04 May 2012

ELVEHELM: Novaposticum X - Farewell to Newport

            “They were staying at the Four Seasons, were they not?” Amorda asked.

            Breygon nodded.  “It’s a little ostentatious,” he said, “not to mention a little pricey, but Thanos felt we’d have more privacy there then at that place where we slept a few nights ago.”

            “The ‘Blessings Bay’?” Amorda laughed.  “You had plenty of privacy, as I recall.  Nobody wants to come within sword’s reach of a troupe of ill-tempered dragon slayers.”  She reached down and ruffled his hair, adding, “Although it might have had more to do with the way you – we – all smelled after the battle.”

            The ranger snorted, mildly annoyed at the familiar contact.  She always seemed to be touching him, at every conceivable opportunity – a brush of the hand against his, a gentle nudge of the hips, and, whenever the opportunity presented itself, a raven-haired head on his shoulder.  That last was a little odd; he’d been sure that Amorda was close to his own height, and yet she always seemed to be able to tuck herself under his arm.

            I’m just not used to it, he told himself.  In the spirit of ‘learning by doing’, as she’d put it the previous night, he laid his left hand on her thigh.  His reward was a sweet smile, and her small hand atop his own.  His heart seemed to give an especially heavy thud, as if he’d been struck in the breastplate by a catapult stone.

            Hmm.  Maybe there was something to this, after all.

            Clasping hands as they were was possible because the ranger was walking, while the lady was perched uncomfortably on horseback.  The beast - a docile enough chestnut mare with a white star-shaped blazon between its eyes, that had been loaned to Amorda by her hostess – would have been a reasonable mount under normal circumstances.  Lady Danoria, however, had a number of peculiarly old-fashioned notions about what constituted appropriate conduct for a lady, and had sent the creature over to them already fitted with an elaborate side-saddle.

            Breygon had heard of the things before, but despite having squired innumerable ladies of station through the Æryn woods (had it really been less than a year since he’d left that trade?), he’d never seen one, much less one that had been crafted in the high elven style. 

            When the groom who had appeared with the animal had smiled a little too eagerly when offering to assist Amorda into the contraption, Breygon had growled at him, sending the man scampering.  His reward for that indiscretion had been a merry smile, coupled with a quick peck on the ear.  “How savage!” the elf-woman had whispered.

            “Bloody cheek,” he’d muttered, glancing after the fleeing groom.

            “Don’t think I’m not flattered, love,” she’d returned, laying a long-fingered hand on his forearm, “because I am.  But if you’re going to snarl and bare your fangs at every man who leers at me, you’re going to be too busy for –” she’d given his wrist a gentle squeeze “- other pursuits.”

            “There’ll always be time for that,” he’d replied, dropping a wink, and struggling to overcome his sudden ill temper.

            “Actually, I was talking about saving the world,” she’d said slyly.  “But I like the way your mind works.”  She’d nodded at the horse.  “May I have your hand, my lord?”

            After a brief struggle, he’d managed to get her seated.  Amorda weighed hardly anything at all, but the saddle was a bizarre and complex contraption.  In order to remain balanced, she had to cross her legs at the ankle.

            “Are you going to be able to stay up there?” he’d asked, concerned.

            “I’ve ridden one of these things before,” she’d replied, grimacing a little.  “I’ll manage.”

            “It looks uncomfortable.”

            “After yestereve’s ride, my lord,” she’d replied, eyes twinkling, “no saddle would be comfortable.”

            They took their time.  Despite his fears, the mare had an easy, relaxing gait, and was as biddable as he could have asked.  Breygon walked alongside the beast, reins held lightly in his free hand.  The morning air was a balm; he’d gotten virtually no sleep the previous night, nor even a moment’s trance; but he did not feel tired.  If anything, he felt invigorated, alive.  The winds were from the south, bringing the scent of salt and the sea to their nostrils, and driving the city’s panoply of odours – even elven cities could not entirely eliminate the unavoidable stinks of habitation – further inland.  He caught a whiff of the dragon’s horrid stink, no more than that; evidently the water had consumed the foulness that had leached into it, as the seas had done since the world was made.  Horses and cattle, pigs and ducks, fresh bread and blackwine, the tangy sting of berries and pine buds and orange blossoms...he could even smell the grease on the wagon axles, and the earthy musk of the dust raised by their passage.

