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Aiden’s War – Chapter Three – The Broker

You can find Chapters 1-4 in the tab up top, Aiden’s War – http://jm-harrison.com/aidens-war

 

Chapter Three – the broker

They didn’t speak of it again, and Aiden tried to put it out of mind. He had other anticipations to look forward to. Knowing that his father didn’t want Krysta unceremoniously put out of the house gave him a measure of relief and another measure of courage to do something about it. He wondered why his parents didn’t just talk to one another. Maybe they had. He didn’t know.

He slept thinking of Jaelith, and finally crossing the rill to spend a few blissful hours with her, collecting blossoms. It didn’t even matter that he was expected to have Krysta along with him. He could keep an eye on her that way. He thought she might run off rather than face the prospect of being married to someone she didn’t care for or even know. The day held the promise of a dream come true and he finally drifted off with that in mind.

Morning came with all the usual noises. The birds announced the morning first, and then the bugs started droning, followed by the animals from the barn and further afield. The roosters gave it their full voice. Sleeping through all that wasn’t possible, even though he tried for a few moments until he woke up enough to remember. Continue reading

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King, Chapter 12

Chapter 1-11 are here:

http://jm-harrison.com/8-king-chronicle-8-sample-chapter/

~Chapter 12~

“He doesn’t want to see you, Dain,” Geneal said, while he paced in the tiny windowless room set up as the command center during Dynan’s visit to the Guild Hall. There were a few tables and chairs, a comterm and nothing else. The first Approachment was in the city, Keevin. The Guild Hall was situated at the end of a long promenade. The XR-30 was parked in the big plaza in front of the building. Dain had seen it on his way over to land at the port.

“He only thinks he doesn’t want to see me. He went through this alone the last time, Geneal. I’m not going to let that happen again. I know what he thinks I’m going to say. I’m not going to do that. I’m not even thinking it. Marc told me to come out here. I’m going to see my brother.”

“Maybe just this once, you should think about doing as you’re told.”

“Did he make it an order? Did he say you are under orders to stop me from seeing him? Did he?”

Her mouth drew into a line and she rolled her eyes. “No, he did not.”

“Then he didn’t mean it.”

“He said he didn’t want to see anyone from the Palace. Not anyone. He said it twice. We all knew that you’d come here. So did Dynan. He wants to deal with this when he gets back home. Right now, he just wants to get through this day. He’s out there right now, acting like this thing hasn’t happened. He’s being asked questions on everything else that has happened though. This wasn’t ever going to be easy to begin with. He’s injured, he only just got his hearing back and it isn’t all that good, and he’s sick from this drug on top of all of that. We take a break every hour for a few minutes. He comes in here and gets sick in the washroom. If I can’t get it under control, I’m sending him home. That’s why I want you to do what he says.”

Dain smiled after the long speech, surprising Geneal. “All right,” he said, noting the ensuing doubt in her eyes. “If that’s what he wants, that’s what I’ll do. I don’t think that’s what he really wants. I’ll be out on the XR-30. Yell if you need me.”

He stepped back into the hall, fully intending to do as he said when Gaden came through the opposite door. It led into the small parlor-sized room now used for the Approachment. It was a far more relaxed setting than any Dain remembered hearing about. Small groups were ushered in, served a small tea or water, and offered seats while they waited for the people in front to move along.

Dynan stood by a high-backed chair in such a way that he could use it to steady himself without looking like it. In his left hand, he held a comboard that he occasionally made notes to. At the moment, he was speaking to an older man, or rather listening to him deliver a long tirade about how nothing was better since his return, Dynan didn’t know what he was doing, and that he should let Ambrose have the crown.

The man looked out the door and saw Dain. “And that one is the worst of the lot of you. Your good father, the King, was the only one who could control him, or you for that matter.”

Dain cringed, expecting Dynan to turn around. His brother already knew that he was there. Had known it, so he didn’t look. Dain couldn’t entirely ignore the old man though, so he went in. “I just have one question for you, sir,” he said. “Do you think it’s possible for a man to change over the years?”

The old man hadn’t expected that question and didn’t know what to say. “I suppose, yes. I haven’t noticed that you’ve changed any.”

“I think if you look closer, you’ll see that a lot has changed since we’ve been gone, and us, too. My brother is doing what’s right, so that you have a chance for a better life. It hasn’t been easy and it isn’t going to be. We didn’t know that our father would be returned to us. We didn’t think that was possible, did you?”

“Well, no, I—”

“Of course you didn’t. He was gone all this time. Entombed in the Hall of Kings. Who would expect any man to return from death? We don’t know if he’ll be allowed to stay. We could be faced with going through all this again a year from now, or a month, or a week. I’m afraid we won’t be able to keep him here. We couldn’t be that lucky.”

The man frowned, but grudgingly agreed. “That would be too lucky. But my point stays the same. Your brother hasn’t done enough to change things here.”

