By the end of the second day at Fort Fortitude, talks were not going any smoother than they had on the first. Tarwin seemed every bit as determined to implicate Maximilian in the destruction of Freelands towns as Maximilian was to prove himself innocent. Unfortunately neither of them had any firm evidence either way, so matters swiftly degenerated to a shouting match of epic proportions, with several delegates from both sides declaring they needed to go and lie down because of headaches.
Troyston, anxious to reign in his father’s temper, frequently found himself in the firing line between the heads of state, but held his ground valiantly until one guard from each side of the argument removed him from his place in the middle of the negotiating table, and ejected him from the room. Tiernach, making calm assessment of the situation, earned a number of chuckles from his sire with remarks that were as logical as they were insulting. Aleana looked up from the courtyard to the window where she could hear the battle of words raging, and sighed. Tonight was party night, or so Maximilian had announced, on his adopted-daughter’s advice, and everyone from the council meetings was invited. Aleana hoped it wasn’t going to end up like the meetings themselves.
“Bloody fools!” Troyston cursed aloud as he paced along the riverbank, the setting sun glittering on the water, turning it a deep orange. “Bloody, stupid, ignorant fools!” He slapped at a low hanging willow branch, sending it whipping out of his way at considerable pace, whacking into the bark of the tree’s trunk with a satisfyingly loud smack. Increasing the length of his stride, he continued his monologue with increasing ferocity, causing the two lutrani children heading the other way down the path to scamper out of his way after one look at his expression, peeping out of the bushes only after he was long past.
Viciously kicking a stone, he watched as it bounced along the path, finally thudding to a halt some twenty yards ahead of him, only to be propelled along again as he caught it up. On the third kick, the stone took off at a considerable angle, impacting the branch of a pine tree whose sturdy limbs overhung the path. Displaying the immaculate timing which only nature can provide, a large pinecone detached itself, landing dead centre on Troyston’s head as he strode underneath the branch. With a roar of anger, he grabbed the pinecone from where it lay on the path, throwing it with all his might at the parent tree.
It bounced back, hitting him squarely in the face.
“Damn tree!” Troyston fumed, striding forward and kicking it, and being promptly reminded that wood is harder than flesh as his foot complained bitterly. He drew back his fist, aiming for the centre of the broad trunk.
“I wouldn’t,” a voice warned, a chuckle underlying the words.
Whack! “And why not?” the young man asked, gritting his teeth, his knuckles throbbing as they pressed tight against the bark.
“Because that tree won't move for you,” the voice continued, and Troyston turned to look to see who was talking. “Trees really have little care for our affairs,” the white haired old man went on, tapping his somewhat bent staff lightly on the ground as he spoke. “Their lives are long, their patience great.”
Troyston glared at the tree one more time, then returned to the path, his eyes scanning the far bank of the river for a moment, studiously ignoring the elder man. He turned to continue on his way, and nearly fell over him. “Out of my way, old man,” he growled, looking down from a height advantage of several inches.
The white robed man tilted his head, seemed to consider for a moment, then shook his head. “No,” he said.
“Do you have any idea whose way you are getting in?” Troyston glowered.
“Yes,” the old man nodded.
“Then get out of it!”
“No,” the old man said again, sounding half amused.
Exasperated, Troyston reached out a hand, intending to push the old man away to one side. In a blur of motion, the bent staff whirled, hitting him on his left shoulder, the impact sending him staggering sideways off the path, his feet slipping in the mud. With a shout of dismay he toppled over as the river rushed up to meet him.
He surfaced sputtering and coughing, water plastering his hair down across his face.
“Any more aggression you’d like to blow off?” the old man enquired mildly, looking as if this were a perfectly normal occurrence that might be followed by tea and crumpets.
“I… What… Who the hell are you?” Troyston spluttered, shaking the water out of his eyes.
“Fellirion Forester, Council of Magi,” the older man beamed, looking as cheerful as if he was giving out free cakes.
Troyston paused in wringing out his sodden tunic. “Just my luck,” he said, apparently to the water. He sat down again where he was in the shallows, the water coming up to his shoulders. “Just my bloody luck to pick a fight with a wizard,” he sighed ruefully.
“Picking fights does seem to run in your family.”
“What do you mean by that?” Troyston asked suspiciously, his eyes narrowing.
“Only what you yourself were already thinking. That your father’s determination to end the Irontooth rule of Lordenor is going to lead to trouble.”
