Today was going from bad to worse.
Vera of Myrin, Master Knight and the greatest warrior of the Kingdom of Venos, was sitting outside of the House of Hymns assembly hall, dismissed like an unruly child. Beside her sat her sister, First Smith Annabelle, who, as always, maintained her naturally chilled demeanour with seemingly no effort at all.
Vera didn't know how her sister did it, especially after what had transpired two days ago. Elora, Princess of Venos and Flower of Myrin, had been 'kidnapped' by an unruly commoner. The fact that this commoner also happened to be her Knight was an irrelevant detail in the eyes of the House of Hymns, who sought to heap all of the blame for this blatant breach on her shoulders. Strong she may be, but at that moment she felt like she would be crushed under the immense weight of responsibility her office demanded of her.
She couldn't even blame the sycophantic Nobles for playing the game. For that what it was: A game of life and death, with real consequences that could destroy countries and end lives, but a game nonetheless. Vera had learned how to deal with politics but it was never her strong suit and, thankfully, that job had fallen to her older sister, who was more than willing to shore up that particular weakness in her defences.
Still though, things were not looking good for either of them. Especially after they had lost Elora just after leaving the city. The Princess had been trained well and knew not to Bond with Orin until they were far enough away to avoid the vast sight of their spiritual sense. They also knew they had help from experienced scouts in the form of Boldrin's Brigade. The betrayal of the band was another such strike against them in this smear campaign by the House. It had been Vera and Annabelle who had hired Boldrin to help police the city. Now the large mercenary was being considered an accessory to kidnapping. It was unfortunate that said kidnapped person was behind all of this in the first place. The plan had been Elora's, of this Vera and Annabelle were certain. After all, she knew the labyrinth that was the palace like the back of her hand, not to mention the fact that one of her maids had played lookalike and the breakout had begun in Orin's room, where they had Bonded and escaped into the Commons before separating. Vera and Annabelle had caught the tail end of their soul signature before it vanished from view.
The evidence for it was so obvious that even a simpleton could reach that conclusion, but the House was not interested in facts, they were interested in making sure none of the consequences of Elora's choice fell upon them. Blaming it all on Orin was an easy out, as it had been Vera who had gifted him with access to the palace and the freedom to move about as he wished. Thus, Vera was blamed. Never mind that he had been under guard, that fact never came up in the House's discussions.
The biggest mistake she had made, in the House's opinion, was letting the Princess meet with Orin alone, something she had assumed that the House would never find out about. Vera had been careful on who to assign to Orin, both of his guards being completely loyal to the Crown, but still it had been discovered. That had been used as damning evidence of her negligence and the worst of it was that she couldn't even argue the point. She was to stand there in silence while they told her about all the terrible things she had done and then wait outside while they decided her fate.
Of course, this was all a courtesy. All of it was for show, to placate the Nobility. The House of Hymns had no real power outside of being the place where Nobles made their grievances known before they were brought before the King and Queen by the Lord High Chamberlain. While they didn't truly have any means of directly affecting the First Knight, they could make life difficult for her by refusing to give soldiers to join her on the way to Dunwellen, or not providing promised supplies. This meeting might be a courtesy but it was also a necessity. A disgruntled Noble was little more than a spoiled child, but one which had the means to make her miserable should they be so inclined.
Technically, every Noble had a seat in the House, though it was rarely attended by many, if any, of the truly powerful in the Kingdom. Usually it was the lesser Nobles who had an issue with land rights, or of trade deals between cities, even villages. The Princess Elora had handled a few of these disagreements to prepare her for her greater responsibilities upon ascending the throne but most, if not all, were handled by Duke Brynyar. As a result, the position of Chamberlain was coveted even more than the position of Chancellor of the Peoples Collective. The ability to influence the Nobility on such a level was considered to be second only to the King and Queen themselves.
“You look anxious,” Annabelle stated, leaning back easily in her chair, her hands folded delicately in her lap.
Vera grimaced, “I am. We're wasting time here, we should already be underway.”
Annabelle shook her head immediately, “No. You are powerful, sister, but Felman has at least three hundred Knights under his command. While I doubt all of them are at Dunwellen, I suspect a large majority will be. Even we would be hampered by such a force if attacking alone.”
Vera snorted. She didn't disagree with Annabelle, but she didn't fully agree with her either. She had fought against Knights of Dunhold before and she had found them all to be wanting in terms of ability. Mostly they just ran away from her when she approached. Why would this be any different?
