In Serein

2-4-4 The Coffin & The Knight

Slowly, very painfully and slowly I come back to awareness.

In my arms is the body of the girl.

The girl.

Why do I call her that?

It is a shield, that is all. A shield you raise to protect yourself for if you were to speak her name, that would be like bearing your breast, your neck and yes, your genitals to a sword fall by volition.

It is strange how I would have chosen without thought, to be right here, in this exact location, exactly this location, where I had killed Sepheal exactly 589 years, 7 months and 3 days ago.

To the day.

Yes. I have counted the days.

Even when I was deranged or sick or sleeping, there is a keeper in my mind that counts the days. It counts them in a way I know not, perhaps it is a bead into a jar for each sunrise there must have been.

Perhaps it is a drop into an amphora.

Perhaps it is a heart that ticks instead of beats.

I don’t know.

I just know that here, right now, I am once again kneeling on the translucent, ancient floor of Pertineri Abbey – and this is no mere prayer building, don’t make that mistake.

This is a tool, a structure erected exactly for a purpose, in this exact place, with every stone and tile and piece of gold and copper so exactly and precisely placed to serve a purpose.

This building has 13 sides. I have counted them so many times. It makes it look peculiar from the inside and the outside, and being there gives you a strange and disconcerting feeling as though there was something wrong with you and your perceptions.

I have been in 12 sided buildings and it never feels like that. I have come to the conclusion that we expect a kind of regularity, a conformity to certain invisible principles and don’t like it when they are contravened.

I would have guessed it might be something to help us stop ourselves from going too insane.

The floor has spiral patterns on it, manifold interwoven interlacements and yet the one spiral I am kneeling on this day, is the very one I knelt with Sepheal.

I did not recognise this at first, I came to it when I thought the girl needed a short stay in Serein to relieve her of her misconceptions. I was entirely focussed on her and my steps led where they would.

They led me to be here.


I glance around the tool they call an Abbey.

It is not that big, it holds about three hundred men in the stepped stands that line the sides of the central floor space.

If you were to give it your attention, you would see that what appears like decorations of precious metals are instead, a skeleton onto which the stones are placed; black glass stones, the very type that makes the standing circles.

The metal bands weave up and down and crest like waves to form the structure of the roof itself; they encapsulate the stained glass windows organically as though they had grown and not created in an artist’s forge.

I tried to ask Sepheal about this place, but he just shook his head and refused to speak on it. He would set me punishment for such transgressions and I learned to hold my tongue.

He could not stop me from wondering about the Abbey though.

I remember well sitting and looking at the inscriptions that were everywhere if you knew what you were looking for. To one not trained to read the ancient forms of text, they might appear to be nothing more but fancy adornments; I knew much better.

I could not read the inscriptions.

The oldest forms of script that Sepheal had taught me were a whispered remembrance of these signs that hummed in the floor, in the windows themselves, in every single stone and every single tile, inside and out and I suspected, even in the surfaces that had not seen the light since they had been joined together by those master craftsmen whose bones were not just dust but had since grown to be a mountain side.

I could not read the inscriptions.

I look down at the girl. Her head is curved across my arm and the sweep of her neck is unbroken, so long, tempering into a triangle of bones that make up her jaw, her skull beneath her flesh.

She would be able to read them, of this I had no doubt. I wondered if there was a single thing she could not do if she was of a mind to approach a problem.

She had everything that I had ever wanted and more, a Creator given bounty of a richness she had done exactly what to deserve?

And how, exactly, had she deserved to have her path been interlaced with mine?

I settled down into a sitting position and caught her head in my hand, shifting up the elbow to make a cushion for her, laying her across myself and bringing up my knees to support her more fully. Her head rolled against my chest and I sighed deeply.

What was I to do now?

I had hatched what seemed a reasonable plan when she fell apart on me there in the courtyard – I do admit it, I could have done more to help her then, and once again, was far too focussed on my own thoughts and musings to even give her much of my attention.

Had I done so there and then, we would not be here now.

Against my wishes, I find that I am laying my cheek to her hair and holding her more closely. I should not be doing this. It is one thing to make her comfortable against the intense cold from the floor that seeps into my buttocks and up my spine and into my thighs. It is another to be holding on to her as though she was a life raft; a bundle of twigs you managed to clasp when the floods washed you across the eddies and the currents down the stream.

And was she ever anything else to me? Were you ever anything else to me but a raft, not nearly strong enough to carry my entire weight but just so I could keep on breathing?

I thought it was a good idea to take her into that place – Serein, she calls it and I hate that name, I hate that word with everything I am or ever was.

I thought we would stand in the purple plain again, and this time I would watch her wear herself out against her own misconceptions as I had done, and we would have a resolution.

I thought it would be small thing, for her life had been short and what she had ever done that was to be afraid to face? Steal a couple of golden fruit?

To be sure. She had a great deal of guilt about her brother but by the Creator! How could I have foreseen that what would happen would occur?

How could I have known? Oh but I should have known and I could not have known and I have to fight myself for these emotions that arise in me are not to be admitted. Never to be admitted. Never.

I should not have laughed at her in that snake skin of a worn out, fat country hag, I should not have laughed at her when she showed me her hands broken from daily toil and labour of the basest kind.

I shattered her with my laughter and she could not rebuild herself; then when she did, she created a cocoon of ice about her and I was there, and I knew she was at peace, a brilliance of satisfaction and happiness that could not arise in any other way. And her gratitude to be allowed to rest!

It tore me apart.

It tears me apart.

I cannot break this silence, break this peace for her.

I close my eyes and kiss her hair and without wanting to, I am back there, in that frigid landscape that is so alike to the place of death that used to frighten her, frightened us both so much way back when she used it to scare me back to life after I destroyed Sepheal’s tower.

I have a purple plain and she has a place of death for her final sanctuary.

Before me arises the ice casket, high as a man and three times as wide, perfectly clear, perfectly still, no longer growing for the sky is entirely black and devoid of any stars, no matter how far they might have been, to add to its dimensions.

Inside it, there is my lady. The girl. I cannot even think her name and reach and touch the ice barrier that is between me and her.

I know I could shatter this if I wanted to.

I absolutely know that I can do this, and that perhaps I am the only one who can.

I absolutely know she cannot hear me, and so I speak to her now, my voice surrounding me before it even leaves my thoughts, my throat, my lips.

“What would you do if it was me, at peace there, and it was you who was standing here instead? What would you do? Most likely, you would cry. You always cry. It gives the illusion that you are helpless and weak but the trick has long since failed to work on me. What would you do when you had stopped your crying and completed your childish rituals of wiping your nose with your sleeve and breathing yourself into a frenzy?

You would smash this ice and you would take me in your arms and you would beg me not to leave you.

That is what you have done so many times and that is what you would do again.

And I don’t understand why you would do that. Truly and profoundly, I cannot understand your motivation.

I know about you – everything. Every moment of your life, give or take a minute here or there. I know full well that you made a decision you would fight for me – but I don’t understand it.


What is there to be gained from it?

