I felt most strangely not myself that night.
I felt dull as though I was a sword that had been used to strip logs for firewood, an insult to its very nature and an act that turned it surely into nothing better than a metal stake.
But then, that might have been the residue of my tiredness.
Awoken by her long before the night was out, yet so many hours after the appointed time, I found her in a strange state of distress over just what I could not say, but she told me that I must take my turn at the guard before she fainted in my arms.
I placed her unresisting body into the nest shape I had left only a few moments behind, undressed her, covered her.
For a while I sat watching her in the darkness and tracking her into the depth of unconsciousness, feeling a mounting desire to join her there, and with some force turned my mind to other matters, things of practicality that needed my attention.
I flexed and checked the state of my personal energy availability to give me a parameter within which my actions would have to be confined. Physically, I was in perfect shape and perfect order, if somewhat stiff and under-practiced. Energetically, I felt able to take on a tenday’s endeavour that might require much volition yet would be devoid of draining magic work, and mentally, well, that was a different story.
I would have to be careful with what I did and said, and the impactful decisions should be best left for another time.
I set a fire in the hearth and by its glow, glanced at the table now revealed and there saw an empty bottle of wine and an upturned silver chalice. I smiled to myself. The girl was learning – had now learned – of the wine’s merit; I woke the servants sleeping by the kitchen hearth beneath my feet and set them to a mad scramble. Then I sought for Niccosia across the many minds outside, so many in discomfort and in pain this night, their beds gone, their limbs marred, or their backs still breaking after that day’s labours.
I trailed across the devastated compound and I spotted little troops of looters, beggars and thieves from the city, who were digging in the ruins for a gem, a tapestry or anything of value, beneath a moon ragged with clouds and fear in their hearts doing battle with green greed.
I left them to their deeds and scanned more deeply, more acutely, into the very bowels of the palace and I found that Trant was no longer in his prison. It caused me a momentary start until I learned that his courtiers had killed him, bashed him to death with handy lumps of granite from their prison floor, not from a vengeance, nor a justice but simply out of fear of the madman’s ravings they could not stop from slicing through their ears.
They huddled together in the dark, some awake, some half asleep, and Thoran of Thelein’s familiar patterns stood out strong to me, his mind at work as always, hoping, plotting, planning his escapes and turns of fortune.
Surprisingly, I noted that I was beginning to develop a respect for this man, vile as he was; he certainly did not give up so easily and what was it that he was doing any different than what I had done myself, inside Trant’s cage?
The thought disturbed me more than I felt safe to admit at this time or to contemplate much further, and I left them in their darkness there, and searched on for Niccosia.
I found him then, eventually.
He was awake, wide awake, and walking by himself along the fallen perimeter walls through the misty darkness, talking to himself inside his head, taking one position, then another, then a third on arguments of honour and of duty.
I backed away to give the man his privacy. Where we all mad then? Trant, Thelein; I myself knew well enough what raged inside my thoughts, and here this youngster going through the loops and hoops of why and when and how?
A knock on the door disturbed me from my musings and irritated me profoundly; I returned to the fire lit room and took receipt of some cold meats and, most importantly, two bottles of wine and watched the wide eyed youngster, beardless and his uniform buttoned wrongly in his midnight flurry, incoherently mess with the dishes left from my lady’s dinner long ago.
I rose from the bed and called him to attention; he shot around and first the shock, then the total fear that emanated from the youngster in an instant rocked me lightly on my feet and surprised me with its extremity and impact on me both.
I narrowed my eyes and tried to get a measure of what was happening here, thus inadvertently creating a space of silence in which the adjutants fear took on a different scent, a different flavour as to the gut level shock reaction from my original call.
I placed a shielding between us then, and the overwhelming presence of the other receded and so did he, falling back into the shape of just another bird faced, sunken chested nothing in a badly fitting uniform, a worm that would in time transform into a midsized soldier with a grizzled beard and dried scars across his nose and cheek if he lived to see the day.
Sternly calling myself to order, I finally managed to address the adjutant on the subject of his uniform, my words sounding strange and with a quality of – what was this? Not gentleness or kindness, but a form of concern? – most unfamiliar, most incomprehensible to me. In the past, I would have had him whipped so he would well remember not to go and serve a general in this state of dishevelment, his group leader reduced in rank and his entire headman's group doing night duty for a year.
He stood before me, burning up with shame and fear and I had him re-button his coat, properly tuck in his shirt, adjust his belt and sort out his collar, straighten himself to some semblance of a man, and took his salute a half dozen times before I was satisfied.
