Three days had passed since the attack on the Kingdom from foreign invaders. Three days had passed since the Princess was Bonded with her new Knight. The problem was this new Knight was not what was expected.
Lady Vera sat in the chamber room of the palace, a place where the Royal Council gathered to discuss matters of great import. It was usually impossible to convene this group, made up of the highest Nobles of all the land, without the blessing of the King or Queen. But in their absence, Lady Vera, as was her right as Steward of the Throne, called them together to discuss the events that had taken place three days prior.
Vera was only disappointed they had not managed to get together sooner, but that would have been impossible. The man who was dubbed by young Orin as Craven had disappeared. His body could not be found in the smoking ruin of the home that he had been tossed into. It is of course possible that his body was completely devoured by the flames but the gathered Nobles had chosen to lay credence to the claim that he may still be alive and breathing. A travesty that could not be ignored, considering the breach in security that he had exploited. The events of the wedding, however, brought the First Knight's own decisions into question as well. Many of the Nobles now doubted Lady Vera's ability to keep the Princess safe and Vera could not disagree with them. She had left security in the hands of the head of the royal guard, a Lord by the name of Utor, but he had since gone to ground. The last sighting of him was in a village just south of the Venosian border with Andapa. A start at least, but it would mean moving agents into the territory of an ally in order to hunt him. Something that required the Andapan King's signature before they could even think of following, which was a non-starter as far as anyone on the council was concerned. The Andapan King claimed to be a friend to Venos but he would not go out of his way to aid them in any matter, even something as serious as this.
They had managed to catch a number of the men that had been involved in the attack alive, but it had led nowhere. Their leader, the yellow-eyed Knight, was a cunning coward. He had told those men nothing about himself, or his ultimate plan if he managed to abduct the Princess. Instead promising them barrels of gold to live the rest of their lives in luxury. It was more likely that he would have killed them as soon as they left the city, but fools will be fools.
The problems with the gangs in the city would also have to be addressed. Vera knew that the officials who were in charge of the city guard accepted bribes from the three major gangs in the Commons. She had questioned a number of these officials over the course of the last few days and come up empty. Not one of them seemed to know that there was going to be an attack on the Princess and would have informed her if they had known. Vera would have very much liked to have killed those slippery little toads, but she had no cause as there was no proof, despite everyone knowing otherwise. She was forced to let them go with a stern warning.
The gang members themselves were of little to no help. None of them knew where their leaders were, but it could be safely concluded that they had left the city. Most likely before the attack had even begun. They would know how much trouble this would bring down on their heads and they would want to steer clear for a while. The Council had people out looking, but until they had some kind of lead, they were coming up blind. They had settled for raiding every gang stronghold in the city, essentially cutting the amount of money they generate down to almost nothing. Without leadership, the gangs would quickly crumble so they would watch and wait. If Destin, Grimbol or Brant entered the city, the guard would be waiting for them.
This, and more, had been their topics of discussion for most of the morning. They needed to hammer out a few details but much of it would come down to waiting to hear more. A letter had been sent to the King and Queen but they had yet to hear a reply. There could be a multitude of reasons for this silence but after the events of the previous days, and after learning this plot was years in the planning, nothing could be overlooked. To say Vera was worried would be putting it mildly. She feared something else was going on here, something just beyond her reach. She needed to get to the bottom of it or it could mean the end of everything she had helped her King and Queen build. Part of her wanted to rush to their side and aid them in any way she could, but the thought was fantasy. She would remain in the city until they returned, even if they were in danger her charge was the kingdom and it's protection. They would not thank her for rushing needlessly off to battle, especially after the events of the past three days.
Finally, after much filibustering and delaying, they finally got to the topic that none of them wanted to talk about, but all of them needed to address: The Princess' new Knight.
Collective groans rose from those gathered with the exception of Annabelle, Vera's sister and Smith, whose face looked as blank as it usually did, and Cellus, who was on the Council more as a courtesy than anything else. The King and Queen had asked Vera and Annabelle to bring him into the fold about a year ago, to learn more about the political aspects of being the Knight of the Princess. It was title that, once given, allowed him to sit on the Council. Unfortunately, the title of Knight of the Princess now belonged to Orin of Myrin, a peasant swordsman. Because of this very fact, Cellus' face was stormy, his eyebrows pulled low over his eyes and his lips pursed in frustration. Vera could understand how he felt about the fact that his betrothed had Bonded with another, but she would still have to keep an eye on him. Just in case he got any ideas about harming the boy.
“We should just cut off his head and be done with it.” snapped Lord Walden, the greying representative of the People's Collective and all around idiot, elected to the position of special envoy to the Royal Council because no one could stand the man. He had next to no say in their decisions but he was, unfortunately, allowed to speak. His hair was merely thin wisps against his scalp and he had a small moustache that he no doubt believed made him look impressive.
Cellus nodded his head almost as soon as the Lord Walden had stopped speaking, his eyes gazing vacantly into the distance, no doubt looking back to that moment, three days ago, when he found the battered and broken form of his betrothed in the protective arms of another. Ah, the stupidity of the young and ignorant.
“That is not an option, Lord Walden,” Annabelle said with her flat and frosty tone of voice. “Orin saved the Princess, as well as myself, the First Knight and the Duke Cellus. Not to mention that killing him would break the Bond violently. It could kill the Princess as well.”
Vera was still amazed even to this day with her sister's ability to deal with foolish Nobles like Lord Walden. She was never flustered, never angry and never raised her voice, yet everyone strained to hear her speak. It was a power that Vera had tried to master with hilarious results, she was just too open with her emotions to act like her sister so she left the speaking to her, when occasion allowed.
“Besides, killing the boy would just be wrong. He is a fine young man and will make a fine Knight,” laughed Lord Elgard who, in the absence of Lord Utor, had come out of retirement on request to handle security for the palace. As such, he was here as Interim Captain of the Royal Guard and spoke with great authority even without it. He was a Veteran of many battles and was joined today by his Smith, the Lord Asterd. A silent and dangerous presence even in his advanced years, he stood in one corner of the room, his face leaden with shadow. “Did you hear what the boy called the man? Craven! I haven't laughed so hard in years!”
