-14

Rhaenan sat up slowly, gathered her robe around her, and went to sit by the fireplace.
“I’m glad you’re feeling well,” I told her, but worried about the stiffness with which she moved and the slight tremors she tried to hide. Anger at the insensitive person who suggested tossing her out flared in me and the memory of the piles of bodies in the underground complex made me shudder. I tried to put that aside so as not to overshadow the first real chance I had to talk with her since she rode of with my horse.
“You don’t really need an additional outsider to watch over you. I’m fully capable of protecting you.” She tossed her loose hair over her shoulder in a movement that reminded me, unfortunately, of her sister, Draenan. How alike were they? Did they share the same violent tendencies?
“In your current condition, I don’t think that’s possible.”
She shrugged and looked in the fireplace at the banked fire. As summer was fading, the nights in Crown City had grown cold. Yerston insisted on making a fire and heating my sheets. She held out her hand and the flames leapt to life.
“The elements in this place are confused and unhappy. Do you feel it?”
I admitted to feeling uncomfortable, but claimed that could have been for a variety of reasons.
“Including the fact that you are in danger,” she added, returning to the original subject.
“I think you may be in more danger than I.”
She shook her head. “I’m no one.”
I wanted to tell her she was someone to me, but I wasn’t sure how that would be received.
“Do you recall where I found you? You were a few breaths away from joining the elements permanently.”
She snorted and put her hand in the fire, pulling out a flame that danced on her palm. It wasn’t an elemental like Zat.
“How? What?” I got out of bed and realized that, at her blush, I had no pants on. I blushed in turn and pulled some more appropriate clothing from the wardrobe.
“All fire holds an aspect of the element.” She gestured to a glass on the side table, “just as the water in that glass and the stone of the wall are a part of the element. With practice and a great deal of dedication, one can commune with the element no matter in what form it appears.”
I approached and ran my finger through the flame, jerking back when it burned me.
“Where did you learn that?” This was certainly something that her sister could not do, otherwise Zat would not have been able to protect me.
“The Temple of the Elements.”
“The elements have a temple?”
“Have you ever seen the golden spires of the Gates of Tarames?”
At my blank look, she shook her head. “You should visit your mother’s homeland, my lord.”
“I have, when I was a child, but I just recently recalled that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t know my mother had a homeland other than Adnor.”
I explained my memory block.
Rhaenan compressed her lips and reached for my forehead. I flinched back.
“I promise I won’t hurt you.”
I sat back on the edge of the bed. I wanted to trust her.
“Although I studied at the Temple after your mother had left, she was still considered one of the best Temple Witches ever to come along. Many were saddened by Elidyr’s loss and Adnor’s gain when she agreed to marry your father.”
My mother was not just a witch but a Temple Witch?
“Why did she marry my father?”
“I don’t know, as I was barely old enough to walk then. I’d like to think it was love, as the portraits of your father that I’ve seen show him to have been a handsome man. I suspect, though…” She stopped.
“What?”
“I don’t want to offend you.”
“I want to know, offensive or not.” It couldn’t be worse than what I had caught my father and Fadreel doing.
“Elidyr and Flowstone have been at war for generations and Adnor lies between the two countries. I suspect the marriage was planned as a way to gain an ally in that war.”
I could imagine that.
“Obviously it backfired since there are so many Dvergr here.”
She nodded. “Too many. It’s weird how the Adnorians don’t even realize they’re Dvergr. Most I’ve run into just call them ‘little men.'”
I’d noticed that too.
“Do you think the Dvergr have a way of hiding their powers?”
“Probably, but Adnorians are blind to many things.”
The conversation paused for a moment.
“What else do…” I started to say at the same time she said, “Are you sure you don’t want me to…”
We laughed. I gestured for her to go ahead but she waved that away.
“What else do Temple Witches do?”
She thought about it for a moment. “In Elidyr they do many things – mostly in service to the Sharla, our ruler.” She batted her eyelashes at me. “One goes to a Temple Witch to be married, for example.”
“For example. What else?” I tried to ignore my heated face. My fear of her, or her sister, had not smothered my attraction.
“Temple Witches are sent out into the land to prevent the gragluff.”
I shook my head at that word.
“It’s a Dvergr ritual that steals the life from the land. Most of Adnor has been ruined in this way.”
I remembered the Dvergr priest cutting the heart out of the man and the trees dying.
“How do they stop that?”
“By using the adfird – the energy of the world. You used it on me when you saved my life.”
“I fed you some water with a ground up piece of vase.”
“What vase?”
I went to the strong box, unlocked it, and brought out the shards of my mother’s vase and the map. She examined the shards and laughed at me when I explained how I’d used them.
“You are a wonder, my lord.” She looked at the map.
“This map is very valuable – see? It shows where the elements are the strongest. A Temple Witch would use such a map to find the best place to defend. So many nodes have fallen.” She indicates points on the map that were gray in color, including Oakvale. My mother picked Oakvale not because, or not only because, it was the middle of nowhere – but also because it had an elemental node.
“No wonder her things turned to ash,” I muttered.
“At her death, her magic did too. Anything spell she maintained dissipated.”
She put a hand on my good wrist. “Your memory would have come back eventually. Still, I’d like to see what she did to you.”
Did I trust her? I guess I already had trusted her by showing her the map and the shards.
She locked them up in the strong box and handed me the key.
“Keep this close.”
“Of course.”
She sat next to me on the bed.
“May I?”
I took a breath, closed my eyes, and nodded, but flinched a little when she placed her cold hand on my forehead. A lightning shock that encompassed sexual attraction, affection, and familiarity blew through me. The crack in my heart created by the death of my son started to fill with warmth. I opened my eyes to stare into the blue depths of hers and noted my astonished face reflected there.
“I feel it too,” she whispered.
I took her in my arms and together we fell back on the bed, our bodies pressed together and our hearts beating in unison.
We kissed with enthusiasm and things would have progressed, but I remembered. Not fully healed, she couldn’t accommodate me and, well, I had made a vow to another.
I sat up and helped her up. We sat facing each other. She placed her palm against my forehead again.
My memories spun backward until the time when my mother blocked them. She ran back and forth across that memory, looking for something.
“I wish I’d known,” Rhaenan said, removing her hand. “I could have helped.”
“Your sister…” I stopped. I didn’t want to tell her what her sister did.
Yerston entered with some soup and scolded both of us for being out of our respective beds. Her wink behind his back made me smile.

