Erramore attempted to stay calm as the large council descended into chaos. Gregor Kuumgad lounged quietly in his chair with a grin as his attack dogs, Ravil Minkstev, Ferra Tellisivi, and Nadellia Lamistan, berated John Bennett about some ridiculous land disputes. Erramore felt sorry for the old man but knew she would be of no help. Saräh Möore had already received a tongue lashing when she jumped to his defence and, since then, stayed relatively quiet.
Erramore glared at the door with disgust. This is how it always was when he didn’t have the grace to show himself. Erramore and Tarok could hold command while discussing the Capital matters, but when it came to the Kalip’s disputes, Gregor soon imposed his oversized body and overloud mouth. Without their Korol, the other Kalips soon fell apart and turned on one another.
“That’s enough, Gregor.” Larias Vasilliev’s commanding voice cut across the group. With the flick of a finger, Ravil, Ferra, and Nadellia returned to their seats like the well-trained hounds they were. Larias had always been a commanding voice of reason at the large council, and Erramore was thankful for his help. Even Gregor wasn’t foolish enough to take on the Kuning, who controlled the Royal Guard, the most disciplined soldiers made up of those who had renounced their family titles and names, devoted and sworn to defend the Korol.
“How are we to resolve this dispute?” Gregor spat as he picked at his grey tooth with one of his nails, uninterested in addressing those he thought far beneath him. “Lake Rospor is extremely profitable and -”
Erramore was tired of waiting and took the offensive. “The maps are quite clear about whose land is -”
“The maps were changed without my consent.”
“You were the one who proposed the deal, obsessed with the land in your east.”
“I lost water and trade worth at least fifty gold a year.”
Larias took up the fight in his ever-diplomatic tone. “You agreed to it at the time, Gregor.”
“I was lied to!”
“We were shown false documents. The truth was kept hidden.” Ravil snarled, his tongue flickering as he spoke.
“You had nothing to do with it, Ravil.” Larias fired back. “The truth was in plain sight. Your greedy eyes saw what they wanted.”
Gregor stood and slammed his palms on the table. “I will not be lied to by a custom breaker who pumps up his guard with peasants to hold control.”
Larias’ eyes grew narrow and his lips drew tight as he deliberately rose from his chair. “Those are serious accusations, Gregor. And I know you do not have a shred of proof, as it is not true.”
“Forges lit, armour made, weapons sharpened night after night. I can read the signs.” Gregor said as he snapped his head towards Ravil, Ferra, and Nadellia, who rose in unison. “If the Korol is too busy to attend his own councils, then I see no reason I should be taking time out of my day to waste it with you.” Gregor glowered at John Bennett. “If you do not pay tithes for the lake, I will take it by force.” Gregor whipped his cape over his shoulder and marched from the room with his mutts trailing.
The remaining Kalips sat in awkward silence. Larias was the first to move as he picked up his gilded iris helmet and placed it on his head, completing his golden Kuning uniform, his chest plate decorated with his house symbol of the brown snake, which was protecting a purple iris. “That man has some nerve.”
“Yes, Gregor has -”
Larias swung around and faced Erramore. “I was talking about the Korol. He must have some incredibly important business or be deathly ill to have missed today.” Larias nodded to Varët Hastan, Saräh Möore, then John Bennett. “As he wills a war closer from every front his supporters dwindle, tired of picking up his lethargy.”
Erramore smiled a crooked little smile. “I assure you the Korol is working in your best interests.”
“Remind him that without us -”
“I remind you that your name would already be lost to history without him.” Erramore turned to Varët, Saräh, and John. “Without him, all of you would be lost to history. Family names destroyed, titles and lands handed to the Kuumgads or ransomed to the highest bidder. You made your choice and chose to support the Korol, and he has made it worth your while, then some. If you choose to renege on your support now… You will be in for the same fate.”
“I remain faithful, my Koroleva. But grow frustrated and weary. I must away to the dangerous streets, overcrowded with commoners desperate for a feed. Another issue fallen to the guard.” Larias said before he crinkled his nose and brushed some fluff off his golden armour.
