a difference. If somebody other than me is at the receiving end of trouble, I usually still am the one to get into trouble afterwards with either Tyront or the King. So your companion will forgive me if I strive for a peaceful yet unremarkable evening instead of providing her with the diversion she has been longing for.”

He laughed. “I shall pass that on to her – and risk a dressing-down for having told you about it in the first place.”

That made her grin. “The perils of relationships, eh?”

*  *  *

Eryn slowed her steps as she beheld Vern in front of the clinic doors. He was staring at them, his fists clenching and unclenching as if he were mustering the courage to enter the building. This was strange. It was not his first time at the clinic since his return from Takhan; he had already worked two or three shifts here as far as she was aware. Why was he hesitating to go inside? Had something cropped up?

Speeding up again, she approached him, pretending not to have noticed his obvious dread.

“Good morning,” she said cheerfully and smiled at him.

He smiled back, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

Dropping all pretence, she took his sleeve and pulled him away from the entrance, around a corner.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing!” he assured her hastily, obviously lying.

“Vern, I’m neither blind nor stupid. Out with it! Something’s not right, and I want to know what. Did you have trouble with any of the healers? Or a patient?”

“No, nothing of that kind. It’s just…” He gestured helplessly. “It’s me. Or everything else, however you want to look at it. I mean… I came back here, expecting to return to things I knew, to a city I was familiar with. But nothing is the way it was when I left! I’m feeling lost and alone in my new quarters. I have never lived on my own before. Then there is the clinic. Look, it’s great that things progressed the way they did, but I left here when we were just a couple of healers and Rolan, trying to keep things working somehow. It didn’t matter that none of us had any idea how to run a healing centre, we just experimented and improved things as we went along. Now this place is open for healing every day and crawling with new healers and trainees. There’s another thing – when I walk along the streets, not even they look the way they used to anymore. The port Enric rebuilt looks completely different now. So huge. Many magicians I encounter now wear purple robes instead of the brown warrior robes that were almost the only thing you saw six years ago. And there are people from the Western Territories with their darker skin and black hair… Don’t get me wrong – I love the way things have developed, this whole exchange between the two countries. But it’s just another factor that makes me realise that I’ve not actually returned to the place I left several years ago. I was a guest in Takhan, and now I feel like an intruder in Anyueel.” He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the clinic’s cool stone wall.

Eryn swallowed. That had been a lot. And she knew that she couldn’t really help him deal with it. This was a process of re-adaptation he had to manage somehow.

“I know it’s hard, Vern. I remember what it was like when I first returned from Takhan after six months. It was a much shorter time than you spent there, so there were not quite as many changes, but I can imagine that this is really tough on you. You will need time to discover your new place here in Anyueel, become part of it again. You are also not the same person you were when you left, so people also have to get used to you again.”

“I am already missing my friends in Takhan,” he murmured. “And none of my clothes are suited for the temperatures here. I’m constantly freezing under my healer’s robes.”

“But that can hardly be much of a problem, can it? You do remember that your father’s companion is a seamstress, don’t you?”

“I’m depressed, not brain-dead, thank you very much,” he growled. “I already had her take my measurements, but it will take her another two days to finish the first two sets of clothes for me. She offered me some of father’s clothes to wear in the meantime, but they look absolutely ridiculous on me. I mean, he is a broad-shouldered warrior – I’d fit almost twice inside one of his shirts!”

“So you chose to freeze instead?” she ventured.

“Well, yes. It’s certainly the more dignified option.”

Eryn took his arm to pull him back towards the clinic entrance. “At least in this regard I can assist you, I think. Just take two extra sets of healing clothes with you when you leave today. If you wear them in combination with your robes you should be able to keep the chill to a minimum.”

“Alright. Thanks. I appreciate that. Really.”

They entered the building and saw Loft walking out of one treatment room into an adjoining one without sparing them a glance.

“And whose completely insane idea was it to make him Rolan’s successor, anyway?” Vern whispered.

“Officially Rolan’s and Lord Poron’s. But I suspect it was the King,” Eryn replied equally quietly. “I think this was meant to serve two purposes: he wanted to get rid of the chump and entertain himself by watching my struggles with him in the years to come.”

Loft re-appeared from the room and paused to look at them, whereupon they instantly stopped talking, causing his eyes to narrow suspiciously. He opened his mouth to speak, but seemed to change his mind and walked off without a word, climbing the stairs, doubtless to disappear into his study.

They continued their way to the upstairs kitchen, where a few healers and trainees were already sitting or standing together before their shifts. Eryn noticed how Vern stiffened when he spotted Plia talking to Onil. So it seemed there were considerable tensions between those two.

When Plia’s gaze fell on the newcomers, she smiled at Eryn and gave Vern a polite nod before excusing herself, saying she had work to attend to.

Vern looked at Eryn’s carefully bland expression. “You are enjoying this, aren’t you? You think this is exactly what I deserve. Or am I mistaken?”

She feigned surprise. “I’m sure I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“I will fix this again. I’ll accompany her home today after work and apologise.”

Eryn nodded. “A good plan. I like it. That way you will meet the nice young man she has been seeing these past two years. He is great. He picks her up every day after work and escorts her home. I very much approve of that since it encourages her to finish her shifts at a civilised hour.”

She watched as Vern’s face fell.

“She has been seeing somebody? For two entire years?” He sounded incredulous.

A few faces turned their way, so Eryn pulled him into a corner and whispered, “You were jumping from one bed into the next in Takhan, so how is it you are so surprised Plia is in a relationship? She is an uncommonly pretty and bright young woman with a respectable job and a good income – why ever would you think that nobody else might show an interest in her? People turn around when they see her on the street and whenever she buys something, shop owners offer her discounts just to make her smile at them! What did you expect?”

Vern looked flushed and stammered, “I… now… well… nothing. I expected nothing. I have to go now. Look for some extra sets of clothes…”

Eryn rubbed her face. Poor, foolish young man. On top of everything he was already struggling with, he now also seemed to have rediscovered his fancy to Plia. He’d better be careful, she thought. Plia’s beau was not exactly the bookish kind, but used sharp and heavy tools on a daily basis. And he was both fond of and protective towards Plia. Another man showing undue interest in her would cause trouble, she was absolutely sure of it.

»End of extract«

“Family Bonds” – The Order: Book 5

Chapter 1

An Heir for House Vel’kim

“Why can’t I block the pain?” Eryn hissed between clenched teeth as another contraction clamped her innards.

Valrad was standing next to her bed at the clinic, enduring her vice-like grip around his fingers in manly fashion. The tips already looked slightly bluish from reduced circulation.

“You should not because this pain is not supposed to be blocked,” he explained patiently. “It is meant to guide you through the birth, to give you signals.”

“I don’t care about any signals! I want this to be over!” she moaned and blinked when a young woman entered the room. She was holding something long and golden in her hands. A belt.

“What exactly do you think you are doing with this?” Eryn shouted. “You will not take my magic away! Off you go! Out!” The last word was a vicious bark that, surprisingly, failed to impress the young healer. Very obviously so judging from her almost amused expression. This was clearly not the first moody woman on the verge of giving birth she had encountered.

“Valrad,” the woman said gently, “either I will wrestle her into submission or you can put it on her.”

“You can try that, dear,” Eryn scowled at her, “but unless you are immune to magic or stronger than me, I would not recommend it. There is every chance that I am stronger than the both of you together, so don’t even think about it!”

“But not stronger than me,” a measured voice came from the door. Ram’an walked in and put aside the bag he had brought from the Aren residence for her.

“You wouldn’t!” she snarled.

He took the belt from the healer’s unresisting hands and stepped next to her. “Eryn, there is a very good reason for damping down a magician’s power when she is about to give birth. And after what just happened at the Senate hall, I would think it is a rather obvious one.”

“You are taking away my power to keep me from harming somebody? I won’t, I promise! I will behave!” she pleaded.

He took her hand in his and pressed a kiss onto her knuckles. “I am sorry, but there is no avoiding it. I have no doubt that you have no intention of harming anybody or destroying anything, but neither had you at the Senate meeting, I am assuming. Great strain in the form of emotions or sensations such as pain can cause a magician to lose control. And in your case, my dear girl, that might easily mean unwittingly collapsing the entire clinic on top of us,” he explained carefully. “And it is not as if you can heal away any of your pain, anyway. Your magic would be useless, and in addition to that pose a great danger to all around you.”

“Eryn,” Valrad implored her, “they will not let you stay or go anywhere near you as long as you are not wearing the belt. You are strong enough to endanger all the healers and patients here. And Ram’an is right. The magic would not even be of use you. This is no pain you can magic away just like that – it returns anew after each moment until the cause disappears. The child, in your case.”

Eryn’s glare became worried while she contemplated their words. She had not counted on being deprived of her magic. That was a nasty surprise. She didn’t have fond memories of having her powers taken away; it had always left her feeling exposed, vulnerable. Yet their arguments were valid enough, especially considering that she had just collapsed the Senate roof little more than an hour ago…

She pressed her head against the pillow when another contraction took her breath away and left her shaking and immensely relieved once the wash of pain receded.

When she lifted her head, feeling exhausted, she realised that Ram’an had used the momentary distraction to fasten the golden belt around her chest. She hadn’t even noticed the void inside her, the empty feeling that blocking her magic normally left. The space was obviously filled up with pain now. How convenient.

“You!” she glowered at him and was about to punch him angrily, but he stepped aside. “That was mean! You’d better be careful never to be helpless in my presence, because it’s damn sure I will take advantage of it!”

“There is no other choice for you,” he said and just shrugged.

“Maybe not. But I would have valued reaching that conclusion myself after a minute or two,” she snapped.

“Making people’s life a misery again?” Orrin said when he, Junar and Vern entered the room. Behind them Malhora followed, Téa sleeping peacefully in her arms.

“Oh, just shut up, will you?” she whispered exhaustedly. She even lacked the energy to express her frustration properly. That annoyed her even more.

“Oh my,” said another voice from the direction of the door. “That is quite an assembly in here.” A healer about Valrad’s age made his way to the bed. “Greetings, Maltheá. I will assist you in delivering your child. I see you already have your belt on. Good.”

She looked up into his far too cheerful face. But then why wouldn’t he be in a good mood? He was not the one enduring the cramps, and from what she knew it would first get a lot worse before it became better.

The face was familiar – he was one of the many healers she had seen in the staff canteen. And this man had also offered a handsome price for Vern’s painting, if she remembered correctly.

“Noril,” Valrad nodded. “A good day to you.”

“And to you, Valrad. Now, there are too many people in here. You will cause more stress to Maltheá…”

“Eryn”, she interrupted him, sending him a warning look. “Don’t oppose me on that detail right now, because I am convinced that I can still do quite a lot of damage even without magic.”

Noril nodded slowly. “You know, I have no doubt that you could. Ignoring a threat coming from an Aren woman does not generally end well for the one who is ignoring. Eryn, then…”

“Very true,” Malhora smiled, clearly satisfied that their frightful reputation seemingly reached everywhere.

“Let us return to the matter at hand,” the healer insisted. “Which one of you will stay with… ah… Eryn for the birth in her companion’s stead?”

Three variations of “me” were proffered almost in unison by the three men around her.

Noril blinked. “Well, that number is a little above average,” he said, careful when dealing with two Heads of Houses and a warrior known for his lack of impulse control when it came to protecting his loved ones.

They turned when they heard an exasperated sigh. Junar elbowed her way to Eryn’s side, then pointed at Orrin.

“Inappropriate. You are another woman’s companion, and even though I know that your feelings for her are more of the fatherly kind, I don’t want you to get quite that intimate with her. I mean it.” Then she turned to Valrad. “Inappropriate as well. You are her father and have been for only a few months! What makes you think she would be comfortable with you around for this occasion?” Her glare moved on to Ram’an.

“Inappropriate?” he ventured before she could open her mouth.

“You bet!” she nodded. “You pursued her relentlessly, tried to make her exchange Enric for you! A birth is something very intimate where you have to show sides of yourself normally only the person closest to you is allowed to see, both internal and external ones.” She turned to the healer. “I will stay with her. You can kick out the rest.”

* * *

“What do you mean, she has gone into labour?” Vran’el exclaimed. He had dragged Enric away from the road to be under a tree where he was able to lean against the trunk. “It is several weeks too early for that!”

“Thank you for pointing that bit out,” Enric panted, glad that the immediate pain had relented for now.

“Are you sure?”

“Vran,” he sighed and cringed under another assault, “honestly – these are contractions. I read about them. The interval is getting shorter, the pain is excruciating and fades after a few seconds only to return again little later. That’s a pretty clear case, I would say.”

“Alright, alright. You said she was angry before, did you not? I wonder if that was what has tipped her into premature labour.”

Enric was breathing heavily, tiny beads of sweat forming on his forehead. “I will find out about that. Depend on it.”

“Why do you not just shield against this? Do not tell me this sharing of pain is supposed to be some sentimental proof of love she does not even see, or a romantic notion of going through the birth with her? Because in this you may safely trust me – being there is something completely different than just having waves of pain bring you to your knees,” Vran’el urged him.

“I can’t shield against it! I couldn’t even block out her anger when it was at its peak. This is too intense, this exceeds what the barrier is capable of holding back, especially as she is not shielding and her own emotions and sensations are sent out with their full intensity.”

The lawyer raked the fingers of both hands through his hair agitatedly. “You bloody fool! Do you see now what your urge to control everything got you into? What am I to do with you now?” Then a thought occurred to him. “I can knock you out! Then you will just sleep through this whole thing!”

“You will do no such thing,” Enric gasped through the pain and raised a shield between them. “I need to know if everything is alright.”

“You really want to live through this?” Vran’el wrung his hands helplessly. “Idiot! Really! And I am stuck with you! Damn!” he cursed, then took a few calming breaths before adding more quietly, “Alright, I will not do it. You can lower the shield. I promise!” he added exasperatedly when Enric sent him a doubtful glance.

The lawyer shook his head and watched the other man groaning under another wave of pain. “I would never have thought that I would one day experience a birth without a woman being present. It is certainly less messy.”

“So glad to accommodate you,” Enric grunted. “How long did your daughter’s birth take?”

“Six hours. And that was quick. I have heard about babies that took an entire day to be born.”

“That is not helping me right now!” the blond magician exclaimed, the horror plain on his face. “Rather tell me how Intrea handled the whole matter back then.”

“Admirably. She is the serene type; nothing can throw her off balance. She was very considerate and more worried about me than herself, I think. She kept sending people around to fetch me water, repeatedly told me that everything was going to be alright and that I was doing great.”

They looked at each other for a moment, then Enric said slowly, “That is definitely not how Eryn will be treating those around her right now.”

Vran’el nodded. “I tend to agree with you on that.”

When Enric braved another surge of agony, he tried to imagine who was with her right now. It should have been him. He hoped that Valrad, Junar or Malhora would be helping her through this. Not Orrin. And definitely not Ram’an.

Ram’an might have accepted that he couldn’t have her, but having her in his city without her companion and helping her through something as painful and intimate as a birth might give him ideas. But neither Valrad nor Orrin would permit such a thing, would they?

Vran’el spent the next ten hours sitting on the grass next to Enric, distracting him with stories about his childhood with Pe’tala, his years of studying the law, stupid pranks he had played as a boy and the day when he had decided to tell his family that he preferred men to women as partners.

Enric’s skin was pale and clammy, sweat running down his face and throat. Vran’el urged him to drink water and maybe even eat something to keep up his strength, but while Enric accepted the water gladly, eating was not something he seemed keen on.

When the sun started disappearing behind the horizon, the lawyer unpacked their belongings and prepared a spot for the night. They had originally planned to spend it in the city of Kar, but they were unable to reach there in Enric’s current condition. They would go to the city once this was over and they were both well rested.

It was around midnight when Enric released a last agonised cry and then he slowly tipped over towards the ground.

“Enric?”

“It’s over,” he breathed, his face awash with relief, elation and exhaustion. He couldn’t even tell how much of it was his own and how much Eryn’s.

“And? How does she feel?”

“Relieved. And happy. So everything is alright.” And he gave in to the peaceful blackness that welcomed him like a warm, numbing embrace.

* * *

Eryn forced her heavy lids open when somebody shook her shoulder softly. It was Junar, holding a small bundle in her arms. It whimpered softly.

“Your son is hungry,” she smiled. “Better feed him quickly. My own breasts have started leaking at his smell and the sounds he is making.”

Eryn clumsily tried to pull the shirt they had put on her over her head, but her friend sighed and shook her head. “No, Eryn, this is why they gave you something to wear you just have to open at one side. See? There is a button at your side and you can flip the front open without undressing completely.”

Junar waited patiently until Eryn had slipped out one breast and pushed the pillow in her back higher up so she could sit. Then she carefully placed the baby in his mother’s arm.

Eryn was suddenly wide awake and stared down at the tiny creature. Her son. She had seen him a few moments after the birth, but at that time he had been covered in blood and gloop. When they had him cleaned up she was already drifting off to sleep. The last impressions she remembered before succumbing to the exhaustion were a warm bundle that was placed on her chest and an overwhelming feeling of relief, gratitude and contentment.

“He has my dark hair,” she murmured and let her index finger glide over the surprisingly dense, downy strands. His eyes were blue, but that didn’t say much in the first few months.

She adjusted her grip so that the tiny head lay in the crook of her arm and was thus positioned ideally for accessing his food supply.

“Come on, pet, the milk-bar is open.” Teasing his lips open with her nipple, she watched him close them around the tip of her breast. She frowned when he didn’t start sucking. “The convenient days were the feeding didn’t require any effort on your part are over, my boy. Go on.” She looked at Junar. “And now?”

“Try squeezing a drop or two out and into his mouth. He doesn’t seem to be aware yet that this is his meal, not just a nice, cushy means to calm him,” Junar suggested.

Eryn did so and watched the little mouth taste and swallow when the new diet seemed to pass muster. Only then did she feel a weak pull that quickly turned into something more determined, almost greedy.

She looked up in surprise. “He certainly learns fast.” Then her gaze returned to him and she took the time to look him over thoroughly for the very first time. Looking at him inside her belly with magic was different than truly laying eyes on him now.

His eyes were closed as he suckled, obviously content with the world. He had her hair, but the rest of him certainly looked a lot like his father.

She swallowed at the thought of Enric who had sped off to save Malriel, leaving his pregnant companion here to fend for herself. Funny, how eager he had been to rush off towards the great unknown and even to dissolve their third level bond when hardly more than a year ago he had seemed so desperate to enter into it with her.

Junar pressed a kiss on her temple. “Don’t worry about him, Eryn. He will be back really soon. I am sure of it.”

“I don’t care,” the magician replied calmly. “I don’t need him. I managed to get through this without him, didn’t I? Right through uncovering Sanaf’s evil games and then the birth. And I will continue to.”

“You don’t mean that, do you?” Junar swallowed hard and frowned.

Eryn’s gaze remained on the face against her skin, the little fist that rested against her breast. “He made his choice. And choosing Malriel meant giving up our son. And me.”

“You can’t mean it!” the seamstress exclaimed, her eyes wide. “He didn’t choose your mother over you – he is trying to intervene to stop a war!”

“This is not what it seemed like to me when he forced the bond off me.”

“I am not going to fight about this with you, but what I am telling you is that you are being utterly and completely inconsiderate. I understand your anger at being deserted by him like this, but you completely misjudge his intentions. And I can imagine his reaction when you accuse him of pining for Malriel. Really now!”

“Bickering already?” Orrin’s voice said from the door. He had an arm around Vern’s shoulders, the other rested against the cloth with which his daughter was slung across his chest.

“She thinks Enric has gone after Malriel because he fancies her,” Junar said accusingly.

Both men stared at her, then Orrin smiled and Vern rolled his eyes.

“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” the warrior chuckled. “I look forward to hearing Enric’s reply to that.”

“That’s what I said,” Junar huffed.

Vern lifted a drawing pad and pen. “Do you mind if I make a drawing of this? It’s the first time you are feeding him, after all.”

Eryn grimaced. “If you must. I imagine I don’t make a very pretty picture right now, though.”

“Vain womenfolk,” the boy sighed in mock exasperation and propped the pad up against a chair, kneeling in front of it.

Orrin stepped closer to the bed, looking down at the baby. “He has fallen asleep over breakfast. I imagine you will have to make more of an effort next time,” he joked.

“Hilarious,” she deadpanned and lifted her son to hand him to Junar so she could cover herself again. Her fingers touched the golden belt she was still wearing. “They forgot to take this blasted thing off. Orrin, be so good and take it off me, will you?”

“I am afraid that is not something I can do,” he grimaced. “I am told that you need to wear it for another six weeks.”

“What?” she barked angrily and flinched when she heard both babies start crying.

“Great,” Junar groaned and rolled her eyes before pressing the boy into his mother’s hands and lifting her daughter out of the sling her father was carrying her in to rock her gently.

“Oh my, what a noisy welcome,” Valrad remarked while entering the room and walking towards them. “How is my grandson doing? Apart from making use of his lung capacity, that is. Has he had some milk yet?”

“He is doing great. And so am I, thank you for asking,” she sighed.

“I know that you are, my child. I examined you myself after the birth.”

“I thought we agreed on your not using magic on me without my permission again after you drugged me with fake bliss the first time I came here? We need to discuss certain boundaries here. Yet again.”

Valrad shrugged in an unperturbed way as he lifted the gurgling little bundle from her arm. “Your permission was implied from where I stand. If you do not want to be examined, you had better avoid passing out in my presence from now on.”

“So glad you dropped by,” she huffed. “Now talk to me. Orrin just told me that I am supposed to wear this belt for six weeks? Tell me that he misunderstood something here and the term is six hours instead?”

“I am afraid he is right. The problem, you see, is that magicians in general and healers in particular might be tempted to speed along the recovery process of their body – which is not advisable. But it might be over earlier. Some women only take four weeks, very few are done in no more than two. Six weeks is the longest.”

“But this is just about healing the open internal wounds and vulnerable spots! I dare say speeding that along a bit is hardly…”

Her father interrupted her. “You know very well that magical healing, no matter whether it is done by yourself or somebody else, diminshes your body’s resources more rapidly than you can restore them in your current condition – even if you spent the entire day doing nothing but eating and sleeping. What happens if a human body loses a lot of blood in a short time?”

“Weakness, dizziness, coldness and in some cases even unconsciousness,” Vern offered chirpily from behind his drawing pad.

“Why do we want to avoid this in particular in case of a woman who has just given birth?” Valrad went on.

Vern was ready again. “Because she needs her strength to recover from the birth. Finally and equally as important is she will be recovering more slowly anyway due to the lack of sleep resulting from the frequent feeding at the beginning. It means the ability to take care of the child might suffer which will, if delegated to another person, make forming a bond between mother and child more difficult. If the mother cares for the child despite her diminished physical strength, this might result in accidents and thereby endanger the child’s well-being from a medical point of view.”

Four pairs of eyes stared down at him. He didn’t notice it at first as he was still busy with his drawing. When the silence stretched on, he looked up and blinked.

“What?” he asked in confusion. “That was right, wasn’t it? If I have just made a fool of myself, I blame that book in the medical library.”

Valrad, still rocking his grandson in his arms, slowly walked closer, all the time looking down at Vern thoughtfully.

“That was a very impressive demonstration of knowledge, especially while concentrating on this completely different task with your hands,” the healer said slowly. “I do not suppose you would consider staying here and completing your training in Takhan anything interesting, would you?”

“You just wait a moment!” Orrin growled angrily before Vern could reply. “He is not yet of consenting age, and even if he considered it a good idea, I certainly do not! You have no right to offer this to him, he is in no position to accept it and I will not allow it.”

Eryn gave a deep sigh at the drama unfolding in front of her. Vern’s eyes had first widened with surprise and excitement, then narrowed with anger and resentment at having this chance presented to him only to have it whisked away again only a moment later.

“I think,” Junar said with a disapproving expression and a frown at both men, “that you’d better take this discussion elsewhere. This is hardly the time or place.”

“I apologise,” Valrad said stiffly. “It was not my place to make the offer, you are right. I just got carried away a little. I fully understand your reluctance to leave your son in another country for that long.”

Orrin nodded once, but remained silent.

“I am tired. Please don’t be offended, but I would very much like to sleep for a few hours if you don’t mind,” Eryn spoke up, tired of the tension and longing for a bit of peace and quiet.

“Of course not,” Junar assured her.

They waited for Valrad to hand the baby back to his daughter, then they left. Orrin’s simmering anger was visible in his tense posture, Vern looked miserable and sulky, and Valrad seemed a little fretful and disappointed.

Eryn exhaled with relief when they were gone and lay back in her bed, placing the baby so that he was nestled between her arm and her side. This was the first time she had been alone with her son.

Her son. That made her a mother, definitively and finally. She’d had many months to get used to the thought, but only now that she was able to touch, smell and see him, the understanding of that tremendous change started on a deeper, more elemental level than the superficial intellectual one. She had sparked another human being into life. He would always be a part of her, all his life. And he depended on her. The way he would turn out would be a result of the values she passed on to him, the role model she was.

What an enormous responsibility, a gigantic challenge. But an Aren never shirked a challenge, and that was one of the things he would learn from her.

Vedric of House Vel’kim, she thought. Welcome to this exhausting family of yours.

 

Chapter 2

Arrival in Kar

Enric stirred when his subconscious reacted to the aroma of food. He opened his eyes to bright daylight and found Vran’el crouching not far from him in front of an impromptu fireplace.

“Fish?” he mumbled, pleasantly surprised.

The last two days they had lived solely off their dried travel provisions. They might be nourishing and easy to keep, but from a culinary point of view they were not satisfying. It was a means to survive, and survival didn’t require liking the fare, but knowing that the alternative would be an empty stomach.

“Look at that. Welcome back from your little timeout. How do you feel?”

Enric took quick stock the way Eryn had showed him. The weak magical impulse he sent through his body provided him with all he needed to know.

“Slightly dehydrated, hungry, my neck and shoulders hurt, but apart from that I am fine.”

“I can offer a remedy against the first two and the others you can heal away. So no great problems from where I am,” Vran’el chuckled and gently turned the fish baking over the fire. “Lunch will be ready in a few minutes, so there is time for you to have a wash. There is a stream nearby. It is where I caught the fish. Well, when I say caught I mean I stunned them with magic and then collected them.”

Enric closed his eyes, healed away the pain and then smiled. “I figured as much. I dare say it is more efficient than hunting them with a spear or crafting a net for a single meal.” He climbed to his feet, stretching with a loud yawn. “How long did I sleep for?”

“Quite a while. About twelve hours. But then a birth is an enormous strain I would imagine, even sharing it the way you did. No wonder you needed to rest.”

His son’s birth. Enric swallowed and tried to feel something, anything through the mind bond. But there was nothing. Which was in a way good as it meant that she was neither in pain, fearful or greatly worried. Yet he remembered his last sensations received before drifting off. They had been positive and powerful. He wouldn’t have minded a bit more of those right now to drown out the regret at not being with his companion and their new-born son.

But the reason he was far away in another country right now, he reminded himself, was to make it possible for the now two most important people in his life to live their lives in peace and freedom.

Enric found the stream without any problems. It was knee-deep and free of sediment and mud, so that he could see the stones in the stream bed and the fish that carefully flashed out of his way.

He took his time washing himself and waded around in the cold water for a little. He felt his energy returning as his blood circulation was stimulated by the low temperature.

When he came back to Vran’el, most of their belongings were already packed up neatly and he was handed a round metal travel plate with two fish on it, sliced open so they would cool more quickly.

“Thank you, Vran. This is exactly what I need. The dried stuff just wouldn’t have worked for me at this moment.”

“I thought as much. Eat up! We should leave soon; I dare say you are now even more eager to get this whole business behind us and return.” The lawyer ate the last bites of his own meal, then set his plate aside. “Have you thought about how to go about tackling the trouble with Malriel? I know that Malhora thinks that she must have been tricked, but then she would hardly want to think badly of her own daughter. The accusations might actually turn out to be justified.”

Enric shook his head. “I haven’t known Malriel for as long as you, but she does not seem the type to force men into bed with her. She simply doesn’t have to, from what I have seen. Or were there ever any accusations of that kind back in Takhan all these years?”

“No, never,” Vran’el admitted. “But I like to be prepared for the worst. And if she is not guilty, a lie filter should have revealed that quickly enough, I would think.”

“True. Provided that they know how to apply it. You said that magicians are not exactly held in high esteem by those without magic, so even if they know how to use it they might not be permitted to. Another possibility is that the magicians want the negotiations to fail. In this case they would not be willing to help Malriel, as there is a chance that they might be the ones trying to trick her.”

“So they will also not believe us when we apply the lie filter and tell them she is innocent. They will accuse us of being biased. And rightly so,” the lawyer added with a grimace. “So what we are hoping is basically that they are not yet aware of how a lie filter works, but will agree to let us show them how to use it. And of course that the ones able to apply it – namely the magicians, or priests – are not the ones sabotaging her chances.”

“Exactly.”

Vran’el frowned. “What if we manage to coax them into releasing her? Will we bring her back with us or leave her here to try and continue the negotiations?”

Enric had a pretty clear idea of what he was aiming for, namely bringing Malriel back to Takhan so that she could take her House back and with that enable him to return to Anyueel with his family.

Despite his motivation to protect his companion from the King’s advances, something still pulled him back home, made him wistful when he thought of his own country. And if the monarch dared to make another inappropriate move on her ever again, he would not get away with a touch of throttling like last time.

“We will see about that,” he said noncommittally. “It depends on whether they would still trust or respect her enough to negotiate with her after this muddle, even if she is cleared of the charges. Or if she would want to stay here.” He rose when he had finished his meal. “I’ll just go rinse our plates, then we can get on and leave.”

Enric felt his whole body itching for action. He wanted to leave here, move on, do whatever was necessary to resolve this situation as quickly as possible, then return to Takhan.

They followed the road towards the city, using the two hours to repeat the information they had, the course of action they had agreed on and to practice how to introduce themselves. They also agreed to compile a list of all the people they would meet along with their full collection of names and titles. That way they could repeat them in the evening in the privacy of their rooms and so avoid angering these people, who seemed to set such great store by having their full importance acknowledged, by thoughtlessly addressing them incorrectly.

They had almost reached the bridge that would enable them to cross the broad river and enter the city. They could already see guards – soldiers or whatever they were – in blue and grey uniforms, standing straight and imposing in a line to block the way.

So they were already expected. A welcoming committee armed to their teeth. If that didn’t inspire confidence.

* * *

Eryn looked down at her peacefully sleeping son in his cradle. He reposed in the room she herself had lived in when she had been a child. The daylight was dwindling away and the room itself became a little dimmer with every minute.

They had released her from the clinic today and she was immensely glad about it. Normally they didn’t let new mothers leave that early, but Valrad had assured them that she and her son would be under his personal care. It was not usually recommended for healers to treat their own family members if it could be avoided, but his colleagues at the clinic had refrained from bringing up that little fact. Very determinedly so.

Valrad was too influential to be opposed in such a way; and in addition to that they were probably glad to be rid of the trying Aren woman in their midst. Eryn was well enough aware that neither patience nor suffering in silence and dignity were her strong sites. And she didn’t care one bit about that.

She turned when Malhora appeared in the door, holding up a folded piece of paper for her. So it seemed it was time to return to being a Head of House again. With a last glance at the sleeping baby she turned and followed her grandmother to the main room.

“It is from the triarchy. I assume there is a faint chance they want to remind you about a roof you are expected to pay for,” Malhora grinned.

Eryn accepted the message and studied the old woman. “You haven’t said anything about that incident yet. But from your smile back then and your reaction now I assume that you are alright with it.”

“I told you that I think of collapsing a building every now and then as a useful way of reminding people of how well-deserved our reputation is. The roof of the Senate was quite an interesting choice of target. A little showy, if you ask me, but certainly effective. People will talk about that one for generations. Believe me.”

“You know that I didn’t do this purposefully to uphold any family reputation, don’t you? I didn’t intend to impress anybody that day. It just happened. I really lost control. I endangered a great number of people,” she ended glumly.

Malhora snorted. “With that many magicians around to shield people from falling chunks of the roof? Hardly.”

The younger woman opened the seal and raised her brow in surprise. “That’s how much repairing that bloody structure is going to cost? They have to be kidding me!”

Her grandmother leaned closer to have a look at the amount, then shrugged. “That was to be expected. It is a rather large dome you collapsed. Not easy to repair. And then there is the artwork that needs to be restored to its former state. But this is nothing to worry about, girl. House Aren can easily afford it. Consider it a useful investment. This will certainly make our negotiation partners and political opponents treat us with more care and means it will benefit the House in the long run.”

“Then I had better sent them a message back and humbly agree to bear the costs as is due and proper,” Eryn grimaced.

“No humility!” Malhora insisted. “You are not meant to be sorry about it but accept paying for the damage as a price for your pride. Do not show any regret; it would diminish the effect. Just write that you acknowledge their claim and will settle the bill for all repairs.”

A knock came from the entrance door.

“Would you take care of this, Grandmother? Then I will write the message to the triarchy.”

“This will be a visitor for you, child. So you had better stay here and take care of the reply later. You do not want to appear too eager, anyway.”

Malhora descended the stairs to the entrance door and returned a few moments later with Ram’an.

“Eryn, dear,” he greeted her and kissed her forehead. “I was at the clinic, but they told me that they had released you already.” He chuckled. “I expect your father threw his weight around a little, did he not?”

“I admit he did, yes. His colleagues were not too happy about it, but found it more prudent not to oppose him. And I am glad about it – I would have gone spare lying in that bed all day long. The only thing that really annoys me now is this bloody belt. I suppose there is no chance…?” She looked up at him with a pleading expression.

“No, dear, none,” he replied simply.

Malhora rolled her eyes. “She keeps trying to bribe or threaten people to take it off her. A few hours ago she ordered Orrin to do it. Good thing his approach to authority is a sensible one and he ignored her.”

Eryn sent her a frosty glare. “I dare say when the people at your estate ignore your orders you would not term their attitude a very sensible one.”

“No, of course not. But then I never give stupid orders that would harm myself.”

“I am a healer! I wouldn’t harm myself! I know what I am doing.”

“Eryn,” Ram’an sighed and cupped her cheeks, “there is no way any one of us is going to remove that belt before Valrad agrees to it. So stop bullying people around you, alright? Better show me this son of yours.”

“He is asleep.”

“Then we had better be quiet,” he smiled, obviously not willing to accept the hint that now was not a good time to look at the baby.

Defeated, Eryn sighed and pressed the letter from the triarchy into Malhora’s hand. “Why don’t you prepare a reply to that? Then you may at least be sure the tone is right. I’ll sign it later.”

Ram’an followed her and entered the room after her. They stepped next to the cradle, looking down.

She turned when she heard him give a slightly lamenting sigh. “What?” she asked in a low murmur.

“He looks like Enric.”

“Why do you sound sad about that?”

“I cannot help thinking, Theá, that had things been only a little different, he would have been our son. Yours and mine.”

She swallowed and tried to take a step away from him, but felt his arm around her shoulders that kept her in place.

“No, please. I did not mean to make you uncomfortable. I will from now on keep such thoughts to myself.”

Now she felt guilty. “I am sorry this whole situation is a burden to you still. And I don’t want you to reign back your thoughts. Even if I am not always happy about them.”

They stood side-by-side, looking down at the sleeping infant for a while without speaking.

“Theá, Enric asked me to take care of you in case he did not return.”

Eryn slowly turned her head to face him. “Did he now? May I ask what taking care of me entails?” she asked coolly, feeling her heart beating in her throat. Had Enric appointed him as his successor in their companionship or some such?

“He asked me to raise his son as my own.”

She stared up at him with narrowed eyes. “And what did he tell you to do with me? Make me your companion?”

“He did not say the words as such, but I believe that was the implication, yes,” he replied carefully.

Eryn turned on her heel and left the room, not at all happy to have her suspicions confirmed. She heard Ram’an close the door quietly and then follow her to the main room and out into the garden.

“Why are you telling me this?” she snapped. “Did you receive message that he will not be returning? That he is…”

“No!” he interrupted her quickly and took her by the shoulders. “There was nothing of that kind, I promise you. What I wanted to tell you is that even if the worst occurs, you will never be alone. I will be there for you. You do not look happy, Theá, or not as happy as you should be. And of course I understand why. I want to lift at least one burden from your shoulders.”

She covered her face with her hands. “You shouldn’t do this, Ram’an. You shouldn’t have agreed to this. What if he is stuck there for who knows how long? This might stop you from ever moving on, from finding a woman you could be happy with instead of waiting for me. Once again. It was not right of him to ask such a thing of you.”

She felt Ram’an’s arms wrap around her and pull her against him.

“I would not have left you to fend for yourself even if he had not asked me.”

Eryn looked up at him, shaking her head. “You would take me as your companion and raise my son with me, despite the fact that I chose another man over you? That I would probably only agree for fear of being alone otherwise?”

“I would, yes.” Then he smiled. “And I would soon make you see that I am the better choice anyway. My culinary skills are superior to Enric’s, and my wine is better than his, too.”

She laughed, relieved that the intensity was gone thanks to his joke. “I am trying very hard not to be insulted at how easily you think I can be won over.”

“I am told confidence is always useful when dealing with an Aren woman.” Then he released her from his embrace and instead took her hand to tug her across to a low stone bench and sit with him. “About your little… display of anger at the Senate two days ago.”

“Yes?” She grimaced, only now wondering how it would affect her plans for opening an orphanage here. The Senate would probably not be too eager to support her now after she had almost collapsed their roof on them.

“It certainly did not fail to impress. Golir approached me and asked me to assist you in drawing up a detailed proposal with a cost estimate, legal considerations and a timeframe for your project. He said that he has no doubt that the idea with the tax relief you mentioned came from me, so he assumed that I was in favour of the whole matter.”

Eryn exhaled. That was more than she had dared hoping for. “And what about the other senators?”

“A few are angry and maybe a bit cowered of you, but most have expressed a wish to support your idea. Probably for fear of having their residences collapse on them if not,” he added dryly.

“I would very much like to be angry at you for that last statement, but I have no idea if it was a joke or not.”

Ram’an pursed his lips. “Let us say it was an exaggeration, but not that far-fetched.”

“So you will really work on this with me?” Touched, she took his hand and squeezed it. “You keep giving me the feeling that I don’t deserve you. How can I ever repay you?”

He smiled. “We will find a way. For example, support in the Senate and cooperating with Arbil-owned businesses for the building and running of the orphanage.”

Eryn laughed. “Good to see that you are not self-sacrificing to the extent that borders on stupidity. Can we start tomorrow? I am still quite exhausted from giving birth and sitting is not the most pleasant position for me. Unless you are willing to assist me with that minor issue…”

He sighed and rose, pulling her to her feet as well. “No. I am not going to remove your belt.” He listened for a moment, then nodded towards the terrace door. “I think your son just woke and wants to be fed. Off you go.”

She walked in and saw Malhora approaching them with Vedric on her arm.

Eryn frowned when she saw Ram’an take a seat on the seating cushions. “You want to stay? I mean, this is rather…” She trailed off, at a loss for words. She had done it before with others watching; only yesterday, when Orrin, Valrad, Junar and Vern had been in the same room with her. But baring her breasts in front of Ram’an somehow seemed… wrong. Strange. Inappropriate.

“Shy, Theá?” he grinned and patted the spot next to him. “I assure you there is no need for that. Watching a mother breastfeed her child is a very appealing picture, but hardly one to arouse any inappropriate feelings in a man. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is a reminder that your breasts were not initially evolved for us to enjoy, but for our offspring to be nourished by.”

Eryn bit her lip, still unsure whether to insist on his leaving or not. She dimly remembered Enric saying something like that when he had watched Junar feeding her daughter many weeks ago. Still…

“Sit, Eryn,” Malhora commanded. “He is right. In time, you will come to appreciate quiet spots to feed your child when you are out. The luxury of their being completely private is not one you will encounter too often.”

She took a deep breath, then sat down. “Alright, let’s do this then.” With her former suitor who had just told her that he would take her as his companion if Enric didn’t return, observing her.

Vern strolled in and smiled when he saw them. He picked up his drawing pad and pen that somehow always seemed to be lying around ready for use these days and took a seat opposite them.

“Didn’t you draw such a scene already yesterday? How many of them to you need?” She narrowed her eyes. “You are not going to sell them, are you? If I am invited somewhere and see myself half naked on a wall there, I will bite your head off.”

Vern just laughed and continued drawing, safe in the knowledge that he was the stronger magician for the next few weeks as long she would be wearing the belt.

* * *

Enric dismounted once only a few steps separated them from the guards and approached them, the message to the triarchy that invited them to send a representative to stand by Malriel ready in his hand.

There was one figure, a woman in her late thirties, dressed in what was either a short dress or a long tunic that reached down to her knees and with light brown hair twisted into a bun at her neck.

“Greetings to you,” she spoke first. She, too, had this tendency to mostly use her teeth and the tip of her tongue to form words. She hardly seemed to open her mouth when she talked. “My name is Lam Ceiga, Reig of the Moraugns, minister of external affairs.”

She looked at Enric, who she had clearly identified as the one in charge.

“And greetings to you, Lam Ceiga, Reig of the Moraugns, minister of external affairs. My name is Lord Enric, Reig of House Aren, second in command of the Order and senator in Takhan. This,” he indicated the other man, “is Lam Vran’el, Reig of House Vel’kim, lawyer and senator in Takhan.”

“Welcome to the both of you,” Lam Ceiga said politely. “There are some formalities that must be taken care of before we can grant you access to the captive Malriel, Holm of House Aren, senator in Takhan. Your horses will be taken to the stables and your belongings will be taken to your rooms. If you would follow me now.”

She turned and walked on without waiting for them to agree. They both quickly grabbed their bags containing documents and gold, handed the reins to the two uniformed men who had stepped forward, then hurried after the woman who had not once turned around to see if they could keep up.

“That is not exactly a very hearty welcome, is it?” Vran’el whispered.

“Not really, but considering the circumstances I wouldn’t have expected them to be very enthusiastic about us.”

They took in the large, unusually even cobblestones on the street, the houses with their steep-pitched roofs and colourful facades that were a mix of wood and plaster. Many a window sported boxes with flowers growing in them like miniature gardens. The colourful blossoms increased the strangely joyful effect of multi-coloured sobriety.

The people walking the streets, however, were far from displaying such an abundance of colour with their attires. They were dressed in a range that reached from off-white to brown, bright grey to black. Only occasional scarves or other small adornments such as belts or hats in more cheerful tones lightened the overall effect.

Vran’el’s attire earned them quite a few glances, some curious, others cool or even hostile. Enric himself couldn’t help but being glad at his own preference for black.

Interestingly, the hair colour and skin tone here seemed to vary and encompassed both Enric’s pale complexion and blond hair and Vran’el’s tanned skin and dark hair.

There were red-headed people with freckles, black-haired ones with both dark and light skin, blond and brown hair in all possible shades.

There seemed to be a general tendency towards wearing hats, caps or scarves for both men and women.

Enric didn’t mind standing out too much, it had been his usual state of affairs for several months now. Vran’el, however, was clearly not used to being different, judging from his tense posture and clenched jaw.

They walked for no more than a few minutes before their guide stopped in front of a tall house of at least four stories. There was a large stone slate fixed to the wall next to the wide entrance door.

Enric looked at the letters that seemed only partly familiar. He couldn’t decipher what they said. This could be either a cheerful prison or a rather sombre guest house. Anything was possible.

“This is where we will take your data for the purpose of registration and filing. After this I will conduct you to your rooms. They are not far from here, only a few more minutes towards the city centre,” she explained without showing any emotion.

“When will it be possible for us to visit Malriel, Holm of House Aren, senator in Takhan?” Enric enquired politely.

“Once your passes have been issued. This will be the case after your information has been checked with regard to completeness and approved by the clerks in charge.”

“How long does that usually take?”

“It can take up to a week but we appreciate that in your case particular promptness is in order,” Lam Ceiga acknowledged generously, then preceded them into the building without offering any information as to how long a particularly prompt approach would take.

Enric exchanged an uneasy look with Vran’el, then followed the woman through the double doors.

 

Chapter 3

Visiting Malriel

Eryn grinned broadly as Kilan entered the Aren main room. “I cannot believe my own eyes! Look who has finally managed to visit me after all that time! And all it took to lure you here was having a baby!”

He chuckled. “I remember the last time I visited you. I ended up with being told to take care of your correspondence. I was simply dreading what else you might burden me with and that meant I thought it wiser to stay at a safe distance.”

“Coward,” she laughed and kept on massaging Vedric’s belly.

“What are you doing there?”

“Rubbing his belly is a good stimulation for his internal organs and is supposed to help him digest his meals,” she explained. “By the way, today in the morning several message birds with congratulations arrived from Anyueel. Among them one from the King. He wrote something about being more respectful in expressing my disapproval. I suppose you’d better apologise for whatever he thinks I wrote last time. Don’t get me into trouble, do you hear me?”

Kilan exhaled and closed his eyes. “Eryn, I haven’t written anything of that kind in your name. Ever.”

She cursed. “That means he worked out that it was not me writing the damned messages.” She sent Kilan a disapproving look. “That very likely means you were much too friendly, polite and compliant. He probably had no choice other than to question the messages’ origins or my mental state.”

“Good for you he chose the first one, then, eh? Now hand me that child, will you? I need to see who he resembles.” He took a seat and let Eryn tenderly place the baby in his arms. “That’s Enric’s face, no doubt about that. If his parentage is ever in question, he will probably start looking for his mother, because it’s plain enough who his father is.”

“Very nice,” Eryn growled. “Just what a woman wants to hear after squeezing a human being out of her: how little the kid resembles her.”

“His hair is your colour, so there are traces of you in there somewhere as well,” he acknowledged generously.

“You know what? I am beginning to wonder why I was sad about not seeing you more often. Somehow I failed to see it as the blessing it was,” she huffed.

He grinned broadly and examined a tiny hand. “Glad to be of service.”

* * *

Enric looked out the window of Vran’el’s room, observing the horse-carts on the crowded street and the people crossing between the vehicles seemingly without any concerns for their own safety.

The rooms they had been allocated shortly after their arrival two days before were far from the accommodation he had been given in Takhan when he was first there in his function as ambassador. And back home in Anyueel they would never have slighted guests by putting them in such humble rooms. It was probably a none too subtle hint that they were not exactly welcomed here. Or just reflected a culture that was used to a more frugal lifestyle.

But at least their accommodation was clean and warm if not particularly comfortable. Or spacious. Or bright.

They had spent the last two days waiting, more or less. Waiting for their documents and information to be approved, passed on to a person higher up on the ladder of power to check and approve as well and then onward and upwards. Lam Ceiga had instructed them to remain indoors and not walk around the city since the papers allowing them to do so were not yet ready. But today the passes had been delivered to them, which meant an end to their restless confinement.

Enric turned away from the window to watch Vran’el, who was busy assembling all the different papers they would need to gain access to the prison where Malriel had been put. It would be the first time that they met her.

They’d had to fill in a number of different forms for who knew what purposes and had one day later been given a note that was to be presented upon demand. It stated their identity, their purpose for being in the city, the permission to be in the city in the first place and which areas they were permitted to move around in.

Vran’el had been unnerved by the load of paperwork and had repeatedly cursed this tiresome and in his opinion ridiculous level of bureaucracy, but Enric had studied the forms and come to admire the degree of organisation.

At least until he had found himself filling out the same information in four different forms. That was not organised, but simply redundant and a waste of time. But it was not like they’d had anything else to do but wait.

Then finally, after two days of pushing paper around and waiting, they were granted the permission to visit Malriel and talk to her.

When Vran’el had managed to put together all the paperwork they needed, he straightened up.

“Alright – I am ready. Let us go and visit Malriel in her lockup. I need to remember every detail about that. It will cheer Eryn up when I tell her about it,” the lawyer said and smiled. “I wonder if we should address her with the title Eryn uses to refer to her? Queen of Darkness does sound rather impressive. Maybe they would appreciate it here?”

Enric rolled his eyes. “I should have known from the start that the two of you couldn’t possibly be simply cousins. The same disturbing sense of humour that seems to go a lot deeper than mere upbringing can account for. Come on. Time to start our work here.”

* * *

Intrea grinned broadly when Eryn placed the baby in her arms. “Look at that! He looks like his father!”

Eryn rolled her eyes. “Yes, thank you so much for noticing that.”

The other woman ignored her and motioned for her daughter to come closer. “Obal, I may introduce you to your cousin Vedric of House Vel’kim.”

The girl came closer, though carefully as if fearing some kind of nasty attack.

“He doesn’t bite, you know,” Eryn said mildly and added, “Not yet.”

Obal shot her one of those unnerved glances a five-year-old girl should not yet be able to do and inspected the infant in her mother’s arm thoroughly.

“He is very small. My other cousin was bigger,” she stated matter-of-factly.

“Yes, he was born quite a bit sooner that he should have been,” Eryn nodded.

Another devastating glare was sent her way.

“I didn’t do it on purpose, you know,” Eryn defended herself, wondering why that kid got to her like that.

Obal didn’t comment on that and returned to staring at the boy for another minute.

“He is not doing anything. Boring. Where is Urban?”

“In the garden,” Eryn told her quickly, glad at the prospect of getting rid of the girl for a while.

Intrea smiled at her knowingly. “She has that effect on people. I hope she will outgrow this general disdain for the people around her. It does not exactly make her popular with her peers. Or adults. My father tells me I was just like her as a child, so there might still be hope. By the way, that little package on the table is for you. It is a bath oil that protects his skin from the dry heat. If you have any dry patches on your own skin, you can use it for that as well.”

Eryn thanked her and opened the thin fabric wrapping before uncorking the glass bottle to take a sniff. The clear, yellow liquid smelled of some kind of flower and spices.

Intrea leaned forward to see where her daughter had gone and then looked at the new mother.

“How are you doing, my dear? I am sorry that you had to go through the birth without Enric. But your friend Junar was with you, was she not? I suppose after having a child herself only a few months ago she was a great help to you.”

Eryn made herself smile. “I am fine. And yes, Junar was great. Though they had to heal her hand afterwards. It seems I still have a rather potent grip even without any magic at my disposal.”