Advertisements

author intrusion 2

A while ago I realized who “the woman” that Gestin rescued was. It was Rhaenan, which of course necessitates some rewriting of history already “published” but hey – first draft, right?
Just wanted to tell you all that, in case you were like “What?” Rhaenan had been captured and tortured. Gestin is not pleased.

-13

The Physickers’ Tower bustled with people, many of whom, like me, had headaches and experienced visual distortions.
The main physicker, an older man whose face wrinkled up like a dried apple and then smoothed out again, attended me.
“What did you eat at the feast, my lord?”
I related what I had eaten and tried to keep my eyes shut to both avoid the visions and keep the stabbing sensation out of my eyes.
Someone suggested, within my hearing, they push the Nord woman out of her bed to make room for the sick and I reacted badly. In my defense, I had been poisoned, as the main physicker suggested – something having to do with bad bread. The bread, I complained, had been the only thing that tasted right.
They sent the woman to my suite and assigned a physicker to me, so that I could “rest comfortably” away from the masses. I think that might have been Grand Councilor Fadreel’s suggestion. He had showed up at some point during the confusion.
Regardless of the reasoning, I ended up back in my fluffy bed, with the woman in a cot at the foot of the bed. Yerston and the physicker, Urda, the same lady who had attended my arm, watched over my uncomfortable night.
The illness passed around noon the next day.
I sent Yerston to the Grand Councilor with an apology for not being able to accept his offer of a tour. He stopped by in person to assure me that he knew of my illness, was very sorry for it, would be whipping the kitchen staff for their negligence in serving contaminated bread, and that we would tour later. He commended the physicker for her attention to my well-being. Physicker Urda was all aflutter about the visit afterward and I wondered, perhaps, if my prejudice about the Grand Councilor was an error.
Vytar stood by, a silent force with his hand on his sword hilt, the entire visit.
When Yerston went off to get a meal and the physicker returned to her tower to check on her other patients, Vytar relaxed his stiff position.
“You look tired,” I said, noting the pockets of purple under his eyes.
“My lord, may I suggest that you add some additional personnel to your retinue?”
“I have a retinue?”
He gestured with an open hand, indicating the woman, who waved a weak hand but did not speak, and him self.
“Okay.” I hadn’t thought of him, or her, in that manner. “What additional personnel?”
“At least another guard. I fear, at my age, I cannot watch over you all day and evening.”
“You are not that old.” Saying it made me remember Wulfgit’s “She weren’t that old,” comment about my mother. He’d been correct. Tiria had been nearing her fifth decade, which was middle-aged for an Adnorian and young for a Nord.
“Regardless, you are in danger and must be protected.”
“This illness was not an attack.”
He gave a “ha” of disagreement.
“And whom do you think was behind it?”
“Whom else? I beg you, my lord, do not let your defenses down around him.”
I pondered my memories, my gut – which churned and was sour from the food poisoning – and my recent experiences.
“Are you sure?”
“You need a food taster,” a soft voice floated up from the cot.
Vytar looked at the woman and nodded agreement.
“Okay, find me another guard or two. One that has a strong stomach and is not against the Nord.”
Vytar saluted and went off to find some assistants.
Which left me alone with the woman.

