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10 – A Dressing Down

 

Lady Evelyn was sat at her writing desk in her morning room in a lacy cream and blue dressing gown that looked more like a dress the next morning reading correspondence as she sipped a cup of kuva.  When Jace knocked on the doorframe requesting admittance she looked up and smiled at him. She looked tired, but no more than anyone would be after a ball the night before.

 

“Good morning Jace.  Come in.  Did you sleep well? Come sit down and have a cup of Kuva.” She said patting a small padded stool that rested by the writing desk.

 

“Not really aunt.” He said, fiddling with ties on his dressing gown a little nervously as he sat where indicated.  It wasn’t unusual for him to visit his aunt, or other family members in this manner the night after a ball, generally to trade tales, but today was different. “I’ve…um…something happened at the ball.”

 

She looked at him curiously. “Go on.” She said encouragingly, though Jace could see worry in her eyes for him.

 

He told her.

 

“You did what?”  Lady Evelyn shrieked, when her shamefaced nephew just what had occurred at the ball, and why he had been so eager to leave.  Jaced winced.  Evelyn never shouted or raised her voice.  He’d really messed up this time.

 

“How could you be so foolish Jace!  You know she’s in a dangerous position.  You just made it a hundred times worse!  And if you’ve awakened her with that kiss.  I’ll never forgive you. She could be killed!” Evelyn said, as she rose from her desk and began to pace, running hands through already tousled hair, in exasperation.

 

“I think it might have aunt….There was a…surge…and it wasn’t from me.” Jace said now very uncomfortable, eyes down cast to the floral patterned rug before rushing on. “But I never meant to go near her, I swear.  Especially after you warned me off, but she just came off the dance floor right in front of me and we got talking and…”

 

“And nature took it’s course.” His aunt said scathingly.  “Or rather you were thinking with things lower than your head. And didn’t have the sense you were born with to back away.” Alisdair, drawn to the room by the unusual sound of his wife’s raised voice moved in and took her shoulders, trying to soothe her ire.  “You know who her parents are.” Evelyn continued “You know what they will do to her if they discover her using magic.  And if she’s only just awakened, she’ll have practically no control. Less because she hasn’t been having control lessons since she could walk and talk.  She’ll be in the greatest of danger.  You really are the most unparalleled, unfathomable and unpardonable idiot.”

 

“I could see if she has properly awakened.” Jace offered, grasping at anything that might help in the situation, but he hadn’t slept, and his thoughts were in chaos and he realised the moment he said it that it had not been the right thing to say or do.  The look of irate fury on his aunt’s face only confirmed it.

 

“Oh no you will not!  You’ve caused enough damage as it is.  If anyone is going to visit her, it will be me.” She said, flouncing her skirts as she rang for a servant.

 

“Are you quite sure that’s wise my dear?”  Alisdair asked.

 

“I have the perfect excuse.  Lady Sangra invited me to visit her.  She didn’t mean it of course, she was fishing for other things so I knew it was only a matter of form and I hadn’t planned on taking her up on the offer. Not with her being what she is. I wouldn’t demean myself by attending on that woman, but now…I have to, to make sure the girl is all right if nothing else.  I’ll have to let something slip while I’m there so that woman thinks she’s outwitted us though.”

 

“Of course my dear.  It’s very fortunate that the invite was tendered to be able to use it as an excuse.  Give her a hint as to where Bywater is.  He’s as much of a problem to us as them, and if they deal with him, so much the better. It keeps our hands clean.”

 

“Oh of course! You are a genius,” She said, grinning at her husband.  Jasselin Bywater had been proving considerably difficult to bring to justice and his escape to Irradin had placed the problem firmly on Alisdair’s shoulders; making his already precarious position just that little more dangerous. Convicted of murder by magical means in Ashkelon, a sentence that had as heavy a punishment in Ashkelon as it had in Irradin, they’d been tracking him on the quiet so he justice could quietly be served. The mage had proved remarkably good at evasion however, and it had been looking more and more like Alisdair or Evelyn would have to deal with the matter personally, and with magic.  To give the entire mess to them to deal with?  It was perfect. “That’s why I love you.” She added giving him a kiss.  Then she turned back to her errant nephew and her voice hardened once more.

 

“As for you, you are not to annoy her adoptive parents by paying too much attention to her.  In fact you will not be paying any attention to her.”

 

“Perhaps I should just return to Ashkelon?” Jace said, tentatively, planning his escape back to what he called civilisation.  This country was just barbarous with its laws against magic use, and suspicious intolerance of anything not ‘normal’ to them.

 

“No. You’ll be staying for the full duration of your stated stay.  To leave now would cause talk and speculation.  No.  You’ll stay, and we will pass an unexceptional week visiting places of interest as we had planned, but you won’t be going to any more balls, and certainly won’t be seeing Sybilla again.”

 

“Why?  I’ve made such a mess of things?”

 

“Why?  Her parents…” Lady Evelyn paused slightly before correcting.  “Her adoptive parents, are the Lord and Lady Paladin. The heads of the sorceric inquisiton in other words and we can’t afford to annoy them. We have to play the part of aunt showing her visiting nephew around as if nothing has happened.  Like I said the other night, we are watched.  It would be commented on if we didn’t act normally.”

 

Jace looked shocked.  “Her adoptive parents are the head inquisitors?”  He cursed. “I knew they were high in government, and the Paladinate, but I never new that.  Is that why her father never tried to get her back?”

 

“Yes.  Because if the inquisitors knew that she was the daughter of such a man she would have been killed long ago.  As it is she has only been safe up until now because her inherent magic lies…lay… dormant.”

 

“Oh no.”  Jace finally realised what he had done to the girl.  “I had no idea.  I have been a complete fool.”  Jaces hands made fists in his distress. “I just wanted to talk to her, to get to know her a little.  We’ve only ever been together n the dreaming and she’s such a rare beauty.”

 

“Her mother was a rare beauty herself.”Alisdair put in before lady Evelyn interrupted.

 

“Beauty is as beauty does and you played your tricks on her like you do all the girls at court, and she was no match for you, unlike the Ashkelonian girls who know what you are like.”

 

“Look, I’m sorry.”

 

“Sorry isn’t good enough.”

 

“I’ve learned my lesson Aunt Evelyn.  I won’t make the same mistake again.”

 

“Obviously.”  His aunt said snappily before the footman entered.  “Lord Jace is tired, he wishes to retire.”  She told the footman crisply, dismissing her nephew, who had no choice but to follow the man out.

 

Only then did she let her guards drop fully.  She sagged against the mantle she had ended up by in her renewed pacing, fingers gripping the cool stone to stop them from shaking.  Alisdair was at her side in a moment, supporting her slight frame to a chair, and offering her cup of Kuva, suggesting she drink something a little stronger.  It’s late enough in the day somewhere in the world.  It was a mark of her distress that she accepted the offer.  Alisdair left and returned quickly with a half filled crystal tumbler of his personal stock of fine whiskey from his Tullavale estates in Ashkelon.  She took it, sipping slowly at the potent and fiery fluid.  “What are we going to do Alisdair?  If she’s hurt I…” her voice broke, and tears slid down her cheeks.

 

“Darling, there’s much we can do.  We don’t even know if she has awakened yet, and we knew this was bound to happen eventually.  We should consider it fortuitous that Jace was there to witness it.”

 

 

“To precipitate it you mean.  We’ll know by tomorrow at all events.”  Lady Evelyn predicted grimly.  “If she doesn’t enter the dreamscape, we’ll know…well, Jace will.” she corrected.

 

“Then we will know either way and can plan accordingly, until then, we assume she has awakened.” He said soothingly.

 

Evelyn sniffled, accepting Alisdair’s offered hankie to mop up her tears.  “I don’t think I could live with myself if I fail Sybilla like I did her mother.”

 

“We moved as fast as we could. I often think we should have thought to get Eleithiya out before Lord and Lady Daarren. If we had she’d have gotten away safely.  We thought we had the time.”

 

“And would El have ever forgiven you for abandoning all those families?” Evelyn asked him “How many men and women – and their children! — would have died, without us being there to guide them out? You know how many of them owe their lives to your choices that night.”

 

“A hundred or a thousand, what does it matter? None of them measure up to her loss to us all or her child.”

 

“It’s Sybilla we need to worry about now, love. As dire as her straits are, we should still count ourselves fortunate that… she… had lost her own child and was susceptible to taking in El’s or we would have lost both of them. El wouldn’t have risked her baby if she hadn’t thought she had the time to get out safely.”

 

“No,” Alisdair agreed, “She wouldn’t have. It’s the only reason she agreed to leave Irradin, so Cyrene…Sybilla…would be safe.  She would never have left else.” He said in remembered frustration at the arguments he had had with the woman.

 

“But she isn’t safe, and Eleithiya’s dead!” Evelyn wailed.

 

“We however are still here and very much alive, and better yet, we are in a position to help.  We have also, thanks to Jace, been forewarned that she may have awakened, which is far more preferable to discovering it after the fact when she has suffered an ‘accident’ or tragically fatal illness.  We still have the network.  Things may have settled down in the past fifteen years, but we still manage to rescue the majority of emergent mages.”

 

Alisdair yawned, setting Evelyn off and making her realise just how tired she was despite the few hours she’d managed to get between coming home from the ball and breakfast. Strong emotions were exhausting too. “Well there’s no point crying over spoiled milk. What’s done is done and we will deal with the problem when it arises dear, and offer her all the help at our disposal, if she will accept it.

 

The clock in the morning room chimed melodically and Alisdair glanced at it.

 

“Damn.  I am expected at the Lords chambers in an hour.”  He gave her a card.  “That’s Lord Percy, Grayson’s son.  He’s on our side. He’s handling our agent in the Blackwood household.”

 

“We got one in?”  Hope flared in Evelyn’s eyes.

 

“Indeed, and she’s well placed to help Sybilla. What’s more she knows what to look for.  If you make contact with her, she will be able to steer the girl in your direction or mine if she needs help, and she will need help if she’s never been taught Control.”  Alisdair said sensibly turning to matters that they could control in aiding the girl.

 

“She won’t have down here, the fools.” Evelyn said in a tone scathing of the current education system in the republic.  It was practically designed to make emergent mages dangerous – to themselves if not to others.

 

“Hmm.” Alisdair agreed, “I suggest you discuss this with Percy so he can help with the plans.  I am afraid I will be busy pretending to be the fop.”  He grinned raffishly at her, reminding her of their early years together where, through a massive misunderstanding, she had thought him an empty headed fop, and he had thought she was in league with the Paladinate.  It had taken them far too long to understand each other was playing a game to survive the dangerous waters of living in a country where to be a mage was likely to end in death.

 

Evelyn looked at him lovingly as he caressed her cheek.  “You are right. I am tired, and worried for her. A bath and some decent breakfast should see of the worst of the exhaustion; makeup will have to hide the rest.  There’s so much to do.”

 

“That’s the spirit my dear, dear heart.”  Alisdair said, kissing her gently.  Together they left the morning room to prepare for their days.  There would be no rest for either this day.

 

Jace meanwhile, after dismissing the footman, had thrown himself on his bed to wallow in self recrimination.  Tez, who had been napping by the fire looked up and mrowled a question.  He had sensed Jace’s internal turmoil the night before, and had kept close to his friend ever since his return from the ball.  He’d known before Lady Eveln that there would be trouble as his friend had confided in his companion, unable to sleep, not knowing what to do to fix what he’d done.  “I’m such a fool Tez.” He said.

 

“Mrrrow?”

 

“I saw her.  I should have left it at that.  But I had to push it further, talk to her, kiss her.” His voice became bleak, “If Aunt Ev can’t fix this, I may have killed her.”

 

“Mrrroooooww.”  Tez sat up and rubbed his head consolingly against Jace’s thigh, his purr a soothing rumble.

 

“She’s very…she’s just so.. Perfect.”

 

Tez continued purring and nudged his friend’s thigh.  Putting his hand down automatically to touch his friend, and encountering the silky soft feathers of Tez’s wings, Jace stroked them taking comfort from the contact, and the vibrating rumble he could feel thought the muscles under the fur and feathers.

 

“I was so stupid, and Aunt Ev had warned me away. But oh… she’s so alluring, and we are so close in the dreaming.”

 

Jace dug his fingers in too deep to and Tez yowled, pulling away.

 

“Sorry.” He apologised, soothing down the feathers he’d ruffled, and Tez resumed his purring.  “I hate it down here. Jace said in low spirits.  “Everything’s just so…hard…or dangerous, or both. I don’t know how Aunt Ev and Alisdair stand it.  I want to go home, but I can’t.”

 

“Muuuuurrrrrr….” Tez sneezed, rubbing his head against his friend’s hand.

 

“If I’ve put her in danger…I don’t know what I’ll do.  I love her.  I’ve loved her since I first, met her in the dreamers court.  If I’ve put her in danger…I have to help her.” Jace paused for a long time stroking his friend “I’ll wait and see what Aunt Ev discovers, and then ask if I can help.  They know what they are doing when it comes to rescuing mages.  I’ll have to trust their judgement.” Jace concluded.  He wouldn’t have the first clue where to start himself.

 

He felt Tez’s approval through the bond they shared and smiled, glad he had said something his friend hadn’t thought stupid.  He’d made so many stupid mistakes already.  He yawned deeply, and Tez jumped up onto the bed, circled it, pawed at the sheets a couple of times and stretched out, the look on his face plainly saying. “It’s time you slept.”  Jace took the hint, feeling his exhaustion and shucking his dressing robe, and slippers pulled down the blinds and closed the shutters to keep the daylight out and stretched out next to his friend.  There was nothing else he could do. Tez nuzzled Jace and rested his head next to Jace’s shoulder, draping a wing over his lower chest.  Jace drifted off to the comforting sound of the deep purr he had known all his life.

 

End of Chapter ten.  Tune back in next week for the next instalment :D

Thanks ever so much for reading!

 

I appreciate feedback of the commentary kind – I am still wanting to improve my craft.

 

If you /really/ enjoyed this and want to contribute more (amazing person that you are) buy me a Ko.Fi (I’m VERY British and actually I drink tea ;) ). at:  https://ko-fi.com/K3K58V5G

 

 

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9 – Suspicions.
After making damned sure that it was just the flowers in the immediate surroundings that had burst into bloom, Malken was forced to admit that it was indeed magic that had caused it, no matter how much he didn’t want it to be.  He’d seen those self same trees, heavy with the orange fruit globes, lush green foliage – but no blossom – earlier that evening.  He’d tried to rationalise that the perfumed blooms had been gotten ready to bloom that evening on some of the trees especially using various gardening techniques, but it didn’t explain why they were only fully blooming in the immediate vicinity where Sybilla and that..other… had kissed to say nothing of why there was blossom AND fruit on the trees.  That alone just wasn’t natural.

 

He ground his teeth at the thought of anyone but him touching her. He was so sure that Sybilla would be his.  She liked him he knew, and they spent a lot of time together; more so than with any other young men of his acquaintance and she had shown no preference for any of the other eligible young men. He was cultivating her parents approval and furthering his own career aims at the same time.  Together they would cut a formidable swathe through society, wth Sybilla as his wife, he could even aim as high as first minister.  So he seethed that she had been so easily seduced by the stranger.

 

He had held his temper over others courting her for dances that evening only because he knew it was required that the young women take their turn with all the other young gentlemen before taking a second turn with the young man or men of their choice. He disliked dancing in any case but he had watched her, turning down many dances with eligible young ladies to do so, He’d obliged only Lorine and Varya when their respective escorts had been otherwise engaged because they were Sybilla’s closest friends.  Sybilla had had a very energetic evening, dancing and enjoying herself for hours, it had brought  a very attractive flush to her cheeks and he had enjoyed the look in her bright eyes her quick smile and had his keen ears had been quick to pick out her ready laugh out of the din. When Sybilla had finally left the dance floor it had been on the opposite side to where he had stood, and he’d lost sight of her.  She’d taken a turn with almost all the other young men. …and he’d thought that, surely, now she’d choose to dance with him again. He’d seen the entrance to the gardens, and, coming to the logical conclusion, had quietly slipped outside, just in time to see her in the arms of another.  Just what had happened?  She had looked shocked, frightened even when she had raced past not seeing him.  The other had been annoyed with himself, and worried.  It had been all Malken could do to stay concealed in the shadows and let him pass.

 

Just what had done to Sybilla to make her flee? Had he used magic on her…to seduce her?  Or had he used it on the trees and she, being the daughter of the Lord High Paladin been trained to sense it and been frightened of being alone with him.

 

Worried for her now, rather than angry, he went searching for her.  She wasn’t too far away.  He found her further along the gardens on a concealed balcony.  She was collapsed next to the marble railing, arms wrapped around herself, shivering.

 

“Sybilla?  Are you all right?”

 

She jumped at the sound of his voice, and turned.  Tears streaked her face.  “Oh Malken,” she struggled to stand, and he helped her up, pulling her into a comforting hug.  She leaned weakly against him, head to his chest.

 

An hour ago, there would have been nothing he would have wanted more.  Now however…had she been tainted?  He resolved to watch her closely to see, and so, pretending that he hadn’t seen what he had, acted appropriately.

 

“What happened?  Did someone hurt you?”

 

“No… No. Not hurt exactly.”

 

“Who was it.?  What did they do?” He clenched his fists unconciously.

 

He felt her tense and realised she had felt his action.  He unclenched his fists and began stroking Sybilla’s back soothingly as any good suitor would at beauty in distress. “Malken it’s all right.  I…I think I may have had too much of that bubbly wine. And I’m cold, and tired.  My feet are so sore.” She burst into tears again, shivering. So she wasn’t going to tell him all.  She knew there had been magic and was concealing it.  That irritated him. He thought she trusted him more than that.  She knew how he felt about mages.  Was that why she feared to tell him, worrying that he’d confront the mage and be hurt?  He wouldn’t believe his Sybilla would conceal such a thing for any other reason.

 

“Here, take my jacket,” he said his tone gentle and soothing, removing his and wrapping her in it.  “Perhaps we should find your parents and get you home.”

 

*****

 

“Y..yes.”  Sybilla sniffed. “I think I would like to go home.”  Gratefully she wrapped the jacket around her, but it wasn’t the night air that had chilled her.  It was the jolt she had felt that had scared her. It’s intensity and the pain in her head that had come with it.  Could that have been magic?  Just what had that boy Jace done to her?  Was Jace even his real name?

 

With Malken’s arm wrapped securely around her shoulders, she allowed him to lead her back into the ballroom.  As Malken paused, looking for her parents, she looked around too.  The crowds were thinner now, many people having left while she had been outside with Jace. It was later than she realised.  Suddenly she caught sight of Lady Evelyn.  Jace was with her talking earnestly and Evelyn was listening, a frown on her face.

 

“Who is that boy?” She asked Malken, sure he would know.

 

“Which boy?”  He asked, as he saw Lord Blackwood, and gestured to him that he was needed.

 

“That one, talking to the ambassadors wife.” When he appeared to look puzzled she pointed them out “Over there.”

 

“Him?”  Malken sounded disgusted.  “That one’s the nephew of the ambassador’s wife.  The one Lorine’s been going on about all week.  He’s here on sufferance I believe, a family visit.  He’s been banned from magic while he is in our boarders too.  I don’t know why they even let him in.  He’s dangerous.”

 

“I agree.”  Sybilla said wholeheartedly sniffing, and pulling out a fairly useless lace handkerchief she had remembered tucking into her right sleeve as she had dressed began dabbing at her face with it to remove the tears. She fought a losing battle without a mirror however.  She knew her makeup was ruined when the snowy white lace came back splotched cream and black

 

“I’d stay well away from him if I were you.”  Malken warned.

 

“Oh don’t worry.  I plan to avoid that one at all costs.”  Sybilla said fervently, but with a quaver in her voice she was unable to conceal.

 

*****

 

Malken looked at her.  She really looked very shaken, but was glaring in the direction of the boy she had kissed.  Malken took that as a good sign and began verbally abusing mages in general and the ambassador and his retinue in particular as he led her over to her parents.  She was very subdued, mostly agreeing with his comments and leaned into him for comfort.  That was a good sign too.

 

*****

 

Lord Blackwood had seen Malken with his daughter, and seen the sign he had given him requesting his attention.  Reading between the lines, her blotchy makeup and the fact his daughter was wearing her escorts jacket, he knew it was time to take his daughter home.  He was somewhat surprised to see how subdued and pale she looked behind the makeup, smeared from tears.  He’d have expected Demirel to take better care of his child and came to the obvious conclusion.  She’d had too much to drink and had been ill. “Sybilla, are you feeling quite well my dear?”

 

Sybilla nodded, leaning into Malken’s arm.

 

“I think she’s had a bit too much drink sir,” Malken said, as he led her up, “that and she’s tired.  She’s been on the dance floor a lot of the evening.”

 

“And just how has she gotten drunk?”  Lord Blackwood said sternly.

 

“I heard some of the young men discussing that they were spiking the light drinks sir.  I dissuaded the group that I heard, but there were others no doubt, and I wasn’t there to provide your daughter with all of her drinks.  I suspect several slipped through.  I know Lorine was suffering when Duke took her home.  Varya was in an even worse state, and Q took her home quite early.”

 

“Well young Malken, thank you for looking out for her.  I’ll take her home.  Her mother will be waiting for us no doubt.  I’ll have the jacket laundered and returned to you in the morning.”  Lord Blackwood said, pleased the young man had taken his escort duties seriously.  The boy could hardly police everything Sybilla had to drink in an evening.  He slipped an arm around her shoulder, taking over supporting her from Malken.  She leaned into the support, hugging her father fiercely.

 

“Thank you sir, it’s nothing.”  Malken said, wishing she’d hugged him like that.

 

“I thank you young Demerel.  Her mother will also be grateful for your care.  I’ll take her home now.  You have a good evening…well morning now.”

 

“The Ball is starting to break up.  I’ll probably head home myself, so I will bid you both good night…morning…”

 

“Indeed, call round in the afternoon as we discussed earlier.” Lord Blackwood said a welcoming smile on his face.

 

“I will sir.  Good night. Good night Sybilla.  I hope you feel more yourself soon.” He added, bowing in a courtly manner to her.

 

“Goodnight Malken.”  Sybilla said dully as her father led her towards the entrance, and the waiting line of carriages.  She clambered in, all grace gone and just sat there.  They didn’t wait long for Lady Sangra to turn up with the cloaks.

 

“…Did you have fun dear?” She asked, as she settled herself into the cushioned seat with the cloaks over her lap.

 

“What?” Sybilla asked before registering the question. “Oh, yes.  My feet hurt from all the dancing.”

 

“That’s good.” Her mother said, not having paid too much attention to her daughters answer. “That young Demerel was very attentive of you.”

 

“I’m sorry…” Sybilla said, thinking her mother was censoring the closeness. If only she knew the half of what she’d done that evening!

 

“Oh don’t be, I approve, I approve, not many young men as upstanding and future oriented as him, you could do far worse for a husband.”  Lady Sangra said, dismissing Sybilla’s momentary concern.

 

“Oh. Thank you.” Sybilla said, and her mother, satisfied that her daughter had had a fun night, started chatting with her husband, allowing Sybilla to let her thoughts to drift back to the kiss, and what had happened.  Her hand drifted to her lips.

 

Her mother noticed the gesture, and the faraway look in her daughters eyes.  “Are you sure you are well my dear?”

 

“I’m just really tired mother.”  And she was startled by a yawn.

 

Lady Sangra satisfied withthe answer went back to discussing business with her husband, leaving Sybilla to her thoughts on the journey home, hearing only snippets of the conversation, but enough to get the gist of it.

 

“…The ambassador and the boy, they left in a hurry… most odd…SHE had a face like thunder.  I wonder…”

 

“…..It’s not all that surprising Victor given how all the women were shunning her.  I couldn’t have borne it half as long.  We will have to…”

 

“….I still can’t believe you invited her to the residence Sangra….”

 

“….But I could learn so much from her about mages and Ashkelon’s plans…” Lord Blackwood who’d been looking severe began to look less disgruntled Sybilla noted.

 

“…..Always were the wise one my dear, of course my techniques would never work with her, what with all her diplomatic protections…”

 

It didn’t take them long to get home, and Sybilla bid her parents good night, dragging her weary body to her room, where Merylla, bless her, had everything ready for her.  As soon as she was in her room, she began shedding bits of finery, the dress pooling in a shimmering wave at her feet.  She stepped out and over it.  The corset took longer to remove, only because she had to loosen the laces, and needed Merylla’s help for it.  Merylla, seeing how tired her mistress was, kept conversation to a minimum. She helped remove the jewellery Sybilla’s mother had given her on the table, pulling pins from her hair in handfuls until she couldn’t see any sparkly bits in it, and it hung in lank waves around her face.  Merylla took up a brush then, and brushed it out.  The familiar sensation had Sybilla almst asleep by the time the maid had finished.

 

“You get into bed my lady.  I’ll tidy this all up in the morning.”

 

“Oh thank you.”  Sybilla said gratefully to her maid, before crawling into her bed.  She collapsed into sleep.  And didn’t dream any dreams.

 

End of Chapter nine.  Tune back in next week for the next instalment :D

Thanks ever so much for reading!

 

I appreciate feedback of the commentary kind – I am still wanting to improve my craft.

 

If you /really/ enjoyed this and want to contribute more (amazing person that you are) buy me a Ko.Fi (I’m VERY British and actually I drink tea ;) ). at:  https://ko-fi.com/K3K58V5G

 

 

8 –   The Kiss

The meal, a five course feast with regional themes, was just what was needed to set everyone up for a long evening of dancing, and to provide a base to the alcohol the adults were soaking up.  Sybilla and her friends were served fruit juices as they were yet to leave school and so be ‘officially’ classed as adult despite the fact that the ball was  to celebrate their coming out as adults. She and her friends had complained of this frequently in the run up to the day, but the law was the law, and legally they could not drink alcohol until they were sixteen.  This did not stop them having tasted alcohol before the golden age of no restrictions. Somehow the drinks got mixed however and what most ended up being served was a fruit juice mixed with the bubbling wine. Sybilla suspected some of the boys had done this, but wasn’t unappreciative of their efforts.  The drink went down very easily with the added sweetness of the fruit juice.  She was very careful to not drink too much of it though, taking a couple of sips from a glass of water in between each of the sips of ‘fruit juice’ – just as her mother did when she drank wine at dinner.

 

Sybilla’s parents had with increasing frequency allowed her a glass of watered wine with her dinner this past year and occasional tastes of unwatered wine.  Sybilla knew they did not approve of the system of completely banning alcohol from teenagers. They’d had far too much experience dealing with young men and women newly admitted to adulthood from the reports that crossed their desks.  Too often, having been denied, the newly gazetted ‘adults’ went on a binge of alcohol, cigars and other less legal substances that were much easier to attain as an adult.  The usual results often led to either a night in the cells of the palace of justiciars, or the guard escorting the inebriated and often unwell young adult home or to the hospital.  They had told Sybilla that was why she was being allowed her early introduction to alcohol even watered down as it was, so she would not feel the need to drink a substance she was already familiar with and allowed to drink in moderation.  Sybilla fully appreciated the courtesy, and so made sure that now she was drinking alcohol without their knowledge that she did not over indulge and embarrass them, and herself.

 

Sybilla thoroughly enjoyed the meal, as it wasn’t as heavy as she had expected.  The first course had been small sweet and savoury morsels less than a mouthful each, and packed with flavour.  There had been sweet Kyrian apple cups piped with a savoury nut mousse and a tiny cup of cheese soup.  There had been dried plums from the south of Ismyl stuffed with a creamy herbed cheese, crisp lettuce cups filled with shredded beef in a spicy sauce that could only have come from the spice islands, and roasted roots wrapped in crispy bacon that she knew to be a favoured light snack in Estaye.

 

The fish course was a Speciality of Breamguard, coastal shellfish marinated in a buttery herbed sauce and a slice of Silvergill resting on a bed of steamed sea kale.  Again, the portion was small, but flavourful.

