Chapter Four .
Prince Tharadon leaned back in his chair, his foot on the ebony and gold low-table. His battered boot was rough, still muddy and leaving marks in the carved edge. Mud was crumbling onto the polished top and into the fine rug below. Harold shifted in his seat, trying to not notice the damage to his furniture. Forcing a smile, he lifted his eyes to the prince and heir to the kingdom of Awens.
It was hard to imagine that the man across from him was the prince at all. Harold had just come to court before Tharadon had vanished for a year. Then the prince had been a thin weak man dressed in lace and fear. Now he looked as uncivilized as his boots. He was dressed in traveling clothes and not of the noble sort. Layered weather-stained leather, wool, and heavy cotton with a set of daggers, he looked far from being a member of the House of Lords.
The daggers were not just any daggers, but long wicked things with ancient-looking wooden handles. They hung off his hips on thin brass chains and threatened to damage the fabric of Harold’s chair. It was hard for the councilor to take his eyes off them.
Tharadon looked like some form of hillman or huntsman. The past decade had changed the man, so much so that Harold could not help but notice the shift in the man’s build, almost as if he had finally hit puberty in his 70’s. Tharadon was rarely seen or commented on except as a joke. However, with him sitting here, Harold felt something very deep had shifted inside the once sickly prince. Something about him was intimidating and powerful. There was something in the man’s eyes now that was wiser, smarter, and more aware than he was given credit for.
The prince was swinging an amulet back and forth around his fingers. It flashed with gold and gems, some trinket the man obviously cared little for. Everything about him seemed to say he cared little for much of anything, including his appearance.
Tharadon had fallen from whatever grace he might have ever held since his year-long disappearance from where he came back half insane, short a wife and changed. The rumor was he had been in warped lands, but none knew where. Harold could see why the rumor had started. Tharadon looked as if he had been to forbidden territories, drank waters of magic streams and been touched by warped winds. He was changed and that much anyone could see.
“The wine should be here any moment,” Harold said for lack of anything else to say. He had a hard time admitting he was a bit afraid of the man across from him. Every time he had ever joked at Tharadon’s expense seemed to whisper at him. “So, what can I do for Your Highness,” he asked, wishing the man would leave.
Tharadon seemed not to hear him for a moment, but caught the amulet in his hand like some child’s game. The long-haired man teetered his chair on its back legs and added his other foot to the edge of Harold’s table.
“You know that the laws of the Church tell us very clearly what a man is and is not allowed to do,” Tharadon said in an almost distracted way.
“Yes. That is the way of the Church.”
“Did you know, Councilor,” he looked from the amulet he seemed to study a moment to the man who sat across from him, “that by the laws of Awens many things that are called law by Gerome are in contradiction of our own law?”
“The laws of Awens answer to the Church; one set of laws is not separate from the other. Awens bows to the church as does all the world,” Harold countered.
“The laws of Awens are of Awens and the Church is of the Church. It is well known that the laws of the kingdoms are different. We are unlike them even more as we are made by a race very like Purtans, but not the same. You and I, we are very much of that race. Our bloodlines are as ancient as the mountains.”
“What is your point?” Harold asked as nicely as he could. “You talk dangerously close to heresy.” He tried to say it lightly, but there was nothing light or amusing about the topic. Harold had to be careful and very aware of such things in his life. There was just no way he could dare to cross that very dangerous line.
Tharadon laughed. He put his feet on the floor, swung his amulet once around, then caught it in his hand again. He leaned forward on one knee.
“Heresy depends on your religion, my friend. Now you and I, we are clearly Awens. Look at you,” he gestured at the councilor, “every bit an Awens, fair and strong, tall and gifted in… magics that others do not have.”
“I have titles to use such magic,” Harold said, suddenly more than just a little nervous. “I am sanctioned to study it.”
“Of course you are,” the prince said as the servant brought wine for them. “Thank you, dear.” He smiled at the woman as he took the glass. His manner shifted into something very different in front of her, almost shy, but once she was no longer looking at him, Tharadon ran his finger tip around the rim of the glass. She set another down for Harold. With a curtsy she left them with a new bottle and their glasses. “It is a God-given right,” he said very firmly as he leaned back in his chair. He lifted his eyes to the man across from him. “You seem nervous, Harold. Do I make you nervous?”
Harold forced a smile. “Certainly not, just honored at your presence,” he said, trying to seem like it wasn’t a lie. He took a sip of his wine, feeling his stomach knot up.
“Nonsense,” Tharadon said. “You are more likely mortified at just about everything I seem to be or say. Not to mention you are too gifted not to… pick up on other things as well. Also, I am very good looking.” He laughed at little at himself.
“Why are you here? What can I do for you?” Harold asked, wishing this over. He took a sip of his wine, praying that the prince would get to the point and leave. He felt like he was being watched and that any moment guards would rush in, accusing him of black magics and haul him away to horrid places and torture him until his soul was shattered. He began to even wonder if this was truly Tharadon and not some imposter playing to be him in order to set Harold up and make for some fun for the queen.
