“Begrenzen, thank you for seeing me.”
His eyes were wide as he took in the sight of her.
“My door is always open to you, Lady Kaelah.”
Her dress was freshly washed and pressed. Though modest in cut, the kelly green set off her auburn hair and made her green eyes sparkle with intensity. Having spent weeks on end in nothing more colorful than her brown or grey apron, the change in dress was obviously effective. She smiled, sweet and outwardly inviting. Inwardly she groaned, hating that this was the only plan she came up with in such short notice to get what she wanted from him. She had not wanted to use him this way, or give him any false sense of affection on her part. Even as he eyed her from top to bottom, she felt her skin crawl with the deceit of her actions, and how it obviously affected him. Was he truly faithful to the order, or was their childhood friendship enough to incline him towards her without the one sided charade? Edward would have seen right through it, laughed at her even, and simply asked what it was she wanted as he so often had when she tried being flirtatious. But not Begrenzen. It was a false hope and hardly fair. As she stepped through his door to the Chamber of the Elders, she felt her back straighten with pride and resolve. Another plan formed in her thoughts. She would get what she wanted from him, but she would do it without batting her eyelashes.
She heard the door fall into place and for the first time, was scared she had made a mistake.
He offered her tea and snapped his fingers at the servant waiting by the chamber door. He flinched at the sound of the snaps, but Begrenzen seemed unaware.
His room was stuffy, lavish, and smelt strongly of the sandalwood incense burning on a sideboard. Kaelah stopped herself from coughing as it stuck in her throat. He gestured for her to sit at the chair beside his, which could only be described as a miniature throne, the gold weaved in and out from the arm rests, the thick fabric mimicking its fluidity with colors of green matching that of the Elders.
“Have you been in these rooms before?” Begrenzen didn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “Their opulence is a direct result of the love the people have for us. We protect them, remind them of their duties, and they lavish us with gifts. Many keep lock boxes under their beds filled with the odd coin or jewel with strict instructions upon their death to bequeath the contents to us. It is, of course, how we are paid for our services.” He rose up one sleeve of his green gown, no longer light green to confirm him an initiate, but dark, evergreen, to prove his status as an elder of high regard. Though they had all been confirmed on the same day, he had risen through the ranks at an unheard of pace. With Elder Conradin as his father and cousin to the Great King, it was no wonder the halls of the Elders had echoed with rumors of nepotism. Elders under other kings, representing their respective kingdoms, had worn the initiate gown of light green, resembling a pale jade, for at least a decade. Underneath his sleeve, he revealed a bracelet of gold, a cuff, the filigree inlayed with two fire opals. Like eyes piercing through a mask.
“This,” he said, “I received from a farmer who had purchased it for his wife from the Coills. How he came into such a large sum of money, I do not know. When she passed away, he kept it safely hidden until he was on his death bed. He only made its existence known to me through a letter designated for me alone. Later, I found out his younger children were left fatherless. Thankfully, a nearby relative was able to take them in. I’m told they are up with the sunrise helping her bake for the market every day. Occasionally, I walk past and show them their late mother’s bracelet as a special token of my gratitude for possessing such a fine gift.”
Lady Kaelah gave a tight smile. “It’s beautiful,” she said through clenched teeth. “One does wonder, though, if the richness of the jewelry was better spent on the children’s comfort during their childhood rather than adorning the arm of an Elder who already has so much as his disposal.”
The words were sweetened, like honey drizzled on a tart apple. Begrenzen narrowed his eyes at her.
“Yes, well. All’s well that ends well.”
She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “If you say so.”
“Kaelah…” he warned, rejecting the formality of using a title. He stood and began striding across the floor, flailing his hands. “Why is it nothing I have done has ever been good enough for you? I can gain all the riches of the Elder’s, move through their ranks at lightning speed. Be there for you when others have failed you. And still, you mock me as though we were still children, teasing each other over failed rock skipping on the ponds.”
