With a sigh, Asthané flopped onto his sofa, placed his hand on his head, and cooled the temperature of his scalp in an effort to alleviate the pain. At this point, exerting his will to cool the temperature of his head wouldn’t do much to aggravate the headache. Using what little of Teesar’s Gift he had would aggravate the headache, because he wasn’t very well practiced with those skills and had to exert a bit of concentration and access the Obnubilate Codicil in order to effect changes.
At least, thanks to this four-hour session of nonstop weatherworking, he had a very firm grasp on the trick to reducing temperature. He sighed again, this time with a bit of a groan as the cool sensation caressed his skin, taking some of the pain away. Still, he didn’t feel so bad, even with the sick-headache from using his Gifts for so long without a break. Poor Héforth had been dry-heaving between his attempts at killing the wind and precipitation in Asthané’s spell. Only practice would reduce the reaction, and the boy was going to get plenty of that with Asthané around. And maybe Asthané wouldn’t end up with awful sick-headaches at the ends of these sessions in a month or so. He could use the stamina all this magic-practice was going to give him.
Closing his eyes, he relaxed a little. There were things he needed to do. Study the journals of previous Mages who’d become trainers, mainly. And supper, but that was an hour off at least, though his stomach was a howling pit right now. He’d have to eat a heavy meal tonight—if his stomach stopped sending regurgitation signals. It might not. For a few days, and aside from gorging on sausage rolls in the morning and meat pies at lunch, there was little he could do besides wait and see if the sensation departed.
After a few minutes, Asthané realized he wanted music. Preferably lute. No lyrics. Something slow and deep, gentle. It took him a few minutes to remember Siéda hadn’t recorded any such songs, and he huffed a breath. He didn’t know if any of his other records had such music, and he didn’t feel like trying to find out now. Maybe he should go down and request a musician. Not Vée—the girl had done wonderfully this afternoon, playing without pause, and she deserved a rest. Besides, he didn’t think hearing the violin would do anything except aggravate his headache now. Maybe a lutist, though, or a woodwind. The Priest who’d been on watch had suggested a woodwind, and Gods knew there were few such players at any given time at the Temple who were also unattached to a Mage. Woodwinds and reeds tended to be popular instruments among the Mages, though no one could explain why. He could listen to a flute or something for a bit.
But that required getting up. It took Asthané a couple minutes to find the willingness to risk increasing the pain in his head, and he staggered to his door. Apparently the weatherworking had taken more out of him than he’d thought. Only rest and food would help him get back to himself.
Leaning against the wall (and wondering how he’d get down the stairs in this condition), Asthané opened his front door to find a young page on the other side, her hand raised to pull on the bell chain.
“Oh, don’t ring that.”
She responded to his plea by lowering her hand and holding out a bit of parchment. Parchment wasn’t good. He accepted it anyway and shut the door in her face, feeling in no mood for performing the niceties Siéda had urged him to begin practicing, and twisted to drop his back against the wall. After resting his head as well for a moment, he tipped it forward and turned the folded parchment over.
His name was on the front, of course, and there was a very familiar russet-wax Seal holding down the cover page’s corners. Wonderful. Just perfect. A Summons from the Empress. He opened it anyway and took the folded paper out, dropped the parchment to unfold the paper, and groaned, closing his eyes when he saw what she’d written. In her own hand, no less, so he couldn’t make some excuse not to appear. She wanted him to come to the International Council meeting now in session to give a verbal report and answer questions.
But he couldn’t refuse. If he did, she’d send guards to escort him, and that would just make him look like a shirker. Asthané dropped the note and pushed away from the wall, glancing down at himself. Was he presentable? Yes. Good. His Fire sigil would have to do, and maybe the members of the Council would take it as a warning—if the fool nobles even knew what Vlantil’s color was.
Thus prepared, he left his rooms and the High Temple. The day hadn’t cooled much, but the coolness he’d set on his head remained, feeling like ice now in the heat under the sun. He combed his fingers through his hair as he made his way to the palace, entered the same back door he’d used to find her office, and climbed two flights of stairs. The walk to the International Council chamber wasn’t far, just roundabout, because one couldn’t enter the Council chamber through the back wall. When he reached the front, he gave his name to the herald waiting by the door then went to sit on one of the benches across the corridor.
Though a few others waited for the Council’s attention, they didn’t speak to him, and he didn’t speak to them. A fellow with a cello idly plucked the strings along the neck of his instrument, and the low sounds they made the cold-spell throb on top of Asthané’s head. For a moment, he considered asking the cellist to play something, but the herald came back out to beckon him into the chamber. Stifling grunts and groans of wordless complaint, he rose and entered.
