The wind howls around the keep with the sound of a thousand baying wolves and screaming ghosts, driving the freezing rain against the windows and walls. The winter storm batters against the castle, almost as if it is waging war on us, ramming into our homes over and over again like a blood-crazed ork. Shanri is angry this season. The floor beneath my bare feet is freezing, numbing my toes, making me clumsier and more awkward than usual. I bend over and place my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath and watching the sweat drip from my face.
“Again!” Ato’s harsh bark rings around the stone chamber. I shake my head, breath ragged from the exertion. I see his feet move towards me and barely have time to lift the practice blade to ward off his lightning fast attacks. He bares down on me, swinging his sword at my head over and over again with practiced cuts, sweeps and jabs. I shuffle backwards, willing my tired, shaking arms to lift the sword, absorb the blows raining down on me harder than the storm outside. My legs are shaking, my breath hitching in my throat, my arms aching from the strain. I feel as if I am about to slip into the sweet embrace of Solace. As this thought crosses my mind, I slip and fall, landing hard on my back and knocking what little air I have in my lungs out of me. Ato lunges at me, the point of his sword aimed at my throat and the life-blood that lies just under the surface. I close my eyes, anticipating the killing stroke… that never comes. The sound of Ato and his wife, Trixauna, laughing fills the room. I open my eyes to see him standing over me, arm outstretched.
“Up you get, little one,” he says as I give him my hand and he pulls me to my feet. I see Trixauna looking at me with approval. “We may just yet teach you how to hold your own in a fight, little sister,” she says to me with an indulgent smile…
I come home from my two week stay at Ato’s keep. Feyla and Alexai greet me at the door, a happy smile on my husband’s face, a grin of joy on my son’s. I wince as the boy runs into my arms and squeezes me. My bruises and aches have not yet healed and I feel every one of them as my son hugs me. We move as one into the castle. I am happy to be home. I can see that Feyla has something to tell me. “Later,” I tell him. “For now I just want to soak my bruises away before the next round starts…
A large fire crackles in the grate, filling the tower room with warmth, combating the snow and frost filming the windows. I shift in the uncomfortable char, staring into the flames as my mind wonders away from the incessant chatter filling the room. I begin to think over the seaside region I explored in my short time at home, calculating the trade it could bring in and the secrets its shifting sands and lapping waves hold. “Vanglia!” the sharp voice of Dalin cuts through my reverie. “Are you even listening to a word we’ve said?” I look at him and his wife, Vistalia, and shake my head sheepishly. Dalin merely sighs and tosses his mane of dark hair back. Vistalia looks at me pityingly. “Vanglia,” a hint of reproach in her musical singer’s voice, “You really should try and pay attention when someone is talking to you. It’s all part of the art of socialising with others. It’s not like we’ve asked you to conduct an opera or write a poem, or sing something at the next althua. All we’re trying to show you is how to hold a conversation.”
I stand, rolling my eyes like a recalcitrant adolescent. I turn back to face them. “I know I’m being difficult,” I say, “But it’s just not in me to do something like this. I study, I learn, I observe. Having a conversation that isn’t with one of you or about my horses is tedious at best or horrifying at worst. What do I even say to people? I know they’re all lying through their teeth with even a simple greeting. This is why I prefer books.”
Vistalia and Dalin share a small smile. “Do you know,” Vistalis says, “In all the years I’ve been married to your brother, I’ve never heard you speak as much as you did just then? Perhaps we can build on that…”
The coach clatters to a halt in the yard. I step down eagerly, without waiting for a footman to lower the steps or open the door. I cannot see my husband or child anywhere. I raise a querying eyebrow at one of the servants. He boys low, muttering “ventae, ventae” under his breath. I ignore him and head for the castle and make my way to the library. Inside my husband is making notes in a heavy ledger, no doubt working out the food distribution for the season. Feyla looks up at me, a grim expression on his face. He point to an official looking letter lying on the desk.
I reach over and pick it up. It is sealed with silvery wax, the impression the mark of the Vashna. I tear it open and begin to read. “So,” I say after a time, “It is finally our turn to be investigated. I hope you will be able to handle the presence of these servants of the Senate?” Feyla does not answer, he does not need to. We both know that he can.
The waves roar and crash into the cliff face, the spray reaching up to coat the windows with a filmy froth which freezes almost immediately. The wind whispers through the cracks in the draughty library. I think longingly of my warm and comfortable library, wondering what Alexai and Feyla are doing at this moment and whether the Vashna have arrived yet. No matter what they are doing, I am sure that they are warmer than me at this moment. I shiver and pull my furs closer around me and blow warm air onto my frozen fingers. “Vanglia,” Tanis says, “Are you listening to me?” I nod, knowing that if I speak my teeth will knock together. “Good. The perhaps you can recite to me the names of the Earls of each House as well as the most senior Dukes, in order of the length of time they have held the title?” I stick my freezing hands into the sleeves of my cloak and begin to speak.
After a time, Pera enters, bringing with her the sweet smell of warm, mulled wine. My heart leaps in my chest at the prospect of something warm to chase away the chill in this room. She smiles at me as a servant hands me a goblet. My fingers sting from the warmth flooding back into them. “How are the lessons coming along?” she asks in her calm, measured voice. “Well,” Tanis replies. “But now we need to move on to how Vanglia can use the information she has learned to further our cause.”
I ride out to the foothills of my mountains, Feyla and Alexai behind me. All around me a blush of green spreads over the land. Winter is over and a gentler Shanri awakens to welcome the spring. I let out a whoop of joy and spur my horse on to greater speed. With the wind rushing in my ears and the smell of new grass filling my nose, I think on the letter I received just that morning. A letter from Godfren Thorne, inviting me to his hunt. I smile to myself. This time, I think, this time I’ll be better prepared…