Skirmishes and Schisms by FibroJedi | World Anvil Manuscripts | World Anvil

Chapter 8: The Way of Freedom

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The Way of Freedom

23, Jylta 545 AFD

Crystal Circle Tower, 9 Ur

"Hello?" Jewan called through the warped, wooden door, unsure whether he was allowed to enter the home and domain of the Crystal Circle.

He knew that the island on which their tower stood was, in theory at least, part of Qalathian territory. Yet it was also technically the independent territory of Naífyn Sénakai 19, allowing the Mages to both follow the King's directives and provide him with objective advice. He only hoped he had not been followed, despite the motivation for his visit having no other reason than passing on information.

Carnael's probably still enjoying his hollow 'victory' and feeling very pleased with himself, he thought bitterly.

The Marshall was about to call through the door once more when a voice echoed down the circular steps.

"You can come up, no matter who you are," it reassured him, gently.

"Thank you," Jewan responded and started the climb.

With the anxiety of the previous hours, concern for Rusziné and near-overwhelming tiredness, each step felt as though he were lifting stones from the Crescent Cliffs with each foot. He reached the first level and took a moment to catch his breath. One open door near him revealed a rough, wooden floor with a threadbare rug, a table with two unsteady-looking chairs and rows and rows of books, parchments and scrolls. Jewan took a moment to admire the curved bookcases in a room he presumed was a study. The wood looked old and cracked, but the edges of the shelves were intricately carved with vine-like patterns. Here and there, he could just make out letters in similar form to those on the Stones of Myrn, but could not see well enough to discern their meaning.

But if they are carved with those letters, just how many generations of mages have inherited that same bookcase? he wondered.

Two other doors he could see around the circle were closed and he could only just make out the pale glow of the morning seeping through the stonework as though to illuminate every possible crack and floorboard.

The Circle have the ear of the King, whether he likes what they say or not. And yet, they do not live in any manner of luxury, he thought in surprise, quite the opposite.

"I'm on the next floor, if that encourages you," the voice explained, seeming more patient than Jewan felt he deserved.

"I just needed to catch my breath," he justified, "but I'm coming now."

He was grateful that the conical design of the tower meant he reached the next floor substantially quicker than he had the previous one. Jewan noted that only two chambres appeared accessible on this level. He stepped into the only door laying open and turned to see a short, stocky older woman with half black and half grey hair smiling at him. He could almost swear on his oath to the Realm that he could see pale blue strands in there too.

"Oh, a Qalathi! And not one of his Majesty's blessed message-bearers either!" she exclaimed, "and don't worry about being distracted by the light on my head."

Taken aback by her friendliness, and how like many older city-dwellers she appeared, Jewan half-bowed.

"Marshall Jewan, m'lady," he announced awkwardly.

I did not expect a Mage to be someone so...normal, he thought.

"M'lady is it?" she grinned, "my, my, that's a leader-in-waiting, assuming Carnael considers politesse a desirable trait, of course."

"That d-depends who is talking, m'lady," Jewan stuttered, "and it's King..."

"Yes, yes," the lady said dismissively, with a nonchalant wave of her hand, "and I call him that to his face."

The Marshall smiled and looked her straight in the eyes.

"Usually?" he asked, half smiling.

"Got it in one!" the mage laughed, "I'm Jakarrn. Now, how can I help you?"

23, Jylta 545 AFD

Viàn Falínai, 9 Ur 15

When they had first arrived at the Viàn, Rusziné had wondered if everyone had already abandoned it and gone their separate ways, or at least begun their journeys home. It was only as he and Klor'asq began searching that the Kyadd picked up the scent of those similar to Ferrfeiss, and discovered the other clans-folk in the shadows of burial hills. As the cold light of a winter's morning shifted, so did they.

"I'm glad they either figured, or were told, the same advice as you gave those by the Stones," Klor'asq noted gratefully, as the pair of them had approached.

"Indeed, at least their suffering will be lessened, if only by a little."