 

The main had been a perfectly cooked steak fillet, sat against an artfully arranged tian of redfruit, sliced yellowfingers and eggfruit There had been a small cube of dauphinoise tubers to one side of tis and all had been drizzled with a delicious jus.  Sybilla had begun to feel full after this feeling the constriction of her corset so was glad that there was a considerable pause between the main and the cheese course as the plates were removed, and glasses re-filled.  The conversation was all about the food, and how good it was.  The chefs had surpassed themselves.  The cheese course came finally, large wheels of sliced cheeses, the rich and nutty cheeses of the borderlands near Ashkelon, the pungent marbled cheeses of the coastal caverns, the light creamy cheeses of the lands around Ellegard served with thin slices of crusty bread, white, brown, seeded or herbed and fragrant grapes.  Sybilla ate only lightly from this course, no more than a taste of each cheese on a thin slice of seeded bread.  She was saving space for the dessert course.

 

It finally arrived, sorbet filled citrons, marzipan sweetmeats, chocolate cups filled with rich creamy confections with a hint of spice and shards of nut brittle.  She made a note to get cook to find out the recipe for the chocolate cup confection, it’s spicing had been just enough without being cloying.  It had left her wanting more even as she knew she could eat no more that evening.

 

After the inevitable tea and coffee phase, the men withdrew, leaving the ladies to chatter, and digest the meal.  The orchestra softly played songs in the background accompanied by a popular vocalist in Irradin. Occasionally women would walk up to them to request a particular song that was ther favourite, and the orchestra and singer would oblige.

 

“You know,” Sybilla said, leaning back to ease her breathing – the corset was tight on her what with all the food she’d eaten – “I have always wondered what they do in that smoking room, apart from smoking that is.”

 

“If what I’ve heard is true…” Lorine began to say.

 

“And it probably is,” Varya chipped in.

 

“They have cigars and brandy and basically congratulate themselves on being the masters of the world.”

 

“Hah!  I like that.” Sybilla said.  “They wouldn’t have half their mastery without us.  Mother always says ‘Behind every good man is an excellent woman’.”

 

“Hear hear!”  Varya said, hiccoughing slightly.

 

“Var, how much of the bubbly have you had?”  Lorine asked.

 

“Enough to know it’s probably too much. But it’s sooo goood.” Her friend said, slurring slightly, her eyes looking regretfully at the empty glass in front of her.

 

“You’ll regret it tomorrow.” Sybilla prophesied.

 

“Tomorrow’s tomorrow, and I don’t care about that now…”

 

“Even if it’s a school day?” Lorine asked slyly.

 

“Hang school tomorrow.  I hate etiquette anyway.  I’d much prefer to be doing something practical, even civics.”

 

“Which we also have tomorrow.”  Sybilla reminded her friend.

 

Varya sighed, “Hmm, I guess you’re right.  Perhaps we’d better walk this off.”

 

“I think I need to walk the meal off.” Sybilla agreed.  “If I have to dance right now, I’d pass out I’m so full. “

 

“Or be considerably ill.” Lorine added helpfully.  “Remember Bryant at that ball last year?”

 

“Eeeew.  That was awful.  You’ll never catch me doing something so disgusting.”   Sybilla said, easing herself into a standing position   “I’m so glad I am considered too young to wear one of these things so tightly full time like mother does.”

 

The others agreed completely as they slowly made their way back out to the ballroom and beyond to the cool night air of the orange garden.  They ambled about, chatting about inconsequentialities, until Sybilla felt like she could breathe again, and Varya had sobered up a bit and agreed to stick to the non adult beverages for the rest of the evening.

 

Sybilla received something of a shock as they entered the ballroom.  In plain sight directly across from them on the other side of the ballroom was her mother, one of the leaders of society in the city.  She was in what appeared to be quite animated conversation with the wife of the Ashkelon ambassador.  The woman had a look on her face, as if she understood what Lady Sangra was trying to do and was humouring her.  It was no secret how hard Sangra had tried to get them banned from the ball after all.  Sybilla wondered what her mother was trying to accomplish.  To be so brazen in offering acquaintance after trying so hard to get society to cut the woman she had to be playing some deep game Sybilla couldn’t understand.

 

“What is she doing?”  Sybilla asked, just as her mother caught sight of her daughter and after posing a question to the Ambassador’s lady gestured for her to come over.

 

“Why not speak with her,” Lorine said, interestedly.  “She’s in the enemy camp after all.”

 

“I still don’t see why she’s talking to that woman.  She’s evil, she’s dangerous.” Varya said, scandalised, even as Sybilla grasped Lorine’s train of thought.

 

“All the more reason to get to know her,” Sybilla said, nodding to her mother to indicate she’d seen the gesture.

 

“Know your enemy” Lorine agreed.  “She’s very clever, your mother.”

 

“I don’t care what she’s doing.  I’m not going anywhere near that woman.”  Varya muttered.  “I’ll see you later Syb, Lor.”  And she disappeared towards the drinks table. Sybilla very much hoped that her friend would keep to her promise and stick to water and actual fruit juice.

 

Lorine and Sybilla walked over the polished wooden surface that they would shortly be dancing on – a group was already forming and the dance orchestra was tuning their instruments – to where Lady Sangra and Lady Evelyn stood chatting.

 

“And this is my daughter,” her mother said, turning to introduce Sybilla to the Ambassadors wife, “oh, and one of her friends.  Lorine Vess-D’montaine.  Sybilla, Lorine, this is Lady Evelyn.”

 

The woman looked at Lorine first, nodding to the girl in a guarded manner before turning to Sybilla looking much more friendly and welcoming. “Lady Sybilla it is a pleasure to meet you. Your mother has been telling me all about you.”  She smiled maternally, and held out her hand to shake.  Sybilla glanced quickly at her mother, who nodded, and she took the woman’s hand.  A feeling of something…comforting, almost relaxing, washed over her and she looked at the woman properly for the first time. She was dark haired, like herself, though hers was loose and flowing rather than curled and primped, and made her look younger than the lines around the eyes suggested.  It was the eyes that caught her attention, an unusual shade of intense jade green, with an inner rim of grey that flecked towards the outer rim.

 

“I am pleased to meet you ma’am.”  Sybilla said, curtsying neatly remembering her etiquette classes.

 

“I hear you went hunting the other day.  Did you find good sport?”  The woman asked, including her mother and Lorine into the conversation.  For the short time they stood chatting they stuck to pleasantries and safe topics like hunting, and how schooling had changed since Lady Sangra and Lady Evelyn had been girls, and the differences in schooling between Irradin and Ashkelon.  Naturally, Ashkelon’s schooling focussed heavily on magical theory and practice though Lady Evelyn was tactful enough not to bring that up in detail beyond saying young mages were taught control of their abilities so they would not endanger others and stuck from then on to mutual subjects between the lands such as etiquette and dancing and art.  They all shared grimaces at the etiquette classes, so Sybilla and Lorine were relieved to know it wasn’t just them that hated it, necessary as it was for a well brought up young lady.

 

“It takes a certain personality to take on that job,” her mother had said, knowingly at that point.  Lady Evelyn had agreed an amused smile lighting up her face.  She looked like she was having a lot of fun.  Sybilla hoped it wasn’t at hers or her mother’s expense.

 

The ambassador soon came up to claim his lady for a dance, and they left each other amicably enough, with invites to visit one another.  Then Lord Blackwood came up to take Lady Sangra out onto the dance floor and Sybilla realised that while they had been chatting, the dancing had started without her noticing.

 

Sybilla and Lorine went to find Varya and their escorts so that they too could get down to the fun part of the evening.  They had to turn down many invites to partner with eligible young men as they went to fulfil the promise of the first dance with their escorts, but agreeing with a few that yes, later they would dance with them.    Lorine was quite voluble about the chat with the ambassadress, making all sorts of speculation about the happenings in that household based on ‘what she had heard’.  It was something of a relief to Sybilla to find Varya with the boys and all of them more than ready to do some dancing.

 

“I saw you and your mother with the ambassadress,” Malken said, as he led her off into one of the slower dances.  “What were you talking about? Why on earth would the Lady Paladin associate herself with a woman like that?”  He sounded genuinely interested, though his eyes were narrowed a little in suspicion. That was only natural given who the woman was she wasn’t sure how to feel about the little chat herself.  It had been on unexceptionable topics, but there had been something in the way Lady Evelyn had looked at her, and behaved with her mother that made Sybilla wonder if there wasn’t some history between the two women that she was unaware of, or if there was some deeper political manoeuvring they were playing at where introducing Lady Evelyn to Sybilla and vice versa her mother thought she might accomplish something.  She made a note to ask her mother in the morning.

 

“Oh just trivial inconsequentialities.  We talked about the hunt the other day, and schooling.  Nothing of consequence.  It would be very rude to slight the lady of one of the ambassadors, even if she is a mage. The relationship between the countries is rocky enough as it is without war between the ladies here.  Trust me when I say that mother will come out of the encounter the better off.  She’s smarter than you might think, and wouldn’t have attained her rank in the paladinate if she spouted off state secrets as if it were mere gossip. I think she might be trying to get a feel for what the woman is like, observe her without being seen to for some scheme she has up her sleeve and roping me in to talk helped her with that.  She managed to get an invite to the ambassadorial residence, and she invited Evelyn to visit us.  She wouldn’t associate with a mage unless she had a plan. It’s unlikely she’ll tell me about them though.”  She swung away from him, as the dance steps decreed, he was scowling slightly as she swung back, but it cleared from his face so quickly she wondered if she had seen one at all and for the next couple of hours she was kept too busy dancing with all of the eligible young men of their social set to be able to do much deep thinking at all.

 

Feet sore, she finally bowed out of the dancing, begging fatigue from the two young men vying for her hand, and stepped away from the floor.  The young men immediately made overtures to other young women who were looking for a partner before swinging off into the lively circle dance.

 

She sighed, leaning against a cool marble pillar, and closed her eyes, letting the lively tune, and the babble of chatter wash over her.  Her feet were very painful and she thought she might be getting a blister on one of her toes too when she stretched and eased the toes in her shoes.  Her breath was coming in short gasps and she knew she should find somewhere to sit down and allow her breath to return to normal but the pillar was so lovely and cool.

 

“Are you all right miss?”  An unfamiliar voice asked, breaking her communion with the column.

 

Sybilla’s eyes snapped open and she looked into the face of the familiar yet unknown young man she had seen earlier. “My feet are sore,” she admitted.

 

“Then perhaps I could help you find somewhere to sit.” He asked, offering his arm for her to lean on.

 

She smiled, grateful for the assistance “Thank you.  Have we met before?”  She asked.

 

“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.” He said, smiling. “I only arrived in the city recently.  I’m Jace Allerand.”  He sketched a bow.

 

Sybilla smiled. “Sybilla Raven-Blackwood” she said, unable to place his name with anyone she knew in the country.

 

“Well met Sybilla,” he said, snagging a glass of iced tea from a passing servant’s tray.  “Drink?”  He asked, offering it to her.

 

“Thank you,” she said, taking the offered glass, and taking a sip.  It was long, and cool, and just on the tart side of sweet, and just what she needed.  She downed the glass.

 

“Another?”  He asked.

 

“Please.  It’s remarkably warm in here.”  She said, and he doubled back to get more.  When he returned, he had two glasses in hand.

 

Offering her one, he sipped from the other, and they slowly strolled behind the avenue of trees that lined the ballroom, “Perhaps you would like to step into the garden.  It should be cooler out there, and there will be seating at this time.”

 

“Yes, that sounds lovely.” she responded.

 

He guided her in the direction of the patio doors, propped wide open to allow the air to circulate in the warm ballroom and they stepped out into the cool darkness of the orange garden she and her friends had been walking in earlier.  They soon found a bench, and, with a grateful sigh, Sybilla slid onto it.  “Oh thank you.”  She said, sweeping her skirts up, so she could tuck her feet up to the side like she would on a chaise lounge.

 

Jace lounged on the opposite side of the bench looking at her curiously.  “Do you not have an escort?”  He asked.

 

“I do, but Malken’s busy somewhere on the dance floor with one of my friends. What about you? Do you have a partner this evening?” Sybilla asked, curious.

 

“Sadly not,” he said.  “I have not been in the city long enough to acquire the acquaintance of a lady that would be a suitable escort to an event such as this.  I’m visiting family here, but they have no daughters and the invite was unexpected.  I am lucky my aunt has such an obliging tailor.  I wouldn’t have wanted to look like a country bumpkin. Though I must say, the ladies here have been most obliging in dancing with me.”  He grinned impishly.

 

Sybilla chuckled.  “I doubt you could ever look like a bumpkin” she said.

 

He grinned “Ye’d beh serpraaazed mess” he said, aping the worst of country accents and eliciting a giggle from Sybilla.

 

“Definite country bumpkin.” She said trying and failing to keep a straight face.

 

“I do my best to fit in when I can.” He told her in a light tone.  There was some tightness around his eyes that suggested that he had had difficulties though and Sybilla wondered at it; he touched his left wrist too and she didn’t think he realised he’d done it.  She wondered what was concealed beneath the cuff but was too polite to ask.

 

“So, my lady.  If I have recognised your name correctly, you are related to the Lord High Paladin and his lady.  Do you always live in the city? Or have you come for the ball.” Jace asked, deflecting further personal questions away from himself.  Sybilla was happy to answer the questions however.  He seemed quite a nice young man, a charmer definitely, with with excellent manners and just enough cheekyness to make him amusing. He was not as handsome as Malken but she felt good in his presence, relaxed.

 

“Yes, my father’s the Lord High Paladin,” she answered. “We live in the city for the most part, I get to see some of the countryside in the spring holidays and when I go hunting.”

 

“You must live a very privileged life then my lady.  I’m merely the elder son of a wealthy land owner, and so I only get to hunt very rarely..” his eyes sparkled and that irrepressible grin appeared again. “Animals or ladies.”

 

She laughed again. “It’s hardly privileged, Jace.  Father works long hours, and I have hardly seen him lately.  My mother works in the Paldinate too, and I see her even less.  She has standing to keep up among society as well, so mostly I’m left to my own devices.”

 

“That sounds a bit lonely.” He said sounding sad.  Sad for her?  Sybilla thought. How sweet of him!

 

“Oh not really.” She reassured him, touching one of his hands.  “There’s plenty to do.  I still have school on the weekdays, and I visit my friends frequently, and there’s servants of course.”

 

“But it’s not family.” He sounded distressed.  “I would hate to not be with family and loved ones.”

 

“You love your family?”  She asked.

 

“Of course.  I miss my younger brothers and sisters already, and I have only been gone a few days, and I know they will miss me.”

 

“It must be nice having brothers and sisters.”  Sybilla said wistfully.  “I have none. It’s just me.”

 

“Oh there are advantages to that.”  Jace said.  “For instance, you don’t have fights and arguments all the time.”

 

“That’s true.  I do that with my friends instead.”  She said, grinning wryly.

 

“Ah but you don’t have to live with your friends.”

 

“I suppose.”  She shivered, and stood, wrapping her arms around herself.  “It’s cooler out here than I realised.” She said.

 

“Would you like to go back in?”

 

“No it’s too hot in there.”

 

“Would you like my jacket?”

 

“No, I’ll be fine, I just need to keep moving, that’s all.”

 

Jace grinned, and bounced to his feet just as the music inside changed from a lively group dance tune to a waltz. He offered his hand to her “Would you care to dance my lady?”

 

“Out here?”  She asked, looking around.

 

“Out here.  We can still hear the music.”

 

Sybilla blushed as she took his proffered hand and looked him in the eyes. He drew her close. His hands were firm, his touch electric, and they began swaying to the melody.  As they moved off smoothly, she realised he was an excellent dancer.  Far better calibre than anyone she’d danced with this evening. He was deftly guiding her through the steps of the dance, not tripping over his feet like half of the boys she’d danced with.  Even Malken hadn’t this skill.

.

“Sorry if I step on your feet.”  She said, apologetically.  “I am afraid I am not as good a student as my dance mistress would hope.”

 

“You dance very well Sybilla.”  Jace said, meaning it.

 

“None of the boys around here can dance as well as you.  Where did you learn? Who was your dance master?”  She asked.

 

“I learned at home and in country balls.  My dance master is far away, but it’s easy to dance with a beautiful woman in your arms.” Jace said, looking earnestly at her.  “And you are beautiful Sybilla.”

 

Sybilla blushed, flattered by the compliment that sounded so very sincere and drew back. “Don’t say that.” She said, looking down.  It was very cliché, and yet …she’d been hearing the compliment often this evening. She didn’t consider herself beautiful, not like Lorine was, and yet….  When Malken had said so, she’d taken it as an expected compliment; other boys seemed to have been addressing the lightly glowing stone at her neck, more than her. Jace though, he seemed to actually mean it. It made her stomach flutter in an odd way.  It felt good.  She looked back up with a little smile on her face and saw that Jace was looked at her, a little confusion on his face.  It was a very endearing look.

 

“But I speak only the truth; you are beautiful.”

 

He moved closer to her again as they moved once more with the music.  He pulled her against him as they turned, their heads close as they rocked to the melody.  His hands were caressing her back and waist, and she softened in his arms, enjoying the closeness, the scent of his spicy cologne, and the sensations he was evoking in her not realising just how much of the spiked fruit juice she had imbibed that evening and so unaware of just how susceptible that made her to another’s advances.  It felt familiar to be in Jace’s arms, familiar and…comforting.  The waltz came to an end, and the next song, another slow dance song was one of Sybilla’s favourites. She stayed in his arms, murmuring softly that she wished the dance wouldn’t end.

 

“With you here, neither do I.” Said Jace.  His hand slipped up her back to caress her shoulder, and then curved to her cheek. Gently he asked her a question   “Would it be would be too much of an imposition if I kissed you?”

 

She stiffened in his arms, looking at him, but she couldn’t’ see anything but desire in his face, and a slightly amused twinkle in his eye.  She felt more comfortable with him than any other young man she had ever met, even more than with Malken who made her feel uncomfortable at times.  Jace felt…right, but she couldn’t just fall into the arms of any young man.  “Cocky aren’t you?”

 

“I doubt I will get another chance with such a beauty ever again.”  Jace said, adding wistful hope into his tone. “You can’t blame a man for trying.”

 

“Well that’s probably true.”

 

“Now who’s cocky?” He raised his eyebrow.

 

She chuckled and made her decision.  “All right Jace.  One kiss, but that’s all.”  She said firmly.

 

He put his hand to her cheek and leaned in, his lips delicately pressing hers. It sent an electric thrill down her spine. She leaned into the kiss, deepening it.  Jace, explored her mouth slowly, deepening the kiss as passion flared between them.  His arms tightened on her body and she pressed eagerly against him.  Sybilla was stunned at the passion the kiss aroused.  She’d never been kissed so thoroughly before.  The intensity of the passion between them was electrifying.  Both could feel it.  She grasped his shoulders – to hold on as her legs began to feel strangely wobbly, and then suddenly there was a burning, blinding  pain in her head.  Through the kiss she cried out.  Jace drew back, looking shocked.  And Sybilla pulled back, stumbling away from him in eyes wide in fear and the aftermath of the pain.

 

“What have you done to me?” She squeaked, her face white with fear.  She rushed away before he could rally and answer her.

 

*****

 

He stood there staring dumbly after her.  Jace’s shoulders sagged as Sybilla disappeared from sight and he turned, kicking a plant pot and cursing fiercely.  “Stupid.  You stupid, stupid idiot!  What have you done to her?” But he knew exactly what he’d done to her.  He gripped his head in frustration and anger at himself.  He’d lost control, and she was going to pay for it.  It took some time to regain the calm that he needed to think.

 

What on earth was he going to do now?  He had to tell someone. The girl would be in grave danger. And it was all his fault. “I should never have kissed her.” He said, speaking to one of the bushy orange trees.  Then he thought about his aunt. “She’ll know what to do.”  He muttered, before following Sybilla’s path into the ballroom in search of the one person he knew he could trust implicitly in this crazy republic.  He’d tell Evelyn he was tired, that the journey had fatigued him more than he’d realised.  When she got home he’d tell her everything in the safety and privacy of the palace.  He knew he’d be in deep trouble with her for it, but she’d know how to fix things.

 

*****

 

Jace didn’t see the figure concealed in the shadows of the vegetation as he hurried past into the noise and bustle.  Malken stepped out when the boy was safely inside, eyes narrowed in hatred.  Sybilla had never been like that with him.  Jealousy flamed in his heart at that uninhibited response, and hatred for the boy she had responded to so easily.  He didn’t even consider that it was his own actions in spiking her drinks that had made it easier for the boy to seduce her.  “What have you done to her?”  He repeated quietly, having overheard the cursing.  He turned then, to look back at where they had kissed.  Suspicious.  The orange trees and foliage were all in full bloom pumping their seductive and sweet fragrance into the air.  It was well out of season.  “Oh no.” He whispered, horrified.  One of them had done magic!

 

End of Chapter eight.  Tune back in next week for the next instalment :D

Thanks ever so much for reading!

 

I appreciate feedback of the commentary kind – I am still wanting to improve my craft.

 

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7 – Glitter and Gossip

 

It was only a short distance to the great palace that had once been the seat of the old lowlands kingdom.  Instead of taking the car, they took the elegant open horse drawn carriage, shining black on black with the Raven-Blackwood crest on the doors, liveried driver and footmen in place, and a matching team of mares. It was still the grandest and greatest of palaces in the republic, even if now it was the seat of the senate and sorceric-inquisition of the Paladinate. Set back from all the hustle and bustle of the city, in its own regal parklands that were open to the public to visit only on set occasions like this.  The driveway was bounded by tall graceful white lime trees, all ghostly white bark, the leaves yellow at this time of year, making it look like they were driving through a silver and gold arbour.  Only when they were almost upon the great palace did the trees give way to the sweeping lawn. Beyond the lawn, the visitor was confronted their first sight of the magnificent marble palace, brilliantly lit up with a stream of steam cars and horse drawn carriages pulling up to the grand stairwell entrance to the palace.  Their carriage took its position in the queue, but it was not a long wait, as the city guard directed the flow of traffic and it kept moving smoothly but they used it to don their masks.  They all wore fairly plain unadorned dominos, it wasn’t fashionable to wear the bejewelled and be-feathered masks that had once been popular now that understated elegance was now in style. Lady Sanngra’s was in purple to match her dress highlighting, Lord Blackwoods in emerald green to match his eyes. Sybilla’s domino was the most ornate, the domino itself simple enough, but with an intertwining black and white swirled pattern.

 

Lady Sangra was handed out by the footman onto the steps of the great palace, and Sybilla was handed out by her father from the other side of the carriage. The gravel slid under her slippers and he offered her his arm assisting her around to Lady Sangra who stood on more solid paving. Sangra was in lively conversation with a very familiar smartly dressed young man.  Sybilla noted that it wasn’t quite the latest cut, but was still smart and fashionable and perfectly pressed.  As the footmen jumped back up onto the carriage and the driver urged the mares off, he turned to acknowledge and greet Sybilla and her father.

 

“My lord Blackwood, Lady Sybilla, I was just telling Lady Sangra how glad I was to see your carriage pulling up as I arrived.  I elected to wait and escort Lady Sybilla into the ballroom…With your permission of course.”  Malken said, bowing low to them.

 

“Why Malken, how kind of you.”  Sybilla said, flattered.

 

“That’s most handsome of you young Demirel.”  Her father said, handing her off to the young man, and offering his arm to his spouse.  “Not at all the thing to escort two ladies, beauties though they both are.”

 

“Victor stop being such a shameless flatterer, and let’s go in, I would love a glass of that bubbling wine they are so fond of bragging about having exclusivity on.”

 

“Yes dear.”  Lord Blackwood said, “You two have fun.” he called over his shoulder as he escorted his lady in.  Sybilla and Malken were right behind them.

 

“He’s right you know,” Malken commented, as they got caught behind a group of giggling young ladies and their escorts.

 

“Oh? About it not being the thing to escort two ladies in at once? I suppose he is.”

 

“No, he’s right about you being beautiful.” Her quick glance at him showed he truly did admire her that evening, and that the compliment was sincere, though she did note the eye flick lower than her face to take in the sun stone – dangling perilously close to her bodice.

 

Sybilla blushed a little at the compliment, self conscious in the dress which was more revealing and more valuable than anything she normally wore.   “Thank you.”

 

“I mean it Sybilla, you outshine every other young woman I have seen come in this past half hour.”

 

Sybilla paused on the step.  “Half an hour?”

 

“That’s how long I’ve waited for you.” He said, his voice warm and caressing.

 

She looked down, hiding small smile, flattered that he had looked for her had waited for her before resuming her climb. “Really, you shouldn’t have Malken.”

 

“But I wanted to, and, if you will permit I would like to claim the first dance with you.”

 

“I’d… be honoured.”  She said, her cheeks pink.  She tightened her grip on his arm and as they finally made it into the packed grand entrance hall, Malken took her cloak and his jacket, returning shortly later with two glasses of the bubbling wine her mother was so fond of.  “I’m not really supposed to drink, Malken.”  Sybilla said, regretfully. “Not until I’m sixteen.”

 

“What your parents don’t know about, won’t harm them. And what’s a couple of weeks?”  He said mischievously, a gleam in his eye that Sybilla didn’t entirely like. She did want to know what the wine was like however, the small glasses she had been permitted of watered down wine at special meals at home had had subtly different flavours. Now she had a chance to have more than a taste of unwatered wine, and this was one her mother was particularly fond of…and Malken was right in a way.  She was almost sixteen.  It was only a couple of weeks to her birthday.

 

“Are you sure?”  She asked tentatively reaching out for the offered glass.

 

“Of course I’m sure.  I won’t give you too much, I promise.”  He said, smiling encouragingly before he took a sip from his own.

 

She tentatively sipped the pale straw fluid that had bubbles rising from it, rolling it around her tongue, tasting the rich tangy fluid, feeling the warmth as it slipped easily, oh so easily down her throat.

 

“Oh!  I like this.”  She exclaimed, talking a much less tentative sip.

 

“Hey! Slow down.”  Malken said, as she took an even larger swallow of the drink, effectively emptying the shallow glass.  “I don’t want you to get drunk before I get my dance.  Your father would kill me.”

 

Sybilla chuckled, handing the glass back to him feeling much more relaxed now she was here, and with pleasant company. “That he would, and you’ll get the first dance with me Mal.”

 

Malken deposited the empty glasses on the tray of a passing servant and, offering her his arm they made their entrance into the ballroom.

 

They paused at the top of the staircase that led back down into the body of the palace, so that the announcer could check them on the list.  This was the part Sybilla had dreaded of the whole evening.  The formal announcement of her entry into adult society.  She didn’t look to be the centre of attention at any time, and she’d been told by one of the girls she was friendly with who had made her entrance the year before that all eyes would be on every girl and boy that entered by announcement.  She hoped she would not trip on the stairs. The ballroom was festooned with garlands of greenery, and as was even ringed by small flowering trees in tubs, the delicate scent just discernible among the heavier scents of women’s perfume and men’s cologne. It looked like a fantasy wonderland, with seats around the sides for those tired of dancing or simply content to watch and small tables in conversational groups.  The room was lit by the great electric chandelier and was flanked by two smaller candle chandeliers, making the room bright, but not detracting from the traditional lighting.  Candles sat in the wall sconces near to the grouped tables, and people in masks milled everywhere. There was an abundance of silks and satins; gossamer and lace, taffeta and velvets, happy conversation and lilting music from the orchestra in the background. Everyone looked to be enjoying themselves.

 

That was all she could see in the brief pause, as the announcer found their names, ticked them off the list, and formally announced them in ringing tones.  “Lord Malken Antiac Fairfax-Demerel of Ellegard and the Lady Sybilla Elodine Raven-Blackwood!”

 

No-one went as far as to turn around at the announcement though a few faces glanced their way.  Sybilla’s jewellery elicited some surprised looks and raised some envious glares.  One or two outright stared at her.  she suspected it was for wearing the sunstone, and those who saw it, began nudging htheir neighbours, who also turned to stare.  Sybilla too calming breaths as deep as her corset would allow, and carefully stepped down the stairs. In an attempt to appear un flustered by the attention, she looked into the crowd hoping to see a familiar face, her parents or one of her friends if they’d already arrived.  She saw Lorine and Varya pushing their way thought the crowds towards her dragging what looked to be Marmaducke and Quentin behind them. She smiled and waved in acknowledgement focussing only on them, the touch of Malkenn’s arm and keeping her feet on the stairs until she was at the bottom.

