Sitting back into her chair, Amala sighed and carried her gaze about the three piles of parchment upon the Matriarch’s table.
“I can’t believe we got through them all,” she said, shaking her head as she spoke.
“You’re telling me?” came a voice from the other side of the parchments. “Let’s never bloody do that again.”
Grinning, the silver-haired woman sat tall and stared over the tower of parchments at the woman slumped in the Matriarch’s chair.
“Whose idea was it to hold the contest in the first place?” she asked. “Hrm?”
Shaking her head, the Matriarch sat tall and sighed. “Must you rub it in right now? I mean, really?”
Giggling, the Amala sat back in her seat. “At least it’s all done with now.”
“Thank the gods,” the Matriarch muttered.
“So, who won?”
Once more, Amala sat tall, staring at her Matriarch with her brow furrowed deep. “You’re sure?”
“What do you mean, am I sure? We just bloody finished tallying it all! I’m not that forgetful, Amala!”
“I know, but…Santon? What does he know of eldritch divinations?”
“How the bloody hells should I know? He scored the highest, so he won!”
Pouting, Amala turned to the piles, and the more she stared, the greater her pout grew.
“I think we may need to recount,” she said at last.
“Oh, don’t you dare!” the Matriarch seethed.
“No, Amala, no!”
“Bloody hells, woman, no! I just spent the entire bloody night tallying this bloody shite, I am not spending the whole day doing it as well! No! Santon won! I don’t care how it looks, I don’t even bloody care if the whole bloody Tower goes up in arms over it, the little bastard won! End of discussion!”
Amala stared at her Matriarch in silence as her eyes narrowed to slits.
“Don’t look at me like that!” the Matriarch whined after a spell. “I’m not doing it.”
Amala held her peace and held her gaze.
Still, Amala stayed silent, the heat of her gaze growing with each passing moment.
“Ugh, fine…” the Matriarch muttered at last, pouting at her friend. “Fine! We’ll do a recount…”
“That is all I ask,” Amala replied with a regal nod.
“But I need to eat something first,” the Matriarch continued as she rose. “And bath, I bloody stink.”
“Well, you do whiff a little…”
Grinning, Amala shook her head at the sulking woman. “Apologies, I couldn’t help myself.”
So bloody rude sometimes…”
“Tell you what, you go bathe, I’ll head to the Kitchens, have them prepare you something, and by the time you’re done bathing, it should be ready in your quarters.”
“Whatever,” the Matriarch growled and shuffled toward the door of her office.
“Oh, don’t be like that,” Amala admonished as the Matriarch reached the door, “I apologised, didn’t I?”
Swinging the door open, the Matriarch growled, stepped through and slammed the door behind her.
Sighing, Amala turned to the parchments once more, then shook her head.
“There’s no way Santon won,” she muttered, then turned and hurried to the door.
Making her way towards the Tower Kitchens, Amala stifled a yawn and stretched her arms as far as they could go, and as she made her way down the corridor, she found her thoughts turning towards her bed and how much she missed it.
“Not yet,” she muttered, shaking her head as she spoke. “Food first, then recount, then bed. Come, girl, you’ve survived worse than this. Get it together, come!”
Hastening her steps, the silver-haired woman marched toward her destination, but soon her steps slowed as raised voices drifted to her ears, one of which she recognised almost at once, and coming to a halt, she frowned and stared forward as she listened to the voices.
“A little early for a shouting match, isn’t it, Naeve?” she said after a spell.
Then, she realised whose the other voice belonged to, and with that realisation came fear.
“Oh, gods,” she gasped and hastened her steps once more.
“Gods damn it, child,” she moaned as she hurried on, “he’s been your tutor for less than a month!”
Reaching the Kitchens entrance at last, Amala burst in, her heart in her throat as her eyes took all within in in one fell swoop, but as her gaze fell upon the vocal pair within the Kitchens, what Amala witnessed was far more unnerving that she was expecting, for while she expected to find Naeve and her new tutor locked in a bitter row, she did not expect them to be grinning at each other through it all.
“But how can you say that!” young Naeve yelled as she bounced in her chair, her grin wide. “How can you possibly–”
“I say that because it is true!” her tutor threw back, his grin as wide as hers. “What you speak of is something that has been studied in depth by each of the elven races for aeons!”
“What do you mean so?”
“I mean, so what? So what if they’ve bloody studied it? Nobody’s proven it!”
“Proven…child, the ceiling of the Crowning Chamber in the Verdant Palace is covered in it! And that’s the oldest building in all the elven lands! Proof right there!”
“Bollocks it is! That just proves Woodland Elves are better at looking after dusty old buildings than everybody else!”
“What’s going on here?” Amala barked at last.
At her words, all eyes within turned to Amala.
“Amala!” Naeve shrieked as she rose to her knees on her chair, her eyes wide and her grin even wider than before. “Tell him! Tell him I’m right!”
Confused, Amala turned from student to tutor and back again before returning her gaze to the grinning cook.
“Right about what?” she said.
“Naeve refuses to believe Galiyen was first spoken by the Woodland Elves,” Netyam replied.
“No!” Naeve added, shaking her head. “I’m not saying it didn’t, I’m just saying it’s not proven!”
Amala stared in stunned silence at the Archmage for a spell, then turned to the young girl.
“Truly?” she said before turning to the Archmage once more. “You two are screaming loud enough to wake the dead, and this is what you’re arguing over? Truly?”
At last, the young girl’s smile began to fade. “Were we that loud?”
Amala held the young friend in a pointed stare, saying nary a word.
“Oh,” Naeve muttered before slowly sitting into her chair.
Shaking her head, the tired woman sighed and wandered towards the counter behind which Naeve’s tutor stood.
“What’s wrong?” young Naeve asked as Amala slowly sank into a stool. “You look like you’ve not slept.”
“That’s because I haven’t.” Amala sighed.
Nodding, the silver-haired woman massaged her temple as a soft groan escaped her lips. “I was with your mother, tallying the entries to that wonderful contest of hers.”
“Oh,” Naeve said just as her tutor placed a mug before Amala.
The tired elf stared at the brimming mug for a spell, but as the steam rising from it reached her nostrils, Amala found her hands drawn to it almost of their own accord as the wondrous smells from it tickled and teased her senses.
“What is it?” she asked at last, tearing her gaze from the sumptuous drink to stare at its creator.
The Archmage smiled. “A little something to help wash away the aches.”
“Can I have some?” young Naeve asked.
“No,” the Archmage replied. “This one is specially for Amala.”
At those words, Amala slowly sat tall. There was an edge to the man’s smile, a glimmer in his eye that was not there previously.
“What’re you doing?” Amala asked, her voice as cold as her gaze.
“Nothing.” The Archmage shook his head and shrugged. “Just offering you a drink, that’s all.”
“Well, you have my thanks, Master Netyam,” Amala replied as she pushed the mug away from her, “but I’d rather–”
“Please,” the Archmage interjected as he gently pushed the mug back towards Amala, “try it. And call me Aeden.”
Amala’s gaze darkened greatly at his.
“I know your name,” she snarled.
“I know you know,” the Archmage replied, his smile unwavering, “I was just hoping you’d use it instead of…you know, tired old Netyam.”
Amala blinked slowly at the man before her. “Everybody calls you Netyam, and so shall I.”
“You’re not everybody.”
“Okay, this is getting a little to icky for me,” the young elf declared as she rose. “If anybody needs me, I’ll be in the Library looking for a spell to cleanse my ears of what I’d just heard.”
“No,” Amala replied, rising. “You stay. I’ll go.”
“Amala, no!” young Naeve cried. “You just got here.”
“Just have a sip!” her tutor implored.
“I don’t have time for this nonsense,” she replied, her tone growing colder with each word as she glared at the man named Netyam, “and neither do you. Your Matriarch is hungry, so, why don’t you do your duty like a good little cook and prepare her something, hrm?”
A deathly silence fell upon the room, one so complete it was deafening.
Tearing her gaze from the stunned cook, Amala cast her eyes about the other mages in the room. They all had the same look in their eyes.
“Oh, for gods’ sake,” Amala growled and spun on her heels.
“You know, Naeve used to asked me why I volunteered to be her tutor,” the Archmage called out as Amala reached the entrance.
Amala turned to the man, a tight frown upon her lips.
“It was because of you, Amala. You two are so close. I thought if I were her tutor, we’d have more to speak on than just what you wish me to prepare you.”
Amala stared in silence the man, her disgust plain.
“Since when did you become such a fool, Netyam?” she said at last, then stepped from the room.
“And get cooking!” she yelled as she went.
Lifting her gaze from the parchment before her, Amala sighed and closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose as she did so. The smell of that infernal drink still haunted her, even as the day waned.
“Stupid Netyam and his stupid concoctions.” she muttered as she lowered her hand. “Why did he have to make it smell so damned inviting?”
Sighing once more, the elven woman sat tall and turned to the parchments, clearing her throat as she attacked them with renewed vigour. That was till the door swung open.
“There you are!” Amala cried as the Matriarch entered. “I was beginning to think you’d drowned in that bath!”
Pulling a face, the Matriarch closed the door behind her. “It’s not like I’m in a hurry to do all that bloody counting again.”
“All the same, it needs to be done. Now come, I’ve split them into sections like last time. The sooner you start, the sooner we finish.”
Rather than head to her seat, however, the Matriarch leant upon the door and clasped her hands together before her.
“Did you…” she began, “say something to Naeve this morning?”
Amala turned to her Matriarch, a frown upon her lips.
“Something like what?” she asked.
The Matriarch shrugged. “I don’t know, something.”
Amala stared in silence the woman before her, her brow furrowed deep.
“How about Netyam?” the Matriarch soon added. “Did you say something to him?”
“Ah,” Amala replied before sitting into her chair.
Sighing, Amala stared in silence at her Matriarch.
“If I answer that question,” she soon said, “all I’ll hear from you is I told you so.”
At those words, a slow smile parted the Matriarch’s lips.
“Wait…” the woman said. “Don’t tell me Netyam finally made a move on you.”
Shaking her head, Amala sighed and held her Matriarch’s gaze, her lips unmoving.
“Ha! I told you he had feelings for you! I told you all those side glances were more than just casual looks!”
“Yes, yes, you told me so!” Amala snapped. “Now, can we please–”
“So I take it it’s also true you ripped his heart out and stomped all over it, then?”