Klor'asq shivered then mentally berated himself for a natural reaction he had no control over. Rusziné noticed but remained silent, not wishing to add more shame on the Kyadd, whose day had been out of his hand-paws so far. They stopped a few paces away from the nearest group of Deenfeiss Leen.

"I would rather catch up with them on my own, whether that's alright or not," he stated, keeping his ice-blue eyes fixed on them, while addressing Rusziné.

"That's fine, I need to find one of my former squad," he replied.

Klor'asq nodded and steadily padded across the frozen ground to the Kyadd. Rusziné sighed.

One is reunited with his people but does not wish to be, another is cut off from his people against his wishes. I'm not sure which is worse.

"Captain!" he heard a voice behind him call out and, on instinct, Rusziné turned to face the one who needed his attention.

Jaridà, desperate to have a focus of some description instead of waiting around for others to leave the Viàn Falínai, misjudged a step and nearly fell at Rusziné's feet. He was grateful when he felt his arms caught in the strong hands of the man he had grown to respect in the short time since being introduced to him earlier that day.

"Thank you, Cap," he panted, "these Kyadii have feet-claws so appear to be unaffected by the how slippery the ground is. I forgot myself for a moment."

"They're northern Kyadii," Rusziné pointed out, "they're used to ice. Though, possibly, not to thawing, which is where some of our lack of grip comes from. But yes, their claws help and the army does not get special Winter gear despite it being requested every year."

"Yes sir," Jaridà acknowledged, unsure how to respond.

He looked around at those gathering at the Viàn and frowned.

"Uhm, Sir, where are the others? I would have thought they would be with you."

"You know what Jaridà?" Rusziné asked, "instead of me giving you my response, let me help you arrive at your own answer."

Jaridà, puzzled, looked into his Captain's eyes and nodded.

"Yes sir, but why?"

"Because, in teaching us what to think for this mission, I did not teach you how to think. Qalathian military training takes the same course," he explained, "and it is not helped when certain higher-ups dislike being forced to think. Right, so, if the rest of the squad is not with me, where else could they be?"

"The Stones of Myrn, where the squad was last active," Jaridà ventured.

"That's one place, yes," Rusziné accepted, "but, given the operation is no longer active, where else might they be?"

"Well, on the way here or back in the Capital," he answered slowly, "but would you not have wanted the squad to ensure everyone was heading back - you know, tidying up?"

"You answer that one, soldier," Rusziné ordered, folding his arms.

"Y-you're making me n-nervous," Jaridà explained.

"No I'm not," Rusziné responded, shaking his head, "your own self-doubt is. Now answer my question, please."

He said 'please', so I'm probably in the clear, Jaridà thought with relief.

"Yes, you would have wanted us to stay together beyond the original remit of the mission to make sure it would not immediately recur due to a lack of oversight."

"Indeed I would, well done," Rusziné nodded, unfolding his arm and putting his hands in his pockets, "if that had been my wish and possibly my orders, how might I have returned here without any member of my squad?"

This is the core of the issue and I don't know what he's getting at, Jaridà thought, frustrated.

"Your orders would have had to be overruled, assuming no inner mutiny anyway, which is rather unthinkable considering we had not been a unit for more than a few Urs," he reasoned.

I won't go into the fact that both happened simultaneously, Rusziné pondered with regret, before motioning to Jaridà to continue.

"And if your orders were overruled, it could only be someone in a position to do so, like a Royal Guard."

"Or?" Rusziné prodded.

"Well, the King. This wasn't a full-scale war so there would be no Battle Commanders you reported to. But there were no Royal Guards with us, and certainly not the King."

"You're really close Jaridà but Sablesand is freezing over because you've taken so long to reach a conclusion."

The soldier blushed in embarrassment.

"A Royal Guard or the King came to the Stones and overwrote your orders?" he asked.

"Well done. Yes. Both happened, actually. The squad returned to Bezélan but will soon need to leave for the area West of Oestun Vyai. As will we."

"Of course I will follow, but that fortified village hardly needs a rapidly-assembled group as us."