Cellus smiled at Elgard tightly, “Be that as it may, he is still a commoner and, as such, is not entitled to be Knight of the Princess. The Bond must be broken at the very least.”
“I agree,” stated Lord Walden, nodding his head towards Cellus, “The boy is an unknown quantity and while we all know how brave he was during the attack, that does not give him the right to take the Lord Duke's place as Knight of the Princess!”
“You all seem to be forgetting, Lords and Ladies, that it was Elora herself who chose this young man.” This voice belong to the Lord High Chamberlain of Venos, Duke Brynyar, who held court in the House of Hymns, the cities highest governing body. In terms of importance, he was just below the King and Queen themselves.
“Chose would be a strong word, my Lord.” protested Cellus. “Elora was forced into a situation that she couldn't get out of and used what she had on hand to help us. It is unfortunate that it was him.”
Duke Brynyar raised an eyebrow at that. “You don't like the man, Cellus? Is this because he has, in effect, usurped your position as Knight and Husband, or do you have some genuine concerns?”
Cellus blinked, stunned. “Husband, my Lord? Orin is not Elora's husband, just her Knight and that itself is only temporary.”
“Actually, my Lord Duke,” another man spoke, raising his hand as if asking for permission with a small smile on his face. He was handsome, and younger than one would expect to sit on a Council such as this one. His name was Lord Yale, Spymaster Royal for the King and Queen. “You are incorrect.”
Cellus turned a scathing glare against the man. “How, my Lord Yale, am I incorrect? There were no vows, there was no wedding, there was merely a Bonding between Knight and Smith, nothing more.”
“Again, my Lord, I will say you are incorrect,” Yale said while raising placating hands. “The exchange of vows between two parties, one being of royal blood, has only been a part of our mandate for about one hundred years, and it was never written as an official requirement to seal the bond between a royal Knight or Smith with their counterpart.”
Vera leaned forwards in her chair. “Are you telling me that Princess Elora, Lady of Myrin and Flower of Venos, is married to a commoner?”
Yale smiled rather thinly, his eyes filled with trepidation. “Yes, my Lady, I'm afraid so. The Bonding itself has always been the method to officially unite a royal couple. All the other requirements were met, unfortunately.”
“What requirements would those be?!” Lord Walden sneered at the Spymaster.
The Spymaster Yale gazed upwards and began counting each one on his finger as he spoke. “First, there must be a crowd of their peers to witness the event, which speaks to the Nobles in attendance. Second, it must be witnessed by the King or Queen-”
“Well, that settles it then!” Cellus interrupted urgently. “The King and Queen were not in attendance so it can't be considered official.”
“Not technically true, my Lord Duke. Otherwise, how would you have gotten married in the first place?” Yale asked sharply, his eyes losing most of their humour. He did not like to be interrupted, as Vera remembered, and his retort to Cellus had caused him to grit his teeth in silence.
“As I was saying. Second, the King and Queen must be in attendance unless,” He aimed a withering glare at Cellus. “They have a Steward elected in their stead. Which is the position that First Knight Vera currently holds.”
“And third?” asked Elgard eagerly.
“And third they must be witnessed by the common folk of Venos, many of which were in attendance. That is all that is needed for their marriage to be considered legitimate in both the eyes of the Kingdom, and the eyes of the courts.”
“So if this Orin pressed the claim, he could have a legitimate case for the crown?” asked the Lord High Chamberlain intently.
Yale nodded. “Absolutely, my Lord. Though I do not believe we have to worry about that.”
“Oh? And why is that? If he has a claim on the crown then I would think he would try to take advantage of it.”
Yale looked to Vera for permission to continue and she nodded her head once, best for the Lord's to know as much about Orin as they could now, without leaving them to stew in their own resentments, especially Cellus and Walden. While Vera and Annabelle had known Cellus since he was a boy, he grew up to take his role as Royal Protector very seriously. He believed that it was his duty in life to marry Elora and keep her safe, as well as becoming King. The fact that he loved her was just a bonus in his eyes. Whereas Walden was just a snake. He would do anything to increase his power. Thankfully, he was rather inept and all his blundering attempts at prying more authority had been defeated thus far. But that did not mean he would not try again. If grooming Orin for the throne could give Walden a leg up on his competition, then he would do so in a heartbeat, despite his views on the peasantry. It was a well known fact that the man coveted the position of Lord High Chamberlain, seeking to steal it from Brynyar, the man he considered to be his rival.
“At the behest of the Ladies Vera and Annabelle I have been doing everything in my power to discover as much as I could about young Orin.” The Spymaster stood and went around the table, handing each of the men, with the exception of Lord Walden, a dossier on what he had dug up from Orin's past.
“I do not receive one because?” Walden snapped at the young Spymaster, who merely looked towards Annabelle, as she was best suited to handling his 'moods'.
“Because you are a special envoy from the Collective, Lord Walden, and have no authority on what decisions this Council makes. You are allowed to sit in and discuss, but nothing more. The information in these dossiers is strictly confidential as they pertain to the Knight of the Princess.”
“Temporary Knight of the Princess.” Cellus said glumly, staring at the thick bundle of parchment on the table in front of him.
“Temporary or not, it behoves us to be informed of who he is and what he wants. I will summarise for the Lords and Ladies, if I may?”
He received nods from everyone except Walden who stared at the dossiers with an expression of open greed.
“At first I was rather suspicious of the young man. I found it strange that he would turn up a mere two days before the wedding and somehow manage to get himself involved in an attack that, by all accounts, had been in motion for ten years. Most suspicious.”
“Do you believe he was involved in the attack?” asked Cellus with wide eyes and an eager smile.