I reached into his mind and told him to “Remember!” then dismissed him.
This his second attempt at clearing the dishes was a much better effort. He was fully concentrated now and attacked the task with a single minded intent that made me smile inside; when he left the room at last, closing the door behind him, I sat back down on the bed and put my head in my hands.
Trant. Thelein. Niccosia. Tremain. We were all insane. What was there to choose between any of us?
Resolutely, I put an end to the thoughts, disturbing as they were, and went back to Niccosia, walking the perimeters in the darkness, not seeing what was before him but seeing faces and scenes from his memory instead and having conversations with his ghosts.
I considered hailing him and then I translocated myself out to him instead and joined him in the cold, still night that fell about me like a cleansing waterfall, cutting into my skin and clearing my mind to a most welcome sharpness.
He did not even notice my arrival a few steps to the side of him and continued to stride, muttering to himself, a hooded cloak about his head, an apparition no less to me than I would be to him.
I called to him.
“Niccosia!” and he stopped as though he had run into an invisible wall, turned slowly, not quite trusting that my voice was real amongst the many voices in his head, then he saw me standing there and bowed his head to me and saluted, with relief.
“My Lord Tremain,” he said reverently.
“At ease, Niccosia,” I said and walked towards him, and then again, “At ease, do be,” to have him make the distinction between a soldiers ease and that of two high ranking officers who would talk amongst themselves.
He rose and brushed his hood back. I hardly recognised the man had it not been from his patterns. His hair had been cut in a courtier’s fashion, a short fringe across his forehead and keeping his ears and neck clean, yet distinctly longer than a soldier would wear it out of choice; his beard had gone and he looked so much younger still, yet intent, well cut of face, a young prince if ever there was one.
His eyes were dark here, lit as we were by but the stray moonlight that would come and go through the racing clouds above, yet down here on the ground, there was hardly a breath stirring. I drew in the night air through my nostrils and enjoyed its bracing scent and coolness.
“Report on your day,” I said and started to walk along, inviting him to fall to by my side which he did hurriedly, not quite on a level with me but slightly behind, on my right, as would befit a one that was inferior.
He began to speak, with care and concentration and I listened to his voice and tracked his thoughts as we walked on through the darkness, the fallen walls always to our right and to our left, a few lonely lights and a few fires still burning here and there, illuminating the ruination of Pertineri Palace rather pitifully that night.
“As the Lady Isca ordered, I assembled who I could find of the clerics, officers and court officers and spoke to them about the dethronement of Trant.” He said it dryly enough but I saw the scenes of uproar, desperation, the shouted questions, and above them all, the disbelief and hysterics that had ensued when he had told them that the Lord Tremain had taken regentship and he, Eddario of Solland, would be his agent at this time.
I could feel his glance as he waited for my response and I nodded, interested and amused to find out more.
“There was a certain amount of - resistance – to the idea of your regentship, my lord.”
I laughed out aloud as I took in the reality of the upheaval that had followed his pronouncements, the moving in of the newly sworn palace guards and of course, Niccosia’s dungeon lieutenants, newly polished, swords drawn and murderous in their pale intent. It occurred to me that they may be the foundation of a revival of the Black Wing Knights, the kind of men a king would need around him that would be so above and beyond the average soldiery, their very name would strike down the thoughts of easy rebellion and of treason.
We had earned our right to that name by the hell they put us through, but Niccosia’s men had their very own custom made training behind them, a one that would be hard to be repeated.
We were walking in silence, Niccosia still alert for my response and unsure as to how to proceed with me. The cold was now penetrating my bones and silently, I adjusted myself to compensate for it. It receded only moments later to indifferent relaxation and I smiled and gave a thought that I could do these things quite without any help from my sweet queen and cheating with her magic.
“Was this resistance overcome?” I asked as a bye the bye and Niccosia unfolded the violent stance that he and his men had taken, the words he had spoken about how it was thus, exactly thus, and all who would oppose, to come forward and have their names taken down for record, and I was smiling at the young man’s rapier intention long before he answered me, “Yes, my lord. They saw the sense of the arrangement.”
One by one, in silence, they had retreated, bend their heads, and tried the best they could to become a nothing in a crowd. Niccosia had lorded it over the silence for a good long while – the youngster had a knack for how to time such things, it seemed – before going on to give them their instructions.
“What did you decide to have be done?” I asked of him, and a small fear, rapidly subdued, rushed through the man at my right side.
“I felt it wise to alert the army commanders first of all, and have them bid be steady for the now,” he said and actually held his breath this time for my response.
