Stephenie leaned forward onto Argat’s withers and reached out to pat the chestnut’s strong neck. The gelding’s ears twitched back to her as he walked lazily down the road. She caught his right eye and grinned at him before she sat up, pushed her heels into the stirrups, and with a squeeze of her outside leg, easily pushed him into a canter. Ignoring the brief calls of those behind her, Stephenie urged Argat faster as they veered from the road and through a gap in the fieldstone wall to their right. The tall hay, still green and growing, pulled at Argat’s legs, slowing his pace. Wanting more speed, Stephenie maneuvered him onto a deer path, freeing him from the entanglement of the blowing grasses. Energized by the wind in her face, she gave Argat his head as she squeezed him again, pushing him into a faster gallop. The gelding responded with enthusiasm. Like her, he had grown bored from the weeks of slow travel and he eagerly ate up the ground under his hooves. The shouts of a farmer standing in the field off to their right caused her to slow Argat’s pace and turn back toward the road. The brief run through the field only left her wanting more; the exercise had not drained off the restless energy from either of them.
She waved an apology over her shoulder to the farmer and continued back to the fieldstone wall at a canter. Squaring Argat to the wall, she slowed him slightly to avoid coming up short, and then rode his smooth leap over the three feet of stone. They landed with a slight stumble on the rutted road, but he recovered easily as Stephenie leaned back and resisted with her seat. She brought him to a halt after making a tight circle. “Yeah,” she said, patting his neck again, “someone always takes away our fun.” She looked back toward the others and waited as they maintained their slow walk down the road.
Eventually Henton brought the others to her. “Getting a little full of yourselves, are you?”
She grinned at her broad-shouldered friend.
“What?” He asked.
“You are in need of a haircut.” Henton’s coarse brown hair hung well over his ears and touched his shirt in the back. He wore a threadbare shirt with multiple unrepaired tears and more stains than original color. When she had first met the twenty-eight-year-old, the marine sergeant had just been transferred off the ship he had served on and would never have allowed his state to fall into such disrepair. Pushing back her own long red strands that had come loose of her ponytail, she continued the abuse. “You look like you’ve been dragged through the mud and that saddle is so scuffed and dirty you’d wonder if it had ever been polished.” She glanced at Henton’s gelding, “At least Furball is brushed,” she conceded, referring to the name he gave his horse once he realized how much hair they shed in the spring.
“Funny, Your Highness, I must be looking in a mirror.”
Stephenie’s grin widened; her body itched and knew she needed to bathe. “The Uthen’s just a few miles to the north,” she hinted, “the water’s probably cold, but I’m up for a swim if you are.”
Douglas cleared his throat. The one-time corporal shook his reasonably-groomed head. “I thought you and Islet wanted to get home as quickly as possible now that we’ve crossed the bridge. Otherwise, I would have insisted we stop in one of those fancy inns along the road last night so we could all be presentable today.”
“You just wanted some of the beef you smelled roasting,” Stephenie responded. Douglas’ clothing was in better shape than anyone else’s in the party and his successful fastidiousness remained a mystery to all of them. “You hardly look to have done any work these last couple of months. Have you been on holiday?”
Douglas made the effort to find a spot of dirt to pick off his shirt. “Why do you think I have you along?”
“I could cut your hair, Henton,” Ryia said from where she sat behind Douglas on the horse they were sharing. Her windblown hair was a tangle of knots and a strong counter point to Douglas’ cleanliness. The sixteen-year-old had come a long way from when Stephenie had first met her. Endless weeks of traveling with her and Henton tended to harden anyone to long days and lots of work.
“No. Thank you for the offer, but for the last time, I saw what you did to Douglas and it took nearly a month for his hair to grow back out. I’ll wait until we get into Antar.”
Stephenie glanced at Islet near the back of the group. Her older sister sat on their fourth horse, a flea-bitten grey nearly a hand shorter than Henton’s gelding. Islet’s torn shirt and breaches were stained beyond anything one of her maids would ever wear.
Islet appeared lost in thought for a moment, and then met Stephenie’s eyes. “We have been astride these beasts since before winter ended,” her regal tone and expression incongruent with her appearance. “We are entitled to desire warm and comforting accommodations. Anything less than a rose scented bath and a meal of pheasant and duck is less than acceptable.” Stephenie snorted as a smile broke across Islet’s face. “What? Isn’t that what people expect me to say?”
Henton shook his head, “Only if you want me to tell you that some of us have been riding since well before winter, froze our rears in the mountains, and then worked on ice covered docks unloading ships, all before you decided to grace us with your presence.”
“Well,” Islet said, her tone growing wistful, “I finally grew tired of the vastness of my chambers and thought traipsing across countless countries was a much more enjoyable use of my time.”
Stephenie smiled at the banter. Islet’s first response to Henton had been outrage at him daring to ‘take the liberty to speak to her without leave to do so.’ After months of travel, Stephenie no longer cringed at the prospect of spending time with her sister. Of course, she’s also now my only sister.
“That farmer’s coming this way,” Douglas remarked, his apparent attention still turned down the road and not into the field. “We should get moving before he wants the damages taken out of your hide.”
Stephenie did not need Douglas’ warning. She felt the man’s approach in the periphery of her mind. Unless she worked to block out the world around her, she simply felt the ripples in the energy fields caused by movement or the thoughts from living beings. Of course, I can’t make sense of most of what comes out of people’s heads, she admitted. It’s one thing to see the energy waves; it’s something else to understand them. Just like a foreign language, she could not easily read the farmer’s thoughts from this distance. However, the tone of his emotion stood out clearly.
“Josh will not be happy if you anger some farmers by getting caught riding through their fields,” Islet added.
Although Stephenie kept her outward expression neutral, Stephenie suspected Ryia could sense the irritation building within her. While Islet was a year and a half older, Islet had never truly acted as an older sister. Her attempts at playing one now seemed ridiculous; Stephenie knew herself, knew her capabilities, and accepted her responsibilities. I crossed half a dozen countries and rescued Islet from the Senzar and have nearly gotten everyone home and none of us have died. Keeping her tone casual, she responded calmly, “I didn’t do much harm, but I’ll compensate the man.”
She pulled a couple of coins from her nearly empty pouch and held them up high enough for the farmer to see she had something in her hand. Nudging Argat over to the fieldstone wall, she opened her mind to the energy that existed all around them: in the air, the ground, in Argat, and even within herself. Her eyes lost focus for a moment, allowing her mind’s eye to see the energy potentials in everything. Just like a river, the energy flowed from areas of higher potential to areas of lower potential. It always tried to balance the differences and follow the path of least resistance. However, Stephenie could craft fields with her mind, forcing the energy to move in ways she desired.
A smile threatened her irritation as memories of Kas first trying to teach her magic filled her thoughts. He taught her the truth of what she was and that she should not consider herself evil for having magic. The early days of their relationship had been difficult, but it had been a long time since she had felt exasperation with her skills from him. Now, when they were together, pride filled his expression.
Pushing aside the past, she released the coins and immediately built a field around them, diminishing the pull of the force Kas called gravity on the beaten bits of metal. No longer strongly attracted to the ground and the stone wall, the coins slowly floated down, settling gently in place instead of bouncing off the rocks and into the tall grasses.
She turned Argat away from the wall and the farmer who was still too far away to have observed Stephenie’s display. Silently, she reminded herself again to practice discretion. Her use of magic had grown far more casual in the last few months, and while she could reveal her identity to avoid the threat of being burned as a witch, she did not want to do so.
Not bothering to wait for the farmer, she squeezed Argat’s sides and pushed him into a trot. She slipped through the others who were still stopped around her and she resumed her place at the front of their line. Antar was only a handful of miles away and she looked forward to surprising her brother, Joshua, with her successful rescue of Islet from the Senzar. Now that their mother was dead, she knew the three of them would be able to heal their emotional wounds and be an actual family again.
* * * * *
Stephenie had barely gone a mile when she sensed a muted presence coming quickly in their direction. She opened her senses further and confirmed it was Kas who rushed toward them. Reaching out further, a multitude of tiny energy threads leaped from her mind and spread through the environment. Through these threads, she felt the blowing of the wind, the grinding of the tree limbs against each other, and the movement of the mice, rabbits, deer, birds, and other wildlife around them. She sat like a spider in the middle of a giant web, waiting for a thread to relay the subtle information of a threat, yet she sensed nothing alarming. While she waited for Kas, she kept her mind active, but maintaining such a wide search drew energy through her and that extra energy burned slightly as it coursed through her body. When Kas grew close enough, she dropped her fields and focused on her friend. What is it? She asked him mentally.
She knew the others had slowed behind her, though only Ryia would have been able to sense Kas as he closed upon them. No one else would have seen him, for Kas was not expending energy to generate any luminescence. His body having died nearly a thousand years ago, Kas was now nothing more than a cloud of energy and particles far too small to see. The ghost survived by willing his energy fields to remain together, preserving his memories and essence. Only when he wanted to, did he luminesce a visible form that others could see.
A dozen men on horses are moving this way, he responded in Dalish, the language of his people, which he had continued teaching her. They are dressed in Joshua’s colors. Reaching her side, he hovered on her left. I have concerns with their approach. This road is small and infrequently traveled. They are moving with enough purpose that I suspect they are somehow aware of your presence.
