Janaxia rolled herself into a tight ball, trying to protect herself from the cold air, wrapping herself up as much as she could inside the coat. Consciousness slowly trickled in, memory returning, the icy hallway, the hulking figure in armour. She slowly opened her eyes, risking a quick peek around, even as an unexpected scent wafted through the air, a smell she recognised as Sethan tea, a rare and sinfully expensive import.
She was laying on her side, something hard and chill beneath her, the walls hidden behind frozen tapestries and wall hangings, a huge bookcase dominating one wall, packed tightly with thick, leatherbound tomes, some warding effect keeping the ice from them. It had the appearance of the study of a well-to-do noble with a penchant for the scholarly arts, at least if everything but the books weren’t covered with ice and frost. A magelight shed a clear, white light over the scene, eliminating any shadows.
A gentle clinking sound diverted her attention, a spoon chinking against fine porcelain. A voice rumbled, deep and low, some of the icicles vibrating in response.
‘Do you take sugar? It has been some time since I had guests.’
Janaxia squeaked, summoning up her courage to look for the speaker. There, sat on a chair of black basalt, liberally studded with silver inlay and dark crimson gems, was the armoured figure, a cup of sugar in their hands, incongruously small in their metal gauntlet. A pale red light shone out from the eye slit as they regarded her, horned helmet tilted slightly as they waited for a response. Her desire to adhere to etiquette overtook her caution as she sat up, trying to maintain good posture and the correct attitude towards an unknown social superior.
‘Yes, just a small amount, thank you.’
They nodded, gently scooping a small amount of white powder from the sugar bowl into a cup of tea, steaming away. Janaxia took it, grateful for the warmth, but first admiring the craft of the cup – not just a simple cup, it had fantastically delicate patterns etched onto it, graceful loops and whorls, all picked out in vivid colours.
‘I thank you for your hospitality, sir, but I must confess you have the advantage of me. Might I have the honour of knowing whom I address?’
The red glow paled slightly, as though the armour was taking a breath. Janaxia winced, hoping she hadn’t caused offence, but no mention had ever been made of some dweller in the cellar, especially one that possessed such self-evidently superior taste. To try and sooth the situation over, she took a sip of the tea, cool enough to drink already.
She gasped in pleasure. She’d had tea frequently enough before, as a stimulant or simply as a courtesy, but this, this was something entirely different. A rich, vivid taste, something almost fruity underlying the normal flavour, just the scent alone enough to clear the drowsiness from her head.
The armour chuckled, rumbles sending icicles tumbling to the floor. ‘Ah, your first time with true Sethan? Most of it is cut with other herbs to stretch it out, and of course it improves and strengthens over age. Something to do with how they farm it, the blood of the workers or somesuch. But really, where are my manners? The first relative to visit in an age, and I’ve not even introduced myself!’
They stood, armour creaking slightly, shards of ice falling from their armour, apparently having formed even in the short time they had sat, before giving a bow, in archaic style. ‘I am Kinnevar Ultremar, the Black Ice Ravager, Slayer of Seyroon Silverscale, Conqueror of the fallen Desandor, etcetera, etcetera.’ His made a dismissive gesture with his hands, indicating that he could likely have continued on for quite some time listing all his titles and deeds. ‘All very tiresome to list, and I’m sure there are other things a young lady such as yourself would prefer to discuss.’
Janaxia squeaked again, almost spilling her tea in consternation. Kinnevar the Icerazor, the warrior-mage that had brought their family to prominence, who had brought half the continent to heel during the Years of Strife. She carefully put the teacup back onto the saucer, hoping she hadn’t offended him, ready to throw herself on his mercy lest she strike her from existence. He sighed again.
‘Please, don’t stand on ceremony. Having terrified minions squeak at me lost it’s appeal quite rapidly in my living days, let me tell you! No, actual co-operation is far better, even if harder to achieve. So tell me, blood of my blood, what is your name?’
Janaxia tried to regain her composure. This was what she had dreamed of, polite society, socialising with the great and the good (or at least the powerful) on her own terms, rather than as an adjunct to Mother. Of course, in her fantasies, they had usually been rather more alive, but this was an opportunity, despite the biting cold!
‘I am Janaxia Seyroon Falmeth Uth Tremari, daughter of Poratia Uth Tremari, the bearer of the Ochre Lash of Granthor.’ She gave a small, seated bow – he had sat not to stand on ceremony, but he was the founder of her family, some respect was due.
He made a distinctly disgusted noise, Janaxia flinching, even as he returned to his throne. ‘Oh, it isn’t you. But to think that a child of my own blood would be using the spells of Granthor.’ He spoke the name with deep contempt. ‘He was a liar, a cheat, a terrible wizard, a worse musician and an utterly unskilled dancer. And what magic do you have, Janaxia?’
Her heart fluttered slightly at being paid the honour of being addressed by her personal name, even as her face fell. She looked away, taking another sip of the tea to cover the shame of her answer. ‘I… I have no magic to my name.’
