“Schemes” – The Order: Book 3

“Schemes” – The Order: Book 3

Chapter 1

Returning Home

Enric looked grim as he stared out over the sea. There was nothing in sight, the horizon was no more than an endless straight line that separated the brighter blue above from the darker colour below. No interruption in the form of land promised relief anytime soon.

The last time he crossed the sea he had not felt any of the effects most others in his party, Eryn included, had been suffering. Seasickness, they called it, he remembered. But this time it seemed his stomach was not as resistant to the constant pitching of the ship as before. He was told that the body got used to it after a few days, so suffering from it now when it had not affected him before seemed strange.

His troubles were not as grave as Eryn’s, though. She lay immobile on the plank bed in their cabin downstairs, her stomach empty of everything that had been in there. It was unfortunate that healing away the symptoms did not work in this case as long as the cause was present every single moment and caused them to return immediately.

But at least they had half of the journey on the ship behind them already, only one more day left until they would reach the small village of Bonhet where they had boarded the ship that had brought them to the Western Territories. Right now that seemed like an eternity ago. He had quite grand plans for the village and wondered how people would react to them. Eryn was right in that one regard: the willingness to adapt to new developments was not exactly considered a virtue, not in the city of Anyueel, and even less in remote places like that fishing village.

He felt the tension in his stomach relaxing and decided to look after Eryn. Maybe he could persuade her to let him put her to sleep for a few hours now that Kilan and Grend were not there to tease her about choosing the easy way out. It was reluctance to be forced to listen to any jibes from their travel companions that had made her reject his offer the previous time, when they were bound for Takhan.

But when he opened the door to their small cabin, he saw that she had fallen asleep already, one arm hanging down to the floor limply. She couldn’t have been asleep for very long, the tea he had made for her was still warm. Probably no more than a minute or two, pretty much when his stomach had given up complaining.

His head jerked up and he frowned down at her. No, surely not. That would be highly unlikely, wouldn’t it? And this was surely no more than a coincidence, nothing that justified jumping to any premature conclusions, he warned himself. He would keep his eyes open, though, he decided. His suspicion was maybe no more than that, but it certainly paid to be on the safe side.

He turned and left the cabin, closing the door behind him carefully. They would soon reach the barrier and he had been told that the captain would show him how to overcome it, once and for all putting an end to the limitation of going to sea for the Kingdom.

* * *

Eryn woke when a warm hand kept shaking her shoulder.

“Are we still on that bloody ship?” she murmured without opening her eyes. “If yes, you have quite some explaining to do for waking me.”

Enric smiled down at her. “The village is in sight already, so you have another hour of suffering ahead of you.” An hour that would surely provide some interesting insights for himself.

“That is one hour you might have spared me!” she moaned. “You are doing this on purpose! Is there anything I have done to you recently that justifies tormenting me like that?”

He pretended to think for a moment. “No, nothing that I can think of. But then it is well known that I have a penchant for heaping agony onto helpless women. And now get up and come on deck for a bit of fresh air. It will do you good.”

“You are joking, aren’t you? You know very well what being on deck does to me! Why are you inflicting it on me?” she wailed and felt herself being pulled up to her feet and more or less hauled up the stairs and outside. The sudden brightness of the sunlight blinded her and she quickly lifted a hand to shade her eyes. There was a stiff breeze that made her shiver and she felt Enric’s arm around her shoulders pull her against his warm body.

“We need to change out of these clothes. They are not exactly suited for the climate back home,” he murmured and watched her stare at the waves around them that made the ship pitch up and down.

Then she closed her eyes, her face growing pale again. He also felt the feeling from before returning, causing in him the urge to hold on to something firm to convince his stomach that this sense of being tossed up and down was no more than an unjustified overreaction.

He smiled despite the unpleasant sensation. It seemed as if Eryn might be up for a little surprise, though none that would make her very happy. He would see how long it would take her to figure it out on her own.

* * *

“There it is! I can see it!” she exclaimed delightedly. “Never would I have thought that there will be the day that I am overjoyed to lay my eyes upon it!”

Enric looked up as well at the hazy outline of the city of Anyueel at the horizon. “It warms my heart to see you so happy to return to it, my love,” he smiled and took her hand to kiss it. And it truly did. She had, as far as he could remember, never once mentioned missing her little cottage in the town where she had spent most of her life. That had to mean that she now considered their house in the city her home, he hoped.

Urban trotted beside the horses and had turned her head to look at Eryn when she had called out her delight at spotting Anyueel in the distance.

“The yard should be finished for her by now,” Enric remarked with a glance at the cat. “Trees, rocks, everything. With a little luck the passage between the buildings is ready as well. The servants will otherwise very probably turn out to be just a little… jumpy.”

Eryn shrugged. “Why would they? She has never hurt anyone so far.”

“Still. We are talking about a fierce animal here. After all, not everybody has known her since she was small enough to fit into your palm. And though she is still not fully grown, she has definitely lost the advantage of being considered cute rather than frightening.”

“One would think that if a four-year-old girl is not afraid, adults should be able to handle Urban as well,” she pointed out.

“Children at that age do not yet have a proper understanding of danger, Eryn. Obal would just as likely have tried to cuddle a completely wild animal if there was one around. Vran’el’s reaction was the more natural one. And consider that part of my reputation in Takhan was based on the fact that I was wandering the streets of the city with what was perceived as a very impressive wild animal,” he explained.

She sighed. “Alright, I bow to your superior wisdom. Once again. Then let’s hope that passage is ready or we will have to do our own cooking and cleaning for a while. Not that I would mind that too much – I had to do it for quite a while when I was living alone. But I fear that there will not be very much time left to devote to it. I wonder what the healers’ place looks like. Utter chaos? Or will nobody even have noticed that I was gone? I don’t know which would be worse.”

“For you? The latter, very likely,” he smiled. “I am getting hungry. We should be in the city in about an hour and a half. It will be early evening by then. We will have time to get home, have a bite to eat then wash and change into clean clothes, but that is practically it.”

She furrowed her brow. “So there is no chance whatsoever to ask the King to see us tomorrow instead of tonight?”

“None. He already waited for us rather longer than he had planned – about two weeks longer. He wants to make sure we really are back. And to learn about the latest developments as soon as possible. The last message he received from me is several days old already. After that we will have to see Tyront. He will want to learn about everything the King did not tell him. Kilan was only instructed to inform the King, after all. Whatever has been passed on to Tyront was thus filtered.”

“So this is going to be a very long day yet,” she groaned. “And I just wanted to fall into my own bed and catch up on the sleep I missed these last few nights.”

“Sorry, my love. Not much chance for that in the next few hours.”

* * *

The four guards at the western gates bowed as the two high-ranking magicians passed them. Odd, Eryn thought, how strange this formal behaviour seemed after only a few weeks in Takhan.

They rode through the city to their house and Enric whistled through his teeth when he saw the people assembled in front of it.

“Look at that. It seems somebody has spread the news of our impending arrival when we were first spotted,” he murmured.

Eryn urged her horse on until she was close enough to dismount and as soon as her feet had touched the ground, she found herself in a tight embrace with a certain sixteen-year-old boy.

“Finally!” he whispered. “I was so afraid they would not let you leave again!”

She squeezed him back, noting how his cheeks were not any longer level with hers. Was it possible that he had grown so much since she had left here?

“So was I,” she replied, “I can’t tell you how glad I am to be back.”

“Let go of her, Vern,” Orrin scolded him mildly when he made no move to release her again. “There are a few others who would like to greet her as well.”

Vern removed his arms from around Eryn with obvious reluctance, and moments later Orrin’s much firmer embrace squeezed the air out of her lungs. She smiled at the unusual physical display of affection from his side.

“Look at you, you old softy! You have gone all mellow in my absence without anybody to torment and goad! Or is that Junar’s influence?” she laughed and hugged him back.

“Shut up,” he growled. “We were worried sick about you after we learned that they had accused you of some crime over there. It seems even with your companion at your side there is no keeping you out of trouble. Next time you go there, I will be sure to accompany you myself. One of us is clearly not enough to keep an eye on you.”

“That’s enough, now it’s my turn,” Junar complained from behind them and Orrin stepped aside so the two women could hug next.

Enric watched the scene, wondering about the feeling of regret and loss inside him. Nobody dared embracing him here, unlike in Takhan, where he had been hugged and kissed by a number of people, both male and female. For the first time in more than ten years he wondered if the reputation he had been so careful to build was worth the solitude that was its consequence. His stay in the Western Territories had introduced him to quite a different way of social interaction. There were those in awe of him who were mostly people he had met when negotiating, and others who were sufficiently impressed by him, but met him in a more private setting that allowed them to look behind that official mask. Here in Anyueel there was hardly anybody who dared look behind it. Apart from Tyront and the King, that is. Although they did not do so for mere social reasons but because he was, just like them, a player in the political game, and knowing ones fellow players was essential to ensure both survival and success.

He looked up in surprise, when he felt a hearty slap on his shoulder. Orrin gave him a nod.

“Good to have the two of you back,” he said simply, yet it sounded like he truly meant it.

“Good to be back. Finally,” Enric replied and smiled at the warrior. Who would have thought that Orrin would be the only one to give him at least some feeling of being welcome?

At the back of his mind, he wondered if he wanted to change that somehow, if he wanted to work on establishing friendships here in Anyueel. Would such a thing even work? People here were less open, less casual, more easily intimidated by rank and power. He imagined that Eryn would feel the contrast of being addressed with Lady again even more noticeably. But then she had quite a few people around her who would refrain from doing so anyway, as she had let them come close enough for them to forego the title.

In the entire city there were no more than four people who addressed him without Lord. Tyront, his companion Vyril, Kilan and Eryn. Before Eryn, there had been only two, thought he had not had any contact with Kilan in these last ten years.

He saw Eryn frown in confusion while talking to Plia and wondered if she had caught on to his feelings, wondering where that melancholy came from when she felt herself happy and relieved at being back.

“Is everything alright, my love?” he enquired and put an arm around her shoulders.

She nodded and plastered on a smile to conceal her puzzlement. “Yes, I am just a little exhausted, that’s all.”

Enric noted how Junar, Vern and Plia around them had taken a small step back at his approach.

Junar widened her eyes as Urban squeezed her way between them to rub her head against Enric’s legs. “Look at that cat! She has grown quite a lot in these last weeks. If she grows any larger, you can use her instead of a horse next time.”

“She may still grow a little more over the next two or three months, but that should be it,” Enric explained and bent down to rub the cat’s cheeks.

“Look at that! So you managed to escape the claws of the foreign senate!” an amused voice from behind them called out.

They saw Kilan approaching them. The few people around them collectively turned their heads around, and jaws dropped in surprise as the two men hugged affectionately. Lord Enric hugging people was not exactly a common sight.

Kilan then turned to Eryn. “They said you were trouble. But I didn’t want to believe it. I stand corrected.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Says the man who jumped aboard the ship and sailed off in my hour of distress.”

His expression became serious. “Believe me, in all my life that was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. I hope I will not be in such a situation again anytime soon. But I had my orders.”

“I was not serious, Kilan,” she sighed. “Your returning was the only sensible thing to do. Especially as the King would of course need first-hand information about the whole mix-up.”

He smiled in relief and squeezed her hand. “True enough. But next time we will just try not to have you accused of anything, shall we?”

“I’ll do my best, just to keep you happy,” she grinned. “But I suppose there will not be another opportunity for us to go to Takhan together again anytime soon, so no worries about that.”

“I would not count on that too much, Eryn,” he shook his head.

“Why not?” she frowned, then her brow furrowed. “You are not trying to tell me that they are sending you back there, are you?”

“Well, there is an opening for someone as permanent ambassador to Takhan, since the man who initially applied for the job decided not to remain after his companion was released from custody,” he smiled.

That caused a few frowns around them and Eryn remembered that they were very likely not informed of the important things that had happened. There would be some explaining to do, she thought, and sighed inwardly. And that meant once again telling the story of her father’s death. Though not today.

“What are the plans for the next few days?” Vern cut in. “Unpacking? Distributing gifts among your most valued friends?” he added, with a gleam of hope.

That made her laugh. “Well, that last one obviously.” Then she turned serious. “Tonight we will have to do some reporting to the upper ranks, and tomorrow I want to have a look how things are going at the healers’ place.”

“The Magic Council might want to see you tomorrow,” Enric reminded her.

“I was counting on you to give them all the juicy details. I really, really want to get back to my work,” she said, hoping he would see things her way, and smiled when he assented by nodding.

“I will try to convince them that they don’t need to see you tomorrow. But you will have to show up there sooner or later.”

She nodded. “Very well, as long as it is not in the next one or two days, when I have more important things to take care of.”

Orrin sniffed. “The Magic Council will be so pleased to hear that you do not consider them important enough to be worthy an hour or two of your precious time.”

“Well, they won’t be hearing it from me,” she shrugged.

“You are aware that myself and Lord Orrin are members of the Council, aren’t you?” Enric said. “So strictly speaking the Council has heard about it already.”

She chuckled. “But I trust that my two favourite members will not get me into any trouble because of it.”

Orrin grinned broadly and put an arm around her shoulders. “Trust, my girl, is something of a luxury. It makes you vulnerable.”

Eryn’s face fell. “Yes, that lesson I learned well enough in those foreign parts,” she said quietly.

Orrin frowned. “Hmm, it seems that was exactly the wrong thing to say. I am sorry. You will have to tell me about it. Soon.” It was not an order as such, but definitely more than a polite request. She smiled at him and nodded. It was good to see that some things would probably never change. No matter how high up she was, this was one man she could always depend on still to tell her what to do.

“So, everyone, let’s give the two of them a little space to return to their home after their journey. They have some work ahead of them yet,” Orrin called out, following which the two of them were finally able to take the last few steps towards their home.

