Vex surrounded them at every side. Grand Vex, reds and black. Smaller ones, commons, in green, black, brown and a smattering of red. All with wings spread along the border of Belda’s tunnel, teeth bared, some hissing. All creating a barrier were either of them to think of making a break for it.
“Are you in control of them?” Ottelo eyes were as wide a saucers, the idea that they were trapped by vex was terrifying and remarkable. Ottelo had only been in the presence of Yavin’s vex that he could see, and of course, his own mirage he threw to combat them. But this was something altogether fascinating.
“While I am denied very little, I cannot claim power over them as some. Nevertheless, through the years of my exile and living in Chimera, we have managed to come to an understanding between us. You would be hard pressed to move beyond them without my permission, I assure you.”
Edward did not move, eyeing Belda as she continued to circle around them, searching for a clue to her ability or a lapse in her judgment that would provide them an opening for information.
“Do they live here, then?”
“As much as one can assume they live anywhere, I suppose. They divide their time between the forest and their duty as spies. Traveling back and forth between Providence and Havarth leaves them tired, hungry.” She narrowed her gaze and flipped her braid behind her. “I’m sure you are aware they travel through Yavin’s tunnels. Did you know they also nest there?”
Ottelo shook his head, still in wonder of their predicament. Pitney’s body lay; limp as ever, across Tuens. Beside an occasional tongue lashing, the vexes stood upright, wing tip to wing tip. Unmoveable. Their numbers, Edward guessed to be at more than two hundred, the smaller ones filling in the gaps of the larger one’s wing spans. They were a chilling sight. A definite threat to any who dared to challenge them. All three horses lifted their chins, pulling on their bits in protest, but Edward still held them tightly.
“Are these the vex who hold my brother?” Edward scanned the sheer multitude before him. None would look him in the eye. He took a small step towards the closest one to his left. His effort was left unrewarded.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not, Prince. Why would I tell you and betray them?” Belda stopped in front of one, a large green-skinned vex. The neck was abnormally longer than most, as was the tongue it lashed out like a whip and brought back with a snap. Belda stroked its forearm, whispering words Edward could not make out. The creature did not move its gaze to her, but cocked its head slightly to one side. It was listening.
Watching her stroke the creature reminded him of a picture in one of the manuscripts Edward found during his studies. The drawing depicted a woman with long, dark hair, braided off to the side, with a crazed look in her eyes. One hand was raised, fingers twisted like roots of trees, as she threatened to touch the skin of the six kings, covered only in loin cloths, drawn to the right of the page. At her back was a Vex army, seemingly protecting and encouraging her. But to her side sat one vex Edward knew now was a Grand. Her hand rested on its long neck. Elder Conradin had insisted that the picture was a silly artist rendition of those who wished to strike at the heart of fear. His interpretation leaving the woman and the Vex as a symbol of evil and the king’s bare skin as a warning to how vulnerable they were to those who possessed gifts and used them without the confines the Treaty and the Assembly had put into place. Conradin had hurriedly rolled the manuscript up and as he thought of it, Edward could not remember having run across it since. What if the manuscript, the drawing, was not at all what Conradin said? Another lie from the Elders. Edward couldn’t be sure. Whatever was meant by it, he was certain now the depiction at least was accurate of what could be. Belda and her army of Vex proved that.
Edward handed Ottelo the reigns of the horses. “Perhaps it is you, then, who holds my brother captive. I suspect you held Pitney captive, only to return him in a gesture of good will to throw us off.”
“Yes…well…” She looked to the seemingly unending line of Vex and sighed heavily, “We are all captive to something.”
“We are only captive by what we let take hold of us.” A surprising twinge of pity towards her sat in his chest.
“That is an ideal of Providence, Prince of Mirias. A lie. Everyone is captive. As king, you will find that you are led and directed by a certain set of rules. Are you not even now captive to the Spirit of Blessings? To the Provider’s ideals? Oh, but that is not for me to decide,” she flitted a hand. “There may have been a time I was willing to play petty games with men’s hearts, but I no longer have use for them. Your brother is well. This is all I will tell you, for the moment.”
“Tell me, Belda, what games have you played? If they were worthy of playing, I’m sure the histories themselves would speak of you. As it is, I have no recollection of you, nor your name.”
