“A meeting with the Assembly has been called, my lord, as you suspected. By Prince Dennis.”
Begrenzen, who had just returned from assessing the Great King, shushed the whispered voice with one glare towards the dark corner from which it had come. He watched rather impatiently as his new servant, Dariah, poured his milk and sugar with slender, but steady hands. She set a slim slice of cake on to his plate and flicked her eyes to his for approval. He grunted, impatiently excusing her, tapping his fingers against the small wooden table until his door was closed completely.
“She,” he nodded towards the door, “Is from Lady Kaelah’s chambers. Her loyalties, at best, cannot be certain. For obvious reasons, it is much more likely hers lie with her previous employer.” He swiped the edge of the cake and licked his fingers of the delicate frosting.
The owner of the whisper said nothing. Two narrowed eyes from the corner stared as Elder Begrenzen took his time with his dessert.
“The Great King is dying,” Begrenzen said after he finished eating his cake. He stared into the corner, unable to see even an outline of the figure owning the voice. He heard a sharp intake of breath, but nothing else. “He called for the whole Assembly?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Excellent. How much time do I have?”
“The requests have already been sent. Staas has already received and responded to theirs. The Kingdom of Detar is the furthest away from Mirias, but messengers are expected to arrive within the week. The meeting will take place in just over a fortnight.”
Begrenzen cleared his throat.
“I beg your pardon…I meant to say the meeting will take place in a fortnight, my lord.”
“Will all attend, do you think?”
“All neighboring kingdoms are aware of the circumstances regarding Princess ReAnne. The Great King told them of her plight when he gathered the Elders for information upon her arrival at Dritan. They sent word to their respective kingdoms at once, as is common practice. Most, if not all, are now also aware of the Great King’s dire situation, though none have been so bold as to inquire of any results pertaining to the required evaluation. As you well know, many noblemen have requested access to Mirias, to have the rumors authenticated and have not been granted, my lord.”
“Save, for yourself, of course.” Begrenzen smirked as he took a sip from his cup.
He could almost hear the smile form on the whisperer’s face. “Yes, well…I am not exactly a typical noble, now am I?”
Begrenzen slammed his cup down. “I will be the judge of that.”
The future of the Mirias Kingdom, and perhaps even Providence, was bleakly uncertain. Both the Crown Prince and his brother, second in line, had been absent from the kingdom for well over two months. Now, the Great King was facing death, potentially leaving the hands of the kingdom to a young prince of only fifteen, who had been coddled and allowed to roam the kingdom with nary a care towards the responsibility of the crown. Prince Dennis was an avid rider and coming into his own as a swordsman, but even his intense training over the last months could not make up for the years of his lackadaisical upbringing allowed by the king.
“Has the inquiry been done on the king? Did High R’Pha Gavund return from his…travel?”
“Yes, my lord. No treasonable evidence was found within the king.”
“Of course there was not.”
Begrenzen was not equipped as a r’pha, but even he could see the king was close to death. If Lady Kaelah could somehow bring him back, it would never be to full capacity of life. The Great King’s illness reeked of treason from use of a gift not his own, but without evidence and eye witness reports from a qualified r’pha, he would never be able to convince anyone of his suspicions.
“When will the others in Mirias know of the Assembly?”
“I suspect all know at this present time, my lord. Extra rooms are being prepared and menus are being adjusted for visitors. The Order’s chambers are being tended to both day and night in anticipation of the arrivals.”
“Excellent. I suspect Prince Dennis is standing in for the Great King during Assembly? What of the other kingdoms?”
“Staas is sending Princess Opia in the continued absence of Prince Ottelo. King Lothair would not risk himself at this time. It seems the villagers in his kingdom have grown quiet riotous in Ottelo’s absence. Even their precious Queen Dima can scarcely keep them subdued. He fears for his life, both in and outside the castle. It is doubtful the others will send representatives.”
“Yes, well…if Prince Ottelo does not return soon, I suspect they will storm the castle and have their way with their wayward king. But to send Princess Opia…truly? Well, this is interesting news, indeed. Princess Opia has not proven herself in Assembly before. She could be quite useful.”
Begrenzen lost himself in thought. “Princess Opia…and Prince Dennis…untried at domestic matters…now to attend Assembly…very interesting…”
“She has been well versed in her father’s politics. Though I think he underestimates her strong will and has less pull on her than he may believe. She is likely to be swayed.”
