"Where are they taking Edelina?" Sterren demands. Guards had nearly dragged the distraught, crying woman into a carriage not an hour ago, and no one in this household would answer any of Sterren's questionsabout that or anything else.
"To a convent in Den Bosch," Reinier answers, looking up from the scroll he was busy reading.
"A convent?" Sterren asks, not familiar with the term.
"Women who swear themselves to the service of the Watcher live together in convents, away from the society of men," Reinier answers, pulling another scroll from the pile. His brother's estate was left in a state of confusion that Reinier must sort out as he asserts his dominion over the town.
Sterren's eyes narrow into angry slits, "You're shipping her off so you can seize control of her town," she accuses.
"You don't believe Edelina is fit to run a government, do you?" Reinier answers her accusation with a question of his own.
Sterren frowns, unable to argue that point. What little she knows of Edelina has shown her to be vain, proud and concerned more with fashion and entertainment than the welfare of her people. "No," Sterren admits, "But, she must have some family with some claim..."
"Yes, and that is why I'm sending her away," Reinier says, "Whatever claim some distant cousin of hers has on this town is no stronger than my claim as her husband's brother. Edelina gave Odet to Diedericx as part of their marriage contract, and I must secure my family's claim before anyone else can step in with their own."
Sterren is no stranger to the ugliness of politics; she'd seen it often enough in the decisions her uncle has made as lord of Avendale. That was the life she'd hoped to avoid when she asked Reinier to give all this up to live with her. "And what of our plans?" she asks, her voice growing softer, "What of the promise you made me?"
Reinier rises from his chair to step around the desk and face her. "Sterren, the situation has changed drastically since I promised to come away with you. Wilders assassinated my brother, believing he was me. When they discover they missed their true target, that I still live, they will come after me again. I cannot live like a commoner in Avendale now. I need my guards, I need this keep to protect me."
"Sterren, I need you, above everything else. Don't abandon me now."
He brought it on himself, she thinks, by capturing that wilder. But she played her role in that, she muses, feeling the guilt of Diedericx's unfair death. She'd told them where they they were taking the captive, and they used her to free him while they carried out their plans to assassinate the dragon slayer. And with that murder, Reinier takes his brother's place as Lord of Odet, and is asking her to stand by him. It would be selfish and wrong to put her wishes above his safety now, she thinks, and nods, reluctantly. "I understand," she murmurs, trying to accept the new reality.
He's responsible for all of his nest, for their safety, for their lives. Aymeri grieves for his son, but it's not grief that keeps him awake while Ico sleeps, her head pillowed on his chest. When he closes his eyes, he remembers all the warnings he gave his son, the times he tried to teach him to reign in his anger, to think before he acted. He remembers every time he set a bad example by giving in to his own emotions when reason should have held him back. He'd failed Talfryn, and now his son is dead.
Ico stirs, awakening, entwines her fingers in his as she kisses him. "You take too much on yourself," she says, as sensitive to his emotions while she sleeps as she is while she's awake, "Talfryn's death was not your fault."
"If I had..." Aymeri starts to protest, but Ico stops him with a kiss.
"He was not a child, my love. He made a choice, and he made a mistake. There was nothing you could have taught him that would prevent it. Not every choice is so clear. Success and failure is often a matter of chance. If he had succeeded, we would all be celebrating his victory." Aymeri falls silent, taking in her words. "You were a good father," she assures him, "And you will be a good father again."
"Again?" he asks. Ico had been his lover for these thousands of years, and Aymeri had long given up any hope that they might one day have a child together, but that one word, spoken with her sweet smile, her eyes gleaming as she looks into his...
"Again," she says, smiling as she draws his hand to her stomach, "There is new life here. I have felt her."
The joy cannot mitigate the sorrow of his loss, but it is still joy, and must be celebrated on its own terms.
Guards patrol the cobbled streets of the town below, guards stand outside her door. For her protection, Reinier had said, but she is not allowed to move without them.
"What troubles you, my love?" Reinier, undressing as he joins her in her chamber for the night.
"I miss my freedom," she says, feeling selfish and yet still unable to adjust to this life he's asked her to live, for the sake of his safety. "I miss being able to do as I please, go where I will. I miss my home."
