The Jhen of Winter, Chapter Three

Chapter Three

The driver made good his haste, or perhaps her long days of anxious waiting in her son’s cell compressed all other time into imperceptible distances. Either way, she arrived sooner than she’d dared hope, too soon to collect her thoughts.
When the carriage had come to rest, she made to open the door but found it already opened. Blinking back the stormlight, she almost missed a silhouette’s outreached arm proffered to help her to the door.  The silhouette had a voice, as well. “My lady—you are out of jail?”
The Steward of the embassy’s face, when she finally met it, betrayed sympathetic concern and amusement.  “Theriv—hello.”
The bear-built man before her smiled and helped her from the carriage. “Hello to you, my lady. I’ve already started your tea, and the ambassador is eager to hear your news when she has finished with entreaties. Perhaps something for your headache, as well.”
Maryth knew she’d made no sign of the pain still throbbing within her skull, and though she’d long ago understood Theriv possessed a strange gift of foreseeing, still she could not easily quell her surprise. “Thank you, Theriv. I—it’s been awhile since I’ve bathed.”
Theriv laughed gently. “It’s just heated.”

She was soon in warmth, ushered almost unseeing into the great iron tub dappled with floating blossoms of ryn, jasmine, nera and rose.  She let the fear and rage slough off her hair and skin into the water, soaked in the scents of the flowers, and tried, for at least now, not to think.
At this, she failed, though floating here she could at least dull the edge of each unaddressed terror, lending each a second edge of hope.  Her son had survived his wounds, had at least woken long enough for her to speak to him. He would survive the Examination, she knew, and he might even resist the interrogation—he was, after all, as stubborn as she.
Maryth had feared she might return to an occupied embassy, Templars, Enforcers and Wyrdwrights thronging the diplomatic manse, Eleth’s Council status revoked earlier than she’d planned. But she was here, bathing in anxious peace, safe for now.
And though the Queen had swiftly dispatched her fleet to Thalyrest to quell the revolt, their presence not only boded imminent violence, but suggested, perhaps to the Commons of other cities as well as to Thalyrest, that open revolt frightened the Council and the Queen. The revolt might spread to other Council lands, mayhaps even to Isyl—

