How would you like to read just a little snifter of book 5 before it comes out? You would? Oh, alright then :D
A light wind blew from the east, carrying with it the scents of the dwindling summer and emergent winter. It felt as if it could be the last gasps of the final summer the world would know, or the virulent whispers of the first winter it would truly experience. There was a fierce chill upon that current, and Morghiad felt it keenly.
He should not have done, not in the sealed sanctuary of Gialdin’s white stone palace - not where the air was heated by fires from another world. But he had come to accept that something was out of balance within him, something that made him feel the cold over the warmth. Morghiad drew his cloak across his chest and swung his legs over the arm of the chair while he read. Someone, evidently a someone with a sense of humour, had managed to locate an old and battered armchair for his rooms that precisely resembled the one he had owned in Cadra. It even bore the same worn patches of leather upon the armrests. The individual who had masterminded that particular idea must have fought valiantly to have the chair installed amidst this palace of perfection and newness!
Morghiad smiled to himself at the thought. The book in his hands was a treatise on peacemaking and diplomacy between two long-extinct countries, named Kilfrae and Morn. Artemi would have known the more personal stories associated with it of course, but she was not there to help him. Shadows danced at the corners of his consciousness when he finished thinking that particular thought. As it was, the shade creatures seemed to become very active following most of his musings of Artemi. That was the wrong way around, somehow.
He shut the book and gazed at the ceiling to study the swirls of blue and gold amongst the white. There were things that needed to be done urgently, problems that required solving, and yet he had procrastinated here in the palace for more than a fortnight. Postponement of duty was really not a thing that settled lightly upon his shoulders, nor a thing he ever did, but he had held off doing much of note since Artemi had departed. The simple fact was that he was waiting for her to return before he left Gialdin. He had no idea if she would return to this place over any other in the world, and really no clue as to the length of time she intended to spend in The Crux. She had urged him to make his peace alone, and together with Silar’s letter, it did seem to indicate she would be gone for some time.
Still, he was rid of nalka and in good physical shape, if not quite so steady in his mind. Morghiad closed his eyes and searched the vast network of Blaze streams for any sign of his wife’s. He knew very well that the adult version was absent, but now he also knew how to recognise her immature fires. No sign of her stream, young or emergent, was present.
Seek the light.
The daylight, as it turned out, made his eyes squint when he opened them again. He walked to the nearest window, and gazed greyly out of it. Gialdin had become heavily populated over the last decades, and open spaces that had once seemed placid and serene now thronged with moving, hot bodies. The more people there were, the more likely it was they would fight over space and property. The rules of peaceful living would soon be more necessary within countries than without. Blazes, but his daughter had trickier problems to deal with than he ever had as ruler.
He hissed at himself – a very Artemi sort of thing to do, but she had left more fragments of her personality in him than he could count. It was time to do something.
Within a matter of minutes he was in the council chambers, drawing a seat for himself at the grand table of House Leaders. Medea was there, of course, one of the last representatives of the Jade’an House. Everyone else would have been very aware of that fact. But for Kalad, who seemed determined to do away with every one of his responsibilities, their family faced extinction. Artemi had foolishly removed herself from the Act of Succession, and that meant the kingdom might soon face a war of the Houses unless Medea named an heir. The situation was not a secure one. Morghiad very nearly smiled to himself. Acher had said much the same thing to him over a century ago.
“I didn’t realise Hirrahans were welcome here,” Lord Collibry said with an arched eyebrow.
Morghiad gave him a look intended to make the grandest of oak trees wither away. Keeping the lidir, or braids in his hair, had been a calculated decision on Morghiad’s part, and he made no effort to conceal the slight accent he had acquired.
“Your advice is most welcome here, father,” Medea said, “Perhaps you will be able to offer us some useful information about our friends and our… not-so-close friends.”
When had his daughter become so calculating? “My queen, if you want me to be your spy, you’ll be disappointed. I no longer belong to Calidell or Hirrah. I am of no country now, and my purpose is to serve the entire continent. If I can.”
Unlike her brother, Tallyn, she did not balk at the honorific. Her reaction, if she had one at all, remained entirely concealed. Morghiad had to admit a small amount of pride at that, even if he had always known she would make an excellent politician. The other lords and ladies, however, stared at him with unabashed surprise. It was a shame that Silar’s father, Lord Forllan, was absent from this discussion to add some much-needed rationality, but Morghiad knew better than to challenge his daughter on her choice of representatives. He pursed his lips. Perhaps he would send her a note about it later.
Lady Faramine turned her head toward the queen. “Do you think he should be party to the discussions we have here if he is no longer-”
“I am not going to do anything that might put my daughter and her position at risk.” Morghiad made sure to keep his voice sharp and hard. “The same goes for Calidell.”
Medea nodded sagely. “Very good. Is there some business that you can share with us today?”
“Yes. I am in need of a representative of Calidell to accompany me to Astalon. You know of my plans there, but Calidell will require someone who can be independent from me, and they must defend this country’s interests. I know that you already plan to stay here, so whom will you name as your envoy?”
She looked down at the table surface for a moment, no expression apparent upon her features. But her pause was for show. It had to have been. Medea had known for some time that he would ask this. Eventually, she raised her chin and levelled her gaze at something in the air behind him. “You must take my brother.”
