Crimson Leaf Extract

 

 

Chapter 1 - Of Youth


Under the cobblestone streets of the capital, deep beneath the temples of the God and the Goddess, even hollowed into the marrow of the broad walls of the palace, a network of tunnels provided a means of secret activity for those few who knew of their existence.

 

Some of the tunnels led to hidden chambers, most of them mildewed and derelict. But in one room, neat wooden shelves lined the walls, and on those shelves stood books and scrolls, bottles, jars and boxes. Some of the boxes had holes punctured in their lids, and to the keen ear, movement could be heard inside: the scratching of insects, the soft slither of snakes.

 

One vial of poison had already served its purpose; the exotic vipers still awaited theirs. Candlelight and humour gleamed in the eyes of the murderer. In a matter of days, the royal household would be shattered once again.

 

In the Palace

 

"I can drink what I damn well want." Crown Prince Travis' spiky voice echoed in the Hall of State where soaring arches and lawn-sized tapestries dwarfed the two seated figures. Above their heads, woven kings rode to war, and queens in gold and damson gowns sported hawks upon their arms. None of this intimidated the seventeen-year-old. "I don't have to take orders from you, or anyone else."

 

If he really believed that, Lord Gareth reflected, the prince had absorbed little knowledge of the constitution during his intensive education. But what else could be expected from this gawky teenager, so uncomfortable inside his body that his exquisitely tailored garments looked like peasants' cast offs, and his previously pleasant disposition so sullied that it would now curdle milk?

 

Keeping frustration in check, the counsellor leant forward, grasped the carved curlicues on the chair arms, and attempted a show of sympathy. "Sire, you can't drown your grief in wine."

 

That only resulted in another swig from the jewelled beaker before Travis retorted, "I'm not drowning grief; I'm celebrating."

 

Maybe, maybe not, but the lad needed to mind his manners. Gareth allowed every line on his face to deepen into a crestfallen expression. As expected, this prompted a sigh from the ginger-haired youth followed by an attempt at an explanation.

 

"For the first time in my life, I'm free to enjoy myself, and believe me, Gareth, I intend to."

 

Leaf-green eyes studied the counsellor, no doubt searching for a reaction to the deliberately omitted title. Lord Gareth - once tall, dark and sharp, now stooped, bald and wiser - merely stared back. Let the lad recall who had taken the most interest in his well-being over the years.

 

A trace of regret passed over Travis' features and his royal eyebrows rose by way of an apology.

 

Thus encouraged, Gareth embarked on his main reason for confronting the prince. "Sire, your behaviour since the deaths of your parents is fuelling rumours."

 

"Rumours?"

 

Subtlety was obviously not getting through the fog of wine, so Gareth decided to emulate the lad's bluntness.

 

"Somebody poisoned them. It was hardly a suicide pact."

 

Slamming his beaker down on the side table where crimson droplets spattered the polished oak, Travis uncoiled from his chair. He stood, the heat of outrage rising in his cheeks.

 

"You think I killed them?"

 

"No. No, of course not." Gareth raised his hands then distractedly pulled the sleeves of his dark robe back over his arms. "But try to see how it looks. Who benefits from the deaths? Most sons would be in mourning. You're running riot."

 

When Travis opened his mouth to reply, Gareth held up his palms once more. "Let me finish ... I know there's been little love lost between you and your parents." An understatement, if ever there was. "Despite that, I'm certain of your innocence. If you had enough guile to commit the murders, you'd have enough to feign grief."

 

Travis hesitated, apparently thinking that through. Then he slumped back into his chair. "I see. I'm too stupid to be guilty."

 

That sounded more like the insecure boy Lord Gareth had grown fond of. With a tug at his wispy grey beard, he replied, "Too naïve, Sire. Your knowledge is limited to lessons, to books, to theories. You're young. Allow me to guide you. Listen, if only for a while, to the wisdom of age and experience."

