Jalena’s funeral was a long, miserable affair. It was suffocating to stand in the front rows of the temple, half-strangled by his heavy uniform cassock. Aymon’s eyes remained fixated on the closed casket the whole time, though he resisted reaching out his power into the dark wood to touch the corpse, at least during the ceremony itself.
The room was crowded, which felt less like a genuine expression of grief from the assembled and more like a political show. Guildmaster Vaneik, over on the other side of the room, with his son standing stiffly at his side, had barely known Jalena. And the same could be said of all the councilmembers lined up in rows behind Aymon, their gaze landing on his back and making his skin crawl. Even more people that Aymon didn’t recognize filled every corner of the room, their breaths a steady drone.
When he looked at Jalena’s parents, her mother unable to stop weeping, he felt a stirring of disgust. Was there anyone other than himself and Obra who had really known her?
Aymon didn’t cry when it was his turn to say his remembrances, and neither did Obra, but Herrault did. Aymon didn’t look at her, staring instead at the casket, her words passing by him without registering any meaning.
When they finally went out into the cold to bury her, a few snowflakes falling tepidly from the grey sky, Aymon finally allowed himself to reach inside the casket with the power. Herrault was saying one final prayer over the hole in the ground, but Aymon wasn’t paying any attention to her voice.
With his power, he could see inside the casket with his mental sense, feel Jalena laying there. It was just like if they had been laying beside each other in the pitch blackness of Obra’s room; he could sense every inch of her body. The deep-freeze that had allowed her corpse to travel from Jenjin to Emerri, and then the thaw afterwards, had taken a toll on the structure of her cells. Someone had sewn up the gash in her abdomen, though when Aymon investigated he could tell that it was a cosmetic hack-job only: skin deep. The mortician had dressed her in her uniform, a black cassock and red cape, just like the one Aymon was wearing, but she had a gold circlet on her head. In all the jostling of the casket, some of her hair had fallen out of place, landing on her face. Gently, Aymon smoothed it back, a lingering mental touch. It was as much of a private farewell as he could give.
From across the hole in the ground, Obra looked at him, aware of what he was doing. There were tears glistening in the corners of their eyes now, but they blinked until they were gone.
After the interminable post-event dinner and requisite socialization with the guests who had attended the funeral, Aymon wanted nothing more than to escape. Obra, he could tell, wanted the same. They kept rubbing their temples, fraying their hair out of its neat braid, the usual sign of an impending headache.
He had wondered if Herrault would want to speak to them privately after the event, but she had dismissed them and gone back to Stonecourt with her daughter. If Aymon thought about that too much, he knew it would annoy him, so he pushed the feeling out of his mind as he and Obra returned to their apartments.
Not for the first time, he wondered why apprentices weren’t invited to live in Stonecourt. But as he and Obra passed Jalena’s door, he realized that it gave them an advantage in this moment. He put his hand on Obra’s arm to stop them from walking to their room.
“We should take anything that we’ll want out of there,” Aymon said. “Her parents won’t know what’s ours, when they clean it out.”
Obra’s voice was flat and dull, conserving energy. “Will they clean it out?”
“Probably tomorrow,” Aymon said. “And I don’t want to be around when they do.”
Obra nodded. They covered their eyes with their hand, blocking out the hallway lights, and leaned on the hallway wall as Aymon used the power to break open the lock on Jalena’s door. It was probably setting off some alarm in Stonecourt’s security, but Aymon turned his face towards the camera in the hallway corner and gave it such an authoritative glare that any security person watching the video feed would know better than to summon someone to stop the two apprentices.
Jalena’s apartment was cold and clean. She had tidied before she left for Jenjin, but she hadn’t been very messy in the first place. Aymon flipped on the lights, then dimmed them halfway when Obra winced.
“You’re supposed to be getting better at blocking that,” he said.
“If you say another word, I will kill you.”
