The light from the Spirit of Blessing that fell on Mirias appeared dimmer to the travelers as they neared the west gate. Prince Edward breathed in a deep sigh of relief, mingled with heavy anticipation, much the same as the last time he had this view of home.
ReAnne had sat limp in his saddle, Regal using what was left of his energy for this last stretch towards home. It was the beginning of so many questions and not nearly enough answers, and yet, the sight of the stream of light pouring into Mirias reminded him that he was not alone. The sole weight of responsibility had remained squarely upon his shoulders, but in the presence of the Great King, he knew some of that would be dissipated. If Father still lives, he thought, and then quickly pushed the idea out of his head, groaning in quiet mourning for the decrepit image of him that still lived in his mind from the Point of Rending.
“Are you well, Ed?” Prince Benjamin guided Tuens closer to Regal.
They were still a weary band of four travelers, as both Prince Ottelo and Pitney had opted to travel through to Mirias, having only stayed in Staas for one night before proceeding on. King Lothair had greeted the Princes of Mirias with all the proper charm and decorum, but a whispered conversation between him and Pitney triggered an all too familiar warning in Edward’s heart. Regardless of how loyal Pitney was to Ottelo, the fact still remained that Pitney was King Lothair and Belda’s son. The how’s or why’s of the situation were still unknown to them beyond Belda’s own twisting of the truth. Edward still struggled with not being able to retain her and bring her back to Mirias, forcing her to answer the questions remaining within him about the Point of Rending. To top off the unwavering sense of failure, they were returning with Narbe, a vex very much in their company. Though she had not done more than walk beside Benjamin, the idea she could turn on them in a moment’s notice was the unspoken concern of them all.
“Yes, I am still pondering the absence of Yavin on our return. And vex…”
It was true, after Benjamin finished his surprising escape from a vex lair, their journey home included much discussion of how simple and easy it seemed to be to come back. No vex randomly appearing on the horizon, no odd men trying to pet their horses, a lift of the struggle to use their gifts, even as they passed through Paschar. The desert itself even proved to be an easier journey. Their water did not seem to run out and all commented on how it did not seem nearly as far coming home as the leaving. The days were certainly the same according to the rising and setting of the sun, and so they all left it to the anxious feelings of traveling home in comparison to the harrowing and unknown nature of their initial traverse. Who could have known the things they discovered about themselves during their journey? Even beyond the shock of Pitney’s parentage and Yavin challenging the use of their gifts to greater purpose, the knowledge of the secrets kept by kings before him, by his own father, served as a bleak reminder to Edward. He was far from ready to be king, nor was he sure what being king even looked like anymore.
The Point of Rending loomed in his mind, the stark contrast of the chasm’s pull in comparison with the arch of light he had seen too late. ReAnne still hung in the balance, and while he thought he knew how to help her, he could not be sure until he tried. The great pull to the dark must be overcome…and the greatness of peace and light must be found by her if she is to live. Does a king sacrifice his sister for the sake of the kingdom, or does a king sacrifice the kingdom for the sake of his sister? He had left the Point of Rending, pulled out by Belda, with questions that would not be answered by her. When she disappeared, she took her knowledge with her. Edward was hoping the Great King would be able to answer the questions she left behind.
“I was thinking, Ben…why do you believe Narbe helped you to escape?”
Benjamin shot a shortened glance over to Narbe, or at least where he knew her to be. Edward saw her ears perk, almost as if she knew she was being talked about.
“Because Narbe does not want to be controlled by the dark.”
It seemed a simple answer, but in truth, there was a complexity to the statement that flipped everything they thought on its head. Could a vex make this distinction for themselves? And if they could, did they have a choice straight away, or does something turn them later? Is the dark so deep in Havarth, even the Vex cannot abide in it? What is it causing change within Narbe?
When Benjamin told his story, he said something within her must have prompted her to awaken him while the rest of the vex slept. Something within Benjamin let him know he could trust Narbe as she lowered her long neck for him to sit upon. And when the flapping on her massive, bat-like wings, started to awaken the others, something within her pushed her onward, even to attack the one Grand Vex that flew in their path. Edward could not understand her determination, so great that she swooped low at the last minute and flipped backwards until the Grand Vex’s wings could be caught in her talons. With a quick flip of her body, she was able to fling the Grand Vex clear, and out of their way, sending it disoriented and floundering to the ground below them. All to save Benjamin.
