Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Cymru - Chapter 19



It was the only word that ever came to mind for most. The smooth stone walls rose out of the crests of Eryri, expressionless and grim and pitted with row upon row of windows, marking out fifteen, twenty, twenty-five floors above the rocky ground and casting long shadows down the steep mountain slopes to the lakes below. From around halfway up the walls the small teeth of landing runways jutted out every few floors, the specks of merod flying back and forth in the late afternoon light just visible from above. On the top two levels the bustle could be seen clearly as the landing runways became far bigger and far more elegant, designed for accomodating official carriages and entire Wings and presently being prepared for the fast-approaching Archwiliad, carpets plush and tapestries being cleaned and hung; and then, finally, on the roof the great swirls of coloured glass reared up in their intricate weave, catching the end of the day's light and gleaming in a dazzling array of hues that marked out the Great Shrine to Rhiannon, and proclaimed the entire structure's identity.

"By the gods," Gareth whimpered quietly as his head poked out of the window, allowing him to take in the whole spectacle below and before them. Aerona glanced over at his pale face and wide eyes, his body trembling in the cooling air.

"Welcome to the Union, Gareth," she smiled softly. He met her eyes, looking completely stunned, and Aerona laughed gently. "It's alright," she called over the hiss of the canopy valves as they started descending. "It takes everyone like this first time. Even the Sovereigns." Well, especially the Sovereigns, really, but that was the point. It was to remind them to stay in line.

"Are there - ?" Gareth broke off and swallowed, staring at the base of the massive squared edifice beneath them. "Are there... any doors? Down... at the bottom?"

"No," Aerona said. She wondered how he'd take that. Some people found the Union's impregnability from the ground reassuring, but someone without any access to flying transport of their own could well feel imprisoned there. "No, the only way in is by flight, and then you need to get through several levels of Riders. Even Sovereigns struggle." Even I will at first, she thought privately, but didn't share it. "You'll be safe there."

"They can't get me in there," Gareth said, his voice strained and eyes fixed on the rapidly approaching walls. "I'll be safe. But what... What about Mam? And -?"

"It's okay," Aerona said quickly. "Honestly. I can't - I can't promise you they'll still be okay right now, Gareth, but if they are then Leader Awen will find them and get them out safely. I can promise you that."

He nodded, his drawn face looking even younger than he had in the tiny cell in Aberystwyth, and Aerona's heart ached all over again.

"That's what I'm worried of," he said, his voice almost lost over the gas cannisters. "I keep thinking they're... that they're already..."

"Gareth," Aerona said firmly. "Listen. I know it's hard, believe me, but you can't accomplish anything by dwelling on that. All you can do at the moment is look after yourself, and that's the best thing you can do for your family too. And to do that you have to try to stay positive."

Gareth nodded miserably, and huddled back into the carriage, hugging his knees to his chest. Aerona sighed quietly, and nudged Briallu forward to being level with the Driver. She was a middle-aged woman, tough and weathered and apparently with the upper body build of a weight lifter, and she smiled slightly at Aerona as she moved in.

"Which runway, Rider?" she called out across the gap between them, necessitated by Briallu's outstretched right wing. "One of the carriage ones? They look like they're preparing them, mind. We could fit on a lower one."

"No," Aerona called back, screwing up as much of her courage as she could and trying to push the spiking adrenaline back down away from her heart. "The lowest carriage one. This is important."

Important enough that for once Aerona was going to get to actually legitimately use one of the Union's top entrances, and actually have an audience with the High Council. Like all Intelligencers she'd spoken to Councillor Rhydian plenty of times, but always covertly to deliver reports. Ordinarily she’d still have done this secretly, but the whole situation had moved forward sufficiently that they could be slightly more open now, or at least they could here. Nowhere was more secure than the Union.

They dipped down to the broad runway on the east side of the Union, the carriage canopy briefly gleaming in a dazzling array of red and blue as the dying light shone through the glass of the Shrine before the shadow of the walls fell across them. Aerona pushed Briallu forward in front of the carriage and watched nervously as the stablehands saw them and backed hurriedly off the runway, glancing at one another in obvious confusion at their arrival. Someone would have darted off to alert the Guard Riders, Aerona knew. It was a shame she wasn’t an Alpha Wingleader; they got to go wherever they pleased in the Union, whenever they liked. They also tended to actually speak to the High Council in person from time to time. And they had nerves of steel.

Although, Aerona taught six-year-olds, and arguably they were worse. She straightened her back as Briallu pulled into a hover and dropped gently to the runway carpet, and walked her forward firmly to meet the two Riders standing in the Landing Tower doorway.

“Welcome home, Rider,” one stated as Briallu halted, snorting. He was quite possibly the biggest human being Aerona had ever seen, with a roughly-squared jaw and more hair in his black eyebrows than Aerona probably had on her entire body. His voice was deep and rumbling, tone wary, but not unfriendly. That was a good start. “What brings you to the Union?”

And how to handle this? Normally it would have been a job for her brightest and most aggressive be-nice-to-strangers smile, but that would have belied the urgent tone. Mentally Aerona sorted through her box of smiles, cursed it for being a disorganised mess despite being imaginary and gave up in favour of an expression she hoped looked suitably ‘gravely urgent’.

“Aberystwyth state business,” she hedged, “but with a complication. I need to speak with High Councillor Rhydian immediately, and I need secure accommodation for one person.”

The guard Rider stood straighter, his eyebrows somehow managing to move even closer together, and he glanced at his companion who was suddenly stepping forward. She was a slender woman, around mid-thirties and with the same predatory grace Aerona had spent the day seeing in Awen and Madog, which probably meant ex-Wingleader. Her beads were the solid black and gold wires of Guard Riders, and Aerona briefly checked the wires on both of them. Her luck was against her. Neither were Intelligencers.

“Who’s with you?” the woman asked now, her grey eyes piercing. Aerona glanced back at the carriage.

“A witness,” she said, thinking fast. “And a would-be assassin. He needs guarding, for his own sake as well as ours. And I need to speak with Councillor Rhydian. Immediately.”