“Yes…I do believe that is true…”
A small, throat clearing cough came from the corner. “If I may, my lord…a young prince may also be easily swayed by words of those who are wiser than he. Especially when those wiser persons sit in his father’s court and are childhood friends of his brothers.”
Begrenzen lowered his drink and tried to stifle the smirk that fell across his face. He had thought of this, of course, for his own personal gain. His heart was set on binding to Lady Kaelah, even more so after she came to his chambers dressed up for just his company. She was beginning to cave, he knew. It had started with the devastation of Edward choosing Foresight in Shadow at the Confirmation ceremony so many years before, but it had been growing within her when he comforted her, whispering secrets vague enough to keep him out of trouble, but enticing enough for her to feel connected to him. Her visit to the Elder’s hall proved she was almost ready to see things his way.
“Yes…perhaps.” Begrenzen stood quickly from his chair, excitement coursing through his body unable to be contained with the casual posture of sitting.
While the king would never agree, a young prince could be persuaded to speak with her regarding their binding. If she was not willing yet, perhaps Prince Dennis could be further persuaded to demand it. For the good of the kingdom, of course.
It seems that the distrust spoken of by Mayavin may have run deeper among the Elders than previously understood; poisoning the hearts and minds of more Elders than the older members of the Assembly would care to admit. He would be sure to approach this topic with Prince Dennis in a delicate fashion. The celebration of a binding between elder and r’pha initiates would help to bridge the gap of distrust amongst them.
If only his father had been able to do away with Mayavin in a more direct manner, perhaps it would have halted the undercurrent of suspicion rippling below the surface. What were once rumors of an old man gone mad were now rumors being touted as plausible. If one believed the rumors, journal entries and scrolls had been found pertaining to the histories, rewritten and interpreted to the people to suit the professional gain of power among both Elders and the Order. As preposterous as it sounded thirty years ago, the ancient histories were now being looked at in a new light…as if the old light was tainted by a veil of lies weaved by those who would have their own way with the people. Gaining their trust and making decisions on their behalf, for their own good, had previously been met with an outpouring of gratitude. What common folk did not know about the Spirit of Blessing, Hazar Maveth, and even the Provider, would surely not hurt them, but rather protect them from the dangers too much knowledge brings to lowly minds.
His father had taught him such things and time amongst nobility and servants alike had proven it true. Those born to power were responsible for keeping it. Those born into a servant’s household had no right to take it from them. The more they knew about the histories, the more knowledge they possessed, the more they were bound to think highly of themselves…the more lowly they thought of those who were clearly stationed above them.
The servant Maurlee was a perfect example of this. She had come to the citadel in complete humility to care for the princess. And yet, a mere hour ago, when Begrenzen had been in the king’s chambers, she had thought nothing of telling Lady Kaelah she was leaving to sup in the kitchens, and then would be back at ReAnne’s side if she was needed. She did not ask for permission, nor did she bow to the Great King’s presence upon departure.
“A servant is supposed to ask permission, Kaelah, to be excused,” Begrenzen had warned under his breath as she left. “This is not to be forgotten, even in these dark times.”
“Please allow me to disagree, Elder Begrenzen.” Her green eyes had flashed for just a moment. A bead of sweat formed and fell from his forehead as she spoke. “For I believe dark times call for our attentions to be focused where it will make a difference. Tell me what good holding her to decorum will do towards ReAnne and the Great King, other than take time we cannot afford to squander? Our own humility should be brought to the surface…an increase of empathy towards others. Our pride should not play a factor when we are lost in dark places.”
“My dear Kaelah,” he clicked his tongue, “I do not think our position quite as somber as-“
But she had cut him off before he could finish. “Elder Begrenzen, perhaps it would do us both well to remember our separate positions within the Assembly. We would not want anyone to get the wrong idea.”
She had side-stepped him and busied herself with wetting a fresh rag in the wash basin, her back rigid.
He thought she had just been worried over both the Great King and Princess ReAnne, so when Prince Dennis had been announced at the door, Begrenzen had quietly made his leave. Now in his own chambers, with his head clear about him, he was not so sure her curtness had all been from the strain of her two ailing patients.
The voice from the corner cleared its throat.
“You are excused. Keep me updated on any and all responses.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Begrenzen waited to hear the hidden door close with a quiet thud before he rang a small bell on the table with the tea. Within seconds, Dariah reappeared.
“Send word to Elder Conradin that I wish to meet with him.”