Hundreds of years ago, all vex were murderers and evil and considered principalities of the dark. And yet, in Edward’s short time with the gift, he had witnessed them living among all of them, unbeknownst to most, if not all, cowering in shadowed corners, lying in wait. And while death among the people had occurred, none could be traced invariably to the vex, though they were present perhaps before, most definitely after death had knocked on a nearby door. They seemed drawn to the darkness death brings.
Still, Narbe seemed abnormally indifferent to light. Not cowering in corners or shadows, trying to keep herself hidden. When the shadows allowed it, Edward watched her intently on their journey home. She sought out neither sun nor shade, making no attempt to sway their path. Edward had still insisted their destination to be pursued by night and perhaps this was why she was so unconcerned by it. But even in the small time he discovered them with his gift, witnessing the perched anxiousness of the one abiding in Lady Kaelah’s chambers, he had never seen a vex quite so complacent. Typically, their demeanor gave away their innate fear of man…bred in them since the beginning of their existence towards those with Foresight in Shadow. And since they could not know who might see them, they feared all of them. And in Yavin’s tunnels, Narbe had attacked them, hadn’t she? Now, Benjamin’s ability to sense Narbe so fully, suggests the vex may have had more predators than just those with Foresight. If this is true, then everything he had heard about the gifts could be false, their purposes lying deeper and more complex than he could have ever imagined. Certainly more than he was privy to in the books provided by the Elders.
Again, Yavin’s words came to Edward. In this place, it is always wise to question that which your eyes see. Edward was beginning to understand Yavin may not have meant just Paschar, but all of Providence, as well. He had thought his father was an upstanding and trustworthy man to the Provider and the Treaty of Providence. Never would he have assumed his father to be anything less…and yet, he was faced with the knowledge of the Great King having known of Pitney’s parentage and bestowing more than one gift upon Yavin. And while Yavin had made it sound like it was for the good of the kingdom, to Edward, it felt like it was for personal gain. There were so many things his father had kept from him, he wondered if he could ever trust him again at all…a thought that could be tested sooner, rather than later, if his father was really as close to death as the Point of Rending made it appear.
The Point of Rending.
It was on him again; the heavy weight of his future kingship and doing what was right. How could he possibly be the king he wanted to be in the light of what he knew now?
The great desire for comfort and rest hit him in one fell swoop. The anticipation of whether his idea would work in the Point of Rending was worse than if he knew it had already failed. He needed to get home to ReAnne, to the Great King, and even to the cordially cold Lady Kaelah. He wanted to see Deet’s face and watch his deep dimples form as his youngest brother told of his latest forbidden exploit he had managed to not get in trouble for. He wanted to forget his troubles and shrug off the responsibility, just for a moment, if he could.
What he needed was some time alone with Begrenzen to hash out the rest of his plan. No one else could help him and no one else would understand. He was putting all his hopes in the friendship they once had. He had to. It was the only way…
“Wasn’t this about where ReAnne was taken, Edward?” Benjamin cut into his thoughts.
Edward looked around, previously believing he would never be able to forget the precise location, but now faced with corn fields that had been raked and prepared for a new season. Rows of small sapling stalks were rising up and Edward followed their rows to as far as he could see them, his eyes resting on a darker shadow. He focused his gift, now freely attainable within Providence borders, and searched the shadows.
“Do you see that?” Ottelo turned his horse to face their directions gaze.
“Is that…a farmhouse? I thought Father sent out guards to find one out here and only found a shack?”
“He did, Ben. But that is certainly not a ramshackle home. Do we even know who oversees these fields? I am unaware of a farm that comes this far west, yet the fields are certainly cared for.”
“Shall we?” Pitney clicked at his horse and led the way through the corn field.
