We were the second group to arrive, being the second closest to Manoranta from our starting place in Pertineri. It had been a most pleasant ride and it was nice to arrive like this, riding in through the open gates with Chay and Eddario and the soldiers, rather than just appearing somewhere and you didn’t know what would happen next to you.
The old keep had been hurriedly cleaned and repairs and other preparations were still under way with frenzied urgency everywhere. Lucian and I got the premium rooms, a suite that overlooked both the land on the back and the entire courtyard on the front and consisting of at least a dozen rooms.
Now I ask you. What do you do with that many rooms?
A washroom is a nice thing, indeed.
And so is in a way a walk in closet where you can put all your things and they don’t clutter the surfaces in your sleeping quarters.
But beyond that, it was a mystery to me.
Lucian was not with me as he had taken off with Eddario to meet the first delegation and get a feel of the preparations in the great hall before the meetings would begin tomorrow night, thus leaving me by myself and at a loss as to what to do.
Eventually, I called Chay and he came up only minutes later, together with two palace guards carrying a large trunk which I had noted but never questioned as to what it may contain.
Chay strode through the entrance room with the rows of plain wooden benches either side, the ancient tapestries of heraldic emblems on the walls and the even more ancient blackened candle holders on the sides of the walls and hanging from the ceiling, and he was a spot of bright colours and life of now in a timeless grave that held antiquity within its walls and made me feel as though I had come upon and then entered into a strange kind of crypt.
I sat down on one of the chairs and sighed.
“Chay,” I said, “Chay, I don’t know what I’m doing here. Have you any idea of what I’m supposed to be doing now?”
He came over and put one leg carelessly on the seat of the chair next to me, leaning down on his arms.
“My lady,” he said, and his boyish pretty grin danced around his lips, “you are asking the wrong man here. I’m only a soldier. But it seems to me, you should have ladies in attendance who would keep you entertained and spend the day dressing you and covering you in oils so you can appear like a goddess at mealtimes.”
I looked into his blue eyes where laughter demons were dancing, seriously on the verge of breaking their bonds of his control and shook my head.
“Will you find us some food, some wine, and come and keep me company? I really don’t like to be here by myself today.” Even as I said it, I felt feeble in this request on many levels. I don’t know what’s wrong with me of late, I thought. I was never this helpless as a child. Am I living my life in reverse? The older I get, the more needy and reliant on others I become?
Chay stopped smiling then and made as if to reach for my hand, but then curtailed the gesture and stroked his own leg instead before standing up straight.
“Your wish is my command, my lady,” he said sincerely and saluted me before leaving the room with ranging strides, happy with his errant, happy that I called upon him, happy to be of service to me.
He closed the door behind him with a loud and deep boom and I was left alone in the ancient grave with walls so thick you had to wonder if the stones had been moved here by magic.
Although it was an effort, I got up and opened the door ahead, which led into yet another room seemingly designed for many people. It was wide and square, tall, deep slit light windows at the back which gave it the appearance of an old prayer building, and a throne arrangement of a single large chair covered in a grey tapestry and faded gold leaf on the arms and feet and many chairs facing it.
On the left, there was a fire place so huge that I could have stood in it without having to bend my head, piled with enormous logs in a grate the size of a bed. Above the fireplace, a stone emblem that had just five of the kingdoms’ eight domains represented, it was that old. Solland was one of them, and Tremain another. There was the badge of Trovoria, a dukedom that had no longer existed even when Lucian was a young man.
But it was the swords and lion of the Tremain emblem I couldn’t take my eyes off. It was the first time I had actually seen this with my own eyes. It was my unborn son’s emblem. It had a motto in the ancient scholars language scrolled round beneath, as did the others too, and although I knew it well enough, it was still a strange experience to read it out aloud for myself, in my own voice, then to trace the letters.
Strength Through Courage.
That’s what it translated as. Strength Through Courage.
It was little wonder that Lucian had never sought to wear it or to acknowledge it as his own, and had chosen to align and adopt the Black Wing knights as representative of who he was instead.
Strength Through Courage.
The old Lord Tremain would have spent hours extolling the virtues of that motto.
Indeed, he did spent hours extolling the virtues. I even remembered it if I chose to look for those memories, estranged and lopsided as they were because they were viewed through the eyes and remembered through the ears of a very young child.
