The Baron

Patrols led by Captain du Triel, his daughter and others had departed to reconnoiter what happened to the goblins and their allies. Silverleaf had gone north, and Sir Etienne named provisional commander of the Calder Keep. In that time Elemix, Emmeline and Tiffanie had returned with Rivanon to Uzec along with three goblin prisoners the Lady had chosen to bring with. Upon arriving, Lady Rivanon and Emmeline quickly made their way to the Baron’s chambers…

The Baron had been warned they were coming. He sat on a large chair near his bed. Emmeline could see that he still was hurt. Rivanon ran in and hugged her father, crying uncontrollably. Her father looked back and said to her, “My little belle, you’ve done your pére proud. How you have grown and become the spitting image of your mother. Proud, strong, assertive.”

She choked up saying, “I love you papa.”

Emmeline remained silent, feeling as if perhaps she should give them time alone, and wishing for an invisibility spell. Still, it was heartwarming to see the Baron and Rivanon together as a family with formalities put aside. It was a change that was … healthier for them, Em felt.

Emmeline
Mademoiselle Emmeline de Cerisey, Maitresse en titrê and witch.

Father and daughter spoke for a time. The Baron invited Emmeline over and the three of them exchanged stories on the battles and tales of glory of each. Despite the pain of the last few days, it was heartening, and not a few laughs were changed between the tears. After a time, it was hard to tell how much, a servant arrived, “My lord, Sir Bronn has an update on the repair needs for the Keep.”

“Papa…my Baron, I can attend to this,” Rivanon said. The Baron nodded and Rivanon stepped out with the servant, leaving Emmeline and the Baron alone. Jokingly he said, “My dear Emme, having three days of nothing to do has been, odd to say the least. You’ve done good with Rivanon as well. I see my initial decision was a good one.”

Emmeline smiled. “She is such a good person. And I think she’s grown more comfortable relating to people when she needs to do so on a less formal level. It’s good for her to know she doesn’t have to be isolated and feel alone.”

“She has the formality down, even more so than she did before. Even as a little girl she was very precise, as was her mother. Your genuineness has added to her mother’s grace, her great uncle’s acumen, and perhaps my strength to make a formidable Baroness, and acting March Lord in my infirmity.” He paused and then said, “Dying, or being on death’s door as the Brother said, has had an impact on me.”

Emmeline reached out to him. “My lord, you are not infirm! I am so thankful you are back with us.”

He laughed, “No, I am not. Damned healers and priest insisted I spend a week resting. What I mean dear one is that I have a lot to think about. I died and I was brought back. I don’t take that lightly. It is time I begin to earn the right to be alive again; a gift few others can afford. I think I saw something that gives me faith that there truly is some kind of afterlife as the priests say.”

Emmeline was still euphoric he was alive but mention of the afterlife made her focus. Her expression was fascinated when she asked, “Will you tell me what you saw?”

“It was odd. Like swimming in light. Most I cannot remember, but I believe I saw my lost wife – River’s mother. Odd I called her that? I’ve missed her and tried to replace her with a series of lovers, mistresses and another wife. The thing is, I could have stayed there in the light, with her. At least I think I could have. But she told me to continue, to live – so I came back. That is what I will do.”

Emmeline was uncertain how to respond to that. She was glad he returned, but did that mean she was only a replacement for someone he lost? Well, she’d asked and she got an answer. She tried to conceal her uncertainty. It wasn’t that she was jealous of his previous lovers or his first wife. It was just that he had become so pivotal in her life, yet she thought she was not so important to him.

She concealed her uncertainty and focused on something else. “I was worried for Uzec and missed you terribly while we were gone. I pushed to get us back immediately after we completed our mission, regardless of the risk because I knew something terrible must be afoot and that’s why I had Remy Silverleaf send a message to you. But I went to see to Cerisey before we came north to meet you and we were ambushed… a couple times. I’ve wished I could have been here just a few hours earlier every moment of the past few days. I’m so sorry, my lord.”

She went on to tell him of the trip, starting with news that her adopted mother, the Contessa, was to marry a noble, Count Robert and that she intended to retire with him to his properties north of Portreaux. Their ties remain close and Em revealed that Adele intended to ask Robert to recognize Emmeline as Adele’s daughter.

