Crown's Refuge <Wildlands>

Established in the year 625 ATA (After the Aegis), the village of Crown's Refuge was founded by Talus Kahar XIV, Emperor of Fastheld, after he entered exile in the wake of the Ravager crisis.
The town is built on a hill overlooking the shore of the waterway known within the Aegis as the Fastheld River, west of the great wall as it forms the border of the city-state once ruled by the exile. Here, in the realm known to inhabitants as the Wildlands, the river is known as Jadesnake and it winds its way from the perimeter of Fastheld to the distant sea.
The town has been formed from timbered wood taken from the nearby forests by citizens, many of whom are descendants of Fastheldian exiles of years past, who have chosen to follow Talus Kahar's lead in this strange land.
It is a temperate night. The air is stagnant, not stirring with the slightest breeze. Puffy white clouds fill most of the sky.

After journeying for a few days beyond the Aegis, and after securing the guidance of Four-Splotch and a coterie of Wildlings from the Green Tribe for protection, Ashlynn and Vhramis find themselves emerging from recently timbered woods along the north shore of the Fastheld River, a bit east of what appears to be the beginnings of a fledgling town. Four-Splotch hunches over, drops to a crouch and then peers up at Vhramis, lacing clawed fingers around Skinner's forearm. "No further ussss," the Wildling says in a hissy attempt to speak the Fastheldian language. He then points toward the town. "Ekssssile issss there."

Vhramis can't help but shiver slightly in response to the Wildling's grip on his arm, though he doesn't make any verbal protest. "No point," he grumbles, before nodding down to Four-Splotch. "We'll go alone, then. And I'll return to your village when we're done? To repay my part of the bargain."

Ashlynn shifts her weight uneasily as she watches the two, still disconcerted by the Wildling's too-familiar gestures, but silent upon it as Vhramis is. Mouth tightening at Vhramis' reminder of the bargain, she turns to look ahead, while a hand absently adjusts the wicker picnic basket that rests against her hip on a shoulder-strap in addition to her usual travel pack. The basket shivers a little as something turns restlessly within.

"We ssssee," Four-Splotch replies, and then motions for his companion Wildlings to follow as they slip back into the woods, leaving Ashlynn and Vhramis alone on the shore of the burbling river within walking distance of the small town and its smoldering cookfires.

The woodsman doesn't offer a farewell either, instead glancing to Ashlynn and smiling faintly. "Well...he's found others, at least. Apparently friendly."

Ashlynn releases a long breath, relaxing only fractionally as the Wildlings depart, before turning to give Vhramis a wan smile in return. "Indeed. And he no longer needs to deal with the likes of Aidin or Zolor Zahir or bureacracy. Perhaps he had the right idea, staying here," she muses as she begins the first steps toward the settlement.

"The things out here are straightforward about wanting to kill him. And we're still outsiders," Vhramis warns, moving with her, and keeping his hands well clear of his weapons. "But at least we don't have claws."

"True enough," Ashlynn agrees soberly, though she attempts to maintain her light tone as she searches the village, scrutinizing its construction as well as watching for its residents.

It's not a very big town and it's not all that hard to find Talus Kahar, although he looks different than normal. He's in the middle of the village, listening to a carpenter who's advising Talus about the proposed design of a town hall - a seat of government for the people of the town. "It's a little premature to be talking about this when we don't even have a government, per se," Talus replies, shaking his head. "No, Alax, I appreciate the sentiment, but I would sooner you spend your time designing that aqueduct so we can take water from the Jadesnake and get it to those farmers in the Northsward." The carpenter, Alax, nods and says, "As you wish." Talus pats him on the shoulder, nods, then glances toward the east as the carpenter walks away. He sees the newcomers faces in the glow of the setting sun - a sun that sets in the west in a fashion that Fastheldians rarely see, dipping, dipping toward a horizon that isn't 700-feet-tall and made of cold stone. A smile slides easily onto the exiled emperor's face as he walks toward the duo. "Well, you made it!"

"That...Snake Tangle? It's more unpleasant the second time around, amazingly enough," Vhramis nods his head, hands folding behind his back as he pauses in front of Talus. "And already you have a town up and building," he adds, sweeping an arm over the settlement. "If only I could have been that efficient at Wedgecrest. It would have taken me about this long to decide on a furniture arrangement for the parlor."

Ashlynn smiles at the familiar figure, a brighter expression than she has managed to produce before under the weight of heavy subjects. "Good eve, Talus," she greets warmly, before good humor peeks its way through with a cheeky, "No matter how far you might flee, we will always track you down somehow."