 

“Antiac?” She asked Malken as they waited for their friends.

 

“Mother liked weird names.” Malken said in the resigned tones of someone who had been asked the question too many times and rolled his eyes. “Which is why I got saddled with Malken as well.  The least she could have done is call me something sensible like Malcolm after my great Grandfather.

 

“It sounds very…noble.” She told him.  Their names did pair well together, and now she was with him she was really enjoying his company.  She didn’t know why she had had such reservations about him recently.  Anyone could react badly when embarrassed.

 

He smiled at her and shook his head denying her claim “Your names are much prettier. Sybilla… Elodine… Raven… Blackwood.”  He said each name slowly, savouring it.

 

Varya and Lorine came up then, exclaiming over Sybillas dress, and squealing over the sunstone.  Sybilla in return was equally impressed with her friends dresses and accoutrements, Lorine in a stunning aquamarine gown, and Lorine in deep ruby red.  It was the sunstone that got most the attention though.  None of her friends had ever seen one shine, as the diadem stone was always kept cold.  Their escorts Quentin and Marmaduke teased Malken on his arrival with the most eligible lady in the ballroom, not entirely without jealousy and cast admiring and covetous glances at Sybilla and her sunstone necklace.  They were quick greet her and to solicit dances with her which she gracefully agreed to curtseying her greeting in return to their bows.  The girls conversation soon devoloved into conversation of their dresses, the cut and colours of dresses of girls they had seen from school, and general snippets of gossip. Arms linked, they walked off into the crowded ballroom forgetting all about their escorts.

 

Malken scowled, disliking being forgotten so readily, but Marmaduke and Quentin were more realistic, downing their drinks.  “Come on Mal, surely you don’t want to be listening to fashion and gossip all evening,” Duke said, rather sensibly.

 

“They won’t be wanting us until the dancing.”  Q added.

 

Malken, still scowling a little, turned back to his friends.  “True enough.  I just hate it that they forgot us so easily.”

 

“They’re girls Mal, what were you expecting?”  Q said. “Talk of fashion and gossip is what they live and breathe for.  At least that’s what Lorine lives and breathes for.”  He looked down and adjusted his cravat.  “Especially the gossip.  It can be most enlightening the things she tells me.”

 

“Oh?”  Duke asked.

 

“Get me a drink, and I’ll fill you in.”  Q said, and they wandered off in the general direction of the smoking room to get something a little more to their tastes than the bubbly wine the girls had all loved.

 

“It’s that big black brute that we heard about at the hunt.  It’s been sighted again.” Q said, after they had seen how crowded the smoking room was and found a quiet corner of the ballroom where they could talk without having to shout. Glasses of Kyrian brandy in hand, they lounged against the wall of the ballroom, eyes on their particular lady.

 

“The Unicorn?”  Malken asked, taking his eyes off the gaily laughing Sybilla to look at his friend properly.

 

“That’s the one,” Q said, then proceeded to fill them in on every last detail of Lorine’s non fashion related gossip and about the black unicorn and the political snippets she had dropped that he had found particularly interesting before moving onto passing not entirely pleasant comments on various débutante’s and dames that processed by.

 

The girls in the meantime, were promenading around the ballroom weaving between the trees, greeting those they knew, critically analysing the dresses of women they didn’t know, or disliked, gossiping about the latest scandle to rock high society – an elopement – when the ambassador and his party were announced.

 

The noise level dropped noticeably as people turned to watch the Askelonian ambassador and his lady in the local fashions of the republic descend the stairs.  They had not as had been rumoured brought their Tressym companions with them, and many a lady had a look of relief on their face for that Sybilla noticed.  She was a little relieved herself, and a little disappointed she would not get to see one closer at hand.  She’d seen the Tressym at a distance, the flying big cats looked like they could be quite dangerous, and she’d heard some stories about big cats during the war, horror stories meant to frighten her and her friends.  These Tressym however were under pretty strict legislation.  Any use of magic, any harm caused, and their handler suffered.  There were some flightless living in Irradin as well, those that hadn’t been hunted to extinction, most of them had been adopted by ambassadors of neighbouring kingdoms that were stronger than Irradin, and quite happy to harbour magical beings.  Irradin could not refuse the companions of the ambassadors these countries assigned to the new republic, as it had been unable to refuse the only ambassador Ashkelon would offer to them after the peace terms had been concluded after the war. As such, the creatures, and the ambassadors posed something of a permanent headache for her parents and the Paladin guard.  She saw a small group of other men and women making their way down behind the ambassador and his lady. Once they were at ground level, as it had when she had arrived, the conversation level picked up again, only now it was even noisier than before.

 

“Damn! I wanted to see the nephew.”  Lorine complained.

 

“I think it’s an absolute disgrace that they have even been invited! Come on, I don’t want to be standing anywhere near any of that lot.”  Varya said fiercely, tugging her friends towards the opposite end of the ballroom.  “I don’t see why we even need an ambassador to Ashkelon.  They are all thieving and dangerous criminals to my mind.  Just look what happened to my grandparents.”  She scowled in the direction of the ambassador and his retinue.

 

“They provide the best trade goods in all the Realms, Varya.”  Lorine said.  “Just because they have magic, and your grandparents died because of a magical accident won’t stop the trade of goods, and that’s why an ambassador’s needed.”

 

“Accident?” Varya hissed.  “They were killed in cold blood.”

 

“Varya, Lorine.  This is neither the time, nor the place.”  Sybilla said, stepping in to the argument, before it could turn ugly.  “They are here at the ball, but we don’t have to associate with them.” She held up her hand as Lorine was going to argue.  “IF we don’t want to.  I am sorry about what happened to your grandparents, but that is in the past.  We need to live in the present and look to our futures.  I happen to agree with you.  The Republic won out though, so they are subject to our laws.  If they do magic, they die.  It’s as simple as that.  Just avoid them.  I know I will.

 

The two girls glared at each other, before muttering apologies.  They continued walking for a little while, greeting friends and complimenting their dresses, and receiving compliments in return. Sybilla received the most admiration, which Sybilla found a bit embarrassing.  It was only because she wore the sunstone. They teased her gently about it.  It was a comfort to know that even though they were growing apart, they still knew each other well enough to know she did not relish attention, were big hearted enough to be happy for her for her parents gift and unselfish enough to not be jealous of her.  She valued them even more for it and tried to deflect the attention where she could to her friends.

 

As they passed the boys, who appeared to be in deep conversation; Lorine remembered a particularly juicy bit of gossip she’d picked up from one of the maids.

 

“I heard Malken stayed to dinner yesterday?” She asked pointedly.

 

“Yes, I lost my hat on the driveway after the hunt. He was kind enough to return it.”  Sybilla said a little offhandedly.

 

“Ooh do tell!”  Varya said, greatly interested.

 

So Sybilla told them ‘all’ which wasn’t all that much, but the girls proceeded to see into it anyway, predicting he was after her as his wife and other such nonsense then outdoing each other in flights of fancy over the inevitable wedding honeymoon and life together until Sybilla was in fits of giggles. Lorine was more of the mind he was after career advancement through Sybilla, and Sybilla was inclined to agree with this more than the theory that he wanted her for love. He didn’t act like she thought a man in love should, even though he was pleasant and attentive and did seem to like her.  Where were the little glances, the love notes when they were apart?  She genuinely enjoyed his company when they were together though, and didn’t think they would make a bad pairing if married, he was handsome and rich as Varya had kindly pointed out but there was something that was making her hesitate with him.   She wished she knew what it was. Sybilla soon turned the tables on her friends and had Lorine and Varya mooning over the merits and faults of their own escorts much to each others amusement.

 

 

As they discussed the boys, Sybilla noticed a young man in a very fashionable suit eyeing her up.  He was handsome too, and she didn’t know him, though he seemed to be familiar to her. This surprised her; she knew all of the young men of society by sight and name.  But she didn’t have time to ponder on him long, as the chimes signalling for the meal sounded and they headed in, meeting up with their escorts at the entrance.

 

 

End of Chapter Seven.  Tune back in next week for the next instalment :D

Thanks ever so much for reading!

 

I appreciate feedback of the commentary kind – I am still wanting to improve my craft.

 

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6 – An Unexpected Gift.

 

Sybilla sat in her under dress, twiddling with the ties on the satin slip, and watching her ladies maid Merylla work miracles on her slightly frizzy long black hair in the mirror.  The woman was a wonder, teasing it into shining waves and curls, then pinning it into place.  Ordinarily the whole process would have put her into a state of deep relaxation as she sat curled up on the comfortably padded low backed seat she used for hair dressing for an occasion like this one.  It took a long time to get her hair just right.  This evening however she had other things to mull over, like her father’s unexpected and complete approval of Malken.  He’d stayed for dinner with them the night before at her father’s request and had had perfect manners that had charmed her mother, and gained even more approval from her father.  Malken and he had apparently been deep in discussion of paladin business and training when she had finally come down dressed for dinner in a modest evening gown of apricot trimmed with blue that had lace at shoulders and hem. She’d had a long soak in a tub of steaming water and her cheeks had been rosy and Malken had noticed, and commented on how well she looked.

 

She did genuinely like him when he wasn’t being a sulky boy, not that that was often.  He was handsome enough too and had a wry sense of humour.  Certainly he was one of the more eligible young men in their set of acquaintances and friends.  But there was just something about him that repelled her on occasion and she couldn’t put her finger on it.  Was it something in his tone of voice?  Or the way he looked at her?  Or was it the relish he took in hunting magical animals, even the harmless ones like the soft colourful lappets, that repelled her?  She’d participated in her fair share of hunts that had drawn a magical beast instead of a mundane. It wasn’t the killing so much that bothered her, in a hunt it was generally fast with the hounds, but Malken liked live capture of magical so he could perform the kill himself, and it wasn’t the clean kill of a hunter.  If she’d caught a live animal the hounds had failed to kill magical OR mundane, she’d have snapped it’s neck, or slit its throat for a quick clean death.  Malken played with the magical before the kill, and then mounted them on a wall at the manor of Ellegard.  He did the mounting himself, and was quite skilled at repairing any damage he’d done prior to the creatures death by all his accounts.  Perhaps it was his fanaticism over the sorcerer problem.  But then she was friends with Varya, and she was far more openly vehement against the type, and Sybilla genuinely liked and respected her friend, even if she did slightly deplore her bloodthirstiness – it wasn’t ladylike.  Maken had always shown a preference for her company and she was fairly certain he would be asking for her hand in marriage at some date after the ball, he was doing everything properly like a well brought up young man should.  She should be if not infatuated with him, at least accept that he would probably be the man she married, but she wasn’t infatuated, and wasn’t even sure she wanted to marry. She just couldn’t pin down how she felt about Malken, and her parents approval just confused her even more. Malken’s father was one of her parent’s main opponents in the government.  It didn’t make sense to her that they should approve of his son, and her confused feelings for Malken didn’t help.

 

“You look troubled miss.”  Merylla said interrupting Sybilla’s thoughts while smoothing perfumed oil into a section of her hair before combing it out and using the hot irons to set the curl.

 

“More confused than troubled, Merry.”  She admitted.

 

“Something at school? Is your your Technofactry project causing problems?” The maid guesses.

“No, that’s going off perfectly.  I’m confused about one of my friends.”

 

“Miss Lorine or Miss Varya?”

 

“Neither, though it will be interesting to see what Lorine’s wearing to the ball. But no, they wouldn’t be able to confuse me.”

 

“Is it anything to do with the young man that stayed for dinner yesterday then?”  The maid asked, curious. “There was talk down in the servants hall about him.  Is he not the son of your father’s main political opponent?”

 

Sybilla snorted.  “Good guess! And yes he is.  He’s really confusing me.  One minute, he’s all attention and gentlemanly manners, then he publicly insults me at school when he feels like he’s been embarrassed by a trip in dance class, then suddenly he’s all attentive and charming again at the hunt, and trying so hard to impress my parents yesterday. I don’t understand it.”

 

“He’s courting you.”  Merylla summed up.

 

Sybilla pulled a face.  “It seemed more like he was courting my father more than me.” she muttered cynically.

 

“You mark my words.  He’ll be after marrying you.  You are a very eligible young lady what with your parentage and the fortune you’ll inherit.”

 

“You mean he’s after my fortune?”

 

“No, he’ll be after you.”

 

“I wouldn’t count on it.”  Sybilla said again.  “It’s more like he wants to use me as a crutch to further his career.  The husband of the Lord High Paladin’s daughter can’t be seen to be in a menial position in the government or Paladinate after all.”

 

“Oh aye, having you as a wife would certainly give his career a boost but don’t underestimate your personal charm.”  Merylla paused a moment to pin the last curl into place.  “There!”  She said, fluffing the frothy curls that spilled out below the elegant topknot.  “All done.  I’ll just get your dress miss.”  The maid bustled over to the mannequin that held the elegant black dress.  Sibylla took a few moments to have a proper look at what Merylla had done to her hair.

 

“Merylla you are a marvel.  It’s truly amazing what you can do with a curling iron,” she said, examining the severely straight side parted fringe and tightly wound topknot, that were offset by the loose flowing curls that framed her creamy oval face and tumbled down to brush her creamy shoulders.  “Have you ever considered becoming a full time hairdresser?”  She asked.

 

“I did consider it at one time miss,” the maid answered honestly, “but I am not the best with the scissors or dyes.  Dressing hair I can do easily.  It’s all the other bits I struggle with.”

 

“Well with the skill you have, I’d wager even as a dresser alone you’d do well.” Sybilla said, easily paying the compliment to the talented young woman.

 

Merylla blushed prettily, and smiled.  “Thank you miss.”  She cleaned up the paraphernalia of hair dressing, and attached the headpiece of feathers and crystal fashioned to resemble the wings of a raven to the topknot so that it swept along to drape the straight fringe.  The blue black sheen of the feathers were a subtle contrast to her own hair, the crystals at the fastening drawing attention to the hair style and the face it framed.

 

“Ugh, corset time.”  Sybilla said, standing up to aid Merylla in putting on the constricting device.  Though she had to admit, it did enhance her slowly blossoming womanly figure pulling tight at the waist she hated the constriction on her breathing. It made doing anything just that little bit harder especially during the more energetic dances and she often became a little light headed, though she had yet to faint from breathlessness as some of her classmates had.  It was a necessary evil, but at a ball where to get into the dresses one needed to lace more tightly than when wearing a normal everyday corset she hated it even more. She wanted to be free to enjoy the dances and give them her all rather than be uncomfortably aware of the restriction on how energetic she could be before making herself ill.

 

She slipped the heavy black fabric up over her hips and turned her back to the maid. Grasping a post at the foot of her bed, she held on tightly as the maid pulled the laces tight and then tighter again, then putting her knee in the base of Sybilla’s back, really pulled them in.

 

“Uuughh” Sybilla grunted as air was forcibly expelled from her lungs, feeling the black silk corset’s constriction on her ribs, the reduced capacity of her lungs. She adjusted her breathing to make the best use of the space she had left as the maid tied off the laces in an intricately patterned knot.

 

“There miss.  I think that’s tight enough for tonight.  I’ve left you enough give that you can dance without passing out… probably.”  The tone was teasing.  Merylla would have been sacked if she had not had the skill to not tighten a corset to the point where moderate or as mother called it ladylike dancing would cause the wearer to pass out.

 

She slipped into the over skirt a black silk with the blue sheen of the raven’s feathers in her hair.  The sheen of the fabric set in silk thread was an innovation her mother’s family had created barely a century before and had brought the family a fortune Sybilla would one day inherit.  It was unthinkable that she or Lady Sangra would appear in anything other than raven-silk to a ball, but the cut, colour and style of the dress was down to the skill of the couturier, and Lady Sangra’s was a noted artiste of fashion in Irradin. This dress had been a special commission and as Merylla made minor adjustments so the black linen underskirt was fully hidden, Sybilla put a hand her neck, appreciating the contrast of the pearly white satin of the three quarter sleeved under tunic, set off by the black raven silk corset.  It would look stunning once she had donned the little bolero jacket, setting off her mossy green eyes as the only colour in the ensemble. The sheer skirt would glide and flutter when she moved, shimmering with the oily sheen in the colours of a raven’s wing in the sun.  She still needed something to ornament her neck however.  It felt far too bare. She looked around for her small jewellery box.  She thought the Jade necklace might suit.  It would make another point of colour in her ensemble.

 

Her mother came in as she was admiring herself in the long mirror of the dressing room.  Sybilla was swishing the skirts from side to side, admiring the shimmery-oily effect in the lights.  Sangra was immaculately dressed, in raven silk shot with purple rather than white; her face exquisitely made up, her hair coiffed elegantly with deep amethyst pins woven in to keep it in place.  She wore the huge amethyst choker and stud earrings that went with the hair pins.  It draped her slender neck and décolleté, effectively hiding the age wrinkles that were beginning to form there.

 

“Well, Mr Stoneliegh has outdone himself with your dress my dear.”  She said, sweeping up to her daughter with a wooden box under her arm.  “I wasn’t sure he was right to go with white.  It can really make the skin look washed out. On you it makes it look more..peachy, fresher.  It suits you my dear.”

 

“Thank you mother.  You look wonderful, as always.” Sybilla had loved looking at her mother’s gowns from a young age; the fascination never wore out. Her mother was always exquisitely dressed.  Sybilla wondered how she did it with such ease.

 

Lady Sangra smiled.  “Thank you dear.  Now,” she said, sounding serious.  “I know it’s a bit early for a birthday gift, but I wanted you to have this for the ball.”  She handed the slim box to her daughter.

 

“What is it?”  Sybilla asked, as she took the box from her mother and almost dropped it.  It was heavier than it had appeared.  She held on however, and hefted the package trying to guess the contents.  What on earth could be of use to her at the ball that could be this heavy.  The dress box had weighed more, but that was a dress and all the fabric that went into it. This was much smaller.  Could it be a brooch of some sort?  But again, it was too heavy.  She couldn’t think what else could be of use to her that weighed this much.  The only other item she didn’t have was a fan, and it plainly couldn’t be that.

 

“Open it.” Lady Sangra said cheerfully.

 

The box was beautifully carved with an ornate geometric pattern, almost like a puzzle box. The wood was from highly polished cherrywillow, and the rippled grain of the wood added to the effect.  She remembered a box like this had sat in her mother’s jewellery chest when she had played in her mother’s room as a small child.  She’d often sat playing with her mother’s ‘shineys’ watching Siona lace her mother into a beautiful dress and coif her hair into the latest popular style.  This box looked newly made however, though to the exact same design.  On the front were two carved stems of cherry-willow blossoms that appeared to grow from the geometric pattern and link together.  She guessed that this was the locking mechanism and she slid her fingers between the two delicate looking flowers.  The catch clicked, and the willow stems of the cherry blossom slid apart, rotating the flowers away, and the lid opened slowly.

 

Her eyes widened at the glitter as the light caught on the stones within.

 

Nestled on padded back velvet were a pair of tear drop diamonds as long as her fingernails, a diamond bracelet of platinum and rank upon rank of tiny diamond stones.  The greatest surprise was revealed at the last.  As she raised the lid higher to get a better look at the earrings and bracelet, the matching choker necklace of glittering diamonds was revealed.  It had a teardrop stone of honey yellow clasped to the middle, but the way it had been cut, it couldn’t have been amber or citrine, it didn’t even look like a golden beryl of topaz.  She thought it might be a large golden diamond.  Whatever it was it was impressive.  A perfect gem, no flaws or impurities.

 

“It’s…Oh Mother.  They are so beautiful!”  Sybilla gasped, staring in wonderment at the glittering jewellery.

 

“It was given to me by my mother when I married.  I planned to give it to you on yours, but I think you need to dazzle tonight.  That young man is the most suitable your father and I have ever come across, and with such an interest in the Paladinate too, and in our area too.  Surprising, considering his father.” Sangra caressed her daughter’s cheek. “We had been looking at young men who might be suitable for you, but you seem to have found the right one all by yourself.”  She smiled, taking Sybilla in her arms and turning her to face the mirror, so she didn’t see the slight grimace Sybilla made as she turned.  Sybilla saw the look in Merylla’s face as she was folded in her mother’s embrace though. The maid would know that She wasn’t enamoured of Malken, she hoped that it would not be part of the dining hall gossip that evening.  If it got back to her parents…but then they never listened to the gossip of servants.  Lorine’s father on the other hand…well, if she got a little ribbing from her friend, she could defend herself well enough.

 

“Let’s see them on you.” Lady Sangra lifted the diamond choker and placed it around her daughter’s neck. It was a more slender and delicate version of the one she herself wore, and fit snugly.  Her mother must have had it altered as Sybilla’s neck was more slender.  There was one more surprise in store for her though.  The tear-drop golden stone she hadn’t immediately identified sat in the cleft between the neck and collarbones, where, warmed by Sybilla’s skin, it began to glow.

 

“A sunstone.” Sybilla whispered reverently, gently reaching up to touch it.  Her mother smiled indulgently at her reaction.

 

“The earrings next,” she said, herself helping Sybilla to fit them snugly.  They weren’t the more modern type that required pierced ears, but clipped to the earlobe securely, and comfortably.

 

“There, now all you need is a few of the pins in your hair. Perhaps your maid would oblige? I’d hate to mess with her excellent work.  It’s stunning.  I may have to steal her from you if this is the quality she can come up to.”  She grinned at Sybilla’s outraged expression. “Oh don’t worry.  I won’t actually steal her.  It’s so déclassé to steal another’s maid but if I could…borrow… her occasionally? I’d be very grateful. Siona is getting a little old for the fine stuff.

 

“Of course mother,” Sybilla said, as Merylla slid pins in outlining the raven feather hair piece in a sweep up to her topknot before stepping back to allow both Sybilla and her mother to admire the effect.

 

“You are so beautiful Sybilla, you always have been, and I am proud of you. Your father is too, though I am sure he won’t have thought to tell you so.”

 

“I’m not half as beautiful as you mother, but I thank you.  I hope I never disappoint you.”

 

“I know you won’t dearest. How could you? You are my talented, beautiful daughter.  I’ll see you down at the carriage.” She added, kissing Sybilla’s forehead before she swept from the room.

 

Sybilla looked after her for a moment, her heart warm from the praise that did not come lightly from her mothers lips, and awed by the amazing gift that had been bestowed upon her.  She turned back to look in the mirror. “That was…unexpected.”  Sybilla said quietly, fingering the glowing sunstone again. The colour of honey, it glowed with an internal light of its own now it was warm, and was by far the most eye catching part of her outfit, and one of the most valuable.  Sunstones were rarer than diamonds.  For every thousand diamonds that came from the mines, only a single sunstone would be discovered, often impure. But for a stone of this calibre? One of this size wouldn’t be found even for a million diamonds that emerged from the mines.

 

“Such a gift, my lady.” Merylla said, reverently gazing at the gently glowing stone. “…and it matches the outfit perfectly.”

 

“Yes, they do rather don’t they?”  She said, noticing how the diamonds picked up the sheen of the blue black feathers, and reflected it in rainbow glints of colour.  Her hand rose to the diamond choker, and ever so gently she touched the sun stone again.  The glow intensified with the added warmth of her hand, coolly setting her skin tone off to perfection.

 

Sybilla knew of only two other true sun stones.  One had been a part of the Diadem of the Queen of the Lowland realms before the civil war had seen the royal line destroyed.  The Paladinate held that diadem; she’d seen it there when accompanying her mother once.  The other unsullied sun stone graced the crown of the King of the Upland realms.  Myth said that one day the crowns of upper and lower lands would one day unite, and when they did peace would reign throughout the realms.  She snorted. That wasn’t likely to happen any time soon. She hadn’t known there was a third sunstone.  She marvelled that it was gracing her neck this evening, and was now hers.  She wondered how her mothers family had acquired it.  They had no connection to the diamond mines, and if the only other stones in existence belonged to royalty…?  It was an interesting onundrum, one she would have to ask her mother later.

 

“It’s a beautiful stone, an amazing gift. I do wish mother hadn’t mentioned me catching a husband though.  I dare say I would have gotten along with whoever they chose for me, when I finally decide I want to marry.”

 

“You don’t like the young Lord Demerel do you?”

 

“Oh I like him well enough Merylla, it’s just…I don’t know.  There’s something about him that’s putting me off, and it’s not his manners, despite his rudeness the other day or how he treats me.  I can’t put my finger on it, but as it is I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life with him.”

 

“Don’t dwell on it miss.  It will only spoil your night.  Be the belle of the ball, have fun, and cross that bridge if he asks for your hand.  You never know, something may happen between now and then.”

 

Sybilla, who had been frowning, brightened immediately. “That’s right!  There’s so much that could happen between now and then, and no one can predict the future any more.  Well, not accurately, and not if they don’t want to spend a good amount of time in jail.”  She added sardonically.

 

Merylla snorted at the joke.

 

“I’d better go down.  Thank you Merylla.  You always have good advice for me and the hair is wonderful.”

 

“You have a good evening miss.”  The maid called as Sybilla flitted out of the room in a much better state of mind, her face suffused with the anticipation of a fun evening. She glided down the stars, a broad grin on her face.  Her father did a little bit of a double take when he saw her and the jewellery she wore, but then he smiled and held a hand out tenderly to her.  This night he was the father she knew and loved, Elegantly garbed in the very latest fashion and she took his hand willingly pushing the less pleasant memories away.  She wanted nothing to spoil this evening.

 

“My dear, you look beautiful, just like your mother did when we first met.  No one’s going to be able to take their eyes off you tonight.   You are a true credit to the family.”  He took her hands and drew her into a gentle embrace that did not ruffle her dress and kissed her forehead.  Then, offering her one arm, and his wife the other, they left the entrance hall, to enter the open horse drawn carriage that would take them to the ball in style.

 

 

End of Chapter Six.  Tune back in next week for the next instalment :D

Thanks ever so much for reading!

 

I appreciate feedback of the commentary kind – I am still wanting to improve my craft.

 

If you /really/ enjoyed this and want to contribute more (amazing person that you are) buy me a Ko.Fi (I’m VERY British and actually I drink tea ;) ). at:  https://ko-fi.com/K3K58V5G

 

 

5 –  A Weary Traveller.

 

Jace was dusty tired and covered in other travel stains when he finally trotted through the gates and onto the grounds of the ambassadorial mansion. Tez his Tressym bond-mate was in little better shape, his paws scuffed, flight feathers rumpled. Dust covered his furry pelt to a faded muddy brown hiding the lush black spots that normally adorned his golden coat. His pointy ears, a solid black where the spots were so numerous they merged into solid colour were flicking back and forth listening to the traffic on the road they had just left, swishing his tail in distaste at the ordeur from the carriage horses and the smoky ashy odourous scents of the new horseless carriages that almost overwhelmed his sensitive nose.  He sneezed and not for the first time trying to get rid of the horrible smells of the horseless carriages that chugged strangely and moved at alarming speeds spewing acrid smoke in their wakes.  Jace sympathised with his friend’s discomfort – shared over their bond. He found the smell, less strong though it was for him distinctly unpleasant compared with the countryside or the heady scent of wood smoke back home.

 

It had been a long journey from Spires City to Irradin’s capital.  He believed his aunt Evelyn’s accounts that it had been a very hot dry summer in Irradin now he’d travelled through the country. The rain that had come with the autumn had done little to dampen the hard baked earth as yet, but was enough to make a lone traveller just wet enough to be damp and uncomfortable all day. It appeared that the temperature had only just begun to get cool in the evenings. They didn’t have that problem in Askelon; It was always cold and though it might be dry above the white oceans of cloud, they changed altitude with the seasons.   It was guaranteed to be wet in Ashkelon for at least three months of the year, more the lower in altitude you were. Even Spires City which the highest inhabited point in Ashkelon sitting atop the mountains peak had its fair share of dampness, though that was generally an ever present mist or fog in the summer season.   Jace had been uncomfortably warm even in his lightest clothing as soon as he and Tez had descended to the narrow stretch of plains before the great rift crossing point.  He still hadn’t acclimatised to the new climate and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. Jace was silently restraining his rage as he heeled his horse towards the mansion’s stable block.  It was so frustrating how suspicious, intolerant and rough handed guards he’d had to pass at various points had been.  Those guarding Irradin’s old city gates had been the worst, pawing through his papers, getting far too close to him for personal comfort and asking question after question in a small guard room while Tez was leashed with steel cord and netted down awaiting the approval for him to pass into the city. It was the leashing of his friend that had riled Jace the most, he could expect that level of xenophobia from the border guards, it was to be expected, but at the city gates? It was beyond ridiculous, and though Tez took the chaining peacefully it was an insult to an intelligent species and Jace could feel his hurt emotions.   The rest of the indignities had been expected.  It had been the treatment they’d received at almost all the gates they’d had to pass, but Tez wasn’t just any animal, he was a Tressym companion.  The Tressym were sentient, and perfectly civilised beings.  To leash him had been the worst insult of the many piled on them both during the week long journey.

