“Maurlee, did your father ever try to contact the family he left behind?”
The Great King had summoned her once again to his library and offered her tea and biscuits with jam. This time, she wasn’t as awed in regards to the sheer number of volumes that lined the shelves. She had taken the king up on his offer to read whatever she wished, and she had found herself filling her brain with silly books of love sonnets and poems from the opposite side of the histories that lined the far wall. They had proven to be a welcomed escape from the long nights searching through the same books over and over again with Lady Kaelah. The only interruption she had before was Prince Dennis inquiring updates regarding his sister. He had left the hard task of research to the both of them once Maurlee had proven to be of use to Lady Kaelah, and was diligently working on his swordsmanship and studies. Hours he would spend outside, sparring with any knight or guard who would practice with him off duty. Maurlee had overheard Lady Kaelah talking to Pammy about his practice in hushed whispers…the idea that he would be king if Prince Edward and Prince Benjamin somehow did not return. His attention needed to be focused on the ‘what ifs’ of the future.
“I’m suppose’n he did,” she said as she stared into the fireplace. “When he was dyin’ he sent my brothers to scout out travelers who might be knowin’ ‘em along the edge of the forest and Pas-“
She paused, her eyes round like saucers, realizing she hadn’t yet told the king that her family hailed from Havarth.
“Oh, don’t worry, my dear. I had my suspicions. There is no danger for you here. I have known many a great man who escaped from the shadows of that land. Several of my guards were sons of those who fled Havarth during their last wheat famine. Perhaps even your own family has tried to come here. Do you know the names of the family that your father left behind in Havarth?”
The day was unusually warm so the morning fire had been allowed to die out; candles were lit next to the small table set with the tea. The remaining embers were still hot enough to look like they had skinny streams of lava running through them. It was these streams of winding red and orange that had Maurlee transfixed on them, transporting her thoughts to another time, another life. She hardly heard the king’s deep, gentle voice as it faded to the background and the voice of Ami teaching her the healing powers of coal from the stove took precedence.
“Like this, little one.” Clear as day.
Her voice, even in memory, comforted her fast beating heart, as her mind replayed Ami taking the stick and pushing a small, dark grey coal from the edge of the fire and into a cooking pot.
Days earlier, Maurlee had ventured out into the garden to twirl around and watch her dark hair, finally free from the previous night’s constricting braid, trail behind her. She had felt beautiful then, though she knew the other children talked of the small mole that sat beside her nose and her pale skin they said must glow in the night. But in her own garden, free from the others curious glances and untrusting stares, she could be free. She could almost smell the fresh forest air and feel the warm sun on her face. Her dark, indoor stay in the citadel was making her stir crazy.
But freedom in the morning garden gave way to afternoon hunger and she had done what Ami and Amu had asked her not to do. She ate from the plants surrounding the garden, one whose fruit she thought she knew well. She managed to ingest three before she began to feel the ramifications of her wrong choice and was laid out on the muddy floor of the garden by the time Ami got to her.
Ami had forced a chalky substance down her throat of which she sputtered and spit back out. Amu had to hold her while Ami covered her nose and mouth so that she had no choice but to swallow.
After she drank of the substance, she was violently ill and wondered why in the world Ami would force her to drink when they could have just left her if they wanted her dead. A few days went by, bed laden and weak before she was healthy again, ready to run around and play.
It was then that Ami taught her the mixture of powdered coal with limestone that caused her vomiting. It was then that Ami told her that she had willingly saved her life because she loved her. And it was then that Maurlee knew she never wanted to leave them. She waited for so long for them to come back to her after her father passed. Nights spent sitting up at the window in the very cot where Princess ReAnne had lain, wondering if the small, flickering lights she saw were their lanterns, coming to take her home. She had loved her father, he was gentle and kind, but even the relation of blood couldn’t replace the home she’d had with her Ami and Amu. Despite the protests of the others who would never accept her, in her heart, her home was with them. So when they never came back for her after her father died, she vowed never to long for them again. Finding herself here, needing to help ReAnne and feeling deep down that Ami would have known exactly what to do, she could not help but wish to be held by her one more time. To be taught what she did not know. She had tried to make it seem as though they didn’t mean anything to her when the King had asked, but she knew deep down, if she were given the chance, she might forsake the Princess to be with Ami again.