“By the laws and ways of Awens, as recorded in stone and undeniable, and accepted by the angels themselves, it is allowed for a man to love whomever he wishes.” Tharadon lifted his eyes with a powerful focus. Harold shifted. He met the man’s eyes expecting to see nothing but insanity and drifting thought, but he found something else entirely. It felt as if the world shifted under his feet and he saw something that few whispered rumor of… the hidden power of the prince. Harold felt as if every secret he held hidden in his soul was exposed and that he faced a man as powerful as the tide.
“Awens does not have arranged marriages,” Harold said carefully. “I do not see how that law matters to me.” He swallowed hard, wanting to look away, but unable to do so. He felt almost captured, almost as if he had been drawn into a magic that was far beyond him. He was like an unaware child before a god. His heart was pounding and he felt like he needed to warn Brian and prepare to run.
Tharadon leaned back, releasing Harold from the soul-binding look. He swirled his wine, looking almost the age he truly was and for a moment shockingly noble and handsome under the shaggy beard and wild hair.
“I have a proposition to make you,” he said, as if it was nothing. “Let me start with saying that I have met your bodyguard. It must be very hard to make him stand at your back when you go to royal parties. It must be very hard for him to be ignored by you as well. To walk behind you like a well-trained dog must hurt a man like that.”
“I do not know what you are saying.” Harold lied, desperately trying to hide his nerves. It was unthinkable to let his secret out in the open, but his mind could not even shift from the magic that seemed to bind him a moment ago. The fear of the politics and religious backlash if anyone knew his true relationship with Brian was almost unthinkable. Harold had the terrifying thought that if Tharadon asked him about it, Harold would not be able to deny it directly.
“Oh, I know that you do,” the prince said. “That part does not matter. What matters to me is that you are far more than you pretend to be and have far more power then you let on.” He suddenly smiled and lifted his eyes with a very mischievous twinkle in them. “I also know that you hate my mother almost as much as I do,” he added, as if commenting on the weather.
Harold didn’t know what to say. He sat in his chair, just gripping his glass of wine. He knew the Queen Mother and he hated her. She had found him as a child, taken him in and what once seemed a blessing had become a hellish cycle of abuse so dark it still made him wake screaming from nightmares at times. He often wondered if the way he was now was not a result of the things that woman had done to him as a young boy. Part of his political power came from the fact she owned him on a certain level. When she needed him there was nothing he could do but obey; he prayed for nothing more than to be rid of her.
“You stand at my side and you get to hold the hand of whomever you wish. You can give the title of consort to your rather handsome bodyguard,” Tharadon said with a very sane look in his eyes. The prince was very serious and very certain.
Harold bit his lip. This was a very odd day. He barely felt that he was able to think. This was just too much to deal with.
“To even say such has gotten men executed,” the nervous councilor said. “The Church punishes the wrong of men.”
“Yet you do it,” Tharadon said pointedly and not at all upset. “You have wrestled that war already and you know in your soul it is right for you. You are Awens. It is your right.”
“Not even you have the authority as to say such. To do so will have you handed to the Church to be punished. The false thoughts of the cults of old are to be purged.”
“Do you truly think the king shall sit his throne that much longer? He is old, tired and not in control of his own bowels.”
“The queen will rule in his wake. I pray he lives long,” Harold said, feeling a bit ill at the thought of the queen in power. It had to be pointed out to the prince before he got them both sent to the pits. No one had any illusions the prince would truly follow the king to the throne.
“No,” Tharadon shook his head. “If you hate her, if you love Awens at all, or any part of Purt as the angels hold it, then you will stand with me. Think about it,” Tharadon said softly, leaning forward again. “If you think for a moment that it would be nice to stand up and say who and what you are, to wear the belts of your rank, not as a social puppet of a corrupt empire, but as the sorcerer that you are, then see to it that the warehouse on Lower Third Street and Dock Street Five is searched. In the back, under a large crate is a trap door. Bring several priests of rank with you and get it open. Make sure you have crystals to record what you find and make sure they get out to the public. You do that, Harold, and you won’t have to sleep alone in your bed while he sleeps in the hallway like a dog.” Tharadon rose to feet. “Oh, and do it tonight.”
“Why?” Harold rose. “What’s down there?”
“Things that should not be,” Tharadon said, looking suddenly very serious and very troubled. “You will gain a great deal of power for discovering it.” He took a drink of the wine and smiled. “Oh, and this is for you.” He tossed Harold the amulet. “You should put it on. It will match your outfit rather well.” He turned and left the hall, leaving a trail of crumbling mud across Harold’s fine Dacan rugs.
Harold sat holding the amulet a long time, debating what he was going to do with the visit of the prince. Part of him wanted to ignore it and go about his life, but there was something about it all, there was something hidden in the eyes of the prince, there was something deep and powerful about him. Harold took a slow deep breath and set the chain about his neck, sliding the gold under his robe front. He would go and he would see. If it was nothing, then it would be nothing. But if the prince was by chance the hero Awens and all Purt prayed for, then it was worth being there tonight. For the chance to be able to have Brian stand with him, not behind him would be worth a quick trip to dock street.
