- The high ceilings of this gray stone chamber are supported by rows of massive columns along an aisle that features a purple carpet that extends from the arched entrance to the Emperor's throne room and ends at the first step of the dais that holds the gleaming majesty of the Imperial throne - a chair of gold, armrests encrusted in jewels, back and seat cushioned with stuffed pillows covered with crimson velvet.
- Torches flicker in stanchions attached to the columns. The flutteringwings and twitter of birds can occasionally be heard in the shadows overhead, where the fowl have nested after coming into the estate through one of the balconies or the courtyard.
- The seal of Fastheld - a crown within a dark, unbroken circle - is on the tapestry that hangs behind and above the throne of Talus Kahar.
Many years before even someone like Oren Nillu was born, a freelander whose name has long been buried under the sands of time wrote that life is not a path one treads, but rather a current that sweeps you along whether you will it or not. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps goals are an illusion and control over your destination is a matter of fate.
The Chancellor is standing with a Bladesman of high ranking by the looks of it, speaking in hushed tones. "I want their heads placed on pikes and I do not care if women and children see it. In fact, make sure the young see it. It will ensure that the seeds of rebellion are effectively quelled everlastingly from their minds," he says, dismissing the soldier.
Yes. That commoner grew to be a famous bard, one whose words were heeded across Fastheld... ...but Oren Nillu never read his works.
There's a loud throat clearing by a newly arrived herald and he belts forth "I beg pardon, Your Grace, but Her Grace Rowena Mikin has requested that I fetch her to you."
In the midst of the newest bout of turmoil to plague Fastheld's esteemed ranks, a little bit of peace and womanly wisdom that had been lost has now returned. The missing party's arrival had not been accompanied by fanfare, but had been borne on the swift wings of night's breath. Rumors had circulated, and it was no doubt that word of the impossible return had spread throughout the realm by now. The resurrected wildcat had left his calling card not through elaborate letters and seals of wax, but with an ill reminder of the purpose for his initial disappearance.
And so it seems that Eriya remains as it was left, or rather forgotten, upon the purple carpet. A smile of fondness for that fleeting moment touches the troubled lips of she who now enters the Throne Room. As silent as fluttering silk permits, Rowena appears in the opened crack of the doorway.
Oren Nillu watches the soldier depart and then turns to the herald, nodding. Once the Duchess is shown in, he gives a quick, thoughtful inspection. "Glad to see you are well and in one piece. To be honest, I did not think the wild would suit you. Perhaps I was wrong."
The day that Rowena had departed Fastheld's safe boundaries, she was but a pale shell of the womanly fire that had once burned brightly in her face. Rather than shriveling beneath the eyes of Shadow, she seems to have thrived, her color returned, her figure improved, stature robust. "Your doubt was not the only case I've lived to correct through my success..." Success of what exactly need not be spoken, for it seems that whatever had once withered in the woman's soul has been revived. A sparkle of that familiar warmth makes easy her smile as she glides down the carpet's length to meet him. "No wings of drake nor boats of safe passage through the river's mighty tongue had we at our disposal. Fortunately, feet do serve well the purpose they were meant to serve if given the chance. And, with the eternal blessing of Light, such was the mode of our travel."
As she nears with those words, the curve of her lips receeds into something more sad, her eyes losing the vibrant luster for favor of grave concern. "I see that not all has been well with the rest of our realm, however. Twice now have the waters of discontentment been stirred since I last walked these halls. I'm certain that count leaves out many smaller, more petty matters that have not yet reached my ears. And so I come to act, if even in vain, as a buffer so that the full weight of this might not over burden the man who has returned to accept it in his brother's name."
"The man," Oren echoes, his eyes cold and unrelenting upon the healer. "Yes, well. Let us hope so. Perhaps he will grace me with the honor of his presence at some point." He turns away from the Duchess to summon a servant over, sending him off with a request for some wine. It seems with that, the first topic is laid to rest. "I would have sent a boat to bring you home, but I knew Serath would choose to walk and that you would not leave his side. I did not think others would come as well. Sending a boat felt like a pointless way to risk lives unnecessarily. At least you are home now, safe."
"Indeed, for I am ever so glad to be home," Rowena murmurs, and earnestly at that. "I'll have much to report to the Council if my studies continue to progress with the same results observed in the wildlands. So many strange creatures....plants...a different, more potent breed of wildling." Ending on a sobering note, she opens her palms to inspect the tiny scars of blade prickings. "I've kept a rather detailed journal of these new findings and carried specimens back to our borders to verify my claims. A new era has begun, for those who seek greater knowledge of what lies beyond. Of course, I'm certain that Master Spriggs has reported much in the several weeks since his arrival."