“How could they know where we are?” She asked aloud, signaling Henton and Douglas with a quick hand gesture that indicated company was coming. Immediately, Douglas fell back, taking up a protective position behind Islet, while Stephenie continued slowly forward, enlarging the distance between her and Henton. If an attack came, she intended to take the initial encounter.
“I am unable to provide reason or method behind their presence,” Kas’ voice came to her from out of nowhere. The ghost lacked any physical means to make sounds, but he had learned to generate his own gravitational fields to vibrate the air in a manner that Stephenie assumed resembled his voice.
Stephenie continued to move slowly down the road as she watched the riders finally crest the nearest of the rolling hills. She narrowed her eyes, but could not make out more than their general colors, which confirmed Kas’ report that they were Joshua’s soldiers.
She slowed Argat to a halt in the middle of the road while Kas moved away, placing himself at the edge of her ability to clearly sense him. If any of the approaching soldiers were holy warriors or priests, she did not want Kas’ presence detected by someone else with magic.
At a hundred yards, the bulk of the riders slowed to a stop, allowing the leading two to pull ahead. As these two grew closer, Stephenie recognized the image of a black wolf on the armor of the leader. “Sir Walter?” She wondered aloud. When the lead man was within forty yards, she recognized the Knight’s tightly cropped red hair and bearded jaw. The other man with him slowed and fell behind Walter. When they both stopped, Sir Walter was a dozen paces ahead of the second man.
Stephenie avoided touching either of their minds with her powers. While she generally had trouble reading thoughts at a distance, with determined focus, she sometimes found it possible to pick up surface thoughts. However, when it came to soldiers, or people who were mentally disciplined, most of the time even those remained muted. With physical contact, much more could be done to force oneself into another person’s mind, but that carried the risk that the other person, even without magic, could take over her mind.
The Knight bowed his head to her, “Your Highness, I am glad we were able to find you. I have been asked to help speed your safe journey home.”
Stephenie’s jaw tightened. Sir Walter had kept his expression extremely neutral. The tone fit his character, but under it, she heard a trace of anxiety in his voice. “It seems a rather significant effort to send a dozen men several miles into the countryside in the hope to find me and hurry me along. What is the purpose of that and how did you even know where to look?”
“Ma’am,” he said bowing his head again. “Your presence was reported by a couple of soldiers who recognized you. Using a pigeon, they sent word of your crossing the bridge at Ivar. I—”
Stephenie felt a sudden spike of emotion from him as he obviously noticed Islet urging her horse closer to join the conversation. Stephenie felt Henton hasten to catch up to her sister.
“Your Majesty,” Sir Walter said, bowing his head even lower than he had for Stephenie. “I am without words. The report made no mention of you and those of us who knew Stephenie’s purpose had no idea she had been successful in your rescue.” He dismounted and stepped closer before dropping to one knee. “You may not remember me, but I am Sir Walter. I had just joined His Majesty’s service a month before you left for your wedding. That was nearly six years ago.”
Islet nodded her head. “I remember you were a friend of Joshua’s before you joined his service, though we were never formally introduced.” Islet looked around as the other soldiers, still a long distance away, appeared ready to dismount. “Please, stay on your horses,” she called out to them.
Stephenie cleared her throat. “Sir Walter, why are you here? There should be no reason my group could not quietly pass through Antar to the castle. We’ve heard of no unrest.”
The red-haired soldier rose gracefully to his feet. “Your Highness, your brother, His Majesty, received word of your approach and wanted to have me ensure your safe arrival, even without any known threats.”
Can’t he simply trust me to do something on my own? Stephenie tried to keep her tone neutral and the pain from her voice. “We would draw far less attention in our worn travel attire than we would escorted by the King’s personal guards.”
“Ma’am, if I may approach?” Stephenie nodded her head and Sir Walter closed to her side. “Ma’am, if I may speak freely.”
“Walter, you know me,” she said quietly as Islet moved her horse even closer. The nearest of Sir Walter’s soldiers turned his head and attention away from them. Henton, Douglas, and Ryia were less respecting of the assumed privacy, but Stephenie did not care. “Please, just spit out what you want to say.”
The Knight nodded his head, but the tension had not left his eyes. “Ma’am, His Majesty was quite angry that the first report of your return came from a pair of soldiers guarding a bridge.”
“We’ve kept a low profile so we could move across country without drawing too much attention. Messages can get lost and read by people you don’t want to have read them. The first place I thought I might be able to trust a messenger was in Berylam, but we heard Baron Turning is here in Antar, so we didn’t bother even going to that city.”
Sir Walter nodded his head. “I am in agreement, Ma’am. However, your brother is still displeased with this situation. He has been worried for months about your condition.” He glanced to Islet, who watched silently, then turned back to Stephenie. “If I may offer a suggestion.” Stephenie nodded her assent while she focused on keeping her fingers from clenching. “If you will take your time once we reach Antar Castle, I will promptly inform His Majesty of your success. I believe that may put His Majesty into a favorable state regarding yourself.” He quickly added, “Nothing too long, such as grooming your horse, but long enough that I will have a chance to make my report before you are introduced to the court. I suspect the session will still be in progress when we arrive.”
Stephenie forced herself to pause before responding; her vision of a warm welcome dying in her mind. She contemplated simply ignoring Joshua and turning around to head elsewhere.
Islet took the opportunity to speak, “Is Joshua so angry he would make a scene?”
Sir Walter turned his head toward Islet. “His Majesty has allowed his anger at Her Highness to build and he may speak without considering the consequences.” Walter shifted his gaze between them several times. “It was merely a suggestion.”
Slowly, Stephenie opened her hands and relaxed her shoulders. She could tell the Knight obviously hoped to find at least one of them rational. “Sir Walter, we are ladies and will not be rushed to any meeting.”
He bowed his head again to Stephenie, this time as low as he had bowed to Islet. “Thank you, Ma’am. There are many people in Antar at the moment and I would be most pleased for them to see a joyous reunion.”
Stephenie nodded her head and Sir Walter quickly returned to his horse. As he mounted, Islet leaned closer to Stephenie, “Has Josh become a problem?”
Stephenie tried to push away the memories of her last few days with her brother before she left to rescue Islet. While they both wanted to rescue Islet after she spent a year in Senzar captivity, Joshua had significantly different views on how Stephenie should have done it. Some of the arguments still hurt. “I don’t know.” She bit her lower lip. “I wouldn’t call him erratic, but he’s still quick to jump to conclusions. He’s as stubborn as he ever was and before I left, too easy to anger.”
“Those are not good qualities to have in a king.”
Stephenie did not respond. She loved her brother and knowing that people were actively working around his behavior frightened her. It meant that an even greater number of people had taken notice if those closest to him were working to protect him from himself.
* * * * *
Stephenie stared at the back of Sir Walter’s head as they rode toward Antar. The Knight and three other soldiers were leading her and Islet. The remainder of the soldiers rode directly behind Henton, Douglas, and Ryia. We might as well be prisoners, she told Kas, being led to face the wrath of our King.
He is not my King and I do not believe Douglas considers him his liege any longer either.
Stephenie did not respond. Kas’ mistrust of Joshua started shortly after their initial meeting in the Rim Mountains. Douglas’ she had seen grow over time.
As they came over a rise, Stephenie’s attention turned to her left. The city of Antar lay before them, spread widely across the valley and up to the edge of the cliffs that overlooked the Sea of Tet. In the distance, she watched as the cranes that hung over the edge of the land worked to draw up the supplies and goods too heavy to carry up the switchbacks carved into the rocky cliff.
Although she could not see the tops of their masts, she knew there would be ships in the protected harbor. Beyond the harbor, whitecaps dotted the waters of Tet, stirred up by the strong wind blowing from the southeast. The salt air smelled familiar and somehow right; it was definitely different from the odor of the Endless Sea off the western shores. Perhaps that had been due to the winter winds, but for Stephenie, Tet’s smell offered comfort.
Stephenie knew Kas’ history and she looked upon the largest city in Cothel with fresh eyes. The wattle and daub buildings that covered the valley were a recent reincarnation of a city that had been around for at least fifteen-hundred-years. But like the newness of these buildings, the people now living in Antar had no realization just how rich of a history lived under their feet. Instead, they focused on their current needs and desires and for the few that understood the pull of the past, most only acknowledged the last four-hundred and thirty-six years, which marked the length of Cothel’s calendar.
As they rode into the outskirts of the city, Stephenie’s focus turned south toward Antar Castle. The large complex, still several miles away, rested upon even higher bluffs that overlooked both the city and the harbor. Stephenie’s tower, near the middle of the complex, rose more than fifty-feet above the height of even the massive gatehouse that protected two pair of huge doors and portcullises.
She knew people said the castle lorded over the city, but having grown up on, and within, its walls, she felt the old stone as much more of a benefactor, protecting the city and the port. Although not always a happy place, it had been home until her mother tried to keep her captive with the intent of cutting out her heart and sacrificing her.
Stephenie turned her head sharply; her focus pulled involuntarily by the emotions of the people who watched them ride past. She wanted to scream a righteous curse at her brother, telling him that five travel-worn people escorted by soldiers made people curious. The further they went, the more people slowed their pace and turned to look, as if a wagon wreck had just occurred.
