“Crossing Swords” – The Order: Book 8

Chapter 1

Home Again

As soon as the ship was moored at the pier in the Royal City of Anyueel and the gangplank put in place, King Folrin disembarked without any ceremony but with considerable and visible anger lending a certain energy to his steps and more than a touch of darkness to his mien.

Queen Del’na’bened, now clad in more regal clothes than her travel attire of only an hour ago, followed him hurriedly.

Vern, Junar, little Téa and Temina watched in surprise as the Royal couple walked towards the waiting coach without sparing their surroundings so much as a glance.

“Folrin, she did not mean to,” they overheard the Queen, attempting to placate her companion.

It had no discernible effect on him. His lips pinched into a thin line, he merely stepped aside to let his companion board the vehicle first. Then he beamed Eryn, who was just setting foot on the pier, a last devastating look before – without waiting for the coachman to do so – determinedly shutting the door behind him and letting himself be taken away from her and to his palace.

Eryn exhaled and held on to Vedric’s hand to make sure he couldn’t rush towards the group waiting for them. He wasn’t allowed to run when there was danger of slipping or stumbling and landing himself in the river, but that was something he tended to forget every time he beheld people he was so eager to greet.

Enric and Orrin followed behind her. Orrin’s entire bearing changed with every step he made to reduce the distance between him and the family he hadn’t seen in months. Yet he didn’t fail to be the role model everyone expected him to be and therefore refrained from running towards them as he would have preferred. No, he merely walked briskly, demonstrating to the two children nearby that running on a pier was not to be done, while keeping his eyes on Junar and the girl at her side.

Eryn felt that she could breathe a little easier now that the King had gone and she was spared his antics for now. He had been almost impossible to be around this last day. How could a man who was supposed to be leading an entire country at times be quite that squeamish?

She watched as Orrin finally reached the waiting group, pulling Junar towards him to envelop her in a stormy embrace. Her own arms closed around his neck, pressing him close while burying her face at his throat. They had only a few seconds of enjoying their reunion without interruption, before the girl next to them tugged at her father’s shirt, feeling left out. Orrin swooped her up with one arm, and the embrace continued in a threesome.

Vern smiled at the scene, then turned to watch as Eryn, Enric and Vedric walked towards them.

“Welcome back, you,” he greeted them, then with a slightly resigned expression nodded his head towards the ship’s hull. “Would you care to elaborate why there is a gaping hole in the hull of that ship? That wouldn’t have anything to do with why the King is quite that peeved, would it?”

Eryn turned to look in the direction he indicated, taking in the massive gap covered by the faint blue shimmering of a magical shield. It afforded a direct view into the ship’s hold. Not an everyday sight. Which was also the reason why more and more passers-by stopped to goggle.

Temina grinned and nodded at her aunt. “That was you, wasn’t it? The Queen said something like that, I believe.”

Vedric’s face turned into a grimace of pretend horror, but the gleam in his eyes betrayed him. “It was terrible! I was sleeping, and then there was this really, really loud boom! And then there was water everywhere! Everything was wet and cold and everyone was screaming and running around!”

Eryn grimaced. “There might have been a tiny mishap.” That was not at all how she had imagined her welcome here. Justifying her latest act of destruction.

Vern snorted and looked back at the damage. “Tiny? That hole is easily as tall as me! I’m not sure whether to be glad that I wasn’t on the ship to fear for my life or to regret that I missed what was no doubt an unparalleled spectacle.” Finally, he stepped towards her. “But first let me greet you properly.” Hugging her, he continued, “No matter what you did, I’m glad to have you back.”

Temina was in the meantime greeting her uncle. Her eyes took in his face, her brow furrowed in confusion. “Enric. You look… different,” she ended her sentence somewhat helplessly, not really able to put a finger on the change.

Vern let go of Eryn and gave Enric a once-over. “You lost a little weight. And the lines around your eyes and on your forehead are slightly deeper than I remember,” he analysed with the quickness of a trained healer. “What’s happened to you?” He nodded towards the ship. “I assume this was caused by more than what she calls her tiny mishap?”

Eryn sighed. So Enric’s abduction in Pirinkar had not yet spread widely enough to become common knowledge in Anyueel. But that was only a matter of time – too many people in Takhan knew of it, and there were numerous formal and informal contacts among citizens of both countries, which meant it wouldn’t remain a secret for long.

“Let’s talk about that later, shall we?” she suggested, just as Orrin disengaged from his companion and his daughter. His expression was softer, as though the reunion with his family had lifted a great burden from him.

Eryn smiled at Junar and was about to step towards her to hug her, when the other woman’s words made her freeze in mid-step.

“You return again – with the ship in pieces, the King angry and three countries at war,” the seamstress threw at her without any warning whatsoever, her voice trembling with… something. “I suppose I should be grateful that at least my companion is back in one piece.”

“Junar, that’s not fair,” Enric replied calmly. He resisted the impulse to put an arm around Eryn’s shoulders and make it look as though Eryn needed him to defend her. Well, at least more than his words already made it appear. “But this is hardly the time to discuss whatever causes you so much grief. We have only just arrived and would very much like to return home, unpack and get some rest.”

“It’s not fair to say such a thing to my mother!” Vedric sprung in, but fell silent upon his father’s warning look. It seemed as though this was another one of these situations where it was only alright if a grown-up said it, but not him.

Orrin also looked as though he wanted to say something, but he thought the better of it. He didn’t have it in him to reprimand his companion for her harsh and hardly justified words after only just reuniting with her.

“I think we will also return home,” the warrior announced and took Junar and Téa by one hand each.

The little family walked towards a waiting coach and was gone little later.

“What’s her problem?” Temina asked, incredulous, pointing with her thumb over her shoulder to where Junar had been walking only a few moments ago. “I mean, you just got off the ship! And it’s not your fault that Orrin was stuck in Takhan! I thought she was supposed to be your friend!”

Vern raked a hand through his hair and took it upon him to answer. “The time without father was hard for her. She missed him a lot. And she was afraid for his life, particularly after she heard about the attack at Malriel’s home. And that Téa became more difficult to handle didn’t help either. Her behaviour improved a lot after father started the training with her, and when he was no longer there to set her boundaries and spend time with her, she reverted to several of her earlier, less amiable manners.”

Eryn sighed as understanding dawned on her. “And she blames me for it all. Because it was my mother who requested for Orrin to be sent to protect my son.”

Vern looked pained, torn between protecting his father’s companion and acknowledging how irrational her attack on Eryn had been.

“She might. To a certain degree. Although she knows that you are not really the one to blame – you never asked to be sent to Pirinkar, and looking at how things turned out, it was a good thing father was there to protect Vedric. She wasn’t really thinking when she said that. It’s just all the frustration needing to get out somehow.” He cleared his throat and pointed back towards the mangled ship, eager to change the topic. “I’d really like to know how that happened. Why did you blow a hole into the side of the ship?”

“Actually, it was Enric who did it,” she replied wearily. “But I kind of triggered it. Why don’t you two come along and have a drink with us?”

*  *  *

Enric exhaled and enjoyed the act of closing the door to his home, locking out the outside world, just admitting inside his private space the people he actually wanted there. For now, there were no demands he had to bow to – no orders issued by the King, no summons by Tyront. They were just a regular family returning from a rather exhausting journey. With the King and Queen. On a ship which had almost been blown to pieces. Well, maybe they were not quite such a regular family, after all.

Vern and Temina entered right behind them, both of them releasing a contented sigh as if they, too, had just returned home after a few months.

Enric exchanged an amused look with his companion.

Vedric fumbled with his laces, then kicked the shoes from his feet, dropping his cloak where he stood, before dashing towards the stairs and up to his room.

His mother shook her head, while his father picked up the mess the boy had left behind.

Unbidden, yet confident enough that this here was something like a third home to him – in addition to his own place and his father’s – Vern dropped on a sofa, patting the place next to him for Temina.

Eryn noted with interest how the girl walked over and followed the invitation without the slightest hesitation. Those two young people were comfortable around each other – a lot more than only a few months ago – and she wondered what the nature of their relationship might be. Friends? Lovers? Something in-between? That was the disadvantage of having to leave for such extended time periods – one missed so much of what was going on, but which was not spectacular enough to be mentioned in any message. It was a little as though she had to become re-acquainted with the people in her life.

Which was certainly more than appropriate when she thought back to her short but quaking encounter with Junar.

“What would you like to drink?” Enric asked while stepping towards the drinks cabinet, seamlessly re-assuming the role of generous host.

Vern asked for a glass of wine, as did Temina, though with a slightly exaggerated nonchalance which suggested she was waiting to see whether her request would be granted.

Enric pursed his lips. “Does your grandmother know you are drinking alcohol?”

His niece sighed, her shoulder slumping slightly. “No.”

Eryn felt his amusement through the mind bond. Even though there was no trace of it on his face.

“I see,” he nodded. “And would she approve of it?”

“That you even have to ask shows very clearly that she was not the one to raise you when you became old enough to start drinking alcohol,” Temina growled.

Enric pretended to think for a moment. “I suppose I can grant you some leniency on account of your honesty.”

“Where is Plia, by the way?” Eryn asked, while Enric was pouring four glasses of red wine. “She usually welcomes us at the pier.”

“At work,” Vern replied. “Where else would she be? I think she is teaching the new apothecaries today.”

“Still as assiduous as ever, then. How about yourself? Now that you are back to healing, I hope you haven’t discovered that cleaning horse stables and floors is more to your liking than your old profession.”

The young man snorted and accepted the glass Enric handed him. “Certainly not! Though Lord Poron didn’t make things easy for me upon returning. I got more than my share of the less popular shifts. But I’m not complaining,” he added hurriedly.

They lifted their glasses.

“To family,” Enric said and lifted his.

The other three smiled and repeated his words.

“So,” Vern began after his first sip, “you promised to reveal the secret behind the smashed up ship.”

“Smashed up,” Eryn repeated derisively and waved him off. “That’s but a dent.”

“I was able to look inside!” Temina cried out. “That ship is ruined! What happened? You weren’t attacked or anything, were you?”

Eryn rubbed her forehead and took a seat on one of the chairs. “No, not really. It was an accident.” She exhaled as she wondered where to start her narrative. “You know that we were sent to Pirinkar.”

Both of them nodded.

“Enric and I were… separated for a time. This led to the discovery that it seems to be possible to transfer magic through our mind bond,” she continued, carefully omitting what she really didn’t want to talk about right now. “Though neither of us can tell how exactly this works. So, when we were on the ship without anything to do but to stare at the waves for three days…”

Vern’s brow rose. “You thought you could just as well use the time for some experimentation? Even though the King and Queen were on board?”

“Well, yes. I didn’t really expect quite such a dramatic outcome,” she defended her ill-fated decision.

The young man looked at Enric. “And there was nothing you had to say about that?”

“I wasn’t consulted,” he replied with a tense sideways glance at his companion.

“What does the hole in the ship mean, then?” their niece enquired. “Did it work or not?”

“Let’s say we learned something new, though not quite as much as we were hoping to,” Eryn tried to phrase it in neutral terms.

“Come on now, how did this happen? This is like pulling teeth!” Vern complained, showing first signs of impatience.

“It was late at night,” Eryn began, “and apart from the crew I was the only one still awake. I’d spent some time looking out at the sea, thinking. It must have been around midnight when I started pondering whether I could reproduce what had happened up in Pirinkar. On a smaller scale. So I closed my eyes and concentrated. I thought that I would know whether it had worked because Enric would no doubt awake if it did. After several failed attempts my thoughts began to wander to… things which had happened up in Kar. Harrowing things. My guess is that I drifted off a little, and that my thoughts somehow continued on that line of reason, spinning rather unpleasant dreams from my earlier deliberations. I was jolted awake when somebody tripped over my legs, and this unexpected incident in combination with what was going on in my brain while I was dozing must have accomplished what I couldn’t while awake.”

“Meaning you somehow sent magic to Enric?” Vern asked, his expression incredulous. “I wasn’t even aware your mind bond can do that! So it worked?”

“Let’s rather say there was an unmissable effect,” Enric cut in. “To say it worked would be a bit much since it was no conscious effort which can be repeated at will. And let’s not forget that there was a gigantic hole in the ship’s hull. Not exactly my understanding of success.”

“Enric did receive my magic,” Eryn went on, “though he was asleep at that time and therefore not really able to control it. It just… went out of him.” She accompanied that last sentence with a motion of her hands which was supposed to indicate an explosion.

“In the form of a bolt which hit the ship,” he added for completeness’ sake.

Vern flinched as he imagined it. “That must have been quite an awakening. Good thing you merely hit the ship’s hull instead of a person.”

“Vedric was sleeping on the cot opposite mine. But the bolt wouldn’t have harmed him. Much. It was strong enough to break through wood, but would merely have knocked him out. The human body can deal fairly well with magical attacks.”

“I know,” Vern sighed. “A good deal of it disperses across the skin. You do remember that I’m both a magician and a healer, yes?”

Eryn smirked, pleased that for a change someone else than herself called his attention to his tendency to over-explain things.

Temina leaned forward, fascinated. “So there must have been a lot of water coming in, judging from the position of the hole,” she deducted.

“There was,” Enric confirmed, reliving the horrid seconds after waking to what started as a hefty torrent of water into his face a moment after the magic breaking free from him had jolted him out of his dreams. “I needed a moment to realise what was happening, and in that time the water in the cabin was knee-deep, and the hull had started to crack and break up, plank by plank. When I erected the shield, the damage had spread quite a lot. The crew had noticed that something was wrong after the boom of my bolt and the way the ship had begun to list.” He rubbed both hands over his face. “Everybody had started running around and shouting. It was mayhem.”

“So you see – it was a mishap,” Eryn emphasised once again. “It didn’t even happen when I was consciously experimenting with it, but only afterwards. So I don’t see how the King can blame me for it.”

“You don’t?” Vern asked. “Magic doesn’t usually flow to and fro between the two of you when you are asleep, so you must have done something.”

“I don’t know! I have no idea how that happened. I spent the last day aboard the ship thinking about it.” Her expression darkened. “I had a lot of time for that – neither the King nor the crew were particularly eager to talk to me after the incident. The Queen was trying to placate him, but I saw that she, too, was shaken.”

“Incredible,” Vern marvelled, “how you always manage to destroy things in the most spectacular manner. First the Senate Hall, now that ship with the King and Queen aboard…”

“And a mountain fortress hewn into solid rock, while she was at it…” Enric murmured and took a large sip from his glass.

Temina and Vern both looked at him as if to determine whether he was joking.

“That’s nonsense,” the young man finally decided, “no-one can destroy something like that.”

Enric smiled faintly. “Want to bet?”

*  *  *

“You destroyed a mountain fortress,” Vern muttered, even after a day still stunned by what Enric had shown him with the aid of this nifty little trick he had learned in Pirinkar. “You completely reduced it to rubble. How? I mean… how?”

Eryn, walking beside him for the last few steps before they would arrive at the Clinic, shrugged. “It was kind of an afflatus. I just… communicated with the rock underneath me, dived into it with my magic, and it virtually showed me how to do it.”

Vern flashed her a sceptical look as though she had lost her mind completely now. “You talked to the stones? And they talked back?”

She stopped at the front door. “It sounds crazy when you say it like that. I’m not cracked. It was like feeling what was lying underneath me, the different layers on top of each other, the way they stretched and curved around me… What looks so impressive when Enric shows his memories is not an act of force or brute strength. It’s a small nudge with an incredibly powerful impact. I merely sent magic along one of the layers and let it resurface where I needed it – changing the structure of the stone just slightly so it would extend. The rock became malleable and no longer served as a stable underground foundation. And suddenly that monstrosity of a keep was gone in a cloud of grey dust.”

The young man shook his head in wonder. “How do you always discover such things? Nobody but you would think of examining layers of rock to destroy something. Anyone else would just throw a lot of magic in the form of bolts at it.”

“That’s how warriors would do it. And it would have been stupid. Apart from the fact that I was too far away for that anyway, smashing a structure like that made out of solid rock would have taken ages, even for a strong magician. You would have to peel away bit by bit from the outside, split off chunks with every bolt. Even if Enric and Lord Tyront did that together, they would be spent after little more than an hour.”

“And that thing with the mind bond now… You said you were separated in Pirinkar – why? Does it have something to do with this change about Enric?”

Eryn forced herself to cover her discomfort with a smile. There was so much she couldn’t tell him, things she knew she had to ask Tyront whether anyone else was allowed to know about. Such as Enric’s abduction, the fact that they were at war, or even the secret of the Bendan Ederbren’s fighting technique she had stumbled upon.

She had been more than surprised that Enric had not only demonstrated to Vern his new skill of projecting images onto a magical shield, but also shown him how to go about it – without consulting the Order first.

That was unusual for a man who had most of his life kept certain skills to himself to secure an advantage in this swamp of magicians, politicians and spies. It seemed as though her own approach to treating knowledge – as something which grew upon being shared – had begun to rub off on him.

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you about any of this yet,” she said, her tone apologetic as she returned to the conversation at hand.

As Eryn was about to push open the door to the Clinic, he stayed her hand and turned his head to check whether anyone was close, before whispering, “There are rumours that we are supposed to be at war. I assume you can’t tell me anything about that, either?”

“I’m afraid I cannot,” she confirmed, but gave him an almost imperceptible nod.

He understood and gulped, his eyes slightly widened. Having this suspicion confirmed clearly perturbed him.

They entered the building, and it was a matter of no more than two minutes until the news of Eryn’s return had spread through the entire Clinic. She was welcomed back, hugged, asked about the goings-on in the west and managed to extract herself only after half an hour.

Work came before pleasure, so she would see Lord Poron before knocking at Plia’s door. Amidst all the other colleagues they’d had hardly more than a few seconds to talk to each other.

She lifted her fist to knock at the study door, but then waited for a few moments to collect herself. This was the day where she would make her withdrawal from healing official. No matter how great the temptation to put off this unpleasant business for another day or two, she knew that this wouldn’t make things easier. She needed to get this behind her, and Lord Poron ought to know of it before any plans to include her in the shifts were made.

Strictly speaking she had already informed the Head of the Clinic in Takhan of it, but since he happened to be her father and the occasion as well as the location had been private, she didn’t really count it. This here would have to be done officially.

The room behind this door was the very one she had occupied several years ago before the Order had decided that someone else than her was to be in charge of her Clinic. They had chosen well enough with Lord Poron, as she would be the first to admit, but there was still a tiny bit of resentment remaining, which insisted that it had not been their choice to make but hers alone. But the Order didn’t do well with individual choices. At least not unless the individual making them was in charge of the entire institution.

When she finally did knock, the door opened almost immediately, and before her stood Lord Poron, looking considerable less elderly than he ought to thanks to rejuvenating healing magic.

“Eryn!” he said warmly, pulling her into an embrace before inviting her to enter. “Do come in. I was hoping you would drop by this morning. Even though I’m aware that you ought to be seeing Tyront first.” He smiled. “But you always try to stall that visit after your return from Takhan.” Once he had closed the door behind her and both were seated, his expression turned serious. “I’m glad you and Enric returned safely from up north. How is he doing? I hear he was abducted and even tortured.”

Eryn wasn’t surprised that he knew about that. With her and Enric gone, Lord Poron was the highest-ranking Order magician after Tyront.

“He is doing well enough and has sought Iklan’s help after our return to Takhan. I saw a considerable improvement after that, but I assume that overcoming such an experience entirely may still take some time.”

Lord Poron smiled faintly. “I’m glad to hear that he consulted Iklan. Ever since I dedicated myself to healing, I have begun to understand that the Order didn’t exactly teach young magicians a healthy attitude when it comes to facing one’s own weaknesses. We teach them to face and overcome them – or if they cannot, to make them disappear by paying no heed to them. The option of accepting help – or worse, even asking for it – was never encouraged since it would mean making yourself vulnerable to someone else. Which contradicts political strategy.”

Eryn sighed deep within but didn’t reply to that. Political strategy. Her least favourite subject, discipline or however else one wanted to categorise it. Wasn’t it marvellous to be back…

“It’s important to have Enric at his full strength now that we have entered into a war,” the Head of Healers proceeded. “The two of you are not only high up in the Order, but also possess important knowledge about the enemy.”

“I wouldn’t go quite that far,” Eryn grimaced. “I can’t help the feeling that there is a lot more that we don’t know about them.”

The enemy. It was easy for him to use that term for the people north of the Western Territories. To him they were nothing but an anonymous mass without faces. For Eryn, they had not only faces but a culture, their own language, temples, amazing technology and – above all – were individual people with names, professions, needs and wishes. The enemy was not a people; as far as she was concerned, it was a single man.

“The Bendan Ederbren are surely inclined to share their insights with us,” Lord Poron, ever the optimist, replied.

“I have no doubt that they are willing to, yet I wonder how much of an insight they are able to provide considering that they were forced to spend all of their life behind temple walls,” Eryn countered.

“True,” the old man nodded, “yet there is another group which is being questioned, and has been for several days now, as I understand: those who attacked the Bendan Ederbren’s camp. At least the few the desert tribe was able to detain.”

“The Loman Ergen?” Eryn asked, only now remembering the captives.

“We received word from Takhan about them while you were on your way here. They were a group of about fifteen, yet only two of them truly are Loman Ergen. The rest of them are merely soldiers dressed to look the part.” He frowned. “Which surprises me somewhat. Had the entire group consisted of magicians trained in scouting, they would without a doubt have inflicted more damage or even managed to kill all of the Bendan Ederbren. Why would Etor Gart send only two of them along?”

Eryn ground her teeth. “I only met one small group of the Loman Ergen, yet I did not get the impression that any are particularly keen on being made to assassinate fellow magicians – if in fact anyone is. Maybe he couldn’t find enough of them who were willing to go on that grisly mission.”

Lord Poron nodded slowly. “I assume Etor Gart will have to make concessions now that he lost a temple full of warriors. I suppose his means of replacing them are somewhat limited considering that magicians weren’t generally allowed to train combat skills. But let’s talk no more of this. I am certain there will be more than enough opportunity to discuss the war at the Council meetings.” He gave Eryn a sympathetic smile as her face fell at the mention of her least favourite group of people.

“If that isn’t something to look forward to…” she growled.

“Your father wrote to me,” he changed the topic. “He mentioned that you are trying to prove that magical healing has detrimental long-term effects on patients.”

Eryn pressed her index finger and thumb against the bridge of her nose. “My aim is not trying to prove that – I want to find out whether the proposition is true or not. I’d be happy with either result; I merely want to be certain that healers aren’t accidentally mistreating their patients. He isn’t particularly happy about my determination to do research on this question. I basically forced him to tolerate it by calling upon the Triarchy.”

The healer shook his head. “I suppose nobody could ever accuse you of unduly favouring your family. You are failing to consider his point of view, Eryn. He is worried about diminishing his healers’ reputation, of devaluing the work they are doing.”

“I know. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find out the truth.”

“It certainly doesn’t,” he agreed. “Yet it might warrant a less… unforgiving approach. I assume you intend to have a look at patient files to determine recurring illnesses as a first step?”

She nodded.

“If you think that the few years of recording we have done so far might aid you in your endeavour, you may of course make use of our files for that purpose. They do not go back as many years as those in Takhan, as you know, but it might be a start.”

Eryn smiled at him, the feeling of her affection for him blooming inside her chest. He had never let her down, and she was grateful and relieved that he wasn’t now.

“Thank you so much. I think that’s an excellent place to start.”

“It’s good to have you back,” he told her. “And also Vern, though I’m still trying to impress on him that we might have forgiven his lapse, though certainly not forgotten it.”

She gulped. This was what she had been dreading – telling him that he hadn’t really got her back. At least not the way he expected.

“I think Vern understood that well enough. At least that’s the impression I got when he told me about the shift rotation. Listen, there is something further I need to tell you.”

Lord Poron raised his brow when she hesitated. “You know you can tell me anything.”

She exhaled and forced herself to utter the words. “I will no longer be working as a healer.”

Her conversation partner’s brow furrowed. “Pardon?”

“I have decided that I can no longer pursue this line of work. It is connected to what happened in Pirinkar. I… I did something I swore never to do again.”

The other magician regarded her for a time, then nodded slowly. “I will of course respect your decision, no matter how much I regret it. Will you tell me what induced you to give up healing? I want to try and understand.”

Eryn tussled with herself for a moment, then finally nodded. Somehow telling him was so much easier than disclosing this particular fact to her family. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust her father to stand by her despite her despicable deed – her breaking of the oath she had given. He would. The problem was rather what it might cost him. What she had done went against everything he stood for; it violated everything he had upheld for decades.

Lord Poron was equally dedicated to the field of healing, even though he had not worked in it for quite that long. But he had also been trained by the Order, having been prepared to go to war at an early age. He knew that sometimes there was no way around reverting to certain disagreeable and at times unethical measures.

Valrad knew that, too, but only on a non-violent basis in connection with political issues or tough decisions a Head of House needed to make.

 She took a deep breath. “When Enric was taken, I used my magic and my healing knowledge to torture a man whom I suspected knew about his whereabouts. It was…” She closed her eyes. “…easier than it should have been.”

“I see,” Lord Poron said softly, not the slightest hint of judgement in his voice. “Well, I’m sure another path lies awaiting for you, my dear Eryn. And considering your position in the Order and your regular journeys to Takhan, having you here as nothing more than a humble healer has been a great luxury anyway. Still, you will be greatly missed. You are not only the first healer we ever had here, but also the founder of this Clinic.”

She was infinitely grateful that he didn’t make any attempts to change her mind, but merely accepted both her decision and what she had done to that priest as an unpleasant but probably unavoidable – or at least excusable – thing.

“Malriel asked me to take over House Aren,” the words tumbled out of her, unbidden. It was as though she wanted to assure him that there would be a task waiting for her if she so wished, that he needn’t worry that she would be lost and without a purpose in life.

Now he looked worried. “And you accepted? Are you intending to leave us for good?”

“I haven’t decided yet. It is a big decision and I don’t want to rush it.”

Lord Poron let go of his breath and closed his eyes for a moment. “I suppose I should have expected that. Yet it was so much easier to rely on your tense relationship with Malriel and presume that it would not allow you two to take a step towards each other – at least not to a degree where she might entrust you with her House and you would actually consider it. Does Tyront know about it yet?”

She shrugged. “With Tyront it’s always hard to tell what he knows. If he doesn’t know, he might suspect. I think the King does. At least since he heard that I haven’t annulled Vedric’s adoption into House Aren for the time being.”

“Your son is in House Aren?” Then he tapped against his temple with one index finger. “Ah. A precaution when you went to Pirinkar to ensure for him the protection of House Aren. A shrewd move. And not reversing it is a rather tell-tale signal. I would agree that Tyront will guess the relevance behind that. I recommend that you officially inform him of the offer. And soon. It is a sign of respect and goodwill. And it won’t be news for him, anyway, merely a confirmation of a suspicion he has been harbouring.”

Eryn nodded hesitantly. She wasn’t particularly keen on telling Tyront about it since she could imagine his point of view on the entire issue. And how he would react to hearing her put in words what he had suspected anyway. If she was lucky, there would merely be forced politeness.

Yet Lord Poron was right – talking to Tyront about it all would at least convey the illusion of forthrightness.

A sharp knock sounded on the door which connected Lord Poron’s study with his Head of Administration’s, and a moment later it opened without awaiting permission.

There was a hardly perceptible sniff when Loft’s gaze landed on Eryn.

“Ah yes, the commotion indicated that you must have returned,” he muttered. “The disruption of all order and discipline usually is a sure indicator of your arrival.”

Eryn beamed him a cool look. “And the atmosphere being cleared of any joy in a matter of moments is an indicator of yours,” she retorted.

“I assume I am to rewrite the duty roster for the next month now that you graced us with your presence,” Loft grumbled. “Any new requirements this time? I do so enjoy working around your arbitrary priorities.”

“Too kind,” she deadpanned. “But that will not be necessary. I will not disrupt your carefully planned roster. Never again.”

That had him blink. Twice. “Does this mean you will no longer be working here as a healer?”

“Well deduced. Now go and play with your papers so the adults can talk, alright?”

Loft was actually perplexed enough to obey that less than polite order, on his face a wondrous smile as he closed the door.

“Isn’t that nice?” she said tiredly. “At least someone is happy about it.”

*  *  *

“Why exactly is there a gaping hole in the ship that brought you here from Takhan?” was the first issue Tyront wanted to know, once Enric had taken a seat in his study.

“I suppose they just don’t build them as well as they used to,” Enric’s mouth uttered, before his brain could rein it in. He cleared his throat as Tyront’s gaze darkened. “What did your informants say happened? I refuse to believe that there isn’t at least one report about that somewhere in that monstrosity of a desk of yours.”

That was not much better as replies to already slightly annoyed superiors went, he thought belatedly. Damn – Eryn’s insolence really was rubbing off on him. He considered whether he should give it another try, but decided against it. Self-confident disrespect was still better than being clumsy and attempting to make it right again. At least in the Order. Accepting punishment with one’s head held high was considered something like virtue, yet trying to avoid it was generally met with impassive disdain. The Order was all for punishing people for their mistakes and not so much for realising them in time. Learning from mistakes was important, so dodging punishment by avoiding them at the last moment was as though one was unwilling to improve oneself.

Tyront braced his elbows on his massive desk and steepled his fingertips in the way that was so typical for him. And continued staring at Enric.

“Shall we try this again, Enric?” Underneath a layer of benevolent indulgence, there was also a certain… coolness in Tyront’s voice now.

“It was a…” Mishap was the first word which came to his mind, but Eryn’s favourite belittling term for what could easily have sunk the entire ship including the Kingdom’s ruling couple would not amuse Tyront in the least. “…an accident,” he finished.

“A few more details would be appreciated,” Tyront replied flatly when nothing more came.

His superior was impatient, Enric noted. That had to mean that the reports he had received so far had been anything but to his satisfaction.

“I’m not certain myself how that happened. Eryn says she engaged in some experimenting with the mind bond.” Did Tyront even know of the particulars of how Enric had very likely escaped his incarceration? That Eryn must somehow have managed to send the magic she had lost control over to him through the mind bond – and thereby reducing the golden band around his neck to a black, half-melted chunk of metal? Enric himself had not given any particulars in his messages, yet the Triarchy or the King might.

“How would that blow a hole the size of a horse cart into your ship?”

Very well, that question showed that he was not aware of the details. Which meant that some explaining had to be done first. Explaining which required that he talked about what had happened to him during his captivity. Preferably in a manner which wouldn’t show Tyront how hard this still was for him. He needed to sound casual, but not to a degree that would indicate to Tyront that he was trying to hide something. He would try to keep things short, only mention the bare minimum required for explaining the incident on the ship.

Enric took a sip from the cup in front of him and mentally prepared himself. “I wrote in my report that I was locked up in some sort of cell within a mountain fortress for about two weeks. With a golden band around my neck to deprive me of my magic. It works the same way our golden manacles or the belts in the Western Territories do.”

Tyront sighed. “Thank you; I made that rather obvious connection.”

For a brief moment, Enric wondered whether his companion was right – did he really have a tendency to over-explain things?

Pushing aside that thought, he continued, “I managed to escape one day because the collar fell off when I sat up on my bed after waking. At that time I thought it was another of the delusions I was being tormented with, so I wasn’t aware that I was walking out of my actual prison for real.”

“I was wondering about that part,” Tyront frowned. “Why would your restraint fall off just like that? Did you ever find an explanation for it?”

“There is a theory Eryn and I favour. Eryn had a breakdown in the city, at the Temple of the Bendan Ederbren. She was overcome by her emotions, her fear and anguish, not able to hold them in.”

“She lost control?” The Order’s leader looked worried. “In the middle of a densely populated area?”

“Yes. She passed out, and when she awoke noticed that no damage was visible around her. We later found out that this breakdown must have occurred at the time when my collar fell off. So we suspect that…”

“You suspect that the power released by her loss of control was somehow transferred to you through the mind bond and freed you from the golden neckband,” Tyront completed the sentence, leaning back and looking up at the ceiling with narrowed eyes.

“Exactly.”

“And then she started playing around with that power on the ship and accidentally blew a hole into it,” he concluded.

“More or less, but not quite. I was the one to release the bolt in my sleep,” Enric corrected him. “Though at that time she had already given up her attempts. She had fallen asleep on deck, and when a crew member stumbled over her outstretched legs, he startled her awake and obviously triggered some unconscious transfer of magic to me – which I couldn’t hold in since I was asleep.” He shrugged. “Though I have no idea whether being awake would have enabled me to control it any better, to be honest.”

“Another one of your little discoveries,” Tyront grumbled, “and another dangerous one, too. One which you need to learn to conquer so you don’t pose a danger to everyone around you. The question is whether this breakdown of hers only triggered this ability to share your magic with each other somehow, or if it would have been possible all along. If the first option is true, then she might have…” He took a few seconds to look for the right word. “She might have activated something inside you which can be triggered unconsciously. Or she was sending her magic to you all along, and only startling her caused her to accidentally do it with a higher intensity than before.”

Enric hid a smile at the change in his old friend. Within minutes he had morphed from strict superior to curious researcher.

Tyront turned serious. “This is a rather dangerous thing, as you must be aware. It means there is no restraining either of you without also binding the other in gold. And it means you might break free from the hold of a stronger magician if you manage to work out how to consciously use that connection to your advantage.”

“That has crossed my mind, yes,” he replied calmly, refraining from asking who was the one doing the over-explaining and stating of the obvious now.

“You also mentioned in your report another ability. Three, actually. Impressive ones, too, if I am to believe your words. There is tricking the memory block, which I assume we need a third person for. But for now you may show me the one with the memories. Golir wrote that you demonstrated it to the Senate by remembering how Eryn destroyed that fortress.”

Enric nodded and once again conjured up the images as he remembered them. Tyront watched, unable to hide his fascination both with the skill and the pictures themselves.

A few minutes later he shook his head and folded his arms. “Incredible. How much effort is it to acquire that skill?”

“It’s fairly simple, actually. Eryn learned it in no more than a few minutes, as did I.”

“Then it will be your pleasure to teach me once we are done talking.”

Enric nodded. “Certainly. I could teach you right away, if you like.”

“There is something else I wish to hear about first. That other skill you wrote to me about. The one used in non-magical combat. Though we might have to redefine that term since there is magic involved, just not in the form of bolts being hurled. The Bendan Ederbren taught you that, from what I understood.”

Pride made Enric smile, when he shook his head. “They didn’t need to. Eryn discovered it on her own. Accidentally, just as is usual when it comes to combat skills.”

Tyront shook his head. “That woman is driving me insane. I don’t know which irks me more – that she keeps stumbling upon these things despite not showing any interest whatsoever in the discipline, or that she can’t be bothered to put that talent to proper use.”

Enric didn’t reply to that. He knew that his companion had a very different idea of what the proper use of her talents was. Certainly not what Tyront meant by that term.

“I could demonstrate it to you in the arena, if you like,” he offered casually.

“Thank you, no,” Tyront growled. “I remember the day I wished to test my mastery of the double shield she devised – only to find out rather painfully that she had in the meantime made another lucky discovery – how to overcome it. I know better than to let myself in for another public demonstration. No, you’ll show me here.”

Enric looked around in the study, which was spacious, yet certainly not extensive enough to not suffer any damage if two strong magicians tested their skills in combat.

“Are you sure?” he asked, his voice full of doubt. “You might have to have some repairs done in here afterwards.”

Tyront got up from his chair. “Then let’s go to the parlour. If we accidentally smashed that monstrous red vase in the corner next to the entrance door which Vyril recently bought, I wouldn’t mind that in the least. I would even go so far as to grant you a favour if you took on the sole blame for it.”

“I feel I am being used,” Enric mumbled in pretended indignation, glad that since his arrival the mood had lightened enough for jokes.

“That’s alright – I can live with it, and you’ll get over it. Eventually.”

*  *  *

Plia all but dropped her – fortunately not breakable – tools as Eryn walked into her laboratory. A moment later the two women hugged.

“I am with child!” the younger woman beamed once they had moved apart again.

Eryn smiled. It was not exactly unexpected news, since Plia had her protection removed shortly before her commitment, but news it still was.

“I’m so happy for you. How far along are you?”

“It’s my fourth month, and I have never felt better!”

Eryn remembered her own pregnancy. It had been… alright. Slight stomach problems at the beginning and a craving for sweet, baked articles, but nothing too uncomfortable. Junar had not been quite as lucky. But Plia was positively radiating energy and life. Something which might also be attributable to her age. At twenty-one years of age she was quite a few years younger than Junar and Eryn herself had been.

She pushed aside the thought of Junar and the unpleasant welcome, not willing to let it taint her reunion with Plia.

“So no morning sickness or anything of that kind?”

“Nothing whatsoever – just an increased sensitivity for odours, but that’s actually helpful in my line of work,” the young woman laughed.

“How is Rhys dealing with the prospect of becoming a father soon?”

“He is switching between phases of frenzied activity to prepare everything and others where he worries whether he will be able to live up to the challenge. He is currently building a cradle since his own was given to his older brother for his children. I think he’s started the job all over again three times by now, always dissatisfied. He speaks of passing it on to his grandchildren one day.” She shook her head in wonder. “We haven’t even seen our child yet, and he is already speaking of grandchildren!”

Eryn thought back to how she herself had regularly checked on her unborn son with magic, looking inside her belly to make sure everything was fine. And what a pity it was that non-magicians didn’t have that opportunity.

Then a thought occurred to her.

“May I have a look inside?” she asked, nodding towards Plia’s belly.

“Sure, go ahead.”

Eryn placed a hand on the already slightly bulging abdomen under the baggy clothes and closed her eyes before releasing a weak surge of exploratory magic. She immediately found the foetus, once again marvelling how far a human being was already developed after only a few weeks. The body and limbs had already taken shape, only the proportions would still be changing. Even the facial features were already discernible. And the baby’s sex, of course.

“Do you already know what it is?” she asked, her eyes still closed.

“Yes. They said it’s a boy.”

Eryn nodded and opened her eyes again, her hand still on Plia’s belly. “Would you like to see him?”

“What? How? Yes!”

“Alright. I can’t promise anything, though. When I look inside you, it’s the magic in combination with the brain doing the seeing, not my eyes. So I’m not entirely certain whether I can remember and then reproduce this in a way that your eyes can recognise anything. Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work. This is an experiment.”

The magician created a barrier in the air before them, concentrating on visualising the information which was conveyed to her brain without the detour through the eyes. First, there were faint black and red blotches, then those images began to take on forms.

Plia gasped as details filled in, forming before her eyes a more or less exact picture of her child. She covered her mouth with one hand, while the other moved upwards with the need to touch, her fingers hovering in front of the tiny face, causing a slight discharge of the weak magical barrier.

“This is incredible! He already looks like a real person, with hands and legs and everything! He has my nose,” she breathed, her eyes wide and her voice awestruck. Without taking her eyes off the image, she added, “I had no idea you can do such a thing!”

Eryn shrugged. “Neither did I. As I said – it was an experiment. The projection of pictures is something I learned in Pirinkar, but I didn’t know that it is possible to actually use it to make visible what is going on inside the body…” Her voice trailed off as she thought of how this could be utilised in training new healers – particularly non-magicians, who had no way of just looking inside a body the way their magician colleagues were able to.

“Could you teach that to the other healers?” Plia asked. “Imagine how great it would be for parents to have a look at their unborn children!”

“That shouldn’t be a problem, provided Lord Poron agrees. But I don’t see why he wouldn’t.”

There were tears shimmering in the younger woman’s eyes as she kept marvelling at the image floating in front of her. “He is beautiful. I can hardly believe that he is growing inside me. Thank you – thank you so much! This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen!”

Eryn, always slightly awkward around gratitude, particularly when it was so intense and had required so little effort to earn, just acknowledged the words with a nod and kept the image afloat so Plia could delight in it a little longer.

A sudden sadness took possession of Eryn as she thought about the impending war and that this little boy and all the other children born to either of the conflict parties would somehow be affected by it. They might lose a family member to it or grow up in a country ransacked by what would commonly be referred to as the enemy. People would get killed, and those lucky enough to survive would very likely be traumatised by the events or be suffering from dwelling in a post-war environment where food was scarce and bitterness reigned.

She would do her best in somehow helping to avoid this outcome. Though she was aware that people in Anyueel and the Western Territories would rather be focused on protecting their side only, while Eryn was determined to stand up for them all – including those who were being manipulated, used and sacrificed to cement the claim to power of a single ambitious man who didn’t even shy from incarcerating his only brother.

She let herself breath more freely again, pushing these gloomy thoughts aside, not willing to let them poison this private moment of carefree engagement with Plia, who looked so charming as she was standing there, one hand resting on her belly, the other still lifted towards the likeness of her son. She was determined to remember this and show it to Vern so he could draw it one day, maybe as a gift to her son when he was older. That way he could see with his own eyes how much joy he was giving his mother, the love he was inspiring in her even before he was born.

A knock at the door interrupted them, and Eryn removed her hand from her friend’s tummy and went to see who it was.

Onil stood in front of the door, his eyes widened, his face pale. Eryn gulped. If bad news had a face, it was this very one. She slipped out the door and motioned for Onil to follow her into an empty teaching room.

“What happened?” she demanded, her voice sounding harsher than she had intended.

“Something terrible. An accident. A building caved in and buried him under an avalanche of bricks… there was nothing we were able to do but to excavate his body… I’m so sorry. He was a good man.” The last sentence was but a whisper.

Eryn’s stomach turned into a solid block of ice from one moment to the next. Enric. No…

Her knees gave in and she had to brace herself on one of the many desks, her movements sluggish as though the air had suddenly thickened into water and was slowing everything down. This couldn’t possibly be true – they hadn’t gone through all that only for him to die in such a way. Her breathing became heavy and her vision began to blur.

“I… I can’t tell her,” Onil all but sobbed. “Please, I know it’s not fair of me to ask this of you after you just came back here, but… could you do it? Please?”

Eryn’s head spun. What?

Remainders of her drowning mind insisted that this didn’t make any sense.

“Tell who?” she somehow managed to ask, though more out of a lifelong habit of clearing up whatever was unintelligible than out of real interest. The world and everything in it had stopped mattering.

Exasperated, Onil stared at her, as though this entire situation weren’t dire enough already without her lack of understanding making it even more exhausting.

“Plia! You need to tell her that Rhys is dead!” he pronounced overly clearly as if he were fearing that she had lost her mind. “Do you even understand what I am telling you? Plia’s companion has died!”

Eryn began shaking under the forceful wave of relief washing over her as she realised that it wasn’t Enric who had simply ceased to exist from one moment to the next, but someone else.

Then her mind caught up, and she closed her eyes as tears began running down her cheeks. Tears of heartfelt sorrow for her young friend and her unborn son who had just lost a companion and a father. And tears of relief about the fact that Enric was alive. Painful tears which felt treacherous and selfish, and yet they wouldn’t stop coming.

Chapter 2

First Preparations

The memory of Plia, passing out and lying on the floor after hearing of her beloved’s fate, haunted Eryn while she sat at the table, behind her the unpleasantly hard backrest of a chair, which had never been intended for comfort.

Eryn had made sure that the young woman hadn’t obtained any injuries from falling to the floor and that her unborn baby was alright, then she had lifted her up and carried her to Lord Poron’s study, where they had prepared a make-shift bed for her to rest on.

Onil had then taken her to the room where they had laid out the remains of Rhys’ battered body. Eryn had seen her share of grizzly injuries and also empty human shells in the many years of her work as healer, yet this one threatened to turn her stomach.

It was not that the sight was particularly disturbing on account of things hanging out which ought to be inside or a pose or a frozen facial expression which indicated how much he must have suffered in his moment of death. It was the contrast of having known him as a vital, healthy young man who had been so very much in love and who had only so recently set the course for what should have been bliss and happiness for decades. And now he was reduced to this… chunk of lifeless flesh deprived of all that had made him who he was.

She was glad that his eyes were closed, no matter whether he had died that way or whether someone had shown the presence of mind to push his lids closed after digging him out. Being forced to look at dead eyes staring up at the ceiling would have been too much for that day.

“Would it be too bold to ask for your undivided attention considering that we are discussing something as severe as an impending war, Lady Eryn?” a slightly miffed voice took her back to where her body if not her mind was stuck. Lord Woldarn.

Eryn straightened slightly, wondering whether it had been her empty gaze which had given her away or some failure to respond to someone’s enquiry.

“A close friend of Lady Eryn’s lost her companion only yesterday, so I would suggest we may exercise leniency for a little temporary inattention at this point,” came some unexpected support from Lord Seagon. Wasn’t it nice that people kept themselves informed about the goings on in her life…

She was glad that not Enric had been the one to defend her. It would have looked as though she needed protection from her companion. Having Lord Seagon, a known critic of basically every move of hers, do it, made it less personal and more unemotional. It was now rather a point of view dictated by common decency than the wish to protect a beloved person. Which made her look less like a delicate flower in need of protection and more like a person entitled to having her needs respected at his very moment.

She gave him a brief nod of thanks, then cleared her throat.

“Since you don’t seem to be able to do without my attention for even a minute, Lord Woldarn, I am very interested in hearing what you think that only I can contribute at this very moment,” she addressed him calmly with only a hint of impatience discernible.

How was it possible, that this man was Onil’s father? One of her best healers was truly from the same family as this man. Well, maybe at times it really was a blessing that most rich people delegated the upbringing of their offspring to servants. At least this way there was a chance for the children to acquire some common sense from worthier role models.

Lord Woldarn struggled for a moment. Which meant she hadn’t failed to respond to an enquiry. He merely wanted to expose her. Good to know. She would treat him with an equal lack of kindness should an occasion present itself.

He cleared his throat, obviously having come up with some kind of pretence. “I have no doubt that all of us would be very interested in a demonstration of the new skills you mentioned having obtained only recently.”

Dead silence followed that. As if nobody at the round table was feeling any particular desire to be included in all of us at this precise moment.

Eryn made her weary sigh a little more audible than she would have otherwise. “My Lord,” she began, her voice as patronising as she was able to make it sound, “Firstly, I should think that the strategic considerations in connection with the situation in the Western Territories and Pirinkar about which you were just informed certainly take precedence over your personal curiosity. And secondly, since a higher-ranking Order magician is present, who is in possession of the exact same skills and information as I, it would be disrespectful of me to simply start showing off my skills during a Council meeting without being instructed by my superiors. I am somewhat surprised if not to say bewildered by your lack of adherence to Order principles, Lord Woldarn.”

The man’s gaze had turned from smug to hostile, but he wisely decided to keep quiet for the time being.

Eryn felt a trace of Enric’s amusement through the mind bond, though his face didn’t display even the slightest hint of it.

“If the two of you are done exchanging pleasantries,” Tyront cut in, “I would suggest we proceed with the most recent developments as reported to me directly from Takhan only this morning.” He consulted his notes. “By now, all known mountain passes have been made impassable by our magicians – apart from the main one, of course. This one will remain the only open route to Pirinkar and is being fortified as we speak. At the same time the mountains are being searched for hitherto undiscovered routes which allow entering the Western Territories. Malriel of House Aren maintains good connections with the mountain tribes up north and has asked them to aid in this endeavour since their knowledge of the area is invaluable. A remarkable accomplishment as I am given to understand, since the mountain tribes are even more reluctant to interact with Takhan than the desert nomads.” He cleared his throat. “There is something else. A captive from the Loman Ergen, a woman who was part of the attacking party to kill off the Bendan Ederbren, revealed some truly disturbing news of a geographical nature. News which require action from our side, and quickly. Pirinkar has always kept its maps a secret from outsiders, and after talking to the Bendan Ederbren, we know that priests were also not educated as to where the borders of their country run. The Loman Ergen, however, have been roaming their country for many generations and therefore gained detailed knowledge of it.”

Eryn suppressed a sigh, wishing he would finally get to the point and not focus so much on where the information came from.

“It turns out that Pirinkar’s dimensions far exceed those of the Kingdom and therefore also the Western Territories’. The country stretches so far as to cover the entire width of the Western Territories, the sea separating them from us – and continues beyond the mountains which form the northern border of our own country. This means we are sharing a border with a country which we are now at war with.”

He let the news sink in, waiting for the Council members’ reactions.

Orrin was the first to put his thoughts into words. “Do they know that?”

“For caution’s sake I would recommend we operate under that assumption,” Tyront replied.

The warrior pinched the bridge of his nose, visibly anything but thrilled with the news. “That means we will have to once again test whether the northern mountains are as impenetrable as we always assumed. Chances are that Etor Gart is at this very moment trying to find out just that. He must be aware that we are what stands between him and a reasonable likelihood of victory.”

“Chances are that the reason why the mountains can’t be crossed is the barrier at sea continuing through them,” Eryn pondered, deep inside her grateful that there was a problem serious enough to force her thoughts away from Rhys for now. “Which would mean that it might at certain spots be as frayed as it is in the sea, permitting individuals to slip through even if they don’t know how to use their magic to overcome it.”

“How do you suggest we test this, then?” Lord Remdel addressed Orrin. “Throwing magic at sheer rock, blasting it away to see what’s behind? If it were quite that easy, our forebears would have done it long ago. Even if we succeeded, we would risk opening up an entry for the enemy – creating one where there was none before,” he pointed out. “And even if we decided in favour of this – do you have any idea how many magicians and how much time it would take to blast through an entire mountain?”

Enric pursed lips as a thought occurred to him. Maybe he would fulfil Lord Woldarn’s wish for a demonstration of newly acquired skills sooner than planned.

He cleared his throat to indicate his intention to speak, noting with satisfaction how everyone fell silent and looked at him. “That might actually be less of an issue than you expect. Lady Eryn has a certain way with rocks.”

“What is that supposed to mean – she has a way with rocks? Do they move out of her way when she approaches, eager to be spared the insolence she is known for near and far?” Lord Woldarn threw in with a sneer.

Eryn’s eyes narrowed, and when it became quiet once again and several of the Council members – Tyront and Enric included – were giving her expectant looks, she knew she had to act and set him boundaries.

Slowly, she pushed back her chair to stand up, making sure the chair legs produced a clearly audible scraping on the smooth stone floor. She wasn’t even sure what to do now. Lift him by his collar and shake some sense into him, aiming to scare him with her superior magical powers? Grab him by the neck, take control of his muscles and force him to dance like a puppet on a string to rob him of his dignity? Deal him a straightforward punch in the face to call to his mind that this still was an institution where strength was the key to power and that she was stronger than him by far?

Neither of these options would do for her, she realised. They were little more than physical means to release her frustration by subduing him with her power. But what she had to accomplish instead, she knew, was to tame him with her position, her rank.

“Lord Woldarn,” she uttered calmly, bracing both her palms on the smooth surface of the extensive table before her, “your insults have progressed enough to reach far beyond the respectful, objective criticism towards a superior we value in these halls. I have arrived at the end of my leniency. For each of the next three days, before sunrise, you will report to the man in charge of the Order’s stables and lend him a helping hand for three hours apiece.”

“You can’t do that!” Lord Woldarn fumed, jumping up from his chair, then looked at Tyront. “She can’t do that!”

The Order’s leader leaned back. “I rather think she can. You are subordinated to Lady Eryn, and if she perceives your behaviour towards her as an insult she is entitled – no, even duty-bound – to act accordingly in order to maintain discipline among our ranks. Particularly since we are about to enter into a war and need to depend on every single Order magician to adhere to the existing chain of command. However, it is within your rights to file an official complaint and have the disciplinary sanction you are being subjected to evaluated for its suitability.”

“Then I am herewith doing that!”

Tyront shook his head. “The complaint must be given in writing in order to be effective, Lord Woldarn. There still are certain procedures in place. This particular one aims to make sure that everything is properly documented.”

“Then you will receive my written complaint shortly after the conclusion of this meeting!” Lord Woldarn promised hotly.

“Good. I shall get back to you within a week.”

“But… by then the sentence will already have been fulfilled and can no longer be objected to! I will certainly not shovel horse manure for three days!”

“Lord Woldarn,” Tyront sighed, his voice all benevolent patience, “you are aware that we are in the middle of discussing war, are you not? Even though this may at this precise point in time not be convenient to you, it takes precedence over the disciplinary measures you have been subjected to.” He motioned for the indignant Lord and Eryn to sit down again, then looked at Enric. “You were about to make a suggestion about how to go about inspecting the northern mountains, unless I am mistaken. Please proceed.”

Enric nodded. “There is something I wish to show you. Lady Eryn has found a way to manipulate rock from within to achieve with a mere nudge of magic more than several hours of heavy attacks from outside would have managed. I imagine that this very technique may serve us well if we truly are to explore the hitherto impenetrable mountains. Allow me to show you something.”

Eryn closed her eyes. Not again the crumbling fortress. It seemed as though he was using every opportunity to create for her a reputation as the destroyer of mountains. Who would have thought that she would ever arrive at a point where people would shrug off the crumbling Senate Hall roof in Takhan as a mere triviality in comparison to her other acts of demolition? Well, maybe it would overwhelm Lord Woldarn with its potency, causing him to stay out of her hair from now on. That thought made her smile and she leaned back to observe the Council’s reaction to Enric’s little showing.

*  *  *

Enric knocked at his mother’s entrance door, Eryn behind him rubbing her upper arms in an unconscious attempt to comfort herself. He wished he could do something for her, alleviate her pain somehow, but there was very little he could do – apart from artificially dulling her feelings with magic. Which was not a healthy thing to do, since it meant suppressing what instead needed to be dealt with.

Enric knew he wasn’t good with pain. Not with his own and not with other people’s. He could deal well enough with frustration, fear, anger and other powerful emotions. They could to a certain degree be met with reason, be looked at from another perspective and therefore be robbed of some of their power. Pain, however, was a different challenge entirely. One couldn’t simply decide to count to ten while doing some deep breathing. Pain meant that something on the inside was damaged, something only time could heal. There were things one could do to help a grieving person such as providing a safe environment and emotional support, but the ultimate healing had to be accomplished by the suffering person.

He felt Eryn’s anguish through their bond. She hadn’t been particularly close to Rhys. To Enric’s knowledge, she had valued the young man’s expertise in woodwork and even more than that how happy he had made Plia. It was mainly for Plia’s sake she was feeling grief.

Eryn had told him how she had heard of Rhys’ demise, how she had for several excruciating moments believed Enric was the one dead. He remembered what he had received through the bond at that time. It had been heart-wrenching – the more since he’d had not the slightest inkling about the cause.

The door in front of him opened, and his niece stepped aside to let them enter.

“Grandmother is upstairs with Plia,” she informed them.

“How is Plia doing?” Enric asked, not really certain what kind of answer he was actually expecting. She had to be devastated. Yet what else was one to ask in a situation like this?

“As good as can be expected under the circumstances,” Temina sighed. “She hasn’t left the room grandmother prepared for her. And every time I go in to bring her food I know she won’t touch anyway, I see her either crying or staring at the ceiling with a strangely vacant gaze. The first time I thought she might also have expired and shook her…” She grimaced, obviously not particularly proud of how that had gone.

They looked down as a large and lithe dark brown mountain cat trotted towards them from the parlour, its tail high up in the air as a sign of elation.

Enric crouched and greeted Urban by scratching her cheeks and rubbing her belly as she flopped down in front of him.

“She must have heard my voice,” he deducted, glad for the pleasant interruption of this sombre conversation.

Eryn took Temina by one shoulder. “You say she isn’t eating? Nothing at all?”

“Effectively nothing. She forces down a few bites to just get grandmother off her back, but that’s it. Vern was here. He told her he’d make her eat and drink if she didn’t take proper care of her baby.” She grimaced. “That was the first time I saw cute, proper little Plia really lose it. She began throwing things after him, screaming at him that this was what he had wanted all along. Rhys’ death, I mean. But he just stood there, raised a shield and let the things she hurled at him bounce off it. He was perfect. When she calmed down again, he explained to her that he could easily take control of her muscles and make her eat and drink if it became necessary to sustain her body and the child’s, but that he would very much prefer not having to do it. She screamed some more after that, but then she ate – at least as long as he was watching. He promised to drop by every day to ensure she eats.”

Eryn nodded, glad that after all that had happened between them, Vern still cared enough for her to look after Plia. Many people would have rejoiced in a stroke of fate dealt to someone who had rejected them. Particularly, when this rejection had come together with a suspension from his profession for half a year as a consequence of trying to win her over.

But not Vern. He would never let his own injured pride and broken heart – or whatever had in actual fact been broken, since he hadn’t really been ready to commit to Plia anyway – stand in the way of doing what was right. And at this moment, the right thing was to take care of Plia, no matter whether she valued that care or not.

Gerit had, without consulting her former housemate, arranged for Plia’s things to be taken from her and Rhys’ quarters back to her house. Eryn’s impression had been that Plia hadn’t even been connected with the outside world enough to realise what was going on. Therefore there had been no objection on her part; she had merely let everyone do with her as they pleased as long as she’d had a quiet place to weep freely.

Enric straightened again after petting the mountain cat and nodded towards the staircase. “Can we go upstairs or is it a bad time?”

Temina shrugged. “I’d say it’s a time as bad as any. But she isn’t currently taking a bath or anything, if you are worried about that.”

“Maybe I should go in there without you,” Eryn suggested. “It might hurt her even more if she sees the two of us together.”

Enric would have loved to accept this proposal, since it offered him a way out of having to face a weeping woman without any idea how to alleviate her pain. He was usually good at facing problems, yet not when he knew from the start that there was no solution; that the issue would at one point resolve itself, but not through anything he could do, but simply owing to the passage of time. He hated being helpless, and watching another person suffer was the worst form of it he knew.

“No, I think there is little sense in that,” he forced himself to say what reason dictated. “We can’t protect her from the fact that there are still couples around. At least not without isolating her and confining her to the house. And we shouldn’t give in to the temptation to treat her like a victim if we want her to gather strength.”

When Eryn smiled at him and pressed a kiss into his palm, he knew that she had just wanted to offer him an easy way out without losing face. And that she was proud that he had decided against taking it, even though she would have accepted it if he had.

They walked up the quietly creaking stairs and turned towards the room Plia had inhabited before her commitment.

*  *  *

Eryn took a deep, calming breath before knocking at Plia’s door. She was at the same time eager to see Plia and make sure she was as alright as the circumstances permitted, and also dreaded what she knew would at best be heart wrenching to behold.

When there was no reply or invitation from inside for several seconds, she pushed down the door handle and entered, Enric only a step behind her.

Their eyes needed a few seconds to adapt to the dim light conditions in the room. The curtains were drawn closely, so that the tiny amount of sunlight managing to filter through the sturdy fabric cast the comfortably furnished room into a slightly purplish glow.

The room didn’t look as if anyone lived in it. Plia had returned to it only recently, but obviously not found the energy or the will to make it her own again. An empty chest with an open lid standing against one wall suggested that Gerit had taken care of the young woman’s clothes and moved them into the nearby closet.

Eryn’s eyes wandered to the immobile figure on the bed along one wall. Plia’s head was resting on a pillow, while her arms hugged another one tightly as if she were trying to hang on to the illusion that she still had someone in her life to cling to when in need of comfort.

There were no sounds, her breathing too quiet to produce any. After Eryn’s vision had adapted, she observed her friend for a few moments. The young woman’s chest was not rising evenly and deeply enough to suggest she was asleep. So Plia had either not noticed that anyone had entered, or she simply didn’t care.

“Plia?” she tried softly, and stepped closer to take a seat on the edge of the bed, gently laying her hand on the arm that clutched the cushion. From the corner of her eye she saw how Enric quietly took a seat on a comfortable chair nearby.

She felt how the body under her hand tensed slightly at the touch and noticed how the young woman pressed her face into the cushion, her eyes squeezed shut in an attempt to keep the harsh world and the cruel blows it dealt outside.

At a loss for words in the face of such desolation, Eryn feverishly tried to think of something suitable, meaningful or comforting to say. What would she in Plia’s place want to hear? Would she even want anyone to talk to her? Were Plia’s wishes even to be given priority for now? Wasn’t it more important what she needed? But whose place was it to determine what the young woman needed right now? If Plia wanted solitude, was it permissible to impose company on her?

Memories of how she herself had been pregnant returned to her. At that time she was devastated after she had learnt that Valrad was her natural father. Enric had decided that she needed to face her anger, worry and desperation instead of retreating and keeping away from everyone, and she had hated it. No matter whether her companion was right at that particular point in time or not, she still had found it unbearable that he had taken that decision away from her and tried to impose on her what he thought was necessary instead of respecting that she needed to come to terms with the new circumstances.

Looking back, her own troubles had not been nearly as grave as Plia’s were right now, no matter how dire they had seemed to Eryn back then. While she had questioned everything in her life, even her own identity, Plia must be feeling as though her own existence had suddenly lost all that made it meaningful. The one person to whom she had meant the world, and who had been the most important human being in hers, was gone – without warning, in the passage of one moment to the next.

She cast a helpless look at Enric, who watched from his chair. He got up from his seat and came closer. Awkwardly, he took a seat at the lower end of the bed, not sure what to do with his hands. Finally, he rested one of them on the shape of Plia’s foot which was outlined under the blanket, squeezing it lightly.

“How is the baby doing?” he asked, looking as though he didn’t really count on receiving a reply.

A few quiet seconds passed, then Plia turned her head enough to look at the tall man touching her foot. Her gaze was empty, as was her voice as she replied, “The baby is good. Will you next ask me how I am doing?” A certain bitterness accompanied her last few words.

Enric shook his head. “I don’t need to. I can see that you are miserable. I don’t think putting words to it would help you.” For a moment he looked uncertain. “Or would it?”

To Eryn’s immense surprise, Plia sat up and crawled over to where Enric was sitting. Tears had started to run down her cheeks as she slung her arms around Enric’s midriff and leaned her cheek against his chest, her shoulders shaking silently.

Enric was just as staggered, but recovered quickly and began rubbing her back, not minding the dampness that began to grow on his dark shirt.

Eryn sat there, somewhat lost and feeling superfluous. She tried not to mind that her friend preferred the contact with Enric right now. She had just lost a man and sought – consciously or unconsciously – the warmth and comfort of male arms.