When they arrived at the front door, it was slightly knocked off its hinges and allowed for a quick peek about the room. A table and two turned over chairs were in the middle, with what seemed to be a few piles of hay and straw with a small blanket piled up under a shuttered window. It smelled of small animal droppings and dirt.
Pitney reached out to shake the door loose, making way for them to enter and was greeted by the culprits of half the stench when a smattering of mice flew in every direction towards the dark corners and under hay.
“Edward…” Benjamin turned around slowly in the middle of the room, taking in the fireplace, the toppled bowls, the broomstick sitting against the wall. “This is not the worn out shack the guards claimed they found.”
“No, I do not believe it is…”
“It looks like-“
“Like what ReAnne described to me before she fell completely under…”
“But if that is true, why could the guards not find it?” Pitney asked. “Do you believe them to be untrustworthy?”
Narbe let out an audible grunt. She had moved towards the side of the house and put her head through a broken shutter. Edward watched as Benjamin went to the window, not thinking twice of where she was, nor of putting his hand up for her head to butt up against it in a sort of comforting pet. He could not fathom the unlikely relationship between the vex and his brother, but seeing Benjamin use his gift so readily made him think of something else.
“Even if I did believe them to be untrustworthy, which I do not, it would have been quite a sizeable lie for many men. Secrets are hard kept between two, let alone a group. Someone would have slipped by now. But-“ Edward turned to look at Ottelo. “But someone with Mind Mirage could do it.”
Ottelo let out a troubled sigh as he thought of ReAnne trapped here. More mice scurried away from him as he stepped towards the fireplace and shifted some coal with the iron rod that had been sitting on the hearth.
“Yes. Yes, someone could have fooled them all. And that means we lost our only hope of finding the men who took her. Or the girl. They would be long gone, by now.”
“It also means there is a traitor in Mirias,” Edward said.
* * *
Maurlee wiped her hands on her apron, frowning at the creature in front of her. ReAnne was quickly becoming less than human, the spider-like webbing almost covering the whole of her and all of them helpless to stop it.
Lady Kaelah and Prince Dennis would not be back for some time and Pammy had been called to the kitchen. None of them held out much hope anymore, though Lady Kaelah made sure her rooms were always guarded, both at the end of her chamber’s hallway, and at the door, with strict order that no one is to enter unless they had previous permission. They were dining in the Great King’s stead, entertaining as best they could, newest arrivals for the Assembly meeting. Today, Thrasius from Festning had arrived. The whole citadel knew the moment of his arrival. Hailing from Providence’s most prominent military kingdom, he was as loud and boisterous as he was tall and broad and his whole company with him followed his lead. Dritan had not hosted so much merriment for many months.
It would not last, though. Prince Dennis and Lady Kaelah determined it was better to let them all have a rest, anticipating the final arrival the next day from Detar. And then, they would bring the endless list of bad news to their ears.
Maurlee picked up the knife she had procured from the kitchen that morning and turned it around in her hands. Soft moonlight from night sky glinted off the blade, sharpened and ready for use, perfectly exposing her reflection. Her pale face was paler still from the months spent in doors and her small, dark mole was more noticeable because of it. She turned the knife, not wanting to see herself, not willing to look herself in the eyes. Not wanting to know if she saw determined resolve or fear in them. Afraid to admit, she might see both.
Lady Kaelah had asked her to watch over ReAnne. And she was watching over her, armed with nothing more than a small blade. Even as she held it, she did not know if she had the courage to use it. She let it slip down to the small table in front of her, letting her mind wonder to the night with her brothers, when they had fallen to the floor in a sloppy mess of soup and slobber. The last time she had helped Princess ReAnne and it had actually meant something. Not like the last couple of months, where all her knowledge and determination could not help reverse the affects of the princess’ predicament. Where scouts had been sent out to find her Ahmi, only to return with no trace of the Coills or their infamous healer. Where she had failed to right the wrong she had originally agreed to with the man with the orange eyes. And now, she wondered if she could do the only thing left to do.
The man with the orange eyes.
He hadn’t told her who he was, and even now, the face of him eluded her. She was not a silly farm girl with no wits about her, and still, she was left with quite a blow to her pride for how she let him use her. Had the Great King known? She reminded herself much of what she told him was true and it had to count for something.