The Matriarch shrugged. “That’s how Naeve described it, and knowing you, that’s probably not too far from the truth. And, I must say, it’s left her rather upset.”
“Hold a moment,” Amala said, cocking her head to the side as she frowned at her Matriarch, “what do you mean, knowing me?”
“That’s the bit you’re focusing on? Naeve is upset, Amala, that’s partly why I’m so late. It took bloody ages to calm her down. She was looking for you, you know, and in the state she was in, I can only imagine the shouting match that would’ve followed had she found you.”
Amala stared at her Matriarch for a spell, then shook head at a last. “It’s not the first time she’s witnessed me giving someone she adores a tongue-lashing, and if need be, I’ll speak to her in the morning.”
Then, the seated woman turned to the parchments. “Now come, we truly must–”
“I don’t think this can wait till morning, Amala,” the Matriarch interjected. “What you said to Netyam really bothered her, and I mean, really bothered her.”
“What do you mean?” Amala frowned.
“I mean you need to go talk to her, right now, else this thing will fester, and you know how that girl gets when she starts holding a grudge.”
Slowly, the silver-haired woman sat tall, her gaze upon her Matriarch unwavering.
“That bad?” she said at last.
The Matriarch nodded. “That bad.”
Tearing her gaze from her Matriarch, Amala turned to the door.
“Go on,” the Matriarch said, opening the door as she spoke. “She’s in her room. Take as much time as you need. I’ll finish up here.”
Amala turned to the Matriarch once more, then once again to the open door. Then, without another word, the elven woman sprang to her feet and marched out of the room.
Smiling, the Matriarch closed the door, but as she turned to the parchments, her smile swiftly faded.
“Oh, bloody hells,” she growled, then wandered towards her seat.
Sitting by her bedroom table, young Naeve muttered to her self as she read the words within the tome before her, her brow furrowed deep as she sought to understand that which she was reading. But then, a knock came at the door, pulling the young elf from her thoughts.
“Who is it?” she snapped, turning to the door.
“It’s me,” came a soft reply.
All at once, the young girl’s gaze darkened, and without a word, she turned to the tome once more and began to read.
The knock came again.
“Ugh!” young Naeve cried, but refused to turn her attention from the tome.
“Naeve?” the voice called out.
“Go away, Amala, I’m busy!” Naeve yelled.
The knock came again.
“I said go away!”
The knock came once more.
With a roar, the young girl sprang to her feet and stomped over to the door before swinging it open.
“I don’t want to talk to you, aright?” she yelled at the elf before her. “I’m busy studying right now, and really don’t want to be disturbed, so please leave me alone!”
Then, Naeve swung the door shut. But the door wouldn’t shut. She tried again, but still the door refused to close.
“Would you…” she began before grasping the door with both hands and swinging it shut with all her might.
But the door simply bounced back open without even touching its frame, coming to rest against her hand in the end.
“Ugh!” the young girl cried, but as she steadied herself to give the door one last shove, she chanced a glance at the floor, and it was then she noticed Amala’s foot in the door way.
“I was wondering when you’d notice,” the silver-haired woman said.
With her ire straining on its leash, the young girl glared at the woman before her with all her might.
“Move your foot,” she growled.
“Move your foot, now!”
“How about you allow me in instead. I’ll explain why I did what I did, then I’ll leave you to return to your studies.”
“There’s nothing to explain,” Naeve growled.
“There’s everything to explain,” Amala corrected. “Or would you rather we do this dance all night? Me, I don’t mind, I’ve eaten and I’ve fed.”
The young girl snarled at her silver-haired companion for a spell, but soon gritted her teeth and stepped aside.
“Thank you,” the elven woman said, then entered and made her way towards the bed.
“Don’t sit,” Naeve ordered. “You’re not going to be here long.”
Amala sat upon the bed.
Snarling once more, the young elf slammed the door shut, folded her arms before her and glared at the woman upon her bed.
“Well?” she demanded.
Amala stared at her young friend in silence for a spell.
“Why does this bother you so much?” Amala asked at last.
“Why?” Naeve replied, holding her friend in an incredulous gaze. “Have you any idea how rude you–”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve seen me be rude to some–”
“The others deserved it, Master Netyam didn’t! Gods, Amala, all that man ever did was care for you! How in the hells is that a bad thing?”
Amala stared hard at the young girl before her a spell. “Have you forgotten what I am?”
“Oh, dear gods, woman,” Naeve replied, rolling her eyes at the elf seated on her bed, “of course I haven’t bloody forgotten! How can I?”
“And do you truly think one such as I can ever have a lover?”
“Oh, please, that’s pure horse-shite and you know it!”
“Don’t you Naeve me, Amala, it is! The Library is full of stories of people like you who had lovers! I checked, Amala, so you can’t tell me it’s not possible! So what makes you so bloody special, then? Or is that it? Hunh? You think you’re so special Master Netyam can’t even look at you?”
A soft smile parted the seated woman’s lips as she cocked her head to the side and stared in silence at her young friend.
“There are only a handful of records in the Library about people precisely like me, and none involve lovers,” she said at last.
“Oh details, details!” Naeve threw back. “You know what I bloody mean!”
“Yes, I do.” Amala nodded, then patted the space beside her upon the bed. “Come, sit. This is no way for us to speak to each other.”
Naeve remained as she was.
“Come, Naeve, sit. Please.”
Young Naeve’s gaze drifted from her guest to the space upon the bed and back again, till at last, sighing, she wandered over and sat beside Amala.
“Do you know what happened to my last lover?” she asked.
Naeve shook her head.
“I killed him.”
The silver-haired woman nodded and stared into the ether. “I slammed his face into a wall, jumped on his back, wrapped my arms and legs about him and…I drank till there was nothing left to drink.”
Returning her gaze to her young companion, Amala’s smile widened as she watched the colour drain from young Naeve’s cheeks
“Wha…why would you…?” Naeve stammered.
“He demanded I grant him immortality, Naeve. I refused. So he tried to take my head.”
Amala nodded. “While I slept.”
Young Naeve stared at her friend in silence for a moment, as if lost for words.
“My darling,” Amala continued, “every lover I’ve had since my turning either ran away from me in the end, or tried to kill me. Every single one. Even the ones that were…more like me than you.”
Smiling once more, Amala raised a hand to her young friend’s cheek. “It’s part of the curse of what I am, my dear. I’m no ordinary…you know, and that difference…well, it makes a world of difference.”
“But, I don’t…”
“They all saw me as some monster to be reviled and feared, Naeve, the ones more like you, at least, while the ones more like me saw me for my blood. To them, I was a means of allowing them venture forth in daylight once again, nothing more. None of them saw me as a person. None.”
“Master Netyam’s different.”
“Is he? Is he truly?”
“Yes!” Naeve replied, nodding as she spoke. “He really, really, really cares for you.”
“They all cared, Naeve. Till they learnt the truth.”
“Then don’t tell him!”
The silver-haired woman’s smile widened at this. “Better if I don’t let him in, don’t you think?”
At those words, young Naeve slowly sat tall as Amala’s smile spread to her.
“I see,” she said.
“You were rude so he’d never try again.”
With her smile turning to a grin, Amala gently caressed the young girl’s cheek. “It seems you do see.”
Taking a deep breath, the young elf let it out slow as a sadness crept into her gaze.
“Well,” the elven woman soon said, breathing deep and rising as she spoke. “I’d best leave you to your studies.”
“So, you felt nothing for him, then?” Naeve asked as Amala headed for the door. “Nothing at all?”
Stopping, Amala turned to the seated child as she pondered the question.
“I’d be lying if I said I felt nothing…” she replied at last.
“…but that doesn’t change anything. No more lovers for me.“
“But then you’ll always be alone, though.”.
“Oh, I’m not alone.” She smiled. “I have you.”
“You know what I mean!”
Amala nodded at her young friend as her smile grew.
“Yes,” she said, “I do. And yes, it does mean I shall be forever alone. But that is my choice and my burden. Not everyone gets a happily ever after, my darling, that’s just how things are.”
“So, you’re giving up.”
Breathing deep, the silver-haired woman shook her head at the young girl upon the bed. “Have you not heard a single word I’ve said?”
“Yeah,” Naeve replied, “but they’re all excuses. You’ve given up.”
“Weren’t you the one who used to tell me never to let my past failures keep me from my heart’s desire? Well, isn’t that what you’re doing?”
“Naeve, what we speak of can end my life. You do realise that, don’t you?”
“No,” Naeve shook her head, “it won’t. Mother and I won’t let it.”
“And if the whole Tower goes up in arms demanding such vile creature as I be purged from their presence, do you truly think your mother will stand in their way?”
The young girl fell silent at this.
“Precisely. It’s not worth the risk.”
Once more, the young girl shook her head. “Master Netyam’ll never find out, you’re too careful.”
“But you are!”
“You found out.”
“Yeah, well…” young Naeve replied, her voice softening as she shrank where she sat. “That’s different. I’m nosy.”
“And a lover isn’t?”
Pouting, the young girl lowered her gaze, but soon she sat tall once more, her chin raised at her friend.
“Well, so what if he finds out?” she said.
“You heard me! So what if he find out? How do you know he won’t be understanding? Mother is! I am!”
“Yeah, well…” Amala smiled. “That’s different.”
“Really?” the young girl replied, holding her friend in a pointed stare.
Shaking her head, Amala turned to the door.
“You’re not going to change my mind, my dear,” she said as she reached for the door’s handle. “What we speak of can never–“
“Aah!” Naeve shrieked.
“What?” Amala gasped, spinning round in an instant. “What is it?”
“I know how to change your mind!”
“Why you little…I thought you’d hurt yourself or something!”
Ignoring the Amala’s heated glare, Naeve beckoned her friend over before patting the empty space beside her upon the bed.
“What?” Amala demanded.
Amala glared at the young girl for a spell longer, but soon wandered over and sat upon the bed.
Naeve looked up at her, a wide grin upon her lips. “I know how to change your mind.”
“Naeve, you’re wasting my time, I’ve–”
“Ah, ah, ah!” young Naeve interjected, raising a finger to Amala’s lips as she spoke.
Glaring at the child, Amala fell silent.
“Have you got the tome with you?”
Amala frowned as she reached into her pocket. “What? You’re going to read me something from my own tome?”
“No, you’re going to read something.”
