Where Ignorance is Bliss…

Discussion in 'ROLEPLAY GRAVEYARD' started by Quill, Aug 25, 2012.

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Who do you think would win in a fight? Eddard Stark or Aragorn?

Poll closed Aug 31, 2012.
  1. Uh … EDDARD. Aragorn isn't even holding a sword in that stupid pic. And what is that? Like a black v

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  2. Ahem. ARAGORN. He has a way cooler name and I bet he's hiding a buncha sharp daggers under that shir

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  3. Who? What? Why? Is this in reference to the pictures? I DON'T UNDERSTAND D:

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    QUILL'S CHARACTERS


    Crown Prince Tak el-Makkaris of Ataira
    Show Spoiler


    Name: Tak el-Makkaris
    Gender: Male
    Age: 19

    Hair Color: dusty brown
    Eye Color: dark blue

    Description: Tak is a tall, lanky young man, with an angular face and firm-set jaw. He tends to look as though he is squinting because of his poor natural vision – spells cast by the royal physician keep his eyesight sharp and make the irises glow bright, pale blue, but his eyes are still sensitive to light, hence the squinting.

    Personality: Tak is passive, mild-mannered, reclusive and shy of social interaction, a lone wolf who prefers figuring things out on his own when he feels like it without having to deal with the intrusions of others. He remains ignorant of the condition of the kingdom despite his destiny as its ruler and prefers reading to all other possible voluntary activities, including eating. On the pro side, he is fiercely intelligent though he likes to keep his thoughts to himself, and is somewhat of a polymath, speaking practically all known languages and capable of understanding the most complex mathematics, and yet the mere thought of having to formulate something as tremendously interpersonally challenging as communicating a short greeting containing vocabulary higher than "Hrmpf" would send him fleeing to a dragon's cave for cover.*
    *Tak also happens to be a ruthless perfectionist and his pet peeve in life is hyperbole ^^


    History

    [ 1: Hunters or Hunted? ] Tak's parents Queen Deirdre el-Aterian and King Ethalos el-Makkaris died in mysterious circumstances when he was two years old; he can't remember anything except his mother's perfume, and sometimes seeing portraits of his father hanging on the castle walls he will feel like he saw him somewhere before, but can't remember where. Any pain he feels from their disappearance is carefully bottled away and avoided as best he can. The king and queen had gone on a hunting trip one day with several courtiers, and none of them ever returned. Most people suspected some kind of ill magic, others assumed wild beasts had gotten to them, and the barest few vaguely and surreptitiously hinted at foul play, but kept too quiet for serious rumors to spread, since there was no known evidence to suggest this and anyone who posed such monstrous allegations would likely be hanged either to keep them quiet or for their impudence and spoiling the royal name.

    [ 2: Destiny ] Next in line for the throne was Deirdre and Ethalos's son Tak, but he was at the tender age of two and unfit to rule at this point, so Vintallion el-Aterian, Tak's uncle and Deirdre's brother, took over as King Regent. To this day Tak remains the Crown Prince – he is to become king when he turns 20, but plans to decline the offer and formally transfer power to Vintallion because he knows too little about politics and management to run an entire country; anyway, he's too lazy to take responsibility for all the difficulties in the huge kingdom of Ataira and wants nothing more but to curl up in a dark corner with all the world's books at his feet and no intrusions. But he's about to realize that not even crown princes can always get what they want…



    King Regent Vintallion el-Aterian of Ataira
    Show Spoiler


    Name: Vintallion "Vint" el-Aterian
    Gender: Male
    Age: 49

    Hair Color: dark brown
    Eye Color: hazel

    Description: Vintallion is a formidable figure, a skilled combatant with flinty brown-green eyes and long hair of burnt umber. His thick brows, square shoulders and stony gaze often intimidate those around him, yet he uses this to his advantage since he is self-absorbed, distant, unmerciful and yet despises social interaction, much like his young cousin, but out of totally different motivation. He keeps in top shape, mostly because he is paranoid that "someone" is out to get him. It is not the kind of delusions of full-blown schizophrenia, but he does have his moments of highly irrational fear. When he was younger, it was said that his smile was charming enough to melt diamond, but these days it just looks evil.

    Personality: Vint is lonely, aggressive, and resentful, despite being highly charismatic, though he uses this advantage purely to manipulate others. He enjoys watching people squirm and tying live rats' tails together, then placing cheese in front of each individual rodent, just out of reach, to watch them strain against each other in vain misery in their frenzy to reach the food; or, if he's in an especially foul mood, making a whole chain of tail-bound rats, then letting a bunch of alley cats in the room. This pretty much sums up everything you need to know about Vint.


    History

    [ 1: Childhood ]
    Vint grew up in a very affluent, upper-class banking family who had a monopoly on trust companies and thus became grossly wealthy within the decade that Vint's father, Kaonvar, still worked on his own before hiring someone else to do the job while he spent his days eating, sleeping, drinking, whoring, hunting and partying in a variety of enormous, glamorous mansions throughout the kingdom of Ataira. He produced no less than seven children, two of which died at an early age, and all of them (two daughters and a son, Vint) of highly questionable legitimacy, especially since he went through six wives, not to mention his mistresses, too many to count. Still, all were given the family name and honors and educated finely with no expense spared, but it was only one – clearly the daughter of Kaonvar's fourth wife, as she was her spitting image – whose legitimacy was proven and who thus inherited the family business and all its wealth and property. This was Vint's sister Deirdre, kind and gentle of heart and rumored to be the fairest in the land, who generously gave large amounts of land to her two siblings: Vintallion, her senior by five years, and Tessa, six months younger and bright red of hair. Still, Vintallion never left his sister's side, always hanging over her shoulder and helping manage the family business, which he felt entitled to and cheated out of since he was technically Kaonvar's eldest.

    [ 2: Queen Deirdre ] They lived like this for several years, Deirdre showing no intention to marry (though some blamed that on Vintallion's jealousy and overprotective control of her), and then scouts came passing through their province, saying that Crown Prince Ethalos had come of age and was seeking a wife. All eligible noblewomen were summoned to the royal palace, including Deirdre and her sister Tessa. Tessa and most of the others were sent away soon, as first the political advisers to the Crown and then the Prince's parents eliminated potential choices; finally the remaining women were arranged to meet the Crown Prince at a royal ball, and Deirdre, by far the fairest of them all, with hair of netted sunshine and eyes green as the wild grasses, caught Prince Ethalos's eye immediately. He courted her for a long time, and finally they were happily married and Vintallion took over the family business; within a year of marriage, Prince Tak was born, and the Atairan people rejoiced.

    [ 3: Disappearance ]Then one day when Tak was two years old, Queen Deirde, King Ethalos, Princess Tessa and several other royal courtiers went on a hunting party in the nearby forest … but none of them ever returned. The loss of his family was an enormous blow to Vintallion, who was never the same after the event and grew snappy and cruel. Still, he always kept a reserved distance from Tak, disguising any hatred or envy he might have felt for him, for fear of making people believe he had killed Tak's parents and now wished the Crown Prince harm so that he might stay King Regent forever. Are these only doubts … or are they facts veiled behind two decades of lies?*
    * In other words: Which would make this roleplay more interesting?




    LAYNE'S CHARACTERS


    Merchant Jarrett Ka'bayne
    Show Spoiler


    Name: Jarrett Ka'bayne
    Gender: Male
    Age: 42

    Hair Color: Reddish brown with faint hints of gray
    Eye Color: Hazel, leaning more towards green

    Description: Though he has gained some weight in his later years, Jarrett is by no means a fat man. Most of his body is muscle – though his fighting has rusted over time. His reddish-brown hair is just starting to show gray and betray his age … more than the wrinkles on his face do, anyway. He is tall and tends to stand straight, the habit of long years spent in arms training. Dark hazel eyes reflect intelligence and kindness, and he is most often seen with a smile.

    Personality: Ever since the loss of his wife ten years ago, Jarrett has been raising their only child alone. As such, he has been strict, but also spoiled her much more than necessary. He would do anything for his daughter and often gives her gifts even though she doesn't ask for them. His generosity is not limited to his offspring, either – he is known to be a man to open his door to a poor traveler with no other place to sleep. He's also given things away to people who truly needed them. Overall, a gentle heart who only wishes for his daughter to marry so that she may be happy and bless him with grandchildren.



