A short while later, Eddario entered the room and removed his helmet, looked around helplessly for a moment and then saw me on the couch, far away across the otherwise empty room.
I waved to him and smiled and watched his progress across the shining floor.
It was a shame he wasn’t more like his father, I thought. If he could ease up a little, not be so stiff in movement and in thought, find a little fun or amusement in life just once in a while, well, he would be – ah damn it, he would be more like Chay then. I shook my head at myself.
Stop trying to turn a perfectly good man into another just to suit your own preferences, I chided myself and then put these thoughts aside as he had reached the little island of furniture and stopped to give me a deep bow.
“My lady,” he said and could not quite meet my eyes.
“Please, be seated, Eddario. May I still call you so?”
He flashed me a glance and said, “Please, of course, my lady. Always,” before sitting down stiffly and squarely on the edge of the nearest arm chair.
I thought as how to best go about telling him and in the end settled for plain honesty.
“You must know that you are Lord Tremain’s first choice to be the new High King,” I said and waited for his response in word and mind as his thoughts tumbled and went everywhere at once.
Eventually, he said, “My lady, it is a great honour but you must know that I am not of high birth, not of pure birth, and I am no descendant to King Malme.”
I made a small sign with my hand and there was that strange fairy dust again, the creator knows what colour under the multi-coloured lights of the windows.
Eddario noted it too and was instantly riveted.
Slowly and carefully, I said, “You are the rightful Duke of Solland, nonetheless. And as far as we are aware, the only living descendant of the royal line is a young woman, about my age. To be more precise, she is Selter’s granddaughter.”
The possibilities exploded into Eddario’s mind like a hundred starbursts and he turned pale and stopped breathing.
Then he shook his head. “My lady …”
I stopped him with a gesture.
“Eddario, think. Leave out of it for a moment who you think you are, who you know yourself to be, and consider the matter from a greater perspective. Everyone who looks at you sees a rightful ruler. You are the Duke of Solland and the Regent. What makes more sense than you should remain the regent and guard the title until your own son comes of age, a one who will put everything to rights and as it should have been?”
His thoughts were loud and clear. They will never have a bastard sitting on Malme’s throne, no matter what Lord Tremain might be thinking.
“You are the best choice for the kingdoms. Who else is there? It is true that if Trant had not killed the entire council, give or take a few miserable traitors, you would not now be in this position. But he did, and here we are, and would you rather see a one who is less honourable, with less strength of character and composure, and less well trained in the arts of statesmanship than you are, bring even more suffering and discord to all these people?”
Eddario sighed deeply and shook his head again. It is too much, he was thinking. I can’t take any more. I don’t know who they think I am, but I am nothing but an impostor, I don’t even deserve the title of Duke, never mind that of Regent, and as to High King …
I reached gently into his mind and made a careful link, steadying him first and then beginning to show him scenes that involved himself and his conduct, from my perspective and from Lucian’s perspective.
Lucian’s amusement when he had kept him up for three days straight and still, Eddario was stubbornly giving his best; Lucian’s calm admiration and respect that arose from this.
My view of all those soldiers of the palace guard and their officers who had cheered him and received him with open arms as their regent.
Lucian’s view of the new court he had assembled and how he could not find fault with his judgement.
I stopped when he threatened to be overcome by emotion for he flashed into his own memory of his father’s dying words to him, telling him he was a fine and trustworthy soldier and that he was proud to have him be the next Duke of Solland.
“The kingdoms will be lucky to have you as the new Regent and High King. You are a brave and honourable man, Eddario. Trust yourself as much as we trust you.”
Eddario was pale and even stiffer than usual, and finally, he said, “If the council will agree, I will be the regent.”
“And marry Selter’s granddaughter?”
“I will do my duty for the kingdoms.”
I nearly cried for his deep sadness and expectation of nothing but pain and burden, and his willingness to take it all upon himself and do his best nonetheless.
“Eddario,” I said softly, “it might not be so bad after all. To restore order and peace after what Trant has done will be a task worth undertaking.”
He nods and allows himself a sigh.
I say, “Will you come with me and meet Selter’s granddaughter? Her name is Camu – I think that is an abbreviation – and she was ill treated at Trant’s men’s hands.”
