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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 07:08 EST



Royal Palace,
City of Talkyra,
Kingdom of Delferahk

    “What do you think they really want, Phylyp?”

    Irys Daykyn’s tone was calm as she gazed across the dinner table’s empty plates at her legal guardian, but the hazel eyes she’d inherited from her dead mother were darker than could have been explained solely by the lamps’ dimness.

    “Mostly, I think, what they’ve said, Your Highness.” Phylyp Ahzgood, Earl of Coris shrugged. “Oh, I don’t doubt they’ve got more in mind than they’ve actually said so far. But as far as what that ‘more’ might be, your guess is almost certainly as good as mine,” he said. And he meant it, too. Irys Daikyn might be only seventeen years old — not quite sixteen, in the years of the planet upon which humanity had actually evolved — but she was scarcely a typical seventeen-year-old. Not even a typical seventeen-year-old princess.

    “I don’t expect they’ve issued their . . . invitation, let’s call it, because of their vast concern for Daivyn, though.” Coris’ tone was biting. He wouldn’t have let anyone else hear him using it about the Group of Four, but neither he nor Irys had any illusions about that particular quartet, and no one else was present. “At the same time,” the man who had been Prince Hektor of Corisande’s spymaster for so many years continued, “I think it could probably be worse than it actually is. At least they’re not insisting the two of you accompany me!”

    “Why should they bother to invite me, whatever their motives?”

    Irys’ face had tightened, and Coris found himself nodding in acknowledgment. He’d meant his final sentence at least partly as an attempt at humor, but he wasn’t really surprised, after the fact, that it had fallen flat under the circumstances. And he no more doubted than Irys did that, as far as the Group of Four was concerned, she herself had very little value. Her little brother Daivyn was the legitimate Prince of Corisande — even Cayleb and Sharleyan of Charis acknowledged that much — even if he was currently in exile. But Irys? She was simply a sort of unimportant second thought. She had no intrinsic value as a political pawn in the Group of Four’s eyes, and they certainly weren’t going to waste any time worrying about what a fugitive princess in exile, subsisting solely (so far as they knew, at any rate) upon the niggardly generosity of distant relatives, might think.

    Which was incredibly foolish of them, in Phylyp Ahzgood’s opinion, no matter how reasonable they obviously thought it was.

    So far, anyway. It was entirely possible they would eventually learn the error of their ways. Probably quite painfully, he thought with a certain, undeniable satisfaction.

    “I’m afraid you have a point about that, from their perspective, at least,” he said in answer to her question. “On the other hand, my own point stands, I think. If they had any immediate plans where Daivyn is concerned, they’d probably insist I drag him along, as well.”

    Despite the very real affection in which she held her “guardian,” and despite her own worries, Irys couldn’t quite keep from grinning at Coris’ sour tone. It wasn’t really funny, of course — a journey of the next best thing to nine thousand miles would scarcely have been a mere jaunt in the country, even in the middle of summer. With winter coming on fast, it was going to be a highly unpleasant experience no matter what happened. And its final stage had the potential to be actively dangerous, for that matter.

    “You don’t think it’s just because of how hard the trip’s going to be?” she asked, indirectly voicing her own worry where Coris was concerned.

    “No, I don’t.” The earl’s lips tightened, and he shook his head. “Duchairn would probably worry about that, especially given Daivyn’s age. Even Trynair might worry about it, for that matter, if only because of his awareness of Daivyn’s potential value. I doubt it would even cross Maigwair’s mind to worry about dragging a nine-year-old through hip-deep snow, though. And Clyntahn –”

    Coris broke off and shrugged, and it was Irys’ turn to nod. Vicar Zahmsyn Trynair was probably as cold-blooded and calculating a chancellor as the Church of God Awaiting had ever produced in all the nine dusty centuries since the Day of Creation. He was far more likely to regard Daivyn Daykyn purely as a potential political asset than as a little boy whose father had been brutally murdered. And, by all reports, Allayn Maigwair, the Church’s captain general, had about as much imagination as a worn-out boot. Expecting it to occur to him to worry about Daivyn would have been as foolish as it would futile.