    Nadira Ka'bayne
    Show Spoiler


    Name: Nadira Ka'bayne
    Gender: Female
    Age: 18

    Hair Color: blonde
    Eye Color: slate gray

    Description: At first glance, her body is that of a typical, slender woman. Curves in the right places, a little on the short side, and decently sized in the breast area though not overly blessed. However, beneath the flowing dresses and robes, her body is very toned. She carries more muscle than she betrays, and is extremely flexible – which has given her an accidental grace. Her pale skin and fair hair compliment the riches colors that she prefers to wear – purples and blues being her favorite.

    Personality: Around her father, Nadira is an entirely different person than when he's not around. With him, she is quiet – and usually bored out of her mind. She observes polite manners and does as she's bid, making him think that she is excellent wife material. However, she never hesitates to tell him that she isn't ready for marriage and that she's going to cry if he pushes another boy on her. When she's away from him, she is much more lively. She enjoys reading and playing with small children, but her secret hobby is archery. It keeps her in shape, and she loves challenging the boys when she travels with her father to new places. What she longs for the most is adventure, not the presents she keeps getting showered.

     
  2. * * *

    SPRING of the WASP, 12TH CENTURY A.E., ATAIRAN KINGDOM

    * * *


    Spring is in the air. A spotless, ringing blue sky shines upon a white marble palace, illuminating the twining towers, glittering balconies and gleaming stained glass windows. The massive moontree drawbridge drops with not a creak, a glossy, soundless motion that reveals a hunting party, clad in relatively travel-hardy and yet magnificent garments – maroon robes lined with cloth of gold; shining samite gowns of bright and friendly hues advertising the attractive women of court, their heads towering masterpieces of architecture and engineering. All eyes are on the couple at the front, a man with jet-black hair and glinting gray eyes, and he has eyes only for the beauty beside him, a woman of such extraordinary loveliness that the sun grows dimmer in shame. Her long glowing locks are netted sunshine and her eyes are the dark, bitter chocolate so prized from distant lands. Her smile is brilliant, and yet practiced; she extends a delicate, ivory hand, which the king takes and kisses – and then he kicks his boots into the nightmare haunches of his magnificent black stallion, and the queen urges her palomino onwards, and thus they leave the castle, with six courtiers following heel, laughing and beaming in the bright spring day. Only one among them is dark and brooding; he rides an inconspicuous dun mare, and he alone is clothed in somber colors, but his handsome face is intent with a terrible determination.

    The drawbridge closes behind them. None will ever pass through it again… but for one.


    * * *


    Tak walked through the palace hallways, his nose buried in a book. He knew the meandering hallways like he did the library, which is to say better than the backs of both his hands and feet combined. Servants grew silent and stayed their frantic rushing about to kneel when he passed them, but he bade them no heed and some even had to scooch in a rather undignified manner out of the way lest he keel into them.

    Yet when he passed the great ballroom, his dark blue eyes flickered up to the two pictures crowning the enormous ivory archway granting entrance. The king, brazen and if not handsome somehow so confident and willful you were drawn to him just looking at this artificial rendering of him. And beside him, of course, the painter having used the brightest colors and the utmost of care, Tak's mother, the legendary beauty of Ataira, the Queen with her ever-perfect smile, her lustrous hair of molten gold. Tak bent his head quickly in acknowledgement, even though he hated that painting. His mother was painted all wrong – the painter had exaggerated the slenderness of her arms and hands, the lilting curve of her jaw, and worst of all, her eyes were pale winter blue. This was wrong, Tak knew. She had made self-portraits that were much better; in one she wore a stunning jet-black dress of netted ebony spiderwebs, almost chaining her within herself. Tak kept that painting above his study table, which was the greatest place of honor in the palace a painting could be hung, really. Many of the other courtiers hated it – too expressive, Tak supposed, for the perfect Queen who always smiled. She was not smiling in that painting.

    He passed into the library and some of the scholars working there knelt, but only fleetingly, for the learnéd have better things to do than waste etiquette on someone who is fixatedly reading The Baking Powder Controversy of 3rd Century Ogland. Expertly weaving in between shelves – the head librarian made sure to keep the rows pristinely straight to avoid liability for severe head trauma – Tak finally reached the elderly man's office and walked in without knocking, as princes are prone to do.

    The elderly man had lived through no less than five kings, Vintallion included, and Tak was the first Crown Prince to ever show the vaguest interest in his library, which pleased him greatly, and he always had a gentle word and a soft hand for the boy.

    "Your Highness," the librarian said solemnly, bowing as much as his crooked back would permit. His age kept him from a full kneel, and for once Tak was aware and responsive, and waved dismissively at the gesture with his hand.

    "Colantis, never mind," he said with a small smile. "I really enjoyed, um, this latest recommendation," he managed to add a little hoarsely, which was probably the most words he had spoken to anyone for the whole week, provided "um" is considered a word. The librarian smiled broadly, pleased at giving the prince another dusty tome that no one had read for millennia, probably. The prince set the book gently on the librarian's desk for Colantis or one of his assistants to take away later, and rubbed his hands together, then with a short nod of his head left the office of his old friend quickly to explore the thrilling sequel: Potato Planting and Seasonal Flooding in the Early Chitlan Civilization of 5th Century B.E.

    The prince smiled to himself as he delved deeper into the library, with that delicious smell of yellowing paper and the gentle rustle of turning rigid pages crackling with age, spiderweb ink in a myriad of dead languages etched into paper held by hands now dust. Tak closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and strode purposefully towards the Ancient History: Agriculture section.

    It was turning out to be a marvelous day, as usual.


     
  3. "I just don't understand it, Nadira. I thought you were having a splendid time with Harris. Imagine my surprise when his father comes to me and claims that you were terrorizing the poor boy!"


    Sitting straight and tall upon an impressive black stallion was Jarrett Ka'bayne. His hazel eyes were thoughtful, with a faint touch of amusement that most would miss if they didn't know him well. Fortunately, the object of his current mood knew him better than any. He shifted a bit in his saddle and looked up as they got closer to the castle. Today would be a very important day, regardless of what his daughter had been doing behind his back. He had long had suspicions that his pride and joy was doing something, he just couldn't figure out what. She never seemed out of line, yet there was always the unmistakable feeling of hostility between her and the boys her age when they traveled. It was as though she had insulted them all, but he knew that she would never be so rude as to do that.


    Meanwhile, his daughter sat with a small smile on her lips. Her back was as straight as her father's, and her eyes were focused on the road ahead. She knew exactly why he had gotten a complaint, though she hadn't expected that she'd be accused of 'terrorizing'. Apparently Harris was too much of a coward to complain to his father of the real reason for his whiny mood - he had gotten beat up one side and down the other by a girl. Not literally, of course. Her battles were fought on the archery range. It was hardly her fault if the overweight idiot couldn't even hit the target from five yards. He really ought to practice more before boasting that the only thing girls were useful for on the range was holding food trays.


    "Well, in any course.. We'll discuss that more later," Jarrett said, and Nadira knew that he would forget or just let it go. "Are you wearing the gifts I gave you this morning, dear heart? I want to make a very nice impression on the Regent and his nephew. This could be a very big day for us - all letters between us so far have been extremely promising."


    "Yes, Father. They are gorgeous, as always," Nadira said with a smile. That morning, her father had given her yet another ribbon-wrapped box. This time it was a pair of earring and a necklace made with pearls and gold. Onyx and diamonds studded the pieces, and she knew they were more expensive than they should have been. Still, Jarrett had probably gotten a fantastic price since he was a merchant himself. She liked jewelry, she supposed, but the way that her father doted on her made her think that she was going to drown in unnecessary gifts. Why couldn't he just buy her a bow and quiver? Oh, right, because he'd probably have a stroke if he knew that she ever touched an arrow in her life that she wasn't trying to sell.


    "Alright, darling. Prepare yourself," Jarrett said, smiling at his daughter as they rode through the gates.
     