“About what?” the woman asked, but she flicked a hand at the enormous Rider who obediently vanished. “Councillor Rhydian is extremely busy with preparations for the Archwiliad at the moment.”

“I know,” Aerona said heavily, and a quick rummage produced her Ruefully Apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important. And I’m not sure how much is for non-Riders to know.”

It worked. The Rider glanced at the stablehands in the tower behind her and the Driver in the carriage seat before nodding, dropping the questions.

“Very well,” she said, standing aside and gesturing forward the stablehands. A girl no older than seventeen stepped forward to gently take Briallu’s bridle. The Rider turned and shouted something over her shoulder and her massive counterpart reappeared, flanked by two more Guard Riders and accompanied by a pair of shackles. Aerona sighed as the stable hand led Briallu quickly into the Tower. Really, considering the week the poor boy had just had the last thing Gareth needed were more chains, but it couldn't be helped. As the harness was unhooked Aerona dropped down and turned back, in time to see Gareth meekly climb out of the carriage behind the massive Guard, hands pulled down with the weight of the shackles and eyes fixed on the floor.

"Be gentle with him," Aerona called back, unable to stop herself. "It's... complicated."

"So it seems." The ex-Wingleader gave her a searching look for a moment before inclining her head abruptly in a sharp follow-me gesture and marching away. She was fairly tall; Aerona had to jog the first few steps to catch up. "My name is Bethan, by the way."

"Aerona." And no Salute, Aerona noted. Apparently Bethan was not happy about the amount of secrecy. Which meant they would probably be taken to a discretely secure room somewhere to wait for Councillor Rhydian and carefully questioned some more. Still, it could have been worse; the Union itself was perfectly lovely, even if the 'Welcome home' she'd been thrown wouldn't apply to her until after she'd spoken to Rhydian.

Next time, Aerona thought idly, she was bringing the children. Nothing hurried people up more than a roomful of bored six-year-olds.

There was no slope down to the door of this Landing Tower, no sense of going lower. The doors were on the same level and opened into a broad corridor that did, actually, make Aerona feel very much at home, since they were so strongly reminiscent of Tregwylan. The rainwater pipes were familiar decorations, threading their copper roots through the marbled stonework of the walls and sometimes gurgling quietly as they passed. Internal windows opened onto courtyards and training rooms, the sills and frames edged with meraden motifs and all with proper glass panes to buffer against the wind. They passed meeting rooms and offices; libraries and classrooms; recreation rooms and testing rooms, almost all of them filled with at least one occupant, working dilligently away. Riders and clerks bustled past them as they wound their way through the maze, none sparing them even a second glance. The whole atmosphere seemed... busy. Which made sense, Aerona supposed. There was a lot to be done before an Archwiliad, in paperwork if nothing else.

They reached the end of their corridor after three turns and at least five hundred metres and Bethan shoved the ornate double doors in front of them open. They stepped through and Aerona found herself looking at the Spiral Stairs once again.

It was said there were none like them anywhere else in the world, and Aerona could easily believe it. The Spiral Stairs were huge, each step a good eight metres long and comprised of a solid slab of stone, overlaid with a stunning ceramic mosaic in jewel-bright greens and blues. The steps were fixed firmly into the outer wall of their spiral and danced their way around an intricately carved central stone column, its diameter so vast Aerona could have made all of the children spread their arms out to embrace it and their fingertips would only just have met. Its surface was grained to look like wood, as though it were the trunk of some colossal tree. Instinctively, Aerona looked up. The Stairs blocked her view to the floors above, but she knew that not so far above her head the central column divided and stretched into 'branches', forming the framework of the Great Shrine. And below them...

A long way below them its roots sank into the earth, and hid the Archives. That was going to be fun later.

"This way, Rider," Bethan said, striding across to move down the Stairs. "Since the situation is somewhat... unclear, I'll put you both in the same place for now until Councillor Rhydian can be found."

"That's fine, honestly," Aerona told her with her best Earnest Voice. It wasn't much of a struggle; she really did want to keep Gareth close by for now. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." Bethan gave her another odd look, and them they were making their way down the Stairs, everyone automatically moving into an orbit around the central tree-column that made the depth of the steps perfectly fit their stride. Aerona loved the Spiral Stairs. Tregwylan needed some. Maybe she could forge some Edicts in Lady Gwenda's name and get some made, although that was quite dishonest even for an Intelligencer, and she spent enough time trying to encourage honesty among the children to feel very guilty about the hypocrisy. And really, unless Tregwylan plonked another Great Shrine on top, it would probably be heretical in some way.

They only went down three floors, and then Bethan was leading them through some slightly-less-ornate doors and into a corridor that looked onto some deeper courtyards. It also looked into altogether more rooms containing weapons and diagrams of anatomy and such that Aerona remembered well from her childhood, and she really hoped Gareth didn't look. He also didn't need reminding of death and maiming right now. Although for that reason Aerona was very, very glad they weren't any deeper in the Union, where Riders like Awen learned how to interrogate prisoners. Those rooms weren't pretty.

Finally they stopped at a bend in the corridor, and Bethan pushed open a door to a room that was presumably a classroom normally. Apparently it was undergoing an Archwiliad-related transformation, though; most of the desks had been neatly stacked into a corner, ready to be removed, with only three or four left in the middle of the room arranged in a square. A few chairs remained around them, pushed carelessly aside. Aerona could hear Gareth shaking again, the heavy manacles clinking slightly as he did so, so she straightened her back and marched directly in, trying to look slightly more confident than she felt. Was it time for her Brightest Smile yet? Probably not.

"Sit," Bethan said, stopping in the doorway. "We've already sent for Councillor Rhydian; hopefully he'll be here soon."

"Thank you." Aerona pulled out a chair as the enourmous Rider guided Gareth in creditably gently, his two massive hands dwarfing Gareth's thin shoulders, and steered him towards the chair. He sat trembling, staring at the floor as the Guard Rider backed up against the wall beside the door, simply watching. Aerona pulled another chair up alongside Gareth's, and put a hand on his knee reassuringly.

