The Reality Saga Volume I - The Song of Steel

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Chapter Five

Wading quickly through the milling throngs outside the empty throne room, Atolibus made for the exit leading to the Inner Courtyard at once. It was the only direction he could think Kristina would have run – there wasn’t anywhere else for her to go, and she didn’t know the castle enough to think to head for the counselors on the third floor or the women’s wing, located a few dozen feet above them. About a thousand questions were blazing through Atolibus’ mind at the moment, but when he stopped at the archway he had his answer.

Kristina stood about sixty feet ahead of him at the gateway that led into the Outer Courtyard. A cluster of a dozen high ranking officers were grouped before her.

“Kindly step aside and raise the gate for me,” she said, grinding her teeth together. She cursed herself for seven kinds of a fool for losing her composure, especially in front of King Lothane and the Regent. The day had been a long and wearing one and the memory of losing her father, even after so many years, had been the final straw. She counted herself lucky that it was fully dark – no one could see the redness of her eyes or the slightly puffy look her face had to it.

“Sorry milady, no one goes out except for soldiers or mages – order of Lord General Felkins,” a grizzled old Captain by the name of Farlings said, gruffly if a bit softly. The lady looked young, after all, and she sounded as if she’d had a rather rough night. Still, orders were orders, and from a Lord General, no less…

“That’ll be enough,” he heard a voice call out from the archway to the castle. To his surprise the Regent stepped into view from the shadows ahead, attired in his usual fashion. Immediately he and his men dropped to one knee and saluted with both fists, while Kristina simply turned silently towards him. Eyes never leaving the younger woman he nodded and continued as they rose. “If she wants to leave, she is welcome to. And from now on I want you to pass the word to all gates – any civilian wishing to leave the castle grounds is free to do so.”

“Sir… General Felkins…” he said.

“...isn’t the Lord Commander of the Armies. I am,” Atolibus said, arms folded across his chest. He cocked his head slightly to the side. “Are you questioning my orders, Captain?” The officer standing on his left leaned in towards him.

“I’d do as he asks, sir,” the younger man said. “Wouldn’t want to be responsible for needing the gates repaired again. You know how much these bloody things cost?” Farlings grunted, nodding.

“On you go then, milord Commander, and a good evening to you milady,” Farlings said, tipping his helmet to Kristina and calling for the gate to be raised. Quickly enough under Atolibus’ watchful quicksilver eyes it was done with, and an open gate stood before Kristina. She turned forward again, looking out across the expansive Outer Courtyard. The guards returned to their posts, ignoring the look of consternation on the young woman’s face as she stood stock still, pretending to ignore Atolibus as he stood watching her.

“There you are,” Atolibus said quietly, walking up directly behind her and stopping perhaps a foot away. He was inside of her personal space but she found that the thought didn’t bother her – she’d all ready wrapped her arms around the man’s waist as they rode horseback across the plains, and they had all ready stood together once with weapons drawn. Indecision riddled her mind. She wanted very much to be out and away, but at the same time the man in gold behind her was intriguing, to say the very least. He stepped a few inches closer, arms still folded. “That gate doesn’t go any higher, in case you were wondering.”

“I…” she said, unable to collect her thoughts and gather her wits.

“What the king said was true, in a manner of speaking,” he said quietly. She took in a sharp breath of air, paralyzed once more. She had lost her father twenty years past, but the sting of the loss was still more than potent. “The Magery was indeed running at Condition Prime, though officially the order was never given – the members of the Magery took it upon themselves to see to it, your father included.”

Her breath hitched as he stepped closer, carefully placing both gauntlets on her shoulders. Rather than shrugging him aside she reached up with both hands and placed them above his left, holding tightly as tears began to fall once more. “I’m sorry to have to tell you all of this. But your father did the right thing. And he gave his life for the greatest cause of them all – not for king or country, but for the basic belief in human life, and that all life is worth something, all life should be protected.” He paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. “When he fell I felt it.”

“So did I,” she managed to speak between sobs. “I was so young I can scarce recall his face, but I remember that moment as clear as if it had happened yesterday.” He nodded, shifting directly behind her and simply standing as he was. He sighed heavily, and then started to speak again.

“As I see it you have two decisions before you,” he said. “You can leave. I will not stop you – in fact, I will order every last soldier and mage in the kingdom to aide you in whatever you may need to leave. The resources of this kingdom do happen to be at my disposal, and I will not hesitate to use them to help you start fresh somewhere else.”