Annabelle smiled slightly, something she only really did for her younger sister, “Because they are winning. You know it as well as I. Our priority must be Elora.”
Damn, she must have been projecting again. She had always had trouble with the technique as it was something that required a highly cohesive Bond to use, so she hadn't had the chance to truly master it. At random she would often send thoughts to Annabelle, usually when she was angry or upset. She was improving, but slowly. It just goes to show that even at the rank of Master, there was always more to learn.
“You're right, Anna, I know,” Vera said, “What was the girl thinking? Running off like that, and with a stranger! Does she have any idea what she's doing?”
Annabelle's smile disappeared, “We should be more concerned with making sure she is returned in one piece. Orin is powerful, even for one as young as he, but he is only one Knight against many. He has no chance at succeeding against Dunhold's forces.”
It was true. Even against an average Knight, Orin would be hard pressed to win. He was a talented swordsman and was experienced in battle, but he was not a prodigy at either. He was an orphan boy from the Commons who seemed to have a chip on his shoulder regarding the Nobility. He would do all in his power to make sure Elora was safe: the Bond would see to that. But without backing, the two newly Bonded were going to their deaths. That was something that Vera and Annabelle could not allow.
Saving Elora was now above even their need to save the King and Queen. While both monarchs dying would do untold damage to Venos and possibly invite more attacks from neighbours emboldened by their deaths, the throne would be secure. Elora was also much loved by the peasantry around the country due to her humanitarian work and they would rally behind her easily should that come to pass. If they could save the King and Queen, Vera and Annabelle would do so in a heartbeat, but they were far past the point of want. Their job now was to make sure Venos was still standing when the dust cleared and if that meant sacrificing their friends, their masters, then so be it. It was the ultimate imperative of the First Knight and First Smith. Venos must be saved, through whatever means necessary.
To allow Elora to follow the King and Queen to the grave would destroy the Kingdom. There were no rules in place to replace the House of Brand should they be completely wiped out. The royal family was small and limited to Gida, Julian and Elora. There were, of course, a few branch families that had ties to them through blood, but not enough to prevent the other Nobles from throwing their own hats into the ring. It would end with civil war, that was all but a certainty. Too many members of the Nobility thought only of themselves and their own families, few thinking of the Kingdom, and Crown, they are supposed to serve.
“They are not alone. We have yet to find Boldrin and Elora knows he is loyal to Orin. You taught her well, Anna.” Vera said smugly, strangely proud of the Princess for thinking things out as much as she had. It was still a terrible plan, of course, born of desperation. Attacking an army of that size with what? Sixty men? Seventy men? It might be possible with the same number of Knights, but ordinary men and women? They may be mercenaries and each may even be highly skilled, but Vera did not believe for a moment that there was even one among their number, besides Orin, who could beat a Knight in battle.
“Too well. Orin must have convinced his leader to aid him. My only problem is in how much he was promised. A mercenary as prolific as Boldrin does not work for free.” Annabelle sounded slightly worried about the prospect of having to pay the exorbitant amount that Boldrin was expecting after such a suicidal mission.
“It is strange though, isn't it?” Vera asked, recalling the details she had on Orin and Boldrin. “Why would he help? He has only known Orin for four years, enough time to build a bond of trust and friendship to be sure, but enough to justify throwing away the lives of your entire force on a suicidal rescue effort? It just doesn't make sense to me. His men can't have accepted this without a fight.”
Annabelle nodded thoughtfully, “That thought has crossed my mind once or twice. Orin must have some hold over Boldrin, or the band as a whole. It could be merely that he is one of theirs and they want to help him out of obligation.”
It was possible, Vera supposed. It just didn't feel right. She was missing something, something that she feared would come back to bite her before she could figure out a solution. She needed more information, but time was short and they needed to start marching for Dunwellen yesterday, never mind attending a meeting with idiots who thought themselves the equals of the King and Queen.