“Maurlee, are you alright?”
She drew a sharp intake of breath, unaware that a silent tear had fallen until she heard her name called for the second time. Quickly wiping its trail from her cheek, she abruptly stood from her place in front of the fire, dusting off her dress, and sat herself in the adjacent chair from the king. “Yes, sorry Your Grace. I am fine.”
But she had not been fine for the last twenty four hours. ReAnne had stopped reacting to their other poultices and haphazard antidotes her and the Lady Kaelah had put together. They were slowly, carefully, offering her drinks with extracts from tiny seeds that caused her to sleep, hoping to dull her pain and slow whatever process everyone seemed to be so scared of. No one had offered her an explanation of their sense of urgency, but she had heard plenty. Lady Kaelah sometimes talked in her sleep and the extra weight of knowing that she could die was taking its toll on Maurlee.
“Do you, then? Do you know their names?”
“I don’t know my surname. Ami and Amu called me by the name my father had given me. I only know him as ‘father’ and my brothers as Ungar and Emil. There was never any need to know more. The rare times my father spoke of his family he referred to them as so-and-so’s son or daughter.”
“Hhhmmm…” was all the king said. Maurlee did not like the idea that she might disappoint him, so she offered the only other information she had.
“I know my grandmother’s first name. It was supposed to be my own. But when my mother died at my birth, he gave me her name instead. It had been a family name, a tradition, to name any girl child with the same name as her. My father said even to his great, great, great grandmother, only this name had been known to him for girls. His sister had it, too…the one he left behind with a brother. My aunt, I guess she’d be.”
“And what name is that?” The Great King leaned close, hoping to find any information that might lead them to her family, and perhaps a bit closer to the healer within the Coills. If the father truly did try to contact his family after they left, he may have given some information that could aid in their search. They only knew a rough sketch of the outline with Aoife since she spent a lot of her sickness within the presence of Hazar Maveth. The Great King was trying not to succumb to desperation, but anything, anyone, they could find that may know something more than they was worth the effort. The name he heard instead was one that he was not expecting to hear at all. Ever again.
“Belda, Your Majesty. Her name was Belda. I think it perfectly beautiful, but my father told me that he’d long decided with my mother they would not pass it on, if ‘n ever they had a girl. He said his mother wasn’t rather kind to him as a child; that she was treatin’ my mother pretty bad, too, when my father up ‘n married ‘er. I suppose it is as it should be. I like that I have my mother’s name and that I wasn’t named after some ol’ crusty grandmother that would’ve been likely to box my ears.”
The king sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, praying against all hope that somehow the name was common. But he knew it was not true. How could this girl come back to haunt them in such a way? It was as if the great assembly meeting had not taken place at all.
“What is it, Your Majesty?” Maurlee asked, confused that her comment had somehow further upset the king.
He assured her she had done nothing wrong. In truth, she had not. For how can one chose their family lineage? Until she said that name, he had no reason to question her words. Until then, he had used his gift of Endearing Presence to soothe her anxiety and make her more willing to speak to him, but for the most part, she was more than willing and it spoke to her honesty. He believed her when she said she was frightened of the man with orange eyes. He believed her when she said she was desperate to stay within Dritan and he trusted that she truly did hold Princess ReAnne in high regard, loved her even. But knowing that she was related to Belda, the one the Elders and the Order determined unworthy to remain within kingdom walls, knowing that she had the same blood in her that caused such unrest between the other kingdoms and Staas…everything he knew of Maurlee before was caught in the web of who she was related to and stirred up old feelings of betrayal and distrust within him. He could no longer take the chance on a simple young maiden from the outskirts of their kingdom. The one whose small farm could not be found. The one who resided with the Coills. The one who willingly made a potion and administered it to ReAnne. The one who let his daughter be kidnapped by brothers she then begged to be free of. All these things came rushing to him and he suffered a great deal trying to lessen his growing anger. He tried to remind himself that she was also the one who helped ReAnne escape. She was here, aiding in her possible antidote. She cared for his daughter, day and night, and spoke to him as if she thought the sun rested upon his shoulders. Could someone so young fake such obvious devotion? And yet, Belda had been young. Not as young as Maurlee, but at least as young as Edward. And she had deceived them all.