Talus Kahar laughs, then reaches for the basket in Ashlynn's grip. "Let me carry that for you. I'll show you both to my place. Not quite as majestic as a castle on a great hill, but..." He shrugs.

Vhramis glances to the basket, but doesn't comment, leaving that for Ashlynn. "When did you meet up with others?" he asks instead, looking curiously about the town and to any inhabitants he spies.

"It is yours anyway," Ashlynn relinquishes the basket with a grin, giving the woven side a tap that draws a strange mix of growl and distempered mew. "Her favorite pillowcase with a bundle or two of stuffing left. She misses you, honest," she claims disengenuously.

Talus Kahar peers at the basket and sighs, shaking his head. "Great." He plucks the lid open a little, then waves to the cat inside. "Urchin. Not the most comfortable journey for you, I suspect. Welcome to Crown's Refuge." He lowers the lid, despite the hissing protest of the cat, and then straightens. "The townspeople voted on the name. I lost. My suggestion had been something simple: Shoreside. They wouldn't hear of it. And it's funny, too, because a lot of these people are descended from people kicked out of Fastheld by my ancestors."

Vhramis considers Talus' words, and the river in view down the hill. "So then...they're Shadowed?" he asks, lowering his voice a touch. "I'm sure you have much you could tell us."

Ashlynn chuckles at Urchin's continued verbal displeasure before she looks over the buildings with renewed respect and sentiment. "Crown's Refuge. I would have voted with them," she murmurs, before Vhramis' words widens her eyes and she looks quickly between the two men. "I had not thought it through, is true, then, what Vhramis supposes?"

Talus Kahar knits his brow, hefting the basket and walking off toward a wood-frame building with an angled roof along the west side of the main street through town. "Some of them are Shadow-Touched, yes. And some are just descendants of non-Shadow-Touched people who made the wrong people mad and ended up outside the wall. Some also descended from people fleeing the taxman. They come from all kinds of backgrounds, commoner and noble alike."

Vhramis' scrutiny returns to those townsfolk he can see about, though this time it's markedly more intense than before. "Deed is more important than blood here," he concludes, looking to Talus, perhaps for confirmation.

"They are living together without serious conflict, then?" Ashlynn asks, her voice hushed half by wonder, half by bemusement as she struggles to wrap her mind around what such a community must be like. "You have managed much with such a disparate mix...buildings, organization...and I heard you mention aqueducts and farmlands?"

"Blood's just another thing we have in limited supply, here in the Wildlands," Talus says as he steps up onto the porch of the building. He pulls open the door with his free hand and then motions for Ashlynn and Vhramis to go ahead. "We don't have a gigantic wall to protect us or give us the luxury of judging each other based on who our fathers were." He chuckles. "As for conflict ... well, they've all come from other places - smaller settlements, camps - that are always getting caught in the middle of the strife that seems to erupt between the Wildling tribes. With that sort of threat facing you all the time, it tends to put pettier concerns in real perspective."

Vhramis gives the building a glance before stepping into it and turning about. "That's true enough. Though I'm glad you've found others to live with. I was half expecting that I'd need to help teach you how to better live alone in the woods." He smiles slightly at that, shrugging. "No offense to you, of course."

Ashlynn stifles a reflexive chuckle a Vhramis' quip as she steps in after him with a nod to Talus of thanks. "Yes, it is very good to see you with such support from Fastheldians, no matter how removed," she agrees wholeheartedly, before turning an earnest look of concern upon Talus. "But, in all honesty, how are you doing? How has life been here for you?"

Talus Kahar steps into the building. It's a one-floor affair, divided into: A main room, with a kitchen, dining area and furnished sitting area; a partitioned relief room with a chamber pot and washbasin; and Talus' domicile, currently closed off behind an oak door. "I actually helped build the place. Alax Land, our chief carpenter, used this as a project so I could learn." He frowns a little. "The door to my room still sticks. Alax swears it's probably just the dampness in the air and that it'll settle down come fall." He sets the picnic basket on the dining room table and opens the lid, allowing Urchin to spring from it like a wild creature seeking freedom from captivity. The cat scurries off to explore the nooks of the new home while Talus turns his attention to Ashlynn. "Life here's been busy. But, I have to admit, no matter how many people I've become surrounded by, I'm still lonely. I miss my son. I miss my friends." He closes the lid of the basket. "I miss..." His eyes fix briefly on Ashlynn and then shift toward Vhramis before he says, "You're probably both thirsty from the trip. And tired. Relax, sit down, I'll fix some drinks."