"It's okay," she murmured quietly. "Really. You're safe here, even if it doesn't seem it now. Once I've spoken to Councillor Rhydian it'll be fine."

"You said a would-be assassin?" Bethan asked, her voice tinged with frustrated perplexity. Her eyes slid to the Tregwylan liveries. "And this is Aberystwyth state business?"

"Yes," Aerona nodded. How much could she say here? Well; the attempt on Lord Gwilym was hardly a secret. "He tried to kill Lord Gwilym yesterday."

Bethan's searching gaze intensified, looking over both of them alternatingly with one eyebrow raised. The enourmous Guard by the door tensed up, an automatic reaction. Aerona fought to stay calm, and offered a small smile.

"I did say it's complicated," she said apologetically. "I -"

"He tried to kill the Sovereign of Aberystwyth," Bethan said slowly and deliberately. "And now you've brought him here for safety. As a would-be assassin and... as a witness."

"Yes," Aerona sighed. "It's -"

"What could he possibly have witnessed other than his own attempt at murder?" Bethan asked. "Why is he here?"

"Well," Aerona started. "That's sort of why -"

"I mean, I understand that Lord Gwilym has so far been comparitively popular in Aberystwyth," Bethan continued. "As much as he can be in not quite a year in power, anyway. I'm not sure how many citizens are likely to be hammering down the cell doors to get to his killer, though. Unless you think Lord Gwilym himself is likely to be hammering down the doors?"

"Um," Aerona said. "You're not actually interested in an answer, are you?"

"No," the massive Guard chipped in from the wall. "She's not. She does this sometimes, don't worry."

"Idris," Bethan snapped, and he shrugged, smiling slightly as he pulled out a length of knotted string from a pouch on his belt.

"You do," he told her, pulling his hair back into a rough ponytail that his beaded braids fell straight out of and swung loose around his collar bones. He seemed almost nonchalent, although he was broadcasting his distrust of Gareth fairly clearly still. "Whenever you're irritated. It's -"

"Irritated?" Bethan said, appropriately irritated. "He tried to kill a Sovereign and we're -"

"Well, see, that's my point," Idris said, studiously re-knotting the string behind his head. "We don't know the situation -"

"No!" Bethan said, aggrieved. "We don't! Which is why - !"

"But you don't let them answer." Idris finished with his hair and dropped his hands back to his belt, looking at her mildly. "Doesn't strike me as the best way of learning what's going on, is all. You not listening to the answers."

"Outside," Bethan commanded darkly, and Idris sighed before trudging out of the door. Bethan glanced at Aerona and Gareth as she started to follow. "We won't be a minute," she said. "Are you okay with him?"

It was a somewhat redundant question, really, since even Siona wouldn't have had a problem with Gareth right now, but Aerona smiled her Encouraging Smile anyway and nodded.

"We'll be fine!" she said. "Do go on."

Bethan nodded curtly and then she was gone, the door clicking firmly shut behind her and not-quite-entirely muffling the angry conversation that began on the other side of the door. Aerona shifted her attention to Gareth instead. He was hunched miserably into his chair, hands clenched into fists and his chin almost touching his chest. A tear-track had stained one cheek, and closer inspection showed that his eyes were glassy and full. Aerona squeezed his knee where her hand still lay and sighed quietly.

"It's okay," she said gently. "Honestly. Once I've spoken to Councillor Rhydian everything will be fine, and he'll be here soon."

Gareth nodded, and sniffed.

"I didn't want to kill him," he said, almost mutely.

"I know," Aerona said. "And soon everyone else will know. And you didn't kill him, Gareth. His death isn't on your conscience."

He nodded again, eyes on the floor; and then, with an effort, he tried to sit up straighter and look around the room. It reminded Aerona of Morgan when he was down, but determined to pull himself back up again. She felt a swell of pride for him.

"It's so big here," Gareth said. Aerona followed his lead and smiled.

"Isn't it?" she grinned. "They say it was built at the same time as the Sixteen Cities, and it is similar. I'm from Tregwylan, but even we aren't as big as this. And we certainly don't have anything like the Great Shrine, or the Spiral Stairs."

"I went into Casnewydd once," Gareth offered. His eyes tracked the meraden motif carved into the stone work at the top of the room. "There's nothing like this there. I heard - I heard once one of the merchants saying about the Stairs. He said they were the hidden wonder of the world."

"It's been said," Aerona agreed. "Very few non-Riders get to come here even, much less non-Cymric people. If everyone could see the Stairs, I'm told, they'd be Wonder number eight."

"I liked them," Gareth said quietly, the echo of remembered awe in his voice. "They were so big."

"They are," Aerona agreed. They were. It was a fair assessment. Gareth looked thoughtful for a moment.

"They seemed different, though," he said, and looked quickly at Aerona. "I mean - I know they're bigger and that, and the tree in the middle and stuff, but normal twisty stairs... they're..."

Interesting, Aerona thought. It was a shame Gareth hadn't been Union raised. He had an observant streak that could have been beautifully honed.

"You're right," she said calmly. "Did you notice how they're different?"

"They go the wrong way," Gareth said, and then looked mildly horrified. "I mean - not wrong, I didn't -"

"It's okay," Aerona giggled. "I know what you mean. And yes, they do. It's about defence, you see? Normally spiral staircases go clockwise, so that right-handed swordspeople at the top have an advantage. Usually any invaders come from the bottom, see?"

"Oh," Gareth said. He thought for a second. "But there are no doors on the floor here..."

"Exactly!" Aerona beamed. "Well done! I'd give you a gold star, but I don't have any. And you're not six, I suppose. Yes; the Stairs are defended from the base."