He looked up at me and went somewhat darker still. I was considering making a comment about her youth and beauty but then thought, no. Let him be surprised. Let him have a pleasant surprise for once and though I won’t turn her back into a virgin for you, I’ll make damn sure that she won’t flinch from your touch when it comes to it. The rest will have to be up to you.
“Yes, my lady. Whatever you decree.”
Oh my, now I am decreeing things! Well, that’s a new one for me. It is so funny. He thinks of himself as an impostor. At least his father was a duke. If he’s an impostor, what does that make me?
“Eddario,” I say to him and sit up so I can reach across and touch his arm lightly and send him a soft gentling through the touch. “This is not a matter of decree. I want you to do this because you can see the sense in it. No-one forces you to do anything. We can go right now and you can meet Camu and decide if we are asking you to take on too much of a burden. I will accept your decision and so will Lord Tremain.”
“Where is she?” he asks and looks around the bare room as though he is expecting her to come out of a hidden door somewhere or appear out of nowhere. “Is she here in the keep?”
I smile and give him another pat on the arm.
“No, she is in Merina.”
He looks surprised, shocked, calculating the distance and the time of travel in his head.
“Magic, Eddario. We can be there and back within the hour.”
He is afraid to meet this wife to be but he is a one that likes to get bad things over with quickly. Still, he says, “I am expected to have dinner with the Lord Yekunis this night at sundown. As I believe, are you.”
“We will be back with time to spare.” I get up energetically from the couch and send a touch to Lucian who has been quietly observing at a good distance.
He sends me an admiration and an admonishment. Make sure you are back in good time. Merina’s sunsets come somewhat later than they do here.
I’ll make sure. This shouldn’t take too long.
Then I place a call to Chay and use the link to ask him directly if he wants to spend a few hours at Headman’s acre. He is delighted and acknowledges, already rushing from the room by the stables where the soldiers have their meals and get together for wine and tales when they’re not on duty.
Eddario stands too and says awkwardly, “Should I have a gift for the lady?”
I smile at him and like him for even thinking that under the circumstances.
“I think there’s time for that later. I think you should be more than enough of a gift to any lady.”
He blushes furiously and is quite angry with me, thinking that I am being cruel and teasing him.
So I turn my hand so that my fingertips point upwards and meet and there, a small star arises. I hold it to my lips and blow it lightly. It travels across the distance between us and strikes him squarely on the forehead where it dissipates. He goes rigid for a moment then a wave of softening falls all around him and he smiles at me, “My lady …” letting the sentence trail away.
I smile back at him and then the door opens and Chay comes skidding into the room.
Eddario is surprised to see him.
“Chay – Sir Catena will come with us. He has friends at Headman’s Acre,” I say and Chay smiles and comes across to us so that the three of us stand in triangle.
I step in between them and hold out a hand to each. As I do so, it strikes me to say, “I have not thanked you both for your valiant efforts to – heal me. I am most grateful to you.” Both look embarrassed, are embarrassed to be holding my hand, so I smile and open the gateway to the horse plain and pull them both through and into the heat and then swiftly, into the doorway to Headman’s Acre.
Every time I do it, it becomes faster. The time will come when no-one would ever know that there was a stop in between the two points at all.
We land in the pouring rain – oh, Merina! – and I steady the two men who are disorientated as I used to be by the transition, then pull them swiftly across the mosaic to the entrance door around the side of the house, where all minds within are already in a turmoil of excitement at our arrival.
Poor Eddario never expected anything like this.
The door opened and we were immediately enveloped in a sea of excited children who were dancing and torn between trying to behave quietly because it was me, and the desire to jump all over Chay with sheer joy of seeing him again.
Chay made it easy by picking up Reyna with one arm and Vona with another, swinging them and walking straight into the house, with Cyno clinging to his leg and the boys pulling on his sword and his new uniform. In passing, he kissed Marani who was looking in amazement at Eddario, Demma stood peering in the kitchen door and there was Camu who withdrew immediately at the sight of the strange officer I had brought to the house.
With Chay occupying the children and funnelling them off into the sitting room, the hallway was more approachable and I could lead Eddario into the study.
I left him there, closed the door and then I embraced Marani and Demma and drew them aside to tell them the purpose of my visit and the presence of the Regent.
