Amorda – for some reason, despite her many revelations, he hadn’t thus far been able to think of or address her as ‘Candida’ – laughed. “Not quite yet. You’ve been betrayed by your humble origins again, my cub.” She took the sting out of her words with a mischievous smile. “Uxor et uxoria nondum.”
The ranger blinked. “Nondum? Nunquam?”
“Nequamquam. Not yet. Not quite.”
Reaching for the bottle, she leaned forward and refilled his glass. A brief glance at the label and she shook her head. “If Reticia were here,” she murmured, “I’d’ve sent her to fetch something more appropriate to the occasion.”
The ranger frowned. “I beg your pardon? What d’ye mean we’re ‘not married’?”
The elf-woman patted his hand where it lay on the table. He had to wrestle against instinct to keep from snatching it back. “However gallantly done, lupino mea,” she said gently, “– and believe me, it was gallantly done! – what we just did was merely gesta sponsalis. Under Dîor’s law, we are indeed joined, and could remain so in æternum, and leave it at that. But while we are joined in the strictest legal sense, spiritually we have gone no further than betrothal.”
She tilted her glass at him, eyes sparkling merrily. “I won’t leave it at that, I think. I’ve been waiting three centuries for a hero to come along and sweep me off my feet. If you think I’m going to let you get away without a formal wedding – with attendants, bells, birds, the nuntium, all my friends envying and hating me, all my former lovers envying and hating you, and Elcaradon himself splashing water on us and whacking us with oak leaves, wheat and holly – well then, my love, you’re mad!”
“I think that’s dangerous,” Breygon said darkly. “I’m no actor. I doubt I’ll be able to disguise myself as a pure-blood well enough to be able to fool a hall full of wedding guests.”
“Why on earth would I want to disguise you?” Amorda exclaimed, shocked. “I’m not marrying a half-blood; I’m marrying a hero! A mighty servant of the Protector! A slayer of dragons, a nephew of House Aiyellohax, and a personal friend of Princess Myaszæron Æyllian – Duchess of This, Marchioness of That, and Jewel Verdant of the Royal Household.” Her eyes twinkled like diamonds in sunlight. “You’re the catch of the century! Don’t you see that?”
“In fact,” the elf-woman added wickedly, “Your heritage only adds spice. A few hints about your…other skills…and every well-born, unoathed girl in the capital will be lining up to let you kiss their hands. Half the married ones, too.”
“I’m not sure I’m going to be comfortable with all the attention,” Breygon growled.
“Comes with the territory, sponsus,” Amorda laughed. “In my circles, there’s something worse than your enemies watching your every move.”
“Nobody watching. Nobody at all,” she said, all seriousness. “That’s worse.”
“Lack of attention has never been my problem,” the ranger growled. “Unfortunately.”
“Excellent,” his new fiancée said, nodding. “In fact, it would help if you stuck out more prominently.” She reached over and stroked his chin. “I don’t suppose you could grow a beard, could you? After all,” she added, grinning happily, “a girl only gets married once!”
“Sorry,” the ranger chuckled. “No beards. Where facial hair’s concerned, I take after my…after the Third House. I can no more grow a beard than…than…”
His expression darkened suddenly. “Just a moment. What do you mean, ‘married once’? What about...what was his name? Your lifemate in Arx Incultus? The one you inherited your estate from?”
“Poor Silas, you mean? The last surviving scion of House Olestyrian?” she asked, laughing.
“You never told me the surname,” Breygon frowned. “That sounds like one of the real houses!”
“It is. Not Duodeci, of course, but pretty close. A branch of House Solostyriannis, that broke off before the Shadow War.”
“As for Silas…” Amorda leaned forward and patted the ranger’s cheek. “We never wed. In fact, I never met him. Not in life, anyway. He was one of the Bird-Catcher’s agents in the north. Had a great head for business, and he built up an impressive fortune. The Auceps had him monitoring smuggling on the
Great Caravan Route,
if I understand correctly. He’d always
been something of an adventurer, though, and managed to get himself killed
whilst looking too closely into some Ekhani renegades bringing contraband
“A complete balls-up,” she shrugged, “and a terrible loss to the Praecaviorii. But he was high-born, with a major estate and no heirs, so it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The Bird-Catcher doesn’t waste anything. Least of all opportunities.
“A request went out through the service – I don’t know how many put their names in – and I…er…applied.” She took a sip of her wine, not taking her eyes from his, trying to gauge his reaction to her tale.
“How did you ‘apply’?” Breygon asked, as he knew was expected.
“Easy,” she replied, eyes twinkling. “I found the smugglers who’d killed Silas, shut down their operation, and put them in the ground. Took me two weeks, and the job was mine. A few selective memory alterations here, some forged papers there, a lot of fast talking on my part...” she spread her hands “...and there I was. No longer a shifty, shuffling downtown operator working bars, inns and eateries; I would be a great lady, newly widowed. A feudal seigneur, with a landed estate, bound servants, a tidy income from taxation of trade routes, and a king’s ransom in my vaults. Even a nice house on the Via Alnus in the capital – fronted by gardens and shops, and backing on the Lymphus.
“And the Auceps,” she raised her glass in salute, “had a new set of eyes and ears, both in the north, and at court, once I had arrived to take up my late ‘husband’s’ council seat, which I of course did without delay. And, soon enough, a great many friends and acquaintances in high society. Ladies of noble birth, mostly, with expensive tastes, loose knees, and looser tongues.”
She pasted a mocking look of sorrow on her face. “The hardest part was wearing white and keeping my own knees together for the year-and-a-day that the Codex demands. I can fake mourning if I have to, and even the enforced chastity of the bereaved, but all-white garb is a sore trial. Makes me look like a ghost. Scarlet and gold are my best colours.”
“That’s a little cold,” the half-elf murmured. “It’s one thing to profit from the death of an enemy, but a colleague…”
“My darling,” she chided gently, “I’d never even met the man. But I wore white for a year for him, eschewed all gentlemanly company, spoke my prayers for his departed soul on Sîan Varrasday, and left a fortune in white roses on his bier. Which I paid for. It’s very nice. None of his real friends in life did half as much in memory of his passing.”
“And all of this was...how long ago?”
Amorda pursed her lips. “Ninety-one years, winter next.”
Breygon nodded. “And how did you…sorry, how did you put it? – ‘put his murderers in the ground’? If I may ask.”
“That was easy,” she chuckled. “I tipped off the Ekhani border guards regiment in Bylkor that these fine fellows were coming through with a load of mordayn cuttings in a secret compartment in the bed of their wagon.”
He frowned. “Mordayn’s not that easy to come by.”
“You’d be surprised,” the elf-woman winked. “But in any case, I didn’t need to come by any. Their wagon was clean. But after they’d passed through the customs station at Anitor, their strongbox had mysteriously gotten heavier. To the tune of a couple of hundred fake sovereigns.”
Breygon stared at her, not certain what to say. “So?” he asked at last.
“Imperial law makes the criminal provisions in the Codex look like a lot of gentle suggestions,” Amorda snorted. “The sons of Empire are serious about their currency. Drug smugglers only break rocks for a five-year. Counterfeiters, though...they get the rope.”
She tilted her head, crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. “Problem solved.”
“Problem solved,” the ranger echoed faintly. “And you were...intimate...with my...with Bræagond, the Queen’s grandson. How long ago was that?”
The elf-woman cocked an eyebrow and dropped a sly smile. “ ‘Intimate’? Is that jealousy I hear, lupino?”
One shapely eyebrow rose, as if his reaction had betrayed more than he had intended. “Our ‘intimacy’, as you put it,” she smiled coyly, “began in high summer. I remember that the morbannons were blossoming, and the air smelt like honey.” She raised her eyes to the ceiling, calculating. “It was forty-five years ago. In 1009, after his lifemate Inscia was despatched to Norkhan as the Throne’s special envoy on trade. Just after, in fact. She was gone for a ten-year, and I played his pillow the whole time, keeping him happy when he came by, and looking the other way when he went off to satiate those…ah…special interests, that I just wasn’t equipped to cope with.”
“Ten years,” Breygon breathed. “That’s a long time.”
She shook her head. “The blink of an eye, my love. I called it off when she returned, though.”
“And it was forty years ago,” the half-elf mused. “Forty years.”
The elf-woman dropped him a roguish wink. “You must’ve been the result of one of his little side adventures during that very period. The timing’s about right.” She cocked her head, growing serious for a moment. “In fact, now that I think of it, if I hadn’t been taking precautions, you could easily have been my son, by him.”
“Your son,” he repeated, shaking his head. “Why did you do it, may I ask?”
“Why did I bed him? Or why did I call it off?”
