“Mind your posture.” Fifiala Apician twirled the wooden sword in a tight defensive pattern. “You’re too solid. You’re leaving yourself open. Flow. Allow yourself to breathe.”
Sapphire nodded and tried to loosen up her stance. The sword was heavy in her palm, nothing like her staff had once been. She bounced on her feet several times, spreading her legs and trying to stay light.
“No.” Fifiala lunged forward, striking Sapphire in the side of the head. Before Sapphire could react, she spun to the side, landing a strike on Sapphire’s left leg, shoulder blade, and back of the neck. Sapphire groaned and spun, gripping the sword harder.
“That wasn’t being loose, that was being open.” Fifiala sneered, her long, golden hair pulled into a tight ponytail that hung nearly halfway down her back. “Loosen up.”
“I don’t know what that means!” Sapphire screamed back at her trainer.
Fifiala took a deep breath, then sighed and lowered her stance. Sapphire sneered and lunged forward, intent on landing a single blow against the impossible trainer.
Fifiala didn’t even blink. The wooden sword in her own hand simply snapped up, catching Sapphire’s blade perfectly. She slapped Sapphire’s weapon side, throwing the former sorceress off-balance. As she stumbled to the side, Fifiala loosed a series of strikes, leaving bruises up and down Sapphire’s back and legs. Sapphire fell to the ground as her knees buckled, and she swore.
Magic surged through her veins, and she spun, thrusting out her hands at Fifiala. Fire and lightning erupted from her fingertips, leaping across the distance. Once more, Fifiala didn’t even blink, she simply raised her sword, causing the magical projectiles to swerve across space and connect with the blade. The wood shattered into a thousand pieces, leaving only a small wooden stump in Fifiala’s hands, but the elf herself was unharmed.
“Sapphire?” Fifiala raised an eyebrow. “What have we said?”
Sapphire ground her teeth together. “No magic.”
“Not true.” Fifiala tossed the smoking piece of wood aside and walked up next to her. She bent down and took Sapphire’s arm, pulling her to her feet. “No magic until you can master the sword itself. Magic should be used to enhance combat, not drive it.”
“Easy for you to say.” Sapphire crossed her arms. “You’re an elf. You don’t have good combat magic.”
“As of your conversation with Persphone, neither do you.” Fifiala’s voice was cold. “Of the human race, what two groups of people do you know of, other than sorcerers, who can fight with pure magic?”
Sapphire sighed. It was a lesson that Fifiala had been trying to drive home for far too long. “Witches and mages.”
“Yes.” Fifiala nodded. “Witches, who train in ancient rituals and arcane arts from birth, and mages, who spend decades studying and honing their craft at the Wizarding Academy. You are neither of these things, Sapphire. Human magic is powerful, but relying on it when you are not a complete master will result in your death.”
Sapphire sighed. She had been training with Fifiala for months now, ever since the battle of the realmship. Now the cool fall winds were beginning to blow once more, the leaves were turning red, and she was no closer to being able to coherently fight than she had been at that battle itself.
“Fine.” Sapphire turned and brought up her sword once more. “Then show me how to stay loose.”
“Perhaps another day.” Fifiala sighed and nodded at the shattered remains of the wooden sword. “Forgive me for saying so, but once you start lashing out, you rarely stop. You need rest, you need to reset your body.”
“I want to fight!” Sapphire tilted her head back and screamed up at the sky. She called on Calsin’s magical field, desperately drawing its power into her. A tiny amount of magic trickled through her system, which she released into a pillar of fire that rose high into the sky. If she had been a sorceress, that pillar would have reached to the moon, not burned out before it hit the low-hanging clouds that dotted the sky that day. “Please.”
Fifiala sighed. “I’m not going to give up on training with you, but I need you to listen to me. You have too much anger. The sting of losing your powers still hurts.” She stepped forward and put a hand on Sapphire’s shoulders. “Until you come to peace with who you are, you will never be able to move forward. As long as you cling to the past, the future will be impassable to you.”
Sapphire closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She cast a spell on herself, a cleansing spell designed to provide clarity. Her body relaxed for a brief moment, though it tenses up again almost immediately.
“What would you have me do?”
Fifiala’s voice carried through her mind. “Find a river. We have several here on the Estate. Attune yourself to it. You may use human magic, or you may speak with one of the natural mages at the palace to attune yourself with elven magic. Meditate for at least three hours. Reflect on the way that the water flows around the reed, and yet is strong enough to cut through stone. Ponder the fact that a fish can swim in any direction it wants, but a horse too deep will find itself washed downstream.”
Sapphire nodded and closed her eyes. Fifiala often gave such commands, and Sapphire… She did her best to follow them. It wasn’t easy, by any stretch of the imagination. She hadn’t fully realized just how much she relied on her magical powers until… Well, until she didn’t have them anymore.
It also didn’t help that Mal was gone. Again. First it was the druids, then it was the angels. It didn’t hurt quite as bad as last time, since Isnita was able to provide regular updates on Mal and Simon’s status, but it definitely hurt. They had been apart for months, came back together, and in the span of a few short weeks had been torn apart again. Not to mention that Simon wasn’t exactly someone that Sapphire would consider to be a good influence.
She sighed deeply and turned away, marching towards the closest river. Fifiala wasn’t going to give her any more physical training until she practiced her meditating, which meant she needed to suck it up and get started. With luck, all the training would help pass the time a bit faster. And then, just maybe, she would actually be able to spend some time with Mal again.