Enric had no trouble consoling the damsel in distress, Eryn couldn’t help but notice. She wondered whether this was a role he secretly would have enjoyed playing more frequently but was deprived of the pleasure on account of having a companion who wasn’t exactly the kind to weep and seek solace in anyone’s arms. Pushing the thought aside, she forced herself to concentrate on the person whose grief had led them here.

She was glad Plia allowed herself to be held, even though the man she was clinging to was a rather unlikely candidate for this kind of thing. At least in this country. Lord Enric, strong shoulder to women mired in woe…

Eryn leaned back against the bed’s headboard, watching how Plia’s sobs at first grew more and more violent before they began abating bit by bit after a while. Several minutes later, she became more quiet, her shoulders no longer heaving every two seconds, but only occasionally. At one point the tears came silently from behind closed eyelids, and Enric felt her body growing heavier and less rigid as she dozed off.

She studied Enric’s face. The expression matched the feeling of sadness she received through the mind bond. Absentmindedly, his hand caressed the young woman’s back. Feeling his companion’s gaze, he looked at her as if to ask, What now?

Eryn shrugged, not knowing either. Plia appeared to be in a state of borrowed peace while enjoying the comfort of Enric’s physical closeness. After the constant pain she had been in since receiving the message of her companion’s death, she and the baby could surely use the break.

She rose and stepped closer, leaning down to his ear as she whispered, “Would you mind staying with her for a bit?”

He sighed. “No. Just open the curtains a little and bring me something to read, will you?”

A wave of affection for him washed through her, and she kissed the top of his head before turning around to do what he’d asked. She would bring him a book and then sit with Temina for a while.

*  *  *

Enric took a seat in Tyront’s study once Eryn had claimed a chair. A message from the Order’s leader had awaited him and Eryn at home when they had returned from their visit to Plia at his mother’s home.

He would have preferred to spend the evening with his family instead of responding to his superior’s summons, but there wasn’t much of a choice. They had sent for Temina, asking her to mind Vedric for an hour or two as long as his parents were at the Palace. His niece had been more than happy to accommodate them and had also brought the mountain cat along. They hadn’t yet discussed how to proceed with regard to Urban, whether she was to stay with Temina or return to them. That was something they would talk about once things had quieted down a little. They also had to consider the option that Eryn might decide to relocate to Takhan permanently as Head of House Aren, meaning the cat would either come along and suffer under the constant heat or stay behind with Temina.

Eryn’s face also showed clearly how little she valued the evening appointment with Tyront. Enric was certain that the war would lead to an increased frequency of meetings with the King, the Magic Council and Tyront, but he hadn’t mentioned that so far. She would find out soon enough.

Tyront took a seat behind his monstrous desk – a sure sign that Order business was about to follow.

Eryn stifled a yawn and waited patiently for what was important enough to drag them here in the evening.

Their superior cleared his throat and looked at Eryn. “I have been thinking about Enric’s demonstration of displaying memories with the aid of a shield. An immensely interesting skill. Yet what was even more intriguing than his means of sharing his thoughts, was the incident he selected for his demonstration.”

Enric began to understand. Of course. They all had watched Eryn destroying a mighty rock fortress without so much as shooting a bolt or moving a finger. Considering that they were on the verge of aiding their allies in a war, this was a skill the Order’s magicians – first and foremost their warriors – ought to possess.

Eryn had obviously arrived at the same conclusion. She smiled faintly. “I assume I am to show you how to make big bad enemy fortifications crumble?”

“That’s not quite how I would have phrased it, but in essence I think we can agree that this is the skill I would ask you to teach your colleagues in the Order.” Tyront watched her, waiting for her answer.

She shrugged, obviously not exactly surprised by his request, demand or whatever this constituted. Probably a demand disguised as a polite enquiry. “Of course. Though you are aware that we need to leave the city for this and get some distance away from it. I don’t necessarily need mountains – any terrain far enough from settlements will do. I can teach the basic principle on a smaller scale. It’s done in no more than a few minutes. The travelling will take longer. I recommend at least a three hour ride. That way any mishaps should not lead to buildings caving in here in the city.”

“Yes, for that we would be immensely grateful,” Tyront replied, his tone a touch brittle. Nevertheless, his expression showed that he was satisfied with Eryn’s immediate willingness to pass on her latest discovery. His gaze shifted to Enric.

“Have you learned how to do it yet or will you be among the party?”

“I haven’t so far, no. On our journey back from Pirinkar we were eager to remain inconspicuous, which included not collapsing any landscapes on the way.”

Tyront nodded. “Good. Then your presence and mine on this trip shall serve to demonstrate to the others how important we consider acquisition of this skill. I will send word to our outposts so they can send along a few people. With a three-hour ride in either direction and no more than an hour of instruction, a day should be more than enough time for this.”

“Will the Magic Council be accompanying us?” Eryn asked, aiming for casualness. And failing to hide her dread at the thought of being stuck with them for an entire day.

“Not all of them. There will be Orrin, Enric and I, and then I would suggest another two so that at least half of the Council possesses the skill. Orrin can then take care of teaching it to others.”

Enric saw his companion’s relief at the fact that she would have to deal with no more than two tiresome Council members if one didn’t want to count Tyront. He switched his look back to his superior when he was addressed.

“How about this whole unpleasant business up in Pirinkar, Enric? Have you been able to deal with it to a degree where it does not keep you from reassuming your duties in the Order?”

“Of course,” Enric replied without missing a beat.

Tyront’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Under different circumstances I would be less adamant about pointing out that we cannot afford a distracted Second in Command of the Order. But with things being as they are, I need to make sure that I can count on you to keep a clear head in a war.”

“I will,” Enric assured him once again.

Tyront’s gaze found Eryn as though he was trying to read in her face whether her companion was speaking the truth. But she merely returned his look with one of polite interest.

After a few seconds he nodded. “I’m glad to hear it.”

Yet Enric couldn’t shake off the feeling that his superior still harboured certain doubts.

*  *  *

Satisfied, Enric watched as a few of his colleagues projected their thoughts onto shimmering shields while on horseback. He had used the idle time on their way to the training location, where Eryn taught them about manipulating layers of rock, to instruct those group members who were willing to acquire the skill on how to go about using images to share memories, ideas or whatever else their brains came up with.

They had spent the entire day in the hills south of the capital city, or rather half of it, and the rest of the time on horseback travelling there and back.

Eryn had been surprised at how long it had taken the magicians to grasp and successfully apply what she herself had worked out within mere seconds when, back in Pirinkar, she had simply been following her instincts. Four hours was required before every single one of the thirty-seven magicians accompanying her and Enric had finally mastered the skill of manipulating the ground to a degree where they would be able to cause considerable damage if they so wished. Not a particularly focused kind of damage, however – at least not from all of them. A select few had grasped the principle of detecting veins within the layers of stone underneath their feet and using low doses of magic to carefully manipulate them. Surprisingly enough, Lord Seagon was among them. As was Enric. Which was less of a surprise.

After an early evening meal at a tavern, whose owner had looked slightly panicked after beholding so large a party which he was expected to seat in addition to his regular customers, they had continued on their way about half an hour ago. Night was already closing in, on the horizon the last remainders of daylight fading with every passing minute. Another hour would bring them within sight of the city.

All in all, the mood among the travelling group was relaxed and amiable. Enric knew that many of them hadn’t had the chance to leave the city for many years – or had simply seen no use in doing so. He was willing to bet that a few of them had last been outside city bounds when they were still in training and instructed to search the woods for edible plants. Therefore, this was somewhat of an adventure for several of his colleagues.

“I am not sure I agree with your having such vast powers of destruction at your disposal,” Lord Woldarn, riding beside Eryn, grumbled. Enric wondered whether the man had intentionally steered his horse next to her to pick a fight. “You were prone to collapsing buildings even before you were able to inflict even more damage with considerably less effort using this technique here. This kind of power requires a degree of control far above the one you have been displaying these last years.”

Eryn turned her head, sending him a cool look. “One building. And not even an entire one, but merely a roof. Which I had repaired afterwards. And you may consider the fact that no building has yet collapsed on top of you proof of my continuous and considerable self-control, my Lord.”

“Are you threatening me, Lady Eryn?” he huffed indignantly, his voice rising in volume as he tried to attract an audience.

Enric sighed, deciding not to intervene for now. If he reprimanded his subordinate for his disrespectful behaviour, the man would just seek another opportunity without Enric present to provoke Eryn. She needed to set him boundaries, just as she had done before at the Council Hall. And she had to do it on her own without having her valiant companion hurry to her side to protect her.

“Certainly not, Lord Woldarn!” Eryn exclaimed with mock consternation at such an outrageous insinuation. “Were I threatening you, then you wouldn’t be in any doubt about it. Though I shall be more considerate of your delicate constitution knowing how easily you feel unbalanced.”

Enric saw how some of the magicians around them rolled their eyes at yet another verbal bout between those two, while others found it enjoyable and sniggered quietly. The first group were mostly Council members who experienced it regularly during their meetings, the latter magicians who either held a certain regard for Eryn or disliked Lord Woldarn.

“This impertinence of yours towards high-ranking Council members so much more advanced in age than yourself is inconceivable! I was already serving in the Council before you were even born! Nearly forty years of experience, only to be treated like…”

Eryn interrupted him sharply. “Forty years of Council experience? Hardly! You have merely hung on to the same outdated notions since then, disguising them as adherence to tradition while in truth it was nothing more than fear of change and lack of foresight. You certainly don’t have forty years of experience, you merely repeated the first year over and over again without managing to broaden your horizon or understanding.” It had become completely silent around them as the magicians were listening intently. She let a small, condescending smile form on her lips as she continued, “And my setting you boundaries, Lord Woldarn, can hardly be termed impertinence. Since I am your superior and you are bound to follow my orders, you ought to consider it benevolent guidance. We don’t want you to end like Aldon, do we?” she concluded sweetly.

The mention of the disgraced former Lord and Council member silenced Lord Woldarn. The man had tried to hold on to his ideas of tradition and force everyone else to do so as well by attempting to incriminate young magicians who had stood up to fight for changes. Lord Woldarn’s son had been among them.

Eryn was glad that he had decided to shut up for now. She didn’t relish public altercations – at least not in her role as a leader – and hated it whenever she was made to participate in one. She couldn’t afford to lose on account of forfeiting the credibility her rank depended on. So if all else failed, she had to resort to less amiable methods to keep the upper hand. At least in case of the kind of attacks Lord Woldarn liked to launch. They didn’t aim at making her understand a specific problem or trying to make her see a point; there were nothing but a power game because the man had after all these years not yet managed to accept being led by a person much younger than himself – and by a woman, of all people.

She understood that he found it hard to come to terms with his situation, particularly with everything the Order had so adamantly impressed on its members over the last few centuries. Yet other Council members as old as or even older than Lord Woldarn had also managed to deal with the more recent developments. Lord Poron had lost his rank as third in command to a woman who was young enough to be his granddaughter. Yet in contrast to Lord Woldarn, he had not reacted with resentment and dug his heels every step of the way. He had welcomed what was to the Kingdom a rapidly paced progress and even embraced the new discipline of healing by not only letting himself be trained in it, but also assuming responsibility over it as its Head.

Lord Woldarn, by comparison, had proven to be utterly resilient to anything which refuted what he had been taught was proper and right, no matter that many of those things had turned out to be obsolete and in desperate need of improvement. Even Lord Seagon, quite a traditionalist and not exactly a great friend of Eryn’s, had managed to adapt to a certain degree.

Eryn knew that sending Lord Woldarn off to stable duty had not made things easier. His attempt to once again subdue her in public was more than ample proof of the fact that he was unwilling or unable to consider her his superior. He was certainly not someone to accept boundaries easily. Which didn’t mean she could afford to stop setting them, just because he might never learn. That would aid his purposes since it would harm her own reputation.

If she accepted her mother’s offer, she would no longer have to struggle with this stubborn old coot. Exhaling, she forced her thoughts away from what felt like such an easy way out. Leading House Aren, becoming a Senator in Takhan and living in a country which was led by her mother held its own dangers and disadvantages. Of that she was certain.

Enric steered his horse close enough to hers so that he could murmur, “Takhan with House Aren and the Senate must seem like the lesser evil right now. Apart from the fact that they are about to be attacked,” he conceded.

The fact that her companion had guessed her thoughts so accurately made her smile. “Yes, apart from that minor inconvenience.”

The war, she thought. One they would expect she participate in, wielding her sword and magic with the intent to kill. That was something to either come to terms with or refuse once the time came. And as if this weren’t enough to keep her busy, the accursed Lord Woldarn kept picking fights with her. If he wasn’t very careful, his dignity would be the first casualty in this war.

Chapter 3

An Example

Plia’s hand shook slightly as she stirred the herbal powder into the cup with hot water on the kitchen table at the Clinic.

Eryn was torn, not entirely sure what to make of the young woman’s decision to return to work after only three weeks since her beloved’s unexpected demise. On the one hand, work was without a doubt a welcome diversion from her sorrow, something she could bury herself in, a chance to take a break from being devastated without anything to keep her mind busy. Yet on the other hand she was supposed to mix herbs together to produce medicine. Some of the substances she worked with were potent enough to send a patient to an early grave or at least sharpen the illness or pain considerably if there was even the slightest error in measurement.

As much as Eryn would have loved to give her young friend an opportunity to escape her mourning for at least a short while, she still knew that the patients’ wellbeing and safety had to come first. This was something which hadn’t changed just because she had decided to no longer actively pursue the healing profession.

Just as she was about to clear her throat to gain Plia’s attention, Onil entered the kitchen and smiled broadly as he spotted Eryn.

“Hi there! Does your presence here mean that you have changed your mind about abandoning us?” he enquired, his tone playful, yet his request anything but a joke.

She cringed inwardly. Abandoning us, she thought, and forced her lips to stretch into a tense smile. Couldn’t Lord Poron have waited a little longer before spreading that bit of information? “No, I’m afraid I am standing by my decision. I just accompanied Plia. She wishes to resume her work.”

Only then the healer noticed the herbalist standing behind Eryn. His brow drew together in a frown as he took in her pale, almost translucent skin, the eyes underlined by dark bags and the general frail and fragile impression the young woman made. “I know, this is technically none of my business as long as Lord Poron has no objections, but is that wise? Some of the powders we give to the patients leave little to no room for miscalculation. We wouldn’t want to risk accidentally killing someone, would we?”

His words were blunt, yet his tone was gentle and full of regret. He, too, would have loved to welcome her back among friends who could be there for her for at least several hours every day.

Eryn breathed a silent sigh of relief. Onil had just taken a rather unpleasant duty off her shoulders. And seeing that he shared her concerns was for her also a confirmation that this was a real danger to consider and that she was not being overly cautious.

Plia was done stirring her drink and took a careful sip from the still steaming mug before giving him a tired smile. “I know. I won’t be doing anything too involved today. I shall limit myself to caring for the plants in the greenhouse on the roof and harvesting some leaves and blossoms which need to be dried. There is nothing dangerous about that.”

That was not entirely true, Eryn knew. There were a few herbs which certainly should not be touched without protection or tools. The fact that no patient was in imminent danger of being poisoned didn’t mean that nothing bad could happen.

“You will be wearing your gloves, won’t you?” she enquired carefully. “Some of the plants are anything but harmless, you know.”

Plia beamed her a none too friendly look. “Yes, actually I do know – since I am a medical herbalist. And no, I am not thinking of doing anything stupid with the plants in my sorrow,” she accurately guessed in which direction Eryn’s thoughts had been wandering. “I have a baby to take care of and would never hurt him – neither consciously nor through carelessness.”

Eryn nodded awkwardly, partly glad about the assurance and also a tiny bit ashamed.

The young woman nodded to both of them and then left the kitchen, mug in one hand, to walk towards her laboratory.

Once she was out of earshot, Onil sighed and leaned against the table. “I hate to see her like that. What a cruel misfortune to befall so young a person. And in her condition, too. I don’t even want to imagine how she must be feeling right now.”

Eryn just nodded. That sentiment she shared. She remembered that brief moment when she had thought Enric was the one who had died. It had been utter desperation, followed by a strange kind of numbness as though the floor had been ripped from under her feet, leaving her floating in emptiness. Carrying that sensation around with her for days before her mind finally started getting used to the changed reality…

She shivered slightly and rubbed her palms over her forearms.

The healer turned his head to look at her. “Are you certain I can’t persuade you to change your mind about returning to the Clinic? The thought of all this here without you, even though it was only for a few months each time, is strange. Disturbing. Depressing. What induced you to withdraw from healing, anyway? Lord Poron just informed us that there are some personal reasons behind it without giving any particulars. Will you tell me more?”

Eryn smiled sadly and shook her head. “No. To both. I won’t be returning to healing, and I find it more prudent not to give my reasons for the time being. Maybe not ever. Let me assure you, though, that I didn’t make that decision lightly.”

Onil nodded slowly, clearly anything but satisfied with how this conversation was going. “You are not thinking of relocating to Takhan for good once this dreadful business with the war is over, I hope?” he asked suspiciously.

Feverishly she tried to think of something to divert his line of thought. She couldn’t tell him that this was indeed something she was pondering right now, yet she also didn’t want to lie to him.

She looked out the window instead of in his face. “Well, even if I were, there is no saying when the war will be over. If things go really wrong, it could stretch out to years.”

With gladness she saw how Onil nodded, clearly giving this disagreeable scenario some thought – and leaving alone the issue she wanted to avoid.

“That would be unfortunate. But a quick defeat might not be much better when we consider what kind of society Pirinkar would aim to establish in the Western Territories judging from what you told us about them.”

He looked grave and worried, and Eryn felt guilty about putting him in that mood so he would stop trying to uncover her dark secrets.

“Well,” she replied with forced cheerfulness, “this is why the King has agreed to send the Order – so we may avoid either of those gloomy options.”

Both of them looked towards the door as a messenger cleared his throat. Eryn gulped. Palace livery. Either the King or Tyront. Messengers looking for her instead of just leaving whatever letter they brought at home with her servants were a sure sign of a short-notice summons. Which meant she very likely had to follow him to the Palace without delay. At least he didn’t look to be in a hurry that exceeded general eagerness to do his work well; so there didn’t seem to be any emergency at hand.

“His Majesty or Lord Tyront?” she asked flatly, considering not even for a second that in theory the messenger might also have been here for Onil.

“His Majesty, King Folrin asks for the pleasure of seeing you at your earliest convenience,” the man replied with a bow. When he straightened, he gave her an apologetic look. “His Majesty instructed me to explicitly point out to you that this is merely a figure of speech and should not mislead you into thinking that he would be inclined tolerate any delay at all.”

Eryn huffed. “Then why bother with the fancy wording? Why not just tell me to get under way and see him at once?”

The messenger looked appalled. “I can only assume, my Lady, that His Majesty would not consider such mundane wording as befitting his position.”

Onil suppressed a chuckle and winked at her. After the messenger had turned around to lead the way, he mouthed towards Eryn, “Try not to be too mundane, you hear me?”

She grinned and then followed the man, onto whom the grandeur of Palace life had clearly rubbed off, wondering what the King might be in such a hurry to talk about. It would be their first meeting after he had disembarked from the ship in such an ill temper. She only hoped he had got over that incident by now. But then instant summonses generally were unpleasant, no matter if he was harbouring any prior resentment or not.

Resigned to her fate, she continued on her way.

*  *  *

Enric turned his head while walking along Kingsway, following the messenger who had been sent to fetch him, when he heard hasty steps coming after him as though someone was trying to catch up with him. Eryn. He stopped to wait until she had reached him. Just like him, she was also accompanied by a man easily identifiable as a Palace messenger.

A little out of breath, she fell into step with him. “He sent for you, too, then,” she remarked on what was fairly obvious. “Any idea what this might be about?”

“No, not the slightest inkling,” he replied.

The two men in identical liveries gave each other a curt nod and then walked ahead as if Lord Enric and Lady Eryn hadn’t walked this way more often than either of them could count. But an assignment was an assignment. It didn’t really matter that they wouldn’t have even the slightest chance of forcing the magicians to come with them, should they decide that they were not inclined to see their King right now.

They continued on their way without talking since their guides with their stiff demeanour would hear every word.

Only upon reaching the tall double doors to the throne room several minutes later did they bow and disappear to whence they had come from, passing on their delivery to the door guards like parcels, as though they were now someone else’s problem.

The guards opened the doors for them without taking the trouble to announce them. They had surely been instructed to admit nobody but these very two persons the King had desired to see.

Enric’s look first fell on the throne on top of the dais. To his surprise, it was empty. Usually the King preferred to receive them standing in front of his official seat when he summoned them to the throne room. His gaze wandered to the opposite side of the room, towards the windows which almost reached up all the way towards the high ceiling.

This was where he found the monarch. Together with his spouse. They were standing in front of the long stone table King Folrin sometimes had brought there when he had something important to discuss and required more space than his comparatively small study afforded. It was considerably smaller than Enric’s own for some reason. He imagined how the servants were cursing the King or whoever he was meeting while they were hauling this monstrosity of a table in here only to very likely remove it again a little later. He hoped they had some kind of cart at their disposal so they would merely have to lift it on and off instead of hefting it all they way from wherever it was usually stored when not in use.

He felt a faint trace of Eryn’s nervousness through their bond. There had been no interaction, message or other means of contact between her and the King since their arrival at the port more than three weeks ago. Her chin was lifted slightly so as to demonstrate she felt, as far as she was concerned, that there was nothing to apologise for from her side. Yet not high enough to indicate that she considered herself to hold the moral high ground. She very carefully aimed for a neutral expression. One of polite interest and reserve, just as was appropriate for a subject encountering her King upon his behest. No matter that he had stormed off indignantly because of the hole in the ship’s hull when she had seen him last.

A little to one side of her companion stood Queen Del’na’bened, dressed in a garment which appeared almost modest in its simple elegance and lack of elaborate embellishment. Almost. It still was costly, as the trained eye noticed immediately. She didn’t seem entirely satisfied for some reason. There was the hint of a frown above her nose.

The King’s face didn’t betray any emotion whatsoever. Which was in Enric’s experience a sign that something was afoot. Something nasty. Something the Queen was not comfortable with or even was dreading. She was not nearly as good as her companion when it came to holding her facial features in an inexpressive mask. At least not yet. It was probably a skill she would seek to acquire sooner rather than later for her own good.

They came to a standstill a few paces in front of the Royal couple and bowed as one.

“Lord Enric,” King Folrin began, nodding at Enric, then repeating the gesture as he said, “Lady Eryn.” He lifted his left hand to indicate the chairs around that monstrosity of a table next to him. “Do take a seat. There is a rather delicate matter I am forced to address at a time which is highly inopportune for more than one reason. Yet I fear it cannot be helped.”

Enric’s eyes found a bulky leather file lying on the table. It was filled to the limit of its capacity with sheets of paper, held together only by a leather string wrapped around it. There was no label visible on it to enable the casual observer to guess its content. Which was hardly a coincidence.

Next to the file lay a well-used leather-bound tome with a bookmark in it. Property Ordinances Enric read in the embossed letters, which had at one point been golden, upside down.

The King took a seat at the head end of the table, the Queen right next to him on his right side. That left the King’s left side for Eryn and Enric. They, too, pulled out the heavy chairs made of dark wood with curly patterns carved into the straight and uncomfortable backrest.

The King gave them a moment to settle, then indicated with a nod of his head the book on the table. Enric reached out and pulled it towards him, opening it at the page which was marked. His gaze skimmed over the paragraphs of the left page, then continued on the right side, stopping when his eyes locked on one particular paragraph he had always kept mind and waited whether the King would at some point turn it into an issue. It had even become a kind of game for him to see how far he could exceed this particular limitation before someone would be sent to him to address it, how long the King would grant him this little act of disobedience in exchange for his continued usefulness.

That time seemed to have come now.

“I see,” he uttered quietly. Then he looked at the bulging leather file in front of the King. “I assume this is a detailed documentation of all my holdings, land and businesses?”

“It is,” the monarch confirmed calmly.

“Would somebody care to let me in on what exactly is going on here?” came Eryn’s tense voice. “Is there a problem with Enric’s property?”

King Folrin leaned back. “There is a regulation stating that one single man or business cannot hold more than five percent of the Kingdom’s territory as land property. The reason being that a property owner has to a certain degree the right to establish his own rules as long as they do not contradict governing Royal law. Land ownership of five percent and more a is considered a danger to the enforcement of the King’s will and law. Such extensive property, particularly if the land is interconnected, constitutes the risk of comprising what I will call a state within the Kingdom.”

Eryn stared at him and gulped. Then her eyes fell on the file. “I assume Enric has reached the five percent or is about to do so?”

King Folrin’s smile was brittle as he replied, “Seven percent even. And those he has reached already. Seventeen months ago, to be precise.”

This revelation was followed by silence.

Before Enric could speak up, Eryn did. Her voice was tense with barely suppressed anger.

“Seventeen months ago. And you choose this particular point in time – after Enric and I just returned from a harrowing experience up in Pirinkar, and before we are supposed to go to war for you – to bring up a…” For a moment she looked for an adequately belittling term. “…a mere administrative offence? After everything we did, the unpleasant orders of yours we have had to bow to in these past years, no matter at what personal cost?” She wanted to jump up, but Enric quickly reached out for her hand and squeezed it to signal to her that she needed to keep her countenance.

With interest he noticed that Queen Del’na’bened’s head was performing a barely noticeable and probably unconscious nod. That meant she was very likely sharing Eryn’s sentiment. He wanted to file it away as promising, yet since he had no idea how great the Queen’s influence on her companion was, any optimism in this regard might be premature.

“Maintaining the integrity of the state by ensuring that no single individual with delusions of grandeur tries to establish his own government is surely more than a mere matter of administration,” replied King Folrin with a measured look at Eryn.

Enric cleared his throat. No matter how the King justified bringing the matter up, the timing certainly was an interesting one that warranted closer inspection. His property had exceeded the legal maximum for several years now, and he was wiling to bet anything he owned that the King had known of it for at least that long, had kept an eye on him before his holdings had ventured even close to that limitation. Why bring it up now? Eryn was right – this was the most unfitting point in time imaginable to bring it up, and the King himself had said so as well right after greeting them. A thought tried to catch his attention, giving rise to a growing suspicion. This was a city densely populated by agents and purveyors of other clandestine services for the simple reason that the demand was high. It would be absurd to assume that the King was the only person who collected information on Lord Enric’s property and business activities. Though the King’s collection of information was probably rather more extensive than anyone else’s.

“You mentioned you were forced to bring this up, even though the time is not ideal,” Enric mentioned casually.

Eryn next to him exhaled deeply and ground out from between clenched teeth, “Lord Woldarn, that nasty piece of work, am I right?” She didn’t wait for a confirmation, but just went on, “So he came to you and complained? Or did he send you a message, pretending he was nothing but a worried citizen eager to serve the Crown by pointing out that possible danger?”

“You will understand that I can hardly reveal the originator of the message whose existence you correctly guessed,” the King responded, his manner composed. There was, however, a tiny smile indicating that he was pleased that Eryn had put her powers of deduction to work so successfully. Ever the tutor in political strategy…

“So you were watching Enric and keeping track of how much land he bought, deciding not to interfere as long as he continued to be exceptionally useful to you,” Eryn further concluded. “And now such a simple thing as an inconvenient message sent by a man who wants to inflict damage on Enric to get back at me forces your hand.” She snorted derisively. “That would almost be funny if it weren’t so ridiculous.”

For a short moment, a muscle in King Folrin’s jaw tensed slightly. It was gone again in the blink of an eye. “Yes. It does not occur too often, but at times even my plans are thwarted by certain unforeseen events. I am hardly able to protect you for all eternity from the consequences from your own tendency to provoke certain Council members instead of seeking to coexist in a peaceful manner.”

Eryn leaned back and squeezed her lips together. Enric waited to see whether she would fold her arms. It would have completed the picture of sulkiness to perfection.

“Let my assure you, Lady Eryn, that I am no more pleased about this situation than you,” the King continued as she didn’t reply. “Right now you and Lord Enric are pondering whether to relocate to Takhan for good once the war has run its course. At least, provided we arise from it victorious. Approaching you with the matter at hand will serve to let you consider leaving Anyueel an even more desirable option.”

Eryn schooled her face into a neutral expression, secretly delighted when the King looked at her to seek some confirmation of his words in her features. As though he, reader of minds, architect of all that was to come, were not quite certain whether his assumption were true. Or he might hope for some kind of denial from her side, an assurance, that she was not seriously considering any such thing.

Enric decided that this was a good time to re-enter the conversation. Things were starting to get tense between his companion and the King, something which might lead to disagreeable consequences if it was allowed to run its course.

“How do you wish to proceed now, Your Majesty? Follow in the footsteps of your predecessors and either disown or execute me for some confected crime?” he asked, his tone not unfriendly, but still making it obvious that he way anything but happy about this situation.

“My dear Lord Enric,” the King began. In his voice there was a hint of condescension. “You will no doubt be immensely relieved to hear that for now I have no plans to end your life by accusing you of high treason or similar. Neither am I in favour of forcefully taking away what you have over the years amassed with such admirable skill.” A fine smile played around his lips. “As your companion pointed out so passionately, I still expect you to go to war for me. I would very much like to avoid a scenario where you switch sides at a critical point in time.”

Enric just beamed him a cold stare at the insinuation that he would betray both his countries just because the King was being stupid. And waited.

The King sighed when his little joke failed to produce amusement but instead triggered a certain resentment. “Look,” he resumed, “you know as well as I do that I cannot ignore what has been pointed out to me over official channels. That the land in your possession has exceeded the permitted area by almost half is a fact which can easily be proved by anyone able and willing to pay agents. We are not talking about false accusations here. Ignoring it would demonstrate a blatant favouritism towards you, which would in the long run be detrimental to myself. The only option I see to bring this to an amiable conclusion is for us to negotiate terms under which you will give up ownership of the land you are not supposed to own without compromising your loyalty towards the Crown.”

Eryn pursed her lips and pointed at the book which still lay open in front of Enric. “May I?” she asked, and pulled it towards her when the King nodded.

She searched for the paragraph which stated the offence Enric had been committing for a few years now and studied it carefully. “How old is that book? Or rather the law itself?”

“About two-hundred and thirty years, I should think,” the King replied after a moment’s thought and waited for her share what had caught her attention.

“A time when women were not yet legally permitted to own land?” she guessed and smiled. “Because this paragraph clearly stipulates that no man is entitled to more than what is considered a generous, fair and reasonable share of the Kingdom to rule wisely and in accordance with the King’s law. Women are not included in this limitation.”

Enric grinned. It was a spirited attempt which certainly managed to lift his mood, yet there was little to no hope that the King would make it quite that easy for them.

Queen Del’na’bened smiled as well and spoke up for the first time since their arrival. “This would be a most lovely loophole to utilise, my dear, yet I fear that by the time Enric has transferred all his holdings to your name, Folrin will have prepared and proclaimed an amendment to this very law to include women, which would render your efforts a waste of time.”

Eryn nodded. She hadn’t really expected for this to be an acceptable solution anyway. “How about splitting the land between Enric and me? That way either of us would hold less than five percent.”

This time it was the King who discarded her proposal. “I fear this would make little difference. Since you are joined by a commitment, all your individual assets are treated as your joint wealth. And even if I were in a position to permit this, the same problem would arise once your only child inherited everything.”

Once again Eryn perused the legal text. “This only applies to land, not to gold or businesses, correct?”

“That is true,” the King confirmed, leaning back in what counted for him as a relaxed manner while he was waiting for her next foray.

“That means Enric could sell the land to you, or rather to the Crown. The increase of his monetary assets would not be a problem.”

“In theory, that is possible,” the monarch replied hesitantly, seeming almost sorry that he had to thwart another one of her ideas. “Yet I cannot be seen to reward Lord Enric with large amounts of gold for his breach of the law by treating this as nothing other than an ordinary business transaction.”

Eryn refused to give up. “So he could sell it to someone else. That should solve the problem.”

Enric took her hand and squeezed it. “The idea is not only to relieve me of my surplus land, but also to publicly punish me, Eryn. Even if I weren’t aware of how much land I owned or of the limitation, ignorance is no excuse in law.”

She lifted one sceptical eyebrow. “So we are here to discuss – or rather negotiate – the terms of our punishment?” That sounded somewhat strange. But then it was not a punishment the King wished to impose, but one he was forced to deal out. Therefore he was eager to make it as moderate as was possible without losing face.

Enric leaned forward. “Would you be open to discussing tax abatements in exchange for a… generous donation of land to the Crown?”

“I’m listening,” the King smiled.

“No!” The world exploded from two female mouths at the same time. Puzzled silence followed as surprised looks were exchanged.

Eryn was surprised to have found an ally in Del’na’bened. The Queen in turn was surprised to find one in Eryn. And King Folrin and Enric glanced with a frown at their respective companions as though they were wondering on which side they actually stood.

Del’na’bened lifted her head and broke the silence. “Wealthy members of society are to serve as a role model in all respects of public life. Paying taxes is one such aspect.”

“I absolutely agree,” Eryn piped in. “If those of us who can easily afford paying their taxes try to wriggle out of it, who can we expect to pay? Even with losing half of the land, Enric is still filthy rich.” She nodded towards the file on Enric’s holdings. “As you certainly know, Enric’s wealth is mainly generated by his business interests. Whatever his tenure based ventures yield is but a small part of his income.”

Enric lifted his hand and pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes for a moment. Why again had the King decided to summon both of them…? A quick glance at the King showed him that he was very likely asking himself that very same question.

King Folrin steepled his fingers. His smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Then I would suggest the both of you take some time and compile a list of suggestions to be discussed among yourselves. The Queen and I shall be doing the very same thing. Let us reconvene in due time. You are dismissed.”

Enric rose and bowed to the Royal couple before walking towards the door to the throne room, Eryn following suit.

Once they had stepped out into the corridor and the door was closed behind them, Eryn murmured, “You know what? I like Tleta.”

Enric sighed. “You don’t say.”

*  *  *

Eryn woke with a start, reaching up to her throat where something seemed to constrict her breathing. Some of the moisture on her cold forehead formed into a bead of sweat and ran down her temple and cheek.

With every deep breath the feeling of confinement abated a fraction, and she consciously began to take in her surroundings. It was almost completely dark in the bedroom. Underneath her she felt the firm mattress, her fingers ran over the thinly woven sheet that whispered softly when touched. A slightly chilly sensation on her legs told her that she must have kicked off her blanket. Blindly she let her hands grope for it. Only when she tried the floor, she found it in a heap at the far end.

She tried to remember what the nightmare had been about, but couldn’t really recall any pictures. The only thing that remained was the memory of emotions… Which might be an indicator that she had not really been the one experiencing the dream, that Enric might have been projecting.

When her own breathing had slowed down again, she listen for Enric’s. It came in quiet but stuttering gasps. She gulped. His nightmares had become less frequent than at the beginning, and every time he was tormented by another she dearly hoped it might be the last one. So far her hopes had been in vain.

She needed to wake him. But that was not an endeavour without danger. It was risky enough to startle awake a person with superior physical strength. In case of a magician there might be considerable damage or injuries. Yet at the same time she couldn’t let him continue his suffering. It didn’t often happen that she woke before him when the time of his incarceration caught up with him, at night when he was powerless to resist.

She took a deep breath and felt in the dark for his hand, sending in a stream of warm magic to slow down his muscles, make them heavier. Then she whispered his name, told him to wake up.

Despite her efforts with his muscles, his hand abruptly snatched hers while he returned to consciousness.

“Eryn?” he quietly asked, his voice without any trace of the turmoil she felt through the mind bond.

“Yes,” she replied softly. “I’m here.” She didn’t tell him that he’d had a nightmare, that all was good and that he was safe. That he knew. She just held his hand, waiting for his breathing to return to normal.

“I’m sorry I woke you,” he apologised after a minute.

“You didn’t. I was already awake,” she stated, knowing he wouldn’t believe her.

She could hear the tired smile in his voice when he replied, “That’s a lie.”

“I know.”

“A rather transparent one.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll try harder next time. Though after only just waking I’m glad enough that I managed to string a coherent sentence together. So you ought to show some lenience here,” she teased him.

In the ensuing silence she felt that he was preparing to speak of something serious. She waited.

“Speaking of lenience…” he began. “There is something we must talk about. Something important.”

Eryn sighed. She had been hoping to cuddle up to her companion and enjoy another few hours of sleep, but if talking about whatever helped him to recover and take his mind off his nightmare, she would of course indulge him.

“You need to do something against Lord Woldarn, provided he really was the one to write to the King.”

She grimaced, which of course he couldn’t see. “Me? Why me? Your rank exceeds mine, and it was your property he came after, not mine.”

“He used me as a means to cause you grief. And legally speaking it is your property as much as mine. How many more years will it take for you to wrap your mind around that?” Why was he even bothering anymore, seriously?

His companion let her head sink back and dropped against the pillow in her back. “What else am I to do to set him limits? He keeps proving resistant to any attempts – be it stable duty or exposing him in front of the Council. He is a profoundly stupid man, and I refuse to let him waste my time or patience.”

“Eryn,” he implored her, “this is not about showing the world that you are the bigger person and he nothing but an insect you chose to ignore. Stupid people can be dangerous, particularly if they harbour resentment. Being ignored will only make him more determined to continue, since it shows him that there is little he has to fear because there never are any serious consequences for him.”

“What do you propose then I should do to him?” she sighed. “Place him under house arrest for a month? Or a year?” She huffed. “I can just imagine what Tyront would say about that. And how would I justify it, anyway? Because he had the audacity to point out to the King that we were technically breaking the King’s law – no matter that the King was more than aware of it anyway but had chosen not to act?”

“The King had very good reasons for stretching the rules in my favour. Political reasons,” Enric explained patiently. “You remember the times when our relationship with him was tense, to say the least. Granting us the odd favour here and there is a proof of the high esteem he holds us in. Occasionally they might also have served as an unofficial apology when an official one was not an option. He was trying to give back, counterbalance what we’ve had to endure and at times give up because he decreed it. The dissolution of my parent’s commitment was such a thing. Lord Woldarn’s deed is a nuisance for me, yet it won’t bankrupt me. You were right when you pointed out that I hardly depend on my land holdings to generate an income. Still, my profits would be diminished considerably. Many of my businesses depend on land ownership. There are the mines which yield ores. And the forests which I need for the timber business. That has grown considerably since we began exporting to the Western Territories, and I also need the wood for my shipyards. The fabrics I produce also require land to grow the raw material. Then there are the vineyards and stud farms which make comparatively little money, but still show profit. For the King this is quite an issue since he is now forced into somehow disowning me to a degree where the records show that my holdings do not exceed the legal maximum – and beyond it to punish me. That is something he definitely doesn’t want to do. Particularly since I have always been careful to pay my taxes in full so as to avoid provoking him. And what’s more important, he knows well enough that we might be off to Takhan at some point in the future, and depriving us of our property – and with that a considerable part of our income – is something which might make us even more inclined to go.”

“Then why not let the King exact his revenge on Lord Woldarn?”

“Because it was an attack on you, not on the King. The King was merely a tool. As was I. You were the target, and you must be seen to respond accordingly. This is no longer about concealed or open insults or unfavourable talk behind your back. He has upped his ante and will continue to do so if you don’t put an end to it somehow. We can’t wait for him to come up with something that would really hurt us.” He paused for effect, knowing his last point would bring home his argument. “Or Vedric.”

Eryn closed her eyes. “He wouldn’t dare. He is stupid. But not that stupid.”

“How certain are you of this? If you want to gauge his intelligence, consider that Lord Woldarn is unlikely to be the only person who knows that the land in our possession exceeds the legal maximum. Yet no-one else has ever brought it up, let alone approached the King with it. Everyone else knows that the King has very likely the most extensive network of agents in Anyueel, so if they are aware of this fact, then there is next to no chance that King Folrin is not. Forcing him to act on something where he has for quite some time now decided he doesn’t wish to do so, is an incredibly foolish thing to do. The King will punish him for it, that I can promise you. But only if you fail to do so yourself. He will give you some time to take care of this before he makes a move. He knows as well as I do that you are the one who ought to do it.”

She gave his arguments some thought. Finally she nodded, remembering only then that he couldn’t see her. “Alright. Then I shall reprimand him. Again. Harder than ever. Without making it seem like the punishment it actually is, since he told the King we owned too much land is not much of an adequate justification before the Council.”

Enric felt relieved that she had seen reason. “I think I can help you here. I have an idea for a punishment, one he has little to no chance of arguing against without making himself look very bad indeed. First, however, there are two things to be taken care of. You need to make sure beyond any doubt that Lord Woldarn truly was the one sending the message. And if so, you need to inform Tyront of the punishment you see fit and have him agree to it. You needn’t tell him about the issue with the land and our meeting with the King. He’ll know about that already.”

*  *  *

Eryn stretched out on the sofa in Vern’s parlour. She had just spent nearly an hour talking with Vern about what had happened in Pirinkar that had induced her to leave the profession of healing forever behind her. He had known about her decision, of course, since Lord Poron had informed the healers about it a few days ago. Yet since he was so much more than just a colleague, he was adamant about having a right to hear about her reasons even though she had told hardly anyone else. And he was right. He had been one of very few close friends for several years now and deserved that she confided in him. He had earned it. So she had explained to him in great detail what had happened shortly before she had discovered Enric in the woods.

The young man had listened with an intent expression, motioning for her to go on whenever she made a break to give him room for comments or questions. He wanted to hear everything before asking his questions. And questions he had. One question, however, he did not ask – whether she was really sure that she wanted to give up healing for good after all her efforts in learning the profession and setting up the Clinic in Anyueel. For that she was grateful. He didn’t even for a second give her the feeling that he didn’t think her capable of properly considering the gravity of her decision before making it. Interesting enough, Enric had had a harder time accepting her choice.

Vern was not usually one to hold back when it came to criticising her, particularly when there were no witnesses to observe this seeming lack of respect towards a superior magician. That meant he truly understood her decision, even though he was visibly saddened by the prospect of no longer working with her in that capacity.

“We still can set up the healing academy together, can’t we?” he asked, full of hope.

She nodded. “Yes, that we can do. Though I suppose that we will be told to dedicate our resources instead to the impending war than a project which is more suitable for peaceful times.”

He gave her a pained smile. “You might not be here anymore by the time this is all over. I fear you might be accepting Malriel’s offer and take over House Aren.”

Eryn didn’t really know what to reply. She could tell him that she wasn’t seriously considering that, yet it wouldn’t be entirely true. Or she could remind him that she had promised him to do everything in her power to help him relocate to Takhan if this was still his wish in a year and a half. But he seemed to have re-adapted fairly well to his home, so moving back might not really be quite that interesting a choice for him anymore.

Which was good, of course. Good for the Clinic. And therefore for the other healers and the people in Anyueel. He was the only resident healer who had received training in both countries and was willing and able to pass on what he had learned.

At the same time she would have loved to take him to Takhan with her – provided she really decided to stay there – for entirely selfish reasons. But this was not about her. If Vern decided to stay in Anyueel because this would make him happy, which would at the same time benefit everyone else but her, she not only had to accept this but even encourage him.

She tilted her head back and swallowed the last of the tea he had made her. It was time to leave now, anyway.

“Thank you very much for making a little time for me,” she said and got up from her seat. “I need to leave now. There is something at the Palace I need to take care of.”

The knock at the door made them both look up.

“Are you expecting anyone?” she asked. Vern hardly ever received guests in his quarters. He preferred to visit others.

Vern shook his head. “No, not really.” He stood up as well to answer the door.

Eryn tensed when she saw Junar and Téa standing in the doorframe. Téa, without paying any attention to her surroundings, only saw Vern and began chattering at him excitedly. Her mother, however, spotted Eryn immediately. And the smile which wanted to spread on her face upon seeing her companion’s son froze before it had a chance to fully blossom. Her face was now stuck in an odd in-between expression in the middle of joy and consternation, wavering in whichever direction it ought to give preference to.

Eryn felt a surge of anger. This was the first time they had happened upon each other since that unpleasant time at the docks, and all they managed was beholding each other as though they had stumbled into some kind of nightmare. This was ridiculous! They were grown women – and friends! Well, in theory. Right now they were both acting as though they were children – and enemies.

The seamstress got a grip on herself, and her lips stretched into a polite smile. “Eryn. What a… pleasant surprise.” Then she focused on Vern, who was still the target of her daughter’s barrage of excited babble. “I was on my way home from picking Téa up from school and just wanted to invite you to have dinner with us tomorrow. Your father mentioned that he hasn’t seen you in a while.” Her gaze flickered towards Eryn for a fraction of a second as if to say that he didn’t seem to have time for his own father, but obviously for Eryn.

Eryn ground her teeth.

“Would you like to come in? I have some tea ready,” he offered, certainly aware of the tension but unwilling to let his manners suffer from it.

“No, no, actually we are in a hurry,” Junar mumbled. Just as she reached out for her daughter’s hand, Téa pulled away sulkily.

In that wonderful, ill-timed honesty she pouted. “But you said I could show Vern all the new things in my exercise booklet!” Ignoring her mother’s wish to leave, she turned back towards her older brother and beamed at him. “I can write down very long and difficult words now! And…”

“You can show him tomorrow evening when he visits us,” Junar insisted, her tone none too gentle. Belatedly she realised that Vern hadn’t actually accepted the invitation yet. “Provided you agree, of course.”

“Sure, I’ll be there.”

Eryn decided to put an end to this stupidity. “Don’t be ridiculous, Junar. Come in and sit down the way you obviously promised Téa. I was about to leave anyway. So you don’t have to spend a single minute in the same room with me since that seems to be quite an imposition.” Her tone was frosty, challenging.

Junar seemed slightly embarrassed about having been caught lying, and being called ridiculous obviously also didn’t sit well with her. She tried to mask her discomfort, but didn’t manage it particularly well.

“This has nothing to do with you,” she desperately held on to her fib. “I need to finish a dress tonight and can’t dawdle.”

Eryn smiled coolly. “So my presence makes no difference at all to you? I’m immensely relieved to hear that.” Additional anger was kindled by Junar’s behaviour. That woman had no right to pretend it wasn’t her own fault that this was such an awkward situation right now! She should be apologising for the hateful things she had say at the pier! That was not how one treated a good friend!

Another voice inside her pointed out that being friends also meant that apologies shouldn’t be necessary. Anyway, an apology wasn’t something to be demanded or claimed, since it would hardly be sincere in such case. Maybe Junar wasn’t even sorry. Or perhaps she was too embarrassed about her own behaviour and feared a rejection in case she approached Eryn?

But where did that leave her and Junar? Well, the answer to that was fairly obvious. One of them had to make a first step, and since Junar was either unwilling or unable to do so, it would fall to Eryn to conquer her pride and reach out.

She cleared her throat. “Junar, why don’t we meet and have a drink one evening when you are not busy? How about the day after tomorrow? Or the day after that?”

The other woman appeared to freeze for a moment, on her face an expression of surprise and then uneasiness. Eryn saw how even Vern held his breath for a moment in expectation of whatever was to come, while his little sister had not noticed anything amiss and kept chattering to him, completely oblivious to the strained situation.

Then Junar lifted her chin, her tone formal, as she replied, “What a lovely suggestion. Unfortunately I have prior engagements for the evenings to come, but why don’t I contact you?”

Even if Eryn had been in doubt whether to consider this a rebuff or not, Vern’s expression would have told her everything she needed to know. Junar was brushing her off. She had no interest whatsoever in talking to Eryn.

Eryn smiled faintly. “Sure. Why not. Vern, thank you for the charming afternoon.” With a nod to Junar and a pat on the head for Téa she squeezed past his visitors, who were still standing in the doorway.

Hurriedly she descended the stairs, eager to get away. She pushed aside the gloomy thoughts about whether this really was the end of her friendship with Junar now. There was something important she had to take care of, something she couldn’t afford to let herself be diverted from.

*  *  *

On her way to the Palace, Eryn banished the thoughts about Junar and the mix of regret and anger they triggered. Instead she deliberately pondered her discussion with Enric the night before. About their income. Enric had merely listed the businesses which required rather extensive land to run properly. He had told her that the loss of greater parts thereof would diminish their income. She was rather doubtful about that. There still was the shipping business Enric had founded once trade with the Western Territories had been established. And the trading with goods he produced himself and such he procured from others. Plus pay they both received from the Order. And these were just their sources of earnings which were based on this side of the sea. She didn’t really have an overview of whatever Enric had invested in over in Takhan, yet she knew that he was participating in several ventures in which also Houses Aren, Arbil or Vel’kim were involved.

All in all, they were still far away from struggling. Even if there were no more income from one day to the next, Enric had probably enough gold stored away to live off very comfortably for the rest of their lives.

So why exactly was she quite that peeved about this attempt at taking away from Enric what he didn’t really depend on anyway? Particularly, since losing part of it was basically his own fault for playing his little games with the King and probing like a teenage boy to determine how far he could go?

The answer came swiftly. Because she wouldn’t lose to Lord Woldarn of all people. If Enric had to give up something, then she would be sure Lord Woldarn had to give up significantly more. Enric had told her of his idea of dealing with the man – provided he truly was the one trying to get Enric disowned. It was brilliant in its cruelty. Enric had a certain knack for this kind of thing. Everyone would know that it was a punishment, though only few – Lord Woldarn’s confidantes – would know what for. But it would look like nothing more than a simple deployment. Provided Tyront agreed and didn’t foil the plan.

She nodded at the gate guards in front of the Palace and entered the large hall with the many columns holding the ceiling high above. Thanks to Enric’s spies she knew that the King and Queen were currently meeting the Kingdom’s treasurers and would therefore be busy for some time. Making use of information gathered in a way she despised so very much was not usually something she agreed to. But in this case there was next to no other way to obtain it. Marrin, who was in charge of the Royal couple’s itinerary, was too experienced and careful to let himself be tricked into revealing what was not meant to be spread.

Which was why she had to catch him off-guard. This required that the King wasn’t around to be asked for confirmation of Eryn’s claim.

She stopped in front of the King’s study door. Or rather Marrin’s, since the King’s study could only be reached upon passing through his advisor’s room first. She needed to appear calm and relaxed, not at all as though she were up to something and nervous as to whether it would work out.

Knocking, she waited for the permission to enter. It came promptly.

At the last moment Eryn changed her smile to an expression that displayed the usual hint of displeasure whenever she was on her way to the King. An unusually merry mood might make him suspicious.

“Good afternoon, Marrin. Is he here?”

As always, the older man smiled upon laying eyes on her. “Lady Eryn, what an unexpected pleasure. No, I am afraid he is currently not available, nor will he be in the next few hours.”

She released a disappointed sigh. “That’s unfortunate. He promised to show me the message urging him to do something about Enric’s land holdings. I see I should have made an appointment first to make sure he is here and has time for me. Well, it seems that can’t be helped now.” She let herself fall into a chair next to Marrin’s desk. “How are you faring, Marrin?”

He leaned back, signalling that he was willing to chat a little. “Busy, as you may imagine. Preparations for the impending war. The big decisions are of course made by His Majesty and the Order, yet somebody has to make sure they are really happening by planning and authorising payment.”

Eryn laughed. “Ah, yes, the magic happening in the background, all the things nobody sees and which are therefore aren’t appreciated as essential.”

Marrin shrugged. “His Majesty sees them.”

“And I am certain he appreciates you the way he should. He is quite smart.”

The older man raised an eyebrow. “Some would even call him a genius.”

She waved him off. “I wouldn’t. You know how much I hate complementing him.”

“I do. Yet the fact that you do not wish to articulate some things does not make them any less true.”

“That may be the case, yet other things are constructs of our imagination and only become true by articulating them.”

With a chuckle and a shake of his head, Marrin braided his fingers above his belly. “I see we are venturing into highly philosophical territory here.”

Eryn sighed and rose again. “I would love to continue this discussion with you, but unfortunately I have to pick up Vedric from school now. I suppose there isn’t any chance that you can let me have a look at the letter without asking His Majesty for confirmation?” she asked, letting defeat enter her voice as though she had next to no hope that he would grant her this tiny, modest favour.

The King’s advisor seemed uncertain for a moment. After several seconds of thinking, he looked at her again. “His Majesty explicitly promised you to show you the message?”

Careful not to agree to emphatically or give herself away by providing too many details, she just nodded.

“What was it about again?” he asked, pretending he didn’t know exactly which message it was. He obviously wanted to test whether she truly knew of the message or was just fishing in the dark.

“The message informs King Folrin that Enric’s land holdings exceed the legal scope. It was sent by…” She paused for a moment. Right now she had nothing more than a strong suspicion who the sender was, meaning she could be wrong. She needed to give a hint without focusing on a single person. Since the letter was the result of information received from spies, they were talking about someone rich. And that it was aimed at Enric and her very likely meant it was a Council member. “… a certain Lord I will not name since the walls tend to have ears,” she finished vaguely.

Marrin nodded slowly. “Yes, I know of that one.” He pursed his lips. “And His Majesty wanted you to see it?”

She shrugged. “Well, not of his own accord. I wanted to see it. He merely granted me permission to have a quick look at it.”

The man sighed heavily and bent down to pull a file out of a low shelf behind him. Placing it on his desk, he opened the lid.

Eryn’s eyes greedily found the neat piece of expensive, creamy paper that lay on top.

“I shall be minding my own business over here to the count of ten,” Marrin announced and pretended to busy himself with putting away some books.

She eagerly stepped closer to the desk and bent over the sheet without touching it. The very first thing she took in was the name at the bottom. Lord Woldarn. It hadn’t been hard to guess, he being their most likely suspect. Yet taking measures such as the one Enric had proposed required absolute certainty when it came to the man’s identity. And that certainty she had now. Her eyes flickered over the few lines. In verbose sentences the Council member expressed his worries about Lord Enric’s utter and blatant disregard of the Kingdom’s and therefore the King’s laws. He wrote that he considered it his civic duty to point out what might be nothing more than an oversight by a colleague who spent so much time abroad that he had lost track of how much he owned, but also wanted to make aware of the risks if it was more than a mere oversight but instead an impertinent attempt to challenge the King.

Eryn ground her teeth. Lord Woldarn’s skills in manipulation were about as subtle as wielding a sledgehammer.

She stepped back just as Marrin was done pretending to be busy. He closed the file’s lid again and returned it to where he had pulled it out.

With a relieved nod she smiled at the man, grateful for his help – and at the same time feeling bad for tricking him like that. The King wouldn’t blame him for it, would he?

With a parting wave she stepped towards the door, then hesitated. She really did feel guilty. Slowly turning around, she decided to at least warn him by letting him know that he had let himself be deceived.

“You know,” she said slowly, “you used to be harder to fool.”

To her surprise, Marrin didn’t experience any kind of revealing moment followed by utter shock, but merely grinned. “Oh, I generally am. Today, however, I was explicitly instructed to be particularly gullible. Enough so that even such a clumsy liar as yourself might have a chance.”

Eryn blinked and stared at him for a moment, then she released her breath. “He knew I would come. Damn him! Is he even really gone?” she asked with a nod towards his door.

Marrin shrugged, amused at her dismay at finding out that she was not quite as cunning as she had thought. “He might be. Off you go then, Lady Eryn, to pick up your son. Interesting thing, though, because according to my information today’s lessons of the first years ended about two hours ago.”

Eryn ground her teeth and slipped out into the corridor. Now he was just rubbing it in.

*  *  *

Enric tried to ignore the sense of dread he received from Eryn through the mind bond. The Council meeting had been going on for two hours now, and they had agreed with Tyront that it would conclude with Eryn’s announcement as to Lord Woldarn’s immediate future.

Tyront hadn’t needed much convincing to agree to the course of action Enric had proposed. He saw the need for decisive action as clearly as his second-in-command did. To a certain degree also Eryn knew it was necessary, though merely on an intellectual level, certainly not on an emotional one. She still considered the punishment a lot harsher than the man’s deeds warranted.

All in all it had been a productive assembly today, Enric mused. They had made decisions on how to proceed with several essential issues pertaining to the preparation for the war. A group of magicians was to be sent off the very next day, up north towards the mountains forming the natural border between Anyueel and Pirinkar. With their newly acquired skills in manipulating rock seams they should be able to find out how penetrable the mountains really were – particularly with the prospect that the magical barrier through the sea might continue through the rock somehow.

“We need to post watchers in any case,” Orrin insisted. “Should a magical barrier truly be the reason why the mountains have hitherto proven to be quite that resistant to any attempt at crossing them, this would pose a whole new problem. We have not the slightest inkling how well-versed the Loman Ergen are when it comes to dealing with magical barriers. They might not have seen any reason to manipulate the barrier so far if indeed they are aware how to go about it, but Etor Gart certainly would know how to put that skill to good use.”

“Yet if we cannot find any trace of a magical barrier, outposts would surely be unnecessary,” Lord Seagon threw in. “The mountains would then be just as much of a natural obstacle to them as they are to us. I strongly believe that otherwise we would already have had visitors from Pirinkar on our side of the mountains a long time ago.”

“Search parties from the Western Territories have roamed our lands for several years, as they were trying to find Lady Eryn without ever having been discovered,” Enric contradicted. “Meaning we might have been equally unable to spot any well-disguised visitors from the other side of the mountains.”

Orrin nodded and added, “Plus we don’t know whether any of the Loman Ergen possess the skill Lady Eryn has taught most of us only recently. They might be just as able to manipulate layers of rock and therefore have massive rock formations crumble and give way as we are now capable of doing.”

Eryn cleared her throat. “I would actually suggest our operating under that very assumption. Hoping that none of them is in possession of a skill I discovered that easily would be gross negligence. I agree with Lord Orrin – we should establish enough lookouts to keep the mountains under observation.”

Lord Seagon frowned. “That would require a large amount of men, since we cannot merely limit ourselves to watching a few passes but need to keep an eye on the entire length of the mountain range. They could create a doorway practically anywhere. We have just dispatched a respectable number of our magicians to the Western Territories, so we are stretched rather thinly already.”

“Agreed,” Enric assented, “which is why I would send mostly non-magician soldiers up north on observation duty. In addition, I would suggest to His Majesty to conscript as many hunters into the army and pair them with the solders. They are trained in the art of stealth, are able trackers and know their way around the woods.”

“I shall advise His Majesty accordingly once we are done here,” Tyront promised and made a short note on the paper in front of him. He looked directly at Eryn, without a word calling on her to speak up.

She gulped and cleared her throat. “There is another matter. We have stationed a couple of Order magicians and a few soldiers from Takhan up at the mountain pass between the Western Territories and Pirinkar. As far as I am aware, there is no experienced senior magician among them to provide moral support and be a beacon of strength and composure should there truly be an attack.”

Save for the select few who were in the know of what was about to come, the present Council members either frowned or raised their brows. Orrin among them. He hadn’t been informed of what was about to be decreed.

“You are not suggesting one of us go up there and stand guard by the border, are you?” came a sceptical voice. “Every single one of us is certainly of more use here in a position to aid in making strategic decisions than somewhere up in the middle of nowhere.”

“I disagree,” Eryn contradicted just as she had prepared to. “These people in the middle of nowhere, as you call it, are directly on the frontier and will very likely be the first to know once the enemy decides to attack. They need to be in a frame of mind to do what is needed of them – namely releasing the birds to Takhan. Should they panic and fail to do so or be overwhelmed before they manage to get to the cages, Takhan would be in even more serious danger of falling.”

“I see,” Lord Woldarn replied, “so you are volunteering to go there? You think you would be able to make all the difference, avert disaster, be an inspiration to the soldiers and return a heroine? Granted, your magic may be unusually powerful, but this is hardly a guarantee for being able to remain level-headed or makes you a suitable role model. Particularly with your lack of experience in anything but personal conflicts. You are certainly not the leader you seem to think you are.”

Eryn sighed. He made it much too easy for her. “Oh, I would never unduly claim such merits for myself. And I am very glad you and I are in agreement that a person with personal traits other than my own and of course a lot more experienced would be a more ideal choice for this noble assignment.” She paused, took a deep breath and announced, “I propose to send Lord Woldarn, who is obviously more than aware of the challenge and certainly possesses all the required qualifications.”

Silence fell.

Enric waited for several heartbeats, letting the statement sink in. Then he nodded. “I agree. Sending a senior Council member to make sure this important outpost is in capable hands will be a powerful sign of our dedication. It will strengthen our allies’ trust in us. And I can think of none who would be more suitable for this assignment than Lord Woldarn. Unless anyone else would prefer to volunteer for it?” Just as he had expected, not a single hand was raised. Nobody wanted to be sent to the desert, watch a mountain pass and very likely be the first target the enemy would attack.

He ignored Orrin’s piercing look. The warrior was clearly suspecting that something more was going on.

Lord Woldarn had gone completely white. His mouth opened and closed several times, but before he managed to utter a single word, Tyront spoke up.

“Then we shall consider this matter settled. Lord Woldarn, you will prepare yourself to embark on the journey to the northernmost outpost in the Western Territories in three days. The Council will of course be at your disposal should you require any assistance in putting your things in order. I know this is short notice, but as you will agree, we have no time to lose. Ambassador Ram’kel will surely be more than happy to advise you with regard to suitable clothes to wear underneath your robes in that unfamiliar climate.” He returned his attention to the others in the room. Most of them were shocked, but several of them looked from Eryn to Lord Woldarn and clearly suspected that he was being penalised for something – and severely so. There was no objection from anyone, nobody wished to come between the three highest ranking Order magicians and the target of their joint wrath.

“This concludes today’s meeting,” the Order’s leader finally announced when Lord Woldarn had failed to react in any other manner but stare at Lord Tyront with utter disbelief.

The other magicians quickly left the Council hall. Orrin looked as though he would much rather have stayed behind and demanded a few answers, but one look at Enric’s face told him to be patient for a little longer and leave.

Enric, Eryn and Tyront stayed behind with Lord Woldarn, whose breathing was now coming in short little gasps. They waited.

