Away from the main body of the Valendrian peerage, now in the relative privacy of her own company, Sylvaria finally allowed herself to cast aside the facade of poised indifference that she had been forced to adopt while trapped in the midst of Aleâ€™delâ€™s best-dressed vultures. Muscles that had tensed during the execution slowly loosened, uncoiling in halting stages like the springs of some tightly-wound mechanism. But the assassinâ€™s agonized shrieks echoed incessantly in her head, a macabre reminder of the gruesome scene she had witnessed only moments ago. The entire affair disturbed her more deeply than she could admit, pressed against the rest of the nobles atop the rostrum. In living memory, the criminals felled by nightsbane numbered no more than the royal Houses of the nation. Though nightsbane was not necessarily the most unique tool in the executionerâ€™s arsenal, the substance was widely regarded as the cruelest of punishments, reserved only for individuals committing the highest treason. The poison was made to cause pain; the symptoms coldly calculated to hone the keen edge of the victimâ€™s suffering. Any assassin risking unimaginable torment as the penalty for failure was an agent answering the call of either brash self-assurance or dire imperative. The crowd from before had dispersed into smaller, more sparsely separated groups. Though the news of King Dorienâ€™s passing, gleaned from her father only the day prior, still burned in Sylvariaâ€™s memory like a heated iron spike, her peers had clearly moved past the incident, dismissing the execution as another event with the ephemeral significance of a fleeting amusement. The nobles chattered inanely as they traversed the palace grounds toward the royal stables, vigorously debating topics ranging from the latest embarrassments at court to the newest fashions from Pyrium. It was easy to ignore these trivialities, as Sylvaria filtered the sounds of laughter and conversation from perception until they resembled nothing more than the low drone of a hundred fluttering insects. Yet in spite of her efforts, she could not drown out the insipid gossip in its entirety. â€œ...cannot credit Lord Davonâ€™s rashness,â€ a young woman spoke, cutting through the silence Sylvaria had instilled upon her mind. She walked with a small cluster of companions, several paces to Sylvariaâ€™s right. â€œPerhaps he believes the Boriana family name will suffice as a bulwark against mistrust,â€ another voice replied with a hint of amusement. â€œEven with their clout, they cannot simply dismiss the Councilâ€™s inquiries!â€ an older man interjected in mingled exasperation and disbelief. â€œTruly, the boy visits misfortune upon them all. Were he less impudent, perchance they could have escaped this mayhem unscathed.â€ Realization struck Sylvaria like a clap to the temples. Even with a memory clouded by grief and righteous fury, she could picture the twin-staves insignia sewn into the doublet of the man who had derided King Dorienâ€™s fate, marking him as a member of House Boriana. She hadnâ€™t immediately placed him among the ranks of that illustrious clan; doubtless he was a new addition to the family, introduced through matrimonial affiliation. Despite his thoughtless remarks at the execution, he would likely face reprisal only if word of his sentiments reached the Councilâ€™s ears. Given the strength of his association, the potential consequences of his transgression were a mere uncertainty. House Boriana numbered among the most venerable noble families of Valendria, with a presence in Aleâ€™del near as constant as the jagged peaks from which the city had been carved. Few would risk inviting their retribution by implicating them in the Councilâ€™s investigation. â€œThat may be,â€ a fourth speaker speculated, as though giving voice to Sylvariaâ€™s reflections, â€œif there are any daring enough to sing to the Council. I would profess no courage in that regard, myself.â€ A general murmuring of agreement followed her words. Then the first woman asked, â€œBut is it true? Has the Council made no progress?â€ The man answered readily. â€œThe Councilâ€™s eye remains fixed upon the royal quarters. No man or woman of the Guard will see rest but to overturn every stone in the palace.â€ â€œAnd yet,â€ the second participant in their conversation mused quietly, â€œwhen pitted against their own, one must wonder how far the Councilâ€™s dominion truly extends.