 

Jace’s ire lessened as he saw friendly faces smiling up at him in welcome and people who didn’t flinch at the sight of him riding with Tez after days of suspicion, fear or outright animosity. Village people had made signs warding against evil or gone out of their way to avoid him.  He snorted.  The Irradin powers that be might have claimed that magic was evil and had made it illegal but the sign against evil was a minor magic in itself.  Either the authorities hadn’t stamped it all out since the war, or they didn’t realise it was a magic.  It had been an interesting conundrum that he’d mulled over on the journey.  Did they know and ignore it? Or did they not know it was magic?  Those that didn’t have the talent did struggle to recognise the smaller magic’s like that.  Then again, the folk he’d seen passing through villages and small towns had appeared to be quite insular and in the villages at least he had seen behaviour that spoke of strong superstitions.  Perhaps the government had let the minor harmless magic’s like that slide and focussed on the more obvious ones that all would agree were magic?  He made a note to ask his aunt at some point.

 

As it had turned out his initial temptation to cut across country on the journey may have proved more comfortable in the long run.  Jace had long since mentally cursed his folly for following the itinerary Mr Sneyd had given him.  It seemed the Irradin Ambassador to King Terrowyn did not know his people well enough or he’d been too long away from Irradin and had not known what tey were like now. At every stop he’d been given the very poorest of the accommodation inns could get away with as far as he could tell, tasteless food, hard beds, small poorly lit chambers…and that was in the inns that hadn’t turned him away. Even his passport for legal travel within Irradin’s borders stamped by the First Minister himself had not prevented those incivilities.  He’d been charged through the nose for the priviledge too. If it hadn’t been a sanctioned state visit, and if he hadn’t made such a fuss of coming to visit Irradin, he would have turned back.  But he wasn’t going to prove those who’d warned him against coming right, and in any case his aunt and her husband were expecting him.  It would be good to see them again.   He was looking forward to a hot bath, a clean change of clothes, decent food and an early night in a comfortable bed too; preferably one with a feather stuffed mattress rather than the meagre affairs of little more than a blanket over a plank with or without rushes between that he’d had to put up with the past week.  Through his bond he felt his friend’s agreement to a good clean, decent food and a rest and he smiled down at the Tressym, who was not much shorter in the shoulder than his horse.

 

Dismounting in the stable yard Jace groaned.  He was sore all over.  He handed the reins over to a groom, and pulled off the weary horse’s saddle packs.  It was too much effort to sling them over his shoulder.  They hung almost to the floor from Jace’s grasp as he went to help Tez with his harness.  He dropped the packs to the ground and dumped the two smaller packs Tez had been carrying either side of his shoulders on top.  The Tressym did not wear working harness like burden beasts, but they did when they choose to bond with a human adopt harness as a sort of ornament.  The ornamental leather harness was comfortable, and beautifully wrought by skilled artisans.  The harness could, at need be used to attach saddle packs for travel or as leverage to hold on when sat astride in emergencies.  Tressym needed the assistance of their bond-mates or another trusted human to help them with the buckles however.  A groom that bore the winged paw patch on her shoulder of a Tressym groom was passing by as he finished loosening the finely tooled green leather that came close to matching Tez’s eyes from the last buckle, and offered her assistance.

 

“If you don’t mind me saying sir, you look done in…both of you.”

 

“What do you think Tez? Do you trust Sen’s groom?” Jace asked, correctly assuming the girl tended Sen his aunts bonded companion when she was unable to.

 

The girl…well woman…was a short red head and wore a blue cotton tunic that hugged her figure, leather leggings and knee high boots that left little to the imagination.  The sparkle in her eyes suggested Jace’s appreciation of her person hadn’t gone unnoticed, but her warm welcoming smile was all for Tez.  She held out her hand in the accepted manner. “Hello Beautiful Tez.” She cooed.  Regally Tez stepped forward pretending to assess her, sniffing the outstretched hand, up her arm to her face, looking her directly in the eyes, sensing with his natural empathy her emotions.  In a bond this natural empathy all Tressym appeared to have extended to a sharing of basic concepts and simple thoughts, and so Jace could already feel his friend’s acceptance.  Tez had always had a soft spot for female Tressym grooms.  Jace suspected they could be induced to coddle him more.  Tez flicked Jace playfully with his tail as he picked up on the thought and began to purr, a deep rumble in his broad muscular chest indicating his acceptance.

 

“Looks like he’s happy with that.” Jace said brightly.  “I’ll leave you to it.” He was about to turn away then but remembering the pad balm he dug around in one of Tez’s packs for the tin. “Massage it in, it’ll help soothe any aches and seal any scratches.” He told the groom.

 

She shook her head smiling as she took the tin from him.  “I know.  We use it here too sir. I was going to get a tin from the stores while Tez bathed. This will do as well.” She nodded politely and went to take Tez’s travel packs.

 

Jace turned back to Tez “When you care to, I’m sure you’ll find me with my Aunt, Tez.” He said, scratching him behind the ears in a friendly way.  The Tressym murred in acknowledgement, rubbing his head against Jace’s thigh and nudging him towards the exit. Then he turned and padded softly after the groom.  She was rapidly disappearing packs in hand towards the rear of the stables where his aunt’ s letters had told Jace was where the warmed pool the household Tressym his aunt’s Sen and uncle’s Raj bathed.  At least something was like back home he thought as he watched the groom and Tez leave.  It was comforting to know that his friend would be well taken care of by competent personnel.  He’d worried about it after the first two nights on the journey, he didn’t want his friend to be uncomfortable or dislike his stay.   Where his friend had been grudgingly allotted poky or smelly stabling, much reassured he picked up the packs and trudged wearily towards the mansion.

 

Jace was relieved of his saddle packs the moment he entered through one of the secondary entrances by a footman that had been waiting for him, probably alerted by one of the stable staff and warmly welcomed.  The eager broad shouldered young man who was probably of an age with Jace introduced himself as Robin, told Jace he’d been assigned to act as his valet if ‘Lord Jace’ had no opposition to this arrangement and asked if Lord Jace would like refreshment before or after he was shown his rooms.  Hot water taps had just been installed in the mansion,’ Robin enthused, ‘So he needn’t ring for the servants to bring up a jug for a wash, or buckets for a bath anymore.’  This intrigued Jace weary as he was, and a hot bath sounded like a very good idea.  Food and drink could wait.  His annoyance at all that he and Tez had had to go through to get here eased further at the cosseting to be erased completely when Lady Evelyn welcomed him.

 

Evelyn saw them both as they passed through the hallway, the footman talking eagerly and Jace nodding as he followed and listened. “Jace!  You’re here!”  She rushed down the stairs skirts held high to prevent tripping over the lacy hem, a beaming smile on her face. As soon as she was close enough she swept him into a fierce hug not caring that her delicate day dress would be covered with dirt. “Oh I have missed you!  I hope the trip wasn’t too arduous?”

 

“It was mostly uneventful,” he replied, the sarcasm thick in his tone.

 

“The guards putting it on a bit thick were they?”  She asked knowingly.

 

“Yes, and I’ve never come across people who have been that afraid of a Tressym before.”

 

“Yes, they are terrified of them in the provinces.”  Evelyn agreed.  “The Caitsithe saw to that.” She added sadly.  The reference reminded Jace that the Caitsithe, a martial minded breed flighted felines that looked so much like the peaceful Tressym had fought viciously against extermination during the war.  They hadn’t wanted to give up their territory.  He’d never seen one, though he knew at least three surviving Glarings had accepted near the end that they would not win, and taken the offered refuge in Askelon’s valley forests. “They are slightly more tolerant of the Tressym here in the city,” Lady Evelyn continued “but only barely. Some of the non flighted ones are tolerated as…pets. Though I doubt the ambassadors of Grelhame, Sordel, Kiruna or Talinn would consider them thus.” She said in distaste for the treatment of the unfortunate creatures that were born with the curse of no wings, or worse, wings that would never hold them aloft. Jace knew that one of the reasons she stayed with her husband in Irradin as ambassadors, despite all the animosity directed at them for what they were, was to see to the welfare of the unfortunates that had been unable to escape after the great rift was opened up trapping the flightless in Irradin.  Most of those trapped this way had sought bonds with the ambassadors of other nations that had the influence to prevent them being culled outright. There were still the occasional reports of ‘feral’ flightless hiding in the remoter parts of Irradin however, and Lady Evelyn tried to rescue them if she could. Several new prides of flightless Tressym had sprung up in neighbouring nations as a result of her efforts in the past decade and a half, and much to the Irradinian governments annoyance they could not – yet -afford to demand a culling of magical creatures by their neighbouring countries.

 

“Is Tez in the stables?”  Lady Evelyn asked as she guided him up the stairs to his apartments the footman Robin looking crestfallen that his explanation of the heating system had been interrupted following behind. “Good.  I left orders for the staff to take good care of him and give him a prime cut when you came in.  He must be starving, and foot sore.”

 

“We both are Aunt Ev.”  Jace said. “Well, I’m saddle sore.”

 

“You didn’t fly?” Her aunt arched a surprised look at him.

 

“We aren’t allowed to do any magic on this passport.”  Jace said, pulling out and waving the much creased, and much looked at leather folio that held his travel documents.

 

“But Tez using his wings isn’t magic!”  She said, before she paused considering. “Is that why it took so long for you to get here?”

 

When Jace grimaced, she chuckled. “Oh dear!  You must both be exhausted!  Come. Your apartments are prepared. They have been all week.  Let’s get you a bath and a change of clothes.  A good soak, some good food and a good night’s sleep will set you to rights.”  Jace wanted to protest even tired as he was and wanting exactly what Evelyn was offering. Manners made him demur murmuring about catching up with her and Alisdair her husband. She stopped him “We can talk tomorrow.  We have SO much to catch up on!”

 

“Oh do stop fussing me aunt,” Jace begged, as she started organising the servants to cater to his every whim.  “I’m quite able to look after myself.”

 

“In Ashkelon yes, you could, but down here, we can’t use magic remember?”  She arched her eyebrow at him, and he blushed realising once again, just how different it was here. He’d thought the rules might be a little more relaxed in the ambassadorial mansion compared with the rest of Irradin.  He couldn’t even enchant the ties on his clothes to do up on their own.  It had been quite a struggle not using magic on the journey to the city. This was going to be a much more difficult thing than he had imagined. He had caught himself several times from using magic almost reflexively in this manner on the journey to the city, always little things he did every day almost without thinking, like safely removing the fuzz that was now growing on his face. His cheeks bore the results of his clumsy attempts at shaving the mundane way in several part healed nicks, and his clothes were sloppily put on at best as he’d given up the battle of perfect clothing early on. Down here the kind of thoughtlessness like using magic even reflexively could lose him his head.

 

“Exactly.”  She said, correctly reading his expression. Her hands fluttered around as she gave her directions, resembling a flitterby fluttering from flower to flower in its search for nectar.  He sat gingerly in the cushioned chair, his bum still very sore from seven long days of hard riding and shucked his boots, content to watch his aunt flit about the room organising things to her satisfaction as he rested his sore feet. He was pretty sure he’d picked up a blister or two today when he’d had to walk to rest his mount.  The boots were an excellent pair, but his least dirty pair of socks had been damp from the previous night’s attempts at cleaning them in a portion of the washbowl’s water.  He’d completely forgotten at the time that he couldn’t just dry them himself in the morning.

 

“I do hope you’ll be rested enough for tomorrow.”  She said to him, as the servants bustled in and out with various items.

 

“Oh?” He asked looking up, curiosity piqued.

 

“It’s the Debut Ball and for a wonder we are invited.  I took the liberty of ordering clothes and anything else you might need in case you got here in time.”

 

“A ball?”  He sat forward, a mistake as sore muscles protested the movement but his eyes were gleaming, all tiredness erased for the moment.  “Will she be there? I think Tez saw her, saw my Cyrene on the road to the city.  I thought he was seeing things, but he insists he saw her.”

 

“Yes she will.  And it’s Sybilla down here in the waking world, not Cyrene.  That’s what Lord and Lady Blackwood named her when they took her in as their own.” Lady Evelyn said tartly, “And you aren’t to annoy her parents by paying her too much attention.  One dance and no more, you hear me?”  She said suddenly stern, and fixing her nephew with a fierce look.

 

“That’s assuming she’ll dance with me with me having to wear this in full view” Jace muttered sullenly.  He was positive the ribbon he’d been told to wear to identify himself was the reason most had treated him so badly.

 

Evelyn chuckled.  “Dear boy.  You have to wear it.  The rules say nothing about where it’s worn.  There’s always a loophole if you look hard enough.  Do you see mine anywhere?”  He looked but couldn’t see it.  She smiled knowingly and raised her skirts a fraction and wiggled her beribboned ankle at him.  “Wear it under your shirt cuff, and no one will be the wiser, and you can always reveal it if the guard stop you.

 

“Aunt you are a genius.  Thank you.  He gave her an impromptu hug. “You’ve no idea how much I hate wearing it.”

 

“Oh I do my boy, I do.  When you live down here however, you learn to live with it.”

 

“I don’t see why we should be treated like criminals.  And why do we have to tiptoe around the Blackwoods so much?”  Jace asked, grumpily.

 

“Because they are the Lord and Lady Paladin, and we can’t afford to antagonise them.  Sybilla’s in a dangerous enough position as it is without them knowing that we are interested in her and why we want her back.”

 

“The High Inquisitors are her parents?”  Jace whistled.  The irony of them taking her in is was astonishing. No wonder her father had never tried to get her back. “Why did you never mention that to me?”

 

“Mundane correspondence is so easily intercepted Jace.  It was too dangerous to put on paper. I have to admit though, it is rather ironic isn’t it?  And if they knew who she was, who her father is, she’d have disappeared long since. As it is she is only safe now because her inherent abilities currently lie dormant.”

 

“I begin to see why the position of ambassador is considered to be so interesting and desirable among the court aunt.”  He said.

 

“Indeed, so much politics! The best and also the worst game mankind ever invented, hard to win, so very, very easy to lose.” Evelyn said before she withdrew so he could soak away his aches in peace.

 

 

The next evening found them in the same room again, Lady Evelyn decked out in the latest of Irradinian high fashion – tight corset with a sheath over the top, and a flared skirt and bustle train.  This evening as she fussed with the trinkets on the mantle she looked the flitterbye even more, with the colouring of her dress matched perfectly to the Ashkelonian insect’s delicate wings.

 

He felt very uncomfortable in what he was wearing.  A tight shirt and dinner jacket combination that made him look more like the black and white fishbirds of the icy wastelands to the north.  It was much more constricting than the looser, more flowing robes of the uplands, and he felt -selfconscious, tugging at the bottom of the jacket while Robin, who wasn’t doing a bad job as a valet brushed a speck of lint from his back.  He’d slept in that morning, more tired by the trip than he cared to admit, and had spent the afternoon catching up with aunt and uncle in the solar, with their Tressym companions curled up on specially designed sofas next to them, or in the case of Lady Evelyn’s Sen, curled at her feet where Evelyn could easily stroke her head and ears.  Sen had spent the entire session purring contentedly while Jace and Tez were brought up to speed with recent events and politics in Irradin and Jace reciprocated with the latest news and gossip from the Askelon court. They had discussed Irradin in depth too.  Jace couldn’t get over just how different it was down here compared with Askelon.  The fashions, the architecture, the vehicles.  He wrinkled his nose at the remembered smell.  Alisdair had told him of the industry and business differences and Alisdair concluded.  They’ve changed radically.  I’m of a mind to believe it’s because they don’t want to be associated in any way with the old king and the old regime and the mages that ruled the country.  Jace agreed, such a radical change in such a short period had to have some reason, and that did seem the most likely. Lady Evelyn excused herself early to prepare herself for the ball right about the time Jace and Alisdair began discussing the heating system that had lately been installed and other useful inventions and how they were poor substitutes for magical methods which both knew bored Lady Evelyn stiff.  They retired to prepare for the ball an hour before sun fall after a light meal that had been brought to them.

 

“That’s fine Rob,” Jace said finally, as the valet’s fussing irritated him once too often.  He much preferred to do things himself, and as the valet left, he began fussing with the neck tie in the mirror.  Evelyn, leaning against the bed was fiddling with something, nattering on about who would be likely to be there, from the high families of the Irradin, which other ambassadors and retinues would be in attendance and who were considered allies and which weren’t. The whole talk was boring him stiff as Evelyn was determined to give him a thorough background on each ambassador and ally and adversary. Politics was at most an interesting distraction to the true thing he wanted to do that evening, dance with his Cyrene for real rather than in the dreaming.

 

“And then there’s Charlon Fairfax Demirel.  He supports us on the Q, though I’m not so sure about the son.   He seems to be a bit more predatory and has been seen visiting the Blackwood estates frequently of late.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he joined the Paladinate when he leaves school, and I’m absolutely certain that he’s courting…JACE!”

 

Jace, frustrated with his neck tie and his inability to tie a decent not in the mundane way and his and his aunts prattle in the background convincing him that she was distracted, had had resorted to a tiny use of magic, to get the damnable thing to knot properly…except his aunt who had appeared to be so engrossed in her chatter and the toy in her hands sensed it.

 

She threw the toy to the floor, where it thudded dully and rolled under the bed, and stalked up to him, her face white with contained fury – and a little bit of fear he soon realised regretfully.  “You know you aren’t supposed to do that here.  We’re watched you know.” She hissed in his ear furiously.  “We mustn’t use magic. Even in the ambassadorial palace it’s banned for a reason.  You know what happened during the civil wars Jace, have you any idea how much work it’s taken to get the government to a point where they will let a known mage into the country on a passport?  I had to fight tooth and nail with the Paladinate to get yours.  DON’T be stupid, or you’ll get yourself, and me killed.”   She lowered her voice even more the anger leaving her tone.  “I’m in more danger at the moment than ever.  I think they only invited us to the ball to keep an eye on us, though Lady Raven Blackwoods efforts to exclude us suggest otherwise.  The Ministry of Information may suspect we had a hand in getting Moulston and Viel out of the country.  If they knew I had helped them, I’d be locked up and interrogated quicker than you could say mage.”

“I know their history as well as ours.” Jace muttered darkly and then continued in a more conciliatory tone.  “But I’ll try and remember not to cause any more suspicion to fall on you, dear aunt.  It’s just so much more different down here than I ever imagined.  It’s so…hard.  How do you cope?”

 

“I know dear boy, I know.” Evelyn said wearily.  “It’s very hard not to take the magical short cuts, but you must try.  For your mother’s sake if no one else’s. I don’t know what she’d do if I told her that her other son had been killed by the paladins as well. And I make use of my maid and the household staff and whatever useful innovations the artificers come up with.”

 

“I’m sorry aunt.”  Jace said, very much subdued by the reminder of how he had risen to his status as heir apparent to the lands of Allerand currently held by his father.  “I’ll not use magic again while I’m here.  I promise.”

 

 

 

End of Chapter five.  Tune back in next week for the next instalment :D

Thanks ever so much for reading!

 

I appreciate feedback of the commentary kind – I am still wanting to improve my craft.

 

If you /really/ enjoyed this and want to contribute more (amazing person that you are) buy me a Ko.Fi (I’m VERY British and actually I drink tea ;) ). at:  https://ko-fi.com/K3K58V5G

 

 

4 – The Hunt.

 

Sybilla rose early on the day of the hunt, as was her usual custom.  A glance out the window showed a rime of frost on the ground, and the sun just peeking out over the horizon of low rolling hills beyond the city. It tinted the clear sky a yellowy green that graduated into a steady cool blue as she watched.

 

“Looks like it’s going to be a good day.”  She muttered to herself.

 

“My lady?”  Came a voice from behind her.

 

“Oh!”  She jumped, “I didn’t realise you were there Merylla.”  She said startled that she hadn’t heard her maid enter.

 

“I am sorry if I scared you miss.  I thought you were asking me to do something and I hadn’t heard it.”  The stout brown haired young woman said apologetically, as she began setting Sybilla’s clothes out for the day, and preparing her toilette.

 

“Oh it’s all right.  I was just saying what a fine day it is.”

 

“Yes ma’am.  It’s cold out though.”

 

“Yes, I can see the frost outside.  That should clear soon enough though.  And the ground should be perfect for the day’s ride. There’s been precious little rain this autumn, only enough to soften the ground from the iron hardness of the summer.”

 

“Do you want me to put out your woollen riding habit?” The maid asked, as she reached for the wardrobe where her dresses hung.

 

“No, no, just the fur lined cloak and gloves,… oh and a neckerchief.  I wouldn’t want to catch a chill before the ball.  I’d look a sight with a red nose and puffy eyes!  I’d like to wear the green habit though it’s warmer than the blue.” Sybilla said as the maid reached for the blue habit.  It wasn’t yet cold enough to wear her winter woollens, even if she were going to be on horseback all day.  The green wasn’t as smart as the blue or grey habits which she generally wore when out riding in the parks but more importantly, it was the most comfortable of her summer set, ideal for a long ride.

 

Merylla chuckled merrily and reached for the requested habit.  “You’d still put them to shame in beauty miss even if you were sickening for something.  I’ve always wondered how you look so put together when ill.”

 

“I do not!  I’m sure I am a right state.”

 

“No miss, I swear you don’t, not like I do when I get ill.  My skin goes all blotchy, and pasty and I don’t sneeze half as prettily as you do.”

 

Sybilla chuckled and walked over to the toilette stand to test the water in the ceramic vase. It was still nice and warm, though cooler than she preferred. “That’ll do.” She muttered to herself before raising her voice “It’s just right Meryla. If you could bring me a tray up and help me fix my hair in about an hour?”

 

“Of course my lady.  I’ll go and get your cloak and gloves out and the furs aired.”  Merylla said

 

“Oh no you won’t.  You are going to have breakfast first.  I know what Mrs Lackland’s like.  She’ll find a hundred other little jobs for you to do if I don’t, and I want you to come to the hunt to assist me to change afterwards for the post hunt tea.  I am sure that even if it’s a cold day, I will still return to the house caked in mud.  I always do, and I don’t plan to be sitting next to the chauffeur this time!”

 

Merylla chuckled. “I certainly wouldn’t relish cleaning slurry off your habit. Though come to think of it, that one got burned or so I heard.” She held her nose and mimicked holding a garment at arms length.

 

Sybilla grimaced at the memory “Blasted horse leapt right into that slurry pit, the stupid creature.  I swear Carson’s never driven home as fast.”

 

“Oh dear! I bet my predecessor wasn’t amused.”

 

Sybilla grinned maliciously. She hadn’t liked the previous lady’s maid and the fact the woman had handed her notice in the moment Sybilla had returned in such a state had made it clear the woman would not be helping to get her clean.  The fact Zira had given her notice had been the only upside to what had not been one of Sybilla’s better days.  “Not in the slightest.  It’s why she left! And for that I am grateful.  It brought me you. You’ve been so helpful and hard working; so you will go and have breakfast and then you are under my orders to bring a suitable change of clothing for me to wear after returning from the hunt and also my travel toilette if Mrs Lackland asks.” Sybilla fixed her maid with ‘The Look’ her mother used to impress orders on a servant.

 

“Yes miss, Thank you miss.  It will be lovely to get out of the house for the day.”

 

“Don’t thank me until I return with only mud on me Merylla.  You may live to regret it if I have such a stupid creature as Blossom again.”

 

“Did your father send her up the other day?”

 

“No, I’m riding Shadow today, and the back ups are Luna and Eclipse.  I know they aren’t stupid, but accidents can,” she grimaced again “…and have happened.  It wouldn’t surprise me if one of the other riders was mounted on Blossom though.  Father sent the whole hunting string up to Garvey Lodge so there would be plenty of mounts in case others got invited last minute a week ago. They’ll all be well rested by now and raring to go.”

 

“Oh, that’s good.”

 

“I’ll see you in an hour then.”  Sybilla said, as she poured the hot water into the porcelain bowl and dipped the cloth into the water.

 

* * *

 

Two hours later she was tricked out in the latest of fashions in hunting gear, and with her hair set so it wouldn’t blow loose with hard riding.  She had borrowed her father’s pomade for that and a lot of pins to hold the whole do down.  As her hand slid down the polished bannister, her booted feet making the lightest of thuds on the stairs long skirts draped over one wrist, she looked for her parents.  They should be ready to set off by now.  Her father’s valet, Bramstock was standing there with a letter sitting on a silver salver.  “Is that for my father Bramstock?”

 

“No miss, it’s for you.  You father sends his regrets.  He will be unable to hunt today.”

 

“Oh.”  Disappointed, she took the letter, which was basically word for word what the valet had told her with her father’s hopes she had a good day. She heaved a sigh.  “Shame, it looks like it will be good going today.”

 

“Yes miss.  He was sorry to go.”

 

He’d been so busy at work since that day in the park that she’d hardly seen her father except when he returned late at night in time to give her a good night kiss before she went to bed. He was gone in the morning well before she was up. She’d been hoping that he’d be able to take the day off and have some fun.  He deserved to have some considering how hard he worked all the time. He was an excellent hunter too and would be sorely missed. “Ah well.  Is mother going to have to pull out too?”

 

“No dear, I’m coming.” Her mother called, as she swept down the stairs to the entrance hall in equally fashionable riding habit of maroon silk.

 

She looked at the valet, and then at the letter in her daughter’s hands.

 

“He’s gone to work hasn’t he?”  She frowned when Sybilla and the butler nodded.  “No doubt he wants more time with that young wind weaver they picked up yesterday.” She said waspishly.  “As if it couldn’t wait until first-day.  What with that one and the mage that did the weirding last week…he’s hardly had any time for a rest… Though I must admit, the weaver’s being remarkably resistant to the usual techniques.”

 

Sybilla looked at her mother with a troubled expression at the veiled hint at her father’s torture techniques.

 

“Oh don’t worry, your father’s techniques don’t leave any visible marks or permanent damage, but we do need to question him to determine the correct sentencing you understand?  We must stay within the laws like any other.”

 

Sybilla nodded, but she still wasn’t happy with the idea of hurting mages to get a confession, even if they were highly dangerous. There was no way her father’s techniques didn’t cause permanent damage if what she had seen of the mage that in the park was anything to go by. What had told her before her mother had come in that night didn’t tally with what her mother was saying either.  Of course her mother knew her better than her father and knew she had a soft heart.  Lady Sangra wouldn’t have exposed her to such techniques, and was clearly unaware her husband had had no such qualms. It looked like her father hadn’t mentioned the extremely close encounter she’d had in the park with the mage either.  Sangra had nearly fainted when told Sybilla had been so close at all, and had fussed around Sybilla until she had been reassured her daughter had taken no more harm than a bruised rump, and hurt pride.  Pennorth had eventually been found by one of the grooms lame in the off fore in a remote section of the park.  He was now being cared for by the head stableman but was expected to recover.  It was going to take Sybilla much longer to forget the tortured crazed mage she had encountered once in her own home, and once in the park.