Aymon just nodded and walked through the apartment silently. He left the photo of Jalena’s grandparents on the wall, but he took down the pencil sketch she had made of him and Obra and put it on the coffee table for Obra to take. Obra went to Jalena’s bedroom and pulled open her dresser drawers, stuffing everything that Jalena wouldn’t have wanted her parents to see into a black garbage bag from the kitchen.
“You’re not keeping all of that?” Aymon asked, nodding at the tangle of leather and lacy lingerie that dangled halfway out of the drawer.
Obra was too miserable to even use the power to shove him, and so silently continued on their task.
Aymon focused on Jalena’s desk. He rifled through the first drawer and found nothing but assorted office supplies and some hard candy that had long ago gone sticky and gross. Jalena had never been much of a collector of trinkets and mementos, so the only things he shoved in his pockets were the couple data sticks that he found. They were sure to be encrypted-- Jalena had gotten the same haranguing about infosec that he had-- but Aymon would still prefer her parents not have them, just in case.
Obra looked through Jalena’s jewelry, picking out the pieces that Jalena had gotten since becoming Herrault’s apprentice. The rest, they put back.
Aymon opened the bottom drawer of the desk. His breath caught as he pulled out the long wooden box with a fanciful geometric veneer decoration. He laid it on the desk, hesitating before opening it.
“What should we do with this?” Aymon asked, breaking the silence. His fingers slid over the box’s latch. When Obra came over, he opened it. A knife lay in the box, sitting tight in the red velvet lining. The handle was a warm black wood with silver-wire inlays, and the metal of the knife blade was covered with rippling stripes of different colors of metal, revealing how the blade had been forged.
Wordlessly, Obra picked it up. They looked at their own dim reflection in the knife blade, then held the edge against their palm. It was wickedly sharp, and any pressure would have cut Obra’s hand, but after a moment of stillness, they put it down unbloodied.
“Do you want it?” Aymon asked. “Take it, if you do.”
“No,” Obra said. “Do you?”
Aymon shook his head. He had his own knife just like this one, as did Obra. He was tempted, as Obra had been, to pick up the knife and cut himself with it, for the chance to heal the wound. But this one had been Jalena’s, and he didn’t want to feel like he was contaminating it. “I’m surprised she didn’t take it with her. She practiced a lot.” For all the good it did her-- but he left that unsaid.
“There are other ways to practice.”
That, Aymon knew well enough. “Her parents won’t know what to do with it.”
“Herrault should have it.”
“Hah.” He ran his finger across the silver wire in the handle. “She should.”
Obra looked away from him. “Will you bring it to her?”
“You don’t want to?”
“What would I say to her?” Obra asked. “Fuck, Aymon…” And Obra went to sit down heavily on Jalena’s bed, hand over their eyes. “I know I told her that I would stay, but there’s nothing I want more than to get out of here.”
“Not leave the apprenticeship,” Obra clarified. “But get away from her. At least for a while.”
Obra shook their head. “It’s not you. You’re fine.”
“But you saw the way she was acting today at the funeral.”
“I wasn’t paying much attention.”
Obra’s breath came out in a huff. “No.” Idly, with their power, they tugged the box out from under Aymon’s hand, pulling it through the air until they had it in their lap. They just held the warm wood, their fingers tracing the faint cracks where the different colors of veneer met. “She can cry for Jalena like she was her daughter now that she’s dead, can’t she?” Obra’s smile was thin. “Jalena’s harmless, now.”
“I don’t care if Herrault doesn’t love me,” Aymon said. “She’s not here to be my mother. Or yours.” He stared into space for a second, and then the bitter words of the theology came easily to his mind. “‘Neither father nor mother shall I have while I wander between the stars.’”
“Yeah.” Obra just scowled. “I’m just-- when she asked if I would have done something to save Jalena, if I could, all I could think about was how she wouldn’t have. If it was a choice between her and--” Obra cut off before they could say Frae’s name.
“No, it wouldn’t be a choice. But she said she picked us to be self-sufficient.”