<>

-12

The visiting with strangers aspect of the evening passed with relative ease. Grand Councilor Fadreel sat between us, which of course limited the questions I wanted to ask Vytar or any real conversation with the persons we met. Most of the persons we were introduced to wore some piece of orange, either a scarf or a patch. An artist, wearing an orange tabard, set up an easel and sketched us while we talked.
“What is the orange about?” I asked during a brief pause. A servant handed me a glass of red wine, which I accepted gratefully. While wine was not may favorite drink, all the talking made my throat dry. It turned out to be quite pleasant and the flavor of cherries lingered on my tongue. Vytar, being Vytar, declined to drink. One of these days I vowed to get him to unwind a little and have a beer.
“They are heralds, the gathers and announcers of news. What you say to them will be faithfully represented out to the rest of the city in a daily posting.” The Grand Councilor gave me a frown, but his eyes were smiling. “So watch what you say.”
I gathered that most of the people in the audience had been heralds and not actual interested citizens. Clearly, the Grand Councilor had a strong influence over them, for at the slightest frown, the question changed to a different one.
The last of the heralds and the artist left and the Grand Councilor rose and bid us good night.
“I know that the good Captain gave you a tour this afternoon, but perhaps tomorrow you would allow me to escort you on a tour of the city and its wonders.”
“Of course, Grand Councilor,” I answered and bowed. The room tilted a little.
He bade us a peaceful night and left.
“He was quite nice this evening. Don’t you think, Captain Vytar?”
When Vytar didn’t answer, I looked at him. The lime green of his garb made my eyes water.
“You are very bright,” I said.
“Are you okay, my lord?”
I considered the room, which seemed to rush in and then slowly recede like a wave. When had I seen waves – ah yes, in Elidyr. There is an ocean in Elidyr.
Thinking of Elidyr made me miss the company of my fire elemental, which reminded me of the trapped elementals in the cloth covered crates.
“Come on,” I said to Vytar and made my way back to the audience chamber. It seemed like a very long trip to cross the hallway, especially since it didn’t want to stay in one place.
“Fadreel isn’t going to like this,” I said with a giggle. Some remote part of my brain, which I didn’t pay attention to because it was that part that frequently told me I was an idiot, said that something was not right.
The servants in the audience chamber were sweeping. I waited for the last one to leave, and then said to the elementals in the crates, “Be free!”
Nothing happened for a moment.
Vytar gave me a useful shoulder to lean on.
The lights flickered.
“Huh.”
“My lord, how much have you had to drink?”
“One! One glass. I don’t like wine but I liked that wine.”
He held me up as I lost my balance when the room twirled.
“I told you not to eat the cheese.”
“I didn’t eat the farting cheese.” I giggled again.
I occurred to me that I finally had Vytar to myself, and of course I giggled at that because it was totally inappropriate and gods knew I didn’t feel that way…I pulled my attention back. Letter. I was going to ask him about the letter.
“My letter – god’s nads, Captain – what did I do with my letter?”
We rushed, or tried to rush, back to the changing room. Our clothes had been taken. That prompted me to run, sort of, to my room where I found Yerston setting a warming pan into the bed.
“Yerston – do you have my letter?”
Yerston raised a bushy white eyebrow.
“What letter do you mean, my lord?”
“I had it in my doublet, along with the key to…” I looked at the strong box and it seemed to be undisturbed.
“The key is here, my lord.” He gestured to the side table. “The letter, if that is what that paper with the squiggly lines was, has been destroyed. It was obviously a product of the Nord and I cannot, in good faith, allow you to be harmed by it.”
“What? Where?”
He pointed to the fireplace.
I couldn’t tell the ashes of the letter from the ashes of the wood.
I stood up, too quickly perhaps, because the room started to throb with my heart beat.
“I am a product of the Nord. Are you going to burn me too?”
The lights flickered again. At that moment, I realized they were not driven by fire, as most of the lighting I’d been accustomed to, but were driven by some sort of wire. I tried my elemental sight, but got a sharp pain behind my eyes instead. I cried out and covered my face.
“My lord,” Vytar said, pushing the confused Yerston out of the way.
They took me between them, like a drunk – which I swear I wasn’t – to the physickers’ tower.

-11

The meal, held in the banquet hall next door, seemed unnecessarily extravagant to me. I guess the Grand Councilor wanted to impress upon me – or someone – that no expense was too great to welcome the Heir of Adnor back. I would have settled for a nice steak, some fried potatoes, and a beer. Instead, there were stuffed fancy fowl, the bird’s iridescent feathers fanned out above its cooked body; fowl pie that had been made out of song birds or something small and bony; and a spicy soup with mystery meat. The bread was good, brown, wholesome. I ate a lot of that, mostly to avoid having to answer immediately because my mouth was otherwise occupied. Vytar tried the soup and grimaced.
“Pig,” he whispered, “or perhaps horse.”
“Ah no, horses are too expensive to serve,” I whispered back – but not softly enough because the Grand Councilor heard me.
“How is your horse, my lord?”
“He appeared well, thank you.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a horcine? They are a fine creation that never tires. In fact, the department that creates them is thinking of offering them for sale here in Crown City to meet the demand of the people.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that under no circumstances would I ever ride such a tortured beast – and in not so friendly words – when Vytar’s toe to my shin reminded me to be civil.
“I am not sure it would look good for me to tire before my steed does. What fee does the department plan on charging the common man for such a marvel?”
At his inquiring look, I expanded.
“I was just thinking of that man’s question earlier about the unavailability of new technology to the masses. Is it because the creation of such technology so costly?”
He rubbed his chin and nodded, smiling as if I’d passed some test.
“New technology is always expensive at first. So many elements go into it.” No pun intended I’m sure.
“The common man,” he went on, “can hardly afford any luxuries in this time due to the encroachment of foreign interests in our economy. But the Grand Council and I are working to remedy this situation.”
“There are foreign interests encroaching our economy?” Like Dvergr perhaps?
“Yes. I do not wish to disparage your lady mother, but her birth country has negated all treaty agreements with us, so many items we used to take for granted are now unavailable. We’ve approached trade with the southern country of Flowstone for luxury items. The leadership of Flowstone has been slow to sign any agreements that do not include access to our resources, which we hold dear. A country without resources is a wasteland, don’t you agree?”
I nodded. Adnor was fast becoming a wasteland.
“They have, however, offered to partner with us to create advanced technology, which has resulted in the creation of the horcine and vocal enhancement device that you used earlier.”
“The device that the man Stygand worked on.”
“Ah yes, I’d heard that you’d been to the library. Stygand is my chief researcher and is a genius. You should get to know him better.”
That was a fatherly hint if I ever heard one. I nodded and did not lie when I said, “I find his creations interesting.”
“Good. That’s good, Angestirian.” He seemed smug and I had to wonder what peril awaited me at Sytgand’s hands. Would I be incorporated into one of his experiments? Had he something to do with the torture that the Nord woman had endured? I kind of liked the man, at first meeting, and hoped that I wasn’t being too paranoid and that he wasn’t truly responsible for creations that matted living matter to machine.
“Grand Councilor…” I started to ask him about the dome that covered the city. I had no recollection of it from the time when I lived there – but I’d been young and probably didn’t look at the sky much. However, my question died unanswered for the dessert and entertainment portion of the feast was announced. Vytar and I were moved to comfortable stuffed chairs and left available to the populace to approach.

