Painted

Wyrren Jadis had once been heir to a duchy, and for an afternoon she had been queen of Marla. Now she is an exile and a scholar, living on the charity of Sebastian del Torlo: ruler of Hael Malstrom and her unrequited love. Wyrren doesn’t know why anyone would be able to threaten Sebastian in his own palace, but when she sees a guest attack him during a private meeting without recompense, she’s determined to find out why.

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7. Chapter 6

The largest public party scheduled that evening was to be held at the riverfront, on either side of the city’s main bridge. Noisy, crowded, with the richest and poorest both in attendance; it would be a security nightmare. Even with Sebastian’s assurances that she would be protected, Wyrren wasn’t about to try her luck.

Instead she asked Edward if perhaps they might attend a smaller, private party. Edward promised that it wouldn’t be a problem, and found a garden party hosted by one of the men of the council—the party stretched from the gardens in front of his manse, inside the first floor, then out to the back gardens and the artificial pond filled with lovely orange and pink fish. They looked delicious; Wyrren wondered when they’d be eating them.

This was the third night of the festival. Wyrren had known Edward for five days now. She’d just made love to Sebastian, and had never been inclined to polyamory. She had a history since she was fourteen of obsessing solely on one man and one man only. She could count her age by her crushes better than her birthdays.

Yet somehow, even with Sebastian so fresh in her mind, Edward could make her hand tingle when he stroked her fingers, as if it were Sebastian touching her instead. It left Wyrren cursing herself internally for her suddenly overexcited hormones. What was wrong with her? Edward hadn’t affected her so much before she’d had Sebastian. She ought to be losing any interest she’d once felt, not the other way around. Was he using magic somehow?

“You survived your encounter with Kartania, I see,” Edward said when they arrived.

“You saw that hours ago,” Wyrren said. “Dare I ask how terrible I looked?”

“You’re not giving yourself enough credit. Kartania lost her arm, half her knee, and passed out while they were healing her.” Edward cocked his head to the side. “Lady Jadis, can I ask something? You’ve been fighting with Kartania since she arrived—over the Grand Meister, no less. What are you looking to be? His mistress? It doesn’t suit you.”

“No,” Wyrren said. That had never been her choice. “If he marries Kartania, I’ll leave.”

“Interesting. Where?” Edward returned.

“I… haven’t considered it,” Wyrren said. “I’m particularly fond of the university—I’ve been taking math classes there—but… it is a little too close. Especially if Marla continues to give me trouble.”

“Perhaps you should travel,” Edward said. “There’s much more of the world than Hael Malstrom and Marla. You should see the cliffs on the Attican coast… make your way north along the Tameric River. Visit Doppel, maybe?”

“Perhaps,” Wyrren said. “Not getting your way could be a great adventure.” One which she did not want to go on. She could almost feel Sebastian’s mouth on hers, his hands on her skin. She would love to be his queen. “Or was that an invitation?”

“I like your company, when I can get it,” Edward said. “Even if I seem to be playing tug-of-war for you. Of course it is. Think about it?”

Wyrren nodded. “I will,” she promised. What was he up to?

They had no dancing at that party. Edward offered Wyrren a plate of snacks, and took her to a chair out in the garden terrace. Ana had arranged to be nearby, and had secured Verrus for her date. Wyrren took off her mask to eat and drink, and Edward gave her a lazy, appreciative look with his chin in his hand that made Wyrren blush and look elsewhere. She pressed a napkin over her mouth.

“You really do hate your face, don’t you?” Edward asked.

“More than anything. I’d rid myself of it in a moment if I could. People see me and they make assumptions,” she said. Though both Sebastian and Edward were exceptions to the rule.

“Assumptions are dangerous. People like you help the rest of us learn better,” Edward said.

No one said such things. Ever. Wyrren stared.

“Thank you,” she said finally, not knowing how else to respond. She hadn’t shown her crippled face in public for weeks—not unless she was eating. She reached for her glass, flattered and uncomfortable both.