Kalad? Kalad? Morghiad was not ready to deal with Kalad yet! Kalad was not ready to deal with him! He fought to match his daughter’s stoicism and pressed his blind panic into a corner of his thoughts. It didn’t go there lightly. Blazes! That must have been what Silar meant when he wrote in his letter, ‘You’ll have to find him if you want a chance of it working, and he’ll be in a tavern in Curkovi. Don’t get angry about it.’ Don’t get angry? What reason would he have to be angry with Kalad? Morghiad decided that he needed to break something soon. Or have a fight. A fight would probably be less destructive and make him feel better afterward. “As you instruct, my queen,” he said with a calmness that surprised even himself.
The meeting descended from there into dull discussions of the price of wheat and tax collections. Morghiad managed to remain half-awake through most of it, even venturing a few ideas of his own, but his daughter appeared to have a good handle on the solutions available to her. By the end of it, his right hand was gripping the side of his chair in an effort to remind himself that he had much of a purpose here at all.
The end of the meeting was welcomed by all, and Morghiad was the first to stride out of the stuffiness of the chamber and into open air. His thoughts immediately turned to the search for a suitable opponent.
A man with bright orange hair was the first to step in his path. “Alright, my lord? Where’s your bit of chewing toffee these days?”
“I take it you mean my wife? Business has drawn her away, but she’ll be back. Do you know, Beetan, you’re just the sort of man I was looking for?”
“I hope that being without her hasn’t made you that desperate for romance, Mor.”
“Oh, this isn’t for pleasure.” Morghiad nodded toward the area of gardens most often reserved for practice. “This’ll be punishment for us both.”
The soldier nodded. “Sounds more like my kind of thing, but only if I get a drink out of it afterward. You can’t just lure me out there with your big green eyes and promises of pain. I want a pint of Baydie’s finest ale and some talk of what it’s like to be...” He looked Morghiad up and down. “…foreign.”
“Ale, I can do; talk, I’ll try.”
Beetan nodded, his pale eyes glinting with excitement. Morghiad was forced to set aside his white sword for the battle, since it tended to slice through and blunt ordinary blades. That surely counted as cheating in such matches. He still had the Hirrahan steel sword his father had obtained for him, though it did look and feel rather out of place here. Calidellian weapons were made smooth and sinuous like the voices of the men who wielded them. Hirrahan blades tended to have an inordinate number of extra points and sharp bits wherever possible. Beetan did not appear to blink at the sight of it, however, and they were soon going at each other with teeth gritted and grunts in their throats.
Beetan was more than a fair bladesman when he put his mind to it, and though he was no Kusuru, he did have a surprising amount of strength in his wiry arms. Morghiad dodged and danced around many of the attacks to begin with, only landing a few of his own on the occasions he felt tempted.
“Have you seen Kalad lately?” Beetan asked mid-attack.
The question hit Morghiad just where it was supposed to, and he found himself stumbling to avoid the sword edge that was directed at his neck. It was a foolish error for a man of his experience! “No,” he replied, “But I have to find him.”
“Bit of a mission that,” Beetan said, righting his blade after the attack, “Though it might help to remember the influences of Silar and The Hunter upon him. Where there are pretty women, Kalad is sure to be about.”
Morghiad grunted. His son - the sort that flirted and chased skirts! How could such brief and shallow affairs ever be fun for a man with any intellect? Then again, Beetan ought to be the sort to know. “Why flirt with a woman-” he stepped to the side and took a more measured swipe at his opponent, “-when there is no guarantee that she will like you, or that you will ultimately like her?”
Beetan coughed a chuckle, signalling a brief halt to their fight. “Well, you’ve hit it exactly. It is like the thrill of gambling. One throw of the dice, and fortune might provide you with a night of unbridled passion. Or you might get a slap in the face. Worth the risk, I say.”
Gambling. Morghiad had never seen the appeal of it. Why pitch your money in a pot when the owners of that pot seemed to be so fabulously and reliably wealthy from it, and the gamers so poor and ragged by comparison? Were womanisers the same? Silar had never looked particularly ragged through his affairs. Then again, the man had never found himself a suitable wife, either. “But suppose…” Morghiad renewed his attacks, sweeping his blade down from the air above and then low enough to lift a clod of earth from the ground beside him. “…Suppose you did get your night of unbridled passion. What happens after that? Do you see the woman again, or leave and search for the next one?”
“Leave. Almost invariably. You don’t want to risk it being less than-” The soldier parried clumsily. “-perfect later.”
“Why?” Morghiad had endured one or two rather imperfect arguments with Artemi, and had slept uneasily beside her on some nights, but to give up her company over those trivialities – that was utter nonsense. And when the difficult times came, the sad times, whom would he want at his side but the woman he loved?
Beetan stopped fighting again. “Because it’s nice to reminisce over later, and nothing will ever mar the memory of it. Look, we don’t all get to meet our vanha-sielu, warrior soul mates who think the same as we do. I had a wife once, and she was alright, but she didn’t like drink. And I like drink. So the drink stayed.”
“Artemi and I do not think in the same manner. And I would have given up drinking water for her if she asked it of me.”
The soldier screwed up his face. “Are you trying to put me off my stride by making me feel sick?” He drew his blade into a spinning side-slash, saying afterward, “But the fact remains. I bet Artemi never tried to change you. I’m me, and my wife didn’t like the part of me that enjoys being drunk. So follocks to it.”
There were aspects of Morghiad that Artemi had tried to meddle with, principally the monster that lived in his head. Though, as much an integral part of him as that seemed to be, Morghiad didn’t much like it either. At the end of his battle with Beetan, Morghiad came to a conclusion he had not expected to reach at all. Perhaps it was cynical, but for all of their bravado and easy charm, the one thing all womanisers appeared to have in common - the one thing that drove their reasoning - was a fear of what women might one day do to them.