The Conspiracy – Chapter One

One of these days I’ll have the house to myself again, but today is not that day. My brother is due to arrive soon with his family, which means I’ll have no time for a proper post tonight, so instead you can have the first chapter of my second book. If it tickles your fancy, the links to buy it are on the top right hand side.

The knife handle rested in my slightly sweaty palm, and I shifted my grip so it felt more comfortable, though I remained in my low crouch and never took my eyes off my opponent. He eyed me back warily, feinting to his left, but I recognised the bluff and did not react.

“Come on then, Tash,” I taunted. “Are you going to stay there forever? Are you scared?”

“I could ask the same of you,” he replied, but I could see him tense, and readied myself.

He lunged at me mere heartbeats later, his knife held high for an overhead sweep. At the last moment he dropped it low, but I had already tossed my own knife into my left hand and used it to block his attack. At the same time I kicked out with my right foot, swiping his feet out from under him, and as he fell to the ground I pivoted and drove my elbow into his abdomen.

The breath whooshed out of him so he lay panting on the floor, and I stepped back to give him a chance to recover. “Point for me,” I said with grim satisfaction, and Tash gave a grudging nod.

“Sweet mercy, Sita,” he groaned when he scrambled back up, “didn’t we agree that you would pull your blows? I’m going to feel that one for days!”

“She was probably thinking of me,” Tio said from the sidelines, running an elegant hand through his golden hair. “I’m sure I annoyed her earlier in our debating class.”

“Well, there’s no need to take that out on me,” Tash grumbled. “Take it easy next hit please.”

“Maybe you should just fight better,” I countered, then launched into an attack of my own. Tash barely managed to jump into a defensive position, but although he succeeded in blocking the punch I aimed at his ribcage, he froze when he felt my blunted blade against his neck.

“You’re dead,” I said. “I win.”

“Trakan’s fucking Teeth, Sita, what’s got into you today?” he grouched. “Give me half a chance!”

“She’s doing what I’ve taught her to do, Tash,” Ziarev commented from the other side of the practice square. “Which means that at least one of you isn’t bothered by the fact that the prince is watching. Now stop whining and fight like you mean it. Sita wins often enough as it is without you not pulling your weight.”

Tash had kept his eyes lowered during the rebuke, then gave the weapons master a deferential nod. “Yes, Master Ziarev,” he said meekly. “Can I have a tenth-measure to myself please? I think I need to limber up a little more.”

“If you must,” came the curt reply, and I took the opportunity to re-tie the ribbon that kept my hair out of my face, deliberately turning away from Tio. It was true that he had annoyed me in debating class earlier, mainly because he had yet again not done his preparation, and yet again Master Juarev had let him get away with it. He was still annoying me now by choosing to attend my fighting practice. Tash always got nervous when Tio was watching, and it meant I didn’t get as good a sparring as I normally would. I felt like telling Tio to go away, but it would only amuse him, and he wasn’t likely to listen.

Neither was he prepared to be ignored, it seemed. “It never ceases to amaze me how graceful you look when you fight, Sita,” he said, sauntering up next to me. “And you make it seem so easy. Ziarev must be very pleased with you, don’t you think?”

“Why are you asking me? Ask him,” I grumbled, practising the flick of the wrist and fingers that made my knife switch between ready for use and concealed against my arm.

“I could, but talking to Ziarev won’t stop you being angry with me, and I don’t like it when you’re angry at me while holding weapons.”

I turned to look at him, shaking my head at his poor attempt at a joke, but when he gave me his most endearing smile it made my heart skip a beat and made my anger waver. Gods, but he was beautiful, with his deep blue eyes and his gleaming golden hair that fell in carefully coiffed waves over one shoulder. As always he looked immaculate, wearing the elaborate court fashion with the same effortless grace that all elves possessed as a matter of course. He made Tash look decidedly scruffy in contrast, with his battered padded armour and sporting what looked like at least three days’ worth of stubble. Beards always fascinated and repulsed me in equal parts, but I knew that was mainly because I did not see them often enough to get used to them. Only humans grew beards, and most of my day-to-day acquaintances were either elves or half-elves.