* * *

Eryn frowned in confusion when one of the Palace guards in front of the doors to the throne room indicated for them to follow him instead of admitting them.

“Judging from the direction, the King will be seeing us in his study instead,” Enric murmured. “Probably a concession to our having travelled all day long. Provided he lets us sit down,” he added dryly.

She nodded slowly. Sitting down in a study was definitely a more appealing thought than standing before him on weary legs. She had never been to his study before and wondered if it would look any different from others due to the importance of the man occupying it.

The guard bowed to them and left when they had reached an unassuming looking door.

“That’s the right door? Are you sure? It looks unexpectedly modest,” she commented.

“This is the right place, really,” Enric nodded and knocked at the door.

“Come,” a muffled voice from inside called and they entered and faced Marrin, who rose from behind his desk and seemed, to Eryn’s surprise, genuinely pleased at seeing them.

“Lady Eryn, Lord Enric. What a relief to have you back safely. His Majesty is expecting you,” he smiled and indicated a door to his right.

“Thank you, Marrin,” Enric replied. “We are happy to be back.” Then he opened the door and let Eryn enter first. Marrin followed them into the room, closing the door behind him, stepping aside as usual to more or less merge with the surroundings like an unobtrusive piece of furniture.

Eryn looked around, almost a little disappointed at how undistinguished the room looked with its books, papers and writing utensils. Elegant, but not much more elaborate than her own study. A room for working, not for fancy displays of power the way the throne room was.

The King was standing behind his desk, facing the window behind it, and turned when they entered and bowed.

He looked at them for a while before nodding, obviously satisfied with what he saw. “Finally the delegation has returned in full. You had us all worried a little there.”

Eryn suppressed a snort. He had been worried? Not half as much as she herself had when facing the threat of being detained in that place across the sea for two years, she thought.

“I am sorry to hear that my troubles caused you distress, Your Majesty,” she replied with a thin smile, “I assure you it was not done deliberately.”

The monarch raised an eyebrow at her. “I see that your stay in Takhan has not changed your attitude towards authority one bit, Lady Eryn. I think we may consider ourselves lucky you had your companion with you, or the outcome of the trial might have been less favourable.”

The warning undertone in his voice let her reconsider the wisdom of speaking without being explicitly asked. Right, back to where they had been before their departure: Enric would do the talking.

She wondered at the mild sensation of disapproval she felt and looked at Enric. Was she imagining that? She searched his face, but it did not reveal anything – just the usual composure when he was in public. And in control of himself. So what had caused that impression had probably been her imagination. She had come to know him quite well, after all. Of course he would not approve of the way she had just spoken to the King. Interesting, though, that she seemed to have switched from not only anticipating his feelings, but also imagining an echo thereof.

“Is everything alright, Lady Eryn? You seem a tiny bit distracted,” the King observed.

“Sorry, I am just a little tired. It was a long voyage.”

“Then I would ask the two of you to take a seat and rest your weary limbs,” he smiled. “I must say that like Kilan after his return, your appearance strikes the eyes as slightly exotic with your tanned skin and Lord Enric’s bleached hair. How did you cope with the climate?”

Eryn smiled politely and waited for Enric to reply. He wanted to talk about the weather there? Really?

“It was unusually warm by our standards, but after adapting our wardrobe to the local conditions it became fairly pleasant. The locals have adapted their schedules to the climate and avoid being outside when the day is at its hottest, which means they generally stay up longer in the evening before retiring,” Enric explained.

Oh, she thought. So the weather question had obviously been an invitation to elaborate on the local customs instead of just meaningless chatter. Implications, she thought tiredly. Why could people not just say what they wanted and thus avoid depending on others to guess correctly?

She felt Enric’s hand take and squeeze hers. She couldn’t help the impression that it was meant as a warning. But why? She was not displaying any outward sign of the impatience she felt, she was absolutely sure of it.

“I am of course aware of the general developments due to Kilan’s report upon his return and the message you sent me after the senate’s decision, but there is surely a lot more. Your message informing us that the proceedings had gone in your favour and that you were about to return in a few more days was rather terse,” she heard him say, a slight hint of reproach discernible in his tone.

Enric nodded. “You assume correctly, Your Majesty. Allow me to expand on what occurred. You are aware of the situation with Ram’an and Lady Eryn, I assume?”

The King nodded. “If you mean his claim to her due to an arrangement between their families when they were still infants, then yes. From what I understand, Lady Eryn was placed under his care for the duration of the proceedings.”

Good, Eryn thought glumly, at least they did not have to go into more detail than necessary. Kilan had obviously provided a thorough report.

“Yes,” Enric confirmed. “Though the senate was considerate enough to have the arrangement carried out at the residence of Lady Eryn’s father’s family instead of Ram’an’s.”

“Due to a rather impressive display of your disapproval, if my information was correct?” the King prompted with a raised eyebrow.

“That might have been part of the consideration, yes,” Enric admitted unabashedly. “I myself was made to stay with the strongest of the three triarchs. It seems that in comparison my strength also ranks somewhat above average in the Western Territories. Thus it was considered wise to have me under observation as well for the duration of my extended voluntary stay.”

“They would have let you leave any time had you expressed a wish to do so?” the King enquired.

“I trust that they would have, yes,” the magician nodded. “Although they might actually have preferred it if I had left. They were not entirely sure what to expect of me.”

“I understand it was Lady Eryn’s own mother who made the accusations. I assume this influenced the nature of the political landscape quite a bit. From what I heard Lady Eryn has turned out to be the sole heir in a powerful family. An inconvenient development, if you will allow me to say that much.”

Eryn smiled grimly. “None that will serve to cause you any further concern, Your Majesty. I corrected that inconvenient circumstance after the trial by renouncing House Aren and thereby severing all bonds with it.” She shot an annoyed look at her companion. “Or at least that’s what I thought at that time.”

She admired the King’s command over his facial features. All that spoke of his surprise were pursed lips.

“Renounced a powerful House, did you? I would imagine that you gave up quite a considerable personal advantage by doing so, unless I am mistaken. The status of belonging to a House, as I am given to understand, also reflects the social standing of a person, especially of a magician in the Western Territories.”

“It does indeed. However, I have not given up that advantage as such as I was subsequently adopted into another House,” she explained. So much for letting Enric do the talking.

The King remained silent for a few moments before he smiled faintly. “House… Vel’kim, I assume? You father’s family?”

“Yes,” she confirmed, slightly annoyed at his quick thinking. Why was it so hard to catch him off-guard? Well, it remained to be seen how much he liked Enric’s own small gambit.

“I would have thought you to be more reluctant to bind yourself to another family after what happened with your mother. Am I right in assuming that there was a reason behind this very quick connection to another House?” he asked.

Damn him, she thought. How did he do it? Was there not a single detail she could keep to herself? This was too closely connected to her own personal story with Ram’an. Too private for him to know. Though by refusing to tell him when he asked her directly was equal to disobeying an order.

She breathed out steadily. “There was, yes. My cousin is a lawyer and suspected that Ram’an had been planning to claim me as a member of his House under an ancient but still active piece of legislation. The still valid companionship agreement our mothers had entered into would have made that possible.”

“But only if you had not been a member of another House already?” the King asked.

“That is correct,” she nodded.

“You mentioned that you thought your bond with your mother’s House would be severed. This conveys the impression to me that they are not?”

“I would rather let my dear companion elaborate on that, with your permission. He may be able to outline the motives behind his actions more… convincingly than me, I believe.”

The King’s questioning gaze moved to Enric.

“Lady Eryn refers to my compliance with Malriel’s request to adopt me into House Aren as her son,” he said slowly.

Eryn felt a surge of triumph when the King’s eyes bulged. “Pardon me?”

Finally! So it was possible to surprise even that seemingly cold-blooded fellow.

The monarch covered his eyes with a hand for a moment before he had regained his control. “So what you are telling me, Lord Enric, is that you let yourself be adopted into a powerful House to take Lady Eryn’s place as heir to the title of Head? This means of course you have subjected yourself voluntarily to the local jurisdiction as a consequence.”

“Indeed,” Enric confirmed. Eryn cast a quick look at him. He seemed completely at ease, no sign of tension at all discernible in his features or posture. Why then did she have the impression that he was taut with unpleasant expectation, dread even?

“Lord Enric,” the King said slowly and carefully, linking his fingers. “This means that you have made yourself answerable to two masters, as it were. From what I understand, the Houses in Takhan are also an important part of the local political system. You are already politically involved here and, sooner or later, will be also in the Western Territories. This puts us in a very difficult position here as we shall at some point have to consider where your true loyalties lie.”

Oh dear, Eryn mused, that did sound as if Enric was in trouble. It wasn’t a good portent.

“How about your intention of assuming the position of Head of House Aren, Lord Enric? Do you have any ambitions in that regard? I assume this must have been a major consideration in adopting you in the first place. I can see why you would be a desirable choice for Malriel, being both an experienced leader with considerable influence and the companion to her renegade daughter. I can see why you were the obvious choice for the position. Yet I can’t help being curious as to your own motivation for that step.”

Enric took a deep breath before replying. “Let me assure you, Your Majesty, that my loyalties lie with the Kingdom and the Order, just like before. My primary reason for accepting Malriel’s adoption proposal was to keep harm away from Lady Eryn’s new House. As you may imagine, owing to the history of both Houses, Malriel was quite unhappy over the impending adoption of her daughter into the House of the man who had stolen her so many years ago. Malriel’s condition for not causing them considerable hardship was my consent to serve as a kind of… compensation for her loss.”

The King considered him carefully for a few moments before smiling. “That seems like a noble, selfless gesture resulting from a very strong attachment to your companion. And yet I can’t help but think that you yourself will profit from it as well.”

“Not only myself, Your Majesty,” he replied mildly, “all of us stand to profit. Being in constant contact with a high-ranking member of not only the society in Takhan, but its senate as well will strengthen our political connections considerably.”

King Folrin nodded. “True. And yet a decision I would have preferred you not to have made without my assent.”

“I understand, Your Majesty,” Enric nodded.

The monarch raised an eyebrow. “No excuse that time was of the essence, Lord Enric?”

Enric smiled faintly. “I was under the impression that you would not have appreciated such a thing, Your Majesty.”

The King leaned back in his chair and sighed heavily. “I would not have, no. Though in general this does not stop people from tiring me with them. Is there anything else you wish to inform me of? Maybe why your departure was delayed for several days after the trial had ended in your favour?”

“The reason for this, Your Majesty, was that Lady Eryn and I entered into what is in the Western Territories known as a third level commitment bond,” Enric explained.

“You are full of astonishing news today,” the King commented tartly. “I was informed of their nature. A magical binding only recommended to those truly connected to each other in great devotion.” His gaze rested on Eryn. “A bond, I am given to understand, that needs to be entered into voluntarily.”

She smiled. “I assure you, Your Majesty, that Lord Enric’s decision to accept my request to enter into the bond with me was entirely voluntary. I did not apply any means of duress whatsoever.”

The King’s look at her was intense as he nodded slowly. “You were the one who expressed the wish to be joined magically, were you?” He noted the quick flicker in her eyes and smiled. “Yet there is a little more to it, would I be correct to assume? You were the one who asked finally, but not the one to ask initially, I cannot help but think?”

His smile grew wider as she pressed her lips together in annoyance. “You do not have to answer that, Lady Eryn. Your reaction is quite revealing in itself. I admit I am pleased to see that the commitment I made you enter into so hurriedly has grown into something more substantial in a matter of mere months. On both sides.” He rose from his chair, causing them to follow his example. “I will expect a detailed report from you, Lord Enric. I have little hope of receiving one from Lady Eryn, having heard of her dislike for written reports when it comes to her superiors,” he added pointedly. “Do include some information about the legal situation of both your new family situations and the magical commitment. I assume you familiarised yourself with each of those instead of entering into them blindly. And now you may leave. Lord Tyront is doubtlessly eager to hear about these most interesting developments.”

Eryn bowed, grateful to have the first of the two meetings behind her. Though she did not have great hopes that the one with Lord Tyront would turn out to be any more pleasant.

* * *

King Folrin pressed the thumb and index finger of one hand into his eyes.

“I am at a loss whether to admire or curse Lord Enric. Publicly I need to commend him for his merits, of course. It would not do to make our new friends across the sea think I disapprove of his connection to their society, would it?” he sighed tiredly. “I need information, Marrin. We have received the formal invitation to establish a permanent ambassador in Takhan, and I am recommending your son leave here and take up his new position as soon as possible. Though I fear the kind of information I need from him will put his own loyalties to a test.”

Marrin lifted a questioning eyebrow.

“The commitment bonds. You are aware, of course, that the bond we place our own magicians under when they have finished the training is what is considered a so-called second level commitment bond. I imagine they have worked out a way to counteract the binding effect. This will sooner or later become common knowledge here as well and change the nature of the bond between the Crown and the Order. As yet we have more or less forced magicians to bind themselves to us. If the bond can be easily reversed, this would change into a voluntary bond,” the King explained with a dark expression.

“So you assume that the Order itself is not aware how to dissolve the binding to the Crown?” Marrin enquired.

The King smiled at his adviser. “You know me too well, Marrin. You are right of course. I am sure enough that at least Lord Tyront could reverse the effect of the binding any time he chose. Probably even Lord Enric, especially after his journey to Takhan.”

“So if your assumptions are correct, Your Majesty, the Order would anyway have kept the binding intact in the past voluntarily,” the older man pointed out.

“True. But only the Order’s leader or leaders would be aware of it. Other magicians would not be. It seems like a detailed conversation with Lord Tyront is overdue. Before that I will allow him a day or two to recover from the news he is about to obtain from our two voyagers,” the King smiled without humour.