“It isn’t him that’s starting trouble,” Troyston growled, standing up again. “It’s Irontooth,” he sloshed towards the bank.
“You believe that?” the old man asked quietly, watching Troyston shrewdly.
“Yes,” he said firmly. “No,” he said a moment later. “I don’t know,” he finished, flinging his arms out in exasperation.
“Good, you're the first person thinking clearly then!” The old man held out his staff. “Grab this.”
Troyston did so, and was hauled out of the water with unexpected strength. He eyed Fellirion warily as he pulled his tunic off over his head, wringing it out in a cascade of water.
“The thing to learn about politics,” Fellirion said conversationally as the young man watched the water drain from his clothing. “Is that everyone has their own agenda. Their own plan of how affairs should proceed. The problem arises when people become so set on those plans that they become a tree: immovable, and uncaring to the world around them. They think they can weather anything, but all it takes is one person with an axe to bring them crashing down in ruin.”
“You’re saying you think my father isn’t caring about what’s happening? That he’s so determined to bring down Irontooth that he’s not looking for the truth? That it’s going to lead him to…” he trailed off.
“No,” the old man shook his head. “I don’t really know him well enough that I can judge. The question is, do you think that?”
Troyston took a breath, let it out slowly. He put his tunic flat out on the grass and ran his hands down his arms, flinging droplets to the ground. He looked at the old man. “Yes, I do,” he said sadly, squeezing water out of his blonde hair.
“Then we have a problem,” Fellirion nodded, his suspicion confirmed.
“My father is a good man,” Troyston said, as if trying to push the matter aside.
“I have no doubt about that,” Fellirion said softly. “Were he otherwise, he would not be the first minister of the Freelands. But even the best of us may sometimes be… mistaken. Unfortunately, it is those of us in power who can least afford mistakes, for they tend have consequently larger repercussions than those made by the common populace.”
Hanging his head, Troyston looked at the ground, shivering as the breeze blew across him. “I just don’t know what to do,” he said in a small voice, sounding suddenly very vulnerable.
“First of all, do not panic,” Fellirion said firmly. “And second, do not get angry. Anger is what got your father to this point, and you don't strike me as wanting to follow his example.” his face broke into a smile as Troyston’s expression became sheepish.
“Are Lordenor and the Freelands still talking?” Fellirion asked.
“When is the next meeting planned?”
“King Irontooth has invited everyone to a state dinner tonight. I don’t know how many will attend though.”
“I will?” Troyston’s eyebrows went up a notch.
“Yes. I suspect you will find two things at this dinner. One will be troublemakers. Someone wants your nations to go to war, and they or their agents will most certainly be among those present. The other thing you will find will be people like yourself who want to see relations patched up before they degenerate further.”
“I see,” Troyston frowned. “I think I understand you. Irontooth claims innocence, and the Freelands certainly didn't start anything. You want me to find and talk to like minded people from Lordenor, and see if we can keep things going long enough to sort out who the real aggressor is.”
“Precisely. Do not underestimate the importance of this. If these talks go badly, the Freelands and Lordenor are likely to sever all ties and break into open hostility, which will not be good for anyone.”
Troyston nodded, swallowing nervously.
Aleana's hands tightened on the balcony rail as she suppressed a groan. All she had wanted was a few moments alone to clear her head, couldn’t they leave her alone just for a little while?
“Yes, Brigadier Riverthorn?”
“Your pardon, Princess,” the lutrani officer said gravely as he stood beside her, broad shoulders and perfect posture in contrast to the years that had laced his whiskery muzzle with grey. “I know you wanted a minute alone, however Troyston Goldwood Esquire of the Freelands wishes to speak with you, if possible.”
She regarded the brigadier for a few moments, studying his face closely. The immaculately uniformed lutrani was not known to idly allow intrusion against instruction – which was exactly why he was head of the Lordenor palace guard, and why the king had personally assigned him to watch over his daughter throughout the evening. That, and that if he felt Aleana must have a guardian for the night, the brigadier was her first choice as well. He had been a constant and valued companion to the royal family since before she had been brought into it, and had often accompanied them upon travels. If the brigadier's opinion was that this visitor was worthy of her attention, then he was most probably correct, Aleana thought.
“Son of the Freelands First Minister,” he prompted softly as she hesitated.
“Oh, yes, of course! Then yes, please, brigadier, let him pass.”