“No, my Lord Duke and if you don't mind me saying, your inexperience with women is telling. Just because the Princess is Bonded with another does not mean she is immediately going to jump into his bed! Nor does it mean that said Bonded is somehow involved in nefarious plots! Have some respect for yourself, and you will respect her Royal Highness.” Yale said firmly, looking directly at the Cellus as he said the words.
Vera frowned and made to say something but then she felt Annabelle's arm on her hand. She turned to look at her sister, confused, until Annabelle shook her head and her voice appeared inside Vera's mind.
“He needed to hear that. Let him think on it. The Duke is a good man but we must be sure to not allow his feelings towards Orin poison who he is.” Annabelle stated.
Vera understood. She was, at times, overly protective of Duke Cellus. He was her first apprentice after all and he would make a worthy Knight, but Annabelle was right, he needed to hear that hard truth. If he continued down the path of hating Orin, he would merely drive the Princess away, something that Vera knew neither the Princess or Cellus wanted.
“As I was saying,” Yale cleared his throat. “I was at first suspicious but after sending a few of my agents to speak with associates of Orin, my fears have been assuaged. By all accounts, he is a good and honourable man. He had a bit of trouble with the law in his youth, as is often the case with those with no family, but he escaped becoming a criminal and became a mercenary instead. See page thirty four of your dossiers for more details. When he was a mercenary he worked with a fellow named Boldrin, the leader of the band, Boldrin's Brigade. From what I've learned in the city they are honourable lot, who do their jobs on time and have a good reputation abroad. I aim to confirm those reports after hearing from my agents in other countries, however I am not concerned at this time.”
“Why has he returned to the city, Lord Yale?” asked Lord Elgard, as he read the parchment in front of him, spectacles balanced on the tip of his nose.
“To settle down, by all accounts. It seems he paid a visit to the guard office the day before the wedding and asked the captain there for employment. The captain was receptive, I am told.”
“So, a patriot!” Elgard said with a smile.
Yale shrugged. “Perhaps, my Lord. Though I think it is more than likely that he simply needs work and the only work he is trained for requires a blade. All and all, this could have been a lot worse.”
“Yes, yes. A criminal who became a mercenary, how very fortunate for us all.” growled Lord Walden as he drank from his fifth cup of wine.
“I have some follow up questions for the boy, mostly about someone named Pater. Apparently he grew up in the same orphanage as Orin but has since become a rather high ranking member of the Common Dogs gang in the lower city.”
Annabelle's eyes narrowed. “Should we worry, Lord Yale?”
“Not at the moment, my Lady. As far as I'm aware, the two haven't been in contact since Orin left with his mercenary band. Still, something to look into. I would like to see him soon, though, if that would be acceptable.”
Vera and Annabelle exchanged a look.
“I would also like to check in on the Princess, if she is feeling better.” Cellus asked weakly, raising his hand as though he was a child. Perhaps Yale's words had cut the boy deeper than Vera initially realised.
“Unfortunately, at this point we cannot allow anyone near either the Princess or Orin.” Vera said hesitantly, looking to her sister desperately for assistance, causing the ever graceful Annabelle to sigh and take to her feet.
“Something went wrong with the Bonding.” Annabelle stated bluntly, causing all eyes at the table to widen in alarm.
“Wrong in what way?”
“How? is Elora alright?”
“Why am I not surprised.”
“I knew it!”
She looked in surprise towards Elgard, the last of the men who had spoken, wearing a triumphant grin on his face.
“She used too much, didn't she? The boy shouldn't have had that much strength, not as a newly Bonded.” Elgard said, leaning back in his chair with a smile on his face.
Vera sighed. “You are correct, Lord Elgard, she tried to do too much, too fast and it has affected the Bond. However, before we discuss that I need to ask Lord Walden to leave.”
The envoy sputtered indignantly. “Whatever for?! It is my right to be here, my right!”
“We are no longer in Council, Lord Walden. I must ask you to leave the palace.”
“No longer in Council?! The Chancellor will here about this, First Knight, you have no right to keep this information from me. No right!” roared the already drunk Walden as he jumped to his feet.
Vera sneered at the tiny man, suddenly feeling the urge to summon her Weapon and amuse herself by shoving it down his throat. “Then direct the Chancellor of the Collective directly to myself, Walden. Until then, you get the fuck out.”
Walden raged and moaned but was eventually escorted out by the royal guard, allowing Vera to relax and lean back in her chair, soothed to know that the fool is gone.
“You'll push him too far one day, Vera,” Brynyar said softly, staring at the spot where Walden once sit, a cup of spilled wine on the floor at the foot of his now vacant chair. “Walden is a fool, but a fool with dangerous friends. This isn't the first time you've done this to him.”
“There is nothing else to say about the attack, Lord Brynyar. Walden is not a Knight and would no doubt find some way to abuse the information I'm about to give you. He may be a Collective spy but I trust the Chancellor in any case. I'll let him know everything when he inevitably arrives.”
“Then may I ask Lady why both myself and Duke Cellus remain? We are not Knights.” The Spymaster said with a frown.
“No, you are not. What you are is trustworthy and I'll need the help of both you to help us through what comes next for Venos. Besides, Cellus will be a Knight soon enough I'm sure. Now back to the matter at hand.” Vera said, indicating for Annabelle to continue where she left off.
“As I said, Elora used too much of her soul's energy to fuel Orin's abilities. As a result, the Bond has become a little stronger than it should have been.”
“A lot stronger, Annabelle,” Vera said. “Lets not sugar coat it for them.”
“As you say, sister. Orin has been exposed to massive amounts of Aurum, beyond what a Knight of his newly Bonded level should have been capable of withstanding, but withstand it he did. Unfortunately this came with side-effects that were in turn exacerbated by other factors.”
“What other factors?” Yale asked curiously.