He was greeted by the underside of her chin as her head fell back in hearty laughter. “No, of course not. For to know of my story would be to admit failure on the part of the Assembly. I am a well-guarded secret, dear prince. Living in Providence did have its benefits.” She sauntered closer, passing him and Ottelo to put a hand on Regal, who snorted at her unwanted touch. “The Spirit of Blessing plays dangerous games with hearts,” she whispered more to the horse than to them, “It gives you enough that you crave it. The peace of it. The tranquility. The protection. And then, when you crave more of its power, it denies it to you. You feel it now…the removal of that protection. Instead of offering you more for the taking…it denies your heart until you give everything of yourself. You cannot be allowed to linger on any small morsel of who you were. It desires you to abandon yourself to it completely. And when you do not…you feel this…out of sorts. Abandoned to the will of your circumstances. In Havarth, you would freely feel power, my friend. Nothing would be held from you. Your gallop against the wind would be one of legend.”
Regal did not retaliate at her words. Neither of her human listeners said anything in response. There was a crack in her voice. Was it the beginning of tears? The admission of regret? Edward found he could not focus solely on it for his mind was then occupied by the idea of relinquishing power. Though unneeded, his gift tugged at him again.
“You have done well in the past, Prince Edward.” She eyed him from beneath thick eyelashes as she made her way back around to him, lightly brushing his hand. His gift ceased immediately, then began to prod him when she had fully passed. “Easy enough for you to push aside the pull to the darkness. The Spirit of Blessing helps with this, I know. But tell me, how has it been since you have entered the forest? Still able to withstand it? You have not yet tapped into its great power or this conversation would have began much differently and ended rather quickly, I would assume. Tell me…has the Spirit of Blessings worn off enough for you to experience the Point of Rending? What do you know of Decay?”
She must have spent some time with prominent people in Providence to know of Decay, to have access to the same information that Lady Kaelah was. Another misstep of the Elders and the Order. Further proof there was dissension and chaos among them for such depth of the gifts to be given to one that was not supposed to have any at all. Someone had forsaken the treaty for her. Edward took a small step toward another vex. No reaction. “Am I not allowed to guard my own secrets, Belda? What if we were to offer each other an exchange of sorts? A secret for a secret?” Silently, Edward prayed to the Provider she would take the bait.
“What secret could you possibly have that I need from you? Have I not proved that I know more about you than you think I do?”
“But of course,” Edward acquiesced with a small nod, “Forgive me for assuming. I was only wondering if you had any desire to hear of your son.”
Belda’s step faltered for just a second, her eyes shifting to Edward quickly. “You know of my son?”
Edward gave a glance to Ottelo with a raised brow and a small twitch of his mouth, a silent apology in case his plan went awry. Ottelo gave an almost imperceptible nod in return. His knuckles were white against the reigns of the horses he still held. In Yavin’s tunnels, Ottelo and Pitney relayed enough of the story of his birth and upbringing by the Staas king that Edward could make use of it against Belda. If she cared enough.
“Indeed. And I know of where he now resides and whether your abandonment has been cruel or kind to him in life.”
“I did not abandon him.” Her sharp intake of breath and lifted chin told Edward all he wanted to know about her feelings towards her son.
Edward made his way slowly to where Pitney still remained, slung over Tuens.
“And yet, he is not with you. One can only assume he was left to find his own way in the world. Do you think he has found a life of worth? Or is he left to be a beggar in the street? A servant to one who would always rank high above him?”
“I was promised his life would be full and complete. I know he was brought into a house of…royalty.”
Edward could see she was not saying all that she knew, but as he neared closer to Pitney, he prayed she would at least have a sense of motherly affection somewhere within her being.
“My son will be great.” She took a defiant step towards Edward.
“Your son is nothing more than a valet. He spits on shoes and makes them shine for those who would spit on his face. He wallows in the filth of pigs for sport of the one he serves.” Edward sensed Ottelo take in a deep breath. “He is nothing. Born as a bastard.”
She took another step toward Edward who was now at Pitney’s lifeless body. “He was not born a bastard. That was seen to. Theosi promised me. He owed me. King Lo-“She stopped herself, but not fast enough that Ottelo did not notice the name she meant to say.