“But he will. We haven’t been back that long, and not everything is as bad as it was. For instance, you wouldn’t likely get away with saying these sort of things about Kamien, now, would you?”

“No. No, you’re right about that.”

“The difference is we want to know what your problems are. We want to know where things aren’t going the way they should, so we can start to fix the problems. Start to. It isn’t going to happen overnight, but it will happen.”

“All right then,” the man said, and turned back to Dynan. “See that it does.”

Dynan smiled and nodded, assured the man that he would do his best, and turned to the next in line. These were a large family of farmers who only wanted to see him and make sure he was really all right. They told him that they thought he was doing just fine. Then they were gone, and all the doors closed for the break.

The moment he could, Dynan sank down into the chair, putting his he head down on his knees. Dain saw that he was shaking. He wondered if he might be able to make him feel better.

He set his hand on his shoulder, and Dain became aware of a crippling nausea that he fought to control. He concentrated, thinking the process backward, and felt himself weakening while Dynan received all that added strength.

Dynan jerked in surprise, realized what he was doing and stared at him. Dain smiled. “Did it work?”

He nodded, but turned from him, eyes lowering to the floor quickly. It was one of the few times Dain didn’t know what to say. It seemed like they were stumbling into dangerously fragile territory, and one misstep would cause irreparable damage. Silence grew.

“Is that old man’s attitude the kind of thing you’ve been dealing with all morning?” Dain asked finally.

“Mostly,” Dynan said softly as he leaned back in the chair. “The explanation takes too long, and they aren’t interested in hearing it. I quit trying about an hour ago.”

“Maybe if I stay by the door, they’ll do all their complaining to me instead.”

Dynan glanced at him, hesitated a moment before he nodded, a half smile appearing. “All right. Thanks.” Geneal came in, saw Dain and glared at him, but Dynan stopped her from complaining. “You know he never listens anyway.”

“I do, too.”

Dynan shook his head at him while Geneal went about her examination. “I feel better.”

“I see that. Think you can eat something?”

“No.”

“Not yet then. All right. I’m still seeing a trace in your system. Drink more water.”

“I have been.”

“How’s your hearing?”

“Not too good.”

“Trevan says he can run your receiver on a separate channel, boost what you’re hearing.”

“Tell him to go ahead. Not that I really want to hear what these people are saying, but it’ll help catch the compliments.”

Dynan looked to Kenon and nodded that he was ready. The doors were opened. The next group entered, followed by a steady stream of people. Dain greeted them all as they entered and encouraged them to tell him their problems. In general, they were in a better frame of mind when they reached Dynan.

As the day progressed, Dain began to wonder what was happening back at the Palace, a little surprised that he hadn’t heard. Dynan was thinking more and more about what he would be faced with as the time of their departure neared. The half-smile he’d kept all day for the public grew strained and finally disappeared. Dain edged over to stand next to him. They stayed an hour longer than originally planned to see all the rest of the people. Finally, the last group was ushered out the door.

The Guildmasters from the surrounding Regions wanted to see Dynan, though he was tired enough to find standing difficult. Dain didn’t think it was necessary or wise, but this too was a planned event and unavoidable. Dynan wasn’t exactly in any great hurry to get back home anyway.

Finally though, they were able to leave the Guild Hall and board the XR-30. Dain thought for a moment to go back to the ship he’d flown over, but changed his mind. He didn’t want to leave Dynan yet.

His brother turned immediately for his room as soon as they got onboard, but Dain took him by the arm and pulled him forward into the flight deck, protesting the entire time. Trevan Golyin was piloting. Dain had known him for most of his life, reading everything he’d ever written about engines and transference and any other topic the engineer had ever thought to publish. He knew every component of the XR-30. He knew how Dain intended to fly her, too.

Trevan hesitated, but hid a smile as he vacated the pilot’s seat. Kenon seemed less inclined to cooperate, but he too moved out of the way. Dain deposited Dynan into the co-pilot’s chair, turning to the guard.

“Go tell everyone to get secured, and get someone to fly that X38 back home for me.” Kenon acknowledged that request with a barely disguised frown, but he went to do as he was told. “I don’t think he likes me too much.”

“I wonder why.”

Dain shrugged and frowned down at the new control systems he’d only seen once before. Dynan watched him. “What?”

“I don’t think this is such a good idea.”

“I’ll figure it out. Besides, we’ve got some time to make up if we’re going to get you back for dinner.”

“I don’t…No, Dain. Please. I just want to get some sleep.”

“Not enough time, and it’ll only make you more tired than you already are if you try.” The nose of the XR-30 lifted up and they rose above the Guild Hall quickly. Dain turned the ship sharper than was necessary, arcing around just before taking the engines to full power. “This thing has a bad shimmy it didn’t used to have,” he called through the shuddering ascent. “Have to get Trevan to fix that.”