His words had a peculiar sting. If not for the man that was standing before her, then for the childhood friendship they possessed in their distant memories. After Edward chose foresight and Begrenzen had been so rock steady for her, she knew there was a strong attraction on his part. But she had made it perfectly clear it was not reciprocated and yet, they found themselves having this discussion almost every time they were together. It had long stopped being simply exhausting and had become something that infuriated her instantly. And of course, the not so subtle reminder of Edward’s betrayal did not help.
It took everything within her to remain calm and keep focused. “Begrenzen, you of all people know that riches do not impress me.”
He turned from across the room where his previous rant had taken him. He placed his hand on a nearby table and fanned a book lying upon it. “Yes, well. For someone with whom riches do not impress, you manage to find yourself accompanied by wealthy men quite a bit.”
“I spend much time in my room these days. To which wealthy man are you referring to?”
He took a moment, not speaking, and then shook his head. “Never mind. Princes or kings are of no mind to me right now. Tell me, what can I do for you, my friend. One does not request an audience with an Elder unless there is something to discuss or be done. As friendly as we once were, I am sure you are no different.”
He did not move from where he was standing and she took the moment to relieve herself the comfort of her seat, as well. She could not peruse the shelves for what she was looking for if she remained seated.
Just as she was about to request a copy of a book she knew well was already in her room, the servant with the tea entered. With trembling hands, he tried to serve her tea where she stood, but managed to splash a small drop on her dress. She put her hand on his, to steady the shaking, and then politely declined the tea under the pretense of it being a tad too warm for her taste. The servant nodded to her, tears in his eyes, and made his leave hurriedly out the door.
“Begrenzen?” She turned to address the frightened servant’s master. “What on earth did you do the poor man?”
“Hmm? What? Oh, him?” He sighed deeply. “He was very poorly trained when he came to me. We had quite a bit of a rough start together, I’ll admit. But the shaking seems to be ever constant. I can’t imagine why.” He turned his head, pretending to be preoccupied with his own books.
Lady Kaelah did not say anything more about it, but made up her mind to request the obviously on edge servant for the gentler atmosphere of her service in Dritan.
“Lady Kaelah, might I interest you in the tales of the Provider? Some of them are quite comical.” He pulled a small book out of a gold-laden shelf, the spine only half the width of most of the others. “When I was a child, my father used to read them to me. As bedtime stories, you see.”
“Comical bedtime stories? Of the Provider? Are they different than the histories written?”
He held it in one hand and it opened quite easily to the center. “Oh, yes. Quite different. They are what you would call…tall tales…much like rumors of the Coills, only from generations passed.”
“No thank you, but I am glad that you asked. Borrowing a certain book is exactly the favor I was meaning to ask of you.” She needed him occupied, searching for a book he would not find easily, or at all, since it was already in her possession. Then, she could feign helping in the search and find what it was she was really after.
“Oh?” He replaced the book to its spot on the shelf.
“Yes. I was wondering if you had the Book of Wildlife within your chambers?” Her hands rested politely clasped in front of her.
Safe inside her chambers, Prince Dennis took in her attire. His reaction was one of a raised brow and surprise. Intrigue, but not improperly so. She ignored it, ashamed and unwilling to acknowledge her previous intentions. Especially since she had succeeded without them.
“Your father used a gift that was not his to use, Deet.”
Lady Kaelah and Prince Dennis were finally alone in her chambers. He had just returned from a small walk to clear his head and his heart of all the trappings life was giving him. It had not worked as he wished.
In the last twenty four hours, a cloud had seemed to have settled over the village. He could not recall the usual chirps from seller’s as they whistled while going about their work, setting up their displays to perfection. The laughter of children was easily hushed by hovering mothers, and didn’t start up again in its usual defiant fashion once their backs were turned. Instead, maidens, servants, and farmers bartered under their breath and exchanged wares without as much as a smile. Curt nods and deep sighs accompanied the usual bows and curtsies in his direction. It had depressed him, but until he sat in Lady Kaelah’s chambers, he had not been able to figure out why.