“I don’t think that’s what she said.”
“Anyway, it’s all just getting to me. Before you got back, it was worse.”
“So, you want to leave me alone with her.”
“You seem to be able to handle her better.”
“Maybe.” Aymon reached over and pulled the box from Obra’s hands. He put it back on the desk, then sat down on the bed next to Obra. “Don’t think about Herrault. What she thinks of you doesn’t matter.”
“If you tell me to think about what you think about me, instead--”
“I’m not nearly so sentimental.”
“Of course not.” They turned away from Aymon. He put his hand on their back, stroking up the silk of their cape until his hand reached the top of their cassock, then the skin of their neck, his fingers trailing across the fine hairs that gathered up into a dark braid. Obra shivered, still looking away. “Stop, Aymon,” they said.
He dropped his hand. “What? Why?”
“I can’t do this,” Obra said.
“Here? Jalena wouldn’t care.” That much was true.
“No. Any of it. Not anymore. Or not right now.” Obra’s breath hitched, having trouble with their breathing. “I’m sorry.”
Aymon lay back on the bed. He noticed the pillow still smelled faintly of Jalena’s perfume, some kind of hibiscus tropical scent. He felt that he should have been angry, but the feeling he had at Obra’s rejection was like striking a gong in an airless room: a heavy vibration that nevertheless produced no sound. It was the same kind of protective numbness that had followed him since Jalena’s death, saving him again. He was silent until the vibrations of the gong stilled.
“I’ll ask Herrault to send you away somewhere,” Aymon said.
Obra’s hand still blindly sought his, though they didn’t look at him. They found his fingers and held his hand, crushingly tight. “Don’t, Aymon.”
“You don’t want to be here. You don’t want to talk to her. I’ll do it.”
“I don’t want her to know.”
“Fine.” His voice was flat.
“You deserve to know how I feel, that’s the only reason I--”
“Glad I merit that much consideration, at least,” Aymon said.
Obra was silent. In the power, through their clasped hands, they tried to offer Aymon an apology, or care, of some kind. He felt it through his mask of numbness, but he turned his head away, tucking his face into Jalena’s pillow.
“Now that I saw her body in person,” Obra said after a long moment of silence, “I can’t look at you without…” They trailed off. “I don’t think I can bear it.” There were tears welling in their voice again. “And it’s different without her.”
“Fine,” Aymon said. “You don’t have to explain it to me.” He pulled his hand from theirs and stood up. He picked up the box with the knife from the desk and gestured with it abstractly. “I’ll give this to Herrault tomorrow.”
Obra nodded. Aymon headed out of Jalena’s apartment for the last time, taking one final glance around before he left, and then shutting the door behind him.
In his own room, he sat at his desk with Jalena’s knife in front of him. His own knife was in his bedside table, and he summoned it to himself with a scrap of intention. His mind was blank enough that it couldn’t even be called a thought.
Aymon hooked his left index finger across the edge of his desk, the rest of his fingers dangling down below it. With his knife in his right hand, he shoved the tip of the blade sideways through the fleshy part of his finger, right against the bone, until the knife point hit the wood of the desk. The blood welled up around the blade sluggishly, dripping down his finger to pool in the crevices of the palm of his hand.
He didn’t bother to block the pain in his hand, though he could have. That wasn’t the point. Instead, he just pulled the knife out, slowly, and began the process of knitting the wound back together.
The numbness had been replaced with anger by the next day. This was fine. Aymon avoided Obra all morning, which he was sure suited them both, and then in the evening, sought out Herrault. Herrault’s schedule had been booked full all day long, though Aymon’s and Obra’s had been left bare. Whichever of the Imperial staff who had made that choice had made the wrong one: Aymon would have been better off with a list of things to accomplish. It would have pushed the seething anger to the back of his head, a polite and diplomatic smile taking up much more space.
