16 June 2012

ELVEHELM - Starmeadow V: Day and Night in Starmeadow

The House of Emerald had a reputation for being one of the finest purveyors of precious stones in the Realm.  The clerk, a primly dressed young fellow with an elaborate monocle and an officious air who bustled out of the back of the shop in response to the tinkling of the door-bell, had no intention of letting that reputation slip on his watch.  Clasping his hands before his breast, he bowed until his spine cracked.

“Welcome to Domus Smaragdus!” he said as if he’d never seen anything so pleasant in all his life as the two customers presently examining the glorious array of wares on display.  “How can I serve?”

“I need some…” a man and a woman said simultaneously.

The clerk blinked.  Then he grinned, larding his smile with a generous dollop of unction.  “Ahh, harmony!  How delightful!  My lady, my lord…are you together?”

The man and the woman turned and examined each other.  She was a good foot-and-a-half the shorter, plainly clothed but slender and voluptuous, an obvious high elf with a sound sprinkling of the Second House in her background denoted by golden-brown hair.  Her ears were high, curved and delicately pointed. 

The man, in marked contrast, was nearly six and a half feet tall, wiry but thin, with a face that had once been ruggedly handsome, but now looked careworn.  He was dressed in a long cloak, severely grey, almost military in appearance, and wore a broad-brimmed hat against the snow. 

Both cloak and hat were marked with some sort of religious sigil that the clerk didn’t recognize.  He couldn’t see the fellow’s ears, but the man’s height alone suggested that they were unlikely to be pointed.

“No,” the woman said, eyeing the tall, elderly gentleman speculatively.

“No,” the man agreed.  “Regrettably,” he added, smiling and bowing like a courtier.

The elf-woman grinned.

The man – the human – swept a gracious hand toward the clerk.  Erae imprima, domina.” 

She giggled at his pronunciation.  “Nonsense,” she replied, the traveling tongue lending her words a playful lilt.  “You are a guest, sir.  And a priest, too, unless I miss my guess?”

He nodded.  “Father Shields, of the Embassy of the Imperium, and the service of Vorwenna.”

She smiled again.  “Cayless Agladora, of Starmeadow, of the service of Domus Casia, and of the domina of Arx Incultus.  I beg you, Excellency – after you.”

“I never argue with a lady,” the man said, bowing a second time.

He turned back to the clerk.  “Diamonds,” he repeated brusquely.

The clerk blinked again.  “Er…you are looking for a ring, sir, perhaps?  Or a wristlet?”

“No, just the stones,” the man said.  His manner was clipped and brusque, as if he were in a hurry. 

The clerk frowned.  “What sort of cut?”

“Doesn’t matter,” the man said.  He looked tired.  “I also don’t care about clarity, colour or carat-weight.  They can be rough, or uncut, or fragments, or dust for all of me.” 

From beneath his voluminous cloak, he heaved a heavy bag of triple-stitched canvas that depended from a broad strap slung over his right shoulder.  With a grunt, he swung this up onto a nearby table, where it landed with a rattling thump.

The clerk’s eyebrows disappeared beneath his coiffure – which, the man noticed disapprovingly, was oiled and lofted into a ridiculous wave.  The clerk nodded at the satchel.  “And that is…?”

“Payment,” the human said curtly.  “Five thousand aureae.”  He snorted.  “Probably a few sovereigns, crowns and doubleweights mixed in, and probably a spoon or two for good measure.  But it’s an even hundred-weight of good, yellow gold, right enough.”  He slapped the bag for emphasis, and it gave off a heavy chink.  That’s how many diamonds I want.”

The clerk’s face reddened, and his ear-tips coloured to an alarming purple.  He looked mortally offended.  “My good sir,” he said huffily, “Domus Smaragdus has stood in this street for more than three thousand years!  We have catered to kings and queens from a dozen nations!  Our wares have decorated the high and the mighty for three ages of the world!  We,” he declaimed, drawing himself up to his full height, roughly an inch or so lower than the point of the man’s chin, “are purveyors to the Filigree Throne itself!”

The man rubbed his eyes wearily.  “I should’ve brought that Karrick fellow,” he muttered under his breath. 

To the clerk, he said, “What’s your point?”

The elf was positively vibrating with indignation.  “Diamonds aren’t potatoes!” he shrieked.  “We don’t sell’em by the pound!”

Father Shields put his hands on his hips.  The gesture opened his cloak and exposed the short, heavy, nail-studded mace that hung at his side.  When the clerk saw it, his teeth began to chatter.

The human rolled his eyes.  Aware that the elf-woman was watching their debate with wide eyes and a toothy grin, he half-turned towards her and bowed a third time. “Perhaps,” he said to the clerk, “you should help the lady first.  Miss Ag...gladora, here.  Before you and I continue our discussion.”  He cracked his knuckles ominously.

The clerk swallowed visibly and made an obvious effort to master his passion.  “Most kind of you, sir.  Yes.”

“Yes,” the elf-woman piped up, favouring the towering human with a smile that he felt all the way to the tips of his toes.  Most kind, Excellency.”

“Think nothing of it, madam,” the priest said politely.  “I’m happy to wait.”

