The snapping thundercrack of a collapsing interplanar gate echoed across the massive, tree-strewn courtyard of the ancient fortress. The guards standing before the palace gates scarcely noticed; it was a common mode of travel for visitors to Arx Dentis. The woman who stepped out of the dissolving cloud of lightning-flecked arcane energy and stormed up the gatehouse steps, however, could not be so readily dismissed or ignored.
She was a vision of utter loveliness. Tall for her race, with a shapely figure and the most delicate of features, her raven hair caught up in a priceless coronet of mithral and pearls perched delicately atop pointed ears, and gowned in silk as the Queen that she was, she was accustomed to portraying a stately and regal bearing. Not this time. Her tresses – the envy and despair of the assembled ladies of the Starhall – fluttered behind her like the battle-flag of a towering warship quartering into the wind. Her measured stride was more a hunter’s stalk than a lady’s graceful progress, and her eyes – the magnificent amber orbs that for more than a thousand years had torn men’s hearts from their breasts and crushed them – blazed as if afire. The effect, altogether alarming, was mitigated somewhat by her complexion which in her jovian rage had taken on a peculiar mottled mixture of flaming red and dead white, like a badly-conceived quilt.
The guardians standing before the pillars that flanked the palace gate watched the elf-woman – for that was what she was – ascend the marble risers, first snickering at the manner in which she hiked up her skirts to climb the nine-and-ninety stairs, then shooting each other meaningful glances as her grace, womanly figure, and startling beauty hove into view. Both men were humans, tall and broad-shouldered, and were clad head to toe in silver-brushed steel plates. Towering helms were atop their heads; helms burnished so brightly that they flashed with silver fire, their beavors figured like the snouts of dragons argent; and long spears tipped with glinting glaive-blades of the same fierce aspect were in their hands.
Frank desire at the elf-woman’s undulating glory painted their faces…at least until she came within a spear’s length, and both men, seeing her ears, her eyes, and her crown, realized who she was. Armoured forearms jerked sloped spears to a hasty vertical; armoured heels rang as they snapped together; and armoured hands, outstretched, proclaimed the salute of the Fangriders.
“Hail, Majesty!” the elder of the two men began. “On behalf of the Master, I bid you –”
“Where is he?!” Ælyndarka shrieked, spattering the knight with a most un-monarch-like spray of spittle.
The younger warrior shot a worried glance at his senior. This latter worthy, who knew what he was facing, did not take his eyes off the smouldering visage of his diminutive visitor. “The Master?” he asked nervously.
“Who else?” the Queen snarled. “In his study, I suppose? Dreaming up new ways to irritate me?”
“It is vylas, Majesty,” the knight said in what he hoped was a placatory tone. “The Master…he is holding court.”
“Excellent.” Ælyndarka took a deep breath. “Open the doors.”
Now it was the senior who glanced worriedly at his second. “Majesty…” he began.
The man clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering. “It is vylas,” he said gently, as if that explained everything. “Private petitions only, by appointment, between the sixth and sixteenth hours. That is the Master’s will.”
The Queen turned her amber eyes on the terrified veteran. With exaggerated calm, she said, “I have a private petition, rider. And believe me when I tell you that I don’t need an appointment. So ring your bell and warn the scaly old pervert that I’m coming.”
Caught between the majestic terror of the Master of Silverstair and a fuming Queen of the Elves, the knight swallowed heavily. His right eye began to twitch. “Majesty…”
“Never mind,” Ælyndarka growled. “I’ll ring it myself.” Facing the iron doors of the palace – each of which was four times her height and a thousand times her weight – she held out her hands and uttered a single syllable. A shrieking blast of light whiter than snow and hotter than a thousand stars burst from her slender form.
The iron doors of Arx Dentis were of dwarf-make, and had stood, magnificent, impenetrable and rust-free, for the better part of four millennia. A thousand years ago, Karventää, the ancient red wyrm who styled herself ‘Lady Deathscorch’, had, in the course of challenging the Master, tried the furnace-fire of her breath against them, to little effect. Hung with exquisite precision and lubricated by a cadre of professionals, they could be opened with a single hand, and had never uttered so much as a squeak. Ælyndarka’s curse tore them from their hinges as though they were made of pasteboard, partially melting the ancient alloys and hurling the shattered remnants, accompanied by a spray of vaporized metal, into the shining space beyond.
Stepping gingerly around the smouldering debris, the Queen of the Elves stalked into the enormous, many-pillared hall. Surrounded by steaming, smoking puddles of molten iron, in a voice full-laden with terrible menace, she cried, “Perky, my love…I’m home!”
“This is ridiculous!” Valaista complained.
“No, this is a courtblade,” Karrick replied. “It’s the way you’re holding it that’s ridiculous.”
He twitched his wrist. Steel rang on steel, and the girl’s sword clattered to the flagstones.
“Ow!” She stuck a finger in her mouth. That made the warrior grin; it wasn’t a very draconic gesture. She was picking up Kindred mannerisms at an alarming rate.
“Gods, girlie, you’re embarrassing me,” Karrick chuckled. “Why’d you have to pick a public park to practice in, eh?” He nodded at the sword. “Once more.”
“If I do it the way you showed me, my wrist is going to break!”
“Nah, it won’t,” he snorted. “You’re tough. Someday, though, I will show you how to break a wrist.” He bent down, retrieved the elven greatsword, and passed it back to her, cradling the blade carefully in the crook of his elbow. “Let’s try it again.”
Irritated by the constant interruptions at Domus Casia, Karrick had proposed that they find a different venue for Valaista’s next lesson in swordplay. The girl had agreed, suggesting in turn that they try one of the groves that lay along the Via Alnus. Between the lack of flowers, the temperature, and the gently-falling snow, they were unlikely to be disturbed.
“Try it? I can’t even hold onto it!” the girl said despairingly.
“That’s ‘cause you’re holding it all wrong,” he said with exaggerated patience. “The reason the elfy blades are so tough for the rest of us is that they’re made for finesse, not force. You caress’em. You don’t clench’em like a coal-miner swinging a pick.”
He held the hilt of the sword out. “Watch. This’ere’s the waist-hook.” Moving with extreme slowness, he bent his left ring finger around a curved protuberance extending from the lower half of the grip. Then, letting the sword slide off of his sleeve, he allowed the blade to swing earthwards like a scythe. The razor-edged steel swung back and forth like a pendulum. “See? One finger. That’s all it takes.”
The dragon-girl frowned. “What’s the use in that? You can’t swing a sword with one finger.”
“Oh?” Karrick laughed. He stepped over to one of the flower beds and, holding his ring-finger ostentatiously out of the way, rubbed the rest of his right hand in the chill muck. Then he transferred the sword, by the waist-hook, to his right hand, suspending it on the single clean digit.
“Hold out that latha,” he commanded.
Valaista picked up the wooden practice sword and extended it towards her mentor. Before it was half way to his face, Karrick slid his left foot back, crouched, and swung his right arm in a slashing motion. The curved blade snapped out, hissed through the air…and, with a light, musical tzing, the first third of Valaista’s hardwood weapon sailed off and thudded into a snow-bank.