The Steward turned woodsman moves to one of the windows to look outside, seeming a bit ill at ease for the moment. "Can't quite forget where you are," he murmurs to himself, before looking over his shoulder to the two. "You said there's warring Wildlings? Are there more tribes than just the Green ones nearby?"

Ashlynn chuckles outright this time at Alax's protest concerning the former emperor's carpentry skills. "I am impressed," she says sincerely with a last glance about the room before her expression falls into sorrow at Talus' following words. Rather than address the last, unspoken point, she says simply instead, "He misses you too. If you would like to pass anything to him, whether words or object, I will bring it to him." As Vhramis continues with their most pressing questions, she searches out the nearest seat with a vantage point for both men, trading her attention between them as they talk.

"At least six other tribes, including those big dark Wildlings you encountered when you first came looking for me," Talus replies as he takes a brown bottle and three blown glasses from a cabinet. He lines up the glasses, then uses a knife to jab the cork in the wine bottle. He twists, removes the cork and then says, "This is from a Silkfield vineyard, vintage 576 ATA. A ... gift. Got it the day we formally declared the town existent." He grins, pouring the white wine into each glass. "Alax swore it was passed down from his grandfather to his father to him, but I've got a sneaking suspicion that some of these people have their own little underground market going with some people in Fastheld. I haven't pressed too much, but if you consider that some of them *are* Shadow-Touched and may be able to move themselves across the Aegis in the blink of an eye ... it's not so far beyond the pale." He picks up two glasses and walks, taking the first to Ashlynn and then delivering the second to Vhramis before he walks back to the table to retrieve his own glass. He then settles onto the couch across from Ashlynn's chair. "I think sometimes we'll need every advantage we can get out here."

Vhramis accepts the drink distractedly, nodding his head. "Then there must be things out here that can be offered to those inside the Aegis," he continues along the line of logic. "Does this town produce anything to trade? With other settlements, if not Walldwel..." He pauses at the word, shaking his head with a snort. "If not Fastheld citizens?"

"Advantages are always good," Ashlynn opines dryly with a snort, nodding in thanks for the drink as she tests its bouquet before giving an appreciative hum. "I have not had this quality since someone decided to close Wedgecrest's cellars to me by leaving," she notes with a teasing glance toward Vhramis.

Talus Kahar laughs at Ashlynn, then glances over at Vhramis. "We're working on that. It's hard to get trade networks going when there are no roads to speak of and the trails we do have are overrun by rival Wildling clans and Light knows what else. But we put ourselves on the river because of the strategic value, short and long-term."

Vhramis lifts his glass to Ashlynn, smiling in a bit of amusement. "That was the real reason I left. Wedgecrest simply couldn't afford to keep up with your consumption." He finally moves away from the window, seating himself carefully into a free chair, after resting his longbow aside. "Well...I'm sure you don't wish to hear me asking endless questions. At least about trade and administration," he adds to Talus.

Ashlynn sticks her tongue out at Vhramis before sinking more comfortably down into her seat, lifting a brow as she notices the still miffed-looking Urchin nearby and wiggles her fingers near the floor, trying to tempt the feline close. "Though, perhaps you would not be so reluctant to answer questions of how we could help? What we might be able to do either for you individually or for Crown's Refuge collectively?"

Talus Kahar is taking a sip of wine as Ashlynn asks her question. He blinks, then cradles his glass in his hands and says, softly, "That might be seen as treason. Of more kind than one." He shakes his head. "You've taken a great enough risk coming beyond the wall. I wager it is not with the Regent's knowledge or blessing."

"You're right. I doubt he would have allowed it," Vhramis shrugs slightly, before smiling faintly. "Though, since we obviously lack any sense of self preservation, we'll gladly do whatever we can to help you. And your new neighbors."

"I have done worse than aid and abet before," Ashlynn says unconcernedly, finally managing to get Urchin to at least wander by to scrape her flanks by the courier's fingertips. "And I abide no law before common decency."

"Then I suppose I'll have to find my own way to help," Vhramis shrugs, finally tasting the wine. "Even if it's bringing you specific wines that your resourceful friends can't find. Though I don't know exactly what that is."

Ashlynn chuckles, coaxing the feline into rubbing more fully against her scritches, a grudging purr rising fitfully from the sulky-looking Urchin. "Perhaps it would be wiser to simply give him a task, Talus. Otherwise, what he dreams up might cause more disaster than anything true maliciousness can concoct."

