By the Gatehouse <Fastheld Keep>

The heart of the walled city-state of Fastheld, this expansive fortress serves as the center of government for all the districts and the home of Emperor Talus Kahar and his wife, the Empress Freia Seamel. Soldiers of the Emperor's Blades can be seen walking along the battlements and throughout the grounds on regular patrols.
The Imperial Stables are off to the northwest, overshadowed by the ancient Bronze Hall of the Imperial Horsemen; so named for its appearance of being thatched in bronze, finials on the rooftops cutting dramatic silhouettes upon the skyline, while regal banners flank the huge doors that guard the Hall.
The Imperial Residence sprawls toward the north and east, while to the north rest the royal tournament grounds. Finally, one can find a gatehouse, defended by large double doors, leading toward the Palace Road to the south.

Tomassa stalks into the palace's gatehouse, one hand upon the hilt of her sword out of habit. Her cloak lightly sways with her steps.

Free of his armor, Aylor Zahir strolls towards the gatehouse in his knockabout-clothes, expression amiable. He could be any random commoner, save for the fact that he's at the palace, and the intricate gold Zahir pendant on his chest that mismatches the cheap, worn clothing. The blond man waves over at one of the guards at the gate with familiarity.

It's not the pendant that catches Tomassa's attention. It's the hair. A small, audible gasp escapes the woman as she suddenly stops in her tracks. She blinks at Aylor once. Twice. And then remembers to breathe again.

"Yeah, don't look at me like that, Eddy. The dice don't love you, which is why you're a gate-fixture for me today and I'm going out." Aylor calls to one of the guards, his rich tenor warm to take any sting out of the tease. Turning, his hazel gaze briefly catches Tomassa's, an expression of faint surprise etching into his smile. "Well, hello there."

A look of exquisitely painful sadness ghosts over the woman's face like the passing of a cloud over a pale field, her eyes momentarily sparkling from the tears that well but do not fall. Aylor's greeting causes a small smile to come to the noblewoman's mouth. However, she does not speak, merely inclining her head to him.

This serves to confuse the man slightly, and he furrows his brow as he approaches the other Zahir. "Ah, er.. Beg your pardon, ma'am, are you allright?" He asks, reaching up to rub at his peach-fuzz whiskers. "Ya look, er.. Well, is there anything I can do?" He finishes, puzzled.

Tomassa gives her head an awkward shake, gaze darting downward. Her left hand tightens upon the pommel of her sword and her other curls into a fretful fist. "Nay," the woman manages at last, voice husky enough to almost sound as if she has laryngitis. "You," she begins, faltering, "Reminded me of someone for a moment."

"Oh, I do that alot! Mainly because I have an identical twin brother." Aylor responds, flashing a cheerful smile. "But it must not be him, because I can't imagine anyone feeling wistful over poor Aylon. " He bows at the waist with a purposefully foppish flourish, winking. "So! What brings you to the palace, ma'am?"

Tomassa clears her throat, trying to regain her equilibrium. When she speaks again, her voice has more strength. "I'd come to see to a friend's taxes, but... I think I shall now pay a visit to the Memorial Chapel," she quietly says.

"He's also definitely not the sort to inspire mourning, either." Aylor responds, voice softening in timbre. "Would you like company, ma'am? Misery loves company, after all... And to be honest, you look more than your share of miserable."

"You seemed to be going somewhere," Tomassa points out before drawing in a deep, steadying breath. "Perhaps you should escape the walls while you are able." Her smile is quiet, somewhat lopsided, and entirely sympathetic.

"I changed my mind, that happens often enough. " He responds, undeterred. "These walls are my home, so that makes you my guest, in a way, after all. It'd be mighty impolite to just leave a guest to go take tea down at Lightholder's. " Aylor reaches up to adjust his hat to a jauntier angle before adding, "I'm Aylor Zahir. And if I'll really be intruding, just say the word and I'll take myself off, ma'am. "

Tomassa looks at Aylor for a moment when he says his name. "Zahir," she repeats. "Aylor. I had a sister named Aylora. It seems a lifetime ago," the noblewoman murmurs. She almost says more, but shakes her head at herself. Looking up again to Aylor's hair, she slightly smiles. "I suppose the Zahir side was where he got the coloring," Tomassa muses, mostly to herself.

"Aylora, huh? That's a nice name. I'm biased, of course." Aylor answers, inclining his head. "My hair?" He queries, finally figuring out what she's looking at. Self-conciously, he removes his cap and runs his fingers through his hair. "I wouldn't say it's common coloring in the family.." His lips twitch, the faintest touch of bitterness at the word 'family' tainting his tone. "My mum is a Lomasa, which is why my brother and I are such tan little basta--Er.. boys, but we think the hair-color came from a grandparent somewhere, because my father is as pale and raven-haired as any properly morbid Zahir could hope for." He grins sheepishly, at that. "So.. Who was he? If you don't mind me asking?"