The House of Hymns was second in size only to the palace itself and took up quite a large amount of space in the western quarter of the inner city, despite only being made up of the assembly hall, which could comfortably hold around five hundred screaming fools, and a few offices for the higher ranking members of the House. It was an ostentatious and tasteless monument to the greed of the Nobility. It had been rebuilt nearly forty years ago after a small uprising of the Commons, one which was quickly quashed by Elora's grandfather. The architect who was charged with building the new structure was given so much input by the Nobles of the time that he lost patience and just used all the ideas he was given, disregarding whether or not they would be pleasing to the eye, to avoid making enemies among the higher echelons of Venosian society. Wood from the Nariti Plains, stone mined along the coast of Saviour's Bay, tapestries and paintings of all manner of battles and wars from ages past, scenes from the history of nearly every Noble household. Even precious gems that encrusted the doors to the assembly hall. If you sold everything in this place you might be able to buy Venos itself. Still, he died soon after it's completion. Stabbed to death in the Commons, the deed blamed on the folk who lived there. Someone was clearly not happy with the new direction he had taken.
Vera had always liked that story. She had been born into the Nobility, though her and Annabelle's family were relatively unknown at the time of her birth. She had always hated the constant badgering of her mother and father, both of whom wanted to elevate themselves and planned to use their daughters to do it. As soon as it was discovered that Annabelle was a Smith, a suitable candidate was sought after among the young men of the greater Noble families. Annabelle had always been quiet back then, a result of the attention she was given by everyone around her. Only Vera recalled what Annabelle had truly been like when they were younger; Hesitant, lonely and more than a little sad.
Vera loved her sister greatly and, knowing she didn't want to be Bonded to another for the sake of position, put her own name forward to be her Knight. She had to fight tooth and nail for the right to Bond with Annabelle. She trained until her hands and feet bled, then she trained some more. That amount of effort should have crippled her in hindsight, but at the time it seemed like the only option. Before she was twelve years old Vera was already better than most, if not all, of the men that had been considered for the right to Bond with her sister. Eventually, their parents relented and allowed them to take the oath when Vera was sixteen and Annabelle was seventeen.
Vera smiled as she remembered that day. She and Annabelle had decided to go down to the Commons to celebrate and Vera had ended up getting into a brawl with a man who had a thing against Nobles. After she had knocked him out, everyone tried to buy her a drink. Even the man himself, when he eventually came to several hours later. It might have been the last time she had ever seen her sister laugh in public.
Three days later, they had been Bonded and their closeness, growing and learning together, had resulted in a Resonant Gift of Thought.
Their mother and father couldn't be happier for them, especially when they graduated from the Hall of Tyra and returned home, only to be given the titles of First Knight and First Smith at an almost unprecedented age. Of course, their parents weren't so much happy for them as they were for themselves. They had not been very present during their upbringing but when the two young women came home to much acclaim, they seemed to want to meet with them every day and discuss how they could 'help the family.'
Annabelle was tired of their interference, of their constant need to drop to their knees and happily debase themselves in front of other members of the Nobility merely to improve their own standing. One day, she went to visit them when their antics became too much to bare. Vera didn't know what was said in that meeting, but her parents had gone south later that week and the two had not seen them since. It was for the best. They had never had a good relationship with them and this way they could still have the clout of being the parents of the First Knight and First Smith without being an embarrassment.
For some reason, the story of the building of the House of Hymns reminded her of that time in her life, when everything was about who you knew and the influence they could grant you. She didn't care for the game and now that she was First Knight and answerable only to the King and Queen, she could say that she despised it. Annabelle felt similarly, but it was a part of her job to engage people like this on a daily basis. That's where her cold demeanour had helped to no end. It was her best weapon against the Nobility, her cold more than enough to put out the fires that burned on their tongues. At least, it had worked for them so far.
But today was far from over. They still needed to hear the judgement from Brynyar. The chances of the Nobility actually succeeding in preventing Vera and Annabelle from taking their men were slim to none, but they had succeeded in frustrating and delaying the efforts of the Kingdom's mightiest protectors. After all, the Princess was at risk, not to mention Julian and Gida. To not grant aid would mark them as traitors should the monarchs return and it would be their heads on the chopping block. But the opportunity to smear Vera was too much for them to resist. Many among the Nobility resented the power she had, and that she was so close to Queen Gida and had her ear. Vera had lost count of how many times some anonymous members of the greater families had tried to blackmail or otherwise destroy both her and her sister, trying to get them to work in their interests. It always failed, of course, because there was nothing really to blackmail them with in the first place. There had been that incident a few years before where Annabelle had been courted by a man from the Commons, but that had been nothing but a boon in their favour. It showed Annabelle to not be as cold as she let on and painted Vera in a positive light when she supported her sister's position. It was rather cruel to boil down their personal experiences to how it would be perceived by the Nobility, but even they needed to play the game.