To her credit, the dragon-girl only flinched a little. Karrick nodded his approval at her increasing steadiness, then extended his hand towards her, the sword still swinging from his ring-finger. “Check the hilt.”
She did. “It’s clean.” She glanced up at him in astonishment. “You really did that with one finger?”
“With one finger,” he confirmed, switching the sword to his left hand and scrubbing the muddy right one against his tunic. “I wouldn’t recommend it in combat, but I wanted to show you what kind of weapon this is.” He spun the blade through a complex, spiralling series of manoeuvres that ended with him handing it back to her, hilt first. “Elfies make good swords,” he added approvingly.
Valaista took the weapon and, after a struggle, got her hands properly around the hilt. “So why don’t you carry one?”
“Courtblades take two hands. I’m a shield man,” the warrior shrugged.
He was about to go on when he saw that she was glancing apprehensively over his shoulder. Turning, he saw an elf striding briskly towards them from the roadway.
The fellow halted a few paces away and, noting their practice armour and weapons with a raised eyebrow, bowed. “Master Karrick,” he said formally, “and milady Valaista. Amorda’s doorman told me I might find you here. Greet the day.”
“Ka-Mai, isn’t it?” Karrick recognized the wizard’s unusual brush-cut hair. “From the embassy. The magical mason.”
“The same,” the elf replied curtly.
The warrior extended a paw. “Nice to see you again.”
The wizard eyed the grubby limb with a dubious air. Ignoring it, he stepped closer to the dragon-girl. “Fair one,” he said unctuously, “I have not slept since last we met. My every waking moment is consumed with dreams of your beauty.” He bowed so deeply that Karrick thought he might fall over. “I swear, I shall not rest until you are mine.”
“H-hello,” the stunned girl replied. She shot the warrior a panicked look.
Ka-Mai straightened up and turned to face Karrick. “I have heard nothing from your master, the lady’s guardian. I presume that means that you failed to inform him that I wished to speak with him.” He sniffed. “Do I err?”
Karrick stared down at the little man. His welcoming grin had cooled noticeably. “Nope.”
The wizard bristled visibly. “Why did you fail to execute my request?”
“ ‘Cause you look flammable,” the warrior shrugged, “and the boss ain’t fond of chicken-fuckers.”
Ka-Mai blinked. “I’m afraid I’m not au courant with that particular manifestation of the popular Ekhani idiom.”
The warrior nodded towards his charge. “Means she’s not looking for a husband right now.”
“Due respect, my good fellow,” the elf said, frowning, “but that’s not really for you to decide, is it? This is a matter for your master, her guardian, and me to resolve. Between men.”
Karrick looked the elf up and down. “The boss usually lets me ‘resolve’ the little problems.” He jerked his head at the gate. “Now, take your narrow arse home before I lose my sunny disposition.”
Turning back to Valaista, he made a show of dusting his hands, and winked. “There. Another matter resolved. I swear, I deserve a raise.” He nodded at the blade in her hand. “Let’s carry on. Firm up that grip, and we’ll –”
Karrick turned back to their visitor. The wizard was red-faced and visibly trembling.
“You still here?” the warrior asked mildly.
“Ego te poscimo!” the little man shrieked.
“Challenge, you oaf! Challenge!” Ka-Mai screamed. “Are you deaf as well as stupid? I challenge you!”
Karrick blinked. “To what, a hair-dressing match?” he asked.
“To a duel!” the wizard howled. “Here! Now!”
The warrior shrugged. “Okay. I get pick of weapons, right?”
“Weapons?” the wizard laughed. “Weapons? This is the Realm! You have insulted me, you clod! A wizard! We duel with spells!”
Valaista leapt forward, her eyes wide with panic. “He is not a caster! You cannot chall…” Her voice trailed off. To her astonishment, Karrick was holding a finger to his lips and making calming gestures.
He turned back to Ka-Mai, shrugged, and said, “Okay. Fire away.”
The little elf snorted derisively. “This is the duel arcane, bumpkin! First, we defend. Second, we prepare. And third, we fight.” He stuck out his chin. “To the death!”
“Whatever,” Karrick shrugged. “Let’s get on with it. I’m in the middle of a lesson, here.” He bowed elaborately.
The wizard bowed back. He was about to spin on his heel to pace off the customary distance when Karrick unexpectedly held up a hand. “A moment, if you don’t mind? To consult my second, here?”
Ka-Mai frowned. “If you wish.”
Karrick leaned over to Valaista and stage-whispered, “How do you cast that…that light-dart…thing?”
The dragon-girl looked startled. “Do you mean magic missile?”
“That’s the one!” the warrior nodded. “Can you teach me that?”
Valaista blinked several times before responding. When she did, her voice was faint. “Right now?”
Karrick nodded toward the impatient wizard. “Sooner the better, eh?”
If the girl’s eyes had been any wider, her eyeballs might have dropped from their sockets.
The soldier grimaced. “No, hunh?”
Valaista shook her head.
“Hunh.” Karrick nodded thoughtfully. “Okay. Guess I’ll have to rely on my own magic. As usual.” He turned back to the wizard. “Ready when you are, big guy.”
Ka-Mai shot the human a scornful glance. He was about to turn once more, when Karrick held up his hand again. “Gods, what now?” the elf complained.
“Where I come from,” the warrior explained, “we shake before we fight.”
The wizard sniffed.
Karrick raised an eyebrow. “I thought you Third-House lot were all about courtesy. If we’re gonna kill each other, can’t we at least be civilized about it?”
Rolling his eyes at the bumptiousness of all round-ears, Ka-Mai extended his own hand.
Karrick took it and gave it a firm shake. “You know how to cast stilled spells?” he asked suddenly.
Ka-Mai blinked in surprise. “Of course not!” he said, bristling. “I am a master of the Ludus Astralis, not some conjurer of cheap tricks!”
“That’s what I figured,” Karrick nodded. Shifting his grip slightly, he twisted the smaller man’s wrist in an entirely inappropriate direction.
Bones cracked audibly. The wizard screamed and fainted. Karrick stepped back and let the snow cushion his fall.
After making certain that the little elf was still breathing, the warrior turned back to his apprentice. Valaista was staring at him in utter shock. “That,” he said with immense satisfaction, pointing at his unconscious opponent, “is how you break a wrist!”
Then he noticed the jagged, protruding bones and the scarlet stains spreading across the snow, and winced. “Oof. And an arm too, I guess.”
Discretion, they say, is oft the better part of valour. The troop of Riders that stood vigil outside the burnished silver doors of the Arx Dentis throne room took one look at Ælyndarka’s face and, as a man, stepped back, sloped their glaives, and bowed. Their commander, a grizzled captain with the almond eyes and brushed-bronze complexion of a native of Shorheit, swept the drake-jawed helm from his head and dropped to one knee.
Scarcely noticing the assembled knights, the Queen stormed past, her long skirts trailing her like a smoke-cloud after a Jarlin war party. An imperious flick of her fingers, and the silver doors rumbled open.