"Indeed they don't," Rusziné agreed, "and we won't be joining the western border force, but will be congregating at the entrance to Tolmyr Sands. I will tell you why if you can tell me which detail you have missed in all your observations. You don't need to rush to answer."

The soldier looked around at everyone gathered at the Viàn, and considered all he and Rusziné had discussed so far.

"I will need a few minutes," he admitted.

Rusziné smiled.

"Then you are already a step ahead of many in Qal'ath's leadership - thinking before acting."

The Viàn Falínai, 9 Ur 20

"Well, we are glad you are safe and alive, but why won't you return home with us?"

Klor'asq shook his head.

"Even if I wanted to, which I don't, I would die of cold there like any other kitten born South of Frostplain."

"But you could acclimatise, no?" one of the other Kyadii asked.

"Only if I took a few years and gradually migrated North. However, you all cannot be this far South much longer before your eyesight starts to deteriorate. So you must return to the liberty of the northern snow-lands, and I don't know how to survive in the Wilds to make that transition," Klor'asq explained, "no, I have to work around here."

"But what of clan loyalty?" a younger Kyadd asked, who was sharpening her claws on a nearby rock.

"Wrong question, girl," another rebuked her.

Klor'asq growled gently.

"She does not know the facts, do not hold that against her," he instructed, before turning his eyes to the younger clan member, "it is because of, let's say, a deterioration in loyalty, that I ended up in Qal'ath at all. And I did not abandon, nor give up, the clan."

He surveyed those near him, some still itching and rubbing their eyes and he pitied them.

"And I still have not abandoned the Deenfeiss Leen. Qal'ath is not a haven. Non-Paràntii, sorry, non-human races are marginalised or subjugated. Rarshk in the city do not fare well, regardless of their perceived status, so many do not stay. The only way for us to get any justice is for the whole system to change."

"So you think being inside is the only way to achieve that?" one asked.

"How well did your attempt to approach the city go - forcing change from the outside - even with stealth as your advantage?" he responded in kind, to which none gave him an answer, "exactly. Yes, I have to stay here to survive, but I want to stay here to do whatever it takes to right the wrongs of our people. Please, take this as an encouragement when you head home."

He was about to prepare for his return to the Capital when Hera'llyn and Polarnis came into his view.

"You got here quickly!" Hera'llyn exclaimed with a smile, "I mean, that's a good thing, but have you already mastered Elemental Displacement?"

Klor'asq half-smiled.

"Oh, if only," he sighed wistfully, "but sadly not. What I did have to quickly master was not falling from a Hawk while it is flying high above a forest."

"Oh?" Polarnis interjected, "where is that particular Hawk now? I've not known the Foyblànii work this closely with a Qalathi operation, oh, as long as I can remember. I mean, admittedly that time period is shrinking, but whatever sparked this was serious."

The Kyadd responded by lazily waving a hand-paw roughly southward.

"The Hawk was heading back to the Stones of Myrn for more passengers, I believe. Do you have some task for me? I am not quite ready to leave, but I should soon be."

Polarnis shook his head and smiled.

"Take whatever time you need. Knowing the average lifespan of a Kyadd in the North, half of those you see now may not be present the next time you see them."

"I'm already older than the average Deenfeiss Kyadd. It comes from comfort, or at least," he paused to correct himself, "a lack of daily threats."

"And Farynna's cooking?" Hera'llyn laughed.

Klor'asq pursed his lips tightly and finally nodded in agreement.

"I guess that would help too, even if meat is rarely available for us."

The two mages looked sideways at each other, sharing a common thought and resolution.

"Anyway, Masters, I will return to speak with the others while I can."

He half-bowed and, to his surprise, Hera'llyn and Polarnis did likewise.

9 Ur 30

"Sir?" Jaridà piped up, "where is your sword?"

Rusziné smirked.

"Well done soldier. Now, the other detail you have missed is even more obvious."

Jaridà looked at himself then back at Rusziné.