There were two doors leading from the room, one to the left and one to the right. I chose the left one first and was glad to be able to turn my back on the burdens of family heritage my son would have to bear. It was an uncomfortable thought. To be born the son of the Lord of Darkness could never be thought of as an easy thing, and I knew full well that Lucian would be having a part of himself who would be desperate to have him wear the full family name, the same name that had been passed along the centuries, the same name that had fallen from public use five hundred years ago because Lucian had turned it into a curse by his very own hand, by his very own actions, a curse that no righteous mother or father would be wishing on their offspring.
The next room distracted me from my unhelpful musings. It was wider than it was long, and more contained in size and internal dimensions. It might have been a more private resting room for the important ones who came to stay here, kings and leaders of the Lords Council. But here, privacy was a relative concept. Still this room was designed for many; for courtiers, children, favourites, servants, hangers on, for relatives for all I knew.
To me, perfection was the morning room at Tower Keep.
A place where just the two of us would be and even a single servant that we both knew by name and we could trust, represented an unwanted intrusion.
I sighed deeply and sincerely, deeply and sincerely hoped and prayed he would not make me try and lead a life such as this. I don’t think that I would be able to stand it, nor that it could ever make me anything but deeply miserable.
The next room along was another antechamber, with yet more chairs and even some faded couches this time, and the final one which had its windows both to the back and on the left, denoting that this was the end of it at last, was a bedroom that had been subdivided at some time and a washroom, dressing room, and study had been added. In spite of this, it was still far too vast, by far.
I backed out of the room and made my way back to the central reception area, to take a look at the rooms to the right of the public meeting room.
The room sizes were the same, but these rooms were different in decoration and in flavour and it occurred to me with some degree of horror that this was the ladies suite, that it seemed that kings and their queens did not actually share their beds or even sleeping quarters.
That thought really and truly depressed me. Why, I would be better off at Headman’s Acre with the women and children than be confined in such a bizarre way, out of the way, on show once in a while, what lunacy was this?
From what seemed very, very far away, there was a sharp rapping on the main door, and a while later I heard Chay’s voice drifting over the stones and old furniture, “My lady? I’ve got the food for you?”
I was sincerely glad for his company and called to him in return. A short while later, and he appeared, carrying what appeared to be a basket covered in a cloth, bare headed and looking very young.
“Where do you want to eat?” he asked me, looking around at the many couches and sofas, chairs and window seats in the large public area of the women’s quarters and all I could do is to shake my head in helplessness.
He finally walked across to the resident giant fire place, and as he did, a small magical fire sprang up on the top of the wood pile, hovering above it and not touching it at all.
I nearly clapped in delight at his achievement and set to crossing the space to join him as he placed the basket on the floor, took the covering and made it into a tablecloth and produced a bottle of wine.
I came and stood and looked down on him.
“Do you want me to get some chairs?” he asked and I send my relief at his ground level endeavours straight into his mind, and let myself fold up and be there on the floor, hard, comforting, at ease.
I watched Chay bring out glasses, plates, fruit, meat, cheese and bread and then he filled a goblet of a pale green with wine, handed it to me and for the first time since he’d come, did not avoid my eyes.
I heard his thoughts loud and clear.
She will never be happy here, nor anywhere else like it.
The truth was, he was absolutely right.
I was a bare foot commoner girl at heart who could find neither joy nor comfort nor even a level of possible acceptance at these surroundings.
I took the wine. “Thank you Chay,” I said sincerely and drank it perhaps too swiftly for my own good, holding it out to him for another refill within heartbeats.
He kept his face straight and poured me another and even as I was drinking it, I couldn’t help but glance around myself over the rim of the glass in discomfort.
Then, Chay threw a piece of bread at me. It struck me squarely in the chest and I looked at him in absolute astonishment. He was laughing and picked up another one, taking careful aim, squinting one eye and threw it at my head.
I put up a hand quite automatically, and the piece of bread stopped in mid air, about a hand’s width before my face. I turned it over slowly and flung it back at him.
He caught it deftly and said with a big smile, “Now come on, that isn’t fair at all.”
I shook my head and smiled back at him. It was good to have him here with me.