“It won’t be enough, of course. We will have to convene a full council, and as quickly as possible, before the whole of the kingdoms goes up in flames. With Pertineri down, we need a centre of events, and fast. What would you suggest?”
Niccosia was quite overcome by my use of the word “we” and the request for his opinion. At heart, he was still no more than an officer, condemned to a slow death of wastage; he had not had time to adjust to his new station in life. I did not think less of him, for I myself had found of late that events can overtake you and leave you in confusion and such disarray that it took all and more to keep yourself from falling.
As I tracked him with interest, I noted that he used a most peculiar pattern in his moments of doubt. Instead of coming to a decision, he asked himself, “What would Conna have done if this question had been put to him? What would Conna have said, thought, what cause of action would he have considered?”
I felt the desire to break into this thought and say to him, I did not ask Conna’s opinion, but your own, yet I resisted and let him play his mind game to the end. It brought him a conclusion and an answer for me.
“The Old Council’s meet still takes place each year at Manoranta Keep as it has done since before history became recorded. It is well maintained and can be made ready in a day or two; further, it is only a day’s ride from here and it should be easy to transfer the main operations to Manoranta. There is a garrison nearby as well which can soon be expanded to a field headquarters.”
I smiled and nodded. Conna’s thinking on the subject was sound. I was well familiar with Manoranta; Malme had had his operations there, too, and it was there and not in Pertineri where he had received the final confirmation of his emperorship of all the kingdoms. Manoranta Keep was most ancient and a place of truce; the name itself stood for high matters of state and unquestionable decisions that would shape the course of history.
It had been my first choice as well.
“How many divisions are in Pertineri these days? And what are their allegiances?”
We came across one of the towers that had previously risen from the wall at regular intervals, set to strengthen a run of two hundred strides or so; now, it had collapsed inward and barred our way like the neck bones of a giant being that had bleached beneath the moon for many ages.
I considered climbing across this barrier and then halted there instead, and sat down on a large boulder that supported me very nicely indeed.
Niccosia remained standing before me and told me what he had learned about the true power situation in the High King’s city.
The palace guards had 15 divisions of 2500 men each – a ridiculous number, there had never been more than three at the most in all the reigns that I could remember, but then Trant was a paranoid bastard, no, I corrected myself with a wry smile, Trant had been a paranoid bastard and it was my supposition that not even a million men packed tightly round his bed would have given him any degree of safety at all. Then there were Trant’s own troops, brought with him from his homelands in the north – between 5 and 6 divisions, currently encamped in the valley to the east, and partly stationed in the garrisons that were inside the city walls. Of these divisions, Niccosia had been told that only two or three would be loyal enough to Trant to actually be contemplating some form of retribution; the rest would soon enough return home or follow what commands they were given, as long as someone paid their dues on time.
“Send a messenger to the division commanders and have them meet with me, tomorrow at noon, at my quarters. It will have us know their minds soon enough. In the morning, I will address the palace guards.”
“The division leaders or the division leaders and the officers, Lord Tremain?”
I smiled at him and shook my head.
“All of them.”
Niccosia looked at me in puzzlement, a sharp line deep black shadow between his eyebrows.
“You wish me to assemble the entirety of the palace guards? All 15 divisions?”
It had been quite a while since I had addressed an army, and I was rather ashamed to admit that I was looking forward to it.
Niccosia was flustered. “My lord, that will take some time to arrange! When would you have them all assembled? And where?”
“Ah,” I said and rose from my stone throne, flexing the muscles in my back and shoulders lightly against the cold. “The parade ground before the palace will do just fine. And as to time – shall we say, Second Watch?”
Niccosia was calculating furiously. It was perhaps another two hours, three at the most until sunup. The second watch was midmorning, which gave him something like six hours to assemble nearly 40,000 men. Could it be done?
I hid a smile and placed my hand on the man’s shoulder, looking into his eyes at close range and saying straight into his mind, Go to it, Eddario of Niccosia, Duke of Solland. I will see you at Second Watch.
He bowed his head and said, “It will be done, my lord Tremain.”
I had little doubt that it would, indeed, be done and translocated myself across the compound and back to the chambers in the officer’s mess.
I checked on my lady who was sleeping deeply and showed no further signs of distress of any kind. She did not look well, however, and even when I raised the fire in the hearth to burn more brightly and to let me see her clearly, the dark circles beneath her eyes did not disappear nor prove to be just shadows.
Well. I had been so tired myself that I had nearly fainted at the sight of a bed; she had stood guard in case of a Serein attack which she feared, it seemed, a great deal more than it troubled me.