The lutrani nodded solemnly, turning to beckon a tall, handsome young man through the door behind him before stepping to one side to resume his guard.
He bowed from the waist. “Troyston Goldwood Esquire, of the Freelands, your highness.”
Aleana smiled. “So I am told, and you have no need to call me highness,” she said.
Troyston dipped his head. “Perhaps, but I'll risk seeming over-courteous given the current mood behind us,” he said, gesturing through the doorway, through which the various representatives of both their nations were ostensibly mingling. “May I talk to you, Princess Aleana?”
“You already are doing, Troyston Goldwood Esquire. I had wondered if you were related to the first minister when I saw you in the audience at the last meeting.”
“People say I have my father’s eyes,” Troyston smiled. “But the rest I take from my mother. Fortunately for all of us.”
Aleana smiled back, finding herself mildly amused by this well spoken young man.
“Do I recall rightly in seeing you overseeing several disputes in the last few days?” he asked.
“You do,” Aleana nodded. “Several for trade, one for fishing rights.”
“I am curious, Princess, as to why you yourself are involved in such mundane things?”
“Negotiations at all levels are limited to one representative and one aide from each nation,” Aleana explained, though she suspected Troyston already knew the answer. “Since the king chooses his son to be his right hand, and the nobility each have their own assistants, I volunteered my services as the Thirdman to whoever needed me.”
“As it sounds – the third party in the room. A person who can be considered neutral in the matter at hand, whose task is oversee the debate, ensure that it is conducted in an orderly fashion without intimidation, and give a considered opinion when parties fail to reach an easy agreement.”
“And nobody has objected to you acting as such, even though your father is the king of Lordenor?”
Drawing herself up as much as her modest height would allow, Aleana regarded him with mild suspicion. “The Thirdman is impartial, and as such, so shall I be when I take on the role. Delegates are entitled to submit a complaint, to the scheduling office, should they feel their Thirdman has shown bias.”
Troyston nodded. “I noticed that none have ever done so regarding yourself – and that despite your age, this is your second year of such service.”
“Then why did you ask all this, if you already knew?” Aleana folded her arms.
“Because I wanted to be clear about why I am going to say that I respect you very much and this is why I am coming to you. I need to speak with someone whom I can trust, yet who is close to the leadership of Lordenor. I believe you are that person, Princess Aleana.”
Aleana nodded politely, her posture relaxing. “You may of course trust me, mister Goldwood. The interests of both our nations are much better served by an amicable, truthful relationship than they are by deception and intrigue.”
“Then please forgive my next question, for I truly I mean no offence by it, but it must be asked. As one who is proven to be impartial and who gives equal weight to peoples of both nations, who do you believe is responsible for the attacks against the Freelands?”
She answered without hesitation. “Not my father.”
“I have your word that this is the truth as you know it?”
“You do,” she nodded, and he bowed his head.
“Princess Aleana, I apologise if this puts you in an uncomfortable position, but I do not know what else to do,” Troyston said quietly. “I would like to talk to you honestly, and off the record, because I think it will help us both. I will tell you the truth as I know it. Will you do the same with me?”
Aleana paused, brushed her hair back, then nodded. “Yes.”
Troyston took a breath. “I do not know who is behind the attacks on Freelands towns. I do not believe you know either. Am I correct?”
“You are,” Aleana nodded again.
“My father believes that your father ordered the attacks. He is also not fond, if you will pardon my honesty, of a hereditary monarchy. He considers it unfair to the common man, and objects on principle to your nobility and peerage.”
Aleana looked as if she was about to speak, but Troyston cut her off. “I do not speak for myself here, nor will it serve us to debate that particular argument. I have visited Lordenor in the past, small towns and big cities alike, and your people seem no different to those of the Freelands in any important respect. I am quite willing to believe that your father’s rule is just, and fair. On this basis, I do not think it likely that King Irontooth would destroy the decades of peace that has existed between our lands merely on a whim.”
He paused for breath before continuing. “I am left, therefore, with the challenge of finding out who is behind the attacks on our people. A renegade faction within the Freelands? Not impossible. My father and I once discussed the potential scenario of a fake election that results in a replaced county council. It would take a very thorough job to hide all trace of the switch however, since the populace at large would also have to believe it. Even assuming this was done, however, I must wonder what is to be gained by random destruction of small townships? These places held no military significance, nor great wealth. There would have been more money to gain from attacking the taxman's convoy than from this entire campaign. And then, all that such open hostility does is draw attention – which no thief or brigand wants to happen. Internal security is now at its highest for several decades, which would make further such activities difficult.”