After several minutes, Lord Woldarn lifted a shaking hand and pointed his index finger at Eryn. First his voice was weak, then it gained strength with every word he uttered. “You! That was you! You want to have me slaughtered in the desert! You are afraid of me! Which is what the other Council members are thinking whenever I point out that you are wrong! You know they don’t respect you, and instead of earning their respect, you are trying to get rid of the one person brave enough to constantly remind them that you don’t deserve a place among us, that you are nothing more than an upstart…”

“Enough,” Enric interrupted sternly. That poor, deluded fool. He truly thought that his snide remarks and sly attempts to harm her had anything to with bravery? And how was it possible that he hadn’t noticed that even Lord Seagon, who had been more than sceptical of Eryn, was now showing her the respect her rank and especially her skills merited? Sure, Lord Seagon still did challenge her arguments, but in a professional manner without trying to destroy her reputation or credibility.

Eryn had just been standing there, silently listening to the accusations. She just looked at the man, who had a few seconds ago been pale as milk. Now his face was flushing red.

Lord Woldarn turned towards Enric. “Of course you are standing at her heel, barking at anyone who dares raise his voice at her like the pathetic dog that you are!”

Tyront slowly rose from his seat, his palms braced on the oval table in front of him. His mien reflected a deadly kind of calm.

“And I, my Lord? What is it you have to say to me about supporting the idea of sending you off?”

Lord Woldarn opened his mouth, but his superior’s quietly threatening stance and icy look seemed to make him reconsider spewing his poison in that particular direction.

When no reply came, Tyront continued, “You know why you are the one being sent there, Lord Woldarn. You have been playing with fire for a long time now. Insulting your superiors, caballing behind their backs… What did you think the ultimate outcome of this would be? Lady Eryn being removed from the Council, since you claim that no-one in it respects her? You have been openly undermining her authority, and this assignment is the price you are going to pay for it. The idea is not to have you killed, my Lord. The Order does not deliberately send people to their certain deaths. Not even those who practice insubordination to the extent you have been. This is supposed to be a major inconvenience for you – but at the same time a chance to earn back some respect. Contrary to what you seem to believe, Lord Woldarn, it wasn’t Lady Eryn who has lost your colleagues’ respect, but yourself. Quite the opposite – her restraint was either admired or considered undue.” He straightened to signal that the next words would conclude this business. “You are of course free to file a protest. Yet I can promise you that it will merely be acknowledged but won’t lead to retraction of the orders you have received. A good day to you, Lord Woldarn. I trust you will honour your oath to the King and do your duty by defending his Kingdom.”

Tyront turned away from the table at which Lord Woldarn sat as if struck by lightning. He motioned for his number two and three to follow him out of the Council hall. They could at least grant their colleague some privacy when coming to terms with his desperation.

»End of extract«

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“Difficult Neighbours” – The Order: Book 7

Chapter 1

On the Road

Enric saw the confusion and dismay on his companion’s face, as the green spot they had discovered a while before hadn’t upon their approach grown as much as she had expected it to. He well remembered his own first impression a few years ago, when he and Vran’el had neared that particular oasis. After two days of riding through the desert he had been thirsting for any patch of green, for trees, for shade from the relentless sun that was in the city merely a nuisance when one had to venture out during the hottest time of the day, but which posed a real danger out here.

“This is it?” she moaned. “Why did you say this was the highlight of our way through the desert? I don’t see much of an improvement on the camps we stayed at for these last two nights! This is just cruel! Never again will I believe you about anything! Ever.”

He didn’t reply to her whining. It was only a matter of about one hour until they reached the Camp of Malriel’s cousin and she would see for herself that he hadn’t been playing any cruel joke on her. And he was too exhausted to argue with her right now. Just like he himself, she would find it hard to believe from mere words that this was an extensive oasis, a little paradise within stretches of the never-ending sand and rocks and air that flickered with the heat wherever one looked.

The two days riding through the desert with her had been anything but unalloyed pleasure. Though that had not been solely her fault. When there was little to entertain the eye for hours on end, the mind had time to wander. Which was not a good thing if one had just left one’s son behind and had much time to miss him, wonder how he was doing, ponder whether he was sad at this exact moment.

They had started the memorising process of Erbál’s code for the correspondence to and from Kar. Both to take care of a necessary task and as a means of passing at least some time in a useful manner.

“How do we spell words we don’t have a codeword for?” he returned to that topic. They could as well use this last hour.

“I don’t know.”

“You didn’t even think about it. Come on. This is an easy one.”

She sighed and thought for a moment, then proved him right by answering, “When the sentence starts with the word I, it shows that he is about to spell something by hiding letters in the next words in that sentence.”

“Which pattern does he use for it?”

She closed her eyes to try and visualise the shelf in her study in Anyueel where it was all etched into the wood. “Last letter of the first word, first letter of the second, fourth letter of the third, third letter of the fourth, then it all starts anew. This has no logic behind it! How is one to remember all of it?”

“That’s the idea, my love. Everything that follows certain logic can be deciphered by rational thinking and having access to enough information about a person. He avoids using regular patterns as much as he can. He can’t entirely do without them, but reduces them so much that knowing only the regular ones would by no means be enough to glean useful information from a message. They merely indicate that there is some information to follow. Getting to the actual information is the real challenge. Now, what meaning does the word house have when used in a message only once?”

“Danger,” she replied without hesitation. That one she easily remembered. It had been in his latest message to her, where he had informed her of the impending assassination attempt on Queen Del’na’bened.

“And when it is used twice?”

“Secret. Another combination for that meaning would also be message and read in the same sentence.”

“Well done. Why does he have more combinations for the same word?”

“Because he doesn’t want to make it obvious that there is hidden information by using the same words too frequently,” she obediently reiterated what he had told her on the first day of their journey.

“Which words are an urgent call for help?”

Incredibly tired or negligible.”

“How does he refer to the government in Kar?” he asked on.

“I forgot.”

Family. What does he call the magicians there?”

“I can’t remember! The sun is frying my brain, so leave me be, if you can bear to be idle for even a single moment,” she snarled in a mix of frustration and annoyance.

Enric conformed to her wish. He had wanted to distract her a little, but this was obviously not the right way.

They rode on in silence for a few minutes, before she brought up the man who would grant them shelter for their last night in the desert. “You said Ganel is Malriel’s cousin. And that he had quite a number of companions and children.”

“Last time I saw him he had six companions and more than thirty children. Might be more now.”

Eryn shook her head in incomprehension. “How can any woman agree to be merely one of several companions? Were they all forced into this?”

“That may still be the case in certain tribes, but fortunately that has become less and less common. In Ganel’s case I am told he never joins a woman who isn’t willing to live with him in the oasis and share him with a number of other companions. He is not a cruel man who collects women and children like trophies. Not what one might think when first hearing he has so many of each. Malriel told me that three of them were joined to other men before and were horribly abused. With Ganel they can mostly surround themselves with other women and do not have to lie with him more often than they feel comfortable with, since there are others to fulfil that need. A curious arrangement, I will admit. Certainly not one I could imagine for myself. But as long as everyone involved is content with it, I won’t criticise.”

Eryn didn’t reply, but tried to imagine what their life had to be like. Especially in this small spot of green ahead of them. How did they all even fit inside?

Enric indulged himself by imagining how their son would likely be having his midday meal right about now. Probably with Pe’tala and his cousin Zahyn. Malriel would be busy at this time, as would Valrad and Rolan at the Clinic. He thought about Orrin and whether he was angry at being sent to Takhan without his family, having to leave his own child behind to protect his superior’s son.

“What’s that? Another one?” he heard Eryn wonder and looked up.

Ah yes, they had reached the spot where the other end of the oasis started coming into view without revealing the middle part that stretched away from them and was therefore not yet visible. For now it looked like two unconnected spots of sparse vegetation.

“No, it’s the other end of the very same oasis. It’s shaped like a half moon. We’ll soon reach one end and can then follow the trees and bushes to its centre. That will afford us at least some shade.”

A little later they had reached the first few measly palm trees and seemingly dry scrub that carpeted the ground between them. Gradually the palms became denser and lusher the further they advanced.

Eryn made it a game to silently count the seconds from one shady spot to the next, noting how her horse tried to linger whenever they reached another tall tree that protected them from the sun.

After a while the entire extent of the oasis revealed itself as they came closer to the wide centre and could now see how the line of trees stretched from the end they had spotted earlier to the far one.

“Look at that! It’s huge!” Eryn marvelled, feeling her good spirits returning. “Maybe I was a little premature in deciding not to believe you about anything ever again,” she added by way of an apology.

“Glad to hear that,” Enric replied magnanimously and pointed ahead of them to a few structures that were hard to make out in detail but were clearly man-made. “You see this? We are almost there.” He thought of the pond with the waterfall he and Vran’el had dived into shortly after their arrival here on their journey back then. He hadn’t mentioned that to Eryn but wanted to see her face when he took her there.

The outlines of the tents and the few stone constructions that Enric knew were used as storage space became more distinct the closer they came.

Eryn whistled through her teeth. “That almost looks like a little town!”

“I think you could compare it to one, yes. They have extra tents for cooking, eating, for schooling the children, several for the children to sleep in, and this huge one over there is Ganel’s. That’s where he receives his guests.”

“The companions also share one large tent to sleep in? Or do they stay in his?” she enquired, wondering about how agreeable it could be to listen to the sounds of intercourse with whichever woman he chose to spend the night with.

“No, not at all. Quite the opposite. They each have their own tent. I can’t tell you what they look like on the inside, since asking for permission to examine them would have sent the wrong message.”

“I’m glad to hear that you showed such great restraint when it came to inspecting other women’s sleeping spaces,” she commented with a voice too sweet to be authentic.

Finally, they reached the settlement and were greeted by two women, dressed in flowing desert clothes, one with a small child of about three years sitting on her hip. One appeared to be in her mid-twenties, the other with the child looked about twenty years older. Their clothes looked simple but well-made and clean, as did the child’s.

“Be welcome,” one of them, the older one, smiled up at them. “Do dismount and allow me to take care of your animals. They must be exhausted from this long ride through the desert. Just as you must. My name is Mial, I am Ganel’s companion.” She touched the other woman’s arm and introduced her. “This is Rior, Ganel’s companion.” Then her eyes narrowed slightly as she eyed Enric as though considering where she had seen him before.

“A good day to you, ladies. We thank you for your hospitality. This is my companion Maltheá, and I am Enric.”

“Eryn,” Eryn murmured in his direction.

“No, not here,” he replied equally quietly before dismounting.

Surprised, Eryn looked at the woman who had greeted them as she burst into laughter. “But of course! Enric! Last time you were here with Valrad’s boy! You let Ganel fool you into drinking with him and looked like you were about to collapse any moment the next morning. And you ran through the camp naked! None of us had ever seen a yellow-haired man before, and then so much of him at once!”

Eryn stared at the woman, then at Enric, seeing to her infinite surprise that he was actually – blushing! There were a few rare occasions when she had seen his face redden with anger, but never before had she seen blood flush his cheeks from embarrassment! She loved it and started laughing as well.

After several moments of clinging to her saddle for fear of doubling over from amusement, she finally made it to the ground unscathed.

“Funny, he never told me about that! We must sit down together and talk, Mial.”

Mial smiled and handed the boy to Eryn as though it were the most natural thing in the world to entrust complete strangers with helpless offspring. Nor did the child appear alarmed at being held by a woman he had never seen before, but gave her a smile that revealed two missing front teeth. Eryn’s heart melted.

“It will be my pleasure. If you mind our little one for a bit, I will take care of your horses.” Without waiting for a reply, she took the reins of all three animals and led them away.

“Come,” Rior now offered, “I will take you to Ganel. I know he has been looking forward to your arrival ever since Malriel sent him a bird.” Her gaze studied Eryn. “You really do look a lot like her. But I am sure people tell you this all the time.”

Eryn smiled politely. They did. And she hated it.

They were led to the large tent they had already spotted from afar. Rior entered first, pushing aside the heavy curtains.

“Ganel? Our guests are here.”

Eryn and Enric followed her in, needing a few moments to adapt their eyes from the blazing sunlight to the comparatively dim light within the tent.

Rior stepped towards a man dozing on a heap of almost ridiculously richly embroidered cushions, snoring quietly, and nudged him with her foot. Not rudely, but in a way that was likely to get his attention.

“Ganel, get up and greet your guests! You knew they had to arrive some time around noon, so how can you just fall asleep?”

Eryn blinked at the man who had to be in his sixties or seventies, being scolded by his companion who was young enough to be his daughter. Granddaughter even.

“You are absolutely right, my little desert flower,” he uttered groggily and clumsily climbed to his feet. His expression brightened. “Enric! And little Maltheá! There you are!” He stepped towards Eryn, plucked the boy from her arms to hand it to Rior and without any prior warning pulled her into a hearty embrace. “I have heard so much about you!” He held her at arms’ length, letting his gaze take in all of her that was visible with her current attire. “And they are right! I could pick you out of a thousand women, ten thousand even!” He grabbed her chin and turned her face this way and that. “Amazing! Malriel’s face, though… The nose is not an exact match. A little bit of Vel’kim in there.”

Gently but with determination Eryn closed her fingers around his wrist and lowered his hand. “Ganel, it is my pleasure to meet you. I truly appreciate your hospitality, especially since I have recently discovered that I was not made for the desert. But if you don’t stop treating me like a mare at a horse market and keep your hands off my face, I shall have to break them. Not for long, mind you. I’d heal them again. But it would still hurt. You, that is – I won’t feel a thing.”

Ganel stared at her, then barked out a laugh. “Ah, it is like coming home! I fear the day I meet an obliging, tame Aren woman! It will be the death of me! Fearsome bunch, but so exhilarating!”

“You are Aren as well, aren’t you?” asked Eryn, confused. She only ever heard members of other Houses and a few brave people without the protection a House which could avenge their premature violent demise, talk that way of Aren women.

“Of course. Which means I know them quite well.” His expression became dreamy for a moment. “You have met my aunt, Malhora, have you not? She is a legend. I hear that people still become nervous whenever she visits the city. But you are also doing fine for yourself, if I am to believe the tales. Collapsing the Senate building, eh?”

“Not the entire building, just the roof,” she corrected him with a slightly uneasy feeling. This incident was a cautionary tale, a reminder of what happened when a powerful magician lost control over herself. She certainly didn’t consider it one of her more glorious moments. Therefore she didn’t agree when people depicted it as some admirable feat instead of the dangerous failure it actually was.

He waved her off. “Does not matter. You gave us all something to remember, and Arens like to be associated with powerful deeds.” He turned towards Enric and hugged him as well. “My fair-haired friend! I am thrilled to have you here at my humble home once again!”

Enric grinned, replying in a way he knew would please Ganel. “There is nothing humble about your home, my friend. It is a shameless demonstration of how incredibly well you are doing, awakening the envy of everyone who is lucky enough to be made welcome here.”

The older man laughed. “I will admit that I am not a pauper, yet after seeing nothing but sand for two days, you would consider even a cloth put up between two trees luxury. But we can talk more later. I can see that you are in need of refreshment. We prepared a tent for you and you will be brought food, and fresh water that has not been inside a leather pouch for many hours. Afterwards you can take a bath, and then we will sit down and have a pleasant evening together.”

Eryn blinked, her brain refusing to believe what her ears insisted they just caught. “A bath? With… water?”

Ganel sent her a doubtful look. “Yes, Maltheá, that is how we generally take a bath in these parts. What did you expect? A tub full of sand?” He laughed loudly at his own joke, then looked at Rior. “Will you please take our guests to their tent and make sure they are fed? It would be most appreciated.”

 

*  *  *

 

Eryn followed Mial into Ganel’s large tent, which didn’t need to shy away from comparisons to the main room of a Takhan residence when it came to comfort and style. It certainly was about as spacious – more luxurious, even. This probably resulted from the need to create a stark contrast to the drab desert.

The tent was empty but for the two women. Ganel had taken Enric to show him the tent where his companions produced skilful embroidery that generally fetched a good price. Alwidinar, tribe chieftain and father of the new Queen of Anyueel, had spent a minor fortune to have his daughter’s commitment gown adorned with gold thread arranged in complex patterns.

Mial motioned for Eryn to take a seat on the large, luxurious cushions. Eryn did and sighed contentedly. She felt like a new woman. All the sand, dust and sweat that had clung to her in the most inconvenient places was gone for now, and her body had cooled down enough for her to actually feel comfortable for a change.

The pool she and Enric had taken their bath in seemed as though from another world. The water had been so clear one could see all the way to the bottom, its colour turquoise in some places, blue in others. The waterfall at one end that fed the basin with crystal clear, cold water, originated from the nearby mountain range that formed the border with Pirinkar. The water followed the foothills of the mountains, flowing partly underground and fast enough to resist the sun’s attempt at heating it up.

They had swum in it, splashing around like boisterous children. She had heard about how Vran’el had stolen Enric’s clothes so that her companion had been forced to run past all these women and children completely and utterly naked.

There had been a moment of melancholy when they regretted that they couldn’t show this wondrous place to Vedric. Enric had promised her to return here with their son, showing him what travelling in the desert truly meant and what beautiful rewards awaited the traveller who was willing to brave the hostile expanses of sand.

Without asking, Mial handed her a cool sweet drink. “I am sure Ganel and Enric will soon return.”

“Thank you. Can you sit with me for a bit or do you have pressing things to take care of?”

“Nothing that cannot wait.” The woman went to get herself something to drink as well and sat down next to Eryn, shifting a few cushions to make herself comfortable.

“Can I ask you something? You don’t have to answer, of course. Just tell me if I am being inappropriately curious,” Eryn began.

Mial nodded encouragingly.

“How do you like life here in your little island in the middle of the desert? I assume there is not much chance for you to venture out much, is there?”

The older woman smiled indulgently. “Maltheá, if I wished to travel the country, I would not have agreed to join a man who was intent on building his own little empire in the middle of nowhere. This may not be for everyone, but for me it is exactly what I want.”

Eryn considered the other woman, wondering if she was one of the three women who had been abused before her commitment to Ganel. If yes, living circumstances like these, a quiet paradise, would very likely be infinitely preferable to what she’d had to endure before.

“It is beautiful here, I grant you that. I was invited to plantations of some of the Houses not far from the mountains in the east and west, yet nothing I saw there came even close to what you have here. When I first saw that waterfall of yours, I refused to believe my eyes.”

“Then you must return here. With your little son. Malriel visits us every now and again, always telling us about how bright and handsome he is.”

Eryn blinked. “She does? Visit you, I mean.” She tried to imagine Malriel in baggy desert clothes instead of the expensive, flowing styles she preferred, voluntarily spending days on horseback just to visit her cousin and his many companions far away from the city.

“Oh, yes. Ever since her journey to Pirinkar, when she spent one night here and another several months later when she returned with Enric and Vran’el, she has taken a few days off from her busy schedule to return here. She says it is a place where she does not have to worry, where she can relax without having to be a Head of House or a Triarch for a short time. She usually does this when you are on the other side of the sea, since she does not wish to sacrifice time with her family.”

Eryn took another sip, not wanting to dwell on the topic of Malriel. “And you don’t mind that Ganel has so many other companions? I have only ever lived with Enric and would find the idea of sharing him very disturbing.”

Mial smiled. “I do not mind at all. It is not only us who are sharing him, after all. He also has to share us with each other.”

Eryn frowned for a moment, before understanding dawned on her. “So you…? With each other?”

“Certainly. Ganel has eight companions at present, so we can hardly expect of the poor man to satisfy all our needs regularly. He is not getting any younger, and this might kill him after a while. Not all of us sleep with the other women, but most of us do.”

Oh dear. That conversation was not going in a direction she felt particularly comfortable with. She shouldn’t have asked that question since she did not feel willing to venture any deeper into that area.

“But none of the women has a second companion? This is a privilege limited to Ganel?”

Mial laughed. “No, none. You think you need to free us all from what you must consider a terrible injustice – one man with eight women, who must work for him, raise his many children, do whatever he decrees and take their turns as his concubine.”

“Well, I…”

“Let me assure you that we all chose this life voluntarily. He did not deceive any of us with regard to what expected us. For each and every one of us this here is a much better life than what would have expected us if we had stayed with our tribes or what we actually got away from in some cases. Ganel used to travel a lot and was the guest of many a tribe. Two of us he freed with considerable personal risk for himself, others sought him out and one was brought to him by her father who had decided that she brought shame to the tribe but could not bear the thought of killing her.” She smiled. “This is how we all landed here. And why we are all grateful for the chance to be here. Few of us are in love with Ganel, that much I will admit. But we love him in a different way. We value him for the man he is, for what he did for us, for his big heart. Our children are our gift to him, as are our efforts to aid what he likes to call our joint business that keeps us all in the kind of luxury you find hardly anywhere else outside the city.”

At that moment, the heavy curtains were pushed aside, and in stepped Ganel and Enric. Eryn was grateful for their arrival, feeling slightly foolish for the arrogance with which she had tried to convince the woman that she was being treated as little more than a servant.

“Ah, what a sight for my eyes,” Ganel gushed as he beheld them. “Did you have a pleasant time waiting for us? Not too pleasant, I hope, or our company would be unwelcome.”

Mial smiled. “I found it pleasant. Maltheá certainly is her mother’s daughter.”

Eryn was about to ask why exactly she was being insulted like that, yet remembered in time that people who appreciated Malriel would not consider such a comparison an insult. So she just raised her eyebrows and waited to hear what had led her conversation partner to such an unflattering assessment.

“She tried to convince me that a woman should not have to share a single man with so many others,” she smiled, then took Ganel’s hand into hers to press an affectionate kiss onto it.

Eryn wanted to dissolve into thin air. Or be swallowed by the ground underneath her. Either option would suffice. Embarrassment caused her cheeks to flush red, and she began to explain herself.

But Ganel merely threw his head back and laughed with genuine amusement. “Of course! An Aren woman cannot bear the thought of having to share anything – yet I would bet everything I own that they would not object were things the other way round, if I were one of eight companions to a woman.”

Eryn wanted to disagree, but closed her mouth again. For some reason she couldn’t really grasp and put words to, he was right – somehow it would have been different had it been the other way round.

Ganel, who had been watching her, patted her head patronisingly. “I see that my fortune is safe. Your face says it all.”

Another of Ganel’s companions stuck her head in through the curtain and asked, “Dinner is ready. Would you like to eat in here or join the rest of us outside?”

“Join you,” Eryn replied quickly. She was glad that Ganel wasn’t angry at her for what Mial had told him, but she also didn’t feel like being teased by him all evening long.

 

*  *  *

 

Enric rode ahead as they reached the pass that led through the mountain range.

“Raise a shield,” he instructed his companion and did the same. “Make sure it also protects the packhorse.”

She did and looked around to check whether anything dangerous lurked in the afternoon shadows that had induced him to be quite so careful. Then she remembered that he had a long time ago mentioned some incident with robbers when he and Vran’el had travelled through these parts.

Enric was glad when the heat began to change from pressing to merely unpleasant. As the rocky structures to either side of them began to grow in height and grant them some shade, he removed his headdress, enjoying the air on his clammy neck.

“Do we know how big Pirinkar is?” Eryn asked. “I don’t think I ever saw a map of the country anywhere. Do we even have one?”

“No to both. I imagine they would consider that a strategic advantage not to be given away to a country they always made sure not to get too close with. Even less now. This is the second time within a few years that they have been on the brink of war with the Western Territories, after all.”

“But Pirinkar does possess maps of the Western Territories, I assume?”

Enric shrugged. “I should think so.”

“And of the Kingdom?”

“I imagine that is likely, too. We have never kept that a great secret, and the mapmakers are free to sell their products to whomever is willing to pay their prices.”

Eryn chewed on her lower lip. “Is that wise?”

“That remains to be seen. Should the worst come to pass and Takhan fall, we can only hope that they would not be able to work out how to cross the magical barrier in the sea.”

That statement worried her. “So you think there is a realistic chance they might defeat the Order? At least I assume that the Order would aid the Western Territories in their hour of need?”

“As regards the latter, I should certainly think so. Particularly after the King just strengthened the bond between the two countries with his commitment to Del’na’bened. As for defeat… It’s always dangerous to be too assured of one’s chances of victory. We know next to nothing about them, just that they feel contempt for magicians and have an aptitude with mechanical devices. There is no information concerning whether they have a standing army, its size, how capable they are, whether they have discovered any means we are unaware of to engage magicians without magic, and so on. They might even reconsider limiting their magicians to healing services at the temples and instead let them join the fight if there were any real danger of losing a battle. I only hope there are no priests who have secretly trained in combat skills. That would be inconvenient in battle. For us, I mean.”

They rode on in silence for a while, Enric never taking his eyes off their surroundings.

Eryn decided to revisit another piece of information. “About this obsession with full names… Lam, Etor and Gistor are their titles connected to academic achievements. Holm, Reig and Legen are family positions. And then there are two more for priests which I forgot. That would make me…” She took a moment to put together the pieces. “Lam Eryn, Reig of House Vel’kim.”

Enric smiled, which Eryn couldn’t see since he was riding in front of her. “You didn’t look at the papers the Triarchy prepared for us, did you?”

“No. Why?”

“They contain what will in Pirinkar be considered our full names.” He rummaged around in the leather bag he wore slung across his chest and pulled out said papers. Stopping the horse, he motioned for Eryn to come as close as the narrow path permitted and stretched out his hand to pass her the documents.

She unfolded them and scanned the first page until she found their names. Lam Enric, Reig of House Aren, Second-in-Command of the Order. Lam, because he had completed his studies of the law in Takhan. Reig, because he was Malriel’s heir to her position. Followed by his function. That was exactly how she herself would put it together.

She looked at the name on the next page and frowned. Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan.

“What nonsense is that? Isn’t Gistor a title so aloof that you can’t even obtain it through mere studies but only through some extraordinary feat? And why explorer and not healer?”

“Your studies in the field of healing were extensive enough to justify a title higher than Lam, and your impressive achievements in different areas should be enough to see you accredited with the highest honour possible. With regard to saying you are a healer – we were warned not to remind people of our blemish of being magicians. And the profession of healer would accomplish exactly that every time somebody greeted you. It is also a convenient term in case we have to explain how you earned the title of Gistor. Being an explorer means you made finding out new things your calling.”

“They call you Second-in-Command of the Order,” she argued. “How is this not constantly reminding them of your magic? The Order is an organisation for magicians!”

“Yet not one many of them are familiar with. That’s why they didn’t write Order of Magicians. If somebody asked what the Order was, I could always answer that it is an institution dedicated to military defence of the country. This wouldn’t be a lie, all considered. And it would remind them that we were not quite as remiss in honing our battle skills as our friends in the Western Territories.”

Eryn folded the papers again and handed them back to Enric. “I still think it’s presumptuous for me to simply assume their highest title would be appropriate for me.”

He returned the documents to his bag and resumed riding.

“You are not the one doing the assuming, my love,” he said over his shoulder. “It was the Triarchy which did. That means that trying to appear modest and instead calling yourself Lam or Etor would just confuse them since that’s not what it says on the papers. And you’d better believe me when I tell you that they are submissively dependent on rules. If who you claim to be and who your papers say you are don’t match, they might not even grant you access into Kar.”

“Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan,” she murmured several times to make the name stick to her mind. “How about the two of us? Will we be calling each other by our full names when anyone can hear us or are we allowed a more casual address since we are joined?”

“We may use the short forms of each other’s names.”

“Will that be Maltheá or Eryn in my case? Can we ask of them to accept that or will they eject me from their city if we confuse them too much?”

“Eryn is fine between the two of us, I should think. We can always say it is some sort of affectionate pet name I have for you.”

She nodded, satisfied with that solution. Having to reside in a foreign and probably hostile place without her son was bad enough, but having Enric address her with that name she detested since it still connected her to Malriel, would be too much.

“We will need to explain to them why your companion looks a lot like the woman they think is your mother,” she then reminded him. “We could tell them that we are siblings. Which legally speaking is not so far from the truth.”

Enric’s shoulders lifted and fell with a sigh. “We are trying to make them cooperate with us, not loathe us even more. Our being magicians is bad enough already – we can’t make them believe we come from a place where brother and sister are permitted or even encouraged to have offspring together.”

“I was your companion before I became your sister,” she grinned, knowing he didn’t care for it when she referred to herself as his sibling.

“Let’s just stay with the truth, shall we? It’s the lesser evil in this case. And since many of them may still be distrustful of Malriel, knowing that you officially left her family might earn you their goodwill. Your resemblance makes it impossible to deny a connection between the two of you, when all is said and done.”

“You know, people who might like me better because I cut myself off from Malriel may actually not be quite that bad.”

“Certainly not all of them. But let’s not forget that a few of them are still trying their hand as warmongers.”

Eryn screwed up her nose. “Ah yes, there was that little thing.”

 

*  *  *

 

Eryn’s stomach growled as they proceeded along the gravel road. She knew it was only a matter of a few hours until they reached the city of Kar, yet at this very moment the thought of having to wait that long for a meal was almost unbearable. Yet the alternative was not particularly attractive, either.

Desert people knew how to make food durable for a longer journey, and longevity was indeed its most prominent quality. It was clearly not meant to provide any culinary satisfaction but merely keep the traveller alive long enough to one day reach a place offering proper food.

They had made camp three times so far, yet since Eryn would refuse anything Enric hunted down, he didn’t bother with the effort it required. Instead they had tried roasting the dried food over the fire to try and improve the taste. It hadn’t worked.

The scenery was probably the main problem, Eryn mused. It didn’t provide enough variety or exotic otherness to distract her from her hunger. In the desert, she had been anxious to keep every surface of her body covered and her insides sufficiently hydrated without depleting their water supply too quickly. In the mountains she was careful not to bump her riding horse or the packhorse into anything hard or to slip. In addition, she had kept her eyes open for bandits. All this had been a welcome change after the desert. It was cooler, the sun was less hard on the eyes, everything was less sandy and monotonous. After crossing the mountains and reaching the foothills, they had almost from one minute to the next found themselves within a lush jungle that was such an absurd contrast to what lay on the other side of the mountain that Eryn had at first just stared at it, speechless. Vran’el had told her about this some time ago, yet she had instead attributed this to his inclination to exaggerate.

After overcoming her shock, she had been most delighted to realise that this had to be where the insects transmitting the sleeping illness came from. She had carefully kept her eyes open, disappointed when she had spotted none that matched the pictures and the description from the book Enric had given her a few years ago. She had mentioned that to Enric, but he had merely smiled and expressed his relief.

It took only a few hours to ride through this verdant yet damp realm with its trees rising up higher than any Eryn had seen before and holding so much water in the air that their clothes clung to their skin after only a few minutes. It had been a different kind of heat than she knew from the desert. As if the air was pulling the water out of her pores, exhausting her far more within a very short time than the dry, relentless heat in the Western Territories was able to.

Enric, ever ready and willing to educate those less well-informed than himself, explained to her how the mountains hindered the clouds from crossing over and therefore forced them to release all their dampness regularly on this side of the mountain range.

Eryn soon saw that this overly lush growth was only limited to a comparatively small area. The further they left the mountains behind them, the more the scenery turned into what she knew from the Kingdom. The edges of the forests they passed even consisted of the same species of trees Eryn knew from home, and there were wide meadows with several herbs she recognised.

They rode up the slight incline of a hill, and Eryn stared when suddenly the city of Kar appeared before her, perched on the edge of a huge lake that made a bend, as if to gently embrace the mass of colourful houses, promising protection from whatever destructive influence might come its way.

Enric smiled at her amazement. “It’s quite a sight, isn’t it?”

“It’s so… full of colour. That’s odd. This is not at all what I expected from a place that was described as sober and somehow bleak in its blind obedience to rules.” She took another look. There was no city wall, just as in Takhan. Did they really trust the lake to be an unsurmountable barrier to any intruders? That they would be able to shoot at – and hit – any boats which might make their way across the water in the dead of night? Or were they so confident that no enemy would ever make it far enough actually to attack the city? They were either hiding some powerful weapon in the midst of the city or were so overconfident in their capabilities that it bordered on cockiness.

“A place full of contrasts,” Enric nodded. “By the way, a little ahead, where you see the bend in the road with that wide tree, this is where I fell off my horse when you were giving birth to Vedric.”

She smiled, not showing even the smallest hint of compassion. “Well, I can only say that this here is certainly a much more appealing place than the room at the Clinic they put me into.”

“Let me tell you that I had little mind to appreciate the scenery at that time,” he replied, slightly grumpy at having his sufferings downplayed.

“Funny thing, I was very aware of my surroundings back then. I remember the pictures they had on the wall. Still have, I should say. Happy little sketches of children playing in the streets and some such. Scenes that without a doubt were intended to remind the poor, suffering mothers why they were going through with all this. Didn’t work on me, though. Had I been able to walk, I probably would have torn them off the walls and smashed them.”

He chuckled. “You may be the only woman I know who becomes aggressive when exposed to what is generally considered a soothing influence.”

They returned their attention to the city before them, marvelling how the water around it made it resemble a precious, multi-coloured gem in a sparkling blue setting.

“You know,” Eryn mused, mollified by the beautiful sight, “now that I actually see the place, going there doesn’t seem quite as horrific anymore. Right now I feel as though there is no challenge we cannot master in this place.”

Enric didn’t reply. He wasn’t feeling quite as confident.

They rode on, then he reached out for her reigns to stop her horse as a sudden thought occurred to him.

“You did learn how to erect shields and connect them to a person’s life force, didn’t you? Just like the shield Ved’al placed inside you when you were a young girl? After he saved you from this rape attempt?”

Surprised, she lifted up her eyebrows. “I did, yes. It wasn’t a skill I needed to achieve for the certificate in Takhan, but Valrad showed me how it works a few years ago. Am I to assume you want me to place a shield just like it inside me once again? Before we enter Kar?”

“I would feel better if you did, yes.”

Eryn briefly considered arguing, but decided against it. It was a minor thing without any unwelcome side effects and would ease his mind. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on erecting a shield around her reproductive organs, stretching it until it barred admission to where Enric had insisted no-one but himself was permitted. That was the simple part. Well, simple for someone who knew the exact characteristics such as permeability and strengths that were required for a shield in this exact spot and for this purpose. This was not just about creating a barrier that stopped everything that came its way from either direction. There were liquids that needed to pass in several directions. And it still needed to permit Enric’s entry.

The second part was linking the barrier twofold. For once, there had to be an energy source that could not just be cut off by means of a golden belt or manacles but continued to feed the shield no matter what occurred outside. This energy source did not depend on the strong, consciously wielded magic, but the underlying one that was embedded in every drop of blood and every tiny bit of organ tissue in her body. This almost undetectably low level of magic would only cease to exist when the body it inhabited died.

The second link was the one to her emotions. They were the trigger to how penetrable the shield was. In addition to lust, there was a range of positive feelings that rendered the barrier inactive and therefore permitted entrance. Any feeling of threat, disgust, fear, distrust or anger from her side, however, would make it impenetrable and so impossible for anyone to force sexual intercourse with her. In addition, the attacker would experience excruciating pain in his nether regions that would very likely put him off trying again anything of that sort for quite a while.

After both links were properly in place, she opened her eyes again. “Done.”

“Thank you,” he smiled and took her hand to kiss it. “I appreciate it. And also, that you are indulging me even though I can see that you don’t deem it necessary.”

“If this is all it takes to save you at least some worry, I’ll gladly oblige you.”

They resumed the last part of their journey.

“Vedric would have loved the colourful buildings,” Enric murmured. “And the lake. He has never seen anything like it.”

“You just had to say that, didn’t you?” she sighed and felt a pang of sadness, even though a small part of her was grateful that she wasn’t the only one missing their son.

He shrugged, then furrowed his brow. “We should make a quick stop and eat something. Either I’m really hungry or the mindbond is telling me that you are. Either way, I don’t intend to arrive in the city with a growling stomach, no matter whose it is.”

“Great,” Eryn muttered without any enthusiasm, “more pressed wood shavings.”

“Now, that’s not fair,” he grinned. “How would you know what wood shavings taste like? I assume you’ve never tried any, have you?”

“I have a pretty effective imagination,” she growled, displeased that he challenged what she considered an apt comparison.

“Good. Then you can just as easily close your eyes and imagine it’s something tasty instead of complaining.” He didn’t mention that his memory of Pirinkar cuisine was not exactly a favourable one. Destroying her hopes that considerably superior fare awaited her in the city would only serve to depress her even further.

Chapter 2

The City of Kar

Enric brought his horse to a halt and dismounted with a slow and controlled movement. He knew that the city guards standing on the bridge with the purpose of denying entrance into their capital would not attack him just like that without any provocation. They would if he couldn’t present documents that confirmed that he was permitted to enter the city and refused to retreat.

Still, facing a greater number of potential opponents was a situation which warranted a display of respectful caution. Even though they very likely had no chance to prevail against Eryn and himself if push came to shove, it never paid to underestimate others. The five men in blue and grey uniforms with metal helmets and breast plates were holding their weapons in a way which was not exactly threatening as yet but with the promise that this could be changed at a moment’s notice.

“A stick with a spike on it,” Eryn commented under her breath, eyeing what looked to her like a curious combination of a farm instrument with a weapon. The expertise in fighting the Order had bestowed upon her despite her wishes drew her – almost without conscious choice – to study their arms.

In one hand each of them held a long, wooden stick longer than a grown man was tall with a pointy, irregularly shaped metal piece fixed to one end. Not an elegant weapon or one meant for engaging in fights. Its purpose was rather to keep people at a distance and provide a means to bar entrance by using the long handle as a barrier. Which didn’t mean that the spike on top couldn’t be used to cause considerable harm. Though probably not to a trained fighter armed with a sword.

But closer inspection of their uniforms revealed to her that they were each bearing one of those, too. Plus a knife in a sheath on their belts. They looked rather well-prepared for physical conflicts, no matter whether their opponents merely needed to be apprehended from afar, kept at bay at closer range with a sword or severely hurt from minimum distance with a knife. Assuming that the guards were trained in handling all the weapons they carried, they were probably not people to be challenged lightly.

Even so, Eryn seriously doubted that they could be much of a threat to her and Enric. At least not as long as she and her companion had magic at their disposal and the guards did not. From what she had heard and read about Pirinkar, men with magical abilities would not be trained as guards but instead be delivered to the temples without ever having access to any other profession than healing. Rather similar to the way all magicians in Anyueel were forced to join the Order, though this was considered a privilege and not at all a punishment.

A strange notion, thinking that what she had done all her life, what she had been training so many years despite all obstacles and difficulties, was in this country something of a stigma for being born a certain way. The same way she herself had been born.

Enric had in the meantime extracted their papers from a flat pouch inside his tunic and handed them to a man whose demeanour and slightly more adorned uniform suggested that he was in charge. The man took the papers without showing any sign of polite interest or friendliness, then stepped aside to reveal a trim woman in her mid-forties, her demeanour not much more welcoming than the guards’, though her eyes softened a fraction when she beheld Enric. Just as when they had first encountered each other several years ago, her light-brown hair was twisted into a tight bun at the back of her neck and her clothes were sober and prim. There were a few more grey strands visible now.

“Lam Ceiga, Reig of the Moraugns, minister of external affairs,” he smiled as he greeted her. “It is a pleasure to see you again. It seems that arriving in Kar will for me be forever connected to seeing your face.”

One corner of the woman’s mouth twitched slightly as if she were suppressing a dash of amusement while accepting the papers the guard was handing her. Or maybe she was merely pleased that he remembered her full name but did not wish to show it.

After scanning the first page, she looked up at Enric with one almost imperceptibly raised eyebrow.

“Lam Enric, Reig of House Aren, Second-in-Command of the Order. Lam. So you have educated yourself since your last stay here,” she commented without a greeting of any sort.

“I have. I studied the law,” Enric replied amiably.

Lam Ceiga returned to the papers in her hands. After several seconds she switched to the second page with Eryn’s details. When all information turned out to be in line with the documents she had received in advance, her eyes searched and found the second visitor.

Enric observed how her eyes widened slightly in shock as she took in Eryn. Her eyes flittered back to the papers in her hands as if to check the name on them once again.

“Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan?” she then asked as if to make sure that despite what her eyes insisted on, there was no error in her paperwork.

“Yes, that would be me,” Eryn nodded and got off her horse to stand next to her companion. She suppressed a shiver at how strange her own native language sounded out of this woman’s mouth. People in the Western Territories also sounded different from those in Anyueel, but they made the language sound rather more musical. People up north distorted it with the hard sounds that were so characteristic for the local language here.

“And yes, I resemble Malriel of House Aren to a degree which nobody finds more annoying than myself,” she added, when Lam Ceiga continued to stare at her.

This prompted the other woman to clear her throat and get a grip on herself.

“Forgive me, Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan. Your papers appear to be in order.” She motioned for the guards to step aside and admit the two people who were now officially guests rather than intruders. At least for the time being.

Eryn and Enric followed her into the city, all the while leading their horses. Either it was not considered a necessary course of action to relieve weary travellers of their horses, or it was being made clear to them that they were less than welcome here. Eryn fought a slight feeling of disappointment at not having been welcomed to Kar by Erbál. A genuine smile would have been a lot more appealing than this woman’s sombre demeanour.

“Your passes for moving around in the city were already issued,” Lam Ceiga explained without turning around while walking ahead of them in a brisk pace. “Lam Erbál, Legen of the Ferals, Ambassador to Kar, insisted on sparing you this piece of bureaucracy upon your arrival, and took it upon himself to arrange everything. The documents are currently in his custody.”

Eryn’s attention shifted from their guide towards her surroundings. The streets were made up of large, flat, square cobblestones which changed their patterns once smaller streets and alleys branched off what clearly was a main road. She was surprised at how clean the streets appeared, even though Enric had told her about that several years ago.

And then there were the buildings. Most of which were constructed in a curious design that consisted of a stone foundation about as tall as herself and then an oddly geometrical seeming array of timber with the spaces in-between, filled with some other building material, that had then been painted in a hue ranging from white to darker earthen shades. They were between two and four storeys high.

As if to counter the strangely correct and organised feel of this place with its orderly houses and sombrely dressed people, most windows sported what had to be planting boxes from which grew an assortment of plants bearing brightly coloured flowers. No herbs for cooking or medicine; the plants were for mere decorative purposes, as far as Eryn could tell.

The people’s external appearance also seemed strangely uniform as she studied their clothes. Not so, however, when it came to their skin and hair colour. Eryn marvelled at this diversity that was so incredibly different from the two countries she knew and lived in. In Anyueel, the streets were dominated by blond people, even though this would be changing in the years to come now that darker hair colours were returning along with the force of magic in women. And in the Western Territories people had dark hair and were tanned by the relentless desert sun.

Neither Enric with his fair hair and comparatively pale skin, nor Eryn with her dark hair and only slightly darker skin were out of place here. She was relieved that nobody really seemed to be paying them much attention. Enric had made sure to pack clothes that would not stand out in a place where flowers seemed to be the only living things where bright colours were encouraged or at least tolerated.

“Move on,” Enric instructed her quietly. “You can look around later once we are settled in our accommodation. If we lose her, we’ll get in trouble without the passes that grant us our certain freedom to move around unsupervised. Or at least as unsupervised as we will ever be here.”

Eryn nodded and increased her pace slightly. He was right. Lam Ceiga didn’t seem to care much whether or not they managed to keep up with her and could probably not be bothered to turn around and look for them in case they got lost.

Several minutes later they arrived in front of a building three storeys high consisting entirely of light brown stone. It looked elegant and affluent, but in a somewhat strange way.

There were three different sizes of windows, though all of them had square bottoms and curved upwards into an arc like little city gates. The house was not symmetrical – one half of the facade protruded further than the other and had something resembling half a cylinder stretching upwards over the length of one floor attached to the outer wall. It appeared as if somebody had belatedly decided to enlarge the available space inside by adding a section on one floor. The odd structure was decorated with elaborate stone carvings and columns which framed the same type of half square, half rounded windows that could be found around it.

Lam Ceiga didn’t grant them much time to take in their destination, but knocked upon the heavily decorated wooden door with its wrought iron centre consisting of floral ornaments framed with partly gilded and partly plain wooden carvings.

This was obviously a better part of the city with more prosperous inhabitants, Eryn guessed. At least as far as she could tell if she compared the buildings around here with those she had seen upon entering the city. And Erbál was important enough to have been granted a place here. Good. That would without a doubt be useful for their mission here. It implied that he was maintaining influential connections used to a certain luxuriousness when it came to their surroundings.

The door opened, and Eryn had to look twice to make sure this really and truly was her friend Erbál before her. Whatever had they done to him? He looked just like one of them!

 

*  *  *

 

They followed the Ambassador up a stairway with an intricately carved wooden handrail on one side.

Enric saw how Eryn stared at Erbál’s back, still aghast because of his massively altered appearance. He could comprehend her bewilderment, shared it even to a certain degree, even though he knew that it was only logical and advisable for a diplomat to adapt to his country of residence enough to fit in. It was meant to make those around him more comfortable. And therefore less wary.

He had seen Erbál in less flamboyant attire than that customary at his birth place before. He had already adapted to local customs after having been dispatched to Anyueel several years ago, yet doing the same here in Pirinkar obviously required taking it down another notch. His hair, in addition to being bound in his neck, was smoothed back with what appeared to be some kind of oil, making it look sleek and taming every single dark strand that might otherwise have tried to escape. His legs were stuck in tight trousers, outlining his thighs and calves. It was probably only the longish shirt and jacket he was wearing which prevented the whole attire from leaving less to the imagination than was considered decent. Both at the front and behind.

And of course every single item he was wearing adhered to the colour range which was considered adequate for people of notable – as well as any other – rank during the day: black, brown and white.

They arrived on the first floor, where a room so overloaded with curly carvings on furniture, brightly patterned fabrics and an impossible number of fragile looking ornaments on almost every even surface awaited them. It was as though the inside of the house was trying to make up for the locals’ sombre demeanour.

Eryn, who had been about to utter something, very likely a snide remark about Erbál’s appearance, stood there with her mouth agape. Her eyes were rapidly darting from one spot to the next as if unable to decide what to take in first.

Enric gulped and took an involuntary step back, almost slipping on the top stair. His mind was desperately searching for a quiet, unadorned spot which would allow his eyes to rest for a moment without being tormented by this avalanche of colours, patterns and shapes.

“It is quite an assault on the senses if one is not used to it,” the Ambassador said with an apologetic smile and stepped towards Eryn to envelop her with his arms in the greeting he was not supposed to perform outside the privacy of his abode.

“Definitely,” Eryn agreed weakly and reciprocated by hugging him close.

Several seconds later Erbál released her and instead took her hands in his. Squeezing them affectionately, he exhaled. “I am so very glad you are here.” Then he greeted Enric in a rather more formal manner, before suggesting, “I will show you the house and give you half an hour to settle in. Then I would like to take you on a walk.”

“A walk?” Eryn asked without much enthusiasm. Somehow the idea of walking around was so much less appealing than the thought of just leaning back and enjoying a glass of something delectable after their long journey. When she saw Enric nod tiredly, she could tell that he shared that sentiment. The fact that he didn’t object had nothing to do with mere politeness, she knew. It had to mean that Erbál had to have a good reason for insisting on that walk.

“You and your plain appearance are quite a contrast to this… rich plentitude in here”, Eryn commented. “I don’t like what you did to your hair.” She touched her own. “We are not expected to do that as well, are we?” She briefly touched his head and grimaced when her fingers came away greasy.

“No, there is no need for that. Especially not for women,” Erbál reassured her. “And even if you wished to smooth down your hair, magicians do have more convenient means to accomplish this without employing substances of any kind.”

“Is this the usual style of a main room in Pirinkar?” Enric enquired. “It’s a far cry from what I saw when I came here several years ago. But then your abode is certainly far superior to the place where Vran’el and I were put up in. We were not exactly treated as welcome guests but instead as intruders back then.” He gingerly touched a pale porcelain figurine of a young girl dancing, curious about how smooth and cool it felt under his finger.

“In more… affluent circles it is the common style, yes. Here it is all about shaping your private place, your home, in a manner that you yourself find appealing yet also in a way that is meant to impress guests with your exquisite taste and of course your wealth. Since they do not really have places like the music and tea houses we have in Takhan, their need for social contacts is mostly fulfilled in their homes. Pirinkar is rather more similar to Anyueel in this regard. Public houses are considered places for lower classes and drunkards while the noble society gathers in private homes.”

Eryn’s eyes narrowed for a moment as she tried to detect any judgement or implication of snobbishness behind that statement. She couldn’t find any and began to wonder whether she was projecting her own feelings. He was right, after all. Sitting together with friends, chatting in the evening after sunset over a nice glass of tea or dining at a music house was something she missed dearly whenever they stayed in the Kingdom.

Enric tried to push away the rather disquieting thought of what their bedroom might look like. As stuffed with useless, fragile dust collectors and richly adorned with colourfully patterned fabrics as this room here? Would he be able to fall asleep in such a place? Even with the lights out he would still know that they were lurking in the darkness as if biding their time until sunrise when they would once again trouble his senses with detail.

“I would suggest you let me show you to your room now, then refresh yourselves a little before our walk,” Erbál proposed, and lifted a hand to indicate another staircase to the left of the one they had just climbed. “The servants will fetch your luggage in the course of the next few minutes so you may wash and change into clean clothes. The cook has prepared a light snack for you afterwards in order to bridge the time until we take our evening meal.”

Enric’s polite smile hid his lack of enthusiasm well. He could only hope that wealthy people did not only enjoy more comfortable accommodation here, but also more delectable food than the fare he remembered.

 

*  *  *

 

Enric sighed with relief when Erbál opened the door to their room and then stepped aside to let them enter. It was a lot less cluttered with items of unending assortments than he had feared. He could see a similar sentiment reflected on Eryn’s face as she stepped inside and looked around. But it took only a moment until the relief about the frugal decorations turned into disenchantment. Somehow the only options here seemed to be either hopelessly cluttered or plain and even depressingly bleak. Moving from one to the other in a matter of seconds was quite a massive contrast to a mind that still was trying to adapt to its new surroundings.

It was anything but a capacious room as though dedicating too much space to a place where one probably wasn’t supposed to linger longer than absolutely necessary were considered frivolous. Compared to the splendour of the other rooms they had seen – the ones guests would catch sight of – this chamber was not merely modest, but bordered on the austere.

“Let me guess,” he uttered dryly, “people here consider rising early a virtue.”

Erbál laughed. “They really do. Furnishing their bedchambers this way is meant to make getting up in the morning less of a struggle.”

Eryn took a seat on the mattress and testingly bounced up and down a few times. Or at least she tried to. There wasn’t much bounciness. That certainly didn’t invite to lie there any longer than was absolutely necessary.

Her expression wasn’t a joyful one when she sighed, “That I quite believe. This bed is about as comfortable as a horse stable floor. Less so, probably.”

“It certainly does not poke as much as a stack of hay,” countered Erbál as if eager to present it all in a less depressing light. “And there are no fleas in here.”

“Oh, small joy…” Eryn muttered.

She felt about as exhausted as Enric looked. As long as that distant and unfriendly woman had been with them, he had made the effort to hide it, but now the mask had fallen and revealed a weary traveller who would much rather lie down than embark on a walk around the city with their host.

“I shall await you in the parlour for when you are ready”, Erbál informed them and then closed the door behind him.

Enric sank onto the bed right next to her. There was an ominous, drawn-out creak. They froze and exchanged a slightly troubled look as if expecting the bed to fall to pieces any moment.

“They might give us a nicer one if we break this one,” Eryn tried to make light of the situation.

“Or they might just patch this one here back together,” replied Enric and carefully leaned back until he lay flat with his feet still on the floor. “It’s about as comfortable as it looks.”

“Not at all?”

“Exactly.”

Eryn snuggled up to him, bedding her head on his shoulder. “So far I’m not particularly taken with this place. What’s with that woman? Are they all like this or is she just miffed about our presence here?”

She felt how his chest quivered with his chuckle.

“Actually, Lam Ceiga was more welcoming this time. Consider that this here is a culture where people are immensely formal with each other even if they are well acquainted. In addition, they are wary about strangers.”

“Meaning we will enjoy an increased dose of their suspicion and be given the cold shoulder on principle,” she sighed. “I thought coming here would be easier. I already adapted to a different new culture once, after all.”

Enric hugged her closer and pressed a kiss on her forehead. “Don’t worry for now. This is just the first shock at finding everything so different from what you know. In some aspects they are actually quite similar to Anyueel. There is no haggling if you want to buy something, for one.”

Since Eryn had no great plans to indulge in extensive shopping sprees and would therefore not benefit so much from this, she merely shrugged.

“We ought to get ourselves ready”, she murmured, noting how her voice sounded more sluggish now that her body had relaxed in a horizontal position. If they didn’t get up soon, she would fall asleep here, no matter how uncomfortable the bed was.

“We should,” Enric agreed without moving as if waiting for her to rise first.

A knock sounded at their door, so both struggled their way back to an upright position, laboriously overcoming the heaviness in their limbs.

Eryn opened the door and admitted the two servants who brought their belongings, just as Erbál had promised.

As soon as they had left again, Eryn opened one bag and pulled out a clean set of clothes for each of them.

“I suppose now that our things are here and we can get changed, we have no more excuse for being lazy.” She tossed his clothes at him. “I’ll go first.” She stepped towards a second door. “Might that be a bathroom? What do you think?” Without waiting for his answer, she opened it and whistled through her teeth. Finally a nice surprise. “Look at that! We truly have a bathroom right here – just for us, no sharing. And a large one too! It’s easily as big as the bedroom! They obviously set greater store by cleanliness than by a comfortable night’s rest.”

Mesmerised, Eryn’s eyes first focused on the huge, white gleaming bathtub in the centre of the room, then followed the copper pipes along the walls. There was a rather dainty looking contraption which was very likely where the water was supposed to come out of. This looked nothing like the water pump in her own bathroom in Anyueel which suddenly appeared crude and outdated in comparison to all this here.

Stepping closer to the bathtub, she took a closer look. The little device on top was connected to the copper pipes and would very likely start spouting water if she turned one of the two porcelain knobs on either side of the opening. On each of them a word in the local language was embossed. Eryn leaned closer to decipher them. They were rather basic ones. Warm and cold, she recognised, thrilled that for the very first time since she had started her language studies several years ago, she was actually able to apply that knowledge outside a book.

Her brow creased. Warm and cold. What was that supposed to mean? Water was by nature cold. It had to be heated either by magic or by means of a fire. She looked around. Neither in the bedroom nor in here had she seen a fireplace that would enable servants to heat water without having to drag it here from who knows where. Was it maybe hidden out of sight? She looked around for some panel or extra door which might hide some recess, but found nothing at first glance. With a shrug she returned her attention to the bathtub and decided to stop pondering when experimenting was so much more appealing.

Slowly she turned the knob marked with warm and heard a quiet gurgling, before water started streaming from the opening. Eryn blinked. Without pumping, it just flowed out of this metal outlet and landed burbling in the sparkling white tub. And disappeared again through a round hole. Eryn found a plug lying on a little side table. Its size and shape suggested that it was meant to close the hole. She bent down to do just that and froze when the water touched her skin. It was warm! And it seemed to get a little hotter with every moment! How was this possible?

“Enric?” she called out, all fatigue suddenly gone from her voice. “Come and have a look at this! It’s marvellous!”

 

*  *  *

 

“You certainly took your time,” Erbál commented when they were walking along the street that led away from his home and seat of office. There was a hint of reproach as if he had been eager to embark on this walk with people he could in the widest sense consider his countrymen.

“Eryn discovered the bathroom,” Enric remarked. “There was no getting her out of it.”

“So you took a bath?” the ambassador asked, his voice now amused.

Enric gave a rather undignified snort, before Eryn had a chance to reply. “That would have taken a lot less time, I imagine. No, she discovered that your pipes spout hot water and had to investigate. Explorer and all that.”

Erbál smiled. “Ah, that was quite a discovery for me as well when I first came here. The first surprise was that they add their bathrooms to the bedrooms directly, so each inhabitant has their own. Having to share a bathroom is considered somewhat of an imposition. At least in wealthier abodes. And then there was the hot water issued without any discernible effort from the servants. It seemed like a miracle.”

“So, how is it done?” Eryn enquired impatiently. “The water must be heated somewhere. Maybe somewhere under the roof? That would explain how the water shoots out of the pipes like that – because the weight pushes it downwards and out of every available outlet. But then you would require rather large containers for the water since I assume that they hold more than just enough to fill one bathtub. That would mean considerable strain on the house’s structure,” she continued what was no longer a conversation but had rather turned into a soliloquy. “And one would certainly need more than one container since the hot water would need to be stored separately. Yet it cannot be stored for too long or it would cool down again. Meaning there is either somebody to constantly keep the water at a certain temperature so it’s available without prior notice, or it is stored in a way where the heat is preserved – however such a thing might be accomplished. That still leaves…”

“Stop!” Erbál interrupted her with a laugh. “You are making me dizzy! I can tell you a few basic things, yet if you wish to learn more about it I will ask the man who does the maintenance work to explain it all to you in more detail, alright?”

She nodded eagerly.

They continued on their way wherever Erbál was taking them. Eryn did not pay any attention to the unfamiliar streets, buildings, shops and people around her but was completely focused on what Erbál knew about this incredible system that could supply actual hot water on demand at any time.

“There are indeed water tanks for hot and cold, yet not on the roof, but in the cellars. You are right – the weight would otherwise pose a serious danger to the buildings’ structural integrity.”

“But how can it come out of the pipes with such a speed when it’s stored downstairs?” she demanded impatiently. When she had to pump water up from somewhere, it emerged a lot more sluggishly – even if she used magic to increase her strength.

“It is done with pressure. Instead of relying on the water’s weight by storing it in higher altitude, they use pumps to create pressure inside the storage vessel. Whenever you turn a knob in your bathroom and open a valve, you provide an exit for the compressed water, which then jets out.”

Eryn took a few moments to take this in, the cogwheels in her head turning busily as she tried to imagine what it all had to look like.

“How large are those tanks? How often are they refilled? And how is that done? How is the hot water heated? And how often? How long does that normally take? Where does the drain in the bathtub lead? How many rooms can open the valves at the same time and still get water? Can I take a bath at the same time as you? How exactly is the pressure in the tanks created?” she bombarded Erbál with questions.

He lifted both his hands in a placating manner. “Slow down, my dear. I fear you are asking more questions than I can answer. I will contact the man I mentioned before and ask him to take a little extra time when next he comes. That should be around next week.”

Eryn nodded reluctantly. Patience had never been one of her strong sides, and having to wait for a week for answers she longed for right now was attritional.

She finally made an effort to take in her surroundings so as to divert herself from the conundrum of the hot water. It seemed they were walking through some kind of craftsmen’s quarter – provided they really had a quarter and weren’t instead spread throughout the city.

She marvelled at what looked like decorative wrought-iron ornaments affixed to the buildings’ facades above the entries to workshops and stores.

“These must be store signs,” she assumed.

Erbál followed her gaze and looked up. “They are a little more than that. These are guild symbols. They indicate what kind of profession the owner of the shop pursues.” He pointed ahead to black metal that was twisted and coiled until it resembled a climbing plant instead of iron. It was adorned with shiny, gold-coloured leaves. “Do you see the symbol amidst it all? The pair of scissors around which a lock of hair is curled? This is a hairdresser. Whenever you see such a symbol, you immediately know which kind of business this is.”

“So all of them have the exact same sign above their door?” Eryn asked.

“Not the exact same. The symbol itself is always the same for each profession, yet the decorative aspect and size vary in accordance with the owners’ taste – and how much they are willing or able to spend. The amount of gold you see usually shows how well things are going. Some of them only use the symbol, others also add their names. That would be mostly public houses and also long-established craftspeople whose name is known near and far.”

“So I can assume that seeing a guild symbol with a name underneath means the owner has a very good reputation and provides superb quality – which probably means exorbitant prices?” Eryn smiled.

Erbál shrugged. “Yes, that is a valid assumption. Which does not mean that shops without a name on their guild symbol always offer moderate prices. It generally pays to compare different suppliers when you intend to purchase an expensive article.”

Enric listened intently. He hadn’t had much time or inclination to really learn about this place during his last visit. That was somehow a shame. Yet his priorities had been very different at that time – saving Malriel from a possible death sentence and returning home to his companion and newly born son. He and Vran’el had spent quite a few days here waiting for papers to be issued and requests to be granted, but had been told not to leave their uninviting and penurious accommodations.

“Another hairdresser,” Eryn uttered once she found a similar sign.

“No, not quite. The scissors are atop a bale of cloth this time, meaning this is a tailor”, Erbál explained.

They continued on their way, and Erbál showed her the symbols the different craftspeople used. A bunch of grapes over a glass for wine sellers, two intertwining flowers for herbalists, a tree trunk and hammer for carpenters, two crossed keys for locksmiths, a pair of shoes for cobblers, and so on.

After several minutes they reached what looked like a jetty that extended out into the lake that half surrounded the city. So they had walked to the edge of Kar.

Eryn and Enric followed the ambassador, who walked down a few steps towards the water, where a couple of small boats were moored to the long wooden pier.

Erbál exchanged a few words with a man in a small booth, handed him a couple of coins and then motioned for his guests to follow him.

“We don’t have to get into on of those… things?” Eryn asked with little hope. She had only just got used to ships, and in their case there was a lot more substance between her and the water than with these nutshells. It couldn’t take much for one to just flip over if somebody made a wrong move.

“Afraid so,” her companion replied and took her hand in his to make sure she came along.

“I’m not going to do any rowing, just so you know,” she growled and let Erbál take her hand to help her climb rather unsteadily into the vessel he had selected.

When they were all in the boat, Erbál loosened the tethering line and pushed the boat away from the pier with one oar, which he then handed Enric. Since the ambassador was the only non-magician present, he would certainly not take care of the physical labour of rowing.

Without objection Enric accepted the task and propelled the boat ahead with every powerful stroke. Nobody spoke until the city had shrunk in the distance and Erbál lifted a hand to indicate that they were now far enough away from the shore to be truly out of range of any intrusive eyes or ears.

 

*  *  *

 

“Unfortunately, the ability to read someone’s lips is quite common here,” Erbál explained his decision to take them to a place where it was impossible to approach them unseen while the boat was bobbing gently in the centre of the extensive lake. He nodded at Eryn. “An ability, I believe, you have mastered as well.”