“It’s not the ship,” Dynan said as they pulled away from the planet and the ride smoothed considerably. He leaned back in his seat. His smile vanished quickly though.

For a moment, Dain hesitated to say what he’d come out here to say, hoping to give his brother the one thing he hadn’t managed all those years ago. Unconditional support.  “When Loren finds out what really happened, Dynan, she’ll—”

“No, she won’t,” he said so quietly that Dain almost couldn’t hear him. “I never should have…”

A long silence filled the deck, broken only by the hum and chirp of controls as Dain set the coordinates for Cobalt. “You trust people. You always have. Somehow, you’ve managed to keep that ability through all this. I can’t. I don’t trust anyone any more.”

“You never trusted Liselle.”

He shook his head. “I was wrong. Okay, just don’t say anything until I’m finished, all right? Yes, I was wrong. I hated Liselle because I didn’t want her to take you away from me. That was wrong. I went to Pop. That was wrong. I helped make you believe she never cared about you, and Liselle found out about it. That was the worst one. All those wrong things piled up and what we get for it is what happened last night. My lack of trust for her comes from all those wrongs that drove her to do what she did then, and made her want to get even now.”

“You think Loren will ever understand?”

“I know she will. She’s a trusting sort of person too, and she trusts that you would never willingly do anything to hurt her.”

Dynan shook his head. “I never should have gone into her room.”

Dain didn’t say anything to that since that was one of his first thoughts. Dynan glanced at him. “Well, you got me on that one.” He bit back a smile as he powered the engines to full. “You ready to go home?”

Dynan smirked at him darkly, but he nodded. He didn’t look like he was ready. Dain wondered if he’d make it through the evening.

~*~

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King, Chapter 11

King Chapters 1-10 are here:

http://jm-harrison.com/8-king-chronicle-8-sample-chapter/

~Chapter 11~

Liselle waited until the guards were gone, ignoring their obvious reluctance at leaving Dynan alone with her, and went to a panel in the wall of the rooms she had taken in the Guest Wing of the Palace. It was a nice suite, with light wood paneling covering the walls. Everything else was a variant of a shade of red, ranging from pale pink to deep burgundy. It smelled of roses, the more pungent red variety, wafting from a vase of them that stood in front of a giant mirror on a big wood stand.

Dynan watched while Liselle slid her fingers along an intricately carved frame. She paused a moment at a leaf and pushed on it. The panel clicked and slid back out of the way. He had to wonder how she’d found out about it. He supposed the whole building was full of these passages. He knew about some of them.

Loren appeared in the opening and stepped into the room.  He couldn’t quite believe he was going to go through with this crazy scheme of theirs, but outside a moderate risk, he thought it would work.

His wife rushed over to him and wrapped her arms around him. Despite what they were about to do, the incredible risk they were about to take, he felt tension leave him. She was a little dusty from her journey through the inner passageways and secret corridors of the Palace. A few cobwebs clung to her gown. Liselle smiled at them both and then produced a small bottle that held a clear fluid.

“She handed it right over.”

“At the Ball?” Dynan asked, a little unnerved that the sort of substance Liselle held could be traded around so easily without anyone noticing. She’d gotten it, the drug fenoridan, from Juleta Gurrell, who’d gotten it from Alvuen.

“Yes, just before that beautiful presentation.”

Loren turned to Liselle. “Are you sure you want to go through with this? It isn’t too late. We can—”

“I’m certain,” Liselle said. “We’ve been over this before.”

“It’s such a risk for you.”

“The consequences for me aren’t that great. The only risk is to my reputation. That was ruined a long time ago. Eventually, those people who need to know the truth will discover my part in this. Dynan, I really want to be there when you explain all this to Dain.”

He laughed. “I’ll see what I can do, but he’ll likely find out sooner than we want. Marc, too.” He nodded to the comboard Liselle had. “What does it say I’m going to feel like tomorrow?”

“Not very good,” she said with some reluctance. “Maybe even worse than the last time you took this.”

He remembered that well enough, but still wasn’t comfortable talking about it, and really hoped she would refrain. He took the comboard from her and frowned after he’d read about the side effects. Fenoridan was an illegal substance on Cobalt, but not on Yomir. It was used by those fringes of society who didn’t care what sort of chemicals they put in their bodies, desiring the moment of pleasure over the realities of life. Maybe they couldn’t find happiness any other way. He didn’t know. The purpose of the drug was to enhance beyond the point of resistance certain carnal pleasures. Dynan smiled at that, wondering just what sort of night he and Loren were going to have.

The point was to have everyone think he’d been with Liselle. It was Alvuen’s idea, having prior knowledge of his relationship with Liselle, and a means for her to find a way to drive he and Loren apart. Alvuen had suggested the use of the drug after Liselle managed to convince her of a long-standing and deep-seated hatred for him. Really, Liselle was only being nice all this time, or so she explained to Alvuen, just so she could get even. Dynan was infinitely grateful to have someone equally as cunning as Alexia’s First Lady on his side.