Intrea laughed. “I have to say that volunteering to stay with an Aren woman during a birth certainly shows nerves of steel.” She turned serious again and looked down at the baby in her arm. “I am sure there is no need to worry about them, you know,” she said quietly. “Vran may seem like this carefree, joking, easy-going lad, but he is very good at being a lawyer. I have always found his seemingly effortless transition to his professional self disconcerting, as though he is a completely different person. All of a sudden he is so serious, demanding and analytical. And Enric, he is so formidable, an imposing man both in appearance and mind. How can those two not be successful?”

Eryn didn’t reply to that but just wondered silently why Intrea sounded so worried if there was indeed so little reason for it.

“Though I have to tell you that Neval is rather worried,” she went on and smiled. “He told me that he is not happy about his lover being alone with a man like Enric for such a long time. He is obviously afraid that Vran may take a liking to the blond, exotic type if unsupervised.”

The two women looked at each other for a moment, then started giggling, glad that Obal was far enough away not to roll her eyes at them in that dismissive way she had.

* * *

The two men walked along the wide street their windows overlooked, careful not to bump into any moving vehicles.

“I feel a bit out of place in my attire,” Vran’el murmured, looking around at the plain, simple clothes people were wearing.

“I hope to be gone from here quickly enough so it doesn’t really pay for us to see a tailor,” Enric remarked and looked around. “Do you see how clean everything here is?”

The lawyer nodded. “I have noticed that, yes. I wonder how often they sweep the streets here. Probably every night.”

Enric watched the people passing them and marvelled once again that neither his own light hair nor Vran’el’s dark hair was unique here. Neither the skin tone he currently sported due to the tan the omnipresent sun in the Western Territories had bestowed upon him, nor his usual paler complexion were out of place either.

He thought about Orrin’s daughter and her brown hair. Would Anyueel look like this in a few decades after the return of the magic in females provided for more variety in people’s appearance?

“What was that charmless woman’s full name again?” Vran’el asked.

Enric pulled his little notebook out from an inside pocket and opened the first page. “Lam Ceiga, Reig of the Moraugns, minister of foreign affairs,” he read out.

They were about to meet her in front of the prison they had been told was just at the end of the street. It would surely not hurt to avoid angering the only person they had so far been officially introduced to by addressing her thoughtlessly.

They passed shops with large display windows showing off merchandise. They couldn’t understand the shop signs, but judging from the goods on display they were different kinds of craftspeople. Tailors, jewellers, glass-makers, potters, manufacturers of paper and so on.

Enric stopped in front of one window, staring down at a little toy that resembled some kind of four-legged animal and seemed to move of its own accord.

“How is this possible?” he murmured, watching the jerky movements of the colourfully painted wooden item.

“Magic?” Vran’el ventured, equally fascinated.

“I doubt that very much if the information about how they regard magic here is true.” He wondered if there was a chance to buy that piece. Would they sell to him, the foreigner of a country they would maybe soon be at war with? Would they even accept his gold slips here?

A man stepped out from the shop door, a little bell tinkling above him when the door brushed it. He sported a large, curved moustache, bright brown flecked with grey, just like his temples. Around his rather impressive girth he wore an apron with two large pockets, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up and revealing chunky, hirsute forearms.

An incomprehensible stream of the local language with its many hissing sounds was unleashed on them. It did not sound unfriendly, but with that language and the studied blank expressions people here seemed to wear in public it was hard to tell.

“I am afraid we do not understand you,” Enric said slowly.

The man pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes at them, clearly wondering what to do with them.

Enric waited patiently, hoping that their immediate future would not entail being chased away by the man but instead being invited into his shop.

“Come,” he finally said as if granting them a privilege and ushered them in.

Enric obeyed gladly, curious to see more. Vran’el was less comfortable with following a stranger that had not seemed too enthusiastic about them into a building.

The man took another toy of the same make but resembling a different animal from a shelf and twirled a little wheel that stuck out from its rear with a strange metallic purring. When he released the wheel and put the toy on his wooden counter, it started moving around with the same jerky movements exactly like its sibling in the shop window.

Enric watched it, mesmerised by the unfamiliar device. He felt the urge to pick it up, turn it around and figure out its secrets.

“How much?”

The man pointed to a small slate on the shelf that obviously displayed the price. Enric couldn’t read it and raised his brow questioningly.

The man sighed and raised three fingers.

“Help me, Vran,” Enric murmured. “How many of your gold slips was one unit of their local currency again?”

“About two and a half.”

That meant about seven and a half gold slips or almost four Anyueel gold coins. That seemed rather pricey. But then he had no idea how costly or time-consuming producing this toy was. He considered negotiating for a lower price, but decided against it. It might do them more harm than good. Instead he reached into his purse and pulled out eight gold slips, showing them to the man.

That did not quite trigger the response he had hoped for. Looking down his nose as if considering something utterly disgusting the shopkeeper started waving his hands around to signal them to leave.

Back out in the street Vran’el shook his head in wonder. “Oh my, that was a rather hefty reaction.”

“From what I have seen they are very keen on rules here. Accepting money that has not been approved might get him into trouble for all we know. We should find out how to exchange our money into local currency,” Enric mused.

They walked on towards a large, grey building looming at the end of the street that was very probably their destination.

“You did not even try to haggle,” Vran’el shook his head in disapproval.

“That’s because we have no idea how they react to that here. In my country an attempt at lowering a given price on principle would not get you anywhere. My people’s view is that if you are not willing to pay the price asked you’d better move on and get out of the way of those who are,” Enric explained. “It was quite a challenge for me to adjust to that at first. I do see certain parallels to my own home here. Well, to some extent. We, too, like our lists and reports, but they have obviously turned it into some kind of art. Also their food. It’s less rich in spices but more meat and vegetables that keep you feeling sated and warm for a while.”

“Alright, no haggling here,” Vran’el sighed.

“Exactly. It is better to appear easy to trick and a tad naïve than greedy and shifty. It tends to make people underestimate you.”

They had now come close enough to make out a familiar figure. The bun at the back of the neck was the same, as was the style of her attire.

“Greetings, Lord Enric, Reig of House Aren, second in command of the Order and senator in Takhan and Lam Vran’el, Reig of House Vel’kim, lawyer and senator in Takhan,” she spoke, making the s’ sound like hisses and the ts like rapid hammer strokes.

“Lam Ceiga, Reig of the Moraugns, minister of external affairs,” Enric and Vran’el said together, exchanging a relieved look when the woman nodded with satisfaction and then turned to walk ahead again. It was like having passed muster by a particularly strict teacher.

They walked along high-ceilinged corridors with a number of tall, semi-circular windows that afforded a view of the street they had just come along.

They approached double doors, which were guarded by four men in dark grey uniforms.

Nodding to the woman, they wordlessly accepted her identification, read it carefully before passing it back and then held out their hands to the two men in her company.

Vran’el handed over their documents to have them scrutinised, held up to the light and finally after several minutes handed back to them. These guards were thorough indeed.

They were waved through the door and continued their way only to be stopped again after less than a minute. A further four guards, the same procedure.

When they carried on, Enric suppressed a sigh when he spotted another door with four men in dark grey and wondered how many more of these doors they would have to pass and if there was a chance of seeing Malriel before the sun set in a few hours. He saw from Vran’el’s expression that he was equally unenthusiastic about what was considered the appropriate level of security here.

When they had finally been permitted to pass the fourth door of this kind, they were led into another corridor with four much smaller doors that looked massive and sported small, barred windows at eye level. These seemed to be the prison cells. Compared to the dungeons and lockups back in Anyueel the surroundings here looked a lot more cheerful, bright and clean.

One of the guards walked past them to unlock one of the doors and nodded towards Lam Ceiga, who in turn motioned for the two visitors to go ahead of her.

Enric stepped into what looked like a small, but very neatly and not sparsely furnished room. There was one corner for personal sanitation, a bed with two blankets and two pillows upon it, a large wing chair and a small table with four wooden stools around it.

“Enric!” a familiar female voice cried out in surprise and a moment later he found himself in a tight hug before he was even able to take a proper look at Malriel. “I cannot tell you how immensely good it does me to see you! They told me that somebody had arrived, but they did not give me any name.”

She clung to Enric for what had to be a full minute before releasing him and then pulled Vran’el close to kiss both his cheeks.

“Vran, my dear,” she laughed and Enric saw how the corners of her eyes became slightly moist, “with the pair of you on my side, I know that this mistake will be cleared up soon.”

“I will leave you for now. Do knock at the door when you wish to leave,” Lam Ceiga announced from the door where she had stopped and watched the emotional welcome impassively.

Enric nodded. “Thank you, Lam Ceiga, Reig of the Moraugns, minister of foreign affairs.”

Then he looked Malriel up and down, taking in her appearance and general state. She had adapted to the local style of clothing and he found the lack of bold colours on her particularly depressing, just like the hair she had pulled back into a bun instead of letting the dark waves cascade down her shoulders and back. She did not look haggard or worn out, but he still missed that certain radiance. Which was not entirely unexpected considering her confinement here. She looked healthy if a little pale after the months without the desert sun.

She took both men’s hands and pulled them toward the small table to sit with her, holding on to them once they were settled as comfortably as the hard wooden stools permitted.

“Before we delve into this mess here, tell me how my daughter is doing,” she demanded.

“She found accepting Valrad as her father rather difficult, but managed it after a while. She has in the meantime obtained the insignia and is now officially a fully trained and recognised healer,” Enric explained in as few sentences as he could manage. There was no saying how much time they would be granted in here for now.

“How about her pregnancy, has everything been alright?”

“Our son was born yesterday.”

Malriel blinked, then shook her head. “But… that is too soon!” She paused, obviously for a quick mental reckoning. “She should have been due in another six or seven weeks!”

Enric squeezed her hand. “Yes. But from what I can tell everything seems to be in order.”

Malriel frowned at him for a moment, then her eyes went wide. “The mind bond! Do not tell me you left the commitment bond intact despite leaving Maltheá for such a long time?” She stood agitatedly, glaring down at him. “How could you subject her to that? She will suffer from your absence a lot more than necessary, and now she even has to take care of a child! I would not have expected a reckless thing like this from you!”

“Calm down, Malriel. I only kept my side of the bond intact. Eryn’s bond was severed.”

Malriel breathed in with relief and sank back onto her seat. “Oh, I see. I apologise. I should have known that you would not submit her to unnecessary suffering. Though you do not seem to have extended the same consideration to yourself.” She gasped when a thought hit her. “Does that mean you experienced the pain of her giving birth?”

“I did, yes,” he confirmed calmly, shivering inside at the memory.

“So you left your pregnant companion to come and help me out of my troubles and have now even missed your son’s birth,” she sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. “I do not know how I am ever to repay you for that, Enric.” Then another thought occurred to her. “Who is in charge of House Aren now?”

“Eryn is the current Head of House Aren.”

Malriel sucked in a breath and looked distressed. “Maltheá in charge of House Aren?”

“She will do fine. Malhora is there and will help her handle that duty.”

She let her tension go with the relief. “My mother is in the city?”

“Malhora is in Takhan, yes. Though she refused to take the House in my absence and prefers to be in a more advisory than active role.”

“I was not sure if she would come,” Malriel murmured. “It is a mother’s duty to stand by her daughter when she has her children, and after they met under such unpleasant circumstances, I was not sure whether my mother would step in for me.” She released an unsteady breath. “I am so relieved. And grateful. To all of you.”

Enric watched his adoptive mother with interest. This was not strong, invincible, merciless Malriel, but a woman who had been alone in a foreign country for a long time and had come to treasure acts of kindness in her solitude. She kept both her hands on his and Vran’el’s, maintaining physical contact to people known and familiar to her. The first people she had been with in quite some time where she didn’t have to worry about their intentions but could trust them unconditionally.

“Vran, how is Valrad doing? Did Maltheá make it very hard for him to get her to accept him as her father?”

He nodded with a smile. “She did, yes. She resisted his every attempt with the stubborn defiance of a true Aren woman and made him use all the ingenuity and patience he could come up with.” He squeezed her hand. “He was relentless, though, and she never had any real chance against him. Not when she wanted to work as a healer at what people still like to see as his clinic.”

“And your own daughter, how is little Obal doing?”

“She is growing like a weed and has, like I suppose many children, an unerring instinct for picking up the exact wrong word to repeat it in situations which are as embarrassing for her poor parents as possible.”

Enric smiled at Malriel’s laugh. It sounded rather rusty, as if she hadn’t used it in a while.

He would have loved to go on cheering her up, but he couldn’t afford to. They had no idea how long they were allowed to stay here for now or when they would be permitted to return.

He reached inside his shirt and pulled out his notebook.

“Malriel, we need to get you out of here quickly. So we had better get started with what exactly has happened so far.”

“I know. And I thank you for indulging me that much already. This has done wonders for my soul, believe me.” She straightened, taking her hands off the two men’s before she began her account.

* * *

Half an hour later Vran’el pursed his lips and looked down at the notebook he had commandeered from Enric a while ago to make his own notes and add helpful remarks and annotations for later.

“Good, Malriel – now let me repeat this in my own words so we can see if I have understood everything correctly.” He cleared his throat. “Alright. Shortly after you managed to have them talk to you about the chance of exchanging a waiver on the greater part of the mining rights in the mountains in exchange for more beneficial trading arrangements, you met a young man at one of the social events you had been invited to. In the course of the following two weeks you met up with him again several times, seemingly by accident. When you went to a pub to have a meal, at other social occasions or even when you were just strolling along the street. Have I got this correct so far?”

“Yes,” she confirmed, waiting for him to go on.

“His name is…” Vran’el flipped a page and scanned it before continuing, “…Geloin Urnen, Legen of the Nords, third level aspirant of the Inner Cirle. Geloin being the lower of the two existing religious titles, and the Inner Circle the most powerful religious union or faith group of the five they have here. He would join you at every opportunity, sharing bits of information with you. He went on to tell you about the discrimination magicians have to endure here and how much he envied you your freedom to do as you pleased and even hold a position of civic power. He also gave you the impression of being attracted to you as a woman.” He looked at Malriel for confirmation. “Still correct?”

“Yes, Vran,” she sighed. “Just go on and I will interrupt you if something is wrong.”

“As you wish.” He turned another page and went on, “After another social gathering you were both invited to, he took you for a walk and then offered to show you the view over the city from the top level of the temple where he lived. You agreed and let him take you there. After you let him kiss you on the platform, you agreed to join him in his room at the temple for the night. You first had a drink and about what follows you say your memory becomes unclear. You remember taking his hand and walking to his bed, then you laid down and you recall nothing much from then on. When you next opened your eyes, somebody was shouting. It turned out to be your young man. He had been bound to the bed frame with golden chains, crying for help. Later he claimed he had been forced into bed and ravaged by you, which led to your being accused of forcible rape.”

She nodded.

“You suspect that he mixed something into the drink he gave you to make you pass out, if I understand you correctly. And you further deduce that this was an attempt to stop you from concluding those trade negotiations successfully. You think that there might be a group interested in promoting a war between our country and Pirinkar, or at least stopping the current process of convergence.”

“How far have the proceedings progressed so far?” Enric enquired now that they had established the essential facts around the charge.

“They listened to his accusations, wrote them down, presented people who testified as to his good character and his exemplary conduct in carrying out his temple duties. And the unlikeliness that he would lie about something as grave as this,” she snorted angrily. “Then they questioned me. Unfortunately, I had no solemn looking, upstanding, grey-haired member of society to swear that my impeccable character would keep me from ever doing a thing like that.”

Enric smiled faintly, thinking that it was probably less her impeccable character than her immense pride that would make a deed like that impossible for her.

“Now a very important question, Malriel.” He leaned forward. “Are they familiar here with the concept of a lie filter?”

“No, they are not. I tried to show them how to use it, but they simply refused to, fearing I would unleash some outlandish mind-control spell or whatever on them to influence them into letting me leave.” She rolled her eyes. “Idiots. If I wanted to leave here without considering the consequences, I would have done it more than a week ago.” She nodded to the barred window. “This is a joke. Any magician could walk out of here without any trouble.”

“Which they are either not aware of,” Vran’el threw in, “or hope you will make use of and basically provide them with an admission of guilt.”

“I know. This is why I have been waiting more or less patiently for the reinforcement I knew the triarchy would send.” She leaned forward and put a hand on each of their shoulders. “And what they sent me exceeded my boldest expectations.”

Enric took her hand and held it between the two of his. “Malriel, there is something I need to do that you will probably not appreciate.”

She smiled knowingly. “Do your thing, Enric. Of course you need to be sure. I am ready when you are.”

He squeezed her hand, then let a stream of magic flow from his hand to hers.

“Malriel of House Aren, did you force a priest into bed with you?”

“No, I did not.”

“Did you impose your will on him in any other way?”

“No.”

“Is there any aspect of the story you told us that did not happen the way you said it did?”

“No.”

He nodded and released her hand. He had not expected any other result, but it was important to know beyond any doubt.

They looked up when the door opened and Lam Ceiga cleared her throat pointedly.

Malriel rose with the two men and hugged them both before she watched them leaving with an expression that showed her reluctance to part with them as well as her careful optimism.

»End of extract«

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“Rifts” – The Order: Book 4

Chapter 1

An Unpleasant Arrival

Enric stood on deck watching the sun set. He marvelled at the colourfully painted layers of red, orange and yellow, the effects of light and shadow among the clouds and the reflections on the calm surface of the sea. Sunsets at home just didn’t appear like this; he wondered why they were that much more spectacular here. Maybe he could find a book on that somewhere.

It had been a while since he had taken the time to watch a sunset. Sunrises, yes. He was an early riser and had for many years lived with bedroom windows angled in the right direction. But hardly ever sunsets. There was always work to do, though he had pretty much stopped working late since he had started living with Eryn. She was a good motivation for finishing on time, a reason to come home.

Right now she was asleep in their cabin. Pe’tala had observed her being physically sick several times and then sent her off to sleep with a little magic, cutting off her protests in mid-sentence. Eryn had been too surprised to raise any of her defences in time and had just sunk limply. At least he wouldn’t be the one to pay for that later.

He had been worried about taking two pregnant women along on the long journey to Takhan, but so far everything had gone well enough.

Which was a relief as the start had not been too promising. While Junar had been more than willing to take a seat in the coach they had arranged, Eryn had not been thrilled about being expected to travel in it as well. She had tried to argue that fresh air would be beneficial for herself and the child, but Pe’tala had explained that several hours of riding in unfamiliar surroundings with a horse she didn’t know was not a wise thing to undertake in her current condition. If she lost concentration and made a minor slip or if the horse was startled – which was quite a realistic chance with a mountain cat trotting nearby – she might fall and get hurt. He had listened to their discussion for a few minutes and then decided to intervene. He had offered Eryn two choices how to travel to Bonhet, neither of which contained the option of her being on the back of a horse: either awake or asleep.

She had flashed him an evil look and boarded the coach none too happily. Junar had been vexed about Eryn not wanting to ride in the coach with her and thus they had started the journey with three uneasy men, an unnerved healer and two grumpy, expectant women.

Vern had initially wanted to go in the coach as well as he had wanted to use the time for some reading, but had thought better of it when the two women started bickering. Enric hadn’t blamed him. He wouldn’t have endured this voluntarily for two days, either.

Junar had at one point started crying, something she was prone to lately, and Orrin had asked to delay their departure for some minutes so as to comfort her, while giving angry looks at Eryn at the same time.

That Eryn had found it necessary to point out to the others that this was exactly the reason why she didn’t want to be stuck with the other woman in a small, enclosed space for two days had not exactly helped, either.

Vern had at one point given Enric a pleading look and asked whether sending Eryn to sleep was still open for discussion. Enric had told him that he was welcome to try that any time, as he himself was not willing to endure her wrath once she woke up again.

That had made Eryn angry at Vern. All of which led to a very disgruntled group departing the city.

They had stopped several times for Junar to get rid of parts of her breakfast again and had thereby needed around an hour longer than planned to reach their destination in the evening.

The second day had been easier as Junar had resorted to making do with a few slices of bread throughout the day to keep her stomach from rebelling too much. She had then devoured three helpings of the stew the publican in Bonhet had served in the evening to make up for her sparse fare during the day.

Eryn had been immensely surprised at how much Bonhet had changed since they last passed through during their first journey to Takhan about nine months ago. More people, more buildings and a general busyness that had not been there several months earlier.

Enric had taken a walk through the village with her, showing her the buildings he had constructed, giving her a tour through the shipyard and the tally house, strolling along the piers and jetties.

She had been pleased with how the workers had treated him: with respect but without the reflexive awe and admiration his rank inspired in most people back in the city of Anyueel. Not being constantly reminded of the importance and wealth of magicians had made country people act in a more down-to-earth manner when dealing with them. It probably also helped that their travelling clothes were not as elegant and showy as their usual attire. Wearing what they did, they looked functional and dusty after being on the road all day long instead of screaming rich magician to those who saw them.

They had boarded the ship after dinner as sleeping at the public house did not make sense since it would just cost them an entire night of travelling time. They could just as well employ the cabins on board to rest in.

Eryn had looked a little pale already before boarding the vessel. She obviously remembered well enough the last time she had been on a ship. Enric had explained to her that his was a larger vessel than last time, which meant that it was not as prone to the influence of lighter swell and would thus not rock as much.

It had taken Eryn less than an hour to vomit her dinner back up.

Amazingly enough, Junar did not seem to be suffering from any sea-sickness whatsoever – somewhat unexpected as her stomach had not been cooperative at all these last few months. Vern seemed to be immune to the rocking as well and spent most of his time drawing pictures of everything he saw, asking the crew members to show and explain things to him, as well as reading.

Orrin was another matter. His skin had taken on a slightly greenish tinge, but as neither Enric, Pe’tala, Vern nor Junar showed any sensitivity to the constant pitching of the ship, he was determined not the be the only one apart from Eryn showing weakness. When asked, he replied that everything was fine. Pe’tala and Vern had both offered to send him to sleep until they reached Takhan, but he had not wanted to hear any of that and kept insisting that all was well.

The wind was good, so they were expected to reach the city tomorrow in the late morning hours.

Enric turned when he saw Pe’tala climbing up from under deck. She nodded to him when she spotted him and stepped next to him, leaning against the railing.

“Eryn is still asleep. I will keep her that way until the morning when we have left the sea behind us and are on the river.”

He nodded. “Thank you. I admit I am glad that you are the one doing this as it would have fuelled her anger at me otherwise.”

She smiled. “This is one of the unpopular things healers are used to taking care of. Helping people does not always make them thank us.”

“Not even other healers?”

She snorted. “Especially not other healers. Healers are the worst patients you can imagine. They think they know everything much better and do not need any help. And if they are willing to admit that a little aid would be a good idea, they try to tell you how to do it properly.”

He chuckled. “Good thing healers don’t need each other’s help too often, then.”

She nodded. “That is fortunate, indeed. We would otherwise have to increase the price for their treatment as they are particularly burdensome.”

“Does this apply to you as well or are you more conscious of it all?”

Pe’tala grinned. “Of course it applies. I am worse than most. Can you imagine my having to admit to needing help in a field which I am known to be very proficient in? I pity any healer who has to deal with me.”

Enric regarded her thoughtfully. “It is good to see you smile, Tala,” he said softly. “I haven’t seen that in a while. I can’t help but get the impression that you are worried and restless. This is not your usual impatience with the world in general but something else. And you maintain your distance from Eryn, even though you keep watching her when you think nobody is noticing. What is the matter?”

She bit her lip and dropped her head. “It seems I need to be more careful around you. I am not used to people paying that much attention to their surroundings.”

“Talk to me,” he insisted. “It is something that has to do with Eryn, I am almost sure of it. Is everything alright with her and the child?” His voice had taken on a slightly concerned tone.

Shaking her head, she reached out for his hand and squeezed it when he took it. “No, Enric, I promise you that everything is alright with both of them. And let me tell you how very touched I am with the extent of both your and Lord Orrin’s concern for your companions’ wellbeing. It is not something I would have associated with warriors. It seems I fell prey to the common prejudice of fighters being no more than insensitive barbarians. I should have known better.”

He exhaled in relief. “Good. Then what is it that you are fretting about?”

Pe’tala slid her hand back and turned away from him to look out into the darkness. “There is something Eryn will learn after we arrive in Takhan. It will be a surprise, and not a pleasant one, I suspect. Be prepared for her to be very distressed about the news she is about to receive.”

“What news?” he insisted, frowning.

“It is not my place to tell you. I can see that you are worried now, but please do not push me. You will learn of it in less than one day. I promise.”

Enric nodded slowly. “Alright, I respect your wishes. Just one more question, then I will leave it alone: does it have anything to do with her father?”

She looked up at him sharply. “You are a perilously sharp man, Enric. It would really be reassuring if you were wrong every now and again, you know.”

He smiled without humour. “It is a burden at times. But I thank you for the warning. And thank you for taking care of her. I will try to catch some sleep now; it seems that I need to be well-rested and alert for tomorrow.”

“Good night, Enric. Sleep well.”

He climbed down the stairs and opened the first door to the right behind which Eryn slept peacefully, if not of her own free will. News about her father. And none she would appreciate. What a pity that her second arrival in Takhan might not be much more pleasant than her first.

* * *

Eryn slowly opened her eyes and stared up into two faces that looked down at her. Enric and Pe’tala. They took a step backwards when she slowly sat up. Memory returned to her and she shot Pe’tala an affronted look.

“You put me to sleep, just like that!”

Shrugging, the other woman leaned against the door. “I did so, yes. You were too proud to agree to it and I had no intention of letting your retching keep me awake all night. So I did us both a favour. No need to thank me.”

“Yes, exactly. Thanking you was just what I had in mind…” she muttered and carefully got up from the platform bed to stretch.

“You’d better get dressed and wash yourself, my love,” Enric put in. “We should arrive in Takhan in no more than two hours so you might want to eat something before that, too.”

“Two hours? That means we have left the sea behind us,” she said with relief.

He nodded. “That we have, yes. The last part of the journey should be fairly relaxed.”

“How are the others doing so far?”

“Well enough. Orrin still refuses to admit that he was sea-sick, Junar is not doing any worse than usual, and Vern has by now drawn pictures of pretty much everything he has found on board, I think.”

Eryn nodded and then looked at both of them in turn. “Look, why don’t you go up on deck? It is a bit tight in here to wash and dress with the two of you standing in my way. Out with you.”

They looked at each other, then Enric opened the door to let Pe’tala step out first.

When she was alone, Eryn took a seat on the bed again, breathing slowly. Only two more hours until she was back in Takhan again. Two more hours until she would encounter Malriel. The woman who had made sure Eryn got pregnant against her wishes. And the woman who had betrayed her companion twenty-nine years ago and had been careless enough to become pregnant by another man. A man Eryn didn’t even know whether she wanted to know more about. All that counted was that she had taken away something that had been immensely precious to Eryn: the family she had found in House Vel’kim. She was still a member of their House, legally speaking. But with Ved’al not being her father, she had no claim of lineage to being part of the family.

The notion of Malriel made her heart increase its pace and she made herself close her eyes and breathe evenly to calm herself down again. Stress was not good, neither for her nor for the child.

When she emerged on deck several minutes later clad in the thinner garments she had purchased here during her first visit, she found Vern sitting on the stairs, drawing something.

“According to Enric you have already drawn everything there is on the ship. Are you starting all over again?” she quipped.

He looked up and grinned at her. “I don’t have to, fortunately. Unlike at sea, there are landscapes around now, so I don’t have to limit myself to the things on board.”

“Have you had breakfast yet?”

He nodded. “Yes. Two hours ago. Not all of us like to sleep half the day away.”

“I was put to sleep by a magician! It was not my fault!” she protested.

“Oh, I see – because under normal circumstances you like to get up as early as you can,” he snorted and resumed his work.

“Why am I even talking to you?” she murmured and moved on to where Enric and Orrin were standing, looking out over the wide, rocky ridges. These were the foothills of mountains they had passed not long before. There was hardly any vegetation as the slow transition into desert had started already.

Orrin turned and nodded to her when she stepped next to them. He, too, had changed into lighter clothes. Junar had made them each a few sets to have something for their first few days in Takhan before they had a chance to see a local tailor. She had not adapted the style of their clothes, just the heaviness of the fabric, so he would still appear foreign in style, even if one did not look at the fair hair.

“Where is Junar?” she asked and looked around.

“Below deck,” the warrior replied. “She woke only a few minutes ago and is getting herself ready.” He studied her. “You look tense.”

She set her face in a scowl. “I am not too thrilled at the prospect of seeing the Queen of Darkness again so soon.”

Orrin frowned. “The what?”

“Queen of Darkness. Malriel,” she explained.

“Charming,” he murmured and shook his head at her.

“Why would I be? She isn’t, either. I just hope she doesn’t turn up at the port,” she growled.

Enric thought that the chances for that were rather slim, but didn’t put words to it. She was probably aware of it anyway.

Vern stepped next to them. “Can we repeat the thing with the greetings once again? I keep mixing it up.”

Enric nodded and stretched out his hand to demonstrate. “Two men who greet each other formally link their fingers. The same goes for two women.”

Vern linked his fingers with Enric’s as instructed, then nodded. “Alright. And then there are the informal greetings. Men don’t have any particular informal greeting but express fondness through whatever gesture they feel like performing, like squeezing a shoulder, slapping a back or whatever. Though with mixed sexes it’s different, isn’t it?”

Enric confirmed it. “Yes. When men and women greet each other formally, the man kisses the woman’s hand like this.” He took Eryn’s left hand and pressed his lips against her knuckles. “Just make sure not to linger, or it might be taken as intrusive. Informal greetings between men and women consist in kissing both cheeks. The same goes for two women.”

Vern nodded. “Thank you, Lord Enric.”

He lifted both brows. “Pardon?”

The boy closed his eyes for a moment, then sighed. “Thank you… Enric.”

Eryn grinned. “Ah yes, it seems you used the time I spent more or less hibernating to adapt to the custom of not using titles.”

Enric sighed. “Yes, though it seems that this is quite a burden for our young friend here. He keeps flinching whenever I make him address me without it.”

She looked at the boy. “Just remember that he is no longer in the Order and does thus not merit being addressed by it, anyway. He isn’t your superior anymore, just a magician you happen to know.”

He snorted. “Yes, sure. A magician in the case of which I have been taught to stay out of his way, not look him directly in the eye, address him without being asked and be very careful always to treat him with the respect he is due.”

Enric looked taken aback. “That is what you were told?” He turned towards Orrin and raised an eyebrow at him.

“Don’t look at me,” the warrior shrugged. “I don’t tell people not to look you in the eye or keep their mouth shut when they have something sensible to say, no matter how important you are. Must have been his teachers.”

“Children are being told to keep out of my way and avoid eye contact with me?” he asked with a bewildered expression. That really was an unpleasant revelation. He shook his head in confusion. “Why?”

Orrin thought for a moment, then ventured, “There are stories about you beating up your fellow students and playing rather cruel tricks on them.”

“I was younger than Vern back then!” he protested angrily. “The children that are being taught to cower in obedience before me were not even born at that time!”

“You were that kind of boy? Really?” Eryn frowned. “Why did I get a different impression from the stories I have been hearing until now? They painted a picture of a lazy, disrespectful, misunderstood boy with a tendency to express his frustration through poetry, not with fists. How is it possible that the destructive aspect of beating up other children got lost in there somewhere?”

He looked at her sheepishly. “It’s all a matter of presentation, my love. I already had to work hard enough to make you like and accept me without your knowing about my dark past.”

Orrin grinned. “Don’t worry, Eryn, that was just for the first one or two years after he was brought to the Order. Let’s call it acclimatisation problems, shall we?”

“Yes,” Enric snorted. “After you got your hands on me, I had hardly any energy left to waste on my peers since you made me do so many extra training hours after class that I more or less fell into bed at the end of the day.”

“That has worked well enough, hasn’t it? You turned into an exceptional fighter and have learned to express your frustration with words instead of violence,” the warrior smirked.

Enric looked at Vern. “Who told you to avert your eyes?”

The boy thought for a moment, then said, “My teacher in political strategy, Avlin.”

“Avlin…” Enric mulled the name over, wondering why it did sound familiar, then he grimaced. “Ah…”

Orrin nodded. “Yes, him. You locked him inside a chest for several hours when you were boys. Twice.”

Eryn shook her head at her companion. “So while I was training to be a healer at the age of… what? – thirteen, you were the scourge of your peers? And the most sensible thing they could think of was to teach you more fighting?” She sighed and looked at his former combat teacher. “Why not lock him up in a chest for a few hours as well to teach him a lesson?”

“I see we have very different approaches to raising children,” the warrior said reproachfully. “Repaying a child in kind doesn’t achieve much. Punishing him like that would only have made him angrier and wouldn’t have solved the problem of his excess energy. Fighting requires discipline, so increasing the time he had to spend learning it served more than one purpose. It left him hardly any time or energy for torturing others and forced him to learn control and restraint.”

Eryn nodded and smirked at Vern. “Well, you see it is safe enough to look him in the eye and address him without a title nowadays. It seems your father has tamed him for us.”

“I don’t really appreciate your phrasing it like that,” her companion sighed. “Let us say he aided me in finding less destructive outlets for my energy and frustration, shall we?”

She nodded. “If that wording makes you happier, who am I to deny you?”

“A pity this approach has not worked on you, though,” Orrin remarked. “Making you fight just increased your frustration.”

“Yes,” she growled. “And I had to have a child planted inside me finally to be permitted to halt this waste of time for at least a while.”

“We could always have another one afterwards. That would make them spare you for even longer,” Enric threw in casually.

“Hardly,” she snapped at him. “Buying myself a few months without combat training will earn me another few years of a different kind of strain. Imagine if we get stuck with a troublemaker like Vern who teaches magical fighting to prisoners and defaces ancient city maps with drawings of naked women!”

“I thought I was too harmless to be bad?” the said troublemaker chuckled.

“I’ve changed my mind about that. You are now officially bad influence material. Just don’t do anything I need to take responsibility for as the highest ranking Order magician as long as we are in Takhan. And you had better get used to addressing Enric without a title. It will sound really strange otherwise,” she warned him.

Pe’tala stepped next to them and pointed towards the horizon. “Look, there is my home city,” she said with a touch of pride in her voice.

Vern cast a quick look at the view in front of him before he darted back to the stairs where he had left his drawing pad and pen. He started drawing frantically while the others just looked at the faraway silhouette of the grand city.

Enric noted Pe’tala’s tense posture. She was also clearly not looking forward to their impending arrival.

* * *

They stood next to each other at the railing, watching the jetties drift past. This time they had been assigned a different one due to the size of their vessel.

A slow smile spread on Eryn’s face when she spotted the small group of people that stood waiting on the landing stage. Valrad, Vran’el and Kilan. She was relieved to see Malriel was not among them and was pleased that there was no large party assembled that would have taken an eternity to greet, though she felt a small stab of disappointment at Ram’an not being there to welcome them.

She watched her travel companions and smiled at their wonder at seeing the foreign city for the first time, taking in the unusual sights around them.

When the ship had finally been secured by heavy ropes fore and aft, the gangplank was put in place to allow the passengers to disembark. She all but ran ahead and pulled both Vel’kim men at once into a stormy embrace, holding them pressed against her for several moments, before she stepped aside. She was not the only one who had to be eager to greet them.

Pe’tala approached them at a more moderate pace and smiled at her family. She first hugged her father, then her brother.

“Tala, my child,” Valrad said tenderly and brushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “It is good to have you here again, even if it is only for a short while.”

“It is good to be back,” she smiled and leaned into his touch. “You would not believe how cold it is over there.”

“I can when I look at how pale you have become,” her father nodded. “Clearly not enough sunshine there.”

“The Vel’kim girls back in the city,” Vran’el grinned and winked at Eryn. “People here better hide in dark places.”

Eryn then turned to Kilan and laughed when he pulled her close to kiss her cheeks. “Adapting to local customs, I see, Ambassador.”

“I should, I am supposed to show my respect for my host country that way,” he smirked.

Enric, Orrin, Junar and Vern had in the meantime reached them, and after Enric had greeted the three men affectionately, he introduced their travel companions.

“Orrin,” Valrad mused and looked the fighter up and down. “The man who has made Eryn fight despite her repulsion to it.”

The warrior nodded, the cool tone clearly not lost on him. “That would be me, yes,” he replied slowly. “But I hope you will not reduce me to that alone.”

Eryn swallowed and stepped next to Orrin, taking his arm to squeeze it reassuringly while looking at the man she had until recently considered her uncle.

“He has become a close friend since that time, Valrad. Somebody who has never failed me when I needed a place to go or a voice of reason to guide me.” She grinned and gave Orrin a friendly shove. “Pretty much the father I never wanted.”

She watched Valrad narrow his eyes at her last comment and wondered why this greeting was so uncharacteristically tense. She hurriedly turned from Orrin to his companion and introduced Junar, who was welcomed more warmly.

When Vern stepped forward, Valrad broke into a broad grin.

“And this must be Vern, the young man with not only the most incredible artistic talent but also an inclination to healing. I have seen the book you illustrated, and I cannot wait to introduce you to my colleagues. They were thrilled to hear that you would be among the party to come here.”

Vern was clearly overwhelmed at the warm greeting that was so very different from the one his father had just received. It took him several moments to find his voice.

“Thank you, I am very glad I had the chance to visit here. And I am happy to meet you. I have heard a lot about you,” he finally said and lifted his hand for the formal greeting.

Enric put a hand on his shoulder. “You usually wait for the other person to offer you his hand first if he or she is older or higher in status.”

The boy swallowed and smiled nervously at the older man before him. “I’m sorry, it seems there are a few things I need to learn still.”

Valrad laughed and linked their fingers. “No worries, my young friend. I will not take offence at minor things like that.”

Eryn frowned when she saw Vran’el gaze over her shoulder and stiffen at the sight. She turned slowly, hoping against hope that she would not find herself face to face with Malriel.

No such luck.

The Head of House Aren came closer. Her face appeared confident enough, and yet there was a hint of caution in her moves. She reached Enric first and pulled him close to greet him with a kiss on each cheek.

“Enric, my dear. I am so very glad you are here. I truly appreciate what you are doing,” she smiled.

He nodded at her once. “I am sure you do. Yet I want you to know that your methods do not meet with my approval,” he said mildly. “But this is a discussion for another time.”

Malriel’s expression became slightly strained and she moved on to greet Orrin, Junar and Vern. Finally, she turned towards Eryn, who had gone stiff.

“Theá,” the older woman said softly. “Welcome back to Takhan.”

Eryn felt the rage shoot through her like a hot spear. The smile, the name she didn’t want to be addressed with, this casualness despite the things she had done.

When Malriel stepped closer to kiss her cheeks, Eryn’s reaction to this attempt at closeness was an automatic one. Her fist shot out and connected with the older woman’s chin with a thud. Malriel’s head was twisted violently to one side by the force of the impact and she staggered back several steps, the shock clear on her face.

“You black-hearted, untrustworthy, maleficent creature!” she shouted.

It had become quiet around them. Everybody within sight seemed to have frozen in mid-action to stare at the incredible scene of the mighty Head of House Aren being hit by what looked like a slightly younger version of herself.

Eryn felt a surge of pleasure, relief and dizziness at seeing Malriel out of her element for once. She was not in control of this situation.

“Oh dear,” Vran’el sighed and looked up at Enric. “You ought to intervene, I would say.”

The blond magician slowly shook his head and murmured, “No. Malriel had that one coming. I have no intention of aiding her. She deserved it well enough.” And it was a nice way for Eryn to get rid of her anger instead of keeping it inside. That she could also apply her newly acquired skills in unarmed combat as a welcome side-benefit.

They watched Eryn approach her mother again. Malriel lifted her hands before her.

“Maltheá, this is not the right way to deal with our issues!”

“It works fine for me right now,” Eryn hissed and kicked her hard in the stomach, sending her over the edge of the jetty and into the river with a loud splash.

She watched the water close over Malriel’s head, then exhaled and turned to walk towards her rapt audience without looking back.

“I assume she can swim? Not that I intend to rescue her if she can’t,” she commented dryly.

Valrad had closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. “Not a good start,” he murmured.

Vran’el nodded. “No, but not exactly unexpected, was it? Though I did not see that… physical aspect coming, I admit.” He then turned to Kilan. “Would you accompany Orrin, Junar and young Vern to your residence, Kilan?”

“What about Eryn and Enric?” Junar asked, putting a protective arm around her friend’s shoulders.

“They will come with us to our house. There is something we need to discuss,” Valrad answered in his son’s place. “I would very much like to invite all of you to spend your first evening in Takhan with us and have dinner with my family and me. I am sure I do not need to tell you that you are in capable hands with Kilan until then,” he finished with an awkward smile.

They watched Malriel pull herself out of the water, her wet clothes clinging to her slim body as she climbed an iron ladder downstream of the ship, her long dark hair plastered against her head. When she was back on land, she closed her eyes and a moment later steam started to rise when she dried herself with magic. A minute later there was no more trace of her tumble into the river, and she walked back to them casting a warning look at her daughter.

Orrin gripped Eryn’s upper arm and growled at her, “This is not responsible use of the things I taught you. Attacking somebody who has scruples about striking you back on account of your condition is not a very noble approach to the art of fighting.”

She bared her teeth when she hissed back, “All I have to tell you is that this is of no consequence to me right now. None at all.”

She saw Valrad frown at their exchange and freed her arm from Orrin’s grip.

“Why are we to come with you? I would rather take a cool bath and sit down and relax for a while,” she then asked, keeping Malriel in view in case another chance to give her a good kick presented itself.

“I will tell you when we are at home,” Valrad spoke calmly and reached out for her hand. “It is nothing I would like to discuss in public.”

“Is that vicious woman to come as well? If yes, you can count me out,” she growled.

He sighed. “Yes, Malriel will accompany us. And no, you may not refuse to come.” His tone contained an unmistakeable warning. “Enric, I would appreciate your help here.”

Enric nodded slowly. It seemed they had just got the harmless part behind them and were now to face what Pe’tala had been dreading.

* * *

Eryn waited until Malriel had taken a seat on one of the cushions at the Vel’kim main room and then sat down at the furthest possible spot, glaring daggers at her. Enric glided onto the seat next to her and Valrad sank onto the cushion on her other side. Vran’el set down a tray with glasses, water and juice on the low table before them, then sat between his father and Malriel. Pe’tala had opted against joining the group and instead leaned against a wall close to the exit.

Enric raised a questioning brow at her. To escape, if necessary? She gave him a tired smile.

Valrad took Eryn’s hand between his own two larger hands and waited until she had torn her glare away from Malriel to look at him instead before he addressed her.

“Eryn, my girl, Pe’tala has informed me that you are by now aware of the significance of your son’s inherited illness.”

“Yes,” she swallowed and sent the woman opposite her another hate-filled look. “It means that Malriel of House Aren was not much more considerate in her companionship than in her other dealings. She was not only unfaithful but also careless enough to get herself pregnant from her affair, drunken encounter or whatever else it was.”

Malriel opened her mouth to reply, but closed it again when Valrad gave her a look that made her reconsider.

Eryn frowned at that. “I don’t really see why you are the one to talk to me about her misconduct. Delegating this duty to the brother of the man she did this to is low, even for her. But then I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at anything she does any longer.”

“Eryn,” Valrad said urgently, “please listen to me for a moment, will you? This is important. You are right. It was wrong of her to do this behind Ved’al’s back, but she was not the only one to blame here.”

She tried to pull away her hand, but the older man held on to it. “If you are about to tell me her bed-partner’s name in order to make me spread my anger more evenly instead of making her alone be the one to bear it, I am very disappointed in you. I don’t care who she took to bed. He is of no consequence to me.”

Valrad closed his eyes and turned his head away for a moment.

The thought hit Enric like a fist in the stomach and he sucked in a sharp breath. His gaze shot to Pe’tala, who nodded at him once, guessing that he had figured it out.

Eryn turned to him when she felt shock and dread through the mind bond. “What?”

He just shook his head and quickly raised a mind shield to avoid distracting and worrying her.

“Eryn,” Valrad then said, his face serious, his jaw clenched. “This is of considerable consequence to you. To all of us. I was the man she took to bed at the time when you were conceived.”

She froze, staring at him uncomprehendingly. There were… words. She understood the meaning of every single one of them, but together they just made no sense at all.

“Pardon?” she enquired politely.

“The bone disease your son has inherited,” he explained with a troubled expression, “has been passed on through our family for many generations now. Not all males inherit it, though – only one in four. Ved’al did not. But I did. And so has your son.” He searched her face for a sign of comprehension, some emotion. “Eryn? Do you see what I am telling you? I am your father, and not only legally. You are of my blood, my daughter.”

Her head sunk until her chin rested on her chest, her breathing becoming faster. “No. You are not. I refuse to believe that you did a thing like that to your own brother. Not you. You are the decent kind. You wouldn’t.”

She watched the pain on his face at her words and only then fully understood that he had spoken the truth. As the ache at realising this almost choked her, for a moment she felt that she couldn’t breathe. Enric’s arm around her shoulders pressed her against him and she felt his lips on her temple. It took her several moments to decipher that his voice formed actual words.

“I am so sorry, my love.”

She sobbed quietly and buried her face in her hands.

After more than one minute she whispered, “Of all people! I see how she could have done this, but you?” Her voice rose in pitch. “He was your brother, damn you! How could you? And you played the role of the welcoming uncle so nicely when I first came here,” she exclaimed, a tear running down her cheek. “A pity for you Malriel slipped me that fertility potion, or I would never have found out!”

Valrad’s head snapped to Malriel and he stared at her. His voice boomed through the house, when he snarled, “You have done what?”

Malriel flinched as if he had hit her and just pressed her lips together, neither confirming nor denying it.

Enric looked at Pe’tala in surprise. “You didn’t tell him?”

She shook her head. “No. It is not something to send via bird. One never knows who intercepts and reads those messages.”

“I swear to you, Eryn, I had no idea of this. And neither did I suspect that I am your father. I only realised it when Pe’tala sent me the message about the results of her examination.”

Eryn shook her head and rose. “I need to get out of here,” she murmured and almost stumbled when she hastily climbed over the large cushions towards the stairs that lead to the exit. Valrad attempted to steady her, but she shied away from him. “Don’t you touch me!” she snarled and ran towards the stairs.

Enric jumped up and tried to follow her, but Pe’tala blocked his way, shaking her head.

“No. Let me.”

Conflicting emotions played across his face. When they heard the door downstairs being opened and thrown shut a moment later, Pe’tala grabbed his arms and added urgently, “Please?”

He finally nodded and forced himself to remain where he was.

“Vran’el?” she called out. “Bel’s teahouse in half an hour.”

When her brother nodded silently, she dashed off after Eryn.

* * *

She was blinded by the sudden bright sunlight and staggered for a moment before she shadowed her eyes with her hand and started running down the road that climbed from the street to the building.

When she reached the street that ran along one side of the Vel’kim land, she paused before she decided not to worry where she went as long as it would be away from here.

A hand on her shoulder made her cry out and whirl around, ready to throw a punch if it turned out to be Malriel or Valrad. But it was Pe’tala, her face grim and determined, who stood before her.

“Come,” she just ordered and grabbed Eryn’s upper arm to lead her in a direction that Eryn vaguely recalled leading towards the city centre.

“Let go of me,” she ordered and tried to free her arm, but the younger woman held on to it and pulled her along.

“No. You stop that right now and come with me. I can hardly let you go running around alone in the city without a single slip of gold in your pocket and no more than rudimentary knowledge of the city layout. Who knows where you might end up.”

Eryn laughed too loudly, her voice bitter when she said, “My concerned little sister, how very considerate of you to worry about me.”

Pe’tala stopped and turned towards her, staring into her eyes and stepping closer until their noses were almost touching.

“You are damned right, you idiot! A month was a long time to carry the burden of this knowledge alone. I do worry and have done so since the moment I detected that disorder in your child. Or did you think it was a coincidence that I was standing next to the exit right now when you heard about this?” she said sternly. “Now stop being difficult until I get you to a place where we can talk. As you are quite a bit stronger than me, I need you to cooperate with me. Do you hear me?”

“Talk to you?”

“Yes, talk to me. Honestly, I am the person you want to talk to right now. Knowing Vran’el, he is very probably happy about the recent development, so having him around would just make you want to throttle him. It is no matter that you generally like him better than me. Enric would just hold you and listen to your wailing and then tell you how to analyse the situation in a way that makes it appear advantageous.”

Eryn blinked and just stared at her.

“Are you coming now?”

Pe’tala waited for a moment, and when no reply came she resumed her brisk walk without letting go of the other woman’s arm.

Eryn had no idea how long they had marched on before Pe’tala stopped next to a teahouse with white tents that protected the cushions on the ground from the sun.

“Sit,” she commanded and lifted a hand to summon a server, instructing him to keep the tables around them empty to give them privacy and ordering a pot of tea, telling him to keep refilling it until ordered otherwise. Then she sank down next to Eryn, stretching out her legs and sighing wearily. “It seems coming to Takhan is never a very cheerful occasion for you, is it?”

Eryn exhaled and leaned back, closing her eyes. “No, I just want to hide somewhere dark…” Her voice trailed off. She opened her eyes again when she felt Pe’tala’s hand on hers.

“Your hand is cold and your heart is beating much faster than our short walk here would warrant. You are in shock. I am going to do something about that as it is dangerous for you and the child. Do you hear me?” Her voice sounded calm but there was determination.

“Why do you keep asking me that?”

“Because confusion is a shock symptom. Relax now. Do not raise a barrier or anything, or I will grab the next magician I see passing along and make him help me overpower you just so I can smack you on the head.”

Eryn slowly shook her head and felt pleasant warmth seeping into her skin as Pe’tala sent magic through her palm. “You do have a way with patients. No wonder they keep complaining about you.”

Pe’tala opened her eyes again and smiled tiredly. “Nonsense. They complain, but in truth they are secretly delighted. They exchange horror stories about being treated by me when they meet. I am practically providing an additional public service by making sure there are conversation topics.”

Eryn exhaled and noticed that she found thinking a lot easier. “What now? Do I pour out my grief and sorrow about the latest blow fate has dealt me, and you ease my pain with the balm of sisterly sympathy, or how does this work?”

“An interesting picture,” the younger woman smiled weakly, “but not exactly in accordance with our preferences, is it? Let us instead try being angry together.”

Eryn sighed and nodded. “Sure, why not? I can see why you would be angry.”