“Brian,” he called, “can you get a hold of Bishop Tenlar and tell him I have something he might be interested in.”
Theo watched himself in the mirror as he drew the razor down his cheek removing the scruffy beard he had worn for the last year. It was strange to be back in the city and for the final motions to be set into play. The last two years Theo had spent every day moving about Awens, setting magics and people into place for what was about to come.
He had the council in his pocket and not all of it because of good reasons. Harold was one of the few whom Theo wasn’t blackmailing. They would make him king by the end of the week and all he had to do was look the part and convince the populace it was the best thing possible. He would need the people when the war came, and war would come. All he could hope was that he would prove to be so much trouble, Gerome would leave him be after a few years.
Perhaps when the time came, Shannon would be back on his feet and able to support him, morally if nothing else. Theo had even sent a letter to Oirion to invite him to visit the court this week, but Oirion and his partner had been sent to Fairwah and likely the letter sat unopened on his desk.
Theo sighed and tried not to think about it. He missed his friends, but understood why Shannon and his men had tried to erase all memory. It was for everyone’s own protection and Oirion most certainly had been purged of the year they had spent together. Theo had tried unsuccessfully to find Ivan when he was in Dacan several years back.
He had heard rumors of the giant, even seen a poster on a wall. Word was Ivan had sold his palaces and taken his wealth on a ship that sank in a storm. Theo didn’t want to believe it, but part of him feared it true. The palaces had most certainly been sold off and no one had seen Ivan U’Shard for years.
He had heard another rumor that Dave was the captain of a ship called the Fire Storm and another rumor that his father Elliott had returned to the water on a ship called the Nomad. But rumors were just that unless confirmed truth was had and Theo had none of that. If Elliott was out of the Barrier, that meant that Tavia could be as well.
He had found records of Riven being a very skilled cleric, but one who was paid remarkably low and sent to where he was almost certain to end up dead or at least where his deeds would remain unknown. But Riven himself had vanished, as had Kelly. Nothing was all Theo could find on either of them. With so much about to shift, he really wished his friends to be there, even if they didn’t remember him as Theo anymore.
Theo washed the razor in the sink of water, trying to not think of his friends or that places they had been as his thoughts always went back to Tient and the millions of lives he had taken in a single act. He drew a deep breath and sent them all an apology and prayed they understood why and could forgive him.
“My Lord,” Vinn said from the doorway, “Harold has left with two bishops and a handful of guards.”
“Good.” In the mirror he looked at the man who stood at the door. To anyone who looked at him he seemed a normal looking half-Purtan half-human man like a million others in the city, but under the illusions Vinn was neither; he was Pusan. Theo didn’t know the man’s full story and didn’t think he really needed to. Vinn had served him with a cold firm devotion that was born of the fact Theo had saved him from Gerome’s men. Under the illusions, Vinn was terribly scarred and hated Gerome and his power so strongly Theo almost feared that Vinn would turn into a very dark man to get vengeance if left to his own. Their arrangement worked well for them both… Theo got a very smart man who was devoted to him and hated Gerome as much as he did, and Vinn got a way to strike at Gerome.
“And you are certain my mother’s guards will not be there?”
“Positive,” Vinn said coldly.
“Thank you, Vinn,” he said and looked back to his face and the last of the beard that needed to come off. Vinn bowed and left him to finish getting ready.
Theo had spent years to make the wardrobe for his life in court. Every thread was spun with magic. Spells were in every stitch and embroidered detail, every button, buckle and cord. He had layed his magic into his clothes and into his skin, cutting into his flesh which healed over with the magics embedded. He wore his magics in layers upon layers. It would not do to have him have to pull out a wand and wave it about shouting spells. That image would not set well with the people, but if he came across as no different than a wizard, then it would be accepted far more easily. It was a simple idea, hard to actually make hold, but once he had figured it out, he had taken it even beyond the magics that Shannon wore in his leather clothes.
Theo rinsed his face and reached for his garments. He would make a show of just arriving and even now his luggage was being hauled up to his rarely used chambers and the staff that was employed to serve him would be warned that the prince would be home soon. He settled his mind, ran through breathing exercises to calm himself even more. He closed his eyes and waited, letting the night settle over the city.
He drew on his cloak and left the small apartment Vinn had just outside the palace. At the door an unmarked carriage waited with a driver ready. The man would have no idea who just gotten into his carriage and would drop him off at the palace gate, never knowing who it had been. It wasn’t far, but a prince did not walk up from the harbor.
Theo had one more council member to talk to before the night was over and he was pretty sure it would happen without any prodding of his own. He had put it off for years as a matter of fact, and every time Theo arrived at the palace, there this man was.
The carriage stopped and he slipped out before the driver had a chance to get down to open the door or to see his face. Vinn was at the gate and waited. The guards bowed their heads as he passed, but the carriage was already gone.
They crossed the front main yard to the sets of double doors and the waiting servants. The servants bowed; clearly some of them had been rushed, trying to get dressed and into place, but he didn’t mind. Most would be sent to other positions and his handpicked and trained few would be brought in to cover all the tasks about him.