It had been one of the things I had tried to debate that morning: the differences between our country’s three races and their interlinking relationships, and it frustrated me that Tio had treated the subject with the same flippancy he always brought to debating class. Couldn’t he see how important it was that he knew the full ins and outs of how the races treated each other? How they acted around each other? All three races had a representative here, and even if Tio was one of those representatives himself, I knew he could be objective enough to try and look at the interactions here with a certain detachment.

Any outsider studying them would find their eyes drawn to Tio first. He was the crown prince, the only child of Queen Timaniel, and as such represented the highest possible elvish aristocracy in Arlennis. Most other elves were aristocrats as well, and they generally held positions of high authority, though they had a reputation for being set in their ways.

This was most likely due to the elves’ long lifespan. At age twenty-five, Tio still had more than two centuries of life ahead of him, and since the queen was still relatively young he might yet gain a sibling or two over the next few decades. For now he still showed his age, but once he got to about fifty or sixty he would acquire the ageless look that so characterised elves, and little would change in his appearance until he was close to death. He was tall and slender, with pale, luminous skin, an angular face with sharp cheekbones and elongated, pointed ears.

Tash was about the same age as Tio, but the similarities ended there. Humans usually did the low-end jobs, the positions which were plentiful but required little formal education. Cities were home to many human artisans, but these would have started as apprentices, and their training was done on the job. With his palace position of guardsman Tash was pretty representative of humans, but he was smart, nimble and quick on the uptake, and had therefore been chosen by Ziarev to be my sparring partner. He was also loyal to the core and could be trusted not to speak of my weapons training, since few people knew of it.

In appearance Tash was plain, with dull blond hair and muddy brown eyes. His build was stocky and muscular, and he was a full head shorter than Tio, though he probably weighed twice as much. In general, humans of his age would be married by now, with a few children running around, but most of the guardsmen remained single, and Tash was no exception. Whether this was anything to do with the abundance of pretty half-elf ladies at the court I did not know, nor was I going to ask.

Tash and I had become friends over the years, but despite my close association with both the queen and the prince he always became deferential around Tio, to the point that he even toned down his language. I had heard him use far worse swearwords than those today, but he would have been mortified to use them around the prince.

Ziarev completed the trio; a half-elf like me, but much older, weather-beaten, and the queen’s master at arms for many decades now. As a survivor of the reign of King Sovander – Timaniel’s father – and the brief period of turmoil that followed it, nothing fazed him anymore. Back then he had been a street thug, until the queen had declared all half-elves to be full citizens. He had been bold enough to come and ask her for a job, and she had seen something in him that she liked enough to give him one. He had worked his way up to master at arms within six years.

Just like elves, half-elves attained an ageless look after youth, and Ziarev could have been any age between forty and a hundred and sixty. His handsome face was marred by a jagged scar across his jaw, and underneath his close-cropped brown hair his once-pointy ears were blunted stumps. I knew he had done that himself as a young man, in an attempt to pass as a human and escape persecution, and every time I saw them I was grateful that those dark days were more than fifty years past, and that I didn’t have to worry about being a slave or an outcast, like all half-elves had been then.

The three of them broadly represented our society: elves at the top, humans at the bottom, half-elves in the middle – the successful ones at least. There were still too many half-elves who struggled to cope, and I knew it was but one of the many problems the queen had to deal with on a daily basis.

“You look like you’re miles away,” Tio commented. “Are you alright? I really am sorry about this morning, but I hate debating class.”

“I know you do, but it’s a lousy excuse, Tio,” I replied, turning my attention back to him. “You’re the heir to the throne, and you know that once you’re king there will be many things you have to do that you don’t like, including debating your policies with the magistrates.”

“Well, maybe that’s exactly why I’m enjoying my freedom while I can,” he countered.

“And is that also why you keep bullying Master Juarev into doing what you want? He wouldn’t dare contradict you these days, and it’s affecting his capabilities as a teacher.”

“I know, but he’s just so easy to fluster! Maybe mother ought to have hired someone with a bit more spine? Fine, fine, I take your point,” he said, raising his hands in defence when I glared at him, but then his grin turned sly. “So I guess you also disapprove of me persuading him that we can write our essays outside this afternoon?”

“You what?” I asked, gaping at him.

“I convinced him to let us sit under the chestnut tree in the south rosary,” he said smugly, and winked at me when I couldn’t hold back my wide smile.