If they could attack us, I was fair certain that they would have done so a very long time ago, and not go through all the trouble of the trap and all those soldiers to contain our physical realities. I would wager that they were probably a lot more afraid of us than we were of them – well, at least I was of them, I might not speak for my lady, sleeping there so exhausted and looking most frail, in that matter.
I took a time to take some wine and drank it whilst I sat and looked at her.
The incarceration and indignity had perhaps been more of a shock to her than first I had imagined it to be. For sure, her memories were clear and cohesive enough, but she was young and most inexperienced in the ways of war, deprivation and suffering, although whenever called upon, acquitted herself most respectably.
I flinched when I recalled that madness in Serein. I had done little to alleviate her suffering there, too focussed on myself as I was, as I had always been. But even there, and if it was true what she had said about the place showing the truth of who you were, she had looked like a one that was wasting of starvation or mistreatment.
Had I mistreated her so? Had she not called me by name and told me I was her hell?
I slowly drank more wine and contemplated the matter.
It was true I had mistreated her when first we met. I did not like the thought but what was done, was done and there was no going back to that time and doing it again or differently. It did not help to think that my actions towards her then had been extraordinarily restrained, in the context of what I could have done instead; she did suffer, and she did suffer greatly, and I knew she did and pushed it on to see her break.
Had I loved her then?
I grimaced and took another drink, shook my head. I don’t know if I did or if I did not, but I knew that she impressed me with her tenaciousness, and as the days went by, her earnest resolve to earn my respect, esteem, my praise had slowly wormed its way beneath my armour shielding and when the time had come and she had broken before me indeed, I was too enmeshed with her to let her go.
Since then, I cannot recall a single incident where I sought to hurt her deliberately; in the contrary, I had striven to please her as best as I understood such things. I grimaced again. It seemed that I did not understand such things nearly well enough.
I pulled up her memories of the time from the moment when first we stepped into Trant’s trap.
I played them through swiftly, slowing here and there, and then again, and on the third repetition I noted that there were gaps, missing sequences, little jumps in time and space that were subtle enough to be quite unnoticeable by a casual observer, or even and indeed, the owner of the memories herself.
Fascinated and intrigued, I pulled up another, older memory – her father beating her for having attacked a suitor he determined for her, and how she dealt with that and made her way to the Serein Monastery across the valley, perched high on the mountainside.
I switched off my admiration for her tenacity and concentrated on the fabrics of these memories, tracking them with great care in all ways I knew how, and these memories did not hold the same gaps and out of sequence events – they moved evenly enough, in spite of times of sleep and unconsciousness fading in and out as though a sentry lamp was being lowered and raised.
I returned to the memories at the palace one more time, and this time, the time lapses and jumps stood out more clearly still and there was no doubt about it anymore – there were things which had occurred she had edited out and would not share with me.
I don’t know why this thought dismayed me so thoroughly.
I had no right to be knowing all of her; indeed, it was a strange burden of our relationship that we knew far too much about each other, most of the time. The experiences with Niccosia and the adjutant too were a warning to me that since she had taught me her ways and I had practiced them on her, my awareness of others had increased to a point where it might well endanger straight decisions and clear thinking, and I would have to watch this.
I did not want or need to know that much about anyone, not even her, not even myself, in the name of the Creator! This deranged universe was too much at the best of times, and to try and keep it simple enough to chart a course of sorts and follow it with some degree of hope that it might get you where you thought you should be going was enough effort without having to complicate it with entanglements of this magnitude and such utterly useless information, as knowing that Niccosia referred to his father as the final authority on all things, even after the man had died!
I sighed and finished the first bottle of wine, then uncorked the second and drank about half of that as well.
The food on the table held as much invitation as the idea of chewing on the window frame, yet and obedient as ever, I made to reach for a piece of bread as it was needed to fuel my various fires.
As I reached for it, I became aware in a most peculiar sense of the totality of the bread, tingling through my fingertips and I switched my view into the pattern world instead.
With interest, I noted my fingers, outlined in many strands of interlacing glove links that extended further than I could see, becoming less distinct the greater the distance. The bread too was made up of such strands and I pulled on them lightly, then extracted those that were alive and have them flow into myself instead.
A little rush, closely localised, slid up my arm in consciousness and dissipated swiftly, setting up a resonance of excitement, waiting, a feeling of – hunger!
I opened my eyes and the bread had turned to dust on the plate, very dry, crumbling, as though the very essence of what it had been, had been removed from it.
Ah but this could be the answer to a prayer I had said silently at every single meal I had ever taken in my life – don’t make me have to go through this again!