As expected, the last council member he needed to talk to waited, watching, just back from the crowd. As Theo reached the door, the man stepped forward.
“Tharadon, might I have an audience?”
Theo paused to look at the man. He sighed, not looking forward to this even now, but nodded and motioned.
“I have time now,” he said. Duke Garben fell into step with him as they went in. Theo took the shortest route up to his wing of the palace. In his chambers he pulled out a crystal and set it on the table near the center of the room. With a whispered word, the stone activated. All magics that would seek to watch or listen to what happened there would be blocked and absorbed. The stone went a dull green color, saying without doubt such magics lay in the room.
Already there was a meal laid out with baskets and platters of anything they might think he’d like, as well as three types of wine, several whiskeys and four different teas. He ran a hand over the food, letting the magics, which had been cut into the sides of his fingers, detect poison and remove it. He had taken a great deal of pain and care to make this magic perfect. He chose a small shrimp and picked it up. “Hungry?’ he asked the heavy man. The duke just scowled.
“You know why I am here. You have put me off for a decade, Tharadon.”
Theo poured two glasses of wine and offered one to the Duke as a peace offering and to help make this go easier.
“So what do you want to know?” he asked.
“I let you marry my daughter, knowing you did so for money and to get your fingers into the guilds, but I assumed you would be living here with her and that I would have grandchildren by her, but you vanished and…” he gestured at him in anger and disgust. “You look as handsome as your mother is beautiful. How?”
Theo picked a grape and considered how to answer that. “I could say something like the House of Lords is slow to mature, but we both know that’s not the truth.” He popped the grape in his mouth. “In warped areas of the world there are magics. If you are exposed, if you ingest, work with, or handle the energies of the warp, it affects you. Can you imagine how horrid it was for me to be stuck in that body? I have spent a decade seeking “natural” ways to have my body altered by the magics of the wild places.”
“You’re a sorcerer and I know you are; you’re the heir to Lords and it all but demands no less. You’re telling me you did not use your magic to change?”
“Of course I did, but not the way you might think. I used it. I breathed in energy of places without names. Traveled warps lands, ate the meat of beasts made by such places, and bathed in waters of power.”
“You use my daughter? You make her suffer when you took her life?”
“I might be my mother’s child, but I am not like her. I did my best for Cindie and I never hurt her.”
“But she is dead.”
“Yes, she is dead, but not by my hand and not by any act of mine. She was young, rash and ran out into dark waters before I could stop her.”
“I’m not sure I believe you.”
Theo had not realized the duke thought so darkly of him. “To think so of me would mean you know what sort of creature my mother is, and yet you sit there and do nothing? If you though me that sort of man, why would you entrust her to me to begin with?”
“You were harmless. You were a sad little man, easily controlled by her and honestly I thought you wanted her so you would not have to try to be with a woman; she would find her own way to have children.” His eyes narrowed and a cold anger built in his chest. “You have changed.”
“You’re damn right I’ve changed,” Theo said, a bit angry himself. “I escaped my mother and your daughter was the first person to ever try to help me do so. She was a spoiled child, but she took risks for me that no one before her ever had. Given time she might have made a great and strong queen, a real queen. If you had any idea how my mother was and you did nothing, then you would be unworthy of the queen your daughter might have been. And just so you know, she didn’t marry me because she hoped to get a bigger house or fancier toys; she married me because she believed that if I had support I could become a good and strong king.”
“I don’t believe you,” the duke said. “I think you’re a good actor, but I do not think she loved you or that you are innocent of her death.”
Theo faced the father of the woman he had once called wife. He had not thought this conversation to go quite the way it was, but he needed the duke to understand and be on his side.
“I met Cindie because her maid had a sister whom I had a brief affair with. She had a child and I had plans to take very good care of them both, but my mother found out and that young woman was… killed. I managed to take the baby and escape.
“Cindie was smart enough to put things together and she sought me out, stopped me from just running and she took the baby from me. She said my mother would never think she would have any part of it and that she could hide my daughter where no one would know. I had no choice. My mother arrived even as we spoke and Cindie hid with the baby and she somehow stayed hidden through my mother’s interrogation. I did not reveal Cindie and I think she was impressed by that.
“After my mother was gone, Cindie left a cup of water on the floor beside me, promised she would help me somehow, and went out. I have no idea what she did with my child, but somewhere in her things, in her past, there must be a way to find out and that should be proof to you. She was my ally and even when things were very difficult and even though she was sometimes a childish brat, she never revealed secrets she might have.”
“You have a daughter?” the duke asked, skeptical.
“Your daughter saved that baby’s life. That is why I married her… not for your money or your guild command.”
“I cannot see my daughter doing any such thing.”
“Then you did not know her as well as you thought you did.”
“I just wanted the truth. I just wanted to know how much it hurt; I want to know if you at least laid her body to rest.”