She mentioned picking up the shield-man Ricimer in Adera and then told him they had encounters with bandits along the way to Storuvan. Although she didn’t detail what happened in Estrasia, she mentioned that “murder and nightmares abounded in the lands of slavery” and that if she ever passed through that part of the world again, she would be far better prepared for the shock. Em made one mention of freeing a slave from a torturer and rapist but didn’t detail that further. She spoke of the refugees and the trouble with a sorcerer, and how they hunted down and captured the rogue for the murder he wrecked upon them, and how the people had thanked her. She told him that a grateful woman insisted she take a bolt of wondrous cloth and that her ladies in waiting have that very bolt now.

Her descriptions of Storuvan were confused, reflecting her conflicted emotions about that city, with its strange combination of grace and oppression. But she went into great detail regarding the situation of the Malith refugees and the near-siege and breakout of war. She told him how she offered to help, brokered a parlay and how she was then betrayed, but saved the Storuvite general from murder at the cost of her own freedom. She then detailed how she was able to yet speak to a Tyaanite priestess that was acting as a leader for these refugees and was able to get her to see reason. Peace was brokered and the city agreed to allow the refugees pass through to cross the river and escape the oncoming horde so that they could be at full strength to deal with the attack.

She spoke of the boons the grateful queen granted all the members of her party, then briefly described what the other members asked for themselves. She told the Baron she asked for one slave to be freed. The general she saved was extremely grateful and promised her anything she might ask, but Emmeline hadn’t wanted anything more than for people to live in peace. She despised slavery but she also recognized that at this time, Storuvan could not grant freedom for all its people and survive the turmoil that was occurring now.

Emmeline described briefly the plight of the priestess who gave her life fulfilling Typhon Ne’s request, then even more briefly the temple of the gods north of Storuvan. Skipping the slog through the wilderness, she described their encounter with the white dragon and their success, then the dogged pursuit of the wildmen and Tyaanite priestess that tried to kill them, capture them, or both.

Their arrival at their destination got more attention. She told him of the wild tribes there, deadly murderers who would kidnap, abuse, and likely kill. But they defeated the Tyaanite druid, so Em disguised herself in the gear this priestess used — which included the very armor she was wearing at this moment — and with Rivanon’s help was able to grasp their language, trick them into believing she was a priestess and divert them from assaulting her friends. She also discovered they were gathering to make war on Storuvan, and so sent her tiny messenger to the temple to warn them. But she knows not the fate of Storuvan, the refugees, the orcs, or the wildmen.

She spoke of the tomb of this fearful king and how her friends heroically overcame each challenge. But they’d found only death and more death, until they found the dead king’s army of tens of thousands of undead warriors waiting for the call. It was horrifying and the party realized then that this could not be unleashed. Even if it meant they could stop the bloodshed at Storuvan, stabilize Malith and conquer all the barbarians and goblinoids of the north it would come at a horrific cost and likely end in a bloodbath that would kill half of the world they knew.

She told the Baron that a wizard had not trusted them to complete heir task and he sent a spy. The hired shield-man was an assassin. She stopped him and was very nearly instantly killed, stabbed in the chest. It was soon after that she began to understand that all the disorder happening throughout the Thalassan League was planned, that there was someone or a group manipulating events.

She did not detail “John”. She said they did find one thing that was good there at the Gates, the only person in all Hatani she would trust. A powerful mage who was likewise grateful to meet their party. The assassin had meant to kill him, thinking he was evil; but the true evil they’d left sealed in its grave.

Emmeline was very worried and wanted to return immediately to help the Baron. Even though she worried for innocent people at Storuvan, her duty to Uzec was more important, and she knew Elemix believed that, too. They convinced “John” to attempt to send them all home, but he didn’t know this country. Doing so was a near-disaster that almost cost Elemix his life, again, but got them near to Camaret. Slowed by the winter, they nonetheless proceeded with all haste home. She made her peace with the assassin and they parted ways, though Emmeline revealed to the Baron that someone among the wizards of the north trusted neither Elemix nor Emmeline and that lack nearly cost them everything. She intended to complete her “apprenticeship” but maintain relations only with her sponsors, Elemix, Lothiel, and where necessary, Magus Alix. The rest she felt she’d been unable to impress no matter what she did and feared they would only continue to interfere if she let them.

She mentioned that their little band picked up Renée, took on the thirty-goblin patrol, and arrived in Uzec. She hadn’t known how dire the situation was to become in Calder at the time, so she and Elemix went to Cerisey to see to her people and then to the Vale of the Mother. All seemed well; a stranger had even come around to heal the sick and show people where good hunting could be found. Emmeline sought this do-gooder to thank her and met one named Zoe.

