Thadorn smiled indulgently as he bounced the babe on his knee. With a small soft hand, the child grabbed his fingers and looked into his eyes. She was a beautiful girl, one year old now, and her name was Tari. Unlike her siblings, her softly curling hair was chestnut, not red, her eyes a placid grey. Little as she was, Thadorn saw more of himself, and more of the Tionae, in this girl than he did in his two elder children.
"May I hold her?" asked Kelena, and stretched her arms towards the little one. Tari went to her aunt, not the least bit reluctantly. Although this was only the third day of Kelena's visit, she had already made fast friends with her little niece.
There was quite a bit of noise in the room. Four-year-old Korian and three-year-old Datrine enjoyed taking the lead in their games with little Emmet, who was now just two years old, and did his best to keep up with the older toddlers. The children have been romping about all day, occasionally joined by Tari, who crawled after them on her chubby little knees.
"Where is Jadine?" Kelena asked, and it seemed to Thadorn there was hidden meaning in this innocent question.
"She was tired," he said, "she asked me to tell you she will not be coming down to supper, she prefers to rest. It is understandable," he added with a hint of defensiveness in his voice, although his good-sister did nothing to question his claim.
The truth was, as much happiness as Thadorn found in the children, as busy as he was kept by his new duties as Head of clan – both his parents passed away a year ago, his mother of her lingering sickness and his father of a broken heart – he could not help but notice something was amiss with his wife. He tried to reason with himself, tell himself it is nothing but the overwhelming demands of motherhood taking their toll, but it was no good. He knew Jadine too well to overlook that something was wrong. She was restless, moody, dissatisfied, disappointed. With their quiet life in their little seaside town, with the way things were going downhill in the kingdom, with... with him. This hurt, but he knew it was true. She had expected something more of him, though he could not be sure what. Perhaps she thought him to be a stronger leader, a bigger man, someone with aspiration to influence the highest circles... but he was never like that. Home - it was enough for him, it always had been. He thought it was enough for her, too... or at least so he willed himself to think.
He and Kelena ate a simple supper with the children – fresh bread and warm milk, dried figs and slices of cheese, apples baked with honey and cinnamon. After the children were full and tired, the level of noise subsided. Korian, Datrine and Emmet ambled into their nursery and went to sleep together in the big bed the three of them shared at night – the four of them, whenever Jorrel, Rogell's son, joined them in their play. After tucking them in, Kelena went back to the main hall. Thadorn was still holding Tari in his arms; the child was very sleepy, her little body lax and warm, but her eyes were still open wide, looking around the room.
"Are they asleep?" he asked his good-sister.
"Korian and Datrine are, and Emm was just nodding off when I left," Kelena said fondly. Thadorn felt sincere joy for her at the birth of her son. He knew as well as anybody that there had been precious little happiness for Kelena in her first years of marriage, but Emmet's birth had breathed new life into her. He was named after a friend of her husband who was captured and killed by the wild Lyaki of the Eastern Waste, and a fine boy he was, handsome and clever. He had his father's lustrous dark hair and his mother's warm blue eyes, eyes that shone like calm lakes in his bronze-colored face. "You look tired," she told him. "Here, let me take Tari. I will put her to bed."
Thadorn accepted the offer gratefully. Putting a child to bed was a task he regarded as a mysteriously difficult one. No matter how tired they were, they would always cling to him, keeping their eyes open by sheer will, asking him to sit by their bedside, to tell them stories and teach them the names of heroes. He found it curious they never tried this with their mother... and now that Jadine seemed so detached, Kelena's presence brought welcome relief to the atmosphere which would otherwise be very tense. She is a good woman, mused Thadorn. Good and kind and artless. Between Hinassi's scheming, Rohir's aloofness, Kohir's cocksure arrogance and Datrine's ambition, Kelena stood out as a virtuous example of a simple, tender heart.
When his good-sister went upstairs carrying the child, Thadorn stepped out onto the balcony and breathed in the cool clear air. Everything was quiet. Two figures crept outside in the dark, furtively... in a well-trained motion, he gripped the pommel of his dagger, then relaxed. He recognized them. It was his wife's little cousin, Jada, who was not so little anymore. This was her fifteenth year, and she had grown to be a beautiful maid, shapely and slender, doe-eyed, with a peaches-and-cream complexion. Her perennial admirer, Ned Kamtesir, was with her, and this explained the need for secrecy. The Kotsar frowned upon this courtship, Thadorn knew; for reasons unclear to him, his good-mother in particular took it as a personal affront, and hinted to Jada's parents they would do much better to keep their daughter from seeing Ned ever again. No chance of that, Thadorn mused with a wistful smile on his lips as he heard the murmur of two voices and the sound of a chaste kiss. These two will marry, or I am no judge of human nature.
When Thadorn went upstairs, he found his wife sitting and staring at the fire. She did that often; and sometimes she stared into a mirror, or into a glass of wine, in a way that unnerved him. It was as if she saw something there, something beyond flame or glass or liquid. But that, of course, was impossible.
"I hope you feel refreshed now?" he asked. For a moment, she lifted her impossibly vivid eyes towards him as though she did not understand what he was talking about. Then she nodded.
"I am quite rested," she said, "thank you."
"Then you should go downstairs and spend some time with Kelena. You hardly saw anything of your sister since her arrival."