Maryth sighed, noting, by the cooling of the water, that she’d managed an hour of quieter thoughts. Something akin to hope filled her, quickened her soul, and she silently thanked the ryn and nera blossoms for their gift.
Dried, dressed, and much more steady than before, Maryth descended the grand stairwell from her chambers to the great hall, where in less fraught times the ambassador would host evening banquets for the notables of the city.  She doubted that Aunya, despite her incorrigible daring, had attempted any such thing this past week.  Eleth had friends, yes, but none so suicidal to be seen publicly endorsing the Queen’s—and now obstensibly the Justicar’s—disfavored Council Lands.
It mattered little. Maryth could always rely upon Aren, ruled by her foster son and advised by her most trusted friend.  Together, their two lands comprised almost a third of the Accord, and the rulers of both lands had done much to earn the loyalty of their people.  Still—no one except the Queen of Isyl really wanted war.
Maryth crossed the great hall to the ambassador’s bureau, paused to clear her thoughts, and then let fall twice the brass knocker upon the massive door and then opened it.
As if she had not heard Maryth’s warning, Aunya looked up from her desk, startled, and then let drop a letter from her right hand upon the cluttered surface.  Her face was slightly flushed, and from the ambassador’s expression Maryth reasoned the letter had been either quite funny or very annoying.  Aunya stood from the desk as Maryth closed the door behind her, and before Maryth had turned back, Aunya had already reached her, taking the herd hands in hers before embracing her. 
They lingered near the door briefly, saying nothing, until Aunya took Maryth’s arm and led her to the sofa.  “So he’s awake, mother?  What did he say?”
Maryth sighed and beheld her daughter’s eyes.  “He thinks he will be found innocent.  I didn’t expect much more.”
Aunya shook her head.  “Of course not.  Damn fool, though I know you’d rather not hear me say it.”
Maryth smiled sadly.  Her daughter could feel all the anger that Maryth refused for herself, but unlike her mother, Aunya could give that anger words. “I had only time to warn him, and maybe—“
Theriv had already lain out tea for the two of them, and as Aunya poured for both of them, she changed the subject away from her brother towards a different matter.  “Are you too tired to hazard a guess as to which foul suitor has proposed marriage to your daughter today?”
Maryth’s eyes furrowed a bit, and then she shrugged.  “If it was Galn, I will raze his lands myself.”
Aunya, stirring in powdered urda to sweeten the tea, laughed bitterly.  “If only.  Would you like to read it?”
Maryth said she did not, but Aunya stood up, walked to the desk, calling behind her. “I’ll show you the seal, at least.”  She seemed to contemplate the letter again herself before turning back to where her mother sat.
Maryth stared at the seal, open-mouthed, understanding finally her daughter’s melodramatic presentation.  The thin, curve-then-angle-then-curve mandala, glowing faintly with its own light—the Queen’s wyrdscripting.  Maryth groaned.  “She killed his parents and now wants him to be her spy?”
Sitting down on again, Aunya blew lightly against the surface of the tea, sipped lightly, then placed it back upon the saucer. “No, no.  Not Garen, mother.  If it were him, I’d accept out of pity, since she expects to have him killed by the end of the year, I’ve heard.  But he delivered it here, anyway.”
Maryth had not yet touched her tea.  “Then who?  The Queen has no more living relatives beyond him.  Some petty noble she wishes to favor?”
Completely aghast, Maryth stared at her daughter.  Her throat caught, her breath unsteady, her teeth and tongue unmoving.  She felt she had forgotten how to speak, how to direct air into sound, to shape it into words. 
Aunya lifted the cup to her mouth again, watching her mother’s horror with an expression which typically meant sympathy.  She sipped again, as if pulling from the hot liquid time itself, holding them both there in that moment to savour together the absurdity of the world. 
Finally, Maryth managed a sound, something between a croak and a gasp. 
“I know,” Aunya nodded, suddenly gulping her tea.  “I don’t know what to make of it, except as a prelude to war.”  No irony edged her voice.
Maryth sighed, considering for the first time her own cup, giving it attention in lieu of Eleth’s threatened borders.  Everything the Queen did was a prelude to some war or another.   Though she had her own guesses, she gave words to the question in her head.  “What is she doing?”
Aunya began pouring a second cup for herself as she answered.  “Insulting me, for one.  Offering us a way out of total war, secondly.  And most importantly, ruining my day.”  Abruptly she stood from the couch, staring from this higher vantage at the mess of papers upon her desk before selecting a second letter. 
Maryth watched her while fighting the urge to curse the last week she had spent waiting for her son to awaken in the Justicar’s prison rather than facing the crushing inevitability of Eleth’s end.  Then, suddenly remembering herself, Maryth took her first drink of the tea.  It was almost painfully strong, though not so bitter that it needed cream. 
“Is this from Janyr?” Maryth asked. 
Sitting back down again, Aunya assented.  “Daurun brought it yesterday, but apparently forgot his rynwood oil and is all out of sorts.”
Maryth almost dropped her tea.  “Daurun’s in Thalyrest again?” 
Aunya nodded, either oblivious to her mother’s quickened voice or ignoring it completely.  “Duke Hyren sent him back after a certain gently-chiding letter he would have received, oh—last second-day, I believe.”
“Which his foster-sister, I’m guessing,” Maryth replied, laughing, “would have sent him?”
“Perhaps,” Aunya assented deviously, not meeting her mother’s eyes.  “When should I send for him?”
Maryth stared at her daughter, taking in the woman’s brilliant manipulations of others with both awe and a little fright.  Aren was to host Great Council in less than a month—that Aunya had convinced the Duke to send his advisor to Thalyrest in the midst of such nightmarish planning was certainly astounding, but that was only one part of Aunya’s scheming.  “Am I to presume that—“
“Yes, mother.”  Aunya interrupted Maryth with such gentleness that it felt like no interruption at all.  “Father can’t convince you, I can’t get a word in edgewise, and you will go mad here.  Daurun will be here until Enad’s Examinations are over, and you are going back to Eleth.”
Before Maryth could even begin her protests, the second letter Aunya had taken from the desk appeared before her eyes, held there by her daughter’s surprisingly steady hands, and then Aunya’s voice, offering, “or I can read it for you?”
