“A New Path” – The Order: Book 9
Eryn stood by, still staring at the strangely clad figure that had yet to answer hers and Malriel’s enquiry. From one moment to the next the notion that they had Malhora of House Aren before them, a woman in her late seventies, was suddenly perfectly ridiculous. Apart from the fact that she had to be dead, they had just watched these desert nomads appear seemingly out of nowhere. Malhora had in Eryn’s presence never performed any athletic movements that would indicate that she was agile or swift enough to pull off a thing like somehow moving underneath the sand, then surging up and slitting a conveniently available throat.
Yet her eyes were glued to the slit in the headdress behind which fierce brown irises were visible. Brown eyes were not exactly rare in a country, where dark hair prevailed, that much she was aware of. Quite the opposite. Almost everyone born in the Western Territories had brown eyes. Which made Enric with his blond hair and blue eyes an oddity whenever they came to Takhan.
Chances were that she was only imagining that it was Malhora’s voice. But then Malriel had to be suffering from the same delusions…
Ram’an stepped forward to answer the question the apparition had asked. About how to employ the chain as a doorway through the barrier. Neither Eryn nor Malriel were in any frame of mind to reply.
“You simply lift it and then push it forcefully through the barrier. Then you can step through it.”
The figure followed the instruction, and a moment later it stepped through the shield, nodding appreciatively at a simple principle used most effectively.
A moment later the cloth covering the face was removed, and Malriel barely managed to slap a hand over her mouth to muffle the sob that had escaped her.
There she was in all her glory – Malhora of House Aren, to all appearances an honorary assassin of the desert tribes.
“Grandmother!” Eryn whispered, still not certain whether it was safe to believe her eyes. “You are alive!” She stretched out her arms, pulling the old woman into an embrace.
“Of course I am alive. Why ever would you think I am not?”
“Because everyone else at your estate was slaughtered!” Malriel shouted at her, making several of the bystanders flinch.
The Takhan locals took a few steps back. This looked like another Aren clash in the making.
“But among those you did not find my body, did you now?” Malhora replied calmly.
“I was mourning you, you selfish, inconsiderate, reckless old…”
“Mother, please!” Eryn tried to interrupt what was showing all signs of an impending nervous breakdown. Malriel was the Head Triarch of the Western Territories. People were not supposed to see her in such a state. It tended to undermine their trust in their leader’s mental stability.
“Pull yourself together, Malriel,” Malhora shot back sternly. “Consider your position!” A moment later her head whipped to one side after a powerful slap in the face.
“Was sending a bird and letting me know that you are well too much to ask, mother?” Malriel snarled, furiously wiping away a tear from her own cheek.
“The desert tribes do not hold with birds, as well you know,” the old woman hissed out between clenched teeth as she beamed her daughter a murderous look.
Eryn’s gaze darted to the man who was still bleeding out on the ground outside the barrier. The idea of provoking a woman capable of such a thing was probably not the shrewdest of approaches presently.
She grabbed Malriel by her shoulders, imploring her in a fierce whisper, “You need to calm down! Now! People look up to you – they need to see you in control! I promise you can have a go at her later! Please!” Closing her eyes for a moment, she added, “I’m so exhausted I can barely keep myself upright. I don’t have the strength to knock you out and take you away from here.”
Eryn turned her head and saw Orrin and King Folrin with their men coming down the hills. A little late, she couldn’t help thinking. They had missed all the interesting bits.
Her gaze wandered to Enric and Ram’an, then Neled, who all looked as though in dire need of a bed, just like herself.
She lifted her arm and pointed at the residence from whence Etor Gart had fled not long ago, in the certainty that things would work out in his favour. “I’ll be up there, catching up on some sleep.”
“You can just as easily walk to the Aren residence, it is not much further,” Malhora called after her once she had set in motion.
“There is no more Aren residence, grandmother,” Eryn threw back over her shoulder, forcing one foot in front of the other, grabbing Enric’s hand as she passed him, pulling him along.
“What does she mean, there is no more Aren residence?” Malhora enquired of her daughter.
“He destroyed it, mother,” snapped Malriel. “So for now there will be no more fighting over who gets to use the master bedroom when you are in the city!”
Enric shook his head as he put an arm around his companion’s shoulders, dragging himself towards the hill ahead of them. Right now, without the excitement of the fight coursing through his veins, it seemed almost unconquerable. “Isn’t it marvellous how quickly things returned to normal?”
“Malriel is just lashing out at Malhora to keep herself from starting to cry, I think,” Eryn guessed. “I was right, you know,” she then added. “Malhora isn’t dead. I feel the need to point that out.”
“Well done, my love. I clearly underestimated how hard your kin is to exterminate.”
The King and Orrin had in the meantime reached them.
“Lord Enric, what is the meaning of all this? Who are these people?” King Folrin asked and pointed at the Loman Ergen.
“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” Enric replied, “someone else will have to answer that. Try Malriel. She could use some distraction right now. I need to take my companion to a place where she can lie down.”
Eryn frowned. “You won’t? You look almost as exhausted as I feel.”
“You are worse off than I since you urgently need to recover from the healing you received. I’m merely tired. I can go on for another few hours to take care of a number of things.”
“Wait for me,” Ram’an’s voice called after them. “If the mighty leaders of the Order can rest, then it must be permissible for me to do so as well.”
Enric refrained from pointing out that he himself would have to stay awake for a while longer yet.
Once Ram’an had caught up with them, he nodded at the King. “Your Majesty.” Then he pointed at the residence ahead of them. “You know who that belongs to, do you not?”
“I couldn’t care less as long as there is some shade and water,” Eryn replied wearily. “I’ll even make do with the floor as long as I can just lie down.”
“It belongs to House Roal, House Aren’s greatest adversary,” he felt the need to clarify.
She sighed and turned to look at him. “If you are going to be difficult, we can’t take you along. Shut up, Arbil.”
Ram’an shrugged and supported her with one arm around her waist in addition to Enric’s around her shoulders when she stumbled.
Arm in arm, staggering like drunkards, the three of them tackled the arduous climb.
* * *
Enric woke with the sensation of pain in his back owing to the slightly angular position of his body on the seating cushions in main room of the Roal residence. Eryn hadn’t even made it to a bedroom but collapsed on the first comfortable looking surface. Namely the cushions. When Enric had returned about five hours later, he had just laid down next to her. Judging from the faint light of what had to be early dawn, he had been sleeping for nearly fifteen hours. He didn’t feel particularly refreshed, although that was hardly to be expected after the exertions of the last few days. He had driven himself on with magic and would pay the price for that in the days to come. And then there was the fact that he wasn’t getting any younger, either, which his body didn’t tire of reminding him.
He tried to make out his surroundings in the faint light. Eryn was sprawled across the cushions next to him, her demand for copious amounts of sleeping space the reason why he himself had been forced to make do with a less comfortable position. With this woman a wide bed was not merely luxury but a matter of survival.
She was still wearing the greater part of her armour. Unlike him, she hadn’t even made the effort to try and free herself from any of the stiff leather parts.
At her feet lay Ram’an, who had managed to sequester another two cushions for himself, his legs hanging onto the floor.
Clumsily and grimacing under the strains in his muscles, Enric climbed to his feet, eager to avoid any noise that would awaken the other two. He needed to stretch, drink something and then find the bathroom. Since House Roal was not one of the circles members of House Aren were at liberty to move within to their heart’s content, he had never been invited to any of the social gatherings or celebrations in this residence and was therefore unfamiliar with its outline.
There were certain things that hardly differed from one residence to the next, such as the arrangement of the main room on the first floor, the kitchen adjacent to it, and all that comprised storage on the ground floor. Yet the other rooms, bathroom included, were a matter of personal preference.
He stepped out onto the terrace, breathing in the cool morning air, enjoying the luxury of for once not having to worry about either expecting or planning an attack. Stretching his arms and legs, he felt his joints move back into position with a soft snapping sound. His muscles remembered under protest that they were intended for moving. He took off his linen shirt next, exposing his skin to the brisk morning air.
Then he returned back inside, quietly moving towards where he thought the kitchen had to be in search of some water. Downing an entire carafe, he commenced his search for a bathroom.
Opening one door after the other in the first of two corridors, it took him a while to find what he was looking for. It was still almost completely dark inside the house.
In his head he went through the tasks this day would bring. They needed to contact their families, tell them that it was safe to return to Takhan, make sure the estates resumed their deliveries to the city, fetch the captives from the estate in the foothills, dispose of the bodies of the enemy soldiers as well as prepare to have their own fallen soldiers taken proper care of. Then the damage the city had taken needed to be assessed and in some cases repaired quickly. They needed the harbour, or they would neither be able to receive back those they had sent away nor properly deal with the goods Anyueel had to provide to their allies until they were able to manage on their own again.
And then he and Eryn needed to sit down with the Triarchy, Malriel and Neled – and now probably Horam – and discuss what was to happen next. There was one important aspect he had to find out about – namely what exactly that alliance between Neled and Horam entailed. What was it that Neled had promised them? Was it something that required giving up her position in Takhan? Or had she been so imprudent as to promise the Loman Ergen a place to stay in Takhan without consulting those in charge of the place first?
When he returned to the main room, he saw that in the interim Ram’an had woken as well. Eryn was still dead to the world. He briefly wondered whether to wake her just to make her drink something before letting her return to resting. He decided against it, opting for placing some water on the nearby table for her once she woke on her own.
Ram’an yawned and stretched, then climbed to his feet, following Enric out to the terrace so they wouldn’t disturb Eryn.
“What will happen now?” the Head of House Arbil asked, letting himself fall onto the seating cushions.
“We need to take the country out of the state of emergency and back to normal. Our first priorities are disposing of the dead before a pestilence comes upon us, and getting food into the city. Hardly any of the estates have been attacked, so I do not expect any trouble with the latter.”
“And the first? I assume you wish to take your dead soldiers and of course Order magicians back to Anyueel?”
Enric nodded. “We must. As the victors we have no other choice. We already had to bury those we lost in the desert, but those who fell in the city need to be taken home.”
“Particularly Lord Tyront, I would assume?”
“Yes, particularly him,” Enric replied quietly, thinking of how he would have to break the terrible news to Vyril. Provided the King hadn’t already informed her while Enric had been out hunting Etor Gart’s men in the desert.
“What about Etor Gart’s carcass? Will we feed it to the fish or let it rot in the desert the way he deserves it?”
“No. I wish we had that luxury. We will have to return it as proof that he has been defeated.”
Ram’an frowned. “You intend to travel to Kar to present them with the decaying remains of their warmongering leader? Or do you intend to release the prisoners of war and have them take it along?”
Enric stretched once again, suppressing a yawn. “I can’t answer that for certain. It is not my decision alone.”
Several seconds of silence ensued, then Ram’an asked, “About Malhora. Have you had a chance to talk to her yet? I think that must have been the oddest thing I have ever seen. I did not know the nomads can move underneath the sand like that – completely undetected from the surface! And what was Malhora doing with them, anyway?”
“Malriel wasn’t done shouting at her when I left them yesterday, and I haven’t seen either of them since. I was rather busy while you were resting,” he added pointedly.
Ram’an shrugged. “Well, I have not been trained for war all my life like you and your men. I studied to pursue a profession which requires books and writing material, not swords and magic. So I think you ought to give me credit for staying on my feet as long as I did.”
Enric sighed. He was right, of course. For a civilian he certainly had done well enough in all that. He had persevered until the end and never once showed fear when encountering the enemy.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to disparage you.”
“Not to worry, my friend. What are we going to do now? Is there a chance I can return to my residence sometime soon and at least get myself a change of clothes, or am I expected to stay away as long as the King is still using it?”
“Getting yourself clothes shouldn’t be a problem. Just come with me, I’m heading there now anyway to see the King and Orrin. You are welcome to stay at my house in the meantime. Fortunately, it is still standing. Though it might be that Malriel and Malhora are there as well. If you accept my hospitality, be prepared for it probably not being a particularly quiet experience.”
Ram’an nodded gratefully. “I will accept that offer most gladly, thank you. What about Theá?”
“I’ll leave her a note and tell her to go home once she awakens. Though I suspect that she will sleep for another few hours yet.”
“Good. Then I shall make use of the bathroom and have some water while you write that note.”
“You don’t happen to have any idea where I can find the study for some paper and a pen?”
“None at all.”
Enric turned around to once again search the residence for the room he needed.
* * *
Eryn indulged in one final lengthy yawn before knocking at the main entrance door to the Arbil residence. Dawn was already announcing itself through a distinctly orange quality in the sunlight.
Getting up about one hour earlier, after waking alone and slightly confused in a place unfamiliar to her, she had dimly remembered that Ram’an had mentioned something about it being the Roal residence. Apart from the tastefully discreet furnishings, the building had left an impression on her of open, airy and modern. Obviously, it did justice to the House’s reputation as capable builders.
Enric’s note on the low table told her to return to their apparently still intact home and clean herself up before coming to the Arbil residence. They would start going through a few of the issues without her, but for others they needed her present.
So here she was, patiently waiting to be admitted. Malriel was the one who opened the door for her and then stepped aside to let her enter before handing her a humid towel.
“How are you doing, Maltheá?” her mother enquired. “I hear the healing you received was rather extensive, meaning you will carry on feeling exhausted for a few days yet. Under normal circumstances we would tell you to go easy on yourself and sleep as much as you can.”
Eryn smiled. “Thank you, mother. I am aware of that procedure. I used to be a healer, remember?” How was it possible that people forgot about her skills in that area so quickly just because she was no longer actively pursuing the profession? Non-healers suddenly felt the need to explain the most basic medical principles to her.
“Forgive me. I am merely concerned.”
Eryn scrutinised her mother, remembering that she had been quite out of sorts back at the barrier, when they all had witnessed the dramatic incident with which Malhora had informed the world that the rumours about her demise were exaggerated and premature. None of that had left any trace on Malriel’s current appearance. She looked a touch more elegant than these last weeks, unmistakably to signal to people that they had entered into a new phase – one that was still far away from elaborate social gatherings in luxurious residences, yet was despite all the work ahead of them still a first step towards the normality they all longed for. Eryn wondered whose clothes she was currently wearing. Had she managed to retrieve some intact clothes from under the rubble of her residence? That tunic did look familiar, though…
“How are you, mother? Have you come to terms with grandmother’s unexpected return from the dead yet?” She took in the dark trousers that were cut a little less fitting than Malriel liked. Rather in the manner that a woman with a preference for moving around rather than looking alluring would prefer… “Are these my clothes?”
Malriel looked down at herself as if she needed to remind herself what exactly she was currently wearing. “Yes, they are. Enric was kind enough to offer me the pick from your wardrobe, since the only clothes I currently own are either sweaty, dusty and torn or buried under the ruins of my home,” she explained somewhat pointedly as if daring her daughter to object to having to share her clothes for the time being.
“That’s not a problem,” Eryn quickly assured her mother. And it really wasn’t. What slightly irked her, however, was the fact that she had not been able to recognise her own clothes right away because somehow the way she wore them made them look more… classy. It was not only how she had combined the single pieces, but also how they moved with her body, the way the light played with the folds in the fabric when she turned or walked.
“So, about Malhora…?”
Malriel sighed. “We fairly much resumed where we left off before her disappearance.”
Eryn grimaced. That meant there were back to considering each other formidable adversaries and harbouring the illusion that this was a kind of compliment they were paying each other, a substitute for a healthy relationship. And neither of them was brave enough to let the other see that they both wished things between them were different. Which, Eryn was convinced, was the reason why both Malriel and Malhora were now using the long-lost child – namely herself – to try and compensate for what they were each withholding from the other. So much for that Aren reputation, which Malriel had only a day ago claimed had no basis in reality; she was subjecting herself to it just the way people expected her to. So much for her oh so very reasonable words when they had discussed it right before the wall had exploded.
“Come along. We should go upstairs and join the others. Horam has arrived only a few minutes ahead of you, and I think you will be interested in hearing what she has to tell us.”
Eryn frowned. “That sounds as though you already know what that is.”
Malriel just smiled and walked ahead and up the stairs.
The seating cushions were rather crowded, Eryn noticed. The King, the Triarchs, Enric, Orrin, Neled, Horam, Valrad and now also herself. At a social gathering the host would rearrange the seating for such a large number of people. But right now they would just have to squeeze together.
She greeted them all with a warm smile, then climbed to a spot between Enric and Neled. Enric had opted for his preferred black attire to which he had added the dark red sash, turning his casual attire into a semi-formal one that reflected his position without having to put on armour or his robe, which were both decidedly uncomfortable in this climate.
“Lady Eryn,” the King nodded at her. “I assume you have recovered enough to resume your responsibilities?”
“I have, indeed,” she replied. Then she looked at Horam. “I am glad to see you again. You gave us quite a scare yesterday. Well, me at least. Neled knew what to expect.” She pursed her lips and looked at Malriel and the King. “And maybe you as well, I can’t help but suspect.”
Malriel smiled faintly. “Yes and no. I knew of Neled’s arrangement with Horam. She had already informed me of that when she first came to the city and accepted our offer to stay. Yet I was not certain whether the reinforcements Etor Gart was expecting were truly the Loman Ergen or regular soldiers from the Pirinkar army. My first impulse at spotting them from afar was panic, I will admit.”
Eryn remembered a conversation between her and Neled when they had been searching the south for enemy troops. Neled had hinted that there were certain things she was planning – things of which Malriel was aware.
King Folrin cleared his throat, casting a cool look in Malriel’s direction. “I, however, was not informed of any such agreement, and subsequently neither were the commanders of my troops.”
“Forgive me, Folrin,” Malriel purred, “it was not my secret to share. And as long as we could not establish for certain if and when they would turn up, there was no strategic advantage to be gained from sharing it with you.”
The King didn’t reply to that, yet his expression conveyed clearly enough how little he agreed with her.
Eryn hid a smile, thinking that it had to annoy him greatly to be on the receiving end of the treatment he preferred to give to others.
“You should be wearing your sash to have at least some visible sign of your position on you,” Enric whispered in her ear while everybody’s attention was on Malriel.
“It’s dirty with dust and dried blood,” she replied. “I had no time to wash it before coming here.” A quick look at Enric’s own sash showed her that it was clean. So obviously he had either taken the time to wash it himself or had someone else do it for him. Basically without servants present in the city, he had probably done it himself, putting to good use the skill he had involuntarily acquired up in the mountains, when Malriel had on their way back from Pirinkar insisted the men wash their own clothes, demonstrating to the tribe, whose guests they had been, the modern ways of city people.
King Folrin looked at Neled and then Horam. “My dear ladies, I would be most obliged to you if you cared to enlighten me and everyone else here as to the nature of your agreement. Horam, I understand that you are the leader of a group calling itself Loman Ergen, which I am told may be roughly translated as the Undaunted.”
Horam inclined her head. “I am of the Undaunted, that is correct. Yet we do not as such subordinate ourselves to any leader. I am merely an elder who is so fortunate as to enjoy the trust of many who seek my advice. I assume you were also informed that we have for centuries been a wandering people, always on the move to escape the oppression that due to our magic would otherwise be our fate. I myself was born in the city of Kar, given to the most cruel and vile of the temples as an infant. Just as with so many others, I was forbidden to speak and subjected to inhumane and degrading practises. I managed to flee and was found lost and alone in the woods by the Loman Ergen. I have remained one of them ever since.”
Eryn gulped. She remembered that Horam had told her about her rough start in life with the Followers of Amel Harp. Was this why she had decided to side with the people her countrymen considered the enemy? Because she wished to stand against those who had done such terrible things to her? A chance to pay back a society which not only tolerated but actively supported what was done to magicians in general and the poor sods ending up at the Temple of Amel Harp in particular?
When it became apparent that Horam was not about to continue, Neled took over. “We left Kar once we had finished our preparations – after I had finally made up my mind to take this step. The thought of joining the Loman Ergen has occupied my mind for years, but it obviously took the threat of being sent to war for our oppressors to make me act. I knew that losing the Bendan Ederbren left Etor Gart without magicians trained for fighting in a war against battle magicians, meaning that approaching the Loman Ergen was the logical thing to do for him. So I sought them out to warn them.” She smiled at the memory, her gaze far away. “Finding them is either a matter of chance or knowing where to look. Since I had no idea where to start and time was of the essence owing to our fleeing the country, I decided to try and let them find me. I dressed in my priest’s robes and spent a day and a half on an elevated clearing, hoping to attract their attention. I sent the others ahead and just kept a few of my people with me for protection in case eager obedient townsfolk tried to return me to the city. They did indeed find me, deciding to approach me when usually they would stay clear of strangers and merely observe them from a distance. Yet my robes had aroused their interest, just as I had been hoping. After another few days of riding I finally met Horam and warned her that it was likely that they would be contacted by the government, which would make them promises to induce them to fight in a war that wasn’t theirs – a war against a people that had done nothing to any of us but to be so unfortunate as to present a handy target to aid a single man’s bid for power. We talked the entire night. My initial objective in seeking them out had not been an alliance of any sort. I was a refugee about to throw myself and those under my care at the mercy of strangers who had no reason to trust us. There was little I was able to offer in any case. And even less I had a right to ask for anything. I merely wanted to warn them, implore them not to let themselves be used like that – and make the mistake for a promise of freedom or similar to give up their location to people who had been hunting them for so long, or even voluntarily sacrifice their lives for them.”
“Yet despite this, we still ended up forging an alliance when the night was over,” Horam took over and smiled at Neled. “Two women, fleeing their pursuers, having little to offer to each other but determination and a shared feeling of injustice based on the abuse we had to suffer and watched others suffering.”
Eryn felt how the tension in the room noticeably increased as everyone was waiting for the nature of this agreement to be revealed. Everyone but Malriel, who already knew.
The woman claiming to not be the leader of the Loman Ergen continued, “I promised to let Etor Gart believe he had our support in the war, in case he truly intended to use us for his purposes the way Neled had predicted. It was better to let him think we would join the war on his side and teach him a lesson than refusing him and forcing him to come up with a different solution. In return, Neled pledged to return at the end of Etor Gart’s efforts, whether they were successful or not, and march with the Loman Ergen to Kar to free our brothers and sisters from their prisons behind temple walls.”
Eryn felt her heartbeat quickening. After centuries, the Loman Ergen had decided to stand up against the oppressors instead of taking flight from them. The timing for this was excellent considering that this was the first time that they had allies who were not only magicians, but also trained warriors. Who had, thanks to Etor Gart, now even gained valuable battle experience that would help them stand firm against what was left of Pirinkar’s army. The question was whether that was still a force to be reckoned with, even though it consisted of non-magicians. A large enough number of skilled fighters was a danger to considerably fewer magicians – especially with gold-tipped projectiles at their disposal.
“So you will leave us soon if I understand this correctly,” Golir addressed Neled, his tone sounding worried. “I am immensely sorry to hear that, particularly considering that we cannot yet be sure whether Etor Gart’s fall will put an end to all hostilities.”
Enric smiled faintly. “If the Loman Ergen unite with the Bendan Ederbren to march against Kar, the government will have their hands too full to consider any more attacks on us for the foreseeable future.”
“We would be able to reduce the chances of another war with them considerably,” Eryn put words to something she had already mentioned to Enric and Ram’an on their way back to Takhan not long ago, “if we made sure that those in power were not inclined to attack us anew.”
The King raised his brow and looked at her. “Are my ears betraying me, Lady Eryn, or have I truly lived to see the day where you have proposed invading another country?” He shook his head in mock astonishment. “Dear me, what have we turned you into?”
“You have not turned me into anything I wasn’t before,” she retorted, for some reason irritated at his words. “I never was a person who was willing to accept a threat to innocent people, and this goes for both sides. Neither do I wish to raise my son in a place where peace is a fragile entity depending on whatever whim somebody in Pirinkar is currently influenced by, nor do I approve of how magicians in Pirinkar are suppressed, enslaved, tormented and persecuted. Your influence has merely led to my considering new approaches to enforcing my values.”
“Approaches such as an invasion,” King Folrin replied with a smile.
“If we merely supported Pirinkar natives in their endeavour to put an end to slavery instead of marching in there to take over the country, I whould hardly term it an invasion,” Enric spoke up.
The King gave him a direct look. “I see.” He paused for a moment as if thinking how to phrase his next words. “Am I correct in assuming then, Lord Enric, that in your capacity as Leader of the Order of Magicians you are informing me that you are in favour of sending our troops to Pirinkar?”