Breygon waggled a hand, a little disturbed. “Both.”
Amorda shrugged. “The latter, because I counted Inscia among my friends. I still do. That wasn’t the most important reason, of course, but it was a big one. And besides, there’s a…a protocol, to these things. Never cuckold a friend under her own roof. Never do so while she’s within city walls, or with child. And never, ever pre-empt her with an illegitimate heir.”
She shook her head. “Despite the value the Queen would place on another heir, Inscia’s never borne a child. I don’t know whether that was a purposeful decision or not, but either way I couldn’t afford to let her husband kindle me. Hence the precautions I mentioned.”
“What ‘precautions’ are you talking about?” Breygon asked, puzzled.
“Prophylaxis arcanae,” the elf-woman replied. “I’ve a few friends and acquaintances among the Disciples of the Maiden. They’re expert at that sort of thing. Preventing unwanted pregnancies, or dealing with them if circumstances demand.”
Her eyes narrowed suddenly. “In fact, they’re also expert at ferreting out muddled lineages. If you like, I could ask Naumastis to help you figure out your parentage. For a fee, of course.”
“I already know more about my parentage than I want to,” the ranger muttered. “What was the ‘most important reason’ you halted your affair with my...with Bræagond?”
Amorda snorted. “Because of his lifemate’s family. I couldn’t afford to push them too far, and I certainly couldn’t afford to alienate them. Inscia Insecuba Æyllian, after all, was born Inscia Insecuba Cælestis. And now she’s Mater Princeps. Head of the family.”
Breygon frowned. “And that means...?”
“I wish I still had my book,” Amorda sighed. “House Cælestis is one of the wealthiest in the realm. They control Advenaportus, Sinulatus and Sinucernus – the three greatest trading ports on the eastern coast. Trade revenue makes them rich beyond the dreams of avarice. But they’re also one of the most influential families. By virtue of her marriage to the Queen’s grandson, Inscia is Duchess of Lamboris. So she exercises, through her idiot husband, at least some measure of control over Astraputeus, Capavallis and Aldalustrum, and therefore most of the Vale of Stars surrounding the capital. That gives him – which means her, even though they’re living seiugatus – plenty of power to wield as she sees fit. And even more money. Lamboris is the best farming land in the realm. She probably out-earns the Throne.”
“Hang on,” Breygon held up a hand. “I don’t recognize that term.”
“Maintaining separate households,” Amorda explained. “She occupies the official residence of the Lamboris dukes in Capavallis, and she also maintains Heron Gate, their shared estate in the Capital. Bræagond had to move back to the Palace to live with Grand-Mama. She insisted. Rather forcefully, according to the stories; apparently their separation accord required a great many costly window replacements.
“Now, all of that aside, by birth, she…what?”
Breygon was holding up his hand again. “Why?”
The elf-woman blinked. “You mean, ‘why are they maintaining separate households’?”
The ranger nodded.
“Because she can’t stand him,” Amorda said briefly. “And who could blame her? I have smarter furniture. As I was saying, by bir…Hara Sophus, what is it now?”
“Aren’t they still married?” Breygon asked, confused beyond measure.
“Of course,” Amorda replied, looking at him strangely. “How else?”
“They could obtain an uxorem, could they not?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she laughed. “Of course they can’t. They swore the votum magnus. And even if they could, why would either of them want a divorce? A formal marriage, while it lasts, virtually doubles the political influence of House Cælestis and gives Inscia an overt link to the throne, even while she balances that link by dallying with Eldarcanum. Why would she ever want to upset that?”
“And what does my…what does Bræagond get out of it?” he asked, baffled.
“Money,” Amorda smirked. “Inscia’s coffers are bottomless. In exchange for the key to the Cælestis treasuries, he stays out of her sight, out of her bedchamber, and out of the public eye.”
Without taking her eyes off him, she took a long sip from her glass. “Any more questions?”
The ranger’s eyes narrowed. “Just one. If you had…have…such contempt for my…for the Queen’s grandson, then why did you play his mistress for a decade?”
“Because the Bird-Catcher asked me to penetrate the Palace,” she said evenly, “and the easiest and quickest way to do it was on my back.”
“Great forest gods,” Breygon murmured. He put his head in his hands.
“You can sheathe that kak right now,” she said, a note of steel creeping into her voice. “I’m not about to take lessons in morality from someone who kills for a living. To the best of my knowledge, Bræagond Æyllian, whatever his myriad faults may be, has never slain anyone. You, my duck, cannot say the same.”
“I said nothing.” Breygon held up his hands in surrender. “Nothing at all.”
Leaning back into her cushions, she regarded him coldly.
Breygon sighed. “You were talking about Inscia Insecuba when I interrupted you. Something to do with her birth?”
Amorda nodded, frowning at his still-obvious disapproval. “By birth, Inscia’s also Duchess of Apricus – the east-coast trading province. So she casts two votes on the Council – and two Duchy votes, at that – and, through her seigneurial linkages, directly controls six others.” She eyed the ranger in all seriousness. “She’s a force to be reckoned with, sponsus. She can swing the Council for the Queen, or not, as she sees fit. Don’t underestimate her. Hells, why do you think the Queen sent her to Norhkhan for a ten-year?”
“No idea. You tell me.” He grinned narrowly. “Sponsa.”
Amorda tilted her glass in mock salute. “To get her out of the capital, of course, and away from the levers of power.” She rolled her eyes. “You’re a dear, lupino, but you’re awfully dense about the simplest things.”
“There’s nothing simple about what you do.” Breygon shook his head. “I think Elven politics may be beyond me.”
“They’d better not be,” the elf-woman warned. “You’re part of them already, by force majeure. You announced your status as a player when you unsheathed your sword. And you announced your vote when you allied with Kaltas. Your colleagues did, too.
“Especially Thanos,” she added, frowning. “The magi at the College claim to prize subtlety and finesse, but like all casters, they respect raw force. I haven’t seen anybody with his kind of sheer destructive power since Rykki disappeared, and everybody with a spellbook and a wand wanted a piece of her. He’s going to have to keep a weather eye out; every budding flux-blaster with a big ego and a chip on his shoulder’s going to want to try him on, for bragging rights if nothing else.”
“I’ll let him know,” Breygon promised. “Why does allying with Kaltas matter so much?”
“Because,” she said, speaking slowly, “as foreigners, the lot of you might have been able to stand aloof and out of the fray, if only you’d had the sense to chart a course between the Houses. But as Kaltas’ nephews – and therefore, by extension, Mya’s, which gives you a link, however tenuous, to the Throne – you’ve been drawn in. Unless Kaltas takes that army he’s massing and throws it against the capital instead of against Eldarcanum, it’ll be assumed he – and therefore you – support the Queen.
“And,” she added with a sly wink, “once we’re wed, you’ll be neck-deep in it, and no going back. In addition to your overt allegiance to Kaltas, you’re going to have to safeguard the best interests of your new fief. Article II – defence of the Realm. And not just on the battlefield, either; you’ll be sitting for Arx Incultus at Council and trying your best not to get raped by the other nobles around the table. I’ll help you as much as I can, but you’re going to have to watch Inscia like a hawk.”
She flicked her wine glass with a fingernail, setting it to ringing. “My bet is that she’ll try to seduce you. It’s what I’d do, were I in her slippers.”
“Seduce me?” Breygon gaped. “Hells, what for?!”
“You mean, apart from your skill between the sheets?” Amorda grinned. “To try to pull Arx Incultus into her orbit, of course. To make us take a stand. And,” she winked, “to pay me back for topping her husband for a decade, and ruining him for all other women.”
“Bardan’s balls!” the ranger swore. He glanced around the room as if looking for an exit…but of course, there wasn’t one. “All right, then...Arx Incultus. What about it? Why should I matter? Why shouldn’t you keep your Council seat?”
“The Codex, my sweet,” Amorda reminded him. “Coniunx ante coniugis. Husband before wife. I wasn’t born to the barony; I only married into it. Had it been mine by birth, no marriage could pre-empt my right, but because I inherited from my late, lamented husband -” she took a deep draught of her wine “- then, if I remarry, my new husband takes precedence. Article IV - Primogeniture.”
“Of course, Article IV,” Breygon murmured. “How could I forget.”
He ran his hands through his hair. “This may surprise you,” he said tiredly, “but I’ve never run a barony.”
“We learn by doing,” the elf-woman said gently. She patted his hand again. “My poor sponsus! Didn’t you know what you were getting yourself into?”
“Not really, no,” he growled.
She dimpled. Her demeanour changed suddenly from lasciviously seductive to playfully pretty. “Are you trying to tell me,” she giggled, “that you were after me, and not my barony? That you weren’t thinking about titles and taxes and treasure, but just –” she indicated herself with a wave “- just this? Truly?”
