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“A New Path” – The Order: Book 9

Chapter 1

A Misapprehension

Eryn stood by, still staring at the strangely clad figure that had yet to answer hers and Malriel’s enquiry. From one moment to the next the notion that they had Malhora of House Aren before them, a woman in her late seventies, was suddenly perfectly ridiculous. Apart from the fact that she had to be dead, they had just watched these desert nomads appear seemingly out of nowhere. Malhora had in Eryn’s presence never performed any athletic movements that would indicate that she was agile or swift enough to pull off a thing like somehow moving underneath the sand, then surging up and slitting a conveniently available throat.

Yet her eyes were glued to the slit in the headdress behind which fierce brown irises were visible. Brown eyes were not exactly rare in a country, where dark hair prevailed, that much she was aware of. Quite the opposite. Almost everyone born in the Western Territories had brown eyes. Which made Enric with his blond hair and blue eyes an oddity whenever they came to Takhan.

Chances were that she was only imagining that it was Malhora’s voice. But then Malriel had to be suffering from the same delusions…

Ram’an stepped forward to answer the question the apparition had asked. About how to employ the chain as a doorway through the barrier. Neither Eryn nor Malriel were in any frame of mind to reply.

“You simply lift it and then push it forcefully through the barrier. Then you can step through it.”

The figure followed the instruction, and a moment later it stepped through the shield, nodding appreciatively at a simple principle used most effectively.

A moment later the cloth covering the face was removed, and Malriel barely managed to slap a hand over her mouth to muffle the sob that had escaped her.

There she was in all her glory – Malhora of House Aren, to all appearances an honorary assassin of the desert tribes.

“Grandmother!” Eryn whispered, still not certain whether it was safe to believe her eyes. “You are alive!” She stretched out her arms, pulling the old woman into an embrace.

“Of course I am alive. Why ever would you think I am not?”

“Because everyone else at your estate was slaughtered!” Malriel shouted at her, making several of the bystanders flinch.

The Takhan locals took a few steps back. This looked like another Aren clash in the making.

“But among those you did not find my body, did you now?” Malhora replied calmly.

“I was mourning you, you selfish, inconsiderate, reckless old…”

“Mother, please!” Eryn tried to interrupt what was showing all signs of an impending nervous breakdown. Malriel was the Head Triarch of the Western Territories. People were not supposed to see her in such a state. It tended to undermine their trust in their leader’s mental stability.


“Pull yourself together, Malriel,” Malhora shot back sternly. “Consider your position!” A moment later her head whipped to one side after a powerful slap in the face.

“Was sending a bird and letting me know that you are well too much to ask, mother?” Malriel snarled, furiously wiping away a tear from her own cheek.

“The desert tribes do not hold with birds, as well you know,” the old woman hissed out between clenched teeth as she beamed her daughter a murderous look.

Eryn’s gaze darted to the man who was still bleeding out on the ground outside the barrier. The idea of provoking a woman capable of such a thing was probably not the shrewdest of approaches presently.

She grabbed Malriel by her shoulders, imploring her in a fierce whisper, “You need to calm down! Now! People look up to you – they need to see you in control! I promise you can have a go at her later! Please!” Closing her eyes for a moment, she added, “I’m so exhausted I can barely keep myself upright. I don’t have the strength to knock you out and take you away from here.”

Eryn turned her head and saw Orrin and King Folrin with their men coming down the hills. A little late, she couldn’t help thinking. They had missed all the interesting bits.

Her gaze wandered to Enric and Ram’an, then Neled, who all looked as though in dire need of a bed, just like herself.

She lifted her arm and pointed at the residence from whence Etor Gart had fled not long ago, in the certainty that things would work out in his favour. “I’ll be up there, catching up on some sleep.”

“You can just as easily walk to the Aren residence, it is not much further,” Malhora called after her once she had set in motion.

“There is no more Aren residence, grandmother,” Eryn threw back over her shoulder, forcing one foot in front of the other, grabbing Enric’s hand as she passed him, pulling him along.

“What does she mean, there is no more Aren residence?” Malhora enquired of her daughter.

“He destroyed it, mother,” snapped Malriel. “So for now there will be no more fighting over who gets to use the master bedroom when you are in the city!”

Enric shook his head as he put an arm around his companion’s shoulders, dragging himself towards the hill ahead of them. Right now, without the excitement of the fight coursing through his veins, it seemed almost unconquerable. “Isn’t it marvellous how quickly things returned to normal?”

“Malriel is just lashing out at Malhora to keep herself from starting to cry, I think,” Eryn guessed. “I was right, you know,” she then added. “Malhora isn’t dead. I feel the need to point that out.”

“Well done, my love. I clearly underestimated how hard your kin is to exterminate.”

The King and Orrin had in the meantime reached them.

“Lord Enric, what is the meaning of all this? Who are these people?” King Folrin asked and pointed at the Loman Ergen.

“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” Enric replied, “someone else will have to answer that. Try Malriel. She could use some distraction right now. I need to take my companion to a place where she can lie down.”

Eryn frowned. “You won’t? You look almost as exhausted as I feel.”

“You are worse off than I since you urgently need to recover from the healing you received. I’m merely tired. I can go on for another few hours to take care of a number of things.”

“Wait for me,” Ram’an’s voice called after them. “If the mighty leaders of the Order can rest, then it must be permissible for me to do so as well.”

Enric refrained from pointing out that he himself would have to stay awake for a while longer yet.

Once Ram’an had caught up with them, he nodded at the King. “Your Majesty.” Then he pointed at the residence ahead of them. “You know who that belongs to, do you not?”

“I couldn’t care less as long as there is some shade and water,” Eryn replied wearily. “I’ll even make do with the floor as long as I can just lie down.”

“It belongs to House Roal, House Aren’s greatest adversary,” he felt the need to clarify.

She sighed and turned to look at him. “If you are going to be difficult, we can’t take you along. Shut up, Arbil.”

Ram’an shrugged and supported her with one arm around her waist in addition to Enric’s around her shoulders when she stumbled.

Arm in arm, staggering like drunkards, the three of them tackled the arduous climb.


*  *  *


Enric woke with the sensation of pain in his back owing to the slightly angular position of his body on the seating cushions in main room of the Roal residence. Eryn hadn’t even made it to a bedroom but collapsed on the first comfortable looking surface. Namely the cushions. When Enric had returned about five hours later, he had just laid down next to her. Judging from the faint light of what had to be early dawn, he had been sleeping for nearly fifteen hours. He didn’t feel particularly refreshed, although that was hardly to be expected after the exertions of the last few days. He had driven himself on with magic and would pay the price for that in the days to come. And then there was the fact that he wasn’t getting any younger, either, which his body didn’t tire of reminding him.

He tried to make out his surroundings in the faint light. Eryn was sprawled across the cushions next to him, her demand for copious amounts of sleeping space the reason why he himself had been forced to make do with a less comfortable position. With this woman a wide bed was not merely luxury but a matter of survival.

She was still wearing the greater part of her armour. Unlike him, she hadn’t even made the effort to try and free herself from any of the stiff leather parts.

At her feet lay Ram’an, who had managed to sequester another two cushions for himself, his legs hanging onto the floor.

Clumsily and grimacing under the strains in his muscles, Enric climbed to his feet, eager to avoid any noise that would awaken the other two. He needed to stretch, drink something and then find the bathroom. Since House Roal was not one of the circles members of House Aren were at liberty to move within to their heart’s content, he had never been invited to any of the social gatherings or celebrations in this residence and was therefore unfamiliar with its outline.

There were certain things that hardly differed from one residence to the next, such as the arrangement of the main room on the first floor, the kitchen adjacent to it, and all that comprised storage on the ground floor. Yet the other rooms, bathroom included, were a matter of personal preference.

He stepped out onto the terrace, breathing in the cool morning air, enjoying the luxury of for once not having to worry about either expecting or planning an attack. Stretching his arms and legs, he felt his joints move back into position with a soft snapping sound. His muscles remembered under protest that they were intended for moving. He took off his linen shirt next, exposing his skin to the brisk morning air.

Then he returned back inside, quietly moving towards where he thought the kitchen had to be in search of some water. Downing an entire carafe, he commenced his search for a bathroom.

Opening one door after the other in the first of two corridors, it took him a while to find what he was looking for. It was still almost completely dark inside the house.

In his head he went through the tasks this day would bring. They needed to contact their families, tell them that it was safe to return to Takhan, make sure the estates resumed their deliveries to the city, fetch the captives from the estate in the foothills, dispose of the bodies of the enemy soldiers as well as prepare to have their own fallen soldiers taken proper care of. Then the damage the city had taken needed to be assessed and in some cases repaired quickly. They needed the harbour, or they would neither be able to receive back those they had sent away nor properly deal with the goods Anyueel had to provide to their allies until they were able to manage on their own again.

And then he and Eryn needed to sit down with the Triarchy, Malriel and Neled – and now probably Horam – and discuss what was to happen next. There was one important aspect he had to find out about – namely what exactly that alliance between Neled and Horam entailed. What was it that Neled had promised them? Was it something that required giving up her position in Takhan? Or had she been so imprudent as to promise the Loman Ergen a place to stay in Takhan without consulting those in charge of the place first?

When he returned to the main room, he saw that in the interim Ram’an had woken as well. Eryn was still dead to the world. He briefly wondered whether to wake her just to make her drink something before letting her return to resting. He decided against it, opting for placing some water on the nearby table for her once she woke on her own.

Ram’an yawned and stretched, then climbed to his feet, following Enric out to the terrace so they wouldn’t disturb Eryn.

“What will happen now?” the Head of House Arbil asked, letting himself fall onto the seating cushions.

“We need to take the country out of the state of emergency and back to normal. Our first priorities are disposing of the dead before a pestilence comes upon us, and getting food into the city. Hardly any of the estates have been attacked, so I do not expect any trouble with the latter.”

“And the first? I assume you wish to take your dead soldiers and of course Order magicians back to Anyueel?”

Enric nodded. “We must. As the victors we have no other choice. We already had to bury those we lost in the desert, but those who fell in the city need to be taken home.”

“Particularly Lord Tyront, I would assume?”

“Yes, particularly him,” Enric replied quietly, thinking of how he would have to break the terrible news to Vyril. Provided the King hadn’t already informed her while Enric had been out hunting Etor Gart’s men in the desert.

“What about Etor Gart’s carcass? Will we feed it to the fish or let it rot in the desert the way he deserves it?”

“No. I wish we had that luxury. We will have to return it as proof that he has been defeated.”

Ram’an frowned. “You intend to travel to Kar to present them with the decaying remains of their warmongering leader? Or do you intend to release the prisoners of war and have them take it along?”

Enric stretched once again, suppressing a yawn. “I can’t answer that for certain. It is not my decision alone.”

Several seconds of silence ensued, then Ram’an asked, “About Malhora. Have you had a chance to talk to her yet? I think that must have been the oddest thing I have ever seen. I did not know the nomads can move underneath the sand like that – completely undetected from the surface! And what was Malhora doing with them, anyway?”

“Malriel wasn’t done shouting at her when I left them yesterday, and I haven’t seen either of them since. I was rather busy while you were resting,” he added pointedly.

Ram’an shrugged. “Well, I have not been trained for war all my life like you and your men. I studied to pursue a profession which requires books and writing material, not swords and magic. So I think you ought to give me credit for staying on my feet as long as I did.”

Enric sighed. He was right, of course. For a civilian he certainly had done well enough in all that. He had persevered until the end and never once showed fear when encountering the enemy.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to disparage you.”

“Not to worry, my friend. What are we going to do now? Is there a chance I can return to my residence sometime soon and at least get myself a change of clothes, or am I expected to stay away as long as the King is still using it?”

“Getting yourself clothes shouldn’t be a problem. Just come with me, I’m heading there now anyway to see the King and Orrin. You are welcome to stay at my house in the meantime. Fortunately, it is still standing. Though it might be that Malriel and Malhora are there as well. If you accept my hospitality, be prepared for it probably not being a particularly quiet experience.”

Ram’an nodded gratefully. “I will accept that offer most gladly, thank you. What about Theá?”

“I’ll leave her a note and tell her to go home once she awakens. Though I suspect that she will sleep for another few hours yet.”

“Good. Then I shall make use of the bathroom and have some water while you write that note.”

“You don’t happen to have any idea where I can find the study for some paper and a pen?”

“None at all.”

Enric turned around to once again search the residence for the room he needed.


*  *  *


Eryn indulged in one final lengthy yawn before knocking at the main entrance door to the Arbil residence. Dawn was already announcing itself through a distinctly orange quality in the sunlight.

Getting up about one hour earlier, after waking alone and slightly confused in a place unfamiliar to her, she had dimly remembered that Ram’an had mentioned something about it being the Roal residence. Apart from the tastefully discreet furnishings, the building had left an impression on her of open, airy and modern. Obviously, it did justice to the House’s reputation as capable builders.

Enric’s note on the low table told her to return to their apparently still intact home and clean herself up before coming to the Arbil residence. They would start going through a few of the issues without her, but for others they needed her present.

So here she was, patiently waiting to be admitted. Malriel was the one who opened the door for her and then stepped aside to let her enter before handing her a humid towel.

“How are you doing, Maltheá?” her mother enquired. “I hear the healing you received was rather extensive, meaning you will carry on feeling exhausted for a few days yet. Under normal circumstances we would tell you to go easy on yourself and sleep as much as you can.”

Eryn smiled. “Thank you, mother. I am aware of that procedure. I used to be a healer, remember?” How was it possible that people forgot about her skills in that area so quickly just because she was no longer actively pursuing the profession? Non-healers suddenly felt the need to explain the most basic medical principles to her.

“Forgive me. I am merely concerned.”

Eryn scrutinised her mother, remembering that she had been quite out of sorts back at the barrier, when they all had witnessed the dramatic incident with which Malhora had informed the world that the rumours about her demise were exaggerated and premature. None of that had left any trace on Malriel’s current appearance. She looked a touch more elegant than these last weeks, unmistakably to signal to people that they had entered into a new phase – one that was still far away from elaborate social gatherings in luxurious residences, yet was despite all the work ahead of them still a first step towards the normality they all longed for. Eryn wondered whose clothes she was currently wearing. Had she managed to retrieve some intact clothes from under the rubble of her residence? That tunic did look familiar, though…

“How are you, mother? Have you come to terms with grandmother’s unexpected return from the dead yet?” She took in the dark trousers that were cut a little less fitting than Malriel liked. Rather in the manner that a woman with a preference for moving around rather than looking alluring would prefer… “Are these my clothes?”

Malriel looked down at herself as if she needed to remind herself what exactly she was currently wearing. “Yes, they are. Enric was kind enough to offer me the pick from your wardrobe, since the only clothes I currently own are either sweaty, dusty and torn or buried under the ruins of my home,” she explained somewhat pointedly as if daring her daughter to object to having to share her clothes for the time being.

“That’s not a problem,” Eryn quickly assured her mother. And it really wasn’t. What slightly irked her, however, was the fact that she had not been able to recognise her own clothes right away because somehow the way she wore them made them look more… classy. It was not only how she had combined the single pieces, but also how they moved with her body, the way the light played with the folds in the fabric when she turned or walked.

“So, about Malhora…?”

Malriel sighed. “We fairly much resumed where we left off before her disappearance.”

Eryn grimaced. That meant there were back to considering each other formidable adversaries and harbouring the illusion that this was a kind of compliment they were paying each other, a substitute for a healthy relationship. And neither of them was brave enough to let the other see that they both wished things between them were different. Which, Eryn was convinced, was the reason why both Malriel and Malhora were now using the long-lost child – namely herself – to try and compensate for what they were each withholding from the other. So much for that Aren reputation, which Malriel had only a day ago claimed had no basis in reality; she was subjecting herself to it just the way people expected her to. So much for her oh so very reasonable words when they had discussed it right before the wall had exploded.

“Come along. We should go upstairs and join the others. Horam has arrived only a few minutes ahead of you, and I think you will be interested in hearing what she has to tell us.”

Eryn frowned. “That sounds as though you already know what that is.”

Malriel just smiled and walked ahead and up the stairs.

The seating cushions were rather crowded, Eryn noticed. The King, the Triarchs, Enric, Orrin, Neled, Horam, Valrad and now also herself. At a social gathering the host would rearrange the seating for such a large number of people. But right now they would just have to squeeze together.

She greeted them all with a warm smile, then climbed to a spot between Enric and Neled. Enric had opted for his preferred black attire to which he had added the dark red sash, turning his casual attire into a semi-formal one that reflected his position without having to put on armour or his robe, which were both decidedly uncomfortable in this climate.

“Lady Eryn,” the King nodded at her. “I assume you have recovered enough to resume your responsibilities?”

“I have, indeed,” she replied. Then she looked at Horam. “I am glad to see you again. You gave us quite a scare yesterday. Well, me at least. Neled knew what to expect.” She pursed her lips and looked at Malriel and the King. “And maybe you as well, I can’t help but suspect.”

Malriel smiled faintly. “Yes and no. I knew of Neled’s arrangement with Horam. She had already informed me of that when she first came to the city and accepted our offer to stay. Yet I was not certain whether the reinforcements Etor Gart was expecting were truly the Loman Ergen or regular soldiers from the Pirinkar army. My first impulse at spotting them from afar was panic, I will admit.”

Eryn remembered a conversation between her and Neled when they had been searching the south for enemy troops. Neled had hinted that there were certain things she was planning – things of which Malriel was aware.

King Folrin cleared his throat, casting a cool look in Malriel’s direction. “I, however, was not informed of any such agreement, and subsequently neither were the commanders of my troops.”

“Forgive me, Folrin,” Malriel purred, “it was not my secret to share. And as long as we could not establish for certain if and when they would turn up, there was no strategic advantage to be gained from sharing it with you.”

The King didn’t reply to that, yet his expression conveyed clearly enough how little he agreed with her.

Eryn hid a smile, thinking that it had to annoy him greatly to be on the receiving end of the treatment he preferred to give to others.

“You should be wearing your sash to have at least some visible sign of your position on you,” Enric whispered in her ear while everybody’s attention was on Malriel.

“It’s dirty with dust and dried blood,” she replied. “I had no time to wash it before coming here.” A quick look at Enric’s own sash showed her that it was clean. So obviously he had either taken the time to wash it himself or had someone else do it for him. Basically without servants present in the city, he had probably done it himself, putting to good use the skill he had involuntarily acquired up in the mountains, when Malriel had on their way back from Pirinkar insisted the men wash their own clothes, demonstrating to the tribe, whose guests they had been, the modern ways of city people.

King Folrin looked at Neled and then Horam. “My dear ladies, I would be most obliged to you if you cared to enlighten me and everyone else here as to the nature of your agreement. Horam, I understand that you are the leader of a group calling itself Loman Ergen, which I am told may be roughly translated as the Undaunted.”

Horam inclined her head. “I am of the Undaunted, that is correct. Yet we do not as such subordinate ourselves to any leader. I am merely an elder who is so fortunate as to enjoy the trust of many who seek my advice. I assume you were also informed that we have for centuries been a wandering people, always on the move to escape the oppression that due to our magic would otherwise be our fate. I myself was born in the city of Kar, given to the most cruel and vile of the temples as an infant. Just as with so many others, I was forbidden to speak and subjected to inhumane and degrading practises. I managed to flee and was found lost and alone in the woods by the Loman Ergen. I have remained one of them ever since.”

Eryn gulped. She remembered that Horam had told her about her rough start in life with the Followers of Amel Harp. Was this why she had decided to side with the people her countrymen considered the enemy? Because she wished to stand against those who had done such terrible things to her? A chance to pay back a society which not only tolerated but actively supported what was done to magicians in general and the poor sods ending up at the Temple of Amel Harp in particular?

When it became apparent that Horam was not about to continue, Neled took over. “We left Kar once we had finished our preparations – after I had finally made up my mind to take this step. The thought of joining the Loman Ergen has occupied my mind for years, but it obviously took the threat of being sent to war for our oppressors to make me act. I knew that losing the Bendan Ederbren left Etor Gart without magicians trained for fighting in a war against battle magicians, meaning that approaching the Loman Ergen was the logical thing to do for him. So I sought them out to warn them.” She smiled at the memory, her gaze far away. “Finding them is either a matter of chance or knowing where to look. Since I had no idea where to start and time was of the essence owing to our fleeing the country, I decided to try and let them find me. I dressed in my priest’s robes and spent a day and a half on an elevated clearing, hoping to attract their attention. I sent the others ahead and just kept a few of my people with me for protection in case eager obedient townsfolk tried to return me to the city. They did indeed find me, deciding to approach me when usually they would stay clear of strangers and merely observe them from a distance. Yet my robes had aroused their interest, just as I had been hoping. After another few days of riding I finally met Horam and warned her that it was likely that they would be contacted by the government, which would make them promises to induce them to fight in a war that wasn’t theirs – a war against a people that had done nothing to any of us but to be so unfortunate as to present a handy target to aid a single man’s bid for power. We talked the entire night. My initial objective in seeking them out had not been an alliance of any sort. I was a refugee about to throw myself and those under my care at the mercy of strangers who had no reason to trust us. There was little I was able to offer in any case. And even less I had a right to ask for anything. I merely wanted to warn them, implore them not to let themselves be used like that – and make the mistake for a promise of freedom or similar to give up their location to people who had been hunting them for so long, or even voluntarily sacrifice their lives for them.”

“Yet despite this, we still ended up forging an alliance when the night was over,” Horam took over and smiled at Neled. “Two women, fleeing their pursuers, having little to offer to each other but determination and a shared feeling of injustice based on the abuse we had to suffer and watched others suffering.”

Eryn felt how the tension in the room noticeably increased as everyone was waiting for the nature of this agreement to be revealed. Everyone but Malriel, who already knew.

The woman claiming to not be the leader of the Loman Ergen continued, “I promised to let Etor Gart believe he had our support in the war, in case he truly intended to use us for his purposes the way Neled had predicted. It was better to let him think we would join the war on his side and teach him a lesson than refusing him and forcing him to come up with a different solution. In return, Neled pledged to return at the end of Etor Gart’s efforts, whether they were successful or not, and march with the Loman Ergen to Kar to free our brothers and sisters from their prisons behind temple walls.”

Eryn felt her heartbeat quickening. After centuries, the Loman Ergen had decided to stand up against the oppressors instead of taking flight from them. The timing for this was excellent considering that this was the first time that they had allies who were not only magicians, but also trained warriors. Who had, thanks to Etor Gart, now even gained valuable battle experience that would help them stand firm against what was left of Pirinkar’s army. The question was whether that was still a force to be reckoned with, even though it consisted of non-magicians. A large enough number of skilled fighters was a danger to considerably fewer magicians – especially with gold-tipped projectiles at their disposal.

“So you will leave us soon if I understand this correctly,” Golir addressed Neled, his tone sounding worried. “I am immensely sorry to hear that, particularly considering that we cannot yet be sure whether Etor Gart’s fall will put an end to all hostilities.”

Enric smiled faintly. “If the Loman Ergen unite with the Bendan Ederbren to march against Kar, the government will have their hands too full to consider any more attacks on us for the foreseeable future.”

“We would be able to reduce the chances of another war with them considerably,” Eryn put words to something she had already mentioned to Enric and Ram’an on their way back to Takhan not long ago, “if we made sure that those in power were not inclined to attack us anew.”

The King raised his brow and looked at her. “Are my ears betraying me, Lady Eryn, or have I truly lived to see the day where you have proposed invading another country?” He shook his head in mock astonishment. “Dear me, what have we turned you into?”

“You have not turned me into anything I wasn’t before,” she retorted, for some reason irritated at his words. “I never was a person who was willing to accept a threat to innocent people, and this goes for both sides. Neither do I wish to raise my son in a place where peace is a fragile entity depending on whatever whim somebody in Pirinkar is currently influenced by, nor do I approve of how magicians in Pirinkar are suppressed, enslaved, tormented and persecuted. Your influence has merely led to my considering new approaches to enforcing my values.”

“Approaches such as an invasion,” King Folrin replied with a smile.

“If we merely supported Pirinkar natives in their endeavour to put an end to slavery instead of marching in there to take over the country, I whould hardly term it an invasion,” Enric spoke up.

The King gave him a direct look. “I see.” He paused for a moment as if thinking how to phrase his next words. “Am I correct in assuming then, Lord Enric, that in your capacity as Leader of the Order of Magicians you are informing me that you are in favour of sending our troops to Pirinkar?”

