Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Trial of Spirit Chapter 5

Call for Exile
The high priestess cleared her throat to do her standard duty as herald/bailiff. Then she intoned in a loud, clear voice sharp enough that it should have slashed through Swadda’s veils, “We are present to hear the discussion and receive blessing of the king’s and queen’s combined wisdom in the situation before us involving the Crown Princess Alyssa,” Naissa paused momentarily to allow the briefest of glares toward the serpent veil from which an audible hiss of disgust had shot, “and the accusation before us that she has, on numerous occasions with wanton disregard for our traditions and most fundamental beliefs, abused the arcane powers that flow through the land.”
“Accusations,” the word slid through Hefin’s teeth. “It is well known—”
“It is well known that none but the king and queen speak without being granted leave to do so in their formal court,” Naissa cut him off curtly.
“Hefin,” my father said, his voice deep and serious. I saw his knuckles whiten under the tension he was applying to the arms of his throne, and after a few months being with him an awful lot I noticed that both his eyes and his nostrils flared. “Glynis. Swadda. Have any of you ever known me to act unjustly?” The last word shot out, accusatory in its own right.
“Toward your own daughter?” Swadda hissed.
“Toward anyone?” his low-pitched reply thundered through the room.
After a long silence, during which I didn’t dare cast a glance around, he continued, “So which of you were present, or had personal agents present, at the battle during which the Cult attempted to kill my daughter and her traveling companions at the library?”
“Cut the legal maneuvering, Cadfael,” Hefin barked. The use of the king’s traditional first name earned him a glare from Naissa, but my father merely crooked an eyebrow and gestured in a slightly condescending movement. “It is widely known that your daughter drew upon the forces of magic to set fire to the library and burn it down around the librarians, whose guilt we have still not seen evidenced.”
“I must have misunderstood you, Hefin,” my father replied. “Surely you did not just call me a liar?” His knuckles actually got whiter. I wondered whether the great golden chair arms or Dad’s hands would win the strength contest.
“A liar?” Hefin challenged.
“It is—well known—that my men, and at times I, personally, questioned the few survivors who we captured and in doing so ascertained that my daughter’s allegations were true regarding their intent. Had you not heard of that questioning?”
Hefin’s presence, the aura I could sense, shrank a little. I still didn’t dare glance around for fear of insulting the three who were on my side, but I desperately wanted to see Hefin’s expression. After a few moments, his voice, shaking ever so slightly, came back with, “I humbly retract that statement, Cadfael. But the rest still remains. It is known that she used magic to call about fire.”
“Is it? It has been my understanding that the librarians maintained ill-advised torches that were blazing at the time the library caught fire.”
Dad wasn’t actually twisting the truth very far. I didn’t call down fire in the library. I wouldn’t have called down fire even if I’d known that I could. It was wind, to be perfectly honest. This Mississippi girl recalled seeing the aftermath of a tornado or two and knew the value of a good whirlwind, and so that was what I’d reached for. Unfortunately for us all, the attackers had brought torches, which got smashed up against books, and then the wind fanned the flames.
So, no, I am not a firestarter. Firespreader, maybe. Yes, I do have my faults. And yes, I have been wanton with occasional magic usage, but not with fire.
Not that that matters a whole lot, when libraries have been burnt to the ground.
“I—” Hefin started to argue, but my father forestalled him with a hand.
“Were you there?”
“Were any of your agents there?”
“There is the matter of the battle in Ganolog,” Glynis purred dangerously from behind me.
“Were you or your agents present to witness the act you accuse my daughter of?”
“No, but you already knew that, Cadfael. Padrig might be here to support us, but your daughter’s antics actually led to war between you and his tribe, if I recall.”
My father flushed at that. It was true; I’d stepped right into a hornet’s nest of Cult members and the resulting battle had brought out my temper. Worse, it had put Dad in a position where he had to invade the land of the northern tribes to capture a Cult ringleader, thus leading to a war with the entire clan. That it had been a bloodless war, and was now over, wasn’t my place to bring up since I still had a gag order on me.
“We could just ask the little girl herself,” Swadda suggested innocently.
“She would probably just lie to us,” Hefin pointed out.
