Chapter 31

Serlai looked apprehensive as Llana caught him packing his bags. He paused, a shirt in his hand, lit by flickering candlelight. Llana smiled at him. He was looking well, and she was pleased to see that her healing had proved to be just as strong as ever. "Not staying for the coronation?" She asked.

The Knight looked sheepish. "You're going to tell me I should, aren't you? If I stay, they'll probably offer me some official position, and I'll probably accept. I really don't want to stay in Tor, Llana." He explained.

"I understand." She said truthfully. His face fell into an expression of surprised relief. "This place is hardly full of happy memories for you. I don't think I could go back home either. Just so long as you aren't going to start moping again, I think you'll be fine."

Serlai nodded. "I'm going north, to Vaghar, on unofficial business. We don't know enough about the tribes up there. I'll come back every year or two with reports, so you'll still see me from time to time." He said.

"Good. Have you told Vaelen?" She asked. Serlai shook his head regretfully.

"I can't bear to. I was going to leave a note or something."

"I'll explain it to him. He'll understand."

Serlai smiled. "Thank you. I don't think he really needs me anymore."

Llana sat down on a stool by Serlai's door. He had been using one of the free rooms in the Palace for the past two weeks. "Not as a mentor at least. Why leave now though? Why not a week ago? Why not two weeks ago?" She asked.

Serlai shrugged, returning his attention to packing his bags. "There were things to do. I wanted to make sure everything was safe. It all seems to be settling down now, from a military perspective at least. I think I've waited a little too long though. Another night here and I'm not sure I'd be able to leave."

He paused again, looking up at Llana. "I'm glad you stopped by. I've been meaning to thank you properly." He said.

"For what?" She asked, pretending she didn't already know. It unnerved people if you made it obvious that you were hearing their thoughts all the time.

"For getting me back on track. For sorting me out, helping me break the spell Valkia had over me. I was acting like a coward before. I hope everyone can forgive me for that." He said, turning his attention back down on the bag.

"Forgive you?" Llana snorted. "Serlai, I spent longer hiding from the Empire than you did. I didn't march straight into Tor to denounce Everain in my father's place, did I? By the Divine, I only decided to start acting like an Oracle when we met the Princess! We're not so different at all."

Serlai gave her an incredulous look. "I wish I had thought of that all those times you were berating me." He said. He stopped for a moment, a thoughtful look passing over his face. "Llana, I have to know something. Just between you and me, in the strictest confidence. I'm going away, and on my honour I promise not to tell a soul."

Llana smiled as she felt his question rise to the front of his mind. "Ask away." She said.

Serlai thumbed his chin. "All those coincidences, you appearing just in time to save me from Thasian, us arriving just in time to save the Princess, even me appearing to save Vaelen before we even knew each other… Were they really coincidences?"

Llana laughed. "There's a big question, and it's ever so tempting to leave you wanting, but I suppose I owe you that much, after you kept Vaelen safe for me." She said, before relaxing back in her chair. "It would be easier to just give you my story. As you already know, I spent two or three years hiding from the Empire, the assassin Thasian in particular.

"I hid until one day, the town I was living in was attacked by Imperial forces, part of Everain's operation to secure his borders before the war. It was simply good fortune that brought Vaelen to my house, instead of anyone else. I sensed a boy who was at odds with his orders, who just needed a nudge in the right direction, so I gave him that nudge, and he rescued us both from the Empire.

"First meeting you were pure coincidence. I couldn't have planned that." She said, before pausing thoughtfully. "Actually that's not strictly true. I sensed you were nearby, a good warrior with little love for the Empire. You were there to interfere in their massacre, and so when we ran from the town, I tried to lead Vaelen as close to you as I could. The rest was just luck.

"From there we wanted to run to Anruile, to hide from the Empire there. Our journey took us to Whitelake, where I felt Thasian, and you. I thought Thasian was after me, and I'll admit on planning to use you. I made sure we both arrived at that garden at the same time. It was only at the last moment I realised he was after you. Before I had just simply planned on having you help Vaelen and I fend him off.

