The palace library must have been designed by kings who suffered insomnia. Every few shelves there was another couch hidden from view, perfect for a quiet nap. I indulged in a short one and found myself understanding Avery’s preference for the library.
In those moons of working for the Captain, I had learned sense. The Captain would be busy trying to locate mysterious threatening persons, so I was free to take my time with my homework. Moreover, according to the Captain, fieldwork was far more productive than reading books. By learning more about Sebastien, I would be doing my job as his assistant.
In preparation, I read up on Vior. The country was an island with as much landmass as Niare, enjoying a rich history of sea exploration and artistic expression. It was known for colorful clothing and creative architecture. The people enjoyed many specialty fish dishes, celebrated at least two dozen holidays throughout the year, and tended to be strongly religious.
I felt apologetic when I read that the language of Vior was very different from that of Niare, causing people of both countries to have strong accents in each other’s language. It was a small comfort to know that I had not said anything stupid and could pretend to have known all along that he was foreign.
Convinced that I knew enough to approach Sebastien and mention Vior without embarrassing myself, I took myself to bed.
I expected to not find him, to never find him again, but there he was in the garden, sitting on our bench. He looked surprised to see me.
“I thought that you were not come back,” he said, happy to see that he had been wrong.
He had missed me! “I am so sorry!” It had only been three days, but he had missed me! “I could not come the other night, I—”
“You did not come?” he asked before I could even finish my apology. Rather than being upset, he was relieved. “I was not allowed, I worried that you are disappointed.”
“I could not.” I tried to think of a good reason. If I said that a trio of mages had been meditating on the roof and the Captain became paranoid and had given me loads of homework to do, it would sound ridiculous. It was ridiculous. The rest of my time had been spent reading about foreign countries and visiting thieves and trees around the city. And every day the palace was becoming more obnoxiously organized with preparations for the ball at the moon’s end. Enlightened, I said, “Everyone is very busy, because of the festival. My assistance was needed.”
“I suppose, yes,” he nodded, easily convinced.
Clearly I was the only person who did not know about the festival. “Will any of your friends or family come? Or anyone else from Vior? I saw many foreigners in the marketplace yesterday.”
“I do not know. I suppose, maybe. Some may come, perhaps my second sister.” He looked a bit sad.
“That would be nice.” I waited, wondering if I was allowed to ask. His expression eased and he nodded to himself, so I started with a safe question. “Why were you not allowed to go out that night? It is not as though you were going far.” The plan had been to meet in the garden.
“I no—know not. Only the steward said I must not leave my room.”
The oppressive heat was growing. I weighed the advantages of swimming against the disadvantages and pulled regretfully away from the water to sit on the bench. “How strange. Did the steward explain why?”
Sebastien shook his head. “It was irregular. I have many times walked the gardens at high tide and other night times.”
But according to the king’s mage, more than just a rooftop meditation session had been going on that night. And the Captain must have known something was up to have stayed guard at his desk until the middle of the night. Unless he chanced to be there that night, dealing with other problems. Or he never slept?
“Who stopped you?”
“Hm? My—” Keeper did not sound right, but I did not want to say that it was Captain Winter. Swallowing my pride, I choked out, “Master.” It was the proper title for an apprentice to use. Craftmasters were so intimidating that there was no improper title, or even an informal option. Perhaps as a journeyman lawmaker—I caught the thought and stopped it. It was best not to get attached to the idea.
“Ah, of course.” Sebastien was too well-mannered to ask for details where no specifics were given. Instead, he said, “How strange that custom is! In Vior we are trained by tutors and mentors. Masters do not take students.”
“What sort of people are tutors and mentors in Vior?”
“I do not understand. Do you mean their character?”
“I mean, are they masters in their field? What does it take, how much training is required, to qualify them to train apprentices?”
“Do you mean, how a person to become a mentor or a tutor?”
“Yes, how do they become..” I stopped to avoid further confusion.
“That is, they have all the training of a master, but failed to achieve mastery.”
“But, then, how can they teach well if they are not capable?”
“They are capable, not master. Their work is skilled, not brilliant. Those with—no, those who do very well, better than their mentor, may are trained by a true master, if a master notice. If a master notices their talent. Tutors teach books—maths, history, maps…”
Sebastien freely told me about Vior, convincing me that if Vior was crafting any plots, my friend was innocent of that knowledge.
Returning to the palace, I spent a lazy day in the library looking through random books while Avery wandered restlessly. I was almost enjoying myself until I picked up a book that I thought was going to be about the history of Niare.
“Read it aloud. I’m bored.” Avery had learned to read over my shoulder when Mother taught me, but she could not hold a book or turn its pages. Perhaps that was why she liked them.
“The land that is now Niare was once but a collection of warring tribes. After these tribes were conquered by the Klaren Empire, twenty Families banded together to rebel. Their success in destroying the Klaren imperials resulted in the creation of the country of Niare. Two of the Families were destroyed in the war, but the remaining eighteen formed the original Families of Niare. Since then, there are always eighteen Families. One of these, the Royal Family has remained on the throne since the country’s creation.
In the four centuries since its creation, seven Families died out. In the years of Horatio’s reign, six more were removed from the books. Each time a Family ends, a new Family begins.