But not all of it.
He did indeed sit her brothers down and ask of them a deed she never thought them fully capable of.
Clearly, the man with the orange eyes could see their stupidity. After a small conversation, he did not ask of them for everything he had come for, but instead asked to speak with her. He admitted to sensing her shrewdness at having survived living with dimwits, and proceeded to explain to her what it was he was searching for: someone brave. Someone willing to walk a fine line between what is right and what is necessary. Someone he could trust to do as he asked, with no strings attached once the deed was done. The only thing you have to lose, he had said to her, is what you have always craved. Stability. Wealth. Food and drink at your disposal. A life with no worries or cares for tomorrow. You could establish a family. Family…is that not what your heart truly desires?
She did not mention to the Great King how he had talked to her, the man who did not want the fire too bright, the man who asked her to walk with him outside. The man who offered her the world, if she would but see that his informant in Staas received a vial of liquid. The vial he slipped into her hidden pocket on her house dress. The pocket, she had secretly sewn into her dress herself, to slip away a coin here and there from her brothers. The pocket he could not have known about, but somehow did. The pocket that now held ReAnne’s lock of hair.
He had told her he was entrusting her with a great plan of the ages. Something to reinstate order and protection for all of the people, not only of those residing within Providences borders. The beloved Coills would be free and she would be free to live however she chose to live. Free from her brothers…no longer relying on their shoddy protection. Free from the labors of a farm. Free from wondering where her next meal would come from. The idea excited her to her core. She would never eat watered down cabbage soup again, but dine on meats and breads from all over the world. Fruit, never ending, and at her delight. And yes, family.
The Great King had offered her family when she had asked it of him, with no strings attached…no deed to be done. Just the good word of a father, desperate to save his daughter, who could see her heart was good. Her heart could still be good. She could still right her wrong. She could not be fully to blame.
The man with the orange eyes was compelling, she reminded herself.
From under his cloak, he had produced a beautiful cup, the likes Maurlee had never seen before. He filled it with some mead and took a small sip of it before offering it to her. The meager mead she had served to him had been changed, transformed into the most delightful juice she had ever had to her lips. These were his promises, great and grand, that night under the moon, as she walked him to the edge of the corn field. With every promise, her uneasiness with him grew smaller, and smaller, until, by the time he said good-bye with a small, wet peck on her cheek, she was no longer alarmed by his orange eyes, but intrigued by their rarity. She was no longer unsure of the vial within her pocket, but patted her side, ensuring herself it was still there, safe, and ready to be taken to Staas the next morning.
It was her brothers stupidity, thinking they could kidnap a young woman, much less a princess, that happened along their path, but it was Maurlee’s quick thinking and strong mind that secured her a place regardless of where her loyalty would lie. Was it Providence that urged her to try and combat the vial’s poison? Perhaps. With each day, her vivid recollection of the man and his calming, welcoming demeanor turned into a faint memory until she could not remember his face at all…just the orange eyes.
Her shame and guilt, on the other hand, had grown in increasing measure after the vial was no longer in her possession, the new possessor having taken it from her at the edge of the forest before it opened to Staas, just as the man with the orange eyes said someone would be. The shrill, but gleeful giggle that had escaped its new holder had replayed over and over again in Maurlee’s mind. She wondered if they would also suffer from its ownership.
But nothing was quite as loud as her guilty role against the princess. It gnawed at her daily and kept her awake at night until she relented and began gathering what she would need for a combative potion against a poison she did not know the contents of. With each day, as the herbs were gathered and dried, the ingredients prepared, her guilt seemed to lesson, until the hour the cloak and the braids peeked slightly above the corn stalks. It lessoned even more significantly when she forced ReAnne to drink it, telling her brothers it would aide in her capture. Then, again, the burden of it was further lessened as she stood at the Citadel’s gates. It was practically gone now, non-existent, as she stood in front of the victim to her previous lust for a life greater than the one Providence had provided.
The sound of the door creaking open gave her a start and she hurriedly picked up the knife from the table to hide it under her apron.
“Just checking in,” Pammy’s face peered around the door.