Their eyes went big and wide and Demma shook her head, horrified and cried, “You can’t! That poor little girl can’t even stand the sight of a man, it was weeks – weeks! - before she stopped dropping things every time she heard Chay’s voice and hiding in a closet at every knock on the door.”
I nodded and had some sympathy with her view of the situation.
“I have no intention of hurting her, Demma,” I said carefully. “There’s two things. One is that I trust the Duke of Solland with my life, in all ways. And the other is that Camu is the only living link to King Malme. That is who she is and there’s not a lot any of us can do about it. I haven’t told anyone else that she exists. No-one but the Duke of Solland know that she is even alive. If she says no, the whole deal is off.”
Marani and Demma said nothing but their thoughts stood loud and clear.
They didn’t trust me to have the best interest of the girl at heart.
That was unfortunate but not to be helped.
“Marani, bring the Duke of Solland some wine and tell him I will be with him as soon as possible. Demma, bring Camu to my bedroom.”
Without giving them a chance to say or do anything else, I made straight for the stairs, passing by the sitting room and through the open door I could see Chay, sitting on the table with Vona on his lap, and all the children gathered around as he told the tale of how he killed Trant in the big arena in Pertineri.
I opened the door and took a deep breath as I entered my room.
This, surely, must be the place I have been the most miserable in my entire life. I was more miserable here even than when I first came to Tower Keep, although I was desperately miserable there, too.
I shook my head.
Enough of the miseries.
I had also made love with Lucian on that very bed on our last visit and he had stacked our clothes on the drawer.
I went and sat on the bed and tracked the progress of a very disturbed Demma and a very frightened Camu up the stairs.
Then, they appeared in the doorway, both dressed in nearly identical sober brown and it hit me like a log falling on my head what Demma’s problems where and all the why’s and wherefores of their relationship.
I can’t believe I didn’t see this before.
And now, there is no time to do anything about it.
“Come inside, Camu, and close the door,” I say gently to the pale, extraordinarily beautiful girl whose rich golden hair is scraped back into a merciless bun which only serves to accentuate her perfect bone structure and her slender, elegant neck.
“Sit here, with me,” I say and pat the side of the bed.
With her hands low and long fingers nervously intertwining, slowly and hesitantly the girl comes and sits as far away from me as the bedpost will allow.
I look at her and cannot believe how utterly ancient she is making me feel, yet there can be no more than a year at the most between us, either way.
I cautiously reach into her mind and it must be said, Marani, Demma and the children have done a fine job in restoring a great many of her faculties with exquisite care.
But there are also a great many they never went near, simply because they were too black, too deep, to torn asunder and too well guarded, deeply embedded, deep inside her mind.
“I would heal you of your memories, if you will allow me to do so,” I say to her and panic and terror flare through her very being.
I soothe her in a reflex and wait.
Eventually, she whispers, “If you could, my lady.”
I can. Of course I can. In fact, I could have done this a long time ago if I had cared to do so. But you weren’t important in my own scheme of things then, were you? Or perhaps, not having experienced such things myself as I have since then, I had to hide from that blackness and ignore it and pretend it simply didn’t exist, just like Marani had done.
I take a deep breath and turn her into a swirling as I change my viewpoint into a mixture of Serein and patterns which I am fast finding is the most effective way to proceed in such matters.
The black swirls stand out clear enough and here, I don’t have to even know what they are, what specifically caused them to come into being, I can just repair them as you would repair any damage; shifting their vibrations, placing them into a context from which they became unlodged and unhinged, removing and funnelling away the bitter acrid swirls to reveal the gashing wounds below that are the source of her terrible pain.
It is those wounds that require all my healing skills.
Some of these have shards embedded, energies that have become disbodied and belong to nowhere now and I resolve these with gentle care and I set to cleaning and then closing the deepest wounds.
It takes some doing, for there are many but eventually, I feel I have established an even flow and I drop back to check the results in the hard.
The girl opens her eyes wide and for the first time since I saw her, there is actually another person in the same room with me.
She blinks rapidly, looks around, tries to focus on me, looks down at her hands.
“Welcome home, Camu,” I say carefully and she cocks her head at the sound of my voice, then a smile streaks across her face which soon extinguishes as she remembers.
