Once again, Lacet cursed his own short-sightedness over the last two weeks. He should have known from the brightness of her eyes that bespoke of unshed tears and the pinched smile that she bore over the course of the last few days that he had not been fair. Like his decision to leave the capital at the end of summer. Or the fact that he had barely said a word to his ward after the battle. But time had been short. And not all of it had been of his own doing.
King Delion had wanted him to serve as counsel as they discussed the fates of the insurgents they had captured. Having been held captive for several weeks, he had firsthand knowledge of the brutalities they had committed as well as a general idea of their internal hierarchy. Or so, several of the King's advisors had supposed.
What it had turned into could only be described as an utter farce. It had been an utter farce. In their first meeting, Lacet had recounted everything: from the letter he had received from the Duchess, to the meeting and then being kidnapped soon afterwards.
But the nobles had obviously been angling for something more sinister. Goddess give him strength, but he had allowed himself to be drawn into their petty games of politics. What a fool he had been, hoping to curtail the worst impulses of the sycophants that surrounded the Crown. He should have been preparing for his departure and easing any worries that Idana would have harboured at such a brisk departure. Instead, he had been trapped with policy makers so removed from the woes of the common man that their suggestions to better the Kingdom sounded like sheer fantasy.
He could have almost strangled each and every person that had been present. Only the thought that both he and Idana would be leaving in the span of three days had given him the willpower to endure until the very end. When the endless meetings had finally come to an end, he had slipped away to enjoy the peace and quiet of his personal quarters.
Not long after he had retired, dreaming of the possibility of crawling into bed and sleeping for a month, Idana had knocked on his door. He had groaned, rising from his seat to open the door. It had been early afternoon, but even then, it had felt like he had run a marathon. And there were still a thousand things that he needed to do in order to prepare for the journey back to Lastrune.
Idana had greeted him with a smile, a tired one Lacet only realised now, as she sat opposite him. It was still surprised to see her hair a chestnut brown. When the battle was over, he had tested to see if it had been a complex glamour, earning an exasperated look from his young charge. But, true to her word, she had dyed it to its very roots. A wise move. One he had not thought she was possible of making months ago.
Perhaps what he needed to tell her would be much easier for her to swallow if she was already taking such precautions.
"I know that you've been busy, master, but I wanted to talk to you about something," said Idana. She had already polished off a plate of snacks that one of the servants had brought in and was already trying to feed Minerva a few choice cuts as a treat. "You said that you wanted to go first, though. What is it? Have I done something wrong?"
"I…" started Lacet. How best to start? No matter what he said, he knew that Idana would not be happy. Better to rip off the bandage as quickly as possible. Lacet cleared his throat before starting again. "This is difficult for me to say. For days, I've been trying to figure out how to talk to you about this. You're not a girl anymore. Despite how you often act." Glancing up, he could see the retort on her lips. As deftly as he could, he cut her off. "No. I know what you're going to say, but let me finish. This is important."
"All right," she conceded, crossing her arms like she did as a child, her lips pursed.
"If you must know, Idana, I can see that you've grown into a capable young woman in my absence. And it is because of that newfound maturity that I believe it is imperative that we have discussion. Particularly after everything that has happened here in the capital.
"The state of the Kingdom being what it is, it is my opinion that staying would be much too dangerous. Considering the current political climate, I am of a mind that we move across the western border. Start anew in Valessei. Life would be difficult, that is true, but look at it as a learning experience. The culture, the people, the food."
Idana scowled, a deep furrow etching itself between her brows. "The Valessei Alliance, really? I refuse. Completely and utterly. You can't do this to me!"
"Now that isn't fair. Before you make any rash decisions, Idana, let's talk about this. I can understand your reticence and—"
"No!" She rose to her feet, anger seeming to ripple from her very being. "I'm not going to just leave my friends or my home. There's something you're not telling me. Why would you have us move all the way to the Valessei Alliance? I want to stay, Lacet. Here. In the kingdom."
Lacet fumbled for words even as he tried to retain a hold on his temper. Hells. He had gone about it all wrong. Before he could think of a way to calm his young charge down, there was a knock at the door. Almost immediately, his head whipped towards the sound. Lacet reached for it like a drowning man would a rope. It was a distraction. And it would assuredly save him from the impending explosion.
"Who is it?" he called out, keeping a wary eye on Idana who looked like she was on the verge of tears. She was fiddling with something in her hands.