-10

Yerston met us in the hallway outside of the Grand Council’s audience chamber.
“If you would, my lords,” he said, and directed us into a side room where he presented us with fancier clothing.
“Really, this is not necessary,” Vytar said, trying to reject the offered lime green houppelande. My appointed clothing was no better – a royal blue crushed velvet one with wing-like arms that had scalloped edges – which proved awkward with my sling. He also had a selection of jewelry, including a medallion similar to the one I had removed from my rescued woman. I declined to wear that piece and Yerston subsided his urging after Vytar distracted him by asking if he could wear a weapon. Yerston greeted that with a stiff “No, my lord.”
Vytar’s lips compressed.
Grand Councilor Fadreel entered, dressed in a gray doublet with the Grand Council’s sigil, the swooping bird of prey, embroidered on his chest. For him, it seemed very sedate.
“Oh good you’re here.” He passed out smiles to both of us and then directed us to follow him through a doorway to the hallway and a curtained area behind what would have been the thrones.
“Now, answer plainly and smile. I’ll tackle any questions that seem awkward.”
His frown fell when he looked at me.
“You’re not wearing the medallion I had made for you.”
“It interfered with my sling,” I said and wiggled my wounded elbow at him.
“Oh. I hadn’t realized your injury was that serious. I hope you are well, my boy.” He seemed sincere.
I nodded and kept my mouth shut.
He told us to wait and then walked out through the curtain.
I heard the scrapes of chairs being moved, the rustle of people rising, and some applause.
“Friends and fellow citizens of Crown City,” the Grand Councilor’s voice sounded loud even through the curtain. I peeked out to see a full audience hall. The Grand Councilor stood facing the crowd behind crates covered in black cloth that lined the edge of the dais. The thrones had been replaced with a few plain looking chairs.
“I’m so glad you could join me. I have a few important announcements and then a surprise for you all.”
I closed the curtain and exchanged a worried look with Vytar.
“Do you think he intends to harm us?” I asked.
“I think he means to humiliate us,” he responded, flapping his arms like wings and cawing softly.
“Better than chains, I think.”
He nodded.
“I am not sure what the Grand Councilor has in mind for you, but I would advise caution. He would not likely give up his seat of power to you without a struggle.”
“I don’t want his seat of power, so he has nothing to worry about there.” As I said that I wondered. Did I want to rule? The Owl’s Loyalists wanted me to. From Vytar’s raised eyebrows, he expected me to want to and perhaps wanted me to also. And Grand Councilor Fadreel. I didn’t trust him, but so far he had not hurt me.
“And now my surprise,” I heard the Grand Councilor announce.
“That’s our cue I think,” Vytar said and stepped through the curtain. I followed him out.

