“Brig Riv, what were you thinking?” Kaja groaned aloud to the night air as he stumbled down the gentle incline towards the point the carriage had gone over the cliff. He didn’t really know why he was doing so, it had simply occurred to him that sitting in the leafy copse all night wasn’t going to be very useful, that he ought to be going somewhere, and that this seemed as good a direction to start in as any. And that last respects were due.
“No, forget that, I know what you were thinking,” the leonin sighed softly. “You were thinking that the dragon would go after you, and leave me. You stupid, idiotic...” He stopped with his feet a yard from the cliff edge, the ground falling away to the moonlit grass a hundred feet below. He could hear the river churning at the bottom of the cliff. It had undoubtedly carried away all trace of the carriage, the horses, and their driver by now.
“Well, it worked,” Kaja said loudly. “You hear that? It worked, the dragon’s gone. You did it. Well done,” he sighed. “Thank you, my friend. I hope you find some peace here.” Taking shaky breaths, the tall leonin gazed upwards, blinking rapidly several times as the stars swam liquidly above him.
“While you are quite welcome, Highness,” a voice floated to him from the ether. “I have less interest in finding peace here than I do in reaching our destination.”
“Brig!” Kaja turned abruptly. “You... where...?”
Stumbling to the edge of the cliff he looked over.
“Ledge,” the lutrani said, looking up at him, half obscured by a clump of bushes that had hidden him from the dragon’s sight. “I’ve been this way before, knew it was here.”
“You son of a...”
“I’d thank you not to bring my family into the matter, Highness,” the brigadier interrupted mildly, a whiskery smile across his broad muzzle. “Might I trouble you for your hand?”
Laughing, Kaja crouched and lowered his hand over the cliff until the brigadier could grasp it. It took some effort, but leonin muscles prevailed in the end and he managed to hoist the lutrani up onto the rocky edge. They sat next to each other, legs hanging over the precipice, looking out across the moonlit lands before them. Grasses and trees swayed lightly in the cool breeze, while here and there a number of large rocky boulders sat solid and stationary upon the plain.
“This is going to take some work,” the brigadier said sadly, examining his dented breastplate with a sad expression.
“You’re lucky it’s not your head!” Kaja exclaimed. “And if you ever shove me off a moving vehicle again, I will see that it is.”
“But thank you,” Kaja extended his hand, and the lutrani shook it with a grip that many leonin warriors would have envied.
“I assume Princess Aleana...?”
“Away, and safe, that I know of,” Kaja grinned. “At least, the dragon didn’t get her.”
“The Oakroot lad's young, but brave, and he knows the way. He’ll get her there safe,” the brigadier said reassuringly.
“Do we know the way?” Kaja asked, and the lutrani hesitated before replying, thick eyebrows lowering until they almost obscured his eyes as he scanned the darkened forest ahead of them.
“East,” he declared at last. “That road must lead to a town somewhere.”
“And then what?”
“We ask a local for directions. Assuming they haven't seen the dragon, and aren't all hiding in their cellars.”
“Be tempted to join them if they are,” the leonin sighed.
“So, our 'traitor' prince is not yet returned?” the black robed man said slowly.
“No, First,” Katrina shook her head. “And as instructed, I have come to you before I have spoken to Prince Tiernach.”
“Very good, General. Yes, very good.” A thoughtful frown creased his brow as he stood by the window, looking out upon the town below. “I do not believe that Prince Tiernach should be informed of the second rider. There is no need for that.”
“He will want to know,” Katrina raised her eyebrows. “Whether you like it or not, he does care about his family.”
“That, is precisely why you will not tell him that one escaped,” the First turned to look at her coolly.
“I don’t understand,” she shook her head. “You want me to tell him that they are both dead?”
“Yes, that is precisely what I want you to tell him. That there were no survivors.” The man’s words were slow and measured, as they always were, as if he perpetually sought to minimise ambiguity.
“Why?” the leonin demanded, crossing strong arms across her chest and looking suspicious.
“Because then, General, he will have no reason to hold back. There is, in Prince Tiernach, a great reserve of intelligence and power that can be of use to the Eye. We have seen some of it, already. While he is in contact with those he cares about, however, his attention is divided, his focus poor. I wish to remove some of the obstacles to his achieving greatness.”
“By making him miserable?” Katrina frowned.