* * *

Eryn flopped onto the bed, face first, intoning something muffled that was swallowed up by the mattress.

“This was not exactly a clear statement, my love. Try again without your mouth buried in fabric,” Enric advised her.

She lifted her head, “I said that those two summonses have managed to reduce my happiness about returning home considerably. I feel spent and weary. Exhausted. We should have pretended to be returning tomorrow and instead have spent the evening in secret with Orrin, Junar, Vern and Plia.”

The unexpected amusement she felt made her frown and she lifted her eyes up to his lopsided grin.

“You know,” she said deliberately, “somehow I have the feeling that something is wrong here.”

She saw the expression in his eyes become more intense.


Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, indeed. And I can’t help thinking that you are very well aware of it. What is this? A little game to see how much time I would need to work it out?”

“What is it you think is wrong, dearest?” he enquired gently and leaned against the chest of drawers behind him with folded arms. “What have you divined?”

“That I seem to be a little more perceptive than before when it comes to judging your moods, I think,” she said carefully. “I wonder if this is because I have finally admitted to myself the true scope of my attachment to you or if this is one of the side effects of our bond.”

“Then let me add my own impressions to yours,” Enric offered. That would probably make the evening even less enjoyable for her, he thought. “I do not believe your first assumption is the true reason. I have been aware of my own feelings for you for quite a while, though for the first time – and only recently – have I experienced the effect you are describing.”

She nodded. “So it is the bond, then. A closer connection than before, the need to share more. This may include an enhanced sensitivity to the other person’s moods, I assume.”

He sighed. “Eryn, I think it is a bit more than that. I suffered from seasickness this time.”

“Did you?” she asked.

“Only while you were awake. It was gone when you were asleep,” he added quietly.

“Well, that is unfortunate for you, but I don’t…” Her voice tapered off when the full implication of what he had just said hit her. She jumped off the bed and shook her head frantically. “No! Tell me that this is not true!”

He exhaled slowly. “Judging from the level of panic that I feel inside me that is clearly not my own, I would say that denying it does not make much sense.”

She buried her face in both hands. “But Vran’el said this hardly ever happens! That I don’t need to worry about it!” she wailed. “Why? Why is there always something that hits me on the head when I decide to open myself to somebody?” She gasped at the surge of anger that shot through her like a hot spear and stared at Enric, who did not show any sign of agitation apart from narrowed eyes while still leaning against the chest, apparently calm.

“How can you keep that inside you without any outward sign?” she groaned and returned to what had in the past worked reasonably well when dealing with strong emotions: breathing.

A thin smile spread across his lips. “Good. A very effective and direct way of communicating my sentiments. You just received a little impression of what goes on inside me when you talk of binding yourself to me and regretting it.”

“I didn’t mean to say that! I don’t regret it, I promise!” she called out, relieved once the anger he projected had noticeably subsided.

“We need help with that,” he told her. “If we fight, neither of us has a chance to stay calm and reasonable if we keep experiencing each other’s feelings in addition to our own. I will despatch a message to Valrad tomorrow and ask him to send us whatever information he has on mind bonds. Do not count on it being too much, though. You heard Vran’el; not a lot of research has been done on the topic as it does not occur very often.”

He sighed at her desperate expression and pushed away from the chest to sit on the bed with her. “This is not necessarily a burden, my love. It is a way of sharing something most people never would have a chance to experience like this. The trouble is just that we have yet to learn how to deal with what it brings. The upside, though, is that only strong emotions seem to be reflected in the other, which is quite a relief. We will need to see if distance has any effect on the potency of the sensations. Maybe there is even a way to reduce their influence.”

She lifted her face to him and nodded unhappily. “That would be good, yes. Just now your anger almost brought me to my knees. Oh dear, I hope this is also something we experience with positive emotions in the other.”

“It is,” he nodded. “I felt your glee at the King’s surprise when I told him of my adoption into House Aren.”

She gave him a shaky laugh. “If you could call that a positive emotion…”

He smiled. “I also felt your joy at finding your friends waiting for you when we returned here earlier.”

Her eyes widened when she thought back. “That feeling of regret I couldn’t quite place – that was you, wasn’t it? Why?”

So it seemed the bond was already causing him, too, to share more than he would have otherwise, he mused. “Seeing you being received like that, and coming back from a place where I had for the first time in many years formed friendly attachments with other people, made me understand how I have not exactly been the social type here.”

She blinked and thought for a few moments. “People here are mostly either awed by or afraid of you. Just like myself not too long ago. I suppose that socialising is not exactly easy for you here,” she conceded. “Funny, I wouldn’t have thought that something like that mattered to you very much.”

He shook his head. “Interestingly enough, me neither.” He took her hand and squeezed it. “You see? The intimacy aspect of the bond has been working already.”

“Yes,” she smiled, “and I am pleased to see that for once not only on me. Our usual discussions about personal matters tend to be rather one-sided and result in your analysing me. Maybe it will be liberating to have that work both ways now.” Then she said, more hesitantly, “So keeping secrets from you from now on will really be impossible, won’t it? If I feel guilty about keeping something from you, you will sense it immediately.”

“That I am counting on,” he said with a raised brow. “It is a habit I have been trying to break you loose of for quite some time now. Though you did show some first signs of improvement in Takhan, I have to admit.”

“High praise indeed,” she murmured. Then a thought occurred to her and she narrowed her eyes. “You woke me one hour too early on the ship to experiment with this, didn’t you? You made me suffer intentionally to verify your suspicions! You were aware of it back then already!”

He smiled apologetically. “Will it console you if I tell you that I had to suffer with you?”

“No,” she growled, then shrugged. “Well, a little. How much did you suffer?”

“Terribly,” he replied earnestly. “Like my empty stomach was on the verge of upending constantly without anything in there to bring up other than the bitter fluids that left a burning sensation in my throat.”

She considered him thoughtfully, then nodded. “Alright, that is adequate. How do we deal with this mind bond for now? Avoiding strong emotions seems somewhat difficult.”

“I am used to dealing with them, but from what I have seen, you have yet to get used to mine. You have a hard time keeping your own emotions under control, so sensing mine in addition to that might turn out to be quite a burden for some time.”

She swallowed. “What if there is no helpful literature on how to deal with this?”

“Then, my love,” he kissed her hand, “your enormous aptitude in the category of explorer will doubtless turn out to be very useful. You will have the unique chance to experiment and thus contribute to a field of expertise that will bring you fame and glory in both countries.”

He smiled at the spark of interest which ignited in her eyes.


Chapter 2

Back to Work

Enric held her hand in his while they were strolling through the streets of Anyueel on their way to the healers’ place. He was relieved that yesterday evening she had taken what must have been to her distressing news reasonably well. He had pondered his own point of view on that unexpected development and found that he was slightly worried about how to deal with it in a way that did not cause them any undue disadvantage. But all in all he did not consider it the curse Eryn seemed to regard it as.

“Do we need to tell Lord Tyront about this?” she said, interrupting his thoughts. So her mind was occupied with this matter as well. “He was not any happier about your adoption than the King. And unlike the King, he was not too thrilled about our commitment bond either. What did he call it? Playing around with magic we had no understanding of?” She grimaced at the memory of their superior’s foul mood. She did not envy Enric the task of seeing him again at the Council meeting today.

“We might want to wait a while with that,” he sighed. “He needs to come to terms with the news we have given him so far. Let’s not overstrain his frayed nerves for the moment.”

“Good. I don’t think I want to deal with him again anytime soon.”

“Give him some time to deal with the new situation. He is not a great friend of surprises but does not need long to adapt to them. His bad moods tend not to linger for long.” He stopped when they had reached the healers’ building. “Here we are. Eager to get back and show your colleagues what astounding new things you have learned?” he smiled and kissed her on the forehead.

“That would be fabulous,” she nodded. “But I dare say there will be quite a lot of work to take care of first. Good thing today is not a treatment day. Not that I expect too much peace and quiet, though. I am a bit worried after the hints Plia dropped yesterday before we left for the meeting with the King.”

“How bad can it be? The building is still standing, after all. No angry mob has ransacked it or burned it down.”

“Very funny,” she growled and started to open one of the large double doors, but felt herself gently pulled back into a warm embrace.

“Don’t work too long today. I need you fit to participate in an experiment.”

She raised both eyebrows. “What experiment?”

“With the mind bond. It concerns how the more intense positive emotions are conveyed.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Are you using fancy words to mask the fact that this is about sex?”

He chuckled and shook his head. “I wonder why you even have to ask. Of course it is.” He bent down to press a quick kiss on her mouth and turned to continue his way to the Palace. After a few steps he half turned and lifted a finger. “Return home timely, do you hear?”

She rolled her eyes and then looked down at the symbols on her wrist that were growing fainter with every few steps he took away from her. When he turned the next corner, they disappeared completely.

As she lifted her hand to push against the door, it was opened from the inside and she saw before her a familiar face. Rolan.

“Lady Eryn,” he sighed and she blinked at the relief in his voice. “I am so glad you are back. Really glad.”

“Rolan,” she smiled uncertainly. “It’s good to be back.” Rolan happy to see her? That was probably not a good sign. “Would you like to tell me what’s wrong now or do I need to sit down for it?” she said with a slightly ironic smile at him.

He blushed slightly. “Sit down, probably. With a nice warm drink.”

“That bad?” she sighed.

He seemed to think about that for a few moments, then shrugged. “You know, now that you are back I am not so sure about that any longer.” His voice sounded surprised. “Interesting.”

Indeed, she thought but didn’t say it out loud. It seemed as if his confidence in her having the solution to whatever catastrophes had occurred was as unexpected for himself as it was for her. That had to be a sign of trust, didn’t it? Or perhaps just plain desperation. Well, she would know soon enough.

She looked around surreptitiously while walking after Rolan to the small kitchen to get her drink. Everything seemed clean, undamaged and the way it was supposed to be. Her assistant waited for her to fill a cup with water, stir in a spoonful of finely ground herbs and heat the mixture with a touch of her finger and a little magic, then he preceded her up the stairs and held the door to her study open for her.

Happiness about seeing her as well as almost overbearing courtesy? Now matters were shaping up to be scary indeed, she thought.

Her study did not look too messy, she decided. After an absence of more than six weeks it was a bit more untidy – with papers strewn about – than she had left it, but nothing to shock her or make her recoil.

She went to her desk, placing the cup on it before letting herself sink onto the chair, exhaling and smiling contentedly.

“Now I am back. Truly back.” She motioned for Rolan to sit as well. “Alright – shock me. What has gone wrong?”

“Vern,” her assistant said carefully.

“Vern has gone wrong?” she enquired gently.

Rolan thought for a moment, then obviously reached the conclusion that the term was suitable. “Yes, I think we could phrase it like that.”

“Very well,” she said slowly, “could you elaborate some more? A few more details would be good.”

“He was not getting along very well with the other healers,” her assistant supplied.

“What do you mean by that? Rolan, fill in the blanks for me! This is very tedious!” she exclaimed impatiently.

He grimaced unhappily. “Vern seems to have developed certain qualities of a tyrant. The healers were on the verge of revolting against him openly. I was afraid I would soon be standing here alone with a house full of patients and the healers refusing to work.”

A tyrant? Vern? Well, she mused, judging from how she had seen him act when he was negotiating, that was probably not so very unlikely. There was definitely a propensity for that in his character.

“I see. What was the reason for his behaviour in your opinion?”

“Youth. Inexperience. Idiocy,” Rolan threw up his hands. “I don’t know!”

“Think again,” she said gently. “I need a neutral point of view from you. Give me your thoughts.”

“A voice of reason,” he murmured and shook his head. “That seems luxury in the mayhem we had here in these last weeks.” He cleared his throat and looked up again with less desperation and more focus in his eyes, she noted, relieved.

“He was overwhelmed with the double burden of heading a group of people much older than himself where he had to struggle to be taken seriously, and healing and teaching in his other role. He spent long nights here, doing the paperwork, despairing over it at times,” he explained, some sympathy clear in his voice.

“How did you get along with him?”

“Well enough. I tried to take as much off his shoulders as I could, but my own experience with leading people and healing or teaching is not exactly noteworthy. All I could help him with was the paperwork.” He sighed. “As well as with getting him out of the safe room once when they had blocked the door while he was in.”

“They?” she asked. “The healers?”

Rolan nodded.

“What else have they done?” She felt anger rising at the stupidity of adults teasing a young man several years their junior who instead would be best shown their support.

“Wilfully misunderstood orders, from what I have gathered. Hidden his clothes. Locked the study door. Twice.”

Eryn closed her eyes, calming her wish to hit out at someone. There was steel in them when she opened them again. “Alright. Tell me what he did to provoke those things. They are not normally that stupid.”

“He resorted to shouting at them quite a lot. Made them stay longer, gave them more to learn than they could cope with. It seems he is used to a rather more rapid rate of progress when it comes to learning things.”

Yes, she thought, and she had always taken advantage of the fact that he was smart, interested and a very speedy learner. Had she inadvertently encouraged him to think that this was the way everybody should be tutored? Obviously she had.

“They tried to talk to him first,” Rolan continued. “But they made demands, which he did not take very well, either.”

She thought back to the hug Vern had given her. The panic in his voice when he had told her that he had been afraid they wouldn’t let her leave any more from Takhan. There had obviously been a little more behind that than merely missing her as a friend.

“Oh dear,” she sighed. “So it seems I will have to start mending that breach again. They need to be able to work together again as professionals. And Vern is still far enough ahead to train them occasionally or at least supervise their work. I need to get them to respect each other again. Any suggestions?”

Rolan straightened. She couldn’t help but notice that he very much appreciated being asked for his thoughts. She tried to think back. Had she never bothered to ask him before? It seemed as if Vern’s approach to leading people was not the only one that needed mid-course corrections, she thought.