Eryn held her breath for a short moment. Enric had never really commented on her statement about marching against Pirinkar when they had been riding back after the battle. They had just continued on their way in silence for a while, then talked of other things. So she wasn’t at all certain what his reply would now be.

Enric lifted his chin slightly. “Indeed I am.”

Silence ensued. Eryn noticed how Horam and Neled were following the exchange tensely. Having the Order at their side would increase their chances of success significantly.

Torka’na began to speak, “If our main objective is protecting our country from future attacks, we may just as well raise the same kind of barrier our ancestors employed to keep the Kingdom of Anyueel away. We have rediscovered how to go about this, after all. The issue with interfering in Pirinkar’s internal affairs is precarious. We are basically siding with the instigators of a civil war. Should we find ourselves in the position to have supported the losing side, we may be certain of facing hostilities when before they were merely a possibility.”

Eryn bit her lip to stop herself from pointing out that this would certainly serve to keep the Western Territories safe, yet hardly those imprisoned in Kar. She knew that the primary concern for the Triarchy had to be protecting their own people. Torke’na’s point was valid; there was no use in pretending otherwise. Neither was there any use for being angry at what to Eryn felt like callousness. Torke’na had never actually seen what life in Pirinkar was like for magicians. And even if she had – a decision like this needed to be based on reason and good arguments, not on mere solidarity.

Malriel spoke up next. “I agree that in the case of a defeat Pirinkar is likely to retaliate. Yet it is also a fact that we cannot be certain whether they consider the current war to be over or not. They may see the defeat of their troops as reason enough for retaliation. We have by no means the luxury of being assured that we are at peace now. As far as another barrier is concerned, I must urge caution. Etor Gart found a way to walk right through those we erected around the city. We need to assume that this was not a recent discovery, but a technique known in Pirinkar, meaning they would be able to overcome even the mightiest magical shield we are able to erect.”

“Lord Enric,” the King began, “what if I decreed that the Order was to return to Anyueel and consider this war over?”

“I would comply, of course, Your Majesty. For as long as I am your subject and hold the office of the Order’s leader, I shall bow to your wishes.” Enric left unspoken the words that his term in this capacity was nearing its end, and that after that nothing and nobody would be able to hold him and Eryn back from lending the Bendan Ederbren and Loman Ergen their support. The King’s pursed lips were a clear indicator that the message had been understood. Enric continued, “I am certain the Western Territories would not hold it against you if you decided to look after your own people now that you have fulfilled your promise to assist in the war. And I am equally confident that if the need to return in order to defend them arose again in the times ahead, you would not hesitate to do so.”

Eryn had to admire the way his brain worked. He had cleverly hinted that he would march against Kar as soon as he was free of the King’s hold on him, and also indicated to King Folrin the possible political implications of a refusal to take what some might consider steps towards ending the conflict with Pirinkar in a more enduring manner. Plus having to return to a war one had failed to put a proper end to in the first place would not exactly increase the King’s popularity among his own people.

The corners of Malriel’s mouth twitched for a brief moment, then her face resumed its neutral expression. Of course the Queen of Darkness would appreciate an underhanded reply such as that.

The King’s piercing gaze remained on Enric, when he replied, “Of course we will continue to lend our support in whatever measures the Triarchy deems essential in establishing and securing peace.”

Ah, Eryn thought, and now he had delegated the decision to the Triarchy.

Malriel smiled at him. “We are infinitely grateful to hear that, Folrin. Yet considering that our system works somewhat differently from Anyueel’s, where you hold the ultimate power to decide, we need the Senate to vote on it. As currently only a part of it still remains in Takhan, we shall have to wait another day or two at least until the others are back from the mountains with their families.” She looked at her two colleagues. “I suggest the Triarchy discuss this matter. We need to decide whether all of us can agree on what must be done or if we should split and each present to the Senate arguments to support our point of view. Should the Senate decide against sending troops to the north, I will put forth the motion of allowing those of our citizens willing to join our friends’ cause to do so of their own accord.”

Our friends cause, Eryn thought. A none too subtle reminder that the Western Territories were indebted to the Loman Ergen at least. It could be argued that the Bendan Ederbren had merely fulfilled their duty in exchange for having been granted shelter and a new home when they had fled their country of origin. Though it was still Neled’s agreement with Horam which had put a quick end to a decisive battle, the outcome of which would have been unclear. Meaning the war might have been dragged on and maybe even been lost. So one might also consider that Neled was being owed support if not a debt.

Well, at least it was clear which option Malriel favoured. And she would certainly not fail to make an impression on the Senate, no matter where the two other Triarchs stood. Malriel had taken the lead when Golir hadn’t risen to the challenge, had risked her life to save her daughter’s companion when he had been reported missing up in Pirinkar, and it was her very own mother who had slain the commander of the opposite side in a most spectacular manner, the account of which would surely outlive Malhora. Malriel herself and later her daughter had ventured up north to do everything in their power to avoid a war, and Malriel had lost both her home and one of her House’s estates – and almost her mother. House Aren had been invested in avoiding the war for some time and then contributed more than their share to winning it. If Malriel of House Aren spoke before the Senate, telling them that they wouldn’t be safe until the people accepting Etor Gart’s course of action were made to see reason, then they would listen.

It was odd. Eryn was strangely energised by the notion of returning to Pirinkar when instead she would have expected to long for an end of this whole matter and return to her old or rather new life quickly. But the matter hadn’t been ended properly yet. Not for herself, and not for the Loman Ergen or Neled.

The truth was that Horam had two options – either returning to a life in hiding, since there was little chance that anybody else in Kar would feel obliged to uphold Etor Gart’s promises, or seizing the moment and taking down the government now that she had enough support to actually have a chance of success.

It was a good thing that Malriel was in favour of helping the two women. Though somehow Eryn wondered if there wouldn’t be a price to pay. Malriel was not normally a woman known for being driven solely by philanthropic motives.

“Should we be able to aid you in taking Kar,” the lead Triarch addressed Horam and Neled with a smile, “we shall have to talk about sharing your very advanced technologies and knowledge with us.”

Ah, yes, Eryn thought with grim satisfaction at having judged Malriel correctly – there it was.


*  *  *


“Where is grandmother, anyway?” Eryn enquired of her mother as they left the Arbil residence. Night had fallen in the meantime. Since most of the city’s residents were still on their way back, there were only few lights. “I didn’t see her when I went home to wash and change my clothes a couple of hours ago. I assume she is staying there?” Where else would she stay with her family residence gone? Neither was returning to her own estate an option since that had been destroyed as well.

“She told me she wanted to inspect the ruins of our residence to see whether the underground structure is still intact.”

Eryn nodded. That made sense. The hidden vault under the building was after all the storage place for most of the gold of House Aren. And for the private reserves of the Head, of which in the current case, however, not much was left, after most of it had been invested in the construction of an orphanage several years ago…

It was not as if the family was on the verge of bankruptcy even if the reserves were irretrievably lost, but the construction of a new residence would probably have to be financed by other means for the time being.

House Aren’s numerous enterprises and production facilities provided a reliable, secure income, which would make any House willing to grant a loan. Especially House Vel’kim, and also House Arbil, as long as it corresponded to their current financial opportunities. Ram’an had since his father’s passing away rehabilitated the House and led it into a financially stable situation with wise, prudent investments, but it would take a few more years until the original prosperity was restored.

And then there was the companion of the future Head of the House, who could easily come up with such a sum. And also would. After all, he himself was a member of the House and also intended to live in the new residence to be built.

Nevertheless. Being dependent on assistance was not desirable for any House. Therefore the question of the intact reserves below the building was a relevant one.

“The worst thing imaginable,” Enric pointed out, “would actually be that the vault has caved in and we have to excavate it to retrieve the gold. We would have known if Etor Gart had sent someone back to Pirinkar with a considerable amount of the Aren gold. Several chests filled to the brim are hard to transport, even for magicians. You would need an entire convoy for it since no waggon would be able to carry more than two chests at once if that many.”

“He could have retrieved the gold and hidden it somewhere else in that part of the city under his control,” Eryn contradicted.

“Why would he do such a thing? It would not have benefited him in any way,” Malriel frowned.

Eryn shrugged. “Just to spite us. It would have caused us considerable trouble if we were unable to find it again. I wouldn’t put it beyond him to hide the gold even though there was no benefit for himself in it.”

Enric nodded. He shared that belief.

In silent agreement, they took the direction that led towards the Aren ruins and thus to Malhora.

Eryn chewed her lip for a moment, then looked at her mother. “You said something yesterday. When we were lying in wait for any of Etor Gart’s men to flee. About something that Malhora did being the reason for this distance between you. Will you tell me what happened between the two of you? People kept telling me that it is typical for the Aren family that mothers and daughters don’t get along, the reason being that our mothers are our most formidable adversaries and so teach us what we need to know to be outstanding leaders. Even if that were true and not just another piece of the Aren picture everyone cherishes, there was clearly something more between the two of you. Will you tell me?”

Malriel’s jaw muscles clenched visibly as she kept walking with her eyes directed ahead. “It was a long time ago, Maltheá. Before your birth even. Something did happen back then, and it struck me hard. Yet despite it all I would not wish for this to destroy your own relationship with her. I am glad that you and she have found a degree of closeness that was not possible for me. I do not begrudge you that, at least no longer. I admit I found it rather hard to bear that the two of you were getting along so well at a time when you could not even stand my company.”

“That is all very well, mother, yet by now you ought to know me well enough to be aware that withholding information from me for my own good is not something I tolerate.”

Enric nodded. “She doesn’t.”

“If my relationship with Malhora is dependent on my not knowing what she has done to you, then it is fragile anyway. And only a matter of time. Because since I now know that there is something to be found out, I won’t rest until I know.”

The Triarch sighed wearily. “Let it be for now, Maltheá. One day, when things have returned to normal again, we shall sit down and talk.”

Eryn ground her teeth. Being put off to an indefinite day in the future like a child was frustrating. And it showed her that Malriel and she were not on eye-level from her mother’s point of view. That would turn out interesting once Eryn herself would take over House Aren. Since Malriel was a Triarch, she couldn’t just be banished to a remote estate the way other Houses liked to do with their former leaders. She saw in her immediate future the need to keep reminding the former Head of House Aren that looking over her successor’s shoulder was not something she welcomed. At least not unasked.

Enric took her arm and pulled her a little closer towards him so that he could murmur, “Think back to the evening before the battle in the foothills.”

She blinked. What an odd thing to remind her of right here and now. “You mean when you and I were in the bathtub…?”

With a chuckle he shook his head. “No, my love, not that. What we were talking about around the fire. With Golir.”

Eryn suddenly stopped in her tracks and slapped her palm against her forehead. Once again she had been stupid. She was in possession of all she needed to know and merely lacked the ability to connect the bits and pieces. Luckily enough, Enric was much better at this than her. She would definitely keep him close once she was a mighty Head of House.

The sound of skin hitting skin made Malriel turn her head. Her eyes narrowed slightly. Obviously she was guessing that Eryn had arrived at a possible explanation.

“Omed of House Tokmar,” Eryn exclaimed. “Your father!” She cursed herself for having failed to arrive at that conclusion sooner, remembering that she had even wondered whether Malhora’s role in her companion’s demise had somehow affected the relationship with her daughter, whether this might have something to do with the distance between them.

Malriel’s face told her that she had hit the mark.

“Leave it be, Maltheá. I will not talk about this. If you wish to satisfy your curiosity, I suggest you ask your grandmother about it all.” With that, Malriel turned back and adopted a rather more brisk pace then before.

After a few more minutes of walking in silence, they reached the hill upon which until not long ago a magnificent residence bearing witness to the House’s success had sat resplendent. Ahead they saw several lit torches, their light faintly reflecting off the debris. So Malhora was still up there.

When they had almost reached the ruins, they found her, killer of enemy leaders, kneeling on the ground and pushing aside a large wall fragment from the unassuming door that marked the entrance to what looked like a root cellar on the inside, but was in truth an antechamber permitting access to the secret vault door. Provided one was one of the few initiates who knew what to look for.

“Ah, children,” the old woman grinned and waved them closer.

Children, Eryn thought with an affectionate smile. She herself was not a great friend of being addressed with child by Malriel, so for her mother it had to be even more irritating considering that she was in her mid-fifties. Right now, Malhora seemed like a sprightly grandmother, dusty and active, nothing like the embodiment of vengeance wrapped in cloth, a blood-dripping dagger in one hand.

“I have good tidings. The floor under the ruins is intact, so the vault was neither discovered nor has it caved in. The riches of House Aren are safe,” the old woman pronounced grandly.

Malriel nodded, but without smiling. It seemed she was still slightly shaken by the conversation with her daughter only a few minutes ago.

“It is a shame,” Malhora sighed and looked around. “It was a formidable building. I myself had several improvements made to it over the years. I have never harboured any sentimental attachments to outdated things when new developments and discoveries would bring more comfort.”

“Yes,” Malriel murmured, “sentimental you never were, that is hardly something anyone could blame you for.”

Malhora’s eyes narrowed slightly. “I assume we are no longer talking about the residence, are we? Out with it then, Malriel. You know I have little patience for cryptic remarks. Say what you have to say or keep your mouth shut. Anything in between is a waste of my time.”

“Oh dear,” Enric breathed. “This has the mood as though a storm is brewing.”

Eryn nodded, fascinated at how the atmosphere had suddenly shifted into something that felt slightly precarious. Two formidable women, stubborn, proud, dangerous and strong in magic, standing amidst the fire-lit rubble of what either of them had for many years considered her home. Somehow it felt as though this dramatic setting was literally crying out for an epic confrontation. And both seemed to be in a mood willing to oblige the circumstances. No one could accuse an Aren of missing a fabulous opportunity for conflict.

“Yes,” Eryn replied dryly, “good thing the building is already in ruins.”

If either of the two women heard that remark, they decided not to react to it.

Malriel lifted her head. Her hands were balled into fists. “On our way here, your granddaughter wanted to know exactly what you did that caused this break between you and I. Would you like to answer that, mother?”

“I wish I were in a position to do so, daughter. Yet you never deigned to inform me of exactly what you are holding against me.”

Malriel’s answering laugh was bitter. “Yes, I never did confront you about it, did I? I was so convinced that putting words to something that obvious would have been an insult to you.” She pointed at her daughter. “She managed to guess it, so I find it hard to believe that you, gifted with one of the great minds of our time, would fail to realise it for more than three decades.”

Malhora sighed, suddenly looking tired and a lot older from one moment to the next. “Three decades… Tell me this is not about your father.”

“Why would it not be about my father? Is it a great disappointment to you that I am not quite that casual about killing others as you are?” She threw her hands up into the air, crying out at the sky, “Malhora of House Aren, slayer of the people’s enemies – and unfaithful companions!”

Malhora stood still for several seconds, before she said in a calm voice which was somewhat in contrast to Malriel’s yell, “You are a fool, Malriel. I never thought I would need to tell you not to fall for the rumours created for the public. Rumours that helped both our House’s reputation as well as your father’s. For more than thirty-five years you have been under a misapprehension. And instead of confronting me and clearing the air with a fight, you decided to let it simmer and push us apart. I raised you better than this.”

Malriel looked as though she had just received a slap in the face.

Eryn felt somewhat sorry for her, yet at the same time strangely comforted by the fact that Malhora had the same power over her daughter than Malriel did over Eryn – the power to make them feel small and insecure. And in case of Malriel of House Aren that certainly meant something.

Malhora shook her head as if unable to believe what her daughter had just accused her of. “So you truly thought I killed your father. What incredible nonsense.”

“He was cheating on you!” Malriel cried out as if desperately trying to justify herself. “A man being unfaithful to a mighty Aren – he brought this on himself, did he not? He dared look for something in another woman’s arms he obviously did not find in yours!”

“Sit down, you idiot,” Malhora growled.

Eryn flinched slightly. That term had probably been a touch harsh when applied to a woman who looked to be on the verge of losing her composure.

Malriel just folded her arms and remained standing.

Her mother shrugged and took a seat on a halfway even-looking piece of wall. “Suit yourself, then. How ironic that we will be discussing the ruins of our relationship among those of our home.” She took a deep breath, then began, “You are aware of how I became pregnant with you – I never made a secret of that. I used your father to get out of a companionship agreement my own mother would have forced me to honour. This approach to letting our young people decide for themselves is more modern than it was in my time. I chose your father because he was a handsome, good-tempered sort of man. I will not lie to you and pretend I was in love with him. It was a decision made with a clear head, not under the influence of some fleeting infatuation. And I never regretted it. I knew of his philandering a lot longer than anybody else did.”

Malriel smiled cruelly. “And of course you did not object to it.”

“Why would I? I had my share of lovers as well. We agreed to be discreet about it to protect our reputation. And in doing so protect you. Omed may never have felt more than physical passion for me, yet you he truly loved. I respected your father, Malriel. He found himself with a child he had not planned on fathering, yet he never even once gave me the feeling he resented me for it. And I know for certain that he never made you feel like you were unwanted. We even occasionally shared a bed.” She smiled at the memory. “It was like having an affair with my own companion. Sometimes we would have a glass of wine together and then spend the night in one bed. Our relationship was affectionate until the end, even though we were never in love as such. The fact that you perceived the relationship between your father and myself as mostly free of tension and comparatively harmonious was not a result of my ignorance with regard to his affairs. It was a result of a grown-up arrangement which was to the benefit of all involved.”

Eryn stared at her grandmother, fascinated at the revelation of such unexpected aspects of her life. Malriel seemed a little shaken as well, very likely at the thought that her parent’s relationship had been so completely different from what she had believed so far.

“How did he die, then?” Eryn couldn’t stop herself from asking. “If you didn’t kill him…”

“You may not believe this, but he died of natural causes,” Malhora sighed sadly. “Unnecessarily so, if you ask me. I constantly urged him to have regular health checks at the Clinic, especially as he was not averse to rich food and wine. But he just laughed and called me overly cautious. But I suppose he died the way he would have wished for – in the arms of a pretty young thing. They were meeting in one of the wine cellars his House owned. His heart failed him. Pretty and young his little lover may have been, yet someone with a clear head and basic healing abilities would have served him better in that situation. The girl ran to his Head of House, hysterically reporting what had happened instead of seeking out a healer. When they arrived at the wine cellar, he was already dead. They called me to the scene. I had a long discussion with the then Head of House Tokmar. We agreed that we needed to adapt the facts around his death for the public. The little Roal girl could not be relied on to keep her mouth shut.”

Eryn lifted a hand to interrupt. “Roal?”

Malhora snorted. “You did not truly think our resentment towards House Roal was to this day based on nothing more than this little fraud business one-hundred and fifty years ago, Maltheá? Do not be ridiculous.”

Her granddaughter shook her head in confusion. “But if you knew about the affair and had no objection to it – why would you resent House Roal for it? Or is this just for the public?”

“There was some genuine resentment after that, but not because of the affair itself. Rather the way that she, and as a consequence her House, conducted themselves after Omed’s death. I agreed with Omed’s Head of House that since it was unlikely that the affair could be kept a secret, we needed to do something to preserve both our Houses’ reputation. The one of House Tokmar, since Omed had officially broken the terms of our companionship, which meant his House would be liable for paying me damages. If I had waived my right to demand such payment, it would have looked odd. This was not how House Aren wanted to be perceived – betrayed and even unwilling to accept compensation for it. So with House Tokmar’s permission I blew up the wine cellar with Omed’s corpse in it. His little Roal lover had no idea that he was already dead by then, spreading wide and far the tale that his vengeful companion had killed him because he sought satisfaction outside her cold, loveless bed. And this is where our resentment towards House Roal is rooted – her Head of House not only failed to bring her to heel, but even supported her in demanding a proper investigation against me, trying to have me convicted of murdering my own companion. Omed’s Head of House and myself had a little talk with the Triarchs, informing them of the true circumstances and asking them to keep them confidential.” Malhora lifted her hands. “And that is all there was to it, Malriel. Your father died of natural causes, and I blew up a wine cellar to protect us all. I had never intended that people wonder whether I had killed him or not. The story was supposed to be that I was informed of his death and was so angry that I lost control over myself. But that idiot woman insisted that he was still alive when I blew up the wine cellar – omitting that she was in no position to know since she was no longer there when I arrived.”

Malriel closed her eyes, finally taking a seat, leaning forward to support her elbows on her knees and burying her face in her hands. She sat like this for more than a minute, before her muffled voice became audible from behind her hands, “And you never thought to mention any of this to me?”

Malhora looked up at the sky as if asking for guidance in dealing with that incorrigible daughter of hers. “I would have, had I thought that you paid any heed to the ramblings of an imbecilic girl rather than trust your own mother not to do something as idiotic as killing of your father.”

The pain in her mother’s voice made Malriel look up. “What was I to think, mother?”

“I cannot tell you what you were supposed to think, but thinking as such would have been a good start. You might have started investigating the inconsistencies in that woman’s statements before the Senate for yourself, instead of believing her because it was so much easier to blame your father’s death on me than to grapple with the fact that life is sometimes cruel and unfair.”

Eryn stared when she saw how Malriel’s shoulders began to shake as silent tears ran down her face. Malriel of House Aren, overcome by emotion at realising that she had resented her own mother for three and a half decades without good reason. What a sight!

Malhora looked at her daughter, obviously unsure how to react to this unusual display of grief and vulnerability from a child who had for so many years never dared to show her any weakness.

Enric poked Eryn in her side and whispered, “Say something.”

Horrified, she looked up at him. “What am I supposed to say?”

“They are both helpless how to deal with each other right now. Whatever you will say will be a relief to them,” he insisted.

Eryn looked at both women. He was right. Malhora looked as though she wanted to hug her daughter but didn’t dare to for fear of being pushed away, and Malriel looked as though she were in dire need of precisely that hug. She cleared her throat.

“Well, I hope you both learned something from that,” she admonished them sternly, folding her arms. “You are both idiots! I mean – one of you harbours resentment based on a rumour and can’t be bothered to ask her own mother about them, and the other notices that her daughter is drifting away from her without demanding to know why. You may equally share the blame for such incredible stupidity.”

Both of them looked up at her with a frown.

Enric shook his head slightly. “Alright, I stand corrected. You managed to anger them both. Well done.”

Eryn grimaced. “That usually works!”

“Only when you want to keep two people from fighting by redirecting their anger at yourself. They weren’t fighting. They weren’t even angry a moment ago.”

“Alright then, great bringer of peace, what do you propose, then? A group hug?”

He grinned. “I’d like that.” Without further ado he stepped towards the two women and pulled them up and into an embrace. Then he looked at his companion. “Are you joining?”

Eryn shook her head. “No. I first want to see whether you will survive that.”

Malriel sighed and stretched out her hand. “Come on, Maltheá! This is such a ridiculous situation that you may as well join in.”

“Exactly,” Enric chimed in. “Without you they won’t be able to sing ballads about the night where I was standing on the sad remains of the Aren residence, embracing the three most formidable women in the entire country within my arms.”

She had to grin and finally stepped towards that odd group, feeling how warm arms closed around her and pulled her in.

Malhora, who held on to a rather stiff posture for a few more seconds, finally relaxed and shook her head as far as this was possible. “You are a strange fellow, Enric of House Aren.”

“Be nice to him, grandmother. Thanks to him there is new blood in the Aren line. I bet after another hundred years all this interbreeding would have left us with additional ears or extra toes,” Eryn murmured.

“Shut up, you cheeky chit, and rather tell me how you intend to rebuild that residence of ours.”

“I will – in exchange for your telling me how you survived the attack on your estate and ended up with a desert tribe.”

They dissolved the embrace, and Malriel nodded, smiling while wiping a tear from her cheek. “Yes, I must admit I would be interested in that as well.”

Malhora shrugged. “There is not much to tell. I was injured in the attack, but managed to hide on the roof. Once they were gone, I healed myself as well as I could and ventured into the desert. There is a well not too far away where I know the desert nomads like to go and refill their water supplies. So I waited until they finally showed up. I negotiated with their chieftain to let me commandeer a few of his young men for a while, then I went in search of that man who had killed those under my protection to pay him back in kind.”

Eryn began to laugh. “You just took over a desert tribe and went on the hunt?”