“For a time, perhaps,” the First shrugged, an infuriatingly slow gesture and Katrina hated every second of it. “But he will, of course, recover, in the end. And then, General, his focus will be sharp, his distractions none. If, that is, you do not add to them.”
Katrina flushed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means, my dear General Katrina,” Lord Blackwood said from the shadows at the side of the room. “That it has not gone unnoticed that you are spending more time in the prince’s company than is quite necessary for a military leader.”
“What business is that of yours?” she glared at the lupari, her cheeks looking splotchy through her bristling fur.
“Prince Tiernach is my business,” he said simply and with a disarmingly honest tone, “because he is the Brotherhood’s business. Logically, anything that affects him, affects me.”
“Then what business do you have watching me? How long have I served the Brotherhood, faithfully, loyally?” Katrina looked straight at the First. “How far would any of you have come without me?”
“Your achievements on behalf of the Brotherhood, are not in question.” The First spoke as slowly as ever, unfazed by Katrina’s angry expression. ”I have, you may imagine, absolutely no interest in whom you invite to share your bed,” he said this without emotion, but Katrina’s feline claws made their presence known at the tips of her sturdy fingers. “But it is unlikely to benefit our cause for you to involve yourself with Prince Tiernach.”
“I’m not ‘involved’ with him,” Katrina sniffed, folding her arms.
“Popular rumour disagrees,” Blackwood stated.
“Then popular rumour is wrong,” she snapped, turning her back to the lupari as if dismissing him, her tail lashing in anger. “I have no feelings for him, and I doubt he has any for me. This is simply a matter of... of personal comfort, and none of your concern.”
“Personal... comfort...” Blackwood raised his eyebrows as he drawled the words. “I see.” He looked thoughtful as he analysed the statement, and Katrina felt her flush deepen, the insides of her ears reddening. “Well, perhaps we can find you an alternative source of comfort.”
“I don’t think so,” she sneered over her shoulder at him. “I doubt you’d measure up to my standards, puppy.”
“Damn you,” the lupari spat, instantly enraged as Katrina had hoped.
The First stepped forward, raising a hand to forestall Blackwood as his one eye glared at Katrina, his hand reaching for the hilt of his rapier.
“No, Blackwood,” he said calmly. “For now, she is valuable, and you will hold your temper.” He turned to Katrina. “However I would advise you, General, to take care. You are of little use to the Brotherhood if your feelings are not clear. If you find yourself unable to place, the demands of the Eye, above those of Prince Tiernach...”
“My feelings are perfectly clear, and I know who’s demands come first,” she snarled. “I know my loyalties. I serve the Brotherhood as I always have.”
“Good,” the First said calmly. “Then we have little more to discuss. I suggest that you make yourself ready to,” he coughed lightly, “brief Prince Tiernach, upon his return.”
Katrina ducked, hiding behind the table as the vase smashed against the wall behind her. A moment later she leapt backwards as the table shattered, splinters lancing into her arm as she shielded her face.
“How could you be so stupid?” Tiernach demanded, advancing upon her, the darkness of the night seeming to swirl around him in his fury.
“Return them, I said!” Grabbing the front of her uniform, Tiernach threw the leonin woman bodily across the room, slamming her against the wall. She cried out as she landed hard, the breath knocked out of her.
“Alive, I said!” His fist clenched in the air, a word of magic resounding throughout the chamber as Katrina went skidding across the floor to crash into the opposite wall. Another word and she was at his feet, being hauled upright by the front of her leather armour.
“I trusted you! I gave you this task, and you have not only failed me, but ruined me!”
His fist connected with her cheek and she staggered backwards. His second blow hit her without the need for physical contact, the strength of his magic alone enough to knock her off her feet, fury etched into his features. The third curled her up into a ball, gasping for breath, unable to rise as she waited for the fourth.
It didn’t come.
Blinking watering eyes, breathing harshly, she heard him slump into a chair. For a moment, she wondered if he were simply waiting for her to stand that he might knock her down again. Then she heard a sound that terrified her far more than his words of magic, shocked her more deeply than the worst of his anger.
Tiernach Irontooth, magic user, prince of Lordenor, key individual to all the Brotherhood's plans, was crying.
“My Lord,” Katrina whispered, uncurling slowly, crawling over to where he sat. He jerked away from her touch. Horrified, terrified, she knelt at his feet as he covered his eyes with a shaking hand for several long seconds.
