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.”
»End of extract«