This time, he did not take any covert precautions on Edward’s behalf. “Who?” He demanded of her, dropping the reigns and reaching out to grab her hair as she had tried to turn from them both. Her whole body wrenched around at the force of his pull. “You tell me right now, witch. Who is his father?”
Belda’s eyes were wide only for a second before she set her jaw on edge and slapped his hand. “Let me go or you will know nothing from me.”
But it was too late. Edward had Pitney down off the horse. Holding his limp body with one arm, he held his sword with the other, under Pitney’s chin, ready to do what was necessary. “You will tell us all that we wish to know, or your son will die.”
Ottelo dropped her braid in surprise to Edward’s demand. “Edward, what are you doing?”
“No!” Belda cried out, betraying her steadfastness for one of a mother’s desperation. The vex nearest them hissed in his direction, breaking their wall of defense for the first time. Down the line of them, others turned their heads toward Belda’s cry. Edward missed something from his previous inspection of them, but it hardly mattered now. Without Benjamin here, he was unsure of his ability with the vex.
“I’m sorry, Ot, but my sister’s life is at stake. I need to know what information she keeps. Belda?”
“No…no…do not harm him. I will tell you what you need to know. It’s not held in herbs or medicines. Poultices have little power. Lady Kaelah’s search is futile. Anything she or Maurlee would know to do will only give her moments of time, breaths, whispers…they will not restore her to life. What you seek is a mastery of the gifts that no one has held beside Hazar Maveth. It is the only thing that will save her. Please…”
“Where do I get it, woman? Where can I learn it?” He tightened his grip on Pitney.
“Edward…watch your sword,” Ottelo gritted through his teeth. Edward ignored him. A small drop of blood was released from Pitney’s neck.
“The information came too late for the Provider, but even when he learned of it, he admitted to only a few that he never would have risked all of Providence for it. He’s bleeding…if you harm him…”
“What? What happens if I harm your son, Belda? You left him, didn’t you? What is his life worth to you?”
Belda looked back and forth between the three of them, Pitney’s head stretched back over Edward’s shoulder, exposed to the blade of Edward’s sword.
“What is his life worth to you?” Edward said again without easing the stress of the blade against Pitney.
Ottelo struggled to control the fury he felt towards Edward, greatly desiring to trust what he knew of the future King of Mirias. He would not harm Pitney. No matter what he said, he was not the caliber of man that would kill an innocent for information. Even if it was his sister the information would save.
“I will tell you what you want to know. What you need to know.”
“And what of Pitney?” Ottelo turned to her and asked.
Belda stared at the man who was not only a brother to her son, but whose relation to her son could fracture the Staas Kingdom with one answer. Ottelo loved Pitney, but greater men had turned on family for the sake of power. Even Belda had sacrificed her position as Lord Wentry’s wife for the sake of ambition. For the promise of even greater power than wondering amongst the nobility in Providence. Some of her history was the undoing of her own selfish conceits. But others…others were part of a great purpose. To be used when the time was right. She wondered if Edward, in all his studies had stumbled across the picture of her she had drawn and if he had made the connection, yet. Perhaps Conradin kept it hidden as he had promised to do when she had been exiled.
“Tell me, witch, who is his father?” Ottelo drew his sword in her direction. It was all she needed to know. He would rather kill her than threaten the life of his friend. The time had come when she had to release some of her secrets, some of her power, in order to obtain that which was greater. Pitney would have to defend himself from now on.
“Your father has always had his eyes on every woman besides your mother. I was no different.” She did not move her eyes from Ottelo’s. “When I first came to Staas, my brother and I had been exiled from the Coills. We sought refuge with a farmer and his family who took us in. It was a year of Festival, and when the time came, we loaded up the poor family’s wagon with their meager crops they could spare and made for Mirias. Lord Wentry saw me and instantly fell for me, though defending the land was his first priority. Still, he offered me a position in his house, of which I refused. My brother found work with the blacksmith during Festival, and was taught a trade, but I refused to be a servant. Taking pity on me, that Beval had abandoned me, Lord Wentry found a position for me in the kitchens of Staas Castle. I would have flatly refused, except I had the promise of a greater position with a good report.” She smiled coyly. “Shortly after my arrival, others were considered inept at their job and I was promoted quickly. When one of Queen Polete’s ladies in waiting was taken ill, I was given the position of catering her lunches to her chambers. Then, it was breakfast and lunch. Before I knew it, I was given the honor,” she snorted at the word, “at catering to her full time. Her every whim. She was rather exhausting.” She raised an eyebrow in Ottelo’s direction, but when he did not come to his grandmother’s defense, she continued.