“I present to you, good citizens, the long lost heir of Adnor, Angestirian!” I noticed that he had a brass cup, similar to the one shown me earlier, and when he spoke, his voice came out of the crates. I blinked by elemental sight active and yes, there were elementals of some sort, trapped inside of the boxes.
At his gesture, I walked to the edge of the crates and waved.
People cheered. Some clapped, some cried, which boggled my mind. And more than one frowned.
“And his rescuer, Captain Vytar!”
Vytar stepped forward and bowed and stepped back, leaving me at the Grand Councilor’s side. He put an arm around my shoulders and I resisted the urge to cringe.
He handed me the cup and said in a low voice, “Greet your people, my lord.”
I put the cup to my mouth and said, “Greetings, Crown City.”
More people cheered.
“I am very happy to be here with you,” which wasn’t a lie exactly. I was happy to be in Crown City and to learn about my past. I just wasn’t overly joyful about standing next to my “uncle” the rapist.
A man from the front row waved at me and the Grand Councilor took back the cup from me and said, “I’m sure you have many questions.” He pointed to the man waving.
“What happened to your arm?”
The Grand Councilor repeated the man’s question and turned to me, “How did you injure yourself?”
How best to answer that without casting blame? I couldn’t very well – or maybe I could but I wasn’t sure if I dared – say “Your troops attacked me while I was training with your enemies.”
“I, uh, blocked a blow with my arm.”
“Someone dared attack the Heir of Adnor?” A murmur of outrage greeted this statement. The Grand Councilor was not above a little melodrama, it seemed.
“The person didn’t know who I was.”
He grunted and turned back to the audience. Another hand-waving questioner was called upon.
“You were absent for fifteen years. Do you expect to rule us now?”
The Grand Councilor’s arm slipped from my back and he turned to look at me, his hand on my injured shoulder. When I did not immediately answer, he squeezed. I tried not to wince.
“No, of course not. I just arrived. I expect the Grand Council will determine what my role, if any, in the government will be.”
Fadreel’s arm snaked around my shoulders again. “Good answer,” he whispered in my ear.
As if I could’ve answered in any other way.
The Grand Councilor gestured for another question, from an elderly lady this time, dressed in bright yellow with an odd-looking hairpiece that stood up like a spire – a fashion that had not reached the other edges of civilization. I tried to imagine Elder Ponmay wearing such a thing.
“You’re such a handsome man, my lord. Will there be a lovely princess joining you?”
I thought of Rhaenan first, I admit, but remembered technically I was married, which would make Jeslynn a princess. I wonder if that would impress her.
“No, ma’am.”
She let out an exaggerated sigh. “If only I were younger.” She waved a fan across her face and pretended to faint, but I caught a sly wink. The audience laughed.
Interesting.
Another question, this one from an older gentleman.
“We thank Captain Vytar for returning the Heir. Grand Councilor Fadreel, what will the Heir’s position be in the government? The original Grand Council was chartered to be only a stop-gap until one of royal blood returned to rule us.”
The Grand Councilor frowned at the man.
“As I recall,” he added, swallowing.
“Goodman Boer, you are a retired guardsman, are you not?”
“Yes, Grand Councilor.”
“We are very honored by your years of service. Of course, The Grand Council and I are overjoyed by the return of Angestirian and will abide by whatever he wishes concerning his role in the government. But as he has said,” and at that he ground his fingers into my shoulder again, “he has only just arrived. Let us grant him some time to reacquaint himself with Crown City and her citizens before he steps in to rule.”
The old guard nodded at that and sat down.
Another hand waved and another question shouted.
“Where were you, my lord?”
I wasn’t sure what the man meant at first until Fadreel answered for me.
“The Heir of Adnor was stolen away from us on the day his blessed father was murdered. He was held captive and lived as a slave until…” The Grand Councilor gestured to Vytar, who was trying to be invisible, “the Captain of the King’s Guard found him fleeing a wild fire in the south of Adnor. Thank you again, Vytar. Your dedication to Crown City humbles us all.”
Vytar gave a solemn bow to the Grand Councilor and another to the roaring crowd.
“One more question, I think.” The Grand Councilor announced, “And then we’ll feast.”
“My lord Heir, assuming you come to rule Crown City and Adnor, what are your plans for ensuring our future?”
I almost laughed. I remembered this question from the Loyalists – “what is your plan?” – and I almost thought about turning it back on the person asking, but Grand Councilor Fadreel’s arm had returned to my shoulders and his closeness made me twitchy.
“If I were to rule – and I would certainly do that with the help of the Grand Council – I would attempt to solve the mystery of the drought that plagues the land.”
“What drought?”
I blinked. Had these people not seen what the fields outside the city looked like?
“There is a terrible drought,” Fadreel answered. “In the southern part of the country.”
Everyone said, “Oh.”
“What about the lack of technology being provided to the lower classes?” The man asked.
I looked at Fadreel who, like The Owl, gestured for me to answer.
“I think all have access to new ways of doing things, but only if the new ways are helpful to all and harmful to none. This technology,” I gestured with the cup,” is amazing, but at what…”
Grand Councilor Fadreel took the cup from my hand and said, “And now the feast is ready. Prince Angestirian and Captain Vytar will be available for you to meet after the meal.”
Vytar’s grimace matched my feelings exactly. We followed the Grand Councilor off the stage.