 

It was illegal to use torture on anyone else, even rapists and murderers…though the sentences for such criminals were still very harsh.  Castration for rapists wasn’t unheard of, and murderers faced the death sentence.  The harsh punishments did serve to make the populace less inclined to commit such crimes, even petty theft had a heavy sentence of hard labour, but until a person was convicted of a crime, they were protected by Irradin’s law code, which meant they were innocent until proven guilty, unless they confessed to their crime and as such, couldn’t be tortured.  The punishments for illegal torture were as harsh as assaulting another person of any rank. Of course there were always loopholes to such laws.  Her father it appeared had mastered one of them in ensuring that he tortured only those who had been witnessed performing magic, and then torturing them into confession so he had a swift conviction.  It had a sort of twisted logic to it, but it was still morally wrong in Sybilla’s opinion, no matter how effective it was in keeping the populace safe.  There was a small faction in the Ministry who were all for abolishing torture of any form.  Sybilla made sure to keep up to date on their progress in the newspapers.  They were making headway, but, as it had been with the abolition of slavery over a century before they needed more of the populace to support them and, as long as her father was so successful, they’d never get it.

 

“Of course the law must be followed mother.  I’m glad you and father help to protect the republic from such dangerous people.” Sybilla responded.

 

Her mother beamed at her.  “I knew you would understand dear.  Though why your father has to be quite so…determined to avoid pleasure in preference for work I will never understand.  Normally he loves a hunt.  Particularly with magical creatures.”  They got into the car, Merylla sitting up front with the chauffeur.

 

“There aren’t that many magical creatures left to hunt mother, if the hunts master can be believed.  We haven’t caught much more than lappets and sedge deer the past few hunts.” Sybilla said, trying to think up an excuse for her father.

 

“True.”

 

“Perhaps that was the draw for your father.” Sangra mused. “The killing of the magical prey.”

 

“Lappets and sedge deer are poor sport compared with the larger magicals like snowbirds and soul wolves. You never see them on the hunt anymore.” Sybilla added.   “It’s a pity I was too young to see the last of the unicorns and felids hunted to extinction.  They must have been a sight to see.”

 

“They were stunning creatures.” Sangra agreed. “But they still exist in Ashkelon.  I see you’ve thought ahead properly this time?” Her mother said, alluding to Merylla up front.

 

“After last time, I am not taking ANY chances.  I have a complete change of clothes and my travel toilette rather than just a fresh change of boots, skirt and jacket.”  Her mother smiled, amused at the excessive preparation to prevent a repeat of the previous disastrous hunt.

 

The steam powered carriage chugged out of the city, the soot coated brick and slate terraces giving way to the more elegant houses of the city fringe and then into the tall hedge bordered roads of the countryside proper as mother and daughter chatted about various topics, the week Sybilla had had at school among them.

 

“He’ll come round.” Sangra said as Sybilla told her of Malken’s ire at the fall in dance class “If not, there are plenty of other eligible young men out there.  You don’t even have to get married if you have a career these days.  It was very progressive of the government to bring that law in.  I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t married your father.  He saw in me all the qualities of a top paladin, and so allowed me to work as well as be a mother.  I have never neglected any of my duties either.”

 

“No mother.  You never do.”

 

“You don’t blame me for working do you?”  Her mother asked taking Sybilla’s hand and sounding concerned at the slightly subdued tone her daughter used.

 

Sybilla looked up, startled “Oh no. not at all.  The family honour required you to socialise with other families, and your passion is your work at the Paladinate.  I am glad you chose my nanny and tutors so carefully.  They took excellent care of me, and I know that if you hadn’t cared about such things you would have simply sent me off to boarding school like Varya’s parents did.”

 

“Indeed.  Poor girl.  She’d make an excellent paladin.  Hates mages and I don’t blame the child.”

 

“She’s seriously considering it. She was very interested to hear about the mage that was brought in the other day, the one that was killed in the park.”  Sybilla said, recalling the grilling she’d received from that quarter and her fright in the park.

 

“Have you had any thought about a future career?”  Her mother asked.

 

“A little.  I’m considering the Paladinate of course.”

 

“Of course.”  Her mother said.

 

“But professor Layden suggested that I consider a career in inventing and making miniature clockworks.  He says I have some skill in that direction.  And…” Sybilla paused, not sure how her mother would take her confession….“and I really don’t like the thought I would have to torture people at the paladinate.  I don’t like hurting people if I can avoid it.”

 

“Ha, and yet you are going off on a hunt!”

 

“That’s different!”  Sybilla argued.

 

“How is it different?  The hounds practically rip some creatures to shreds while they are still alive.  That’s FAR more blood thirsty than torturing a sorcerer, even a suspected one.”

 

“But it’s an animal!  It has no feelings, or at best only primitive ones, and it’s over so quickly for the animal.  The hounds are trained to kill, they don’t play with the prey first.  To torture another human…” She paused, sickened again at the thought. “No, mother, that’s just not me.”

 

“I know my dear.  I have known for some time that your heart would not stand much of what our branch of the Paladinate does.” Her mother said softly.  “Your tutors have brought you up to be a proper young lady of society, as I instructed.  You are expressing what any well brought up young girl should think of torture.  And you are right.  It is a terrible thing to do to another person.  But sometimes it is necessary, regrettable though that is in this day and age, you do understand that?”

 

“Yes mother, I do.  I just…I just don’t want to have to do it myself.”

 

Her mother nodded and caressed her daughter’s cheek. “If you join the Paladinate you wouldn’t have to torture anyone if you didn’t want to.  Not many do like to perform the act.  I myself find it… distasteful, if necessary at times.  In fact, I usually let your father do the dirty work, while I do the after care and take his notes.  However, I do believe there are positions in the artificers rooms for apprentices if that is where your interests lie.  Your father and I would never force you to do anything that you found repellent.”

 

“Oh thank you mother.  I would like that.  Professor Layden was going to show the innovators at the board of technologia my school project.  He thinks it might interest them.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“It looks like jewellery. But inside is a tiny clockwork recording mechanism.  You’ve no idea how long it took me to figure out how to miniaturise it and then make it.” Sybilla said, her tone warming to the new topic.

 

“I can imagine it took some time.”  Her mother said, interested, despite her slight disappointment in her daughters leanings.

 

“All year.”

 

“And?”

 

“You can use the device to record conversations – only short clips at the moment a minute or two at most – and play them back using a separate device.”

 

“Really?  And you said this looked like nothing more than a piece of jewellery?”  Her mother asked excitedly.

 

“Yes.”

 

“My dear.  I think that this professor Layton of yours is correct.  If that’s the calibre of item you’ve been making in that class.  You’ll be more than a welcome addition to the Paladinate corps of innovators.  In fact you’d be an asset.  I wasn’t sure it was really a suitable class for a young lady, but it is becoming necessary to have some knowledge of mechanisms to get into the Paladinate these days. You had great foresight in arguing to join the technofactry class..”

 

They lapsed into silence for a few minutes.

 

“If you are still not sure of whether you want to join the Paladinate, perhaps you, and possibly that friend of yours Varya? And the other one…Lorine?  Would like to accompany me to the Paladinate one day, after you’ve finished school, but before the season to see what we generally do from day to day.” Sangra offered.

 

“Yes mother, I’d like that.  I’ll ask Varya today, but I know she’ll say yes.  I’m not sure about Lorine.  She knows all the gossip that’s around; but I don’t think the paladinate interests her.”

 

“If she knows all the gossip, a place in her father’s bureau would be right up her street.” Sangra said.

 

“That’s what I thought.” Sybilla said, “But the way she’s been going on about fashion and boys recently, makes me wonder.” She paused. “She told me the most astonishing thing the other day at school.”

 

“Oh?” Sangra asked.

 

“The ambassador and his wife and nephew…they’ve been invited to the ball.”

 

“Really?” Her mother looked unpleasantly surprised. “You’d better keep away from them.  They are very powerful mages, and I want you to be perfectly safe at your coming out ball.  I don’t know why they even let such dangerous people into the country legally…Of course the government has to be seen to be fair. And we need to keep good relationships with the countries that surround us.  We can’t afford to fight another war right now their passports subject them to the same laws as us.  If they performs magic in the republic, they’ll be sentenced to death.  But I don’t like the sound of another mage coming into the city.”  The look on her mother’s face made Sybilla uncomfortable.  Sybilla was sure she was planning something; something unpleasant.

 

Her mother was going to say more, but the rattle and crunch of gravel indicated that the steam car had just turned onto the short driveway to the house.  “Ah we’re here! Excellent.”

 

Sybilla glanced around as the chauffeur handed her out of the carriage, and was astonished to see Malken standing not too many paces away.  He seemed to have gotten over his foul mood, as he smiled warmly and bowed to her.

 

“Lady Raven-Blackwood, Miss Raven-Blackwood.  It’s a pleasure to see you this fine morning.”

 

“Hello Malken.” Lady Sangra said “Are you looking forward to the hunting?”

 

“Yes my lady.  I was hoping to have a word with Lord Blackwood.”  He said, looking to the car.

 

“I’m afraid business kept him in the city.”

 

“Then perhaps I could be your escort to the lawn?”

 

“Why thank you.  That’s very kind of you.  Perhaps you could escort Sybilla, I need to go and find Lady Norama.”  She said to Malken, well pleased with his manners after her daughters less than flattering description of his behaviour in the dancing class.

 

Malken bowed to Lady Raven-Blackwood, and offered his arm to Sybilla, who took it reluctantly.  Sybilla really wasn’t sure about what she felt about Malken the way he blew hot and cold from charming to sulky, but her parents approved of the match, or at least didn’t disapprove of it.  Sangra nodded to her daughter and the boy, and strode off into the throng.  Malken and Sybilla followed at a slower pace.

 

“You have been missed at school the past few days. I was most concerned when I heard you were in the park when the mage escaped.” Malken said quietly.  “Were you harmed?”

 

“Only my pride.” Sybilla replied, looking down. “It was frightening though.”

 

“I can’t imagine how frightening it must have been.  To be so close to where the mage escaped, and have no place of safety to hide. And then the wyrding… I’m very glad you are safe and unharmed.”

 

“I did have somewhere to hide.” Sybilla said defensively.  “Pitiful though it was,”
“Oh?”

 

“The old iron bandstand.”

 

“That was quick thinking.” Malken smiled at her warmly and squeezed her hand.

 

“Thank you.  Father thought so too.”

 

They were greeted on the lawn with the sight of the assembled gentry of Irradin’s capital city and the surrounding countryside in hunting finery, or in some cases walking dresses, for the ladies who weren’t participating in the hunt.  Lady Raven Blackwood had already greeted several women and was in deep discussion with a group of the ladies in fine walking dresses full of lace and ruffles all with jaunty little caps sat on perfectly set curls.  Sybilla thought that such walking dresses had been rendered impractical with all the added lace; they’d get filthy in minutes on a proper walk in the countryside if the lace didn’t get snagged or torn first but it was a popular fashion in the city, where they were worn only in the carefully manicured parks.  She allowed Malken to find their friends, much more sensibly decked out in practical hunting gear and went with him when he located them to one side of the lawn. Of course they were all dying to hear how she was and get her to recount her story even as they told her theirs.  Sybilla was happy enough to recount this incident now it was safely in the past.  Varya and Lorine had fared far better than she, staying aboard as their mounts bolted for home.  They’d almost caused a crash on one of the streets as Varya related the tale and Lorine excitedly recounted all she’d heard since.  Sybilla confirmed what she knew to be true, but most had already been spread across the newspapers given it had happened in a very public place.

Grooms were already bringing out the horses as they excitedly caught up, and the baying and yipping of excited hounds could be heard on the far side of the lawn towards the first of the estate’s multitudinous woods.  They didn’t have much time to talk before the grooms brought up Shadow and the other horses and assisted them in mounting.  Her mother found her just as the first call to mount was sent out, pealing from the hunt master’s horn.

“Oh Sybilla, there you are!  I am afraid I am going to have to bow out of the hunting as well I’m afraid. Lady Norama and I must speak on certain matters and it would be best done here and now rather than back in the city.”  Her voice trailed off as she sidestepped to avoid a rider and his overexcited mount.  “Anyway, young Malken and your friends should prove a suitable escort, and I wouldn’t want to curtail your fun now you are here.  I’ll keep your maid busy enough while you’re out.”

“All right mother.  I’ll see you later.” Sybilla said from atop her mount which stood calmly but with ears pricked sniffing the air around excitedly.  She suspected she knew what had occasioned her mother’s sudden withdrawal from the hunt given how keen a hunter she was.  Sangra’s reaction to Lorine’s gossip in the car had been a very unwelcome surprise to her.  Lady Norama, a fat dumpy woman who always dressed in monotones was closely acquainted with both of their mothers, and Sybilla thought she might possibly work with Lorine’s father in the Ministry of Information.

“Have fun dear!” Sangra called, as she hurried back to the house, with the air of someone with a mission to accomplish.

They all rode out the front gates at a smart trot together.  It made an impressive cavalcade, over forty riders headed by the milling pack of excited yipping hounds. The huntsman’s horn rang out a second time, signalling the beginning of the hunt.  The hounds knowing the signal sprang forward streaking along the road, following a scent one of the houndsmen had laid to take them up to the first copse.

“This should be fun.  I’ve heard a rumour that there’s a black unicorn out in these parts.”  Malken said, excitement in his tone.

“Really?”  Varya asked, breathlessly.  “I thought that they’d been hunted to extinction in the lowlands?”

“A few stray into the republic occasionally. I really want to get the head of one for my collection.  It’s so much better when you kill it yourself.  It’s one of the last magicals that I need to collect in my heads collection.  I have all the rest.”

“Really?  I’d love to see that some time.” Varya said, eyes alight with interest.

“It’s definitely a sight to see Var.”  Marmaduke said, with an air of envy about him.

“Oh the poor thing!”  Lorine said, dismayed “They are so beautiful.  I’d hate to see something of such beauty killed.  I hope it’s just lappets and sedge deer we find today.”

“Where’s the fun in that?  Big magical hunts are so much more fun!”  Malken said.

“It’s all right Lorine, if we do see the black, I doubt we’ll catch him.  They’re wicked, fast and damned near impossible to catch, even with the hounds.  It’s the magic in them.” Quentin told Lorine consoling her.

“Not if you have a decent gun it isn’t.”  Malken said.

Quentin whistled appreciatively.  “So that’s how you got the griffin! I did wonder.”

“We’ll be lucky if we even see the creature Lor,” Sybilla said, throwing some common sense into the conversation.  “It’s not likely to be anywhere near here what with the racket the hounds make.  Not if it has any sense.”

“That’s true!”  Lorine said, brightening up again just before the sound of the hounds rose to a high screech.  They’d found the scent of real prey.

Suddenly from the leisurely group hack, the hunt was on.  They rode hard after the fleet hounds, and fleeter prey.  A lappet if Sybilla’s sight didn’t betray her.  They leapt over ditches banks and hedges, and splashed through a shallow stream and then were on the flat, haring pell-mell after the creature.

The lappet was lucky though.  It reached the woods a minute or so before the hounds caught up with it, and the pack had to be scattered to pick up a scent again as it took to the trees to escape, scrabbling up the trunk using it’s sharp claws and leaping from branch to branch with the same abandon as the much lighter squirrels, which scattered at it’s approach.  It had survived the hunt for this day.

The hounds milled around in confusion, as the pack master and houndsmen spread the creatures out.  The horses were blowing from the run, but not overly stressed and the ride had put some colour into everyone’s cheeks.

Quentin reined in his leggy bay, and pulled a silver cigarette case from his breast pocket.  He took some time selecting one of the thin rolled stems, and lit it up.  He had a coughing fit as the smoke hit his lungs.

“Q I really wish you wouldn’t do that.”  Lorine said, berating him.  “It’ll do your lungs absolutely no good at all I’m sure.”

“Everyone’s doing it. They’re meant to be good for your health.”  Marmaduke said, holding his hand out for one himself.  Lorine flatly refused.

“I wouldn’t be seen dead with one of those things even if they are fashionable and meant to be healthy. They stink, make you cough and leave your clothes smelling of smoke and tobacco.  It’s alright for you boys, but ladies should keep better standards of cleanliness.

“Can I try one?  Varya asked, and was offered the case.

“I don’t like them,” Sybilla said dismissively, when offered.  Malken took one, but didn’t light it, instead choosing to chew the end of the waxed paper tube.  He reined back his black, and indicated to Sybilla that he wanted a bit of a quiet chat, while the others were busy arguing over the pros and cons of smoking cigarettes.

“Lady Sybilla, I want to apologise for acting the fool the other day.  I didn’t mean to treat you in such an un-gentleman like manner. I hate looking like a fool, but made it worse by acting like one.”

“Yes you did.” Sybilla agreed evenly.

He glanced sharply at her not having expected an agreement. “I should never have treated you that way.”

“Of course not.  But you didn’t look like a fool.  You just tripped that’s all, everyone’s done it.  We’re still learning after all, and the steps aren’t always easy ones.  You’ll only look the fool, if you do it at the ball. I am not going to argue that you acted like one afterwards.” She added, having noticed the glance. “I was quite annoyed with you. We are all as bad as each other at the moment anyway.  Madam Buveray is probably right in that we’re the worst class she’s ever taught.  Were all rigid and uncomfortable looking, falling over our feet, or worse we step on each other’s feet.  Duke did you know, the other day.  Lorry still has a bruise.”

“She does?”  Malken seemed to be much happier at that.

“Mmmhmm” Sybilla smiled, amused at his obvious delight to not have committed such an act himself.  “But the problem is none of us care all that much about formal dancing.  There are so many other more interesting things to worry about, not least getting through school and figuring out our futures.  It’s not the be all and end all of being an accomplished lady or gentleman of fashion any more…if it ever was.  Everything becomes more complicated and busy as we get older and take on more responsibility.  Take father for instance.  He loves the hunt as much as anyone, but he’s not here because he’s up to his eyeballs in work.  He’s even getting disturbed at home.”

“Oh?”

Sybilla gave a disgusted sigh.  “The paladin guard only went and woke me seventh day night…actually it was probably first day morning by then.  They’d caught a sorcerer.  A much wanted one if what father and mother said was anything to go by, and brought him to the mansion for interrogation.”

Malken’s expression changed from indulgent interest to avid eagerness as the details were told. “Really?  What did you see?  What did they do?”

The sudden excitement in his voice caused her to look at him.  He was looking right at her, his expression eager.  The intentness of his stare made her blush.  Was he feigning interest because he liked her and she’d vocally expressed on many occasions her own desire to work with her father, or was he just eager to learn what her father did.  She couldn’t tell.  She’d been beginning to like him despite his fits of sulkiness – he’d grow out of that eventually she thought, especially after he had apologised for such behaviour, but she really wasn’t comfortable with the idea of torture or “interrogation”, as the Paladinate chose to call it.  That it excited anyone disgusted her, but she gave him the bare details in a carefully neutral voice, as to cut him off now would be very rude indeed.  She hoped that the hounds would find something, and soon.

They didn’t, and she was forced to recount the basics at least of the evening.  She left out the part about torturing the mage. Malken listening intently edged his horse closer to her own mount Shadow, who swished her tail irritated at the incursion into her personal space.  At the end of her recounting of that evening he asked her the most unexpected question.

“Lady Sybilla, I know this is very forward, and I probably shouldn’t be asking you, but I am very interested in joining the Paladinate when I leave school.  I truly wish to serve the Republic and feel the paladinate the best way, though Father thinks I would do well in law rather than service or politics.  I don’t suppose you could mention my interest to your father?”  When Sybilla didn’t say anything he rushed on.  “I have great respect for his skills you see, and while he must be very busy, I would love to have to opportunity to learn from someone like him.  He’s everything I would like to be.

Sybilla looked away towards their friends, wishing she could join in the far less dangerous conversation that animated them.  Did Malken mean he admired her father the – to the public- noble High Justiciar, or did he mean the cruel and fanatical hunter of mages?  It could be either, and his proximity and intent gaze made her uncomfortable. She had to answer him however, so she fell back on her etiquette training, and gave the only answer available.  “I’ll see what father says, Malken.  He may be too busy, but I’ll try.”  Malken gave her a look that made her feel all warm and flustered and she looked away, shy suddenly around him.

“Sybilla…” Malken began, his tone gentle, his look intense.

Just at that moment the baying of the hounds picked up again.

“Finally!”  She exclaimed.  “They’ve found scent!”  And she urged her mare forward.

* * *

They arrived back at the house as it was getting dark, one of the last of the groups of riders to straggle back in.  Lorine, Duke and Quentin had turned back long since, Lorine’s horse having thrown a shoe, and the others, having grown bored of, or more likely too sore from the hard riding, deciding to accompany her back.

Varya was still radiant from her kill on the second to last covey.  She was voluble in re-hashing it with Malken and Sybilla who hadn’t witnessed it on the hack back with their tired mounts.  Eclipse her second remount of the day was sweat lathered, and still wasn’t cool by the time they returned, and Sybilla was grateful she’d remembered to bring a change of clothes.  Her hunting skirt was soaked from the horses lather, and her own sweat. They’d taken so long to return because Malken’s third horse of the day had fallen at one of the more simple hedges, probably from exhaustion.  The gelding was limping slightly, and Malken was walking, leading the muscular bay.  He was scowling and looked like he wanted to slit the creature’s throat.  In the mood he was in he probably would have if it hadn’t belonged to the Blackwoods.  His own remount had thrown a shoe and hadn’t been rideable so he’d had to make do. The closeness they had shared that morning was gone.  They let Varya prattle on, happy with the day, while they were lost in their own thoughts.  As they came onto the main grounds, grooms spotted them and rushed up to take their mounts.

“I’ll see you at the ball Var!”  She called as Varya, the first to dismount bounded over to the steam carriage that would take her back to the school.

“Yes! See you soon Syb!  Great day!” Her friend called, waving as she climbed in.

“Bye!”  She waved her friend off, waiting for the groom to come up to help her dismount from the side saddle.

“Allow me?  Malken asked, looping his mounts reins to his arm, secure in the knowledge the horse wasn’t going to be bolting any time soon.

“Oh, thank you.” Sybilla said, surprised at his courtesy after the ride back with him in a mood.

He reached up to grasp her waist as she leant to grasp his shoulders and slid down the horse’s side.

“Ooh! I’m sore.”  She groaned, as her feet hit the ground.  Malken steadied her as she wobbled, holding her close.

“Perhaps you should sit down?”  He asked, staying close, and letting his arms slide around her waist.

“Oh I’ll be all right,” she said, leaning into her horse.  “Nothing a good soak won’t fix.” She was very aware of his proximity now she was down and that it was unneeded. She looked up at him and saw that intent look on his face again.  He leaned into her.

“Sybilla…” he began, his voice low, his head inches from hers.

“Sybilla is that you?”  Her mother called.

Malken stepped back guiltily, as if…as if he’d been caught doing something improper…which he had been, sort of.  Sybilla thought in the few seconds it took for her mother to recognise her.

“Ah, it is you.  What on earth took you so long to get back?”  She asked too impatient to wait for an explanation.

“Ma’am my…” Malken started to say before he was cut off.

“Well you’re back now, and there’s the groom to take Eclipse.  We absolutely must leave.  I need to get back to the city.  You don’t mind riding back in your habit do you?”

“It’s soaked.”

“Well sit on a rug then, we have to get back.  I’ve already sent the maid ahead to prepare you a bath and some dinner and there are sandwiches and a bottle of milk in the carriage for you to eat.”

“If we must.”  Sybilla said, flustered at her mother’s insistence.

“Good, let’s go.”  She said, turning to leave, then checked herself, remembering the boy.   “Thank you for escorting my daughter young Demirel, it was most kind, but we must be off, I hope you understand?”

“Yes’m.”  Malken said, stunned at the forcefulness in Lady Raven-Blackwood’s tone.

Sybilla turned to Malken.  Sharing a confused look as her mother stalked off to the car. “Goodbye Malken.  I expect I’ll see you at the ball?”

“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it.” He said with a warm smile for her.

“Sybilla! come ON!”  Her mother called from the driveway where the car was already waiting cutting off all further conversation.

“I’d better go.  It must be important. I’ll see you at the Ball” She said, before lifting her skirts and jogging off after her mother.  She didn’t see the appreciative look he gave her as her ankles came into view, or his smile as he turned away.

Her mother was already busy reading through various papers when she got into the car and only wrinkled her nose slightly at the gamy smell of sweaty horse and rider. “Drive on Carmichael!”  She said, as soon as the door shut, and buried herself back in her papers.

Sybilla ate the light snack that as tucked into a basket opposite her seat, which dimmed the tight knot of hunger in her stomach from a full day’s ride without break for luncheon and watched the scenery pass for a while, but slipped into a light doze, tired by the day’s exercise.

* * *

She was floating.   Above a mountainous rift that she knew to be on the borders of the lowlands.  She could see the thin ribbon of road that twisted and spiralled on the mountain paths in the country beyond on its purposeful path up the Spire of the World – the tallest mountain, and the gateway to the upland kingdom.  The road straightened out only a short way before the narrow finger thin bridge that spanned the rift, the road flanked on the lowlands side by two tall towers guarding the way into the lowlands realm.  Were the towers to keep Lowlanders out, or Uplanders in?  Cyrene wondered, as she drifted closer to the towers, tugged by the feeling familiarity.  Slowly the toy sized towers and ribbon of road grew bigger, until she was able to make out tiny guards on the tower, and a figure on a horse with a winged feline – a tressym she identified – at its side passing through the gateway.  They broke into a lope as soon as they were past the towers.  That was what had felt familiar!  She drew closer, drawn to the figures, and realised it was him, and his companion bond-mate.  Feeling the bond between them, she shadowed them as they raced through the lush rolling hills and troughs of the outer lowlands, stopped in a town and travelled on once more the next morning.  She wanted to touch him.  Tried to touch him.  She reached out to them.  The tressym, sensing her, skidded from dead run, to full halt, in the way of the horse and rider, causing the rider to almost fall in the horses efforts to avoid crashing into the other.  The tressym stood to attention, every fibre listening.  Feeling.

The tressym knew she was there.  He just couldn’t see her. The rider, her beloved, couldn’t see or sense her and was speaking to his companion.  Berating him it looked like, only in a friendly, chiding way.  If only she could make out the words…  She drifted closer.  The tressym was still searching for her, trying to see her with every fibre of its being, scenting the air, feeling the breeze as it caressed the silky feathers of its wings and fur covered body.  Then the tressym turned towards her, looked at her.  Saw her.

* * *

Sybilla was jerked from her doze by the rattle of the steam carriage going over the cobbles of the courtyard.

They were home.

Their father greeted them warmly as they entered, hugging Sybilla, and grinning at his wife.  He must have gotten what he needed from the sorcerer Sybilla thought disgustedly, as she asked Merylla to lead her to the prepared bath.  He said so as they went in to dinner a few hours later after Sybilla had washed and soaked away the day’s dirt and exhaustion.  Lord Blackwood apologised for his absence, asking Sybilla how the hunt had gone.  Her mother excused herself as quickly as possible after bolting her dinner in a most unladylike fashion, saying she needed to write a letter and then had other pressing business to do.  So Sybilla related the day’s events to her father, and remembering her promise to Malken, asked her father if he could help him.

“A new recruit you say?  And interested in my side of it is he…eh?”  He said, brightening.  “My dear, you do know how to pick em.”  He ruffled her hair.  “Tell him he can call on me at his leisure.  I’ll see what I can do for him.”

“Thank you father,” Sybilla said, just as the butler announced a visitor.

“Send them in.”  Lord Blackwood called.

“Father, I’m not dressed to receive guests.” Sybilla said glancing down at her informal clothing.

“It won’t matter.”  He said.  “You don’t look that bad.”  He had obviously not had a proper look at the low cut state of the dress, nor how high on the ankle the skirt rode.

“Lord Malken Fairfax-Demirel, my lord, milady.”  The butler announced, admitting the visitor to their presence.

“My Lord, Miss Blackwood.  I didn’t mean to intrude on you so late, as I know you must be fatigued by the day’s exercise or work, but I thought I had better return your hat.  You lost it on the driveway earlier.”

“Oh thank you Malken, how kind of you.”  Sybilla said, taking the hat, before her father could speak.  “I hadn’t noticed it had come off.  You needn’t have come so late.  I’m sure you are as tired as I.”

“Malken?”  Her father said.  “You’re Demirel’s heir?”

“Yes my lord.” Malken said, sketching a polite bow to Lord Blackwood.

“Sybilla was just telling me about your career ambitions young man.”

“She was?”  Malken flashed Sybilla a grin.  “Then I must thank her most heartily.”