Lady Kaelah scanned the room another time, ensuring their privacy. Dennis had watched her scour the room as soon as he came back. When he entered, she had quickly dismissed everyone, even a very confused Maurlee, and then went so far as to check under the bed for stragglers.
“Edward said you could feel them. Are you looking for it?” He had asked her in regards to the vex that often made its home up in the corner of her room.
“No, I haven’t felt it lately.” She had let out a small chuckle, but it was tinged with sadness. “I suppose I still think I will see it if I look hard enough.” She had reluctantly given up her search to sit beside him.
Now, in spite of knowing they were most definitely alone, he found his voice barely above a whisper.
“What did you say?”
The only ears to hear anything they said were ReAnne’s, but it had seemed like the faint hint of a dream, the last time she opened her eyes, much less seemed alive at all. Her previously frail figure had grown gaunt. Her complexion greyer than it was before. Her beautiful chestnut hair dulled and begun to fall out, leaving clustered strands of it floating on her pillow when Maurlee or Kaelah dared brush it. Lady Kaelah’s room had grown musty like all rooms do when they are exposed to a sour stench of constant sickness. The light pouring in from the window no longer would dissipate the smell. Nor was it able to bring a small ray of hope to those who cared for her. And was it true, or was it just his imagination, that even the light from the Spirit of Blessing residing over the Kingdom of Mirias with awe-inspiring consistency had begun to fade?
Lady Kaelah shifted on her stool in front of him. “Listen to me, Deet. I searched it. I found an old manuscript that spoke of the kings and how they were capable of doing it. They were sworn not to use any other gifts other than their dominant one, lest any of them grow too strong and overpower each other. But there is a trace the act of treason leaves if they decide to use one, for whatever reason. A marker, if you will. It is why the R’Pha is to be called immediately when a king falls ill. Treason against the treaty results in illness and the R’Pha searches for the evidence of treason right away, even before bothering with diagnosis. There were hints of this, of course, in some of my studies, but I went to the Chamber of the Elder’s and hid it within the folds of my dress while Begrenzen poured our tea. There were times I thought he had caught me by the curious stares and glances as we spoke. If he did know, then he allowed me to leave with it regardless of his suspicions. Check under your chair.”
Dennis slid his hand under the cushion of his chair and pulled out a folded and torn manuscript.
“Your father’s gift is Endearing Presence. I saw what I can only describe as a mirrored ball within him. This means the underlying gift he used was Veil of Mind. The ball is mirrored so that the person it was used on can be reflected in its surface. And it reflected Maurlee. Why would he feel the need to use Veil of Mind on her so much that he risked his own life?”
Dennis opened the manuscript, noting the signature of High R’Pha Pitagoras from the Provider’s original Order.
“Does it always end in death? Surely, kings have done this before. He cannot be the only one who would risk…”
“From what I can tell, the initial health of the king regulates the severity of illness. So in theory, no. It would not always end in death. But Deet…treason always ends in death. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes.” He found himself instantly wishing for days when his life was less complicated and the only ideas running through his mind was of hunger and the food that would satiate it. But this was not to be any more. In a short period of time, he had been forced to grow into a man. It was time to put aside childish things. “There is only one reason. It had to have been to save ReAnne.”
Lady Kaelah nodded her head. “Yes, I agree, but what could Maurlee have to do with that? Maybe your initial reaction to her was correct? What if she is here to cause her harm and not good?”
“Well, we don’t know much of her, to be sure. But she has proven herself to be devoted.”
“Devotion can be faked.” Lady Kaelah thought again of her previous intentions with Begrenzen, still relieved she had not chosen to exploit his weakness regarding her. Stealing, while not usually favored, seemed the better choice in this scenario.
Dennis put the manuscript aside. “Do you think Maurlee is faking?”