            Mostly, though, he could smell the woman that rode at his side.  She was a symphony of scents, from the soaps and oils she had bathed with – sandalwood and olive and lime – to the floral bouquet of her perfume: not only the the scent she wore, here and there about her person (he had noted and registered each of the one-and-twenty places where she customarily daubed it), but also the long fall of ivy and chrysanthemums that she had worked into her coiffure and veil. 

            He closed his eyes, and she was still there, as clear as ever in his mind’s eye.  Somehow he knew that, even blindfolded, he would be able to pick her out of a crowd of women at a hundred paces.  Denied his sight, he noticed something else as well; another scent, something deeper, hidden almost.  A sweet, musky air, heavy and rich with meaning.  It was...delicious.  Sweeter than wine, and far, far stronger.

            He smiled to himself.  No one but a walker of the woodlands, one who knew the ways of beasts better than those of his own folk, would have known what that scent was, and what it meant.  Or who it was for.

            But he knew.

            He was wearing the same dark, unobrtrusive clothing that he had worn the previous night.  The castle’s staff had laundered his undergarments in quick order, a relief after the exertions of the previous few days.  The dark hues muted his presence; with his cloak swirling around his ankles, he all but vanished in the horse’s shadow. 

            Amorda could not have offered a greater contrast.  Only one in four of her garment chests had survived the near-destruction of the Odergrav and the subsequent soaking of the bilge by the dragon’s disgusting bile; but that had still left her with two hands of trunks packed with all manner of attire.  In honour of the morning’s chill, and the fact that, further north, it was likely to be colder still, she had chosen a high-collared gown of a startling scarlet silk, festooned with floral patterns wrought in threads of gold and a deep, rich sapphire hue.  He was a little surprised that she seemed to have eschewed her usual flair for the risqué; although it hugged her form delightfully, the dress buttoned all the way to her slender throat.  Apart from the veil and flowers, which were secured by a pair of braids at the back of her head, her hair was mostly loose; and rather than her customary heeled shoes, she was wearing, beneath her skirts, high boots of soft leather.  She’d thrown a costly travelling cloak of silver-gray silk over the whole affair.  Altogether, she looked like a porcelain doll, and much less the fritter-headed socialite than usual.

            She caught him staring up at her, and smiled warmly.  “Do I please you that much, love, that you cannot take your eyes off of me?”

            “You’re stunning,” he replied in complete honesty.  “As usual.  It’s just that...well, I’d expected something a little more...”

            “Revealing?” she grinned.

            Breygon laughed.  “Not to put too fine a point on it, but yes.”

            “It’s cold,” she replied, glancing up at the lowering clouds.  “And it’s liable to be colder still in the capital.  This late in winter, there could be snow.”  She glanced back down at him and winked.  “I prefer to save the low-cut fripperies for well-heated ballrooms.  And bedrooms.

            “I’d’ve thought you’d’ve noticed this, though,” she added reproachfully.  Releasing his hand for a moment, she held up the ends of a long scarf of scarlet silk that lay draped over her left shoulder like a baldric, and that was secured by a complex interwoven series of knots at her right hip.  “It’s for you, after all.”

            Breygon’s eyebrows drew together.  “If I’ve slighted you, I’m sorry,” he said.  “I don’t know much about the social conventions of the Homelands.”

            “But this is important!” she pouted.  Her merry eyes belied her sad expression.

            “I hope you’re more convincing than that when you’re practicing your trade,” the half-elf laughed.  “Either you’re slipping, or I’m developing an immunity to your charms.”

            “Hara forfend!  Either would be disastrous!” Amorda replied, smiling again.  She held up the end of the sash.  “This is called virga sponsalis, my darling.  It means I’ve accepted a promise of betrothal.  It’s meant to inform would-be suitors that I’m no longer available.”

            “Like a ‘sold’ sign on a house or a wagon,” Breygon nodded.