Beyond them stood the throne room of the Master. It was a little unconventional, at least from a mortal perspective. For one thing, it was round. And for another, it had no roof. It was, in effect, a courtyard that stood at the centre of the concentric ring of multi-leveled towers, each tipped with a spike of gleaming silver, that formed the main body of Arx Dentis – the Fortress of the Fang, the colossal edifice that towered over the bustling metropolis of Silverstair like a raptor poised to strike.
The lack of a ceiling was no impediment to the function of the place. Arx Dentis, and for that matter Silverstair and all of the surrounding land, from the Vatnhugr to the Mountains and beyond, lay in Dracosedes, the extraplanar realm of Holy Miros herself. Suspended in the celestial æther a hundred leagues and more above the endless rolling hills and sylvan woodlands of Fulgoris (the home of Hara Sophus, Lord of Elves), Dracosedes – Dragonhome, in the common tongue - was illuminated not by inconstant sun and stars, like the benighted cities of the mortal realms, but rather by the Everlight, the divine, undulating radiance which, according to the sages, was generated by the Anari, and sustained them, too. The Master did not fear cold, because of what he was; nor did he fear wind, rain, or unseemly heat. All things in Dracosedes, including the weather, obeyed the will of Holy Miros; and the Master, as her viceroy and acting in her name, ordered them as he saw fit.
The rotundity of the place served the Master’s preference. In the centre of the massive chamber-court, a low, broad platform wrought of sandstone supported his unimaginably vast bulk. To the uninitiated, he looked like a hillside wrought of purest silver – at least until he moved. Then legs like the trunks of trees, wings the size of a dromond’s main-sail, and eyes as wide across as a man was tall took shape. Anyone unprepared for such a sight never forgot its first impact, assuming they survived the encounter; for the ancient silver wyrm, eldest and mightiest of his race, was as harsh and implacable with his foes as he was gentle and generous to his friends.
Most ancient of the hopea, the wyrms of argent; colleague to Oroprimus; confidante of Divine Miros; acquaintance of men and women, elves and dwarves, angels and devils and gods. To the citizens of Silverstair, he was The Master. To the ancient sages of Elvehelm, he was the grandchild of Olowartan, leader of the Argent Three, the dragons who had brought the Book of the Powers to Starmeadow, ending the Eon of Darkness. To men he was known as Ancient Iceblade, a nom de guerre that was usually appended by the innumerable appellations of battles that he had won. To the denizens of Dracosedes, he was Venastargenta Æternus, Silver Mercy the Eternal. To Cymballargenta, Nitorisargenta, and Cymballanatora, he was Grandfather; to Svardardgenta of Cloudspire, he was Father; and to Her Serene Majesty Ælyndarka the Fair, jewel of House Æyllian, by the grace of Hara Sophus and the Holy Mother Queen of the Third House of Ancient Harad, he was -
The dragon had been speaking to someone on the other side of the room. Like a planet shifting its orbit, the immense head, bigger than a house, swivelled around to face her.
The Queen was no infant; nor was she a doddering novice. She was a monarch, ancient in years, mighty in the arcane arts, and the daughter of a divine house, possessed of wisdom, grace, and ever-lasting beauty. And, too, she was Captain-General of an enormous army. She had no intention of trembling in the presence even of the most ancient and powerful dragon – save two only – in all the breadth and width of the Universe. Nonetheless, as Venasta turned his mammoth, man-sized orbs towards her – eyes so silver-shot and reflective that she could see herself and the whole of the room behind her in their mirror-bright convex surfaces – she felt her knees quiver. Just a little.
His mind-speech – which, Ælyndarka knew from personal experience, was potent enough to kill foes where they stood – felt like an old and familiar embrace. Hello, Elly, the monstrous dragon sent softly.
“Hello yourself,” she replied faintly, cursing herself for falling prey so readily to the overwhelming power of his presence. She knew all too well the effect that his aura had on mortals – her most especially. She knew, and she had been ready for it; and yet, as ever, she proved entirely unable to resist it. Her heart raced, her mouth went dry, and her legs began to shake…but not with fear. Never with fear.
It’s wonderful to see you, Venasta said. He shifted his bulk to face her more fully. It’s been…how long?
“Four…nearly four hundred years,” the elf-Queen sighed.
Incredible, the colossal dragon sighed. And yet…you’re even more beautiful than I remembered.
Desperate to preserve the few remaining shreds of her dignity, Ælyndarka squeezed her eyes painfully shut. Remember, remember! she commanded herself. Remember why you’re here!
It wasn’t working. The dragon’s form, his unimaginable size, the alien majesty of his argent gaze…none of that mattered. Not a bit. The feathery feel of his mind was like the silken touch of lips on hers, a caress so gentle, so intimate, and so well-recalled that her heart all but burst with the pain of memory, and she nearly cried out with joy at tasting his thoughts again. She felt hot dampness in her eyes; the same dampness that had stained her cheeks each of the few times that their paths had crossed since their parting; each wonderful, terrible, heart-rending time.
Three times; only three, in nearly eight long and lonely centuries.
Swallowing heavily, she reached into the embroidered purse at her girdle and threw something to the floor. A trio of shrivelled, blood-stained fingers, each bearing a ring, clattered to the stone. One of the rings bounced clear and rolled, tinkling merrily to a halt beneath the dragon’s muzzle.
Venasta looked down at the rings, then up again without expression. Or at least, without any expression that she was able to interpret. You received my message, he sent softly. That’s good. How are our young?
“The same as you remember,” she replied automatically. “Landioryn…he’s strong and loyal. And wise. Our daughter…she…she’s still…”
Be gentle with Cæfalys, Venasta murmured. Her frailties… they are not her fault. He sighed heavily, and the elf-Queen smelt ice and mountain air. There is too much of me in her. I had not yet perfected the magic when she was born.
“Perky, about that…we need to talk,” Ælyndarka said. She was proud that her voice trembled only a little.
The dragon regarded her evenly for a long moment. Then his form shimmered, glinting like an image wrought of quicksilver in the Everlight, and he vanished in a cloud of brilliant, snow-coloured sparks. In the same instant, in place of the dragon stood a tall, grey-haired elf. His cheeks were hollow and lined, and his waist-length locks, caught up in a ring of hammered silver, were more white than argent; but his eyes – eyes of mirror-silver – were still bright, still full of wisdom, laughter, and love. There was a sheepish wrinkle at the corner of his mouth, as if he were eternally embarrassed, amused and delighted by everything he saw. The tilt of his lips was so familiar to her that it tore her heart in twain.
At the sight of her lifemate of old, Her Serene Majesty Ælyndarka the Fair, jewel of House Æyllian, Queen of the Elves, lost the last vestiges of her carefully-conserved self-control. She laughed aloud, clapping her hands and bursting into floods of happy tears.
Yes, my dearest love, the gray-haired ‘elf’ said, stepping forward to take her hands, kissing them before enfolding the weeping Queen gently in his arms. Yes, I’m afraid we do.