Talus Kahar frowns, looking over at Vhramis. "You want to do something for me? Keep an eye out for your nephew. With Serath gone, his mother dead and me in exile, you're the only blood relative left that I'd trust with his fate. Keep me apprised of what's happening in the realm and do all you can in your power to make sure that boy stays safe. But *do nothing* that might get you thrown in a dungeon or worse."

"I'd never be able to get near him," Vhramis points out, shaking his head. "And even news regarding him would undoubtably be kept private. Especially to someone like me. People look at me crosseyed now. More so than they have before."

Ashlynn snorts with mild amusement at Vhramis' self assessment before she gives Urchin a final stroke and then settles back into her seat, savoring her last few sips of the wine. "I can visit the young prince, and there is enough legitimate business to keep me around the palace on a frequent basis - Vhramis can visit with me if he wishes, in that case. Our relationship should excuse that much. He is also well-liked and well-respected amongst both the general populace and certain circles of the nobility...he would have more influence there than I would."

Talus Kahar nods. "Yes. Well." He stands and makes his way toward the table, setting down his glass and asking, "More wine?"

Vhramis frowns slightly, shaking his head. "I wouldn't say well respected...ah. Nevermind. No more wine for me, thank you." He looks down into his glass and drains the sizable amount remaining with a large gulp.

"Just half a glass more, if you do not mind," Ashlynn murmurs, sighing at the downturn the conversation has taken before she grimaces and ventures, "I suppose if we are going through such subjects, we should finish them all before moving on to lighter things. Have you heard anything of why the Wildlings seem to have abandoned their traditional escalation of attacks against Fastheld this past season?"

Talus Kahar plucks up the bottle, walks over to where Ashlynn is sitting and fills her glass to the requested point. As he goes back to refill his own glass, he answers: "They got what they wanted. Well, the Green Tribe did. All these years, they've been wanting to liberate that dragon that was under the old church. Now that the Instrumentalist is out and about, the Green Tribe doesn't see any need to go hunting through Fastheld. The other tribes, meanwhile, are all busy fighting Green Tribe and each other while terrorizing the Wildland pioneer camps. Basically, I guess you could say Fastheld bores them. Lucky for Fastheld, eh?"

"Four Splotch suggested as much..." Vhramis mutters, frowning. "Though he also mentioned that the other tribes viewed Fastheld as allies of the Green tribe. could be that one day soon, there'll just be different Wildlings slinking about."

Ashlynn nods with a soft sigh of resignation. "The more things change..." she begins the adage wryly, leaving it hanging as she sips more frugally at the wine.

Talus Kahar nods. "That's definitely possible," he concedes, returning to his couch and settling onto it. "But, for now, Fastheld gets a reprieve. Of course, the way it sounds, that reprieve is going to be filled with internal strife."

Vhramis nods his head, setting his empty glass aside and looking over to the window again, frowning faintly. "I promised the Green Tribe a service," he brings up.

Ashlynn coughs, clearing her throat with an embarrassed glance toward the others as she manages to choke on her latest swallow before sighing and giving up, setting the last finger or two of wine aside on a table. "Do you know what it is they might ask for, Talus? Four-Splotch gave no hint...for all we know, they have not even thought about it since the last we saw of him."

Talus Kahar scratches his bearded cheek. "I have no idea." His glance drifts toward Vhramis. "How long are you staying? I could probably ask around, see what they've got in mind, and let you know before it's time to head back."

"I didn't plan on a set amount of time to stay," Vhramis responds with a shrug. "I was going to just make it as long as needed. But it doesn't seem like that's very long at all." He smiles in a bit of humor at that.

Ashlynn shakes her head with a quirk of her mouth at Vhramis' quip as she stretches her legs out before her, crossing her ankles and lacing her hands cross her middle as she slouches down at a comfortable angle in her seat. "Long enough to take in the sights. After all, running water, bright grass, a forest nearby with a quaint little community...what more can someone ask in a vacation spot?"

"Yes, well, some of the bushes in the forest have been known to eat people, so don't stray too far from the village without a guide, all right?" Talus chuckles. He takes another gulp from his glass, then rises and walks over to the window to stare out at the street, which is now illuminated by flickering torches tended throughout the night by a handful of watchmen. "The amenities aren't quite as posh as I enjoyed in the palace, but there's definitely something to this rustic living." He turns to look back at his guests, waving the glass slightly. "I go *walking* now. Never alone, of course, because of common sense safety concerns. But I walk for miles at a time ... and I don't get winded."