Where the Archives were. The base of the Union was the realm of the Intelligencers, accessed from the Great Shrine of Rhiannon via the anti-clockwise Spiral Stairs. Aerona had never known whether the Intelligencer beading wires had been made anti-clockwise because of the Stairs or vice versa, and considering how long ago the Union had been founded it was unlikely they would ever know now. But to Aerona, the Stairs represented everything she was as a Rider and a human being, and everything her role should be.

"Are there -?" Gareth began, and then stopped as the voices outside abruptly stopped. The door bounced abruptly open and suddenly Aerona found herself on her feet with no conscious input from her brain and Saluting as Councillor Rhydian entered the room.

He was into his fifties, at least physically, but his obvious strength and vitality belonged to someone at least twenty years younger. In height he stood a bit shy of six feet - probably an inch or two off Lord Gwilym, if they'd been standing together - and his build was of wiry muscle, not too broad and not too slim. His hair was a faded red, thinning rapidly at the crown, and like all Councillors he wore a torque, a fairly simple metal circlet with coloured glass bands to represent the beads he no longer wore. His clothes otherwise were almost a standard Rider uniform, all comfortable worn-in leather and long coat, and he stubbornly still had the outdated Caerleuad liveries on them from when he'd been Alpha Wingleader there. His face was rugged and square-jawed, beard clipped short, with a long-healed white scar running from his left temple to just below his earlobe. His grey eyes crinkled merrily as he returned her Salute, a broad grin lighting up his cheeks.

Aerona wasn't fooled. She liked Councillor Rhydian, truly she did; but he was on the Union High Council. Assuming she survived her career on the active front line, which wasn't tremendously likely, this was what Awen would be some day. The High Council only took the best, and to be the best you needed to have a steel door somewhere behind your eyes where you could turn yourself off and do whatever had to be done. Aerona could see it already in Awen; she could see it doubly in Rhydian. This was a dangerous man.

"Rider Aerona!" he said happily as he gestured her vaguely towards her chair and shoved the door shut at the same time. "It's been a while! To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"A number of things," Aerona said wearily as she sat. She put a hand on Gareth's shoulder and squeezed. "Firstly; the Casnewydd Alpha Wing. Have you been told about their Deputy?"

"By their Leader," Rhydian nodded, his expression switching to serious as abruptly as if he'd taken off a mask. "I got her report this morning."

Well, obviously. There was no way Awen would waste time falling to pieces about her traitorous Deputy, after all. That would involve taking time for herself. Aerona nodded.

"Right," she said. "Well, this is Gareth, who's from Casnewydd. He was the one-" who tried to kill Lord Gwilym? Assassinate him? Shoot him? "-with the bow in Aberystwyth last night. Deputy Owain gave it to him, and instructions on how to get into the hall."

"I see." Rhydian's face didn't move a muscle, his expression completely neutral. "Go on."

"We think Deputy Owain was -"

"Owain," Rhydian interrupted. "He's been stripped of that title at the very least. Carry on."

"We think he was acting entirely on his own initiative there," Aerona continued, glancing slightly at Gareth. "But before that he was taking orders from Lord Flyn."

"To do what exactly?"

"Well," Aerona sighed. "That's a bit complicated."

Although it didn't take long to explain. Rhydian sat impassively throughout it, studying her with slightly disconcerting intensity at a few parts but saying nothing, merely nodding here and there. Something hardened ominously in his eyes when Aerona reiterated Gareth's personal story and the plight of his family; only a small change, but it made Aerona's adrenaline jump again as it poked at her fight-or-flight response. She managed not to overly stress the point that Owain would probably want Gareth dead. He'd had enough for one day, really. Even a gold star couldn't compensate, especially when you weren't six and you'd not actually been given it, anyway.

"I see," Rhydian said again when she'd finished. He was looking at the ceiling, one scarred hand rubbing absently at his beard. "You did the right thing to come here, then."

"Thank you, Councillor," Aerona said. It helped to settle her slightly jittery nerves somewhat. He flashed a grin her way and then stood and strode to the door, knocking on it twice. Bethan opened it and Saluted.

"Councillor?" she asked. He threw out a Salute back and then turned and gestured to Gareth.

"This boy is to be unlocked and then made comfortable in secure accomodation," Rhydian ordered. It wasn't imperious, or even especially commanding, but it was another indicator of the type of person Rhydian was. It was the tone of a man who'd spent his entire life giving orders, and barely knew how to communicate any other way. When he spoke, he expected to be obeyed. "He is to be treated as a witness, not a criminal. He's been officially pardoned. Understood?"

"Understood, Councillor," Bethan Saluted, and then moved into the room to Gareth, her expression considerably softer than it had been not ten minutes before. "Come on. Let's get you settled, and then we can go and see what the chefs are serving."

"Really?" Gareth stood uncertainly, looking back at Aerona. She beamed at him.

"It's okay," she said happily. "Told you! You'll be fine. I'll be sticking around, don't worry; I'll see you later."

Gareth nodded and turned to Bethan, who put an arm round his shoulders and steered him to the door.

"Idris has the keys; we'll get those off now..." she said, and then Rhydian was pushing the door firmly shut behind her again and turned back to Aerona.

"Good work, Rider," he said quietly, and Aerona tipped her head.

"Thank you, Councillor," she said. He rummaged in the pocket of his coat for a second and withdrew a thin rectangle of wood, about the size of her palm, and handed it to her. She took it without a word and he nodded.

"Stay as long as you need," Rhydian said and paused, one hand on the doorhandle. "Although, be sure to report to me before you leave, understand?"

"I will, Councillor," Aerona promised, and after the customary exchange of Salutes he left, leaving Aerona to look at the slim wooden permit. On it, in beautifully looped writing, the words "All Area Access - permisson of Councillor Rhydian" had been carefully carved and burned into the wood. The back contained a single stylised rendering of a meraden, its wings arcing to form a circle around its body. Aerona sighed, and slid it carefully into a belt pouch.

It was time to pray to Rhiannon. And then she was going to the Archives.

Some flash....

The sound is weird in this one though.