The pain struck so suddenly that Wyrren fell from her chair. Her wine glass shattered against the table’s edge a moment before she hit the stone terrace. Ice clutched at her under her rib cage; her veins burned from the inside; her heart and lungs contorted, turning themselves inside out. She heard screaming and yelling, saw boots pounding the terrace, the lamps with tails of light above as she whipped her neck to and fro, clutching herself, clawing her skin. Someone shouted her name.

The pain stopped.

Wyrren took a gasping breath. Ana had her arms around Wyrren, holding her with arms and legs both in a fierce grip, her chest against Wyrren’s back, pushing her head down. She heard screaming close by.

“What--”

“Threader,” Ana hissed in her ear.

Wyrren began to look around her. Beyond a forest of human legs writhed a screaming man, devoured by black nothingness with violet edges. He was already missing his legs and half his chest.

Ana grabbed Wyrren’s hair and yanked her back into her embrace. “Get—!”

Then Wyrren heard a dull, wet thud, and felt a shove forward, pushing her to her hands and knees, her forehead on the pavement. Ana gasped and grabbed her tighter, still pressed close. “Don’t move. Don’t you dare move.”

Ana squeezed Wyrren’s arms so hard that it cut off circulation, and Wyrren shook, still feeling the echoes of ice in her gut from the threader’s attack. Wyrren’s right lung squeezed. Her dress was wet, and every breath felt like she was being stabbed. Wyrren started coughing, a wet, rattling cough. Every time she shifted even the slightest bit Ana made the sound of pain so intense she choked instead of screaming. Wyrren’s vision blurred, and she tried to leave Ana to lay down, hacking and spitting out mouthfuls of blood. She could hear her heart in her ears, like a vast army marching together.

“Wyrren!” Edward turned back to her and looked in her eyes. He seemed afraid, and reached out to snap the head off the crossbow bolt that had gone through her chest and Ana’s abdomen. “Don’t move.”

Then Sebastian was there as well, his face white when he saw what had happened. Wyrren hadn’t felt the crossbow bolt go in, but she felt them take it out, sliding it from Ana’s stomach and her chest both. Two enemies worked together to heal them without word or argument, moving in perfect unspoken coordination.

* * *

When Wyrren woke, she found herself laying on a red sofa in a tan room, decorated in upscale dark wood furniture. A vase of lilies had been placed in the dark window, and she could see party lamps hanging from the trees. Her dress was gone; she was back in her slip and underclothes, but when she touched her chest she found that the hole in her slip was not matched by any wound in her skin. Her pillow shifted slightly; they were a man’s legs, and realized her head was resting in Edward Lowar’s lap.

“Awake finally?” Edward asked.

His clothes were clean, somehow. He leaned back on the sofa, savoring a dark cigar, and had one arm laid across the sofa’s back. He seemed decidedly pleased with himself.

“Where are my clothes?”

“I don’t think even magic could salvage that dress,” Lowar said, and blew a smoke ring. “The lady of the house will loan you something, when you’re ready to go home.”

“We’re still in the mansion?” Wyrren thought about sitting up, but decided against it. Where was Sebastian? “Is the party still going on? What happened?”

“The party was cancelled after you were attacked. The good councilman was kind enough to loan us one of his private sitting rooms on the second floor while you recovered,” Edward answered. “The Grand Meister is leading the investigation below. The entire murder are prowling around downstairs in case there are any more.

“Your bodyguard Saffira brought in the bowman. Dropped his unconscious body at Sebastian’s feet like a cat with a kill and a new carpet. If you care to know, you nearly had your soul ripped out, and were shot and poisoned.”

“Ana?” Wyrren asked.

“Alive, though it was a close call. She got the first dose of poison on that bolt and it nearly killed her. She kept them from getting a clear shot at your head, incidentally. Once she stabilized she was taken back to the palace.” He began to stroke her hair.

Wyrren nodded. She felt so very sore. “What was that?” she asked. “The blackness that ate the threader?” She assumed that had been the threader, but how had Edward been able to tell who the culprit was?

“Magic,” Edward said. “Very, very effective magic.”

Wyrren closed her eyes, not quite believing it. Only a threader could counter a threader. Edward continued to stroke her.