            “How charming,” she said flatly.  “But yes, that’s more or less the idea.”

            “I’ve seen something similar,” Breygon mused aloud.  “The princess...”

            “Aunty Mya?” Amorda chuckled.

            Breygon shot her a warning glance.   “Not in public.  I beg you.”

            She nodded her contrition.  “Mya’s been wearing the virga lætitia,” she said.  “It symbolizes fertility.  A woman’s prayer to Hutanibu to bless her and her lifemate with children.”  She wrinkled her nose.  “Like this one, it’s pretty uncommon.  You won’t see the virga in the capital.  Hardly ever.  Not in any shade.”

            “There are other shades?” he asked, curious.

            “White for mourning,” she replied, “and black for a vow of vengeance.”

            “That one might come in handy,” he mused aloud.  “If they’re traditional, then why are they so rare?”

            She snorted.  “The great houses consider the virgae to be uncouth,” she replied.  “A contrivance of the common folk, and a vestige of humbler times.”

            Breygon stared up at her.  “I thought the elves revered the Forest Gods?” he said quietly.  “All of them.  Especially Hutanibu!”

            “In the past, maybe,” she sighed.  “These days, though, it’s all about show.  Worshipping Hara Sophus is considered the mark of sophistication.  So the nobles, and anyone with their lips stitched to a high-born...er, posterior,” she amended with a quick grin, “you’ll see them at the cathedral on Sîan Varrasday.  Or at Istravenya’s great temple; for some reason, she’s popular with the Duodeci again.   Probably why Shaivaun’s doing so well these days.  I can’t blame her for squeezing the great Houses for every last groat, given how much rebuilding that blasted temple after the fire must’ve cost. 

            “Those less concerned with image, though, which is most of the common folk, still prefer the Protector.”  She shook her head disapprovingly.  “It’s just another way the bird-brained nobles are dividing themselves from the people.  Stupid.”

            “Stupid,” Breygon echoed, his thoughts racing.  He reached up and touched her sash.  “So this is your way of telling the world that you’re taken?”

            She nodded.

            “And you’re not concerned that it’ll make you look...that you’ll stick out?”

            “Darling,” she said reprovingly, “we’re already going to stick out.  Nobody’s going to mistake you for one of the Duodeci, not up close.”  She took his fingers and gave them a squeeze.  “That’s the first rule of stealth,” she said firmly.  “No half-measures.  What you can’t hide, you must flaunt.”

            The ranger nodded.  “I suppose that makes sense.  Nervous way to work, though.”

            “But fun,” she said.  She favoured him with another smile.  “That reminds me.  We’re going to have to make some decisions about the wedding, and soon, especially if we want to hold the ceremony on the Slaughter.”

            “I’m not that keen on getting bound on any day called ‘the Slaughter’,” Breygon commented.  “Why are you so fixed on that date?”

            “Because, as I said, of who and what you are,” she replied with a throaty chuckle.  “Now that I’ve got my claws into you, there’s no way I’m going to share.”

            Breygon’s eyebrows shot skywards.  “What on earth does that mean?”

            Amorda turned to stare down at him.  “Are you serious?  You don’t know?”

            “Know what?!”

            The elf-woman stared at him for a moment longer, colour rising in her cheeks.  At last she snapped, “Unh-uh.  I’m not explaining it to you.”  She shook a finger at him.  “But understand this, lupino; either we marry on the thirteenth, or I’m locking you in my vault that night, and standing guard over you with a crossbow and a bucket of cold iron bolts.”

            The ranger was so taken aback by her sudden vehemence that he could think of nothing to say.  Rather than stumble about blindly in uncharted territory, he decided on discretion.  “Very well,” he said faintly.  “Either the Slaughter, or your vault.  I’ll leave it up to you.”

            “Good,” she said firmly.  “I’ll let you make precisely two decisions, husband, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

            “And they are?” he asked carefully.

            “The rite,” she replied, “and the mode.”

            Breygon hesitated.  “What are my options?” he said at last.

            She shrugged.  “As I told you last night, the normal course would be for us to wed at the cathedral of Hara Sophus, at the Palace, and to ask Elcaradon, Archpriest of the Realm, to officiate.”