“No,” Pe’tala retorted sharply. “You cannot. Yet. But you might if you shut up for a minute and let me tell you bit about myself.” She paused when the server brought them a metal pot with steaming hot tea and two glasses. The handles looked so delicate as if they might fall off any moment simply by being looked at the wrong way. When he had retreated again, she leaned forward to pour the tea for both of them and then leaned back with her glass in one hand to continue. “I was very young when my mother ran off with a trader. Four years old, to be precise. I know that her and father’s companionship was not a particularly affectionate one, but I have never really forgiven her for leaving me behind like that. There are ways for a woman to separate from a man without giving up all contact with her children. In any event it seems we were no more than a burden to her – there was no space for us in her new life.” She paused and stared into her glass for a short while before going on. “In this past month I have started wondering. I would never have pegged my father as the type to have an affair with a woman who is joined to another man. Especially not his brother’s companion, and not while he himself was bound to a woman. But learning of this… It has made me wonder if my mother had learned about this, too, and decided to leave because of it.”

Eryn swallowed. So these were the thoughts that had plagued Pe’tala for the last month while she was stuck in a foreign country far away from her family and friends with nobody to talk to.

“I wish you had told me about this. That was a long time for you to be alone with it.”

She shook her head. “No. It was not my place to share this with you. And I was angry at father and wanted him to see with his own eyes what pain his actions of so many years back would cause you.” She looked up into Eryn’s eyes. “It was a punishment for him. And Malriel. Though I have to mention that he asked me not to tell you about it. He never expected me to do his dirty work for him, as it were.”

“Don’t say anything nice about him now,” Eryn grimaced.

Pe’tala smiled. “Alright, I will refrain from doing so for now. There are a few other reasons for me to be angry with him, so let us talk about those first. There was his choice of lover, for one thing. I mean, how could he ever be drawn to a woman like that?” She cast a disapproving face. “She is selfish, reckless and not exactly squeamish when it comes to the methods she employs. What kind of man would fall for those qualities? She is very pretty, I will admit. But I never thought that my father would find superficial qualities appealing enough to overlook what lies beneath. I would like to grant him the fact that he was young, but I find that very hard. Then I keep wondering how well I really knew my father. As you said before, doing this to his own brother is a cold, heartless thing. I never pictured him as that kind of person. And finally the absolutely ridiculous idea that a fully-trained healer cannot manage to avoid conceiving an unplanned child. Really now. How stupid can one be? This happens to teenagers who are either too caught up in the moment to think properly or have not understood how to prevent pregnancy, but not to a grown man. He had already made himself a name as a healer at that time, after all!”

Eryn waited for another reason she would have expected to be relevant here, but it had not been among those mentioned.

“And then there is me,” she ventured.

Pe’tala rubbed her face and shook her head. “No, Eryn, you will probably not believe it, but you were not one of my reasons for being angry. You have not caused this any more than I have. And you know, after getting to know you better and leaving the mess with Ram’an behind me, I have decided that you are not that much of a nuisance. I was surprised at the work you did in your Kingdom and how you keep fighting and pestering the Order instead of just complying with what they wanted, leaning back to enjoy a life without worries at the side of your powerful and rich companion. And I will admit that your troubles with Malriel have made it a lot easier for me to forgive you for looking like her.”

“How very generous of you,” Eryn murmured.

“What can I say? I am known for that quality,” she said, then became serious again. “I do not mind having you as my sister. I had fun in Anyueel, and you made it very easy for me to be accepted. Even though it took quite some determination from my side to stop Rolan from shying away from me due to my mighty and powerful family connections, namely you and Enric.” She chuckled as she recalled the memory. “I swear to you, he was sweating blood when we were first invited to have dinner at your place.”

Eryn smiled faintly at her recollection of the evening. “Yes, he did seem rather ill at ease.”

They both emptied their cups and Pe’tala refilled them again.

“The time you have spent with Ved’al, your memories of him, this is something no unpleasant revelation can take away from you, you know,” she then said. “He has been as much your father as… well, our father. He has raised you and made you the person you are today.”

“I know,” Eryn sighed. “Yet the thought that it has all been a lie… It may sound very cruel, but I am glad he never found out about this, that he did not live to see this day. How is a man to react when he learns that his only child is not his, but his brother’s?” She stared at her cup, blankly.

They looked up when a figure stopped next to their table. Eryn’s eyes narrowed when she recognised him after a few moments. Ram’an. He looked surprised to see them, but recovered quickly enough.

“Eryn. Pe’tala,” he said slowly. “That is… unexpected.”

Eryn didn’t reply, but stared at him. He looked somehow transformed. Thinner, with more lines around his mouth and on his forehead. It seemed that his position as Head of House was not exactly one that afforded him a lot of time for himself. Or for sleeping.

“Ram’an,” Pe’tala answered politely without rising. “At the risk of seeming unfriendly, would you mind leaving us for now? We are having a very personal conversation here and would appreciate our privacy. I am sure we will meet again soon. Either Malriel or my father will very likely host a welcome dinner.”

He blinked and then nodded. “Of course. And yes, the invitations have already been sent out. I will see you in two days, then.” Eryn noticed his quick glance at her belly before he turned away and walked towards a set of cushions at the other end of the teahouse. So he had obviously heard about her pregnancy. This was good.

“And there I was, thinking this day could not become any more unpleasant,” she murmured, trying to ignore that he was still close enough for her to see him if she turned her head.

Pe’tala pointedly looked at the bracelet around her wrist. “I was under the impression that you parted as friends?”

Eryn nodded and played with the piece of jewellery. “That was what I had thought, too. But our correspondence was chilly at the beginning and ceased completely after a while.” She shrugged. “Not a major concern of mine any longer after what I have heard so far today, though.”

“Girls,” Vran’el’s voice said from behind them.

Pe’tala sighed and turned. “That was not half an hour, Vran.”

He shrugged and squeezed between them. “No matter. I thought that annoying you by being early was preferable to my waiting at home, fretting.” He raised a finger to signal the server to bring another cup. Then he looked at each of them in turn. “So. Tala, my sweetheart, I know that you must have known about it for a while. And Eryn, my dear, I see why this was not the most comforting start to your stay here. Though I have to say that I am very pleased that you both seem to have managed to get along well enough to be there for each other when there is trouble.”

He took Pe’tala’s glass and emptied it. “And while at the moment this may seem like bad news and quite a shock…”

“Vran?” Pe’tala asked and after he had stopped, added, “Just shut it, will you?”

Eryn rolled her eyes. “You were right. Too cheerful by far. Terrible.”

“What?” he asked in puzzlement.

“We are still in the throes of sharing with each other why we are angry at Valrad,” Eryn explained.

“Angry at him?” His confusion increased. “Why ever would you be angry at him? What would that change?”

“Oh dear,” Pe’tala sighed. “Can you just go off again? This conversation was a lot more meaningful before your arrival.”

Vran’el accepted a glass from the server and shook his head. “Surely not! It seems to me like you are in desperate need of some positive influence here.”

“Don’t try to be positive with me right now,” Eryn growled. “If you want to tell me something nice, say that nobody but us will ever get to hear of this latest family drama.” She watched Vran’el’s expression become studiously blank. “Vran’el? Why do I have the feeling that you are about to tell me something I will not appreciate hearing?”

He cleared his throat, then filled his glass with exaggerated care from the pot on the table, obviously to buy time.

“Vran’el!” she barked. “Stop playing around and talk to me! Who knows about this but us?”

“Nobody else so far,” he said slowly. “But you surely remember that men born to the House of Vel’kim tend to be rather well known for their devotion and commitment to their offspring, do you not?”

She nodded and motioned for him to keep talking.

“Father plans to officially acknowledge you as his natural child in addition to being your legal parent at the next Senate meeting.”

“What?” Eryn stared at him, her mouth agape. “You need to stop him! That won’t look good for any of us!”

Vran’el looked at her with what she had come to know as his lawyer-expression: slightly indulgent with an air of solemn superiority. “I am afraid I cannot oblige you here. He would not take well to me interfering in this matter unbidden. And he is right, it is no more than correct and proper to take public responsibility for his actions.”

“You have both gone mad!” she exclaimed. “I object to this!”

“You see, he is the Head of your House, so if he is determined to do this, your objections are rather useless, I am afraid,” he shrugged.

“How about Malriel? I can’t imagine her approving of a thing like that,” Eryn asked urgently. “She can and will stop him, can’t she?”

“No, sweetness, she will not even try,” he sighed. “Aren women are a belligerent bunch, but they are not stupid, and avoid fighting whenever they know they cannot win. So now sit back and have another glass of tea; you are not able to change what is about to happen in two days. You are welcome to watch the revelation, though. Senate meetings are public most of the time, as you can surely remember.”

“I don’t want everyone to know this! Why is he so eager to share his shame with the world? What kind of man does a thing like that?” she moaned.

“Someone who does not consider being gifted with having another daughter a shame but rather a privilege, I would think,” he said mildly. “A sentiment I share.” He took Pe’tala’s hand and squeezed it. “One sister has been a blessing so far, and having two is an even greater blessing.” He attempted to take her hand as well, but she moved out of the way.

“Don’t,” she hissed, “just don’t! You really don’t see how I can be upset about this, do you? For you we are just a big, happy family where nothing much has changed, as I was adopted into your House anyway?”

“Eryn,” he implored her, “we loved you before we knew about this, and we still do. You lost one father when you were still a child – why do you not see the miracle in unexpectedly finding another one and just accept it?”

“Because this situation is the result of infidelity, lying and betrayal! How would you react to finding out that Obal was not your daughter? Don’t tell me you would approve of it as you daughter would be blessed with gaining another father!”

He raised an eyebrow. “That is hardly a valid comparison. I am still alive, after all. Of course I would not be happy about it. But Ved’al has been dead for so long, and without him there nobody is left to be hurt.”

“It hurts me, damn you!” she hissed. “I just want some time to get used to this nightmare before it will be discussed by everyone.” She forced herself to breathe and lean back again. “I have been looking forward to seeing you and your father again, I really have. That prospect was more or less the only pleasant thing about being compelled to come here again so soon. And now I feel like strangling you because you are so obstinate in your views. I wish I could hide from Valrad for the next month! My stomach churns at the mere thought of his having invited us to have dinner with you tonight!”

“Eryn, please,” he tried again, “this is not supposed to be a burden to you. All he wants is the chance to be a father to you, too.”

“I don’t need a father,” she snapped. “Is that so hard to understand? I had a father, and he is dead! What I need and what I appreciated very much last time I was here is a friend, an uncle, somebody I can trust! But this is not him any longer! How can I trust him ever again after discovering how he treated not only his brother, but his own companion, too?” She stood and glared at him. “I have no intention of serving as his big chance to repent for his bad deeds back then. I don’t need him – I just want to be left in peace.”

Her gaze fell on Ram’an who was observing her with interest from his distant corner of the large tent. Her eyes narrowed. This was as good a time as any. She fumbled with her bracelet until she had unfastened it and marched towards him, tossing it into his lap.

“Here! I don’t want it anymore. It seems you and I have very different ideas about friendship. You have not held up your side, and I am sick of waiting for you to come to your senses. Let’s stop pretending, shall we? Enric is eager enough to help your House back on its feet; you don’t need me to carry your torch and demonstrate publicly how chummy our Houses are.”

He blinked and began to rise, but stopped when she whirled and stomped off.

Vran’el also started to get to his feet and follow her, but Pe’tala sighed, holding on to his sleeve and pulling him back down. “Let her go. You just messed up all my efforts, and not just a little. What is more, I must say that I do not agree with some of the things you said. This is not an occasion of joy, but of great shock. And she has had no time to get used to it like the two of us have. Do try to be more considerate next time.”

He stared at his sister. Being reprimanded for lack of sympathy by her was not something that occurred too often. It generally was the other way round. He lifted his hands and let them drop again helplessly.

“I just wanted to show her that she is welcome, that she has a home with us. That she is one of us,” he said, looking perplexed. “It seems I made quite a mess of that.”

“Considering that she has just jumped up and run off, you may safely assume that, yes,” she remarked tartly.

“Where is that consideration you just reprimanded me about?” he growled.

She was about to reply to that, but shut her mouth when she saw Ram’an slowly walking towards them. He was looking down at the silver bracelet in his hand that Eryn had just thrown at him. He stopped in front of them, frowning.

“What is wrong?” he simply asked.

“I did not have the impression that you are on speaking terms, so I do not feel that you are entitled to an answer,” Pe’tala replied coolly, but sighed when she saw the worry on his face. “Just make sure not to miss the next Senate meeting. That should answer your question sufficiently.” She looked him up and down. “And you might want to get some sleep every now and then and reconsider your dietary habits. You look dreadful. That was some professional advice free from your friendly neighbourhood healer.” Then she rose and dropped half a gold slip onto the table to pay for the tea. “If you will excuse me now, I need to make sure Eryn gets back to the ambassadorial residence unharmed, or Enric will skin my hide. Not being subjected to the restraint the Order puts on its magicians does not exactly make him less dangerous.”

Ram’an watched her walk off, then he looked down at Vran’el, who did not look especially happy himself.

“You know,” he said slowly, “seeing the two of them sitting together peacefully was not a sight I would have expected anytime soon. That your joining them could lead to some kind of escalation was the next shock. But having Eryn furious at me while Pe’tala treats me like a human being throws me completely off balance. I do not know what is going on at House Vel’kim, but I am determined to attend that Senate meeting in two days. Unless you feel like sharing?” he added casually.

Vran’el shook his head. “No. I cannot. You will have to wait like everybody else.”

Ram’an nodded slowly. “Very well – I respect that of course. Should you change your mind, there is always a bottle of wine waiting to be shared at my place.”

Vran’el smiled thinly. “You are shameless.”

“And you are troubled, something I have not seen in a long time. Send me a message if there is anything I can do.”

“Thank you. I appreciate the offer, even though I am not able to accept it for now.” He rose. “A good day to you, Ram’an.”

Ram’an watched the Vel’kim heir walking in the direction of his home. This was interesting. Pe’tala had gone after Eryn, but he did not. Whatever mess they were in seemed to be something major.

 

Chapter 2

Facing Valrad

Enric fought the urge to pace the main room at the ambassadorial residence and instead stood in front of one of the large windows and looked out. Unfortunately, he could not gain a view of the streets but of the green inner courtyard with its fruit trees and decorative shrubbery. It was a more pleasant scene than the dusty street, especially during the day, yet his concerns were hardly of an aesthetic nature at the moment.

He knew that Eryn was with Pe’tala and Vran’el, so there was no need for him to worry about her. Theoretically. She would be unlikely to get into any trouble, yet the thought of her being out there somewhere without him while she was so distressed was disturbing.

Kilan and Orrin were both sitting on the cushions on the floor at the centre of the room, watching him. He had imparted the news to all of them after his arrival less than half an hour ago, and Junar had immediately started worrying and had been about to storm off to start searching, through a city entirely unknown to her at the hottest time of the day, for Eryn. Vern had managed to convince her that Eryn was in good hands and then led her into her bedroom to get her to relax. Probably with a gentle prod of magic to ease her tension.

Enric watched his wrist and noted with relief when the symbols on it started getting darker. That meant she was approaching the residence. Finally.

Only minutes later he heard the door downstairs open and he rushed to the stairs to watch Eryn and Pe’tala come in. He reminded himself that seeming nervous and worried would not be helpful right now and waited for them at the top of the stairs instead of charging down as had been his first impulse.

When both women had reached him, he pulled his companion into a gentle embrace, kissed her on her temple and held her until she pulled herself free a short while later.

“Wine,” she murmured. Enric looked at Pe’tala questioningly, and she nodded.

“One glass. No more,” she accepted, then went to sit with the two men. “And something a little more potent for me, if you would be so good.”

Kilan was about to get up, but she rolled her eyes. “Stay seated, Kilan. The great and mighty lord will surely manage to serve me a drink without your help. I have seen him do it before. He is rather good at it, considering that he is a rich barbarian who had no idea how to feed himself when he first came here.”

Enric filled a glass for her and smiled to himself. That woman had a talent for dispersing tense situations by making fun of somebody. Or causing the same situations by doing so, however one wanted to see it.

He then pressed a glass of sweet wine into Eryn’s hand and took her other hand to pull her towards the seating cushions with him. He felt a lot calmer now that she was beside him again.

“Has he informed you about the latest drama yet?” Pe’tala asked the men as she accepted the glass from Enric.

Orrin nodded and patted the spot beside him to make Eryn sit down. He put a strong arm around her shoulders and pulled her close to kiss her on the temple just like her companion had done before.

Pe’tala sighed. “You know, I strongly suspect that this is why my father has been somewhat stony to you, Orrin.”

The warrior frowned. “Pardon?”

“That uncomplicated warmth between the two of you that looks a lot more like fatherly affection than normal friendship. You see, hospitality is in my culture an unwritten law, a way of life. The way he treated you today was a break with this, and I feel the need to make you understand why he behaved so.”

“There is no need,” Orrin assured her.

She took a copious gulp of the clear liquid and grimaced for a moment as it burned its way down her throat. “Oh, there is, believe me. A man of his standing is expected to be a role model. If those with the means to be hospitable do not demonstrate hospitality, then who can we expect to?”

“So what exactly is it you are saying?” the warrior enquired with a querulous expression. “That he is jealous of me?”

“Something like that I would suspect, yes,” she agreed. “You see, in my House children are considered something of high value. Vel’kim men are in high demand as fathers, as they are very committed to their children, if not always so obviously to their companions,” she added darkly. “The thought of a daughter who is not close to him – who even refuses to acknowledge him as her father – is no doubt an immense burden upon him. And seeing you with her, scolding her as if it was the most natural thing in the world, with her reacting to it like a stubborn daughter would, was very likely a little overpowering for him.”

“So you are asking me to keep my distance to Eryn as long as your father is around?” he asked calmly with an even look.

“No, that is not what I am asking you. I would not dare proposing a stupid thing like that. I do not see why either of you would have to pretend you are less to each other than is the case because my father has unrealistic ideas of his long lost daughter falling into his arms at a stroke.”

Orrin relaxed visibly. “Good. I wouldn’t have taken well to it.”

Pe’tala chuckled. “Yes, that was the impression I had. I am not trained in fighting skills and I think you are quite a lot stronger than me. I am trying not to anger you if I can avoid it.”

Kilan grinned. “Smart girl.”

“I know,” she grinned back.

“Such considerations did not exactly stop you from provoking Lord Tyront,” Orrin pointed out.

“I told you, I only do it if I cannot avoid it. That day at the Council meeting there was no way to avoid it. I am a proponent of meeting stupidity with disapproval. How else are people to learn from their mistakes?” she shrugged.

Enric watched Eryn staring into her glass. She had not spoken a single word apart from ordering the drink. Pe’tala followed his gaze, then cleared her throat.

“Well, Eryn, I suppose you and I will have to get used to referring to each other as sisters without making it sound like a sendup or an insult. Though I can see why this would surely be hard for you. I am the younger, prettier and very probably more talented of us.”

Eryn blinked and looked up at her. “One out of three. Not too bad for a start,” she muttered. “But at least now you have a female role model to look up to. We might even manage to work together on a few of these character deficiencies that seem to have become stuck.”

Enric gave Pe’tala a look of gratitude for teasing Eryn out of her lethargy. She winked back at him.

Vern entered the main room, carrying his cat.

“Ram’an has awoken,” he pressed out between clenched teeth and with a grimace of pain due to the feline claws that had sunk into his shoulder. “He is not happy.”

Kilan shook his head. “Another cat. At least this one is more compact in size, even though it does not exactly look like the cuddlesome sort.”

“Ram’an is usually very well-behaved and mannerly,” Vern pointed out indignantly and drew in a sharp breath when the cat strengthened its painful grip. “Now he is just disoriented and afraid.”

“He isn’t disoriented or afraid when he widdles on my shoes,” Orrin growled.

“He hasn’t done that in weeks!” Vern protested. Only then did he seem to notice the two women. “Oh, you are back.” His gaze fell on the wine glass in Eryn’s hand and he set down the protesting cat determinedly to walk over to her and pluck it from her grip.

“Are you quite mad? That is not good for your child!” He turned to Pe’tala. “And you just watched her instead of intervening!” he exclaimed reproachfully.

Eryn tunnelled her eyes into a stern look. “Give that back! Right now! Pe’tala permitted me one glass and I am in dire need of it. Don’t make me get it from you. You would not like that.”

Vern wordlessly gripped a carafe of water from the table and watered down the wine before handing it back to her.

“Nuisance,” she murmured, but accepted the glass.

Vern sat down next to Pe’tala. “So, you two really are sisters. Not much of a surprise there, if you ask me. Mean temper, sarcastic…” He shut up when both women gave him evil glares.

They turned when they suddenly heard the cat hissing at something.

“Ah yes,” Enric sighed and rose. “Urban has finally awoken. So this is where we see how those two will get along. Try not to move too much, it might startle them. I will stun Urban in case she decides that Ram’an is just the right size for a tidy snack.”

The mountain cat slunk into the main room, complaining loudly and completely ignored the small red tom, which maintained its hissing and growling.

“Not too happy about being back in Takhan, your big cat, is she?” Kilan commented.

Enric shook his head. “It doesn’t look like it, no. She probably remembers how hot it is here. Her natural habitat consists of shaded woods, after all. But at least she hasn’t shown any ravenous inclinations when it comes to Vern’s little friend. Yet.”

Urban rounded the cushions twice, all the while caterwauling, before she stopped behind Pe’tala to sniff her hair.

“Yes, my girl,” the women cooed and scratched the hairy cheek that was presented to her. “Yes, I am here, too. Do not worry, kitten, you can roam the gardens at the Vel’kim residence tonight. And in a week you will reign over those at the Aren residence.”

“Kitten,” Kilan murmured with a weary sideways glance. “Her shoulders are as high as my knees and she says kitten.”

“You are as bad as my brother Vran’el,” she sniggered. “His four-year-old daughter shows no fear while he walks on tiptoes when this cat is around.”

“The dinner tonight,” Eryn said calmly. “I would rather not go.”

“Of course you will be going,” Pe’tala threw in before Enric had a chance to answer. “An Aren never shows fear, and a Vel’kim never shirks an unpleasant duty. That does not leave much room for hiding. And especially not from my… our father. He may not always look the part, appearing friendly and harmless, but keep in mind that he still is one of the fifteen most powerful people in this country. If he feels that the only way of seeing you is having you move out of the ambassadorial residence and into his house, he can make that happen.”

Eryn stared at her. “He wouldn’t!”

“I would not count on that. He has not been unknown to resort to certain measures when he sees fit. He once punished me for disobedience by making sure that I was sent every single ailing infant under the age of two who was in need of a healer, for an entire month. After that I felt like sticking my head into a hole in the ground and never getting up again. I was fifteen at that time and my patience was not what it is nowadays.”

“Yes, I see,” Vern murmured. “Patience is definitely your most prominent virtue…” He flinched when she tugged his earlobe.

“No respect for your elders, my boy. And that despite growing up in that stuffy Order of yours.”

He shrugged. “Eryn’s bad influence, I am told.”

“Nonsense. You are a little too old for that excuse. You are about to become a man, so you had better own up to being defiant and difficult. It is a more robust claim than saying that your character is the result of an older woman’s influence. At least when it comes to girls.” She looked at him thoughtfully. “You are interested in girls, are you not?”

He stared at her in shock. “What? Of course I am interested in girls! I am definitely not attracted to boys!” he exclaimed in horror.

She raised her brow at him. “You can calm down again now. I did not mean to imply anything of that kind, I was just asking. And you might want to be more careful with your reaction to that very question. My brother is attracted to men, and we are a lot more accepting of this kind of personal choice here than in your home land.”

Vern froze. “Vran’el? To men?”

Enric exhaled audibly. “I see we should have dealt with this matter earlier to give you a chance to get used to the idea. Vern?” He waited until the boy had turned his head towards him. “I have come to regard Vran’el as a friend. He was a great help when we needed him and he is an intelligent and affectionate man. I would not take well to seeing you treat him with a lack of respect due to his personal and private preferences concerning his choice of partners. Have I made myself clear?”

Vern nodded slowly and swallowed. “Yes, L…Enric.”

“Lenric?” Kilan chuckled. “It seems you are having difficulties omitting his title, young man.”

“Doesn’t seem to be the only kind of difficulty I am in right now,” he sighed and watched his cat stalking the larger animal, clearly disgruntled at being ignored.

* * *

Eryn took a deep breath when Enric knocked at the door to the Vel’kim residence. The sun was setting and bathing the bright façade in a warm orange light. It only took a few moments until Valrad opened the door.

His eyes searched the party and his shoulders seemed to relax as soon as he had spotted Eryn. He had obviously been worried that she wouldn’t come.

He smiled broadly and stepped aside to let his guests enter and jovially offered them a large bowl with cool, moist towels, asking them if Kilan had explained the custom to them when he had taken them to the ambassadorial residence. Junar confirmed that he had and gratefully accepted the humid cloth to wipe her forehead and throat.

When Valrad turned towards Eryn to offer her one next, his expression became concerned.

“Good evening, child,” he said softly. “I was hoping that you would come despite your trying day.”

“Yes, sure,” she said calmly, wiping her own face without looking at him. She stilled when she felt his fingers at her chin to lift her face up to him.

“You look pale, my girl,” he said after his eyes had searched her face. “Pe’tala told me that she had to heal away a shock reaction of yours today. You still do not look fully recovered. Would you mind if I had a look at you?”

Eryn forced herself not to shy away from his touch. “I would, actually. As you are the reason for my current mood I would rather not have you do anything that requires any physical closeness, if you don’t mind.”

Valrad pressed is lips together and let his hand sink from her face. “I understand that you have had hardly any time to come to terms with this new situation. I can wait.”

He offered Enric, Orrin and Vern a towel each and then looked down at Urban, who had started sniffing his legs.

“My, my, your beast has grown quite a lot since I last saw her,” he commented. “Vran’el will not be too thrilled at that.”

When all of them had finished refreshing themselves, he preceded them up the stairs, conversing easily. “This is a typical outline for a Takhan residence,” he explained to the newcomers. “The entrance area and store rooms are all downstairs, as it is cooler during the day. We take special care to insulate our walls to keep out as much heat as possible. The main room is on the first floor, a big central room that is the centre of family life and social gatherings. From the main room generally a number of corridors branch out that lead to bedrooms for family and guests, to the studies, library and sanitary rooms. The number of corridors and rooms depends on the wealth and preferences of the House. Ours is a bit more extensive than most, as my grandfather added an entire wing two generations ago. At that time it was still customary to have most of the family living under one roof. From the main room you can access the terrace. Due to its location on the first floor, it is generally elevated, so there are stairs to reach the gardens.”

They reached the top of the stairs and Vern commented, “So this small table on the floor between the cushions is the only one?”

Valrad nodded. “It is indeed. The one at Kilan’s place was especially made according to Ram’an’s instructions for Eryn and Enric when they first came here. Though I am told that the current ambassador hardly uses it nowadays.”

Enric nodded. “That’s what he told me, too. He even is considering storing it somewhere.”

Vran’el came in from the kitchen, carrying a large, steaming bowl. A grin spread on his face when he saw them, but quickly turned into an expression of shock.

“Your cat! Please tell me that she is fully grown at last?” His voice was on the edge of panic. Urban pricked her ears and then started trotting towards him, making him retreat a step.

“Stay where you are, you monster!” he commanded and closed his eyes, when she ignored his order and instead circled him twice to first sniff his legs and then rub her side affectionately against him.

Pe’tala laughed when she entered the room from the adjoining kitchen, taking the food bowl from his hands. “Give me that, you feeble excuse for a man, before you drop our dinner on the floor and we have to make do with cold fare. Better go back and get Eryn’s dish.”

Eryn blinked at the scene that had so many familiar elements, but seemed so strange in having them combined like this. Vran’el being afraid of Urban, Vern asking questions, Valrad taking the role of good-natured guide, Pe’tala’s witty jibes. She had not seen Pe’tala and Vran’el together very often in the past, especially not in such a relaxed mood. Pe’tala had kept away from her home as long as Eryn had been here. She realised that they treated each other pretty much the way each of them treated her. Like a sibling. She pushed away the thought and looked in Valrad’s direction. It seemed that she had just been addressed by him.

“I was asking what I can get you to drink, Eryn.”

“Juice, thank you,” she replied and followed Enric to the cushions to take a seat.

Orrin helped Junar sit down next to her.

“You know, this is very cosy and all,” Junar sighed, “but sitting down and getting up is a bit of a challenge with my extra bulk.”

Eryn smiled, determined not to spoil the evening for the others. “But at least it looks funny, if that is any consolation at all.”

“It’s not, and what’s more I am looking forward to laughing at you in a few months,” her friend retorted.

Vran’el returned from the kitchen with a smaller bowl and placed it at the centre of the table next to the larger one. Then he motioned for Enric to move aside so he could sit next to Eryn.

“Sweetness, I want to apologise for today. I seem to have managed to make a bad situation even worse for you. I am sorry. Will you forgive a fool who was too caught up in his own world to consider your feelings?”

She smiled when he leaned his forehead against hers. “I will. Provided that you have prepared a halfway decent meal for us, that is. I have been very concerned with eating lately, you know.”

He laughed. “Then I have nothing to fear. You know how confident I am when it comes to cooking. I have been extra careful with spicing your dishes. I remember from Intrea’s pregnancy that her stomach tended to get upset rather more easily than before.”

When Vran’el leaned away from her again to fill her bowl, she saw Vern looking at her with a displeased frown. She lifted an eyebrow at him in question and sighed when he looked away hastily. She was not exactly in a mood to deal with his issues in addition to her own right now. This had to wait until later.

She leaned forward to use the water bowl to wash her hands and then pushed it towards Junar.

When all of them were ready to eat, Vran’el watched each of them pick up their bowls and waited until every last one of them had swallowed their first bite, just as a good host was supposed to do. Then he, too, started eating.

“What do you say, little sister? Did I promise too much?” he then enquired, sighing when she flinched at the term of address. “You better get used to that one quickly, Eryn. I have every intention of using it regularly.”

Her smile looked a little strained when she replied, “I wouldn’t want to steal Pe’tala’s endearments, so why don’t you stick with my name?”

Pe’tala huffed. “No need to worry on my account. He has started calling me baby-sister. Can you believe that? I had to become twenty-five years old to find out that I am not merely the younger of two, but the youngest of three, and the first thing that brute of a brother can think of is relegating me to baby.”

“Why complain?” Vran’el smirked. “At least it finally matches your behaviour.”

“Great,” Eryn sighed, uneasy at their eerily natural acceptance of the fact that they had just like that acquired another family member. “How nice of you to treat your guests to a performance of the Vel’kim Siblings of Doom.”

Pe’tala laughed at the term, and Vran’el grinned. “Vel’kim Siblings of doom. I like it. You do know that this includes yourself, do you not?”

“Children,” Valrad reprimanded them, “do try to behave. We have guests and you are not affording them the best impression, I am afraid.”

Enric smiled. “Don’t worry, they have known Eryn for a while and are used to quite a lot.”

Orrin nodded. “Yes. Not too long ago she was having breakfast in my bed, spreading bread crumbs all over it.”

Enric watched Valrad’s lips tightening slightly. It was the only external sign of his dismay at hearing another example of how close this man was to his daughter.

“Well, you just go and have breakfast in her bed as a revenge,” Pe’tala shrugged.

“That is a bit difficult,” he quipped. “Her bed happens to be my superior’s bed as well.”

Eryn smiled. “Bad luck, eh, Orrin?”

“You just wait. Your period of grace will be over in a few months and then you will be back in my hands for combat training,” he retorted.

Pe’tala chewed thoughtfully, then said, “I have been thinking about taking combat lessons myself.”

Several pairs of astonished eyes focused on her.

“What? I am the only magician who cannot use a sword in a place where everybody else can,” she pointed out and grinned broadly when she added, “And I liked very much what Eryn did to the Queen of Darkness today. I enjoyed how she was kicked into the river. That was a work of performance art. It impressed me greatly.”

“A work of art?” Valrad frowned disapprovingly. “I do not think that glorifying violence like that is an appropriate attitude for a healer, Tala. And I do not agree with your planning to learn it.” His gaze rested on Eryn for only a short moment, clearly conveying the message that he was not at all happy that she had been made to do so and would be required to continue the training.

Orrin exchanged a knowing look with Enric and continued eating.

Pe’tala carefully put her empty bowl back on the table and said softly, “I am a grown woman, father. If I decide to acquire a skill that will help me to better adapt to the customs of the place I am staying at for now, then this is what I will do. No matter if you approve or not. I would ask Orrin if he is willing to teach me, though as you have not exactly been very friendly to him so far, I should henceforth refrain from doing so in your presence.” Her tone had cooled down preceptibly towards the end.

Valrad closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, his expression was calm and serene, as usual.

“Let us discuss this matter some other time, Tala,” he said mildly. He turned towards Vern. “Would you care to accompany me to the clinic tomorrow, young man? There are a few people I would like to introduce you to, among them the man who asked you to do the artwork for his book.”

Vern smiled and nodded eagerly. “That would be fabulous, yes!”

He then looked at Eryn. “And you, Eryn? Will you come as well? Iklan and Sarol have kept asking me when you will come by,” he asked carefully.

Eryn shook her head. “Not tomorrow, no. There is a thing or two I would like to take care of tomorrow.” Such as locking herself in a quiet place without seeing any of them. “I will drop by later. I know my way around, you know. But thank you for asking,” she added politely. She could see in his eyes that this did not ease the sting of her telling him that she would go to the clinic soon enough, but not with him.

Vern carefully put down his bowl, his demeanour oddly awkward.

Enric looked at him, then had to hide a grin. He was waiting to be asked if he wanted another helping and wanted to avoid the appearance of doing just that.

Fortunately, Vran’el was a considerate host. “Can I offer you a refill, Vern?”

The boy pretended to consider the question, before nodding slowly. “That would be nice, thank you.”

Vran’el filled the bowl once again and handed it to Vern, frowning slightly when the boy avoided eye contact with him.

When Vern had finished, Eryn straightened. Now that the dinner was over, she could move on the less pleasant matters. Well, even less pleasant, that was. The evening had not exactly gone swimmingly so far.

“I have learned about your intention to give an official statement at the Senate in two days,” she addressed Valrad.

He visibly braced himself and nodded. “Yes?”

She cautioned herself to be careful. Phrasing it as a demand would hardly make him react favourably. It had to be a request.

“I do not feel comfortable with this. I would ask you to keep this knowledge private for now.”

Valrad’s eyes wandered over her face, then he slowly shook his head. “No, Eryn. I am afraid that this is not something I can do. I will make this matter public knowledge at the next Senate meeting. You will from then on be officially acknowledged not only as my legal, but also my natural daughter. It is the right thing to do.”

Eryn exhaled. She had really hoped for him to comply with her request, so his words gave rise to anger and frustration. She caught Enric’s warning look. He was obviously feeling it through the mind bond.

“Valrad,” she said, using what she considered her most reasonable tone. “I appreciate your very responsible and honest approach in dealing with what has come about, though there are considerations that might cause harm to House Vel’kim.”

“Such as?” he asked softly.

“Such as casting a bad light onto yourself as the current Head of House, on your brother of having been an unsuspecting, betrayed companion, and last but not least on me, being my own uncle’s…” She stopped herself in time from saying what would definitely have caused offence.

“Your own uncle’s what?” Valrad asked quietly, but his gaze had become sharp.

She stared into his brown eyes. Brown. Like Ved’al’s. The brother he had so coldheartedly betrayed by having a physical relationship with his companion.

“Bastard,” she said slowly, feeling dark satisfaction at the glint of danger in his eyes. “My own uncle’s bastard. Is that what you want to tell the world, Valrad? That you were not only a terrible brother and an unfaithful companion, but also a careless healer who failed to prevent an unplanned pregnancy?” She saw Pe’tala closing her eyes for a moment, then open them again to glare at her. She did clearly not appreciate having her own words used to hurt her father like that.

“Watch your words, my girl,” Valrad growled.

Eryn shot up from her seat, hands balled into fists. “I am not your girl! I don’t need to listen to you!”

Valrad got up as well. “You are mistaken,” he replied sternly. “I am your Head of House, something that alone puts me in a position to make you listen. And I am your father, no matter how displeased you are about that right now.”

“You are not my father,” she hissed. “Ved’al was my father! Your little tumble in the sheets with Malriel does not make any difference to me! I don’t care about your guilt and misguided attempts to make things right again! If you want to do something good, keep your mouth shut about this instead of exposing us all to ridicule!”

“If being known to be my child is a matter of ridicule to you, then I am afraid you will have to learn to live with it,” Valrad retorted angrily. His voice was calm, but the pulsating blood vessel at his throat betrayed the agitation within.

Enric and Pe’tala jumped up at the same time.

“Eryn and I will take a walk in the garden,” Enric announced and pulled her with him, half dragging her out the terrace door and far enough away for them to be out of earshot.

He had wanted to reprimand her, but when she stood before him, breathing heavily, looking as if she was about to burst into tears, he just sighed in resignation and pulled her close.

She buried her face at his shoulder, breathing in his scent, feeling how being close to him comforted her, calmed her.

“I want to go home,” she whispered.

“I know,” he replied, silently cursing Malriel and the King for not being able to comply with her wish.

“I don’t want to go back in there,” she then said and looked up at him.

He sighed. “I am afraid we must. We can hardly leave now. This is awkward enough for Junar, Orrin and Vern as it is, even without our abandoning them on their first evening in a foreign country.”

She nodded tiredly. “Very well. Then let’s get this behind us. Let’s not stay longer than necessary, shall we?”

He shook his head. “No, another hour, then we can leave without causing offence.”

She laughed, her tone slightly hysterical when she retorted, “Yes, causing offence is definitely not what we want, is it?”

When they returned to the main room, Valrad and Vern were gone.

“Father has taken Vern to show him his library,” Vran’el explained.

“Yes,” Pe’tala added, “to give you both a few minutes to calm down again.”

“I am calm,” Eryn said coldly.

“Sure, I can see that,” her sister remarked acidly. “Calmness radiates off you in gentle, soothing waves.”

“Oh, shut up.”

Enric made her sit down again and urged her to take a few sips from her juice.

“Vran’el?” she then asked.

“Yes, sweetness?” he asked carefully.

“I have a question pertaining to a legal matter.”

“Alright. Let me hear it. Though I have to warn you: If you want me to assist you in having father locked up, I shall have to pass,” he smiled, only half joking.

“Slipping somebody a pregnancy or fertility potion or however else you term it, it is illegal, isn’t it?”

He nodded slowly. “Yes, it is.”

“What is the general punishment for it?”

Exhaling slowly, he looked at her doubtfully. “For once, being made to cover the expenses of the upbringing of the child if it was somebody other than your companion, who would have to do that anyway. Then an additional payment for damages to the mother of the unplanned child is usually decreed as well.”

“Only monetary punishment?” Eryn frowned. “She could afford that well enough. And Enric is rich enough, whatever she would have to pay would not make any difference to us. How about some personal limitations like being locked up, being put under a curfew or having her magic blocked for a period of time?”

“Eryn,” Vran’el sighed, “there is hardly any chance for you to have her convicted. You would need to prove that she did it. This is impossible after this much time has passed.”

She shook her head. “Alright, then the accusation will simply serve to damage her reputation. Even if I do not manage to get her convicted, people will know well enough that she did it. They will probably think twice before entrusting her with business decisions in the future. My determination not to have children was known well enough, after all. And my getting pregnant shortly after her leaving Anyueel is a fairly good pointer of guilt.”

She turned her head when she heard Enric’s voice.

“No.”

“No? It’s not obvious?” she frowned in confusion.

“No, you will not do this. You will not accuse Malriel of having planted a child inside you,” he clarified.

She blinked. “Why not?” Then she glared at him. “Don’t tell me you are protecting your House?”

“Not that.” His expression was serious. “Not my House, but my son. I don’t want him to grow up with the impression that he has been forced upon us by his own grandmother.” He looked into her eyes and she could see the determination in them. “You may still not be too happy about this, but I am. And I will not have him thinking that he was anything else but a gift, a blessing. This is not open for discussion.”

“I agree, sweetness,” Vran’el added quietly. “He is right. Making your son grow up surrounded by this is not worth taking revenge on Malriel for. Not in that manner. Find another way to make her pay.”

She looked over at Junar, who had laid a hand on her belly protectively. Her expression was pleading. So, she, too, was on Enric’s side.

Orrin sighed. “The child comes first, Eryn. Has to. Really, you would regret doing this.”

Eryn rubbed her face with both palms and sunk back into the cushions, defeated. “Any other suggestions how to get back at her?”

Junar smiled. “How about kicking her into the river once more? Or something that gets her not only wet but filthy? A dung heap or something?”

Eryn stared at her for a moment, then grinned. “Nice start, but not distasteful enough. Though I would go for a pit with venomous, stinging creatures within.” Then she turned serious again and looked at Pe’tala.

“How do I get Valrad off my back?”

Pe’tala looked at her indulgently. “You do not. He will wear you down. One reason why Vel’kim men are good fathers, is their determination in combination with their patience. He will give you some time to come to terms with this state of affairs and give you a chance to come to him. If you do not, he will come for you.”

Eryn stared at her. “So I am, what – trapped? Are you telling me there is no way out?”

“There is, sister: giving in and letting him be a father to you. He will accept nothing less.”

She gulped and shook her head. “I don’t care what he accepts. I will not be bullied into anything by him.” She shot Pe’tala and Vran’el a sceptical look. “Why are you so accepting of this? Why aren’t you angry? Why aren’t you on my side?”

“We are, sweetness,” Vran’el said sadly. “Unfortunately, you are not.”

Eryn ground her teeth and looked at Pe’tala. “Alright, he is sentimental and not clear in the head. What about you? Why this willingness to accept me as your sister when you were about to tear the house apart when your father adopted me back then, when you still thought I was merely your cousin?”

Pe’tala shrugged. “Well, what can I say? Maybe I have unconsciously always wanted a sister, who knows? And maybe, just maybe, I think that after your dealings with the Queen of Darkness you deserve an actual parent, one who cares for you first instead of his own interests. Have I mentioned that I do like that term very much? It describes her so very accurately.”

Eryn shook her head. “So not a single one of you is prepared to respect my wishes here? Really?”

Vran’el’s eyes narrowed. “You are not withdrawing from us as well, are you?”

She looked at him. This was the lawyer speaking, she noticed, not the cousin or brother.

“No, of course not,” she smiled, feeling her heart break a little at the thought that she would from now on have to keep him, too, at a certain distance.

He kept studying her. “Do not do this, Eryn,” he implored her, his gaze piercing. “This is not a feud.”

She looked away. No, it wasn’t. But it would be diplomacy, the art of making things appear differently in order to keep everyone sufficiently deceived to avoid a war.

“Of course not, Vran,” she murmured, “What a thought.”

Her gaze fell on Junar, and the quiet understanding in her friend’s eyes made her look away again. It made pretending so much harder.

 

Chapter 3

Settling a Debt

Enric checked once again the shipping papers for the goods they had arrived with on the ship to make sure the lists contained everything he had ordered. So far the only thing that had gone missing was a bale of purple silk cloth.

Kilan had offered him his study for the morning as there was a matter Enric wanted to take care of. One that required some privacy, as it was rather delicate.

He had learned about the short encounter between Eryn, Pe’tala and Ram’an at the teahouse the day before and Eryn’s spontaneous decision to throw his bracelet back at him. A harsh gesture, and probably none he was very pleased about, Enric mused.

Ram’an was the visitor he was expecting any moment now. Enric had sent him a short message yesterday afternoon and had received a confirmation for the meeting today little later. The residence was quiet at the moment, considering how well-inhabited it currently was. Junar and Orrin were at a tailor’s shop, Vern was at the clinic with Valrad and Kilan had decided to meet with somebody at a teahouse. The only one at the residence apart from himself was Eryn.

After the trying day she’d had, Eryn’s night had not been exactly restful, either. She had lain awake for hours and spent the little time after she drifted off into a fitful sleep tossing and turning. Only in the early hours when the day announced itself had she finally collapsed into something that resembled unconsciousness more than sleep.

He heard the knocking and quickly moved towards the entrance door to admit Ram’an. He didn’t want to wake Eryn and have her unexpectedly face his visitor only moments after getting up. He had briefly considered meeting at the Arbil residence instead, but discarded the idea again as he didn’t want Eryn to be alone for the present.

After he had opened the door, it took him a moment to recognise the man he had invited. Ram’an looked different, and not to his advantage. He had lost weight and there were lines showing on his face that had not been there a few months ago. So it seemed his father’s death and the strain of taking over the House had taken their toll.

“Ram’an,” he nodded and stretched out his hand for the formal greeting. “Thank you for coming. Please come in.”

“Enric,” the other man nodded. “Your message was rather terse, but I assumed that you would not ask to meet me barely after arriving here if it were not important.

Enric handed his guest a moist towel and waited until he had wiped his face and hands before going ahead of him up the stairs.

When Ram’an had entered the study, he closed the door and motioned for the other man to sit.

“What can I offer you drink, Ram’an?”

“Water will be fine, thank you.”

Enric poured them each a glass and placed one before his visitor before taking a seat behind Kilan’s desk.

“Before we get to the reason why you have asked me to come, let me congratulate you on the child you are expecting. I admit I was a bit surprised that you have managed to change her mind about having children that swiftly.” His gaze became slightly leery. “I am assuming that you were able to change her mind?”

“As opposed to forcing her to become pregnant?” Enric enquired candidly.

“I admit that thought has crossed my mind, yes,” Ram’an admitted calmly.

“I have not sunk that low, no.”

“Does this mean that she wanted to have children?” the lawyer asked again.

Enric pursed his lips. Evasive answers were clearly not going to wash with a man of the law. At least not with this one.

“Saying that would probably be going a little too far,” he said carefully.

“It would?” Ram’an narrowed his eyes at him. “Are you telling me that she did not want to have this child, but that you are not the one who is responsible for its conception?” He thought for a moment, then stiffened and drew in a breath. “Malriel.”

“I would like to point out that I have not put words to any such allegation,” Enric stated impassively.

“Of course not. Tell me why I am here.”

Enric pushed the shipping papers towards him.

Ram’an looked down and frowned at the list that ran to different kinds of wine, fabrics, spices, herbs, wood and ore.

“I am afraid I do not quite follow you.”

“A debt between us that has not yet been settled. I am herewith changing this.”

He watched understanding and then shock appear on the other man’s face. “A shipload of goods… Oh no. You are not serious, are you?”

“I am. A load of my produce in exchange for an embrace,” Enric nodded and raised both brows when the list was shoved back at him.

“I told you, I did not expect you to comply with that condition. I just wanted to see how desperate you really were back then and was hoping to make you appear like a miser. I did not count on your honouring that condition.” He got to his feet and turned towards the door. “And neither will I take those goods from you. I do not charge a man a king’s ransom for supporting the woman he loves. Good bye to you, Enric. I will see you at the Senate tomorrow, I assume,” he said coolly.

“Ram’an, please wait,” Enric sighed.

The dark-haired man breathed out patiently and turned back with some reluctance.

“We both know that you are currently not in a position to refuse a load of goods that will fetch a very good price. I was permitted to bring them here over and above the already fulfilled trade quota between our countries, as the wares are not meant to generate profit for me. I couldn’t sell them here even if I wished. It would be breaking the conditions of getting them here. So you either accept them or I can as well give them away on the streets.”

“I cannot take them. Your gesture might be a noble one, but for me to accept it would be shameful,” Ram’an said quietly. “You are right, there is not much I have left at the moment, my House stands on the brink of ruin. But what I do still have is my pride. I will find another way of getting back on course.”

Enric sighed. Pride. Of course. That was hardly a great surprise. He himself would very probably have reacted the same way.

“Then let me make you an offer instead. You will accept the goods from me and consider them as a loan that enables you to meet your current payment obligations.” He gave a thin smile, then added what he knew would make agreement easier for the man opposite him. “I am not doing this out of pure goodness of my heart. I am about to take over House Aren for a time, and House Vel’kim is for now the only ally I can be sure of retaining. Helping your House recover will surely earn me your goodwill. And for House Aren – a strong ally is a lot more useful than a weak one. Let’s get you back on your feet for our mutual benefit, shall we?”

Ram’an stared at him, clearly torn. Enric waited patiently for him to nod in agreement.

“Good. Then you will pay me back when you can afford to. Take your time, though. As I told you, my interests are not of a monetary nature with you.”

“I will prepare a formal agreement so as to have the conditions of our deal in written form,” the Head of House Arbil sighed. “I will send a messenger when I am done to have you approve of the content.”

“Don’t bother. As I was willing to give the goods to you for free, I will be satisfied with whatever terms you see as appropriate.”

“Then I suppose the only thing that is left for me to do is to thank you.”

Enric shook his head. “There is no need for that. I think we have established that I am not doing this for entirely charitable reasons.”

Ram’an finally managed a smile. “Of course not. I simply forgot for a moment that you are a hard, no-nonsense business man without consideration for anything other than his own advantage.”

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking I am relenting because I am not kicking you while you are down,” Enric replied mildly. “I have my pride, too.”

“I would not make such a mistake. Eryn would not have accepted a weak man.”

Good, Enric thought. He had been wondering how to broach that subject.

“About Eryn. I assume you are not harbouring any more hopes about winning her for yourself now that we are not only joined in a third level bond, but are also about to have a child together.”

Ram’an glared at him. “No. I am no fool. I know when I am beaten.”

“Splendid. Then I can safely ask you to set things straight with her again. After yesterday she could do with another friend here.”

“Yesterday, yes…” Ram’an nodded slowly. “Quite a mess, is it not? A sensitive matter for House Vel’kim that causes them considerable solicitude. I imagine that Eryn is not happy about this entire setup. Especially not as it will all be revealed to the Senate tomorrow.”

Enric narrowed his eyes. “You are aware of this?”

“Of course. That kind of news is hard to keep secret in a city like that.”

Both men regarded each other for a few moments, before Enric slowly shook his head. “Just a minute; I think you are trying to trick me into telling you about it! Pe’tala told me that you saw them yesterday at the teahouse. Clever.”

“Not clever enough, it seems,” Ram’an sighed. “So I will have to wait until tomorrow, after all. Can you at least tell me if is something bad? The three of them did seem rather agitated yesterday at the teahouse.”

Enric grimaced. “The trouble is that depending on who you ask, the answer to that is either yes or no.”