Though he’d always known where the International Council chamber was, Asthané had never been inside it. He rather expected to see something along the lines of a hundred members, but there were only about forty or so people present. They sat on risers before the other three walls, at little tables with the flags of their homelands and nameplates on them. Empress Yulée sat in the precise front and center before the back wall.
She smiled. “Thank you for arriving so promptly, Asthané.”
He only bowed his head once, unwilling to seem to be angling for pity by explaining his situation and condition and unable to think of anything polite to say in its place. A page brought a chair to stand before the Empress, and he followed the child, sinking onto the seat with a sigh of relief. Let his shaky knees rest.
The Empress’s expression twisted a little. “The Council seems to doubt the gravity of the Situation on the Ruphlan border.”
Asthané glanced around the room, eying the various nobles. “The ‘gravity’ of the Situation on the Ruphlan border killed my musician and took the lives of several Custodians of the Devout and at least one Mage before I left.” He watched, turning his head back and forth, and saw several members of the Council shift in discomfort. “I feel if we continue to take the defensive position with Inski, we’ll only lose more lives.”
His blunt words clearly made more people uncomfortable, and one Councilor raised a hand.
“Duke Phléesa,” the herald said.
The duke lowered his hand. “But what can be gained by sending an army to the Ruphlan-Inskiti border?”
“Peace.” Asthané nearly shouted it, already prepared to cram it into the Council members’ heads. “You want to stop the attacks the Borderfolk are making on our ranchers, you send the army as soon as possible. If you don’t care to protect Ruphlan’s sovereignty against what is most likely Utevsko’s attempt to prepare a war, sit here and debate it endlessly until you must send an army because war has been declared.”
Silence for a moment, then a noblewoman held up her hand. After the herald named her, she leaned forward over her desk.
“How can you be so certain Utevsko will push for war?”
Forgetting how shaky he was, Asthané rose to approach her desk as he spoke. “One: He’s tried it with more than one of his other neighbors, namely Wayantil and Giong, to create a corridor to the Halan Ocean. Two: Ruphlan has gold mines and is one of our main producers of the fine leather which makes your fancy boots. Three: There have been many, many attacks by Inski on Ruphlan’s border, beginning long before Empress Préesha invited Ruphlan into the Empire. Four: Every single one of those wars began with the Borderfolk harrying the settlements on Ruphlan’s side of the border. Five: Of all the attempts Inski’s made at claiming Ruphlan since Ruphlan was made a member of the Empire, all except two became outright war within ten months. As for the two attempts which didn’t become war, they were stopped by riots and protests from the people of Inski—the commoners, who, as yet, are not protesting what their king is doing to Ruphlan at this moment.”
He reached her desk as he completed his little speech and glared into her wide-eyed gaze for a minute. The chamber was utterly silent, not even a breath could be heard. Confident his point had been made, Asthané turned and stalked back to the chair to sit on it again, trying to disguise his very real relief at being seated once more. He had to resist the urge to rub his scalp, from which the cooling spell was fading, and his whole body throbbed in time to the beat of his heart.
Asthané wasn’t looking to see who raised their hand, but the herald named another noble. Too much out of sorts to care, Asthané stared blindly at the nameplate on the Empress’s desk.
“That doesn’t mean he’ll send his army this time.”
Yulée scowled. Asthané closed his eyes and bowed his head onto his fingertips, shaking it. For the next three hours, he tried again and again and again to convince the members of the International Council of the wisdom of sending an army to the border Ruphlan shared with Inski, but each and every time someone came up with some pathetic excuse to protest the request. There were supporters, but they were few, and more than once the polite process broke down as those against sending an army now shouted over the supporters out of turn.
By the time the Empress adjourned the Council session, Asthané was ready to scream, as much from the pain in his body as from the nobles’ obstinacy. He remained seated while the nobles left their desks. A couple stopped by to thank him for his willingness to share his opinions with them, and Ruphlan’s representative was particularly effusive with her gratitude for his support of ending the war before it had a chance to start. He simply nodded, head bowed as he considered a way to convince someone to carry him back to his rooms at the Temple.
After he thought everyone had gone, someone knelt before him, and weight settled on his knees. He forced his eyes open to find the Empress there.
“I’m sorry, Asthané. If I’d known what condition you were in, I wouldn’t have summoned you. I know Éethin told me you were beginning intensive training today, but I didn’t remember until I saw you enter, and by then it was too late to send you back.”
He shook his head a little. “I would have been just as worn tomorrow and the day after—for at least a couple of weeks. These debates can’t be postponed. The longer we take to make this decision, the more time Utevsko has to plan his war.”
She looked as if she would have liked to have protested. Her expression made him smile a little.
“I just need a room for the night. I doubt I’ll make it all the way back to my apartment in the Temple like this.”
The Empress nodded. “That I can do for you. Would you like an escort? A page or perhaps a guard?”
