Great Hall <Fastheld Keep>

Thick, squared-off stone columns made of one block stacked atop another form a sort of sentry line along this spacious corridor, where newcomers get their first glimpse of the residence of Emperor Talus Kahar XIV.
Statues of famous nobles of Fastheld have been installed in various alcoves off to the sides of the great hall. The ceiling has been adorned with friezes crafted by the realms finest artisans. The walls boast remarkable paintings and tapestries beyond compare.
Soldiers of the Emperor's Blades stand watch at the front entrance and at the approach to the staircase, which leads both up and down in the estate.
Archways lead to the dining hall and the ballroom.

Ester has just walked into the residence. She pulls off her gloves as she walks and stuffs them unceremoniously into the pocket of the haversack she is carrying in her hands. Her expression is glum and troubled at whatever she is thinking about.

Ashlynn is no less pensive as she descends down the stairs into the Great Hall, absently chewing on the end of the braid she has begun to wear her hair in habitually these last few days. Not too preoccupied to look up at the sounds of someone else in the room, her face brightens for a moment before she calls out, "Ester!"

Ester's head swivels at the sound of her voice and she breaks into smile when she recognizes the woman. "Ash," she returns as she changes direction and walks towards her.

The guards open the doors leading in from the main grounds of the castle into the great hall, and into the edifice enters the gaunt and pale form of the Marquis of Hedgehem. His sharp brows etch upward as he comes to a stop not far from the stairs, cape flowing around him like a dark cloud as a mordant smile creeps across his face. "Ah, good evening, ladies. Doing well, I hope."

Ashlynn's strides immediately lengthen to meet her friend, though the smile quickly slips from her face at the newest entrant into the hall. Stopping by Ester's side, she inclines a polite bow toward the man, returning evenly, "'Evening, M'Lord. Well enough, thank you."

Ester's smile fades as well as she turns towards Zolor. Her expresssion is polite as she mirrors Ashlynn with a stilted bow of her own, "Yes M'lord. Well enough."

Zolor Zahir sighs, clasping his hands before himself and nods. His lips quirk in faint amusement. After a few moments of glancing from Ashlynn to Ester and then back to Ashlynn, Zolor finally says, "I have come to the palace for two purposes. The first, of course, is to welcome back the Emperor to our fair realm. The second is to meet with Chancellor Oren Nillu. Paying my respects, offering well wishes and so on."

"The chancellor, I believe, is currently resting," Ashlynn responds after a heartbeat's pause, waving vaguely toward the stairs that lead up toward the upper levels of the keep, "though I had just visited His Majesty. Would you like me to announce your visit?"

Ester's eyes narrow slightly at the nobleman as he explains himself but otherwise she does nothing as Ashlynn speaks.

Zolor Zahir shakes his head, raising a hand - palm out - in discouragement of such a move. "No, no, Mistress Birch, that won't be necessary." He blinks, lowers his hand and allows a wolfish grin to take over his lips. "Or should I say 'Lady' Birch? You really are going places." His eyes settle on Ester again and he narrows his eyes. "Have we met? Serving girl or something?"

Ashlynn smiles thinly, her own eyes narrowing with a vulpine glint of private amusement. "The proper titles can wait until the right time, M'Lord. But speaking of ladies and the conferring of titles, may I introduce the soon to be Lady, Ester Shardwood."

Ester is all business and dips her chin at Zolor after Ashlynn's introduction, "Pleased to meet you M'lord. Up to now I have only seen you from afar."

Zolor Zahir beams broadly as the introduction is made. "Well, I must have just made your night! A real nobleman, up close and not shoving you down on a mattress! Splendid." He winks and sighs, returning his attention to Ashlynn. "The Emperor comes back and starts handing out the titles like cheap confections. Remarkable. Ah, well. Do tell the Chancellor I would love to speak with him at his earliest convenience."

A single, huffed breath, as if it had begun as a snort that was only barely averted, and then Ashlynn is simply dipping her head, her small smile widening though it does not grow anymore genuine. "Remarkable indeed. I will do so when next I see him."

Ester's eyes flicker with annoyance, as she manages to keep her expression from changing at the comments directed her way. Her smile remains polite, though her voice takes on a slightly harder and dry edge, "The night is still young M'lord, anything could still happen."

Zolor Zahir smirks at Ester. "Ah, child, if wishes were muffins, peasants could dine like princes!" He bows with a flourish, then says, "I shall peruse the gardens before taking my respite in guest quarters for the evening. Until the Chancellor and I conclude our business, I intend to remain at Fastheld Keep. Good evening to you, 'ladies.'" A pale grin, then he stalks off toward the ballroom.

Ashlynn pays the man only a shallow bow as he departs, not even bothering to draw breath for a verbal farewell, her eyes following his form all the way, until he is out of sight.

Ester doesn't bother to acknowledge Zolor's departure at all or even watch him as he walks away. She turns her back to him and looks as if she is about to gag, her expression one of disgust.

A few minutes later...

Courtyard <Fastheld Keep>

Just outside the estate house and its glamorous ballroom, this broad patio with its fish ponds, carefully cultivated topiaries and butterfly gardens is surrounded by a ten-foot-high wall that stands in the shadow of the even higher eastern parapet of the fortress proper. Yes, this is an oasis of quiet solitude, for the most part, but it remains a reflective corner of an Imperial manor. Soldiers walk the walls, watching for trouble, at all hours of the day and night.
Benches are arranged throughout the courtyard, along the pools and under the scattered brownwood trees. Double doors lead back into the ballroom.