“Well for one, the situation we found ourselves in. Establishing a new Bond in the middle of battle simply isn't done because it can affect the very nature of the Bond itself. Reliance comes much sooner in a situation like that. We make our Knights and Smiths take small steps to build up the strength of the Bond over time, usually only allowing them a few minutes at a time while Bonded, enough to slowly build up their Forge and learn the touch of each others souls,” Annabelle grimaced. “But this was not the case with Elora and Orin. Their Bond was born in brutality and combat, instead of the tranquillity that we strive to create for our other Knights and Smiths. This, along with their injuries, which did nothing to help them, and the amount of pure power that Elora shoved into Orin without the use of a Forge, has fostered an almost dangerous co-dependence between the two of them.”
“That was why he didn't let her go after the battle with the yellow-eyed Knight,” Cellus cried out, shocked, before laughing bitterly and shaking his head. “I thought he was trying to keep her for himself,”
“Well, in a way, he was.” Vera said slowly, hoping not to shock the boy with this information. “You saw Orin holding her. He was half-dead, could barely breathe and yet he wouldn't let anyone near the Princess. He perceived us as a threat. Or, I should say, that the Bond perceived us as a threat. It pushed Orin to act in her defence.”
“So, the simple solution is just to keep Orin away from her Royal Highness,” Brynyar asked. “Easy enough to achieve.”
“I could take the Princess to my villa in the country,” Cellus said quickly. “She would be safe from him, he wouldn't get to her there.”
Annabelle rolled her eyes. “You are not listening, Lord Duke. The Princess is in no danger from Orin, it is the people around her that are in danger from him. Indeed, even the people that get too close to him are in danger.”
Cellus frowned in confusion. “What does that mean?”
“The Bond is not one way, Cellus. As much as Orin is a threat to the people around Elora, Elora is just as much a threat to the people around Orin.”
“What do you mean by that? Elora barely knows Orin, she wouldn't just attack someone for getting too close to him.” The boy seemed to be wilfully ignorant.
Vera sighed, knowing that this would hurt him. “I'm afraid that's exactly what would happen, Lord Duke. Elora woke up last night for the first time since the battle. The first word that came out of her mouth was his name. Then, when told that he was in a safe place, she attacked the guard to try and get to him. She is confined to quarters until we can figure out a more permanent solution.” Cellus looked grief-stricken by that alone and Vera knew he would be. The fact that Elora didn't ask for him when she woke up would no doubt gnaw at him for some time. Never mind attacking the guard to try and find a man she had known for all of five minutes.
“You must remember that it is the Bond that is doing this. It will fade to manageable levels over the next few days. Within weeks it will be all but gone.” Annabelle chimed in helpfully.
“So why tell us at all?” The High Lord Chamberlain asked. “If it is so easily fixed then what is the issue?”
“The issue, Lord Chamberlain, is the Bond itself. It is much stronger than it should be. Bonds grow much faster at the beginning of a pair's time together. They are encouraged to Bond frequently in the first few months at the Hall of Tyra, as I'm sure you remember,” The Chamberlain nodded stiffly. “But that is in a safe place and without fear of death. In battle the Bond grows faster, especially for the newly Bonded. Orin and Elora's first Bond was established in combat. As a result, their Bond looks to be months old instead of only days.”
Elgard gasped, as though the meaning of such a thing had just dawned on him. “The stronger the Bond, the harder it will be to remove.”
Annabelle nodded in response. “Quite so, Lord Elgard. Their dependence on each other will fade with time and, over the course of the next few weeks, we will let them spent time together to settle the Bond further. Orin is bound in his room at the moment, and under guard to prevent him from fighting his way to Elora, though he has yet to awaken. The wounds he received during his fight were great, indeed. That however, is only half of the problem. We must consider the possibility that we may be unable to remove the Bond between Elora and Orin. It is a reality that we must accept.”
“Not possible! I have pledged my life to the protection of the Princess! Everything I am and everything I will be... just gone? Just to be taken away like this!” snarled Cellus as he pounded the table and jumped to his feet.
Annabelle raised a hand to placate the angry Royal Protector, though her eyes were are hard as glaciers. “Remember your place, Cellus. You serve the Princess. She does not serve you. The King and Queen will make the ultimate decision regarding this Bond, and you have no say.”
Cellus glared at the First Smith, veins on his neck sticking out at attention and his face burning red with fury and shame. The tension between the First Smith and Royal Protector seemed to ignite the air, but Annabelle was staring down much more powerful men and women than Cellus when he was still just a child. The boy turned stiffly on his heel and walked away, throwing open the doors of the Royal Palace and disappearing into it's vast halls.
“That one could be a problem,” muttered Yale. “I will ensure that extra guards be placed around young Orin, his death would surely harm the Princess.”
Vera wanted to argue the point. She wanted to say that Cellus would never do such a thing, that he would never stoop so low as to kill a defenceless man in his sleep. But she could not know that. This whole affair had poisoned Cellus. Where once he was bright and shining, the hope of a Kingdom, he now walked down a dark path. Acknowledging that he was wrong about Orin during the meeting was a beginning of sorts, but it would take time to heal from the slight he felt he suffered from the Princess. Time would tell, as with all things.
“Thank you, Lord Yale. I will try to give you some time with Orin over the next few days to conclude your investigations. Please let me know if you discover anything else.” Lady Vera said softly, inclining her towards the Spymaster, who nodded in turn and made for the door, understanding he was being dismissed.
“I will continue to ferret out any traitors we still have in the Royal Guard, my Lady. I should have some new information for you soon.” said Earl Elgard by way of farewell, bowing once to the three remaining members of the Royal Council before he too left, taking with him his silent Smith, Asterd.
“Our Kingdom has been attacked and I have heard word that over a dozen Nobles are making plays to gain more power, Walden amongst them. We stand on the brink of collapse and some people can only think about their own gains. Troubling, no?” asked the Lord High Chamberlain as he too made to get to his feet.
“Such is the way of the world, my Lord Chamberlain. All we can do now is weather the storm and hope that the Spymaster's agents get to the bottom of this treachery: Before it's too late.”
“You really think things are so precipitous?” Brynyar gazed at her intently. “The plot has been thwarted, the Princess is safe and The King and Queen should be returning any day now from the border with Dunhold.”