“You have brought my work to nothing.” The lack of emotion in his voice was more fearful than if he had shouted the words in fury. “Everything that I have achieved, you have brought it to nothing.” He took several deep breaths, regaining himself. “It ends tonight. Go home, Katrina. There will be no more for you to do here.”
“Would you test my patience further?” he spat. “Go home!”
She bowed her head. Touching her fingers to her lip, she discovered she was bleeding, but it didn’t matter.
“My Lord, you must listen to me!”
“Why?” he demanded, emotion suddenly flooding through his expressionless face as he grabbed her collar, hauling her up to him. “Why should I listen to you after what you have done?”
“Because I lied. Your siblings may not be dead.”
This statement was so unexpected that Tiernach let go and she fell back to the floor.
“I was not to tell you this,” she said, unable to meet his burning gaze. “You were to be assured of their death that they wouldn't distract you in times to come – but I promised you my loyalty and I prove it to you now,” she looked up suddenly, her eyes proud and defiant, as if challenging him to believe otherwise. “The truth. A rider escaped, broke away from the carriage. Before I could pursue, they had entered the forest and were lost to me.”
“Who?” he demanded.
“I do not know for sure,” she shook her head. “But the rider was not large. Not tall enough to be your brother, nor Brigadier Riverthorn.”
“Aleana...” Tiernach breathed. He closed his eyes, a shudder running through his broad shoulders. “Aleana lives... my sister...”
“Perhaps, my Lord, if she survived the night in the forest. And also...”
“Also what?” Tiernach fixed her with his eyes.
“As I pursued the carriage, that lutrani, Riverthorn had time to escape. He could have made it to the trees, but he did not, nor did I see Prince Kaja with him at the moment the carriage went over the cliff. It is possible...”
“That he was no longer inside,” Tiernach whispered. “Yes, that would fit Brig Riv... He would make that sacrifice, take that final act of honour, if he thought there were no other way to protect my brother.”
With a sudden motion, he grabbed Katrina’s face, holding her ears tightly, bringing them almost nose to nose.
“Is this the truth?” he hissed, his eyes burning into her as if he could see through to the bone beneath fur and flesh.
“Yes, my Lord, though it is not as the First wished you to hear.”
Tiernach’s eyes flickered between hers for a moment, then his expression relaxed. Pulling her to him, he kissed her. She flushed as they separated, looking confused.
“Tell him you told me they were both dead,” Tiernach stated. “That I accepted the news,” his finger dabbed the blood off her lip, “gracefully.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Do nothing to attempt to find Aleana, or Kaja. They are both resourceful enough that they will surface on their own, in time, and I will ‘discover’ that they live. For now, I will set the white dragon to patrolling the Freelands’ coast. Perhaps it will reduce the chance of my father encountering an hostile fleet. We will continue as planned.”
“Yes, my Lord.” He was protecting her, Katrina realised in confusion. Though she had nearly betrayed him, he would let her report success because she had not, at the last, done so. Yet... should she have? Should she not have done as the First instructed?
Looking up into Tiernach’s face, she felt herself torn between two goals. On the one hand all the power and glory she could want, and most likely immortality, and on the other... she felt angry. This was ridiculous. She should have fulfilled the will of the Eye. But... Tiernach had seemed almost as if he were about to abandon the cause. It ends tonight. There will be no more for you to do. Of course! If she had not told him the truth, then she would have failed the Eye far more than by disobeying the First’s orders.
Without Tiernach, the plan would fail. Instead of driving him away, she had minimised the damage that this news would do, and thus served the Brotherhood's best interests, if not the First's orders.
And Tiernach was smiling. Such a rare thing, to see him smile. She wondered whether that might not be his more natural expression. As strong as he was, as cool and measured as his actions, dealings with the First were far from his first choice, Katrina knew. It was an act born of desperation, not of desire. Had the Brotherhood never contacted him, how much happier might he have remained...?