But Herrault was sure to be in her office after dinner, so that was where Aymon went. He walked the short distance from his apartment to Stonecourt, monitored the whole way by the nearly-invisible security apparatus. The snow had been falling all day, though none of it had managed to stick, so the sidewalks were full of a grey slush. His red-bordered wool cloak kept him warm enough and concealed the box he was holding beneath it.
Aymon arrived at Herrault’s office, and was deeply annoyed when her secretary stopped him before he opened the door and went in.
“Ms. Frae is in there, Apprentice Sandreas,” the secretary said before turning back to her computer. “Just letting you know.”
It was a fair warning, and on another day, Aymon would have appreciated it more. But he was too annoyed by the concept to thank the secretary, and just rapped on the door with his bare knuckles.
Instead of the door opening under Herrault’s power, it was Frae who pulled it open, looking up at him with her wide eyes. “Aymon, what are you doing here?”
“I came to speak with my mentor, if that’s still something that I’m allowed to do,” he said, stepping past her and into the office.
Herrault was at her desk, her eyes on the screen of her computer. One glance at the notepad beneath her hand revealed that she wasn’t taking notes, but had been digging the tip of a ballpoint pen deep into the paper, absentmindedly scribbling heavy black spirals. She looked up at him when he came in. “What is it, Aymon?” she asked.
Silently, Aymon pulled the box with Jalena’s knife out from under his cloak and held it up. Herrault looked at it, then glanced at her daughter and said, “Frae, could you leave us, please?”
Frae ignored her. “What’s that?” she asked.
Aymon opened the box to show her. “Jalena’s knife.”
Entranced, Frae reached towards it, but Aymon snapped the box shut, just before her fingers got close. Frae flinched back, but still asked, “What are you doing with it?”
“You should have it,” Aymon said to Herrault, and put the box down on the desk in front of her. Herrault didn’t touch it. “Since you gave it to her.”
“Thank you, Aymon,” Herrault said.
“I’ve never seen it before-- when’d you give it to her?” Frae asked. “A birthday present?”
“It wasn’t a gift. It’s a tool,” Aymon said, “not a toy.”
When Frae reached for the box again, this time it was Herrault who pulled it out of Frae’s reach, opening the box to look at the knife. She picked it up. “This was mine, you know,” she said to Aymon, though she wasn’t looking at him. “First Wyland gave it to me.” She turned the knife from side to side. It fit naturally in her hand.
“I didn’t know that,” Aymon said.
“Yours used to be Yusuf’s.” Herrault nodded at the photo of the apprentices in her cohort that hung on the wall. “Milo’s was lost, so Obra’s is new.”
“How did you decide which one to give us?”
“I thought Jalena was most like myself,” she murmured. “And you wouldn’t mind having Yusuf’s knife.” She shook her head. “I should have chosen randomly, but I didn’t.”
“Did you think Jalena would be your successor?” Aymon asked.
Frae shifted and looked at her mother. Herrault just frowned and put the knife back down in the box. “I wasn’t thinking much of anything.” This, of course, was a lie, and they all knew it. Aymon said nothing.
“What are you going to do with it?” Frae asked, nodding at the knife. She wanted it, that much was clear, but she wasn’t quite stupid enough to admit it.
“Aymon or Obra will need to give it to an apprentice of theirs, someday,” Herrault said. She closed the box and put it in one of her desk drawers. Aymon relaxed.
“Why didn’t you keep it, then?” Frae asked Aymon.
“Frae, could you please leave us?” Herrault asked again. Frae frowned, sighed, and left, the door shutting heavily behind her. When she was gone, Herrault gestured for Aymon to sit at the chair before her desk, but he shook his head.
“I don’t want to take up too much of your time,” he said. “I apologize for barging in.” There was no sincerity in his words whatsoever.
“You can speak with me any time, Aymon,” Herrault said. “It’s a good thing you came-- I wanted to ask you something.”
“What is it?”