All I give you is pain and nothing much beyond that. I know nothing of how to please you, and even if I did, I would forget, and oh! It is so easy to hurt you. So easy. Too easy.

So that is what you would do if it was me. But I am me, and you are you, and my decision in the matter is not fettered by such strange notions as you have.

In truth, I would not leave you here.

In truth, I cannot believe that you would want me to.

Yet, can there be a better fate for you?

This silence, this peace is all you ever wanted, and now you have it.

Can I take it from you?

I don’t have the heart.

I don’t have the heart to force upon you all the suffering of life again. I will give you that which you will not give me, I will let you rest there in your silence and you will be well and safe.

Perhaps there is a chance that I might join you when my work is done.

Perhaps there is a chance that at the last moment of time, we might meet each other again? Would you have forgotten me? Would I have forgotten you? It is of no consequence, in the end.

I will leave you in this darkness. I will return and find a place to lay your body with orders to have it cared for until it has turned to old age and it ceases its last rasping breath, as it was with Malme. I will sit with you and when you are gone, I will join you.

So sleep well, my lady. I bid thee good night.”

I let my hand slide down from the ice and it drops to my side, cold and wet, drips like tears forming on my finger tips.

My task is set and it is clear; my path has been laid out.

I will myself back to my body but I find I cannot go and there is a something holding me back.

I turn around and with me, the horizon spins and out there, in the white rock landscape, there is a movement and I see there are figures coming towards me, human shapes that have no shadow and as they approach me, I can see with horror that they are children.

The Serein children.

A fear so profound that it shatters my teeth in an instant falls upon me and I stumble backwards until I feel the smoothness of my lady’s icy coffin at my back.

A fear so profound holds me in its grasp that I am immobilised and cannot do any other than to stand and shake and stare at their approach.

There are many of them,  growing flowing from the white rocks, dressed in white, white skins and vile eyes fastening to me like so many leeches. I struggle and fight with my fear and try to replace it with my hatred and my anger that will pulverise them in an instant, but here in this space it will not come and I am so afraid, I think that I might lose control and wet myself.

They stop perhaps a dozen paces from where I am stuck to the ice sarcophagus like a swatted fly to a window pane.

One comes forward and I cannot stand the sight of him.

He is small, fragile, twig legs and stick arms.

No closer! No! Stay away from me you nightmare of nightmares! Demon! Devil! No!! NO!!

The boy halts and he speaks.

"We know you."

I cannot respond. I cannot find control. I cannot find resistance. I cannot find the blue ice. I am absolutely helpless and terrified and I hate myself for it.

"You must set her free."

In spite of my fear, I shake my head. I won’t do that.

The boy takes a further step towards me and points a finger at me.

"You are to set her free."

I shake my head again and I can feel that I am crying now, more ignominy, more shame. Just add it to the list. Through chattering teeth I tell the evil apparition, "No. She doesn’t deserve it. She must be allowed to rest in peace."

From the group, another comes forward. A girl with long hair. I recognise her as the girl my lady calls the princess.

I am not as afraid of her as I am of the boy but I am still crying.

She comes close up to me and tries to look into my eyes but I avoid her and look down upon myself instead.

You must return the Lady Isca, she says, and her voice is like butterflies, slides into me, into my stomach and rings around my head.

I find from somewhere the strength to look into her eyes. They are spinning insanities of purple streaks and I sob involuntarily but still, I say to her, "I will never hurt her again, I will not take this from her. You do with me what you will, but I love her too much to inflict another second of life upon her."

She cascades me with her butterfly voice and purple drowning eyes and I fall, and fall, and fall again, straight through the white rock ground and into the centre of the darkness, and there are voices around me, all around me, spinning me, turning me inside out and I fall some more and land hard on a flat cold surface.

I open my eyes and merciful silence surrounds me. I get to my feet and wipe my eyes with the palms of my hands. In front of me is a mirror, square and perfect, about my size. I can see myself reflected in it and do not recognise myself. Who is this young man with the long hair? Is it me? A me that once was? Dimly, a recollection begins to emerge and I go closer to the mirror, look at this man’s face, his cold and intense eyes and the tightness in his stance which I recognise more than his features or his looks.

I step back and try to make out what else there is, but as I shift my eyes from the mirror, another arises smoothly sliding from the ground and I see myself reflected again, this time in my usual state of black and middle age, that time that Sepheal decreed should not move on until forever. Here, my eyes are truly alien now, like those of a snake – not a trace of feeling, not a trace of compassion. I try to look past the mirror and another arises, another reflection of me, this time wearing a black and gold parade uniform I have not donned in many hundred years. I spin around for I do not want to see more of me, and as I spin, more and more mirrors grow from the ground until I am entirely surrounded by them, each one a reflection of a one I once was, every one of them moving in time to my movements, creating an unholy dance that I myself am leading.

I stand still. My breathing is shallow and my heart is beating high.

I am full well aware that the Serein children have placed me here. I am full well aware that they are trying to change my mind about awaking – her. Just how a gallery of mirrors  is supposed to accomplish this impossible task  is quite beyond me and I stand still and I think.

It is very hard to think with all these sets of eyes of mine upon me – I just know that they are watching yet I keep my eyes firmly fixed to the ground lest I should spark a movement, or become entangled with these images of selves that I had long left behind on the dusty roads of the centuries.

I keep my eyes down yet as I approach the first mirror directly in front of me, I can still see all the other selves in my periphery; I shut them out as best I can, turn my shoulder to the mirror and try and push it over. It is set solid, and no matter how much of my strength I apply to it, it never gives even a by so much as a fraction of a fraction.

I step back and spin and kick the mirror, all around me the images are flying chaotically. I put my entire bodyweight behind the kick and my heel just contacts against an utterly immovable strength; a pain shoots through me and I drop to the ground.

All of me slowly get up again, and all of me extend their arms as we feel for a space between the mirrors but they overlap so tightly, there is not even enough space for a breath of air to escape.

I think they set this up so you simply cannot escape it by conventional means.

I sit on the ground – all of me sit on the ground – and I contemplate what magic I might apply here. I try to shift the mirror, change it, turn it back in time, open a passage way for my escape, I even try to call the horse people, but it was all to no avail.


She, too, had been enclosed by mirrors in her final dream.

What are those spawned bastards of evil are trying to say to me?

What is a mirror?

It reflects you.

What are these mirrors?

Reflections through time. My time. They are always me. They are not showing any way out, just me.

I can only see me.

I can only see me?

A dawning understanding began to rise up and for a moment, I was tempted to squash it down, tear it up, ignore it and just lay myself in the centre of this mirror prison until I would starve and parch to death in my resolve.

For a moment, I was tempted.

Then honour asserted itself. I would prefer to be wrong and stand corrected than willingly deny a truth.

So I allowed it to come to me.

I can only see me.

I make a decision about her but I can only see me.

My decision, not hers. I have no right to make such a decision for her. Or perhaps I do, for I know what she would want from me. She would want me to fight for her as passionately as she had fought for me.  But I, I could only see me. What I would want. If I was her. Which I was not.