"My husband," Tomassa says more softly than she'd intended. "Shalis Kahar. His mother was a Zahir. Your hair... the color is so like his," she explains as her gaze drops down to her right hand. Those fingers move to her belt and withdraw a long, narrow braid from a small pouch. She starts to say something else, but this strange new mood has shaken her. Without explanation, the noblewoman begins to stalk northward at an ever-quickening pace.

Aylor replaces his hat, leaning forward to inspect the braid with a sober expression. "Oh, the Lightkeeper. I remember him.. Well, I didn't know him beyond a glance, since my brother and I were on the wall for most of his tenure. Er--" And then she's stalking away, leaving a bewildered Aylor in her wake, staring after her.

Memorial Chapel

An arch-ceilinged chamber of green marble with stained glass windows depicting the various phases of construction of the Aegis wall, this chapel is a reverent place suited for quiet contemplation and the remembrance of those who are lost.
Rows of wooden pews flank a wide aisle of cobbled stones that leads to the funeral bier where caskets are placed, and the dais for those who speak in memory of the deceased.
You appear to be alone here. The Wildcat Urn, resting place of Talus Kahar XIV, stands here.

The Memorial Chapel is lit with dozens of tapered candles that line the walls from one end to the other. Several guards of the Imperial Tribunal, clad in polished crimson plate and long dark cloaks, stand watch in the four corners of the area, expressions showing little emotion as they hold sentry over the resting place of the late Emperor. The Urn itself sits on the dais, two candles flanking on either side.

The dais itself is draped in a royal blue cloth: the heraldry of the Imperial House of Kahar.

By the time Tomassa crosses the tournament grounds she is running. She is still running when she bursts into the chapel. Despite the witnessing eyes of the tribunal guardsmen, she stumbles down before one of the front benches and presses her cheek to the wood. The woman covers her head with her arms and sobs and sobs and sobs.

"I cannot do this," Tomassa whispers against the wood of the bench that has been wet with her tears. "I cannot do this without you," she blubbers against the bench's seat, hot tears still flowing. She sobs as she has not been able to do since his death, the mournful breaths seeming to tear from her very heart. "I can't do this," she whispers, dragging in a shuddering breath. "I need you."

Images of others come to her mind, passing like lazy snowflakes. Corriden in his little spectacles working in his forge. Tomas eagerly running to her for a hug. And Shalis again. Beautiful hair falling down his bare back as he removes his armor. His quiet smile. Tomassa's sobs return anew when she begins to achingly miss the quiet peace the man brought to her soul.

"Dear Light," she manages, voice shaky. "Whatever did I do to deserve all of this loss? What did I do?" Tomassa asks to no one in particular, throat aching. "What did I do?" is exhaled. She rests her forehead against the bench again, simply breathing and trying to contain her sobs when she realizes there are witnesses.

The Tribunal guardsmen stand as still as statues, bodies alert and attentive, though silent. They stand vigil over the urn and try not to intrude upon the woman's grief.

"How do I carry on?" Tomassa tearfully says against the bench, voice muffled. Her hot tears are pooled upon the seat beneath her face. She kneels near the bench, half collapsed beside it, forehead pressed to the seat and arms covering her head. "How? I cannot do this. I have tried. I have -tried-," she softly sobs.

Aylor slips past the threshold of the chapel, the leather of his boots creaking as he slowly paces forward. He stops a few feet behind and to one side of Tomassa, watching her with the puzzlement of someone who has never known the depth of greif that the woman shows. Awkwardly, the Zahir licks at his lips, trying to decide if he should speak.

Tomassa curls up a little more upon the floor, her whole body aching with this torrent of grief that has finally been released. She sobs beneath her arms, body wracked by the intensity of it. "I cannot do this. Why? Why?" she tearfully says against the bench. "My husband. My son. My home. The best friend that I ever had... gone. All gone."

Aylor rubs at his chin balefully. He awkwardly kneels on the smooth marble floor, resting an arm across his raised knee, brows furrowing with distress. "It won't bring anyone back.. Grief, that is." He murmurs at last, sounding slightly hoarse. "I don't think they would have wanted you to be this way, ma'am. Nobody who loves someone wishes for them to be tormented."

Tomassa stills as much as she is able, but she does not lift her head. Her breathing is still shaky from her tears. "I am cursed," she announces on a ragged exhalation. "That is the only explanation. Corriden, then Shalis, then Tomas, then Moira. All lost," she mournfully murmurs. "And me left behind." Her voice achingly lifts to ask, "Why didn't the plague take me, too?"