"Oh, but it seems you have been getting along splendidly without me," Jadine pointed out. "And judging from the voices of the children, they have never had a better time."
Thadorn hesitated, almost ready to be silent once more, to change the subject, to delay the inevitable for another day, another hour. But it was not to be. "Jadine," he said, "is anything wrong?"
"Wrong?" she snapped. "You had better ask, is anything right?"
"May I ask what – "
"We are on the brink of destruction, that's what," she cut across him. He heaved a sigh. He should have seen it coming; during many of her moody silences, Jadine sat poring over maps – something else he'd rather she didn't do.
"You are taking this too far," he said in a tone of forced calm. Forced, because he had to acknowledge there was a grain of truth in what his wife said. The kingdom of Tilir found itself in a tight corner, that much was certain. King Alvadon was pressed by Letaria and Selfinor to make peace with the savages and do more and more to appease the Malvians, who were growing smug and insolent behind their bare rocky mountains and desert dunes. Tilir gave them water and wine, copper and wool, horses and timber – all on the off chance that the wild tribes would be brought under control. And now there came up the question of land again – of letting some parts of the south go to Malvia for good.
"Don't you find it infuriating," said Jadine, "that we, who have so little land, should be giving some of it to Malvia, who has so much?"
"Most of the Malvian land is no good," Thadorn pointed out, "it's all desert, fit for nothing but the wandering of nomadic tribes."
"That does not give them a right to our land," Jadine argued.
"I did not say it does, but you need not get yourself so worked up over it, Jadine. We must put our trust in our king – our good, strong king, who is guided by the Light of the Spirit."
"A king who won't live long," shot Jadine, "a king who will have no sons. How long do you think the kingdom will hold then, before plunging into chaos?"
Despite the warm fire burning in the grate, Thadorn suddenly felt chilled to the bone. The things she sometimes said... the way she said them, as if she knew... but this made no sense, he would not succumb to fear of the unknown –
"Why would you say that?" he demanded. "King Alvadon is young and strong, and so is his wife the queen. True, it has been a while, but if the Great Spirit's blessing should be upon them, they will beget many children yet."
Jadine shrugged. "Suit yourself," she said, "you know I have powers and knowledge I cannot fully explain, not to your satisfaction, at any rate. But I do know this – steel and poison will kill young and strong men just the same as they would old and feeble ones. As for Queen Maviel... the king thought he would win the unwavering alliance of Adrinor by marrying her, but he was mistaken. Adrinor will never stand against Selfinor, certainly not for us. And she cannot even give him a child. The king and queen were married before us, don't you remember? We have three healthy living children, but all the king got from his foreign princess was three miscarriages and a stillborn boy. Or do you deny it? If he doesn't cast her aside, he will never get an heir, and he is too proud to send the queen back where she came from and marry a Tilirian noblewoman, as he was meant to do from the start."
"Even if the king has no children of his body, he has two brothers," Thadorn reminded her. A mocking laugh was his answer.
"Who do you mean, the craven or the lackwit? One will never be fit to rule, the other will probably fear it too much to undertake such a venture. No, I am well past putting my hope in the king."
"What do you suggest, then?" Thadorn said with a hint of impatience.
"You mentioned the Light of the Spirit before," Jadine replied readily. "There is your answer. Where there is light, there is shadow, and in the Shadow we can find our refuge."
Thadorn did not know whether he ought to laugh. "You are making no sense," he declared.
"You do not want to see sense," said Jadine, "because, like most men, you are ruled by superstitious fears. A shadow is just the other side of light. You think the ancient power was abandoned, forgotten; it was not. It was merely biding its time until an hour of need would come. Now the hour is upon us. If we find the right way, we can close the borders of Tilir, close them for sure, close them forever, and never again be bothered by those who don't understand the essence of the Spirit."
Thadorn looked and looked at her, and for the first time, he feared his wife had gone mad.
"You are speaking of an old legend," he finally said, "a legend that would turn the lands bordering Tilir into sea, and leave us an island stranded among drowned wrecks – "
"It would be the best solution by far," said Jadine. "We do not need anyone. Not the Malvians, surely, and not Letaria or Selfinor or Adrinor. We would be far better off the way we were in the Olden Days, when we kept our borders sealed and our blood pure. I can help bring this about. This is why I'm going."
She got up, and Thadorn saw she was wearing her traveling cloak. This small detail made him fear more than anything she ever said or did.
"Going?" he repeated weakly. "Going where?"
"West," Jadine said curtly. "I need not ask, of course, whether you are coming with me," her mouth twisted bitterly. "I know the answer already."
"Jadine," he said imploringly, reaching out to her, only a thin berth of air between his fingertips and her arm. "Whatever folly you have in mind, consider it again, I beg you. I know it hasn't been easy on you lately, but you and I have work to do, our work which can be done by no one but us. The children – "
" – will perish with the rest of us if things continue going as they have," said Jadine. "There is no use trying to stop me, Thadorn. If you wish to find me, all you have to do is go west and west and west, until you reach a place where mountains touch the sky."
He simply stood there, his hands hanging limply down his sides, like a man watching an avalanche of snow or the outburst of a volcano, horrified and helpless. I am losing her, a thought pierced him like a knife, but perhaps I never had her at all. Perhaps it all had been a dream.
Quiet and dark as a shadow, Jadine slipped through the door without a word of goodbye, without a look at him. He knew she would never return.