“Tio, that’s the best idea you’ve had in weeks,” I said, feeling my anger drain away completely.

“I thought you might like it. Besides, the day is far too nice to spend the afternoon in that stuffy classroom with a stuffy scholar.”

“For once I agree with you, and in return I might even decide not to tell Master Juarev that you called him stuffy.”

Tio laughed. “Like you would. You’d never tattle on me, Sita, and you know it. But I’m glad to have pleased my big sister. Come, I think Tash is ready again. Show me just how good you are.” He ran an affectionate finger across my cheek, then pulled a face and wiped it on his trousers. “Ew, you’re sweaty.”

Of course I am, I’m wrapped top to bottom in a padded suit and I’ve been fighting, I thought, but I didn’t voice it and I avoided his eyes before he could see the feelings I couldn’t hide right at that moment. He called me his big sister, even though I wasn’t, but to me he was a man I wanted naked in my bed.

He knew I was in love with him, of course. He’d known it probably for as long as I had. For a while I had been naïve enough to think he might return my feelings, but that was before I’d walked into his room unannounced and had found him with his manhood buried deep inside my best friend Miriel. It was then that he’d told me in no uncertain terms that I held no attraction for him whatsoever.

Six years on it still stung. I was no longer the shy virgin I had been then, at twenty, but I had watched with hollow eyes as Tio chased every half-elf skirt in the palace, provided they were brunettes. My own hair was such a light blonde as to be almost white, and it precluded me from any sexual interest from him.

Ironically enough, I was almost certain that his sexual gratification had been one of the reasons why Aunt Tima had chosen me to be his day to day companion. Oh, it was by no means the only reason – my training was far too broad for that – but it was no coincidence that all Tio’s female attendants were half-elves. It was a well-known – if not openly acknowledged – fact that few elf men could keep their manhood inside their trousers, but as the prince and heir to the throne Tio could not be seen to father any bastards, so the queen kept all human women away from him. Half-elves, however, were infertile, and therefore safe.

And that was another interlinking relationship between the races. Elves, especially elf men, were almost unreasonably attracted to humans, and the resulting offspring were the half-elves, who had characteristics of both races but were unable to bear children of their own.

I saw Tash wipe his face with a wet cloth and walk back into the practice square, and gripped my blunted knife again with a sigh. There was no point in moping over Tio, and in the past six years I had learnt to ignore my feelings. I doubted I would ever get over him fully, but as Aunt Tima said, there was no room for love at the court, so I just got on with things. I had experimented with lovers – humans and elves as well as half-elves – though I rarely slept with anyone more than twice, and often it was a calculated choice on my part.

Like it had been with Tash. In addition to being my regular sparring partner and friend he had been infatuated with me for a while. I could sympathise, so I had given him one night, though I had also ensured that people knew about it.

Tio never got the hint.

As Tash launched into another attack, a little more focused this time, I let my body take over. The parry, block, attack, feint and counter-attack were almost intuitive by now, and when Ziarev joined in and I had to defend myself against two attackers I was still able to hold my own, even if it required me to draw my second knife and I sustained a few painful hits. At the end of practice Ziarev gave me one of his rare smiles, and I knew I had pleased him that day.

“Will I see you at lunch?” I asked Tio as I unbuckled the padding, wiped my face down with a cold, damp cloth and grabbed the dress I had worn over my skin-tight practice clothes, conscious of the fact that I always had to keep up the pretence that I was an ordinary court lady.

“No, I’ve got a date with Miri,” he drawled, stretching lazily. Then with a wink he added, “That’ll be my exercise for the day, I reckon. Good work today, Sita, I’ll see you in the rosary this afternoon.” He reached out as if to pat my shoulder, then seemed to remember my sweaty state and turned it into a finger-waggle wave instead before walking away.

I resisted staring after him and instead gave Ziarev a respectful bow, Tash an affectionate ruffle of his hair, then left in order to have a bath before lunch.

My room was on the opposite side of the palace, in the opulent wing that held the royal rooms as well as those of the queen’s most favoured ladies in waiting. It reflected my high status, but unfortunately it also meant I had to wend my way through a maze of marble-floored corridors, up two wide carpeted stairways and through one of the secondary audience rooms. The décor everywhere reflected the queen’s penchant for understated splendour, with simple but exquisite vases of the finest Mazarian porcelain, tapestries subtly interwoven with gold and silver thread and delicate, velvet-covered furniture from the best Innisian artisans.