            “I thought he didn’t like half-bloods,” Breygon frowned.

            “He likes money,” Amorda shrugged, “and I have plenty.  A wedding at the cathedral would have two advantages: it would scandalize the Duodeci; and it would please the Queen.”

            “Why would it please the Queen?” the ranger asked, puzzled.

            “Because,” she winked, “it would scandalize the Duodeci.  And because getting married at the Palace would imply that you support her.  As opposed to, say, getting married at the Protector’s Grove, which would imply that you consider yourself a champion of the people, and would be an implication of disapproval of the Palace, and therefore of the Queen.”

            Breygon blinked.  “Do you ever do anything,” he asked, “without first weighing the political implications?”

            “Not if I can help it,” she snorted.  “The other option, of course, is the temple of Istravenya, at the Lucum Spaðacódru.”

            “And what,” the ranger sighed, “would that suggest to the gawkers?”

            The elf-woman shrugged.  “I’m not sure,” she replied carefully.  “I like Shaivaun, and she’s certainly a powerful and well-respected priestess.  But there’ve been rumours that the Lustroares – you remember them, love, don’t you?  The fax albus, the so-called Sons of the White Fire?”

            “Oh, yes,” Breygon said darkly.  “I remember that night very well.”  He winked.  “It ended a lot better than it began.”

            “It did indeed,” she said, favouring him with a wicked grin.  “In any event, the gossips suggest that those idiots have some sort of connection to Shaivaun’s temple.  It’s hard to imagine that she’d put up with that kind of nonsense – she’s a little grim, after all, and I’d’ve thought she’d shut that sort of thing down in short order, if it ever popped up – but you never know.”

            “Hmm,” Breygon commented.  “Do you know anything else about them?
            Amorda shook her head.  “The Bird-Catcher has others looking into the Lustroares.”

            The ranger nodded.  “So, Hara, Larranel, or Istravenya?  That’s it?”

            “Well, we could take the torva route,” she grinned.  “Strip down, run into the woods, find an oak grove, have one of Hutanibu’s druids marry us, and then find a nice, dry pile of leaves for the coniugum.  That would be faster, cheaper, and a lot more fun.”

            “But it wouldn’t make a political statement,” he murmured.  Or would it?

            “Think about it,” his bride advised.  “We’ve a day or two before we have to decide.”

            “I will,” he promised.  “What’s the other decision I have to make?  The ‘mode’?”

            “Ah,” she laughed.  “That will come more naturally to you, I imagine.  Shall we approach the altar clad all in white and green, as custom demands?  Or is it to be nuptia bellum?”

            Breygon blinked.  “Marry under arms?  Like Kaltas and Myaszæron, you mean?”


            “What would that signify?” he asked immediately.

            Amorda grinned again.  “See, lupino?  You’re learning already.

            “A normal wedding, with normal garb,” she said briskly, “would signify...nothing at all.  Nuptia bellum, however...” she laughed.  “Well, just think about it.  If we were to marry under arms, you would be signalling any number of things.  Your respect for Kaltas’ judgement.  Your support of his decision to summon his array.  Your kinship – spiritual, if of no other sort –” she winked slyly “- with the princess.  Your skill with blade and bow.  Your determination to play a role in the future of the realm.

            “Moreover,” she added, looking a little more serious, “it would signal subtle disapproval of the Queen’s failure to address the threat posed by Eldarcanum.  It would, in effect, be a challenge to her to display the kind of decisiveness that Kaltas has displayed.”

            “That’s an awful lot,” he said, dazed.

            Amorda nodded.  “You’re going to be in the public eye from here on in, my love.  And whatever else you are, you’re a force to be reckoned with in the realm.  You have to think about these things...even down to the clothing, arms and accoutrements you wear.

            “Which reminds me.  I have something to give you.”  She unbuttoned several of the pearl clasps at the neck of her gown and reached into her bodice.

            “I think you already gave me that last night,” Breygon deadpanned.

            The elf-woman coloured and swatted him lightly on the head.  From within her gown, she drew a light silver chain.  Depending from it was a ring.  She pulled on the chain, rotating it until the clasp came into view; then she unlocked it, pulled it out, and secured it again.