The Oakroot estate had a justified reputation for beauty. The mansion itself was regularly whitewashed, and kept so clean that it shone in the autumn sunlight. The surrounding grounds were lush, and well kept. Broken into four quarters following the directions of the compass, four specialist gardeners had been employed, each familiar with their specific landscape and flora. To the north, pines, shrubs, and carefully selected white rocks gave an impression of cool tundra. To the west, a river in miniature wound its way among weeping willows, and under small footbridges. In the south quarter, a vast quantity of imported sand, with a variety of squat, leafless plants from the Southern Desert bringing muted greens into the otherwise arid and rocky landscape. And in the east corner, a triple tiered pagoda sat upon an island in the middle of a lake full of water lilies, the white petals and shimmering water alike glowing red with the setting sun.
From the top of the hill, Aleana looked down upon the gardens, unsmiling and pale in the evening light.
“We’ve made good time,” Kennin said softly, looking over his shoulder as Aleana leaned against his back, both of them small enough to share the saddle. “Coppershine has done well. Don’t worry, my friend,” he patted the horse. “You’ll get your reward. Oats this evening?” The horse snorted agreeably as Kennin urged him into motion down the road.
“Nearly there, milady. Just a few minutes. We should be in time for evening meal, but if not the chef will make you anything you like. He does wonderful roast pheasant, if you feel like it, or perhaps something simpler? His vegetable pasties are amazing, you'd never know that he learned the recipe from the common folk in the villages, he makes them into a superbly refined experience...” The vulpani continued chatting away about pretty much nothing as they descended the incline towards the estate. Aleana didn’t really pay attention, the words didn’t matter. It was enough that his tone was soft, his voice friendly and calming.
That calmness was soon broken as they reached the gatehouse to the front of the mansion. As the guard recognised Kennin, he saluted, and his companion went running to the main house. In less than a minute, they were seemingly surrounded by maids, groundsmen, butlers, as well as Irons Sedge, young Brook Reedwake, the older Lord Ashwell, and lieutenants Beechbough and Willowden. Before anyone could intercept, Brook had launched into a tale about sighting a dragon the first day out of Seabreeze, how it had flown low over them, and vanished off over the horizon. His excited words faltered as Irons Sedge landed a heavy hand on his shoulder, the young lutrani suddenly realising that Aleana had departed with three companions, three horses, and a carriage – and now had one companion and one horse.
“Are you all right, Princess?” Irons asked, shouldering aside several onlookers as the red light of sunset turned the bandanna across his blind eye and severed ear a brilliant crimson. When Aleana didn't respond after several seconds, the big leonin reached out and easily lifted her down from the saddle. With Irons on one side and Kennin on the other, Aleana found herself gently but swiftly bustled into the house, trailing a wake of servants, noblemen, and soldiers alike.
By the time things settled enough to focus, Aleana was seated in a squashy armchair by the fire, a cup of mint tea and a plate of scones and jam on the small table at her elbow.
Looking over her shoulder, she noticed Kennin standing in the doorway, looking out into the corridor, hands behind his back, apparently not watching her, but one ear was cocked in her direction. Aleana judged that the massive figure in the shadows just beyond Kennin was probably Irons Sedge. She called to the vulpani softly, and he turned.
“Are you all right, milady?” he asked quietly, padding over to kneel beside her chair. “I thought you could use a little quiet... The lieutenants are patrolling the grounds outside, and colonel Sedge has volunteered to guard the hallway. You won't be disturbed at all.”
“Yes, I’m fine,” she smiled at him, though she knew it must look somewhat tired and feeble. “Thank you, Kennin. You've been a true friend to me.”
The vulpani smiled, looking away bashfully. “My father appears to be in town today. He should be back within the hour. He’s going to want to know what happened...”
Aleana closed her eyes. “Yes, of course he is. Kennin... will you explain to everyone, please?”
“Of course,” Kennin dipped his head. “I know how you must feel after these last few days. If you wish, I will give instructions that nobody is to bother you for any reason, until tomorrow at least. You can rest in one of the guest rooms, get your strength back?”
“No, that’s all right,” she shook her head, brushing back a loose strand of hair. “I... I must deal with this. Hiding from it is not going to make things better.”
“Very well. I am at your command. How can I help you, milady?”
Aleana looked pale in the firelight. “If you can, I would like you to find out if there has been any news of my father since he left. If his next destination is known.”
“All right,” Kennin nodded. “You’re going to bring him back, then?”
“How did you...?”
“You were talking, that night in the forest. I wasn’t sure if you were asleep, you didn’t seem to notice me, but you seemed to have decided that the king had to be informed immediately.”