But it was a trick. Emmeline admitted she was completely taken in. It was a hag of a most horrible nature. Emmeline had been captured and dragged off. The hag’s plan was not only to make Emmeline reveal where the Mother Tree was, but the hag would propagate her kind by raping those she’d kidnapped — including the real Zoe — and devouring the resulting babies.

Apparently the hag had already eaten a pair of local woods people.

Em seemed traumatized by the whole thing when she spoke of it.

But she told him Elemix recovered from the hag’s initial betrayal and rescued them all. Emmeline’s trusting nature and desire to see the good in people had been exploited this time and it had nearly cost her everything. The Baron could see she knew that, but that she likely couldn’t, or wouldn’t change that about herself.

She told the Baron that the end result was that the hag was driven off, not defeated, and so was still a major threat. But the good that came of it was that Zoe really was as good a person as the hag had pretended. Emmeline has made contact with a friendly group of rangers and keepers of old traditions. She told the Baron that they regarded being called a “druid” a great compliment, but that perhaps most if not all of them didn’t feel that’s what they were.

Emmeline had grim news for Remy, describing the massacre of the Silverleaf clan Wizard Lothiel had mentioned. Thus, she and the Mother Tree released Remy from his duties so he could seek his people. If he found them, he would bring them to the Vale as they had hoped. But Zoe, having been taught a little of the old ways, was greatly enamored of the Mother Tree and wanted to take Remy’s place as Guardian there.

The group then departed for Calder, never knowing the harrowing and desperate fight in which the Baron had found himself. The rest, Emmeline was certain the Baron already knew.

The Baron listened intently. He was as attentive as his daughter and took in every nuance, asking clarifying questions and encouraging Emmeline to continue. The hours went by and when Emmeline was done, he looked at her and said, “That was quite an adventure. I know that area, and I know what you must have gone through. Your devotion to our people is beyond reproach.

“First, we must deal with the hags. Now. The goblins are defeated and we have professional soldiers who can run them to ground. If you wish to pursue them further, then at least the immediate threat will be dealt with.

“Second, we have spent so little time together. Do not be sad that I saw my wife in my deathbed. She was my partner for a long time. I will always care for her, and when I look at Rivanon I will think of her. But I do not believe love is finite resource. It can grow with time and attention. When I first met you, I saw you as another useful distraction, a soft young thing to occupy my time and occasionally share my bed – all of which was secondary to you lending your experiences and that of your grandfather of recent memory to her so she could be a wiser ruler. You have succeeded in that, and of winning my affection. I want that to be given a chance to grow. Before I said that you could come and go. I no longer want that. For the next year I want you to stay, with me, as my mistress in-situ as well as by title. I want to get to know you Emmeline. I came back in part to do that, if you will have me?”

Although she maintained her composure, her eyes shone with happiness. “Nothing could make me happier, my lord,” she said with a bow of her head and a wide smile curling her lips.

The Baron leaned in and kissed her on the forehead. “Now, there is much to do my chau. So much to do.” He paused, “I would like your advice, being closer to the common folk than I, what do you believe we should do for the villagers who fled the north valley? Please. My knights and daughter are looking at defense; but the common folk need help. What would you do?”

Emmeline thought carefully. “They are worried, perhaps frightened. They’ve gambled their future, their lives in creating a new life in the north. They know a battle has been fought and won. They’ll be impatient to go home before it’s safe to do so. And being winter, many of them will be idle, perhaps worried about food supplies running out.

“I suggest two things, my lord. One is just a simple distraction. Quiet entertainments, not a festival, but something sustainable. Perhaps some minstrels and storytellers to get their minds off their worries could go among them. And then organize some parties to venture to those abandoned villages and survey what is left. There may be food stocks to be rescued and brought back. These parties would be villagers with just a few guards going to places your army has already secured. But employing villagers will make them feel empowered, more in control of their destinies, and again, keep their minds from dwelling overmuch on their plight.”

“Very well. Speak to Raphael, one of our local minstrels. You met him last year. He can help you arrange the entertainments. Sir Guillaume can assist you in organizing the parties toward the North. Be sure to make sure the Constable, Bencolin, is aware of what you are doing so he can help with local escorts up to the Keep and is aware of the entertainment so things are kept in control. Lastly, you will need to coordinate with Rivanon so she is aware of the goal and can make sure the areas in question are clear. Will you do this?”

The Baron looked with a sincere gaze, waiting on an answer.