The wine was easing me and the cold floor soothing after the long ride. My back hurt again and I found that if I sat cross-legged and dropped my elbows on my knees it would afford some relief. Then it occurred to me to just heal whatever that was, but there was nothing to heal for nothing was broken or damaged.
Across from me, watching me with great care, Chay was chewing on a piece of cold meat. I could sense a suspicion from him about my movements. He was very well aware of all the ins and outs of the stages of pregnancy. Swiftly, I said, “That was a long ride. It’s been a while since I’ve been in the saddle for that long.”
His suspicions faded and he nodded. “Yeah, I got some twinges too. Funny how quick you go soft if you don’t keep up the regular exercise. Would you like some more wine?”
I just smiled and held out my glass to him again. In the back of my mind nudged a warning of control but I gave it the equivalent of a kick and drank deeply.
Slowly, the pain in my back began to recede and so did the dark pressure of the stones all around with their whispered remembrances of a thousand years or more of futile human endeavour.
Instead, into focus came the fresh food, so plentiful, so exquisite.
It occurred to me that it was probable that my mother had never experienced such food in her entire life. I thought about it whilst picking up an exotic fruit that I recognised from his memories but never even had held before nor ever tasted in its rightful sense. I wondered vaguely when it had happened that she had given up on life or to experience more than the daily drudgery she had condemned herself to when she moved into that hovel with my father. I wondered what she would think if she thought of me at the new High King’s coronation, with all the highest Lords and Dukes of the land bowing deeply when I entered the room. She would probably hate me even more than she already did.
Chay said something and I looked up at him.
I love you, I thought. It’s the damn truth, or at least a part of it, but it is true that I love you. I don’t love you like I love him and if I had to choose between you both, there wouldn’t be a moment’s hesitation yet it would still break my heart.
He fell silent and looked down. I liked his hair this long. It softened him and he always looked windblown, as though with him there went a fresh breeze that would brighten the stalest room, the dankest, darkest castle. The Solland colours of royal blue and silver suited him although I preferred him in a plain shirt, half open to his chest, absolutely informal and at ease, unrestricted.
I made up my mind that I would seek Lucian’s permission to have him be my lover.
After what happened in Pertineri, in the Abbey, the question of bedding others would never arise again as an implication of betrayal. It could not. I smiled to myself a little and slowly, sensuously, ate another fruit. It would take some doing but I was pretty sure I could make Lucian see the sense of it. I knew that he too was wondering about the entertainments of the hard that had so dreadfully been denied to him for so long.
Chay was thinking along the same lines across the table cloth with all its riches. He had watched us do – well, whatever you would call that and I had been well aware of him in the link, as had been Lucian. And it had caused him to be depressed.
“Cheer up,” I say to him and smile, giving him no indication that I am tracking his mind for it is, in truth, not really a decent thing to be doing. “Cheer up, Chay. We’ve got food and wine, and I’m so glad you’re here. We can go forth after this and pretend to be ladies and knights, respectively.”
Before he can reply there is a hush through my mind and I know Lucian is in the room with us before I look up and greet him with a smile.
Chay hastily scrambles to his feet and struggles with himself as to whether he should salute or not and ends up just standing quite rigidly.
You have a way of breaking up the moment, my lord, I send him.
He comes across and walks by Chay as though he wasn’t even there, picks up the bottle of wine by the neck with two fingers and drains it swiftly.
You have an irritating habit of wasting valuable time, he replies but it is only vaguely reproachful. I would have expected you to have tracked and traced this compound by now and at least investigated the resident chapel.
I look up at him with some surprise because it had never occurred to me in the slightest that that was what needed to be done, never mind that he had expected me to be doing it.
Now don’t start, he sends and smiles at me. I am pleased to see you procured some provisions for yourself and that you are guarded well. There is a noticeable undertone in that last statement and I am not in the mood.
Ah come, Lucian. You know how I like this one. He makes me feel happy. Leave it alone.
I am working on my abilities to do just that, he responds dryly and out loud, says, “Catena, have you no horses to feed, swords to sharpen?”
Chay blinks and then salutes him, bows to me deeply and rapidly takes his leave. We watch him go and both of us are smiling when the great door closes behind him.