"You should learn to shoot a bow," Vhramis points out, gesturing to his weapon. "If you don't know already. And how to track. That was what I was hoping to teach you a bit of. And which berries taste good, and which will cause you to cramp up into a tight little ball." He grins slightly. "Unless the berries out here try to eat you like the bushes do."

Ashlynn chuckles appreciatively at the images of the possible hazzards beyond the wall before Talus' words sink in, and she looks toward him with wide eyes. "I don't far do you think such limits can be extended? I suppose it would be hoping for too much for a near-complete cure through a simple change of lifestyle?"

"There are some theories floating around," Talus answers with a shrug. "But all I can tell you for certain is that no Kahar-descended male I've met out here suffers from any infirmity that wasn't inflicted by the environment itself, somehow." He offers a sardonic grin before adding, "Of course, a lot of these people come from dodgy backgrounds, so who knows how many are really Kahar kin, as opposed to just saying they are, for the prestige, right?"

"Does it bring much prestige out here, anyway?" Vhramis asks with a faint chuckle, seeming otherwise lost to the conversation. "I can't really imagine..." He shrugs and rises, stretching out his leg.

Ashlynn blinks at Talus, obviously quite astonished by the small detail just let slip, before she swallows and looks toward Vhramis concernedly. "Vhramis had never been beyond the wall until the recent expeditions. And yet, he does not..." She shrugs eloquently, letting the obvious speak for itself without words. Smiling weakly, she nods toward Talus. "Well, apparently *something* managed to fool everyone else into thinking he should be respected or something."

Talus Kahar smirks at Ashlynn, then nods to Vhramis. "The Amnesty of the Wildcat King has not been forgotten by those whose ancestors survived in exile because of it. So, if you're a Kahar beyond the Aegis, then, at least among many of our ilk, we're automatically granted some measure of respect. Of course, as you noticed when you got here, the name won't mean much if you turn out to be a total waste of resources who can't contribute to the well-being of the community. It wasn't enough for me to be a former emperor, with loads of experience telling people to live or die at my command - I actually had to pick up a hammer, a saw and build this house."

Vhramis apparently missed something, as he looks at Ashlynn and lifts an eyebrow. "What about me? Or what not about me, more specifically?" He gives himself a thoughtful look over. Nope. No tail just yet.

"Only logical, in this environment," Ashlynn nods to Talus before she stifles a laugh against a hand as she watches Vhramis' expression and his self-inspection. "Just that you seem to have escaped the curse's touch quite naturally, despite your parentage," she explains, sobering a little, before finishing quite solemnly, "Except for an unbelievable propensity to get yourself in the most ridiculous situations through good-will alone."

Talus Kahar chuckles, then returns to the couch and sits again. "Well, the curse was always assumed to be linked solely to the bloodline. But ..." He smile fades a bit and he edges forward, glass in hand as he continues, "The Aegis was raised by Shadow-Touched mages. While many of them accepted the amnesty of exile for the gift that it was, it's thought that a few of them may have imbued the wall with the elements of a curse that encircled the land they left behind and targeted the descendants of the Emperor who sent them away from their homes."

"Curses...that figures," Vhramis mutters, beginning to walk about the room, inspecting the walls. "Still. If it makes you better, being out can't be all that bad."

Ashlynn casts Talus a stricken look at the hypothesis. "That is horrible, to willfully saddle innocent generations with infirmities for the deeds of one man," she husks, before her gaze falls blindly to the floorboards directly before herself. "But I suppose that there are even worse atrocities...and that such things can never be banished from our natures."

Talus Kahar nods in agreement. "If it's true, it was definitely a horrible thing to do. Of course, all the old stories I've been hearing suggest that it was just that sort of childish, petty, and base motivation that led to the abuses of magic that sparked the Cataclysm so long ago. Guess times don't change all that much, really. Just the names and the faces and the backdrops."

"There's noone living with you who knows how to possibly reverse it?" Vhramis abruptly asks, pausing and looking intently at Talus. "Not to say they'd want to...or have any reason to. But...if there was a way..."

Ashlynn bites her lip at Vhramis' proposal, looking up first to the woodsman before turning to Talus with tentative hope.

"I wish I knew," the exiled emperor replies, shaking his head. "We don't even know for sure that it's true. And even if it is, I don't know of anyone who has that kind of ability." He sighs. "Faeyd might know something of this, if it's known among his followers in the Luminary. But, as it stands right now, even if we assume the truth of the curse in the Aegis is true, we have no way of knowing if it is contained within a single stone or all of them, or what power would be required to effect a reversal. Seeking that answer will send you skirting over the line of treason in the eyes of the Church. You saw what happened when I dared to seek the Luminary's aid in something that would benefit the realm at large, yes? Tread cautiously if you pursue this."

