For the unofficial preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.
I enjoyed a night of relative peace before guards summoned me in the early morning. The suns had not risen yet; I understood that this was business to be taken care of before prying eyes were awake to witness it. The two men who’d come to get me wore breastplates and swords, but neither helmets nor polearms. An attempt to seem less threatening, perhaps. Not that it mattered.
They gave me a short time to dress and strap on my belt before calling me onward. I hoped not to need my blade but suspected that things could come to that—especially after catching the expressions traded between the two men as I took up my sword. the guardsmen led me down the castle hallways and staircases, not to Aryden’s study as I’d expected, but to the great hall.
There, Lady Aevale amn Vaina occupied the chair of judgment. Four more guardsmen I didn’t recognize flanked her, two on either side. Barro, freed from the imprisonment to which Aryden had sent him, stood directly next to Aevale’s seat. The expression of pious serenity he wore like a mask inflamed my anger more than if he wore the grin of smug satisfaction at his return to power. I looked around for Aryden, for Vesonna and her tight-laced tutor, for Gamven or Deadys, but it was only the seven of us.
“I saw you,” Aevale said, her voice low and raw, out of practice. “In my dreams. Nightmares, really.”
“Barro has filled me in on what has befallen us since your arrival, what transpired last night. You’ve really made a mess of things, haven’t you, lord thaumaturge?”
In my cynicism, I’d expected something like this, the rationalization of recanting on a deal after services had already been rendered. I’d prepared for it. Son I said nothing.
“You have left all of my husband’s plans hanging by a thread. The amn Estos threaten to leave without a wedding. Edanu has halted negotiations for Vesonna’s wedding to House Meradhvor. My priest had been imprisoned. You’ve spread rumors that the burning of a witch was unjust, and you’ve nearly fallen into fights with every important person of the town.”
“To say nothing of my husband! He has left us, like a thief in the night. For what?”
“He chose exile, my lady. For your sake.”
“So I’m told. That’s awful convenient, isn’t it?”
I took a step forward, only for the guardsmen to put hands to sword hilts. My own hands fell to my hips obstinately. “And you think that I’ve arranged all of this for just such a purpose? To undermine your petty kingdom? For what?”
“For my husband’s siblings,” she spat.
“You and Aryden are more alike than I’d expected.”
“That is ‘Lord Aryden’, to you!”
“It’s not,” I quipped. “Not anymore. Not to anyone. He renounced that title, bonded his own Wyrgeas to enforce the abjuration of his position. And he did that to save you from death as revenge for his murder—and your own curse. Point your finger all you want, Lady Aevale; you know where responsibility for all these things lies. Even had I wanted to, I’d have needed to take no action to destabilize the delicate balance of power your family has managed to hold here for so long. The consequences of your own actions unfolded to do that. Have you no decency, no humility, no introspection to admit your own role in your fate? I have completed the task for which your husband hired me; I have my payment. I’ll collect my things and be on my way.”
I turned to leave but found the tips of swords pointed in my direction. Far enough to not be an immediate threat, but close enough to send their message clearly.
“I’m afraid not,” Aevale rasped from behind. “I can’t risk you spreading lies and calumnies about what you ‘witnessed’ here. I will not allow you to make our family’s ruin complete.”
I smiled a little, reaching my left hand into one of my pouch pockets, a maneuver that caused the guardsmen to step cautiously away from me. Over my shoulder I lifted a small ultramarine clod, the dried paint I’d stolen away from Ovaelo’s palette. Now that I thought about it, the oily residue in my hand held quiet a value; part of me regretted not choosing a more common hue for my purposes. Regardless, though, that chunk of paint had more value to me now that to anyone else in the world, for in this moment, it meant my life.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Aevale asked, croaking.
“Did Barro explain the counter-ritual to you? Did he explain the working I performed with your husband’s help last night?”
“He said you bound Orren’s spirit into Ovaelo’s painting of me.”
I turned to face her now. “Yes. And this is paint used in that painting.”
Her brow furrowed as she failed to see the connection.
“Which means that this little blue clod bears a sympathetic link to the painting itself, a link that I can use from wherever I am to create a working that affects the painting itself. Should that painting be sufficiently damaged, Orren will escape and resume his assault upon you. Aryden’s sacrifice is already made; it cannot be made again. So I do not believe you would find renewed respite from the curse that you wrought upon yourself.”
“So you would be the arbiter of justice, then?”
I spat. “None of us knows well enough to use that word well. For me, this is only a vengeance against you should you flout the help I have given your family. It is a surety against your good behavior, a letter of safe passage. Beyond that, I care not. I’ll be happy to be done with this place, and with all who bear your name.”
“Then begone with you, and do not return.”
“There is one more thing,” I said.
“To blackmail now, is it?”
“Call it what you want,” I told her. “I never made a claim that it was justice.”
“Out with it.”
“There is a place within your demesne, a place where the veil is thin and the Power spills into our world more readily than elsewhere. I believe the folk of Vaina know it well.