“If you no longer wish to hold your position as Kuning,” Tarok started, his voice dripping with menace, “I’m sure we can find somebody who does.”
Larias didn’t bite, instead lightly bowing to Erramore and dashing from the room.
Varët, Saräh, and John all stood politely. “We still unequivocally support the Korol,” John said, his voice far from convincing.
Erramore stood and addressed the remaining Kalips earnestly. “We are being threatened from without, and now from within. This is the time we must stand strong. Should it come to it, we cannot afford to be at half-strength. Even Gregor knows that a new Korol is not within his interests. Pay Gregor the tithes, John, ten gold a year, we’ll pay five of it. It’s far less than you have been making from that lake.”
“We’ve been operating Lake Rospor for two years now,” John said. “Built it up ourselves, including a new town and the infrastructure. It wasn’t cheap. He agreed to -”
“He did agree. And now, he has wrongly gone back on his word. But you have made good coin, and this is a sure way to make him disappear.”
“He will find something else to complain about.” John winged.
“Yes. And he will continue until we make a stand. Which we will. Right now, we cannot afford for the Kalips to go to war.” Erramore said. John screwed up his face as he prepared to counterattack. “Please, John. Don’t.”
“I will do as you say, as I always have, my Koroleva.” John huffed, shook his head, and marched from the hall with Varët and Saräh close behind.
“Does anyone know where he is?” Tarok growled. “I’ll wager he’s in the dining hall.”
“He’ll have fallen asleep in his study,” Erramore said. She had grown somewhat used to her promised being late, but in their current precarious position, this irked her greatly.
“I’m sure he will be here soon.” Kalal’s high-pitched, ever-optimistic little voice carried from the side of the hall. Aluka and himself were so quiet that Erramore had almost forgotten they were there, with that giant beast of a man. “We will cover the tithes.”
“Incredibly generous.” Erramore tipped her head to Kalal. Not that he would miss ten gold. She assumed the tithes could be one hundred times more and still barely dent their accounts. No one knew how much the Sokolovs or Turgeons were worth.
Tarok began tapping his hand on the table, or his leg, or his chair, anything so long as he was the loudest in the room. It echoed up the spire as if forty people were tapping on Erramore’s brain. Kalal started obsessively whispering in Aluka’s ear, no doubt discussing the council proceedings and ensuring they were of one mind. The High Priest had been praying the whole time. Praying or sleeping. He was so old he may even have been dead. Then there was the giant beast of a man standing at the edge of the room and staring at her. She had been told his name was Martis and was less than pleased with his presence. “What’s he doing here?”
“My Koroleva, I humbly apologise, I thought I had introduced you,” Kalal said, his thin voice hardly carrying the four paces between them. “This is Martis. No family name. I’m afraid, as I am no longer what I once was, he will be assisting me with Aluka.”
Erramore looked the considerable man up and down. This was her first time seeing him this close, and the rumours were true. He was a brute of a man, with horrible scaring that sat around his mouth. His ginormous breastplate held what looked like a hawk and raven circling one another. His sword was so large it almost scraped along the ground. Erramore doubted she could lift it. “What did you think of today?” She asked him.
“Do not think him rude, my Koroleva, he will not reply,” Kalal said, lifting his head from Aluka’s ear and smiling.
Erramore’s lips thinned. “Why should he be privy to the conversation of the council? How can we be sure we can trust him?”
“I guarantee it, my Koroleva. Show her.” Kalal said. Martis smiled a half smile, or at least his best effort, which resulted in a hideous open mouth that housed green and yellow rotting gums with no teeth and a small stump for a tongue. Erramore winced and clutched her chest, trying not to be sick from the stench that carried from the other side of the room. “I assure you, my Koroleva, he will not divulge your secrets. Martis is here to help with Aluka’s… situation. No hidden motives. I’m sure you will understand. The Capital has many stairs.”