After a while, he continued. “It’s called Biskmatry, if you care to know. It’s an antithesis to all things. Life, death… everything. Your mordache art is a tainted form of life magic, you know. That’s why you kill grass and attract the dead. Biskmatars are natural opposites to your people. We can feel you.”

“Were that man a stronger threader…?” Wyrren asked.

“No,” Edward said. “Your art is tainted. The taint weakens it. But my vivomancy, necromancy… those are counters.”

“When did you become such an expert on everything?”

Edward laughed. “I am a particularly talented man.”

Wyrren didn’t move her head from his lap. She was starting to feel attracted to him again.

As if sensing that, Lowar leaned forward and kissed her. He tasted like that cigar, cedar and spice, and he was very bold with his tongue. Wyrren kissed him back, then made herself sit up. She desperately wanted him; it took every ounce of willpower she had to shake her head and scoot away. She had Sebastian to think of. “You are a scoundrel.”

“Lady Jadis, I am a fount of moral shortcomings,” Edward said, “all of which I’d be happy to demonstrate to you in detail, if you’d permit me.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen.” She wanted to kiss him again; maybe try that cigar herself and compare the two. At least her face would betray no such thought. What was wrong with her?

“I do my best. When you’re strong enough, I’ll get one of the Murder to carry you back to the palacia. You can stay in my rooms tonight. I swear no one else will be able to harm you.”

* * *

Verrus accompanied Sebastian to the dungeons under the palace, which were small, windowless stone paths, mainly used for special and political prisoners and short term holding cells until they could be moved to the local jail. Three more of the murder joined them before the Marlan assassin’s cell was opened—Kearn, with his black cloth mask over his mouth, Corvin, in his black clothes and bandoliers of knives, and followed last of all with Ornil, one of the triplets, who told Sebastian that Fervius and his brothers accompanied Lady Jadis.

The head jailer opened the cell for the Grand Meister, pushing heavy iron door inward and revealing what looked to Verrus’ eyes to be an average looking man, clean shaven, his short dark hair receding, his party clothes torn after Saffira had tackled him. Not the sort of man you’d expect to pull out a crossbow and shoot a pair of girls from a rooftop.

Sebastian stopped forward and surveyed the would-be assassin. “My name is Sebastian del Torlo. I’m the ruler of Hael Malstrom. I need to know the names and locations of your associates,” he said.

“Fuck you,” the prisoner said, and did not look up.

“If you’re waiting for the poison you’ve taken, it’s been neutralized,” Sebastian continued. “Hael Malstrom boasts some of the finest healers in the world. Your associates?”

<How many has he caught already?> Verrus asked Kearn privately.

<To my knowledge, he found two in the city prior, one which he took alive. This is the fourth,> Kearn returned. <As I understand it, the Grand Meister has been using biskmatry to track them. Assassins without the mordache magic will have slipped by. May I ask you something, Verrus?>

<Yes, of course,> Verrus replied.

<Ana. I know she is a courtesan. Does she have assassin’s training as well?>

There was a holler in the cell, over Sebastian’s patient, insisting voice. Verrus looked away. <Not that she’s admitted. I think she is, though. She can be a social monster when she’s properly motivated. A very specific type of assassin, perhaps.> Rhetorically speaking, if Ana was out to kill him, he’d given her plenty of opportunities. Golems who projected themselves as men weren’t immune from poison.

<I had it in mind to inquire how Marlan assassins were trained, actually,> Kearn answered. There was another yell from the cell. Corvin seemed to enjoy the sound of pain. Verrus pretended that he hadn’t noticed.

The sound of footsteps came down the hall, followed by their creator: older man with a cane and a black hat. He was one of the men on the council, Mr. Kitch, who looked, in Verrus’ opinion, like a rather proud walrus.

Mr. Kitch smiled briefly in greeting, but motioned Verrus to stand aside, and took his place outside the cell door while he waited for Sebastian to finish. The prisoner had tensed, but said nothing. Sebastian had his hand on the man’s head and seemed to be focusing intently.