Suddenly she sensed a spike in the emotional tone and a voice called out, “The Prophet! The Princess has returned!” And like a fire catching in a dry field, the energy and voices around them surged. She pulled her focus back as her senses became overwhelmed.
She continued to stare at the castle rising in the distance, hoping to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes. She swallowed down the loss of being simply herself: just an eighteen-year-old traveling with family and friends. Half a year had passed since she truly played the role of prophet and she wished she could simply turn around and walk away from the responsibility. Too many expectations and lies go along with that title and at some point, disappointment and ruin are inevitable.
Ahead of her and Islet, Sir Walter picked up the pace, the tension in his movement showing his desire to avoid being caught by the crowd of people. Stephenie was thankful the Knight had more sense than her brother did.
“I’ve told you to dye your hair,” Henton whispered after he moved up to protect her immediate right. Douglas and Ryia also moved forward protecting Islet’s left with their physical presence.
“Quiet,” she responded, not willing to have that discussion again. She always blamed Kas for her refusal to change her appearance, but internally she knew her own pride and vanity played as much a role as anything else.
With the increased speed, they outpaced the spreading rumor of her return and made quick progress toward the southern edge of the city. Once they passed the last of the buildings, all that lay between them and the castle was the winding road that meandered a mile though fields made rough by scattered stones.
Why, Kas? Josh should not fear me. I’d never hurt him.
Those not ruling tend to desire what they do not have, Kas responded, and those ruling assume everyone else wants their power. Too often, even in my time, only a few who achieve the goal of rule ever truly realize the responsibility and burden. Fewer still ever become a good ruler.
She nodded her head. Those who desire to rule usually do not do so for the benefit of others. A smile found its way to her face as she felt Kas’ sense of pleasure in sharing her company. The fact that he considered her intelligent and cunning, even though lacking in experience, pushed away much of the anger she felt.
As the gatehouse drew closer, Sir Walter pulled ahead of the group. He paused when confronted by the guards and after what appeared to be a brief conversation, rode into the twenty-foot wide passage that led to the bailey of the castle. When the rest of the group reached the first set of open doors and the raised portcullis, the soldiers who were standing on either side of the opening dropped to one knee and bowed their heads in their direction. Most of these men would never recognize Islet. Her sister had married the King of Ipith shortly after her fourteenth birthday. However, many of Joshua’s current soldiers were men Stephenie had freed from the Senzar and they easily recognized her. The fact that those men still lived caused many of them to become followers of Catheri. At least once the High Priest of Felis had declared me cleansed of Elrin’s evil, Stephenie thought.
Their group did not pause as Sir Walter had. Instead, they continued into the gatehouse tunnel, under the murder holes, past the arrow loops, and through the second set of doors and portcullis. On the other side, they emerged into the bailey and the complex that had evolved over the centuries.
Directly ahead of her stood a remnant of the old castle’s outer wall, that small section of stone now supported the back wall of the auxiliary stables. Beyond that wall was the large Square Keep that had been constructed by her ancestors more than a century prior when they expanded and refurbished much of the castle. The four stories of light-colored stone that formed the keep was an eyesore in Stephenie’s mind. The sharp lines and severe nature cast a cold eeriness to the building.
Just ahead and to her left, sat a more pleasant part of the castle. The old barracks, Stephenie’s seven story tall tower, and the old Great Hall formed from grey stones that time could not crumble. The buildings, adorned with gentle curves, subtle patterns, and weathered carvings added interest and character. Those have life in their bones, she thought to Kas. They are buildings of beauty.
You will not find me in disagreement.
Stephenie turned her attention back toward the soldiers who led them toward the main stables built against the outer curtain wall on their right. Servants crossed their path, moving with purpose and energy, possibly desiring to remain out of her notice. As they approached the main stables, several people came forth to collect their mounts.
“Argat is not to be ridden by anyone,” Stephenie said to the young man that stood waiting for her to give him the reins. Slipping out of the saddle with the grace of an accomplished rider, she turned back to the man who was half a head taller than she. “I mean it, Argat is my horse,” she repeated, slightly fearful of the difficulty she was having in handing over the reins as a wave of possessiveness returned to her.
“Of course, Ma’am,” the man said, bowing with a slight tremble in his limbs. “I will take the best care of him.”
Stephenie sensed his fear rising beyond the normal fear everyone held of her. Forcing herself to remain calm, she spoke more gently. “Thank you, both Argat and I will appreciate that.” Slowly, she handed over the reins. “Be a good boy and don’t cause trouble,” she said to the chestnut as she unbuckled a small saddlebag. Stepping forward again, she patted his neck and then pushed away his nose as he hunted for a treat.
“Your Highness,” one of the soldiers who had escorted them said with a bow of his own. Stephenie would prefer they refrained from all the pomp. Henton and the others never really bowed or scraped; they simply treated her as a friend and she loved them for that. “When you are ready, we will escort Her Majesty and yourself to the Great Hall. It is confirmed His Majesty is still holding court.”
Stephenie looked to the east and past the servant and guest quarters. She looked beyond the kitchens and the Square Keep to the new Great Hall and sighed.
With the increase in court size, the castle had run out of room and so the construction of that building move to the outside of the curtain wall. The tiled roof stood above the height of the walls and the new outer walls of the hall had been reinforced to provide protection. The building was ugly and she did not want to greet her brother there with a crowd of strangers watching.
“Steph,” Islet said, coming over to her side. “We are ready if you are.”
Stephenie had turned her focus toward Ryia and did not notice the slight raise of the soldier’s eyebrows. The months of travel with her in charge removed Stephenie’s appreciation for the differences in rank between her and her sister. “Of course, please lead on. I just need a word with Henton, Ryia, and Douglas as we walk.”
The soldier bowed his head and started walking slowly across the cobbled ground. Stephenie held back as Henton came beside her. Wordlessly, she handed him the small saddlebag, which he slid his hand into to remove a couple of small books that he placed inside his shirt.
Stephenie nodded to a group of men who bowed as their paths crossed. She recognized colors from three noble families in their number. Several of the tunics had a patch of white with an image of an embroidered black hand sewn into it.
“It seems Will has recruited even more followers for you,” Douglas said quietly after they were out of earshot. “Definitely a lot more than when we left.”
She ignored the tightening of her stomach. Once Will, one of her former protectors originally under Henton’s command, had seen her consumed by fire in the Rim Mountains, nothing had stopped him from talking about the ‘Claw of Catheri’ burned into her left breast. A mark that Kas left when he tried to freeze her heart and only coincidentally had any resemblance to the long-dead god’s sigil.
It turned into a means to save your life, Kas remarked to her unvocalized thoughts. Who would have realized the implications of where this has led?
She did not reply to Kas, instead she leaned closer to Ryia. “It’s likely we will all get introduced at court.”
“What does that mean?” The girl asked.
“It means we are going to get paraded in front of a lot of nobles who will be judging us. Most of the attention will be on Islet and myself, so don’t let it bother you. Just stand straight and look proud.”
“The three of us are not fit to be presented at court,” Henton said quietly.
“And you think I am any cleaner or better dressed?”
“I was referring to us being commoners,” Henton replied.
Douglas scoffed, “You’re a knight; you’ve been presented before.”
Stephenie glared at Douglas, but waited to respond as five servants spilled out of the kitchens and quickly turned left to avoid them. The aroma of roasting meat and baking bread made her stomach growl with a momentary distraction. She put the thought of food from her mind and continued, “Douglas, I’d declare you a knight if I could, but everyone here knows who you are and it is not in my power. However, Ryia,” she said looking at her protégé, “I want you introduced as a Lady. It will give you more status.”
Ryia shook her head vigorously. “No. They’d cut my hands off,” she said in Pandar, the trade tongue. “Someone would find out and people don’t like commoners pretending to be something they are not. Don’t call me a Lady.”
Stephenie bit back the normal scolding she would give Ryia for not using Cothish and the honest fear in the girl’s eyes made her hesitate a moment. “I’m only trying to help you,” Stephenie whispered. “No one is going to know who you are and they will accept my word for it.”
Ryia shook her head. “I don’t want to lose my hands.”
“We don’t do that here. And no one would risk doing that to you when you are under my protection.”
“Steph,” Henton said as they closed upon the steps leading into the Great Hall. “It’s probably for the best. It would make Ryia too uncomfortable.”
“Well, she can’t get out of being declared a priest of Catheri,” Stephenie said as she started up the steps. She could already feel the large number of people in the building. It resurfaced a sense of dread she had lived with for as long as she could remember: the fear of being burned for being a witch.
“Obviously,” Henton responded, his right hand on Ryia’s shoulder.
Stephenie waited with the others in the ornamental foyer. Before them stood the carved doors leading into the actual Great Hall. She sensed the multitudes of privileged people inside the large room. She also felt the scores of less fortunate servants and retainers not permitted into audience with the King. Those people waited for their Lords in the smaller antechambers and rooms of the building. The braver of them peeked through doorways or invented errands that suddenly needed performing in order to catch a glimpse of her and her companions.