Eryn held her breath for a short moment. Enric had never really commented on her statement about marching against Pirinkar when they had been riding back after the battle. They had just continued on their way in silence for a while, then talked of other things. So she wasn’t at all certain what his reply would now be.
Enric lifted his chin slightly. “Indeed I am.”
Silence ensued. Eryn noticed how Horam and Neled were following the exchange tensely. Having the Order at their side would increase their chances of success significantly.
Torka’na began to speak, “If our main objective is protecting our country from future attacks, we may just as well raise the same kind of barrier our ancestors employed to keep the Kingdom of Anyueel away. We have rediscovered how to go about this, after all. The issue with interfering in Pirinkar’s internal affairs is precarious. We are basically siding with the instigators of a civil war. Should we find ourselves in the position to have supported the losing side, we may be certain of facing hostilities when before they were merely a possibility.”
Eryn bit her lip to stop herself from pointing out that this would certainly serve to keep the Western Territories safe, yet hardly those imprisoned in Kar. She knew that the primary concern for the Triarchy had to be protecting their own people. Torke’na’s point was valid; there was no use in pretending otherwise. Neither was there any use for being angry at what to Eryn felt like callousness. Torke’na had never actually seen what life in Pirinkar was like for magicians. And even if she had – a decision like this needed to be based on reason and good arguments, not on mere solidarity.
Malriel spoke up next. “I agree that in the case of a defeat Pirinkar is likely to retaliate. Yet it is also a fact that we cannot be certain whether they consider the current war to be over or not. They may see the defeat of their troops as reason enough for retaliation. We have by no means the luxury of being assured that we are at peace now. As far as another barrier is concerned, I must urge caution. Etor Gart found a way to walk right through those we erected around the city. We need to assume that this was not a recent discovery, but a technique known in Pirinkar, meaning they would be able to overcome even the mightiest magical shield we are able to erect.”
“Lord Enric,” the King began, “what if I decreed that the Order was to return to Anyueel and consider this war over?”
“I would comply, of course, Your Majesty. For as long as I am your subject and hold the office of the Order’s leader, I shall bow to your wishes.” Enric left unspoken the words that his term in this capacity was nearing its end, and that after that nothing and nobody would be able to hold him and Eryn back from lending the Bendan Ederbren and Loman Ergen their support. The King’s pursed lips were a clear indicator that the message had been understood. Enric continued, “I am certain the Western Territories would not hold it against you if you decided to look after your own people now that you have fulfilled your promise to assist in the war. And I am equally confident that if the need to return in order to defend them arose again in the times ahead, you would not hesitate to do so.”
Eryn had to admire the way his brain worked. He had cleverly hinted that he would march against Kar as soon as he was free of the King’s hold on him, and also indicated to King Folrin the possible political implications of a refusal to take what some might consider steps towards ending the conflict with Pirinkar in a more enduring manner. Plus having to return to a war one had failed to put a proper end to in the first place would not exactly increase the King’s popularity among his own people.
The corners of Malriel’s mouth twitched for a brief moment, then her face resumed its neutral expression. Of course the Queen of Darkness would appreciate an underhanded reply such as that.
The King’s piercing gaze remained on Enric, when he replied, “Of course we will continue to lend our support in whatever measures the Triarchy deems essential in establishing and securing peace.”
Ah, Eryn thought, and now he had delegated the decision to the Triarchy.
Malriel smiled at him. “We are infinitely grateful to hear that, Folrin. Yet considering that our system works somewhat differently from Anyueel’s, where you hold the ultimate power to decide, we need the Senate to vote on it. As currently only a part of it still remains in Takhan, we shall have to wait another day or two at least until the others are back from the mountains with their families.” She looked at her two colleagues. “I suggest the Triarchy discuss this matter. We need to decide whether all of us can agree on what must be done or if we should split and each present to the Senate arguments to support our point of view. Should the Senate decide against sending troops to the north, I will put forth the motion of allowing those of our citizens willing to join our friends’ cause to do so of their own accord.”
Our friends’ cause, Eryn thought. A none too subtle reminder that the Western Territories were indebted to the Loman Ergen at least. It could be argued that the Bendan Ederbren had merely fulfilled their duty in exchange for having been granted shelter and a new home when they had fled their country of origin. Though it was still Neled’s agreement with Horam which had put a quick end to a decisive battle, the outcome of which would have been unclear. Meaning the war might have been dragged on and maybe even been lost. So one might also consider that Neled was being owed support if not a debt.
Well, at least it was clear which option Malriel favoured. And she would certainly not fail to make an impression on the Senate, no matter where the two other Triarchs stood. Malriel had taken the lead when Golir hadn’t risen to the challenge, had risked her life to save her daughter’s companion when he had been reported missing up in Pirinkar, and it was her very own mother who had slain the commander of the opposite side in a most spectacular manner, the account of which would surely outlive Malhora. Malriel herself and later her daughter had ventured up north to do everything in their power to avoid a war, and Malriel had lost both her home and one of her House’s estates – and almost her mother. House Aren had been invested in avoiding the war for some time and then contributed more than their share to winning it. If Malriel of House Aren spoke before the Senate, telling them that they wouldn’t be safe until the people accepting Etor Gart’s course of action were made to see reason, then they would listen.
It was odd. Eryn was strangely energised by the notion of returning to Pirinkar when instead she would have expected to long for an end of this whole matter and return to her old or rather new life quickly. But the matter hadn’t been ended properly yet. Not for herself, and not for the Loman Ergen or Neled.
The truth was that Horam had two options – either returning to a life in hiding, since there was little chance that anybody else in Kar would feel obliged to uphold Etor Gart’s promises, or seizing the moment and taking down the government now that she had enough support to actually have a chance of success.
It was a good thing that Malriel was in favour of helping the two women. Though somehow Eryn wondered if there wouldn’t be a price to pay. Malriel was not normally a woman known for being driven solely by philanthropic motives.
“Should we be able to aid you in taking Kar,” the lead Triarch addressed Horam and Neled with a smile, “we shall have to talk about sharing your very advanced technologies and knowledge with us.”
Ah, yes, Eryn thought with grim satisfaction at having judged Malriel correctly – there it was.
* * *
“Where is grandmother, anyway?” Eryn enquired of her mother as they left the Arbil residence. Night had fallen in the meantime. Since most of the city’s residents were still on their way back, there were only few lights. “I didn’t see her when I went home to wash and change my clothes a couple of hours ago. I assume she is staying there?” Where else would she stay with her family residence gone? Neither was returning to her own estate an option since that had been destroyed as well.
“She told me she wanted to inspect the ruins of our residence to see whether the underground structure is still intact.”
Eryn nodded. That made sense. The hidden vault under the building was after all the storage place for most of the gold of House Aren. And for the private reserves of the Head, of which in the current case, however, not much was left, after most of it had been invested in the construction of an orphanage several years ago…
It was not as if the family was on the verge of bankruptcy even if the reserves were irretrievably lost, but the construction of a new residence would probably have to be financed by other means for the time being.
House Aren’s numerous enterprises and production facilities provided a reliable, secure income, which would make any House willing to grant a loan. Especially House Vel’kim, and also House Arbil, as long as it corresponded to their current financial opportunities. Ram’an had since his father’s passing away rehabilitated the House and led it into a financially stable situation with wise, prudent investments, but it would take a few more years until the original prosperity was restored.
And then there was the companion of the future Head of the House, who could easily come up with such a sum. And also would. After all, he himself was a member of the House and also intended to live in the new residence to be built.
Nevertheless. Being dependent on assistance was not desirable for any House. Therefore the question of the intact reserves below the building was a relevant one.
“The worst thing imaginable,” Enric pointed out, “would actually be that the vault has caved in and we have to excavate it to retrieve the gold. We would have known if Etor Gart had sent someone back to Pirinkar with a considerable amount of the Aren gold. Several chests filled to the brim are hard to transport, even for magicians. You would need an entire convoy for it since no waggon would be able to carry more than two chests at once if that many.”
“He could have retrieved the gold and hidden it somewhere else in that part of the city under his control,” Eryn contradicted.
“Why would he do such a thing? It would not have benefited him in any way,” Malriel frowned.
Eryn shrugged. “Just to spite us. It would have caused us considerable trouble if we were unable to find it again. I wouldn’t put it beyond him to hide the gold even though there was no benefit for himself in it.”
Enric nodded. He shared that belief.
In silent agreement, they took the direction that led towards the Aren ruins and thus to Malhora.
Eryn chewed her lip for a moment, then looked at her mother. “You said something yesterday. When we were lying in wait for any of Etor Gart’s men to flee. About something that Malhora did being the reason for this distance between you. Will you tell me what happened between the two of you? People kept telling me that it is typical for the Aren family that mothers and daughters don’t get along, the reason being that our mothers are our most formidable adversaries and so teach us what we need to know to be outstanding leaders. Even if that were true and not just another piece of the Aren picture everyone cherishes, there was clearly something more between the two of you. Will you tell me?”
Malriel’s jaw muscles clenched visibly as she kept walking with her eyes directed ahead. “It was a long time ago, Maltheá. Before your birth even. Something did happen back then, and it struck me hard. Yet despite it all I would not wish for this to destroy your own relationship with her. I am glad that you and she have found a degree of closeness that was not possible for me. I do not begrudge you that, at least no longer. I admit I found it rather hard to bear that the two of you were getting along so well at a time when you could not even stand my company.”
“That is all very well, mother, yet by now you ought to know me well enough to be aware that withholding information from me for my own good is not something I tolerate.”
Enric nodded. “She doesn’t.”
“If my relationship with Malhora is dependent on my not knowing what she has done to you, then it is fragile anyway. And only a matter of time. Because since I now know that there is something to be found out, I won’t rest until I know.”
The Triarch sighed wearily. “Let it be for now, Maltheá. One day, when things have returned to normal again, we shall sit down and talk.”
Eryn ground her teeth. Being put off to an indefinite day in the future like a child was frustrating. And it showed her that Malriel and she were not on eye-level from her mother’s point of view. That would turn out interesting once Eryn herself would take over House Aren. Since Malriel was a Triarch, she couldn’t just be banished to a remote estate the way other Houses liked to do with their former leaders. She saw in her immediate future the need to keep reminding the former Head of House Aren that looking over her successor’s shoulder was not something she welcomed. At least not unasked.
Enric took her arm and pulled her a little closer towards him so that he could murmur, “Think back to the evening before the battle in the foothills.”
She blinked. What an odd thing to remind her of right here and now. “You mean when you and I were in the bathtub…?”
With a chuckle he shook his head. “No, my love, not that. What we were talking about around the fire. With Golir.”
Eryn suddenly stopped in her tracks and slapped her palm against her forehead. Once again she had been stupid. She was in possession of all she needed to know and merely lacked the ability to connect the bits and pieces. Luckily enough, Enric was much better at this than her. She would definitely keep him close once she was a mighty Head of House.
The sound of skin hitting skin made Malriel turn her head. Her eyes narrowed slightly. Obviously she was guessing that Eryn had arrived at a possible explanation.
“Omed of House Tokmar,” Eryn exclaimed. “Your father!” She cursed herself for having failed to arrive at that conclusion sooner, remembering that she had even wondered whether Malhora’s role in her companion’s demise had somehow affected the relationship with her daughter, whether this might have something to do with the distance between them.
Malriel’s face told her that she had hit the mark.
“Leave it be, Maltheá. I will not talk about this. If you wish to satisfy your curiosity, I suggest you ask your grandmother about it all.” With that, Malriel turned back and adopted a rather more brisk pace then before.
After a few more minutes of walking in silence, they reached the hill upon which until not long ago a magnificent residence bearing witness to the House’s success had sat resplendent. Ahead they saw several lit torches, their light faintly reflecting off the debris. So Malhora was still up there.
When they had almost reached the ruins, they found her, killer of enemy leaders, kneeling on the ground and pushing aside a large wall fragment from the unassuming door that marked the entrance to what looked like a root cellar on the inside, but was in truth an antechamber permitting access to the secret vault door. Provided one was one of the few initiates who knew what to look for.
“Ah, children,” the old woman grinned and waved them closer.
Children, Eryn thought with an affectionate smile. She herself was not a great friend of being addressed with child by Malriel, so for her mother it had to be even more irritating considering that she was in her mid-fifties. Right now, Malhora seemed like a sprightly grandmother, dusty and active, nothing like the embodiment of vengeance wrapped in cloth, a blood-dripping dagger in one hand.
“I have good tidings. The floor under the ruins is intact, so the vault was neither discovered nor has it caved in. The riches of House Aren are safe,” the old woman pronounced grandly.
Malriel nodded, but without smiling. It seemed she was still slightly shaken by the conversation with her daughter only a few minutes ago.
“It is a shame,” Malhora sighed and looked around. “It was a formidable building. I myself had several improvements made to it over the years. I have never harboured any sentimental attachments to outdated things when new developments and discoveries would bring more comfort.”
“Yes,” Malriel murmured, “sentimental you never were, that is hardly something anyone could blame you for.”
Malhora’s eyes narrowed slightly. “I assume we are no longer talking about the residence, are we? Out with it then, Malriel. You know I have little patience for cryptic remarks. Say what you have to say or keep your mouth shut. Anything in between is a waste of my time.”
“Oh dear,” Enric breathed. “This has the mood as though a storm is brewing.”
Eryn nodded, fascinated at how the atmosphere had suddenly shifted into something that felt slightly precarious. Two formidable women, stubborn, proud, dangerous and strong in magic, standing amidst the fire-lit rubble of what either of them had for many years considered her home. Somehow it felt as though this dramatic setting was literally crying out for an epic confrontation. And both seemed to be in a mood willing to oblige the circumstances. No one could accuse an Aren of missing a fabulous opportunity for conflict.
“Yes,” Eryn replied dryly, “good thing the building is already in ruins.”
If either of the two women heard that remark, they decided not to react to it.
Malriel lifted her head. Her hands were balled into fists. “On our way here, your granddaughter wanted to know exactly what you did that caused this break between you and I. Would you like to answer that, mother?”
“I wish I were in a position to do so, daughter. Yet you never deigned to inform me of exactly what you are holding against me.”
Malriel’s answering laugh was bitter. “Yes, I never did confront you about it, did I? I was so convinced that putting words to something that obvious would have been an insult to you.” She pointed at her daughter. “She managed to guess it, so I find it hard to believe that you, gifted with one of the great minds of our time, would fail to realise it for more than three decades.”
Malhora sighed, suddenly looking tired and a lot older from one moment to the next. “Three decades… Tell me this is not about your father.”
“Why would it not be about my father? Is it a great disappointment to you that I am not quite that casual about killing others as you are?” She threw her hands up into the air, crying out at the sky, “Malhora of House Aren, slayer of the people’s enemies – and unfaithful companions!”
Malhora stood still for several seconds, before she said in a calm voice which was somewhat in contrast to Malriel’s yell, “You are a fool, Malriel. I never thought I would need to tell you not to fall for the rumours created for the public. Rumours that helped both our House’s reputation as well as your father’s. For more than thirty-five years you have been under a misapprehension. And instead of confronting me and clearing the air with a fight, you decided to let it simmer and push us apart. I raised you better than this.”
Malriel looked as though she had just received a slap in the face.
Eryn felt somewhat sorry for her, yet at the same time strangely comforted by the fact that Malhora had the same power over her daughter than Malriel did over Eryn – the power to make them feel small and insecure. And in case of Malriel of House Aren that certainly meant something.
Malhora shook her head as if unable to believe what her daughter had just accused her of. “So you truly thought I killed your father. What incredible nonsense.”
“He was cheating on you!” Malriel cried out as if desperately trying to justify herself. “A man being unfaithful to a mighty Aren – he brought this on himself, did he not? He dared look for something in another woman’s arms he obviously did not find in yours!”
“Sit down, you idiot,” Malhora growled.
Eryn flinched slightly. That term had probably been a touch harsh when applied to a woman who looked to be on the verge of losing her composure.
Malriel just folded her arms and remained standing.
Her mother shrugged and took a seat on a halfway even-looking piece of wall. “Suit yourself, then. How ironic that we will be discussing the ruins of our relationship among those of our home.” She took a deep breath, then began, “You are aware of how I became pregnant with you – I never made a secret of that. I used your father to get out of a companionship agreement my own mother would have forced me to honour. This approach to letting our young people decide for themselves is more modern than it was in my time. I chose your father because he was a handsome, good-tempered sort of man. I will not lie to you and pretend I was in love with him. It was a decision made with a clear head, not under the influence of some fleeting infatuation. And I never regretted it. I knew of his philandering a lot longer than anybody else did.”
Malriel smiled cruelly. “And of course you did not object to it.”
“Why would I? I had my share of lovers as well. We agreed to be discreet about it to protect our reputation. And in doing so protect you. Omed may never have felt more than physical passion for me, yet you he truly loved. I respected your father, Malriel. He found himself with a child he had not planned on fathering, yet he never even once gave me the feeling he resented me for it. And I know for certain that he never made you feel like you were unwanted. We even occasionally shared a bed.” She smiled at the memory. “It was like having an affair with my own companion. Sometimes we would have a glass of wine together and then spend the night in one bed. Our relationship was affectionate until the end, even though we were never in love as such. The fact that you perceived the relationship between your father and myself as mostly free of tension and comparatively harmonious was not a result of my ignorance with regard to his affairs. It was a result of a grown-up arrangement which was to the benefit of all involved.”
Eryn stared at her grandmother, fascinated at the revelation of such unexpected aspects of her life. Malriel seemed a little shaken as well, very likely at the thought that her parent’s relationship had been so completely different from what she had believed so far.
“How did he die, then?” Eryn couldn’t stop herself from asking. “If you didn’t kill him…”
“You may not believe this, but he died of natural causes,” Malhora sighed sadly. “Unnecessarily so, if you ask me. I constantly urged him to have regular health checks at the Clinic, especially as he was not averse to rich food and wine. But he just laughed and called me overly cautious. But I suppose he died the way he would have wished for – in the arms of a pretty young thing. They were meeting in one of the wine cellars his House owned. His heart failed him. Pretty and young his little lover may have been, yet someone with a clear head and basic healing abilities would have served him better in that situation. The girl ran to his Head of House, hysterically reporting what had happened instead of seeking out a healer. When they arrived at the wine cellar, he was already dead. They called me to the scene. I had a long discussion with the then Head of House Tokmar. We agreed that we needed to adapt the facts around his death for the public. The little Roal girl could not be relied on to keep her mouth shut.”
Eryn lifted a hand to interrupt. “Roal?”
Malhora snorted. “You did not truly think our resentment towards House Roal was to this day based on nothing more than this little fraud business one-hundred and fifty years ago, Maltheá? Do not be ridiculous.”
Her granddaughter shook her head in confusion. “But if you knew about the affair and had no objection to it – why would you resent House Roal for it? Or is this just for the public?”
“There was some genuine resentment after that, but not because of the affair itself. Rather the way that she, and as a consequence her House, conducted themselves after Omed’s death. I agreed with Omed’s Head of House that since it was unlikely that the affair could be kept a secret, we needed to do something to preserve both our Houses’ reputation. The one of House Tokmar, since Omed had officially broken the terms of our companionship, which meant his House would be liable for paying me damages. If I had waived my right to demand such payment, it would have looked odd. This was not how House Aren wanted to be perceived – betrayed and even unwilling to accept compensation for it. So with House Tokmar’s permission I blew up the wine cellar with Omed’s corpse in it. His little Roal lover had no idea that he was already dead by then, spreading wide and far the tale that his vengeful companion had killed him because he sought satisfaction outside her cold, loveless bed. And this is where our resentment towards House Roal is rooted – her Head of House not only failed to bring her to heel, but even supported her in demanding a proper investigation against me, trying to have me convicted of murdering my own companion. Omed’s Head of House and myself had a little talk with the Triarchs, informing them of the true circumstances and asking them to keep them confidential.” Malhora lifted her hands. “And that is all there was to it, Malriel. Your father died of natural causes, and I blew up a wine cellar to protect us all. I had never intended that people wonder whether I had killed him or not. The story was supposed to be that I was informed of his death and was so angry that I lost control over myself. But that idiot woman insisted that he was still alive when I blew up the wine cellar – omitting that she was in no position to know since she was no longer there when I arrived.”
Malriel closed her eyes, finally taking a seat, leaning forward to support her elbows on her knees and burying her face in her hands. She sat like this for more than a minute, before her muffled voice became audible from behind her hands, “And you never thought to mention any of this to me?”
Malhora looked up at the sky as if asking for guidance in dealing with that incorrigible daughter of hers. “I would have, had I thought that you paid any heed to the ramblings of an imbecilic girl rather than trust your own mother not to do something as idiotic as killing of your father.”
The pain in her mother’s voice made Malriel look up. “What was I to think, mother?”
“I cannot tell you what you were supposed to think, but thinking as such would have been a good start. You might have started investigating the inconsistencies in that woman’s statements before the Senate for yourself, instead of believing her because it was so much easier to blame your father’s death on me than to grapple with the fact that life is sometimes cruel and unfair.”
Eryn stared when she saw how Malriel’s shoulders began to shake as silent tears ran down her face. Malriel of House Aren, overcome by emotion at realising that she had resented her own mother for three and a half decades without good reason. What a sight!
Malhora looked at her daughter, obviously unsure how to react to this unusual display of grief and vulnerability from a child who had for so many years never dared to show her any weakness.
Enric poked Eryn in her side and whispered, “Say something.”
Horrified, she looked up at him. “What am I supposed to say?”
“They are both helpless how to deal with each other right now. Whatever you will say will be a relief to them,” he insisted.
Eryn looked at both women. He was right. Malhora looked as though she wanted to hug her daughter but didn’t dare to for fear of being pushed away, and Malriel looked as though she were in dire need of precisely that hug. She cleared her throat.
“Well, I hope you both learned something from that,” she admonished them sternly, folding her arms. “You are both idiots! I mean – one of you harbours resentment based on a rumour and can’t be bothered to ask her own mother about them, and the other notices that her daughter is drifting away from her without demanding to know why. You may equally share the blame for such incredible stupidity.”
Both of them looked up at her with a frown.
Enric shook his head slightly. “Alright, I stand corrected. You managed to anger them both. Well done.”
Eryn grimaced. “That usually works!”
“Only when you want to keep two people from fighting by redirecting their anger at yourself. They weren’t fighting. They weren’t even angry a moment ago.”
“Alright then, great bringer of peace, what do you propose, then? A group hug?”
He grinned. “I’d like that.” Without further ado he stepped towards the two women and pulled them up and into an embrace. Then he looked at his companion. “Are you joining?”
Eryn shook her head. “No. I first want to see whether you will survive that.”
Malriel sighed and stretched out her hand. “Come on, Maltheá! This is such a ridiculous situation that you may as well join in.”
“Exactly,” Enric chimed in. “Without you they won’t be able to sing ballads about the night where I was standing on the sad remains of the Aren residence, embracing the three most formidable women in the entire country within my arms.”
She had to grin and finally stepped towards that odd group, feeling how warm arms closed around her and pulled her in.
Malhora, who held on to a rather stiff posture for a few more seconds, finally relaxed and shook her head as far as this was possible. “You are a strange fellow, Enric of House Aren.”
“Be nice to him, grandmother. Thanks to him there is new blood in the Aren line. I bet after another hundred years all this interbreeding would have left us with additional ears or extra toes,” Eryn murmured.
“Shut up, you cheeky chit, and rather tell me how you intend to rebuild that residence of ours.”
“I will – in exchange for your telling me how you survived the attack on your estate and ended up with a desert tribe.”
They dissolved the embrace, and Malriel nodded, smiling while wiping a tear from her cheek. “Yes, I must admit I would be interested in that as well.”
Malhora shrugged. “There is not much to tell. I was injured in the attack, but managed to hide on the roof. Once they were gone, I healed myself as well as I could and ventured into the desert. There is a well not too far away where I know the desert nomads like to go and refill their water supplies. So I waited until they finally showed up. I negotiated with their chieftain to let me commandeer a few of his young men for a while, then I went in search of that man who had killed those under my protection to pay him back in kind.”
Eryn began to laugh. “You just took over a desert tribe and went on the hunt?”
