The leader of the guards took the tray from the servant and brought it to the table. He set it down hard enough that some of its contents spilled over. The glare never left his face. Samet just shook his head. “I take it we are not going to be letting bygones be gone anytime soon?”
“You put an arrow…” Sir Vincent put a hand on the hilt of his sword. “Through my foot.”
“No, I quite understand why there may be some lingering hard feelings.” Samet looked down at the tray. Runny eggs, burned toast, and an apple. He examined it for worms before taking a bite. A bit on the old side, but tolerable. “Would it be possible for me to get the books and scrolls that were in my pack?”
“No.” Sir Vincent smirked.
“Right.” Samet sighed. He made a waving motion with his hand. “In that case, you are dismissed. I’ll let you know when I’m done with the tray.”
For a moment, he thought the knight was going to draw his blade. Instead, the man stalked back to his position and resumed glaring. Samet rolled his eyes, and took another bite of the apple.
He’d finished it when the door opened again. Samet immediately rose and bowed. “Your highness.”
Queen Tabitha nodded. “Lord Samet. Are you finding your accommodations satisfactory?”
“You have been most hospitable, your majesty.” He nodded.
“Is there anything else we can do to make you more comfortable?”
“I have requested some parchment and ink already. Beyond that, I cannot fault your husband’s concerns regarding returning my belongings to me.” He glanced at the guards.
She glanced at the mostly uneaten tray before looking back up at him. “I will tell the servants to just bring you a lap desk.” She hesitated a moment, and then suddenly stepped forward and hugged him. He went still, his eyes wide. She murmured into his ear. “Thank you for teaching Ethan to swim again.” She stepped back, bowed, and was gone again before he managed to process what had just happened.
“What can you tell me of the situation at Durgen’s Hollow?” Robert folded his arms.
“Admittedly little.” Samet frowned. “The army there is commanded by Javed. He’s a cautious man, pragmatic. His men have a great deal of respect for him, and he’s one of the few who will argue with my father, if he feels a plan is going to get too many of them killed for insufficient gain. That’s why he’s in Durgen’s Hollow, instead of somewhere his tactical mind would be more useful.”
“That’s all you know?” Robert narrowed his eyes.
“I make no claims at being a general, your majesty. I can tell you that my father hasn’t provided Javed with mages.”
“They create ice bridges to resupply, attack, and retreat.” Graham shook his head.
“He pulled that off?” Samet blinked, then shook his head. “When he suggested it as a use for the…” He trailed off as Robert started glaring again. “It’s an alchemical effect, one I developed as a counter to dragonfire. The effect can be negated by the use of virtually any solvent. I believe soldiers typically have a supply of alcohol on hand.”
“I’m going to test that you are telling us the truth.” Robert slowly nodded. “If you’re not, your accommodations are going to become a lot less comfortable.”
“The threats are not necessary, your highness.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Robert turned, and stalked out, Graham a pace behind. He stopped before the next corridor. “If he is telling the truth, we can take the Hollow. Offer a weakness to entice Javed into attacking, then drown him when he takes the bait. With him gone, we can play hammer to Alinor’s anvil.”
“And if he’s not, our losses could be considerable.” Graham nodded. “Yet testing the veracity would alert Javed, and negate the advantage the information offers us.”
Robert found himself thinking back to the ramparts, to what Ethan had said. Then he nodded. “Send word to General Bernard. Tell him to lay the trap.”
Tabitha stood, drawing a dressing gown around her. Robert had only been gone a day, and she was already worrying about him. The war was currently at a stalemate, with few lives being lost and no one gaining or losing any territory. She only hoped it lasted until the harvest, or the winter could double their losses. She stepped out into the garden, and breathed the night air.
As she walked past Anabeth’s room, she saw Margaret with a lit candle. Both Anabeth and Margaret were wide-eyed. She opened the door, and then immediately heard a whimpering sound. “Mother.” Anabeth looked relieved to see her. She pointed to the couch. Ethan lay on it, a blanket twisted around him, and the sounds he was making nearly broke her heart. “I tried calling his name, but he didn’t wake up.”
Margaret walked over to Ethan. “Uncle Ethan?” She reached out and grabbed hold of one of his twitching feet. The effect on Ethan was like a lightning strike. He caught Margaret’s arm and twisted as he yanked her away. There was a snapping sound, and Margaret cried out in pain. Ethan immediately released her, scrawling away and falling off the couch before scrambling into the corner. His eyes were wide and terrified.