Monday, 27 July 2009

An attempt to level up in Photoshop

Neither of these are serious. Just scans of doodles.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Cymru - Chapter 18

So, I'm still finding Madog incredibly hard to write, but less so that I was. The lateness of this chapter is entirely his fault, though. The points where he got really really hard to write can be easily spotted; I just inserted some scene-change asterisks and ran away. This is not the most coherent thing I've ever written therefore. Soz.


As Calon's hooves landed neatly on the Tregwylan runway carpet Madog tried his hardest not to wince at the formal dress robes of the stable hands who marched confidently forward. They weren't that unusual. With the Archwiliad approaching every single Alpha Wing in the country would be passing through here within a week or so, and Lady Gwenda was certainly a Sovereign who liked to show off how well-kept her City was to foreigners. It wasn't completely atypical for them to be shown a Landing Tower in which the stable hands were in formal dress and - Madog looked closer - even the spokes on the wheelbarrows that mucked out the stalls had been polished until they gleamed. It wasn't a totally abnormal situation. Objectively, Madog knew this.

Subjectively it felt like Lady Gwenda was intentionally aiming it solely at him, and he was already fighting the urge to drop the bitch off the Landing Tower anyway. Madog strongly suspected the need to set a good example to Dylan would be the only thing that kept him from doing so. Dylan so desperately needed a good example. The man was a veritable liability.

A young stable hand with a few missing teeth stepped to Calon's head and smiled genuinely at him, an act that served to calm Madog down considerably. Calon snorted.

"Good afternoon, Leader," she said pleasantly. "Welcome to Tregwylan. My name is Carys; I'll be your stable hand for your stay if it pleases you."

"It does," Madog said, the standard response as automatic as blinking. "Thank you."

They'd somehow managed to remove every single cobweb from the rafters too, Madog noted sourly as he unbuckled the harness straps himself and leapt off. And every hinge in the place seemed to have been oiled. There were probably other details he was missing; he'd have to ask Dylan about it afterwards. Dylan's eye for details was truly formidable. Right now, details would probably depress Madog.

"Stop thinking, boy," Dylan's voice said adruptly into his ear. "It looks painful."

"Is that why you avoid it?" Madog quipped back. "It's actually not, you should try it."

"Oh, Madog," Dylan said expressionlessly, his quick eyes sweeping the stalls around them. "You and your wit. My leathers need rewaxing. Can I go?"

"Really?" They both drew into a corner as the stable hands pulled the merod into stalls around them, Wing Riders stretching and pulling off head gear and chatting away to form a useful cover of noise. Madog dipped his voice slightly lower. "You want to miss Lady Gwenda?"

Dylan glanced at him briefly before his visual attention was predictably swept away by nothing so much as air currents.

"Of course not, you square," he snorted. "But she'll only try to plot at you, not at all of us. I'll be missing Boring Official Stuff, not Interesting Treasonous Stuff."

Well, that was actually a very good point. Madog sighed, gloomily. He really wanted nothing less than to face Lady Gwenda alone.


Dylan wasn't just good at seeing details. His ability to seek out useful information from the gods only knew where was both extraordinary and invaluable, and right now any sort of additional information on Tregwylan, Lady Gwenda or any other aspect of this whole tedious situation would be gratefully received.

"Fine," Madog sighed, putting on an affected air. "Go then. Wax your leathers, which should have been waxed in Aberystwyth. Don't worry, it's only the Archwiliad that's coming up. It's nothing important. We can all take care of it."

"You're a square," Dylan told him, Saluting. "Later."

"Where's Dylan going?" Madog glanced around at the mild voice and found Menna, watching Dylan's swiftly disappearing back as she tied her hair back with a knotted length of string, her beads swinging loose against her chin. "Aren't we meeting Lady Gwenda first?"

"Oh, that was the plan," Madog nodded. "But Dylan needs to re-wax his flying leathers, and I'm only his Wingleader. I have no authority to stop him."

"Wow." Menna looked wistful for a moment. "If I crack the wax off my leathers quickly, can I miss out on the boring political talk too?"

"Certainly not." Madog raised an arm and clicked his fingers above his head, and the rest of the Wing ambled vaguely over. "You have to set a good example, or this Wing will disintegrate around us and we'll all be murdered by Saxons in our beds. And I want to see you look interested," he added sternly. "There will be a test later."

"I make no promises, Leader," Menna said gravely. "Between Saxons and Sovereigns, I know which I'd rather pick."

That was fair. So would Madog.


In the end it was a miserable affair. Lord Gwilym had been fun to talk to, friendly and attentive and quite eager to have them all make jokes around the official lines, a bit like Lady Marged but without the added Crazy. Lady Gwenda was dry and snooty, with an unpleasant glint in her narrow eyes and a tone that occasionally bordered on supercillious. Madog opted for as neutral and professional a bearing as he possibly could and allowed the dialogue to trip off his tongue with the ease of long practice. The less he gave her, the less she could ask of him. Or so he hoped.

It didn't help that her hair really grated on Madog's nerves. It was probably just as well that Dylan wasn't present, or he and Menna might well have been fighting to suppress a few sniggers by now. Lady Gwenda appeared to have wanted to become a redhead, but the shade she'd become was 'garish' at best. Idly, Madog wondered how she'd done it. One of the Indo-Greek substances probably; Cymru certainly didn't produce anything up to this task.

"Well," Lady Gwenda purred finally, just as Madog was starting to consider retirement. "I believe that about wraps it up. Leader?"

"That's everything thank you, Sovereign," Madog returned politely as they all stood and did the bowing thing. Some days he really hated the bowing thing. Lady Gwenda smiled, a sharp smile that didn't really reach her eyes.

"Not at all," she returned. "Oh; although, I have a letter I'd like you to take to Lord Iestyn, if you could?" She gestured to an aid, who vanished. "It'll be brought here now. There's no need to keep your Wing, though; I imagine you're all tired."

Well, that was swish. Madog forced a gritty smile and nodded.

"Certainly," he said, and glanced at the others. "Go on. I'll be out in a minute."