"Lastly, there was the Princess. I felt her presence from longer away than usual, just before we reached that forest. I never normally feel someone from that far away, and I took it as a sign. We were both heading for the same forest, so I made sure our paths would run close. Remember when I raced Vaelen to the trees, when that hard rain fell? I was making sure we altered our paths." She finished, taking a deep breath. "Does that answer your questions?"

Serlai shook his head in disbelief. "I knew there was something unnatural about those coincidences. I think the Empire has more to thank you for than it'll ever know." He said.

Llana held up a finger in warning. "Make sure it stays that way. It does not pay for someone in my position to be viewed as too dangerous. I have had my fill of assassins chasing me."

Serlai finished packing the bag. "Alright, I'm going to get out whilst it's dark. I don't want anyone to spot me. There's a town only a few miles from here I can get a room in. I suppose this is farewell then?"

Llana nodded, rising from her chair to embrace the Knight. "Stay safe, Serlai." She said. "And for the love of the Divine, stay happy. I don't want to have to fix you all over again a year from now."

Serlai chuckled, taking hold of one of her bandaged hands as she pulled away. "You still haven't healed these?" He asked.

"I've had a lot of healing to do these last few weeks, not least you and Tarika. She should be walking properly again in a week or so, by the way."

Serlai nodded. "Arronai will be pleased. He worries too much. When are you going to find time to heal yourself?" He asked.

"Tonight." Llana promised. "It wouldn't be fitting to attend a coronation with infected, bandaged hands. I had hoped they would heal on their own for once, but the damned things don't seem to want to. It's nothing I can't fix."

Serlai smiled. "You have a lot to do tomorrow? Have you memorised all your speeches?" He asked. The Oracle often had a key part in a coronation, dealing with most of the official speeches and rituals.

"Every word." Llana assured him.

"Good girl. Alright, goodbye then. I might even see you as soon as winter, if I decide I don't like the cold up there. Until then."

Llana let him go, watching him walk his confident, powerful walk down the darkened corridors. She closed the door of his room behind her and walked away in the opposite direction. She had lied; she still had three more speeches to memorise before morning that she hadn't even read yet. It was going to be a long night.

*

Vaelen stood in the Throne room, one amongst hundreds of people waiting for the coronation to begin. He was at the far end of the room, nearest the throne save for the nobles, leading the Knight's guard that lined both sides of the long isle. It was certainly an honour, and one certainly befitting a man of Vaelen's recent accomplishments. For once he didn't feel overwhelmed by his post.

He looked up to his left, up the marble dais to where Llana stood, waiting for the Empress to arrive. The sight of her made him grin. Everyone today was dressed in the very finest. Vaelen found himself given the richest dress clothes he had ever worn, dark velvet blacks lined with deep Torithian blue. He felt like a fop, but he had been assured that he looked fine. There hadn't been time to craft proper dress armour, so fine clothes would have to make a worthy substitute. Everyone was dressed in similar finery, except for Llana, who had pointedly refused.

She stood there, amongst the extravagance and opulence, wearing the same old kind of green dress, although she had conceded to wearing one that was at least finely made of an expensive cloth. Her wrists were adorned with glittering silver bracelets, each finger bore a slender silver ring. She had bought them at the market with Vaelen just the day before; to replace the ones she had lost at Ilryia. She just looked like normal everyday Llana, as she had done before her capture. Even the bandages were finally gone. She smiled down at him as she caught his gaze, waving in a manner that embarrassingly did not fit the austerity of the occasion.

The nobles stood nearest to the dais, Lord Astel, Lord Mestai and Lady Auria. The two lords that had fought against them had been defeated in battle; their estates dissolved and divided between the other three. Vaelen thought that Lady Auria looked especially beautiful, if every serious. He supposed all highborn women were like that.

The great oak doors parted, and the Royal party entered the room, led by Arronai, looking strange in his finery, freshly washed and shaven; and Tarika who looked even stranger in her fine white dress. Behind and in between them followed Ellian, wearing the biggest, most expensive looking dress that could possibly exist in the entire Empire.

It too was a white dress, edged with dark red to mimic the banner she had flown on her advance into the city. Vaelen understood it to be her own personal colours. Everain's had been gold and blue; her father's had been violet and black. It was a Royal tradition that Vaelen wasn't particularly knowledgeable of, or interested in. The dress ran out a huge long train behind her, carried by some dozen maids.