 

~~~

 

Evening fell, and three youths raced through the royal corridors, the soles of their shoes slamming against wooden floors, their laughter loud as a rookery. Such a racket had not been heard in years and it doubtless shocked many of those who listened behind closed doors. The boys progressed deeper into the palace where vaulted ceilings amplified their noise while gilt decorations along the walls flashed colourful reflections of the silk and velvet finery flying past.

 

When he reached the king's private chambers, Travis threw himself into an embroidered armchair, and gasped for breath. His two partners-in-crime did likewise, littering the otherwise pristine parlour with panting bodies. Despite what Lord Gareth said, it felt good, this mindless chaos. Travis glanced at his best friends. Boyhood companions and fellow students, both were the sons of high nobles, as were all those who shared his schooling.

 

They were lucky. Not just because of their freedom, but also that one had grown tall and dark, the other pale and blond, each handsome in his own way. Marny possessed the most irritatingly pleasant face, olive-skinned with thin lips that curled at the corners - ever smiling even when serious. Quill's almost-cherubic features usually wore a misleading air of innocence. Not being of the royal Fairdrake family, neither of them had been cursed with carrot-coloured hair and freckles.

 

There was something he didn't envy them however - their ancient names: Marnaeus and Quilinsion. These ghastly appellations had long since been shortened to Marny and Quill.

 

Dark-haired Marny, older than Travis by a matter of two months, recovered his breath first. Untying his blue silk cravat to loosen the neck of his shirt, he said, "Throw me the flask, Quill."

 

Only sixteen and the shortest of the trio, the fair-haired youth nodded. From a pocket in his velvet coat, Quill drew the silver container and tossed it across. Marny snatched it from the air, unscrewed the top and took a swallow of the liquid inside. Then he almost choked.

"Ah!" He coughed several times while he screwed the top back on. Eyes watering, he flipped the flask over to Travis. "I don't know where your father got that stuff, but it's like drinking fire."

 

As Travis followed the exact same procedure, even to the choking and coughing, Quill seemed distracted. When the container duly arrived back in his hand for him to take his turn, he asked, "Doesn't it bother you, Travis?"

 

"What? The drink? No, we'll finish it between us. Go on, have some."

 

"I don't mean the drink. I mean that ... well, it's your father's ... yours now I know, but aren't you even a bit bothered about your parents dying?" Colour rose in Quill's cheeks, and he bent his attention upon opening the flask.

 

Travis cast a sideways look at Marny then shrugged. He didn't want to even think about it, but as Quill seldom gave up, Travis made an attempt. "Why would I be? I hardly knew them. I spent more time with your parents than mine. If anything happened to yours, that'd bother me - I like them. Mine didn't give a damn. I was just needed for the succession, with my brothers and sister tagged on as insurance."

 

Quill nodded in sympathy as he poured a drop of the liquid into his palm and licked it. "Ugh!"

 

"Take a proper drink, Quilinsion," Marny instructed.

 

Scowling, Quill rubbed his wet hand on the delicate needlework of the chair arm then he raised the flask to his lips. He managed to only cough twice before sending the flask back on its circular route.

 

Pink-faced now from the drink rather than embarrassment, Quill picked up on Travis' last words. "How's your sister? Is she here?"

Grinning, Marny intervened, "You still sweet on Selina?"

 

"I'm not sweet on her. I just like her."

 

Travis chuckled at the exchange. His sister and Quill were the same age and, at one time, they'd been close friends. But girls seemed to grow up differently. Selina always suffered from a studious streak, and this had mellowed into a devotion to the Goddess of Light.

"She went back to the temple after the funeral," Travis explained.

 

Quill jutted out his bottom lip. "So, she still intends to be a priestess?"

 

"Yes."

 

It troubled Travis too. Though he cared deeply about his young brothers, of all four siblings, only Selina possessed hair more red than ginger, and a face on which freckles looked fitting. That she rejected any chance of marriage and family seemed a matter for regret.

 

"Best thing for her," Marny said. "She's too bookish to be any fun. It's not natural in a girl." He held up the flask. "Catch."

 

Travis caught. He took a swig of the potent liquor. The growing warmth inside him eased his anxieties. He was in control of himself, of his siblings and friends, of his realm-to-be. Travis, the next king - nothing could deny him that.

 

Chapter 2 - Of Age


In a small rural cottage

 

A crimson leaf tumbled across the lawn, blown by a chill breeze. Huddled in a high-backed chair, the old woman heaved a sigh and peered out through the window. Only minutes before, she had cleared the grass, gathering leaves to tip into the compost. She knew this lone trespasser heralded a thousand more, and her bones ached at the thought of repeating the task tomorrow, and the next day, and all the remaining days of autumn.

 

Her hand, where it rested on the windowsill, bore a bruise almost the colour and size of that leaf; a bruise caused by no more than a gentle graze, for Time had finally delivered her into decrepitude. Her glance fell and she examined her stained skin, dry and grainy as wood, her only remaining fascination; where did the flesh go, that which made a hand young and plump, which once kept skin, blood and bone apart? Age resembled a slow rendering, essence evaporating through the pores, taking with it desire, ambition, hope...

 

A knock at the door interrupted her musing. She rose slowly from the seat, her knotted hands pushing against the chair arms. As she shuffled down the hall, she wondered who on earth it could be. Visitors were few and far between. Open the door, she told herself, then you'll find out.

 

And there he stood ... taller than she remembered, his black hair curling round his face. Joy swept through her, but fear followed in its wake. She gripped the doorframe to steady legs grown suddenly too weak, and stared up at him. He still looked no more than thirty and wore a cloak of that familiar shade of blue so much darker than his eyes. Her mind groped back to when she last saw him, half a century ago.

 