Ram’an opened the study door and stepped out into the corridor that led to the main room. “Alright, then I will wait patiently until the Senate meeting.”

Enric felt a surge of annoyance and panic through the mind bond. That had to mean that Eryn had got up and heard Ram’an’s voice. He had not told her that he had asked the Head of House Arbil to come here today, and from what he could perceive she was not pleased.

He slowly walked towards the main room, giving her enough time to retreat if she wished so.

When the corridor opened into the main room, he was surprised to see her sitting calmly on the cushions, holding a glass of tea in her hand. Her external appearance did not betray any of the commotion he detected inside her. He was impressed.

She pretended to notice them only now and put her tea aside on the low table before her before she rose with a polite smile. Enric thought how much more elegant she looked rising from the cushions than a few months ago. He wondered if she had secretly been practising.

“Ram’an,” she nodded and walked towards him, stretching out her hand to greet him formally.

His guest looked slightly puzzled, but recovered quickly and smiled at her, taking her hand in his to kiss it.

“Eryn. I am glad to see that you are in a better mood today,” he said with a casual smile.

She nodded. “The pregnancy, you know. It does make me prone to even more extreme mood swings than before. At least that is what I have been told,” she replied lightly.

Enric watched her closely. She kept Ram’an at a distance with cool politeness and meaningless chitchat. Unusual. This was not her preferred way of showing disapproval, if a hardly less effective one judging by Ram’an’s uneasy frown.

“Then having you around will be an even greater adventure than before, my dear,” he smiled and winked at her.

She ignored the familiar gesture completely and appeared thoughtful for a moment before she replied, “I certainly don’t hope so. I try to spare people around me as well as I am able. If you would excuse me now, Ram’an, I need to get myself ready for an appointment. It was nice to see you.”

“Yes,” he said, slightly confused, “it was. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow. I am sure we will meet at the Senate before we do at the dinner.”

Her smile was cool. “Certainly.” Thus she turned and walked back to the table to pick up her tea before retreating to the corridor that led to their bedroom.

Ram’an stared after her, then slowly turned to look at Enric. “She has either become a lot better at pretending than she used to be, or she has somehow managed to turn her anger at me from yesterday into indifference inside one single day.” He shook his head. “I very much hope it is the first one. The other option would truly disturb me.”

Enric nodded. He knew well enough that she was everything else but impassive, but maybe thinking so would motivate Ram’an to make every effort to mend his dealings with her. He accompanied his guest downstairs to the door to see him off and then returned to their bedroom.

He leaned against the doorframe and folded his arms, watching her stand in front of the window with her tea and staring out into the small garden unseeingly.

“That was interesting. Your little performance impressed and unsettled Ram’an quite a lot. Had it not been for the mind bond, even I might have fallen for it,” he commented.

She turned and sighed, the cool façade having slipped. “I have decided that I cannot keep snarling and spitting poison at all the people I am upset with right now. There are too many of them around, and all of them happen to be Heads of Houses.”

He chuckled. “Yes, you do have a propensity for taking a dislike to important people. So your new approach consists of cool and aloof politeness? I admit it was effective enough right now, but I wonder if this is the right way for you. It seems out of character.” Disconcertingly so, he added to himself. It felt wrong and he wondered how hurt she truly had to be to be able to keep the impulses that had made encounters with her stimulating if not exactly hazard-free, locked up within.

She took a sip from her glass and perched herself on the low windowsill. “I remember a conversation with Malriel the evening before her departure, when she must have slipped me the potion. I told her that I have no more intention of hating her, as this only means hurting myself, and that I would work towards being indifferent to her. She said that this was even worse than hate, and I am beginning to think that she is right. Not worse, mind you, that is just her point of view. I think it is more final, more powerful. And it will give me peace.”

He swallowed. “And you intend to use this new strategy on Valrad and Ram’an as well as with her?”

“I do, yes,” she confirmed. “Maybe it is time to say goodbye to the legendary Aren temper. It is nothing more than a burden, a character flaw.” She walked towards him and leaned her forehead against his shoulder, smiling when his arms encircled her. “Time to grow up.”

She didn’t see his concerned expression. This felt wrong, as if she had decided to stop being herself.

“A pity,” he murmured, “It was what first fascinated me about you. I would miss it very much.”

She chuckled. “Then I will treat you to a private performance every now and then when you have the impression that your life is about to become too dull or peaceful.”

“I will hold you to that,” he remarked airily and wondered how well she would really be able to follow her resolution. He hoped not to the degree she had demonstrated only minutes ago.

* * *

Vern stormed into the main room and let himself collapse onto the cushions right next to Eryn. He had just returned from his visit at the clinic. An extended one, as he had left in the morning and now the sun was about to set.

“You seem to be walking on air,” she commented when he grinned broadly at her and couldn’t help but smile back. “I assume you had a satisfying day?”

“It was incredible,” he sighed, clearly tired but blissed out. “The building is so big! So many healers! And they were happy to meet me of all people! Can you imagine that? They have all seen the book I gave to Ram’an back then, and they told me what extraordinary work it was. Then they asked me questions about healing back home in Anyueel and gave me a tour of the entire clinic! They have so many different areas of expertise here, I don’t even remember all of them! I even met the Head of the clinic, but I forgot his name. He said it would be his pleasure to let me work and learn here for the duration of my stay! Can you believe that? I am going to work there!”

Eryn smiled her wide approval at him.

“What is this commotion about?” Orrin asked when he entered the room. “Junar is having a lie-down, so you had better lower your volume.”

“Sorry, father,” Vern grimaced. “I got carried away.”

The warrior smiled and came closer to join them. “I assume you had a successful day with Valrad?”

The boy’s face brightened again and he resumed rhapsodising. “Absolutely! I swear to you, they treated me like a king! They have a huge library there and they said I could go there and use it as often as I wanted. And they have something like a pub directly at the clinic where all people who work there can eat for free if they have this little silver badge. They call it a cantina, I think. The pub, not the badge. And they were asking about you, Eryn,” he went on. “Especially one rather unfriendly healer, the one without magic.”

“Sarol,” she added with a grin.

“Yes, right, him. And another one, rather young but very important. An expert on head-things, I think.”

“Iklan probably?”

He thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, that does sound familiar. They wanted to know when you would be dropping by and why you didn’t come today and how you are doing and…”

“Vern? Don’t forget to take a breath every now and then,” she chuckled.

“Pe’tala was there, too,” he went on after drawing a deep breath. “The unfriendly healer was happy to see her, I think, but he didn’t want to admit it. Ram’an’s cousin, the healer who wanted the drawings, was there as well. I showed him my pictures and I swear to you, he was completely speechless for almost a minute! He then showed the pictures around and they were immensely impressed and kept saying that they had never before seen anything like it!”

Eryn laughed. “Good thing you have ears, my lad, or your grin would circle your whole head and make the top half fall off.” His good mood was contagious.

“They think I am brilliant and a genius!” he giggled lightheadedly.

She ruffled his hair. “You are, Vern. And it seems you have come to the right place to have people appreciate that.”

“That they have! And your fa… Valrad,” he corrected himself hastily, “had to send people away and promise them that he would take me to them some other time because they all were pushing to talk to me! Did you know that he is very important there? He used to be in charge of the place but stepped back voluntarily to concentrate more on leading his House and working with patients again.”

“Yes, I heard about that,” Eryn remarked dryly. “I was here once before, remember?”

“Yes, that’s right. Of course,” he nodded, shaking his head at himself. “You know what? They offered me a place with their trainee healers for classes!” He fumbled for a sheet of paper. “This is a list of the topics the second years are going through in the next ten days, and I can just go there and listen to what they are being taught! How amazing is that?”

“Pretty amazing,” she nodded. “I swear to you, if you manage to get certified as a healer here before me, I will throttle you. And you can’t even defend yourself because there is no hitting the pregnant lady,” she sighed.

He jumped up. “That reminds me!” He dashed downstairs and came back a few moments later with a heavy book under one arm. “This Sarol guy sent this along for you. He said now that you are back and have time at your hands you might as well do something useful with it. He wants you to read this. It is about non-magical diagnosis, I think.”

Eryn grabbed the book eagerly. “Thank you! That is great; it means he wants me to start preparing for the last missing exam!” It would give her something to do here, finally!

“He is really rude, you know,” the boy pointed out. “I wonder why everybody puts up with it, even your… Valrad.”

She swallowed her annoyance at his repeated lapse. “Because he is really, really, really good at what he is doing. He has revolutionised non-magical healing, has turned it into a real discipline that is now acknowledged to such a degree that even magician healers have to learn something about it,” she explained. “He is a genius, too.” She looked up from the book and into his inquisitive face. “And just like you, he is entitled to his peculiarities because of it. If he is unfriendly to you, it means that he likes you. If he doesn’t like you, he doesn’t even bother noticing you.”

That made him think. “I see.” Then he grinned. “That probably means he likes me. He snapped at me twice!”

She giggled. “Sure proof.”

“You look dusty, sweaty and exhausted,” Orrin cut in. “I think you should take a bath and make yourself presentable for dinner. Enric is in the kitchen preparing it right now, so it will soon be ready. Off you go.”

Vern obeyed reluctantly and shuffled off.

“How are you doing, my girl?” he asked when they were alone. “You still don’t look like yourself, though I can see that Vern’s enthusiasm just now has perked you up.”

“I am well enough, Orrin. Thank you for asking,” she smiled. “I am just tired. I didn’t sleep very well or for long last night. Maybe I will ask Vern to give me little magical push this time. I want to be well rested tomorrow for that damn Senate meeting.” Her expression had become dark.

“Are you sure you want to go there? I didn’t have the impression that you will be able to stop him from announcing his news to the Senate.”

She shook her head. “No, I won’t. I am aware of that. But there is a thing or two I want to say there as well.”

“There is?” he frowned.

“Yes.” She looked up in relief when Kilan entered the main room. “Where have you been all day long? I thought you just wanted to meet somebody for tea?”

“Initially, I did. But then I ended up at his house answering a lot of questions about the newcomers that are staying at my place.”

She grinned. “That’s what you get for harbouring guests. Next time you ought to think twice before agreeing to that.”

“I could hardly let you poor castaway travellers sleep on the street, could I?” he smirked. “Imagine the political consequences if one of your two monsters had snacked on a Takhan citizen.”

“Then let me congratulate you on your providence. I had thought that your hospitality had something to do with the fact that Orrin and I happen to be your superiors and you didn’t dare refuse our request on that account. But I was obviously mistaken.”

Kilan took a fresh glass and poured himself a glass of dark fruit juice. “At least you realised your mistake. Enric is cooking dinner, I assume?”

“He is, yes,” she confirmed. “How about your own cooking skills? Have you improved them in these last months here?”

He nodded. “There was no other way. They laugh at adults who cannot cook a proper meal. Ask me how much fun it is to prepare formal dinners for thirty or forty people all alone. I spend almost all day long in the kitchen. In addition to going hunting first, of course.” His smiled then. “But at least this will not be a problem tomorrow as I have quite a number of helpers here.”

“Tomorrow?” she frowned. “But tomorrow is the welcome… Oh no. No! Please not.”

“No what?” Orrin enquired.

“The bloody welcome dinner,” she sighed. “It is going to be held here at the ambassadorial residence, isn’t it?”

The ambassador nodded. “Yes. Both Malriel and Valrad requested such.” He shot her a meaningful look. “Very likely because they wanted to make sure you have no other choice but to attend since it is at the place you are staying at.”

She moaned. “But that means that I have to stay until the very end! Come on, why didn’t you refuse?”

He looked at her indulgently. “Refuse a polite request from two powerful Heads of Houses? Is that a serious question?”

“I am not going to help you cook!”

“That is just as well, after your reaction just now I would be worried about your poisoning the lot of them,” he snorted. “But as I still have the three men here in addition to Vran’el, who has offered his help, we will manage somehow without you.”

Her face soured and she sighed. All these people here at this place with no chance to leave early. It was not even possible for her to claim indisposition in order to have an early night. There were just too many healers around to take care of whatever ailment she used as a pretext. And they would of course work out quickly enough that it was an excuse and probably even expose her to the others. Who would ever have thought that staying in a city with so many well-trained, knowledgeable healers could turn out to be such a nuisance?

»End of extract«

 

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“Schemes” – The Order: Book 3

Chapter 1

Returning Home

Enric looked grim as he stared out over the sea. There was nothing in sight, the horizon was no more than an endless straight line that separated the brighter blue above from the darker colour below. No interruption in the form of land promised relief anytime soon.

The last time he crossed the sea he had not felt any of the effects most others in his party, Eryn included, had been suffering. Seasickness, they called it, he remembered. But this time it seemed his stomach was not as resistant to the constant pitching of the ship as before. He was told that the body got used to it after a few days, so suffering from it now when it had not affected him before seemed strange.

His troubles were not as grave as Eryn’s, though. She lay immobile on the plank bed in their cabin downstairs, her stomach empty of everything that had been in there. It was unfortunate that healing away the symptoms did not work in this case as long as the cause was present every single moment and caused them to return immediately.

But at least they had half of the journey on the ship behind them already, only one more day left until they would reach the small village of Bonhet where they had boarded the ship that had brought them to the Western Territories. Right now that seemed like an eternity ago. He had quite grand plans for the village and wondered how people would react to them. Eryn was right in that one regard: the willingness to adapt to new developments was not exactly considered a virtue, not in the city of Anyueel, and even less in remote places like that fishing village.

He felt the tension in his stomach relaxing and decided to look after Eryn. Maybe he could persuade her to let him put her to sleep for a few hours now that Kilan and Grend were not there to tease her about choosing the easy way out. It was reluctance to be forced to listen to any jibes from their travel companions that had made her reject his offer the previous time, when they were bound for Takhan.

But when he opened the door to their small cabin, he saw that she had fallen asleep already, one arm hanging down to the floor limply. She couldn’t have been asleep for very long, the tea he had made for her was still warm. Probably no more than a minute or two, pretty much when his stomach had given up complaining.

His head jerked up and he frowned down at her. No, surely not. That would be highly unlikely, wouldn’t it? And this was surely no more than a coincidence, nothing that justified jumping to any premature conclusions, he warned himself. He would keep his eyes open, though, he decided. His suspicion was maybe no more than that, but it certainly paid to be on the safe side.

He turned and left the cabin, closing the door behind him carefully. They would soon reach the barrier and he had been told that the captain would show him how to overcome it, once and for all putting an end to the limitation of going to sea for the Kingdom.

* * *

Eryn woke when a warm hand kept shaking her shoulder.

“Are we still on that bloody ship?” she murmured without opening her eyes. “If yes, you have quite some explaining to do for waking me.”

Enric smiled down at her. “The village is in sight already, so you have another hour of suffering ahead of you.” An hour that would surely provide some interesting insights for himself.

“That is one hour you might have spared me!” she moaned. “You are doing this on purpose! Is there anything I have done to you recently that justifies tormenting me like that?”

He pretended to think for a moment. “No, nothing that I can think of. But then it is well known that I have a penchant for heaping agony onto helpless women. And now get up and come on deck for a bit of fresh air. It will do you good.”

“You are joking, aren’t you? You know very well what being on deck does to me! Why are you inflicting it on me?” she wailed and felt herself being pulled up to her feet and more or less hauled up the stairs and outside. The sudden brightness of the sunlight blinded her and she quickly lifted a hand to shade her eyes. There was a stiff breeze that made her shiver and she felt Enric’s arm around her shoulders pull her against his warm body.

“We need to change out of these clothes. They are not exactly suited for the climate back home,” he murmured and watched her stare at the waves around them that made the ship pitch up and down.

Then she closed her eyes, her face growing pale again. He also felt the feeling from before returning, causing in him the urge to hold on to something firm to convince his stomach that this sense of being tossed up and down was no more than an unjustified overreaction.

He smiled despite the unpleasant sensation. It seemed as if Eryn might be up for a little surprise, though none that would make her very happy. He would see how long it would take her to figure it out on her own.

* * *

“There it is! I can see it!” she exclaimed delightedly. “Never would I have thought that there will be the day that I am overjoyed to lay my eyes upon it!”

Enric looked up as well at the hazy outline of the city of Anyueel at the horizon. “It warms my heart to see you so happy to return to it, my love,” he smiled and took her hand to kiss it. And it truly did. She had, as far as he could remember, never once mentioned missing her little cottage in the town where she had spent most of her life. That had to mean that she now considered their house in the city her home, he hoped.

Urban trotted beside the horses and had turned her head to look at Eryn when she had called out her delight at spotting Anyueel in the distance.

“The yard should be finished for her by now,” Enric remarked with a glance at the cat. “Trees, rocks, everything. With a little luck the passage between the buildings is ready as well. The servants will otherwise very probably turn out to be just a little… jumpy.”

Eryn shrugged. “Why would they? She has never hurt anyone so far.”

“Still. We are talking about a fierce animal here. After all, not everybody has known her since she was small enough to fit into your palm. And though she is still not fully grown, she has definitely lost the advantage of being considered cute rather than frightening.”

“One would think that if a four-year-old girl is not afraid, adults should be able to handle Urban as well,” she pointed out.

“Children at that age do not yet have a proper understanding of danger, Eryn. Obal would just as likely have tried to cuddle a completely wild animal if there was one around. Vran’el’s reaction was the more natural one. And consider that part of my reputation in Takhan was based on the fact that I was wandering the streets of the city with what was perceived as a very impressive wild animal,” he explained.

She sighed. “Alright, I bow to your superior wisdom. Once again. Then let’s hope that passage is ready or we will have to do our own cooking and cleaning for a while. Not that I would mind that too much – I had to do it for quite a while when I was living alone. But I fear that there will not be very much time left to devote to it. I wonder what the healers’ place looks like. Utter chaos? Or will nobody even have noticed that I was gone? I don’t know which would be worse.”

“For you? The latter, very likely,” he smiled. “I am getting hungry. We should be in the city in about an hour and a half. It will be early evening by then. We will have time to get home, have a bite to eat then wash and change into clean clothes, but that is practically it.”

She furrowed her brow. “So there is no chance whatsoever to ask the King to see us tomorrow instead of tonight?”

“None. He already waited for us rather longer than he had planned – about two weeks longer. He wants to make sure we really are back. And to learn about the latest developments as soon as possible. The last message he received from me is several days old already. After that we will have to see Tyront. He will want to learn about everything the King did not tell him. Kilan was only instructed to inform the King, after all. Whatever has been passed on to Tyront was thus filtered.”

“So this is going to be a very long day yet,” she groaned. “And I just wanted to fall into my own bed and catch up on the sleep I missed these last few nights.”

“Sorry, my love. Not much chance for that in the next few hours.”

* * *

The four guards at the western gates bowed as the two high-ranking magicians passed them. Odd, Eryn thought, how strange this formal behaviour seemed after only a few weeks in Takhan.

They rode through the city to their house and Enric whistled through his teeth when he saw the people assembled in front of it.

“Look at that. It seems somebody has spread the news of our impending arrival when we were first spotted,” he murmured.

Eryn urged her horse on until she was close enough to dismount and as soon as her feet had touched the ground, she found herself in a tight embrace with a certain sixteen-year-old boy.

“Finally!” he whispered. “I was so afraid they would not let you leave again!”

She squeezed him back, noting how his cheeks were not any longer level with hers. Was it possible that he had grown so much since she had left here?

“So was I,” she replied, “I can’t tell you how glad I am to be back.”

“Let go of her, Vern,” Orrin scolded him mildly when he made no move to release her again. “There are a few others who would like to greet her as well.”

Vern removed his arms from around Eryn with obvious reluctance, and moments later Orrin’s much firmer embrace squeezed the air out of her lungs. She smiled at the unusual physical display of affection from his side.

“Look at you, you old softy! You have gone all mellow in my absence without anybody to torment and goad! Or is that Junar’s influence?” she laughed and hugged him back.

“Shut up,” he growled. “We were worried sick about you after we learned that they had accused you of some crime over there. It seems even with your companion at your side there is no keeping you out of trouble. Next time you go there, I will be sure to accompany you myself. One of us is clearly not enough to keep an eye on you.”

“That’s enough, now it’s my turn,” Junar complained from behind them and Orrin stepped aside so the two women could hug next.

Enric watched the scene, wondering about the feeling of regret and loss inside him. Nobody dared embracing him here, unlike in Takhan, where he had been hugged and kissed by a number of people, both male and female. For the first time in more than ten years he wondered if the reputation he had been so careful to build was worth the solitude that was its consequence. His stay in the Western Territories had introduced him to quite a different way of social interaction. There were those in awe of him who were mostly people he had met when negotiating, and others who were sufficiently impressed by him, but met him in a more private setting that allowed them to look behind that official mask. Here in Anyueel there was hardly anybody who dared look behind it. Apart from Tyront and the King, that is. Although they did not do so for mere social reasons but because he was, just like them, a player in the political game, and knowing ones fellow players was essential to ensure both survival and success.

He looked up in surprise, when he felt a hearty slap on his shoulder. Orrin gave him a nod.

“Good to have the two of you back,” he said simply, yet it sounded like he truly meant it.

“Good to be back. Finally,” Enric replied and smiled at the warrior. Who would have thought that Orrin would be the only one to give him at least some feeling of being welcome?

At the back of his mind, he wondered if he wanted to change that somehow, if he wanted to work on establishing friendships here in Anyueel. Would such a thing even work? People here were less open, less casual, more easily intimidated by rank and power. He imagined that Eryn would feel the contrast of being addressed with Lady again even more noticeably. But then she had quite a few people around her who would refrain from doing so anyway, as she had let them come close enough for them to forego the title.

In the entire city there were no more than four people who addressed him without Lord. Tyront, his companion Vyril, Kilan and Eryn. Before Eryn, there had been only two, thought he had not had any contact with Kilan in these last ten years.

He saw Eryn frown in confusion while talking to Plia and wondered if she had caught on to his feelings, wondering where that melancholy came from when she felt herself happy and relieved at being back.

“Is everything alright, my love?” he enquired and put an arm around her shoulders.

She nodded and plastered on a smile to conceal her puzzlement. “Yes, I am just a little exhausted, that’s all.”

Enric noted how Junar, Vern and Plia around them had taken a small step back at his approach.

Junar widened her eyes as Urban squeezed her way between them to rub her head against Enric’s legs. “Look at that cat! She has grown quite a lot in these last weeks. If she grows any larger, you can use her instead of a horse next time.”

“She may still grow a little more over the next two or three months, but that should be it,” Enric explained and bent down to rub the cat’s cheeks.

“Look at that! So you managed to escape the claws of the foreign senate!” an amused voice from behind them called out.

They saw Kilan approaching them. The few people around them collectively turned their heads around, and jaws dropped in surprise as the two men hugged affectionately. Lord Enric hugging people was not exactly a common sight.

Kilan then turned to Eryn. “They said you were trouble. But I didn’t want to believe it. I stand corrected.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Says the man who jumped aboard the ship and sailed off in my hour of distress.”

His expression became serious. “Believe me, in all my life that was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. I hope I will not be in such a situation again anytime soon. But I had my orders.”

“I was not serious, Kilan,” she sighed. “Your returning was the only sensible thing to do. Especially as the King would of course need first-hand information about the whole mix-up.”

He smiled in relief and squeezed her hand. “True enough. But next time we will just try not to have you accused of anything, shall we?”

“I’ll do my best, just to keep you happy,” she grinned. “But I suppose there will not be another opportunity for us to go to Takhan together again anytime soon, so no worries about that.”

“I would not count on that too much, Eryn,” he shook his head.

“Why not?” she frowned, then her brow furrowed. “You are not trying to tell me that they are sending you back there, are you?”

“Well, there is an opening for someone as permanent ambassador to Takhan, since the man who initially applied for the job decided not to remain after his companion was released from custody,” he smiled.

That caused a few frowns around them and Eryn remembered that they were very likely not informed of the important things that had happened. There would be some explaining to do, she thought, and sighed inwardly. And that meant once again telling the story of her father’s death. Though not today.

“What are the plans for the next few days?” Vern cut in. “Unpacking? Distributing gifts among your most valued friends?” he added, with a gleam of hope.

That made her laugh. “Well, that last one obviously.” Then she turned serious. “Tonight we will have to do some reporting to the upper ranks, and tomorrow I want to have a look how things are going at the healers’ place.”

“The Magic Council might want to see you tomorrow,” Enric reminded her.

“I was counting on you to give them all the juicy details. I really, really want to get back to my work,” she said, hoping he would see things her way, and smiled when he assented by nodding.

“I will try to convince them that they don’t need to see you tomorrow. But you will have to show up there sooner or later.”

She nodded. “Very well, as long as it is not in the next one or two days, when I have more important things to take care of.”

Orrin sniffed. “The Magic Council will be so pleased to hear that you do not consider them important enough to be worthy an hour or two of your precious time.”

“Well, they won’t be hearing it from me,” she shrugged.

“You are aware that myself and Lord Orrin are members of the Council, aren’t you?” Enric said. “So strictly speaking the Council has heard about it already.”

She chuckled. “But I trust that my two favourite members will not get me into any trouble because of it.”

Orrin grinned broadly and put an arm around her shoulders. “Trust, my girl, is something of a luxury. It makes you vulnerable.”

Eryn’s face fell. “Yes, that lesson I learned well enough in those foreign parts,” she said quietly.

Orrin frowned. “Hmm, it seems that was exactly the wrong thing to say. I am sorry. You will have to tell me about it. Soon.” It was not an order as such, but definitely more than a polite request. She smiled at him and nodded. It was good to see that some things would probably never change. No matter how high up she was, this was one man she could always depend on still to tell her what to do.

“So, everyone, let’s give the two of them a little space to return to their home after their journey. They have some work ahead of them yet,” Orrin called out, following which the two of them were finally able to take the last few steps towards their home.

* * *

Eryn frowned in confusion when one of the Palace guards in front of the doors to the throne room indicated for them to follow him instead of admitting them.

“Judging from the direction, the King will be seeing us in his study instead,” Enric murmured. “Probably a concession to our having travelled all day long. Provided he lets us sit down,” he added dryly.

She nodded slowly. Sitting down in a study was definitely a more appealing thought than standing before him on weary legs. She had never been to his study before and wondered if it would look any different from others due to the importance of the man occupying it.

The guard bowed to them and left when they had reached an unassuming looking door.

“That’s the right door? Are you sure? It looks unexpectedly modest,” she commented.

“This is the right place, really,” Enric nodded and knocked at the door.

“Come,” a muffled voice from inside called and they entered and faced Marrin, who rose from behind his desk and seemed, to Eryn’s surprise, genuinely pleased at seeing them.

“Lady Eryn, Lord Enric. What a relief to have you back safely. His Majesty is expecting you,” he smiled and indicated a door to his right.

“Thank you, Marrin,” Enric replied. “We are happy to be back.” Then he opened the door and let Eryn enter first. Marrin followed them into the room, closing the door behind him, stepping aside as usual to more or less merge with the surroundings like an unobtrusive piece of furniture.

Eryn looked around, almost a little disappointed at how undistinguished the room looked with its books, papers and writing utensils. Elegant, but not much more elaborate than her own study. A room for working, not for fancy displays of power the way the throne room was.

The King was standing behind his desk, facing the window behind it, and turned when they entered and bowed.

He looked at them for a while before nodding, obviously satisfied with what he saw. “Finally the delegation has returned in full. You had us all worried a little there.”

Eryn suppressed a snort. He had been worried? Not half as much as she herself had when facing the threat of being detained in that place across the sea for two years, she thought.

“I am sorry to hear that my troubles caused you distress, Your Majesty,” she replied with a thin smile, “I assure you it was not done deliberately.”

The monarch raised an eyebrow at her. “I see that your stay in Takhan has not changed your attitude towards authority one bit, Lady Eryn. I think we may consider ourselves lucky you had your companion with you, or the outcome of the trial might have been less favourable.”

The warning undertone in his voice let her reconsider the wisdom of speaking without being explicitly asked. Right, back to where they had been before their departure: Enric would do the talking.

She wondered at the mild sensation of disapproval she felt and looked at Enric. Was she imagining that? She searched his face, but it did not reveal anything – just the usual composure when he was in public. And in control of himself. So what had caused that impression had probably been her imagination. She had come to know him quite well, after all. Of course he would not approve of the way she had just spoken to the King. Interesting, though, that she seemed to have switched from not only anticipating his feelings, but also imagining an echo thereof.

“Is everything alright, Lady Eryn? You seem a tiny bit distracted,” the King observed.

“Sorry, I am just a little tired. It was a long voyage.”

“Then I would ask the two of you to take a seat and rest your weary limbs,” he smiled. “I must say that like Kilan after his return, your appearance strikes the eyes as slightly exotic with your tanned skin and Lord Enric’s bleached hair. How did you cope with the climate?”

Eryn smiled politely and waited for Enric to reply. He wanted to talk about the weather there? Really?

“It was unusually warm by our standards, but after adapting our wardrobe to the local conditions it became fairly pleasant. The locals have adapted their schedules to the climate and avoid being outside when the day is at its hottest, which means they generally stay up longer in the evening before retiring,” Enric explained.

Oh, she thought. So the weather question had obviously been an invitation to elaborate on the local customs instead of just meaningless chatter. Implications, she thought tiredly. Why could people not just say what they wanted and thus avoid depending on others to guess correctly?

She felt Enric’s hand take and squeeze hers. She couldn’t help the impression that it was meant as a warning. But why? She was not displaying any outward sign of the impatience she felt, she was absolutely sure of it.

“I am of course aware of the general developments due to Kilan’s report upon his return and the message you sent me after the senate’s decision, but there is surely a lot more. Your message informing us that the proceedings had gone in your favour and that you were about to return in a few more days was rather terse,” she heard him say, a slight hint of reproach discernible in his tone.

Enric nodded. “You assume correctly, Your Majesty. Allow me to expand on what occurred. You are aware of the situation with Ram’an and Lady Eryn, I assume?”

The King nodded. “If you mean his claim to her due to an arrangement between their families when they were still infants, then yes. From what I understand, Lady Eryn was placed under his care for the duration of the proceedings.”

Good, Eryn thought glumly, at least they did not have to go into more detail than necessary. Kilan had obviously provided a thorough report.

“Yes,” Enric confirmed. “Though the senate was considerate enough to have the arrangement carried out at the residence of Lady Eryn’s father’s family instead of Ram’an’s.”

“Due to a rather impressive display of your disapproval, if my information was correct?” the King prompted with a raised eyebrow.

“That might have been part of the consideration, yes,” Enric admitted unabashedly. “I myself was made to stay with the strongest of the three triarchs. It seems that in comparison my strength also ranks somewhat above average in the Western Territories. Thus it was considered wise to have me under observation as well for the duration of my extended voluntary stay.”

“They would have let you leave any time had you expressed a wish to do so?” the King enquired.

“I trust that they would have, yes,” the magician nodded. “Although they might actually have preferred it if I had left. They were not entirely sure what to expect of me.”

“I understand it was Lady Eryn’s own mother who made the accusations. I assume this influenced the nature of the political landscape quite a bit. From what I heard Lady Eryn has turned out to be the sole heir in a powerful family. An inconvenient development, if you will allow me to say that much.”

Eryn smiled grimly. “None that will serve to cause you any further concern, Your Majesty. I corrected that inconvenient circumstance after the trial by renouncing House Aren and thereby severing all bonds with it.” She shot an annoyed look at her companion. “Or at least that’s what I thought at that time.”

She admired the King’s command over his facial features. All that spoke of his surprise were pursed lips.

“Renounced a powerful House, did you? I would imagine that you gave up quite a considerable personal advantage by doing so, unless I am mistaken. The status of belonging to a House, as I am given to understand, also reflects the social standing of a person, especially of a magician in the Western Territories.”

“It does indeed. However, I have not given up that advantage as such as I was subsequently adopted into another House,” she explained. So much for letting Enric do the talking.

The King remained silent for a few moments before he smiled faintly. “House… Vel’kim, I assume? You father’s family?”

“Yes,” she confirmed, slightly annoyed at his quick thinking. Why was it so hard to catch him off-guard? Well, it remained to be seen how much he liked Enric’s own small gambit.

“I would have thought you to be more reluctant to bind yourself to another family after what happened with your mother. Am I right in assuming that there was a reason behind this very quick connection to another House?” he asked.

Damn him, she thought. How did he do it? Was there not a single detail she could keep to herself? This was too closely connected to her own personal story with Ram’an. Too private for him to know. Though by refusing to tell him when he asked her directly was equal to disobeying an order.

She breathed out steadily. “There was, yes. My cousin is a lawyer and suspected that Ram’an had been planning to claim me as a member of his House under an ancient but still active piece of legislation. The still valid companionship agreement our mothers had entered into would have made that possible.”

“But only if you had not been a member of another House already?” the King asked.

“That is correct,” she nodded.

“You mentioned that you thought your bond with your mother’s House would be severed. This conveys the impression to me that they are not?”

“I would rather let my dear companion elaborate on that, with your permission. He may be able to outline the motives behind his actions more… convincingly than me, I believe.”

The King’s questioning gaze moved to Enric.

“Lady Eryn refers to my compliance with Malriel’s request to adopt me into House Aren as her son,” he said slowly.

Eryn felt a surge of triumph when the King’s eyes bulged. “Pardon me?”

Finally! So it was possible to surprise even that seemingly cold-blooded fellow.

The monarch covered his eyes with a hand for a moment before he had regained his control. “So what you are telling me, Lord Enric, is that you let yourself be adopted into a powerful House to take Lady Eryn’s place as heir to the title of Head? This means of course you have subjected yourself voluntarily to the local jurisdiction as a consequence.”

“Indeed,” Enric confirmed. Eryn cast a quick look at him. He seemed completely at ease, no sign of tension at all discernible in his features or posture. Why then did she have the impression that he was taut with unpleasant expectation, dread even?

“Lord Enric,” the King said slowly and carefully, linking his fingers. “This means that you have made yourself answerable to two masters, as it were. From what I understand, the Houses in Takhan are also an important part of the local political system. You are already politically involved here and, sooner or later, will be also in the Western Territories. This puts us in a very difficult position here as we shall at some point have to consider where your true loyalties lie.”

Oh dear, Eryn mused, that did sound as if Enric was in trouble. It wasn’t a good portent.

“How about your intention of assuming the position of Head of House Aren, Lord Enric? Do you have any ambitions in that regard? I assume this must have been a major consideration in adopting you in the first place. I can see why you would be a desirable choice for Malriel, being both an experienced leader with considerable influence and the companion to her renegade daughter. I can see why you were the obvious choice for the position. Yet I can’t help being curious as to your own motivation for that step.”

Enric took a deep breath before replying. “Let me assure you, Your Majesty, that my loyalties lie with the Kingdom and the Order, just like before. My primary reason for accepting Malriel’s adoption proposal was to keep harm away from Lady Eryn’s new House. As you may imagine, owing to the history of both Houses, Malriel was quite unhappy over the impending adoption of her daughter into the House of the man who had stolen her so many years ago. Malriel’s condition for not causing them considerable hardship was my consent to serve as a kind of… compensation for her loss.”

The King considered him carefully for a few moments before smiling. “That seems like a noble, selfless gesture resulting from a very strong attachment to your companion. And yet I can’t help but think that you yourself will profit from it as well.”

“Not only myself, Your Majesty,” he replied mildly, “all of us stand to profit. Being in constant contact with a high-ranking member of not only the society in Takhan, but its senate as well will strengthen our political connections considerably.”

King Folrin nodded. “True. And yet a decision I would have preferred you not to have made without my assent.”

“I understand, Your Majesty,” Enric nodded.

The monarch raised an eyebrow. “No excuse that time was of the essence, Lord Enric?”

Enric smiled faintly. “I was under the impression that you would not have appreciated such a thing, Your Majesty.”

The King leaned back in his chair and sighed heavily. “I would not have, no. Though in general this does not stop people from tiring me with them. Is there anything else you wish to inform me of? Maybe why your departure was delayed for several days after the trial had ended in your favour?”

“The reason for this, Your Majesty, was that Lady Eryn and I entered into what is in the Western Territories known as a third level commitment bond,” Enric explained.

“You are full of astonishing news today,” the King commented tartly. “I was informed of their nature. A magical binding only recommended to those truly connected to each other in great devotion.” His gaze rested on Eryn. “A bond, I am given to understand, that needs to be entered into voluntarily.”

She smiled. “I assure you, Your Majesty, that Lord Enric’s decision to accept my request to enter into the bond with me was entirely voluntary. I did not apply any means of duress whatsoever.”

The King’s look at her was intense as he nodded slowly. “You were the one who expressed the wish to be joined magically, were you?” He noted the quick flicker in her eyes and smiled. “Yet there is a little more to it, would I be correct to assume? You were the one who asked finally, but not the one to ask initially, I cannot help but think?”

His smile grew wider as she pressed her lips together in annoyance. “You do not have to answer that, Lady Eryn. Your reaction is quite revealing in itself. I admit I am pleased to see that the commitment I made you enter into so hurriedly has grown into something more substantial in a matter of mere months. On both sides.” He rose from his chair, causing them to follow his example. “I will expect a detailed report from you, Lord Enric. I have little hope of receiving one from Lady Eryn, having heard of her dislike for written reports when it comes to her superiors,” he added pointedly. “Do include some information about the legal situation of both your new family situations and the magical commitment. I assume you familiarised yourself with each of those instead of entering into them blindly. And now you may leave. Lord Tyront is doubtlessly eager to hear about these most interesting developments.”

Eryn bowed, grateful to have the first of the two meetings behind her. Though she did not have great hopes that the one with Lord Tyront would turn out to be any more pleasant.

* * *

King Folrin pressed the thumb and index finger of one hand into his eyes.

“I am at a loss whether to admire or curse Lord Enric. Publicly I need to commend him for his merits, of course. It would not do to make our new friends across the sea think I disapprove of his connection to their society, would it?” he sighed tiredly. “I need information, Marrin. We have received the formal invitation to establish a permanent ambassador in Takhan, and I am recommending your son leave here and take up his new position as soon as possible. Though I fear the kind of information I need from him will put his own loyalties to a test.”

Marrin lifted a questioning eyebrow.

“The commitment bonds. You are aware, of course, that the bond we place our own magicians under when they have finished the training is what is considered a so-called second level commitment bond. I imagine they have worked out a way to counteract the binding effect. This will sooner or later become common knowledge here as well and change the nature of the bond between the Crown and the Order. As yet we have more or less forced magicians to bind themselves to us. If the bond can be easily reversed, this would change into a voluntary bond,” the King explained with a dark expression.

“So you assume that the Order itself is not aware how to dissolve the binding to the Crown?” Marrin enquired.

The King smiled at his adviser. “You know me too well, Marrin. You are right of course. I am sure enough that at least Lord Tyront could reverse the effect of the binding any time he chose. Probably even Lord Enric, especially after his journey to Takhan.”

“So if your assumptions are correct, Your Majesty, the Order would anyway have kept the binding intact in the past voluntarily,” the older man pointed out.

“True. But only the Order’s leader or leaders would be aware of it. Other magicians would not be. It seems like a detailed conversation with Lord Tyront is overdue. Before that I will allow him a day or two to recover from the news he is about to obtain from our two voyagers,” the King smiled without humour.

* * *

Eryn flopped onto the bed, face first, intoning something muffled that was swallowed up by the mattress.

“This was not exactly a clear statement, my love. Try again without your mouth buried in fabric,” Enric advised her.

She lifted her head, “I said that those two summonses have managed to reduce my happiness about returning home considerably. I feel spent and weary. Exhausted. We should have pretended to be returning tomorrow and instead have spent the evening in secret with Orrin, Junar, Vern and Plia.”

The unexpected amusement she felt made her frown and she lifted her eyes up to his lopsided grin.

“You know,” she said deliberately, “somehow I have the feeling that something is wrong here.”

She saw the expression in his eyes become more intense.

“Indeed?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, indeed. And I can’t help thinking that you are very well aware of it. What is this? A little game to see how much time I would need to work it out?”

“What is it you think is wrong, dearest?” he enquired gently and leaned against the chest of drawers behind him with folded arms. “What have you divined?”

“That I seem to be a little more perceptive than before when it comes to judging your moods, I think,” she said carefully. “I wonder if this is because I have finally admitted to myself the true scope of my attachment to you or if this is one of the side effects of our bond.”

“Then let me add my own impressions to yours,” Enric offered. That would probably make the evening even less enjoyable for her, he thought. “I do not believe your first assumption is the true reason. I have been aware of my own feelings for you for quite a while, though for the first time – and only recently – have I experienced the effect you are describing.”

She nodded. “So it is the bond, then. A closer connection than before, the need to share more. This may include an enhanced sensitivity to the other person’s moods, I assume.”

He sighed. “Eryn, I think it is a bit more than that. I suffered from seasickness this time.”

“Did you?” she asked.

“Only while you were awake. It was gone when you were asleep,” he added quietly.

“Well, that is unfortunate for you, but I don’t…” Her voice tapered off when the full implication of what he had just said hit her. She jumped off the bed and shook her head frantically. “No! Tell me that this is not true!”

He exhaled slowly. “Judging from the level of panic that I feel inside me that is clearly not my own, I would say that denying it does not make much sense.”

She buried her face in both hands. “But Vran’el said this hardly ever happens! That I don’t need to worry about it!” she wailed. “Why? Why is there always something that hits me on the head when I decide to open myself to somebody?” She gasped at the surge of anger that shot through her like a hot spear and stared at Enric, who did not show any sign of agitation apart from narrowed eyes while still leaning against the chest, apparently calm.

“How can you keep that inside you without any outward sign?” she groaned and returned to what had in the past worked reasonably well when dealing with strong emotions: breathing.

A thin smile spread across his lips. “Good. A very effective and direct way of communicating my sentiments. You just received a little impression of what goes on inside me when you talk of binding yourself to me and regretting it.”

“I didn’t mean to say that! I don’t regret it, I promise!” she called out, relieved once the anger he projected had noticeably subsided.

“We need help with that,” he told her. “If we fight, neither of us has a chance to stay calm and reasonable if we keep experiencing each other’s feelings in addition to our own. I will despatch a message to Valrad tomorrow and ask him to send us whatever information he has on mind bonds. Do not count on it being too much, though. You heard Vran’el; not a lot of research has been done on the topic as it does not occur very often.”

He sighed at her desperate expression and pushed away from the chest to sit on the bed with her. “This is not necessarily a burden, my love. It is a way of sharing something most people never would have a chance to experience like this. The trouble is just that we have yet to learn how to deal with what it brings. The upside, though, is that only strong emotions seem to be reflected in the other, which is quite a relief. We will need to see if distance has any effect on the potency of the sensations. Maybe there is even a way to reduce their influence.”

She lifted her face to him and nodded unhappily. “That would be good, yes. Just now your anger almost brought me to my knees. Oh dear, I hope this is also something we experience with positive emotions in the other.”

“It is,” he nodded. “I felt your glee at the King’s surprise when I told him of my adoption into House Aren.”

She gave him a shaky laugh. “If you could call that a positive emotion…”

He smiled. “I also felt your joy at finding your friends waiting for you when we returned here earlier.”

Her eyes widened when she thought back. “That feeling of regret I couldn’t quite place – that was you, wasn’t it? Why?”

So it seemed the bond was already causing him, too, to share more than he would have otherwise, he mused. “Seeing you being received like that, and coming back from a place where I had for the first time in many years formed friendly attachments with other people, made me understand how I have not exactly been the social type here.”

She blinked and thought for a few moments. “People here are mostly either awed by or afraid of you. Just like myself not too long ago. I suppose that socialising is not exactly easy for you here,” she conceded. “Funny, I wouldn’t have thought that something like that mattered to you very much.”

He shook his head. “Interestingly enough, me neither.” He took her hand and squeezed it. “You see? The intimacy aspect of the bond has been working already.”

“Yes,” she smiled, “and I am pleased to see that for once not only on me. Our usual discussions about personal matters tend to be rather one-sided and result in your analysing me. Maybe it will be liberating to have that work both ways now.” Then she said, more hesitantly, “So keeping secrets from you from now on will really be impossible, won’t it? If I feel guilty about keeping something from you, you will sense it immediately.”

“That I am counting on,” he said with a raised brow. “It is a habit I have been trying to break you loose of for quite some time now. Though you did show some first signs of improvement in Takhan, I have to admit.”

“High praise indeed,” she murmured. Then a thought occurred to her and she narrowed her eyes. “You woke me one hour too early on the ship to experiment with this, didn’t you? You made me suffer intentionally to verify your suspicions! You were aware of it back then already!”

He smiled apologetically. “Will it console you if I tell you that I had to suffer with you?”

“No,” she growled, then shrugged. “Well, a little. How much did you suffer?”

“Terribly,” he replied earnestly. “Like my empty stomach was on the verge of upending constantly without anything in there to bring up other than the bitter fluids that left a burning sensation in my throat.”

She considered him thoughtfully, then nodded. “Alright, that is adequate. How do we deal with this mind bond for now? Avoiding strong emotions seems somewhat difficult.”

“I am used to dealing with them, but from what I have seen, you have yet to get used to mine. You have a hard time keeping your own emotions under control, so sensing mine in addition to that might turn out to be quite a burden for some time.”

She swallowed. “What if there is no helpful literature on how to deal with this?”

“Then, my love,” he kissed her hand, “your enormous aptitude in the category of explorer will doubtless turn out to be very useful. You will have the unique chance to experiment and thus contribute to a field of expertise that will bring you fame and glory in both countries.”

He smiled at the spark of interest which ignited in her eyes.

 

Chapter 2

Back to Work

Enric held her hand in his while they were strolling through the streets of Anyueel on their way to the healers’ place. He was relieved that yesterday evening she had taken what must have been to her distressing news reasonably well. He had pondered his own point of view on that unexpected development and found that he was slightly worried about how to deal with it in a way that did not cause them any undue disadvantage. But all in all he did not consider it the curse Eryn seemed to regard it as.

“Do we need to tell Lord Tyront about this?” she said, interrupting his thoughts. So her mind was occupied with this matter as well. “He was not any happier about your adoption than the King. And unlike the King, he was not too thrilled about our commitment bond either. What did he call it? Playing around with magic we had no understanding of?” She grimaced at the memory of their superior’s foul mood. She did not envy Enric the task of seeing him again at the Council meeting today.

“We might want to wait a while with that,” he sighed. “He needs to come to terms with the news we have given him so far. Let’s not overstrain his frayed nerves for the moment.”

“Good. I don’t think I want to deal with him again anytime soon.”

“Give him some time to deal with the new situation. He is not a great friend of surprises but does not need long to adapt to them. His bad moods tend not to linger for long.” He stopped when they had reached the healers’ building. “Here we are. Eager to get back and show your colleagues what astounding new things you have learned?” he smiled and kissed her on the forehead.

“That would be fabulous,” she nodded. “But I dare say there will be quite a lot of work to take care of first. Good thing today is not a treatment day. Not that I expect too much peace and quiet, though. I am a bit worried after the hints Plia dropped yesterday before we left for the meeting with the King.”

“How bad can it be? The building is still standing, after all. No angry mob has ransacked it or burned it down.”

“Very funny,” she growled and started to open one of the large double doors, but felt herself gently pulled back into a warm embrace.

“Don’t work too long today. I need you fit to participate in an experiment.”

She raised both eyebrows. “What experiment?”

“With the mind bond. It concerns how the more intense positive emotions are conveyed.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Are you using fancy words to mask the fact that this is about sex?”

He chuckled and shook his head. “I wonder why you even have to ask. Of course it is.” He bent down to press a quick kiss on her mouth and turned to continue his way to the Palace. After a few steps he half turned and lifted a finger. “Return home timely, do you hear?”

She rolled her eyes and then looked down at the symbols on her wrist that were growing fainter with every few steps he took away from her. When he turned the next corner, they disappeared completely.

As she lifted her hand to push against the door, it was opened from the inside and she saw before her a familiar face. Rolan.

“Lady Eryn,” he sighed and she blinked at the relief in his voice. “I am so glad you are back. Really glad.”

“Rolan,” she smiled uncertainly. “It’s good to be back.” Rolan happy to see her? That was probably not a good sign. “Would you like to tell me what’s wrong now or do I need to sit down for it?” she said with a slightly ironic smile at him.

He blushed slightly. “Sit down, probably. With a nice warm drink.”

“That bad?” she sighed.

He seemed to think about that for a few moments, then shrugged. “You know, now that you are back I am not so sure about that any longer.” His voice sounded surprised. “Interesting.”

Indeed, she thought but didn’t say it out loud. It seemed as if his confidence in her having the solution to whatever catastrophes had occurred was as unexpected for himself as it was for her. That had to be a sign of trust, didn’t it? Or perhaps just plain desperation. Well, she would know soon enough.

She looked around surreptitiously while walking after Rolan to the small kitchen to get her drink. Everything seemed clean, undamaged and the way it was supposed to be. Her assistant waited for her to fill a cup with water, stir in a spoonful of finely ground herbs and heat the mixture with a touch of her finger and a little magic, then he preceded her up the stairs and held the door to her study open for her.

Happiness about seeing her as well as almost overbearing courtesy? Now matters were shaping up to be scary indeed, she thought.

Her study did not look too messy, she decided. After an absence of more than six weeks it was a bit more untidy – with papers strewn about – than she had left it, but nothing to shock her or make her recoil.

She went to her desk, placing the cup on it before letting herself sink onto the chair, exhaling and smiling contentedly.

“Now I am back. Truly back.” She motioned for Rolan to sit as well. “Alright – shock me. What has gone wrong?”

“Vern,” her assistant said carefully.

“Vern has gone wrong?” she enquired gently.

Rolan thought for a moment, then obviously reached the conclusion that the term was suitable. “Yes, I think we could phrase it like that.”

“Very well,” she said slowly, “could you elaborate some more? A few more details would be good.”

“He was not getting along very well with the other healers,” her assistant supplied.

“What do you mean by that? Rolan, fill in the blanks for me! This is very tedious!” she exclaimed impatiently.

He grimaced unhappily. “Vern seems to have developed certain qualities of a tyrant. The healers were on the verge of revolting against him openly. I was afraid I would soon be standing here alone with a house full of patients and the healers refusing to work.”

A tyrant? Vern? Well, she mused, judging from how she had seen him act when he was negotiating, that was probably not so very unlikely. There was definitely a propensity for that in his character.

“I see. What was the reason for his behaviour in your opinion?”

“Youth. Inexperience. Idiocy,” Rolan threw up his hands. “I don’t know!”