“Not the entire tribe, only a part of it, and for a short while,” her grandmother amended with a shrug. “They were willing enough to comply since I trade goods with them regularly and keep my doors open for them whenever they are close by during a sandstorm and need shelter. They even taught me their little trick with moving beneath the surface. You need magic for it, obviously, and several of them have at least a little. We followed him for quite a while, but then he reached Takhan after splitting off from part of his force. I decided to wait and determine whether he would try to flee. Ten of my men kept an eye on the entire perimeter of the city, informing me when he stepped outside the barrier. And on sand.” She raised her brow. “And now about the residence.”
Eryn exhaled, looking around, taking in the depressing sight of what had been supposed to become her home. “Well, I will obviously have it rebuilt. Though this time I will make sure the space is properly utilised. These overly extensive gardens can easily accommodate two residences. One for the Head of House, and the other for such occasions when another of our family ascends to the rank of Triarch and requires an accommodation in accordance with that status.”
Malriel stared at her, mouth agape. “Are you telling me, Maltheá, that you are willing to live on the same piece of land as I?”
Eryn smiled, glad she had managed to pull her mother out of that subdued state of mind. “Yes. Make no mistake though – your building will be as far away from mine as is possible. We will share a garden, but certainly not a household. And if you feel that you have to host one of your tiresome social gatherings every few days, make sure they don’t spill over to my quiet and harmonious residence.”
It took Malriel a few moments to recover from that announcement, then she smiled. “To my knowledge, that would be the first quiet and harmonious Aren home ever. But I gladly accept your proposal. Of course you will join my social gatherings. And gladly. The Head of House Aren will not bury herself in her cave, but will carry out her duties, which include maintaining alliances with other Houses and other useful contacts.”
“I am sure there will be more than enough opportunities to discuss this.”
Malriel smiled. “Depend on it.”
“If I don’t like what you say, I may decide to kick you out, though.”
“You will do no such thing. It would also mean kicking out your father. You would never do a thing like that.”
Eryn waved her off. “Certainly not. He can stay, of course.” She felt how the banter lightened her own heart, as if holding on to something that had become so very familiar to her over these past years was strangely comforting, irrespective of the fact that the hostile undertone was now gone. Malriel’s mien told her that she shared that feeling.
“I had been hoping to have House Roal do the construction.”
Malhora folded her arms. “No. I am appalled you are even considering it after what I just told you.”
Eryn braced herself. She would have to learn to stand up to both former Heads of House Aren if she ever wanted to lead the family the way she saw fit. And for that there was no time like the present.
“They have a different Head of House now – and I have no reason to believe that Amgil of House Roal is unreasonable. I will offer him a way to settle the matter by agreeing to a compensation payment for his House’s dealings in the issue with my grandfather. If he agrees, he may choose to pay in kind by offering us a very advantageous price on the re-building of our residence.”
“My honour was offended back then,” Malhora sniffed. “This is nothing that can be settled with any amount of gold.”
Malriel rolled her eyes. “What an outrageous statement, mother! What do you want from them in order to settle this? A public apology?”
Eryn sighed. Even before officially taking over, her future position already promised to be challenging. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Demand a higher amount of indemnification payment than you had initially intended,” Malriel suggested, “and then offer to decrease it in exchange for a public apology.”
Eryn sighed. “Yes, mother. Of course, mother. Thank you for assuming that I am unfamiliar with the most basic negotiation principles. You are aware that the second residence has not yet been built and I can change my plans without any problems at this point I suppose? Maybe my companion has reservations against living so close to you anyway. Particularly if you don’t stop treating me like a child.”
Malhora began extinguishing the torches among the rubble. “Let us return to that house of yours. I am tired. I have taken the master bedroom, of course.”
Malriel grinned while Eryn closed her eyes. That woman knew no boundaries. Neither of them. “Of course, grandmother.”
She needed to make sure Malhora’s estate was rebuilt as quickly as possible.
A Royal Surprise
With every passing minute Enric felt his impatience increasing a little. Already a while ago they had spotted the first ships on the horizon, which were bringing back the evacuated inhabitants of Takhan after several weeks. Among them Pe’tala, and thus also her newborn son – provided he wasn’t unduly prolonging his stay in what towards the end had to be comfortable yet somewhat confined quarters.
The ships would also return the Senators of Takhan, who had only one day to settle into their homes before being called upon to decide against or in favour of marching into Pirinkar. In his capacity as the Order’s leader, there was no question whether or not this was a sensible course of action. The threat was still not eliminated entirely, so having the troops return to Anyueel came with the inherent risk of yet another war in the foreseeable future.
Yet as a father the thought of prolonging his absence from his boy was painful. That he was about to see a lot of children getting off the ships, reuniting with family members when he himself longed for just such a reunion, would not exactly make things easier.
He and Eryn stood with the crowd, for once not required in their official capacity as the Order’s leaders, and glad for it. The Triarchy and the King were at the front and would be the first to welcome back the returnees.
Valrad eagerly rubbed his hands. “The first ship should moor up any moment! I hope our family is on it! I cannot wait to see them again and ascertain myself that they are all well. And to meet my newest grandchild.”
“Yes,” his son commented, “I hope that, too, or I will have to take you out to keep you from fidgeting around impatiently.”
“You can of course try that, son, yet since I am now prepared and happen to be stronger than you, this might lead to a different result than the one you were intending,” his father threatened, but immediately turned back towards watching the approaching ships.
“You don’t even know if he has already been born,” Eryn remarked. “Pe’tala might still be huge and even more irritable than before.”
“What a happy thought,” Rolan next to her sighed, clearly dreading that option.
“If that child is not out by now, I shall consider inducing birth,” Valrad mused. “I do not begrudge a baby two extra weeks if it needs them, but anything exceeding that just leads to complications during the birth.”
Enric smiled faintly. “I have little doubt that Pe’tala would have managed to persuade the healers around her to kindly nudge her son along in that case.”
Eryn remembered that this was not usually something healers responded particularly well to. In her own case the attempts at persuading – and occasionally threatening – her fellow healers had not concerned the time of giving birth, since Vedric had showed up a little too early. But she’d had heated discussions about how long she was supposed to wear the golden belt afterwards so she wasn’t tempted to spend energy and substance she needed for nursing her child on speeding up a healing process that was supposed to occur slowly and within such a period as nature saw fit.
Enric wondered how Pe’tala would react to the news that for the time being, namely until the new Aren residences were ready to move in, Malriel and Malhora would be sharing her home. Since the Vel’kim residence was accommodating the Anyueel healers, there was not really any other place to go for Malriel and Valrad. At least not if they wanted to avoid people talking. Malriel would find shelter pretty much with any House right now if she made it known that she needed a place to stay – even with those Houses opposed to Aren. The currently most powerful person in the country was somebody every Head of House and Senator wanted to please – or at least avoid irritating.
But if her own daughter happened to own a residence spacious enough to easily accommodate her in addition to the two families inhabiting it plus Malhora, it would look strange for Malriel to stay anywhere else – no matter how much tension there would in time be with three Aren women under the same roof.
With Malhora, Enric knew, Pe’tala had no problem at all. Malhora didn’t discriminate and treated Pe’tala with the same harsh affection as her own granddaughter. The same applied to their children.
And even though the relationship between Pe’tala and Malriel had in the course of the past years transformed from one of open hostility to one of respect and careful fondness, it was something entirely different to share a house.
“Who is going to tell her?” Enric asked those around him.
“Tell who what?” Valrad wanted to know, confused. He was, however, the only one who failed to see what it was that had to be told to whom.
Vran’el grinned. “That you and Malriel have moved into her home for the time being.”
The healer frowned disapprovingly. “I should not think that living with her own father and her stepmother will be quite such a burden for her. She and Malriel have been getting along very well indeed lately.”
“That doesn’t mean that living together will be a particularly harmonious situation,” Rolan contradicted.
Vran’el shrugged. “Chances are, though, that Pe’tala is glad enough to return to an intact home in an unoccupied city and will put aside such petty considerations as an unwanted guest.” His doubtful tone suggested that he was aware that he was indulging in somewhat optimistic notions.
“Yes,” Eryn replied slowly, “But then this is Pe’tala we are talking about. Who will be suffering from sleep deprivation on account of having to feed her newborn every few hours. Not to mention lingering exhaustion. Hardly a state in which she will turn out to be overly indulgent or diplomatic.”
“You should be ashamed of slandering your sister in such a manner when instead you ought to be glad to be having her back soon,” Valrad scolded them, but there was a hint of worry in his mien, suggesting that he was secretly sharing his children’s concerns, but feeling he had to defend his youngest.
Eryn and Vran’el shared an amused glance, but in unspoken agreement refrained from commenting.
They all watched intently as the first ship entered the port and a little later moored up to the pier immediately in front of them. Minutes seemed to stretch into an eternity until the landing walkway was slid noisily into place and allowed the first passengers to disembark. Among them were familiar faces, yet not the ones they were looking for.
People around them burst into cheers as soon as they saw their loved ones and pushed forward, past those who were still waiting tensely. Tears flowed freely as family members fell into each other’s arms, unspeakably relieved to find each other alive and unharmed.
After several minutes more, the last passenger had crossed the walkway, making it clear that Pe’tala and Intrea with their children had not been on board of this ship.
They moved down a little further to the next pier, where another ship was currently being tied up. At the railing, adults waved agitatedly, several of them with children on one arm. The younger ones not yet aware of the situation, according to their individual disposition looked either confused by all the commotion they failed to understand, or letting themselves be drawn in, riding the wave of exuberance and joy.
“Do you see her?” Rolan asked, his eyes roaming the people eagerly waiting to go off board.
“No,” Eryn replied, equally impatient.
It turned out, in fact, that this ship was not the one they were looking for either.
They moved on towards the next pier further downstream, where yet another walkway was being prepared to connect a ship’s deck with the pier.
“There! I see her!” Rolan suddenly called out, impatiently grabbing on to the next wrist he managed to find blindly – Vran’el’s – and recklessly pushing past people in tearful embraces, not even shying back from ploughing right through reunited families, who were forced to either step aside quickly or become collateral damage.
Enric smiled as he spotted her, standing at the railing, in one arm something that looked like a small bundle just the right size for a baby, the other pointing at Rolan. Right in front of her, the head of a child just tall enough to look over the railing was visible. Her daughter Zahyn, who began jumping up and down excitedly upon spotting her father in the crowd. Her mother carefully turned slightly sidewards to protect the baby boy from being hit by the agitation from beneath.
Intrea right next to Pe’tala pointed at Vran’el, whereupon her own daughter’s face lit up upon seeing her father.
Rolan suddenly became oddly quiet and closed his eyes.
Enric placed one hand on his shoulder. “Are you quite alright?”
The younger man nodded. “They are well. I was so worried. I had been plagued by bad dreams, where the birth went wrong or their shelter was found by enemy troops…” He looked exhausted as if it had been mostly the tension that came with fretting that had kept him upright. A tension that was now draining away, replaced by immense relief that also came with the body’s demand for some rest now that it was clear that his worst fears had been unfounded. Rolan straightened, clearly not yet willing to give in to that demand. He wanted to welcome his newly extended family back.
After another stretch of painfully long waiting, Pe’tala finally walked towards them, careful not to be jostled by the impatient returnees around her and keep her precious bundle safe.
Then she stood before them, smiling at her companion, who lifted and dropped his arms several times, at a loss for words, while moisture collected between his eyelids.
Pe’tala’s expression became soft, as she pushed her son into Enric’s hands. “Hold him, will you?”
Then she pulled Rolan into her arms, squeezing him close, being squeezed back.
“I was so worried…” he whispered.
“And I about you,” she replied with her cheek pressed against his. “We did not receive any messages from Takhan, so I had nightmares about your being hurt…”
Rolan loosened his embrace long enough to swoop up his daughter with one arm so he could hold them both at the same time.
Eryn gulped at the joy and relief, the utter happiness, pushing aside the thought what she would give for holding her own son right now. Instead she looked at the bundle in Enric’s arms.
“Oh my,” she sighed, “I keep forgetting how tiny they start out. Look at how much hair he already has!”
Valrad next to her was torn between waiting for his daughter to let go of her companion to greet her father, and concentrating on this grandson. After a few seconds of uncertainty, he finally decided to inspect the newest family member.
“Give him to me, will you?” he asked of Enric, smiling as unseeing blue eyes were lifted up at him and small pink lips opened as if in astonishment.
Vran’el had in the meantime reached Intrea and Obal, lifting his daughter into the air and covering her cheeks and forehead with kisses. “My little rascal – I am so glad to finally have you back! It was awfully quiet and boring without you in the city!”
The twelve-year-old girl giggled. “But you had a war here! It cannot have been quiet!”
Vran’el shook his head, his expression dead serious. “After being used to you, my little whirlwind, I hardly noticed much of the commotion of the war.”
Intrea, after having been embraced by those of her family members who had remained in Takhan to fight, smiled at Vran’el and kissed him on the cheek. “Always the charmer, Vran. I am so glad to find you unharmed. Did you put the enemy to flight singlehandedly, my brave companion?” she enquired with a grin.
“Certainly – they are composing ballads about my heroic deeds as we speak,” he returned, striking a pose he considered heroic, looking into the distance with his chin lifted and his chest puffed out.
“Is that true, Eryn?” Obal called towards her aunt.
Eryn wagged her head to indicate that her brother might have exaggerated somewhat. “Maybe not all on his own. We helped a little. But your father was a brave comrade in arms who showed no fear. You certainly have reason to be proud of him.”
Satisfied, her niece wrapped her arms around her father, the war hero.
Pe’tala, Rolan and Zahyn had finally disentangled from each other, now ready to greet the rest of the family.
Hugging her sister, Pe’tala sighed. “I am so relieved to see that Enric managed to keep you safe. Those idiots insist on sending you into battle, when this is neither what you want nor what you are good at.”
Eryn didn’t reply to that but enjoyed her little sister’s warmth and closeness. This wasn’t a good time to bring up that she had turned out to be better at going to war than she cared.
“I give you ten gold slips if you take off my golden belt,” Pe’tala whispered into her ear.
Eryn laughed and pulled back, shaking her head. “No, dearest, having father exert his revenge on me is hardly worth ten gold slips.”
“How much gold would it be worth, then?” the younger sister asked with a lopsided grin.
“More than you own, I’m afraid.”
Valrad, who had reluctantly passed on his grandson to Rolan, turned towards his daughter and pulled her into a tight embrace. Yet not without lecturing her.
“Considering that you are a healer, Tala, I should not have to remind you why wearing the golden belt is an essential precaution for new mothers who happen to be magicians. As you are very well aware, there is a certain disposition towards…”
Eryn laughed quietly and winked at her sister. “Welcome back.”
* * *
Pleasantly sated, Eryn closed her eyes and leaned back on the seating cushions at her residence, content with herself and the world. Around her the lively chatter of her family and friends, next to her Vern, currently busy with pen and paper drawing Pe’tala as she was breastfeeding her son.
The aromas of the meal they had just finished were still lingering in the air. A little of the golden light of the evening that flooded the expansive room penetrated through her closed eyelids, slightly reddened by the tiny blood vessels within them.
In the background she heard the happy shrieks of her nieces Zahyn and Obal, who despite their difference in age still managed to find a game to delight them both every now and again. She imagined that Vedric was out there with them, running around in the garden, hiding behind bushes and trees.
Having the children back in the city made her feel her son’s absence even more painfully. It was easier to accept that they had to be apart as long as Takhan wasn’t safe, yet this was not the case now. The children were back. All but Vedric.
She tried to come up with a reason why returning to Anyueel before marching into Pirinkar would be a reasonable, logical course of action. The fact that it was anything but reasonable or logical didn’t exactly make things easier. It was nothing more but a desperate attempt to see her son again.
Warm fingers closed around her hand, and she smiled, feeling how Enric’s mere touch still had the power to comfort her.
The meal had been lively as they had all taken turns to fill in Pe’tala about the goings on of the war, concluding with the incredible happenings that had ended it, namely the appearance of alleged reinforcements for Etor Gart, which had then turned out to be Neled’s allies, and the appearance of Malhora, who had chosen the most dramatic return from the dead one could imagine – by killing off the villain himself. And not with a bolt of magic from afar, but in a manner so personal and with such spectacular aplomb that it was certain to become legend.
Eryn wondered whether Enric would have preferred to kill the man himself. Would he have done it in a quick and dispassionate manner? She believed so. He wasn’t a man to derive pleasure from another’s suffering, no matter what the offender had done to deserve it.
And she herself? She had been fantasising about despatching Etor Gart. In so many different ways. By pushing him over a cliff, drowning him in a river, suffocating him inside an airtight shield, felling him with a mighty bolt of magic, shooting golden arrows into his chest from a range close enough to look him in the eyes and see the pain in them… She was glad this man had found his end without her having to step closer to yet another abyss by discovering how much more cruelty she was capable of. She knew the temptation of torturing the very man who had done these terrible things to Enric might have been too great to resist.
But he was dead now, without her having to fight a vicious battle within herself, either killing him quickly and depriving herself of her revenge, or prolonging it and having to live with her deed in the decades to come.
She opened her eyes again, and her gaze wandered to Malhora, who was sitting there, the picture of contentment, a grandmother amidst her family. There was no more trace of the lethal enemy she turned into when the need arose to avenge those under her protection who had been harmed. Had she not for a single moment been tempted to prolong his throes of death, to quench her thirst for revenge through his agonies?
Malhora’s gaze met her own, and she lifted a questioning eyebrow. “What is on your mind, Maltheá?”
The question had been asked in a quiet tone, yet the little conversations around them subsided as if everyone present had an inkling that something serious was about to follow.
Eryn felt a little self-conscious in the sudden silence around her. She would have preferred talking about this in a more private setting. But she was among people who cared for her, loved her.
“When you killed Etor Gart, you granted him a swift death.”
Her grandmother smiled faintly. “And you would not have?”
For several long moments, their gazes locked, then Eryn lowered hers. “I don’t know. My desire to hurt him might have been too strong.”
Malhora’s expression changed for a moment, turning into one of such pain and ire that Eryn’s breath caught in her throat. It was over in the blink of an eye, no more than a brief second, yet it told her all she needed to know. Malhora would have loved nothing more than to drag out that wretched man’s suffering, make him pay tenfold for the misery and grief he had caused her and those under her protection and had been planning yet to cause. Immense strength of character and mastery over her own urges, Eryn realised, was what had held Malhora back, helped her overcome what would have made her a tiny bit more like the man whose life she had decided to extinguish. She hadn’t allowed Etor Gart’s deeds to turn her into something she did not wish to become, did not wish to let him corrupt her legacy by having her daughter and granddaughter watch how she turned into a monster.
“The question is what price you are willing to pay for giving in to such urges, Maltheá,” her grandmother replied. “For what you let them turn you into.” She looked at her daughter. “Malriel, I trust you remember what I told you was the most important thing about leadership?”
If the mighty Head Triarch of the Western Territories took exception to being called upon to share her knowledge like a school-girl, she didn’t show it. Instead, she answered, “Leadership starts with oneself. You cannot expect others to bow to your principles when you yourself have none.”
Satisfied, Malhora smiled. “Very true.” She turned serious again. “Killing that man was a necessity. And this is how I had to treat it. At times there may be no other way than to cause suffering, but it must only be to prevent even greater harm. You can never allow it to be for your own gratification. No matter how much you long for it. Once you walk this path, you are no longer fit to be a leader.”
Orrin nodded appreciatively. “We should invite you to teach our young Order members, Malhora.”
Eryn gulped. “What if… what if hurting others turns out to be easier than it should be?” she forced herself to ask.
Malhora’s eyes narrowed. “Then you need to watch yourself even more carefully, child.”
“There is no need to worry unduly, Maltheá,” Malriel added softly. “I observed you up in Kar. And have ever since. You do watch yourself closely enough, daughter. And you trust yourself less than everybody else who knows you. Which is why you gave up healing.”
“What was that?” Pe’tala enquired quietly but sharply, covering herself after her son had fallen asleep during his meal for the second time now.
Eryn exhaled, knowing that her initial remark to Malhora about the granting of a swift death ultimately had to lead to revealing to those closest to her the darkest of her secrets. It was a decision she had made by pursuing the topic. And all that was basically left now was coming up with the courage to confirm what she could see those who had not known so far were starting to suspect.
The courage to own up to her actions. The strength to bear the consequences, which consisted of how her friends and family would from now on see her.
She felt Malriel’s gaze on her and lifted her eyes to meet it. A faint smile curved across her mother’s lips.
Malhora was not afraid of showing others what she was capable of, and neither was Malriel. And Eryn was their heiress, not only of a name and a position, of something more substantial than a reputation for being prone to tantrums and family feuds – to a set of values and the determination to bow to them, make them her own and wield them the way an Order magician had learned to wield a sword. This was what it truly meant to be Aren. The realisation settled over her, calming her inner tension like water soothing raging thirst.
She lifted her head. And looked at her sister as she addressed all of them, “I tortured someone. Twice. To obtain information essential for protecting others. In doing so, I violated the principles of healing. I am not proud of what I am capable of. Yet neither will I apologise for it.” That last sentence had been a warning.
Pe’tala looked at her, then nodded. “Alright then, sister. I do not claim to be in a position to judge whether those situations could have been solved differently. Neither am I proclaiming that I would have acted in another way under such circumstances. Yet I agree that you are no longer a healer.”
Hearing those last words was painful. Eryn didn’t reply. It was something she had hitherto been able to pretend was merely her personal point of view, but hearing Pe’tala agree with it made it real. She looked at Valrad, who gave her a sad smile, meaning he agreed with his youngest daughter.
She knew it was a fact, unprepared for how much it hurt, realising that it was only now that she truly took her mental leave from ever again treating patients. Until she had confessed her deeds to the Head of Healers in her future home, there had always been the option of returning to it one day.
She noticed there was not only pain, but also a sense of profound relief and liberty. Making herself vulnerable to others was a powerful act – one only the strong dared.
Enric lifted her hand to his face and pressed his lips into her palm. “I might not be alive today if you had decided to hold on to these principles instead of breaking with them and ultimately giving up healing. It is a sacrifice I can never repay. I can merely aim at never making you regret it.” He looked up at the others. “The Bendan Ederbren have a term for such people. They speak of a true warrior. As opposed to our own understanding in Anyueel, a true warrior is not somebody eager to throw themselves into battle to lay down their life for their country if need be, and if possible take along as many enemies as possible. It is someone who bows to necessities even at great personal cost. They think such a person is a rare occurrence. I admit that at first I was a little jealous when they declared Eryn a true warrior, but only until I understood what it really meant and how well it describes her.”
Eryn felt her heart warm at these words of praise, of this testament to his love for her.
“This is your chance,” she announced, looking at each of them in turn. “If you have anything to say about what I have done, then do it now.”
Silence ensued, then Vern cleared his throat and shrugged. “You know, if I am ever captured and brought to some undisclosed location, you are very welcome to torture my abductors. Just saying.”
“Same here,” Vran’el added, and the mood was back to being relaxed.
They heard a knock at the entrance door, and Eryn flinched. Unpleasant news had a habit of turning up during meal times, even though strictly speaking they had already finished eating.
Enric jumped up with suspicious verve, making his companion wonder whether he was expecting somebody.
The commotion from downstairs upon opening the entrance door suggested that more than one person had arrived.
“Was that Ram’an’s voice?” Vern asked.
“And Golir’s, unless I am mistaken,” Valrad added.
Little later Enric reappeared, behind him indeed Golir and Ram’an, plus Kilan.
The host smiled and stretched out his hand for Eryn to take so he could pull her to her feet. “Dearest companion of mine, there is a little something I am particularly eager to do now that the imminent danger is over. I wish to re-establish our third level commitment bond and took the liberty of inviting our closest friends and family members. Golir has once again agreed to carrying out the ceremony. Provided you have no objections. Which would now be somewhat embarrassing for me.”
Eryn stared at him for a moment, completely taken by surprised, then a wide smile grew on her face and she pulled his head down and kissed his face. “I’d like that very much.”
Golir looked at Malriel and Vran’el. “I assume the two of them have the permission of their respective Heads of House?”
“Of course,” Vran’el agreed for his sister.
Malriel gave a regal nod to indicate her assent for Enric.
“Good,” Golir proceeded. “We require an amount of magic exceeding that of the two people to be joined. Which in this particular case is no small matter. Who of the present gathering wishes to participate in establishing the bond by adding their magic to it?”
Every single hand in the room lifted. The Triarch nodded. “That should certainly do the trick. Though it might be a little bit crowded. Alright, then I shall ask everybody to stand up. We should keep this brief and without undue ceremony, since this is now the third time I am joining the both of you. In a bond meant to endure until the end of your lives,” he felt the need to point out.