I sighed and as I did, the mirrors simply dropped away and I was back on the white rock plain and all the children had gone, bar the princess.

She stood and smiled at me.

You, she said, and this time her voice was just a voice, like one would expect from one like her, high pitched and painful in my ears, you have understood a truth this day.

And with those words which undoubtedly she considered very grown up and highly meaningful, the princess made an exit of a flourish of whirling white.

I got to my feet and faced the ice sarcophagus one more time.

I sighed deeply and shook my head.

I’m so sorry, I said with all my heart. Then I raised both hands and struck the solid block of ice, flat hands, and my intention rang out with force, a war drum that resonated in the ice, shaking it, unbalancing it. I struck again, and again, and the ice began to split, to crack and crumble, and it fell apart and disintegrated into a million little tiny drops of diamond, a brilliant diamond canapé on which my lady lay, perfect, naked, beautiful, and sleeping in the gentlest way.

I shook my head again and tried once more to return to my body in the Abbey. This time, I slid across without hesitation and found my back hurting red and black, my arms trembling and my legs had turned to ice as cold as where she had been resting.

Carefully, I slid the sleeping woman to the floor, her limbs unfurling loosely across a spiral burst of white and blue. I stood up and used a little healing magic on myself to straighten out my screaming patterns.

How long had we been here?

What time was it?

The densely coloured glasses in their organic metal frames gave no immediate answer to that question.

I found myself sighing deeply before bending to her, picking her up once more, and translocated myself back to the Officer’s quarters. I was perhaps tired, or perhaps the Abbey patterns were giving some interference, but I landed us uncomfortably, about a foot to high and too close to the wardrobe behind the door, and I fell with her in my arms, kicking furiously so that as much of her as possible would land on the bed. At least I was successful in that endeavour; she fell into the bed and did not even seem to notice, but smiled inside her dream, drew her legs up close and put her mouth onto the knuckles of her hand.

I drew the blanket across her.

The adjutant was not to be found; he must have been with his unit on the parade field or wherever they had been sent yet the red-haired woman was in the kitchen. I ordered her to me.

Wide eyed and scared, she entered the room.

I tasked her with my lady’s well being and made it clear that in case of any unforeseen circumstances whatsoever, she was to inform me with all speed. I would be found at the Abbey.

Before she was half way through her deep curtsey, I had re-appeared in the Abbey.

It was the perfect place for Trant’s judgement. It really was a shame he was already dead. I smiled to myself for a moment and put the thought of bringing him back just so he might be executed again in the section of possibilities, then I focussed and looked for Niccosia.

The man was exhausted and for just one flashing second I considered that I might send him some extra energy, then dismissed the idea as one would swat a mosquito. I shook my head in consternation. The woman was having a very negative influence on me. Niccosia was a soldier, full grown and the Duke of more than a quarter of the kingdom. He would cope without such medications.

He recognised me and the style of our communications and accepted both without resentment.

How goes it, Niccosia? I asked of him.

The man made a stringent effort to bring his churning thoughts under some form of control. For one who was not used to the art of this form of exchange, he did well to send a reasonable report.

The palace guards were gainfully employed to send detachments to the outposts and the regional headquarters with the new orders; looters had been executed; and Trant’s army was showing no sign of getting organised; Niccosia had spoken to the highest ranking commanders as the generals were amongst Trant’s courtiers and still locked up in their prison beneath the palace. These men had shown signs of intelligence and of course, had no objections to their immediate superiors being removed from the chain of command; loyalty was not, it seemed, a major value amongst Trant’s men.

They had individually sworn their allegiances to the rightful successor to the throne, but had expressed their doubts as to whether they would be able to retain control of their forces, many of which were made up from deserters, mutineers and others who would fear rightfully for their skins if those troops were to be re-integrated into the forces of the kingdoms proper.

Niccosia was very worried about the situation, and I had to agree with him.

I changed the subject.

Have you organised a hierarchy of clerics? What is there left of the original administration? Is there anyone at all remaining we can trust beyond you and your men?

Niccosia sighed heavily and it was his opinion that the lower ranks were probably the best bet for now. Only those who were simply not important enough had escaped the killing spree after Pertineri had fallen a year ago, and the entire higher level of government were all Trant’s hand chosen men. The same went for the aristocracy; there simply wasn’t anyone left who had been loyal to Salter, and those who had been given their lands and provinces were entirely untrustworthy – a court made up of Thorans of Theleins.

We had an organisational nightmare on our hands, that was for sure.

Who would we execute Trant in front of if I was to bring him back?

I shook my head and ordered Niccosia to come to the Abbey for a face to face conference, and to bring with him whatever men he thought might have the skills to take some of the most important posts.

He acknowledged with a sigh and I shut off the link.

I walked around the circumference of the inner space, my eyes on the spiral interlacements, and thought about the situation.

The palace guards were not so hard a problem; they were professional soldiers and they followed orders. It would be easy to remove the top tiers and replace them with bright new talent, especially if there wasn’t a battle at hand.

The clerics, likewise, and the scribes would have amongst them many an ambitious young man who would seize this chance of a lifetime and leap frog a twenty year or more struggle in daily toil to get to the very highest of positions.

The real problem lay in the aristocracy and the highest holders of title and rank. Trant had made a clean sweep of many of the old families; not just Salter and all his children, children’s children and bastards were no more. Solland had been damned lucky that he had kept Niccosia’s heritage such a closely guarded secret. Now, there would be bastards coming from every knot in every piece of wood to lay claim to deed and title.

I wished to the Creator that I had not spend a year in that forsaken tower, feeling sorry for myself and playing with fruit and mountain fires whilst the real world around me fell to rack and ruin.

It occurred to me how useful it would have been to have a few hundred Serein to command at my fingertips. Up until we made a clean sweep of those, one of their major functions to the government had been to root out the dissidents, the traitors, the spies. Malme had despised this and preferred to elevate men on his own approval, but it was just too easy a way to feel safe, when indeed, it was nothing of the kind.

I knew well enough that the Serein had always run their own agenda, and I would have advised Malme’s sons to take more care if I had not been honour bound to keep my silence on the subject.

The thought came to me, unbidden, that this was perhaps a possibility. There were Serein to be had for such purposes, and they did not yet have their own purposes, good or evil. The children could be utilised to filter at least the highest ranks. I considered this option with a degree of distaste when Niccosia arrived, flanked and tailed by about three dozen men.

They hesitated as a group just beyond the threshold and left him by himself to come across to me and salute me.

He looked pale and strained, with deep shadows under his eyes, but well contained nonetheless. I smiled inwardly for I knew his type only too well. He thrived on this situation, having turned his back on earthly pleasures at a young age. He probably had a propensity for boys, but I did not hold that against him.

“Niccosia,” I said by the way of a greeting. “Introduce the new court.”

We walked across, shoulder to shoulder, to the throne seats that lay at the apex of the thirteenth section, elevated beyond the other rows, two large chairs there flanked by benches that were markedly lower, and another set of lower benches before those with a wide gap and steps up to the seats of the King and Queen.