“I have,” she retorted a little miffed. “But I did certainly not have in mind that it might be a splendid way to spy on people but I did it for healing purposes.”

“Of course,” Erbál replied and smiled. “I would not have assumed anything else. Here, however, people do not have your noble intentions when they seek to acquire this very skill. Since magicians are considered a potential danger, reading lips is considered a handy means of overcoming their ability to raise soundproof barriers. Provided, one is able to get close enough. You would not believe how riddled with spy holes the buildings here are.”

“Yet coming out here like this will also make people wonder,” Eryn noted. “It is pretty obvious that you didn’t take us out here to spend a pleasant, relaxing afternoon.”

He waved her off. “Of course they will. And they expected it. It would probably have surprised them no end if I had not taken you to a place where there are no unwelcome eyes or ears around.”

“How widely known is the purpose of our journey here?” Enric wanted to know. “Is there any pretence we ought to keep up?”

“The higher echelons know that there were plans to assassinate the Queen of Anyueel, and that the trail leads to Pirinkar. I cannot really tell how far down this has been spread. In our own interest I hope that a fair number of people know about it already. Otherwise we will have a lot of curious visitors in the days to come. People here are nosy. And not being told something is no cause for them to accept that they are not supposed to know about it.”

“Well, that sounds familiar…” murmured Eryn, who hated spies with a passion.

“Does anyone here know that you were the one to provide us with the warning about the impending attempt on the Queen’s life?” Enric asked.

“I certainly hope not. It would paint a target on my back.”

“How did you find out about it?” he asked.

“By way of an anonymous letter delivered to my residence.”

Eryn’s brow rose. She had expected it to have been the result of months of careful sleuthing rather than a happy coincidence as long as careful, thorough Erbál was involved. So the timely warning had been nothing but good luck. Somehow that was not comforting. It meant those person or persons responsible had been able to keep it well enough hidden for Erbál not to find out on his own.

“That means at least one person – the originator of the letter – knows that our presence here is the result of a warning you sent instead of our investigative prowess back in Anyueel,” Enric mused.

“Very true,” the ambassador confirmed. “So far I have not been able to find out the identity of my gracious information provider.”

“Are there any people here who you can trust?” Eryn enquired.

Erbál laughed. “Dear me, no! I did strike up friendships here, yet I know better than to trust any of them. In a position such as my current one you can never be sure why somebody wishes to be close to you.”

Eryn felt slightly abashed at having demonstrated her naiveté like that. Yet she certainly did not wish to possess Erbál’s artfulness, to be forced to apply it on an everyday basis just to survive. For him friendships were not a source of joy, but a way of keeping potential enemies close and harvesting sources of information. That sounded incredibly lonely, and she wanted no part of it.

“What exactly is our take on the events so far?” she asked. “We assume that someone in Pirinkar wishes to remove the combined threat the alliance between Anyueel and the Western Territories presents to them in case of a war. The assassination of the Queen would have served two purposes – firstly, it would have severed the tighter bond the King wants to establish between our countries, and secondly, it was supposed to look as though the Western Territories had arranged it. And implicating my father in his influential position as Head of Healers and spouse of a Triarch might have done the trick. Even if the King hadn’t fallen for it, the majority of his people would have.”

“I would say that summarises it fairly well,” Erbál nodded.

“So what was the motivation of whoever sent you the message?” she continued her train of thought. “Either the person wishes to avoid a war by weakening their own country’s position enough to think twice before entering into one, or they want to lose it.”

“There is a third possibility,” Enric added. “The result of all that has happened since Erbál received the warning is our presence here.”

Eryn frowned. “You mean it could all have been an elaborate plot to lure us here? Why?”

“I don’t have the slightest idea. Yet we need to consider the chance that all this might be going exactly according to somebody’s plan. Maybe somebody truly wishes to start a war, and assassinating us on a mission of peace would be a sure way to start one.”

She gulped, suddenly feeling even more vulnerable than before. “Wouldn’t killing Erbál have accomplished that? I mean, how much more clearly can you start a war than by killing the diplomat somebody sent you? And killing the two of us would certainly unite our two countries against Pirinkar and make a victory less likely.”

“As I said, I have no idea whether or not this is the case. I merely say we should not discard the likelihood.”

“You are right,” Erbál agreed. “It was not hard to guess who they would send once the necessity to dispatch someone to Kar arose. Enric was already here once and has gained at least some insight, and Eryn, you are known to have received materials for language studies. The fact that you two are committed to each other makes you the most likely people to be sent here. But even though we should bear all this in mind when searching for what really is happening, it is certainly too early to favour one option above others.”

Enric agreed, even though he didn’t take well to blindly feeling for a way forward in a place he wasn’t familiar with. “Where do you suggest we start our investigations?”

“There will be an official event tomorrow evening to welcome the two of you to Kar. I will introduce you to some of the more influential people here. Maybe this will provide some inspiration. And then I would suggest getting in contact with the magicians – or priests, as they are referred to here.”

“How eager will the high and mighty here be to make our acquaintance tomorrow?” Eryn asked with a feeling of dread. “Apart from the fact that we were sent by a country which many of them distrust, they also spurn or at least ignore magicians.”

“That is true,” Erbál admitted without hesitation. “Yet they also welcome everything that provides variety. You are an unknown combination of circumstances. You are influential politicians and possess considerable wealth – something they respect. Nonetheless, you are magicians, which is considered a lower class of people here. In which direction the scales tip will very much depend on how you present yourselves tomorrow.”

“No obvious reminders of our much-despised flaw,” Eryn repeated what she had already discussed with Enric.

“Exactly. Behave in a manner that will make it easy for people to decide which category to put you in – the one of foreign nobility. This will also mean demonstrating your superiority over me in public.”

Eryn grimaced. “What?”

“You are more important than I, and our interactions need to reflect that,” he explained. “Since magicians are not normally treated with reverence, seeing me treat you as my better will help convey the message that you must be met at eye-level.” He smiled at Eryn. “I know that this is contrary to all you believe – pretending to be someone you are not and treating people as inferior. Yet in this case it will serve our purposes nicely. If people know one thing but repeatedly see another with their own eyes, they begin to believe what they see. It is an aspect of human nature. One we can use to our advantage.”

“I’m not good at lying and pretending,” Eryn replied, her demeanour becoming resigned. “Particularly, when it means disparaging my friends.”

“I know. Yet this is a role you need to grow into, and fast.” Erbál took her hand and squeezed it. “The locals need to graciously forgive you for being magicians by deciding that you have a lot more in common with them than with the priests. Priests can never look down on a non-magician, so this is a powerful way of creating a contrast here.”

“Meaning the priests won’t accept us either, since we theoretically are magicians, but don’t look the part,” Eryn argued.

“That remains to be seen. Since priests are taught from an early age on that they are of lesser value, some of them might admire you for being accepted into non-magician society,” the ambassador countered. “But let us focus on one thing at a time at the beginning.”

It’s easy for you to talk, Eryn thought, you haven’t left your child in another country and are missing him so much it pains you. Taking time to consider one thing after the other was not something that sounded particularly appealing to her. There was this inner urge pushing her to hurry, disregarding the fact that they needed to act with great consideration and avoid rushing anything. The consequences might be disastrous for all three countries. But still…

Chapter 3

Curious Customs

Enric felt how Eryn next to him in the horse carriage was edgy with nervous energy. Part of it was very likely owing to the briefing Erbál had subjected them to. It had consisted of a list of people they were almost certain to encounter on this formal get-together on the occasion of their arrival. With the full name of each and every one of them. All in all it taken them several hours to commit their details to memory. This had actually been how they had spent their first day after their arrival in Kar – memorising a never-ending stream of names in a style so unfamiliar that their brains had little to connect them to.

This evening would now be something of a final test and reveal how reliable their memories were. Addressing a person with the wrong name or even using an erroneous variation of the correct one was a major insult they must be at pains to avoid. It would make their quest of impressing the locals with their elegance, flair and importance so much tougher.

Enric would much rather have used the time to make plans, get to know the layout of the streets better or familiarise himself with the culture, but Erbál had insisted that this list of names took precedence over anything else. Eryn had also been disgruntled at having to spend the day indoors with sheets of paper with names and titles to study that had next to no meaning for her as long as she had no faces to connect them with.

Eryn pulled at her dress in a feeble attempt to cover more of her cleavage. The dress. Her second reason for being uncomfortable and fidgeting around. It had taken two servants to help her into it – a procedure Enric had not observed but only overheard from the adjoining room. It had sounded excruciating. It was probably a good thing that the women hadn’t understood the curses Eryn had spouted. Erbál next to him had looked as though he were dreading the moment when Eryn would emerge from this room after the torments she apparently had to endure.

It had taken almost an hour to convince her to wear it. Initially she had insisted on donning one of the few formal gowns she had brought along, but Erbál had repeatedly explained to her that she would stand out too much. They needed to blend in, and that entailed dressing like the locals. Eryn had argued that she would burst the illusion of being one of them as soon as she opened her mouth – either to talk in a language foreign to the people here or stuttering her way through their native tongue. Erbál had remained adamant and explained that this was one more reason to ensure that her physical appearance countered rather than reinforced that effect of foreignness. He had already taken the liberty of ordering clothes for her and Enric prior to their arrival, so they merely needed to be adapted for a perfect fit.

“How do the women here manage to breathe in these dresses?” Eryn pressed out. “I’m dizzy. This is so tight I can’t get enough air into my lungs! If I have to move around too much, I’ll be in danger of passing out!”

Erbál nodded sympathetically. “I know – I do not envy you in the least. It is a dreadful kind of fashion. It was initially established to keep women from moving around very much and turning them into the kind of helpless creatures less self-assured men wish to have around them, so as not to feel threatened in their perceived manliness. You may not believe this, but the dresses are not nearly as constraining as they used to be about one hundred years ago.”

Eryn stared at him in utter horror. This apparel of torture she was wearing was a moderate version?

“Yet they still have some work ahead of them. They are still not in favour of considering women their equals, if you ask me,” she growled.

“Neither is Anyueel, for that matter,” Enric threw in. “Women gain importance in society exclusively through their companion’s influence. And there is next to no chance for them to rise to a position of political power. You are the only exception, and this was only due to your considerable magical powers. The Western Territories are far ahead of us in that respect.”

“Yes, because they’ve always had magically gifted women,” Eryn muttered. “Yet they have their own problems – such as considering non-magicians second-class humans.”

Erbál smiled faintly at that. “I admit that is true. Though in our defence I need to add that we do not treat them the way Pirinkar treats their magicians – as though they were abominable beings who need to be kept more or less locked up behind temple walls.”

“So we agree that of all three countries Pirinkar is the one with the least consideration for people who do not represent what is considered ideal,” Eryn sighed. “That would offer me some comfort, if I weren’t the only one of us to be stuck in this atrocious item of clothing. Or rather items. Do you have any idea how many parts this grisly composition consists of? I think I lost count somewhere. One of the pieces was just to squeeze my waist! It took two people to close it! Can you imagine how much my inner organs are being squeezed up? This is not healthy, not at all! I can hardly even sit! What kind of beauty ideal is that supposed to support, anyway? The illusion that women were built in a way which allows two male hands to encompass her waist?”

Erbál thought for a moment, then shrugged. “I know you just said that in spite, yet I think this might actually not be too far from the truth. A small waist makes women look more fragile, and this is how they are supposed to perceive themselves, after all.”

“I haven’t seen a lot from this place nor have I met many people, yet I am already not taking to it,” she growled. “How long is this facile event tonight supposed to take? Will we be out there again in an hour or two or is it such a seemingly never-ending affair like a Royal ball at home?”

“It is considered an insult if you leave after a mere two or three hours without providing proof of a genuine emergency to redeem yourself,” the ambassador informed her.

Eryn suppressed a pained groan. That was exactly what she had feared. “This is a nightmare! How am I supposed to remember all these names, be civil to people and measure my every word to avoid disclosing any hints that we are magicians, when my brain is insufficiently supplied with urgently needed oxygen?”

Erbál let out his breath and looked at Enric. “Is there a realistic chance she will behave?”

Enric’s expression was doubtful as his eyes wandered over the dress. “For several hours while she is stuck in that thing? Honestly, it would surprise me.”

Several seconds of silence ensued, the rattling of coach wheels on cobblestones and the clapping of horse shoes the only sounds to be heard.

Erbál nodded slowly and pursed his lips. “Very well, I will approach the hostess and ask her to send down two of her waiting maids to loosen the strings at the back a little so you may breathe a little more easily.”

Eryn’s smile of relief was heartfelt. She made to lean forward and take his hand to squeeze it, but found that she couldn’t tilt her upper body far enough for that. A determined glint entered her eyes.

“Never again will I let you put me into anything like this! I’ll call upon that tailor of yours to have a little chat about how we can have a formal dress in the local style which will not suffocate me.”

Defeated, Erbál nodded. “I suppose this is as much of a compromise as I can expect. I will accompany you. His foreign language skills might otherwise not be up to dealing with your wishes.”

Eryn smiled grimly. “You know what was missing in my own language instructions? Curse words. You should teach me some. I have the feeling they will come in handy. They already would have, actually.”

He snorted. “I might consider that should I ever need a sure-fire way to escalate a crisis into a war. But certainly not before.” He looked outside the coach window as the coach came to a standstill. “We have arrived.”

 

*  *  *

 

Eryn took a testing breath and released it again. Then she smiled. That was more like it. Now she was not dizzy on the verge of passing out any more after the two very silent maids Erbál had organised for her had loosened the lacing a little of that abominable affair into which her upper body was stuffed.

She stepped outside the small cloak room and accepted Enric’s arm. Erbál walked ahead and handed a menacing looking man with considerably more frills than any person should wear a folded card with artfully trimmed edges. Very likely the official invitation to prove that they had permission to enter the lavish area that opened up directly behind the servant. It was something like an anteroom: two storeys high, with two luxurious, wide, perfectly symmetric curved stone stairways with intricate black wrought-iron handrails to one side. They started at either side of the room’s centre and met one floor above on the same platform, from which an ornate double door opened into what was probably where the guests were received. The platform was held by a number of artily embellished columns which were apparently crafted from the same bright stone streaked with subtle veins in a slightly darker shade than was used for the stairs. Between the columns underneath the platform several closed doors could be seen.

While the servant scrutinised first the invitation, then the three guests, Eryn stood watching three women being led by men ascend the stairways. They were clad in equally ridiculous monstrosities of dresses like her own. Junar could probably make three dresses out of the fabric that went into creating just this one. The men looked even more similar in appearance than the women. Every single one of them sported a dark, collarless jacket of some heavy fabric, into which curly patterns had been woven. It reached down to their knees. Underneath they wore a kind of buttoned vest of a less severe colour, and underneath that was a white shirt with long, sheer ruffles at the neck and wrists. Much too over-decorated and effeminate for Eryn’s taste. The trousers looked simple enough in comparison, but for some reason they reached down no further than the knees, just like the overcoat. Their calves were shown off by some bright, clingy material.

And to complete the picture, they all had their hair smoothed back with that same oil she had seen on Erbál. Apart from Enric, who did it with magic.

She looked up at her companion. She had always found him to be a good-looking fellow – well, at least after her hatred had no longer blinded her to his physical merits. But even he looked ridiculous in these clothes. On the one hand she felt glee that not even marvellous, impressive Lord Enric could make ruffles look good, while on the other she was downhearted at having him dressed like this.

Vedric would break out in laughter, could he see his father in his current attire. That thought made her smile, though it also gave her a pang of longing.

Erbál motioned for them to climb the stairs to the platform ahead of them to indicate that their standing was higher than his own. Eryn lifted her chin, took Enric’s arm and undertook the toil of taking herself and the considerable weight of all the fabric upstairs.

Reaching the top, they beheld the extensive room, laden with ornamented columns, mirrors, golden trimmings and a floor in a dizzying multi-coloured pattern. Next to the door stood three people, a man and a woman who might or might not be in their early fifties, and a younger man whose smile resembled a mask rather than an expression of genuine delight.

“The hostess and host,” Erbál whispered behind them almost without moving his lips. “And their eldest son.”

Enric wouldn’t have needed this little reminder. He had recognised the hostess’ name from the guest list Erbál had provided. She was one of the three judges who had presided over Malriel’s trial six years ago. The one thing he remembered most distinctly about her was her monotonous voice, which had sounded as though her profession had over a few decades sucked her dry of all life.

He stopped before them and nodded his head in greeting before saying, “Gistor Noraske, Legen of the Weisens, First level judge of Pirinkar, it is my honour to meet you again.”

The judge looked at him for a long time, her brow slightly raised, while her gaze took in his slightly familiar appearance combined with the very familiar style of sartorial elegance among members of the local higher class.

“The honour is all mine, Lam Enric, Reig of House Aren, Second-in-Command of the Order,” the judge replied amiably with a slight accent – in a voice less deprived of modulation than Enric remembered. Maybe she kept it inexpressive only for professional purposes.

Then her gaze moved to Eryn, and her breath caught for a moment. Eryn waited patiently until the woman had recovered from the shock of the surprising resemblance to the woman who had been the accused party in her courtroom.

“I may introduce to you my companion, Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan,” Enric said as though he hadn’t noticed. “Maltheá, meet Gistor Noraske, Legen of the Weisens, First level judge of Pirinkar.”

“I… yes… of course. Be welcome to our modest gathering in your honour, Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan,” Gistor Noraske finally managed to utter. Then she introduced her own companion and her son, whose names Eryn already was aware of from the list.

Then Erbál was greeted, and they all moved on into the room that seemed to consist of little more than shiny surfaces of different sorts and dainty ornaments in different sizes surrounding and embellishing all and any architectural structure such as doors, windows, columns, mirrors, alcoves and even the two tremendous hearths.

At the far end of the room they saw a group of at least ten artisans dressed alike in black and white, who were in the process of getting themselves comfortable enough for several hours of providing a pleasant diversion in the form of music.

“There will be dancing, I suppose?” Eryn whispered towards Erbál. “At least this is what this setup of a large, free space without any tables and chairs and plenty of musicians would suggest. I assume people will be considerate enough not to expect us to join in?”

Erbál confirmed it. “You are right. They will dance, and no, nobody expects you to prove yourself knowledgeable in the art of dancing the local dances. You may stand to one side and simply watch. You will find the dancing to be quite different from what you know. There is the basic idea of one woman standing up with one man, yet the dances themselves involve frequent interaction among different couples. It is all a well-timed and precise matter which is pleasant to behold, yet exposes any false step at once.”

“Sounds charming,” Eryn deadpanned, glad she didn’t have to be a part of it.

Their task for this evening was to be seen, talk to as many people as possible and all in all leave a positive impression to induce people to be more willing to cooperate and assist or at least not hamper the investigations.

According to that guest list Erbál had made them memorise, there would be five judges and six members of the government present at this little occasion. Those were the ones Eryn and Enric had to assign as their priority. Though they would have to rely on Erbál to point them in the right directions and perform the introductions, because otherwise all these people were no more than an anonymous mass of pompous clothes, colourful faces and odd hairstyles.

Erbál had explained to them that there wouldn’t be any great general introduction of the guests of honour to the others guests. People would rather intend to talk to them and make their acquaintances. And those who did not wish to do so but were merely attending to have a pleasant evening out could do that as well.

Eryn shivered when she saw how tightly some women’s dresses had been pulled around their waists. How could they even move? Could they endeavour to undertake something as perilous as a dance without fainting from the effort after a few minutes? Well, she would see soon enough.

The ambassador introduced them to a number of people from the list, who had expressed an interest in becoming acquainted with them. He did the introductions in the local language, and Eryn found that she could follow the words with increasing ease every time she heard them repeated.

Even so, she decided against putting her foreign language skills to the test for now. Yet one never knew whether it might turn out to be useful that people forgot that she understood a lot of what was being spoken around her.

About one hour must have passed, before the musicians made themselves heard with a gentle refrain, as if carefully reminding people of their presence.

“This is the invitation for those guests who wish to dance to assemble in the centre of the room,” Erbál explained to them. “It is always the same melody at the beginning to signal to people that the dancing part of the evening is about to start. Come on, let us move a back a little.” He led them to a spot from where they could watch the goings on without being in the way.

They watched as twelve couples stepped forward and separated to form opposing lines, one consisting solely of women, the other of their male partners. When all were arranged and ready for the dance to begin, the musicians ended their initial tune and began with another.

“Is it always exactly twelve couples?” Enric asked of Erbál.

“In general, yes. Though there are a few for smaller gatherings which require only six. And two, I believe, where sixteen couples stand up together.”

The row of men bowed their heads to the women as one, then the ladies followed suit. This turned out to be the opening to a pattern of movements which required of every single person to know exactly what they were supposed to be doing. Every second couple stepped forward towards each other, but instead of reaching out for their own designated partners, they turned to one side to step towards their partner’s neighbour instead, took their hands and executed a circle before returning to their former spot.

Enric observed the motion sequences, mesmerised by the unpredictable patterns which kept changing every few seconds.

“This is… impressive,” he murmured towards Erbál. “Is this what all the dances look like?”

“As a rule, yes. Dancing is not something that is considered an act for two people, but rather one for an entire society. It requires interaction, precision, elegance and plenty of exercise. One mistake by a single dancer might disrupt the order of the entire group.”

Suddenly the balls back in Anyueel didn’t seem quite as dreary anymore. At least dancing didn’t hold the constant risk of exposing oneself as incompetent just because a moment of inattention led to a missed step or cue.

“The pace seems to me rather slow,” Enric remarked. “Not a very dynamic pastime, dancing. Or is it just this very piece?”

The ambassador smiled faintly. “Look around at the dresses, Enric. What do you think would happen if you subjected these women to any gruelling activities? They would pass out.”

“How long do people generally practice their dancing before they are considered fit to do so in public without embarrassing themselves?” Eryn asked next.

“Several years. It is part of the classic education among wealthy citizens. Children are taught to dance from the age of ten. There are special events just for young people to show off their progress and practice for the actual dancing at important gatherings with influential guests.”

Eryn pressed her lips tight together. So this kind of dancing was a distinguishing feature of the rich and mighty. Another thing to dislike in this place. So far, her first impression of Kar had not been a particularly positive one. Ridiculous clothes, an exaggerated fondness for titles and a very clear idea of privileges versus an amazing system that provided hot water on demand at the turn of a knob.

She didn’t want to watch this blatant demonstration of expensive education any longer. There had to be a place where she could catch a few minutes of peace and quiet.

 

*  *  *

 

Eryn exhaled and stared at her mirror image surrounded by the spacious bathroom into which she had escaped for a few precious minutes free from polite conversation and ostentatious demonstrations of privileged upbringing.

The dark, artfully painted lines on the edges of her eyelids had started to look rather smeared. The reason for that was probably the sweat that seemed to be dampening her whole skin. She wondered how stained the fabric under her arms would be once she got out of the dress later. She grabbed a small towel, filled the ceramic bowl in front of her with water from one of the marvellous pipe contraptions and dipped the towel into it. Then she softly dabbed around her eyes to remove most of the black colour that was meant to make her eyes appear larger. Next she washed the beads of perspiration from her forehead and continued to touch the cool, moist towel to every piece of uncovered skin she could reach. That would cool her down for a little while at least.

With a last long-suffering look at her two-dimensional counterpart, she opened the door and stepped outside into the pleasantly quiet corridor with the lights just bright enough to enable visitors to find their way. From afar she could hear the sedate and slightly melancholic music that was tailored to the women’s limited ability to move. It would be more considerate to free them of the prison of those contraptions they called dresses here instead of allowing them to dance without any fast movement, Eryn thought glumly, and forced herself to progress towards the spirited assembly. Well, at least the male part thereof could afford to be spirited – the females might faint if they tried.

Every few steps of the way she passed another closed door with doorframes twice as tall as herself featuring elaborately carved ornamentation. Her pace slowed as she beheld a door which stood ajar. It hadn’t been doing that when she had come this way several minutes ago. There was no light inside, so it was probably safe to assume that it was unoccupied. She looked around to check that she was unobserved and approached the door. Her reluctance to return to the others and the curiosity of what a regular room in this mansion might look like made her push the door open a little wider. She stilled when she heard a strange, regular, metallic sound that reminded her of a turning lock. Maybe it was another device just like her sound machine or the mechanical toy?

Grateful, that the hinges of the large door were well maintained and didn’t creak, she slipped inside the room. Even after a few seconds of letting her eyes get used to the dark, she still couldn’t recognise more than what had to be the uneven silhouettes of furniture. Only the light spilling in from the corridor behind her illuminated her immediate surroundings enough so at least she wouldn’t bump into anything.

She followed the strange sound a few steps and found herself face to face with a round disc under which some bulky, elongated objects were dangling. She could only make them out because the dark material presented such a stark contrast to the bright wall behind it.

“What have we here,” she murmured to herself and tried to make out more details in the semi-darkness.

The round disc seemed to be marked in regular intervals, though she couldn’t say if the markings were merely decorative or meant to serve any particular purpose. Behind it was some kind of mechanism that produced the sound that had drawn her in. She couldn’t see a thing as she peered behind it. The disc swallowed even the last bit of light that came in through the open door. Reluctant to touch and somehow damage it, she took a step back and sighed.

“Not much chance without light,” she muttered to herself and was about to turn around, when a pleasant male voice from the darkness caused her to freeze.

“Allow me to oblige you,” it offered helpfully in the typical accent of the locals when they spoke her language.

Oh no – Enric would give her an earful for this, she thought before the quiet sound of a scratch was followed by a small flame which was used to light first one lamp and then another.

Eryn blinked in the sudden brightness, then found a man sitting on an tasteful sofa that looked as though it were meant more for decoration than comfortable sitting. So she had been wrong in assuming that this room was unoccupied. What kind of person slunk off like that and hid themselves in a dark room? Well, probably one just like yourself, she couldn’t help but think.

“Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan, I presume,” the foreign yet pleasant voice went on. It didn’t sound like a question. But then she very likely was the only female visitor from down south in the city at this moment, so guessing her identity correctly was not exactly much of an impressive achievement.

“Yes, I am.”

Her eyes were getting used to the light now and allowed her to take in her unexpected companion in more detail. He looked to be about her own age, trim in appearance and just a little less colourful than the other men she had laid eyes on this evening. That alone endeared him to her. His light brown hair was smoothed back as was obviously the fashion here and offered an unrestricted view of intelligent grey eyes, an almost chiselled nose and a thin stripe of a beard which followed the outline of his chin and upper lip. A handsome, appealing face. One which was currently expressing amusement.

“I didn’t mean to intrude. Really,” she hurriedly assured him. “I apologise for interrupting… whatever you were doing in here. I shall no longer disturb you and be on my way.”

“I was under the impression that you wished to inspect the clock,” he replied politely. “You were not disturbing me in any way. I merely take the liberty of spending a few minutes in solitary contemplation when the strain of being social has grown too fatiguing for me.”

While she still pondered how to react to that statement, he rose. He was noticeably taller than herself and moved with nearly flawless elegance.

He stopped at a comfortable distance so as to avoid intimidating or imposing on her space.

“I take it you are not familiar with mechanical means of time measurement?” he enquired politely.

“I… no. We use different methods such as water clocks or oil lamps with markings in Anyueel, and the Western Territories use sand glasses and sundials instead,” she replied.

“Then permit me the pleasure of introducing you to the mechanisms we employ for this purpose,” the helpful stranger offered.

Eryn nodded, glad that her intrusion had not been met with anger but with unhoped-for obligingness. Upon his invitation she stepped once again closer to the clock. The disk was marked by the twelve symbols she recognised as the local digits. And looking behind it, she now saw that the mechanism seemed to consist solely of several cogwheels in different sizes and a coil with a thin rope bearing some small weights.

“This here is a very old specimen,” the man explained to her. “I would guess that it must have been in the Weisen family for at least two centuries. An heirloom, if this is the correct term.”

Two centuries, Eryn thought, her throat tight. This amazing thing was outdated here, while at her home it would be a spectacular novelty.

Without any prompting he began to explain the mechanism.

“This type of clock is made up of very basic components. This here” – he pointed to a medium-sized wheel with particularly fine teeth – “is the gear device called a mainwheel. Behind it there is a long, thin metal strip which is known as the mainspring. It is a device which stores energy. The amount which can be stored depends very much on the elasticity of the material and its effective length.” Then he pointed to an assortment of four gears. “The first three of those together form the wheel train. The first gear of the wheel train shows the minutes, the third one the seconds. It is powered by the weights you see hanging down here. Yet since we would not wish to have the entire power released too fast, we need a means to control its release. This combination of parts is called the escapement and contains a balance wheel which swings back and forth and so controls the release of the power, one tooth at a time.”

Eryn stared at the gearwheels of different diameters and with a variation of differently sized and modelled teeth. She tried to combine what she had heard just now with the very basic knowledge in mechanics she had acquired through the devices she had managed to disassemble at home.

“So the weights put pressure on this here, which then releases it, but not too fast, which brings us to these components up here, which are responsible for keeping it all slow and regular. This movement is then transferred to these gears here, which move the pointers around the disc,” she tried to put it into her own words, hoping she wasn’t making a complete fool of herself.

The man thought for a moment, his elegantly shaped brow creased as he tried to link her amateurish explanation to his former words. Then he nodded.

“Yes, you can say it like that. Well done.”

Eryn took a step back to focus on the other side of the dial, with all the numbers and the three short rods.

“How is the third pointer moved? You only mentioned gears for two of them.”

“We like to refer to the pointers as clock hands. And you are right, I mentioned only two of them. Very perceptive of you. There is an extra wheel for the slowest hand which is only moved after a certain number of rotations of the minute wheel.”

“How do I read this?” she asked on. “You divide your days into only twelve units? That is a completely new concept to me. I am used to twenty-four hours.”

“As are we. The hour hand moves around the clock face twice in one day.”

“Which one is that? The chubby one?”

He blinked, then smiled. “Yes, the less athletic looking one. The slimmer one is for minutes, and the long, thin hand is for seconds. Each rotation of the hand for seconds causes the minute hand to move ahead one small marking. And after passing sixty small markings, the hour hand will be moved ahead.”

Eryn stared at the clock face for half a minute, then ventured, “So right now it is nineteen hours, twenty-eight minutes and about forty seconds into the day.”

“That is correct. Though we rather say it is seven twenty-eight in the evening.”

“What happens if the weights reach the end of the string?”

“Then the clock must be rewound in order to continue its service.”

She nodded slowly, caught in this fascinating new way of using cogwheels to measure time.

“Though as I said, this is a dated mechanism. We have in the meantime developed more sophisticated ones without any need for weights or pendulums.” He cocked his head. “You would not by any chance be interested in learning more about them?”

Eryn looked up at him and gulped. She knew how rigidly this country guarded its technology and knowledge. This man might already be in trouble if anyone found out about his little lesson just now.

“I’m not sure this would be such a sensible idea. I appreciate the offer, yet I wouldn’t wish to cause you any difficulties,” she forced herself to say.

His laugh expressed genuine amusement. “Did your ambassador provide you with a list of notable public persons? Or at least with a guest list for this evening?”

She eyed him, slightly confused. What kind of a question was that in response to her worries about his well-being?

“A guest list, yes. Why?”

“I assume he impressed on you the importance of memorising it in order to be able to address people correctly?”

“Yes! Why do you ask?” she cried out, getting impatient.

“Then I am confident that my name will be familiar to you.” He straightened slightly. “I am Etor Gart, Legen of the Durachts, first level counsel of Pirinkar. It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Eryn frowned for a moment as she tried to recall the category under which his name had been put. He was right, it did sound familiar.

Her eyes widened, as the memory returned. “Etor Gart! Top level government representative!” Damn it, he was important, and not just a bit! And to have met him under such circumstances!

“That is true. So you see that I am empowered to make this offer to you without risking imprisonment or any other kind of sanction,” he smiled. “Though I am touched by your concerns.” He lifted his right arm to offer it to her. “Shall we return to the other guests?”

 

*  *  *

 

Erbál nudged Enric as subtly as he was able to and nodded towards Eryn, who re-entered the room, her hand resting on a man’s arm.

“I know him,” Enric murmured and closed his eyes to conjure up the image of the courtroom six years ago. This man had been seated at the top table. So he was one of the government representatives. “Government,” he added.

The ambassador nodded. “Yes. Etor Gart. A smart man deriving little joy from social occasions such as this one. He shares a trait with your companion in this regard – he likes to sneak off and hide for a few minutes every now and then. No wonder his and Eryn’s paths crossed. They were probably trying to hide in the same nook.”

“But he is a useful man to have met,” Enric whispered back, more than willing to forgive Eryn her suspiciously long bathroom break if this was the outcome. Particularly, since the man looked quite content. That was an unusual reaction to meeting Eryn at an event such as this one. People who tried or were forced to interact with her generally reacted in irritated and annoyed manners rather than being pleased.

“That he is,” Erbál agreed and smiled as the two came in their direction.

“Lam Enric, Reig of House Aren, Second-in-Command of the Order. I am pleased to see you again, even though the circumstances are serious,” Etor Gart greeted him and nodded his head.

Enric responded in kind. “As am I, Etor Gart, Legen of the Durachts, first level counsel of Pirinkar. We hope to bring this all to a satisfying conclusion.”

Then Etor Gart acknowledged Erbál, switching to his native language. “Lam Erbál, Legen of the Ferals, Ambassador to Kar. It is a pleasure to see you here.

The pleasure is all mine, Etor Gart, Legen of the Durachts, first level counsel of Pirinkar. I see you already met Gistor Maltheá, Reig of House Vel’kim, Explorer in Takhan.

Eryn concentrated hard to follow the exchange – particularly after her name was mentioned.

I did.” He smiled at her. “I found her interest in mechanical devices and her perceptive faculty most stimulating.

Then he excused himself and sauntered off, stopping every now and again to talk to other people.

“What did he say? I didn’t really catch that last bit,” she frowned. “Did he say I stimulated him? I swear, I did nothing of that kind! He just explained a clock to me, and the only time I touched him was when I took his arm to walk back here.”

“No, it was nothing of that sort,” Erbál assured her quickly. “He was impressed with your intelligence. It seems he likes you.”

Eryn was pleased by this assessment. After meeting Lam Ceiga, she had feared that all people here would treat her with such cold indifference.

“Let us not stand here but rather seek to introduce you to as many people as we can,” the ambassador suggested. “We are here to work, after all.”

And work they did. Eryn found that merely talking to people was not quite as bad as having to dance with them. She also valued that there was no need to display any exaggerated joy at meeting people; nothing but a polite assurance of her pleasure was required. That meant her cheeks would at the end of this evening not be tired from the strain of forced smiling.

Even though they started their rounds together, they ended up in conversations with different people and progressed on their own at different speeds and in different directions. This person wished to introduce them to that person, and they simply had to meet a good friend, family member or acquaintance.

Enric dutifully answered questions about his home country, what exactly the Order was and why he had undertaken the journey to Kar, though the answers to all three were of course amended to a degree he saw appropriate to the listener. Erbál stayed with him for a while, then he went off in search of Eryn to remain at her side for a time before returning to her companion.

“I already had the pleasure of meeting your very charming and appealing companion,” Enric’s latest conversation partner said politely. Appealing. What an odd way of expressing himself when talking about another man’s companion. Maybe a clumsily chosen expression in a foreign language, he thought. Though the man’s next words made it clear that this was not the case.

“I was wondering whether you would accept my offer for her company tonight?”

With that a piece of sturdy, expensive-looking paper was pushed into Enric’s hand. He stared at the man, forcing himself to get his rage at such an impertinent request under control, and quickly.

Erbál next to him coughed and smiled at the man who had manoeuvred himself into mortal danger without realising it.

“Will you excuse us for a short moment? Lam Enric, Reig of House Aren, Second-in-Command of the Order will be with you in a moment.” He grabbed Enric’s arm and pulled him aside and behind a column which afforded them at least a modicum of privacy.

Enric’s eyes had narrowed. He was furious as he hissed, “What was that supposed to mean? Is that some sort of test or was that imbecile serious just now? This must be some kind of insult where they want to see how I react, how far I can be pushed!”

“You must calm down at once, Enric!” the ambassador urged him. “The act of expressing the desire to spend a night with another person’s companion in exchange for monetary compensation is an accepted practice here. The request in itself is not an insult. Though offering you a low amount would be. Let us have a look at the paper he gave you. Then we can tell whether this is meant as a test or an honest offer.”

Enric unfolded the paper and stared at a three-digit figure. After a quick calculation he compared the amount to Anyueel gold pieces. “That’s what he would pay for a night with Eryn?”

Erbál nodded, relieved. “He would. It is a generous offer, and I am glad to say that you have not been insulted, but paid a rather large compliment instead.”

Enric exhaled and closed his eyes. “Why didn’t you prepare us for this sort of thing? Don’t you think mentioning this beforehand might have spared us some tension?”

“I apologise. To be honest, I had not really counted on anyone approaching you with an offer of that kind. You are strangers here, and in general people would give you more time to adapt to their customs rather than expect that you are familiar with all of them from your first day on.” Erbál turned Enric around. “Now you will return to the nice man, thank him for his generous offer and decline it politely without disparaging him, the custom or the society it originates from. Off you go.”

Enric threw him a dark look over his shoulder but did as he was told. This was absurd. He was about to thank a man for expressing an interest in a night of wild pleasures with Eryn! At home he would have broken his nose by now. And maybe a rib or two.

He reached the man who smiled politely as he waited for his reply.

“I thank you for your interest and your generosity, yet I am afraid I am not able accept your offer,” Enric explained politely and nodded his head before turning away. It was time to find Eryn and warn her.

 

*  *  *

 

“He did what?” Eryn gasped and stared at her companion in horror. That couldn’t be true! Surely no man who had exchanged hardly more than a few sentences with her had been so daft as to a approach her companion to try and procure a night with her?

“A little more quietly, if you do not mind,” hissed Erbál. “Look, this is common practice here. If somebody takes a fancy to another person’s companion, they take very polite steps in their attempt to secure a night of pleasure for themselves. That means offering a compensation and, if it is accepted, approaching the person in question to invite them.”

“This is insane!” Eryn complained under her breath, feeling how the heat rose into her head. Such a nerve to assume her body was for sale! Did she look quite that desperate and in need of money that somebody would assume she might even consider accepting such a brazen offer? What kind of message did the clothes Erbál had dressed her in send?

“It is common practice here, and I would urge you to postpone this discussion until we have left here. In the meantime I can advise you to consider it a compliment and merely resort to politely declining any such requests should more of them be made to you,” Erbál insisted in a low murmur.

Eryn ground her teeth, then she narrowed her eyes. A compliment, eh? Well, that remained to be seen.

“Who was it?” she demanded to know.

“You mean who expressed an interest in your company?” Enric asked, none too happy about her interest.

“Yes. Show me.”

Her companion sighed and turned around, back towards the guests. Several of them were dancing, while others stood around and conversed over a glass of some or other drink.

“You see the man in the green coat with the dark-yellow vest beneath?”

“That tall one with the red hair and moustache?”

“No, further to the right. Dark hair with grey temples.”

Eryn regarded him for several moments, then shrugged. He was not exactly of striking appearance, but still appealing enough so she wouldn’t have guessed that he needed to pay for sexual intercourse. Or be willing to. Well, that probably meant she could consider it a compliment.

Erbál took the small piece of thick paper from Enric’s hand and gave it to Eryn. “Here. This is what he offered Enric for the pleasure of your company.”

Eryn unfolded it and frowned at the figure. She quickly calculated how much that equalled in Anyueel gold pieces. One Pirinkar coin was about one and three quarters of a gold piece… Her eyes widened.

“That’s more than five-hundred gold pieces!” she breathed. “For one single night with me?”

“Five-hundred and twenty-five,” Enric added dryly. “May I assume that now you are willing to consider the offer a compliment rather than an insult?”

“Well…” She gulped. “I suppose so.” She turned to Erbál. “Though that would depend on what the going rate for such arrangements is.”

“Let me assure you that he was more generous than I would have expected. It seems the notion of boasting that he was the first to spend a night with you appealed greatly to him.”

“So you are saying that you don’t think I’d be worth it and you are surprised somebody else might disagree with you on that?” she growled, for some inscrutable reason offended by his words.

“You are certainly worth it to him, and that is all that counts,” the ambassador retorted with a grin. “I did wound your pride a little just now, I fear. Please forgive me – I did not mean to be ungallant. I am sure you would be a wonderful diversion for any man lucky enough to secure your company for a night.”

I am the only man who secures her company for any and all nights,” Enric cut in rather sharply, signalling none too subtly that he was unwilling to pursue this topic any further. He had preferred it when she had still been appalled at being treated like a commodity instead of discussing how justified the offered amount was. “How much longer do we need to stay?” he then asked, surprising his companion. This was the very first time he was the one to ask that very question rather than her.

Erbál knew better than to make fun of him at this precise moment. “The guests will soon be called to the tables in the adjoining room for a late supper. This is the accepted time for the first guests to take their leave without causing offence.”

“Good. Then let’s do exactly that. Or at least Eryn and I will. You are free to stay on without us, of course.”

The ambassador shook his head and smiled. “I would rather join you and hear about your impressions of this evening.”

 

*  *  *

 

Erbál handed Eryn a steaming cup with the creamy, sweet drink people here – particularly children – favoured at the end and the beginning of the day. She took it gingerly, careful only to touch the handle and avoid burning her fingers.

It was close to midnight, and she had just changed out of that terrible dress and into her nightshirt. It was not exactly appropriate to present herself in her sleeping attire to anyone but members of her family, but decorum be damned. She wasn’t indecently revealing anything and would have found it utterly ridiculous to change into something else when they would soon retire anyway. And this was Erbál, an old friend who had never even once shown any undue interest in her, had not even teasingly flirted with her the way Ram’kel, his successor, sometimes did for amusement. And that Enric seemed relaxed enough despite his tendency towards jealousy had to mean that it was an acceptable exception.

Once she was seated, Enric turned toward their host. “Now. Tell me more about that odd custom of buying a few hours with another person’s companion. It strikes me as rather strange in a culture which appreciates emotional distance, is overly-correct in documenting any possible issue and makes sure to maintain boundaries towards others.”

Erbál smiled. “I know that you are familiar with the principle of prostitution in Anyueel. And in Takhan. Paying for sexual favours is said to be among the oldest trades. What is new here is merely the fact that companionships here do not imply the same degree of exclusiveness when it comes to enjoying one’s partner’s charms.”

Eryn frowned. “Wasn’t that initially the whole reason for establishing companionships? To constitute a legal claim for just that exclusiveness?”

“Many centuries or even millennia ago it was,” the ambassador agreed. “Though if you consider the reasons for it, then you may see why they do not consider it quite as necessary nowadays. Firstly, all this happened before magical healing was an issue, meaning that illnesses transferred through sexual intercourse were quite an issue. Not having your partner sleep with other persons was a way to avoid cross-infection. And then there was the point of making sure that your offspring really were yours. At least in case of men. This is also why men generally were stricter when it came to female infidelity, not really realising that their companions would have been be in less danger of being approached by another man if these other men had been punished just as harshly.”

Enric looked at the ceiling, thinking. “So you are saying the practical considerations that made monogamy desirable are no longer required to maintain physical health and avoid having to raise another man’s children? This would mean that emotional involvement does not exactly play a major role in a commitment here. My primary reason for not wanting Eryn to sleep with other men is certainly not my fear of her becoming pregnant or passing on any illness to me. It’s the unwillingness to share someone I love and who I consider mine.”

Erbál nodded his assent. “Indeed. Though we need to distinguish among the classes in this matter. Most commitments here are not the result of two people falling in love and swearing everlasting love to each other. It is mostly about financial and political considerations – as well as the wish to avoid any magically cursed offspring.”

“Just like in the Western Territories, then,” muttered Eryn. “Only that they seek to increase magical potential instead of eliminating it.”

“Now, now,” Erbál replied with mild reproach in his voice, “I do beg to differ. At home we merely seek to encourage young people to make advantageous matches – we certainly do not force them to in the case of them being disinclined. Do think about your sister Pe’tala – she is a good example for this. She chose not to commit to her suitor, and this was accepted without any attempts at pressuring her to do it anyway. Well, none from her father or the boy’s parents at least. We do appreciate emotional involvement since we would not wish our children to become bitter and unhappy. And with emotional involvement the issue of sharing your partner with others becomes an unacceptable option.”

Enric looked thoughtful. “You mentioned the need to distinguish between social classes. I assume this means that arranged commitments are primarily a strategy of the higher classes? Everyone else still follows the principle of committing to another person out of love?”

Erbál smiled. “Well, let us instead say that they at least consider following the heart an ideal. Just as in probably any other place in the world, commitments have an impact on your financial standing. A rich merchant’s or craftsman’s children will always have more suitors than a poor street sweeper’s. This is no different here than in any of our countries.”

“So swapping partners to one’s heart’s content is merely a decadent custom among the rich since they were forced into loveless commitments. How endearing,” Eryn growled. “Do the women at least have a say in whom they spend the night with or are they merely informed about the address at which to show up?”

“You misunderstand,” Erbál corrected her. “This does not merely concern women but also men. If you met an appealing man you wished to spend the night with, you might just as well approach his companion and make an offer for the pleasure of his company. Should she accept, it is not at that point a promise that it will actually take place. It is no more than her consent that you may proceed and invite him. He still has every right to refuse you, should you not be to his liking. The same goes for women. Had Enric agreed to the offer tonight, you would still have been in a position to refuse it.”

“Come to think of it,” Enric mused, “I suppose it fits with the culture, after all. It is a rather cold and distant way of seeking fulfilment of one’s physical desires.”

“It’s prostitution, that’s what it is,” Eryn growled.

Erbál shrugged. “That is one point of view. Not one I share, mind you. Prostitution is in my opinion not a trade among equals but one where one person’s needs have precedence. This is not the case here. Both parties have to agree, and since we are talking about a social class which in general is not in desperate need of money, financial incentives hardly ever play a great role.” He paused for a short moment, then he amended, “Though I have to admit that persons of extremely high social standing are refused considerably less often, if ever.”

“Meaning it would constitute an insult, and that people wouldn’t wish to alienate important people?” Eryn guessed. “What does that mean for us? How important was the man who made an offer for me tonight?”

The ambassador waved her off. “As his offer shows, he has considerable funds at his disposal, but he does not occupy an office that would enable him to make our life harder if cooperation were refused. Though you can never say who his friends are and whether they would be willing to make you pay for any perceived insult.”

“That means we had better hope nobody like Etor Gart makes an offer,” Enric growled. “I have no intention of indulging anyone to such a degree just so we gain a chance of progress.”

“I am confident that this would not be necessary,” Erbál tried to soothe him. “People in his position are generally more careful in such matters. Most of them are without a doubt aware that your own countries do not hold with this kind of custom.”

“You might be wrong again,” Enric retorted without mercy, “you also thought nobody would be so bold as to approach us with an offer like that little more than a day after our arrival here.”

Erbál pursed his lips for a moment in reaction to this reproach, but remained calm. “You are right, I misjudged the situation,” he admitted a touch stiffly. He was known for being immensely cautious when making assumptions. Pe’tala had some years ago even laughed about her sister because she had doubted Erbál’s words since he was known always to be right. It had to irk him that he had been mistaken. And Enric’s pointing it out so forthright had to make it even more unpleasant.

“Well, this was just a minor thing. And no harm was done,” Eryn threw in, her tone conciliatory. With a sideways glance at Enric she added, “I have yet to meet a person whose predictions never fail to come true.”

Enric took the hint and sighed, then he turned towards Erbál. “I apologise. This incident threw me off balance, and the thought that my refusal to permit other men to be intimate with my companion might lead to complications makes me edgy. And that the men in this city think they have the liberty of even considering Eryn a possible bed partner disturbs me even more.”

“I understand,” Erbál replied generously. “Not to worry. I did not take offence. I can only tell you that the law forbids non-consensual intercourse, meaning it is in your power to deny it. Any attempt at forcing Eryn would not only bring public shame to the person who tried it but would also be followed by serious legal consequences. But let us dwell no longer on this unpleasant business and rather discuss how we should proceed.”

Eryn raised a questioning brow and described with her index finger a half circle in the air. It was the gesture the King had used with her when he had visited her at the clinic a few years ago to indicate that she ought to raise a soundproof barrier. But unlike herself back then, Erbál immediately seemed to grasp what she meant. He shook his head almost imperceptibly, signalling to her that potential concealed listeners would not gain any valuable insights from the ensuing conversation. It was a topic they were expected to discuss.

“We ought to get in contact with the priests,” Enric suggested.

The ambassador nodded. “That was also what I was thinking. I would recommend not starting with your enquiries right away, but rather work on establishing a relationship first. People here are reluctant to share information or cooperate with strangers. Which means you ought to work on not being perceived as strangers.”

Eryn sighed. That sounded like a time-consuming endeavour – particularly, since they were talking about five different temples here. Vedric would probably have entered puberty before his parents’ return, she ruminated sourly.

“I recommend starting with the Temple of the Inner Circle,” Erbál advised.

Her brow rose. “That’s the one where Malriel’s accuser came from.”

“The very one,” he agreed. “My hopes are that they are still sufficiently embarrassed to agree to cooperate with you as a way of making amends.”

“Then we shall start there,” Enric concurred, eager to show that he trusted Erbál’s judgement after insulting him earlier. “I remember the notes on the temples you made in Takhan during your annual visits. I briefly went through them once again before our rather hurried departure, but I would value your help in recalling the details. And Eryn hasn’t seen them at all.”

Erbál nodded and settled more comfortably into his massive chair as if to prepare for a lengthy conversation. Eryn reheated her creamy drink and sipped it while listening to how magicians lived here in this city.

 

»End of extract«

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“Royal Straits” – The Order: Book 6

Chapter 1

Coming Home

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

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

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

“I think she is very good with her sword,” Vedric uttered loyally, though his facial expression showed clearly that he didn’t consider his mother’s hiding behind a tree much of a heroic move.

“Come out from behind that helpless tree and surrender, you arrant coward!” Pe’tala called out, brandishing her sword as if she were about to fell the aforementioned helpless tree with a single blow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy was clearly none too happy about how the conversation had developed and decided to bestow his attention to the only adult who had not yet fallen out of favour with him: his mother.

Without a word he got up from his seat between his father and his aunt and walked the few paces to Eryn with ostentation. He sat down next to her.

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

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

Vedric nodded emphatically. “Yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eryn eased herself up from her cushion.

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

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

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

“Do not dare,” his aunt warned him with narrowed eyes as if reading his thoughts. “I would not react any more favourably to your calling me a dolt than I did to your telling me to shut up.”

The boy folded his arms and glared at her. “I don’t like you right now.”

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

*   *   *

More or less hiding in the Aren main room from Malriel’s guests and particularly from Malriel herself, Eryn let her gaze wander over the extensive gardens, holding on to her glass of sweet white wine. Yet another one of those tedious occasions the Head of House Aren insisted on hosting at regular intervals. To maintain the social structure, Malriel didn’t tire of explaining to her daughter time and again. And, of course, the impending departure of Eryn, Enric and their son after their most recent six-month stay in Takhan was a fabulous excuse for this one here.

For five years they had now been forced to divide their lives equally between the cities of Anyueel and Takhan. Though in Enric’s case not much forcing had been required, as he admitted quite freely. He was content with the arrangement which allowed him to pursue business interests in both countries and at the same time to enjoy a little freedom from the Order every few months. And now he had, only a day ago, completed his training to be a lawyer by passing his final exam with honours. Not that anybody had expected anything else from him. The Order – or rather his superior, friend and mentor Tyront – had done everything to turn Enric from a lazy young wastrel into a man who pushed himself into giving the best he could. An attitude Eryn didn’t share. She had a more economic approach towards accomplishments. The prospect of a good grade was hardly sufficient to propel her into making more of an effort than she felt a subject warranted in her opinion.

And then there was Vedric, who had never really known anything other than travelling between his two homes. Eryn hoped that wouldn’t turn out to be a problem one day. What if this constant uprooting destroyed any sense of home he would otherwise have developed? What if he grew up to be a man restless and tormented by the mere idea of having to settle down in one place with a family one day, being damned to wander the lands for the rest of his life?

These were precisely the kind of gloomy thoughts that tended to take hold of her whenever she had to endure another social occasion, pretending to get along with her mother just famously despite the fact that every single person present – as well as quite a number of people absent – knew it to be different. They were probably just waiting for another of these tense interactions or short outbursts between mother and daughter which those around them considered so very entertaining. It would keep the gossips going for at least another week. That was the one thing people on both sides of the sea had in common, no matter what other differences divided them – this love for wagging their tongues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence ensued. It had an edge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would infinitely prefer it if his compliments were less insulting, especially since every single person who heard him knows perfectly well where such a phrase came from,” she hissed.

Eryn’s mood brightened considerably at that. “So there were many people around to hear it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eryn ground her teeth. Drat it.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Vedric said, equally perplexed.

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

Vedric’s gaze quickly landed on Valcredy and Ram’an as if unwilling to go into detail while the culprit’s parents were listening.

“I don’t know,” he finally uttered, deflated.

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

Judging from his son’s facial expression he seemed to have changed his mind about spilling the beans on his playmate, since it unexpectedly now entailed getting himself into trouble as well.

“Um… nothing,” Vedric stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ridiculous, Eryn thought sourly. Those two had made two children together and must have seen each other naked, so how was it possible that they still behaved as if shy together? How business-like could an arrangement remain if it required living under the same roof for several years and raising children together? Not that it was any of her business, she reminded herself grumpily.

This was an old argument, one she had brought up with Ram’an every now and again since he had announced to her a few years back that he had offered Valcredy what amounted to a job as his companion and mother of his children. The discussions never led anywhere and more often than not ended with a fight, after which they usually didn’t talk to each other for at least a week. Every time this happened Eryn promised herself never again to speak of it. So far she had been holding fast to this resolution for more than a year. That was counting the six months she had not spent in this country, of course. One had to grasp little victories where they could be found.

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

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

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

That brought forth an even louder cry of distress from the little girl while her tanned little arms clung to her mother’s neck.

Eryn covered her eyes with one hand. Quite the diplomat, her son.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good riddance,” Valcredy griped almost inaudibly.

“What was that?” Eryn barked.

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

Without turning his head, he smiled as Eryn stepped next to him. That meant that Vedric must finally have fallen asleep, affording his parents a little alone time with each other.

Eryn and the sea had arrived at a fragile truce in the course of the past few years. The waves no longer made her seasick, and she in return refrained from emptying her stomach into the sea and colourfully cursing everything maritime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I keep out of his way, and I think he employs the same tactic with me,” she shrugged. “If there is anything I think should be addressed I approach Lord Poron and have him deal with Loft.”

“He is doing a good job from what father told me last time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2

Re-adapting

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

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

“Is that Plia?” he gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How much longer?” Vedric persisted.

“Not much longer.”

“Are we there now?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

“The usual?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m tired,” Eryn sighed.

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who says that?” Eryn snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see. Anything else?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Malriel.”

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

Vedric thought for a moment, then shook his head.

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

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

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

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

“Excellent.”

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enric nodded. His sentiment exactly.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, why?”

“Be prepared for a tiny surprise, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the matter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She watched as Vern’s face fell.

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3

Talk of an Heir

Enric knocked at Lord Remdel’s house. A little later a servant opened the door, bowed and admitted them to the entrance chamber before taking their cloaks.

As a bout of shrill laughter erupted to from the parlour to their left, Eryn exhaled resignedly. “That’s what I’ve been missing these last few months – Inad’s genteel expressions of enjoyment,” she murmured.

“Then I’m glad you will no longer be deprived of them. At least not for some time to come,” Enric retorted.

The servant who had taken their cloaks returned to guide them into the parlour.

“Lady Eryn! Lord Enric!” Inad cried out with such heartfelt delight that Eryn felt a tiny bit uncomfortable about her own sentiments. Being liked by someone she herself barely managed to tolerate left her feeling guilty. That feeling had been her constant companion for about six years when it came to Inad.

“Inad,” Enric smiled and took the hand outstretched for him. As always, he delighted her by performing the formal greeting from the Western Territories, kissing her hand.

Eryn thus had little choice but to follow suit and link the fingers of her left hand with Inad’s in the way women greeted each other in her birth country. It gave Inad the chance to appear worldly.

“I am so thrilled to have you here. It has turned into some kind of tradition for you to spend your first evening out at one of my gatherings, has it not?” she chattered loud enough for everyone to hear.

Sure, Eryn thought, that was why Inad took great pains to find out when exactly they would return so she could be the first to send out invitations exactly two days after their return to Anyueel.

“Yes,” Eryn smiled, “it’s such a charming coincidence that you always happen to be hosting these occasions shortly after we arrive.”

Enric sent her a warning look, but their hostess just smiled out of pretend modesty, obviously safe in her illusion that her little scheme remained unsuspected.

They moved on to where Enric’s mother Gerit was standing with Vyril, engaged in light conversation.

“Good evening, mother,” her son said and bent down to kiss her cheeks, before he greeted Vyril. “And a good evening to you. Where is Tyront?”

“He will join us a little later. There is some detail with the treasury he needs to take care of with Lord Seagon, from what I understand. But I trust it’s nothing major, or you would have been called in as well,” she added, guessing his thoughts.

Junar and Orrin entered the parlour and immediately changed direction to walk towards them.

“I wonder how well Vern will do with two little ones to mind,” Junar worried after she had greeted everyone. “I know that he is more than capable of looking after Téa, but Téa and Vedric together…”

Eryn waved her off. “He’ll do perfectly well. And it’s not as if he didn’t know where to go should it turn out to be more than he can handle. I asked Plia to stay at home so he can send her a messenger in case he needs help.”

“Maybe we should have asked Plia in the first place,” the seamstress replied. “She has minded both of them in the past, she knows what she is up against.”

“I find your lack of trust in my son disturbing,” Orrin said, a touch hurt by her doubts in his offspring. “I’m confident he will be able to stay collected while minding them. It will be a challenge for him, no doubt about that. But he is my son, he will prevail.”

Eryn laughed at that. “I remember the first time you minded both of them. You were on the point of crying out of sheer desperation after about three hours.”

“That’s complete and utter nonsense,” the warrior denied stiffly. “You can’t prove that.”

“I don’t need to. I know what I saw. And you know as well as I that I’m right.”

Junar cleared her throat. “Change of topic. Gerit, I heard that you decided to help out at the orphanage? I find that a lovely idea.”

Eryn blinked and turned towards Enric’s mother. “You did?”

Gerit nodded. “Yes. I find myself with more time on my hands than I am able to fill when the three of you are in Takhan, so I decided to aid Vyril at the orphanage. It also helps me bridge the time until I can see my grandson again,” she added with smile that couldn’t entirely belie the sadness behind the words.

Of course. Moving out of her former companion Anwin’s house had not only relieved her of being little more than a servant to her companion and son, but had also deprived her of all contact with her two grandchildren living there. The other two grandchildren, her daughter Leris’ offspring, lived too far away from the city to see them regularly. So she bestowed all her grandmotherly affection on Vedric each time he spent half a year in Anyueel. And while he was gone there had to be a void in her life, one she obviously decided to fill by being a grandmother to children who never knew one.

Eryn very much approved of this idea. Both the orphans and Gerit herself would benefit from it.

Lord Poron and Aurna were the next to join them, making it necessary to enlarge the circle a little.

Eryn’s eyes wandered from Vyril to Aurna. They indeed seemed to be about the same age. Astonishing. She had of course done her share of cosmetic corrections, since such practices kept the money flowing into the clinic’s vaults, yet hardly ever such extensive ones and not for people she knew well.

Vyril shook her head. “Aurna, I still can’t believe how amazing you look. Never in my life would I have thought that standing next to you would ever make me feel old. I feel the urge to beg for rejuvenation from Eryn as well. Or from your companion, for that matter. He obviously has quite some talent for it.”

Lord Poron laughed at that. “I had to develop one quickly; that was no less than bare necessity to ensure our survival. Before we had Takhan healers join us here, Eryn was the only one capable of carrying out those procedures and so assuring the clinic’s financial independence. That meant it fell to me as Head of Healers to take over that duty in her absence. Since the demand for cosmetic alterations has been growing ever since, I have had ample opportunity to practice and hone my skills in that area.” He winked at Vyril. “My services are at your disposal, Vyril – in exchange for a small fortune, of course.”

“Shame on you, Poron,” Vyril called out in mock despair, “you would really charge me the full rates? After all these years we’ve known each other? And also considering that the changes you performed on your companion are the reason I’m considering it myself?”

Lord Poron shrugged. “You can always consult your good friend Eryn here. I have no doubt that she would charge you very little, if anything, for her services. Yet she is known to perform them without much enthusiasm. If you are willing to endure her sour face to save money…”

Enric grinned. “Considering the rates for cosmetic alterations I assume that people would be willing to endure a lot more than looking at Eryn’s sulky expression for a while in exchange for free treatment.”

“Lovely,” Eryn commented sourly. “Please just continue talking about me as if I weren’t standing right next to you, why don’t you?” She turned her head in relief when Inad joined their circle, in her wake a servant with a tray full of wine glasses.

“Please, do take a glass,” the hostess insisted. “Dinner will be served in a few minutes, so there is a little time left to converse in a relaxed manner.”

Each guest in their turn obediently took a glass.

Instead of moving on to her other guests Inad remained with the group and waived the servant off. Despite the fact that Eryn didn’t exactly enjoy Inad’s presence, she was glad that it would stop the others from pursuing their conversation about Eryn’s dislike of cosmetic alterations.

“Gerit,” the hostess cried out, unable to utter even a single word as if it weren’t of the utmost importance, “you must be so happy to have your family back from foreign parts! Little Vedric must have grown so much – they always do at this age, don’t they?” Without waiting for an answer, she went on, “You must come and visit me next time you look after him! My own grandson isn’t exactly a child anymore at seventeen years of age.” She turned towards Eryn. “By the way, I’m told he is considering entering the healing profession! How delightful – our own healer in the family!”