Eryn refrained from pointing out that this was hardly their faults. The first time Enric had it dissolved because he had travelled to Pirinkar to save Malriel, and the second time was because of the war they had just won.
After arranging themselves in a circle large enough for everyone to fit in, but small enough so they could all join their hands in the middle, Golir looked at Eryn.
“I take it you are willing to enter into the bond?”
“Enric, as are you?”
“With all my heart.”
“Good. I will now let my magic flow, and everyone else follows my lead. Just pour your magic in, I shall direct it accordingly and forge the bond.”
A moment later Eryn felt warmth entering her skin through the hand on which Golir had placed his own – and on top of his all others had placed theirs.
Several seconds later, the warmth subsided and Golir took a step back and outside the rather crowded circle of people. “It is done. Congratulations. Again. I sincerely expect this to be the last time. I hope this does not seem rude, but I would now very much like to return to my family.”
Enric nodded. “Thank you very much, Golir, for coming here on your very first evening with your family. I am sorry I had to steal part of it, yet I was impatient to have this taken care of.”
Golir smiled. “Not to worry, Enric, it was my pleasure.”
Once he was gone, Ram’an cleared his throat. “I have not much time, either, since my daughters are waiting for my return, but I should think this occasion warrants a glass of that excellent wine I know Enric hides at the back of his cellar. I certainly have a few minutes’ time for that.”
Enric sighed in mock resignation. “I’m obviously not hiding it well enough, if you know where to find it, Arbil.”
* * *
Enric watched from one of the guest seats in the rear of the Senate Hall as the Senators, both those who had remained in the city during the war and those newly returned, made their way to their designated seats, frequently stopping to greet a colleague they hadn’t seen for a while, glad to find them alive and unharmed. He noticed that even Senators from Houses at enmity with each other exchanged a smile, a nod and a few words. The war had accomplished what efforts during times of peace hardly ever managed – uniting people against a common enemy. The elation of a war well fought and won made people a little more pliable, and there now was the strengthened feeling of us and them. Nothing bound people together as tightly as a righteous reason to reject those who were not us.
Enric knew the feeling would abate in the times to come, since the memory of the external threat would in its course become little more than that – a memory. Once the damage to the city and the Houses’ estates was repaired and all was restored to its former status, and the Houses and other business owners were able to redress their losses, the Houses would return to associating primarily with those aiding their own interests, remembering those little incidents and insults that had induced them to keep their distance from certain individuals and the circles associated with them. It wouldn’t take long until the city wall would be the only visible sign of the war, and the new generation and those following would grow up without ever having known Takhan as a city without fortifications.
But the time for this had not yet come. The enemy was still fresh in everyone’s memory, and chances were that the Senate would decide that the war was not over as of now, that the final conclusion had to be to teach Pirinkar how little desire they should have for another attack – in their own interest.
He knew that the chances for a decision in favour of going to Pirinkar were high – particularly if he himself and Malriel were known to support it. Even so. He had learned never to be too confident of a desirable outcome. Prematurely slackening off back and trusting that everything was about to go the way he intended it might pave the way for unpleasant surprises. Particularly if the King was involved.
He knew that King Folrin, even though not openly opposing the notion, was somewhat sceptical about the wisdom of invading Pirinkar. He had valid points, too. They knew only very little about Kar’s defences – only that the seeming lack of a city wall was merely a ruse, since the first row of what looked like residences was in truth a cleverly disguised fortification equipped with a number of war machines. But they didn’t know how large Pirinkar’s army was, how large a fraction had been dispatched to the south – and as a consequence, how many still remained to defend the country. Another point was that aiding Neled and Horam in their plan to free the priests from their confinement meant supporting one side in a civil war, which meant contravening a country’s sovereignty. That last issue was something King Folrin would be reluctant to commit to, since this was certainly something he himself was eager to avoid in Anyueel and therefore hesitated to inflict upon anyone else.
From Enric’s point of view, however, notions of sovereignty were no longer a valid counterargument when it came to a country which had waged war on them without any real provocation. And he was even less sympathetic to any Royal concerns with regard to respecting established power structures.
Eryn let herself drop onto a seat right next to his, as always showing no concerns whatsoever when it came to displaying the kind of elegance which Malriel had moulded into a part of herself.
“Shouldn’t they have started by now?” she asked and looked around at the Senators, who where still chatting amongst themselves. “Where is that exaggerated punctuality they usually adhere to?”
“Many of them have just returned from the mountains,” Enric explained. “You need to indulge them a little. These are extraordinary circumstances, after all. Until recently nobody knew whether there would ever again be another Senate meeting.”
“I know,” she sighed. “Yet right now I would rather have them proceed with a certain expeditiousness since I want to see my son again. Which will not happen until after we have taken care of Pirinkar.”
“Provided they decide to take that step,” Enric added for consideration.
“Yes, always provided that. Though they are beyond help if they decide otherwise.”
“The King still has a valid point or two against it.”
Eryn snorted. “That’s not how I see it. He just doesn’t want people to get any ideas that overthrowing existing power structures might sometimes be a good thing. Particularly not in a Kingdom where magicians may not be subdued the way it is done in Pirinkar, but still are forced to join the Order.”
Enric smiled. She had a point there. He himself and his fellow magicians had been taught that being in the Order was an immense privilege, and bowing to a few puny rules was such a tiny concession that it could not even be considered a price to pay. But seeing the freedom magicians in Takhan enjoyed had made magicians in Anyueel think about why they themselves had no choice in where to live and what profession to adopt. Two points which actually were a major infringement of free will. So sending those very Order magicians off to free their fellow magic users from repression had the potential to come with certain demands and necessities of change in the Order. Orrin would have great fun leading that institution in the years to come.
“You were the first who had to be… persuaded to join the Order. Everyone else did so on their own,” Enric pointed out, but rather more for argument’s sake than because he disagreed with her. She had indeed been forced into the Order, no matter what euphemisms one wanted to employ in rephrasing it. There had been negotiations, yet keeping her shackled in gold and binding her to an Order magician to make certain she was unable to leave had certainly not contributed to making Eryn’s decision a voluntary one. For her it had merely been the lesser evil.
“Yes, alright,” she grunted, but fell silent with everyone else as the three Triarchs entered the Hall from the right and moved swiftly toward the podium with their seats.
For a short moment it looked as though Golir would take the centre seat, yet he merely pulled it back for Malriel in a polite gesture. So for the time being Malriel would continue to hold on to her position. But then the war as such was not entirely over yet.
Torke’na was once again the one to greet everyone and open the assembly.
“Welcome back, esteemed colleagues! I cannot begin to express my gratitude and relief that we are all back and able to meet in a city that has suffered a little damage, but is far from being destroyed or uninhabitable. I regret that we were not able to grant you more time to settle back into your lives but called you here shortly after either returning yourself or welcoming your families back. Yet there is one essential decision to be made, and the Triarchy cannot make it without you. We have overcome a difficult time, yet some think that the challenge of the conflict with our neighbour is not yet over. We have gathered here today to make a decision whether or not the threat for yet another attack from up north is significant enough to take a step as extreme as invading Pirinkar.”
Eryn flinched slightly. That last part had been a clear indicator that Torke’na was not in favour of any such plans. And having her speak first meant that she had been able to place the idea that the invasion as too extreme a step into people’s minds.
“She is against it,” she whispered to Enric.
He nodded. “Definitely. Unfortunately, I had no chance to speak to Malriel before the assembly. So I have no idea where Golir stands. Having two Triarchs opposing the plan might turn convincing the Senate into a significant challenge for Malriel.”
Torke’na on her own would not be able to sway the Senate, but Golir was another matter entirely.
Malriel was the next to speak, though she decided not to address the Senate from her elevated position, but got up from her chair to step into the circle at the centre of the room, meeting the Senate eye-to-eye.
“Senators,” she began with her hands held behind her, “let me be honest with you. Different opinions are held within the Triarchy; we are not in agreement about what is the right approach. But this is not something that ought to worry you, since plurality of opinion is a precious thing we have always respected in these Halls. In a society where we decide together which way to follow, where we seek to develop and grow, consent can never be a given thing but must be achieved through hard work and struggle. Today we are here to engage in such a struggle, and I am confident that at the end we will arrive at a good decision. We decided to present to you the advantages and drawbacks of each option and subsequently enter into a discussion before we put the matter to a vote. I must apologise that we cannot afford to grant you more time to ponder this important matter, since time is of the essence. I am in favour of going to Pirinkar. Permit me to explain why.”
* * *
It had been a long two hours, and Eryn found the visitor chairs becoming more uncomfortable by the minute, fidgeting around to try and find a halfway bearable position.
Malriel had presented her case, then Torke’na had spoken, pointing out the disadvantages. Both had called upon guests to testify in front of the Senate. Malriel had invited Commander Neled and Horam to talk about their own plans and how they intended to free their fellow magicians from the yoke which they had suffered under for centuries. Then Enric had been called upon to speak for the Order. And Orrin as the Head of Warriors.
Torke’na had not been able to come up with quite such an impressive range of supporters for her side, yet there was one person whose words were sure to carry some weight: King Folrin. He had pointed out that he was neither in favour nor against supporting Commander Neled and Horam in their endeavours, but would bow to the Senate’s decision whatever that might turn out to be. Yet to balance the scales, he had decided to bring up some matters which deserved consideration but were in danger of being neglected.
The ensuing discussion had started out politely, but soon become more heated, and calls for order were frequent when emotions threatened to take over and voices became raised.
Malriel and Enric were accused of soliciting an invasion for no other reason than to initiate a retaliation campaign, willing to put everyone at risk for their personal desire to exact revenge.
Opponents of the invasion were called cowards and short-sighted fools.
Ram’an was accused of siding with House Aren because he still harboured feelings for former – and soon-to-be-again – Maltheá of House Aren.
Several Senators grandly declared they would refuse to have any members of their Houses forced to participate in any such nonsense – only to reconsider once the severe consequences of disobeying a Senate decision were pointed out.
“Either I’m leaving here this minute or I’ll make the Senate roof cave in once again,” Eryn hissed quietly. “They squabble like little children instead of discussing this like adults! I’m glad Vedric isn’t here to witness this – it would be impossible to teach him manners or explain to him why respect is important afterwards.”
“You are about to join them once you take over House Aren,” Enric reminded her gently, thinking that this really wasn’t quite that different from a Council meeting in Anyueel.
“I can’t wait,” she sighed and shook her head.
She admired how calm the Triarchs had remained in the heated and at times anything but objective discussion. Malriel particularly, who had been attacked personally more than once, but only met any accusations with a stony expression, not sinking so low as to acknowledge the slander by defending herself. Though Eryn suspected that she was remembering well enough who had uttered which sentiment and would in time revisit them, let them become part of her considerations when requests were made to the Triarchy at some time in the future. Eryn derived a grim sense of satisfaction from this thought and mused about how very different this approach was from what the Order deemed appropriate as a response to a verbal or other attack.
Whenever one of the Council members had refused to pay her the respect she was owed due to her rank, Enric and Tyront had insisted she responded to it swiftly to set an end to it and signal to everyone else that this behaviour was unacceptable and would be punished. She wondered whether this was one of the aspects that had made it so difficult for Enric to be a Head of House and Senator in Takhan. And whether she herself would in due time be able to distance herself from the decisive and quick steps the Order considered a virtue.
One of the three double doors leading into the Senate Hall was opened suddenly, casting a solitary figure in the bright noonday light that was streaming in from behind. Pausing for a moment as if aware of the effect and utilising it, the shape moved on and proceeded down the stairs towards the table occupied by the Aren Senators. Malhora of House Aren.
The Hall became silent as everyone watched the woman who had singlehandedly and without a moment’s hesitation slain the very man who had caused them all so much grief. Both Aren Senators hastily jumped to their feet, letting Malhora choose which of their chairs to occupy. She was not a Senator, yet there was not a single person in this room – the Triarchs included – who would dare to suggest that she was obliged to take one of the guest chairs if she wished to follow the proceedings.
Eryn hid a grin. That woman knew how to make an entrance. And people would from now on be a lot more careful when accusing either House Aren or Malriel herself of any ulterior motives.
Malhora took a seat, then looked up as though she were only now realising the silence that had followed her arrival.
“Please, do not interrupt on my account,” she spoke, as if she would have considered anything other than that due and proper.
The discussion slowly resumed, though from one minute to the next a lot less agitated than before.
“There is a realistic chance that they have realised we are not quite so easy to defeat,” a Senator of House Feral pointed out. “If they have no intention of attacking again, then we would be the aggressors.”
Without a warning, a shield appeared above Malriel, who was still standing in the circle in front of the tables. On it, an image appeared. A building that looked to have been an impressive estate before it had been destroyed. Several more images followed, each on display long enough for all present to take in the picture. Trees burned down, crops destroyed, side buildings in ruins. And like an ever-present detail in all of them, bodies with wide open eyes, their faces frozen in an expression of never-ending horror.
Most Senators recognised the remains of Malhora’s residence since they had at one point been granted the privilege of attending the annual hunt there. Which made it clear whose memories they were currently watching.
Eryn forced herself not to avert her eyes, one part of her wondering when Malhora had found the time to acquire the skill of displaying images on a shield.
“True enough, my young friend,” Malhora’s words became audible in the silence that had ensued anew. Her soft voice was a strange contrast to the cruelty she shared with them through magic. “Yet the question is which is the greater risk – to hope none of your estates will suffer the same fate as my very own without any precautions to ensure our safety, or to take action and make certain Pirinkar stays on their side of the mountains.”
“Slaughtering the people up there is no guarantee for that,” one particularly brave Senator ventured. “Quite the opposite – this might induce them to seek revenge and attack when they initially would not have done so.”
“Decisive action does not mean we are on a mission to pillage and burn down their country,” Eryn replied to that.
All eyes turned towards her.
“My, my, House Aren is contributing a lot to today’s assembly,” the Head of House Finran quipped, “particularly those who are not actually Senate members and therefore not really entitled to speak but expected to listen quietly without interrupting.”
Eryn smiled indulgently. “The fact that you choose to already consider me a member of House Aren when at this point in time I am still of House Vel’kim, shows me that you are aware of my intention to take over House Aren and join your illustrious circle soon enough. You may now choose to forbid me to speak because of a formality, but I advise you to remember that it would be a sign of esteem for the institution to which I belong and which made your victory possible – by putting their members’ lives at risk for you. And also a sign of respect for your future colleague.” She folded her arms and waited. Had she truly just invoked the Order as a reason to be allowed to speak? She suppressed a shiver.
Vran’el cleared his throat. “I request permission for Maltheá of House Vel’kim to speak before the Senate. I should think that her unique position as a high-ranking representative of the Order, a future Head of House and also somebody embracing the principles of aiding people rather than slaughtering them, will certainly make her worth listening to.”
Eryn was glad that her brother had spoken up. Otherwise she knew with absolute certainty that Ram’an would have. But if her own Head of House requested permission to speak for her, it looked a lot better.
Malriel turned around and looked up at the other two Triarchs. “May I ask you to decide on this request? I fear there is little sense in trying to pretend that I am not biased in Maltheá’s favour.”
Torke’na and Golir exchanged a quick glance, then Torke’na nodded at Eryn. “You may speak, Maltheá.”
Eryn rose from her seat. “Despite some of the things I did, the people I killed in battle, I am not in favour of needless killing. Needless in my book means killing anyone who is not set on ending my own life. Which is currently not the case in Pirinkar. I do not propose going there to commit a massacre, but to help create circumstances where we can be certain that our neighbours are not only careful about attacking us, but actively decide against it – or rather, do not even consider it. Such circumstances could be created through aiding Commander Neled and Horam in their endeavour. Freeing the magicians, or priests, as they call them, means granting people a say who will not consider us their enemy. We do not want people in power who either encouraged or at least indulged Etor Gart’s plans. And even if we do not manage to overthrow their leaders, we would still show them that we do not lean back after we were attacked, but are a force to be reckoned with – a country unwilling to endure such treatment. Not showing any reaction would tell them that there is nothing to be lost in attacking us – irrespective of whether they are successful or not. What we want to do is to make them understand that they have a lot more to lose than to gain in marching against us.” Eryn looked at the Senator who had pointed out that he was not in favour of indiscriminate slaughter. “I agree with you – killing is a terrible thing, and whoever knows me personally or by reputation ought to be aware of my stance in this. We even have refrained from killing enemy soldiers in battle whenever it was possible. Which is why we currently have a significant number of captives in our custody. Captives we intend to return to their home as a gesture of goodwill. And as a token in a negotiation that I will admit I do not expect to happen in an entirely peaceful manner. Yet I may assure you that in my current capacity as Second-in-command of the Order I do not stand for harming civilians through attacking their capital city, nor for killing their soldiers, if there is any other way. Yet neither am I willing to accept such a threat to the people dear to me.”
Torke’na nodded. “Thank you, Maltheá.” Then she looked at the Senators. “Is there any other contribution in this matter? If not, we shall proceed with the vote.” When no request to speak followed, she continued, “Show of hands if you are in favour of attacking Pirinkar.”
Eighteen out of twenty-four hands were lifted, and Eryn sank down on her chair and exhaled. That was a clear majority – particularly, since Golir’s and Malriel’s hands were raised as well, meaning either of them added two Triarch votes instead of merely one Senator’s vote.
Torke’na didn’t show any sign of disappointment or anger at the result, but went on in her usual controlled voice, “The Senate has made a decision. We shall retaliate.”
“This shouldn’t have been quite as hard,” Eryn remarked quietly as around them the usual murmuring arose. “It was a rather obvious decision, if you ask me.”
Enric shrugged. “Obvious it may be from your viewpoint, yet let us not forget that we still are in a country that has not seen preparations for war necessary in a long time and is therefore hardly eager to engage in another one in such a short time. The result is a good one, actually. A clear commitment instead of a close decision.” When Torke’na’s voice rang out over the commotion, straining to be heard, to announce that the assembly was now concluded, Enric got to his feet. “Come on, let’s see how the Triarchy intends to proceed now. I should think that we won’t get much sleep in the nights ahead. There is a lot to prepare for.”
He wanted to descend the few steps towards Malriel, who was still standing in the circle, surrounded by several Senators.
“Lord Enric, Lady Eryn,” a familiar clipped voice made them turn. King Folrin indicated for them to step closer to him. “The Triarchy will inform you of our next meeting shortly. I suggest you return to your residence in the meantime.”
Both looked at him, confused.
“Is everything alright?” Eryn asked carefully.
“Certainly, my Lady. I shall bid you goodbye for now.” With that he turned away, approaching the Triarchy.
“Was that an order just now?” Eryn asked, unsure.
“I should think so, yes,” Enric replied slowly, watching as the monarch walked away from them.
“Why is he sending us home?” Her eyes narrowed. “He wants to have us out of the way for some reason.”
“That is entirely possible,” her companion conceded. “Yet since we were given an order, there is little we can do about it. Come.”
It didn’t take long until they had reached their residence, and Eryn sighed with relief once they entered the building, leaving the relentless noonday heat outside.
A noise from upstairs had them stare at each other and fall still. A moment later, they unfroze at the same time, hurried up the stairs, eager to see whether their ears had deceived them.
They had not.
Right before them, on the seating cushions, was their niece Zahyn, playing a board game. With her cousin Vedric.
His eyes widened when he beheld his parents, who stared at him as though they were utterly astonished to see him.
“There you are!” he cried out, the reproach in his voice unmistakable.
Eryn breathed out and sank to her knees, suddenly feeling lightheaded. “Vedric?” she whispered as if unable to believe that her dearest wish had just been fulfilled without any warning or reasonable explanation.
A moment later, she was pushed backwards with the force of Vedric’s embrace. Only Enric’s quick intervention prevented her head from hitting the stone floor. Then he, too, was on his knees, wrapping his arms around his companion and son, for a brief second wondering if this was some kind of illusion he was trapped in, a bubble that was about to burst to leave him behind in a dungeon, freezing and hungry. This all lacked plausibility, after all.
“Why are you here?” he asked his son without letting go of his family.
“Because the King said we could come!” he reported, removing his arms from around his mother’s neck much sooner than she was ready to let go of him. Instead he clung to his father now.
Eryn and Enric exchanged an astonished look.
“That’s why he sent us home just now!” she breathed, feeling guilty for having accused him of unfair motives when in fact he had done such an incredible thing for them.
“Ah, there you are!” another unexpected voice exclaimed happily.
It took Enric a moment to recognise it since the idea of hearing it here, in this place, was such an odd disruption of the context he was used to.
Slowly, he turned around. “Mother?”
* * *
Enric smiled at the picture before him. Pe’tala was sitting on cushions on the terrace, which was still shaded in the late morning hours, feeding her baby boy who at this stage of his development had few other priorities than sleeping, eating and… well, digesting.
Next to her on either side, Gerit and Malriel were sitting, observing the goings on in the garden with indulgent smiles.
Ever since his arrival the day before, Eryn had spent every single minute with her son, apart from the meeting with the Triarchy and the King in the evening, where the further steps regarding Pirinkar had been discussed. At this very moment she was playing hide and seek with him and her niece, currently hiding behind some shrubbery while Zahyn was searching the area where Vedric was perched on a low branch and would likely be discovered any moment.
Enric knew that this carefree pastime, the exuberant frolicking, was as good for his companion as for the children, probably even more so.
“I invited Orrin and his family to have lunch with us,” he informed three of the four women who were currently living under his roof. Not counting his niece.
His mother and son had not been the only family the King had arranged to be brough to Takhan. Junar and Téa were among them, together with family members of the fallen soldiers. And his own companion, Queen Del’na’bened of Anyueel. This evening, the Triarchy was hosting a banquet at the Senate Hall to welcome the Queen.
Before that, though, there was one thing he and Eryn had to take care of, one difficult duty he positively dreaded. They had to face Vyril and inform her of the details of her companion’s death. The King had taken it upon himself to inform her of Tyront’s demise in writing as he invited her to come to Takhan to claim his mortal remains, yet he had not explained how exactly things had taken place. Eryn would have to take care of that since she was the one who had experienced it at close quarters.
Another thing that worried Enric was the fact that Eryn’s popularity among Order members seemed to be diminishing ever since Etor Gart had proclaimed for all to hear that she was the reason why Tyront had sacrificed his life. Order magicians were no less prone to gossiping than anyone else, despite their privileged standing. Enric had received information that unflattering speculations and allegations were circulating. That Eryn had finally found a way to get rid of the man who had forced her to join the Order years ago. Another variation was that she had paved the way for her companion to rise to the top. Apart from the assertion that Enric would use his companion to assign her an act of such monstrousness, he was dismayed that there were actually people among their subordinates who accused her of such dishonour after all she had done for the Kingdom and also in this war.
All these allegations would dissolve once it became known that Eryn and Enric would leave the Order for good and relocate to Takhan, making it clear that they wouldn’t benefit from Tyront’s death in any way. But until then they had to run an institution where some of its members had begun to lose confidence in their superiors. These were not ideal circumstances for an imminent war campaign.
He wrestled with himself as to whether he should inform Eryn about it. Once again he found himself caught between the two roles in her life. Objectively, she was his right hand and he couldn’t simply withhold this kind of information from her, especially since she was affected by it herself. But as her companion he knew what kind of pain he would cause her. These accusations, he knew, would fall on fertile ground with her.
“You look worried, my boy,” Gerit remarked softly and stretched out her hand towards him.
He made himself smile and squeezed it. “In my position there is always something to worry about, mother.”
“You are not concerned about Eryn and Junar meeting again, are you? I am certain that they will be glad to see each other again, no matter what happened between them back home.”
Enric suppressed a sigh. He wasn’t really worried that there would be any altercations during their meal, but rather some distance and politeness between the two women. He pushed the thought aside, refusing to succumb to any more tribulations for the time being.
Pulling at his mother’s hand, he invited her, “I am about to start cooking our meal. Would you like to help me? I could teach you a little about the local cuisine and the ingredients they use here. As you know, it is customary here for the host to cook for guests instead of delegating that to servants. It is considered an honour.”
Gerit nodded eagerly. “Then it will be my honour to assist you in this important task.”