  4. * * *

    SPRING of the WASP, 12TH CENTURY A.E., ATAIRAN KINGDOM

    * * *


    Grass sways softly back and forth in an errant breeze. Spores drift through the air, coloring the wind a myriad dancing hues; but the frivolous smell of spring is here soured, befouled by the stench of huge, misshapen stains of crusty brown in the field surrounding the great, silent lake, with a young willow sprouting forth from one bank; beneath its weeping shade, a woman kneels in the empty clearing, soundlessly crying and sobbing to herself with eyes wild and crazed like a spear-ridden ox in a bullfight. Her leaf-green dress is tainted with bright ruby blood, clashing with her fiery red hair: she is the last alive. And around her are the dead, watching, their swollen blue faces turned to her, or perhaps the sky, or hidden as they kiss the ground that has become their grave. Bright, expensive silk is torn and blotched with the marks of death; and already the clearing fills with the steady humming of the flies that have begun to gather.

    * * *


    Vintallion's eyes were dark as he gazed into an unseen past; but then he felt the heaviness of the crown on his head and cleared his throat, straightening. The civil representative droned on. "…to the conclusion that the citizens of Lower Dell require a grant from the Crown to ensure they may afford minor metal shipments to improve local weaponry to ward against wild predators that have been plaguing their lands…" Vint exhaled loudly and immediately the representative grew stiff, chattering on at double speed to keep from further boring the king. Finally the snore-inspiring man reached an end and bowed his head awaiting judgment. Vintallion shifted a little in his seat on the rather uncomfortable metal throne and stood erect and imposing, belittling the representative with his hawk's gaze.

    "I disapprove of sending civilians weapons that they can use to garner conflict and even rebel against their officials like that … incident … in Rune Tree last year," he said scathingly, just to judge how well the representative could cope with disappointment. To Vint's great approval, the man barely blinked and kept his gaze trained on the king's golden sandals. "But my agricultural experts inform me that predators decrease crops, so send them … send them half of what they ask," said Vint."And deploy one metalworker in the area." He cast a sidelong glance at the Master of Whispers, his close friend Kreont, who did not respond but rubbed the bridge of his nose. Vint was pleased; he could always count on his window into the populace: Kreont's spies were infinite in number, and before the sun set several would undoubtedly be dispatched to watch that metalworker in Lower Dell. No one wanted another Rune Tree incident.

    The civil representative was dismissed and Vint gestured to his Manager of Civil Affairs to send off the rest of the representatives with their problems – he could deal with them in the afternoon. He was just beginning to get hungry, and recently Duke Marmedol from the far south had sent him a troupe of bellydancers as a gift, which he had been eager to see perform since the day before yesterday. He cleared his throat and was just about to stand and absolve himself from kingly duties when a messenger flitted to his side. Kreont narrowed his eyes at the man but then nodded, thin-lipped, and Vint sighed angrily but spoke no more, lest he frighten the messenger so badly he would not deliver his message.

    "Y-Your Majesty," stammered the messenger, "Jarrett Ka'bayne has arrived…"

    "A very important merchant, Your Majesty," supplied Kreont significantly. "He has traveled a great distance from his homeland…"

    "…Your Majesty, does Your Majesty consider audience with this guest of Your Majesty?" the messenger finished shakily.

    Vintallion wanted nothing more but to send the lad to a whipping and let Jarrett Ka'bayne rot in the waiting room, but Kreont's insistent gaze was impossible to refuse.
    "Send him to me at noon for a lunch audience," Vint grumbled. "Now excuse me…" His mood improved when he thought of the bellydancers. "I have work to do."

    And with this he strode away from these bothers.


     


  5. Jarrett and Nadira sat in the elegant waiting room, admiring the parlor. Well, Jarrett was admiring the attention to detail. Nadira was more busy admiring the view out the window that displayed the gardens - or, more importantly, the free space beyond the gardens. Surely they had an archery range here that she could sneak off to. Her father had told her that there was a rather impressive library as well. Perhaps she would seek that out and see if it really was worth seeing or not. No doubt they'd be here a while, since her father was supposed to be negotiating.. something. Honestly she had no idea what, and he seemed vague as well, which meant he didn't know either. They had been contacted for something, and Jarrett was all too happy to comply and come here. It had taken weeks from home, but they were both used to it. Still.. she longed to relax.


    "Pardon," a voice said, breaking in to her thoughts. She looked up and saw a messenger boy standing in the doorway. Jarrett smiled kindly at the boy and nodded, gesturing that he was listening. "His Majesty, King Regent Vintallion, would like to invite you and your daughter to dine with him this noon. In the meantime, rooms have been prepared for you," the boy said.


    "Ah, splendid! A chance to freshen up will be much appreciated. Isn't that right, darling?" Jarrett said, looking over at Nadira, who smiled and nodded a little in return as she stood up. A walk down some hallways and they were led to a very nice suite that didn't appear to have been used for quite some time. Still, it was clean and had two lovely bedrooms joined by a common sitting area in the middle. Nadira opened the windows to air the place out, and Jarrett stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Should I shave before our audience with Vintallion?" he asked his daughter as he gazed into a mirror.


    "You look fine. I'm sure you won't be judged for not knowing the latest court fashions," she assured him, pulling her hood down and looking around the rooms curiously. When she was finished, she edged toward the door. "We have an hour or so. I'm going to look around and see if I can find the library," she said, giving him a charming smile.


    "Alright. Don't take too long, though - we must not be late. No dawdling!" he said, giving her a firm look that she just smiled off before slipping out the door.


    "Dawdle dawdle," she murmured to herself, shaking her head and wandering down the hall.
     
  6. * * *

    SPRING of the WASP, 12TH CENTURY A.E., ATAIRAN KINGDOM

    * * *


    A man, finely dressed, the garments pristine and unmarked, crosses the corpse-strewn clearing, his eyes carefully roving over each and every one, noting names in his mind, counting off a morbid checklist of silenced witnesses, taking great care not to step into a pool of blood that could discolor his attire. But when he reaches the two most elaborately clothed among the slaughtered hunting party, his face suddenly constricts in a swathe of violent emotion. He heaves and spills and still he keeps his cloak and sleeves carefully out of the way of any incriminating signs. White-faced, dogged, he ruthlessly forces his neck back into position to look down upon an exquisite woman, golden hair drowning in a crusted brown pool of her own blood, some fair strands tickling the open neck of the swollen blue man beside her, a golden tiara and a crown fallen in the grass near them. He swallows, then bends down cautiously, and extends his hand to grasp both coronals – and tears himself away from the sight, heaving again, the golden ornaments digging into his stomach as he presses his hands against his chest and tries desperately to control his reaction. When he looks up again, he is calm and detached. Then, coldly, he casts his hazel gaze across the deep blue lake; and with a decisive motion, flings both crowns into the waters, where they vanish without a trace, without a sound. Behind him heavy-bodied men appear and begin to carry away the slain bodies, one by one, and the flies buzz with irritation as they are shooed away from their bounty.

    * * *


    A messenger, once again. Tak gritted his teeth with annoyance as the man shakily approached the reading prince."What now?"

    The messenger spoke softly.
    "Your Highness, His Majesty King Regent Vintallion will be having lunch shortly with the important mercantile persons of Jarrett Ka'bayne and his family attending. Your Highness is welcome to j–"

    Tak rolled his eyes and the messenger immediately froze, terrified. It was a legal necessity that Tak be informed every time his uncle had a meeting, but if that were a flexible rule Tak would have it disbanded immediately. Except that according to his advisors, it would dearly hurt his image if he were to appear as irresponsible as to demand no one bother him with royal duties. Of course they would never dare wording it that way, but the Crown Prince knew very well what they meant with their simpering courtly language.
    "Not coming, thank you," Tak said with practiced ease.

    The messenger sped off quickly and Tak was just about to return to his book when he heard a harried
    "Oh, excuse me so very much, miss!" and he glanced up. Of course all that greeted him were bookshelves; the entrance was far removed from the Ancient History section, for some strange reason that ever puzzled the prince. But "miss"? In the Library? Tak had never known a woman to explore the Library, even his mother, who was known to have despised books. All of a sudden his eyes widened in terror. The messenger had told him his uncle was having lunch "shortly" – which meant it must almost be noon! He cursed under his breath and jumped up from his seat. He was late to his arithmetic class and his teacher must have come looking for him, as she often did when he was late as usual.

