Most of the Khalidor family took time to visit the new house Asheara had bought in Rhi’a’non. She and Elsaria had moved to the capital city, and were now living in a house not too far from the academy and the temple. The other sisters very much enjoyed the chance to spend some family time, and the house had become something of a gathering place for them to spend their free time, whenever any of them had time to spare.
Delia had reached a good point in her studies, having completed all the shared classes and was now only studying her specialty in wind and water magic. She most likely had the most free time out of all of them. Selene had completed most of her studies and was now doing practical work as a senior acolyte. She took part in ceremonies and sometimes went along with patrols of guardsmen or groups from the hunter’s guild, both groups often having use for a priestess with healing skills. When she was not on these treks, she had quite a bit of free time, but then could be gone for a week or two at a time. Selvaria was rarely around, being tied in training with the army.
Elsaria had taken to spending quite a bit of time with Alduin, learning the skills necessary for a hunter. She had great instincts as a warrior, but she didn’t share her older sister Selvaria’s desire for justice or her plans to join the army. It seemed much more likely that she would join the ranks of the hunters as an apprentice after her Awakening, which was less than a year away. There was also the fact that now wasn’t the best of times to join the army if you weren’t Eldarinwe, and Elsaria had clearly inherited her mother’s Moon Elf looks.
Asheara was also giving Elsaria lessons every now and then, when Alduin was too busy. She had been a successful hunter herself after all. When she wasn’t training her daughter, she took to crafting. She had been a fairly decent tailor during her adventuring days and she had decided to renew the craft. Normally her mediocre skills would not have been sufficient to be very successful in the capital, but she had one thing the local tailors didn’t, the patterns for female undergarments Neleh had come up with. It wasn’t something you could advertise really, but word of mouth was a powerful thing, especially with something like this.
Interestingly the noble ladies of the capital had been very interested in the new types of undergarments, and there were even rumors circulating that one was much more likely to get lucky when equipped with the undergarments made by Asheara. Or Neleh as it happened, because she wanted the practice too, to not lose her edge. She spent some of her sparse free time coming with new models. Apparently, the more risqué the model, the faster it got sold. The tailors in the capitol had copied the designs of course, but Neleh was the one that came up with new ones all the time, and the lucky rumor didn’t carry over to other shops for some reason. In any case, Asheara was making good money, even though she wasn’t exactly in great need of it.
Neleh rarely got time to visit the new house after the splash she had made in the ceremony previously. She had made a real impression, and the audience had been made up of the more powerful members of elven nobility. Nimue had been busy for weeks after the ceremony fending off requests for audience from the various nobles.
“The others are mostly an annoyance, but you’ll have to take four audiences at least. My position doesn’t allow me to say no to them.” Nimue told Neleh one evening. She had been able to shoo off other requests, but these were out of her league.
Neleh sighed. “So who do we have and what do they want?”
“The two most important ones are Shalheira the Chosen of Elune and Estelar the advisor to the emperor. A quick test, what do you think they want?” Nimue, ever the teacher, turned the situation to her advantage.
“Estelar is easy. He wants to meet me because the emperor wants to use me as a symbol to maintain peace in the realm. Not a bad idea as such, the image of a young maiden with an ardent hope for peace and unity can touch a lot of people. The fact that I was the one that performed the ritual of the blessing just gives more credence to the idea, by elevating me above your average young maiden in people’s eyes. As for the Chosen, it is hard to say. I honestly don’t know her position in all things political, which makes that meeting dangerous. Never go into a negotiation when you don’t know the primary goals of the other party.” Neleh was not happy with her ignorance. Someone important like the Chosen could make a big difference in her life, but she simply didn’t have enough information, and the Chosen was good at hiding her motivations.
“Fair enough, even I don’t know Shalheira’s goals. You are most likely right about Estelar. What about the other two, the crown prince of the Sun Court Aelrindel and the first princess of the Moon Court Sumia?” (Nimue)
“In both cases, part of it is an attempt to garner the support of someone they assume to be favored by Elune for their clan. Elune’s favor is in short supply these days. In Sumia’s case it is also an attempt to strengthen their control over the temples, and a bit of the symbolic thing in common with the emperor’s advisor. As for Aelrindel…he wouldn’t by any chance have plans for an engagement would he?” Neleh asked with a raised eyebrow.
Nimue gave a grin. “He would indeed. The royalty rarely marry for love, and the pool of acceptable candidates is not immense. A future priestess obviously favored by Elune and blessed by Aphrodite is a good catch. Even if she is a Moon Elf. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see requests from the other royal families as well.” Her grin had grown positively evil.
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? I’m guessing you didn’t try that hard to fend off Sumia and Aelrindel.” Neleh only got laughter as an answer.
‘You could’ve made your favor a little less obvious.’ Neleh sent a thought with a slightly accusing tone towards the goddess.