“Not the entire tribe, only a part of it, and for a short while,” her grandmother amended with a shrug. “They were willing enough to comply since I trade goods with them regularly and keep my doors open for them whenever they are close by during a sandstorm and need shelter. They even taught me their little trick with moving beneath the surface. You need magic for it, obviously, and several of them have at least a little. We followed him for quite a while, but then he reached Takhan after splitting off from part of his force. I decided to wait and determine whether he would try to flee. Ten of my men kept an eye on the entire perimeter of the city, informing me when he stepped outside the barrier. And on sand.” She raised her brow. “And now about the residence.”

Eryn exhaled, looking around, taking in the depressing sight of what had been supposed to become her home. “Well, I will obviously have it rebuilt. Though this time I will make sure the space is properly utilised. These overly extensive gardens can easily accommodate two residences. One for the Head of House, and the other for such occasions when another of our family ascends to the rank of Triarch and requires an accommodation in accordance with that status.”

Malriel stared at her, mouth agape. “Are you telling me, Maltheá, that you are willing to live on the same piece of land as I?”

Eryn smiled, glad she had managed to pull her mother out of that subdued state of mind. “Yes. Make no mistake though – your building will be as far away from mine as is possible. We will share a garden, but certainly not a household. And if you feel that you have to host one of your tiresome social gatherings every few days, make sure they don’t spill over to my quiet and harmonious residence.”

It took Malriel a few moments to recover from that announcement, then she smiled. “To my knowledge, that would be the first quiet and harmonious Aren home ever. But I gladly accept your proposal. Of course you will join my social gatherings. And gladly. The Head of House Aren will not bury herself in her cave, but will carry out her duties, which include maintaining alliances with other Houses and other useful contacts.”

“I am sure there will be more than enough opportunities to discuss this.”

Malriel smiled. “Depend on it.”

“If I don’t like what you say, I may decide to kick you out, though.”

“You will do no such thing. It would also mean kicking out your father. You would never do a thing like that.”

Eryn waved her off. “Certainly not. He can stay, of course.” She felt how the banter lightened her own heart, as if holding on to something that had become so very familiar to her over these past years was strangely comforting, irrespective of the fact that the hostile undertone was now gone. Malriel’s mien told her that she shared that feeling.

“I had been hoping to have House Roal do the construction.”

Malhora folded her arms. “No. I am appalled you are even considering it after what I just told you.”

Eryn braced herself. She would have to learn to stand up to both former Heads of House Aren if she ever wanted to lead the family the way she saw fit. And for that there was no time like the present.

“They have a different Head of House now – and I have no reason to believe that Amgil of House Roal is unreasonable. I will offer him a way to settle the matter by agreeing to a compensation payment for his House’s dealings in the issue with my grandfather. If he agrees, he may choose to pay in kind by offering us a very advantageous price on the re-building of our residence.”

“My honour was offended back then,” Malhora sniffed. “This is nothing that can be settled with any amount of gold.”

Malriel rolled her eyes. “What an outrageous statement, mother! What do you want from them in order to settle this? A public apology?”

Eryn sighed. Even before officially taking over, her future position already promised to be challenging. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Demand a higher amount of indemnification payment than you had initially intended,” Malriel suggested, “and then offer to decrease it in exchange for a public apology.”

Eryn sighed. “Yes, mother. Of course, mother. Thank you for assuming that I am unfamiliar with the most basic negotiation principles. You are aware that the second residence has not yet been built and I can change my plans without any problems at this point I suppose? Maybe my companion has reservations against living so close to you anyway. Particularly if you don’t stop treating me like a child.”

Malhora began extinguishing the torches among the rubble. “Let us return to that house of yours. I am tired. I have taken the master bedroom, of course.”

Malriel grinned while Eryn closed her eyes. That woman knew no boundaries. Neither of them. “Of course, grandmother.”

She needed to make sure Malhora’s estate was rebuilt as quickly as possible.




Chapter 2

A Royal Surprise

With every passing minute Enric felt his impatience increasing a little. Already a while ago they had spotted the first ships on the horizon, which were bringing back the evacuated inhabitants of Takhan after several weeks. Among them Pe’tala, and thus also her newborn son – provided he wasn’t unduly prolonging his stay in what towards the end had to be comfortable yet somewhat confined quarters.

The ships would also return the Senators of Takhan, who had only one day to settle into their homes before being called upon to decide against or in favour of marching into Pirinkar. In his capacity as the Order’s leader, there was no question whether or not this was a sensible course of action. The threat was still not eliminated entirely, so having the troops return to Anyueel came with the inherent risk of yet another war in the foreseeable future.

Yet as a father the thought of prolonging his absence from his boy was painful. That he was about to see a lot of children getting off the ships, reuniting with family members when he himself longed for just such a reunion, would not exactly make things easier.

He and Eryn stood with the crowd, for once not required in their official capacity as the Order’s leaders, and glad for it. The Triarchy and the King were at the front and would be the first to welcome back the returnees.

Valrad eagerly rubbed his hands. “The first ship should moor up any moment! I hope our family is on it! I cannot wait to see them again and ascertain myself that they are all well. And to meet my newest grandchild.”

“Yes,” his son commented, “I hope that, too, or I will have to take you out to keep you from fidgeting around impatiently.”

“You can of course try that, son, yet since I am now prepared and happen to be stronger than you, this might lead to a different result than the one you were intending,” his father threatened, but immediately turned back towards watching the approaching ships.

“You don’t even know if he has already been born,” Eryn remarked. “Pe’tala might still be huge and even more irritable than before.”

“What a happy thought,” Rolan next to her sighed, clearly dreading that option.

“If that child is not out by now, I shall consider inducing birth,” Valrad mused. “I do not begrudge a baby two extra weeks if it needs them, but anything exceeding that just leads to complications during the birth.”

Enric smiled faintly. “I have little doubt that Pe’tala would have managed to persuade the healers around her to kindly nudge her son along in that case.”

Eryn remembered that this was not usually something healers responded particularly well to. In her own case the attempts at persuading – and occasionally threatening – her fellow healers had not concerned the time of giving birth, since Vedric had showed up a little too early. But she’d had heated discussions about how long she was supposed to wear the golden belt afterwards so she wasn’t tempted to spend energy and substance she needed for nursing her child on speeding up a healing process that was supposed to occur slowly and within such a period as nature saw fit.

Enric wondered how Pe’tala would react to the news that for the time being, namely until the new Aren residences were ready to move in, Malriel and Malhora would be sharing her home. Since the Vel’kim residence was accommodating the Anyueel healers, there was not really any other place to go for Malriel and Valrad. At least not if they wanted to avoid people talking. Malriel would find shelter pretty much with any House right now if she made it known that she needed a place to stay – even with those Houses opposed to Aren. The currently most powerful person in the country was somebody every Head of House and Senator wanted to please – or at least avoid irritating.

But if her own daughter happened to own a residence spacious enough to easily accommodate her in addition to the two families inhabiting it plus Malhora, it would look strange for Malriel to stay anywhere else – no matter how much tension there would in time be with three Aren women under the same roof.

With Malhora, Enric knew, Pe’tala had no problem at all. Malhora didn’t discriminate and treated Pe’tala with the same harsh affection as her own granddaughter. The same applied to their children.

And even though the relationship between Pe’tala and Malriel had in the course of the past years transformed from one of open hostility to one of respect and careful fondness, it was something entirely different to share a house.

“Who is going to tell her?” Enric asked those around him.

“Tell who what?” Valrad wanted to know, confused. He was, however, the only one who failed to see what it was that had to be told to whom.

Vran’el grinned. “That you and Malriel have moved into her home for the time being.”

The healer frowned disapprovingly. “I should not think that living with her own father and her stepmother will be quite such a burden for her. She and Malriel have been getting along very well indeed lately.”

“That doesn’t mean that living together will be a particularly harmonious situation,” Rolan contradicted.

Vran’el shrugged. “Chances are, though, that Pe’tala is glad enough to return to an intact home in an unoccupied city and will put aside such petty considerations as an unwanted guest.” His doubtful tone suggested that he was aware that he was indulging in somewhat optimistic notions.

“Yes,” Eryn replied slowly, “But then this is Pe’tala we are talking about. Who will be suffering from sleep deprivation on account of having to feed her newborn every few hours. Not to mention lingering exhaustion. Hardly a state in which she will turn out to be overly indulgent or diplomatic.”

“You should be ashamed of slandering your sister in such a manner when instead you ought to be glad to be having her back soon,” Valrad scolded them, but there was a hint of worry in his mien, suggesting that he was secretly sharing his children’s concerns, but feeling he had to defend his youngest.

Eryn and Vran’el shared an amused glance, but in unspoken agreement refrained from commenting.

They all watched intently as the first ship entered the port and a little later moored up to the pier immediately in front of them. Minutes seemed to stretch into an eternity until the landing walkway was slid noisily into place and allowed the first passengers to disembark. Among them were familiar faces, yet not the ones they were looking for.

People around them burst into cheers as soon as they saw their loved ones and pushed forward, past those who were still waiting tensely. Tears flowed freely as family members fell into each other’s arms, unspeakably relieved to find each other alive and unharmed.

After several minutes more, the last passenger had crossed the walkway, making it clear that Pe’tala and Intrea with their children had not been on board of this ship.

They moved down a little further to the next pier, where another ship was currently being tied up. At the railing, adults waved agitatedly, several of them with children on one arm. The younger ones not yet aware of the situation, according to their individual disposition looked either confused by all the commotion they failed to understand, or letting themselves be drawn in, riding the wave of exuberance and joy.

“Do you see her?” Rolan asked, his eyes roaming the people eagerly waiting to go off board.

“No,” Eryn replied, equally impatient.

It turned out, in fact, that this ship was not the one they were looking for either.

They moved on towards the next pier further downstream, where yet another walkway was being prepared to connect a ship’s deck with the pier.

“There! I see her!” Rolan suddenly called out, impatiently grabbing on to the next wrist he managed to find blindly – Vran’el’s – and recklessly pushing past people in tearful embraces, not even shying back from ploughing right through reunited families, who were forced to either step aside quickly or become collateral damage.

Enric smiled as he spotted her, standing at the railing, in one arm something that looked like a small bundle just the right size for a baby, the other pointing at Rolan. Right in front of her, the head of a child just tall enough to look over the railing was visible. Her daughter Zahyn, who began jumping up and down excitedly upon spotting her father in the crowd. Her mother carefully turned slightly sidewards to protect the baby boy from being hit by the agitation from beneath.

Intrea right next to Pe’tala pointed at Vran’el, whereupon her own daughter’s face lit up upon seeing her father.

Rolan suddenly became oddly quiet and closed his eyes.

Enric placed one hand on his shoulder. “Are you quite alright?”

The younger man nodded. “They are well. I was so worried. I had been plagued by bad dreams, where the birth went wrong or their shelter was found by enemy troops…” He looked exhausted as if it had been mostly the tension that came with fretting that had kept him upright. A tension that was now draining away, replaced by immense relief that also came with the body’s demand for some rest now that it was clear that his worst fears had been unfounded. Rolan straightened, clearly not yet willing to give in to that demand. He wanted to welcome his newly extended family back.

After another stretch of painfully long waiting, Pe’tala finally walked towards them, careful not to be jostled by the impatient returnees around her and keep her precious bundle safe.

Then she stood before them, smiling at her companion, who lifted and dropped his arms several times, at a loss for words, while moisture collected between his eyelids.

Pe’tala’s expression became soft, as she pushed her son into Enric’s hands. “Hold him, will you?”

Then she pulled Rolan into her arms, squeezing him close, being squeezed back.

“I was so worried…” he whispered.

“And I about you,” she replied with her cheek pressed against his. “We did not receive any messages from Takhan, so I had nightmares about your being hurt…”

Rolan loosened his embrace long enough to swoop up his daughter with one arm so he could hold them both at the same time.

Eryn gulped at the joy and relief, the utter happiness, pushing aside the thought what she would give for holding her own son right now. Instead she looked at the bundle in Enric’s arms.

“Oh my,” she sighed, “I keep forgetting how tiny they start out. Look at how much hair he already has!”

Valrad next to her was torn between waiting for his daughter to let go of her companion to greet her father, and concentrating on this grandson. After a few seconds of uncertainty, he finally decided to inspect the newest family member.

“Give him to me, will you?” he asked of Enric, smiling as unseeing blue eyes were lifted up at him and small pink lips opened as if in astonishment.

Vran’el had in the meantime reached Intrea and Obal, lifting his daughter into the air and covering her cheeks and forehead with kisses. “My little rascal – I am so glad to finally have you back! It was awfully quiet and boring without you in the city!”

The twelve-year-old girl giggled. “But you had a war here! It cannot have been quiet!”

Vran’el shook his head, his expression dead serious. “After being used to you, my little whirlwind, I hardly noticed much of the commotion of the war.”

Intrea, after having been embraced by those of her family members who had remained in Takhan to fight, smiled at Vran’el and kissed him on the cheek. “Always the charmer, Vran. I am so glad to find you unharmed. Did you put the enemy to flight singlehandedly, my brave companion?” she enquired with a grin.

“Certainly – they are composing ballads about my heroic deeds as we speak,” he returned, striking a pose he considered heroic, looking into the distance with his chin lifted and his chest puffed out.

“Is that true, Eryn?” Obal called towards her aunt.

Eryn wagged her head to indicate that her brother might have exaggerated somewhat. “Maybe not all on his own. We helped a little. But your father was a brave comrade in arms who showed no fear. You certainly have reason to be proud of him.”

Satisfied, her niece wrapped her arms around her father, the war hero.

Pe’tala, Rolan and Zahyn had finally disentangled from each other, now ready to greet the rest of the family.

Hugging her sister, Pe’tala sighed. “I am so relieved to see that Enric managed to keep you safe. Those idiots insist on sending you into battle, when this is neither what you want nor what you are good at.”

Eryn didn’t reply to that but enjoyed her little sister’s warmth and closeness. This wasn’t a good time to bring up that she had turned out to be better at going to war than she cared.

“I give you ten gold slips if you take off my golden belt,” Pe’tala whispered into her ear.

Eryn laughed and pulled back, shaking her head. “No, dearest, having father exert his revenge on me is hardly worth ten gold slips.”

“How much gold would it be worth, then?” the younger sister asked with a lopsided grin.

“More than you own, I’m afraid.”

Valrad, who had reluctantly passed on his grandson to Rolan, turned towards his daughter and pulled her into a tight embrace. Yet not without lecturing her.

“Considering that you are a healer, Tala, I should not have to remind you why wearing the golden belt is an essential precaution for new mothers who happen to be magicians. As you are very well aware, there is a certain disposition towards…”

Eryn laughed quietly and winked at her sister. “Welcome back.”


*  *  *


Pleasantly sated, Eryn closed her eyes and leaned back on the seating cushions at her residence, content with herself and the world. Around her the lively chatter of her family and friends, next to her Vern, currently busy with pen and paper drawing Pe’tala as she was breastfeeding her son.

The aromas of the meal they had just finished were still lingering in the air. A little of the golden light of the evening that flooded the expansive room penetrated through her closed eyelids, slightly reddened by the tiny blood vessels within them.

In the background she heard the happy shrieks of her nieces Zahyn and Obal, who despite their difference in age still managed to find a game to delight them both every now and again. She imagined that Vedric was out there with them, running around in the garden, hiding behind bushes and trees.

Having the children back in the city made her feel her son’s absence even more painfully. It was easier to accept that they had to be apart as long as Takhan wasn’t safe, yet this was not the case now. The children were back. All but Vedric.

She tried to come up with a reason why returning to Anyueel before marching into Pirinkar would be a reasonable, logical course of action. The fact that it was anything but reasonable or logical didn’t exactly make things easier. It was nothing more but a desperate attempt to see her son again.

Warm fingers closed around her hand, and she smiled, feeling how Enric’s mere touch still had the power to comfort her.

The meal had been lively as they had all taken turns to fill in Pe’tala about the goings on of the war, concluding with the incredible happenings that had ended it, namely the appearance of alleged reinforcements for Etor Gart, which had then turned out to be Neled’s allies, and the appearance of Malhora, who had chosen the most dramatic return from the dead one could imagine – by killing off the villain himself. And not with a bolt of magic from afar, but in a manner so personal and with such spectacular aplomb that it was certain to become legend.

Eryn wondered whether Enric would have preferred to kill the man himself. Would he have done it in a quick and dispassionate manner? She believed so. He wasn’t a man to derive pleasure from another’s suffering, no matter what the offender had done to deserve it.

And she herself? She had been fantasising about despatching Etor Gart. In so many different ways. By pushing him over a cliff, drowning him in a river, suffocating him inside an airtight shield, felling him with a mighty bolt of magic, shooting golden arrows into his chest from a range close enough to look him in the eyes and see the pain in them… She was glad this man had found his end without her having to step closer to yet another abyss by discovering how much more cruelty she was capable of. She knew the temptation of torturing the very man who had done these terrible things to Enric might have been too great to resist.

But he was dead now, without her having to fight a vicious battle within herself, either killing him quickly and depriving herself of her revenge, or prolonging it and having to live with her deed in the decades to come.

She opened her eyes again, and her gaze wandered to Malhora, who was sitting there, the picture of contentment, a grandmother amidst her family. There was no more trace of the lethal enemy she turned into when the need arose to avenge those under her protection who had been harmed. Had she not for a single moment been tempted to prolong his throes of death, to quench her thirst for revenge through his agonies?

Malhora’s gaze met her own, and she lifted a questioning eyebrow. “What is on your mind, Maltheá?”

The question had been asked in a quiet tone, yet the little conversations around them subsided as if everyone present had an inkling that something serious was about to follow.

Eryn felt a little self-conscious in the sudden silence around her. She would have preferred talking about this in a more private setting. But she was among people who cared for her, loved her.

“When you killed Etor Gart, you granted him a swift death.”

Her grandmother smiled faintly. “And you would not have?”

For several long moments, their gazes locked, then Eryn lowered hers. “I don’t know. My desire to hurt him might have been too strong.”

Malhora’s expression changed for a moment, turning into one of such pain and ire that Eryn’s breath caught in her throat. It was over in the blink of an eye, no more than a brief second, yet it told her all she needed to know. Malhora would have loved nothing more than to drag out that wretched man’s suffering, make him pay tenfold for the misery and grief he had caused her and those under her protection and had been planning yet to cause. Immense strength of character and mastery over her own urges, Eryn realised, was what had held Malhora back, helped her overcome what would have made her a tiny bit more like the man whose life she had decided to extinguish. She hadn’t allowed Etor Gart’s deeds to turn her into something she did not wish to become, did not wish to let him corrupt her legacy by having her daughter and granddaughter watch how she turned into a monster.

“The question is what price you are willing to pay for giving in to such urges, Maltheá,” her grandmother replied. “For what you let them turn you into.” She looked at her daughter. “Malriel, I trust you remember what I told you was the most important thing about leadership?”

If the mighty Head Triarch of the Western Territories took exception to being called upon to share her knowledge like a school-girl, she didn’t show it. Instead, she answered, “Leadership starts with oneself. You cannot expect others to bow to your principles when you yourself have none.”

Satisfied, Malhora smiled. “Very true.” She turned serious again. “Killing that man was a necessity. And this is how I had to treat it. At times there may be no other way than to cause suffering, but it must only be to prevent even greater harm. You can never allow it to be for your own gratification. No matter how much you long for it. Once you walk this path, you are no longer fit to be a leader.”

Orrin nodded appreciatively. “We should invite you to teach our young Order members, Malhora.”

Eryn gulped. “What if… what if hurting others turns out to be easier than it should be?” she forced herself to ask.

Malhora’s eyes narrowed. “Then you need to watch yourself even more carefully, child.”

“There is no need to worry unduly, Maltheá,” Malriel added softly. “I observed you up in Kar. And have ever since. You do watch yourself closely enough, daughter. And you trust yourself less than everybody else who knows you. Which is why you gave up healing.”

“What was that?” Pe’tala enquired quietly but sharply, covering herself after her son had fallen asleep during his meal for the second time now.

Eryn exhaled, knowing that her initial remark to Malhora about the granting of a swift death ultimately had to lead to revealing to those closest to her the darkest of her secrets. It was a decision she had made by pursuing the topic. And all that was basically left now was coming up with the courage to confirm what she could see those who had not known so far were starting to suspect.

The courage to own up to her actions. The strength to bear the consequences, which consisted of how her friends and family would from now on see her.

She felt Malriel’s gaze on her and lifted her eyes to meet it. A faint smile curved across her mother’s lips.

Malhora was not afraid of showing others what she was capable of, and neither was Malriel. And Eryn was their heiress, not only of a name and a position, of something more substantial than a reputation for being prone to tantrums and family feuds – to a set of values and the determination to bow to them, make them her own and wield them the way an Order magician had learned to wield a sword. This was what it truly meant to be Aren. The realisation settled over her, calming her inner tension like water soothing raging thirst.

She lifted her head. And looked at her sister as she addressed all of them, “I tortured someone. Twice. To obtain information essential for protecting others. In doing so, I violated the principles of healing. I am not proud of what I am capable of. Yet neither will I apologise for it.” That last sentence had been a warning.

Pe’tala looked at her, then nodded. “Alright then, sister. I do not claim to be in a position to judge whether those situations could have been solved differently. Neither am I proclaiming that I would have acted in another way under such circumstances. Yet I agree that you are no longer a healer.”

Hearing those last words was painful. Eryn didn’t reply. It was something she had hitherto been able to pretend was merely her personal point of view, but hearing Pe’tala agree with it made it real. She looked at Valrad, who gave her a sad smile, meaning he agreed with his youngest daughter.

She knew it was a fact, unprepared for how much it hurt, realising that it was only now that she truly took her mental leave from ever again treating patients. Until she had confessed her deeds to the Head of Healers in her future home, there had always been the option of returning to it one day.

She noticed there was not only pain, but also a sense of profound relief and liberty. Making herself vulnerable to others was a powerful act – one only the strong dared.

Enric lifted her hand to his face and pressed his lips into her palm. “I might not be alive today if you had decided to hold on to these principles instead of breaking with them and ultimately giving up healing. It is a sacrifice I can never repay. I can merely aim at never making you regret it.” He looked up at the others. “The Bendan Ederbren have a term for such people. They speak of a true warrior. As opposed to our own understanding in Anyueel, a true warrior is not somebody eager to throw themselves into battle to lay down their life for their country if need be, and if possible take along as many enemies as possible. It is someone who bows to necessities even at great personal cost. They think such a person is a rare occurrence. I admit that at first I was a little jealous when they declared Eryn a true warrior, but only until I understood what it really meant and how well it describes her.”

Eryn felt her heart warm at these words of praise, of this testament to his love for her.

“This is your chance,” she announced, looking at each of them in turn. “If you have anything to say about what I have done, then do it now.”

Silence ensued, then Vern cleared his throat and shrugged. “You know, if I am ever captured and brought to some undisclosed location, you are very welcome to torture my abductors. Just saying.”

“Same here,” Vran’el added, and the mood was back to being relaxed.

They heard a knock at the entrance door, and Eryn flinched. Unpleasant news had a habit of turning up during meal times, even though strictly speaking they had already finished eating.

Enric jumped up with suspicious verve, making his companion wonder whether he was expecting somebody.

The commotion from downstairs upon opening the entrance door suggested that more than one person had arrived.

“Was that Ram’an’s voice?” Vern asked.

“And Golir’s, unless I am mistaken,” Valrad added.

Little later Enric reappeared, behind him indeed Golir and Ram’an, plus Kilan.

The host smiled and stretched out his hand for Eryn to take so he could pull her to her feet. “Dearest companion of mine, there is a little something I am particularly eager to do now that the imminent danger is over. I wish to re-establish our third level commitment bond and took the liberty of inviting our closest friends and family members. Golir has once again agreed to carrying out the ceremony. Provided you have no objections. Which would now be somewhat embarrassing for me.”

Eryn stared at him for a moment, completely taken by surprised, then a wide smile grew on her face and she pulled his head down and kissed his face. “I’d like that very much.”

Golir looked at Malriel and Vran’el. “I assume the two of them have the permission of their respective Heads of House?”

“Of course,” Vran’el agreed for his sister.

Malriel gave a regal nod to indicate her assent for Enric.

“Good,” Golir proceeded. “We require an amount of magic exceeding that of the two people to be joined. Which in this particular case is no small matter. Who of the present gathering wishes to participate in establishing the bond by adding their magic to it?”

Every single hand in the room lifted. The Triarch nodded. “That should certainly do the trick. Though it might be a little bit crowded. Alright, then I shall ask everybody to stand up. We should keep this brief and without undue ceremony, since this is now the third time I am joining the both of you. In a bond meant to endure until the end of your lives,” he felt the need to point out.

