His dwelling was dark and cool, far beneath the unending sands of Paschar. He had led them through a long tunnel, the opening to which was constantly in a mirage. Proof that his skills far surpassed Ottelo’s. The narrow, underground path was followed by a steady stream of cool water. Halfway through the tunnel, they left the horses to take their fill of water from the stream. After the company had filled, drank, and refilled their skins, he led the four men further in until the tunnel gave way to a large circular room. Like Lady Kaelah’s when last they had seen her, the room was overflowing with books, tablets of stone, and scrolls, all scattered about on tables hewn from rocks and molded from clay. One corner table housed a cup and plate with the Mirias crest engraved on them.
The room was lit by a smattering of candles, all carefully placed well away from any flammable materials. One burning candle he held in his hand, waving it about as he gestured to the different places to sit. Edward chose to stand, leaning his shoulders up against the curvature of the wall, searching the shadows until he was confident they were alone. He then focused on Yavin with a critical eye. Old. Older than his father. Perhaps he had been an Elder for the previous king. He moved in short, jerky motions, like he was constantly interrupted by the next thing. Edward kicked Ben, who had taken the stone in front of him to sit on, and raised an eyebrow.
Ben nonchalantly raised his hand to his heart and rubbed his chest, which was code for ‘He feels nervous.’ Had he rubbed his brow or his lips, Edward would have known Yavin was contemplative, or happy. If any of these gestures were offered with a shake of the head, they would have changed to confused or angry.
Yavin swung his robe around. “Forgive my nervousness. I am not used to company. Even less so, when it is the Crown Princes of Mirias and Staas visiting. There are only a few reasons the Great King would have sent you to me. Since Staas is represented here, I can only assume the Treaty has not been wholly abandoned. Since you are both in front of me, I can also assume the lack of an heir is not the problem. So then, it’s the worst reason possible, I’m sure.”
“How did you-“
“You learned those signs from your father, yes?” When neither Edward nor Benjamin offered an answer, but let their mouths gape open, Yavin went on. “Of course you did. I taught them to him. They came in handy during Assembly meetings.”
Ottelo and Pitney said nothing from their perches on the other side of the circular room, but their eyes remained wide and questioning. Edward was beginning to get annoyed with this man who told secrets of the king. There was no doubt in his mind as to why it was better for him to be sent away. There was only doubt as to why the Great King insisted that he lived.
“Lady ReAnne is in trouble. And it is grave, is it not?”
Again, Ottelo and Pitney sat, eyebrows raised and mouths open. Edward glanced awkwardly in their direction.
“Oh, so you have not told the Prince of Staas that his betrothed is on her death bed, then?” Yavin chuckled to himself, shaking his head and making his way around his piles of books, waving the candle in his hand from left to right as he lifted up various writings, examined them, and then set them back down. “I was afraid of this. Those pretentious Elders and haughty R’Phas. They tried to convince me the vex were necessary and useful. But I didn’t buy into their lies,” he muttered as he searched.
“How could they possibly be useful?” Edward interjected. “They fought the people of our lands, gave Maveth an army that they couldn’t have possibly defeated, and continue to strike fear into the hearts of all who claim to have seen them. Their terror cuts to the core of our people.”
“Hence, their usefulness, oh, future king. If the people are scared, they will demand protection…rulers…a governing body.”
“But the threat of an impending strike is always on the shoulders of the Great King.”
“Not just his, Edward, but all the kings of the treaty.” Ottelo rose as he spoke, chest puffed in aggravation, hand on his hilt.
“Yes, of course it is. I didn’t mean…” Edward slunk back a bit. His last statement reminding him that he was still not diplomatic enough to be king.
“Yes, you did.” Ottelo did not back down, angry for his kingdom to be kept in the dark about secret gestures during Assembly meetings, the constant feeling that he was not being told everything as a man, and the confirmation of it all by Yavin. Not to mention the severity of the situation being glossed over.
“I am sorry, Ottelo. My sister’s plight was to be told to only those we could trust. I was unsure if I could trust you until the vex on the sands attacked.”
“And by that time…Yavin came,” Benjamin offered.
“Just how ill is Princess ReAnne?” Pitney asked, but was ignored.
“So, you trust me enough to be bound to your sister, but not enough to tell me that she is in grave danger? How is that, exactly?”
“The Great King trusted you to be bound to her, not I.”
“Oh, and you put your opinion above that of your king, is that it? You spent a month with me, in my kingdom. Was there anything that gave you pause? Did I somehow prove myself unworthy to be trusted?”
“You know as well as I that a month is never long enough to trust a man. Circumstances denote trustworthiness.”