“I was just telling her that she could tell you to call at your convenience, but since you are here?”  Lord Blackwood raised his brows queryingly.

“I’d love to sir, but I wouldn’t wish to slight Miss Blackwood by talking business and ignoring her.” Malken said, eyeing her.  He hadn’t failed to notice her state of dress.

Sybilla blushed and wrapped her arms around herself trying and failing not to fell like she was completely undressed.  Her cheeks began to feel warm. She had to retire from this situation, and so spoke up “Oh don’t you two worry about that.  I have things to do. I’ll send a maid in with something to drink. Have you eaten, Malken?”

When Malken nodded affirming that he had she said “You two have your chat.  It certainly is good timing on your part.  I’ll have the butler bring in drinks.”

“In which case sir,” Malken said, giving Sybilla a grateful bow, “I would love to speak with you.”

“Spoken like a true gentleman.” Her father said approvingly, as Sybilla curtsied and withdrew.  As she made her way to the step she could hear her father ‘Now young man, what do you want to…”

 

 

End of Chapter four.  Tune back in next week for the next instalment :D

Thanks ever so much for reading!

 

I appreciate feedback of the commentary kind – I am still wanting to improve my craft.

 

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Chapter 3 – Welcome to Irradin

 

“I told you the same thing the last four times you asked this question, and like the last four times, I’ll give you the same answer.  I’m crossing the border legally and with the full knowledge of your government to visit Irradin City. It’s stated on my passport, signed and approved by none other than Irradin’s First Minister and on the letter of introduction from Mr Sneyd, your ambassador to Ashkelon – and he’s the one who helped to arrange this visit so I know you were informed of my impending arrival. You’ve read both of those documents and the character references attesting to my level of Control and you know my knowledge of Irradin’s laws regarding my magic is up to date.” Jace said with undisguised irritation bordering dangerously close to anger. “I’m visiting my aunt the Lady Evelyn Nyleve, wife of Lord Alisdair Dacite the Ashkelon ambassador to Irradin.  You were made fully aware of the purpose of my visit long before I set off from Spires City and of the date I planned to begin my journey.  I can’t see what the problem is.”  Jace stopped talking before he lost his temper with the Commandant of the border point and ran his hand through his shoulder length brown hair to pull it away from his face.  It had come out of the neat plait it had started in that morning and was an added irritant he didn’t need, especially when he was aware that in the state of mind he was in his Control was beginning to slip. The last thing he needed with these xenophobic border guards was to lose control of his power and give them reason to kill him.

 

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath wishing he hadn’t been so insistent on visiting his aunt, much as he missed her.  If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t be undergoing this humiliating and infuriating interrogation.  He refused to call it an interview, which is what Ilken Sneyd had called it when he’d told Jace what was expected of him on entering Irradin. Not when on promptly presenting himself at the border point for his entry interview as instructed, Tez his Tressym bond-mate had been chained up, his possessions taken into custody and himself frog marched to a small poorly lit and fully guarded – and warded – room until the commandant of the border point saw fit to summon him for the ‘entry interview’.  He’d cooled his heels for hours before Commandant Crane had summoned him to his tower office and that had been warded against magic use too.

 

He’d been really looking forward to this visit and had made a real fuss to get it to happen at all.  Ilken Sneyd had been very helpful, drilling him on protocol and laws and things he’d need to do without magic while in Irradin – like daily shaving – and other things he did magically without thought every day. The ambassador had furnished him with everything he’d need to prepare for a visit to a country where the use of magic – any magic – was illegal, and punishable by death.  He had even warned him just how xenophobic the people were in regards to mages.  Many people had warned him, and his mother had been the most vociferous in trying to argue him out of making this visit.  Jace thought it might have been that which had made him push so hard to go through with it. After his older brother’s death there during the wars Jace’s mother had kept him as a new born baby close.  Too close for Jace’s liking as he grew to adulthood. He desperately wanted some freedom.  Visiting his favourite aunt had provided his opportunity to have some.

 

The first stage of the trip had been thoroughly enjoyable.  He’d been completely, utterly and blissfully alone for the first time in months.  No mother nagging him about some function, or another eligible young lady he simply had to meet and no family retainer trailing him like a lap dog ensuring he made it to said functions and behaved as befit the Lord of Allerand’s heir. On the road it was just him, his sure footed mount and the road ahead of him.  There had been a few other travellers on the road out of Spires City, but they’d ignored him as he’d ignored them. The solitude had been blissful. The only sounds on the well maintained stone road that zig-zagged down to the valleys had been the gurgling of the water draining the little gulleys cut either side of the road, the wind shushing across the mountain and the rhythmic clopping of his horse’s hooves.

 

Thick clouds shrouded the middle of the Great Spire Mountain at this season of the year and the tops of the mountain range it loomed over.  Descending through the clouds from the city that draped Spire’s summit had given Jace plenty of time to think.  He’d even admired the view when there had been one, something he hadn’t done since he was a small boy with no cares in the world or duties to worry about performing perfectly.  Where the clouds were thin his mount’s steady hoof beats had echoed down into the valleys of the range, and he’d had to restrain a boyish urge to shout and holler to hear the echoes as they rolled a league or more ahead to the forest, glen and vale below and reverberated off the mountains beyond.  At other times horse and rider had been thickly shrouded in fog and the sounds of wind, water and hoof beats were muffled.

 

Jace had let his horse pick its own way down the road, only giving it gentle guidance when coming to the turning from the main thoroughfare into Ashkelon’s valleys and onto the much smaller but equally well maintained side road that wound around the Spire and led to the Great Rift in the west where he could cross into Irradin.  When not admiring the view and enjoying the solitude his thoughts were already miles beyond the kingdom’s borders anticipating not only seeing his aunt and uncle but also of seeing her…for real, rather than in his dreams.  Seeing Cyrene was his real reason for visiting Irradin; he simply had to see her, to talk to her, to touch her.  They’d been sweet on each other for years and were practically promised to one another…in their dreams.  If she had been any other woman they would have shared their vows by now in real life, but fate had separated them so all they had had was the time they when they slept.  He hadn’t even known where to begin looking for her until his aunt had accidentally mentioned her existence in one of her letters.   Cyrene was in Irradin and not yet awakened, which was a blessing given that country’s laws.  She was also unaware of her heritage. That much his aunt had shared with him.  He knew that Cyrene did not remember their meetings in real life either; few remembered the dreaming in any detail when they awoke unless trained to…but he hoped that if he got close to her, talked to her, touched her… she would remember him as some soul mates did.  He fantasised of kissing her in real life, as they did in the dreamlands but he knew that was almost certainly out of the question.  There was something about Cyrene that made his aunt reluctant to make contact with her, or even discuss her in detail in her frequent letters.  He desperately wanted to know why, and the only way to find out was in person.  The information was sure to be sensitive given Evelyn’s reticence on the subject, not suitable to be sent by messenger where it could be so easily intercepted.

 

He’d made very good time to the Rift, and had had the pleasure of seeing Tez gliding out of the cloud cover towards him: a fine specimen of a Tressym in his prime. His huge golden wings were outspread to catch the thermals, flight feathers fluttering as he made minor adjustments, powerful chest muscles flexing when larger adjustments were needed. His front paws were tucked back against his narrow waist and his back legs and paws tucked neatly against and under the feathered tail that streamed out behind him.  Tez roared joyously when he caught sight of Jace more than half a mile away, and through the bond Jace felt his bond-mate’s pleasure at finding his friend.  Jace waved and pulled his mount to a halt admiring the fine pelt of black spots on gold fur that melded into black points at feet, ears, snout and tail and faded away on the wings entirely as Tez glided closer.  The horse jibbed a little as Tez came into land, his wings flipping up and back as all four paws hit the ground and he bounded along for a few strides before coming to a neat four point halt directly in front of the horse, mrowling in greeting.

 

Jace had grinned at the satisfaction and pleasure his friend was radiating and after soothing the horse Jace had dropped to the ground to hug his friend.  Tez had clearly enjoyed the extended flight, but his outer fur was chilled and ruffled.  Jace dug his fingers deep to scratch his friend over the wing joints where fur seamlessly blended into feather to check his true condition, and the flesh below was warm – almost hot – from normal exertion.  In short his friend was in perfect condition as well as in a fine mood.  It was infectious, and Jace had eagerly re-mounted so they could cross the Great Rift that separated Ashkelon from Irradin by the Finger Bridge crossing.

 

“No more flying for now.  It’s all on foot the rest of the way…” Jace had said as he set his mount walking carefully over the narrow mage wrought bridge across the mile wide chasm.  “…and no more magic for me.”  The good mood had lasted only as far as the border crossing point on the far side.  The wait in the warded room had made Jace anxious and he intensely disliked being actively prevented from accessing his power, even if he didn’t intend to use it.  It frayed at his nerves and he was sure it was intentional on the part of the commandant.  He’d been left alone with no food or water.  The only thing that had kept him from going crazy had been Tez’s feelings of reassurance and supreme confidence that they would both be fine, though laced through that had been indignation at being chained like a common animal that could be dangerous if angered.

 

It had been well past the mid day meal when armed guards had finally came for Jace and he was both thirsty and hungry. He had had an early start so he could cross the rift, pass through the border check point and reach the first inn he was staying at in Irradin before dinner and the heel of bread and hot cup of spicy Kuva he’d had to break his fast had been a long time ago.

 

“Commandant Crane will see you now mage.” One of the guards – armed with a nasty iron sword as well as the new hand cannons that Irradin had developed – told him.  Jace made sure not to touch the iron as he passed.  It wouldn’t harm him, but it would cut off his magic completely and he didn’t want to take the risk of what they would do if he was completely powerless.

 

The guards – three of them and all armed with iron and hand cannon – escorted him from what he could only call a cell, through a corridor and across the courtyard where he saw Tez sat sphinx like with a thick chain around his neck and lighter thinner chains across wings and body attaching to the main chain.  His friend’s tail curled neatly over a folded wing and the only sign of Tez’s own anxiety was a restless twitching in the tail tip.  Tez purred as he saw Jace and sent more reassuring feelings to him as Jace was led to the entrance to the crossing point’s tower.  While they were in the power of these people they were vulnerable, and it was not a feeling Jace or Tez liked in the slightest. Both were trying to hide how much they disliked and feared it from the other, but their bond forged not long out of litter and cradle was an unusually strong one, and there was very little about each other that they could not tell one way or another.

 

The Commandant’s office was at the top of several steep flights of stairs and Jace could feel the wardings tightening and strengthening the higher he climbed.  It was like a weight loading onto his shoulders, and a pressure on his chest making it harder to breathe.  He didn’t like it at all but to run now would be unwise, so he continued climbing and put up a bold front to hide his nervousness.  He felt Tez’s approval in the back of his mind and took strength from that too.

 

One of the guards knocked on the only door that led off the landing of the top floor. “Come.” Came brisk sounding voice beyond.

 

The guard opened the door, and Jace strode in as if he were an honoured guest rather than being treated like a criminal.  The Commandant was short and stocky with salt and pepper hair and a starched uniform, his brass was polished to a high sheen and he too was armed, this time with a very nasty looking dagger as well as the rapier sword worn by the upper echelons of the military in Irradin and an extremely ornate pair of hand cannons with wooden handles inlaid with silver scroll work.  In short he was armed to the hilt, and that was not a good sign.  Jace kept a wary eye on the man as he approached the desk and chair placed opposite and glanced around the room to check for other guards and other dangers.  The room was mostly bare except for three windows with an impressive view of the rift to the north and south and across into Ashkelon.  On the windowless wall was a map of the rift and borderlands with various pins and ribbons attached.  Jace couldn’t make out what they were for in his quick glance though they clearly meant something to have been placed on the map.  The commandant was the only occupant and was sat at a rather worn wooden desk shuffling papers and looking though them.  Jace recognised most of the papers as his travel documents and the one book he had decided to bring for entertainment on the journey.  To one side of the desk were several other items from his travel pack sat on what looked like metal food platters.  Jace felt a flare of resentment at the guards having searched his personal effects, but quelled it.  What else was he to expect from over-zealous boarder guards?  He was a mage, of course they’d check for magical items.  Still, it rankled.  He had all the paperwork, had followed all the rules that Ilken had told him of including not bringing anything magical on this trip.

 

“You are Jace of Allerand?” The Commandant asked sounding almost bored, and not offering him a seat, not even looking up from the papers.  Jace took the opposite seat anyway.  Were the weapons just a formality? Crane was acting like this was just a routine interview.

 

“Yes…sir.”  It wouldn’t hurt him to be respectful to the man.

“Purpose of visit?”

“To see my aunt in Irradin City.” Jace replied promptly to the questions relaxing slightly, they were just the same as the ones posed at the border on his occasional visits to the court of Talinn with his father.

“Parent’s names?”

“Lord Jarvey Allerand and Lady Karine Allerand, formerly of House Gardage.”

“Point of Origin?”

“House of the Blue Sunflower, Street of three Peacocks, Royal Quarter, Spires City, Ashkelon.”

“Any magical Items in your possession or on your person?”

“No.  I was told they weren’t allowed.” Strictly speaking this was the truth. Tez had the one magical item he wouldn’t do without tucked securely among the tressym’s own grooming supplies where it wouldn’t be remarkable and it’s magic, in such close proximity to a creature of magic would not reveal it.

“Any Items of magical manufacture?”

 

Jace paused, thinking about this. Hadn’t his aunt said that items manufactured by magic were fine so long as they weren’t inherently magical? He couldn’t remember.  He’d left out many of the things that he would ordinarily have brought on a journey for that reason, but even his clothes had had some small level of magic used in their manufacture.  What didn’t have some form of magic used in its manufacture in Ashkelon? He hoped the commandant meant only items entirely manufactured by magic or he would be in a bit of trouble.  “Just that.” Jace said finally pointing to a small time piece after wracking his brains to remember what items had only been manufactured by magic in his possessions.

 

The commandant was looking at him sharply.  Clearly the pause hadn’t gone down well.  The man quickly reached under his desk and placed an iron dome over the time piece which was already sitting on what Jace recognised now as an iron plate – of course it would be iron to block the magic.  He had the sinking feeling he wouldn’t be getting the time piece back any time soon.

 

“What about these?” the commandant asked pointing to various items.  Jace explained as honestly as he could what their uses were and how they were entirely non magical.  They were all gifts intended for his aunt or uncle – the latest puzzle cubes and wire twist teasers that were popular at court along with some logic puzzle books which he had to admit, did look a little bit like cyphers.  He was questioned at length on them and then at length on his knowledge of Irradin’s laws.  Jace answered everything honestly and as fully as he could hoping the interview would soon be over, but the commandant wasn’t finished with him, and as Jace answered everything correctly the man’s scowl grew deeper and deeper. Then Crane started asking other questions, or re phrasing questions he had already asked.  He always circled back to Jace’s reason for being in Irradin, and the nature of the toys for his aunt and uncle.  He kept asking again and again until Jace was ready to blow up.

 

Recognising the danger signs, Jace took several deep calming breaths before reaching into his mind.  He wouldn’t give Crane the satisfaction of making him lose control, and he wouldn’t give those who had warned him – strongly – what it would be like travelling to visit his aunt the satisfaction of seeing him slink back to Spires City with his tail tucked between his legs because he couldn’t cope with an interrogation.  In his mind he could see the bright glow of his centre of power, a small sun in the darkness and the gossamer threads tangling through his mind that was his bond with Tez. He could also see the red blaze that was anger and irritation. There was fear there too, but he reached beyond that for the deep blue pool of his centre of calm, remembering the peace and serenity of the ride along the road from Spires and other such moments of peace and contemplation in his life.  He drew deeply from the blue, dowsing the red.  Only once the fiery red was a dim ember did he open his eyes and look coolly at Crane again.

 

Commandant Crane was watching him, hand on the hilt of the dagger.

“I’m not sure what more I can tell you sir.” Jace said in a calm and even voice.  “I have answered every question you have put to me with all honesty as I was instructed. I am sorry if I am not answering them the way you want.  If you could tell me what information you are looking for I’ll do my best to give it.”

 

The commandant narrowed his eyes at Jace suspiciously and looked at him for a long time.  One of Crane’s hands seemed to be fingering something in his lap that Jace couldn’t see.  Occasionally Crane would glance at it.  Eventually he broke his scruitiny to glance down at whatever the item was then back up at Jace.   There was no warmth in the mans eyes, and his voice was as cold as the winter winds “Very good.  You are indeed entering the Country in the approved manner.  Your papers are in order.  You may collect your…creature…and belongings apart from that one and continue on your journey.  You will be watched.  See that you do not break the law.” He told Jace brusquely gesturing to the time piece.

 

“What about that one?” Jace asked.

 

“It will be…disposed of.” Crane said curling his lip as he regarded the iron dome.  He was treating it as one would a dangerous magical weapon and Jace was a bit nonplussed about that.  It had been manufactured entirely by magic, but it was just a mundane time piece.

 

“Very…very well.” Jace said rising uncertainly. “Have a good day Sir.”

 

“I doubt it.” Crane replied shortly reaching into a draw in the desk and dropping an item….Jace realised it was some form of mechanical magic detector… and pulling out a broad red ribbon.  “Wear that somewhere visible at all times.  It identifies you as a mage known to the government and here on legitimate business.  The Paladins will watch you but won’t apprehend you unless you actively perform magic with this on.  Don’t be caught without it or you’ll be treated as an illegal whether you perform magic or not.” He proffered the ribbon to Jace who looked at it with distaste.  He’d come wearing the native dress of Irradn so he could blend in and be as inconspicuous as possible so as to cause as little trouble as possible in the country. Now it seemed that he would be marked out as a mage for all and sundry to see regardless.   Sneyd had never mentioned anything about having to wear anything that would identify him, though it was just possible he hadn’t known about it, neither had his aunt who he knew would have and he wondered about that.  It rankled deeply that he couldn’t simply travel as a private citizen, and the red ember in his mind flared again briefly and he had to fight to remain calm.  If it was required, he would have to do it.  He wanted to get on with this journey and see his aunt.  He would see his aunt, and Cyrene.  He snorted derisively as he took the ribbon, shaking his head. “So much for travelling incognito.” he muttered loud enough for Crane to hear and then began wrapping the ribbon around his wrist like an armlet, his fist clenched tightly.  He tied it off with his teeth as Crane watched.

 

Crane then strode to the door.   “The mage is free to continue his journey.  His papers are in order, He’s wearing his identification. Escort him out.” He said to the guards standing to attention outside.

 

Jace wasted no time in leaving the crossing point, stuffing his belongings haphazardly into his travel packs in his haste to leave.  He was quick to pull the chains off his friend who stood and shook and stretched his wings out, making the guards either flinch or raise their weapons defensively.  Tez ignored all, something Jace wished he’d been able to do with such ease. The tressym then followed Jace to the stables, where he nose bumped the horse and sat licking his paw serenely as the stable grooms cowered in a corner.  Jace tacked up himself and threw the saddle bags onto his mount and they left at a gallop leaving a trail of dust in their wake.  Jace wanted to be able to legitimately claim that if they tried to call him back he had been too far away to hear.  Tez loped beside the horse easily keeping pace.  They paused only once to look back, about ten minutes later when a large rumbling boom came from behind them.  The horse shied, and began to buck at the unexpected noise, and by the time Jace had brought it under control, they were facing back the way they had come.  A small plume of smoke was rising to one side of the border keep.

 

“Well, there goes my watch.” Jace muttered, correctly guessing that the guards, faced with a ‘magical’ item of unknown quantity had ‘disposed of it’ in the typical Irradin fashion of blowing it up with black powder. Not the most sensible of moves given the nature of some magical items, they had been lucky that it was just a simple, mundane watch, albeit manufactured using magic.

 

Tez mrowled consolingly.

 

“It’s fine, it was just a watch.  I’ll get another one when I get home.  I think I’ll have enough in my allowance to stand it. Let’s see if we can make the first inn before dark. It’s a good thing I made it to the crossing point earlier than planned.” Jace said to Tez, who mrowled in agreement.

 

Jace patted his mount, turned it’s head back in the right direction and set it off at a ground eating lope that the horse could keep up for an hour or more on the flat.  And it was flat.  Jace wasn’t used to plains. It was very reminiscent of the white sea of the spring and autumn as the clouds rose up and then and sunk below the city on the seasonal thermals.   He’d lived all his life in Spires City at the top of the tallest mountain there was, spending a month or more at a time in Allerond, learning how to manage the estates, but that was in a lush valley with steep hills either side.  Even Talinn wasn’t flat; less rugged than Ashkelon, but even their hills rolled.  Irradin had nothing like that, it was flat out to the horizon, which was broken only by forests and little towns and villages and farms with tall buildings.  It had a sort of stark beauty, even faded and dusty as it was this late in the year.  By all his aunts accounts the summer had been hot and dry.  Jace wasn’t sure he liked it.  Everything was so…open… but not like in the way of the White Sea. That had massive expanses of flat true, but it was cloud, not land.  Land should have…structure.  After several hours on the road, alternatively cantering, walking, trotting, dismounting and walking, then cantering again Jace was heartily bored of the monotonous scenery and looked eagerly for the little towns and forests that broke it up.

 

They didn’t make it to the inn they were scheduled to stay in before dark, but were guided in by the lights of the small town.  Corton was neat and old fashioned with blackwood framed buildings with white painted walls and the roofs were tiled, which was more modern than some of the villages he had passed through.  It straddled the main road, and had a large market space at its centre.  It was the first town of any size that he had passed through on the road to Irradin City though there had been a few hamlets and villages he’d passed through.   He hadn’t really met many people on the road, and those he’d seen had been at a distance.  Corton was packed, it being the end of a busy market day from what he saw as he passed through the market place where keepers had already packed up, and carts were departing.  He could smell the scents of animal manure, and cooking, wood smoke and sweat and rotting vegetation that had not been sold heady in the warm evening air.    There were many people on the street enjoying the warm moonlit evening.  Jace was disheartened but not surprised given his reception at the boarder point that when townsfolk saw him and Tez approaching they actively avoided him.  Some crossed the road, many made a superstitious sign of warding against evil or hissed at him.  Jace wished he could remove the glaringly obvious ribbon from his wrist.  He also wondered if they knew that it was a minor magic they were performing. The authorities cracked down hard on mages, and magic, and shouted such to all and sundry but would they turn a blind eye to the subtle magics that the superstitious country folk performed on a daily basis unknowingly?  Or was it simply arrant hypocrisy?  There was no way for him to tell, and he was too tired to care enough to find out.  He was saddle sore and hungry. He wanted a good hot meal, a tankard of something to soothe his parched throat, a wash and a comfortable bed to pass out in so he actively looked for the Silver Tankard, the inn in Corton he was staying the night in.  He found it just beyond the emptying market place.

 

The Silver Tankard was a busy inn, popular with the locals it seemed.  Jace and Tez looked at each other then walked into the inn’s busy stable yard.  There were stable boys shouting to each other as they pulled horses out of stalls for farmers wanting to head home after a day in town and the owners drinking a last tankard of ale shouting advice to the boys on the care of the horse they had in hand.  Everything went silent the moment Jace and Tez walked into the courtyard however as everyone stared at them. It made Jace very uncomfortable to be such a centre of unwanted attention.  He’d never courted attention at home, he did not relish it now, especially when a good half of those gazing at him looked out right hostile or scared. Some warded themselves, others cowered or fled. Two horses shied at the sight of Tez and the boys had a difficult time controlling them.

 

“What the bloody hell is going on out here?” Called the inn keeper as he stalked out into the courtyard not long after Jace arrived.  He took one glance at the scene and began snapping out orders to the stable boys to control the horses and get them stabled, and to the partially drunk farmers glowering at or cowering away from Jace and Tez to go into the inn and have a drink on the house “and one of you send for Feton.”  Once the courtyard was cleared, only then did he turn to address Jace.

 

“What are you doing at my inn?”  He said coldly glancing at Jace’s wrist. “Mage.”

“I have reservations made by Mr Illyn Sneyd to stay the night with stabling for two, and a hot meal for myself.”

“I have reservations for a private individual travelling from Ashkelon to stay the night.  NOTHING was said about the private individual being a mage.  We don’t serve mages here.  We are a respectable establishment.”

“But, I have reservations that have been paid for.” Jace said, proffering the letter confirming it.

 

The innkeeper took the letter and in precise controlled movements shredded it in front of Jace.  Tez flattened his ears and hissed softly at this lack of manners and Jace could feel his anger, but sent an impulse back of calm, hoping Tez would take his cue from it.  The inn keeper jumped at the hiss and glared at Tez “The inn is full.” The innkeeper said implacably “You’ll have to move on.  I won’t have you let alone that creature on my land.”

“I paid to stay here, Sir, and still have a receipt as proof.” Jace said, trying to remain calm and cool and polite with this rude man. “I can take this up with the magistrate if you wish.”

“The inn is full…mage.” the innkeeper sneered. “Leave before I call the Paladin’s down on you.”

“Is there a problem here?” Came a male voice from the archway Jace and Tez had entered by.

The innkeeper looked beyond Jace and looked relieved. “Fenton! Thank you for coming so promptly.  I have a mage in my courtyard.”

“I can see that.  I expected that I would be seeing the mage sooner or later.  He is known to be travelling in the area.  I wasn’t expecting it to be so soon.  What appears to be the problem.” Fenton asked as he approached.  As he came into view Jace saw that Fenton was a tall thin man with high cheekbones and long blonde hair tied back in a neat braid. At a glance Jace could tell there was wiry muscle to the man, and his armour and weaponry screamed his profession:  Paladin Guard, one of the elite trained to bring down dangerous and/or illegal mages in Irradin.

“Sir,” Jace said respectfully, jumping in before the inn keeper could give a tale that would make him out as the evil doer. “I have reservations made and paid for at this inn prior to my arrival.  I am being turned away from staying here and the inn keeper is refusing to return the fee I paid.”

“I see.  Is this true?”

“This is a respectable establishment Fenton.  We don’t house mages here.”

“That’s very commendable of you, but the mage says you were paid for a stay that won’t be taking place, are you refusing to return the fee or have you returned the fee and he’s refusing to leave?”

“I never said I was refusing to return his payment.  We hadn’t gotten that far.  I had made it clear he had to leave.” The innkeeper whined to the Paladin guard. Clearly this Fenton garnered a high level of respect and just a little bit of fear from the townsfolk, he was a man to be wary of, certainly not one to antagonise.

“And you would have made me leave without returning it.” Jace said evenly.

The innkeeper snorted and turned around.  He disappeared into the inn.  Jace turned to the Paladin.

“Thank you, sir.  I do not wish to cause any trouble.” Jace said to the Paladin. “If I weren’t required to wear this” he gestures to the red ribbon, my plan had been to travel incognito.”

“That would be a bit difficult with your Tressym companion.” Fenton said, eyeing the large winged feline hand on his sword hilt.  “That creature screams that you are a mage all on its own and while you can’t help being a mage, you are one. In my experience they are always trouble on two feet and cause chaos wherever they go.  Will you leave peaceably if he returns the payment?” Fenton asked, “Or will you need an escort?” He sounded irritated.  Only then did Jace note the fine suit and patent boots underneath the scale and chain armour.  The Paladin’s evening had clearly been rudely interrupted.

 

Jace ran his hand through his hair, come loose from its neat pony tail of the morning. “I would have left peacefully regardless of what the inn keeper had done. I’m not here to cause trouble. It does appear that I’m in need of a place to stay however sir.  Would you know of an inn that would take me…and Tez, despite what we are?”

 

Fenton thought for a while, fine polished boot foot tapping on the cobbles, hands on hips.  The inn keeper returned with a small purse which he dropped at Jace’s feet.  He said nothing to Jace, scowled at Tez and nodded respectfully at Fenton before retreating back to the inn.  Finally Fenton spoke up.  “The Scrivener might take you, but has no stables.  The only other place which would is The Moody Candle Tavern…it’s rather a mean place and the riff raff frequent it, but they will take you…for a price.”

 

“I suppose I will have to take it then.  I don’t really have much of a choice.” Jace said sounding resigned. He bent to pick up the coin purse and turned to gather his horse’s reins up in preparation to mount back up.  “Where might I find this Tavern?”