Vera and Annabelle exchanged a look, this one worried and filled with hesitation. It was a look that the wily Duke Brynyar did not miss and he pointed at the First Knight and First Smith in turn.
“Is there something I should know, Lady Vera? Lady Annabelle? Is there something that the House of Hymns should know?”
Annabelle's smile was strained. “Not at the moment, my Lord Chamberlain. Merely a feeling and until we have more than that, then we shall keep silent.”
Brynyar looked at both of the Ladies with narrowed eyes for a seconds before grunting and leaving with the rest of the Council, closing the doors to the Council chambers behind him as he went. He did not nod or bow like the rest because he was, technically, at the same rank as Vera and Annabelle themselves and as such were equals while sitting at Council. Not that High Lord Chamberlain Brynyar was much for ceremony in any case.
“Should we have told them?” Vera asked Annabelle, worried.
Annabelle shook her head slowly. “No. It doesn't help them to know what's going on with the boy. Either telling them or not telling them, it will have the same outcome.”
“He saved our lives. I wish we could do... something.” Vera replied helplessly.
“As do I, sister. As do I.”
“And the Queen? The King? You know as well as I that they wouldn't have been silent for so long. Brynyar already suspects and knowing Yale as I do, he probably shares our fears.”
“Perhaps. But until we hear anything, we must remain true to the course.” Annabelle stated.
“To protect the Princess and, for a time at least, young Orin. We cannot send them to the House of Tyra, obviously, so that is no option. Nor can we train them ourselves, strengthening the Bond is the opposite of what we require. While I know we could most likely teach him some aspects of Knighthood without causing too much damage, I would much rather avoid that unless we have no other choice.”
“Then what do we do? They will have questions and they need time together to ease their dependence,” Vera sighed and ground her curled firsts into her eyes, enjoying the pressure they exerted, almost as if she was trying to push the worries from her mind. “I worry for us all, sister. Never before have we faced such a crisis and, if it is as far reaching as we suspect, then it will get worse before it gets better.”
Annabelle got up from her seat and pulled her sister up and into a loving hug, something she hadn't done since they were children.
“All we can do now is wait.”
* * *
Waking up in the royal palace of Myrin was not necessarily a bad thing. I was beneath soft and fluffy coverings that wrapped me up from head to toe. My head rested on a pillow that gently cradled my weary head and gave me the eerie feeling of floating. So comfortable was I, so enraptured by the sweet luxury that surrounded me, that I almost failed to notice the thick ropes that had been bound across the bed, tying me down and not allowing me to move so much as an inch.
I was a prisoner it seemed. Though the prison seemed to be more comfortable than any other I had spent time in. Like I said, not necessarily a bad thing.
I tried to move several times but to no avail. Whoever had bound me to the bed had done so masterfully. I was not in pain, as the covers stopped me from being rubbed raw by the coarse rope, but there was no way I could break free from such strong bonds. Perhaps if I Bonded with the Princess.
Ah, there it was. The reason for my imprisonment. I had little time to think on the whole affair while it had actually been happening. I had simply acted and decided not to think, just to attack. I was beginning to regret that now, but if I was sent back to that point in time I would no doubt do the same thing again. It was incredible. That rush of power, that strength that arose from the very depths of my soul, coaxed to life by the Princess Elora herself, who fed me the means to take down Craven, the yellow-eyed Knight. What a battle!
I knew I was smiling and I couldn't help myself. The feeling of rushing into battle as a Knight with inhuman strength and speed was euphoric. Even the memory of the event was enough to make my blood pump faster and my heart to quicken within my chest. It almost overshadowed the fact that I was a commoner and would most likely be killed for Bonding with a member of the Nobility as prominent as the Princess of the Realm. Almost.
“Hello! Anyone there?” I cried out after several minutes of struggling against my bonds. I heard the scuffle of feet and whisper of voices beyond the door to my opulent bedroom, or cell, before the slap of leather on marble marked someone running away. No doubt they were off to fetch someone to speak with me. I hoped it would be soon. I was suddenly aware of how hungry I was, and wondered how long I had been asleep. Another memory found me then, my last one in fact. I had been holding the Princess and had been unable to release her, no matter how hard I exerted myself. That thought alone put a pit in the centre of my stomach. Why had I done that? I had reasoned at the time that it was the Bond and if that were true, I hoped I would be free of such compulsions sooner rather than later.
Even thinking of the Princess was difficult. If she crossed my mind for even a second she was suddenly all I could think about. The feel of her in my arms, knowing she was safe there. The very idea of holding her again was a balm to my soul and the realisation that it was not, in fact, true, caused frustration to bubble up inside my chest. But already I could feel the difference. The need to make sure she was safe was much weaker than it had been on the stage. I found some small comfort in that. I wonder why they had tied me up to begin with? I was a mercenary, sure enough, but I wasn't sure how I would fare against a royal guard, a person who had trained since childhood in some cases to serve the royal family. There was something I wasn't seeing here. I would just have to inquire when whoever had left returned with a friendly face.
Or not so friendly face, as it turned out.
My door opened to admit the Lady Vera, Steward of the Kingdom and First Knight. Her expression was curious but also wary, as if I were a snake she had come across in the under brush. She was as beautiful as I remembered, with chips of ice for eyes and hair that shone almost white in the light of the sun streaming in through my room's window.
The man who joined her didn't look nearly as hostile. Instead he walked in with a grin plastered on his face. He was young, very young I would say, probably only a handful of years older than myself. His hair was a short brown that was scraped back against his skull and his eyes were a duller shade of the same colour. There was nothing dull about the intelligence I saw shine there however. This man, with his lean frame and way of walking made me think he was an assassin, he had that subtle look about him. He tried to tell everyone around him he was harmless and many would accept such a thing. But anyone who had been in battle would be able to see the hardness to his posture, the callouses on his hands. No, this man was a warrior, like the First Knight, but of a different kind.