It hadn't worked between Annabelle and that commoner, unfortunately. Vera had rather liked him, but it was not to be. Her sister was as unlucky in love as she was herself, it seemed. Vera had even been tempted to pursue Orin. The man was exactly her type: A handsome warrior with a personality beyond battle. Arrogant, but not to the point of stupidity. If not for his youth, and Elora's obvious disapproval, she would have done just that. It could never be, though. Her standing demand that you must beat her in a fight to be considered worthy of courting was still applicable, even to Orin. It kept the rodents away and she didn't want to be drowning in useless, limp wrist courtiers who carried a sword that had never been drawn in their lives. She had put up with that for nearly ten years and lost her patience more than once. This had been a more elegant solution. She wasn't looking for anything permanent. Her time was too valuable, her job too demanding.
Vera had realised early on that she had difficult relationship with the Nobility. While they could be callous, cruel and downright mean-spirited some of the time, they were also a necessary evil, needed to help keep peace in the Kingdom. The House of Hymns wouldn't exist if there was no need for them in the first place. It wasn't as though every Noble had an agenda to push or a problem to make public, Vera and Annabelle themselves were proof of that. Still, she did sometimes dream of burning it down. Or freezing it solid. That would be much easier.
“You still intend to visit Sister Erin again?” Annabelle asked quietly, watching the doors to the assembly hall in apparent disinterest.
Vera shrugged, “I just want to see what she'll say when I tell her what we've discovered. It is such a strange thing to lie about. I told you that I was missing something. This might be exactly that.”
Annabelle all but snorted in derision, “You grow more fascinated with the boy by the day. Why is that, sister?”
Vera knew that tone and narrowed her eyes at her elder sister, “Not what you're thinking, Anna. It's like the niggling of a loose tooth. Sister Erin can give me the answers I need. We'll only be there a few minutes before we're under way. We have nearly four thousand men ready to move outside the city, waiting on word from the House. The orphanage is on our way out anyway.”
Vera would never have left so early unless there was another choice. But with Elora missing the need to catch up with her was growing by the day. The First Knight might be able to reach her on her own, but she didn't know what route she took and it was unlikely that the Brigade would use any of the well established roads to Dunhold. Elora had been clever enough not to Bond with Orin for too long before escaping the city so she might be just as careful while on the move, so that meant that spiritual sense was not an option. Four thousand men was a far cry from the ten thousand they had hoped to muster, but considering they did so in only two days was nothing short of a miracle. Elora's disappearance, on top of the King and Queen's, had demanded a response from those pledged to serve. Sadly that swift organization had been followed by cowardly hesitance.
“I still believe you are reading into this. Even if it is true, it means nothing.” Annabelle replied.
“Possibly. But I wish to know regardless.” Vera insisted, knowing her sister would agree in the end.
Annabelle shook her head lightly but said nothing further. It was just as well because a moment later the grand doors to the assembly hall opened and out walked a harried looking Duke Brynyar. He appeared more tired than he had in weeks, the bags under his eyes a testament to this. He locked onto the two of them instantly and approached, the doors slamming shut behind him, shutting off the muttering of the Nobles who sat beyond.
“Well?” Vera asked, straightening her doublet as she jumped to her feet.
“You have your troops,” Brynyar replied. “The Speakers hoped to delay for longer but I managed to keep them on the back foot.”
“Thank you, Brynyar. We will leave immediately.” Annabelle bowed her head, followed swiftly by Vera.
“Hold a moment, if you would,” Brynyar called out as the Knight and Smith made to leave. “I just wanted to warn you both to be careful. They couldn't not support the mission to save the Crown because of oaths given, but more than one member of the House stands to gain if the King and Queen do not return and the Princess is lost to us.”
Vera frowned grimly, not surprised in the least, “Have they no shame? Even now, in a time of national crisis, they think only of their own self interests.”
“Such is the way of things,” Brynyar smiled sadly. “They used the time they had to throw doubts upon you, Vera, and your position as Steward. I believe they intend to try and remove you from your office as First Knight, your sister along with you.”
“Impossible,” Annabelle stated, “Only the King and Queen can decide who serves as First Knight and First Smith. The House overestimate themselves.”