-9

I found the family resemblance, down through the generations, interesting. I looked like my father, except with lighter and (now) bluer hair and paler skin. My ears and eye shape resembled my grandfather’s, but not my great grandfather, who had rounder eyes and a slack jaw. My eye shape returned in the face of my great great grandmother.
My mother did not have a portrait in the hall. I asked Vytar why.
“The Grand Council decided to revise history,” he said in a soft voice.
“The Grand Council or the Grand Councilor?” I said under my breath.
“The latter,” he murmured back.
I looked around and didn’t see any immediate listeners.
“What exactly happened the night of my father’s passing? I know you were there.”
He didn’t answer, but instead pointed out the new portrait of the de facto ruler of Crown City, Grand Councilor Fadreel.
“You were there, weren’t you?” I insisted.
He rubbed his chin and directed my attention down the hallway to a shelf containing several sculptures. They resembled men’s erect penises.
I raised both eyebrows at him.
“This was a tradition among the nobles during your father’s time.”
“Is yours in there?”
He snorted. “I, thankfully, am not a noble. But note this one.”
“Do I have to?” I said, but I bent down to look where he pointed to an oddly shaped phallus. The label read “Fadreel, 20 years.” Next to it, a straighter sculpture had my father’s name, also age 20.
“This is shortly before the marriage treaty with Elidyr was finalized. I believe he married your mother later that year.”
He paused and I prompted him to continue.
“Your mother was charming, both naturally – because I believe her to be a truly nice person – and magically. The court fell in love with her.”
The way he said it made me realize he counted himself among that group.
“No one had any real experience with the Nord, so her abilities were unexpected. The king and his advisor discovered her talent for influencing people with her voice. Between them they decided to use that power to influence various factions. Your mother, reluctantly I’m sure, sat in on trade negotiations and other matters of state.”
He studied a picture for a moment and I studied him. He seemed reluctant to speak and I started to feel reluctant to hear.
“Things went on. You were born. The King and Queen seemed happy. The advisor grew…” He made a vague gesture with his hand. “He seemed to also have an attraction to your mother, but it wasn’t a wholesome thing. Her powers fascinated him. I remember he once asked her to burn a rat he’d captured.”
I turned from the picture I pretended to be looking at and gave him my full attention.
“Did she?”
“Of course not. But he did manipulate her into using her powers – not her voice powers – but her elemental powers one day. Things got strange between them after that, with the King spending more time with his advisor and less time with his family. Shortly after that your mother claimed that she was homesick and took you to visit family in Elidyr. The King was furious and probably afraid she wouldn’t return. But she did, and she brought you back. She made frequent trips out of Crown City after that.”
A pair of courtiers walked up the stairs and turned toward us. Vytar directed me further down the hallway. The artwork, if you could call it that, got stranger and stranger as we went along.
“One night,” he continued his whispered story when the courtiers turned the other direction, “she found the King and his advisor doing something horrible to a young boy – one of your friends, I think – she’d brought back to Crown City from somewhere. I remember her running in to the drawing room, frantic, and asking me – asking and not using her voice, mind you – to protect you from the King. He arrived shortly after her and they had a terrible fight.”
He seemed upset at the memory. I was upset at the memory and it wasn’t even mine. He paused for a long moment, rubbing his chin and looking grim.
“Maybe a week after that fight, I heard a cry from the King’s rooms. I’d been stationed in the hallway. The Queen had been out at a social engagement. I banged on the door and tried to enter, but it had been barred from the inside. It took me a while to break the door down. I rushed in to find a man in charcoal gray fighting with the advisor, a naked courtesan between them. The King lay sprawled across his bed. His throat had been cut.”
I knew a man in charcoal gray. That my father and Fadreel and been jointly enjoying a courtesan did not surprise me.
“The Owl.”
Vytar nodded. “He cut the advisor, nearly taking his leg off, and leaped from the open window and disappeared.”
I had a brief uncharitable moment of wishing that The Owl had stayed long enough to finish Fadreel off.
Vytar ground his hands together. “One of these days I’m going to capture that bastard and we’ll have a reckoning.”
We’d reached the end of the hallway. I looked up and noticed the display we stood in front of. It was a flayed man preserved in an amber-like substance.
I made a noise of disgust.
“Nasty, isn’t it?” I wasn’t sure if he referred to the display or the story he’d just told me. Something about the display bothered me. I blinked my elemental sight active and noted that the entire thing did not register. Invisible to the elements?
“This is art?” I said it more to relieve the tension than to get confirmation.
Vytar laughed aloud and then covered his mouth. “No, my lord, it is an example of the mech-mages’ new plas technology. This man was jailed for treason.”
We moved back toward the stairway, my stomach churning. “That could have been you.”
He shook his head. “I trust you would not have let that happen, my lord.”
The look of belief and trust in his face made me wince.
“Storm god’s nads, Vytar, I hope I can live up to your faith in me.”
Before he could reply, a page found us, bowing. I noticed he quivered and did not look at me.
“You are summoned, my lords, to the Grand Council chambers. At once.”
His message given, he scurried off, glancing back at me once and almost falling down the stairs. The courtiers snickered. One caught my disapproving look and shushed his companion.
“I hope this isn’t a reversal in our fortunes,” I whispered as we went down the stairs.
“Lad, we’re all ready deep in it. Things have to get better.”
I wasn’t so sure.

-8

With no where else to go, I returned to my room. I found Yerston there, dusting.
“Do you know Vytar the Sentinel?” I asked him.
“Of course, m’lord. He’s in the suite next door.” I spotted my bag of items, now laying on the bed.
“Could you go see if he’ll receive me?” I asked to get Yerston out of the room.
He nodded and left.
The room contained no good hiding places, but it did have a strong box with a lock and key. That might slow someone down if he/she were looking to steal the items. I locked the map and shards in. The box’s key and the letter I tucked into my doublet. Perhaps Vytar would know who wrote it. I realized that Vytar could have many answers to my longstanding questions.
Yerston returned and verified that Vytar was there and ready to receive me. I thanked him and left.