    He weaved through the bookshelves, annoyed with himself all the while, playing over and over in his head the awkward apology that would be so difficult for him to muster.
    Miss Selaneth, I am very sorry for callously abandoning– No. No, that wasn't right. –for callously … forgetting … But how could you callously forget something? The adjective would have to be changed, too. He swept into the entrance hall, distracted in the discouraging complexity of his thoughts and frustrated at his nonexistent sense of time.


     
  7. Nadira had just found the library when somebody came hurrying out of it. She didn't have time to stop before they collided, but thankfully it wasn't a very hard hit. The boy seemed to be a messenger of sorts, and looked scared of something. His apology was very quick, and she gave him a reassuring smile, hoping to put him at ease.


    "It's fine," she said, watching him run off with an amused expression before turning back to the library. Well, she had found it!


    She felt pretty accomplished, since she had thought she'd get lost. True, she had to turn around once or twice, but that was fun when one was exploring. She walked into the library and took a look around, only to nearly collide with somebody again. This person looked distracted instead of scared, so she figured he was probably very busy. She dipped her head slightly, wondering if she was just completely clumsy today or if everybody here just didn't pay attention to where they were going.


    "Excuse me," she said with an apologetic smile, moving past him to allow him by so that she could walk into the library. Ah, the delicious smell of old books. She had missed this.
     
  8. * * *

    SPRING of the WASP, 12TH CENTURY A.E., ATAIRAN KINGDOM

    * * *


    A ferocious storm rages across the sky, bolts of lightning crackling across the thundering black clouds. In a shrieking flash, the environs are momentarily illuminated, revealing the small silhouette of a figure struggling up a muddy hill to the large yet plain building resting atop it, warm light and wisps of heat emanating tantalizingly from the closed windows. Finally the bedraggled figure arrives at the house and begins pounding and shouting loudly to be heard over the storm. Quickly the oaken door swings open to reveal a bald-shaven young man with soft features, wearing sturdy sandals and a simple white robe. The symbol on the thread around his neck shows him to be a priest. With concerned, gentle words and cautious gestures, he coaxes the raving wanderer past the threshold: it is a redheaded woman in fine clothing, torn and bloodstained, and her garbled screams and gasps are extinguished as the large oak doors close soundly behind them.

    * * *


    Tak whirled around the corner, expecting the sharp features and thick black hair of Miss Selaneth, when all of a sudden he bumped into something soft. He frantically murmured excuses and heard a woman's voice, "Excuse me," but it was not Selaneth's voice. In fact, the woman was not anyone he'd ever seen before.

    She was quite young, fair-haired, with a slender build, and he watched her brush past his shoulder with the desire to ask her what she was doing here and who she was and why in the king's name she was in the Library, of all places for a woman to be. He opened his mouth and closed it again. He had forgotten entirely about his arithmetic lesson. New people frightened him, and to an extent so did the elegant stranger, but he had practically never met someone his age before who was not a servant and–

    She was going the way he'd come. What if…? He cautiously moved his mouth into what he hoped was an affable smile, turned to face her and muttered two words under his breath, then flinched and continued in a slightly louder yet audible voice,
    "Are … you, er … headed towards the Ancient History section?" The last came out in a rush but Tak was very proud of himself with coming up with such an excellent excuse for interaction. He did hope she was headed that way, then he could recommend some gems in that series on agriculture Colantis had introduced him to. At the thought of sharing scholarly interests with a noblewoman his age his spirits lifted.


     
  9. Ancient History?


    Nadira turned back to face the boy she had just passed. He seemed to have forgotten his rush and focused his attention instead on her. She knew that he probably knew this library very well, considering his question and the fact that he just came bursting out of it. History did fascinate her - sometimes. It was the exciting old stories that recalled battles or great events that she found interest in. Other than that, she preferred reading out fantastical things and pretend stories of great monsters and such.


    "That depends. Are there interesting books in the Ancient History section? The last library that I was in was very boring and the books were only used for collecting dust because nobody found anything of any real interest there," she said, giving him a smile as she wondered who he was. She tried to remember everybody that her father said lived here, but she couldn't think of anybody besides the King Regent and the Prince. Well, plus servants and messengers of course.


    She glanced around at the library, realizing something for the first time. It was quiet. Silent, even. Sure, places like this were always quiet, but she didn't even hear the scrawl of writing or the flipping of pages. Was this place completely deserted, or was she just missing something?
     
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  10. * * *

    WINTER of the SPIDER, 12TH CENTURY A.E., ATAIRAN KINGDOM

    * * *


    Sweet sounds drift through the enormous ballroom of a marble palace. Rich tapestries hang from the wall, depicting unicorns and dragons, chimeras and pegasi, and in one even the gruesome legend of Egathdrinn, the young beauty caught in a monstrous arachnid's taut silver web. Massive chandeliers hang from the ceiling, a sparkling concoction of crystal and candlelight, and festive dance music fills the room, accompanied by the steady beat of practiced dancers' footsteps echoing throughout the ballroom. Nonetheless, a large group of noblewomen stand somewhat awkwardly clumped together, accepting no dances and receiving no invitations, and yet they are among the most attractive and clever in the entire castle. Yet the other guests dance curves around them: those are the choices no one can make but the man for whom this horde of women waits. The great gold-enameled ivory doors swing open, and with fanfare, the Crown Prince and his family stride in. Dance and its music ceases; the women bow, some giggling, some stark with tension, and the Prince's gaze roves over them as a farmer might inspect a herd of cattle. The Queen Eleonora whispers to him: There they are. Choose well, my son.

    * * *


    Tak's mouth was dry. He blinked and felt the hot stares of petrified scholars boring into his back. He shifted his weight from one foot to another uncomfortably. Any moment now the woman would notice. The sounds that marked the atmosphere inherent in every library – the rustling, the shuffling, the hushed conversations, the scratch of pen on paper, the crackle of dry turning pages, had all but extinguished and the pause was growing too long and gaping. The prince didn't know what to do. No one had ever mistaken him for a common nobleman before. Everyone in the palace knew him since he was a little boy, and he didn't really … interact … with foreign visitors who might not be able to tell his face from the coins that bore his visage or the paintings of his parents that still graced every waystation beside Vintallion's own features, to mourn their unfortunate passing.

    What would a prince do? Tak berated himself. Anything but stand there staring at her trying not to stare at the scholars staring at him … oh, this was such a mess. Why, why had he spoken to her? What had possessed him to approach a stranger? What if he just muttered something and walked away? That's what he usually did when social interaction became too complicated. But her smile was winsome. And she had asked about books. Tak couldn't just leave in the dust an inquiring person who had come seeking books, and even shown an interest in Ancient History! Well, a potential interest, Tak thought as his mind raced. What would be advisable for a beginner? Perhaps The Distribution of Shepherding Territories of Ancient Kalme in the Wake of the Silucian Invasion under Kohet Nekama IXI? Perfect, Tak thought to himself proudly, and broke into a broad grin. It had the politics – commoners versus the noblemen versus the dominance of foreign politicians – it had the action – quite an invasion, quite a bloodthirsty king, this Nekama IXI, especially for the usually quite peace-keeping Silucians – and, most importantly, it had some of the most lovingly described geography in the entire Ancient History section: hundreds upon hundreds of laboriously detailed pages of soil topography and local bodies of water plus the changes from dry to rainy seasons taking flooding and even precipitation into consideration…

    It had been much too long since anyone had last spoken, he realized with a shock. He quickly gathered himself and spoke excitedly to the fair-haired woman. "Well," he said proudly,
    "if you are looking for adventurous, I know just the thing. It has wars and politics and floods and topo–" He stopped and cleared his throat before adding huskily, "I. I. Um, if you like, I could show you. If you like. It's not far. Just a little that way. I mean, if you like. Because it's quite interesting. If. If you were looking for–" Again he stopped himself, clamped his mouth forcefully shut, stared at her right shoulder and cursed himself inwardly. He was the Crown Prince, for king's sake. No one would enjoy his company if he couldn't at least word the invitation nicely.