I hated eating. I hated the feel and the taste of the foods, and yes, I hated the processes of elimination as well but not nearly as much as I hated having to force myself to bite down onto these grating structures that filled me with nothing but distaste, no matter how much wine I would use to ease their passing.
This, this extraction of life directly from the object itself might be able to replace those processes, perhaps altogether. With excitement, I went back and drew the rest of the bread into me, then the sliced cold meats and the jar of pickled spices as well.
It was wonderful, exhilarating, delicious and I was hungry still, more hungry than I can recall I ever was. I cast around sharply for more food, and was immediately attracted to the emanations of Isca, asleep on the bed behind me.
It was then that I stopped and reeled back into myself with a sense of shock, of horror, of disgust.
The memory came back to me.
In the cage. I had done this to escape from the cage, drawn the very life energy out of the injured and dying around me to fuel my own restoration. That was the same process, a feeding on their essence, draining out their lives.
I had touched something just now, something that I did not want to know, something that I did not ever want to be, not ever want to become.
I do not scare easily but there, I was afraid.
I had been accused a hundred times of being of this kind, of drinking other’s blood to keep myself immortal and it had meant little to me for it had been false.
But here, I could see so clearly, feel it so clearly in my bones, how one could feast in this way and fill oneself right to the brim with coursing, heady energy – what temptation.
For a moment, my own lady had appeared delicious to me!
I could feel my jaw set as I placed a sharp order for a second serving of food and more wine with the half asleep kitchen staff, and sat motionlessly and tightly cloaked until the young adjutant, perfectly turned out, and with a serious attempt at military precision and fear in his heart came, carrying the bottle and a large platter with care.
I dismissed him without another thought and took a slice of meat from the platter. It was a good size, from the best part of a slaughterbeast, well cooked and vaguely pink and shimmering in the middle. I fought the desire to view it from the pattern world and instead, placed it into my mouth and began to chew it slowly, and with volition. With every movement of my jaw, I recanted the prayer to not have to eat again and reversed it to the intention that I should never cease to eat, for if I did, I would indeed lose what humanity there was to me, whatever there was left after all these dark years clad in the shell of the snake, the illusion of monstrosity that now lay at my fingertips to truly make into a reality. A monstrosity that I no longer wanted.
I slowly ate my way through the amount of food I knew would be exactly right for me to keep my balance and wondered at the ways of unfolding. What if I had learned to manipulate the patterns before? What would have become of me? I thought about it and in truth, it did nothing but frighten me and reminded me that in the end, I had always been an honourable man, bound by a code of my own making and although the code was hard, I had not ever transgressed it in consciousness.
Halfway through the third bottle of wine, it occurred to me that there was a possibility that I had never noted this way of feeding before because if I had noticed it, I would have used it to its full extend and only now that I was in a position of control, did it become revealed. Was there a pattern beyond? A design? And if so, who was in control of it?
I shook my head and stopped my musings there and then. I buried the understanding of that feeding through the patterns deep inside me and sealed it to be used as but the last of last resort. Then, I reached out and across the kingdom to Tower Keep, found Isca’s magical seals across my rooms, sidestepped them with ease and brought with some effort a set of my own cloths across the distance, landing them freezing cold and steaming furiously at my feet.
I went to the window and looked out into the night that was waning now, the first fingers of a far off sun beginning to tickle at the underside of passing clouds, watching them move across on their never ending journey and stepping into a timelessness that had me sigh with pleasure as I looked out into the night and thought of nothing at all.
The sun eventually became a pain in my eyes and I smiled because that was the signal to awake from a night’s vigil spent unsleeping and with senses tuned to finest accuracy. I was stiff from standing still for so long and my throat was dry as dust. The room was far too hot with that fire that still burned high and never exhausted itself; faded as it was now against the onslaught of the sunrise, I extinguished it and opened the window, drinking in the cutting morning air. My senses buzzed with the activity around. Niccosia must have had hundreds running, riding and stumbling with messages all night for there were more and more arriving to add to the confusion of minds and patterns, such overwhelm that I had to close it out and leave it be.
My lady still slept, looking little better than she had done, and had not really moved at all from the position I had placed her in so many hours ago. I cautiously reached for her and tried to send her some support; unsure as how to do this exactly, I ended up sitting by her side and stroking her head and hair and letting my intention do whatever magic I could provide to make her feel better. At one point, she sighed deeply in her sleep and curled towards me, snuggling closer into the soft cushion and I took that for a sign that I had contributed something to her well being.