"And your armour is missing?"

"Well, it's not technically missing," Rusziné responded, "but I'm not wearing it, so yes, that is the correct item. Now, put the pieces together. Today, please as we must be heading West very soon. You may do so audibly, if that helps you to think."

Jaridà closed his eyes and folded his arms to stop himself from fidgeting with his sword, or the contents of his pockets.

"So, you wanted to bring us all here but, as you confirmed, the King arrived and took control as is his right as per his position. The rest of the squad likely returned to Bezélan, but with orders to go later today to Tolmyr Sands. You also have that order and have relayed it to me, so I don't get into trouble for an order I did not hear.

"Thank you, by the way.

"Between leaving the Stones of Myrn and arriving back at the Viàn you have given your sword and armour to someone, despite the pending long journey. But you have not told me to give up my sword nor my armour, and I'm still going on that same journey.

"But that can only mean...but that doesn't make sense!"

Rusziné turned and looked kindly on the fledgling soldier.

"For a few seconds, put aside how you would like to think of Qal'ath, its people, its leadership and its principles. You can pick your perception up again after our chat."

Jaridà put his cupped hands over his face and tried to follow Rusziné's guidance.

"Y-you're being abandoned by the Realm? But you're a Captain, you've never betrayed Qal'ath. Any soldier or guard knows this. Even the poor in the city have heard of you and they don't care about the military at all."

The older man rested a hand on Jaridà's shoulder.

"I was a Captain. I served Qal'ath, and I can do so no more. And the poor," Rusziné's voice cracked slightly as he struggled to keep his emotions in check, "do not care for the military, because the system does not care for them. Your conclusion is correct - I am being ejected from the Realm."

"B-but the Kyadii didn't even get anywhere near the Capital. We did what was asked of us!" Jaridà protested.

"And once you see your squad-mates again, you must keep such thoughts to yourself. The King has spoken. If I believe I am in the right, and now do not follow the King's final decree over me, it would cast doubt on my integrity since the day I first entered the Realm. I will not have that outcome. And I will not have people needlessly sacrificing themselves on my behalf either."

Jaridà stamped his foot in frustration.

"But S-sir, that's brùfus, and this may sound childish, but it's quite simply unfair."

"Regardless, we go from the Viàn Falínai to my way of 'freedom', the Viàtoli."

"The 'path of the exile'," Jaridà translated through gritted teeth, "is hardly 'freedom'."

I agree this is unfair, but I will not fan your flames of dissension, Rusziné decided, or you will burn as I have.

23, Jylta 545 AFD

Crystal Circle Tower, 9 Ur 30

"He did what, now?" Jakarrn asked, horrified.

"He severed the Qalathii-Foyii pact. After talking about the Woodsmen in less than endearing terms," Jewan reported.

"But that agreement is the very reason the Kyadii did not reach the city! If they hadn't been watching our northern border..."

"I know this. And deep down, I believe the King does too. But he has made his decision."

Jewan had been very careful to relay only facts to the Crystal Circle, despite his deep-seated doubts and concerns over the process. To serve the people of Qal'ath as Rusziné had encouraged him to do, he would need to remain inside the Realm, not facing a similar fate to his friend and former Captain.

Jakarrn sighed and rubbed her eyes, before falling into a nearby chair, feeling utterly deflated.

"Well, we all know how things stand once King Carnael has, as you say, 'made his decision'," she grumbled, shaking her head in despair, "I mean, he's never liked those he terms as 'outsiders', believing only those 'inside' are trustworthy. Another flawed assumption."

The Marshall kept his hands clasped behind his back, willing himself not to join with her in this tangent to the conversation, despite agreeing with every word she was saying.

"It's not even possible to track every person 'inside' to know if you can have faith in them," Jakarrn continued, "hùlàn, we have checks and accountability in the Circle, but even we can't assume that nothing will ever go wrong here - and only eight of us live here when all are present. That's why we need friends who will look in, and why trust is required."