The anger that now freely flowed across Dad’s face told me that the insult had raised his blood pressure as much as it had mine, but seeing that helped me hold my own temper in check.
“Those who stand before their king and queen insisting on honoring custom should, of course, recognize the custom of not requiring self-incrimination,” the high priestess pointed out, touching the king’s shoulder subtly but meaningfully. It worked; his grip loosened enough that color returned to his joints, and he lost the mask of someone who was envisioning someone else’s insides being ripped out.
“Well, there is Prince Keion. He’s not grown too fond of the girl yet, has he?”
“My son is indisposed at the moment,” the queen replied and shot Hefin an icy look.
“Of course he is. As is your niece, Cadfael?”
When moments ticked by without my father gracing the eastern elf lord with a reply, he growled and continued, “Look, it doesn’t matter. My clan will not support her as queen.”
“Nor mine,” hissed Glynis.
“Nor will mine,” added Swadda. “And if you insist on continuing with this charade, you will find yourself at war with more than just the northern elves.”
“War is what it may come to, then?” my father asked, his already-long face lengthening even further.
“Cadfael, you know that we mean you neither harm nor ill will. It is just that we must be the mouthpieces for our clans, as you yourself have expected us to be for all these years. You have but to replace your daughter with Seren, and my clan will be satisfied. Otherwise….” she left the repercussions hanging.
I wasn’t surprised to hear the queen’s eldest daughter’s name floated as a better candidate for queen than I was. I’d suggested it, myself, a few times after I’d arrived. What surprised me was the queen’s reaction.
“No!” her majesty snarled, leaping to her feet. Keeping her anger in check with visible effort, she continued, “Swadda, how dare you come to us demanding what you know to be impossible, hanging your expectation on tradition while breaking another tradition in so demanding. You know that my daughter is off-limits in this discussion, yet you bring her name anyway. I am shocked and ashamed in what this discussion has come to.
Into the silence that followed, Sternyface tried to insert some calming words. “The prophecy has long foretold—”
It was a mistake. Apparently Swadda’s inability to directly confront the queen’s anger made her even more willing to verbally snap the high priestess’s head off. “Prophecy! Ha! You and your useless priests and priestesses have spent centuries preparing us to face the perils of this prophecy, with no thought given to merely avoiding the outcome from the start. Well, I say it is time for the people to stop listening to the whine and murmur of our spiritual leaders and take action to prevent this upheaval. Let’s nip it in the bud, and if Naissa and her pets get cut in the process, so be it.”
“Prophecy or no prophecy, doesn’t matter to me and mine. What’s important is that we remove the little whelp from her glorious future of having power over us all,” Hefin added angrily, and suddenly my father was out of his throne, his expression matching the queen’s.
His hands shook as he pointed two fingers at the chieftain who’s just insulted me. “You will not speak of my daughter in such a manner,” he growled. To be fair, the word Hefin, bless his foul heart, had chosen was lesgenau, which carries a whole lot more derogatory connotation than whelp does. It refers to a depth of weakness and listlessness that cannot operate without a parental figure over it, and to the elves that’s a very bad thing.
“Stop!” I heard my own voice ring out. Suddenly the entire room—and all of its anger and contempt—was focused directly on me. That’s okay, I thought; at least now they’ll be vicious to me rather than about me. I allowed myself to turn about, finally taking in the adversaries on all sides. They were all glaring directly at me, now—Dad looked like he wanted to rip my tongue out.
I caught the briefest of twitches on Sternyface’s lips, though, and in that one fleeting moment I got the support I was hoping for.
“Penna Hefin,” I said, using the formal address and doing my best to make my voice come out as a purr. “Last summer you eagerly accepted me, cheering my coronation and even suggesting that I might consider one of your sons as a consort. I don’t think I am misremembering that, am I? No, no, let me finish. I have held my tongue long enough, now I ask you to hear me out,” I continued, turning the purr into sharpness. “I was your favorite then, and yet now you call me—I cannot bring my own lips to utter that word around our king and queen—and why? I have done nothing but act to protect the lives of those I hold dear. In anyone else, would you not consider that strength? Why is the situation so different now?”