Aleana felt herself flush. She barely even remembered that night.
“Nothing to be embarrassed about, milady,” the vulpani said softly. “Under the circumstances, you handled yourself very gracefully.”
“I would hardly call fainting in a heap 'graceful,'” she looked away.
“Well, let’s call it passed out,” Kennin smiled. “You were exhausted, and you had just been attacked by a dragon.”
“As had you.”
“My night was not as bad as yours, milady,” the vulpani said softly. “I consider you to have shown no weakness, and I will certainly not say otherwise to anyone else.”
“Thank you,” Aleana watched the flickering fire for a few moments. “Yes,” she sighed softly. “You are quite right. I must tell my father what has happened. This has gone beyond my ability to resolve. Without Kaj...” she stopped, putting her knuckles to her lips, trying to ignore the single tear that trailed down her cheek. “Without Kaja, I cannot help here any longer. I have no official standing with the military, and I do not believe the troops in the capital would obey me in preference to Tier. I do not understand his reasons, but his plan was... faultless. He now holds the power in Lordenor, and the only person who might challenge him is gone. My only choice is to bring the king back.” Without warning, she punched the arm of the chair. “I wish I had never thought of this stupid rescue plan!”
“Your intentions were noble, Princess,” Irons Sedge rumbled from the doorway. “You have brought no dishonour upon yourself. Even the best of us may be betrayed.”
Kennin nodded, his fingertips brushing the sleeve of her blouse as he knelt beside her. “Please, milady. The fault does not lie with you, but whoever sent the dragon after us.”
“Tiernach...” she whispered. “I can’t... I can’t believe he would mean this. It can’t have been... but I don’t understand. I don’t understand why!” She wasn’t making sense, and she knew it. The young vulpani handed her a handkerchief, and she took it, wiping her eyes, taking several deep breaths to compose herself. She looked down at Kennin as he smiled back comfortingly.
“You won’t be able to get any news at all, will you?” she asked sadly. “All messengers would go to the palace.”
“That would be standard protocol,” Irons nodded regretfully, though he maintained his vigil in the doorway, perhaps protecting Aleana from unwanted visitors, or perhaps realising that his tall, battered frame could seem somewhat intimidating to those already in distress.
“Then I have little choice,” Aleana decided. “I will have to set out for the Freelands tomorrow.”
“If I wait longer, Tier may send a message to the troops stationed there. I may find myself arrested as soon as I arrive.”
“Very well. I should come with you...”
“No,” Aleana shook her head. “You, and your father will be needed here. I need you to keep talking to the other nobles, let them know that the king will return, and that they had better think carefully about where their loyalties lie.”
“My father can do that quite well on his own,” Kennin said.
“I also stand ready to accompany you, Princess,” the tall feline rumbled, turning to bow in Aleana's direction. “I served your father, and I shall serve you if you will allow me. If you have any use for a tired old colonel, you have only to name it.”
Aleana sighed. “Then please let me think about it. For now...”
“May I see that guest room you mentioned?”
“Of course,” the vulpani smiled, standing and offering his hand as she rose, steadying her. “I’ll have someone bring supper up to you.”
Aleana’s eyes snapped open. The daylight was streaming in through the window, striking the hangings around the bed at an angle that suggested it was late morning. The last she knew it had been somewhere after midnight watch, and she had been wondering if it was even possible to sleep.
“Princess Aleana?” someone was knocking on the door.
“Yes?” she sat up, rubbing her eyes.
“Milady!” Kennin’s face appeared round the door, a grin plastered the entire length of his narrow muzzle. “Prince Kaja would like to see you,” he said with remarkable dignity.
“Kaj!” Kaja looked up as he heard the shout. Aleana was leaning over the wooden bannister on the floor above, wearing a white night gown and with her hair in a mess.
“Hey Alley!” he waved up at her as she came running down, inadvertently shunting a small muscai servant aside so hard he nearly rolled down the steps after her. Oblivious to the collision, she vaulted the rail with four steps remaining, landing gracefully on the wooden floor.
Kennin’s mouth formed a silent “Ooo,” of sympathy as Kaja blinked in shock, his head turned to one side by the power of Aleana’s strike.