Erramore sat back upon realising she had been leaning in to hear Kalal, his voice so soft she wondered how Aluka’s broken body could listen to him. Maybe he couldn’t. Martis finally closed his gaping mouth, returning his face to its scarred state, which seemed rather pleasing after the festering mess of his mouth. His eyes were still trained uncomfortably on Erramore, presumably his simple mind wondering about the flesh beneath the blue and white gown she wore that day. She usually didn’t mind when people looked; a distracted mind could be easily swayed. But when he looked, the room felt more… venomous.
“You are not to look at the Koroleva,” Kalal said as if reading her thoughts. Martis averted his eyes instinctively, her flesh the least exciting thing in the room.
Tarok returned to tapping his hand impatiently on the table. Kalal returned to whispering in Aluka’s ear. The High Priest was yet to stir from what Erramore was now sure was sleep. And Martis stared forward, not at Erramore, but close enough that she was sure he could see her out of the corners of his beady eyes.
She huffed and looked about the War Spire. She had always despised that one of the spires had been dedicated to war as if there weren’t more pressing issues to address. The floor was a mosaic of oranges, yellows, and reds that depicted Päike, the sun Mother. As beautiful as it was, it was her least favourite of the mosaics. The other spires held their own mosaic of a different Mother, but her favourite was that of a pregnant Taara in the Mountain Throne Spire.
Tarok stood and moved to the table of Maailemätuld, a beautiful antique carved into a map that stretched ten paces wide and ten paces deep. He played around with the little wooden pieces that depicted the different Kalips and their fighting capabilities, nudging them left or right as if there were a silent battle in his mind. She always prepared herself when they gathered around that damn table. It usually ended with a warmonger suggesting battle and Erramore trying to talk the little children out of it. Luckily for her, she only needed to convince her promised. She had lost count of how many times she had talked Brinden out of a needless battle, garnering disappointed groans or rancorous looks that sent a chill down her spine.
“Shall we see who wins the wager?” Tarok suggested as he violently hit one of the wooden blocks against another, knocking it over. “His study is close.”
The High Priest jolted awake with a snort as the crashing wooden block echoed around the spire. The few remaining strands of grey hair on his head swayed as he looked around for something he recognised. His withered mouth trembled, a glob of spit stuck in its corner as he took a raspy breath. “Are we finished?” he asked so slowly Erramore almost fell asleep herself.
“Barely started.” She replied, “But a fair presumption given the time. He is yet to arrive, we were discussing moving to find him ourselves. No one would be offended if you returned to the temple.” She called over her shoulder as she made for the exit with haste. She doubted the doddering old fool heard her anyway. Tarok followed with speed while Kalal lagged behind, waiting for Martis, who was carrying Aluka’s chair up the few stairs to the exit. Erramore burst through the spire door and wandered past the meeting rooms where Talutajas, Kalips, and advisors came to discuss important matters. Of course, it was no surprise that Kalal and Aluka spent most of their time entertaining different dignitaries here.
Erramore could hear Tarok hurrying to keep up with her, desperate not to allow her the chance to have even a beat with her promised. She pushed through the hallway into the royal living room, a grand space for relaxing and entertaining once the essential matters had been attended to. It had a large balcony that could be used to address the commoners should there be a need, not that anyone ever ventured within five paces of the covered windows. Not since an arrow killed Korol Danial Tillerson the beloved, and left his demented son, Ollie, to rule.
“Your daughter is rather… spirited,” Tarok said as he finally caught up with Erramore.
She didn’t break stride. “I wonder where she gets that from.”
“Probably the same place she gets her imprudence,” Tarok said, unable to hide his smirk. “Eager to take a master on her first day, not the most intelligent of decisions.”
“How did you get that black eye?”
“I will admit, I was taken by surprise,” Tarok reluctantly said, “I surely will not let it happen again.”
“Surely.” Erramore halted in front of Brinden’s study. “Once is embarrassing enough.” She knocked. Silence.
“Who is it?” Brinden croaked before coughing and clearing his throat.
“Your Fidus Achates.” Tarok called over the top of Erramore.
“One beat.” Brinden rumbled as a chair scraped along the ground.