“It is clear—” Swadda started to interject, but stopped when I held my palm up to her and shot her a glare. Her eyes grew wide; apparently she feared I might use Draignerthol to lash out at her. Fine; I didn’t mind her fear at that moment.
“Penna Hefin, I asked a question of you.”
“Alyssa,” he started, ignoring my title but at least using my name instead of the pejoratives he’d been casting about.  “It is the will of my clan.”
“The fear of your clan, it sounds like to me. When have the eastern clan been so fearful of one little girl?”
“One little girl who threatens to throw us back into civil war,” Swadda spat.
“I am not the one who stood here in the royal throne room, threatening war,” I reminded her, and then turned back to my father and the queen, who had both relaxed slightly. “What Swadda says holds some truth, however. I am yet a little girl according to elf custom. In fact, technically, I believe—and I would be glad for your input if I am incorrect, High Priestess Naissa, you cannot exile one who is but a child, and I am still considered such. May I suggest, for the benefit of the temper of all here today, that we put off this discussion until after I have completed the rituals of the hunhymgais, at which point you can determine what to do with me as an adult, as is proper? Would your clan consider that acceptable, Penna Hefin? Penna Glynis? If I begin preparations immediately at sunrise tomorrow?”
I left Swadda out of the deal-making on purpose, and I could tell it angered her. She seemed to be the ringleader, though, so that felt like the right thing to do. I just hoped it wouldn’t backfire later. Still, it got the result I was looking for as first Hefin and then Glynis nodded.
I turned back to the royal pair. “Father. Talaith. I seek your agreement with my recommendation, and subsequently your leave to begin preparation for the arduous ceremony I am to undertake.”
Naissa actually smiled at that. I’d used the informal address for the king and queen to point out my own relative status as a child among them. First my father, and then the queen, nodded their acquiescence. Swadda spun on her heels and stormed out, followed closely by Hefin. Glynis remained just long enough for the other two to exit, and then she whispered quietly to me, “Impressive turn, that was, but I believe that you are merely putting off the inevitable.”
I gave her my best guarded smile, the one that doesn’t include every facial muscle, and she nodded in agreement with my unspoken sentiment. She rapidly removed herself from the throne room.
“Well,” the queen said, collapsing into her throne in an un-royal manner.
“That was—effective. I fear that what Glynis said will come to pass, but at least when you return from your hunhymgais, we can be prepared for the battles to come,” Dad said. Still standing, he met the queen’s and then the high priestess’s eyes. “I would like some time alone with my daughter, please.”
The queen nodded and left. Sternyface followed, but only after a very uncharacteristic smile and nod my direction. Once the door closed behind them, Dad led me through the curtain into a hidden lounge that was solely for the use of the king. In fact, he’d told me that he was the only elf allowed in there, which made me wonder who filled the ice cube bucket, the first time he brought me in for quiet, private conversation. It was the only place, it seemed, where he could let his guard down completely.
“That was impressive indeed, Alyssa,” he said as he tossed a couple of ice cubes into glasses and covered them with a brownish liquor.
“I just got tired of being talked about instead of talked to,” I argued. I took a sip and then grimaced. “Ooh,” I exhaled. “I don’t think I’ll ever be used to your whiskey, Dad.”
“That is fine. Children should not drink, anyway,” he said with a grin.
“I wanted to calm down an escalating argument,” I argued again. “I didn’t mean to go back to being treated as a child. Are you going to put me in class with the first graders again?”
Dad chortled, and I joined in the laughter. When I arrived the priestesses put me into an intensive class to learn the elf language, and the only one of those available was full of five-year-olds. It was weird, but since I’d learned elf as a young child I caught up quickly enough and escaped.
“The hunhymgais is difficult, Alyssa. Let us not make light of that important ritual.”
“Not making light, Dad, but so far I’ve faced down a wyvern, a few different groups of Cult members looking to kill me, and even an angry Sternyface. I’m not certain how going off by myself to survive for a while could be much of a comparative challenge.”
“You are probably right, my daughter. At least, I hope it is thus with all my heart. You will, of course, begin preparations tomorrow, and that will require most of your time and energy. For tonight, though, you should relax.”