Brynyar shook his head, “Perhaps it is you who underestimates them, Annabelle. They have little power divided, but united in common purpose even the King and Queen cannot ignore the House's concerns. There is enough evidence against you both that it could back Julian and Gida into a corner. If they do not return, along with Elora, then it will be that much easier to blame their deaths on you and remove you as a threat to whoever ascends the throne after the fall of House Brand.”
“Then we must ensure that doesn't happen,” Vera said, already turning away. “One way or another, First or not, Annabelle and I will not allow this Kingdom to fall to anarchy while we still draw breath.”
Brynyar grinned brightly, “That's what I thought you'd say. I'll work on the House and see what allies we can draw upon. I'll not let them have their way without a fight,”
“Thank you, Brynyar,” Annabelle curtseyed gracefully, “We are grateful for your help in this,”
“Think nothing of it. You should get underway. Messengers have been sent to the commanders outside the gates. I believe Duke Cellus and the Lords Elgard and Asterd are already there.”
Annabelle and Vera said nothing more and left the House of Hymns with all due haste. They had been in the cursed place for hours and Vera immediately drew in a deep breath upon leaving the great hall. The clear, if slightly bitter, taste of the fresh air outside was enough to raise her spirits. They had done it. It only taken a full half day, but they had brought the Nobles on side, if begrudgingly. Only one more matter remained and they would be on the road. If they pushed, they could arrive in Dunwellen within ten days. She just hoped that the Princess would avoid doing anything stupid by then. She was giving Brynyar temporary control of Myrin in her absence. He would be able to take care of any problems that arose.
“Any word from Yale this morning?” Vera asked as they walked. They could move a far faster while Bonded, but it could cause undue distress to the civilians and it was only a short walk to the gates, if an infuriating one.
Annabelle shook her head, “Nothing has changed as far as I know. The King and Queen remain trapped in Dunwellen and surrounded. The forces of Dunhold have started aiming bombardments at the walls but they are holding for now. Yale suspects this is a scare tactic to keep our trapped army afraid.”
“Did he have any luck with Elora?” Vera asked, already knowing the answer.
“Nothing. Even Yale doesn't understand how a common mercenary band is avoiding his agents so easily.”
Vera didn't answer but walked in silence beside her sister. Thankfully, everything they needed was already down with the army, so she didn't need to return to the palace. They would be on the move within three hours, as long as her conversation at the orphanage didn't take up too much of her time.
It wasn't long before they reached the Commons, ignoring the whispers of folk around them who recognised her and Annabelle. No one tried to approach her and for that she was thankful. Fear and awe were powerful agents if employed effectively. Vera didn't truly like using such a thing on her own people, but the fact that it prevented interruption was only a boon, considering how much time they had wasted already with the House of Hymns.
Vera had forgotten how long it took to reach the orphanage. She had never been inside herself, but she had passed it enough times that it was relatively easy to find. Myrin was a large city, walking from one end to the other could take hours. Thankfully, they reached Orin's home in a hour and a half, though Vera cursed not getting a carraige. The gate was only twenty minutes away and provided this didn't take too long, their schedule shouldn't be affected too much by the delay. She should just not go at all. She should make for the gate with all speed but her getting there a little faster wouldn't get the army ready to march any quicker. They needed time and the messengers had probably only just reached them. Besides, she needed answers to her questions.
Vera knocked steadily on the large wooden doors, refurbished and refitted by the contractors that Elora had hired at the Crown's expense. If there was ever a worthy use of those funds though, it was for this place.
“Hello?” The door opened and revealed the shining face of Delithia, who looked like she'd just run a mile to answer it in time, her face lighting up upon seeing Vera and becoming slightly more guarded after spotting Annabelle.
Her sister scared children at times and they could both understand why. Annabelle's cold stare and blank expression was enough to chill a fully grown man, never mind a little girl.
Vera smiled fondly at little Delithia. Meeting her had truly been one of the greatest things to come out of this mess. She looked as radiant as ever with her curled hair and bright, shining eyes. If Vera ever had a child, then she would wish her to be just like the young orphan.
“Hello, Delithia. How are you?” Vera asked, her smile putting the girl at ease.
“I'm fine, thank you, Lady Vera. Oh!” Delithia took a step back and curtseyed politely to Vera and then to Annabelle. “How can I help you, today?”