“Mhm.” Naeve nodded. “Out loud. Now, hurry up!”
“I don’t have time for this,” Amala growled and moved to rise.
“Hey, hey!” Naeve cried, grabbing ointo her friend’s arm. “I opened my door to you! I let you come in and speak when I should be studying! The least you can do is humour me!”
The silver-haired woman glared hard at the young girl by her side.
“One tale,” she said at last.
“One’s all I’m after.”
Amala glared at the girl a spell longer, but soon reached into her pocket, and before long, the tome swam into view before them.
“Yes!” Naeve said before reaching forth and turning its pages.
“What’re you looking for?” Amala asked at last.
“There was a name I saw,” Naeve muttered as she flicked through the pages, “when you were flicking through in the Library the other day. I know her story, and, knowing you, not surprised she’s in here.”
“And who is this mystery woman?”
The young girl fell silent as she flicked on, oblivious to the head shakes and the bored sighs of her elven friend.
“Ah!” Naeve cried at last as she sat back. “Here she is!”
Curious, Amala turned to the tome, but as she read the name before her, her gaze darkened greatly.
“You jest,” she growled, turning to Naeve. “Tell me you jest!”
“No.” The young girl shook her head.
“You would compare my tale to…that?”
“Yeah.” Naeve nodded.
Amala stared open-mouthed at her young friend.
Grinning, Naeve shuffled a bit away from Amala before raising her feet to her bed and placing her head upon Amala’s lap.
“What in the…?”
Then, Naeve raised Amala’s hand to her head and stared up at her friend, grinning.
“Whenever you’re ready,” she said.
Shaking her head as a deep sigh escaped her lips, Amala turned the page and moved to read aloud.
“Ah, ah!” Naeve said before turning the page back and drawing a finger beneath the name that was visible.
Gritting her teeth, Amala glared at her young friend, then returned her gaze to the tome.
“Nentille,” she growled, then turned the page, breathed deep, and began to read aloud.
Leaning into her chair, the Matriarch Nentille Earthchild of the Shimmering Tower sipped on her tea as her sister lounged upon the sofa across from her, a tome floating before the reclining mage, and as Nentille stared at her sister, the elven woman smiled as she watched her darling sister squint at the words upon the page before her.
“You do know you can draw the tome closer,” she said at last, “don’t you?”
“Stop distracting me,” the reclining mage threw back, “I’m at the good parts.”
Shaking her head, the Matriarch sighed and lifted the cup in her hand to her lips. As she did so, however, the glass door behind her swung open, drawing both her gaze and her sister’s.
“Ah, Kira!” the Matriarch cried as an elven woman stepped in, one who bore a striking resemblance to the reclining mage. “You’re back!”
“Hello, Aunt.” The mage grinned at the Matriarch before heading over and giving the seated elf a hug.
Then, she turned to the Matriarch’s sister.
“Hello, Mother.” She smiled.
Smiling in response, the seated mage held forth a hand, and as her smile grew, the younger mage stepped forth and gasped it tight.
“Would you look at that,” the Matriarch’s sister gasped, “your hair is neat for once!”
“Ugh, Mother!” the mage cried.
“Linnette, she only just returned,” the Matriarch said. “Must you smother her so soon?”
“It’s not smothering, Nentille,” Linnette corrected, “it’s mothering.”
“Whatever.” Nentille sighed and turned to her niece.
“So,” she said, “how was it?”
“Well,” the mage began as she wandered to a nearby seat, “the goblin chieftains agreed to our terms without rancour, surprisingly.”
“No rancour,” the woman’s mother said. “How did you manage that?”
“You doubt your own daughter, Linnette? For shame!”
“Oh, hush you!”
Biting her lip, the seated mage shook her head as the sisters teased each other for a spell before turning to her once more.
“And what about the dwarves?” the Matriarch asked.
“Ah,” the mage sighed, “well… I’m afraid the Stonepirits were most aggrieved about the arrangements…”
“I knew it,” Linnette muttered.
“…so you can expect a stern note from them in the coming days.”
“And the others?” the Matriarch pressed.
“They acquiesced in the end, though it will cost us our next seven shipments of mithril.”
The Matriarch shook her head. “A small price to pay to stop those blasted dwarves encroaching on goblin lands.”
“Hear the Stonespirits talk, you’d think they were reclaiming their ancestral lands.”
“For the Stonespirits, any land rich in mithril is their ancestral land,” the Matriarch quipped. “But enough talk. If you hurry, you may still be able to be fed, lunch was only just served.”
“Oh, lunch can wait,” Linnette said, waving her sister’s words away before turning to her daughter. “First, tell us, what did you bring for your aunt’s banquet tomorrow?”
For a brief moment, the seated mage’s eyes went wide, but she soon forced a smile upon her lips before shrugging at her mother.
“Oh, that would be telling,” she said.
“You forgot, didn’t you?” the woman named Linnette growled.
“No, I didn’t forget! How could you say such–”
“I didn’t say it, your face did!”
“Don’t you mother me, young lady! You forgot! I sent you five missives! Five! And still you forget! Truly?”
“I did not forget!”
“Then, what did you bring?”
“It’s a secret!”
“Secret my arse!”
“Quiet, both of you!” the Matriarch thundered.
The pair fell silent, with each glaring at the other.
“Now,” Nentille continued, turning to her niece, “no matter what your mother says, I am not bothered whether or not you bought me any–”
The Matriarch’s sister scoffed at this.
“Would you…!” Nentille began.
“What?” Linnette with a gaze of pure innocence.
“I didn’t forget, Aunt, truly,” the seated mage soothed. “I just want it to be a surprise, that’s all.”
“That’s good enough for me.” The Matriarch smiled.
“And if you feel the need to head out to Merethia to pick up some essentials before tomorrow’s banquet,” the Matriarch’s sister added, “the stalls should still be open…”
“Oh, for goodness sake, Linnette!” the Matriarch said, her frustration plain. “She said she didn’t forget!”
“I know, I know…I’m just saying, that’s all,” the Matriarch’s sister replied, then turned to hold her daughter in a pointed stare.
“Well,” Linnette continued, “perhaps you should go change and rest…?”
“Yes,” the seated mage said, nodding, “perhaps I should.”
Then, she rose, and smiling to the women, she turned and headed for the door.
“Kira,” the Matriarch called out as the mage reached the door.
Stopping, Kira turned.
“I’m glad you came.”
Smiling, Kira nodded. “I’m glad too.”
But then, as the mage named Kira turned to the door, her smile swiftly faded as she closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. Shaking her head, the Archmage hurried through the door before feeling for her purse and hastening her steps, a wordless curse upon her lips.
Wandering past the stalls, her hands held tight behind her, the Archmage Kira Earthchild carried her gaze slowly about the wares around her. She needed something special, something truly unique, and yet not elven in appearance. Something she could convincingly claim she brought with her on her travels. And she needed it desperately, else her harridan of a mother would never let her forget it.
“Why did you have to bloody forget, though?” she muttered as she went. “Five missives, and you still forget! Truly?”
Sighing for what must’ve been the hundredth time, Kira wandered on, her eyes forever searching, but nothing she saw as adequate. Those that were truly unique were also clearly of elven origin, and those not of elven origin were bland at best.
“Mother’s going to kill me,” she said after a spell, scanning the last of the stalls.
“In trouble with your mother, are you?” came a voice from behind her.
Turning, a deep frown upon her lips, Kira’s gaze soon fell upon a smiling elderly merchant, one with eyes far warmer than those of the younger elf standing behind him.
At first, Kira thought to ignore the man and continue her search, but the more she stared at him, the more she found herself smiling, till at last, wandering to his stall, she sighed.
“There’s a banquet tomorrow in my aunt’s honour,” she said as she reached the stall, “and I forgot to get her something.”
“I know.” Kira winced. “She pretends she doesn’t care for such things, but I know she does. Worse still, my mother never pretends, and will happily bite my head off for forgetting.”
“Oh dear!” the elderly merchant gasped. “We certainly can’t have that!”
“No,” Kira found herself saying, shaking her head as her smile grew, “no, we can’t.”
“So!” the merchant replied. “You’ll need something not terribly expensive that appears terribly expensive, yes?”
“Yes.” Kira nodded. “And also not of elven design.”
Kira nodded. “I just returned, and I’m supposed to have brought the gift with me.”
“Ah,” the merchant grinned, “of course.” Then, he turned to his stall. “Now, let’s see here, hrm…”
“Anything in particular your aunt loves?” the merchant soon asked.
“Well…” Kira began as she pondered the question, “she does love wooden statuettes with gem inlays. Emeralds and sapphires are her favourite.”
“Your aunt sounds like a woman with remarkable taste,” the merchant replied as he turned to his figurines. “Any particular style she’s partial too?”
“Hrm,” Kira muttered deep in thought.
“Well,” she said at last, “there is this one statuette she cares for more than the others, gods know why, the thing looks set to fall apart.”
“Mh.” Kira nodded. “It’s of a man, can’t tell what race he is, his face is worn off, but he’s standing, holding aloft a crimson stone, or at least part of one. If you have anything like that, I might be able to persuade her to be rid of the silly little thing once and for all.”
Slowly, the man stood tall as he turned to Kira, and as their eyes met, the Archmage frowned, for gone was the warmth within the man’s gaze, gone was the soft smile upon his lips, and gone indeed was the welcoming manner he’d once held himself.
Kira was not the only one to notice the change in the merchant, for as she stared at him, she watched from the corner of her eye as the younger merchant beside him turned and placed a hand upon the man’s shoulder.
“Father, what is it?” he asked before turning to glare at Kira.
“Your aunt,” the man soon said, his voice low, “is she the Matriarch of the Shimmering Tower perchance?”
Kira frowned at the elderly merchant. “How did you–”
“Is she?” the man interjected.
“Uhm, yes…yes, she is.”
A heavy silence fell upon the stall as the man’s gaze bore into Kira.
“Father,” the merchant’s son soon spoke up, gently shaking his father’s shoulder. “What is it? Father!”
The elderly merchant turned and wandered deeper into the stall.
Shaking his head, the merchant’s son stepped forth, placing himself between Kira and his father.
“You must forgive my father,” the man said, “he’s not quite well. Sometimes his illness can make him weak.”
“Oh, yes…” Kira said, forcing a smile as she fought to keep her gaze upon the man before her, “of course. I’d best be off.”