“When my wife died, she was gripping the hand of David Sailor, who was desperately trying to pull her out of the black mud. Ask him. I was being held back and unable to go to her. Why don’t you go track him down and ask him yourself.”
“You know pirates?”
“I know many people,” Theo said coldly. “I go places others will not go, I hunt out magics that others run from and I try to become the man your daughter had hoped I might be.”
“The Green Tide Pirates are powerful men.”
“I am aware of who and what they are, Garben. As I said, Dave was there and tried to save her.”
Garben looked at him a long moment, then turned and left. Theo let him go, surprised he had said so much. His own guilt of Cindie’s death was behind it and he knew it. But if Garben could find Dave, all the better.
Theo sat down at the table. He ate a few more bites, then poured his wine into his plate. As he whispered magics, light swirled in the dark red fluid and began to reflect the images he sought. From the perspective of Harold’s new amulet on his chest, Theo could see, even though the shirt over it made the image a bit blurry, the magic worked and he watched as Harold entered the warehouse. Through the amulet, Theo could protect the man and possibly even throw a blow at the woman he so hated.
“Let’s see what you’re up to, Mother,” he whispered.
“How did you know?” Brian whispered to Harold. The councilor glanced at his bodyguard and lover as the trapdoor was being unlocked. Harold couldn’t help but wonder how it would be to just admit the truth of their relationship to the world and not be torn apart for it. If the prince was sane and had a true idea of what he was doing, then maybe one day Harold could be honest about who and what he was on every level. As it was, Harold stood with his hands in his deep robe pockets and kept his expression as cool and emotionless as possible.
“I’ll tell you later,” he said, fingering the recording crystals in his pocket. He had given several to Brian as well as to the other three guards who worked to open the trap door.
If he had brought guards, bishops, and the constable down here for nothing, he was going to look an idiot. He sent a silent prayer to God that this was something worthy and good to be doing. Every fear and every twisted rumor of the prince crept into his mind. He could not help but know that the prince was the son of the woman who had shamelessly abused Harold, for most of his youth. He had no idea what the vile creature called Queen Mother had done to her own son. Her perversion was endless and insatiable.
“Well, sir,” Bishop Tenlar said with a smile, “at least you did not bring me down here for nothing.” He gestured to the trap door that had taken some time to even locate. He had been just about to admit he was the target of a prank when they guards had found it hidden very carefully under a rug and straw. “So what’s down there?”
“I am not certain, Your Grace,” Harold said truthfully. “I fear it is not of good order, though.”
The bishop chuckled and patted his fat stomach. “As long as it is interesting or of value to know of it, I shall never doubt a hunch of yours.”
Harold bowed slightly to the man. He had asked the bishop because the man was not corrupt in magic, just in money. If it served him to make money he would do just about anything, but he was not a bad man. The thought of black-market goods gained for the Church and possibly ownership of a warehouse was enough to get him to leave his dinner. The other bishop, however, was not so jolly. He was a firm fanatic who was harsh-handed and firm-voiced. He demanded strict obedience, but had a sense of compassion many others with rank lacked. He would hunt down wrong-doers with unrelenting dedication. Harold trusted the prince wanted that.
The door opened and a gust of magic escaped that made Harold almost gag as if he had smelled something very rotten. Both of the bishops covered their mouths with the same reaction. Whatever was below was far from merely unpleasant… it was evil and all good men of magic would feel it. The vibrations of the darkness would set them off in a way that was as like the smell of rot as anything that could be described. It made them ill and could not be hidden, denied, or faked.
“After you,” the constable said to Harold, gagging a little. Harold took a deep breath, pulled out a flash-rod and went to the door. He struck the bottom on his palm making it cast up its light and prayed Tharadon had not set him up to get killed, but had sent him here to do something good.
Steep simple steps led down to what had likely once been a wine cellar. He had no idea what he was going to find. By the reek, he doubted it was going to pleasant and his own fears and nightmares began to build up in him, making his hands shake and his legs not want to work.
He took the steps down, but did not need the flash rod for long, as mage lights began to come on as he went. Slipping the rod back into his pocket, he looked at the chamber he had entered. It looked like a pantry full of jars. It took a moment for the light to rise enough to see what it was. They were jars of pickled heads. Sick dreams he had thought his mind had made up began to flood back. He couldn’t breathe.
“Not what I expected,” he said to Brian, sick and yet confused as to the purpose of such a collection. The stink was terrible, but made no sense with the pickling. He wandered back through the shelves that had surely once held food goods. Brian noticed the door at the back and waved, motioning Harold to join him there. They moved to the door while the others with them spread out to investigate.
The magic on the door was not very powerful, but it was sorcery. It would be very hard for anyone besides a sorcerer to open it. Brian nodded and stood to hide what Harold was doing. The councilor unlocked the door without more work than a simple key in the door would have been. The lock was almost crude for a work of sorcery, but so few knew the magic anymore it would seem an almost impossible task to most.
He opened the door and felt as if he had been hit by a wind. He stumbled back, his stomach rolling and head spinning. The amulet the prince had given him was suddenly fire hot. It burned, but it also held back whatever was pushing at Harold. He choked on the magic and looked up. The wind that hit him burned his eyes, threaten to rip the air from his lungs and to peel his skin off, but the amulet fought back.