“Anabeth, get your sister.” Tabitha immediately rushed toward Ethan.
As soon as she touched his shoulder, he lashed out again. His fist connected with the side of her face, making her see stars. “No. No, no, no, no, no.” He repeated the word over and over again.
“Mother?” Sarah came rushing in. “Blood of the gods, what’s wrong with him?”
She rose, and turned to look at her eldest. “Stay here, don’t let him hurt himself. I’ll be right back.” She rushed toward the door and down the hall.
The guards at the room looked startled as she approached. “Your highness, what…”
“Open the door.”
“I said open it.” She starred at the guard, and he immediately moved to comply. As soon as the door was open, she pushed past him. The Covenant mages inside the room looked startled, standing as she entered. She walked toward the man on the bed, who was sitting up, his eyes slightly bleary.
“Queen Tabitha?” Samet blinked at her.
“Come with me.”
He nodded, and shoved the covers away as he stood. “What’s…”
“Your highness.” One of the Covenant mages stepped forward. “Your husband was very clear. If he leaves this room without permission from either himself or Prelate Graham, we are to—”
“Samet.” Tabitha turned to him. “Ethan needs you.”
His eyes flashed, and abruptly all twelve of the mages were swept off their feet to land in a heap in the corner. The tapestry that hung on the wall fell atop them. The guards started to move, drawing their blades, and then an unseen force slammed them into the walls and held them there. “After you, your majesty.” Samet nodded.
Robert watched Graham instruct the mages, then walk back to him. “Well?”
“They’ll be able to get the wards back up on Alinor’s walls within a day.” Graham shook his head.
“So, the sorcerer was telling the truth.” Robert shook his head.
“I do not find it that surprising.” Graham nodded. “A small victory, to engender trust, would be a logical offer to make. Durgen’s Hollow is a loss to Vadin, but not a devastating one. Sacrificing a pawn to take a more powerful target is a common strategy.”
“Argue it the other way.”
“Robert?” Graham raised an eyebrow.
“Why should I trust the sorcerer?” Robert folded his arms.
Graham took a few moments before replying. “The answer to that is admittedly simple, Robert. If he wanted a victory over Talidir, all he had to do was nothing. The archway would have opened. We would have no options save surrender or destruction.”
“I keep coming back to that one as well.” Robert sighed. “And I don’t see what larger piece he could have to gain by stopping it. I tried the idea that he wants to usurp his father, but it doesn’t seem to fit the pieces.”
“Robert, if Samet is telling the truth, if he does intend to aid us…” Graham took a deep breath. “It changes everything.”
“I know.” Robert nodded. “I know.”
Tabitha led him to the quarters. As soon as he heard Ethan’s voice, Samet quickly outdistanced her. She watched him cross the room to kneel down next to where Ethan was cowering, still pleading with an assailant only he could see. “Ethan.” Samet’s voice was soft.
Immediately Ethan reached out. “Samet.” He caught hold of Samet, who immediately sat, pulling Ethan into his lap. Ethan buried his face in Samet’s chest and began sobbing. “Shh…” Samet put his arm around Ethan. “Go to sleep, Ethan. You are safe here.”
Ethan’s entire body seemed to relax. “Yes, master.” He curled into Samet, and his eyes closed.
She exhaled, then turned to her daughters. Sarah was staring, various expressions fighting for control of her face. Margaret had tears running down her face while Anabeth tended to her arm. “Margaret?”
“What…” Margaret swallowed. She collected herself, then nodded. “I’m alright.”
“It’s a clean break.” Anabeth nodded.
“Sarah, take your sisters to the healer.”
“Mother?” Sarah looked from her to Samet and back again.
“Do as I say.” She glanced at Anabeth. “Stay with Margaret tonight.”
“Yes, Mother.” Anabeth nodded. She hesitated, then looked at Samet. “Is Uncle Ethan going to be alright?”
Samet nodded to her. “In time.”
Anabeth caught Margaret’s hand. Margaret looked at the scene one more time before following her sisters out of the room.
Tabitha picked up a chair, and moved it to sit down a few feet from Samet. “Is it that bad for him often?”
“Thankfully not for some time.” Samet sighed. “The last few days have been…” He looked up at her. “This results from him fighting sleep until he cannot anymore.”