Vytar answered my knock and let me into his rooms. Similar to the layout of my own, the suite did not have a library but instead had a shelf housing a collection of weapons.
“I see they put you in the right room,” I said, accepting the seat he offered.
He snorted and settled into a seat across fro me. We starred at each other for a long moment.
He looked tired and odd in civilian clothing.
“I’m sorry if I caused you to be ejected from the Sentinels.”
He shook his head. “My time there served its purpose.”
“I remember you, you know. Now. You were Captain of the King’s Guard.”
He nodded. “And a good friend of your father’s. I helped you hold your first sword.”
I smiled. “You also read me the story of The Blue Knight and the Lady of Winter.”
He let out a bark of laughter at that.
“You were not the only horse-wild child. My own son…” He paused.
“I recall now. You were married and had a son.”
“That was long ago. They’ve passed on to the elements and are at peace now.”
“I’m sorry I did not know them.” And I was. I am sure his family were as honorable and steadfast as he. I felt the need to know honorable and steadfast people just then.
“You remind me of him,” he said with a sigh.
“Your son?”
“Aye, and your father – sometimes. He wasn’t always…” He paused again.
“What? Stern yet uninterested?” Twisted like a toasted bread knot?
He nodded. “That’s generous. You’ve a generous heart, my lord.”
I shook my head, not knowing what to say to that. My heart seemed broken, its cracks full of anger and distrust.
I pulled the letter out and offered it to him.
“Do you know who wrote this?”
He read it, or tried to, and looked at me for explanation.
“If I may?” I asked before putting my hand of his eyes again. He nodded.
“See.” I commanded and he did.
“Where did you get this?”
“It was among my mother’s things.”
He grunted.
“Do you know who wrote it?”
“Let’s take a walk.” He suggested, rising and handing the letter back to me.
I followed him out, noticing the guard posted at the end of the hall, where there hadn’t been one before. Perhaps I was free but Vytar wasn’t?
“Have you seen the great library?” He asked. Of course I’d seen the library – I spent most of my childhood hanging out there. I raised an eyebrow at him, which he mimicked.
“Not since I was a child.”
“I’ll start our tour there.”
The guard followed us at a distance.
Vytar played tour guide, giving me interesting bits of trivia and pointing out, discreetly, the guards dressed as guards and the guards dressed as courtiers or servants along our path. I guess I’d been blind before. We were closely watched but not interrupted.
The great library had changed from my memory of soaring bookshelves and quiet spaces to less bookshelves and more tables with mech-magic wielders doing research. A noisy place. The mech-mage we’d seen coming out of the tavern yesterday approached us. Vytar stepped in front of me. The mech-mage stepped around him and grasped my right hand, pumping it up and down.
“My lord, I’ve so wanted to meet you.”
I extracted my hand and gave him a greeting. He pulled me along to his work desk.
“I’m working on improving our communications system. As you know, the images take a lot of energy, so I’ve developed this line-less distance speaker.” He handed me a small but heavy, brass metal cup and directed me to stand across the room.
“Put the cup to your ear,” he yelled. The other mech-mages stopped to watch this demonstration.
The cup appeared to be empty and seemed harmless enough, so I held it to my ear.
As tingling sensation, like the tension before a storm, tickled my ear. And then I heard the faint but unmistakable sound of the mech-mage’s voice.
“Can you hear me?”
I nodded and looked across the room at him. Vytar stood next to him, watching, his hands on his hips.
“Okay. Now turn the lip of the cup and speak into it,” the disembodied voice said.
I examined the cup again. It had a small lip, so I tried to turn it. After a moment, I tried the other direction. The lip moved. I spoke into it – feeling self-conscious of my audience.
“Can you hear me?” I asked.
The mech-mage waved confirmation and gestured for me to return to him. The other mech-mages joined us.
“That’s amazing, actually. How does it work?”
He explained that it was based on ancient technology, and showed me a paper with blue lines on it that illustrated the concept and pieces of the cup. It did not appear to have a power source.
“What powers it?”
“SSE of course.”
Not wanting to appear ignorant in front of the crowd, I nodded. “Of course.”
Vytar cleared his throat and gestured for us to continue.
“Thank you,” I said over my shoulder as we walked out.
“What’s the hurry?” I asked Vytar. “I never caught that man’s name.”
“Stygand. You should avoid him.”
“But…” Vytar dragged me out of the building and into main body of the castle.
I made him pause at the bottom of some steps.
“Why should I avoid him?” I whispered, aware that we’d regained our trailing guard.
“Two reasons. One, he’s Fadreel’s favorite and two, what do you think SSE is?”
I shook my head, clueless.
Vytar started up the stairs, saying, “You should review your history, my lord. The gallery contains many portraits of your ancestors.”
I ran to catch up.
“What is SSE?”
“You showed me it yourself.”
“I did?”
He made a gesture of covering his eyes and muttered “horcine.”
Oh. Soul shards or elementals. Magic, possibly based on Dvergr rituals, pain, and blood.
“I wish I’d looked.”
“Yes, well,” he said in a louder voice, “look at this.” He gestured to a painting of one of my ancestors long gone to the elements.

-7

I sought Vytar at the Sentinel’s Garrison. In the main room, a woman sat at a desk, writing something. She looked up and gave me a blank stare for a moment and then narrowed her eyes.
“Yes?”
“I seek Sentinel Vytar. Is he here?”
“Let me get Sentinel Ernol.”
She glance back as she left, as if to ensure that I hadn’t run off.
The wall next to her desk had a display of pictures, each numbered with a red “Wanted” painted underneath. A drawing of The Owl’s face looked out of number one, Draenan’s face of number two, and my own from number three.
On another wall, paintings of Sentinels with dates under them indicating their years of service perhaps. Over all, a picture of the King and dates. Ah, not years of service, years of life. Myrik’s picture had a gilded frame. I had a moment of surprise when I recognized myself in his features.
Sentinel Ernol entered.
“What do you want?” He put his hands on his hips. The woman stood next to her desk, watching and adding her frown to his.
“I was looking for Sentinel Vytar.”
“Vytar is a traitor.”
I didn’t want to get into a fight with the sentinel in the middle of the Sentinel Garrison, but my mouth got a head of me, again.
“How is he a traitor?”
“Because he helped you, Nord.”
“I didn’t know Adnor and Elidyr were at war.”
He scoffed at me.
“I can’t help my parentage anymore than you can help…” I stopped myself just in time. “yours,” I amended.
He sniffed and looked at the watching woman, noticing as I did, the other watchers loitering in the hallway beyond. He looked at the Kings picture above my head and back at me.
“Vytar is not here. Can I help you with anything else, m’lord?”
That’s right, I wanted to say, note the resemblance and note it again. Then I quelled that thought. I didn’t want to be this one’s lord or even his tailor.
“Where is the injured woman from my party?”
“The Physicker’s Tower.”
“Which is where?”
He looked down his nose at me, so I felt compelled to add, “The physicker visited us, we did not visit her.”
“It’s the next tower to the north,” the woman said.
“Thank you, Sentinel Ernol, lady,” I said bowing to each in turn. “You’ve been very kind.”
The woman’s face blanched at that and Sentinel Ernol swallowed.
I left, fuming, then rationalizing, and then fuming again.