The elf-woman approached the table, and the clerk – as if someone had wound him back up and set him back at the beginning of his track – clasped his hands before his breath, inhaled sharply, and smiled.  “And what, madam,” he said with a liberal application of unction, “can Domus Smaragdus do for you today?”

She replied, “I’m also interested in diamonds.”

“Excellent!” the fellow beamed, shooting the priest an unfriendly glance.  “A necklace perhaps, or a choker?  Earrings?  Anklets? A tiara, for those lovely locks?  Or if you’re interested in –”

She didn’t wait for him to finish.  Without expression, the elf-woman drew a small, brilliantly-embroidered purse from beneath her chemise, unfastened the latch, and upended it over the table.  A flood of coins spilled out of it…and kept spilling, and spilling, and spilling, piling up into a heap, rolling off the table, and rattling noisily onto the floor.

The clerk stood stiffly still, his smile frozen onto his face like a rictus.  Within a moment, he was standing in an ankle-deep pile of brilliant, golden cash.

When the last coin dropped out of the purse, the woman gave it a shake to ensure that it was empty.  “There!” she exclaimed happily.  “Five thousand aureae, give or take.  That’s how many diamonds I want.”

Then she turned to the priest and winked. 

Father Shields thought that the clerk’s descent into spittle-flecked apoplexy was quite possibly one of the most satisfying things he’d ever seen.
            “Is she still out there?” the maid asked.

            “Mmm,” the butler nodded.  “Hasn’t moved in hours.”

            They watched, mesmerized for a long moment.  “What’s she doing?” the maid exclaimed at last.

            She had found it…found it, at long last.  The centre.  The point of balance.  The fulcrum upon which all of it, all things, rested.  The balance was unfixed, but firm, stable; the limbs of the scale were long, but the weights resting upon them were immense and eternal.  Good, and evil; kindness, and cruelty; love, and hatred; understanding, and condemnation; compassion, and distrust; light, and dark.  The universe itself was the arm, and the weights at its opposing ends bent it in the centre.  It, too, was eternal, or intended to be so; and unchanging, or intended to be so.  Except that it was not.  It was not.

            She could see it all.  She HAD seen it all – all of the vast boundlessness of creation that she had surveyed over the course of six ages of existence, all of the endless starry skies, the outer realms, the inner worlds, the Lantern and the Lamps, the mountains and the skies and the seas, and all of the myriad things that dwelt within them.  All of creation, everything she had ever known, lay at her fingertips.  And amid all of it, everything that had ever been or ever would be, there was only one truth, one fixed point, one eternal certainty, one pillar that upheld it all, the pilaster, the bastion, the sole support of the fundamental order and the Law…

            It was Life.  She knew that, now; knew it at long last, with a certainty cemented into promise by the new blood that flowed, hot and vital, in her veins.  The thing that she had sought throughout all the interminable years of her damnation had been right before her eyes all the time.  Life; mortal life.  But not the life contained in the blood; no, that was important, vital, but it was too brash and ephemeral a thing.  It was not life that mattered, but Life – the vast, throbbing undercurrent of the Universe, the force that Anā and Ūru had unleashed at the Making, and that Bræa and Bardan had bent and shaped into the denizens, a thousand times a thousand times a thousand again, that peopled their boundless creation.  Life itself was the fulcrum, the point upon which the Universe rested and rocked, endlessly and imperceptibly, between the Dark and the Light.

            And the expression of that endless river of Life, its tangible extrusion into the world physical, was the thing that Breygon had spoken of: Kesatuan.  The Unity of All.  She had felt it, burning within all of them – deeply buried in some, and closer to the surface in others.  In her former shapes, either of them, she hadn’t been able to sense it at all, and now she knew why.  She hadn’t been alive.  Life, to be Life, had to be capable of ending.  What she had known, both as a servant of heaven and a slave of the darkness, was something else; something eternal, artificial, as different from the men and women she had met over the past few days as the clockwork things that they built. 

The Minions of the Powers – the angels and archons and eladrins, the demons and daemons and devils – they were part of the Universe itself.  Things, not beings.  Extrusions of the stuff of the Making, animate perhaps, but not individuals.  Their eternal servitude was not a command of their makers, but a consequence of their making.  For Bræa and Bardan, who had formed them, were themselves extrusions of that selfsame Universe.  They did not touch kesatuan, either; did not partake of it, and could not affect it, for good or for ill.

            Only mortals could do that.  Only mortals who had tasted the divine gift of freedom, whose sielii had been crafted with the stuff of the Unmade world beyond the Walls.  That freedom, that Life, was what had created kesatuan.  The Unity, she understood at last, was not a thing of the Universe, that mortals could touch; it was a thing created by mortals themselves, all unwittingly, that had become an inalienable part of the World Made.  The Powers had created the Light, and the Darkness; but their mortal offspring had created the fulcrum between them.  That was the secret that she had long sought, and found, now that she was one of them.

            Without opening her eyes, she opened her senses, and the beauty and glory of the world flooded in.  The mingled odours of winter flowed over her like a tsunami.  Trees, sleeping and slowly waking, blessed her with the tingling savour of new-formed buds.  Flower-bulbs, resting warm and comfortable beneath the earth, quivered with anticipation at the impending return of spring.  A hedgehog, burrowed beneath a nearby juniper, was watching her with nervous anticipation; and without thinking, she reached out with a tendril of thought, and soothed its jangling nerves.  And, for good measure, showed it where a fat, juicy earthworm was hiding.