Eryn refrained from pointing out that this was hardly their faults. The first time Enric had it dissolved because he had travelled to Pirinkar to save Malriel, and the second time was because of the war they had just won.

After arranging themselves in a circle large enough for everyone to fit in, but small enough so they could all join their hands in the middle, Golir looked at Eryn.

“I take it you are willing to enter into the bond?”

“I am.”

“Enric, as are you?”

“With all my heart.”

“Good. I will now let my magic flow, and everyone else follows my lead. Just pour your magic in, I shall direct it accordingly and forge the bond.”

A moment later Eryn felt warmth entering her skin through the hand on which Golir had placed his own – and on top of his all others had placed theirs.

Several seconds later, the warmth subsided and Golir took a step back and outside the rather crowded circle of people. “It is done. Congratulations. Again. I sincerely expect this to be the last time. I hope this does not seem rude, but I would now very much like to return to my family.”

Enric nodded. “Thank you very much, Golir, for coming here on your very first evening with your family. I am sorry I had to steal part of it, yet I was impatient to have this taken care of.”

Golir smiled. “Not to worry, Enric, it was my pleasure.”

Once he was gone, Ram’an cleared his throat. “I have not much time, either, since my daughters are waiting for my return, but I should think this occasion warrants a glass of that excellent wine I know Enric hides at the back of his cellar. I certainly have a few minutes’ time for that.”

Enric sighed in mock resignation. “I’m obviously not hiding it well enough, if you know where to find it, Arbil.”


*  *  *


Enric watched from one of the guest seats in the rear of the Senate Hall as the Senators, both those who had remained in the city during the war and those newly returned, made their way to their designated seats, frequently stopping to greet a colleague they hadn’t seen for a while, glad to find them alive and unharmed. He noticed that even Senators from Houses at enmity with each other exchanged a smile, a nod and a few words. The war had accomplished what efforts during times of peace hardly ever managed – uniting people against a common enemy. The elation of a war well fought and won made people a little more pliable, and there now was the strengthened feeling of us and them. Nothing bound people together as tightly as a righteous reason to reject those who were not us.

Enric knew the feeling would abate in the times to come, since the memory of the external threat would in its course become little more than that – a memory. Once the damage to the city and the Houses’ estates was repaired and all was restored to its former status, and the Houses and other business owners were able to redress their losses, the Houses would return to associating primarily with those aiding their own interests, remembering those little incidents and insults that had induced them to keep their distance from certain individuals and the circles associated with them. It wouldn’t take long until the city wall would be the only visible sign of the war, and the new generation and those following would grow up without ever having known Takhan as a city without fortifications.

But the time for this had not yet come. The enemy was still fresh in everyone’s memory, and chances were that the Senate would decide that the war was not over as of now, that the final conclusion had to be to teach Pirinkar how little desire they should have for another attack – in their own interest.

He knew that the chances for a decision in favour of going to Pirinkar were high – particularly if he himself and Malriel were known to support it. Even so. He had learned never to be too confident of a desirable outcome. Prematurely slackening off back and trusting that everything was about to go the way he intended it might pave the way for unpleasant surprises. Particularly if the King was involved.

He knew that King Folrin, even though not openly opposing the notion, was somewhat sceptical about the wisdom of invading Pirinkar. He had valid points, too. They knew only very little about Kar’s defences – only that the seeming lack of a city wall was merely a ruse, since the first row of what looked like residences was in truth a cleverly disguised fortification equipped with a number of war machines. But they didn’t know how large Pirinkar’s army was, how large a fraction had been dispatched to the south – and as a consequence, how many still remained to defend the country. Another point was that aiding Neled and Horam in their plan to free the priests from their confinement meant supporting one side in a civil war, which meant contravening a country’s sovereignty. That last issue was something King Folrin would be reluctant to commit to, since this was certainly something he himself was eager to avoid in Anyueel and therefore hesitated to inflict upon anyone else.

From Enric’s point of view, however, notions of sovereignty were no longer a valid counterargument when it came to a country which had waged war on them without any real provocation. And he was even less sympathetic to any Royal concerns with regard to respecting established power structures.

Eryn let herself drop onto a seat right next to his, as always showing no concerns whatsoever when it came to displaying the kind of elegance which Malriel had moulded into a part of herself.

“Shouldn’t they have started by now?” she asked and looked around at the Senators, who where still chatting amongst themselves. “Where is that exaggerated punctuality they usually adhere to?”

“Many of them have just returned from the mountains,” Enric explained. “You need to indulge them a little. These are extraordinary circumstances, after all. Until recently nobody knew whether there would ever again be another Senate meeting.”

“I know,” she sighed. “Yet right now I would rather have them proceed with a certain expeditiousness since I want to see my son again. Which will not happen until after we have taken care of Pirinkar.”

“Provided they decide to take that step,” Enric added for consideration.

“Yes, always provided that. Though they are beyond help if they decide otherwise.”

“The King still has a valid point or two against it.”

Eryn snorted. “That’s not how I see it. He just doesn’t want people to get any ideas that overthrowing existing power structures might sometimes be a good thing. Particularly not in a Kingdom where magicians may not be subdued the way it is done in Pirinkar, but still are forced to join the Order.”

Enric smiled. She had a point there. He himself and his fellow magicians had been taught that being in the Order was an immense privilege, and bowing to a few puny rules was such a tiny concession that it could not even be considered a price to pay. But seeing the freedom magicians in Takhan enjoyed had made magicians in Anyueel think about why they themselves had no choice in where to live and what profession to adopt. Two points which actually were a major infringement of free will. So sending those very Order magicians off to free their fellow magic users from repression had the potential to come with certain demands and necessities of change in the Order. Orrin would have great fun leading that institution in the years to come.

“You were the first who had to be… persuaded to join the Order. Everyone else did so on their own,” Enric pointed out, but rather more for argument’s sake than because he disagreed with her. She had indeed been forced into the Order, no matter what euphemisms one wanted to employ in rephrasing it. There had been negotiations, yet keeping her shackled in gold and binding her to an Order magician to make certain she was unable to leave had certainly not contributed to making Eryn’s decision a voluntary one. For her it had merely been the lesser evil.

“Yes, alright,” she grunted, but fell silent with everyone else as the three Triarchs entered the Hall from the right and moved swiftly toward the podium with their seats.

For a short moment it looked as though Golir would take the centre seat, yet he merely pulled it back for Malriel in a polite gesture. So for the time being Malriel would continue to hold on to her position. But then the war as such was not entirely over yet.

Torke’na was once again the one to greet everyone and open the assembly.

“Welcome back, esteemed colleagues! I cannot begin to express my gratitude and relief that we are all back and able to meet in a city that has suffered a little damage, but is far from being destroyed or uninhabitable. I regret that we were not able to grant you more time to settle back into your lives but called you here shortly after either returning yourself or welcoming your families back. Yet there is one essential decision to be made, and the Triarchy cannot make it without you. We have overcome a difficult time, yet some think that the challenge of the conflict with our neighbour is not yet over. We have gathered here today to make a decision whether or not the threat for yet another attack from up north is significant enough to take a step as extreme as invading Pirinkar.”

Eryn flinched slightly. That last part had been a clear indicator that Torke’na was not in favour of any such plans. And having her speak first meant that she had been able to place the idea that the invasion as too extreme a step into people’s minds.

“She is against it,” she whispered to Enric.

He nodded. “Definitely. Unfortunately, I had no chance to speak to Malriel before the assembly. So I have no idea where Golir stands. Having two Triarchs opposing the plan might turn convincing the Senate into a significant challenge for Malriel.”

Torke’na on her own would not be able to sway the Senate, but Golir was another matter entirely.

Malriel was the next to speak, though she decided not to address the Senate from her elevated position, but got up from her chair to step into the circle at the centre of the room, meeting the Senate eye-to-eye.

“Senators,” she began with her hands held behind her, “let me be honest with you. Different opinions are held within the Triarchy; we are not in agreement about what is the right approach. But this is not something that ought to worry you, since plurality of opinion is a precious thing we have always respected in these Halls. In a society where we decide together which way to follow, where we seek to develop and grow, consent can never be a given thing but must be achieved through hard work and struggle. Today we are here to engage in such a struggle, and I am confident that at the end we will arrive at a good decision. We decided to present to you the advantages and drawbacks of each option and subsequently enter into a discussion before we put the matter to a vote. I must apologise that we cannot afford to grant you more time to ponder this important matter, since time is of the essence. I am in favour of going to Pirinkar. Permit me to explain why.”


*  *  *


It had been a long two hours, and Eryn found the visitor chairs becoming more uncomfortable by the minute, fidgeting around to try and find a halfway bearable position.

Malriel had presented her case, then Torke’na had spoken, pointing out the disadvantages. Both had called upon guests to testify in front of the Senate. Malriel had invited Commander Neled and Horam to talk about their own plans and how they intended to free their fellow magicians from the yoke which they had suffered under for centuries. Then Enric had been called upon to speak for the Order. And Orrin as the Head of Warriors.

Torke’na had not been able to come up with quite such an impressive range of supporters for her side, yet there was one person whose words were sure to carry some weight: King Folrin. He had pointed out that he was neither in favour nor against supporting Commander Neled and Horam in their endeavours, but would bow to the Senate’s decision whatever that might turn out to be. Yet to balance the scales, he had decided to bring up some matters which deserved consideration but were in danger of being neglected.

The ensuing discussion had started out politely, but soon become more heated, and calls for order were frequent when emotions threatened to take over and voices became raised.

Malriel and Enric were accused of soliciting an invasion for no other reason than to initiate a retaliation campaign, willing to put everyone at risk for their personal desire to exact revenge.

Opponents of the invasion were called cowards and short-sighted fools.

Ram’an was accused of siding with House Aren because he still harboured feelings for former – and soon-to-be-again – Maltheá of House Aren.

Several Senators grandly declared they would refuse to have any members of their Houses forced to participate in any such nonsense – only to reconsider once the severe consequences of disobeying a Senate decision were pointed out.

“Either I’m leaving here this minute or I’ll make the Senate roof cave in once again,” Eryn hissed quietly. “They squabble like little children instead of discussing this like adults! I’m glad Vedric isn’t here to witness this – it would be impossible to teach him manners or explain to him why respect is important afterwards.”

“You are about to join them once you take over House Aren,” Enric reminded her gently, thinking that this really wasn’t quite that different from a Council meeting in Anyueel.

“I can’t wait,” she sighed and shook her head.

She admired how calm the Triarchs had remained in the heated and at times anything but objective discussion. Malriel particularly, who had been attacked personally more than once, but only met any accusations with a stony expression, not sinking so low as to acknowledge the slander by defending herself. Though Eryn suspected that she was remembering well enough who had uttered which sentiment and would in time revisit them, let them become part of her considerations when requests were made to the Triarchy at some time in the future. Eryn derived a grim sense of satisfaction from this thought and mused about how very different this approach was from what the Order deemed appropriate as a response to a verbal or other attack.

Whenever one of the Council members had refused to pay her the respect she was owed due to her rank, Enric and Tyront had insisted she responded to it swiftly to set an end to it and signal to everyone else that this behaviour was unacceptable and would be punished. She wondered whether this was one of the aspects that had made it so difficult for Enric to be a Head of House and Senator in Takhan. And whether she herself would in due time be able to distance herself from the decisive and quick steps the Order considered a virtue.

One of the three double doors leading into the Senate Hall was opened suddenly, casting a solitary figure in the bright noonday light that was streaming in from behind. Pausing for a moment as if aware of the effect and utilising it, the shape moved on and proceeded down the stairs towards the table occupied by the Aren Senators. Malhora of House Aren.

The Hall became silent as everyone watched the woman who had singlehandedly and without a moment’s hesitation slain the very man who had caused them all so much grief. Both Aren Senators hastily jumped to their feet, letting Malhora choose which of their chairs to occupy. She was not a Senator, yet there was not a single person in this room – the Triarchs included – who would dare to suggest that she was obliged to take one of the guest chairs if she wished to follow the proceedings.

Eryn hid a grin. That woman knew how to make an entrance. And people would from now on be a lot more careful when accusing either House Aren or Malriel herself of any ulterior motives.

Malhora took a seat, then looked up as though she were only now realising the silence that had followed her arrival.

“Please, do not interrupt on my account,” she spoke, as if she would have considered anything other than that due and proper.

The discussion slowly resumed, though from one minute to the next a lot less agitated than before.

“There is a realistic chance that they have realised we are not quite so easy to defeat,” a Senator of House Feral pointed out. “If they have no intention of attacking again, then we would be the aggressors.”

Without a warning, a shield appeared above Malriel, who was still standing in the circle in front of the tables. On it, an image appeared. A building that looked to have been an impressive estate before it had been destroyed. Several more images followed, each on display long enough for all present to take in the picture. Trees burned down, crops destroyed, side buildings in ruins. And like an ever-present detail in all of them, bodies with wide open eyes, their faces frozen in an expression of never-ending horror.

Most Senators recognised the remains of Malhora’s residence since they had at one point been granted the privilege of attending the annual hunt there. Which made it clear whose memories they were currently watching.

Eryn forced herself not to avert her eyes, one part of her wondering when Malhora had found the time to acquire the skill of displaying images on a shield.

“True enough, my young friend,” Malhora’s words became audible in the silence that had ensued anew. Her soft voice was a strange contrast to the cruelty she shared with them through magic. “Yet the question is which is the greater risk – to hope none of your estates will suffer the same fate as my very own without any precautions to ensure our safety, or to take action and make certain Pirinkar stays on their side of the mountains.”

“Slaughtering the people up there is no guarantee for that,” one particularly brave Senator ventured. “Quite the opposite – this might induce them to seek revenge and attack when they initially would not have done so.”

“Decisive action does not mean we are on a mission to pillage and burn down their country,” Eryn replied to that.

All eyes turned towards her.

“My, my, House Aren is contributing a lot to today’s assembly,” the Head of House Finran quipped, “particularly those who are not actually Senate members and therefore not really entitled to speak but expected to listen quietly without interrupting.”

Eryn smiled indulgently. “The fact that you choose to already consider me a member of House Aren when at this point in time I am still of House Vel’kim, shows me that you are aware of my intention to take over House Aren and join your illustrious circle soon enough. You may now choose to forbid me to speak because of a formality, but I advise you to remember that it would be a sign of esteem for the institution to which I belong and which made your victory possible – by putting their members’ lives at risk for you. And also a sign of respect for your future colleague.” She folded her arms and waited. Had she truly just invoked the Order as a reason to be allowed to speak? She suppressed a shiver.

Vran’el cleared his throat. “I request permission for Maltheá of House Vel’kim to speak before the Senate. I should think that her unique position as a high-ranking representative of the Order, a future Head of House and also somebody embracing the principles of aiding people rather than slaughtering them, will certainly make her worth listening to.”

Eryn was glad that her brother had spoken up. Otherwise she knew with absolute certainty that Ram’an would have. But if her own Head of House requested permission to speak for her, it looked a lot better.

Malriel turned around and looked up at the other two Triarchs. “May I ask you to decide on this request? I fear there is little sense in trying to pretend that I am not biased in Maltheá’s favour.”

Torke’na and Golir exchanged a quick glance, then Torke’na nodded at Eryn. “You may speak, Maltheá.”

Eryn rose from her seat. “Despite some of the things I did, the people I killed in battle, I am not in favour of needless killing. Needless in my book means killing anyone who is not set on ending my own life. Which is currently not the case in Pirinkar. I do not propose going there to commit a massacre, but to help create circumstances where we can be certain that our neighbours are not only careful about attacking us, but actively decide against it – or rather, do not even consider it. Such circumstances could be created through aiding Commander Neled and Horam in their endeavour. Freeing the magicians, or priests, as they call them, means granting people a say who will not consider us their enemy. We do not want people in power who either encouraged or at least indulged Etor Gart’s plans. And even if we do not manage to overthrow their leaders, we would still show them that we do not lean back after we were attacked, but are a force to be reckoned with – a country unwilling to endure such treatment. Not showing any reaction would tell them that there is nothing to be lost in attacking us – irrespective of whether they are successful or not. What we want to do is to make them understand that they have a lot more to lose than to gain in marching against us.” Eryn looked at the Senator who had pointed out that he was not in favour of indiscriminate slaughter. “I agree with you – killing is a terrible thing, and whoever knows me personally or by reputation ought to be aware of my stance in this. We even have refrained from killing enemy soldiers in battle whenever it was possible. Which is why we currently have a significant number of captives in our custody. Captives we intend to return to their home as a gesture of goodwill. And as a token in a negotiation that I will admit I do not expect to happen in an entirely peaceful manner. Yet I may assure you that in my current capacity as Second-in-command of the Order I do not stand for harming civilians through attacking their capital city, nor for killing their soldiers, if there is any other way. Yet neither am I willing to accept such a threat to the people dear to me.”

Torke’na nodded. “Thank you, Maltheá.” Then she looked at the Senators. “Is there any other contribution in this matter? If not, we shall proceed with the vote.” When no request to speak followed, she continued, “Show of hands if you are in favour of attacking Pirinkar.”

Eighteen out of twenty-four hands were lifted, and Eryn sank down on her chair and exhaled. That was a clear majority – particularly, since Golir’s and Malriel’s hands were raised as well, meaning either of them added two Triarch votes instead of merely one Senator’s vote.

Torke’na didn’t show any sign of disappointment or anger at the result, but went on in her usual controlled voice, “The Senate has made a decision. We shall retaliate.”

“This shouldn’t have been quite as hard,” Eryn remarked quietly as around them the usual murmuring arose. “It was a rather obvious decision, if you ask me.”

Enric shrugged. “Obvious it may be from your viewpoint, yet let us not forget that we still are in a country that has not seen preparations for war necessary in a long time and is therefore hardly eager to engage in another one in such a short time. The result is a good one, actually. A clear commitment instead of a close decision.” When Torke’na’s voice rang out over the commotion, straining to be heard, to announce that the assembly was now concluded, Enric got to his feet. “Come on, let’s see how the Triarchy intends to proceed now. I should think that we won’t get much sleep in the nights ahead. There is a lot to prepare for.”

He wanted to descend the few steps towards Malriel, who was still standing in the circle, surrounded by several Senators.

“Lord Enric, Lady Eryn,” a familiar clipped voice made them turn. King Folrin indicated for them to step closer to him. “The Triarchy will inform you of our next meeting shortly. I suggest you return to your residence in the meantime.”

Both looked at him, confused.

“Is everything alright?” Eryn asked carefully.

“Certainly, my Lady. I shall bid you goodbye for now.” With that he turned away, approaching the Triarchy.

“Was that an order just now?” Eryn asked, unsure.

“I should think so, yes,” Enric replied slowly, watching as the monarch walked away from them.

“Why is he sending us home?” Her eyes narrowed. “He wants to have us out of the way for some reason.”

“That is entirely possible,” her companion conceded. “Yet since we were given an order, there is little we can do about it. Come.”

It didn’t take long until they had reached their residence, and Eryn sighed with relief once they entered the building, leaving the relentless noonday heat outside.

A noise from upstairs had them stare at each other and fall still. A moment later, they unfroze at the same time, hurried up the stairs, eager to see whether their ears had deceived them.

They had not.

Right before them, on the seating cushions, was their niece Zahyn, playing a board game. With her cousin Vedric.

His eyes widened when he beheld his parents, who stared at him as though they were utterly astonished to see him.

“There you are!” he cried out, the reproach in his voice unmistakable.

Eryn breathed out and sank to her knees, suddenly feeling lightheaded. “Vedric?” she whispered as if unable to believe that her dearest wish had just been fulfilled without any warning or reasonable explanation.

A moment later, she was pushed backwards with the force of Vedric’s embrace. Only Enric’s quick intervention prevented her head from hitting the stone floor. Then he, too, was on his knees, wrapping his arms around his companion and son, for a brief second wondering if this was some kind of illusion he was trapped in, a bubble that was about to burst to leave him behind in a dungeon, freezing and hungry. This all lacked plausibility, after all.

“Why are you here?” he asked his son without letting go of his family.

“Because the King said we could come!” he reported, removing his arms from around his mother’s neck much sooner than she was ready to let go of him. Instead he clung to his father now.

Eryn and Enric exchanged an astonished look.

“That’s why he sent us home just now!” she breathed, feeling guilty for having accused him of unfair motives when in fact he had done such an incredible thing for them.

“Ah, there you are!” another unexpected voice exclaimed happily.

It took Enric a moment to recognise it since the idea of hearing it here, in this place, was such an odd disruption of the context he was used to.

Slowly, he turned around. “Mother?”


*  *  *


Enric smiled at the picture before him. Pe’tala was sitting on cushions on the terrace, which was still shaded in the late morning hours, feeding her baby boy who at this stage of his development had few other priorities than sleeping, eating and… well, digesting.

Next to her on either side, Gerit and Malriel were sitting, observing the goings on in the garden with indulgent smiles.

Ever since his arrival the day before, Eryn had spent every single minute with her son, apart from the meeting with the Triarchy and the King in the evening, where the further steps regarding Pirinkar had been discussed. At this very moment she was playing hide and seek with him and her niece, currently hiding behind some shrubbery while Zahyn was searching the area where Vedric was perched on a low branch and would likely be discovered any moment.

Enric knew that this carefree pastime, the exuberant frolicking, was as good for his companion as for the children, probably even more so.

“I invited Orrin and his family to have lunch with us,” he informed three of the four women who were currently living under his roof. Not counting his niece.

His mother and son had not been the only family the King had arranged to be brough to Takhan. Junar and Téa were among them, together with family members of the fallen soldiers. And his own companion, Queen Del’na’bened of Anyueel. This evening, the Triarchy was hosting a banquet at the Senate Hall to welcome the Queen.

Before that, though, there was one thing he and Eryn had to take care of, one difficult duty he positively dreaded. They had to face Vyril and inform her of the details of her companion’s death. The King had taken it upon himself to inform her of Tyront’s demise in writing as he invited her to come to Takhan to claim his mortal remains, yet he had not explained how exactly things had taken place. Eryn would have to take care of that since she was the one who had experienced it at close quarters.

Another thing that worried Enric was the fact that Eryn’s popularity among Order members seemed to be diminishing ever since Etor Gart had proclaimed for all to hear that she was the reason why Tyront had sacrificed his life. Order magicians were no less prone to gossiping than anyone else, despite their privileged standing. Enric had received information that unflattering speculations and allegations were circulating. That Eryn had finally found a way to get rid of the man who had forced her to join the Order years ago. Another variation was that she had paved the way for her companion to rise to the top. Apart from the assertion that Enric would use his companion to assign her an act of such monstrousness, he was dismayed that there were actually people among their subordinates who accused her of such dishonour after all she had done for the Kingdom and also in this war.

All these allegations would dissolve once it became known that Eryn and Enric would leave the Order for good and relocate to Takhan, making it clear that they wouldn’t benefit from Tyront’s death in any way. But until then they had to run an institution where some of its members had begun to lose confidence in their superiors. These were not ideal circumstances for an imminent war campaign.

He wrestled with himself as to whether he should inform Eryn about it. Once again he found himself caught between the two roles in her life. Objectively, she was his right hand and he couldn’t simply withhold this kind of information from her, especially since she was affected by it herself. But as her companion he knew what kind of pain he would cause her. These accusations, he knew, would fall on fertile ground with her.

“You look worried, my boy,” Gerit remarked softly and stretched out her hand towards him.

He made himself smile and squeezed it. “In my position there is always something to worry about, mother.”

“You are not concerned about Eryn and Junar meeting again, are you? I am certain that they will be glad to see each other again, no matter what happened between them back home.”

Enric suppressed a sigh. He wasn’t really worried that there would be any altercations during their meal, but rather some distance and politeness between the two women. He pushed the thought aside, refusing to succumb to any more tribulations for the time being.

Pulling at his mother’s hand, he invited her, “I am about to start cooking our meal. Would you like to help me? I could teach you a little about the local cuisine and the ingredients they use here. As you know, it is customary here for the host to cook for guests instead of delegating that to servants. It is considered an honour.”

Gerit nodded eagerly. “Then it will be my honour to assist you in this important task.”


*  *  *


“Eryn! Eryn! Eryn!” Téa exclaimed while racing towards the person who had captivated her attention immediately after the girl had reached the top of the stairs leading to the main room. “Look at my new clothes! They look just like yours!” She twirled, proudly demonstrating this new sartorial elegance the cuts and fabrics from the Western Territories lent her.