When Sebastian left the room a few minutes later, Mr. Kitch was the first to speak. “Mind reading isn’t the best way to get information, your grace. You’re the only one with evidence.”

“Marlan assassins seem to be quite resistant to other means of persuasion I’m afraid. I didn’t have the time to wait for this man to break. I don’t think you’re here to critique my interrogation skills though, are you Mr. Kitch?” Sebastian asked.

“No. I can’t say I like assassins in Valdenemus, either,” Mr. Kitch replied. “The council’s been trying to patch things up, after your indiscretion at last night’s ball toward Lady Riese. We will need your cooperation.”

“My cooperation? I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying Kitch. Please, enlighten me,” Sebastian said.

“Specifically? Kissing other women in front of your soon to be fiancee and half the country is bad manners,” Kitch said. “As was her duel with Lady Jadis this afternoon. The council has nothing against Lady Jadis, but hosting her any further is not in the country’s best interest. Not if this is going to keep happening.”

“A single woman is not going to suddenly throw this country into disarray. I understand my mistake, but not hosting Wyrren now would be as good as sending her to her death with these assassins about. If you’d like to understand the scope of a political incident then you can write the letter to Chyril Jadis explaining how we stood by and let his only daughter be murdered after pledging her safety.”

“We’ve already given your word that she would be leaving the palace,” Mr. Kitch said, “though that was before tonight’s incident, yes. You must at the least apologize to Lady Riese, and it would be in Lady Jadis’ best interest that she stay out of sight. Your sight, in particular.”

“I will apologize to Kartania, but since you all see yourselves fit to give my word then you can retract it as well. I can fix these problems as long as people aren’t going behind my back and making them worse,” Sebastian said.

“Then we can still expect you to announce your engagement to Lady Riese at the end of the Blinkerbug Festival?” Mr. Kitch asked.

“You can expect what’s best for this country, Kitch,” Sebastian said. “Is that all then? I’ve a very pressing matter to attend to.”

“Dammit, Sebastian, we had a deal!”

“I’m not backing out of the anything, Kitch. Your assumptions aren’t improving,” Sebastian said.

“Forgive me, Grand Meister, but this is important. Jadis has been making trouble, and you don’t seem eager to do anything about it. I’d like some assurance that we’re on the same team. Your engagement to Lady Riese…?”

“I will uphold the engagement if I can. If Lady Riese will have me and if it continues to be the best course of action,” Sebastian said.

“Thank you, your grace,” Kitch said. “We will inform Lady Riese that the situation has changed, with the appearance of assassins in the city.” There was a slight hesitance to Kitch’s voice—something that said he didn’t entirely believe Sebastian, and wondered what to do if Sebastian did this again.

“I’ve never steered this country wrong Kitch, you know that. You, and the rest of the council need to have some faith in me. This is a delicate, complicated situation. I’m trying to track every facet so that we can all come out better for it. Just allow me the time to see things through,” Sebastian implored him.

“You have until the end of the festival,” Kitch said. “Let the lady down gently, then.” He didn’t need to say which lady he was referring to.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Sebastian assured him.

Kitch nodded. “Good. Thank you.” He paused, then continued, in a gentler voice, “Don’t worry about it, either. You’re young—but eventually they all turn into hags in the end. The one you wanted and the one you didn’t want both.”

Sebastian nodded. Kitch left. Verrus pretended not to have noticed anything.

* * *

Edward spent the morning trying to seduce Wyrren. Wyrren held out on pure willpower, and made a mental note to see if there really was something wrong with her later. It wasn’t just his suave lines and his funny banter that drew her, either: he felt like a lover, somehow, and she didn’t know why.

Sebastian fetched Wyrren just before breakfast. He waited until they had left Edward’s doorway before he spoke. “I had the assassin interrogated,” Sebastian said. “I have all the information that I need now. The murder are scouring the city. We will be rid of those men before the night is done.” Sebastian took her hand as they walked. “Are you alright? I wasn’t able to attend to you after the chaos.”

“I’m fine,” Wyrren assured him, and she squeezed his hand. “A little shaken after everything, but fine. Thank you. … I didn’t think it could be done.” How had he found a team of Marlan assassins so quickly? Her people were famous for being elusive and deadly.