"You have your magicks to protect you, at least?" Jewan offered, to which Jakarrn huffed.

"Sorry to bring you down, Marshall, but the most powerful Elemental attacks in Nature are useless with a knife in your back. We are very much mortal. Even our incantations - or 'spells' as you may call them, are in the very language of the Woodsmen, the Foyii. That intrinsically links us to them. And he won't have even stopped to think that severing that tie does not just affect us from the direction of Doon. The White-Leaves are in the North-East, the Green- and Red-Leaves, as you know, are from the North. Furthermore, there is a mixed contingent watching both the Western border and, over the Ormàszil, the Western water-pass to Qal'ath. That only leaves South and East," she despaired.

"At least Eastward lies the Great Canyon," Jewan pointed out.

"Which will obviously uproot itself and place itself at the King's command should he be in need of protection!" Jakarrn exclaimed, turning to catch some air from the cool, winter Sky, flowing through the window.

The Marshall sniggered, despite himself.

"And, I know you can't say anything to much of what I am ranting about," Jakarrn continued, "I understand how the Realm works. Well, I say 'works', but..."

"We still have an agreement with Shevezz that pretty much enriches Qal'ath," Jewan remembered.

Jakarrn bowed her head and turned to face him, leaning against the frame of the open window with her arms crossed. After closing her eyes for a few seconds she looked up at him with an expression of concern mixed with resignation.

"And I suppose they teach you what that agreement was founded on?" she asked, firmly.

"We regularly provide fresh water, mostly. Either directly, or by access on license," he paraphrased, while attempting to not sound like his former tutor, "that is because the only worthy water supply they have available is the Bluelight Ocean, which is salty and contains other impurities. Other than that, it's just pretty much anything can be traded between our two gates on the wide road between the two, the Lybweg."

"Very good, Marshall," Jakarrn nodded, "two more questions, then you should return to your squad, who now require a leader."

They require a leader, but I do not require being a leader, he thought ruefully, but it will be forced on me anyway. I'm already starting to sound like Rusziné.

"The second question is this; which nation has made the most notable scientific discoveries in recent years in respect of the workings of the natural world?"

Jewan frowned.

"Until the second half of the question I thought you meant the Elelupii, but for most natural world discoveries - those publicly announced anyway, that would be Shevezz."

"Uh-huh, two correct in a row. If you get this third one right you will be on the path to protecting Qal'ath properly," she smiled, tight-lipped, "and, as a bonus you need not tell me the answer you have in mind."

"Is this...a trap question?" the Marshall asked, unsure of himself.

"I'm probably over two hundred years' old, Marshall Jewan, " Jakarrn snapped, "and I still don't have time to manipulate people's minds!"

"Over two hundr-," he said, startled, "o-of course, I didn't mean to..."

Jakarrn laughed.

"Okay, maybe I can do it from time-to-time. But, I'm not joking on the age thing," she pointed out, "anyway, question three: if Qal'ath's agreement with Shevezz is mostly about provision of fresh water, because they live against salty water supplies only, and Shevezz is the one pushing on with natural discoveries and scientific breakthroughs, which nation is likely - though not guaranteed - to be the first to process salty, impure water into fresh water enough to support a city-state?"

Jewan remained silent and considered her question, before his eyes widened at the realisation.

"Oh no," he whispered.

Jakarrn shuffled towards him, reached up and placed a hand on his shoulder, and the Marshall felt as though his thoughts were exposed to the whole of the Erdàn Savànii.

"Be encouraged, Marshall Jewan," she smiled, "your reaction told me more about what you care about and how much you do, than anything else you could have said. Qal'ath needs level-headed people, but those who can still feel. And, whether he acknowledges it or not, the King will one day regret this decision - these decisions."

"You are referring to the severance of the pact and the exile of Rusziné?"

Jakarrn nodded.

"Indeed. Well, I should let you go. I can guess you are required to witness 'Glorious Justice' being staged on the great set that is the 'Unfathomable Realm'," she said, smirking, "you shouldn't be late for the show."