Still, he wasn’t going to feel good at all by morning, but he thought he could manage it for the reward. He had to get Alexia to believe that marriage to Loren wasn’t an option. He had to get her to back off forcing an announcement of their agreement before his coronation, or there wouldn’t be one. If this didn’t do it, then nothing would. He nodded at the comboard and handed it back. “Do you know how much?”

Liselle nodded. “Yes. It’s very strong, so I’m not going to give you as much as they say.” While she spoke, she moved to the sideboard and fixed three drinks. She brought out a dosage meter, poured the liquid from the vial into it, and pressed a few controls. It went into Dynan’s drink next. She brought the glass over, and handed it to him, a slight smile lighting her eyes. “Don’t drink this all in one gulp. Slowly. It works fast, so the two of you should probably head back.” She nodded to her bedchambers, handing Loren a drink of her own. Liselle raised her glass, clinking it against Loren’s. “Have a good time.”

Loren responded with a slight laugh, and hugged Liselle. “You are a dear friend, and a remarkable woman. Thank you.”

Liselle whispered something that Dynan couldn’t hear, and Loren giggled. He sipped his drink, and felt a little dizzy. The drink tasted different than Corrigan, but it was good. He took a larger swallow and felt something else. The girls were still whispering. He cleared his throat, and took another drink. He thought he could see Loren without anything on.

“Loren,” he said and went to her. He was instantly overcome by a desire to kiss her, far more intense an emotion than he’d experienced before, and was convinced if he didn’t, he wouldn’t survive it.

“I think it’s working,” Liselle said.

“It’s working,” he said and picked Loren up. He kicked the door closed behind them and got her onto the bed.

He heard her laughing, while he pulled at her clothes. “I’ll say it’s working.”

 ***

Marc blinked as he woke, wondering what could have so abruptly disturbed him, and then he knew. Startled by the intensity of emotion, he thought at first that it was Dain Ardin, until Marc saw him asleep on the couch. It wasn’t the other Dain either, leaving only Dynan. Marc grunted at that, wondering how he’d managed it with Loren ensconced with Marella, then grumbled under his breath because he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. With Shalis curled up next to him that turned to an impossibility.

He shook his head as he settled next to her, and spent a large portion of the night blocking Dynan without a great deal of success.

 ***

Dain leaned back into the pillows, drawing a glance from Bronwyn as she got the last of her clothes off, acutely aware of Dain Ardin’s activities. He thought for a moment to try and stop him, realizing the next instant that it was too late. There was an intensity there that was difficult to block out, the overwhelming desire that made sense coming from a man who hadn’t been with a woman in two years. He understood it, but didn’t want to believe it was happening.

He watched Bronwyn while she sat at the little table that held a few of her things, her hair clips, a few pieces of jewelry, the silver hairbrush he’d given to her. He watched while she took her hair down, running her fingers through the curls to straighten them. He couldn’t escape the sense that he was going to lose her because of his other half. Dain Ardin didn’t care about her the same way, if at all, and when they were finally joined, Dain feared that what he felt wouldn’t survive.

“Dain?”

He shook his head as she slipped into bed beside him. She knew something was wrong, but he didn’t know if he could explain. He was tired of so many people who found it amusing that he didn’t want to be with anyone else. He didn’t have anyone to blame for that but himself.

“Would you promise me something,” he said, pulling her into his arms. “When I’m all put back together, will you give this new version of me the chance to figure out what’s important? Please? I might be able to stand going through this if I know you’ll still be here. Please, Bronwyn?”

“Dain, I love you. I loved you once before when you were all the same man. I’m not going to let you go. Dain Ardin isn’t the same as you now though, and I don’t want you two fighting about this. Oh, I know all that business downstairs was just for show, but I know that you mean some of it. I’m not going to feel like you’ve been unfaithful, because to me you haven’t been.”

“But I will.” He closed his eyes against that certainty. “I just wanted to do something right this time. I don’t want to be with someone else.”

“It’s too late now, isn’t it?” When he nodded, her arms tightened around him. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything at all. I didn’t realize…I’m sorry, Dain.”

He shook his head. “Eventually he would have, with or without your approval.”

“Well, he was in a cell for two years. I was thinking that’s a lot to ask of any man who’s been through something like that. You were there for most of it. You know.”

“I suppose.”

“If you’re worried he might not feel the same way toward me, and the part that does is somehow ignored or over-powered, maybe I should spend more time with him instead.”

He stared at her before he realized she wasn’t serious. “No.”

“It would solve the infidelity problem, don’t you think?”

“No. You sound just like him.”

“He’s already suggested it? That’s a good sign then.” She laughed at him. “I promise you, Dain Telaerin, that no matter what happens, I’ll stay with you. I’ll wait too, and I’ll be here.” She traced a line down his chest, stopping above his heart. “Right here.”