~~~

 

Under the stern portrait of a redheaded king, three friends sprawled on the floor, more than slightly drunk. Thick carpets imported from distant shores were rucked up against table legs and plinths, evidence that while youthful feet had tried to gain purchase, they succeeded only in exposing the polished marquetry beneath. Despite the disorder, no one of sufficient authority had ventured to witness the spectacle or try to put an end to it.

 

Quill closed one eye and peered up at the picture in its ornate frame. "Is that your grandfather?" Neither he nor Marny had been allowed in the king's quarters before.

 

Not even bothering to look, Travis nodded.

 

"Were all the kings, ever, ginger-haired?" Quill wondered.

 

Marny snorted at this, the corners of his mouth curving yet higher, and Travis chuckled.

 

"No, only since my grandmother succeeded great uncle Elenthor, fifty years ago. Her husband was a carrot top," he glanced towards the painting, "and we've all suffered the same diabolical fate."

 

Quill sat up and propped himself lopsided against the delicate legs of a gilded chair. "Who do you suppose killed your parents?"

"How should I know? It's being investigated, of course. The authorities will find out."

 

"And what was the reason, I wonder?" With more curiosity than a litter of kittens, Quill possessed about the same measure of discretion.

 

"Maybe they imagined Travis would make a better king," Marny volunteered, eyebrows slanting over hazel eyes.

 

Quill smirked and added to the speculation. "Or maybe that sinister, spinster aunt of his wants the crown?"

 

With a pained expression, Travis retorted, "What for, in her state of health?" He carefully detoured around the idea that he and his siblings might be in the way of someone's ambitions. "Most likely whoever poisoned them did so because they hated them - a feud rather than a bid for the throne."

 

Clambering to his feet, Travis made his unsteady way towards a cabinet housing further alcohol. He and his friends were still thinking far too sensibly and seriously, something that could be easily remedied.