â€ A stiff silence filled the void left by her insinuation, as if she had invoked a sudden premonition of doom. The woman who had initiated the dialogue hurried to shepherd the discussion to more palatable topics, like the sartorial misadventures of one Lady Circe Aldissi. For her part, Sylvaria had heard enough, and she tore herself away, lengthening her strides as new doubts whirled in her mind. The rest of her excursion back to the Valieri manse passed in brooding contemplation. The sun had crept to further prominence, a radiant disc of light piercing the stagnant gloom that suffused the sky. Somewhere in the distance, the clamor of bells resounded, heralding the eighth hour of the morning. Sylvaria ignored it. The next, and last, of the dayâ€™s events would not begin for yet another hour, leaving her with ample time to collect Siam and his compatriots. She made her way directly to the trioâ€™s apartment when she arrived back at the manse, waving away a serving girlâ€™s offer of morning refreshments. The Soliri were comfortably ensconced within a suite of rooms in the eastern wing, normally occupied by visiting families in need of additional personal space. In that respect, the foreigners bore some scant resemblance to the suiteâ€™s usual inhabitants, though little else about their presence served to put their attendants at ease. She slowed as she approached the threshold of their apartment, and through the open doorway spied Josen and Desim bantering at the long maplewood table set in the suiteâ€™s common area. â€œGood morning to the both of you,â€ she greeted them as she treaded closer, speaking in Soliri for Desimâ€™s benefit. The burly man had not grasped the archaic tongue of her homeland with the same facile dexterity as his brethren, and she felt no need to impose an artificial burden by enforcing a strict regimen of constant practice. All three of her erstwhile pupils had absorbed the essential lessons that sheâ€™d aimed to impress upon them, which would suit for their purposes. At a minimum, they would be able to comprehend the fundamentals of most conversation, and avoid misplacing themselves within the city. Despite Josenâ€™s ceaseless pestering, the trio remained blessedly unlearned in the subject of Valendrian profanities. The jester in question swiveled to face her, his sharp features sliding into an easy grin. â€œIf it isnâ€™t the Lady Sylvaria!â€ he called, returning her favor by switching to Valendrian. Of the three Soliri, he had settled most comfortably into his lessons. â€œA good morrow to you, as well!â€ Behind him, Desim acknowledged her with a nod, maintaining his customary solemnity. Josenâ€™s unfaltering ebullience was a welcome change, and she tried to reciprocate the gesture with an amiable smile, but her previous concerns still rattled unpleasantly in her mind, preventing the warmth from reaching her eyes. He seemed to take note of her subdued demeanor, and his carefree expression began to waver. Before either of the Soliri could call attention to the matter and draw out her dark thoughts, however, she cast a hasty glance around the spacious apartment and quickly spoke again. â€œWhereâ€™s Siam?â€
â€œPride is an admission of weakness; it secretly fears all competition and dreads all rivals.â€ - Fulton J. Sheen It was the seventh hour of the morning when Sylvaria rose from a fitful slumber plagued by phantoms to join the steady procession of nobles trickling through Upper Ale'del. Low clouds wreathed the Cirakin Mountains, shrouding the city in a gray mist that made the cobbled roadways more cumbersome to navigate. With meticulous care, Sylvaria guided her filly through the main thoroughfare leading to the royal palace. Months of traveling in foreign lands, free from the strictures of aristocratic society, had acclimated her to certain liberties, and she had to readjust to the formalities of her heritage, gingerly threading her way through slow-moving carriages and other riders. The fog had lifted slightly by the time she arrived at her destination, affording her a clearer view of the congregation assembled upon the rostrum at the western edge of the palace grounds. Where there would normally be a monarch or Council member issuing announcements to the residents of Lower Ale'del, instead a throng of nobles had gathered, clustered at the balustrade to watch the spectacle unfolding below in the market district. Most of her peers were clad in somber hues, and only the fine material of their attire betrayed their wealth and influence. Sylvaria herself had chosen a loose-fitting gown of crushed black velvet, with a high neckline and a modest cut befitting the occasion. Her eyes were masked by a half-veil secured to her cropped sable locks by simple black hairpins. The dark gauze obscured her features, granting her a welcome measure of privacy within the spaces of her own mind. She was not yet ready to be questioned about the presence of Soliri within the city. She took a place at the fringes of the crowd and gazed down at the market square. A dais had been erected in the center of the square, ringed by an assembly of merchants, tradesmen, and laborers. Seated upon the platform in high-backed chairs were the eight members of the Council, waiting impassively as two armored guards dragged a prisoner to the wooden crucifix mounted before them. From what little she could discern, high above the proceedings, Sylvaria could see that the man bore the