“And… There we go!” Garnisic dropped the piece of metal into the enchanting oil, stepping back as it hissed and bubbled with ferocity. “One love trinket, ready for use.”
“Oh, thank you!” The young girl standing in front of him practically danced with joy. “Just give it to him?”
Garnisic nodded. “You might want to try slipping it to him subtlety. If you just hand it to him and he notices that he’s more attracted to you instantly, it might make him suspicious.” With that, he used the tongs to reach into the bucket and pull out the golden chain, a necklace of some value that was now just a bit more devious. “Enjoy.”
“Oh, thank you!” The girl repeated, scooped up the necklace, and ran out of the room. As the wooden door banged shut, Garnisic sighed deeply.
“You are helping that girl lie.” Ondernifam rumbled from the corner, where he sat on a large, wooden chair that Garnisic had reinforced with mildly enchanted steel nails.
“No, I’m not.” Garnisic crossed his arms and turned to glare at the orc. “I’m helping her find love.”
“If she truly loved the boy, she would go out and slay his brother, then bring him his head!” Ondernifam roared. “You are just making him think that she killed his brother!”
“No, I’m really not.” Garnisic shook his head and rolled his eyes. No wonder the orcish population didn’t grow very fast. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“No.” Ondernifam crossed his arms. “The elves here are pathetic. None of them can beat me in combat! So I am sitting here.” Ondernifam nodded. “Hopefully you will catch on fire soon. That would be funny!”
The orc snorted quite loudly and grinned down at Garnisic. Garnisic sighed as his tusks pricked his skin, drawing blood and allowing the substance to drip down into his mouth.
“That’s why you’ve been sitting in here for the last two weeks? Hoping I’ll slip up and catch myself on fire?”
Ondernifam laughed again. “It would be like setting a small bush on fire! Except that you could run around and set other things on fire too!”
Garnisic patted his enchanting clothes. “You do realize that all this is fireproof, right?”
Ondernifam’s face went from happy to annoyed in mere seconds. “No.”
“Well, it is.” Garnisic turned back to the forge, hoping that a stray spark wouldn’t suddenly and embarrassingly prove him wrong. “I won’t catch on fire.”
“Then…” Ondernifam stammered for a moment. “Perhaps I will sit here anyway.”
Garnisic sighed and nodded slowly. In all reality, he couldn’t blame the orc for wanting to hide away. Sapphire was tolerated on the grounds, as humans weren’t that far removed from elves, but dwarves and orcs were basically just vermin. It had taken a miracle and three weeks of the king’s persuasion before Lord Apician had allowed for the construction of the small dwarven forge on the premise. The only condition was that whatever Garnisic created had to be presented to Lord Apician before it could be used, and he had to field requests from any of the elves on the estate that needed anything.
“Hey.” Garnisic turned to the shelf of enchanting supplies, eyes roaming across the sparse materials that he had to work with. “How would you like me to make you a training statue?”
Ondernifam snorted. “Killing a statue is easy.”
“Yeah, but a statue that heals itself?” Garnisic eyes several of the same materials that he had used to sculpt his hammer. The hammer that he still hadn’t figured out how to control. “And maybe one that runs around the area randomly?”
Ondernifam nodded rapidly. “Yes!”
“Then I’ll do it!” Garnisic nodded firmly. “Go steal me a statue. Metal, preferably. Maybe from one of the shrines that doesn’t get much company.”
Ondernifam leapt to his feet and bounded out the door in an instant. Garnisic watched him go, then shrugged and turned back to his work. If he could actually make something like that… It would be a great deal of fun to watch, and with luck, he wouldn’t even get drawn and quartered over it.
As he reached for the enchanting supplies, he hesitated. Something just felt… Familiar. The items lined up nearby, the tongs in his hands, the blue fire that crackled and flared in the protective ring. It was a feeling that he was having more and more, a feeling that something just wasn’t quite right.
“What did I do with you?” He reached out and picked up a diamond, turning it over in his thick fingers. He carefully held it up to the nearby window, smiling as the beams of yellow warmth were refracted through the perfect gem. He could picture it in the tongs, glowing from the fire of the forge, cracking and pouring energy down over something red.
He closed his eyes and shook his head. It didn’t make sense! He didn’t often use diamonds in his enchanting. They could make tools nearly invincible, but a tool that never broke was often far less useful than a tool that could shoot fire or slice through rock. And, if his memory was serving him right, he had broken it over another gemstone? Why do that? What would be the point?
“Hey.” The door cracked open, allowing Hesione to step inside. “How’s it going?”
“As good as it can be, I suppose.” Garnisic hmphed. “I mean, what are we doing here anyway? Just waiting for Mal and Simon to get back from whatever realm they’re trapped in, right?”
“More or less.” Hesione nodded and sat down on the chair that Ondernifam had been occupying. “The brothers are trapped, the realm is saved. Of course, there’s all the politics with my father, but I’m trying to stay out of that for the most part. And I think that’s the way he wants it.”
Garnisic sighed and nodded. “How are the negotiations coming?”
“Not particularly well.” Hesione shook her head. “How much have you followed?”
“As little as possible.” Garnisic snorted and dropped down onto another chair. “Anything good?”
