“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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