It was impossibly hard to imagine her as the same young woman that had travelled with him in rough common riding clothes, or the armoured figure that had rode into Tor with them two weeks ago. She even seemed drastically unlike the Princess that had ruled over them in the rebel castle. Small white flowers were braided into her hair, which had clearly been styled by someone other than the soon-to-be Empress, who had always been somewhat careless and unconcerned with it.

They took a long walk to the Throne, which Ellian stood in front of, with Arronai and Tarika standing behind the throne at each side of her, Arronai at her right and Tarika on her left. It was time at last for Vaelen to take his seat on the wooden bench behind him, and watch the coronation.

It was a fearsomely long and dull affair, full of speeches and strange little traditions. Whoever had devised the ceremony had clearly been of the impression that length and boredom somehow conveyed importance, and even Llana had to pause from time to time for a glass of water before she could continue. Her strangely accented voice rung out through the quiet hall, echoing slightly from the marble walls as bright morning sunlight dappled the scene, shining down from the big, high windows.

Eventually, finally as Vaelen begun to fear that he would fall asleep and embarrass himself before so many important people, the Empress was told to sit upon the tall Throne, and a delicate crown placed over her head. Apparently satisfied, the crowd cheered, and the band struck up a song, one of the several Imperial anthems.

Once the song was finished, everyone rose from their seats, leaving the room and making their way along to a ballroom on a higher floor, where the coronation party would begin. Vaelen gladly attended, filling himself with rich food and conversing with complete strangers, fending off the advances of young highborn girls, especially when Llana scowled at them. The newly crowned Empress watched over the gathering, mingling with nobles and Knights, having now changed to a dress that was no less fine, but allowed her at least to move around unaided.

The party went on into the night, but Vaelen chose to retire sooner, tired and growing bored of the company. Llana had left some hours before, when the amount of people so close to her had finally irked her and spurred her to seek solace for the night. She still didn't enjoy crowds, and often kept herself to quieter parts of the Palace and town.

Vaelen made straight for his new house in the military estate. The war had left more than a few unoccupied, and Arronai had gifted one to him, telling him that all highly regarded Knights were given homes as a gift from the Empire for their service. Vaelen was glad to accept, having never owned a house of his own before. Tomorrow he would begin his duties as a Knight, under the command of Arronai, who was now officially Knight-Captain. The post of Lord Commander had died with Valkia, with no-one willing to take up the now tainted title.

Vaelen found himself alone at last, in the lantern lit streets of Tor, looking up at the stars and breathing a contented sigh. The moonlight shone invitingly off the white walls of the houses, and the spring air was finally growing warm and comfortable, even in the early night time. Around him the city sprawled and lived and thrived, most people, from soldier to peasant still out celebrating the coronation, in the streets, council halls and taverns. Vaelen smiled happily to himself. It was a just reward for their struggles.

*

"My family is due home within the week." Tarika said, as she walked alongside Arronai down the southern Palace Road. She was still limping slightly, but Llana said the leg would be working properly soon. Arronai nodded. His hair had been cut back shorter now, though he still needed to tie it back at his neck. He still wore his huge sword, but now it was mostly for show. "Good." He said. "It will be nice to see my brother again. They'll be pleased to see us, I'll wager."

"By the tones of the letter they sent us, I should imagine so." Tarika replied, feeling the stiff paper in her breast pocket. "Although they made me dust the house for their return. I hate cleaning. A Knight shouldn't be made to clean."

Arronai chuckled. "Not a Knight perhaps, but certainly a youngest child. No matter how hard you try, you'll never be more important than your parents. There's always someone you have to answer to."

"That reminds me, try not to tell mother about just how badly I was hurt. She'd only fuss and worry." Tarika warned.

"She'll find out eventually." Arronai replied.

"I know, but I'd like some quiet time first."

They passed under the palace gates. Tarika could see Arronai tense. "It still feels strange doesn't it?" She said. "To pass under those unchallenged."

"It'll take some getting used to." Arronai admitted. "As will the knowledge that every Torithian uniform I see is under my direct command."