I hate it here, Lucian.
I know you do. We will be here for no more than a week. I am sure you will adapt to the circumstances most splendidly.
When I don’t respond, he says, making a sweeping movement around the room, “Change it. Make it to your liking. Do as you will with this place. Here ...” and the stone floor begins to waver, shift, ripple beneath my bottom and my legs and turns to a pale gold material that is entirely mirror smooth right underneath everything and without disturbing a thing.
He traces his hand across towards the thin, narrow windows and the walls dissolve, leaving a wide open rectangular space right to the floor and a straight view of the green, sweeping countryside and the blue sky above.
I create a mesh and then form from it a pane of glass of such a size and regularity as no glass maker could even begin to imagine and place it across the open space, bonding it into the rock and the room is golden, flooded with light and my heart is dancing.
Thank you, Lucian, I tell him sincerely.
I don’t know what happens. I seem to collapse inside myself and forget myself, who I am and what I can do. I just saw this mausoleum and let myself be walled in by it.
You do do that sometimes, he sends me with gentle amusement.
I get up and go to him, wrap my arms about his waist and lay my head on his chest. He is smiling still as he embraces me in all ways and there is another moment of happiness, another moment and I’ve already had one this day.
The thought astonishes me profoundly.
What are my expectations?
How many moments of happiness do I sincerely believe I can create for me, for him, with him or with anything in the hard?
Don’t be to hard on yourself, he chides me gently. We are still learning these ways. There was a time when we believed such a thing might come just the once, or maybe never.
I sigh and agree and then force myself to take us back to the work at hand.
Would you have me track the compound now, Lucian? How are things going?
He smiles again and bends and kisses my neck.
Things will unfold in their due time. When, by the way, are you going to tell me that you have the perfect solution to our ascendancy problem?
Either your shielding isn’t what it used to be, or my perception is becoming more acute. I congratulate you on your plan. If Niccosia is agreeable, it will serve all outcomes most admirably.
I’m a little disappointed and taken aback, but I also have an objection.
You are not considering whether Camu is agreeable.
He lets go of me then, steps back and shrugs.
It is not up to her. Unless we can find another, she bears the burden of her line.
That poor girl. As though she didn’t have enough burdens to bear, already. I shake my head.
Come now, Lucian gentles me, Niccosia is a good man. She would have to look far and wide to find a better one. And, of course, she can have as many lovers as she can get away with, and with that, he starts laughing to himself.
I wonder if he will still be laughing when I put forth my proposition about Chay and damn, he is right. His perceptions have become much sharper. He immediately breaks off and looks at me, searches me on all levels.
You are serious about this, he says and his tone is accusing and half disbelieving.
I am. I want to experience him.
I should kill him now, right where he stands.
Lucian, come now. I thought we had settled this.
I can’t … and I got a deep flash of a dozen lifetimes worth of deeply embedded structures about chaste ladies, vows of exclusivity and whores, of disdain, of rumour, of excommunication.
I go to him and stroke his arm, physically, lovingly and I send him a gentle, I won’t do a thing, no sooner than you are ready.
And what if I should never be?
Then I will never experience him. I won’t move against the us. Not ever again.
He turns from me abruptly and changes the subject.
“You might want to consider speaking with Niccosia and broach the subject as soon as possible. And you should consider to fetch the girl as soon as possible, too. Now that our entrance has officially been recorded, you are free to move.”
I sigh and focus on the matter in hand.
“Would it not be better coming from you?”
He half shakes his head. “The Lord Of Darkness a poor marriage broker doth maketh,” he says and then he runs his hand through his short hair that seems entirely silvery in the brightness of this room. But by the sisters. He is such a walking contradiction on all levels, in all ways. To know and understand the truth of him, you would have to take the usual barrel labelled “truth” and make it a hundred times as wide so they could all fit inside, all those truths that were entirely at odds with one another.
“Give me an hour,” I say lovingly. “I will take up your suggestion and change these – morgues – into something more livable. I give you a sign and then you can send him to see me. Will you at least be present?”
I know he won’t before I have even finished the sentence and he knows I know he won’t, so there’s no need for him to respond to my question.
He walks across to me and lightly kisses me on the forehead. His lips are cool and dry.
