“Would you like some more iced tea?” Brunhilda asked, lifting his empty cup from the low table and Aurel settled himself on the cushion opposite.
“No, thank you,” Kuren responded politely, smiling as he turned to face the Great Mage. Brunhilda left the two of them be, stooping to peck Aurel on the cheek before she sauntered quietly out of the room.
“Your message sounded urgent,” Aurel commented, raising his own cup to his lips. The beverage was blessedly cool in this stifling heat. The curtains obscuring the window didn’t stir or flutter as the sun beat relentlessly through their pale fabric, bathing the room in ochre gold – a testament to the still, harsh climate they were exposed to in the Feuer Realm. He’d grown up here, he was used to the temperatures his home could produce; it always managed to catch him off-guard though. Aurel absently wished he could be bathing in the beach’s surf with Brunhilda, letting the cold water wash over them.
“Not overly,” Kuren responded. “It’s just that the matter is, shall we say, time sensitive.”
“What’s the issue?”
Kuren glanced down at the table between them. “I’m appealing to you, as my Great Mage, to grant me protection.”
Aurel frowned. “What kind of protection would I be granting?”
“Protection from unjust persecution,” Kuren replied. “It’s within your scope to do so.”
“And what persecution do you need protecting against?” Aurel inquired sceptically.
“You saw the projections the other night, didn’t you?” Kuren asked, and waiting until Aurel nodded. “The entire Realms did. The High Council has been trying to deal with the situation discreetly, but… it’s not the best circumstances to work with.”
“Adelheid released a statement, didn’t she? Something about the High Council considering their demands. Is that what you want protection against? The action the High Council could bring against you?”
“Yes, something like that,” Kuren responded. “I need an assurance from you that you will provide sanctuary for me, should I need it.”
“Is it likely that you’ll be needing it?” Aurel pressed, taking another sip of chilled tea.
“If the Iron Faithful makes more demands, then yes.”
Aurel set down his cup, taking in a breath. “I’m good friends with Adelheid, and I value our friendship. I don’t want to give her reason to have to act against me, and I don’t want to obstruct the High Council unless it’s necessary.”
Kuren nodded in understanding, his gaze fixed on Aurel.
“But you’ve been a valuable comrade,” he continued sincerely, meeting Kuren’s stare. “You convinced the merchants to lend me their hired men, their private armies – something never achieved by any Great Mage in this realm before. And with their donations, we were able to overthrow Heike.”
“I only did what any loyal countryman would do,” Kuren began, but Aurel raised a hand to silence him.
“I know. And what transpired was none of your doing. None of us could have known that Heike would use the constitution to annex the army, use it to her advantage. I hold none of that against you.”
“Thank you,” Kuren murmured.
“I will grant you protection, here and now, on my authority as a Great Mage,” Aurel pledged, offering his hand to Kuren. The lowlord took it, bowing his head as the highlord’s magery passed through the limb, sealing their pledge and their fates. “You will have sanctuary where I have sanctuary, and you will not be harmed where I will not be harmed. This house is a haven for you, should you face persecution for what you did under Heike’s duress.”
“I appreciate this immensely,” Kuren insisted, but Aurel waved it off.
“You mentioned that there was a second matter to this meeting,” he said with a frown.
“Yes,” Kuren murmured. “I needed to ensure your protection before I could inform you of it.”
“I have a contact within the Iron Faithful,” Kuren said carefully, watching the shock flicker across his features. “I’m negotiating terms for their release of their prisoner, Klauen Stahldritten.”
Aurel felt the familiar burn of loathing at the mention of his name, the one he held responsible for Coiriuil’s murder. He inhaled deeply through his nose, turning the cup on its saucer with one finger as he calmed himself. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I thought you would be interested in housing him following his custody being turned into my hands,” Kuren mentioned, watching him. “Because I alone am negotiating this deal, I am not under immediate obligation to return custody of Stahldritten over to the High Council; if I were to take a detour through the Feuervierte estate…”
“What are you suggesting?”
Kuren shrugged nonchalantly. “Things happen in-transit. People go missing, people get hurt. Some even get killed. I’m not saying you should kill Klauen Stahldritten,” Kuren clarified at Aurel’s protest. “I’m merely suggesting that I can provide you with the… opportunity, shall we call it? Provide you with the opportunity to deal what justice you see fit upon Klauen Stahldritten for his crimes against you and your brethren.”
“This would be a direct strike against the High Council,” Aurel said sternly.