“’Hey Alley’?” she repeated, glaring up at him, hand still raised. “That’s it? That’s what you have to say? You scare the,” Kennin felt sure that wasn’t usually a word heard in the royal court, “out of me, leave me on my own to deal with things, make me think you’re dead, and all you say is ‘hey Alley?’ You son of a...”
“Princess!” the brigadier cut in. “Please, you...”
“And you can shut up!” she turned on the lutrani, silencing him instantly. “You, Brig Riv, were supposed to be looking after him! It’s your damn job to keep him from breaking his neck, and instead you let him waltz off and nearly get killed by a dragon, and you don’t even think to tell me you’re alive! Oh no, Aleana can just work it out for herself! She’ll be fine, we don’t have to let her know we're all right, just let her sweat! Now what... how... where... oh, Kaj,” she flung her arms around the leonin’s middle, hugging him and burying her face in his crimson jacket as her tears dripped into the material.
“Missed you too, Alley,” he grinned, putting one arm around her and stroking her hair with his free hand.
“Would you like some breakfast, your highness?” lord Oakroot asked, smiling, but looking elsewhere. “Perhaps the princess would like to dress first?”
“I don’t mind,” Aleana shook her head, suddenly realising how hungry she was, not having been able to face the thought of eating since the night of the dragon.
“Breakfast then, please,” Kaja nodded as Aleana separated herself from him, brushing her hands over her cheeks and trying to pat her hair into some semblance of order.
Lord Oakroot nodded amiably, sending a servant to find the other members of Aleana's travelling party and bring them to the table before guiding his guests towards one end of the mansion.
The breakfast room turned out to be enormous. South facing, with large crown glass windows that gave a bright if distorted view of the gardens outside, it was light and spacious, easily housing the long oaken dining table at its centre. Along the rear wall stretched a long tapestry, looking like it had been made by many pairs of hands, the style and nature of the stitch work changing noticeably every few feet. Lord Oakroot explained proudly that every generation of his family had personally added their own history. He began to relate each scene, but being sequentially interrupted by the arrival of Irons Sedge, followed by Brook Reedwake and then finally Lord Ashwell, he eventually gave up and took a seat at the table, looking slightly huffy as the newcomers greeted Kaja and the brigadier.
A short muscai in a butler suit ushered them all to sit. Aleana couldn’t help finding the sight of the diminutive servant pulling out a chair for Kaja slightly amusing.
“If you’ll let Terrin here know what you’d like, our chef will be happy to make it for you.”
“Excellent,” Kaja grinned. “I’ll start off with a light salad with chicken, lightly seasoned. Follow that up with bacon, eggs, sausage, black pudding, fried bread, then move onto waffles with honey, and a fruit salad with fresh cream.”
“I would like toast with honey and jam, please,” Aleana told the butler while he was still frantically scribbling Kaja’s instructions on a slate, and he gave her a quick look of gratitude.
“Anything hot,” the brigadier waved the butler past.
After taking simple instructions from Irons Sedge, Brook and Lord Ashwell, and two orders of ‘the usual’ from both the elder and the younger vulpani, the butler scampered out, his long tail whipping behind him as he rounded the corner of the doorway.
Breakfast with the Oakroots was pleasant, but somehow unsatisfying. Lord Oakroot insisted that they not for any reason talk business at the table, as if they were simply guests in his house under no unusual circumstances. Conversation thus ranged from the weather, to a new watermill he was planning for the nearby town. Kaja displayed his typical appetite, finishing his enormous meal before anyone else, and nearly succeeding in stealing a sausage from the brigadier's plate before the lutrani could parry his fork with military reactions. Aleana watched him with a smile, but her eyebrows creased into a troubled frown, her conversation with Kennin the previous night still fresh in her mind. It wasn’t until after they had eaten, and she had changed into a ridiculously pink and frilly dress (so much so that she seriously considered attacking the excess lace with scissors), that she found opportunity to talk to Kaja.
“You’re going to do what?” he exploded, turning violently away from the railing of the little footbridge that led towards the pagoda.
“Kaj, do you really want to try to sort this out on your own?” she asked him calmly.
“I want to go kick Tier’s tail is what I want to do!”
Kaja raised a finger, paused, then seemed to deflate slightly.
“You have nothing right now,” Aleana said quietly. “No troops. No contact with the senate, no means of communication with father, and thanks to the lies about treason, next to no influence.”