“I will send him up as soon as you are ready,” he says and then turns and leaves me, as swiftly and determined as Chay had done just a short while ago.
But I felt so much better than before he arrived, it was quite remarkable, really.
I had something to do, a purpose, and I was quite looking forward to all of it and especially to the trip to Headman’s Acre, with the look on Eddario’s face when I told him what we had in store for him, a close second best.
But first, the compound.
I went to the ladies room with the resident giant four poster bed and lay down on it, closed my eyes and began a survey of the castle on all the levels available to me.
The first thing that assailed me again was its very age.
It was much, much older than just a mere thousand years.
The current structures might be two, or three thousand years, more like, but these were resting on structures that were even older still, reaching into an antiquity that really spun my head.
Like the whole of Pertineri, it was constructed all around a central power point – that must be the Chapel which must serve the same function as the Abbey in Pertineri, the well built around an underground spring of ancient power, a spring that came from the very earth itself and lay in lines invisible below the landscapes sleeping above.
Unlike the Abbey, this was not channelled through magic in the beautiful and complex way as had been constructed by who knows whom and who knows when, but the Chapel just marked the spot. There was only one magical structure in the compound and that was, interestingly enough, not connected to the well spring but existed separately and in its own right.
In the dungeons below, there was a small stone circle.
A part of me wants to reach out right now and tear it apart so it can never be used to entrap ones like us, ever again, and another part of me remembers the sanctuary of the standing stones near Tower Keep and the fact that they saved us as surely as Pertineri’s defenses nearly led to our downfall.
The emissions from the well were strong and it occurred to me that they have been the cause of my lapse of self when first arriving here. I edged in on them and looked at them both in the patterns levels and the Serein Levels but they were just a rushing in each, pouring out endlessly and feeding straight into the sky where they meshed with others and formed a pulsing energy web of huge proportions.
It occurred to me to find the connection to the Abbey in Pertineri and I was shocked to discover that the Abbey had disconnected its resident spring from the web entirely, re-channelling and re-phasing all of it so it was something else altogether.
I followed the Abbey strand and became aware that once upon a time, this must have been a part of another, entirely artificial web that lay slightly off in time and existence from the earth web. But it was broken now and the Abbey’s strand went nowhere and wasn’t connected to anything.
Yet there were others and groups of them, still working together so I caught a glimpse of what this web might have been when all the Abbeys still stood and functioned as they were designed to function.
It was awesome. I could not begin to understand the width and breadth of such an endeavour, nor who would have the time and manpower and knowledge to have executed such a thing. And I had no idea what it was designed to do.
Yet it occurred to me that something like that was a major diversion of flow in the web that seemed to exist naturally. Wasn’t that a dangerous thing to do, to mess with patterns on such an enormous scale?
Had Sepheal known about this? Damn. I wish I had his recordings at hand to check them for insights and information.
A nudge from Lucian brought me back. Are you ready yet?
Damn again. How much time had I spent? You can get lost so easily in the pattern world, it can be frightening.
Nearly, my lord. Just a few more minutes.
Hastily, I opened my eyes and left the bedroom, walked out through and to the shared entrance room, the one with all the chairs.
I disappeared them all and that made the room look better, right away.
I created four decent sized windows and it occurred to me that I would like coloured glass in these. As I didn’t have the time to make a mosaic of small individual panes, I just set bursts of colours at irregular intervals and have them run and merge with each other in swirls. The effect was quite stunning and I took a moment to congratulate myself before turning the walls to a bright white that would not interfere with the coloured light from the windows, the floor an approximation of golden wood and shrank the fire place to more mentally manageable proportions. From the ladies quarters, I transported two tapestry chairs and a long resting couch, changed their fabrics to a dark and inviting golden brown and their wooden parts so they would match the goldenwood floor.
A low, round table with six short stout legs underwent the same treatment and I arranged these few items in the left hand corner beneath one of the great windows.
That would do for now, save for a large mirror above the fire place that set the floor dancing with the swirling colours.
Lucian would hate this, I thought with a smile, but we can compromise on the windows later. I just love my coloured lights so much. Then I gave the sign that Eddario could come up, went and sat at first on the resting couch, then changed my mind and lay on it, my back well supported and my legs stretched out long in comfort before me.