“I would never reveal as much,” Kuren assured him. “You have granted me protection; I am in your debt. I’m merely asking if I may return the favour.”
Aurel exhaled heavily. “I’m reluctantly to disturb the proceedings of the High Court.”
“You’d let them make him Rechtlos?” Kuren asked incredulously, his face displaying his surprise. “After what he did? He murdered the Feuer Commander, sage. He insulted our realm, and the High Court allows him to get away with it. What justice is that? Why should he keep his life when Sklavesman–”
“Stop,” Aurel said, cutting through Kuren’s frenzied words. The lowlord fell respectfully silent, conscious of the pain that must have flashed across the Great Mage’s face. “I don’t agree with their ruling. And I won’t go against them.”
Kuren nodded his understanding.
“But,” Aurel added softly, “if he were to arrive on my doorstep, I would accommodate him as he deserves.”
“Of course, sage,” Kuren said with a ghost of a smile.
“What are you talking about?” Brunhilda inquired from the doorway, her face lined in faint fury. “Don’t tell me you’re discussing obscuring the High Court’s justice, for what? For petty revenge?”
“It’s not petty,” Aurel contradicted softly. “Coiriuil deserves–”
“Coiriuil deserves, or you want?” Brunhilda demanded, crossing the room to kneel at his side. She commanded his attention and his gaze, taking his hand in hers. “Coiriuil deserves peace, and so do you.”
“What if this is the only way to get peace?” Aurel asked, meeting her gaze.
“Revenge won’t bring you peace,” Brunhilda said softly, naming it for what it was.
Aurel felt a strike of guilt pass through him at the mention of the word. Was this really just selfish revenge? Was he really that selfish that he would claim to do this for Coiriuil’s sake, and not for his own satisfaction?
Brunhilda ran her knuckles over his cheekbone, surveying his expression, her dark eyes attentive and filled with compassionate concern. “Revenge is not the answer. It’s not going to bring you the peace you need. You need to move on, Aurel. I thought we were past all this.”
“I know,” he murmured back, leaning into her touch. “I’m sorry. I’m just so…angry. I got carried away. I’m sorry, Brunhilda.”
“It’s alright,” she said with a sigh. “I understand.”
Aurel nodded, swallowing hard, before he met Kuren’s gaze with steadfast resolve. “I will grant you protection, as promised. But I – we – don’t want anything to do with your negotiations, or with Klauen Stahldritten. The past is past. I won’t let it destroy our future.”
“I’m sorry for causing you grief, sage,” Kuren insisted. “I only thought–”
“I understand; it’s forgiven,” Aurel responded, though Brunhilda didn’t look as convinced with the lowlord’s contriteness. “This house is always open to you, should you need its sanctuary.”
Kuren pushed to his feet, inclining his head in gratitude and respect. “Thank you, sage, for all you have done for me. I hope someday I can repay your kindness.”
Aurel nodded his appreciation, and watched as the Rotehre left the room under the pointed gaze of his half-brother.
“You were quick to grant him protection,” Chesk mentioned from his post by the doorway, his words pointed and sharp.
“You don’t trust him?” Aurel inquired sceptically.
“He’s my brother,” Chesk said coldly. “I don’t trust a single word that falls from his lips.”
“If he’s your brother, you should trust him,” Aurel said sternly, and Chesk glanced away.
“The relationship I share with Kuren is very different from the one you share with Kohle, sage.” At the highlord’s scowl, Chesk bowed his head. “Excuse my disrespect, sage. I shouldn’t have said such offensive words.”
“He’s a lowlord, Chesk,” Aurel reminded him, his tone instructive but kindly. “You must treat him with the respect he deserves.”
“I trust your opinion greatly,” Aurel assured him, “as my commander and as my good friend. But I won’t let you speak badly of Kuren, not when we owe him so much for his loyal service.”
Chesk’s gaze didn’t waver from the Great Mage, dutiful and attentive. “I understand, sage.” The words were lined with a harshness Aurel couldn’t quite place, but he discarded it as tiredness.
“Go get some rest; you’ve been on your feet for hours. The commander of my army deserves a break.”
“Thank you, sage,” Chesk said, bowing slightly before he turned and beckoned a replacement sentry into the room, disappearing down the hallway.
Brunhilda squeezed his hand, drawing Aurel’s attention to her. “You made the right choice.”
Aurel kissed her briefly, meeting her gaze with gratitude. “Thank you for helping me make the right decision, as always.”