            The opening of her spirit made her aware of the consequences of mortal existence.  Her knees ached, and stones fixed in the cold earth pressed dents into her buttocks.  Her neck was stiff from long inactivity; and she could feel cold rivulets of water trickling from her matted hair, down her spine, puddling beneath her.  She was aware of all of these sensations, but only in the most abstract sense, through her connection to kesatuan.

            She was hungry, too, and thirsty, and beset by baser needs; but she now knew what to do about them.  Throwing the gates of her spirit open a little wider, she allowed the force and might of the Unity to flow into her, through her; bringing her nourishment, body and soul, and washing away hunger and thirst and bodily urges.  The soothing embrace of kesatuan cured all ills.  For sport, she even stopped breathing, and let the breath of the Unity sustain her.  She only began again when she realized that she missed the tentative, delightful scents of the world around her.

            Her newfound understanding both calmed and exalted her.  It was, she understood at last, a new and untried way, for her at least, of seeing the world.  It could serve her needs, and she could in turn serve its needs – perfect service, Life for Life, as the Balance demanded.  She could draw strength from it, and it would protect and sustain her.  She would need no other support, no other guardian, no other sustenance, no other weapon.

            She was – would be, forevermore – Life.  And the Life that she served, the eternal, unbending balance between the Light and the Darkness, would lift her up, and guide her, until at last she stood at the Asurshikara, with her beloved Cielagan at her side, craving pardon of their divine mistress, and begging leave to live a normal life ever after, at one with each other, and with the transcendent, evanescent glory of the green.

            At least...until it all ended.  For could kesatuan survive the failure of the Walls and the End in Fire?

            She didn’t think so.

            “I think she’s sleeping,” the butler replied.  “The Lady said not to disturb her.”

            “But it’s snowing!” the maid objected.

            “Throw a blanket over her, then, if you like,” the man shrugged.  He turned and disappeared inside the house.

            The maid, vacillating and nervous, stared at the azure-skinned apparition for a while longer.  Then she, too, turned and fled inside the house.

            Lööspelian didn’t notice.  The eyes of her spirit were turned inwards, and fixed, firm and fast, on a whole other world.
            “I am sorry,” Shaivaun said firmly.  “It is not that I cannot; it is that I will not.”

            “But I don’t understand!” Amorda cried.  “You were more than willing to succour my friends last night!  You were happy to take my money then!  Why won’t you do this for me?”

            “It is you who does not understand, my friend,” the priestess said, an unpleasant glint in her eye.  “And I do not appreciate your raising such pecuniary complaints with me in my own temple. 

            “It is not,” she said firmly, “a question of money.  I am simply unwilling.”

            “But why?” Amorda wailed.

            The two women were standing in one of the dozen side-chapels of the Grand Temple of Istravenya.  The rebuilt structure was nearly complete; the last stones had been added to the vaults of the roof, and the glaziers were busily installing the elaborate windows of stained glass set into lead, a recent gnomish innovation that clerics throughout Erutrei were enthusiastically adopting for their houses of worship.  They were standing on opposite sides of a sarcophagus; above it, suspended from a silver rod, an enormous tapestry of snow-white wool marked with a stylized black tree – the sigil of the Fax Albus – hung from the wall.  Amorda didn’t know whose crypt it was; but as the stone was cracked and blackened in places, presumably it predated the dreadful conflagration that had gutted the place a five-year since.

            She had come dressed for worship, in a conservative gown of dark red silk, with her customary winter cloak over all.  Shaivaun, by contrast, was attired in the full regalia of her profession, a plain sheathe of white samite overlain by a black chasuble bearing the Tree in silver thread.  Her hair, normally loose and curly, had been scrooped back into a severe tail, and was woven about with ivy worked into a coronet, and trailed over her shoulders to sweep the floor.  Amorda thought that her friend looked at once both regal and desirable.  But she wasn’t feeling particularly friendly towards the priestess at that moment.

            “Why?” Shaivaun snapped.  “You have stood before me on Sîan Varra a hundred times.  Have you never listened to my words, lady?  I am a servant of the White Fire, the guardian of the green.  She is life itself, a flame vital and unquenchable, like a conflagration that obliterates all who stand against her.  But even in her eyes, as with life and fire both, when the ending comes, it must be accepted. 

“When there is no more fuel to burn,” she intoned harshly, “the fire ends; and when the well of being has run dry, life ceases, and the spirit returns to kesatuan, and the flesh to the green.  This is the way of the world, Amorda, amica mea.  The end of life is natural; joyful, even, for it makes way for new life.  To wrench flesh back from the bosom of the earth, and to tear a spirit away from the all-encompassing unity of kesatuan...these are terrible, terrible crimes!”

“You’re the only church that thinks so,” Amorda snapped.  “Hara’s priests, and those of the Protector, are more than happy to return our loved ones to us, if they can.”

Shaivaun’s face grew stony.  “My colleagues serve different ends than I,” she said coldly.  “They may interpret their responsibilities to the green as they see fit. 