     
  11. Nadira waited for a response. And waited. He looked deep in thought, so perhaps he was considering whether leading her to the history section was worth it or not. Maybe he was thinking about a specific book that wasn't boring. That thought gave her enough hope to not interrupt his brooding.. for now. She let her eyes wander around, finally realizing they weren't as alone as she thought. The only reason that she hadn't heard the normal sounds of a library was because everybody was stopped - staring at them. She blinked in surprise and gave one of them a quizzical look and he looked away, but as soon as her gaze moved on to somebody else, he started staring again. What in the world was wrong with these people? Were newcomers not welcome to the library? That would explain her companion's silence, for certain..


    Just as that thought crossed her mind, he spoke up. She looked back up at him and smiled as soon as he said 'adventurous'. Ah, he had read her mind. The mention of wars caught her attention as well. This book sounded promising, though she wasn't sure what flooding had to do with a war. Perhaps it was a massive, sudden flood that collapsed half the kingdom! That would be an exciting read. Maybe it even interrupted a grand battle and swayed the numbers in the favor of the royalty against a rebel uprising! Her imagination was having way too much fun with this. She simply had to read it now.


    "Oh, yes! That sounds perfect," she assured him with a smile as he seemed to clam up. It was odd, how he went from babbling like an excited child to this sullen and silent boy. She clasped her hands in front of her, her mind still wandering about what sort of book it might be. "I would love for you to show me where it is," she added, giving him another smile.


    "Nadira!" a voice interrupted, and she whirled around with a startled expression to see her father standing just out in the hallway. Damn it.. "It is time to prepare for the lunch with King Regent Vintallion. Come along. You can visit the library later while we are discussing matters, I'm sure," he said, amused.


    "Oh, is it time already?" Nadira said, disappointed. She held back a sigh and smiled up at the boy who had offered his help. "Another time, perhaps. Thank you for your offer," she said, then turned and left with her father as Jarrett started speaking of how she should attempt to meet the Crown Prince at some point. They were about the same age, weren't they? She tuned out his chatter for the most part, already dreading this boring meal.
     
  12. * * *

    WINTER of the SPIDER, 12TH CENTURY A.E., ATAIRAN KINGDOM

    * * *


    The fire flickers in the hearth, spreading its warmth in the chilly manor room as snow falls outside and the wind whistles eerily. Two members of gentry, not finely dressed for the public, but rather clothed in the warm and comfortable garments of privacy, stare into the flames, the man seated in a plush chair and the red-haired woman standing above him, a hand comfortingly placed on his shoulder. Her expression is resigned, his furious, helpless, the look of a rebel. What will happen, when she's gone? the man says, his voice thick and hoarse and hateful. What will happen to our life here? The woman shrugs gently. Hesitantly she says in a soft tenor, Perhaps it is not all bad, brother. A palace can be a nice place to live. Wealth can be a pleasant companion. There is honor to be found in such a marriage, security, opportunity. She is a grown woman, you cannot keep her for yourself alone for so long.

    The man has stopped listening long ago. His face is twisted into a furious mask. A palace? he says, and what might have been a fierce roar is instead a murmur that makes the hairs of the neck rise stiff with chill. I'll tell you what a palace is. It is huge and cold and empty. Pleasant companions are no use to the unhappy. I am her companion. His voice rises. I am the only companion she needs! The woman's smile is mirthful, almost amused, as if she had mentally known everything he would say before he said it. That she must choose for herself.

    He stands abruptly, tall and dark, whirling to face her, and the tension in his body is thick and vibrating from him like loud noise might. Quickly the woman steps back from him and there is fear in her voice when she says, My utmost apologies, brother. I forget myself. She presses her lips together and inclines her ruby head. I beg your forgiveness. His voice is feral when he replies, ignoring her apology. You make the mistake, he hisses, of thinking she has any choice. From thinking choice could protect her from– from that man. Do not presume to make that assumption again. The woman seems to shiver under his hateful green-brown gaze and she nods bitterly. A heavy silence settles over them as the wind carries distant howls their way.

    * * *


    Tak froze as the tall man who was evidently the woman's father appeared and began speaking of lunches and Crown Princes. They were gone before he had a chance to say anything and he stood uselessly twiddling his fingers with nervousness. It was quite a significant misunderstanding. Why, why hadn't he just affably told her who he was from the start? It might even have impressed her. In fact, it probably would have impressed her. He muttered discontentedly under his breath. No one ever mistook Vintallion for anyone but the King. Oh, sorry, King Regent. Big difference there. But on the other hand he was grateful that it was so. He'd never wanted to rule, he'd made that very clear right from the beginning. The advantages of not being known well publicly far outweighed the disadvantages. Vintallion, for example, could never normally walk down a village street without the inhabitants rushing out from miles around to line up and kneel. They would do this resentfully, too, because it meant interrupting work.

    Not that Vintallion would ever normally walk down a village street. He'd ride on a huge, magnificent war stallion. And he would have a guard of at least twenty-five elite knights surrounding him, also mounted. And at least five of the guards would have to be bearing enormous flapping banners of the royal household to keep robbers away. He had to take the enormous main roads – the small village streets didn't even have enough space for his entourage. Tak, on the other hand, liked to take the main village street to reach the forest, rather than go the long way like Vintallion had to. People usually just assumed he was a merchant's son or a knight's knave or perhaps a steward. That's what he wanted them to think.

    He could return to his reading without eating and probably never see the girl again. Or he could go to lunch, and … then what? Somehow he'd liked that he could talk to the young woman as his peer. She seemed to be almost exactly his age. He knew what happened when suddenly one of them was heir to the country they were standing in. The distancing. But worst of all the fear. He had always hated the fear and mistrust that so many courtiers and servants and noblemen felt towards the royalty beneath a fawning, subservient, cheerful exterior. He could sense it wallowing there, glaring at him with shifty eyes, quietly locking the gates to even the barest hint of intimacy. He could not have many friends, even if he wanted to. Seeing the hesitancy and apprehension in someone just discouraged him too much to try to banish it, especially since he knew it would never really go away. Uncle Vintallion liked to say that the only true companions to kings were the fearless, but for Tak that just meant someone of equal social status. And he guessed that was what Vintallion meant, too.

    As the clarion bells announcing noon chimed in the four great towers of the royal palace, Tak still did not know what to do.

    * * *


    Vintallion sat in the huge, plush purple-cushioned dining room chair at the head of the small conference luncheon table, sucking out the soft insides of a fresh, deliciously salty oyster when a knock politely tapped at the door. With a stoic, polite smile, he set the empty shell in an ornate ceramic bowl beside his own golden plate (the other guests were resigned to silver) and wiped his fingers on a pearl-colored silver napkin before calling,
    "The royal welcome is extended." The great double doors of the huge palace room swung open and a messenger hurried in.

    "Your Majesty, Jarrett Ka'bayne and family are awaiting Your Majesty's welcome." The words echoed in the grand room.

    Vintallion's smile grew broader, more genuine, as he thought of the delicious roasted goose he had ordered from the kitchen.
    "Bring them in," he said and refocused his attention on the scrumptious oysters. Inconspicuously tucked into a corner not far from Vint's side, Kreont stood silently, eyes half-closed as if dozing, dressed in such unimpressive shades of gray that he might be dismissed as an empty-headed servant. Beneath the drooping lids, though, Vint knew that the gray eyes glittered and the ears were wide, wide open. Vintallion knew what he needed from the merchant, but he also knew that Jarrett was one of the few merchants in the land capable of doing so, and they would have to be reassured that he cold be trusted.

    The messenger flitted back out through the doors to follow the King Regent's orders.


     
  13. Jarrett took his daughter back to their rooms first, to allow her the chance to 'freshen up' from her exploring. She knew that he expected her to change into some extravagant dress or something, but she had no intentions of doing that. It was just the King Regent and the Crown Prince. Besides, it was a meal to discuss some business with her father. She was not a required or even a directly invited guest on her own. There was no need to impress them. She doubted either one of them would even glance at her anyway. People with power tended not to realize that somebody was there if the person couldn't provide anything useful. She rolled her eyes at the thought and shook her head, patting her face dry and adjusting her hair as she walked out.


    If he was upset with her attire, Jarrett didn't show it. He just smiled, complimented her on looking 'lovely as usual' and walked through the halls with her. They were following somebody that she recognized as the messenger from earlier. Well, at least they weren't going to get lost.