“I think what both sides have been missing over these last weeks is appreciation,” he ventured and waited for her reaction to that.

“Appreciation? As in telling them that they have performed good work?”

He nodded. “Something like that, yes.”

“Alright, I can do that.” She emptied her cup. “Do you have any information for me about training progress, stock, treatments?”

She saw him smile for the first time since her arrival and couldn’t help but relish the sight. He had never once failed to produce a piece of paper with lists, numbers or whatever else on it since they had started working together. It was what he was good at. So now they were about to enter his realm of expertise.

* * *

Eryn had just finished reading the reports about the nature and quantities of medicines that had been administered to patients in her absence, when there was a knock at the door and upon her invitation a liveried Palace messenger entered.

Oh no, she thought. Not a summons from the King or the Council. Not now when there was so much to be taken care of. However, he did not seem to have a written message on him, so he was surely here to tell her to come with him.

She sighed before he could speak. “King or Council?”

The messenger blinked. “Magic Council, Lady Eryn.”

“Right now or do I have time to finish a few things first?”

He grimaced sympathetically. “Right now, I am afraid.”

She pushed back her chair. “Of course. What else? Lead on, then. I suppose you were told not to leave without me.”

He nodded and waited for her to slip into her robes and adjust them before preceding her down the stairs.

Enric had warned her that they might want to see her soon enough, but she had hoped that whatever they needed or wanted to know could for now be dealt with by him alone. Whatever concerned trade or politics he would surely be the one to satisfy their curiosity more effectively. She stopped and slowed her breathing. But there was one area in which she herself would be the one to ask. Healing and everything concerned with it. Of course. They wanted to talk about the barrier inside their heads. That was the most likely explanation.

The messenger turned to her and waited patiently until she resumed walking. When they had reached the doors to the great Council hall, he bowed to her and took his leave. She knocked three times and the door opened immediately. She entered and found herself the centre of attention from not only the twelve Council members but also an exalted visitor to these halls: the King.

The Council sat around a large round table with one chair for the Order’s leader slightly more elaborate than the others. The King’s throne was off to one side as if he had the role of a mere observer in these halls.

Twelve members, she mused. Exactly like the number of Houses in Takhan. It was the first time she had noticed this coincidence. Funny, the things the mind came up with when it wanted to escape the immediate reality. She knew she was not in any trouble, and yet standing before the Council and the King was not particularly pleasant.

“Gentlemen,” she spoke before any of them had a chance to address her, “Here I am. Let’s keep this brief, shall we? As you may imagine, there is quite a lot of work I need to take care of after my return.”

She saw a few of them exchange amused or annoyed glances with each other. Orrin lifted an eyebrow at her, perhaps in warning, while Enric seemed slightly amused and Lord Tyront gave her a stare which – while not exactly hostile – did definitely lack warmth. The King’s expression was as unreadable as it tended to be most of the time.

Maybe it had not been the most advisable of greetings, she considered. Though summoning her at such short notice had not been the most considerate thing to do, either. From where she stood, they were even.

“Lady Eryn,” Tyront said pointedly, “allow me to welcome you back amongst us in the name of the Council, however inconvenient our request for your presence seems to be for you right now.”

She shrugged. “Thank you. As long as this does not require too long, I would say the inconvenience is not going to be too great.” Stupid, she scolded herself. What was it about this man which made her want to provoke him? She considered how the King’s words only the evening before about her stay abroad had not done anything for her attitude towards authority.

Tyront took a deep breath and smiled at her coldly. “Then the Council will do its best not to unduly waste your very precious time, Lady Eryn.”

She didn’t reply to that and just waited for him to go on. The statement might have seemed harmless enough, but his tone implied he was clearly far from happy, so it was probably wiser to keep her tongue in check for now and limit herself to answering when she was spoken to. A strategy which Enric had been trying to impress its merits on her for quite some time now.

“You might have guessed why we have called for you,” he went on.

She noted that he didn’t offer her a seat. Small revenges won. So she had to stand there like she was accused of a wrongdoing. It reminded her of the day when she and Vern had been brought to his study after being discovered during their unapproved magical fighting lessons. And the senate in Takhan, where she had stood before the representatives of the Houses during the trial. She pushed the images aside and focused on the here and now.

“I assume you wish to talk to me about the barrier existing inside your heads,” she ventured. She saw Tyront nod in mild surprise. So he had not counted on her really supposing the reason and had tried to make her appear bad as punishment for her behaviour. Charming. Enric’s approving grin was hardly discernible, but clearly visible to the knowing eye.

“Indeed. From what I understand you were granted the knowledge of how to detect and remove the barrier and were even shown how to do it by your…” He paused, clearly not certain how to term the family situation she was now in after the adoption.

“By Valrad,” she completed his sentence. “Yes. He was kind enough to show me how it is done by instructing me in the removal of Enric’s barrier.”

She saw a broad smile spread on Lord Woldarn’s face. “Then we have now two magicians who are in a position to bear magically-gifted daughters. And most convenient that they happen to be joined as companions.”

Eryn gave him a cool stare. “Your eagerness to embrace that new development is understandable, My Lord, but I assure you that I have no intention of starting a large family to accommodate other people’s wishes for such things.”

“I do beg your pardon,” he said in a placating voice and lifted both hands, “that was not what I meant to imply, My Lady, I assure you. I just meant to say that however many children yourself and Lord Enric intend to have, we all look forward to seeing them develop, particularly if girls number among them.”

Enric closed his eyes for a moment. That would not receive a favourable reply either, and he doubted that Tyront was in any mood to deal with more of her insolence for now. Which was why he spoke up before Eryn had a chance to reply.

“Lord Woldarn, I appreciate your interest in our procreation plans, but suggest this is hardly the right setting for such discussion,” he commented dryly, not leaving any doubt whatsoever that he did not at all appreciate it.

That earned him a few chuckles and Lord Woldarn leaned back with folded arms and a sour expression.

“Lady Eryn,” Lord Tyront resumed his initial topic, “we have summoned you to inform you of our decision to allow removal of the barrier inside the heads of both magicians and non-magicians at your earliest convenience.”

She gulped. “All of them?”

“Preferably, yes. I imagine that this might take up some of the time that you would rather wish to dedicate to other matters for now, but you will surely understand that this needs to be taken care of soon,” he pointed out.

Eryn exhaled and nodded. “I do, yes. Though I don’t even know how long it will take me to remove every barrier. I have performed it only once so far, and I had help with that. How is this supposed to work? Do I go knocking from door to door, and have people let me look inside their heads? What if somebody objects? Not everybody is comfortable with a stranger doing things they don’t understand inside their own heads,” she pointed out.

“There will be a Royal order that will make people comply,” another Council member supplied.

She shook her head in disbelief. “Really? We are forcing them? Or rather you are making me force them? What am I to do if they refuse point blank? Bash them on the head with a stick and go ahead without their consent?” She folded her arms. “This contradicts the principles of the healing profession. I do not intend to subject anybody to this order who is not willing to allow it. Additionally, I will not show my healers how it is done if you intend to put them under pressure instead.” Her chin was lifted defiantly and she glared at the Council members.

Enric saw Tyront go pale at the blatant refusal to carry out a Royal order, especially as the one who had issued it was present. They had returned less than one day ago and she was already getting herself into trouble again. This woman really had a knack for it. Unfortunately for the Order and the King, though, she had a very powerful advantage on her side. If she refused to remove the barrier, they had nobody else who would or could do it. And asking for a healer from the Western Territories to take care of it because Eryn refused would look very bad. Then there was the question of whether they themselves would refuse as well under such conditions. It was likely enough that they considered the same principles applied to healing as she.

All of them looked up when they heard the King’s calm voice.

“Lady Eryn. I can assure you that none of us intends to violate the strict ethical principles you consider necessary for your work. I am sure we all feel safer when offering ourselves into your capable hands because of those. What approach would you say was appropriate in this matter, my Lady?”

Good, Enric mused, it seemed the King had reached the same conclusion. But then that was no great surprise. He did have a certain aptitude for thinking on his feet.

Enric watched Eryn thinking over the options for a moment before she turned to the King. “I propose making the removal of the barrier voluntary, Your Majesty. If we communicate that there is no danger whatsoever involved and point out the likely benefit of being able to conceive female magicians, this might convince the majority of people to do it. Citizens could come to the clinic to have it removed. It might be that granting them a waiver on taxes for this year would help persuade them…”

The King raised his brow at her. “A most intriguing proposal. I will certainly consider it. You have resorted to calling the place a clinic?”

Had she? She thought back and then realised that she had indeed. “Yes, it would seem I have,” she said slowly.

“Not entirely consciously, though,” the King remarked. “A term adopted from our new friends in the west, no doubt.” He looked at the Council members. “I assume that the Magic Council has no objections to having their barriers removed as soon as practicable?”

Heads shook.

“As you see, Lady Eryn, those magicians present do not have to be compelled. May I therefore impose on you to do it right here and now? Let me be the first one you work on to set a good example.”

She swallowed and nodded, not sure how to proceed. Was she to walk to the throne? Did she need an invitation for that? Had that just been one?

King Folrin rose and indicated for her to step closer. “Where do you need to touch me, Lady Eryn?”

“Somewhere on your head would be right. The forehead, for example,” she replied and walked the few steps until she stood directly in front of him.

“Do you prefer sitting or standing for this?” he enquired further.

“As I am not sure how long it will take, I would prefer to sit if this is in order.”

“Naturally,” the King nodded politely and took her hand to lead her to a small bench in front of one of the many windows. It was hardly wide enough to accommodate two people, she noted with slight unease. Back to playing games, it seemed. Though she doubted the wisdom of making her uncomfortable while she was meant to work inside his head without causing any damage.

He waited for her to take a seat and then sat down a little closer than would have been necessary, before taking her hand and laying it on his forehead.

“I am ready if you are, my Lady.”

She nodded and closed her eyes, conscious of his eyes on her. Fighting down her nervousness, she found that place of peace and quiet inside her, and only then let the magic follow the outline of her arm and enter the skull under her palm. She found the spot reasonably quickly as it was now the third time she had looked for it. It seemed to become easier the more often she did it. As she had been instructed by Valrad, she slowly and carefully increased the barrier in size by feeding it with magic until it was large enough to be dissolved without causing any shock to the sensitive tissue surrounding it.

When she opened her eyes, the King was still regarding her with this unnerving gaze of his. She nodded and removed her hand from his forehead. “It is done. The barrier inside you has been removed.”

King Folrin smiled approvingly. “Well done.” Then he rose and turned to the Council.

Tyront had risen from his chair already, knowing what was expected of him. “I shall be the next one.” He walked over to her briskly and took the seat the King had relinquished only moments ago. His posture was as calm and confident as ever, but she saw the warning in his eyes. So it seemed he was not entirely comfortable with the thought of granting her access to his head.

“Don’t concern yourself, Lord Tyront,” she said quietly enough for only him to hear. “I promise it won’t cause you any pain. I will behave; no nightmares or images of giant cats chasing you through the streets.”

He didn’t comment at that but merely raised an eyebrow at her as she lifted her hand to place on his forehead.

* * *

Tyront joined his second-in-command, who was leaning against a column while observing his companion on the small bench as she was working with her brow furrowed in concentration.

“Kilan told us that in the Western Territories her family is notorious for their short temper,” he remarked. “Pity we couldn’t have had a more docile one of them find her way here.”

Enric just smiled. It seemed that Tyront had overcome his anger at the news of his adoption from the evening before, just as Enric had expected him to.

“I must say that I am happy enough with the way things have turned out so far. What’s more, you have to admit that we have benefited from her knowledge. We have reintroduced female magicians after more than three-hundred years. I would say coping with her temper and insolence is a small price to pay for that,” he pointed out.

Tyront sighed. “You are right, and we both know it. Though I don’t appreciate it when you come across as the voice of reason instead of the sympathetic listener I need when airing my frustration, my dear boy.”

“My dear boy,” Enric repeated with a slight shake of his head. “I am thirty-five years old. When are you going to stop calling me that?”

“When our age difference starts shrinking or you take over my position,” Tyront replied with calculated smugness.

“When I take over your position? That means after you would are dead,” Enric pointed out.

“That would certainly stop me from addressing you with my dear boy any longer, wouldn’t it?”

“It would stop you from doing a lot of things, I would say,” the younger man remarked dryly.

“True enough. But then there is the question of whether you would even be available for my succession with your new status as heir of a House in Takhan, isn’t there?”

Ah yes, Enric thought grimly – so they were back onto that topic. Of course there was no avoiding it in the long run; he was second in line for two positions which more or less excluded each other, if simply for reasons of geography.

“I have great expectation of not finding myself in that situation in the foreseeable future,” he said, trying to placate his superior. “I trust that there will be other opportunities to find a capable Head for House Aren in time. Malriel is not yet fifty, so I doubt that she will want to relinquish her position anytime soon. Or you yours, for that matter.”

That seemed to reassure Tyront to a certain degree. “That may be true. Although it is not a matter that needs to concern us right now, it does not mean that we are absolved from finding a way of dealing with it, however. Right now it looks as if the Order’s succession is under threat.” His gaze wandered over to Eryn, who was working on Lord Poron’s barrier at the moment. “Number three,” he murmured. “Apart from the fact that she would probably dissolve the Order or lead it into utter chaos, that is not even the main problem, as you would take her with you to Takhan anyway. That leaves Lord Poron, who I would wish to live forever, but who is still twenty years older than I and will very probably not outlive me to take over my position.”

“Orrin then,” Enric smiled. “Now, that would be a good choice. Apart from the fact that he would refuse outright. Too honest, too straightforward for the political dance.”

Tyront released his breath audibly. “I hope you see in what situation I find myself due to your chivalrous gesture to take your companion’s place in her old family so as to protect her new one.”