“And in any case,” she added with some asperity, “you did not ask them, you asked me.  And I have answered.  Please do not raise the matter again.”

Amorda fumbled in her purse.  “Look,” she said, sounding desperate.  “Look.  I  have…I have these…”  She produced a handful of jewellery – necklaces, bracelets, rings, anklets, long chains and short, of silver and gold and platinum and mithral, all festooned with precious gems. 

“It’s a fortune,” she moaned.  “A duke’s ransom.  Shaivaun, I beg you…please…”

Contemptuously, the priestess slapped the proffered gauds aside.  Untold wealth clattered and skittered across the flagstones.  “You cannot bribe the White Fire,” she said coldly.  “No matter what you offer, I will not do what you ask.  Not for you.  Not for anyone.”

            Amorda froze in disbelief at the priestess’s sudden violence.  “Is that your final answer?” she gasped.

“It is.”

“You’ll forgive me, then,” the noblewoman grated, “if I select another faith to celebrate my nuptials!”

“That,” Shaivaun replied, her eyes glittering, “is your prerogative.  Of course.”

Amorda, quivering with rage, knelt and gathered up the scattered baubles.  She would’ve preferred to have stomped angrily out of the temple, but she wasn’t fool enough to abandon tens of thousands of aureae worth of jewellery simply to make a point.

Shaivaun watched her without expression.

Amorda straightened up again, jamming the last of the rings into her purse.  “You’ll regret it, you know,” she spat, her rage and disappointment getting the better of her at last.  “My sponsa will be most displeased.”

“I believe,” the priestess said, thin-lipped, “that I can bear the displeasure of your little pet nemonothus.”

The noblewoman’s face went white.  “How dare you?” Amorda shrieked.  “You have no idea who he is!”

“Nor do I care,” Shaivaun replied haughtily.  “Not in the least.  Farewell, your Ladyship,” she added with a bow.

Amorda’s fist clenched involuntarily.  With a supreme effort, she mastered her ire and returned the priestess’s bow.  “Farewell, servant of Istravenya.”  Canicula celsa, she didn’t say.

Then she spun in place and, heels clicking on the new-laid flagstones, stomped out of the temple. 

Nemonothus.  A hybrid.  A mongrel.  An illegitimate nobody.  A bastard outcast.

How dare she?!

Shaivaun, her expression coldly dispassionate, watched the furious baroness go, her dark, brooding eyes twinkling with interest at Amorda’s parting words.


            Myaszæron lifted her skirts and walked carefully up the steps to the great wooden doors.  The gown was a trial, but a necessary one.  One of the first things she’d had to do upon arriving back at the palace, and being welcomed embarrassingly home by the brazen trumpeting of the Great Wardens, was to move back into her old quarters in Arx Magnificus, the royal residence.  She’d immediately stowed her bow, dropped her mail off with the Master Smithcrafter for a thorough going-over, and leaned her beloved courtblade against the wall behind her sitting-room door.  Her well-worn travelling leathers and cloak went into one closet, and after bathing thoroughly and calling for her maid – a previously unknown girl named Karalenya that her uncle Landioryn had sent over from Lily House, along with a case of fresh fruit, another of wine, multitudinous expressions of love and welcome, and a demand for news of Eldisle – to brush and braid her hair, she’d begun pawing through her wardrobe for something suitably feminine and elaborate to wear.  Her grandmother tolerated her choice of profession, but invariably demanded that she shelve her linen and leather, and dress to suit her rank whenever she appeared at court.

            That appearance had just taken place in the Presence Chamber of the Sancalidor, and it had been as harrowing as she’d expected it to be.  The instant it was over, the princess, flushed, sweating, and still trembling, had stumbled out of Tîor’s ancient palace, directing her steps towards the first refuge she could think of: the Sanctum Defensor, the modest temple to Larranel Sylvanus that stood just to the north, between the Sancalidor and the Palace Gate.

            Myaszæron had always felt more at home there than at any of the other temples in the city – even, it shamed her to admit, her own principal chapter, the Grand Temple of Istravenya at the Lucum Spaðacódru.  She had been coming to Larranel’s house, as she thought of it, since she was a little girl, and the grim walls of grey stone seemed somehow more welcoming than the bright, brilliant whites and golds of the cathedral of Hara Sophus.  She could see the newer church across the great gardens of the palace, a few hundred paces away.  There was no doubting its magnificence; but it always felt colder to her, more austere (despite its incalculably rich construction and decorations), and less like a house of worship and contemplation than a brash and tasteless display of wealth.

            Stepping carefully, she worked her way up the narrow stairs.  She wasn’t dressed for a late-night excursion; in an attempt to placate her royal grandmother, she’d donned a stunning gown of white satin oversewn with interwoven flowers and gryphons in scarlet and gold.  The design left her shoulders entirely bare, making her feel exposed and half-naked, uncomfortable sensations for someone whose day-to-day attire generally included a mail coif.  She’d chosen the gown less for its magnificence, though, than for the fact that it allowed her to wear a tiara supporting an elaborate veil and wimple – the purpose of which was to conceal the fact that her hair was now noticeably and irrevocably returning to black.  She’d come to terms with her loss, or at least she thought she had; but she wanted to put off questions for as long as possible.