Ælyndarka, not surprisingly, wasn’t the only angry elf-woman confronting an infuriating and errant spouse.
“Have you LOST your MIND?” Amorda screamed.
Breygon winced. In a life thus far replete with memorable encounters, his lifemate was one of the most rhetorically gifted individuals he had ever chanced to meet. She had a trick of adding a vibrating falsetto declension to her expostulations which, he had quickly realized, was effective because it actually triggered a target’s survival instinct by inflicting sensations that were somewhere between abject panic and physical pain. It was, he had been interested to discover, an effect not too different from that generated by a dragon’s roar.
Of course, he preferred it when his good lady’s ire was directed elsewhere. Once again, he found himself wondering what he had gotten himself into. And not – as an ancient skald had once written – for the last time.
He decided to brazen it out. “Louder, dear,” he replied mildly. “I don’t think they heard you in Jarla.”
“Berani bodoh!” Tua whispered under his breath, full of admiration at his master’s audacity. The old fellow was standing beside Breygon in a gesture of moral support. Thus far, the ranger hadn’t found his sotto voce commentary especially useful. As a further example, the Wilder elf whispered, “Can I have your armour, Lewat? After she kills you?”
“Shut it,” Breygon muttered.
Amorda’s face went from rose-red to snow-white with alarming rapidity. “Is that really the tone you want to take with me, husband?” she whispered. “Because if it is, I’m happy to treat this as a comedy and farce. Instead of the unspeakable tragedy you’ve made of it.”
She drew herself up. “In that spirit, my love… curse Ekhan! And curse you!”
‘Curse’ was, of course, not the word that she used. As Breygon winced, the elf-woman hawked and spat. Then she hurled a vase at him.
Tua, who despite his age retained all of the grace of his birthright, dodged nimbly out of the way. Breygon snagged the vase – there were some benefits, after all, to having quick hands – then caught the old fellow’s eye and jerked his head toward the door. With a relieved nod, the Wilder elf half-bowed, then bolted for the dining room, making good his escape.
When his equerry was safely out of the picture, the half-elf turned back to his fulminating spouse. He set the vase – a lovely thing of painted porcelain which, he was certain, Amorda would have regretted destroying – on a low table. “Now we can discuss this in private,” he said as soothingly as he could.
“ ‘In private’?” Amorda gasped. “ ‘In private’?” She put her hands to her hair in exasperation. Breygon, fairly certain that she would do nothing to permanently injure her magnificent locks, remained frozen in place. “You didn’t once consider telling me about the situation at the Gyrus and asking me for my counsel, in private? Before deciding to play Jolly Jared the brigand in front of half the city?”
“Who’s Jolly Jared?” Breygon asked, confused.
When Amorda’s eyes widened even further, he held out his palms. “Sorry! Doesn’t matter!”
“You couldn’t have taken an hour,” the elf-woman snarled, “to find out whether swooping in and carrying the ‘mayden fayre’ off over your shoulder might be…oh, I don’t know…ill-advised?”
“She was fighting a pair of hill giants,” the ranger protested. “And she was in bad shape already. You saw her! She wouldn’t have lasted much longer!”
“Really?” Amorda asked, her voice dripping with venom. “And this is the first time you’d ever heard of the legendary Swiftspear, is it?”
Breygon blinked. “Well, I –”
“Because,” the woman interrupted acidly, “I seem to recall her name coming up at Danoria’s table in Novaposticum nearly two weeks ago! How she was fast becoming the star of the Circle, with fabulous sums being won and lost on her spear-point!”
The half-elf’s brow wrinkled. “So what? She was dying!”
“She’d been fighting as a gladiator for at least a fortnight, and probably much longer,” Amorda sniffed. “Moreover, you said that you knew she was ‘first hunter’, or some other barbarian leader, of her people. And yet, you were worried that she was going to drop stone dead the moment you and your…your enabler, that armour-bound idiot…you convinced yourselves that she was on the very brink of death the moment you two happened to show up? Really?” She spat again. “What are the odds of that? Seriously, don’t they teach you woods-walkers to do sums?”
Breygon blinked again. The elf-woman had a point. “She did manage to drop both those giants,” he admitted.
“Before you and Thanos intervened, I’ll bet.”
The ranger nodded.
“What an astonishing coincidence!” Amorda sighed. “Here’s another question. She was the property of your idiot uncle, correct?”
“I saw him there,” Breygon nodded. “It was his show. And that’s certainly what the restraint brand suggests, yes. And the handbill, too.”
“Hmmm.” She put a finger on her desk and slid the parchment that Thanos had found towards him. “And according to this, he’s promised five-score thousand orries to anyone who kills her in the ring.”
“That seemed like a genuine offer, did it?”
Amorda rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t have a hundred thousand aureae! You’d’ve known that, if you’d brought this to me first.”
“You said that he had access to his lifemate’s ‘bottomless coffers’!” Breygon objected.
“For spending money!” Amorda shrieked. “Gods, do you think Inscia’d mortgage Heron Gate to bail that cretin out of a gambling debt? How thick are you?”
The ranger frowned. “So what happens to him if Swiftsp…if Mata dies in the ring? And he can’t pay up? Would he go to debtor’s prison, or something?”
The elf-woman stared at her lifemate for a long moment. Then she shook her head, laughing sadly. “Holy Mother!” she murmured. “With that kind of charming naiveté there’s just no way I can stay angry at you!”
“What d’ye mean, ‘naiveté’?” Breygon bristled.
“What makes you think that that was an honest fight?” the elf-woman snorted. “What on earth makes you think Bræagond – a man you know to be a lying, conniving, two-faced, addle-arsed ne’er-do-well – would ever let such a valuable asset actually die in the ring? Or even come close to the chance of dying? Especially with that kind of money on the table?”
The half-elf grimaced. “Cheating. Of course.” He shook his head tiredly. “For a moment there I forgot what country I was in. So, you’re saying she was never in any real danger?”
“Never,” Amorda replied with an answering shake. She took a deep, shuddering breath. “But you are. Now.”
“Me?” Breygon laughed humourlessly. “Not ‘we’?”
“ ‘We’?” Amorda snorted. “Why should I be in danger? I didn’t break the law.”
The ranger’s face fell. “So what was the point of all that jibber-jabber about vows binding us beyond death, then?”
“They don’t cover this,” the elf-woman replied, barking a laugh. “You’re aware, of course, of article eight-oh-eight.”
Breygon put his face in his hands. “Here it comes,” he murmured to himself. Glancing up at his three-day bride, he asked, “And what, pray, my dearest love, does article eight-oh-eight govern?”
“Contract law,” Amorda snapped. “Eight-oh-eight prohibits any member of the nobility from entering into a binding contract with a convicted felon. And, more to the point, it voids retroactively any contract when one of the parties is convicted sub judice of an offence against the Codex.”
Breygon blinked. “Even marital vows? Even the votum magnus?”
“That’s a good question, isn’t it?” the elf-woman sighed. “I can’t think when it’s ever come up before.”
He frowned. “Are you telling me,” he said sceptically, “that no married member of the nobility has ever been convicted of a crime? Here?”
