The First Virtue

9 Thala Mír, 614 (Restored)

By the close of a year, the girl will have learned the heft of a Reslean longsword, and by her journey’s end across the Divides, the delicate hand that she now casts into the dust motes dancing softly before her will consign the soul of a despotic monarch to the nethermost Depths of Death. “Would that I could bespell all the divided realm,” she whispers in her native Kyri, resting a pale, guileless cheek against the cool pane of a fenestration.

Your grace?”

Dropping her hand, Setia Olmere, the Duchess Lyria, absently strokes the russet fur of the tom curled in her lap and asks of her companion, “Jisreen, have you ever been kissed?”

Seated before an ostentatious writing bureau, the quill she holds comfortably between her ink-stained fingers stilling, Jisreen Knobel, daughter of the knighted House of Haugh Knobel, turns to smilingly frown. “What concern is that, your grace?”

The duchess shifts upon her seat to fully face the gentlewoman across the length of a richly furnished study, well-tended leather creaking softly beneath her as she moves. “What was it like?”

Jisreen’s cheeks stain a placid rose beneath the honeyed dusk of her foreign complexion. “Wherefrom comes this talk of kisses?”

Setia’s shoulders lift to a small extent.

In truth, ’tis hard to say. The first kiss was unlike the second.”

A beat then distantly the girl murmurs, questing, “What of love?”

Jisreen smooths nonexistent creases from the length of her rose and gilt embroidered gown, the bronze bangles she wears upon her left wrist raising a subdued clangor. “Love?” Jisreen sighs—the breath small and considerate—then shakes her head. “I believe love to be all a young woman wishes it. Heat. Flame. A steadfast passion that can also be gentle. Oh, so very gentle.”

Leaning back to rest her slight shoulders against the glass of the window, Setia contends, “Love, if the gods were to have it, is loathing.”

Jisreen’s dark-of-night eyes dance with sudden mirth. “You are naught more than five and ten in years, your grace. Cynicism from one so young does not suit.”

Glancing away, Setia turns a hazel gaze upon the palace’s western grounds, catching note of a glittering martin. “So passes youth.”

Has it?”

Shrugging again—“Why has the priestess Dryta retired from Commune?”

A quick rap at the study door heralds the entrance of a brightly attired palace mainstay. “Ever I find you, Setia,” Ismin Walbrath drolly insists, “amid dust laden tomes in company of seasoned dreamers.”

Jisreen laughs genially, querying lightly, “What brings the Lady Walbrath from her bed at such an ill-sainted hour as this?”

Ismin hums in minor pique. “Ungodslytis the hour, true.”

Does the morn find you well, Cousin?” Setia manages, dimpling.

Aye, pet, I am well. Yet, quite in dire need of a ride across the leas.”

I wonder, Cousin, if this dire need stems of the fact that a band of my Houses pledged men are set to run drills upon the leas before the onset of the days festivities?” At the coquettish smile that is Ismin’s reply, Setia whispers fair words to the sleeping tom before setting him aside.

Truly, pet, that troublesome beast receives more of your affection than even I.”

Take care, dearest,” Setia sweetly advises, rising to wrap an amative arm about the older girl’s ample waist, “to wipe clean the drivel falling so scathingly from your lips before proffering them in kiss.”

Pah,” Ismin voices, returning the loose embrace and bussing the bowed curve of Setia’s cheek.

Will you accompany us, Jisreen?”

Nay, your grace. The morns pursuit ever calls.”

To the brow that Ismin lifts above an amber eyed gaze, Jisreen elaborates with—

An interpretation of the philosophies of Felds and Casselin.”

Too, what dry reads they are!” Ismin propounds, bodily directing Setia to the door and walking her beyond the portal. “Come, pet, adventure awaits.”

Setia nods briefly in amused concession, stipulating, “I would first tender Grandmother a quick kindness.”

Aye,” Ismin allows.

The girls wend their way through the Palace at Ana, across a network of wide, opulently decorated corridors and well-lit staircases, and are received into their grandmother’s suite of rooms by a favored retinue. “Daya,” Ismin acknowledges.

Has the morn been kind to the princess and her grace?” comes Daya’s query.

It has, thank you,” Setia answers for both.

By means of a brief gesture, Daya indicates an inner parlor. Upon Ismin’s entrance, their grandmother dismisses one of her two current guests—this the priestess Dryta, an azure eyed mystic possessed of rare talent and dark beauty, who for a time has removed herself from the seclusion of her Sisterhood’s mountainous community to dwell amid her mother’s people. The girls’ eyes respectfully downcast, the chastely dressed priestess is treated to curtseys as she passes.

From her place of repose, this a sumptuous chaise, a still informally dressed Lysera Alamide beckons her granddaughters to her side.

My lord prince,” Ismin airily greets, acknowledging the tall figure that stands in contemplative silence behind the chaise before bending to buss her grandmother’s cheek. At six and four score years, Lysera is still a handsome woman, though her face bears upon it the ravages of time, conveying with the lines etched deeply into her skin a tacit testament of her life’s joys and sorrows. Settling herself upon the floor stones at her elder’s left knee, Ismin queries, “Has the morn been kind, sovereign?”

The morn has been kind, dearest,” the dowager accedes, angling to receive Setia’s buss in turn, “as I am sure it has been to you.”

The morn bears me well enough,” Ismin laughingly replies. “’Tis but a cruel deception though, my presence. The better part of me still lies abed, dreaming of love.”