“Greetings, Orin. I am Yale, Lord of Xesden. I'm sure you remember the Lady Vera,” He gestured towards the Lady who nodded frostily and allowed the Lord Yale to continue. “We are both very glad to see you awake. The Princess was becoming worried about you.” He paused, as though waiting for a reaction to his statement.
When I didn't give any except a raised eyebrow and a confused expression, he exchanged a look with Lady Vera who seemed to be slightly relieved by something. My confusion became all the more plain.
“The Sister... children...” I stopped suddenly to let loose a hacking cough. By the Spirit, it felt like my throat was on fire.
Lady Vera walked over to the table and poured me a glass of water from the pitcher there, raising it to my lips. “Don't drink too fast. We've tried to get as much into you as we could, but you've been unconscious for five days. The Sister Erin is fine and well, as are your brothers and sisters, though she hounds me for news of your condition.”
I sputtered and chocked on the water when I heard that. Five days? What in the name of the underworld could have caused me to sleep for five days? I raised my questioning eyes to the First Knight, silently asking her what was going on.
“Yes, five days,” She answered softly, some of the hostility in her gaze fading away. “You saved us, Orin. Saved all of us. Well, you and the Princess Elora. Unfortunately, the strain of fighting, your injuries, and the Bond itself, all played a part in making you rest for so long. Your soul needed time to recover.”
I nodded slowly, not really understanding in truth, but it made sense all the same. I could feel my soul even now, even with Elora no longer Bonded with me. It was still the same bundle of black flames with silver sparks I had seen before. Now though, instead of an inferno it was more akin to a campfire. My soul had lost more than half it's mass. I questioned Vera about it and she answered thoughtfully.
“Ah, nothing to worry about. You are merely suffering from soul strain which was to be expected considering how much power Elora gave you. It will grow again in time.”
“I can't see your soul any more.” I said, more as a statement than a question but Vera answered me anyway.
“No, only when Bonded will you be able the souls of others. Elora needs to be Bonded with you or in direct contact for it to work. It is one of the Gifts that a Smith gives to us through the Bonding.”
“Gifts? What other Gifts are there?” I asked eagerly, trying to sit up despite being tied up tighter than a trussed pig.
Lady Vera frowned and place the glass back on the beside table. “There are many. But you do not need to know about any of them. It is our intention to remove the Bond between yourself and Elora at the earliest opportunity.”
That hit me like a sledgehammer to the gut. Of course they would want this Bond removed, I had known this would happen. Why was I so surprised? I was a commoner, nothing more than filth to these Nobles. They could buy and sell everything I am and own a hundred times over without batting an eye. Plus, it couldn't look good to the Nobility as a whole that the Princess had chosen some peasant as her Knight.
“I understand,” I sighed and looked down. “I didn't really think I'd be allowed to keep being a Knight. It was fun while it lasted. Though I wish the circumstances were different.”
When I looked up again I found that Vera and Lord Yale were staring at me, shock evident on their faces. Vera's mouth had dropped open. What had I said?
“Is everything okay?” I asked, confused once again. Why did I get the feeling that would happen a lot during this conversation?
“You... you understand? How? You should be raging against your bindings right now, telling us that you want to see Elora. Why aren't you asking about the Princess?”
“Well, for one I barely know her. She is a stranger to me,” I said simply. “And I do want to ask about her. Since I woke up I haven't been able to think of anything else. I want to be near her, make sure she is safe. But that isn't right. I know who I am and I know how I think. I shouldn't want to do any of those things. Don't get me wrong, Elora saved me and she helped the Sister and the kids, so I'll forever be in her debt, but I know that this isn't natural. Something else is making me think like this, much like it did on the stage. The Bond I would wager.”
Lady Vera and Lord Yale looked impressed.
“Elora said much the same thing when we asked her about you a few hours ago. She was all but unmanageable when she first woke up three days ago, wanting to find you at all costs. Acting just like you did when you were on the stage. She has since calmed down quite a bit, enough to have a conversation with her. It's remarkable.”
I frowned. “How is it remarkable?”
“You should've still been showing signs of your dependence. Thinking about her constantly is one thing, but you feel no need to act on any impulses?”
“No,” I shook my head. “Well, I would like to see her. Or the Bond would like to see her, I suppose. But I don't think I'm going to steal her away and put her into a safe or something if that was what you were worried about.”
Vera let out a breath of relief before she explained what she had discovered about the Bond between Elora and I. She stayed true to her word and didn't tell me about any Gifts, but she did tell me about something called a Forge. A Forge is created by the Smith inside the souls of their Knights, it is the place their ethereal form goes too after the Bond has been established. Unfortunately, it takes time to build a Forge and without one Elora could not direct the power of our combined souls with precision. When she was increasing my strength it was more of an all or nothing gambit, she was hoping that Craven would give out before we did. Lady Vera also mentioned something about the Forge being used to create Weapons for Knights, but she stopped herself before explaining how.
I was curious as to what she would think I'd do with such information. While I'm sure it's valuable, I doubt it would be of much help to me in the long run. I was going to lose my Bond to Elora soon enough anyway, where was the harm? It wasn't like I was going to convince Elora to craft me a Weapon anytime soon. I had seen the way the girl looked at the Duke Cellus, I had lost the race I hadn't even begun.
“So our Bond is months old instead of the days it should be? What exactly does that mean for us?” I asked as Vera began to undo the straps that tied me down to my bed, after she had explained that I had been tied down for my own protection from the Bond. I suppose I could allow it. I'll say again, not necessarily bad.
“It should have meant that you two wouldn't be able to stay away from each other, even for short periods of time. We assumed it would be like that for a few more days, or possibly weeks, but it seems the distance has helped. Though Elora was most likely in agony when she first woke up, with the Bond pushing her to find you. You slept through the worst of it. Lucky you.” The First Knight said wryly as she helped me to my feet.