“Convicted? No. It never gets that far,” Amorda said coldly. “There are plenty of other options. Bribery, for example. Corruption at court. Silencing of witnesses. And if all that fails, self-imposed exile. Or suicide.”
“None of those seem like very palatable choices,” Breygon mused.
“Not that any of those are necessary,” Amorda went on coldly. “The Queen could simply request a vote of the Council. With a two-thirds majority – which, as you can imagine, wouldn’t be much of a challenge to obtain – your nobility could be rescinded and you could be struck from the ranks of the Duodeci. You would face the judge and accusator, and eventually the headsman, as a commoner. A single one,” she added unnecessarily.
“Nobility doesn’t mean a dire rat’s rectum to me,” Breygon growled. “But there’s no way anyone’s taking you away from me. Legally or otherwise.”
Amorda smiled wanly. “Then you’re going to make some jurist very famous. After four thousand years, it’s not often that new legal precedents get set.”
“I’ve only just begun setting precedents,” the ranger said in a voice as cold as the Lymphus. “So, freeing slaves is an offence against High Elven morals, is it?”
“Not morals, laws. And yes – across the river, in Lamboris where your bloody uncle Bræagond is Duke, it is,” Amorda snapped. “Of course, you’d’ve known that if you’d bothered to ask me. Gods, even that moron Karrick could’ve told you that much!”
“I rather doubt that,” the ranger snorted. “Karrick is a lot of things, but a lawyer isn’t one of them.”
“He doesn’t have to be a lawyer!” his wife hissed back. “It’s enough to be a whoremonger! Love for money is illegal here! Why did you think the Fang is on Eastbank, eh? Instead of right across the street from my house?”
“I thought it probably had something to do with property values,” Breygon snarled.
Amorda’s lip twitched. “I counsel thee to mind thy tone, husband mine,” she said frigidly. “Thou’rt aye in shite up to the neck. Wouldst rather swim?”
Breygon held up his hands in a gesture of surrender and apology.
The elf-woman glared at him for a long moment – long enough for Breygon to begin to feel nervous. At length, though, she said only, “No. No. Not property values. Landioryn’s values.”
The half-elf frowned. “I don’t understand.”
Amorda passed a weary hand across her brow. “Landioryn is Grand Duke of Starmeadow,” she explained patiently. “That’s just the
. Everything beyond the river, outside the Mura Xîardathi – that’s Lamboris. Your uncle’s fief. Bræagond defends his preference for
indentured servitude through pious declamation of the ‘ways of our fathers’,
but really, he’s just a swine who likes owning people. Especially women. I guarantee your Wilder chit has shed more
blood and uttered more cries for him outside the ring than within it.” Great
Breygon ground his teeth, but held his silence, as Amorda was watching him closely. “Landioryn,” she went on, “has outlawed indentures, sure and certain…but of course his word only holds sway within the walls. Without, ‘tis thy scabby uncle’s word that rules.”
“Why doesn’t the Queen just forbid indentures in the whole of the realm?” Breygon asked, puzzled.
“Because,” Amorda sighed, “your uncle’s not the only filthy swine in the realm. A good half of the Great Houses – especially those with incomes from mining and farming – are strong supporters of the ‘ways of our fathers’. For obvious reasons.” She rubbed thumb and forefinger together. “Money.”
“And great grand-mama,” Breygon said bitterly, “can’t afford to alienate the noble houses.”
“Praise Miros!” Amorda cried, raising her hands to the heavens. “He learns! A day late and a ducat short, but he learns.”
She threw herself into a chair. “I’ll say this for you, lupino,” Amorda murmured exhaustedly. “Being your lifemate certainly isn’t boring.”
“I’m learning that boredom’s underrated,” Breygon growled. “Me, I’m thinking better and better of it.” He tapped a finger against a table as if trying to decide whether to ask what was bothering him.
His wife, in addition to her many other qualities, was a shrewd judge of character. She glanced up at him. “You’ve a question,” she said quietly. “Let’s hear it.”
Breygon smiled wryly. “You always know what’s on my mind, don’t you?”
Amorda shrugged. “You kill people, I know people,” she said without a trace of acrimony. “Each to his own. Ask.”
Breygon took a deep breath. “Do you allow indentures in Arx Incultus?”
“ ‘Allow?’” Amorda snorted. “It’s not up to me anymore.” She waved a hand at him. “Such questions must be addressed to the manor’s lord, my lord.”
The ranger clenched a fist spasmodically. “Did you? Allow indentures, I mean?”
The elf-woman gaze up at him without expression. “What do you think?”
Breygon had no idea. He decided to go with gallantry over…well, over nothing. “I think you outlawed it.”
Another laugh. “A one in two chance, and you struck in the white,” Amorda snorted.
The half-elf’s heart plummeted into his boots. “You allow slavery?”
“Indentures,” she corrected immediately. “And I don’t just allow it, I encourage it. I keep indentured servants myself. Hundreds of’em. And there are thousands more throughout the barony. Especially in the capital, Gaudior.”
Breygon felt sick. “I don’t…how could you?”
“Easily enough,” Amorda shrugged. “But that’s not the question you meant to ask. You mean ‘why’, don’t you?”
The ranger rolled his eyes. “Of course, ‘why’.”
“That’s easy, too,” the elf-woman said flatly. “Article four-forty.” She fell silent.
Breygon waited. After a long moment he began drumming his fingers on the table.
Amorda watched him.
At length, Breygon shook his head. “What,” he asked tiredly, “is article four –”
“I don’t…what idiom is that?” the ranger asked, confused.
“It’s the Wanderers’ dialect,” Amorda replied. “Doesn’t matter. What matters is what it means. Noblesse oblige is the law detailing the obligations of those who hold indentures towards those in their care. It means that we, as masters – or, as you would have it, ‘slave-holders’ – are obliged to provide protection to our servants, and have the right to determine conditions for manumission, decide whether or not to allow them to marry, set conditions for inheritance, and determine what proportion of their earnings we feel it appropriate to accord them.”
Breygon scratched his head. “I still don’t…I’m sorry,” he said at last. “All that means to me is that you have slaves and control every meaningful aspect of their lives.”
Amorda nodded. “That’s right. I do. Just like Bræagond.” She held up her hands. “Once Thanos gets back, you can have him fireball me too, if you like. Or,” she added without a trace of mirth, “seeing as you’re now lord of a slave-holding barony, he could fireball you, and I could take half of it. Appropriate punishment, don’t you think? For a pair of filthy flesh-traders?”
No fool, the half-elf sensed that he was terribly close to a dreadful precipice. He racked his brains for something appropriate to say, and finally, in desperation, settled upon a term he had once heard whilst squiring a long-winded lawyer around the Æryn woods.
He dropped to one knee and bowed his head. “My lady,” he said solemnly, “I throw myself upon the mercy of the court.”
Amorda’s lip twisted momentarily into a hint of a smile. “Thou’rt claiming benefit of Article Nine-Seventeen, husband mine? ‘Let the lifemate’s sentence heal all’?”