“Not in the slightest.” Hesione shook her head. “The Apician Family demanded the city of Nettingo for themselves. The King would still rule Elsinor as a whole, but the Apician Province would be a new, independently functioning subsection of the country.”
“That just happens to hold the ruling city.” Garnisic shook his head. “And how is that going for them?”
“As I said, not well.” Hesione shrugged. “I think Lord Apician was hoping that the problems with the angels would allow her to move and settle down before the other High Families noticed. Unfortunately, they did. All four other High Families have sent delegates here, they’re busy hashing everything out right now. It’s not going particularly well.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Garnisic sighed and closed his eyes. Once more, the flames, the fire, it danced before his eyes. Slowly, he opened his eyes again and shrugged. “Does anything seem weird about this situation?”
Hesione shrugged. “The fact that we’re still all together? Despite the fact that there really isn’t any reason for us to be with each other anymore?”
“Oh, come on.” Garnisic huffed. “We moved past that a long time ago. I mean…” He sighed and stroked his beard. “All this. The battle of the realmship. It just feels like there’s something missing.”
Hesione frowned and crossed her arms. “Like what?”
“I don’t know.” Garnisic frowned. “Like… Why did we need the Apician army to attack the ship?”
Hesione shrugged. “We needed them to attack and capture the brothers.”
“No.” Garnisic shook his head. “The brothers trapped themselves in their escape pod thing. Simon and Mal took care of the jump drive. We didn’t need the army at all. So why did we bring them? Why risk all of Elsinor for something that wasn’t necessary?”
Hesione shrugged. “It… It was necessary.”
“But how?” Garnisic just sighed and shrugged. “I’m sorry. Something just doesn’t seem right. Like I’ve forgotten something. Like everyone’s forgotten something.”
Hesione shrugged and climbed back to her feet. “If we did, it would be the largest number of people in all of history to simultaneously forget the same thing.”
“And how could that be proven?” Garnisic raised an eyebrow. “Maybe there was a time when everyone on Calsin forgot something. No one would ever know.”
Hesione flashed a smile down at him, a warm, kind smile. “You’re really something, you know that?”
“I will take that as a deep compliment.” Garnisic hopped down off the chair and turned to the enchanting table. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have a statue to enchant.”
Hesione had a moment to look confused before Ondernifam burst back through the door, a frown on his face. He held a small bust of an elven general, hopefully no one incredibly powerful or important. Hesione sighed, covered her eyes, and stepped out of the room. As it banged shut, Ondernifam dropped the statue onto the grate and took a step back. Garnisic whistled and dropped several gemstones onto the grate next to the statue, then pulled a lever to swing the whole thing out over the flames. As it started to heat up, he turned towards the eager-looking orc that drooled over the forge.
“Hey, Ondi.” Garn smirked as the orc snarled at the misuse of his name. “After I get this done…” He took a deep breath. “Want to come help me figure something out?”
“The Filisan Family will not accept these terms.” The young man crossed his golden arms and stood his ground. Paulin had to admit that it was a quite impressive show, as his pure white robes stood out quite well against the orange and red fall colors that had been used to decorate the throne room. “We demand an equal slice as the Concercian Family.”
“Your demands imply that the Filisan Family is of equal worth to the Concercian Family.” A somewhat older woman with braided golden lochs that fell nearly to the floor, quite fantastically accenting the deep blue robes that she wore, turned and stared at the Filisan ambassador. “The Filisans have spent their lives digging in the soil, a feat that simple farmers and merchants accomplish. The Concercians have provided Elsinor with wonder and beauty, inspiring those simple merchants to do their bidding without falling into depression. We are the heart of Elsinor.”
“You’ll forgive me for saying so, but the Apician Family has already been given the heart.” Lord Apician stared down from her throne, her deep, piercing eyes boring into everyone in the room. “Do you dispute this, King Regent Paulin?”
Paulin sighed and stepped forward. The long, ceremonial robes that fell from his shoulders seemed intent on dragging him to the ground, and even in the cool fall air, sweat beaded under his clothing.
“Lord Apician.” Paulin inclined his head. It was the first time he had spoken during the meeting that afternoon, and as such, was required to address everyone there. “Ladies Concercian and Botolan. Ambassador Filisan. Regent Therigan.”
The Botolan Lady, a woman dressed in brilliant red robes patterned with gold leaves, narrowed her eyes at Paulin. “And what gives you the right to place Lady Concercian before the Botolan Family?”
“Forgive me for perceived offense.” Paulin held up a hand, at an angel of thirty degrees from his body, a sign more or less equivalent to I’m-sorry-but-not-really. “Lady Concercian is the daughter of Lord Concercian, whereas you, while maintaining the same rank, are a cousin of Lord Botolan. Thus, her name will be listed first. I do appreciate your dedication to testing my training, but I assume you, I am more than competent to hold this position.”
“I’m afraid this comes as a bit of a shock.” Regent Therigan, an older man whose golden hair had turned white, dipped his head. “There have been many rumors surrounding your absence from the court. Many believe that, while you were only gone from Elsinor for five years, you aged nearly thirty in that amount of time.”