‘Ah, I was much the same. You are, and I apologise for the rudeness of guessing a lady’s age, but about 20 or so? I found the whole thing, if you will forgive the pun, utterly arcane, until I was in my thirties. That’s why I took the path of the blade to start with, despite everyone else viewing it with contempt. And of course, as soon as I achieved a few conquests, suddenly everyone was my friend, all praise and congratulations, my brothers completely forgetting the years they’d spent ignoring and belittling me.’
From the tone of his voice, this was a well-worn complaint.
‘I went from being the joke of the family to their most feted son. And, young fool that I was, I believed them. I allowed myself to be matched to Skatara of the Crescent Moon. Well, that was a mistake, let me tell you; never let you family decide your partner! She was beautiful, brave and passionate.’ His tone turned wistful. ‘Oh, you should have seen her! Slender curves, the appetite of a devil. But that didn’t last much past the first year, after that it was all cold, hard ambition. “Conquer this”, “destroy that”, “go and drive them before you and hear their lamentations”. It’s a lot of work, conquering and pillaging, and a long way from anything that’s actually any fun. I went over a decade in the saddle, racing between fights, and do you know how many times I got to attend a ball, or even a nice luncheon?’
There wasn’t even a pause for Janaxia to respond before he continued, lost in grumbling reminisces.
‘Twice. In thirteen years, I got to attend exactly two events that I wanted to. And both of those ended with people trying to murder me! And if it’s not rebels or other kingdoms, there’s always some, if you will pardon my language, smarmy prick with a pen and a fancy robe, trying to wrest control away, sat safely in a room several kingdoms away from the action that needs stabbing. No, be proud of your blood, and where you have come from, but if you’re not careful, you’ll lose your life to them, and never a word of thanks!’
Janaxia nodded sympathetically. Icerazor, the Icerazor had been a failure at magic as well? By all accounts Janaxia had heard, he had been a prodigy, practically coming out of the womb hurling hexes!
‘It wasn’t until I was well past my prime I finally found the strength to stand up to them, and start doing what I wanted. At least, when I could get away from Skatara, or some fool trying to murder me!’ The red glow pointed upwards as he directed his attention at the ceiling, clearly lost in recall, before flicking back down to Janaxia.
‘That sounds rather rude of them.’ She gave what she hoped was an encouraging smile.
‘Oh, you have no idea. I’d finally managed to seduce Lavinia Whitecloack and find some privacy, and then some fool swings in through the window, knife in his teeth! Quite ruined the moment, and of course blood doesn’t wash out of white silk, so Lavinia was upset and blamed me for that entire affair!’
Janaxia frowned remembering more snippets of family history. ‘Lavinia Whitecloak, Blessed of the Eye of Heaven? Did she not try to kill you on several occasions?’
He waved away her objections. ‘Oh, that was purely professional. Not to say that she didn’t give it a good effort and actually came close on several occasions. But it’s the dark clothing, all that understated elegance and wealth, with just a dash of villainy, maybe some spikes, or a touch of leather, it drives the heroes wild. And Lavinia, well, she was quite fetching herself, those tight robes her order wore, they were quite the thing, let me tell you! Stand up, Janaxia, show me what passes for fashion these days.’
Janaxia obediently stood, glad at least that the fur coat gave her some style. When she revealed the dress she wore underneath, he shook his head. ‘Really? You have a good figure, but that would make even a nymph look bad. Is that what is considered appealing these days?’
Janaxia explained her mother’s view on fashion (a useless distraction), style (practicality over all else) and what should be worn (glyphs and runes of protection over dull robes), Kinnevar shaking his head. He pointed at the horns on his helmet. ‘Take these horns. Are they protective? No. They catch blades, and channel them towards my head. I had to get extra enchantments applied to protect myself! But do they intimidate enemies? Yes. You see someone fighting in this, you see someone that’s skilled and powerful enough to go into a battle with a liability, and win it. If you’re in a battle with a wizard, who is more powerful – the one wearing dozens of charms, glyphs and other tatty decorations, or the one that’s dressed in a fine suit or dress? That’s the wizard that has enough power in themselves to achieve their goals without external support.’
He plucked at the fabric with a gauntlet, managing to show disapproval despite the lack of a face. ‘For a child of my blood to be dressed in such a way, well, I’m not upset, but I am disappointed.’ He paused. ‘I’m sure there will be something suitable within a closet somewhere down here. And, of course, there’s several tomes that may help with your magical abilities. How is your tuition currently managed?’
Janaxia went through the details of how her sister was trying to teach her, mainly by locking her in the cellar. ‘She does sound rather lacking as a tutor. I have some texts that may be of some help. Although you probably want to eat first.’
He made an arcane gesture, a faint rustling breeze amongst the ice as he summoned an invisible servant, it’s shimmering force returning shortly after, bearing a bottle of wine and some strange-looking biscuits, a shining magical aura fading as they were released from whatever magic protected them.
‘Sadly, I can no longer partake, but don’t let that limit you. Now, this wine is from the Julithan vineyards, an excellent vintage.’ He began tutoring her in the correct way to taste and savour wine, a vast improvement over the advice from Mother (‘nurse one drink for the entire evening’). And the biscuits were strangely nourishing, a soft wrapping around a dense core, filling her up despite their small size.