“Yeah,” the merchant’s son replied, nodding as he too forced a smile, “probably for the best.”
“Alright,” Kira replied.
As she moved to leave, however, she glanced over at the merchant, and what she saw held her rigid.
“Good gods,” she gasped as the elderly merchant wandered towards her, her gaze upon the figurine in his hands, “where in the world did you get that?”
It was of the same height as her aunt’s most treasured statuette, Kira was sure, made of the same wood, and carved in the same design, except this was of a woman, clearly elven, and it also held aloft part of a crimson stone, a part, Kira was sure, that was a perfect mirror to the one her aunt’s statuette held aloft.
“Here,” the merchant said, offering up the figurine as he reached his son’s side. “Give her this.”
Tearing her gaze from the figurine, Kira stared at the man. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” the merchant’s son added, frowning, “are you sure, Father? You never let me near that thing, and now you’re just going to sell it?”
“I’m not selling it,” the merchant replied, his gaze upon Kira, “I’m giving it to her.”
“What?” Kira and the merchant’s son cried in unison.
“I can’t take that!” Kira added. “Look at it!”
“But I want you to have it, child.”
“Then, name a price, any price! I can’t just take such a thing!””
“Yes, you can,” the merchant replied, grasping Kira’s hand and placing the figurine upon her palm before wrapping her fingers about it. “Please, take it. Give it to her. Just…don’t tell her where you got it from. Alright? Please.”
Kira stared hard at the man, the wildness of his gaze putting her ill at ease, but the more she stared at him, the more she felt sure to refuse him would be as a knife through his heart. And the figurine truly was divine.
“Alright,” Kira said at last, nodding as she spoke. “I won’t tell her where I got it.”
The man smiled in response.
“Thank you,” he said, bowing to Kira before turning and wandering to the chair in the corner of the stall.
Not know what else to do or say, the confused mage bowed, turned and headed back the way she came, her aunt’s gift firm within her gasp.
“There you are!” the Magister Linnette Earthchild cried as she wandered through the Central Hall, her gaze upon the elven woman who’d just set foot within the Hall.
“Well?” she added as she turned and made her way towards her daughter. “Did you find something?”
Taking a deep breath, Kira smiled and nodded, her feet carrying her toward her mother. “Yeah.”
“Thank goodness for that!” Kira’s mother sighed as she reached her daughter. Then her gaze turned stern. “But truly, Kira, I’d expected more from you. Five missives!”
“I know, Mother,” Kira mumbled. “Forgive me.”
“Why is it so difficult for you to remember things such as this? I can never quite fathom it.”
“It’s not on purpose, Mother, truly. I just…I don’t know, I just…”
“Well, nevermind,” the elderly Magister replied, her gaze softening. “You found something in the end.”
“Yeah,” Kira smiled, “I did.”
“Well then? Let’s see it!”
Casting a quick glance about her, Kira reached into the pouch about her hip and pulled free the statuette.
“Here,” she said, her gaze upon the gift.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” she added as she raised her gaze to her mother. But, as she stared at the elderly mage, Kira’s smile swiftly faded.
“Mother, what is it?”
It was the look in her mother’s eyes that gave Kira the gravest concern, the fear within them rippling through Kira like a cold flame.
“Where did you get this?” the elderly mage gasped at last.
“There was a merchant stall in Merethia,” Kira replied. “I don’t think he was there last time I went, but he had it and–”
“Describe him!” Linnette ordered, her gaze now upon her daughter.
“Describe him, Kira. Now!”
“Describe who?” came a voice from behind Linnette, startling the women and drawing their gazes.
“Aunt!” Kira said, forcing a grin as she slipped the statuette back into her pouch as calmly as she could.
“What’re you two scheming this time?” the Matriarch sighed as she neared the pair, a smile dancing upon her lips.
“None of your bloody concern, is what!” Linnette replied in her customary gruff manner. “The banquet’s my purview, remember? Now stop being underfoot and go…I don’t know, read a missive or something!”
The Matriarch glared at her sister for a spell, but then shook her head and made to leave. As she did so, however, something caught her eye, the glimmer of a crimson stone, and stopping, she turned to the pouch about her niece’s hip.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing to the gem poking out of the pouch.
“Oh, its’ nothing!” Kira grinned. “It’s your gift, but you can’t see it now.”
As those words left her lips, Kira glanced over at her mother, but the wideness of the elderly mage’s eyes and the vehement shake of her head drew the life from her smile and slowly froze her heart.
“Oh!” Nentille gasped, oblivious of her sister’s actions. “May I see it?”
“Uhm…” Kira replied, lowering her gaze to her pouch before turning to her aunt once more. “Why not wait till tomorrow? Best not to spoil the surprise.”
“Oh, don’t you worry, I’ll appear all nice and surprised,” Nentille replied as she reached for the pouch. “Now, come, let’s see it.”
“No!” Kira cried, her voice ringing loud as she darted back from her aunt. “I mean…uhm…”
Floundering, Kira turned to her mother for strength, but as she returned her gaze to her aunt, she watched as the smile upon the elderly woman’s lips slowly faded, and her gaze begin to harden.
“What’re you hiding, child?” the Matriarch said, her back straight and her eyes boring into Kira.
“Leave it be, Sister,” Linnette soothed. “Just leave it be.”
“Leave what be?” Nentille snapped, rounding on her sister. “What are you two hiding?”
“This need not concern you, Nentille,” Linnette replied, “we–”
“I decide what concerns me, not you!” Nentille barked. “Now, tell me what you’re hiding!”
Linnette stared at her sister in silence for a spell as a charged air hung between the two. Then, the younger of the two turned to her daughter and sighed.
“Show her,” she said.
“Just show her. She won’t let it be otherwise.”
Slowly, her gaze darting from one woman to the other, Kira reached into her pouch, clasped the statuette tight in her palm and slowly pulled her hand free. Then, she stopped and turned to her mother.
“Show me!” the Matriarch demanded.
Kira’s mother nodded to her daughter.
Nodding in response, Kira turned to her aunt, took a deep breath, held out her hand, and opened her palm.
As the Matriarch’s gaze fell upon the figurine, the elderly woman recoiled from it as a deep gasp escaped her lips.
“Happy now?” Linnette muttered.
“Where did you get this?” the Matriarch said, her voice quivering as her gaze remained unmoving upon the statuette.
“I…I brought it back with me from–”
“She forgot your gift,” Kira’s mother interjected, her gaze upon the Matriarch. “She went to Merethia, stumbled upon a new merchant there and bought this from him.”
Tearing her gaze at last from the statuette, the Matriarch turned to Kira, her eyes wide. “Where did he get it?”
“I don’t know, Aunt! Upon my honour! His son said something about him having it for a time and not letting anyone near it, or words to that effect, but where he got it from, I truly don’t know! That’s the truth!”
The Matriarch turned to the statuette once more, but soon rounded on her sister.
“And you were going to keep this from me?” she thundered.
“Yes,” Linnette replied. “I was.”
The Matriarch glared hard at her sister as her eyes glistened, then shaking her head, she turned and marched forth just as her tears broke free.
“Wonderful,” Linnette sighed, her gaze upon her sister. “All that work undone in a blink of an eye. Just bloody wonderful.”
Turning to her daughter, Linnette smiled. “You must have a myriad questions by now.”
“You have no idea.”
The elderly mage’s smile grew at this.
“I’ll tell you all,” the replied, “but first…”
Turning her gaze to the mages milling about within the Central Hall, Linnette stood tall and breathed deep.
“Alright!” she thundered. “Enough, gawking, return to your duties! And if I so much as hear the beginnings of a whisper about this from anywhere, I’m having each and every single one of you on Pens stall-cleaning duty till next spring! Now, clear out of my sight!”
It did not take long for only the two women to remain.
“Right,” Linnette sighed as she turned to her daughter, “explanations.”
“This way,” Linnet replied before setting forth. “I need a drink first. A big one.”
Deep in thought, the frowning merchant rearranged his wares as his thoughts turned to events from earlier in the day. For as long as he could remember, his father had only ever had one treasure, something his father seemed to treasured more than his own son, and yet, he’d seen his father simply give that one treasure away. No coin, no favours, nothing. Try as he might, the merchant couldn’t make sense of it, and his father’s simple reluctance to say any more on the matter merely added to his confusion, and, in truth, frustration.
“That thing must’ve been worth a bloody fortune, and he just gave it away,” he growled. “Just gave it away. That’s just…”
Sighing deep, the merchant rose his gaze to the milling crowd, and as he did so, his frown deepened as his gaze fell upon a woman in the distance. It was the same woman as before, save this time there was no mirth in her face, but clear unbridled rage, and she was marching straight for his stall.
“What the…” the merchant began, then turned to a nearby peace-keeper, beckoning the man over.
“What is it?” the peace-keeper asked upon reaching the store.
“Trouble,” the merchant replied before gesturing at the coming storm.
“Ah, hells,” the peace-keeper muttered the moment he caught sight of the woman.
“You know her?” the merchant frowned.
“You mean you don’t?”
The merchant shook his head. “My father and I only got this stall three weeks ago. Today’s the first time I’ve seen her around here.”
“Well, whatever it is you or your father has done to earn that one’s ire, best start praying today isn’t your last day at this stall.”
“What?” the merchant gasped, his eyes wide as he turned to the peace-keeper.
“Nevermind, here she comes.”
Tearing his gaze from the peace-keeper, the merchant turned to the seething elf as he forced a smile.
“Ah, you’re back!” he cried. “May I interest–”
“Where is he?” the elven woman spat.
“Don’t play games with me!” the woman barked. “Where is he?”
“Where’s who?” the merchant repeated.
Slamming her fists upon the stall, the elven woman slowly leant forward, her eyes ablaze as a deep snarl twisted her lips.
“Where’s your father?” she said at last.
“At home,” the merchant replied.
“And where is that?”
“None of your business.”
At those words, the red mist descended, and with a roar, the woman reached for the merchant.
“Alright, alright!” the peace-keeper barked as he wrestled the merchant free of the woman’s grip.
“Let go of me, damn you!” the woman thundered. “Do you not know who I am?”
“Oh, I know precisely who you are, miss, just as I know the Shimmering Tower does not hold sway over the denizens of this city. Now, if you have business with this man, I ask that you conduct it in a civil manner, else I shall have no choice but to ask you to leave. Now.”
