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Lower Foyer <Vozhd Keep>


The entrance of the ancient manor echoes an emotion tangibly desolate; little sound escapes the thick stone, and even the floor-to-ceiling tapestries bring little joy. Two solid, bolted oaken doors guard the entrance of the manse, and inlaid in to the wall on either side are large stained-glass windows. An ethereal glow dances from within their scenes, and with every flicker of candlelight the walls come alive in rainbow of softly iridescent reds, blues and greens.
The walls of the hallways are decorated with a number of portraits depicting children: three boys and a young girl. While once beautiful, all appear to be covered in a veneer of dust and, when occasionally highlighted by the dim candlelight, appear more like specters in the darkness then anything else. A rich, red velvet, gold-bordered runner covers the granite floors and splits to lead in three directions: left towards the Formal Hall, right towards the Armory and ahead towards the Mastery.
Furthermore, a twin staircase spirals upwards to the second floor of the keep.


Gell Mikin enters the foyer of Vozhd Keep, pausing in the entryway to run a hand over his bald pate. He glances around at the portraits as he awaits recognition by a servant or other dweller in the estate.


It's afternoon at Vozhd Keep, and for some curious reason there don't actually seem to be alot of servants about. Also, being afternoon at Vozhd Keep, the Duke is just getting up. Wrapped in a heavy fur robe to shield from the cold of the stone walls, he yawns bearishly. After rubbing his eyes, he notices Gell for the first time. Wuh?


"Good..." he looks to the windows, "... afternoon, Lord Mikin. The servants must be at Temple; I apologize that no one greeted you. I thought I'd have been up by now." He reaches the foot of the stairs and bows respectfully to the Emperor's Hawk.


"I have only just arrived, so you have no need to apologize," the Surrector replies with a faint smile, lacing his fingers together. "The Emperor warned of my coming, I believe."


Markus Kahar smiles, nodding as he gestures to the Mastery, "Indeed he did, however had I known you'd have arrived today, I'd have prepared a meal. The servants will be back in a few minutes, in the mean time, please do me the honour of joining me in the mastery. I'll boil us some mulled wine to take the chill off our backs."


"Of course," Gell Mikin says, moving to step into the mastery.


Mastery <Vozhd Keep>


Dark silk banners hang from the ceiling, rippling slowly in the cold breeze that circulates through the cavernous hall. The ceiling of the mastery is lofty and steeped. The apex of the arch is composed of distorted glass - the portion facing the rising sun actually being a large decorative plate depicting a golden wildcat against a resplendent purple corona. The remainder of the banners drape down the walls of the room, offsetting pale marble statues with a bluish hue.
An enormous fireplace dominates the front of the room near the entrance, while the back is dedicated to the master's throne. Centered on a tiered dais a cubit higher then the surrounding floor, the throne of Vozhdya is composed entirely of stone. Crafted directly in to the flooring itself, it's decorated with gold filigree and precious gems.
Flanking the throne on either side are two unique statues: one, an exact replica of a wolfhound, curled and sleeping, and the other, a bear - also in repose - with its head resting on its paws. Closer inspection reveals that the hound is made entirely of silver and the bear of amber. Situated in a half-circle before the dais are five fine half-thrones, similar to the Royal seat but lesser in stature and ornament. A large table is situated in the center of the room, covered with various map-scrolls.</b>


"Your keep remains one of the finest in the realm, despite the troubles of Vozhdya's past, with the Wildlings," the Surrector opines as he regards the fluttering banners before settling into a chair in front of the blazing fireplace.


Markus Kahar follows the Hawk in, closing the door quietly behind him. The Duke gestures to one of the plush red-velvet biinwood thrones as he moves to the large hearth. His twin hounds perk their heads up at the new arrival, but a reassuring pat-pat from the Duke sends them back to sleep. A large pot of wine bubbles on the stove, and from a small box the Duke plucks a healthy pinch of mull-spice. An aroma of sugar, cinnamon and clove briefly wafts through the room. "It is and it is not. These stones are hollow; I would prefer a much smaller keep if I could have a better family. One that would not force you to make such a trip in the cold. Here," he re-approaches the man holding a goblet, "... enjoy. To the Light."