“Well, this is a good start,” I murmured, amazed once again at how much smoother the second sip of whiskey was than the first. “But why did the queen object so angrily to the suggestion that Seren would make a better choice? It’s true, I’d say.”
“Hmm.” Dad gave me an appraising stare. “It was probably true this past summer, but I believe that, as you have already pointed out, you have earned your tiara since. But to answer your question, I believe that there are two matters that stirred the queen to anger. First, of course, is the prophecy; both she and I have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the priesthood, which, though we claim tradition to be our savior, is truly the primary agency that has protected us from civil war all these centuries. To brush off the validity and import of the prophecy would in turn brush off the authority of the priesthood. We both believed that to be the worst possible outcome of today’s discussion. More importantly, though, I suspect she loves her daughter too much to subject her to ruling through the times to come.”
“Oh. I see. And you don’t love me enough to protect me from the same?” I let my voice lilt up at the end to take the sting out of my words.
Dad chortled again around another sip. “Daughter…. Alyssa, I love you more than I love any other being in this entire realm. I hope that you know that. If I could spare you the turmoil that is to come, I would. Yet I also love this realm, and I am in firm agreement with both Sternyface and Talaith that you are the only one capable of leading it through the dark times to come.
“Help me, ‘lyssa One Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” I quipped.
“A movie quotation?” Dad asked, and I nodded. “Well, in this case, it seems apropos, whatever it meant in the movie. As much as I hate to place this upon your shoulders, you are the realm’s only hope. Seren, for many reasons, some of which are likely not apparent to you yet, cannot do what you must do.” He drained his glass. “And now, might I suggest that you enjoy the remainder of your evening? The next few days will be challenging.”
“I’m going out for a run,” I announced to Seph and Aerona once I’d changed out of the court finery and taken my hair down. It sounded like a good thing to do; I hadn’t been on a run since my arrival in the elf realm. Oh, I’d run several times, but running because you have to get somewhere fast, or because a legendary grizzly bear is chasing you, is vastly different from jogging along just because you can.
“Okay, let me change to my running clothes. It will only be a—” Seph started, but I interrupted her with both my voice and my gesture.
“No. Please, I need—I’m not certain what I need, exactly, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve my cousin and her wolverine and my guard loping along with me. I’m sorry, Aerona, but I need to go out by myself.”
I was shocked to see her nod, and then she grinned. “I do believe your father would approve, at this point,” she said, and then she pulled a dagger from one of her many hiding places and held it out to me. “Please, though, take this along with that pendant of yours. You never know which might be more useful if either is needed.”
I hefted the knife. It felt—professional. The handle was smooth, its leather turned dark in stripes from a great deal of handling. The blade, somewhere around eight inches long, was simple, thin, and looked incredibly sharp on both edges. Even the point at its tip looked clean and precise. I raised a hand to the blade to test its sharpness.
“Don’t!” she interrupted, and then grabbed the hand that was apparently headed for a slashing. “Sorry, Princess, but you still have some to learn about weaponry. You test a blade by flicking your finger sideways across it, not long ways. A sharp blade will feel—like this,” and she demonstrated and then gestured for me to copy. I did, flipping the pad of my thumb gently across the sharpness of the blade and feeling the little ting it made on what seemed like a single ridge of molecules.
“Thank you,” I said, and then looked to slip it under my belt. Once again Aerona sprang to my rescue, showing me how to fold a scrap of leather into a pouch to protect the belt, the clothes, and my underlying skin from the incredibly sharp edges.
I pulled the knife Keion gave me for Christmas out of a drawer and showed it to her.
“That is a nice piece of work,” she complimented it. “But it is intended to go under boots, not those tennie things you are so fond of wearing. Keep mine instead for the time being.
“If you need me, tell the trees,” Seph said as I left. Confused, I nodded anyway, assuming I’d figure out what that ranger mumbo-jumbo meant if I needed to.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Trial of Spirit Chapter 4

Another installment. The whole book is coming much closer!

The Audience
“Highness, your presence is requested in the throne room,” the little servant girl said. It was pretty easy to tell from the way she kept her eyes glued to the ground, and then how quickly she darted out again, that I didn’t have a pleasant visit ahead of me.
I sighed.