“Have a care, peace-keeper,” the woman seethed, “for all it’ll take is one word from me, and you shall be out on the streets faster than you can blink.”
Clearing his throat, the peace-keeper stood tell. “Well, that may be so, but I still must ask you to conduct your business with the civility expected of an Archmage of the Shimmering Tower.”
“Who the bloody hells do you think you are,” the merchant added, “marching over her and–“
“Shut! Up! Man,” the peace-keeper growled, glaring at the merchant before turning to the mage.
“Now,” he continued, forcing a smile, “what seems to be the issue here?”
The elven woman stared hard at the peace-keeper for a spell, but soon breathed deep and, gritting her teeth, let it out slowly and stood tall.
“This…man’s father sold me an item earlier–“
“He didn’t sell it to you, he gave it to you,” the merchant interjected.
“What did I just say to you?” the peace-keeper snapped.
The merchant sneered at the peace-keeper, but kept his peace.
Shaking his head, the peace-keeper turned to the mage. “Continue, please.”
“This man’s father…gave me an item earlier, for my aunt. Tomorrow marks the anniversary of her leading the Tower. My mother’s throwing a banquet in her honour, and I, fool that I am, thought his man’s father was sincere when he offered the item to me as a gift for my aunt. Instead, it seems it was a poisoned message.”
“What?” the merchant gasped.
“Poisoned…what now?” the peace-keeper frowned.
“This man’s father and my aunt have history, and the old bastard–”
“Don’t you dare speak about my–”
“Do you wish me to gag you?” the peace-keeper barked. “Is that it?”
Biting back his words, his eyes ablaze, the seething merchant snarled at the pair, but did as he’d been ordered.
“Good,” the peace-keeper said, then turned to the woman. “I must ask you to refrain from such words, Archmage. It is most unbecoming.”
The woman glared at the peace-keeper for a spell, but soon nodded.
“Very well,” she said. “May I continue?”
“Well,” she said, turning to the merchant, “this man’s father and my aunt have history, a bitter one, and the…old man knew just seeing the item would hurt my aunt in ways I can scarcely fathom, and fool that I am, I showed her.”
Then, she rounded on the merchant. “I demand that…man be brought here to explain himself!”
“My father is not going anywhere.” The merchant sneered. “He’s at home, resting, and there he shall remain.”
“Then you’ll take me to him,” the woman demanded.
“I will do no such–”
“Take me to him!” she thundered slamming fist into the stall.
The merchant held the mage’s fiery gaze with a cold sneer upon his lips.
“No,” he replied at last, his sneer deepening with each passing moment.
Clearing his throat, the peace-keeper turned and leaned towards the merchant.
“You are a simple merchant,” the man whispered into the merchant’s ear, “she is a future leader of the Shimmering Tower. Are you sure you wish this to be your response?”
The merchant turned from the woman to the peace-keeper, a rebuke upon his lips.
“Take her to your father,” the man continued before the merchant could draw breath. “I’ll be there to ensure nothing untoward happens. She will hear him, and she will leave, and if she demands any more than that, I shall be there to refuse her.”
The merchant remained unmoving, his sneer now an open snarl.
“Or would you rather she take your stall from you? Because, with a claim like hers, and who she is, she can have you removed from here.”
“She has us removed, we’ll go to another city,” the merchant growled.
“Truly?” the peace-keeper whispered. “You would let your pride rob you of what little you have here? And your father, will he survive the journey? He’s ill, isn’t he?”
The merchant glared at the peace-keeper for a spell, then the woman, then returned his gaze to the peace-keeper and shrugged.
“I have no-one to mind the stall if I leave,” he said.
The peace-keeper smiled. “It’s alright, I’ll call for aid.”
Then, the man turned round, pulled a smooth stone from his pocket and held it tight.
It was taking all Kira had to contain her rage. The constant mutterings by the merchant, his reluctance to move any faster than a dying snail, and the stupid glares he kept throwing her, it was enough to boil her blood and more, and were it not for the peace-keeper by his side, Kira knew in her heart she’d have reduced him to ash by now. But she had to be calm, she had to keep her rage in check. It was the old man she wanted, it as his heart she wished to crush beneath her boot, not this errant fool’s, and so, keeping a tight hold on her anger, the Archmage marched on in silence as they wandered deeper into the seedier part of Merethia, till at last, the merchant stopped before a tiny house more rundown that its neighbours.
“Is this it?” Kira growled.
“Yeah,” the merchant muttered, then wandered forth and knocked.
“Who is it?” came a voice from within.
“It’s me, Father?”
“Drunell?” the voice cried. “What’re you doing here?”
The merchant turned and threw yet another caustic glare at Kira before facing the door once.
“There is someone here wishing to speak to you,” he said. “It’s urgent.”
“Don’t you have a key?” Kira hissed.
“Father has the only key.”
“It costs nothing to have another one made!” Kira snapped.
“It costs more than we have,” the merchant threw back.
Before Kira could reply, the door’s lock was turned and the door swung slowly open.
“Oh! ” The elderly elf smiled as his gaze fell upon Kira. “It’s you!”
Kira did not smile, choosing instead to glare at the man with all she had.
“We must talk,” she growled.
“Ah,” the man said, his smile fading. “I see. You told her where you got it from, didn’t you?”
“She had every right to know.”
Taking a deep breath, the elderly elf let out a ragged sigh and nodded. Then, he turned to the peace-keeper.
“And why are you here?” he asked, frowning.
“To keep the peace.”
The elderly elf’s frown deepened. “Keep the peace in here?”
Rather than reply, the peace-keeper glanced at Kira.
“Hrm…?” the elderly elf muttered as he followed the peace-keepers’ gaze. Then, the elderly elf smiled once more.
“Oh, you mean her,” he added. “Well, you needn’t worry about her, we’ll be alright.”
“Father!” the merchant hissed, leaning towards his father as he threw yet another caustic glare at Kira. “She’s trouble!”
“If she’s trouble, we’ll need more than just one peace-keeper to protect us, son,” the elderly elf replied, then turned to the peace-keeper.
“Be on your way, good sir,” the man said. “We’ll be alright.”
“But, Fath…” the merchant began, but was silenced by a raised hand from the elderly elf.
The peace-keeper turned from the merchant to his father and back again.
“Very well,” he said at last. “If you’re sure…”
“We are,” the merchant’s father replied.
“Very well, then,” the peace-keeper said, then turned to the merchant.
“We’ll mind your stall till your return,” he said, then turned to Kira.
Frowning deep at the mage, the peace-keeper bowed stiffly, then left.
Kira watched the man for a spell, then turned to the elderly elf once more.
“Well,” the man sighed, “might as well come in. No sense speaking here.”
Before Kira could speak, the elderly merchant turned and wandered back into the house, his son hurrying after him. Kira stared at the open door for a spell, but soon gritted her teeth and marched in before slamming the door behind her.
“You needn’t fret about locking it,” the elderly elf’s voice called out from deeper within the house, “the lock is a little stiff if you don’t know how to turn it properly. Drunell will handle it once he’s done making tea.”
The elven mage stood stock still and carried her gaze slowly about her. There was nothing untoward about what she saw, nothing out of the ordinary.
“But still,” she muttered, “nothing wrong with a little caution.”
Breathing deep, the mage lowered her gaze and whispered words of arcane, and as she whispered, an azure glow engulfed her throat just as an emerald shimmer surrounded her whole frame, both of which faded as she finished her incantation. Satisfied, the shielded mage wandered deeper into the house.
“Ah, there you are!” the elderly elf said as she wandered into the sitting room, her eyes meeting his as he reclined in a chair across from the door.
“Please,” the man added, gesturing to the seat beside him. “Sit.”
Kira turned to the seat, then slowly returned her gaze to the man and, keeping her gaze firm upon him, she wandered to the farthest seat from him that she’d seen and sat upon it.
“Hunh.” The man grinned. “That’s just what your mother would’ve done. How is the old battleaxe these days?”
“What did you call my mother?” Kira growled.
“Oh, child, would you relax? I meant it as a term of endearment!”
“There’s nothing endearing about calling someone a battleaxe!”
“There is if you’re Linnette Earthchild! She might be the younger, but everyone knew if Linnette held a grudge against you, the gods themselves couldn’t save you.”
Kira stared at the man in silence as she fought to keep the smile his words had called forth from her lips.
“So,” the man sighed, “why are you here?”
Sitting tall, her eyes narrowed to slits, Kira snarled at the man seated across from her.
“Mother told me what you did,” she said. “That you would do such a thing, then give me that figurine to give to my aunt… That as a vile thing to do. I’m here to hear your apology, and to warn you – should you or any of yours come anywhere near the Tower in any form, I will not rest till you and your son are forced from Merethia and banished from these lands entirely.”
The elderly elf breathed deep, then let it out slowly.
“I see,” he said. “What did she say about me?”
“Do I have your apology?”
“You shall,” the man nodded, “but first, indulge me, please, what did she say? I must know.”
“What difference does it make?”
“All the difference in the world.”
It was the sincerity in the man’s voice that gave Kira pause and made her stare deep into his eyes, till at last, she nodded.
“Very well,” she said, leaning into her chair. “My mother told me you were the son of some merchant. Dryas Whisperwood is what she called you. She said all the ladies of the court had their eye on you back then.”
“That was my name, yes.” The man nodded. “And yes, they did.” Then, he smiled. “Happier times, for sure.”
“Mother said you were scum,” Kira sneered. “A vile vagabond who took advantage of my aunt.”
The man sighed. “It was not like that.”
“No.” The man shook his head. “Shall I tell you what it was like?”
“I don’t care for your lies, I just came for your apology. Give it and I shall leave. Refuse, and I shall see my promise kept before the week is out.”
“You would refuse a dying man’s wish?”
“Please,” Kira replied, waving the man’s words away. “You clearly still have your strength, so however ill you truly are, it can’t be that bad.”
“My father has his strength,” the man named Drunell said as he wandered in, tray in hand, “because he’s spent much of the time since you last saw him sleeping. And as for his illness, what good is a cure if you can’t afford it?”
“It’s alright, son,” the old man soothed, “she has every right to be bitter. Here, set the tray beside me and go lock the door. Give us some time.”
Drunell held his father’s gaze for a spell, but soon did as the elderly elf had asked, and as he wandered past Kira, he threw his customary caustic glare at her and hurried out.