            She held the chain out, the ring swinging back and forth like a pendulum.  “Here,” she said.  “This is for you.  Dota sponsalis.  My gift, in commemoration of our betrothal.”

            Breygon reached up and took the chain.  He inspected the ring closely.  It was bright, less like silver than like polished steel, and was engraved with a complex pattern of interlaced bands.  It looked far too small to pass over any of his half-human knuckles.

            Amorda rebuttoned her gown.  “Look inside,” she directed.

            He looked.  There was an inscription around the inside of the ring, in letters almost too small to be seen.  Coniunctum in Æternum, he read.

            He glanced up at her.  “ ‘Forever joined’?”

            “An heirloom,” she said, holding up her right hand.  An identical ring glittered on her index finger.  “One of a pair.  They were my mother’s wedding band, and my father’s.  The only bequest they left me.” 

            Breygon weighed the thing in his hand, saying nothing.  It seemed abnormally heavy, as if it were charged with implications he didn’t yet understand.  That’s an appropriate metaphor for this whole enterprise, he thought darkly.

            Her expression was unreadable.  “What say you, husband mine,” she said nervously.  “Do you like it?”

            Wordlessly, he handed the chain back to her.  Before her lip could begin to quiver, he held up his left hand, fingers spread.

            As he’d expected, her face broke into a smile.  She took the ring off the chain and tried to slip it over his middle finger.  It went an inch before sticking, also as he had expected.  He was entirely unsurprised when it suddenly seemed to grow.  An instant later, it had slipped over his knuckle and lay seated against his hand.

            “It’s enchanted,” she said unnecessarily.  “Like the one you gave me.”

            Before she could withdraw them, he caught her fingers and pressed them to his lips.  “Thank you,” he said gravely.

            Her eyes were wide, and he was surprised to see her whole heart in them.  “I know what you are,” she whispered, “and what you do.  It will help protect you.  So I don’t...”

            She looked away, and took a deep breath.  “So this doesn’t end,” she said in a faint, distant voice, “before it’s had a chance to begin.”

            Not trusting himself to speak, the half-elf simply squeezed her fingers again.

            They continued in comfortable silence, enclosed in a bubble of contemplation that seemed to block out the bustle of the city streets around them.  Breygon surveyed the scene absently, unconsciously maintaining his usual vigilance against possible threats, but overwhelmingly aware of the distaff presence at his side.  Amorda was attracting more than her fair share of admiring glances.  The fact that they were holding hands, too, he noted, caused more than one of the many elves they passed to shoot him a disapproving, even hostile glance.  In other circumstances, he might have done something about that; but with his fiancée at his side, he found that he was less concerned about redressing insults than about ensuring her safe passage.  The novelty of the sentiment sparked several long moments of introspection.

            The commotion of the streets, the comings and goings, the buying and selling, and the profusion of activity, reminded him of something else.  “You know,” he said casually, “you’re going to have to tell me about your fief.  There’s a lot I need to learn.”

            Our fief,” she corrected.  She seemed to have doffed her melancholy and recovered her customary good humour.  “All in due course, love.  It more or less runs itself, and you have more important things to worry about right now.”

            He blinked.  “How can a barony ‘run itself’?”

            “With a steady hand at the helm,” she replied.  “Mine is called Tchimanga Rees.  He’s a former adventurer, a sellsword out of Skywaters.  You’ll like him.

            “Also,” she continued, “it helps to allow a healthy dose of autonomy for the municipalities.  That was something that Silas never learned.  He liked to meddle.  When I took over the place, I spent the first year sitting in baronial court for eight hours a day, three days a week, listening to whining farmers and artisans complain about being shorted a shilling here and a groat there.  It was maddening.”

            “How’d you fix that?” he asked, interested.

            “Simple,” she replied briskly.  “Every time a pair of idiots presented me with a picayune squabble, I gave them a week to solve it themselves.  If they failed to do so, I flipped a coin.”

            Breygon turned to stare up at her.  “That’s madness!  You can’t govern by chance!”