    And then there was Zhaspahr Clyntahn. Irys no more doubted than Coris did that the Grand Inquisitor would simply have looked blankly at anyone who might have had the temerity to suggest he should bother his own head one way or the other about Daivyn’s well-being.

    “If they were contemplating any significant change in their calculations where he’s concerned, they might want him in Zion, where he’d be handy,” the earl continued. “For that matter, I think Clyntahn, at least, would want the opportunity to . . . impress Daivyn with just how serious an interest the Inquisitor and his associates take in him.” He shook his head. “No, I’m inclined to think it’s pretty much exactly what Trynair’s message suggests it is. They want to be sure I fully understand their plans for him. And to get my own impressions of the situation in Corisande, of course.”

    For a moment, Irys looked as if she wanted to spit, and Coris didn’t blame her a bit.

    “I’m sure they’ve got better sources than I do — than we do,” he said. “Or, at least, that their sources can get their reports to Zion faster than our agents can get reports to us. But anything they know about Corisande is secondhand, at best, even if it is more recent than anything we’ve heard. I’m not surprised they’d want to pick the brain of one of your father’s councilors.”

    “Especially his spymaster’s brain, you mean.” Irys’ lips twitched a brief smile. It was very brief, though. “And especially now that Father’s dead. No doubt they want your impression of how our people are likely to have reacted when Cayleb assassinated him.”

    This time, Coris only nodded. He’d watched Irys Daykyn grow up. In fact, as he’d once admitted to her, he’d been present on more than one occasion when her diaper had been changed. He knew exactly how close she’d been to her father, exactly how she’d taken his murder. And, although he’d tried his very best to keep her mind open to other possibilities, he knew exactly who she blamed for that murder.

    Personally, Coris’ suspicions lay in a somewhat different direction. But there were dangers, especially for her, in laying those suspicions too plainly before her.

    “I’m sure that’s one of the things they’ll want to discuss,” he agreed. “At any rate, though, I think this probably means they’re planning on leaving you and Daivyn here in Talkyra with King Zhames, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s going to take me better than two months just to get to Zion, and I don’t have any idea how long they plan on my staying once I get there. Since I don’t think they’re contemplating separating me permanently from Daivyn, or that they’re likely to be planning on sending him anywhere without me along as his guardian, that probably means they expect to leave him right here for at least five or six months. Probably longer, actually.”

    “I can’t say I’d be entirely sorry if they did.” Irys sighed and shook her head. “Neither of us really likes it here, but he needs some stability, Phylyp. Needs some time in one place to heal.”

    “I know.” Coris reached across the table and patted the back of her left hand gently. “I know. And I’ll do my best to convince them of that, as well.”

    “I know you will.”

    Irys smiled at him, hoping he didn’t see the edge of fear behind her expression. She knew Phylyp Ahzgood. Despite the reputation some assigned him, she knew how loyal he’d always been to her father, and she herself trusted him implicitly. Probably more than she really ought to, she thought sometimes. Not because she thought there was truly any likelihood of his betraying her trust, but simply because — as her father had always said — no one who sat on a throne, or who was responsible for supporting someone who did, could ever afford to completely trust anyone.

    But there was a reason her father had selected Coris as her own and Daivyn’s guardian. And part of that reason was that in Phylyp Ahzgood’s case, at least, he’d set aside his own injunction against trusting too deeply.

    Which is exactly why they’ll try to separate us from you, if they realize the truth, Phylyp, she thought. For right now, they may well believe all those stories you and Father always encouraged about your own ambitions and sinister motivations. But if they ever figure out where your true loyalties lie, that you aren’t prepared to cheerfully sacrifice Daivyn for your own advantage, or to curry favor with them, you’ll become a potential liability, not an asset. And if that happens, Trynair and Clyntahn won’t hesitate for an instant about declaring us — or Daivyn, at least — official wards of the Council of Vicars.

    She looked across the table at him in the lamplight, studying his expression and, for a moment, at least, feeling every bit as young as the rest of the world thought she was. Wishing she were still young enough to climb up into his lap, put her head down on his shoulder, and let him hug away her fears while he promised her everything would be all right.

    But everything wasn’t going to be “all right,” ever again, and she knew it.

    Don’t let them take you away from me, Phylyp, she thought. Whatever else happens, don’t let them take you away.

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