Vhramis blows out a long breath, glancing to Ashlynn. "Faeyd. Now I'm going to be chasing after mages, am I?" He chuckles quietly, rubbing a hand over his scalp. "Too many blows on the head. Too much poison." Moving back towards his chair, he reclaims it. "Apparently it was my blood that killed my mother. That's what that Bladesman...what's his name. Cyke Kahar? Something like that. That's what he said on it. Curse got passed to her?"

"And you think we have anything better to do with our times?" Ashlynn teases gently before nodding to Talus. "Of course. If we pursue will certainly be with caution." She smiles crookedly at Vhramis for his earlier jibes at himself before she hesitates at his questions, glancing furtively toward the former emperor before suggesting tentatively, "Or...perhaps she Healed it. If Shadow started it...perhaps Shadow is able to end it too, on an individual basis."

Talus Kahar nods. "No way to know with certainty, Vhramis. But I think that if you are blaming yourself in any way for the death of your mother, you're a fool. As Ashlynn said, it's just as likely that your mother bore the brunt of the curse, using Shadow-Touched powers, healing you at the expense of her own life."

Vhramis scrunches his forehead, first at Ashlynn, and then at Talus. "I'm not blaming myself at all. And it's not possible my mother was...that." He shrugs slightly and leans back into the seat. "Think it was just one of those things that go unexplained."

Ashlynn glances at Vhramis with a faint air of relief at his casual response before her brow furrows in perplexity. "Why not...?" she begins to ask, before swallowing the remainder of her words with an embarrassed look and waving a hand airily. "Well, as you say, it is one of those things we would never be able to verify the truth of. How many live here now, Talus?" she attempts to turn the subject. "How quickly is Crown's Refuge growing?"

"It's fairly stable," Talus replies, glancing from Vhramis to Ashlynn and smoothly allowing the conversation to shift away from the previous topic. "And, as soon as they've got a government up and running here, I'll be leaving."

"Leaving?" Vhramis blinks, considering the statement. "Why are you doing that? You built a house, and you plan to leave it?"

"Why - " Ashlynn echoes Vhramis before she bites her lip, allowing the woodsman to voice his concerns first while she straightens in her seat, unintentionally leaning forward in her consternation at the news.

"I built a house so I could learn how it was done," Talus says, shoulders bunching up before he relaxes and takes another drink from his glass. Then, he notices it's empty. He gets up, walks over to the table and pours more from the bottle. "You two have a life now. You seem happy. So, I'm happy for you. But I'm not looking for the next gilded cage to sing in. I'm not going to sit here in Crown's Refuge and lord over it just because I was emperor in Fastheld in another life. Best way for me to move on is to just move on. So, I'm going to learn to build boats while the government is formed and the town gets more settled. When the time's right, I'm launching an expedition to see what else is out there."

"Boats?" Vhramis asks, frowning, and glancing to Ashlynn. "You mean you're following the river? And you don't plan to go alone, do you? Especially when noone knows what's out there."

"But...surely you have more expertise than those here for constructing a stable government. Could they not use your advice, even if you do not wish to be the leader himself?" Ashlynn argues, though it is obvious her questions lie far from her real concerns for the former emperor, unconsciously rising from her seat as if she is afraid he might leave right this very moment rather than in some nebulous future.

Talus Kahar laughs. "I'm probably a little crazy, but I'm not an idiot. Of course I won't go alone. That's why it's called an expedition and not a suicide run." He meanders back to the couch and plops down again, sighing. "The plan is to follow the river out to sea. We'll scout along the coast, at first. Then we'll work out ways to broaden the exploration beyond sight of the coast itself. Likely to be incredibly dangerous. I know a certain guard who'd be having fits about it if he knew. I can't wait." He grins boyishly.

"I could always go fetch him," Vhramis offers, only half serious. "I'm sure he'd enjoy coming along. Of course, I've never ran into the man, which is probably for the best. He's probably still a bit sore about the whole cavern thing."

"I *will* tell him, in which case, there would be no need to fetch him at all," Ashlynn mock threatens, though her frown is genuine as she looks between the two men before letting herself relax with a sigh, finding Talus' explanation more reasonable than his initial statement. "But how will we be able to visit you if you wander off into unknown territory?" she asks as she flops back into her chair - a little forlornly, a little petulantly, absently wiping stray locks back from her forehead with an impatient swipe of her palm.