“Whatever article you care to invoke,” Breygon murmured fervently. “I give up. In manus tuum. Anything you say. Anything!”
The elf-woman laughed. Bending down, she took his ears in her hands and kissed him on his forehead. “Then hear’st thou my verdict, miscreant wretch. Thou’rt guilty of appalling ignorance. Thus do I amend it.” Smiling, she swatted him gently on the ear. “I keep slaves, to use your word, because it’s better for them.”
“Not the first time I’ve heard that argument,” Breygon said darkly.
Amorda stared at him. Breygon stared back, realized what he had done, and shut his mouth with a snap.
She waited. Breygon counted past one hundred, began again, and got to seventy before she spoke. “Any more comments?” his wife asked acidly.
The half-elf shook his head.
“Good. As I said, it’s better for them. The devil,” the elf-woman raised a finger, “of course, is in the details. You recall that I said that nobles who hold indentures are obliged to provide protection, decide on manumission, permit or deny marriages, determine inheritance, and decide what their servants earn?”
Breygon, keeping his lips clamped shut, nodded. He held up four fingers on each hand, then mouthed a ‘zero’.
“Precisely.” Amorda smiled slightly. “Dîor’s Law is, first and foremost, about balancing freedom with responsibility. Every free man is responsible for himself. As lord of Arx Incultus, therefore, I’m not obliged to protect outlying farms held by free farmers – but I am obliged to ride to the aid of indentured farmers. And you know where my…where our barony is.”
Breygon nodded. “On the edge of the Wastes.”
“On the edge of the Wastes,” the elf-woman nodded. “You wouldn’t believe what sorts of horrors creep and crawl out of the sands. Magical monstrosities, living spells, undead, abominations, orcs and jackals…you name it. The Free Holders are on their own, but I have to sortie the knights whenever the Helders – that’s the indentured farmers – whenever they call for aid.”
“Sounds like a better deal for them,” Breygon shrugged.
“It is. So can you guess how many of my farms are free-holds?”
“Half?” the ranger asked tentatively.
“About one in a hundred,” Amorda replied. “The other ninety-nine are Helders. All indentured, and all willingly.
“Now, manumission. Do you know how that works in the Realm?”
Breygon shook his head.
“Indentured servants are manumitted by written order of the seigneur,” the elf-woman said. “So every Mid-Summer’s Day I hold a feast, and require every Helder to attend. I fête them all, and present them – each and every one, man, woman and child – with a certificate of manumission. And, as they kneel to receive it, there’s a brazier to hand, where they can burn it if they’d rather remain my servants.”
The ranger’s eyes bulged. “You free them annually? Don’t most of them walk?”
“No,” Amorda shrugged. “Most of them stay. A few, every now and then, accept their freedom. There’s strong incentive, after all; I give a hundred orries to every manumitted servant.”
Breygon’s eyes bugged out. “You pay them to leave you?”
“Yes. It’s seed money. Of course, as I said, most of them don’t leave at all,” the elf-woman snorted. “But that’s how I operate. Presumptive liberation. That way, I can be certain that nobody’s being held against their will.”
The half-elf put his head in his hands. “But…I mean, surely freeholders can band together to protect their farms. That’s what happens in Zare. So why do so many remain in bonded servitude?”
Amorda shrugged. “Because of the other…wrinkles, that I’ve put into my interpretation of the Codex.”
“Certainly. For example, marriages. I’ve never denied one.”
“Free elves,” the ranger said ironically, “don’t even have to ask permission.”
“No,” Amorda allowed. “But they have to pay a tax. Indentured servants don’t.”
“Nobody asked me to pay a tax,” the ranger objected.
“You were marrying an orphaned noblewoman,” the elf-woman pointed out. “You had to pay the nymphaliceor. That supersedes the marriage tax.”
“Right, right,” the half-elf muttered. “Is it a lot?”
“Depends on the newlyweds’ respective trades,” Amorda shrugged. “It’s high enough to make a difference. That’s not the only reason, though.”
“There’s more?” Breygon said, his voice dripping with irony.
Amorda frowned. “There’s that tone again, my love.”
Breygon bowed his head, all contrition.
“Yes,” the elf-woman said slowly, fixing her mate with a gimlet eye. “There’s more. Inheritance and earnings. First, servants pay no tax to the Crown on any inheritance. They only have to pay me.”
“I take two-thirds of what the Crown would take,” Amorda shrugged. “Most lords would take as much as the law allows, which is twice the Crown’s share, as a surtax. So folk’re saving two coins in three by remaining in bondage to me.”
“That’s generous of you,” Breygon said cautiously. “I suppose.”
“Lastly,” Amorda shrugged, “earnings. I told you that Arx Incultus is wealthy. Do you know why?”
Breygon shook his head.
“Creative financing,” his lifemate shrugged. “Larceny’s in my blood, my love. Do you know what the difference is between petty larceny and grand larceny?”
“Not ever having…no. No I don’t.” Breygon clamped his mouth shut again.
Amorda smiled. “You are learning!” She leaned forward and patted him gently on the cheek. She leaned back in her chair. “The difference,” she intoned, assuming a professorial demeanour, “is simple. The petty thief breaks the law. The grand thief,” she smiled, spreading her hands and indicating herself, “exploits it.”
“Indentures,” the elf-woman winked. “The crown levies a tax on earnings, yes?”
“If you say so,” Breygon shrugged. “Nobody’s asked me to pay any taxes so far.”
“It’ll come.” Amorda waggled her fingers. “Not quickly, though. Where adventurers are concerned, ‘earnings’ is a fluid concept. Sell-swords tend to have a lot of business expense write-offs. Besides,” she added, smiling, “you gave the Queen back a priceless, gods-wrought artefact, an ancestral relic pried off a dragon’s corpse, and a sword taken from a demon. You’re probably entitled to deduct those.”
“Glad to hear it,” the ranger said laconically.
“Where it really matters,” his lifemate went on, “is in how the tax laws treat freeborn citizens versus Helders. It’s a little complicated in the details, but in essence, indentured servants aren’t taxed on their earnings.”
Breygon blinked. “Excuse me?”
Amorda nodded happily. “The Queen takes two argies in ten from the income of every free-born citizen – man, woman, or child. But from Helders…” she puffed a breath from betwixt her lips. “Nothing.”
“Nothing,” the elf-woman chuckled. “I tax them one in ten as their feudal lord – about a quarter of what some free farmers pay – and the Queen taxes me on my income alone. My Helders get off scot-free.”
“So you’re paying for their…what, for their prosperity?” Breygon asked, perplexed.
The ranger blinked. “That’s pretty selfless of you.”
Amorda burst out laughing. “How do you figure?”
“Well,” Breygon said slowly, “you’re paying the Queen a…a portion of your own income, yes? Which you earn by taxing the income of your…your ‘Helders’? Is that right?”
“So…how do you make any money?”
Amorda smiled. “You woodsy types really don’t understand economics, do you?” When Breygon frowned, she went on, “Sorry, love. Rhetorical question. Look, in your experience, who works harder, the free man, or the slave?”