I sought out the washroom then and used the unknown officers beautifully presented razors, soaps and towels to make myself presentable for this morning’s performance. With the palace guards united on my side and my intentions laid out clearly to seek and find a suitable descendent for the throne of Malme, the city would be safe for now and it would give me time to gather the meeting of the Lord’s Council. As I well knew, the real problem in a time like this would be an all out civil war that once begun, was near impossible to stop until most everyone had killed most everyone else and there was nothing much left worth fighting over.
Malme would not have appreciated that kind of thing happen to his legacy.
Trant’s forces were the biggest headache at the moment. If there was a one who could unite them, it would cause a lot of disturbance and potential upheaval which we certainly could do without at this point. There were a lot of them. Just to get them back to the Eastlands without major dissolution of discipline and chaos ensuing would become a profoundly challenging task. When you call that many men to arms, what do you do with them when you no longer have a use for them?
I sighed and collected my clothing. It was good to be dressed properly again, but I really needed now some form of impressive additions to my apparel. At the very least a decent cloak. I looked over the captain’s wear but it was ridiculous – apart from his dress uniforms, the man seemed to be enamoured with popinjay coloured silks I would not care for as the linings of a coffin.
He did, however, possess a very nicely made leather dress scabbard for a single sword. I sighed again. I would have to have a new one made for my Tadara and I hated that, having used the one that Trant’s men took off me for a few hundred years now. Have something that long and be damned if you don’t form a relationship with it!
The captain’s dress scabbard would have to do and I would have to leave the other sword behind or have my Lady wear it – it would please her enormously, no doubt.
I called the adjutant and the harried youngster came at the double, pale from lack of sleep and stood to a good impression of attention.
I said to him, “I need a cloak. Black, decent fastener, good material, clean. Have it here within the hour. And – “ I glanced to Isca who was just a curled up shape outlined beneath the soft covers with top of her dark hair visible above the sheets, “- a suitable dress for my lady. Blue or green.”
The boy swallowed rapidly and I waylaid his shouting of acknowledgement with a brief but decisive gesture and set him on his way. It was about two hours or thereabouts until second watch. More time to wait away.
So I waited and eventually, ordered some tea from the kitchen for two which was delivered by a cook who trembled so much that he had spilled at least a third of what had been in the jug and made a lake on the tray with the two stoneware mugs. I could not be bothered with him and dismissed him as soon as the tray had hit the table.
Then, I gently awakened my lady.
She looked still very pale and drawn but managed a smile for me. She always had a smile for me, whatever the circumstances, and I never quite could get used to that fact. Instead of trying the effort of smiling back at her, I kissed her forehead instead.
“We are going to address the palace guards in an hour or so,” I told her. “Are you well enough to rise and accompany me or would you rather stay and rest?”
She shook her head immediately and got herself up to a sitting position with an effort, blinked into the brightness of the light that must have hurt her eyes as well.
“I go where you go. At least for now. I cannot stand the thought of not being in your sight.”
I poured her some tea and passed it along and was just about to say something to the affirmative when the adjutant returned, his heart full of bitter fear and trembling terror in case the clothing he had acquired would be not to my liking. With him was a young woman who was similarly afraid but also enormously excited to be able to really see the Lord of Darkness and his woman, right close up! What tales I will have for the kitchen!
I shook my head and grimaced. I just did not need to know this much about all these people. Isca smiled at my thought and send, I have the same problem, my lord. We will find a way to better shielding given just a little time.
There was the long expected knock and I sparsely told them to enter.
The adjutant stalked into the room as soldier-like as he could muster, carrying a long black cloak across both lower arms and bowed low to me, on the uprise flicking a quick glance at my lady who drew the sheet up across her bare chest in response. He coloured deeply and from then on, kept his eyes entirely straight ahead.
The woman behind him who curtseyed into the room with every other step, cheeks bright red with the excitement, curly red hair escaping everywhere from a maid’s cap and dressed in a good dark grey with white apron, carried a large sack in a similar fashion and stopped, half bent, behind the adjutant, sneaking quick looks here, there, and everywhere. I intercepted one of them and she froze on the spot and looked down rapidly from thereon in.
I took the cloak and let it unfold. It was exactly as I had stipulated. Excellent material – no good for real wear but perfect for a parade, and although made for a shorter man than myself, would do just fine. The clasp was certainly worth a small fortune, thick gold links terminating in a large emerald; I was uncomfortable with that gem and decided to change it as soon as they had left the room. I placed it around my shoulders and it fell well.