“Of course, King Theosi was remarkable. He had his own wondering eye, I assure you, but he kept it maintained to one mistress, of who all knew he loved even beyond the love of the queen. Rumors flew that even your father, Lothair was not your mother’s but was raised as such because Polete was proven barren. I do not consider this to be the case, as one look at your father was like seeing Queen Polete in a man’s form. She was a little masculine, herself, and it translated well to a son. Although…the paternity of Aldetrudis could be questioned…”
Ottelo did not offer a rebuttal, even when his uncle’s validity was questioned.
“One evening, the whole of the castle came together for a great feast celebrating the king’s anniversary of his coronation. Spirits ran high and the well of wine ran deep. Your father had already been bound to Dima, but it seemed as though marriage gave him a greater desire for that which he could not have. His wife retired early to her chambers, as usual. Her love of gaiety and parties was always thin. Not so, your father. He found me conversing with a group of rather rambunctious men in a corner of the grand hall. Of course, the men all excused themselves with one raised brow from Crown Prince Lothair. Our affair lasted for months until I was with child and could no longer hide it from him. He wanted nothing to do with me then, but I knew too much. He always had a great desire to be one with interesting…information. He passed much to me and I repaid him by freeing up a few…loose ends for him. He is not exactly well-liked, you see. Once I was with child, he feigned desire and interest in me to keep me quiet. To buy my silence. Oh, when I think of what he did not know…” she laughed, another hearty laugh, and then turned quick with anger. “I was exiled to Lord Wentry’s manor. Eventually, I proved still too close for comfort to some. I was told if my brother and I left with no ill will, the child would be looked after and raised to be as close to that of a prince as was possible. If I refused, the child would die. He was taken in by King Theosi and given to his real father as a playmate for the newly born prince.”
Ottelo swallowed hard. Pitney was his brother. Of royal blood. With claims to the thrown. He could feel his whole body sting in response to the revelation. “Does he know?”
She only raised a brow in response.
“Answer me.” He took a step towards her and drew his sword. She took a step back as one vex to Ottelo’s side hissed and stepped in towards him, giving a clear warning.
“Belda!” Edward pressed the sword even tighter to Pitney’s neck. More blood trickled down.
“You wouldn’t do that to Ottelo…” She shook her head, confused as to why he had not come to the rescue of his best friend, and now brother. She turned to him, stirring up her gift of Endearing Presence. “Surely, you would not let a man kill your brother?”
Ottelo’s anger fell from his face. “Edward?”
“Do not underestimate what I would do for my sister. You will teach me.” Edward’s voice cracked.
“You do not want to slay him, Prince. Could you live with that, truly?”
She was right. He could not live with it. He lowered the sword a bit, giving in to defeat. Resigning himself to the loss of his sister. ReAnne’s light and life playing out as scenes from a play in his mind. The last, of when they had traveled home from Staas, her chestnut hair peeking out from under her cloak, flushed cheeked as she spoke of Ottelo.
No, he could not lose her. He took a deep breath and fought against the despair. The life of his sister bolstering his resolve.
Edward dropped Pitney’s body to the ground, trying to hide his shaking hands. A vex hissed in the back ground. He knelt over Pitney’s body, one leg resting on each side, sword in both hands, raised above his head. He took one last look at the line of vex, not knowing how they would react to what he was about to do. Belda was as a statue. She reminded him of the Great King when he had made up his mind. Immovable. Edward pushed aside the feeling of guilt accompanying the comparison. He had no other choice than to make the one that would save his sister, even if it was with the sacrifice of a friend.
“Edward…” Ottelo whispered.
Edward expected Belda to protest, but still she remained, her chin lifted in defiance and disbelief, her eyes critical, questioning his resolve. Again, Edward found his desire for Benjamin’s presence overwhelming. He wanted to be sure. He needed to be sure. Now, he could only pray this would work. He gave one last look towards his new friend, sorrow and regret on both their faces. “I have to, Ottelo. I am sorry.”
In one motion, he thrust the sword down, directing it towards the chest of Pitney’s lifeless body.