“I know I’ve given you and Obra some time off, but I could use one of your supports tomorrow. Guildmaster Vaneik has a list of formal complaints put together about pirates that he would like to talk to me about, and since he’s bringing his son, I should bring one of you.”
“Isn’t worrying about pirates a little beneath you?” Aymon asked.
“Showing proper respect to the Guildmaster isn’t,” Herrault said. “Maintaining a friendly relationship with the Guild is important.”
“As you say,” Aymon said.
“If you don’t want to come, then I’ll ask Obra--”
“I’ll come,” Aymon said. “But it just seems that Guildmaster Vaneik should have better topics to waste your time with.”
“It’s not about the pirates,” Herrault said. “It is about introducing his son to the broader world.” She pushed her hair back from her face. “He’s the chosen successor, after all.”
“Hah.” Aymon looked out the dark office windows. Snowflakes were sticking to the glass. “You should invite Frae, then.”
Herrault just shook her head.
Aymon showed up at the allotted hour for the meeting with Guildmaster Vaneik and his son. It was a lunch meeting, the kind of informal affair that Herrault preferred. She had known the Guildmaster since she was a child-- they had attended the Academy together, if a few years apart-- and this meant that their relationship was as warm as any professional relationship could be between two of the most powerful people in the universe.
The room they were having lunch in was white and sparkling, with tall windows looking out onto the snow-covered garden. Light dazzled in from outside, half-blinding Aymon when he stood up with Herrault to greet the Guildmaster and his son as they entered the room.
The Guildmaster, Treygar Vaneik, was a disturbingly tall man, as all spacers were. He had thin, long arms that gave him a spider-like appearance, though the smile on his face was warm. His eyes were set far back into a gaunt, brown face, and his black hair was short and shot through with grey. He had a salt and pepper beard and a booming voice, and he greeted Herrault with an embrace.
His son, Ungarti Vaneik, was about Aymon’s age, and looked similar to his father, though his forehead was creased with what seemed to be permanent lines of suspicion, as he looked between Herrault and Aymon. He offered Aymon his hand while his father greeted Herrault. Aymon took it, and Ungarti’s grip was crushing.
“I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself the other day,” Ungarti said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“It was a crowded room,” Aymon said. “I can’t hold it against you.”
That was all the time for greeting that they had, because the Guildmaster turned to Aymon. “It’s always a pleasure to see you again, Apprentice,” he said. “I had wondered who your master was going to bring along with her.”
“The pleasure is mine, I’m sure,” Aymon said, his smile tight. “Who were you thinking would come?”
The Guildmaster just smiled and did not quite answer the question. “Well, I am eager for Ungarti to meet everyone promising in the next generation, and we spoke to Apprentice Zacks and the young Ms. Herrault the other day.”
The polite smile on Aymon’s face corked his anger. “I’m happy that I have the opportunity to be here today, then.” He resisted the urge to say anything inflammatory: that wouldn’t do while Herrault was right there.
All four of them sat down to eat, and the beginning of the meal was occupied with some brief pleasantries between Herrault and the Guildmaster before any business could be discussed. Herrault asked after the Guildmaster’s wife and ship, but the Guildmaster gave the question to his son to answer. Ungarti had just as thin of a smile on his face as Aymon did.
“My mother is well, thank you,” he said. “She was quite sad to part with me, when my father decided that I should join him on the Guild’s business, rather than remaining as her second on board the Oathkeeper, but I think she’s surviving with my cousins to take my place.”
“She doesn’t disapprove of your training to take your father’s position, does she?”
“No, of course not,” Ungarti said. “But I’ve always been quite close with her, so she’s naturally unhappy to see me running around the galaxy.” He smiled. “I suppose it is probably incomprehensible to you, but there is a difference to spacers between ‘captain’ and ‘Guildmaster,’ and she had her own dream of nurturing me to be the former, as she is.”
“You can’t be both?” Herrault asked.
“It wouldn’t be fair to the crew,” the Guildmaster said.
“I see.” Herrault studied the Guildmaster for a second. “Thank you, for coming to Jalena’s funeral. I know these things aren’t the favorite of spacers, and it’s difficult to make your way here on short notice.”
“We have our own ways,” the Guildmaster said. “But I don’t begrudge you yours. And it was the least I could do.” He looked out the window at the snow for a moment, his voice genuine and pensive. “Being Guildmaster does have the advantage of letting me travel where I need to go, instead of being beholden to where the ship is headed.”
“You never will get used to that luxury, will you?” Herrault asked.
The Guildmaster laughed. “Ships have their schedules.” He tilted his glass. “I got a little too used to controlling my own life, when I was at the Academy. After that, Guildmaster was the only thing I could aim for. It was either that, or give up entirely and become groundbound.”
“I can’t picture it.”
“No, neither could I,” the Guildmaster said. “In any event, I’m very happy that you agreed to meet with me.”
“Of course,” Herrault said. “I’m always happy to hear what you have to say, Treygar.”
“You won’t be once I’ve said it,” he said.
Herrault just smiled. “Speak your piece.”
“You need to do something about pirates, Caron,” he said. “It’s getting out of hand.”
“Must I point you to your own Guild’s charter?” Herrault asked. “When the Guild was founded, you had no desire to have the Empire’s fleet defend you.” She smiled. “The right to go as you please means that we cannot protect your ships wherever they roam.”
“I’m not asking for protection,” the Guildmaster said.
“Then what are you asking for, Treygar?” Herrault was smiling, but it was her political smile. “Please only ask for things that I can help with.”
“I am fairly certain that there is some pirate who has learned to make stardrives, sometime within the past few years.”
“Oh?” Herrault asked. “And what makes you think that?”
“Pirates are getting bold,” he said. “We’re seeing more of them than we ever have before, and they’ve also changed their behavior in certain ways.”
“It used to be that when they bested a ship, they would remove the stardrive and leave the dead hulk, because they’d immediately put the drive into their own ships. Now, they’re taking the whole thing.”
“How do you know this? I was under the impression that most attacks happened out in deep space, and the ships were never found.”
“From the reports of ships that have been attacked recently, it seems that the pirates are now going out of their way to avoid damaging the structure of the ship under attack. They have never had that problem before. It makes them easier to fend off, it’s true, but they’re getting bolder. More frequent, opportunistic attacks, taking place within populated star systems, so they don’t have to hunt ships far. It’s concerning, to say the least.”
“How many ships are saying this?” Herrault asked. “I’m sorry, Treygar, but five captains complaining isn’t going to be the thing that shifts Imperial policy in any direction.”
“In the past half-year? We’ve lost two ships completely-- the Rising Light and the Tiger’s Stripes .”
“Is that more than usual?”
“Yes.” The Guildmaster’s easy smile had fallen away, and his voice was cold. “In better times, we might lose a ship once every four or five years. Pirates only usually go on the hunt when they’re desperate for a stardrive to replace one of their own. The cost to their crew of raiding other ships is usually very high, even if they are successful. They’re much more content to ply the black market and make their living that way.”
“If the person-cost is that high, why are they harrying your ships, then? I don’t see why that would change the calculus.”
“These new raids, they’ve been-- for lack of a better word-- cheap. If the pirates feel like they’re taking too many losses, they pull out, without feeling like they’re committed or it’s a battle to the death. This kind of get-in-get-out has been surprisingly successful for them, or at least it gives them more opportunities in which to be successful.” He frowned.
“Give me a number on these attempts,” Herrault said. “How abnormal is this behavior, in context?”
“Ten years ago, we’d see maybe up to ten total attempts. It’s been growing over the past few years, and this year alone we’ve seen at least forty. Not all my ships report every encounter they have, so that might not be an exact number. But I do know that we’re seeing the same small group of pirates attacking each time.”
“And all because they have a stardrive maker?”