“Then there is the possibility of a force beyond the Freelands borders. Barbarians from across the ocean? Perhaps. It has happened in the past, but never on this scale. Then too, these attacks bear none of the classic signs of barbarian raids. No prisoners were taken, and the food stocks seem to have been burned along with the storehouses. Nor, I feel, would a band of barbarians capable or motivated to raze every target to the ground. They regard peaceful towns as a farmer regards herd of cows, and only a fool butchers the entire herd; then he has naught to eat the next year.”
“You said the towns were razed?” Aleana interrupted. “Completely?”
“I did. Princess Aleana, I am not sure what we are dealing with here, but these are not ordinary raids, nor pirate attacks, and if you will forgive me, your reaction just now tells me that you knew nothing of this, for which I am glad.”
She shook her head. “All I have been told is that some of your towns were raided, not put to the torch.”
“The buildings were not just burnt, they were smashed to pieces,” Troyston said grimly. “I have seen a rendering provided by one of our scouts. Those towns, the houses and the people in them, are now nothing but rubble and ash. We know of no survivors.”
“But if it is not a member of the Freelands committing these acts, and it is not the barbarians, then who? Someone in Lordenor?” He went on quickly before Aleana could speak. “Not with your father’s knowledge. I have been present at a number of meetings with my father and yours, and I stand by my statement that I do not believe that he would begin a war.”
“What I am left with in all three scenarios, Princess Aleana, is the likelihood that someone is playing us off against each other. Freelands fighting Lordenor, Lordenor fighting Freelands, and both our nations get weaker and weaker as time goes on. Someone out there is trying to make us vulnerable. I need to find that person, Princess, and so do you, because sooner or later, they are going to decide that we are both weak enough and something will occur which I do not believe either of us will enjoy.”
Aleana was silent for several seconds before looking up at him. “I can only agree with you, mister Goldwood. I know that my father would not threaten the peace, and I do not believe the Freelands would choose to do so either. But I do not know where to look for the person or people you believe are trying to start a war between our lands.”
“I can only suggest that we begin at home,” Troyston said, rubbing his temples.
“You think it is more likely that the trouble stems from a hidden faction within one of our nations?”
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “All I do know is that it will be considerably easier to check that first before we start looking overseas for an answer. You are a princess of Lordenor, and you have the power to investigate anything and anyone in your father's kingdom. How many of your nobles do you really trust? How many are you uncertain about? Someone somewhere knows what is going on, miss Irontooth, and the people close to them will know too. They and their staff need to be interrogated.”
“I will see what I can do,” Aleana said softly. “Though it will be time consuming. I may have to personally investigate the estates of some of the nobles…”
“Use the ones you can trust,” Troyston pressed. “If you have to then send them into the estates of the others bearing your seal and demanding entry. Those loyal to you will take no offence because they will understand what you are doing is for the kingdom. Those who object, those who deny entry...”
Aleana nodded. “I understand. You will do the same?”
“Yes,” Troyston nodded, his jaw set. “If someone is running an operation through one of the county councils, I will find it, and I will bring the full weight of the army down upon it – just after I have informed yourself, of course. In fact, should I find the culprit, I will push for a joint operation between Lordenor and the Freelands. I believe I know that tune,” he said suddenly as music emanated from the great hall behind them. “Princess Aleana, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, would you care to dance? We have an opportunity to set an example.”
Aleana felt herself flush, and turned away for a moment, gathering herself before replying. “I quite agree,” she said after a few breaths. “Let us prove that our nations can at least do some things peaceably.”
He held out his arm with dignity, and she laid her hand lightly upon it, allowing him to lead her into the cavernous hall. At one end, the orchestra sat upon a stage, having just started up a popular and lively number that had likely graced ballrooms for the last hundred years. Around them, Aleana was immediately aware of eyes focussing upon the pair of them, and she straightened her posture as they headed for the dance floor.
“Of course, if your father or brothers object,” Troyston said as they faced each other, both taking a moment to synchronise themselves to the music before linking hands. “I'm relying on you to tell them my intentions are honest and honourable and for the best of both nations.”
Aleana laughed quietly, relaxing a little despite the stares from around them. “I am quite sure that if they do take objection, they would settle a duel to the knock out, given your status,” she said as they turned slowly around the floor.