“I could’ve, but it is much more fun this way. And the fact remains that you have my favor whereas the other elves, not so much. I would’ve rejected their request for a blessing, if you weren’t the one making the request. The old priestess was wise to have you do it. The ritual simply gave the perfect chance to make my point. Also, as you well know, making a connection like we have requires a bit of a special circumstance. You are the one that wanted better access to my power, now you pay the price for it.” The goddess had a bit of a chiding tone towards the end. Even if she was amused.
‘I know. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.’ Neleh sent the thought with some resignation.
Neleh had the meetings with Sumia and Aelrindel first, simply because she could easily and politely turn both of them away by relying on her young age of thirteen. Neither was exactly happy about it, but they both realized she really was too young to be of proper use for elven politics. She could be an asset in a few years after her Awakening, but not now. Neleh was able to use the same reason to rebuff the prince’s romantic advances, simply pointing out she was too young to even consider engagement let alone marriage. The prince was actually shocked when she told him to make inquiries after her Awakening ceremony, because he had not realized Neleh was that young. She had grown up well for her age after all, and had the demeanor of a warrior. It was considered impolite to proposition elves before their Awakening too heavily. You could drop hints of interest for their family, but anything beyond that would be considered crude.
The meeting with the king’s advisor Estelar was going to be a bit harder. Their plan of using her as a symbol partially relied on her youth. She was meeting Estelar in Nimue’s office in the temple. Nimue had wanted to join the meeting, but Estelar had made it quite clear he wanted to talk to Neleh privately.
“Lord Estelar, I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure. Glad to make your acquaintance.” Neleh gave the man a warrior’s greeting, with her right fist over her heart.
She had not expected the emperor’s advisor to be a warrior, but the way the man carried himself and the elven blade by his hip made his skill clear. He also had the cord signifying a rank of Great Silver holding his hair back. The only people who held the rank of Great Silver were those that could single handedly fight against small armies, regardless if they were warriors, mages or those who wielded the holy power of the gods. If armies were the ones that resolved wars, then those with the rank of Great Silver were the greatest weapons of those armies. This was not a man she could afford to antagonize.
“Acolyte Khalidor. I saw your performance at the new year ceremony. Very impressive.” The man acknowledged her greeting with his own with some amusement.
“Please call me Neleh. My sister is also an acolyte of the temple, and it could get confusing.” She gave a small smile.
“Neleh it is then. You can call me Estelar. Unlike many others, I consider the title Lord an insult more often than a compliment. Your greeting suggests that you train as a warrior as well. Aiming to become a Templar?” He was genuinely curious, if a little amused.
“I have been training since I was a child.” Neleh gave a small grin. “Although I suppose I still am a child. Let’s say for as long as I remember. As for the Templars, I think high priestess Nimue is planning on having me join the Inquisitors instead. All that depends on the results of my Awakening I suppose. But you came here on business and not hear the life story of a silly girl. What can I do for the Right Fist of the Emperor?” Neleh had done some looking into the man, and his rank as a Great Silver explained his nickname.
He gave a small chuckle. “The emperor would like to sponsor your studies both now and after your Awakening, in exchange for certain services.”
Studies in the academy didn’t require tuition, but even with living in the dormitories, there were costs of living and necessary equipment. Especially for the mage students, the costs of magical items could be fairly steep. And everything was more expensive in the capital. Neleh had made a quite a bit of money with her tailoring, and her parents were affluent, so sponsorship held no appeal for her, but it would be rude to put it that bluntly. And of course sponsorship could mean things beyond money.
“What kind of services are we talking about? My family isn’t badly off, so money isn’t much of an issue. I’m sure the benefits of the emperor’s sponsorship go beyond that, but I need to know what I’m getting into.” Neleh tried to carefully hedge her words.
“Of course. The exact nature of your services would depend on the skills you ultimately develop. You have already given a taste of your skill as a priestess, and the imperial palace could always use a priestess with high skills for many positions, from a healer for the royal guard to an advisor to the court. Should you really develop skills as an inquisitor, such skills are heavily in need by the empire.” Estelar gave a wide smile. “Both second and third prince of the empire also attended the ceremony, and showed some interest in you, so marriage is not out of the question either.”
That was an impressively worded offer. The man was obviously an accomplished schemer as well. He had managed to suggest a lot of great opportunities but promised very little. The wording left open several avenues for using her as a symbol. Also important to notice, was that the hinted marriage was not to the first prince, who was still unmarried. So even if she was accepted into the family she would not become the wife of the next emperor. Most likely not even the wife of the second prince, in case something was to happen to the first prince. An heir and a spare so to speak. Not that Neleh had any such desires anyway, but the wording was interesting.
“Unfortunately I must decline. As tempting as an offer that is, I am still too young for such decisions, and there are already some other plans for my future in place.” She tried to put an apologetic tone to her voice.
Estelar thought for a moment, and noticed the girl had seen through the implications in his words. He decided to try a bit more direct approach instead. “Alright, I’ll try to speak more plainly. The empire wants to use you as a symbol of peace to help slow the internal struggles that plague us, ready to fan into full flames of civil war. Surely you see the need to stop that, and it would not require you to commit your future away.”