“What else…” she said, starting to calm.

“You can stay here,” he said softly, barely above a whisper. “Here, in this castle. I won’t lie to you – something is at work, something powerful. More than one prophecy has spoken of this time, this day, this age. Many things are coming to pass that I never thought I’d see again in my lifetime – things I had hoped had disappeared from the world. But I fear for this land, I fear for its people and I fear for you, my lady. The world isn’t a safe place any more. If you knew even a tenth of what my sources tell me you might think of crawling into a hole and hiding for the rest of your days. Such thoughts have kept me awake for days on end more times than I care to admit. But you will be safer here than anywhere else, I can promise that on my name. And as I said, something is at work here, and I believe that it is no mere coincidence that you were brought here the way you came.” She slowly began to turn around, and Atolibus let his arms slip to his sides.

“I have magic,” she said. He nodded.

“I felt it the moment you opened your mind to contact with me,” he said. “In truth I suspected as much the moment I saw you – I can spot the Gift in anyone, believe me, I’ve centuries of experience. Once we had contact I was certain.”

“If I were to go out into the world I could perhaps do some good,” she said, eyes gazing off dreamily. “Help out a few people here and there, do what I can, fight off evil if I run into it. But eventually it would fall apart. I would get older, slowly at first, more rapidly in the later years, and eventually all of the power I could muster would not be enough. Not the way it is now. I’ve never had any real training – I’ll bet you knew that, too.” He nodded – the difference between a raw Gift and one that had been trained and tempered over the years was subtle but unmistakeable.

“If I stayed here I could learn, and grow. Perhaps one day I could do some real good. I’m not concerned about my own safety – don’t even think about that, because it doesn’t matter.” Atolibus caught a word in his throat before it could escape his lips, and she continued. “There are millions of other people out there far less fortunate than myself. I think that I can do far more good here than I can outside.” And here I’ll be closer to you. Atolibus smiled quietly and she wondered if he’d heard the thought, or if he’d been listening actively. She found she didn’t really care.

“I can’t put you in the Magery,” he said. “Not because I lack the authority but because there isn’t time. I can feel change in the wind. The storm is coming, and it will break soon. Tonight was but the first warning, a mere sprinkling compared to the hurricane I can feel just waiting to unleash its fury upon us. There isn’t time for you to learn in the way everyone else does. However.” He paused for a second and she locked eyes with him. “I can feel your potential; you’ve far more than even your father had. Who was your mother? I never got to meet her.” He vaguely remembered something strange surrounding her parentage but for the life of him he couldn’t recall what it was. So much in those days had been utter chaos, minor details such as noble lineage often fell by the wayside.

“Chantal Terwynn,” she said. “Born of a non noble house from Orwyn, no less, and completely lacking in magical affinity from the day she was born. Needless to say it didn’t go well with the House when my father took her as a wife, so I am told, but he loved her to death – she was such a wonderful woman. I don’t know for certain, really. I never knew her. She died giving birth to me.” She pushed back further tears – she felt she’d had enough of those for one night, for a change. “Does that answer your question?” Atolibus looked pensive for a moment, appearing to look into her eyes and then beyond, and she could have sworn she felt something tingle deep inside her spirit, but the feeling left her almost as quickly as it had come.

“Aye, milady,” he said. Breathing deeply he continued. “You have two choices, but you don’t have a great deal of time. I can feel it in the air. Now is one of many crucial moments that lie on the road ahead. What will it be?”

“I’ll stay,” she said, gathering herself and standing proud. “Even if I can’t go through the proper channels I can still learn by experience. I daresay I’ll have the opportunity?” Atolibus smiled at the last bit.

“Oh aye, milady, you could say that,” he said, chuckling to himself. “Gods’ eyes, what madness have we gotten ourselves into? Well, since your decision is made would you like to accompany me back to the castle? We still need to find you a spot, you know.” She looked towards the keep, looming in all its glory behind him.

“Actually, if you don’t mind I think I’d like to wander a bit – I trust I can still do that?” she said, looking up and down the walls, at the crenelated towers placed at regular intervals, jutting off of the walls to provide balconies for many of the upper rooms. Atolibus nodded though she thought she detected a note of disappointment in his eyes.