“I'm not entirely sure that's any comfort...”
“Imagine if you will the comfort of being expected to find a proper leonin husband one day,” Aleana suggested, and he missed a step.
“I think I'd prefer not to,” he decided. “You're not serious?”
“I–” Aleana began, but at that moment the breath was knocked from her as Brigadier Riverthorn cannoned into her from the crowd nearby. A sharp crack sounded as they both fell, and an object embedding itself in the wooden floor of the ballroom.
A crossbow bolt.
Several people nearby screamed, and most of them either ducked or ran.
“Up in the gallery!” the brigadier thundered, lying flat out across Aleana as he pointed.
“Guards!” on opposite sides of the room, both the Freelands first minister and the king of Lordenor shouted at the same time. Amidst the melee, uniforms of both nations began dashing towards the stairs at one end of the hall. Recovering his balance after being so suddenly separated from his dance partner, Troyston looked upwards to where the lutrani was pointing, catching a blur of motion as someone ran swiftly behind the high railing.
“Aleana!” Thrusting aside a foppishly clad vulpani of uncertain nationality, Tiernach knelt at her side.
“I am not hurt,” she assured him, even as both he and the brigadier flanked her, blocking her from the sight of the viewing gallery high around the sides of the hall. “Can you catch him?”
Tiernach hesitated, then nodded. “I'll try!” And with that, he was off, great strides of his powerful feline legs propelling him through the crowd and up the stairs, outpacing most of the guards.
“I'm with you!” Kaja called, hastening up the steps behind him. “Son of a pig, attacking my little sister! I'll tear his head off!” With a burst of furious rage, he caught up to Tiernach, grabbing for the handrail to hasten his ascent.
They reached the gallery just in time to see a pair of boots vanish through a window at the far end of the building.
“Not a chance!” Kaja decided, kicking open the nearest window. As he had expected, Tiernach had already taken a step back to make the jump, throwing himself through the gap the moment it opened. Feline reflexes kept him on the roof, several tiles arcing out into the night air to smash upon the ground far below.
“Where is that scum?” Kaja demanded, following and wobbling uncertainly on the incline.
“There,” Tiernach pointed to the far end of the building where a tall tree grew beside the wall. Together, they scrambled forwards across the incline, eyes following the shadowy figure as it took a huge jump, just barely making a tall pine tree that grew beside the diplomatic compound and hurriedly clambering downwards.
Tiernach forced himself to stop, holding an arm out to block Kaja's progress, clenching his hands as he tamed the fire of his leonin blood. Rage was not useful now; he needed calmness. With a clear mind came the flow of magic, and with magic...
“Do you trust me, brother?” he asked, his voice low.
“Why, what–” Kaja never got to finish his statement as Tiernach pushed him off the roof. Tiernach had just enough time to register the look of complete surprise on his brother's face before he followed, flinging himself into space with a word in a language that none but himself would understand.
For a moment, the world seemed to stand still around the two of them as they hung in the night air. The moonlight shone cold and bright upon the grounds around the diplomatic centre, the neatly tailored gardens stark and clear to Tiernach's feline night vision. A hundred paces in all directions, the high fence theoretically prevented access or exit except via the main gate. He had no illusion that it would do so in this case – the assailant was already half way across the grass, and a person who could evade detection by the guards, take a shot, and then escape via the roof was unlikely to be slowed by something so mundane as a fence.
The landing was hard, but not nearly as hard as it should have been were Tiernach less skilled in the art. Prepared for the drop, he rolled with the momentum, coming up sprinting while Kaja rose groggily to his feet. “That was a long drop...” he started, looking quizzically at his brother.
“Don't lose him now!” Tiernach roared, sprinting across the well tended lawn with a speed borne of a thousand generations of predatory ancestors. He could sense Kaja falling into step behind him, sturdy leonin physique rapidly shrugging off the jarring impact.
They reached the base of the tree together, one to each side, staring up into the empty foliage above.
“Fence,” Kaja said, and Tiernach nodded, both of them sprinting across grass and flowerbeds. Kaja reached it first, turning, fingers laced together and back bent. With the understanding of long experience, Tiernach kept up the pace, landing his boot firmly in his brother's grasp. Kaja's strong arms and back heaved, and Tiernach was up over the fence, landing with catlike grace in the road beyond. Turning, he stuck his hands through the bars, providing footholds for Kaja to scale.