Folding her hands together, she tilts her head softly to watch Oren's demeanor more closely. "'Tis a shame to see the warm comfort faded from the man I left, your Grace. Much have you suffered through: the pox, His Majesty's death...and now the tremors of civil division."
There is a small table on the far side of the room with a map of Fastheld spread across its surface. The parchment looks like many others, with the exception of all the empty space surrounding the main drawing of the realm -- a space, it seems, that awaits to be filled. Soon enough, the wine the Chancellor ordered is brought in and placed on that table. The papers there are rolled up and taken away. "Join me," Oren says, moving now in that direction. "Yes. We have heard enough from Master Sprigg. We are well aware of the threats we face from without and within. A cold winter, yet I fear the spring it precedes."
"Every shift in power brings some degree of unrest. Let us hope that time will diffuse some of those fears." Following Oren's lead across the throne room, Rowena looks up to the quiet tittering of birds. "Fastheld has seen far too many changes in leadership in the past two years. A fourth surrector now rises from common ranks to tend the position, her two predecessors having held and then tossed the duty for too short a time. My kinsman's was cut short before the lioness took hold..." Taking a deep breath, Rowena concludes the ramble. "We've become unstable. To some degree, we are shaken by matters beyond our control."
"Unrest?" Oren pulls a chair for Rowena to sit, waits to see if she does or not, then moves to do so himself, pouring some wine for both. "Rowena, I am not concerned about any unrest produced by the change in leadership. Much like before, this turmoil will be quelled. The only difference is that I intend to make it more absolute this time." He waves his hand once, as if dismissing the idea out of existence. "That particular ordeal will be over by the time winter thaws."
Rowena takes the offered seat, watching him pour the wine. Wine. Wine had not touched her lips in months. For a moment or two, she eyeballs it like a starving peasant might spy a piece of honied candy. "If you are so confident that the citizens will be easily passified, then what is to fear? Has the Church cast another bout of disapproval upon our heads?"
"Knowledge is power, Rowena, and I fear nothing I know about," Oren replies, sipping from his wine. "It is the unknown that makes sleep elusive. The future. The things that must happen but might now." He glances at the throne briefly, then back at the healer. "The things that *should* be happening but are not. The future of this realm... and the people it must be entrusted to. The future." He sighs. "The doubt. No, Rowena. I can silence angry nobility with the same slap a hunter uses to silence his dog. It is not the dog I fear, but the righteousness of the slap."
"The same dog can be subdued by a gentler stroke, if the hand lain upon its head is familiar enough," Rowena murmurs, looking at Oren from over the lip of the goblet as she takes a sip. "And while the future may not be foreseen, some parts can be suspected if one recalls former and present societal trends. There are many things to be wary of, indeed, that haunt the dreams. But as you say, it is through the acquisition of knowledge that one can prepare for't."
Oren Nillu smiles wearily. "You misunderstood me, Rowena. I did not mean I fear the action, but rather the righteousness behind it." He takes another sip of wine. "Doubt is what haunts me, for you see, Rowena, perhaps the dog should be allowed to bark. Am I doing the right thing by defending a system of government when the people who should be governing consistently neglect their political duties? Should I stop the greater change when it seems I am the only one who cares about the old ways? These are the questions that plague my nights."
"And what if the people were permitted to slip from this sliver of unity that this system provides? Houses may wage war on one another, and who would have the weight to stop the bloodshed?" Rowena inquires, holding the goblet lightly in her hands. "I understand your concern, for given recent circumstances and behavior of those on the Council, what word can we give to defend it? But perhaps the people will be shown a path to compromise and passify, in time. I hold my breath to discover if they are as accepting of Serath as they were His Majesty."
The ice returns to the Chancellor's face -- it is a thick crust of cool passion, the kind that in fields of war sees men, women and children slaughtered; the kind that in politics sees friends betraying friends; the kind that covers the face of a single man at the moment he decides to kill his brother. "I would hold my breath to see if Serath ever decides to do his duty and sit on the throne, Rowena, but I fear I would die before that ever happens. You seem to misunderstand me yet again: I have no quarrel with the Council, regardless of the apathy they have shown; I do not care about the rebellious nobility, even if they pose a threat. The only person I want to see before me answering is the man who has, in the past, neglected his duties to this Empire. Talus was alive and well and *happy* outside the walls of this land and he returned because Fastheld needed him. He put his happiness on the line for his people. Although Serath will never be even half the man His Majesty was -- the man I followed, the man I loved as a true friend -- he must now choose to be a man. The winter thins, Rowena, and with spring comes war. If the child does not decide to become a man and rule his people, then there may be no more people left to rule soon."