“You are free to roam all of the castle, and any of the quarters you wish are open to you,” he said. “In that case I believe there is a good deal of business I need to attend to. Would you care to meet me for lunch tomorrow? Say, one o’clock, in the Outer Courtyard?” She nodded, smiling lightly. “There are a few places I’d like to take you in the city and we can eat while we’re there.” He was looking out past the gate, eyes drifting.

“That would be wonderful,” she said, bringing him back to present and to reality.

“Then if you don’t mind,” he said. She nodded and he sketched a bow. “By your leave, milady.” He knelt and took her hand in his, kissing the top of it lightly. It left her somewhat surprised – it was a gesture that a knight made to a lady he intended to court, not one the Regent made to a girl of low noble blood. He flashed a wry smile in her direction and winked just once before rising and rounding on his heels, making quickly for the castle.

“What haveI gotten myself into?” she said to herself quietly once she thought he might be out of earshot, as he passed under the busy archway twenty yards away. She took one look at the night sky, at the distant stars and heavens above, and sent a silent prayer before heading for the castle on her own to do a bit of exploring.

As soon as he had turned around Atolibus had immediately set all of his attention on the castle and its population. He was puzzling over new wards he could set, ones that would hopefully be more effective than the last layer. As he passed under the archway the gathered crowd parted to both sides with a murmur of whispers that seemed to follow his course. But you’d spend every spare minute thinking about her if you could. Wouldn’t you? Aye, he had to agree. He would do the very same. And rather shamelessly, at that.

He shook his head as he walked towards the throne room, stopping before its broken and battered archway, looking at the scattered pieces of the doors they had once held. He sighed to himself, kneeling beside a broken portion perhaps six inches long. Picking it up and examining it, he could find no real trace of any particular spell other than the general feel of wrongness that seemed to come from it. Magus work if I’ve ever seen any. I’ll be damned if they think they can just waltz in here and take the place. They’ve tried it before and it didn’t avail them much. The sounds of a distant battle washed over him, phantom clashes of swords, bursts of high energy spells and screams as men and women all over on both sides died where they stood, all because of him, and the power he had unleashed. He shook his head slowly, eyes closed, and then dropped the broken piece of wood, rising to his feet once more. I think I could use some sleep. Everything seems well enough in hand. He nodded to himself and made his way out of the wreckage of the throne room on the short trip towards his quarters.

That night Atolibus dreamed heavily and unpleasantly. Brief, flitting images of a place beyond the night in a world that seemed half formed danced across his memories. Those were familiar. A woman’s face, a smile, and anguish that struck a deep chord within his soul. Serena. How I miss you. Words of prophecy and portent. ‘She is for you, and you for her, deny it though you will. The world will burn, the sky will break, and the Great Question will at last be settled.’ Other images came to him that night, though, images that lacked the hazy, half remembered quality of dreams. Images that played like memories; a woman in white, a knife flashing towards her back, blood and screaming. Screaming that seemed to take on volume and resonance, shaking through his very core until they finally coalesced into a man’s laughing face, set among fire and darkness that wailed ceaselessly.

He threw the covers off of his body in a mad scramble for awareness, bolting up and out of his bed in a flash. It took him a moment to realize that his armor was covering his body, and that Elysdeon was in his hands.

“Gods’ eyes,” he said. His eyes darted nervously around the room – that dream had felt stone cold real, and it took him a moment to shake it off. Who was the woman he had held, the woman whose very life blood had been running through his fingers? He sheathed his blade and felt around the room for any sign of a foreign presence. He could feel life in the castle, feel wards all around that were in place and undisturbed. There seemed to be someone standing just outside of the stout oaken door of his room, as well. A few seconds later he heard a knock at that very same door.

“Yes?” he called aloud. The sound of a woman’s voice came through, a bit muffled. What time is it? He quickly unbolted the door and pulled it open, inwards toward him. Standing in front of him, fully clothed in brown linen robes, was Kristina. He could almost smell the sun and wind upon her.

“I was wondering when you’d be up and around,” she said. What is this? “It’s nearly one o’clock – we had a lunch date, remember?” He shook his head – he didn’t feel like he’d been asleep for more than five minutes at most.

“How is that?” he said, looking at the stone around him. Indeed, when he let his senses drift he could feel that the sun was past its zenith. He shook his head briskly. “I can’t have slept that long... you’ll have to forgive me, I just had the strangest dream.” Disconcerting, more like. His eyes looked off in the distance, down the hallway that curved down and toward the main hall of the castle.