Gell Mikin gratefully accepts the goblet. He takes a sip, then nods his approval before saying, "To the Light." He smiles wearily. "Your blood may not be the problem in this affair. His choice of wife, on the other hand, seems quite the likely suspect. How much do you know about her?"


Markus Kahar takes a welcoming sip, letting the warm liquid flow down his throat and warm his blood. Sitting himself beside the Hawk, he nods, "Dianna is not a bad girl. She has a good soul. She has always showed respect before me. However she is young and impetious, and I think a little bored here. She doesn't seem to have much self-control or very good judgement, but this again may be a result of her youth. If I'd never actually spoken to her, I would've suspected that she hated her husband for all the ways she's made his life more difficult, but she's shed tears over him twice. We all make mistakes when we're young, though admittedly, few as catastrophic as hers."


"You do not think she bears the Shadow's Touch?" the Emperor's Hawk inquires. He rotates the goblet slowly in his hands. "Might she not have ensorceled both these men into such compromising behavior?"


Markus Kahar arches a brow, "That truly surprised me. Many women cheat on their husbands, though few with a lowly guardsmen. However, infidelity does not a Shadowtouch suggest. She's never done anything in front of me that would ever suggest such a thing, nor have I ever heard anything along those lines. As angry as I may have been at her, I cannot say I've ever detected the tendrils of Shadow eminating from her."


"I speak not merely of infidelity, but also of your nephew's troubles with the Church of True Light," Gell Mikin says somberly. He takes a sip from his goblet, then continues: "If he goes before the patronage of the Church with only the excuse of flying off the handle about his wife's affair, then I fear that Lord Adaer will suffer dearly and your house - the House of your Emperor - will remain scandalized. So, think carefully on this before speaking with such certainty."


Markus Kahar shakes his head, his face downcast. "My nephew is young. What he did was stupid. What all three did was stupid. I will plead with the church myself; truly, this is my responsibility as it happened in my Township. However, I am not young, and will neither lie to my Emperor or the Emperor's Hawk. While she may very well *be* Shadow-Touched, I have never experienced that from her. I have never seen any evidence in her action to suggest it. All three just made terrible mistakes. Light Willing, the Church will have mercy."


Gell Mikin sets his goblet on a side table, then leans toward Markus, speaking softly against the backdrop of crackling flames and popping logs. "The Church takes an exceedingly dim view of being abused in this fashion, Lord Markus. The Church will show no mercy to your nephew. It cannot afford to, lest its credibility be damaged." He shakes his head, sighing. "No, they will show no mercy, and if you seek to protect this woman, it will be to his further detriment. However, it is within my purview to see that this woman is dealt with, should you suspect your nephew and Lord Cygony might have been unduly influenced by magical abilities secretly manifested by Lady Dianna Lomasa."


Markus Kahar arches a brow, "... and, when the Shadowscourges investigate Dianna and find that she has no Shadowtouch? With all due respect, my good Hawk, I cannot lie to the Church. If they wish to investigate her I would support that, however I have no reason to suspect it. I believe she would be clean from it, were they to do... whatever the Lightmaidens do... to root it out. But this is the truth as I know it. It shames House Kahar and the Emperor, however, it would shame him more for his own cousin to lie to save the reputation of his family."


"Were you to allow me to handle this matter, she would never be investigated by the Scourges," the Emperor's Hawk intones ominously. He leans back in his chair, lifts the goblet from the side table and takes a sip.


Markus Kahar sighs softly, "... yet she will burn. She is pregnant with childe."


Gell Mikin shakes his head. "No. Not burn. We do not burn the Shadow-Touched, my lord. That honor is reserved for the untainted like you and me. No, she would become a Lesser. She would be sent off, a slave in some mine in a distant corner of the realm. Forgotten. Her child could be adopted by a respectable family."