Tarok sighed as he leaned against the door frame. “Why must I be the one who tutors her? She despises my methods, talks back to me, and complains when I push her too hard. She does not understand that being pushed may be the difference between life and death. I care for her, I do, but she does not have what it takes. There are tutors who specialise in little girls who think it’s fun to swing a sword.”
“Are you not the mighty master you would have us believe?” Erramore mocked him. “Ready to take on any challenge that comes your way?”
“I hardly think it challenging to teach a little girl to -”
“Then what are you complaining about? If it’s not enough for you to take joy from a student improving at something they love, then remember, my promised is the one who bestowed that eel upon you.” Erramore pointed to Tarok’s neck chain, which held the new Tarok Retmin seal of a yellow and aqua eel. Erramore rapped on the door impatiently before Tarok could reply.
“Yes, yes!” Brinden shouted, “Come in then.”
Erramore shot her hand to the door handle, blocking Tarok’s path. “If it makes you feel better, I’d choose anyone else in a heartbeat. But Brinden assures me you’re the right man, and I expect nothing but the best for my little girl. If you attempt to hand her to another or give less than your best effort, that little eel may slither away.” Erramore smiled, wiggling her finger at Tarok’s neck chain.
His cheeks flushed red as his chest puffed out, but Erramore didn’t allow him a reply. She flung the door open and entered the vast study, noticing one empty jug of wine, one full, sitting on Brinden’s enormous, polished oak desk. There was a poorly cleaned-up puddle on the floor while his royal jacket hung over the back of his chair, dripping.
“My Korol,” Tarok said as he pushed past Erramore and bowed low. “Might I say you’re looking as -”
“Why are you two here?” Brinden asked, slumping into his chair.
“The large council meeting,” Erramore said as she entered the room and sat on the chair opposite Brinden. “We agreed to meet at five hundred in the War Spire.”
“Damn it to the abyss. What’s the time now?” Brinden asked, leaning forward for the full jug of wine.
“Closing in on six hundred, I would say,” Erramore said as she instinctually snatched the jug of wine before placing it out of reach. “The Kalips have been and gone, less than impressed. Your other advisors will be here at any moment.”
“Will they?” Brinden sighed, rubbing his red eyes and scratching his beard. “To discuss?”
“The usual.” Erramore shrugged. “Coin, power, politics. We might mention, oh, I don’t know, the körgu council meeting quickly approaching.”
Brinden groaned. “Isn’t this what the Fidus Achates is for?” He rolled his head to look at Tarok. “Or the Keeper of the Palace? Or the Master of Ceremonies? Even the Lady of the Palace, for all I care. One of them must be of use.”
“The Fidus Achates is here to discuss the matter right now. As for Barracius Minkstev and Narcïs Bennett, they are both busy preparing the palace. If you would like me to put Lady Sienna in charge of proceedings, then I -”
“Gods no.” Brinden thundered. “My sister couldn’t organise a bedding in a brothel.”
“Charming,” Erramore said as she grabbed the jug of wine and poured herself a drink. “As I am tasked with organising the council, despite your deepest of desires to help, I will decline your services. I wouldn’t want you working so hard you might miss the opportunity for a drink. I will remind you, that your advisors, the Sokolov and Turgen families, have once again come to your aid and generously given us one hundred gold coins to host. May I suggest you greet them with a smile when they arrive.”
“Yes, yes,” Brinden said, waving his arm in front of his face. “I’m always a delight. Give me the wine.”
Erramore glowered as Tarok reached over the top of her, grabbed the jug of wine, and handed it to Brinden. Brinden took it by the handle and filled his goblet to the brim. He replaced the wine jug on his desk, took a three-beat hearty swallow from his goblet, and sighed loudly as he sank lower into his chair.
“My Korol. I think it important we discuss the unrest in the streets.” Tarok said. “It’s hardly the look we want for the council meeting.”
“It is under control,” Erramore said, sitting straighter.