“Something amiss?” she said. Even if he did look decidedly rested and groomed for a man that had spent such a long time sleeping, she could tell by his eyes that something wasn’t quite right. He looked down at her, eyes no longer distant and unfocused. Suddenly she became overwhelmed by the power of his quicksilver gaze. The urge to step backwards, to shift her posture, anything to escape what she couldn’t exactly say. It didn’t feel malign but she recalled that, thus far, she hadn’t met the full force of his gaze yet, and she understood why he seemed to carry such a reputation. His eyes suddenly moved down from hers to the staff she had in her left hand as a matter of course.

“That crest,” he said. He looked back up at her, the intensity dying down a touch. She felt a trifle more comfortable. “I need to look something up in the castle library. It should take me about ten or fifteen minutes to see if we have what I’m looking for. If you’d like you can wait for me in the courtyard, and from there we’ll work our way into the city for lunch.”

“Very well, then,” she said, offering up something of a curtsy. He laughed lightly. “But just remember.” She looked into his eyes, this time holding him with force of her own. “I intend to hold you to that. Be there as quickly as you can.”

“Believe me my dear, I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he replied, a smile lighting up his quicksilver eyes. He stepped back, bowing deeply with a flourish of his cloak. The gesture still seemed a bit awkward coming from him, she thought. “By your leave then.”

“As you will,” she said. “See you shortly.” He nodded and then turned about on his heels, striding down the hall in the opposite direction from her. That man. She turned around and walked back towards the west, towards the main hall and the livelihood of the castle.

Atolibus smiled lightly to himself as he strolled down the hallway towards the library, projecting calm amidst nervous chatter in the halls. The events of the night before were on the lips of everyone inside the castle, such things were exceedingly uncommon. He passed a myriad of branching hallways and staircases that led up into the massive bulk of Castle Lothanis but stopped at none until he reached an ornate set of double doors, much like those to the throne room had been before they were ripped apart the day before.

“Here we are,” he said to himself, flexing his Gift the tiniest bit, pushing the doors open with a small spark of power.

In no one place in all of Syreal were more books gathered than that which he could see before him. Row upon row upon towering row, the area filled thousands of square feet, separated into two floors with multiple sections in each. Some were warded against entry, ranging from a simple guard to keep out riffraff to magic that would incinerate anyone but Atolibus himself if they tried to step through. Some things just could not be left up to the watchfulness of the castle guard, as alert as they were. Stepping inside he let the doors close silently behind him. Ah but it feels good to be here again. It’s been too long.

In the far southeast corner of the room, down and to his left, sat a small set of stone stairs that led into the upper level. The first of a powerful set of wards was set there, a simple one that would keep out anyone not possessing the Gift. Those that lacked the proper understanding or supervision had no business flirting with higher forces. The top of the stairwell was also warded and would repel a Magus holding the Shadow just as surely as a mountain repels the wind. Ignoring various scholars and councilors he strode down several rows until he reached the far wall of the area, making his way towards the staircase. He could feel one of the wards he had placed several times over the course of centuries passing over his body. It was not an unpleasant feeling – more like a thin sheet of water, refreshing, revitalizing. Wouldn’t the kings of old be amazed at how this place has grown? Entering the second floor he felt the second ward, again a sheen of clean water, calming and soothing.

The second floor was arranged differently from the first. In front of him was a narrow corridor perhaps a hundred yards long. On either side were what looked like solid stone walls. One would see nothing but bare stone, lacking the proper spells and dispensation. Just standing on this floor required the permission of at least a High Mage, and to be discovered without such carried a rather stiff punishment. The guards at the bottom had paid no notice to Atolibus, recognizing him on sight. Up here there were no human guards – here there was magic powerful enough to stop an army, if need be. He had seen to that himself. Allowing his magical sense to guide him he took ten steps forward and stopped, turning to his right. The Sight revealed a fairly large archway set in front of him.

“Open,” he said. Recognizing his power, an archway appeared in front of him. He stepped through and once he was inside it sealed itself shut.

Before him was an area that looked much like the lower floor – divided into sections, on massive shelves, books were everywhere. However this room was dedicated to a specific subject – crests and sigils, and the magical wardings bound to said designs. Many of the books and scrolls in this particular section, like much of the second floor, had individual, volume-specific magical guards, some that would cause someone opening one to forget what he had seen, some that would turn to ash in the hands of the wrong person and some that would kill upon touch. He smiled in satisfaction – no one had been in here in decades, possibly longer. The last time he could recall stepping inside himself had been before the Skirmishes, twenty years past.