He smiled when she kissed him, feeling the warmth of her skin next to his. She pulled him to her, and in a few short minutes, made him forget all about Dain Ardin.

 

When he woke, late the next morning, he heard Bronwyn out in the hall talking to Loren. By the tone of their voices, he could tell that something was wrong and they didn’t want him to hear about it. “…mean, vicious talk and I don’t want Dain to find out the way I did. I know how he’ll react to this.”

“Yes, you’re right. Anything to do with Liselle sets him on edge.”

“This will do it. But it’s just talk, Bronwyn. You’ve got to convince him of that.”

“I will. Don’t worry, Loren.”

“I’m not really. I just don’t want Dain upset by it. He’s had enough of that lately. I have to go. Marella would like you to come up for luncheon and bring Garan.”

“I’ll be there.”

Their voices receded and Dain frowned darkly over what he’d heard. Trouble with Liselle. He wasn’t at all surprised by that, having expected something to happen before now.

“Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse,” he said, groaning as he pushed out of bed and started dressing. “I hope someone has given some thought to what Marc’s reaction is going to be.” He straightened, shook his head, and hurried his pace. He met Bronwyn in the hall while he fastened his jacket, startling her. “Good morning,” he said, smiling as he picked up a biscuit from the tray of food she had nearly let go of.

“Where—”

“I have to go check on Marc.” He took a sweet roll and started eating. He took a glass of juice too, making her laugh.

“You can’t sit and eat this?”

“Better not. You never know what might set him off.” He cocked an eyebrow at her and started down the hall.

“Dain,” she called after him, and started to follow.

“Don’t worry, Bronwyn. I won’t be the one to do it, no matter what it is.” He smiled back at her and headed out the door.

Avry met him in the hall. Dain thought the guard knew something, but he didn’t wait for the explanation. He wanted to get to Marc, make sure he didn’t know, and then Dain would find out what was going on. He discovered that Marc was asleep, but Dain Ardin started up from the couch, blinking at him as he woke.

“What is it?”

Dain didn’t want to talk to him and he didn’t want to wake Marc, so he turned around and left. He heard Shalis talking to Loren and nearly the same conversation repeated, only this time, Loren was worried about Marc. For her to do this, go from one to the other, made Dain start to really worry. They came around the corner together, still talking quietly.

Shalis smiled easily though. “You’re awake. Good. I brought your breakfast.”

Dain Ardin came out behind him then, and Shalis blinked, obviously mistaking him for the other. Dain frowned. “You were here last night?” he asked Dain Ardin.

“Yes.”

“All night?”

“Yes, Dain. Where’d you think I’d go?”

“What happened to Reisha?”

“I told you before that I wouldn’t.”

“If it wasn’t you or Marc—” Dain froze where he was, realizing that it had been Dynan. Except at the time it hadn’t seemed like him, which was why he’d thought it was Dain Ardin. He thought about what Loren had said, of the talk going around, something to do with Liselle, and he knew. He closed his eyes in complete disbelief, but when he looked at Loren, he saw that she understood the implications. Her whole face changed. Instead of the gossip and talk she’d been trying to temper, she was suddenly faced with a different reality.

“What are you saying?” she whispered.

Shalis started to shake her head. “No, Loren, they aren’t talking about Dynan. They mean each other.”

“Except they can tell. They know, and Dain just said that it wasn’t Marc or Dain Ardin. There’s only one other person it could have been. That means…it’s true. Everything I’ve heard.” Her expression changed again, reflecting a harsher truth. She had trusted Liselle. Worse, she had believed Dynan when he told her that nothing like this could ever happen. “I have to go.”

“Loren, this can’t be right,” Shalis said, moving after her. She turned back, handed Dain the tray of food and turned right back around after Loren.

Dain turned to his brother. “What has he done?”

“Made a big mess of things. Again.”

“He was with Liselle. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe he’d be so…”

“Stupid.”

Dain shook his head then. “He wouldn’t have done this. There’s something more to this. I know it.”

“Maybe you just don’t want to believe he wouldn’t have, Dain.”

“No.” He frowned over it a moment. “What about Marc?”

“I don’t think we should tell him. Not yet.”

“Don’t tell me what?” Marc asked from the doorway. “If you’re trying to keep a secret, you’re being a little too loud.”

They heard Ralion coming back and moved to the study to meet him. Marc took the food tray from Dain and set it on his desk. Loren had already gone. “…I’m sorry Shalis,” Ralion said. “It’s all over the Palace. He’s going to hear it. Dynan was drugged. This is a little more than—” Ralion stopped when he saw them.

“Where’s Liselle?” Dain asked.

“She’s gone,” Ralion said. “She left right after Dynan. She said he was sending her to the Beach Manor, which under the circumstances I thought we faced then, seemed like a fairly logical choice. She’s not there.”

“I’ll find her,” Dain said, but Marc stopped him.