 

~~~

 

Night now blinded the cottage windows but the old woman knew fallen leaves multiplied unseen in the cold outside. Inside, in the little parlour, flickering light came from a lantern and a blazing fire. For the latter, at least, she thanked the visitor.

 

Hunched in a rickety hearthside seat, she gazed into the flames that had sprung up so willingly for the man. "I feel older than time." She could hardly hear her own voice, brittle as parchment, above the crackling of the fire. "For me, it's too long."

 

"Don't give up, Lyssia."

 

The man leant forward in his chair - his cloak discarded, his white shirt and black breeches far newer than anything else in the room - and he stared at her as no one had for years. He looked deeper than the cobweb hair and wrinkles, the crooked spine and withered limbs. He saw her. He knew her and valued her still. Of course he did. They were family - close kin always recognised the promise in a baby and the treasures sealed within a senile mind.

 

"Let me be," she said. "It's my right."

 

"No, it's self-indulgence."

 

Lyssia lifted a cup to her lips and sipped, gazing again at the fire. The heat of neither tea nor flame managed to melt the ice inside her. She ground her teeth together. If he could be pitiless, so could she.

 

"When Elenthor died, so did any purpose we ever had. Our time is over, Albion. Why bother me now?"

 

"The king and queen have been murdered."

 

"I've heard ... So?" Her trembling hand set the cup on the chair-side table.

 

Eyes glittering in firelight, Albion challenged her, "We're still Guardians."

 

"I'm not." Lyssia reached to pick up the tea again but stopped herself. Instead, she turned her face to stare at the lantern, her mouth a slash of displeasure.

 

"Listen, please, Lyssia. I need you."

 

"Ask the others."

 

"They're gone. I can't hear them. I can only hear you."

 

"But I don't 'hear' you." Now she looked at him, knowing her eyes were full of spite. "I didn't even realise it was you on the doorstep until I opened the door. I've grown as deaf as the rest. You're on your own, Albion."

 

He flinched, the words cutting into him. "Don't say that."

 

"But it's true." Unable to maintain her contempt, an urge to weep stung Lyssia's throat. She paused for a moment to swallow. "It's over. The current dynasty's a joke."

 

Lyssia knew that Albion observed her every nuance. When he spoke next, his voice carried a hint of the cunning that once served him so well.

 

"What did you do today?"

 

She recognised the trap, yet answered. "I raked the lawn."

 

"You raked the lawn. The kingdom's in chaos, and you raked the lawn."

 

"It's enough for me." Lyssia thumped the chair arm. "More than enough." Calming, she tried to explain, "You won't know, but I married ... eventually. He was a man of no importance, not in the way we measured it. But if we served any purpose, ever, it was for the likes of him: a simple, kind man - not royalty."

 

"We deal with dynasties because that's how to help the most people. That's why we must intervene now. The stability of the country's under threat because the prince is suspected of murder."

 

"Probably rightly so." Lyssia's hand reached again towards the table. She allowed it to continue.

 

"Maybe. It's one possibility. Another is that he's seen as someone who can be manipulated, unlike his father who proved a decent king, no matter what you think of the family."

 

Lyssia took a final sip of tea without tasting anything. "I don't know what you imagine I can do to help. You may cling to the belief that the Lady of Light made us what we are. I say we're nothing but accidents of nature."

 

She didn't add the word that had crept into her thoughts recently - the word she suspected best described herself and Albion - abominations.

 

Chapter 3 - Endings


The fire burnt down to a glow dusted with pale wood ash, the lantern grew dim, and Albion faded into shadow, only his pale eyes glinting in the gloom.

 

"If Elenthor had lived and produced offspring, you'd still be protecting his line. Kings die. I never understood why it was so different for you in his case."

 

"Don't fool yourself. It wasn't just me. Where have the others gone? We failed him - all of us." Lyssia's gnarled index finger stabbed at her own skinny chest. "We made him weak. The true kings ended because of the very people who professed to guard them."

 

"Yes, we made a mistake." Albion stood, perhaps hoping his height would strengthen his argument. "But before then, we helped. We made a difference, time and time again."

 

"Only you ... Only you ever really believed that." She looked up into his face, his expression as bleak as her thoughts.

 

"Then I'll go alone and do the best I can. Whatever we are, I won't squander it."

 

He reached for Lyssia's hands, pulled her gently to her feet then wrapped her frail body in his arms, and kissed her hair.

 

As she listened to the man's heart thudding, misery coursed through her: one more betrayal to add to her crimes, one more grief to take to the grave. Words of comfort died in her throat. She dare not offer them.

 

"Goodbye, Lyssia, you're the last of my family, the last of my hope."

 

Then Albion released her and strode quickly down the hall and out into the bitter night.

 

~~~

 

It grew late, and clouds gathered above the palace, dark upon dark, while distant thunder rumbled. Inside, Quill snored softly, curled in a ball on the floor. His last slurred words before falling asleep - 'What you going to do when you're king?' - triggered the discussion that occupied Travis and Marny.

 

"Besides importing more exotic drinks," Marny grinned and stretched across to pass the almost-empty bottle to his friend, "what are your plans?"

 

Travis tipped the remaining liquor into his mouth before answering. "No idea, but I'm sure my advisors will be brimming with ... advice."

Noticing his unintended pun, Travis sniggered. Then he screwed up his face at a new idea. "I'll stop taking most of the stupid lessons, of course."