This place is why Meradhvor is so interested in a marriage alliance; they want to exploit it for their own ends. As long as you are alive and hold power as the Lady amn Vaina, you shall not allow any of the Artificer Houses to make claim to that place. If you do, I shall restore your torment to you.”
“You do seek our ruin,” she rasped.
“As I said, my task is done. I no longer owe your family anything. I’ll take my leave.”
The guards stepped back, unsure of what would transpire if they did otherwise, and I passed between them without incident. Briefly, I returned to my room to collect my belongings and then proceeded directly to the stables to recover Windborne.
None of the servants had yet taken their place with the horses, which suited me fine. I recovered the saddle and tack and fitted them to my mount on my own, thinking of Savlo and Errys, of Falla—even of Orren’s pitiable fate. I would pray that The One speed them all to new life and happiness, for I knew no other justice to be had for them.
I lead Windborne carefully from the stables, her stiff joints needing time to limber up before I mounted. Wordlessly, the guardsmen opened the castle gate for me, and I passed into Old Vaina, where the townsfolk were just beginning to come to life as the first of our suns peeked over the horizon. I ignored the signs of the Tree, the suspicious looks and spitting that once again greeted me amongst the townsfolk. They would never be allowed to know the fullness of the service I rendered to the amn Vaini, nor how the amn Vaini had wrought their own maladies. To them, I would always be just one more wicked thaumaturge, in league with forces dubious at best, but more likely evil. At that moment, I pledged not to take another job outside of the Sisters—I preferred being caught in the machinations of the Coin Lords over those of the nobility. The former, at least, knew what they were and didn’t insult you by trying to hide their duplicity while stabbing you in the back. But, even as I made the pledge to myself, I knew it would not hold. I’d go where the opportunities were. For coin, yes, but more to push the boundaries of my own abilities. This job had done exactly that, and I’d kept eld Caithra’s hidden book for my collection as well. For all the nastiness that accompanied my time in Vaina; for all the moral failings of mankind, all of the suffering wrought by unintended confluences, by things unseen and only felt upon their consequence; even for the less-than-happy ending, I didn’t regret coming here. Some of the things I did and said, sure. Some of the paths not taken that might have been better for all of us? Absolutely. But I could not summon up regret that I had come at all. There’d be plenty of time for that later, if it manifested.
When I passed under the gate into New Vaina, I found the constable Daedys waiting for me. How long he’d been standing in the dark before the suns rose I could only guess, but he carried no weapons and I breathed in a sigh of relief that he’d not come for some misguided but renewed insistence upon vengeance against me. Which gave me a thought.
“You are leaving, I see. How did it turn out?”
“Walk with me,” I instructed. He did as asked. I told him everything I’d learned without holding back. Someone had to know the truth, and at least once, I had to tell it. I told him how Orren had intended to take advantage of the amn Vainas for his own profit, how the potion Falla had given Nilma provided an unexpected opportunity. How he’d used that opportunity to seduce not Lady Aevale, but Aryden, causing him to break his trothbond to his wife. How, when Aryden discovered the treachery, he plotted to and then murdered the boy. How, at that very moment, Aevale, who’d also discovered the affair, had been undertaking a working to curse Orren, a working given to her by the priest Barro even as he offered such fear and hatred for Falla from his pulpit. How Orren’s murder acted as a sacrificial release of power that warped the curse into something else entirely, transforming Orren into a vampiric spirit of unusual power. I told him of Aryden’s sacrifice to undo the curse, of Orren’s binding to the painting as the only respite for anyone. Only this did I attempt to soften, explaining that the scholars seem to agree that mortal spirits somehow bound to the Avar do not stay indefinitely, but only for a time before they return to the Path and the Wheel. I finished with the information that Aryden had left in the night, a fulfillment of his oath, and that the recovered Lady Aevale now sat the seat of judgment in Vaina.
I don’t know how much he listened to. He was mumbling to himself, “Aryden killed my nephew,” over and over. A mantra, an oath. I could see that cold desire for vengeance re-enter his eyes, and I wondered whether he would find the wandering former lord—and what might happen if he did.
“There’s something I need to ask of you,” I told him.
This broke him, at least momentarily, from his obsessive course of thought.
“What is that?”
“Your place of Power, the place where you met with Magaréil. It is without a defender. I would ask that you watch over it, that you prevent it from falling into the hands of man or spirit who would exploit it. If you find such, write to me in the City.”
“What of Magaréil, then?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet. They’re coming with me, and I think we have a lot to discuss, they and I. From there I suppose I’ll have to find some place to free them where they cannot seek power over mortals as they did here.”
“You’ve deprived the folk here of their greatest ally, you know,” Daedys said.
“I’ve done a great many things that have changed this place for a long time. I meant well, but only time will tell how much good intentions had to do with, or how accurate my understanding of ‘good’ is. We make the choices we have and we live with the consequences.”
He nodded, and I returned to Ilessa.
[Return tomorrow for my own thoughts on the first draft. I’d love to hear yours!]
For the unofficial preface, click here.