“I’ll deal with Liselle. I want you to get to Dynan.”

Ralion started shaking his head. “Dain Ardin was supposed to go with him, but Dynan said he didn’t want either of them there.”

“And under the circumstances you thought we faced that seemed like a good idea?” Dain said. “What circumstances?”

“I didn’t know he’d been drugged until after he was gone. Geneal just called back a few minutes ago.”

“Shalis,” Marc said, interrupting them. “Go stay with Loren. No one admits to any of this. It’s a rumor. You don’t believe it. Dain, you’re going anyway. Is Avry on guard with you?”

“Yes.”

“I’m keeping him here. I’m going to need him. I don’t want anyone thinking you’re going after him after the fact though, because of all this. Can you get out without anyone seeing you?” Marc smiled when Dain raised an eyebrow at him. “All right. Everything is normal. No reaction, and we might be able to keep a lid on this. Go on, Shalis.” He waited until she’d left before continuing. “We can turn this to our advantage or not depending on how we react. What drug, Ralion?”

“Fenoridan. It’s a drug that causes, uh, hyperarousal, Marc. The kind that can’t be resisted. It’s very strong, and sometimes lethal. Above all, it’s illegal. It’s also imported. The plant this stuff comes from doesn’t grow here.”

“It comes from Yomir though, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. Suma as well.”

“My guess would be Alexia, and not Trayanna on this one. How did Liselle get out of the Palace? Transport? Carriage?”

“Transfer. We’ve tracked it out of Rianamar heading for Distalt, but there are a about thirteen towns along the way, not to mention different roads she could have taken.”

“Where is Juleta Gurrell?”

That question surprised Ralion and he had to think a moment before answering. Juleta, it seemed had departed with her parents after the Ball. Marc frowned, his eyes narrowing in thought. He moved to a companel and mashed a few keys, studying the screen that came up.

“What does Juleta Gurrell have to do with any of this?” Dain Ardin asked.

“Ralion, tell Avry to take a transport and go to the Gurrells. See if Juleta is there and if Liselle is with her.” Dain turned for his bedroom to go change. Marc stopped him again. “I don’t want you to tell Dynan anything until we know for certain who is involved. This could be exactly the proof we need against Alexia. Juleta is connected to her. She’s been spying on us.”

“What?”

“I’ve heard her name mentioned once too often, and I just looked in her file. Two years ago, she went to Yomir and stayed there nearly a year and a half. I saw her with Alvuen and Liselle last night. She’s connected.”

“Garan saw them together too,” Dain Ardin said and Dain looked at him in surprise. “He was afraid to tell you because he was already in enough trouble for getting caught in the Arbor. Maralt showed up not long after.”

Marc frowned for a moment. He thought suddenly that he understood what about Alvuen set him on edge. She wasn’t shielded either. He decided quickly to keep that thought to himself, at least until he could get to her. He knew he could find out if his suspicions were right, but he’d have to be careful doing it. These two would not be quite or careful about it. He nodded to Dain to go on.

“Stay with him. Keep him on his feet. If he falls apart during this first Approachment, word of that will spread all over the System. If it gets out, he could lose the crown over this, just like he lost it seven years ago. Guess who’s here to take his place.”

“Father,” Dain Ardin said.

“That’s right.”

“It’s already gotten out,” Ralion said. “His guard spent the night outside her door. Everyone knows he was with her.”

“Everyone knows that his guard stayed the night at her door, but no one knows what happened inside her rooms. No one should know anyway. I doubt that Dynan marched out this morning and announced he’d been in bed with her.”

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Dain said. “What was he doing in her rooms to begin with?”

“This was planned, Dain. As quickly as this has gotten around, there’s no other way. Alexia is behind it, I’m certain. She got Liselle to help her out. The sole purpose is to drive Loren and Dynan apart. Alexia may well have succeeded where we failed in this game of appearances. He won’t ever forgive himself for this. She might not either. Alexia has no other impediments to getting her daughter crowned Queen.”

“How do you think you’re going to change that?” Dain Ardin asked.

“I’m still working on that part. We have to deal with public perception first, and to do that, we have to get Liselle back here and in the public eye.”

“Why?” Dain asked.

“So we can discount the story that she was sent away to hide this, which is what everyone is thinking right now. We treat this as more a mistake of propriety, not some horrendous sin. They stayed up all night talking. Who’s her maid?”

“A girl named Adel,” Ralion said. “She’s been heard saying that they were in bed together.”

“By who?”

“I don’t know, Marc, but that’s all over the Palace, too.”

“Then I need to talk to her as well. Let’s move. Ralion, I’ll be down in a minute. Ask Bronwyn to check in on my folks. Tell them I won’t be there for breakfast.”

Dain started shaking his head on the way to his dressing room, thinking of what Dynan was going through right now. “You know,” Dain Ardin said, following him. “He could react badly to having either of us around.”