“The free man,” Breygon said instantly.
“Because he’s working for himself.”
“Right,” Amorda nodded. “But what makes a man free?”
Breygon blinked. “What?”
“Is it a piece of paper?” the elf-woman asked. “Is it a law? Is it something so…intangible?” She poked him in the chest. “What makes you free?”
The half-elf briefly considered muttering something about wondering whether he was, anymore, but thought better of it. He frowned. “I go where I want, and I do what I want. I suffer no man’s command. And…” he smiled. “I see your point. I keep what I earn, and spend it as I like. That’s what you’re talking about, isn’t it?”
“More or less,” Amorda nodded. “I’m sorry; I hadn’t meant to make you ponder philosophy and economics. I love you, but you’re hampered by a surfeit of honesty. And you do lack schooling in the finer points of ethics, rhetoric, and estate management.”
“To name only a few,” Breygon smiled. “Besides, we’ve a new estate manager now. Amatlee, remember?”
Amorda’s face darkened dangerously. “Then I hope for her sake that she’s as good on her back as she is with an abacus,” she growled, “because there’ll be little else for her to do. Unless you command me otherwise, my lord, I’m going to keep running my…our lands, the way I see fit.
“And regardless of what else you might decide to let her ‘handle’ for you,” she added with a narrow-eyed glance, “I’d strongly recommend that you not let your great grandmother’s little auditor-kitten anywhere near our ledgers.”
Breygon cleared his throat nervously. “You were telling me about freedom,” he said.
The elf-woman took a deep breath, visibly willing the rage to wash out of her. “I was. Let me put it a different way: what advantages do free men enjoy, that my so-called slaves do not?”
Breygon thought about that for a long moment. “Well, I suppose your people can leave any time they want. With at most a year’s notice. And,” he went on more slowly, “they…I guess they get to keep more of what they earn, when all is said and done.”
“Exactly,” the elf-woman said with a victorious grin. She tapped his nose with a manicured nail. “Exactly. And more to the point, I get to keep more of what they earn. Everybody wins.”
“Except the Queen,” Breygon said, smiling slightly.
“Piss on the Queen.” Amorda glared at him stonily. Then she lost her composure and grinned like a schoolgirl. “I don’t know who she sold her soul to, but the old bat looks like she has yet to hit two hundred. I swear,” she went on, laughing, “that if Ælyndarka would share her beauty secrets, I and half the ladies in the realm would trundle the contents of our strong-rooms to the palace gate in a heart-beat!”
Breygon sensed that the mood was lightening, and knew that he had to strike while the iron, as it were, was hot. He caught his lifemate’s hand and pressed her fingers to his lips. “My lady love,” he said solemnly, “is the most beauteous woman alive. She needs no secrets to outshine the Lantern. By her grace and visage fair, she holds my heart.”
“I commend thy ardour, sirrah, and congratulate thy lady love,” Amorda snorted. “Whomever she might be.”
“My only wish,” Breygon went on, grinning at the amused scepticism on Amorda’s face, “is to stand foremost among my lady’s willing servants!”
“Hah!” Amorda cried, snatching back her hand. “Scoundrel! Thou hast yet to hear my verdict, and receive just condemnation for thy many crimes!”
Grinning, the ranger abandoned his genuflection and sank to both knees. “Fair mistress,” he intoned solemnly, “deliver thy sentence. I swear I shall obey!”
Amorda’s artificial haughtiness dissolved. “Idiot!” she giggled. Then she winked and nodded toward the bed.
Breygon waited until she had turned her back and had begun to struggle out of her gown before sighing and wiping his perspiring brow in relief.
When the knock came a short while later he was under the covers, attacking the task at hand with all of his considerable powers of concentration. Out of sheer habit he nearly dove for his longsword and dagger, but refrained at the last instant; he had recognized the footfalls. Abandoning his disappointed bride, he knotted a sheet around his waist, padded over to the door, slid back the latch, and opened it a crack.
As expected, it was Tua. Breygon groaned when he saw that the old man was bearing the silver salver that he was beginning to dread, and, atop it, a carefully rolled, sealed and tied parchment scroll.
Tua sniffed the air and grinned. “Apology went all right, heya?”
“Can’t you carry a letter in your hand like a normal person?” the ranger asked testily.
Tua passed his master the missive, cleared his throat meaningfully, and said, “If you’re bestowing blessings, Lewat, and feel up to a dip, there’s still one pretty lonely-looking rusalka splashing around in the willow pond…”
The ranger snatched the scroll, straight-armed the Wilder elf out of his bedroom, and slammed and locked the door. “I need to set some rules about disturbing us when the door’s closed,” he grumbled. “Messages can wait until morning!”
“To be fair, it’s only mid-afternoon,” Amorda reminded him primly. “Normal people are still working, not…well…” She blushed and waved a hand at the jumble of bed-clothes.
“Normal people aren’t married to you,” Breygon chuckled. “There’s no work I’d rather be doing, believe me.”
“Yes, I suppose this beats digging ditches,” the elf-woman murmured.
“You know what I meant,” Breygon said. “And you know my heart. If the world wasn’t ending, there’s nothing I’d like better than to spend the next ten-year in your arms.”
“Holy Mother! You still have that long to live?” Amorda exclaimed in mock horror.
Breygon shot her a dark look. She giggled again. Collapsing back into bed, he glanced momentarily at the inscription beneath the seal on the scroll, then handed it to his lifemate. “Another one for you.” Diving back under the sheets, he returned to what he had been doing – and enjoying immensely – just before they had been interrupted.
To his annoyance, Amorda ignored his conscientious ministrations, snapping the seal, unrolling the scroll…and freezing into gelid immobility when she saw what it contained.
More good news. He paused, sat up, and waited for her to finish. When she did, she dropped the scroll to the mattress and immediately began gnawing at a painted thumbnail.
The ranger grimaced. “Do I need a lawyer?”
“More like a battalion of lawyers,” Amorda sighed. “But it’s not you that needs them. You’re just named as a witness.”
“Really?” he asked, astonished. “That’s good. From your face, though, it’s still trouble, isn’t it?”
She nodded dumbly.
“You might say that.” She pushed the scroll toward him.
Breygon picked it up. “Hmph. Who’re ‘Sortis et Sombris’?”
“Lawyer’s guild. A nasty one,” his lifemate replied, looking a little ill. “I looked into them a few years back, on the Bird-Catcher’s orders. It’s a snake-pit, populated by idealists and windmill-tilters. And Lustroares.”
Breygon’s face went flat. “Maybe I should answer this with my bow, then.”
“You don’t fight lawyers with arrows. You fight them with better lawyers,” Amorda said grimly. She shivered. “Much better lawyers. Rumour has it the Sombris barristers eat children, piss fire, and shit money.”
“You’ve been spending too much time with Karrick,” Breygon grunted. He read on. “Hang on. This is only a copy. The original went to…who’s Count Amilosta?”
“The Chancellor,” Amorda said with a shiver. “Amongst other things, he’s responsible for foreign relations.”
“What’s he care about a lawsuit?”