Hours later, he found himself within the Elders hall. It was noticeably smaller than the main hall, but still fit for a king. One large portrait of Elder Roem, with his pointed nose and kind brown eyes, framed in ornate gold filigree, hung from the wall facing the entrance. The other walls were lined with candles, and small relics on shelves. Gifts from kings and wealthy noblemen that no one elder could rightfully claim were encased in rare glass cases. A well polished sword hung on one of the walls, its hilt decorated with gold flowers and a mountain etched into it. Irenaeus, Dastan and Amatus joined Begrenzen and his father, Elder Conradin at the table.
It was Conradin, the Elder for Mirias, who spoke first. “I must apologize for gathering us all here without Elders Sauer and Thrasius. Sauer was taking a trip back to Detar when we beckoned him back. He should arrive shortly, but I did not feel as though we could wait. Thrasius sent word just days ago. He was on his way to Mirias but was caught in some rather nasty weather and the route was washed out. He has holed up in a local pub somewhere to regroup before setting out again. We expect him in a day or two. Apparently, we have a storm coming our way. Seeing how none of us will be leaving Mirias for at least two weeks, with the call of Assembly, I assume we will be safe and sound here in Dritan.” He cleared his throat and looked pointedly at Elder Amatus, from the Matos Kingdom where lumber was almost their sole means of wealth. “I trust our friends from the south have properly prepared our storehouses to keep us warm for weeks on end.”
Amatus locked his beady eyes with Conradin, his face unflinching.
“As well as can be expected. After we properly prepared our own kingdom, of course.” His lips barely moved as he spoke. The rest of the table stayed silent, only Begrenzen risking a quick glance to his father whose cheeks were crimson.
“Yes, well…as we all know, selfishness can yield unsavory results,” Conradin retorted.
Amatus was not a small man, by any means. His round cheeks and even rounder belly were the brunt of many jokes, taken well by the subject of them on most days. Today, it seemed, was not one of them.
“Matos could hardly be called selfish, considering the wealth of Mirias.”
“What is that supposed to-“
“Why have you called us here now, Conradin?” Irenaeus asked. The oldest amongst them hailed from Bordura, the kingdom rich from mining the mountains that almost entirely encompassed it. “And why are we speaking in front of an initiate?” His voice, slow and trembling with his age, still spoke with an air of authority.
Begrenzen had sat on a small chair lined up against the wall with the table of food, careful to remain silent and inconspicuous. He showed plenty of bravado when he was with those he considered beneath him, but in the presence of the other Elders, he was acutely aware of his lower status.
Conradin slipped into his seat at the head of the table. “I have brought my son here-” (the other elder’s eyes rolled at the term ‘my son’), “-because he has insight into the goings on regarding Princess ReAnne. Also, as he is being trained to take over for Elder Sauer, when he leaves office, I did not see any fault in having him sit in on our little discussion.”
“You mean when he dies,” Dastan offered. Everyone else mumbled their agreement.
Irenaeus looked particularly perturbed. “This is not how it is done, Conradin. We agreed to his initiate position with the knowledge that he would eventually, after much time tested trustworthiness, be considered to finally take over the second position in Mirias. Replacing Mayavin has proven most difficult. Tell me, does Sauer know he is to be replaced?”
Conradin took in a deep breath and forced a smile in Irenaeus’ direction. “I would be happy to consider my-er-Begrenzen for the second position at Mirias. I was merely suggesting it may be better for all of Providence to ensure that every kingdom within is properly represented. Sauer is the oldest among us. I was merely being precautionary, given his growing desire to be in Detar more often than residing here with us. It does make one wonder about his health.”
“He may well have some years to live, yet. And his wisdom is invaluable.”
Conradin nodded and waved his hand dismissively. “Of course, of course. However, Begrenzen’s youthfulness does not negate his ability to give us pressing information. We spoke for a few moments and it was because of his knowledge that I called this meeting. He has it under good authority that Princess ReAnne’s corruption has progressed. Her eyes have been opened and are the color of Hazar Maveth, himself: orange. Now, we know,” he took a large book from the table and opened it to a marked page, “this was the condition Aoife herself was found in upon the hilltop. Elder Roem recorded the process quite thoroughly.” Everyone’s eyes were on Conradin. Amatus’ round cheeks were drawn up around his beady eyes, making them only tiny slits, his thick hands still perfectly clasped.
“Quoting here, from Elder Roem’s personal diary of the event, he writes:
Her eyes opened today, orange, like a sunset in late summer. They opened large, round, but seemed to look at nothing other than one person…her nurse and long time servant, who had cared for her, kept secrets for her, and loved her. As soon as they were opened, it seemed they shut once more.