            She’d debated whether to openly wear her sash, the emerald-green virga laetitia that symbolized her plea to Hutanibu for children, but in the end had decided that it would be a deliberate and unnecessary provocation.  As a compromise, she’d tied it around her slender waist, under the ribbing of her gown and snug against her skin…just (she remembered with a smile) as she’d done for Kaltas on their wedding night.  High shoes of gold-filigreed satin, and a long, narrow dagger in a gilt and ruby-studded scabbard completed the costume.  The members of the court, when she’d appeared before them, had been suitably impressed; she’d caught many a bold fellow eyeing her like a wolf eyeing a fawn.  But there’d been no visible sign that her efforts had placated her grandmother; the Queen’s face and voice had been cold, damning and terrible.

            At the top of the stairs, she lifted the latch and pushed.  The heavy oak door, pitted and stained by countless years, swung easily inwards, creaking a little as it reached the end of its swing, just as she remembered.  Tip-toeing into the long nave, she shut and latched the door behind her.  At the font, she dipped her fingers in the blessed spring-water, touching first her lips, then her opposite hand, and then her heart, and then shaking the remaining drops onto the well-worn flagstones.

            The temple was dark; night had fallen, and no services were scheduled for the evening.  The only light came from the votive candles nearby, and from the lamp that hung above the High Altar at the far end of the temple.  Myaszæron wasn’t going that way, though; her destination was elsewhere.  She stepped to the memento mori, where the relatives of departed supplicants left notes and memories and offerings, and, with a deft twist, pulled a heavy beeswax candle out of its sconce.  She lit this at one of the many lamps, then set off down the nave.

            Her heels clacked mercilessly against the stone.  Rolling her eyes, she paused and eased her costly and uncomfortable shoes off one by one.  Carrying them in one hand and the candle in the other, she continued on.  Half-way to the sanctum, a pair of massive pillars, columns of rough-cut granite, rose from floor to ceiling.  Just beyond them, a narrow stair descended through the flagstones.  Wincing a little at the chill of winter emanating from the rock beneath her bare toes, the princess descended the stairs.

            Her grandmother had been busy with affairs of state when she’d called at the Sancalidor.  Myaszæron was used to seeing the Queen surrounded by teeming throngs of nobles and bureaucrats, but not at supper-hour; Ælyndarka had a strict rule, enforced by decree, that business had to stop for meals, at least twice a day, at noon and at dusk.  When the food came in, all talk of politics ceased, on pain of the offender bearing the brunt of a royal tongue-lashing.  The instant the butlers and maids entered with the evening’s repast, the assembled company knew, too, whether Her Serene Majesty intended to keep working after dark.  The lack of wine always told the tale.  Tea with supper was a blunt message to the royal councillors and staff that there would be little or no trancing that night.

            When Myaszæron had announced herself to the junior chamberlains standing outside the Presence Chamber doors, she’d been admitted at once, without announcement or demur.  That made her nervous; obviously, she was expected.  Gathering her courage and her skirts, the former to enable her to enter, and the latter to avoid an ignominious tumble as she did so, she’d marched into the towering, domed hall, her head held high.

            The room had been set up for work, not audiences, and as a consequence, she found herself striding into the open end of a vast, U-shaped collection of heavy tables.  In addition to the usual dozen or so swordsmen of the High Guard and the customary two- or three-score Ancillulae glittering silently behind the throne, Myaszæron counted at least twenty soldiers, twice as many miscellaneous noblemen and women, and at least a hundred scuttling bureaucrats.  She recognized a few faces among the crowd; Andrasa, Kalestayne’s adjutant, the wizard that everyone called ‘the Traveler’ – she was there.  So too were her old friends, the generals Harrekal and Lalani. 

She searched the faces of the mob of handmaidens, wondering whether Szyelekkan was there, but she didn’t notice the young Countess’s distinctive hair among the sea of midnight tresses.  She did, however, catch sight of one of her friends – Ara Latentra, a girl with hair of purest gold, a product of a Third House father and a Second House mother, with a quick wit and a disposition wrought of absolute sunshine.  The two were of an age, and although Ara was a typical (and to the princess’ mind, typically brainless) scion of the over-privileged nobility, she was so wonderfully pleasant that the two had become fast friends over the last few years.  When she saw the princess staring at her, Ara waved happily, and Myaszæron decided to risk a smile.  The smile widened to a grin when Ara held up a hand, pointing to her ring-finger, then applauded silently and jumped up and down in place with undisguised glee.

The thought that at least someone was happy for her made Mya feel a little better.

            Her grandmother, she was unsurprised to see, did not share Ara’s enthusiasm.  Myaszæron strode towards the central spot at the bottom of the ‘U’, halted the requisite ten paces away, bowed, made as if to draw her sword, remembered belatedly that she was not under arms, drew her dagger, put it back, and then, for good measure, curtseyed.

            The Queen watched her granddaughter’s gyrations for a long moment before speaking.  At last, she said, “The Wardens tolled their call an hour before noon.  What stayed thee, princess of the Realm?”  It was a formal performance, and both women knew it.  The Queen spoke in tones that carried throughout the vast chamber.  It helped that the entire assembled company had fallen silent the instant Myaszæron had halted.