    Nadira took a slow breath and relaxed her body as they were announced. Time for the polite and friendly face. It wasn't that she was normally an impolite person - she just had to school her tongue around her father, lest he find out that she wasn't a darling lady as he thought. She had a simple smile as the doors swung open, and her father had a delighted grin as he strolled inside.


    "Your Highness! It is an utmost pleasure and honor to meet and dine with you today. I am sure our meeting will be fruitful," Jarrett said, bowing deeply before turning with a smile and gesturing to Nadira as she curtsied and bowed her head as expected. "I would also like to introduce my daughter, Nadira Ka'bayne," he explained, and she smiled at Vintallion.


    "A pleasure, your grace," she said in a quiet yet audible tone.
     
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  14. * * *

    SPRING of the WASP, 12TH CENTURY A.E., ATAIRAN KINGDOM

    * * *


    The monk's eyes are gentle and dark, his ruddy visage patient. He sits in the large, sunny courtyard, the sky a pale crisp blue, and quietly looks at the woman sitting across from him on a bench beneath a tall oak tree, prompting her with his gaze. Still bedraggled, her looks are certainly improved from the dirty, disheveled stranger who had sought the monastery's refuge the night before. Her long, curly red hair is still matted and dirty, but no longer sports twigs and leaves. She is dressed in a man's plain brown wool robe, which is somewhat indecent, but it preserves her modesty much more efficiently than the torn, expensive dress she had been found in. Mud had stained it, and something else. The monk clasps his hands and watches her intently as her lips open and close and her wide, glazed eyes flit back and forth like a cow led to slaughter.

    The monk does not speak. He knows his voice will only inspire fear in her. Instead he uses his eyes to communicate. Still her gaze quavers to and fro like a wave-tossed ship, but gradually, over half an afternoon, they begin to focus on his, to still and grow calm, to find their anchor and some rest. As cool winds begin to blow and shadows grow longer until the day is swallowed in them, she droops, then slumps, then crumbles into a tight ball and sleeps deeply, with the smiling monk watching her sagely. Stars twinkle above, and in the distance wolves howl. All of a sudden the monk's features grow tense with interest and he leans cautiously forward. The woman has begun to murmur in her sleep.

    * * *


    Vintallion smiled just a tad too broadly at his guests."Welcome, welcome, be welcome," he said and gestured for them to sit. "Let's get right down to business." Right on cue, servants carried in the large silver trays of appetizers – chickens stuffed with vegetables and spices, seasoned steak, three large, magnificent scaled salmon, and a side platter of potatoes, buttery sauce and eggs. Vint helped himself to a sizable rib from the steak and continued with his spiel. "You see, my good man," he said, addressing Jarrett Ka'bayne and casting his daughter a sidelong glance; a pretty thing, but appearing somewhat unenthused, he observed; "having been gone from the capital for so long in your, ah, travels, you may not have heard of an … unfortunate event in the last year that we have taken to calling the 'Rune Tree incident'. The peasants had taken up arms." The last was said bitterly and Vint frowned, tight-lipped, just at the memory of the revolt that had taken place last fall. "It seems that some of my larger landowners have been … careless … in their treatment of the proletariat in their villages. Their behavior has been most upsetting with very unfortunate, if unforeseen, consequences – overhunting in the forests for sport, dirtying of rivers to dispose of, ah, waste, preventing their use for irrigation…. My councilmen would rather I had not," Vint added confidingly, "but I'll be frank with you, sir Ka'bayne. This has been, economically speaking, an especially difficult year."

    Having finished his rib, he sat back and took a swallow of wine before continuing.
    "The cause for all this," he said earnestly, meeting Jarrett's eyes intently, "is a distressing lack of raw resources. Ataira may be a fertile land of a great many rivers and fields, forests and wild grasses, but we lie in the south, our soil is not rocky, and the mountains are far to the north and west in Charubda and Kohssil. The workers need metal for their shovels and their picks and their scythes and their hammers. They need it for horse and cattle bits and nails and buckets and plows. So traders here, they journey all the way to those distant countries Charubda and Kohssil, and my foreign ambassadors arrange large and complex trades of resources with these lands, to keep the metal coming in. But Kohssil is the farthest north of known lands, wintry of clime and too harsh for the sun-soaked Atairan blood. Our traders, in swarms, in hordes, in volleys, flock to nearby Charubda to make their deals there. Have been, in fact, for centuries. But you know of the Charubdan government, I'm sure." Vint offered a mocking smile before he went on. The Charubdan state, a confusing mess of individual landowners who elected a total of five representatives, each of which was incessantly vying for superior power and influence. The organized, monarchical countries surrounding Charubda liked to look down upon the hideous results of forsaking autocracy.

    "The lordlings to the western border have decided to wage a war against smaller Falyen to gain control over a large sea port. I won't bother you with details you may well be closely acquainted with, but suffice to say they are driving the costs up to simply ridiculous prices. The traders return home to Ataira empty-handed, the metal wanes, our peasants suffer, and so does our economic output. It has to stop." Vint took another delicate swallow of wine and flashed his most winsome smile. "And that's where you come in, Ka'bayne."

    He took a deep breath, ready to assign his mission, very satisfied at the atmosphere he had developed with his speech, when all of a sudden the great double doors opened and the messenger cried:
    "His Highness the Crown Prince Tak el-Makkaris!" and Vintallion had to avoid cursing under his breath. There came that lout again, spoiling his perfect timing. It was really terrible manners to barge in in the middle of a lunch so unexpectedly. Vint was lucky that the boy was so mild-mannered and showed no interest in ruling, but the irritating willfulness that both his parents had so unflatteringly possessed ran rampant in him just the same.
    "Ah, good day, my Prince!" Vint called in greeting, sure to add a broad smile. He'd have a talk with him later, but for now it was important to broadcast their excellent relationship to their guests.

    There was something strange about Tak today, Vint noticed with a frown. He seemed to approach hesitantly and kept staring at the Ka'baynes. Had he met them before? Perhaps it was just a bad case of Tak's usual nervousness. In response to Vint's enthusiastic greeting he just grinned a little shakily and took his seat at Vint's right side across from Jarrett Ka'bayne wordlessly. Vint sighed. Typical. He redirected his attention back at Jarrett, hoping the merchant would be understanding of the Atairan predicament. People who traveled a lot were rarely the ardently patriotic type which Vint sought most, but Kreont had been right: this man had brains, and that, most of all, was what Vint required.



     
  15. Jarrett and Nadira both took their seats, with Jarrett sitting closer to Vintallion. That suited Nadira just fine. She didn't appreciate the King Regent's expression. His smile just seemed fake somehow, and he made a creepy feeling run down her spine. Of course, she had never been overly fond of most men in power, so she assumed that's all it was. A simple adversion to nobles. Self-entitled basta- No no, Nadira. Think polite thoughts. She calmed herself, her entire mental tirade having taken place without a single flicker in her polite smile. The ease of long practice made it easy to appear the perfect lady.


    Her father obviously did not suffer the same problem. He had loaded up his plate and was listening attentively to Vintallion as he described the incident that had caused the need for his services. Nodding every once in a while, he paid strict attention and kept a passive expression. Nadira recognized it well. Jarrett had a habit of not making decisions until he heard everything. It was fair, but frustrating as well if you had to deal with him all the time.


    "I've heard that things are not going as well as they could be," Jarrett acknowledged as Vintallion spoke of a rough year. Nadira said nothing, of course. She had served herself when her father was finished and was now very content with eating a delicious portion of salmon. All of this talk of resources and such was interesting, but not enough to make her pay full attention. She longed to just finish eating and leave to explore the library or the grounds, but her father would have a stroke if she tried. Thankfully, Vintallion's speech got a bit more interesting the longer it went on, and she glanced over at him as he seemed ready to finally say precisely what he wanted them to do.


    It was then that the messenger came back and announced the Crown Prince. Well, better late than never. Another insufferable noble boy. She looked over with a polite smile and nearly choked on her salmon. Quickly she washed it down with a small drink and rearranged her expression to a more polite one instead of the wide-eyed stare. The boy from the library was the crown prince?! Obviously her father hadn't known either, or he would have bowed to him and made a huge conversation out of it. She looked at Jarrett now, but his surprise didn't show as he smiled at the boy.