Enric nodded sympathetically. “Let me assure you of my compassion.”

“I would rather hear you assure me that you will find a solution to this dilemma. Don’t think this is only my problem, Enric.”

“I wouldn’t dream of doing so. But then there is always the chance of another unexpected addition to our high ranks,” the younger man said cheerfully.

“Stop trying to comfort me,” Tyront growled. “I will surely not have to deal with this a third time if there is any justice in this world.” He turned his head to Eryn once more. “Is she still as opposed to having children as she used to be? She has entered into this magical bond with you, after all.”

“Yes, she is. Moreover, if I had not intervened at Lord Woldarn’s question previously, I am in no doubt that she would have told you about it herself in very colourful words. Are you wondering about sending my offspring to Takhan to take over House Aren?” He shook his head. “That would not work quite so easily. According to their laws, our children would be members of House Vel’kim. Children we are very likely never to have, though,” he added in a tone that made Tyront narrow his eyes at him.

“Not too happy about that, are you?” he enquired carefully.

Enric sighed. “I respect that decision. And it was something I was aware of before I entered into the third level bond with her. So no complaints. It was not as if I were so very likely to start a family without her any time soon, in any case. If there is the question either of having children or of keeping her, I don’t even have to think about the answer.”

The older man nodded slowly. “I see. A pity that those are the choices, though.”

Lord Poron joined their circle and smiled. “Over and done with. It seems I have now the ability to father magical daughters,” he laughed. “My Aurna will be very tickled to hear that.”

“It is more the gesture that counts,” Tyront told him. “We should be able to say that the entire Magic Council has had the barrier removed – otherwise how can we justify asking others to have it done if there is a single one of us who hasn’t?”

Lord Poron waved a dismissive hand. “You won’t hear me complain, Lord Tyront. I found it interesting to watch, though Lady Eryn kept telling me to stop following her every move and asking inconvenient questions that broke her concentration.”

“Well, I would say diverting a healer who is working inside your head might not be the wisest course of action,” Enric pointed out. “Anyway, I am sure there will be ample opportunity to observe how it is done when she removes the barriers at the healers’ place.”

“Yes, or the clinic, as it seems we will be calling it from now on,” Lord Poron said. “Though people will probably keep referring to it as Lady Eryn’s anyway.”

They straightened when King Folrin stepped towards them.

“Lord Enric, I am sure you are aware that there is a custom of the Crown’s granting a favour to those who earn the Kingdom’s gratitude by accomplishing something that benefits it?”

Enric smiled faintly. “I admit I am, Your Majesty.”

“Then I am surely right in further assuming that you have something in mind that you would wish to propose to me for that purpose?”

“There is indeed an idea that I would very much like to discuss with you, Your Majesty.”

“Very good,” the King smiled. “Then I suggest we meet to take care of this soon. Do you need time to prepare a detailed proposal, Lord Enric?”

“No, I happen to have one ready.”

“Excellent. And not entirely unexpected, I have to say.” The King nodded to the three magicians. “Excuse me now. I need to leave.” He waited for the magicians to bow to him before he walked away.

“So, what is it going to be?” Lord Poron asked curiously.

“Nothing I wish to disclose before it is granted,” Enric chuckled. “That is said to attract bad luck.” He looked over at Eryn. “It looks like she will be kept here for quite some time yet. That means her work remains unfinished and she will not be in a very relaxed mood tonight. I assume I will have to drag her home before she falls asleep across her desk again.”

“That’s the downside of being joined to such an important woman, Lord Enric,” Lord Poron chuckled. “The most important one we have right now.”

* * *

Eryn returned to her study and flopped down on her chair. Two hours gone. Two hours she could have employed much better than in removing the barriers of the King and the Council members. But then at least she had improved her skills somewhat by practising. Towards the end she had been a lot quicker than with the first few. As soon as she was done with the last of them, she had all but fled the Council hall when she detected first attempts at getting her to join conversations.

She had seen Enric standing on one side and talking first to Lord Tyront and later to Lord Poron. At one time Orrin joined them as well. Soon after the removal of Lord Tyront’s barrier she had felt a surprising pang of sadness that had not been her own. She wondered what the two men had been talking about that triggered such a feeling in her companion.

A knock came from the door that joined her study with Rolan’s and she called out for him to enter. He stuck his head in.

“Vern has been looking for you. I told him I would let him know as soon as you are back. He is in Plia’s laboratory now,” her assistant reported.

Sighing, she stood up. “Alright, then I’d better fetch him. It looks like there is not going to be much chance for me to get any work done today. I wonder why I ever thought there was.”

She walked out onto the corridor and knocked at Plia’s half-open door.

“Plia?” she called out. “I was told Vern was here.”

When she entered, she saw Plia examining a bunch of dried herbs that had very likely been delivered by the herb gatherers and Vern leafing through one of the books on the table next to her.

“I told you,” he then announced triumphantly, “the blossoms are to be plucked before drying!”

They both looked up when Eryn entered.

“There you are!” Vern complained, “I have been waiting here for more than half an hour! Where have you been? I would have thought that you have enough to do after your trip not to run off just like that in the middle of the day!”

She snorted. “Don’t tell me, tell the Magic Council! They thought this was just the right day to make me take care of a little task for them. Plia, I hope he is not keeping you from your work? Just kick him out if he is a nuisance.”

“No,” the girl smiled, “he has been very helpful, in fact. It helps that he has aided you in putting the books together, he is a lot faster at finding things in them than me.”

Vern put aside the book and waved goodbye to Plia before following Eryn into her study. As soon as the door was closed, his stance changed completely. His shoulders drooped and his expression became unhappy and worried.

“What’s the matter?” she enquired immediately. “That’s not a good reaction when you enter my study.”

“I have come to apologise. I suppose you have heard about a thing or two already. My taking care of this place here was not exactly a grand success,” he murmured. “I failed you.”

Eryn looked at him and considered how to handle things. Sympathy was not a path that would lead anywhere with him right now. His self-esteem was low at the moment, and treating him with gentleness would just confirm this to him. What he needed now was not a friend. He needed a superior.

She picked up a few sheets of paper and pretended to look through them, then she looked up in confusion.

“I have looked through the reports Rolan is so eager to throw at me on every possible occasion, and it seems there was an increasing number of patients who were treated with mostly good results in these last weeks.” She pulled out one list. “It says here the quality of the herbs and medicines was adequate, so no complaints here. The complaints that were made – all four of them – were taken care of quickly. The money kept flowing in and was stored properly, the patient reports were completed and I have not returned to utter chaos and mayhem.” She put aside the papers. “I heard that you met some trouble with the healers, but as the healing services seem to have been provided continuously at the standard that I demand, I do not consider the term failed appropriate here.”

He blinked a few times and frowned. When he was about to speak, she lifted her finger to stop him.

“I am sure that your time in charge of this place was not exactly a very relaxing and uncomplicated one, but full of challenges, especially personal ones. Yet this did not stop you from keeping it going, nor did you fling everything aside and make a bolt for it when most people would surely have understood if you had. So, however you yourself assess your performance, from a rational point of view failed is certainly not accurate. Also, if we are to work together, I need to be able to rely on your assessment of situations.” She leaned back and steepled her fingers the way she had seen Lord Tyront do. Oh dear. Was she really imitating him now? “I would invite you to think again and then give me a more realistic evaluation of what has happened here in my absence.” She was proud of how cool her voice sounded, making her statement just sound like the order it actually was.

Vern straightened and his face drained of all but an insecure expression, as if not entirely sure how to deal with authoritative Eryn when he was so much more used to either explosive, annoyed or funny Eryn.

His eyes scanned the floor for several moments, then he started speaking. “The treatment of the patients worked well; I established a rota where each of the trainees worked with me before being paired up again with another trainee. I took care of the more complex treatments myself while the others healed minor things and were instructed to fetch me if they had any questions.” Then he paused, thinking again for a few seconds before continuing, “The supply of herbs was a little erratic at the beginning, but Plia devised a way to plan in advance for the medication she needs and instructed the gatherers accordingly. In some cases the quality was a bit of a problem, especially when it came to the gatherers who were not on the excursion with us. But Plia was very strict in accepting the material, so they mended their ways, as it were.” A small smile appeared on his face.

“What else?” Eryn prompted.

“The administrative matters were taken care of by Rolan, and while I sometimes found it hard to get on with him at the beginning, it turned out that this place was more or less destined for rack and ruin without him. At least when you are not here.”

She suppressed a smile and refrained from telling him for now that such a fate was not much changed now she was here.

“I would have been totally and completely lost without him. Really. I think I owe him my sanity. Or what is left of it,” Vern sighed.

Good. At least he had seen that there was something positive as well, she thought. Time to move on to what had not worked out that well.

“What was the trouble with you and the other healers?” she enquired mildly.

“I don’t know, it was just…” he started and stilled immediately, when she shook her head.

“No, Vern. Switch off the self-pity for now and think. I need proper answers, not complaints,” she insisted.

He seemed slightly taken aback, but then nodded and started anew. “I had the impression that they found it hard to take me seriously.”

“What do you think was the reason for that?”

He looked at her as if this was obvious. “My youth, I would think.”

“Alright. I heard there was a certain… discord when it came to the training?”

“You could say that, yes,” he replied darkly. “They either didn’t attempt the assignments I gave them at all or did only half of them.”

“Did they give you a reason for that?”

“They kept saying it was too much, that they didn’t have the energy after work.”

Eryn nodded. “I see. How did you react to that argument?”

“I told them to put more effort into their training and had better take it seriously instead of trying to take advantage of the fact that you were away,” he informed her.

Oh dear. “So there was no doubt whatsoever in your mind that they might not have been trying to shirk the assignments out of laziness but because they really found it too much?”

He concentrated his stare. “I did much more than that when I started my healing training with you! I stayed up until midnight reading books, practising the things I had learned and drawing pictures. I set them a lot less to do than that, so I really don’t see what there was to complain about!”

Eryn leaned forward. “Vern, you know very well that your aptitude in everything remotely connected with books and understanding things is above average. This is not something only I kept on telling you, but also what you no doubt experienced with the rest of your classmates and teachers. Applying your own standards, based on your personal abilities to other people with strengths either not as developed or in different areas, can be a dangerous thing to do.”

“So you, as well, think I expected too much from them?”

She breathed out slowly. “Vern, I am not in a position to judge anything here. I have no idea what or exactly how much you gave them to do, whether it was too much or not. I am just trying to encourage you to see their point and be slightly more conscious of not everybody’s being like you. It does not mean that they are any less important as healers, mind you. They probably have other strengths, which you may not,” she added in a warning tone.

That seemed to make him reconsider the issue.

“They locked me in several times,” was all he finally said, rather quietly.

“That was wrong of them,” she nodded. “Quite childish. But people tend to react unreasonably when they feel misunderstood and frustrated. That’s the trick, you see? Listening to them.” She smiled. “Do you remember all those troubles we had with the changing room?” How far away that seemed now. “I insisted on keeping the arrangement in place, no matter what Enric caused me to suffer. Then the healers themselves came to me to tell me that they wanted it changed. I was not too happy about that, believe me. Even though if felt like losing this battle to Enric, I still gave up my fight and did what they asked me to. Doing so didn’t make them respect me any less. Insisting on keeping everything the way it was despite their request would surely have cost me their goodwill. And despite all the trouble you had with them, from what I have seen they have never let this influence the quality of their work. You know, that is something you need to credit them with.”

Vern rubbed his face, feeling suddenly weary. “That shows me that I am clearly not cut out for leading people.”

“Utter rubbish. It just shows that you are sixteen. Leading people is a matter of experience and a willingness to learn. Willingness to learn has never been a problem in your case. I’m sure the experience will come with age. I have no intention of letting you off the hook when it comes to filling in for me.”

He eyed her doubtfully. “After all this you still think that is a wise idea?”

“I do, yes. I have no intention of wasting that potential and talent of yours because you have not yet learned to control your tendencies to lead from the front like a dictator. You will sooner or later assume a position of responsibility of some kind, there is no avoiding that. So you’d better start learning how to work with people. Though we will make sure you are better prepared for facing that the next time.”

“You hear people talk of born leaders all the time! So it is not necessarily something that can be learned but is a gift,” he pointed out.

“Born leaders, Vern, are people who can indulge in the luxury of not having to learn all this because most likely they were born with considerable strengths in that area. They might, however, be neither good as healers, nor as artists nor as negotiators. If you ask me, I would rather be born with a gift that cannot be learned and take the trouble of acquiring the skill of leadership. You have heard what people say about Enric, haven’t you? A lazy, useless scallywag when he was young – certainly not a born leader. But just look at him now.”

She decided that this was a good time to return to her role as a friend. “Vern, you have not failed me. Apart from with your totally inaccurate assessment of the situation, that is,” she smiled. “I am proud of you, very much. Always have been. And I am confident that you will give me more than enough reason to be so in the future.”

He relaxed and returned the smile. “It’s good to have you back. Really good.”

She grinned. “Good. So don’t you forget it.”

“What am I to do with the other healers?”

“I will talk to them, listen to their side of the story. Tell them that they have done some good work, show them appreciation. As for the rest – well, it is up to you to make them respect you again. There are two significant advantages you have: greater knowledge and experience in healing than they have. Use that to help them, but don’t let them treat you with disrespect. That is pretty much it for now.” She cast a quick glance at the door to her assistant’s room. “So he did a good job in my absence?”

Vern shook his head. “Not merely a good job, but he saved my life day after day. He did so much paperwork, I don’t even know what all of it is. He only came in here when there was no way of avoiding it, when he needed a signature or something to keep the place running. He stayed late almost every day, was here early in the morning. I don’t know when he had time to sleep. And he tried to stop us from bickering.”