Eryn grinned and nodded appreciatively. “They really do! And you look very well in them – almost like a native with your brown hair.”

Pleased with the compliment, Téa’s attention immediately shifted towards Vedric, running towards him as if their last contact had been months instead of merely a day ago.

Eryn braced herself for greeting Junar, now that her daughter no longer commanded all the attention for herself.

With a slightly tense smile she welcomed the seamstress and her companion. “Junar, Orrin, I’m very pleased to have you here. Won’t you take a seat and let me know what I can get you to drink?”

Junar replied with a smile that looked exactly as heartfelt as it was – namely not at all. “And we thank you for your kind invitation to your lovely home. I will take a glass of that yellow juice, if you have some.”

“Water for me,” Orrin added, a little resigned as though he had been hoping for a rather less reserved greeting between the two women.

Eryn shared that feeling to a certain degree. Her own prior attempts at approaching Junar had been pushed back several times, so she didn’t really have much in her to continue what was to her a futile struggle. There had been so much fighting lately, and there was likely to be more in the future once they ventured into Pirinkar. She had no urge to throw herself into yet another battle, one that offered so little prospect of success. And Junar didn’t seem to experience enough joy about seeing Eryn alive and well again to overcome whatever resentment she had built up in the past year.

Suddenly Eryn felt weary of it all. After everything she had been through lately, this seemed such a petty, unnecessary thing to burden herself with. She would show Junar the appropriate courtesy and hospitality, if only for the sake of Orrin. Junar had for some reason of her own decided that they could no longer be friends and even refused to say why, so Eryn would accept it and no longer waste energy to fret over it. Junar had turned from a dear friend into somebody she had been close to at one point, but no more than that. Which made her one person fewer to miss after moving away from Anyueel.

She felt how this determination, this willingness to accept something she had hitherto rejected as immature and unfair behaviour, lightened her heart somewhat and found that smiling at Junar upon serving her the drink became less of a strain.

“What is the matter with the two of you?” Pe’tala whispered once Eryn had sat down next to her on the cushions, perceptive as always.

“Some things just don’t last forever,” her older sister replied lightly, unwilling to discuss this private matter with so many people present. Not that Pe’tala would give up, nosey pest that she was.

Enric appeared from the kitchen, carrying a number of empty bowls.

He greeted the new arrivals, then frowned. “Where is Vern?”

“Inspecting the captives to determine whether they require any medical attention,” Orrin explained. “Many of them are somewhat overwhelmed with the heat. He ought to join us shortly.”

Valrad and Malriel entered the room, each carrying a steaming bowl towards the low table amidst the cushions before taking a seat and welcoming the guests with a smile.

“Junar,” the Triarch greeted her, “how nice to see you again after all this time. Téa has grown into such a lively young lady. It warms my heart to see her in these lovely clothes you made her, a reminder of where she was born.”

Téa chose just this moment to storm into the room in a decidedly unladylike manner as if determined to prove Malriel wrong in her assessment. She clapped excitedly into her hands once she spotted the bowls and shouted over her shoulder, “Vedric, come! The food is finally ready! It is about time!”

She made it seem as though she had already been waiting for an eternity when in fact she had only just arrived.

Pe’tala, never one to hold back with a pointed remark when she deemed it adequate – which was rather the rule than the exception in any situation – lifted her brow. “Charming. Téa, I invite you to consider that someone has invested time and energy in preparing a tasty meal for you. So gratitude would be a more appropriate response than complaining that it was not already on the table when you arrived.”

Eryn was torn between approving of Pe’tala’s directness and dreading the response this would trigger. Junar was not exactly somebody who had in the past reacted particularly well to any criticism of her daughter’s behaviour.

Junar responded with a tight-lipped smile. “Thank you for pointing that out, Pe’tala. I am wondering, though, where your own daughter is right now? I would have thought that someone who places such a high value on good behaviour as you do would suggest to her own child to show so much consideration that she appears at meals on time instead of expecting others to wait.”

As if on cue, Zahyn came in from the kitchen, employing utter care as she set one foot in front of the other to avoid spilling any of the water in the carafe she was carrying.

“What can I say? I should be ashamed of myself,” Pe’tala smiled sweetly, then added, “Would you like some of the water my inconsiderate daughter is currently bringing for all of us?”

Junar’s face blushed crimson now that her attack had backfired so spectacularly. All others around the table carefully avoided looking at her.

Eryn was caught in a mix of conflicting emotions. She was surprised and dismayed at Junar’s behaviour towards Pe’tala, which clearly debased everything one expected of an honoured guest in the Western Territories. One might argue that Pe’tala had overstepped a boundary in reproving a child that was not her own, yet since Junar herself had shown no sign of being about to do so herself, Pe’tala had taken the liberty of asserting the rules in her own home. Eryn also felt pity for Junar, for suddenly being out of place with people she had been on friendly terms with seven years ago when she had spent all these months in Takhan. And sadness about this hostility directed at Pe’tala who was being used as a substitute for Eryn.

It was clear that none of the persons present was particularly enamoured with her behaviour. Malhora’s lips were pressed together disapprovingly, Valrad looked ill at ease, Malriel hid her dismay behind a polite mask, Rolan had developed a sudden interest in his drink, Gerit’s forehead was creased in a worried frown, and Orrin looked helpless – an emotion he detested. And there was something else. Anger warming Eryn’s chest from within. Though not her own.

She looked at Enric, who began dishing out the food. There was no visible sign of any emotion, no tension in his shoulders, no twitching of lips or narrowed eyes. Only the first tender signs in her head that the mindbond was starting to re-establish itself. A pity, though, that this was the first emotion she received through it.

Vedric climbed over the cushions to sit next to his mother, grinning up at her, happy to be reunited with his parents. Eryn stroked his dark hair with one hand and thought it was in need of a trim. Many of the shops had already re-opened, as had the markets. Maybe she would take him to a barber these next days. Or she would send Enric off with him. He could have his hair cut as well and at the same time spend some quality time with his son.

The conversation during the meal trickled along lightly. There was even an occasional attempt at including Junar, who merely responded with mono-syllabic replies or polite smiles, refusing to let herself be drawn in. It was obvious how out of place she felt. Eryn wondered whether she considered this get-together a price she had to pay for the reunion with her companion.

When everyone had finished their meal, Vedric pulled at his mother’s sleeve. “Can we go to a tea house soon? The one where you sometimes meet with Ram’an?”

Eryn smiled. “I’d like that. We have to see whether it is already open again. If so, we can go tomorrow afternoon before my meeting with the Triarchy and King Folrin.” She looked at Junar. “Maybe Téa would like to join us? I imagine she would enjoy the experience.”

Junar once again flashed one of her polite smiles. “That is very kind of you, but if she does, I will take her myself.”

“What is wrong with you, Junar?” Pe’tala enquired harshly. “I hardly recognise you.”

“You are being rude, Tala,” Eryn murmured, unwilling to turn a tense situation into an open conflict. If there had to be a confrontation with Junar, then she didn’t need witnesses for it. Or have her sister fight it out in her place.

But Pe’tala was not to be silenced quite so easily.

“And you feel that having more than one rude person is too much at once?” she retorted and folded her arms, looking at Junar. “You have spent enough time here to know the importance we attach to hospitality – and what we consider appropriate behaviour in our guests. It is by no means what you are currently exhibiting!”

The three children stared at the three women alternately.

“Can we please not do this right here?” Eryn hissed, wishing she could just silence her sister with a bolt of magic and be done with it. But that would just lead to more commotion.

Pe’tala pressed her lips together for a moment, clearly anything but satisfied, but she nodded. “Alright, sister. I shall respect your wishes. For now.” Her hostile glare returned to Junar. “Eryn has gone into battle more than once – at great personal cost, I might add – which is probably why she has such great need for peace at her home at least. Therefore, I shall say no more.”

“Yes, and her going to battle has certainly cost others dearly as well,” Junar bit back. “Ask Vyril!”

The silence that had before merely been tense now became deadly.

“Pardon?” Malriel asked quietly.

Junar lifted her chin. “Everybody knows that Lord Tyront would still be alive if it hadn’t been for her! Everybody in the Order is talking about it – that this is her chance to finally have him out of the way and have a say in all the things he denied! Her chance to seize power! The magicians don’t trust her any longer, they think she did it on purpose!”

Eryn closed her eyes, breathing deeply at the unexpected stab of pain inside her. When she opened them again, she saw how Enric was grinding his teeth and giving Orrin a look that didn’t need much in terms of interpretation. It was an unspoken but nonetheless clear order to take away his companion at once or bear the consequences. Eryn felt his ire inside her, churning and begging to be released. She knew that this was only a fraction of what he had to be feeling right now, that the mindbond was not yet back to its former strength.

Orrin nodded almost imperceptibly, then pushed himself up. His face was a frozen mask, an attempt to keep inside his own dismay. Though Eryn didn’t know at whom – at Pe’tala for reacting so harshly? At Junar for her hostile behaviour? At Enric for sending him away? At Eryn for some other reason?

“Téa, we are leaving,” the warrior informed his daughter. His voice was soft but threateningly so. It was the kind of voice that demanded obedience or otherwise promised to turn from gentle to assertive in a heartbeat.

His daughter, however, was either too young to react to such subtleties or had simply decided to ignore them at her own risk to put her own wishes before her father’s command.

“I don’t want to leave!” she wailed. “We have only just come here! I want to play out in the garden!”

Orrin gave her a long stare, but it seemed that whatever discipline he had managed to teach her had lost its influence on her during his absence from Anyueel while under her mother’s indulgent care.

“Leave her here and go. Now.” Each of Malhora’s words was like a whip stroke. “And do not bring your companion back here again. She is no longer welcome.”

“Grandmother,” Eryn said calmly, fighting for composure. She didn’t want the children to witness how Junar was being banished from this house, particularly not her little namesake. “This is my house. You are always welcome in any place I call my home, but you cannot decide who is to be denied access.”

Enric rose, his imposing height now in his cold wrath even more daunting. “But I can. Junar, other than your companion and your daughter, you are no longer welcome in my house.”

Junar stared at him, her lips parting as if she was about to reply, but no word came out. Orrin took her hand and pulled her along towards the stairs.

“No – mother! Don’t go!” Téa suddenly wailed, when her parents descended the stairs.

“But she must! She was mean!” Vedric explained sternly with his arms akimbo, showing little sympathy or mercy for his friend’s predicament. He wasn’t entirely certain what exactly had transpired just now, but if his father told Junar that she was never to return to his home, he knew it had to be serious.

“She was not mean!” Téa insisted, torn between stomping her foot to lend more emphasis to her statement and running after her parents.

“She was, too!” Vedric contradicted, all but shouting. “She said my mother killed Lord Tyront!”

Eryn’s heart raced and she just wished everybody would shut up and give her some time to come to terms with this situation. Having Vedric and Téa now repeat the same fight among them was a appalling thing to have to listen to.

“Vedric, I appreciate that you are so eager to defend me. But there is no sense in fighting. This is not between you and Téa, but between her mother and me. Neither of us wants the two of you to be pulled into this.”

Vedric pushed away his mother’s soothing hand, ignoring her attempts at reigning him in.

“But she did! Everybody knows it!” Téa screamed.

“Shut up, you idiot!” Vedric yelled and jumped up. A moment later, he was pushed back into the cushions with force as two magical bolts departed from his palms, one smashing a window, the other hitting Téa right in the shoulder, causing her to slump towards the floor.

After a moment of shocked silence shared by all present, hectic activity broke out.

Valrad quickly bent down to the girl, checking the damage. Eryn pulled her son into her arms, keeping his palms pointed to the floor in case his unmoderated rage had yet to abate.

Hasty steps became audible from the stairs when Orrin and Junar returned upon having heard what had clearly been the impact of magical bolts.

“My baby!” Junar screeched, almost tripping over her feet when she beheld her daughter in Valrad’s arms. “What have you done?”

“You need not worry, Junar, she is alright,” Valrad explained with a relaxed, mild voice, which had served him well for many years whenever patients and relatives needed reassurance.

Without further ado, Junar pulled her unconscious daughter into her arms and all but fled from the room. Orrin, looking weary and resigned, followed her, and little later they heard the entrance door below close with a slam.

For several moments, they all sat silently, exchanging glances.

Then Valrad sighed. “What a moment to have your magic manifest itself, my boy.”

Gerit added with a shaky laugh, “Just like his father. He knocked out his younger brother back then, and we did not have the luxury of a nearby healer, so we were worrying for many hours whether Noren would wake up ever again.”

“Do not sit around like this,” Malhora demanded, a wide grin on her face, “Bring the wine! Having the magic surface in a child is an occasion for celebration!”

Rolan nodded. “I could do with a glass, to be honest. My heart almost stopped just now!”

Eryn made herself smile. She didn’t feel like celebrating after the hostilities between her and Junar had reached new heights and after having been told that the members of the Order considered Tyront’s death her fault at best and her intention at worst.

“I’m so sorry,” Vedric whispered, shuffling around on his mother’s lap, his eyes widened. “I didn’t want to hurt her! Or break the window!”

“Don’t worry,” Eryn reassured him. “It was an accident. You didn’t really hurt her, you just sent her to sleep. And we will just have the window fixed.”

He stared ahead unseeing while coming to terms with what he had just done. Then his expression changed and became thoughtful. “Am I a magician now?”

Enric sat down next to him, motioning for Pe’tala to make space. “That you are, my son. And a powerful one at that. Let what just happened be your first lesson in how to handle magic – with particular care, so nobody gets hurt by accident.”

Pe’tala grinned. “Though I approve of the target. With the mother out of the room, the girl certainly was the most appropriate recipient of his very first bolt of magic.”

Exasperated, Eryn shook her head about her sister. “This is not funny. You wouldn’t be as blasé if his bolt had hit Zahyn instead of Téa. And Téa is hardly to blame for her mother’s… misconceptions.” She looked at Enric. “Is it true what Junar said? Do they think I killed him to take control of the Order?”

He forced himself to nod. Even though he might have considered not informing her of that to spare her pain, lying to her when she explicitly enquired was not something he could find within himself. “Some seem to think that, yes.”

She gulped. “And why have you so far failed to mention this trifle to me? Why did I have to encounter to such a fact completely unprepared?”

“I was planning to tell you before we go off to see Vyril. I hadn’t expected that somebody would beat me to it and you would hear about it in such a manner.” He looked at Vedric and smiled. “We will have to start practising your control over your magic. You will be an immensely powerful magician, yet with great strength also comes great responsibility.”

Vedric nodded and screwed up his nose. Responsibility. That word again. He had a basic grasp of what it meant – and that it was to blame for spoiling a lot of enjoyable things and having to endure some unpleasant things. Such as apologising. Which was usually the unpleasant consequence of having indulged in something enjoyable – and therefore had him coming and going.

“It could have been much worse,” Rolan contributed with a touch of optimism that was unusual for him. “He could have taken out the King instead.”

Enric nodded. “He does have a point there.” He stood up and stretched out his hand for his son to take. “Come to the garden with me, will you? I would like to show you a thing or two.”

He experienced a feeling of peace and satisfaction as he felt his son’s small, warm hand in his own and walked towards the terrace door with him.

He remembered the incident his mother had mentioned well enough. After hiding his magic for more than two years, he had lost control of it that one time, causing in his parents and everyone else around him panic and fear. Fear of what else he might be capable of. His father had shouted at him, yet in doing so kept what he erroneously considered a safe distance. And locked him into his room until such time as the coach from the city had arrived, taking Enric away and to the Order of Magicians, uprooting him at the age of twelve from his home. It had been a far from harmonious home, a safe haven, but the only one he had known.

Things would be very different for his own son, and he thanked the stars that Vedric’s magic had erupted in an environment where he was surrounded by people who loved him and had experience with such matters. And he was happy that it had happened right now, shortly after the reunion with his parents, so that they were able to be there for him and guide him at this important moment in his life.

Unlike Enric himself, Vedric wouldn’t be forced to hide and wonder what exactly was wrong with him for years. He would learn to handle his magic, acquire the knowledge he needed to make proper use of it – and all that without being separated from his parents and forced to join an institution that saw his primary value as an asset in war.

Sitting down on the grass, he patted a spot next to him and waited until Vedric had followed his example. The first thing he would teach his son would not be shielding. Or infusing his muscles for strength or speed. The first thing, he decided, would be something entertaining. Something where he needn’t hold back.

He lifted his hand and released a bolt of magic into the air. A moment later it exploded. Since it was day, the bursting lights were not yet visible against the bright sky. That would change at night. Then what had now merely produced a loud sound would be a pretty eruption of light that was bound to bring great joy to a young boy.

Vedric watched with wide eyes. “Can I do that?”

Enric smiled. “I don’t know. Can you?”

Chapter 3

Difficult Conversations

In addition to his own dread, he felt Eryn’s even more intense through their bond. He was infinitely glad that their connection was returning faster with every dissolution and re-establishment of their bond, as if a missing piece were falling back into place in a hole of just the right shape – effortless and without friction. Though at this very moment he decided he would rather shield himself.

Enric himself was still harbouring feelings of guilt with regard to Tyront. After two decades of friendship – with occasional tensions – the recent developments had not exactly been beneficial to their relationship as a whole. But then there hadn’t really been much to disagree over before Eryn’s arrival in the city. Tyront had been a keen player of the political game to maintain and extend his power base, while Enric had done the bare required minimum in this regard to be able to fulfil his tasks in a rank he had never aspired to. Enric had sought his satisfaction in his business endeavours as a counterbalance to dry political intrigues, so the two men had never really been opponents in that power game. That certainly was conductive to a harmonious relationship. Enric had harboured no ambitions whatsoever to take over the Order – quite the opposite. There were certain liberties he had only been able to afford because the full responsibility of the Order was borne on shoulders other than his own.

There were things Tyront had done, particularly with regard to Eryn, which had had a lasting impact on his and Enric’s friendship, which had towards the end even reduced it to such a degree that there had not been much left. Yet his final act of giving his own life to save hers – however foolish the decision to take her into that battle had been – had exonerated him of all his previous dealings with her, in Enric’s book.

He tried to convince himself that maybe things were best the way they were now. He didn’t even want to imagine how Tyront would have reacted to having the responsibility of the Order taken away from him. Whatever explanation the King would have come up with to make the public believe it was anything other than a withdrawal of trust, it would have been a great shame for Tyront to be the first ever leader to be deposed in such a manner. There had been assassinations of Order leaders in the past, be it by Council members, ambitious Second-in-commands or even Kings. Yet not a single Order leader had ever been relieved of his command and allowed – or probably rather forced – to remain alive to face a future without the power he was used to. At least Enric assumed that King Folrin had intended to let Tyront live. He liked to think that they were all living in more civilised times now.

Eryn’s own relationship with Tyront, Enric knew, had always been an ambiguous one. Like a pendulum, the tensions between the two of them had at times been essentially non-existent, only to spike up again on the next occasion. Just like Enric himself, Tyront had started out as one of her warders, and the fact that he had been in charge of the institution into which they had coerced her had merely changed instead of really dissolved that impression of hers over the years. Tyront had been protecting her every now and again, yet only to a degree that served his own agenda. When it had been in his interest instead to use her, he had done just that.

Yet Eryn, being who she was, was not one to bear a grudge against a dead man in order to alleviate her own feelings of guilt with regard to the circumstances of his death. Enric wished she would this one time chose that path to make her own life a little easier, yet at the same time he knew that this would be completely out of character and probably an even more substantial reason to worry about her.

They stopped and stared at the door to the ambassadorial residence where both the Royal couple and Vyril were staying.

“Somebody should knock,” Eryn commented.

“Yes, I suppose that would help,” he replied without showing any inclination of letting the deed itself follow.

They heard steps from inside, then the door was pulled open and Kilan looked at them, a serious expression on his face.

“Would you like to come in, or do you need another minute?” he enquired gently, clearly aware of their inner struggle.

“No, thank you, we are ready,” Enric replied. His hand at the small of Eryn’s back pushed her ahead so she had no other choice than to take a step forward. Even though Kilan was an old friend of his, he was for the time being still also a subordinate, meaning it wasn’t appropriate to show weakness. That much of the Order’s training was still present in his mind.

“How is she doing?” Eryn murmured, knowing it was not the sharpest of questions.

“Collected,” the Ambassador replied, “quiet.” He walked ahead and up the stairs. “She is expecting you in my study.” He paused and turned around. “Feel free to help yourself from the cabinet in case you need a stiff drink.”

Enric squeezed Kilan’s shoulder, then walked the few remaining steps to the study door to knock.

“Come in,” Vyril’s muffled voice replied.

They followed the invitation and closed the door again. Vyril was standing in front of the window, looking outside without turning. Despite the warmth, she was clad in one of her dresses from Anyueel. She didn’t own any clothes fit for desert climates, yet Junar would surely have made her something quickly enough had Vyril asked. But then she currently had other concerns than her attire.

Enric and Eryn stood in front of the desk, silently waiting until Vyril was ready to face them. Another two minutes went by, until she finally did turn around.

Her face looked pale and haggard as if she hadn’t really bothered with regular food intake since receiving the dreadful news. She looked exhausted and unspeakably sad, yet her eyes were dry. Maybe there were no more tears left.

Eryn felt how her own eyes began to sting. She wouldn’t cry, she swore to herself. She wouldn’t put Vyril in the impossible position to have to comfort anyone else while she herself was overcome by grief.

“I am glad to see you both,” Vyril finally greeted them in a raspy voice that sounded as though it hadn’t been used much lately. She cleared her throat. “I know it must be hard for you to be here.”

She smiled and stepped towards Enric, lifting her hand up to his cheek. “He was so proud of you. Of the formidable man you have made yourself into. Towards the end things were not what they used to be between the two of you, but I want you to know that you were the closest thing to a son he ever had. You managed to fill a void in his heart when we weren’t able to have children of our own. He wasn’t always gentle with you, cruel sometimes even, but I know this is not who he was. It is how he himself was raised and trained. The everlasting struggle for power was what he had been taught as a worthy mission for his life. But thanks to you he had begun to understand that there was more. You made him look beyond things he had considered carved in stone.”

Enric closed his eyes and turned his head slightly so he could kiss her palm. “I’m so sorry, Vyril,” he murmured, unable to come up with anything else. What was there to say? The words were generic even to his own ears, yet he failed to come up with any that expressed his true sentiment any more adequately.

Vyril pulled back her hand and looked at Eryn. “And you, my dear, were his greatest challenge. He was so glad to see Enric form such a deep attachment with you, worried about whether you would in time be able to reciprocate. In a world where obtaining information is just a matter of being able to pay in gold, you managed to surprise him. Regularly. He pretended to be dismayed at every single one of your discoveries or ideas, but in truth he loved them because they forced him to make proper use of that agile mind of his when it usually remained unchallenged by running the Order. After so much time this was little more than routine for him. I never felt that he was quite as alive as the time since your arrival in the city. I know he had a peculiar way of showing it, but he was very fond of you. I won’t say that your regular absences weren’t a good thing for dealings between the two of you to cool down, but after a month or two he already began missing the two of you and looked forward to your return.”

Eryn felt how holding on to her resolution of not crying became almost impossible and quickly closed her tear ducts with magic. She had expected anger, unimaginable grief, accusations, maybe even being ignored, but the kindness Vyril was showing them was so much harder to handle. Vyril had to have heard about the rumours, after all.

“It’s not true what they say,” Eryn whispered, “I didn’t want him to be killed.”

Vyril took her face between her hands and took a step closer, so that their foreheads touched. “I know, child. Of all the things to claim… Whoever says such a thing has no concept of who you are and what you stand for. You wouldn’t even have those apothecaries executed back then. I know you never wanted him to die, merely to free yourself from the Order’s influence.”

Eryn experienced such profound relief at hearing these words that her knees wanted to give in.

Vyril took a step back and moved towards a chair, on which she sat. Eryn noticed the glass on the windowsill, half-full with what looked like a potent drink from the cabinet Kilan had offered to them. Eryn nodded towards it.

“Would you mind if I…?”

Vyril shook her head. “No, dear. Help yourself. I myself am currently beyond any such petty concerns as the proper time of day for drinking. I fear I am about to develop a rather unhealthy habit here, yet right now I don’t care.”

She motioned for Enric to fetch her own glass from the windowsill, and he complied readily.