“I’m nothing, if not resourceful in situations such as this,” Sebastian said. “I was hoping though, that we could have a word in private. Perhaps you might accompany me back to my tower?”

Your tower?” Wyrren knew what he meant, but still had some trouble believing it. She studied Sebastian and didn’t like what she saw. He was frowning in the distance and seemed upset. His hand squeezed hers tight. “I… yes, I’d like that.” She needed that, after refusing Edward so many times.

“Good. It will be nice to spend some time with you.”

“Is everything alright, Sebastian?” Wyrren asked. “Last night’s close call aside? You did sleep at some point?”

“Yes. I’ve had my rest. It’s just that there is trouble with the council,” he said.

“You didn’t think they’d let you change your mind easily,” Wyrren said. He was finally telling her when he wasn’t happy, and he wasn’t smiling. “Is there something I can help with…?”

“I’m afraid not. They’re going behind my back and promising things with my word. I don’t think you can fix that,” Sebastian said.

“I’m making everything more difficult, aren’t I?” Wyrren asked.

“Nothing is easy Wyrren. Nothing worth doing, anyway.” Sebastian said. “This is just another obstacle.”

Wyrren felt her face go warm. She wanted to smile. “I love you,” she whispered.

Sebastian smiled at her, drawing her close for a moment and kissed her forehead. “Come… lets get to my chambers,” he said.

Wyrren nodded and followed, excited and guilty both.

* * *

“What are we doing, exactly?” Kartania asked, for the third time. She wasn’t usually roused this early in the morning by Mr. Lowar, and hoped that there was good reason for this.

“This is a learning expedition Kartania. Just bear with me.” Edward said. He took her down one hall, turned, then down another until he glanced around a corner ahead. “There, peek around that corner slowly and tell me what you see,” he instructed.

Kartania sighed. Mr. Lowar was a decent adviser, but she hated his riddles. She stepped up to the corner and glanced around as he said, expecting one of his jokes.

Instead, she saw Sebastian opening the door to his private quarters, Wyrren Jadis stepping through. Wyrren stopped, turned, kissed him full on the lips, both arms tight around his shoulders. Then she caught his hand and tugged him inside.

Kartania grabbed her knife’s hilt on her belt and bounded forward. Edward’s arms were around her the next moment, his hand over her mouth, pulling her back around the corner. The Grand Meister hadn’t noticed the scuffle. The door shut behind them.

Edward let her go. Kartania pushed him away, teeth clenched tight. How dare he?! “The two faced cheating weasel!” Kartania spat, then turned on Edward. “You knew about this?” she demanded. Jadis she had expected, but not Sebastian.

“I had my suspicions. I could have just as easily looked around the corner and seen nothing though,” he assured her. “The Grand Meister met her at my door this morning. I watched them leave together. It seems we’re both being cheated on. Jadis has been with me as well.”

“This isn’t one of your illusions, mage?” Kartania asked.

“You have that little faith in me, Kartania?” Edward asked.

She turned back to Sebastian’s door and stared at it, willing it to burst into flame. It didn’t open. Wyrren didn’t leave. “I’m going to bury him.”

“Don’t be too hard on him. He’s just a man,” Edward said.

“Just a man, my ass,” Kartania said. “How long has this been going on?”

“I’d venture to say since the other night at the festival,” Edward offered.

Kartania shook her head. What to do? What would her father have her do? “Mr. Lowar?” Kartania said. “I want my girls packing our bags. We’re leaving.” She’d not waste any more time here.

“I don’t suppose you’d like to contact your father first?” Edward asked.

“I…” Kartania felt a little nervous at that. Her father… “Yes. I should,” she said. She wasn’t sure what his reaction would be. She was supposed to be strong enough to solve her own problems. And Sebastian had been the only man they’d agreed on.

“I don’t think you’ll have to work too hard to convince him that leaving is the best course of action. Even he will understand this slight,” Edward said.