They went, very carefully covering their relief by not cheering. Menna gave him an odd look as she passed that Madog couldn't quite decipher, but it was only fleeting; and then they were gone, the door clicking neatly shut behind them and leaving Madog alone with Lady Gwenda. She smiled again, and sat herself carefully back down. She leaned forward too much as she did; Madog was abruptly treated to an eyeful of her withering cleavage that he would have much preferred to have never seen.

"Do sit, Leader," Lady Gwenda said, slightly too sharp to be gracious. "We may as well be comfortable."

While we conspire, Madog thought beligerently, but he said nothing, and sat again. The more taciturn the better, he decided. If she wanted to play games she could bloody well work for it.

"Is this your first time to Tregwylan?" Lady Gwenda asked delicately. She was leaning forward again, the edge of the table carefully pushing up her already-elevated bust. Madog kept his eyes stonily on her face; although, he had to admit, it wasn't much of an improvement. He'd never seen so much make up on a living face before. "How do you like it?"

"I've been before, Sovereign," Madog said non-committally. "It's a beautiful City." Especially when it's been carefully scrubbed within an inch of its life.

"Thank you, Leader," Lady Gwenda all but simpered. Had she just batted her eyelashes at him? Madog wasn't sure. "I'm very proud of it. Archipelagan Cities are delicate things, you know. They aren't like mainland Cities."

She glanced out of the enormous north-facing window at the end of the room, running almost floor-to-ceiling, and Madog followed her gaze. The sea below was a grey, choppy expanse that stretched away, fishing boats bobbing tenaciously on the swirling Archipelagan currents. To the left and ahead of them, looming here and there above the waves stood more Cities, more Archipelago, squat, misshapen towers molded out of stone. To the right stretched the end of the Lleyn Penninsula, reaching its solitary arm out into the water, Aberdaron nestled, just visible, in its palm. From here it was clear that the weather was starting to change, the wind carrying the gulls towards Cymru and clouds just starting to gather away to the north west. Madog wondered if they'd have to stay tonight. He fervently hoped not.

"We have no real resources of our own, you see," Lady Gwenda said quietly, breaking his reverie. Madog looked back at her but her gaze was still lost out of the window, fixed on the gathering tide. "We have our fishing industries, of course, and salt. But no more. All other raw materials we have to import from others. Not that this is always a bad thing."

She smiled back at Madog briefly, that same sharp expression, before looking back to the glass.

"A drought in one place may destroy crops that were needed for sale," she continued. "Mines can be exhausted of ores. Floods can kill whole herds of livestock. A City with only natural resources, you see, will only prosper as long as those resources don't run dry. We don't have that problem. If Aberhonddu can't give us wheat, we can always get it from Bangor. If Glyn Ebwy can no longer produce iron ore we can go to Abertawe. We need only change our supplier."

"I can see the advantage," Madog said blandly. He wished she'd get to the point.

"The trade-off is the cost, of course," Lady Gwenda said thoughtfully. She was absent-mindedly twirling a strand of gaudily red hair around a finger, eyes hard and narrowed. "Which is why we have so many secondary industries. We buy ores, we sell weapons and pans and jewellery. We buy timber, we sell boats and furniture and more weapons. We buy flax, we sell clothes and ropes; we buy animals, and in addition to consuming the meat we make shoes and harnesses and instruments with the leather. These are more stable industries than many of those on the mainland, Leader. This is why we grow rich. But there is one thing that we do rely on, in the same way as you need the sun and the rain to appear in equal measure."

She looked away from the window and met Madog's eye fully, the predatory gaze of a politician, and he was reminded of just how much ruthless ambition Lady Gwenda was made of.

"Trade," Madog said. She nodded, her gaze intense.

"Indeed," she said. "Trade. Without trade, without a market to buy our wares, it doesn't matter how stable our industries are. They become worse than useless in fact; just an extra few hundred mouths to feed on food we don't have. This is why much of Archipelagan politics are based around trade agreements and exchange rates. Do you see?"

"I do, Sovereign," Madog said neutrally. Lady Gwenda didn't even blink. Her eyes bored into his unwaveringly.

"Imagine then, Leader, if you will," Gwenda said carefully, "an Archipelagan City whose economy was... somewhat less affluent than ours. There would be great hardship in a City like that. I imagine that there would even be enough hardship that its Sovereign might try to formulate some sort of plan. One that would ensure that all of the trade links would be open to them, but probably closed to others."

Madog said nothing. Punching Lady Gwenda would solve nothing, he reminded himself. And anyway, it would probably cause a scene.

"But that's merely hypothetical," Lady Gwenda continued, reattaching her creepy smile. "Where were we? Oh yes. Trade is important to us all, whether we're in the Archipelago or on the mainland. I think some Sovereigns understand that better than others."

"You may be right, Sovereign," Madog said, and finally, mercifully, the aide who'd scuttled off to fetch Lady Gwenda's letter opened the door and slipped inside the room with it. Lady Gwenda stood, and Madog followed suit.

"Here we are," Lady Gwenda said smoothly, taking the elegantly sealed parchment and holding it out to Madog. He managed to take it without punching her, and congratulated himself. "Please tell Lord Iestyn that it goes with our full blessing."

"I will Sovereign," Madog said and bowed, forcing his teeth not to grind. "Enjoy the Archwiliad."

He tried not to run as he left.


"I think you should calm down," Dylan said indifferently as he picked his way surprisingly fastidiously between the cormorant droppings on the fishing tower steps. Madog glared at his ascending back in front of him and wished fervently that he'd slip.

"I will not calm down," he snapped back. A cormorant squawked in alarm beside him, its neck ring bobbing as it flapped its outstretched wings. Madog gave it a sour look. "She sat there, right in front of my bloody face, and tried to manipulate me into manipulating Lord Iestyn. Me! A Rider! Who in the name of everything holy does she think she is?"

"A Sovereign, you retard," Dylan sniffed. He was still climbing the curving staircase, apparently bent on reaching the top of the tall tower. Madog was quite prepared to bet it was to satisfy his own curiosity. The man was like a kitten. "That's what politicians are meant to do. Just wait until we go to Casnewydd."