Markus Kahar makes a face, taking a long drink of mulled wine. He stares at the rim of the cup for a long moment until the creek of an outside door opening brings his thoughts back to the moment. The servants arriving from Temple. At last he speaks. "Your arguments are convincing. Doubtlessly, it would save Adaer and the reputation of my house and my family. But if I were to tell you that I believe Dianna Lomasa carries the staint of the Shadow, it would all be built on a lie. There has been enough untruths. I would like to believe that my generation still has some honour left."


The Emperor's Hawk sets his goblet on the side table. Then he regards Markus Kahar once more. "Your steadfast devotion to honor is admirable, Lord Markus, make no mistake. But know this: You stand at a personal crossroads. To the left, you wash your hands of a troublesome woman and resolve this scandal. On the right, you gamble on the mercy of the Church and your nephew's ability to plead a defenseless case to them. If you choose the path to the left, then, yes, you face the brief sting that may come from an element of self-deception. But if you choose the path on the right, if it does not end well, then you put an unpleasant choice before your Emperor. As you say, it reflects as much on you, what happens in this township. You risk your position. You risk your lands."


Markus Kahar dips his face into his goblet as Gell says this, draining the wine to the last drop. Not a good morning to get out of bed. He sets the silver cup down and slumps back into the throne slightly, staring at the fluttering silk banner above.


"All very simple, yes. All very easy... but I would have to live... knowing that I sentenced a stupid, but innocent young woman to a life of slavery. That I denied a childe his mother. I would love dearly to be finished with this entire situation. And even as the thought of losing my birthright terrifies me."


He stops and looks at Gell, "... and it does."


"... both you and I know that I can't do that. If my years on the Aegis taught me anything, it's that the easiest path is rarely the right one to take."


Gell Mikin nods. He stands, lacing his fingers together. "As long as you understand that if your family becomes a further liability to the realm, it will be severed as an infected limb to protect the rest of the body." He tilts his head slightly. "But, before I abandon this investigation, I would speak with your nephew. If you will not speak against this woman, then perhaps he will." His eyebrows lift. "Or perhaps I shall conclude that both of you are held under her sway, behaving illogically."


Markus Kahar sighs softly, shaking his head. "My nephew is in a coma after a trampling at the racetrack. However, if you'd like to speak to Dianna, I'll have my guardsman fetch her."


"In a coma?" Gell Mikin knits his brow. "Most inconvenient." He then sighs, shaking his head. "I will speak with Dianna Lomasa in due course. I shall remain in Vozhdya for the time being. If your nephew awakens, do let me know."


Markus Kahar nods, "I will do so, absolutely. You are welcome to stay in my Keep if you'd like, while you're here. I'll have a guest room made up for you. As for Dianna Lomasa, I actually believe one of my Guardsmen have summoned her. They're most likely in the next room, waiting to be chastised, or hung, or drawn-and-quartered. Lucky for her, that's my fate." The Duke feigns a weak smile.


"Do not be so sure," Gell Mikin replies, his mouth curling into an almost feral smile. "I have a responsibility to the throne, and by extension to your house. I am not troubled with the same burdensome scruples that hinder your good sense. The Emperor relies on my judgment in these matters, and if *I* determine she is Shadow-Touched, then that will be enough. Your conscience will be clean." He touches the necklace of withered fingers dangling against his chest. "And I shall have new ornamentation." He inclines his head, then says, "Your hospitality is most appreciated. I accept."


Markus Kahar nods appreciatively, a smile edging on his face. "You'll have more then that, if you happen to extricate our House from this mess. My eternal gratitude for one. I will attend to the servants immediately. As for the Lady Lomasa-in-waiting?"


Shaking his bald head, Gell smiles. "Allow her to squirm a while longer. I am disposed to spend additional time compiling facts and evidence before addressing Lady Dianna specifically on this matter." With that, he strides toward the mastery doors.


Markus Kahar rises and bows, "Thank you then, good lord Mikin. I appreciate your assistence. If you need anything further, please summon a servant, or myself if it is pressing. Anything you need can and will be sent for."


Gell Mikin nods to Markus, then smiles faintly at Lucius as he walks toward the opening doors of the mastery and steps outside.

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