            Mya dropped her eyes.  “Esteemed grandmother,” she said in similarly portentous tones, “I stayed only to make myself presentable for you.  I am new-come from Eldisle, and the task that you assigned me, with news of gravest import.”

            “Hast thou, then, abandoned the task I set thee, granddaughter?” the Queen asked.  “By what right and authority dost thou dare to set down that which I commanded thee to take up?”

            Myaszæron took a deep, steadying breath.  Was she truly that angry?  She decided to grasp the nettle.  “Your Majesty,” she replied, “the task you set me is done.  Kaltas of Eldisle is innocent of the charges levied against him. 

“Furthermore,” she added as a collective gasp went up from the assembled company, “his daughter, the lady Allymynorkarel, is innocent of the crimes of which you accused her.  I have been privy to proof that she acted honourably in all circumstances; and, in the place and manner in which she fell, brought great credit to her father, her House, your Throne, and the Realm.”

The Queen, wisely, waited for the shouts and muttering that erupted in response to those words.  When she adjudged that the rumbling had gone on long enough, she cast a frigid gaze around the room, and silence descended like a shroud.

She stared coldly at the princess.  “Hast thou forgotten, granddaughter,” she said harshly, “that grace and mercy doth lie within my hand, not thine?  It is not thy place to decide when thy task is done.  It is the Crown, recreant girl, that levies proscription, and the Crown alone that lifts it.”

Myaszæron could say nothing to that; she could only bow.

The Queen was silent for a long moment.  At last, she said, “I will examine thine evidence, when time is convenient.  For the nonce, thou’rt confined to the Palace, and will attend upon me, at mine own good pleasure.”

That gave Myaszæron the opening that she had hoped for.  “I beg pardon, esteemed grandmother,” she said loudly, “but I must refuse this decree.  My service is no longer thine to command.”

The Queen’s eyes bulged.  “Bend and obey, I abjure thee!  Thou’rt daughter to House Æyillian, and a servant of the Throne!”

“No longer.”  Myaszæron drew herself up to her full height.  “I am Duchess of Eldisle,” she said ringingly, “and by Dîor’s Law, servant first to my lord, my lifemate, and my love, Duke Kaltas Aiyellohax, thy most loyal subject!”

Things had gone rapidly downhill from there.

At the base of the stairs, Myaszæron ducked her head, stooping to avoid cracking her skull on the low archway that led into the crypts.  A few paces beyond, another set of steps led down.  She followed the long corridor, passing cobweb-strewn sarcophagi of stone to the left and right.  This section of the crypts was old, old; it dated from the Age of Wisdom, before the Darkness.  The foundation stones of this temple had been laid in Yarchian’s day, after Mærglyn Kin-Slayer and her shadowed minions had been defeated and banished to the Deepdark. 

There were true heroes interred here, heroes who had fallen at the Gloaming, or in the long darkness.  Somewhere, here in the darkness, there was a shrine bearing the skulls of Fineleor Orkarel and his archer-lifemate, Anja Antaíssin; and here, too, the bones of Arngrim the Elflord lay entombed in glory.  Yardîor, Dîor’s son, and War Chief and bearer of the Alurenqua after his father, was here, too.  The Realm was drenched in incarnadine history, and much of it had gathered in this place. 

As a girl, Myaszæron had spent countless hours wandering among the tombs, running her fingers over the time-worn inscriptions, reading the dates and the names, and then hurrying back to her grandmother’s library to discover what they meant.  It was one of the reasons that she had come to love the dark and brooding place.  Hara’s cathedral, as new and bright and glorious as it might be, couldn’t hold a candle to the Protector’s house.  The newer church boasted no such cargo of glory, or wonder, or...or time.

The other reason she came wasn’t far away.  Mya knew the route.  Innumerable twists and turns through the bowels of the temple led her, at last, to the newest section of the crypts; a more recent delve, wrought by magic, with stone worried gently away to make room for those who had latterly gone to wind.  The last few paces she took led her towards a glimmering, golden light.  Rounding a corner, she entered a low chamber, only four paces on a side, with a roof that arched only a few feet over her head.  Against the far wall, a low table of carved wood served as an altar.  It was decorated only with a woven cloth of green and gold, bearing the Dragon Rampant of House Æyllian.  The flickering light came from a small statuette, a flame worked in golden glass that stretched about a foot high, and that sat atop the altar. 

The room also contained two sarcophagi; one against the wall on the left, and one on the right.

The princess frowned.  All of those things she had expected.  But there were two that she had not.  Atop the altar, there was a wilting flower – a chrysanthemum, the Floregalis of the Royal House.  And atop the right-hand sarcophagus, there was a small spray of old, brown oak leaves and a handful of acorns.  And two small, nubbly pine cones.

The Protector’s sigil, she thought.  Not surprising here, I suppose.

Myaszæron stooped to enter the chamber.  Her feet were freezing, so she stooped and put her shoes on again.  Then she put her fingers to her lips, and touched them briefly first to the left casket, and then to the right.  “Hello, father,” she whispered.  “And hello, my dear sister.”

