“Royal Straights” – The Order: Book 6

Chapter 1

Coming home

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

“What is a setic exuse for a fighter?” the five-year old boy asked out of curiosity, mouthing what he thought he had just heard his aunt spit with gleeful malice.
Watching his mother and his aunt training their sword fighting was a never-failing source of funny new expressions. For some reason, however, his father usually didn’t appear particularly happy about having to answer his questions regarding their meaning. Every now and again he even suggested they go inside and continue their game in the main room, but Vedric shook his head vigorously every time, unwilling to give up the entertainment.

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

“I think she is very good with her sword,” Vedric uttered loyally, though his facial expression showed clearly that he didn’t consider his mother’s hiding behind a tree much of a heroic move.
“Come out from behind that helpless tree and surrender, you arrant coward!” Pe’tala called out, brandishing her sword as if she were about to fell the aforementioned helpless tree with a single blow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy was clearly none too happy about how the conversation had developed and decided to bestow his attention to the only adult who had not yet fallen out of favour with him: his mother.
Without a word he got up from his seat between his father and his aunt and walked the few paces to Eryn with ostentation. He sat down next to her.

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

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

Vedric nodded emphatically. “Yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eryn eased herself up from her cushion.

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

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

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

“Do not dare,” his aunt warned him with narrowed eyes as if reading his thoughts. “I would not react any more favourably to your calling me a dolt than I did to your telling me to shut up.”
The boy folded his arms and glared at her. “I don’t like you right now.”

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

*  *  *

More or less hiding in the Aren main room from Malriel’s guests and particularly from Malriel herself, Eryn let her gaze wander over the extensive gardens, holding on to her glass of sweet white wine. Yet another one of those tedious occasions the Head of House Aren insisted on hosting at regular intervals. To maintain the social structure, Malriel didn’t tire of explaining to her daughter time and again. And, of course, the impending departure of Eryn, Enric and their son after their most recent six-month stay in Takhan was a fabulous excuse for this one here.
For five years they had now been forced to divide their lives equally between the cities of Anyueel and Takhan. Though in Enric’s case not much forcing had been required, as he admitted quite freely. He was content with the arrangement which allowed him to pursue business interests in both countries and at the same time to enjoy a little freedom from the Order every few months. And now he had, only a day ago, completed his training to be a lawyer by passing his final exam with honours. Not that anybody had expected anything else from him. The Order – or rather his superior, friend and mentor Tyront – had done everything to turn Enric from a lazy young wastrel into a man who pushed himself into giving the best he could. An attitude Eryn didn’t share. She had a more economic approach towards accomplishments. The prospect of a good grade was hardly sufficient to propel her into making more of an effort than she felt a subject warranted in her opinion.

And then there was Vedric, who had never really known anything other than travelling between his two homes. Eryn hoped that wouldn’t turn out to be a problem one day. What if this constant uprooting destroyed any sense of home he would otherwise have developed? What if he grew up to be a man restless and tormented by the mere idea of having to settle down in one place with a family one day, being damned to wander the lands for the rest of his life?
These were precisely the kind of gloomy thoughts that tended to take hold of her whenever she had to endure another social occasion, pretending to get along with her mother just famously despite the fact that every single person present – as well as quite a number of people absent – knew it to be different. They were probably just waiting for another of these tense interactions or short outbursts between mother and daughter which those around them considered so very entertaining. It would keep the gossips going for at least another week. That was the one thing people on both sides of the sea had in common, no matter what other differences divided them – this love for wagging their tongues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence ensued. It had an edge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would infinitely prefer it if his compliments were less insulting, especially since every single person who heard him knows perfectly well where such a phrase came from,” she hissed.
Eryn’s mood brightened considerably at that. “So there were many people around to hear it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eryn ground her teeth. Drat it.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Vedric said, equally perplexed.

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

Vedric’s gaze quickly landed on Valcredy and Ram’an as if unwilling to go into detail while the culprit’s parents were listening.
“I don’t know,” he finally uttered, deflated.

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

Judging from his son’s facial expression he seemed to have changed his mind about spilling the beans on his playmate, since it unexpectedly now entailed getting himself into trouble as well.
“Um… nothing,” Vedric stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ridiculous, Eryn thought sourly. Those two had made two children together and must have seen each other naked, so how was it possible that they still behaved as if shy together? How business-like could an arrangement remain if it required living under the same roof for several years and raising children together? Not that it was any of her business, she reminded herself grumpily.
This was an old argument, one she had brought up with Ram’an every now and again since he had announced to her a few years back that he had offered Valcredy what amounted to a job as his companion and mother of his children. The discussions never led anywhere and more often than not ended with a fight, after which they usually didn’t talk to each other for at least a week. Every time this happened Eryn promised herself never again to speak of it. So far she had been holding fast to this resolution for more than a year. That was counting the six months she had not spent in this country, of course. One had to grasp little victories where they could be found.

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

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

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

That brought forth an even louder cry of distress from the little girl while her tanned little arms clung to her mother’s neck.
Eryn covered her eyes with one hand. Quite the diplomat, her son.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” Eryn barked.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Without turning his head, he smiled as Eryn stepped next to him. That meant that Vedric must finally have fallen asleep, affording his parents a little alone time with each other.
Eryn and the sea had arrived at a fragile truce in the course of the past few years. The waves no longer made her seasick, and she in return refrained from emptying her stomach into the sea and colourfully cursing everything maritime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I keep out of his way, and I think he employs the same tactic with me,” she shrugged. “If there is anything I think should be addressed I approach Lord Poron and have him deal with Loft.”
“He is doing a good job from what father told me last time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2

Re-adapting

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

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

“Is that Plia?” he gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How much longer?” Vedric persisted.

“Not much longer.”

“Are we there now?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

“The usual?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m tired,” Eryn sighed.

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who says that?” Eryn snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see. Anything else?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Malriel.”

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

Vedric thought for a moment, then shook his head.

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

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

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

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

“Excellent.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enric nodded. His sentiment exactly.

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, why?”

“Be prepared for a tiny surprise, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the matter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She watched as Vern’s face fell.

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

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

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

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

»End of extract«

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *