Wynlan City Market was bustling with activity. Merchants shouted lucrative taunts to naive, unsuspecting tourists while children danced in the water fountains lining Town Square. Scents of fried meat mixed with flowery perfumes from the far south and pungent potions from the Kaitu Islands, making the air barely tolerable. Garreth pushed through the throngs of people with his hood drawn over his face and kept close to shadowy alleys. Thieves were as common as rats during the summer months, looking to lighten the heavy purse of some round-eyed tourist. He tightened his grip on the pouch he carried and raised his gaze to the Royal Embassy.
Garreth barely hid his scowl as he looked upon the grandeur of the gold and diamond covered roof and polished white stone towers. Supposedly a beacon of hope and reason for the people, but both had long been deserted in the minds of those who who made the kingdom’s laws. His gaze shifted to the shortest of the three gleaming spires that rose high above the city where Adina and Vanar watched over their strange new guest. Although her plain white hair and tanned complexion weren’t much to look at, Garreth couldn’t shake the way her sapphire eyes stared through him. If anyone had the chance at pulling this off, it was her. He smirked at the way she had fought him. That spark would come in handy.
No one paid him much attention as Garreth reached the embassy gates and made his way towards the entrance to the towers. He paused by the entrance to the council chamber. Inside, the newly appointed head senator was surrounded by a small village worth of journalists. Brennus’ dazzling smile contrasted sharply with his dark skin and the earthy green robes that draped over broad shoulders. Though he was too far to hear their conversation, Garreth recognized the way the journalists leaned forward as if every word the high senator uttered was some state secret. Barely thirty harvests old, Brennus was the youngest high senator to date.
“You shouldn’t stare like that.” Vanar appeared silently by his side, keeping his face expressionless.
Garreth waved the comment off in his mind, keeping his gaze on Brennus. “Where’s Yolara?”
Vanar narrowed his gaze on Garreth, but decided against further comment. He looked back at Brennus, leaned closer to Garreth and stood with his hands clasped behind his back. “Out in the city following leads. Three more have been found.”
Garreth swore and turned on his heel, starting towards an archway at the other end of the lobby. Vanar fell beside Garreth as they climbed a series of staircases. After a few minutes of strained small talk Garreth lowered his voice and asked, “And our guest?”
“Still asleep. Adina says she should be awake soon.” They walked in silence until they were far from prying ears. “Do you think it’s true?”
Garreth’s shoulders tensed. “Adina seems to think so, and she has yet to be wrong.”
“For all our sakes, I hope she isn’t.”
As they climbed more staircases, Garreth and Vanar slowly relaxed into easier conversation. When they reached the top of the tower, Garreth fished out a silver key from a black pouch at his belt. Unlocking and opening the door, Garreth slipped inside while Vanar took his place outside.
The creaking door jolted Adina from her half-awake state. As she uncurled from her hunched position in the cramped chair, she groaned and massaged her neck and lower back. She brushed back the black hair clinging to her forehead and rubbed the remaining bits of sleep from her eyes. Adina leaned over and placed two fingers to the sleeping woman’s throat. With her other hand, Adina placed a hand on Miranda’s head. Miranda’s eyes twitched beneath closed eye lids but otherwise her face was calm like the surface of a mountain lake.
Garreth untied the cloak from around his neck, hanging it on a hook near the door. “How’s she doing?”
Adina opened her eyes and leaned back into the chair. “Her body still sleeps but her mind is well and active. No more nightmares for now.” She eyed the bag he clutched in his hand. “Were you able to get everything alright?”
“Including a surprise.” Garreth let the corners of his mouth twitch into a soft smile.
Adina raised an eyebrow before taking the pouch, pouring through its contents until she found a collection of tea bags. Her face lit up as she brought each to her nose, selecting one that reminded her of the orchards back home and steeped it in a nearby bowl of hot water.
While Adina prepared the tea, Garreth stole another glance at Miranda. “How much longer will she sleep?”
Adina poured two cups and handed one to Garreth. He took note of the brief look of concern that swept over her face. “Not much longer I hope.”
Garreth looked back at the Miranda’s face. The muscles around her eyes twitched and her jaw clenched. “She better wake soon. Brennus brought more of those snot-nosed reporters. It’s only a matter of time before one of them learns about her.” He sat on the edge of the bed and pushed the braid off her left shoulder, revealing the edge of a birthmark hidden near the base of her throat. “Has Queen Cassandra been informed?”
Adina nodded, sitting on the other side of the bed. “I’ve sent word. They arrived in town a few hours ago. We’ll arrange the meeting after the Council meets. You worry too much, brother. She will help us.” She sipped at her tea, wincing at the unexpected heat.
She waved him off. “Go attend your other duties. I’ll keep Vanar for protection. I must be here when she awakens. There will be many questions.”
There came three raps at the door. Adina shifted so she blocked the stranger from view. Garreth opened the door just enough to recognize the Kaitu guard.
“Captain.” The guard nodded slightly. “The Elders request your and Senator Adina’s presence for the council meeting.”
He shifted so the guard wouldn’t be able to see Adina. “The council was to meet at dusk.” He looked at the guard’s left shoulder and saw the two wave crests that indicated rank. “Is everything alright, lieutenant?”
Garreth noticed the lazy tilt to the insolent kid’s smile. What he wouldn’t give to smack some sense into the spoiled brat. “I’m not told specifics, Captain. Only that I am to retrieve both you and Senator Adina. Brennus has moved the meeting time via an executive summons.” He held out a small scroll with the high senator’s seal.
Adina appeared beside Garreth, masking concern with a polite smile. Garreth didn’t bother, choosing to remain expressionless. Securing a white cloak over her shoulders, she called Vanar over and exchanged a few words.
He nodded and slipped inside the room. Garreth waited for the soft click of the lock to join Adina and the young guard.
They walked in silence behind the guard. Garreth kept an eye on the kid’s right hand resting on the hilt of his sword. His navy blue cloak trailed behind him, rippling like small ocean waves.
The council room entryway was marked with a grand arch inlaid with intricate designs of leaves, water droplets and gusts of wind. As they passed underneath, Garreth felt a sense of unease pass over him. Garreth leaned closer and whispered, “You know you don’t have to do this. You know what’s going to happen.”
Adina straightened her shoulders. “If I don’t, it’ll only arouse suspicion. Besides, I need proximity if this is going to work.”
Garreth looked around the council room. Stadium seating extended upwards and outwards until the seats were almost a vertical climb to the next row. The left most section consisted of nearly one hundred men and women in emerald robes all with long hair and a stern expression that indicated a mix of boredom and annoyance. On the right was the reserved section for the Kaitu Kingdom. The white robbed Senators of the Ausceran sat silent and patiently behind them.
Loud bells suddenly rang throughout the chamber, signaling the arrival of the Kaitu High Senator and his court of lesser senators and priests. The largest was a group in dark blue robes with a cresting wave stitched in silver thread over the left breast. Their king stood straight and tall with a confident stride even as he looked like a prisoner to his own court. Standing beside the king was an old woman with silver and white hair. Her smile was filled with more empty space than teeth, most of which had rotted out years ago.
As they passed the Ausceran section, she turned to Adina and didn’t try to hide her disapproval. “This council is no place for a young girl.”
Garreth stepped forward. “Priestess Rolanda, Adina is a senator elected by our people, and blessed by Yuki herself.”
“Priests of Yuki you mean. The goddesses haven’t walked amongst mortals since the Black Death.” She looked at Adina. “What are you, thirteen?”
“Sixteen. An adult by law and a senator of my people.”
“Indeed. Sir Garreth, I’ve heard you rescued a maiden from the Black Forest last night. Another survivor of the disease? Perhaps Salacia’s blessing can help the poor child.”
“Our healers can look to her just fine.” Adina’s sharp tone caught Rolanda off guard.
“Is there a problem here?”
High Senator Brennus stood behind Rolanda, placing a hand on her shoulder. Rolanda swept into a deep bow. “Of course not. I was just saying how much of a pleasure it was to have met one of the youngest senators in the Ausceran Kingdom. May Salacia bless her and her family.”
Brennus smiled and looked down at Adina. “With a pretty face like that, how could see not succeed?” He held out his hand, which Adina took politely. Brennus placed a small kiss on the back of her hand, smiling a little too friendly for Garreth’s taste. Adina’s jaw clenched slightly when she retracted her hand.
“A pleasure to meet you.”
“To be sure. High priestess, you best return to your people and Sir Garreth you should return to your men. We’re about to start.”
With a brief nod, Rolanda turned and joined the other priests sitting together at the right end of the room. Garreth stood halfway up the aisle amongst a few of the Ausceran guard. When all the groups had assembled, the High
Senators for the Ausceran and Kaitu Kingdoms joined Brennus at the head table at the front of the room. After a short prayer, Brennus stood and walked from behind the table to greet the council.
“Good Trymeenans,” he began. “I thank you for the honor of this position and I apologize for moving the meeting forward by such a considerable amount. However, it pains me to inform you all that we have seers in our midst.” A heavy silence fell over everyone in the room. Garreth wanted to move closer to Adina but she was too far away and him moving would look suspicious. He kept a sharp watch on Brennus as he slumped his shoulders as if the entire world rested upon them.
Brennus gave a heavy sigh and retrieved a scroll from within his robes. “Worse yet, these seers seek to rise against the temple teachings and the goddesses themselves.”
He paused for a moment before unrolling the scroll. “Marcus Talon of the Ausceran Kingdom.”
Hushed whispers filled the room as everyone snuck glances at the young man sitting in the front row. Before he had a chance to open his mouth, three guards were upon him and dragged him before Brennus, shoving the poor boy to his knees. Brennus didn’t look at him or any of the others as he read off another dozen names. They ranged in age, gender and kingdom. Most tried to flee but were caught by the High Senator’s guards and dragged to the front of the room.
Garreth dared not look at Adina, but he could feel the fear building in his belly. His hand slid slowly to the hilt of his sword. When Brennus finished reading the names, Garreth released the breath he had been holding. Adina was spared.
Brennus continued on about the council’s duty to uphold the laws set forth by the goddesses and the penance we must make for past crimes. Punishment for crimes against the goddesses was certain death. Of the thirteen assembled, only three were crying. Another two begged for mercy and proclaimed innocence, which was probably true. Any mention of the word seer and you could count your days left on one hand.
He chanced a look at Adina, but her gaze was focused on Brennus. Over the commotion that had erupted, their eyes stayed locked. There was something in his gaze that made Garreth uneasy. Brennus smiled at Adina but the gesture didn’t reach his eyes. Nothing did except a cold indifference.
Don’t you dare, Garreth thought. Not my sister, you arrogant bastard.