“I remember – everything,” she says, and there is great sadness in her voice which has a resonance, a life.
I nod and say, “There is nothing to be gained by pretending it never happened.”
She nods too and says wonderingly, “But the pain is gone.”
I sigh. “I healed your wounds. It will take a while for you to adjust.”
For a moment we sit in silence, then she says, “Is this why you came?”
She is intuitive and has learned to be even more so, living in this house, in these surroundings.
“I came to ask you if you would wed the Duke of Solland.”
She looks at me with fear but strives to control it and thinks about what I’ve just said.
“I am the only one left then,” she says sadly, for she is a princess by birth and was brought up to know that her personal happiness would always be secondary to the affairs of state.
“As far as anyone can tell, yes,” I say evenly.
She thinks about it some more and then asks, quite rationally, “Is the Duke of Solland my only choice?”
I shake my head and say, “Not the only choice. But as far as one can judge such things without the wisdom of hindsight, the best by far.”
She flicks a glance at the door and winds her fingers together nervously.
“That is him – downstairs?”
I have to laugh. “Yes, that’s him. Going mad with fear of it all in the study, I bet.”
She doesn’t even smile but says, “You know him well?”
I consider the question and answer as honestly as I can.
“I have spent some considerable amount of time in his company and seen him in his observances of duty. I have also seen him address thousands of soldiers. He has never failed to conduct himself most admirably.”
“But as a husband?”
I sigh. “I can’t say. To be honest with you, he is not exactly a bundle of laughs. But then, the circumstances were dire. We were imprisoned and then his father and his best friend died. He is still grieving much for both of them. His temper might improve when conditions are more favourable. But then, it might not.”
“The Duke of Solland,” she says and thinks long and hard, trying to remember from introductions at court.
I curtail her.
“You might as well know that he is Conna of Solland’s bastard son. But like you, he is the only one left of that entire line and thus has a just and rightful claim to the titles. Conna acknowledged him fully before he died, I am a witness to this.”
She nods thoughtfully and then she says, “When I was a little girl, Conna of Solland danced with me. I thought he was wonderful.”
I wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotion that swooped up from nowhere when she said that and sat, fighting silently against the tears. I didn’t trust myself to speak but it had to be given voice so I said into her head instead, I thought he was wonderful, too.
She looked at me directly and with knowing and hesitantly, reached across and touched my hand once.
“I will meet his son,” she said and I had to marvel at her calm and collectedness.
So, two young women who had both thought that Conna was wonderful descended the stairs. Demma stood at the bottom and looked at Camu in dismay and with such loss that I felt deeply sorry for her.
Marani, too, emerged from the sitting room and with her came Reyna.
I sighed and shook my head.
“A lady should have an attendance. Let’s go and look at this man together. And know, Camu, that it is your decision.”
That’s the second time I spoke that lie today and used it as an illusion of freedom.
Within the context of who and what they were, neither of them had stood a chance once I had made up my mind that this should come to pass. Reyna looked at me sharply and I smiled to myself. I would really have to work on my shielding.
“Let’s go,” I said with a cheer that was clearly forced but good enough and led the way, with Camu behind me and Marani, Demma and Reyna in tow.
I opened the door to the library room which contained no books in actuality and found Eddario standing, tense and pale, by the window, his hand on the hilt of his sword for safety.
I flashed him a positivity and then stepped aside.
What is your name? I asked her silently and she responded with a disciplined, Camaruna which was clear as glass and perfectly pitched.
“Eddario, 17th Duke of Solland – the Princess Camaruna.”
He bowed deeply and Camu curtseyed at the same time and everyone held their breath as they slowly and fearfully straightened out and looked at each other.
Marani, Reyna and I heard their thoughts loud and clear; the Duke, the young princess and Demma did not.
Both experienced an extraordinary sense of relief that the other didn’t have more than one head or was distorted in some strange way, full of boils or having claws instead of fingers.
Both recognised each other as belonging to the same class next; Eddario with a touch of bitterness because he had been halfway between the worlds from the moment he was born yet always aspired to become one of these.
Eddario, I sent him urgently, go and kiss her hand and say you’re delighted to meet her.
He flashed me a look but obediently and stiffly, walked across to Camu and, after a moment’s hesitation, picked up her hand, led it up to his lips and breathed the semblance of a kiss upon it.