“We do have loyal lords,” Kaja turned to lean on the railing again, watching the slight ripples in the water below. “Oakroot, Ashwell, Reedwake for three, and I'll bet there's more out there. Not everyone in that senate was convinced by Tier, I could see it in their faces. We do have support.”
“Yes, you do,” Aleana moved to stand beside him, nearly tripping over the ludicrous dress and angrily yanking it up to her knees. “But they can't help on their own. Many of their men are in the Freelands, you’ll be lucky if you can gather ten score soldiers. Tier has thousands.”
“I don’t need soldiers to go against Tier, I just need enough space to swing a punch!”
Aleana stayed silent, merely brushing back a loose strand of hair, looking at him in the reflections below.
“The dragon is a problem, though,” Kaja admitted. “If it is his.”
“You sound very sure,” Kaja looked at her.
She sighed softly. “I am. I told you a man came to see me a couple of weeks ago, master Forester, a representative from the Order of Magi. He agreed with me that we are being set against the Freelands on purpose, but didn’t know who. It was obvious that it was someone with access to a lot of manpower, and the magi say it is someone with wizard knowledge. I think they are afraid of that person – and that is why I believe the dragons are under Tiernach's control. He has always been stronger with magic than you gave him credit for, but to intimidate the magi?”
“You knew what was going on?”
“Of course not,” Aleana snapped at him. “I could not see it. I would not believe it could be Tier, even though I knew he fitted the profile. Would you have?”
“No,” Kaja let out a heavy breath. “Not until he hit me with the treason charge. Now... now I would believe it, though I don’t understand it.”
“Nor do I. We have been expertly manipulated, Kaj. That is why I must go to father. We need him. And...”
“And what?” Kaja prompted.
“And I would like to talk to master Forester again. And Troyston Goldwood.”
“Now you’ve lost me,” the leonin shook his head in confusion.
“I have had some opportunity to speak with him, and...”
“Isn't he Tarwin Goldwood’s son?”
“Then what use is he?”
“If you will be quiet, I will tell you!” she said sharply, and Kaja looked suitably abashed. “He agrees with us that we have been set up for war. If I can talk with him, explain the situation, perhaps he can help us.”
“You know he has no official position?”
“He is his father’s son. First Minister Tarwin Goldwood cannot ignore him easily, and will I hope listen to his voice above others. If Troyston Goldwood can take a message of peace and reason to his father...”
Several long seconds passed as Kaja regarded a water lily. “We don’t have a lot of choice, do we?” he asked, suddenly sounding vulnerable.
“I do not believe so, no,” Aleana patted his arm.
“Does it have to be you?”
“Half the Lordenor army is waging war on the Freelands as we speak. If we want to be taken seriously at any official level, it must be one of us in person – and I do know both master Forester and Troyston Goldwood.”
“And you are the only one of the two of us with a real claim to the throne of Lordenor,” Aleana added. “The question is not who will go, but who will stay, and who will stay must be you. You must oppose Tiernach, here, in our kingdom. If nothing else, should you somehow manage to kick Tier's tail before I return, you have to be there to take over. Were I to do so in your absence, there would be chaos. I will attempt to find father, and I will try to negotiate a truce and find help.”
Kaja looked uneasy, but seemed unable to find fault with Aleana's logical argument.
“I want Brig Riv to go with you. And Colonel Sedge. And the lieutenants, and some of Oakroot’s men,” he said.
“No,” she cut him off. “If I take a lot of people I will draw attention. We already know that Tiernach is looking for us. It will be difficult enough, I do not need an escort party advertising my identity.”
“Then the brigadier and colonel at least,” Kaja insisted. “Use a fake identity, let them get you past any soldiers that would stop you. Both of them are well known, but I don't think anyone has connected them to us, as yet. Hopefully their loyalties won't be questioned.”
“That is a good idea,” Aleana nodded.
“Hey, I’m not just a dashing and handsome young man, you know.”
“No, you are also stubborn and pig headed,” she smiled.
“It’s something I learned from you,” the tall feline countered, grinning. “All right, Alley, you do what you have to. I will gather whichever nobles I can here, ensure that father has some loyal troops when he returns.”
Aleana nodded, looked up at him for a moment, then lifted her hand to his chest.
“Take care, Kaj,” she whispered.
“You too, little sister,” he put his hand over hers. “You too.”