I took a seat in the right hand one of the throne chairs and indicated to Niccosia to take the other; he hesitated and finally declined, coming and standing by the side of  my throne instead, one arm resting on the high back rest. I noted his defiance with a measure of amusement. There had been a time when I would not have allowed such blatant disobedience, but in view of everything and in its general state of derangement, it was fitting in an ironic way.

He called his entourage forward and one after the other, they stepped forward to the sounds of their names, their offices and their proposed new offices, knelt deeply, bowed their bare heads, said a few words of greeting and in doing so, laid out their minds and ambitions before me.

Niccosia had chosen exceptionally well. There wasn’t a one amongst them who was an easy traitor, turn coat or not imbued with a deep and meaningful desire to set the kingdoms to rights. There wasn’t a one amongst them either who would fancy themselves to be king although there were a few who looked forward to the rich rewards of their unexpected situation. That, too, I didn’t hold against them.

As this went on, I became uncomfortably aware of Niccosia and his thoughts this close to me.

I became aware how deeply I was tracking into his new court.

It was then that it truly struck me how much sharper, clearer, deeper and more encompassing my abilities had become since I had met the girl. I knew  I was like that with her but had not really expected our communications and our games to influence me this profoundly, this lastingly, and when she was not around me.

I sat and drifted off with my thoughts, the ancient throne chair hard and square in the bend of my knees, my fingertips resting very lightly on the arms which had been deeply carved and were now worn down, by royal hands and polishing slaves stained ones, so that only the inlay pattern remained with a gentle rise to what must have been deep stone at some point, way back when, when even I had not been made.

I drifted to the time at Meyon Heights when I had told her to go and the villagers arrived.

That was the first time I knew I had changed.

It had caused me to fall apart entirely. Although, of course, I did not see it like that at the time; and in my insanity, absolutely everything I did made perfect sense. It is a frightening state of affairs, indeed.

I reached for her across the palace ruins, wondering if she was awake and chiding myself instantly on three counts: for not keeping my mind on the business at hand and thinking of her instead; for wondering if she was awake, for if she had been, she would have made contact with me automatically and instantly as soon as she had regained her senses, and lastly for continuing with the little trip to my sleeping lady in spite of the two preceding objections.

She was sleeping peacefully. Perhaps she needed far more sleep. Who knows with a one like her? The serving woman was in the room, going through the drawers, boxes and belongings of that nameless officer whose life we had commissioned. I found myself fascinated briefly with her thought processes and her emanations before I realised that I had and snapped my attention back into the Abbey at once.

There were only a handful more men to named and introduced and it was a good thing indeed I had returned to myself when I had. I nearly smiled. I was getting old, there was no doubting it, despite my changeless body. By my right ear, Niccosia was standing like a tired horse, leaning heavily on one leg, uncomfortably, wishing now he’d sat down no matter what the ceremonies, and admiring me deeply for my absolutely stony resolve and unchanging expression, wondering if there would come a time when he would have such a depth of control, such force of will.

Oh but how outward facades deceive those who do not know how to look any further than what their eyes perceive!

Oh Niccosia, you poor young bastard son of a great lord, do not ever wish for one moment to have my control, for it is an entire illusion and I am nothing but derangement, trapped in a thickly encrusted meaninglessness of masks and shells and layers that I can destroy no more than I could the mirrors.

I could feel myself falling and stopped myself with an effort then, shielding down between me and him and them and all of it as tightly as ever I knew how to, and from the corner of my eye saw him draw back, taking his hand of the headrest of my chair and seeking refuge in assuming the posture of standing to attention.

He had noticed the shielding. He too, could perceive patterns then. What if she was to give him a singing stone and the instructions she must have given to Marani? What if she was to give him the sword knowledge she had so happily passed along to that boy soldier at her house? What if she was to give him my learnings of strategy, experience, languages, and the ways of war?

Why if she did, he would be a far better me than I had ever been or any hope of ever being, now.

Niccosia would be the perfect king.

He would never need a Serein to tell him which one in his court was a spy, which one a traitor, which one a trusted friend. He would never need someone tasting his wines or lie awake at night, thinking himself surrounded by assassins and imagine that there might be bore holes in the walls and floor and ceilings through which a hundred pairs of evil eyes lay sleepless and were watching him with vile intent.

I sat up with a start at the realisation that this had been within every single king’s reach since whenever singing stones were invented and magic was in use and learning, at the same time as the last man had given his greeting and retreated, backwards, joining the ranks of his companions who stood silently in a semi circle halfway between the entrance door and the throne platform.

There was a time stretching silence, and I rose to my feet. Niccosia stepped forward too, anxious for my opinion.

I looked down at the men and nearly sighed. They were good enough in heart and purpose, not outstanding, not a Malme or an Isca, for that matter, amongst them, but in a way that was a good thing.

“Re-convene one hour after sundown for the judgement,” I said. They bowed their head as a group in acknowledgement and remained in that position.

“Dismissed,” I said and I wish I had not for that was a soldier’s orders and I was speaking in the place of a regent.

Still, it got them to backing out of the building and I was left with Niccosia who was hesitating, obviously unsure if I had meant to dismiss him too.

I dropped my shielding then and of course, and damn me for it, went automatically and straight without thought to check on the girl again before turning to Niccosia.

“You have chosen well,” I said, and the rush of relief, followed by sincere delight and joy that tumbled from the man nearly unbalanced me for a moment.  In truth, it set me seeking for a resonance within myself of a similar feeling and the one that came to mind was a milder version, when Sepheal had given me the pendant after having taken Malme’s army to the final victory on the Western Plains – here, here again, right here in this damned Abbey where all strands seemed to converge again.

Sepheal. Malme. Isca. And I, the one who held all these together, who was the only link they would ever know or have amongst them.

I nodded to Niccosia. I should be conferencing with him, discussing details of this evening’s events, but I could not. I needed to be alone for a time and try and clear my thoughts, my mind. I hardly managed to say a few words of dismissal to Niccosia, and his crestfallen disappointment was nearly too much to bear and very nearly, I added a qualification of some sort like you would re-assuringly  pat the neck of your horse after frightening it with too sharp a spur – you’ll live, just move along now. In truth, I don’t rightly know why I did not and left him standing in misery when I walked out of the building and into the gardens, the ancient gardens that surrounded the Abbey. Not far enough, not big enough. Niccosia was watching me from the open door.

I send a glancing check to my lady who showed no sign or inclination of waking, and with a deep breath I opened the doorway to the horse plains and stepped through.

I remained in the circle space for just long enough to seek around the various options that presented themselves until I found what I was looking for.

A long unused pathway, somewhere in the kingdoms.

I simply opened it and stepped across before anyone had even noticed I was ever there.

I stepped out into deeply yielding, wet, soft grass in a ruined building, long, long ruined, and rain was falling heavily, big individual missiles of rain that splashed against my forehead, my ear. Within seconds, I was drenched and it felt cleaning, cutting. I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the sky and let the water hit me as it would, each splashing explosion a welcome cuff around my ears to return me to sanity.

