Paths of the Shadow

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Disdain

The dishonorable man was waiting for her on the steps of the house she had so unwillingly shared with him in the past five years.

Dankar was in his customary black, which went so well with his black hair and beard. Today it was black velvet with intricate embroidery in red and gold thread, supple shiny black boots, and a black cloak lined with ermine. His lips formed his usual self-assured smile, and when he stretched out his arms towards little Emmet, the boy did not dare to hide his face in his mother's skirts, although it was plain he would have gladly done that. Even at his tender age, the toddler understood his father was not a man to be trifled with.

Kelena saw the mute question in her husband's eyes when he looked at the babe in her arms, but it was not in Dankar's nature to show surprise.

"This is my niece, Tari Tionae," Kelena told him. He responded with a slight raise of his eyebrows.

"This is the babe, then," he repeated. "I would have thought to see your sister here as well, in that case."

There is no point in hiding this from him, Kelena told herself. "That is what people will think, yes," she said, "that Jadine had gone here with me. Thadorn asked me to do that for him. She left him, you see," she added as matter-of-factly as she could.

Again, Dankar did not show surprise. "I thought this might happen someday," he said.

"Truly?" Kelena was puzzled.

"Yes. As a couple, they always seemed singularly ill-suited to me."

Her clear blue eyes met his unfathomable black ones, unflinching. If Thadorn and my sister are ill-suited, she thought, what does it make us? And like so often, Dankar had the unnerving ability to respond as if he were reading her thoughts. "Surely, if they wanted a fine example of domestic harmony, they should have come here. Five years, and not once had your good-brother honored us with a visit."

"Thadorn has his duties at the Sea Guard," said Kelena.

"To be sure. He is a man of duty – while your sister is a woman of passion. Great passion and power and daring, and this doesn't go well with quiet life in the Provinces."

He makes this sound like a compliment. "Jadine did not leave out of boredom," said Kelena. "No, she... this will sound ridiculous, I know, but she went to – to practice some art of sorcery that would, as she claims, aid Tilir, thwarting King Alvadon's intention to yield more land to the Malvians." She tried to make light of this, but there was nothing to it – her voice sounded rather nervous.

"Oh?" Dankar exclaimed with lively interest. "Is she a sorceress?"

"There are no sorcerers," Kelena reminded him.

"There is a fine line between is not and isn't supposed to be," countered Dankar.

"But no man of logic and reason would believe – "

"In that case," he cut across her with another of his sly smiles, "there is no need to worry."

"I worry for her more than about what she might do," said Kelena.

"Your good-brother will set out on a search, I presume?"

"Yes. He will put out a rumor that he decided to go and join us here."

"Secrecy does not suit Thadorn," observed Dankar.

"No, but it is a matter of honor. If he succeeds in bringing Jadine back, no one need ever know she left in the first place."

"And if he does not?" Dankar let the question linger. "Where did she go?"

"West, she told Thadorn."

"West," he repeated. "Presumably, this means the Emerald Mountains. Well," he shrugged, as if casting off worries that did not pertain to him. "Can I at least hope you had a smooth journey?"

"Yes," she said, trying to keep her face blank. Smooth was just the word to describe Torwen's hands on her body. "The children seem to have borne it well, too."

"Someone was dispatched to see you safely all the way through, I hope?"

"Yes," she said again. Say his name, she urged herself. Say the name, or he will suspect. "Torwen Mattar."

"Oh, him?" Dankar sounded not at all displeased. "A good fellow. He should have come here with you for a visit."

"It was not possible. He was on call of duty."

"Another man of duty," sighed Dankar. "Well, you will want to tend to the children first, I suppose. Then supper will await us."

During supper, Dankar seemed to be in good spirits. He filled her in on events that happened in the capital in her absence. There were the social matters which were of little interest to Kelena, but there was something else, too: the learned men of the Stormstone observed that soon there will be a period favorable to the opening of the Stormglass gates.

"And these gates mean an open road between our world and the Other," concluded Dankar. "I should like to see a man from the Other world," he remarked. "It is said their hair is green and their eyes are violet, and that they walk upside down, on their hands rather than on their feet," he laughed, "should be terribly uncomfortable."

Kelena's attention had begun to wander, and she didn't quite catch his last words. "As you say, my noble husband," she said. He seemed faintly displeased.

"After such a long time, you might at least call me Dan."

"Dan," she nodded in acquiescence, but she didn't know what else to say. He gave her an intent look.

"There is little joy for you in coming back here, isn't that so?" he observed shrewdly.

This was perfectly right, but Kelena knew better than to say so.

"Life is not merely about immediate joys," she said. "It is more often about – "

"Duty? Say this word again and you will run the risk of displeasing me," he said tongue-in-cheek.

To her mounting sense of disquiet, her husband followed her upstairs when she made an early end to supper, skipping the nuts and cheese.

"It has been too long since we shared a bed," he said, "and as often as we tend to forget it, servants are human too, in possession of eyes and ears. We must keep up appearances."

"Must we?" Kelena blurted out. As soon as the words came out of her mouth, she stared down in horror. Her own voice had sounded so harsh it almost seemed to her someone else spoke. Dankar, however, was amused, not angered.

"Fear not," he said, lightly touching her cheek. "Appearances are only appearances, and I do not intend to claim anything more. Although I could, if you wished it," he added as an afterthought, "I believe I have proved myself capable."

Kelena tried her best to keep her face blank, but her contempt must have seeped through the artificial placid look, because Dankar's smile faded somewhat.

"You hate me, do you not?" he asked frankly.