The emotional energy in the building churned around them on the realization the Prophet waited upon the King. It made Stephenie’s head throb. What’s Josh thinking? We’re not fit for an audience. If we don’t knock someone out from our odor, I’ll be amazed. She quietly tried to smooth the worst of the wrinkles in her dirty shirt as she waited for Kas’ response. He remained close, enveloping her in an attempt to hide his presence from anyone who might be able to sense him. While prudence would have dictated he remained away, she did not like continually excluding him from everything and if she had to admit it, she enjoyed the closeness.
Eventually, she forced herself to stop adjusting her clothing. Josh got what he asked for.
Your appearance will likely give ample warning to any with a limited constitution for strong smells. Stephenie silently agreed with Kas.
Just a step ahead of her, Islet nodded to the trio of footman guarding the Great Hall and then two of the finely dressed men pulled open the large doors. As the doors moved, the splendor of the Great Hall revealed itself to them. Paintings, tapestries, and finely decorated carvings accented the strong wooden timbers and thick stone construction of the room. Most of the decor Stephenie had never seen before. Almost everything was a replacement, as her mother had emptied the castle of valuables when she fled to Kynto.
Her brother, King Joshua, sat at the far end of the hall. Beside him, in a slightly less lavish throne, sat Queen Rebecca, the High Priestess of Felis. Perched above the level of the rest of the hall, their chairs stood upon a dais carpeted in deep red.
Stephenie took special note of the tapestries hanging behind the monarchs; the intricately woven cloth merged the Marn crest with a leaping mountain lion, the symbol of Rebecca’s family. For a moment, her breath caught in her chest and she had to fight the moisture building in her eyes. She knew she should not have expected to see her father’s crest, but on some level, she still had not completely let go of him.
I am here for you, Kas’ thought whispered through her mind.
The mass of people sitting in upholstered chairs on either side of the long carpeted aisle turned at the opening of the doors. She observed more with her mind than with her eyes the third footman slipping inside the hall. To most of the richly dressed persons, he would be nearly invisible. Even when his deep voice rang out, carrying through the voluminous hall, drowning and silencing any quiet murmurs from the guests, these people would never notice another servant performing his job.
“Her Majesty, Queen Islet of Ipith and Princess of Cothel.” The man took a breath as Islet walked forward and the crowd gasped. The low rumble of murmurs returned, filling the hall as Islet continued forward with her head held high. The state of her clothing would never go unnoticed, but to Stephenie, Islet seemed even more regal because of the torn and stained garments.
“Prophet of Catheri, Defeater of the Senzar, and Protector of Cothel, Her Highness, Princess Stephenie of Cothel,” the footman continued. Stephenie pushed back her shoulders and lifted her chin as high as Islet. She followed a couple of steps behind her sister and though everyone sat stunned at her sister’s presence, their undivided attention still turned to her.
Stephenie never cared for balls or large ceremonies. The fancy dresses, styled hair, and false sincerity did not appeal to her. She preferred her battles won with swords and daggers. However, she knew this room contained conflicts as vicious and deadly as any campaign lamented and immortalized by bards and heralds. The difference lie in that these people scarcely ever lifted their own hands to the task; instead they manipulated others to do their bidding.
Instinct kept her mind active for any hint of threats, and while most of those in the room had long ago learned to school their emotions, the younger people or those old enough to no longer care, let their feelings come to the surface. The resulting emotions swirled about her, ranging from total support and gratitude to loathing and, most strongly and commonly, fear. A fear so deep and primal, that people would wake in the middle of the night, dreading the idea that she might select them as a victim. While many of the soldiers she had saved felt some amount of gratitude, those who did not directly join the battle against the Senzar assumed her power was a potential threat.
“Sir Henton, personal guard for Her Highness. Corporal Douglas, personal guard for Her Highness.” She knew Douglas would bristle at the mentioning of his rank. He had been released from duty and had sworn himself to her in what some might say was a nearly treasonous abandonment of his King. “Priestess Ryia of Catheri.”
Stephenie felt her friends walking slowly behind her, their own discomfort spilling out of them. Even Henton’s normally quiet mind leaked some emotion. This homecoming did not live up to her expectations.
She turned her attention forward as Joshua left his throne and hastened his approach to Islet. He grabbed her up in his arms and squeezed her in a manner most unfitting the reserved and calculating ruler he portrayed a moment earlier. Islet hesitated only a moment before returning what should have been more private affection.
“Dear sister, I am so relieved to find you safe and sound,” he said, his voice carrying through the nearly silent hall. “Your journey must have been arduous,” he added, examining her masculine clothing. “What has our sister dressed you in?”
“Josh,” Islet said, stepping back, though his hands remained on her shoulders. “The journey was better than it might have otherwise been. Stephenie and the others took very good care of me.” She smiled and glanced at the people to her left. “In fact, I find the clothing quite comfortable, compared to a boned corset laced so tight I can’t breathe.”
Stephenie noticed his brows narrow ever so slightly, but then he released Islet and turned to Stephenie. She waited for her own embrace, but Joshua hesitated to approach. Feeling the stares of the crowd upon her and knowing they were wondering if she considered herself equal to the two monarchs before her, she chose to curtsy. As she lifted her eyes, she felt his anger at her grow. Pride hardened her jaw and straightened her spine. What does he want from me? She asked Kas.
Instead of addressing her, Joshua turned toward the nobles, shifting his gaze to both sides of the aisle. “It should be obvious, but now that they have returned, I am able to tell you just what Princess Stephenie has been doing.” Stephenie could not help but bristle at his emphasis on ‘Princess.’ “As I stated time and time again, there was no nefarious purpose. No plot. She is not dead and she did not abandon Cothel as some people have been reported to whisper behind closed doors.”
The acid in Joshua’s voice burned her ears. Though he tried hard to smile and look friendly, she could see the stiffness in his movement. The crowd remained hushed and quiet, emotions racing in all directions. Outwardly, Stephenie noted only smiles and nodding heads, but the small number of those not schooled at hiding their emotions radiated a sense of irritation strong enough that Stephenie could feel it over their fear of her.
“I refused to give details on her travels because she needed to work in secret to free my dear sister from the clutches of the Senzar. It was these Senzar, still clinging to the western coast that held Islet. I would not risk word getting back to the heathens about what we planned.” He took a deep breath, hesitating slightly. Then as if he changed his mind, he continued more honestly, “So, please, everyone, welcome home my dear sister, the Queen of Ipith!”
Cheers and applause erupted throughout the nobles, drowning out any sense of anger in the emotional energy around them. Everyone stood and Stephenie, having spent most of her life outside of mass public scrutiny, felt the discomfort of all the eyes still upon her. For while Islet might have been placed forefront in Joshua’s statements, everyone truly watched her. Worse, she knew Joshua observed the same thing.
Joshua raised his arms and waved down the noise in an effort to silence the crowd and get them to return to their chairs. As the noise settled, but not completely ended, he turned to Stephenie, “What have you to report, dear Sister? You have been gone long on your journey. Nearly six and a half months by my count.”
She forced herself to remain calm despite her brother’s acidic tone. Only through Kas’ reassurance did she keep tears from her eyes. If he thinks a public forum will protect him, it won’t. Just wait until we are alone.
Pausing to reconsider her response for the third time, she pulled back her mental awareness of the people around her. The emotional feedback distracted her thoughts. Eventually, she spoke with a measured voice, “As you know, we had to travel all the way to Ulet.” She avoided looking at the nobles around them. “That involved crossing several countries, not to mention a mountain range in the middle of winter. And once there, extracting Islet from a heavily fortified castle took time and planning. After that, we had to return here without being caught or drawing attention to ourselves. The distance is rather far. Many hundreds of miles one way.”
“I helped you plan this mission; I seemed to recall a more southerly route that we agreed would not take so long.”
“Josh,” Islet interrupted, “you know me. When have I ever enjoyed traveling, let alone riding for days and days on a horse? Did you expect Stephenie to have me ride forty miles in a day? Or me to do so even if she demanded it?”
Joshua’s mouth opened at Islet’s raised eyebrows. He stammered a moment and then shook his head. “No. Please accept my apologies. I am too used to estimating travel based upon that of a company of fast cavalry or what Stephenie can manage when driving her men. I should have made allowances for your needs. As a Queen, no one would expect that you would ride that hard. It would put many men down with sores, let alone a Lady.”
Stephenie’s eyes narrowed; while she did not want to dress and be restricted as a Lady might, she was still a woman. Joshua did not seem to notice her bristling. “And I can see plainly that you have traveled roughly.” He bowed his head to Islet as Queen Rebecca approached quietly behind him.
“Greetings, Queen Islet,” Rebecca said, her voice soft, but carried easily through the room. Both of them bowed their heads to each other.
“Islet, Steph, let me introduce my wife, Queen Rebecca. We were married on the first of the year.”
“Queen Rebecca,” Islet said, “it is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Actually, we were introduced once before. It was just after your fourteenth birthday.”
Islet nodded her head, “You will have to forgive me, but I cannot recall the introduction, it was too many years ago.”
“And you were rather busy with your impending wedding I am certain,” Rebecca offered.
Stephenie watched as Rebecca smiled; it was warm and inviting and it gave Stephenie hope that she would be easier to work with than her brother.
“I was,” Islet said, returning the smile.
“Let me offer my condolences on the passing of your husband.”