 

Though Marny's lids had been drooping, his eyes blinked wide for a moment. "Not fencing - you can't stop..." A hiccough cut the sentence short.

 

Unlike Travis, Marny excelled at swordsmanship.

 

"I suppose I'll keep that up," Travis conceded, "just for us three. But I want to spend more time hunting, and I want my brothers to as well. They should be having some fun, not cooped up in classes day in day out."

 

Marny stifled a yawn. "Sounds like a good start. But, you've missed the most important thing."

 

"Have I?"

 

"Women, Travis - girls, wenches, the gentle sex. They'll be falling over themselves to get to you, and there's no one to stop you making the most of it."

 

A smile flickered amongst freckles. "Women."

 

Travis' expression suddenly froze. They heard the unmistakable sound of sturdy shoes clacking along the corridor, heralding the arrival of that most terrifying example of 'the gentle sex', the palace housekeeper.

 

~~~

 

Rain spattered against glass, driven by a vicious wind. A razor of light slit the sky then roared its defiance. The storm finally erupted outside, but another had almost spent its strength within the tiny bedroom.

 

Lyssia turned her pillow yet again, pointlessly. Both sides were damp. She'd forgotten, maybe deliberately, what Albion meant to her. His physical presence after all this time brought the truth flooding back - he was her father, brother, son. Half a century ago, all the Guardians turned aside from him in their self-loathing. Even he faltered for a while, long enough to leave their clan scattered like leaves.

 

Rolling over to lie on her back, Lyssia sighed. Death by old age proved a slow, unpredictable business - long overdue. She could end the waiting easily with either of two options, one swifter and more final than the other.

 

Recalling Albion's embrace, his warmth, the familiar scent of his clothes and hair, his giving of solace where none was due, she wondered whether she could let it all end here. Did she trust her thoughts, when the cogs of her mind were rusted almost to inaction? Lyssia sat up in the blackness, and silently blasphemed the God of Night for not taking her soul before now. Finally, she made her choice.

 

Chapter 4 - Hearing


The law chambers swarmed with judges and counsellors, uniformed military chiefs and be-robed nobles. A constant drone of voices assaulted Gareth's ears while he attempted to organise papers on a long desk inlaid with the sigil of the Lord of Night. The occasional louder exclamation, usually from one of the barrel-chested Generals, rebounded off oak-panelled walls, making Gareth wince. He detested background noise. His aging ears could rarely pick out details, and it interfered with his ability to understand even those who stood nearby, addressing him directly.

 

"Eh?" he asked irritably, after the goateed Sir Kindall muttered something private and inaudible to him.

 

The knight of the realm pursed his lips at the prospect of repeating his aside in a louder voice. "Oh, no matter," he said, and slunk off like the creature he resembled - a fox.

 

Gareth returned his attention to the documents. Whatever Kindall had mumbled, it wouldn't be anything helpful. As well as being sly, the man was an arrogant, bad-tempered boor who thrived on trouble, probably because it gave him greater opportunity to complain - a skill at which he excelled. Lord Gareth had more time for Kindall's son, Marny. Despite a bullying father and snobbish mother, he'd grown into a likeable young man. Little wonder that he and Travis shared such a strong friendship. They had much in common.

 

The counsellor straightened from his task and surveyed the table with satisfaction. Everything lay ready for the arrival of the Lord Chief Justice. Gareth moved towards the empty benches and sat down. Those around him noted his action and did likewise. Soon, all in the room were seated, the noise dying to a dry rustle of whispers.

 

A gavel on wood rapped out the imminent approach of Lord Oakley. Total silence fell before the swish of a black gown and click of steel-studded heels accompanied the Chief Justice into the room. To Gareth, it always seemed as though a bird of prey descended. Oakley's physical stature might not be imposing - just over average height, with a build best described as wiry - but the man possessed palpable energy and his pale gaze could pierce through rhino hide.

 

Standing behind the desk, Lord Oakley ran a hand over dark, grey-streaked hair then smoothed his cravat as he peered around the room. His face remained expressionless while, in a voice both cultured and compelling, he stated, "Gentlemen, before we start, let me make it clear that I do not want to hear again anyone's opinion. Opinions are worse than useless. I want fact - pure and unvarnished."

 

He looked briefly at the piles of documents, and swept a hand towards them. "These are what we have thus far. Does anyone have anything new to report?"

 

No response came, so Lord Oakley grimaced and seated himself in the ornate judicial chair. "Then let me summarise. King Edan and Queen Ula were poisoned by a substance previously unknown. This substance was found in the bottle of wine they drank on the night of their deaths. The bottle was one of many given as gifts during royal visits. We've not been able to trace this particular gift back to the giver."

 

The Chief Justice paused to glance around the room before continuing. "All wine intended for the royals is tested on dogs the day before it's due to be consumed. The two stewards with that responsibility, Don Brookland and Sherman of Antile, assure us that the dogs drank the wine to no ill effect. Yet the animals died when we carried out tests using the residue of the poisoned wine."

 