I knew that back in King Sovander’s days the palace had been glittering with riches. All the candelabras had been gilded, all the chandeliers hung with gems of many colours and all the floors covered with ankle-deep carpets. My history books said that after Queen Timaniel ascended the throne, many of those riches had been exchanged for coin to fatten the royal treasury, and that she had used much of that coin to first quell the elven unrest and recompense them for losing their slaves, and subsequently to better the lot of half-elves and humans in Arlennis.

I was woken from my musing by Lady Nizielin, one of the queen’s elven ladies-in-waiting, and suppressed a sigh. It was impossible to reach my rooms without being waylaid by at least one acquaintance, but I would have given much to avoid having to make polite conversation with this particular one.

“Sita! Oh, I’m so glad to see you here!” she said, gliding towards me on elegant little mules that peeked out from underneath her wide, frothy skirt, the pale peach colour of both perfectly matched. Almost without thinking I bent my knees a little to hide my own shoes, which were the sturdy leather boots I always wore during fight practice.

“Linny, such a pleasure to see you too,” I replied, smiling at her. The reaction was easy and stemmed from years of practice, even though I hated her guts and she knew it. “I was just thinking that it had been far too long since I invited you and your husband over for tea.”

Her face fell, and just for a heartbeat I could see clearly how much she hated me back. Her husband had pursued me for a while, five years ago, and even though I had initially not been interested, she had automatically assumed that the worst had happened. Out of vindictiveness I had decided that since she had already tried and convicted me in her head, I might as well be guilty of the crime.

It had left an exceptionally bad taste in my mouth. It was common enough for courtiers to sleep around, but this particular episode had shown me firsthand what effect it had on marriages, friendships and other relations that depended on trust, and since that time I had restricted myself to lovers who had no ties to other women. Nevertheless, my relationship with Linny had never recovered, even though we both had to keep up the pretence at least of fond acquaintances.

“We would be delighted to, but that’s not what I wished to speak to you about,” she said with a dainty wave of her hand. Even her nails had been lacquered peach, I noticed, hiding my own hands in the folds of my skirt. “No, I wanted to invite you to a little fete at our country residence. It’s six days from now and only a small affair, no more than thirty people, but please bring a partner?”

She smiled at me expectantly, and I suppressed another sigh. ‘A partner’ meant Tio, of course, and it meant that if I went, and brought him along, he would be pestered all night by Linny’s friends among the lower aristocracy, who would otherwise have to spend weeks at the court before being granted an audience with the queen or her son.

“I’m sorry, Linny, but I’m afraid I already have an engagement that night, or I would have loved to come,” I replied, putting just the right amount of regret in my voice. “Do ask me again next time though, your fetes are unrivalled. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have lessons to attend this afternoon, and I have a few last minute things I need to do for it. Please give my regards to your darling husband.”

“But of course, he will be pleased to receive it, I’m sure,” Linny replied, her voice now tart. “Apropos, you’re wearing a very interesting perfume, Sita. Very bold, though I’m sorry to say that I do not think it suits you. You may wish to choose something lighter in future.” With that she gave me a measured nod and swept away down the corridor.

In other words, I stink of sweat, I thought, bowing my head to hide my grin. I had seen the glimpse of curiosity in her eyes before she left, and knew that she still couldn’t figure me out, still didn’t know what exactly my position was at the court.

But then, I wasn’t even sure of that myself.

I had been adopted from the orphanage at age ten by one of Aunt Tima’s ladies in waiting, but everyone knew I fell under the queen’s personal responsibility. She could not have adopted me herself, since by law only half-elf couples could adopt half-elf children, and Aunt Tima was adamant that the law applied to everyone, even her. Still, I rarely saw the people I ought to call mother and father socially, and although I liked them well enough, we had little use for each other.

My education had begun immediately, together with Tio’s. He was a year younger than me, but initially we had shared all our lessons. We had been versed in etiquette, conversation techniques, dancing, demeanour and poise – all essential for a courtier. We had been schooled in fashion, hair- and skincare, and make-up held no secrets whatsoever. They were all crucial skills for a lady-in-waiting or an attendant, but so far it was nothing that most elf children in Arlennis – boy or girl – did not learn as a matter of course.