I was admitted to the Physicker’s Tower with no resistance. The physicker on duty, a tall woman with wheat colored hair, bowed but did not gush or sneer.
“How may I assist you, m’lord?”
“A woman was admitted to your services yesterday. A Nord woman.”
“Ah yes, this way.”
She lead me up the spiral stairs to the next level where rows of pallets were laid out. All were empty except one.
The Nord woman seemed to be sleeping. She wore a tan shift and her blue-gray hair had been braided. A large, odd pendant of off-white material surrounding a copper medalion lay on her chest.
“What is that?” I asked as I blinked. My elemental sight showed me the soul spark of the woman, a faded rainbow with a touch more green than normal. It seemed suppressed where the medalion lay.
“It is the latest gadget from the mech-mages. It is supposed to promote healing.”
“Is she?”
“Healing? Of course, m’lord. But not, I admit, at the rate I expected.”
I considered my words before I spoke.
“Perhaps you could remove the medallion and see if she improves?”
The physicker blinked at me. I used my voice.
“Remove the medallion. I am sure she will improve.”
The physicker nodded and removed it.
I wished Zat were there, then I could ask him to watch over the rescued. I’d hate to have her healed only to be tortured again.
“Thank you.”
“Of course, m’lord.” The physicker paused and looked pointedly at my arm, which I had habitually cradled against my side.
I removed my doublet and showed her my injury. She poked the lump gently, twisted my wrist, and asked me to make a fist. The twisting of the wrist and the poking hurt. She demonstrated squeezing a leather ball filled with something soft and asked me to try. I couldn’t.
“I will write out some exercises for you and get you a sling.” She returned with a black sash that she tucked my arm in and put over my head.
“Wear it, please, m’lord.” She said that with a stern look. I assured her that I would.
“Thank you for caring for my friend, and for checking my arm.”
She gave me a surprised look and said, “Of course, my lord.”

-6

I woke up, refreshed and clear headed, in a feather bed in an opulent room. My belongings lay, complete, on the side table next to the bed. A soft white robe lay waiting for me. I put it on and explored the suite of rooms, which contained – to my surprise and pleasure – a library full of books on all subjects, including several on the ancient ruins in Adnor. I picked one and settled into a stuffed chair similar to the one that disintegrated after Tiria died. With a sigh at my heartless treatment of my mother’s memory (although she started that landslide herself by blocking my memories of her and my life prior to age 13), I paged through the book, not really reading, but enjoying not moving, not being chased, and not having anyone around. I refused to think of “Uncle” Fadreel, the woman I’d rescued, Vytar, or my uncertain future and just settled for the enjoyment of the moment.
That ended with a knock on the door.
A wizened man in a palace uniform – dove gray houppelande with black piping around the collar and the stylized eagle crest in black and gold embroidered on the edge of the sleeves – entered bearing a tray of wonderful smelling food. He greeted me as “m’lord,” and set the food out on the table in the middle of the three rooms. He finished and stood back, hands folded. This amused me for some reason.
“What’s your name?” I asked as I sat and tried not to jump as he put a napkin in my lap.
“Yerston, m’lord.”
After I finished, Yerston waited at the bathroom door.
“Will m’lord need assistance in dressing himself?”
“M’lord doesn’t have any clothing other than what m’lord came in with.”
He frowned at that.
“Perhaps m’lord has not had the chance to examine the wardrobe.” Nope, m’lord hadn’t.
In the wardrobe I found several royal blue crushed velvet houppelandes, a black and gray doublet, a leather jerkin, dove gray and black hose, tin liripipe hood, and a low pair of soft boots.
He selected a houppelande with enormous sleeves and held it out.
“Don’t you have a tunic?”
He sniffed and then he sniffed again and said, “Perhaps m’lord would like to bathe.”
Oh yes, m’lord would.
After bathing, shaving, and dressing in the least fancy thing I could find (the black and gray doublet with black hose), Yerston seemed satisfied that I wouldn’t offend anyone if I left my room. That Grand Councilor Fadreel hadn’t summoned me seemed a blessing and a bit of a mystery. I recall the short argument over my collapsed body last evening, with Vytar insisting that I rest and the Grand Councilor wanting to talk to me. And then it struck me that perhaps I couldn’t leave the room. A fancy cage was still a cage.
I tried it – no guards were posted on my door. Yerston didn’t come after me. I walked down the hallway with confidence and made the first random turn that I could. I didn’t come to this part of the castle much, the visitor’s wing, having spent most of my time in the eastern most tower where my parents had their private residence.
Eventually I found my way down to the center of the castle where the royal audience chamber, formal dining room, dance hall, and kitchens were.
Guards saluted me and no one tried to stop me. I guess the word was out – the heir had returned, huzzah and like that. I had the urge to test my boundaries; get some food, find my horse, and ride away as fast and as far as I could.
I found the stable and Rand – the only horse there among a herd of horcines. He seemed happy. A stable boy asked if m’lord would be riding. Good question.
I remembered the drought, the Dvergr, The Owl’s loyalist revolutionaries, and the Nord woman I’d rescued. Was she still rescued?
No, m’lord would not be riding today. M’lord would be using his lord-ness and figure out why Nord were being tortured. I went to find Vytar.