“Which way?” Kaja asked. “Tier?”
“I don't know!” Turning on the spot, Tiernach scanned both directions the dark roadway that ran along the top of the canyon.
“Right, split!” Kaja decided, never one to draw out a decision.
Nodding, Tiernach took off along the road as Kaja went the other way. All he saw was the cobbled surface underfoot, the hedges, and the occasional hanging lantern that marked out the road during the night hours.
“Where are you!” Tiernach thundered into the darkness as he ran, frustration catching up with him as he reached the corner of the diplomatic compound. A night watchman peered down at him from a small tower on the corner of the fence. “Did you see anyone come this way?” the leonin demanded, and the guard shook his head, evidently ignorant of the last few minutes. “Well sound the alarm bell! You've just lost an assassin while you slept up there!”
Swearing, Tiernach circled on the spot for a few seconds as the sharp tones of the alarm rang out. He had never, he realised now, bothered to learn a spell for tracking people. All the things he did know, and none of them were going to help catch an fugitive who had naught but sinew and guile. That was something to remedy at the next opportunity. Fuming, he turned back, hoping that Kaja had had better luck, only to run into him half way.
“No?” Kaja asked.
“Do you see blood on my muzzle, brother?” Tiernach snapped, then forced himself to calmness. “No. He's lost to us now.”
“Seven hells!” Kaja swore. “How incompetent are those guards?” he demanded, turning on the spot as if still hoping to see their quarry.
“No more so than you or I, it seems,” Tiernach growled.
Kaja almost laughed. “Then let us be thankful that the brigadier is a better man than either of us. He spotted the assassin before anyone else.”
“I agree,” Tiernach nodded, thumping his fist into his palm. “We are shamed, you and I. Some sons of Leonan we are. I do not look forward to speaking to father...”
“Dragging it out won't make it better,” Kaja said ruefully. “Come on. Let's get it done with. At least nobody was actually hurt.”
Maximillian regarded his sons as they approached. At his elbow, Aleana was under the watchful gaze of Brigadier Riverthorn and surrounded by a number of smartly uniformed guards. Across the polished wooden dance floor, the Freelands first minister stood with his own son, the other representatives at his back. A crowd of ministers and nobles circled them, watching expectantly, a hush falling as the leonin princes passed between them.
“I'm sorry father,” Kaja said, halting between the two groups and looking between both as he spoke. “We lost him.”
“Because he was your assassin to start with!” Tarwin thundered, his face reddening as he pointed. “And now you return, having 'failed' at this theatre of a pursuit!”
“My assassin!” Maximilian roared back across the floor. “Taking aim at my own daughter?”
“The bolt was aimed at my son! I am lucky your guardsman knocked him aside by accident!”
“Dad, I'm not sure...” Troyston began, but Tarwin gestured him to silence.
“Don't be a fool, why would I want to assassinate your son?”
“Because he is my son!” the first minister shouted. “You have attacked my lands, my people, and now my blood! You will not walk away from this without consequence, Irontooth! Your days as king of Lordenor are numbered! I will see you dethroned and humbled!”
“Father, I believe...” Aleana started, but the king ignored her.
“You will see me dead on the battlefield first!” Maximilian roared drawing himself up to his full towering height to glare down at his opponent.
“If that is what it takes, then so be it!”
The rising murmur of the crowd was rapidly drowning out the two leaders as they spat vitriol at each other across the dance floor. Maximilian gestured with a thick finger, jabbing it at Tarwin, who returned his own brand of sign language, the meaning of which was hard to mistake in any culture.
From under her father's outstretched arm, Aleana caught Troyston's eye. The blonde young man looked completely helpless, glancing at his father and back. “It wasn't us!” he seemed to be mouthing, shaking his head. “Not us!”
“Nor us!” Aleana mouthed back. She mimed writing on the palm of her hand, and he nodded. Not that she had any idea how either of them were going to get a letter to the other, but it looked like someone needed to try!
They had just time enough for one last glance at each other before guards swooped around both leaders, curtaining them from each other. Within moments, Aleana found herself being hustled out of the building alongside her father and brothers, almost lost amidst their vastly larger shadows.
Alone in his chambers in Ironguard Keep, Lord Greyfang felt the fur on the back of his neck prickle a moment before the impact slammed him against the wall. Pushing back with the mighty strength of his immense arms, he succeeded only in scraping his hands on the brick.