“You’ll be fine, Princess,” a droll voice carried from the corner. I glanced over, pushing my eyes as far to the side as they would go without moving my head in an attempt to cast a dark, meaningful glare at my guard. It didn’t work; I’m not sure if the failure was due to my inability to move any of my facial muscles or the old battle-axe’s inability to be glared at.
“Thanks, Aerona,” I said through pursed lips, earning me an affronted gasp from the makeup lady who was trying to cover up my lack of sleep by intensively pinching and pushing and prodding and smothering the skin on my face. I wasn’t even certain there was all that much left of it, but I hoped what was there would be presentable.
So, apparently, did the queen, who had insisted on providing me the services of her personal retinue of makeup and wardrobe artists. It was that insistence, in fact, that had told me all I needed to know about how the day was going to go.
“I have done all I can,” the makeup artist spat and walked from the room. Seph raised my spirits a little by visibly giving me a once-over and raising two fingers in the gesture my human friends would raise two thumbs to make.
“Thanks. You coming with, Cousin?”
“No! No, I was not summoned, Alyssa. I wish I could, but—“
“I know. Well, let’s face the jungle, Aerona.” The two of us stepped out of the dressing room, me in a resplendent yellow beaded blouse that came down nearly to my ankles, and her following in her much darker bodyguard attire.
“The word is goeddgwyllt, Princess,” she murmured from behind me as we made our stately way down the third-floor hall.
“Thanks, Aerona,” I said, trying to keep sarcasm out of my voice, but failing. I didn’t need the grammar lesson when something so significant was happening just two floors down. Granted, she was right; I’d used the proper word for jungle and so it didn’t make sense in the elf idiom. The correct way to get the point across was to suggest facing the crazy trees—which would, granted, have made a native elf a lot more nervous than merely facing a jungle like they had in the southern part of the continent.
At least she had gotten my point.
“You’re welcome, Princess.”
“So how was your vacation?” She and I hadn’t had any time to chat; she’d been away for the entirety of Yule since I was safely tucked away at my father’s native village—and since, I suspected, he’d ordered her to take time off. Otherwise, she’d have continued standing just past my shoulder glaring at the shadows on my behalf for the entire time. But she’d spun into my room as the door was closing behind Seph the night before, and as far as I knew she stood in watch over me all night, just as she had every night since the ill-fated attack on me during my first few days in Kiirajanna.
“I enjoyed it,” was the simple reply.
“Did you go home?”
“Are you willing to supply me with any details?”  In addition to the fact that I was anxious for anything to take my mind off of the upcoming meeting, I was really genuinely curious.
“At the moment, such details would be frivolous.”
“Thanks,” I grumbled.
Finally the long walk ended, as it eventually had to. I found myself standing in front of the doors that were so seldom closed, hoping that they could somehow just remain that way and it would all just disappear. Only, I knew it wouldn’t, and so I took a deep breath and nodded to Aerona, who pulled one of the doors wide to let me in.
I stepped into the throne room and just barely kept myself from shivering as the temperature seemed to plummet. My father’s eyes met mine briefly, and in that fleeting microsecond I watched a host of emotions flash by. The first was genuine surprise; I suppose Aerona’s door-swoosh had been a little bit too abrupt. It was followed by deep and sustaining love, a dash of pity, a whole mess of sorrow, and even a little pinch of personal humiliation.
Great. I suppressed a sigh, but only barely.
The queen, for her part, wore her own mask of consternation. Her eyes betrayed absolutely nothing as they flashed over my presence and returned quickly to the assembled guests around me. She sat easily, entirely regally, on her throne, chin high and hands relaxed on the arms of the chair. Her face looked like it was ready to freeze a fireball, but every other detail about what she could have been thinking was hidden behind a firmly-fixed mask.
I made a mental note to ask her how she developed that skill.
The royal pair were as resplendent as I’d ever seen them. Dad was regal in his darkest black velvet robe complete with purple slashed openings down each arm and a purple sash under the magnificent golden stag and raven pendant. His hair was carefully molded into the perfect black mane, swooping around and to the side like Prince Charming’s—Keion’s—did when the prince flipped it that way. But Dad was sporting the look on purpose. Similarly, Her Majesty’s hair was up in a magnificent maze of actual hair and ribbons with pearls and rubies interspersed every so often. Her luxurious dress was a formal full-length gown of purple with deep green panels inset across the bodice and down the skirt, which spilled onto the floor all about her feet. She must, I realized, have been sitting that way since before the meeting, since there was no way gravity could’ve placed the hem where it lay.