“Think again,” she said gently. “I need a neutral point of view from you. Give me your thoughts.”

“A voice of reason,” he murmured and shook his head. “That seems luxury in the mayhem we had here in these last weeks.” He cleared his throat and looked up again with less desperation and more focus in his eyes, she noted, relieved.

“He was overwhelmed with the double burden of heading a group of people much older than himself where he had to struggle to be taken seriously, and healing and teaching in his other role. He spent long nights here, doing the paperwork, despairing over it at times,” he explained, some sympathy clear in his voice.

“How did you get along with him?”

“Well enough. I tried to take as much off his shoulders as I could, but my own experience with leading people and healing or teaching is not exactly noteworthy. All I could help him with was the paperwork.” He sighed. “As well as with getting him out of the safe room once when they had blocked the door while he was in.”

“They?” she asked. “The healers?”

Rolan nodded.

“What else have they done?” She felt anger rising at the stupidity of adults teasing a young man several years their junior who instead would be best shown their support.

“Wilfully misunderstood orders, from what I have gathered. Hidden his clothes. Locked the study door. Twice.”

Eryn closed her eyes, calming her wish to hit out at someone. There was steel in them when she opened them again. “Alright. Tell me what he did to provoke those things. They are not normally that stupid.”

“He resorted to shouting at them quite a lot. Made them stay longer, gave them more to learn than they could cope with. It seems he is used to a rather more rapid rate of progress when it comes to learning things.”

Yes, she thought, and she had always taken advantage of the fact that he was smart, interested and a very speedy learner. Had she inadvertently encouraged him to think that this was the way everybody should be tutored? Obviously she had.

“They tried to talk to him first,” Rolan continued. “But they made demands, which he did not take very well, either.”

She thought back to the hug Vern had given her. The panic in his voice when he had told her that he had been afraid they wouldn’t let her leave any more from Takhan. There had obviously been a little more behind that than merely missing her as a friend.

“Oh dear,” she sighed. “So it seems I will have to start mending that breach again. They need to be able to work together again as professionals. And Vern is still far enough ahead to train them occasionally or at least supervise their work. I need to get them to respect each other again. Any suggestions?”

Rolan straightened. She couldn’t help but notice that he very much appreciated being asked for his thoughts. She tried to think back. Had she never bothered to ask him before? It seemed as if Vern’s approach to leading people was not the only one that needed mid-course corrections, she thought.

“I think what both sides have been missing over these last weeks is appreciation,” he ventured and waited for her reaction to that.

“Appreciation? As in telling them that they have performed good work?”

He nodded. “Something like that, yes.”

“Alright, I can do that.” She emptied her cup. “Do you have any information for me about training progress, stock, treatments?”

She saw him smile for the first time since her arrival and couldn’t help but relish the sight. He had never once failed to produce a piece of paper with lists, numbers or whatever else on it since they had started working together. It was what he was good at. So now they were about to enter his realm of expertise.

* * *

Eryn had just finished reading the reports about the nature and quantities of medicines that had been administered to patients in her absence, when there was a knock at the door and upon her invitation a liveried Palace messenger entered.

Oh no, she thought. Not a summons from the King or the Council. Not now when there was so much to be taken care of. However, he did not seem to have a written message on him, so he was surely here to tell her to come with him.

She sighed before he could speak. “King or Council?”

The messenger blinked. “Magic Council, Lady Eryn.”

“Right now or do I have time to finish a few things first?”

He grimaced sympathetically. “Right now, I am afraid.”

She pushed back her chair. “Of course. What else? Lead on, then. I suppose you were told not to leave without me.”

He nodded and waited for her to slip into her robes and adjust them before preceding her down the stairs.

Enric had warned her that they might want to see her soon enough, but she had hoped that whatever they needed or wanted to know could for now be dealt with by him alone. Whatever concerned trade or politics he would surely be the one to satisfy their curiosity more effectively. She stopped and slowed her breathing. But there was one area in which she herself would be the one to ask. Healing and everything concerned with it. Of course. They wanted to talk about the barrier inside their heads. That was the most likely explanation.

The messenger turned to her and waited patiently until she resumed walking. When they had reached the doors to the great Council hall, he bowed to her and took his leave. She knocked three times and the door opened immediately. She entered and found herself the centre of attention from not only the twelve Council members but also an exalted visitor to these halls: the King.

The Council sat around a large round table with one chair for the Order’s leader slightly more elaborate than the others. The King’s throne was off to one side as if he had the role of a mere observer in these halls.

Twelve members, she mused. Exactly like the number of Houses in Takhan. It was the first time she had noticed this coincidence. Funny, the things the mind came up with when it wanted to escape the immediate reality. She knew she was not in any trouble, and yet standing before the Council and the King was not particularly pleasant.

“Gentlemen,” she spoke before any of them had a chance to address her, “Here I am. Let’s keep this brief, shall we? As you may imagine, there is quite a lot of work I need to take care of after my return.”

She saw a few of them exchange amused or annoyed glances with each other. Orrin lifted an eyebrow at her, perhaps in warning, while Enric seemed slightly amused and Lord Tyront gave her a stare which – while not exactly hostile – did definitely lack warmth. The King’s expression was as unreadable as it tended to be most of the time.

Maybe it had not been the most advisable of greetings, she considered. Though summoning her at such short notice had not been the most considerate thing to do, either. From where she stood, they were even.

“Lady Eryn,” Tyront said pointedly, “allow me to welcome you back amongst us in the name of the Council, however inconvenient our request for your presence seems to be for you right now.”

She shrugged. “Thank you. As long as this does not require too long, I would say the inconvenience is not going to be too great.” Stupid, she scolded herself. What was it about this man which made her want to provoke him? She considered how the King’s words only the evening before about her stay abroad had not done anything for her attitude towards authority.

Tyront took a deep breath and smiled at her coldly. “Then the Council will do its best not to unduly waste your very precious time, Lady Eryn.”

She didn’t reply to that and just waited for him to go on. The statement might have seemed harmless enough, but his tone implied he was clearly far from happy, so it was probably wiser to keep her tongue in check for now and limit herself to answering when she was spoken to. A strategy which Enric had been trying to impress its merits on her for quite some time now.

“You might have guessed why we have called for you,” he went on.

She noted that he didn’t offer her a seat. Small revenges won. So she had to stand there like she was accused of a wrongdoing. It reminded her of the day when she and Vern had been brought to his study after being discovered during their unapproved magical fighting lessons. And the senate in Takhan, where she had stood before the representatives of the Houses during the trial. She pushed the images aside and focused on the here and now.

“I assume you wish to talk to me about the barrier existing inside your heads,” she ventured. She saw Tyront nod in mild surprise. So he had not counted on her really supposing the reason and had tried to make her appear bad as punishment for her behaviour. Charming. Enric’s approving grin was hardly discernible, but clearly visible to the knowing eye.

“Indeed. From what I understand you were granted the knowledge of how to detect and remove the barrier and were even shown how to do it by your…” He paused, clearly not certain how to term the family situation she was now in after the adoption.

“By Valrad,” she completed his sentence. “Yes. He was kind enough to show me how it is done by instructing me in the removal of Enric’s barrier.”

She saw a broad smile spread on Lord Woldarn’s face. “Then we have now two magicians who are in a position to bear magically-gifted daughters. And most convenient that they happen to be joined as companions.”

Eryn gave him a cool stare. “Your eagerness to embrace that new development is understandable, My Lord, but I assure you that I have no intention of starting a large family to accommodate other people’s wishes for such things.”

“I do beg your pardon,” he said in a placating voice and lifted both hands, “that was not what I meant to imply, My Lady, I assure you. I just meant to say that however many children yourself and Lord Enric intend to have, we all look forward to seeing them develop, particularly if girls number among them.”

Enric closed his eyes for a moment. That would not receive a favourable reply either, and he doubted that Tyront was in any mood to deal with more of her insolence for now. Which was why he spoke up before Eryn had a chance to reply.

“Lord Woldarn, I appreciate your interest in our procreation plans, but suggest this is hardly the right setting for such discussion,” he commented dryly, not leaving any doubt whatsoever that he did not at all appreciate it.

That earned him a few chuckles and Lord Woldarn leaned back with folded arms and a sour expression.

“Lady Eryn,” Lord Tyront resumed his initial topic, “we have summoned you to inform you of our decision to allow removal of the barrier inside the heads of both magicians and non-magicians at your earliest convenience.”

She gulped. “All of them?”

“Preferably, yes. I imagine that this might take up some of the time that you would rather wish to dedicate to other matters for now, but you will surely understand that this needs to be taken care of soon,” he pointed out.

Eryn exhaled and nodded. “I do, yes. Though I don’t even know how long it will take me to remove every barrier. I have performed it only once so far, and I had help with that. How is this supposed to work? Do I go knocking from door to door, and have people let me look inside their heads? What if somebody objects? Not everybody is comfortable with a stranger doing things they don’t understand inside their own heads,” she pointed out.

“There will be a Royal order that will make people comply,” another Council member supplied.

She shook her head in disbelief. “Really? We are forcing them? Or rather you are making me force them? What am I to do if they refuse point blank? Bash them on the head with a stick and go ahead without their consent?” She folded her arms. “This contradicts the principles of the healing profession. I do not intend to subject anybody to this order who is not willing to allow it. Additionally, I will not show my healers how it is done if you intend to put them under pressure instead.” Her chin was lifted defiantly and she glared at the Council members.

Enric saw Tyront go pale at the blatant refusal to carry out a Royal order, especially as the one who had issued it was present. They had returned less than one day ago and she was already getting herself into trouble again. This woman really had a knack for it. Unfortunately for the Order and the King, though, she had a very powerful advantage on her side. If she refused to remove the barrier, they had nobody else who would or could do it. And asking for a healer from the Western Territories to take care of it because Eryn refused would look very bad. Then there was the question of whether they themselves would refuse as well under such conditions. It was likely enough that they considered the same principles applied to healing as she.

All of them looked up when they heard the King’s calm voice.

“Lady Eryn. I can assure you that none of us intends to violate the strict ethical principles you consider necessary for your work. I am sure we all feel safer when offering ourselves into your capable hands because of those. What approach would you say was appropriate in this matter, my Lady?”

Good, Enric mused, it seemed the King had reached the same conclusion. But then that was no great surprise. He did have a certain aptitude for thinking on his feet.

Enric watched Eryn thinking over the options for a moment before she turned to the King. “I propose making the removal of the barrier voluntary, Your Majesty. If we communicate that there is no danger whatsoever involved and point out the likely benefit of being able to conceive female magicians, this might convince the majority of people to do it. Citizens could come to the clinic to have it removed. It might be that granting them a waiver on taxes for this year would help persuade them…”

The King raised his brow at her. “A most intriguing proposal. I will certainly consider it. You have resorted to calling the place a clinic?”

Had she? She thought back and then realised that she had indeed. “Yes, it would seem I have,” she said slowly.

“Not entirely consciously, though,” the King remarked. “A term adopted from our new friends in the west, no doubt.” He looked at the Council members. “I assume that the Magic Council has no objections to having their barriers removed as soon as practicable?”

Heads shook.

“As you see, Lady Eryn, those magicians present do not have to be compelled. May I therefore impose on you to do it right here and now? Let me be the first one you work on to set a good example.”

She swallowed and nodded, not sure how to proceed. Was she to walk to the throne? Did she need an invitation for that? Had that just been one?

King Folrin rose and indicated for her to step closer. “Where do you need to touch me, Lady Eryn?”

“Somewhere on your head would be right. The forehead, for example,” she replied and walked the few steps until she stood directly in front of him.

“Do you prefer sitting or standing for this?” he enquired further.

“As I am not sure how long it will take, I would prefer to sit if this is in order.”

“Naturally,” the King nodded politely and took her hand to lead her to a small bench in front of one of the many windows. It was hardly wide enough to accommodate two people, she noted with slight unease. Back to playing games, it seemed. Though she doubted the wisdom of making her uncomfortable while she was meant to work inside his head without causing any damage.

He waited for her to take a seat and then sat down a little closer than would have been necessary, before taking her hand and laying it on his forehead.

“I am ready if you are, my Lady.”

She nodded and closed her eyes, conscious of his eyes on her. Fighting down her nervousness, she found that place of peace and quiet inside her, and only then let the magic follow the outline of her arm and enter the skull under her palm. She found the spot reasonably quickly as it was now the third time she had looked for it. It seemed to become easier the more often she did it. As she had been instructed by Valrad, she slowly and carefully increased the barrier in size by feeding it with magic until it was large enough to be dissolved without causing any shock to the sensitive tissue surrounding it.

When she opened her eyes, the King was still regarding her with this unnerving gaze of his. She nodded and removed her hand from his forehead. “It is done. The barrier inside you has been removed.”

King Folrin smiled approvingly. “Well done.” Then he rose and turned to the Council.

Tyront had risen from his chair already, knowing what was expected of him. “I shall be the next one.” He walked over to her briskly and took the seat the King had relinquished only moments ago. His posture was as calm and confident as ever, but she saw the warning in his eyes. So it seemed he was not entirely comfortable with the thought of granting her access to his head.

“Don’t concern yourself, Lord Tyront,” she said quietly enough for only him to hear. “I promise it won’t cause you any pain. I will behave; no nightmares or images of giant cats chasing you through the streets.”

He didn’t comment at that but merely raised an eyebrow at her as she lifted her hand to place on his forehead.

* * *

Tyront joined his second-in-command, who was leaning against a column while observing his companion on the small bench as she was working with her brow furrowed in concentration.

“Kilan told us that in the Western Territories her family is notorious for their short temper,” he remarked. “Pity we couldn’t have had a more docile one of them find her way here.”

Enric just smiled. It seemed that Tyront had overcome his anger at the news of his adoption from the evening before, just as Enric had expected him to.

“I must say that I am happy enough with the way things have turned out so far. What’s more, you have to admit that we have benefited from her knowledge. We have reintroduced female magicians after more than three-hundred years. I would say coping with her temper and insolence is a small price to pay for that,” he pointed out.

Tyront sighed. “You are right, and we both know it. Though I don’t appreciate it when you come across as the voice of reason instead of the sympathetic listener I need when airing my frustration, my dear boy.”

“My dear boy,” Enric repeated with a slight shake of his head. “I am thirty-five years old. When are you going to stop calling me that?”

“When our age difference starts shrinking or you take over my position,” Tyront replied with calculated smugness.

“When I take over your position? That means after you would are dead,” Enric pointed out.

“That would certainly stop me from addressing you with my dear boy any longer, wouldn’t it?”

“It would stop you from doing a lot of things, I would say,” the younger man remarked dryly.

“True enough. But then there is the question of whether you would even be available for my succession with your new status as heir of a House in Takhan, isn’t there?”

Ah yes, Enric thought grimly – so they were back onto that topic. Of course there was no avoiding it in the long run; he was second in line for two positions which more or less excluded each other, if simply for reasons of geography.

“I have great expectation of not finding myself in that situation in the foreseeable future,” he said, trying to placate his superior. “I trust that there will be other opportunities to find a capable Head for House Aren in time. Malriel is not yet fifty, so I doubt that she will want to relinquish her position anytime soon. Or you yours, for that matter.”

That seemed to reassure Tyront to a certain degree. “That may be true. Although it is not a matter that needs to concern us right now, it does not mean that we are absolved from finding a way of dealing with it, however. Right now it looks as if the Order’s succession is under threat.” His gaze wandered over to Eryn, who was working on Lord Poron’s barrier at the moment. “Number three,” he murmured. “Apart from the fact that she would probably dissolve the Order or lead it into utter chaos, that is not even the main problem, as you would take her with you to Takhan anyway. That leaves Lord Poron, who I would wish to live forever, but who is still twenty years older than I and will very probably not outlive me to take over my position.”

“Orrin then,” Enric smiled. “Now, that would be a good choice. Apart from the fact that he would refuse outright. Too honest, too straightforward for the political dance.”

Tyront released his breath audibly. “I hope you see in what situation I find myself due to your chivalrous gesture to take your companion’s place in her old family so as to protect her new one.”

Enric nodded sympathetically. “Let me assure you of my compassion.”

“I would rather hear you assure me that you will find a solution to this dilemma. Don’t think this is only my problem, Enric.”

“I wouldn’t dream of doing so. But then there is always the chance of another unexpected addition to our high ranks,” the younger man said cheerfully.

“Stop trying to comfort me,” Tyront growled. “I will surely not have to deal with this a third time if there is any justice in this world.” He turned his head to Eryn once more. “Is she still as opposed to having children as she used to be? She has entered into this magical bond with you, after all.”

“Yes, she is. Moreover, if I had not intervened at Lord Woldarn’s question previously, I am in no doubt that she would have told you about it herself in very colourful words. Are you wondering about sending my offspring to Takhan to take over House Aren?” He shook his head. “That would not work quite so easily. According to their laws, our children would be members of House Vel’kim. Children we are very likely never to have, though,” he added in a tone that made Tyront narrow his eyes at him.

“Not too happy about that, are you?” he enquired carefully.

Enric sighed. “I respect that decision. And it was something I was aware of before I entered into the third level bond with her. So no complaints. It was not as if I were so very likely to start a family without her any time soon, in any case. If there is the question either of having children or of keeping her, I don’t even have to think about the answer.”

The older man nodded slowly. “I see. A pity that those are the choices, though.”

Lord Poron joined their circle and smiled. “Over and done with. It seems I have now the ability to father magical daughters,” he laughed. “My Aurna will be very tickled to hear that.”

“It is more the gesture that counts,” Tyront told him. “We should be able to say that the entire Magic Council has had the barrier removed – otherwise how can we justify asking others to have it done if there is a single one of us who hasn’t?”

Lord Poron waved a dismissive hand. “You won’t hear me complain, Lord Tyront. I found it interesting to watch, though Lady Eryn kept telling me to stop following her every move and asking inconvenient questions that broke her concentration.”

“Well, I would say diverting a healer who is working inside your head might not be the wisest course of action,” Enric pointed out. “Anyway, I am sure there will be ample opportunity to observe how it is done when she removes the barriers at the healers’ place.”

“Yes, or the clinic, as it seems we will be calling it from now on,” Lord Poron said. “Though people will probably keep referring to it as Lady Eryn’s anyway.”

They straightened when King Folrin stepped towards them.

“Lord Enric, I am sure you are aware that there is a custom of the Crown’s granting a favour to those who earn the Kingdom’s gratitude by accomplishing something that benefits it?”

Enric smiled faintly. “I admit I am, Your Majesty.”

“Then I am surely right in further assuming that you have something in mind that you would wish to propose to me for that purpose?”

“There is indeed an idea that I would very much like to discuss with you, Your Majesty.”

“Very good,” the King smiled. “Then I suggest we meet to take care of this soon. Do you need time to prepare a detailed proposal, Lord Enric?”

“No, I happen to have one ready.”

“Excellent. And not entirely unexpected, I have to say.” The King nodded to the three magicians. “Excuse me now. I need to leave.” He waited for the magicians to bow to him before he walked away.

“So, what is it going to be?” Lord Poron asked curiously.

“Nothing I wish to disclose before it is granted,” Enric chuckled. “That is said to attract bad luck.” He looked over at Eryn. “It looks like she will be kept here for quite some time yet. That means her work remains unfinished and she will not be in a very relaxed mood tonight. I assume I will have to drag her home before she falls asleep across her desk again.”

“That’s the downside of being joined to such an important woman, Lord Enric,” Lord Poron chuckled. “The most important one we have right now.”

* * *

Eryn returned to her study and flopped down on her chair. Two hours gone. Two hours she could have employed much better than in removing the barriers of the King and the Council members. But then at least she had improved her skills somewhat by practising. Towards the end she had been a lot quicker than with the first few. As soon as she was done with the last of them, she had all but fled the Council hall when she detected first attempts at getting her to join conversations.

She had seen Enric standing on one side and talking first to Lord Tyront and later to Lord Poron. At one time Orrin joined them as well. Soon after the removal of Lord Tyront’s barrier she had felt a surprising pang of sadness that had not been her own. She wondered what the two men had been talking about that triggered such a feeling in her companion.

A knock came from the door that joined her study with Rolan’s and she called out for him to enter. He stuck his head in.

“Vern has been looking for you. I told him I would let him know as soon as you are back. He is in Plia’s laboratory now,” her assistant reported.

Sighing, she stood up. “Alright, then I’d better fetch him. It looks like there is not going to be much chance for me to get any work done today. I wonder why I ever thought there was.”

She walked out onto the corridor and knocked at Plia’s half-open door.

“Plia?” she called out. “I was told Vern was here.”

When she entered, she saw Plia examining a bunch of dried herbs that had very likely been delivered by the herb gatherers and Vern leafing through one of the books on the table next to her.

“I told you,” he then announced triumphantly, “the blossoms are to be plucked before drying!”

They both looked up when Eryn entered.

“There you are!” Vern complained, “I have been waiting here for more than half an hour! Where have you been? I would have thought that you have enough to do after your trip not to run off just like that in the middle of the day!”

She snorted. “Don’t tell me, tell the Magic Council! They thought this was just the right day to make me take care of a little task for them. Plia, I hope he is not keeping you from your work? Just kick him out if he is a nuisance.”

“No,” the girl smiled, “he has been very helpful, in fact. It helps that he has aided you in putting the books together, he is a lot faster at finding things in them than me.”

Vern put aside the book and waved goodbye to Plia before following Eryn into her study. As soon as the door was closed, his stance changed completely. His shoulders drooped and his expression became unhappy and worried.

“What’s the matter?” she enquired immediately. “That’s not a good reaction when you enter my study.”

“I have come to apologise. I suppose you have heard about a thing or two already. My taking care of this place here was not exactly a grand success,” he murmured. “I failed you.”

Eryn looked at him and considered how to handle things. Sympathy was not a path that would lead anywhere with him right now. His self-esteem was low at the moment, and treating him with gentleness would just confirm this to him. What he needed now was not a friend. He needed a superior.

She picked up a few sheets of paper and pretended to look through them, then she looked up in confusion.

“I have looked through the reports Rolan is so eager to throw at me on every possible occasion, and it seems there was an increasing number of patients who were treated with mostly good results in these last weeks.” She pulled out one list. “It says here the quality of the herbs and medicines was adequate, so no complaints here. The complaints that were made – all four of them – were taken care of quickly. The money kept flowing in and was stored properly, the patient reports were completed and I have not returned to utter chaos and mayhem.” She put aside the papers. “I heard that you met some trouble with the healers, but as the healing services seem to have been provided continuously at the standard that I demand, I do not consider the term failed appropriate here.”

He blinked a few times and frowned. When he was about to speak, she lifted her finger to stop him.

“I am sure that your time in charge of this place was not exactly a very relaxing and uncomplicated one, but full of challenges, especially personal ones. Yet this did not stop you from keeping it going, nor did you fling everything aside and make a bolt for it when most people would surely have understood if you had. So, however you yourself assess your performance, from a rational point of view failed is certainly not accurate. Also, if we are to work together, I need to be able to rely on your assessment of situations.” She leaned back and steepled her fingers the way she had seen Lord Tyront do. Oh dear. Was she really imitating him now? “I would invite you to think again and then give me a more realistic evaluation of what has happened here in my absence.” She was proud of how cool her voice sounded, making her statement just sound like the order it actually was.

Vern straightened and his face drained of all but an insecure expression, as if not entirely sure how to deal with authoritative Eryn when he was so much more used to either explosive, annoyed or funny Eryn.

His eyes scanned the floor for several moments, then he started speaking. “The treatment of the patients worked well; I established a rota where each of the trainees worked with me before being paired up again with another trainee. I took care of the more complex treatments myself while the others healed minor things and were instructed to fetch me if they had any questions.” Then he paused, thinking again for a few seconds before continuing, “The supply of herbs was a little erratic at the beginning, but Plia devised a way to plan in advance for the medication she needs and instructed the gatherers accordingly. In some cases the quality was a bit of a problem, especially when it came to the gatherers who were not on the excursion with us. But Plia was very strict in accepting the material, so they mended their ways, as it were.” A small smile appeared on his face.

“What else?” Eryn prompted.

“The administrative matters were taken care of by Rolan, and while I sometimes found it hard to get on with him at the beginning, it turned out that this place was more or less destined for rack and ruin without him. At least when you are not here.”

She suppressed a smile and refrained from telling him for now that such a fate was not much changed now she was here.

“I would have been totally and completely lost without him. Really. I think I owe him my sanity. Or what is left of it,” Vern sighed.

Good. At least he had seen that there was something positive as well, she thought. Time to move on to what had not worked out that well.

“What was the trouble with you and the other healers?” she enquired mildly.

“I don’t know, it was just…” he started and stilled immediately, when she shook her head.

“No, Vern. Switch off the self-pity for now and think. I need proper answers, not complaints,” she insisted.

He seemed slightly taken aback, but then nodded and started anew. “I had the impression that they found it hard to take me seriously.”

“What do you think was the reason for that?”

He looked at her as if this was obvious. “My youth, I would think.”

“Alright. I heard there was a certain… discord when it came to the training?”

“You could say that, yes,” he replied darkly. “They either didn’t attempt the assignments I gave them at all or did only half of them.”

“Did they give you a reason for that?”

“They kept saying it was too much, that they didn’t have the energy after work.”

Eryn nodded. “I see. How did you react to that argument?”

“I told them to put more effort into their training and had better take it seriously instead of trying to take advantage of the fact that you were away,” he informed her.

Oh dear. “So there was no doubt whatsoever in your mind that they might not have been trying to shirk the assignments out of laziness but because they really found it too much?”

He concentrated his stare. “I did much more than that when I started my healing training with you! I stayed up until midnight reading books, practising the things I had learned and drawing pictures. I set them a lot less to do than that, so I really don’t see what there was to complain about!”

Eryn leaned forward. “Vern, you know very well that your aptitude in everything remotely connected with books and understanding things is above average. This is not something only I kept on telling you, but also what you no doubt experienced with the rest of your classmates and teachers. Applying your own standards, based on your personal abilities to other people with strengths either not as developed or in different areas, can be a dangerous thing to do.”

“So you, as well, think I expected too much from them?”

She breathed out slowly. “Vern, I am not in a position to judge anything here. I have no idea what or exactly how much you gave them to do, whether it was too much or not. I am just trying to encourage you to see their point and be slightly more conscious of not everybody’s being like you. It does not mean that they are any less important as healers, mind you. They probably have other strengths, which you may not,” she added in a warning tone.

That seemed to make him reconsider the issue.

“They locked me in several times,” was all he finally said, rather quietly.

“That was wrong of them,” she nodded. “Quite childish. But people tend to react unreasonably when they feel misunderstood and frustrated. That’s the trick, you see? Listening to them.” She smiled. “Do you remember all those troubles we had with the changing room?” How far away that seemed now. “I insisted on keeping the arrangement in place, no matter what Enric caused me to suffer. Then the healers themselves came to me to tell me that they wanted it changed. I was not too happy about that, believe me. Even though if felt like losing this battle to Enric, I still gave up my fight and did what they asked me to. Doing so didn’t make them respect me any less. Insisting on keeping everything the way it was despite their request would surely have cost me their goodwill. And despite all the trouble you had with them, from what I have seen they have never let this influence the quality of their work. You know, that is something you need to credit them with.”

Vern rubbed his face, feeling suddenly weary. “That shows me that I am clearly not cut out for leading people.”

“Utter rubbish. It just shows that you are sixteen. Leading people is a matter of experience and a willingness to learn. Willingness to learn has never been a problem in your case. I’m sure the experience will come with age. I have no intention of letting you off the hook when it comes to filling in for me.”

He eyed her doubtfully. “After all this you still think that is a wise idea?”

“I do, yes. I have no intention of wasting that potential and talent of yours because you have not yet learned to control your tendencies to lead from the front like a dictator. You will sooner or later assume a position of responsibility of some kind, there is no avoiding that. So you’d better start learning how to work with people. Though we will make sure you are better prepared for facing that the next time.”

“You hear people talk of born leaders all the time! So it is not necessarily something that can be learned but is a gift,” he pointed out.

“Born leaders, Vern, are people who can indulge in the luxury of not having to learn all this because most likely they were born with considerable strengths in that area. They might, however, be neither good as healers, nor as artists nor as negotiators. If you ask me, I would rather be born with a gift that cannot be learned and take the trouble of acquiring the skill of leadership. You have heard what people say about Enric, haven’t you? A lazy, useless scallywag when he was young – certainly not a born leader. But just look at him now.”

She decided that this was a good time to return to her role as a friend. “Vern, you have not failed me. Apart from with your totally inaccurate assessment of the situation, that is,” she smiled. “I am proud of you, very much. Always have been. And I am confident that you will give me more than enough reason to be so in the future.”

He relaxed and returned the smile. “It’s good to have you back. Really good.”

She grinned. “Good. So don’t you forget it.”

“What am I to do with the other healers?”

“I will talk to them, listen to their side of the story. Tell them that they have done some good work, show them appreciation. As for the rest – well, it is up to you to make them respect you again. There are two significant advantages you have: greater knowledge and experience in healing than they have. Use that to help them, but don’t let them treat you with disrespect. That is pretty much it for now.” She cast a quick glance at the door to her assistant’s room. “So he did a good job in my absence?”

Vern shook his head. “Not merely a good job, but he saved my life day after day. He did so much paperwork, I don’t even know what all of it is. He only came in here when there was no way of avoiding it, when he needed a signature or something to keep the place running. He stayed late almost every day, was here early in the morning. I don’t know when he had time to sleep. And he tried to stop us from bickering.”

Eryn nodded. That was high praise indeed and she decided to be nicer to Rolan from now on. He had really earned it.

She smiled and leant forward. “I learned some very helpful things in Takhan. Things I can imagine you will be very eager to learn.”

A glint had entered Vern’s eyes. “Such as what?”

“I learned how to make people appear younger. Ten years, twenty, however much you desire. And I met a very talented and smart non-magician healer who taught me about non-magical methods of diagnosis.”

A broad grin split his face. “Seriously? That is awesome!”

“There is more. I learned how to enable people here to give birth to magically-gifted daughters.”

Vern stared at her. “You are joking!”

“I am not,” she smiled, satisfied at his reaction. “And I have just been commissioned by the Magic Council to work on that. I could use another healer to help me with it. You don’t happen to know anyone who would be interested in that task, do you?”

 

Chapter 3

Side Effect

Junar laughed delightedly as she opened the door and found herself facing Eryn.

“Hey, what an unexpected honour! I didn’t think we would be seeing you here for a while yet! You must be swamped with work, I imagine. Orrin – look who is here,” she called out. Then she noticed her visitor’s slightly pained expression and stopped herself. “Something is not right. Come in.”

“I need to talk to you,” Eryn sighed and stepped inside the parlour that had noticeably acquired a few more female touches in the course of these last few weeks. Flowers in vases, colourful throw cushions, little items that served no other purpose than decoration.

Orrin stepped out of his study and lifted his brow at her. “Trouble, dear girl?”

She nodded. “One could say that, yes.”

“Did you cause it or are you suffering from its effects?” he enquired further.

“Tough question. I suppose one could say both, in a way,” she replied after thinking for moment.

“Well, if that isn’t being cryptic…” Junar lifted her eyes to the ceiling and led Eryn to a settee. “Sit. I’ll get you something to drink.”

“So, what is the matter?” Orrin asked and strolled closer.

Eryn regarded him for a few moments, then said, “I am not really sure if you should hear this. It is tenuously connected to sex.”

He fought down a slightly uncomfortable expression, but not before she had spotted it. She smiled faintly. “Last chance to run, warrior. What is it to be? Will you brave the news now or will you make Junar tell you after I have gone?”

He huffed indignantly. “What makes you think I would do a thing like that? I don’t remember ever expressing an unhealthy interest in that element of your life. Or having one, for that matter,” he amended.

“I think you would be terribly curious as I don’t normally run around talking about my intimate partner problems to people,” she remarked with a raised eyebrow.

“I will stay,” Orrin announced. “But only because you phrased it as a challenge.”

“Brave Orrin,” she murmured and accepted the warm drink Junar brought her.

“Out with it, then!” the seamstress urged her, before taking a seat between them.

Eryn took a sip and felt the comforting warmth in her throat and stomach. How best to start, she wondered. There was quite a lot connected to this they were not aware of yet.

“Enric and I entered into something called a third level commitment bond before we left Takhan,” she started. “It is a magical commitment only two magicians can have. It binds them very tightly.”

Junar’s eyes bulged and Orrin frowned. “A magical binding? Like the oath to the King?”

“Yes, similar to that. Somewhat stronger, though. They have three commitment bonds, and the one between companions is the strongest one. It induces more intimacy, more awareness for the other’s feelings and pulls companions back together if they become separated.”

“And you entered into this?” Junar asked incredulously. “You bound yourself to a man magically?”

“Voluntarily?” Orrin added in that same tone of disbelief.

“Come on!” Eryn exclaimed and threw up her hands in frustration. “I was joined with Enric for several months before that, why would it surprise you that we took what could be considered the next step?”

“Because you were forced into the commitment with him and did not at all take it well at that time,” Orrin replied.

“As well as because you have serious commitment issues,” Junar said.

“Well, consider them overcome! Can I now go on or do you wish to discuss what you think of as my bonding issues?”

“Fair enough… so you entered into this strong magical commitment.” Orrin motioned for her to go on.

“It has side effects,” Eryn murmured.

“Apart from the things you mentioned before?” Junar asked.

“Yes. At least in our case it has. I am told it hardly ever happens, so not to worry about it. Of course it has to happen to us, Enric and I, of all people,” she sighed and pressed her fingers to her temples. “Far away from the people who know at least a little about it.”

“And that side effect concerns your sex life?” the seamstress asked carefully.

“Among other things, it does. We have what is referred to as a mind bond. That means we have somehow developed a connection that makes it possible for each of us to experience the other person’s feelings in our own consciousness if they are strong enough,” Eryn explained.

Both of them stared at her in surprise. Junar was the first to recover. “Really? Such as what?”

“Just about everything – good and bad emotions. When I learned about this I said something that angered Enric very much, and the force of his reaction almost doubled me over.”

Orrin looked surprised. “Amazing. And in bed this is a problem why exactly?”

Eryn gave him a pained look. “Because having his emotions in addition to my own is so intense that my brain doesn’t seem to be able to cope with it. I fainted.” She snipped her fingers. “Just like that. Out like a light.”

Junar replied helpfully, “Oh my. That is inconvenient.”

“Inconvenient?” Eryn called out. “That is putting it very mildly! It is a catastrophe!”

“Why?” her friend asked in puzzlement. “I assume the emotions you felt were positive ones?”

“Yes. So what?”

“I would guess that quite a large number of women would be more than thrilled at the prospect of losing consciousness after sex due to a wave of overwhelming positive emotion,” she shrugged. “Not me, though,” she added with a sly glimpse at Orrin. “I am perfectly happy.”

Eryn frowned at her. “Enric was in a panic! He thought for a moment that he had killed me! Can you imagine that? I wonder if he will ever dare touch me again. Or whether he even should.”

“Can’t you ask somebody in the Western Territories about what to do? Or if this is a risk to your life?” Orrin prompted.

“Enric sent a message to my uncle, who is a healer. But as we have not yet managed to encourage those bloody birds to breed, the answer might involve a long wait.”

“Then what will you do now? Sleep in separate rooms?” Junar enquired.

She shook her head. “No. He is adamant about avoiding that. It seems after our initial difficulties, where I refused to sleep in his bedroom but instead stayed in his guestroom, he rejects the idea of sleeping apart. We were separated in Takhan for the duration of the trial, and he did not take that very well.”

“The trial, yes,” Orrin said slowly. “That is something I would very much like to hear more about. We were only told that your return would be delayed due to accusations you had to face.”

Junar opened her mouth to say something but then closed it again.

“What?” Eryn asked.

“I was about to invite you to dinner, but I am not really sure how to go about it. Can I even do that? I mean, your companion is Orrin’s superior. Is that appropriate? Would he even accept? What if he does? I admit I am a bit out of my depth here,” she sighed.

“Then let me help you out here, will you? I would very much like to invite the two of you, plus Vern, to have dinner at our place in three days.”

Junar smiled in relief. “Thank you. That does make everything a lot easier.”

“Glad to have eased your mind. So, any advice for my fainting problem?” Eryn enquired.

Junar shrugged. “I admit I don’t really see the problem. So you faint when the pleasure is too much for you to bear. That does not sound like that much of a test of endurance to me. Why not just revel in it? Or are there any objections from the healer’s point of view? Might it cause any brain damage? I assume you have checked that?”

Eryn shook her head. “I did, yes. And no, none that I am aware of. But fainting makes me feel so helpless! It’s weak, pathetic!”

“Ah yes,” Orrin smiled. “And there we have the root of the problem, don’t we? It is certainly not a matter of what Lord Enric thinks of you. He wouldn’t think less of you for it. But you have issues with seeming weak, probably as a consequence of how you came to stay in the city. Not to mention joining your companion in the first place. By being made to do so. Control. You feel you are losing control of your life again, and this does not sit well with you.”

Eryn blinked a few times in astonishment. “That was surprisingly insightful.”

“Unlike my usual, uneducated approach to things, you mean?” he asked with a raised brow.

“No!” she protested. “It’s just that you tend to be a little more blunt from what I have experienced.”

“You are aware that there are books in my study, right?”

“I am, yes,” she confirmed tactfully.

“They are not for decoration. I have read almost all of them,” he said dryly.

“I’m sorry if I insulted you, Orrin,” she sighed. “So you think I don’t trust Enric enough to be able to tolerate my own loss of control?”

He shook his head. “That’s not what I said. Control is an innate human need. If we have the impression that we cannot influence things around us no matter what we do, we feel helpless, frustrated. You fought for control when you were kept prisoner. At first by defying me whenever you could, and when that didn’t work, you started healing people on the street.”

Eryn stared at him. It seemed Vern was not the only smart one in this family. However could she have underestimated him that much?

“So in letting me roam the streets with Vern…,” she began.

“I returned some control over your life to you, yes. And you became more cooperative after that. Though you kept pushing your limits and I had to set you boundaries, like that one night when you healed Junar’s sister and didn’t return to your quarters. There is only so much control that one should restore to a prisoner, after all.”

“Orrin, Orrin,” she murmured and nodded her head, “you sly old dog. You are more dangerous than I would have thought.”

“How do you cope with that emotion sharing in general? What is it like? Do you suddenly feel things and you have no idea why?” Junar wanted to know.

“Well, it’s different from my own feelings, I know instantly when I am perceiving something from him. Mostly it’s confusing, especially when I am somewhere else and have just the emotion but no context for it. Like yesterday, when he was talking to Lord Tyront. There was a short moment of sadness or regret and I had no idea what was causing it.”

“And asking him about it is not something you feel comfortable with?” Junar prompted.

Eryn grimaced. “I don’t know. I’d imagine if he wants me to know about it he will tell me. This whole matter is exhausting. It is like we are melding somehow and I am starting to wonder where exactly he ends and I begin. I want to preserve a certain amount of privacy. It is intimate enough to share the emotions first hand without knowing each tiny detail around them as well.”

Junar nodded slowly. “I guess I can understand that. But then who would have thought that there are so many emotions within him anyway? He always seems so calm and collected.”

“He has strong emotions alright; he just doesn’t let people see them. He has no trouble whatsoever controlling how much he lets out. And now I think this is already a lot more than he would want you knowing about him.” She rose. “Thank you for your time.” She smiled at Orrin. “You are more useful than I give you credit for.”

“Obviously,” he remarked. “So you are leaving us again already? That was a very brief visit.”

“I need to get back to the clinic. Vern is meeting me there so I can show him how to remove the head barrier from the other healers.”

He cleared his throat. “I do not have the impression that Vern and the healers are getting along terribly well at the moment.”

“I am sure they will behave themselves, especially when I am there to back him up. I am confident that they can manage to work together. I had a little chat with Vern yesterday.”

Orrin nodded. “I know. He told me about it. He was rather surprised at some of the things you said to him. And so was I, to be honest. Growing up, aren’t you?”

She sighed and chuckled. “It seems we are both bubbling with surprises these days, eh?”

“I wish you were. I am still waiting for my presents from far across the seas,” Junar pouted.

“In three days, I promise,” Eryn smiled and closed the door behind her.

* * *

She entered the parlour and whistled through her teeth when she saw the preparations that had been made for their guests. They would be arriving in about two hours and she was immensely pleased with the efforts. It had a touch of the Western Territories, she noted. Throw cushions in colourful fabric, a table cloth in the same style. When had they bought all those?

Enric had told her that he intended to introduce their guests to a little of the new culture they were both now more or less a part of now. So he had been on a hunting trip the day before with Orrin and of course Urban to follow the Western tradition of serving to guests only what the host had hunted himself. The warrior trainer had been surprised at his superior’s invitation to join him, and so had Eryn.

It seemed that the scene on their return really had made Enric think over his lack of attachment to other people here in his home country, and he was working on changing that. Orrin was a more or less obvious – if not completely uncomplicated – choice, considering their not exactly harmonious history together.

The trip seemed to have gone well enough, they returned with several kills and parted amicably.

“Enric?” she called out and went to his study when no reply came. The room was empty, and so were the others. Was it possible that he was not at home? She looked out of her study window into the yard and saw Urban sleeping on an elevated place on a rock, paws and head hanging down limply. So Enric could not be very far away. He only left the cat at home when he attended Council meetings, and as far as she was aware there was none scheduled for today.

Shrugging, she went upstairs to consult her wardrobe and found a note pinned to the door. It told her to wear something appealing in her home country’s colours. Smiling, she pulled out a colourful tunic and dark trousers to slip into after washing. Enric really seemed to be enjoying playing the host tonight judging from the details he paid attention to.

She stilled when a thought occurred to her. Her gaze wandered to the window that overlooked the yard and the opposite building that housed the working rooms. Such as the kitchen. He would not really be taking over preparation of the meal himself as well, would he? No, she thought, amused at herself – that was probably too much to assume. Or was it?

She decided that there was still enough time left for a quick bath. The last three days had been exhausting, so she surely deserved a little relaxation before receiving her guests.

Nonetheless, her thoughts did not exactly care about resting when she was leaning back in the refreshing, warm water a little later. They seemed to have been waiting for a small break to spring out and announce themselves from all sides.

Vern and the healers. The first encounter following her return had been noticeably tense and overly polite, but after a few hours all of them seemed to have found a way back into their roles which were there before her departure, as colleagues with no hierarchy between them, only a gap in knowledge. Vern seemed most relieved afterwards, glad that they had started talking to him again.

He had been busy these last two days, removing barriers whenever he had seen a chance. First Junar and Plia, then Rolan and his classmates. He was eager to continue with the patients, but Eryn had to hold him back. He was still recovering from six very stressful weeks and needed to focus on the things he had missed in class instead of continuing to do her work.

The mind bond had been surprisingly unproblematic these last three days. She had once caught a flare up of anger from Enric and asked him about it in the evening. He told her that one of his fellow Council members had expressed his opinion of Enric’s adoption rather too freely and had been rebuked accordingly. Very likely with an icy smile and a warning stare that had not revealed the extent of anger inside him. She wondered if this was something that could be learned. Keeping her feelings inside like this, only letting them out when she wished to use them as a weapon.

Plia seemed to have been the only one working at the healers’ place who had not been affected by the tension between Vern and the other healers. She had been working steadily in her secluded safe haven with the door closed, receiving herb gatherers and apothecaries to accept or refuse their goods and preparing her own stock of medicines. Eryn had tried to encourage her to join them tonight, but Plia refused politely by pretending to have a prior engagement. Enric and Orrin together in one place was probably too much for her – she still bowed to Enric whenever she met him in the house, even though he kept pointing out to her that this was rather excessive formality when both lived under the same roof.

The yard came as a pleasant surprise once they had returned. The grass, planted shortly after their departure, had covered the ground nicely with the large rocks, trees and tree trunks very much to Urban’s liking – probably because she finally had a place where she was allowed to wreak havoc to her heart’s content. Enric had told Eryn that people kept pointing out to him how much the cat had grown since they had last seen her a month and a half ago and also asked expressly how much she was likely to grow yet further. Eryn didn’t really see the change, but then she wouldn’t have noticed it, having seen Urban every day. The crate they had used to transport her in had seemed a little more cramped on their journey back, though.

She felt heaviness tugging at her eyelids and promised herself that she would close them for no more than a minute.

* * *

Enric was surprised when he found the bedroom empty. She was clearly already at home – he had seen her robes on the hook downstairs. On the bed lay the clothes she was intending to wear for the evening. Just as he requested, she had selected something she ordered in Takhan. Their guests were due in less than half an hour and now there was no trace of her.

When he entered the wet room, he saw a limp arm hanging out of the tub and his tensions relaxed in a long sigh. She looked so much at peace, snoring quietly in the water. Nonetheless, taking a warm bath after a strenuous few days was never a good way to stay awake, he thought, and crouched down next to her.

“Eryn,” he nudged her slightly and once again with more force when she didn’t react.

She opened her eyes halfway and gave him a drowsy smile. “Hello you.”

Then she sat up abruptly, causing the water to splash onto his shirt with some swilling on the floor. “Did I fall asleep? Oh no! How much time do I have left?”

Enric merely smiled and dried his clothes with a little magic, watching tiny curls of steam rising from them. “Half an hour.”

She exhaled in relief. “Good. I can manage that.”

He watched intently as she stood up from the tub, with the water running down her body in tiny streams, finding natural lines in skin folds, while Enric smiled appreciatively.

“Stop that,” she scolded. “I know exactly how it ends when you look at me like that usually. We really have no time for that now.”

His smile didn’t waver. “I am looking at you in a particular way? I was not aware of that.”

Rolling her eyes, she stepped out of the tub and wrapped a large towel around herself. “Of course you are. That ravenous look, when your eyelids are half closed, but your eyes following my every move. Like an animal of prey ready to pounce on its next meal.”

“Interesting assessment,” he mused. “And not entirely unwarranted, I admit. Unfortunately you are right, there is no time.” Especially as she had taken to fainting in bed lately and always needed a while to recover afterwards. He watched her dry her hair with a touch of her fingers and brush it until it hung down her back in gentle, dark brown waves.

“I have been wondering whether to cut it off,” she said conversationally when she saw him observing her even strokes of the hairbrush. “Rather impractical. And I tend to wear it either braided or pinned up anyway.”

“Don’t you dare cut it,” he growled. She wore it down in bed. From his point of view, nobody else needed to see her with her hair down like that.

“You don’t ask for my permission when you cut your hair,” she pointed out with an annoyed look. “You more or less pick my clothes and now you want to tell me how to cut my hair?”

He shook his head. “No. I wanted to tell you how not to cut your hair: at all. But we can discuss it all some other time. Now get yourself ready. If we are to grant our guests a glimpse of Western culture, we might start by being authentic when it comes to punctuality.”

“How very conscious of authenticity you are. This has, of course, nothing to do with your own notorious approach to punctuality,” she joked and went ahead of him back to the bedroom in order to dress.

“Eager to offer the best to every single guest,” he murmured and made her stop and turn to him.

“You have taken to speaking in rhymes lately, haven’t you? First the commitment vow and now spontaneous little verses for humdrum purposes. It’s really charming.”

He shrugged and handed her the tunic on the bed. “I used to write a lot of poetry when I was much younger. Mostly to abuse my teachers and my father in colourful language. But just like drawing, writing poetry is not exactly a skill that is encouraged in a magician.”

She stared at him in surprise. “You did?”

Chuckling, he pulled down the tunic when she seemed frozen in astonishment. “Yes, indeed. Though nothing inspiring or heart-warming. It was more or less a science for me to find words that rhymed and put them together in the most insulting combinations possible. Not exactly what most people would consider an artistic approach, I am afraid.”

“That would probably depend on which people you asked. I imagine most people here would not consider Vern’s work exactly artistic, while they were absolutely stunned in Takhan when they saw his book.”

Enric grinned. “Some people would probably show a similar reaction to my early works, though not in appreciation but in shock.”

“You don’t happen to have a few of them lying around somewhere still, do you?” she enquired with curiosity.

He shook his head. “No, my teachers kept confiscating them from me and probably burned them soon after. I once wrote a particularly unflattering one about Orrin. He made me do ten hours of kitchen duty as punishment.”

She laughed out loud at the thought of inviting that very man here tonight to have dinner with them.

“It seems you were not very good at hiding them, then,” she smiled.

“I didn’t want to. That was the point, after all – having an audience.”

Funny, she thought, how very different their priorities had been in their youth. He had been seeking attention while she had been eager to avoid it at all costs.

* * *

Eryn hurried to the door when she heard the firm knock. “That is Orrin’s knock; I would recognise it anywhere. It’s the one I dreaded when I was still in my cell in the warriors’ quarters. It was usually what preceded his kicking the door open or scolding me. Or both.”

Enric smiled. “It seems we neither have too fond memories of him from those early days. Remind me why you have invited him here?”

“So we can prove to ourselves that we are now stronger and higher in rank than he and do not need to fear him any longer,” she laughed and opened the door.

She gasped in feigned astonishment and laid a hand on her chest. “Orrin, no matter how often I see you in smart clothes, it is a shock each time!”

“Is that the kind of greeting a guest has to endure here? Your manners have not improved since being sent to foreign parts,” he retorted and let a happy looking Junar enter first.

She immediately took Eryn’s hands and held them off to both sides before taking a step back to let her professional eye assess the garments she was wearing. “Very interesting! Turn,” she instructed.

“The woman you brought with you is not too good with manners, either,” Eryn tossed back at him, but turned obediently when Junar twirled her index finger for emphasis.

“Bad influence, I am afraid. She has a very poor choice in friends actually,” Orrin replied evenly. “Same as my son. You have been a corrupting influence on the whole family.”

Eryn noted how Junar blinked and suppressed a smile of what could only have been delight at being included in the term family.

“Lucky you, then, that you seem to be the only one with enough strength of character to weather it.” She turned to her friend. “So, Seamstress – am I done posing for now? Not that this cosy place in front of the door is not immensely comfortable or anything, but I would like to move into the parlour, if you don’t mind.”

“Well, Healer,” Junar replied with a raised brow, “then you had better let us enter instead of standing in our way.”

When they had hung their cloaks and moved out of the way, Vern came in and rolled his eyes when he closed the door behind him. “Finally! I was about to start a fire and catch myself a rat to roast out there!”