Emmeline blinked and stammered a moment. She hadn’t expected to be trusted with the responsibility, though she felt up to the task. “I… Of course my Baron. Thank you for your confidence in me! I will see to it.” She smiled, pleased to be given a chance to really help people. The feelings of anger and hurt that had possessed her when the Baron had fallen were already becoming only a memory.

“Good. Once you have set up your plan, I want you to organize your friends to seek out and destroy the hags. I will not have such creatures attack villagers of ours. Truth be told, my men can handle goblins and their ilk. These hags however are out of their knowledge. Will you do this as well?” he asked.

Emmeline nodded. “Yes, my lord.” She wasn’t sure how to track the hag, but she’d try.

“Good. Now let us have dinner, and you can tell me about your time in Storuvan. I hear that the city center is quite beautiful. Also, tell me of the slaves you freed, and your role in the battle,” asked the Baron. “Later on, we can discuss what the Wizards did, not trusting you and sending an assassin.”

Emmeline attended dinner with the Baron, after finding a moment to change into something more like a dinner dress and less like she was about to enter battle. Then she added details to topics the Baron was interested in.

“I was only able to free two slaves. The first was in Estrasia, I believe. Or at least, that’s where I found her. She was an entertainer that looked like… well a halfling version of me, actually. Her name was Rosa. Broken in some ways, though. Her owner was an abusive dwarf that I discovered used her as an unwilling partner for sex, as he did all his slaves, but her especially. I couldn’t stand what was happening. It made me sick physically and emotionally. So I purchased her freedom. Her dream was to go to Thalassa, so I gave her money and a way to get to Adera as safely as possible. If she was wise with it, she would have enough to to get to Thalassa in the spring. ”

Emmeline paused as servers refilled cups and brought the main course. When they were alone again, she continued her story. “The whole thing affected me deeply. I couldn’t free any more slaves since I was fairly broke after that (although that was short-lived as we then took out an entire bandit gang). I had awful nightmares. Terrible things happen when my guard is down. Those who were hunting us could find me. I think I went mad for a little while. I make poor decisions when I’m distressed.” She shook her head. “Dangerous decisions, because I care more for the safety of others than the my own safety.”

“You wanted to hear of Storuvan, but I needed to tell you the background, my mindset going into this city,” Em explained. “I was not in a good place in my mind.

“But Storuvan. It is a strictly controlled place. Beautiful, but one steps carefully in this city. Thousands of slaves are employed here, although they are a minority of the population, perhaps one in three. The rule of law reigns here, but the law supports… well, debauchery is what Typon Ne called it. In hindsight, I’d simply call Storuvan a city of traders; they’ll try to find profit any way they can. Their Queen is also their high priestess and she rules directly, although she delegates some authority through a council of nobles and a female-only clergy. Magic is strictly controlled, often on pain of death. Sorcerers and male priests are outlawed and any caught using magic in the city are impaled upon greased pikes as examples. I was witness to that, so I know it’s true. Priests of Aarith would be wise to avoid using miracles there.

“Yet as a foreigner I did not feel any particular overt oppression in Storuvan. I don’t use magic in a town I don’t know save for self-defense, nor do I enhance my performances with magic. By the time we reached Storuvan, your daughter had ceased the habit as well.

“Following friendly advice of merchants we found a place to stay. It was an inn… of sorts. It tailored to the comfort of travelers. In other words, we found ourselves in a very polite sort of… brothel whose workers were slaves. I met one named Rosalind here, but we had planned to leave in the morning. I felt sorry for her plight, but could do nothing for her. My nerves had begun to settle somewhat, but I was still very much on edge, frightened, and constantly afraid someone was going to club me in the night and drag me off to some horrible fate such as that which had been Rosa’s. In truth, I don’t know if it was a reasonable fear or not because I found, in speaking with Rosalind, that people even of the Thalassan League can be and are taken by bandits, dragged to Storuvan and other places, and sold into slavery. But Rosalind’s presence had a calming effect on me, and I wouldn’t forget her kindness.

“Slavery.” Emmeline’s eyes were haunted and large when she spoke the word. “This is the thing I fear more than anything on this world. Not dragons, undead, unnameable menaces from beyond, not even death frightens me more than the idea I could have my liberty, my destiny, stolen from me.

“Yet even so, in the morning I found myself coming to the aid of the people of Storuvan. The city came under attack by terrified refugees with sorcerers in their midst. Fireballs exploded and full scale magical assaults were happening. Storuvan withstood it — their eunuch-wizards are powerful in their own right — and the city prepared to counter. A call to arms had us all drafted into the militia, but your daughter and I were treated differently while the men were put in armor and stood the walls. In Storuvan, if you are a woman of power, you have status. If you do not have power… well. They have other uses for you then, so long as you are attractive.