“No, but it seems to be time enough to not trust him.”
A small giggle escaped from Yavin, who was intently watching the exchange.
“He gave me full permission to tell you of what was happening with her, but I wasn’t sure…and then you pulled that mirage trick and it didn’t make me trust you more, to be honest.”
“Is someone going to tell me how bad Princess ReAnne actually is?”
“Yes, well…You were being pompous.”
“I was not!”
“Yes, you were. We both were,” Benjamin said. Edward blew out his disgust as he shoved Benjamin off his seat. Yavin stood in the center of them, turning his head back and forth to each as they spoke, a silly grin planted on his face.
“I was not.”
“She’s bad, Pit. Or we wouldn’t be here. And there you were, Edward. You were trying to act as if you knew exactly what you were doing. But we all knew that wasn’t true when the vex showed up.”
“And then, Yavin.” Benjamin again.
“Yes. Yavin. The know-it-all. Let’s listen to this crotchety old man. He seems to be trusted.”
“Well, you don’t trust anyone, so…”
“I trust you now, Ot.”
“So I am to accept ‘better now, than later?’”
“I know she’s bad. But how bad?”
“Oh, for pity’s sake, Pitney. She’s dying.”
Everyone stopped where they were. Yavin bowed to Benjamin who had put his hand over his mouth, shocked the words were his own. The air of silence hung thick between them.
“She’s dying?” Ottelo’s eyes burned into Edward.
“She’s not really dying…” Benjamin tried to back-track.
“It’s ok, Ben. They should know.” Edward took a step forward and Ottelo matched it. But instead of engaging, Edward seated himself on the ground. He looked up at the still standing Ottelo. “Please.” He gestured in front of him and Ottelo slowly sat down on the dirt floor in front of him.
“Let me apologize for my rashness in believing you to be untrustworthy. I do beg of you to consider that the fate of my sister is in my hands and I would be extra cautious all over again if it meant protecting her.”
Ottelo said nothing, lips pursed.
“Do you know the old histories? Of Aoife and the Provider?”
“And Hazar Maveth, yes.”
“Do you know how the vex came into being?”
“They are a creation from Hazar and the dark places.”
Edward nodded. “Yes, but do you know how he created them?”
“I have no specifics because the specifics are not…known…except that apparently, they are. Just not by me.”
“Histories tell us he deceived her, kidnapped her and she died within his captivity, but that is not entirely true. We believe the Vex began with Aoife.”
Everyone, even Yavin, held their breath as Edward spoke of the deception of Aoife and how Maveth instigated and then completed her corruption.
“This is the same fate that is before us in regards to my sister. If we can’t find a cure, she will be lost to us.”
When he was finished, Yavin spoke before Ottelo could.
“So, the Great King has relented some.”
“It is the histories as far as we know them. I assure you, they are from reputable sources.”
“I should say so! I am the source, my boy. You know more than most, I’ll give you that. But what is unknown is still to your detriment. You’ve only been given part of the story.”
“Then tell us. We need to know. I’m tired of being told I don’t know it all.”
Yavin stooped low to eye Edward and Ottelo suspiciously. “Yes, you do need to know. But not yet. The time for that has not come.”
In one fluid motion, Edward had drawn his sword and grabbed Yavin by the beard, shoving him up against the wall. Loose dirt that had long dried on the wall fell down around them, sending small dirt clouds all around.
“You will tell me now, old man,” he gritted through his teeth as Benjamin and Pitney grabbed him from each side and pulled him off. Ottelo took Yavin and stood in front of him, sword drawn, just in case.
“What has gotten into you?” Benjamin asked Edward, but Edward just shrugged him off.
To all of their surprise, Yavin began to laugh and started flitting around the room as everyone dusted their clothing and sheathed swords while tossing suspicious glances towards one another.
“None of you know what you are up against. Not yet. Though, you do need to free your sister from the confines of her impending doom. With that, I will help you.”
All four stood as they watched the old man’s beard and robe float with the hurried motion of him striding from one makeshift table to another, candle in hand, his voice repeating the notion they were ignorant of all that was to come, spoken in a sort of song cadence. Edward was still fuming, but Benjamin had kept his hand on his arm, just in case. Ottelo gave Edward a cold stare, but Pitney was fully entertained by Yavin.
When at last Yavin stopped, he seemed to have thought of something he hadn’t before.
“I know who can help. I should not have to tell you that you are limited to time…but you are. After Aoife, there was much study and research that went into finding a cure for her deformed and hideous figure. It was stopped short by the next Assembly of the Elders and the Order that formed after the Provider perished. But for the duration of Aoife’s Corruption, healers from all lands would come to the Provider, offering hope of a cure. Each time, they failed him. But another secret was kept, yes it was. After she emerged and was lost to him forever, the Provider was visited by one last person, a credible person, who claimed to know the way to heal her.”