“Does that surprise you?” the ranger asked darkly.
“Of course it does!” Her eyes were sparkling. “That’s the best present you could’ve given me!” As she spoke, she held up her hand, admiring the ring with which he had presented her.
“But,” she added seriously, “you’re still going to have to think about your new responsibilities. Being a noble – even an ersatz one – is fun, but it’s also a full-time occupation.”
The half-elf rubbed his eyes. “I’ve been a wanderer all my life,” he said hollowly. “Towns, castles, sawmills, grist mills, peasants and artisans, pigs and cows…they’re a little difficult to pack up and take with you when the Protector shows you a new road.”
“You knew what I was before you proposed,” she reminded him soberly. “Both the false front, and the truth. My position, my duties…they are here, sponsus. Here.”
He nodded. “I knew it.”
“And yet, you passed me the rose and the cup nonetheless?”
Another nod. “I did.”
“Do you always leap before looking?”
Breygon frowned. “As you pointed out a moment ago, I’m used to dealing with murderous sorcerers, fire-belching dragons, shambling revenants, and ancient, bile-spewing abominations from beyond the walls of the Universe. My business affords no second chances. So you’ll forgive me if I find the machinations of high-born dilettantes less than enthralling.”
“I’m not ‘high-born’, as you well know,” she snapped back, “and those ‘machinations’ you despise are your business now, too. I won’t forgive you if you shirk your duties, either as lord of Arx Incultus, or as my lord husband. So you’d best put your guard up and learn.”
She smiled narrowly. “There are no second chances in my line of work either.”
Breygon sighed. He did not return her smile. “You’d best teach me, then.”
“ ‘Machinations’, as you put it, are our stock in trade,” Amorda said firmly. “And most of the heads of the great houses are adept at that trade. Inscia is a past master. No great house can afford to get too comfortable with the crown, so for the last fifty years, she’s been edging closer and closer to Eldarcanum. Never allied; but always associated. Close, but only just close enough to keep Ælyndarka on her toes.
“That was why the Queen manoeuvred her grandson into lifemating the Cælestis heir in the first place, after all; to control her, and her House. The marriage between Inscia Insecuba, née Cælestis, and Bræagond Æyllian, second in line in the Second Generation, is probably the most important political union since the Queen brought House Perfidelis out of a state of near-rebellion and into the royal sphere by lifemating Duke Percorian, eight centuries ago.”
“ ‘Duke Percorian’?” Breygon started. “I’ve never even heard that name mentioned! Is he the Prince Consort? Where is he now?”
“Same place he’s been for about eight centuries,” Amorda shrugged. “The Royal Crypts, in the Eternal Grove. He died only twenty years after they were wed. He passed just a few years after their fourth child, the one called Szæronýla Spaðacódru, was born.”
Breygon started slightly at the mention of that name.
Amorda didn’t notice. She shrugged. “I know the High Priestess at the Lucum Spaðacódru. She’s not a friend as such, but we’re friendly enough, if you know what I mean. The cathedral there’s probably rebuilt by now. Or at least it ought to be; Bræagond’s put enough of his wife’s money into it.” She shrugged. “Maybe Shaivaun can perform our nuptials if Archpriest Elcaradon balks at binding me to a half-blood. The timing is good; we could get bound on the Slaughter.”
“You mean, Mælgorm’s Slaughter?” Breygon asked, taken aback.
“Why not? Given who and what you are,” she said with an especially sly wink, “I can’t think of a more auspicious day.”
“It’s only four days away!” he squeaked.
“More like three,” she shrugged. “Don’t worry, sponsus. I’ve been planning this for a very long time.”
Breygon shook his head slowly. “You astonish me.”
“I do?” the elf-woman asked, surprised.
“All of you!” the ranger grated. “The world is crumbling at the edges, there’s a cancer at the heart of the Green, the Queen’s own niece threatens the throne...and all you care about is who marries who, who backs who, who betrays who, and who tops who!
“Politics!” he exclaimed, agitated. “The politics of dilettantes, spendthrifts and whores!”
“Politics is everything,” Amorda replied calmly. “You could spend the rest of your life hacking your way through every enemy that presents himself to your blade, and at the end be neck-deep in blood and no nearer your goal. Or, with the right word in the right ear, you could neutralize everyone who stands against you, and win your ends...all without having to unsheathe your sword. Maybe without having to leave your chair. That’s politics.”
“It’s foolish,” Breygon growled.
“It’s the way the world is, my lord husband,” she replied coldly. “And it’s your world now. You can get used to it, and learn to live in it; or you can refuse, and die in it.
“Or...” her voice trailed off, and she looked suddenly sad.
“Or you can foreswear yourself,” she whispered. “Take back the rose. Step out of that window, climb down the wall, and disappear from my sight forever. I won’t try to stop you.”
The ranger watched her closely. She was calm, placid and poised as always. But there was something...a flush of the ear-tips, a quickening of the breath, a flutter of fingers against the polished marble of the table...
Breygon was silent for a long moment, staring first at her, then looking down at his hands. At last he glanced up at her and winked. “What fun would that be?”
Amorda laughed merrily, but the ranger heard a note of relief behind her humour. “And that’s what it’s all about, lupino mea. Fun! It might look dreary, but once you’re inside, politics is the greatest game in all the wide world.
“And who knows,” she added in a silky whisper. “You might even learn to enjoy it.” Reaching up to her coiffure, she removed a long, enamelled pin. A single errant curl tumbled down.
Breygon shook his head, struggling to collect his wits. The simple gesture made him feel as if something heavy had landed on his chest. “A great game,” he repeated, “except when you get caught cheating. I’m no expert on the Codex – we saw that today. But I would imagine that, if you were apprehended, the consequences might be severe.”
“Apprehended by whom?” the elf-woman laughed. “Who can expose me? And in any case, who arranged my false station? And who does he work for?”
The ranger grimaced. “What makes you think that your...your Bird-Catcher, or the Queen, would risk themselves or their stations merely to save you?”
The elf-woman dropped an insouciant shrug, and winked.
“More secrets,” the ranger grunted.
“Water’s wet,” Amorda smiled sweetly. “Sky’s blue. Women have secrets. This surprises you?”
“Not in the least,” Breygon replied, shaking his head. “You’re quite a schemer, aren’t you?”
Amorda’s smile widened into a playful grin. “What was it you once said to me? Oh yes, that’s right – ‘I’m complicated’.”
The ranger laughed aloud and gave her a mocking bow. “So you were never really married,” he mused. A smirk twisted one corner of his mouth. “In that one sense, if in perhaps no other, I guess that makes me your first.”
“The first one that matters,” she agreed with a nod and a smile. “So you’ll forgive me, I’m sure, for wanting it all.”
“Trumpets, swans, fountains, rose petals,” Breygon sighed. “A wondering throng of noble bird-brains stumbling about drunkenly - smiling politely, to be sure, but secretly horrified at your choice of mate. And a magnificent gown, too, I suppose?”
“I have more gowns than you could count, lupino,” the elf-woman snickered. “Besides, what would I need with more clothes? You saw Kaltas and Mya after their ceremony. The coniunctio formalis is performed in...shall we say…‘a state of nature’.”
Breygon frowned suddenly, recalling the incident. He had forgotten about that part of the elves’ formal wedding ceremonies. He found himself blushing furiously. “Well,” he said, trying to cover his consternation with a jest, “you know me. I’m all about nature.”
“I thought you’d see it that way.”
She stretched languorously, like a cat before a fireplace. “I believe,” she murmured, “that that concludes the business of our engagement.”
Her right hand was toying with her wine glass. With her left, she unclasped the brooch that secured the collar of her gown. The garment slipped a little, exposing pale, shapely shoulders. Without taking her eyes off of his, she began loosening the ties of her bodice.
Breygon abandoned his seat, snuffed the candle with a quick, dextrous pinch, and eased himself down onto the couch at her side. Despite the new darkness, they had no difficult seeing each other; firelight limned their forms, sparkled in their eyes. He brushed her hand gently aside and went to work on the laces himself.
She lay back, arms above her head, watching him. “By the way, my lord husband,” she murmured, a glimmer of teeth announcing her smile, “I thought you weren’t a caster. However did you manage to fly up here?”
He put his lips to her throat, grinning to himself as she gasped and arched her back. “I think you’ll find, my lady wife,” he whispered, “that I’m full of surprises.”
“Where is he?” Valaista asked, nervous. “Still on the balcony?”
She stepped lightly into the sitting room, closing the door behind her as quietly as she could.