“I don’t agree with Storuvan’s lifestyle. But the people of that city were mostly innocent and they didn’t deserve to die. They deserve to live and help the city to change and become better. Thousands and thousands of people there are good people just trying to live under the rules of old traditions and survive. The Maelith refugees wanted the same. They had no home left and needed a safe place to be, but they could not cross the river and a horde of orcs was sweeping north.

“So I offered to negotiate to settle the conflict without a fight that would leave Storuvan too weak to turn back the orc onslaught. Somehow, they placed their faith in me, a very frightened foreigner who desperately wanted to escape all this. All those people depended on me for that one moment. Their General Gustave backed my plan. We went to their camp under the flag of truce and they welcomed us to their command tent.

“And then they attacked. They slaughtered the general’s guard and I laid about with all I had as well. General Gustave was more important than I — he had to live to protect the city, so I gifted him with flight and bid him flee. I held the enemy back as long as I could, for if I lost control of that spell, he would fall. I saw him over the wall, but my magic was at its end. I couldn’t save myself. I fell.

“But these people had looked to a Tyaanite priestess of an order unfamiliar to me. She respected strength and she saw how I had fought. I think that’s why she spared me and took me prisoner instead of killing me. We spoke at length and I argued that even the strongest would fall to numerous small wounds.” Emmeline presented only a summary of the lengthy discussion.

“At last she agreed. They would stand down if Storuvan would allow them across the river. I was then able to return and inform the leadership of Storuvan of the resolution, which they agreed to. That was when the Queen granted favors to myself and my friends. It was for this peaceful resolution she wanted to pay.

“So I asked for Rosalind to be freed. I had not forgotten her kindness at time when I felt lost. General Gustave owed me his life and so he told me he would also grant me anything in his power to give. I didn’t know what to say to that, really. I only did what I thought was practical. So I never did ask anything of him.

“Speaking of practicality, we could not reasonably expect Rosalind to survive the journey we then made. I left her at a temple north of Storuvan, then picked her up again when we were ready to return to Uzec. I have since left her under the tutelage of Captain du Triel. Rosalind was taken from her family in Vannes, but she wishes to bring the brigands who kidnapped her and sold her to a brothel, to justice. She doesn’t have the skills to survive such a wish right now. If the Captain finds she has the aptitude – and I think he will – he will train her. In return, I have taken on his daughter Renee as a companion. Or rather, I’m her mentor. She’s already proven herself an accomplished archer, killing nearly as many of the goblins as Elemix’s fireballs, and quick as a sparrow. Her skills don’t allow her to replace Lady Rivanon, but she is nonetheless a very valuable asset to us.”

Emmeline smiled faintly. “Anyway, I think our paths were meant to cross. Rosalind is from Vannes. There is a merchant last known to be in Vannes that may know my father’s fate. One day I will want to travel there to discover the true story of what happened to him. Perhaps we will go together.”

“Perhaps so. Do you wish me to give this Rosalinde a position here? I’m just curious, if she was a brothel slave what training could the captain provide outside of her experiences? What do you think he will be teaching her?” the Baron asked.

“I doubt he would teach her personally, but I think her natural grace will do her well in the more subtle arts of subterfuge and stealth,” Emmeline said. “The Captain has access to such tutors, I believe, or if not he will simply send her back to me. In that case, it simply is her fate to avenge what happened to her and I’ll give her some job somewhere that does not engage her in her previous profession.”

“I hear the good Captain is up with his daughter scouting the goblin armies at Calder. I’ve heard nothing of another woman with him, so one could assume that he found her some kind of job or profession. You would have to ask him of course as I do not know him well. I served in the Thalassan Legion long ago. He was Phoenix Guard, the Wizard-trained elite of the Legions even earlier still. Unlike me however, the good captain was an adventurer, not unlike your friends and yourself. Maybe he had contacts from back then?”

“Yes, and I think he still maintains them. Although from what I have seen of Renée’s skills I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Rosalind began training with with the Captain’s wife. If Rosalind has an interest in the outdoors, of course,” Emmeline suggested.

“Now what angers me is that some assassin accidentally almost killed you. What is his name and who do you think sent him? I would wish to have words with such a man.”