Whereas Idana would have most likely have used magic to open the door, Lacet pointedly rose to his feet and strode towards the door. He had always insisted that the finite energy in the world should never be used frivolously.
Standing outside the door was one of the palace aides. Though Lacet had seen him before, especially their well-polished boots and neat attire, he could not remember the man's name. Lacet was sure it started with 'P' and sounded just as pompous as any noble. "The Toymaker, I assume? Your presence has been requested in the Throne Room."
"I thought the meeting had been adjourned for tomorrow," said Lacet, keeping his voice low and body angled to keep Idana out of view.
The man shrugged. "I know not what the arrangements had been made prior. All I was told is that the King wished to speak to you in private and that the matter was urgent."
Muttering a curse under his breath, Lacet turned back towards Idana. "I know you want answers. And I'll give them to you. In time."
"What's happening? Where are you going?"
"The King has asked for me," answered Lacet, reaching for his coat. Judging by the hour, dinner would have to wait. There was no telling how long King Delion would keep him there. "Loathe though I am to leave you now, I need to speak to him. If I am not back before eight, I'd encourage you to head down to the Great Hall, or retire to your quarters. We'll continue this conversation tomorrow."
Before she could offer a word of protest, Lacet was out the door. His mind already returning to the heated discussions of the morning. There had been several good key points that had arisen just before lunch. They had been glossed over when they had reconvened. Hopefully, if the King was willing to listen, it would assist with finding a pro-active solution to the Kingdom's troubles. Curfews or enacting harsher penalties for public congregation, as posed by several noblemen, would only exacerbate the situation. They needed to nip the problem in the bud rather than trying to fix the symptoms of a failing system.
Goddess, why had he even been brought into these talks? He was an apothecary, for Amoleth's sake, not a political advisor!
By the time Lacet returned, Idana had already left. He glanced at the time. A minute before midnight. With a heavy sigh, Lacet stepped through the threshold of his darkened rooms. He didn't know how to feel about coming back and finding Idana gone. A part of him was relieved that he had averted what would have been a difficult conversation. Another was disappointed that he had taken the coward's route.
It was true that the King had needed him, or more precisely, his opinion on how to dispose of the golem. But he could have kept a better eye on the time instead of allowing it to slip him by as they discussed preventative measures.
Idana had needed him just as much as the King. In return, Lacet had failed her.
Navigating through the darkened interior of his quarters by the light of a single candle, Lacet nearly stubbed his toe against the low table that was often reserved to entertain guests. There was a light tinkling sound and he caught sight of something metallic flashing in the light. It looked awfully familiar.
Leaning down, he plucked it from the floor and stared at it. His chest tightened. Why was the necklace that he gifted to Idana here? Had she left it by accident? Or perhaps…
Lacet pushed down the terrible thought that flitted through his mind. No. It didn't mean anything. He refused to believe it.
Without a second thought, he pocketed the locket, promising to return it to Idana when next he saw her. Convinced that she had only forgotten it.
Though he had little opportunity to explore the capital, what Lacet did manage to catch glimpses of only served to highlight that not much had changed over the years. Crossing the road was still as risky an endeavour as it had been in his youth. Only now, there was a machine that puffed out white steam and could take several hundred passengers from one side of Kingdom to the next in a matter of weeks. It sat at the entrance of the south gate, gleefully belching out smoke.
He had heard from one of the nobles that it was called a 'train.' Lacet thought it a terrible name, though the possibilities of what is represented tickled his imagination. The ruins had spoken of such creations and how they had been a benefit to societies of a bygone age.
From his vantage point atop the steps of the palace, he watched as it departed the station with a shrill whistle. A shame, really, that he and Idana would be travelling by horse carriage. But if he wanted to keep Idana safe, it was a price he was willing to pay. Now that he thought about it, even the carriage was too much. He had asked King Delion only for a wagon and two mules for their trip back to Lastrune. It would have been the least conspicuous mode of transport.
His hand reached for the locket that was still tucked away in his coat and drew it out. It was a simple little thing, really. From the design to the silver chain. Despite all that, it had meant the entire world to her. Why had she left it behind?
"Are you sure we cannot persuade both you and Idana to stay just a bit longer? There is still quite a lot that needs to be discussed before we can even begin to draft the legislation."
Lacet looked up at the voice and instinctively tucked the jewellery away. "I'm afraid, Your Majesty, that we have already stayed far too long in the capital. And while I am grateful for all that you have done for us, we must return to Lastrune and settle our affairs," he said to the King.