“You could have brought one of those your feline monster likes to catch and deposit on the carpet,” Orrin huffed.

Enric smiled at their guests who all bowed to him. “None of that tonight, this is a casual social get-together. Welcome. What may I offer you to drink? I can offer you wine and different types of juice from the West.”

Junar let her gaze wander over the decoration and nodded appreciatively. “A glass of wine would be lovely, thank you.”

“Same for me,” Orrin chimed in.

“Me, too,” Vern nodded.

Eryn raised her brow at Orrin. “Is that alright for you?”

He shrugged. “He has proven that he can work like a man, so who am I to deny him a drink if he wants one?” He narrowed his eyes. “Hey, don’t you pretend that you never let him drink alcohol before. Or need I remind you of that one evening at the ambassador’s quarters?”

She bit her lip and looked at Vern, who smiled apologetically. “You stabbed me in the back with that, Vern!”

“He noticed the smell in the morning! What should I have done?”

“Leave my name out of it, for one,” she sighed.

“Why take the blame myself if I can pass it on?” he shrugged.

“Valid point,” Enric agreed and presented his guests and Eryn each with a brimming glass before raising his own. “To pleasant evenings in good company,” he said solemnly and they took a sip.

“Would you mind terribly if I took a closer look at your shirt and trousers, Lord Enric?” Junar asked hesitantly.

Eryn smiled. So her shyness around Enric wasn’t going to remain still with her professional curiosity pushing forward.

“By all means,” he replied softly and put his glass aside to raise his arms on both sides and afford her a better look.

“Very nice,” she said softly as she walked around him. “The cut is more along the natural outline of your body. Very advantageous for a slim proportioned man such as yourself, definitely less so for a more stocky gent.” Then she looked up in shock, realising too late that she had just commented on his physical form rather more freely than circumstances warranted.

Enric raised a brow and smirked. “I know. That’s why I had them made. I was hoping for you to be able to duplicate the pattern and make me a few more of them.”

Junar nodded in relief. “That I can do, surely. I would just need one shirt for the pattern. You prefer dark colours to the more vibrant ones that are obviously favoured in Takhan,” she added with a sideways glance at the cushions and Eryn’s own tunic.

“Yes,” he replied. “I am told that I can afford to do that because of my exotic hair colour.”

She turned to look at Eryn again. “And you chose the other combination of our cuts with their fabrics, I can see. Not bad at all. It is quite a picture the two of you make together.”

“Hey, what is this?” they heard Vern asking. Eryn turned her head and saw him standing in front of a small picture frame on the wall next to a tall cupboard. She had not noticed that little addition yet.

Stepping closer, she saw that it was a slip of paper with tiny handwriting on it. She drew in a surprised breath when she realised what it was: the King’s message in which he informed Enric that his request to remain in Takhan as ambassador for two years in case of her conviction was granted.

She swallowed hard, feeling a lump in her throat. “My uncle gave that to me. It was what made me tell Enric that I love him and ask him to join me in the third level bond.” And he had framed it. Like something precious that needed to be preserved.

She felt an intense wave of genuine affection growing inside her that made her blink rapidly for a few times to hold back the moisture that threatened to overwhelm her eyes. She saw a slow smile spreading on Enric’s face when he felt the echo of what was going on inside her.

“Are we watching that mind bond doing its thing just now?” Junar whispered.

Orrin nodded, staring at them alternatingly in fascination. “I dare say we are, yes.”

“What mind bond? And what’s a third level bond supposed to be?” Vern enquired, watching all four of them in puzzlement.

Eryn fought to return to the present. “A little something we caught when entering into a magical commitment in Takhan,” she explained.

“Something you caught?” he asked, taken aback. “Like an illness? And you did what? Voluntarily?!”

She covered her eyes with her hand. “Why do people keep asking me that question? Seriously! Do I look as if I was forced, taken advantage of or compelled into submission lately?”

“Alright, alright,” Vern mumbled, “Back to this mind bond, then. What is it and why do you have it?”

“A direct line that conveys strong emotions between us, more or less. All I know is we ended up with it, but I have no idea why. No clue whatsoever. It hardly ever happens, so it seems there is also not a great deal of literature on the topic available in the Western Territories.”

Vern looked at her in bewilderment. “What were you doing there, Eryn? First they refuse to let you leave the country because of some kind of crime you committed, and then you just enter into a magical bond without considering the consequences?” He looked at Enric with an accusatory intensity. “I thought you had been sent along to keep her safe and stop her from doing anything stupid?”

Orrin grabbed his son’s shoulder and turned him towards him abruptly. “You may be invited as Eryn’s friend here tonight, son, but let’s not forget who you are talking to. You’d better consider your words before you talk from now on and make sure they are appropriate before you let them leave your mouth. Or bear the consequences.”

The boy closed his eyes for a moment, clearly fighting down an urge to dig even deeper. Then he turned back to Enric and bowed his head. “I apologise, Lord Enric. I spoke out of turn. Let me assure you that it was concern for Eryn’s wellbeing that led me to speak without thinking. Which is of course no justification.”

“Apology accepted,” Enric replied mildly. “And let me assure you that at times even my considerable skills find themselves rather outdone by Eryn’s dark gift of getting herself into trouble,” he added dryly.

“I resent that statement,” Eryn growled.

“Of course you do,” he smiled and kissed her forehead. “The truth is hardly ever pleasant. Shall we have a seat and serve our guests, my love?”

“We will do the serving?” she asked with a raised brow and smiled. So he really had been in the other building, actually cooking the meal himself, when she arrived here earlier.

“That’s how it’s done, I am told.” He then took Junar’s hand and put it on his arm to guide her to the table, Vern and Orrin behind them.

When they were all seated, he motioned for Eryn to follow him into his study where he had placed two colourful bowls in larger pots with hot water to keep the contents warm.

She raised both brows when he pushed six bowls into her hands. “When did you buy all that?”

“Let’s say I had a lot of time to kill when I was stuck with Golir,” he replied with a chuckle.

“And you did that by buying up household items? Is that where the cushions and table cloth came from? So he simply let you wander the streets alone instead of guarding you like a proper overseer?”

“Of course not. He accompanied me. I think he imagined it wiser to occupy me somehow instead of having me locked in and getting restless.”

She smiled at the image of the two powerful, high-ranking magicians making purchases such as these, discussing colours, quality, patterns and so on.

“Don’t just stand there grinning,” he reprimanded her. “Get the bowls out for our guests so we can feed them.” He then lifted one of the large bowls out of its water bath, blotted off the dripping underside with a towel and walked ahead of her back into the parlour where he placed the bowl in the centre of the table before going back to collect the other one.

He smiled at their guests’ badly-concealed astonishment at seeing him serve food. “In the Western Territories it is customary to cook for one’s guests as a host. And if meat is served, it is expected to be an animal hunted by the host as well. Anything else would be an insult and would expose him to ridicule. I have prepared two different dishes as Eryn has decided to renounce eating meat. You are of course welcome to try them both.”

Junar said, “I admit I am quite overwhelmed at how well you seem to have adapted to the local customs there.” Then she stared at Eryn in disbelief while Enric filled their bowls after asking each of them which dish they preferred. “Now you don’t eat meat anymore? What happened?”

Eryn accepted her bowl from her companion and turned to her friend. “We were invited to accompany my cousin and his… friends on a hunting trip, and that turned out to be quite a rude awakening for me. Later I learned that it is considered an acceptable lifestyle choice not to eat meat there if one is not prepared to kill it oneself.” She shrugged. “That sounded fine to me. It still does.”

“So you don’t miss it? This does not smell at all tempting to you?” Vern asked incredulously and pushed his bowl under her nose.

“No to both. I will thank you kindly for not making me breathe that in.” She set her face in a rigid expression and turned away until he had placed his bowl before himself again.

They then looked at Enric expectantly, waiting for him to start eating.

“A host is supposed to wait until all his guests have taken the first bite before he starts eating,” he explained. “Because only then he can be sure that everybody has been provided with something to his or her liking. I would thus invite you to do just that.”

“It seems like you had to learn a lot there after your arrival,” Orrin remarked.

Eryn nodded. “True enough. Though be glad that we are sparing you the rest of it for now. Next time you come here we will make you sit on the cushions they use there instead of chairs and wash your hands in bowls they use for that purpose,” she added with a smirk. “As Enric was occupying his time there with shopping, he probably bought all of those as well.” Her eyes widened when he shrugged. “You really did? Oh my!” Shaking her head, she turned back to Orrin. “It seems my empty threat was not quite as empty as I thought.”

Junar swallowed her first bite and looked up at Enric. “That is really good. Where did you learn cookery? It is not a skill I would associate with magicians.”

“Eryn’s cousin Vran’el taught me. Over there, it seems that providing for oneself is considered a basic skill just as healing is,” he explained.

“Cousin?” Vern asked curiously and turned to Eryn. “You mentioned an uncle before. So you have met family there? What are they like?”

She began explaining slowly. “Let me start at the beginning, shall I? When we got off the ship in Takhan, we were greeted by three people plus Ram’an. One important politician and two more people. One of them turned out to be my uncle from my father’s side who has given me the message you saw on the wall. The other one introduced herself as… my mother.”

Three pairs of eyes stared at her. “As in your dead mother?” Junar asked confusedly.

“Yes, that turned out to be a bit of a misinformation,” Eryn remarked wryly.

“So your mother is really alive?” Vern looked astounded. “Unbelievable! Why don’t you look happy when you are talking about this, then?”

“Because it turned out that I was the only daughter of a very powerful family who was expected to one day take over the role of the leader, or Head of House, as they call it.”

“Then you really are a kind of lost princess!” Vern laughed and clapped his hands. “I was right!”

“Yes, congratulations there,” she snorted. “But that entailed a little more. I was also expected to enter into a commitment with Ram’an.”

“What?” This time it was Orrin’s astonished voice who had called out. “So that’s why…” His gaze fell on Enric and he fell silent at once.

“It’s alright, Orrin – he has learned about Ram’an’s little interrogation attempt in the meantime,” she sighed.

“Why?” Junar enquired.

“My cousin told him about it. Ram’an made his manoeuvre public knowledge in Takhan.”

“What? No! I meant why you were supposed to join Ram’an!”

Eryn grimaced, then answered his question. “Because the Houses have a custom of promising their offspring to other Houses as spouses to reaffirm their political alliances. As the only daughter of a powerful House, I was intended for the son of another one.”

“But you already had a companion when you went there!” the seamstress exclaimed.

“They didn’t really acknowledge Enric as my companion since we had no third level bond in place. So Ram’an tried extremely hard to prise me away from him.” She shook her head and sighed, glad that all that was over.

“Unsuccessfully, obviously,” Orrin smiled thinly.

“Obviously,” Enric confirmed grimly, his smile equally weak.

“Had it not been for my cousin Vran’el, Ram’an would have managed to make me stay in Takhan for quite a while,” Eryn told them. “If Vran’el had not arranged for me to be adopted by my uncle, I would have been claimed as a member of Ram’an’s House by him.”

“You have been adopted by your uncle?” Junar cried out in complete desperation. “Can you please tell things in the correct order? My head is spinning! How can all that have happened in such a short time?”

Enric sighed. “Why don’t I go on? Eryn hasn’t exactly made it easy by jumping back and forth all the time. We had managed to negotiate trade agreements and Eryn had until then managed to keep Ram’an at a distance. After three weeks we were supposed to return home. As we were about to board the ship, we were apprehended by guards who brought us to the senate, which is like our Council here. It turned out that Malriel, Eryn’s mother, had accused her own daughter of causing her father’s death thirteen years ago. I shall leave it to Eryn if she wants to recount this story one day herself. But rest assured, it was clear from a legal point of view that Eryn was not to blame for it and would never have been made to endure the trial if it had not been for her mother’s considerable political influence.” He stopped to take a sip of wine before continuing. “For the duration of the trial we were separated, and each of us was put under the constant watch of a guardian who was stronger in magical powers than us. Ram’an volunteered to guard Eryn and was granted the task, though he had to do it at the residence of her uncle’s family instead of his own.” He stopped when he saw Orrin looking puzzled.

“Wait,” the warrior frowned. “But Ram’an was not stronger than Eryn. That day in his quarters she managed to break his shield.”

Eryn closed her eyes and stifled a groan. Oh no. That was the only little detail Enric had not been aware of, that she had managed to keep from him. Until now.

It fell quiet at the table. Nobody so much as dared make a noise. Enric’s deep breath escaping his tightened lips was the only sound.

“Eryn?” he asked in a calm yet threatening voice. She could feel his rage fiery in the pit of her stomach. “Would you care to elaborate? How come I was not aware of any fighting on that occasion?”

“I thought you said he was aware of it, Eryn!” Orrin reprimanded her sharply. “When will you finally stop keeping secrets, you bloody idiot!”

“I would be very interested in that answer myself,” Enric added with narrowed eyes. “Out with it!” he demanded with more force.

She picked her words carefully. “It was just a minor thing. He tried to keep me from leaving that day with a shield across the door after I had freed myself from his grip. I hit it twice and barely managed to break it. So I assumed that I was a bit stronger than him. Which was obviously not correct. He told me later that he had not used all of his strength to create the shield, meaning his shield was weak enough for me to break. I really am sorry.”

He shook his head. “No, you are not. I feel a mix of annoyance and unease, but no regret.” His blue eyes had narrowed. “And another stab of annoyance at me looking right through you. Let this be a lesson to you. No lying to me. Ever again. I am really starting to appreciate this mind bond.”

“Even though it causes me to faint in bed?” she parried at him angrily, hoping to embarrass him in front of their guests to exact a little revenge.

He just smiled at her attempt, not in the least thrown off balance. “I find I do not care about that little side effect very much right now. Consider it a more gentle way of knocking you out. Remember, we have tried it only twice so far. You might well develop a certain immunity to the effect after a while. We will just have to keep practising, won’t we?”

Her face had flushed scarlet and she hastily grabbed a glass of water and gulped it down.

Enric gave her a last disapproving look, then returned his attention to their guests. “So much for that. As I said, Ram’an was made Eryn’s guardian and took full advantage of his position as much as this was possible while her uncle and cousin were close by. Ram’an was one of the senators to vote on the outcome of the trial and was initially determined to vote against Eryn as a two-year house arrest in Takhan as punishment was what her mother intended. But then Eryn decided to renounce her mother’s family after the end of the trial in the event the decision was in her favour. As Ram’an was caught between accepting the leading role for his own House and getting Eryn as heiress of another House as his companion, he saw his chance of getting both Eryn and this position. Thus he managed to obtain his own plus three more votes in her favour that tipped the verdict of the senate.”

“What?” Vern asked, “Why did he have to choose between Eryn and leading his House?”

“Because Eryn was the sole heiress to her House, but he still had a younger brother who could take over the position. Two heirs of Houses cannot be joined as companions in the Western Territories,” Enric explained patiently. “That’s why Eryn renouncing her House and thus giving up her position as heiress to it was an attractive option for Ram’an.”

“But why did he imagine she would stay in Takhan after winning the trial? She was free to leave then, wasn’t she?” the boy then asked, wondering why each answer just led to new questions.

“Because he was very well versed in historical law and its application. There was one law that would have aided him considerably. It was an old rule about an intended companion having the right to claim the partner into his own house in the event she renounces hers in order still to fulfil the companionship agreement. This law was made before the fulfilment of the agreement became voluntary and was meant to keep children from freeing themselves from it by simply renouncing their Houses.”

“But her cousin put a stop to this because her uncle then adopted her?” Junar now asked, working hard to keep up with all the details.

“Indeed,” Enric nodded. “Thus Eryn is no longer the heiress of her mother’s House, but an official and legally confirmed member of her father’s family, namely House Vel’kim.”

“So there is now no heir for her mother’s House?” Vern asked.

“Oh yes, there is,” Eryn cut in. “It turned out that Enric let himself be blackmailed into being adopted by my mother. He is now the new heir of House Aren, the one I renounced.” She watched their stunned expressions with evident satisfaction. It was good to see that she was not the only one who found that utterly and completely ludicrous.

“Am I understanding this correctly,” Orrin said very slowly, “that you, Lord Enric, are now the son and heir of your companion’s mother?”

“Yes,” Enric nodded, “that is correct.”

“Does this mean that you could be made to succeed her at any time? What consequences are there for your position in the Order? You are meant to be following in another’s footsteps here yourself one day,” Orrin asked worriedly.

“Theoretically, yes,” Enric admitted, “though practically this is not very likely for now. I am confident that in time another solution will be found for that obligation.”

“And that’s all now? Apart from you joining into that bond before you left?” Junar wanted to know, brow furrowed.

“Well, almost. Enric took revenge on Ram’an for not keeping his hands to himself by compelling him into hosting our ceremony and celebrations at his residence and forcing him to participate in the ceremony itself,” Eryn added. “But that is it now. Really.”

“Incredible,” Orrin sighed and opened his eyes wide in wonder. “Eryn, it seems there really is no way of keeping you out of trouble for long.”

“How about the ceremony itself?” Junar asked. “You said it was a magical bond? How did that work? Like the oath to the Kingdom here made with joined hands?”

“Pretty much so, yes,” Eryn nodded. “Only that there are five hands involved instead of two and you are required to write your own vow for it. Enric’s vow even rhymed.” She turned to Orrin. “There is a little something I wanted to ask you. Enric told me that he once wrote a poem about you when he was a boy. An insulting one.”

Orrin smiled. “I remember that, yes. I was not the only teacher whom he bestowed that honour on. We compared them and tried to figure out who it was he hated most. Let me think…” He leaned back and looked at the ceiling for a short while before he started reciting, “Wherever Orrin often lingers / You will find toes or ears or fingers, / That were part of a student’s body / That walks the land now maimed and bloody.”

Vern stared first at his father, then at Enric. “You wrote that? Seriously?”

“I admit I did. I recognise it,” Enric smirked. “Though it is only an extract from it. I am surprised you still remember the words, Lord Orrin. It seems to have made a permanent impression on you.”

Orrin chuckled. “It has indeed, yes. I was one of the first teachers to be so honoured. Disrespectful and insulting, but hilarious to read. It got so bad that the teachers who didn’t find themselves targeted by that insolence felt left out.”

Eryn laughed. “And there you were, thinking artistic talent was not appreciated in these parts at all!”

“It wasn’t,” Enric remarked, “I was made to work in the kitchen for that particular poem. I don’t even remember the punishment from the other teachers.”

“Then it seems that my response impressed you in turn,” Orrin smirked.

“So it seems, yes,” Enric nodded thoughtfully.

“And today, about twenty years later the foul-mouthed poet and the merciless teacher are sitting together at the same table, eating dinner the foul-mouthed poet cooked because your female partners happen to be friends,” Vern said, sounding impressed as well. “I bet if anybody had told you that back then, you would have either panicked or denied it would ever come to pass.”

“True enough,” Orrin nodded. “Though telling me back then that I would find myself one day be subordinate to Lord Enric would have been bad enough anyway.”

Enric leaned back and regarded his old teacher with a thoughtful expression. “It did not turn out as bad as that for you, I hope.”

The older man smiled. “There were a few times when insubordination did seem quite attractive. Especially over this last year.” His gaze darted to Eryn.

Both men shared a lopsided grin at memories of challenges well mastered.

Eryn exchanged a look with Junar, who cast her eyes to the ceiling. The two men seemed far too blasé for her taste. She leaned forward.

“There is something I haven’t told you about yet. It’s something I tried in Takhan that I think you might find very interesting. The magicians use golden belts for hunting to block their magic.”

Both Enric and Orrin exchanged a slightly panicked look. One at the prospect of having yet another intimate detail revealed, the other at being coaxed into following the younger man’s example.

Vern smiled indulgently and got up to step towards the drinking cabinet to return with the half full bottle a moment later.

“I trust I am not the only one who needs a refill, am I?” he sighed and then refilled the two glasses which had been hastily pushed towards him.

»End of extract«

 

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“Commitments” – The Order: Book 2

Chapter 1

Plans

Tyront looked at the younger man opposite him and shook his head indulgently, causing his full, slightly greying hair to dance with the movement. “You have been in a very good mood these last few days. This doesn’t happen to have anything to do with a certain ambassador having left the city, does it?” he chuckled.

There was a glint in Enric’s clear blue eyes when he smiled weakly and stretched out his long legs, crossing his ankles over each other. “Are you suggesting that I do not appreciate the great chances for the Kingdom the delegation’s visit has opened up? That would be implying that my disposition is somewhat unpatriotic.”

“No, my boy, I am suggesting that you are relieved that he can no longer try to charm your companion away from you.”

The younger man looked somewhat disapproving, his piercing blue eyes slightly narrowed. “Are you saying that I was afraid that he would have succeeded eventually?”

“Maybe not succeeded in charming her, but probably in taking her away from here somehow. I doubt that she would have gone voluntarily. You seem to have grown on her, after all. I have noticed that she is more relaxed now when you touch her.”

“Yes, that she is. And that was hard work. Basically, I have been wearing her down,” Enric replied with a lazy smile, glad that the conversation had moved away from the ambassador.

Tyront grinned. “Devious. What is she up to at the moment? The healers’ building is not yet finished, so she can’t really start any healing or teaching yet. Do you know if she has contacted young Rolan yet?”

“She mentioned thinking about an expedition of some sort to teach the herb gatherers which plants to look for, where to find them and how to treat them once they have found them. She will probably ask her assistant to take care of some organisational matters in connection with this.”

“You don’t seem too enthusiastic about that idea. I myself think it is a valid use of her time until she can start to use the building.”

Enric sighed. “Yes, I know it is. It’s just the thought of her leaving the city for several days with a bunch of strangers that doesn’t sit well with me. I hinted at the chance of accompanying her, but she treated it like put-on and laughed it off.” He shook his head. “Could I make her stay with an official order? Would you back me up on that? It would mean neglecting her studies and combat training for quite some time, in fact.”

Tyront looked incredulous. “You are not seriously asking me that, are you? I can’t be seen backing you up on something like that. I’d say it’s good for you to let her do something on her own for a change. She is rather a capable young woman and it’s time for her to handle things without your being there to fix each little thing that goes wrong or even prevent its going wrong in the first place.”

“I am not doing anything of that sort,” Enric retorted, knowing fully well that he was.

“You aren’t? Then how about your sending magicians to the construction site of her building to make sure it gets finished in time? And then you wanted to accompany her on her negotiations with the apothecaries.” Tyront narrowed his eyes. “Is it possible that you are trying to show her that being with you increases her chances of success? You are not that desperate, are you?”

The younger magician looked slightly irritated. “Weren’t you the one to preach that being a leader also means being a mentor?”

“What you are doing is not mentoring, though, as it is meant to serve your personal aims instead of your protégé’s,” the older man replied with raised eyebrows.

“This sounds as if you are in favour of her accomplishing something without my help and will thus grant her permission for her idea of a herb gathering expedition.”

“Yes, if the details are halfway reasonable I will not put obstacles in her way,” he said. “Even if being without her for a few days threatens to break your heart.”

“That’s nice. First you keep pestering me for years finally to settle down with a nice girl and when I do, you keep taunting me because I happen to become attached to her.” Enric shook his head. “I should have known there would be no pleasing you.”

Tyront smiled. “I am pleased, believe me. Very much so. Your falling in love with her was a lucky stroke for all of us. But it is comforting to see that she keeps you on your toes, so to speak. A man in your position has a great choice of compliant females, so the temptation to pick one that is willing to cater to your every whim is clearly there. But in the long run a less docile partner is more stimulating.”

“Yes, I dare say that is something I will probably never lack: stimulation,” Enric said with a lopsided grin. Then he turned serious. “How about the report on the results of the negotiations with the delegation? Has Marrin sent it yet? I am looking forward to reading it. I am curious what they have agreed on. Why again was the Order not included in the talks?”

“Because they mostly talked about trade, and this is not one of the Order’s areas of expertise or responsibility.”

“Of course – only invite the warriors when the trade talks have failed and we need to hit them on the head,” Enric retorted with some sourness in his voice.

“Look at you… So there is a little of your father in you, after all. Feeling the urge to get back to your roots, being a merchant, negotiating trade agreements?”

The younger man grimaced at the mention of his father. “Hardly. Don’t tell me you are happy with being left out? There is valuable knowledge about magic in the Western Territories, so I don’t see how we were not entitled to participate in the negotiations.”

“I think you overestimate the progress and depth of the talks. It was mostly about establishing a preliminary trading and messenger structure, exchanging information about goods available for trade and determining an exchange rate for our currencies.”

Enric gave a feeble grin. “So they haven’t really managed to leave you out of it entirely, have they?” He leaned forward. “I wonder who your informer is. But of course you won’t tell me.”

Tyront shrugged. “Of course I won’t. You go find your own able agents in useful positions.”

They looked up when a knock sounded at the door and a servant delivered a folded message. The older man turned it to take a look at the seal.

“Ah yes, I see Eryn finally has her own seal.” He studied the curved lines that formed an elegant ornament for several seconds. “Interesting. It does remind me of your own – which is hardly a coincidence, I dare say.”

“No, not at all. I instructed Vern accordingly and he delivered a design in record time. Very useful, that boy. We really should keep an eye on him. I suppose she sent you the request for her expedition?”

Tyront opened the seal and nodded after a few moments. “Yes, indeed. She asks for provisions for herself plus one, and for fifteen herb gatherers for ten days.”

“Plus one?”

“Yes. It seems she wants to take young Vern along with her. To make illustrations for documentation purposes. She mentions writing a book with instructions where they would be indispensable.” He looked at the second piece of paper that was included and smiled. “She has even sent a signed letter of permission from Orrin where he agrees to entrust his son into her care for the duration of the expedition. I like these little touches of thoughtfulness.” He read the letter again. “It’s odd that she has not requested any servants for the journey. As I assume that she doesn’t intend to cook and prepare camp every night for all these people, I will approve two more people to take care of this.”

Enric smiled when an idea hit him. “Make one of them the orphan girl from the kitchen, young Plia, will you? Eryn hasn’t really had much chance to spend time with her in these last weeks and I know she feels bad about it.”

“Alright, Plia, the kitchen girl it is.” Tyront made a note. “Any preference about the second one?”

“No, not really. But somebody who can do heavy lifting and has no problems taking orders from a woman would be good.”

“Well, that second part would rule you out at any rate,” Tyront said with a thin smile. “It took me years to get you to take orders from the King, after all. You see? Your accompanying her would be completely useless.”

* * *

Eryn knocked at the door to Orrin’s quarters and smiled when Junar opened it.

“Hello. I keep running into you more and more often these days. Why do you even bother returning to your home anymore?” she grinned at her friend.

“Because I am an independent woman with my own income and do not want to leech off my rich lover. That’s why,” Junar explained with mock haughtiness.

“Lover.” Eryn shook her head with a grimace, looking at the petite woman in front of her whose appearance with her nicely flowing dress was so much more female than Eryn’s own preferred no-nonsense style with trousers and tunic and her hastily braided hair hanging down her back. “I still have problems connecting that term with Orrin.”

“Good,” the seamstress said. “I wouldn’t want you to think of him that way.”

“No danger there, sweetheart. He is all yours. Is my favourite sixteen-year old around? I have good news for him.”

“In his room with his nose in a book; as always when he isn’t drawing some part of the body no normal person can identify. Be careful of that monster you brought here. It has a nasty temper.”

Eryn frowned. “Monster? You mean the cat I brought here for him to practise repairing soft tissue? It’s still here? Why? He told me he just wanted to feed it and then set it free again. That was more than a week ago!”

Junar nodded gravely. “Yes, that was the initial plan. But somehow that beast has managed to brainwash Vern into keeping it. It sleeps on his bed, eats leftover meat and then pees on whatever looks expensive.”

“Oh dear,” Eryn said with a sympathetic grimace, feeling slightly guilty. “Do you want me to talk to him about it?”

Junar sighed. “No, that’s Orrin’s problem, let him handle it. His son, his quarters, his responsibility. Though one of these days he’ll have no servant willing to clean his quarters any more, I am afraid. Removing stinking, wet, dripping items or being attacked by the cause of them is hardly an incentive to work here.”

Eryn chewed her lip. “And the cat’s in his room now? Where I am supposed to go?”

“You caught it, so you obviously know how to deal with it. And you can shield yourself. Where is the danger for you?”

“Well, catching it was not really a matter of great personal danger for me,” she admitted. “I basically stunned it and slung it over my shoulder. It might remember that and take revenge on me.”

Junar scoffed. “You stunned the cat with magic in order to catch it? That truly was a heroic act. It’s not like you are several times the size of the poor creature.”

“You go out there and try to catch one of these cunning beasts with your bare hands, then we can talk,” Eryn shot back. “They have claws. And teeth. And they move like lightning. Have I mentioned the claws? Veritable daggers, I tell you. And suddenly it’s a poor creature? A minute ago you called it a monster!”

“Says the woman who can heal herself instantly. I have not yet heard anything that would warrant your fear of going in there, so off you go. Don’t make me drag you in there by your ear,” the seamstress grinned.

Eryn straightened. “Alright. I am not afraid of a cat. I am not afraid of a cat. I can stun it again if need be…” She knocked at Vern’s door and opened it when he grunted something unintelligible.

He was hunched over a book on his desk, the ends of his overlong fringe almost touching the paper. The enormous, red tomcat was curled up on his bed, opening one eye when she entered, flicking the tip of its tail in a gesture that, however miniscule, somehow managed to convey a promise of pain to the careless person who took any undue liberties, such as for example getting too close.

“Good news,” she announced cheerfully. “The departure of the expedition has been cleared! We will be off for ten days of wilderness and herb gathering in no more than three weeks!”

Vern looked up, blinking a few times so as to leave the world of skin disorders behind him and concentrate on the here and now.

“That’s brilliant,” he then grinned. “I wouldn’t have thought that Lord Enric would really have let you leave.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she huffed indignantly. “I am a grown woman and an important person in that bloody Order. Of course he let me go!” She didn’t mention that Enric had tried to dissuade her several times, had hinted at wanting to accompany her and had very likely hired agents to keep an eye on her. This would kind of make Vern correct, and that would just not be right. Even though he basically was.

“When are we leaving again?” the boy asked and rubbed his hands.

“In three weeks. There is quite a bit of planning to be done before that and I suppose this is a good opportunity to get my new assistant started, even though he officially starts only in a few weeks. But I think it might be a good idea to have somebody here to take care of things while I am gone, so I am going to break it gently to him that he is supposed to start earlier than planned. He is going to be so thrilled,” she added dryly.

Vern gave a broad grin. “Hey, if you don’t kick him where it hurts most, you will be off to a better start than last time.”

“Oh, great. Why exactly am I taking you with me to have you around me all day long?”

“Because you need somebody with very good drawing skills and it seems that mine are unparalleled in the city,” he replied smugly.

“Yes, right. I knew there had to be some good reason for me to be willing to endure this.”

“Would you rather take Rolan on the trip? He could double as your servant,” the boy asked with a malicious grin.

“Shut up or I will make you double as my servant,” she threatened mildly. “It would certainly make things easier for Plia.”

“Plia is coming, too?” Vern smiled. “That’s terrific. It will be good to have a friendly female face there as well.”

“Are you telling me my face is not friendly?”

“Seriously – do you ever look into the mirror after you get up? I wonder how Lord Enric endures it.”

She looked at him and sighed. “You know, I am starting to wonder how hard drawing can really be. Maybe I could learn it myself within the next three weeks.”

“You go on and try that,” he smirked. “It will make you return to me and go down on your knees to beg me to accompany you.”

She sighed. “Yes, probably.” When she made to sit on his bed, a low growl warned her to think better of it. “Why is that cat still here? I thought you just wanted to feed it once after it wakes up to calm your guilty conscience for using it and then get rid of it? It does look rather fierce. Has it eaten anybody yet?”

Vern looked hurt. “Ram’an, you wouldn’t do that, would you?” he cooed and fondled the cat behind one ear without being bitten, scratched or otherwise harmed.

Eryn raised a brow. “You named the cat after the ambassador? Really? That is bizarre, even for you.”

“Why? I like the ambassador. I know you had some kind of row with him, but that was taken care of, wasn’t it? So it’s not disloyal of me to use his name for the cat.”

She sighed. “No, not really. I am just wondering why you kept him. I mean, he is a street cat and Junar mentioned that he keeps pissing everywhere.”

“That’s grossly exaggerated. That was just because Ram’an had no lavatory.”

“And he has one now?”

“Yes, he has a box with sawdust. And he uses it. He only pees on father’s shoes when he is upset.”

She shook her head in exasperation. “I really need to be more careful with what I use to teach you. If I ask you to heal a horse, will that also end up in your bedroom? And who is supposed to take care of that beast while you are on the expedition? If it treats others in the same friendly way as it does me, nobody will want to go near it.”

“Oh, that’s not a problem,” Vern waved her off. “He just needs his food twice a day and his box cleaned up once a day. The servants can easily do that. He mostly sleeps, so he won’t bother anybody. It’s a pity though, that we are on the first floor. He can’t get in and out of the window that way.”

“Have you tried it?”

“Have I tried what?”

“Leaving the window open, genius. There is a ledge under it that stretches around the whole building. He might figure out a way to get down and up again. You would be amazed what some of these little buggers can do.”

Vern eyed the cat doubtfully. “I don’t know. He might run away and never return.”

Hardly, Eryn thought. Why give up two meals a day and a warm place to sleep? But what she said was, “You wouldn’t want to keep him here if he doesn’t want to stay, would you? I don’t have to tell you how I feel about keeping prisoners, do I?”

He sighed. “Alright. I will give it a try, I promise.”

Good, she thought. With a little luck the cat would not find its way back up and Orrin might in time forgive her for the feline assaults on his shoes.

“So, I need to be off now to find my new assistant,” she pasted a big fake smile on her face. “That is going to be so much fun!”

* * *

She wondered what the best place to meet Rolan would be. In her quarters? Not good, she didn’t really have a study there and using Enric’s was not really an option. While she knew he would be more than willing to let her use it, it just didn’t feel right. The parlour was too casual and the guest room was no more than a collection of books and papers; they would have to sit on the bed, something that was not at all appropriate.

What a nuisance that the healers’ building was not yet ready for use. She would ask Lord Tyront if she could use one of the meeting rooms the Order had at its disposal, she decided. That was official – maybe a bit too much – but that couldn’t be helped right now.

She took out a sheet of paper and a pen and scribbled a quick note, sealed it with her new stamp and ordered the messenger to wait for a reply after delivering it. If Lord Tyront was at home right now, it should only need a few minutes before she had her reply; their quarters were not that far apart.

Taking out another sheet, she started writing a note to Rolan to summon him and wondered about the appropriate way to do this. Phrasing it like an invitation would seem weak. An order might be a bit strong. A request? But that would leave the chance of his refusal open, wouldn’t it? She finally decided to phrase it like the order it basically was.

A knock at the door brought Lord Tyront’s answer in which he let her know that she was free to use each and every meeting room she deemed fit for whatever purpose now and in the future. That was convenient. She decided to use the one she knew from her negotiations with the apothecaries. At least it was easy enough to find.

She finished her note to Rolan, instructing him to meet her in one hour and bring a pen and notepad with him as this would be his very first day of work as her assistant.

It would be a relief to let him do most of the work in connection with the expedition. Enric had hinted none too subtly that he expected her to complete in advance some of the studying and combat training she would miss. That meant extra hours of reading and fighting, in addition to her healing lessons with Vern.

But she was willing to accept these conditions for the chance to escape the confines of the city for the first time in almost ten months. She had lived almost all her life amidst trees, gathering herbs, bathing in ponds and rivers, yet had for quite some time now been restricted to a place with no more than a meagre few trees and a river she would rather not risk having skin contact with, at least not the part of it within and downstream of the city. Feeling real soil under her feet again, hearing the rustling of the wind in the leaves above her… Then again… sleeping outside with sixteen men, without sanitation, being at the mercy of the elements – another part somewhere began to speak out and Eryn shut it up, angrily. It seemed she had become accustomed to the luxury of life in the city. Maybe it was about time to get reconnected with the outside world, to remind herself that life was not about soft beds, lavish breakfasts and long, hot baths.

* * *

She turned from her position in front of the high window when a loud knock at the door reverberated through the spacious meeting room with the domed ceiling and the oblong table surrounded by six uncomfortable looking chairs. A servant opened the tall door, bowed, then announced Rolan.

As she had expected, he did not look too thrilled to set eyes on her again. Whether it was due to being summoned unexpectedly or his new position in general, she wasn’t able to say. But she hadn’t chosen this, either, so they would both have to come to terms with it somehow. She was older, wiser and thus more mature, and higher in rank, so she was probably the one who was supposed to make this work.

When the servant had departed and left them alone he bowed and said formally, “Lady Eryn.”

He was wearing the customary brown magician’s robes. His blond hair reached to his collar and was tucked back behind his ears, and perhaps because of his new role his bearing was stiff; he avoided eye contact with Eryn as far as he could. He didn’t bother hiding the fact that meeting her gave him no pleasure at all but was instead a nuisance he knew he had to endure.

Twenty-two years old, she mused. Only six years older than Vern, but a lot further advanced than that when it came to cynicism and disapproval. Well, at least with regard to disapproval. Vern was pretty cynical and sarcastic for a teenage boy.

“Rolan.” She nodded to him and walked closer, motioning for him to sit while she herself would remain standing for now. Was she supposed to thank him for coming? It was not as if he’d really had much of a choice in the matter. Thanking him would probably equal mocking him.

“I appreciate that you came here on such short notice,” she said and decided that it sounded right. “You were informed that we would start working together in a few weeks, but something has turned up where I need your help now already. I hope this does not cause you any undue inconvenience.”

“No,” he replied stiffly, clearly finding it hugely inconvenient to sit there.

“Good,” she smiled thinly. “I see you brought pen and paper.” She pointed to her own sheets she had brought and pushed them towards him on the table. “The first task I need you to assist me with is planning an expedition that is scheduled for three weeks’ time. Its purpose is to…”

“An expedition?” the young man interrupted her and frowned. “I have no idea how to plan an expedition! What am I supposed to do?”

“First of all, you are supposed to remain quiet and listen to me while I am talking,” she replied sharply. “You might learn something useful, after all.”

She saw him press his lips together into a thin line. Just brilliant. Telling him off was definitely not a good start.

“The purpose of the expedition, as I was trying to tell you before,” she continued, “is to teach the herb gatherers where to find and how to handle plants for medicines and medical treatments. I have already talked to some of them to determine a ten-day-route.” She bent down to pick up a sheet and push it towards him. “The blue line on this map is the route I have set. I want you to take this and put together a file with all necessary information for this trip. Have a copy made of everything, so that each of us has the complete version.”

He pulled the sheet towards him and studied it, frowning. “This is complete nonsense.”

“I beg your pardon?” she said icily, hands on her back and waited for him to look up.

“There is no accommodation near most of the sites you have marked. Where are you planning to sleep?”

“We are going to camp in the woods, city boy. What’s more, we need to work on your way of phrasing your objections in a more respectful manner,” she added and groaned inwardly. That had sounded an awful lot like somebody she had kept insulting. Was she turning into a female version of Lord Tyront? Surely not!

“Let me rephrase that,” she said sweetly and bent down to him, bracing her palms on the smooth, polished wood of the table. “If you ever again call anything I did or said nonsense, I will kick your sorry butt from here to the sea – have I made myself clear?” She smiled when he nodded silently after a moment’s hesitation. Good. That had felt a lot more like herself.

“Excellent. Now back to the matter of the camping. As we are not going to stay at any inns most of the time, we will need tents, food that stays edible for some time, and cooking utensils as well as sensible clothes for travelling through the woods. For the night we also need warm blankets. It is getting warmer already, but the winter is not entirely over yet. At least we shouldn’t have any snow. I hope.”

She watched him scribble the items she had named on his notepad and waited until he had finished before she continued. “Then we need equipment for treating and storing the herbs. I have a list of that prepared as well.” He wordlessly took the second sheet she gave him, looked at it, then grimaced.

“What now? Do you not agree with my choice of items? Then I assume you must have had ample expertise in the treatment of herbs to be in a position to judge this?” she said cuttingly and folded her arms in front of her.

Rolan gave her an annoyed look. “I can’t tell. Your handwriting is quite a challenge to decipher. Or is this the way people in the Western Territories write? Then I would kindly ask her Ladyship for a translation.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. That had been witty, but she could hardly admit that. Shaking her head at him, she pursed her lips. “We will just have to get you accustomed to my handwriting.” She gave him an evil smile. “Or if you prefer an approach that would be less taxing for your poor eyes, I always can dictate and you just follow me around all the time and take notes. Wouldn’t that save you so much trouble?”

He swallowed, and she saw the unease at the image, clear on his face, of his trailing behind her with a notepad for everyone to see.

“I think I will give the list another shot,” he assured her hurriedly.

“Good. That’s what I was hoping for,” Eryn nodded and then returned to the items for the expedition. “We need enough paper and ink for Vern to draw, and something to store his work afterwards without anything getting torn, wet or otherwise damaged. I have never travelled with books or papers, so you need to figure out something here.”

She walked a few steps and then murmured more to herself, “Have I forgotten anything?”

“Weapons,” Rolan prompted.

Frowning, she turned back to him. “What? This is not a raid, but an expedition for teaching herb gatherers! Or do you suggest we rob and burn down a few villages while we are at it?”

He showed impatience with his eye movements. “And what if you are waylaid or assaulted? Are you just going to raise a big, strong shield around all of you and wait until your attackers become exhausted from hitting it?”

“We are talking about herb gatherers, not battle-hardened warriors! They would very likely only hurt themselves with a sharp edged blade that is longer and heavier than a herb gathering knife.”

“And your weapons, Lady Eryn? Or do you intend to leave here without any armaments at all? And without anybody who knows how to use a sword? Will you alone be defending a group of seventeen if necessary? After a mere ten months of combat training?” He visibly fought for calm. “Well, that should make my position redundant soon enough.”

“Hey!” she cried out in bewilderment, “I thank you very much for not prematurely arranging my untimely demise!”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he grumbled sullenly and pretended to write something down. “Is there anything else, or can I leave?”

“No, that’s all from my side. For now. I expect regular updates on your progress. If I don’t hear from you I will come and find you. Then I will make you talk.” She smiled without humour.

“Just take the easy route and keep me informed, will you?”

He stared at her for a few moments, then bowed and left hurriedly.

Eryn let herself fall onto a chair, feeling the tension drain out of her body now that Rolan was gone. That had not gone too badly, had it? She had not really expected a harmonic meeting, not when each side was clearly unwilling to work with the other and didn’t bother hiding that fact; but at least he had left with a clear idea of what to do, hadn’t he? She sighed. She earnestly hoped he would get at least some of the things done so she would not have to take care of everything herself.

* * *

“Good afternoon,” Enric greeted her from one of the sofas and put aside his book when she entered the parlour. “How was your meeting with Rolan?”

She sighed. “How do you know about that? I wasn’t even aware that you had anything scheduled with Lord Tyront today.”

“I didn’t really. At least nothing official. He told me that you needed a place to meet with your assistant when we had lunch together.”

“So when you don’t have a work-related reason to see each other, you eat together?” She shook her head.

“Don’t change the topic. Tell me about Rolan. Did it go well?”

“Oh, yes. Fabulously well. He is a real sweetheart. I would so much love to adopt him. Can I please?” she begged with mock eagerness.

“Hardly,” Enric chuckled. “He is only five years your junior, which means he is of age. People would think you just wanted a live-in lover.”

She grimaced at the thought of Rolan in her bed. “Well, then maybe not.”

“Yes, I agree. So it did not exactly go as you hoped?” he asked a third time, not giving up.

“I don’t know.” She sat next to him on the settee, let him kiss her on the temple and took a sip from his cup on the table. Enric played with a strand of her hair, content with the cosy, intimate situation between them and waiting for her to go on.

“I suppose it could have gone worse. He did not leave the room screaming but rather cursing under his breath. That is a good sign, isn’t it? And I did not kick him even once, though there were several times when I really wanted to, so I feel I showed great restraint presented with my new challenge in the form of my very reluctant assistant.”

“I am so proud,” Enric smirked. “Only a short while ago you were the prisoner, now you are doing your own subduing.”

She grinned. “What can I say? I must be a fast learner.” Then she bit her lip and thought back to what Rolan had said. “Do you think I need to take weapons on the expedition?”

“Definitely,” he answered immediately. “I would imagine you are pretty much the only one able to use them, so if there are any problems, you should be prepared.”

“But I am a magician! Why would I use swords?”

Enric stared at her. “Because there are very strict laws to deal with magicians who use their powers against non-magicians.”

“What? But healing is a form of doing just that,” she pointed out matter-of-factly.

“You know what I meant. The rules apply when it comes to less amiable interactions. Such as fighting.”

“Even if it is in mere defence?” she asked incredulously.

“That is what you would have to prove afterwards. If there is even the shadow of a doubt, you would be made accountable for whatever damage you’d caused. The King must be seen to be keeping us under control, and from your studies of the history books you should already be aware why. There were a few quite… unpleasant incidents in the past with rogue magicians.” He cocked his head and frowned. “Why do you think it is we really practice sword fighting, Eryn? Hardly to defend ourselves against other magicians. It is our way of making sure that we can defend ourselves against non-magicians, because due to the laws we would otherwise be unable to stand our ground in a fight.”

Eryn stared at him open-mouthed and then rose to pace the parlour. She threw her hands up in frustration and anger. “I am slowly going crazy from the lot of you! Why did nobody ever tell me this in all those months that you forced me to train fighting? I mean, I would have understood that reason!”

“What do you mean, nobody told you?”

She looked up at the ceiling. “Exactly what I said! Not a single one of you mighty warriors thought it worth your while to tell me why you were making me learn this! It would not have been so excruciating had I known that there was a valid reason for it! You are damned idiots, all of you!”

She looked down again and narrowed her eyes when she heard Enric laugh. “So, Tyront never told you? And neither did Orrin? But you trained with him almost every day for months! He never mentioned anything about why to you?”

“I am so glad you find this amusing! I honestly fail to see any humour in it. And don’t blame Orrin! You have been training with me for about two months now, and have you ever bothered telling me? No, you haven’t!” she exclaimed.

“I would have, if I’d known that nobody else had told you.”

“We had discussions about this! I told you that I found all this fighting a waste of time and magic! Why didn’t you tell me then?”

He shrugged. “I thought you just wanted to be difficult. Logical arguments hardly ever work when somebody just wants to let off steam.”

She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I don’t believe this. And I only found out by accident because I hadn’t thought of bringing a sword to the expedition. Imagine if I had defended myself with magic during an attack! I might have been punished severely without even knowing that I was breaking a law at the time!”

Enric sobered again. “Yes, that is the one thing that would have been dangerous.” She had only got away with stunning the guards at the gate during her flight attempt because she had still been considered a prisoner and was thus practically expected to violate the laws. And then nobody had really been harmed back then, so they had been more than willing to let her get away with it – especially as she had at that time not been bound to the Order and thus their rules.

“I see why you are upset. And you are right. Somebody should have told you. So you would have been less resistant had you been aware that we train sword fighting for the protection of non-magicians?”

“Of course! I wouldn’t have hated you so much for making me learn how to cause harm, when my life’s mission was healing, not injuring people. I would have accepted it as just another way of avoiding unnecessary damage.”

He sighed. “It seems we have made life more difficult than necessary for all of us.” Then he smiled. “Imagine – I could have got you back into bed with me so much sooner.”

She sniffed at the suggestion. “Dream on, pretty boy. I wouldn’t have hated you any less after your knocking me out constantly and your little trick with my father’s shield. Without your little trick of locking me in your quarters after my flight attempt, you might have had to wait for the next Freedom Night to try again.”

He grinned confidently. “No, I wouldn’t have waited that long, believe me. Not after kissing you in the street that day. It was a very distinct reminder of what I was missing.”

She stared at him in confusion. “How did we get to that topic? I am still mad at you for not telling me about your laws on the use of magic against non-magicians.” Sighing, she fixed him with an annoyed look. “It is quite a challenge to talk to you about something you are not comfortable with. You get me off track every time.”

“Not very effectively, as it seems,” he remarked. “You keep finding your way back to scolding me.”

“Yes, sure. As if that made any difference. What am I to do now? Single-handedly fend off hordes of attackers with a sword? Am I even allowed to shield myself?” She quickly thought back to the incident when she had met Plia and saved her from the stone-throwing bullies by raising a shield to protect her.

“Yes, shielding is fine. People can’t get hurt by a magical shield.” He frowned. “Unless…”

“Unless what?”

“Unless you trapped them inside an airtight barrier and suffocated them.”

“Oh, come on!” she cried out. “Who would do a thing like that?”

“You would be surprised at what people do when they fear for their safety or want to protect the ones they love,” he said calmly and thought back to when he had seen her lying on the ground unconsciously with the apothecaries huddling together in a corner. His own life had not been in any danger whatsoever, but he had been willing – no, eager – to hurt them, to send them to the floor cringing with pain. If Tyront hadn’t stopped him right then and there, there was not telling what would have happened.

She perked up upon hearing this. “That sounds like you have some personal experience in that area.”

“Let’s just say I have once come pretty close to violating that particular law,” he said and smiled without humour.

“So shielding myself without causing any harm to my attackers is alright? Then I should also be able to shield the rest of the expedition. If they are close enough together, that is.”

“Basically, yes.”

“What about magically enhancing my speed and strength when I fight a non-magician opponent? Is that allowed?”

“Yes, it is even advisable. Otherwise Orrin wouldn’t have emphasised teaching you that skill. You are, however, supposed to use that very considerable advantage to just disarm your attackers and not kill them. In that case you would still have some explaining to do, though not as much as with a hole in someone’s chest caused by a bolt.”

She shrugged. “No problem there. I am not eager to kill anybody, neither magically nor manually.”

“Good. The thought of my bloodthirsty companion roaming the woods for easy prey would have made me rather uneasy,” he said and rose when somebody knocked at the door. “Judging from the knock, that is Tyront.”

And true enough, the Order’s leader came in moments later.

“Lady Eryn,” he nodded and acknowledged her bow.

“Lord Tyront,” she replied.

“How was the meeting with young Rolan?” he asked and took a seat.

She suppressed a smile. So he had come to see how well his revenge had worked. How charming.

“Unexpectedly productive,” she replied seriously. “I have included him in the planning of my expedition, and he has accepted the tasks I have given him. Of course it remains to be seen how well he will carry them out.”