“While your concern for my health is touching, I believe that personal condolences should properly come after a resolution has been reached.” Paulin held up his hands, then folded them and turned back to Lord Apician. “In answer, you have been given Nettingo, yes. Whether this place remains the heart of Elsinor is yet to be seen. Building crews have not had much success in rebuilding the city thus far. Only one bridge remains across the crater, and most of the workers grow sick and die long before ever reaching the bridge in the first place. We do not yet understand the nature of the weapon that the angels used, but we suspect that it somehow poisoned the land. If this cannot be undone, Nettingo may never be rebuilt.”
Lord Apician’s eyes narrowed. The report was nothing that she hadn’t heard before, as Paulin, the King, and the Lord had spent many a night discussing the prospects. Lady Apician had demanded that she be given the land surrounding whatever city became the new capitol, while the King maintained her claim over Nettingo in specific. And now, she was daring Paulin to voice those same words in front of the other High Families.
“I presume that if this is the case, the Apician Family will be succinctly given a different section of land more suited to our contributions?”
The ambassadors collectively opened their mouths to argue, and Paulin raised a hand.
“Silence.” When everyone had quieted down, Paulin took a deep breath. “In the laws of Elsinor, drawn up by the Botolan Family and confirmed by the King, Scroll Seventeen: Ownership of Property and Stewardship of Open Land, provides specific rules for land granted by both king and commoner. If a contract is drawn granting a piece of land, and the land contains a defect, and the purchaser knows of the defect, the previous owner cannot be held liable for the defect. If a contract is drawn granting a piece of land, and the land contains a defect, and after the sale has been complete, the defect becomes worse than before, the previous owner cannot be held liable for the defect. I could read the various subsets of these for quite some time, but the gist is clear.”
Paulin turned and faced Lord Apician. “Shall I read the contract that you signed in the presence of the King? In it, you acknowledge that city was destroyed, and that the extent of the damage is unknown. You accepted responsibility for excess defects on the land. Therefore, if the King was to cancel this contract on your request, it would place you above the law itself.”
A few small claps echoed from the ambassadors in the room, and Paulin felt Lord Apician’s cold eyes boring into his head. He hoped that they would be the only things boring into his head. Slowly, he turned and faced the ambassadors. “I stand with you today for the same reason that I have stood with you on previous days. My father, King of Elsinor, seeks to please all of you, but Elsinor’s government has been crippled by these trying times. Reports come in from the western cities that crime has reached a peak not seen for hundreds of years. Troop movements have been spotted in Sintison. It is likely that, in our weakened state, we have become a target for both criminals and other countries alike.”
Lady Concercian frowned at him. “Are you saying that the support of the High Families is worth less to you than common criminals?”
“What I am saying is that if we are invaded, there may not be an Elsinor left for you to inherit.” Paulin placed a single thumb of his right hand into the pocket of his robe, signifying urgency. “My father is setting up a temporary hub of command in Toristour. He has called all surviving court officials from across Elsinor to meet him there and begin to set up a government again.”
Lord Apician sneered. “And when were you going to tell me this?”
Paulin turned and raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t the most professional act, but it was what he wanted to do. “Right now. Which I did in front of the other High Families.” He turned back to the ambassadors, who all seemed more than a bit shocked. The seat of power in Elsinor hadn’t moved in thousands of years. Paulin was privately more than a bit thankful that he had received word from his father earlier that day that the hub was actually coming together. With Lord Apician claiming the land immediately around Nettingo, Paulin knew that none of the other Families would be truly satisfied until they received the exact same inheritance. Now, if they were lucky, the Families would begin to fight amongst themselves over the distribution of land. After all, if the great Apician Family was given a poisoned territory, would any of the other Families even want to leave their current estates?
“I see.” Regent Therigan finally nodded and sighed. “I do hope you’ll forgive me for saying so, but I believe this meeting should adjourn. I must send word back home, and I suspect that the rest of you need to do the same.”
With that, Regent Therigan turned and began hobbling away, his ancient legs struggling to hold himself up. An Apician throne assistant moved to assist him, but he waved the help away. In only a few moments, he had wandered from the room, leaving the remaining ambassadors to continue to stare, dumbfounded.
“I do not like this turn of events.” Lord Apician stood up from her throne and stepped down onto the floor, walking up to Paulin. Her eyes were piercing, blazing with light and fury. The other ambassadors held their stance, but only just. “This was not cleared through me.”
“My father is the king.” Paulin countered. “He doesn’t need to clear things with you. The Apician Family, all of the High Families, have been granted many privileges over the years. If those privileges are being abused, then perhaps it is time that they be relinquished.”
Paulin felt his chest constructing even as he said the words. The king had ordered him to make the threat, under the belief that the Families would bend if they thought their power might be taken away.
“You would not dare.” Lord Apician breathed. “We have given everything to the people of Elsinor.”
“No.” Paulin turned to face all the ambassadors at once. “You have given a fraction of your resources to Elsinor, in the hopes that it would bring you more profit in return. The people of Elsinor are in constant fear of you, fear that their cities be sacked and their lives be taken on a whim.” He took a step forward. “I can assure you of one thing. Come to Elsinor’s aid now, and your current status will remain. Leave Elsinor to burn, and you will receive no assistance when other countries lead armies against your strongholds. Do you think Sintison will be as lenient as we have been?”
He crossed his arms, delivering what he hoped would be the most powerful line of them all. “In the past, you used your wealth and resources to buy your power. Now, I’m telling you that to keep your power, you’re going to have to keep giving it. Am I clear?”