There was a light knock at the door before it was pushed open by Kalal, followed by Martis wheeling Aluka. “One thousand apologies, my Korol,” Kalal said, lightly tipping his head at the door. “It is not so easy as it once was to move about the halls. I see you have started. Have I missed anything of importance?”
“We were about to discuss the unrest in the streets,” Tarok said.
Erramore pursed her lips. “I’m not sure what -”
“Ahh yes,” Kalal said, frailly moving to the free chair against the wall. He half-heartedly attempted to move it, then stepped back and waited as Martis easily plucked it from the ground and dropped it into the middle of the room. “We have certainly noticed that the peasants are showing discontent.”
Erramore snapped her head around. “If you’re talking about the minor gathering -”
“Indeed, I am talking about the minor gathering,” Kalal said as he kept his eye on Brinden. “Tarok, you were telling me about…”
“I was,” Tarok said. “My Korol, we have seen repeatedly that a small group of peasants demanding food can quickly turn into something much more.”
“Only when they aren’t fed,” Erramore said more curtly than intended. “These commoners do not travel to the city wishing to cause trouble. They travel here because they have no other option.”
“Undeniably, my Koroleva. I do agree.” Kalal said with a slight nod.
Tarok continued. “What starts with good intentions often deteriorates as the peasants get bored.”
“Or is it that they get hungry?”
“What would you have me do?” Brinden asked as he sipped at his wine, pretending to be deep in thought.
“I dare say I’m not sure there is much you can do,” Kalal said.
“I can think of some things,” Tarok smirked. “Ways to ensure they do not get the opportunity to gather and unite.”
Erramore spun around to face him. “Or you could feed them.”
“Feed a rat, and he’ll never go away.”
“What is it you propose, Tarok? Kill them all? Place their heads on spikes? Maybe we can set up traps around the city.” Erramore said scornfully. “If only we were dealing with rats and not people.”
Tarok leaned in. “I can hardly tell the difference.”
Erramore rounded on Brinden, unable to hide her disgust. “As Korol, it is your duty to look after your people. If you butcher them, they will never -”
The conversation broke down as Tarok started talking over the top of her. “Larias has been openly questioning you. He is busy holding peace amongst the Kalips and can hardly deal with a situation in the streets. For now, you should place someone else in charge of keeping the peace. Only then will they learn -”
“That should be you, should it?” Erramore cut in. “Keeping the peace by murdering innocent people -”
“Yes, it should be me. Unlike you, I have experience. Unlike you, I do not underestimate the power of people. The world isn’t smiles and rainbows, Erramore. These peasants will not hesitate to harm -”
Erramore stood. “These common people want to live their lives free from -”
“They want nothing more than – They want to live their lives free of you!”
“They want to be free of tyranny and fear. Something you will be forcing onto them!”
“Fear is the thing keeping them -”
“Fear is the thing stopping them -”
Brinden slammed his fist on the desk. “Stop this madness at once!” He bellowed. “I hardly want to listen to your spiteful bickering.” Brinden pointed to Kalal. “What do I do?”
“Well,” His soft voice cracked as he cleared his throat. “Both the Koroleva and the Fidus Achates raise excellent points. At such a time, so close to the körgu council, the peasants are hardly a concern. They can wait while you focus your attention on the more important matters. Tarok has valid concerns about the Kuning, Larias has been -”
“Loyal to the Korol,” Erramore said. “You know Larias well, Brinden. He is your Kuning. It is his duty to protect you. He is a sworn Kalip and the head of The Royal Guard. Raising his concerns has been an important aspect of your relationship. He has hardly -”
Tarok leaned forward to a conspiratorial distance. “Gregor was the Kuning once.”
Erramore pleaded with Brinden. “He had not yet taken his oath. After your father - he had no one to protect, the world was confused. We both watched Gregor slip from reality and make poor decisions which can be traced back to your brother… he made things more difficult. You did what had to be done, and you spared him mercifully. But Larias is different. He cares about -”
“I do not trust him!” Tarok shouted over the top of her.
