“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.

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