Talus Kahar sits in silence for a few moments, staring at Ashlynn before his gaze focuses on the glass in his hand. "Look," he begins, swishing the wine around inside the glass by making small circles with the hand holding the glass, "it's probably best this way." His eyes go to Vhramis briefly and then return to Ashlynn. "Back in Fastheld, when we could never practicably be a couple, it was easy enough for me to accept your involvement with Vhramis. I like him. I respect him. And, back in Fastheld, I was a prisoner to tradition and custom. It's not something I could fairly rally against. It would have been selfish and petty, and totally unworthy of you both. But now ... now, I don't have those political entanglements. Just the emotional ones. And it's just better, I think, that I distance myself. I don't want to be an obstacle to your happiness...or mine, come to that."

Vhramis sits awkwardly for a few moments, having no ready response to the newest turn in the conversation. Though he does glance between the two others in the room, before finally clearing his throat and rising to his feet. "Perhaps I'll go for a brief look about the settlement," he excuses, lifting his bow and making way towards the door. "Just for my own peace of mind. Paranoid know me," he quips.

Ashlynn sinks a little lower into her seat as she closes her eyes, unable to deny the truths both skirted and stated, before she glances up at Vhramis with the woodsman's words, and after a conflicted moment nods slightly. "Thank you. If you do not mind...may I join you in a little while?" she asks hesitantly.

Talus Kahar looks toward the departing Vhramis and says, "Stay in town. And yell for the watchman if you run into anything odd."

"Doesn't get much more odd than me," Vhramis responds with a dry chuckle. "The topiaries will uproot and run at the sight of me." He glances back to Ashlynn for a moment, considering, before nodding his head slightly. "I won't be far."

Ashlynn chuckles softly before giving the woodsman a weary smile and a nod. "I will see you soon."

"Guess I know how to ruin a good mood, eh?" Talus says, frowning as he sets his glass on a nearby wooden side table and then leans over to pick up Urchin, who has come over and made mewling noises for attention. "Sorry," he concludes, setting the cat on his lap and scritching between the ears.

"No," Ashlynn immediately murmurs, her gaze drifting back to Talus as Vhramis leaves. "No, it is hardly your fault. If anything..." She breaks off, biting her lip, before she rubs a hand over her eyes, hiding them. "I am sorry, for making this so difficult on everyone. I wish my heart was not so generous with its affections...I wish I did not have to hurt either of you. But in my fumblings, I am afraid that I am ending up hurting you both, in one way or another...and it tears at me, that it has happened to such men as you two."

"Ash, you don't owe me an apology," Talus replies with a shake of his head. "You didn't do this on purpose. None of this is your fault. Look, before that Light-forsaken dragon hauled me beyond the Aegis, it made perfect sense, under the circumstances, for you to pursue the relationship with Vhramis. We could *never* really be together the way I wanted, not with me wearing the crown. Custom would ultimately dictate that I either take another noble bride or take none at all and settle for having the sole heir. You did what you had to do and I respected that. If anyone's to blame for this mess, it's the Ravager. Or, if I really want to be fair, it all comes down to me: *I* chose exile. I could have gone back to Fastheld and faced the wrath of the Church for being exposed to the Shadow-Touched Wildlands. Maybe I should have. But I didn't. I chose this. *I* chose it. Not you. But the fact that I did choose it means I got liberated from the customs that bound me. But it didn't liberate me from the feelings I still have for you. And now that you and Vhramis have a chance together ... well, dammit, Ash, I won't sit in this place and pine over the loss. I can't do that. I won't. I've got another chance at life out here, and I should take advantage of that, don't you think?"

"Of course," Ashlynn agrees huskily, rubbing her eyes one last time before she rises abruptly from her chair, striding over to kneel down before him, looking up with a now-slightly watery gaze. "Oh Talus," she whispers, moving to touch his cheek gently. "I wish that you were allowed all that you truly deserve. But you know how to find what happiness you can...I just wish I could have helped you do so."

Talus Kahar reaches his own hand up to cover Ashlynn's as it touches his cheek. "You did. I may not get to spend the rest of my life with you, but you made a part of my life that was otherwise growing more and more unbearable that much easier to bear. So ... take some comfort in that." A faint smile crosses his face. "I had been wanting to take you on a boat trip, remember?" He sighs, shakes his head and then takes his hand off Ashlynn's. "I'm sorry I even put you in a position where you had to choose. And I wish he weren't a good man, someone I didn't approve of, *kin*, even, because that'd make it a lot easier for me to argue for you to stay with me."