He did. At the next line, his lip curled in an involuntary snarl. “There’s a name I recognize: everybody’s favourite steaming mound of offal, my dear uncle.”
“Keep reading, I said.” Her fingers were trembling, and she made fists to still them.
He did, frowning. “Good heavens! Assassination, murder, attempted murder, attempted mass murder, kidnapping, robbery, robbery by violence, causing a public disruption, causing an arcane hazard, unlawful emancipation, breaking and entering – that one’s nonsense; we paid for our tickets! – arson, failure to register as a mage, irresponsible use of magic…”
He squinted at the paper. “What the hells is ‘miscegenation’?”
“Cohabitation with non-kindred,” Amorda said, suppressing a snicker.
Breygon hissed in annoyance. “Sounds like Ara kisses and tells.”
“It’s not about Ara.” The elf-woman tapped the scroll. “The citation names Valaista.”
“That’s ridiculous!” the ranger snapped. “Even if she weren’t, what, three months old, she’s his apprentice! Thanos would never…”
Amorda waved him to silence. “It doesn’t matter what he’d ‘never’. The allegations are just a formality. Read on.”
He did. At length, his eyebrows rose in surprise. “Eh? ‘Postulatus publicus’? It’s a lawsuit? These aren’t criminal charges?” He glanced up at his lifemate, eyebrows drawing together in puzzlement. “Bræagond’s suing Thanos?”
“No,” Amorda sighed. “Though your colleague’s named in it, as procurator princeps, for obvious reasons. That means he’s the ‘chief agent’ in all the to-do.”
She stared at him, puzzled. “I thought you could read elvish?”
“I can read Elvish,” the half-elf snorted. “This is lawyer-ish.” He read further. His face suddenly went white.
“And there it is at last,” Amorda murmured.
“Does this mean what I think it means?” Breygon exclaimed.
Amorda essayed a nervous smile. “The Sortis-Sombris partners, amongst other things, are publicity whores. And, as they correctly note, Thanos, at the time of the alleged crimes, was both a senior officer and a lawfully-designated plenipotentiary representative of Norkhan, personally appointed by the Vendicar. So…”
“So my uncle,” Breygon sighed heavily, “isn’t asking for prosecution. And while he’s definitely after compensation and damages, he isn’t suing you, or me, or Thanos.”
“No,” Amorda shook her head, “he’s not. He’s suing Ekhan.”
The Tale of Perky and Ella, Part One
(By Ryskankanakis, the Golden Sage)
Percorian of Duiveltine, a scion of a noble line,And Astrapratum’s highest lord, desired him a wife;
But nary an elven maiden fair his storied temper wished to dare
Or risk his every-ready sword, all notched and stained with strife.
Fair Ælyndark, the daughter of a house of kings bethought her of
The lengthy line of suitors that her loveliness attracted;
But not a one amid the throng that pled their suits with gifts and song
Aroused in her the ardour that might lead to vows contracted.
Percorian of Duiveltine, all decked and clad in raiment fine
Called on the throne of Callaýian, his sister fair to claim;
And swore an oath in mighty tones upon the Starhall’s ancient stones
That Ælyndark would join his clan, and bear his ancient name.
Stern Callaýian, the elven king, was ill-disposed to such a thing
And with the suitor’s brazen claim was deeply unimpressed;
He turned unto his sister fair and asked the maiden then and there
How stood her heart to bear the name of Callaýian’s brash guest.
Fair Ælyndark, a clever girl, jeered at the foul-mouthed, cocksure churl
And asked him if he had two knees, and whether they were sound;
Her puzzled suitor answered “Aye”; Fair Ælyndark bespoke him, "Why,
"They creak and groan like windshorn trees; pray, place them on the ground.”
Percorian of Duiveltine, empurpled by a choler fine,
Spat on the Starhall’s hallowed stones, and drew his bloodstained sword;
He swore by the heights of the Duivelmark to take as his mate fair Ælyndark
And thus, by his Perfidelis bones, he pledged his solemn word.
This grim-spoke threat from a warlord stark did justly frighten fair Ælyndark;She trusted not the Duke’s dread ire, nor desired him as her spouse;
She’d always longed to wed for love, so in her need bethought her of
A friend of her long-dead, lordly sire, allied unto her house.
Atavens of Silverstair, gray-haired, tall, answered the princess’ panicked call
And came at a run to assist the maid, with blade and with spell in hand;
A myrmidon-mage known far and wide; a hero to all who for justice cried,
He knelt to the princess' plea for aid, and swore at her side to stand.
He was silver-eyed, stern, and he laughed aloud; and wise and assured, with a brow unbowed
And swift on his feet, like he walked on air; and petrified foes with his argent glare.
A bowman of ages; a swordsman strong; a master of poesie, dance, and song.
Little wonder it was that the princess fair fell in love with Atavens of Silverstair.
Percorian, Duke of the Duiveltine, his courage bolstered by good red wineTo the palace crept on a moonless night, on an errand fell and dire;
A suitor scorned with his blade in hand, a hank of rope, and a burning brand
And his two fierce brothers of mickle might, stern sons of a sterner sire.
At the palace the wall they swiftly climbed, and they reached her window as Vespers chimed
Silent as shadows they entered in, but sought for the maid in vain;
Silver they found there, jewels, and gold; but the hearth and the bedding were both stone-cold,
And they pondered how back to the walls to win, and hie them home again.
Then out of the shadows a lantern flares, and catches the miscreants unawares;
And a figure steps from the silent dark, and greets them in frosty tones:
“Sons of the Duiveltine, drop thy blades, and forebear to bedevil reluctant maids;
“Get thee hence from the house of fair Ælyndark, lest I feast on thy shattered bones.”
Percorian cursed; “Fool, stay thy sword! I am sworn to be Ælyndark’s love and lord,
“And to take up my rightful place and all, upon Tîor’s abandoned throne;
“Stay me not, lest you die; you are but one man, and we three are chiefs of a war-wise clan!
“Should you face us here, you are certes to fall, and seek Tvalt’s Halls alone.”
“Thrice hast thou erred, thou foolish lord,” quoth the voice from the shadow; “I bear no sword;
“Nor do I face ye three alone, thou son of foresworn clan;
“If thine eyes were sharper, then thou mighst mark that here with me standeth fair Ælyndark;
“Nor ever shalt thou ascend the throne – for, wretch, I am no man!”
Then the lamp-light died, and the screams began – fell sounds to hear from the mouth of man! –
And the red blood flowed, and it stained the floor of the elf-maid’s charnel room.
And when the last of the cries were done, and the battle lost, and the battle won,
The light of the lantern flared once more, and the princess learned her doom.
Three corpses lay on the chamber floor, and one man stood by her bedroom door;Of the dead, only two were of Duiveltine – the third was from Silverstair;
And Ælyndark wept at her love’s demise, ‘till she spied Duke Percorian’s argent eyes -
And together they drank of love’s sweet wine,
Did the silver-eyed Duke of the Duiveltine,
And the princess descended of Tîor’s line, hight Ælyndark the Fair.