Jewan smiled tightly.

"You are correct. As you're unlikely to get another report - and I suspect the next development will be a public announcement - if there's anything else you need or want to know about the incursion, now is your chance. I must make sure I - and my squad - reach Oestun Vyai on time."

Jakarrn pursed her lips and considered his offer, and was about to respond when Farynna, more breathless than normal, ran into the room.

"Sorry....M-Master Jakarrn," she panted, "When I noticed the door more open than normal, I came up here and..."

"...assumed Jakarrn was threatened?" Jewan frowned.

Farynna took a step back, recovered her breathing and shook her head.

"Well, no, clearly not. Why would I think that?" she asked, bemused, "excuse me if that sounded disrespectful."

Jewan sighed.

"No, it is I who should apologise. I have been surrounded by people either fearing the worst or thinking the worst. Please, continue."

The Kyadd nodded, feeling so anxious her thoughts 'spilled into buckets, rather than goblets', as they say.

"Thank you. Firstly, sorry for intruding, but I'm a light sleeper and once I'm awake, I'm awake, and I can't help what I overhear and it's a cat-heritage thing, and..."

Jewan held up a hand to stop - and hopefully to calm her. The Kyadd took a step back and hung her head.

"Do not give excuses for being natural," the Marshall gently told her, "You can't help what makes you a Kyadd. It's hard enough getting plausible reasons from people who should be sorry for things," he explained, "plus, you don't answer to me. I'm just in the army."

"Just in the army," Jakarrn repeated sarcastically, "he's about to be made a Captain."

"Yes, but..." Jewan hesitated, ", you're correct, I ought to be more proud of that than I am. Let's try again, please Farynna?"

The Kyadd looked up once more and nodded.

"Thank you. Put simply, I want to know if any Kyadii had been killed in the battles?"

"None whatsoever," the Marshall reported, "non-fatal injuries were incurred on all sides, including the Foyii. I did not realise you would know about the battle."

Farynna took her turn to frown.

"Because of my 'status'?" she asked, to which Jewan flushed with a little shame.

"Well, I guess. You're not a you must be the other Kyadd's, uhm, how to say?" he struggled to explain.

"Co-worker? Fellow servant? Or something worse, depending on who you talk to," Farynna shrugged.

Jakarrn cleared her throat to draw his attention back to her.

"It was because of Farynna's 'status' that she was able to see the situation develop, allowed us to send a Blàmìs and to dispatch Klor'asq before it got any worse."

"I see," the Marshall replied, feeling awkward.

"Not only that, it's because of her capabilities that two of the Circle are currently tending the wounded and others at the Viàn, which I believe still includes one of yours."

"Jaridà," Jewan muttered, "I'm glad I know where he is, and that Rusziné will have clued him into the King's command. And you enabled all this, Farynna?"

The Kyadd shook her head.

"I followed instructions, that's all."

"Brùfùs," Jakarrn exclaimed, "yes we asked something of you, but you did more than any of us were able to. The Lens responds to you and your gestures, yes?"

Farynna nodded and stretched.

"I concede," she smiled, weakly.

Jakarrn turned back to the Marshall.

"So, do try to temper your colleagues and friends' views that somehow social status dictates whether one can be a mage or not, hmm? Farynna may not be formally trained, but she has skills. And she's not being subversive like Bezélan's underground, poison of unofficial mages."

Jewan coughed and scuffed his boot against the floor in embarrassment, which was only compounded by that exact floorboard cracking where his foot had been, temporarily trapping his toes between the slats, which he had to carefully prise out to prevent further damage. To his shock, instead of reacting in a frustrated or annoyed manner, both Jakarrn and Farynna burst into laughter and he looked up, bemused.

"I did something funny?" he asked, surprised.

Jakarrn nodded.

"Yes," she affirmed, "and that's a good thing."

Farynna sniggered and wiped a hand paw across her eyes.

"Your King...the King...has broken a centuries' old agreement with the Realm's ancient, but distant guardians without a second thought. And here you are worried about breaking a floorboard."