Return me to sanity. Now there’s a thought. How can you return to where you never where?

I acknowledge the faultiness of my phrasing.

Splash. Drips turning to lakes then a sheet of moisture that covers my face, hair and neck all over.

Every busy, ever watchful, ever on the move like a force of reconnaissance, a part of me just slips away from the moment and begins to hunt for minds and enemies around.

I have no idea where I am but wherever I am, I am alone here and this is a relief as intense as the cold rain that bathes me steadily on, never caring if it fell on me, or on a stone beyond, or on a blade of grass, or on a smouldering wet fire that, if you stirred it somewhat, would contain bones, and teeth.

Perhaps the Serein were watching. It stood to reason they would be, but there was nothing to do about that. They had been watching me and controlling me all my life; there is no grounds nor purpose to bemoan and bewail such a fact, no more as to what colour are your eyes, or size of you feet. What is, simply is, and it is up to you to take it and to live it, best you can.

Let them watch. They had done nothing to us but had used Trant as their puppet, and even then, they had not directly acted upon us in any way, nor stopped us or attacked us when we were so vulnerable both after our escape.

My lady felt differently about this, and I experienced a short moment of an unusual emotion as I stood and rested in the intermittent waterfalls and well knew that she would be most disturbed if she should wake and know me to be gone.

Always duties, duties, duties to perform. Never a time for rest allowed. Never. Not one moment where there isn’t service, preparation for service, duty, honour, loyalty, subjugating my will to that of others, leaving no space for me at all to even breathe my own breath.

I must return to her and I can stand with her within a shield and that needs must suffice for me. It would be dishonourable to do anything else to make any other choice, and if I do not have my honour, what would then be left of me at all?

I had traded the Serein for the Lady Isca.

As always, I am the arrow.

I am just the arrow, sitting poised upon the bow of events and circumstances, and there’s the guiding hand and arm and mind that seeks the target and decides on the moment of release, and it is never mine.

My collar has filled with water and I slowly bring my head to the vertical once more and open my eyes.

An ancient ruin, black and just a few jutting stacks of bricks that once were part of walls remaining now, grass and weeds high in the shadows where they broke the force of snow and rain and wind.

The grey in grey sky with its falling curtains of water and soft even grass underfoot that denotes grazing beasts have passed no more than perhaps a fiveday ago.

I have no idea where this is; those ruins were probably older than me. In a way, I have no interest in finding out. Knowing this place was just two days ride from Sicatera on the western trade route or such like locational divergence would remove its sense of peace and far-away-ness and I resolved to come back when I could, perhaps sleep a night here or two, and keep my eyes inside its fallen walls like they were my own personal circle of standing stones so I would never know where this place existed in real terms.

I must return before my lady awakes.

Yet I do not wish to do so.

Just a few moments here. I will allow myself a few moments here in this space that strangely feels like holy ground – indeed, I am insane, no doubt remaining even if once there ever was. I am entirely insane. A madman, held together by the iron strands of honour and a discipline and now I am about to undo even that by refusing my own orders and dawdling here full well aware that I should not.

Oh gods! If only I had been not shown a snake and all those hells but rather, her so wondrously silent coffin. To have experienced that peace for myself. That gratitude.

I shake my head and water flies from the end of my nose. I am a fool. I am a madman and a fool and what am I doing here, what is the point of wasting time to think these thoughts that make no sense to me and lead in circles everywhere at once and nowhere whatsoever?

Make yourself useful, at least.

You are no good to anyone, but you can make yourself useful to another.

I wipe my eyes with my sleeve although I do not need to see to make the doorway and return first to the circle, then to the Abbey itself, the landing point is inside, right in the middle of the floor space, perfectly on the great rosette of interlacements where all the strands and all the spirals come together in a dance.

I am dripping audibly onto the floor and Niccosia, still leaning against the doorway with his back to me, spins around and starts at my appearance.

I don’t give him time to say anything to me.

“An hour before sundown, meet me where the prisoners are held,” I tell him and translocate myself straight to my lady’s quarters, keeping care this time to procure a smooth landing at the foot of the bed where there is the largest available floor space which gives room for a margin of error.

Just a little too high, but I materialise sound enough and with a small jump.

The serving woman would have screamed and had hysterics if I had not simply knocked her unconscious with a well aimed blow of mental energy. She crumbled to the ground in a heap, striking her head hard against the table as she falls.

I turn my attention to my lady who is sleeping deeply and seems happy in that state.

I consider my options as to how to spend my time guarding her; it is still many hours before sundown and I can’t think, can’t do anything much until she awakes or sundown and the appointment with Niccosia comes along.

So in the end, I shed my dripping clothes and just lay them one on top the other over a chair. It is not like me to be doing such a thing but I am tired. I can order them later. I cannot believe I am thinking it as I am thinking it. Where is my discipline? Where is my will?

Cold and undressed, I join my lady and take great care that no part of my fish cold, fish wet body touches her and splits her soft and rosy heat that is a pain to me in more ways I can say.

I lay beside her, take my time to check my muscles to relax each one, and drift into a resting state when sleep is not an option and to remain awake would waste an energy that needs to be conserved at all cost for the coming battles.

A countless occasions, a countless times had I thus removed myself from danger. From thought. From deed that must remain undone.

Here, brightness of day turning my vision red through my closed lids, I cannot contain myself in this state of being.

She lies on her side, her back turned to me.

She breathes beside me, dreams beside me, small shards of thought drowsily, messily spiralling, no meaning and no intention, puffs of smoke.

She pulsates beside me with heat and breath and presence.

I want her.

I want control of me.

She should sleep.

I should rest.

God damn it, she is my woman and I shall have her if I want her.

I turn over and cautiously, take the sleeping woman by the shoulders, around the waist and pull her into my arms with restraint as not to frighten her, startle her, waken her; she might weave this my presence into her dream. I bury my head in her hair and it is not close enough so I hold her tight and gently, carefully roll on my back, taking her with me, using her as a blanket, her body light on mine, now as though it is mine and I am in possession of her entirely.

Her hips are my hips.

Her stomach is mine, too.

Her breasts are mine for the holding, the exploring and the taking.

Her neck and throat and mouth and face are all in my easy reach.

She moves on top of me, letting her head roll sideways, her arms and hands moving lightly, fractionally.

I lever her thighs slightly with first one knee, then both so they open wide and her legs fall easily one side and the other. In sleep, she makes a half hearted effort to close herself, turn herself, first this way, then that, small trials of thoughts of movements that ripple into my muscles beyond the skin. I lie still and she ceases, dreams on.

My hands are red hot now, urging me to touch her. My loin is hot, urging me to invade her. Wherever her skin touches mine, we are stuck together, transferring blood for all I know, joining at the physical level.

I breathe her presence into my mouth, my nose and chest and reach to weave a link between us, surreptitious, sneakily, catching little awarenesses and making them part of me, closing in on her and making it tighter and more of me than it is of her, and when I’m quite content that she won’t be able to resist, I begin to feed her my excitement, make her aware of it, lighting her own that I know so well, a fast flash fire that comes from nowhere, strong and clear.