Then at twelve my education had expanded. History, geography, literature, calculation and basic alchemy had passed before my eyes, and I had taken it all in greedily, spurred by a desire to please the woman who had taken me away from the dreariness of the orphanage and into a life infinitely more dazzling than I would have had if I had been adopted by a half-elf couple out in the normal world. Aunt Tima had been more than pleased, and my education had expanded again.

I was sent to farms and taught the basics of animal husbandry and crop rotation. Then I visited artisan craftsmen, learning all about cloth from a weaver, both basic homespun as well as luxurious court fabrics. I learnt furniture making from a carpenter and metalwork from a blacksmith, though I lacked the physical strength to wield the hammer for long periods of time and never made more than a plain, basic nail.

I spent a week at an infirmary, treating both simple ailments as well as assisting the head medic with a thatcher who had slipped off his ladder and broken his leg in two places.

Yet still my education was not complete. My lessons with Ziarev had begun when I was sixteen, and he had relentlessly drilled me in the use of every single weapon known to him. Three times a week I trained with him and Tash, and by now I knew how to wield a spear as well as I could handle a shortsword or knife, and could shoot a crossbow as well as I could aim a throwing knife.

My smile turned into a smirk when I thought of what Linny would do if she ever found out that I could skewer her to a wall by her clothes without so much as scratching her skin.

Provided she kept still of course. If she didn’t…

I shrugged the thought away. I hadn’t even been lying to Linny when I told her I already had an engagement, though I would have had to think of a lie if she had asked me what it was, for this particular engagement was my fortnightly lesson with Nightfoot.

Aunt Tima had introduced me to him two years ago, saying that I needed to be educated in one last thing. Nightfoot was the only name he had ever given me, and if that wasn’t enough secrecy, one of the court sorcerers then put a Binding Oath on me, which rendered me incapable of speaking of him to anyone other than the people who had been present.

I understood the secrecy when Nightfoot took me away for my first lesson, which centred on lockpicks and how to use them. Since then I had also learnt how to pick pockets, break into buildings, hide in the shadows and walk without making a sound. I didn’t think I was very good at it, but Nightfoot assured me that it took years of practice to be a good thief, and that I wasn’t doing too badly for the little time I spent on it.

It still puzzled me why Aunt Tima wanted me to learn something so clearly illegal, but so far she still had not chosen to divulge her reasons, and I knew better than to ask. Considering the depth and breadth of my education I had always assumed that I was being trained to be some sort of bodyguard to Tio, although that didn’t explain the burglary. I had stopped worrying about it though – I would find out eventually, and another thing I had learnt in my years at the court was patience.

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

When I arrived at the south rosary that afternoon, exactly on time, I found a guard waiting for me. “Good afternoon, Lady Veysita,” he said when I approached. “Master Juarev has assigned me to guard you and Prince Tionev today.”

I nodded at him, unsurprised. Juarev was a scholar to the core who would avoid going outside at all cost, but he would not let us work unsupervised.

For whatever that supervision was worth. A guard was even less likely to reproach Tio for anything, and when he arrived a tenth-measure later and snatched my essay from under my nose I knew that he was still in the same disruptive mood he had been in that morning.

The Life of Chiarin and her Influence on Modern History,” he read out loud, and I sighed. From experience I knew it was best to just let him get it out of his system, then he would be fine again for a few weeks.

“It’s as good a subject as any,” I said. “Modern history is littered with the influence of the changes brought on by the revaluation of half-elves as full citizens, so it makes sense to use that as a subject for a history essay.”

“Except that’s not your subject,” he pointed out. “You’ve picked one half-elf only, and one that no one has heard of at that.”

He did not seem inclined to return my paper, so I put my quill on my blotting cloth and folded my hands. “I wouldn’t say no one has heard of her. You have, haven’t you? And there are plenty of references to her, if you pick the right texts.”

“Oh, I forgot,” he sniffed. “You’ve read the entire library.”

“Maybe I have. Maybe you should try it too sometimes, rather than spending your afternoon chasing skirts.” My annoyance from that morning resurfaced and I added, rather snippily, “What’s your essay about anyway, ‘The Women in my Life and the Positions I’ve Fucked Them in’?”