"It's harder to be the one left cleaning up after everything.. But you mourn them, instead of yourself, when you're the one who's in pain." Aylor answers. He starts to reach for Tomassa's shoulder, but hesitates. "...I may be a soldier, ma'am, but I believe the Light doesn't give us more than we can handle. You're hurting bad, and even time isn't going to change that, but life is never a curse. Life is meant for joy, and love, and.. Um.." Words fail him there, and he finishes lamely, "Tea."

"Perhaps the Light despises me for taking one of its priests," she ventures with a bitter laugh. One hand lifts from her head so she might lift -it- in turn. Her arm lowers again to allow her fingers to touch the pooled tears and smear them against the wood. "He would still be sitting here now, if not for me. Safe. Safe."

"Respectfully, the Light isn't like that, ma'am." Aylor answers, shaking his head. "We can't see into the future. If he married you, then he followed his own will. I didn't really know him, but it seems to me that looking back and saying 'You shouldn't have made your own choice to love me, because then you'd be safe' isn't fair to him, or who he was. Free will maybe led him down a path that took him away, but that doesn't make it evil, or cursed, or despised."

Tomassa's face pinches and Aylor can likely see it. The unscarred side of her face is exposed, reddened and puffy from the hot, salty tears. "I miss him so much," she whispers. "He... *radiated* peace the way a candle's flame puts out light. It was so soothing to me." Even in profile, her face suddenly looks so sad. "I have felt so numb without him... and now I feel raw like an open wound. As if part of me was torn away with each loss. I do not think I can survive it."

Aylor finally places a cautious hand on Tomassa's shoulder, smiling sadly at her. "I've never lost anyone close to me, so.. I can only imagine what you're feeling. But.. It seems to me that as long as you felt numb, you could never heal. Don't say you can't survive it, ma'am. You can, and you will, because you know it'd make your loved ones sad if you hurried to the Light too soon, all because of them. If they were here, then they'd be the ones wondering.. If not for them, then maybe you'd still be alive and happy. And you know firsthand how awful that thought feels."

Tomassa shrinks from the touch as if it pains her, but she straightens a little more so she isn't leaning atop the bench. One hand seeks beneath her cloak to bring up a soft folded cloth that she uses to wipe at her face and then her nose. "But they are not here, are they?" the woman whispers before wiping at her nose again. A mournful glance is cast to the Emperor's urn as well before Tomassa sighs.

Aylor removes his hand, resting his arm on his knee again. "No, they're not here." He echoes, hoarsely. "But that doesn't change who they were and how they would've felt."

Tomassa is silent for a long span of moments, her gaze turning unfocused as she becomes lost in her own thoughts. One of the faintest shifts by a Tribunal guard brings her abruptly back to the present and a scowl forms upon her features when she remembers her 'audience'. Shakily, the woman gathers herself as if preparing to stand.

Stifling a sigh, Aylor offers his arm. "You wear a sword so I don't think you're helpless, ma'am, but would you like an escort, or a cup of tea before you go?" He queries, softly.

The woman accepts the offer of the arm when she realizes that one of her lower legs has fallen asleep. As the painful tingles begin to return there to reassure her that all is well, she takes an uncertain step. "I actually came to see the tax assessor," is her husky confession, jaw stiffening.

"Oh, the cranky bird in the Southeastern tower?" Aylor asks, grinning sheepishly over at Tomassa. "Never met her either, but are you sure you want to deal with taxes after all this?" He gestures with his free hand to the chapel.

Tomassa's eyes briefly, tiredly close and she nods her head. "Aye. Tis what I came to do," she states. "I made a promise." That said, she adjusts her clothing with one hand and wipes her nose with the other. "So I am going."

"I understand." Aylor answers, quietly. "Best of luck, ma'am. I won't patronize you by offering to wait outside, but if you'd ever like to talk.. Well, I'm almost always around the palace, and the nice thing about being a twin is I can always sucker my brother into my shift if need be."

Tomassa starts to turn away from the young man, but then pauses. Hesitantly, she reaches up to indicate his short hair. "You should't cut those beautiful strands," she softly advises before turning away to take her first steps to the door.

"Um.. Thanks, I think.. But it'd make wearing my helm kinda uncomfortable." Aylor muses, wryly. "Besides, I don't want to remind you of something that makes you hurt. Maybe I oughta shave 'em in case you come by the palace again, but I confess I kinda like my hair."

Tomassa's smile is faint. "So do I," she states before drifting from the chapel.

Later, after Tomassa has had a bit of time to compose herself on the stairs...

Sahna Nillu's Office <Fastheld Keep>

A smaller chamber with gray stone walls, adjacent to Sahna Nillu's residence in the southeast tower of Fastheld Keep, with a writing desk that's normally cluttered with survey maps, leatherbound ledgers and inkwells. An iron-reinforced wooden door leads out into the residence.