Staring at the intricately knotted rug on the wall, she continued, “You know, looking back I probably never really expected to see Tyront alive again after he boarded that ship.”

The words caused Eryn to freeze in mid-pour. What?

Enric’s eyes narrowed, but neither of them prompted her to continue. She would do so in her own time, they knew.

Vyril looked up at Enric. “He knew of the King’s plans to replace him.” She took a small sip from her glass. “Not officially, of course. It was all part of this game the two of them had been playing for more than twenty years. King Folrin would hide some information he wanted Tyront’s spies to find in a place that was not exactly obvious or easy to access, but where it was nevertheless obtainable by people with the kind of skills Tyront paid for.” She smiled faintly. “The King even planned to have Tyront renounce his position himself to prevent him from losing face. Then Tyront would have been able to choose whatever life he wanted. He could have asked for Kilan’s position as Ambassador to Takhan. Or become an adviser to the King. Or simply have a place in the countryside to enjoy a life far away from all those responsibilities and political games. But that wasn’t Tyront. He only saw the shame in being replaced, in having to live with being considered inadequate.”

Eryn closed her eyes. So Tyront truly had been aware of it. And Vyril seemed to believe that he had used the war as a convenient means of suicide. In a manner that wouldn’t reflect badly on his companion. Going down in battle. With all the glory people were prone to attach to this kind of death. Fallen in battle, stricken down by the enemy, giving his life for doing just what the Order had initially been established for.

“He wouldn’t have wanted people to put the blame for his death on you, Eryn, or have them speculate about such unflattering and utterly untrue motives. Unfortunately, people tend to ignore facts or fail to consider that they are not in possession of all that is worth knowing. Instead they eagerly believe whatever insinuation has the greatest entertainment value at the time. The Order is no exception to that – no matter how great the effort to educate its magicians.”

Eryn swallowed the remark about Order magicians being hardly educated with the objective to teach them independent thinking, but rather to equip them with the kind of knowledge they needed to be useful – and above all obedient – tools.

“The fact that they will realise their mistake only after the two of you have left the Order and moved to Takhan entirely is of course of little comfort to you right now,” Vyril continued. “Unfortunately, you cannot tell them right now, since this would look as if you abandoned the Order in their time of need. I hear that you will march against Pirinkar. You depend on the Order’s allegiance for that. Having them speculate about your role in Tyront’s death is still the lesser evil compared to telling them that you are about to leave.”

Enric observed Vyril curiously. Ever since he had known her, she had always refrained from contributing any insights or opinions with regard to what was going on with regard to politics surrounding the Order. He – great strategic mastermind that people and to a certain degree he himself assumed he was – had made the mistake of thinking that she was either not interested or that Tyront had sheltered her so well that she hardly came into contact with any of it. But her insightful words just now had proved him wrong – she was neither uninformed, nor unable to contribute. She had merely chosen not to – despite her ability to aptly analyse what was happening with so little apparent effort.

He regretted that he had somehow never taken the time to look at her more closely, to see more than the woman in Tyront’s shadow who was eager to provide a pleasant home for him, where he could retreat after yet another day of strenuous Order business. She was the prudent, well-counselled kind of woman, who would always be underestimated on account of being quiet, despite the fact that she was certainly worth listening to. But then the Kingdom of Anyueel hardly provided the environment for intelligent women to be listened to on a level that had any influence on matters of state. At least not directly. Their only chance of contributing consisted in resorting to rather more clandestine measures such as finding an influential companion and whispering into his ear.

Apart from the occasional queen, Eryn was the only woman who had ever been granted that kind of power, and that was only owing to her magic.

“You need not beat yourself up about the way in which he died, Eryn,” Vyril continued. “There were several aspects to it. It is more complicated than it looks at first sight. One thing is that he would under no circumstances have wanted to face your companion after letting you die. Another is that you have a son who depends on you. And thirdly, he had not yet given up on having Enric stay in Anyueel and take over the Order. He knew that this would never happen once the war was over and the two of you left Anyueel for good.” She looked at Enric. “His only chance was to force you to take over before that, to see that you were good at it. He counted on you not stepping back once you were in power.” She smiled. “It didn’t work, did it? I didn’t think it would. You are still determined to leave Anyueel. I think he was so blinded by what he desired that he failed to take into consideration that you never really had any ambition in that direction. Yet in all these years you were so good being his right hand that it must have slipped his mind. He would have considered it an ultimate failure on his side to yield his office without having done his duty in providing a worthy successor.”

Eryn grimaced at that last sentence and tilted her head back to down the potent spirit in a decidedly less lady-like manner than Vyril’s dainty sips.

“There will be a worthy successor,” she declared, caring at this moment very little that she was not actually supposed to be spreading that information as she saw fit.

“Orrin, of course,” Vyril nodded, anticipating Eryn. “True. I feel that Tyront always underestimated him. I watched Orrin build a reputation for himself. Not as an adversary to be reckoned with on the political playing field, as someone so removed from everyday life that his personality was hard to grasp, but as man with principles hard as steel, incorruptible and unselfish. People will follow such a man. He is such a blatant counterpart to the King.” Pausing for a moment, she looked up and around. “Though I probably shouldn’t be saying such a thing, since it implies that I consider His Majesty to be known for considerably less admirable qualities. When it comes to a man who I know to have informants everywhere and who at this moment is even residing under the same roof as I, one is well-advised to act more prudently.”

Enric crouched in front of her, taking both her hands in his. “Tell me what I can do for you. I will do anything.”

She lifted her hand and let her fingers glide through his golden hair that was streaked with a few silver strands that were visible only at close proximity.

“I will. Though of course you know that I am well provided for. Tyront made certain of that. And the Order wouldn’t have me in rags, either. It wouldn’t be good for their reputation. I’m thinking of moving out of the Palace, maybe staying at the orphanage from now on. Being surrounded by children leaves only very little time for the mind to wander. This way I shall have to face my grief only at night until such time when it becomes bearable.”

“You need to come and visit us regularly,” Enric suggested. “I would value your company very much.”

“I would like that. I have not seen much of Takhan yet, but it looks to be a very pretty and exotic place. Though right now I am not in the right frame for mind to properly appreciate that.” She rose. “But I know I shall be so in perhaps a year’s time.”

Enric took the cue to straighten as well. “Will we be seeing you at the banquet tonight?”

Vyril shook her head. “No. I was invited, but I decided not to go. My days of attending such occasions, being seen in an official capacity, smiling and being a decoy to keep certain people preoccupied with some trivial prattle so Tyront could speak to others, are over. That part at least I will not miss. I no longer need to worry who I might offend since now there are no more consequences that might upset any political balance or jeopardise Tyront’s plans.”

Eryn gulped at the insights Vyril granted into her life at Tyront’s side and was grateful that her own role at Enric’s was so very different from that.

“Then you must visit us at our home soon,” Eryn insisted. “And you need to let me take you to a teahouse. I will show you at least a few of the nicer things here and do whatever I can to coax you into returning here soon.”

Vyril nodded. “Of course.” It was obvious that her strength was beginning to wane and keeping her brave facade intact became more strenuous for her by the minute. “Thank you for coming to see me. I shall see you again soon.”

They left Kilan’s study, quietly closing the door behind them. Kilan approached them and looked at Eryn. “His Majesty asks whether you have a few minutes for him.”

“Does he now. And if I were to answer that I actually do not? That I simply wanted to leave here because I was just talking to the woman whose companion gave his life to save mine and would like to be alone with my thoughts for a bit?” she asked, knowing it was to no avail, but feeling the need to air her frustration.

Kilan gave her a sympathetic smile. “Then I would have to remind you that a King asking is hardly ever a request, no matter how politely he chooses to phrase it.”

Enric pressed a kiss on her forehead. “I’ll wait for you in the main room. Kilan can keep me company. Be careful. You know how he likes to exploit vulnerable emotional states for his purposes.”

*  *  *

Still shaken from the conversation with Vyril, Eryn entered what she remembered from her own stay here several years ago with Ambassador Enric of Anyueel as the master bedroom. So she would be seeing the monarch in his sleeping chamber. Superb. It seemed they were no longer burdening themselves with such minor considerations as appropriateness. Though she had to admit that the choice of rooms was somewhat limited. Vyril was still occupying the study, and the King obviously wanted some privacy, which was why he didn’t wish to talk in the main room. And the residence didn’t really have a proper garden but merely a courtyard, so no walk away from the building was possible, either.

She knocked and entered without waiting to be admitted. It was petty, she knew, but such little acts of rebellion did wonders for her peace of mind. Provided they happened without witnesses. Otherwise the King couldn’t afford to indulge her but had to reprove her accordingly.

“Do come in,” King Folrin commented dryly as she closed the door behind her. “I shiver when I think what kind of behaviour I may have to expect from you once you are on longer my subject.”

Eryn smiled brightly. “Since I assume you will then no longer treat me as such, I shall treat you with the same courtesy that you show me.”

Clad in a comparatively simple dark green tunic and light brown trousers, he stepped towards her and scrutinised her. “You look somewhat upset. I take it your conversation with Vyril was not an easy one.” It wasn’t a question. Merely one of his little observations that didn’t really require any reply or other confirmation.

“What is it I can do for you, Your Majesty?” she asked politely, aiming to signal that she had no desire to stay longer than absolutely necessary. This day had until now been anything but relaxing, and the impending banquet in the evening wouldn’t exactly contribute much in that direction.

“You can tell me how you are doing right now.”

Eryn folded her arms. “Because you wish to make certain that I am currently in a state of mind fit for whatever manipulative attempts you are about to launch?”

“Your distrust wounds me deeply,” he sighed and placed a hand on his heart.

“A little more to the right.”

“Pardon me?”

“The heart. Contrary to popular belief, it is not situated quite that far left. It’s more to the centre of the chest. I feel I should point this out.”

He raised his brow. “Then I stand corrected and kindly thank you for improving the accuracy of my dramatic gestures.”

“Always at your service,” she replied with a small bow.

“Let us get back to how you are currently feeling. I hear you have had quite a difficult day so far. Your altercation with Junar during what I assume was intended to be a quiet meal, then the unexpected surfacing of your son’s magic, and finally the encounter with Vyril. The latter, I presume, was as calm and civilised as Vyril was able to make it. She is a true lady, even when drowning in grief, and I know for certain that she does not stoop so low as to give credence to any of the speculations surrounding her companion’s demise that are currently so popular in the Order.”

Eryn exhaled. And then decided to ask a question of her own. This began to feel like one of his little lessons in political strategy, and on such occasions he even expected her to pose them.

“You made certain Tyront found out that you were about to replace him. Why? Did you wish for him to seek a glorious death in battle and save yourself the trouble of relieving him of his office?”

The King seemed to have anticipated that question. He walked to a small, round table with two comfortable-looking chairs in front of the window. Eryn guessed that the King had had them brought here, since Kilan was probably not cultivating the habit of receiving guests in his bedroom. Well, at least not the kind of guest who would be asked to sit at a table rather than get comfortable on the bed.

“I did not wish that. Yet I have known Lord Tyront for a long time and suspected that this might be the kind of end he himself would prefer. Leading the Order was for many years his main purpose in life. All his energy was dedicated to it. Taking away this position was to him much more than it would be to, let us say, your companion. Lord Enric has never served the Order with the same kind of undivided attention as his former superior. He pursued personal interests, amused himself with numerous businesses, always venturing into new areas when he had mastered yet another to his satisfaction or felt it didn’t challenge him accordingly. And his life was enriched by his son and his business interests here in Takhan. So other than Lord Tyront, he was by no means dependent on the Order to give meaning to his life. Taking something like that away from a man can plunge him into a serious crisis.”

“And yet you decided to go through with it, despite knowing what the likely impact was.”

“I wish I had the luxury of basing my decisions on nothing more than the emotional well-being of every single one of my subjects. You, my dear Eryn, will in time learn that this is not a feasible course of action once you take over House Aren. At times there must be sacrifices to ensure the greater good.” He paused and waited. “Won’t you take a seat? Or do you wish to impress on me how urgently you wish to leave this room? Being alone with me in my bedroom does not concern you, I hope? You may rest assured that my… inclinations towards you from several years ago have been transformed into something you would consider a lot less threatening. And even if that were not the case, my respect and affection for my companion would make it impossible for me to act on anything. So do take a seat, so we may continue this conversation in a more relaxed manner.”

Eryn sat. Something about his words irked her, but she was at a loss how to reply to them. He had insinuated that she thought he still felt drawn towards her. Which she didn’t. Never since that fateful day of his kiss had he given her any reason to think that he saw in her more than a pleasant diversion.

“I’m not quite that conceited, you know,” she finally replied, a touch miffed. “The reason for my wish to keep this here short is not that I feel you are about to throw me on that bed, but because I know that I am currently in a vulnerable state of mind for whatever game you might be intent on playing with me.”

He laughed. “Well said, Eryn. I am glad to see that you have learned from the past. Yet I may assure you that I am not here to use you for any sinister plan of mine. You have my word.”

Eryn pursed her lips. His word. She knew he didn’t give it carelessly, simply because he couldn’t afford to break it. She felt how she relaxed a little.

“I don’t want you to consider me cruel and indifferent to the fate which Lord Tyront chose for himself. I do mourn him. We have walked the same path for quite some time now. At times we were allies, at others opponents. Nevertheless, we always treated each other with the respect the other was due. Either of us was aware that we were both intent on doing what we ultimately considered best for the Kingdom, even though we didn’t always agree on the means which would ultimately lead to that end. It was this respect for him that induced me to inform him of my plans of his removal from office so he could make his choice. I am not happy with what he ultimately decided to do, yet I admit this is what I expected.”

“He could at least have opted for circumstances less detrimental to my own peace of mind.” The harsh words escaped Eryn’s mouth before she managed to hold them back. She closed her eyes. “Can we forget that I said that?” she asked with little hope that he would comply with her request. Upon her arrival he had enquired about how she was doing, and so far she had failed to answer it. This was the most honest answer he could have hoped for.

“I assume he would have preferred that as well,” the King replied, ignoring her wish to take her words back. “Knowing Lord Tyront, he did not merely jump at the first opportunity to lay down his life to reduce the risk of surviving the war. I assume that he had initially intended to contribute more to the overall outcome. How did you personally perceive his conduct in battle?”

She took several seconds to ponder that question. Looking back, she saw him running towards the enemy ahead of his men, his sword at the ready. He hadn’t opted for staying behind and directing everything from behind the city wall. “Daring. Prepared to take risks.”

“Are these attributes you would usually think of if you were asked to describe Lord Tyront before the war?”

Without hesitating she shook her head. Definitely not. “No.”

“A man who not only feels that he has nothing to lose, but actively seeks to avoid survival has a rather less cautious approach to protecting himself in a fight,” the King pointed out the obvious. “He did not choose to actively lay down his life to save yours, I would presume. He merely acted in that new disregard for his own safety that he had adopted. I do not think he had any intention of causing you grief with his sacrifice, neither a personal one in terms of guilt, nor to your reputation due to speculations regarding any intentions of ending his life on your side.”

Eryn sighed. “Of course not.” She felt stupid for having said such a thing out loud for him to hear. Yet as it sometimes was with such unplanned utterances, she had realised something she hadn’t been aware of – that in addition to her feelings of guilt there was also resentment against Tyront simmering inside her. Which was not a healthy thing considering that the target itself had perished and was not available as a counterpart for resolving this issue.

She rubbed with her hands over her face. “You are good at this. You could rival Iklan. Should you ever decide you are done being a King, contact him. I’m confident he would have use for you.”

“A compelling suggestion, to be sure. I shall take it under consideration should I ever grow tired of regality. The grief and guilt is something you need to come to terms with on your own. Yet the issue with preserving the Order’s loyalty is a more pressing matter posing a very real danger to our impending campaign. We cannot afford to have the moral integrity of the Order’s leaders put into question. It tends to reduce the soldiers’ willingness to follow their commands.”

Eryn let her head sink back and stared at the delicately painted ceiling. Different patterns consisting of complicated flower-like ornamentation that kept intertwining until the beholder’s eyes started to blur in trying to determine where one element ended and the next began.

“You could release Enric and me from the Order with immediate effect and have Orrin take over right away,” she proposed.

“Certainly not,” King Folrin replied. “This would be neither in my interest nor in your own. The Order would not benefit from yet another change in leadership at such a critical juncture. And it would equal an admission of guilt. Worse even. If I released you from your positions, I would openly communicate that I considered you guilty of what so many choose to believe. And this would not simply go away after you left the Order and moved here, no matter what your prior merits or the fact that you are the progeny of House Aren. Everything you have achieved in recent years, all the good you have accomplished for those who are now in such a hurry to condemn you, will fade in the face of the accusations.”

Eryn’s jaw muscles tensed. She wanted to scream in frustration. He was right. The Order had been subject to changes which had over time and would also in the future grant its members more freedom – changes she herself had fought for. And now at the first opportunity the beneficiaries of her efforts turned around and pointed their finger at her – without bothering about the fact that they were destroying her reputation without so much as even the tiniest proof.

“It is painful, isn’t it?” The King’s voice was soft. “This was something I found very hard to grasp in my first few years on the throne. The very people who you look after are those most eager to see you fall – with no discernible reason. They would kick you into the dirt, more ruthless than even your enemies. Human nature is an odd thing, isn’t it? I assume this is why House Vel’kim never aspired to leading the country – their inclination towards healing brings them in such close contact with human nature in its most unalloyed form that they decided it was not worth the trouble.”

Eryn smiled faintly. Valrad was certain to reject that explanation. He would insist that the true motivation behind holding back was something noble, such as the urge to serve people in a more immediate manner, be closer to those in need than the Triarch seat made possible.

“What do you propose instead to rehabilitate us?”

“I am working on it. I first wish to discuss it with the Queen and hear her thoughts.”

“I’m glad to see that you seem to embrace the concept of ruling jointly with so little effort after all these years of having the ultimate power rest in your hands alone.”

He nodded. “I admit this is true. Yet I should think that sharing power is all the easier if one has the right person to share it with at one’s side. Del’na’bened is an excellent match for both my personality and my position.”

Eryn lifted her brow. “That is dangerously close to a declaration of love. It’s a good thing Malriel chose so well for you.”

“Indeed. I shall forever remain in her debt. Though I should point out that sending my troops to her aid has certainly aided in reducing that debt somewhat.”

“Are we done now? If not, I feel the need to point out that due to the heat it is customary in this country to offer a guest something to drink. Even those one would much rather hit with a shovel than regale.”

“Forgive my negligence,” King Folrin apologised and got up to leave the room and return little later with a tray upon which a carafe of water and two glasses were set.

She took the glasses and filled both. Well, that at least answered her question of whether or not they were done. But she had a feeling that he no longer wanted to talk about Tyront for the time being.

“Speaking of guests one would rather hit with a shovel, as you put it so eloquently in that frankness of yours I value so much…”

After emptying half the glass, Eryn placed it on the small table. “You are obviously referring to Junar. You already mentioned that you know about what happened earlier today. Who told you about that? Malriel?”

He nodded in confirmation. “Yes. She dropped by for a brief visit not long ago.”

“I wasn’t aware that my personal issues with a woman I considered a friend at one point is quite such an important matter. One even my King terms noteworthy.”

“This is no longer a mere personal issue, Eryn.”

Three times, she counted silently. That was how often he had addressed her without her title since her arrival.

“How so, dearest Folrin?”

“Because you are a high-ranking member of the Order and Junar is companion to the number five and Head of Warriors. The breach between you is known to some people, although not nearly to everyone. Yet as things are between the two of you, this is only a matter of time. And right this moment is a bad time for such a fact to become public knowledge.”

Eryn opened her mouth to ask what exactly he was talking about, but stopped herself. He was right – she had failed to consider that things had changed significantly since the beginnings of their friendship. Back then Junar had been an unknown seamstress, a member of the working class with no connections whatsoever to the highest circles of the Kingdom. And Eryn had been a prisoner with no influence and not even the freedom to pass through the city gates. Back then, things had been personal. But now they were much more than that. Junar was joined with the man who would in the near future become the second-most powerful man in the Kingdom. And Eryn already was in that very position – in addition to holding a high rank herself. Orrin was known to be Eryn’s close friend and supporter – and if Junar publicly declared her distrust, people would immediately assume that this also reflected Orrin’s own position. Having people think that she had lost Orrin’s support would be a shattering blow in her current situation.

Eryn felt her chest tightening. From one moment to the next, Junar had suddenly turned hazardous. The trouble was that she had no idea how Orrin would react once it became known that Junar had her doubts over Eryn’s innocence regarding Tyront’s death. In the past, he had shown restraint, had followed the desire to avoid a dispute that would do more harm than good in his view. Eryn did not hold this against him. Divided loyalties were a difficult, gruelling thing. However, this brought with it the danger that he might continue to opt for this approach as long as his companion was affected.

“I would try to remedy this, I really would,” she whispered. “But I don’t know how. I feel that Junar has been drifting away from me for a while now, that it took little more than a perceived insult to cut the last bond between us. All this is not tangible for me, so I have no idea how to mend it. After all that has happened between Junar and I, I don’t know whether I would even want that.”

King Folrin observed her for a while, then offered, “I might be of service here if you care to hear about it. At least with regard to what has caused that rift between the two of you.”

She blinked. Seriously, was there anything he was not interested in or collected information about? But then she had just realised that her relationship with Junar had for quite some time now ceased to be quite as inconsequential for her environment as she had thought. Of course he had realised that quickly and instructed his spies accordingly – meaning that by now he was probably in possession of a tidy collection of details.

“Go ahead, I’m all ears,” she invited him, resigned that she was very likely about to learn a lot more about her former friendship. It was a good thing that she was past that state where such an absurdity as being taught yet another intimate insight about herself by the King would bother her.

“The answer is actually a rather simple one. One I trust you yourself might arrive at in due course now that you no longer consider yourself and Junar the only players or rather interested parties in your friendship. You are aware of the nature of the circles the Council members and their companions move within. They are characterised by opportunism, and thus by the need for advantageous alliances. These range from lucrative business alliances to personal relationships among the companions of the powerholders. Even further to relationships among the servants and suppliers of the rich and powerful, but these are not relevant to the present case. Now think of a woman who comes from a humble background and who, through certain circumstances, has managed to make her way into these circles. Into circles whose elitist nature is naturally bound to very limited access. What, in your opinion, would be a logical reaction of such circles to a newcomer they hardly consider worthy of them, but who is proving difficult or impossible to get rid of?”

“Rejection,” Eryn murmured, remembering that this really had been a problem for Junar back then. Therefore, she had avoided certain events or only attended them when Eryn had gone there together with her. But Eryn had been forced to leave and stay away from Anyueel for six months every year, which meant Junar had stayed behind on her own, vulnerable to whatever underhanded attacks and intrigues those women had come up with. Was that what had ultimately changed Junar so much? The bitterness resulting from the feeling of being left behind again and again, deprived of the protection of her powerful friend?

“Exactly. Rejection, you see, tends to breed a powerful desire to be accepted, particularly when one has no-one else to turn to. Constant criticism and dismissal can do terrible things to the human mind. It begins to attribute truth to the things others claim. If we hear something often enough, we start to believe it at some point – despite our initial conviction that it is untrue.”

Eryn knew that concept. It was one reason why positive affirmation and attention were so important when raising a child. A child knowing it was loved and admired would in time flourish, while another who grew up being told that it was worthless and inadequate would turn into an adult knowing just that.

The thought that Junar had undergone such treatment made her shiver.

The King continued, “So when those women finally realised that Junar had come to stay, they changed their strategy. After battering Junar with unkindness long enough to make her believe she was deserving of it, it was not hard to lure her in. The stronger the rejection, the more burning becomes the desire to escape it and be considered worthy. The opportunity suddenly to be allowed to join one’s attackers is nothing short of a dream come true.”

Eryn’s heart had begun to hammer in her chest. Why ever had she not been able to spot any of that? She had been there half the time, after all!

“Ah, I can read the question in your eyes as clearly as though you had spoken. I assure you there is no reason to blame yourself. You have the unlucky propensity towards accepting responsibility for all and everything around you. Let me tell you that this is not a healthy attitude. They were sharp enough to pursue their efforts mostly in your absence. Which was the time when Junar was most susceptible to them. Separating the two of you was an important objective. At first it was a means of making Junar more vulnerable, but in time they realised that Orrin was likely to play an important role in the Order’s future, which meant Junar’s influence would increase as well. At this point your removal from Junar’s side served another purpose – to offer one of them the opportunity to become a close friend to her to replace you and benefit from her position. After several years of playing this game, it ultimately became a matter of only a small difference in opinions between the two of you to make Junar believe that everything she had been told about you was true.”