Leaning forward, Lord Oakley placed his elbows on the desk and entwined fingers adorned with gold and rubies. "Someone poisoned the wine, someone who knows of a toxin unheard of by the rest of us. Either they did this before the bottle was given to the king - in which case the stewards failed to test it on the dogs. Or the wine was tampered with after the test - a difficult feat to accomplish given that it was under the constant supervision of one or other of the stewards."

 

Gareth watched cynically while small minds failed to grasp complex detail and groped instead for simple explanations.

 

A clamour from the benches turned heads. Sir Kindall had risen to his feet. "Then it must obviously be one or other or both of the stewards."

 

Oakley stared at the man until he felt obliged to sit back down. The Chief Justice did, however, grace the knight with a reply. "Given the facts so far, it certainly appears as if they were complicit in some way. But I wonder what they hoped to gain by taking part in a plot that incriminated themselves. They're plain men who've carried out their duties flawlessly for almost twenty years, and they've been questioned strenuously, to the point at which, if they knew anything, they would have felt it wise to say so."

 

His attention returning to the rest of the assembly, Oakley said, "The stewards described how the king usually took his time choosing what he would drink the next evening. On special occasions, however, such as the eve of a birthday, he would select a bottle that had been specifically reserved for the celebration. Regretfully, neither man noted which of these tendencies the king displayed on the day before his death."

 

A hand raised in the benches.

 

Oakley nodded towards the Duke of Winfield. "Yes, what is it, your grace?"

 

Plump, blond and pink-cheeked Athelston, Quill's father, was well liked and respected. He stood and said, "This is not so much opinion as observation. I've known the stewards, Don and Sherman, for many years. They considered it a privilege to serve the king and queen. A change of ruler inevitably results in a change of personal staff. Were they party to the murders, they would have been contriving their own dismissal."

 

Having said his piece, the duke sat down.

 

"Yes," Lord Oakley agreed. "But one must still consider the possibility of bribery and corruption; a rich man doesn't need a job." Broadening his focus again, he asked, "Does anyone else have anything of value to contribute?"

 

From his place on the front bench, Lord Gareth glanced around. He saw the unspoken accusations in many of the audience's expressions. The suspicions regarding the prince might be whispered in private, but no one would be foolish enough to voice them in public, not when the lad would probably soon be king.

 

Oakley reached for his gavel and rapped it three times. "In the absence of sufficient evidence, I declare a preliminary verdict of murder by a person or persons unknown. The two stewards will continue to be detained at our pleasure. All lines of investigation will be pursued until a final verdict is reached."

 

The Chief Justice rose to his feet. "The coronation must not be further delayed. Arrangements are in place. Prince Travis will be crowned in four days. Lord Gareth will retain his role as guardian and advisor to the king until he reaches his majority. The Duchess of Newsom, the Duke of Redellian, the Duke of Winfield and myself will continue to offer our services in the political governance of the realm."

 

His edicts issued, Lord Oakley spun on his heel and, in a flutter of black cloth, strode from the room.

 

Chapter 5 - Awakening


An astounding cacophony of garden birds woke Lyssia from a deep sleep. She yawned then glanced at her hand on the pillow. This must be the second morning after her decision. During the previous day, she'd been blind, her mind focussed inward. Now she looked. Dawn filtered through a chink in the curtains, painting a stripe of light in which her hand lay like the detail of a portrait, plump and pale.

 

Devouring the images, her eyes shifted to examine the soft down on her arm and the delicate embroidery of her sleeve - exquisite silk roses of a red so bright she felt the need to blink. Lyssia's other senses joined the protest. Aromas that just two days ago were nothing but dim memory now invaded her nose and throat - lavender, soap, old smoke, even the scent of grass and decaying leaves. Beneath her ear, the whisper of cotton held nuances of sound that her imagination had forgotten. Outside, the trills of finches chimed like temple bells.

 

With easy grace, Lyssia rose from her bed, feeling the sensuous flow of sheets against her skin. She stepped over to the age-spotted mirror and gazed at the reflection for a long time. How thick and dark her hair had been ... was. It flowed down her back like a sable waterfall. Beneath black eyelashes, viridescent irises rimmed with turquoise stared at her. Lyssia shivered. The face was that of a living ghost - herself as she had been fifty years ago.

 

Turning away, she looked inwards once more. Thought, logic, memory - cleansed of the grime of age, these were clear, precise. As to emotion: the pain of the past and the fear of further grief still prowled their well-worn paths, but now with sharper teeth and claws. Even so, Lyssia knew she had chosen wisely.

 

Other sensations surfaced, and became increasingly insistent. She'd laboured hard for many hours without sustenance. Hunger and thirst clamoured for relief. She must scrape together a meal from the meagre rations of an old woman's larder. What was there? Bread, eggs, cheese, but no ham or bacon.

 

Singing, to hear a voice bright and strong, Lyssia sliced up an entire loaf while a pan of eggs sizzled on the stove. The savoury aromas tormented her, and she eventually fell silent, mouth wet with anticipation as she laid a full platter upon the table. All her appetites would be this demanding from now on, she reflected, the result of regenerating her youthfulness in much the way a lizard re-grows a severed tail.

 