Tyront studied her and then nodded. “That is good to hear. How is the planning going?”

“There is a thing or two to figure out yet,” she shrugged. “But nothing insurmountable, I would say.”

Enric handed his superior a steaming cup. “We have just discussed the laws on the use of magic against non-magicians. It seems Eryn has not been aware of them until now.”

“I beg your pardon?” Tyront frowned. “How is this possible? She has been here for at least ten months.”

“Yes, tell me,” she murmured and folded her arms.

“Lord Orrin has never mentioned that to you?” the older man asked incredulously.

“No, and neither have you two,” she pointed out, tired of having put the blame on Orrin yet again.

“Well, then I suppose we can consider ourselves lucky that you have shown restraint in ignoring at least that rule so far.”

She gave him a look of annoyance, but kept her mouth shut. She suspected that he was provoking her deliberately. Maybe he was disappointed at her report of the meeting with Rolan and had hoped for desperation and mayhem instead, so he might be looking for another reason to punish her for something. Oh no, but not today.

Tyront smiled, as if something had been confirmed, when she remained silent and just glared at him.

Enric watched the two of them and hid a smile. She was learning. Good.

“We also talked about the matter of defending the expedition against attacks. As the only magician and very likely the only trained fighter, not taking young Vern into account here, keeping attackers off might be quite a challenge.”

The older magician nodded. “Yes, I have been thinking about that as well. I will increase the number of participants to twenty-three. Four swordsmen should be sufficient in addition to you, Lady Eryn.”

“Oh, no,” Eryn moaned. “That would mean that he was right and I was wrong. And that I have to admit it openly.”

“Yes, that’s how it would seem, love,” Enric smirked and added, “I’d better talk to Rolan about that, as he is now doing the planning.”

“No,” she protested. “You won’t tell him, I will. You said I could do my own subduing.”

Tyront raised his brow at Enric and slowly shook his head. “You told her that? Really? So glad to see that you are being a commendable role model,” he said.

“Oh, but Lord Tyront,” Eryn remarked with controlled smugness, “Why would I need him for that, when you yourself are such a shining beacon of exemplary leadership?”

He looked over to her and pursed his lips, torn between amusement at her careful phrasing of the insult and surprise at her audacity at insulting him at all, however subtly.

Being in a good mood, he opted for humour and raised his cup at her with a thin smile.

Chapter 2

Preparations

“What’s the matter? You look a bit glum,” Enric said from his preferred position of observation, the door frame to his study.

Eryn glanced up at his tall figure and sighed. “I had been hoping for a few applications for the three positions for healer trainees, but none have come so far. It seems that Lord Poron, Vern and myself are the only ones interested in the profession. I am rather disappointed at that,” she admitted. “But I suppose convincing people after a lifetime of thinking that warrior skills are the only way of being a genuinely useful member of society for a magician, my expectations might have been set a bit high. They probably only see a woman, an adolescent male and an old man and think that this is the kind of image that awaits a healer.”

Enric remained silent. That was true enough, he knew, but he was reluctant to confirm it. And then he was already working on an idea to change that perception.

“We could make a public announcement for all magicians,” he suggested. “Pointing out that only the most able and suitable candidates will be considered.”

“I am afraid that will not make much of a difference when nobody wants to do it anyway. Not much competition to overcome there, I’d say,” she said wearily.

He came closer and crouched before her, taking both her hands into his. “Come on. Tyront and I could say a few words as well, pointing out how important this new way of using our skills is, the honour it will bring.”

She grinned despite herself. “Yes, I can see how this will make quite an impression, coming from two warriors. Why don’t you add Orrin to the mix, just to make it really laughable for the audience?”

“Your lack of trust in the credibility of the Order’s high command shocks me, my love.”

“Good. I would have hated to think that I have lost the ability to surprise you after only such a short time of living with you.”

“Hardly,” he quipped. “You surprise me every morning when you manage to drag yourself out of bed in time for your appointments. Though I should say that you seem even more reluctant than usual when you need to rise for fighting lessons. Or is that just my impression?”

She laughed as he had hoped and patted his cheek. “That’s just your imagination, Enric. I don’t hate rising for our appointments any more than I do for all the others.”

“That’s a relief. Well, I think it is.” He snatched a bread bun from her breakfast tray, earning himself a withering look. “Don’t be greedy, there are two more.”

“I wanted to take the ones I don’t eat now with me. I like to take a bite or two when I take a break.”

“Don’t tell me Lord Poron lets you eat in the library?”

“I don’t know, I never dared to find out. I generally go outside for that. One must show respect in the presence of books,” she quoted her father.

He watched her take the half-eaten bread bun on her plate and dunk it into her drink before biting into it. He remembered how she had told him that it was a childhood habit she had held on to despite her father’s attempts to make her give it up.

“What is on your schedule today? History? Battle strategy? Botanical studies?” He grinned when he said the last one.

She snickered. “Yes, quite right. I really need some lessons from you lot in botany. The Order distinguishes between two major characteristics in a plant: edible or inedible.”

“Not anymore, my love. Now that we have you with us, we do so much more. You have not yet fully grasped the concept of including yourself in the Order, so it seems.”

“What can I say? Whenever I see something completely idiotic and useless, I aim to distance myself from it.”

“I see.” He pursed his lips, none too happy with her assessment of the institution he had spent the greater part of his life in. “Shouldn’t you rather try to change things you deem useless instead of trying to avoid being tainted by association?”

“Oh my – you are not kindling the revolutionary in me, are you? I wonder whether I should report you to Lord Tyront,” she said.

He shivered. “I fear the day you and Tyront band together against me.”

She guiltily remembered that they had more or less done that already by keeping the truth about the extent of her dispute with Ram’an from Enric. He was still not aware that Ram’an had first used a truth block on her to interrogate her and then tried to confine her inside his quarters.

“So, what tortures will you have to face today?” he rephrased his question.

“Political strategy or some such, I think. Lord Poron has prepared a new stack of books for me to read for the next few days.”

“Good. That should be a fairly useful subject for you if you pay attention. When is your history test due, by the way?” he ventured further.

“In ten days. And five days after that I am to be tested in battle strategy. It seems they all want to have the exams taken care of before I head off with the herb gatherers,” she said with a grimace. The schedule sounded gruelling when she repeated it.

“Lord Poron is the one who is supervising you in political strategy, isn’t he? He might want to test you as well before you leave.”

“Yes, he has told me as much. But I have agreed with him to split the load. I will learn only half of it now and the rest when I return. Have I mentioned that I like him?”

Enric smiled. “No, but it is obvious nevertheless. I find it quite interesting how you manage to make friends among the high ranks in the Order.”

“Like Lord Tyront?” she asked, full of mischief.

“Not exactly, but you are joined with the second in command and are friends with numbers four and five in the ranking.”

“Yes, absolutely. As if I were the one to have chosen my connection with you, Number Two.”

He grinned. “I admit you had some help in making that decision. Don’t tell me you are regretting it? You are still supposed to be in that blissful post-commitment phase after one month.”

“Blissful post-commitment phase? Don’t tell me that is what we have now? If so, I dread when grey and dull daily routine catches up with us. No more fights, manipulation, threats and other jolly events.”

Pulling her into an embrace, he laughed. “Don’t worry, there will always be fights and threats between us as long as I am your superior and you are meant to follow my orders.”

“What a relief,” she grinned and wriggled free from his arms. “I am afraid I need to leave now. My doubtless fascinating books describing how to make my enemies think they are my friends, while I am perfectly aware that the concept of a friend is no more than an enemy I have decided not to kill yet, are waiting for me.”

“No, love, that would be diplomacy. Political strategy is about how to lie to your enemies with a smile on your face while you quietly plot their annihilation.”

She shook her head at him. “You know, that does sound immensely depressing. I really hope I will never be important enough to apply all that terrible knowledge.” She smiled brightly.  “But then maybe I wouldn’t have to! Being a woman I always have the less complicated option of making people compliant by taking them to bed at my disposal, don’t I? Classic female strategy.”

Enric looked taken aback slightly, then smiled weakly. “That, dearest Lady Eryn, I would not recommend. You might otherwise find out that the people you intended to make compliant have a tendency to die under the most suspicious circumstances.”

She frowned in mock confusion. “That does not sound like political strategy anymore. Too direct and obvious, not cunning and subtle at all.”

“No,” he agreed with a dark expression, “That is plain and simple jealousy. Not as complicated, but much more dangerous in my case.”

* * *

Eryn rose to open the door for who she assumed had to be Plia knocking. And indeed, the girl stood there, beaming and obviously hardly able to contain her excitement, judging from the restless energy that radiated off her.

“Eryn!” she called out and hugged the magician warmly.

Eryn smiled and waited for those now happily less thin and feeble arms to release her again, so she could ask the girl to come in and close the door.

“Is it really true? I am to come to the expedition with you?” Plia’s large green eyes were wide with excitement.

Eryn took her hand and nodded. “Yes. Enric suggested it, and I have to say that it was a fabulous idea. I was not really sure if you are comfortable with a ten day trip through the wilderness, but from your reaction just now I see that I needn’t have worried about that.”

“I have never been outside the city before,” the girl admitted. “I am a teeny bit nervous about that, but as long as you are there, I won’t be afraid.”

“That is a great proof of trust, but Vern will also be with us. And four armed men to protect us as well, so there is no need to be afraid at all, even if I don’t happen to be around for some reason,” she smiled.

“Vern is coming, too?” Plia asked with what was clearly supposed to be a casual tone of voice.

Eryn watched the faint blush rise into Plia’s cheeks and wondered if this crush on Vern was cute or if it might cause trouble later. It was probably harmless. Plia was thirteen years old, still more child than woman, and Vern had never treated her as anything else than a younger sister from what Eryn had seen.

“Yes, he will take the chance to learn more about botany and do the drawings I need for the herb gatherers’ books so they can look up the plants later when we are back.”
The girl looked suddenly uneasy. “Eryn, I have no idea what I need for the journey. I have saved a little money and…”

“Little flower, that is exactly why I have sent for you today. Junar will be here any moment, and she will take care of the clothes you need for the trip. And don’t worry about the money. The Order will take care of that.”

“The Order?” she whispered in awe. “But I am not a member!”

“But I am, and they are trying to keep me happy,” Eryn smiled. “So don’t feel guilty about it, they have more money than they need.” She put an arm around the girl’s shoulders and looked at her. “Have you grown in these last two months? I don’t have to bend down so far any more to your shoulders, I think.”

“A little,” Plia smiled. “Cook says it’s the regular food and proper work. Though I am a bit sceptical about the last part. I would have thought that heavy lifting would rather stop the growth as it pulls me down.”

Eryn laughed and stepped away from her. “Let me have a proper look at you, then.” And she did: less pale, not as thin, more muscles from working, clean, neatly combed hair, clothes that fitted. A much better picture than the one she remembered from the time when they had first met. She fondly remembered that Orrin was the one who had made the change possible by offering to her to get Plia the apprenticeship in the Palace kitchen in exchange for Eryn’s participation in the fighting competition.

They heard another knock, and Plia went to answer the door, but Eryn held her back. “No, you are not here as my servant. At least not yet. You are my guest, and as such you don’t have to answer the door.”

Junar breezed in with a large black bag slung over her shoulder and slopped it down on the nearest available free surface. “Dear me, this is heavy!”

“New bag?” Eryn asked, eyeing the monstrosity. “What do you have in there? Your entire shop?”

“No, just what every upcoming sought-after seamstress requires to work professionally.” She grinned. “Orrin had it made for me. I decided to allow him to present me with occasional gifts every now and then to keep him happy.”

“To keep him happy? How very considerate of you,” Eryn smirked.

“Plia, my dear girl!” Junar said and kissed the girl’s cheeks. “Look at you, you have grown so much! And probably will continue to for another three or four years. I think we will have to take that into consideration and add extra length, so the new clothes will fit you for longer.” Then she turned to her friend. “How about you? You haven’t ordered anything for the expedition yet, either. Don’t tell me you plan to stomp through the woods in those nice city clothes I made you? I would skin you alive for that!”

Eryn sighed. “Then I’d better not say it but order a bunch of trousers and shirts suitable for stomping, I suppose?”

“Good girl,” the seamstress nodded, obviously satisfied, and turned back to Plia. “You are aware that you will have to wear trousers as well? I hope you are not too uncomfortable with that, but a dress is not really a good choice where you want to go.”

“That is alright, I don’t mind at all. Quite the opposite, I look forward to it. Trousers seem so much more practical, but they make us wear dresses all the time!”

Junar sighed. “Oh no. That is Eryn’s bad influence. As a role model she is clearly not suitable, at least not from a fashion point of view.”

“Says the woman who makes my clothes,” the role model commented. “Not a very flattering assessment of your own skills, dearest friend.”

“My skills are not the problem, Eryn, it’s the resistance they encounter all the time,” she retorted.

“Not all the time, surely? What about all the dresses you made me? I have worn every single one of them, haven’t I?”

“True,” Junar conceded, “but that was quite a fight. Plia, sweetheart, why don’t you take off your shoes and dress and step on that chair here? I would like to take your measurements now.”
Plia undressed as asked and stepped up on the chair in her undergarments. Junar queried her about her preferred colours and the kind of tasks she would have to take care of during the expedition to fit the cut and material to the challenges.

“Eryn, I suppose you will dig in the dirt for plants, kneel on the cold, hard ground, climb rocks and do a lot of other things that will rip, tear and strain whatever I make for you?”
“Absolutely right,” she confirmed happily. “And I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to that.”

“Yes, I imagine you are. If something is unladylike, I can depend on you to enjoy it. That means I have to make a few extra pairs of trousers for you to pack. Lord Enric wouldn’t thank me for letting you run around among those men with torn clothes.”

“Yes, let’s focus on what Enric’s needs for this expedition are, shall we?” Eryn lifted her eyes and shook her head.

“You’d better. He is very protective of you. I’ll bet he is none too happy about your leaving him alone for such a long time to be off on an adventure with so many strangers.”

The magician sighed. “Protective? Try possessive instead. He is a grown man. You don’t need to pity him. He will somehow manage to keep himself occupied while I am gone.”

Junar looked surprised. “You are incredibly insensitive! I wonder if you really don’t care about how much he is going to miss you, or if you are just pretending.”

“Oh, come on! I have lived with him for no more than a month! I dare say he will survive my absence somehow. And we are actually talking about ten days, not ten months!”

Plia’s eyes darted from one woman to the other and back again, fascinated by the exchange.

The seamstress sighed and shook her head. “I really, really hope you will miss him a lot out there in the wilderness, benighted in your chilly camp, alone, with nobody to hold you in his arms and no more than a blanket to warm you. That could make you appreciate him more.”

“Don’t you think that freezing in the wilderness would rather make me appreciate his quarters than his person?” Eryn replied and ducked quickly when a rolled up measuring tape was thrown her way.

* * *

Eryn picked up the sheets of paper that had been delivered for her during the day. Enric had made it a habit to put them on that chest of drawers next to the door, the one she had still not managed to get rid of after swearing to do just that when she had bumped her toe against it one tipsy night after vising Ram’an in his quarters.

It was the third of Rolan’s reports she had received. He sent them regularly every second day, which was fine by her. He had started collecting the items she had told him to put together and kept them in one of the Order’s storage rooms. They had in these last six days exchanged no more than brief notes, questions asked and answered. He kept updating her with copied sheets for her file, such as a list with the names of all participants, checklists with progress updates and suggestions on how to transport the paperwork safely. The available boxes and chests were intended for transport in a coach and were not suitable for horseback, as they were much too bulky and heavy. One option would be shielding the papers all the time, but that did seem rather impractical. Another idea was using oilskin cloth, which was definitely something to consider. Maybe Lord Poron could be of service in figuring out a feasible solution for this. She would instruct Rolan to contact him.

* * *

Eryn lifted one of the flat wooden boxes Rolan had brought to their second meeting, judging its weight with one hand.

“This is rather heavy,” she commented. “You are aware that we are riding horses through the woods, I assume? And that we would need more than one as they are rather flat?”

The young man clenched his jaw. “It’s either a little extra weight or wet papers. Make your choice.”

Eryn found to her surprise that she felt devious joy in taunting her assistant and wondered if she was supposed to be contrite about it. No, she decided, surely not. But at least she knew now why Lord Tyront took such pleasure in teasing her. The privileges of leadership, she mused. Maybe she would get used to being a person of authority and importance in the Order after all…

“Hmm. Why is that box so heavy, anyway?”

He wordlessly took it out of her hands, opened a clasp and let another, even flatter box slide out.

Impressive, she thought. Two boxes that smoothly fitted into each other, making it less likely for water to enter through an opening. The surface was smooth, very likely treated with some kind of oil compound to keep water out.

“Interesting. What do you think how many sheets will fit inside one of them?”

Rolan shrugged. “I managed to squeeze in about twenty, but they don’t look so good when you take them out again, a bit crumpled. Fifteen should be fine.”

She bit her lip as she watched him put the two boxes together again. He had anticipated her question and tried it before. That was neat. Not what she would have expected from a person with such an obvious dislike of working with her.

“Then I think we will take four boxes. Even Vern won’t be able to finish more than sixty drawings during our trip. And we will hardly find that many different plants, anyway.”

He took out his notepad, a smaller one this time, and made a note.

“How is everything going with the planning? Any trouble so far?”

“No,” he just said, and then shrugged. “Apart from your furniture. It does need quite a lot of extra pack animals and they are hard to obtain at this time of the year.”

She blinked at him. “My what?”

“Your furniture. Table, chair…” His voice trailed off at her expression.

Watching him with narrowed eyes and a frown she wondered if he was making fun of her.

“What? You are a woman! And a wealthy one. You will be expected to travel in style.”

Closing her eyes, she shook her head. “And you are an idiot, and a colossal one at that. What makes you think I would travel with a table and chairs through the woods and then complain about the weight of paper boxes? Use that brain of yours, dear boy!” She saw him flinch at the address and had to admit that it was maybe not entirely appropriate with her only being a little older.

“How was I to know that you want to sit on a log and sleep on the hard ground?”

“I did my own herb gathering only a year ago, how would I have carried a table with me? On my back?” She shook her head at the image.

“Fine,” Rolan spat. “Then maybe her Ladyship would be so kind as to provide me with a packing list of what she intends to bring to the expedition?”

“No,” she smiled sweetly, “her Ladyship will do no such thing. She is a big girl and will pack her own things. She deigns let you know, however, that one pack animal for herself and the servant girl will be sufficient. Unless you had planned to induce me to bring any other hard-to-carry, useless items?”

Rolan closed his eyes for a moment as if to collect himself and then looked at her with barely contained vexation. “Is that everything? Can I leave now?”

“Yes, unless you have any other questions?”

“No,” he replied in a tone that suggested that he would rather gnaw off his own leg than talk to her any longer than was absolutely necessary. He bowed quickly without looking at her before closing the door of the meeting room behind him.

She grinned and shook her head when he had left. Why had she ever hesitated to ask for an assistant?

 

Chapter 3

The Gesture

Eryn yawned as she closed the last page of the book Lord Poron had given her the previous week. It was too long-winded, too stuffy, too boring. And yet she had to memorise a good part of it. She looked down at the page of notes she had made. There was hardly anything substantial, just plotting and killing. Was that really something they thought it wise to teach people? Why not make them learn about the merits of honesty and directness instead?

She saw Lord Poron come in through one of the large double doors, his pace unhurried and his steps quiet as befitted his surroundings. His sharp, intelligent eyes focussed on her and at her exaggerated sigh of discontent his wrinkly face twisted into a smile. “I see that your current reading material is not offering you any more pleasure than the other books, my dear. But at least you will have a short break from them now. Come, we need to leave for the announcement.”

“What announcement? Are you sure I need be there for it?” she frowned in confusion. “I was not informed, after all.”

“Oh yes, I think you should. It will be quite interesting, I imagine.” The septuagenarian magician picked up the book in front of her and returned it to its spot on the shelf.
She shrugged. “Alright. Where is it?”

“Outside in the Palace square. Maybe we should make a little detour to pick up your robes. When so many of us are present, it doesn’t hurt to remind people of your status, my dear. Go on – make haste. We don’t want to be late,” he urged her on and all but pushed her out the library.

“Yes, yes, I am on my way,” she sighed. “What is this great announcement about?”

“You will learn about it soon enough. If you hurry, that is, and we manage to get there before it is over,” he added, with concern showing on his face.

“You know what? Why don’t I run to my quarters for my robes and meet you at the Palace gates in a few minutes?” she suggested. Having him urge her on all the way to her quarters and then to the Palace square was not an encouraging prospect. “I promise, I will be quick.”

When she had pulled the robes over her head not much later, she quickly went into Enric’s study to look down at the square. There were indeed a great number of what looked like magicians assembled, and a few curious onlookers had also found their way there, keeping their distance to the all-powerful and venerated members of the Order.

Strange, she thought and turned back to meet Lord Poron downstairs as she had promised him. If this was important, Enric had surely known about it. Why hadn’t he mentioned anything, especially as she was supposed to be there as well?

Lord Poron nodded when he saw her running towards him and gestured for her to walk out the Palace first. The magicians stood together, each of them clad in their brown, unadorned robes, talking casually. From the snippets of conversation she managed to catch, she figured that they, neither, knew what awaited them.

She saw Orrin standing to one side of the crowd with arms folded, his stance broad as usual, not part of the hubbub, but observing it. She approached him and stopped next to him. He acknowledged her with a brisk nod and continued observing his fellow magicians.

Orrin was neither unusually tall as Enric was, nor radiated the almost intrusive authority that surrounded Lord Tyront, but there was a kind of calm, commanding power and confidence that made him stand out. It was that and his penetrating green eyes that made people eager to avoid getting on his wrong side. And his fighting prowess, of course – which showed in his straight posture, as if he were in a continuous state of expecting an attack. The long, thin scar along one side of his face certainly did nothing to soften the hint of danger. He had to be about as old as Lord Tyront, in his early fifties, but his profession as warrior trainer had earned him the impressive, muscular body of a fighter. That and the lack of any grey in his full head of hair made him appear slightly younger.

“What is this all about? Do you have any idea?” she asked him and let her gaze wander over the assembled men. There had to be more than a hundred and fifty of them.

“Wait for it,” he said with a knowing smile.

Eryn didn’t try to make him reveal what he knew. She knew that such attempts would be futile. He was a stubborn person. “You know,” she said rather amazed, “I was not really aware of how many magicians there are.”

Orrin looked around. “Quite a few, yes. Though not all of them are here right now. The children with magical abilities are not around, and neither are most of the Council Members.”

“How many magically gifted children are there?”

“About forty. Not all of us pass on the ability.”

She then saw Enric emerge from the Palace gates and walk towards them, of course clad in his blue robes. They looked different, though, she noted. He obviously had found time to have  Junar do some work on them. His broad shoulders and small waist were emphasised to his advantage, she mused while she watched him come closer and finally stop in front of the assembled magicians.

The murmuring around her died down little by little as everybody who had caught a glimpse of the blue robes fell silent. When finally the last of them had ceased talking, Enric nodded towards Orrin, who then stepped up next to him. He flashed Eryn a quick smile and raised his voice, increasing the volume with a little magic so everybody could understand him.

“Good morning, everyone. I assume you are wondering why I called for this assembly. I wish to address the matter of the three official openings for healers to be trained.”

Eryn closed her eyes. No – please not, she thought with a groan within. No desperate attempt to find somebody who would take pity on his companion and do her the favour of working with her. Or use the opportunity to make a good impression on Enric without any serious interest in the healing profession as such.

She opened her eyes again when he continued. “I am here to warn you not to apply for them prematurely, as it is a commitment to hard work and requires not the strong magical powers required for fighting, but instead something much rarer: an above average intellect and willingness to put it to good use.”

Eryn frowned in confusion. What was his plan? Why did he discourage people from applying when none of them seemed to be very eager to do so, anyway? Shouldn’t he rather try it the other way round?

“Healing abilities are still rare in our Kingdom,” he went on. “So those of you who decide to apply and are accepted will not only have to face the challenge of mastering a new set of skills and work as pioneers in a new field, but also be prepared to take over responsibilities in a leadership role in a few years.”

She began to look more relaxed. Now, that sounded more like it. That argument would surely apply to magicians of lesser strength who had not much chance of rising up to the ranks of power in the traditional warrior hierarchy.

“Healing skills will make us stronger as a Kingdom, as warriors, as magicians, and as a society. Imagine being hurt or incapacitated and being able to heal yourself and others. Imagine a farmer with a broken leg who does not have to wait for several weeks until he can work again to feed his family. Think of your children, companions, friends in pain and being able to help them with the touch of your hand.” He paused for effect and looked around, meeting as many eyes as he could. “People in the Western Territories hold the art of healing in such high esteem, that every single magician is taught the basic principles of it without even being a healer. We are in the very lucky position to have our very own healer here in the Order to teach us this skill, to share her knowledge with us. And we are going to make use of this chance.”

He drew a dagger from his sleeve and dragged the sharp edge across his palm without showing any sign of pain. Then he lifted his hand high above his head for everyone to see. The cut had been rather deep and blood ran down his forearm in crimson braids.

What was he doing? Eryn wondered if he wanted her to step beside him to do a little healing demonstration for the crowd and waited for his sign to join him. But none came.
When he was sure that the attention of all present was focused on his bleeding palm, he closed his eyes, and Eryn stared at him open-mouthed. He would hardly… would he? No, that was impossible! He didn’t know how!

She started breathing faster when she saw the cut close itself slowly, and the blood stopped oozing. He kept the hand lifted over his head and pulled a clean white cloth from a pocket with his other hand to wipe away the blood and reveal to the gaping crowd a perfectly unmarked palm.

Enric looked towards his companion and was immensely satisfied with the surprise and utter disbelieve he saw on her face. Orrin then pulled his own dagger from a sheath inside his boot and cut his hand the same way. He, too, held it up high for everyone to see and closed his eyes. Eryn covered her wide open mouth with both hands and watched the warrior heal himself just like his colleague had done only moments before.

She only noted how completely silent it had been when the murmuring around her erupted, getting louder and more agitated with every second.

Enric was pleased with her reaction to his little demonstration, and he and Orrin walked over to her, both showing unmistakeable smugness at her stunned expression.

“But… how?” She shook her head at herself. How was pretty clear, wasn’t it? There was only one other healer in the Kingdom who could have shown them. “I mean, when?”

She gestured helplessly at Enric.

“I asked Vern to teach me a few basic things while you and Orrin had your dancing lessons, and I told him to keep it a secret. I wanted to surprise you.” He smiled down at her. “It looks like I have succeeded.”

She released her breath slowly, still shaking her head, only now considering the impact of what he had just done, of what both of them had done. They had just shown the entirety of magicianhood in the Kingdom, that the two most revered warriors in the Order did value the skill of healing highly enough that they considered it worthy their time and effort to master it.

Enric saw her restraints at showing affection in public fighting with the impulse of doing exactly that, and waited for a few moments to see if she would do anything. Then he sighed and pulled her into his arms, “Come here. And don’t bother denying that this is what you were thinking of,” he murmured before he pressed a kiss on her lips.

She hesitated for a moment, then slung her arms around him and hugged him firmly, her check resting on his shoulder.

“Thank you. So much.”

“You are welcome. But we will have to see if this changes anything. Don’t expect too much from it,” he warned her.

She let go of him and smiled. “This doesn’t make a difference. The gesture was an amazing one, whether any magicians act on it or not. I appreciate it very much.” Turning to Orrin, she lifted her arms to hug him as well and groaned slightly when he squeezed her none too gently.

“Can’t breathe,” she gasped in exaggerated suffocation.

He chuckled. “You are still too soft. I would have thought that your combat training should have taken care of this by now, especially with your new training partner.”

“If you hug Junar like that, you will need your new healing skills often enough,” she laughed and kissed his cheek. When she then looked around, she saw Vern coming her way, a wide grin on his face.

“That was quite a show, wasn’t it? Can you hear them talking? They are totally confused,” he beamed as if happy about a trick well played. “And the look on your face was a sight to behold! Your wide open mouth, the bulging eyes… Very elegant, Lady Eryn.”

She flicked his earlobe with her fingers and grinned when he rubbed it. “Careful, boy. I might decide to punish you for giving unauthorised healing lessons.”

“Unauthorised?” he sniffed. ”You think Lord Enric is not authorised to authorise me? When I last checked, he still outranked you.”

“Yes,” Enric said, “that was also my impression. And whatever she decides to threaten you with, consider it nullified.”

“Nice,” she retorted, “so much for my authority.”

* * *

“Nice show,” Tyront commented and leaned back in his chair. “And effective, too. I have received a total of four applications since yesterday.”

Enric raised his brows. “That is excellent news. Have you told Eryn yet?”

“No. I want to have a closer look at them first.”

“Don’t tell me you are going to preselect the candidates you don’t approve of? She would never trust you again if she found out.”

Tyront was quick to react. “No, of course not. What do you take me for? She is the one who has to work with whatever candidates she chooses, so what would be my benefit? I am just curious.”

“Why don’t you let her take over the selection process altogether, then?” Enric asked.

“Because I can’t be seen to let her handle everything in connection with healing. And it also forces her to work with me occasionally. She needs to get used to that.” He grinned evilly. “It seems that her new assistant will teach her a thing or two about leadership as well.”

“Why? What have you heard?”

“Not so much heard as read,” Tyront said and picked up two letters from his table. “Young Rolan is not too happy about working with her, I can tell you that.”

“Reports?”

“No, better. Letters of complaint.” He held up the first sheet and read aloud, “Lady Eryn seems to find it appropriate to repeatedly address me with the insulting term ‘idiot’. I do not consider this professional conduct, and neither do I think that this arrangement can work to our mutual satisfaction in the long run. I would be eternally grateful if you could see your way to considering a different position for me.”

“Oh yes, that does sound like her,” Enric remarked and sighed.

“Wait, there is another one. That’s the first one, actually. He must have written it after their very first meeting,” Tyront said and started reading again, “Lady Eryn has today threatened me with physical violence in case I fail to comply with her demands. I quote, ‘I will kick your sorry butt from here to the sea’ and ‘If I don’t hear from you, I will come and find you. Then I will make you talk’. I am seriously concerned for my safety and urgently ask you to reconsider your choice for my assignment. She has furthermore threatened to act out her disdain for my person by making me carry out demeaning and embarrassing tasks in public.”

He let both sheets sink. “Leadership potential if ever I saw it.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“Me?” Tyront shook his head and smiled broadly. “Not a thing. And why would I? I am looking forward to his messages, they amuse me. And he unintentionally keeps me informed about what she is up to. An unpaid agent, so to say. A very useful young man.”

Enric grinned and shook his head. “You devious old scoundrel. Has Eryn, too, sent you any letters to make you reconsider your choice?”

“No, nothing. But I would be very interested in what she has to say. I suppose I will have to ask her for a progress report. Though reading it will take quite some time, I imagine. Her handwriting seems a bit… impatient, to put it mildly. And after regularly deciphering Orrin’s scribbling, that is saying something. I gather she is not too enthusiastic about writing reports?”

“No, not really. If it wasn’t for her tight schedule, I would suggest regular meetings instead.”

“I will consider that. We can discuss this when she is back from her expedition.” He looked at the younger man. “Have you got more used to the thought of her roaming the woods for ten days with a bunch of strangers yet? Only seven more days until she leaves, unless I am mistaken.”

Enric sighed. “No, not really. I am still not happy about it, but she is determined to go, and I see why she must. She has been locked inside the city for quite some time now. After growing up in the country I can see that she wants to get out of here for a while.”

“You are not worried that she won’t come back, are you?”

“No,” he frowned. “Why? Do you think I should?”

Tyront smirked. “How would I know? I don’t have any secret intelligence from my agents in this regard, if that’s what you were hinting at. No secret plans to flee the country that I am aware of. She has passed all her tests, by the way. At least the ones she has already had. There is still one in political strategy pending, I believe. Lord Poron wants to test her in the next few days about one part of the books.”

“Good. She has even been taking books to bed these last weeks, so it’s good to see her efforts were not wasted.” Enric pursed his lips. “There is something I have been thinking about. Some of Vern’s lessons have been rescheduled due to his healing training, and I was wondering if he could continue two or three of his subjects with Eryn instead of with the rest of his class. He is smart enough to handle learning at greater speed.”

“And you are not thinking about your companion at all, but only of the benefits for the boy?” Tyront asked mildly.

Enric thought carefully before answering that. “Not at all would maybe not be wholly accurate, but as the boy would benefit from this arrangement considerably, I do not think that I am giving Eryn undue preference here.”

“I see,” Tyront replied slowly. “Then we’d better make sure and emphasise the advantage to the boy when we communicate this to his teachers. It might otherwise seem as if you are trying to rearrange the Order to make your companion happy. And we wouldn’t want to create that impression, would we?”

Enric narrowed his eyes. “You think I am a love-struck fool, don’t you?”

“Does it matter what I think?” he said with a thin smile. Then he became serious. “Enric, you have never made any demands or asked for favours in all this time since you rose to power. From where I stand, you are entitled to a little foolishness. I have waited for quite some time for you to find a companion, and as long as this doesn’t stand in the way of your duties, I have no problem indulging you a little every now and then.”

Enric nodded slowly, absorbing the import of Tyront’s words. Generosity wrapped in a warning. That was just like Tyront.

* * *

Eryn sighed and shook her head at the note she had just received from the apothecaries. Only three days until the expedition was due to set off, and they thought that this was the perfect time to demand a teaching schedule for the training they had to do according to their agreement with the Order. She had no intention whatsoever of preparing one before her departure, especially as the healers’ building was not yet finished anyway – and that was where the lessons would take place.

Then an idea brought a mischievous glint to her eyes. Why not let Rolan deal with the apothecaries? At least that would keep him busy for as long as she was gone. They were rather demanding and unpleasant people to talk to, and getting them used to dealing with her assistant couldn’t hurt for the future anyway.

She looked back at the last of the books she had to go through for her exam with Lord Poron tomorrow. Ahead lay ten days without any books on whatever the Order deemed useful knowledge – no tests, nothing. That did seem like complete and utter luxury. Shaking her head at her rambling thoughts, she rose to refill her glass. They had successfully managed to make her, a woman who had revered and enjoyed books all her life, dread them now and dream of days without reading a single page. If that was what the Order considered effective education, she would have to have words with a few people here.

Looking at the box with several pairs of sturdy leather trousers that had been delivered earlier that day, she decided that she deserved a break from her book. Junar had been quite busy, too. She had made garments for Vern, Plia and Eryn in addition to her usual workload.

Rolan had informed her by messenger that all provisions, cooking and sleeping gear, paper boxes and accessories were almost complete and ready for packing. It looked like everything was going according to plan.

She looked over at the door behind which Enric was toiling in his study, and pondered. The closer the date of the departure came, the more restless she felt. First she had attributed it to excitement, but now she began suspecting that there might also be a part of her that was reluctant to leave him behind.

What he had done for her, the healing lessons with Vern, had touched her. He had never really made it a secret that he liked her very much, but this… It seemed that his attachment to her went deeper than she had expected. Love even, could it be?

She shuddered at the word. Her father had warned her about it more than once. He had loved her mother, and that had not exactly turned out to been a blessing for him. Fleeing to another country, hiding who he was all the time, that was what devotion to a loved one had brought him. He had told her that she, his daughter, was the only blessing that had come from his love.

In the years spent in her little village she had seen a few happy couples, but many were anything but. She had witnessed violence, infidelity, brooding dissatisfaction, disappointed hopes and frustration. And what those emotions could do to people in the long run… There were couples radiating happiness at the time of their commitment ceremony who were not even able or willing to look each other in the eyes a few years later. It was amazing how much could change between two people who had initially been dedicated to each other, connected in, well, love.

Abandoning a companion was not something that happened very often in the countryside. It was a matter of being seen to honour the commitment regardless of the discontent and resentment between the two people who were all but fettered to each other by an oath foolishly taken in a more optimistic mind. Ending it would have been cheating, and those who were caught up in an unhappy relationship themselves were the most severe guardians of virtue in order to make sure that others suffered just as much.

She had been determined never to get caught in that trap, as hiding her magical abilities would hardly have been possible any more when being so close to another person all the time, let alone avoiding the unhappiness she had seen.

But then there had been the King and Enric with their own ideas and schemes. Enric had told her at the evening of their commitment that he had planned to ask her to join him anyway, even without the King’s interference, but had wanted to give her more time to come around to it. She wondered how he would have reacted if he had asked her one day and she would have rejected him for fear of future unhappiness.

Those, however, were futile thoughts now. She was caught in the very trap she had always wanted to avoid, and to her relief and surprise it had so far turned out to be less of a torture and more of a pleasure than she had ever dared hope.

But emotional attachment had its downsides. What if one of them one day started resenting the other or fell in love with somebody else? Or just got bored with the partnership?

She rubbed her face and tried to push these thoughts to a distance. There were no guarantees that this would work out, so why not enjoy it while it lasted? That’s it, she thought, and sighed at her own foolishness; that was why she had already started missing him before she was even gone.

»End of extract«

 

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“The Order” – Book 1

Chapter 1

Eryn

The air was chilly and smelled of the snow that was yet to come.

This winter was already harsher than the last few she could remember, even though it was only beginning.

Eryn watched her breath condense in pale clouds before her face and looked up at the star-strewn night sky. Though it was a sight to behold on such a clear, cloudless night she looked forward to returning home to a cosy fire and a warm drink. She hated the cold, always had. Her time of the year was the hot summer months, no matter how exhausting many tasks became in the heat. It certainly was preferable to this chill.

Hugging her bag of roots close to her side, she hurried through the dark main street of the little town. She was supposed to have been back before dark, but the roots were hard to find this year. She suspected that some of the villagers went out themselves to look for them to sell on the markets.
Her father would already be waiting impatiently and be looking out the window every minute or two. He kept pointing out how dangerous being out in the darkness alone was for a fifteen-year-old girl, and Eryn always suppressed a sigh when he started one of his tirades about the many hazards that lurked around every corner. Her late arrival would earn her another one, she was absolutely sure.

Just two more houses and she would reach the narrow path that led to the secluded little house she shared with Treban, her father.

Treban was the town healer, an excellent one, whose reputation had spread all around. The ill and injured came from remote places to seek his help, hardly ever in vain. He took great pride in his work and had never sent anyone away because he or she didn’t have the means to pay.

However, those he treated nevertheless were always eager to find a way to compensate him, even if it took them a while to do so. It was not wise to make a bad impression on somebody like her father; it might be they had need of his services again one day. Sometimes packages arrived with written notes that thanked him, blessed his generous heart. Her father never kept any records who had paid and who hadn’t. He simply didn’t care about that.

He said that healing was not just something he did to put meat on the table, but to serve and take care of people who would in turn take care of him. While to some his altruism seemed rather naïve and they sneered at him for it, his attitude did not keep him from seeing people the way many of them truly were. He just had made the decision himself not to be like them. He was a man who wanted to believe the best, but was very well aware of human nature at its worst.

And Eryn knew that this was exactly why he kept trying to impress on his daughter the need to keep herself safe.

A twig snapped somewhere behind one of the houses, but this was just one of the noises that accompanied life in the countryside. She told herself it might have been a small animal or just somebody who was taking in some chopped wood for cooking.

Nothing to be nervous about, she assured herself, cursing her father for making her see danger in every shadow, portent in every noise around her.

The next sound was closer, behind her.

She swallowed, took a deep breath, turned around – and sighed with relief when she spotted Krion, the baker’s son. He was a few years older than her – a tall, good-looking young man who always had a smile and a wink for Eryn when she came into his father’s shop for bread.

He had started flirting with her some time ago and Eryn felt flattered by his attention. Some of the other girls her age and older had tried to catch his eye, and she was very pleased that he had singled her out. At least, she hoped she was the only one he flirted with… Finding out that this was just how he talked to all the girls as soon as he had a quiet moment with them would devastate her.

A few other boys had started noticing her, but none of them left her stomach feeling tied in knots like Krion.

She beamed when he came closer, as she always had to when she beheld him. “What are you doing out in the cold? Shouldn’t you be home?”

He smiled, bright teeth glinting in the darkness. “I could ask you the same, little Eryn. It’s dangerous out here in the darkness.”

She rolled her eyes. “You sound like my father!”

He laughed. “Why don’t I accompany you home so nothing happens to you that would upset your father?”

She felt her palms starting to sweat. He was offering to escort her home! She would walk with him all the way to her house, having him to herself! This meant he liked her, surely? He wouldn’t walk with her if he didn’t care for her, would he? Or did he do it because this was the kind of chivalrous thing that was just like him?

He waited for her answer. “You are not afraid of me, little Eryn, are you?” he teased her.

Afraid? She was almost dizzy with happiness and smiled. “No, of course not. Thank you, I would like that very much.”

They walked in silence until they had left the town behind them and reached the little path that led to the healer’s house.

“How do you like working with your father? The healing? I mean; your father is teaching you to be a healer, isn’t he?”

She nodded. “Yes, he is. I like it a lot. Sometimes it’s really hard to stay up all night to help somebody who needs to be cared for and watched over and then after only two or three hours of sleep to carry on with your daily work – though luckily enough, that’s not too often. But seeing people come in and feeling really bad and then watching them leave looking so much better is really great.” Don’t babble, she warned herself, you’ll just drive him away.

He stopped before the curve that would bring the house into sight. He came very close, putting his hands on her shoulders and pulling her even closer. Her heart skipped a beat. Would he really kiss her? Her face felt hot despite the cold. What a shame that she could only see his silhouette in the dark.

His lips were cool as they met her own, cold lips, but his tongue was warm. She slipped her arms around his middle and leaned into him, melting.

When she felt his hand on her breast, she pulled back and brushed it aside firmly. He put it back and made to pull her close again.

“No,” she said breathlessly, shaking her head in the dark.

“Why not? You do like me, don’t you?” She could hear the smile in his voice.

She pushed harder when he grabbed one of her wrists to stop her from retreating. “I don’t want this, let me go!”

“All of a sudden you’re playing hard to get? We both know that’s what you are doing!” He sounded irritated, as if he had not really expected any resistance. He seemed to consider it a personal insult.

Instead of answering she tried to kick him where her father had shown her. He barely avoided her foot and cursed when she kicked his thigh. When he grabbed his leg with both hands, Eryn turned towards the house and started to run.

She felt his clutch at her elbow after only a few steps… it almost made her stumble backwards.

“Let me go, you brute!” she screamed, fervently hoping for her father to hear her and come to her rescue.

He slapped a hand over her mouth and pulled her down onto the cold, hard ground, fumbling with one hand to pull up her skirts. She squirmed and writhed under him, kicking, trying to bite his hand, to get him off her. She felt his cold hand on her stomach, working its way down, and felt tears running down her temples. Tears of betrayal, of anger at herself, of utter despair at her helplessness.

Then suddenly his weight on her was gone from one moment to the next. She heard him yelp in surprise and heard what sounded like somebody being hit. There was a sickening crack of what had to be a broken bone and then she heard Krion’s voice retreating, wailing curses.

She didn’t see the man, but recognised her father’s scent of herbs before she felt his warm hands close around hers to pull her up and back on her feet.

“Father,” she snivelled, “he wanted to…”

“I know exactly what he wanted,” her father’s disconcertingly calm voice interrupted her. She recognised the barely contained wrath in it and pushed closer when he put his arm around her shoulders to lead her back to the house with him.

“The roots…” She stopped, trying to see where the bag had landed. Her father saw it first and bent down to pick it up before he put an arm back around her shoulders to pull her close again.

“Come, girl,” he said. “You need to get inside. You are cold as ice.”

Cold was exactly how she felt, chilled through and through. It went deeper than outside temperatures could reach. Not even the welcoming fire she could soon see through the windows of the house promised any relief.

She expected him to reprimand her, scold her for her carelessness in walking alone with a boy in the darkness, but her father said nothing. He merely took the cloak from her shoulders and neatly hung it on the hook at the door beside his own. He had not worn one when he had come for her.

Then he took her hand and led her to his comfortable chair in front of the fire. He went away again and she heard the clinking of earthenware. When he returned to her side, he crouched in front of her, pressing a cup with a clear, dark, sharp-smelling liquid into her hands and brushing away the tears that kept running down her cheeks as she sat, wordless, in the chair.

She made no move to drink, so he lifted her hand with the cup until she took a sip. The sweet liquid burned its way down her throat and made her cough. She almost instantly felt the warmth spread in her stomach.

She looked up into her father’s face that swam in and out of focus between tears. She didn’t speak, still waiting for his tirade that must begin.

For a few long moments they just looked at each other, then her father finally spoke, but to her surprise not to reproach her as she had expected. “I am sorry, child. This is my fault.”

She stared at him, feeling as if she was trapped in an absurd dream. “What?”

He shook his head. “I should have warned you. I should not have sent you out for the roots when it gets dark this early. I should have gone instead. I…”

She grabbed his hand, finding it unbearable that he of all people was blaming himself for what had happened. Or rather, for what he had prevented from happening.

“You have warned me!”

“No.” He freed his hand to rake it through his greying but still full hair. “I did not warn you about him in particular.”

She had not thought that she could freeze even more inside. “Him in particular?” she repeated almost inaudibly.

“Last year I was called to a young girl in town. She had been waylaid and…” His voice drifted off. “She said it had been the baker’s son,” he continued after a while. “I’ve kept my eyes and ears open since then to learn about it in case something like that happens again. And now you, you were almost…” He broke off again.

Too stunned to speak, she sat rigid, only one thought circling in her head: the young man she had been falling in love with was no more than an animal who made a habit of forcing himself on helpless young women. Every last bit of regard that might have survived his assault dissolved, evaporated to be replaced by something hard and cold.

“I will make him pay for this,” Treban hissed out from between clenched teeth.

She looked up at her father, surprising him when she said, quite calmly, “No.” The tears were still drying on her cheeks, but the glimmer in her eye had turned from injury to cold steel hardness. He was about to object, when she just said, “I will.”

* * *

When Eryn rose the next morning, she was surprised at how late it was. The sun was well up already, and normally her father would have woken her quite some time ago. She was grateful that he hadn’t. The night had not been a peaceful one; it had taken her hours to fall into a restless sleep, despite her father’s nightcap.

When she dressed and went downstairs she saw him sitting in his chair, staring into the fireplace. He had let the fire burn down – only a few glimmering bits of wood remained to give off a little warmth. He looked up when she approached him.

“Sit, Eryn. There is something I want to talk to you about.”

She turned around and fetched a chair from the table to sit opposite him. Then she waited for him to speak.

“I should have done this some time ago already, but I have always deferred it in these last few years, not wanting to see that you are growing into a woman instead of continuing to be my little girl.” He sighed. “But still, knowing what kind of people are out there I should have been keener to do it when you were little.”

Eryn frowned, not having the slightest idea what he could be talking about.

“I see I am confusing you,” he smiled. “You know how the internal organs of a woman work. I showed you several times, you have even healed minor problems yourself. You are blessed with the gift, my dear girl, and this makes it possible for me to do something that will make sure that nobody can ever do to you what this beast tried yesterday.”

She looked slightly uncomfortable.

“Don’t be afraid, Eryn. I am talking about a magical protection that prevents any man or object from entering your body unless you wish it. I can place it there without any pain and it will never be a burden to you. You alone will decide who may pass beyond it.”

Unlike other girls her age, she had no problem talking about matters such as this with her father. The human body was nothing mysterious or shameful, for her it was like an open book. The magic she could perform enabled her to just close her eyes and look around, to see how everything worked, find out what didn’t and administer whatever was needed, either a nudge of healing energy or a herbal cure.

“What happens if somebody tries it without my permission?” she asked curiously.

“It would be a rather painful experience for whoever tried it,” he smiled thinly with a slightly malicious glint in his eyes.

“Anything that would leave permanent damage?” she asked hopefully.

“You know very well how I think about using our abilities to harm people,” he said with an undertone of warning.

She sighed. Of course she knew. It was that just sometimes it would be so much more satisfying to be allowed to cause a little discomfort at least. An itch here, a rash there… Where was the harm?

When they moved here about five years ago, after migrating from one place to the next for about the same length of time, she had needed to adapt to a completely different life from the one she had known. She was the awkward new girl that the other children had teased and called names. A little revenge every now and then would have been nice – especially as they wouldn’t have guessed where it came from.

She had been confused when her father had told her that in this country there were no women with the gift, only men. When she had asked him why, he had told her that he didn’t know.

The next unusual thing had been all these people with the same light hair colour. She dimly remembered that her own natural colour was a lush, dark brown. Here one didn’t find a single person with dark hair. Her father had magically altered their hair colour from a rich, shimmering brown to one of the many shades of blond here.

Keeping it blond, however, had not been so easy. The change was not permanent and as soon as her body did not actively provide the magical energy, the hair changed back again to its original colour. It had taken them weeks to train her subconscious to keep supplying the necessary stream even when she was asleep. She had been and still was too young to learn how to do it herself. It was a highly complex technique.

But the memories of life before coming here had faded so much in these last ten years that she remembered hardly anything now.

“Do you agree?” he father spoke impatiently into her thoughts when she didn’t respond.

“Yes.” She didn’t really need to think about it. Her father wouldn’t propose it if it were dangerous or unnecessary. “How does it work?”

“I will place some protection around your lower abdomen that will remain as long as you have life force in you to power it. All your fluids will still be able to leave your body without any problems.”

“Nobody can remove it?” she asked.

“Only a magician stronger than myself. And there shouldn’t be many of those around,” he added, with a confident smirk.

Eryn wouldn’t know, she had never seen any other magicians, but he himself knew that he was extraordinarily strong. Which was why he had lost his companion to a stupid game of power and had to flee with his daughter into another country where he lived a simple life, hiding his and his daughter’s abilities, passing as no more than a well-educated apothecary. The fact that Eryn was beginning to show the first signs of being an apt healer herself didn’t pose any danger, even if, thanks to her hidden abilities, she did turn out to be uncommonly good at it.

Everybody here knew that women didn’t have any magical powers, after all.

* * *

Eryn took a deep breath when she looked out the window and saw Prowel, the baker come down the path that led to their house.

“Father,” she called out urgently, “Prowel is on his way here. He doesn’t look happy.”

Her father went to the door and opened it abruptly before the baker had a chance to bang the fist he had lifted against it. He all but stumbled inside.

“What do you want?” her father asked calmly.

“You!” Prowel pointed a finger at the healer, “You have broken my son’s arm!”