“He is a good man. The other Kalips will not take it lightly if you break your pact and -”
“He is difficult to trust!” Kalal’s barely audible voice bounced around the study.
They all fell quiet.
Brinden sniffed loudly and finished his drink. “We will deal with the council first. The people can wait.” He flicked his eyes from Tarok to Erramore. “Neither of you has the authority nor my permission to interfere with Larias’ operations. As far as I am concerned, he oversees public safety. I will not hear another word on the matter.” He leaned forward and filled his goblet. “All of you, leave me alone. You can deal with the körgu council together. Anything else can be discussed another time.”
Kalal and Tarok bowed to the Korol as Martis readied to wheel Aluka from the room. Erramore did not move as the four men made for the door. Tarok stopped and turned, eager not to allow her the chance to discuss matters privately. “Are you not coming, my Koroleva?”
Tarok’s lip curled. “If there is more to discuss, then I -”
“Get out,” Brinden instructed, waving his hand at Tarok.
Tarok bowed tersely, then reluctantly closed the door behind himself.
“What do you want?” Brinden asked as he sank backwards and closed his eyes. “This better not be about the people.”
“Do you take me for a fool?” Erramore said as she flicked through the parchments on Brinden’s desk. “I’m about to have a conversation with our daughter. Her sixteenth winter celebration hardly went smoothly. She only met one or two suitors and has been in her room since. I thought you might like to be a part of the conversation.”
“Very well,” Erramore said as she mustered a smile. “That was all.”
“What are you going to talk about?” He asked, stopping Erramore, who was moving towards the door.
“Her prospects. The future. What is expected of her,” She said without turning. “It’s time she learnt.”
“Do you mean to tell her that you and I -”
“Of course not.” Erramore snapped as she opened the door. “Enjoy your wine.” She shut the door and moved swiftly down the corridor, her long gown kicking out in front of her as her shoes drummed on the wooden boards below.
She cut through a side door onto the memorial walk, then into the royal chambers. As she walked down the long corridor, a door behind her creaked. Unconcerned, she continued down the hall when a puff of stale air streamed past her face. She stopped and spun on her heel, searching for the culprit. There was someone here.
“How did you get in?” Erramore called into the hallway, curious rather than frightened.
“It wasn’t hard.” A smooth voice replied before a hooded figure in a large white cloak stepped out from behind a pillar. “You left it open for me.”
“Yes,” Erramore said, her heart missing a beat as she strained for words. “It’s been a long time.”
“Nine winters.” The hooded figure nodded, removing her cloak to reveal her famous grey eyes with golden flecks. “It’s good to see you Erramore.”
“And you, Hafen,” Erramore said as she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her. She had aged, undoubtedly, but that age had lessened the jut of her chin dramatically. Erramore couldn’t locate a single wrinkle on her face. Her long blonde hair flowed almost as graciously as hers, her nose less hooked, her eyes less sunken. And that chin - Almost normal. She looked strangely beautiful in her white robe, like a descendant of Taara. “You look good,” Erramore said, clutching Hafen’s forearm. “I shudder to think why you’ve come out of hiding.”
“I wouldn’t unless necessary,” Hafen said, holding onto Erramore before taking a sombre step backwards. “I fear you know why I am here. The Mother of Balance has returned.”
Erramore almost fell as the words washed over her. She clutched onto the wall. “Daccahm.” She whispered. “It is true. I thought we’d have more time.”
“We don’t,” Hafen said, the warmth of the greeting having already disappeared. “I assume Anastassia is ready.”
“No,” Erramore murmured. “She is much too young. She’s not ready for those realities.”
“What have you been doing all this time?” Hafen barked. “Why hasn’t she been taught?”
“Surely there’s someone else -”
“There isn’t.” Hafen cut her off. “I tried for nine winters. Believe me, I tried. And my girls, all of them searching. And now…” She grabbed Erramore’s arm. “Now you tell me Ana has lagged. She needs to be taught. What if something happens to you?”