From her perch standing between the pair, Sternyface glared at everybody, though she seemed to take great joy in adding a little extra heat to her glare at me. The High Priestess Naissa and I had shared a special relationship since I’d arrived in Kiirajanna, new as I was to the elf lifestyle. She was special to me as one of only two people I’d ever punched in the face, and even more so as the only one who hadn’t even shown the slightest bit of injury from the incident. At the same time, I was obviously special to her, thanks to the weaknesses apparent in my temperament, in my maternal genetic material, in my native state of Mississippi, and in everything else I happened to be involved with. Still, my spirits were buoyed as her glare suddenly softened to a look that actually seemed calming and understanding, if that was even possible from Sternyface herself, bless her heart.
Meanwhile, I sensed nothing but anger tinged with hatred from both sides of me. I didn’t spare it a glance. I couldn’t; the Queen’s Lady had been extra-firm on that point both at my coronation ceremony and this morning. At the earlier ceremony it would have merely been a minor slight to the ruling pair, as everyone in audience to the king and queen are supposed to pay attention to them and to them alone. Today, though, it would represent a significant psychological victory for my new detractors.
It was okay. I didn’t need to turn my eyes. My spidey-senses were on maximum overdrive anyway, thanks to the stress of the moment, and while I’d never been able to sense anything but location and identity, I found myself at that moment able to discern raw emotions, too, probably thanks to the intensity of those emotions. Hefin, the barrel-chested leader of the eastern elves, stood furthest to my left. He stood calmly and felt the least angry of the bunch.
The faint whiff of woodsmoke he carried in his tunic was nearly drowned out by the pungent incense that Swadda of the Serpent Veils exuded. I can never remember the name for the incense that her tribe, the elves of the western desert, use not only for ritual blessing and cleansing but also to cover the fact that they don’t take many showers. It was described by the Queen’s Lady, before I’d experienced it personally, as a strong earthy presence bearing gentle floral and citrus overtones, but to me it smelled like I was sniffing pine needles and eating an orange while somebody nuked a microwave full of popcorn into charcoal nearby.
Swadda was the most agitated of the bunch. I didn’t need any extra senses to feel the air jiggle thanks to the quivering angst of the massive veils she wore. She was furious, and probably more than a little bit scared, and only barely holding those emotions in check.
To my right stood a darkly-brooding elf I’d enjoyed meeting last summer. Glynis led the southern tribes, a loose collective of jungle dwellers who perfectly personified the Amazonian archetype. The tribes were strongly matriarchal, I recalled, and — I’m not kidding — ran around in loincloths and leather bikini tops looking like contestants on a survivalist reality game show back home. They even applied war paint to their visages when they were looking for a battle, which was bad news considering I’d caught a glimpse of Glynis’s striped face on my way in.
That she stood rigidly wearing an enforced calm scared me the most, if you want the truth. I’d enjoyed meeting her and her tribe mostly because of the pure, simple joy they brought to most of life’s events. She’d greeted me back then with a genuine smile and a genuinely pleasant air, and then she eagerly, almost childishly, dragged me to meet nearly everybody in her camp, grinning widely the whole way. Every one of her companions invited me down to run through the tree tops with them, as others had told me that their idiom went. In a private moment afterward, while she and I were sharing some wonderful southern mead, Glynis explained to me that it wasn’t just an idiom—the southern elves could literally run through the treetops, thanks to the thousands of pathways they’d developed.
That was all before news of the library thing took hold, unfortunately. Now, they were all here to see me go down, if the queen’s kids’ rumor held true. My senses, unfortunately, were shouting at me that the rumor was pretty much spot on. I forced that thought from my mind, wrapped my face in a true, practiced elf-grin using nearly every facial muscle I owned, curtsied with the most appropriate hand gesture of respect, and greeted the royal pair.
Then my worst fears gained form and laughed in my face.