Eryn ground her teeth, feeling how stupor was beginning to be replaced by anger. “What did they tell her about me?”

“Little things here and there, first only hints, but in time more bold criticism and finally outright lies. That you threw Junar in Lord Orrin’s way to make her a more valuable tool for yourself. That you made certain she became pregnant to ensure her continued relationship with Lord Orrin. That you are imposing your moral values on her because you consider her little more than your underling’s companion who should be grateful for any guidance she can get from a supreme being such as yourself. That she is to you a convenient means of keeping a servant who does her bidding and still continues to make her clothes. Shall I go on? You do look a little agitated. Breathe, Eryn. I neither want Lord Enric storm in here because he suspects I am doing who knows what to you, nor would I appreciate this charming building burying me.”

She shook her head, feeling how her lower lip was trembling. Those vile, dastardly, impossible vultures!

“There is one more thing they told her. Something I believe must have been particularly hard for her to deal with. She was made to believe that Lord Orrin’s personal interest in you had initially been a lot less harmless, that he desired you. A particularly devious touch was telling her that he had even been about to claim you for himself at the evening of your commitment. Only Lord Tyront’s intervention prevented him from doing so. That latter part of Lord Orrin’s intended intervention is the truth – yet as you and I are aware, it was for entirely different reasons than securing you for himself. He merely realised that you were being coerced and wished to delay the ceremony long enough to find some way out of it. Another fact is that Lord Enric was at some time rather jealous of Lord Orrin, as I am certain you must know. Though we may forgive your companion for having been driven by the fear of losing you back then. Suffering his own thoughts being clouded by jealousy is what a few years later happened with Junar. Every playful and friendly interaction between Lord Orrin and yourself suddenly turned into a threat for her relationship. Particularly when Malriel requested Lord Orrin to come to Takhan to protect your son. You may thank the stars that Vedric resembles his father enough to prevent any fabrications of his being in truth Lord Orrin’s son. Otherwise I wouldn’t put it beyond those lovely ladies to plant that thought into Junar’s mind and watch it unfold. The human mind is a marvellous thing. It can over time be trained and compelled to adapt a certain way of deducting and reasoning. Which is why different professional disciplines tend towards approaching a problem in a certain way that fits the manner of thinking they have been trained in. This is why your abilities in different disciplines make you such a talented woman, Eryn. But forgive me, I am digressing. I wanted to point out how Junar’s mind must in time have started to come up with certain suspicions all on her own. Previously harmless things must suddenly have turned into clues as to yet another sinister motive of yours – every grin an insult, every guarded look a criticism, ever quip or joke you shared with Lord Orrin a proof of his ardent longing for you. And so the scales tipped.”

“And why, if I may be so bold as to ask such a thing,” she squeezed out from between clenched teeth, “have you never found it worth the effort of informing me of such things? Why were you watching while a close friend of mine was turned against me instead of warning me? Was it such great entertainment to watch? Or are you somehow benefiting from the end of my friendship with Junar?”

Somehow the list of people she wanted to whack was becoming longer by the minute. Now it even included a King.

“How would you have reacted to such a warning from me, pray tell?” he asked calmly. “Would you have believed it right away? Or would you rather have condemned me for spying on your friend? And accused me of insulting her intelligence with the insinuation she would truly fall for such a plot even if there were such a ridiculous thing? Would you have demanded I cease my observation of her this moment? And attributed my interest in your friend in my wish to collect intelligence for the sole purpose of using you?”

Eryn wanted to contradict with all her heart. It almost hurt how much she wanted to throw at him that he was utterly mistaken. And it hurt much more that she was unable to because he was so utterly and completely right. She would have become angry, but at him and not at the women in question. As long as her friendship with Junar had been intact – or at least for as long as she had been under the impression it was – she wouldn’t have believed any of it.

“Very well, let’s assume you are correct and I might have reacted in such a way. But any adverse reaction of mine was never before any reason for you to withhold unpleasant information from me. Quite the opposite. You delight in watching and analysing me, particularly in my less controlled states of mind. So there must be more to it.” She narrowed her eyes and stared into his. “You wanted me to suffer this loss, because you think this is the most effective way for me to learn my lesson. To learn that my perception as to the vileness that regular, seemingly harmless people are capable of is too naive by far.”

“True, all of it,” the King admitted, unperturbed. “But while I initially intended for this to be of purely educational value, Lord Tyront’s death and the damage Junar might wreak by making her distrust of you public require immediate action on your part.”

Eryn barked out a hollow laugh. “Of course. Because before your revelation I was willing to let her be, to accept that there was nothing I could do about it all, to retreat and lick my wounds. Not so now. This is not the first time you have used my anger to steer me and make me act.” She got up from her chair. “You will be glad to hear that I intend to act. I’m exactly in the mood for it. I remember when you told me that playing with open cards and still winning was the master class. Congratulations. Another victory for you.”

“Stop right there!” the King’s harsh command kept her from turning away and storming towards the door. He got up from his own chair and stepped towards her. “I do need you to act. And your anger is giving you the energy you will need for this confrontation you would otherwise have been reluctant to enter into. Yet I expect from you to use your anger for your purposes instead of letting yourself be consumed by it and doing something imprudent. That is a luxury you do not have. You are still the number two in the Order, and as such I command you to protect it and its reputation and to keep it functional for the task ahead of us. You will take Lord Enric along. This is an order. Now you may leave. I see that after all these years we still have this little difficulty with your inability to wait for me to dismiss you.”

Without so much as a word or bow, she whirled around and pulled open the door hard enough to almost break the hinges.

“Enric!” she shouted. “His Majesty kindly suggests we make a little social call.”

Her companion got up from the seating cushions in one fluid move. He had been receiving the wrath through the mindbond for several minutes now and was prepared for some extraordinarily bad mood upon her appearance. But this was certainly not a state of mind to unleash her on anyone.

“You are not supposed to assassinate anyone on his behalf are you?” he asked, only half-jokingly.

“No, but I might change my mind about that during the visit,” she growled, “you are supposed to come along and prevent that from happening.”

“Alright, I can do that. Who are we going to delight with our visit?”


He exhaled slowly. Well, at least that promised to become interesting.

*  *  *

It had taken House Tokmar only a few days to restore their main residence to its former status after the damages it had incurred during the combat actions. The Head of House had returned with his family and had kindly offered to take in Orrin and his family for the duration of their stay.

The Head of Warriors would have stayed with the soldiers, had he been alone, yet with his companion and daughter present, this would have been impossible. Moving in with Eryn and Enric had also been out of the question, for more than one reason. With Pe’tala and the children back as well as Malhora, Malriel and Valrad living there, the residence currently harboured a fair number of residents already. And then there was the matter of Eryn and Junar not getting along for some reason that kept eluding Orrin. Once he had asked Junar about it, but his companion had shouted something at him and finally disappeared into their bedroom. Crying. He hadn’t asked again. Though after the midday meal only a few hours ago he knew he had to brave the storm which a new attempt at enquiry was likely to trigger. The situation was beginning to become unbearable, and he neared the end of his patience.

There was a knock at the door to the guest room in which he and Junar stayed. He lowered the report he was currently reading.

“Orrin?” a voice enquired. Female, young. The youngest daughter of Uvel, Head of House Tokmar.

“Yes, Neád?” he called out.

“You have visitors,” she informed him through the closed door.

He got to his feet and opened the door, looking down at the pretty sixteen-year-old. “Thank you.”

Walking towards the main room, he frowned as he beheld the group of people waiting there. They didn’t look like good news. At least Eryn did not. She radiated fury. Which was probably the reason why her companion was keeping a close eye on her. And then there were Golir and Iklan. The Triarch appeared confused as though he had been called here without being told why, and the healer displayed a sort of happy curiosity as though he also wasn’t sure what he was to expect, but looked forward to finding out.

Eryn’s eyes locked on Orrin. “Where is Junar?” she asked without a greeting, her harsh tone clear from the first word.

“Out in the garden with Téa,” Orrin replied, his apprehension growing with every second. “Is something wrong?”

“Yes,” she just replied without offering any further explanation, then turned towards Uvel’s daughter. “How many of your family are currently at home?”

“Just me and my brother,” the girl replied. “My parents are at the Landred residence to have drinks there before the banquet.”

“Good.” Eryn pulled two gold slips out of a pocket. “Take your brother and Téa and go a tea house of your choice. Buy whatever you wish. Stay away for at least two hours. Can do you that?”

Neád nodded, slightly confused but certainly not objecting to an invitation to a tea house. She ran off to knock at a door, whereupon a young man a little older than herself appeared. He listened to her for a moment, then shrugged and followed her into the garden.

It didn’t take long until Junar burst into the main room through the terrace door. The unexpected sight of the newcomers made her pause for a moment, then she marched towards her companion and demanded to know, “They are saying they want to take Téa to a teahouse – what is the meaning of this all?” She indicated Eryn with her chin. “Is that what she wants? Is she now in charge of our family as well? Can she decide who our daughter goes out with? After knocking her out only a few hours ago?”

“Would you rather have her stay?” Eryn asked coolly. “I’m sure she will have quite a story to tell her friends once you are back in Anyueel.”

Junar looked at Golir, then Iklan. “What is this here?”

Eryn ignored her and motioned for Neád and her brother, who was holding Téa’s hand in his, to proceed towards the stairs and outside. Only when the entrance door had closed with an audible sound did Eryn step towards Junar.

“I just had a most illuminating little chat with King Folrin, and now I can hardly wait to share my new insights with you.”

“I have no interest whatsoever in your insights, so you can just as well leave and leave me in peace,” Junar hissed. “I am sick of your power games! Go!”

“What is this about, Eryn?” Orrin joined his companion in demanding an explanation.

Eryn turned towards him and looked him in the eyes. “Orrin, I need you to trust me. I swear to you, I won’t harm her. But we have a situation here that needs containing. And an issue that has been in dire need of being addressed for rather a long time now. She will protest and maybe even try to run, but you have to let me proceed.”

The warrior looked into her eyes for a long moment, then pressed his lips together and nodded once. “Don’t make me regret this.”

“I won’t,” she promised.

“Orrin!” Junar wailed, “You can’t trust her! If you knew all the things I…”

“Yes, Junar,” Eryn interrupted her, “this is actually why I’m here – to talk about the things you are convinced you know about me. I’m very interested in hearing about them.”

Panic widened Junar’s eyes. “Orrin! You need to protect me!”

“That wouldn’t make much sense, I’m afraid,” Eryn shrugged. “You do remember that I am stronger than him? But I can ease your mind – the one in charge of protecting you from whatever evil deeds I might come up with on the spur of the moment is Enric. And the fact that we have a Triarch and a renowned healer here as well should show you that I’m hardly planning on inflicting harm on you. And if this is not reassurance enough for you, you may rest safe in the knowledge that I would at least be severely disciplined afterwards.” Eryn pointed to the seating cushions behind Junar. “Why don’t you sit?”

Junar folded her arms and remained standing with a fixed, hostile gaze.

“Alright, then stand if you prefer that. But you will permit me to sit.” Eryn chose a colourful cushion and leaned back. With a lazy motion of her fingers she raised barriers in front of every window and exit, preventing Junar from any premature, unsanctioned attempts at leaving.

“Right now you don’t strike me as particularly eager to cooperate, and since I have no intention of subjecting you to a forcible interrogation, I suggest the following: I’ll do the talking, you should do the listening. And once I’m done, we’ll switch.”

“I have no intention whatsoever of…”

“Junar – please. I promised Orrin not to harm you. I stand by that. But I have to tell you that I would not consider impairing your vocal cords for a while to be inflicting harm on you. Either you shut up or I’ll make you.”

The seamstress pressed her lips together and covered her throat with one hand as if she had any hope of protecting her vocal chords that way.

“Where was I? Ah, yes – a story. I have to warn you – it’s not a happy one. Well, maybe at the beginning. But it turns dark quickly enough. The good thing, though, is that as of yet the end is unresolved, meaning there is still hope. Are you ready? I take that deadly glare as an invitation to commence. So, here we go. Several years ago, in a Kingdom not too far away but still not exactly around the corner, a woman was taken captive. Not because she had done anything wrong, but because it turned out that she wasn’t from the area. When it was in addition to that discovered that she was able to wield magic, which was a skill thought impossible in women, she was kindly asked to prolong her stay in the King’s capital city. Kindly asked being a euphemism for being shackled in gold and made to train in sword fighting, because they thought having her in their little boy’s association would be a lovely idea. Not knowing whether she would ever again be set free, she endured their battering with swords and the restrictions on her personal freedom. Only two things kept her from going insane – the prospect of one day escaping her captors, and the two friends she had managed to make. The first friend was a boy with a kind heart and the amazing talent of drawing the most wonderful pictures one can imagine. And the second was a woman with the ability to turn simple bales of cloth into the most incredible dresses. Her life had not always been a happy one, yet she had still preserved in her heart enough kindness to let a gesture of gratitude for having her sister healed turn into friendship with a prisoner. The magician was overjoyed, experiencing for the first time in her life the gift of having not one friend, but two, when for more than two decades she had been forced to keep her distance from everyone around her to preserve the secret of her magic. The friendship between the magician and the seamstress kept growing, connecting them with a bond that both held dear. But things began to change. The magician was sent to the land from whence she came, meeting there a family she had not known existed and who wanted her back so desperately that they tried to make her stay. Torn between the two countries, she was finally made to travel between them, splitting her time between them equally. The two women didn’t know it yet, but this arrangement would turn out to be the obstacle to shatter their friendship. It didn’t happen all at once, but gradually over time. Because every time the magician had to leave the Kingdom with her family to be gone for many months, the seamstress had to stay behind with the other women, who rejected her for no fault of her own. They harassed and abused her, made her feel unworthy of being one of them, of joining what they considered an illustrious circle. Every time the magician returned to the Kingdom, and the two friends were reunited, the evil women retreated again, waiting patiently until the magician left again so they could once more spread their poison. The seamstress was a gentle soul, suffering under this treatment, until she began to succumb and began to believe what they were saying about her, making her believe she was less worthy than them. She began to long for any sign of appreciation, and in the magician’s absence, she felt so lost and alone that she even sought for some sense of belonging among the evil women. Since the seamstress’ companion was a mighty and powerful man, they began to realise that inflicting terror upon her was not a productive course of action in the long run. Accepting her among them and using her influence to for their own benefit was much more promising. So they began to make her one of them. But that required severing her connection to the magician, who had hitherto just watched helplessly as her friend had drifted further and further away from her, not knowing what it was that was widening the gap between them more and more. The evil women were crafty in their efforts. They told the seamstress lies. And truths wrapped in lies. Anything to make her question the validity of the bond of friendship connecting the two women. There was no proof for any of it, yet they managed to plant the seed of doubt in the seamstress’ mind. They fed her more and more untruths until the seed began to flourish and the woman even began in her own mind to suspect these lies and betrayals, where there were in truth none.”

Eryn paused, taking in Junar, who was standing there with wide eyes, breathing heavily.

“Stop this,” she whispered, then turned towards her companion, pleading, “Orrin! Please?”

But the warrior’s eyes had narrowed, as his intense gaze jumped from Eryn to Junar and back again. “What lies?” he just asked.

Eryn looked up at the ceiling. “That the magician had never truly considered the seamstress her friend, but only used her as a pawn for her own purposes. She accomplished elevating her through making sure she was joined with a high-ranking magician. Then she secretly planned to make their bond harder to cut by forcing a child onto them. They told her that her companion was in truth longing for the touch of the magician, awaking in the seamstress a fear of losing her beloved, injecting her with jealousy. Every interaction between her companion and the magician became in her eyes proof of their secret love.”

Orrin’s facial expression had turned dark as he slowly turned towards Junar. He didn’t walk towards her, as if he couldn’t trust himself not to hurt her.

“Is that true, Junar? Did people tell you such things about me? Things you chose to believe?” His tone was so hushed that only the complete silence in the room made understanding the words possible.

Junar’s mouth opened and closed several times, but no words came out.

“I see,” the warrior commented and turned around to walk towards the stairs. A strong bolt from one palm collapsed Eryn’s shield. It hadn’t been a particularly strong one, since its purpose had been keeping a non-magician from leaving.

“Orrin,” Junar breathed and made to run after him, but Eryn quickly raised another shield right in front of her to hold her back. “No, you stay. The story isn’t over yet. Enric, please go after Orrin.”

“Let me go!” Junar wailed. “I need to go after him! I need to talk to him, explain it!”

“You have failed to talk to him for such a long time,” Eryn replied mercilessly. “I’m certain this can wait another half hour. What is more, my impression is that right now he needs some time away from you. Let us return to our story, shall we? Are you certain you don’t want to sit?”

“I don’t want to sit!” she screamed at Eryn. “I need to go after Orrin! Let me go!” She whirled around towards Golir. “Golir! You are strong – please help me! Get me out of here! Please!”

The Triarch looked worried, clearly at a loss how to react. Junar was very obviously in great distress and being held captive, yet Eryn’s message had informed him that she needed him here to eliminate a considerable danger to the Order’s loyalty towards its leaders and as a consequence to a successful conclusion of their march on Pirinkar. So far he didn’t understand how exactly the goings on in this place were supposed to have any influence on that, but then he owed Malriel’s daughter the benefit of doubt.

“I think you might need to hear her out, Junar,” the Triarch replied softly.

“I don’t want to hear any more of her lies,” the seamstress sobbed.

Eryn on the seating cushions clapped into her hands twice. “Golir, that was your cue. I apologise for having been rather cryptic in my message to you. The reason why you are here is to apply a lie filter to me and in doing so demonstrate to Junar that my story did not contain any lies whatsoever.” When Junar stared at her, she added, “I assumed that you wouldn’t trust Enric or Ram’an to do this, since they are both stronger than me, but also very close to me. Which leaves Golir, who has no reason whatsoever to pretend I am telling the truth when I am not. If you choose to reject Golir as a reliable person to apply the truth block, I advice you to better come up with a substantial reason for questioning his integrity. He is a damn Triarch, after all.” She lifted her hand towards Golir, waiting until he had taken it in his and sent in his magic to establish the truth block. “Well, Junar, this is your moment. Ask away. I cannot lie to you, only refuse to answer. Which in itself can be revealing enough provided you ask the right questions. I’m in your hands now.”

“How do I even know this works?” Junar asked in a suspicious tone.

Iklan stepped forward, all eagerness. “I believe I can be of help here, if you permit me.” He smiled at Eryn. “You entered for your son into a commitment agreement with the youngest daughter of House Arbil. Do you have the honest intention of doing everything you can to aid in fulfilling that agreement?”

Eryn stared at him, taken aback. “You are here to help, damn you!”

“I am helping!” the healer protested.

“No, you are getting me into trouble! We are in the presence of a Triarch, in case this has escaped your notice!”

Iklan grinned. “Which is exactly why I expect you would rather keep what I expect will be a controversial reply to yourself. What better way to demonstrate the effectiveness of the lie filter is there than to force out a truth you would otherwise not admit in front of a Triarch?”

Closing her eyes for a moment, Eryn sighed. “You are a brilliant man, Iklan, but right now I don’t care for you very much. So be it, then. No, I don’t have any intention to try and persuade my son to let himself be joined with a woman for no other reason than financial prosperity and creating strong offspring.”

Golir pursed his lips. “That means you have filed with the Triarchy a commitment agreement which you have every intention of breaking. I think when this is all over, you, Ram’an and I will sit down and have a good long conversation.”

Eryn ground her teeth, then looked up at Junar. “Satisfied?”

The seamstress nodded and came closer. “Were any elements of that story of yours false, intentionally misleading or exaggerated?”

“No,” Eryn replied immediately.

Junar swallowed. “Where did you get this information from?”

“I told you before – I had a conversation with the King. He told me about all of it. Everyone knows he has a tight network of spies collecting every morsel of information he might find useful.”

“The King is spying on me?”



“Because you are the companion of an important Order magician. Of the next leader of the Order, in fact.” And three more people who were casually informed about that little fact…

Junar stared at her. “What?”

“Orrin is about to be promoted once the war is over.”

“But… but… what about Enric?”

“Enric and I are about to relocate to Takhan. I’m re-joining House Aren to become their Head of House.”

Another few seconds followed, allowing the seamstress to digest this news. “You’ll be leaving Anyueel for good? And the Order as well?”

“Yes. Well, I’ll return for occasional visits, of course. But Enric, Vedric and I will relocate to Takhan permanently.”

“But Tyront’s death…” Now Junar finally did sit down. “Why kill him if you don’t even stay in the Order?”

Eryn exhaled slowly. “Junar, I’m saying this with the utmost degree of respect I can currently come up with – namely none at all: you have obviously taken leave of your senses. Otherwise you would realise that it makes absolutely no sense that I was supposed to have planned Tyront’s death, when neither myself or my companion are in any position to benefit from it. Not to mention the fact that I don’t find the insinuation, that you think me capable of cold-blooded murder, particularly flattering.”

“Have you ever felt any desire for Orrin?” Junar now demanded sharply.

“Yes, more often than I can count.” When Junar gasped for air, Eryn added, “The desire to throttle him, kick him, throw him out of a window… basically the whole range of violent fantasies a captive indulges in when she sustains numerous bruises day and again.”

“How about Orrin?”

“I can’t speak for Orrin, but I can tell you that there was never even once a single moment when I had the impression that he had any untoward interest in me. He treats me so much like a daughter that my own father was jealous when he first saw us together.”

Junar’s face was a mask of misery.

“Though you and I both know that asking me those questions was rather superfluous after Orrin’s reaction just now,” Eryn added.

“I would go after him, but somebody is keeping me locked in this room!” Junar hissed.

“Yes. Because you and I are still not done with this here.”

“What is ‘this here’ supposed to be? Are you trying to force me to apologise to you? I won’t! Some of the gossip they told me may have been wrong, but other things I myself noticed certainly are not! You have always judged me because of how I raise my daughter! Just because I’m not as strict and relentless with my daughter as you are with your son!”

“Your daughter has no manners and little regard for what other people want – that is a fact. However, it is also not my problem, but yours and in time, her own. If you feel that you have found the perfect way to raise a child, just go ahead! Who am I to tell you what to do? I do, however, take the liberty of asking her to adhere to certain rules in my own house, just as any other child visiting me has to.”

“Your cruelty towards your own son will one day turn him into a violent man – an extremely dangerous one with his immense magical powers!”

Eryn let her head tilt back. “Did you come up with that marvellous theory all on your own or did your scheming women friends advise you accordingly?” She frowned when Junar just pressed her lips together without answering. Eryn stared at her. “You must be joking! Don’t tell me you accept advice on how to raise a child from women who have spent possibly half an hour a day playing a little with their children then delegated the real work to servants? This is truly were you get your information from? It’s easy to be an indulgent playmate to your children, when the servants are the ones who have to be stern when they instruct them not to throw stones at windows, keep their hands away from fire or properly scrub themselves before going to bed. That’s not the kind of parent I am – and neither are you! Doing all the work on our own also means disciplining them!” She threw her hands up. “This is ludicrous! Seriously, why am I even discussing this with you? Do what you want with your daughter! There is something far more important I should be talking about. Namely that the fact that you turned off your brain to let others do the thinking for you makes you dangerous in the present situation. If you don’t keep your mouth shut about the things they tell you I did to further whatever evil plans I seem intent on implementing, the Order will shortly tumble into chaos because the magicians no longer trust Enric and me. If you have no regard for the Order or the people they are supposed to protect, then at least think of your companion. Consider that he probably doesn’t want to take over a heap of rubble.”

“What? I…”

“You are currently a liability, Junar! To your companion, to the Order and to the Western Territories! If you say something stupid, then people will assume that Orrin shares that opinion.” At Junar’s panicked look, she added. “I know the feeling, believe me. It took me a while to learn not to let myself be manipulated quite so easily by people who wanted to use me against Enric. But as companion to the future leader of the Order this is something you have to learn! And sooner rather than later. To start with, you need to free yourself from the influence of those women! They are just as bad as their companions, though in their case one is prepared to mistrust them.”