~~~

 

'Albion.' She reached out in hope and anguish, half expecting emptiness.

 

'Lyssia! Thank the Goddess. You're back.' His voice came instantly into her mind, and with it, a torrent of such warmth and intimacy that she felt healed, whole again after years of being incomplete.

 

'Where are you?' Her question flew across unknown miles.

 

'In the capital - in the palace itself. I've just been appointed junior sword master.'

 

Lyssia smiled and allowed her wordless humour to reach him.

 

Wit and relief coloured his response. 'I didn't try too hard, just enough to impress the old master. Will you come here?'

 

'Of course. What role should I aim for, and will we know each other?'

 

'Something domestic if you can, a position allowing access to as much of the palace as possible ... I sense your scowl. But you're an excellent actress, so why waste the talent? I think we should remain strangers, at least to begin with.'

 

'Our names?'

 

'Alon and Lia - they're long forgotten by now.'

 

'And my background? I can't provide references.' She raised real and imagined eyebrows.

 

'True,' Albion conceded. 'Neither could I, despite living in the city on-and-off for years. Give the same story I did. You're a religious refugee from Karthea. There's a constant influx of those.'

 

'Yes, that sounds plausible. I'm on my way. Let me know where I might find lodgings. I'm out of touch.'

 

It all fell back into place, as if the last fifty years were mere minutes. Normal people had no comprehension of their true loneliness. Only Guardians, with the gift to share their thoughts and feelings directly with one another, could experience the terrible silence of its loss. Even during her time with her late husband, Ronan, Lyssia had felt isolated. Damn, but that belittled their marriage. She whispered, prayer-like, to him, wishing to reassure his spirit. "Ronan, I do love you. I always will. When this time ends, I'll be with you for eternity."

 

Lyssia knew she betrayed him, waiting for her in the Caverns of Night. Their reunion would be delayed.

But she suppressed guilt, and set to preparing for the journey.

 

Just as well she would be posing as a servant, for not one fine gown or frivolous pair of shoes adorned

her wardrobe. And worse, most of the garments were a poor fit on her now taller, fuller figure. After

dressing as best she could in layers of warm clothes, Lyssia packed a small bag with a change of

outfit, a pouch of coins, and enough food for the six-hour walk to the city.

 

The clunk of the key in the lock sounded ominously final when Lyssia secured the cottage - her

home for so long. She turned away from the door, taking a last look at the lawn.

 

'Oh, the leaves,' she thought, her hands itching to pick up the rake and restore order to

her beloved garden. Instead, she shouldered her bag and set forth to restore order to

the kingdom.

 

 

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