Islet nodded her head. “I spent more than a year locked in a small cell. I have come to terms with his murder. Stephenie has done much to avenge his death.”
“And, we’ll get you back on your throne,” Joshua offered.
Islet shook her head. “No, Brother, I do not think to do that. My husband was killed and I produced no heirs for him. As I understand it, his entire line has been executed and the Senzar on the coast have put some of my husband’s enemies on the throne to act as puppets. I have no legitimate claim I can or will make. I do not want to see more war and blood over this. I am content.”
Joshua nodded his head, but Stephenie could see his disapproval of Islet’s statement of concession. Growing up as the oldest, and the only boy among girls, his rulership of Cothel was never questioned. That certainty shaped him.
Stephenie, growing up the youngest, and suffering under the belief she was a cursed witch, never had expectations of ruling anything. Surviving each day without someone discovering her secret and demanding her death constituted her goal for life.
Islet she knew to be somewhere in between, the third girl to survive past infancy, their mother raised her to marry into a powerful house and with her marriage to a king, she had outshone both her older sisters. And yet, Islet remained more cautious and less outspoken than either Kara or Regina had been.
Sensing the conversation finished, Joshua stepped back and returned to the raised dais. He lifted his hands over his head as he looked at the nobles and gentry. “To celebrate the return of my dear sister, we will have a feast tonight! Tell the kitchens to start preparing and have this hall readied with tables. I have not felt so joyous since my wedding day.” He looked around as the nobles nodded their heads and murmurs of approval filled the hall. “For now, I will adjourn court so that I may spend some time with my sisters.” Everyone stood and bowed to Joshua. Lowering his voice some, he met Stephenie’s eyes, “Come, let us go back to the Square Keep.”
* * * * *
Even if Stephenie had not been sensitive to Joshua’s mood, his ever increasing pace and subtle violence of movement would have told her enough. By the time they reached the third floor of the Square Keep, she and Islet nearly had to jog to keep up with their brother’s longer legs.
The slamming open of the door to his personal study provided the final provocation. “All right, damn it, what is the problem?” Stephenie demanded.
Joshua spun around, his jaw set, “We had agreed upon a plan and you blatantly disobeyed my orders!”
“A field commander has to make adjustments based upon the current state of events.”
Queen Rebecca followed Islet into the room, closing the door behind them, though Stephenie remained barely aware of their presence. Her focus remained on Kas, who positioned himself between Joshua and her. Whether Kas thought to protect her or Joshua, she did not know.
“You never planned to do as we agreed! You were supposed to go on a southern route. You were not supposed to go any further north than to visit Baron Turning and then head south.”
“What difference does it make?” She swore; her hands clenched into claws. The heat of the energy coursing through her body radiating outward. Kas’ shifting presence offered her a warning.
“In the days before you left, I had sent people ahead of you to make sure you were safe. They saw no sign of you after you left Berylam. Then a report came in that you were nearly killed by Senzar warlocks when you went chasing after priests that were executing witches. What in Felis’ name do you think you were doing?”
Stephenie’s mouth dropped. “You are mad that I went to investigate some Senzar murdering citizens of Cothel? Really? My mission involved facing down a castle full of Senzar and you are mad that I took on a couple of warlocks who were killing people in our country?” Stephenie shook her head. “Josh, your priorities are screwed up.”
“Stephenie, Josh,” Rebecca said, placing her hand on Stephenie’s shoulder. “Perhaps we could take a moment and hear what happened from Stephenie. It sounds like she has put some thought into what she did.”
“We already know what happened,” Joshua snapped. “She went rogue and executed the ruler of a foreign land and has put Cothel at risk of reprisal.” He turned toward Stephenie, but spoke to Rebecca, “My priorities are screwed up? She’s a danger to every citizen of Cothel! How can she be trusted when she starts murdering monarchs?!”
Stephenie pulled her shoulder free of Rebecca’s grasp. She could sense Kas trying to speak with her, but she kept him out of her thoughts so she could concentrate. “You ordered Mother’s execution, Josh. We both agreed she should die. She was a traitor. She’s the reason father is dead and you were captured by the Senzar. She’s responsible for thousands of soldiers dying. She sent people to capture me so she could cut my heart out and eat it. She sent people to kill Will. She killed Regina and she tried to kill Islet. The bitch needed to die. I will not apologize for that. However, it was not something appropriate to talk about in front of all the nobles. But if you want another reason it took so long to get home, it’s because I went north and cut mother’s head from her shoulders. Happy?”
“I’m not referring to her, though we heard rumors a month and a half ago that she had been executed. What is beyond me is why you then went and killed Uncle? That is what I want to know! He was the King of Kynto and now Midland and Calis are demanding answers. He was a bastard, but for you to execute him is inexcusable.”
Stephenie straightened. “Why would you accuse me of that? I didn’t kill Uncle. I never went near him. I’ve never even met him. Mother was in Rativyr. Which is a long way south and west of Wyntac.”
Islet stepped forward. “Josh, I was with her the whole time. I had initially been against killing Mother, but once we confronted her, it was obvious she was sick. She would continue to hurt others.” Islet swallowed, “But once that was done, we started for home. It took time to avoid the soldiers who pursued us, but we left Kynto as soon as we could.”
Rebecca moved to the other side of the desk to stand next to her husband. “We had discussed this, Josh,” she said, “and you even penned it in your responses to Calis and Midland, while we have heard no one yet take credit for the assassination of King Willard, his country is filled with the mercenaries he had hired to keep control. His funds were limited after what Stephenie stole back for your coffers. We know he had started to lose control. It was only a matter of time before one of his hired swords took over. Which, if the other rumors are correct, it is one of his generals who has declared himself King. Likely, that man is responsible.”
Joshua nodded his head to his wife. “Perhaps you are correct. Steph, if you say you didn’t kill Uncle, I will believe you.”
“I said I didn’t.”
Joshua’s shoulders lost their edge and he looked much older than his twenty-five years. He slowly looked backward for his chair and took his seat. He motioned for everyone else to sit. Once Rebecca pulled over a chair that appeared to be there for her use, Islet and Stephenie sat in the two that were in front of his large desk.
“What actually occurred over the last six months?” He asked. “We are missing many details.”
“It is a long story, but not much interesting to tell,” Stephenie said, her own energy gone and leaving her drained; she loved her brother and hated to argue with him. “Most of it is boring. As I mentioned, on the way out to free Islet, we discovered some Senzar warlocks killing people who could end up being our next generation of priests.” The lie hurt her to tell, but Joshua did not know the truth that fundamentally no difference existed between priests and those the priests burned as witches and warlocks.
Joshua nodded his head. “William, and Rebecca,” he inclined his head toward his wife, “have managed to add several new priests to their ranks based on what you found on the other side of the Uthen Mountains. We had never expected to see the gods choosing older people to join the ranks of the empowered.”
Kas, why are some people so convinced of the lies?
You cannot dismiss centuries of people repeating those lies over and over again. Additionally, you have not wanted to risk trying to explain the truth to Joshua. And based on Rebecca’s belief that he would take it very badly, it is probably wise to avoid that argument.
Stephenie mentally nodded her agreement to Kas. Of the five of them in the room, Joshua was the only one who had not been told the truth of what their gods were. “Well, we face powerful enemies who bring great power against us. The gods know we cannot wait for children to grow old enough to fight.”
“That is what we understood Catheri pronounced through you. I can say that William has done wonders with those that Catheri has embraced into her ranks of empowered. I had my doubts, but in truth, he was a good choice as High Priest of Catheri.”
Stephenie’s eyebrows narrowed; Joshua’s sudden approval of her friend confused her. At the time she left Antar, her making Will the High Priest of Catheri remained a contentious argument. She even feared Joshua might have tried to have Will removed. At the very least, she expected Will would garner no support from her brother.
Putting the change out of her head, she continued, “Well, as you seem to know, we found the Senzar executing those with the potential to become the next generation of priests.” Yet another lie I have to repeat. She knew the Senzar, pretending to be priests of various gods, were driving people who actually had powers west in the hopes of recruiting them. The people they executed had no power. “When I heard about the increase in witch burnings, I had to go further north and find out the truth behind it. I am glad many of the people who might have otherwise been accused of witchcraft came to Antar to be tested.”
Joshua nodded. “Looking at it from that perspective, the decision was probably a wise one. But, crossing the mountain range in winter? You should have turned back south and taken the boat.”
Stephenie shook her head. “Josh, don’t pursue this discussion.”
“Yes,” Islet injected. “Stop attacking Steph, she risked her life to rescue me. While I might not have liked every decision she made on our journey home at the time she made it, every decision turned out to be the right decision.”
Joshua turned his attention to Islet, “I don’t recall you ever sticking up for Stephenie when we were growing up. You generally sided with Mother and Regina.”
Stephenie was about to correct Joshua, Islet had stood up for her against their mother once and it had gone very badly for Islet. However, Islet caught her eye and Stephenie held her tongue.
“Josh, I had given up hope of ever seeing anyone who cared for me and was simply waiting to die in my cell. Steph defeated the leader of the Senzar as well as a large group of his followers. She freed me and got me home safely. I can say from witnessing Steph first hand that she is a great leader and a cunning warrior. She deserves praise, not censure. I do not understand why you attacked her so publicly today.”