He puts his empty goblet on the table and rises. "If the Prince of Blood does not come to me soon and tell me he is ready to assume his role as Regent of this land, m'lady, there by the time he does decide to do so he will have another man by his side as Chancellor."
Donning no mask of her own, Rowena stares at Oren with a look more akin to those women slaughtered. Those friends betrayed. "Why think you that he has left the peace of Crown's Refuge behind?" She questions incredulously, rising to match the Chancellor's height, then surpass it. The fire and ice in her gaze turns swiftly to water, a clear film held close to her pupils only by stubborn refusal to let them fall.
"The only reason he ventured from Fastheld that dreadful year ago was to seek His Majesty, *long* before any other parties were formed as a rescue party. It was his sacrifice that gave a second chance at life to our men and women that were sent after on that hideous plain. When we found him again, he was not meandering in search of his own pleasures. He was gathering information on the 'ling tribes. There is a war of a completely differnt caliber abrew beyond our walls. He meant not to stay away so long..."
Releasing the goblet from her white-knuckles back to the table with exaggerated gentleness, she shakes her head with remorse for the sins of those gone before. "If only you had seen for yourself what it is that the Aegis means to shield us from. Yet while living in the Shadow of our worst fears, those people care for one another with far more brotherhood than I have seen exhibited in Fastheld for years. I am ashamed of many of my peers. It is the pettiness of nobility you mean to slap that he wishes not to tend...but he will. The Prince of the Blood will raise his brother's son to be the just man that his father once was. If Talus had faith, then I pray that as his friend, you will, too."
"My faith and patience runs thin. Do not lecture me about the dangers beyond the Aegis. I know them all too well. When winter thaws, a third Wildling War will more than likely be upon us," the elderly Nillu replies, his voice acid. "Serath Kahar has duties that extend beyond his family. They extend to his place as a part of the Imperial bloodline. Your words only remind me how young you are, Rowena. Love makes you blind and, sadly, quite foolish. When he chose to go after his brother," he adds, his voice becoming slow, as if delivering the very point at the core of everything, "he betrayed Fastheld. The moment Talus was carried away, it was his duty to sit upon the throne, not run in the night. Men and women surrender things as important as love in the name of duty. Perhaps because you were lucky enough to find in the right place, you fail to understand the burdens of those who surrender it in the name of House and duty. The throne remains empty days after your group arrived. He shies away from it. I know it. You know it. He knows it. He fears the ghost that sits on that throne -- the memory of his brother. I do not care if it is guilt, fear, pride or apathy, Rowena. Now is the time for him to put all of those things aside and be crowned as Regent. Now. Not when the Wildling swarm over our walls, not when the Drake decides it wants to rain fire upon Fastheld -- now. You tell him that, Rowena. You look beyond your own pride and love for him and see, for once in your life, that his pain is meaningless. It pales in the face of the needs of his people. And *I* will not be the one to seek him out. The child must grow into a man and find the will to come tell me he is ready. You tell him, Rowena."
There is no mercy in the old man's eyes. There is no accusation either. There is only the ice of stated logic. "I served His Majesty and his father, and even his father before him. This is the first time I have ever felt ashamed of my service. If Serath Kahar does not take the throne before winter thaws, then by the time he does decide to, he will do so alone. Now... can you deliver that message or not?"
"Of course." Rowena whispers, spine stiffening as she regains internal composure. He spoke truth, sadly, indeed. Perhaps this was the reason she'd attempted to evade that four-lettered emotion for so long. A stare into her burgandy silhouette that ripples in the goblet's belly serves to give her a focal point while she calms her diaphragm into more fluid breaths.
"He'll receive it this night before I return to the Hall of Healing. In return..." Exhaling cooly, she lifts her head to wield a woman's mask of poise. "I'd be most obliged if you inform your niece, should you catch her before I, that I've matters to discuss with her regarding the abandoned Sheltered Flame Keep."
"I will do that," the Chancellor answers. "Thank you for taking the time to visit, Rowena. A good eve to you." No more. That is all the old man says before he departs the throne room.
'Life is a river,' he wrote. 'The currents of time guide you forth, towards your destiny.' Oren Nillu never read that, but perhaps one day -- before he passes into the Light -- he will write something of his own: life might be a river; life might be a path; life might be a point in the middle of a blank page -- life will always be what you make of it.
Some choose Fate.
Some choose Free Will.
And some... some do not care what life is. Life is to live.
Return to Season 4 (2006)