 

End of Chapter three.  Tune back in next week for the next instalment :D

Thanks ever so much for reading!

 

I appreciate feedback of the commentary kind – I am still wanting to improve my craft.

 

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2 – Schoolroom Gossip

 

“You look awful Sybilla.” Her friend Varya a slim brunette with startlingly green eyes said in greeting with a warm smile on her thin face as Sybilla stepped out of the chauffeured motor carriage at the school gates.

 

Sybilla paused to smooth her hair in the reflection of the glass in the carriage door before it drew away and then replied. She didn’t look THAT bad, just tired and perhaps a little pale.  Not that surprising all things considered.

 

“I didn’t sleep very well.  I got woken in the night.  Good weekend?”  She asked, trying to turn the conversation away from the night before.  She really didn’t want to think about it.  If her father’s satisfaction over breakfast had been anything to go by, the mage had suffered badly.  She almost felt sorry for the man.  It was sickening to think about what her father had done, had enjoyed doing, and she had struggled to eat much at breakfast seeing him eat heartily with that self-satisfied look on his face. It reminded her of other times he’d been that happy, and it made her wonder if he’d been torturing people every time he had looked like that.  It just didn’t tally with the caring, loving and supportive – albeit sometimes stern – father he had known all her life. But what she had seen last night could not be denied, much as she wanted to.

 

“Oh not bad, not bad.  Aunt took me shopping and then there was an endless round of visiting.  I barely had time to get my homework done.” Varya complained taking the opportunity to follow Sybilla’s action of looking in  the glass of a carriage window – though this one horse drawn – and pinching her high cheekbones to get more colour in them before it pulled away.

 

Lorine their friend, a tall and impeccably groomed blonde overheard the question as she flounced up from where she had been dropped off by a groom driving a flashy landaulette. “I quite enjoyed my weekend.  I had a fitting with Madam Leirue, so my dress will be ready for next weekend.”  She paused looking dubiously at the dark grey clouds above “Shall we go inside?  I don’t want to get this dress wet.”

 

“Yes lets,” Sybilla agreed, linking arms with Lorine and then with Varya.  Sybilla had often envied Varya her figure.  The girl didn’t have a stick of fat on her, and seemed to eat whatever she liked without consequences.  Sybilla had to work hard to keep her figure, being moderate in what she ate, and doing plenty of exercise such as dancing, or riding or walking in the city parks, and still she was more fleshy than she liked.

 

“My dress arrived on Friday.  It fits like a glove.” Sybilla said eagerly picking up on this thread of conversation.  “I just can’t wait to see what you come as.”  She added, looking hopefully at Lorine, who was the most susceptible to fashion and gossip.

 

“You’ll have to wait and see,” Lorine said, fluffing her hair, and drawing her cape more closely about her as a gusty breeze whipped it out.  “I do hope the weather is fine for the hunt.” She said changing the subject “I don’t want to ruin my new habit.  I only got it a month ago.”

 

“Ha! You know it will be ruined within an hour of the hunt starting Lor,” Sybilla teased easily.

 

“Yes, but I want it to be seen at its best before the meet.  Can’t do that when it’s raining hard.” Lorine replied, her tone haughty.

 

“True enough, but I always found comfort to be the most important thing when out on the hunt.  Fashion is for the masques, and visiting, and the drawing rooms we get dragged to.”  She said, not exactly complaining about the duties the ladies of the leading families of the city were pretty much required to perform.  “But I’d much rather be out riding.”

 

“Or tinkering away with one of those clockwork devices you are so fond of making.” Varya cut in teasingly.  “You know I could swear you were one of those steam obsessed louts at times.”

 

“I’m hardly a lout Varya.”  Sybilla said, hands on hips, “Besides, steam is messy.  I don’t want to get oil and grease on my clothes thank you very much.  I am not completely devoid of femininity.  That’s why I work clockwork.  You only need tiny amounts of oil, no grease and you don’t smell of smoke or soot at the end of a day either.”

 

“You do when you’ve been in the professor’s classes you know.”  Lorine said.

 

“Do I?”  Sybilla asked surprised. Then paused, thinking it over.  “I suppose I would.  Some of the boys work in steam. I’ve never noticed. Perhaps I should bring a change of clothes for after technofactry classes.”

 

“Nah, you smell fine – mostly; and it’s not strong you know.  Just bring one of those scents your mother has brought in from the Spice Islands.  That will ward off anything too strong, and since we all have dance classes later on, no doubt you, or we, could use the scent to beguile the boys.” Lorine said a seductive smile and a calculating look in her eye.

 

Varya sniggered.  “They are bad enough as it is Lorie tripping over their feet.  To use scents would only confuse them more…” her voice trailed off as she mulled over the possibilities a dreamy look on her face.

 

“You look awful by the way.” Lorine said to Sybilla noticing the grey circles under her friend’s eyes. “Not get much sleep last night or something?” Without waiting to hear Sybilla’s answer, Lorine took over the conversation.  “My father heard that the guards brought in a mage last night.  Your father must know something about it?” She cocked her head to her friend trying to winkle more gossip out of her.

 

“Yeah, they did.” Sybilla said resignedly. There would be no getting away from it now.  Lorine knew ALL the gossip, and if she didn’t, her father, as Shadow Minister of Information would.  It was his business to know everything that went on within the borders of Irradin, and a good deal of what went on outside too.  Varya’s head snapped round, her expression eager.  Almost as fanatical as her father in her hatred of magic and mages she’d want to know all the gory details.  It was one of the girls less endearing qualities in Sybilla’s opinion.

 

“Do tell?”  Varya asked eagerly, as they crossed the cobbled courtyard and under the neatly painted sign stating that the building was ‘Salterton’s Academy for Young Ladies and Gentlemen of Quality’ and beyond into the well kept and respectable looking grey stone building that housed the academy.  Inside they made a beeline for warm inner commons room – reserved for more senior students – with its cheery crackling fire and thick stuffed comfy seating. Lap tables were stacked neatly to one side for those wishing to do coursework in the room in occasional free sessions, tea making facilities sat to the other side, the kettle close enough to the fire to keep it nice and hot.  Sybilla had always thought of it as a tiny slice of home away from home

 

Sybilla really couldn’t blame her friend for her hatred of mages; they’d all been properly raised to despise mages of all kinds because of what they did in the civil wars, but Varya’s hatred was more personal. She had lost her mother to a very dangerous pyretic when she was eight, she herself had only barely escaped the burning house herself.  That was when her widowed and grieving father had sent her to boarding school where they had met.  The influence of her friends had gotten Varya’s father to send her to an aunt in the city later so they could continue their studies and friendship when it came to more advanced studies and finishing touches.   “My alarm clock woke me up at about midnight.” She said, giving a long suffering sigh, more for having to relate it all than for the alarm, though her friends wouldn’t know that. The other two sniggered.  “It’s not funny!  I can’t get the thing to work right for all my pulling apart and reassembling.  Anyway, it woke me, and I smashed it on the floor.  As I was picking up the pieces I heard a scuffle and some moaning.  I went and investigated and there he was between two of the city paladin guard.  He was filthy, looked more like a beggar than a mage, but he was definitely a mage.  The paladin are never wrong.” She paused “And…. I saw him…do magic.” She added reluctantly.

 

Varya flinched slightly at the mention of seeing magic, but Lorine just looked at her in wide eyed awe.  “He did magic in front of you?” Lorine whispered.

 

“What did he do?” Varya asked, in a tight high-pitched voice.

 

“Blew out one of the lights, then one of the guards knocked the stuffing out of him so they could tie him down to the iron chair father has.”

 

“Your father interrogates at home?”  Varya asked, keenly interested in the details and sounding impressed.  It made Sybilla very uncomfortable.

 

“Yes” she said shortly,

 

“Did you see any of the interrogation?” Varya asked.

 

“No, mother came in before they started and sent me off to bed.”

 

“Aw, such a pity.”

 

Varya looked crest fallen.  So crestfallen, that Sybilla threw in the last titbit she was willing to say on the matter, because she was feeling very, very uncomfortable remembering it all. “Father was… very happy with the results this morning.”

 

“You know, I would just love to watch your father work and see the tools of his interrogation room.”  Varya sighed.

 

“What would you want to see that for?”  Lorine asked, plainly disgusted.

 

“Once, just once, I’d like to see a mage get what he deserves.”  Varya hissed.

 

“Well we’ll be able to see one, or rather several mages close up at the ball, though they won’t be facing any punishments. The Ambassador and his retinue have been invited.”  Lorine said, dropping her own little bombshell.

 

“How shocking.  I wonder what’s prompted the first minister to do that?”  Sybilla said.

 

“How dare they show their filthy faces at our début.”  Varya said scowling.

 

“That’s not all I heard.”  Lorine said, dropping another titbit.  “The ambassador’s nephew is coming with them. He’s in the country, and will be staying with the ambassador for some weeks.  He gets here tomorrow I believe.”

 

“Where did you hear that?”  Sybilla asked. Surely her mother would have told her about this travesty?

 

“Oh mother heard it from her lady’s maid, who heard it from a servant at the palace, who heard it from the lady’s maid of the ambassadors wife.”  Lorine said casually as she poured herself a cup of tea from the stand, and settled on her accustomed squashy chair near the fire, which was close enough to be warm, but not so close as to get soot on her dress.  The others quickly followed suit and were settled down before the conversation picked up again. “Servants are practically invisible most of the time, even when they are standing right there in the room, the sheer amount of things they learn…well.  A tip here, a well-placed coin or reference there, and it’s surprising the kinds of things they will share with you. Father always pays heed to servant’s gossip.  He’s gotten some of his best leads from them, and they haven’t even realised it.” Lorine told them in a low slightly smug voice.

 

“Really Lorine all this gossip, haven’t you anything better to think about?”  Varya asked, a little impatiently.

 

“Not really, not with a ball coming up.  I wonder what the boys will be wearing?  I hope they don’t stand on my toes.  You know that Chrisan did at last week’s practice?  I still have a bruise.” She said, stretching her elegantly booted foot out and wincing delicately to emphasise the point.

 

The conversation devolved back into talk about the only interesting things going on in the near future – the autumn hunt and the masqued ball where they would be introduced to society as adults the day after.  The small bell on the wall rang signalling the start of classes and an end to the conversation.

 

The bell came as something of a relief to Sybilla and she separated from her friends with a cheerful wave to go to her first lesson, etiquette and deportment. For all she loved her friends dearly she was outgrowing their interests.  Lorine cared for nothing but gossip and fashion and, more recently boys.  She would undoubtedly make the perfect wife for some lucky man and be a credit to society, and possibly a superior spy for the Justiciars if she decided to take a post under her father. To Sybilla however, there was more to life than boys and fashion. She admitted the importance of wearing the appropriate outfit to fit the situation but she didn’t obsess over it like her friend.  Her views of boys differed from Lorine’s as well. Boys were useful for their strength in carrying heavy items she could not, and for their knowledge of things that she, as a genteelly brought up young lady would never have been taught.  Peripherally she was also aware she would have to marry one at some point, but it wasn’t a priority to her as it was for Lorine. She found the boys who posed and tried to fix her interest before they had been officially presented as adults at the ball tiresome.  As for gossip it could be interesting, often amusing, but she took it with a strong measure of scepticism.  Too often she found gossip to be false, or twisted far from the truth.  Her friend was otherwise a really lovely girl in all respects, by far the prettiest of the three, and would bend over backwards to help her friends if needed. Until Sybilla had discovered her talent for clockwork they had been like two peas in a pod, rarely separated, one following the others lead much like twins.  This had expanded to include Varya, newly arrived at boarding school when they were eight and none of them had regretted it.

 

Varya was a little better than Lorine in that her tastes were broader, but she was quite a blunt person, never sugar-coating things.  It often made her appear quite rude. She had very firm opinions about things and took a very black and white view of the world. To Varya, people were either good or bad; a part of society or not worth her notice which Sybilla often found irritating, it cost nothing to be polite to staff and servants. Sybilla found some of her political opinions – they all kept up to date on current events through news papers as part of their studies – were a little too radical for her tastes as well.  However, her friend was unswervingly loyal to those who she deemed worthy of respect, and she never lied…ever… even if it got her into trouble.  She was also an excellent horsewoman, competing with Sybilla herself for best rider on the hunt field in their age group.  Varya was very keen on all physical sports with almost as single minded an intensity as she hated all Mages.  She understood Sybilla’s interest in cogs and clockwork as something similar to her interest in sports in a way that Lorine couldn’t, though Sybilla knew both thought her particular interest an odd one.  She knew she probably had other foibles her friends found irritating as well, but they were getting older now, they were almost adults and were growing apart as their interests took them in different directions.  It sometimes saddened Sybilla that they were losing the closeness they had had as children, but they would always be there for one another, would always be friends.  She hurried her pace when she realised she would be late for class.  She hated the dramatic sigh and ‘disappointed voice’ Miss Melksham put on when a pupil did not meet her exacting standards.  It was worse than being shouted at.

 

 

The longest lesson of the day for Sybilla was technofactry class. She got there early, skipping her luncheon so she could take the opportunity to try tinkering with her damaged alarm clock.  She was still fiddling with it when Professor Laden shuffled in.

 

“Oh.  Miss Blackwood.  You are early.”  He peered over his spectacles at her.  “What have you got there?”

 

“It’s my alarm clock Professor.  It keeps going off at inappropriate hours.  It woke me very early this morning.”

 

“Early rising is good for you.”  The professor replied.  “I am up with the dawn every morning.  Before the dawn in the winter.”

 

“Yes professor. I like being up early too.  But I don’t think two hours past midnight classes as early.”

 

The professor raised his eyebrows at her counter argument.  “Indeed indeed. Far too unsociable an hour to be awake my dear.  Let me have a look at it.  You get to work with your project.  It’s coming on rather nicely if I remember correctly.”

 

“Oh thank you Professor!” Sybilla said, handing the parts of the offending piece of technology over with relief. “I’ve replaced all the bits I damaged trying to quieten it last night.  It’s just the fine tunings it’s in need of.  I’m pretty sure there was a faulty part in there.”

 

“In all probability.  Mass produced technologia tend to have inferior materials used, then it will break in time and need replacing.  A clever scheme for keeping business booming, but not one I advocate.  Quality! Quality is the key to a good piece of technology.  And speaking of which, I’d like to show your piece once it’s completed to the Board of Technologia at the Ministry if you would permit.  You and one of the other students have great talent; I would not wish to see it wasted.  I’ll fix the clock for you. Come and see me at the end of the day to collect it.”

 

He turned away before she could respond stumping away to a small private workshop at the far end of the large spacious shed at the back of the academy that was the student workshop. She moved into the small jeweller’s workshop at the opposite end where young ladies of Quality were supposed to gain the ‘accomplishment’ of making elegant pieces of jewellery. Jewellery crafting hadn’t proved difficult to Sybilla.  Enamel and glass beads and wire were easy to work with. She’d much preferred the more difficult metal working from molten metal, casting rings and other items to turn into bracelets or trinkets and the class had been far more interesting than painting. Professor Laden taught these classes and it was well known among the school students that clockwork was his passion, even if he was an acknowledged master of steam technologia as well. It hadn’t been too difficult for Amilla and herself to sweet talk him into showing them how clockwork devices worked, and only a little more manoeuvring and begging and pleading with both Mr Henry Salterton IV – current owner and head master of the Academy – and their parents to be allowed to be officially allowed to join the clockwork technologia classes.

 

She grinned remembering the triumph she had felt when permitted to join the class, and amusement at how uncomfortable the boys had all been around Amilla and herself until they actually got down to putting together clockwork devices from diagrams.  They’d only been condescending briefly, she and Amilla had fought to join the class they wanted to learn, and had soon started showing up the more lacklustre boys.  Of course, they didn’t want to admit that girls were better at something that had until recently been the sole province of boys and competed to out do them. The professor had been very pleased with the results, and so other girls had been allowed into the beginner classes the past year or so.

 

She took out her project also surprised at the praise the Professor had doled out.  It was something he did rarely.  But if he thought that she really did have talent in this direction and she certainly enjoyed working with clockwork…she had another option open to her and could escape becoming a Justiciar but still, hopefully, make her parents proud of her.  She smiled, set the magnifying glasses back over her eyes and focussed on the creation of tiny cogs, springs and wheels that was project. It was almost complete, and she wanted it to be perfect. She was soon absorbed in gently nudging tiny parts around, in infinitesimal adjustments using the magnifying goggle lenses to see the tiny screws she was carefully tightening and springs she was placing and then winding in the guts of the device.  With the size of the project her placements had to be precise, her lessons in jewel craft had helped her there and she used the very much larger design plan of the bee brooch and its internal clockwork mechanism as a reference.

 

She barely heard the other students come into the shed chatting with each other before settling to their own project work.  The noise level rose around her as steam engines were started up in the main room, and there was the clinking and clanging of items being moved around, the steady tap tap tap of hammers and the tinkle of nails and bolts being pulled from drawers or showering back into them, but to her it was white noise. Her project was something of an experiment.  All of the students in this class were working on advanced pieces of either clockwork, or steam powered creation.   The advanced students had to craft all of the pieces for their final project to pass; a skill learned the year before and one with which Sybilla had really struggled with on this project because of the size of the moving parts she needed.  Younger students, being taught the basics of clockwork and steam had parts given to them and diagrams for assembly of the most common machines, and progressed from there into learning the various ways clockwork and steam could be utilised, and how to design a functional steam and or clockwork item.  Advanced students were expected to start from scratch – for everything.  It was their final test – could they come up with a concept, design it, and create it to the exacting standard set by the professor. She had wanted to make something practical, something useful to the Justiciars. At times she wished she had made her design bigger, but the brooch was already on the large side for a lady to wear.

 

Mostly people were making fairly unimaginative clockwork calendars with flashy casings, or number computing devices which were large and clunky.  At times Sybilla wished she had followed suit, though she preferred to do number calculations in her head, and if they were complex, on paper. There were some more novel items however.  Amilla was making the most beautiful musical carousel with magical beasts that had been pretty much hunted to extinction as the carousel animals.  Sybilla admired the craftwork greatly, and thought Amilla must have been spending every spare moment she had carving the animals and the ornate scroll work of the carousel mountings.  It was absolutely stunning, and the inner components were as well crafted. She was now on the final touches stage – gilding and varnishing the carousel mountings and sticking tiny glass beads on as jewels where needed. They sat next to each other at the moment to share the tools a jeweller used.  Sybilla had found they were more suitable than the usual tools for clockwork as they were meant for much smaller work.  One of the boys was making a miniature steam powered train set sat beyond Amilla, and another worked on a steam powered toy boat beyond him. A third student was making a portable music box.  Sybilla hoped to make one of them in the future.  She enjoyed music immensely, and had sweet talked Bejin into letting her make a copy of his design and she planned to make one as her next project, if she could convince her parents to let her have a room for clockwork crafting at home.  That he had given the design away so freely had been foolish in her opinion.  What if she had stolen the design and improved on it for marketing to the general public? Not that she’d ever do that, but Bejin was far too nice, and far too trusting…but if she could get it to play automatically, she could practice her dancing – another of her passions – more often.

 

Her own project was a fairly large jewelled brooch of a queen bee.  The innards were a complex maze of clockwork and in the main thorax was a cylindrical drum that could be inserted and withdrawn with care. When the bug was set to work, its wings picked up the sound vibrations and imprinted them into the wax cylinder for playback on a separate device she had already completed.  Mostly it picked up white noise, but it could pick up words from conversations.  She’d designed it on a similar style to the phonograph cylinders that had been designed and marketed by Edas Thomisson one of the Masters of the Artificers guild ten years before.  Beijin had adapted his device to utilise the new grooved discs rather than cylinders which had its uses, but her brooch worked better off the cylinder system.  She could fit more recording onto it and was more familiar with the design, making it easier to downsize. Of course being that small meant that there was a very limited amount it could record before reaching the end of the cylinder spool, but important messages could be passed in the thirty seconds or so it could record for.

 

She knew it wouldn’t be wonderful for spy work, as Lorine had mentioned earlier the servants well paid could be a veritable wealth of knowledge so it was only really good for transmitting sensitive information covertly, but even well paid servants could lie if paid well enough by an opponent and leaving a small brooch in a room where opponents were known to meet could gain valuable information…or not.  She could find no way of extending the recording beyond its limited range.  To do so would require a much larger cylinder. It was a start however, and she thought it a good demonstration of her knowledge of sound recording and more importantly clockwork, which was after all the purpose of the project all wrapped up in an elegant package that disguised its true purpose. So she was quite proud of it…if it worked when it was put together.  Her fingers kept slipping with the tension built up in her hands, arms and shoulders, and she had to take a break to stretch them out, but finally she was able to clip the wax cylinder in, place the recording needle at the head, and screw the final piece of thorax casing into place.

 

Leaning back, she was surprised to see the class in full stream.  She sat watching the others work, while she rolled her shoulders, working out the kinks.  Suddenly the loud sound of a lively rag tune came spinning out of one corner of the larger workshop classroom.

 

“My word that’s well done!”  One of the lads called, complimenting Beijin.  All work ceased in the class, as the professor inspected the completed item.

 

“Hmm, well put together this…cedar wood casing, lacquer décor?  Yes yes…lasts better than plain and sticks to the wood like enamel…pin discs to play the music? Very good.  Very good Mr Marhan.  Very good indeed.   You and Miss Blackwood have a fine way with cogs and clockwork.  Have you ever thought of taking a career in…” His suggestion was interrupted by the bell.

 

Sybilla had to rush to clean herself up.  Dancing was the last class of the day, and after her friend’s comments of the morning, she certainly didn’t want to go in smelling of grease or smoke.

 

When she entered the dance hall, the boys were all grouped at one end of the class, the girls stood at the other.  Most of the girls were tittering nervously, or flouncing their skirts trying to catch the eye of one boy or another.  Sybilla nodded and smiled in greeting to the three boys she knew best as she made a beeline for Varya and Lorine. The boys – Quentin, Marmaduke and Malken usually partnered with her and her friends, as their families ran in the same social circles, so they had all known each other long before being sent for finishing.

 

“That’s a nice skirt Varya.  A new one is it?” Sybilla asked, catching sight of the full flowing, silvery grey skirt with matching jacket.

 

“Yes.  The other was getting a little threadbare for my liking.”

 

“It suits you,” Lorine offered.  “You suit monochromes.  You’ve got the skin for it.  I’d look washed out in anything that dull.”

 

“I know.”  Varya teased.  “Remember that hideous frock you wore to your twelfth birthday party?”

 

Lorine groaned.  “Don’t remind me!  I didn’t get the choice on that one.  Aunt Penny bought it for me.  I had to wear it to please her.  Never again!” She said, causing the girls to laugh.

 

“So, do I smell of smoke?”  Sybilla asked Lorine when the giggling died down.

 

“No, I was joking this morning.  You smell of florals.  Is it something on your clothes?  A rinse you wash them in?”

 

“No idea.  The servants do all that.  I could ask Merylla for you?”

 

“No, don’t bother…” Lorine said before breaking off as their dancing mistress entered.

 

She may have had a limp, but when Madame Beveray swept into the room she came in like a force of nature. Everyone fell silent, attentive. She was a tall, once graceful woman with raven black hair in a tight knot at the base of her skull.  She had once been one of the premier dancers in the acro-ballet.  Due to a serious riding accident some ten years ago she had had to switch careers from dancing to teaching it.  “All right class! Pair yourselves up like you were last week. We are doing the same dance again until you get it right.  Pennyweather.  She’s not going to eat you.  Holly, stop flirting with young Mr Vernon.”

 

“Ladies.”  Came the suave greeting came from Malken Fairfax-Demirel as he and his friends approached their partners.  Tall, dashing and dark haired with cool grey eyes, he always led with an air of cool confidence about him that all three girls appreciated, though he favoured Sybilla and she was under no illusions as to why; he preferred her for her fortune and her connections noting more.  He was charming though when he wanted to be.  Marmaduke Rawdon, equally tall and handsome, though more stocky and with sandy hair and a friendly smile generally partnered Lorine who simpered up at him. Quentin Crawley, shorter, stockier but impeccably turned out preferred Varya.

 

“Lord Malken” Sybilla said, smiling up at his handsome face.  He was the only child of one of her Father’s allies in Ellegard a large town about fifty leagues closer to the great rift that separated Irradin from Ashkelon. They got on very well when he wasn’t being sulky, and she had always been able to manage him when he was like that. He was very attentive, to the point she was wondering when he would make her an offer of marriage as other boys had already tried.  She thought he was probably waiting until after her debut, as was proper. She knew her Mother was thinking a match might be made between them, and her father wouldn’t disapprove, not with Malken’s breeding and family fortune, and his hatred of all things magical. She wasn’t opposed to the prospect either provided she could, like her mother also have a career. She didn’t relish the position of society matron.  It was far too staid boring.  She nodded a greeting to the others.  “How do you do.” She curtseyed gracefully, and Lorine and Varya followed her lead.

 

“I’ll do better after this damnable ball.  Can’t abide dancing.  But it must be done I suppose.” Malken said, distaste for the occupation written all over his face.
“Yes I suppose it must.” She said lightly, taking the proffered hand and allowing herself to be led onto the dance floor.

 

Madame Beveray sat at the piano and soon she was playing a lively tune and rapping out orders to various struggling pairs of dancers – “Keep your back straight” or “Move your feet.” Or “Look! Look where you are turning.”  Malken, Sybilla and her friends weren’t spared “Lorine you don’t lead. Let him!” “Mr Crawley, shoulders back, stand tall.  Stop slouching.” “Mr Demirel, Sybilla, you cannot dance properly with that gulf between you. Close it up!”  Sybilla blushed as Malken took a firmer grip of her hand, and pulled her closer with his guiding arm around her waist.  She could feel the tenseness of the muscles in his arm as he guided them around the dance hall.  He was glowering and it was a little intimidating to be looking up into his face from such an intimate position.  She slowly relaxed though, as the scowl faded and he paid more attention to her and the dance than his dignity.  They weren’t doing too badly either, only occasionally receiving corrections.  She began to enjoy herself, giving herself over to the music, and the dance.  She knew the steps far better than her partner and swayed to the melody, adding flourish to his rather uninspired leadership.  Towards the end however disaster struck.  The song was drawing to a close for the fourth time, their form improving with each repeat when Sybilla’s inattention led to disaster.  She put a foot wrong, stepping out to the left when she should have been spinning and her outstretched foot sent them both tumbling as Malken’s feet tangled with hers tripping him up.

Sybilla let out a startled cry as she fell bringing the attention of everyone in the room and landed heavily on her rump as Malken let her go, trying to maintain his balance.  It was a losing battle however and his pin wheeling arms made him look ludicrous as he too ended up on the floor.  Sybilla, Varya and Lorine as well as a good half of the rest of the class were in fits of giggles over the fall.  It wasn’t the first one of the lesson, two other partners had also fallen, though theirs had been less spectacular.  And Sybilla took it as it was meant to be.  Funny for her having made the mistake.  Malken however was less amused.  Always on his dignity with a face like thunder, he stood stiffly and stalked from the dance hall.  Sybilla followed, a smile still on her face.  She’d have to make amends for accidentally tripping him up.

 

“Malken!”

 

He strode on, ignoring her.

 

“Malken wait!”

 

“Leave me alone Miss Blackwood.  You’ve done enough damage for one day.”

 

“Look, I’m sorry I tripped you.  It’s a new dance and we aren’t used to it yet.”

 

“You tripped me up.  Everyone was laughing at me.  It’s ridiculous, a waste of time.  I should be studying to join the paladin guard.  Why you are spending such time with such silly pursuits is beyond me.  Or why you spend so much time with those silly girls.  All they are interested in is boys and fashion.  With parents such as yours I would have expected better of you.” He said coldly, before turning and walking away from his stunned dance partner.

 

“Huh!  Such talk for a supposed gentleman.” She angrily muttered to herself, clenching her fists and scowling after him. “You can forget about dancing with me at the ball Malken of Ellegard!”  She yelled after him.

 

End of Chapter two.  Tune back in next week for the next instalment :D

Thanks ever so much for reading!