It was a red dawn on the morning the Leonan's Pride, mighty flagship of the Lordenor fleet docked at Deepsby. The bright rays of the rising sun shone on the burnished gold trim along the vessel's gunnels and prow, and the ocean through which she glided shimmered and sparkled like a queen's jewels.
Nine days of crossing the Fathomdeep ocean in calm weather had kept the crew cheerful, the captain relaxed, and his most important passenger prowling about the deck of the great ship like a caged animal. Over a hundred and fifty feet long and three decks deep, the Leonan's Pride somehow managed to feel like nothing so much as a prison cell to a man who was not one to sit idly by while others worked. Especially when that work was sailing. The king had on several occasions been tempted to quietly relieve one of the officers and take their place, but had ultimately resisted. Wouldn't be good form.
After over a week of feeling like the fifth wheel on a wagon, he was therefore grateful to finally disembark.
“Majesty,” the man in charge of the reception committee saluted.
“De Lance,” Maximillian smiled. “And Greyfang,” he looked at the brawny leonin. “I wasn’t aware you two would be here. They pulled you out of retirement?” he turned to the black haired man.
“Not so much pulled,” De Lance chuckled. “More enticed. Your youngest son is quite the negotiator.”
“That he is,” the king smiled. “And I’m glad he talked you into it. I can use a man with experience. But I didn’t know you had joined the army,” he addressed Greyfang.
“I didn’t,” the leonin rumbled, and Maximillian gave him a questioning look.
De Lance gave a lopsided smile. “Lennan has requested that he be allowed to act as your personal guard,” he said. “I must admit, I would feel better if you would take him up on the offer, highness. Deepsby may be officially pacified, but there is still some resistance to our presence, as I am sure we will encounter elsewhere.”
“Unfortunately so, but not as much as we feared. We’ve been very lenient with the townspeople. As long as they don’t try to leave the city, we leave them in peace to go on with their lives.”
“That was wise,” the leonin nodded. “And I approve. I do not like the taste of this war, and I will like it even less if the river runs red each dawn. Do you really think it’s necessary?” he looked at Greyfang.
“I do, Majesty,” Greyfang nodded. “If you accept, I will serve you well. If you do not, I will serve you well anyway.”
Maximillian laughed. “It would seem I have little choice in the matter, Lennan!”
“Then I have no option but to accept. Thank you,” he extended his hand, which Greyfang shook, each of them following the leonin warrior's custom of turning the action into a test of strength. Half turning away, Lord De Lance surreptitiously elbowed Greyfang in the ribs, and the burly leonin resentfully slackened his grasp just enough to let his king win.
“We have scouted three towns marked here, here, and here,” Lord De Lance said, pointing at the map he had spread across the table, weighting each corner down with the intriguing selection of a dagger, a gauntlet, a spyglass and golden cloak clasp. To anyone not aware of the lord's military background, it might seem odd things for a nobleman to carry, but Maximilian knew him better and was rather pleased to discover the old boot-knife still in use. “I recommend that we target this one as a priority. It will give us access to water and river transport.”
Maximillian leaned over to look as the innkeeper hovered about nervously in the background, wondering if he should be offering wine, mead or ale.
“Cook something,” Greyfang growled quietly, inadvertently answering the question, and the man hurried off into the back room. He leaned against the door after closing it behind him, dabbing at his sweating forehead with a cloth.
It was stressful enough that the city had been occupied by the Lordenor army, but to have the King Irontooth himself suddenly arrive and start talking about military plans in his front room was near intolerable! Not to mention that all his rooms were now occupied by army officers.
Not that they hadn’t paid a fair price, the innkeeper reflected, moving on to drying his rapidly balding head. In fact, they had paid over the odds for their rooms, and had behaved more politely than many of his more regular clients. Not only that, but they kept tipping the barmaids, and had actually pushed his weekly earnings above average, while keeping away the troublemakers. Overall, he reflected, it was a most confusing situation, and while the occupying army continued to not harm the populace of the town, it one he had mixed feelings about seeing come to an end.
Of course, there had been the dragon up until a week and a half ago. That was not something the innkeeper was sad to notice had gone. Where it had gone, he wasn’t sure, though the fervent hope was to the lowest level of hell from whence nothing ever returned. War was one thing, but dragons were quiet beyond the pale.