Though it was still quite early, the monarch had insisted that he be there to see them off. In the morning light, King Delion looked as regal as he did atop his throne. His blond hair was slicked back, the crown nestled among the curls. Back straight and hands gently placed behind his back, he looked like the consummate general that had won many a victory for the kingdom so many years ago during the conflict with the Arathem pirates.
"Perhaps a visit then, in the summer? The Goddess knows that Dendron will need a skilled tutor for his lessons after the next semester."
"Frankly, I'm surprised Idana was able to pass muster, considering how poorly she attends to her own instruction. Of course, this is a matter I will have to discuss with her, Your Majesty," said Lacet, forcing a smile to his face.
"Understandable," said King Delion.
"Speaking of the girl, where is she?" Lacet glanced around the main courtyard. But if he had hoped to see his wild child of an apprentice, he was sorely disappointed. Even Minerva, his familiar, was strangely absent. "I do apologise, Your Majesty, but perhaps I ought to go in search of her. I beg your leave."
Just as the words left his lips, the heavy wide doors of the palace burst open. With what appeared to be an incredibly heavy trunk trailing after her was Idana, a sheepish expression on her face. She was accompanied by a tidily dressed maid. Kina, he thought her name was or was it Qenta? Minerva was perched on the trunk, as smug a look that was possible for an owl.
"I'm so sorry," said Idana when she finally joined them. "If it hadn't been for Min, I would have probably slept in for another hour. Then I tried to finish off the rest of my packing, which was a right nightmare, because I couldn't find all the vials and ingredients. At least, that was the case until Qina arrived to help me."
She continued for several moments more until she had run out of breath and the words had dried up.
"Is there anything else?" Lacet asked, trying to keep his tone light, as he picked up the trunk and stowed it inside the stagecoach.
Idana shook her head. "Just a few goodbyes. I promise it won't take much longer."
Returning from the carriage, Lacet took in the small audience that had somehow materialised from the aether to see them off. Seeing his startled expression, Idana eagerly introduced Anais and Fyorn Yaelyn. There were also the two court mages that had aided them in the fight against the golem, as well as several knights that formed the King's Guard.
Lacet greeted them all with as friendly a smile he could muster, even as a flush crawled up the back of his neck. He had never liked crowds and had always favoured slipping away. Not so, it appeared, when it came to Idana.
It was almost nine before Idana had clambered into the carriage. Lacet followed after her. Though he had protested that they be chaperoned to the nearest major town that bordered the Frostlight Delta, he had been overruled by the King. Lacet squeezed the bridge of his nose. Why did it seem that everyone was out to subvert his wishes and requests?
Leaning back, he signalled to the driver that they were ready. Ever so slowly, the carriage began to move. Instead of sitting properly, Idana had her head out the window and was waving vigorously to her friends. If it had been several months ago, he would have chided her. After mulling over their almost-fight several nights ago, however, Lacet had realised that to do so would only drive her further away. She had forged precious friendships and it would be terrible of him to ask that she relinquish them.
The guilt only made it worse. If he had his way, then it was possible that this would be the last she saw of them. Better that she spent every last moment impressing them into her memory. It was not a thing he would so readily take from her.
Watching his young charge, he barely had enough time to react when the stagecoach jolted to a quick halt. Leaning out the other window, Lacet roared up at the driver. "What's going on? Why have we stopped?"
The driver motioned to the open gates where another much more prestigious looking stagecoach was trundling up. It stopped just beside them. The door opened. Windrider gracefully climbed out, dressed in a maroon coloured robe with gold lining. His hair was a little shorter when last Lacet had seen him and it looked like he had gained some additional weight. His old friend grinned up at him.
"Lacet, I am disappointed. Leaving so soon and without even leaving word? My, my. That will simply not do. Not after the Duchess of Everrun has come all this way to commend you for a job well done," said Marus. Then he bowed, deep and low, extending one arm to the open door of his carriage.
A dainty and delicate patterned blue shoe emerged from the darkness first. It was followed by a pale hand encrusted in jewelled rings, which Marus firmly took hold of, until at last the Duchess stepped into the morning light. Her hair was as light as her brother's and there was a faint quirk to her lips as she took in Lacet's surprise.
"Toymaker," she said, all smiles, "I hope I haven't disrupted your plans for departure. It was quite a feat, I must admit, to catch you before you left to lands unknown. There is much we need discuss. Shall we head inside?"