In the room he saw the last thing he expected and yet he knew at once he had seen it before. In the center of the room on the altar was the queen. She was naked and blood-soaked, writhing in pleasure in a cloud of blackness that was more than mere vapors or mist. It seemed half-living oil and half smoke. It twined about her, in her, with her. In her state of ecstasy, she did not even notice the open door.
Somehow Harold fumbled with the stones in his pocket. They slipped from his hand and scattered across the floor, recording all from wherever they fell. Harold was so stunned, so caught between the magic and the amulet that he didn’t move beyond that one attempt to get the stones out. Brian pulled him back as the bishops reached the door together.
Bishop Raylor threw up his hands with a roar, throwing a Banishment at the whole mess. The queen was dropped. The blackness turned at once and attacked the bishop. Bishop Tenlar stepped in with another Banishment that exploded about the room in a flash of light. Harold was blinded by it and unable to see what made the jolly man scream as he did, but whatever his fate was, it was painful.
Staggering back, Harold blinked his eyes clear to see the queen on her knees snarling at them. Her eyes went from the bishops, who were both on the ground, to Harold. Panic drove him and for the first time in his life, he dropped his masking shields and attacked the darkness without any attempt to hide his true power.
He felt power roar through him, unleashed like a golden wave that hit the blackness that hung over the two priests. The evil thing left the bishops it was killing to focus on Harold. The amulet suddenly set off such a blast of power that Harold staggered back. It had not felt so much as if the magic had come from the amulet itself as that it had come from a focus placed on it, as if someone had marked the amulet and had sent the attack through the amulet from wherever the caster truly was at. It was a trick of old when great masters would send their apprentices into horrible places, but would go with them in spirit and use magics from a single focal point to aid them.
The dark thing was gone; smoke lingered like reeking mist. The queen screamed in rage. She rose to her feet, her eyes burning with dark magic. She lifted her lean arms and threw down power. The concussion blasted everyone back, off their feet, slamming them to the floor.
Harold was hurled off his feet and crashed to the floor hard, cracking his head on the stone tiles. He had no idea how long he was out, but he rolled up sore and in the dark. Lights flickered a moment with the magics trying to work, but shattered.
“Brian?” He felt around for his partner as soon as his mind focused again. “Brian?” He lifted his hand to cast up a soft white light. Crawling to the nearest body, he saw it was not Brian, but Tenlar; his body was sucked of life, sunken like a spider-eaten fly. Turning, he saw Raylor. The bishop was bleeding from his mouth, nose and eyes, but seemed to be alive yet. Harold crawled to the priest.
“Someone help me!” he called. “Hold on, Bishop, don’t leave us. We need you.” He gathered the man up into his lap as best he could to try to help him breathe. The man groaned, but made no other sound. Harold cast his light further for the others, but he saw what lined the walls of the inner chamber: jars had lined the walls, filled with small white stones. Most of them were now shattered open and spilled out on the floor. Harold knew every one of those stones was a soul stone, a soul that had been ripped horribly from its body and trapped in a solid stone by the queen. They would stay so until someone of vast power and knowledge was able to release them.
“Help me!” he yelled to anyone who would hear.
“How do you feel?”
Harold took a moment to focus on the man who had spoken to him. He blinked, forcing his eyes to work though the screaming headache. The man before him seemed a moment to be an angel made of light and mist, but his eyes slowly came into focus and the angel materialized into a transformed version of the prince. Tharadon had shaved the shaggy beard off his cheeks, but left the rest. Oddly it was sort of impressive that way. It really made his eyes stand out. More than that, the normally wild hair was as soft and smooth as a child’s. For a moment Harold was unable to think. He could not shake the first image of the prince as somehow divine.
“You washed your hair,” he said out loud, a bit shocked at how golden and handsome his prince was. It seemed almost impossible the prince was the same man who had been in the office with crumbling mud on his boots and thread bare cloak.
Tharadon smiled. “I’m flattered you noticed,” he said amused.
“Oh… I’m sorry… forgive me, Highness, I…”
“You’re still a bit dazed, I am sure.” The prince took a sip of whatever drink he had in his hand. “It seems you found something rather dark and ugly.”
“I…” It all rushed back to Harold, shaking him to the core, the image of the queen… He looked back to the prince, horrified at the truth of what he had seen. “You knew,” he whispered.
“Knew what?” The prince asked.
“The warehouse, what… the queen… you knew. You told me!”
“Told you? No. I only just arrived in the city, but I have seen the stones you brought,” he said sadly. “So I know now.”
“No,” Harold pushed himself up on his elbow, “you told me to go there.”
“No,” Tharadon said carefully. “I only now just got here. I came to check on you as soon as I had been filled in.”
Harold felt sick. Of course, though, if the prince was connected, then it would complicate things terribly. He lay back down, his mind in a jumble.
“I must have dreamed it,” he said softly. “Brian? The bishops?”