Eryn nodded. That was high praise indeed and she decided to be nicer to Rolan from now on. He had really earned it.

She smiled and leant forward. “I learned some very helpful things in Takhan. Things I can imagine you will be very eager to learn.”

A glint had entered Vern’s eyes. “Such as what?”

“I learned how to make people appear younger. Ten years, twenty, however much you desire. And I met a very talented and smart non-magician healer who taught me about non-magical methods of diagnosis.”

A broad grin split his face. “Seriously? That is awesome!”

“There is more. I learned how to enable people here to give birth to magically-gifted daughters.”

Vern stared at her. “You are joking!”

“I am not,” she smiled, satisfied at his reaction. “And I have just been commissioned by the Magic Council to work on that. I could use another healer to help me with it. You don’t happen to know anyone who would be interested in that task, do you?”


Chapter 3

Side Effect

Junar laughed delightedly as she opened the door and found herself facing Eryn.

“Hey, what an unexpected honour! I didn’t think we would be seeing you here for a while yet! You must be swamped with work, I imagine. Orrin – look who is here,” she called out. Then she noticed her visitor’s slightly pained expression and stopped herself. “Something is not right. Come in.”

“I need to talk to you,” Eryn sighed and stepped inside the parlour that had noticeably acquired a few more female touches in the course of these last few weeks. Flowers in vases, colourful throw cushions, little items that served no other purpose than decoration.

Orrin stepped out of his study and lifted his brow at her. “Trouble, dear girl?”

She nodded. “One could say that, yes.”

“Did you cause it or are you suffering from its effects?” he enquired further.

“Tough question. I suppose one could say both, in a way,” she replied after thinking for moment.

“Well, if that isn’t being cryptic…” Junar lifted her eyes to the ceiling and led Eryn to a settee. “Sit. I’ll get you something to drink.”

“So, what is the matter?” Orrin asked and strolled closer.

Eryn regarded him for a few moments, then said, “I am not really sure if you should hear this. It is tenuously connected to sex.”

He fought down a slightly uncomfortable expression, but not before she had spotted it. She smiled faintly. “Last chance to run, warrior. What is it to be? Will you brave the news now or will you make Junar tell you after I have gone?”

He huffed indignantly. “What makes you think I would do a thing like that? I don’t remember ever expressing an unhealthy interest in that element of your life. Or having one, for that matter,” he amended.

“I think you would be terribly curious as I don’t normally run around talking about my intimate partner problems to people,” she remarked with a raised eyebrow.

“I will stay,” Orrin announced. “But only because you phrased it as a challenge.”

“Brave Orrin,” she murmured and accepted the warm drink Junar brought her.

“Out with it, then!” the seamstress urged her, before taking a seat between them.

Eryn took a sip and felt the comforting warmth in her throat and stomach. How best to start, she wondered. There was quite a lot connected to this they were not aware of yet.

“Enric and I entered into something called a third level commitment bond before we left Takhan,” she started. “It is a magical commitment only two magicians can have. It binds them very tightly.”

Junar’s eyes bulged and Orrin frowned. “A magical binding? Like the oath to the King?”

“Yes, similar to that. Somewhat stronger, though. They have three commitment bonds, and the one between companions is the strongest one. It induces more intimacy, more awareness for the other’s feelings and pulls companions back together if they become separated.”

“And you entered into this?” Junar asked incredulously. “You bound yourself to a man magically?”

“Voluntarily?” Orrin added in that same tone of disbelief.

“Come on!” Eryn exclaimed and threw up her hands in frustration. “I was joined with Enric for several months before that, why would it surprise you that we took what could be considered the next step?”

“Because you were forced into the commitment with him and did not at all take it well at that time,” Orrin replied.

“As well as because you have serious commitment issues,” Junar said.

“Well, consider them overcome! Can I now go on or do you wish to discuss what you think of as my bonding issues?”

“Fair enough… so you entered into this strong magical commitment.” Orrin motioned for her to go on.

“It has side effects,” Eryn murmured.

“Apart from the things you mentioned before?” Junar asked.

“Yes. At least in our case it has. I am told it hardly ever happens, so not to worry about it. Of course it has to happen to us, Enric and I, of all people,” she sighed and pressed her fingers to her temples. “Far away from the people who know at least a little about it.”

“And that side effect concerns your sex life?” the seamstress asked carefully.

“Among other things, it does. We have what is referred to as a mind bond. That means we have somehow developed a connection that makes it possible for each of us to experience the other person’s feelings in our own consciousness if they are strong enough,” Eryn explained.

Both of them stared at her in surprise. Junar was the first to recover. “Really? Such as what?”

“Just about everything – good and bad emotions. When I learned about this I said something that angered Enric very much, and the force of his reaction almost doubled me over.”

Orrin looked surprised. “Amazing. And in bed this is a problem why exactly?”

Eryn gave him a pained look. “Because having his emotions in addition to my own is so intense that my brain doesn’t seem to be able to cope with it. I fainted.” She snipped her fingers. “Just like that. Out like a light.”

Junar replied helpfully, “Oh my. That is inconvenient.”

“Inconvenient?” Eryn called out. “That is putting it very mildly! It is a catastrophe!”

“Why?” her friend asked in puzzlement. “I assume the emotions you felt were positive ones?”

“Yes. So what?”

“I would guess that quite a large number of women would be more than thrilled at the prospect of losing consciousness after sex due to a wave of overwhelming positive emotion,” she shrugged. “Not me, though,” she added with a sly glimpse at Orrin. “I am perfectly happy.”

Eryn frowned at her. “Enric was in a panic! He thought for a moment that he had killed me! Can you imagine that? I wonder if he will ever dare touch me again. Or whether he even should.”

“Can’t you ask somebody in the Western Territories about what to do? Or if this is a risk to your life?” Orrin prompted.

“Enric sent a message to my uncle, who is a healer. But as we have not yet managed to encourage those bloody birds to breed, the answer might involve a long wait.”

“Then what will you do now? Sleep in separate rooms?” Junar enquired.

She shook her head. “No. He is adamant about avoiding that. It seems after our initial difficulties, where I refused to sleep in his bedroom but instead stayed in his guestroom, he rejects the idea of sleeping apart. We were separated in Takhan for the duration of the trial, and he did not take that very well.”

“The trial, yes,” Orrin said slowly. “That is something I would very much like to hear more about. We were only told that your return would be delayed due to accusations you had to face.”

Junar opened her mouth to say something but then closed it again.

“What?” Eryn asked.

“I was about to invite you to dinner, but I am not really sure how to go about it. Can I even do that? I mean, your companion is Orrin’s superior. Is that appropriate? Would he even accept? What if he does? I admit I am a bit out of my depth here,” she sighed.

“Then let me help you out here, will you? I would very much like to invite the two of you, plus Vern, to have dinner at our place in three days.”

Junar smiled in relief. “Thank you. That does make everything a lot easier.”

“Glad to have eased your mind. So, any advice for my fainting problem?” Eryn enquired.

Junar shrugged. “I admit I don’t really see the problem. So you faint when the pleasure is too much for you to bear. That does not sound like that much of a test of endurance to me. Why not just revel in it? Or are there any objections from the healer’s point of view? Might it cause any brain damage? I assume you have checked that?”

Eryn shook her head. “I did, yes. And no, none that I am aware of. But fainting makes me feel so helpless! It’s weak, pathetic!”

“Ah yes,” Orrin smiled. “And there we have the root of the problem, don’t we? It is certainly not a matter of what Lord Enric thinks of you. He wouldn’t think less of you for it. But you have issues with seeming weak, probably as a consequence of how you came to stay in the city. Not to mention joining your companion in the first place. By being made to do so. Control. You feel you are losing control of your life again, and this does not sit well with you.”

Eryn blinked a few times in astonishment. “That was surprisingly insightful.”

“Unlike my usual, uneducated approach to things, you mean?” he asked with a raised brow.

“No!” she protested. “It’s just that you tend to be a little more blunt from what I have experienced.”

“You are aware that there are books in my study, right?”

“I am, yes,” she confirmed tactfully.

“They are not for decoration. I have read almost all of them,” he said dryly.

“I’m sorry if I insulted you, Orrin,” she sighed. “So you think I don’t trust Enric enough to be able to tolerate my own loss of control?”

He shook his head. “That’s not what I said. Control is an innate human need. If we have the impression that we cannot influence things around us no matter what we do, we feel helpless, frustrated. You fought for control when you were kept prisoner. At first by defying me whenever you could, and when that didn’t work, you started healing people on the street.”

Eryn stared at him. It seemed Vern was not the only smart one in this family. However could she have underestimated him that much?

“So in letting me roam the streets with Vern…,” she began.

“I returned some control over your life to you, yes. And you became more cooperative after that. Though you kept pushing your limits and I had to set you boundaries, like that one night when you healed Junar’s sister and didn’t return to your quarters. There is only so much control that one should restore to a prisoner, after all.”

“Orrin, Orrin,” she murmured and nodded her head, “you sly old dog. You are more dangerous than I would have thought.”

“How do you cope with that emotion sharing in general? What is it like? Do you suddenly feel things and you have no idea why?” Junar wanted to know.

“Well, it’s different from my own feelings, I know instantly when I am perceiving something from him. Mostly it’s confusing, especially when I am somewhere else and have just the emotion but no context for it. Like yesterday, when he was talking to Lord Tyront. There was a short moment of sadness or regret and I had no idea what was causing it.”

“And asking him about it is not something you feel comfortable with?” Junar prompted.

Eryn grimaced. “I don’t know. I’d imagine if he wants me to know about it he will tell me. This whole matter is exhausting. It is like we are melding somehow and I am starting to wonder where exactly he ends and I begin. I want to preserve a certain amount of privacy. It is intimate enough to share the emotions first hand without knowing each tiny detail around them as well.”

Junar nodded slowly. “I guess I can understand that. But then who would have thought that there are so many emotions within him anyway? He always seems so calm and collected.”

“He has strong emotions alright; he just doesn’t let people see them. He has no trouble whatsoever controlling how much he lets out. And now I think this is already a lot more than he would want you knowing about him.” She rose. “Thank you for your time.” She smiled at Orrin. “You are more useful than I give you credit for.”

“Obviously,” he remarked. “So you are leaving us again already? That was a very brief visit.”

“I need to get back to the clinic. Vern is meeting me there so I can show him how to remove the head barrier from the other healers.”

He cleared his throat. “I do not have the impression that Vern and the healers are getting along terribly well at the moment.”

“I am sure they will behave themselves, especially when I am there to back him up. I am confident that they can manage to work together. I had a little chat with Vern yesterday.”

Orrin nodded. “I know. He told me about it. He was rather surprised at some of the things you said to him. And so was I, to be honest. Growing up, aren’t you?”

She sighed and chuckled. “It seems we are both bubbling with surprises these days, eh?”

“I wish you were. I am still waiting for my presents from far across the seas,” Junar pouted.

“In three days, I promise,” Eryn smiled and closed the door behind her.

* * *

She entered the parlour and whistled through her teeth when she saw the preparations that had been made for their guests. They would be arriving in about two hours and she was immensely pleased with the efforts. It had a touch of the Western Territories, she noted. Throw cushions in colourful fabric, a table cloth in the same style. When had they bought all those?

Enric had told her that he intended to introduce their guests to a little of the new culture they were both now more or less a part of now. So he had been on a hunting trip the day before with Orrin and of course Urban to follow the Western tradition of serving to guests only what the host had hunted himself. The warrior trainer had been surprised at his superior’s invitation to join him, and so had Eryn.

It seemed that the scene on their return really had made Enric think over his lack of attachment to other people here in his home country, and he was working on changing that. Orrin was a more or less obvious – if not completely uncomplicated – choice, considering their not exactly harmonious history together.

The trip seemed to have gone well enough, they returned with several kills and parted amicably.

“Enric?” she called out and went to his study when no reply came. The room was empty, and so were the others. Was it possible that he was not at home? She looked out of her study window into the yard and saw Urban sleeping on an elevated place on a rock, paws and head hanging down limply. So Enric could not be very far away. He only left the cat at home when he attended Council meetings, and as far as she was aware there was none scheduled for today.

Shrugging, she went upstairs to consult her wardrobe and found a note pinned to the door. It told her to wear something appealing in her home country’s colours. Smiling, she pulled out a colourful tunic and dark trousers to slip into after washing. Enric really seemed to be enjoying playing the host tonight judging from the details he paid attention to.

She stilled when a thought occurred to her. Her gaze wandered to the window that overlooked the yard and the opposite building that housed the working rooms. Such as the kitchen. He would not really be taking over preparation of the meal himself as well, would he? No, she thought, amused at herself – that was probably too much to assume. Or was it?

She decided that there was still enough time left for a quick bath. The last three days had been exhausting, so she surely deserved a little relaxation before receiving her guests.

Nonetheless, her thoughts did not exactly care about resting when she was leaning back in the refreshing, warm water a little later. They seemed to have been waiting for a small break to spring out and announce themselves from all sides.

Vern and the healers. The first encounter following her return had been noticeably tense and overly polite, but after a few hours all of them seemed to have found a way back into their roles which were there before her departure, as colleagues with no hierarchy between them, only a gap in knowledge. Vern seemed most relieved afterwards, glad that they had started talking to him again.

He had been busy these last two days, removing barriers whenever he had seen a chance. First Junar and Plia, then Rolan and his classmates. He was eager to continue with the patients, but Eryn had to hold him back. He was still recovering from six very stressful weeks and needed to focus on the things he had missed in class instead of continuing to do her work.