sharp, angular features of the Vales, but his appearance was otherwise unremarkable, his visage nondescript and forgettable. Hidden from view, his eyes were lost beneath the tangled ropes of unkempt brown hair that hung limply against his face. He had a lean frame draped in tattered rags, and through the torn fabric Sylvaria could glimpse the angry network of scars stretching across his back, caked with dried blood and riddled with bruises that had already turned yellow with age. He was raving as his detainers pulled him to the crucifix and settled him roughly against the wooden post, lashing his wrists and ankles to the stake. â€œYou are fools,â€ he spat, punctuating the statement with derisive laughter. Although his voice was hoarse, and cracked from dehydration and disuse, his words carried over the sudden stillness that fell over the crowd. â€œAll of you. You will learn the truth of your folly soon enough, and it will avail you nothing. There is naught you can do to change your fate.â€ He laughed again at that, the sound growing in volume until the last cord was tightened and he was forced to imbibe a vial of nightsbane extract. Then he laughed no more, and in the wake of his silence, low murmurs of speculation arose from the gathering. â€œThe man merely states the obvious,â€ a disinterested male voice commented carelessly. Shifting her gaze discreetly, Sylvaria observed that the man who had spoken was among the few who had dressed without regard for propriety, attending the proceedings in opulent finery inlaid with elaborate gold and silver brocade. â€œSo long as we harbor the savages within our walls, our fates are, naturally, sealed.â€ He sighed mockingly. â€œPerhaps His Grace should have considered his own safety before eviscerating our policies.â€ â€œIâ€™ll thank you to not speak of that again, for Iâ€™ve no wish to face the Councilâ€™s scrutiny,â€ a womanâ€™s voice snapped in response, cutting through the flurry of gossip that followed. The man bit out a brazen retort, but Sylvaria scarcely heard it, as anger had washed over her, sudden and consuming. She willed herself to remain calm by grasping the railing and taking deep breaths. Beneath the thrum of chatter all around her, she could hear the roar of blood pounding through her ears. Seconds stretched on into minutes...until finally, the crimson haze clouding her vision dissipated, and her heartbeat returned to a steady rhythm. Moments later, the screams began. For all his insolence, the captive was mortal, and susceptible to the infirmities of his own mortality. Though she had never witnessed an execution involving the use of nightsbane, Sylvaria could recount the symptoms that afflicted him. Long before his organs failed - and they would, eventually - the toxins in his body would assault his senses, amplifying them until the merest hint of sunlight would be searing, the faintest noise deafening, and each breath excruciating. He would not taste the luxury of a swift release, either; the torment would persist for several more minutes before he would be permitted, at last, to embrace death. Sylvaria forced her gaze to remain steady by reminding herself that she beheld the man who had murdered her mentor. Her father's account of the crime still rang in her ears. The assassin had attacked as King Dorien dined in the Great Hall, loosing a poison-tipped crossbow bolt at the monarch as he bantered with guests. The attempt had nearly been thwarted by a member of the Royal Guard, who had discovered the assassin as he moved to fire, but the bolt had nonetheless found its target, lodging itself in the kingâ€™s shoulder. For a time, the king had appeared to be recovering; the bolt had missed his heart, and the injury seemed to be healing. Then, abruptly, the wound had festered, the corruption spreading rapidly through the rest of his body. He'd spent the last of his days in a fever-stricken delirium. Sylvaria could hardly imagine the pain of Lady Amalia...or Lord Damien, who had barely reached his seventh name day. How much had they suffered, to have the king inexplicably ripped from their arms? The injustice of the situation steeled her conscience, and she listened stoically as the last of the assassinâ€™s guttering cries dissolved into silence. Once his anguished convulsions had ceased, the guards stepped forward to cut his body down from the stake. There would be no proper burial for a traitor of the realm such as he; the corpse would be flung from the heights of the Cirakin, and left to the vagaries of the wilderness. As the guards hauled the body away, a flicker of movement at the edge of sight caught her attention. But when her eyes shifted towards the source, she saw only a pair of doves taking flight, circling around the rooftops of Lower Ale'del before disappearing behind the distant spires of the Cirakin. She watched them for a long moment, then turned and slipped into the crowd of nobles filing off of the platform.