Eryn made herself smile while cringing within herself. “How utterly delightful.” Of course Inad would be immensely pleased about having a healer at her disposal – she would be counting on free cosmetic alterations for herself. Eryn remembered Inad’s grandson from a few years ago when she’d been made to assist Orrin in teaching his combat classes. A straightforward, cheeky boy who was very convinced of his grandfather’s importance thanks to his position on the Magic Council. It was unfair to assume that he still was the same kind of person, that growing up hadn’t refined him in some way, yet still she was glad that the decision whether or not to accept him as a healer trainee was not hers now but Lord Poron’s.

“I certainly hope you are not expecting any preferential treatment for your grandson, Inad,” Lord Poron warned her with surprising sternness. It seemed that he was concerned about having to cater to Inad’s wishes as well. “We are very diligent when it comes to choosing who is permitted to undergo our extensive training. We select those candidates who convince us that they have the stamina, discipline and ability to successfully complete the arduous and lengthy training, and then afterwards find fulfilment in their profession as healers.”

“But of course I am not,” Inad exclaimed hastily, obviously taken aback by the implication. Though her expression showed all too clearly that this was exactly what she had been hoping for.

Eryn wondered if Inad’s grandson had been influenced to consider healing a desirable profession or if this was actually what he himself wanted. Well, it would be Lord Poron’s job to find out.

A servant approached his mistress to whisper into her ear. Inad nodded once, then she turned towards the room to announce, “Dinner is served! Please follow me into the dining room.”

Orrin was the man standing closest to the hostess and didn’t miss a beat when it came to doing what was expected of him – offering her his arm. Lord Poron extended both his arms to Junar and Aurna, while Enric took his mother and Eryn to the dining table. Vyril gracefully accepted Lord Woldarn’s arm since Tyront had not yet arrived.

Eryn didn’t participate in the dinner conversations around her, in fact didn’t even listen to them, but permitted her thoughts to wander to her upcoming first shift at the clinic the next day. Even though she was no stranger to the establishment, every first day was different. There were new people each time she returned, little changes she had to familiarise herself with. And there was her usual game of avoiding Loft as best she could.

“How is dear Malriel doing?” Inad’s voice interrupted her thoughts. The question had not been directed at her but at Enric, yet it nevertheless made her pay attention. Tenseness – a natural reaction to all things dangerous, she thought wryly and returned to her musings while Enric began answering.

Only when dessert was being served was another topic broached that caught Eryn’s attention.

“…about time for him to consider providing the country with an heir, isn’t it?” Elset, companion to Lord Woldarn and close friend to Inad, stated with conviction. “How old is he now? Thirty-four? He has rather let things slide in this regard, I must say.”

“Well, he has been rather busy these last few years with re-establishing a stable, permanent contact with a country we were separated from for centuries,” Eryn tossed in to everybody’s surprise, hardly able to believe herself that she was actually defending the King and what the gathering obviously considered a dereliction of duty on his part.

“One may choose to see it like that,” Lord Woldarn came to his companion’s aid, “yet fathering a child is not quite such a demanding endeavour, one should think.”

That witless remark of course earned him a few chuckles. Eryn refrained from rolling her eyes.

“That may be true, yet raising a child who is fit for taking over the leadership of an entire country certainly required more effort. And I don’t really see how he could delegate that task to anybody else. He is the only one with experience in that area, after all.” In the interest of politeness and diplomacy she swallowed the last part she had intended to add – that it wasn’t quite as easy for the King as it was for most other wealthy people in this country who simply allowed their children to be raised by servants.

The mind bond conveyed to her Enric’s amusement. She wasn’t usually known for coming to the King’s defence. Quite the opposite.

“Elset is not wrong,” Lord Poron chimed in. “The King needs to start thinking about having children. Unlike our friends in the Western Territories who choose to elect their leaders, we depend on an heir to the throne from the King’s bloodline. As history has shown us more than once, the absence of a direct descendant tends to lead to tension and at times even wars of succession. We wouldn’t want that, would we?”

Eryn didn’t reply. There was little she could say to refute this argument. Yet the idea of procreating for other people’s benefit was nothing she condoned, be it as King or as non-Royal. She herself had been forced to have a child because Malriel insisted on a grandchild of her own direct inheritance. So she would be the last to pressure the King into gifting the Kingdom with an heir. There was always another way to provide for succession. One could appoint an able cousin, for example. Were the Kingdom not so traditional in its approach to adoption, that would have been another solution. But adoption was only permitted as long as the person to be adopted had not yet come of age. A limitation the Western Territories didn’t bother with; they found the Kingdom’s views on that rather outlandish and impractical.

Later, as they sat in their coach home, Eryn asked, “Did you agree with the sentiments? Do you also think the King should have a child as part of his duty towards the Kingdom? That would entail choosing a mate to serve mostly only that purpose if time is of the essence as people seem to think.”

Enric pursed his lips. Considering her own experience with Malriel’s fertility potion and her disapproval of Ram’an’s choice to take a companion merely to produce an heir, he knew he needed to tread carefully.

“I don’t think there is an easy answer to that, my love. Unfortunately, our culture is quite clear on what is expected of a King. Ideally, he would fall in love with a woman of a suitable background, have two or three children with her and combine business with pleasure. Yet so far the only woman he could have imagined at his side has been you. The question is now how tolerant we as his subjects can or want to be when it comes to allowing him sufficient time to continue his quest for a woman he could actually love instead of just accept at his side.”

She sighed. “You explained the problem very succinctly, well done. Yet you failed to answer my question.”

“I think that he needs to find a solution for this situation fairly quickly. I don’t really care whether he does it by fathering a child with a woman he chooses by chance or by changing the laws of adoption. But in all honesty I know he is aware of the need to act on this – more aware than anyone else, actually.”

That she could believe. A thing like that would hardly have escaped the King’s attention.

*   *   *

Eryn quietly whistled through her teeth as she turned the corner to the throne room with Enric and spotted Ram’kel of House Arbil, Ram’an’s younger brother and Ambassador to Anyueel, in front of the high double doors.

“Look at that,” she murmured. “We are obviously not the only ones who were summoned today. I’m getting more and more curious about what the King wants.”

Enric shared that sentiment and nodded to Ram’kel when they reached him. He had just returned from his brief visit to Bonhet where Tyront had sent him to not so much really achieve anything, but mostly be present and serve as a reminder that the Order’s leaders were never far removed. Upon his return Eryn had informed him that he was to come with her to the King. As always, his message had held no clue at all as to why he desired to see them.

“Eryn. Enric. Your presence promises to make things interesting,” the Ambassador commented, obviously equally uninformed.

Only now did the guards open the doors and announce the names of the three of them.

“Lord Enric of House Aren. Lady Eryn of House Vel’kim. Ambassador Ram’kel of House Arbil.”

“This sounds as if he were announcing twice as many people thanks to all that redundant gibberish with including the Houses,” Eryn mumbled, but entered obediently with the two men.

King Folrin and his advisor Marrin stood on the dais, waiting patiently for them to approach.

“Lady Eryn. Lord Enric. Ambassador,” King Folrin greeted them with a single gracious nod of his head. “There is a matter many would consider of considerable importance about which I wish to ask your advice,” he began without wasting time on pleasantries. “And your help in the endeavour I am about to undertake. As you all know I am keen on not only maintaining our friendly relationship with the Western Territories, but on improving it in whatever way I consider prudent. In addition to this there is a duty I am expected to take care of. One which many would say I have so far been negligent of. To a certain degree I must admit that this is not entirely untrue. So I wish to take this opportunity to accomplish two objectives in one go.”

Eryn’s thoughts jumped back to the evening a few days back – the one with all this talk about the King’s duty to provide an heir to the throne sooner rather than later. And now he was speaking of a duty neglected by him and his wish to strengthen the connection with the Western Territories.

She smiled. Based on this there was only one obvious conclusion as to what his intentions were. This was a topic he was uneasy about, which was why he kept skirting around it instead of coming to the point as he typically preferred to.

“The opportunity to choose a companion from the Western Territories,” she stated calmly.

The King stared at her, unable to hide his surprise and consternation. This, however, lasted only a second before he reigned in his expression and smiled at her.

“Lady Eryn, I commend you on your powers of deduction. How immensely satisfying that all this tutoring and the practical experience you have garnered over these past few years seem to have sharpened your ability to apply common sense.”

At that she just raised her brow and met his gaze without blinking. You just play down that I saw right through you and you don’t appreciate it at all, she thought, satisfied with his displeasure. This was the very first time she had guessed his intentions more quickly than he wanted her to, and she intended to savour this moment, memorise it so it could serve to cheer her up when she needed it. His attempt to make her feel dejected to cover his own inadequacy just made it all the sweeter.

King Folrin turned back to the two men. “As Lady Eryn pointed out so shrewdly, I intend to take a companion. Ideally, this lady would originate from the Western Territories. I don’t have to tell you that choosing somebody is not a task to be undertaken lightly. My choice will very likely have some significant influence on the political balance in Takhan. The House to which my future companion belongs is sure to gain considerable influence, which may cause existing alliances to crumble and new ones to form to either benefit from this development or somehow counterbalance it.”

Enric didn’t like where this was going. “This means you are commanding us to assist you in making a choice that will cause as little political upheaval as possible?”

The monarch lifted his chin. “Not commanding you, Lord Enric. I am asking for your assistance.”

Assistance, Enric thought angrily. He wanted to delegate the responsibility in case his choice turned out more troublesome than anyone could anticipate.

The King’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I know what you are thinking, Lord Enric. It is exactly what I would be suspecting were I in your place. But let me assure you that I am perfectly capable and willing to bear the consequences of my own actions.” He stepped directly in front of Enric, lifting his hand to touch his own throat; a reminder of when it had been Enric’s hand back then after the King had forced a single kiss on Eryn. “I always have, wouldn’t you agree?” the Kind said in a lowered voice. He took a step back, addressing all three of them again. “What I am asking of you is to aid me in my decision. Your knowledge, insights and experience in Takhan are superior to anything my sources of information have been able to provide. I need you to share with me those things I wouldn’t think of asking about. The decision concerning whether or not you wish to make your involvement in this process known is yours.”

Ram’kel was the first to bow and say, “I would be honoured to assist you in this matter, Your Majesty.”

Enric hesitated for a few seconds before nodding. “As am I.”

All three heads turned towards Eryn, who frowned and folded her arms. “I understand why you would want their help. But why mine? I don’t consciously maintain contacts with important people. In many cases I even actively avoid it. What support could I possibly provide that my companion and the Ambassador couldn’t?”

King Folrin regarded her with a small smile. “You underestimate your usefulness, my dear Lady. You may not seek important people’s good opinion or company, yet your status is quite an exalted one owing to your being the daughter of a triarch, sister to a Head of House as well as having the highest-ranking healer in the Western Territories as your father. Your family alone is comprised of some of the most powerful people in the country. So even if you do not wish to socialise with the high and mighty, there is no way to avoid it in your case. And I value your opinion, my Lady. I count on your help in evaluating every suggestion that will be presented to me. May I count on your help as well, Lady Eryn? It would be most esteemed.”

Well, she had little choice in the matter. “Of course, Your Majesty.”

“Excellent. I would ask of you all to provide me with a general assessment of the current political situation in Takhan. This might provide some first insight as to which Houses to exclude on principle. Lady Eryn, I do not expect yours to be quite as thorough, since your lack of interest in areas of politics would make that rather hard. Yet it is a good exercise for you to gain more perception into what is going on in one of your countries of residence. I shall expect your reports with first recommendations of the advantageous Houses in ten days. I trust you will keep this matter confidential for now. You are dismissed.”

Eryn bowed stiffly and waited for the two men to follow suit before they all turned to leave the throne room.

Marrin smiled. “Lord Enric and the Ambassador didn’t seem to mind the assignment very much after you clarified that they wouldn’t be held accountable in case the final choice turned out to be problematic. Yet Lady Eryn was anything but pleased about being involved. I wonder if she will be quite as useful as you hope.”

King Folrin’s lips twitched. “Not when it comes to analysing political situations, there I agree wholeheartedly. But I wish to involve her from the beginning because she will turn out to be useful when I go to Takhan to meet whichever candidates we select in person. Despite all this restraint she has learned to show in polite company, she still is the one of those three most likely to let me have her unadulterated opinion. Nothing I wish for her to express whenever the fancy strikes her, but undoubtedly an asset when making an important choice such as selecting a future queen for myself and my Kingdom.”

*   *   *

“I can’t believe he is dragging us into this,” Eryn sighed after Enric had closed the door to his study behind her and Ram’kel, who had followed them in unspoken consent. She let herself drop onto the sofa while the two men remained standing.

“He obviously does not wish to face this challenge on his own,” Ram’kel shrugged. “And people with connections and influence in the Western Territories and a tight connection to himself are an obvious choice to consult,” he pointed out. “Let us consider it a sign of trust instead of a bothersome assignment, shall we not?”

Eryn rolled her eyes at him. “You obviously enjoy being important, don’t you?”

The Ambassador’s expression remained unfazed as he replied, “But of course I do. Why do you think I wanted to become an ambassador in the first place? Now, let us rather talk of the task we have been entrusted with.” He looked at Enric who motioned for him to go on. “I can provide you with a general overview of descendants of the leading family of each house, who the current generations are promised to and already joined with, and who is still available. You can imagine that there are not many candidates left in the main branches of the families who will be available.”

“Yes,” Eryn mumbled, “since you like to make companionship arrangements for them as soon as they are old enough to hold a spoon. If you even wait that long.”

Enric threw her a warning glance to shut her up. This was not a particularly cooperative attitude right now.

Ram’kel didn’t let himself be thrown off track. “For more detailed information of other members of the Houses not descended from the Head’s direct line we will have to contact somebody with access to such information in Takhan.” He looked at Eryn. “I would suggest that you ask your father to aid us in this. Not only does the clinic store all medical files about everyone ever born and treated in Takhan, but the Vel’kim family also have their own records of illnesses and inherited diseases. You will just have to avoid mentioning to him why we need this information in order to fulfil His Majesty’s requirement of confidentiality.”

Eryn nodded. That did sound like a sensible plan. That way they could see who was actually available. With a little luck that would narrow the selection down.

“So,” Ram’kel said with a smile, “what do you think of your King’s decision finally to take a companion and provide his country with a queen and heir?”

“We are thrilled, of course,” Enric said dryly.

Eryn didn’t reply. She wasn’t really sure how she felt about it. She’d had gone through her own unpleasant experiences with the King, and delivering a woman into his hands somehow felt… abnormal. What kind of woman would suit both the King and the country? One as ruthless and unscrupulous as himself so they’d match on a personal level? But what would that mean for the Kingdom? Wasn’t one such person on top more than enough? Yet what was the alternative? A kind and caring woman concerned with people’s wellbeing who would probably crumble under the political pressure and the frustration of having a companion with completely different priorities to her own? Was it a realistic goal to try and find somebody who was a suitable match for the King’s character and would make a suitable queen?

And on top of all this the woman had to come from the right family in order avoid political tensions beyond reason. Finding him a companion was probably the most bothersome assignment she had received from him yet. Oh, sheer joy!

Of course she could mention none of this to Ram’kel, even though she suspected that he knew in what direction her thoughts went. Even after five years she still hadn’t decided whether or not it had been a canny move to help him become the next ambassador to Anyueel. He wasn’t doing a bad job, she had to admit reluctantly. Though he bestowed on her the dubious honour of dropping his smooth diplomatic demeanour in her presence and enjoyed teasing and provoking her. Not to a degree that warranted setting him boundaries, he was too sharp for that. Yet enough to at times vex her and make her want to give him a good kicking.

Ram’kel looked at Enric, obviously not expecting any helpful input from Eryn. “Is there anything else I can do to aid you in preparing the analysis we are expected to present in ten days? Even though I know that you have your own sources, I would suggest not collecting the same information more than once. It might arouse suspicion and start rumours, which is exactly what we wish to avoid at this time. We would not wish for the Houses to flood us with suggestions for suitable candidates and warnings about picking one House over another.”

Enric nodded. “I agree. We will let you know in case we need additional information so we can coordinate our efforts at collecting it.”

The ambassador nodded and took Eryn’s hand to kiss it, enjoying the spark of annoyance her eyes still showed after all these years. It was an unnecessary gesture when they were amongst themselves, and she knew for a fact that he only did it because she hated formalities of any kind. The more if they were completely gratuitous such as right at this moment. If he was in a particularly mischievous mood he even addressed her as Lady Maltheá. Not today, though. He never went that far with Enric present.

As soon as Ram’kel had left their home, Eryn groaned and covered her face with her hands.

“Can you believe that? This man coerced me into agreeing to become your companion by threatening to spend the night with me, forced a kiss on me to make you go to the Western Territories and had an affair with my own mother! And now he wants me to support him in finding a companion? How absurd is that? Where do I find a woman I detest enough to do this to her? Especially, since Valcredy isn’t available anymore?”

Enric ignored that last remark about Ram’an’s companion. “This is not all bad, Eryn. The King has granted us a significant influence over the Kingdom’s future by asking us to aid him in this matter. Provided he acts on our recommendations, that is.”

“I don’t want this influence! It might mean that the people or the King himself will blame us in case things go wrong. What if the new queen turns out to be some kind of power-hungry maniac? It’s not as though the range of available women will be particularly extensive. Apart from her stemming from the right – or at least not the wrong – House, she also needs to be a non-magician so as not to break our laws here relating to that. What’s your estimate of how many non-magicians we will be able to find in leading families of a society that has been bred for magical strength over these last few centuries?”

He nodded. “I know. Nobody said it would be an easy task.”

She ground her teeth but swallowed her reply when the entrance door opened and she heard Vedric’s voice while he was chattering with his grandmother, who had been minding him during their meeting with the King.

A little later the boy came running into his father’s study, launching himself into his mother’s arms.

“We went to see Inad today!” Vedric beamed. “She says we are cousins!”

Eryn made herself smile. At least somebody was thrilled about that little factoid. “So you liked it at Inad’s place? How nice to hear.”

Gerit came in little later – presumably after neatly tucking away her own and Vedric’s cloak. As the boy couldn’t reach the hooks yet he simply let his own drop to the floor. She needed to see to having another, lower, hook fixed to the wall so she could properly teach him not to leave a mess wherever he went.

“Thank you for minding him,” Enric said to his mother. “I hear he enjoyed his visit to Inad’s.”

Gerit smiled warmly at the boy on Eryn’s lap. “He really did. And he was so well-behaved.”

Eryn raised one eyebrow. “He was? Are you sure you took the right kid along?”

“Oh, mother!” the boy wailed. “That was mean! I’m adorable! That’s what Inad said.”

“My mistake. I wouldn’t want to disagree with Inad, would I?”

Satisfied with his mother’s admission of her error, he switched to another important topic. “Can I have a bread bun?”

Eryn shook her head. “No. We are having lunch in about one hour. You’d only spoil your appetite.”

“Just one? Pleeeeeease?”

His mother shook her head. “No. You can have one later after you finish lunch.”

“You are so hard on me!” he wailed. “Why not?”

“Because you need the nutrition for growing into a strong lad that bread buns simply can’t provide.”

“Why?”

“Because the baker didn’t mean for them to be eaten instead of a real meal but as desserts or little snacks in between.”

“Why?”

Eryn decided to put a stop to the questions right now. It was one thing to explain matters to enable her son to better understand the world around him but another to let him wreck her nerves. “You should go and ask him that.”

He blinked. That was not an answer he had expected. It deprived him of the chance to continue his monosyllabic questioning. But he could always return to his initial objective.

“I want a bread bun!”

Now Enric stepped forward, giving him a stern glance. “Your mother said no. And if you don’t stop pestering her, there won’t be any dessert for you later anyway.”

Vedric pouted and crossed his arms but didn’t answer back this time.

Gerit jumped in, holding out her hand for the boy to take. “I promised Vyril to visit her at the orphanage today. You can accompany me, if you like.”

“The orphanage?” Vedric perked up, his frustration about not being allowed to indulge in his fondness for sweets already forgotten. “Are there many boys in this one? The one in Takhan had a lot of boys living there!”

“I think there are a fair number of them, yes,” his grandmother said casually. “Does that mean you will come with me?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Vedic jumped up and clapped his hands before dashing out of the room.

Eryn sighed deeply and looked up at her companion. “Why does that boy never listen to me? Why does it always take a stern word from you to make him shut up? Am I too lenient with him? Surely not! Junar even says I’m unreasonably strict. Not that this counts for much, mind you. She and Orrin spoil that daughter of theirs rotten. That’s what happens when a woman who thought she was barren and a man in his fifties have a child together.”

“I don’t think this is about you, my love. It’s probably that I’m just more imposing, physically speaking. Don’t forget he has seen me wielding a sword. That might be pretty much all it takes to make him reconsider the wisdom of opposing me too much.”

His companion snorted. “That’s exactly what I don’t want him go grow up believing – that swinging a sword and being tall and mighty is what really counts in life.”

“He is only five years old. There will be ample opportunity for us to teach him proper values.” He pulled her up from the sofa. “Come on, let’s prepare a meal as long as mother is keeping Vedric busy.”

*   *   *

Eryn sullenly drew the sword. Time to get this over with. The first training session with Orrin after her return from the West was always the hardest one. While her occasional sparring in Takhan with Kilan, Pe’tala or Enric always served to merely maintain her skills at their current level, Orrin was still determined to develop them. No matter how unnecessary she herself found that. Yet Tyront had given Orrin leave to proceed in whatever way he considered workable, so there was little she could do about that.

“You know that the next game is scheduled for two weeks’ time, don’t you?” Orrin asked while slowly starting to circle her.

“I have no intention of participating, if that’s what you’re asking me,” she replied.

The game had turned into a regular event since she had come up with the idea of it about six years ago in Takhan. Orrin and Enric had devised a set of rules, immediately recognising the potential for making people train their combat skills voluntarily. Since then the game had been turned into a tournament. Both Takhan and Anyueel organised a game twice a year for their own people – and one larger event to set the best players from each country against the other. The previous year’s winner then hosted the next event.

Orrin had stopped training children several years ago and now focused on imparting advanced battle skills to ambitious players from both sides of the sea. Interestingly enough, a few of the best players from the Kingdom were actually healers. For Eryn that was completely incomprehensible since she imagined that turning to healing was for many magicians the only way of escaping the constant striving to improve combat skills and actually doing something useful. Making healing their profession and pursuing combat in their spare time somehow didn’t fit her picture of how things functioned.

The upcoming game was not the big one, but one of the two smaller ones. Every year Orrin tried anew to get her enthused about participating in the game, pointing out that she as the creator should not only be a part of it but also avoid being among the first to be kicked out.

Eryn kept explaining the exact same thing to him year after year – that her inspiration for coming up with the idea was watching children play hide and seek, seeing how much they enjoyed the very same game she herself had been playing at their age. In her imagination, there was a lot less battle strategy, fighting in formation and setting traps. For her this was not a game any longer, but a rehearsal for war. Which was the very image that appealed to Orrin in his capacity as the Head of Warriors.

Despite knowing her sentiments he repeatedly tried to include her, too stubborn to simply accept that war games were against everything she stood for.

To her surprise he no longer pursued the issue but broke out in a completely new direction when he said, “I’m worried about…” – he attacked and retreated as she parried his strike – “…Vern.”

“You are?”

“I have the impression he is avoiding me. And when I finally manage to make him have dinner with us he seems distracted and glum. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice anything?”

Eryn nodded. “I did. But this was to be expected. He returned home after all this time, coming to a place that’s nothing like the one he left behind.”

“Shouldn’t he embrace this change? This place’s being the way it was induced him to go away, after all,” the warrior reasoned.

“That may be the case, but he still counted on returning to something familiar. But the city has changed so much that he finds himself a stranger yet again. An uninspiring yet familiar home is better than a more progressive but unknown one. He used to be a shining star in Takhan, this young, immensely talented artist who is at the same time a healer – a combination unheard of and highly desired over there. Yet here, despite all these changes, his talent for drawing and painting remains undervalued, and with healers from Takhan now stationed here he is not even amongst the most advanced professionals in that area either. It’s hard for him, and he fights against falling back into the role he had before – the one of an outsider.”

Orrin let his sword sink, a sure sign of his distress. He was a great advocate of never letting one’s guard down, especially when facing somebody with a drawn weapon.

“That’s not encouraging, not at all. As long as he doesn’t feel he fits in he might consider returning to the Western Territories. I just got him back, I don’t want him to leave again.” He sighed heavily. “Is there anything I can do? Or something you could do?”

Eryn shook her head. “I can’t think of anything. Unless you know a nice young girl he might fall in love with.”

Orrin pursed his lips. “He seems rather taken with Plia, now that you mention it. He casually asks Junar about how she has been doing these last years whenever he visits.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You better get that right out of your head again, Orrin! Vern doesn’t deserve Plia, not after how he treated her when he was away. Did you know that he didn’t write to her even once? She had a crush on him when he went to Takhan, and only a little later did she and everybody else hear that he was having one affair after the other. Plia has been meeting up with her young man for more than two years now, a steady and reliable chap – exactly what a girl who grew up not knowing where to get her next meal from needs and deserves. Don’t you dare use her to bind your son to this place, I’m warning you! This is not how you would want your own daughter to be used.”

The warrior blinked, surprised at this outburst. “Of course not,” he assured her hurriedly. “I didn’t mean to imply that I intended to use her for my own purposes.”

Good, she thought. Not that she would have let him.

“How are things going at the clinic?” Orrin enquired, obviously eager to move on to a lighter conversation topic with less potential for controversy.

“Everything is going well so far. We are currently looking for suitable buildings in the clinic’s vicinity. We are running out of space.”

They resumed their sword fighting, not talking for a while, just attacking and parrying.

“He is a good lad, you know,” Orrin finally said. “He may have been a little thoughtless in the way he treated Plia, but that his glamorous new lifestyle went to his head doesn’t mean that he intended to hurt her.”

Eryn nodded. “I know that. Yet he still has to bear the consequences and decide whether or not he wants to try and win her back as a friend. I sincerely hope he won’t try to disrupt her relationship for his own selfish reasons.”

“Of course he won’t,” Orrin stated confidently.

Eryn didn’t comment on that. She didn’t share that conviction quite as wholeheartedly.

Chapter 3

Talk of an Heir

Enric knocked at Lord Remdel’s house. A little later a servant opened the door, bowed and admitted them to the entrance chamber before taking their cloaks.

As a bout of shrill laughter erupted to from the parlour to their left, Eryn exhaled resignedly. “That’s what I’ve been missing these last few months – Inad’s genteel expressions of enjoyment,” she murmured.

“Then I’m glad you will no longer be deprived of them. At least not for some time to come,” Enric retorted.

The servant who had taken their cloaks returned to guide them into the parlour.

“Lady Eryn! Lord Enric!” Inad cried out with such heartfelt delight that Eryn felt a tiny bit uncomfortable about her own sentiments. Being liked by someone she herself barely managed to tolerate left her feeling guilty. That feeling had been her constant companion for about six years when it came to Inad.

“Inad,” Enric smiled and took the hand outstretched for him. As always, he delighted her by performing the formal greeting from the Western Territories, kissing her hand.

Eryn thus had little choice but to follow suit and link the fingers of her left hand with Inad’s in the way women greeted each other in her birth country. It gave Inad the chance to appear worldly.

“I am so thrilled to have you here. It has turned into some kind of tradition for you to spend your first evening out at one of my gatherings, has it not?” she chattered loud enough for everyone to hear.

Sure, Eryn thought, that was why Inad took great pains to find out when exactly they would return so she could be the first to send out invitations exactly two days after their return to Anyueel.

“Yes,” Eryn smiled, “it’s such a charming coincidence that you always happen to be hosting these occasions shortly after we arrive.”

Enric sent her a warning look, but their hostess just smiled out of pretend modesty, obviously safe in her illusion that her little scheme remained unsuspected.

They moved on to where Enric’s mother Gerit was standing with Vyril, engaged in light conversation.

“Good evening, mother,” her son said and bent down to kiss her cheeks, before he greeted Vyril. “And a good evening to you. Where is Tyront?”

“He will join us a little later. There is some detail with the treasury he needs to take care of with Lord Seagon, from what I understand. But I trust it’s nothing major, or you would have been called in as well,” she added, guessing his thoughts.

Junar and Orrin entered the parlour and immediately changed direction to walk towards them.

“I wonder how well Vern will do with two little ones to mind,” Junar worried after she had greeted everyone. “I know that he is more than capable of looking after Téa, but Téa and Vedric together…”

Eryn waved her off. “He’ll do perfectly well. And it’s not as if he didn’t know where to go should it turn out to be more than he can handle. I asked Plia to stay at home so he can send her a messenger in case he needs help.”

“Maybe we should have asked Plia in the first place,” the seamstress replied. “She has minded both of them in the past, she knows what she is up against.”

“I find your lack of trust in my son disturbing,” Orrin said, a touch hurt by her doubts in his offspring. “I’m confident he will be able to stay collected while minding them. It will be a challenge for him, no doubt about that. But he is my son, he will prevail.”

Eryn laughed at that. “I remember the first time you minded both of them. You were on the point of crying out of sheer desperation after about three hours.”

“That’s complete and utter nonsense,” the warrior denied stiffly. “You can’t prove that.”

“I don’t need to. I know what I saw. And you know as well as I that I’m right.”

Junar cleared her throat. “Change of topic. Gerit, I heard that you decided to help out at the orphanage? I find that a lovely idea.”

Eryn blinked and turned towards Enric’s mother. “You did?”

Gerit nodded. “Yes. I find myself with more time on my hands than I am able to fill when the three of you are in Takhan, so I decided to aid Vyril at the orphanage. It also helps me bridge the time until I can see my grandson again,” she added with smile that couldn’t entirely belie the sadness behind the words.

Of course. Moving out of her former companion Anwin’s house had not only relieved her of being little more than a servant to her companion and son, but had also deprived her of all contact with her two grandchildren living there. The other two grandchildren, her daughter Leris’ offspring, lived too far away from the city to see them regularly. So she bestowed all her grandmotherly affection on Vedric each time he spent half a year in Anyueel. And while he was gone there had to be a void in her life, one she obviously decided to fill by being a grandmother to children who never knew one.

Eryn very much approved of this idea. Both the orphans and Gerit herself would benefit from it.

Lord Poron and Aurna were the next to join them, making it necessary to enlarge the circle a little.

Eryn’s eyes wandered from Vyril to Aurna. They indeed seemed to be about the same age. Astonishing. She had of course done her share of cosmetic corrections, since such practices kept the money flowing into the clinic’s vaults, yet hardly ever such extensive ones and not for people she knew well.

Vyril shook her head. “Aurna, I still can’t believe how amazing you look. Never in my life would I have thought that standing next to you would ever make me feel old. I feel the urge to beg for rejuvenation from Eryn as well. Or from your companion, for that matter. He obviously has quite some talent for it.”

Lord Poron laughed at that. “I had to develop one quickly; that was no less than bare necessity to ensure our survival. Before we had Takhan healers join us here, Eryn was the only one capable of carrying out those procedures and so assuring the clinic’s financial independence. That meant it fell to me as Head of Healers to take over that duty in her absence. Since the demand for cosmetic alterations has been growing ever since, I have had ample opportunity to practice and hone my skills in that area.” He winked at Vyril. “My services are at your disposal, Vyril – in exchange for a small fortune, of course.”

“Shame on you, Poron,” Vyril called out in mock despair, “you would really charge me the full rates? After all these years we’ve known each other? And also considering that the changes you performed on your companion are the reason I’m considering it myself?”

Lord Poron shrugged. “You can always consult your good friend Eryn here. I have no doubt that she would charge you very little, if anything, for her services. Yet she is known to perform them without much enthusiasm. If you are willing to endure her sour face to save money…”

Enric grinned. “Considering the rates for cosmetic alterations I assume that people would be willing to endure a lot more than looking at Eryn’s sulky expression for a while in exchange for free treatment.”

“Lovely,” Eryn commented sourly. “Please just continue talking about me as if I weren’t standing right next to you, why don’t you?” She turned her head in relief when Inad joined their circle, in her wake a servant with a tray full of wine glasses.

“Please, do take a glass,” the hostess insisted. “Dinner will be served in a few minutes, so there is a little time left to converse in a relaxed manner.”

Each guest in their turn obediently took a glass.

Instead of moving on to her other guests Inad remained with the group and waived the servant off. Despite the fact that Eryn didn’t exactly enjoy Inad’s presence, she was glad that it would stop the others from pursuing their conversation about Eryn’s dislike of cosmetic alterations.

“Gerit,” the hostess cried out, unable to utter even a single word as if it weren’t of the utmost importance, “you must be so happy to have your family back from foreign parts! Little Vedric must have grown so much – they always do at this age, don’t they?” Without waiting for an answer, she went on, “You must come and visit me next time you look after him! My own grandson isn’t exactly a child anymore at seventeen years of age.” She turned towards Eryn. “By the way, I’m told he is considering entering the healing profession! How delightful – our own healer in the family!”

Eryn made herself smile while cringing within herself. “How utterly delightful.” Of course Inad would be immensely pleased about having a healer at her disposal – she would be counting on free cosmetic alterations for herself. Eryn remembered Inad’s grandson from a few years ago when she’d been made to assist Orrin in teaching his combat classes. A straightforward, cheeky boy who was very convinced of his grandfather’s importance thanks to his position on the Magic Council. It was unfair to assume that he still was the same kind of person, that growing up hadn’t refined him in some way, yet still she was glad that the decision whether or not to accept him as a healer trainee was not hers now but Lord Poron’s.

“I certainly hope you are not expecting any preferential treatment for your grandson, Inad,” Lord Poron warned her with surprising sternness. It seemed that he was concerned about having to cater to Inad’s wishes as well. “We are very diligent when it comes to choosing who is permitted to undergo our extensive training. We select those candidates who convince us that they have the stamina, discipline and ability to successfully complete the arduous and lengthy training, and then afterwards find fulfilment in their profession as healers.”

“But of course I am not,” Inad exclaimed hastily, obviously taken aback by the implication. Though her expression showed all too clearly that this was exactly what she had been hoping for.

Eryn wondered if Inad’s grandson had been influenced to consider healing a desirable profession or if this was actually what he himself wanted. Well, it would be Lord Poron’s job to find out.

A servant approached his mistress to whisper into her ear. Inad nodded once, then she turned towards the room to announce, “Dinner is served! Please follow me into the dining room.”

Orrin was the man standing closest to the hostess and didn’t miss a beat when it came to doing what was expected of him – offering her his arm. Lord Poron extended both his arms to Junar and Aurna, while Enric took his mother and Eryn to the dining table. Vyril gracefully accepted Lord Woldarn’s arm since Tyront had not yet arrived.

Eryn didn’t participate in the dinner conversations around her, in fact didn’t even listen to them, but permitted her thoughts to wander to her upcoming first shift at the clinic the next day. Even though she was no stranger to the establishment, every first day was different. There were new people each time she returned, little changes she had to familiarise herself with. And there was her usual game of avoiding Loft as best she could.

“How is dear Malriel doing?” Inad’s voice interrupted her thoughts. The question had not been directed at her but at Enric, yet it nevertheless made her pay attention. Tenseness – a natural reaction to all things dangerous, she thought wryly and returned to her musings while Enric began answering.

Only when dessert was being served was another topic broached that caught Eryn’s attention.

“…about time for him to consider providing the country with an heir, isn’t it?” Elset, companion to Lord Woldarn and close friend to Inad, stated with conviction. “How old is he now? Thirty-four? He has rather let things slide in this regard, I must say.”

“Well, he has been rather busy these last few years with re-establishing a stable, permanent contact with a country we were separated from for centuries,” Eryn tossed in to everybody’s surprise, hardly able to believe herself that she was actually defending the King and what the gathering obviously considered a dereliction of duty on his part.

“One may choose to see it like that,” Lord Woldarn came to his companion’s aid, “yet fathering a child is not quite such a demanding endeavour, one should think.”

That witless remark of course earned him a few chuckles. Eryn refrained from rolling her eyes.

“That may be true, yet raising a child who is fit for taking over the leadership of an entire country certainly required more effort. And I don’t really see how he could delegate that task to anybody else. He is the only one with experience in that area, after all.” In the interest of politeness and diplomacy she swallowed the last part she had intended to add – that it wasn’t quite as easy for the King as it was for most other wealthy people in this country who simply allowed their children to be raised by servants.

The mind bond conveyed to her Enric’s amusement. She wasn’t usually known for coming to the King’s defence. Quite the opposite.

“Elset is not wrong,” Lord Poron chimed in. “The King needs to start thinking about having children. Unlike our friends in the Western Territories who choose to elect their leaders, we depend on an heir to the throne from the King’s bloodline. As history has shown us more than once, the absence of a direct descendant tends to lead to tension and at times even wars of succession. We wouldn’t want that, would we?”

Eryn didn’t reply. There was little she could say to refute this argument. Yet the idea of procreating for other people’s benefit was nothing she condoned, be it as King or as non-Royal. She herself had been forced to have a child because Malriel insisted on a grandchild of her own direct inheritance. So she would be the last to pressure the King into gifting the Kingdom with an heir. There was always another way to provide for succession. One could appoint an able cousin, for example. Were the Kingdom not so traditional in its approach to adoption, that would have been another solution. But adoption was only permitted as long as the person to be adopted had not yet come of age. A limitation the Western Territories didn’t bother with; they found the Kingdom’s views on that rather outlandish and impractical.

Later, as they sat in their coach home, Eryn asked, “Did you agree with the sentiments? Do you also think the King should have a child as part of his duty towards the Kingdom? That would entail choosing a mate to serve mostly only that purpose if time is of the essence as people seem to think.”

Enric pursed his lips. Considering her own experience with Malriel’s fertility potion and her disapproval of Ram’an’s choice to take a companion merely to produce an heir, he knew he needed to tread carefully.

“I don’t think there is an easy answer to that, my love. Unfortunately, our culture is quite clear on what is expected of a King. Ideally, he would fall in love with a woman of a suitable background, have two or three children with her and combine business with pleasure. Yet so far the only woman he could have imagined at his side has been you. The question is now how tolerant we as his subjects can or want to be when it comes to allowing him sufficient time to continue his quest for a woman he could actually love instead of just accept at his side.”

She sighed. “You explained the problem very succinctly, well done. Yet you failed to answer my question.”

“I think that he needs to find a solution for this situation fairly quickly. I don’t really care whether he does it by fathering a child with a woman he chooses by chance or by changing the laws of adoption. But in all honesty I know he is aware of the need to act on this – more aware than anyone else, actually.”

That she could believe. A thing like that would hardly have escaped the King’s attention.

*   *   *

Eryn quietly whistled through her teeth as she turned the corner to the throne room with Enric and spotted Ram’kel of House Arbil, Ram’an’s younger brother and Ambassador to Anyueel, in front of the high double doors.

“Look at that,” she murmured. “We are obviously not the only ones who were summoned today. I’m getting more and more curious about what the King wants.”

Enric shared that sentiment and nodded to Ram’kel when they reached him. He had just returned from his brief visit to Bonhet where Tyront had sent him to not so much really achieve anything, but mostly be present and serve as a reminder that the Order’s leaders were never far removed. Upon his return Eryn had informed him that he was to come with her to the King. As always, his message had held no clue at all as to why he desired to see them.

“Eryn. Enric. Your presence promises to make things interesting,” the Ambassador commented, obviously equally uninformed.

Only now did the guards open the doors and announce the names of the three of them.

“Lord Enric of House Aren. Lady Eryn of House Vel’kim. Ambassador Ram’kel of House Arbil.”

“This sounds as if he were announcing twice as many people thanks to all that redundant gibberish with including the Houses,” Eryn mumbled, but entered obediently with the two men.

King Folrin and his advisor Marrin stood on the dais, waiting patiently for them to approach.

“Lady Eryn. Lord Enric. Ambassador,” King Folrin greeted them with a single gracious nod of his head. “There is a matter many would consider of considerable importance about which I wish to ask your advice,” he began without wasting time on pleasantries. “And your help in the endeavour I am about to undertake. As you all know I am keen on not only maintaining our friendly relationship with the Western Territories, but on improving it in whatever way I consider prudent. In addition to this there is a duty I am expected to take care of. One which many would say I have so far been negligent of. To a certain degree I must admit that this is not entirely untrue. So I wish to take this opportunity to accomplish two objectives in one go.”

Eryn’s thoughts jumped back to the evening a few days back – the one with all this talk about the King’s duty to provide an heir to the throne sooner rather than later. And now he was speaking of a duty neglected by him and his wish to strengthen the connection with the Western Territories.

She smiled. Based on this there was only one obvious conclusion as to what his intentions were. This was a topic he was uneasy about, which was why he kept skirting around it instead of coming to the point as he typically preferred to.

“The opportunity to choose a companion from the Western Territories,” she stated calmly.

The King stared at her, unable to hide his surprise and consternation. This, however, lasted only a second before he reigned in his expression and smiled at her.

“Lady Eryn, I commend you on your powers of deduction. How immensely satisfying that all this tutoring and the practical experience you have garnered over these past few years seem to have sharpened your ability to apply common sense.”

At that she just raised her brow and met his gaze without blinking. You just play down that I saw right through you and you don’t appreciate it at all, she thought, satisfied with his displeasure. This was the very first time she had guessed his intentions more quickly than he wanted her to, and she intended to savour this moment, memorise it so it could serve to cheer her up when she needed it. His attempt to make her feel dejected to cover his own inadequacy just made it all the sweeter.

King Folrin turned back to the two men. “As Lady Eryn pointed out so shrewdly, I intend to take a companion. Ideally, this lady would originate from the Western Territories. I don’t have to tell you that choosing somebody is not a task to be undertaken lightly. My choice will very likely have some significant influence on the political balance in Takhan. The House to which my future companion belongs is sure to gain considerable influence, which may cause existing alliances to crumble and new ones to form to either benefit from this development or somehow counterbalance it.”

Enric didn’t like where this was going. “This means you are commanding us to assist you in making a choice that will cause as little political upheaval as possible?”

The monarch lifted his chin. “Not commanding you, Lord Enric. I am asking for your assistance.”

Assistance, Enric thought angrily. He wanted to delegate the responsibility in case his choice turned out more troublesome than anyone could anticipate.

The King’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I know what you are thinking, Lord Enric. It is exactly what I would be suspecting were I in your place. But let me assure you that I am perfectly capable and willing to bear the consequences of my own actions.” He stepped directly in front of Enric, lifting his hand to touch his own throat; a reminder of when it had been Enric’s hand back then after the King had forced a single kiss on Eryn. “I always have, wouldn’t you agree?” the Kind said in a lowered voice. He took a step back, addressing all three of them again. “What I am asking of you is to aid me in my decision. Your knowledge, insights and experience in Takhan are superior to anything my sources of information have been able to provide. I need you to share with me those things I wouldn’t think of asking about. The decision concerning whether or not you wish to make your involvement in this process known is yours.”

Ram’kel was the first to bow and say, “I would be honoured to assist you in this matter, Your Majesty.”

Enric hesitated for a few seconds before nodding. “As am I.”

All three heads turned towards Eryn, who frowned and folded her arms. “I understand why you would want their help. But why mine? I don’t consciously maintain contacts with important people. In many cases I even actively avoid it. What support could I possibly provide that my companion and the Ambassador couldn’t?”

King Folrin regarded her with a small smile. “You underestimate your usefulness, my dear Lady. You may not seek important people’s good opinion or company, yet your status is quite an exalted one owing to your being the daughter of a triarch, sister to a Head of House as well as having the highest-ranking healer in the Western Territories as your father. Your family alone is comprised of some of the most powerful people in the country. So even if you do not wish to socialise with the high and mighty, there is no way to avoid it in your case. And I value your opinion, my Lady. I count on your help in evaluating every suggestion that will be presented to me. May I count on your help as well, Lady Eryn? It would be most esteemed.”

Well, she had little choice in the matter. “Of course, Your Majesty.”

“Excellent. I would ask of you all to provide me with a general assessment of the current political situation in Takhan. This might provide some first insight as to which Houses to exclude on principle. Lady Eryn, I do not expect yours to be quite as thorough, since your lack of interest in areas of politics would make that rather hard. Yet it is a good exercise for you to gain more perception into what is going on in one of your countries of residence. I shall expect your reports with first recommendations of the advantageous Houses in ten days. I trust you will keep this matter confidential for now. You are dismissed.”

Eryn bowed stiffly and waited for the two men to follow suit before they all turned to leave the throne room.

Marrin smiled. “Lord Enric and the Ambassador didn’t seem to mind the assignment very much after you clarified that they wouldn’t be held accountable in case the final choice turned out to be problematic. Yet Lady Eryn was anything but pleased about being involved. I wonder if she will be quite as useful as you hope.”

King Folrin’s lips twitched. “Not when it comes to analysing political situations, there I agree wholeheartedly. But I wish to involve her from the beginning because she will turn out to be useful when I go to Takhan to meet whichever candidates we select in person. Despite all this restraint she has learned to show in polite company, she still is the one of those three most likely to let me have her unadulterated opinion. Nothing I wish for her to express whenever the fancy strikes her, but undoubtedly an asset when making an important choice such as selecting a future queen for myself and my Kingdom.”

*   *   *

“I can’t believe he is dragging us into this,” Eryn sighed after Enric had closed the door to his study behind her and Ram’kel, who had followed them in unspoken consent. She let herself drop onto the sofa while the two men remained standing.

“He obviously does not wish to face this challenge on his own,” Ram’kel shrugged. “And people with connections and influence in the Western Territories and a tight connection to himself are an obvious choice to consult,” he pointed out. “Let us consider it a sign of trust instead of a bothersome assignment, shall we not?”

Eryn rolled her eyes at him. “You obviously enjoy being important, don’t you?”

The Ambassador’s expression remained unfazed as he replied, “But of course I do. Why do you think I wanted to become an ambassador in the first place? Now, let us rather talk of the task we have been entrusted with.” He looked at Enric who motioned for him to go on. “I can provide you with a general overview of descendants of the leading family of each house, who the current generations are promised to and already joined with, and who is still available. You can imagine that there are not many candidates left in the main branches of the families who will be available.”

“Yes,” Eryn mumbled, “since you like to make companionship arrangements for them as soon as they are old enough to hold a spoon. If you even wait that long.”

Enric threw her a warning glance to shut her up. This was not a particularly cooperative attitude right now.

Ram’kel didn’t let himself be thrown off track. “For more detailed information of other members of the Houses not descended from the Head’s direct line we will have to contact somebody with access to such information in Takhan.” He looked at Eryn. “I would suggest that you ask your father to aid us in this. Not only does the clinic store all medical files about everyone ever born and treated in Takhan, but the Vel’kim family also have their own records of illnesses and inherited diseases. You will just have to avoid mentioning to him why we need this information in order to fulfil His Majesty’s requirement of confidentiality.”

Eryn nodded. That did sound like a sensible plan. That way they could see who was actually available. With a little luck that would narrow the selection down.

“So,” Ram’kel said with a smile, “what do you think of your King’s decision finally to take a companion and provide his country with a queen and heir?”

“We are thrilled, of course,” Enric said dryly.

Eryn didn’t reply. She wasn’t really sure how she felt about it. She’d had gone through her own unpleasant experiences with the King, and delivering a woman into his hands somehow felt… abnormal. What kind of woman would suit both the King and the country? One as ruthless and unscrupulous as himself so they’d match on a personal level? But what would that mean for the Kingdom? Wasn’t one such person on top more than enough? Yet what was the alternative? A kind and caring woman concerned with people’s wellbeing who would probably crumble under the political pressure and the frustration of having a companion with completely different priorities to her own? Was it a realistic goal to try and find somebody who was a suitable match for the King’s character and would make a suitable queen?

And on top of all this the woman had to come from the right family in order avoid political tensions beyond reason. Finding him a companion was probably the most bothersome assignment she had received from him yet. Oh, sheer joy!

Of course she could mention none of this to Ram’kel, even though she suspected that he knew in what direction her thoughts went. Even after five years she still hadn’t decided whether or not it had been a canny move to help him become the next ambassador to Anyueel. He wasn’t doing a bad job, she had to admit reluctantly. Though he bestowed on her the dubious honour of dropping his smooth diplomatic demeanour in her presence and enjoyed teasing and provoking her. Not to a degree that warranted setting him boundaries, he was too sharp for that. Yet enough to at times vex her and make her want to give him a good kicking.

Ram’kel looked at Enric, obviously not expecting any helpful input from Eryn. “Is there anything else I can do to aid you in preparing the analysis we are expected to present in ten days? Even though I know that you have your own sources, I would suggest not collecting the same information more than once. It might arouse suspicion and start rumours, which is exactly what we wish to avoid at this time. We would not wish for the Houses to flood us with suggestions for suitable candidates and warnings about picking one House over another.”

Enric nodded. “I agree. We will let you know in case we need additional information so we can coordinate our efforts at collecting it.”

The ambassador nodded and took Eryn’s hand to kiss it, enjoying the spark of annoyance her eyes still showed after all these years. It was an unnecessary gesture when they were amongst themselves, and she knew for a fact that he only did it because she hated formalities of any kind. The more if they were completely gratuitous such as right at this moment. If he was in a particularly mischievous mood he even addressed her as Lady Maltheá. Not today, though. He never went that far with Enric present.

As soon as Ram’kel had left their home, Eryn groaned and covered her face with her hands.

“Can you believe that? This man coerced me into agreeing to become your companion by threatening to spend the night with me, forced a kiss on me to make you go to the Western Territories and had an affair with my own mother! And now he wants me to support him in finding a companion? How absurd is that? Where do I find a woman I detest enough to do this to her? Especially, since Valcredy isn’t available anymore?”

Enric ignored that last remark about Ram’an’s companion. “This is not all bad, Eryn. The King has granted us a significant influence over the Kingdom’s future by asking us to aid him in this matter. Provided he acts on our recommendations, that is.”

“I don’t want this influence! It might mean that the people or the King himself will blame us in case things go wrong. What if the new queen turns out to be some kind of power-hungry maniac? It’s not as though the range of available women will be particularly extensive. Apart from her stemming from the right – or at least not the wrong – House, she also needs to be a non-magician so as not to break our laws here relating to that. What’s your estimate of how many non-magicians we will be able to find in leading families of a society that has been bred for magical strength over these last few centuries?”

He nodded. “I know. Nobody said it would be an easy task.”

She ground her teeth but swallowed her reply when the entrance door opened and she heard Vedric’s voice while he was chattering with his grandmother, who had been minding him during their meeting with the King.

A little later the boy came running into his father’s study, launching himself into his mother’s arms.

“We went to see Inad today!” Vedric beamed. “She says we are cousins!”

Eryn made herself smile. At least somebody was thrilled about that little factoid. “So you liked it at Inad’s place? How nice to hear.”

Gerit came in little later – presumably after neatly tucking away her own and Vedric’s cloak. As the boy couldn’t reach the hooks yet he simply let his own drop to the floor. She needed to see to having another, lower, hook fixed to the wall so she could properly teach him not to leave a mess wherever he went.

“Thank you for minding him,” Enric said to his mother. “I hear he enjoyed his visit to Inad’s.”

Gerit smiled warmly at the boy on Eryn’s lap. “He really did. And he was so well-behaved.”

Eryn raised one eyebrow. “He was? Are you sure you took the right kid along?”

“Oh, mother!” the boy wailed. “That was mean! I’m adorable! That’s what Inad said.”

“My mistake. I wouldn’t want to disagree with Inad, would I?”

Satisfied with his mother’s admission of her error, he switched to another important topic. “Can I have a bread bun?”

Eryn shook her head. “No. We are having lunch in about one hour. You’d only spoil your appetite.”

“Just one? Pleeeeeease?”

His mother shook her head. “No. You can have one later after you finish lunch.”

“You are so hard on me!” he wailed. “Why not?”

“Because you need the nutrition for growing into a strong lad that bread buns simply can’t provide.”

“Why?”

“Because the baker didn’t mean for them to be eaten instead of a real meal but as desserts or little snacks in between.”

“Why?”

Eryn decided to put a stop to the questions right now. It was one thing to explain matters to enable her son to better understand the world around him but another to let him wreck her nerves. “You should go and ask him that.”

He blinked. That was not an answer he had expected. It deprived him of the chance to continue his monosyllabic questioning. But he could always return to his initial objective.

“I want a bread bun!”

Now Enric stepped forward, giving him a stern glance. “Your mother said no. And if you don’t stop pestering her, there won’t be any dessert for you later anyway.”

Vedric pouted and crossed his arms but didn’t answer back this time.

Gerit jumped in, holding out her hand for the boy to take. “I promised Vyril to visit her at the orphanage today. You can accompany me, if you like.”

“The orphanage?” Vedric perked up, his frustration about not being allowed to indulge in his fondness for sweets already forgotten. “Are there many boys in this one? The one in Takhan had a lot of boys living there!”

“I think there are a fair number of them, yes,” his grandmother said casually. “Does that mean you will come with me?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Vedic jumped up and clapped his hands before dashing out of the room.

Eryn sighed deeply and looked up at her companion. “Why does that boy never listen to me? Why does it always take a stern word from you to make him shut up? Am I too lenient with him? Surely not! Junar even says I’m unreasonably strict. Not that this counts for much, mind you. She and Orrin spoil that daughter of theirs rotten. That’s what happens when a woman who thought she was barren and a man in his fifties have a child together.”

“I don’t think this is about you, my love. It’s probably that I’m just more imposing, physically speaking. Don’t forget he has seen me wielding a sword. That might be pretty much all it takes to make him reconsider the wisdom of opposing me too much.”

His companion snorted. “That’s exactly what I don’t want him go grow up believing – that swinging a sword and being tall and mighty is what really counts in life.”

“He is only five years old. There will be ample opportunity for us to teach him proper values.” He pulled her up from the sofa. “Come on, let’s prepare a meal as long as mother is keeping Vedric busy.”

*   *   *

Eryn sullenly drew the sword. Time to get this over with. The first training session with Orrin after her return from the West was always the hardest one. While her occasional sparring in Takhan with Kilan, Pe’tala or Enric always served to merely maintain her skills at their current level, Orrin was still determined to develop them. No matter how unnecessary she herself found that. Yet Tyront had given Orrin leave to proceed in whatever way he considered workable, so there was little she could do about that.

“You know that the next game is scheduled for two weeks’ time, don’t you?” Orrin asked while slowly starting to circle her.

“I have no intention of participating, if that’s what you’re asking me,” she replied.

The game had turned into a regular event since she had come up with the idea of it about six years ago in Takhan. Orrin and Enric had devised a set of rules, immediately recognising the potential for making people train their combat skills voluntarily. Since then the game had been turned into a tournament. Both Takhan and Anyueel organised a game twice a year for their own people – and one larger event to set the best players from each country against the other. The previous year’s winner then hosted the next event.

Orrin had stopped training children several years ago and now focused on imparting advanced battle skills to ambitious players from both sides of the sea. Interestingly enough, a few of the best players from the Kingdom were actually healers. For Eryn that was completely incomprehensible since she imagined that turning to healing was for many magicians the only way of escaping the constant striving to improve combat skills and actually doing something useful. Making healing their profession and pursuing combat in their spare time somehow didn’t fit her picture of how things functioned.

The upcoming game was not the big one, but one of the two smaller ones. Every year Orrin tried anew to get her enthused about participating in the game, pointing out that she as the creator should not only be a part of it but also avoid being among the first to be kicked out.

Eryn kept explaining the exact same thing to him year after year – that her inspiration for coming up with the idea was watching children play hide and seek, seeing how much they enjoyed the very same game she herself had been playing at their age. In her imagination, there was a lot less battle strategy, fighting in formation and setting traps. For her this was not a game any longer, but a rehearsal for war. Which was the very image that appealed to Orrin in his capacity as the Head of Warriors.

Despite knowing her sentiments he repeatedly tried to include her, too stubborn to simply accept that war games were against everything she stood for.

To her surprise he no longer pursued the issue but broke out in a completely new direction when he said, “I’m worried about…” – he attacked and retreated as she parried his strike – “…Vern.”

“You are?”

“I have the impression he is avoiding me. And when I finally manage to make him have dinner with us he seems distracted and glum. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice anything?”

Eryn nodded. “I did. But this was to be expected. He returned home after all this time, coming to a place that’s nothing like the one he left behind.”

“Shouldn’t he embrace this change? This place’s being the way it was induced him to go away, after all,” the warrior reasoned.

“That may be the case, but he still counted on returning to something familiar. But the city has changed so much that he finds himself a stranger yet again. An uninspiring yet familiar home is better than a more progressive but unknown one. He used to be a shining star in Takhan, this young, immensely talented artist who is at the same time a healer – a combination unheard of and highly desired over there. Yet here, despite all these changes, his talent for drawing and painting remains undervalued, and with healers from Takhan now stationed here he is not even amongst the most advanced professionals in that area either. It’s hard for him, and he fights against falling back into the role he had before – the one of an outsider.”

Orrin let his sword sink, a sure sign of his distress. He was a great advocate of never letting one’s guard down, especially when facing somebody with a drawn weapon.

“That’s not encouraging, not at all. As long as he doesn’t feel he fits in he might consider returning to the Western Territories. I just got him back, I don’t want him to leave again.” He sighed heavily. “Is there anything I can do? Or something you could do?”

Eryn shook her head. “I can’t think of anything. Unless you know a nice young girl he might fall in love with.”

Orrin pursed his lips. “He seems rather taken with Plia, now that you mention it. He casually asks Junar about how she has been doing these last years whenever he visits.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You better get that right out of your head again, Orrin! Vern doesn’t deserve Plia, not after how he treated her when he was away. Did you know that he didn’t write to her even once? She had a crush on him when he went to Takhan, and only a little later did she and everybody else hear that he was having one affair after the other. Plia has been meeting up with her young man for more than two years now, a steady and reliable chap – exactly what a girl who grew up not knowing where to get her next meal from needs and deserves. Don’t you dare use her to bind your son to this place, I’m warning you! This is not how you would want your own daughter to be used.”

The warrior blinked, surprised at this outburst. “Of course not,” he assured her hurriedly. “I didn’t mean to imply that I intended to use her for my own purposes.”

Good, she thought. Not that she would have let him.

“How are things going at the clinic?” Orrin enquired, obviously eager to move on to a lighter conversation topic with less potential for controversy.

“Everything is going well so far. We are currently looking for suitable buildings in the clinic’s vicinity. We are running out of space.”

They resumed their sword fighting, not talking for a while, just attacking and parrying.

“He is a good lad, you know,” Orrin finally said. “He may have been a little thoughtless in the way he treated Plia, but that his glamorous new lifestyle went to his head doesn’t mean that he intended to hurt her.”

Eryn nodded. “I know that. Yet he still has to bear the consequences and decide whether or not he wants to try and win her back as a friend. I sincerely hope he won’t try to disrupt her relationship for his own selfish reasons.”

“Of course he won’t,” Orrin stated confidently.

Eryn didn’t comment on that. She didn’t share that conviction quite as wholeheartedly.

Enric checked once again the shipping papers for the goods they had arrived with on the ship to make sure the lists contained everything he had ordered. So far the only thing that had gone missing was a bale of purple silk cloth.

Kilan had offered him his study for the morning as there was a matter Enric wanted to take care of. One that required some privacy, as it was rather delicate.

He had learned about the short encounter between Eryn, Pe’tala and Ram’an at the teahouse the day before and Eryn’s spontaneous decision to throw his bracelet back at him. A harsh gesture, and probably none he was very pleased about, Enric mused.

Ram’an was the visitor he was expecting any moment now. Enric had sent him a short message yesterday afternoon and had received a confirmation for the meeting today little later. The residence was quiet at the moment, considering how well-inhabited it currently was. Junar and Orrin were at a tailor’s shop, Vern was at the clinic with Valrad and Kilan had decided to meet with somebody at a teahouse. The only one at the residence apart from himself was Eryn.

After the trying day she’d had, Eryn’s night had not been exactly restful, either. She had lain awake for hours and spent the little time after she drifted off into a fitful sleep tossing and turning. Only in the early hours when the day announced itself had she finally collapsed into something that resembled unconsciousness more than sleep.

He heard the knocking and quickly moved towards the entrance door to admit Ram’an. He didn’t want to wake Eryn and have her unexpectedly face his visitor only moments after getting up. He had briefly considered meeting at the Arbil residence instead, but discarded the idea again as he didn’t want Eryn to be alone for the present.

After he had opened the door, it took him a moment to recognise the man he had invited. Ram’an looked different, and not to his advantage. He had lost weight and there were lines showing on his face that had not been there a few months ago. So it seemed his father’s death and the strain of taking over the House had taken their toll.

“Ram’an,” he nodded and stretched out his hand for the formal greeting. “Thank you for coming. Please come in.”

“Enric,” the other man nodded. “Your message was rather terse, but I assumed that you would not ask to meet me barely after arriving here if it were not important.

Enric handed his guest a moist towel and waited until he had wiped his face and hands before going ahead of him up the stairs.

When Ram’an had entered the study, he closed the door and motioned for the other man to sit.

“What can I offer you drink, Ram’an?”

“Water will be fine, thank you.”

Enric poured them each a glass and placed one before his visitor before taking a seat behind Kilan’s desk.

“Before we get to the reason why you have asked me to come, let me congratulate you on the child you are expecting. I admit I was a bit surprised that you have managed to change her mind about having children that swiftly.” His gaze became slightly leery. “I am assuming that you were able to change her mind?”

“As opposed to forcing her to become pregnant?” Enric enquired candidly.

“I admit that thought has crossed my mind, yes,” Ram’an admitted calmly.

“I have not sunk that low, no.”

“Does this mean that she wanted to have children?” the lawyer asked again.

Enric pursed his lips. Evasive answers were clearly not going to wash with a man of the law. At least not with this one.

“Saying that would probably be going a little too far,” he said carefully.

“It would?” Ram’an narrowed his eyes at him. “Are you telling me that she did not want to have this child, but that you are not the one who is responsible for its conception?” He thought for a moment, then stiffened and drew in a breath. “Malriel.”