The Marshall allowed himself a smile, which immediately faded to a pensive look.

"At least the floorboard can be replaced or repaired," he pointed out, aware he was not really talking about wood.

Farynna, feeling free to speak, took a silent, careful step towards him.

"Jewan, wasn't it?" Farynna asked without waiting for confirmation, "I am living proof that not everything that is broken can be mended. I don't want to go into it, but Master Frehghan is also evidence that a broken thing in the right hands can be supported, and become something new without changing what makes them who they are."

"I...I think I understand your meaning," he acknowledged, "but what or who do I support - I can't help Rusziné now. So, I have the Realm to care for, I guess."

Farynna glanced at Jakarrn who motioned for her to continue.

"You, dear Kyadd, should still be napping after using the Lens," Jakarrn explained with a smile, "of course you can speak, but he must be on his way shortly."

"Thank you, Master Jakarrn," she responded and waved a hand-paw to draw Jewan's attention that had returned to the open window, as he wistfully gazed towards an expanse of Sky with only the hint of land on the horizon.

"I don't know this Rusziné, nor do I need to," she explained before he could interrupt, "but think more narrowly than the entire Realm."

"Bezélan?" Jewan guessed, as he tried to unravel the puzzle set by a disarmingly eloquent Kyadd.

Farynna's tail flicked lazily from side-to-side, like a slowly swaying alert-bell in the city and he could not prevent his eyes from following its movement.

"The King needs the Four and the Circle, and even they can't tackle all the problems of Major and Minor together," Farynna pointed out, "who can you support with immediate impact?"

His eyes continued to track every flick of her tail-tip, ink-black on an auburn horizon, and each motion seemed to cause a concern to melt, one he had no ability to change, still present but unattainable, leaving only those things he could influence or act upon.. It was as though the question were both a distraction and a focus at the same time.

Time. That ever-present resource that is, for its own ends, infinite, but for every corporeal being, finite, he perceived himself thinking, feeling distant from his own existence, what I cannot do, I cannot do. What can I change, and who can I support?

As he replied, the words came slowly and his eyes began to feel sandy from unwittingly failing to blink.

"Ar-are you sure you're not a mage of some description?" he murmured, before clearing his throat, "But you sort of are, aren't you? I mean, uhm, I can support only those closest to me, and I vowed to support my co-defenders of the Realm."

Farynna smiled gently.

"And to be able to do that, you need to support who?" she asked, yawning, irritated that she was still affected from her earlier session at the Lens.

Jewan finally brought his focus back to her eyes, a deep meadow green, outlined in shades only seen in the Pines of the Forest of Doon. While he did not know how Kyadii aged, he thought he could discern wrinkles around her eyes. Maybe they were natural folds of skin.

When did I last focus on one task, or have a conversation where the only thing that mattered was the other person?

Farynna coughed.

"I thought you needed to be someplace, Marshall," she gently purred, which seemed to stir him from his thoughts.

"Myself," he finally responded.

"Oh, gràsz-àn-erdàn, he's finally got it," Farynna chuckled, clapping, then turned to leave the room.

"Yes, Farynna, go sleep before your humour gets even better," Jakarrn smirked.

"Wait, F-Farynna," Jewan stammered, "I'm...I'm sorry. I also didn't mean to stare, it's just...I don't know. Sorry."

The Kyadd smiled and shook her head, her tangled hair looking more mane-like than she preferred it to appear.

"Accepted!" she smiled, "However important you get, Marshall Jewan, however many promotions you receive, however many responsibilities you accept or are forced on you, and however many riches you amass or give away, never forget to apologise for your mistakes - nor to move on from them. Good night - or morning!" she laughed, before disappearing behind the open door to Jakarrn's study.

Jewan turned to Jakarrn who simply motioned to the same door.

"I do not need to add anything to the realisation you had earlier, nor the words of Farynna. Go, and may the Elements protect you."