“Ricimer, as you surmised, is in fact an assumed name. I, too, was disinclined to forgive him his mistake. But he showed remorse. As Ricimer, he was a murderous cur. But beneath that was a man with some honor. He placed himself and his future safety in my hands by telling me his true name and what guild he was part of. Then, he confided in me something more important than my sense of outrage,” Emmeline said. “He claimed to be a member of the House of Silence, but it is what he claimed he saw that cooled my temper. He told me he has seen comings and goings from Sidonius’ chamber. People given missions, perhaps by Sidonius himself. Of course he knows nothing of what those missions would be, nor did he see Sidonius appear himself, but I know that our founder never appears frivolously. He appears only when the threat to Thalassa is dire. This is verification of our suspicions that a wider plot is afoot, my lord.

“But,” Emmeline said, “I will share his name with you if you ask, my lord. He told me that his fate was in my hands should I ever wish to use it against him, though in truth I don’t know how I would do that if I had wanted to. And unfortunately, the man stopped short of naming his employer. But only the wizards circle in the north here and the academics of Thalassa knew of our mission. I therefore believe one of the wizards near Uzec must be one who had decided they know Elemix’s business better that we do. I don’t think Magus Alix nor Magus Lothiel would stoop to such a deed as hiring assassins from the House of Silence — yes, many of them since they didn’t know where or form whom we would stop to hire a warrior — but clearly it would have to be a wealthy mage with connections in Thalassa.”

Emmeline shrugged. “But for all I know that describes most of the members of the Wizard’s Guild.”

“Hmm,” said the Baron as he thought. “I care not about the foot soldier, I care about who ordered him to do it. I know little of this House of Silence, but it would be an audacious wizard to do so, one who has a strong interest in killing this other spellcaster. The question to ask is ‘who benefits’ from such an action.”

“I don’t know, my lord. The tomb we investigated was related to sorcerers long dead, though it was constructed for a god-king that lived long before they did. It could be that wizard didn’t trust us to handle it should one of them be some kind of corrupt creature, or even a living sorcerer. As I mentioned, there was something horrid there, and I don’t mean the buried god-king who was likely worse. But we left it sealed and now with the Aquila, the only thing that could control the undead legions there, also sealed away, I daresay the tomb is far more secure than we found it.

“But.”

Emmeline took a breath. “Remember I said we met a mage that was grateful for a rescue? The only good person, and man of his word in the whole of the Hattani region that I had found?”

The Baron nodded, “Yes, the one you called John.”

“This mage was a man that had made a copy of himself and in a desperate hope, had sealed himself there in that tomb in order to try to survive his enemies. Because the tomb was so well protected, he thought he would be safe — but his consciousness was scattered and he was lost until we arrived. We had items of magic that had once belonged to him. Through a wand, I was able to communicate with him, and although he was annoyingly talkative he was also honest, honorable and helped us as best he could.

“We made the decision, though Elemix and Typhon Ne were cautious, to rouse him from his slumber. And he was very grateful. He was also very grieved that the mage he once thought was his friend, had become one of history’s villains and was the terrible evil that was now confined to a nearby coffin. Typhon could sense it. When our sorcerer turned to look, that’s when assassin struck. I stepped between them, but the man we knew as Ricimer struck me anyway. His blade would have killed any sorcerer. But it only nearly killed me. Because I was struck down, our mage, whom I called “John”, nearly struck back, likely with lethal force, for fear the assassin would strike again.

“But he didn’t. While Rivanon brought me back to consciousness, a more intelligent exchange happened. We would cooperate until we left that deadly place. And, John meant to repay us for saving him, despite the subsequent attempt on his life.

“There were two important points that caused us to reach this solution. First, Ricimer had no more of that deadly poison. It wouldn’t be an easy fight next time. Second, I don’t think John was his real concern. Ricimer feared that John was going to release his old ally who was now… utterly corrupted. Since this was not the case, an uneasy truce followed.

“Ultimately it fell to Elemix to decide because he led the expedition. Elemix grudgingly admitted that even getting out of that tomb seemed highly unlikely unless we worked together. So we allied with John, who again proved himself reliable and trusting of us and at last we emerged from the tomb, chucked the Aquila back inside it and the door sealed itself — for good this time.

“Elemix encouraged John to go to Thalassa, to the Wizard’s Guild. But John didn’t understand that it was dangerous for him to do so. I perhaps… undermined Elemix if he was attempting to trick John, but I couldn’t abide deceit. I told John that the archmages there regarded sorcerers as enemies. I was merely untrusted and only a slim majority vote prevented the Wizard’s council executing me. John? They would likely destroy him.