Taking the page from her hands, Maryth held it a little farther away from her, noticing first the repeating Council watermark before reading the words to herself, ignoring the senseless heretofores and the finding it therewiths until arriving at the artful ultimatum, the prosaic demand for soldiers and the unspoken hint of forfeiture.  When she had finished, she let the paper drop from her hands to the floor, wordlessly.
The Council, at the Queen’s request, had declared war upon the western kingdom of Celyth, the fourth such war in thirty years. Each land of the accord was to contribute to the war, a toll of eighteen hundred soldiers. Eighteen hundreds was almost all of Eleth’s standing army, leaving the land undefended if Eleth lost Council status.
Aunya broke the silence of her mother’s reckoning.  “Tomorrow or first-day?”
Maryth turned to meet Aunya’s worried face.  “First-day, I guess.  Not by wyrd-ship, though.  Please.  I’d rather crawl.”  Then, shifting her thoughts back upon the proclamation she had just read, she added, “It won’t matter soon, will it?”
Pouring her third cup of tea, Aunya shook her head.  “You can convince the Collects to secede, you know.  They hang on every word you say.  Enad will be alright, even if Daurun and I have to Take every Templar in the Fatherhall just to get him out.  Just show them the letter and demand they secede.”
Maryth sighed again, as if the rest of her days would be marked by each such exhalation.  “Eighteen hundreds is precisely the amount Galn has already committed.  Did Aren get this letter as well?”
“Of course.  The Queen wants her men, however she can get them.  It just so happens that she knows we won’t give them to her, and so she also offered—“
Maryth interrupted her, suddenly remembering the marriage proposal: “to absorb Eleth into Isyl without war.  Of course.  But—you’re not…”
“Next in succession?”
Maryth had not meant to bring this up at all.  Though she knew Aunya cared nothing for ruling, and though Enad had forfeited any such claims upon becoming a Templar, it never seemed civil to speak on such things.  And anyway, it was never certain that Eleth could hold out long enough for their even to be a question.
A new panic swept over her, a new burning fear.  “The Queen will try to kill Renovan again.”
It was Aunya’s turn to sigh.  “We still have no proof of that mother.  You know I think you’re right—even father is convinced now.  But five poisonings and a certainty still won’t convince—“
Suddenly herself again, Maryth sat upright.  “We won’t need to prove it any longer, love.  We’ll secede.”
Aunya looked genuinely startled by the change over her mother, and thoroughly relieved.  “So you’ll go back, then?”
As if there had been no question over the matter, Maryth nodded absently.  “I might need to expose the Eldress, though—“ her voice lowered a little, “though it’s quite a shame.”  She sipped her tea again, which had grown cold and, as if he, too, had tasted the tepid drink, Theriv arrived with another pot.
Maryth bade the Steward stay for a moment later.  “Could you arrange overland travel for me back to Eleth this second-day?”  He nodded, but because she noted his sly glance at Aunya, Maryth repeated, “Yes, second-day, please.”
She accepted his acquiescent smile and watched him leave before turning to his conspirator.  “It’s only two more full days, Aunya.  I’m not completely mad yet, you know.”
Pretending offense, Aunya gaped, “I don’t think you’re mad at all, mother!  Just tired, and justly so.  Father and Ren need you more than we do, and deserve your attentions more than Enad ever will…”
Aunya’s voice trailed off, her expression suddenly contrite in response to her mother’s chiding glance.  “Sorry.  I’m just a bit stressed.
Maryth nodded, sympathetically.  “I’m as frustrated as you, Aunya.  But perhaps it’d interest you to learn he admitted to helping rebels? To me, anyway. He’d be a fool to tell the Examiners.”
  Maryth had expected some hint of surprise upon the otherwise stoic face of her daughter, but none was forthcoming. “Good that he admits it. Ulma confirmed the whole thing for me.”
Longing and a new sense of urgency swept through Maryth. “She’s been here? She’s well, then?”
Aunya smiled, seemingly pleased to give her mother better news. “She sent word yesterday, though I’d almost swallowed her note before I remembered to check the sweetbread.”
For the first time since Enad’s imprisonment, Maryth found a reason to laugh. Ulma was never consistent with her clandestine reports, and Maryth herself had inadvertently chewed several coded messages over the years, hidden in honeyed-rolls, soured-loaves, and berried crescents.  “What else did she say, Aunya?”
Aunya stiffened slightly. “The women Enad helped were her nieces.”
Maryth traced the curved groove of the wooden pendant with the nail of her thumb.  “Ulma has nieces?”
            Aunya met her mother’s face with silence.
“What is it, Aunya?”
Aunya sighed.  “You’re forgetting, mother.  But it’s nothing.”
The floor beneath her always felt unstable at such moments.  “Forgetting—I…yes.  Probably.  I’m mostly tired, my dear.” Forgetting what, she did not say, but almost screamed from the silence of her shifting thoughts.
“It’s nothing, mother.  But you should know that things are not going well in the Commons.  After the massacre, the Justicar ordered the arrest of all Celyths in the city. Also, the Queen’s looking for someone.”
The memory gripped her, sudden terror. A cold bed of straw, strange clothes, a note scrawled in her own hand: Stay away from the Queen.  Maryth clung tightly to the pendant.  “Who?” she almost shouted, suddenly trembling.
“I don’t know.  The Queen’s new vizier sent a Archwight here a few weeks ago to search for this person.  He’s been in the Isyln embassy almost the entire time, sending out runners throughout the east-quarter looking for this person.
The edge of her anxiety dulled—the Queen would have known precisely how to find Maryth if she needed to, so she was safe for now.  “The Archwight was here before the uprising?”
Aunya nodded.  “Daurun thinks he might know who their looking for, but he was too scattered to tell me more, and I was too busy obsessing over our dear brother’s…situation.”
Maryth allowed Aunya her bitterness.  “Yes, of course.  But convenient there just happened to be a high-ranking Wyrdwright in Thalyrest just before the poor rise up, is it not? And the wyrd-ships got here rather quick.”
Aunya grunted.  “Rather.  I don’t need to tell you what so many wights in a city can mean.”
Maryth nodded.  She remembered the last time. Winter. An old woman breaking the ice on a well for tea. Frozen entrails rime-fused to gored paving stones.
“Yes,” she said, sullen in recollection.  “I remember.”

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