Does the morn bear you well, my young one, or does some part of you also linger elsewhere?”

Face mildly aflame, Setia attends upon her elder, male cousin a short but polite address. Then settling herself upon the chaise at her grandmother’s right, she smiles into the burnished jade of Lysera’s eyes. “Unlike Ismin, I am a whole being. What use such inner contention?”

With gentle consideration, Lysera cites a contemporary yet wonted philosophy, “’Twas dreams that bore most aspects of this reality into being.”

Setia’s smile falters. “Ismin wishes to ride the leas.”

Resting the cupped palm of one hand against Setia’s cheek, Lysera grasps her youngest granddaughter’s hand within the other. “Eran bears news.”

Drawing back, Setia turns to glance at her older cousin with trepidation.

Your mother is well,” Eran Alamide clarifies in a tone meant to allay gratuitous worry, “and sends her regard.” Then elaborating, “I bear news of a unanimous decree.”

By order of the Damreein Council,” Lysera elucidates, “you are to wed the heir to Cannings seat.”

Canning?” Ismin whispers.

Resins civil heart?” Stunned, tears threaten Setia swiftly and instinctively she retreats from the dowager’s staying hands. “But, ‘tis upon the Southern Divide.”

I wish I could veto the Councils decision—”

Sovereign—” Ismin falteringly attempts, but quietens at her grandmother’s somber look.

“—but the weight you would hold as Doma Magna of the kingdom of the Tres is hardly trifle. You could very well tip the scales where the proposed annex of the Unallied Kingdoms is concerned. Think, child. Think of all the good you could do.”

Tears begin to stream indelicately down the pale set of Setia’s cheeks, and rushing to rise, she quickly rounds the generous chaise and declares—and this after clutching at the swells of shell white tunic which peak out from between the ties that lace his burgundy doublet to his fine form—“I love you, Eran. I love you!” Eran, Setia thinks, who is fair, in both manner and feature. Eran, whose hazel eyes—pierced as they are by subtly luminous flecks of jade and amber and sapphire—perfectly resemble her own. He is who she dreams of when dreaming of love. “Dear gods of the Vale,” she whispers fiercely, “please, do not let them send me away!”

Fool,” the crown prince bites off, thrusting his youngest cousin away, as ill-concerned with Setia’s pitiable weeping, with her apparent desperation, as she has been of her family’s sensibilities. In a cold and arrogant tone, he recites the first virtue of the Noble’s Creed, “Yet, there is Duty, and Duty precedes all.”

Never in any of the imagined scenarios contrived in solitary moments, regarding the profession of her love, had Eran responded with such cruelty. Countenance wretched, the girl flees her cousin’s rejection. Her unmindful attempt first sees her colliding into the priestess Dryta upon the promenade which leads to the dowager sovereign’s wing.

Your grace?” the mystic priestess quietly worries.

With an anguished sob, the girl strikes her, startling unobtrusive servants, and usually stolid guards. “I curse you your lot,” Setia cries, “for it has stolen mine!”

Blood slowly trickling from the cut upon her lip, the priestess reaches to lay a sisterly hand upon the girl’s shoulder.

Nay,” Setia denies, striking the priestess again, “nay!”

Then extricating herself from the extraordinary scene, Setia sails headlong through the palace, jostling her way past a busy central courtyard before hastening into the palace’s well-tended gardens. Cordoned off—along with the palace itself—from the city proper by four large bastioned bulwarks, the lush gardens offer no easy respite and fitfully she ventures without aim until the wide avenues of the Tragic Maze swallow her whole. The oppressive dark of the esoteric web brings her to a halt and wheeling about, endeavoring retreat, she spies the priestess Dryta—who followed the upset girl—standing just beyond the heavy shadows cast by the labyrinth.

Goddess!” the girl implores as wisteria vines, bare of any blooms, wrap themselves blithely around her ankles. She falls, and twisting to land roughly upon her side, beseeches, “Goddess, help me!”

The vines pull the girl deep into an insoluble intricacy, dragging her carelessly from side to side, tossing her effortlessly and repeatedly into wildly overgrown hedges which stand four-men-tall—hedges which wallow in their ability to grasp at the long tendrils of her flaxen hair with their thorny branches, which revel in their capacity to wrench at the length of her silken day gown, and which relish their license to strike at her head and back and appendages. Crushing gloom fills Setia’s sight as she attains the maze’s heart, and though the wisteria relaxes its hold upon her, the girl is too battered, too bloodied to move. Even as she feels the cold, sometimes hirsute, skins of all manner of crawling things touch her own, she does not move. Through rapid fire bites and stings, she remains still, motionlessly enduring the variegated venom which seeps into her like hot fire.

Instead, she lowly and despairingly invokes, ‹ Thœrĕd cǽn y’rængenmere. ›

A considerable beat follows before she feels the Œrengenmere, that earthen-made primordial guardian of the abstruse, wrap a licentious and fecund limb about her small waist as he takes base form beneath her. ‹ Nĕm cĕlīd’gĕnĕm thrœnĕm? › that profane spirit queries in a redoubtable voice against her ear.

Aye, the girl thinks, let Death come.

At this, that sweet voiced goddess, that Harvester of Souls, gladly obliges. As Setia begins to sink into the Depths, the Œrengenmere—that sloe-eyed mystic called in bygone Ages the Night Fiend—commits a black theurgy, planting occultic seed, like child, within Setia.