Karrick, who was seated on a comfortable sofa with his feet propped on a nearby table, nodded. “Can’t you hear him?”
The dragon-girl cocked an ear. Sure enough, someone was stomping back and forth on the loggia outside their suite, alternately muttering and shouting.
She winced. “What language is that?”
“Dunno,” the warrior replied. “More than one, I think. Although I’m pretty sure dhipërdhunues is Orcish.”
“What does it mean?”
“ ‘Goat-rapist’,” Karrick said. “You told the night butler to hurry?”
She nodded. “He said he’d be right behind me.”
“Hope he’s fast on his feet,” the soldier grunted. “If the boss runs out of crockery, he’s liable to start in on the walls.”
He selected one of the bottles cluttering the table, shook it, and waved it in her direction. “A little something? Calm the nerves?”
She eyed the flask. “That didn’t come from your goblet, did it?”
“Are you kidding? I ran that thing dry before my feet hit the floor this morning. This is...” he held the flask up to his eyes, trying to read the label.
“What?” she asked when he didn’t continue.
He shrugged. “Old.” Without waiting for her to reply, he filled a clean goblet and pushed it towards her.
“KARRICK!” Thanos’ voice penetrated the balcony shutters like a lance through a paper shield.
Without moving or even taking his boots off the table, Karrick shouted, “YES BOSS?”
“WHERE’S THAT BEER?!”
“COMING, BOSS!” The warrior leaned back into the comfortable upholstery and took a long swig from his glass.
Another burst of profanity rattled against the balcony doors. Karrick stifled a snicker.
Valaista listened more carefully this time. “ ‘Lugatshijues’?”
“Goblin. ‘Basilisk-licker’,” Karrick translated helpfully. “That’s impressive. I didn’t know the man spoke any goblin.”
“I didn’t know you spoke any goblin,” Valaista said, surprised.
“I don’t. I just speak profanity.”
The dragon-girl shuddered.
“What is it?” Karrick asked, happily cradling his goblet.
“Who’d want to lick a basilisk?”
“Well, since it’s one of their curses, I’d guess the goblins disapprove of it,” the warrior chuckled. “But according to the boss, our half-elf’s a fan.”
“He is very angry with Breygon, is he not?”
“The boss? Ask the dishes,” Karrick chortled. “If you can find any. Yes, he’s angry.”
“Why?” the girl asked, all seriousness.
Karrick rolled his eyes. “That, my dear, is a hole without a bottom.”
“I do not understand,” she persisted. “Mating is a matter of the heart. It cannot be denied. If Breygon has found aitokaveri, or...or even ainakaveri, then we should rejoice for him.”
“Eye-toe…whatsis?” Karrick asked, puzzled.
“Aitokaveri,” she repeated severely. “It means the true-mate. The one who calls to us across the reaches of time and space. Who makes the heart pound, the blood race. Who cries the cry that demands fulfilment.”
The warrior blinked. “You dragons are a romantic lot, aren’t you?”
“Aitokaveri is part of the fabric of being,” she said indignantly. “We all await the heart’s-cry of our true-mate. We all long for the one.
“The one,” she continued, sighing heavily, “whose sielu burns bright as the Lantern in our eyes, and that will join with our very own, to produce...to…”
She broke off. “Why are you laughing?”
Karrick was chortling and pounding his knee in a paroxysm of glee. “ ‘True-mate’? ‘Sielu’? Hearts burning brighter than the Lantern?” he gasped. “Is that what you think is going on here?”
“Is it not?” the dragon-girl asked, baffled.
“Nope. The half-elf’s got something else on his mind. Part if it is he thinks he’s being clever.” He shrugged. “He probably is. Mostly, though, I think he just wants to split her like a face-cord of firewood.” He raised his glass. “More power to him, sez I.”
Valaista blinked. “Human colloquialisms perplex me.”
Karrick rolled his eyes. “Where’s your mom at a time like this? What I mean is that he wants to...to 'be one' with her. That clear enough for you?”
“Of course,” she replied. “That is understandable. What I do not understand is why there has been so much drama over a simple matter of joining.”
The warrior laughed again, leaned forward, and refilled her glass. “Welcome to the Kindred world, girlie. No matter how simple something is, we can complicate it for you.”
“Complicate...?” She stopped, shook her head, and took a deep breath. “I am confused. I have tried to speak with the Princess and with Duke Kaltas about this, but they baffled me as well.” She frowned. “My timing may have been bad. At least you have your clothes on.”
“Damned right,” Karrick muttered into his glass.
She braced herself. “I request that you instruct me, master.”
“Call me ‘Karrick’,” the warrior said, curious. “What did you want to know now?”
Valaista took a deep breath. “Please explain Kindred mating to me.”
“Hahahahaha!” Karrick tumbled off his chair, barely catching himself on a nearby low table before he hit the floor.
The dragon-girl stared at him, worry in her eyes. “Mas...Karrick, are you well?”
“ ‘Explain Kindred mating’??!?” the warrior gasped. “How long do iron dragons live?”
“Is that a yes?”
“No, it most certainly is not,” the warrior replied, wiping his streaming eyes.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I am disinclined,” Karrick said as gravely as he could manage, “to acquiesce to your request.”
“What?” Valaista exclaimed.
“No!” Karrick waved his hands for emphasis. “If you absolutely have to know, ask the boss. In fact, wait until I’m watching before you ask him.”
“You will not instruct me?” she said sadly.
“Not a chance. Believe me, I’m the last…Kindred…that you want explaining this to you.”
“Why?” Valaista asked, puzzled. Then her face cleared. “Ah, I understand. You cannot explain because you have never mated!”
Karrick opened his mouth to retort. Then, realizing that there was absolutely nothing he could say that would improve the situation, he closed it again with a snap.
To his immense relief, a fresh burst of profanity from the balcony provided a welcome interruption.
Valaista, forgetting her line of inquiry, glanced nervously towards the doors. “Perhaps we should try to calm him,” she suggested.
Karrick retrieved his glass, leaned back in his chair, and put his boots back on the table. “You first,” he grunted. “You’ve got spell resistance, you’re a girl, and you haven’t spent the last ten-year telling him he’s wrong. That gives you better odds than me.”
Her look changed to one of worried annoyance. “What if he disturbs the other guests, and someone else approaches him?”
“Already got my funeral clothes,” the warrior shrugged, “and if I know the boss, I won’t even need a shovel.” He pointed to her glass. “Drink up, girlie. Really, it calms the nerves.”
She obeyed, and he recharged both glasses.
They listened to their master’s muffled tirade for a few moments more. At last, Karrick spoke. “You been practicing what I showed you? About trading aggression for caution, and keeping your guard closed?” he asked.
She nodded. “It is difficult. The recul you showed me is counterinstinctual. I find I have to force myself into it. I do not know why it is so difficult.”
“You’re a dragon,” Karrick laughed. “Of course it feels wrong. It’s because you’re not built to back up.”
“Eh? What do you mean?” she asked, frowning.
He pointed at her booted feet. “That hind-claw you’ve all got. You know the one. Part of your heel, and points backwards?”
She nodded. “The metatarsus talon, you mean?”
Karrick blinked. “How did you know what it’s called? Who taught you that?”
“No one,” she protested, all innocence. “We are hatched with such knowledge.”
“Must be nice,” the warrior glowered. “Anyway, that’s the one. Have you ever tried to walk backwards? In your normal shape, I mean?”
“Yes,” she replied. “It is very difficult. The talon digs into soil. Stone, even. It helps us to hold our position when pushed. Also to climb. And it provides purchase when we jump. But it makes it very difficult to back up.” She frowned. “Are you saying that this is meant to be so?”
“Why would the Dark Ender do such a thing?” she asked, puzzled.
“So you can’t retreat,” Karrick said soberly. “The bastard was so intent on making you into unstoppable killing machines that he built it into your skeleton. Dragons don’t retreat, not ever. Not because they don’t want to, but because they pretty well can’t. Not without turning your back on the enemy. Never a good idea.”
He emptied his glass and refilled it again. “That’s a peculiarly draconic thing, by the way. As you said, it’s instinctive. You’re going to have to work hard to overcome it.”
The girl’s eyes were wide as she absorbed his explanation. “I had not thought of that. Very well, I shall try harder to master the technique. As a prelude to defensive parries, it is most effective.”
“Damned straight,” he agreed. “Your best bet,” he went on, punctuating his remarks with his glass, splashing droplets of wine here and there, “is to counter from the advanced guard position with a moulinet to prime or seconde. Most folks would only try that with a lightblade or a rapier, but you’re like me – strong enough to manage it with the meat cleavers we use.”