Joshua nodded his head, but Stephenie sensed his fear of her rising. She had no desire for his throne, or any other one, but deep down, he, as most people did, expected she would desire to replace him. After a moment, he turned to her. “Steph, I am sorry. I should not have been so harsh. But things have not gone well lately. The nobles have speculated for too long as to what you were doing, why you missed the wedding, and why no one would say anything about you.” He glanced between Islet and Stephenie, “Arnold Turning kept swearing you were doing the work of the gods. He’s one of the most ardent defenders of your honor, but as weeks have turned to months, and with no word from you, people began to speculate. Especially after word came that Uncle was executed so soon after the rumors of Mother’s death.”
Joshua’s jaw tightened as he looked down at a rolled up scrap of paper on his desk. Suddenly he snatched it from where it sat, holding it aloft for Stephenie to see. “Then I hear from some common foot soldier that you were spotted riding leisurely toward Antar. I’ve heard nothing from you, no letter, no status, no report of any kind. I have to hear from a guard at the bridge over the Uthen River!”
Stephenie took a deep breath, not liking the sudden change to rage she felt from Joshua. “It was only myself, Kas, Henton, Douglas, and Ryia to protect Islet. Who should I trust with a letter to you conveying the results of our travels or even that I was on my way home. We were on the back roads to avoid notice, which meant there were no towns with any messengers suitable to carry such a letter. There was no reliable way to get word to you. I was not going to risk someone trying to harm Islet or my friends.”
Joshua seemed ready to protest her explanation, but then nodded his head and the anger subsided. “Perhaps you are correct.” He put the paper down and leaned forward. “I have worried myself sick with fear that you had died. Not knowing your fate for months and months. You were the last of my family.”
“Well, I’ve brought Islet back, so there are three of us now.”
Joshua’s eyes narrowed as he appeared to recall what had been said earlier. “Did you say that Mother killed Regina?”
Stephenie nodded her head. “Her vileness goes even further than that. When we were in Vinerxan trying to rescue Islet, Henton and Douglas encountered a man who was working for Mother. The man wanted to get Islet’s hand cut off and shipped back to Mother so she could send it to me and demand I come to her or she’d send us the rest of Islet cut up into pieces.”
“The one with the birthmark?” Joshua asked as Islet raised her hand with the dark splotch of skin.
“Well, through Henton, Douglas, and Kas, we learned Mother was in Rativyr and so we went to confront her after we freed Islet. I was not going to let her send more people to kidnap those close to me so they could be used against us.”
Islet interrupted, “When we confronted her, she had a necklace around her throat. I saw it well, because Mother grabbed me by the neck and threatened to kill me.”
“You let Islet get taken by Mother?!”
Islet raised her hand. “I insisted on confronting her. Stephenie ensured I was protected the whole time. But this necklace had Regina’s fingers strung on it. She had sacrificed our sister in the hopes it would protect her from Steph’s powers.”
Joshua shuddered. “The woman was damaged. The two of you did right in executing her.”
Islet nodded her head. “She was not right in the head.”
Joshua turned to his wife, “Her sins drew Elrin’s attention and caused Stephenie to suffer under the curse my mother should have born. Elrin’s evil makes people do vile things. I am only glad that Catheri chose Stephenie and cleansed her in holy fire. When Catheri used Steph to bring down the mountain peak on the Senzar invaders, freeing thousands of us and routing their forces, I knew it was a sign that things were changing. I had a vision the future would be better.”
“Josh,” Stephenie said, not wanting to listen to him go on about Catheri or exulting her deeds, or making up memories of things that never occurred. She knew he was looking foolish to everyone in the room, only he did not realize it. “Do you mind if we go clean up? None of us have had a real bath in a very long time and bathing in streams and lakes is not quite the same.”
Joshua quickly nodded his head, as if just realizing the state of their clothing. “Of course, please. I should have allowed you to refresh yourselves before seeing you, but I had missed you too much.” He stood, “Islet, you’ll stay here in the keep, yes? We will have your old rooms readied for you.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
“And Steph, your tower is as much yours as it ever was.”
Stephenie stood up, feeling the soreness in her limbs. The pain did not come from physical exertion, but having held all the energy she drew into her body. Holding on to the power slowly burned her from the inside. She could not remember the last time she felt this level of soreness. “Thank you, Josh. A bath and a nap in my own bed sounds wonderful.”
“Steph,” Rebecca said from beside Joshua, “I will have dresses sent to you and Islet.”
Stephenie nodded. “Thank you.”
“Also have someone send clothing for Henton and Douglas,” Joshua added. “As well as that new priest of yours. They are all invited to the feast as well. I’d like to thank them all personally.”
Rebecca nodded her head as Stephenie took her leave of them. Islet remained behind at Joshua’s subtle cue. A normal person would not have noticed, but even with her back turned, the motion of Joshua’s hand stood out in her mind. However, Stephenie did not care; Islet had stood up for her and that warmed her heart.
Henton led Douglas and Ryia up the stairs of Stephenie’s tower. He carried both his and Stephenie’s gear over his shoulders and in his arms. Those who removed the items from their horses simply left everything inside the door of her Great Hall. The stairs, just like the hall, suffered from a layer of dust and an accumulation of cobwebs. It confirmed few people, if any, had recently passed through this part of the castle.
Handing the lamp to Douglas, Henton pulled a key to the second floor door from his pouch. It had taken some time, but they discovered Will had left the key in the care of the Seneschal when Will moved into more lavish rooms in the Square Keep. That move had occurred shortly after they had departed.
Henton pushed open the door, revealing a large space that had served as a storage room before they took up residence. The fifty-foot wide room held a vast emptiness that none of them had filled. Having come from very limited space on board ship, none of them had acquired much in the way of personal possessions.
Aside from the original wall blocking the stairs, only a couple of hastily constructed dividing walls sectioned off a small space for a washroom and tub. That left the rest of the open floor for three beds and chests that sat against the northern wall. The brazier they installed for warmth still stood next to a window to let out the smoke. A small table rested against the opposite wall; its four chairs scattered about the edges of the room.
Keeping his opinion silent, Henton noted the half-burnt coals Will had not cleaned from the brazier as well as Will’s unmade bed. A chunk of bread lay near the large central support post. Evidence of animal’s teeth carved into the rock hard remnants spoke of the neglect.Where is the discipline?
“Wow,” Ryia said, pushing past Douglas with her armload of gear. “This room is amazing. Look at the size of those beams!”
Henton glanced overhead. The floor of the room above them rested on tree trunks that spanned the width of the tower to the central post. “According to Stephenie, the trees that went into the construction of the tower were felled as many as four hundred years ago, perhaps more. You won’t find anything that big around here anymore.”
Ryia set her equipment on what had been Douglas’ bed and continued to move about the room, checking out the open area and then moved into the washroom as though she needed to evaluate the property before deciding if it was fit to rent. “Hey, what’s this big copper thing next to the window?”
Henton slid his backpack off his shoulder and placed it softly on the trunk in front of his bed. “It’s a cistern. They added it for us. Rainwater from the roof is directed down a pipe and flows into it so we don’t have to lug buckets of water up here to bathe.”
“Let’s hope it hasn’t leaked or overflowed,” Douglas said as he moved Ryia’s belongings to what had been Will’s bed.
Henton hoped those sheets were not filthy, but still likely cleaner than some of the places we’ve slept.
“A bath without lugging water? You rich people.”
Henton smiled. He had watched with genuine interest when they had installed the cistern. As long as nothing broke, he knew any overflow went out another pipe and continued down the side of the tower. The men who installed it insisted they wanted it to work without requiring people to constantly watch it. The work fascinated Henton and it gave him ideas for other things he wanted to try, once I’m no longer chasing Stephenie across half a dozen countries.
Henton lifted his gaze from the floor when he heard the splashing of water. After the sounds continued for a while, he went to check on Ryia, fearing she might flood the room below them. Fortunately, either the large iron bucket had already been under the tap or she had decided to place it on the hook. Reaching past her, Henton quickly turned off the flow of rushing water before the bucket filled. “What are you planning?”
“I assume the brazier in here is to heat the water. There’s another hook above it. If I’m going to a feast, I want to look at least as good as the servants.”
Henton grinned as the sixteen-year-old slip of a girl grabbed the thick handle and strained her arms and legs to lift what was already a heavy bucket and was now full of water. He felt a slight chill fill the air as she finally managed to heft the burden. With water sloshing onto her front and the floor, she wobbled over to the hook. In a feat that would rival his own strength, she lifted the handle to the height of her chin and placed it over the brazier. Having learned the truth about magic, its allure continued to appeal more and more to him. Only, I wasn’t born with the ability.
She smiled at him as she picked up an armload of wood and dropped it into the brazier. After stacking the wood to make it burn more effectively, she put her hands against the rough scraps and concentrated. Having heard Stephenie teaching Ryia, Henton knew the fundamentals of her efforts: when you direct energy into something, the ever-so-tiny parts get excited and rub against each other. The more energy Ryia pushed into the wood, the faster the particles moved and the hotter it became. With enough heat, fire would spring into existence by itself.