She arches her back to me and her mouth is seeking a part of me – she is mine, now. All mine. She belongs to me entirely, thought, mind, body and at last, at last I can hold her as I wish, touch her as I wish, enter her, own her and she welcomes me so perfectly that there are moments of utter insanity where flesh bridges into holiness, where pleasure bridges into burning agony, where hatred bridges to helpless worship, where she conquers me in totality without even trying as I become a passion that is not in my power to control or even channel.

I don’t know exactly what happened, or even how or why, but I am holding her perhaps overly tight and she is convulsing in my arms and it takes me a moment to realise that she is struggling against me, fighting clear of me, and when I do understand that she is not playing but seriously trying to get away from me, I am so shocked and stunned that I let her go and she pulls away from me sharply, scrambles away and rapidly crawls to the foot of the bed, where she draws into herself, pulls her legs right up to her chest, wraps her arms about them and hides her face in her knees. Her hair is falling across her knees and her shoulders are shaking rapidly.

I cautiously seek to tune into her to ascertain her emotions more precisely and am rejected amidst a flood of anger, hatred and shame that causes me to physically raise my hands up high in front of my face, an automatic shielding motion against a strike or blow.

Utterly at a loss as to what I have done wrong, or what has happened, my body resonant still with the memory of her and her taste in my mouth, I move backwards too, kicking with my legs to sit up against the headboard and I assume a similar position to her and sit watching her, waiting for her to explain herself to me.

A long time passes. I watch her and every so often, I extend a small tentacle of concern, apology, questioning to her but each is rejected as hard and fast as the next.

I watch her and remember her cleaning my kiss of her neck in the morning and it occurs to me that she might have ceased to love me, that it might have been too much, after all; that somewhere in the multiplicity of horrors she had transcended on my behalf, at my behest, at my doing or at my insistence, somewhere a threshold had been breached and she had finally come to her senses and understood that I was not what she thought she had desired.

I watch her cry and cannot hold that thought in consciousness although at the logical level, not only does it make sense, it makes far more sense than any or every little thing or incident since first we met. I cannot hold that logical thought in consciousness for it causes such a wrenching conflict that it turns my stomach inside out and freezes my heart in my chest.

I have never wanted anyone like I want her. I have never cared for another, save her and she has now decided to turn her back on me.

It is not quite true. I have cared for another. I cared for Malme. I loved him like the brother I never knew, and his opinions were more important to me than my own. He could do no wrong. I remember a time – and I remember this time often, ghostlike yet with crystal clarity arising on so many occasions through the centuries, like a safe  place I must sometimes return to if I desire this or not – I remember a time when I brought him the news that Pertineri had surrendered and the kingdom was his own, that our work was complete.

I had been awake for a tenday at the time. I was covered in sweat and blood, worn down from three serious injuries and a hundred minor abrasions, saddle sore and weary to the bone, filthy dirty with mud and the entrails of other men; I had led the final assault and in person, chased down the governor of the town for the king was dead by his own hand, driving my horse up the marble stairs of the palace itself and took his vows of allegiance and his seal.

Malme was still fighting on the eastern front when I arrived, the news not yet spread to the exhausted soldiers on the walls and in the breaches and I rode there, my body sluggish and unresponsive and my mind as fast and clear as the finest rapier, drawing up, past the guards who stepped and scrambled from my path and I fell from the saddle more than I dismounted, my legs gave way and it must have appeared as though I meant to kneel to him, the governor’s seal in my gloved fist, held it out to him and said, “You are the emperor.”

He was a soldier just like I was at heart and more so than he ever was a king, and he fell to his knees too, into the deeply churned mud, and he did not take the ring but embraced me instead and held me and cried.

It was the only time that I can remember, ever, I had a feeling of belonging, of being human at all. I can still feel his broad shoulders beneath my gloves, his head  on my shoulder as mine was on his, and I can still hear my own thoughts that I would die for this man, with such gladness in my heart as would set alight a thousand candle flames.

Malme never rescinded his regard for me. He never shrank from my hand nor did he turn his back on me, not until the last when he chose me for the vigil when the final darkness fell. He knew me and he did not seek to change me, not once made me feel that I was anything other than one of his lords, and the favourite one amongst them.

Yet, if I had to choose. If they before me stood, in chains, both Malme and the lady Isca, their eyes upon me and a re-born Trant and his executioners offering me the choice, who would I decide upon to have live or die?

Malme would lay down his life graciously for the lady. He would look to me and forcefully will me to chose him for the execution, proudly demanding his right to sacrifice. I would turn my glance away and look to the lady and her eyes would be full of sadness and she would offer it right back to me, saying that no-one can choose but me for it must be me who would have to live with the burden of decision, whichever way it would be made.

In an atrocity of betrayal and disloyalty, I would have no choice. I would have to have her live, regardless of the cost to him or me, or all that I might hold dear and holy, for she overwrites it all, she smashes the categories of my mind, and she is, indeed, the rising sun to me.

Now here she is, sitting at the foot of my bed, and she is crying and no longer wants me. She recoils from my very touch.

I cannot blame her for this. I can only wonder why it took her so long to come to her senses. I could rise and leave now, commission Niccosia with her safe keeping and rest assured that it would be so.  I should, indeed, yet I cannot move from the spot, must remain here until she herself has spoken the dismissal to me that I have, in truth, awaited for so long.

After an eternity, there is a movement and a rustling, a sound. The serving wench is coming to her senses. Tiredly, I take her mind and push it back into a black sleep and when I return, I become aware that Isca is there, tracking me along, just like she used to do.

Silently, I ask her if she has recovered.

She does not answer and drops from the link immediately, but at least she raises her head enough for her hands to be able to wipe away some of the tears and push strands of hair that are clinging to her cheeks and forehead behind her ear. I have seen her make that movement so many times.

She tries to speak but her voice fails and I can see her trying again, moistening her lips and swallowing, sniffling.

When she finally speaks, I don’t understand what she is saying.

“I can’t go on. I don’t know what to do.”

I nearly sigh but respond with patience.

“Be calm. All is well. I understand.”

She flicks the briefest of glances at me – oh creator. She cannot even stand to look at me any longer; if I had a heart, I am sure it would now break but instead, I tell her evenly, “I will go and leave you now.”  She looks up at me and her eyes fill with tears again, a sight that I find particularly disturbing yet I steel myself against it and say, “Please accept my apologies for – intruding upon you like I did.”

Her lids flick and tears fall silently and strongly. She nods and says very quietly, “It is no more than I deserve. You cannot hate me any more than I hate myself.” With these most cryptic words that cause my eyes to narrow against my wishes, she reaches up and undoes the silver necklace with the mountain fire. It falls from her neck and is caught between her breasts and her knees. She retrieves it and places it long stretched out on the bed between us.

I want to tell her to keep it but it is too much of me; too much of me by far and would be nothing but a reminder. I cannot take it though just at this point so it remains there, pulsing its inordinate strength and unnatural  power uselessly and aimlessly into the air of the room.