The mind bond had been surprisingly unproblematic these last three days. She had once caught a flare up of anger from Enric and asked him about it in the evening. He told her that one of his fellow Council members had expressed his opinion of Enric’s adoption rather too freely and had been rebuked accordingly. Very likely with an icy smile and a warning stare that had not revealed the extent of anger inside him. She wondered if this was something that could be learned. Keeping her feelings inside like this, only letting them out when she wished to use them as a weapon.

Plia seemed to have been the only one working at the healers’ place who had not been affected by the tension between Vern and the other healers. She had been working steadily in her secluded safe haven with the door closed, receiving herb gatherers and apothecaries to accept or refuse their goods and preparing her own stock of medicines. Eryn had tried to encourage her to join them tonight, but Plia refused politely by pretending to have a prior engagement. Enric and Orrin together in one place was probably too much for her – she still bowed to Enric whenever she met him in the house, even though he kept pointing out to her that this was rather excessive formality when both lived under the same roof.

The yard came as a pleasant surprise once they had returned. The grass, planted shortly after their departure, had covered the ground nicely with the large rocks, trees and tree trunks very much to Urban’s liking – probably because she finally had a place where she was allowed to wreak havoc to her heart’s content. Enric had told Eryn that people kept pointing out to him how much the cat had grown since they had last seen her a month and a half ago and also asked expressly how much she was likely to grow yet further. Eryn didn’t really see the change, but then she wouldn’t have noticed it, having seen Urban every day. The crate they had used to transport her in had seemed a little more cramped on their journey back, though.

She felt heaviness tugging at her eyelids and promised herself that she would close them for no more than a minute.

* * *

Enric was surprised when he found the bedroom empty. She was clearly already at home – he had seen her robes on the hook downstairs. On the bed lay the clothes she was intending to wear for the evening. Just as he requested, she had selected something she ordered in Takhan. Their guests were due in less than half an hour and now there was no trace of her.

When he entered the wet room, he saw a limp arm hanging out of the tub and his tensions relaxed in a long sigh. She looked so much at peace, snoring quietly in the water. Nonetheless, taking a warm bath after a strenuous few days was never a good way to stay awake, he thought, and crouched down next to her.

“Eryn,” he nudged her slightly and once again with more force when she didn’t react.

She opened her eyes halfway and gave him a drowsy smile. “Hello you.”

Then she sat up abruptly, causing the water to splash onto his shirt with some swilling on the floor. “Did I fall asleep? Oh no! How much time do I have left?”

Enric merely smiled and dried his clothes with a little magic, watching tiny curls of steam rising from them. “Half an hour.”

She exhaled in relief. “Good. I can manage that.”

He watched intently as she stood up from the tub, with the water running down her body in tiny streams, finding natural lines in skin folds, while Enric smiled appreciatively.

“Stop that,” she scolded. “I know exactly how it ends when you look at me like that usually. We really have no time for that now.”

His smile didn’t waver. “I am looking at you in a particular way? I was not aware of that.”

Rolling her eyes, she stepped out of the tub and wrapped a large towel around herself. “Of course you are. That ravenous look, when your eyelids are half closed, but your eyes following my every move. Like an animal of prey ready to pounce on its next meal.”

“Interesting assessment,” he mused. “And not entirely unwarranted, I admit. Unfortunately you are right, there is no time.” Especially as she had taken to fainting in bed lately and always needed a while to recover afterwards. He watched her dry her hair with a touch of her fingers and brush it until it hung down her back in gentle, dark brown waves.

“I have been wondering whether to cut it off,” she said conversationally when she saw him observing her even strokes of the hairbrush. “Rather impractical. And I tend to wear it either braided or pinned up anyway.”

“Don’t you dare cut it,” he growled. She wore it down in bed. From his point of view, nobody else needed to see her with her hair down like that.

“You don’t ask for my permission when you cut your hair,” she pointed out with an annoyed look. “You more or less pick my clothes and now you want to tell me how to cut my hair?”

He shook his head. “No. I wanted to tell you how not to cut your hair: at all. But we can discuss it all some other time. Now get yourself ready. If we are to grant our guests a glimpse of Western culture, we might start by being authentic when it comes to punctuality.”

“How very conscious of authenticity you are. This has, of course, nothing to do with your own notorious approach to punctuality,” she joked and went ahead of him back to the bedroom in order to dress.

“Eager to offer the best to every single guest,” he murmured and made her stop and turn to him.

“You have taken to speaking in rhymes lately, haven’t you? First the commitment vow and now spontaneous little verses for humdrum purposes. It’s really charming.”

He shrugged and handed her the tunic on the bed. “I used to write a lot of poetry when I was much younger. Mostly to abuse my teachers and my father in colourful language. But just like drawing, writing poetry is not exactly a skill that is encouraged in a magician.”

She stared at him in surprise. “You did?”

Chuckling, he pulled down the tunic when she seemed frozen in astonishment. “Yes, indeed. Though nothing inspiring or heart-warming. It was more or less a science for me to find words that rhymed and put them together in the most insulting combinations possible. Not exactly what most people would consider an artistic approach, I am afraid.”

“That would probably depend on which people you asked. I imagine most people here would not consider Vern’s work exactly artistic, while they were absolutely stunned in Takhan when they saw his book.”

Enric grinned. “Some people would probably show a similar reaction to my early works, though not in appreciation but in shock.”

“You don’t happen to have a few of them lying around somewhere still, do you?” she enquired with curiosity.

He shook his head. “No, my teachers kept confiscating them from me and probably burned them soon after. I once wrote a particularly unflattering one about Orrin. He made me do ten hours of kitchen duty as punishment.”

She laughed out loud at the thought of inviting that very man here tonight to have dinner with them.

“It seems you were not very good at hiding them, then,” she smiled.

“I didn’t want to. That was the point, after all – having an audience.”

Funny, she thought, how very different their priorities had been in their youth. He had been seeking attention while she had been eager to avoid it at all costs.

* * *

Eryn hurried to the door when she heard the firm knock. “That is Orrin’s knock; I would recognise it anywhere. It’s the one I dreaded when I was still in my cell in the warriors’ quarters. It was usually what preceded his kicking the door open or scolding me. Or both.”

Enric smiled. “It seems we neither have too fond memories of him from those early days. Remind me why you have invited him here?”

“So we can prove to ourselves that we are now stronger and higher in rank than he and do not need to fear him any longer,” she laughed and opened the door.

She gasped in feigned astonishment and laid a hand on her chest. “Orrin, no matter how often I see you in smart clothes, it is a shock each time!”

“Is that the kind of greeting a guest has to endure here? Your manners have not improved since being sent to foreign parts,” he retorted and let a happy looking Junar enter first.

She immediately took Eryn’s hands and held them off to both sides before taking a step back to let her professional eye assess the garments she was wearing. “Very interesting! Turn,” she instructed.

“The woman you brought with you is not too good with manners, either,” Eryn tossed back at him, but turned obediently when Junar twirled her index finger for emphasis.

“Bad influence, I am afraid. She has a very poor choice in friends actually,” Orrin replied evenly. “Same as my son. You have been a corrupting influence on the whole family.”

Eryn noted how Junar blinked and suppressed a smile of what could only have been delight at being included in the term family.

“Lucky you, then, that you seem to be the only one with enough strength of character to weather it.” She turned to her friend. “So, Seamstress – am I done posing for now? Not that this cosy place in front of the door is not immensely comfortable or anything, but I would like to move into the parlour, if you don’t mind.”

“Well, Healer,” Junar replied with a raised brow, “then you had better let us enter instead of standing in our way.”

When they had hung their cloaks and moved out of the way, Vern came in and rolled his eyes when he closed the door behind him. “Finally! I was about to start a fire and catch myself a rat to roast out there!”

“You could have brought one of those your feline monster likes to catch and deposit on the carpet,” Orrin huffed.

Enric smiled at their guests who all bowed to him. “None of that tonight, this is a casual social get-together. Welcome. What may I offer you to drink? I can offer you wine and different types of juice from the West.”

Junar let her gaze wander over the decoration and nodded appreciatively. “A glass of wine would be lovely, thank you.”

“Same for me,” Orrin chimed in.

“Me, too,” Vern nodded.

Eryn raised her brow at Orrin. “Is that alright for you?”

He shrugged. “He has proven that he can work like a man, so who am I to deny him a drink if he wants one?” He narrowed his eyes. “Hey, don’t you pretend that you never let him drink alcohol before. Or need I remind you of that one evening at the ambassador’s quarters?”

She bit her lip and looked at Vern, who smiled apologetically. “You stabbed me in the back with that, Vern!”

“He noticed the smell in the morning! What should I have done?”

“Leave my name out of it, for one,” she sighed.

“Why take the blame myself if I can pass it on?” he shrugged.

“Valid point,” Enric agreed and presented his guests and Eryn each with a brimming glass before raising his own. “To pleasant evenings in good company,” he said solemnly and they took a sip.

“Would you mind terribly if I took a closer look at your shirt and trousers, Lord Enric?” Junar asked hesitantly.

Eryn smiled. So her shyness around Enric wasn’t going to remain still with her professional curiosity pushing forward.

“By all means,” he replied softly and put his glass aside to raise his arms on both sides and afford her a better look.

“Very nice,” she said softly as she walked around him. “The cut is more along the natural outline of your body. Very advantageous for a slim proportioned man such as yourself, definitely less so for a more stocky gent.” Then she looked up in shock, realising too late that she had just commented on his physical form rather more freely than circumstances warranted.

Enric raised a brow and smirked. “I know. That’s why I had them made. I was hoping for you to be able to duplicate the pattern and make me a few more of them.”

Junar nodded in relief. “That I can do, surely. I would just need one shirt for the pattern. You prefer dark colours to the more vibrant ones that are obviously favoured in Takhan,” she added with a sideways glance at the cushions and Eryn’s own tunic.

“Yes,” he replied. “I am told that I can afford to do that because of my exotic hair colour.”

She turned to look at Eryn again. “And you chose the other combination of our cuts with their fabrics, I can see. Not bad at all. It is quite a picture the two of you make together.”

“Hey, what is this?” they heard Vern asking. Eryn turned her head and saw him standing in front of a small picture frame on the wall next to a tall cupboard. She had not noticed that little addition yet.

Stepping closer, she saw that it was a slip of paper with tiny handwriting on it. She drew in a surprised breath when she realised what it was: the King’s message in which he informed Enric that his request to remain in Takhan as ambassador for two years in case of her conviction was granted.

She swallowed hard, feeling a lump in her throat. “My uncle gave that to me. It was what made me tell Enric that I love him and ask him to join me in the third level bond.” And he had framed it. Like something precious that needed to be preserved.

She felt an intense wave of genuine affection growing inside her that made her blink rapidly for a few times to hold back the moisture that threatened to overwhelm her eyes. She saw a slow smile spreading on Enric’s face when he felt the echo of what was going on inside her.

“Are we watching that mind bond doing its thing just now?” Junar whispered.

Orrin nodded, staring at them alternatingly in fascination. “I dare say we are, yes.”

“What mind bond? And what’s a third level bond supposed to be?” Vern enquired, watching all four of them in puzzlement.

Eryn fought to return to the present. “A little something we caught when entering into a magical commitment in Takhan,” she explained.

“Something you caught?” he asked, taken aback. “Like an illness? And you did what? Voluntarily?!”

She covered her eyes with her hand. “Why do people keep asking me that question? Seriously! Do I look as if I was forced, taken advantage of or compelled into submission lately?”

“Alright, alright,” Vern mumbled, “Back to this mind bond, then. What is it and why do you have it?”

“A direct line that conveys strong emotions between us, more or less. All I know is we ended up with it, but I have no idea why. No clue whatsoever. It hardly ever happens, so it seems there is also not a great deal of literature on the topic available in the Western Territories.”

Vern looked at her in bewilderment. “What were you doing there, Eryn? First they refuse to let you leave the country because of some kind of crime you committed, and then you just enter into a magical bond without considering the consequences?” He looked at Enric with an accusatory intensity. “I thought you had been sent along to keep her safe and stop her from doing anything stupid?”

Orrin grabbed his son’s shoulder and turned him towards him abruptly. “You may be invited as Eryn’s friend here tonight, son, but let’s not forget who you are talking to. You’d better consider your words before you talk from now on and make sure they are appropriate before you let them leave your mouth. Or bear the consequences.”

The boy closed his eyes for a moment, clearly fighting down an urge to dig even deeper. Then he turned back to Enric and bowed his head. “I apologise, Lord Enric. I spoke out of turn. Let me assure you that it was concern for Eryn’s wellbeing that led me to speak without thinking. Which is of course no justification.”

“Apology accepted,” Enric replied mildly. “And let me assure you that at times even my considerable skills find themselves rather outdone by Eryn’s dark gift of getting herself into trouble,” he added dryly.

“I resent that statement,” Eryn growled.

“Of course you do,” he smiled and kissed her forehead. “The truth is hardly ever pleasant. Shall we have a seat and serve our guests, my love?”

“We will do the serving?” she asked with a raised brow and smiled. So he really had been in the other building, actually cooking the meal himself, when she arrived here earlier.

“That’s how it’s done, I am told.” He then took Junar’s hand and put it on his arm to guide her to the table, Vern and Orrin behind them.

When they were all seated, he motioned for Eryn to follow him into his study where he had placed two colourful bowls in larger pots with hot water to keep the contents warm.

She raised both brows when he pushed six bowls into her hands. “When did you buy all that?”

“Let’s say I had a lot of time to kill when I was stuck with Golir,” he replied with a chuckle.

“And you did that by buying up household items? Is that where the cushions and table cloth came from? So he simply let you wander the streets alone instead of guarding you like a proper overseer?”

“Of course not. He accompanied me. I think he imagined it wiser to occupy me somehow instead of having me locked in and getting restless.”

She smiled at the image of the two powerful, high-ranking magicians making purchases such as these, discussing colours, quality, patterns and so on.