Very nice, Lucian, came a dryly amused comment from the bed, but yet there was an underlying admiration for my looks and bearing that I found somewhat hard to reconcile. She noted my consternation and said nothing else.
“Place the dress on the bed and you may leave.” I said to the woman, and she complied immediately, torn between her fear of me and her disappointment that she would not get to help dress my lady and hear perhaps some confidences or find out more about us into the bargain.
Isca smiled and send me a notice.
In due time, you should let me talk to such ones. You might not know but this is how opinions are formed that spread across a kingdom. I could have the kingdoms know that you’re the greatest lover who ever lived, with one or two well placed words to this woman!
I showed nothing in my face as adjutant and woman made their retreat, yet I responded, Or you could tell them the opposite! What power you have, my lady!
She giggled as the door closed behind them and was intrigued enough by the bundle to creep out from the sheets and slide up to it, prodding it first and then looking for an entrance.
I stood and looked at the sweep of her back into her rounded behind and had to make an effort to keep my breathing steady. Isca did battle with the grey linen sack and finally managed to shake from it a tumble of pale blue, dark blue and sea green silks which turned out to be three dresses, each one of them fine and well suitable for a lady.
I had a little bet with myself and smiled as she went single-mindedly for the sea green and teased it out, then lifted it up by the shoulders. She looked to me and said, “This is a real dress!”
I shrugged my shoulders. “It is what I ordered. Are you well enough to get dressed?”
She took no notice of me and slid from the bed, her back turned to me, her shoulder blades moving as she held out the dress in outstretched arms and shook it out to its full length. Then she held it to herself, turned around, and nervously asked, “What do you think?”
What I thought was that without a doubt, she was the single most beautiful thing I had ever seen and that the piece of green fabric with the tiny pearls and glitters was getting in the way of me being able to appreciate it fully in this bright morning light, but I knew better than to give a voice to this and so I said, “Very suitable. Does it fit you?”
She dropped it to the floor, carefully stepped a marble leg with toes pointed into the pile of fabric, bending down to raise it up which caused her breasts to fall forward and swing freely. My hands felt hot and I put them behind my back, beneath the cloak, to keep them safe.
She slid it across her hips and worked her arms into it, pulling it this way and that. Her neck was delightful, sweeping into her shoulders, the joints moving beneath the skin like living things.
She came over to me and turned her back on me once more, a triangle of bare skin from her neck down to the beginning of her buttocks and with one hand, gathered up her hair, then turned to me and said, “With my attendant having been so swiftly dispatched, there’s no-one here who can sew this up for me. Would you do the honours and meld the fabric?”
I touched her back, still warm from sleep, first with a fingertip, then placed my hands around her shoulders and drew her to me, putting my lips to her neck and tasting her with my tongue, and expecting her to relax into me and perhaps turn her mouth to intercept mine.
But this morning, she did no such thing. Instead, she withdrew sharply from me, wiped at her neck with the back of her hand and said sharply, “I can do it myself if you don’t want to.”
I dropped my hands as though they had been burned. Stiffly, I said, “I apologise. Please stand still and I will meld the patterns.”
She turned her back to me again but there was a tightness in her shoulders now, her neck stretching away from me and an air of distrust that I had never noted about her before. I picked up the edge of the fabric and she actually flinched as my fingertips touched her skin by accident.
I drew the fabric together, switched into the pattern view and easily aligned the material, fusing it along as my hands moved up the back towards her neck.
All along, she stood very still and tight, tracking my every move.
I had barely aligned the last of the strands when she moved away from me and without a word, went to the washroom, leaving me standing and wondering what had just happened.
I went to the window and looked out. There was only the broken wall and beyond, the city of Pertineri lay sprawling, smoke rising from a thousand chimneys, tall towers of buildings breaking through the see of red roofs, a milling ocean of humanity and a density of pressure that was far too much to bear.
I shielded it out and just stood there until Isca returned from the washroom. The dress fitted her perfectly, perhaps a little too perfectly because I could tell that she was not wearing the requisite undergarments that would have given that attire its standard appearance. Yet, without a doubt, she was exquisite. Her brown hair, reaching just beyond her shoulders, was brushed up to a shine; the green dress accented strongly the red diamond at her throat and she had changed the colour of her wayfarer’s boots to a matching shade, the triangular tips peeking just out below the hem.
She certainly was amazing to behold, and certainly, she was absolutely no lady born to rank and stature.
I smiled at her and said, “Perfect.”
She smiled a little shyly in return and dropped her eyes, twisting her long fingers together, a gesture I had seen before when she felt out of her depth and station. Well, perhaps she was. However. Consider this a field promotion, my comrade in arms, I thought with a smile but she did not catch me this time.