            “Who said anything about chance?” she replied, astonished.  “The deserving party always won.  D’ye think I can’t control how a coin falls?”

            He blinked.  “Then...why the subterfuge?”

            “To teach the morons self-reliance,” she growled.  “To show them that if they couldn’t figure out how to solve a problem on their own, they would have to trust to blind luck.  Or at least to what looked like blind luck.  Knowing that your fate rests on the whim of a struck shilling makes you more willing to compromise.

            “Besides,” she shrugged, “nine times out of ten, it’s the undeserving party that brings the complaint.  And in my system, they always lose.  Eventually, word gets around.”

            “That’s diabolically clever,” Breygon grinned.  The woman was remarkable.  “And it worked?”

            “I’m here, aren’t I?” she chuckled.  “I manage to spend most of my time in the capital, and only drop in on Arx Incultus a couple of times a year.”

            “Why so seldom?” he asked.  “Is the weather that bad?”

            “It’s not bad at all!” she protested.  “The barony lies on the north face of the homeland range, about halfway between Duncala and Portacaminus, the free city that’s the last stop before Skywaters.  Our lands face onto the Waste, that’s true; but it’s just the western, desert, part, not the awful, spell-struck eastern reaches.  We’re protected from the worst of the winds, and there’s plenty of water from snow-melt in the mountains.

            “You’ll like it,” she promised.  “High up in the hills, the trees are enormous, and it’s positively stiff with wild-cats, elk and bears.  But lower down, towards the sands, it’s arid, and the croplands require constant irrigation.  We can grow just about anything.  Hells, in the town around the castle, the stone catches the sun year-round, and bakes us like a bread-oven.  We’ve got the only palm trees in the realm north of Eldisle.”

            That reminded Breygon of something.  “What were you doing in Eldisle?” he said suddenly.  “If I may ask?”

            “Keeping an eye on Kaltas,” Amorda replied soberly.  “Allymyn’s little adventure in the royal gardens last summer ignited the capital like a fireball.  Everyone was scrambling to prove their loyalty to the Queen, or to at least distance themselves from House Aiyellohax.  The Auceps decided that we had to know the truth about Kaltas: whether he was loyal, or if he was making a move to ally with Eldarcanum.  Or maybe contemplating rebellion, or a coup.  So he sent me to find out.”

            “What did you report back?” Breygon asked.

            “Until you lot arrived,” the elf-woman sighed, “I had nothing to report.  Except for guesses and assumptions.  Like the Bird-Catcher, and for that matter the Queen, I’d always believed Kaltas was innocent.  But I didn’t know anything about Ally, and absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.  There was no proof, one way or the other.

            “Of course,” she patted his hand affectionately, “there’s plenty of proof now, thanks to you and your friends.  My next report will set a lot of minds at ease.”  She grinned nastily.  “And it’ll help to tighten the noose around the neck of that corpse-loving harpy in Eldarcanum.”

            “You might even qualify for a vacation,” Breygon smiled.  “A chance to visit your fief after a long absence. If you want to, that is.”

            “I do,” she sighed, “and I want you to come with me.”

            He smiled, but didn’t say anything.  He feared making promises that he might not be able to keep. 

            “The main reason I go back so seldom,” she continued, “is the isolation.  It’s a long, tiring trek.  But I have to do it.    I like to check up on the books, and make sure my people aren’t skimming more than they’re entitled to.

            “And,” she sighed, “despite my little rant about self-reliance, there really are some decisions that only I can make.”

            “Like what?” he asked, curious.

            She frowned.  “Tchimanga’s a good man, and I trust him.  But I don’t let anyone else judge capital cases, or dispossess my people of their property.  And I don’t let anyone else change tax rates or regulations.”  She grimaced.  “That’s the easiest way to spark a revolt, let me tell you.”

            “That’s a long way to go,” he commented, “just to deal with administrative matters.”

            “Very long,” she agreed.  “I usually pay the College to leap the flux.”

            “That can get expensive, I’d imagine,” Breygon frowned.

            “Money isn’t a problem,” Amorda laughed.  “Not for Arx Incultus.  The Great Caravan Route sees to that.”  She winked at him.  “I’ll bet that makes you happy, sponsa mea!”