His direct approach required a direct response, which Neleh was not all that happy to give. “Look, I knew why you approached me. I have no desire to antagonize the imperial family, but I’m not sure you represent my views on the matters of this conflict. That isn’t to say I support the other factions either, and don’t demean yourself by claiming something silly like ‘you’re either with us or against us!’ We both know these issues are more complex than that. While I don’t advocate civil war, I also think the empire needs to come to the negotiation table on some issues. I do not feel comfortable being a champion for a cause I don’t believe in.”
“Even if it comes to civil war because of that decision?” Estelar tried to guilt her.
“You and I both know that if it comes to civil war, then it is not because of me. You have the cards to stop the war; it is up to you if you want to play them. Using me is just your attempt to jockey into a position where you’re not forced to play those cards.” (Neleh)
Neleh was right, and Estelar was surprised she could see that deeply into the matter. He gave a grin after a while. “I think I know why Nimue wants you as an inquisitor. If you keep your mind and skills sharp I might try and get you to work as an Inquisitor for the imperial court despite this refusal. We could use someone like you. I’ll take my leave then. Good day future-Inquisitor Neleh.” He gave the same warrior salute, this time with more sincerity.
Neleh returned the salute with a small bow added in. “Good day Great Silver Estelar.” She bid him goodbye not as the emperor’s advisor, but as a warrior.
When Neleh exited Nimue’s office, she ran into the old priestess on the way out. It was obvious by her face that she had somehow listened in on the conversation. Nimue gave a grin and a playful high-five.
“You know it’s not polite to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations?” Neleh had some mock severity in her voice.
“Oh you know I wouldn’t have missed that one for anything. You handled it well. It’s hard to turn something like that down and not burn bridges, but you even managed to get a job offer. I’ll need to pay even more attention to you. Should I set your audience for the Chosen next?” (Nimue)
“Yes, when it’s convenient for her. I’ll go for my warrior lessons in the meantime. I believe some of the other acolytes are already waiting.” Neleh wasn’t the only acolyte taking warrior lessons, although the others were several years older than her. She was not surprised to find the others had already gone to the training grounds, considering she was late. The other students weren’t overly fond of Neleh, in large part because they felt pressured by the young girl who was beating them in both warrior skills and priestess lessons. It’s not like they hated her, they often traveled together to the training grounds, but they weren’t’ friendly either. For the most part they ignored her, and she was all too happy to oblige them. Jealousy was a natural, if ugly, feeling that everyone falls prey to at some point.
She was halfway between the academy and the temple, when she felt several distinctly unfriendly presences surrounding her. She stopped to look around, already formulating possible plans depending on the nature of those waylaying her. She saw several black dressed people approaching her, definitely not students or acolytes. The location was not overtly visible to others, but a fight would draw attention from all sides. So whoever it was didn’t plan for a long encounter. A quick grab was the most likely plan.
Before the assailants drew too close, Neleh mouthed a quick prayer for appearances sake and drew on Elune’s power to perform one of the higher level holy spells she knew. A large golden circle appeared on the ground around her, and a dome of translucent golden light rose to surround both her and one of the assailants. She quickly grabbed the hair ornament from her hair and restored her spear to full length, ramming the point of the spear straight into the throat of the surprised man.
“Dammit! No-one said the bitch could invoke the golden sanctuary!” The apparent leader cursed while the other’s struck the golden barrier with no apparent effect. Neleh knew the barrier could take quite a bit of punishment before breaking, although there were ways around it if you were prepared. Or had enough power to crush it outright. She didn’t want to take any chances, so with a small grin she started to call for help with her best impression of a ‘scared little girl’-voice.
The assailants could already hear the sound of armored boots closing in, and decided to retreat. The last black dressed man had disappeared around a corner when several temple guards run to the scene. They took the scene in with a glance, Neleh standing inside the golden sanctuary with one black dressed man dead at her feet.
“They went that way!” Neleh called and pointed the way. Couple of the guards stayed to protect her, while others gave chase. One of the guards was interviewing Neleh, when both Nimue and the fiery haired spear instructor Solana burst to the scene.
“Are you alright?” They both called, Nimue angry and Solana clearly worried.
“I’m fine. There were eight of them waiting here, and I think they were here specifically for me.” Neleh thumbed towards the corpse while talking.
Nimue stalked angrily towards the body to see what she could find out. Solana still worried started to check her for any wounds. “Are you sure they didn’t hurt you? They could’ve used poison in their weapons. Even if you’re not feeling it yet, it might be dangerous later on even if it’s just a nick.”
“I am fine. I surprise mister corpse over there, while the others were stopped by the golden sanctuary.” Neleh stayed patient, a bit curious about her teacher’s overblown concern.
The mention of golden sanctuary brought a raised eyebrow from the woman. “Since when have you been casting high level holy spells?”
“The goddess giveth.” Neleh tried a bit of mysterious humor, not wanting to reveal her abilities.
“Yes I do, don’t I?” She heard Elune’s amused voice in her head.
“Be careful that she doesn’t also taketh away.” Solana said still worried but with the beginnings of a small smile. Neleh noticed she had a very cute smile.