"Your home is with me," Reinier says, wrapping his hands around her waist.
He says it with such a firmness, like he's claiming her. The way he claimed Odet, she thinks. She doesn't want to be claimed, to be owned, to live under guard, watched at every turn. "Reinier, I can't," she whispers, "I can't do this. I can't live like this. I love you, but..."
Reinier turns her around and lifts her up in his arms, "If you love me, there s no 'but', Sterren," he says, "I need you here with me, to be my wife, my love and my support. Odet needs you, to be its lady. Freedom is nothing more than the fancies of youth; it's time to put that aside and accept our duties, to each other and to this town."
"Odet is not my town," Sterren says, "My duty is to the Lady. Please, if you love me as you say you do, you'll let me go home."
"How can you ask me to let you go in the name of love?" he asks, dropping her on the bed, parting her legs beneath him with his knee, "If you love me, why are you in such a hurry to leave me?"
"It's not you I want to leave," Sterren says, one hand pressed against his chest even as the other wraps around his neck, pushing him and pulling him forward simultaneously, "It's this life. I am not a lady, I'm not fit to be your wife, nor do I want to be." Just saying it out loud, making her decision final, lifts the weight from her shoulders. She does love this man, but she cannot be his wife.
"You are the only woman in this world fit to be my wife," Reinier insists, "The Watcher Himself lead me to you, I know it. I feel it in my bones. Don't give up on me so easily."
"Reinier," she sighs his name, wishing they could get past this discussion, "I knew we'd only end up hurting each other. I wish I had stayed firm and not given in to my desires."
"You do desire me, still," he says, slipping her undergarments off her.
"I cannot deny it," she admits.
"Then let me make love to you tonight,"he says with a smile, "If you truly wish to leave me, I will let you go tomorrow."
"Truly?" she says, relief making her exuberant.
"I love you, Sterren," he says, leaning down to kiss her stomach, then her breasts, as he makes his way up to her face, "I am ever yours to command."
At sunrise, Inira, Fearghus and their group arrive at Aymeri's nest, and greeted happily by their surprised parents, who had been up waiting for Morvyn's return.
Kelyn and Ceyrth are introduced to Arienh, Seirian and Aymeri. More dragons, Ceyrth thinks ruefully, and none of the fae he'd traveled so far to meet.
Morvyn takes Aymeri aside while the others talk. Over thousands of years, Morvyn had taken more than a few human lovers, knowing it was forbidden, but confident that his law breaking would have no ill effect so long as he kept the secret of his dragon nature from his lovers. In the end, it was Talfryn that paid the price for his folly, and during the long walk home from his prison, Morvyn decided he needed to own his guilt, admit it to Aymeri, and take whatever punishment is meted to him.
"Talfryn's death was my doing," he says flatly, making no excuses for himself.
"He died trying to rescue you, but that isn't your fault," Aymeri says patiently, "Any of us would have..."
"I have...I had...a human lover, and she betrayed me to the dragon slayer. That's how I came to be captured," Morvyn quickly explains, not wanting to be forgiven before the truth is known, "Talfryn knew. He came alone because he meant to keep my secret. His death is on my head."
Aymeri snarls, his fist rising instinctively. It had been many thousands of years since he had to bring this kind of discipline to his nest, but for all the changes made to his kind since the great war, he was still the First of his nest, and it was still his duty to keep his charges in line, "You know that's forbidden," he snarls.
Morvyn braces himself, ready for the brutal physical punishment he's heard about but never witnessed himself.
Aymeri's fist hovers, shaking a little as he forces his rage down, separates the anger from his grief. Finally, when he's got himself under control, he thumps his fist gently on Morvyn's chest, reaching out to lay a comforting hand on his shoulder "Is our secret safe?" he asks.
"She knew nothing," Morvyn says, contrite in guilt, "The mortals believe we are a human tribe. 'Wilders', they call us. We're savages, according to them. She never knew I was a dragon. But the dragon slayer, he suspects a connection. He questioned me about it. I'm afraid that Talfryn coming for me only confirmed his suspicion. But, he's dead now, by Kelyn's hand, and hopefully his suspicion died with him."