A pause, and a slurp. “Give each one of those – prime and seconde, I mean – about ten-score repetitions,” he commanded. “Once you’ve got that mastered, I’ll show you how to drop from prime to octave and fente into a passata-sotto.”
“That’s the one I really want to try!” she said excitedly. “It looks so elegant!”
“Piss on elegant,” the warrior growled. “It looks best when it ends with a handspan of blade sticking out your opponent’s lower back. And you’ll bloody well wait until I say you’re ready before trying it in combat. With your reflexes, you’ll probably fall over your feet the first dozen times or so.”
“Yes, master,” the girl nodded dutifully.
“I told you, call me ‘Karrick’,” the warrior sighed. “Or ‘Hey, you!’”
There was another outburst of profanity from the balcony. To Karrick’s surprise, this time Valaista immediately flushed a deep, hot pink. He put his glass down, reached for his dagger, and glanced around, wondering what had set her off. “What is it?” he barked.
“The...the master has...he has decided to speak...my tongue,” she whispered.
“Oh,” Karrick said. He grinned. “Oh! Oh ho!”
The girl looked positively mortified.
Karrick cocked his head to one side, listening carefully. “Peräsuolikanssakäyminen?” He glanced at the girl. “Vara’s cunny! How do you wrap you tongue around that? Did I say that right?”
She nodded wordlessly, clasping her hands in her lap and staring at the floor.
There was a sudden, tentative knock at the suite’s main door.
Karrick ignored it. He leaned towards Valaista. “What does it mean?” he asked eagerly.
Valaista shook her head vigorously, not looking up.
“Oh, come on!” Another shake.
“If you don’t tell me, I’ll just try it out on the boss!” he warned.
The knock came again, a little louder.
“KARRICK! IS THAT MY BEER?”
The warrior heaved a sigh. “You’re no fun, girlie.” Levering himself to his feet, he strode to the door, twisted the key, and jerked the heavy portal open.
Behind it, a liveried manservant – an elf, of course – stood wide-eyed and quivering on the threshold. An enormous platter was balanced on his shoulder, covered with heavy stoneware mugs.
Karrick counted, and frowned. “That’s only eight. I ordered two dozen.”
“Sorry, sir...it’s heavy. The others...”
The fellow was actually trembling. Karrick reached out and took the tray in one hand before the man could drop it. “The others are right behind you?” he asked.
The servant nodded.
The warrior pressed a silver coin into the terrified fellow’s palm. “Tell’em to hurry,” he whispered.
The man nodded again, sketched a quick bow, and fled.
Karrick trotted towards the balcony, the tray balanced on his palm, looking like the world’s bulkiest and most ill-tempered waiter. He paused before the louvered doors and knocked.
“Loading!” Karrick cried.
“CLEAR!” the warcaster shouted.
Karrick toed the door open and stepped out onto the balcony. The view, he had to admit, was impressive. The Four Seasons stood on the lip of the northern shore of the harbour, and was one of the taller and more elegant buildings in Novaposticum. They had rented a south-facing fourth-floor suite, and had a beautiful view of the water – especially this night, illuminated as it was by both moons.
Thanos, still in his dinner dress, was standing by the balcony railing, his arms crossed, and his face florid with fury. There was a hot, fervid look in his eyes that Karrick had seen before, usually just before some enemy unit burst into flame.
“About time,” the warcaster grated. “Target!”
“Boss,” Karrick ventured carefully, “is this really the best time to be –”
Karrick tried again. “Are you sure you don’t want to...you know...actually drink one of these, instead of–”
“TARGET!” Thanos screamed.
Karrick shrugged. He put the tray carefully down on the wide stone railing, picked up one of the stoneware mugs, and drained it in one long gulp. Waste not, want not.
Then he bounced the jar on his palm, and hurled it out over the water.
Thanos watched the tumbling vessel carefully, tracking it with eagle eyes. As it reached the apex of its flight, he suddenly raised his right hand, index finger pointing and thumb extended, grasped it carefully in his left fist, and shouted, “HAPPOTIKKA!”
A thin, slick-looking jet of fluid shot from his fingertip, whistling evilly through the air, and slapping into the flying beer stein with shocking force. There was a loud, sizzling CRACK, followed a few seconds later by a distant splash as shards of broken pottery plunged into the harbour.
“Nice shooting, boss,” Karrick commented blandly. He held up another brimful mug. “Howzabout a beer?”
Karrick shrugged. Gulp. Zap-CRACK.
After the sixth mug had been blasted into smoking, irregular chunks, Karrick asked idly, “So...acid arrow, eh?”
The warcaster rounded on him. “You got a problem with that, soldier?” Thanos snapped.
“Not me,” the warrior averred, holding up his hands. “Kind of feel bad for the fishermen, though. You know, what with it raining caustic, razor-sharp shrapnel, and all...”
Thanos snarled another draconic imprecation.
“Sorry, didn’t get all of that,” Karrick deadpanned. “Whose mother was a what, now?”
“Never mind,” Thanos snarled. He clenched his fists. “Caustic shrapnel, eh?”
Karrick nodded. “We wouldn’t want to violate Section Nine-Thirty-Eight again, would we, boss?’”
“No, of course not,” the warcaster growled. “Gods forbid! Target!”
Karrick frowned. “Look, boss,” he said tiredly, “it’s late. Why don’t – ”
“I’ve had a really, really bad day, Karrick!” Thanos screamed. “So it’s either beer mugs, or I conduct a little urban renewal on this thrice-cursed town’s ugly gods-damned architecture, starting with this balcony. It’s your choice, soldier. Now...TARGET!”
Karrick shrugged, drained the seventh mug, and hurled it out over the harbour.
Thanos pointed and screamed. “HAJOTA!”
Karrick knew what was coming. He ducked. An instant later, a sizzling lance of hot, emerald light burst from the warcaster’s outstretched hand, hissing through the air with a sound like a white-hot poker plunged into a bucket of water. When it struck the mug there was a blinding, luminous flash that left a white afterimage on the back of Karrick’s eyelids, followed a half-second later by a thunderous BOOM. The flying beer stein vanished, leaving nothing but a small, smoky cloud of sparkling dust raining down over the harbour.
“There,” Thanos breathed happily. “For all your problem-solving needs! No bodies, no inquest. Nothing to carry, nothing to bury, no trial, no reports to file. Amen!”
“Okay, that’s it,” Karrick said firmly, pointing at the door with both index fingers. “If you’re uncrating the disintegrate spells, I’m getting under cover.”
Thanos turned to face his shieldbearer. “When did you get here?”
Karrick pursed his lips. “Feeling better, are we?”
The warcaster’s eye fell on the tray. He smacked his lips. “Is that beer?” he asked, as if he hadn’t been obliterating identical mugs for most of the past half-hour.
Karrick nodded. He heaved a discreet sigh of his own as Thanos picked the vessel up and took a long draught.
The warcaster’s eyes flew open. “That...that tastes like…”
“Yup,” Karrick smiled. “ ‘Broken Millstone’. Whitefields’ best.”
“What the hells is premium Ekhani ale doing in the elfrealm?” Thanos asked, bewildered.
“You ever taste elven beer?”
Thanos frowned. “Actually, no,” he said. “What’s wrong with it?”
Karrick shuddered. “They put flowers in it. Rose petals and dandelion leaves and shit.” The look on the warrior’s face was positively tragic.
“Criminal,” Thanos clucked disapprovingly. He upended the vessel, drained it, and put it back on the tray. “That’s it?” he said, sounding disappointed. “No more?”
Karrick decided that discretion was the better part of not getting blasted into a fine pink mist. “There’s more coming,” he said without expression, jerking a thumb at the balcony doors. “Inside.”
“Right.” The warcaster trotted back into the suite’s joint sitting room, nodded absently at his quivering, terrified, apprentice, and dropped himself unceremoniously into a chair.
“So,” he said brightly, looking at Valaista. “What were we talking about when I decided I needed some air?”
The dragon-girl blanched. “We...er...were talking about...about master Breygon...and his impending…ah…nuptials.”
Thanos’s face went flat. A cracking, grating sound filled the room. Karrick realized that the warcaster was digging his fingernails into the chair arms.
There was a knock at the door. A muffled voice cried, “Room service!”
As Valaista bolted to open the portal, Karrick put his head in his hands. “Thank freaking Vara,” he sighed.
The pearlescent light of Chuadan and Lodan – the moons named for Chuadwaith, the ancient king of men, and Nîamlo, Bræa’s only mortal daughter, who together brought forth the House of the Hîarsk, the divine half-elves of legend – shone upon another member of the party that night. Unlike Breygon and Thanos, however, Joraz was not surrounded by stone; nor was he enfolded and held tight, either in the scented embrace of a lover, or the smouldering embers of a particularly vicious fit of ill temper.
