After a failed attempt to get some rest, Aeryn used one of Than's crisp white handkerchiefs to wipe up the smear of black on the couch. She folded the handkerchief up neatly and put in the pocket of her leather jacket. If locater spells weren't going to get her anywhere, she'd have to try something else.
As a child, she hadn't been the best of students. Back then she was too preoccupied planning her escape to care much for the lessons the Mages taught. She paid attention when the topic was of interest, and she ignored them when it was not. There are vague memories of being taught to identify the source of magic based on the residue left behind.
The list of people she could trust was short. Fortunately, one of her father's former advisors was on that list. Though she and Than had retrieved many people from the castle, Elder Mellum had not been one of them. She doubled checked her pockets to ensure she had enough of stasis powder, and then transported herself to Mellum's last known location.
Her brother, the current king, had dismissed most of his father's advisors but kept Mellum. Mellum had proved many times that his loyalty was with the good of the people rather than his own personal gain. He'd taught Aeryn the tricks she'd needed to escape. For that she'd always be grateful.
Mellum didn't seem surprised at all when Aeryn suddenly appeared in his private sitting room. Confusion flashed in his dark eyes for a brief moment before he quietly rose and retrieved a second porcelain tea cup from the sideboard and added it to the tray on his desk. The room was silent as he poured two cups of tea and slid one towards Aeryn.
Years of reminders, mostly in the form of physical punishment, had Aeryn curtseying and bowing her head in respect. The words that tripped off her tongue were formal and her tone was reverent. "I request the honor of a private conference, Elder Mellum."
Amusement danced in Mellum's eyes. He fought back a smile as he gestured for Aeryn to sit in the chair across from his desk. "That much is quite obvious, Your Highness."
Your Highness. A form of address Aeryn hadn't heard since being banished. One she had never been fond of in the first place. She learned at an early age that people typically used it when they were either mocking you or they wanted something.
"I don't believe I can claim that title, Elder Mellum."
Mellum lost the fight with his smile. "Aye, but it is preferable to the titles your father bestowed upon you in your absence, is it not?"
Aeryn relaxed at the sight of Mellum's teasing smile. She sank down into the chair and hesitantly sipped the tea. She'd been drugged by a well-meaning Hypnos too many times to simply accept a drink not prepared by her own hand. "No kidding."
"I am glad that you are the one to come for me, Highness. I regret that it may cause you pain, but it is comforting to have a familiar face at a time such as this. I have heard the rumors of Death's merciful companion. I am glad they were not simply an exaggeration."
Aeryn sputtered and choked on her tea. She grabbed a linen napkin off the tea tray and wiped both her face and the smooth wood of the desk. "I'm not here for you! I'm here for help."
She placed the smeared handkerchief in front of Mellum and watched as he carefully sniffed the black residue. He wiped some onto the tip of his index finger, rubbed it between his finger and thumb to test its grittiness, then, much to Aeryn's horror, tasted it. His face blanched and his pupils widened. "Strong magic."
Strong enough to overpower a god but Aeryn wasn't sharing that tidbit of information. So far she hadn't heard anything new. "What else does it tell you?"
"Bitter and full of hatred. It's not old. Greed. Anger. An enemy?"
Oh, well, that narrowed the field down to just slightly more beings than Aeryn couldn't count. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. ""Can you tell me where it came from? Who it belongs to?"
"It is dark magic. Things taught in the lower kingdoms by those banished from polite society. Warlords rely upon this type of enchantment." Mellum swiftly rose from his chair and crossed the room to stand in front of a silver bowl filled with water. He dipped his hands in the water to clean the taint of dark magic off his fingertips. After drying his hands on a soft towel, he returned to his desk.
Aeryn's mind whirled as she processed the new revelation. There were a few who fit into that description. Many did not understand that Thanatos was merely a retriever, a tool of the Fates. They blamed him for untimely deaths. Unfortunately she had once been one of those fools. "I need to trace it."
Mellum's brow furrowed. "It should be easy for your master to perform such a task." He glanced at the time piece on the wall and his frown deepened. "I must say that I am surprised he has allowed you to remain with me for this long."
"Than is indisposed at the moment." Aeryn couldn't be sure if it was the casual manner in which she spoke Thanatos' name that had Mellum's jaw dropping or the announcement that Thanatos was indisposed. She mentally slapped herself upside the head. By allowing others to see how easily she spoke of Thanatos, it made him appear weak. Gods were not supposed to be on such friendly terms with mortal companions.
Aeryn closed her eyes and blew out a heavy breath. She simply did not have the time or the inclination to try and set Mellum straight. As he ranted about her lack of respect, she began forming a tiny memory spell that would take effect as soon as she left.
"I am sorry, Elder Mellum, but time is of the essence. Can I trace the origin of this dark magic?"
Stunned and a little fuzzy-headed, Mellum reached for a slim leather-covered book and set it down in front Aeryn. "You will find what you need in here, Highness."
"Thank you." Rising to her feet, Aeryn tucked the book into one of her jacket's inside pockets. The crystal around her neck was blinking again. She would have to deal with the souls before she could read the book. She was putting the finishing touches on her memory spell with Mellum's voice broke her concentration.
"With your master out of the picture, Highness, you could return to your family."
A hysterical laugh bubbled up in Aeryn's throat. Live as her brother's ward and sold off in an arranged marriage to whichever ally or elder her brother was trying to curry favor with? Return to a life where she had absolutely no measure of independence and no duty other than bearing children and acting as hostess? Return to life without Thanatos?
Certain her spell would wipe any memory of her visit, Aeryn smiled sadly at her former mentor. "He is my family."