"Sovereigns are meant to try to manipulate each other," Madog contradicted harshly. "And other Nobles. And foreign dignitaries, and whoever else may cross their paths. Not Riders. That's the whole point of us. We're above this kind of politics."

"Not always," Dylan muttered. Madog looked up sharply at the back of Dylan's head, silhouetted above him in the dying light through the open tower windows. His hair was as wild as ever, bouncing in a corona of curls and beads around his scalp and toussled into a frenzy by the only mild wind. It gave no clues to that last statement; Madog wondered if he was supposed to have heard.

"Excuse me?" he asked pointedly. Dylan's stride didn't falter on the steps.

"Context, Madog," he said diffidently. "We're usually above this. Not always. Like right now. They have good boats, so why the cormorants?"

"Cormorants are safer in bad weather," Madog shrugged irritably. "Don't change the subject. Why is this happening? Why are we, right now, sneaking around fishing towers and discussing evil plans rather than just arresting everyone and taking them all to the Union?"

They finally reached the top of the stairs and stopped on the small landing, Dylan immediately settling himself on a stack of wooden crates that presumably contained food for the birds or something. Madog paced instead. He was far too angry to sit. Bloody politics.

"Because," Dylan said, giving Madog an unusually focused look, "this level of secrecy is what this situation requires. Stop being a square and think. Right now we have no evidence of anything except a few Caerleuad dissenters; only logic. Which, if I ran everything, would be enough, but sadly I don't. So instead, we have to get to the root of the problem, which we can only do if all of the lame little conspirators don't take their plots underground. Do you see?"

"No." His pacing was becoming almost frenetic he knew; it was a good job the rest of the Wing wasn't here. "Because if this was a genuine conspiracy, we wouldn't already know about it. They wouldn't already have been telling Riders. I only found out about this because it started killing people back home and I confronted Lord Iestyn. Do you see? I had to demand the information, because my Sovereign knows that he'd lose a gods damned kidney the second he tried to start scheming something with me."

The rush of anger was heady, and growing. Madog could feel his hands starting to shake with the tension and adrenaline, and he balled them into fists as he walked. Dylan said nothing. He carried on.

"So how do we know about this?" Madog continued, almost snarling. "Awen knew all about it, apparently because Flyn has been involving her in all of his plans. Apparently she's letting him use her as a messenger in everything. And not only that, she's gone and involved Lord Gwilym, another Sovereign entirely, for no evident reason! How has that happened? How has an Alpha Wingleader become nothing more than a pawn for a Sovereign to use in his political games? When did that become what being a Rider is about? And if that's the example she's setting, is it really any wonder that her Deputy has suddenly gone rogue?"

"You don't seem to realise that being a Rider is about more than you, Madog," Dylan said, his tone brittle, and Madog froze. It was like being savaged by a beloved pet sheep it was so unexpected. "Are you finished bitching? Because if you're ready to engage your brain again, answer me this: if Lord Iestyn genuinely was involved up to his eyelids in this conspiracy, how would you possibly know?"

The silence rang between them as Madog stared, shocked, at his Deputy. For once Dylan was completely still, his gaze solid and unflinching, a stern intensity filling his features that Madog had never seen before. Outside the wind was starting to gather in speed, a soft brushing undercut with the harsh screech of the occasional gull and the muted hiss of the waves lapping at the foot of the tower. The cormorants rustled. The pitch torches spat. The scents of salt and nearing rain mingled with pine resin and rope and animal. The world sat quietly around them, and still Madog stared.

"I wouldn't," he said at last, his voice blank and almost too loud now. Dylan nodded curtly.

"No," he said. "You wouldn't. Because he values both kidneys, and fortunately for us all Lord Iestyn isn't the kind of man to make grand designs on the country anyway. Lucky for us, yes?"

"Dylan - " Madog started, irritated, but apparently he'd really pissed Dylan off. It was fascinating. He'd never managed it before.

"Leader Awen is gifted with being able to see the bigger picture," Dylan said harshly. "She works under the most ruthless and ambitious man in the country, Madog. One who definitely would plan his lame little conspiracies to make his penis seem bigger under her radar if she strutted about outwardly eying up his kidneys. And so she's playing along, and acting like Flyn's messenger, and probably hating every second of it, because she knows that if she doesn't this country could well be headed straight back into round two of the Wars. Could you do that, Madog?"

Could he? There was a question. He wasn't convinced he could.

"No," Dylan sniffed. "I thought not. Because you've got this idealistic idea as to what being a Rider is. You're wrong, Madog. Being a Rider is about being whatever this country needs. There's nothing else."

There was another pause, heavy with the bizarre hostility and Dylan's unwavering, lancing stare, until Madog looked away out of the window. Dylan was right, of course. As much as it galled, he was right. In a perfect world Sovereigns could be instantly stopped by their vigilant Riders as soon as they held their first meeting in their first darkened room; but this wasn't that world. Nothing was that black and white. It was sort of astounding that he'd served so much of his career without realising it, actually; but then again, Dylan had always seemed to know the slightly seedier details of court life. How much had Madog been relying on that? Surely that ought to have been his job, as Wingleader? Possibly it was a minor miracle that it had been Owain who'd snapped rather than Dylan.

"Do I really strut while I eye up people's kidneys?" he asked the window. Dylan snorted, his tone abruptly back to its normal light indifference as though it had never changed.

"All the time, boy," he said. "Makes you look gay."

"I am gay," Madog reminded him, voice pained. "Why must we have this conversation so many times?"

"I'm a slow learner," Dylan shrugged. "Anyway. I come bearing much important information, if you're off your high horse. Or high meraden, I suppose."

"I am," Madog said solemnly. He leaned a shoulder against the stone windowsill and looked back at Dylan, who had resumed his customary spirited study of nothing so much as the brickwork around him. "Pray, continue."