“Well,” the man soon said, “as my son so eloquently put it, yes, my illness is curable, but sadly, the cure is beyond my reach, and given how much we earn, by the time I can afford it, my illness will be too far along for any cure to take hold.”
“I see,” Kira muttered, then shook her head, “but I still don’t care.”
Shaking his head, the man named Dryas chuckled. “It’s like speaking with Linnette all over again.”
Snarling, the seething mage shot to her feet. “I will have your answer, Dryas Whisperwood! Now!”
“Aren’t you the least bit curious why I gave you the statuette?”
“I’m not curious, I already know.”
“Yes,” the mage replied. “To cause my aunt harm.”
“Then, tell me, please, if seeing my statuette would cause her harm, why has she kept hers all this time?”
“What?” Kira frowned.
“They’re a pair, my dear,” the man said, “I carved them myself. One in her likeness, one in mine.”
Kira’s frown grew as she sought to make sense of the man’s words. Then, in a moment of clarity, the elven mage’s mouth fell open as her eyes went wide.
“Aunt’s statuette,” she gasped. “You crafted it?”
The old man nodded. “I did, yes.”
“But…why would she keep it after what you did to her?”
Shaking his head, the man breathed deep. “I don’t know, child, hence why I asked you what your mother said about me.”
Slowly, the stunned mage lowered her self to her seat.
“Mother said the two of you were lovers,” she said after a spell.
The seated elf smiled once more. “We were, yes. Your mother was right, I was the eye of the court, back then. Even the queen courted me. She was still a princess then, mind, but she showed great interest.”
“But you chose my aunt.” Kira said.
The man nodded.
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” he added. “That she was the next to lead the Tower must’ve had something to do with my choice. And you would be right, it did…”
Kira sneered at the smiling old fool.
“…at first, but the more I knew her, the less I cared for it. I will not lie, I was utterly self-serving back then. But she changed my view of the world, my dear, for the better.”
The Archmage shook her head at the man, her disgust plain. “That sounds so…”
Kira nodded. “Quite.”
Smiling, the old man sighed. “It’s true nonetheless.”
“Well, then, tell me,” Kira demanded. “If you were such a changed man, what made you do what you did?”
At this, the man’s smile faded. “My father.”
“Yes,” the man sighed. “He was a drunken fool who loved the dice a little too much. Though, to his credit, it was a good few decades before his debts finally ruined us.”
“What has that got to do with my aunt?”
The man’s smile returned. “Have you ever been to court, my dear?”
Kira shook her head. “I don’t mingle in court, Mother forbids it. Any dealings I have with nobles, I have it with them directly under an official capacity.”
“Smart woman,” the man said, then leant forward. “I shall share a secret with you that I am sure still holds true today. A tenth of those nobles are mired in debt, and a further tenth, perhaps more, are one dice throw away from it. But you will never catch any of them speak of their finances. Nothing is more important to them than keeping up the facade, my dear, and my father was no different. His debts meant his business was finished, but he couldn’t bear to lose his place in court, so he did something I have never forgiven him for, and never shall. He agreed to a wedding behind my back.”
“Forgive me, what?”
“Oh, I know how it sounds, but it’s the truth. In exchange for my hand, one of his baron friends offered to clear his debts. Just like that.” The man snapped his fingers.
Kira stared hard at the man.
“He arranged your marriage behind your back…”
The man nodded.
“…and you somehow forgot how to say no.”
“How could I? We would lose everything. I would lose everything! Including your aunt. Your aunt loved the court back then.”
“Yeah,” the man nodded, “that’s where we met. She loved the attention it brought her, her being next in line for the seat of Matriarch, and I suppose I…I feared she would turn her back on me should I leave court.”
“So you intended to wed someone while being with my aunt,” Kira said, a cold smile parting her lips, “just as Mother said.”
“No.” The elderly elf shook his head.
Kira chuckled at the man, shaking her head at him as she did so.
“My plan was to ask her to wait for me,” the elderly elf continued. “As soon as my family’s debts were cleared, I was intending to leave my wife, demand my inheritance from my father and strike out on my own.”
“How noble of you,” Kira replied, her sneer returned. “Though it’s odd how you waited till after news of your wedding was all over court to tell my aunt of this grand plan of yours, isn’t it?”
“It certainly does seems odd…”
“You don’t say…”
“…till you realise the woman I was to wed shared the news with everyone in court the very day my father told me. I didn’t even realise what she’d done till the next day when I went looking for your aunt to tell her my plans.”
“I do not.”
“Mother said the wedding had been planned weeks in advance!”
“It had been, yes,” the man nodded, “but by my father, not me.”
“And I’m supposed to take your word for it?”
“No,” the man shook his head, “take my former wife’s.” Then, he turned to the door.
“Drunell, come please,” the man said.
Frowning, Kira turned to the door.
“I know you’re standing behind the door listening,” the man continued. “Come.”
A brief silence fell upon the room, then the door slowly opened as a contrite elf stepped in.
“Did you lock the front door?”
“Good. You remember where I keep the letters?”
Again, the elf nodded.
“Good. Go bring them, please.”
“You kept her letters?”
The old man nodded at Kira. “Yeah.”
The old man shrugged. “I’ve been waiting for a chance to show your aunt, let her know I didn’t betray her trust.”
Then, the man returned his gaze to his son. “Go bring them.”
“Yes, Father,” the elf said, then hurried from the room.
“If you’ve kept this proof for so long, why haven’t you show it to my aunt?” Kira demanded.
“Don’t you think I tried? She wouldn’t speak to me! Daria had humiliated her in court, and she blamed me for it!
“Daria?” Kira frowned. “That was your wife’s name?”
The old man nodded and frowned. “Didn’t your mother tell you?”
“No.” Kira shook her head. Then, her frown deepened. “Hold, do you mean Lady Daria Waterweave? Baron Stoneglow’s niece?”
The old man nodded. “Yeah, her.”
“Good lords,” Kira gasped. “That woman’s an utter bitch!”
“Oh, she’s that and more, my dear. She’s the reason you see me as I am.”
“What do you mean?” Kira frowned.
“Well,” the man sighed, “after what she did, I was more determined than ever to leave her, but soon after the wedding, I found out why her uncle was so desperate for the wedding. Daria was with child, and she knew not who the father was.”
The old man nodded. “Our wedding was to hide the embarrassment, and, about a week after we were wed, Daria and her uncle began spreading word that the child was mine.”
Then, the door swung open and the old man’s son entered, a roll of parchment clutched in his hand.
“Ah,” the man said, then nodded at Kira.
“Here,” Drunell muttered, offering the parchment to Kira, “my mother’s letters.”
“My thanks,” Kira replied, but then, as the man’s words hit home, Kira turned to him as her eyes went wide and her lips fell agape.
“What did you say?”
The man shrugged. “You wanted my mother’s letters, now you have them.”
Speechless, Kira turned to the old man.
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Drunell is that child.”
“Why in the hells is he with you?”
“Because Mother didn’t want me,” the Merchant replied.
“What do you–”
“I should probably explain.” The old man sighed, but then turned to his son. “You might as well sit, you’re going to eavesdrop anyway.”
Smiling, Drunell did as his father had bidden.
“Where was I? Ah yes, I was planning on leaving Daria as soon as my family’s debts were cleared, and I did, soon as my father told me the news. She was furious, of course, as was her uncle, and they punished my father for it. But I didn’t care. They’d cost me the love of my life, my father included, and I cared little for what happened to any of them. It also meant the end of my time in court, but by that point, I was past caring of such things.”
Then, the man sighed and turned to his son. “But then, some months passed and I heard tell of Daria sending her son to an orphanage, claiming he reminded her too much of me. It was all nonsense, of course, but the orphanage she sent him to bothered me greatly. It was the worst orphanage around, little better than the Royal Dungeons, and the more I heard the tale, the more I felt guilty. I’d escaped, but left him behind to suffer. So, after a while, I went to the orphanage and demanded they release him to my care. And they did.”
“But he’s not yours!”
“Oh, I know that,” the man smiled, “but they didn’t.”
“So, what happened then?”
“Mother hounded us,” Drunell replied, “along with her uncle. Wherever we went, whatever we did, it didn’t take them long to find us and sour any dealings we had. It was like a game to them, their favoured pastime. No matter what name we took, they would always find us in the end.”
“Why?” Kira frowned. “What the hells for?”
The seated merchant nodded at the parchments. “You’ll find her reasons in there. She sent us one whenever she found us, gloating and taunting us.”
“Is she still hounding you?”
Both men nodded.
“Woah…” Kira said as she leant back into her chair. But then, a thought struck her, and as the thought formed, she sat forward once more.
“If she’s hounding you, why in the hells are you in Merethia? She has a home here!”
The old man smiled. “I was born here my dear, and this is where I shall die. Even if I have to do it myself.”
It was clear the old man’s words weighed heavy upon his son, and as the merchant lowered his gaze and fidgeted where he sat, the old man smiled at him.
Then, the old man returned his gaze to Kira. “How different is my tale to your mother’s?”
“Well,” Kira sighed, “Mother said you were planning on wedding someone in secret while keeping my aunt by your side, and when my aunt found out, she was distraught. She said a part of her died that day and she was never the same again.”
The old man’s face fell at those words, his shoulders sagging as he seemed to shrink into his chair.
“Mother also said you left your wife while she was carrying your child, disappeared and was never heard from again. She said she toyed with the notion of finding you and making you pay, but she didn’t wish to reopen my aunt’s wounds.”
“I see…” the man said, his voice soft.
Kira stared at the man in silence for a spell, her brow furrowed deep.
“Why did you give me that statuette?” she asked after a spell. “What were you hoping to gain?”
Taking a deep breath, the old man let it out slowly as he gazed into the ether.
“Closure, I suppose,” he said at last, returning his gaze to Kira. “But not for me, your aunt.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your aunt kept her half, my dear. She never broke it, she never threw it away, she kept it. Why would she do that?”
Kira frowned. “You think she still cares for you?”
The old man smiled. “My days of such vanity are well behind me, my dear.”
“And you think giving her your half would give her closure? No words, no explanations, just give her your half and she’d just have all the answers she’s yearned for just like that?”
The old man sighed. “I suppose it does make little sense when you dwell upon it.”