“My lord, we met many sorcerers on our journey. Every sorcerer but John that we meant were either terrible, selfish people or were dying in the most horrible ways imaginable. Please trust me when I say that this John was different. I knew John before he knew himself, before he was awake. I know that not everyone capable of sorcery is evil. I have proof.”

“Certainly. I don’t think that either. It is said their are people in the Wizard’s Guild who began their career as sorcerers. I believe that it was the Order of High Sorcery, the elite sorcerers’ group, that was the root cause. There are in the annals of Eteria famous, heroic sorcerers, but by the the time of the Fall, they were a distant memory replaced by what can only be described as tyrants and murderers. How do you know that today is any different?” asked the Baron.

“I know this because many Thalassans have traces of the dragon blooded in their descendants. To say that the potential for sorcery is evil is to say that all those Thalassans with the blood of dragons are evil and that is not possible. The proof was in the Aquila, which could only be properly wielded by those of the blood. The reason I’m alive today is because that blood runs through you, my lord, to your daughter. If it hadn’t we would all be dead now.” Emmeline smiled. “So we know that the blood of sorcerers is not inherently evil; so too are sorcerers not inherently evil. It is both a matter of choice on the part of the sorcerer — and a matter of historical perspective.”

After mention of his daughter, the Baron’s eyebrow raised.

“Out of all this,” Emmeline continued to explain, “there was nothing of value to be retrieved from that tomb except the knowledge and first hand experience of a sorcerer from that tumultuous time six centuries ago, with the exception of a modest amount of cash.” Emmeline described the chests of small-denomination coins that John knew had been left behind ages ago, but that it amounted to around 2500 gold per person when tallied and put in the bank. “It was John that took us to the old temple to pick up Rosalind. John again who risked his life with a spell to send us home, a place he was not familiar with. We all nearly perished in that attempt, but we were by then ready to return to Uzec. But we have learned that teleportation is an extraordinarily hazardous form of travel, without a Circle.

“But Elemix was determined to turn John away, and would not pursue speaking with John. We sent a former priestess of Storuvan, Matilde, with him.” Emmeline told the Baron Matilde’s tragic story when she attempted to fulfill Typhon Ne’s wish to see her sister. “And so, the only thing of value, one man’s first-hand knowledge of history, walked away never to return to the League again for fear of the Wizard’s Guild of Thalassa.”

Emmeline’s face was glum. “I haven’t even been able to come up with a worthy song for our expedition because it ended so… disappointingly.”

After Emmeline finished he grasped her forearm reassuringly, “I’m sorry things did not work out quite as planned. Now my dear, I must disagree with you on a few things. First, you had a great adventure, learned a lot and came back in one piece. No easy feat. Second, we all have competing loyalties, but in the end you stuck together. Third, you are very trusting of new people. Such open-mindedness serves you well and has brought kindness and goodness to many, but sometimes it can get you into trouble – like with that hag. You cannot know what a sorcerer of so long ago is motivated by. Perhaps he was grateful. Perhaps he was honorable. But, Elemix did the right thing in insisting he come back. If he was those things, then the Guild would test him and find him worthy. As they did with you. John chose not to. That is his decision, but you don’t know what he did in the past. You don’t know his motivations. And frankly his making of a new body reminds me more of the Tyaanites you describe versus a wizard. For good or for ill an ancient sorcerer is out there now, and we’ll perhaps have to deal with the repercussions some day.”

The Baron sat up and went to tend the fire. Working on the logs he continued, “Now, concerning sorcerous blood. That would likely not be my line. It would be Rivanon’s mother and her family through her grandmother’s side.” He threw a new log on the fire. “Long ago they were descended from a member of the Order who joined Sidonius – one of the Hundred. I believe his name was Andreos Nicos. Rivanon’s pedigree is openly recorded in the Library’s archives, but no one in her line for at least eight generations has showed any sign of blood magic. Has Rivanon shown any sorcerous abilities or magic outside of her spellsongs?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Emmeline said. “It’s just that the aquila only responded properly to someone capable of sorcery.”

“Capable? Not just a tiny amount of a bloodline? She is in your opinion capable of sorcery?” asked the Baron. He quickly added, “you told me once that you have a touch of elven blood and that in your particular generation it seems to be stronger for one reason or another. You also told me that because of this stronger fey connection you were able to first communicate with Mara as a child and then recently. Correct?” His tone was inquisitive, but not accusative. He was genuinely curious.