“But me especially.”

“No, that’s not—”

“It’s true. He could, but I’m not going to say that I told him so.” He changed into an Exile Base uniform.

“That’s what he’ll think though. How are you getting out?”

“Balcony drain tunnel, over the wall, and over to Port for a ship. I’ll let you know when I get there.”

“Be careful. Marc didn’t say it, but I bet Maralt is involved, or will be.”

“Probably. I’ll be fine. Keep an eye on Marc.”

“He seems to be taking it well enough.”

“You never know when that’ll change,” Dain said.

“Last night, did it seem to you like he was waiting for something?”

“Yes, it did.”

“He didn’t sleep well either,” Dain Ardin said.

“He should have known,” Dain said. “I should have known. I really thought it was you. It felt different.”

“Well it wasn’t me, and I’m not too happy about it, so don’t thank me for it.”

“Then I’ll say I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For doubting you.” Dain smiled a little. “I should have known that too, that you wouldn’t break your word.” Dain Ardin nodded. He still didn’t like it much, and that was understandable. “I’m ready.”

“I’ll see you tonight.”

Dain Ardin left him, and Dain turned for the hall outside Dynan’s bedroom. Lin was already out in the apartment doing his usual chores. Dain found the attic access panel, opened it and pulled himself up without a single soul witnessing it. The old drain tunnel gave him a few bad moments being dark and narrow, but he was out of it quickly enough. The west orchard provided an easy climb over the wall, into the village, and the walk over to Port landing was pleasant enough. The day was fine, clear and crisp, though still quite cold. The warmth of spring remained a phantom. There were few blades of new green against the white mounds that still covered the ground.

The Landing Port was busy, but the Captain’s office was empty. Dain helped himself to the log of available ships, groaning a little when he saw that the only one was a midrange X38. Those ships had a history of not being the most reliable and the way maintenance schedules hadn’t been kept, he thought the trip might be more difficult than he wanted to deal with.  He turned to go to the designated landing bay when the Captain returned. Dain watched his expression change, covering a brief flash of something near dread at having him in his office. “Your Highness. This is a surprise. May I help you?”

“I’m borrowing this X38 midrange for the day, maybe longer. Is it ready?”

“I…yes, it should be. I’ll need your flight plan…No?”

Dain smiled and shook his head. “You didn’t see me here either. I’ll bring it back in one piece. Hopefully. Thank you, Captain.”

“Always a pleasure, Your Highness.”

A few minutes later, Dain was on board, and on his way to Arel and the first Approachment.

***

Marc frowned as he paused on the main stair landing. He’d expected to hear from Alexia by now, but it was still early enough that the Queen might only be hearing the news. It seemed that the entire Palace was operating sluggishly this morning after a long night of festivities. Servants and guards looked at him warily, likely expecting some new disaster from him. He heard the uneasy whispers stop as he neared, saw the side-glances, and too many worried faces watching him. That the news of Dynan’s tryst with Liselle had spread to every occupant inside couldn’t be doubted.

He smiled at Ralion. “This ought to be an interesting day.”

“Should be.” Ralion smiled back at him, only barely managing to look like he meant it. “You’re taking this a lot better than I expected.”

“Not really. I need to talk to Loren first. Then Liselle’s maid.”

“I wonder why Liselle didn’t take her.”

“So she could spread the word,” Marc said. “I’ll be down in a few. I’m talking to Drake about scheduling if anyone wants to know.”

“Right.”

Marc sent a messenger to inform the King of his arrival, including his supposed reasons. Of course, it was a ruse that wouldn’t work on most everyone, at least not now. Later, after he’d gotten a handle on all the talk going around, he hoped it would. Drake was awake and ready to see him. Marella was with him and they both knew.

“You’ve heard,” he said when they were alone.

Marella didn’t respond, turning from him, but Drake nodded. “Yes.”

“May I ask who told you?”

Drake didn’t want to answer, but he did. It was the same thing Marc had heard all morning. Drake’s servant told him. The servant heard it in the kitchens. It could just as easily have been the laundry room, or on the stair.

“Do you believe it?” Marc asked, seeing easily enough that they did. “I’m just trying to get an idea of what sort of damage control I’m faced with. Considering that you would be more forgiving, your reactions are a good gauge.”

“I didn’t want to,” Drake said, glancing at Marella uneasily.

“What do you think happened?”

The Queen started at that. Marc could see that she was angry. “What I think is that Dynan will never learn,” she said. “I can’t believe he was so stupid to trust that woman again. He told her everything, Marc. What little hope that existed is now gone. He can’t avoid this marriage now if he really ever thought he could. And yes, I’m angry that he’s allowed this to happen. He had no business going into her rooms at all. He should have remembered that. He forgets too easily that there are others at risk. His actions speak of carelessness.”

Marc nodded, unable to refute a single thing she said. “I need to talk to Loren.”