He glanced over to Maurlee, who was still staring at him, eyes wide, unsure of what she’d done. She was a child in his eyes, though her age was probably close to ReAnne’s or perhaps she was only the same age as Dennis. Either way, he wanted to believe the innocence he saw reflected in her eyes. Did she have a gifting, he wondered. Belda had managed to hide hers for quite some time, suppressing it, not using it. Or was her charm a deciding factor to how ignorant they had been of her? Had they not seen who she was because they were too blind to believe a young maiden could possess such power? Starting as a lowly kitchen maid, she managed to infiltrate the court at Staas, hearing and storing gossip for future use to move her up through the ranks when she finally caught the eye of Queen Polete, who asked her to be a lady within her chambers. There, she could hear more and more about the court and the king and his dealings with the Elders and the other kingdoms. She attended balls and dined with those within the higher rankings of the court. She visited other kingdoms as a guest with her queen, Mirias included, and quickly gained favor with the servants. She learned things that the queen should have known to remain secret, even from her ladies. When the letters were found and the correspondence was intercepted from Belda and an unknown suitor who lived in Havarth, she was immediately taken into the guard’s custody and set to be tried as a traitor. It was her brother, Beval, who found her out and betrayed her for the sake of Providence and she swore revenge to him within the hearing of many guards.
The letters told of dealings amongst not just the king and queen of Staas, but of other nobility, who possessed what land holdings and who owed who favors. She had drawn the underground tunnels maintained in case of a possible siege and denoted where and what days and times the Elders, the Order, and the kings met for assembly. The worst of them all were letters listing names of nobility and royalty alongside their respective gifts. Cryptic messages were found in response to intercepted letters, hidden within the very dressing room of the queen. No one could determine who her recipient was, only that she referred to the person as a male and that she had been herself deceived by him, claiming ignorance of what she had done. Had she not sent them secretly to Havarth, one could have concluded that she was simply a naive girl full of gossip and desperate to tell someone what she knew. But vex began to show up within all the kingdoms in greater numbers, hiding among them in the shadows. With no one having accepted Foresight in Shadow for such a long time before Edward…only those with Veil of Mind could sense them and knew something was amiss in the shadows. It made sense to all that her letters instructed whomever was in Havarth that the kingdoms were weak in this gifting and susceptible to be overrun by them. Of course, the assembly tied the growing population of vex to the unknown recipient of her letters. Though much effort was made to find him, she had constructed such a tangled web of spies and conferred so many favors among the servants, that none were willing to betray her. Cunning, deceitful…dangerous, she eventually was found to have both Endearing Presence and Hindering Touch, the former explaining how it was that so many would follow her instructions and offer loyalty to her, even unto death. The latter should have been sensed by those who were looking for it, the blockage of the use of their gifts by a thoughtful touch of a hand. So great was her seduction, that none in her presence would have drawn such a conclusion. Even Beval was proven to be guiltless of the knowledge of them.
The use of both fully mastered by her was bewildering to all and frustrated the kings of Providence who felt the crippling of being restricted to only one gift even more so than usual. Much annoyance and frustration was felt in gathered assemblies of the strict guidelines lined out by the treaty, particularly when a king was set to gift his own son. Many times a king would petition for an exception to the treaty, citing a strong affinity towards more than one and using the idea that choosing only one was to provide a disservice to their kingdom’s future rule. This was always met with eye rolls and slams of fists on tables from those who had followed the guidelines previously agreed upon. Occasionally, the request made it so far as to threaten civil war among them. But those with Endearing Presence were able to calm anxieties and suppress unfair advantages in their minds, and for the most part, the assemblies ended peacefully.
Belda was mentioned in regards to this, but none would confess to having given her any gifts and the whole of the assembly publically determined that she must have been gifted from an unknown source in Havarth. Secretly, everyone thought everyone else was lying.