Her voice shook slightly. “How do you stop the nightmares from starting?”
“I…” Samet looked down at Ethan. “I am not certain how you will feel about the answer to that question, your highness.”
“At the castle, my father…” Samet gave a small, bitter laugh. “He put a cage in my room for Ethan. I was not about to put him into it, and to send him from my room would put him at the mercy off…” Samet shook his head.
“You let him sleep next to you.” She sat back in the chair. Then she looked at him, watching his eyes. “Is Ethan why you came?”
“No.” Samet looked up at her. “He is why I stayed.”
Samet looked up as the second eldest princess reentered. Margaret, if he had the names right. She was carrying a tray with a teapot. “You should be in bed.” Queen Tabitha smiled at her.
“I couldn’t sleep.” Margaret sighed. “Anabeth is curled up with Sarah. Lucille and Justin slept through it, thank the gods.” She looked over her shoulder. “The mages and the guard father assigned are at the door. My guard isn’t letting them in but the situation is getting tense.”
Queen Tabitha rose. “I’ll tend to it.”
“Can I…” Margaret hesitated, looking down at the chair she’d just vacated. Her mother patted her shoulder before heading out of the room. Margaret sat, setting the tea tray down. “I think this was my fault.” She swallowed, looking at the sleeping Ethan.
“How can you possibly think that?” Samet raised an eyebrow.
“He was having a nightmare but he was just twitching.” She shook her head. “Until I grabbed his foot. Then he…” She poured tea with shaking hands.
“He doesn’t like having his feet touched.” His father’s favorite form of punishment had apparently involved Ethan’s feet and a heated iron. “Doesn’t take his boots off when he wades through rivers. I have to use magic to dry them again or the smell gets a little…” He smiled. “Well, you can imagine.”
“Professor Ayanz wants to lay rails across the world and have his engine pull carts across them. Then people won’t have to walk anywhere ever again.” She hesitated a moment. “Did you really throw Sir Vincent into a wall?”
“Yes?” Had the man been among his recent batch of guards? He hadn’t been paying attention.
“Sarah is never going to stop hating you at this rate.” Margaret sat up. “She’s sweet on him.”
“In my defense, he does insist upon pointing swords at me.” Samet smiled. Ethan moved a little, and he ran a soothing hand through his hair. Ethan relaxed again.
“Anabeth thinks he hasn’t slept since you got here.” Margaret leaned forward again. “At least not for more than a few minutes at a time.” Her voice got a little choked. “He lets you hold him.”
“Give him time, Lady Margaret.” Samet reached out a hand to her, and she took it. He squeezed her hand gently. “May I suggest instead of reaching for him, you ask him to come to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean…” Samet glanced down at Ethan again. “If you wish to hug him, open your arms and let him step inside.”
She squeezed his hand back before releasing it. “I’ll try.” She took a deep breath. “How about you, are you alright?”
“Well, I haven’t been able to feel my legs for several minutes now.” He chuckled. “But yes.”
“No, of course not.” Under the circumstances, one small lie could be forgiven.
“And you and Uncle Ethan really went into the Beyond?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Did…” She hesitated. “Did you see any unicorns?”
“Regretfully, unicorns have not existed for some centuries now.” Samet shook his head.
“Oh.” Her face looked crushed.
“Ethan spoke of you. He said you draw?”
Ethan woke slowly. In the distance, he could hear shouting. Robert’s voice. He didn’t want to open his eyes. He was safe, and warm, in… He blinked, and his head came up. “Samet?”
“I was beginning to think you were going to sleep another night through.” Samet smiled at him. “Are you alright, Ethan?”
“Yes, master.” He nodded before realizing someone else was there.
“Mother and Father are having a small disagreement.” He looked over to see Margaret sitting in a chair nearby, a book in her lap.
He started to nod, and then blinked up at her. “Margaret, did I…?”
“I’m okay.” She nodded. “Nothing the healer couldn’t fix. Samet says you don’t like having your feet touched, that you won’t even wade barefoot in the river.” She set the book aside.
“Why are…” He looked around. “We’re in Anabeth’s room?” He looked up at Samet. “You’re in Anabeth’s room.”
“I believe that is part of the reason for the disagreement.” Samet nodded.