He made his way through the crowded shelves to the northeast corner of the room and found what he was looking for, sitting on the last shelf to meet the wall on the very end. ‘Crests and Sigils borne by the Society of the Magus’, a compendium he’d organized over countless centuries. The design on Kristina’s staff had to be among them – matching the box the way it did was too much of a coincidence for his blood. He could not reason for the life of him how she would have obtained such a thing, but he knew it had to have been through honest channels. He would have noticed otherwise when they shared thoughts the prior day. Skimming through the leather-bound volume at over a dozen pages a minute, he very quickly finished it without finding anything useful.

“All right, so perhaps they weren’t that obvious about it,” he said to himself. “But I’ve seen that design before, I know it. Now if I could only remember where, gods be damned.” This is very quickly going to become a task for magic. As he set the book down a small slip of paper fell from in between the binding and the cover. How in gods’ eyes did that get there? Quickly all of his senses were blazing around him, looking for even the smallest sign, the smallest bit of particulate motion or magical detritus that would suggest another’s presence. Nothing. So someone was able to get in here past my guards, without me knowing it. That is disconcerting. Anger flared up. Whoever is responsible would do well to tread lightly – if I find him I’ll strip the hide off his entire body starting from the toes. The magic lamps that gave light to the room suddenly roared to life seemingly of their own accord. Shaking his head, trying to focus on his reason for being there in the first place, he set the book down and bent to pick up the scrap that had fallen. Perhaps this is fortunate for me after all. As he unfolded it and read it to himself his eyes went wide from shock, an emotion he didn’t often feel.

I’d counted on you finding this some day, old man. I suppose that, having come across this, you are in fact looking for that which I had planned for – a specific crest, with a rather odd design. Doesn’t it catch your eye, old man? Doesn’t it spark the recesses of your memory, from long, long ago, so long that any mortal would tremble in fear?

The staff, which I am sure is being borne by yourself or someone close to you, has quite a few interesting properties. One of those, and not the least of them, is the ability to turn Shadow magic aside, save the most extreme form we know of. You know what it is I speak of. Fallen. The lingering death. That, however, is most assuredly not why you are interested.

The crest borne upon its supple surface is one of my very own design which, in all probability, is why you think you recognize it. You last saw it almost a thousand years ago, in a place far from where you stand under very different circumstances. Never the less it is the seal to something very, very powerful, and more importantly, something you will need, one day. I know you, old man – even your magic, as frighteningly powerful as it is, cannot reverse the lingering death.

I engineered the box, I crafted the staff. When you open it and see what lies inside you will remember what I have told you, and you will understand why it is so important that it be protected – guard it with your life, upon the very immortality you are blessed with. There may be others that have the power to come up here of their own volition, those that might circumvent your power or walk through your wards as if they were their own. I myself came here at grave peril to my own life, a fact which would no doubt amuse you to no end. Again, you know of what I speak. I had to take a gamble on that – this is too important to not be brought to your attention. Be wary, Atolibus, and stand fast.

There was no signature to the letter but Atolibus didn’t need one, nor did he need the Sight to confirm it for him. Eyes lighting up with rage and body quivering the parchment flashed into flame as he held it, turning to ash that slowly sifted down between his fingers.

“Damn you Sarcodus Arcadia, you old fool. For once couldn’t you just come out and fucking say what you mean?” he said to himself, striding from the room. He did not utter the spell to open the wall – instead he smashed it with his armored fist, watching as it flew apart in front of him. A foul mood had taken him, and even as he turned to repair the damage he’d caused he growled to himself under his breath. If I ever see him again, I’ll strangle him, I swear. No matter how many years it’s been. Finished with the wall and leaving no evidence behind that he’d ever smashed it in, he stepped back towards the stairwell and made his way down the steps. The guards at the bottom saluted him stiffly with fist to heart, but he paid them little mind as he stormed out of the building, power raging around him, causing him to give off a visible glow.

It had been long since learned that whenever the man in gold walked around glowing it was best to stay as far away as humanly possible, and so as he walked towards the front of the castle, curving back around behind the throne room and the grand hall, passersby scurried aside, shrinking from the look in his eyes. I need to get a hold of myself. The one person that did not shrink back from his gaze did not leave him feeling any more in control.