“I… I… this is all too much!” Tears began running down Junar’s cheeks. “You are saying they were lying to me all this time… but… what if… I mean…”

Eryn freed herself from Golir’s grip. “Thank you, Golir, you were a great help.” Then she looked at Iklan. “I think it’s your turn now. Can you help locate her brain?” She knocked against Junar’s head with her knuckles. “It should still be in there somewhere.”

“That was extremely insensitive,” Junar wailed between ever more violent sobs.

Eryn nodded and rose. “Yes, I know. It’s been a long day, and I have yet to get a tedious dinner event behind me. I need to preserve all my sensitivity for that. Talk to Iklan. If someone can help you find yourself, it’s him. I strongly suggest you excuse yourself from tonight’s banquet. I have to get home and make myself look like the lady everyone knows I’m not. Goodbye, Junar.”

She all but fled the residence, feeling that only once the door had closed behind her was she able properly to breathe again. This had been intense and demanding. Moreover, she had no idea whether or not Junar would ultimately see reason or prefer instead to fall back into that destructive yet convenient state of being directed by others.

She hoped Enric was still with Orrin. The warrior had a tendency to run off and get drunk upon hearing difficult news. Since other than Junar he didn’t have the luxury of excusing himself from the tedious dinner, he would need either to practise restraint or have to be sobered in a none-too-gentle manner.

*  *  *

“Did you notice that it’s a lot easier to get drunk the older you get?” Enric mused while he was staring at a small, colourful glass with tiny artistic engravings. This was the kind of upper class establishment where the glasses were expensive since the drinks were pricey enough to cover the cost for the occasional piece broken on account of uncoordinated movement.

He dimly remembered that the tiny glass had been full only a moment ago.

“Yes,” Orrin replied, “and if you noticed that, you can assume that I did so a long time ago. I’m several years older than you.”

“You know, I think that difference in age becomes less significant the older one gets,” Enric contributed wisely, concentrating on making his tongue form the words properly. He was proud that significant hadn’t sounded at all slurred.

“Is that so?”

“Sure. Remember when I was your student? Twenty years were a huge gap back then. They made the difference between child and adult. These days we are both adults and have a family. In the Order age and experience were never much of a criterion for being awarded high ranks. So what role does it really play in our case?”

“Getting drunk is a lot cheaper now than it used to be,” Orrin pointed out, closing the circle to Enric’s earlier remark.

“In general, that is not such a bad thing, is it? I mean, that’s money saved and therefore benefits the family.”

“Yes, the family…” Orrin tilted back his head, emptying his own tiny glass. “The very people with the power to devastate you with nothing more than a few words.”

Through the haze of alcohol, Enric realised that he had managed what he had been trying to accomplish – namely to get Orrin to talk about that particular topic. With Orrin that always required a certain amount of time and patience. Plus a level of intoxication that put him into a state of mind to deviate from his usual tight-lipped self and made him comfortable enough to share his grief.

He weighed his options. Ideally, he would take a minute and disappear to sober up in the restroom, get rid of at least part of the alcohol and clear his head with a little healing magic. Yet this came along with the danger that Orrin might no longer be in a talkative mood upon his return.

So he would stay and do his best to have a halfway meaningful conversation with the warrior, hoping he was able to remember most of it afterwards.

He lifted his hand to catch the eye of one of the pretty waitresses, who were anxious to provide their wealthy guests with whatever they desired.

“Yes, Enric?” a beauty with dark green eyes asked him with a seductive smile. “What is it I can get you?”

Impressive, Enric thought. They even made the effort to find out their guests’ names.

“A carafe of water, please. And whatever you have in stock that helps sober people up.”

“Right away.” She touched his forearm lightly and raised a suggestive eyebrow. “Though we could also make use of that slightly tipsy state of yours, if you like. We have very comfortable little rooms in the back.”

Enric stared at her for a moment. “I had no idea you were offering that kind of service here!”

“In some cases we can,” she purred. “Can I interest you in my company, Enric? I have never been with a light-haired man.”

“You know my name. Do you also happen to know who I am joined with?” he asked casually, finding this conversation immensely amusing.

“No… I admit I do not. We are only given our patrons’ names,” she replied.

“You have heard of Maltheá of House Aren, I assume?”

The young woman gulped. “Aren? Malriel’s daughter?”

“The very same. Her grandmother, Malhora, exploded a wine-cellar upon finding her cheating companion there,” he informed her.

The waitress’ smile had taken on a somewhat sickly quality. “Then I suppose I shall be limiting my services to serving you something to drink.”

Enric nodded solemnly. “A very prudent and life-preserving decision.”

Orrin snorted once the young woman had left in a hurry as if afraid Enric might change his mind and take her up on what had turned out to be a rather risky offer.

When the warrior remained silent, Enric pondered how to return to the topic of Junar and how much her distrust in her companion had shaken Orrin.

“I remember when I had Eryn’s cell door locked and taken her belongings to my quarters in the Palace. That was a few days before our commitment at that ball. But she moved in with you instead of me, and I was so jealous that I wanted to throttle you.”

“A foolish notion. I never had any designs on her.”

“I know that now. But back then I watched how her hatred for you turned into something completely different, how she ran to you when she needed a place to stay. And my envy and jealousy did the rest. Just like in Junar’s case, though it looks as though she has had a lot of help in arriving at that conclusion.”

With a grateful smile he received from a young man a curved glass bottle filled with water and a matching glass plus another tiny glass similar to the one already before him. Though the content looked and smelled quite different. Like some sort of herbal concoction. He shrugged and tilted it back. He had ordered something that would help him sober up, after all. The viscous substance tasted bitter and left a slight tingle on its way towards his stomach, suggesting that some magic had been employed in creating it.

It took only a few seconds until he began to feel the effect. There was a brief spell of nausea, but that was gone a moment later, leaving him with a violent craving for water. With his head suddenly clear of the fog, he forced himself to pour some water instead of simply lifting the bottle to his lips to drain it in one go. That was some powerful concoction, he thought, and wondered whether there was any chance the creators would be willing to let him purchase the recipe for a generous sum. That was something he could definitely market in Anyueel.

“I had no idea that they were treating her like that,” Orrin murmured, staring ahead unseeingly. “She never said anything. Still, she shouldn’t have believed the things they said about me at the least. I have never given her any reason to doubt my affection or faithfulness. She should have confronted me about it.”

Enric shrugged and refilled his water glass. “I don’t know. Many people would rather refrain from directly approaching the very person they suspect has betrayed them.” He was pleased to note that his ability to phrase sentences in a more sophisticated manner had returned to him. Though he needed to make sure not to lose Orrin, who would not as such appear to be drunk to a stranger, but to Enric’s trained eye certainly displayed the odd sign of being under the influence of alcohol. More elaborate hand gestures, for one.

The warrior pressed the heels of both hands against his closed eyes. “I have been playing with the thought of leaving her.”

Enric took another sip of water to mask his shock. Orrin had always struck him as a particularly dependable sort of man, one to suffer rather than abandon what he considered his duty.

“I am not afraid of raising Téa on my own. I did it before.” He exhaled, letting his hands sink again. “There were so many situations where I saw no other way than to remain silent after Junar had yet again said something outrageous. I know that I must have given the impression that I agree with her. Silence has the side effect of sometimes being misinterpreted as consent. I hated it. It was even more unpleasant than the ensuing discussions with Junar at home after every such incident. Yet I was torn between standing with my companion and siding with Eryn, who usually was the target of her hateful remarks. Eryn never held my silence against me, didn’t condemn me for failing to publicly admonish Junar. At least not openly. I dread to think of how disappointed she probably was. Every single one of those occasions was followed by a fight once Junar and I were alone.”

Enric listened silently, sad that Orrin’s relationship with his companion had in those last few years suffered so much that he had even been considering leaving her, and regretful that he hadn’t noticed it. Orrin had always been a very private person, who opened up only under exceptionally difficult circumstances. Eryn had been the one with more insight, but that had changed after Junar broke with her.

“And now I’m once again torn.” He lifted his glass over his head without looking up, safe in the knowledge that somebody was certain to spot him. Barely ten seconds later his empty glass was exchanged for a full one. “I am relieved to know finally what is behind all this. And I am furious about what they did to Junar, how they treated her. She never mentioned any of it to me. Which makes me angry at Junar. For once, for not trusting me enough to talk to me about the grief they were causing her, and even more for believing those outrageous things about me and Eryn. I like to think that I never gave Junar any cause to doubt my feelings for her.”

“It is not quite as easy, I’m afraid,” Enric sighed. “You and I, we grew up in a world where trusting even those one might consider friends is a luxury that needs to be considered carefully. Yet Eryn and Junar did not. Eryn had to learn quickly, and she did. Not without setbacks, as you know well enough. The trouble is that you assumed that Junar would be spared those games because she is not directly involved in all of this. I admit I am also surprised myself at what our noble colleagues’ companions are capable of. I was at least able to help Eryn in dealing with the Council members, yet I would have been at a loss of how to handle the women behind them. You shouldn’t be angry at Junar for falling victim to their intrigues, but rather think how you can help her pull herself out of this swamp. Things won’t exactly become easier for her once you have taken over the Order.”

Orrin nodded glumly. “Yes, you are right. Blaming her is not fair. Yet what do you suggest I do? Have her take lessons in political strategy?”

Enric pursed his lips as the pondered that idea, although Orrin had clearly not been serious about it. “You know, that’s actually not such a bad thought. Who knows? As companion to the future leader of the Order maybe the King himself will give her the odd lesson the way he did with Eryn.”

“I should get back to her. There is a lot we need to talk about.”

“Not tonight, I’m afraid. We barely have time to get ourselves ready for the banquet.”

The warrior stared at him. “We can’t go to the banquet tonight! I seriously doubt that Junar is in any shape for that after Eryn is done with her.”

“Which is why she has brought Iklan along. He’ll take care of Junar. We will excuse her. You, however, need to be there. You are a key player in all this, and people need to get used to seeing you. Once you succeed me, the new leader of the Order should be a face already familiar to the important people here and not only to the soldiers you led into battle. The banquet is an invaluable opportunity for this.”

Orrin grimaced. “I’m in no shape to attend such an evening. Look at me!”

Enric once again lifted an arm to summon an employee of this establishment, only a moment later finding himself looking at the same young man from before. There was no trace of the young lady who had previously offered him her company.

“Another of those sobering brews for my friend here,” he ordered, and little later Orrin was handed another small glass. Before the man could leave again, Enric held on to his forearm. “I was wondering whether the owner of this charming place here would be willing to negotiate for a copy of the recipe for that very helpful drink. I am willing to pay a good price.”

“I am afraid she would not be in any position to do so even if she wished it,” the waiter replied with visible regret. “We do not mix it ourselves, but receive regular deliveries from our supplier.”

“And who would that supplier be?”

“That would be House Vel’kim.”

Enric laughed in genuine amusement. Of course. Healing herbs and magic. He should have guessed.

He left a generous tip and got up from his cushion. “Thank you.”

“They have never before sold the recipe, as far as I am aware,” the young man warned. “And certainly not for want of interested parties.”

Orrin tilted back a glass of water, then replied, “I think they are about to make an exception.”

Enric nodded. Either that, or Vran’el would find himself paying a higher price for certain Anyueel goods his House liked to trade in.

*  *  *

“You are late,” Eryn informed the Order’s leader and the Head of Warriors without moving her lips, all the while keeping her smile intact. “Not a good thing in this country.”

“It was either that or showing up drunk and sweaty,” Enric countered. “But since the dinner hasn’t started yet and Orrin and I are very important persons, they will forgive us.”

“That’s not how it works here, and you know it. The higher your position in society, the more they expect you to be a role model in upholding the local values.”

He sighed. “I stand corrected.” He lifted her hand to his lips. “Forgive us, oh guardian of appropriate behaviour that you have suddenly become.”

“Enric, Orrin.” Malriel’s voice made them turn. Clad in one of Eryn’s gowns, she greeted the newcomers with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “How good of you to join us. I have already begun to wonder which pressing matters might have held you up.” The barb was better hidden than in her daughter’s quite open reproach, but still impossible to miss.

A moment later the gong was sounded, announcing the end of the casual social interaction among the guests and signalling that they were to move to the adjoining room where the dinner would take place.

Orrin lifted his arm for Eryn to take, while Malriel accepted Enric’s.

“How are you doing?” Eryn quietly asked the warrior while they strolled towards the double doors that were held open by two servants.

“I am enjoying the best of health,” he replied with exaggerated formality. “And yourself?”

She elbowed him in the ribs. “Don’t make me harm you. How was Junar doing when you returned from the blinder my companion took you on?”

“She was still talking to Iklan when I returned. Which is a good sign, I suppose.”

“Definitely. Iklan has a way of pulling out the things one would much rather keep to oneself or refuse to acknowledge.”

They neared the seating arrangements. Other than for her very first banquet here more than seven years ago, the cushions and tables were not arranged in the form of a half-moon, but in the shape of the letter U.

“Anyone you want to avoid or sit next to?” Orrin asked.

“Take me over there, to the man in the black tunic.”

“Which one? There are two.”

“The one with the silver embroidery on his cuffs and around his neck.”

The warrior frowned. “Wait… Isn’t that the Head of House Roal?”

“The very same.”

“I don’t think you are supposed to sit with him. You do remember that his House and the one you are about to take over are not on friendly terms? Are you after provoking Malriel again? I thought the two of you are getting along now.”

Eryn sighed. “Why do you even ask me where I want to sit if you are unwilling to do as I say?”

“Maybe I’ve had enough excitement for the day and would prefer a quiet evening without any hostilities.”

“I promise I have no intention to cause Malriel grief. This is merely a convenient occasion to casually indicate to Amgil of House Roal that there might be a way to settle the tensions between our Houses for our mutual benefit.”

“Alright, then. Just make sure to let Malriel know that sitting next to him wasn’t my idea, that I was merely following your instructions here.”

“Don’t tell me you are afraid of dainty, elegant Malriel, mighty warrior?” she snickered.

“About an hour ago a pretty little thing offered herself to Enric. He dropped the name Aren, and the poor thing fled and never returned. I certainly won’t make the mistake of getting on their bad side.”

Eryn was about to ask what kind of place they had been drinking at where such options were on the menu, but swallowed her question since they were now close enough to be overheard by other guests.

Her gaze found the Head of House Roal, who had been watching her approach with a mix of curiosity and apprehension.

She smiled at him. “Amgil, will you allow me to sit with you?”

He inclined his head. “It would be my pleasure, Eryn. Or do you wish to return to letting yourself be addressed as Maltheá?”

“Eryn will be fine for now.”

Eryn ignored the surprised looks all around them. She had truly decided to sit with the sworn enemies of House Aren, despite the fact that there were still plenty of other seats available. Even though she was not officially a member of the House, she was as a former member supposed to show enough respect for it to refrain from socialising with those they kept their distance from.

“May I ask to what happy circumstances I owe the privilege of your company this evening?”

She smiled at Amgil, thinking that having so many witnesses was something that might work to her advantage. Provided he was more interested in a lucrative arrangement than using this opportunity to demonstrate to everyone that he wasn’t afraid of displeasing mighty Malriel’s daughter. Which wouldn’t be too shrewd considering the circumstances. Malriel had never in her life been as powerful as at this particular point in time, and other House leaders were reluctant to associate with allies who failed to display a certain degree of prudence.

“I was thinking back to my cooperation with your construction business several years back.”

He nodded. “The orphanage. I remember, of course.”

“I was very satisfied with the result, and whoever I talk to confirms that your House offers the best quality when it comes to construction work.”

Amgil smiled faintly. “I see. And since both the Aren residence and Malhora’s estate are in need of rebuilding, you wish to procure the services of the best provider you can find. And maybe use this opportunity to show to everyone – including or rather particularly your predecessors – that you have no fear of deviating from their principles and breaking new ground?”

Eryn sighed internally. So everybody already suspected what was not yet official: that she was about to take over House Aren. And considering that he was right with his assumption, it made little sense to pretend otherwise. “It may disappoint you that my motivation is somewhat less complicated. I merely wish to gain access to the best quality that is to be had instead of making do with second best. Why would I accept disadvantages arising from conflicts in which neither I myself nor you were personally involved? Though you are as aware as I am of the fact that there is a minor obstacle in my way. Or let me say in our way, since your House would stand to benefit as well.”

“You would not happen to be referring to the role my House played with regard to certain allegations as to your grandfather’s death, would you now?” He cast a quick glance towards where Malriel was sitting as if to ask whether she knew what her daughter was up to.

Eryn felt the mood shift slightly. His demeanour had changed in a subtle way. It was more a feeling than something she could have put her finger on.

“True,” she confirmed calmly, waiting for what was to come next.

“To my knowledge there was nothing wrong with my House’s conduct in that matter. A crime was committed, and we insisted it had to be investigated – irrespective of whether a Head of House was the culprit. I know that House Aren had – and very likely still has – a different approach to that. I remember that the case files seem to have been… lost at some point.”

Her eyes narrowed. She was aware of their audience. Everyone here knew for a fact or at least strongly suspected that she was about to take over House Aren, so it didn’t really matter that she was currently not yet acting in that capacity. Whatever she did or said now would have consequences for her House, so there was little difference whether or not she had already been appointed. She had just been challenged, and her reaction to it would determine whether or not some of the present Heads of Houses eagerly listening to this little exchange right now would be willing to maintain their relationship with House Aren in the future.

“How about a little bet, Amgil?” she replied calmly with a quiet smile.

“A bet, little Maltheá?” Now he was goading her by first asking her which name he was supposed to use only to then switch to the other.

“You are what, maybe ten years older than I? Not that I consider any difference in age significant enough to let myself be patronised by anyone.” She cast a languid look in Malriel’s direction to make her point. She had proved often enough that she wasn’t even willing to allow mighty Malriel of House Aren to treat her with condescension.

“I apologise,” Amgil replied with a smile, back to being charming. “Tell me about that bet you have in mind, then.”

“If I prove to you that my grandmother’s conduct in matters of her companion’s demise was beyond reproach and that your then Head of House had acted on nothing but the unfounded and untrue claims of a young woman, you will publicly apologise and pay reparations in terms of a generous discount on the construction of three Aren properties.”

His eyes narrowed. “If such proof is within your grasp, why did Malhora not present it thirty-five years ago?”

“Who says she did not? Accept my bet, Amgil, and I will tell you whatever you wish to know to realise your mistake.” She leaned towards him, close enough to smell the faint scent of his soap fragrance. “You have little choice now. You can’t shy back from my challenge without looking like a coward. What is more, I am offering nothing less than the truth, and if you refuse to look at it for fear of having your predecessor’s questionable conduct revealed, it will harm your reputation much more than bravely accepting the risk that he might have been wrong and doing what is due and proper – namely compensating House Aren. You know that my offer is more than generous.” She leaned back again. Loud enough for the interested audience to hear, she asked, “What say you, Amgil? Do we have a bet? Or do you have reason to fear the truth?”

“Certainly not, Maltheá. I look forward to having this evidence you promise presented to me.”

Eryn lifted her hand, inviting him to take it. “It will be my pleasure. Shall we seal the agreement?”

A moment later Amgil’s slightly cool hand rested against hers, then magic flowed to establish a first level commitment bond to assure each other of each party’s honest intentions to honour the bet.

After it was done, Eryn leaned back with every sign of satisfaction, graciously allowing Amgil to hand her a serving of the meal the servants had started to bring in.

He held on to the bowl for a moment longer when she reached out to take it. “Why would you have three buildings erected, Maltheá, when only two were destroyed?”

“There will be two residences instead of one on our little hill here in Takhan,” she explained.

He laughed with genuine amusement. “I would grant you a significant discount merely to be able to observe how you and Malriel living in such close proximity turns out.”

Eryn took the bowl when he finally let go of it and resisted the urge to empty it over his head.

*  *  *

“Malriel looks a little tense, I cannot help but notice,” Vran’el remarked with a touch of inappropriate amusement. “But I have to say that Eryn has handled herself well enough. I trust she truly is in possession of the proof she claims to be able to present? Anything else would have been immensely foolish. We do appreciate self-confidence in our Heads of Houses, but not if it is founded on quicksand.”

Enric nodded. “You needn’t worry. By now you should be aware that your sister is not one to make empty promises. Or threats, for that matter.”

There was more than one way to prove Malhora’s innocence to Amgil. The first was to subject Malhora to a truth read. Which she would not at all appreciate, but probably agree to, since refusing to cooperate to validate an agreement the future leader of her House had entered into would tarnish the Aren name. Chances were, however, that this would not be necessary. It was true that files had been made to disappear three and a half decades ago, yet he very much doubted that they had been destroyed. It was far more likely that they were locked away – in the vault underneath the Aren residence which had luckily remained unaffected by the destruction aboveground.

“There is something I wanted to ask you,” he addressed his companion’s brother. “Orrin and I visited a place right behind the old Artists’ Academy. They served us a very interesting concoction. One that cleared our heads in no time at all. It was like going through the phases of sobering up in a matter of only a few minutes – in addition to only very mild symptoms. I was told that House Vel’kim is the supplier. Why didn’t I know about that? And why have I watched you suffer through the consequences of overindulgence more than once if you are in possession of such a recipe?”

Vran’el laughed quietly. “Yes, it is marvellous, is it not? I stumbled upon this little treasure only recently. I have started going through the old documents from my father’s time as Head of House about two years ago. Detailed records of contracts, reports from each of our businesses, proposals accepted and rejected… It was among the latter where I found a letter containing the recipe. One of my many cousins came up with it and presented it to father as a business opportunity. He rejected it. You know how he thinks about healing away the unpleasant consequences of overindulgence in favour of letting people suffer through them to learn their lesson. If you are old enough to drink, you are old enough to bear the consequences,” he mimicked his father. Valrad, not far down the table, turned his head to beam his son a sceptical look, obviously recognising his own words and not too thrilled at having them quoted with that annoyed undertone.

“You might want to keep it down a little,” Enric murmured.

Vran’el shrugged. “Thankfully, I am too old to be grounded. So, where was I?”

“Valrad rejected your cousin’s proposal.”

“Ah, yes. As you may imagine, I was thrilled. I contacted her and asked her to provide a few bottles as a sample for the three Houses owning the right kind of establishment.” He chuckled. “All three of them immediately wanted to buy the recipe, and then several more offers started coming in. I refused, of course, and instead began negotiating sales agreements. The great advantage is that anyone can use it without having a magician at hand – or depending on his willingness to help instead of watching you suffer with an air of superiority.” He looked in his father’s direction with a disgruntled expression.

“I agree, it is a most useful remedy. Which is why I wanted to talk to you about purchasing the recipe. Not for exclusive use, of course. Or rather, only for exclusive use in Anyueel. I would be willing to pay a good price and in addition to this I can offer you a share of the profits.”

Vran’el grinned. “And why would I accept such an offer if I could just as easily sell my wondrous cure to Anyueel traders and keep both my recipe and instead of merely a share in the profits, all of them?”

Enric smiled. “Because even after I leave Anyueel, I will continue to run some of my businesses there and maintaining a good relationship with King Folrin. I can make certain that you faced unsurmountable obstacles when trying to enter that market. For example the one of finding someone to transport your produce, since I am currently still in possession of the only shipping business in Anyueel and own a share in each of those situated in Takhan that ship to Anyueel. And even if you managed to find someone to take your product to Anyueel, you would find that the harbour would refuse to process the crates. I funded the reconstruction of the harbour after we started trading with your country, so I have a certain influence there as well.”

“Damn it, Enric! Is there anything you are not involved in?”

Enric gave him a sly smile. “Currently? In selling your potion, though I am hoping to remedy that. What is it to be, Vel’kim? A profitable collaboration with me or a frustrating solo effort? If you choose the latter, prepare yourself for the fact that some of your other products from Anyueel will suffer arrival after a certain delay in the future. And for unforeseen price rises.”

“I cannot believe that you are extorting me like that! Your own family!”

“There is a choice, Vran. You can hold your head up high and decide not to stoop so low as to let yourself be cajoled. You just need to be willing to pay the price for it. In gold.”

Vran’el sighed and shook his head. “Alright, here is my offer: I will retain sole ownership of the recipe and extend production. It cannot be done in Anyueel anyway, since you require fresh herbs that only grow in warm climates. They would be more or less useless if you transported them for several days. You will act as an intermediary with a generous cut of the profits for your trouble.”

Enric leaned back. “Now you are talking, my friend. You will see – we will soon have a bottle of this in every single household.”

The Head of House Vel’kim snorted. “That would be a nightmare come true for my father. Let us do it!”


“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.


“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?”


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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