The other ambassadors simply held his gaze. Lady Botolan tilted her head back, looking down her nose at him. With a flourish, she turned and swept away, her wooden shoes clacking on the marble floor. Lady Concercian did the same, leaving with a flourish that could only have signified disgust. Ambassador Filisan stood for a moment longer, indecision written on his face. Lord Apician hissed in his direction, and he bowed before Paulin before turning and walking away. As he left the throne room, Lord Apician slowly climbed back up to the seat of power.
“Well.” She slowly sat down, her cold gaze not moving from Paulin’s eyes. “This was a turn of events.”
“It was, my lady.” Paulin turned back and dipped his head. “Speak. I will not hold your words against you.”
“I have given you everything.” Lord Apician sneered. “I provided the king a home when Nettingo was destroyed. I allowed you to use my horses and my men in the attack against the dark angels. I allowed the creatures to be imprisoned in my own pond. What gives you the right to treat me like this?”
“Everything.” Paulin inclined his head. “The fact that you intended to take the seat of power in Elsinor from the king, for starters. The contract that we signed was worded cleverly, I’ll award you that.” Paulin’s own gaze darkened to match Lord Apician’s. “Did you not think we would notice the clause that you slipped in? That no official declaration may be made inside your borders without the consent of the current Apician Lord?” Paulin raised an eyebrow. “The king would have been powerless. I personally can’t blame you for attempting to wrangle power, I would have tried to do the same if I were in your position. But it’s not going to work.”
Lord Apician’s gaze never left Paulin’s face, though it did soften somewhat. “I will sit on the throne of Elsinor. Someday, somehow. I swear it.”
“Such words could easily see you placed in a dungeon.” Paulin smirked, then sighed. “I do beg your forgiveness for springing it upon you so suddenly.”
“Forgiveness is granted.” Lord Apician sighed. “Your actions, while snake-like… Were prudent.” She allowed the barest flicker of a smile to cross her face. “You may have been absent from the court for many years, but you still retain the quick mind of any ambassador. I could use someone like you in my household.” She tapped her fingers on the armrests of the throne. “In politics, one must not take political maneuvers personally. As such, I do hope you won’t take it too hard if I’m forced to order your assassination.”
Paulin chuckled. It was the type of joke that only two high-level politicians would find funny. The joke, of course, was not intended sarcasm, but a dull reminder that such things were more than possible, that a friend could literally stab a friend in the back, and that such things were not only common, but necessary.
“I look forward to the day I bring you the severed head of the man who dared attempt to knock me off.”
Lord Apician only gave him a small smile before nodding at the massive doors to the throne room. Paulin inclined his head in her direction, an acknowledgement that he was beholden to her domain, and he turned and swept away. The doors swung open as he approached, held by Apician guards who stared at him as if he was a great abomination. He just smirked and kept going, ignoring their hatred.
As the doors banged shut, he found himself in the ornate entry hall of the Apician Estate. Grand and fantastic banners hung from the walls, embroidered with scenes from great battles that Paulin was fairly certain that the Apician Family had never actually fought. A handful of doors branched off to other wings of the castle, leading to guest rooms, kitchens, banquet halls, and quite possibly far more. Paulin hadn’t had a great deal of time to go exploring, and he didn’t suspect that he would really be able to just wander around the castle freely. In fact, Lord Apician had insisted that he be given an escort at all times, so that he wouldn’t become lost around the large estate. At first, he had accepted the offer with as much grace as he could muster. Now, though…
“King Regent Paulin.” A woman in a long, flowing blue robe stepped forward from where she had stood by one of the pillars. “How was your time in court? Are you in need of any refreshment or sustenance?”
“I am, yes.” Paulin inclined his head. “The negotiations are proving… Taxing. Please, lead the way.”
“I know just the place.” The woman nodded and swept through a doorway, leading him into the series of hallways and rooms that made up the vast majority of the castle. Paulin did his best to keep his mental bearings as they wandered the halls, but after they passed the main banquet hall and primary kitchens, the hallways became far more convoluted and twisted. Though he had never actually confirmed it, he suspected that the design was intentional, to ensure that anyone with less than honorable intentions would become lost and confused far easier than otherwise. Only someone who truly knew the castle would be able to navigate it well.
As such, he quickly became lost as the woman led him deeper and deeper into the castle. They had only ever gone this far once or twice before, and it had always been for very specific purposes. When they finally arrived at the small tavern near the rear of the castle, Paulin was more than ready to sit down. The woman simply smiled and pushed the door open, revealing a small room holding no more than ten tables and a tiny bar staffed by an elf with mottled skin.
“Benjor.” The woman inclined her head. “I need two plates of steamed tomatoes, a bowl of your stew, and two mugs of juice, whatever you have on stock.”
The mixed elf inclined his head before turning and vanishing through a door, presumably into a series of storerooms or something. The woman then gestured at a table, where Paulin happily sat down. For a moment, Paulin simply took a deep breath and glanced around. There were no windows, the only light source came from a handful of torches blazing on the walls. Magic was definitely in use, as the smoke from the torches curled up and away, through a small hole in the middle of the ceiling.
“What is this place?” Paulin breathed. “I’ve never seen it before.”
“It’s a private tavern for the low-level court officials.” The woman flashed a smile. “I don’t even think Lord Apician knows about it. The walls are magically shielded, so no one can spy. It’s a place to just come and complain about anything and everything you want.”