“My lady,” he said, which was his version of “I’m delighted to meet you.”
Still, Camu was impressed and interestingly enough, by his reserve as much as anything else.
“Sir Eddario,” she said in return.
Like an old matron matchmaker, I took charge of them.
“Please, do sit down, both of you.” (and then the rest of you, get lost and listen in if you must but don’t interfere)
Both took their places on the edge of the chairs with very similar reserve but both also wanted very much to see more of the other.
I waited until everyone else had left, then sat down too and said, “Well, we all know why we are here. What do you need to know about each other? Do you think there is a possibility of this working out?”
Both of them blushed and dropped their eyes. Both of them thought me terribly coarse and far too direct.
I considered seriously throwing them into a merging link.
Lucian and I had certainly found a shortcut to such games the day we became a single mind.
Alright. So they weren’t’ going to link and they sure as hell didn’t want to talk straight.
Into Eddario’s mind I said, You’ve got about an hour. If I leave, will you make a good effort at trying to get from her whether she is interested in you or not, in your own way?
He nodded rather rapidly and that made me smile.
I got up and said to Camu, “Will you be alright?”
She thought about it, looked to Eddario and considered if he would jump on her but judged the chances of this happening as slim to non-existent. For extra encouragement, I sent her, If you need any help, a thought will suffice.
She nodded too and reluctantly, I left the room.
Outside in the corridor stood all three of the other women, old and young alike, and just seconds later, we were joined by Chay who was grinning from one ear to the other.
“How’s it going?” he asked in a whisper and rubbed his hands. “Do we have a new High King and Queen yet?”
I prodded him with my elbow but couldn’t help but giggle, too. “If you shut up, we’ll get to find out.”
Seriously, he said, “I want to come along.”
That was the first time he had ever shown the slightest inclination to join in a communal link and I was surprised but also pleased, so we wove one and even dragged Demma into it as well.
All of us then hovered and observed what was going on, and there was an underlying giggle that could have been mine, or Chay’s or perhaps it belonged to all of us bar Demma who was as appalled as ever and didn’t enjoy the invisible observation one bit.
Eddario was a mess. The girl was overwhelmingly beautiful and of the highest rank and class. She was well educated, intelligent and fragile and he was deeply resentful of his promise to me to do what was right for the kingdoms.
He felt entirely undeserving of her and just sat there, waiting for her rejection which had to come most inevitably, sooner or later.
Beside and above me, Chay was having a fit.
He is such a useless …
Shhh. Let’s wait and see.
Camu was a mess. The Duke of Solland was a fine looking man, obviously well brought up, a man Lady Isca had said could command the attention of thousands of soldiers and the respect of his father. He had been chosen to be the new High King and needed her just for her blood. Left to his own devices, no doubt he would choose someone else, more lively, less damaged, but they were making him be nice to her because they needed her blood. She felt embarrassed and frightened and most of all, entirely undeserving of such a man.
So, and as he didn’t say anything at all and just sat and looked at the door, Camu said in a small voice, “I am sorry that I am all there is.”
Eddario startled and turned towards her. He has lovely eyes, she thought, so serious.
“My lady, …” he started and then couldn’t find any words.
Camu shook her head sadly. “I have been told you are a very dutiful and honourable man. I would I could be …” and she, too, couldn’t find any words.
Eddario cleared his throat and said, “This has been placed upon me just as much as it has been placed upon you, my lady. It is a very difficult situation.”
Camu nodded at that.
He went on, “It is by no means certain that the council will choose me to – remain as the Regent.”
“But it would be more certain if we were to wed,” Camu said, quietly. Eddario looked at her in surprise and then nodded slowly.
“Nothing is settled and this is more of a – possibility, at this point.”
Camu sighed and looked down at her long, slender fingers. It gave Eddario an opportunity to study her more deeply and to shake his head.
“I understand if …” he started to say but stopped when she raised her eyes to him.
“Just a short time ago I thought my life was over,” she said, very seriously. “I saw my family die and all seemed to be at an end. And now, this. Sir Eddario, I will comply with the high council’s wishes in the matter and do my duty by my family, and by the kingdoms.”
The watching link group held their breaths as one as we waited for Eddario’s response to this.