“I would like to point out that I have not put words to any such allegation,” Enric stated impassively.

“Of course not. Tell me why I am here.”

Enric pushed the shipping papers towards him.

Ram’an looked down and frowned at the list that ran to different kinds of wine, fabrics, spices, herbs, wood and ore.

“I am afraid I do not quite follow you.”

“A debt between us that has not yet been settled. I am herewith changing this.”

He watched understanding and then shock appear on the other man’s face. “A shipload of goods… Oh no. You are not serious, are you?”

“I am. A load of my produce in exchange for an embrace,” Enric nodded and raised both brows when the list was shoved back at him.

“I told you, I did not expect you to comply with that condition. I just wanted to see how desperate you really were back then and was hoping to make you appear like a miser. I did not count on your honouring that condition.” He got to his feet and turned towards the door. “And neither will I take those goods from you. I do not charge a man a king’s ransom for supporting the woman he loves. Good bye to you, Enric. I will see you at the Senate tomorrow, I assume,” he said coolly.

“Ram’an, please wait,” Enric sighed.

The dark-haired man breathed out patiently and turned back with some reluctance.

“We both know that you are currently not in a position to refuse a load of goods that will fetch a very good price. I was permitted to bring them here over and above the already fulfilled trade quota between our countries, as the wares are not meant to generate profit for me. I couldn’t sell them here even if I wished. It would be breaking the conditions of getting them here. So you either accept them or I can as well give them away on the streets.”

“I cannot take them. Your gesture might be a noble one, but for me to accept it would be shameful,” Ram’an said quietly. “You are right, there is not much I have left at the moment, my House stands on the brink of ruin. But what I do still have is my pride. I will find another way of getting back on course.”

Enric sighed. Pride. Of course. That was hardly a great surprise. He himself would very probably have reacted the same way.

“Then let me make you an offer instead. You will accept the goods from me and consider them as a loan that enables you to meet your current payment obligations.” He gave a thin smile, then added what he knew would make agreement easier for the man opposite him. “I am not doing this out of pure goodness of my heart. I am about to take over House Aren for a time, and House Vel’kim is for now the only ally I can be sure of retaining. Helping your House recover will surely earn me your goodwill. And for House Aren – a strong ally is a lot more useful than a weak one. Let’s get you back on your feet for our mutual benefit, shall we?”

Ram’an stared at him, clearly torn. Enric waited patiently for him to nod in agreement.

“Good. Then you will pay me back when you can afford to. Take your time, though. As I told you, my interests are not of a monetary nature with you.”

“I will prepare a formal agreement so as to have the conditions of our deal in written form,” the Head of House Arbil sighed. “I will send a messenger when I am done to have you approve of the content.”

“Don’t bother. As I was willing to give the goods to you for free, I will be satisfied with whatever terms you see as appropriate.”

“Then I suppose the only thing that is left for me to do is to thank you.”

Enric shook his head. “There is no need for that. I think we have established that I am not doing this for entirely charitable reasons.”

Ram’an finally managed a smile. “Of course not. I simply forgot for a moment that you are a hard, no-nonsense business man without consideration for anything other than his own advantage.”

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking I am relenting because I am not kicking you while you are down,” Enric replied mildly. “I have my pride, too.”

“I would not make such a mistake. Eryn would not have accepted a weak man.”

Good, Enric thought. He had been wondering how to broach that subject.

“About Eryn. I assume you are not harbouring any more hopes about winning her for yourself now that we are not only joined in a third level bond, but are also about to have a child together.”

Ram’an glared at him. “No. I am no fool. I know when I am beaten.”

“Splendid. Then I can safely ask you to set things straight with her again. After yesterday she could do with another friend here.”

“Yesterday, yes…” Ram’an nodded slowly. “Quite a mess, is it not? A sensitive matter for House Vel’kim that causes them considerable solicitude. I imagine that Eryn is not happy about this entire setup. Especially not as it will all be revealed to the Senate tomorrow.”

Enric narrowed his eyes. “You are aware of this?”

“Of course. That kind of news is hard to keep secret in a city like that.”

Both men regarded each other for a few moments, before Enric slowly shook his head. “Just a minute; I think you are trying to trick me into telling you about it! Pe’tala told me that you saw them yesterday at the teahouse. Clever.”

“Not clever enough, it seems,” Ram’an sighed. “So I will have to wait until tomorrow, after all. Can you at least tell me if is something bad? The three of them did seem rather agitated yesterday at the teahouse.”

Enric grimaced. “The trouble is that depending on who you ask, the answer to that is either yes or no.”

Ram’an opened the study door and stepped out into the corridor that led to the main room. “Alright, then I will wait patiently until the Senate meeting.”

Enric felt a surge of annoyance and panic through the mind bond. That had to mean that Eryn had got up and heard Ram’an’s voice. He had not told her that he had asked the Head of House Arbil to come here today, and from what he could perceive she was not pleased.

He slowly walked towards the main room, giving her enough time to retreat if she wished so.

When the corridor opened into the main room, he was surprised to see her sitting calmly on the cushions, holding a glass of tea in her hand. Her external appearance did not betray any of the commotion he detected inside her. He was impressed.

She pretended to notice them only now and put her tea aside on the low table before her before she rose with a polite smile. Enric thought how much more elegant she looked rising from the cushions than a few months ago. He wondered if she had secretly been practising.

“Ram’an,” she nodded and walked towards him, stretching out her hand to greet him formally.

His guest looked slightly puzzled, but recovered quickly and smiled at her, taking her hand in his to kiss it.

“Eryn. I am glad to see that you are in a better mood today,” he said with a casual smile.

She nodded. “The pregnancy, you know. It does make me prone to even more extreme mood swings than before. At least that is what I have been told,” she replied lightly.

Enric watched her closely. She kept Ram’an at a distance with cool politeness and meaningless chitchat. Unusual. This was not her preferred way of showing disapproval, if a hardly less effective one judging by Ram’an’s uneasy frown.

“Then having you around will be an even greater adventure than before, my dear,” he smiled and winked at her.

She ignored the familiar gesture completely and appeared thoughtful for a moment before she replied, “I certainly don’t hope so. I try to spare people around me as well as I am able. If you would excuse me now, Ram’an, I need to get myself ready for an appointment. It was nice to see you.”

“Yes,” he said, slightly confused, “it was. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow. I am sure we will meet at the Senate before we do at the dinner.”

Her smile was cool. “Certainly.” Thus she turned and walked back to the table to pick up her tea before retreating to the corridor that led to their bedroom.

Ram’an stared after her, then slowly turned to look at Enric. “She has either become a lot better at pretending than she used to be, or she has somehow managed to turn her anger at me from yesterday into indifference inside one single day.” He shook his head. “I very much hope it is the first one. The other option would truly disturb me.”

Enric nodded. He knew well enough that she was everything else but impassive, but maybe thinking so would motivate Ram’an to make every effort to mend his dealings with her. He accompanied his guest downstairs to the door to see him off and then returned to their bedroom.

He leaned against the doorframe and folded his arms, watching her stand in front of the window with her tea and staring out into the small garden unseeingly.

“That was interesting. Your little performance impressed and unsettled Ram’an quite a lot. Had it not been for the mind bond, even I might have fallen for it,” he commented.

She turned and sighed, the cool façade having slipped. “I have decided that I cannot keep snarling and spitting poison at all the people I am upset with right now. There are too many of them around, and all of them happen to be Heads of Houses.”

He chuckled. “Yes, you do have a propensity for taking a dislike to important people. So your new approach consists of cool and aloof politeness? I admit it was effective enough right now, but I wonder if this is the right way for you. It seems out of character.” Disconcertingly so, he added to himself. It felt wrong and he wondered how hurt she truly had to be to be able to keep the impulses that had made encounters with her stimulating if not exactly hazard-free, locked up within.

She took a sip from her glass and perched herself on the low windowsill. “I remember a conversation with Malriel the evening before her departure, when she must have slipped me the potion. I told her that I have no more intention of hating her, as this only means hurting myself, and that I would work towards being indifferent to her. She said that this was even worse than hate, and I am beginning to think that she is right. Not worse, mind you, that is just her point of view. I think it is more final, more powerful. And it will give me peace.”

He swallowed. “And you intend to use this new strategy on Valrad and Ram’an as well as with her?”

“I do, yes,” she confirmed. “Maybe it is time to say goodbye to the legendary Aren temper. It is nothing more than a burden, a character flaw.” She walked towards him and leaned her forehead against his shoulder, smiling when his arms encircled her. “Time to grow up.”

She didn’t see his concerned expression. This felt wrong, as if she had decided to stop being herself.

“A pity,” he murmured, “It was what first fascinated me about you. I would miss it very much.”

She chuckled. “Then I will treat you to a private performance every now and then when you have the impression that your life is about to become too dull or peaceful.”

“I will hold you to that,” he remarked airily and wondered how well she would really be able to follow her resolution. He hoped not to the degree she had demonstrated only minutes ago.

*  *  *

Vern stormed into the main room and let himself collapse onto the cushions right next to Eryn. He had just returned from his visit at the clinic. An extended one, as he had left in the morning and now the sun was about to set.

“You seem to be walking on air,” she commented when he grinned broadly at her and couldn’t help but smile back. “I assume you had a satisfying day?”

“It was incredible,” he sighed, clearly tired but blissed out. “The building is so big! So many healers! And they were happy to meet me of all people! Can you imagine that? They have all seen the book I gave to Ram’an back then, and they told me what extraordinary work it was. Then they asked me questions about healing back home in Anyueel and gave me a tour of the entire clinic! They have so many different areas of expertise here, I don’t even remember all of them! I even met the Head of the clinic, but I forgot his name. He said it would be his pleasure to let me work and learn here for the duration of my stay! Can you believe that? I am going to work there!”

Eryn smiled her wide approval at him.

“What is this commotion about?” Orrin asked when he entered the room. “Junar is having a lie-down, so you had better lower your volume.”

“Sorry, father,” Vern grimaced. “I got carried away.”

The warrior smiled and came closer to join them. “I assume you had a successful day with Valrad?”

The boy’s face brightened again and he resumed rhapsodising. “Absolutely! I swear to you, they treated me like a king! They have a huge library there and they said I could go there and use it as often as I wanted. And they have something like a pub directly at the clinic where all people who work there can eat for free if they have this little silver badge. They call it a cantina, I think. The pub, not the badge. And they were asking about you, Eryn,” he went on. “Especially one rather unfriendly healer, the one without magic.”

“Sarol,” she added with a grin.

“Yes, right, him. And another one, rather young but very important. An expert on head-things, I think.”

“Iklan probably?”

He thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, that does sound familiar. They wanted to know when you would be dropping by and why you didn’t come today and how you are doing and…”

“Vern? Don’t forget to take a breath every now and then,” she chuckled.

“Pe’tala was there, too,” he went on after drawing a deep breath. “The unfriendly healer was happy to see her, I think, but he didn’t want to admit it. Ram’an’s cousin, the healer who wanted the drawings, was there as well. I showed him my pictures and I swear to you, he was completely speechless for almost a minute! He then showed the pictures around and they were immensely impressed and kept saying that they had never before seen anything like it!”

Eryn laughed. “Good thing you have ears, my lad, or your grin would circle your whole head and make the top half fall off.” His good mood was contagious.

“They think I am brilliant and a genius!” he giggled lightheadedly.

She ruffled his hair. “You are, Vern. And it seems you have come to the right place to have people appreciate that.”

“That they have! And your fa… Valrad,” he corrected himself hastily, “had to send people away and promise them that he would take me to them some other time because they all were pushing to talk to me! Did you know that he is very important there? He used to be in charge of the place but stepped back voluntarily to concentrate more on leading his House and working with patients again.”

“Yes, I heard about that,” Eryn remarked dryly. “I was here once before, remember?”

“Yes, that’s right. Of course,” he nodded, shaking his head at himself. “You know what? They offered me a place with their trainee healers for classes!” He fumbled for a sheet of paper. “This is a list of the topics the second years are going through in the next ten days, and I can just go there and listen to what they are being taught! How amazing is that?”

“Pretty amazing,” she nodded. “I swear to you, if you manage to get certified as a healer here before me, I will throttle you. And you can’t even defend yourself because there is no hitting the pregnant lady,” she sighed.

He jumped up. “That reminds me!” He dashed downstairs and came back a few moments later with a heavy book under one arm. “This Sarol guy sent this along for you. He said now that you are back and have time at your hands you might as well do something useful with it. He wants you to read this. It is about non-magical diagnosis, I think.”

Eryn grabbed the book eagerly. “Thank you! That is great; it means he wants me to start preparing for the last missing exam!” It would give her something to do here, finally!

“He is really rude, you know,” the boy pointed out. “I wonder why everybody puts up with it, even your… Valrad.”

She swallowed her annoyance at his repeated lapse. “Because he is really, really, really good at what he is doing. He has revolutionised non-magical healing, has turned it into a real discipline that is now acknowledged to such a degree that even magician healers have to learn something about it,” she explained. “He is a genius, too.” She looked up from the book and into his inquisitive face. “And just like you, he is entitled to his peculiarities because of it. If he is unfriendly to you, it means that he likes you. If he doesn’t like you, he doesn’t even bother noticing you.”

That made him think. “I see.” Then he grinned. “That probably means he likes me. He snapped at me twice!”

She giggled. “Sure proof.”

“You look dusty, sweaty and exhausted,” Orrin cut in. “I think you should take a bath and make yourself presentable for dinner. Enric is in the kitchen preparing it right now, so it will soon be ready. Off you go.”

Vern obeyed reluctantly and shuffled off.

“How are you doing, my girl?” he asked when they were alone. “You still don’t look like yourself, though I can see that Vern’s enthusiasm just now has perked you up.”

“I am well enough, Orrin. Thank you for asking,” she smiled. “I am just tired. I didn’t sleep very well or for long last night. Maybe I will ask Vern to give me little magical push this time. I want to be well rested tomorrow for that damn Senate meeting.” Her expression had become dark.

“Are you sure you want to go there? I didn’t have the impression that you will be able to stop him from announcing his news to the Senate.”

She shook her head. “No, I won’t. I am aware of that. But there is a thing or two I want to say there as well.”

“There is?” he frowned.

“Yes.” She looked up in relief when Kilan entered the main room. “Where have you been all day long? I thought you just wanted to meet somebody for tea?”

“Initially, I did. But then I ended up at his house answering a lot of questions about the newcomers that are staying at my place.”

She grinned. “That’s what you get for harbouring guests. Next time you ought to think twice before agreeing to that.”

“I could hardly let you poor castaway travellers sleep on the street, could I?” he smirked. “Imagine the political consequences if one of your two monsters had snacked on a Takhan citizen.”

“Then let me congratulate you on your providence. I had thought that your hospitality had something to do with the fact that Orrin and I happen to be your superiors and you didn’t dare refuse our request on that account. But I was obviously mistaken.”

Kilan took a fresh glass and poured himself a glass of dark fruit juice. “At least you realised your mistake. Enric is cooking dinner, I assume?”

“He is, yes,” she confirmed. “How about your own cooking skills? Have you improved them in these last months here?”

He nodded. “There was no other way. They laugh at adults who cannot cook a proper meal. Ask me how much fun it is to prepare formal dinners for thirty or forty people all alone. I spend almost all day long in the kitchen. In addition to going hunting first, of course.” His smiled then. “But at least this will not be a problem tomorrow as I have quite a number of helpers here.”

“Tomorrow?” she frowned. “But tomorrow is the welcome… Oh no. No! Please not.”

“No what?” Orrin enquired.

“The bloody welcome dinner,” she sighed. “It is going to be held here at the ambassadorial residence, isn’t it?”

The ambassador nodded. “Yes. Both Malriel and Valrad requested such.” He shot her a meaningful look. “Very likely because they wanted to make sure you have no other choice but to attend since it is at the place you are staying at.”

She moaned. “But that means that I have to stay until the very end! Come on, why didn’t you refuse?”

He looked at her indulgently. “Refuse a polite request from two powerful Heads of Houses? Is that a serious question?”

“I am not going to help you cook!”

“That is just as well, after your reaction just now I would be worried about your poisoning the lot of them,” he snorted. “But as I still have the three men here in addition to Vran’el, who has offered his help, we will manage somehow without you.”

Her face soured and she sighed. All these people here at this place with no chance to leave early. It was not even possible for her to claim indisposition in order to have an early night. There were just too many healers around to take care of whatever ailment she used as a pretext. And they would of course work out quickly enough that it was an excuse and probably even expose her to the others. Who would ever have thought that staying in a city with so many well-trained, knowledgeable healers could turn out to be such a nuisance?

»End of extract«

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“Family Bonds” – The Order: Book 5

Chapter 1

An Heir for House Vel’kim

“Why can’t I block the pain?” Eryn hissed between clenched teeth as another contraction clamped her innards.

Valrad was standing next to her bed at the clinic, enduring her vice-like grip around his fingers in manly fashion. The tips already looked slightly bluish from reduced circulation.

“You should not because this pain is not supposed to be blocked,” he explained patiently. “It is meant to guide you through the birth, to give you signals.”

“I don’t care about any signals! I want this to be over!” she moaned and blinked when a young woman entered the room. She was holding something long and golden in her hands. A belt.

“What exactly do you think you are doing with this?” Eryn shouted. “You will not take my magic away! Off you go! Out!” The last word was a vicious bark that, surprisingly, failed to impress the young healer. Very obviously so judging from her almost amused expression. This was clearly not the first moody woman on the verge of giving birth she had encountered.

“Valrad,” the woman said gently, “either I will wrestle her into submission or you can put it on her.”

“You can try that, dear,” Eryn scowled at her, “but unless you are immune to magic or stronger than me, I would not recommend it. There is every chance that I am stronger than the both of you together, so don’t even think about it!”

“But not stronger than me,” a measured voice came from the door. Ram’an walked in and put aside the bag he had brought from the Aren residence for her.

“You wouldn’t!” she snarled.

He took the belt from the healer’s unresisting hands and stepped next to her. “Eryn, there is a very good reason for damping down a magician’s power when she is about to give birth. And after what just happened at the Senate hall, I would think it is a rather obvious one.”

“You are taking away my power to keep me from harming somebody? I won’t, I promise! I will behave!” she pleaded.

He took her hand in his and pressed a kiss onto her knuckles. “I am sorry, but there is no avoiding it. I have no doubt that you have no intention of harming anybody or destroying anything, but neither had you at the Senate meeting, I am assuming. Great strain in the form of emotions or sensations such as pain can cause a magician to lose control. And in your case, my dear girl, that might easily mean unwittingly collapsing the entire clinic on top of us,” he explained carefully. “And it is not as if you can heal away any of your pain, anyway. Your magic would be useless, and in addition to that pose a great danger to all around you.”

“Eryn,” Valrad implored her, “they will not let you stay or go anywhere near you as long as you are not wearing the belt. You are strong enough to endanger all the healers and patients here. And Ram’an is right. The magic would not even be of use you. This is no pain you can magic away just like that – it returns anew after each moment until the cause disappears. The child, in your case.”

Eryn’s glare became worried while she contemplated their words. She had not counted on being deprived of her magic. That was a nasty surprise. She didn’t have fond memories of having her powers taken away; it had always left her feeling exposed, vulnerable. Yet their arguments were valid enough, especially considering that she had just collapsed the Senate roof little more than an hour ago…

She pressed her head against the pillow when another contraction took her breath away and left her shaking and immensely relieved once the wash of pain receded.

When she lifted her head, feeling exhausted, she realised that Ram’an had used the momentary distraction to fasten the golden belt around her chest. She hadn’t even noticed the void inside her, the empty feeling that blocking her magic normally left. The space was obviously filled up with pain now. How convenient.

“You!” she glowered at him and was about to punch him angrily, but he stepped aside. “That was mean! You’d better be careful never to be helpless in my presence, because it’s damn sure I will take advantage of it!”

“There is no other choice for you,” he said and just shrugged.

“Maybe not. But I would have valued reaching that conclusion myself after a minute or two,” she snapped.

“Making people’s life a misery again?” Orrin said when he, Junar and Vern entered the room. Behind them Malhora followed, Téa sleeping peacefully in her arms.

“Oh, just shut up, will you?” she whispered exhaustedly. She even lacked the energy to express her frustration properly. That annoyed her even more.

“Oh my,” said another voice from the direction of the door. “That is quite an assembly in here.” A healer about Valrad’s age made his way to the bed. “Greetings, Maltheá. I will assist you in delivering your child. I see you already have your belt on. Good.”

She looked up into his far too cheerful face. But then why wouldn’t he be in a good mood? He was not the one enduring the cramps, and from what she knew it would first get a lot worse before it became better.

The face was familiar – he was one of the many healers she had seen in the staff canteen. And this man had also offered a handsome price for Vern’s painting, if she remembered correctly.

“Noril,” Valrad nodded. “A good day to you.”

“And to you, Valrad. Now, there are too many people in here. You will cause more stress to Maltheá…”

“Eryn”, she interrupted him, sending him a warning look. “Don’t oppose me on that detail right now, because I am convinced that I can still do quite a lot of damage even without magic.”

Noril nodded slowly. “You know, I have no doubt that you could. Ignoring a threat coming from an Aren woman does not generally end well for the one who is ignoring. Eryn, then…”

“Very true,” Malhora smiled, clearly satisfied that their frightful reputation seemingly reached everywhere.

“Let us return to the matter at hand,” the healer insisted. “Which one of you will stay with… ah… Eryn for the birth in her companion’s stead?”

Three variations of “me” were proffered almost in unison by the three men around her.

Noril blinked. “Well, that number is a little above average,” he said, careful when dealing with two Heads of Houses and a warrior known for his lack of impulse control when it came to protecting his loved ones.

They turned when they heard an exasperated sigh. Junar elbowed her way to Eryn’s side, then pointed at Orrin.

“Inappropriate. You are another woman’s companion, and even though I know that your feelings for her are more of the fatherly kind, I don’t want you to get quite that intimate with her. I mean it.” Then she turned to Valrad. “Inappropriate as well. You are her father and have been for only a few months! What makes you think she would be comfortable with you around for this occasion?” Her glare moved on to Ram’an.

“Inappropriate?” he ventured before she could open her mouth.

“You bet!” she nodded. “You pursued her relentlessly, tried to make her exchange Enric for you! A birth is something very intimate where you have to show sides of yourself normally only the person closest to you is allowed to see, both internal and external ones.” She turned to the healer. “I will stay with her. You can kick out the rest.”

* * *

“What do you mean, she has gone into labour?” Vran’el exclaimed. He had dragged Enric away from the road to be under a tree where he was able to lean against the trunk. “It is several weeks too early for that!”

“Thank you for pointing that bit out,” Enric panted, glad that the immediate pain had relented for now.

“Are you sure?”

“Vran,” he sighed and cringed under another assault, “honestly – these are contractions. I read about them. The interval is getting shorter, the pain is excruciating and fades after a few seconds only to return again little later. That’s a pretty clear case, I would say.”

“Alright, alright. You said she was angry before, did you not? I wonder if that was what has tipped her into premature labour.”

Enric was breathing heavily, tiny beads of sweat forming on his forehead. “I will find out about that. Depend on it.”

“Why do you not just shield against this? Do not tell me this sharing of pain is supposed to be some sentimental proof of love she does not even see, or a romantic notion of going through the birth with her? Because in this you may safely trust me – being there is something completely different than just having waves of pain bring you to your knees,” Vran’el urged him.

“I can’t shield against it! I couldn’t even block out her anger when it was at its peak. This is too intense, this exceeds what the barrier is capable of holding back, especially as she is not shielding and her own emotions and sensations are sent out with their full intensity.”

The lawyer raked the fingers of both hands through his hair agitatedly. “You bloody fool! Do you see now what your urge to control everything got you into? What am I to do with you now?” Then a thought occurred to him. “I can knock you out! Then you will just sleep through this whole thing!”

“You will do no such thing,” Enric gasped through the pain and raised a shield between them. “I need to know if everything is alright.”

“You really want to live through this?” Vran’el wrung his hands helplessly. “Idiot! Really! And I am stuck with you! Damn!” he cursed, then took a few calming breaths before adding more quietly, “Alright, I will not do it. You can lower the shield. I promise!” he added exasperatedly when Enric sent him a doubtful glance.

The lawyer shook his head and watched the other man groaning under another wave of pain. “I would never have thought that I would one day experience a birth without a woman being present. It is certainly less messy.”

“So glad to accommodate you,” Enric grunted. “How long did your daughter’s birth take?”

“Six hours. And that was quick. I have heard about babies that took an entire day to be born.”

“That is not helping me right now!” the blond magician exclaimed, the horror plain on his face. “Rather tell me how Intrea handled the whole matter back then.”

“Admirably. She is the serene type; nothing can throw her off balance. She was very considerate and more worried about me than herself, I think. She kept sending people around to fetch me water, repeatedly told me that everything was going to be alright and that I was doing great.”

They looked at each other for a moment, then Enric said slowly, “That is definitely not how Eryn will be treating those around her right now.”

Vran’el nodded. “I tend to agree with you on that.”

When Enric braved another surge of agony, he tried to imagine who was with her right now. It should have been him. He hoped that Valrad, Junar or Malhora would be helping her through this. Not Orrin. And definitely not Ram’an.

Ram’an might have accepted that he couldn’t have her, but having her in his city without her companion and helping her through something as painful and intimate as a birth might give him ideas. But neither Valrad nor Orrin would permit such a thing, would they?

Vran’el spent the next ten hours sitting on the grass next to Enric, distracting him with stories about his childhood with Pe’tala, his years of studying the law, stupid pranks he had played as a boy and the day when he had decided to tell his family that he preferred men to women as partners.

Enric’s skin was pale and clammy, sweat running down his face and throat. Vran’el urged him to drink water and maybe even eat something to keep up his strength, but while Enric accepted the water gladly, eating was not something he seemed keen on.

When the sun started disappearing behind the horizon, the lawyer unpacked their belongings and prepared a spot for the night. They had originally planned to spend it in the city of Kar, but they were unable to reach there in Enric’s current condition. They would go to the city once this was over and they were both well rested.

It was around midnight when Enric released a last agonised cry and then he slowly tipped over towards the ground.

“Enric?”

“It’s over,” he breathed, his face awash with relief, elation and exhaustion. He couldn’t even tell how much of it was his own and how much Eryn’s.

“And? How does she feel?”

“Relieved. And happy. So everything is alright.” And he gave in to the peaceful blackness that welcomed him like a warm, numbing embrace.

* * *

Eryn forced her heavy lids open when somebody shook her shoulder softly. It was Junar, holding a small bundle in her arms. It whimpered softly.

“Your son is hungry,” she smiled. “Better feed him quickly. My own breasts have started leaking at his smell and the sounds he is making.”

Eryn clumsily tried to pull the shirt they had put on her over her head, but her friend sighed and shook her head. “No, Eryn, this is why they gave you something to wear you just have to open at one side. See? There is a button at your side and you can flip the front open without undressing completely.”

Junar waited patiently until Eryn had slipped out one breast and pushed the pillow in her back higher up so she could sit. Then she carefully placed the baby in his mother’s arm.

Eryn was suddenly wide awake and stared down at the tiny creature. Her son. She had seen him a few moments after the birth, but at that time he had been covered in blood and gloop. When they had him cleaned up she was already drifting off to sleep. The last impressions she remembered before succumbing to the exhaustion were a warm bundle that was placed on her chest and an overwhelming feeling of relief, gratitude and contentment.

“He has my dark hair,” she murmured and let her index finger glide over the surprisingly dense, downy strands. His eyes were blue, but that didn’t say much in the first few months.

She adjusted her grip so that the tiny head lay in the crook of her arm and was thus positioned ideally for accessing his food supply.

“Come on, pet, the milk-bar is open.” Teasing his lips open with her nipple, she watched him close them around the tip of her breast. She frowned when he didn’t start sucking. “The convenient days were the feeding didn’t require any effort on your part are over, my boy. Go on.” She looked at Junar. “And now?”

“Try squeezing a drop or two out and into his mouth. He doesn’t seem to be aware yet that this is his meal, not just a nice, cushy means to calm him,” Junar suggested.

Eryn did so and watched the little mouth taste and swallow when the new diet seemed to pass muster. Only then did she feel a weak pull that quickly turned into something more determined, almost greedy.

She looked up in surprise. “He certainly learns fast.” Then her gaze returned to him and she took the time to look him over thoroughly for the very first time. Looking at him inside her belly with magic was different than truly laying eyes on him now.

His eyes were closed as he suckled, obviously content with the world. He had her hair, but the rest of him certainly looked a lot like his father.

She swallowed at the thought of Enric who had sped off to save Malriel, leaving his pregnant companion here to fend for herself. Funny, how eager he had been to rush off towards the great unknown and even to dissolve their third level bond when hardly more than a year ago he had seemed so desperate to enter into it with her.

Junar pressed a kiss on her temple. “Don’t worry about him, Eryn. He will be back really soon. I am sure of it.”

“I don’t care,” the magician replied calmly. “I don’t need him. I managed to get through this without him, didn’t I? Right through uncovering Sanaf’s evil games and then the birth. And I will continue to.”

“You don’t mean that, do you?” Junar swallowed hard and frowned.

Eryn’s gaze remained on the face against her skin, the little fist that rested against her breast. “He made his choice. And choosing Malriel meant giving up our son. And me.”

“You can’t mean it!” the seamstress exclaimed, her eyes wide. “He didn’t choose your mother over you – he is trying to intervene to stop a war!”

“This is not what it seemed like to me when he forced the bond off me.”

“I am not going to fight about this with you, but what I am telling you is that you are being utterly and completely inconsiderate. I understand your anger at being deserted by him like this, but you completely misjudge his intentions. And I can imagine his reaction when you accuse him of pining for Malriel. Really now!”

“Bickering already?” Orrin’s voice said from the door. He had an arm around Vern’s shoulders, the other rested against the cloth with which his daughter was slung across his chest.

“She thinks Enric has gone after Malriel because he fancies her,” Junar said accusingly.

Both men stared at her, then Orrin smiled and Vern rolled his eyes.

“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” the warrior chuckled. “I look forward to hearing Enric’s reply to that.”

“That’s what I said,” Junar huffed.

Vern lifted a drawing pad and pen. “Do you mind if I make a drawing of this? It’s the first time you are feeding him, after all.”

Eryn grimaced. “If you must. I imagine I don’t make a very pretty picture right now, though.”

“Vain womenfolk,” the boy sighed in mock exasperation and propped the pad up against a chair, kneeling in front of it.

Orrin stepped closer to the bed, looking down at the baby. “He has fallen asleep over breakfast. I imagine you will have to make more of an effort next time,” he joked.

“Hilarious,” she deadpanned and lifted her son to hand him to Junar so she could cover herself again. Her fingers touched the golden belt she was still wearing. “They forgot to take this blasted thing off. Orrin, be so good and take it off me, will you?”

“I am afraid that is not something I can do,” he grimaced. “I am told that you need to wear it for another six weeks.”

“What?” she barked angrily and flinched when she heard both babies start crying.

“Great,” Junar groaned and rolled her eyes before pressing the boy into his mother’s hands and lifting her daughter out of the sling her father was carrying her in to rock her gently.

“Oh my, what a noisy welcome,” Valrad remarked while entering the room and walking towards them. “How is my grandson doing? Apart from making use of his lung capacity, that is. Has he had some milk yet?”

“He is doing great. And so am I, thank you for asking,” she sighed.

“I know that you are, my child. I examined you myself after the birth.”

“I thought we agreed on your not using magic on me without my permission again after you drugged me with fake bliss the first time I came here? We need to discuss certain boundaries here. Yet again.”

Valrad shrugged in an unperturbed way as he lifted the gurgling little bundle from her arm. “Your permission was implied from where I stand. If you do not want to be examined, you had better avoid passing out in my presence from now on.”

“So glad you dropped by,” she huffed. “Now talk to me. Orrin just told me that I am supposed to wear this belt for six weeks? Tell me that he misunderstood something here and the term is six hours instead?”

“I am afraid he is right. The problem, you see, is that magicians in general and healers in particular might be tempted to speed along the recovery process of their body – which is not advisable. But it might be over earlier. Some women only take four weeks, very few are done in no more than two. Six weeks is the longest.”

“But this is just about healing the open internal wounds and vulnerable spots! I dare say speeding that along a bit is hardly…”

Her father interrupted her. “You know very well that magical healing, no matter whether it is done by yourself or somebody else, diminshes your body’s resources more rapidly than you can restore them in your current condition – even if you spent the entire day doing nothing but eating and sleeping. What happens if a human body loses a lot of blood in a short time?”

“Weakness, dizziness, coldness and in some cases even unconsciousness,” Vern offered chirpily from behind his drawing pad.

“Why do we want to avoid this in particular in case of a woman who has just given birth?” Valrad went on.

Vern was ready again. “Because she needs her strength to recover from the birth. Finally and equally as important is she will be recovering more slowly anyway due to the lack of sleep resulting from the frequent feeding at the beginning. It means the ability to take care of the child might suffer which will, if delegated to another person, make forming a bond between mother and child more difficult. If the mother cares for the child despite her diminished physical strength, this might result in accidents and thereby endanger the child’s well-being from a medical point of view.”

Four pairs of eyes stared down at him. He didn’t notice it at first as he was still busy with his drawing. When the silence stretched on, he looked up and blinked.

“What?” he asked in confusion. “That was right, wasn’t it? If I have just made a fool of myself, I blame that book in the medical library.”

Valrad, still rocking his grandson in his arms, slowly walked closer, all the time looking down at Vern thoughtfully.

“That was a very impressive demonstration of knowledge, especially while concentrating on this completely different task with your hands,” the healer said slowly. “I do not suppose you would consider staying here and completing your training in Takhan anything interesting, would you?”

“You just wait a moment!” Orrin growled angrily before Vern could reply. “He is not yet of consenting age, and even if he considered it a good idea, I certainly do not! You have no right to offer this to him, he is in no position to accept it and I will not allow it.”

Eryn gave a deep sigh at the drama unfolding in front of her. Vern’s eyes had first widened with surprise and excitement, then narrowed with anger and resentment at having this chance presented to him only to have it whisked away again only a moment later.

“I think,” Junar said with a disapproving expression and a frown at both men, “that you’d better take this discussion elsewhere. This is hardly the time or place.”

“I apologise,” Valrad said stiffly. “It was not my place to make the offer, you are right. I just got carried away a little. I fully understand your reluctance to leave your son in another country for that long.”

Orrin nodded once, but remained silent.

“I am tired. Please don’t be offended, but I would very much like to sleep for a few hours if you don’t mind,” Eryn spoke up, tired of the tension and longing for a bit of peace and quiet.

“Of course not,” Junar assured her.

They waited for Valrad to hand the baby back to his daughter, then they left. Orrin’s simmering anger was visible in his tense posture, Vern looked miserable and sulky, and Valrad seemed a little fretful and disappointed.

Eryn exhaled with relief when they were gone and lay back in her bed, placing the baby so that he was nestled between her arm and her side. This was the first time she had been alone with her son.

Her son. That made her a mother, definitively and finally. She’d had many months to get used to the thought, but only now that she was able to touch, smell and see him, the understanding of that tremendous change started on a deeper, more elemental level than the superficial intellectual one. She had sparked another human being into life. He would always be a part of her, all his life. And he depended on her. The way he would turn out would be a result of the values she passed on to him, the role model she was.

What an enormous responsibility, a gigantic challenge. But an Aren never shirked a challenge, and that was one of the things he would learn from her.

Vedric of House Vel’kim, she thought. Welcome to this exhausting family of yours.

 

Chapter 2

Arrival in Kar

Enric stirred when his subconscious reacted to the aroma of food. He opened his eyes to bright daylight and found Vran’el crouching not far from him in front of an impromptu fireplace.

“Fish?” he mumbled, pleasantly surprised.

The last two days they had lived solely off their dried travel provisions. They might be nourishing and easy to keep, but from a culinary point of view they were not satisfying. It was a means to survive, and survival didn’t require liking the fare, but knowing that the alternative would be an empty stomach.

“Look at that. Welcome back from your little timeout. How do you feel?”

Enric took quick stock the way Eryn had showed him. The weak magical impulse he sent through his body provided him with all he needed to know.

“Slightly dehydrated, hungry, my neck and shoulders hurt, but apart from that I am fine.”

“I can offer a remedy against the first two and the others you can heal away. So no great problems from where I am,” Vran’el chuckled and gently turned the fish baking over the fire. “Lunch will be ready in a few minutes, so there is time for you to have a wash. There is a stream nearby. It is where I caught the fish. Well, when I say caught I mean I stunned them with magic and then collected them.”

Enric closed his eyes, healed away the pain and then smiled. “I figured as much. I dare say it is more efficient than hunting them with a spear or crafting a net for a single meal.” He climbed to his feet, stretching with a loud yawn. “How long did I sleep for?”

“Quite a while. About twelve hours. But then a birth is an enormous strain I would imagine, even sharing it the way you did. No wonder you needed to rest.”

His son’s birth. Enric swallowed and tried to feel something, anything through the mind bond. But there was nothing. Which was in a way good as it meant that she was neither in pain, fearful or greatly worried. Yet he remembered his last sensations received before drifting off. They had been positive and powerful. He wouldn’t have minded a bit more of those right now to drown out the regret at not being with his companion and their new-born son.

But the reason he was far away in another country right now, he reminded himself, was to make it possible for the now two most important people in his life to live their lives in peace and freedom.

Enric found the stream without any problems. It was knee-deep and free of sediment and mud, so that he could see the stones in the stream bed and the fish that carefully flashed out of his way.

He took his time washing himself and waded around in the cold water for a little. He felt his energy returning as his blood circulation was stimulated by the low temperature.

When he came back to Vran’el, most of their belongings were already packed up neatly and he was handed a round metal travel plate with two fish on it, sliced open so they would cool more quickly.

“Thank you, Vran. This is exactly what I need. The dried stuff just wouldn’t have worked for me at this moment.”

“I thought as much. Eat up! We should leave soon; I dare say you are now even more eager to get this whole business behind us and return.” The lawyer ate the last bites of his own meal, then set his plate aside. “Have you thought about how to go about tackling the trouble with Malriel? I know that Malhora thinks that she must have been tricked, but then she would hardly want to think badly of her own daughter. The accusations might actually turn out to be justified.”

Enric shook his head. “I haven’t known Malriel for as long as you, but she does not seem the type to force men into bed with her. She simply doesn’t have to, from what I have seen. Or were there ever any accusations of that kind back in Takhan all these years?”

“No, never,” Vran’el admitted. “But I like to be prepared for the worst. And if she is not guilty, a lie filter should have revealed that quickly enough, I would think.”

“True. Provided that they know how to apply it. You said that magicians are not exactly held in high esteem by those without magic, so even if they know how to use it they might not be permitted to. Another possibility is that the magicians want the negotiations to fail. In this case they would not be willing to help Malriel, as there is a chance that they might be the ones trying to trick her.”

“So they will also not believe us when we apply the lie filter and tell them she is innocent. They will accuse us of being biased. And rightly so,” the lawyer added with a grimace. “So what we are hoping is basically that they are not yet aware of how a lie filter works, but will agree to let us show them how to use it. And of course that the ones able to apply it – namely the magicians, or priests – are not the ones sabotaging her chances.”

“Exactly.”

Vran’el frowned. “What if we manage to coax them into releasing her? Will we bring her back with us or leave her here to try and continue the negotiations?”

Enric had a pretty clear idea of what he was aiming for, namely bringing Malriel back to Takhan so that she could take her House back and with that enable him to return to Anyueel with his family.

Despite his motivation to protect his companion from the King’s advances, something still pulled him back home, made him wistful when he thought of his own country. And if the monarch dared to make another inappropriate move on her ever again, he would not get away with a touch of throttling like last time.

“We will see about that,” he said noncommittally. “It depends on whether they would still trust or respect her enough to negotiate with her after this muddle, even if she is cleared of the charges. Or if she would want to stay here.” He rose when he had finished his meal. “I’ll just go rinse our plates, then we can get on and leave.”

Enric felt his whole body itching for action. He wanted to leave here, move on, do whatever was necessary to resolve this situation as quickly as possible, then return to Takhan.

They followed the road towards the city, using the two hours to repeat the information they had, the course of action they had agreed on and to practice how to introduce themselves. They also agreed to compile a list of all the people they would meet along with their full collection of names and titles. That way they could repeat them in the evening in the privacy of their rooms and so avoid angering these people, who seemed to set such great store by having their full importance acknowledged, by thoughtlessly addressing them incorrectly.

They had almost reached the bridge that would enable them to cross the broad river and enter the city. They could already see guards – soldiers or whatever they were – in blue and grey uniforms, standing straight and imposing in a line to block the way.

So they were already expected. A welcoming committee armed to their teeth. If that didn’t inspire confidence.

* * *

Eryn looked down at her peacefully sleeping son in his cradle. He reposed in the room she herself had lived in when she had been a child. The daylight was dwindling away and the room itself became a little dimmer with every minute.

They had released her from the clinic today and she was immensely glad about it. Normally they didn’t let new mothers leave that early, but Valrad had assured them that she and her son would be under his personal care. It was not usually recommended for healers to treat their own family members if it could be avoided, but his colleagues at the clinic had refrained from bringing up that little fact. Very determinedly so.

Valrad was too influential to be opposed in such a way; and in addition to that they were probably glad to be rid of the trying Aren woman in their midst. Eryn was well enough aware that neither patience nor suffering in silence and dignity were her strong sites. And she didn’t care one bit about that.

She turned when Malhora appeared in the door, holding up a folded piece of paper for her. So it seemed it was time to return to being a Head of House again. With a last glance at the sleeping baby she turned and followed her grandmother to the main room.

“It is from the triarchy. I assume there is a faint chance they want to remind you about a roof you are expected to pay for,” Malhora grinned.

Eryn accepted the message and studied the old woman. “You haven’t said anything about that incident yet. But from your smile back then and your reaction now I assume that you are alright with it.”

“I told you that I think of collapsing a building every now and then as a useful way of reminding people of how well-deserved our reputation is. The roof of the Senate was quite an interesting choice of target. A little showy, if you ask me, but certainly effective. People will talk about that one for generations. Believe me.”

“You know that I didn’t do this purposefully to uphold any family reputation, don’t you? I didn’t intend to impress anybody that day. It just happened. I really lost control. I endangered a great number of people,” she ended glumly.

Malhora snorted. “With that many magicians around to shield people from falling chunks of the roof? Hardly.”

The younger woman opened the seal and raised her brow in surprise. “That’s how much repairing that bloody structure is going to cost? They have to be kidding me!”

Her grandmother leaned closer to have a look at the amount, then shrugged. “That was to be expected. It is a rather large dome you collapsed. Not easy to repair. And then there is the artwork that needs to be restored to its former state. But this is nothing to worry about, girl. House Aren can easily afford it. Consider it a useful investment. This will certainly make our negotiation partners and political opponents treat us with more care and means it will benefit the House in the long run.”

“Then I had better sent them a message back and humbly agree to bear the costs as is due and proper,” Eryn grimaced.

“No humility!” Malhora insisted. “You are not meant to be sorry about it but accept paying for the damage as a price for your pride. Do not show any regret; it would diminish the effect. Just write that you acknowledge their claim and will settle the bill for all repairs.”

A knock came from the entrance door.

“Would you take care of this, Grandmother? Then I will write the message to the triarchy.”

“This will be a visitor for you, child. So you had better stay here and take care of the reply later. You do not want to appear too eager, anyway.”

Malhora descended the stairs to the entrance door and returned a few moments later with Ram’an.

“Eryn, dear,” he greeted her and kissed her forehead. “I was at the clinic, but they told me that they had released you already.” He chuckled. “I expect your father threw his weight around a little, did he not?”

“I admit he did, yes. His colleagues were not too happy about it, but found it more prudent not to oppose him. And I am glad about it – I would have gone spare lying in that bed all day long. The only thing that really annoys me now is this bloody belt. I suppose there is no chance…?” She looked up at him with a pleading expression.

“No, dear, none,” he replied simply.

Malhora rolled her eyes. “She keeps trying to bribe or threaten people to take it off her. A few hours ago she ordered Orrin to do it. Good thing his approach to authority is a sensible one and he ignored her.”

Eryn sent her a frosty glare. “I dare say when the people at your estate ignore your orders you would not term their attitude a very sensible one.”

“No, of course not. But then I never give stupid orders that would harm myself.”

“I am a healer! I wouldn’t harm myself! I know what I am doing.”

“Eryn,” Ram’an sighed and cupped her cheeks, “there is no way any one of us is going to remove that belt before Valrad agrees to it. So stop bullying people around you, alright? Better show me this son of yours.”

“He is asleep.”

“Then we had better be quiet,” he smiled, obviously not willing to accept the hint that now was not a good time to look at the baby.

Defeated, Eryn sighed and pressed the letter from the triarchy into Malhora’s hand. “Why don’t you prepare a reply to that? Then you may at least be sure the tone is right. I’ll sign it later.”

Ram’an followed her and entered the room after her. They stepped next to the cradle, looking down.

She turned when she heard him give a slightly lamenting sigh. “What?” she asked in a low murmur.

“He looks like Enric.”

“Why do you sound sad about that?”

“I cannot help thinking, Theá, that had things been only a little different, he would have been our son. Yours and mine.”

She swallowed and tried to take a step away from him, but felt his arm around her shoulders that kept her in place.

“No, please. I did not mean to make you uncomfortable. I will from now on keep such thoughts to myself.”

Now she felt guilty. “I am sorry this whole situation is a burden to you still. And I don’t want you to reign back your thoughts. Even if I am not always happy about them.”

They stood side-by-side, looking down at the sleeping infant for a while without speaking.

“Theá, Enric asked me to take care of you in case he did not return.”

Eryn slowly turned her head to face him. “Did he now? May I ask what taking care of me entails?” she asked coolly, feeling her heart beating in her throat. Had Enric appointed him as his successor in their companionship or some such?

“He asked me to raise his son as my own.”

She stared up at him with narrowed eyes. “And what did he tell you to do with me? Make me your companion?”

“He did not say the words as such, but I believe that was the implication, yes,” he replied carefully.

Eryn turned on her heel and left the room, not at all happy to have her suspicions confirmed. She heard Ram’an close the door quietly and then follow her to the main room and out into the garden.

“Why are you telling me this?” she snapped. “Did you receive message that he will not be returning? That he is…”

“No!” he interrupted her quickly and took her by the shoulders. “There was nothing of that kind, I promise you. What I wanted to tell you is that even if the worst occurs, you will never be alone. I will be there for you. You do not look happy, Theá, or not as happy as you should be. And of course I understand why. I want to lift at least one burden from your shoulders.”

She covered her face with her hands. “You shouldn’t do this, Ram’an. You shouldn’t have agreed to this. What if he is stuck there for who knows how long? This might stop you from ever moving on, from finding a woman you could be happy with instead of waiting for me. Once again. It was not right of him to ask such a thing of you.”

She felt Ram’an’s arms wrap around her and pull her against him.

“I would not have left you to fend for yourself even if he had not asked me.”

Eryn looked up at him, shaking her head. “You would take me as your companion and raise my son with me, despite the fact that I chose another man over you? That I would probably only agree for fear of being alone otherwise?”

“I would, yes.” Then he smiled. “And I would soon make you see that I am the better choice anyway. My culinary skills are superior to Enric’s, and my wine is better than his, too.”

She laughed, relieved that the intensity was gone thanks to his joke. “I am trying very hard not to be insulted at how easily you think I can be won over.”

“I am told confidence is always useful when dealing with an Aren woman.” Then he released her from his embrace and instead took her hand to tug her across to a low stone bench and sit with him. “About your little… display of anger at the Senate two days ago.”

“Yes?” She grimaced, only now wondering how it would affect her plans for opening an orphanage here. The Senate would probably not be too eager to support her now after she had almost collapsed their roof on them.

“It certainly did not fail to impress. Golir approached me and asked me to assist you in drawing up a detailed proposal with a cost estimate, legal considerations and a timeframe for your project. He said that he has no doubt that the idea with the tax relief you mentioned came from me, so he assumed that I was in favour of the whole matter.”

Eryn exhaled. That was more than she had dared hoping for. “And what about the other senators?”

“A few are angry and maybe a bit cowered of you, but most have expressed a wish to support your idea. Probably for fear of having their residences collapse on them if not,” he added dryly.

“I would very much like to be angry at you for that last statement, but I have no idea if it was a joke or not.”

Ram’an pursed his lips. “Let us say it was an exaggeration, but not that far-fetched.”

“So you will really work on this with me?” Touched, she took his hand and squeezed it. “You keep giving me the feeling that I don’t deserve you. How can I ever repay you?”

He smiled. “We will find a way. For example, support in the Senate and cooperating with Arbil-owned businesses for the building and running of the orphanage.”

Eryn laughed. “Good to see that you are not self-sacrificing to the extent that borders on stupidity. Can we start tomorrow? I am still quite exhausted from giving birth and sitting is not the most pleasant position for me. Unless you are willing to assist me with that minor issue…”

He sighed and rose, pulling her to her feet as well. “No. I am not going to remove your belt.” He listened for a moment, then nodded towards the terrace door. “I think your son just woke and wants to be fed. Off you go.”

She walked in and saw Malhora approaching them with Vedric on her arm.

Eryn frowned when she saw Ram’an take a seat on the seating cushions. “You want to stay? I mean, this is rather…” She trailed off, at a loss for words. She had done it before with others watching; only yesterday, when Orrin, Valrad, Junar and Vern had been in the same room with her. But baring her breasts in front of Ram’an somehow seemed… wrong. Strange. Inappropriate.

“Shy, Theá?” he grinned and patted the spot next to him. “I assure you there is no need for that. Watching a mother breastfeed her child is a very appealing picture, but hardly one to arouse any inappropriate feelings in a man. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is a reminder that your breasts were not initially evolved for us to enjoy, but for our offspring to be nourished by.”

Eryn bit her lip, still unsure whether to insist on his leaving or not. She dimly remembered Enric saying something like that when he had watched Junar feeding her daughter many weeks ago. Still…

“Sit, Eryn,” Malhora commanded. “He is right. In time, you will come to appreciate quiet spots to feed your child when you are out. The luxury of their being completely private is not one you will encounter too often.”

She took a deep breath, then sat down. “Alright, let’s do this then.” With her former suitor who had just told her that he would take her as his companion if Enric didn’t return, observing her.

Vern strolled in and smiled when he saw them. He picked up his drawing pad and pen that somehow always seemed to be lying around ready for use these days and took a seat opposite them.

“Didn’t you draw such a scene already yesterday? How many of them to you need?” She narrowed her eyes. “You are not going to sell them, are you? If I am invited somewhere and see myself half naked on a wall there, I will bite your head off.”

Vern just laughed and continued drawing, safe in the knowledge that he was the stronger magician for the next few weeks as long she would be wearing the belt.

* * *

Enric dismounted once only a few steps separated them from the guards and approached them, the message to the triarchy that invited them to send a representative to stand by Malriel ready in his hand.

There was one figure, a woman in her late thirties, dressed in what was either a short dress or a long tunic that reached down to her knees and with light brown hair twisted into a bun at her neck.

“Greetings to you,” she spoke first. She, too, had this tendency to mostly use her teeth and the tip of her tongue to form words. She hardly seemed to open her mouth when she talked. “My name is Lam Ceiga, Reig of the Moraugns, minister of external affairs.”

She looked at Enric, who she had clearly identified as the one in charge.

“And greetings to you, Lam Ceiga, Reig of the Moraugns, minister of external affairs. My name is Lord Enric, Reig of House Aren, second in command of the Order and senator in Takhan. This,” he indicated the other man, “is Lam Vran’el, Reig of House Vel’kim, lawyer and senator in Takhan.”

“Welcome to the both of you,” Lam Ceiga said politely. “There are some formalities that must be taken care of before we can grant you access to the captive Malriel, Holm of House Aren, senator in Takhan. Your horses will be taken to the stables and your belongings will be taken to your rooms. If you would follow me now.”

She turned and walked on without waiting for them to agree. They both quickly grabbed their bags containing documents and gold, handed the reins to the two uniformed men who had stepped forward, then hurried after the woman who had not once turned around to see if they could keep up.

“That is not exactly a very hearty welcome, is it?” Vran’el whispered.

“Not really, but considering the circumstances I wouldn’t have expected them to be very enthusiastic about us.”

They took in the large, unusually even cobblestones on the street, the houses with their steep-pitched roofs and colourful facades that were a mix of wood and plaster. Many a window sported boxes with flowers growing in them like miniature gardens. The colourful blossoms increased the strangely joyful effect of multi-coloured sobriety.

The people walking the streets, however, were far from displaying such an abundance of colour with their attires. They were dressed in a range that reached from off-white to brown, bright grey to black. Only occasional scarves or other small adornments such as belts or hats in more cheerful tones lightened the overall effect.

Vran’el’s attire earned them quite a few glances, some curious, others cool or even hostile. Enric himself couldn’t help but being glad at his own preference for black.

Interestingly, the hair colour and skin tone here seemed to vary and encompassed both Enric’s pale complexion and blond hair and Vran’el’s tanned skin and dark hair.

There were red-headed people with freckles, black-haired ones with both dark and light skin, blond and brown hair in all possible shades.

There seemed to be a general tendency towards wearing hats, caps or scarves for both men and women.

Enric didn’t mind standing out too much, it had been his usual state of affairs for several months now. Vran’el, however, was clearly not used to being different, judging from his tense posture and clenched jaw.

They walked for no more than a few minutes before their guide stopped in front of a tall house of at least four stories. There was a large stone slate fixed to the wall next to the wide entrance door.

Enric looked at the letters that seemed only partly familiar. He couldn’t decipher what they said. This could be either a cheerful prison or a rather sombre guest house. Anything was possible.

“This is where we will take your data for the purpose of registration and filing. After this I will conduct you to your rooms. They are not far from here, only a few more minutes towards the city centre,” she explained without showing any emotion.

“When will it be possible for us to visit Malriel, Holm of House Aren, senator in Takhan?” Enric enquired politely.

“Once your passes have been issued. This will be the case after your information has been checked with regard to completeness and approved by the clerks in charge.”

“How long does that usually take?”

“It can take up to a week but we appreciate that in your case particular promptness is in order,” Lam Ceiga acknowledged generously, then preceded them into the building without offering any information as to how long a particularly prompt approach would take.

Enric exchanged an uneasy look with Vran’el, then followed the woman through the double doors.

 

Chapter 3

Visiting Malriel

Eryn grinned broadly as Kilan entered the Aren main room. “I cannot believe my own eyes! Look who has finally managed to visit me after all that time! And all it took to lure you here was having a baby!”

He chuckled. “I remember the last time I visited you. I ended up with being told to take care of your correspondence. I was simply dreading what else you might burden me with and that meant I thought it wiser to stay at a safe distance.”

“Coward,” she laughed and kept on massaging Vedric’s belly.

“What are you doing there?”

“Rubbing his belly is a good stimulation for his internal organs and is supposed to help him digest his meals,” she explained. “By the way, today in the morning several message birds with congratulations arrived from Anyueel. Among them one from the King. He wrote something about being more respectful in expressing my disapproval. I suppose you’d better apologise for whatever he thinks I wrote last time. Don’t get me into trouble, do you hear me?”

Kilan exhaled and closed his eyes. “Eryn, I haven’t written anything of that kind in your name. Ever.”

She cursed. “That means he worked out that it was not me writing the damned messages.” She sent Kilan a disapproving look. “That very likely means you were much too friendly, polite and compliant. He probably had no choice other than to question the messages’ origins or my mental state.”

“Good for you he chose the first one, then, eh? Now hand me that child, will you? I need to see who he resembles.” He took a seat and let Eryn tenderly place the baby in his arms. “That’s Enric’s face, no doubt about that. If his parentage is ever in question, he will probably start looking for his mother, because it’s plain enough who his father is.”

“Very nice,” Eryn growled. “Just what a woman wants to hear after squeezing a human being out of her: how little the kid resembles her.”

“His hair is your colour, so there are traces of you in there somewhere as well,” he acknowledged generously.

“You know what? I am beginning to wonder why I was sad about not seeing you more often. Somehow I failed to see it as the blessing it was,” she huffed.

He grinned broadly and examined a tiny hand. “Glad to be of service.”

* * *

Enric looked out the window of Vran’el’s room, observing the horse-carts on the crowded street and the people crossing between the vehicles seemingly without any concerns for their own safety.

The rooms they had been allocated shortly after their arrival two days before were far from the accommodation he had been given in Takhan when he was first there in his function as ambassador. And back home in Anyueel they would never have slighted guests by putting them in such humble rooms. It was probably a none too subtle hint that they were not exactly welcomed here. Or just reflected a culture that was used to a more frugal lifestyle.

But at least their accommodation was clean and warm if not particularly comfortable. Or spacious. Or bright.

They had spent the last two days waiting, more or less. Waiting for their documents and information to be approved, passed on to a person higher up on the ladder of power to check and approve as well and then onward and upwards. Lam Ceiga had instructed them to remain indoors and not walk around the city since the papers allowing them to do so were not yet ready. But today the passes had been delivered to them, which meant an end to their restless confinement.

Enric turned away from the window to watch Vran’el, who was busy assembling all the different papers they would need to gain access to the prison where Malriel had been put. It would be the first time that they met her.

They’d had to fill in a number of different forms for who knew what purposes and had one day later been given a note that was to be presented upon demand. It stated their identity, their purpose for being in the city, the permission to be in the city in the first place and which areas they were permitted to move around in.

Vran’el had been unnerved by the load of paperwork and had repeatedly cursed this tiresome and in his opinion ridiculous level of bureaucracy, but Enric had studied the forms and come to admire the degree of organisation.

At least until he had found himself filling out the same information in four different forms. That was not organised, but simply redundant and a waste of time. But it was not like they’d had anything else to do but wait.

Then finally, after two days of pushing paper around and waiting, they were granted the permission to visit Malriel and talk to her.

When Vran’el had managed to put together all the paperwork they needed, he straightened up.

“Alright – I am ready. Let us go and visit Malriel in her lockup. I need to remember every detail about that. It will cheer Eryn up when I tell her about it,” the lawyer said and smiled. “I wonder if we should address her with the title Eryn uses to refer to her? Queen of Darkness does sound rather impressive. Maybe they would appreciate it here?”

Enric rolled his eyes. “I should have known from the start that the two of you couldn’t possibly be simply cousins. The same disturbing sense of humour that seems to go a lot deeper than mere upbringing can account for. Come on. Time to start our work here.”

* * *

Intrea grinned broadly when Eryn placed the baby in her arms. “Look at that! He looks like his father!”

Eryn rolled her eyes. “Yes, thank you so much for noticing that.”

The other woman ignored her and motioned for her daughter to come closer. “Obal, I may introduce you to your cousin Vedric of House Vel’kim.”

The girl came closer, though carefully as if fearing some kind of nasty attack.

“He doesn’t bite, you know,” Eryn said mildly and added, “Not yet.”

Obal shot her one of those unnerved glances a five-year-old girl should not yet be able to do and inspected the infant in her mother’s arm thoroughly.

“He is very small. My other cousin was bigger,” she stated matter-of-factly.

“Yes, he was born quite a bit sooner that he should have been,” Eryn nodded.

Another devastating glare was sent her way.

“I didn’t do it on purpose, you know,” Eryn defended herself, wondering why that kid got to her like that.

Obal didn’t comment on that and returned to staring at the boy for another minute.

“He is not doing anything. Boring. Where is Urban?”

“In the garden,” Eryn told her quickly, glad at the prospect of getting rid of the girl for a while.

Intrea smiled at her knowingly. “She has that effect on people. I hope she will outgrow this general disdain for the people around her. It does not exactly make her popular with her peers. Or adults. My father tells me I was just like her as a child, so there might still be hope. By the way, that little package on the table is for you. It is a bath oil that protects his skin from the dry heat. If you have any dry patches on your own skin, you can use it for that as well.”

Eryn thanked her and opened the thin fabric wrapping before uncorking the glass bottle to take a sniff. The clear, yellow liquid smelled of some kind of flower and spices.

Intrea leaned forward to see where her daughter had gone and then looked at the new mother.

“How are you doing, my dear? I am sorry that you had to go through the birth without Enric. But your friend Junar was with you, was she not? I suppose after having a child herself only a few months ago she was a great help to you.”

Eryn made herself smile. “I am fine. And yes, Junar was great. Though they had to heal her hand afterwards. It seems I still have a rather potent grip even without any magic at my disposal.”

Intrea laughed. “I have to say that volunteering to stay with an Aren woman during a birth certainly shows nerves of steel.” She turned serious again and looked down at the baby in her arm. “I am sure there is no need to worry about them, you know,” she said quietly. “Vran may seem like this carefree, joking, easy-going lad, but he is very good at being a lawyer. I have always found his seemingly effortless transition to his professional self disconcerting, as though he is a completely different person. All of a sudden he is so serious, demanding and analytical. And Enric, he is so formidable, an imposing man both in appearance and mind. How can those two not be successful?”

Eryn didn’t reply to that but just wondered silently why Intrea sounded so worried if there was indeed so little reason for it.

“Though I have to tell you that Neval is rather worried,” she went on and smiled. “He told me that he is not happy about his lover being alone with a man like Enric for such a long time. He is obviously afraid that Vran may take a liking to the blond, exotic type if unsupervised.”

The two women looked at each other for a moment, then started giggling, glad that Obal was far enough away not to roll her eyes at them in that dismissive way she had.

* * *

The two men walked along the wide street their windows overlooked, careful not to bump into any moving vehicles.

“I feel a bit out of place in my attire,” Vran’el murmured, looking around at the plain, simple clothes people were wearing.

“I hope to be gone from here quickly enough so it doesn’t really pay for us to see a tailor,” Enric remarked and looked around. “Do you see how clean everything here is?”

The lawyer nodded. “I have noticed that, yes. I wonder how often they sweep the streets here. Probably every night.”