“But in my defence, I wasn’t thinking it all through. I’d never have imagined she’d have kept her half.”
“Why not take the letters to her?” Drunell said.
“What?” Kira and the old man said in unison.
The merchant shrugged. “They’re of no use to us, and Mother will send us more soon enough. And who knows, perhaps she might find it in her heart to aid us.”
“Son–” the old man began.
“You might be too proud to beg, Father,” the merchant shot back, “but I’m not!”
“I’ll take the letters,” Kira said before the old man could speak. “If what you’re saying is true, I’ll speak to my mother, find a way to stop Daria from hurting you further.”
“Truly?” the merchant said, his eyes bright as he sat tall.
“Yes.” Kira nodded. Then, her gaze darkened. “But if you’re lying, Daria won’t be the only one ruining your lives.”
An odd silence fell upon the room, and as it grew, Kira rose and, gripping the parchments tight, turned for the door.
“I’ll see you out,” the merchant said as he rose, “I need to return to the stall anyhow.”
“Right,” Kira replied, then headed for the door, the merchant close behind her.
Standing before the door of the Magister’s office, Kira stared at the roll in her hand before turning to the door.
“Gods, please let her listen,” she muttered, then knocked.
“Come!” came a voice from within.
Breathing deep, Kira opened the door and slipped in.
“Kira,” the Magister said, a slight frown upon her lips as she stared at her daughter. “What is it?”
Forcing a smile, Kira closed the door behind her.
“Before I answer,” she said as she wandered towards her mother, “promise me you’ll hear me out fully before being angry with me.”
Slowly, the Magister sat tall.
“You went to see him, didn’t you?” she said at last.
“Gods damn it, child! Why won’t you listen?”
“Mother, please!” Kira cried as she held the parchments forth. “He’s–”
“He’s a liar and a bastard! Why is that so difficult for you to grasp?”
“No, Mother, listen, please!” Kira cried as she hurried before her mother and offered the parchment. “Here! Take it! Take it!”
The Magister’s gaze went from her daughter to the parchment and back. “What is it?”
“Daria Waterweave’s letters to Dryas,”
The Magister frowned at this.
“Letters?” she said, reaching for the parchment. “She said she never knew where he went.”
“Are you sure these are hers?” the Magister replied as she unfurled the parchments.
“Positive,” Kira replied. “I borrowed one of her notes from Aunt’s office–”
“Mother, listen, please! I borrowed one of her notes, then scryed her note and these parchments together. They’re all written by the same hand!”
The Magister stared hard at her daughter, who smiled sweetly in response.
“You and I shall have to have a talk about your antics later, young lady,” Linnette said at last, then lowered her gaze to the parchments, pulling the one at the back free to read.
“No,” Kira said, stepping forth, “start from the innermost and read outwards. It’ll make the most sense that way.”
“You’ve read them?”
“Most of them.”
“Then how about sparing me the bother and just tell me what they say!”
Kira smiled. “I think it’ll be better if you read them. The first one at least.”
“Hrm,” Linnette muttered, then returned her gaze to the parchments, pulled free the innermost one and began to read.
Silence fell upon the room as the Magister read, and as her mother read, Kira felt the knot within her stomach begin to loosen as she watched her mother’s gaze slowly darken. Then, the seated mage pulled free the next parchment, then the next, and then the next, till at last, she raised her gaze to her daughter, her eyes ablaze.
“Are you positive this is her hand?”
“That…” the Magister began as she turned to the parchments once more. “That worthless little…”
Then, she turned to her daughter once more.
“If Dryas had this all this time, why in the hells did he not come forth with them?”
Kira shrugged. “He said he did, but Aunt wouldn’t see him.”
“What sort of…” the Magister began, then fell silent.
“Ah,” she added as she closed her eyes and winced, “right.”
“What…?” Kira asked.
“Mother, what did you do?”
Kira leant forward, staring deep into her mother’s eyes.
“Nothing it’s…” the Magister began, but fell silent once more as she bit her lip.
“Well, I might’ve…burnt his letters without your aunt knowing of their arrival,” the Magister soon added. “Once or twice.”
“What?” the Magister barked. “Your aunt was a mess! There was no way in all hells I was going to have her readhis ramblings in her state!”
“Well, if you had, she wouldn’t have been in that state for long!”
“Oh, shut up, you!” Linnette threw back. “How was I to know he was being hounded?”
“By reading the damn letters!”
“I did! Well, some of them.”
“Well, you should’ve read all of them.”
“Oh, shut up, you, just shut up, alright?”
“Well, what’s done is done,” Kira replied. “All that’s left is to decide is what we do from here.”
“Hrm,” the Magister muttered as she picked up one of the parchments.
“Where did you meet Dryas?” she asked after a spell.
“At his home. Why?”
“You think you can find your way there at his hour?” the Magister asked, turning to her daughter once more.
Kira nodded, then frowned. “Why?”
“I’ll tell you on the way,” the Magister said as she rose. “Let’s go.”
“Very well,” Kira replied, turning for the door.
“Oh, and, uhm…the whole…letter burning thing…best not tell your aunt, alright?”
“Well, Mother,” Kira grinned, walking over to the door, “I fear you and I shall have to have a talk about your antics later.”
“Why are you like this?” the Magister groaned.
Because I’m your daughter, obviously!” Kira replied, then swung the door open.
“Shall we?” the Archmage added, then stepped through.
Shaking her head, the Magister sighed and headed after her daughter.
Rising from her bed, the Matriarch yawned and stretched as her room was bathed in the sun’s warm glow.
“The day’s here at last,” she muttered, staring at her open window. “I wonder what Linnette has planned.”
Shaking her head, the Matriarch rose and stretched once more, but as she reached for her robes, a loud knock came at the door, startling the Matriarch and drawing her gaze to the door.
“Nentille!” came a voice from behind the door. “Are you up?”
“If I wasn’t, I bloody would be after all that! The Matriarch barked. “What is it?”
“We have trouble! Meet me at the central meeting room, quick as you can!”
“Trouble? What trouble?”
There was no response.
Still no response.
“Bloody woman…” the Matriarch growled and reached for a nearby robe before heading for the door.
“What took you so long?” the Magister snapped as her sister came into view.
“Don’t you start with me, woman,” Nentille growled. “It’s too bloody early for this!”
“Well, nevermind all that,” Linnette replied, then gestured to the open door behind her. “Inside.”
“What is this about?” Nentille demanded.
“Not here,” Linnette replied, shaking her head. “Inside.”
The Matriarch turned to the open door, then to her sister.
Sighing, the Matriarch shook her head and wandered in.
“This had better be…” Nentille muttered as she entered, but as her gaze fell upon the two men within, she came to a dead halt as a heavy gasp escaped her lips and the blood rushed from her face.
“Hello, Nentille,” said one of the men. “It’s been a while.”
Just then, the sound of the door closing filled the room, and spinning about, the Matriarch glared at her sister, her eyes glistening.
“Linnette, what is the meaning of this?” the Matriarch hissed, her voice quivering.
“Forgive me, Sister,” Linnette replied, resting upon the door as she spoke, “but I should’ve done this a long time ago.”
“I will not stand here in this man’s presence!”
“Yes, you will.”
The Matriarch turned to face her sister square.
“Get away from that door,” she said, the pain in her voice boring into all who heard her.
“No,” Linnette replied, gritting her teeth has she shook her head at her sister.
“Get away from that door!” she screamed.
“No, Sister,” Linnette replied as her eyes began to glisten. “Gods forgive me, but you must hear this.”
“Aunt,” Kira said as she stepped free from the men and wandered over to the grand table at the centre of the room, “there is something you must see.”
“You shut your mouth, child,” Nentille spat as she rounded on the Archmage. “Shut it right now, or I shall shut it for you!”
“Daria lied, Nentille,” Linnette added. “She knew where he was. She always knew.”
“What?” the Matriarch said as she turned to her sister. “What do you mean, she knew? She swore she didn’t!”
“She lied, Aunt,” Kira replied, then gestured to the parchments upon the table. “Look. She’s been writing to them all these many years, taunting them.”
“Taunting? What’re you…?”
“She’s been hounding them, Nentille,” Linnette replied, “keeping them penniless.”
“Because of me,” the second man said.
“What?” the Matriarch frowned as she turned to the man. “Who are you?”
“He’s her son,” Linnette replied.
“Whose son?” Nentille replied, her gaze darting from the man to her sister and back. “Daria’s?”
The man nodded.
“The one she claimed to have had with Dryas,” Linnette added.
“No.” The Matriarch shook her head. “That can’t be, that boy died in Whistle Springs.”
“Accident,” she added as she turned to her sister, “wasn’t it?”
“No,” Linnette replied. “He lives. Daria must’ve paid the staff there to falsify the boy’s death. Her or her uncle.”
“Linnette, you’re not making any sense.”
Taking a deep breath, the Magister stepped forth.
“The rumours were true, Sister,” she said as she went. “Daria was with child before her wedding, not after.”
“Hold, you mean,” the Matriarch replied as she turned to the men once more, “Dryas is not his father?”
“No,” Linnette shook her head, “he’s not.”
“But then why is he here? With Dryas!”
“Because he came for me,” the younger man said, smiling as he turned to his father. “He told my keepers at Whistle Springs that he was my father, and as such they had to release me to his care, so they did.”
“And when Daria found out, she feared Dryas would expose her secret,” Linnette continued, “so she set about destroying him and keeping him penniless. And thus far, she’s done rather well at it.”
“But…why not just kill them?” Nentille asked.
The Magister shrugged. “This was more fun for her.”
The Matriarch stared on at the men, her confusion plain. Then, her eyes went wide as she spun to face her sister once more.
“Hold,” she said. “Are you saying Dryas spoke the truth? This whole time, he was speaking the truth?”
The Magister nodded. “Yeah.”
Slowly, the Matriarch turned to the elderly elf, and as she stared at him, her whole frame trembled as her gaze grew fierce and her lips quivered.
“And you tell me this now?” she shrieked. “You leave me to suffer all these long years, only to tell me now? What manner of monster are you?”
“I know.” The man nodded. “I know I should’ve never stopped trying to see you. I know I should’ve just kept coming till you granted me an audience, but I…I thought…”
As the elderly elf fell silent, the Matriarch stood tall.
“You owe me an explanation, Dryas Whisperwood!” she boomed. “You owe me!”