The Marshall, still feeling hazy, as though having had only one drink more than he ought, struggled not to stumble and fall all the way to the bottom of the Tower. Once outside, he gulped in the frozen air until his head cleared.

He looked up at the steel-clad skies.

The Realm's in trouble. But I can support soldier at a time.

He knew he just had until eighteen Ur to support himself. He straightened his back, picked up his pace and made for the raft-ferry off the island. The first step had been taken.

23, Jylta 545 AFD

Viàn Falínai, 10 Ur 15

"So, this is not all of them, then?" Hera'llyn asked after stabilising the condition of the fifth Kyadd that morning. She had ceased to ask questions of them directly, as their speech had become slurred and she did not want to add frustration into the mix of feelings within them.

"No," Polarnis replied from a few paces away, still concentrating on his patient,  "I believe some of the Foyii are tending to the other half of the stricken Kyadii a couple of burial-mounds away."

Hera'llyn stood and stretched, and felt various joints pop back into place.

I shouldn't be cracking at my age, she thought, annoyed.

"You get used to it after eighty years," Polarnis interjected, "or thereabouts."

The woman frowned, before glancing over their contingent of Kyadii then to the pair of Qalathian soldiers.

"There's something I'm not understanding, Polarnis. And it's nothing to do with the fading of youth this time," she clarified, aware that she had abruptly changed the topic of conversation.

Polarnis checked there were no urgent or desperate cries for help nearby before rejoining her.

"I'm listening," he gently and quietly replied, hoping she took the hint.

Hera'llyn nodded in understanding.

"If this was a Kyadii incursion and their target seemed to be Bezélan, where is Qal'ath?"

"Aside from the two aimless soldiers, you mean?" Polarnis asked.

"Yes, something does not add up. And it..."

"Feels wrong somehow?" he questioned.

"Yes, exactly," she agreed.

"You could ask the two 'aimless soldiers' if you like, Mages of the Crystal Circle," taunted a voice from behind them. They turned and saw Rusziné and Jaridà walking steadily in their direction.

"Apologies, my hearing does not rival that of these Kyadii here," he clarified, "but it is better than the average Parànt. Anyway, you have questions? Questions which you cannot figure out from the evidence around you?"

"Are you saying that we can't figure out the logical response?" Hera'llyn asked, put-out.

"Not at all," he shrugged, "because the answer is not logical. I have some time, so let me explain."

23, Jylta 545 AFD

Saf-Athan Palace Hall, 10 Ur 30

He was staring at the hastily-drawn diagram of the Realm with arrows and lines depicting where certain people might be at specific times. Tall, flickering candles bathed half faces at different intervals down the table.

He took another sip of warm, morning wine and inclined his head to the nearest one of the group.

"And you think you can make this work?" he asked.

He had seen their leader's face before, a necessary security precaution, but now it was hooded, she appeared sinister. His plan wasn't truly dark, but in the Winter's cold, when the sun rarely reached this usually public section of Saf-Athan, it certainly felt that way.

So long as I get what I want, all will be well.

The woman nodded, reached for the paper, folded it carefully and concealed it away under her tunic.

"You have given me two acceptable outcomes," she responded, "one may not be feasible, but I can foresee no reason the second should fail."

She buttoned her cloak up and, with a twist of her hand, the others in her group returned to her side.

"You will uphold your end the bargain, too, I take it?" she asked, frowning.

He took a larger swig of the wine this time, glad he would be able to take a lunchtime nap while his plans were enacted.

"Naturally. Any law can be repealed by the King. Just be warned, that even unarmed, he is not unarmed," he explained.


She turned on her heels and opened the palace door with a wave of her branch, and let the wind of the courtyard close it behind her. From the side of the table, Carnael finished his drink.

"Sorry it has to end this way Rusziné, but you never were Qalathian enough for my tastes," he smirked, "I can't risk others becoming like you. And the best part is this: you've been so loyal, you will travel without your sword and armour as a final gesture of obedience. Then there will be no one in my inner circle to threaten or question my rule. And that is the only Circle I care about."

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