Enric watched the people passing them and marvelled once again that neither his own light hair nor Vran’el’s dark hair was unique here. Neither the skin tone he currently sported due to the tan the omnipresent sun in the Western Territories had bestowed upon him, nor his usual paler complexion were out of place either.

He thought about Orrin’s daughter and her brown hair. Would Anyueel look like this in a few decades after the return of the magic in females provided for more variety in people’s appearance?

“What was that charmless woman’s full name again?” Vran’el asked.

Enric pulled his little notebook out from an inside pocket and opened the first page. “Lam Ceiga, Reig of the Moraugns, minister of foreign affairs,” he read out.

They were about to meet her in front of the prison they had been told was just at the end of the street. It would surely not hurt to avoid angering the only person they had so far been officially introduced to by addressing her thoughtlessly.

They passed shops with large display windows showing off merchandise. They couldn’t understand the shop signs, but judging from the goods on display they were different kinds of craftspeople. Tailors, jewellers, glass-makers, potters, manufacturers of paper and so on.

Enric stopped in front of one window, staring down at a little toy that resembled some kind of four-legged animal and seemed to move of its own accord.

“How is this possible?” he murmured, watching the jerky movements of the colourfully painted wooden item.

“Magic?” Vran’el ventured, equally fascinated.

“I doubt that very much if the information about how they regard magic here is true.” He wondered if there was a chance to buy that piece. Would they sell to him, the foreigner of a country they would maybe soon be at war with? Would they even accept his gold slips here?

A man stepped out from the shop door, a little bell tinkling above him when the door brushed it. He sported a large, curved moustache, bright brown flecked with grey, just like his temples. Around his rather impressive girth he wore an apron with two large pockets, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up and revealing chunky, hirsute forearms.

An incomprehensible stream of the local language with its many hissing sounds was unleashed on them. It did not sound unfriendly, but with that language and the studied blank expressions people here seemed to wear in public it was hard to tell.

“I am afraid we do not understand you,” Enric said slowly.

The man pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes at them, clearly wondering what to do with them.

Enric waited patiently, hoping that their immediate future would not entail being chased away by the man but instead being invited into his shop.

“Come,” he finally said as if granting them a privilege and ushered them in.

Enric obeyed gladly, curious to see more. Vran’el was less comfortable with following a stranger that had not seemed too enthusiastic about them into a building.

The man took another toy of the same make but resembling a different animal from a shelf and twirled a little wheel that stuck out from its rear with a strange metallic purring. When he released the wheel and put the toy on his wooden counter, it started moving around with the same jerky movements exactly like its sibling in the shop window.

Enric watched it, mesmerised by the unfamiliar device. He felt the urge to pick it up, turn it around and figure out its secrets.

“How much?”

The man pointed to a small slate on the shelf that obviously displayed the price. Enric couldn’t read it and raised his brow questioningly.

The man sighed and raised three fingers.

“Help me, Vran,” Enric murmured. “How many of your gold slips was one unit of their local currency again?”

“About two and a half.”

That meant about seven and a half gold slips or almost four Anyueel gold coins. That seemed rather pricey. But then he had no idea how costly or time-consuming producing this toy was. He considered negotiating for a lower price, but decided against it. It might do them more harm than good. Instead he reached into his purse and pulled out eight gold slips, showing them to the man.

That did not quite trigger the response he had hoped for. Looking down his nose as if considering something utterly disgusting the shopkeeper started waving his hands around to signal them to leave.

Back out in the street Vran’el shook his head in wonder. “Oh my, that was a rather hefty reaction.”

“From what I have seen they are very keen on rules here. Accepting money that has not been approved might get him into trouble for all we know. We should find out how to exchange our money into local currency,” Enric mused.

They walked on towards a large, grey building looming at the end of the street that was very probably their destination.

“You did not even try to haggle,” Vran’el shook his head in disapproval.

“That’s because we have no idea how they react to that here. In my country an attempt at lowering a given price on principle would not get you anywhere. My people’s view is that if you are not willing to pay the price asked you’d better move on and get out of the way of those who are,” Enric explained. “It was quite a challenge for me to adjust to that at first. I do see certain parallels to my own home here. Well, to some extent. We, too, like our lists and reports, but they have obviously turned it into some kind of art. Also their food. It’s less rich in spices but more meat and vegetables that keep you feeling sated and warm for a while.”

“Alright, no haggling here,” Vran’el sighed.

“Exactly. It is better to appear easy to trick and a tad naïve than greedy and shifty. It tends to make people underestimate you.”

They had now come close enough to make out a familiar figure. The bun at the back of the neck was the same, as was the style of her attire.

“Greetings, Lord Enric, Reig of House Aren, second in command of the Order and senator in Takhan and Lam Vran’el, Reig of House Vel’kim, lawyer and senator in Takhan,” she spoke, making the s’ sound like hisses and the ts like rapid hammer strokes.

“Lam Ceiga, Reig of the Moraugns, minister of external affairs,” Enric and Vran’el said together, exchanging a relieved look when the woman nodded with satisfaction and then turned to walk ahead again. It was like having passed muster by a particularly strict teacher.

They walked along high-ceilinged corridors with a number of tall, semi-circular windows that afforded a view of the street they had just come along.

They approached double doors, which were guarded by four men in dark grey uniforms.

Nodding to the woman, they wordlessly accepted her identification, read it carefully before passing it back and then held out their hands to the two men in her company.

Vran’el handed over their documents to have them scrutinised, held up to the light and finally after several minutes handed back to them. These guards were thorough indeed.

They were waved through the door and continued their way only to be stopped again after less than a minute. A further four guards, the same procedure.

When they carried on, Enric suppressed a sigh when he spotted another door with four men in dark grey and wondered how many more of these doors they would have to pass and if there was a chance of seeing Malriel before the sun set in a few hours. He saw from Vran’el’s expression that he was equally unenthusiastic about what was considered the appropriate level of security here.

When they had finally been permitted to pass the fourth door of this kind, they were led into another corridor with four much smaller doors that looked massive and sported small, barred windows at eye level. These seemed to be the prison cells. Compared to the dungeons and lockups back in Anyueel the surroundings here looked a lot more cheerful, bright and clean.

One of the guards walked past them to unlock one of the doors and nodded towards Lam Ceiga, who in turn motioned for the two visitors to go ahead of her.

Enric stepped into what looked like a small, but very neatly and not sparsely furnished room. There was one corner for personal sanitation, a bed with two blankets and two pillows upon it, a large wing chair and a small table with four wooden stools around it.

“Enric!” a familiar female voice cried out in surprise and a moment later he found himself in a tight hug before he was even able to take a proper look at Malriel. “I cannot tell you how immensely good it does me to see you! They told me that somebody had arrived, but they did not give me any name.”

She clung to Enric for what had to be a full minute before releasing him and then pulled Vran’el close to kiss both his cheeks.

“Vran, my dear,” she laughed and Enric saw how the corners of her eyes became slightly moist, “with the pair of you on my side, I know that this mistake will be cleared up soon.”

“I will leave you for now. Do knock at the door when you wish to leave,” Lam Ceiga announced from the door where she had stopped and watched the emotional welcome impassively.

Enric nodded. “Thank you, Lam Ceiga, Reig of the Moraugns, minister of foreign affairs.”

Then he looked Malriel up and down, taking in her appearance and general state. She had adapted to the local style of clothing and he found the lack of bold colours on her particularly depressing, just like the hair she had pulled back into a bun instead of letting the dark waves cascade down her shoulders and back. She did not look haggard or worn out, but he still missed that certain radiance. Which was not entirely unexpected considering her confinement here. She looked healthy if a little pale after the months without the desert sun.

She took both men’s hands and pulled them toward the small table to sit with her, holding on to them once they were settled as comfortably as the hard wooden stools permitted.

“Before we delve into this mess here, tell me how my daughter is doing,” she demanded.

“She found accepting Valrad as her father rather difficult, but managed it after a while. She has in the meantime obtained the insignia and is now officially a fully trained and recognised healer,” Enric explained in as few sentences as he could manage. There was no saying how much time they would be granted in here for now.

“How about her pregnancy, has everything been alright?”

“Our son was born yesterday.”

Malriel blinked, then shook her head. “But… that is too soon!” She paused, obviously for a quick mental reckoning. “She should have been due in another six or seven weeks!”

Enric squeezed her hand. “Yes. But from what I can tell everything seems to be in order.”

Malriel frowned at him for a moment, then her eyes went wide. “The mind bond! Do not tell me you left the commitment bond intact despite leaving Maltheá for such a long time?” She stood agitatedly, glaring down at him. “How could you subject her to that? She will suffer from your absence a lot more than necessary, and now she even has to take care of a child! I would not have expected a reckless thing like this from you!”

“Calm down, Malriel. I only kept my side of the bond intact. Eryn’s bond was severed.”

Malriel breathed in with relief and sank back onto her seat. “Oh, I see. I apologise. I should have known that you would not submit her to unnecessary suffering. Though you do not seem to have extended the same consideration to yourself.” She gasped when a thought hit her. “Does that mean you experienced the pain of her giving birth?”

“I did, yes,” he confirmed calmly, shivering inside at the memory.

“So you left your pregnant companion to come and help me out of my troubles and have now even missed your son’s birth,” she sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. “I do not know how I am ever to repay you for that, Enric.” Then another thought occurred to her. “Who is in charge of House Aren now?”

“Eryn is the current Head of House Aren.”

Malriel sucked in a breath and looked distressed. “Maltheá in charge of House Aren?”

“She will do fine. Malhora is there and will help her handle that duty.”

She let her tension go with the relief. “My mother is in the city?”

“Malhora is in Takhan, yes. Though she refused to take the House in my absence and prefers to be in a more advisory than active role.”

“I was not sure if she would come,” Malriel murmured. “It is a mother’s duty to stand by her daughter when she has her children, and after they met under such unpleasant circumstances, I was not sure whether my mother would step in for me.” She released an unsteady breath. “I am so relieved. And grateful. To all of you.”

Enric watched his adoptive mother with interest. This was not strong, invincible, merciless Malriel, but a woman who had been alone in a foreign country for a long time and had come to treasure acts of kindness in her solitude. She kept both her hands on his and Vran’el’s, maintaining physical contact to people known and familiar to her. The first people she had been with in quite some time where she didn’t have to worry about their intentions but could trust them unconditionally.

“Vran, how is Valrad doing? Did Maltheá make it very hard for him to get her to accept him as her father?”

He nodded with a smile. “She did, yes. She resisted his every attempt with the stubborn defiance of a true Aren woman and made him use all the ingenuity and patience he could come up with.” He squeezed her hand. “He was relentless, though, and she never had any real chance against him. Not when she wanted to work as a healer at what people still like to see as his clinic.”

“And your own daughter, how is little Obal doing?”

“She is growing like a weed and has, like I suppose many children, an unerring instinct for picking up the exact wrong word to repeat it in situations which are as embarrassing for her poor parents as possible.”

Enric smiled at Malriel’s laugh. It sounded rather rusty, as if she hadn’t used it in a while.

He would have loved to go on cheering her up, but he couldn’t afford to. They had no idea how long they were allowed to stay here for now or when they would be permitted to return.

He reached inside his shirt and pulled out his notebook.

“Malriel, we need to get you out of here quickly. So we had better get started with what exactly has happened so far.”

“I know. And I thank you for indulging me that much already. This has done wonders for my soul, believe me.” She straightened, taking her hands off the two men’s before she began her account.

* * *

Half an hour later Vran’el pursed his lips and looked down at the notebook he had commandeered from Enric a while ago to make his own notes and add helpful remarks and annotations for later.

“Good, Malriel – now let me repeat this in my own words so we can see if I have understood everything correctly.” He cleared his throat. “Alright. Shortly after you managed to have them talk to you about the chance of exchanging a waiver on the greater part of the mining rights in the mountains in exchange for more beneficial trading arrangements, you met a young man at one of the social events you had been invited to. In the course of the following two weeks you met up with him again several times, seemingly by accident. When you went to a pub to have a meal, at other social occasions or even when you were just strolling along the street. Have I got this correct so far?”

“Yes,” she confirmed, waiting for him to go on.

“His name is…” Vran’el flipped a page and scanned it before continuing, “…Geloin Urnen, Legen of the Nords, third level aspirant of the Inner Cirle. Geloin being the lower of the two existing religious titles, and the Inner Circle the most powerful religious union or faith group of the five they have here. He would join you at every opportunity, sharing bits of information with you. He went on to tell you about the discrimination magicians have to endure here and how much he envied you your freedom to do as you pleased and even hold a position of civic power. He also gave you the impression of being attracted to you as a woman.” He looked at Malriel for confirmation. “Still correct?”

“Yes, Vran,” she sighed. “Just go on and I will interrupt you if something is wrong.”

“As you wish.” He turned another page and went on, “After another social gathering you were both invited to, he took you for a walk and then offered to show you the view over the city from the top level of the temple where he lived. You agreed and let him take you there. After you let him kiss you on the platform, you agreed to join him in his room at the temple for the night. You first had a drink and about what follows you say your memory becomes unclear. You remember taking his hand and walking to his bed, then you laid down and you recall nothing much from then on. When you next opened your eyes, somebody was shouting. It turned out to be your young man. He had been bound to the bed frame with golden chains, crying for help. Later he claimed he had been forced into bed and ravaged by you, which led to your being accused of forcible rape.”

She nodded.

“You suspect that he mixed something into the drink he gave you to make you pass out, if I understand you correctly. And you further deduce that this was an attempt to stop you from concluding those trade negotiations successfully. You think that there might be a group interested in promoting a war between our country and Pirinkar, or at least stopping the current process of convergence.”

“How far have the proceedings progressed so far?” Enric enquired now that they had established the essential facts around the charge.

“They listened to his accusations, wrote them down, presented people who testified as to his good character and his exemplary conduct in carrying out his temple duties. And the unlikeliness that he would lie about something as grave as this,” she snorted angrily. “Then they questioned me. Unfortunately, I had no solemn looking, upstanding, grey-haired member of society to swear that my impeccable character would keep me from ever doing a thing like that.”

Enric smiled faintly, thinking that it was probably less her impeccable character than her immense pride that would make a deed like that impossible for her.

“Now a very important question, Malriel.” He leaned forward. “Are they familiar here with the concept of a lie filter?”

“No, they are not. I tried to show them how to use it, but they simply refused to, fearing I would unleash some outlandish mind-control spell or whatever on them to influence them into letting me leave.” She rolled her eyes. “Idiots. If I wanted to leave here without considering the consequences, I would have done it more than a week ago.” She nodded to the barred window. “This is a joke. Any magician could walk out of here without any trouble.”

“Which they are either not aware of,” Vran’el threw in, “or hope you will make use of and basically provide them with an admission of guilt.”

“I know. This is why I have been waiting more or less patiently for the reinforcement I knew the triarchy would send.” She leaned forward and put a hand on each of their shoulders. “And what they sent me exceeded my boldest expectations.”

Enric took her hand and held it between the two of his. “Malriel, there is something I need to do that you will probably not appreciate.”

She smiled knowingly. “Do your thing, Enric. Of course you need to be sure. I am ready when you are.”

He squeezed her hand, then let a stream of magic flow from his hand to hers.

“Malriel of House Aren, did you force a priest into bed with you?”

“No, I did not.”

“Did you impose your will on him in any other way?”

“No.”

“Is there any aspect of the story you told us that did not happen the way you said it did?”

“No.”

He nodded and released her hand. He had not expected any other result, but it was important to know beyond any doubt.

They looked up when the door opened and Lam Ceiga cleared her throat pointedly.

Malriel rose with the two men and hugged them both before she watched them leaving with an expression that showed her reluctance to part with them as well as her careful optimism.

»End of extract«

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“Rifts” – The Order: Book 4

Chapter 1

An Unpleasant Arrival

Enric stood on deck watching the sun set. He marvelled at the colourfully painted layers of red, orange and yellow, the effects of light and shadow among the clouds and the reflections on the calm surface of the sea. Sunsets at home just didn’t appear like this; he wondered why they were that much more spectacular here. Maybe he could find a book on that somewhere.

It had been a while since he had taken the time to watch a sunset. Sunrises, yes. He was an early riser and had for many years lived with bedroom windows angled in the right direction. But hardly ever sunsets. There was always work to do, though he had pretty much stopped working late since he had started living with Eryn. She was a good motivation for finishing on time, a reason to come home.

Right now she was asleep in their cabin. Pe’tala had observed her being physically sick several times and then sent her off to sleep with a little magic, cutting off her protests in mid-sentence. Eryn had been too surprised to raise any of her defences in time and had just sunk limply. At least he wouldn’t be the one to pay for that later.

He had been worried about taking two pregnant women along on the long journey to Takhan, but so far everything had gone well enough.

Which was a relief as the start had not been too promising. While Junar had been more than willing to take a seat in the coach they had arranged, Eryn had not been thrilled about being expected to travel in it as well. She had tried to argue that fresh air would be beneficial for herself and the child, but Pe’tala had explained that several hours of riding in unfamiliar surroundings with a horse she didn’t know was not a wise thing to undertake in her current condition. If she lost concentration and made a minor slip or if the horse was startled – which was quite a realistic chance with a mountain cat trotting nearby – she might fall and get hurt. He had listened to their discussion for a few minutes and then decided to intervene. He had offered Eryn two choices how to travel to Bonhet, neither of which contained the option of her being on the back of a horse: either awake or asleep.

She had flashed him an evil look and boarded the coach none too happily. Junar had been vexed about Eryn not wanting to ride in the coach with her and thus they had started the journey with three uneasy men, an unnerved healer and two grumpy, expectant women.

Vern had initially wanted to go in the coach as well as he had wanted to use the time for some reading, but had thought better of it when the two women started bickering. Enric hadn’t blamed him. He wouldn’t have endured this voluntarily for two days, either.

Junar had at one point started crying, something she was prone to lately, and Orrin had asked to delay their departure for some minutes so as to comfort her, while giving angry looks at Eryn at the same time.

That Eryn had found it necessary to point out to the others that this was exactly the reason why she didn’t want to be stuck with the other woman in a small, enclosed space for two days had not exactly helped, either.

Vern had at one point given Enric a pleading look and asked whether sending Eryn to sleep was still open for discussion. Enric had told him that he was welcome to try that any time, as he himself was not willing to endure her wrath once she woke up again.

That had made Eryn angry at Vern. All of which led to a very disgruntled group departing the city.

They had stopped several times for Junar to get rid of parts of her breakfast again and had thereby needed around an hour longer than planned to reach their destination in the evening.

The second day had been easier as Junar had resorted to making do with a few slices of bread throughout the day to keep her stomach from rebelling too much. She had then devoured three helpings of the stew the publican in Bonhet had served in the evening to make up for her sparse fare during the day.

Eryn had been immensely surprised at how much Bonhet had changed since they last passed through during their first journey to Takhan about nine months ago. More people, more buildings and a general busyness that had not been there several months earlier.

Enric had taken a walk through the village with her, showing her the buildings he had constructed, giving her a tour through the shipyard and the tally house, strolling along the piers and jetties.

She had been pleased with how the workers had treated him: with respect but without the reflexive awe and admiration his rank inspired in most people back in the city of Anyueel. Not being constantly reminded of the importance and wealth of magicians had made country people act in a more down-to-earth manner when dealing with them. It probably also helped that their travelling clothes were not as elegant and showy as their usual attire. Wearing what they did, they looked functional and dusty after being on the road all day long instead of screaming rich magician to those who saw them.

They had boarded the ship after dinner as sleeping at the public house did not make sense since it would just cost them an entire night of travelling time. They could just as well employ the cabins on board to rest in.

Eryn had looked a little pale already before boarding the vessel. She obviously remembered well enough the last time she had been on a ship. Enric had explained to her that his was a larger vessel than last time, which meant that it was not as prone to the influence of lighter swell and would thus not rock as much.

It had taken Eryn less than an hour to vomit her dinner back up.

Amazingly enough, Junar did not seem to be suffering from any sea-sickness whatsoever – somewhat unexpected as her stomach had not been cooperative at all these last few months. Vern seemed to be immune to the rocking as well and spent most of his time drawing pictures of everything he saw, asking the crew members to show and explain things to him, as well as reading.

Orrin was another matter. His skin had taken on a slightly greenish tinge, but as neither Enric, Pe’tala, Vern nor Junar showed any sensitivity to the constant pitching of the ship, he was determined not the be the only one apart from Eryn showing weakness. When asked, he replied that everything was fine. Pe’tala and Vern had both offered to send him to sleep until they reached Takhan, but he had not wanted to hear any of that and kept insisting that all was well.

The wind was good, so they were expected to reach the city tomorrow in the late morning hours.

Enric turned when he saw Pe’tala climbing up from under deck. She nodded to him when she spotted him and stepped next to him, leaning against the railing.

“Eryn is still asleep. I will keep her that way until the morning when we have left the sea behind us and are on the river.”

He nodded. “Thank you. I admit I am glad that you are the one doing this as it would have fuelled her anger at me otherwise.”

She smiled. “This is one of the unpopular things healers are used to taking care of. Helping people does not always make them thank us.”

“Not even other healers?”

She snorted. “Especially not other healers. Healers are the worst patients you can imagine. They think they know everything much better and do not need any help. And if they are willing to admit that a little aid would be a good idea, they try to tell you how to do it properly.”

He chuckled. “Good thing healers don’t need each other’s help too often, then.”

She nodded. “That is fortunate, indeed. We would otherwise have to increase the price for their treatment as they are particularly burdensome.”

“Does this apply to you as well or are you more conscious of it all?”

Pe’tala grinned. “Of course it applies. I am worse than most. Can you imagine my having to admit to needing help in a field which I am known to be very proficient in? I pity any healer who has to deal with me.”

Enric regarded her thoughtfully. “It is good to see you smile, Tala,” he said softly. “I haven’t seen that in a while. I can’t help but get the impression that you are worried and restless. This is not your usual impatience with the world in general but something else. And you maintain your distance from Eryn, even though you keep watching her when you think nobody is noticing. What is the matter?”

She bit her lip and dropped her head. “It seems I need to be more careful around you. I am not used to people paying that much attention to their surroundings.”

“Talk to me,” he insisted. “It is something that has to do with Eryn, I am almost sure of it. Is everything alright with her and the child?” His voice had taken on a slightly concerned tone.

Shaking her head, she reached out for his hand and squeezed it when he took it. “No, Enric, I promise you that everything is alright with both of them. And let me tell you how very touched I am with the extent of both your and Lord Orrin’s concern for your companions’ wellbeing. It is not something I would have associated with warriors. It seems I fell prey to the common prejudice of fighters being no more than insensitive barbarians. I should have known better.”

He exhaled in relief. “Good. Then what is it that you are fretting about?”

Pe’tala slid her hand back and turned away from him to look out into the darkness. “There is something Eryn will learn after we arrive in Takhan. It will be a surprise, and not a pleasant one, I suspect. Be prepared for her to be very distressed about the news she is about to receive.”

“What news?” he insisted, frowning.

“It is not my place to tell you. I can see that you are worried now, but please do not push me. You will learn of it in less than one day. I promise.”

Enric nodded slowly. “Alright, I respect your wishes. Just one more question, then I will leave it alone: does it have anything to do with her father?”

She looked up at him sharply. “You are a perilously sharp man, Enric. It would really be reassuring if you were wrong every now and again, you know.”

He smiled without humour. “It is a burden at times. But I thank you for the warning. And thank you for taking care of her. I will try to catch some sleep now; it seems that I need to be well-rested and alert for tomorrow.”

“Good night, Enric. Sleep well.”

He climbed down the stairs and opened the first door to the right behind which Eryn slept peacefully, if not of her own free will. News about her father. And none she would appreciate. What a pity that her second arrival in Takhan might not be much more pleasant than her first.

* * *

Eryn slowly opened her eyes and stared up into two faces that looked down at her. Enric and Pe’tala. They took a step backwards when she slowly sat up. Memory returned to her and she shot Pe’tala an affronted look.

“You put me to sleep, just like that!”

Shrugging, the other woman leaned against the door. “I did so, yes. You were too proud to agree to it and I had no intention of letting your retching keep me awake all night. So I did us both a favour. No need to thank me.”

“Yes, exactly. Thanking you was just what I had in mind…” she muttered and carefully got up from the platform bed to stretch.

“You’d better get dressed and wash yourself, my love,” Enric put in. “We should arrive in Takhan in no more than two hours so you might want to eat something before that, too.”

“Two hours? That means we have left the sea behind us,” she said with relief.

He nodded. “That we have, yes. The last part of the journey should be fairly relaxed.”

“How are the others doing so far?”

“Well enough. Orrin still refuses to admit that he was sea-sick, Junar is not doing any worse than usual, and Vern has by now drawn pictures of pretty much everything he has found on board, I think.”

Eryn nodded and then looked at both of them in turn. “Look, why don’t you go up on deck? It is a bit tight in here to wash and dress with the two of you standing in my way. Out with you.”

They looked at each other, then Enric opened the door to let Pe’tala step out first.

When she was alone, Eryn took a seat on the bed again, breathing slowly. Only two more hours until she was back in Takhan again. Two more hours until she would encounter Malriel. The woman who had made sure Eryn got pregnant against her wishes. And the woman who had betrayed her companion twenty-nine years ago and had been careless enough to become pregnant by another man. A man Eryn didn’t even know whether she wanted to know more about. All that counted was that she had taken away something that had been immensely precious to Eryn: the family she had found in House Vel’kim. She was still a member of their House, legally speaking. But with Ved’al not being her father, she had no claim of lineage to being part of the family.

The notion of Malriel made her heart increase its pace and she made herself close her eyes and breathe evenly to calm herself down again. Stress was not good, neither for her nor for the child.

When she emerged on deck several minutes later clad in the thinner garments she had purchased here during her first visit, she found Vern sitting on the stairs, drawing something.

“According to Enric you have already drawn everything there is on the ship. Are you starting all over again?” she quipped.

He looked up and grinned at her. “I don’t have to, fortunately. Unlike at sea, there are landscapes around now, so I don’t have to limit myself to the things on board.”

“Have you had breakfast yet?”

He nodded. “Yes. Two hours ago. Not all of us like to sleep half the day away.”

“I was put to sleep by a magician! It was not my fault!” she protested.

“Oh, I see – because under normal circumstances you like to get up as early as you can,” he snorted and resumed his work.

“Why am I even talking to you?” she murmured and moved on to where Enric and Orrin were standing, looking out over the wide, rocky ridges. These were the foothills of mountains they had passed not long before. There was hardly any vegetation as the slow transition into desert had started already.

Orrin turned and nodded to her when she stepped next to them. He, too, had changed into lighter clothes. Junar had made them each a few sets to have something for their first few days in Takhan before they had a chance to see a local tailor. She had not adapted the style of their clothes, just the heaviness of the fabric, so he would still appear foreign in style, even if one did not look at the fair hair.

“Where is Junar?” she asked and looked around.

“Below deck,” the warrior replied. “She woke only a few minutes ago and is getting herself ready.” He studied her. “You look tense.”

She set her face in a scowl. “I am not too thrilled at the prospect of seeing the Queen of Darkness again so soon.”

Orrin frowned. “The what?”

“Queen of Darkness. Malriel,” she explained.

“Charming,” he murmured and shook his head at her.

“Why would I be? She isn’t, either. I just hope she doesn’t turn up at the port,” she growled.

Enric thought that the chances for that were rather slim, but didn’t put words to it. She was probably aware of it anyway.

Vern stepped next to them. “Can we repeat the thing with the greetings once again? I keep mixing it up.”

Enric nodded and stretched out his hand to demonstrate. “Two men who greet each other formally link their fingers. The same goes for two women.”

Vern linked his fingers with Enric’s as instructed, then nodded. “Alright. And then there are the informal greetings. Men don’t have any particular informal greeting but express fondness through whatever gesture they feel like performing, like squeezing a shoulder, slapping a back or whatever. Though with mixed sexes it’s different, isn’t it?”

Enric confirmed it. “Yes. When men and women greet each other formally, the man kisses the woman’s hand like this.” He took Eryn’s left hand and pressed his lips against her knuckles. “Just make sure not to linger, or it might be taken as intrusive. Informal greetings between men and women consist in kissing both cheeks. The same goes for two women.”

Vern nodded. “Thank you, Lord Enric.”

He lifted both brows. “Pardon?”

The boy closed his eyes for a moment, then sighed. “Thank you… Enric.”

Eryn grinned. “Ah yes, it seems you used the time I spent more or less hibernating to adapt to the custom of not using titles.”

Enric sighed. “Yes, though it seems that this is quite a burden for our young friend here. He keeps flinching whenever I make him address me without it.”

She looked at the boy. “Just remember that he is no longer in the Order and does thus not merit being addressed by it, anyway. He isn’t your superior anymore, just a magician you happen to know.”

He snorted. “Yes, sure. A magician in the case of which I have been taught to stay out of his way, not look him directly in the eye, address him without being asked and be very careful always to treat him with the respect he is due.”

Enric looked taken aback. “That is what you were told?” He turned towards Orrin and raised an eyebrow at him.

“Don’t look at me,” the warrior shrugged. “I don’t tell people not to look you in the eye or keep their mouth shut when they have something sensible to say, no matter how important you are. Must have been his teachers.”

“Children are being told to keep out of my way and avoid eye contact with me?” he asked with a bewildered expression. That really was an unpleasant revelation. He shook his head in confusion. “Why?”

Orrin thought for a moment, then ventured, “There are stories about you beating up your fellow students and playing rather cruel tricks on them.”

“I was younger than Vern back then!” he protested angrily. “The children that are being taught to cower in obedience before me were not even born at that time!”

“You were that kind of boy? Really?” Eryn frowned. “Why did I get a different impression from the stories I have been hearing until now? They painted a picture of a lazy, disrespectful, misunderstood boy with a tendency to express his frustration through poetry, not with fists. How is it possible that the destructive aspect of beating up other children got lost in there somewhere?”

He looked at her sheepishly. “It’s all a matter of presentation, my love. I already had to work hard enough to make you like and accept me without your knowing about my dark past.”

Orrin grinned. “Don’t worry, Eryn, that was just for the first one or two years after he was brought to the Order. Let’s call it acclimatisation problems, shall we?”

“Yes,” Enric snorted. “After you got your hands on me, I had hardly any energy left to waste on my peers since you made me do so many extra training hours after class that I more or less fell into bed at the end of the day.”

“That has worked well enough, hasn’t it? You turned into an exceptional fighter and have learned to express your frustration with words instead of violence,” the warrior smirked.

Enric looked at Vern. “Who told you to avert your eyes?”

The boy thought for a moment, then said, “My teacher in political strategy, Avlin.”

“Avlin…” Enric mulled the name over, wondering why it did sound familiar, then he grimaced. “Ah…”

Orrin nodded. “Yes, him. You locked him inside a chest for several hours when you were boys. Twice.”

Eryn shook her head at her companion. “So while I was training to be a healer at the age of… what? – thirteen, you were the scourge of your peers? And the most sensible thing they could think of was to teach you more fighting?” She sighed and looked at his former combat teacher. “Why not lock him up in a chest for a few hours as well to teach him a lesson?”

“I see we have very different approaches to raising children,” the warrior said reproachfully. “Repaying a child in kind doesn’t achieve much. Punishing him like that would only have made him angrier and wouldn’t have solved the problem of his excess energy. Fighting requires discipline, so increasing the time he had to spend learning it served more than one purpose. It left him hardly any time or energy for torturing others and forced him to learn control and restraint.”

Eryn nodded and smirked at Vern. “Well, you see it is safe enough to look him in the eye and address him without a title nowadays. It seems your father has tamed him for us.”

“I don’t really appreciate your phrasing it like that,” her companion sighed. “Let us say he aided me in finding less destructive outlets for my energy and frustration, shall we?”

She nodded. “If that wording makes you happier, who am I to deny you?”

“A pity this approach has not worked on you, though,” Orrin remarked. “Making you fight just increased your frustration.”

“Yes,” she growled. “And I had to have a child planted inside me finally to be permitted to halt this waste of time for at least a while.”

“We could always have another one afterwards. That would make them spare you for even longer,” Enric threw in casually.

“Hardly,” she snapped at him. “Buying myself a few months without combat training will earn me another few years of a different kind of strain. Imagine if we get stuck with a troublemaker like Vern who teaches magical fighting to prisoners and defaces ancient city maps with drawings of naked women!”

“I thought I was too harmless to be bad?” the said troublemaker chuckled.

“I’ve changed my mind about that. You are now officially bad influence material. Just don’t do anything I need to take responsibility for as the highest ranking Order magician as long as we are in Takhan. And you had better get used to addressing Enric without a title. It will sound really strange otherwise,” she warned him.

Pe’tala stepped next to them and pointed towards the horizon. “Look, there is my home city,” she said with a touch of pride in her voice.

Vern cast a quick look at the view in front of him before he darted back to the stairs where he had left his drawing pad and pen. He started drawing frantically while the others just looked at the faraway silhouette of the grand city.

Enric noted Pe’tala’s tense posture. She was also clearly not looking forward to their impending arrival.

* * *

They stood next to each other at the railing, watching the jetties drift past. This time they had been assigned a different one due to the size of their vessel.

A slow smile spread on Eryn’s face when she spotted the small group of people that stood waiting on the landing stage. Valrad, Vran’el and Kilan. She was relieved to see Malriel was not among them and was pleased that there was no large party assembled that would have taken an eternity to greet, though she felt a small stab of disappointment at Ram’an not being there to welcome them.

She watched her travel companions and smiled at their wonder at seeing the foreign city for the first time, taking in the unusual sights around them.

When the ship had finally been secured by heavy ropes fore and aft, the gangplank was put in place to allow the passengers to disembark. She all but ran ahead and pulled both Vel’kim men at once into a stormy embrace, holding them pressed against her for several moments, before she stepped aside. She was not the only one who had to be eager to greet them.

Pe’tala approached them at a more moderate pace and smiled at her family. She first hugged her father, then her brother.

“Tala, my child,” Valrad said tenderly and brushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “It is good to have you here again, even if it is only for a short while.”

“It is good to be back,” she smiled and leaned into his touch. “You would not believe how cold it is over there.”

“I can when I look at how pale you have become,” her father nodded. “Clearly not enough sunshine there.”

“The Vel’kim girls back in the city,” Vran’el grinned and winked at Eryn. “People here better hide in dark places.”

Eryn then turned to Kilan and laughed when he pulled her close to kiss her cheeks. “Adapting to local customs, I see, Ambassador.”

“I should, I am supposed to show my respect for my host country that way,” he smirked.

Enric, Orrin, Junar and Vern had in the meantime reached them, and after Enric had greeted the three men affectionately, he introduced their travel companions.

“Orrin,” Valrad mused and looked the fighter up and down. “The man who has made Eryn fight despite her repulsion to it.”

The warrior nodded, the cool tone clearly not lost on him. “That would be me, yes,” he replied slowly. “But I hope you will not reduce me to that alone.”

Eryn swallowed and stepped next to Orrin, taking his arm to squeeze it reassuringly while looking at the man she had until recently considered her uncle.

“He has become a close friend since that time, Valrad. Somebody who has never failed me when I needed a place to go or a voice of reason to guide me.” She grinned and gave Orrin a friendly shove. “Pretty much the father I never wanted.”

She watched Valrad narrow his eyes at her last comment and wondered why this greeting was so uncharacteristically tense. She hurriedly turned from Orrin to his companion and introduced Junar, who was welcomed more warmly.

When Vern stepped forward, Valrad broke into a broad grin.

“And this must be Vern, the young man with not only the most incredible artistic talent but also an inclination to healing. I have seen the book you illustrated, and I cannot wait to introduce you to my colleagues. They were thrilled to hear that you would be among the party to come here.”

Vern was clearly overwhelmed at the warm greeting that was so very different from the one his father had just received. It took him several moments to find his voice.

“Thank you, I am very glad I had the chance to visit here. And I am happy to meet you. I have heard a lot about you,” he finally said and lifted his hand for the formal greeting.

Enric put a hand on his shoulder. “You usually wait for the other person to offer you his hand first if he or she is older or higher in status.”

The boy swallowed and smiled nervously at the older man before him. “I’m sorry, it seems there are a few things I need to learn still.”

Valrad laughed and linked their fingers. “No worries, my young friend. I will not take offence at minor things like that.”

Eryn frowned when she saw Vran’el gaze over her shoulder and stiffen at the sight. She turned slowly, hoping against hope that she would not find herself face to face with Malriel.

No such luck.

The Head of House Aren came closer. Her face appeared confident enough, and yet there was a hint of caution in her moves. She reached Enric first and pulled him close to greet him with a kiss on each cheek.

“Enric, my dear. I am so very glad you are here. I truly appreciate what you are doing,” she smiled.

He nodded at her once. “I am sure you do. Yet I want you to know that your methods do not meet with my approval,” he said mildly. “But this is a discussion for another time.”

Malriel’s expression became slightly strained and she moved on to greet Orrin, Junar and Vern. Finally, she turned towards Eryn, who had gone stiff.

“Theá,” the older woman said softly. “Welcome back to Takhan.”

Eryn felt the rage shoot through her like a hot spear. The smile, the name she didn’t want to be addressed with, this casualness despite the things she had done.

When Malriel stepped closer to kiss her cheeks, Eryn’s reaction to this attempt at closeness was an automatic one. Her fist shot out and connected with the older woman’s chin with a thud. Malriel’s head was twisted violently to one side by the force of the impact and she staggered back several steps, the shock clear on her face.

“You black-hearted, untrustworthy, maleficent creature!” she shouted.

It had become quiet around them. Everybody within sight seemed to have frozen in mid-action to stare at the incredible scene of the mighty Head of House Aren being hit by what looked like a slightly younger version of herself.

Eryn felt a surge of pleasure, relief and dizziness at seeing Malriel out of her element for once. She was not in control of this situation.

“Oh dear,” Vran’el sighed and looked up at Enric. “You ought to intervene, I would say.”

The blond magician slowly shook his head and murmured, “No. Malriel had that one coming. I have no intention of aiding her. She deserved it well enough.” And it was a nice way for Eryn to get rid of her anger instead of keeping it inside. That she could also apply her newly acquired skills in unarmed combat as a welcome side-benefit.

They watched Eryn approach her mother again. Malriel lifted her hands before her.

“Maltheá, this is not the right way to deal with our issues!”

“It works fine for me right now,” Eryn hissed and kicked her hard in the stomach, sending her over the edge of the jetty and into the river with a loud splash.

She watched the water close over Malriel’s head, then exhaled and turned to walk towards her rapt audience without looking back.

“I assume she can swim? Not that I intend to rescue her if she can’t,” she commented dryly.

Valrad had closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. “Not a good start,” he murmured.

Vran’el nodded. “No, but not exactly unexpected, was it? Though I did not see that… physical aspect coming, I admit.” He then turned to Kilan. “Would you accompany Orrin, Junar and young Vern to your residence, Kilan?”

“What about Eryn and Enric?” Junar asked, putting a protective arm around her friend’s shoulders.

“They will come with us to our house. There is something we need to discuss,” Valrad answered in his son’s place. “I would very much like to invite all of you to spend your first evening in Takhan with us and have dinner with my family and me. I am sure I do not need to tell you that you are in capable hands with Kilan until then,” he finished with an awkward smile.

They watched Malriel pull herself out of the water, her wet clothes clinging to her slim body as she climbed an iron ladder downstream of the ship, her long dark hair plastered against her head. When she was back on land, she closed her eyes and a moment later steam started to rise when she dried herself with magic. A minute later there was no more trace of her tumble into the river, and she walked back to them casting a warning look at her daughter.

Orrin gripped Eryn’s upper arm and growled at her, “This is not responsible use of the things I taught you. Attacking somebody who has scruples about striking you back on account of your condition is not a very noble approach to the art of fighting.”

She bared her teeth when she hissed back, “All I have to tell you is that this is of no consequence to me right now. None at all.”

She saw Valrad frown at their exchange and freed her arm from Orrin’s grip.

“Why are we to come with you? I would rather take a cool bath and sit down and relax for a while,” she then asked, keeping Malriel in view in case another chance to give her a good kick presented itself.

“I will tell you when we are at home,” Valrad spoke calmly and reached out for her hand. “It is nothing I would like to discuss in public.”

“Is that vicious woman to come as well? If yes, you can count me out,” she growled.

He sighed. “Yes, Malriel will accompany us. And no, you may not refuse to come.” His tone contained an unmistakeable warning. “Enric, I would appreciate your help here.”

Enric nodded slowly. It seemed they had just got the harmless part behind them and were now to face what Pe’tala had been dreading.

* * *

Eryn waited until Malriel had taken a seat on one of the cushions at the Vel’kim main room and then sat down at the furthest possible spot, glaring daggers at her. Enric glided onto the seat next to her and Valrad sank onto the cushion on her other side. Vran’el set down a tray with glasses, water and juice on the low table before them, then sat between his father and Malriel. Pe’tala had opted against joining the group and instead leaned against a wall close to the exit.

Enric raised a questioning brow at her. To escape, if necessary? She gave him a tired smile.

Valrad took Eryn’s hand between his own two larger hands and waited until she had torn her glare away from Malriel to look at him instead before he addressed her.

“Eryn, my girl, Pe’tala has informed me that you are by now aware of the significance of your son’s inherited illness.”

“Yes,” she swallowed and sent the woman opposite her another hate-filled look. “It means that Malriel of House Aren was not much more considerate in her companionship than in her other dealings. She was not only unfaithful but also careless enough to get herself pregnant from her affair, drunken encounter or whatever else it was.”

Malriel opened her mouth to reply, but closed it again when Valrad gave her a look that made her reconsider.

Eryn frowned at that. “I don’t really see why you are the one to talk to me about her misconduct. Delegating this duty to the brother of the man she did this to is low, even for her. But then I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at anything she does any longer.”

“Eryn,” Valrad said urgently, “please listen to me for a moment, will you? This is important. You are right. It was wrong of her to do this behind Ved’al’s back, but she was not the only one to blame here.”

She tried to pull away her hand, but the older man held on to it. “If you are about to tell me her bed-partner’s name in order to make me spread my anger more evenly instead of making her alone be the one to bear it, I am very disappointed in you. I don’t care who she took to bed. He is of no consequence to me.”

Valrad closed his eyes and turned his head away for a moment.

The thought hit Enric like a fist in the stomach and he sucked in a sharp breath. His gaze shot to Pe’tala, who nodded at him once, guessing that he had figured it out.

Eryn turned to him when she felt shock and dread through the mind bond. “What?”

He just shook his head and quickly raised a mind shield to avoid distracting and worrying her.

“Eryn,” Valrad then said, his face serious, his jaw clenched. “This is of considerable consequence to you. To all of us. I was the man she took to bed at the time when you were conceived.”

She froze, staring at him uncomprehendingly. There were… words. She understood the meaning of every single one of them, but together they just made no sense at all.

“Pardon?” she enquired politely.

“The bone disease your son has inherited,” he explained with a troubled expression, “has been passed on through our family for many generations now. Not all males inherit it, though – only one in four. Ved’al did not. But I did. And so has your son.” He searched her face for a sign of comprehension, some emotion. “Eryn? Do you see what I am telling you? I am your father, and not only legally. You are of my blood, my daughter.”

Her head sunk until her chin rested on her chest, her breathing becoming faster. “No. You are not. I refuse to believe that you did a thing like that to your own brother. Not you. You are the decent kind. You wouldn’t.”

She watched the pain on his face at her words and only then fully understood that he had spoken the truth. As the ache at realising this almost choked her, for a moment she felt that she couldn’t breathe. Enric’s arm around her shoulders pressed her against him and she felt his lips on her temple. It took her several moments to decipher that his voice formed actual words.

“I am so sorry, my love.”

She sobbed quietly and buried her face in her hands.

After more than one minute she whispered, “Of all people! I see how she could have done this, but you?” Her voice rose in pitch. “He was your brother, damn you! How could you? And you played the role of the welcoming uncle so nicely when I first came here,” she exclaimed, a tear running down her cheek. “A pity for you Malriel slipped me that fertility potion, or I would never have found out!”

Valrad’s head snapped to Malriel and he stared at her. His voice boomed through the house, when he snarled, “You have done what?”

Malriel flinched as if he had hit her and just pressed her lips together, neither confirming nor denying it.

Enric looked at Pe’tala in surprise. “You didn’t tell him?”

She shook her head. “No. It is not something to send via bird. One never knows who intercepts and reads those messages.”

“I swear to you, Eryn, I had no idea of this. And neither did I suspect that I am your father. I only realised it when Pe’tala sent me the message about the results of her examination.”

Eryn shook her head and rose. “I need to get out of here,” she murmured and almost stumbled when she hastily climbed over the large cushions towards the stairs that lead to the exit. Valrad attempted to steady her, but she shied away from him. “Don’t you touch me!” she snarled and ran towards the stairs.

Enric jumped up and tried to follow her, but Pe’tala blocked his way, shaking her head.

“No. Let me.”

Conflicting emotions played across his face. When they heard the door downstairs being opened and thrown shut a moment later, Pe’tala grabbed his arms and added urgently, “Please?”

He finally nodded and forced himself to remain where he was.

“Vran’el?” she called out. “Bel’s teahouse in half an hour.”

When her brother nodded silently, she dashed off after Eryn.

* * *

She was blinded by the sudden bright sunlight and staggered for a moment before she shadowed her eyes with her hand and started running down the road that climbed from the street to the building.

When she reached the street that ran along one side of the Vel’kim land, she paused before she decided not to worry where she went as long as it would be away from here.

A hand on her shoulder made her cry out and whirl around, ready to throw a punch if it turned out to be Malriel or Valrad. But it was Pe’tala, her face grim and determined, who stood before her.

“Come,” she just ordered and grabbed Eryn’s upper arm to lead her in a direction that Eryn vaguely recalled leading towards the city centre.

“Let go of me,” she ordered and tried to free her arm, but the younger woman held on to it and pulled her along.

“No. You stop that right now and come with me. I can hardly let you go running around alone in the city without a single slip of gold in your pocket and no more than rudimentary knowledge of the city layout. Who knows where you might end up.”

Eryn laughed too loudly, her voice bitter when she said, “My concerned little sister, how very considerate of you to worry about me.”

Pe’tala stopped and turned towards her, staring into her eyes and stepping closer until their noses were almost touching.

“You are damned right, you idiot! A month was a long time to carry the burden of this knowledge alone. I do worry and have done so since the moment I detected that disorder in your child. Or did you think it was a coincidence that I was standing next to the exit right now when you heard about this?” she said sternly. “Now stop being difficult until I get you to a place where we can talk. As you are quite a bit stronger than me, I need you to cooperate with me. Do you hear me?”

“Talk to you?”

“Yes, talk to me. Honestly, I am the person you want to talk to right now. Knowing Vran’el, he is very probably happy about the recent development, so having him around would just make you want to throttle him. It is no matter that you generally like him better than me. Enric would just hold you and listen to your wailing and then tell you how to analyse the situation in a way that makes it appear advantageous.”

Eryn blinked and just stared at her.

“Are you coming now?”

Pe’tala waited for a moment, and when no reply came she resumed her brisk walk without letting go of the other woman’s arm.

Eryn had no idea how long they had marched on before Pe’tala stopped next to a teahouse with white tents that protected the cushions on the ground from the sun.

“Sit,” she commanded and lifted a hand to summon a server, instructing him to keep the tables around them empty to give them privacy and ordering a pot of tea, telling him to keep refilling it until ordered otherwise. Then she sank down next to Eryn, stretching out her legs and sighing wearily. “It seems coming to Takhan is never a very cheerful occasion for you, is it?”

Eryn exhaled and leaned back, closing her eyes. “No, I just want to hide somewhere dark…” Her voice trailed off. She opened her eyes again when she felt Pe’tala’s hand on hers.

“Your hand is cold and your heart is beating much faster than our short walk here would warrant. You are in shock. I am going to do something about that as it is dangerous for you and the child. Do you hear me?” Her voice sounded calm but there was determination.

“Why do you keep asking me that?”

“Because confusion is a shock symptom. Relax now. Do not raise a barrier or anything, or I will grab the next magician I see passing along and make him help me overpower you just so I can smack you on the head.”

Eryn slowly shook her head and felt pleasant warmth seeping into her skin as Pe’tala sent magic through her palm. “You do have a way with patients. No wonder they keep complaining about you.”

Pe’tala opened her eyes again and smiled tiredly. “Nonsense. They complain, but in truth they are secretly delighted. They exchange horror stories about being treated by me when they meet. I am practically providing an additional public service by making sure there are conversation topics.”

Eryn exhaled and noticed that she found thinking a lot easier. “What now? Do I pour out my grief and sorrow about the latest blow fate has dealt me, and you ease my pain with the balm of sisterly sympathy, or how does this work?”

“An interesting picture,” the younger woman smiled weakly, “but not exactly in accordance with our preferences, is it? Let us instead try being angry together.”

Eryn sighed and nodded. “Sure, why not? I can see why you would be angry.”

“No,” Pe’tala retorted sharply. “You cannot. Yet. But you might if you shut up for a minute and let me tell you bit about myself.” She paused when the server brought them a metal pot with steaming hot tea and two glasses. The handles looked so delicate as if they might fall off any moment simply by being looked at the wrong way. When he had retreated again, she leaned forward to pour the tea for both of them and then leaned back with her glass in one hand to continue. “I was very young when my mother ran off with a trader. Four years old, to be precise. I know that her and father’s companionship was not a particularly affectionate one, but I have never really forgiven her for leaving me behind like that. There are ways for a woman to separate from a man without giving up all contact with her children. In any event it seems we were no more than a burden to her – there was no space for us in her new life.” She paused and stared into her glass for a short while before going on. “In this past month I have started wondering. I would never have pegged my father as the type to have an affair with a woman who is joined to another man. Especially not his brother’s companion, and not while he himself was bound to a woman. But learning of this… It has made me wonder if my mother had learned about this, too, and decided to leave because of it.”

Eryn swallowed. So these were the thoughts that had plagued Pe’tala for the last month while she was stuck in a foreign country far away from her family and friends with nobody to talk to.

“I wish you had told me about this. That was a long time for you to be alone with it.”

She shook her head. “No. It was not my place to share this with you. And I was angry at father and wanted him to see with his own eyes what pain his actions of so many years back would cause you.” She looked up into Eryn’s eyes. “It was a punishment for him. And Malriel. Though I have to mention that he asked me not to tell you about it. He never expected me to do his dirty work for him, as it were.”

“Don’t say anything nice about him now,” Eryn grimaced.

Pe’tala smiled. “Alright, I will refrain from doing so for now. There are a few other reasons for me to be angry with him, so let us talk about those first. There was his choice of lover, for one thing. I mean, how could he ever be drawn to a woman like that?” She cast a disapproving face. “She is selfish, reckless and not exactly squeamish when it comes to the methods she employs. What kind of man would fall for those qualities? She is very pretty, I will admit. But I never thought that my father would find superficial qualities appealing enough to overlook what lies beneath. I would like to grant him the fact that he was young, but I find that very hard. Then I keep wondering how well I really knew my father. As you said before, doing this to his own brother is a cold, heartless thing. I never pictured him as that kind of person. And finally the absolutely ridiculous idea that a fully-trained healer cannot manage to avoid conceiving an unplanned child. Really now. How stupid can one be? This happens to teenagers who are either too caught up in the moment to think properly or have not understood how to prevent pregnancy, but not to a grown man. He had already made himself a name as a healer at that time, after all!”

Eryn waited for another reason she would have expected to be relevant here, but it had not been among those mentioned.

“And then there is me,” she ventured.

Pe’tala rubbed her face and shook her head. “No, Eryn, you will probably not believe it, but you were not one of my reasons for being angry. You have not caused this any more than I have. And you know, after getting to know you better and leaving the mess with Ram’an behind me, I have decided that you are not that much of a nuisance. I was surprised at the work you did in your Kingdom and how you keep fighting and pestering the Order instead of just complying with what they wanted, leaning back to enjoy a life without worries at the side of your powerful and rich companion. And I will admit that your troubles with Malriel have made it a lot easier for me to forgive you for looking like her.”

“How very generous of you,” Eryn murmured.

“What can I say? I am known for that quality,” she said, then became serious again. “I do not mind having you as my sister. I had fun in Anyueel, and you made it very easy for me to be accepted. Even though it took quite some determination from my side to stop Rolan from shying away from me due to my mighty and powerful family connections, namely you and Enric.” She chuckled as she recalled the memory. “I swear to you, he was sweating blood when we were first invited to have dinner at your place.”

Eryn smiled faintly at her recollection of the evening. “Yes, he did seem rather ill at ease.”

They both emptied their cups and Pe’tala refilled them again.

“The time you have spent with Ved’al, your memories of him, this is something no unpleasant revelation can take away from you, you know,” she then said. “He has been as much your father as… well, our father. He has raised you and made you the person you are today.”

“I know,” Eryn sighed. “Yet the thought that it has all been a lie… It may sound very cruel, but I am glad he never found out about this, that he did not live to see this day. How is a man to react when he learns that his only child is not his, but his brother’s?” She stared at her cup, blankly.

They looked up when a figure stopped next to their table. Eryn’s eyes narrowed when she recognised him after a few moments. Ram’an. He looked surprised to see them, but recovered quickly enough.

“Eryn. Pe’tala,” he said slowly. “That is… unexpected.”

Eryn didn’t reply, but stared at him. He looked somehow transformed. Thinner, with more lines around his mouth and on his forehead. It seemed that his position as Head of House was not exactly one that afforded him a lot of time for himself. Or for sleeping.

“Ram’an,” Pe’tala answered politely without rising. “At the risk of seeming unfriendly, would you mind leaving us for now? We are having a very personal conversation here and would appreciate our privacy. I am sure we will meet again soon. Either Malriel or my father will very likely host a welcome dinner.”

He blinked and then nodded. “Of course. And yes, the invitations have already been sent out. I will see you in two days, then.” Eryn noticed his quick glance at her belly before he turned away and walked towards a set of cushions at the other end of the teahouse. So he had obviously heard about her pregnancy. This was good.

“And there I was, thinking this day could not become any more unpleasant,” she murmured, trying to ignore that he was still close enough for her to see him if she turned her head.

Pe’tala pointedly looked at the bracelet around her wrist. “I was under the impression that you parted as friends?”

Eryn nodded and played with the piece of jewellery. “That was what I had thought, too. But our correspondence was chilly at the beginning and ceased completely after a while.” She shrugged. “Not a major concern of mine any longer after what I have heard so far today, though.”

“Girls,” Vran’el’s voice said from behind them.

Pe’tala sighed and turned. “That was not half an hour, Vran.”

He shrugged and squeezed between them. “No matter. I thought that annoying you by being early was preferable to my waiting at home, fretting.” He raised a finger to signal the server to bring another cup. Then he looked at each of them in turn. “So. Tala, my sweetheart, I know that you must have known about it for a while. And Eryn, my dear, I see why this was not the most comforting start to your stay here. Though I have to say that I am very pleased that you both seem to have managed to get along well enough to be there for each other when there is trouble.”

He took Pe’tala’s glass and emptied it. “And while at the moment this may seem like bad news and quite a shock…”

“Vran?” Pe’tala asked and after he had stopped, added, “Just shut it, will you?”

Eryn rolled her eyes. “You were right. Too cheerful by far. Terrible.”

“What?” he asked in puzzlement.

“We are still in the throes of sharing with each other why we are angry at Valrad,” Eryn explained.

“Angry at him?” His confusion increased. “Why ever would you be angry at him? What would that change?”

“Oh dear,” Pe’tala sighed. “Can you just go off again? This conversation was a lot more meaningful before your arrival.”

Vran’el accepted a glass from the server and shook his head. “Surely not! It seems to me like you are in desperate need of some positive influence here.”

“Don’t try to be positive with me right now,” Eryn growled. “If you want to tell me something nice, say that nobody but us will ever get to hear of this latest family drama.” She watched Vran’el’s expression become studiously blank. “Vran’el? Why do I have the feeling that you are about to tell me something I will not appreciate hearing?”

He cleared his throat, then filled his glass with exaggerated care from the pot on the table, obviously to buy time.

“Vran’el!” she barked. “Stop playing around and talk to me! Who knows about this but us?”

“Nobody else so far,” he said slowly. “But you surely remember that men born to the House of Vel’kim tend to be rather well known for their devotion and commitment to their offspring, do you not?”

She nodded and motioned for him to keep talking.

“Father plans to officially acknowledge you as his natural child in addition to being your legal parent at the next Senate meeting.”

“What?” Eryn stared at him, her mouth agape. “You need to stop him! That won’t look good for any of us!”

Vran’el looked at her with what she had come to know as his lawyer-expression: slightly indulgent with an air of solemn superiority. “I am afraid I cannot oblige you here. He would not take well to me interfering in this matter unbidden. And he is right, it is no more than correct and proper to take public responsibility for his actions.”

“You have both gone mad!” she exclaimed. “I object to this!”

“You see, he is the Head of your House, so if he is determined to do this, your objections are rather useless, I am afraid,” he shrugged.

“How about Malriel? I can’t imagine her approving of a thing like that,” Eryn asked urgently. “She can and will stop him, can’t she?”

“No, sweetness, she will not even try,” he sighed. “Aren women are a belligerent bunch, but they are not stupid, and avoid fighting whenever they know they cannot win. So now sit back and have another glass of tea; you are not able to change what is about to happen in two days. You are welcome to watch the revelation, though. Senate meetings are public most of the time, as you can surely remember.”

“I don’t want everyone to know this! Why is he so eager to share his shame with the world? What kind of man does a thing like that?” she moaned.

“Someone who does not consider being gifted with having another daughter a shame but rather a privilege, I would think,” he said mildly. “A sentiment I share.” He took Pe’tala’s hand and squeezed it. “One sister has been a blessing so far, and having two is an even greater blessing.” He attempted to take her hand as well, but she moved out of the way.

“Don’t,” she hissed, “just don’t! You really don’t see how I can be upset about this, do you? For you we are just a big, happy family where nothing much has changed, as I was adopted into your House anyway?”

“Eryn,” he implored her, “we loved you before we knew about this, and we still do. You lost one father when you were still a child – why do you not see the miracle in unexpectedly finding another one and just accept it?”

“Because this situation is the result of infidelity, lying and betrayal! How would you react to finding out that Obal was not your daughter? Don’t tell me you would approve of it as you daughter would be blessed with gaining another father!”

He raised an eyebrow. “That is hardly a valid comparison. I am still alive, after all. Of course I would not be happy about it. But Ved’al has been dead for so long, and without him there nobody is left to be hurt.”

“It hurts me, damn you!” she hissed. “I just want some time to get used to this nightmare before it will be discussed by everyone.” She forced herself to breathe and lean back again. “I have been looking forward to seeing you and your father again, I really have. That prospect was more or less the only pleasant thing about being compelled to come here again so soon. And now I feel like strangling you because you are so obstinate in your views. I wish I could hide from Valrad for the next month! My stomach churns at the mere thought of his having invited us to have dinner with you tonight!”

“Eryn, please,” he tried again, “this is not supposed to be a burden to you. All he wants is the chance to be a father to you, too.”

“I don’t need a father,” she snapped. “Is that so hard to understand? I had a father, and he is dead! What I need and what I appreciated very much last time I was here is a friend, an uncle, somebody I can trust! But this is not him any longer! How can I trust him ever again after discovering how he treated not only his brother, but his own companion, too?” She stood and glared at him. “I have no intention of serving as his big chance to repent for his bad deeds back then. I don’t need him – I just want to be left in peace.”

Her gaze fell on Ram’an who was observing her with interest from his distant corner of the large tent. Her eyes narrowed. This was as good a time as any. She fumbled with her bracelet until she had unfastened it and marched towards him, tossing it into his lap.

“Here! I don’t want it anymore. It seems you and I have very different ideas about friendship. You have not held up your side, and I am sick of waiting for you to come to your senses. Let’s stop pretending, shall we? Enric is eager enough to help your House back on its feet; you don’t need me to carry your torch and demonstrate publicly how chummy our Houses are.”

He blinked and began to rise, but stopped when she whirled and stomped off.

Vran’el also started to get to his feet and follow her, but Pe’tala sighed, holding on to his sleeve and pulling him back down. “Let her go. You just messed up all my efforts, and not just a little. What is more, I must say that I do not agree with some of the things you said. This is not an occasion of joy, but of great shock. And she has had no time to get used to it like the two of us have. Do try to be more considerate next time.”

He stared at his sister. Being reprimanded for lack of sympathy by her was not something that occurred too often. It generally was the other way round. He lifted his hands and let them drop again helplessly.

“I just wanted to show her that she is welcome, that she has a home with us. That she is one of us,” he said, looking perplexed. “It seems I made quite a mess of that.”

“Considering that she has just jumped up and run off, you may safely assume that, yes,” she remarked tartly.

“Where is that consideration you just reprimanded me about?” he growled.

She was about to reply to that, but shut her mouth when she saw Ram’an slowly walking towards them. He was looking down at the silver bracelet in his hand that Eryn had just thrown at him. He stopped in front of them, frowning.

“What is wrong?” he simply asked.

“I did not have the impression that you are on speaking terms, so I do not feel that you are entitled to an answer,” Pe’tala replied coolly, but sighed when she saw the worry on his face. “Just make sure not to miss the next Senate meeting. That should answer your question sufficiently.” She looked him up and down. “And you might want to get some sleep every now and then and reconsider your dietary habits. You look dreadful. That was some professional advice free from your friendly neighbourhood healer.” Then she rose and dropped half a gold slip onto the table to pay for the tea. “If you will excuse me now, I need to make sure Eryn gets back to the ambassadorial residence unharmed, or Enric will skin my hide. Not being subjected to the restraint the Order puts on its magicians does not exactly make him less dangerous.”

Ram’an watched her walk off, then he looked down at Vran’el, who did not look especially happy himself.

“You know,” he said slowly, “seeing the two of them sitting together peacefully was not a sight I would have expected anytime soon. That your joining them could lead to some kind of escalation was the next shock. But having Eryn furious at me while Pe’tala treats me like a human being throws me completely off balance. I do not know what is going on at House Vel’kim, but I am determined to attend that Senate meeting in two days. Unless you feel like sharing?” he added casually.