“Someone to lean against, you mean?”
His weary joke drew a chuckle from the Empress. “Yes. Someone to lean against.” Yulée leaned to the side and beckoned with one hand. “I’ll have the herald fetch you a sturdy guard to take you to a chamber for rest, and I’ll send a page to your rooms to collect you some fresh clothes so you won’t have to appear disheveled tomorrow.”
“Will I be needed for another Council session?”
She sighed, gave instructions to the herald for a guard to be brought, and regarded Asthané with a frown. “I’m not certain. Just be prepared, all right? I’m very sorry I have to ask this of you now, Asthané, but you have the right of it. We can’t ignore this Situation.”
He nodded. They didn’t speak for a few minutes, and when the guard escort arrived, only the Empress said anything. She followed them out as if making certain Asthané was safe to go, then said farewell when her path diverged from theirs. Asthané only nodded and waved, unable to think coherently about anything besides falling into a bed.
Asthané left the luxurious (by High Temple standards) apartment’s bedchamber half-dressed. Despite the bed’s comfort, his mood wasn’t all that good due to the fact his sleep had been interrupted every half hour by the bell of the clock on the bedchamber’s fireplace mantel. He’d tried everything to muffle the thing and had finally admitted defeat when he realized he’d taken it to bed with himself to try and dull the chimes with the heavy covers since he hadn’t been sleeping beneath them. That had been at precisely three o’clock in the morning, and he’d lugged the thing back to the mantel and left it there, facing the wall, as if by positioning it thusly he was punishing it for its insistent chiming every half-hour.
He was also ravenous. As he approached the little table the tray cart had been positioned by, he pulled the shirt to his uniform on. Leaving it unbuttoned, he draped his Water-sigil tunic on the back of one of the chairs and removed the food’s covers to the other side of the table. What he found was a hearty breakfast of fresh coffee, spiced boiled turkey, grits, and cored rosefruits cut in half, placed cut-side down in honey, and baked to a light golden-brown. Asthané hadn’t seen anything like this since his time with Zéth. High Temple or not, they simply didn’t serve such rich foods as baked rosefruits. When he’d been a trainee, he’d considered himself lucky if he’d happened to find an undersized and somewhat-tart rosefruit left on one of the tress in the gardens, never mind prepared.
After sitting, he buttoned up his shirt. The food was, of course, cold, but a little exertion of Vlantil’s Gift warmed it a bit, and he started with the grits, stirring them as he warmed them until they steamed. The grits had a nice buttery scent and was another food not often seen in the High Temple, though he’d had it pretty frequently on the Ruphlan border—primarily because Ruphlan’s principal agricultural product was corn.
Just when he’d gotten three bites down his throat, someone rang the apartment’s bell. Asthané froze with the spoon poised to dig into the thick grits again, then threw the utensil down on the table to rise. Whomever it was better have a damn good reason to disturb him. He wasn’t due for weapons practice until ten, and he was not going to leave his breakfast for anything less than the Empress’s express command.
“What?” He made the demand as he opened the door, and the page immediately on the opposite side squeaked and disappeared, darting to the right. This left the person who’d come with her unprotected, not that she would have been much protection for the adult remaining. “What, Zéth?”
For a moment, Zéth looked stunned. His mouth opened and shut, and he swallowed, his expression shifting into something less than shocked. “Your attitude shouldn’t have surprised me.” It sounded like an apology.
“What do you want?”
Zéth glanced to either side. “I’d like to talk to you.”
“Are you deliberately trying to ruin my first meal since lunchtime yesterday?”
“I’m sorry, Thané—” Zéth began in heated tones.
“You lost the right to use my nickname when you didn’t stand up for me.” Asthané tried to shut the door, but Zéth caught it.
“Can we speak about this privately?” His gaze slid to his left, a reminder of the page’s presence. Of course, most of the palace pages were desperate for gossip, as were most of the rest of the palace servants.
Snarling, Asthané jerked the door open. He started to reach to pull his former lover into the room, then stopped himself. Zéth didn’t waste any time; he was in before Asthané could say anything.
Asthané stuck his head out the door. “Begone!” The page squeaked again and ran away. He waited until she’d disappeared around some distant corner, then slammed the door before facing Zéth. “What do you think we have to discuss?” He crossed to the table and dropped into the chair he’d occupied previously.
Zéth followed, went around to the facing chair, and slowly lowered himself into it with his eyes on Asthané. When Asthané said nothing about him taking the seat, he scooted it close to the table and spent a few seconds moving the plate covers to the tray cart. “I want to see if we can reconcile.” He glanced at Asthané as he spoke.
Asthané swallowed what was in his mouth and followed it with some coffee. “Why? What’s in it for me?”
Still holding the small plate cover which had hidden the rosefruits, Zéth went still, gazing at him. “I don’t remember you being greedy.”