“Don’t just stand there grinning,” he reprimanded her. “Get the bowls out for our guests so we can feed them.” He then lifted one of the large bowls out of its water bath, blotted off the dripping underside with a towel and walked ahead of her back into the parlour where he placed the bowl in the centre of the table before going back to collect the other one.

He smiled at their guests’ badly-concealed astonishment at seeing him serve food. “In the Western Territories it is customary to cook for one’s guests as a host. And if meat is served, it is expected to be an animal hunted by the host as well. Anything else would be an insult and would expose him to ridicule. I have prepared two different dishes as Eryn has decided to renounce eating meat. You are of course welcome to try them both.”

Junar said, “I admit I am quite overwhelmed at how well you seem to have adapted to the local customs there.” Then she stared at Eryn in disbelief while Enric filled their bowls after asking each of them which dish they preferred. “Now you don’t eat meat anymore? What happened?”

Eryn accepted her bowl from her companion and turned to her friend. “We were invited to accompany my cousin and his… friends on a hunting trip, and that turned out to be quite a rude awakening for me. Later I learned that it is considered an acceptable lifestyle choice not to eat meat there if one is not prepared to kill it oneself.” She shrugged. “That sounded fine to me. It still does.”

“So you don’t miss it? This does not smell at all tempting to you?” Vern asked incredulously and pushed his bowl under her nose.

“No to both. I will thank you kindly for not making me breathe that in.” She set her face in a rigid expression and turned away until he had placed his bowl before himself again.

They then looked at Enric expectantly, waiting for him to start eating.

“A host is supposed to wait until all his guests have taken the first bite before he starts eating,” he explained. “Because only then he can be sure that everybody has been provided with something to his or her liking. I would thus invite you to do just that.”

“It seems like you had to learn a lot there after your arrival,” Orrin remarked.

Eryn nodded. “True enough. Though be glad that we are sparing you the rest of it for now. Next time you come here we will make you sit on the cushions they use there instead of chairs and wash your hands in bowls they use for that purpose,” she added with a smirk. “As Enric was occupying his time there with shopping, he probably bought all of those as well.” Her eyes widened when he shrugged. “You really did? Oh my!” Shaking her head, she turned back to Orrin. “It seems my empty threat was not quite as empty as I thought.”

Junar swallowed her first bite and looked up at Enric. “That is really good. Where did you learn cookery? It is not a skill I would associate with magicians.”

“Eryn’s cousin Vran’el taught me. Over there, it seems that providing for oneself is considered a basic skill just as healing is,” he explained.

“Cousin?” Vern asked curiously and turned to Eryn. “You mentioned an uncle before. So you have met family there? What are they like?”

She began explaining slowly. “Let me start at the beginning, shall I? When we got off the ship in Takhan, we were greeted by three people plus Ram’an. One important politician and two more people. One of them turned out to be my uncle from my father’s side who has given me the message you saw on the wall. The other one introduced herself as… my mother.”

Three pairs of eyes stared at her. “As in your dead mother?” Junar asked confusedly.

“Yes, that turned out to be a bit of a misinformation,” Eryn remarked wryly.

“So your mother is really alive?” Vern looked astounded. “Unbelievable! Why don’t you look happy when you are talking about this, then?”

“Because it turned out that I was the only daughter of a very powerful family who was expected to one day take over the role of the leader, or Head of House, as they call it.”

“Then you really are a kind of lost princess!” Vern laughed and clapped his hands. “I was right!”

“Yes, congratulations there,” she snorted. “But that entailed a little more. I was also expected to enter into a commitment with Ram’an.”

“What?” This time it was Orrin’s astonished voice who had called out. “So that’s why…” His gaze fell on Enric and he fell silent at once.

“It’s alright, Orrin – he has learned about Ram’an’s little interrogation attempt in the meantime,” she sighed.

“Why?” Junar enquired.

“My cousin told him about it. Ram’an made his manoeuvre public knowledge in Takhan.”

“What? No! I meant why you were supposed to join Ram’an!”

Eryn grimaced, then answered his question. “Because the Houses have a custom of promising their offspring to other Houses as spouses to reaffirm their political alliances. As the only daughter of a powerful House, I was intended for the son of another one.”

“But you already had a companion when you went there!” the seamstress exclaimed.

“They didn’t really acknowledge Enric as my companion since we had no third level bond in place. So Ram’an tried extremely hard to prise me away from him.” She shook her head and sighed, glad that all that was over.

“Unsuccessfully, obviously,” Orrin smiled thinly.

“Obviously,” Enric confirmed grimly, his smile equally weak.

“Had it not been for my cousin Vran’el, Ram’an would have managed to make me stay in Takhan for quite a while,” Eryn told them. “If Vran’el had not arranged for me to be adopted by my uncle, I would have been claimed as a member of Ram’an’s House by him.”

“You have been adopted by your uncle?” Junar cried out in complete desperation. “Can you please tell things in the correct order? My head is spinning! How can all that have happened in such a short time?”

Enric sighed. “Why don’t I go on? Eryn hasn’t exactly made it easy by jumping back and forth all the time. We had managed to negotiate trade agreements and Eryn had until then managed to keep Ram’an at a distance. After three weeks we were supposed to return home. As we were about to board the ship, we were apprehended by guards who brought us to the senate, which is like our Council here. It turned out that Malriel, Eryn’s mother, had accused her own daughter of causing her father’s death thirteen years ago. I shall leave it to Eryn if she wants to recount this story one day herself. But rest assured, it was clear from a legal point of view that Eryn was not to blame for it and would never have been made to endure the trial if it had not been for her mother’s considerable political influence.” He stopped to take a sip of wine before continuing. “For the duration of the trial we were separated, and each of us was put under the constant watch of a guardian who was stronger in magical powers than us. Ram’an volunteered to guard Eryn and was granted the task, though he had to do it at the residence of her uncle’s family instead of his own.” He stopped when he saw Orrin looking puzzled.

“Wait,” the warrior frowned. “But Ram’an was not stronger than Eryn. That day in his quarters she managed to break his shield.”

Eryn closed her eyes and stifled a groan. Oh no. That was the only little detail Enric had not been aware of, that she had managed to keep from him. Until now.

It fell quiet at the table. Nobody so much as dared make a noise. Enric’s deep breath escaping his tightened lips was the only sound.

“Eryn?” he asked in a calm yet threatening voice. She could feel his rage fiery in the pit of her stomach. “Would you care to elaborate? How come I was not aware of any fighting on that occasion?”

“I thought you said he was aware of it, Eryn!” Orrin reprimanded her sharply. “When will you finally stop keeping secrets, you bloody idiot!”

“I would be very interested in that answer myself,” Enric added with narrowed eyes. “Out with it!” he demanded with more force.

She picked her words carefully. “It was just a minor thing. He tried to keep me from leaving that day with a shield across the door after I had freed myself from his grip. I hit it twice and barely managed to break it. So I assumed that I was a bit stronger than him. Which was obviously not correct. He told me later that he had not used all of his strength to create the shield, meaning his shield was weak enough for me to break. I really am sorry.”

He shook his head. “No, you are not. I feel a mix of annoyance and unease, but no regret.” His blue eyes had narrowed. “And another stab of annoyance at me looking right through you. Let this be a lesson to you. No lying to me. Ever again. I am really starting to appreciate this mind bond.”

“Even though it causes me to faint in bed?” she parried at him angrily, hoping to embarrass him in front of their guests to exact a little revenge.

He just smiled at her attempt, not in the least thrown off balance. “I find I do not care about that little side effect very much right now. Consider it a more gentle way of knocking you out. Remember, we have tried it only twice so far. You might well develop a certain immunity to the effect after a while. We will just have to keep practising, won’t we?”

Her face had flushed scarlet and she hastily grabbed a glass of water and gulped it down.

Enric gave her a last disapproving look, then returned his attention to their guests. “So much for that. As I said, Ram’an was made Eryn’s guardian and took full advantage of his position as much as this was possible while her uncle and cousin were close by. Ram’an was one of the senators to vote on the outcome of the trial and was initially determined to vote against Eryn as a two-year house arrest in Takhan as punishment was what her mother intended. But then Eryn decided to renounce her mother’s family after the end of the trial in the event the decision was in her favour. As Ram’an was caught between accepting the leading role for his own House and getting Eryn as heiress of another House as his companion, he saw his chance of getting both Eryn and this position. Thus he managed to obtain his own plus three more votes in her favour that tipped the verdict of the senate.”

“What?” Vern asked, “Why did he have to choose between Eryn and leading his House?”

“Because Eryn was the sole heiress to her House, but he still had a younger brother who could take over the position. Two heirs of Houses cannot be joined as companions in the Western Territories,” Enric explained patiently. “That’s why Eryn renouncing her House and thus giving up her position as heiress to it was an attractive option for Ram’an.”

“But why did he imagine she would stay in Takhan after winning the trial? She was free to leave then, wasn’t she?” the boy then asked, wondering why each answer just led to new questions.

“Because he was very well versed in historical law and its application. There was one law that would have aided him considerably. It was an old rule about an intended companion having the right to claim the partner into his own house in the event she renounces hers in order still to fulfil the companionship agreement. This law was made before the fulfilment of the agreement became voluntary and was meant to keep children from freeing themselves from it by simply renouncing their Houses.”

“But her cousin put a stop to this because her uncle then adopted her?” Junar now asked, working hard to keep up with all the details.

“Indeed,” Enric nodded. “Thus Eryn is no longer the heiress of her mother’s House, but an official and legally confirmed member of her father’s family, namely House Vel’kim.”

“So there is now no heir for her mother’s House?” Vern asked.

“Oh yes, there is,” Eryn cut in. “It turned out that Enric let himself be blackmailed into being adopted by my mother. He is now the new heir of House Aren, the one I renounced.” She watched their stunned expressions with evident satisfaction. It was good to see that she was not the only one who found that utterly and completely ludicrous.

“Am I understanding this correctly,” Orrin said very slowly, “that you, Lord Enric, are now the son and heir of your companion’s mother?”

“Yes,” Enric nodded, “that is correct.”

“Does this mean that you could be made to succeed her at any time? What consequences are there for your position in the Order? You are meant to be following in another’s footsteps here yourself one day,” Orrin asked worriedly.

“Theoretically, yes,” Enric admitted, “though practically this is not very likely for now. I am confident that in time another solution will be found for that obligation.”

“And that’s all now? Apart from you joining into that bond before you left?” Junar wanted to know, brow furrowed.

“Well, almost. Enric took revenge on Ram’an for not keeping his hands to himself by compelling him into hosting our ceremony and celebrations at his residence and forcing him to participate in the ceremony itself,” Eryn added. “But that is it now. Really.”

“Incredible,” Orrin sighed and opened his eyes wide in wonder. “Eryn, it seems there really is no way of keeping you out of trouble for long.”

“How about the ceremony itself?” Junar asked. “You said it was a magical bond? How did that work? Like the oath to the Kingdom here made with joined hands?”

“Pretty much so, yes,” Eryn nodded. “Only that there are five hands involved instead of two and you are required to write your own vow for it. Enric’s vow even rhymed.” She turned to Orrin. “There is a little something I wanted to ask you. Enric told me that he once wrote a poem about you when he was a boy. An insulting one.”

Orrin smiled. “I remember that, yes. I was not the only teacher whom he bestowed that honour on. We compared them and tried to figure out who it was he hated most. Let me think…” He leaned back and looked at the ceiling for a short while before he started reciting, “Wherever Orrin often lingers / You will find toes or ears or fingers, / That were part of a student’s body / That walks the land now maimed and bloody.”

Vern stared first at his father, then at Enric. “You wrote that? Seriously?”

“I admit I did. I recognise it,” Enric smirked. “Though it is only an extract from it. I am surprised you still remember the words, Lord Orrin. It seems to have made a permanent impression on you.”

Orrin chuckled. “It has indeed, yes. I was one of the first teachers to be so honoured. Disrespectful and insulting, but hilarious to read. It got so bad that the teachers who didn’t find themselves targeted by that insolence felt left out.”

Eryn laughed. “And there you were, thinking artistic talent was not appreciated in these parts at all!”

“It wasn’t,” Enric remarked, “I was made to work in the kitchen for that particular poem. I don’t even remember the punishment from the other teachers.”

“Then it seems that my response impressed you in turn,” Orrin smirked.

“So it seems, yes,” Enric nodded thoughtfully.

“And today, about twenty years later the foul-mouthed poet and the merciless teacher are sitting together at the same table, eating dinner the foul-mouthed poet cooked because your female partners happen to be friends,” Vern said, sounding impressed as well. “I bet if anybody had told you that back then, you would have either panicked or denied it would ever come to pass.”

“True enough,” Orrin nodded. “Though telling me back then that I would find myself one day be subordinate to Lord Enric would have been bad enough anyway.”

Enric leaned back and regarded his old teacher with a thoughtful expression. “It did not turn out as bad as that for you, I hope.”

The older man smiled. “There were a few times when insubordination did seem quite attractive. Especially over this last year.” His gaze darted to Eryn.

Both men shared a lopsided grin at memories of challenges well mastered.

Eryn exchanged a look with Junar, who cast her eyes to the ceiling. The two men seemed far too blasé for her taste. She leaned forward.

“There is something I haven’t told you about yet. It’s something I tried in Takhan that I think you might find very interesting. The magicians use golden belts for hunting to block their magic.”

Both Enric and Orrin exchanged a slightly panicked look. One at the prospect of having yet another intimate detail revealed, the other at being coaxed into following the younger man’s example.

Vern smiled indulgently and got up to step towards the drinking cabinet to return with the half full bottle a moment later.

“I trust I am not the only one who needs a refill, am I?” he sighed and then refilled the two glasses which had been hastily pushed towards him.

»End of extract«


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