“I know,” Erramore said, hiding her shame. “She’s been learning, but -”
“Learning?” Hafen scoffed. “From scrolls and maps, no doubt. Keep her sheltered, the Erramore way. Has she met anyone? Could she identify the Talutajas? Hold a conversation? Is she aware of her importance and its larger relevance? Does she know the lengths people would go to control her?”
“I’m on my way to see her now,” Erramore said, battling to keep calm. “I will invite her to the körgu council so she may begin to learn. But it will be done gradually. Our customs first. Otherwise, it’ll be too overwhelming.”
“Overwhelming?” Hafen scoffed. “What were you doing at that age? She’s nearly full grown.”
“She’s neither physically nor mentally -”
“She’s never had a chance!” Hafen hissed. “Between you and your promised, the poor girl must have no idea. You’re as clueless as each other.” Hafen shook her head and tutted to herself. “You know who will get his claws into her as soon as he finds out. He’ll see her as a threat, as someone who -”
“Don’t let your hatred get in the way -”
Hafen stepped close to Erramore. “This is not about that. He wants it for himself. You know he’s been collecting the Elixirs. Him and his little puppet, the Tormentor.”
“I know,” Erramore said, reassuringly touching Hafen’s shoulder. “He’s not the problem. I can control him.”
Hafen pushed Erramore’s hands aside. “Tell her what she needs to know, then prepare her for the realities of what’s to come.”
“I can’t unload it all on my darling girl at once. The council first. One thing at a time.”
Hafen raised her voice, “If she’s to rule Maailemätuld the way you want, you have to start -”
Erramore stepped forward to meet her, raising her voice even louder. “She must have a childhood.”
“A childhood? She’s sixteen, Erramore! Sixteen!”
“She isn’t even a woman yet!”
A male voice cut across them, “Is everything okay?”
The two women turned to find Tarok standing surprisingly close and shuffled away from one another. “Of course, everything’s fine.” Erramore said unconvincingly.
“Excuse my intrusion, Koroleva.” Tarok bowed, “I only came to apologise for my dreadful display but moments ago. We can both get swept up in the passion of debate occasionally. Although some more than others. Here I find you in the throngs of yet another heated discussion.”
“Old friends. You know how they can be. Brinden and yourself know better than most.” Erramore chuckled. “And where are my manners.” She pointed as she said their names. “This is Lady Zemeyan. Lady Zemeyan, this is the Fidus Achates, Tarok Retmin.”
Tarok stepped forward and snatched Hafen’s hand. “An honour to meet a friend of the Koroleva, Lady Zemeyan,” He said as he kissed it.
“Hafen will be fine.” She said with a blush and a slight curtsy. “I’ve heard a lot about the famous Tarok Retmin.” She continued, keeping her hand in contact with his. “The Fidus Achates. You’re a very important man.”
“Indeed, I am,” He said, grinning from ear to ear.
“Second fiddle to the Korol. As I am to the Koroleva.” Hafen teased.
“Seems we have something in common.”
Erramore felt herself scowling at their conversation and wiped it from her face before clearing her throat. “Tarok, if you aren’t too busy, would you mind escorting Lady Zemeyan out of the palace? I wouldn’t want her getting lost.”
“Certainly,” Tarok said, offering his arm for Hafen to take. “It isn’t safe for such a pretty lady to walk about alone after dark.”
Hafen’s cheeks flushed further as she took his arm. “It was lovely to see you, Koroleva.” She curtsied. “Might I advise we see each other sober at the council?” She paused and flared her eyes. “Ana’s got a lot to learn, and the council would seem the appropriate place to start.” She turned and placed her hand on Tarok’s chest. “What an honour to be chaperoned by the Fidus Achates.” Hafen linked her arm through Tarok’s as the two meandered down the hallway. “I hear the council didn’t go as planned, is Gregor up to his old tricks?”
Tarok swept his hand across his body and chaperoned Hafen from the hallway. Erramore watched with disbelief as the two sauntered off, laughing arm in arm. She let out a single sob as her shoulders dropped and her body relaxed. She had not been aware of how anxious she was. Nine winters it had been—nine whole winters. Hafen looked good. Still, she worried about her state of mind.