The guard burst into a coughing fit, but Tio threw his head back and laughed. “Language, Sita! Swearing doesn’t become you, and neither does jealousy. But thank you for the suggestion, I’ll consider it for my next essay.” He winked at me and returned my paper, and I gave him a reluctant smile, as always unable to stay angry with him.

“So why her?” he asked, serious again, and I shrugged.

“I admire her.”

He snorted. “Wasn’t she a thief? What’s to admire about thieves?”

I stared ahead, thinking of Nightfoot and our fortnightly excursions. I had asked him once why he did what he did, and he had given me a curt explanation involving a dead wife, mounting debt and a lack of options. It had sounded convincing, but I had also often seen the gleam of excitement in his eyes as he picked a lock, and heard the wistfulness in his voice when he spoke of places he had paid a nighttime visit. My own thoughts were that some people were simply driven to do certain things, even if they were wrong, and even if it was dangerous. I doubted that Tio would understand such reasoning though.

“She’s not just a thief,” I said evasively. “That’s why I’m writing this essay, to draw attention to the other things she has done.”

“Such as?”

I peered at him, wondering if he was genuinely interested or merely trying to avoid doing some work of his own. He had his head propped up on his hand and his gaze was open and curious, but Tio was an expert in looking innocent and it could be just a ruse.

Then I decided that it didn’t matter. “There aren’t many references, but the ones I’ve found are tied to quite significant events.”

“Such as?” Tio said again.

“Well, first of all there’s the Monastery of Balance. It is run by a monastic order of half-elf women, right? They take all payments, ensure an honest distribution of the water and use any excess income to help pay for the half-elf orphanages throughout Arlennis.”

“True. So what’s that got to do with Chiarin?”

“Well, all sources I have found say that the monastery was founded by human men, and in Sovander’s time it was still run by them, not by half-elf women. What most of these sources do not state, however, is that there were half-elf women there, but that they were enslaved and used for sexual gratification.”

“Hang on,” Tio said, taken aback. “Are you saying that the monastery was run by men who had their own private whorehouse of half-elf slaves? That they basically forced them to have sex against their will?”

“Essentially, yes.”

“That’s just wrong,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “I enjoy a good tumble in the bed as much as the next man, but to do it against a woman’s will is distasteful.” Then he noticed my smile and frowned. “What?”

“You might not make such a bad king after all,” I said, and giggled when he bent down and flung a wad of cut grass in my direction.

“I still don’t know what that has to do with this Chiarin woman,” he huffed as I brushed the grass off my dress. “Besides, how do you know that it’s true? You said yourself that most sources don’t mention that part.”

“No, but there are two reliable, verified accounts from women who were slaves in the monastery at the time. They recount how one night they were roused from their beds by four half-elves, who clothed them in the monks’ own robes and told them they were free to go. This was shortly after Aunt Tima became queen, and no one had yet told them that they were free citizens. Aunt Tima’s guards had been rebuffed by the monks, and there was still too much rebellion and political turmoil in the country for her to spare more men to deal with the situation.

“So, the women knew nothing of their changed circumstances, until their rescuers arrived, explained the situation and offered them the choice to stay or leave. Although my sources were among those who left, others chose to remain. They overthrew the existing order and took over the running of the monastery. The half-elf intruders helped them to do this.”

“Four half-elves and a bunch of women?” Tio said sceptically. “Sounds rather far-fetched to me.”

I shrugged. “We know how the monastery is run now, and there are plenty of accounts that state it was run by men before. There is no official record of what happened exactly, the current occupants of the monastery are very reluctant to share their knowledge in this regard. All I know is that one of those four half-elves was a woman called Chiarin.”

“And that’s definite?”

“Yes. She had been at the monastery before, or so one of the accounts says. She had been meant to become one of the women slaves, but had only been there one night before she disappeared. My source never knew what had happened to her until she saw her again that night she was rescued.”

“Huh. So who were the other three then?”

“Ah well, from that particular account we don’t know,” I said, getting into my stride, “but there are other incidents.”

“Do tell,” Tio said, leaning his head on his arm again and watching me with an indulgent smile. I frowned at him, but he gave an encouraging wave of his hand. “Go on, I never knew you were this involved in your research.”