“We have come to visit Sister Erin. Is she here?” Annabelle asked frostily, though not on purpose. She was uncomfortable around children and any attempts she made to act less hostile usually ended with the opposite happening. Considering how much Delithia started shaking after the question was asked, the same had happened here.
“Y-yes. Sister is in the dining room. I can show you if you want?” Delithia said, smiling up at Annabelle with a warm expression and, despite her demeanour, the First Smith felt the ice around her heart melt a little.
Annabelle smiled. It was small, but it was there. “That would be nice, thank you.”
“Okay! Follow me!” Delithia shouted and turned around, marching off with a steady pace that forced Annabelle and Vera to keep up.
“You smiled.” Vera said into the mind of her Smith as they walked.
“I did not.” Annabelle answered back using the same method, sounding strangely defensive.
Vera laughed out loud, receiving a questioning glance from the little angel that was Delithia who then shrugged and kept walking.
The orphanage was not a large place and it was soon after that Delithia led Vera and Annabelle into a small dining room filled with large wooden tables and chairs that ran it's length. The Sister Erin was currently using a rag and a bucket of water to wipe down one of said tables, her expression focused and intense.
Despite only meeting her a handful of times, Vera could say that she had no small amount of respect for the good Sister. She had seen first hand what she was willing to sacrifice for her children during the wedding and the amount of raw devotion she felt to them was present in her every breath.
“Sister! Lady Vera and Annabelle have come to see you again,” Delithia said with a smile, running up and quickly hugging the Erin, who smiled warmly, dropping her rag back into the bucket.
“Thank you, my sweet. Could you check on Sasta in the courtyard for me? I haven't seen her in a while.”
Delithia nodded brightly and made for the door, curtseying once more for Vera and Annabelle who bowed their heads back, much to the girls delight. When they were alone, the Sister's smile slipped from her face and she frowned at the two sisters.
“Ladies Vera and Annabelle. I spoke to you only yesterday and you return. Have you news on my Orin?” The Sister asked, indicating for them to sit at one of the tables closer to the door. An offer which Vera and Annabelle both took her up on, sitting calmly and waiting for the Sister to join them.
The Knight and Smith were many things, but fools were not one of them. They knew that Orin would want to see her after being locked away in the palace for as long as he had, but the Sister was giving nothing away, even after been repeatedly asked to the point of exhaustion. They couldn't force it out of her and they weren't even sure she knew exactly where they had gone so they had abandoned their inquiries in favour of more promising leads. Those had led to nothing as well, but the fact remained: Orin had definitely spoken to the Sister before leaving the city with Elora in tow.
“Nothing new, I'm afraid, Sister,” Vera answered, taking the lead on this particular topic, “I just had a couple of questions for you. About you, in fact. I ran across something interesting and I want to clear it up before we leave.”
The Sister raised her eyebrows in confusion as she sat down. “About me? I doubt I am that interesting, Lady Vera. I am just a wife of the Great Spirit.”
“I believe that you are very interesting, Sister Erin, very interesting indeed,” Vera continued, “As is protocol, we looked into Orin's origins and discovered little about his birth. I was wondering if you could tell me about it?”
Sister Erin frowned. “Orin's birth? I was not present at his birth. He was given to me by a woman who knocked on the door of the orphanage one spring evening. I assumed she was his mother, but she did not give me a name, nor any details about herself.”
“I see,” Vera replied. “Do you have any way of contacting this woman?”
Sister Erin shook her head, “I'm afraid not. As I said, she did not leave a name. She asked me to care for the child and that was that. She disappeared soon after and I never saw her again.”
“Is it true that Orin was your first child? Your first ward in this orphanage?”
“He was, but I don't see the point of these questions. I thought you said they were about me?”
“I'm getting there, Sister. I promise to not take up any more of your time than I need to,” Vera reached into her doublet and took out an old and weathered piece of paper scrawled with faded writing that Vera examined before passing over to Annabelle, who did the same in stoic silence. “As you know, after what happened at the wedding my sister and I began to look more deeply into the corruption among the city guard. This resulted in thousands of documents crossing my desk. Most of it was normal drivel. Patrol outlines, order forms for weaponry, that sort of thing. But one in particular drew my interest. I stumbled across it when I was looking more deeply into this whole mess yesterday.”