“I was ashamed, alright?” the man said at last. “And I was proud. My father reduced me to a damned serf, traded me away like some farm animal! I should’ve walked away, I should’ve just said no to the whole wedding and just claimed sanctuary here.”
“Then, why didn’t you?”
“Because then I would’ve been nothing in your eyes. I couldn’t bear for you to see me as nothing.”
“What in the hells made you think I cared for such things?” the Matriarch gasped.
A sad smile parted the old man’s lips. “What can I say, I was a fool back them.”
“Yes,” the Matriarch nodded, “a stupid, proud, pigheaded little fool!”
“Not to mention cowardly,” the man added.
“Cowardly, gods!” the Matriarch cried. “Cowardly and beyond!”
“And dying,” the man’s son added.
“What?” the Matriarch said. “Dying, what do you mean, dying?”
“Drunell, it’s–” the old man began.
“He’s dying, Matriarch,” Drunell continued, ignoring his father utterly. “If you can lend us any aid you can, we’d–“
“Dying?” Nentille said as she rounded on the man’s father. “Are you dying, Dryas?”
“I’m ill, Nentille, not dying.”
“He’s gravely ill, Aunt,” Kira interjected.
“Am I not permitted to speak here?” the man named Dryas cried in exasperation.
“You can’t be dying,” Nentille said, shaking her head. “How can you be dying, we only just…I mean you only just…no, you can’t be dying!”
Shaking her head still, the Matriarch turned to her sister. “Send word to Ariella, I want her to summon her very best with all speed–“
“Nentille, truly,” Dryas began, “I’m not–“
“Would you be quiet?” the Matriarch barked at the man. “I lost you once, I’m not losing you again!”
It was difficult to say which of the two was more taken taken aback by the Matriarch’s words, but as those words echoed about the room, the Matriarch stood tall and cleared her throat as a slow smile parted the old man’s lips.
“Linnette,” the Matriarch continued as he turned to her sister, “please see to–“
“Ariella is already waiting.” Linnette interjected, smiling. “Her people are already assembled.”
“Thank you,” the Matriarch said with a stiff nod.
“How about you take him to her?” the Magister added. “She might just be done in time for the banquet.”
“Banquet?” Dryas said, frowning. “But I have no–”
“Attire?” Linnette said. “You do. Or rather, it should be waiting for you once Ariella’s done with you.”
Then, she turned to her sister. “Well?”
“Well…what?” the Matriarch frowned.
“Well, take him to the bloody Infirmary!”
“Ah,” the Matriarch said, standing tall and turning to the elderly elf
“This way,” she added, then headed for the door, her back straight and stiff.
Dryas watched the woman for a spell, but his smile soon returned and shaking his head, he hurried after her.
A charged silence fell upon the room as the remaining three watched old Dryas slip a hand into the Matriarch’s, and with a clearing of her throat, the elderly mage opened the door and walked through, her beloved’s hand firm within her grasp.
“I think that went well,” the Magister said after a spell, rounding on the others as a big smile parted her lips.
“I’d say so,” Kira grinned.
“So it’s over at last?” Drunell asked.
The women shared a glance before turning to hold the former merchant in a pointed stare.
“What…?” the man, backing away slowly from the women.
“Have you forgotten about Daria, young man?” Linnette demanded.
“Because we sure as hells haven’t,” Kira added.
“No, of course not!” Drunell replied. “But she’s a Lady! What can we do?”
The women exchanged glances once more before turning to smile at the man, and as Drunell caught the glimmer in their eyes, the poor elf felt a cold hand slowly grip his heart.
“I’m not going to like this, am I?” he asked at last.
“Oh, you’ll be alright,” Linnette said as she grasped Drunell’s hand.
“Yes, utterly,” Kira added as she grasped his other hand, “just do as we tell you.”
“Yes,” the Magister added, “precisely as we tell you.”
“And you’ll be alright.”
The confounded elf stared from one to the other, his lips agape, then shook his head at last.
“Do I have a choice?” he muttered.
“No,” the women said in unison, then led him from the room, a wide grin upon their lips.
As the tome faded from view, Amala turned to the young girl whose head was upon her lap.
“Well?” Naeve grinned. “Now, do you see?”
With her lips purse to a thin line, Amala sighed.
“Naeve, that has nothing to do with what I speak of.”
“How can you say that?” the young girl cried as she sat up. “The lesson has everything to do with what we’re talking about!”
“Do you even know what the lesson is?”
“Of course I do! Never let your fears hold you back! Nentille’s fears held her back and stopped her from learning the truth.”
Amala smiled. “Not quite. The lesson is never base your life on rumours, or your decisions on hearsay. Nentille listened to the rumours Daria spread and believed them, instead of confronting Dryas, or at the very least, seeking out the truth herself.”
“And her love never endangered her life, but mine does.”
“I already told you, you’re not changing my mind on this.”
“Gods, why do you have to be so bloody stubborn!” Naeve thundered, slamming her fists upon the bed as she yelled. “I’m doing this for your own bloody good, why can’t you bloody see that? Gods, what is wrong with you?”
A charged silence fell upon the room as the pair stared at each other, but as the silence drew on, young Naeve began to wilt beneath the weight of the elven woman’s glare, till at last, she stared at her lap.
“Naeve, look at me,” Amala said at last.
Naeve did not.
“Naeve. Look. At. Me.”
At last, Naeve raised her gaze once more.
“What’s this truly about?”
The young girl shrugged and moved to lower her gaze once more, but Amala wouldn’t let her, raising a hand to the young girl’s chin and holding her head still.
Once more, the young girl shrugged, but remained silent still.
“Naeve, what is–”
“I don’t like seeing you so lonely, alright?” young Naeve said at last, her voice quivering as her eyes glistened.
“Lonely?” Amala frowned. “What are you–”
“I see how you look at Mother whenever she talks about any nice thing Father does for her. I see how it hurts you. You’re lonely, and I don’t like you seeing like that.”
Forcing a smile, Amala sighed and wiped the tears from the young girl’s cheeks.
“Naeve,” she said, her voice soft, “I’m not lonely, aright? I’m just–”
“Don’t lie. You don’t like it when I lie to you, so don’t lie to me.”
The elven woman fell silent at this.
“Master Netyam cares for you, he really does. You should see the way he smiles at you when he thinks nobody can see him. And, you said it yourself, you felt something–”
“Yes, something. That doesn’t mean I’ll come to care for him too.”
“Isn’t it worth finding out though? And if he starts getting too close to the truth, or you end up feeling nothing, just yell at him again.”
Amala moved to speak, but as she did so, a thought wormed its way to the fore of her mind, and as it blossomed, so too did her smile.
“What…?” Naeve asked after a spell.
“You planned this, didn’t you?” Amala replied. “The drink, what Netyam said, all of it. That’s why you were angry, I’d made a fool of you.”
Biting back a smile, young Naeve shrugged and held her peace.
“You cheeky little…”
The young girl shrugged once more as her smile broke free at last.
Amala stared at her young friend for a spell longer, then breathed deep before letting it out slowly.
“This truly matters to you, doesn’t it?” she said at last.
The young girl nodded, her smile fading.
The silver-haired woman sighed once more, then stared into the ether for a spell, before returning her gaze to her young friend, a soft smile upon her lips.
“I’m thirsty,” she said, then rose and made her way to the door.
Naeve watched the elven woman for a spell, her mind a blank, but as Amala opened the door, she gasped and sat tall as her eyes went wide.
“Wait, are you–“
“Get back to studying, we’ll talk in the morning.”
“But are you–“
“To your books,” Amala stressed as she stepped out of the room. Then, as she moved to close the door, she paused and turned to stare square at her young friend.
“And stop worrying about me, alright?”
A huge grin parted young Naeve’s lips at those words, and rising, she nodded at her friend.
“Yeah, okay,” she said.
“Alright, then,” Amala replied, then closed the door as softly as she could.
“Right,” she added, turning to stare down the corridor as her heart climbed up her throat.
“Right,” she repeated, then marched forth.
With her stride unbroken, Amala marched on, her gaze set and her heart in her throat. It had been an age since she’d so much as entertained the thought of what she was about to do, and as she went, a thousand and one thoughts ran through her mind, most of them screaming at the sheer folly of her actions, but on she marched, her pace unrelenting, till at last, she stood before the Tower Kitchens.
Stopping at last, Amala cleared her throat, smoothed her tunic and walked in.
There was only one within the Kitchens, and his back was to her. Taking another step forward, Amala stood tall and cleared her throat once more, this time much louder.
The elf before her turned. It was Netyam, and as his eyes fall upon her, so too did his face fall.
“Mistress Amala,” he said, his voice even.
Smiling, Amala shoved her hands into her pocket and wandered over to the counter behind which he stood.
“That drink you made,” she said as she went, “do you still have it?”
“No, of course not,” he replied. “I threw it away.”
“Ah,” Amala replied, coming to a halt as her mind raced.
“How about some cake?” she soon said.
Amala nodded. “Yeah.”
Breathing deep, his lips pursed, the elf sighed.
“Very well,” he muttered, then went to fetch some.
Amala hurried to the counter and sat upon one of the stools before it, and as she sat, she breathed deep and fought to steady the beating of her heart.
“Here,” Netyam said as he returned, placing a plate with a generous slice of cake upon it before the silver-haired woman, then offered her a fork.
“My thanks,” Amala said, smiling as she took the fork. “Do you have another?”
Netyam frowned. “Another what?”
Amala waved the fork at him.
“You wish to eat with two?”
The cook stared hard at the woman before him, who smiled sweetly in return, then sighed and turned.
“Here,” he soon said, turning to Amala once more and offering her another fork.
“My thanks,” Amala said before taking the item.
“Right,” Netyam growled.
Then, Amala offered him the fork.
“What’re you–” Netyam began.
“Join me…” Amala interjected. “Aeden.”
At those words, the man named Netyam slowly stood tall.
Keeping silent, Amala tucked into the cake, the softest of smiles dancing upon her lips, and as a comforting silence fell upon the pair, the elven cook smiled at last.
“How about that drink again?” he said.
“I’d love that,” Amala replied.
“Alright.” Netyam nodded, then turned and headed deeper into the Kitchens.
Amala watched him in silence for a spell, but soon, a soft sigh escaped her lips, and leaning forward, she turned to the cake before her and lifted a piece to her lips.