    "A pleasure to have you join us, Your Highness," he said simply, bowing his head. Nadira, meanwhile, was just trying to piece everything together. A prince who enjoyed reading and hadn't demanded she bow to him? That was new..
     
  16. * * *

    SUMMER of the HOUND, 12TH CENTURY A.E., ATAIRAN KINGDOM

    * * *


    The woman's eyes are glassy and her chin trembles. Memories flit darkly across her pale-skinned, noble face, and the monk waits patiently. You know me, he says reassuringly. He is not allowed to touch a woman but his eyes and his voice are enough to comfort her. You can trust me. What happened to you that night? Whatever it was, the monk thinks fretfully, it had been enough to cause her to forget her very identity. Could she recall the incident itself? It seems very unlikely, but there is something about the darkness that accumulates in her when the event is mentioned. Something is there. But is it a memory, or simply a confused concoction of vague emotions? At last her lips part and she speaks, quaveringly. Her voice is hoarse and crackling like leaves in autumn. She has not spoken for a long, long time, and even now she says only one word: Wolves. The monk nods. Hot tears are streaming down her face, and she is sobbing bitterly. This is enough for now. It may even have been too much. He thinks awhile, then takes off his long white cloak and wraps her in it, and she clasps it white-knuckled. He cannot wear it anymore but he doesn't seem to mind. Wolves, she mutters. Again and again she whispers it harshly. Wolves…

    * * *


    Tak stared at his plate and dared not look up. He heard the merchant greet him and mumbled a little under his breath in response. Quickly servants loaded his dish with food and he tried to think of something to say as Vintallion droned on about some crucial trade that Tak could not have cared less about. A few times he hastily glanced the girl's way, and he couldn't help but think how pretty she was, if only the demure smile could grow a bit wider. Her light hair kept getting in the way when she moved her head and he couldn't seem to make eye contact. At long last he realized he had been sitting there like a dolt for minutes while good food turned cold on his plate. Vintallion mentioned Falyen again for what must have been the fifteenth time and he said in a low voice to the girl without really looking at her, "Um, have you … have you ever been to … to Falyen?" It seemed a decent thing to ask. He focused on her hands as Vintallion continued his exchange with the merchant.

    "The goal is a diplomatic arrangement with Falyen," Vintallion was saying earnestly. "We have … arranged … an exchange of wood and stone for metal. Quite simple, really. They need our lumber and stone to fortify their various borders and key towns … and we get all the metal that we, ah, need. However…" Vint's expression grew grave and he lowered his voice. "I hope you understand the delicacy of the matter, Ka'bayne. If Charubda discovers that we have been trading with their enemies, thereby undermining their military campaign … well, let's just say that will be one … unpleasant … conversation. We need a subtle middle man. Someone with real brains and experience to oversee the bridge of trade from the Falyen ports to Atairan cities near rivers that flow into the Falyen Sea. My most trusted captains will lead the operations on water, but not just any common merchant could be trusted to continue them on land." Vintallion flashed Ka'bayne another of his big smiles. "Of course, the pay would be outstanding. And you would be doing a service to your country," the King Regent added pointedly. "If you accept this mission, sir Ka'bayne, the Crown must be able to count upon your complete discretion. If this plan were to be made public…" Vint kept his eyes stormy but his words mild: sometimes his anger reached its best potential when other people imagined it. "…it would not do." He cast a sharp glance at Nadira Ka'bayne as he said this. Sometimes young girls were loose-tongued. So far she had seemed far from the type, but in these matters it was stupid to take chances.


     
  17. Jarrett was listening intently to the King Regent, devoting his full attention to the man as he described what the job was going to be. It wasn't that he had no interest in the Crown Prince - he simply knew that socializing should not be a top priority right now. He was an honorable man and prided himself on being polite. Right now, he was here to receive a job offer of sorts. He was barely even paying attention to his daughter, who had managed to recover from her shock and resume eating a little until the odd Princeling spoke to her.


    "Yes, but not in quite a while. It is a long journey," she said, giving him a curious look before tilting her head a fraction and smiling. He didn't seem to really be looking at her, but she didn't mind. At least he had spoken to her. "Have you?" she asked, wondering if he traveled much.


    "I have a few contacts in Falyen, as a matter of fact. There is a brilliant gemsmith there who gives me excellent deals on his pieces. I've been meaning to make the trip anyway and this would be perfect," Jarrett was saying, smiling at Vintallion as he nodded. "You needn't worry about my daughter, Your Highness, I assure you. Nadira is very mature for her age and understands the need for secrecy as well as I. She won't utter a word," he added assuringly.


    Nadira looked up at the mention of her name and looked first at her father, then over at the King Regent. There was still something about him that she disliked, but she gave him a polite smile and bowed her head slightly in acknowledgement. Of course she wouldn't say anything. That would be suicide.
     
  18. * * *

    SUMMER of the HOUND, 12TH CENTURY A.E., ATAIRAN KINGDOM

    * * *


    The monk was uncomfortable around the White Bark representative. He was a competent man who took good care of the village that nestled in the shadow of the monastery hill, but he was a politician, and the monk knew him to be a faithless man with a loose tongue. But there was no one else to turn to, and the matter was out of his hands. They could not keep the woman here as if she were a hostage. Sir Birch, he said. I am glad you found the time to visit me on this fine summer day. Mr. Birch furrowed his brows a bit. He was not one for small talk. Yes, he said. You said this matter could not wait. The monk nodded solemnly and discreetly led the civil representative to a window overlooking the courtyard where the redhaired woman sat, dozing in the sun. Do you recognize her? he asked. Mr. Birch squinted at her and then looked at the monk frankly. I've never seen her before in my life. Why? The monk persisted. She is a noblewoman, Mr. Birch. Are you sure you have never seen her on your visits to court? Mr. Birch's eyes narrowed dangerously. I think I would know, he said. She's hard to miss. What's the use of all this? What is a noblewoman doing sleeping in a monk's robes? The monk sighed unhappily. She came to us a few days ago, he said. It seems she was attacked by wolves. He paused delicately. She is somewhat … unbalanced. We cannot keep her here indefinitely, we should return her to her family. But she wears no family ring or other family signature, and she cannot recall her identity. She's hardly capable of forming a coherent sentence. There was a tense silence. Mr. Birch exhaled deeply and said, I'll see what I can do. Leaving the room, the monk heard him mutter under his breath, That's the last thing I need – another scandal…

    * * *


    "Good," said Vintallion with a broad, somewhat toothy smile. "It's excellent having you on board, sir Ka'bayne." He was just going to settle down to his buttery potatoes when he smelled something faintly in the air. Something wrong. His brows furrowed just a little but he supposed it came from the kitchen…

    Tak was very happy to see her respond, even with interest, to his rather awkward question. He was just about to reply when he smelled something burning. He frowned at the door, but no servants came through with steaming food. A gasp from a dark corner of the room, and then that unpleasant friend of his uncle's was at the window.

    Vintallion stood, ashen. He almost asked,
    Master of Whispers, what is it? and caught himself just as his mouth opened. "Manager of Internal Affairs," he said with appropriate imperiousness. "Where is that lurid smell issuing from?"

    Kreont turned, his face impassive, his wheedling voice dry and hard.
    "Your Majesty, it's the peasants at Red Apple. They're burning the royal tariff department."

    He hadn't finished speaking before the King Regent exploded with fury. Guards rushed from all corners of the room to depart at the greatest haste even before the orders were bellowed behind them.
    "Guards! I want two centuries down there right now! Get me the civil representative of Red Apple. Use General Darg. All executive decisions at his discretion! Leave at least one of that godforsaken rabble for questioning."

    Kreont turned grimly to the Ka'baynes.
    "Sir, m'lady. It is perhaps best if you continue your meal in your chambers. The King Regent is otherwise occupied." Already a pale-faced messenger stood by him, ready to lead them true. Before waiting for an answer he turned to Tak. "Your Highness, royal code suggests that while the King Regent conducts affairs of state Your Highness would make an address to the people and replace the King Regent in the afternoon hearings." There was something a little too hasty and stale about the way the formal words were spoken, as if the Master of Whispers already knew the answer.