And then, another from a later entry here:
She is gone from us. Her face, her arms, her legs…every part of her had become wrapped in the twine of death. We could not break it. The last time I could look upon her face, her eyes were not her own. They were the orange of Hazar Maveth, the evil creature who resides in Havarth and taunts the Provider, stealing all that is good. That was four weeks ago. Then, he called to her and now, Aoife is gone. She left destruction in her wake and took his heart with her. I suspect it will take much time for both the kingdom and the Provider to heal.”
“So, she has four weeks before…Hazar Maveth comes to ‘call’ her?” Amatus gave Conradin a sideways glance.
“Surely, you do not believe Hazar Maveth still lives, Amatus,” Irenaeus teased, the deep set lines in his face etched deeper with laughter. His thin shoulders bounced up and down under deep green of his elder robe.
“No, not at all. At least, not any more than the Provider seems to live today.”
A uncomfortable chuckle found its way around the table.
“We need to know why this happened to Princess ReAnne. Why, after all this time, would someone need to poison with such darkness?” Dastan asked.
“Have you asked the poisoner? I believe she is overseeing ReAnne’s recovery, or lack thereof,” Amatus eyed Begrenzen, but did not care to ask him directly.
“It was not Maurlee. ReAnne was already poisoned when Maurlee and her brothers took her,” Conradin said.
“How is that possible to know? What are you saying?” Amatus asked.
Begrenzen sat perfectly still, small beads of sweat forming at his hairline.
“I’m saying that she was poisoned during her visit to Staas. It is very likely we have a traitor within the treaty kingdoms.”
As soon as Conradin had mentioned Staas, Dastan jolted out of his seat, both hands steadying him at the table. His formidable height cast a shadow over the table. “Conradin, you are talking of treason!”
Irenaeus and Amatas sat still in the respective seats across from each other. Irenaeus remained still, but Amataus’ small eyes were rounded to the size of a large button, looking from Dastan to Conradin without moving his head.
Despite the difference in their size, Conradin did not back down. “Yes. I am, Dastan. And chances being what they are, it is someone in your court at Staas.”
When Dastan did not respond, Conradin continued, “It is no mystery to us that Elder Roem believed Aoife was afflicted during her last visit with Hazar Maveth in her tower. However, she appeared healthy and otherwise normal to her maid for almost a week before she was taken from the Provider. She was missing for three months, resided with the Provider as healers searched for a cure for three months after she was found. Four weeks after her eyes turned orange, she was gone from them. The season for snow is almost upon us. Begrenzen, how long since Princess ReAnne has been under?”
He started at his name, but managed to clear his throat to answer. “Three months, Fath…my lord.”
“Three months and her eyes have already given away the last information of her corruption that we are aware of. Gentlemen, my fellow Elders, may I propose that her corruption is coming to an end. Soon, Princess ReAnne will be as Aoife, and for all the efforts of both Mirias and Staas princes, we will be looking at another great catastrophe. With the Great King on his death bed,” this statement sent ripples among the other Elders, but Conradin kept going, “We have no choice but to take matters into our own hands. Who is to know how short her time will be now? We cannot risk her fully forming into the hideousness-“ He stopped short, placing a fist up to his mouth and forcing a sniffle.
The other three elders sat at the table, unmoving, unflinching. Conradin looked at them, individually, feigned humility on his expression. The candle light flickers could be heard in the silence.
Finally, Irenaeus spoke, his voice a cracked whisper. “We cannot risk it. Mirias, even Providence, was devastated by the creature. Though we do not know the entirety of the destruction, I am not sure we should be so bold as to want to see it for ourselves.”
“Then there is truly no word from either Prince Edward or Prince Ottelo?” Amatus asked.
Conradin shook his head. “Nor Prince Benjamin. I fear them lost.” Another faint sniffle escaped him as he turned his head to pear at Begrenzen seated against the wall. He gave a soft nod in his direction.
“Do you know what you are asking of us? It is treason in its own right, what you are suggesting,” Dastan said.
“But the creatures are said to be in the shadows now, at Mirias…in Staas…even as far south as my own kingdom some have said they are present-“
“Yes, they are. Begrenzen?” Conradin interrupted Irenaeus.