* * *
“Eryn! Eryn! Eryn!” Téa exclaimed while racing towards the person who had captivated her attention immediately after the girl had reached the top of the stairs leading to the main room. “Look at my new clothes! They look just like yours!” She twirled, proudly demonstrating this new sartorial elegance the cuts and fabrics from the Western Territories lent her.
Eryn grinned and nodded appreciatively. “They really do! And you look very well in them – almost like a native with your brown hair.”
Pleased with the compliment, Téa’s attention immediately shifted towards Vedric, running towards him as if their last contact had been months instead of merely a day ago.
Eryn braced herself for greeting Junar, now that her daughter no longer commanded all the attention for herself.
With a slightly tense smile she welcomed the seamstress and her companion. “Junar, Orrin, I’m very pleased to have you here. Won’t you take a seat and let me know what I can get you to drink?”
Junar replied with a smile that looked exactly as heartfelt as it was – namely not at all. “And we thank you for your kind invitation to your lovely home. I will take a glass of that yellow juice, if you have some.”
“Water for me,” Orrin added, a little resigned as though he had been hoping for a rather less reserved greeting between the two women.
Eryn shared that feeling to a certain degree. Her own prior attempts at approaching Junar had been pushed back several times, so she didn’t really have much in her to continue what was to her a futile struggle. There had been so much fighting lately, and there was likely to be more in the future once they ventured into Pirinkar. She had no urge to throw herself into yet another battle, one that offered so little prospect of success. And Junar didn’t seem to experience enough joy about seeing Eryn alive and well again to overcome whatever resentment she had built up in the past year.
Suddenly Eryn felt weary of it all. After everything she had been through lately, this seemed such a petty, unnecessary thing to burden herself with. She would show Junar the appropriate courtesy and hospitality, if only for the sake of Orrin. Junar had for some reason of her own decided that they could no longer be friends and even refused to say why, so Eryn would accept it and no longer waste energy to fret over it. Junar had turned from a dear friend into somebody she had been close to at one point, but no more than that. Which made her one person fewer to miss after moving away from Anyueel.
She felt how this determination, this willingness to accept something she had hitherto rejected as immature and unfair behaviour, lightened her heart somewhat and found that smiling at Junar upon serving her the drink became less of a strain.
“What is the matter with the two of you?” Pe’tala whispered once Eryn had sat down next to her on the cushions, perceptive as always.
“Some things just don’t last forever,” her older sister replied lightly, unwilling to discuss this private matter with so many people present. Not that Pe’tala would give up, nosey pest that she was.
Enric appeared from the kitchen, carrying a number of empty bowls.
He greeted the new arrivals, then frowned. “Where is Vern?”
“Inspecting the captives to determine whether they require any medical attention,” Orrin explained. “Many of them are somewhat overwhelmed with the heat. He ought to join us shortly.”
Valrad and Malriel entered the room, each carrying a steaming bowl towards the low table amidst the cushions before taking a seat and welcoming the guests with a smile.
“Junar,” the Triarch greeted her, “how nice to see you again after all this time. Téa has grown into such a lively young lady. It warms my heart to see her in these lovely clothes you made her, a reminder of where she was born.”
Téa chose just this moment to storm into the room in a decidedly unladylike manner as if determined to prove Malriel wrong in her assessment. She clapped excitedly into her hands once she spotted the bowls and shouted over her shoulder, “Vedric, come! The food is finally ready! It is about time!”
She made it seem as though she had already been waiting for an eternity when in fact she had only just arrived.
Pe’tala, never one to hold back with a pointed remark when she deemed it adequate – which was rather the rule than the exception in any situation – lifted her brow. “Charming. Téa, I invite you to consider that someone has invested time and energy in preparing a tasty meal for you. So gratitude would be a more appropriate response than complaining that it was not already on the table when you arrived.”
Eryn was torn between approving of Pe’tala’s directness and dreading the response this would trigger. Junar was not exactly somebody who had in the past reacted particularly well to any criticism of her daughter’s behaviour.
Junar responded with a tight-lipped smile. “Thank you for pointing that out, Pe’tala. I am wondering, though, where your own daughter is right now? I would have thought that someone who places such a high value on good behaviour as you do would suggest to her own child to show so much consideration that she appears at meals on time instead of expecting others to wait.”
As if on cue, Zahyn came in from the kitchen, employing utter care as she set one foot in front of the other to avoid spilling any of the water in the carafe she was carrying.
“What can I say? I should be ashamed of myself,” Pe’tala smiled sweetly, then added, “Would you like some of the water my inconsiderate daughter is currently bringing for all of us?”
Junar’s face blushed crimson now that her attack had backfired so spectacularly. All others around the table carefully avoided looking at her.
Eryn was caught in a mix of conflicting emotions. She was surprised and dismayed at Junar’s behaviour towards Pe’tala, which clearly debased everything one expected of an honoured guest in the Western Territories. One might argue that Pe’tala had overstepped a boundary in reproving a child that was not her own, yet since Junar herself had shown no sign of being about to do so herself, Pe’tala had taken the liberty of asserting the rules in her own home. Eryn also felt pity for Junar, for suddenly being out of place with people she had been on friendly terms with seven years ago when she had spent all these months in Takhan. And sadness about this hostility directed at Pe’tala who was being used as a substitute for Eryn.
It was clear that none of the persons present was particularly enamoured with her behaviour. Malhora’s lips were pressed together disapprovingly, Valrad looked ill at ease, Malriel hid her dismay behind a polite mask, Rolan had developed a sudden interest in his drink, Gerit’s forehead was creased in a worried frown, and Orrin looked helpless – an emotion he detested. And there was something else. Anger warming Eryn’s chest from within. Though not her own.
She looked at Enric, who began dishing out the food. There was no visible sign of any emotion, no tension in his shoulders, no twitching of lips or narrowed eyes. Only the first tender signs in her head that the mindbond was starting to re-establish itself. A pity, though, that this was the first emotion she received through it.
Vedric climbed over the cushions to sit next to his mother, grinning up at her, happy to be reunited with his parents. Eryn stroked his dark hair with one hand and thought it was in need of a trim. Many of the shops had already re-opened, as had the markets. Maybe she would take him to a barber these next days. Or she would send Enric off with him. He could have his hair cut as well and at the same time spend some quality time with his son.
The conversation during the meal trickled along lightly. There was even an occasional attempt at including Junar, who merely responded with mono-syllabic replies or polite smiles, refusing to let herself be drawn in. It was obvious how out of place she felt. Eryn wondered whether she considered this get-together a price she had to pay for the reunion with her companion.
When everyone had finished their meal, Vedric pulled at his mother’s sleeve. “Can we go to a tea house soon? The one where you sometimes meet with Ram’an?”
Eryn smiled. “I’d like that. We have to see whether it is already open again. If so, we can go tomorrow afternoon before my meeting with the Triarchy and King Folrin.” She looked at Junar. “Maybe Téa would like to join us? I imagine she would enjoy the experience.”
Junar once again flashed one of her polite smiles. “That is very kind of you, but if she does, I will take her myself.”
“What is wrong with you, Junar?” Pe’tala enquired harshly. “I hardly recognise you.”
“You are being rude, Tala,” Eryn murmured, unwilling to turn a tense situation into an open conflict. If there had to be a confrontation with Junar, then she didn’t need witnesses for it. Or have her sister fight it out in her place.
But Pe’tala was not to be silenced quite so easily.
“And you feel that having more than one rude person is too much at once?” she retorted and folded her arms, looking at Junar. “You have spent enough time here to know the importance we attach to hospitality – and what we consider appropriate behaviour in our guests. It is by no means what you are currently exhibiting!”
The three children stared at the three women alternately.
“Can we please not do this right here?” Eryn hissed, wishing she could just silence her sister with a bolt of magic and be done with it. But that would just lead to more commotion.
Pe’tala pressed her lips together for a moment, clearly anything but satisfied, but she nodded. “Alright, sister. I shall respect your wishes. For now.” Her hostile glare returned to Junar. “Eryn has gone into battle more than once – at great personal cost, I might add – which is probably why she has such great need for peace at her home at least. Therefore, I shall say no more.”
“Yes, and her going to battle has certainly cost others dearly as well,” Junar bit back. “Ask Vyril!”
The silence that had before merely been tense now became deadly.
“Pardon?” Malriel asked quietly.
Junar lifted her chin. “Everybody knows that Lord Tyront would still be alive if it hadn’t been for her! Everybody in the Order is talking about it – that this is her chance to finally have him out of the way and have a say in all the things he denied! Her chance to seize power! The magicians don’t trust her any longer, they think she did it on purpose!”
Eryn closed her eyes, breathing deeply at the unexpected stab of pain inside her. When she opened them again, she saw how Enric was grinding his teeth and giving Orrin a look that didn’t need much in terms of interpretation. It was an unspoken but nonetheless clear order to take away his companion at once or bear the consequences. Eryn felt his ire inside her, churning and begging to be released. She knew that this was only a fraction of what he had to be feeling right now, that the mindbond was not yet back to its former strength.
Orrin nodded almost imperceptibly, then pushed himself up. His face was a frozen mask, an attempt to keep inside his own dismay. Though Eryn didn’t know at whom – at Pe’tala for reacting so harshly? At Junar for her hostile behaviour? At Enric for sending him away? At Eryn for some other reason?
“Téa, we are leaving,” the warrior informed his daughter. His voice was soft but threateningly so. It was the kind of voice that demanded obedience or otherwise promised to turn from gentle to assertive in a heartbeat.
His daughter, however, was either too young to react to such subtleties or had simply decided to ignore them at her own risk to put her own wishes before her father’s command.
“I don’t want to leave!” she wailed. “We have only just come here! I want to play out in the garden!”
Orrin gave her a long stare, but it seemed that whatever discipline he had managed to teach her had lost its influence on her during his absence from Anyueel while under her mother’s indulgent care.
“Leave her here and go. Now.” Each of Malhora’s words was like a whip stroke. “And do not bring your companion back here again. She is no longer welcome.”
“Grandmother,” Eryn said calmly, fighting for composure. She didn’t want the children to witness how Junar was being banished from this house, particularly not her little namesake. “This is my house. You are always welcome in any place I call my home, but you cannot decide who is to be denied access.”
Enric rose, his imposing height now in his cold wrath even more daunting. “But I can. Junar, other than your companion and your daughter, you are no longer welcome in my house.”
Junar stared at him, her lips parting as if she was about to reply, but no word came out. Orrin took her hand and pulled her along towards the stairs.
“No – mother! Don’t go!” Téa suddenly wailed, when her parents descended the stairs.
“But she must! She was mean!” Vedric explained sternly with his arms akimbo, showing little sympathy or mercy for his friend’s predicament. He wasn’t entirely certain what exactly had transpired just now, but if his father told Junar that she was never to return to his home, he knew it had to be serious.
“She was not mean!” Téa insisted, torn between stomping her foot to lend more emphasis to her statement and running after her parents.
“She was, too!” Vedric contradicted, all but shouting. “She said my mother killed Lord Tyront!”
Eryn’s heart raced and she just wished everybody would shut up and give her some time to come to terms with this situation. Having Vedric and Téa now repeat the same fight among them was a appalling thing to have to listen to.
“Vedric, I appreciate that you are so eager to defend me. But there is no sense in fighting. This is not between you and Téa, but between her mother and me. Neither of us wants the two of you to be pulled into this.”
Vedric pushed away his mother’s soothing hand, ignoring her attempts at reigning him in.
“But she did! Everybody knows it!” Téa screamed.
“Shut up, you idiot!” Vedric yelled and jumped up. A moment later, he was pushed back into the cushions with force as two magical bolts departed from his palms, one smashing a window, the other hitting Téa right in the shoulder, causing her to slump towards the floor.
After a moment of shocked silence shared by all present, hectic activity broke out.
Valrad quickly bent down to the girl, checking the damage. Eryn pulled her son into her arms, keeping his palms pointed to the floor in case his unmoderated rage had yet to abate.
Hasty steps became audible from the stairs when Orrin and Junar returned upon having heard what had clearly been the impact of magical bolts.
“My baby!” Junar screeched, almost tripping over her feet when she beheld her daughter in Valrad’s arms. “What have you done?”
“You need not worry, Junar, she is alright,” Valrad explained with a relaxed, mild voice, which had served him well for many years whenever patients and relatives needed reassurance.
Without further ado, Junar pulled her unconscious daughter into her arms and all but fled from the room. Orrin, looking weary and resigned, followed her, and little later they heard the entrance door below close with a slam.
For several moments, they all sat silently, exchanging glances.
Then Valrad sighed. “What a moment to have your magic manifest itself, my boy.”
Gerit added with a shaky laugh, “Just like his father. He knocked out his younger brother back then, and we did not have the luxury of a nearby healer, so we were worrying for many hours whether Noren would wake up ever again.”
“Do not sit around like this,” Malhora demanded, a wide grin on her face, “Bring the wine! Having the magic surface in a child is an occasion for celebration!”
Rolan nodded. “I could do with a glass, to be honest. My heart almost stopped just now!”
Eryn made herself smile. She didn’t feel like celebrating after the hostilities between her and Junar had reached new heights and after having been told that the members of the Order considered Tyront’s death her fault at best and her intention at worst.
“I’m so sorry,” Vedric whispered, shuffling around on his mother’s lap, his eyes widened. “I didn’t want to hurt her! Or break the window!”
“Don’t worry,” Eryn reassured him. “It was an accident. You didn’t really hurt her, you just sent her to sleep. And we will just have the window fixed.”
He stared ahead unseeing while coming to terms with what he had just done. Then his expression changed and became thoughtful. “Am I a magician now?”
Enric sat down next to him, motioning for Pe’tala to make space. “That you are, my son. And a powerful one at that. Let what just happened be your first lesson in how to handle magic – with particular care, so nobody gets hurt by accident.”
Pe’tala grinned. “Though I approve of the target. With the mother out of the room, the girl certainly was the most appropriate recipient of his very first bolt of magic.”
Exasperated, Eryn shook her head about her sister. “This is not funny. You wouldn’t be as blasé if his bolt had hit Zahyn instead of Téa. And Téa is hardly to blame for her mother’s… misconceptions.” She looked at Enric. “Is it true what Junar said? Do they think I killed him to take control of the Order?”
He forced himself to nod. Even though he might have considered not informing her of that to spare her pain, lying to her when she explicitly enquired was not something he could find within himself. “Some seem to think that, yes.”
She gulped. “And why have you so far failed to mention this trifle to me? Why did I have to encounter to such a fact completely unprepared?”
“I was planning to tell you before we go off to see Vyril. I hadn’t expected that somebody would beat me to it and you would hear about it in such a manner.” He looked at Vedric and smiled. “We will have to start practising your control over your magic. You will be an immensely powerful magician, yet with great strength also comes great responsibility.”
Vedric nodded and screwed up his nose. Responsibility. That word again. He had a basic grasp of what it meant – and that it was to blame for spoiling a lot of enjoyable things and having to endure some unpleasant things. Such as apologising. Which was usually the unpleasant consequence of having indulged in something enjoyable – and therefore had him coming and going.
“It could have been much worse,” Rolan contributed with a touch of optimism that was unusual for him. “He could have taken out the King instead.”
Enric nodded. “He does have a point there.” He stood up and stretched out his hand for his son to take. “Come to the garden with me, will you? I would like to show you a thing or two.”
He experienced a feeling of peace and satisfaction as he felt his son’s small, warm hand in his own and walked towards the terrace door with him.
He remembered the incident his mother had mentioned well enough. After hiding his magic for more than two years, he had lost control of it that one time, causing in his parents and everyone else around him panic and fear. Fear of what else he might be capable of. His father had shouted at him, yet in doing so kept what he erroneously considered a safe distance. And locked him into his room until such time as the coach from the city had arrived, taking Enric away and to the Order of Magicians, uprooting him at the age of twelve from his home. It had been a far from harmonious home, a safe haven, but the only one he had known.
Things would be very different for his own son, and he thanked the stars that Vedric’s magic had erupted in an environment where he was surrounded by people who loved him and had experience with such matters. And he was happy that it had happened right now, shortly after the reunion with his parents, so that they were able to be there for him and guide him at this important moment in his life.
Unlike Enric himself, Vedric wouldn’t be forced to hide and wonder what exactly was wrong with him for years. He would learn to handle his magic, acquire the knowledge he needed to make proper use of it – and all that without being separated from his parents and forced to join an institution that saw his primary value as an asset in war.
Sitting down on the grass, he patted a spot next to him and waited until Vedric had followed his example. The first thing he would teach his son would not be shielding. Or infusing his muscles for strength or speed. The first thing, he decided, would be something entertaining. Something where he needn’t hold back.
He lifted his hand and released a bolt of magic into the air. A moment later it exploded. Since it was day, the bursting lights were not yet visible against the bright sky. That would change at night. Then what had now merely produced a loud sound would be a pretty eruption of light that was bound to bring great joy to a young boy.
Vedric watched with wide eyes. “Can I do that?”
Enric smiled. “I don’t know. Can you?”
In addition to his own dread, he felt Eryn’s even more intense through their bond. He was infinitely glad that their connection was returning faster with every dissolution and re-establishment of their bond, as if a missing piece were falling back into place in a hole of just the right shape – effortless and without friction. Though at this very moment he decided he would rather shield himself.
Enric himself was still harbouring feelings of guilt with regard to Tyront. After two decades of friendship – with occasional tensions – the recent developments had not exactly been beneficial to their relationship as a whole. But then there hadn’t really been much to disagree over before Eryn’s arrival in the city. Tyront had been a keen player of the political game to maintain and extend his power base, while Enric had done the bare required minimum in this regard to be able to fulfil his tasks in a rank he had never aspired to. Enric had sought his satisfaction in his business endeavours as a counterbalance to dry political intrigues, so the two men had never really been opponents in that power game. That certainly was conductive to a harmonious relationship. Enric had harboured no ambitions whatsoever to take over the Order – quite the opposite. There were certain liberties he had only been able to afford because the full responsibility of the Order was borne on shoulders other than his own.
There were things Tyront had done, particularly with regard to Eryn, which had had a lasting impact on his and Enric’s friendship, which had towards the end even reduced it to such a degree that there had not been much left. Yet his final act of giving his own life to save hers – however foolish the decision to take her into that battle had been – had exonerated him of all his previous dealings with her, in Enric’s book.
He tried to convince himself that maybe things were best the way they were now. He didn’t even want to imagine how Tyront would have reacted to having the responsibility of the Order taken away from him. Whatever explanation the King would have come up with to make the public believe it was anything other than a withdrawal of trust, it would have been a great shame for Tyront to be the first ever leader to be deposed in such a manner. There had been assassinations of Order leaders in the past, be it by Council members, ambitious Second-in-commands or even Kings. Yet not a single Order leader had ever been relieved of his command and allowed – or probably rather forced – to remain alive to face a future without the power he was used to. At least Enric assumed that King Folrin had intended to let Tyront live. He liked to think that they were all living in more civilised times now.
Eryn’s own relationship with Tyront, Enric knew, had always been an ambiguous one. Like a pendulum, the tensions between the two of them had at times been essentially non-existent, only to spike up again on the next occasion. Just like Enric himself, Tyront had started out as one of her warders, and the fact that he had been in charge of the institution into which they had coerced her had merely changed instead of really dissolved that impression of hers over the years. Tyront had been protecting her every now and again, yet only to a degree that served his own agenda. When it had been in his interest instead to use her, he had done just that.
Yet Eryn, being who she was, was not one to bear a grudge against a dead man in order to alleviate her own feelings of guilt with regard to the circumstances of his death. Enric wished she would this one time chose that path to make her own life a little easier, yet at the same time he knew that this would be completely out of character and probably an even more substantial reason to worry about her.
They stopped and stared at the door to the ambassadorial residence where both the Royal couple and Vyril were staying.
“Somebody should knock,” Eryn commented.
“Yes, I suppose that would help,” he replied without showing any inclination of letting the deed itself follow.
They heard steps from inside, then the door was pulled open and Kilan looked at them, a serious expression on his face.
“Would you like to come in, or do you need another minute?” he enquired gently, clearly aware of their inner struggle.
“No, thank you, we are ready,” Enric replied. His hand at the small of Eryn’s back pushed her ahead so she had no other choice than to take a step forward. Even though Kilan was an old friend of his, he was for the time being still also a subordinate, meaning it wasn’t appropriate to show weakness. That much of the Order’s training was still present in his mind.
“How is she doing?” Eryn murmured, knowing it was not the sharpest of questions.
“Collected,” the Ambassador replied, “quiet.” He walked ahead and up the stairs. “She is expecting you in my study.” He paused and turned around. “Feel free to help yourself from the cabinet in case you need a stiff drink.”
Enric squeezed Kilan’s shoulder, then walked the few remaining steps to the study door to knock.
“Come in,” Vyril’s muffled voice replied.
They followed the invitation and closed the door again. Vyril was standing in front of the window, looking outside without turning. Despite the warmth, she was clad in one of her dresses from Anyueel. She didn’t own any clothes fit for desert climates, yet Junar would surely have made her something quickly enough had Vyril asked. But then she currently had other concerns than her attire.
Enric and Eryn stood in front of the desk, silently waiting until Vyril was ready to face them. Another two minutes went by, until she finally did turn around.
Her face looked pale and haggard as if she hadn’t really bothered with regular food intake since receiving the dreadful news. She looked exhausted and unspeakably sad, yet her eyes were dry. Maybe there were no more tears left.
Eryn felt how her own eyes began to sting. She wouldn’t cry, she swore to herself. She wouldn’t put Vyril in the impossible position to have to comfort anyone else while she herself was overcome by grief.
“I am glad to see you both,” Vyril finally greeted them in a raspy voice that sounded as though it hadn’t been used much lately. She cleared her throat. “I know it must be hard for you to be here.”
She smiled and stepped towards Enric, lifting her hand up to his cheek. “He was so proud of you. Of the formidable man you have made yourself into. Towards the end things were not what they used to be between the two of you, but I want you to know that you were the closest thing to a son he ever had. You managed to fill a void in his heart when we weren’t able to have children of our own. He wasn’t always gentle with you, cruel sometimes even, but I know this is not who he was. It is how he himself was raised and trained. The everlasting struggle for power was what he had been taught as a worthy mission for his life. But thanks to you he had begun to understand that there was more. You made him look beyond things he had considered carved in stone.”
Enric closed his eyes and turned his head slightly so he could kiss her palm. “I’m so sorry, Vyril,” he murmured, unable to come up with anything else. What was there to say? The words were generic even to his own ears, yet he failed to come up with any that expressed his true sentiment any more adequately.
Vyril pulled back her hand and looked at Eryn. “And you, my dear, were his greatest challenge. He was so glad to see Enric form such a deep attachment with you, worried about whether you would in time be able to reciprocate. In a world where obtaining information is just a matter of being able to pay in gold, you managed to surprise him. Regularly. He pretended to be dismayed at every single one of your discoveries or ideas, but in truth he loved them because they forced him to make proper use of that agile mind of his when it usually remained unchallenged by running the Order. After so much time this was little more than routine for him. I never felt that he was quite as alive as the time since your arrival in the city. I know he had a peculiar way of showing it, but he was very fond of you. I won’t say that your regular absences weren’t a good thing for dealings between the two of you to cool down, but after a month or two he already began missing the two of you and looked forward to your return.”
Eryn felt how holding on to her resolution of not crying became almost impossible and quickly closed her tear ducts with magic. She had expected anger, unimaginable grief, accusations, maybe even being ignored, but the kindness Vyril was showing them was so much harder to handle. Vyril had to have heard about the rumours, after all.
“It’s not true what they say,” Eryn whispered, “I didn’t want him to be killed.”
Vyril took her face between her hands and took a step closer, so that their foreheads touched. “I know, child. Of all the things to claim… Whoever says such a thing has no concept of who you are and what you stand for. You wouldn’t even have those apothecaries executed back then. I know you never wanted him to die, merely to free yourself from the Order’s influence.”
Eryn experienced such profound relief at hearing these words that her knees wanted to give in.
Vyril took a step back and moved towards a chair, on which she sat. Eryn noticed the glass on the windowsill, half-full with what looked like a potent drink from the cabinet Kilan had offered to them. Eryn nodded towards it.
“Would you mind if I…?”
Vyril shook her head. “No, dear. Help yourself. I myself am currently beyond any such petty concerns as the proper time of day for drinking. I fear I am about to develop a rather unhealthy habit here, yet right now I don’t care.”
She motioned for Enric to fetch her own glass from the windowsill, and he complied readily.