Since Ryia started most of their campfires, he was not surprised when the wood suddenly erupted in flames. Reaching over Ryia’s head, he pushed open the narrow window to allow the smoke a way out of the room.
“This will feel so good,” she said, gazing happily at the large metal tub.
“It will take a while before you can heat enough water to fill the tub. Most of the time, we just ladle the warm water over our heads.”
Ryia shrugged. “We’ll see. I’m not Steph; I can’t fill the tub and simply look at it for a couple seconds and make the water hot. It’d burn out my brains if I tried to push that much energy.” She looked up at him with the flirty smile that she wielded quite effectively on most men. “But, as long as the water’s not cold, what touches my skin will warm up and feel nice.”
“Yeah, and what are Douglas and I supposed to do? A cold bath?” During the time they spent in the frozen mountains, he had wished desperately that his body would automatically regulate its temperature as effectively as Ryia’s and Stephenie’s did.
She slipped around him and out into the main room. Henton followed her. “The two of you’ve been going on about how I need to learn to be a real soldier and accept bathing in a creek; I’ll let you deal with the cold water as a man should.” Having pulled what would still be dirty clothing from her pack, she went back into the washroom and closed the door.
Douglas smiled as he pulled clothing from his trunk and started to pull off his shirt. They both knew that Ryia could get as sassy as any sailor. The three months of traveling together since Ryia joined them in Vinerxan left the girl with a bit of an attitude. Though Henton knew much of her confidence had been earned. He had drilled her in blades and hand-to-hand combat while Stephenie had taught her magic. We’ve probably been harder on her than any man I’ve ever trained. He opened the trunk at the foot of his bed and pulled out fresh clothing he had left there. He was thankful that she had responded well to their drills. She has to be better than everyone else. People will assume she’s the weak target and try to eliminate her first.
“Someone’s coming,” Ryia called softly from behind the washroom door.
Henton, still dressed and wearing his sword belt, glanced at Douglas who had just pulled a dagger and hid it behind his back. From the sounds in the bathing chamber, he assumed Ryia was quickly dressing.
Frowning, he turned back to the door and stood casually. While it was unusual for someone to come into Stephenie’s tower, he was not overly inclined to think the intruder would be an immediate threat. A few moments later, a knock preceded the handle turning to allow the door to slowly creak open.
“Sarge?” Will asked as his head appeared in the opening. Seeing Henton, Will’s smile brightened and he stepped into the room, his fine cut of clothing moving loosely with each step. “I heard you were back. Sorry I wasn’t here when you made your grand entrance, but it took them a while to get word to me that you had been seen.”
Despite the voluminous clothing, Henton noted Will did not appear quite as spry as he had when they left six months ago. His cheeks were also fuller and a momentary pulling of his shirt by his belt indicated Will had grown a bit of a belly. Henton did not want to think poorly of his friend, but his automatic assessment of potential foes told Henton that Will had lost some of his edge.
Henton covered his momentary assessment easily, “Wasn’t much to see, His Majesty paraded us into the Great Hall and down past a bunch of nobles. They stared and after a short bit of back and forth between Steph, Islet, and our King, Josh dismissed court and a feast was called for this evening.”
Will let out a half chuckle. “Yeah, Josh has been irritated with the lot of you. No word for months. Though I must say, we were definitely aware you had gone north from Berylam.” He smiled and shrugged in his innocent way that always put Henton’s nerves on edge. “We’ve had several people who might have been burned as witches brought to Antar. Fortunately, I’ve added most of them to Catheri’s ranks. A few have gone over to Felis, but that’s causing Rebecca a bit of a problem, since Steph left without teaching either her or Sara enough to be effective in using magic. And so Rebecca is still trying to figure out how to train a witch to pretend to be a priest without—” Will stopped talking when the door to the washroom opened.
Henton glanced back at Ryia, dressed once again in her dirty pants and blouse. Her left hand was on her sword and her right was behind her back. Her movements were cautious as her eyes quickly took in the situation.
“Sarge,” Will started, accusation and worry in his voice, “you should have stopped me. I didn’t know you had company.”
“Ryia,” Henton said holding out an open hand in Will’s direction. “This is Will, Steph’s High Priest of Catheri.”
Ryia nodded her head, but said nothing. Very much like a cat, she would wait and watch before approaching anyone new. However, once trust was established, her familiarity could border on the inappropriate.
“Will, this is Ryia, Steph’s newest recruit and priestess.”
Will’s eyebrows rose and he stepped forward; his hand held out toward her. “A pleasure to meet you.” His grin grew wider when Ryia transferred the dagger from her right hand to her left so she could shake his hand. “Not the trusting sort are you?”
She shook her head, never removing her eyes from him.
“He’s one of the good guys,” Henton offered.
Henton watched her meet his eyes before returning her attention to Will. “I’ve heard all the stories Douglas told,” she said in Pandar.
“Keep to Cothish,” Henton reminded Ryia automatically.
Will grinned. “In my defense, Douglas lies.” He moved his hand through his nicely trimmed hair. “I’m really a nice guy.”
Douglas shook his head and went back to pulling things from his trunk. Over his shoulder he said, “Don’t try to woo Ryia, Will. The four of us will protect her.”
“Hey,” Will said, turning his attention to Douglas, both hands raised. “I’m guessing you and Henton have been training her, so I’m not going to take any chances there.”
“As has Steph,” Ryia added with a grin.
Will smiled back at her. “And definitely not where Steph is involved. Plus, I’m a married man. I’m not looking to woo any other women at this point.”
“What?” Henton blurted out before he could stop himself. “Sara?”
Will turned back to him. “Yup, about a month after you left.”
“Was it by choice?” Douglas asked, his attention back on Will.
“Yes,” the hurt in Will’s voice sounded genuine to Henton, but he knew how well Will could play any role he wanted. His ability to switch parts in the blink of an eye amazed anyone who witnessed it. “Sara didn’t become pregnant for another month after that.”
Henton chuckled. “Wow, you’ve been busy.”
“Are you sure she’s the one pregnant and not you?” Douglas asked.
Will turned quickly. “I got left behind,” he said with his hands on his hips. “Being High Priest is not easy work. I’m dealing with more every day than the two of you likely dealt with in any given month on the road. I’m not able to go running across the country to keep in shape. I’m stuck behind a desk, so yeah, I’ve put on a little weight, but I’m working from dawn to dusk every day.”
“Hey,” Douglas said, raising his hands in surrender. “I’m not saying you haven’t been working hard, I’m just giving you crap for getting fat, married, and becoming a father. The last I’m sure you probably already are, but the first two, those surprised me.”
“I’m not anyone’s dad. Not that I’m aware of.”
“Is Sara coming up to join us as well?” Henton asked, wanting to change the subject to something hopefully less hostile.
Will shook his head. “Not until she hears the all clear from me. She could tell Steph wasn’t too keen on her the last time they were together and now with us married…she figured she’d draw less attention to herself if she stayed away.”
“A little bit of advice,” Henton said, coming closer to the man he had practically raised in the marines, “you’ll draw more attention to Sara by hiding her away than having her here in plain sight. And Steph’s issue with Sara was more due to what the Senzar mage had done to her, than with Sara.”
“Steph okay? No lasting issues?”
Henton nodded his head. “She’s doing well, a little more protective than she had been, but…,” he said, wanting to steer the subject again. While Will’s personal life was interesting, he needed to get a concise report on their current situation in the kingdom. “Between us, it seems there are others who feel His Majesty is getting a little erratic. Sir Walter practically asked us to tiptoe around Josh. Is there a problem we need to be aware of? If other people are trying to filter things for Josh, then even more people are seeing issues.”
Will shook his head. “No. Actually, Josh has been doing a great job and the people are generally happy with him. I think this is likely just about him being angry with the lot of you, and honestly, I can’t blame him. Your activities have caused trouble. Her mother was one thing, but taking out the last of the royal family in Kynto is a bit too much revenge. It’s made a political mess.”
“What are you talking about?”
Will gave him a questioning glance. “You’re the ones that killed that bastard, good old King Willard.”
Henton shook his head. “Not us.”
Will raised his eyebrows. “You sure? When we…how much can I say?” He asked, glancing once toward Ryia.
“She’s aware of everything,” Henton said.
“Even the old guy?” Will demanded.
“I know about Kas,” Ryia responded. “I’m in on all the secrets.”
Will turned toward her. “Not all the secrets, I am sure. Steph doesn’t share all her secrets with anyone. I’ve been there from the beginning, or near enough, and she won’t tell me half the things she tells Henton. I’m her bloody High Priest, and still, she leaves out important details.” Will glanced back to Henton, “Heck, I’m sure there are things even you don’t know.”
“Things even Kas doesn’t know,” Douglas offered. “But I don’t see a problem with that. Not everyone needs to know every thought in someone else’s head.”
“Very true,” Stephenie said, coming in through the open door.
Henton watched as Ryia grinned at Stephenie. The girl had known she was coming; it was a simple fact of being a mage. Ryia had an awareness of people and movement that someone without power would never feel. His initial thought was to chastise the girl for not giving him a sign, but he knew that despite how much of a mentor he was when it came to combat, Ryia followed Stephenie first and foremost. For a brief moment, he felt a little sadness about that, but put it from his mind as he turned fully to Stephenie. “How are you doing,” he asked, knowing from the tension in her face that her discussion with her brother had gone about as well as he suspected it would go.