Paulin frowned. “Should I be here, then? I’m not exactly a low-level official.”
“You’re the scum of the world as far as Lord Apician is concerned.” The woman smiled. “And… It means we can actually spend some time together.” The mottled elf brought out a large tray filled with the food that the woman had requested, placing it on the table. The woman smiled up at him, and he smiled back before turning and vanishing into the rear of the shop again. “Now, tell me that doesn’t sound nice.”
Paulin felt a small smile crawling across his face. “You know what? It really does.”
For a moment, they just stared at each other, before breaking into laughter. The woman’s name was Kisidera Apician, and she was… Well, exactly what she claimed to be. A low-level court official often given menial tasks or assignments where they needed someone to look pretty. And oh, she was gorgeous. Her golden hair looked like it was made from the precious metal itself, her eyes looked like they held every star in the night sky.
“So, tell me what happened in there. Exactly.” Kisidera leaned forward. “I was able to overhear some of it, but I couldn’t get everything.” She flashed a smile. “Those ambassadors left in a hurry, though.”
“Yes, they did at that.” Paulin smiled, relishing the memory. He knew that he probably shouldn’t be talking to the girl. He knew that he probably should have been spending more time with Hesione and her friends, but… It was just nice to actually have someone who understood what he did for a living. “The short version is that their plans aren’t working out as well as they thought, and they don’t really like the alternatives that we’re coming up with.”
“That sounds like everything that happens with these High Families.” Kisidera smirked. “Never happy, but never willing to put in any real work to change things. They just expect their past contributions to pay for the world.”
Paulin smirked and picked up the mug of juice, slowly taking a sip. It was a rich nectar, a finer concoction than anything he had drank in recent memory. “That sounds like something that could get you thrown out of your Family.”
Kisidera smiled and held up her hands. “As I said, this room is magically sealed. It’s nice to be able to gripe about things now and again.”
“I can imagine.” Paulin puffed out his cheeks and slowly took a bite of one of the steamed tomatoes. The juice trickled down his chin, and he wiped it away. “It’s been a… It’s been a long time since I’ve just been able to vent without fear of discovery.”
“Then do it.” Kisidera smiled and leaned forward. “Get it all out. Rant about how much you can’t stand the Apician Family. Just… Go!”
Paulin took a deep breath. “It’s not that I don’t like the Apician Family. It’s not that I don’t like the High Families. I just…” He shrugged. “I’ve been away from the court for a long time. There’s something nice about traveling with dwarves and orcs and humans. Garnisic will let you know anytime something is wrong, Ondernifam will say anything the moment it crosses his mind, and Sapphire… Sapphire is just Sapphire, I guess.” He sighed. “These court dealings are the exact opposite. Everyone has to say things that they don’t mean. When and how I say things is as important as what I say. And even if everyone knows exactly what I mean, I can’t actually say what I mean, because that would be improper.”
“You’re still doing it.” Kisidera smirked. “Just go. Let it out.”
“Fine!” Paulin felt a smile growing on his face as he let loose. “I can’t stand it. The Families are so concerned about what they want, what’s best for themselves, that they’re willing to let the rest of Elsinor burn. They’re selfish, they’re spiteful, and they think so much higher of themselves than they should.” He held up his hands. “I mean, come on. They’re rich land barons that no one can take seriously. They don’t even take each other seriously, each one just thinks that they’re the pinnacle of elven society. Why should we? Why should everyone in Elsinor bow to their wishes when they can’t even convince the king that their services are worthwhile? If they were actually of any major use, they would have integrated themselves into Elsinor’s structure and never left, rather than forming it and then withdrawing.”
“Good.” Kisidera leaned forward. “Keep going.”
Paulin felt like a massive, constricted ball of tension was slowly draining out of him. “I just don’t even know what to do. We came to the Apician Family because we needed help taking on the brothers, a threat that could have destroyed our entire realm, and they were more concerned with the politics than the world. Now that it’s over, I’m left dealing with them, and it makes me wonder if we should have just left the realm to burn.” Kisidera laughed, and he tore forward, letting his entire mind pour out. “I just don’t even know anymore. We’re just waiting for the next world-ending threat to pop up, and I honestly can’t wait anymore. I want to get out of here, I want to actually have a goal to work towards, and I want to move on from this weird relationship I have with my sister.”
Even as the words left his mouth, he froze. Kisidera’s eyes narrowed, and she leaned forward. “Your sister?”
Paulin sighed and lowered his head. His mouth opened and shut several times as he desperately tried to come up with some sort of an explanation that would save him. Nothing came to mind. “Hesione.” He finally nodded and looked back up. “When I left the palace, I was chasing after her. I only found out a few months ago that she ran because my father placed a hex on her. We were secretly siblings, and he didn’t want us getting married. For obvious reasons. And since we found out, things have just been… Weird.”
Kisidera frowned and nodded slowly. “You still want to be with her?”
Paulin shook his head. “There was a time when I did. When I found out, I didn’t doubt that it was true, I just…” He shrugged. “I didn’t want it to be. I had been in love with her for years, and it was hard to give that up. Now… Now, I just want to tear off the splint and get on with things.”
Kisidera smiled, a pristine smile that outshone every torch in the bar. “Any way I can help?”
“Maybe.” Paulin grinned. “How would…”
Kisidera reached across the table and grabbed his robes, pulling him forward. Her lips met his for a quick peck before she let go, dropping back onto her side of the food. Paulin fell back as well, unable to contain the smile that now sat firmly on his face.