Staring at the intricately knotted rug on the wall, she continued, “You know, looking back I probably never really expected to see Tyront alive again after he boarded that ship.”
The words caused Eryn to freeze in mid-pour. What?
Enric’s eyes narrowed, but neither of them prompted her to continue. She would do so in her own time, they knew.
Vyril looked up at Enric. “He knew of the King’s plans to replace him.” She took a small sip from her glass. “Not officially, of course. It was all part of this game the two of them had been playing for more than twenty years. King Folrin would hide some information he wanted Tyront’s spies to find in a place that was not exactly obvious or easy to access, but where it was nevertheless obtainable by people with the kind of skills Tyront paid for.” She smiled faintly. “The King even planned to have Tyront renounce his position himself to prevent him from losing face. Then Tyront would have been able to choose whatever life he wanted. He could have asked for Kilan’s position as Ambassador to Takhan. Or become an adviser to the King. Or simply have a place in the countryside to enjoy a life far away from all those responsibilities and political games. But that wasn’t Tyront. He only saw the shame in being replaced, in having to live with being considered inadequate.”
Eryn closed her eyes. So Tyront truly had been aware of it. And Vyril seemed to believe that he had used the war as a convenient means of suicide. In a manner that wouldn’t reflect badly on his companion. Going down in battle. With all the glory people were prone to attach to this kind of death. Fallen in battle, stricken down by the enemy, giving his life for doing just what the Order had initially been established for.
“He wouldn’t have wanted people to put the blame for his death on you, Eryn, or have them speculate about such unflattering and utterly untrue motives. Unfortunately, people tend to ignore facts or fail to consider that they are not in possession of all that is worth knowing. Instead they eagerly believe whatever insinuation has the greatest entertainment value at the time. The Order is no exception to that – no matter how great the effort to educate its magicians.”
Eryn swallowed the remark about Order magicians being hardly educated with the objective to teach them independent thinking, but rather to equip them with the kind of knowledge they needed to be useful – and above all obedient – tools.
“The fact that they will realise their mistake only after the two of you have left the Order and moved to Takhan entirely is of course of little comfort to you right now,” Vyril continued. “Unfortunately, you cannot tell them right now, since this would look as if you abandoned the Order in their time of need. I hear that you will march against Pirinkar. You depend on the Order’s allegiance for that. Having them speculate about your role in Tyront’s death is still the lesser evil compared to telling them that you are about to leave.”
Enric observed Vyril curiously. Ever since he had known her, she had always refrained from contributing any insights or opinions with regard to what was going on with regard to politics surrounding the Order. He – great strategic mastermind that people and to a certain degree he himself assumed he was – had made the mistake of thinking that she was either not interested or that Tyront had sheltered her so well that she hardly came into contact with any of it. But her insightful words just now had proved him wrong – she was neither uninformed, nor unable to contribute. She had merely chosen not to – despite her ability to aptly analyse what was happening with so little apparent effort.
He regretted that he had somehow never taken the time to look at her more closely, to see more than the woman in Tyront’s shadow who was eager to provide a pleasant home for him, where he could retreat after yet another day of strenuous Order business. She was the prudent, well-counselled kind of woman, who would always be underestimated on account of being quiet, despite the fact that she was certainly worth listening to. But then the Kingdom of Anyueel hardly provided the environment for intelligent women to be listened to on a level that had any influence on matters of state. At least not directly. Their only chance of contributing consisted in resorting to rather more clandestine measures such as finding an influential companion and whispering into his ear.
Apart from the occasional queen, Eryn was the only woman who had ever been granted that kind of power, and that was only owing to her magic.
“You need not beat yourself up about the way in which he died, Eryn,” Vyril continued. “There were several aspects to it. It is more complicated than it looks at first sight. One thing is that he would under no circumstances have wanted to face your companion after letting you die. Another is that you have a son who depends on you. And thirdly, he had not yet given up on having Enric stay in Anyueel and take over the Order. He knew that this would never happen once the war was over and the two of you left Anyueel for good.” She looked at Enric. “His only chance was to force you to take over before that, to see that you were good at it. He counted on you not stepping back once you were in power.” She smiled. “It didn’t work, did it? I didn’t think it would. You are still determined to leave Anyueel. I think he was so blinded by what he desired that he failed to take into consideration that you never really had any ambition in that direction. Yet in all these years you were so good being his right hand that it must have slipped his mind. He would have considered it an ultimate failure on his side to yield his office without having done his duty in providing a worthy successor.”
Eryn grimaced at that last sentence and tilted her head back to down the potent spirit in a decidedly less lady-like manner than Vyril’s dainty sips.
“There will be a worthy successor,” she declared, caring at this moment very little that she was not actually supposed to be spreading that information as she saw fit.
“Orrin, of course,” Vyril nodded, anticipating Eryn. “True. I feel that Tyront always underestimated him. I watched Orrin build a reputation for himself. Not as an adversary to be reckoned with on the political playing field, as someone so removed from everyday life that his personality was hard to grasp, but as man with principles hard as steel, incorruptible and unselfish. People will follow such a man. He is such a blatant counterpart to the King.” Pausing for a moment, she looked up and around. “Though I probably shouldn’t be saying such a thing, since it implies that I consider His Majesty to be known for considerably less admirable qualities. When it comes to a man who I know to have informants everywhere and who at this moment is even residing under the same roof as I, one is well-advised to act more prudently.”
Enric crouched in front of her, taking both her hands in his. “Tell me what I can do for you. I will do anything.”
She lifted her hand and let her fingers glide through his golden hair that was streaked with a few silver strands that were visible only at close proximity.
“I will. Though of course you know that I am well provided for. Tyront made certain of that. And the Order wouldn’t have me in rags, either. It wouldn’t be good for their reputation. I’m thinking of moving out of the Palace, maybe staying at the orphanage from now on. Being surrounded by children leaves only very little time for the mind to wander. This way I shall have to face my grief only at night until such time when it becomes bearable.”
“You need to come and visit us regularly,” Enric suggested. “I would value your company very much.”
“I would like that. I have not seen much of Takhan yet, but it looks to be a very pretty and exotic place. Though right now I am not in the right frame for mind to properly appreciate that.” She rose. “But I know I shall be so in perhaps a year’s time.”
Enric took the cue to straighten as well. “Will we be seeing you at the banquet tonight?”
Vyril shook her head. “No. I was invited, but I decided not to go. My days of attending such occasions, being seen in an official capacity, smiling and being a decoy to keep certain people preoccupied with some trivial prattle so Tyront could speak to others, are over. That part at least I will not miss. I no longer need to worry who I might offend since now there are no more consequences that might upset any political balance or jeopardise Tyront’s plans.”
Eryn gulped at the insights Vyril granted into her life at Tyront’s side and was grateful that her own role at Enric’s was so very different from that.
“Then you must visit us at our home soon,” Eryn insisted. “And you need to let me take you to a teahouse. I will show you at least a few of the nicer things here and do whatever I can to coax you into returning here soon.”
Vyril nodded. “Of course.” It was obvious that her strength was beginning to wane and keeping her brave facade intact became more strenuous for her by the minute. “Thank you for coming to see me. I shall see you again soon.”
They left Kilan’s study, quietly closing the door behind them. Kilan approached them and looked at Eryn. “His Majesty asks whether you have a few minutes for him.”
“Does he now. And if I were to answer that I actually do not? That I simply wanted to leave here because I was just talking to the woman whose companion gave his life to save mine and would like to be alone with my thoughts for a bit?” she asked, knowing it was to no avail, but feeling the need to air her frustration.
Kilan gave her a sympathetic smile. “Then I would have to remind you that a King asking is hardly ever a request, no matter how politely he chooses to phrase it.”
Enric pressed a kiss on her forehead. “I’ll wait for you in the main room. Kilan can keep me company. Be careful. You know how he likes to exploit vulnerable emotional states for his purposes.”
* * *
Still shaken from the conversation with Vyril, Eryn entered what she remembered from her own stay here several years ago with Ambassador Enric of Anyueel as the master bedroom. So she would be seeing the monarch in his sleeping chamber. Superb. It seemed they were no longer burdening themselves with such minor considerations as appropriateness. Though she had to admit that the choice of rooms was somewhat limited. Vyril was still occupying the study, and the King obviously wanted some privacy, which was why he didn’t wish to talk in the main room. And the residence didn’t really have a proper garden but merely a courtyard, so no walk away from the building was possible, either.
She knocked and entered without waiting to be admitted. It was petty, she knew, but such little acts of rebellion did wonders for her peace of mind. Provided they happened without witnesses. Otherwise the King couldn’t afford to indulge her but had to reprove her accordingly.
“Do come in,” King Folrin commented dryly as she closed the door behind her. “I shiver when I think what kind of behaviour I may have to expect from you once you are on longer my subject.”
Eryn smiled brightly. “Since I assume you will then no longer treat me as such, I shall treat you with the same courtesy that you show me.”
Clad in a comparatively simple dark green tunic and light brown trousers, he stepped towards her and scrutinised her. “You look somewhat upset. I take it your conversation with Vyril was not an easy one.” It wasn’t a question. Merely one of his little observations that didn’t really require any reply or other confirmation.
“What is it I can do for you, Your Majesty?” she asked politely, aiming to signal that she had no desire to stay longer than absolutely necessary. This day had until now been anything but relaxing, and the impending banquet in the evening wouldn’t exactly contribute much in that direction.
“You can tell me how you are doing right now.”
Eryn folded her arms. “Because you wish to make certain that I am currently in a state of mind fit for whatever manipulative attempts you are about to launch?”
“Your distrust wounds me deeply,” he sighed and placed a hand on his heart.
“A little more to the right.”
“The heart. Contrary to popular belief, it is not situated quite that far left. It’s more to the centre of the chest. I feel I should point this out.”
He raised his brow. “Then I stand corrected and kindly thank you for improving the accuracy of my dramatic gestures.”
“Always at your service,” she replied with a small bow.
“Let us get back to how you are currently feeling. I hear you have had quite a difficult day so far. Your altercation with Junar during what I assume was intended to be a quiet meal, then the unexpected surfacing of your son’s magic, and finally the encounter with Vyril. The latter, I presume, was as calm and civilised as Vyril was able to make it. She is a true lady, even when drowning in grief, and I know for certain that she does not stoop so low as to give credence to any of the speculations surrounding her companion’s demise that are currently so popular in the Order.”
Eryn exhaled. And then decided to ask a question of her own. This began to feel like one of his little lessons in political strategy, and on such occasions he even expected her to pose them.
“You made certain Tyront found out that you were about to replace him. Why? Did you wish for him to seek a glorious death in battle and save yourself the trouble of relieving him of his office?”
The King seemed to have anticipated that question. He walked to a small, round table with two comfortable-looking chairs in front of the window. Eryn guessed that the King had had them brought here, since Kilan was probably not cultivating the habit of receiving guests in his bedroom. Well, at least not the kind of guest who would be asked to sit at a table rather than get comfortable on the bed.
“I did not wish that. Yet I have known Lord Tyront for a long time and suspected that this might be the kind of end he himself would prefer. Leading the Order was for many years his main purpose in life. All his energy was dedicated to it. Taking away this position was to him much more than it would be to, let us say, your companion. Lord Enric has never served the Order with the same kind of undivided attention as his former superior. He pursued personal interests, amused himself with numerous businesses, always venturing into new areas when he had mastered yet another to his satisfaction or felt it didn’t challenge him accordingly. And his life was enriched by his son and his business interests here in Takhan. So other than Lord Tyront, he was by no means dependent on the Order to give meaning to his life. Taking something like that away from a man can plunge him into a serious crisis.”
“And yet you decided to go through with it, despite knowing what the likely impact was.”
“I wish I had the luxury of basing my decisions on nothing more than the emotional well-being of every single one of my subjects. You, my dear Eryn, will in time learn that this is not a feasible course of action once you take over House Aren. At times there must be sacrifices to ensure the greater good.” He paused and waited. “Won’t you take a seat? Or do you wish to impress on me how urgently you wish to leave this room? Being alone with me in my bedroom does not concern you, I hope? You may rest assured that my… inclinations towards you from several years ago have been transformed into something you would consider a lot less threatening. And even if that were not the case, my respect and affection for my companion would make it impossible for me to act on anything. So do take a seat, so we may continue this conversation in a more relaxed manner.”
Eryn sat. Something about his words irked her, but she was at a loss how to reply to them. He had insinuated that she thought he still felt drawn towards her. Which she didn’t. Never since that fateful day of his kiss had he given her any reason to think that he saw in her more than a pleasant diversion.
“I’m not quite that conceited, you know,” she finally replied, a touch miffed. “The reason for my wish to keep this here short is not that I feel you are about to throw me on that bed, but because I know that I am currently in a vulnerable state of mind for whatever game you might be intent on playing with me.”
He laughed. “Well said, Eryn. I am glad to see that you have learned from the past. Yet I may assure you that I am not here to use you for any sinister plan of mine. You have my word.”
Eryn pursed her lips. His word. She knew he didn’t give it carelessly, simply because he couldn’t afford to break it. She felt how she relaxed a little.
“I don’t want you to consider me cruel and indifferent to the fate which Lord Tyront chose for himself. I do mourn him. We have walked the same path for quite some time now. At times we were allies, at others opponents. Nevertheless, we always treated each other with the respect the other was due. Either of us was aware that we were both intent on doing what we ultimately considered best for the Kingdom, even though we didn’t always agree on the means which would ultimately lead to that end. It was this respect for him that induced me to inform him of my plans of his removal from office so he could make his choice. I am not happy with what he ultimately decided to do, yet I admit this is what I expected.”
“He could at least have opted for circumstances less detrimental to my own peace of mind.” The harsh words escaped Eryn’s mouth before she managed to hold them back. She closed her eyes. “Can we forget that I said that?” she asked with little hope that he would comply with her request. Upon her arrival he had enquired about how she was doing, and so far she had failed to answer it. This was the most honest answer he could have hoped for.
“I assume he would have preferred that as well,” the King replied, ignoring her wish to take her words back. “Knowing Lord Tyront, he did not merely jump at the first opportunity to lay down his life to reduce the risk of surviving the war. I assume that he had initially intended to contribute more to the overall outcome. How did you personally perceive his conduct in battle?”
She took several seconds to ponder that question. Looking back, she saw him running towards the enemy ahead of his men, his sword at the ready. He hadn’t opted for staying behind and directing everything from behind the city wall. “Daring. Prepared to take risks.”
“Are these attributes you would usually think of if you were asked to describe Lord Tyront before the war?”
Without hesitating she shook her head. Definitely not. “No.”
“A man who not only feels that he has nothing to lose, but actively seeks to avoid survival has a rather less cautious approach to protecting himself in a fight,” the King pointed out the obvious. “He did not choose to actively lay down his life to save yours, I would presume. He merely acted in that new disregard for his own safety that he had adopted. I do not think he had any intention of causing you grief with his sacrifice, neither a personal one in terms of guilt, nor to your reputation due to speculations regarding any intentions of ending his life on your side.”
Eryn sighed. “Of course not.” She felt stupid for having said such a thing out loud for him to hear. Yet as it sometimes was with such unplanned utterances, she had realised something she hadn’t been aware of – that in addition to her feelings of guilt there was also resentment against Tyront simmering inside her. Which was not a healthy thing considering that the target itself had perished and was not available as a counterpart for resolving this issue.
She rubbed with her hands over her face. “You are good at this. You could rival Iklan. Should you ever decide you are done being a King, contact him. I’m confident he would have use for you.”
“A compelling suggestion, to be sure. I shall take it under consideration should I ever grow tired of regality. The grief and guilt is something you need to come to terms with on your own. Yet the issue with preserving the Order’s loyalty is a more pressing matter posing a very real danger to our impending campaign. We cannot afford to have the moral integrity of the Order’s leaders put into question. It tends to reduce the soldiers’ willingness to follow their commands.”
Eryn let her head sink back and stared at the delicately painted ceiling. Different patterns consisting of complicated flower-like ornamentation that kept intertwining until the beholder’s eyes started to blur in trying to determine where one element ended and the next began.
“You could release Enric and me from the Order with immediate effect and have Orrin take over right away,” she proposed.
“Certainly not,” King Folrin replied. “This would be neither in my interest nor in your own. The Order would not benefit from yet another change in leadership at such a critical juncture. And it would equal an admission of guilt. Worse even. If I released you from your positions, I would openly communicate that I considered you guilty of what so many choose to believe. And this would not simply go away after you left the Order and moved here, no matter what your prior merits or the fact that you are the progeny of House Aren. Everything you have achieved in recent years, all the good you have accomplished for those who are now in such a hurry to condemn you, will fade in the face of the accusations.”
Eryn’s jaw muscles tensed. She wanted to scream in frustration. He was right. The Order had been subject to changes which had over time and would also in the future grant its members more freedom – changes she herself had fought for. And now at the first opportunity the beneficiaries of her efforts turned around and pointed their finger at her – without bothering about the fact that they were destroying her reputation without so much as even the tiniest proof.
“It is painful, isn’t it?” The King’s voice was soft. “This was something I found very hard to grasp in my first few years on the throne. The very people who you look after are those most eager to see you fall – with no discernible reason. They would kick you into the dirt, more ruthless than even your enemies. Human nature is an odd thing, isn’t it? I assume this is why House Vel’kim never aspired to leading the country – their inclination towards healing brings them in such close contact with human nature in its most unalloyed form that they decided it was not worth the trouble.”
Eryn smiled faintly. Valrad was certain to reject that explanation. He would insist that the true motivation behind holding back was something noble, such as the urge to serve people in a more immediate manner, be closer to those in need than the Triarch seat made possible.
“What do you propose instead to rehabilitate us?”
“I am working on it. I first wish to discuss it with the Queen and hear her thoughts.”
“I’m glad to see that you seem to embrace the concept of ruling jointly with so little effort after all these years of having the ultimate power rest in your hands alone.”
He nodded. “I admit this is true. Yet I should think that sharing power is all the easier if one has the right person to share it with at one’s side. Del’na’bened is an excellent match for both my personality and my position.”
Eryn lifted her brow. “That is dangerously close to a declaration of love. It’s a good thing Malriel chose so well for you.”
“Indeed. I shall forever remain in her debt. Though I should point out that sending my troops to her aid has certainly aided in reducing that debt somewhat.”
“Are we done now? If not, I feel the need to point out that due to the heat it is customary in this country to offer a guest something to drink. Even those one would much rather hit with a shovel than regale.”
“Forgive my negligence,” King Folrin apologised and got up to leave the room and return little later with a tray upon which a carafe of water and two glasses were set.
She took the glasses and filled both. Well, that at least answered her question of whether or not they were done. But she had a feeling that he no longer wanted to talk about Tyront for the time being.
“Speaking of guests one would rather hit with a shovel, as you put it so eloquently in that frankness of yours I value so much…”
After emptying half the glass, Eryn placed it on the small table. “You are obviously referring to Junar. You already mentioned that you know about what happened earlier today. Who told you about that? Malriel?”
He nodded in confirmation. “Yes. She dropped by for a brief visit not long ago.”
“I wasn’t aware that my personal issues with a woman I considered a friend at one point is quite such an important matter. One even my King terms noteworthy.”
“This is no longer a mere personal issue, Eryn.”
Three times, she counted silently. That was how often he had addressed her without her title since her arrival.
“How so, dearest Folrin?”
“Because you are a high-ranking member of the Order and Junar is companion to the number five and Head of Warriors. The breach between you is known to some people, although not nearly to everyone. Yet as things are between the two of you, this is only a matter of time. And right this moment is a bad time for such a fact to become public knowledge.”
Eryn opened her mouth to ask what exactly he was talking about, but stopped herself. He was right – she had failed to consider that things had changed significantly since the beginnings of their friendship. Back then Junar had been an unknown seamstress, a member of the working class with no connections whatsoever to the highest circles of the Kingdom. And Eryn had been a prisoner with no influence and not even the freedom to pass through the city gates. Back then, things had been personal. But now they were much more than that. Junar was joined with the man who would in the near future become the second-most powerful man in the Kingdom. And Eryn already was in that very position – in addition to holding a high rank herself. Orrin was known to be Eryn’s close friend and supporter – and if Junar publicly declared her distrust, people would immediately assume that this also reflected Orrin’s own position. Having people think that she had lost Orrin’s support would be a shattering blow in her current situation.
Eryn felt her chest tightening. From one moment to the next, Junar had suddenly turned hazardous. The trouble was that she had no idea how Orrin would react once it became known that Junar had her doubts over Eryn’s innocence regarding Tyront’s death. In the past, he had shown restraint, had followed the desire to avoid a dispute that would do more harm than good in his view. Eryn did not hold this against him. Divided loyalties were a difficult, gruelling thing. However, this brought with it the danger that he might continue to opt for this approach as long as his companion was affected.
“I would try to remedy this, I really would,” she whispered. “But I don’t know how. I feel that Junar has been drifting away from me for a while now, that it took little more than a perceived insult to cut the last bond between us. All this is not tangible for me, so I have no idea how to mend it. After all that has happened between Junar and I, I don’t know whether I would even want that.”
King Folrin observed her for a while, then offered, “I might be of service here if you care to hear about it. At least with regard to what has caused that rift between the two of you.”
She blinked. Seriously, was there anything he was not interested in or collected information about? But then she had just realised that her relationship with Junar had for quite some time now ceased to be quite as inconsequential for her environment as she had thought. Of course he had realised that quickly and instructed his spies accordingly – meaning that by now he was probably in possession of a tidy collection of details.
“Go ahead, I’m all ears,” she invited him, resigned that she was very likely about to learn a lot more about her former friendship. It was a good thing that she was past that state where such an absurdity as being taught yet another intimate insight about herself by the King would bother her.
“The answer is actually a rather simple one. One I trust you yourself might arrive at in due course now that you no longer consider yourself and Junar the only players or rather interested parties in your friendship. You are aware of the nature of the circles the Council members and their companions move within. They are characterised by opportunism, and thus by the need for advantageous alliances. These range from lucrative business alliances to personal relationships among the companions of the powerholders. Even further to relationships among the servants and suppliers of the rich and powerful, but these are not relevant to the present case. Now think of a woman who comes from a humble background and who, through certain circumstances, has managed to make her way into these circles. Into circles whose elitist nature is naturally bound to very limited access. What, in your opinion, would be a logical reaction of such circles to a newcomer they hardly consider worthy of them, but who is proving difficult or impossible to get rid of?”
“Rejection,” Eryn murmured, remembering that this really had been a problem for Junar back then. Therefore, she had avoided certain events or only attended them when Eryn had gone there together with her. But Eryn had been forced to leave and stay away from Anyueel for six months every year, which meant Junar had stayed behind on her own, vulnerable to whatever underhanded attacks and intrigues those women had come up with. Was that what had ultimately changed Junar so much? The bitterness resulting from the feeling of being left behind again and again, deprived of the protection of her powerful friend?
“Exactly. Rejection, you see, tends to breed a powerful desire to be accepted, particularly when one has no-one else to turn to. Constant criticism and dismissal can do terrible things to the human mind. It begins to attribute truth to the things others claim. If we hear something often enough, we start to believe it at some point – despite our initial conviction that it is untrue.”
Eryn knew that concept. It was one reason why positive affirmation and attention were so important when raising a child. A child knowing it was loved and admired would in time flourish, while another who grew up being told that it was worthless and inadequate would turn into an adult knowing just that.
The thought that Junar had undergone such treatment made her shiver.
The King continued, “So when those women finally realised that Junar had come to stay, they changed their strategy. After battering Junar with unkindness long enough to make her believe she was deserving of it, it was not hard to lure her in. The stronger the rejection, the more burning becomes the desire to escape it and be considered worthy. The opportunity suddenly to be allowed to join one’s attackers is nothing short of a dream come true.”
Eryn’s heart had begun to hammer in her chest. Why ever had she not been able to spot any of that? She had been there half the time, after all!
“Ah, I can read the question in your eyes as clearly as though you had spoken. I assure you there is no reason to blame yourself. You have the unlucky propensity towards accepting responsibility for all and everything around you. Let me tell you that this is not a healthy attitude. They were sharp enough to pursue their efforts mostly in your absence. Which was the time when Junar was most susceptible to them. Separating the two of you was an important objective. At first it was a means of making Junar more vulnerable, but in time they realised that Orrin was likely to play an important role in the Order’s future, which meant Junar’s influence would increase as well. At this point your removal from Junar’s side served another purpose – to offer one of them the opportunity to become a close friend to her to replace you and benefit from her position. After several years of playing this game, it ultimately became a matter of only a small difference in opinions between the two of you to make Junar believe that everything she had been told about you was true.”