The room spun for a second, but I placed a hand on the wall to steady myself. I was bare from the chest up and examined my arms to see if there were any new scars from the burns I received from Craven and my side to see if the dagger wound had healed. Strangely enough I found nothing new had been added to my collection. I looked at Vera questioningly.
She shrugged. “The perks of being a Knight. Your Bond with Elora helps you to heal at a pace beyond that of most humans even when she is not in your soul. It should be impossible for you to gain any scars. Or as the case may be for you, any more scars.” She finished pointedly, running her eyes up and down my body. Something that caused me to grin, out of habit more than anything else. What I wasn't expecting was for the First Knight to grin back. I suddenly became very unsure. She was beautiful and shapely, she didn't dress like other Nobles. She dressed more like Tessa, with a tunic and breeches, yet it sat on her well and conformed to the curves of her body. I felt a stirring within myself as I looked at her, knowing she was looking at me. But this woman... she may be beyond me.
Thankfully, Spymaster Yale saved me when he interrupted with a light cough. “Indeed. You do have quite a few scars, young Orin. I am especially curious about that one on your neck there.” He indicated on his own body so I knew which one he was referring too.
“Ah, yes.” I traced a finger down the sliver of white skin that ran from the midpoint on my neck to just past my shoulder. “My most famous one, in any case. Prince Meric gave it to me.”
Both of Yale's eyebrows shot skyward. “Prince Meric? The Crown Prince of Fero gave you that scar?”
“Yeah, though I didn't know it was him at the time. Someone told me after the battle.” My mind went back to that day, of the bodies on the ground, the sounds of screaming and clashing steel. It had been my first big battle as part of the Brigade. I was young and inexperienced.
“Boldrin signed us all up to help the Yelesi military with a border dispute. Fero's King sent his son there to wet his blades in battle. I was unfortunate enough to get in his way.” I laughed as I remembered the Prince crossing the battlefield with a blade in each hand. He carved through us like we were wheat before the scythe.
“They say that he is the greatest warrior in the North.” Vera leaned forward eagerly from the place where she sat on my bed. “Care to lend credence to the rumours?”
“I can say that I stood no chance against him.” I heard the truth in my own words, though I had been bitter about it for months after the conflict. “He could've killed me if he wanted too. I think he saw how young I was and let me live. Nice of him.”
Yale nodded thoughtfully. “Interesting, Orin, very interesting. I knew that the life of a mercenary must be a thrilling one but this is something else. I bet you have some stories to tell.”
“A few, yes.” I answered dismissively, not really in the storytelling mood at that moment.
“And the scars on your back?” Vera asked sharply, her inquisitive nature shining through. “What's the story behind them? Forgive me, but they look like you've been whipped. More times than I can count.”
I grimaced. “That is a story I do not like telling.”
Vera stared at me for a second with a harsh frown before nodding and smiling at me softly. “Apologies, Orin. I am curious by nature,” She pointed at her companion. “Lord Yale has been trying to find out as much as humanly possible about you since the attack at the Wedding. We are about to conclude our investigation but the good Lord wishes for you to answer some questions, just to ensure you are not a threat. I'm sure you understand.”
It wasn't a question but I answered anyway. “Yes, First Knight, I understand.”
“Excellent!” Lady Vera clapped her hands. “Lord Yale has told me this won't take too long so I shall leave instructions with the guard to take you down to the gardens when you are finished. I will fetch Elora so the two of you can have a moment together. Just to be clear, the reason I am allowing you two to meet is to settle the Bond. I believe it will help in the long run, though we are still in as of yet undiscovered territory. As far as I know, a Bond has never grown as fast as yours.”
Lady Vera rose from her place from the bed and paused at the open door, hesitating before turning back and facing me once again, this time with a genuine smile on her face.
“I just want you to know, Orin. For all of us in attendance at the wedding, I thank you. You saved many lives that day. Protected the Kingdom. No matter what happens with the Bond, you have the eternal thanks of my sister and I.” She nodded once more before disappearing out the door.
Yale whistled, causing me to pull my eyes away from where the First Knight of the Kingdom, Lady Vera, had just thanked me for saving her life. Me.
“She is quite a woman is she not?” Yale smiled as he sat at a small table near the window, indicating for me to join him. “We were all in a bad way after the attack, but Lady Vera and Lady Annabelle took it especially hard. They were supposed to be our first and last line of defence for this sort of thing, but they ended up sitting on opposite sides of the aisle to support both the bride and groom. As a result, it meant they would be unable to Bond if the situation turned for the worse, which it did. It has her questioning many things.”
I joined him. “She shouldn't be so hard on herself. Who would have thought something like that would happen? If it were anyone else it would've been suicide to even attempt such a thing. Clearly Craven was ready for every eventuality.”
“Every eventuality except you, it seems.” said Yale pointedly with narrowed eyes. “Tell me, how did you hear about the attack?”
I considered lying to the man but that would have caused more issues in the long run. Lying about seeing Pater and Destin discussing the attack would only put me at odds with the Spymaster. I was under no illusions that this man was my friend. He served Lady Vera and, through her, the Royal Family. He was dangerous, this much I could see. He was no bureaucrat and to treat him as such would only be folly on my part. So I told him everything. Starting with Laird the tailor through running into Pater standing outside that tavern in the wall. Then I told him of the conversation I overheard, the battle with the Common Dogs and Pater's help in reaching the square, as well as the message I gave to him for Boldrin. Everything.
“I find that troubling. You happen to run into the one man among the Common Dogs that you share a kinship with? Seems rather convenient to me.” Yale maintained his easy smile, no doubt trying to put me ill at ease, but this wasn't the first time I had been interrogated so I kept my face blank.
“Perhaps the Great Spirit was looking out for me then.” I replied frostily, already tiring of the man's accusations and we were only at the first question.
“Perhaps,” Vale said, leaning back in his chair. “Is there any way for you to track down this man called Pater? He would be of great help to my inquiries, I'm sure.”
I shook my head. “No. I have no way to contact him and I doubt he would be in the city besides.”