“Your bodyguard will be alright. He will need a great deal of magic cleansing; unlike you, he did not have an amulet to protect him. You are very lucky you thought to wear such an old and powerful protection. It may well have saved your soul and those of all others in there with you.”
Harold swallowed hard. “The queen?”
“Bishop Raylor woke some time ago and has denounced her. She is on the run. She Gated out and they have not found her yet. I agreed with him once I saw what you had recorded and have sent men to all her estates to try to arrest her.”
“She is an evil woman with great magics; she will kill them.”
“Perhaps,” Tharadon said sadly. “In doing so, she will confirm her exile.”
It was sick to think, but it was true. The more men she killed now, the more the army of Awens would learn to hate her. Her once loyal and loving servants would attack her at any chance. But such power as the queen held, it would take an entire kingdom to drive her out and more to take her down. She was no easy target and Tharadon had to know it.
“How long until all of Awens knows of her evil?” Harold asked.
Tharadon shrugged. “Soon enough. It would seem she has been slowly driving the king insane, poisoning him as well.” He rubbed his eyes. “I can only imagine such pain.”
Harold pushed himself up. It all began to suddenly become very clear. He licked his lips. Tharadon had removed his mother in one act and had done it without seeming to, and now, showing the king’s illness could be used to remove him from the throne and put Tharadon in it.
“Then should not Awens be merciful and let him leave his throne to rest and be mended?” Harold asked carefully to test his thought.
Tharadon lifted his eyes to the councilor.
“I cannot suggest such a thing.”
“A nephew can,” Harold said. “Only the blood son of a king cannot…” he stopped as Tharadon shook his head.
“I cannot suggest such a thing,” the prince said again carefully. “You must be very tired, Councilor. You should rest. I am certain you will be well rewarded, as you should be, for your uncovering of such evil and for saving the bishop.” He rose from the seat. “I will come see you again.”
“Can I see Brian? Is he going to be alright?”
“Soon,” Tharadon said softly. “Sleep is needed for him. No one could have known just how powerful the one she would be with was. All my attention is now on the recovering of your good guard. Please, trust me on that. Rest.” He nodded his head and left Harold to lay awake and run it all through his head.
It was not chance that Harold was very versed in law, ancient and modern, or that he was a sorcerer. Tharadon knew Harold would understand quickly. It was just an added layer to the prince’s use that Harold held his bodyguard as more than just a friend. Harold closed his eyes.
Things had just changed in Awens and he was somehow in the center of it. That was the place he had tried very hard to not be. He smiled to himself a little. If he played this right, he could end up at the king’s right hand and be holding the hand of the man he loved with the other. Maybe, just maybe, the angels were real and did hear prayers. Now if only it could happen and Tharadon could be a good king, then Harold would be beyond happy.
Councilor Falen Harold made himself rise to his feet. He had wanted to come to the council without his cane, but after talking to Brian, he decided it would not hurt to seem more injured than he was. Now, after hours in a chair, he was glad he had it. The effects of the energy blasts he had endured had left most of his nerves in shock, his balance easily lost and odd pains shivering through him without warning. The others were even worse off.
The men about the table fell silent. Harold cleared his throat slowly. He wanted to make a clear impression and force things to happen. He was standing on a point in history that would affect the entire empire and thus the world. Carefully, he told himself. He lifted his eyes and looked at the politicians about the room. Many of them were men he knew little about. Those he did know were clinging to their places, due to their former placement in the queen’s favor.
“I think we are all in shock and dismay of the last few weeks. I knew that the darkness that woke me was there, but I had no idea what power or who was behind it. It is a grief to my heart to have such befall our noble house.” He took a slow deep breath. “As Lords of Awens, we are now faced with a terrible reality. Our King is not well. I fear his state is not of his own making, but of hers.” He said it as cold and distastefully as he could, but even at the thought of it, he could see her writhing in the air, the concubine of darkness. He closed his eyes and had to look away a moment to swallow the sickness. “His strength, his true bloodline and power are revealed in the fact he has fought her and still tries to serve his duty.” He let a shiver of pain flicker across his face. “My God, I cannot imagine the hell he has been in, and right in front of us. It is a terrible thing to think of the times and ways he might have tried to reach one of us for aid against the evil in his own house.”
He paused, letting that sink in. “Sons of Awens, my heart aches for the King. I am loath to suggest it, but I feel it is our duty to release him from his burden, allow him to heal, to recover and perhaps in time to return to us a whole man. We can give him peace of mind, but not if he is forced to dwell in the very place he suffered all these years.” He bowed his head. “I move to vote insanity against our beloved King.” He looked up. “It is the only right thing to do.” He slowly sat down, hoping he had made his case simple and hard to argue against and that he had not sounded like an idiot. The ruling house of Awens had been voted so many times. Something in the bloodline made for great kings, but also drove many of them insane.
Darren Hebard, the Dean of Healing and the man who had discovered the king was being poisoned, spoke. “My fellow councilors,” he said, leaning forward on his arms as he looked around the table, “I agree whole-heartedly with Sir Harold, but we must consider that Tharadon is only his nephew and son of the very woman who fell so low. I find it hard to think of making him king.”