“Let’s go,” I said with volition and strode towards the door, knowing that my intent would make her fall in step and follow in my wake. Best not to give her time for any further contemplations. On the wall by the door leaned the second Tadara sword and I picked it up as I walked by.
She was following close behind as we descended the narrow stairs and I called out to the adjutant who came running from the kitchen immediately, still buttoned up to the top.
“Find me a scabbard brace, at once,” I said to him and the young man scrambled off, ran up the stairs and returned moments later with a reasonable set. It was somewhat plain but I would guess there was not yet a fashion for a lady’s scabbard brace at any rate, and I turned and fastened it around my lady’s waist. Of course, it was much too big but lay well enough on her hips at the tightest setting. I doubled back the fastener and then handed her the second Tadara.
She hesitated only for a moment, then she took it and carefully inserted it into her belt. The blue black lethal sword looked most incongruent in the plain brown leather holder, but that was nothing to the incongruency of the dress beneath. Yet, as I stood back and looked at her, in the context of the woman who was wearing it, all these things came together and made sense.
I send her a brief and deeply felt admiration and she accepted it with a brief shaking of the head, then I led our way out into the sunshine and straight through the translocation out into the courtyard before the main building.
We materialised in the middle of a knot of gentlefolk and clerics who scattered to all sides in hysterics.
I gave them no heed and sought to find amidst the churning a trace of Niccosia, but failed. Isca silently picked up the search by my side and located him almost immediately. It annoyed me a little but it was utilitarian at this moment to follow her and call him to us.
It took about five minutes until the worn out man, accompanied by three others, came running at full stretch across the courtyard which had been cleared of most of the rubble and all of the wounded and the corpses from the day before. Beyond the encircling walls of the courtyard, I could see a sea of red and gold and white, the mass of the palace guards he had assembled in the exercise squares that lay either side of the road entrance through the great metal gates, one of which was still standing fairly upright and the other lay drunkenly half rotated around a single remaining massive and twisted hinge at the bottom.
High focus we were, standing there, for all to see and all to observe, and my lady was dissolving with the terror of the judgements and the negativity that I had known all my life yet gave no heed.
It would have been unseemly to make a physical gesture of re-assurance; I attempted to link to her and failed, she was too spiralled within herself and her own concerns. So I extended a shield around us both instead which would serve to keep the minds at bay, and within this space she began to recover and to breathe more easily again.
I watched Niccosia approach, skid to a halt, breathless, overwrought from his night’s work, yet determined to do his best. He bowed to me deeply, as did his attendants, and he gasped in four distinct sections, “At your service, Lord Tremain.”
“Is all prepared?” I asked him and he nodded and said, “As prepared as we can be.”
I noted the use of the phrase "we" and approved of his choice of words. He did not seek to separate himself from his men on this task and that was the mark of a true leader. With this simple statement he accepted full responsibility for all those in his command, nearly forty thousand men this morning.
“Well then,” I said and felt the tingle of a smile, turned to look at Isca who looked strained and serious but well enough contained, “lead the way, Duke of Solland.”
“Yes my lord!” he shouted, turned on his heels and started down the open space of the central courtyard, me and Isca side be side behind him and his attendants bringing up the rear.
I became aware after a few strides of my lady’s extreme discomfort at the many, many eyes and minds that watched our progress across the courtyard. I tried to send her encouragement but she would not accept it, and I renewed the space around us both that carried my focus on the task ahead and the exclusion of what didn’t matter in the least, and she accepted this and relaxed into a longer stride.
We passed through the gate, circumnavigated some very large boulders that had not yet been moved and that had come from the huge uprights which supported the gate and the inner wall, and before us lay the straight sweep of the roadway that terminated in the main outer entrance to the city, and either side of it, ranks upon ranks of men in red, their division banners rising above them at regular intervals, massed tight together, weaving here and there like grasses.
Closest to us at the gate, a row of a few dozen officers stood to attention as we appeared, and Niccosia shouted at the top of his lungs, “Attention!”
They turned and passed on the cry and as it rippled through the assembled ranks of the soldiers, it turned them still in waves until all was extraordinarily silent and still.
I looked around and found a podium that would serve me, a half man height stump of the entry gate post, and I jumped upon it with ease and looked across the men from there.
I said with my very best speaking voice and it resonated clearly around the practice fields and beyond, where thousands of citizens were urging, straining to see and hear what would transpire here that day, “Soldiers of the Palace Guard!”