“And you wouldn't tell me even if you did, would you?” Yale asked quickly.
“No. I wouldn't.”
Yale frowned. “Troubling, indeed. Though at least you are honest and loyal. Even to those that do not deserve your loyalty.”
“Pater is my friend, my brother. With all due respect, Spymaster Yale, I don't know you, but I know you are here to figure out whether or not I had something to do with this attack. I can tell you now that I did not. I wouldn't perpetrate an attack on my own family. I'm not a Noble.”
Yale smiled broadly at that and tapped a finger against the arm of his chair. “Indeed, I've heard as much about you. We have been working while you've been asleep, after all. The world waits for no man, as they say. From what we've been able to gather from various witnesses, including the Sister Erin, you are a kind and considerate man. You are well liked by the common folk and a talented warrior, from what Boldrin the Bold has told my agents.”
“You met with Boldrin?” I asked doubtfully. The man was not one to pander to the Nobility, even if it was for something as important as an attempted kidnapping.
“I didn't, but one of my men did. He wasn't best pleased to speak with him but after explaining it was for your valiant efforts in the inner city square, he shared a few words. It seems that he was contacted at about the same time as the attack took place, so that part of your story holds true. In fact it was largely thanks to the efforts of him and his band that the damage to the Commons was not worse, though he was unable to get to the square in time to assist us. We have since hired him on to help police the city, since the city guard lost quite a few men.”
“You could do worse,” I said. “Boldrin and his people are good at what they do.”
“So I've heard, young Orin, so I've heard. So far we have no complaints about them, they do their job admirably. We may even keep them on through the winter. Though they charge quite the sum for their service.
I smiled wryly. That sounded like Boldrin. He would know that the Nobility would be hard pressed to police the city with what had happened. He would have taken them for everything they had, and more besides. Such was his way.
“So why would you need to speak with me if you had already spoken with others who can attest to my character? I'm not sure what more I can add that the Sister or Boldrin could not.”
Yale nodded thoughtfully, taking a moment before answering. “Call it being thorough. This situation is unprecedented in the three hundred year history of our Kingdom and we aim to figure out where we went wrong, so as not to make the same mistake again. I didn't really believe you had anything to do with the attack, but I have to go through the motions, as it were. The only thing I was curious about was your connection to this Pater, considering the position he holds next to Destin.”
“Well, as I said, there's nothing I can do to help you with Pater,” I sighed before asking my next question, knowing what the answer would be. “Am I free to leave the palace?”
“I'm afraid not,” Yale smiled sadly. “We have no intention of keeping you prisoner, Orin, I promise you that. But with the Bond in place we can not allow you to wander. If you were hurt or, Spirit forbid, killed, it would cause untold harm to Elora. Something that we, as members of the Nobility and the governing body of this nation, cannot allow.”
I nodded once, annoyed but understanding it all the same. I was a peasant after all, and the security of the Princess of the realm came first. I was just an orphan with a sword. Well, used have a sword.
“Spymaster Yale, did someone manage to recover my blade? It is the only one I own and would like it returned.” I asked hopefully.
The Spymaster winced and my hopes fell with his expression. “I'm sorry, Orin, but during the battle with Craven your sword was exposed to much of that corrupting flame that he seemed so fond of throwing at you. Your weapon is little more than a pile of slag, I'm afraid. Worry not though, I will ensure you are given a replacement from the armoury.”
Shit. I loved that sword. Boldrin had bought it for me and I knew it had cost him quite a bit of coin. I had trained with that blade, killed with it, lived through adventures with it's cold comfort at my hip. It had become a part of me during my time away. To know that it was lost here, now, was a bitter pill to swallow.
“No matter. I shouldn't have expected anything else. The sword was not made to fight against Knights.”
Yale nodded. “Still, it was thrilling to see you battle against that yellow-eyed bastard, Orin.”
I looked at him in surprise. “You were there, Spymaster?”
“I was,” Yale nodded. “I was trying to help Duke Elgard reach his Smith, but to no avail. We saw everything that transpired. As did the people in the square, I might add. Rumours are already abound about you and what you are to the Princess. Many saw you Bond with her.”
“Rumours?” That was never good. “What kind of rumours?”
“They call you the Scarred Knight.” Yale laughed boisterously. “They say that you were the Royal Protector all along, hiding amongst the peasantry to hide your true purpose. They say that Duke Cellus was merely a stand-in to sell your lie.”
I winced when I heard that. I remembered how the Duke looked at me on stage when I was hugging the Princess, I doubted these rumours had helped endear me to him in any way.
“Fuck. So the Duke wants to kill me then?” I asked. The question was only half serious but seeing the frozen smile on the Spymaster's face made me glad that I had asked it.
“I would be wary of him. You must understand, Orin. He is a good man and has dedicated his life to the protection and well-being of the Princess Elora, but he feels that he has been usurped in his position. It doesn't help that he is young and in love. People have done terrible things in the name of love.”
“I am aware.” I said sarcastically as I scratched a suddenly aching scar on my left leg.
Yale's eyes flitted down curiously at the spot I had scratched, but whipped his eyes back up to mine in an instant, that friendly smile still etched onto his face. I found myself wondering if this man had any real reactions to anything at all.
“Well, that about does it, I believe.” Yale said and jumped to his feet, halfway to the door before I realised that we were through.
“Wait,” I said incredulously. “That's it? You only really asked me about Pater.”
“Ah, but I learned so much. As I said, Orin, I already know you had no part in the attack. I just didn't know what kind of man you are. I do now. We will speak again at some point I am sure, but until then, I believe you have an appointment with a Princess.” Yale winked at me and disappeared out the door.
Who in the Spirit's name was this Spymaster? His youth alone should have excluded him from such a prominent position among the Nobility and yet he had the trust of Lady Vera, a woman who is known even among the common folk as someone who does not rely on others lightly. There was much more to that man that met the eye and I suddenly had the feeling that I had given him more information than I had wanted or needed too.