“Get off me!” he growled.
“Speak like you're talking to a prince!” Tiernach snarled into his ear. That he had to stand on tiptoes to do so meant little – Greyfang was a blunt instrument, a tower of muscle and sinew, neither of which held power over the blaze of rage fuelled magic coursing through Tiernach's veins. With a strength far beyond his own physique could provide, he hauled the massive leonin backwards, dumping him on the ground.
“What!” Tiernach demanded, eyes glittering as he stood over the larger man. “Did they tell you to do?”
Faced with the raw fury in the prince's face and unaccustomed to being thrown around like a child, Greyfang's courage failed. “Nothing more than you did, sire! I swear – I wasn't the assassin!”
“I know that, fool! That man was smaller, faster and smarter than you! But you do know who he was!”
“No, sire, I don't!” Greyfang tried to rise, but found himself pinned to the floor by a force he could neither see nor counter. So this is why the First had chosen Tiernach... and why De Lance feared him.
“But the brotherhood sent him, yes?”
“Yes,” the huge leonin nodded. “The shot was only ever meant to miss!”
Tiernach crouched over the prone leonin, sharp feline claws at his throat. “And if he had not missed? The brotherhood were willing to risk my sister for this. My sister!”
“I was told the assassin was the best! That's all I know, sire!”
Breathing hard, Tiernach rose. It was probably true. Only a fool would trust Greyfang with important information, and the First was no fool. Still, he had confirmed that the brotherhood was involved – which left him with one prime suspect.
“If you think your assassin's reflexes will save you from me,” Tiernach said quietly. “Then you have no idea of what I am capable, Katrina.”
She didn't turn, instead gesturing at the bartender. He brought over a bottle, pouring wine into two drinking horns in front of her.
“I don't need saving from you, my lord,” she said calmly, pushing one out to her side, inviting him to join her. “I have done my job perfectly, and now we can celebrate.”
Tiernach glanced around. The tavern was crowded with people – all of them townsfolk of Fortitude, and none of them having any involvement in the incident earlier that night. Clever, he thought. Katrina was undeniably a skilled fighter, and while could undoubtedly conquer her, there would likely be casualties if he fought her in such close confines. A prince of Lordenor striking out at the populace of Fortitude would be news worthy, and would do little to earn him trust among the people.
Silently, he stepped up beside her, feline claws sinking into the wooden bar top.
“She was never in danger,” Katrina said, amusement in her voice. “What use would killing her have been?”
“My father would have gone to war!”
“Ah, but the Freelands would know that deception was at hand,” she purred softly, smiling. “And had I killed the minister's boy, then your father would know the same thing. This way, they both believe the other was to blame.”
There was sense to this, Tiernach thought, though it did little to ease his concern about having left her with the means to rapidly travel over the continent. Perhaps he was lucky she had not simply landed the dragon on the roof and set about all the delegates en masse. “And yet, neither you, the First, or any of your minions decided to inform me,” he said, voicing none of these thoughts.
“We knew eyes would turn to you. As a prince of Lordenor you would be expected to react first to any threat to your people. We wanted that reaction to be believable.”
Tiernach's hand shook around the drinking horn as he grasped it.
“And had the plan been to actually kill my sister?”
Katrina tilted her head, clearly bemused by the concept. “I would never have allowed such a flawed plan to come to pass. In any case, I was prepared to take a shot at any appropriate pair of delegates. If you must blame someone, blame your sister for her unwise taste in men.”
“You are playing with fire, woman!” he growled, his hand resting on her back in a way that would look friendly to other patrons of the tavern.
“Oh yes,” she agreed, one hand landing on the bar for support as he pressed her forwards roughly. His strength surprised her, but she refused to show fear or bow her head. “But it does make for such a pretty dance after dark, don't you think? Cheers,” she tapped her drink against his. “And a toast to a successful execution – of a non-execution.”
Tiernach did not return the toast. Leaving the wine upon the bar, he turned and walked out. One day, he thought... one day, once the brotherhood had fulfilled their end of their bargain with him, he would dispose of them. They were far too dangerous to be allowed to continue. As for Katrina... he needed to find a way to control her. Ultimately, she was just a mercenary. She had her own goals, and she would cooperate with the person most likely to get her closer to achieving them. The key was to be that person.
“So apparently, you're at war now,” the voice floated softly out of the shadows.