“Actually,” Bishop Raylor said slowly, “Tharadon is our good King’s son. Many of us know this,” he said as he looked around. “There was concern, that as the only son, he would be a target, so the King’s sister claimed Tharadon as hers. I assure you he is the true Line of Awens.”
“The magics of Awens will confirm it so,” Harold said to confirm the bishop, as if it was a fact many knew.
“We all know she is his mother,” Councilor Dannish said. “Many of us watched him grow up under her. He is hardly a great leader. The man is barely here at all. He tramps off to go God only knows where, shows up to playboy about, and then is gone again.”
“If, and I stress if, Tharadon is the son of TyHannar, then the law is clear and good king or not, he is heir,” Duke Burrlow said carefully. The old Purtan remained leaning back in his chair, his finger tips pressed together before his chest. He looked over his glasses at the men he sat at the table with. “I would also point out to all of you that if he is not a good ruler and chooses to run about, it will leave the state of Awens to us to oversee. If he proves to be a good ruler and decides to grow up a bit, then we might well find that the state of things change a great deal. I, for one, have the suspicion that Tharadon is far more than we suspect.” He shifted to lean forward on the table. “Can you imagine if we had a True King? We alone have the rightful bloodline in power. Can you, for one moment, imagine the wealth of visitors alone if our halls lit up? Can you imagine having a warrior on the throne again? Make no mistake, our Prince is no fool and he knows how to make money. I would love to make him king just to see what he does.”
They sat back to think of it on the level of money.
“The magic of the halls is gone.” Raylor said sadly. “The line of Armond is dead and only the blessing of the Imperial Line can open the key to the Vaults of the Angels. On the other hand, I must also agree. If Tharadon is willing to stand up against her as he has done, then I must think he is ready to be king. TyHannar should be given a safe place to heal his soul. I would personally be honored to aid in his healing once the queen is brought before God.”
Harold almost cheered. No one dared argue with the Church, even if the bishop here was likely acting very much against the will of the church. He was pushing to make a sorcerer King of Awens. Harold coughed to hide his smile, just nodding in agreement.
“I would raise a point,” Grand Duke Garben Warshen said, leaning forward, talking slowly, his eyes full of thoughts. “I would remind you all that he vanished ten years ago. He returned to us a changed man and we all know it. He left a sniveling coward, always ill and weak as a kitten. He returned… changed. He has spent ten years carefully avoiding the queen as if he knew her evil, ever keeping out of her reach. I have seen it. I have watched him. He took my dear Cindie with him and lost her. He may dress a fool, but I do not think it so. He may pretend to not care; I do not believe that, either. I do not know where he went or what happened to change him so, but be cautious my kinsmen.” He looked around at them all. “He is a true Line of Awens and we alone hold our True Line yet. You ever ask why? He may have the pride and strength, as well as the foolishness to try and rebel against the Church as many other true lines have tried. We must be very careful to consider what having a warrior or a sorcerer line on the throne might mean. We make him king and our only hope is to back him up and pray to God the Pontiff’s wrath is not brought down on us.”
“Wrath?” Raylor asked shocked. “Tharadon is many things, but he holds to the Laws of the Angels. Why would the Holy Father find wrath against such a man?”
“He is a sorcerer,” Garben said very clearly. “Keep that in mind.”
The council was silent as the truth of that sank in. Spoken out in the open, it could not be denied.
“Need I remind you all that sorcery is not forbidden by the angels?” Harold spoke up, risking everything. “I too, am a sorcerer, and my training is why the bishop sits with us today. The Lines of Awens are sorcerers; that is what makes us different from the Purtan race. All of us born to this kingdom and race have it in us. Maybe the world needs to remember and see a good man with such claim. All too often it is the evil-hearted that show it.”
“I have to agree,” Raylor said slowly. “Not even the Banishments of the church worked, even with two of us. The evil would have taken us all and be set free without the good councilor’s powers.”
“The Church denounces sorcerers,” Warshen said.
“The law says abuse of said magic, its accumulation and seeking of it, is denounced,” Raylor said, “not the birthright or inborn power itself. It is true the race of Awens is different from the Purtan race. The angels said it was for the magic in them and their blessed choice to retain it. I cannot claim any wrong or evil in the councilor and not in the Prince. I would defend either.”
“I think perhaps we need to break and think a bit.” Warshen said. “This is a huge thing to be asked and to be part of. Haste may be costly.”
“I agree,” Baron Dollen said. “Three hours, let us part, eat and consider this carefully.”
“One,” Raylor said. “We need not talk of it outside this hall. In fact I insist we swear not to.”
There was a serious hesitation on the matter.
“I think it is important we make this decision,” Harold said. “I think we should stay until it is done. I must admit I would love to lie down and rest, but this is why we are lords and if we cannot do this, then we must not be needed or worthy of our place.”
“Agreed!” Gallor said. “Too many times too many of us ask the advice of those who have no place to give it. Stay we shall.”