Erramore wiped her eyes to ensure all wetness was gone before continuing down the hallway. She turned into the next corridor to find a guard outside Ana’s chambers. “How long this time?” she asked, nodding towards the door.
“It hasn’t stopped.” The Guard admitted, pointing to a bowl of soup. “And she hasn’t eaten.”
“Younglings,” Erramore said, sighing and shaking her head.
“Yes.” The Guard stammered. “I-I-I have two of my own.”
“Bad luck.” Erramore joked.
“I can hear you.” Ana’s voice called from the other side of the door.
Erramore pulled a face before entering Ana’s room. It had been destroyed. Clothes were strewn all over the floor, the table upturned, and the wooden bedposts had been broken. Ana was sitting on what remained of her mattress, lying on the floor.
“Talk about a tantrum,” Erramore said from the door as she looked about the room.
Ana glared at her. “Sometimes you need to be heard.”
“And yet…” Erramore said as she shrugged her shoulders. “You weren’t.”
Ana stood with both her hands clenched into fists. “You’ve had me locked in here for days!”
“You wouldn’t calm down for days.”
“Those people out there need help!” She shouted, stamping her foot on the ground.
“I agree,” Erramore said, taking the wind out of her sails. “But to do that, you must learn to control yourself.” She moved towards and then sat on what was left of Ana’s bed, patting the mattress for Ana to do the same. Erramore sighed as Ana scowled before begrudgingly taking the seat, keeping her back turned. “You’re too old to act like this.”
“You’re too old to understand.” She fired back.
Erramore smiled as thoughtfully as she could. “When you’re in charge, you can’t lose your head because something doesn’t go your way. You smile -” Erramore paused. “Then you figure out how to make it go your way.”
“When I’m in charge…” Ana started straight away. “I’ll be too busy changing the world to have parties with my rich friends.”
Erramore laughed. “Very honourable… I used to think the same way.” She tried to ignore Ana’s over-the-top scoff. “It’s true, even if you don’t believe me. The problem is that when you get here, everything changes. Everything you do is scrutinised. It’s not as simple as saying the right words. How do you plan on paying for these revolutionary changes of yours? Perhaps I have underestimated you, and you’ve stored a thousand gold pieces in the walls? Yet – I think not.” Erramore smiled as kindly as she could. “You must be smart, my love. You must pick your battles.”
Ana flung her body around to face her mother and sneered, “Brinden’s never picked a battle in his life.”
“Your fathers fought more battles than you know.” Erramore snapped back. “Over time, it’s made him weary.”
“He’s not a real man. He panders to those people.” She said, turning herself away.
“Yes, he does,” Erramore admitted. “He has no choice. Unfortunately, despite its standing, our family does not have the wealth of others. It may be difficult to accept, my darling, but there is only one way to make real change. Only one thing anyone cares about. Coin.”
“Only to the corrupt.”
Erramore couldn’t help but laugh. “You really are my daughter.”
“Why is it you’re here?” Ana asked, looking over her shoulder.
“I’m sure you’re aware the körgu council is meeting here next week,” Erramore said as she indifferently picked a piece of hair from her gown. “I’ve been thinking you should join me.”
“Really?” Ana beamed, swinging around and almost falling off the bed. “You’re not joking, are you?”
“Of course not. It’ll be fun and a good learning opportunity.” Erramore said as she placed her hand affectionately on her daughter’s cheek. “After all, one day, you will rule Maailemätuld.”
“One day soon, I hope,” Ana said, eagerness oozing from her every pore.
“Not too soon, I hope,” Erramore said, playfully slapping her thigh. “You’ll be spectating. Nothing more.” Erramore drew her into a hug. “If you think your father doesn’t measure up, wait until you meet the others.” She lifted her hand and wiggled her little finger in the air, “They’re all overcompensating.” Ana giggled as Erramore stood. “Oh, and promise me you won’t drink.”
“I’m old enough to -”
“Promise me,” Erramore said, clutching Ana’s arm.