“I suppose you’ll want to stay to have word with the council,” Kartania said. They’d promised her yesterday that her problems with Jadis were over. Useless—everyone in this country was useless.

“Of course. I’m sure I’ll have to be the medium between them and your father.”

“Do it, with my blessing.” She’d have to stay as well, probably for a week or more to see things through. Unless… She took a good, long look at Lowar. He never had let them down. He had risen to be one of her father’s best men for good reason. She could trust Lowar. “Perhaps you could excuse my girls and I once my father sends his reply?”

“I could, I suppose. Is that your wish then, Kartania?” Edward asked.

“Yes. Yes it is,” Kartania said. She beckoned for Edward to accompany her down the hall. She really wanted to break something. A vase, maybe. “I want you to bury that man, Mr. Lowar. Whatever you can devise—I’ll bear witness to whatever you can imagine, in word, writing, you name it. Make him suffer for this.”

Edward smiled. “Your servant, Lady Reise. You can always count on me.”

* * *

Once alone and returned to her room, Wyrren poured herself a bath. Sebastian had wrecked her routine; she ought to be at breakfast. <Ana, I’m in my room. Breakfast here?>

<It’s about time. I’ll get a tray again. There’s something I need to tell you, by the way,> Ana replied.

Wyrren stepped into the bath, rubbed soap that smelled like flowers over her arms, raised a bare leg, rubbed that down as well, took guilty pleasure in the bruise she found on her inner thigh. Sebastian. She’d be a queen again soon. <Now, or should we wait?> she answered Ana, lazy and comfortable.

<Well, you were gone for the night, so I went into the red book myself?> Ana said. <I thought I’d find the part where he created Fervius and Verrus. Wyrren, please explain to me why Sebastian ‘remembers’ a war that was fought… oh, four hundred years ago?>

Wyrren stopped scrubbing her skin. <What?>

<The formation of Attica as a nation proper, shortly after the battle at Port Yjarl. Verrus and Fervius were slave-soldiers, raised to commander positions late in the war on the losing side. They got their regiment out of an ambush alive by holding a bottleneck with a small squadron. Commemorated after their deaths as war heroes. You knew that our Fervius and Verrus are memories of dead men, imprinted on golem forms, right?>

<It was mentioned,> Wyrren returned. <I didn’t know they were war heroes. Sebastian wrote about remembering this? You’re sure he wasn’t remembering reading about that battle or something similar?>

<Positive. It gets better. Remember the name at the start of the diary? I asked Verrus if he’d heard it before. Get this. Gideon Flynn is a folk tale. The cursed immortal who sucks blood and steals children from their beds late at night. Originally he was an evil bastard king who tried to kill himself, and Death wouldn’t have him. Anyway, according to the legend, Gideon Flynn runs around in the shadows and curses good people with rotten luck, and no one’s seen him in ages.>

<…Because Gideon Flynn survives now by stealing other men’s identities?> Wyrren asked. <And Edward Lowar… he must be the real Sebastian del Torlo.> There was a very easy way to check that. She rose from her bath and grabbed a towel, drying herself off as she walked to her bed, leaving puddles on the wood floor, found the red book from where she’d hidden it and reclined on the comforter in her towel to read.

She flipped back through the description of Sebastian’s reign. She found the date of her mother’s funeral, and stopped briefly—Sebastian (Gideon?) wrote of meeting her, that he was impressed with her mind, how he hoped she’d do great things in spite of her disability. And then Wyrren found the passages before Sebastian’s coronation and read from there.

The narrative had changed, as had the handwriting. She was reading the Grand Meister prior, Sebastian’s father Gabriel del Torlo.

 

Seventeen years ago—

I’ve received word on Sebastian’s new lover. Apparently this time he’s with a genuine prostitute, one with a client list on the riverside district and a reputation to match. He’s dressed her in silk and diamonds, and means to have her on his arm for the solstice parade. Every noblewoman in Valdenemus is furious.

I could understand if he was in love. I would talk this through had the lady been sincere and Sebastian dedicated. But the girl’s head is spinning with dreams of money, and he’s already thinking about a serving girl in the west wing.