She says, “I cannot return the bird nor the hair slide. They were both lost to the guards when they took my robe.”

My eyes on the necklace, I say, “It is of no consequence.”

There is an awful silence between us. Her shielding is complete and I cannot recall a time when I could see her with my eyes and not feel her inside my head and with my body. It is a death more profound than when she slept in her coffin of ice, indeed.

Awkwardly and after some internal struggle, I say to her, “If ever you should need my assistance in any matter, a thought will suffice.”

She nods and I see her reaching out and beginning to remove the ring from her hand – that used to be Sepheal’s ring until it became changed beyond all recognition. I don’t know why, but seeing her do this causes a strange twisting agony to lance through my centre. It is like she is undoing everything now, everything that ever existed between us and I wish she would not. There had been a time when I am sure she had felt for me, I am sure of it. Don’t deny me entirely. It is too much. I chastise myself to the thought and in return, set to loosening the patterns of the lightning wedding band in turn.

She  places the ring reluctantly – is it reluctantly or am I willing to see it like that, wanting it to be reluctantly? – by the side of the necklace. Off her finger and it doesn’t seem to shine as deeply. I can feel my own patterns in it from this distance with ease. I  place her wedding band on the other side of the necklace, on the opposite side of the divide. The extraordinary tiny flashes of lightning continue unabated and reflect in the silver metal of the necklace, stretched and distorted.

I cannot be here any more.

I slide from the bed and find my clothes, still wet as they were and I have not the intent or the time nor even the desire to dry them. I fight my way into shirt and trousers, jacket, and I welcome their clamminess that only too soon is replaced by a wet heat that is far more unpleasant.

I belt the sword and after a minute hesitation, take the second Tadara and just push it through the belt where it is caught by the hand guard, carefully taking it to the back so it will not cut anything at the moment. The cloak is soaked, water heavy and I put it over my arm and make for the door, fully intending to not allow myself a single backward glance at her.

She made me weak.

I had to stop and look back.

I had to stop, and look back, and take a mental painting of her back, leaning against the bed post, her brown hair. So many centuries. So many women. And only this one, this one …

It comes out of my mouth without will, without warning.


At the mention of her name, she shrinks and shakes her head. I am about to make myself turn away when she slithers off the bed, half scrambles, half runs and naked as she is, slides on the floor towards me, wraps her white arms around my calves, puts her head onto my leg and cries incoherently.

I am not sure what she is saying but it seems to be, “I am sorry,” in variations.

I am perplexed at her behaviour.

Of course, I am sorry as well. What is she trying to do? Make it harder still on both of us? Ask my forgiveness for the breaking of her “until the stars fall from the sky” vows? Well, I guess they did. They fell this morning in the Abbey. She went to the end of time and so her vows are nil and void and honour is restored and all is well.

Awkwardly, I touch her shoulder lightly and she looks up, distraught and catches my hand in both of hers and covers it with kisses. I shake my head. I do not understand this woman any more than ever I did. Her particular form of insanity was unpredictable in its derangement and for a moment there I wonder about myself, trusting myself with such a one as her when she begins to speak again and in between sobs, sincerely begs me for my forgiveness and to be allowed another chance, anything, just please, please Lucian, don’t leave me. I cannot live without you, you are everything to me.

That’s what she says and I truly do not understand her although of course, there is a part of me that drinks her words like the best of wines. Has she changed her mind again?

I take both her hands and raise her from the floor to a standing position, holding her an arm’s length away from me. If her tears were not so salty, she could be gainfully employed to irrigate half the fields reclaimed from pure desert in the Dakanta province.

I reach a careful touch to her mind, requesting a link of understanding, to show her that it would be better for both of us to call it to a halt now, rather than having to repeat this scene next week, next month or whenever it would strike with unfailing inevitability.

She is in turmoil, desperate and distraught; there is an almighty struggle and finally, she gives herself up with the bitter defeat as if outnumbered a thousand to one, and she takes me in to this:

Here it is, once again, the howling black.

It creeps steadily and your eyes fight like crazy to compensate, to keep it at bay.

It creeps from the back where the horrors lie, it creeps forward.

Not clearly defined but like mists the grey walls become greyer and blacker, and more diffused and you can’t see the cracks between the huge stone slabs clearly anymore, and then not at all as everything merges and not even the iron gates are still there, they too have vanished and with them any remaining hope of ever being able to leave this black, this night terror, not even as a corpse dragged off by your hair.

It is so cold. It is always so cold, but somehow it when there is even a trace of mistiness that passes here as light remains, it doesn’t feel as cold as it does when the light has gone.

The sounds of the dead breathing in gasps, the coughs, the cries and the whimpers for I am not the only one who fears this journey that creeps upon us and that we all must take, inevitably, each night afresh.

There are two who would howl at random intervals, wild dogs answering each other’s desperate calls.

I lie on the filthy straw, freezing cold, in pain, itching all over, starving, thirsty, desperate and I listen with desperation for I cannot see anything at all, no matter how close I press my face to the stones, to the straw, to my own hands. It makes every little sound a thousand times louder. I can hear bugs scratching, the walls creaking, water dripping, and the sounds become missiles soon enough that hit me, not just about the head, but in every part of my body.

With the sounds and the feelings come pictures that my unseeing eyes produce for me, and I will do the best I can to make the right ones and keep them steady, focus hard and fast, but after all these days and these assaults that I cannot begin to call “a night” (starbright, stormy, fresh and beautiful, OUTSIDE) I cannot control the pictures any more and they are driving me to distraction. It will not be long before I join the ones who whimper in the dark, then those who howl.

There is only one single anchor in this madness, one single entity that can protect me from all of this.

Conna is my hearth, my fortress, my salvation.

He is living there, breathing steadily. His heart beats with regularity. I know his smell intimately and could tell it from a hundred thousand men, I know every inch of his body by touch, every part of me does. His voice is a soothing, rough homecoming that lighthouse guides me to safety and once arrived, greets me in welcome, wraps a blanket around my shoulder and takes me home and dry.

When I cannot distinguish the cracks between the stones anymore, I know it is time to seek him swiftly, to be sure he is on our lair and in place, lying behind me, his arms around me and his leg thrown across my hip.

I have given up and asked him to speak to me. He whispers stories to me, old tales of his childhood, memories, random thoughts, anything and everything that comes to his mind, patiently.

So patiently.

He talks me to sleep like a child and I wrap myself around his voice and his words as surely as I hide my hands beneath his arms and place my feet on his legs to partake of his warmth and life.

This night of all nights, I am half awoken yet not awoken by a crash and howl as someone must have thrown a rock in desperation at a source of sound. It happens. I drift deeper and at some point, I become dimly aware of a movement on my breast, a light touch that ripples outward like the circles in a pond. Oh but it feels so good, so familiar. The ripples spread and slowly, slowly, an awareness at a time, make my skin come to life. I sigh and stretch into the touch, then there is a small explosion on my neck and shoulder of heat and moisture. A sound escapes me and automatically, I move my hips backward and arch my back to feel my waiting manhood there.