“There will be more trouble than that,” the Guildmaster said. “My ships can handle attacks, for the most part. That’s one thing.” He held up a cautioning finger. “But may I remind you of the Guild charter, Caron. We have the monopoly on interplanetary trade. If the stardrive maker starts selling to those separatists of yours, you’ll suddenly find yourself in much deeper trouble.”
“Are you sure they’re not coming from the other side?” Herrault asked.
“If they were, I think they’d be spending their time making stardrives for a more useful purpose than selling them to pirates,” the Guildmaster said. He smiled. “But I don’t know-- I’m sure you have much more of an ability to find such things out than I do. I’m letting you know as a common courtesy.”
“And because you want me to do something about it.”
They talked about other minutiae of Guild policy, then. Herrault and the Guildmaster remained quite pleasant throughout, laughing and smiling like old friends, even when Herrault constantly dodged the Guildmaster’s requests, saying things like, “You’ll have better luck talking to the Council representatives about that.”
Aymon did not pay much attention, except to give a dead-eyed stare at the young Ungarti whenever he felt his eyes were on him. Herrault caught on to the fact that Aymon was not in any real state to contribute to the discussion, and did not ask him to. On a better day, Aymon might have had something relevant to say on the subject of inflation of the Empire’s currency, or the Guildmaster’s desire to expand the Guild’s charter to allow the Guild’s bank to issue loans to parties outside of the Guild itself.
But Aymon thought of nothing and said nothing, until the lunch was over and everyone said goodbye.
“When are you headed back off-planet?” Herrault asked.
“In a three-day,” the Guildmaster said. “But I’m sure we’ll be back before you can miss me too much. I always have business on Emerri.”
“Until then, Treygar,” Herrault said. “God keep you.”
“And yourself.” He turned to Aymon. “And you, Apprentice.”
“Thank you,” Aymon muttered.
The two Vaneiks headed out, leaving Herraut and Aymon standing around, Herrault picking up the few notes she had jotted during their conversation. “Thank you for coming,” she said. “I know it was an imposition.”
Aymon just shook his head, thoughts elsewhere. One of Herrault’s many assistants knocked on the door and informed her that her next event, a meeting with several of the council members from Galena, was in about ten minutes.
“Right, thank you.” She turned to Aymon again. “Do you have any plans for the evening?”
“No,” Aymon said. He had been half-thinking about going down into the city proper and heading to one of the smaller clubs. He wondered if his face would still be too recognizable in the dark to make it worth it. He hadn’t gone out like that since becoming Herrault’s apprentice-- he hadn’t felt the need to, since he had Obra and Jalena-- but now it was the only thing he could think of. But it wasn’t something he would say to Herrault.
Herrault offered him something like a smile. “Well, if you’d like to join me for dinner, you and Obra are more than welcome.”
Aymon just shook his head. “It’s fine,” he said. And then he couldn’t restrain himself from saying, “There’s no need to pretend like things will be different between us now.”
To Herrault’s credit, she didn’t flinch, just touched Aymon’s shoulder. “If you change your mind, my door is always open to you.” And then she headed out.
Although Aymon had nothing assigned that he needed to do, he spent the rest of the afternoon in his Stonecourt office, the one with a high window on the top floor that looked out over the city. He had no interest in being near Obra, at least.
He sat at his desk with his palms flat up on its antique wooden surface, staring out the window and meditating, watching the heavy grey clouds roll in from the distant ocean. In the trance state, the motion of the clouds was magnified in his perception: time moved in fast forward.
There was a knock on his door. Though the sound was enough to knock Aymon out of his meditation, it took him long enough to adjust to being fully conscious again that the person outside the door knocked a second time.
“Come in,” Aymon said.
The last person in the world that he wanted to see pulled open the door. Why Frae wanted to come bother him, he couldn’t fathom.
“I thought you might be here,” she said, coming in.
“Why did you think that?”
“Because when I called you, you didn’t answer, and when I called Obra, they told me that you were at Stonecourt.”