Vran’el shook his head. “No. I cannot. You will have to wait like everybody else.”

Ram’an nodded slowly. “Very well – I respect that of course. Should you change your mind, there is always a bottle of wine waiting to be shared at my place.”

Vran’el smiled thinly. “You are shameless.”

“And you are troubled, something I have not seen in a long time. Send me a message if there is anything I can do.”

“Thank you. I appreciate the offer, even though I am not able to accept it for now.” He rose. “A good day to you, Ram’an.”

Ram’an watched the Vel’kim heir walking in the direction of his home. This was interesting. Pe’tala had gone after Eryn, but he did not. Whatever mess they were in seemed to be something major.

 

Chapter 2

Facing Valrad

Enric fought the urge to pace the main room at the ambassadorial residence and instead stood in front of one of the large windows and looked out. Unfortunately, he could not gain a view of the streets but of the green inner courtyard with its fruit trees and decorative shrubbery. It was a more pleasant scene than the dusty street, especially during the day, yet his concerns were hardly of an aesthetic nature at the moment.

He knew that Eryn was with Pe’tala and Vran’el, so there was no need for him to worry about her. Theoretically. She would be unlikely to get into any trouble, yet the thought of her being out there somewhere without him while she was so distressed was disturbing.

Kilan and Orrin were both sitting on the cushions on the floor at the centre of the room, watching him. He had imparted the news to all of them after his arrival less than half an hour ago, and Junar had immediately started worrying and had been about to storm off to start searching, through a city entirely unknown to her at the hottest time of the day, for Eryn. Vern had managed to convince her that Eryn was in good hands and then led her into her bedroom to get her to relax. Probably with a gentle prod of magic to ease her tension.

Enric watched his wrist and noted with relief when the symbols on it started getting darker. That meant she was approaching the residence. Finally.

Only minutes later he heard the door downstairs open and he rushed to the stairs to watch Eryn and Pe’tala come in. He reminded himself that seeming nervous and worried would not be helpful right now and waited for them at the top of the stairs instead of charging down as had been his first impulse.

When both women had reached him, he pulled his companion into a gentle embrace, kissed her on her temple and held her until she pulled herself free a short while later.

“Wine,” she murmured. Enric looked at Pe’tala questioningly, and she nodded.

“One glass. No more,” she accepted, then went to sit with the two men. “And something a little more potent for me, if you would be so good.”

Kilan was about to get up, but she rolled her eyes. “Stay seated, Kilan. The great and mighty lord will surely manage to serve me a drink without your help. I have seen him do it before. He is rather good at it, considering that he is a rich barbarian who had no idea how to feed himself when he first came here.”

Enric filled a glass for her and smiled to himself. That woman had a talent for dispersing tense situations by making fun of somebody. Or causing the same situations by doing so, however one wanted to see it.

He then pressed a glass of sweet wine into Eryn’s hand and took her other hand to pull her towards the seating cushions with him. He felt a lot calmer now that she was beside him again.

“Has he informed you about the latest drama yet?” Pe’tala asked the men as she accepted the glass from Enric.

Orrin nodded and patted the spot beside him to make Eryn sit down. He put a strong arm around her shoulders and pulled her close to kiss her on the temple just like her companion had done before.

Pe’tala sighed. “You know, I strongly suspect that this is why my father has been somewhat stony to you, Orrin.”

The warrior frowned. “Pardon?”

“That uncomplicated warmth between the two of you that looks a lot more like fatherly affection than normal friendship. You see, hospitality is in my culture an unwritten law, a way of life. The way he treated you today was a break with this, and I feel the need to make you understand why he behaved so.”

“There is no need,” Orrin assured her.

She took a copious gulp of the clear liquid and grimaced for a moment as it burned its way down her throat. “Oh, there is, believe me. A man of his standing is expected to be a role model. If those with the means to be hospitable do not demonstrate hospitality, then who can we expect to?”

“So what exactly is it you are saying?” the warrior enquired with a querulous expression. “That he is jealous of me?”

“Something like that I would suspect, yes,” she agreed. “You see, in my House children are considered something of high value. Vel’kim men are in high demand as fathers, as they are very committed to their children, if not always so obviously to their companions,” she added darkly. “The thought of a daughter who is not close to him – who even refuses to acknowledge him as her father – is no doubt an immense burden upon him. And seeing you with her, scolding her as if it was the most natural thing in the world, with her reacting to it like a stubborn daughter would, was very likely a little overpowering for him.”

“So you are asking me to keep my distance to Eryn as long as your father is around?” he asked calmly with an even look.

“No, that is not what I am asking you. I would not dare proposing a stupid thing like that. I do not see why either of you would have to pretend you are less to each other than is the case because my father has unrealistic ideas of his long lost daughter falling into his arms at a stroke.”

Orrin relaxed visibly. “Good. I wouldn’t have taken well to it.”

Pe’tala chuckled. “Yes, that was the impression I had. I am not trained in fighting skills and I think you are quite a lot stronger than me. I am trying not to anger you if I can avoid it.”

Kilan grinned. “Smart girl.”

“I know,” she grinned back.

“Such considerations did not exactly stop you from provoking Lord Tyront,” Orrin pointed out.

“I told you, I only do it if I cannot avoid it. That day at the Council meeting there was no way to avoid it. I am a proponent of meeting stupidity with disapproval. How else are people to learn from their mistakes?” she shrugged.

Enric watched Eryn staring into her glass. She had not spoken a single word apart from ordering the drink. Pe’tala followed his gaze, then cleared her throat.

“Well, Eryn, I suppose you and I will have to get used to referring to each other as sisters without making it sound like a sendup or an insult. Though I can see why this would surely be hard for you. I am the younger, prettier and very probably more talented of us.”

Eryn blinked and looked up at her. “One out of three. Not too bad for a start,” she muttered. “But at least now you have a female role model to look up to. We might even manage to work together on a few of these character deficiencies that seem to have become stuck.”

Enric gave Pe’tala a look of gratitude for teasing Eryn out of her lethargy. She winked back at him.

Vern entered the main room, carrying his cat.

“Ram’an has awoken,” he pressed out between clenched teeth and with a grimace of pain due to the feline claws that had sunk into his shoulder. “He is not happy.”

Kilan shook his head. “Another cat. At least this one is more compact in size, even though it does not exactly look like the cuddlesome sort.”

“Ram’an is usually very well-behaved and mannerly,” Vern pointed out indignantly and drew in a sharp breath when the cat strengthened its painful grip. “Now he is just disoriented and afraid.”

“He isn’t disoriented or afraid when he widdles on my shoes,” Orrin growled.

“He hasn’t done that in weeks!” Vern protested. Only then did he seem to notice the two women. “Oh, you are back.” His gaze fell on the wine glass in Eryn’s hand and he set down the protesting cat determinedly to walk over to her and pluck it from her grip.

“Are you quite mad? That is not good for your child!” He turned to Pe’tala. “And you just watched her instead of intervening!” he exclaimed reproachfully.

Eryn tunnelled her eyes into a stern look. “Give that back! Right now! Pe’tala permitted me one glass and I am in dire need of it. Don’t make me get it from you. You would not like that.”

Vern wordlessly gripped a carafe of water from the table and watered down the wine before handing it back to her.

“Nuisance,” she murmured, but accepted the glass.

Vern sat down next to Pe’tala. “So, you two really are sisters. Not much of a surprise there, if you ask me. Mean temper, sarcastic…” He shut up when both women gave him evil glares.

They turned when they suddenly heard the cat hissing at something.

“Ah yes,” Enric sighed and rose. “Urban has finally awoken. So this is where we see how those two will get along. Try not to move too much, it might startle them. I will stun Urban in case she decides that Ram’an is just the right size for a tidy snack.”

The mountain cat slunk into the main room, complaining loudly and completely ignored the small red tom, which maintained its hissing and growling.

“Not too happy about being back in Takhan, your big cat, is she?” Kilan commented.

Enric shook his head. “It doesn’t look like it, no. She probably remembers how hot it is here. Her natural habitat consists of shaded woods, after all. But at least she hasn’t shown any ravenous inclinations when it comes to Vern’s little friend. Yet.”

Urban rounded the cushions twice, all the while caterwauling, before she stopped behind Pe’tala to sniff her hair.

“Yes, my girl,” the women cooed and scratched the hairy cheek that was presented to her. “Yes, I am here, too. Do not worry, kitten, you can roam the gardens at the Vel’kim residence tonight. And in a week you will reign over those at the Aren residence.”

“Kitten,” Kilan murmured with a weary sideways glance. “Her shoulders are as high as my knees and she says kitten.”

“You are as bad as my brother Vran’el,” she sniggered. “His four-year-old daughter shows no fear while he walks on tiptoes when this cat is around.”

“The dinner tonight,” Eryn said calmly. “I would rather not go.”

“Of course you will be going,” Pe’tala threw in before Enric had a chance to answer. “An Aren never shows fear, and a Vel’kim never shirks an unpleasant duty. That does not leave much room for hiding. And especially not from my… our father. He may not always look the part, appearing friendly and harmless, but keep in mind that he still is one of the fifteen most powerful people in this country. If he feels that the only way of seeing you is having you move out of the ambassadorial residence and into his house, he can make that happen.”

Eryn stared at her. “He wouldn’t!”

“I would not count on that. He has not been unknown to resort to certain measures when he sees fit. He once punished me for disobedience by making sure that I was sent every single ailing infant under the age of two who was in need of a healer, for an entire month. After that I felt like sticking my head into a hole in the ground and never getting up again. I was fifteen at that time and my patience was not what it is nowadays.”

“Yes, I see,” Vern murmured. “Patience is definitely your most prominent virtue…” He flinched when she tugged his earlobe.

“No respect for your elders, my boy. And that despite growing up in that stuffy Order of yours.”

He shrugged. “Eryn’s bad influence, I am told.”

“Nonsense. You are a little too old for that excuse. You are about to become a man, so you had better own up to being defiant and difficult. It is a more robust claim than saying that your character is the result of an older woman’s influence. At least when it comes to girls.” She looked at him thoughtfully. “You are interested in girls, are you not?”

He stared at her in shock. “What? Of course I am interested in girls! I am definitely not attracted to boys!” he exclaimed in horror.

She raised her brow at him. “You can calm down again now. I did not mean to imply anything of that kind, I was just asking. And you might want to be more careful with your reaction to that very question. My brother is attracted to men, and we are a lot more accepting of this kind of personal choice here than in your home land.”

Vern froze. “Vran’el? To men?”

Enric exhaled audibly. “I see we should have dealt with this matter earlier to give you a chance to get used to the idea. Vern?” He waited until the boy had turned his head towards him. “I have come to regard Vran’el as a friend. He was a great help when we needed him and he is an intelligent and affectionate man. I would not take well to seeing you treat him with a lack of respect due to his personal and private preferences concerning his choice of partners. Have I made myself clear?”

Vern nodded slowly and swallowed. “Yes, L…Enric.”

“Lenric?” Kilan chuckled. “It seems you are having difficulties omitting his title, young man.”

“Doesn’t seem to be the only kind of difficulty I am in right now,” he sighed and watched his cat stalking the larger animal, clearly disgruntled at being ignored.

* * *

Eryn took a deep breath when Enric knocked at the door to the Vel’kim residence. The sun was setting and bathing the bright façade in a warm orange light. It only took a few moments until Valrad opened the door.

His eyes searched the party and his shoulders seemed to relax as soon as he had spotted Eryn. He had obviously been worried that she wouldn’t come.

He smiled broadly and stepped aside to let his guests enter and jovially offered them a large bowl with cool, moist towels, asking them if Kilan had explained the custom to them when he had taken them to the ambassadorial residence. Junar confirmed that he had and gratefully accepted the humid cloth to wipe her forehead and throat.

When Valrad turned towards Eryn to offer her one next, his expression became concerned.

“Good evening, child,” he said softly. “I was hoping that you would come despite your trying day.”

“Yes, sure,” she said calmly, wiping her own face without looking at him. She stilled when she felt his fingers at her chin to lift her face up to him.

“You look pale, my girl,” he said after his eyes had searched her face. “Pe’tala told me that she had to heal away a shock reaction of yours today. You still do not look fully recovered. Would you mind if I had a look at you?”

Eryn forced herself not to shy away from his touch. “I would, actually. As you are the reason for my current mood I would rather not have you do anything that requires any physical closeness, if you don’t mind.”

Valrad pressed is lips together and let his hand sink from her face. “I understand that you have had hardly any time to come to terms with this new situation. I can wait.”

He offered Enric, Orrin and Vern a towel each and then looked down at Urban, who had started sniffing his legs.

“My, my, your beast has grown quite a lot since I last saw her,” he commented. “Vran’el will not be too thrilled at that.”

When all of them had finished refreshing themselves, he preceded them up the stairs, conversing easily. “This is a typical outline for a Takhan residence,” he explained to the newcomers. “The entrance area and store rooms are all downstairs, as it is cooler during the day. We take special care to insulate our walls to keep out as much heat as possible. The main room is on the first floor, a big central room that is the centre of family life and social gatherings. From the main room generally a number of corridors branch out that lead to bedrooms for family and guests, to the studies, library and sanitary rooms. The number of corridors and rooms depends on the wealth and preferences of the House. Ours is a bit more extensive than most, as my grandfather added an entire wing two generations ago. At that time it was still customary to have most of the family living under one roof. From the main room you can access the terrace. Due to its location on the first floor, it is generally elevated, so there are stairs to reach the gardens.”

They reached the top of the stairs and Vern commented, “So this small table on the floor between the cushions is the only one?”

Valrad nodded. “It is indeed. The one at Kilan’s place was especially made according to Ram’an’s instructions for Eryn and Enric when they first came here. Though I am told that the current ambassador hardly uses it nowadays.”

Enric nodded. “That’s what he told me, too. He even is considering storing it somewhere.”

Vran’el came in from the kitchen, carrying a large, steaming bowl. A grin spread on his face when he saw them, but quickly turned into an expression of shock.

“Your cat! Please tell me that she is fully grown at last?” His voice was on the edge of panic. Urban pricked her ears and then started trotting towards him, making him retreat a step.

“Stay where you are, you monster!” he commanded and closed his eyes, when she ignored his order and instead circled him twice to first sniff his legs and then rub her side affectionately against him.

Pe’tala laughed when she entered the room from the adjoining kitchen, taking the food bowl from his hands. “Give me that, you feeble excuse for a man, before you drop our dinner on the floor and we have to make do with cold fare. Better go back and get Eryn’s dish.”

Eryn blinked at the scene that had so many familiar elements, but seemed so strange in having them combined like this. Vran’el being afraid of Urban, Vern asking questions, Valrad taking the role of good-natured guide, Pe’tala’s witty jibes. She had not seen Pe’tala and Vran’el together very often in the past, especially not in such a relaxed mood. Pe’tala had kept away from her home as long as Eryn had been here. She realised that they treated each other pretty much the way each of them treated her. Like a sibling. She pushed away the thought and looked in Valrad’s direction. It seemed that she had just been addressed by him.

“I was asking what I can get you to drink, Eryn.”

“Juice, thank you,” she replied and followed Enric to the cushions to take a seat.

Orrin helped Junar sit down next to her.

“You know, this is very cosy and all,” Junar sighed, “but sitting down and getting up is a bit of a challenge with my extra bulk.”

Eryn smiled, determined not to spoil the evening for the others. “But at least it looks funny, if that is any consolation at all.”

“It’s not, and what’s more I am looking forward to laughing at you in a few months,” her friend retorted.

Vran’el returned from the kitchen with a smaller bowl and placed it at the centre of the table next to the larger one. Then he motioned for Enric to move aside so he could sit next to Eryn.

“Sweetness, I want to apologise for today. I seem to have managed to make a bad situation even worse for you. I am sorry. Will you forgive a fool who was too caught up in his own world to consider your feelings?”

She smiled when he leaned his forehead against hers. “I will. Provided that you have prepared a halfway decent meal for us, that is. I have been very concerned with eating lately, you know.”

He laughed. “Then I have nothing to fear. You know how confident I am when it comes to cooking. I have been extra careful with spicing your dishes. I remember from Intrea’s pregnancy that her stomach tended to get upset rather more easily than before.”

When Vran’el leaned away from her again to fill her bowl, she saw Vern looking at her with a displeased frown. She lifted an eyebrow at him in question and sighed when he looked away hastily. She was not exactly in a mood to deal with his issues in addition to her own right now. This had to wait until later.

She leaned forward to use the water bowl to wash her hands and then pushed it towards Junar.

When all of them were ready to eat, Vran’el watched each of them pick up their bowls and waited until every last one of them had swallowed their first bite, just as a good host was supposed to do. Then he, too, started eating.

“What do you say, little sister? Did I promise too much?” he then enquired, sighing when she flinched at the term of address. “You better get used to that one quickly, Eryn. I have every intention of using it regularly.”

Her smile looked a little strained when she replied, “I wouldn’t want to steal Pe’tala’s endearments, so why don’t you stick with my name?”

Pe’tala huffed. “No need to worry on my account. He has started calling me baby-sister. Can you believe that? I had to become twenty-five years old to find out that I am not merely the younger of two, but the youngest of three, and the first thing that brute of a brother can think of is relegating me to baby.”

“Why complain?” Vran’el smirked. “At least it finally matches your behaviour.”

“Great,” Eryn sighed, uneasy at their eerily natural acceptance of the fact that they had just like that acquired another family member. “How nice of you to treat your guests to a performance of the Vel’kim Siblings of Doom.”

Pe’tala laughed at the term, and Vran’el grinned. “Vel’kim Siblings of doom. I like it. You do know that this includes yourself, do you not?”

“Children,” Valrad reprimanded them, “do try to behave. We have guests and you are not affording them the best impression, I am afraid.”

Enric smiled. “Don’t worry, they have known Eryn for a while and are used to quite a lot.”

Orrin nodded. “Yes. Not too long ago she was having breakfast in my bed, spreading bread crumbs all over it.”

Enric watched Valrad’s lips tightening slightly. It was the only external sign of his dismay at hearing another example of how close this man was to his daughter.

“Well, you just go and have breakfast in her bed as a revenge,” Pe’tala shrugged.

“That is a bit difficult,” he quipped. “Her bed happens to be my superior’s bed as well.”

Eryn smiled. “Bad luck, eh, Orrin?”

“You just wait. Your period of grace will be over in a few months and then you will be back in my hands for combat training,” he retorted.

Pe’tala chewed thoughtfully, then said, “I have been thinking about taking combat lessons myself.”

Several pairs of astonished eyes focused on her.

“What? I am the only magician who cannot use a sword in a place where everybody else can,” she pointed out and grinned broadly when she added, “And I liked very much what Eryn did to the Queen of Darkness today. I enjoyed how she was kicked into the river. That was a work of performance art. It impressed me greatly.”

“A work of art?” Valrad frowned disapprovingly. “I do not think that glorifying violence like that is an appropriate attitude for a healer, Tala. And I do not agree with your planning to learn it.” His gaze rested on Eryn for only a short moment, clearly conveying the message that he was not at all happy that she had been made to do so and would be required to continue the training.

Orrin exchanged a knowing look with Enric and continued eating.

Pe’tala carefully put her empty bowl back on the table and said softly, “I am a grown woman, father. If I decide to acquire a skill that will help me to better adapt to the customs of the place I am staying at for now, then this is what I will do. No matter if you approve or not. I would ask Orrin if he is willing to teach me, though as you have not exactly been very friendly to him so far, I should henceforth refrain from doing so in your presence.” Her tone had cooled down preceptibly towards the end.

Valrad closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, his expression was calm and serene, as usual.

“Let us discuss this matter some other time, Tala,” he said mildly. He turned towards Vern. “Would you care to accompany me to the clinic tomorrow, young man? There are a few people I would like to introduce you to, among them the man who asked you to do the artwork for his book.”

Vern smiled and nodded eagerly. “That would be fabulous, yes!”

He then looked at Eryn. “And you, Eryn? Will you come as well? Iklan and Sarol have kept asking me when you will come by,” he asked carefully.

Eryn shook her head. “Not tomorrow, no. There is a thing or two I would like to take care of tomorrow.” Such as locking herself in a quiet place without seeing any of them. “I will drop by later. I know my way around, you know. But thank you for asking,” she added politely. She could see in his eyes that this did not ease the sting of her telling him that she would go to the clinic soon enough, but not with him.

Vern carefully put down his bowl, his demeanour oddly awkward.

Enric looked at him, then had to hide a grin. He was waiting to be asked if he wanted another helping and wanted to avoid the appearance of doing just that.

Fortunately, Vran’el was a considerate host. “Can I offer you a refill, Vern?”

The boy pretended to consider the question, before nodding slowly. “That would be nice, thank you.”

Vran’el filled the bowl once again and handed it to Vern, frowning slightly when the boy avoided eye contact with him.

When Vern had finished, Eryn straightened. Now that the dinner was over, she could move on the less pleasant matters. Well, even less pleasant, that was. The evening had not exactly gone swimmingly so far.

“I have learned about your intention to give an official statement at the Senate in two days,” she addressed Valrad.

He visibly braced himself and nodded. “Yes?”

She cautioned herself to be careful. Phrasing it as a demand would hardly make him react favourably. It had to be a request.

“I do not feel comfortable with this. I would ask you to keep this knowledge private for now.”

Valrad’s eyes wandered over her face, then he slowly shook his head. “No, Eryn. I am afraid that this is not something I can do. I will make this matter public knowledge at the next Senate meeting. You will from then on be officially acknowledged not only as my legal, but also my natural daughter. It is the right thing to do.”

Eryn exhaled. She had really hoped for him to comply with her request, so his words gave rise to anger and frustration. She caught Enric’s warning look. He was obviously feeling it through the mind bond.

“Valrad,” she said, using what she considered her most reasonable tone. “I appreciate your very responsible and honest approach in dealing with what has come about, though there are considerations that might cause harm to House Vel’kim.”

“Such as?” he asked softly.

“Such as casting a bad light onto yourself as the current Head of House, on your brother of having been an unsuspecting, betrayed companion, and last but not least on me, being my own uncle’s…” She stopped herself in time from saying what would definitely have caused offence.

“Your own uncle’s what?” Valrad asked quietly, but his gaze had become sharp.

She stared into his brown eyes. Brown. Like Ved’al’s. The brother he had so coldheartedly betrayed by having a physical relationship with his companion.

“Bastard,” she said slowly, feeling dark satisfaction at the glint of danger in his eyes. “My own uncle’s bastard. Is that what you want to tell the world, Valrad? That you were not only a terrible brother and an unfaithful companion, but also a careless healer who failed to prevent an unplanned pregnancy?” She saw Pe’tala closing her eyes for a moment, then open them again to glare at her. She did clearly not appreciate having her own words used to hurt her father like that.

“Watch your words, my girl,” Valrad growled.

Eryn shot up from her seat, hands balled into fists. “I am not your girl! I don’t need to listen to you!”

Valrad got up as well. “You are mistaken,” he replied sternly. “I am your Head of House, something that alone puts me in a position to make you listen. And I am your father, no matter how displeased you are about that right now.”

“You are not my father,” she hissed. “Ved’al was my father! Your little tumble in the sheets with Malriel does not make any difference to me! I don’t care about your guilt and misguided attempts to make things right again! If you want to do something good, keep your mouth shut about this instead of exposing us all to ridicule!”

“If being known to be my child is a matter of ridicule to you, then I am afraid you will have to learn to live with it,” Valrad retorted angrily. His voice was calm, but the pulsating blood vessel at his throat betrayed the agitation within.

Enric and Pe’tala jumped up at the same time.

“Eryn and I will take a walk in the garden,” Enric announced and pulled her with him, half dragging her out the terrace door and far enough away for them to be out of earshot.

He had wanted to reprimand her, but when she stood before him, breathing heavily, looking as if she was about to burst into tears, he just sighed in resignation and pulled her close.

She buried her face at his shoulder, breathing in his scent, feeling how being close to him comforted her, calmed her.

“I want to go home,” she whispered.

“I know,” he replied, silently cursing Malriel and the King for not being able to comply with her wish.

“I don’t want to go back in there,” she then said and looked up at him.

He sighed. “I am afraid we must. We can hardly leave now. This is awkward enough for Junar, Orrin and Vern as it is, even without our abandoning them on their first evening in a foreign country.”

She nodded tiredly. “Very well. Then let’s get this behind us. Let’s not stay longer than necessary, shall we?”

He shook his head. “No, another hour, then we can leave without causing offence.”

She laughed, her tone slightly hysterical when she retorted, “Yes, causing offence is definitely not what we want, is it?”

When they returned to the main room, Valrad and Vern were gone.

“Father has taken Vern to show him his library,” Vran’el explained.

“Yes,” Pe’tala added, “to give you both a few minutes to calm down again.”

“I am calm,” Eryn said coldly.

“Sure, I can see that,” her sister remarked acidly. “Calmness radiates off you in gentle, soothing waves.”

“Oh, shut up.”

Enric made her sit down again and urged her to take a few sips from her juice.

“Vran’el?” she then asked.

“Yes, sweetness?” he asked carefully.

“I have a question pertaining to a legal matter.”

“Alright. Let me hear it. Though I have to warn you: If you want me to assist you in having father locked up, I shall have to pass,” he smiled, only half joking.

“Slipping somebody a pregnancy or fertility potion or however else you term it, it is illegal, isn’t it?”

He nodded slowly. “Yes, it is.”

“What is the general punishment for it?”

Exhaling slowly, he looked at her doubtfully. “For once, being made to cover the expenses of the upbringing of the child if it was somebody other than your companion, who would have to do that anyway. Then an additional payment for damages to the mother of the unplanned child is usually decreed as well.”

“Only monetary punishment?” Eryn frowned. “She could afford that well enough. And Enric is rich enough, whatever she would have to pay would not make any difference to us. How about some personal limitations like being locked up, being put under a curfew or having her magic blocked for a period of time?”

“Eryn,” Vran’el sighed, “there is hardly any chance for you to have her convicted. You would need to prove that she did it. This is impossible after this much time has passed.”

She shook her head. “Alright, then the accusation will simply serve to damage her reputation. Even if I do not manage to get her convicted, people will know well enough that she did it. They will probably think twice before entrusting her with business decisions in the future. My determination not to have children was known well enough, after all. And my getting pregnant shortly after her leaving Anyueel is a fairly good pointer of guilt.”

She turned her head when she heard Enric’s voice.

“No.”

“No? It’s not obvious?” she frowned in confusion.

“No, you will not do this. You will not accuse Malriel of having planted a child inside you,” he clarified.

She blinked. “Why not?” Then she glared at him. “Don’t tell me you are protecting your House?”

“Not that.” His expression was serious. “Not my House, but my son. I don’t want him to grow up with the impression that he has been forced upon us by his own grandmother.” He looked into her eyes and she could see the determination in them. “You may still not be too happy about this, but I am. And I will not have him thinking that he was anything else but a gift, a blessing. This is not open for discussion.”

“I agree, sweetness,” Vran’el added quietly. “He is right. Making your son grow up surrounded by this is not worth taking revenge on Malriel for. Not in that manner. Find another way to make her pay.”

She looked over at Junar, who had laid a hand on her belly protectively. Her expression was pleading. So, she, too, was on Enric’s side.

Orrin sighed. “The child comes first, Eryn. Has to. Really, you would regret doing this.”

Eryn rubbed her face with both palms and sunk back into the cushions, defeated. “Any other suggestions how to get back at her?”

Junar smiled. “How about kicking her into the river once more? Or something that gets her not only wet but filthy? A dung heap or something?”

Eryn stared at her for a moment, then grinned. “Nice start, but not distasteful enough. Though I would go for a pit with venomous, stinging creatures within.” Then she turned serious again and looked at Pe’tala.

“How do I get Valrad off my back?”

Pe’tala looked at her indulgently. “You do not. He will wear you down. One reason why Vel’kim men are good fathers, is their determination in combination with their patience. He will give you some time to come to terms with this state of affairs and give you a chance to come to him. If you do not, he will come for you.”

Eryn stared at her. “So I am, what – trapped? Are you telling me there is no way out?”

“There is, sister: giving in and letting him be a father to you. He will accept nothing less.”

She gulped and shook her head. “I don’t care what he accepts. I will not be bullied into anything by him.” She shot Pe’tala and Vran’el a sceptical look. “Why are you so accepting of this? Why aren’t you angry? Why aren’t you on my side?”

“We are, sweetness,” Vran’el said sadly. “Unfortunately, you are not.”

Eryn ground her teeth and looked at Pe’tala. “Alright, he is sentimental and not clear in the head. What about you? Why this willingness to accept me as your sister when you were about to tear the house apart when your father adopted me back then, when you still thought I was merely your cousin?”

Pe’tala shrugged. “Well, what can I say? Maybe I have unconsciously always wanted a sister, who knows? And maybe, just maybe, I think that after your dealings with the Queen of Darkness you deserve an actual parent, one who cares for you first instead of his own interests. Have I mentioned that I do like that term very much? It describes her so very accurately.”

Eryn shook her head. “So not a single one of you is prepared to respect my wishes here? Really?”

Vran’el’s eyes narrowed. “You are not withdrawing from us as well, are you?”

She looked at him. This was the lawyer speaking, she noticed, not the cousin or brother.

“No, of course not,” she smiled, feeling her heart break a little at the thought that she would from now on have to keep him, too, at a certain distance.

He kept studying her. “Do not do this, Eryn,” he implored her, his gaze piercing. “This is not a feud.”

She looked away. No, it wasn’t. But it would be diplomacy, the art of making things appear differently in order to keep everyone sufficiently deceived to avoid a war.

“Of course not, Vran,” she murmured, “What a thought.”

Her gaze fell on Junar, and the quiet understanding in her friend’s eyes made her look away again. It made pretending so much harder.

 

Chapter 3

Settling a Debt

Enric checked once again the shipping papers for the goods they had arrived with on the ship to make sure the lists contained everything he had ordered. So far the only thing that had gone missing was a bale of purple silk cloth.

Kilan had offered him his study for the morning as there was a matter Enric wanted to take care of. One that required some privacy, as it was rather delicate.

He had learned about the short encounter between Eryn, Pe’tala and Ram’an at the teahouse the day before and Eryn’s spontaneous decision to throw his bracelet back at him. A harsh gesture, and probably none he was very pleased about, Enric mused.

Ram’an was the visitor he was expecting any moment now. Enric had sent him a short message yesterday afternoon and had received a confirmation for the meeting today little later. The residence was quiet at the moment, considering how well-inhabited it currently was. Junar and Orrin were at a tailor’s shop, Vern was at the clinic with Valrad and Kilan had decided to meet with somebody at a teahouse. The only one at the residence apart from himself was Eryn.

After the trying day she’d had, Eryn’s night had not been exactly restful, either. She had lain awake for hours and spent the little time after she drifted off into a fitful sleep tossing and turning. Only in the early hours when the day announced itself had she finally collapsed into something that resembled unconsciousness more than sleep.

He heard the knocking and quickly moved towards the entrance door to admit Ram’an. He didn’t want to wake Eryn and have her unexpectedly face his visitor only moments after getting up. He had briefly considered meeting at the Arbil residence instead, but discarded the idea again as he didn’t want Eryn to be alone for the present.

After he had opened the door, it took him a moment to recognise the man he had invited. Ram’an looked different, and not to his advantage. He had lost weight and there were lines showing on his face that had not been there a few months ago. So it seemed his father’s death and the strain of taking over the House had taken their toll.

“Ram’an,” he nodded and stretched out his hand for the formal greeting. “Thank you for coming. Please come in.”

“Enric,” the other man nodded. “Your message was rather terse, but I assumed that you would not ask to meet me barely after arriving here if it were not important.

Enric handed his guest a moist towel and waited until he had wiped his face and hands before going ahead of him up the stairs.

When Ram’an had entered the study, he closed the door and motioned for the other man to sit.

“What can I offer you drink, Ram’an?”

“Water will be fine, thank you.”

Enric poured them each a glass and placed one before his visitor before taking a seat behind Kilan’s desk.

“Before we get to the reason why you have asked me to come, let me congratulate you on the child you are expecting. I admit I was a bit surprised that you have managed to change her mind about having children that swiftly.” His gaze became slightly leery. “I am assuming that you were able to change her mind?”

“As opposed to forcing her to become pregnant?” Enric enquired candidly.

“I admit that thought has crossed my mind, yes,” Ram’an admitted calmly.

“I have not sunk that low, no.”

“Does this mean that she wanted to have children?” the lawyer asked again.

Enric pursed his lips. Evasive answers were clearly not going to wash with a man of the law. At least not with this one.

“Saying that would probably be going a little too far,” he said carefully.

“It would?” Ram’an narrowed his eyes at him. “Are you telling me that she did not want to have this child, but that you are not the one who is responsible for its conception?” He thought for a moment, then stiffened and drew in a breath. “Malriel.”

“I would like to point out that I have not put words to any such allegation,” Enric stated impassively.

“Of course not. Tell me why I am here.”

Enric pushed the shipping papers towards him.

Ram’an looked down and frowned at the list that ran to different kinds of wine, fabrics, spices, herbs, wood and ore.

“I am afraid I do not quite follow you.”

“A debt between us that has not yet been settled. I am herewith changing this.”

He watched understanding and then shock appear on the other man’s face. “A shipload of goods… Oh no. You are not serious, are you?”

“I am. A load of my produce in exchange for an embrace,” Enric nodded and raised both brows when the list was shoved back at him.

“I told you, I did not expect you to comply with that condition. I just wanted to see how desperate you really were back then and was hoping to make you appear like a miser. I did not count on your honouring that condition.” He got to his feet and turned towards the door. “And neither will I take those goods from you. I do not charge a man a king’s ransom for supporting the woman he loves. Good bye to you, Enric. I will see you at the Senate tomorrow, I assume,” he said coolly.

“Ram’an, please wait,” Enric sighed.

The dark-haired man breathed out patiently and turned back with some reluctance.

“We both know that you are currently not in a position to refuse a load of goods that will fetch a very good price. I was permitted to bring them here over and above the already fulfilled trade quota between our countries, as the wares are not meant to generate profit for me. I couldn’t sell them here even if I wished. It would be breaking the conditions of getting them here. So you either accept them or I can as well give them away on the streets.”

“I cannot take them. Your gesture might be a noble one, but for me to accept it would be shameful,” Ram’an said quietly. “You are right, there is not much I have left at the moment, my House stands on the brink of ruin. But what I do still have is my pride. I will find another way of getting back on course.”

Enric sighed. Pride. Of course. That was hardly a great surprise. He himself would very probably have reacted the same way.

“Then let me make you an offer instead. You will accept the goods from me and consider them as a loan that enables you to meet your current payment obligations.” He gave a thin smile, then added what he knew would make agreement easier for the man opposite him. “I am not doing this out of pure goodness of my heart. I am about to take over House Aren for a time, and House Vel’kim is for now the only ally I can be sure of retaining. Helping your House recover will surely earn me your goodwill. And for House Aren – a strong ally is a lot more useful than a weak one. Let’s get you back on your feet for our mutual benefit, shall we?”

Ram’an stared at him, clearly torn. Enric waited patiently for him to nod in agreement.

“Good. Then you will pay me back when you can afford to. Take your time, though. As I told you, my interests are not of a monetary nature with you.”

“I will prepare a formal agreement so as to have the conditions of our deal in written form,” the Head of House Arbil sighed. “I will send a messenger when I am done to have you approve of the content.”

“Don’t bother. As I was willing to give the goods to you for free, I will be satisfied with whatever terms you see as appropriate.”

“Then I suppose the only thing that is left for me to do is to thank you.”

Enric shook his head. “There is no need for that. I think we have established that I am not doing this for entirely charitable reasons.”

Ram’an finally managed a smile. “Of course not. I simply forgot for a moment that you are a hard, no-nonsense business man without consideration for anything other than his own advantage.”

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking I am relenting because I am not kicking you while you are down,” Enric replied mildly. “I have my pride, too.”

“I would not make such a mistake. Eryn would not have accepted a weak man.”

Good, Enric thought. He had been wondering how to broach that subject.

“About Eryn. I assume you are not harbouring any more hopes about winning her for yourself now that we are not only joined in a third level bond, but are also about to have a child together.”

Ram’an glared at him. “No. I am no fool. I know when I am beaten.”

“Splendid. Then I can safely ask you to set things straight with her again. After yesterday she could do with another friend here.”

“Yesterday, yes…” Ram’an nodded slowly. “Quite a mess, is it not? A sensitive matter for House Vel’kim that causes them considerable solicitude. I imagine that Eryn is not happy about this entire setup. Especially not as it will all be revealed to the Senate tomorrow.”

Enric narrowed his eyes. “You are aware of this?”

“Of course. That kind of news is hard to keep secret in a city like that.”

Both men regarded each other for a few moments, before Enric slowly shook his head. “Just a minute; I think you are trying to trick me into telling you about it! Pe’tala told me that you saw them yesterday at the teahouse. Clever.”

“Not clever enough, it seems,” Ram’an sighed. “So I will have to wait until tomorrow, after all. Can you at least tell me if is something bad? The three of them did seem rather agitated yesterday at the teahouse.”

Enric grimaced. “The trouble is that depending on who you ask, the answer to that is either yes or no.”

Ram’an opened the study door and stepped out into the corridor that led to the main room. “Alright, then I will wait patiently until the Senate meeting.”

Enric felt a surge of annoyance and panic through the mind bond. That had to mean that Eryn had got up and heard Ram’an’s voice. He had not told her that he had asked the Head of House Arbil to come here today, and from what he could perceive she was not pleased.

He slowly walked towards the main room, giving her enough time to retreat if she wished so.

When the corridor opened into the main room, he was surprised to see her sitting calmly on the cushions, holding a glass of tea in her hand. Her external appearance did not betray any of the commotion he detected inside her. He was impressed.

She pretended to notice them only now and put her tea aside on the low table before her before she rose with a polite smile. Enric thought how much more elegant she looked rising from the cushions than a few months ago. He wondered if she had secretly been practising.

“Ram’an,” she nodded and walked towards him, stretching out her hand to greet him formally.

His guest looked slightly puzzled, but recovered quickly and smiled at her, taking her hand in his to kiss it.

“Eryn. I am glad to see that you are in a better mood today,” he said with a casual smile.

She nodded. “The pregnancy, you know. It does make me prone to even more extreme mood swings than before. At least that is what I have been told,” she replied lightly.

Enric watched her closely. She kept Ram’an at a distance with cool politeness and meaningless chitchat. Unusual. This was not her preferred way of showing disapproval, if a hardly less effective one judging by Ram’an’s uneasy frown.

“Then having you around will be an even greater adventure than before, my dear,” he smiled and winked at her.

She ignored the familiar gesture completely and appeared thoughtful for a moment before she replied, “I certainly don’t hope so. I try to spare people around me as well as I am able. If you would excuse me now, Ram’an, I need to get myself ready for an appointment. It was nice to see you.”

“Yes,” he said, slightly confused, “it was. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow. I am sure we will meet at the Senate before we do at the dinner.”

Her smile was cool. “Certainly.” Thus she turned and walked back to the table to pick up her tea before retreating to the corridor that led to their bedroom.

Ram’an stared after her, then slowly turned to look at Enric. “She has either become a lot better at pretending than she used to be, or she has somehow managed to turn her anger at me from yesterday into indifference inside one single day.” He shook his head. “I very much hope it is the first one. The other option would truly disturb me.”

Enric nodded. He knew well enough that she was everything else but impassive, but maybe thinking so would motivate Ram’an to make every effort to mend his dealings with her. He accompanied his guest downstairs to the door to see him off and then returned to their bedroom.

He leaned against the doorframe and folded his arms, watching her stand in front of the window with her tea and staring out into the small garden unseeingly.

“That was interesting. Your little performance impressed and unsettled Ram’an quite a lot. Had it not been for the mind bond, even I might have fallen for it,” he commented.

She turned and sighed, the cool façade having slipped. “I have decided that I cannot keep snarling and spitting poison at all the people I am upset with right now. There are too many of them around, and all of them happen to be Heads of Houses.”

He chuckled. “Yes, you do have a propensity for taking a dislike to important people. So your new approach consists of cool and aloof politeness? I admit it was effective enough right now, but I wonder if this is the right way for you. It seems out of character.” Disconcertingly so, he added to himself. It felt wrong and he wondered how hurt she truly had to be to be able to keep the impulses that had made encounters with her stimulating if not exactly hazard-free, locked up within.

She took a sip from her glass and perched herself on the low windowsill. “I remember a conversation with Malriel the evening before her departure, when she must have slipped me the potion. I told her that I have no more intention of hating her, as this only means hurting myself, and that I would work towards being indifferent to her. She said that this was even worse than hate, and I am beginning to think that she is right. Not worse, mind you, that is just her point of view. I think it is more final, more powerful. And it will give me peace.”

He swallowed. “And you intend to use this new strategy on Valrad and Ram’an as well as with her?”

“I do, yes,” she confirmed. “Maybe it is time to say goodbye to the legendary Aren temper. It is nothing more than a burden, a character flaw.” She walked towards him and leaned her forehead against his shoulder, smiling when his arms encircled her. “Time to grow up.”

She didn’t see his concerned expression. This felt wrong, as if she had decided to stop being herself.

“A pity,” he murmured, “It was what first fascinated me about you. I would miss it very much.”

She chuckled. “Then I will treat you to a private performance every now and then when you have the impression that your life is about to become too dull or peaceful.”

“I will hold you to that,” he remarked airily and wondered how well she would really be able to follow her resolution. He hoped not to the degree she had demonstrated only minutes ago.

* * *

Vern stormed into the main room and let himself collapse onto the cushions right next to Eryn. He had just returned from his visit at the clinic. An extended one, as he had left in the morning and now the sun was about to set.

“You seem to be walking on air,” she commented when he grinned broadly at her and couldn’t help but smile back. “I assume you had a satisfying day?”

“It was incredible,” he sighed, clearly tired but blissed out. “The building is so big! So many healers! And they were happy to meet me of all people! Can you imagine that? They have all seen the book I gave to Ram’an back then, and they told me what extraordinary work it was. Then they asked me questions about healing back home in Anyueel and gave me a tour of the entire clinic! They have so many different areas of expertise here, I don’t even remember all of them! I even met the Head of the clinic, but I forgot his name. He said it would be his pleasure to let me work and learn here for the duration of my stay! Can you believe that? I am going to work there!”

Eryn smiled her wide approval at him.

“What is this commotion about?” Orrin asked when he entered the room. “Junar is having a lie-down, so you had better lower your volume.”

“Sorry, father,” Vern grimaced. “I got carried away.”

The warrior smiled and came closer to join them. “I assume you had a successful day with Valrad?”

The boy’s face brightened again and he resumed rhapsodising. “Absolutely! I swear to you, they treated me like a king! They have a huge library there and they said I could go there and use it as often as I wanted. And they have something like a pub directly at the clinic where all people who work there can eat for free if they have this little silver badge. They call it a cantina, I think. The pub, not the badge. And they were asking about you, Eryn,” he went on. “Especially one rather unfriendly healer, the one without magic.”

“Sarol,” she added with a grin.

“Yes, right, him. And another one, rather young but very important. An expert on head-things, I think.”

“Iklan probably?”

He thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, that does sound familiar. They wanted to know when you would be dropping by and why you didn’t come today and how you are doing and…”

“Vern? Don’t forget to take a breath every now and then,” she chuckled.

“Pe’tala was there, too,” he went on after drawing a deep breath. “The unfriendly healer was happy to see her, I think, but he didn’t want to admit it. Ram’an’s cousin, the healer who wanted the drawings, was there as well. I showed him my pictures and I swear to you, he was completely speechless for almost a minute! He then showed the pictures around and they were immensely impressed and kept saying that they had never before seen anything like it!”

Eryn laughed. “Good thing you have ears, my lad, or your grin would circle your whole head and make the top half fall off.” His good mood was contagious.

“They think I am brilliant and a genius!” he giggled lightheadedly.

She ruffled his hair. “You are, Vern. And it seems you have come to the right place to have people appreciate that.”

“That they have! And your fa… Valrad,” he corrected himself hastily, “had to send people away and promise them that he would take me to them some other time because they all were pushing to talk to me! Did you know that he is very important there? He used to be in charge of the place but stepped back voluntarily to concentrate more on leading his House and working with patients again.”

“Yes, I heard about that,” Eryn remarked dryly. “I was here once before, remember?”

“Yes, that’s right. Of course,” he nodded, shaking his head at himself. “You know what? They offered me a place with their trainee healers for classes!” He fumbled for a sheet of paper. “This is a list of the topics the second years are going through in the next ten days, and I can just go there and listen to what they are being taught! How amazing is that?”

“Pretty amazing,” she nodded. “I swear to you, if you manage to get certified as a healer here before me, I will throttle you. And you can’t even defend yourself because there is no hitting the pregnant lady,” she sighed.

He jumped up. “That reminds me!” He dashed downstairs and came back a few moments later with a heavy book under one arm. “This Sarol guy sent this along for you. He said now that you are back and have time at your hands you might as well do something useful with it. He wants you to read this. It is about non-magical diagnosis, I think.”

Eryn grabbed the book eagerly. “Thank you! That is great; it means he wants me to start preparing for the last missing exam!” It would give her something to do here, finally!

“He is really rude, you know,” the boy pointed out. “I wonder why everybody puts up with it, even your… Valrad.”

She swallowed her annoyance at his repeated lapse. “Because he is really, really, really good at what he is doing. He has revolutionised non-magical healing, has turned it into a real discipline that is now acknowledged to such a degree that even magician healers have to learn something about it,” she explained. “He is a genius, too.” She looked up from the book and into his inquisitive face. “And just like you, he is entitled to his peculiarities because of it. If he is unfriendly to you, it means that he likes you. If he doesn’t like you, he doesn’t even bother noticing you.”

That made him think. “I see.” Then he grinned. “That probably means he likes me. He snapped at me twice!”

She giggled. “Sure proof.”

“You look dusty, sweaty and exhausted,” Orrin cut in. “I think you should take a bath and make yourself presentable for dinner. Enric is in the kitchen preparing it right now, so it will soon be ready. Off you go.”

Vern obeyed reluctantly and shuffled off.

“How are you doing, my girl?” he asked when they were alone. “You still don’t look like yourself, though I can see that Vern’s enthusiasm just now has perked you up.”

“I am well enough, Orrin. Thank you for asking,” she smiled. “I am just tired. I didn’t sleep very well or for long last night. Maybe I will ask Vern to give me little magical push this time. I want to be well rested tomorrow for that damn Senate meeting.” Her expression had become dark.

“Are you sure you want to go there? I didn’t have the impression that you will be able to stop him from announcing his news to the Senate.”

She shook her head. “No, I won’t. I am aware of that. But there is a thing or two I want to say there as well.”

“There is?” he frowned.

“Yes.” She looked up in relief when Kilan entered the main room. “Where have you been all day long? I thought you just wanted to meet somebody for tea?”

“Initially, I did. But then I ended up at his house answering a lot of questions about the newcomers that are staying at my place.”

She grinned. “That’s what you get for harbouring guests. Next time you ought to think twice before agreeing to that.”

“I could hardly let you poor castaway travellers sleep on the street, could I?” he smirked. “Imagine the political consequences if one of your two monsters had snacked on a Takhan citizen.”

“Then let me congratulate you on your providence. I had thought that your hospitality had something to do with the fact that Orrin and I happen to be your superiors and you didn’t dare refuse our request on that account. But I was obviously mistaken.”

Kilan took a fresh glass and poured himself a glass of dark fruit juice. “At least you realised your mistake. Enric is cooking dinner, I assume?”

“He is, yes,” she confirmed. “How about your own cooking skills? Have you improved them in these last months here?”

He nodded. “There was no other way. They laugh at adults who cannot cook a proper meal. Ask me how much fun it is to prepare formal dinners for thirty or forty people all alone. I spend almost all day long in the kitchen. In addition to going hunting first, of course.” His smiled then. “But at least this will not be a problem tomorrow as I have quite a number of helpers here.”

“Tomorrow?” she frowned. “But tomorrow is the welcome… Oh no. No! Please not.”

“No what?” Orrin enquired.

“The bloody welcome dinner,” she sighed. “It is going to be held here at the ambassadorial residence, isn’t it?”

The ambassador nodded. “Yes. Both Malriel and Valrad requested such.” He shot her a meaningful look. “Very likely because they wanted to make sure you have no other choice but to attend since it is at the place you are staying at.”

She moaned. “But that means that I have to stay until the very end! Come on, why didn’t you refuse?”

He looked at her indulgently. “Refuse a polite request from two powerful Heads of Houses? Is that a serious question?”

“I am not going to help you cook!”

“That is just as well, after your reaction just now I would be worried about your poisoning the lot of them,” he snorted. “But as I still have the three men here in addition to Vran’el, who has offered his help, we will manage somehow without you.”

Her face soured and she sighed. All these people here at this place with no chance to leave early. It was not even possible for her to claim indisposition in order to have an early night. There were just too many healers around to take care of whatever ailment she used as a pretext. And they would of course work out quickly enough that it was an excuse and probably even expose her to the others. Who would ever have thought that staying in a city with so many well-trained, knowledgeable healers could turn out to be such a nuisance?

»End of extract«

 

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“Schemes” – The Order: Book 3

Chapter 1

Returning Home

Enric looked grim as he stared out over the sea. There was nothing in sight, the horizon was no more than an endless straight line that separated the brighter blue above from the darker colour below. No interruption in the form of land promised relief anytime soon.

The last time he crossed the sea he had not felt any of the effects most others in his party, Eryn included, had been suffering. Seasickness, they called it, he remembered. But this time it seemed his stomach was not as resistant to the constant pitching of the ship as before. He was told that the body got used to it after a few days, so suffering from it now when it had not affected him before seemed strange.

His troubles were not as grave as Eryn’s, though. She lay immobile on the plank bed in their cabin downstairs, her stomach empty of everything that had been in there. It was unfortunate that healing away the symptoms did not work in this case as long as the cause was present every single moment and caused them to return immediately.

But at least they had half of the journey on the ship behind them already, only one more day left until they would reach the small village of Bonhet where they had boarded the ship that had brought them to the Western Territories. Right now that seemed like an eternity ago. He had quite grand plans for the village and wondered how people would react to them. Eryn was right in that one regard: the willingness to adapt to new developments was not exactly considered a virtue, not in the city of Anyueel, and even less in remote places like that fishing village.

He felt the tension in his stomach relaxing and decided to look after Eryn. Maybe he could persuade her to let him put her to sleep for a few hours now that Kilan and Grend were not there to tease her about choosing the easy way out. It was reluctance to be forced to listen to any jibes from their travel companions that had made her reject his offer the previous time, when they were bound for Takhan.

But when he opened the door to their small cabin, he saw that she had fallen asleep already, one arm hanging down to the floor limply. She couldn’t have been asleep for very long, the tea he had made for her was still warm. Probably no more than a minute or two, pretty much when his stomach had given up complaining.

His head jerked up and he frowned down at her. No, surely not. That would be highly unlikely, wouldn’t it? And this was surely no more than a coincidence, nothing that justified jumping to any premature conclusions, he warned himself. He would keep his eyes open, though, he decided. His suspicion was maybe no more than that, but it certainly paid to be on the safe side.

He turned and left the cabin, closing the door behind him carefully. They would soon reach the barrier and he had been told that the captain would show him how to overcome it, once and for all putting an end to the limitation of going to sea for the Kingdom.

* * *

Eryn woke when a warm hand kept shaking her shoulder.

“Are we still on that bloody ship?” she murmured without opening her eyes. “If yes, you have quite some explaining to do for waking me.”

Enric smiled down at her. “The village is in sight already, so you have another hour of suffering ahead of you.” An hour that would surely provide some interesting insights for himself.

“That is one hour you might have spared me!” she moaned. “You are doing this on purpose! Is there anything I have done to you recently that justifies tormenting me like that?”

He pretended to think for a moment. “No, nothing that I can think of. But then it is well known that I have a penchant for heaping agony onto helpless women. And now get up and come on deck for a bit of fresh air. It will do you good.”

“You are joking, aren’t you? You know very well what being on deck does to me! Why are you inflicting it on me?” she wailed and felt herself being pulled up to her feet and more or less hauled up the stairs and outside. The sudden brightness of the sunlight blinded her and she quickly lifted a hand to shade her eyes. There was a stiff breeze that made her shiver and she felt Enric’s arm around her shoulders pull her against his warm body.

“We need to change out of these clothes. They are not exactly suited for the climate back home,” he murmured and watched her stare at the waves around them that made the ship pitch up and down.

Then she closed her eyes, her face growing pale again. He also felt the feeling from before returning, causing in him the urge to hold on to something firm to convince his stomach that this sense of being tossed up and down was no more than an unjustified overreaction.

He smiled despite the unpleasant sensation. It seemed as if Eryn might be up for a little surprise, though none that would make her very happy. He would see how long it would take her to figure it out on her own.

* * *

“There it is! I can see it!” she exclaimed delightedly. “Never would I have thought that there will be the day that I am overjoyed to lay my eyes upon it!”

Enric looked up as well at the hazy outline of the city of Anyueel at the horizon. “It warms my heart to see you so happy to return to it, my love,” he smiled and took her hand to kiss it. And it truly did. She had, as far as he could remember, never once mentioned missing her little cottage in the town where she had spent most of her life. That had to mean that she now considered their house in the city her home, he hoped.

Urban trotted beside the horses and had turned her head to look at Eryn when she had called out her delight at spotting Anyueel in the distance.

“The yard should be finished for her by now,” Enric remarked with a glance at the cat. “Trees, rocks, everything. With a little luck the passage between the buildings is ready as well. The servants will otherwise very probably turn out to be just a little… jumpy.”

Eryn shrugged. “Why would they? She has never hurt anyone so far.”

“Still. We are talking about a fierce animal here. After all, not everybody has known her since she was small enough to fit into your palm. And though she is still not fully grown, she has definitely lost the advantage of being considered cute rather than frightening.”

“One would think that if a four-year-old girl is not afraid, adults should be able to handle Urban as well,” she pointed out.

“Children at that age do not yet have a proper understanding of danger, Eryn. Obal would just as likely have tried to cuddle a completely wild animal if there was one around. Vran’el’s reaction was the more natural one. And consider that part of my reputation in Takhan was based on the fact that I was wandering the streets of the city with what was perceived as a very impressive wild animal,” he explained.

She sighed. “Alright, I bow to your superior wisdom. Once again. Then let’s hope that passage is ready or we will have to do our own cooking and cleaning for a while. Not that I would mind that too much – I had to do it for quite a while when I was living alone. But I fear that there will not be very much time left to devote to it. I wonder what the healers’ place looks like. Utter chaos? Or will nobody even have noticed that I was gone? I don’t know which would be worse.”

“For you? The latter, very likely,” he smiled. “I am getting hungry. We should be in the city in about an hour and a half. It will be early evening by then. We will have time to get home, have a bite to eat then wash and change into clean clothes, but that is practically it.”

She furrowed her brow. “So there is no chance whatsoever to ask the King to see us tomorrow instead of tonight?”

“None. He already waited for us rather longer than he had planned – about two weeks longer. He wants to make sure we really are back. And to learn about the latest developments as soon as possible. The last message he received from me is several days old already. After that we will have to see Tyront. He will want to learn about everything the King did not tell him. Kilan was only instructed to inform the King, after all. Whatever has been passed on to Tyront was thus filtered.”

“So this is going to be a very long day yet,” she groaned. “And I just wanted to fall into my own bed and catch up on the sleep I missed these last few nights.”

“Sorry, my love. Not much chance for that in the next few hours.”

* * *

The four guards at the western gates bowed as the two high-ranking magicians passed them. Odd, Eryn thought, how strange this formal behaviour seemed after only a few weeks in Takhan.

They rode through the city to their house and Enric whistled through his teeth when he saw the people assembled in front of it.

“Look at that. It seems somebody has spread the news of our impending arrival when we were first spotted,” he murmured.

Eryn urged her horse on until she was close enough to dismount and as soon as her feet had touched the ground, she found herself in a tight embrace with a certain sixteen-year-old boy.

“Finally!” he whispered. “I was so afraid they would not let you leave again!”

She squeezed him back, noting how his cheeks were not any longer level with hers. Was it possible that he had grown so much since she had left here?

“So was I,” she replied, “I can’t tell you how glad I am to be back.”

“Let go of her, Vern,” Orrin scolded him mildly when he made no move to release her again. “There are a few others who would like to greet her as well.”

Vern removed his arms from around Eryn with obvious reluctance, and moments later Orrin’s much firmer embrace squeezed the air out of her lungs. She smiled at the unusual physical display of affection from his side.

“Look at you, you old softy! You have gone all mellow in my absence without anybody to torment and goad! Or is that Junar’s influence?” she laughed and hugged him back.

“Shut up,” he growled. “We were worried sick about you after we learned that they had accused you of some crime over there. It seems even with your companion at your side there is no keeping you out of trouble. Next time you go there, I will be sure to accompany you myself. One of us is clearly not enough to keep an eye on you.”

“That’s enough, now it’s my turn,” Junar complained from behind them and Orrin stepped aside so the two women could hug next.

Enric watched the scene, wondering about the feeling of regret and loss inside him. Nobody dared embracing him here, unlike in Takhan, where he had been hugged and kissed by a number of people, both male and female. For the first time in more than ten years he wondered if the reputation he had been so careful to build was worth the solitude that was its consequence. His stay in the Western Territories had introduced him to quite a different way of social interaction. There were those in awe of him who were mostly people he had met when negotiating, and others who were sufficiently impressed by him, but met him in a more private setting that allowed them to look behind that official mask. Here in Anyueel there was hardly anybody who dared look behind it. Apart from Tyront and the King, that is. Although they did not do so for mere social reasons but because he was, just like them, a player in the political game, and knowing ones fellow players was essential to ensure both survival and success.

He looked up in surprise, when he felt a hearty slap on his shoulder. Orrin gave him a nod.

“Good to have the two of you back,” he said simply, yet it sounded like he truly meant it.

“Good to be back. Finally,” Enric replied and smiled at the warrior. Who would have thought that Orrin would be the only one to give him at least some feeling of being welcome?

At the back of his mind, he wondered if he wanted to change that somehow, if he wanted to work on establishing friendships here in Anyueel. Would such a thing even work? People here were less open, less casual, more easily intimidated by rank and power. He imagined that Eryn would feel the contrast of being addressed with Lady again even more noticeably. But then she had quite a few people around her who would refrain from doing so anyway, as she had let them come close enough for them to forego the title.

In the entire city there were no more than four people who addressed him without Lord. Tyront, his companion Vyril, Kilan and Eryn. Before Eryn, there had been only two, thought he had not had any contact with Kilan in these last ten years.

He saw Eryn frown in confusion while talking to Plia and wondered if she had caught on to his feelings, wondering where that melancholy came from when she felt herself happy and relieved at being back.

“Is everything alright, my love?” he enquired and put an arm around her shoulders.

She nodded and plastered on a smile to conceal her puzzlement. “Yes, I am just a little exhausted, that’s all.”

Enric noted how Junar, Vern and Plia around them had taken a small step back at his approach.

Junar widened her eyes as Urban squeezed her way between them to rub her head against Enric’s legs. “Look at that cat! She has grown quite a lot in these last weeks. If she grows any larger, you can use her instead of a horse next time.”

“She may still grow a little more over the next two or three months, but that should be it,” Enric explained and bent down to rub the cat’s cheeks.

“Look at that! So you managed to escape the claws of the foreign senate!” an amused voice from behind them called out.

They saw Kilan approaching them. The few people around them collectively turned their heads around, and jaws dropped in surprise as the two men hugged affectionately. Lord Enric hugging people was not exactly a common sight.

Kilan then turned to Eryn. “They said you were trouble. But I didn’t want to believe it. I stand corrected.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Says the man who jumped aboard the ship and sailed off in my hour of distress.”

His expression became serious. “Believe me, in all my life that was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. I hope I will not be in such a situation again anytime soon. But I had my orders.”

“I was not serious, Kilan,” she sighed. “Your returning was the only sensible thing to do. Especially as the King would of course need first-hand information about the whole mix-up.”

He smiled in relief and squeezed her hand. “True enough. But next time we will just try not to have you accused of anything, shall we?”

“I’ll do my best, just to keep you happy,” she grinned. “But I suppose there will not be another opportunity for us to go to Takhan together again anytime soon, so no worries about that.”

“I would not count on that too much, Eryn,” he shook his head.

“Why not?” she frowned, then her brow furrowed. “You are not trying to tell me that they are sending you back there, are you?”

“Well, there is an opening for someone as permanent ambassador to Takhan, since the man who initially applied for the job decided not to remain after his companion was released from custody,” he smiled.

That caused a few frowns around them and Eryn remembered that they were very likely not informed of the important things that had happened. There would be some explaining to do, she thought, and sighed inwardly. And that meant once again telling the story of her father’s death. Though not today.

“What are the plans for the next few days?” Vern cut in. “Unpacking? Distributing gifts among your most valued friends?” he added, with a gleam of hope.

That made her laugh. “Well, that last one obviously.” Then she turned serious. “Tonight we will have to do some reporting to the upper ranks, and tomorrow I want to have a look how things are going at the healers’ place.”

“The Magic Council might want to see you tomorrow,” Enric reminded her.

“I was counting on you to give them all the juicy details. I really, really want to get back to my work,” she said, hoping he would see things her way, and smiled when he assented by nodding.

“I will try to convince them that they don’t need to see you tomorrow. But you will have to show up there sooner or later.”

She nodded. “Very well, as long as it is not in the next one or two days, when I have more important things to take care of.”

Orrin sniffed. “The Magic Council will be so pleased to hear that you do not consider them important enough to be worthy an hour or two of your precious time.”

“Well, they won’t be hearing it from me,” she shrugged.

“You are aware that myself and Lord Orrin are members of the Council, aren’t you?” Enric said. “So strictly speaking the Council has heard about it already.”

She chuckled. “But I trust that my two fa