“Forgive me.” Kisidera smoothed her robes and blushed. “It’s probably inappropriate to kiss the King Regent.”
Paulin shrugged. “I think it would be more inappropriate not to kiss him.” Kisidera blushed even more, and Paulin grimaced. That might not have been the best response. After a moment, he held out his hand and stood up. “I’ve heard that the western forest on the estate is quite beautiful, with the leaves turning red. I’ve been meaning to take a look. Any chance you’d want to come with me?”
“I’d love that.” Kisidera took his hand and stood up as well. For a moment, Paulin just stared into her eyes, allowing himself to become lost in their depths. Finally, he turned and stepped out of the bar, into the hallway, Kisidera on his arm.
It was… A bit of a whirlwind situation. He had long considered Kisidera to be quite beautiful, but he had assumed that it would be inappropriate for him to begin a relationship. Especially with Hesione around, it was just weird. That said, in that moment, it just felt nice. He didn’t care what Hesione would think. She was his sister. She had been the one to tell him. And even if she hadn’t let him know… She had run from him for so many years of his life. Maybe it was just time to move on.
“What are we doing?” Ondernifam tramped after Garnisic, never letting up his tirade of questions. “I want to fight the statue!”
“You’ll be able to.” Garnisic assured him, sighing deeply. The training statue had turned out quite marvelous, he had to admit. He had applied the exact same enchantments that he had used on his current hammer, which meant that it would randomly leap in an unpredictable direction, shatter upon impact, and then heal itself afterwards. “I just want to check on something first.”
As they made their way up towards the main castle from the small enchanting forge, Garnisic saw a small door in the side of the castle open up. Paulin came walking out, holding hands with an attendant that Garnisic had seen around. He smirked, then turned back to business. What Paulin did was Paulin’s business. He just hoped that he wasn’t around when Hesione found out. Sapphire could handle that mess.
Instead, Garnisic wandered up and over the hill, into full view of the enormous Apician pond that the Family was so proud of. It was a massive lake, nearly a mile across, from what Garnisic could tell. On the far side, an entire fishing-style village had been built up to provide a sense of living by the sea, while dozens of boats sat along the shores, waiting to be sailed.
Of course, most of the lakeside activities had been abandoned due to the fact that all the dark angels were being stored at the bottom. Even though it was mid-day, Garnisic could still see the flickering bursts of healing energy as the creatures attempted to heal themselves enough to escape. It wasn’t working, though. They had been trapped for months, and they were going to be trapped for many months more. Barring, of course, some sort of major disaster that allowed them to escape.
“What are we doing here?” Ondernifam rumbled. “Isn’t this forbidden?”
Garnisic opened his mouth to reply, then smirked. Ondernifam was easier to manipulate than anyone else he knew. “Yes. Yes it is.”
“Good!” Ondernifam roared. “Who shall we slay?”
“You’re going to stay on the surface.” Garnisic reached into his pocket and pulled out a small totem of waterbreathing. He had crafted it during his time in the king’s enchanting forge, not wanting to be without one again. “I’m going to go down and bring up one of the dark angels. You keep him from escaping, I interrogate him. Then you rip his head off and I take him back down again. Got it?”
“Got it!” Ondernifam roared.
Garnisic just smirked and walked up to the water’s edge. He glanced back and forth, hoping that none of the Apicians decided to walk past right at that moment. Thankfully, not many of them cared to spend much time near the lake anymore, a fact that Garnisic was just fine with. With a snap of his fingers, he crushed the totem, allowing its magic to flow into his body.
With that, he jumped in. Thankfully, it wasn’t hard to sink to the bottom, as he was naturally quite dense. He landed on the bottom of the lake, the surface of the water only a few feet above his head, and slowly took a short breath. The water flowed into his lugs, swirled around, and went back out. After he was convinced that the enchantment had worked and he wasn’t going to drown, he nodded and set off across the lakebed, making his way down towards the stones that the angels had been tied to.
It took him nearly five minutes to wander all the way out to the makeshift prison. The water grew darker and colder far faster than the much clearer ocean water, and he began to grow increasingly nervous by the number of strange, dark shapes that moved just outside his line of sight. Thankfully, nothing came up to try and eat him, which was a nice bonus.
It was, in a way, a fantastic sight to start catching glimpses of the flickering healing energies of the angels. As he wandered into view, he found the roughly three dozen angels scattered across the floor, tethered to large boulders that were now quite buried in the mud. Many of the angels were buried as well, in some places, only their dark wings protruded from the silt.
“Here we go.” Garnisic muttered, relishing the way that his voice reverberated through the water. “Where are you, Ferguson?”
He began to step from body to body, trying not to step on them, more out of fear for what might happen than out of respect for them. Eventually, he came to a face that he knew altogether too well. He had only met Ferguson once, maybe twice, but Simon had drawn up several sketches to make sure they knew who it was if the occasion happened upon them. And… There he was.
Of course, the extra measures taken to restrain him would have been enough for identification. He was tied to two stones, not just one, and looked like a proper pincushion. Three swords had been rammed through his chest, daggers had been lodged in other key points, and no fewer than five arrows had been shot through his head. Garnisic winced, then sighed. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small knife, quickly slicing through the waterlogged ropes that held Ferguson in place. That done, he grabbed the boy’s arm and pulled the glowing angel back across the lakebed.