Neither of his companions would have believed what he was doing, even had they been able to see it. When they had gone their separate ways – the ranger to plead his suit to the smirking, sensual elf-woman, and the warcaster to vent his frustrations on the Four Seasons’ store of crockery – Joraz had simply nodded good-night and gone for a walk. His sandaled feet had led him away from the inn, past the towering tree-pillars of the Protector’s temple, over the
(whose aura he felt like a tickle at
the outermost edge of his senses), and at last, towards the harbour. Blessing Bridge
In the distance, he could see the looming hulk of Odergrav leaning against one of the piers like a drunkard in need of support. The stench of the dragon’s bilious blood was still strong on the night air, but to the monk’s relief, it was at last fading. Who would’ve thought a dragon could have so much blood in him? But no well was bottomless, and that terrible one had at last run dry. Once Andralyus had managed to complete the task they had set him, the polluted barge, and the horrid thing it contained, could be towed out to sea and sunk.
Joraz found that he did not care one way or another. He had other things to think about. Thanos had recounted his lengthy conversation with Lööspelian, and the monk had discovered that every word seemed to have been engraved upon his consciousness, in letters of fire five feet high. He felt the inherent rightness of everything the fallen archon had said. Her explanation of the origins of Anuru’s woes, and her description of the long, terrible decline of Tîan, seemed to strike some sympathetic chord in his innermost being. It was as if a key, long lost, had at last been found, and a great door unlocked. Joraz thought he might – just might – be ready to attempt to open the door, and perhaps discover what lay beyond it.
Thus had begun the night’s surprising sojourn. He had been walking along the beach, contemplating all that he had learned, when he suddenly noticed that his feet had taken him, all unconsciously, out into the harbour. He glanced down, and smiled a self-mocking smile; he was, to his mild surprise, walking on the water. Or more properly, not on but above it; his feet were dry, and suspended a good hand-span above the highest of the minimal whitecaps that had been stirred up by the gentle night airs.
Glancing over his shoulder, he found that he was at least a cable’s length from shore. The discovery did not distress him; in fact, if anything, he felt calmer and more at peace than at any time in the past several weeks. Spirit of Water indeed, he thought, shaking his head in astonishment.
Well. If water was such a benison to the soul…why not air? Raising his arms to shoulder height, he grasped the fabric of Evertime in the iron fingers of his will and rose into the night sky, leaving the bay behind and ascending like a thing of light and wind...a beacon formed of the essential essence of the cosmos.
As he rose, he spun like a child’s top – slowly at first, and then, as he gained altitude, more rapidly still. There was no fear; no sensation of height, or of nausea, or of falling. The very air around him bore him up, as if he were no weightier than a feather. As if the lightness of his spirit were sufficient, in and of itself, to support him against the weight of the earth.
After he had risen a brief time – he had no idea how high he was, but when he looked down, he could see the night lights of Novaposticum glittering far below his feet, tiny and twinkling, like a firefly on Midsummer’s Eve – he willed his ascent to slow, and finally to halt.
Motionless, he stood upon the air as though upon a parapet, surveying all that he could see like a lord of the skies. Everywhere he looked, he saw only moonlit darkness; shadowed lands, far-off lights, the luminous glimmering of snow-capped mountains, the glittering crystalline cloak of the sea. But that was with his earthly eyes. The spirit within him saw much, much more. To the south, the crashing might of the
; and upon it, fleets of ships, plying the
waves, and gathering at every port. He
saw crested helms, and spearpoints glittering in the Lantern’s light, and the
banner of the Crownèd Mermaid atop Larranel’s Tree. Sunlit Sea
He looked eastwards, and saw a vast shadow in the far-away distance, blanketing the lands of Zare that he had once called home, until he had discovered that he served and was a part of something greater. To the north, he saw snow; snow and ice, potent and impenetrable, a menace far and far away. Amid the snow, he thought he saw a spark of skyfire, tiny but indomitable.
Still to the north, but closer, much closer, lay something that was colder still. Stilled hearts, gelid hands, breath like ice…and a fair face, a cold, calculating beauty masking a spirit of such dark fire and terror that none living could ever truly know the mind that lay behind it.
At last, he turned the eyes of his inner light westwards. Beyond the verdant hills of the elfrealm, beyond the bight of the sea that sliced northwards, cleaving the lands to the very bays of Duncala, he saw the Empire. Vast castles; tall towers; pennons snapping in the breeze. The very flower of human chivalry leading armies uncountable, standing guard over the heritage of the Sons of Esu, and the breadbasket of the world; guarding the mountain passes to west and north. And beyond those western passes…another shadow. An old shadow; the curtain of darkness that the Shadow King had woven around his lair in the deep vales of Ensher. And Joraz thought he saw a shadow older still; a thing that had lain hidden in the deep stones of that fell land since before the Darkness. A shadow that had blighted all the Kindred lands, and that had only been stayed when the Holy Mother herself had arisen in fury. A shadow that had been struck into stone by the mighty hand of Lagu himself.
Gods above…such darkness…
His otherworldly vision grew stronger, as if empowered by the moons-light, and by his removal from the sullying touch of earth. He became gradually aware of something behind the night – a presence, almost; a thing as brilliant and indomitable as iron, yet withal as ephemeral as smoke.
As if his thought had dispelled it, his view of things near and distant faded, scattered like fog in a high morning breeze. Behind the moons-light – behind the far-distant mountains, the darkness and the shadow, the high spires of the Empire, the forests of the elfrealm, and the endless expanse of the sea – he could see a stark, glimmering brilliance. It was high, higher than he could perceive; and broad beyond the range of vision. He could feel its presence, like a blind man feels the loom of a precipice; could taste its cold, abstract perfection; could hear, from somewhere beyond it, an unending clamour. He knew instinctively, without thought or reason, what it was.
The Wall. The barrier between order and anarchy; a thing of rigid, unbending structure, forged by the mutual accord of the Forces at the very instant that they had come into being. A single, perfect expression of divine will, of eternal, undying omnipotence. It was there, before him; before his very eyes.
He cast his glance to right and left, and it was there; up and down, and it was there; before and behind…everywhere. Everywhere. Beneath every stone; above every cloud; behind every raindrop. Further than the most distant star in the most distant portion of the Universe; and yet, so near that he was certain, certain, that if he were only to stretch out his hand, he might touch it.
As if the word and the wish were one, Joraz reached out…and hesitated. He closed his eyes, and the Wall was still there, within easy reach, blank and indomitable, just beyond his fingertips; and yet, he hesitated. What would a mortal touch do? For now that he could see it, could sense it, he thought that, at long last, he understood the mystery of the Wall…of the Law of Evertime…of the order wrought so long ago, by Anā and Ūru.
I’m too strong, he realized with a start. Too strong, and too...too impure.
I dare not touch it.
The sudden epiphany struck him like a bolt of skyfire. The Wall…it was a thing of order, of law, he realized. An ideal. Whiter than white, purer than pure, stronger than the strongest stone…and yet, at the same time, despite all of these qualities, it was weaker than the will of flesh. Flesh crafted by the Holy Mother, and imbued with a divine spark; a spark wrought of the one thing that could penetrate the Wall, and bring it down.
He knew, in a sudden flash of inspired insight, that he could – at this very instant, right now, if he so chose – reach beyond the Wall, into the realm of unbeing, and touch the unending chaos of the Void.
The very thought of it made him shudder. What would such disorder do to him? What might touch him in return? What horrors might he bring forth? Did something like Fifth Child wait there, in the endless Void, slavering to be pulled forth into the World Made?
What if there was something worse?
Or might not he himself be drawn into that unmade unworld beyond the Wall, to forever boil and be reborn in the elemental chaos – like Tîor and Bîardath, the Elf-Kings betrayed by their own get?
Or…his heart leapt.
What if I could help?
Could he, with nothing more than a touch, with the force of his own peace and tranquility, his own strength and indomitable will...could he not buttress the Wall? Strengthen it against decay, harden it against decline…or replace it, even, with the unconquerable might of his own, gods-spawned flesh?
Like a cloud, he remained there – illuminated by the moons, standing on the eternal evanescence of the sky, motionless and in deepest contemplation of the infinite – for a long, long time.
“Sacra Deus Silvae!” the elf-woman cried. Utterly spent, and gasping for breath like a winded race-horse, she collapsed backwards onto the stragulum, landing in an untidy heap amid the tangled, sweat-stained sheets.
The ranger, equally exhausted, rolled sideways, catching himself against the headboard of the bed to avoid an ignominious tumble to the floor. The chamber, he noted, was dark; the moons were down, and night was marching on. Every muscle in his body was trembling.