            Breygon frowned.  “Not especially,” he said, a little put out.  “I couldn’t care less about money.”

            “Oh, I know that,” the lady replied.  “I just meant that I can help you with the nymphaliceor.”

            The ranger blinked.  “ ‘Bride-bid’?”

            Amorda nodded.  “Technically, ‘bride-price’,” she replied.  “An ancient custom, from the days of the elvii tribes.  I understand torva suitors still offer their bride’s parents or guardians weapons, or livestock.  Here in the homelands, though, it’s usually household goods or money.  Among the lower classes, that is.  The Duodeci tend to give land.”

            “I don’t have any land,” Breygon said nervously.

            “No matter, darling,” the elf-woman replied.  “As I said, I can help you with that, sub-mensum.”

            Under the table.  “Money, eh?” the half-elf mused.

            Objets d’art are preferable,” Amorda shrugged.  “Or jewellery.  But money is acceptable.  In fact, it’s probably preferred, given who you’re paying.”

            Breygon stared up at her.  “And who is that, pray tell?”

            “I’ve no parents or guardian,” she replied with a smile, “and I’m head, even if only coniunctis, of House Olestyrian.  So, according to the Codex, that means you pay the bride-price to the Crown.”

            “I have to buy you from the Queen?” the ranger asked, his eyes widening.

            Amorda nodded.  “That’s what Dîor’s Law requires.”  She sniffed.  “Frankly, I don’t like the incentive structure very much; when the Throne’s low on funds, all they have to do to bulk up the treasury is knock off a few parents of budding brides, and let the cash flow in.”

            “Has that ever happened?” Breygon asked, horrified.

            “No accusations have ever been proven,” Amorda shrugged.  “Not against Ælyndarka, anyway.  By the way, while she likes jewellery – especially emeralds – she always need money.”

            “How much?” he asked faintly.

            “That’s up to you and her,” the elf-woman chuckled.  “It’s considered bad form for the bride to be involved in the negotiations.  She might try to hold you up for more, seeing as how you’re not of the Third House, and I can afford it.

            “And just so you know,” she added with mock severity, “the price you pay will be an indication, forever, of how much value you set upon me.”

            “That’s ludicrous!”

            “Welcome to Elvehelm, my love,” she grinned.

            Breygon rubbed his brow, brushing away a sudden sheen of perspiration.  “Can you give me a rough estimate?”

            Amorda pursed her lips.  “Well,” she said, considering, “when Anaprestia Rao, the youngest daughter of Duke Varaita Æyllian, fell in love with Ugulf Ironthew during her apprenticeship in Elder Delvin and refused to return to her father’s house unless he consented to their marriage, the bride-price that Ugulf offered was five magic rings: the Annulae Æylliana.  He and Anaprestia forged them together in the Deeprealm.  It took them ten years, during which, for honour’s sake and in accordance with Dwarven law, he did not once visit his promised bride’s bed.”

            Her eyes took on a far-away look.  “It’s said,” she sighed, “that altogether, the Annulae are worth more than ten thousand, thousand aureae.”

            Breygon blinked several times.  He made a show of checking his purse.  “I may be a little short,” he said as evenly as he could.

            Amorda laughed aloud.  She patted his hand.  “Fret not, my love,” she chuckled.  “That was during the Eon of Darkness.  I’m not the daughter of a Duodeci household, and I’m not marrying the most legendary dwarven master smithcrafter who ever lived.  Ugulf was wealthy beyond imagining; he was credited with creating the first of the Iron Slaves.  His mastery ensured that his arcane legacy will live forever.

            “And,” she added wistfully, “the bride-price he paid engraved Anaprestia’s name into the annals of our lore for all time.”

            “Money still isn’t a measure of love,” the ranger growled.

            “You don’t know much about life here, lupino,” she said sadly.  “Sometimes, it’s the only tangible measure.” 

            She gave his fingers a gentle squeeze.  “Not everyone is this lucky,” she whispered.

            A few minutes later, they entered the courtyard of the Four Seasons.  They were still holding hands.