Those in the Order, with Veil of Mind, tried to determine to whom she sent the letters and was it the same person who gifted her, but they were always unable to read her at all. She was adept at Hindering Touch in ways that was only suggested in the histories and they had to eventually accept defeat.
Though she lived in Staas when her deceit became known, the Great King had to be rid of more than half of his servants for they had been found guilty of treason and aiding a known traitor. When the council was called, the Great King met with resistance from King Theosi for her exile, surprised to hear that the usually lenient king from Staas was advocating putting her to death. Seeing no reason for her death when they could potentially learn from her, the Great King met secretly with his kingdom’s Elders, including Mayavin, to pull in his extra vote against the council. Under the guise of being servants, he negotiated a partial exile for both her and her brother, so as to keep an eye on her within the manor of the ever watchful and discerning Lord Wentry. Mayavin was the first to see the wisdom in this and stood in agreement with the Great King. This ultimately caused conflict between Mirias and the Staas Kingdom. Princess ReAnne’s binding to Prince Ottelo was to be, in a sense, a reunification of the two.
Beval was to also accept charge of her actions and report them under his own exile. Upon her death, he would be allowed to remain within the kingdom. This addendum was presented by the Elders, pressured by King Theosi, assuming Beval would take it upon himself to rid the kingdom of her for the sake of his own freedom.
No one could have foreseen how an elderly man would have surrendered to the devious wiles of her ways. They had all been fools and it was proven when Lord Wentry announced he had been bound to her and that she was with child. Under Providence laws, no man could be forced to spy on his wife.
In a strange change of heart, only King Theosi approved of their binding. Lord Wentry was his best friend, and he swore that to see him happy in his last days was worth any threat from Belda. He argued that now that she was known as she was, she would not be able to gain much ground without being caught.
But Lord Wentry was found dead. Belda and surprisingly, Beval, were missing. Suspiciously to everyone else, King Theosi accepted the infant into his home. An infant was all that was left to show for their existence. An infant far too old to have been a newborn. Far too old to have been Lord Wentry’s rightful heir.
Now, there was only one thing the Great King could do to ease his mind regarding Maurlee, but to do it was to defy the treaty and potentially create the very conflict he was trying to avoid. He tried to tell himself that Maurlee could not be guilty simply because of her family, but in his heart he knew the risk was too great. There was too much at stake and he would not forfeit his daughter’s life for the sake of Belda’s niece.
The kings that signed the treaty agreed to the prominent use of only one gift, but what others did not know, outside the inner workings of Elders and R’Phas, was the other gifts were still given in smaller portions, thus enabling the kings of the Providence Treaty the ability to bequeath any of the six. These lie far below the surface of their prominent gift and while they can be brought up, they take so much effort they leave the user ill. A R’pha with Somatic Mending is called in quickly when a king becomes sick, with the appearance to efficiently diagnose and treat the illness. Their true motive, however, was to search for signs of a breach in the treaty. This was supposed to be a secret held deep within the confines of the Order, but over time, even R’Pha’s made deals and traded secrets.
What had previously been known as only rumors, and small snippets in the histories, of those who obtained more than one gift, and had gained mastery in both without suffering lasting physical ramifications, were looked at with more scrutiny than before. Belda proved the restriction and illness accompanied with its denial was able to be overcome. And by not much more than a child. Until then, the strain of suppressing five, even with the Spirit of Blessing present, was difficult enough to send a newly crowned king to his bedchamber for months on end until, with practice, one learned how to suppress the five, and use the one. The Great King himself had been bedridden for three months at the start of his rule. The time of transferring power from one king to another always left the kingdom in a bit of a quandary, leaving its newly coroneted ruler to establish authority from a bed and the Elders to assume more power than they should have held. Belda proved further practice of multiple gifts was possible and all knew its uses, both practical and sinister, were endless.
The king was taking a great risk, indeed. He would not have considered it, had he felt there was any other way.
He took a deep breath and prayed for protection. He immediately felt the energy leave from his body. He searched her intentions with Veil of Mind quickly, knowing that the longer he exercised it, the harder it would be to hide its use. If he could avoid a visit from a R’pha, then no one need know what he had done.