"You did," Ashlynn smiles at his reminder of the imperial barge, even as a lone tear falls down her cheek. A last brush of her thumb tenderly over the shelf of his cheek, and then she lets her hand fall away, leaning back upon her heels. "And I had wished for a child by you. But I would have liked for you to be able to see him or her as they grew." She stands, leaning over to press a kiss against his forehead. "I love you, Talus," she whispers, "and cherish the memories that we hold together. Never forget that."

"And I love you," the exiled emperor concedes. "I don't want to forget any of it." He smiles sadly, then sets the cat aside - it grumpily complains - so that he can stand up. He stares at Ashlynn and he tilts his head, pondering something. "Damn it." He looks toward the door and then back to Ashlynn. His brow knits and his cheeks redden. "Do you love him? *Really* love him? Do you want a child by him? Is all that stands between you and me being you and me some fear that I wouldn't see the child grow up? Because, damn it, Ash ... I don't want to throw a chance to be with you away just so I can go off on some silly adventure. But you really would have to make a choice - and you'd have to join me here."

"I know you would not do that, and I would never allow myself to stay with someone that I did not love." Ashlynn's face is etched in sorrow, her shoulders stiff and trembling. "I do love him, and I would like a child by him...if he is willing to take the step of joining with me. If he is not..." She shrugs, her gaze falling down to the space between them, eyes slipping shut, unable to bear his gaze any longer. "I am not afraid of joining you here. I have not been a courier these many years without learning to drop ties at a moment's notice if necesary, though I would miss my family terribly. Yet I am hoping that I can still be of some help to your son, and to Fastheld...and I cannot do that here. Perhaps it is ego on my part to think I might be able to make some difference while the likes of Faeyd and Aidin and Zolor Zahir are the main players, but I have to try anyway. And your son is already terribly lonely. Am I wrong, to think of it this way, Talus? How could I ever decide, and not wish to weep, as much for the ungratefulness of not appreciating what I will have as what I will lose with the choosing?" Shaking her head, she reaches out blindly toward his arm, trying to seek out his hand, for the comfort of touch. "It is all so confusing. When Vhramis made his bargain with the Wildling, I offered to perform a task of their choosing as well. But Four-Splotch said he would guide me, because, in his words, 'You bear his child.' And it shocked Vhramis, and it hurt him, for we had both jumped to the conclusion that I was bearing, or would bear, your child. Do you trust their sight, Talus? Can they see if I was meant to be here with you, or with Vhramis?"

Talus Kahar takes Ashlynn's hand without hesitation, gripping it assuringly. "Your family would be welcome here too, Ash." He takes a step closer and uses his other hand to prop the courier's chin with his fingers, lifting her face toward his. Softly, he says, "Ash, with Vhramis' help, and the help of people here who can move at will to Fastheld in an instant, we can watch over young Talus. We don't need to tear ourselves apart to keep him safe. But his destiny *is* there. The Kahar line must remain secure in Fastheld or the kingdom really will fall. My destiny is now here. Can Four-Splotch tell you whether you're meant to be with me or Vhramis? I don't know. To be honest, I'd never put too much faith in the wording of a creature that only learns new languages by eating people who speak them. If you want to listen to anything, listen to your heart. Where do *you* think you should be?"

Ashlynn reluctantly opens her eyes when he tips her head up, unable to deny the moisture that gathers within them any longer. Her breath trembles on a sob that she does not permit to awaken, and after a long moment in which she grips his hand as tightly as she can, she finally whispers brokenly, "That...that I should return to Fastheld. I am sorry...but..." And then her voice dies altogether.

Talus Kahar nods slowly. A light fades from his eyes and he releases Ashlynn's hand, draws his fingers way from her chin. "I should go," he says stiffly, moving now toward the door. "I drew the late watch. I'll send Vhramis back in. My room is yours. I won't need it."

Ashlynn is mute as she watches him take the first few steps away, before she wrenches her gaze away, unable to bear watching the stiff, hurt line of his shoulders and back any longer. "Thank you, Talus," she murmurs hoarsely. "You have given me something priceless in our time together, and I will always be grateful for it."

Talus Kahar stops at the door, hand on the knob as Ashlynn speaks. There's a moment where his shoulders shift, his head turns just a little, as if he's about to turn and respond. But, in the end, he opts to let it go without a last word. He just opens the door, steps out into the clear night, and closes the door behind himself without looking back.

Return to Season 3 (2005)

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