 

I appreciate feedback of the commentary kind – I am still wanting to improve my craft

 

If you /really/ enjoyed this and want to contribute more (amazing person that you are) buy me a Ko.Fi (I’m VERY British and actually I drink tea ;) ). at:  https://ko-fi.com/K3K58V5G

 

Hi all!

 

In a bid to have my Blog of Things be a bit more active, I’m going to start scheduled fortnightly posts of things I have written in the past – I have a lot of jottings from various things, especially RPG session logs.  I have taken part in many, I session log them all.  You’ve seen examples of the shorter ones such as the MMORPG show, and Days of Future Craft.  I’m hoping that reading the shenanegans will amuse you, and I’ve always wanted my writing to be something that is shared, which is also why I’m going to start with the first novel I ever wrote: The Runaway Mage

 

It wasn’t /quite/ up to publishing standard I was very MUCH a baby author back then, and it was before I started role playing which has massively improved my writing.  It IS however an enjoyable enough YA fantasy story. Strongly influenced by Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Series (an all-time fav of mine) and it may surprise you, stemmed from some 30 Seconds to Mars lyrics which my brain just ran away with!

 

[Kings And Queens is the song.  The lyrics that caught me were: Into the Night, Desperate and Broken/ The sound of a Fight, Father has Spoken]

 

So without further ado, I’ll introduce you to Sybilla Blackwood and The Runaway Mage.

 

 

 

The Runaway Mage

 

1 – Screams in the Night.

 

Sybilla jerked awake as the tinny sound of her alarm clock belled into the darkness of her room.  Flailing inelegantly, she managed to knock it over and, mercifully, the sound stopped.  She groaned, irritated, and flumped back onto her feather pillows.  She’d been having the most marvellous dream.

 

The details were frustratingly fuzzy now and fading fast, but she was pretty sure there had been dancing: lots of people whirling around in a huge ballroom. It had been in the most fantastic city too, with strange brightly coloured beasts flitting in the air above the towers and waterfalls and canals, and the whole place floating in the clouds…How odd…how could a city float in the air?  Surely its weight would pull it down to earth? And hadn’t there been a man in the dream?  She was sure there had been.  She tried hard to dredge the rapidly eroding memories up; but didn’t get much more than a feeling that he was familiar to her and that they had talked.  Why could she never remember conversations in her dreams?  She somehow knew what he’d said was important, but it was gone.  She felt lethargic and as if her head was filled with fluff, and as the lassitude began to spread the imperative feeling that she needed to remember the dream began to fade as well.  She sighed; it had only been a dream, and she was very tired.  She rolled onto her side so she could curl up more comfortably between the sheets.  She would have soon slipped back into sleep if the alarm clock hadn’t started up again.

 

Her eyes snapped open again and uttering a rather unladylike curse, she rolled over onto her other side feeling for the infernal thing in the darkness.  She managed to place her hand on it on the third attempt after knocking a candle stick and a book to the floor.  She tried the re-set mechanism by touch to no effect.  Sybilla sat up and shook it, hoping that might work, knowing it wouldn’t.  Having tried everything else she could think of in the darkness, she resorted to bashing the casing against the table until the device was thoroughly battered into submission.  She sighed in relief when silence finally reigned.  The clock was almost certainly ruined – she’d probably bent a few of the gears or the springs or worse, the escapement wheel in her vigour to shut off the noise – but she could make a replacement for the dratted thing easily enough.  It had always been faulty and her attempts to fix it had thus far apparently not worked.  She was sure there was a faulty part, but multiple episodes of disassembling and reassembling to find it hadn’t revealed anything out of the ordinary. If she’d made it, it would have worked perfectly, but it had been picked out by her aunt, now deceased to complement the decor of her bedroom.  Of course, to Aunt Imleyn the appearance of the item had been far more important than its functionality.

 

Now well and truly awake, Sybilla wondered what time it was.  Clearly the clock was now useless, and her pocket watches would be in her jewellery case. Glancing around the room she could see from the dim glow the embers of her fire a pair of candles on top of the fireplace: one was a burned out stump, its wick glowing dimly in the darkness. That told her it couldn’t be morning already. The candles only burned for a few hours, and this one had very recently gone out.

 

“I hate when that happens,” she muttered to herself, pushing back the covers, even more irritated that she had failed – again – to fix the clock.  “OW!” she yelped as she stood on what was probably one of the shafts attached to the anchor plate of the broken clock.  She put her foot down again more tentatively, feeling several other parts scattered over the carpet with her toes before finding a bare spot.   Grumbling quietly as she padded over to the fire she took the fresh candlestick that sat opposite it’s burned out partner.  The embers of the fire were glowing dully, and she wished she had one of the new fire setting devices Terrell from school had shown her only the other day. Small and compact, all it took was one spin of the spark setter and pressing down on a tiny button to generate a useful flame. Unfortunately, he hadn’t made one for her yet, and she had no idea where the serving maids kept the tinder sticks.

 

It took some time to work the embers up to a heat that set a small twist of paper alight but eventually the candle was lit and Sybilla moved towards her dressing table.  She’d been right.  The small pocket watch…well the one that was still running with a reasonably accurate time – almost all needed the spring mechanism inside winding daily and the time re-setting on a weekly basis – told her it was far too early in the morning to be up: she’d only been asleep for two hours. How annoying.  She’d have to take the clock back to the workshop and fix it of course…this time as she’d have to replace parts it would actually and finally work properly, she hoped.  The professor had taught her how to make such simple clockwork devices in one of his first classes and was nothing if not a stickler for making you learn from your own mistakes… but perhaps she could convince him to help her. She could of course just buy a new one, but that would be wasteful, and her parents couldn’t abide waste – except in the process of hunting down and catching a rogue sorcerer. No expense was spared bringing one of them to justice.

 

On her knees, candle set beside her, Sybilla picked up all the gears and springs, naming each one as it came to her hand.  She could see where in the mechanism they lived in her mind.  Once identified, she placed the piece carefully into the pile of salvageable parts or tossed it into the one for parts battered beyond repair. She was trying to figure out which of the several twisted gear shafts she was holding when she heard it.  Moaning. It sounded like someone was in pain.  “What on earth?” She muttered, briefly looking around. Distracted by mentally straightening the gear shaft and setting it back in place in her imagination, she passed the noise off as the wind then dropped the bent piece of metal into the scrap pile.

 

She’d just finished clearing everything away and stowing the small wrapped parcel of salvageable parts into in her school satchel, when she heard it again.  It sounded like the spirits she and her friends had imagined when telling ghoulish stories, noises they had tried to scare each other with by imitating when they visited each others’ homes during the summer holidays. But this noise was definitely real.  Shivering, she dropped the scrap parts on her desk, and slipped into the dressing gown and slippers that she’d discarded on a chair by the fire before going to bed. Another moan came drifting to her as she tied the belt.

 

Surely it was the wind? She thought to herself but when she looked out beyond the thick curtains towards the mansions on the far side of the lime tree flanked avenue, everything was still and silent.  When she next heard the moaning it was louder.  “One of the servants must be ill,” she muttered and picked up the candle from the desk to investigate. They might need to send for an apothecary if the person was in as much pain as it sounded they were in.  She left her warm room for the much cooler corridor and paused, listening.  Again, the sound came only it wasn’t coming from the servants’ quarters.  It came from downstairs.

 

Curiosity now thoroughly piqued she followed the sounds, slipping silently along the carpeted corridor and through the long gallery where the portraits of her ancestors hung.  It was a short-cut that took her through a door to the main hallway and the great stairwell. She paused to listen again, and nodded when the sounds became appreciably louder.  Footsteps sounded on the tiled main entrance way, and she could hear low voices. A set of keys rattled and were quickly muffled before a door, well oiled though it was, creaked on its hinges.  She thought it might be the front door, but wasn’t quite sure. She headed down the grand staircase, hand sliding along the banister until she could see what was going on.

 

In the entrance hall stood her father Lord Blackwood, still dressed in his Justiciar Robes. He’d been in court all day, and hadn’t returned home for dinner as was his custom.  It must have been very important for him to work so late if he was only returning now…and with three others? Then she realised that no, light was shining from the room that led to the office that was his private sanctum, the door ajar.  He’d opened the front door from the inside to admit two of the city guard, and the vagrant they were dragging between them.  It was the vagrant who was moaning, though it looked like he’d been recently gagged to shut the noise out.  Why had they brought him here though?  Then she realised the guard might have captured a mage, and she took a breath.  It was the only reason she could think of for them bringing such a man to the house.  If the vagrant had been only what he appeared, he’d have gone to the cells in the Palace of Justiciars to await judgement in court the next morning for whatever crime he had committed.

 

Her father noticed the slight sound, and swung round. “Ah Sybilla, I am sorry if we woke you,” he said, looking slightly apologetic, but mostly tired. He had been working such long hours recently.

 

“No father, I was woken by my alarm.  It’s not working properly. I didn’t hear you or…him,” she said, nodding to the vagrant “…until later.  I thought one of the servants was ill.”

 

Lord Blackwood scowled “The servants are paid to look after us, Sybilla, not the other way around.”

 

“I know father, but they are more productive if they are healthy,” she told him. “If I had found a sick servant, I would have sent one of the others for the apothecary.” Personally, she felt that treating the servants well had its own rewards; they were human after all, not clockwork and steam constructs like those that repeated the same task over and over again in the factories on the cities edge.  She knew most of their names, and a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ cost her nothing to say.

 

“Yes, yes, good point.”

 

“What’s going on? Who is he?” she asked, wanting to confirm her suspicions.  She’d never seen a fugitive mage before, and only rarely and at a distance the only ‘legal’ sorcerers permitted in the Republic of Irradin, the ambassador of Ashkelon and his wife, attending state occasions.

 

Lord Blackwood grinned at her.  “Your mother would probably flay me for bringing this kind of work home, but sometimes it follows you.  The guards caught him using magic.  Naturally they thought to bring him to me for questioning.” He sounded pleased, and a little smug.

 

Sybilla’s eyes rounded, and she looked more closely at the man and the guards, finally recognising the crests on the latter’s shoulder barbs.  They weren’t just city watch guards, but of the Paladin Corps, the elite guards whose sole purpose was to protect everyone from dangerous threats to Irradin, like the mages that had caused the civil war before she had been born.  They were the best of the best, the most honourable and the most honoured of the guard.

 

“He’s really a mage?” she asked. “He looks more like a beggar to me.”

 

“Yes, this one’s been particularly difficult to find,” her father said, as if the vagrant mage were no more than an animal, “and has been on the wanted list for some time. Would you care to observe the interrogation?”

 

“I’ve never seen you work,” Sybilla said. It had been years since the last time her father had performed an interrogation at home, and her mother Lady Sangra, had forbidden her from observing it. In the course of the ensuing argument, her mother had insisted that Sybilla should have a normal childhood, and explore her options rather than shoe horning her into a career in the Paladinate. She’d always been curious about her father’s work as a result. She knew that he was very dedicated to his duties as Lord Justiciar, it took him away from home often enough and that he really enjoyed his work, but not the precise details of what was involved.

 

“Well now is a good time to start.  You aren’t a child anymore.”

 

He was right of course, she was practically an adult now, almost old enough to be married, almost old enough to take a career if she chose. She didn’t want to marry before she’d had time to experience what the world had to offer.  She had been allowed to see tantalising glimpses of what normal girls could do from her privileged position, and while the more mundane jobs didn’t call to her, the freedom those girls had did.  She had talent too: the professor had said she would be an asset to the artificers, and he didn’t give praise lightly. A life as an artificer in the Paladinate would be the perfect combination of her passion for clockwork, and her keenness to make her parents proud by joining he justiciary. She would be practically guaranteed a position if she applied, her father being their commander.  She only hoped that when she did marry as she would eventually have to, that she could still continue her career, just like her mother.

 

“No father, I’m not, and I admit, I’m curious to know what you do as a Justiciar.”

 

He looked at her appraisingly as she came to her decision, gesturing to the guards to take themselves and the prisoner into his study.

 

“I’ve been considering applying to join when I finish school,” she added, making her way down the stairs to join the group. “Perhaps I can pick up some of the skills I’ll need in advance.  I’ll need them if I’m ever to measure up to your standards.”

 

She glanced at the mage as the guards dragged him past her father. He was glaring at Lord Blackwood, a dark hatred in his eyes, but she doubted his defiance would do him any good.  Most of the paladin guards were in awe of her father, she knew.  He had quite the record of captures, and his results – if the rumours were true – were unparalleled. It would be an invaluable opportunity to learn what the Paladins did for when she joined herself. Then, the mage looked her way making muffled garbling noises, and the intensity of the look he directed at her made her pause.  The amount of raw loathing in them…

 

One of the paladins cuffed the prisoner hard around the head, breaking the eye contact and he struggled against his restraints. The guard cuffed him again, harder, and he slumped in their grasp.  Internally she winced at the rough treatment then Sybilla silently told herself off for such squeamishness. She hadn’t expected such treatment of a prisoner from a paladin…but he was a prisoner and a confirmed criminal, and had forfeited the rights of any decent citizen of Irradin. All the same she began to have a sinking suspicion that her father’s techniques were not as honourable as she had always thought – enough that she was beginning to regret her decision to observe the interrogation – but he surely knew better than she did what was necessary?

 

Her father grinned, tiredness appearing to melt from him in pleased anticipation of the near future. “Come on then.  Stay back and observe.  I don’t want him to injure you; your mother would kill me.  And do your robe up.  It doesn’t do for the guard to see you in such a state of undress.”

 

She quickly re-tied the belt on her robe, not having noticed it had come loose and followed her father into the office.  Lord Blackwood strode to the bookshelf on the far side of his study and pulled the candle sconce to one side down.  There was a quiet click, and the bookcase swung forward on a hinge, revealing a corridor behind.

 

“I never knew that existed!”  Sybilla exclaimed in surprise.

 

He turned back, still grinning.  “One of my many secrets, as you will soon discover as a Justiciar in training,” he said, in full expectation of seeing his daughter among their ranks soon now that she had voiced her interest to him.  “I do, on occasion bring work home…well, here.  Your mother knows of course, and it’s never been a mage before.  As a rule, it’s too dangerous for most to be brought here, though I had the usual wards built in regardless.  A good thing I did too, but she refused to allow me to do this work in the house because of you, so here is the next best thing.”

 

“Where is here?” Sybilla asked.

 

“I found an old abandoned wine cellar from the palace that stood on this land a century or so ago while renovating the house and landscaping the gardens.  I converted it for my use, and had a passage constructed to my office,”

 

The guards dragged the man into the corridor. He’d recovered from the blow to the head and was struggling furiously, but wasn’t making a sound around the gag now. It was most odd.  He’d made enough sound to wake the house earlier, but now he was silent. She shook her head. It wasn’t as if he could escape interrogation and the law now. She followed her father, her candle’s dim glow lighting up the back of her father’s black robe, the grey stone floor and white tiles on the walls and ceiling.

 

The corridor went on for some time. The further in she went the more ‘dead’ it felt to her.  It sent a shiver up her neck; was that the anti-magic wards?  Or was it something the mage was doing?  The further they went in the weaker his struggles became so she guessed it was probably the wardings.  It was a strange feeling, almost it felt like she was being squeezed by an immense pressure all around.  She started taking deeper breaths to compensate and wondered if her father felt it too, but didn’t dare ask for fear of disappointing him by looking weak in front of him and the guards.  She hoped this interrogation wouldn’t take too long either, she was starting to feel tired again.

 

They kept walking and she thought the tunnel had to go right underneath the kitchens, possibly even the stables. It widened into a square room brightly lit with the brand-new electricity bulbs.  They hadn’t even been installed in the house.  Sybilla looked enviously up at them.  The light was a hundred times as bright as her poor little candle.  How much easier it would be to read her books after dark with these in the house!    In the middle of the room was a metal chair – iron of course, to dull any other magic.  The guards strapped the still struggling man down, having to fight him even as the chains were tightened on the cuffs.  For a brief moment there was no iron touching the sorcerer, and the lights flickered, brightening to a dazzle and one of them exploded.  Sybilla jumped, frightened that even with the wards he still had the strength to do this. She felt a wave of something almost electrical crest as one of the guards hit the mage and fought to attach the iron cuffs that would effectively destroy his ability to cast spells. Her eyes widened and she stepped back into the corner of the room, shivering at the knowledge she’d seen magic performed in a warded room.

 

“Stay back Sybbie,” Lord Blackwood called as the guards began to yell. Her father strode forward, pulling off his gloves as the guards fought to hold the desperate man.  He punched the mage in the stomach with as much force as he could muster, and the man seemed to collapse in on himself.  The momentary lull gave the guards enough time to chain him to the chair, iron in full contact with his skin and the sensation of static or electricity disappeared with it.  Sybilla rubbed her arms smoothing the raised hairs down almost hugging herself.

 

She could well see how such a man could be a danger to the populace. That he could cause such a surge in a heavily warded room strongly suggested that he was a type that could call lightning, or fire.  If he could do that and could make it into a public building, he could destroy it, or kill the first minister and his cabinet.  There were any number of sensitive manufactories: the Endicott steelworks in the west of the city being destroyed could end up burning one of the poor quarters towards the coast to the ground; the Bohane Chemical works could poison the air, and kill the population of several city quarters – including the one she lived in – if the wind was in the wrong direction.  The Merlemere ammunition manufactory, always an explosion risk, could be another target.  It was far enough away that the city wouldn’t be directly affected, but it would create a huge hole in the ground, and destroy Irradin’s ability to create ammunition for a good time to come making the Republic vulnerable to outside attacks.  Worse, he could attack the public directly, especially if they were congregated together at the theatre, or a…the ball! Sybilla’s eyes widened.  The cream of society would be there, including the first minister and her parents.  It was a horrible thing to contemplate, a mage wreaking havoc, chaos and destruction at such an event.

 

“Get the boots and a proper gag.  This one’s going to be more difficult than we expected,” Lord Blackwood said to the shorter of the guards.

 

“Why do you need another gag?” Sybilla asked her father curiously. “He can’t speak. And what are the boots?  What are they for?”

 

“The gag has an iron mouth piece,” her father said, taking the device from the guard and showing it to her proudly.  “It’s my invention. I made it so voice enchantments have no power, but a criminal may still speak.  The boots are an… incentive for him to talk.”  Her father paused.  “Sometimes we have to hurt them, to get what we want from them you understand?”

 

Sybilla did understand, and it sickened her, though she managed to keep a straight face. She blessed her etiquette mistress at school for that.  She didn’t want to disappoint her father, for all he was rapidly showing himself not the man she had grown up believing him to be. He did love her, and his methods had kept Irradin safe…but she was coming to rapidly realise that the paladin corps was not for her. One of the guards was fitting the ‘boots’ to the restrained man now, while the other took out wedges and a hammer.

 

Trying not to dwell on that, she asked her father about his other interrogation techniques hoping for some advice on less barbaric ones, and also wanting to know what other evidence or information a Justiciar needed if the magical surge had not been enough for a conviction. The magical surge had been real enough and had scared her. Her father, pleased at her interest, and intelligent questions told her that witness testimony of the calibre of the personages in the room to that surge was enough for the mage’s immediate conviction and punishment.  In his zeal he elaborated on why they were interrogating him even though they had enough evidence to convict, and his detailed descriptions of how the interrogation would proceed sickened her.

 

“Sir, we are ready for you now,” one of the guards called, interrupting her father’s explanation of a particularly barbaric piece of machinery that he called the electrical seat.

 

“Sorry Sybilla.  I’ll have to go through the rest of it with you another time.  But at least the interruption isn’t unwelcome.  You will see a real treat this evening. Interrogation done properly is an art, as well as a science,” he sounded gleeful, the look on his face excited, like a boy given his favourite toy for Winterval.

 

Sybilla was completely disgusted.  This wasn’t interrogation, it was torture, and completely unnecessary. With enough evidence to convict, they only did it because it was fun as far as she could see. She doubted they’d get much information from the man. “I see,” she said.  And though her face was carefully impassive, and her voice even, it took everything she had to keep it that way while her mind reeled under the shock.  How could the loving, caring father, and this barbaric monster be one and the same?  How could he have swooped her in the air pretending she could fly when she was small, and sat and played with her and her dolls taking tea?  Let her paint his face with her mother’s makeup? Played paladins rescuing damsels (her dolls) or gathering evidence (half eaten jam tarts), followed by giving the miscreant toys a fair trial and conviction with a straight face? She had had no idea of the depths he sank to in his work.  He could be stern, true, and had shouted at her when she did something dangerous or forbidden, but him sounding disappointed was usually enough to chastise her.  She’d seen him as a dedicated, hard working, honourable and loving father.  What she saw now she’d never have guessed of him, not in a million years.  She knew from her civic studies classes that some mild physical abuse was normal for prisoners, but she had expected his interrogation to be mostly verbal, with the appropriate restraints, and maybe a slap, or punching the prisoner at the very worst.

 

It was a great relief to hear the swishing of skirts and the tap, tap, tap of heeled shoes in the corridor to the torture chamber.  Her mother was coming.  She almost called out in relief.

 

The imperious Lady Sangra Raven-Blackwood, resplendent in an elegant red and black couture dress from her modiste, swept in, calling ahead of her.  “Victor, I heard one of the guards brought Cardine here.  Is that wise?”

 

She stopped on the threshold when she saw Sybilla backed into a corner of the room, pale and looking very young in the harsh lighting.

 

“Sybilla!  What on earth are you doing down here?  You should be in bed!  You have school in the morning.  And Victor, what are you doing bringing her down here?  She’s not of age yet, and shouldn’t be burdened by our duties.  She has other choices.” The guards tried to look inconspicuous as Sangra stalked up to her husband, eyes narrowed, scowling in anger as she scolded both of them, unpleasantly surprised by finding her daughter about to witness what looked likely to be quite a messy interrogation.

 

“But dear, she seemed genuinely interested….”

 

“I don’t care if she discovered the place by accident and broke in here to practice with our tools.  She isn’t staying down here to watch you question that mage.  Heavens below.  What happens if he does perform magic?  He’s dangerous, and even the wards at the palace don’t always contain it.  She could be hurt.  She could be killed.”

 

“But…” Lord Blackwood said, trying to stem his wife’s tirade, guiltily aware that she was right.

 

“No buts; she’s going back to bed.”

 

“Mother…” Sybilla interjected, trying to calm her mother down by reassuring her she would leave.

 

“No Sybilla.  Go.  You shouldn’t be here.  You have school in the morning.  It’s far too late for you to be up.  Go back to bed, and stay there.”

 

Sybilla, greatly relieved at the order that allowed her to escape, bowed her head submissively. “Yes mother, goodnight.  Goodnight father.”

 

“’Night Sybilla.  Sleep well.”  Her father said, looking sullenly at his wife, before taking up one of his tools and turning back to the mage in the chair.

 

“Goodnight dear, sleep well,” her mother said taking Sybilla in her arms, and kissing her forehead.

 

Sybilla breathed in the light floral fragrance that was her mother’s signature scent, returning the hug, before heading for the corridor. She hurried her pace, but could hear her mother still berating her father.

 

“…and when will he be moved to the palace?  What on EARTH possessed you to bring him here Gerig?….”

 

The first scream echoed down the hall very shortly after this, cutting off her mother’s voice and sickening Sybilla to her stomach.  She clapped her hands to her ears and ran.  She wasn’t stupid. She knew that most of the implements her father had lovingly showed to her, eagerly explaining their uses would leave a body utterly broken.  She tried to rationalise that the man was a dangerous mage, and as such deserved the fate that the law decreed for all mages… but to torture him before his trial?  It was barbaric. He’d shown more than enough evidence of magic use, even from what little she’d seen; more than enough for a conviction. Why not just grant him the quick relatively painless death the law decreed and be done with it? The screams touched the side of her that couldn’t bear to see others suffer. She wondered how her mother stood it. It sent shivers down her spine.  She shut the book case behind her, blocking the screams from her ears, but they still echoed in her mind.  Trying to outrun them, she raced back to her room, but they just wouldn’t leave her alone.

 

In the end she resorted to putting a disc onto her music box. She pushed the amplifying cone to one side, and placed the needle to set it running, and tried to sooth away the memory of what she’d witnessed with a recording of a lively piano rag that she and her friends enjoyed playing and dancing to.  She’d got the music box for her sixteenth birthday, not a month past.  She’d begged her father for months for it, and he’d flat out refused her pleading, but there it had been sitting on her desk, a ribbon around the amplifying cone when she had woken that day. She shied away from that memory, it was tainted by what she now knew of her father, and she almost turned the music off… but the tune was soothing her, and the memories the music brought were largely safe ones of her and her friends.  She tried to dwell on them replacing the more recent memories, but they kept sneaking back in.

 

She lit the gas lamps in her room to scare away the darkness.  It took a long time for the screams either real or imagined to stop and even longer for her to fall asleep again. When she did finally sleep, it was haunted even then by the face of the tortured mage.

 

She was dancing again in the great hall in the palace in the clouds with a handsome young man.  He was tall, with long dark brown hair tied neatly back from his face and intense grey eyes. His arms were around her waist, and as the dance slowed he pulled her closer, and closer…then he started to scream as the mage had and she ripped herself away. He tried to hold onto her as he changed into the vagrant mage that the guards had brought in. She pulled free and clapped her hands to her ears backing away from the man, who collapsed to the floor, his legs broken.  He began crawling towards her, claw like hands stretched out, trying to get to her. Terrified by the crazed hateful look in his eyes she turned and ran blindly into the corridors.  She shied away from halls with white walls, they reminded her too much of the corridor leading to the torture chamber.  Eventually she made it out into the fresh air outside and was stopped from falling by a marble banister.

 

She gripped the banister and allowed the cool wind and the soothing view of the tower spires, and amazing waterfalls soothe her fright.  She took a few deep steadying breaths, and thought about returning to the ballroom to help the poor man.  The mist from the waterfall began to rise and extend above where her logical mind told her it should, up the towers, curling around them like creepers on a vine.  She suddenly realised that shining white facade of the towers wasn’t marble…it was bone.  She looked down at the balustrade she was gripping to find she was gripping the limb bone of some great beast and shied backwards.  She felt arms around her and cried out, pulling away even as the scene became brighter, as if the dawn were coming.

 

“Shhh…shhh it’s alright,” came the familiar soothing voice of the man she constantly dreamed of, as he wrapped his arms around her comfortingly, preventing her from running.   She turned to see him, and slowly relaxed, relieved to see it was him and not the screaming tortured mage.  Wordlessly he stroked her cheek, enveloping her in a feeling of safety and warmth, and somehow, the bone was marble again.  She rested her head against his chest and wept as he stroked her hair soothingly.

 

“You’re safe now, my love.” he said and as she pulled away, he smiled at her, caressing her cheek. The tears dried up and she smiled back a little tentatively, and stepped away, not quite sure she should be in a man’s embrace, even in a dream…and as she stepped away, losing physical contact with him everything shifted again, like a haze passed in front of her eyes and the city before her became subtly darker, more menacing, more shadowed. The sparkling water darkened, and turned to blood, the red luridly coating the bone walls of the towers.  The man, who was so comforting, and made her feel so safe disappeared again morphing back into the screaming vagrant who tried to attack her, reaching for her throat.  She ran again, too scared this time to see where she was going.  She passed into the white walled corridors, and got herself totally lost.

 

Eventually she found herself in the throne room which at first glance seemed to be familiar, white marble walls, draped with opulent blue and gold banners, but when she looked closer she saw that the King sitting on the throne was crowned with spiked iron, blood trickling from where it dug into his skin and he wasn’t sitting there looking regal, he was strapped in and struggling, eyes wild and terrified.  He wore the gag her father had used on the vagrant, unable to scream, unable to move.  When she looked into his wide white rimmed eyes, she couldn’t look away, locked in place as if his gaze pinned her to the floor.

 

She was woken from her nightmare by the maid setting her fire to rights, and found herself tangled in her sheets.  She knew her dreams had been bad, though the details had mercifully faded quickly. She knew there had been a man as always, and screaming, and then memory of what she had seen that night came back to her, and she felt nauseous.  She shook her head not wanting to think about it, not right then at least.

 

End of Chapter one.  Tune back in in a fortnight :D

Thanks ever so much for reading!

 

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