He looked at her steadily and finally said, “I too will do my duty to my family and to the kingdoms. Even though at this point, it seems impossible that I could be the right man for this.”
Both sat in silence and we tracked Camu in fascination as she allowed herself to be most impressed by Eddario’s lack of ambition and his seriousness.
“The Lady Isca holds you in the highest regard,” she said carefully.
“Lady Isca and Lord Tremain are not the high council,” Eddario answered. “The circumstances of my lineage will weigh heavily against me.”
“I am willing to wed you and give my lineage for the balance, if it will help,” she said, quite evenly and Eddario blushed furiously and dropped his head, causing her to add, sadly, “I am sorry I am all there is to choose from, Sir Eddario.”
All of us sighed with relief bar Demma who dropped from the link. She had lost her surrogate self this morning. I would have to have a word with her at some time. I turned my attention back to Eddario for he had not yet managed to get over his “I don’t deserve the princess” contortions.
Say something, damn it!
Say something to her! Anything!
The length and depth of his silence became quite unbearable and I cracked under the pressure.
Eddario, I sent to him, tell her that you are most honoured! Now!
“My lady, I am most honoured.” It would have been better if he hadn’t rushed the words but she glanced at him briefly before looking down again.
Keep it up, say something else, will you!
He startled and forced himself to look at her, then he stood up, cleared his throat and said, “It would be an honour I do not deserve in any way to have the privilege of …”
Chay whimpered in our link and got swatted by at least three of us at the same time.
Eddario started again. “May I therefore presume to take this information to the council?”
Camu looked up at him and blushed beautifully as she said, “Yes, you may.”
Outside the door, we dropped back into our bodies.
Marani was halfway between grinning and grimacing, I rubbed my face with my hands and Chay was doubling over as though he was in pain.
“Man,” he said, “I have seen some terrible moves on a lady, but this was worthy of three dozen lashes.”
Reyna looked at us with her big eyes and said, “So will they get married?”
I sighed heavily and shook my head, and then couldn’t help but smile. “I think so, Reyna. It’s possible.”
She smiled back and said, “Can we go to the wedding?” and as luck would have it, Eddario opened the library door just in time to save me from a response and stepped out.
He saw us all standing in the hallway and the children looking in through the open sitting room door and steadied himself by finding my eyes.
“The Lady Camaruna has agreed to the arrangement in principle,” he said and Chay straightened up, went over to him and slapped him hard enough on the shoulder to cause him to lose balance.
“Well done, you old dog,” he grinned and then we all laughed because Eddario’s expression of dismay and pure pain was just simply beautiful.
“Congratulations and well done,” I said as well and tried to fight my grin but it was hard to do.
“Can we go now?” asked Eddario near pleadingly and I had to laugh out loud.
“You can go, if you want. I’ll take you back. I think I’d like to stay a little while longer and debrief your princess, make sure she’s coping.”
“Will you bring her to Manoranta when you return?” Eddario said quickly, before he had a chance to control himself and earned another backslap from Chay and more laughter from me.
“I’ll ask her. She might come for the official dinner tomorrow if I can talk her round to it,” I said and took Eddario and led him from the house and out into the still falling rain.
Once outside, I stopped him, extended a shield around us both to keep us dry and so we would not be overheard and said to him, “Eddario, listen up. She likes you a whole lot, which is saying something because that girl’s been through a lot. I’ve healed her as best I could but you have to be very careful with her, at least for a time. She has great strength of character but I don’t know how she’s going to hold up with a full blown court affair. The last time she was in a palace, Trant’s soldiers were raping her, her sisters and her mother and hacking her little brothers to bits.”
Eddario’s eyes went dark and he went very silent. Eventually, he said, “She must be an extraordinarily brave young woman.”
I nodded. “She is. But she needs careful handling and time to adjust. Promise me you will take good care of her and not ask any more of her than she is ready to give.”
“My lady,” he responded with a raising of his head, “I will not just promise, I will swear it.”
“I know you will. I told her that I trust you with my life.”
To save him further embarrassment, I took his hand and shifted us through and back into the entrance room, right where we had started out, waited until he had found his bearings, smiled at him, send Lucian a brief report and returned to Headman’s Acre, stepping into the softly falling endless Merina rain with a sigh of relief.