His hands on my breasts are bolder now, trapping my nipples and massaging them lightly, setting up deep pulses that travel down through my stomach and into my hungry core. I want to have him inside me. I am hungry for him, so hungry …

His hand is on my stomach now, sliding down across the shirt and finding entrance, travelling up my leg too slowly.

“Ah, Lucian,” I sigh and open myself in anticipation.

He places his hand between my legs and touches me in the most unusual way, setting me on fire entirely, and then he says, “Not Lucian. Conna.”

I cannot think for the feelings he is creating upon me and I am confused, yet so hungry, desperate, my body moving on its own accord.

He stops, withdraws from me and I can feel his hands on my shoulders as he lays me down. I cannot see him and all there is his hands and my body in agony of need.

He moves close to my face and there is his voice and his breath hot on my shoulder.

“If you want me, then say my name. So I know you know.”

I reach up and find his head, his hair, his neck. Oh dear god. He strokes my shoulder, then my side, small, circular touches that race red hot. Lucian. Help me. Oh dear Creator, help me and save me from myself. Where are you? Where are you, Lucian, please come to me now and help me, I beg of you, save me from this …

I hear my own voice from far away, like a whisper.

“Conna …”

A shudder goes through him that resonates me further away from the part of my mind that is now howling at me, yet it is too far away and when he finally mounts me and enters me at last, big and wide and softer than I have known, I wrap myself around him in every way I can and with every beat of his rhythm I say it, like a prayer, “Conna, Conna, Conna …”

I struggle from the link in desperation before I have to experience her come for that damned bastard’s prick,  and I struggle free of her and all that I do not want to hear, do not want to see and least of all, want to understand with perfect clarity.

I force my eyes open and she is lying collapsed against the bed, where I must have thrown her when I broke the link. She is sobbing compulsively again, her head in her hands, hair tangled, over her shoulders. One leg is drawn up and the other outstretched and I can see into her, dark pink, glistening.

I stand and stare at her and I know full damned well that a saint would have been tempted beyond temptation lying night after night with that – with that pressed up against his groin, in easy reach and hot and ready, willing.

Damnation, I want her again with a fury that is boiling slowly down from my chest, compressing hard and seeking escape and liberation.

I want to grab her by the hair and slam her on the bed and break her wide apart and fuck every last trace of that bastard’s memory from her. My woman. Damn the good for nothing little whore!

I cannot understand the emotions and the feelings that are inside me, or are they coming from outside of me and assault me in this way. I am unbalanced by my response and so I stand and breathe and gently descend across the layers and the levels until I feel the loving touch of cold and clarity bathe me and I can look at her with absolute dispassion.

I ask her, “Why did you not revive him when the chance was offered?” for it seems sensible to me that if she loved the man and took him in preference of my own self, she would have transferred her rescues and her loyalties from me to him.

She shrinks into herself again at the sound of my voice and draws up her legs tightly. Finally, she looks up at me and quickly away again, but does not try for a link.

She says, “I was glad he died. I thought I could pretend those nights just never happened.”

“It was a good deception. I was entirely deceived.”

She shakes her head quickly. “No, not pretending to you. To me. To me.”

I say nothing and wait for further clarification.

After what seems to be an intense struggle, she says, “I’m carrying his child.”

So. Solland has spawned yet another bastard. I, personally, do not have that luxury. One of the drawbacks of whatever changes Sepheal made to my structure. Still, I don’t understand her logic.

“Solland’s wife and legal descendants are dead. With you carrying his child and at his age, it stands to reason that he would have wed you in spite of your low birth. Why did you not revive him? You would have had all you could desire, and much beyond.”

She looks up at me now, those huge brown eyes of hers, red rimmed now and the lashes stuck together.

“You are and always have been all that I desire. Only you.”

She doesn’t just say it but sends it too, at every level. I wait until the resonance recedes and reply, “This is not what you said to Solland when he offered you the choice between me and him.”

She bites her lip and struggles with renewed tears.

“I don’t know what happened,” she says rapidly and swallows, trying not to cry. “I don’t know why I couldn’t stop, I just don’t know and I would turn the clock back all the way so I would have another chance to do it differently. Lucian, my lord, I am so sorry. I am so …”

I make a short gesture which silences her.

“What is your desire as should happen now?”

She holds her head in both hands and shakes it. “I don’t know,” she says, “but please, find a punishment for me, anything, just please don’t leave me. I cannot live without you. You are all that I have, more than half of what I am, you are the only one. The only one.”

Apart from Catena, Solland and all the rest of them who would set your delightful little cunt on fire.

She ducked as the thought reached her loud and clear and yet it roused her from her whimperings. She brought her head back and looked at me straight out.

Lucian, that is not fair. How can you compare – that – to what we have? To all we have, to all we are, together? Dear Creator, how can you begin to think for one moment that I would or could compare you to those? I was weak and I felt helpless and abandoned, and I didn’t fight hard enough, I don’t know, but you must never, never, for one moment doubt that I love you not so much that I would not gladly …

“What is your desire as what course of action I should take?” I find her remonstrations a little inefficient, at this juncture.

She sighs and shakes her head, considers my question properly this time. Eventually, she says, “My desire? My desire is that you should find it in your heart to forgive me, that we could be as before.”

She thinks but does not say, What’s done, is done.

The first sensible set of statements I have had from her all morning.

“You would wed me still?” I ask her to get clarification on that one point, and she shakes her head and then nods it, then shakes it again in rapid succession. Eventually, her internal struggles come to this answer, “Yes, of course, my lord.”

“What of the child?” I turn to the next point on the agenda.

She closes her eyes and a look of intense pain washes across her face. “Whatever you decree, my lord.”

I note with interest her repeated use of that term of address. It does not sit well with who I know her to be.

“It is your child,” I remind her. “Would you have me give it my name?”

She looks up at me and her pain is such that it momentarily flickers across my shield of detachment. She does not answer either in thought or in word and I seek for an alternative course of action.

“Would you prefer it to be fostered by another?”

She passes a hand across her eyes then rises from the floor. She walks towards me, short thing that she is, and stands before me, tilting her head back so that she can catch my eye.

Lucian. Please drop your shielding. I cannot communicate with you in this state. Please. I’d rather you rage at me or scream or hit me or whatever needs doing now, but don’t stand there and talk to me like that. I don’t deserve that. Not that.

I consider her request and the options if I was to grant it.

In truth, I do not trust myself with her at this time and her state of mind was such that I could not trust her to protect herself correctly from whatever excesses I might fall prey to, given all the circumstances. She was feeling guilty and that is always a good place from which to use others for handy torturers and executioners.

“We will talk of these things at another time,” I say and she seems to become smaller still. “I will return two hours before sunset as that is the time set for Trant’s execution and the swearing in of the new court officials. I would have you be present there if you would.”

She looks down at the floor and nods slowly and I leave the room by the door although it is my desire and intention to return to the holy ground I have discovered this day. I walk down the corridor and finally dry my clothes and the cloak that is heavy still on my arm.