I didn’t want to replace him at such a young age, but he is a menace, and I need to stop him before he does any more damage. Or, gods forbid, he learns how to use that strange magic sleeping within him. I’ll have to take preparations so his change of personality is not noted.

 

Two days later—

I’ve set most of my affairs in order, cleaned out my office. Sebastian hasn’t noticed anything, but his prostitute has some sixth sense. She’s become uneasy, and her eyes have become alarmed and furtive.

 

The day after that—

I’ve scouted out a new world not unlike our own, though its magic seems virtually nonexistent. That’s one less thing to worry about. I’m going to rename him. Nassamituuq may hate me for it, but she’s dead, and I always wanted to call him Claudio.

 

The day after that—

I’ve cast my memory spells, perhaps more vigorously than usual, put mental blocks in place to keep him from casting. I’ve left Claudio’s new family a good sum of money. He’ll do better there.

I’ve taken his form and made my corpse, and I’ll send the girl home in the morning. So much for this generation.

As one last security measure, I’ve erased the location of Claudio’s new world from my mind. No doubts. No looking back this time.

Long live the king.

 

On the next page, in a new handwriting—

My name is Sebastian del Torlo, and this is the account of my life.

 

Wyrren sat and thought about that for a long time. The memories of Sebastian’s touch no longer felt quite the same. She dressed, and when Ana came in she ate with a determined focus. Her lover was an old monster. What did she really know about Sebastian, anyway? And what if Edward had good reason to threaten him?

This was still the Sebastian del Torlo who had cared for her as a disfigured mordache girl. The man who had taken her in when she needed shelter. The man who had hunted down an assassin team intent on killing her. The man who had written how much he wanted a wife of his own choosing this time. Who had meant his kisses, even if being his wife meant… … if she married Sebastian, that was what he was going to do to their son, wasn’t it? The thought made her sick.

When she’d heard Lowar talking to Sebastian—Gabriel? Gideon?—what exactly had he said? ‘End of the Torlo line’? But what if there was no succession? What if she was only facing one king, succeeding himself as his son or grandson or nephew every generation for… however long the Torlo line had continued on.

Lowar wasn’t trying to kill Sebastian at all. He was trying to root Sebastian out of his position. He was trying to break the pattern, save another son from being replaced. … Or maybe he just wanted Sebastian off the Hael Malstrom throne.

“I need to know who Edward Lowar is, Ana,” Wyrren said.

“I thought we’d agreed that Edward was the real Sebastian?” Ana asked.

Wyrren shook her head. “The real Sebastian’s memory was erased, then abandoned on another world. Lowar is someone else.”

Ana thought about that. “So who is Sebastian?”

“Either… he’s Gabriel del Torlo… making him my father’s age,” Wyrren said. “Or one of Gabriel’s ancestors. Or we can surmise that he’s Gideon Flynn.” The length of the diary and the way he wrote of things so long past seemed strong evidence, though it was a concept Wyrren had trouble taking in. She could imagine a man of eighty, but a man of several thousand years…?

“Gideon Flynn’s supposed to be ancient, right?” Ana asked.

“If your sources can be trusted,” Wyrren said. “And by the length of that diary, yes.”

“And Edward Lowar beat an ancient immortal at a game of chess?” Ana asked. “Made it look sortof easy?”

Wyrren suddenly realized why she’d never managed to beat Sebastian. “The damned cheat, he’s got so much experience on me,” Wyrren said, newly outraged.

“Wyrren! Focus!” Ana snapped her fingers in front of Wyrren’s face.

“Right.” Wyrren focused. “I don’t know, Ana. Lowar knows about Gideon, obviously. … I know there were once dragons in the world. Ancient monsters. He can match wits with an immortal mage and come out of it unscathed. An old nemesis, maybe. Did the legends say anything about a counterpart to Gideon Flynn? Some enemy who had the same fate?”

Ana shook her head. “Nothing like that. It was just Gideon Flynn. No friend, brother, or enemy included.”

Wyrren nodded, and said, “Then there’s only one thing to do,” she said, closed the diary, and then opened it to its first page. “We start from the beginning.”

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