“Are you saying she could have been saved?”
“Oh, not her. It was too late. Still,” he rubbed his hand down the length of his beard, “the thought it all could have been prevented was almost too much for the Provider. In a rage, he threw out the person before the healing poultice could be known.”
“Wait…the Provider didn’t even listen to it? What of the other vex? Could they not have been prevented?”
“Yes, I suppose they might have been prevented. Or, Hazar Maveth would have found another way to breed them.”
“Breed them?” Benjamin’s face was contorted in disbelief.
“Oh, yes. He used her as a womb for his army.”
“The depth of his hatred was unmeasured.”
“But why would Hazar hate the Provider so much?” Benjamin asked, but Ottelo, Pitney, and Edward already knew the answer.
“Why does any man hate another man with a vengeance that is unrelenting?” Yavin addressed his question to them all.
“So…the rumors are true…” Ottelo said.
“Yes…of course. Hazar Maveth loved Aoife. He only needed to gain her love in return. And some would say he did.”
“So, who was it that came to the Provider with the cure?”
“No one knew for a long time.”
“Until…” Edward gave Yavin a sideways glance.
“You found the person, didn’t you?” Ottelo proposed.
“It’s more appropriate to say I found the lineage of the person.”
“Well, who is it? And why didn’t the Assembly use the information to defeat the vex?”
“I tried, Prince Edward. As I grew nearer to finding the truth, the Elders grew suspicious, wary of the truth as it exposed more and more the faults of both the Provider, and their positions of power. Of course, your father knew there was unrest…when he found out why, he feared for the sake of all of Providence. The Elders came to him separately, complaining about my research, citing the ramifications of what it would mean if the kingdoms knew the Provider had turned away a cure and a possible end to the vex. Your father is an amazing king, most definitely wise, and yet, he is still a man. They got to him. But not enough that he lost all conscience. He came to me late one night and told me of their plans. We both knew they wouldn’t think twice to do away with me, so we concocted a plan, including the secret gestures during meetings. It took us a little over a year to accumulate all the writings, books, scrolls. He sent out numerous caravans under the guise of traders in search for those artifacts, histories, anything that would prove rumors to be true. He even sent spies into taverns to hear of any new rumblings among men. Then, we duplicated what we found, staying up into the early morning hours for weeks with trusted scribes and translators. When we reached a dead end, we knew it was time. We staged an argument, taunting the Elders and they readily took the bait to exile me so that I could continue our work free from their scrutiny.”
“So, you found the cure?”
“I found who must hold the cure.”
“How could one person get a hold of it? Didn’t Hazar Maveth kill all those he suspected to be treasonous?”
“Of course, of course. But nothing is fool-proof. Please, don’t misunderstand…the cure is in name only. It has never been tested and there is no way of knowing if it would work on the common vex, anyway. And you must remember, while you are out from under the constant blessing, you will struggle more readily. Those things within you that you fear about yourself will come more steadily into the forefront and you will need to push them down. I will admit, I am pleased to see that Edward has a bit of unrest behind his otherwise stoic demeanor. You cannot always do the right thing, but you can listen to that voice telling you something is not quite right. Ah, here it is.” He held up a torn paper with elongated, red writing on it.
“What is it?” Ottelo asked.
“It is the location of the woman within Havarth who can help you. She alone is privy to the old poultices, being the last known in her line. The secret may well die with her, but perhaps not. There are always rumors when one is secretive. She has studied in both Havarth and in Providence. If she tells you anything other than what you believe to be true, you are to be quick to put her to death.”
All four jerked back in surprise. “What? Why would we do that?” Ottelo asked.
“Because if Benjamin senses deceit in her, then you are too late, and she is a traitor. Here.” Yavin gave the paper to Ottelo, who read it outloud.
“Chimera Forrest? But why would she be there?”
“Everything is not as it appears, Prince of Staas. It would do you well to heed those words more than the many others I have spoken.”
“How will we know where to look for her? The forest is rumored to be huge, with many tales of travelers who have gone in and never found their way out.”
“You will know, Pitney. You are yet to be truly tested, but this forest will provide that opportunity.”
“How do you know that?”
Yavin winked, but said nothing.
“Well, do you at least have a name?” Edward stood up and adjusted his sword hilt.
“Of course, I do! Her name is Belda.”
Ottelo turned to Pitney in enough time to watch the color completely drain from his face.