Sahna glances up at the door expectantly. Even this late, the room is still lit by oil lamps as she labors over her work-- The Assessor looks rather weary.

But likely not as weary as the former Surrector. Tomassa makes her way into the room, face bearing the telltale puffiness of the tears she has shed in the past hour. Now, however, her face is dry and her expression solemn. "I am glad to find you still awake," she murmurs.

Sahna peers upwards at the Zahir, and gestures to one of the few chairs that isn't littered with papers. "Oh, Tomassa. I keep late hours, so please do come in. Would you like some mulled cider? It's a bit tepid by now, but.." She shrugs her thin shoulders, vaguely.

Tomassa sighs as she eases down upon the offered seat. "No, thank you," she replies to the offer of cider. "Is this an inconvenient time to pay some taxes?" the woman inquires with the barest hint of a smile.

"It's never an inconvenient time to pay taxes, but you don't owe any." Sahna responds, with a chuckle. She reaches for her ledger, pulling it towards her. "Paying for someone else then?"

"You could say that." Tomassa clears her throat. "I wish to pay a year's worth of Kenneth Fionnlagh's taxes. And, if you will allow me, I should like to know of any Zahirs who are in arrears."

"I'll have a look." Sahna answers, thumbing through the ledger. "Kenneth Fionnlagh is paid up for three months, though, that much I remember. Now, Zahir, Zahir.. " She falls silent, paging through the book.

Tomassa quietly says, "If he is paid up for three months, then I should like to add another twelve to it." She curiously watches Sahna flip through the book, swollen eyes trying to read it upside down.

"Thayndor owes five hundred, and Trevain owes fifty imperials.. I'm not seeing any major arrears though. Ironically, Zahirs are pretty good about taxes." Sahna answers, at last. "Another twelve for Master Fionlagh 1600 a month.. Nineteen thousand-two hundred imperials."

Tomassa say, "And for the Zahirs as well? A year's worth?" The woman is already hefting up the satchel at her side. "I am feeling generous."

"Light, you must be." Sahna murmurs, both eyebrows raised. Rather than doing the math mentally, she pulls a small abacus out of a drawer, pushing beads along the surface for a moment. "Twenty five thousand, eight hundred imperials." She announces, after a few moments.

Tomassa's right brow lifts. "Altogether? Both Zahirs and Fionnlagh?" she inquires, fingers working loose the straps of the satchel. "Is anyone else in need of having their taxes paid?"

"Tomassa, I could fill a book with people who are overdue or in arrears." Sahna responds, frowning. "Fastheld is a big place. Was there anyone in particular you had in mind? Friends, and the like?"

Tomassa tilts her head. "How about nobles? Markus Kahar? Or any Mikins?" She seems to be searching her mind very carefully.

"Markus? Yes, horribly in arrears. So is Fael Mikin, and his wife Sophia, her account is so bad that she actually has a warrant out for her." Sahna muses, chewing on the end of her quill pen. "What inspires this generosity?"

One side of Tomassa's mouth quirks. "Personal gain?" she suggests with a shrug of her shoulders. "How badly is Marcus behind? And Fael? Sophia can rot for all I care."

Sahna laughs, curtly. "Twenty-six thousand, six hundred together. I don't see what's to be gained by it, but more money for the coffers is never a bad thing. We've had an expensive year."

Tomassa reaches into her satchel and begins placing small bags of coinage atop the assessor's desktop. "That's for a year? Or only one month? Oh! What about Luna Grey? She's done much for me in the past. I should help her, if I'm able."

"That's just to catch them up. They're that behind. " Sahna replies, thumbing through the pages again with a grimace. "Grey, Grey..No, she's paid for another few months."

"I should like to pay Luna's taxes for a year as well," the former Surrector quietly says. "I will no longer be paying taxes on Bramblestone, by the way. Only on my farm holdings. I no longer control Bramblestone Keep."

"Alright, I'll check into that and have a new assessment done." Sahna replies, making a notation in the ledgers. "That'll be another twelve thousand then. Are you certain you want to throw away your money like this?" She asks, shaking her head. "It's incomprehensible to me. They all have enough to pay their own taxes should they choose to."

Carefully counting, the noblewoman places more coin bags atop the desk. "Tis my money, is it not? I can spend it on what I like. Any other craftsmen of note who are in need? In honor of Pietyr Kolenko and Barit Smithy, I'll pay."

"Bethany Waterstone, and, um, Norwood too, I think. " Sahna responds, rubbing at a cheek absently. "Two thousand, two hundred to pull them out of the hole."

Another couple of bags and some loose coins are placed atop the desk. "There. Anyone else that you'd personally like to see paid up?" the Zahir noble inquires in a tired voice.

"People have been mostly good about paying last month." Sahna responds, shaking her head. "No sense in wasting more of your money."

Return to Season 4 (2006)

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