Emmeline nodded. “Yes, but I think maybe I’m not unique. I think everyone of my line had the potential to reach out to Mara, too. But maybe — just a thought — there is something more. I do believe in reincarnation, that my spirit has walked the paths of this world many times before. I think when Mara told me I was once her daughter Mabrilith, it may have been that I was really there in that incarnation. But I can’t really know that for certain.”

“The truth is that there is no proof one way or another – just conflicting evidence. The Temple teaches that we join Aarith’s consciousness, becoming part of the whole until we are Aarith for all practical purposes, part of the greater whole that ties the universe together. You and I both grew up this way, and it is what I taught my daughter. But there is no reason that the process cannot be reversed and an old life come out of Aarith in a new body. Priests can pray to bring that spirit back – I experienced it. It is said that the Patriarch could do so without a body to work with – a pure incarnation in flesh. As I said, I’m no theologian. What if this reincarnation is a natural process? It just happens every once in awhile.”

“That’s what I’m thinking as well,” Emmeline confirmed. “Whatever we believe, though, Mara certainly has a different perspective on lifetimes. At least she seems to know a thing or two about the cycle of life and death. She’s seen me reincarnate many times. Does all this really interest you?”

“Yes. For multiple reasons. What happened to you, my daughter’s sake, my recent brush with death, and the death of so many others.” He replied. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am a changed man. That would be a hollow claim. But what I’ve experienced makes me appreciate more that which I do have. I am justifiably curious.”

Emmeline nodded. “I think I understand, my lord. Then would you be opposed to my learning more of these things?”

“No, not at all. You should learn. Just be careful as I appreciate you and your role in my life, my daughter’s, and my people.” he said. “I don’t want you harmed or on the receiving end of an assassin’s blade meant for another.”

Emmeline nodded. “I’ll be careful. Actually, in the matter of the cycle of life I was invited to join a Circle, but I want to run it past you. Remember Zoe, the new Guardian at the Vale, and the people that keep the old ways?”

The Baron nodded.

“I have a concern I simply don’t know enough about mother trees to do what’s needed to keep it healthy, so I asked them for help, as they are the only ones I could find that might possess such ancient knowledge — or if not that, then at least have a far better understanding of nature than I do. They have invited me to join their Circle. I need your approval to move forward with this, my lord,” Emmeline said. “But I think it might be a good idea for three reasons.

“First, I could learn about a group of people that reside within or near to the Barony and the Marches that we currently know little about.

“Second, they will help with the Vale, if I allow them access. I don’t have a problem with this, though as you say I’m too trusting. I’ll therefore carefully watch how they interact with the Mother. If they are infiltrated by hags, I want to catch it!

“Third, I could learn a lot from them.

“In exchange, they would like to reach out to people. Zoe really did want to help care for the sick and injured and help people manage natural resources by pointing out good places to hunt and collect firewood. Other members of their circle could offer similar aid to outlying villages. Their leader, Maedoc said they would like to teach the old ways but I suggested he would not need to worry about that. If his group simply quietly helps people, they will appreciate them more than if they proselytize. They’ll know him and his people as a good man, not competition to their own beliefs. Maedoc appeared to accept the suggestion as wise and I told him I would discuss this with you.”

The Baron thought for a moment and then said, “My deal with them would be the same as the one I offered you and I offered Silverleaf. They may stay, but they are subjects of Uzec and will need to abide by our law and the law of the League. You will need to talk to Brother Raitheon or Sister Jocelyn about the proselytizing, though I am a bit uncomfortable with an active religious competitor with the Republic’s stated religion unless it can be harmonized. That being said, talk to the priests and gain their guidance.”

“As far as joining them, that is your concern. Do what you will. Personally I am interested in the old ways from an academic point of view, and also because it interests you. But the Tyaanites are also of the ‘old way’ so I am somewhat hesitant as you may understand. I trust you Emmeline to learn and do what is right.”

“Yes, my lord,” Emmeline said. “I’ll see to it. There will be no religious competition here.”

“Very well. In a related matter, the way I see it the Vale and the Santerre valley down to Cerisey is yours as fief. This includes the Cerisey Forest to the east on the slopes of Mont Ventroux and the immediate grazing land west of the town. You are responsible to the people there and for their behavior. The Cairn Lands north of the Vale are common for now and I would like none but herdsmen to go there during the day, and no one into the evening. That is my gift to you. In those places please enforce my law – otherwise do as you decide based on your conscience and good sense.” He caressed her face, “you are very important to me.” He leaned in and kissed Emmeline deeply.

Emmeline had learned not to try to talk with her mouth full, so she enjoyed the moment to the fullest.

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