Struggling to catch his breath, he wheezed, “That...sounded like…a prayer.”
Too winded to conjure a witty answer, Amorda swatted him weakly on the arm.
Breygon grinned. Willing his racing heart to slow, he did his best to strike a nonchalant pose. His lungs, however, betrayed him. “You certainly...pulled out all the...stops that time...my lady!”
Her reply was a wan smile. “Extra...incentive..my lord,” she huffed. “In case...you were having...second thoughts!” Reaching up, she grasped his face in her hands and pulled it down to hers.
When they separated again a few moments later, the half-elf’s hammering lifebeat had subsided somewhat, and his breathing was once again under his control. He glanced down at his bride. Amorda was lying back, legs indecorously akimbo and arms flung high over her head. Her eyes were closed, her cheeks flushed, and her midnight hair – the complex braids of which had come entirely undone over the course of the previous hours – an unmitigated disaster. Beads of sweat dappled her flawless body, spilling down the slender curves and puddling at her navel.
For no particular reason, the half-elf reached out and placed his hand gently on her belly. At the contact, she smiled and sighed, but did not open her eyes. Closing his own, he cast his senses outwards, driving them, by sheer force of will alone, across the vast gulf of the empty space between them. His thoughts slid across her skin, arrowing downwards, inwards, searching for something, anything...
Nothing. Or was it nothing? Try as he might, he couldn’t tell.
When he opened his eyes again, he saw that she was regarding him curiously, emerald pupils glinting beneath half-shuttered lids. “What is it?” she whispered.
He shrugged. “Last night,” he began...then halted. He didn’t know how to proceed.
She watched him, a tiny smile playing upon her lips. Instead of speaking, she merely raised her slender eyebrows.
Breygon decided to bite the bolt. “You told me,” he said hesitantly, “that you...you were with child.”
The elf-woman shrugged almost imperceptibly. “I could be,” she replied. “I am two days past due.” She took his hand and placed it between her breasts. “Does that worry you?”
“It’s certainly something to think about,” he replied nervously.
She made an indelicately dismissive noise. “Let nature take its course,” she murmured. “If it is to be, then it will be. Life always finds a way.”
Breygon ground his teeth. “A few hours ago,” he reminded her, “you were lecturing me on the importance of birthrights and familial connections. And arcane prophylaxis.”
“A few hours ago,” she sighed, “my priorities were different.” When he made as if to pull away, she threw her arms around his neck, drawing him back into a fierce clinch. “And you said you weren’t a wizard!” she said accusingly.
“I’m not,” he replied, puzzled.
“You must be,” she giggled. “ ‘Battering ram’ most certainly is not a ranger spell!”
Breygon rolled his eyes, grinning despite himself. “No, it’s not,” he admitted. “But ‘implacable pursuer’ is!”
“I’ll buy that for a shilling,” the elf-woman chuckled. Her lips sought his, and they were silent – or at least, mostly silent – for a long time.
When next he stirred, Breygon noticed a tiny glimmer of light emanating from the windows. They faced the river and the west, he recalled. Night had slid entirely away, and dawn was at hand.
He glanced down at the delightful bundle that lay beside him, jammed tightly into his armpit. Amorda was breathing slowly, almost imperceptibly. In sleep, all of her carefully contrived guile slipped away, taking the years with it. She looked like a girl again, careless and carefree, enjoying her first night with her warrior paramour.
His woodsman’s clinical eye swept her from head to foot. She was fair, as fair as any maiden of the Third House, and mercifully free of the tattoos and other markings that had recently come back into vogue in the elfrealm. He ran a finger along her ribs, over her hip and down her thigh, marvelling as much at her marvellous, resilient musculature, as at the unblemished smoothness of the skin that concealed it.
At his touch, she squirmed in her sleep. A few lifebeats later, her eyes opened. Her enormous orbs, as green and vital as spring grass, took a moment to focus. Once they had, she smiled. It was a smile without jest or artifice, and it was only for him.
“Greet the dawn, husband,” she whispered.
“Greet the dawn, wife,” he replied with a smile of his own.
At that, she closed her eyes again, sliding a hand across his chest, and snuggling into the crook of his elbow.
When her breathing became regular again, Breygon regretfully shook her awake. “That wasn’t just a pleasantry, lady. Dawn is indeed here. The lark is singing on the branch, and the house stirs.”
“Mmm, no,” she sighed. “It was an owl, love. No lark. There must be time yet.”
“We have some time,” Breygon allowed. “But I fear it was the lark, my heart. The herald of morn. And...”
Her eyes opened. “And, what?” she asked, suddenly alert.
“And, I have more questions,” he said gently.
Her verdant orbs sparkled. “Penetrating questions, I hope,” she said with a wink. Her face fell when his expression did not change.
Amorda sighed. “Ask,” she said, solemn once more.
He steeled himself to pose the queries that had come to him with the night. “Question the first,” he said, trying to strike a jocular tone. “How many hearts have you broken?”
“What does it matter?” she asked, frowning.
“It doesn’t matter a damn,” he replied firmly. “I just...want to know.”
“Thirty-seven,” she replied instantly. “That I know of. And you?”
“Hang on,” he muttered, blinking rapidly as her answer sank into his tired consciousness. “How...how do you know...”
“Because that’s the number of lifemating proposals I’ve rejected,” she said. “I keep a list. There may indeed be more broken hearts, per se, that can be held to my account,” she continued clinically, “but if they didn’t try to rose-and-cup me, I didn’t write it down.”
“Thirty-seven,” Breygon whispered faintly. He shook his head to clear it. “Really?”
“Three humans,” she replied, her voice as cold as Jule snows, “one dwarf, four-and-twenty men of the Third house, one of whom later died by my hand, and two of the Second. Four women of the Third House, two halflings, one half-orc – I killed him too, for his bloody cheek – and one half-elf.”
“Only one?” Breygon asked, blinking.
“Only one,” she confirmed. Then she smiled, and it was like the sunrise. “But I told him ‘yes’.”
“Thank the gods,” Breygon murmured. He ran the numbers in his head, and was surprised when it came to only about one proposal every decade.
That really isn’t so bad, is it?
“And you?” Amorda asked, smiling nervously.
“I was asking the questions,” he protested.
“Turnabout is fair play, husband mine,” the elf-woman said sternly. “Let’s hear it. Let’s hear about the trail of tears, plundered loins, and distaff wreckage that leads from Eldisle all the way back to Zare.”
Breygon snorted in amusement. “How many hearts have I broken, you mean?”
She laid the back of her hand across her eyes in mock torment. “Crush me, my love. I can bear it!”
The ranger regarded her stonily. “If you must know,” he said stiffly, “none.”
“Oh, Holy Mother!” Amorda cried. “Don’t try to spare my feelings! Just tell me the truth!”
“Shut it, you lunatic!” Breygon laughed. “None! None!”
“None?” the elf-woman snorted. “Seriously? Not a single jilted barmaid, or a wronged farmer’s daughter, or some lonely noblewoman you mounted in a drift of autumn leaves during her husband’s stag-hunt –”
Breygon clamped a hand over her mouth. “You’ve read too many romance tales, sponsa mea,” he said intently. “Yes, I’ve topped my share, mostly while I was guiding over-monied and under-brained nobles through the Æryn woods.
He pointed at his face. “Believe it or not,” he grated, “these features are an asset in human lands.
“But none of those women,” he went on before she could speak, “could, I’m sure, remember my name, or my face, or for that matter, my race.”
He removed his hand. “I’ve sundered many things in my time,” he concluded gently, “but no hearts.”
She regarded him carefully. “I believe you,” she said at last. Her lip twitched suddenly, and she added, “How odd. I don’t think I’ve ever said that to a man before.”
“ ‘We learn by doing’,” Breygon said without smiling.
“Indeed we do. Very well, my turn,” the elf-woman said. “Has anyone ever broken your heart?”
“Yes,” the ranger said instantly. “You?”
“Yes,” Amorda murmured. “Who was she?”
Breygon’s cheek twitched. “You first.”
She looked deep into his eyes again, and evidently saw something that alarmed her. “Very well,” she said.
Her eyes took on a distant cast. “I first saw him,” she said softly, “at the Queen’s coronation, in seven-seventy-four. At the Starhall. I remember it clearly, because I hadn’t quite reached my Centennial, and was still forced to gather with the girls, instead of joining the women, as I wanted.
“I thought,” she said with a sad smile, “that he was of noble birth. One of the Duodeci. He was so tall, so beautiful, so...perfect...”
Breygon was stunned by her preoccupation. “What did you do?”