“Ev-everything is fine. Nothin’ new with her.” Maurlee gave a short smile and reached for the ever present wash basin. It took a bit for the door to shut, but she just kept about her business, wanting to look busy about her work, even though there wasn’t much to be done. When the latch finally fell into place, she glanced towards the door to make sure Pammy had actually left, but where she half expected to see the suspicious, short and stout old woman with her messy bun and dirty kitchen apron, there was a man in a black, hooded cloak instead.
Maurlee grabbed the knife from under the fold on her dress where she had stuffed it hurriedly when Pammy had opened the door and tightened her grip.
“Begrenzen, what are you doin’ here? Is the feast…”
In one stride he grabbed her with one arm and stifled her mouth with the other. Her hand holding the knife was pinned under his arm. Maurlee tossed her head back and forth, trying to shake off his hand on her mouth, but he was surprisingly strong against her struggles.
“Shhhhh, do not fight me. I am not here to hurt her…” he whispered in her ear. She clenched her teeth and turned her face, wide-eyed, just slightly to see his eyes, to read his intention. “Please,” he said.
She almost believed him, but something in her relented, nevertheless. Her body relaxed and he removed his hand from her mouth.
“Thank you. I am here to simply check on her and from what I can see, it does not look good.” He walked slowly to ReAnne’s side, unaware that Maurlee had pulled the knife down to her side, ready to strike if she needed to. Lady Kaelah and Prince Dennis did not trust him, she knew, and it was enough to keep her on guard.
Maurlee did not respond, afraid any agreement would secure ReAnne’s fate. “We are tryin’ some new things. They just take time to work is all. We have had some luck, here and there, you know.”
“Mmmm…” he said, pursing his lips in consternation. He trailed his hand across ReAnne’s shoulder, the exact condition of her body hidden a little by strategically placed bed coverings.
Maurlee watched his chest rise and fall with a deep sigh before he turned to her. Her hand brought the knife closer to the front of her body.
“Are you aware of the king’s condition?” He asked.
“I hear a bit, here and there.”
“They say he fell ill after a meeting with you.”
Maurlee swallowed hard, but lifted her chin in defiance.
“I have nothin’ to hide.” It wasn’t true, but if the Great King found no fault in her, maybe she was innocent after all.
“Are you aware that kings fall gravely ill when they use a gift that is not specifically gifted to them at confirmation?”
Maurlee tried to hide her knowledge of this, but she had been aware of this through conversations she had overheard between Lady Kaelah and Prince Dennis.
“I see that you are. Tell me…did the king touch you during your meeting? A hand or a shoulder perhaps?”
“Perhaps,” she echoed his word, “as a father might his child.”
“Mmmm,” Begrenzen said again.
“Is the feast over, then?” Maurlee tried to change the conversation.
“Not quite.” Begrenzen eyed her from the side. “I excused myself early.”
Maurlee wanted to ask why, but she didn’t dare. They sat in an uneasy silence for what seemed like forever.
“Well, I do have some things to do. The old bed coverin’s need to be laundered and such.” Maurlee nodded her head and turned a bit to make way for him to leave.
As she did, he lunged towards her again, pulling her body into another firm hold while grabbing her arm and flinging it up high into the air, the knife reflecting light, now exposed from its hiding place at her side.
“What are you doing?” Begrenzen growled at her. He put pressure on her wrist and the knife fell to the floor.
“Noth-nothing, I swear it! I jus-just…wanted to protect her…” Maurlee fought to get the words out with lungs that would not fill with air being held so tight.
“Liar!” Begrenzen hissed in her ear.
“No…no…” Maurlee cried out, but he pulled her other arm down and now had both of them held securely behind her back.
“Then why, when I held your mouth closed, did my gift react against you? Why is it reacting against you now?”
Maurlee’s eyes widened and all the breath in her lungs depleted. She stared at him, unsure of what his next move would be, her body paralyzed by what he said.
“Tell me, girl,” he continued.
“I-I have no idea…”
“Stop lying! Who are you? I have the gift of Hindering Touch…what gift is it combating? Why?”
But Maurlee just shook her head in disbelief; she had no idea why.