Eryn ground her teeth, feeling how stupor was beginning to be replaced by anger. “What did they tell her about me?”
“Little things here and there, first only hints, but in time more bold criticism and finally outright lies. That you threw Junar in Lord Orrin’s way to make her a more valuable tool for yourself. That you made certain she became pregnant to ensure her continued relationship with Lord Orrin. That you are imposing your moral values on her because you consider her little more than your underling’s companion who should be grateful for any guidance she can get from a supreme being such as yourself. That she is to you a convenient means of keeping a servant who does her bidding and still continues to make her clothes. Shall I go on? You do look a little agitated. Breathe, Eryn. I neither want Lord Enric storm in here because he suspects I am doing who knows what to you, nor would I appreciate this charming building burying me.”
She shook her head, feeling how her lower lip was trembling. Those vile, dastardly, impossible vultures!
“There is one more thing they told her. Something I believe must have been particularly hard for her to deal with. She was made to believe that Lord Orrin’s personal interest in you had initially been a lot less harmless, that he desired you. A particularly devious touch was telling her that he had even been about to claim you for himself at the evening of your commitment. Only Lord Tyront’s intervention prevented him from doing so. That latter part of Lord Orrin’s intended intervention is the truth – yet as you and I are aware, it was for entirely different reasons than securing you for himself. He merely realised that you were being coerced and wished to delay the ceremony long enough to find some way out of it. Another fact is that Lord Enric was at some time rather jealous of Lord Orrin, as I am certain you must know. Though we may forgive your companion for having been driven by the fear of losing you back then. Suffering his own thoughts being clouded by jealousy is what a few years later happened with Junar. Every playful and friendly interaction between Lord Orrin and yourself suddenly turned into a threat for her relationship. Particularly when Malriel requested Lord Orrin to come to Takhan to protect your son. You may thank the stars that Vedric resembles his father enough to prevent any fabrications of his being in truth Lord Orrin’s son. Otherwise I wouldn’t put it beyond those lovely ladies to plant that thought into Junar’s mind and watch it unfold. The human mind is a marvellous thing. It can over time be trained and compelled to adapt a certain way of deducting and reasoning. Which is why different professional disciplines tend towards approaching a problem in a certain way that fits the manner of thinking they have been trained in. This is why your abilities in different disciplines make you such a talented woman, Eryn. But forgive me, I am digressing. I wanted to point out how Junar’s mind must in time have started to come up with certain suspicions all on her own. Previously harmless things must suddenly have turned into clues as to yet another sinister motive of yours – every grin an insult, every guarded look a criticism, ever quip or joke you shared with Lord Orrin a proof of his ardent longing for you. And so the scales tipped.”
“And why, if I may be so bold as to ask such a thing,” she squeezed out from between clenched teeth, “have you never found it worth the effort of informing me of such things? Why were you watching while a close friend of mine was turned against me instead of warning me? Was it such great entertainment to watch? Or are you somehow benefiting from the end of my friendship with Junar?”
Somehow the list of people she wanted to whack was becoming longer by the minute. Now it even included a King.
“How would you have reacted to such a warning from me, pray tell?” he asked calmly. “Would you have believed it right away? Or would you rather have condemned me for spying on your friend? And accused me of insulting her intelligence with the insinuation she would truly fall for such a plot even if there were such a ridiculous thing? Would you have demanded I cease my observation of her this moment? And attributed my interest in your friend in my wish to collect intelligence for the sole purpose of using you?”
Eryn wanted to contradict with all her heart. It almost hurt how much she wanted to throw at him that he was utterly mistaken. And it hurt much more that she was unable to because he was so utterly and completely right. She would have become angry, but at him and not at the women in question. As long as her friendship with Junar had been intact – or at least for as long as she had been under the impression it was – she wouldn’t have believed any of it.
“Very well, let’s assume you are correct and I might have reacted in such a way. But any adverse reaction of mine was never before any reason for you to withhold unpleasant information from me. Quite the opposite. You delight in watching and analysing me, particularly in my less controlled states of mind. So there must be more to it.” She narrowed her eyes and stared into his. “You wanted me to suffer this loss, because you think this is the most effective way for me to learn my lesson. To learn that my perception as to the vileness that regular, seemingly harmless people are capable of is too naive by far.”
“True, all of it,” the King admitted, unperturbed. “But while I initially intended for this to be of purely educational value, Lord Tyront’s death and the damage Junar might wreak by making her distrust of you public require immediate action on your part.”
Eryn barked out a hollow laugh. “Of course. Because before your revelation I was willing to let her be, to accept that there was nothing I could do about it all, to retreat and lick my wounds. Not so now. This is not the first time you have used my anger to steer me and make me act.” She got up from her chair. “You will be glad to hear that I intend to act. I’m exactly in the mood for it. I remember when you told me that playing with open cards and still winning was the master class. Congratulations. Another victory for you.”
“Stop right there!” the King’s harsh command kept her from turning away and storming towards the door. He got up from his own chair and stepped towards her. “I do need you to act. And your anger is giving you the energy you will need for this confrontation you would otherwise have been reluctant to enter into. Yet I expect from you to use your anger for your purposes instead of letting yourself be consumed by it and doing something imprudent. That is a luxury you do not have. You are still the number two in the Order, and as such I command you to protect it and its reputation and to keep it functional for the task ahead of us. You will take Lord Enric along. This is an order. Now you may leave. I see that after all these years we still have this little difficulty with your inability to wait for me to dismiss you.”
Without so much as a word or bow, she whirled around and pulled open the door hard enough to almost break the hinges.
“Enric!” she shouted. “His Majesty kindly suggests we make a little social call.”
Her companion got up from the seating cushions in one fluid move. He had been receiving the wrath through the mindbond for several minutes now and was prepared for some extraordinarily bad mood upon her appearance. But this was certainly not a state of mind to unleash her on anyone.
“You are not supposed to assassinate anyone on his behalf are you?” he asked, only half-jokingly.
“No, but I might change my mind about that during the visit,” she growled, “you are supposed to come along and prevent that from happening.”
“Alright, I can do that. Who are we going to delight with our visit?”
He exhaled slowly. Well, at least that promised to become interesting.
* * *
It had taken House Tokmar only a few days to restore their main residence to its former status after the damages it had incurred during the combat actions. The Head of House had returned with his family and had kindly offered to take in Orrin and his family for the duration of their stay.
The Head of Warriors would have stayed with the soldiers, had he been alone, yet with his companion and daughter present, this would have been impossible. Moving in with Eryn and Enric had also been out of the question, for more than one reason. With Pe’tala and the children back as well as Malhora, Malriel and Valrad living there, the residence currently harboured a fair number of residents already. And then there was the matter of Eryn and Junar not getting along for some reason that kept eluding Orrin. Once he had asked Junar about it, but his companion had shouted something at him and finally disappeared into their bedroom. Crying. He hadn’t asked again. Though after the midday meal only a few hours ago he knew he had to brave the storm which a new attempt at enquiry was likely to trigger. The situation was beginning to become unbearable, and he neared the end of his patience.
There was a knock at the door to the guest room in which he and Junar stayed. He lowered the report he was currently reading.
“Orrin?” a voice enquired. Female, young. The youngest daughter of Uvel, Head of House Tokmar.
“Yes, Neád?” he called out.
“You have visitors,” she informed him through the closed door.
He got to his feet and opened the door, looking down at the pretty sixteen-year-old. “Thank you.”
Walking towards the main room, he frowned as he beheld the group of people waiting there. They didn’t look like good news. At least Eryn did not. She radiated fury. Which was probably the reason why her companion was keeping a close eye on her. And then there were Golir and Iklan. The Triarch appeared confused as though he had been called here without being told why, and the healer displayed a sort of happy curiosity as though he also wasn’t sure what he was to expect, but looked forward to finding out.
Eryn’s eyes locked on Orrin. “Where is Junar?” she asked without a greeting, her harsh tone clear from the first word.
“Out in the garden with Téa,” Orrin replied, his apprehension growing with every second. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” she just replied without offering any further explanation, then turned towards Uvel’s daughter. “How many of your family are currently at home?”
“Just me and my brother,” the girl replied. “My parents are at the Landred residence to have drinks there before the banquet.”
“Good.” Eryn pulled two gold slips out of a pocket. “Take your brother and Téa and go a tea house of your choice. Buy whatever you wish. Stay away for at least two hours. Can do you that?”
Neád nodded, slightly confused but certainly not objecting to an invitation to a tea house. She ran off to knock at a door, whereupon a young man a little older than herself appeared. He listened to her for a moment, then shrugged and followed her into the garden.
It didn’t take long until Junar burst into the main room through the terrace door. The unexpected sight of the newcomers made her pause for a moment, then she marched towards her companion and demanded to know, “They are saying they want to take Téa to a teahouse – what is the meaning of this all?” She indicated Eryn with her chin. “Is that what she wants? Is she now in charge of our family as well? Can she decide who our daughter goes out with? After knocking her out only a few hours ago?”
“Would you rather have her stay?” Eryn asked coolly. “I’m sure she will have quite a story to tell her friends once you are back in Anyueel.”
Junar looked at Golir, then Iklan. “What is this here?”
Eryn ignored her and motioned for Neád and her brother, who was holding Téa’s hand in his, to proceed towards the stairs and outside. Only when the entrance door had closed with an audible sound did Eryn step towards Junar.
“I just had a most illuminating little chat with King Folrin, and now I can hardly wait to share my new insights with you.”
“I have no interest whatsoever in your insights, so you can just as well leave and leave me in peace,” Junar hissed. “I am sick of your power games! Go!”
“What is this about, Eryn?” Orrin joined his companion in demanding an explanation.
Eryn turned towards him and looked him in the eyes. “Orrin, I need you to trust me. I swear to you, I won’t harm her. But we have a situation here that needs containing. And an issue that has been in dire need of being addressed for rather a long time now. She will protest and maybe even try to run, but you have to let me proceed.”
The warrior looked into her eyes for a long moment, then pressed his lips together and nodded once. “Don’t make me regret this.”
“I won’t,” she promised.
“Orrin!” Junar wailed, “You can’t trust her! If you knew all the things I…”
“Yes, Junar,” Eryn interrupted her, “this is actually why I’m here – to talk about the things you are convinced you know about me. I’m very interested in hearing about them.”
Panic widened Junar’s eyes. “Orrin! You need to protect me!”
“That wouldn’t make much sense, I’m afraid,” Eryn shrugged. “You do remember that I am stronger than him? But I can ease your mind – the one in charge of protecting you from whatever evil deeds I might come up with on the spur of the moment is Enric. And the fact that we have a Triarch and a renowned healer here as well should show you that I’m hardly planning on inflicting harm on you. And if this is not reassurance enough for you, you may rest safe in the knowledge that I would at least be severely disciplined afterwards.” Eryn pointed to the seating cushions behind Junar. “Why don’t you sit?”
Junar folded her arms and remained standing with a fixed, hostile gaze.
“Alright, then stand if you prefer that. But you will permit me to sit.” Eryn chose a colourful cushion and leaned back. With a lazy motion of her fingers she raised barriers in front of every window and exit, preventing Junar from any premature, unsanctioned attempts at leaving.
“Right now you don’t strike me as particularly eager to cooperate, and since I have no intention of subjecting you to a forcible interrogation, I suggest the following: I’ll do the talking, you should do the listening. And once I’m done, we’ll switch.”
“I have no intention whatsoever of…”
“Junar – please. I promised Orrin not to harm you. I stand by that. But I have to tell you that I would not consider impairing your vocal cords for a while to be inflicting harm on you. Either you shut up or I’ll make you.”
The seamstress pressed her lips together and covered her throat with one hand as if she had any hope of protecting her vocal chords that way.
“Where was I? Ah, yes – a story. I have to warn you – it’s not a happy one. Well, maybe at the beginning. But it turns dark quickly enough. The good thing, though, is that as of yet the end is unresolved, meaning there is still hope. Are you ready? I take that deadly glare as an invitation to commence. So, here we go. Several years ago, in a Kingdom not too far away but still not exactly around the corner, a woman was taken captive. Not because she had done anything wrong, but because it turned out that she wasn’t from the area. When it was in addition to that discovered that she was able to wield magic, which was a skill thought impossible in women, she was kindly asked to prolong her stay in the King’s capital city. Kindly asked being a euphemism for being shackled in gold and made to train in sword fighting, because they thought having her in their little boy’s association would be a lovely idea. Not knowing whether she would ever again be set free, she endured their battering with swords and the restrictions on her personal freedom. Only two things kept her from going insane – the prospect of one day escaping her captors, and the two friends she had managed to make. The first friend was a boy with a kind heart and the amazing talent of drawing the most wonderful pictures one can imagine. And the second was a woman with the ability to turn simple bales of cloth into the most incredible dresses. Her life had not always been a happy one, yet she had still preserved in her heart enough kindness to let a gesture of gratitude for having her sister healed turn into friendship with a prisoner. The magician was overjoyed, experiencing for the first time in her life the gift of having not one friend, but two, when for more than two decades she had been forced to keep her distance from everyone around her to preserve the secret of her magic. The friendship between the magician and the seamstress kept growing, connecting them with a bond that both held dear. But things began to change. The magician was sent to the land from whence she came, meeting there a family she had not known existed and who wanted her back so desperately that they tried to make her stay. Torn between the two countries, she was finally made to travel between them, splitting her time between them equally. The two women didn’t know it yet, but this arrangement would turn out to be the obstacle to shatter their friendship. It didn’t happen all at once, but gradually over time. Because every time the magician had to leave the Kingdom with her family to be gone for many months, the seamstress had to stay behind with the other women, who rejected her for no fault of her own. They harassed and abused her, made her feel unworthy of being one of them, of joining what they considered an illustrious circle. Every time the magician returned to the Kingdom, and the two friends were reunited, the evil women retreated again, waiting patiently until the magician left again so they could once more spread their poison. The seamstress was a gentle soul, suffering under this treatment, until she began to succumb and began to believe what they were saying about her, making her believe she was less worthy than them. She began to long for any sign of appreciation, and in the magician’s absence, she felt so lost and alone that she even sought for some sense of belonging among the evil women. Since the seamstress’ companion was a mighty and powerful man, they began to realise that inflicting terror upon her was not a productive course of action in the long run. Accepting her among them and using her influence to for their own benefit was much more promising. So they began to make her one of them. But that required severing her connection to the magician, who had hitherto just watched helplessly as her friend had drifted further and further away from her, not knowing what it was that was widening the gap between them more and more. The evil women were crafty in their efforts. They told the seamstress lies. And truths wrapped in lies. Anything to make her question the validity of the bond of friendship connecting the two women. There was no proof for any of it, yet they managed to plant the seed of doubt in the seamstress’ mind. They fed her more and more untruths until the seed began to flourish and the woman even began in her own mind to suspect these lies and betrayals, where there were in truth none.”
Eryn paused, taking in Junar, who was standing there with wide eyes, breathing heavily.
“Stop this,” she whispered, then turned towards her companion, pleading, “Orrin! Please?”
But the warrior’s eyes had narrowed, as his intense gaze jumped from Eryn to Junar and back again. “What lies?” he just asked.
Eryn looked up at the ceiling. “That the magician had never truly considered the seamstress her friend, but only used her as a pawn for her own purposes. She accomplished elevating her through making sure she was joined with a high-ranking magician. Then she secretly planned to make their bond harder to cut by forcing a child onto them. They told her that her companion was in truth longing for the touch of the magician, awaking in the seamstress a fear of losing her beloved, injecting her with jealousy. Every interaction between her companion and the magician became in her eyes proof of their secret love.”
Orrin’s facial expression had turned dark as he slowly turned towards Junar. He didn’t walk towards her, as if he couldn’t trust himself not to hurt her.
“Is that true, Junar? Did people tell you such things about me? Things you chose to believe?” His tone was so hushed that only the complete silence in the room made understanding the words possible.
Junar’s mouth opened and closed several times, but no words came out.
“I see,” the warrior commented and turned around to walk towards the stairs. A strong bolt from one palm collapsed Eryn’s shield. It hadn’t been a particularly strong one, since its purpose had been keeping a non-magician from leaving.
“Orrin,” Junar breathed and made to run after him, but Eryn quickly raised another shield right in front of her to hold her back. “No, you stay. The story isn’t over yet. Enric, please go after Orrin.”
“Let me go!” Junar wailed. “I need to go after him! I need to talk to him, explain it!”
“You have failed to talk to him for such a long time,” Eryn replied mercilessly. “I’m certain this can wait another half hour. What is more, my impression is that right now he needs some time away from you. Let us return to our story, shall we? Are you certain you don’t want to sit?”
“I don’t want to sit!” she screamed at Eryn. “I need to go after Orrin! Let me go!” She whirled around towards Golir. “Golir! You are strong – please help me! Get me out of here! Please!”
The Triarch looked worried, clearly at a loss how to react. Junar was very obviously in great distress and being held captive, yet Eryn’s message had informed him that she needed him here to eliminate a considerable danger to the Order’s loyalty towards its leaders and as a consequence to a successful conclusion of their march on Pirinkar. So far he didn’t understand how exactly the goings on in this place were supposed to have any influence on that, but then he owed Malriel’s daughter the benefit of doubt.
“I think you might need to hear her out, Junar,” the Triarch replied softly.
“I don’t want to hear any more of her lies,” the seamstress sobbed.
Eryn on the seating cushions clapped into her hands twice. “Golir, that was your cue. I apologise for having been rather cryptic in my message to you. The reason why you are here is to apply a lie filter to me and in doing so demonstrate to Junar that my story did not contain any lies whatsoever.” When Junar stared at her, she added, “I assumed that you wouldn’t trust Enric or Ram’an to do this, since they are both stronger than me, but also very close to me. Which leaves Golir, who has no reason whatsoever to pretend I am telling the truth when I am not. If you choose to reject Golir as a reliable person to apply the truth block, I advice you to better come up with a substantial reason for questioning his integrity. He is a damn Triarch, after all.” She lifted her hand towards Golir, waiting until he had taken it in his and sent in his magic to establish the truth block. “Well, Junar, this is your moment. Ask away. I cannot lie to you, only refuse to answer. Which in itself can be revealing enough provided you ask the right questions. I’m in your hands now.”
“How do I even know this works?” Junar asked in a suspicious tone.
Iklan stepped forward, all eagerness. “I believe I can be of help here, if you permit me.” He smiled at Eryn. “You entered for your son into a commitment agreement with the youngest daughter of House Arbil. Do you have the honest intention of doing everything you can to aid in fulfilling that agreement?”
Eryn stared at him, taken aback. “You are here to help, damn you!”
“I am helping!” the healer protested.
“No, you are getting me into trouble! We are in the presence of a Triarch, in case this has escaped your notice!”
Iklan grinned. “Which is exactly why I expect you would rather keep what I expect will be a controversial reply to yourself. What better way to demonstrate the effectiveness of the lie filter is there than to force out a truth you would otherwise not admit in front of a Triarch?”
Closing her eyes for a moment, Eryn sighed. “You are a brilliant man, Iklan, but right now I don’t care for you very much. So be it, then. No, I don’t have any intention to try and persuade my son to let himself be joined with a woman for no other reason than financial prosperity and creating strong offspring.”
Golir pursed his lips. “That means you have filed with the Triarchy a commitment agreement which you have every intention of breaking. I think when this is all over, you, Ram’an and I will sit down and have a good long conversation.”
Eryn ground her teeth, then looked up at Junar. “Satisfied?”
The seamstress nodded and came closer. “Were any elements of that story of yours false, intentionally misleading or exaggerated?”
“No,” Eryn replied immediately.
Junar swallowed. “Where did you get this information from?”
“I told you before – I had a conversation with the King. He told me about all of it. Everyone knows he has a tight network of spies collecting every morsel of information he might find useful.”
“The King is spying on me?”
“Because you are the companion of an important Order magician. Of the next leader of the Order, in fact.” And three more people who were casually informed about that little fact…
Junar stared at her. “What?”
“Orrin is about to be promoted once the war is over.”
“But… but… what about Enric?”
“Enric and I are about to relocate to Takhan. I’m re-joining House Aren to become their Head of House.”
Another few seconds followed, allowing the seamstress to digest this news. “You’ll be leaving Anyueel for good? And the Order as well?”
“Yes. Well, I’ll return for occasional visits, of course. But Enric, Vedric and I will relocate to Takhan permanently.”
“But Tyront’s death…” Now Junar finally did sit down. “Why kill him if you don’t even stay in the Order?”
Eryn exhaled slowly. “Junar, I’m saying this with the utmost degree of respect I can currently come up with – namely none at all: you have obviously taken leave of your senses. Otherwise you would realise that it makes absolutely no sense that I was supposed to have planned Tyront’s death, when neither myself or my companion are in any position to benefit from it. Not to mention the fact that I don’t find the insinuation, that you think me capable of cold-blooded murder, particularly flattering.”
“Have you ever felt any desire for Orrin?” Junar now demanded sharply.
“Yes, more often than I can count.” When Junar gasped for air, Eryn added, “The desire to throttle him, kick him, throw him out of a window… basically the whole range of violent fantasies a captive indulges in when she sustains numerous bruises day and again.”
“How about Orrin?”
“I can’t speak for Orrin, but I can tell you that there was never even once a single moment when I had the impression that he had any untoward interest in me. He treats me so much like a daughter that my own father was jealous when he first saw us together.”
Junar’s face was a mask of misery.
“Though you and I both know that asking me those questions was rather superfluous after Orrin’s reaction just now,” Eryn added.
“I would go after him, but somebody is keeping me locked in this room!” Junar hissed.
“Yes. Because you and I are still not done with this here.”
“What is ‘this here’ supposed to be? Are you trying to force me to apologise to you? I won’t! Some of the gossip they told me may have been wrong, but other things I myself noticed certainly are not! You have always judged me because of how I raise my daughter! Just because I’m not as strict and relentless with my daughter as you are with your son!”
“Your daughter has no manners and little regard for what other people want – that is a fact. However, it is also not my problem, but yours and in time, her own. If you feel that you have found the perfect way to raise a child, just go ahead! Who am I to tell you what to do? I do, however, take the liberty of asking her to adhere to certain rules in my own house, just as any other child visiting me has to.”
“Your cruelty towards your own son will one day turn him into a violent man – an extremely dangerous one with his immense magical powers!”
Eryn let her head tilt back. “Did you come up with that marvellous theory all on your own or did your scheming women friends advise you accordingly?” She frowned when Junar just pressed her lips together without answering. Eryn stared at her. “You must be joking! Don’t tell me you accept advice on how to raise a child from women who have spent possibly half an hour a day playing a little with their children then delegated the real work to servants? This is truly were you get your information from? It’s easy to be an indulgent playmate to your children, when the servants are the ones who have to be stern when they instruct them not to throw stones at windows, keep their hands away from fire or properly scrub themselves before going to bed. That’s not the kind of parent I am – and neither are you! Doing all the work on our own also means disciplining them!” She threw her hands up. “This is ludicrous! Seriously, why am I even discussing this with you? Do what you want with your daughter! There is something far more important I should be talking about. Namely that the fact that you turned off your brain to let others do the thinking for you makes you dangerous in the present situation. If you don’t keep your mouth shut about the things they tell you I did to further whatever evil plans I seem intent on implementing, the Order will shortly tumble into chaos because the magicians no longer trust Enric and me. If you have no regard for the Order or the people they are supposed to protect, then at least think of your companion. Consider that he probably doesn’t want to take over a heap of rubble.”
“You are currently a liability, Junar! To your companion, to the Order and to the Western Territories! If you say something stupid, then people will assume that Orrin shares that opinion.” At Junar’s panicked look, she added. “I know the feeling, believe me. It took me a while to learn not to let myself be manipulated quite so easily by people who wanted to use me against Enric. But as companion to the future leader of the Order this is something you have to learn! And sooner rather than later. To start with, you need to free yourself from the influence of those women! They are just as bad as their companions, though in their case one is prepared to mistrust them.”