Hitching up her skirt to keep from sullying the priceless material, she knelt on the rough stone before the altar.  Pebbles pressed into her bare knees, but she didn’t mind.  She had knelt here countless scores of times before.

Where to begin?

She wiped sudden tears from her eyes.  “Well,” she said with a small, sad laugh.  “I got married.

            “I’m sorry you missed it,” she went on, talking softly to the empty air.  “You’d like him, I think.  He’s not an artist, like you, father; he’s a warrior, a knight and a commander.  But he’s like you in some ways.  He has poetry, such poetry, in his heart.”  She smiled.  “I loved him the instant I laid eyes on him.

            “You’d like him, too, Szelly,” she added with a chuckle.  Tears fell unnoticed from her eyes now, running down her face and spattering on the altar cloth.  “I remember what you…what you told me, about how your man made you feel.  Your…human man.  It’s like that with Kaltas.  From the first word that fell from his lips, I was his.  When he speaks to me, it’s like…it’s like a fire in my soul.  He’s the most wondrous…”

            Her voice trailed off.  She found that she was clenching her fists, and forced herself to relax.  “Grandmother is…is upset,” she went on in a whisper.  “You both know what that can be like.  You see, Kaltas…he was under proscription.  He couldn’t ask for my hand, but…but I wed him anyway.  She’s so angry.  She might disinherit me.

“And…and he’s coming here now.  I think…I think there’s going to be war.  I’m so afraid, Szelly.”  She sighed.  “Not for myself; you know I don’t fear battle.  I’m afraid I’m going to lose him.  Before…before…”

There was a scraping sound behind her.  “You won’t lose him,” a voice said softly.  “Not if I can help it.”

Myaszæron whirled in place, reaching for the hilt of her dagger, and wincing as the stones of the floor cut into her knees.  An instant later she had fallen flat, her palms and forehead pressed against the floor.

The Queen ducked her head and stepped into the tiny chamber.  “Oh, get up,” she snapped.  “There’s not enough room in here for a proper prostration anyway.”

The princess straightened up, still kneeling.  “Your Majesty,” she said, alarmed, “I’m so…I’m sorry, about…about…”

“Shut up, Mya,” Ælyndarka sighed.  “We both know you’re not sorry.”  She grinned suddenly.  “I wouldn’t be sorry either, if I had managed to rope a stallion like Kaltas, and had him pawing around in my pasture.”

Myaszæron flushed a hot, furious pink.

The Queen put a hand gentle hand on her head.  “I’m not angry with you, you idiot.  Or at least, not for the reasons you think.”  She held out a hand, and when the princess took it, she tugged the girl to her feet and swept her into a fierce hug. 

Myaszæron froze in shock, stunned both by the gesture and by the surrealism of the experience.  She was at least three fingers taller than her grandmother, and the different in their respective heights was exacerbated by the fact that the princess was wearing heeled shoes, while the Queen, beneath her strictly utilitarian gown, was wearing low, soft boots.

“Gods, you’re enormous!” Ælyndarka exclaimed.  She stepped back and looked her granddaughter up and down.  She cast a wary eye at the girl’s waistline.  “Pregnant yet?”

The princess flushed.  “No,” she confessed.  “At least, I don’t think so.”

“Well, get on with it,” the older woman said brusquely.  “If you’re right and there’s war coming, our House is going to need all the heirs it can get.”

“I belong to Kaltas’ House now, Majesty,” Myaszæron reminded her.  “And so will my heirs.”

The Queen shot the girl a narrow glance.  “Are you trying to explain the Codex to me, girl?”

Necat!” Myaszæron exclaimed.  “Gods, no!”  The Queen had a formidable reputation as a legal scholar.

“Good,” Ælyndarka grunted.  “Force my hand and I’ll simply wait until you’ve whelped, and then adopt Kaltas under section nine-oh-nine.  As mine is the senior House, he’ll take my name and his heirs will become my heirs, and House Aiyellohax will cease to exist.  Problem solved.”

“You wouldn’t!” Mya gasped. 

“Would I not?  Of course,” the Queen went on with a frown, “if you push me to that extremity, I’d also have to order you divorced.”

“What?” the princess squeaked.  “You can’t!  We swore the Votum Magnus!”

“Doesn’t matter.  If I adopt Kaltas, he’ll be your uncle,” the Queen shrugged.  “Section two-sixteen is very explicit in its prohibitions against consanguinity.  The punishments for mating with a relative in the first degree are quite severe.”

“But...but..he’s not my cousin!” Mya stammered.  “That’s...it’s nonsense!”

“Section two-sixteen doesn’t discriminate between cousins by blood and cousins by adoption,” the Queen reminded her with a shrug.  “I don’t make the law, child; I just enforce it.  However I see fit.”  Her eyes took on a steely sheen.  “Or I don’t.  It’s your choice.”

Myaszæron goggled at her grandmother.  Her eyes filled again, and her hands began to shake.

The Queen let it go for a long moment.  “Problem?” she asked at last.

“You…you can’t…”

“As I just explained, I can,” the Queen snapped.  “Of course, if you and your husband would take a moment and think a little – maybe using what’s between your ears instead of what’s between your legs – then I wouldn’t have to shake the Codex at you like a deranged barrister.  Do you think you can do that for me?  Use your head, for once?”