Aymon pulled his phone from his pocket. It was on silent, and he did have a missed call from Frae. “I was meditating.”
“You do that a lot, don’t you?”
“Not as often as I should. What do you want?”
“I wanted to apologize,” Frae said.
Aymon stared at her, silent. She didn’t flinch under his glare. In fact, she seemed completely oblivious to it.
“I know I was being stupid, last night, when you were talking to my mom. I didn’t mean to.” She looked away. “I know I’m not supposed to get between you and her when it comes to, you know.”
“Did she send you here to apologize?” Aymon asked.
“No,” Frae said, though color rose to her cheeks. “But you did upset her, and I thought...”
“We’re coworkers, not family,” Aymon said. “She knows that better than I do, and she doesn’t have to start acting otherwise.”
“I know.” Frae twisted one of her gold bangle bracelets around, causing the rest to jingle in the most grating manner. “I just figured… I do want us to be friends. While you’re here, anyway.”
She hadn’t meant anything by the comment-- Frae was too stupid to mean anything she said-- but even if she had just been talking about Aymon and Obra’s frequent travels, it still held the implication that she thought he was going to die. But Aymon smiled. “Of course.” He leaned forward on his elbows. “I hear you spoke to Ungarti Vaneik at Jalena’s funeral.”
“Yes, I did,” Frae said, caught off balance by Aymon’s change of attitude and the topic.
“How did you like him?”
“Fine,” Frae said. “He seems competent.”
“Guildmaster Vaneik said that he had been thinking that you would be at our meeting today. He was surprised when I showed up.”
“I wasn’t trying to give him that impression…” Frae said, trailing off.
“It doesn’t surprise me.” Aymon tilted his head. “After all-- his son is in the same position you are. If Ungarti is going to inherit the position of Guildmaster, I’m sure he thinks you’re just as likely to inherit the position of First.”
“Yeah.” Frae scuffed her shoes on the wooden floor. “Guildmaster Vaneik didn’t take apprentices, though.” She looked at Aymon. “So there’s not really any competition…”
He shrugged. “He can believe what he likes, but--”
“Well, we don’t want the Guild to think we’re snubbing them by never having you form real relationships with their future leaders, do we?” Aymon asked. “Even if they’re wrong about the specifics.”
Frae looked at him, confused. “What are you saying?”
“I think you could make friends with Ungarti Vaneik,” he said. “Maybe offer him something to show that you’re on his side. I think that could only help you, in the long run.”
Frae thought this over. “Should I invite him to dinner, then?”
“No,” Aymon said. He glanced around, putting on a conspiratorial air, even though they were the only ones in the office and the door was firmly shut. “Do you want my real advice?”
“Please!” She was too eager. It really was easy to mess with her.
“If I were you, I’d offer Ungarti something that shows you’re on his side, personally. Since neither of you are sensitives, you have the ability to understand each other better than anyone else. If you show that to him, I think it could have some benefits for your future.”
“What kind of thing could I offer him? It’s not like I have any real power around here.”
Aymon’s lips curled into a cruel smile. “Knowledge is power, Frae. Here’s something you could dig into. Ungarti Vaneik loves his mother, much more than he loves his father. I think it’s only fair for him to be told that his father is cheating on her, every time he’s in port on Emerri, and probably every other port as well.”
Frae blanched. “What?”
“Well, he’s a sensitive, isn’t he?”
“How do you know?” Frae asked. Aymon just gave her a flat, incredulous look.
“I know these things. And you could, too, if you looked. You have the power to investigate this, come up with some evidence, and give it to Ungarti. Maybe by the next time that he’s on Emerri with his father.” Aymon shrugged. “You don’t have to, of course, but I think it would be a great sign to Ungarti that you would be happy to work with him, in the future.”
“Right,” Frae said. “Okay.” She smiled at him. “Thanks, Aymon.”
“You’re very welcome.”