His voice seemed to snap her back into herself. She grimaced. “Something stupid. I followed him. When he left the Starhall, I went along after, doing my best to be stealthy –” she shook her head in embarrassment “- in my ball gown, heels and veil. I followed him like that, all the way to his destination a few miles outside of the city. The Lucum Spaðacódru.”
The ranger started again. This time, his reaction was noticeable. Amorda glanced at him oddly for a moment before continuing.
She pursed her lips. “Of course, it wasn’t called that yet. It was still the Lucum Fax Albus. The other name came later, after its namesake fell, and was canonized. by Istravenya’s hierarchy for her courage and sacrifice.
“It was the first time I had ever been there,” she went on. “My parents were dreadful social climbers, so they attended Hara’s temple, rather than joining the common folk – our proper class – at the Protector’s grove. They wouldn’t have been caught dead at one of Istravenya’s rites. So I’d never seen the place before. Anyway, my angel – that was how I thought of him -” she added with a tiny smile, “he went inside. I crept up to the door, and looked in. There was only one man there – but it wasn’t him.”
“Who was it?” Breygon asked, curious.
“A different man,” she replied. “One of the Second House. Middle-aged, taller than the man I had followed, older too. But even more beautiful. He had silver hair, and the most wondrous eyes...” Her voice trailed off, and her gaze slid to his. She stared at him for a long time without blinking. “Violet eyes,” she said at last. “Full of life and power, like yours.” She paused for a moment, then added, “But sad, too. So very, very sad.” She brushed her fingers over his brow. “Also like yours.”
“Maybe that’s why you chose me,” Breygon said without expression.
“Maybe,” she smiled sadly. “But it’s not why I kept you.
“In any event,” she continued, “at that precise moment the skies opened, and the Protector vouchsafed me a sound drenching, with plenty of thunder and skyfire for sauce. I had a choice between revealing myself, or possibly being struck into a cinder...so I jumped into the shrine, in all my dripping, drowned-cat glory.”
“What happened then?” the ranger asked.
“He offered me his cloak,” the elf-woman shrugged. “And three lifebeats later, we were rutting like minks on the rushes before the High Altar.”
Breygon froze, stunned. “In a...in a shrine? To Istravenya? Really?”
“Yes,” she confirmed.
The woman was watching him closely, and he struggled to keep his countenance. “And...you were not yet of...of legal age?”
Amorda shook her head. “Does that bother you?” she asked.
“Not especially,” Breygon shrugged. “And he was...how much older?”
“I’ve no idea,” she replied honestly. “He was Second House, and silver-haired. He could’ve been five hundred or fifteen hundred.”
Breygon nodded. They were silent for a long moment. At last, she said in a very small voice, “Does this...does it change anything?”
“I can’t see why,” the ranger shrugged. “It happened two centuries before I was born. But...”
“But, what?” she asked softly.
“But, it would help me if I knew why you did it,” he said.
“I don’t know,” the elf-woman sighed. “I just...I felt something in him. Something tremendous, powerful. A sense of seeking, of longing, of...of unfulfillment. Of sorrow even.” She put a hand on his chest, slender fingers spread. “I feel the same things in you, you know.”
Breygon nodded, not quite knowing what to say to that. “Did he tell you his name?”
Amorda shook her head. “I never knew it. He told me that he was sorry for what had happened, and that it could never happen again. And that I would never see him again.”
“Did you? See him again, I mean?”
“Oh, yes,” she laughed sadly. “Yes, I did. I went back to the Lucum. Every night. Every night, rain or shine, snow or sleet or hail, for a whole year. I stood in the shadows, watching for him. Whatever I’d felt, you see...it was stronger there, at the shrine. A thousand times stronger than anything I’d ever felt before. A thousand times a thousand times.”
“And he came back?” Breygon asked, surprised.
“Yes,” she laughed. “I’d been an idiot. He came back exactly one year later, on the precise anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. He came in the shape of a man of the Third House, of course; a different one than before. But I knew it was him.
“I watched him,” she sighed, “and couldn’t work up the courage to speak to him.”
Breygon shook his head. “So what happened?”
“He left something on the altar,” she replied, looking miserable, “and walked away. And I let him go.”
The ranger raised an eyebrow. “Really? What did he leave?”
“Leaves. Oak leaves. And two pine cones.”
Breygon sat bolt upright, nearly dumping his paramour to the floor.
Amorda cried out in shock. “What? What is it?”
“Larranel!” the half-elf shouted. “The Protector!”
Amorda blinked. “That was the Protector?” she said, incredulous. “Holy Mother, no wonder he was so –”
“No, no!” Breygon snarled. “The leaves! Oak leaves and pine cones. That’s Larranel’s sigil! It means your...your mystery man...he was a servant of the Protector!”
The elf-woman frowned. “That makes a lot more sense.”
She smiled suddenly. “Holy Hara’s wisdom! No wonder I like you so much! You’re...you’re just like him!”
“I’m not a thousand-year-old grey elf,” Breygon snapped.
“No, you’re not,” Amorda said happily, tweaking his nose. “You’re better. You’re here.”
“So I’m not Sieur Right, I’m Sieur Right-Now,” he grimaced. “Is that it?”
“Maybe,” she said playfully. “Having second thoughts yet?”
“No.” Breygon paused. This was obviously an uncomfortable subject for the woman, and he didn’t want to cause her any unnecessary pain. But still, he was curious...
He shook his head. “How did he break your heart?”
Amorda smiled wanly and shrugged. “The way any man would. I went back to the shrine on the same night, every year...and every year he was there. Sometimes he came as a man, sometimes as a woman; sometimes Third House, sometimes First. Once, he even came as a human.” She reached up and chucked him under the chin. “The resemblance...well, it’s uncanny.
“For twenty-three years I came back every year, on the same night, and watched for him. And I saw him every time. Sometimes he saw me, sometimes he didn’t; but I think he always knew I was there.
“The twenty-third time,” she said miserably, “was a month after my saltatio. My coming-of-age. I wore the dress my father had bought me, and I arrived early, to wait for him.” She essayed a brave smile. “I’d even plaited oak leaves into my hair. Saved them from the previous autumn, you see. When he showed up at the door, I was waiting for him by the altar.”
“What did he do?” Breygon breathed.
Amorda shrugged. “He turned around, walked off, and disappeared into the forest. I ran after him, but he was already gone.”
“Did he ever come back?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I never went back after that night. Never again. It’s been more than two hundred and fifty years, and there’s still a hole in my heart. It will always be there, I think.” She laughed helplessly. “And to this day, I don’t know who he was.”
“Do you want to know?” Breygon asked gently.
“Oh, I could find out easily enough. The people I know at the College...if I wanted to, I could’ve run him to ground centuries ago. But what would be the point?” She cocked her head and let a sad smile play across her lips. “He didn’t want me.”
To his astonishment, Breygon found his heart filling with pity. He put his arm around the elf-woman and pulled her to him. Instead of seeking his lips, she laid her head on his chest. “I want you,” he whispered into her hair.
“I know,” she replied in the same small voice. She glanced up at him. “Turnabout, husband. Tell me - who broke your heart?”
Breygon felt a peculiar thud in his chest. “A girl.”
“Hara be praised,” she said drily. “I’m glad to hear it. Who was she?”
“An elf, like you. Third House, like you. Beautiful, clever, and wilful,” he smiled sadly. “Bloody-minded, in fact. Like you.”
Amorda smirked at the left-handed compliment. “What happened to her?”
“Well,” the ranger replied idly, “she rescued an ancient dwarven artefact from thieves, was accused of treason and murder, fled to the Deeprealm, got kidnapped by the Sorceror-King of the Drow, helped to do him in, fought an army of aberrant horrors on a bridge over the world’s deepest chasm, helped us force the gates of Underdarrow, turned into a gold dragon, and killed an ancient abomination from beyond the walls of Evertime.
“And then,” he sighed, “she sacrificed herself to save us, the dwarves, the Deeprealm, Anuru, and in fact probably the whole of the Universe from being obliterated by the elemental chaos of the Void.”
“Kaltas’s daughter,” the elf-woman said, unsurprised. “Allymyn.”
“And with all that, she still found time to break your heart?” Amorda asked without a hint of emotion.
Breygon nodded. “She did.”
The elf-woman’s eyes were wide and staring. “I’d say that my resemblance to her,” she murmured, “is at best superficial.”
Breygon waggled his free hand in a ‘comme-ci, comme-ca’ sort of gesture.
Amorda was silent for a long while. “What you’re saying, I take it,” she murmured at last, “is that I’m going to have to work a little harder than I usually have to if I want to impress you.”
Breygon didn’t say anything at all. He just bent his neck and kissed his new bride gently on the top of her tousled head.