“Atolibus?” Lia said, taken aback a pace – she hadn’t seen him this visibly angry in ages. The subtle golden glow around his body could only mean one thing – his magic was primed and ready, available at a moment’s notice. He stopped, reining in his fury, forcing his power down and diffusing the glow.

“Yes?” he said. He was more startled than anything else – his mind had been so far distant that she was perhaps the last thing he’d expected to have to deal with.

“You look like I just goosed you,” she said. “Everything all right, handsome?” He blinked, shaking his head.

“Yes my dear, I’m fine,” he said absently, eyes drifting towards the open hallway before him, to the entrance to the castle – so close, and yet so far. His eyes locked with hers. “If you’ll excuse me, milady, I’ve business to attend to.” He made to step forward but she put an arm in his way.

“What’s going on, old man?” she said. “I heard about what happened yesterday – some of it, at least. Are we in danger?”

“The matter is being handled even as we speak,” he said calmly, looking her straight in the eye. “I’m meeting with the king tonight along with the various department heads, and we’re going to decide exactly what to do.” This time she laughed openly.

“As if those buffoons could come up with anything useful,” she said. “Oh don’t get me wrong, our king is a great man, but sometimes I wonder about the men he keeps company with.” Even Atolibus had to smile at that – it was his own opinion that too many of the men who kept counsel with King Lothane were little more than peacocks, trying to display their feathers for hens to see. Far too little was accomplished at any meeting for his taste.

“Be that as it may,” he said, the smile disappearing from his face, “the point is there is a lot going on right now, none of which I can explain. All I can tell you is to not worry about it.” She sighed.

“I had supposed as much,” she said. “Bad enough you return with some slip of a girl riding behind you.” So much for that thought. She knows. Gods’ eyes word travels fast. “Granted I suppose exclusivity wasn’t a part of our deal, but still – I would have liked to have known.”

“Come, now,” he said, stroking the side of her face. “She needed my help, I sort of destroyed her home. Along with the rest of Brenhel.”

“I don’t see you ferrying any of them directly to the throne,” she said softly. “It’s come to that time, hasn’t it?” He looked her in the eyes, sighing. “You don’t need to tell me, I can see it in your eyes. I knew this day would come sooner or later. You don’t have to say anything, Atolibus. I know a goodbye when I see one.” She smiled up at him. “Farewell, my heart.” He said nothing as she turned and walked away, down another hall that led deeper into the castle. That was… did that just happen? He didn’t stay in one place long enough to watch her disappear from sight – instead, he turned back towards the direction he’d been walking in and strode off towards the exit to the Courtyard. I didn’t deserve for that to be half that easy.

The angled winter sun shone down as if from an impossible distance, giving little heat to the cold midwinter day. A light breeze carried through the Courtyard before him, adding a chilling bite to the air that even Atolibus noticed. I hope she’s dressed warmly. He set his eyes to scanning about and spotted her near the exit to the Outer Courtyard, standing just outside the stables. Her back was turned to him but he had no question in his mind that it was her. Striding towards her, past soldiers who saluted with two fists on the heart and noblemen and women that eyed him somewhat nervously, past common folk that smiled and waved heartily, he quickly found himself standing behind her. She was engaged in conversation with an older stable hand, one of the only ones that ever tended to Atolibus’ personal mounts. He caught sight of the man in gold and smiled.

“There you are, milord,” he said, looking over Kristina’s head. “I was just telling milady here about Nightmare and her line. It seems she has an interest in horses.”

“Call it a passing fancy of mine,” she said as she turned to face him. Her eyes lit up at the sight of him and he found his breath catching momentarily in his throat.

“I see you managed to find your way to the women’s wing,” he mentioned, eying her cloak. “They always did have good taste in raiment.”

“I didn’t have any extra clothing with me when I left my estate,” she said, blushing. He liked the look of her cheeks with rose in them, he decided. It gave him further cause to smile.

“Are you ready to go?” he said. She nodded quickly. “Hedwyn?” The stable hand looked back towards Atolibus. “See to it that Nightmare gets a good cleaning today – I had to run her pretty hard last night. She’s in need of some attention.” Hedwyn nodded, and with a ‘milord’ he wheeled about and headed into the stables to take care of the task that Atolibus had set upon him. “Ready, milady?” He extended his left arm and she took it without thinking. As they headed for the iron gates sentries on either side saluted and immediately raised the bars for their Lord Commander. With a nod he and Kristina passed out of the Inner Courtyard, through the Outer, and were very shortly outside of the castle and inside the city.

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