It took longer than before, as the swords and arrows kept catching on rocks and underwater plants. Eventually, though, he reached the edge and hauled what really should have been a corpse up onto the shore. Ondernifam was still there, an eager look on his face, thankfully without any curious Apician guards.
“Hold him down.” Garnisic nodded at the boy, who was now sprawled out across the mud like… Well, like a corpse, despite the fact that he still looked like he had only died moments earlier instead of months before.
Ondernifam nodded, knelt down, and placed a massive paw on his chest. Garnisic then proceeded to begin yanking out the various sharp objects, starting with the less lethal ones and working up to the arrows lodged in Ferguson’s skull.
It was more than a bit concerning as he worked, noticing that the flesh seemed to heal just as fast as he yanked things out. Skin simply snapped back in place, and he could hear Ferguson’s bones rearranging themselves as the damage from the swords was undone. Finally, as he yanked out the arrows, pulling out more than a bit of brain, the skin healed with a hiss, light blazed from the angel’s eyes, and Ferguson came fully back to life.
“Ack!” He gave a mighty cough, splattering up a large quantity of lakewater. Garnisic grimaced at the stench, then sat back as Ferguson tried to regain his strength. Finally, he took a deep breath and scowled at Garnisic. “What’s going on?”
“We’re questioning you.” Garnisic crossed his arms. “I need to know some things.”
“I’ll kill every last one of you.” Ferguson swore.
“No, you won’t. But you know that. Use your breath for things we need to know.” Garnisic knelt down next to Ferguson’s head. “What happened when we attacked your ship?”
Ferguson laughed. “Simon betrayed us and we were all captured. What more do you want?”
“There was something more.” Garnisic leaned forward. “There was a reason that we gathered the Apician army. I just don’t know what it is. And I need to know.”
“Oh, really?” Ferguson raised an eyebrow. “And what’s that worth to you?”
“It’s worth him not ripping your arms off.” Garnisic shrugged. “You’ll just regrow them, so it’s nothing on my conscience, but I bet that it hurts.”
“If I scream, others come running.” Ferguson sneered. “You’re doing this in secret. There’s no one else around. If you get caught, I don’t have to tell you anything.”
“And you get put right back into that pond where you were.” Garnisic countered. “What’s that like, anyway? Always healing just enough to realize that you’re drowning?”
“It’s not pleasant.” Ferguson finally admitted, then sighed. “By the gods, if they erased your memories, they’re a bigger threat than we obviously were. Maybe it’ll go get you all killed.” He crossed his arms, carefully avoiding Ondernifam’s claws. “There were a bunch of dwarves in the forest. Our scanners couldn’t really pinpoint what they were doing there, they were using enchantments that scrambled all forms of electromagnetic energy. We weren’t too worried about them since we were just going to destroy everything anyway.”
Garnisic felt his breath grow cold. “The Fond’sar.”
Ferguson raised an eyebrow. “They’re evil?”
“The worst in the realm.”
Ferguson laughed. “That’s not true.”
Garnisic swore and leaned into Ferguson’s face. “And why do you say that?”
“Because I’ve been to a lot of realms.” Ferguson sneered and leaned upward as much as Ondernifam would allow him. “I’ve seen a lot of things, and I’ve seen some true danger. I’ve faced down monsters the size of planets, and I’ve met with demons whose only desire was to see other people in pain. And you know what?”
Ondernifam snorted. “What?”
Ferguson just chuckled. “Nothing holds a candle to this realm. Our ship was blown out of the sky before we even entered the atmosphere. You know what did it? One orc. One single orc. That ship has stood up to creatures a thousand times more deadly, and your realm destroyed it in minutes. And you’re still doing it.” He shook his head. “This place deserves to be destroyed. If anything escaped, if technology is allowed to progress, Calsin will rain destruction across the multiverse. You have my word on that.”
“Well, then.” Garnisic smirked. “It’s a good thing I don’t really hold your word to anything. Ondernifam?”
Ondernifam roared and bit Ferguson in the face. Garnisic glanced away as healing energies began to pour through the angel’s body, and he sighed.
“Alright, then.” He grabbed Ferguson’s corpse and tossed the body back into the water. “I’ll take it back down. Go…” He sighed. “Go spar with the statue. I’ll be up in a bit.”
Ondernifam nodded and turned, bounding away into the estate. Garnisic just bit his lip as he slowly jumped back into the lake and pulled Ferguson back down into the depths.
The Fond’sar… The Fond’sar had been there. They had been at the battle, and they had wiped the minds of everyone there. Not just the core team, but the minds of the soldiers and the court officials who happened to stay back at the Apician Estate. And, worst of all…
Worst of all, the Fond’sar had probably been behind the dwarven scrappers that took the realmship after the battle. The King had handed the ship to the Fond’sar. And now they were going to pay for their actions, whatever that ultimately meant.
His mind went wild, pursuing the various implications and what that could mean. Would the Fond’sar be able to build a ship that powerful? Would they be able to just travel to other realms, gathering power? Would they build a bomb much like the one that the angels had built?
He was so lost in thought, so consumed by what they might have unleashed on the world, that he didn’t feel Ferguson’s body moving of its own accord until, with a mighty kick, the angel healed fully and broke free from his grasp, vanishing into the depths.
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