Zolor Zahir walks slowly along the edge of one of the fish ponds, hands clasped behind his back as he studies the rippling surface of one pond in the glittering moonlight.

An old man passes through the doors leading into the ballroom, his steps careful, slow and aided by a crutch. "Your visits are always an unexpected pleasure, Duke Zahir," is Oren Nillu's greeting as he reaches the general area where Zolor is. He takes a brief look around and, spotting a bench, heads in that direction. "I hope you will not mind, but as you can see, I am still recovering from that most unfortunate attempt on my life."

Zolor Zahir blinks, glancing over at the elderly Nillu. He stops, nodding slowly. "I would have been just as pleased to come to you, Chancellor. You need not unduly exert yourself on my account." He smiles tautly. "It is good to see you survived the incident, just the same."

"On the contrary. I enjoy these walks. The exertion reminds me of life. It is in our most demanding hour that we feel most alive, Duke Zahir," the chancellor explains, resting the crutch against the bench and sitting down. "I hope you are doing well? These have been hectic days, with the return of His Majesty and the Church's unexpected declarations."

"It is good to have him back, I should think," the Marquis of Hedgehem replies. "As for the Church, it struggles to rebuild the credibility lost when the dirty little secret in that subchamber of the Halo citadel exploded into the light of truth. I have no doubt they will manage to protect much of their following from abandoning the flock."

Oren Nillu smiles thinly. "We can certainly hope so. Religion keeps the general morale up. So tell me, Lord Zolor: to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?"

Zolor Zahir tilts his head, lacing his fingers before himself as he watches a shimmering orange fish flit about in the pond behind Oren's bench. "An overdue visit to pay my respects and offer well wishes after that attack. As you know, I have been quite busy after the assumption of oversight in Hedgehem. I hope to see work beginning on Zahir Road soon." He strokes his right cheek with his fingers, then adds, "Neither here nor there, though. I am also curious as to whether any inroads have been made in tracking down these would-be assassins, and whether I may be of any assistance in so doing."

"Thank you, Lord Zolor. The recovery was long and arduous one given the venom that was used, but Lady Rowena's skillful hands led me to safety." A bird lands besides the pond behind Oren Nillu's bench to drink water. Once satisfied, it lets out a joyful chirp and flies off. "A wonderful place, this courtyard. I shall give it more use in the future to enjoy quiet times of reflexion." The old man offers his visitor another smile. "There have certainly some leads towards the location of the culprits responsible for the attack, but no strong evidence found yet. Some believe Wildling were responsible for the assault, but others dismiss the idea as a clever ruse."

Zolor Zahir laughs. "Wildlings?" He sighs, shaking his head. "Pardon my amusement, Chancellor, but we've seen the work of Wildlings before. Subtlety and shadowcraft are hardly their milieu." He frowns, brow knitting. "No, I am afraid it is most likely that the culprits come from within the Aegis. Possibly even from my own bloodline, as much as it pains me to suggest."

Oren Nillu raises an eyebrow. "Is that so? What makes you say that?"

"Well, certainly it hasn't escaped your notice that Aiden and Tomassa were less than enamored with you in the role of Regent," the marquis replies.

"My death would not have altered their fates. It would be easy for anyone with at least the vaguest knowledge of palace issues to know of their plight and their dislike of me. Perhaps the person who is truly responsible was hoping to see the blame placed there. They are, after all, the easiest targets." The chancellor shakes his head. "I am not dismissing the possibility that your kin may have been involved, but I will not jump to conclusions based on what is purely circumstantial evidence."

Zolor Zahir shakes his head. "Don't mistake me, Chancellor. I want it not to be true. The last thing House Zahir needs is *another* scandal of this magnitude. However, if there's even the *slightest* chance that Aiden Zahir might have had some hand in this, I encourage you to seek out someone else to handle oversight of the investigation into the attack."

"Aiden Zahir will not oversee the investigation," Oren states. "I have trusted people in charge of the matter. Let us hope they provide me with results. Believe me, Lord Zolor, I am as eager as anyone else to find the people responsible for this attempt of my life and you can rest assured that I will find them. And when I do, they better have great amounts of the poison that coated the tip of that arrow, for the excruciating pain that will devour them for its consumption will pale besides the weight of my revenge."

Zolor Zahir nods curtly. He turns, clasping his hands behind his back, and says, "You seem to have matters well in hand. Good. Well, do give my regards to His Majesty. It is a relief to see him returned to us at long last. Thank you for your time, Chancellor. I am at your disposal if needed in the future."

Oren Nillu struggles to his feet and takes his crutch, placing it under his weak arm. "*If* by any chance you stumble upon anything you think I might find useful, Lord Zahir, please... feel free to bring it to my attention. I hear an amulet was found near the place where the attack took place. It does support your theory, but given the ease with which it was found, it also supports mine. You are... close to Aiden, are you not? I am sure you can look into the matter personally somehow. In exchange, I can give you this promise: if it turns out it was your kinsmen who were responsible for the attack and it is you who makes it known to me, I will keep the matter out of the public eye and deal with it more privately." He raises his eyebrow again. "I, too, would hate to see House Zahir's good name tainted by the actions of foolish insurrectors."

"We are as close as two vipers can be, Chancellor," the marquis responds with a sardonic grin. "Close enough to keep watch on each other, but not so close one can bite the other." He chuckles, then nods. "I shall keep you apprised of anything I learn." With that, he bows to the chancellor and then strides away toward the ballroom.

Return to Season 3 (2005)

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