Begrenzen cleared his throat as everyone turned to look at him. He forced himself to look each of them in the eyes. His hands remained clasped and more sweat dripped from his brow, but he refused to wipe it away. “There is word of them hiding in the shadows, yes, even beyond the tales of those in the villages. Lady Kaelah has confided in me that her room houses one, in particular. Prince Edward, before he left, was adamant it was there as well.”
“I do not doubt they are. My point is simply this: they offer no sense of destruction to us now. They are too scared to attack.”
“Are they?” Conradin raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps we have blamed too much on the Coills and not enough on our enemies’ little pets, hmm?”
“Are you suggesting vex have kidnapped maidens and stolen goods on our trades routes?”
“One could ask that question, Dastan.” Conradin lowered his head, shaking it solemnly.
Dastan slammed his fists on the table, knocking over Amatus’ goblet. “This is absurd! If we were truly concerned about the vex, more of us would have chosen Foresight. The Great King would have insisted. All the kings would have insisted. But there is no immediate threat from them. This is fear-mongering, Conradin. I expect more from you.”
“I am not fear-mongering, Dastan.” His voice was sharp. “Princess ReAnne is at risk of becoming one. The last time this happened, there was war. The Great King is wise, beyond measure, but even he is a man. Only by Hazar Maveth’s death were the vex lessened in their status.” He looked around, settling on Irenaeus, whose hands were noticeably trembling. “Tell me. Who will act as the Provider did, now?”
Irenaeus said nothing.
“Prince Edward took the gift for a reason, it seems.” Amatus nodded as he took a gulp from Dastan’s drink.
“And he might be dead.”
“I would tread carefully, Conradin. She is to be bound to Prince Ottelo. Would you do away with her so quickly?” Dastan warned.
“I believe the time for treading carefully is over. We cannot afford to wait and see what becomes of the princess. Not when we already know. It is time we accept what is to come and put an end to guessing the future. We know what the future holds if we do nothing. The vex are building an army, once again. And it will be to our ruin.”
“Mayavin was right,” Irenaeus whispered, his face resigned with sadness.
“Mayavin? That old kook?” Amatus snickered.
“You were not there, Amatus. You were not yet an elder when he was banished, but I remember. He said we were growing too familiar with the vex. Even without those capable of Foresight, those with Veil of Mind should have sensed them around us. He told us the people in every kingdom had a right to know the vex were among them. Any king with Endearing Presence should have distressed them, and yet, they stayed. Even the Great King’s gift did not make them tremble with discomfort.”
“No, it did not. And nor does it still, not if there is one within the citadel.” Dastan shook his head. “Still, I cannot do this to the princess.”
“The Spirit of Blessing still shines,” Irenaeus went on, “…but tell me…does it look as bright? Have you not seen the dimness? What have we become that our gifts no longer work as they ought to?”
“And what does that mean, when the vex come to torment us once again?” Conradin asked.
“But they do not have a leader. How can they rally? They were Maveth’s pawns, his lackies. His army. They were not the mastermind behind the war.” Dastan continued to shake his head in protest.
“No, they were not the mastermind, but someone is again. I propose it is the same person who had ReAnne poisoned in Staas.”
Dastan threw his hands up in the air. “Conradin, you have no proof it happened in Staas.”
“It does not change what must be done, Dastan.” Irenaeus looked around the room with sad eyes. “I’m afraid, I agree with Conradin. If we do not stop them, they will use her to birth a new army of vex. Do not forget, we know Aoife was used in this way. Her corruption was deliberate. Maveth corrupted himself. Then, used what was left of his power to corrupt her, knowing offspring would follow. Do not forget that he loved her and would choose to take her in whatever form he could, and yet, his hatred towards the Provider was greater than his love.”
“So, who hates us, now?” Amatus asked, pushing back his chair and revealing his rather large stomach, made larger by the flow of his robe.
“We hope to find out. Through the years, there have been many hoping for solace from Havarth and sent back for various reasons. Perhaps they had the means, but we could not see it? Time will tell. For now, the next step is the same.”
“How can you agree to this Irenaeus?” Amatus was sweating so profusely, his robe was wet at the chest.
“If it were not for the sake of all of Providence, I never could.”
“But how can we? When would we?” Dastan asked, shaking his head in disbelief.
“It should be before the Assembly meeting. And it should look like it was a complication of her condition,” Conradin said.
Every man studied each other in turn, all hoping the words would come from someone’s mouth that was not their own. The room was silent until one voice broke through.
“I will do it.”
No one turned to look at the initiate who had been brave enough to say it.