“You demonstrating that twenty guards and twelve Covenant mages barely qualified as an inconvenience to you might also have something to do with it.” Margaret shook her head.
“I did explain to your father that I was cooperating purely because I wished to be.” He shrugged. “Ah, well, this should be fun.”
Ethan turned to see his brother enter the room, followed by Tabitha and Graham. He realized he was still sitting curled up in Samet’s lap, and they were apparently on the floor. Robert looked down at him, a worried look on his face. “Ethan?”
“I’m alright.” He sat up straighter. “A little stiff.”
Robert reached down all but picked him up, setting him on his feet. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’m, uh…” He felt heat on his cheeks. “Sorry I scared every —”
He was cut off by Robert pulling him in and hugging him tightly. “Don’t apologize. You have nothing to be sorry about.” He looked past Ethan to where Samet was sitting. “Get up, we need to talk.”
“Ordinarily I would happily leap to obey that command, your highness. However…” Samet chuckled. “At the moment, I am somewhat incapable.”
Graham stepped past Robert and offered Samet a hand. He had to actually pull to get Samet upright, and even then Samet stumbled just a little. “Do you need a healer?” Graham raised an eyebrow.
“No. I’ll be fine in a few minutes.”
“Durgen’s Hollow was a victory for us.” Robert took a deep breath. “You said you could show us a ward to stop the ghosts?”
“I can.” Samet nodded.
“I’ll let you get dressed. How long do you think you’ll need?”
“The ritual itself should take no more than a few minutes. However, I will need a few hours to prepare.”
“Graham, make sure the mages are prepared.” Robert hesitated a moment. “Ethan, make sure Samet has whatever supplies he needs.”
“Yes, Robert.” Ethan smiled.
“There is incense available that doesn’t smell like sulfur.”
“If you’re going to complain, I’ll light the candles, and you can warp the fundamental underpinnings of reality.”
Robert narrowed his eyes as he entered the room. A glyph had been drawn on the floor, and he noted Graham was watching it intently. Ethan was lighting candles in each point of the seven-pointed star contained within the glyph. There was a strange light coming from Samet’s eyes as he drew with gestures a vastly more complex glyph that hung in the air above the first.
Guards ringed the room, led by Vincent. None of them took their eyes off the sorcerer in their midst. The eyes of the Covenant mages looked about ready to fall out of their heads.
The glyph abruptly expanded in size, and there was a flash of blinding light. An afterimage hung in his eyes, and he blinked to try and clear it. “It’s done.” He heard Samet’s voice. “Anything tries to cross over within these walls…” He pointed at the crystal prisms that sat in the center of the glyph. “Those will light. They will glow brighter in the direction of the caster. Properly positioned, they will give you the mage’s location.”
“I will assign guards to each.” Robert nodded, then turned toward the leader of the Covenant mages.
The man swallowed. “I believe the spell will do as he claimed.”
“And…” Robert raised an eyebrow.
“Your majesty…” The mage looked at Samet. “It would have taken four of us at least three days to duplicate what he just did, but we can provide the same effect for your other strongholds.”
“See that it gets done.” Robert turned and gave Samet another look. If the man were genuine in… “You said your father knew about the rescue attempts ahead of time?”
“Yes.” Samet began looking around. “I had…” He frowned.
“Top corner, under the green book.” Ethan pointed.
“Right.” Samet retrieved a piece of parchment, and offered it to Robert.
“What is this?” Robert took it from him.
“A complete list of my father’s agents that have infiltrated your stronghold here.”
He opened his mouth to reply, and saw Ethan suddenly move. A dagger appeared in his brother’s hand as Ethan turned, and it was flung into the knee of a serving woman who was trying to quietly withdraw from the room. “Going somewhere?” Ethan smiled.
“I was looking all over for that knife.” Samet shook his head as Robert signaled his guards to grab the woman. “Do you know how much trouble I had stealing it?”
“None whatsoever?” Ethan raised an eyebrow.
“Not the point.” Samet held out his hand. The dagger yanked itself out of the woman’s leg and landed hilt first in Samet’s palm. He casually wiped the blood off it. “Get your own.”
“Traitorous bastard.” The woman spat at him.
“You know, if I was a bastard, me being a traitor wouldn’t be so much of an issue.” Samet shrugged.
Ethan turned to Robert. “Can I have my knives back?”
Robert stared at them, and then started to laugh.