“I… I… this is all too much!” Tears began running down Junar’s cheeks. “You are saying they were lying to me all this time… but… what if… I mean…”
Eryn freed herself from Golir’s grip. “Thank you, Golir, you were a great help.” Then she looked at Iklan. “I think it’s your turn now. Can you help locate her brain?” She knocked against Junar’s head with her knuckles. “It should still be in there somewhere.”
“That was extremely insensitive,” Junar wailed between ever more violent sobs.
Eryn nodded and rose. “Yes, I know. It’s been a long day, and I have yet to get a tedious dinner event behind me. I need to preserve all my sensitivity for that. Talk to Iklan. If someone can help you find yourself, it’s him. I strongly suggest you excuse yourself from tonight’s banquet. I have to get home and make myself look like the lady everyone knows I’m not. Goodbye, Junar.”
She all but fled the residence, feeling that only once the door had closed behind her was she able properly to breathe again. This had been intense and demanding. Moreover, she had no idea whether or not Junar would ultimately see reason or prefer instead to fall back into that destructive yet convenient state of being directed by others.
She hoped Enric was still with Orrin. The warrior had a tendency to run off and get drunk upon hearing difficult news. Since other than Junar he didn’t have the luxury of excusing himself from the tedious dinner, he would need either to practise restraint or have to be sobered in a none-too-gentle manner.
* * *
“Did you notice that it’s a lot easier to get drunk the older you get?” Enric mused while he was staring at a small, colourful glass with tiny artistic engravings. This was the kind of upper class establishment where the glasses were expensive since the drinks were pricey enough to cover the cost for the occasional piece broken on account of uncoordinated movement.
He dimly remembered that the tiny glass had been full only a moment ago.
“Yes,” Orrin replied, “and if you noticed that, you can assume that I did so a long time ago. I’m several years older than you.”
“You know, I think that difference in age becomes less significant the older one gets,” Enric contributed wisely, concentrating on making his tongue form the words properly. He was proud that significant hadn’t sounded at all slurred.
“Is that so?”
“Sure. Remember when I was your student? Twenty years were a huge gap back then. They made the difference between child and adult. These days we are both adults and have a family. In the Order age and experience were never much of a criterion for being awarded high ranks. So what role does it really play in our case?”
“Getting drunk is a lot cheaper now than it used to be,” Orrin pointed out, closing the circle to Enric’s earlier remark.
“In general, that is not such a bad thing, is it? I mean, that’s money saved and therefore benefits the family.”
“Yes, the family…” Orrin tilted back his head, emptying his own tiny glass. “The very people with the power to devastate you with nothing more than a few words.”
Through the haze of alcohol, Enric realised that he had managed what he had been trying to accomplish – namely to get Orrin to talk about that particular topic. With Orrin that always required a certain amount of time and patience. Plus a level of intoxication that put him into a state of mind to deviate from his usual tight-lipped self and made him comfortable enough to share his grief.
He weighed his options. Ideally, he would take a minute and disappear to sober up in the restroom, get rid of at least part of the alcohol and clear his head with a little healing magic. Yet this came along with the danger that Orrin might no longer be in a talkative mood upon his return.
So he would stay and do his best to have a halfway meaningful conversation with the warrior, hoping he was able to remember most of it afterwards.
He lifted his hand to catch the eye of one of the pretty waitresses, who were anxious to provide their wealthy guests with whatever they desired.
“Yes, Enric?” a beauty with dark green eyes asked him with a seductive smile. “What is it I can get you?”
Impressive, Enric thought. They even made the effort to find out their guests’ names.
“A carafe of water, please. And whatever you have in stock that helps sober people up.”
“Right away.” She touched his forearm lightly and raised a suggestive eyebrow. “Though we could also make use of that slightly tipsy state of yours, if you like. We have very comfortable little rooms in the back.”
Enric stared at her for a moment. “I had no idea you were offering that kind of service here!”
“In some cases we can,” she purred. “Can I interest you in my company, Enric? I have never been with a light-haired man.”
“You know my name. Do you also happen to know who I am joined with?” he asked casually, finding this conversation immensely amusing.
“No… I admit I do not. We are only given our patrons’ names,” she replied.
“You have heard of Maltheá of House Aren, I assume?”
The young woman gulped. “Aren? Malriel’s daughter?”
“The very same. Her grandmother, Malhora, exploded a wine-cellar upon finding her cheating companion there,” he informed her.
The waitress’ smile had taken on a somewhat sickly quality. “Then I suppose I shall be limiting my services to serving you something to drink.”
Enric nodded solemnly. “A very prudent and life-preserving decision.”
Orrin snorted once the young woman had left in a hurry as if afraid Enric might change his mind and take her up on what had turned out to be a rather risky offer.
When the warrior remained silent, Enric pondered how to return to the topic of Junar and how much her distrust in her companion had shaken Orrin.
“I remember when I had Eryn’s cell door locked and taken her belongings to my quarters in the Palace. That was a few days before our commitment at that ball. But she moved in with you instead of me, and I was so jealous that I wanted to throttle you.”
“A foolish notion. I never had any designs on her.”
“I know that now. But back then I watched how her hatred for you turned into something completely different, how she ran to you when she needed a place to stay. And my envy and jealousy did the rest. Just like in Junar’s case, though it looks as though she has had a lot of help in arriving at that conclusion.”
With a grateful smile he received from a young man a curved glass bottle filled with water and a matching glass plus another tiny glass similar to the one already before him. Though the content looked and smelled quite different. Like some sort of herbal concoction. He shrugged and tilted it back. He had ordered something that would help him sober up, after all. The viscous substance tasted bitter and left a slight tingle on its way towards his stomach, suggesting that some magic had been employed in creating it.
It took only a few seconds until he began to feel the effect. There was a brief spell of nausea, but that was gone a moment later, leaving him with a violent craving for water. With his head suddenly clear of the fog, he forced himself to pour some water instead of simply lifting the bottle to his lips to drain it in one go. That was some powerful concoction, he thought, and wondered whether there was any chance the creators would be willing to let him purchase the recipe for a generous sum. That was something he could definitely market in Anyueel.
“I had no idea that they were treating her like that,” Orrin murmured, staring ahead unseeingly. “She never said anything. Still, she shouldn’t have believed the things they said about me at the least. I have never given her any reason to doubt my affection or faithfulness. She should have confronted me about it.”
Enric shrugged and refilled his water glass. “I don’t know. Many people would rather refrain from directly approaching the very person they suspect has betrayed them.” He was pleased to note that his ability to phrase sentences in a more sophisticated manner had returned to him. Though he needed to make sure not to lose Orrin, who would not as such appear to be drunk to a stranger, but to Enric’s trained eye certainly displayed the odd sign of being under the influence of alcohol. More elaborate hand gestures, for one.
The warrior pressed the heels of both hands against his closed eyes. “I have been playing with the thought of leaving her.”
Enric took another sip of water to mask his shock. Orrin had always struck him as a particularly dependable sort of man, one to suffer rather than abandon what he considered his duty.
“I am not afraid of raising Téa on my own. I did it before.” He exhaled, letting his hands sink again. “There were so many situations where I saw no other way than to remain silent after Junar had yet again said something outrageous. I know that I must have given the impression that I agree with her. Silence has the side effect of sometimes being misinterpreted as consent. I hated it. It was even more unpleasant than the ensuing discussions with Junar at home after every such incident. Yet I was torn between standing with my companion and siding with Eryn, who usually was the target of her hateful remarks. Eryn never held my silence against me, didn’t condemn me for failing to publicly admonish Junar. At least not openly. I dread to think of how disappointed she probably was. Every single one of those occasions was followed by a fight once Junar and I were alone.”
Enric listened silently, sad that Orrin’s relationship with his companion had in those last few years suffered so much that he had even been considering leaving her, and regretful that he hadn’t noticed it. Orrin had always been a very private person, who opened up only under exceptionally difficult circumstances. Eryn had been the one with more insight, but that had changed after Junar broke with her.
“And now I’m once again torn.” He lifted his glass over his head without looking up, safe in the knowledge that somebody was certain to spot him. Barely ten seconds later his empty glass was exchanged for a full one. “I am relieved to know finally what is behind all this. And I am furious about what they did to Junar, how they treated her. She never mentioned any of it to me. Which makes me angry at Junar. For once, for not trusting me enough to talk to me about the grief they were causing her, and even more for believing those outrageous things about me and Eryn. I like to think that I never gave Junar any cause to doubt my feelings for her.”
“It is not quite as easy, I’m afraid,” Enric sighed. “You and I, we grew up in a world where trusting even those one might consider friends is a luxury that needs to be considered carefully. Yet Eryn and Junar did not. Eryn had to learn quickly, and she did. Not without setbacks, as you know well enough. The trouble is that you assumed that Junar would be spared those games because she is not directly involved in all of this. I admit I am also surprised myself at what our noble colleagues’ companions are capable of. I was at least able to help Eryn in dealing with the Council members, yet I would have been at a loss of how to handle the women behind them. You shouldn’t be angry at Junar for falling victim to their intrigues, but rather think how you can help her pull herself out of this swamp. Things won’t exactly become easier for her once you have taken over the Order.”
Orrin nodded glumly. “Yes, you are right. Blaming her is not fair. Yet what do you suggest I do? Have her take lessons in political strategy?”
Enric pursed his lips as the pondered that idea, although Orrin had clearly not been serious about it. “You know, that’s actually not such a bad thought. Who knows? As companion to the future leader of the Order maybe the King himself will give her the odd lesson the way he did with Eryn.”
“I should get back to her. There is a lot we need to talk about.”
“Not tonight, I’m afraid. We barely have time to get ourselves ready for the banquet.”
The warrior stared at him. “We can’t go to the banquet tonight! I seriously doubt that Junar is in any shape for that after Eryn is done with her.”
“Which is why she has brought Iklan along. He’ll take care of Junar. We will excuse her. You, however, need to be there. You are a key player in all this, and people need to get used to seeing you. Once you succeed me, the new leader of the Order should be a face already familiar to the important people here and not only to the soldiers you led into battle. The banquet is an invaluable opportunity for this.”
Orrin grimaced. “I’m in no shape to attend such an evening. Look at me!”
Enric once again lifted an arm to summon an employee of this establishment, only a moment later finding himself looking at the same young man from before. There was no trace of the young lady who had previously offered him her company.
“Another of those sobering brews for my friend here,” he ordered, and little later Orrin was handed another small glass. Before the man could leave again, Enric held on to his forearm. “I was wondering whether the owner of this charming place here would be willing to negotiate for a copy of the recipe for that very helpful drink. I am willing to pay a good price.”
“I am afraid she would not be in any position to do so even if she wished it,” the waiter replied with visible regret. “We do not mix it ourselves, but receive regular deliveries from our supplier.”
“And who would that supplier be?”
“That would be House Vel’kim.”
Enric laughed in genuine amusement. Of course. Healing herbs and magic. He should have guessed.
He left a generous tip and got up from his cushion. “Thank you.”
“They have never before sold the recipe, as far as I am aware,” the young man warned. “And certainly not for want of interested parties.”
Orrin tilted back a glass of water, then replied, “I think they are about to make an exception.”
Enric nodded. Either that, or Vran’el would find himself paying a higher price for certain Anyueel goods his House liked to trade in.
* * *
“You are late,” Eryn informed the Order’s leader and the Head of Warriors without moving her lips, all the while keeping her smile intact. “Not a good thing in this country.”
“It was either that or showing up drunk and sweaty,” Enric countered. “But since the dinner hasn’t started yet and Orrin and I are very important persons, they will forgive us.”
“That’s not how it works here, and you know it. The higher your position in society, the more they expect you to be a role model in upholding the local values.”
He sighed. “I stand corrected.” He lifted her hand to his lips. “Forgive us, oh guardian of appropriate behaviour that you have suddenly become.”
“Enric, Orrin.” Malriel’s voice made them turn. Clad in one of Eryn’s gowns, she greeted the newcomers with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “How good of you to join us. I have already begun to wonder which pressing matters might have held you up.” The barb was better hidden than in her daughter’s quite open reproach, but still impossible to miss.
A moment later the gong was sounded, announcing the end of the casual social interaction among the guests and signalling that they were to move to the adjoining room where the dinner would take place.
Orrin lifted his arm for Eryn to take, while Malriel accepted Enric’s.
“How are you doing?” Eryn quietly asked the warrior while they strolled towards the double doors that were held open by two servants.
“I am enjoying the best of health,” he replied with exaggerated formality. “And yourself?”
She elbowed him in the ribs. “Don’t make me harm you. How was Junar doing when you returned from the blinder my companion took you on?”
“She was still talking to Iklan when I returned. Which is a good sign, I suppose.”
“Definitely. Iklan has a way of pulling out the things one would much rather keep to oneself or refuse to acknowledge.”
They neared the seating arrangements. Other than for her very first banquet here more than seven years ago, the cushions and tables were not arranged in the form of a half-moon, but in the shape of the letter U.
“Anyone you want to avoid or sit next to?” Orrin asked.
“Take me over there, to the man in the black tunic.”
“Which one? There are two.”
“The one with the silver embroidery on his cuffs and around his neck.”
The warrior frowned. “Wait… Isn’t that the Head of House Roal?”
“The very same.”
“I don’t think you are supposed to sit with him. You do remember that his House and the one you are about to take over are not on friendly terms? Are you after provoking Malriel again? I thought the two of you are getting along now.”
Eryn sighed. “Why do you even ask me where I want to sit if you are unwilling to do as I say?”
“Maybe I’ve had enough excitement for the day and would prefer a quiet evening without any hostilities.”
“I promise I have no intention to cause Malriel grief. This is merely a convenient occasion to casually indicate to Amgil of House Roal that there might be a way to settle the tensions between our Houses for our mutual benefit.”
“Alright, then. Just make sure to let Malriel know that sitting next to him wasn’t my idea, that I was merely following your instructions here.”
“Don’t tell me you are afraid of dainty, elegant Malriel, mighty warrior?” she snickered.
“About an hour ago a pretty little thing offered herself to Enric. He dropped the name Aren, and the poor thing fled and never returned. I certainly won’t make the mistake of getting on their bad side.”
Eryn was about to ask what kind of place they had been drinking at where such options were on the menu, but swallowed her question since they were now close enough to be overheard by other guests.
Her gaze found the Head of House Roal, who had been watching her approach with a mix of curiosity and apprehension.
She smiled at him. “Amgil, will you allow me to sit with you?”
He inclined his head. “It would be my pleasure, Eryn. Or do you wish to return to letting yourself be addressed as Maltheá?”
“Eryn will be fine for now.”
Eryn ignored the surprised looks all around them. She had truly decided to sit with the sworn enemies of House Aren, despite the fact that there were still plenty of other seats available. Even though she was not officially a member of the House, she was as a former member supposed to show enough respect for it to refrain from socialising with those they kept their distance from.
“May I ask to what happy circumstances I owe the privilege of your company this evening?”
She smiled at Amgil, thinking that having so many witnesses was something that might work to her advantage. Provided he was more interested in a lucrative arrangement than using this opportunity to demonstrate to everyone that he wasn’t afraid of displeasing mighty Malriel’s daughter. Which wouldn’t be too shrewd considering the circumstances. Malriel had never in her life been as powerful as at this particular point in time, and other House leaders were reluctant to associate with allies who failed to display a certain degree of prudence.
“I was thinking back to my cooperation with your construction business several years back.”
He nodded. “The orphanage. I remember, of course.”
“I was very satisfied with the result, and whoever I talk to confirms that your House offers the best quality when it comes to construction work.”
Amgil smiled faintly. “I see. And since both the Aren residence and Malhora’s estate are in need of rebuilding, you wish to procure the services of the best provider you can find. And maybe use this opportunity to show to everyone – including or rather particularly your predecessors – that you have no fear of deviating from their principles and breaking new ground?”
Eryn sighed internally. So everybody already suspected what was not yet official: that she was about to take over House Aren. And considering that he was right with his assumption, it made little sense to pretend otherwise. “It may disappoint you that my motivation is somewhat less complicated. I merely wish to gain access to the best quality that is to be had instead of making do with second best. Why would I accept disadvantages arising from conflicts in which neither I myself nor you were personally involved? Though you are as aware as I am of the fact that there is a minor obstacle in my way. Or let me say in our way, since your House would stand to benefit as well.”
“You would not happen to be referring to the role my House played with regard to certain allegations as to your grandfather’s death, would you now?” He cast a quick glance towards where Malriel was sitting as if to ask whether she knew what her daughter was up to.
Eryn felt the mood shift slightly. His demeanour had changed in a subtle way. It was more a feeling than something she could have put her finger on.
“True,” she confirmed calmly, waiting for what was to come next.
“To my knowledge there was nothing wrong with my House’s conduct in that matter. A crime was committed, and we insisted it had to be investigated – irrespective of whether a Head of House was the culprit. I know that House Aren had – and very likely still has – a different approach to that. I remember that the case files seem to have been… lost at some point.”
Her eyes narrowed. She was aware of their audience. Everyone here knew for a fact or at least strongly suspected that she was about to take over House Aren, so it didn’t really matter that she was currently not yet acting in that capacity. Whatever she did or said now would have consequences for her House, so there was little difference whether or not she had already been appointed. She had just been challenged, and her reaction to it would determine whether or not some of the present Heads of Houses eagerly listening to this little exchange right now would be willing to maintain their relationship with House Aren in the future.
“How about a little bet, Amgil?” she replied calmly with a quiet smile.
“A bet, little Maltheá?” Now he was goading her by first asking her which name he was supposed to use only to then switch to the other.
“You are what, maybe ten years older than I? Not that I consider any difference in age significant enough to let myself be patronised by anyone.” She cast a languid look in Malriel’s direction to make her point. She had proved often enough that she wasn’t even willing to allow mighty Malriel of House Aren to treat her with condescension.
“I apologise,” Amgil replied with a smile, back to being charming. “Tell me about that bet you have in mind, then.”
“If I prove to you that my grandmother’s conduct in matters of her companion’s demise was beyond reproach and that your then Head of House had acted on nothing but the unfounded and untrue claims of a young woman, you will publicly apologise and pay reparations in terms of a generous discount on the construction of three Aren properties.”
His eyes narrowed. “If such proof is within your grasp, why did Malhora not present it thirty-five years ago?”
“Who says she did not? Accept my bet, Amgil, and I will tell you whatever you wish to know to realise your mistake.” She leaned towards him, close enough to smell the faint scent of his soap fragrance. “You have little choice now. You can’t shy back from my challenge without looking like a coward. What is more, I am offering nothing less than the truth, and if you refuse to look at it for fear of having your predecessor’s questionable conduct revealed, it will harm your reputation much more than bravely accepting the risk that he might have been wrong and doing what is due and proper – namely compensating House Aren. You know that my offer is more than generous.” She leaned back again. Loud enough for the interested audience to hear, she asked, “What say you, Amgil? Do we have a bet? Or do you have reason to fear the truth?”
“Certainly not, Maltheá. I look forward to having this evidence you promise presented to me.”
Eryn lifted her hand, inviting him to take it. “It will be my pleasure. Shall we seal the agreement?”
A moment later Amgil’s slightly cool hand rested against hers, then magic flowed to establish a first level commitment bond to assure each other of each party’s honest intentions to honour the bet.
After it was done, Eryn leaned back with every sign of satisfaction, graciously allowing Amgil to hand her a serving of the meal the servants had started to bring in.
He held on to the bowl for a moment longer when she reached out to take it. “Why would you have three buildings erected, Maltheá, when only two were destroyed?”
“There will be two residences instead of one on our little hill here in Takhan,” she explained.
He laughed with genuine amusement. “I would grant you a significant discount merely to be able to observe how you and Malriel living in such close proximity turns out.”
Eryn took the bowl when he finally let go of it and resisted the urge to empty it over his head.
* * *
“Malriel looks a little tense, I cannot help but notice,” Vran’el remarked with a touch of inappropriate amusement. “But I have to say that Eryn has handled herself well enough. I trust she truly is in possession of the proof she claims to be able to present? Anything else would have been immensely foolish. We do appreciate self-confidence in our Heads of Houses, but not if it is founded on quicksand.”
Enric nodded. “You needn’t worry. By now you should be aware that your sister is not one to make empty promises. Or threats, for that matter.”
There was more than one way to prove Malhora’s innocence to Amgil. The first was to subject Malhora to a truth read. Which she would not at all appreciate, but probably agree to, since refusing to cooperate to validate an agreement the future leader of her House had entered into would tarnish the Aren name. Chances were, however, that this would not be necessary. It was true that files had been made to disappear three and a half decades ago, yet he very much doubted that they had been destroyed. It was far more likely that they were locked away – in the vault underneath the Aren residence which had luckily remained unaffected by the destruction aboveground.
“There is something I wanted to ask you,” he addressed his companion’s brother. “Orrin and I visited a place right behind the old Artists’ Academy. They served us a very interesting concoction. One that cleared our heads in no time at all. It was like going through the phases of sobering up in a matter of only a few minutes – in addition to only very mild symptoms. I was told that House Vel’kim is the supplier. Why didn’t I know about that? And why have I watched you suffer through the consequences of overindulgence more than once if you are in possession of such a recipe?”
Vran’el laughed quietly. “Yes, it is marvellous, is it not? I stumbled upon this little treasure only recently. I have started going through the old documents from my father’s time as Head of House about two years ago. Detailed records of contracts, reports from each of our businesses, proposals accepted and rejected… It was among the latter where I found a letter containing the recipe. One of my many cousins came up with it and presented it to father as a business opportunity. He rejected it. You know how he thinks about healing away the unpleasant consequences of overindulgence in favour of letting people suffer through them to learn their lesson. If you are old enough to drink, you are old enough to bear the consequences,” he mimicked his father. Valrad, not far down the table, turned his head to beam his son a sceptical look, obviously recognising his own words and not too thrilled at having them quoted with that annoyed undertone.
“You might want to keep it down a little,” Enric murmured.
Vran’el shrugged. “Thankfully, I am too old to be grounded. So, where was I?”
“Valrad rejected your cousin’s proposal.”
“Ah, yes. As you may imagine, I was thrilled. I contacted her and asked her to provide a few bottles as a sample for the three Houses owning the right kind of establishment.” He chuckled. “All three of them immediately wanted to buy the recipe, and then several more offers started coming in. I refused, of course, and instead began negotiating sales agreements. The great advantage is that anyone can use it without having a magician at hand – or depending on his willingness to help instead of watching you suffer with an air of superiority.” He looked in his father’s direction with a disgruntled expression.
“I agree, it is a most useful remedy. Which is why I wanted to talk to you about purchasing the recipe. Not for exclusive use, of course. Or rather, only for exclusive use in Anyueel. I would be willing to pay a good price and in addition to this I can offer you a share of the profits.”
Vran’el grinned. “And why would I accept such an offer if I could just as easily sell my wondrous cure to Anyueel traders and keep both my recipe and instead of merely a share in the profits, all of them?”
Enric smiled. “Because even after I leave Anyueel, I will continue to run some of my businesses there and maintaining a good relationship with King Folrin. I can make certain that you faced unsurmountable obstacles when trying to enter that market. For example the one of finding someone to transport your produce, since I am currently still in possession of the only shipping business in Anyueel and own a share in each of those situated in Takhan that ship to Anyueel. And even if you managed to find someone to take your product to Anyueel, you would find that the harbour would refuse to process the crates. I funded the reconstruction of the harbour after we started trading with your country, so I have a certain influence there as well.”
“Damn it, Enric! Is there anything you are not involved in?”
Enric gave him a sly smile. “Currently? In selling your potion, though I am hoping to remedy that. What is it to be, Vel’kim? A profitable collaboration with me or a frustrating solo effort? If you choose the latter, prepare yourself for the fact that some of your other products from Anyueel will suffer arrival after a certain delay in the future. And for unforeseen price rises.”
“I cannot believe that you are extorting me like that! Your own family!”
“There is a choice, Vran. You can hold your head up high and decide not to stoop so low as to let yourself be cajoled. You just need to be willing to pay the price for it. In gold.”
Vran’el sighed and shook his head. “Alright, here is my offer: I will retain sole ownership of the recipe and extend production. It cannot be done in Anyueel anyway, since you require fresh herbs that only grow in warm climates. They would be more or less useless if you transported them for several days. You will act as an intermediary with a generous cut of the profits for your trouble.”
Enric leaned back. “Now you are talking, my friend. You will see – we will soon have a bottle of this in every single household.”
The Head of House Vel’kim snorted. “That would be a nightmare come true for my father. Let us do it!”