“They think we killed my Uncle. The man was a tyrant and deserved to die, but I hate that they automatically thought we were responsible.” She sighed, “I’m sure stealing back all the gold they took from us didn’t help him, but we didn’t directly kill him.” She shook her head and scratched at her scalp. “One of the abused nobles or one of his merc generals was likely responsible.”
“Will was just telling us there’s a lot of political mess,” Henton said.
“Only repeating what’s been said,” Will commented with raised hands. “And personally, it eliminates Kynto as a threat to Cothel, so not all bad.”
Stephenie shook her head at Will. “It makes their neighbors nervous. There will be power struggles in Kynto. A country that messed up will have bloodshed and that could spill over into other nations.” Stephenie pulled a chair away from the wall and sat down. “How are things going with you?”
“He’s married,” Douglas said from across the room. “And has a kid on the way.”
Stephenie raised her eyebrows. “Really, that was fast.”
“Sara is a good woman. A Lady in fact,” Will demanded.
“I never said she wasn’t,” Stephenie retorted.
Henton cleared his throat. There were still too many details that needed to be discussed before delving into everyone’s personal life, but before he could speak, Stephenie did.
“Josh seems to think you’ve been doing a good job as High Priest. What changed?”
Will smiled and grabbed a chair of his own from the wall and pulled it into the middle of the room to sit across from Stephenie. “You know me. I simply brought him around to seeing me as indispensable. Heck, we both had a bit of mutual complaining to do about you lot. I think that helped him see I wasn’t just some useless bit of baggage.” Will glanced around to meet everyone’s eyes. “I told him what he needed to hear me say and with Rebecca on my side…she’s helped with a number of administrative things.” He leaned back, trying to appear relaxed, “We’re making great progress and have sixteen empowered priests now, with the addition of Ryia,” he added, nodding his head in her direction. “However, we need some more training. Rebecca and Sara both.”
“Yes, I know. The good thing is, I have practiced a bit with Ryia and she’s come a long way in the last couple of months.” Stephenie glanced to her left, which Henton assumed to be where Kas was hovering. She continued slowly, “There are a couple of people approaching the tower from the Great Hall.” A moment later she nodded her head. “Looks like people bringing a couple of arm loads of clothing.
Henton lifted a set of folded clothing he had pulled from his trunk. “I have what I wore to get knighted. I assume that should be sufficient?”
Will frowned. “It’s a bit frumpy, if you want to know the truth. But with the time you have available, it will be the best you’ll get.” Will crossed his leg and slouched down further in the chair. “You really need to let me do some shopping for you and Douglas. I’ve got a tailor on retainer and he’s making most of the new tunics for Catheri’s priests. He made this,” Will said, using his hands to highlight the bulk of material he was wearing.
Henton had no intention of dressing like Will and he knew Douglas would not waste his money on such displays. “I thank you for the offer, but I think I will find a more traditional tailor…should I have to start attending more formal functions. Otherwise, I’d rather people think of me as a simple guard.”
With the sounds of feet moving up the wide stone stairs of the lower tower, everyone turned and looked out the open doorway. When a servant carrying an armload of dresses passed the door, she had to take a step back after she realized where everyone was located.
“Your Highness,” she said, trying to curtsy with her burden. The man behind her gave a clumsy bow. The woman kept her gaze on the floor as she spoke. “I was instructed to bring you a number of dresses and gowns that Her Majesty and others have provided for your use. May I enter?”
Stephenie rose from her chair. “Yes, please, come in.”
The woman looked up as she made her way into the room and Henton could see the slight tremble in her limbs. She obviously noted the mixed crowd of men with Stephenie and Ryia and did a poor job of containing her surprise and disapproval. Her glance at Will, who had remained seated, told volumes. Even though the woman was young, the cultural acceptance that Ladies had to always be sequestered away from men was very strong.
“Ma’am, where do you want me to display these garments for you?”
“Well, the tub is on this floor and I need to bathe before dressing,” Stephenie said, the ever slightest hint of a growl in her voice. Henton doubted the woman would have heard what he could so easily detect as the change in Stephenie’s tone.
The woman nodded her head and took further note of the lack of dividing rooms outside the small bathing chamber.
Henton stepped away from his bed. “Here, place the garments on the bed and we can sort out the details. Ryia will be able to assist Her Highness with dressing while the rest of us check the supplies in the cellars.”
The woman nodded her head again and quickly complied. Whether she believed him or not, the statement offered her enough absolution of responsibility that she felt safe in leaving the women in a room filled with men.
The man with her set down the fine pants and shirts next to the dresses. He then set down a large cotton bag and removed one of a number of smaller pouches. Opening the pouch to demonstrate they contained shoes, he set the one pair on the bed and left the others in the larger bag.
“Thank you,” Henton said, escorting the two servants to the door and shutting it behind them.
“I already started filling the tub,” Ryia said once they were gone. “I was about to take a bath when Will interrupted. It would be the first time I’d get to use a tub and I really want the first bath.”
“I don’t know about that,” Stephenie said with a grin. “You want me to bathe after someone who skipped at least half the streams and ponds we had a chance to get washed up in? I doubt the water will be fit to touch after you’re done.”
“Rank and privilege,” Will said from where he slouched. “As your High Priest, we’ll need to go over some basic teachings. I suspect Steph has neglected most of them, if she even knows what I teach. But, if nothing else, it is important to understand rank and privilege. Which in this case, Steph has.”
Henton could see Ryia tense. Not as used to Will’s sometimes-caustic humor, Ryia obviously took his statement seriously. However, the more he watched Will, the more Henton wondered if his former corporal had been serious in that statement.
Stephenie did not bother glancing in Will’s direction, but kept her focus on the girl. “In front of Henton,” Ryia said suddenly. “Under William’s chair,” she said a moment later. Henton watched as the girl’s brow narrowed. “Just in front of the door?”
Familiar with the challenges Stephenie would create, Henton guessed she had tested Ryia’s ability to sense places where Stephenie had concentrated energy. When Stephenie nodded, he turned back to his bed and the clothing stacked on it. It would be a while before he would see the tub.
“All right, you bathe first, but only because you noticed the third field.”
Henton watched the smile spread across Ryia’s face as she went to the trunk in front of what had been Will’s bed and tossed her pack inside. She was on her way to the bed with the dresses when Stephenie cleared her throat.
“Ryia, you can’t stay here.”
“What? Why would you say that?”
Stephenie stepped closer. “People would talk if you stayed here with two men. I’m trying to look out for you. To protect your reputation. You had to sense what those two who brought the clothing were radiating. The disapproval was nauseating.” Stephenie crossed the room and put her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “I’d like to have you in the tower, but I’m a bit particular about my room and I don’t want people on the floor above or below me.” She pursed her lips and looked off into the distance.
“You could stay in the temple complex,” Will offered. “We have several people there already and as a priestess of Catheri, it would almost be expected.”
Ryia cursed in what Henton assumed was her native tongue, and then she resumed her complaints, this time in Pandar. “What was the bloody point in bringing me here if you just want to toss me away? I’d rather never have come!”
“Ryia,” Stephenie said, squeezing the girl’s shoulder to keep her in place. “I am not throwing you away. I just want to make sure you have a chance to move about society without people shunning you. If you ever want to make a good match, you can’t have people thinking the worst of you.”
“I don’t care what people say,” Ryia protested. “I don’t want a husband. No one would want me anyway. I’m already spoiled goods. So what does it matter that people think I give myself to Henton and Douglas every night?”
Stephenie squeezed harder, drawing Ryia’s attention to her face. “You are not spoiled goods. There is nothing wrong with you and don’t let anyone tell you differently.” Stephenie released Ryia’s shoulder and shook her head. “It’s not for me to decide. Your staying here affects Henton and Douglas as well.”
Douglas responded immediately, “Let her stay. I don’t have a problem if she doesn’t.”
Henton watched as everyone turned toward him. Ryia’s expression was nearly one of pleading. Stephenie’s held a trace of sympathy, but there was no judgment. Personally, he agreed with Stephenie, the girl would not benefit from living in a room with two men. If she ever changed her mind about finding a husband, it would ruin her chance at finding anyone respectable.However, her being a witch would also impact that.
He held his jaw firm. Aside from the impact to Ryia’s future, he also valued his own privacy. While living with a group of men in barracks or on a ship was one thing, he would not be able to be as relaxed with his behavior in mixed company.
“Please, Henton, I don’t want to live with strangers. Plus, we’ve slept in the same tent for months. How is this different?”
Knowing he would regret it, he slowly nodded his head. Although he wanted to be the hard sergeant he had been in the marines, he was no longer that man. Stephenie had changed him for better or worse. Plus, he liked the girl and even though it was likely the wrong decision, he did not want to see her angry with him over something such as this. “You can stay, but I think we will need to get some additional walls put up in here. I think we are important enough that we can all get private rooms created on this floor. There’s plenty of space.”
Stephenie smiled at him and then nodded her head. “I’ll find some money to get the work done.”
Will rose and patted Stephenie’s shoulder. “I’ve got workers I trust. I’ll have them here first thing in the morning. Being High Priest of the King’s second favorite god is a good position to be in.”