“It’s not greed, Zéth. It’s a right to know what I can expect from you this time. Are you offering another relationship like we had when we were eleven? Or is this friendship? Or, perhaps you’re offering something true this time.”
Zéth flinched at the emphasis of “true.” After a few seconds, he set the plate cover with the others and lowered his hand to his lap. “I thought what we had then was true.”
Asthané stirred what remained of his grits, glaring at his former lover. Zéth held his glare, expression solemn. After a minute, Asthané sighed, but it held as much of his previous attitude as the words which followed did. “It wasn’t true. Not if you weren’t willing to give up what you had for me.”
“The real world doesn’t work that way. I thought you realized it then.”
“That’s just a petty excuse for abandoning me when I needed you most.”
Zéth huffed a breath, folding his arms, and leaned back in his chair. “So what did you expect? This was my father, Asthané!” He gestured with one hand, then tucked it away, hunching his shoulders. “You know how he was.”
“I loved you!” Asthané jabbed into the bowl with his spoon. “I wouldn’t have told your father a single thing if I hadn’t been willing to take care of you. You couldn’t even accept that. No, you had to have your stupid father’s approval and the title you were set to inherit.”
Zéth’s head bowed as Asthané spoke, and he flinched a few times, until he was very hunched, his chin tucked against his chest.
“And now you return to Édalai expecting me to simply pick up where we left off, as if I wasn’t hurt by your refusal to stand up to your father. Two years, Zéth. I gave you two years. And what did I get in return? Nothing. No, allow me to amend that. I got a broken heart. I thought you loved me—you certainly said it often enough! Is it any wonder why I was shocked when you just stood there behind your father listening to him accuse me of seducing you? You couldn’t even admit the truth to him!” He made a gesture at Zéth with his spoon, then dropped it into the bowl and pushed the lot away.
Zéth unfolded enough to reach toward him, palm up. “I’m sorry, Asthané. I wanted to tell Father everything—”
“Right. I believe that.” Asthané pulled the plate of turkey toward himself and picked up the knife and fork. His words made Zéth withdraw again, folding arms over chest, but he wasn’t feeling charitable enough to let his mood settle. This old anger wouldn’t be ignored any more, and the only thing that made Asthané happy about this situation was the fact he was finally able to take it out on the one who’d hurt him. “I never asked that the world be fair, Zéth—even when I was a child, I knew it never would be—but I didn’t think it would be too much to ask for you to be loyal to me. How do you think I felt when you chose your father’s money and title over the love you said you felt for me?”
He glared briefly at Zéth, then lowered his gaze to eat. Zéth didn’t speak until he was almost done with the turkey.
The softly-spoken word drew Asthané’s attention. Zéth looked remorseful—sincerely sorry for the pain he’d caused. Their gazes met for a moment, and Asthané nodded curtly.
“I didn’t realize what I was losing.” Zéth’s voice was soft.
“What about what I lost? You were my only friend at the time. The first person besides Ophelan to stay by me regardless of my attitude—and she was forced to do it because she was my teacher. You didn’t look down on me because I have no tact, and you treated me like you treated everybody else, even before we became lovers.” Asthané shook his head, eating the last bite of turkey before drinking some of his lukewarm coffee. “I was infatuated with you long before our first kiss, and that kiss was a dream to me. I had myself so convinced you’d never truly see me, the kiss absolutely stunned me. It was everything I’d wanted, and you followed it up with promises and declarations of love. What was I supposed to do? I was vulnerable, Zéth. What other path was I supposed to take besides the one I chose? In my eleven-year-old mind, I thought everyone stood up for the ones they loved, even against disapproving parents.” He shook his head again, sighing, and put the bowl on the plate before moving both to the tray cart.
They didn’t speak for several minutes, long enough for Asthané to finish the rosefruit. He didn’t look at Zéth as he ate, finally scraping up the last of the honey with the edge of his fork.
“I’m sorry, Asthané.”
Asthané simply shook his head again. Honestly, he didn’t think apologies were enough to return them to what they’d once been. They were older, wiser, and well beyond whatever romanticism had carried them into their youthful relationship. Friendship might be possible, but he knew he needed to find a way to rid himself of his very real lingering anger at the way things had ended.
“What do you expect this time, Zéth?”
They gazed at each other for a moment, then Zéth shook his head, unfolding his arms. He sighed. “I don’t know. I thought—but—” He rose. “I’ll go now, Asthané. I’ll leave you be from now on. Bye.”
Asthané watched Zéth leave, slumping in his chair when the door shut. He had the feeling he’d just broken Zéth’s hopes for more than the truce they seemed to now have. After a minute, he forced himself to rise. He couldn’t help how Zéth felt, but he could at least finish preparations to face his day.