"What you did was foolish. And against all our laws," Aymeri says, "But you did not kill Talfryn. Humans killed Talfryn. And that's why we have such laws, why we keep ourselves separate from their kind. You understand that now?"
Morvyn nods. He'd learned his lesson while he was in chains, what had seemed a harmless dalliance put not just himself, but all his kind, in danger.
"You used to beat Brys down for far less than that," Seirian says as Morvyn walks off on his own, unscathed.
"And it never stopped Brys from being Brys," Aymeri answers, "No matter what I say, Morvyn is going to blame himself for Talfryn's death. No beating could make him feel any worse than he does already. And, unlike Brys, he'll learn from his mistake without me beating the lesson into him."
He did not kill Talfryn, but he would not have been captured, and Talfryn would still be alive, if he hadn't been chasing after Gaelle, if she hadn't betrayed him. And, why did she betray him? Morvyn wonders as he walks away from the nest, unable to share his parents' joy as they reunite with his siblings. Ametair will take him in, he decides, needing some time away from the others, to grieve in solitude.
He gave her a fine new dress and asked her to walk with him around the town. Happy at the thought of soon returning to Avendale, she's pleased to indulge his whims for one last day together, and dons the dress with its heavy brocade and jewels, playing the part of the lady for the afternoon, knowing she'll be wearing her simpler, less restricting clothing soon enough.
When she had strolled the town with Odet, he'd shown her the church of the Watcher, but they hadn't gone inside. Just the exterior of the building had given her a chill; when Reinier guides her inside, she trembles with dread, an odd feeling that she's come to the place of her death. An old man stands waiting for them, and Reinier pushes as much as guides her forward to meet him.
"Father Loyset," he says, "This is my bride, Lady Sterren of Avendale."
The old man nods his head at her. "I understand you are a follower of the old religion, my lady," he says, "I will have to consecrate you in the name of the Watcher before I can marry you to Lord Reinier."
Sterren turns angrily to Reinier. "You said you'd let me go!" she says angrily.
"I said what I needed to say to appease you," Reinier answers, his face twisted in an angry grimace, "You are acting like a child, Sterren, and I've had enough of this game. You are meant to be my wife, and today I will make it so."
Sterren gasps, realizing that this man she'd seen only glimpses of behind the lover who wooed her is Reinier's true self, as much a part of him as the man who makes tender love to her. He's not a man who asks, he's a man who takes what he wants, who commands others and who will not accept refusal. She should have known it would come to this, on the day he took his prisoner, the day she questioned him and he turned his anger on her. She should have seen it then, and run, run as far from him as she could.
"Begin the ritual," Reinier snarls at the priest, not taking his eyes, or hands, off her.
"As you wish, my lord," the priest answers.
None of these men gathered here will defy him and come to her aid, Sterren realizes, so she must defend herself. Her mother had taught her to harness and use the magic that runs in their family, and had told her to use it rarely, and wisely, only when there was no other option. Today, Sterren is out of options. She pulls herself forcefully out of Reinier's grasp and begins to weave a spell. She'll put them all into an enchanted sleep, and then run, flee back to Avendale, to her uncle.
But the guard behind her moves swiftly, pulling her arms behind her back before her spell is finished.
"Let's proceed," Reinier snarls at the priest.
"My lord, she is witch," the priest protests in a tremulous voice, "You cannot marry her. You must execute her."
"I am lord here," Reinier says, "You'll do as I command. Now, proceed with the ritual. I mean to be married before sundown."
The guard that holds her pushes Sterren down onto her knees, holding his sword up, prepared to strike if she attempts another spell. The priest reluctant begins chanting a prayer to his Watcher.
Sterren's prayer is made silently, a desperate plea to the Lady to rescue her from this fate.
She did not, in truth, expect an answer to her prayer, and is just as confused as the men when a sudden flash of light interrupts the priest's chant, and figure appears, floating above them.
He speaks no words, floating still and silent above them, but somehow, he makes Reinier, his guards and the old priest fall back as though thrown by a great force, while Sterren remains on her knees, unmoved.
"Come with me, daughter," he says, dropping to the ground before Sterren, "I will take you home."