"It's a shame Serlai didn't stay." Tarika said after a short pause. They began to climb the palace steps. The sun felt hot on her neck, and glared off the white steps, making her squint her eyes a little.

"Ah, he's got his reasons." Arronai dismissed. "He left me a note. Looks like we'll have a damned good spy in Vaghar at least."

They walked on through the palace, until they came to Ellian's new office. She refused to use Everain's old office, which still smelled strongly of blood, despite the best efforts of the servants. She might not be persuaded to use it ever again, in which case it would probably be locked away for good. There were plenty of other rooms to use in the vast Palace.

Ellian was pleased to see them, and invited them to sit. Today was the first of many meetings, whilst the three worked to sort out the mess the Empire had been left in. Tarika too had been given a promotion, given the head of the Royal guard, which gave her authority and invitation to such meetings. Part of her felt that Vaelen deserved to be a part of them too, but he had refused significant promotion until he had served as a regular Knight for a year or two. Arronai had agreed with him. The big Knight wanted to make Vaelen a general, but it would be unseemly to do so until he had earned some experience.

"There's so much to do." Ellian sighed, poring over papers and letters on her table.

"Varson is still missing." Arronai informed her.

"With nearly half of my army." Ellian finished, twisting her mouth as though she had tasted something unpleasant. "Our relationship with Kvan and Anruile has been damaged, despite the goodwill and acceptance of their rulers." She went on. "And my damned brother managed to wipe out every trace of Illiath government and royalty, leaving me nobody to hand the kingdom back to."

"Could we not keep Illiath as an Imperial province for the time being?" Tarika offered. Ellian shook her head sadly.

"Not bloody likely." She said, her voice unusually harsh. The Empress rarely cursed, even lightly. "We are not popular in Illiath. We are seen as invaders, despite my new rule. We would be best to hand them independence, but it's difficult to see how to do that without them disappearing into civil discord."

"We will continue looking into it." Arronai promised. "The king must surely have left a bastard son somewhere, or a half brother or even an uncle. Anything would do."

Ellian nodded. "Keep working at it. Have the Racks been destroyed?" She asked, referring to her brother's foul execution device. The Empress had ordered them all burned, which had proved a popular move with the people.

"The order should have reached as far as Lonewall by now." Arronai answered. "I'll get confirmation as soon as I can."

"Make sure you do. I want those vile things out of my Empire." She looked back down at her papers and let out a long, deep groan. "There really is so much to do. I wish I knew what Varson was up to. I don't like the idea of a hostile general hiding away with half of the Imperial army. Our security is somewhat compromised."

"We think he's gone to Vaghar." Arronai informed her. "He'll not find friendly faces up there. He might never find a secure base to act from. He might not even survive up there. We've got Serlai up there keeping an eye on things anyway. I don't think we'll need to worry about Varson unless he comes back with news. I've got spies and sentries all along the northern border. Let me worry about Varson."

Ellian tapped a quill on her desk. "That I will. I have King Asarai arriving in two days, to discuss the new peace. I really hope he doesn't make too many harsh requests. I don't want my goodwill tested too soon." She fretted.

"Peace comes at a price." Arronai shrugged.

"I thought we had already paid it!" Ellian moaned.

Arronai laughed. "To gain it perhaps. It's a different price if you want to keep it."

"Then we had best start working at it." Ellian said, rising from her chair. "I want to look around my new city, properly this time. You'll be surprised how little I left the Palace as a princess. Please accompany me. Tarika complains if I try to go anywhere without anything less than a full honour guard. I trust just you and your uncle will suffice today?" She asked Tarika, who blushed a little.

"I think so." She said. "But let me inform the town guard to keep an eye out."

Ellian sighed. "Please don't."

*

Vaelen walked through the well-kept grass of the great public park, a little distance to the west of the Palace. It was a pleasant, sunny space, with tree-lined pathways, ornate ponds, artistically planted flowerbeds and plenty of open grassy spaces, in which people lounged and children played. The weather was wonderfully warm now, and the park was thriving with life.