The princess choked on the first words out of her mouth.  At last, though, she was able to whisper, “Yes, your Majesty.  I think...I think I can.”

“Excellent.  Now that we’ve got that out of the way…”  She grinned, pulled the girl’s face down to her own, and planted a loud kiss on each of her cheeks.  “Congratulations, dear.  I’ve said a hundred times that he’s the best man in the land, and now he’s ours!  You brought him in for me!  I couldn’t be happier for the Realm.  Or for you.

“Although,” she added sadly, “you might have had the courtesy to invite me to the wedding!”

“He was…was under proscription,” Myaszæron muttered, stunned beyond the capacity for rational thought by the Queen’s sudden change of mood.  “And besides, things…things moved a little fast.”

“Couldn’t wait to get to the coniugum, eh?” Ælyndarka grinned.

The princess flushed to the roots of her hair.

“Can’t say as I blame you, girl,” the older woman went on.  “You had three centuries of yearning walled up in there.  Not many are strong enough to take Valatanna’s Vow.  I could never have done it.”  She took the girl’s hand in her own, turned it palm up, and placed something in it.

“That’s for you,” she explained unnecessarily.

Myaszæron examined the object.  It was a necklace of heavy silver, broad and thick, with a pattern like interwoven thongs.  At each intersection, an emerald sparkled, set amid a nest of tiny diamonds.  It felt like it weighed at least a pound, maybe more.

“Gods, it’s beautiful!” the girl breathed.  “Grandmother, I…I can’t…”

“You damned-well can,” the Queen growled.  “Your grandfather gave me that the night he took my maidenhead.  It’s an heirloom of his house, that’d been in his family since before the Darkness.”

The princess regarded the glorious bauble soberly.  “May I ask a question, grandmother?”

“Of course.”

The girl blinked, wondering how to put her query without causing offence.  “It’s said,” she began slowly, “that you…you wed Duke Percorian for…for political reasons.”

“That’s not a question,” the Queen replied blandly.

Myaszæron smiled wanly.  “Is it true?”

“Yes,” Ælyndarka replied firmly.  “So what?”

“ ‘So wh...’?” Mya stammered.  “But...if it was for...didn’t you...”

“Yes, of course I loved him,” the Queen said impatiently.  “More than life itself.  I would gladly have departed the earth, instead of him.”

“Oh,” the girl said.  Her voice was very small.  “That’s…that’s good.”

“Yes, it is,” Ælyndarka said soberly.  “Mya, you’re making the mistake I almost made.  Mixing love and politics.  The two aren’t connected.  Not at all.  Percorian and I...we did what…what we did, because it was necessary.  It was the best thing for the Realm.”  She smiled.  “It just happened to also be the best thing for us.”

“Did you…or he…really kill his brothers?”

“There was no other alternative,” she murmured.  “They were bent on rebellion, dear.  I had to choose between a little blood then, or a deluge later on.  That’s a lesson that I hope you, and your lifemate, will take to heart. 

“But that…that decision…” she sighed.  “It was politics, too.  It had nothing to do with us.  It never touched us.”  She frowned suddenly.  “Although it spared me the ignominy of having to even consider a vow trimaritus with those two idiots.”

“And you only had him for a score of years,” the girl said, her thoughts still on her grandfather, then man who had died centuries before her own birth.  “And you’ve been alone ever since.  It makes my heart ache to think of it!”

“In those twenty years, child, we loved a lifetime,” the Queen smiled.  “I’ll never forget him.  And no matter how I choose to fill my time, or my bed, I could never, ever replace him. 

“When I think of him,” she said wistfully, “I think of a time before…” she made a futile, fumbling gesture, as if trying to indicate the full, massive weight of her responsibilities.  “Before all of this.  When it was just…just us.  Just Perky and Ella, romping around the Realm, getting into trouble, and causing my brother Callaýian no end of worry.”

Myaszæron laughed aloud at that.  “I have a hard time, your Majesty,” she giggled, “thinking of you and my grandfather, His Grace Duke Percorian Perfidelis, as ‘Perky and Ella’!”

“I know,” the Queen shrugged.  “But those pet-names mean more to me than all the titles I have to trip over every time I get up to void my bowels.”  She patted the princess gently on the cheek.  “You’re more than your office, dear.  We all are.  We have to be.  You need to understand that, and make sure that your man understands it, too.

“That’s the secret to ruling, and retaining your sanity.  Do what you must…but remember who and what you are.”

Her eyes – the glorious, amber eyes that were the hallmark of her beauty – took on a distant cast.  “I’ve never forgotten what Percorian was,” she murmured.

“And whatever befalls you” she added, turning back to Mya and speaking in an intense whisper, “remember this: take the time to live.  Take the time to love.  Life without love, child, is nothing but a waste.”

Myaszæron nodded wordlessly. Tears were sparkling in her eyes as she remembered how much she had always adored her beautiful, blunt-spoken, terrifying grandmother.

“Now, enough horse-muck,” the Queen said brusquely, taking a seat on the altar table and patting the spot beside her.  “Time to unfold, dear.  Tell me…what, exactly, are you and my deranged grandson-in-law up to?”