“She’s asked that she not be disturbed.”

“I need to talk to her anyway. I also need to ask that no matter what you really think of Dynan at this point, you keep it to yourself. The less said about it the better, unless you don’t care anymore if he’s crowned. We do have Ambrose to step in for us, don’t we?”

Drake turned to him. “Are you suggesting this is somehow involved with the weakening and you?”

“Everything that happens here does so for a reason. Figuring out whose reason is the hard part. I’ll keep you informed as I find out.”

Marella didn’t seem to hear him, or chose not to acknowledge that ulterior motives abounded in this situation. Drake hesitated. “Loren is in her room.”

Marc left them to ponder the predicament, and found Loren as promised in her latest home. Her new location in the guest wing held promise of complications. She was less protected from Alexia’s reach, the consequences for which they were quickly discovering.

Loren hadn’t expected him, and abruptly stopped pacing. Her maid, Lyeda, bowed nervously to him, and left them alone when he nodded her out the door. Loren recovered her composure, but turned from him. Marc frowned, feeling from her a mixture of emotions, but not the ones he expected. Fear drowned out everything else, and he was surprised, and then confused, to discover that her fear was for Dynan. Instead of anger, or betrayal, she was afraid for him. That in turn, didn’t fit her expression. In her face, he saw the devastation he expected to feel.

“Stop staring at me.”

“Sorry.”

She turned to face him. “I don’t want to talk about this, Marc.”

“I just wanted to see if you were all right.”

She shook her head and moved back to the window. “I wish I’d never met him. I wish I’d never come here. That should tell you how all right I am.”

Marc frowned again, still confused by the disparity of words to feeling. She was saying these things, but didn’t mean any of it. “I have to ask you to do something.”

She laughed caustically. “It didn’t happen, right? You’re all busy running around trying to keep it all quiet. A little late for that, don’t you think?”

“A little. Yes, that’s what I’m doing, Loren. It comes with the job. I’m not ecstatic about it, but I have to try and keep this contained. The last time this happened wasn’t all that long ago, and people remember. With Ambrose here, it makes things just a little more complicated.”

He thought he saw her eyes widen, as though in sudden realization that Dynan could lose the Throne, but it was hidden quickly under lowered eyes that avoided his. “I’ll do my best to pretend that nothing is wrong. I doubt I’ll be out much today anyway.”

Marc nodded absently. “You made an impression last night.”

“Like that matters now,” she said and sat, looking on the verge of tears.

“That’s the point. You did. Alexia wasn’t happy with the attention Dynan paid you. I’m not a big believer in coincidence anymore.”

“You think that Alexia had something to do with Dynan being in Liselle’s bed?” She shook her head in apparent disbelief.

“He was drugged. It’s a small miracle that Dynan woke up from it at all. This stuff is lethal if misused and it was last night.”

He saw her hands shaking then, followed by another wave of fear that was coupled with a sense of loathing, this time for herself. Marc wondered why she would feel that way, but for the first time, didn’t think he should ask. He was afraid of the answer. “Can you tell me about Adel?”

“Liselle’s maid?” Loren shrugged, the paleness of her face growing. “She went through all the normal security screenings. She’s a nice girl. I trust her. Why do you ask? She’s not involved with this. She’s just a maid.”

“She’s been talking, or it’s being said that she’s been talking.”

“She’s been heard talking? How?”

“Rumor has it that she’s been talking about seeing Dynan…seeing him with Liselle.”

Loren confused him again when she smiled tightly. “She can’t talk, Marc. She’s mute.”

“Mute?”

“Her tongue was cut out. One of Maralt’s men did it. She uses a comboard to communicate.”

“But she can’t talk at all?”

“No.”

Adel couldn’t speak to be heard. He wondered how many people knew that, then answered himself. Not many if they were saying Adel told them. “Well that’s another rumor I can dispel without too much trouble. Good. Not that she’s mute, I mean.”

Loren glanced at him, but then stared down into her hands. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Do? I think you’ll find that Dynan is only guilty of stupidity. Crime enough. He trusted Liselle, gave her a second chance and this is the reward. We’re all guilty of that. But all anyone is saying now is that he should have known better.”

“He should have,” Loren said, but her voice was strained. She turned from him when he looked at her.

“I doubt he was a willing participant in this, Loren. You ought to remember what that feels like.”

An instant flood of tears followed, but he didn’t think she was crying for the right reasons. He wanted to doubt what he felt, but couldn’t.

“I’ll talk to you later,” he said after a moment, thinking that not one of them would survive any more complications. The sound of her weeping followed him and left him frowning inwardly the entire trip to his office. A messenger from Alexia was waiting for him. She wanted to see him.

Marc glanced at Ralion who stood waiting with the Queen’s messenger, the depth of this disaster plainly visible in his face. Marc nodded as a chill crept up his spine. He turned around, retracing his steps to the Queen’s quarters.

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