“I honestly do not know.”
“Then it is time for us to start asking her questions. My father did not tell me what they discussed together, but it is clear to me that she said something during those meetings together that set him on edge and made him question her sincerity. I will find her and-”
He stood to leave but Kaelah reached out her hand to stop him. “There is more.”
She gave him a faint smile. “Better news to us, I hope.”
“What is it? I will take anything over learning my father is a traitor to the treaty and certain death awaits him.”
“I only tested her with the potion and it turned orange, do you remember?” He nodded. “We know she was poisoned and Maurlee has attested to this fact. I know what Maurlee gave her and should not have rendered her body useless. But there must be something more, something at work that is beyond book learning and poultices. I know you sent R’pha Gavund to diagnose a suspicious illness in a nearby village at my prompting, to bide time. What you don’t know is that the king spoke to me shortly after ReAnne fell sick with the same request for R’pha Gavund: that he not examine her. Gavund would have done a far better job diagnosing her than I. At the time, it did not make sense. Up until I examined the king I would have insisted my skills not be considered as mastery. Your father, the king, put faith in me that I did not deserve, but I tried with every bit of my being to use what I knew and grow in knowledge. I had only practiced on those with runny noses or vomiting to diagnose small illnesses or pregnancies before ReAnne. Before you asked me to check your father. While I did have an abnormal amount of successes, it was nothing compared to my time with the king. But now, I think I know why he asked me keep Gavund away from her, Deet. Only with mastery would I have been able to see what I did within the Great King. But I have never checked ReAnne in this way. And since ReAnne is not the king, R’pha Gavund must have never felt the need to press the issue in regards to her.”
“But, if someone could properly diagnose her by using Somatic Mending, wouldn’t it stand to reason that we would greatly desire this to be done?”
Lady Kaelah gestured for him to sit back down and he did so with a sigh. “Yes, except the king was adamant. The pieces are just beginning to make sense to me as well, but I can see his wisdom now. Did I ever tell you that Begrenzen came to visit me shortly after she fell ill? He knew of what the orange potion could mean, I am sure of this. That means the Elders are watching closer than we would like, biding their time. Closer than the king would like. And yet, Gavund never came to see me, to ensure a diagnosis. For this reason, Gavund is either more loyal to the king than to the Assembly. Or, he simply did not care enough about her life.”
“Or he wanted her to die,” Dennis said, but Kaelah did not respond. “Do you want to call him in, then?”
“I could do it myself, but once it is completed, the truth of the diagnosis is destroyed within them. This is why the r’pha is to be the first person who examines the king. Once it is discovered, it is no longer able to be found through the laying on of hands. I think Gavund did not want to examine her. Did not want bear the responsibility of finding her ailment. He left it to me on purpose. And the king knew I would not tell, even if I ever found it for myself.”
“What is it you hope to find? She does not have even one gift, much less underlying ones to make her ill at their misuse…”
“No, of course not. But now that I can see what I could not see before…I can at least try.”
“If you find something…is it always there? Could it be found another way?”
“Once discovered, it is lost forever. I suspect when some kings have passed away by unexplained illnesses, it was the work of the Order guarding a secret. Or the Elders, for that matter.”
“Then, they too are guilty of treason.” Dennis seemed to only now put this piece of the puzzle into place. “My father has committed treason against the treaty. If you keep this a secret…”
“Then I have also committed treason. Yes.” She was quick to fill in the gap. “But listen to me, Deet.” She grabbed both his hands and brought them to her lips. “As I live and breathe, I swear to you that your family has no need to worry. I will not betray you. My fealty lies with your father alone, and his line. Regardless of my upbringing as an elder’s daughter and my position with the Order.”
Dennis let out a long sigh at her touch. It was the briefest of moments, but her lips on his hands caught him off guard. He pulled them away and subconsciously rubbed where the tingling from her kiss was still present. He mumbled, excusing himself from her chambers in a rush.