Sister Erin looked slightly uncomfortable, but her eyes never wavered from Vera's own.
“And? May I ask what it said?”
“You may,” Vera smiled. “It was an account of all those who had entered the city during the last twenty years. It is imperfect, of course, but one particular arrival caught my attention. I did not realise, Sister Erin, that you have not left Myrin for eighteen years.”
“Is that a crime, First Knight?” Erin asked sharply, her hands clenched in her lap. “The wilds are dangerous for someone like me and I have children who rely on me.”
“No, you had one child who relied on you, if this is to be believed. It is a list of all the people who entered the city on a particular day, eighteen years ago.” Vera gestured towards Annabelle who immediately began reading off of the document.
“Third Day of the Second Month of Winter, the 702nd Year. One woman and one new-born child entered the city gates at ten minutes after second bell. Woman was a wife of the Great Spirit and was not stopped and searched upon entry.”
“That is strange, isn't it, Sister?” Vera asked intensely, leaning forward. “By your own admission, Orin was the first child you ever took into your care, but this document clearly states that someone arrived, a Sister of the Great Spirit, no less, with a child already with them. It was around the time that you yourself arrived in the city, I believe.”
Sister Erin stared at Vera coldly, “I do not believe that means anything, Lady Vera. I am not the only wife of the Great Spirit in this city and one walking around with a child is all too common, I'm afraid. We care for those who cannot care for themselves.”
“I thought so as well. Which was why I pulled some records for the Church of the Great Spirit, where you stayed for the first six months here in Myrin. Before you were given the orphanage at your own request. I found records of you being named as living there for that time. There was, however, no mention of a child.”
Erin smiled, “There, you see? I have no nefarious secrets, Lady Vera. I am merely a woman who wishes to raise these children in peace.”
“But the records were incomplete,” Vera replied, leaning back in her chair. “Apparently ten years ago there was a small fire. It was easily contained but many of the records kept during that time were burned up and lost. Strangely convenient, wouldn't you say?”
Sister Erin froze and gave Vera a deathly stare. “Why do you ask these questions, First Knight?”
“Honestly? I feel you are hiding something. This proof is flimsy, I'll give you that, but it exists none the less. There is more to this, more to Orin, than I am seeing."
Erin leaned forward, a small smile on her face and her eyes dark and intense. “You are looking for ghosts, Lady Vera. Ones which I cannot help you find. If there is nothing else, I would like you to leave now.”
“We do not seek to harm you or your son, Sister. I merely want to know-”
“I know what you wish to know. I'm saying that I cannot help you find what doesn't exist. Please leave my property.” Erin snapped sternly and rose to her feet, returning to her bucket and rag without another word.
Vera sat there for a moment, frustration rising at the back of her throat. What in the great Spirit's name was she hiding? It was no longer a mere possibility in Vera's mind but a certainty. Sister Erin was holding something back. She was lying, but why?
“Vera, we should go.” Annabelle said, interrupting her sisters thoughts and pulling her back to herself. She didn't want to leave, but staying wouldn't increase the chances of finding out more. She had reached a dead end on this. All documents related to Sister Erin, with the exception of one, had been lost in that church fire. The only tangible proof she had was the record of arrival that had been kept, but it had not named her and, as such, was evidence of very little.
Annabelle and Vera quickly left the orphanage and followed the road towards the gate. They were both silent for a time, digesting what had been said and working through it within their minds.
“It appears I was wrong. There might be something to this.” Annabelle was the first to break the silence.
“You think?” Vera snorted, her eyes focused on the ground in front of her. “For a second there, I worried she would attack me.”
“I saw. But what does that mean? What could she be so afraid of that she wouldn't tell us? She has no reason to trust us, but why lie about where she found Orin?” Annabelle inquired curiously.
"I would wager that whatever this secret is, it is more severe than we first thought. Is she just concerned for Orin? But if that is the case, why would she let him leave the city in the first place? The man was a mercenary for years.” Vera mused, the mystery pulling at her.
“Something is happening, Vera. I can feel it. We left that meeting with more questions than answers.”
Vera nodded grimly, “I know. But we still have a job to do. We'll figure out Orin after we've rescued Elora. Everything else must be secondary.”
“Agreed,” Annabelle answered firmly.
The sisters were united in their purpose, but the lingering doubts remained. One thing was clearer now than it had ever been before: There was more to young Orin than met the eye.