So that had been the cracking noise, Eryn mused. She smiled, knowing that carrying bags of flour would really hurt for a while.

“He attacked my daughter.” Still no sign of emotion.

“He told me all about it – kissing her is no justification for your breaking his arm, you ignorant fool!” The baker had started shouting.

Not a good move, Eryn mused. Her father did not respond well to loudness. That he was dead set against harming people with magic didn’t stop him from doing so physically if necessary. He might seem bookish in his grey robe and long hair, smelling of plants, but he chopped his own wood, did all repairs in and around the house. He was in very good shape.

“Kissing is not what I saw. How could he when his hand was covering her mouth to keep her from screaming?” Now she could hear steel in his voice. “You know very well what he was trying to do and what he’s done in the past. If you do not put a stop to this, nobody in your family will ever receive any medical help from me again.”

Prowel’s entire head had gone completely red. “I demand that you come at once and take care of that arm that you broke!” It clearly was an immense effort for him to keep himself from screaming.

“I just told you that you and yours are no longer entitled to any healing from me. Leave now. Don’t come back before you have taken care of this.” He made to close the door but the baker drew back his fist. As he made to punch the healer in the face, he felt himself dragged forward and then a sharp pain erupted in his back where he hit the floor. When he was able to move again he staggered to his feet and out the door.

Stumbling on unsteady legs, he turned back to the house and raised his finger. “This is not over, healer!” He spat out the last word and wobbled back to the town.

* * *

People talked, of course. The baker’s son had his broken arm in a sling around his neck, telling everybody who wanted to hear it, as well as those who didn’t, that he had obtained the injury when he had jumped out of the way of a cart that would otherwise have surely killed him.

But the reason for the gossip was rather why he had not seen the healer to tend to it. The baker could surely afford to pay for medical treatment for his son, especially as Treban’s rates were more than reasonable and he generally accepted payment in kind. But Krion declined with a depreciating snort, declaring it was just a scratch and that the quality of the healer’s services was grossly overrated anyway.

That made people’s ears prick up. Talking about their healer in a derogatory way was not something that was done. It was an unwritten law. Not only was there hardly ever a reason for it, but it was also a great stroke of luck for the town that the man had decided to move there and provide affordable, high quality medical services when he could instead easily have made a fortune in a larger city.

It was further noticed that neither the healer nor his daughter seemed to come to the baker’s shop any more to buy bread. When they tried to get some information out of Treban he would just reply in his usual good-natured way that Eryn had developed a liking for baking, and thus he indulged her by letting her experiment. And now they had so much bread and cake at home all the time that there was no more need to buy any.

Many were satisfied and, just as he had intended it, amused by the little story. Others, however, knew Eryn a little and not entirely unjustly hardly took her for the baking kind.

Whenever Eryn saw Krion somewhere in town she forced herself not to avert her eyes but meet his coldly and steadily. First he had sneered when he encountered her somewhere, clearly confident in the knowledge that he had done something punishable and had got away unscathed, but after a while his bearing seemed to be confused. She wasn’t acting as he was expecting her to: no sign of timidity, anxiety or even hatred. Just coolness.

For many weeks, ways of punishing him were coursing through her head, some of them public, others in a private setting, some which left no visible marks, others which were bloody and for everyone to see, some dealt with the aid of magic, others with nothing more than a heavy object hitting his easily harmed places.

Her father would object to her using magic, she knew. She understood his philosophy of not using a powerful advantage to harm others, but it was not as if Krion had the same scruples that kept him from using his physical strength against somebody weaker than himself. Why did he deserve any lenience – especially when he had already got away unpunished with hurting a woman before?

She almost bumped into Krion when she crossed the road lost in thoughts of how to torture him. He was with a group of boys the same age, most of whom she knew.

“If it isn’t the healer’s daughter,” he drawled. “I have heard that you have discovered a liking for baking. Not to compete with my father and me, I hope?” His companions looked uncomfortable when he laughed. One didn’t mess with the healer’s family, it just was not prudent. But while they didn’t join him, neither did they try to make him move along.

“Well, what can I say?” she smiled sweetly. “The bread has just not been up to standard lately.” Touch me, she thought. Give me an opportunity to harm you while you are trying to harm me.

But he merely ground his teeth together and glared at her through narrowed eyes. She wondered how she could ever have found him appealing.

“Forgive me, my high-born Lady, that our humble country baking is not to your distinguished taste.”

She saw that he had clenched his fists. Good, she thought gleefully. Just a little further now…

“Oh, don’t worry about that. I know you try as hard as you can,” she cooed patronisingly. Krion quickly cut off a boy’s snicker with an angry glare.

“How is that arm of yours doing?” She made her voice ooze with a delighted malice, this being the last thing she could think of that might provoke him enough to lay a hand on her in bright daylight.

Triumph surged through her when she suddenly felt the fingers of his intact hand dig into her upper arm. It was no direct skin contact, but better than nothing. A few thin layers of fabric were no trouble. She could work with that.

She stretched her inner senses and used the diagnostic skills her father had taught her to look inside his body, following the weak pulse of energy she had sent up the arm that held her. Concentrating on his forearm she slowly instructed his body to reduce the substance of the healthy, strong bone inside at one particular point. Not entirely, nothing he could feel, but enough to cause the next extra strain to make it snap.

It was the exact reverse technique for healing a bone, yet worked a lot more quickly. Funny, she thought, how doing damage was so much easier than mending it.

His friends had finally decided that he was going too far and had grabbed his shoulders to pull him away from her.

“What are you doing?” she heard one of them whisper. “Are you totally mad?”

Krion just freed himself from their grasp and turned around to stalk away wordlessly.

She hid a smile when she watched him disappear into the tavern, closing the door behind him none too gently.

* * *

The door to the little house was pushed open violently and banged against the wall with an ear-splitting crack. Eryn flinched and looked up from the dried herbs she was sorting on the table.

Treban looked furious. He was beyond angry, she could tell it from the way the blood pulsed through the bulging blood vessel at his throat. That did not bode well and there was only one reason she could imagine that might have put him in such a mood.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” His voice had taken on a threatening, forced calm that barely contained the rage that she could see in the eyes glaring at her. He still stood in the door frame. It didn’t even occur to him that she might not know what he was talking about.

So Krion had finally broken his other arm as she had intended. And now she had to pay the price for her revenge: facing her father.

She covered the herbs on the table with a clean cloth to stop the cold breeze that came in through the open door from whirling them around. Then she swallowed and rose. Better to do this standing up.

“He has received what he deserved,” she said quietly, knowing for sure that he would not take this well.

“What he deserved? What he DESERVED?” He flung the door shut with a forceful movement of his hand, making the little picture frames with the dried herbs on the walls tremble slightly. “You should be glad I don’t bestow upon you what you deserve! You are no better than that animal! You used your power to harm somebody who was helpless to defend himself against it! I am ashamed of you.” The volume of his voice had subsided with every sentence until he had almost reached his usual pitch.

She flinched at his words, even though she had expected them almost word for word. The lessened volume had not made them easier to listen to. Quite the opposite. She waited silently for him to continue. He didn’t look as if he was finished yet.

“I told you of the dangers of misuse, of how power like ours can corrupt souls. How people who think they are superior thanks to their abilities can cause immense misery for themselves and those around them. You just made the first step towards that abyss.” He sounded empty, resigned. She was almost relieved when his anger flared up again.

“Did you listen to nothing I have told you?” He had stepped close to her and accompanied his words with smashing his fist down on the table hard enough to make the herbs jump. And Eryn.

She swallowed hard and remained standing in front of her father, lowering her gaze under his furious one. This was not the first time she had seen him this incensed, but never before had she been the target. She wondered if he was going to hit her for the first time.

He took a step back as if to keep himself from doing just that. Then he turned around. “I can’t look at you just now,” he said and opened the door again. “We will talk later.” And he was gone.
Eryn stared after him feeling her mouth dry. She wondered if she should run after him to apologise and beg him to forgive her. She decided not to for two reasons. Firstly, he was certainly not in any mood to accept an apology right now and secondly, it would be a lie.

She was positively not sorry for what she had done and she was convinced that she had not set foot on a dark path that would lead to perdition and damnation. But she was sorry about her father’s grief and felt the rejection burning inside her.

She would make up for it somehow. Maybe cooking him a good dinner would be a start. She put on the cooking apron and started cleaning vegetables.

* * *

Eryn kept glancing towards the door whenever she thought she heard a noise from outside. Her father had been gone for many hours and it was already dark outside. Was he angry enough at her to stay away from home for the night? She hoped not.

Trying to keep herself busy she continued working on medicines, decanting herbal concoctions into small glass vials, grinding herbs into a fine powder to be mixed with hot water directly before use and tipping it into small leather pouches.

Her father would be pleased with her efforts, she knew. She had saved him several hours of work, after all. And she hoped that would make him better disposed towards her and forgive her more easily. Of course he would see right through her reason for working on the herbs, but that didn’t matter. He wasn’t usually one to spurn a sensible attempt at bribing him when it was done well. He had that kind of humour.

She was almost finished when she saw torches emerge from behind the hill that hid most of the path to the town. She counted five of them. Her heart started beating harder in her chest and she felt unease creep up on her. Where these men from the town bringing her drunken father home? The thought was dreadful, but the nearer they came the more she hoped that this was all it was about.

When they were close enough for her to recognise the men’s faces, she opened the door. Her father was not among them.

They looked at her, their pale expressions masks of grim misery. She could read in their eyes that something was terribly, horribly wrong, and tears sprang to her own even before the oldest of them, the glass-maker who supplied them with vials for their medicines, began to speak.

“Your father is dead, child.” His voice sounded rough and sad.

Her vision blurred behind tears and the sudden pain in her chest forced her to her knees. She felt two pairs of hands at her shoulders, lifting her up and guiding her back inside the house into her father’s chair in front of the fire place. Fighting for air, violent sobs burst from her.

Gone! No – this couldn’t be. He couldn’t be lost forever when they had just talked a few hours ago. The last words between them… His had been that he was ashamed of her, and her last words were spoken in defiance of his beliefs. Never again a chance to set it right, she would have to live with this burden.

She didn’t know how long she had sat there with the men trying to talk her into sipping the strong drink they held to her lips.

When her sobs had lost most of their force, the glass-maker exchanged a look with the others before he spoke again. “Your father was killed, Eryn. Prowel stabbed him in the back with a knife. He accused your father of breaking Krion’s other arm. He must not have been right in the head.”

She stared up at him, hardly comprehending the words she heard. When the full meaning of the message sank into her consciousness, coldness gripped her and slid deep until it had reached the very core of her being, deeper than warm blankets, fires and potent drinks could ever reach.

Her father had warned her that nothing good could ever come from using magic against the unprotected, the ones unable to defend themselves. He had been right, she realised with a dreadful, numbing clarity.

Her actions had cost him his life.

 

Chapter 2

Enric

He sat on the roof of the bakery nearest to the palace, watching the sun rise. That was not typical for him. He usually avoided rising before the sun unless there was no other choice. He wondered if today’s exception might have something to do with what awaited him in a few hours, but dismissed this quickly. He blew a strand of his slightly overlong hair out of his blue eyes. Not wearing it the way he was supposed to was a minor act of rebellion he delighted in. One of many, in fact.

A few passers-by looked up at the young man in his early twenties who had chosen such an unusual spot for staring up at the sky, but moved on when they recognised the robes the young man wore. Magicians. It was best not to interfere with whatever they were up to.

All his fellow magicians who had finished their training with him this year would be tested to gauge their magical strength and then apply for a suitable position in the Order. In an institution where hierarchy was defined by the amount of magical strength a man could wield, this was practically an evaluation of personal worth, Enric mused. He had never been a friend of evaluations, be they magical or intellectual.

And thus he had never been a particularly attentive student. He had enjoyed the comfort his status as magician conferred. He came from a family of wealthy merchants and had not exactly been raised as a pauper, but joining the Order had still been a step up in living circumstances.

His parents were thrilled when they discovered his abilities and had sent word to the Order immediately. He was twelve years old then. Amazing, he pondered, how mind-numbingly tiresome the ten years since then had been. Not that he would have preferred spending them with his father, though.

His parents’ excitement and pride had quickly turned into anger and frustration when they kept receiving reports of his less than productive attitude. His father, a merchant through and through, had tried hard to sell to him the idea of being an important man with important duties, making his family proud, accomplishing great things. Which was all to no avail.

The Order of Magicians was dedicated to the defence of the kingdom, even if only history teachers knew about the last time there had been an actual need for that. The fighting skills training had been fun, Enric had enjoyed it even if Lord Orrin, his teacher, was not exactly thrilled with his laziness and lack of respect.

The rest of the lessons from the last years merged into some kind of blurred sphere of information. He graduated one year late, as his approach to learning had not exactly been an ambitious one and he’d needed to repeat several exams.

Today was the day when his place in the Order’s hierarchy would be decided. He was not tense as such – more curious. He knew that he was stronger than most – if not all – of this year’s graduates, but it would be interesting to see how far up he could make it. Not too far, he hoped. The more responsible positions came with requirements. He was not a great fan of requirements, rules and the like.

Most of his teachers had reprimanded him for his laziness when it was apparent that he had a talent for magic and its use, but didn’t want to bother with spending the time and energy that would have made him proficient. They tried to impress on him that magic without the knowledge of when and how to use it would hold him back, but he had never planned on going far.

A nice position as a clerk or assistant in the Order would suit him just fine. Something that left him enough spare time to pursue his interests: hunting and spending time with his friends.

* * *

He stood together with a group of young magicians his age. Most of them were edgy. Some of them admitted it openly, others were trying to hide it with grandstanding or rudeness.

“Not much to be afraid of, eh, Enric?” his good friend Kilan asked. “You are pretty much the strongest one this year, I imagine. Maybe there is a nice place waiting for you in the upper ranks?” He spoke the last words with a smile, knowing fully well that this was not at all what Enric was striving for.

“Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice,” Enric replied without enthusiasm.

Kilan was the next who was called in to be tested. It didn’t take him very long to return. He looked pleased.

“Category D. Not too sloppy,” he grinned. He had known that there was no way for him to make it any higher than C, and he had hoped not to be classified lower than E. So the golden middle was absolutely fine.

“Congratulations, mate.” Enric turned when the double doors were opened again and his name was announced. “See you in a moment.”

He walked into the hall and bowed before the assembled magicians who in turn inclined their heads.

Enric let his gaze wander over the ten men. He knew them to be selected from the different strength categories, the strongest one of them Lord Poron, a B as far as he knew and the second strongest magician in the Order and thus the kingdom. He fit the picture of second in command nicely, Enric had always thought. He had to be in his sixties, his thinning hair bound together in a short tail at the nape of his neck, his eyes intelligent and sharp as if he was constantly analysing the world around him.

Several of the magicians were known to him by sight only, a few were his former teachers.

Their expressions were not exactly enthusiastic when he entered. With the exception of Lord Orrin, his fighting instructor, who had been the only one who had never taken any cheek from Enric, none had very fond memories of him.

“Shield yourself,” Lord Poron’s instruction echoed off the high stone walls.

He did so and moments later the first bolt of energy hit his barrier. Two more were sent his way without any effect. A second magician, his old history teacher if he remembered correctly, joined his colleague and started attacking Enric’s shield. Nothing happened.

More magicians joined them, one after the other, until seven of them shot strikes in quick succession. Enric saw them frown. Then Lord Poron lifted his arm to stop them. He breathed in, pointed the palm of his outstretched arm at him and fired a clear bolt at the shield.

It didn’t penetrate the barrier. Lord Poron looked pale and troubled and motioned for the scribe who was there to note down the category of each magician. He whispered something into the young man’s ear, who then went off at a swift pace.

Enric waited, still holding his shield in place. This playing around was a waste of time – why didn’t they start the real thing so he could join his friends for a cool drink?

“Am I finished? Can I leave? What category am I?” he called out to the assembled magicians that had started whispering amongst themselves and occasionally gave him an apprehensive glance.

Lord Poron walked towards him. “We must ask you for a little patience, young man. We need to wait for somebody. I am sure he will arrive soon.”

Enric frowned in puzzlement. “What is this about? The others before me were in and out in a matter of moments. I am not in any kind of trouble, am I?” He couldn’t remember having done anything recently he ought to feel guilty about.

“No.” Lord Poron’s smile seemed rather forced. “No trouble, rest assured.” Then he returned to the other magicians, leaving the young man standing alone in the centre of the great hall, waiting.

Not much time had passed before the double doors opened again and the man who came in caused Enric’s brows to shoot up in surprise. It was Lord Tyront, the big man in the Order. What was he doing here?

Lord Tyront was in his mid-forties, a tall, formidable looking man with first streaks of grey visible in his beard. His pale blue eyes darted to Enric instantly and stayed there when he approached him without talking to the other magicians first.

When he was only a few paces away he stopped and raised his booming voice, “Shield yourself, boy.”

Enric did so hastily and took a step back, whereupon a volley of strikes was sent from Lord Tyront’s palm at his barrier. They were stronger than what had been thrown at him before, very much so. The older man continued to send bolts towards him, increasing their strength with every salve. Soon his shield started to waver and he quickly poured more energy into it to keep it intact.

Lord Tyront stopped, looked at him thoughtfully and then without warning unleashed a white flash that cut through Enric’s barrier and threw him on his back.

The young man swallowed an exclamation of pain. It wouldn’t do to show any sign of weakness in front of the Order’s mighty leader. He struggled back to his feet and frowned at the man who had struck him. Surely that had not been necessary.

When he looked at the magicians in the back, he saw a few mouths hanging open, others were pressed into a thin line. One thing they all had in common: stony silence.

“Am I done now?” He demanded from no one in particular.

Lord Tyront smiled without humour. “Oh no, my young friend. You are not done. In fact, I think you will not be done for quite a while.”

Enric stared at him in puzzlement. “What?”

“Category A,” the leader announced loudly for everyone in the hall to hear. “We have a new second in command.” Then he turned around and left the way he had come.

Enric stared after him uncomprehendingly, even after the heavy doors had closed behind him with a loud boom.

He shook his head. Something had to be wrong with his ears. Category A? What nonsense. Nobody was that strong, apart from the Head Magician, of course.

But the way the magicians gawked at him in disbelief let the truth dawn on him gradually.

They had called for Lord Tyront because Lord Poron, the second-strongest magician in the Order, had not been able to break Enric’s shield. All colour drained from his face when he started to grasp the full impact of what had just happened.

“Oh no,” he moaned, closing his eyes.

* * *

Tyront sighed and felt how the tension was slowly building behind his forehead when he read the reports about his future second in command. The boy had been causing him headaches for weeks now.

Considering Enric’s past education it was hardly a surprise that he had not responded very well to the training plan that had been assigned to him and cooperated no more than was necessary to avoid the accusation of outright disobedience. It had been nearly one month now, and it didn’t look as if his attitude was about to change anytime soon.

Not only did he have to learn a whole lot of new things and improve sets of skills, but he was also meant to repeat every single test he had passed barely or in which he had merely scored average marks during the years of his magician training.

In his new position he was supposed to be a role model, a respected pillar of the Order, a well of wisdom and knowledge and, if need be, a strong commander to lead others into battle. He needed to leave behind him the lazy scallywag image he had cultivated in these last years.

Orrin was the only one who had something remotely positive to report about him. So at least the fighting was going comparatively well. Unfortunately that was only a minor comfort and by no means enough to consider the training in its entirety a success.

His thoughts wandered to Lord Poron, his current second in command. As was to be expected, he was anything but thrilled about being displaced in general and particularly by somebody like Enric. He was not the vengeful type, Tyront mused, and wouldn’t make life harder than necessary for his successor. Pity, he thought. A reason to fight, even if only against a disgruntled predecessor might have provided the motivation for finally making an effort. It seemed like he would have to take care of that himself.

It was time to have a little chat with Enric.

* * *

Enric swallowed when he read the note on the soft, expensive looking light brown paper a servant had delivered only a minute before. It didn’t say much, only My quarters, nine o’clock. Lord Tyront.

That was in less than one hour. Not enough time to prepare sufficiently, but enough time to become really nervous. Which was probably the idea, he suspected.

There was not much doubt as to the reason for this summons. His progress, as he was very well aware, was anything but satisfactory, which was fine for Enric as he had never wanted the honour that was forcefully bestowed upon him.

The Order’s leader would hardly be pleased with how things were going. Being called upon to justify his poor performance had really only been a matter of time.

So far Lord Tyront had not shown any interest in him since the day of the testing. This message was the first time he had seen or heard anything from him. Obviously the great Lord only gave his attention when something was amiss. Like now.

Enric looked around in his new quarters in the King’s palace, still feeling a little lost. They were to his former abode what a sapling was to a tree. Four large rooms, all to himself. And a lot more than he really needed. But being high up in ranks was not about only having what was required, was it? His quarters were supposed to reflect his importance, be representative.
Representative they were, he sighed. Yet the question was what they represented. Certainly not his personality.

The apartment was furnished elegantly and luxuriously, leaving nothing to be desired. The parlour alone was larger than the two rooms he had lived in before. And he was assigned his own servant who cleaned, fetched his food from the palace kitchen and took care of his every whim.

Enric had always been one to enjoy luxury, but not to a degree to motivate him enough to make the effort they expected. There was too much attached that he simply didn’t want. All this responsibility, the consequences if he failed, the hard work to get there… No.

That was not what he had planned for himself. What he had wanted, and still did, was a nice, uncomplicated, comfortable life with none too hard work, enough time for his friends and being more or less left to his own devices.

His friends. That was another matter that worried him. Most of them had kept away from him since the big announcement. And even with those that still met him, the frequency had decreased considerably. Even his closest mate, Kilan, who was used to dealing with influential people thanks to his father’s position, had started withdrawing noticeably.

Enric stared out of the window unseeingly.

How was it possible that he of all people had turned out to be the second-strongest magician in the kingdom? What a joke.

* * *

The door opened after Enric had finished knocking. An elderly male servant bowed slightly and stepped back to let him enter the parlour – a room that looked very much like his own apart from the clearly visible female hand that had been at work here.

Lord Tyront rose from his seat by the window and looked his guest up and down. He didn’t bother with a greeting of any sort but motioned to a dark red settee in front of a small round table.
“Sit.”

And a good evening to you, Enric thought, annoyed, but did as he was told.

“Please leave us alone now,” Tyront addressed the servant and waited until the man had retreated. Then he turned back to Enric and scowled at him.

He remained standing and began without introduction, “Your performance keeps falling short of my expectations. Justify yourself.” Even though the words were harsh, his tone was not.

Unconsciously Enric sat up a little straighter, an ingrained habit from his days as a boy when he had been expected to show respect when he was scolded.

“I’m sorry, Lord Tyront.”

“No, you are not. I didn’t ask you to lie to me, I asked you to give me a reason.”

“I… I have to admit, My Lord, that I am not very happy with the current situation.”

Lord Tyront sighed impatiently. “Stop pussyfooting around, boy. Say what’s on your mind.”

The young man lifted his chin defiantly when he said, “I do not want to be forced into this position. Neither have I asked for it, nor am I interested in it.”

“A clear statement, finally,” the other one commented dryly and finally took a seat opposite his reluctant guest. “What is it that puts you off?”

Enric sighed and lifted and dropped his arms several times in search for words before he replied, “All of it.”

“Would you care to elaborate? This is not exactly helpful,” the older man said patiently.

“The responsibility. I mean, what exactly qualifies me to take a position to command much older, more experienced magicians than myself? This doesn’t make any sense! What if I do something wrong or make a wrong decision? The consequences!” His voice had become agitated.

“What qualifies you is firstly your superior strength, as it serves the Order’s primary purpose of defence and secondly, the knowledge and special training you are receiving.” Lord Tyront’s voice was calm. “What else?”

“The work. I want to be independent, not being told what to do and work all night long for nothing, no time for myself and…” He stopped himself.

“And your family? Like you father, the successful merchant, who always worked almost around the clock to chase the next business opportunity? Who left you and your siblings in the care of an unhappy companion unless he had demands you had to obey?”

Enric stared at Lord Tyront. How could he possibly know about that? He had never told anybody about it, not even his closest friends. He felt exposed, vulnerable, as if his private life had been trespassed on by this man whose face was of course known to everybody in the city, but who was basically no more than a stranger to him.

Lord Tyront continued while he remained silent, staring gloomily at the carpet. “And you just contradicted yourself. If commanding other, older magicians is such a great issue for you, why would you worry about being told what to do yourself? You can’t have both, positions of neither giving nor receiving orders are not in accordance with the nature of our institution. Or of our society, for that matter. Though being high up in the hierarchy considerably reduces the number of people that may order you around.”

“There is you. And the King,” he replied sullenly. “There might not be as many above me, but the ones that are left do not respond well to having their orders questioned.”

A problem with authority, Tyront thought. But that was no surprise after insights which recent and older reports had given him. “True. There is not much room for questioning the King’s orders. But I assure you that I will listen to what you say and might even act on it if it is halfway sensible. It is, in fact, your duty to advise me.”

“Me, advise you?” Enric shook his head in desperation. “How can I advise you?”

“You will start by growing up and working hard to meet the Order’s and my expectations.” His words contained only a hint of threat. “You will learn to think before you speak and act. You will show respect and demand it in return. Before that you will have to turn into somebody who deserves respect.”

“I don’t want this,” the young man whispered.

“The trouble is that nobody asks us what we want,” Tyront replied sympathetically. “But let me tell you something: Men who strive for great power are usually the ones least suitable to wield it. Hunger for power is not a requirement for this position, quite the opposite. This is the great thing in your favour, my boy.” He leaned closer and caught Enric in a penetrating stare. “Dealing with your issues is something that you will have to come to terms with by growing up quickly. You might consider the upper ranks as a bunch of harmless old men, but let me tell you that weaklings do not survive long among us. The air is thin up here, as you will learn soon enough.” And then he uttered what he was confident would work: a challenge.

“Are you weak, Enric?”

 

Chapter 3

Handed Over

12 years later

Eryn climbed up the steep, for want of a better word, path and pulled a cloth out of the canvas bag she had slung over her shoulder across her chest to wipe her perspiring forehead. Collecting herbs was usually a task she enjoyed but not when it was that hot and there was no shadow in sight.

Unfortunately, the plants she needed were rather high up and required a lot of direct sunlight, so there would not be a cool spot coming along anytime soon.

She stopped to pull out the sturdy leather drinking pouch filled with water and took a generous swig. It was lukewarm and not exactly refreshing, but served well enough to moisten her dry throat.

Judging from the receding tree line to her left side the rest of the way would only take her another hour. She walked a few steps to a nearby boulder and sat down to rest for a short while. She knew better than to overexert herself in this heat.

The memories of the first time she had walked this way more than fifteen years ago came suddenly and unbidden. Her father had been with her that autumn day, constantly asking her to identify this tree, that flower, testing her as to the procedures of turning them into medicines, correcting her if she got a detail wrong or supplying bits of information that had slipped her mind.

Father. The pain of loss had dulled over time, so had the desperation of guilt. Twelve years had managed that. She had fought to keep the pain alive, it was the only thing that still linked her to him, the only person in almost all her life that had been close to her. But it had become more and more difficult to keep it with her, to fight the dulling effects of time.

At first, looking at his books, his drawings, the things he had built to conjure up memories had worked perfectly well. Tears had welled up in her eyes in seconds and had provided the illusion of closeness, no matter what the hurt.

Today the pain was almost beyond reach, and so were many of her memories of him. But there still was the emptiness, the loneliness.

At the age of fifteen she had been little more than a child, and twelve years later she still would have liked to have had somebody older and wiser around, somebody close to her she could fully trust.

She had stayed in their small wooden house at the edge of the forest, carried on her father’s work as the town healer as well as she could. This was her duty, her penance, her life’s purpose. She would continue his mission as long as she was able to.

The last time they had walked this very path together had been a few weeks before he had been killed. They had replenished their herb supplies and she had been thinking about Krion, planning to eat up all the bread so she had a reason to return to the baker’s shop soon.

Krion. She shivered. He, too, was part of her penance. Facing him regularly in town after all that had happened, that they had caused together. Her father was not the only one who had died that night.

What the men that had come to her house to tell her the terrible news had not mentioned was that the townspeople had lynched the baker after they had found him crouched over the dead healer’s body, still holding the bloody knife in his hand.

Justice had been swift and final. Or what the townspeople had considered as such.

She had been torn between amazement at the reverence people had felt for her father and horror at the merciless slaughter of a man they had known all their lives.

Not one, but two men had died due to what she had done. And nobody but her knew about it. Her father had always been adamant about her never revealing her gift of magic to anybody, and other than his directive of never using magic to harm anybody, this one she had never broken.

She wondered if Krion had ever felt any guilt about their fathers’ deaths, or if she was the only one carrying that burden.

It had been several days after her father’s ashes had been given to the wind that she had sought out Krion in his bakery. She had gone there after dark when the bakery that was now his had been closed for business for the day. The picture of his face when he had opened the door at her knocking was one she would probably never forget. Shock and horror had contorted his features.

At that moment she had realised that he was terrified of meeting the same fate as his father, being considered the cause of the whole situation by the townspeople. He had let her in without a word and she had entered, not afraid any more of what he might do to her alone.

She had turned to him, stepped really close, and grabbed his collar to pull him down to her height so close their noses had almost touched. His eyes had been puffy from crying and she remembered wondering at it as she had in her mind deprived him of the ability to feel anything remotely human, made him into a monster. She remembered the sour smell of days-old sweat on his skin, a sign of him having neglected his hygiene.

She had stared him in the eyes and told him that, should she ever hear that he had so much as looked at a woman against her will, she would come for him and maim him permanently so that two broken arms would feel like a warm embrace by comparison. Then she had left, not at all gratified by the additional fear she had seen in his eyes, a fear she had put there.

It had worked. Not a single incident of that kind was told to her in all these years.

So she had been faced with the challenge of following in her father’s footsteps at fifteen, years before she would have completed her training. Reading Treban’s books had helped her to improve her medical knowledge, but he had been very careful and had not kept any magical books that might have led to the discovery of his powers. So her magic training had stopped with his death. She had considered experimenting on her own, but discarded the thought over and over again for fear of discovery. One never knew who was watching, her father had always said.

Eryn sighed, snapping out of her reminiscent mood. She took another gulp of the tepid water and tucked the water pouch away. There would be another five hours of daylight, and she planned to be back home before darkness, which she wouldn’t if she kept sitting around. There was another hour to walk yet, about one or two hours of collecting plants and another three hours of walking back.

At first the plan had been to start her journey in the morning but there had been a patient, and then another and before she knew it the afternoon was there and she had hastily packed her herb-gathering bag and left.

If she found enough herbs, she deliberated, she might be able to prepare enough medicine to get over the next three months. She would have to talk to the glass-maker about the last delivery of vials and how the opening was too narrow for the viscous concoctions to get out again without the aid of a thin wooden stick.

She cursed when her shoe got caught in a tree root and she almost fell forward. A quick grasp at a thin tree prevented her from landing on her knees. Leaning on the tree she wiggled her foot to free it from the root and sucked in a sharp breath when she heard the brittle wood crack and break, dropping her down the steep escarpment.

Frantic grabs at trees, roots and rocks rushing past brought her no more than scratched and bloody palms. She opened her mouth to scream but not a single sound came out.

Please – no head injuries, her last thought was before her head hit the moss-covered rock that stopped her descent, and then she lay motionless on the shadowy ground.

* * *

Firelight blinked through the trees as seven men walked through the forest, each of them carrying a lit torch and searching the ground for any sign of their healer. She had been gone too long. She was a careful person, always leaving word when she was off to one of her gathering trips, letting one of the women in the town know where she was headed and also telling them when to expect her back.

When she wasn’t back five hours after her designated return, two groups of men had set out to look for her. The smith frowned when he saw a brown boot stuck under a tree root.

He called for his companions. They discussed the broken tree and what looked like a trail where a person might have slid down the bank.

Treading carefully, half of them climbed down and soon found the motionless figure of a woman. They recognised her face easily, even though one temple was covered in blood. They would have sworn that this was the woman they had known since she had been a child and who had been offering her services as a healer for many years.

But there was one little detail that left them utterly speechless and more than a bit scared: Her hair, that now held a mix of earth, small twigs and leaves, looked different. It had turned from shiny blond to dark brown.

* * *

She tried to turn her face away from the sunlight that shone directly on her face, penetrating her lids. The movement was painful and she moaned softly while she slowly opened her eyes. Pain in her head, more pain when she lifted her arm to cover her eyes.

She closed them again and did a quick survey by sending a pulse of magic through her body that brought back information on the damage it had taken. A sprained ankle, a broken arm and an injury to the head. Nothing too serious that couldn’t be repaired in a few minutes, even if it would take a few pauses to recover in her current state.

Finally she opened her eyes fully, staring up at a stone ceiling that did not at all look familiar. Her eyes wandered slowly to the source of the light, a small window high up in the wall – with bars in it. Her gaze darted to the bare stone walls and the heavy door with a small barred window in it.

She was in a lock-up, she realised with a jolt. Why ever would anybody lock her away? Especially as she was injured from the fall!

“Hello?” she called weakly, her voice rough.

“She has woken up,” said somebody at the other side of the door. “Inform the mayor.”

Then there was silence.

She must have drifted off again, because the sound of a key being turned in the lock gave her a start. Three men and a woman entered, the mayor, the smith, the smith’s oldest son and the mayor’s companion. They looked at her with an expression she couldn’t quite decipher.

“Why am I here?” Eryn croaked, causing the mayor’s companion to fetch a glass of water and hold it to her lips before stepping back hastily.

Her voice sounded clearer when she asked, “What is the matter? Why did you lock me up?”

Instead of an answer, the mayor handed her a small hand mirror.

Eryn gave a small yelp of horror when she saw her own face framed by a tangled mass of unfamiliar brown hair. She almost dropped the mirror and touched her head, feeling the familiar texture of her hair mixed with the leftover debris from her slide in the forest. It didn’t feel any different under her fingers and yet the change was plain enough to see.

Thoughts began racing through her already throbbing head, increasing the pain. Why had this happened? How was this possible? Her father had trained her hard to prevent exactly that from happening, so why had it for the first time in all these years stopped working?

Then the truth dawned to her. Because she had not been merely asleep but her consciousness had drifted far deeper, too deep to respond to any training or ingrained habit. Her carelessness on the path had damaged far more than a few bones and tissue. She had lost the protection of being the same as all those around her. Now she was different. Different was dangerous.

“We have notified the King of this,” the mayor said gravely.

“The King?” she replied weakly. “But… why?”

“You know well enough why. You are not from here. The King needs to decide what must be done with you.”

“What must be done with me?” Her vision started to blur, the headache kept increasing even further from a dull throb to a hammering. “What do you mean, what must be done with me? I have taken care of this town for the last twelve years,” she sobbed, helpless against the tears of anger, fear and desperation that ran down her cheeks. “After everything that happened I stayed here, and this is how you thank me for it?” She tried to stand but sank back on the hard bench.

“It was not easy for us,” the smith spoke this time. She heard regret in his voice, saw it in his eyes. “We have always considered you one of us, we don’t want to lose you. But…” He just pointed at her hair, helplessly searching for words that didn’t come.

“The punishment for harbouring spies is death,” the mayor said, his voice hollow. “We can’t risk that. What will happen with you is no longer in our hands.”

When Eryn raised her knees to her chest to bury her face in them, they left quietly, wondering how it could feel so wrong to do the right thing. And following the law had to be the right thing.

* * *

Two days had passed since they announced to her that the town was giving her up to the King when she heard the commotion. The window was too high up in the wall to look out. They had provided food, water and had brought some of her clothes to change out of the dirty, torn, bloody ones. She had not exchanged a single word with anyone. Not that they had been eager to converse with her.

Healing her injuries had taken her longer than she had anticipated. Of course she could only take care of the invisible damage inside her, healing the wound on her head completely and thus exposing herself as a magician would make the colour of her hair her smallest problem.

She had desperately tried to come up with some possible use of magic that would free her from her cell, but healing was not exactly an offensive skill. Well – only if one didn’t consider the damage it could do to the human body, of course.

But she had no idea whether or how heavy stonework or wooden doors could somehow be removed, turned into air, made to fly away or do whatever else would help her get her out of the cell.
She braced herself when she heard several pairs of feet approach. No show of fear, she reminded herself. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing her afraid.

The key in the lock turned and shortly after the mayor entered and was followed by two men dressed in what clearly were uniforms of some kind. They exchanged a glance and nodded, obviously confirming to each other that this was definitely the woman they had come for.

Then one of them stepped closer to her, lifting his hands in which, as Eryn noted only now, he was holding a pair of steel manacles. She considered refusing out of pride, knowing fully well that she had no chance of succeeding. But being dragged kicking and screaming was not how she wanted to leave here. She wanted to go away in dignity, showing them that in contrast to their cowardice she knew what courage was. That what they were doing to her was by no means more than she could deal with.

Raising her arms she allowed the man she considered a soldier to shackle and lead her out of the holding cell. In front of the small building a coach was waiting. She had seen several coaches in the past. Wealthy people from further away places in need of medical help tended to arrive in them.

This one was different, though. It had the usual wooden doors but they were on the outside reinforced with metal bars and sporting a large lock. Well, she thought, at least they didn’t intend to throw her over the back of a horse like a sack of flour.

Only now did she notice the crowd that had formed around the coach, watching silently from a safe distance. She let her gaze wander over their faces, fighting hard to keep her emotions to herself, presenting to them no more than an expressionless mask. She saw the glass-maker, looking pale with his mouth set in a thin line; the smith with his arms folded, frowning; Krion, with a pretty young woman beside him clinging to his arm, looking serious when instead she would have expected smugness. Eryn wondered if the woman knew what she was getting herself into with him.

She was led to one of the coach doors and climbed in, before they could use force and escaped the sight of these people that had handed her over just like that, before they could see the tears she could no longer contain.

One of the soldiers or whoever he was got in after her and sat down on the opposite bench to keep watch on her. She didn’t care if he saw her tears as long as the townspeople didn’t.

Her father wouldn’t have been surprised at this, she thought, and felt tears well up again. After all, he had worked hard at preventing it, never taking any unnecessary risks of exposing his magic power. He had been very aware of the downside of human nature.

* * *

Two days of travelling in the dark coach, one of the guards always with her, gave her plenty of time to think of what might await her in the city and let her imagination run wild with unpleasant options such as being locked up for the rest of her life, tortured to obtain whatever knowledge they might suspect her of possessing, or even sent into slavery. Or a nice combination of two options. Every combination would work, except for one and three, which probably excluded each other. An imprisoned slave surely wasn’t really useful.

Apart from her mind’s exploration of the potential horrors to come, the journey was not exactly an exciting one. The King’s red crest tended to keep trouble away so there was no entertainment such as highwaymen or other criminal elements.

They spent the nights at inns, each time in a room with two beds, one for her, the other for one of the soldiers to rest while his colleague stayed awake on a chair to watch her.

The soldiers were not very talkative, which was fine for Eryn as she herself was not in a sociable mood. What was more important to her was that they kept their hands to themselves and never even once touched her in what might have been considered an inappropriate manner. Wasn’t discipline a beautiful thing in a soldier, she mused.

Unfortunately it did not only keep their hands off her but also their eyes on her at all times. There was no such thing as giving in to the urge for a quick nap to give her an opportunity to try and climb out the window silently.

How immensely inconsiderate of them.

Day three brought them into view of the royal city of Anyueel, capital of the kingdom of Anyueel. Nobody ever referred to the country as anything else than the kingdom, though. Probably because there was no need to distinguish between the names of countries when there was no contact with any others. And it would only lead to confusion about whether somebody was referring to the city or the kingdom.

Eryn had never before been there and stared at the grey stone wall that surrounded it. It was larger than she had imagined. She could see a tall building towering over countless roofs. Surely the King’s palace, she guessed.

Many dark columns of smoke rose into the air from a great number of chimneys.

She watched the city draw nearer and nearer, and it was not long until the coach stopped in front of a large gate. She heard the soldier on the coachman’s seat exchange a few brisk words with the guards on duty before the vehicle was set in motion again.

Eryn tried to take in as much as possible from the little window when they passed the gate. Her heart sank when she saw that there was not only one thick stone wall but another one a few paces inside as well. The outer gate had two heavy looking doors on mighty metal hinges, and the inner one could be blocked by a portcullis that was currently open and had a great number of metal spikes pointing downwards like a dire warning. She imagined what they would do to the bones and tissue of a person or animal caught under them and shuddered. Very probably more than one or even two healers could repair in time.

Then the coach stopped in front of the tall building she had spotted from the coach window before and the vehicle’s door was opened.

The soldier sitting opposite her motioned for her to get out first, just as he had done every time in the last two and a half days. She supposed that they were trained not to present their unprotected backs to a prisoner. Which certainly made sense.

Heads turned on the large square in front of the palace when she emerged from the coach and countless eyes were drawn in amazement by her unusual hair colour. She heard whispering from different directions and saw children’s fingers pointed at her.

The soldiers were about to lead her into the building, but two men in dark brown robes approached them from across the square with quick steps. Both of them were rather young and one had lifted his arm to stop them.

When they were within earshot, one of them called, “We will take her. She will be questioned by the Order.”

The Order wanted to talk to her? That was a surprise, a worrying one. Her father had frequently expressed his views about it in the privacy of their home. They had not been fond ones. A bunch of oafs, he had called them, who rather played around with their magic, fighting each other instead of doing something useful with it.

Her heart had started beating faster. Why would they take her to the magicians? They couldn’t possibly know about her powers, could they? Had she revealed anything in her sleep in these last two days? Or when she had been locked up in the town?

The soldiers nodded and followed the men into the palace. Were these two robed men magicians? Was that how they dressed?

The shadows inside the building made it hard for her to make out her surroundings at first. When her eyes had adapted to the change in light she saw that she was in a large entry hall with various columns, each as thick as an old tree and at least as high. Four corridors started between two columns and stretched away.

The robed men turned into the first one on their right and then stopped in front of medium-sized double doors that seemed almost too modest for this place.

The slightly taller one of the men opened both doors and motioned for the soldiers to bring Eryn in. She swallowed and was pushed forward when she didn’t move of her own accord.

This was very likely the room she would be questioned in. Looking around she noted with relief that no torture devices were visible at first sight. It was a rather large room with a single chair at its centre and a massive table at one end.

At the table five robed figures of different ages were seated. One of them was completely grey and looked to be in his sixties, the others seemed much younger and between their mid-twenties and late thirties. They were all clad in brown robes that made them look oddly indistinguishable from each other.

They didn’t rise when she entered. She reminded herself that the respect that she had enjoyed as a healer for the last one and a half decades was not what she could expect here. In this place she was no more than a stranger suspected of being a spy.

The soldiers escorted her to the chair, pushed her down on it and left without a word. The two magicians that had led them here took up position in front of the door.

She’d had plenty of time on the journey here to consider what to say when the time came. She decided to stay as close to the truth as possible. Surely the mayor had informed them about everything he knew about her. Which was not a lot. There wasn’t really a reason for her to lie to them; her story was harmless enough and she knew only little about her own past before they had left their home country. She didn’t even know exactly where she was from. The only thing she had to keep hidden was her magic, the rest didn’t matter.

If they saw that she cooperated, would they let her leave again? Where would she go if they did? Returning to the town was hardly an option. How could she bear living near them again?

No, she decided, she would return at night to get her things and then never look back. She could settle anywhere else – healers were not exactly in great supply in this country, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find a place where her services were valued higher than the colour of her hair.

“What is your name?” the oldest one asked into her thoughts.

“Eryn,” she replied obediently.

“Where are you from?”

“I am not sure. I think from the west.”

The old man frowned. “How can you not be sure where you come from?”

“Because I was no more than a child when we left.”

“We?”

“My father and I. He brought me here.”

“Where is he now, your father?”

“He is dead. Has been for twelve years.”

“Why did he bring you here?”

“I don’t know.”

They started muttering amongst themselves. Then one of the other four asked, “So you have no idea where you are from and why your father brought you here? This sounds rather implausible.”
Eryn remained silent and just looked at them. Protesting would hardly win her any points.

“Where is your mother?”

“She is dead. Has been since before we left.”

This went on and on. They seemed very interested in her father and how it was possible that the townspeople had never seen her brown hair before her accident in the woods. Now the dangerous part started. She needed to diffuse any suspicions about magic.

“My father knew how to mix a powder that made it possible to change the colour of our hair. He just wanted to live in peace and not be troubled,” she explained calmly.

“Why had your hair then changed back to its original colour when you were found?” another one enquired.

“Because I was climbing a path up a hill for several hours and it was very hot. My sweat must have removed most of the powder.”

She had been prepared for that one and was relieved to see that they seemed to accept her explanation.

“We heard that your father was a healer.”

“Yes, he was a very fine healer.”

“Apparently he was not merely fine but extraordinary.”

“Yes, he told me that he had been trained for many years back home.”

“Ah yes, the mysterious home you don’t remember.” The old man smirked and then continued, “You took up your father’s work as a healer after his death.”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“He trained you, then?”

The hours seemed to stretch. They took turns in asking her questions, sometimes they wanted to hear again what she had answered before and she wondered if they were trying to make her contradict herself.

The afternoon had already started to turn into early evening when the oldest of the robed men rose and stepped towards her. She was exhausted, thirsty, hungry and sick of this whole situation. But she had sat through it and now it looked like this would finally come to an end.

“There is only one thing left,” the man said, coming closer. She eyed him nervously. What did he want now?

“What?” she sighed with tiredness.

“Just a little test if you are telling us the truth.”

She frowned. “What test?”

“I will ask you some of the questions again. This time I will use a little magic to keep your mouth from saying anything untrue.”

Her head started reeling. That did not sound good, not at all. She pulled her arm away when he made to take it, jumped up and backed against the wall.

“No, I don’t want this,” she shouted. “Stay away from me!”

The man stepped closer, cornering her. “I’m afraid you don’t have much choice in the matter, considering why you are here.”

He grabbed her arm and gripped it tightly so that she couldn’t free herself.

She forced the panic inside her down. Maybe it wouldn’t work on her. Would she be able to use any magic of her own to block his? But how? She had never even heard that such a thing was possible, let alone how to counter it.

She felt the trickle of warmth from his palm move up her arm.

“Now, tell me again why your father brought you here,” he demanded.

She shook her head, desperately. “I don’t know! I really don’t. I think he was hiding.” That was not good. She had not intended to say that last bit.

“Who from? And why?”

“I don’t know!”

“Was your father a spy?” The grip on her arm grew stronger.

“No!”

“Are you a spy?”

“No, I am not!”

If his questions kept following this path there would not be any imminent danger of revealing her secret.

The next one, however, destroyed that illusion quickly.

“Was your father able to use magic?”

She drew in a sharp breath and was about to negate it, when her mouth refused to let out the words. The man’s eyes flashed in triumph.

“Aha!”

That was enough! She kicked him in the shin and ripped her arm away from his grip. He cursed under his breath and instructed his colleagues, “Hold her!”

Fresh, hot panic welled up inside her. She breathed hard and retreated slowly into a corner, watching the magicians approaching her steadily. She kicked the first one to come into her reach in the knee and made him jump back hastily with a yelp of pain.

“We should probably stun her. That might be safer,” one of them said. “A weak stun should keep her conscious and able to answer our questions.”

Moments later something shot towards her and hit her directly in the chest, making her gasp for air.

The magician frowned, shaking his head. “That should have taken her down! She should not be standing anymore!”

“It must have been too weak,” another one said and this time she saw how the bolt of energy curved towards her without being able to avoid it. This one hit her in the stomach, nearly doubling her over.

She stared at them uncomprehendingly at such unprovoked readiness to hurt her, hate, fear, desperation erupting from a tight knot inside her. When another one lifted his palm, she raised her arms protectively in front of her and prepared for the next impact, willing herself not to feel the pain it would cause.

When indeed she didn’t feel anything, she looked up again and right into seven astonished faces staring at her. Then suddenly half of them raised their hands and unleashed streaks of magic against her, but they were somehow stopped and dispersed in front of her body without hitting her.

She searched frantically for an explanation of this unexpected phenomenon and after a few seconds noticed a faint shimmer in the air right in front of her. She raised her fingertips to touch it and hastily pulled them back again when she felt a slight charge tingle on her skin.

Somehow she had managed to protect herself with magic! And it seemed like they couldn’t get through to her.

Now all of them aimed their palms at her, letting loose strikes. Every single one of them was stopped before they could harm her. They tried again and again, but to no avail.

They looked pale, she saw. Afraid? She didn’t want to wait around to find out but instead inched slowly towards the door, which two magicians still guarded with panicked expressions.

“Run! Get Lord Enric! NOW!” the old magician’s voice boomed urgently.

The two of them were frozen in shock for a moment longer, then took off instantly, leaving the door open behind them. Eryn slipped through it and started to run, aware that the magicians were following her closely.

She turned left where she remembered the entrance had been, slithering along the smooth floor. She had to get out of here quickly before they managed to stop her somehow.

She heard another volley of bolts hit her shield and looked back to the men who quickly ducked into a niche as if afraid that she would return the attack.

Realisation dawned on her. That was exactly why they were hiding – they had no idea she didn’t know how to return the attacks! For all they knew she could be shooting back any moment.

She had almost reached the large entrance hall when several more bolts hit the barrier without any sign of disrupting it. She wondered why they didn’t stop when it was obvious that it had no effect on her.

Then it suddenly occurred to her that it had an effect. They were stalling her. Hadn’t they sent for somebody? A lord or some such? And it was working, too: she had slowed down each time they had attacked her.

Determined not to accommodate them any further, she hastily grabbed the heavy iron ring to pull one door wing open when she heard a loud, authoritative voice behind her shout, “Cease your attacks!”

A quick glance over her shoulder revealed the source of the voice. A man in his mid-thirties, tall and slim, clad in blue robes approached her briskly, apparently not fearing an attack like the others.

He radiated confidence, wore it like a second skin. And he looked determined. He stopped between the pillars, raised his palm and without even a moment’s hesitation released a strike of energy.

She stared in utter disbelief at his resolutely set face, the lips pressed into a thin line, the frown between his brows, taking in all these meaningless details with impossible clarity, and slowly folded at her knees.

The pain where his bolt had hit her right in the chest was already being dampened by the blackness that had her in its grip even before she hit the floor.

»End of extract«

 

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