I wasn’t convinced, but continued anyway. “Have you ever heard of the mine of Upper Danzar?”

“I’ve heard of Danzar, of course. Southernmost of the high magistrate seats, famous for its quality sandstone, silk, silver and crystalwork.” He sounded like it was something he had learnt by rote, and I chuckled.

“Yes, silver. Upper Danzar is higher up in the mountains, it’s a silver mine. This is a similar story to the monastery, really. During Sovander’s reign the mines were worked by half-elf slaves, under atrocious conditions. They were supposed to have been freed when Aunt Tima took over, but the mine is remote and somehow it was overlooked, or the guards were turned away.”

“So let me guess, one day four half-elves showed up and freed all the slaves?”

I smiled. “Exactly. And all of those who recounted their story gave the same description as the women from the monastery had: two red-haired women, two black-haired men. The men were clearly identical twins, the women possibly too. The only names I have are their shortened ones, but one of them was addressed as ‘Rin’. I’m guessing that was Chiarin – the description certainly fits.”

“So if there were four of them every time, why not write your essay about all four?”

“Because Chiarin is the only one I know anything more about. The other three are complete unknowns but for their shortened names and what they look like, but for Chiarin I have that one account from the woman at the monastery, Tiziel. She described Chiarin as… Let me see…” I scanned through my essay, trying to find the exact passage. “Ah, here: ‘A determined, stubborn young woman, seemingly undisturbed by what was in store for her and admirably unafraid despite her circumstances’.”

“So a woman who didn’t lose her cool despite thinking she’d be raped repeatedly for the rest of her life,” Tio remarked. “I can see why you admire her now.”

“Thank you. Though to be fair, I admire her more for her actions. I’ve never seen the places I just mentioned, but from the descriptions they were pretty difficult to access. It must have taken guts to do what she did. What they did.”

“Why do you think they did it?”

I stared at him. “Tio, that’s a silly question. They must clearly be determined to improve the lot of half-elves in Arlennis. They’ve done Aunt Tima a favour in doing so as well, I’d say. They’ve fixed a couple of nasty situations, even if their methods are somewhat, um, brutal.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Explain?”

“There have been deaths in all these cases,” I said with a grimace. “Usually they’ve killed guards or overseers or whoever else was in their way.”

Tio gave an unconcerned shrug. “Sounds like they deserved it.”

“Mmm,” I conceded, “but hardly within the law.”

He scratched at a knot of wood in the table, then said pensively, “I suppose that sometimes it pays to circumvent the restrictions of the law. Mother probably knows that better than anyone else.”

A sudden, icy thought slithered down my spine. What if Aunt Tima did know this, and needed tools to covertly circumvent the law when she needed to do so? She valued the law, but I wasn’t naïve enough to think that she could always afford to stick to it, even if she might want to. What if I was being trained to be such a tool?

I pushed the thought away. No use in dwelling on that now. I tried to concentrate on my essay, reading through what I had already written, when Tio spoke again. “So they’ve done stuff like that a few times then?”

“I’ve found six accounts in total,” I replied absently. “Most of them fairly shortly after Aunt Tima became queen, but the most recent one was about fourteen years ago.”

“What was that one then?”

I sucked on the tip of my quill. “It was the half-elf orphanage in Innis. On the surface it was an orphanage like any other, you know, prepping children for adoption by half-elf parents, except these children were being abused by the staff.”

“Abused how?” Tio said sharply.

“Sexually.”

“Bastards,” he swore. “I hope they castrated them?”

“Tio, have you been listening? If they did, it was before they killed them. There were no survivors among the staff,” I said, meeting his gaze evenly.

He gave no reply, just a grim but satisfied smile, and I reflected that he really would make a good king, provided his current values remained intact and provided he could keep his manhood in check. But then, as Aunt Tima had once told me, the world revolved around sex, specifically around what men got up to with their manhoods. I knew that my natural mother had almost certainly been human, and had almost certainly been a whore. That much at least hadn’t changed since Sovander’s time. The only difference was that the orphanages now provided half-elf couples with the chance to make a family, rather than grooming children for a life of slavery.

Tio had finally bent over his own essay, and I concentrated on mine. Whatever I was meant to be, I had so far spent sixteen years on becoming it, and the least I could do was ensure that I would be good at it. I owed that to my queen.

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