    Tak hated the gray man. He made him uncomfortable. The shock of yet another peasant revolt made him feel sick. He certainly didn't feel up to talking in front of hundreds of people.
    "The Councilmen can take care of that, Kreont," he said. "If you'll excuse me … maybe it would be best if I … asked Head Librarian Colantis if he has copies of this year's tax ledgers…"

    "Of course, Your Highness," Kreont said without waiting for the Crown Prince to finish. "That sounds like a splendid idea." Vintallion gestured to him and he moved aside to speak with the King Regent in dark, hushed tones. Even from afar, Tak saw how his uncle's eyes flashed and his voice was hateful. He was very, very angry.


     
  19. Fire.


    It was the first thing on Nadira's mind, and judging by her father's expression, he was aware of it as well. The scent was not something new to them. They had lost their caravan to flames twice, and had been witness to multiple riots and bonfires. There was no mistaking that odor, and the truth soon became clear as the King Regent stood and asked a man that Nadira hadn't even noticed what it was. She turned to see the strangely expressionless man, tilting her head a fraction as he announced a fire. His tone and the look in his eyes made her examine him carefully. There was more there than met the eye, she would bet a sack of coin on it.


    She met his eyes as he turned to her and Jarrett, mentioning that it may be a good idea to finish eating in their rooms instead. Her father was already standing and nodded his agreement immediately, while Nadira glanced at Vintalliion. Otherwise occupied. Yes, busy yelling orders and not going about to do anything for himself. This was a very strange place, she decided. She rose, planning on following her father out until she heard the man speaking to the Crown Prince. Pausing a moment, she turned and watched the exchange discreetly, then quickly followed Jarrett out with an impassive expression.


    Why would a Manager of Internal Affairs be so dismissive of the Crown Prince? And why wasn't the Prince stepping up with the King Regent to sort things out?


    She was silently thoughtful the entire walk back to their rooms, still not saying anything as Jarrett started speaking of how awful and stressful a fire must be at this time. When their food arrived, she finally looked up and gave her father a sweet smile.


    "Yes, a terrible thing. I've lost my appetite in the commotion, Father. I'd rather eat later. May I return to the library?" she asked.


    "Hm.. Well, yes, I suppose. Make sure you aren't in the way of anybody doing their jobs, mind. The halls are likely very busy now," Jarrett said, nodding.


    "Of course, Father," Nadira said, bowing her head slightly before taking a roll from her tray behind her back and slipping out the door.


    She munched on the roll as she strolled down the hallway, frowning a bit as she got lost in thought. There were a lot of things wrong here. Why didn't anybody else notice? Or maybe they did, and they were just used to it. She frowned more, then sighed and finished off the roll as she walked into the library.
     
  20. * * *

    AUTUMN of the FOX, 12TH CENTURY A.E., FALYEN KINGDOM

    * * *


    Horst shivered and rubbed his arms against the creeping cold. The bitterness of winter had crept into Falyen early this year, and for Horst as a night guard the fickle northern weather of these lands was an incessant and significant bother. Horst had never wanted to become a guard anyway. His mouth watered as he recalled his childhood as a baker's son in a small town close to the Charubdan border. If he'd stayed, he would have inherited the family business. He'd very likely be married now, with children, sitting in his father's large chair by a warm hearthfire while his wife cooked him something hot. He swallowed and eyed the gray sky unhappily. Unfortunately, with the naïve impulsivity of youth, he'd become a soldier, and after twelve years of agonizing training and service protecting small Falyen's borders, a deaf ear, a wooden leg and a meager job grant from the government was all he had to show for it. There was not a day that passed when he wished he would have stayed. But his parents were long dead by now and the past had disappeared in a cloud of colorful, insubstantial memories. Perhaps, sitting by that hearthfire now, he would be ardently wishing he'd have left. He shuffled his feet and ponderously made his way to the next guard station where he would patrol for another half hour before moving clockwise to the next, and so on and so on throughout the night. With a halfhearted grunt he greeted the leaving guard and took up his shift. He yearned dearly for the first crack of dawn that would let him stumble home and into bed.

    With these thoughts, staring up at the stars, he barely noticed a faint prick on the numb, exposed skin of his neck. An unpleasant tingling sensation began irritating him and, thinking it might be an insect or pest of some kind, he batted at the back of his neck with his hand. By the time he felt the needle protruding from his vein, his head was already dizzy. He opened his mouth to cry out. A bitter taste spread across his tongue and he struggled to breathe. Then he was on his knees, then the cobblestones swam before his eyes. And finally they, too, were gone.

    * * *


    "As a matter of fact, Your Highness, I do," Colantis said, pleased that he was able to help the prince. He handed over the documents. "Yes, I'm sure, Your Highness. You can see by the dates. It's all right he–"

    He was interrupted by a harried-looking woman with sharp eyes and a nest of frizzy dark hair.
    "Prince!" she exclaimed, not without exasperation. "I have half a mind to hold our forthcoming lessons in the doorway to the Library. Perhaps this will ease your fervor to be elsewhere."

    The librarian Colantis appraised her with a vastly disapproving gaze. Both had, in their own special ways, raised the prince since he was a very young boy, but the head librarian and the head mathematician, for perhaps unsurprising reasons, were ever at odds with each other. Significantly older, the librarian refused to treat the Crown Prince like some common nobleman's son.
    "Mistress Selaneth," he said now with gravity while Tak fidgeted nervously, "the Crown Prince is fulfilling royal duties of national import–"

    Miss Selaneth snorted.
    "Now that's a word for 'lunch' I haven't heard before." Her voice was a little gentler but she pinned Tak with a pointed glower. "I expect better attendance in future," she said tartly.

    "Yes," said Tak meekly.

    Once the teacher had left the two behind in Colantis's office, the librarian spoke softly to Tak.
    "Your Highness, you are the Crown Prince. Must she insist to address you demeaningly? Her distress might have reason but she is clearly ignorant that a Crown Prince's duties are priority over – over the fancy rearrangement of numbers!"

    Tak stood very still, then abruptly turned and walked quickly out of the office, catching up with the mistress.
    "Selaneth!" he said, and at the clarity in his voice and the surprising volume with which it was uttered in the library, the mistress's was not the only head to turn.

    The mistress sighed.
    "Was I too brusque with you, dear? I'm sorry. I just don't want you to be like your mother and father. None of them ever spared a thought for mathematics and until His Majesty your uncle hired me … well, this place was a mess financially. No matter what Colantis might say, there is real value in num…"

    This time it was Tak who interrupted. He stared hard at her clasped hands and said,
    "There's been a … a fire in Red Apple."

    "Oh," Miss Selaneth said softly.

    "There – I – I had to go – ask Colantis – if, you know. If he had copies of the documents that were … that were burnt." His voice grew stronger. "You should not … I … had to prioritize. This was a royal duty vital to … to the nation."

    "Oh, Tak," Miss Selaneth said. "Others will lie and play with words to utter half-truths and stay in your good graces, but I know you. And I believe you and I am sorry for misjudging the situation … but, Prince, it is not a royal duty to deliver documents! Public speeches, international trading, diplomatic relations, court life, internal affairs … these are royal duties." Tak could not hide how upset her words made him so she spoke gently and added, "The reason, dear, that they are royal is because only a sovereign could do them, Prince! These menial tasks, they are fit for servants, messengers, attendants. Not a Crown Prince!"

    As a way of answering, Tak simply disappeared into the History stacks mutely, and the scholars who had witnessed the scene muttered discontentedly among themselves. Her words were scandalous. The Prince was no longer a little boy. But the mathematician, a clever and headstrong woman not afraid to voice her opinion, was very used to prejudice and disdain and cared very little for her sour reputation at court. And she knew and loved the prince like a son and knew he saw her as a mother figure. He was sensitive, but he would come around, and only good could come from a healthy dose of honesty.

    She was just about to leave when she saw a pretty young woman come through the entrance of the library. With her fair hair and clothing, she seemed like a lady of court or a nobleman's daughter, though she would have been informed of a visit…. Somewhat puzzled, Miss Selaneth asked her,
    "Good tidings, m'lady. Can I help you?" Privately she wondered how much the girl had heard.