“Wha…?” Troyston looked up blearily, realising he had fallen asleep at his desk.
The white robed old man stepped into the firelight.
“Oh. You again,” Troyston muttered, his voice slurred. He put his head back on his desk.
Fellirion looked at the young man, at his haggard expression, the bags under his eyes, his rumpled clothing, and at the pair of wine bottles on the desk. He sighed.
“That won’t help, you know.”
“’S as much help as anyfing else I’ve done today…” Troyston mumbled, not raising his head.
“Not at all,” the old man sat upon a corner of the desk. “You found someone in Lordenor who, like yourself, wants to prevent a war.”
“And then she got shot at and nearly killed!”
“Are you sure they were shooting at her?”
“Well who'd want to shoot at me?” Troyston asked, looking puzzled. “Not got any power... Or I didn't. Promised my dad I'd help raise an army,” he groaned, apparently remembering this anew. “You 'eard about Deepsby?”
“I did,” Fellirion nodded. “That was unfortunate timing.”
“Unfortunate! Un-bloody-fortunate!” Troyston exclaimed. “'Ow can anyone say Lordenor isn't to blame now? You can't land a thousand Lordenor uniforms on a beach without being noticed!”
“Uniforms are just that – uniforms,” the old man said quietly. “You know this, and you believe it. That is why you are... well, how you are,” he said, setting down the bottle he had been inspecting. “A man who believed Lordenor at fault would have no such compulsion.”
“Don't matter,” Troyston said sadly. “Everyone's followin’ my dad… ‘ole bleedin’ lot of ‘em… bloody pillocks…”
“They follow your father blindly because they are angry and frightened,” Fellirion said softly. “And because he offers a way to vent their anger. Soon enough they will realise that they don’t want a war.”
“Too late…” Troyston hiccupped unhappily. “’S too late, the council signed ‘im emergency powers the moment they got back to the Spire. Don't even have to ask their permission to move the army around now. An’ I bloody well said I’d ‘elp ‘im sort it out…”
“I don’t wanna,” Troyston sniffed, raising his head, his blonde hair a messy frame for his tired face. “Gods know I don’t wanna, but I dunno what else to do! You've seen how he gets... If I'm not with him, I'm against him, and I can't go against my dad... no one can go against their dad, it's not right...”
“You don't have to. You can do exactly what you planned to do, while also helping him,” Fellirion said, patting the younger man’s shoulder. “You are going to help him raise an army, yes? Presumably this means you will be travelling across the Freelands. This is what you agreed to do with Princess Aleana already. The difference is that in addition to raising military support for the Freelands, you will also look for any sign of the real source of the attacks. The princess will do the same. One of you will find evidence you can bring before your leaders.”
Laying his head on his arms, Troyston groaned. “I can’t search all the Freelands… it’s too much…”
“All journeys must start with a single step,” Fellirion said gently. “Telling your father that you would help him was a good start. You've done well, lad, you just need to stop moping and admit you couldn't actually have done any better.”
“You think?” the young man seemed to perk up slightly.
Fellirion nodded. “You now have a reason to keep in contact with the Freelands Council. They will all now be expecting you to report back, which gives you more ears to appeal to than just your father's.”
“Well… I s’pose…”
“And Princess Aleana will be doing the same in Lordenor.”
This time Troyston caught the comment. “’Ow did you know about ‘er anyway?” he asked, hiccupping again.
“Good ears,” the old man smiled. “And I was on the balcony beneath yours,” he winked.
Troyston looked impressed. “Crafty old bugger…”
“Exactly, so you listen to this crafty old bugger when he tells you that your plan was good. All you need is to get over the initial shock and get on with it.”
The young man looked at the bottles. “Sorry…” he mumbled.
Fellirion patted his shoulder again. “Never mind, never mind. Let’s not cry over spilt milk, eh? Oh, speaking of which,” he crossed over to the table in the corner, returning with a glass of white liquid. “Drink this, you’ll feel better.”
The young man looked wearily at the milk, then drank it in one long swallow.
“Now, bed,” the old man muttered, hoisting Troyston out of his chair and negotiating him to the bed at the side of the room. It creaked loudly as he fell on it.
“Dear me,” Fellirion grumbled, looking down as Troyston started snoring softly. “Well, better you start late than never I suppose. Have a doze, lad – just make sure you sort yourself out in the morning because you've got a lot of people's safety riding on you doing the right thing.”