Kelena gave the question a moment of pondering. "No," she finally said, "but nor will I ever love you."

And having said that, she turned her back on her husband and began to undo her braid in front of the mirror.

The sounds of the night came alive around her, magnified tenfold in the tense silence. The chirping of late crickets in the garden, the creak of a stair under a sleepy servant's foot, the soft murmur of a slumbering child, Dankar's easy, even breathing in the bed next to her. Instinctively, she edged away from him. Her eyes were wide open, drinking in the velvety darkness. Was it only the night before that she was entwined in Torwen's arms, melting against his body, kissing his lips? Torwen was still in the city, she knew, but she realized she can't see him now, not for a while. She could hardly bear thinking of him, so instead she tried to think of Jadine; but Thadorn had become more a part of the family to her than Jadine had ever been, so it came more naturally to worry on his behalf, and that of the children. Korian will perhaps believe Mother had only gone to visit Aunt Kelena, but little Datrine is too sharp not to notice something is amiss. Kelena remembered the child's eyes, emerald green, bright and penetrating. That one is her mother's daughter, she thought with a dark sense of foreboding.

Dankar's voice startled her out of her thoughts.

"I suppose I deserve this," he said.

"What?" she said in an insipid voice, to conceal the violent beating of her heart.

"Your disdain," he explained, and although she could not see his face, she knew a sarcastic smile played upon his lips.

Yes, she wanted to tell him. Yes, you deserve this and more – but she never had the chance. The sheets rustled abruptly as Dankar got out of bed, threw on his bed robe, and padded barefoot towards the door. He walked through it and shut it behind him, and Kelena remained alone.

... When Thadorn came back home, he was dragging his feet. Like an old man, he reflected dully. He set out with a miserable load of worry and anxiety upon his shoulders, but now it was far worse. Much as he searched and asked, he hadn't found Jadine, and something told him she would never return to this house again, to live life by his side as his wife and the mother of his children. Soon, all would learn of the misfortune that fell upon his family... yet only the Great Spirit might know what his wife is up to. This was not the worst of it, though, and he knew it.

The worst would be to tell the children.

He was met by Lya, who took upon herself the task of looking after the children in his absence. Her face stood out in its anxiety among the laughter and frolics of the children in the large hall behind her.

"What news?" she asked in a low voice. He merely shook his head dejectedly, which was answer enough.

"Where is Rogell?" he asked.

"On duty." This did not surprise him. With a pang of guilt he recalled that his friend took double shifts in order to cover up for his absence. And although Thadorn knew he could find no better man to fill his position as Commander of the Sea Guard, he realized he ought not to have gone for so long. He had hoped, though... against the odds, against the voice that sounded so ominously within him, he had hoped. "Do you want me to send for him, tell him that you are back?"

"No need," said Thadorn. "I will go and see him myself before long. But first," he took a deep breath, "first I will need to speak to the children."

They are so little, Thadorn reminded himself. If I cannot fully comprehend this, how can they? But although he realized lengthy explanations would be futile to soften the blow, his few words sounded brutal and harsh as he gazed into the wide eyes of Korian and Datrine, so alike and yet so different, and waited for them to say something in response.

Korian was the first to break the silence. "So where is Mother?" he asked.

O Spirit, have mercy on me. "I do not know," Thadorn said slowly and patiently. "If I knew, I would have brought her back."

"Perhaps she doesn't want to come back," whispered Datrine, and her voice, the dainty little voice of a three-year-old girl, held such solemnity and such wisdom in it that Thadorn felt his skin crawl with fear.

"You told us she is with Aunt Kelena in Aldon-Sur," Korian said. The accusation in his voice was heard only faintly, yet it stung Thadorn, for his conscience was guilty.

"Perhaps I should have told you the truth straight away," he said. "But I thought your mother might be back, and didn't want you to worry in vain."

"Did she take Tari with her, then?" demanded Datrine. "It isn't fair, I'm older, she should have taken me!"

"I'm older than you," Korian pointed out. Datrine scowled.

"Tari isn't with your mother," said Thadorn. "She truly is with Aunt Kelena, and soon I will arrange for her to come home."

"Perhaps she will never come back, either," said Korian, and his lip quivered.

"Children, that is enough," said Lya, placing her hands upon their shoulders. "Your sister is safe with her aunt, uncle and cousin. Now, you see your father is tired. He needs some peace and quiet, so come along now, all of you. Come, Kor. You too, Jo."

The boys obeyed, but Datrine lingered behind, and her eyes were fixed upon her father, oblivious to his torment.

"I will find Mother when I grow up," she declared.

Lya doubled back, took the girl by the hand, and firmly marched her away.

It was a relief to have a task that would take him away from the house, even for a short while – otherwise, he would surely have sat until sunrise with his head in his hands. Thadorn could not make his step springy and energetic, but he could at least be brisk in his walk, and keep his back unbent. He breathed deep, inhaling the salty sea air, and despite the searing pain in his heart, there was also some measure of relief. At least he knew now, and his duties were clear before him. Several men of the Sea Guard, recognizing their Commander, hailed him as he approached the harbor. He curtly acknowledged their greetings and succumbed to the comforting lull of the small boat that took him to a patrol ship, on the board of which he would find Rogell.

Rogell's look of sympathetic inquiry was the same as Lya's, and Thadorn spoke before his friend could even voice a question.

"Nothing," he said. "I did not find her, or perhaps she made it so that I could not. I should have known, Rogell," he added as his friend's hand grasped his. "I should have known from the start."


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