He watched Llana, running her happy way between the trees, her mind truly relaxed and carefree in a way that Vaelen had not seen for months, and was grateful for. Her bracelets clicked and clattered as she ran, and her hair shone a pale gold in the sunlight at it streamed behind her. She was fully at play and joyously comfortable in her surroundings. Vaelen was glad that she had chosen to live in Tor, rather than live away from the Empire like her family had done in the past.

He was content to simply walk in the same rough direction as her, a path that was slowly but surely leading to the focal point of the entire park. It stood high above them, taller than the trees but only half as tall as the palace towers, but more ancient and serene than anything else in the entire city. It was the ancient stone stack, the tor around which the city was first founded, and which had given both the city and the Empire its name.

Llana came up beside him suddenly as they both fell under its shadow. "Strange, isn't it?" She observed. "Such an old, rough thing in such a polished, refined city."

Vaelen nodded. It had always looked out of place in the city. Nobody was certain why the first settlers had chosen this spot, and not closer to the river, which was some quarter of a mile away and ran through the eastern half of the city. Some historians supposed that it had held some kind of spiritual significance.

"To think, it's been here since before the first settler put up his first shack in its shadow." She went on. "It's seen everything, watched every moment, the early expansion, the founding wars, the forming of the Empire, the first conquest, the great fire, the second conquest and now us. Everything we've done must seem so brief and insignificant to something this ancient." She mused.

Vaelen raised an eyebrow, taking his gaze off of the tall stone. "It's a big rock." He pointed out. "I don't think it does much thinking."

Llana made a face. "It might." She protested.

"I really don't think…" Vaelen began, but Llana had already lost interest, hopping away towards some new sight. He noticed a couple of squirrels scatter from her path, diverting her attention once again with a delighted squeal. People were giving her odd looks, but Vaelen supposed they would grow as used to her as he had.

He no longer held her strange behaviour against her. He had come to appreciate the extent of her power, even sampled it for himself, and knew well the burden it placed upon her. No power came without a price. She had worked as hard as anyone, perhaps harder in those last few months, and now she truly deserved her rest.

Vaelen sat himself down on the grass, just within the shadow of the tor. This new life was taking some getting used to. Vaelen thought it ridiculous. He had lived many years in the security of the towns, with a normal daily routine. He had spent but a year in chaos, danger and uncertainty and now suddenly normality was strange to him.

There was no more danger, no battle or struggle in the immediate future. His friends were alive and safe, and the faces he was familiar with today would still all be there a week from now, a month, several years even. Maybe even most of his life. It was an odd sensation. There was nothing left to worry about. There were problems to be solved of course, but for now they were not his problems. For now he would just be a Knight. He would train, and teach others, he would keep the peace and walk the streets. He would be present at official meetings and perhaps for a few months every few years he would go up to the Vaghar borders and help keep the raiders at bay.

He idly picked at a patch of clover next to where he sat. It would be time for lunch soon, and he would have to drag Llana out of the park in order to find some food. No doubt she would pout and resist until he promised to take her back again. He could tell that he would be bringing her to the park often. He didn't mind.

Finished with what she was doing, Llana skipped over at sat herself heavily next to him, panting slightly with exertion. "Are you on duty tomorrow?" She asked.

Vaelen nodded. "We've still got a lot of work to do on the city guard. I'm either training recruits or patrolling the streets tomorrow. Don't you have work to do too?"

"I can work whenever I feel like it. Priestesses don't argue with Oracles, and the Empress doesn't need me very often." Llana beamed happily. "I can be as lazy or as busy as I want!" The smile stayed on her face, her eyes showing that she had drifted off again for a moment.

"This is nice." She said eventually. "I like not having to fight or run or hide anymore." She leaned over, surprising Vaelen with a sudden kiss. "And I like not having to worry about distracting you anymore either." She chuckled.

Vaelen blushed deep crimson. "Distracting me?" He spluttered.

She smiled demurely. "I couldn't do that before, just in case you started thinking too much about that, and not enough about the work you had to do."

Vaelen fidgeted uncomfortably, caught unawares and feeling awkward. Predictably, Llana noticed his discomfort and took cruel pleasure from it. "Oh! Tor is going to be so much fun!" she laughed.

End