In addition to the Royal Family, only four of the original Families remain. These are the Great Families—Atheron, Fulvor, Mistler, and Thalin. The fifth Great Family is Silver, which had been a Major Family until it was made a Great Family in the fourth year of the reign of King Darius. These five Families are the wealthiest and most powerful in all Niare, and have been for centuries.
Atheron and Fulvor are southern Houses, though both have cities in every region of Niare. Mistler and Thalin are northern Families. Silver is the only Family based in the south-east.
The three Major Families were the first new Families, designated in the eighteenth year of the reign of King Osric. They are Atelis and Sorya, in the north, and Mellinor, in the south-west.
The nine Minor Families are more spread out and most have only enjoyed a century of privilege. They are, beginning with the oldest Family…Goodness how boring it is.”
"I cannot believe you read it so long. Am I awake? What moon is it?" Avery had at some point thrown herself dramatically across the couch, her head by me and her legs dangling off the edge.
I flipped to the first page. According to the table of contents, there was a section for the three classes—Great, Major and Minor—and a subsection for the Families within each class.
I turned to the page for Great Families. “The Great Families each govern multiple cities. Atheron and Fulvor have four each. Mistler and Thalin each have three cities. Silver has only two.”
“Which do you think is Anna’s?”
Feeling queasy, I turned to the section on House Fulvor. “House Fulvor’s holdings are Fulvor in the south, Helena in the east, Yotar in the west, and Essel in the north.”
"Aevlin," Avery reached for me, but I pushed past her and ran back to the shelves.
Count Tergin’s family was a Family. Not only that, it was one of the oldest and most influential Families in Niare.
And he had married me.
“Careful!” Avery tried to put the books back on the shelves. “If you make a mess…”
There were countless texts honoring the deeds of the Original Families, but I could find little of import about House Fulvor, and even less of interest. The books would not tell me whether they would plot to overthrow the current king by marrying the granddaughter of the previous one.
The bookkeeper came over and asked, “What are you looking for?” placing herself between me and the shelves.
I did not know, either. Avery's translucent hands held mine still, to calm me, or to protect the old books. “I need to know about the Great Houses. I have researched Atheron, Thalin, Mistler and Silver,” I lied, “but I cannot seem to find anything about Fulvor.”
She was as helpful as she could be, offering her assistant’s assistance and staying to oversee the process, but we found little about House Fulvor, and nothing at all about Count Tergin. There was nothing to indicate that Count Tergin even was a Fulvor.
“Isn’t there not a family list or something?” I asked, feeling irritable.
The bookkeeper showed me the House genealogy books in which the Family Members were listed by city. It was not difficult to find Count Tergin, though his name was small. And there, written next to it, ‘—Avery, m. on the twenty-third day of the fifth moon in the year 449’. How like him to record the day I had escaped rather than the actual wedding day. It said nothing of my Family, but it did not need to. Had he not made sure that there were plenty of witnesses to recognize my face? With the falsified date to make it legal, there was nothing the Captain could do.
Avery tugged on my sleeve, not that it moved. “Ask about ours.”
“Is there one for House Saliz?” I asked.
“That book is protected. Only the King and a few others are allowed to see it.”
I nearly left, hungry and tired and needing to be alone, but I stopped to ask, “Who is allowed to see it?”
“All of the King’s advisers are permitted to view the protected books.”
“If I find anything, I will send it to Captain Winter’s office.”
Likely she meant that her assistant would look and her assistant would bring what he found, but I thanked the bookkeeper again.
Avery carried me back to the office.
The Captain was waiting at his desk. “I trust you learned something interesting or unusual.”
I felt shaky and cold.
It was neither interesting nor unusual. It was more like watching inevitability come crashing down.
Strategically not watching me, the Captain said thoughtfully, “Perhaps it is Vior.”
“You should well know the danger of making claims without evidence.” He was probably planning to have me fleeced again. "I trust you will tell me if you know any detail of import that might aid me in this endeavor."
It was the Count. It had always been the Count.
“These people came through the north gate,” I said dully. Of course they had, that was the Count at his finest. Why be subtle when you can be confident?
“They would hardly come marching through the south port of Helena if they wished to attack in secret.”
“Are we not on good terms?” I heard my voice speaking someone else’s words.
“We were not always, though in recent years relations have improved. Our agreements are to be renegotiated this year. The timing would make sense.”
He’s not wrong.
“No,” I disagreed, annoyed with everyone. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to act several years before or after the renegotiations? It’s too conspicuous. If I were planning a surprise attack, I would choose a completely unimportant time.”
Breaking an agreement is a serious offense. Other countries would not be able to trust them.
“Although breaking an agreement is serious, isn’t starting a war during a festival worse?”
Invading at other times is totally forgivable.
“Obviously any timing is going to make other countries uneasy, but to invade during such an important occasion and with so many foreign countries represented…”
“It feels as if I am only hearing half of your thoughts.”
The Count had chosen a very conspicuous time, exactly ten years from the day my grandfather’s reign had ended with his life. That was what the festival was, the ten year’s anniversary of that day.
How did we forget?
I looked up at the Captain, who blinked and looked away. His lips moved, but I couldn’t hear him.
“I’m going to bed.”
“Forget that, we’ll be sleeping forever before long.” Avery and I went our separate ways, leaving the Captain alone in his office.