"Trade logs." Dylan grinned. "And shipping manifests. Like she told you in her big elite members-only meeting, the popular fetish here is for secondary and tertiary industries, and their main customers are the Phoenicians."

"No surpirses there," Madog mused. Dylan linked his fingers behind his head - or possibly in his mass of hair - and leaned back casually against the wall.

"Don't interrupt, you cretin," he said irreverently. "What are you, six? No, no surprises there, but this is where a bit of background knowledge is useful. In this case, it's all about understanding which trade ships carry which cargoes where. The Phoenicians use set trade routes, see."

"Don't tell me you know what they are," Madog said disbelievingly. Dylan shrugged, now looking at a hundle of slightly self-conscious looking cormorants.

"I do now," he grinned. "Dispossessed sailors are even better than manifests. Anyway; the main focus of the industrial sector here is metalworking, of all kinds. Jewellery, stuff you put in kitchens to concoct food - "

"It's called 'cooking'," Madog supplied mildly.

"- and weaponry being the main things," Dylan continued, ignoring the interruption. "Now, they only get some of the ores from Cymric mines. The rest is filthy foreign muck. Not like our good stuff we used in my day."

"Faux xenophobia aside?" Madog pressed. Dylan waved a hand lazily.

"Their main customers are Phoenicians, like I say," he said, "but the important things here are who they then sell those things to. And buy the ores from originally. Now, I didn't have time to look beyond the last Half, but almost every ship they've sold to in that time has been listed as being on one of the same two routes."

"How do you know that?" Madog asked, impressed. This was sounding more and more mental by the second.

"Phoenician ships have serial numbers," Dylan shrugged. "It's all about the paperwork for them. We have Saxon troubles, they have pirate troubles. They get around it by a complicated system of paperwork and receipts and serial numbers and something called 'insurance'; it's not really important. Each ship gets listed by name and serial number in each port it arrives in, though, and the serial numbers contain the route numbers."

He should probably hand over Wingleadership to Dylan, Madog decided. Clearly he was better-equipped to being in charge. Apparently Madog was only good for pointing at Saxons and shouting 'Charge!' if the amount of work Dylan had achieved in an hour was anything to go by, and he was fairly certain even Calon could be trained to do that.

"And you know the route numbers," he said faintly. Dylan snorted.

"Of course not, you square," he said derisively. "What am I, Carthiginian? No. The dispossessed sailor knew. And he's a complete loser who's angry at his own government, so he told me."

Madog stared. "You made a Phoenician tell you the secrets of their trade routes?" He was definitely better equipped for leadership. They might as well just lock Dylan in a room with Flyn in that case, apparently everything would be sorted in an hour.

"No," Dylan snorted again. "What am I, divine? I just asked him where the routes go, not how to sail them. And I gave him a beer."

Oh. Well, that was actually sort of reassuring. For a second there, Madog had started to wonder if Dylan could secretly convince rain to fall upwards, which suggested all sorts of things about his heritage that Madog simply wouldn't have guessed, even if Dylan did have crazy hair.

"Go on," Dylan grinned suddenly, his tone the sort someone might use to try to tempt a cat or a stupid child. "Go on. Ask me the big question. You know you want to."

"Where do the ships go?" Madog asked dutifully, manfully resisting the urge to smack Dylan upside the head. Dylan sat up, his eyes alight with the information, and abruptly Madog knew the answer.

"Saxonia," Dylan said, with the air of a druid pulling a coin from behind someone's ear. "That's the previous stop for the ships that bring the ore shipments, almost every time, usually iron and tin. And it's the next stop for the outgoing ships carrying the jewellery and the kitchen stuff and -"

"The weapons," Madog finished quietly. He felt slightly sick, and tried to suppress the feeling of sudden, gnawing horror. "She's found a way around the trade embargo."

"Yes," Dylan nodded. "And it's not accidental. Everyone else in the Archipelago - well, and the mainland - all have signed agreements with the Phoenicians about where certain goods get sold afterwards. I mean, everyone sort of looks the other way like good little politicians about where the resources are sourced, and no one much cares if some Saxon loser dies wearing a Cymric brooch-pin, but weapons have to be signed for and assured for. I managed to get a look at Tregwylan's contract, though. It's differently worded from most. It's got loopholes."

Madog swore viciously. It didn't help. He tried again, but with the same result.

"I want nothing more than to go and arrest her right now," he ground out through gritted teeth. "With a copy of that trade agreement and the manifests and maybe even the weapons designs from here, and then I'll go and pluck one of those swords from a Saxon's cold dead hands and I might just behead her with it."

"I wouldn't," Dylan advised. "She's a small fish, remember? We want the bigger one. Also, we could only get hold of the evidence by making a big noisy fuss, and it might very well disappear then anyway. It would need to be a Rider from Tregwylan."

"Like Aerona," Madog said. The feeling of nausea wasn't abating. How many Cymric people had been killed by weapons from Tregwylan? How many Riders? How many villages burned down and ransacked? And why had no one noticed?

Because, a small voice in his head chimed in, you strut around eyeing up people's kidneys, remember? You see the whole world in black and white. You don't see the bigger picture. You leave that to other people to look at, and sort out, and regulate as best they can. And you're really not the only one.

"Like Aerona," Dylan agreed, snapping Madog back into the present. "She'll probably be able to amass far more than we could anyway."

"I should have seen all of this," Madog said quietly. The rain was moving in now, adding a muted whisper to the sounds around him and intensifying the metallic scent undercut with salt. The natural light from the window had gone grey, leaching all colour from the ocean and the stonework and the grim mountains of the Lleyn. It reflected his mood almost perfectly. "You're right. I think I'm living in this perfect world..."

"Actually, that's important," Dylan interrupted, his voice unusually somber. "You're not thinking again. If every Rider seemed happy to go along with anyone's conspiracies, literally no Sovereigns would ever stop conspiring. They need to be afraid of us. Most Riders need to be like you. Only a few are needed to be like Awen. Can you open wax without cracking it?"

"Can I what?" Madog looked back at Dylan who was standing again and stretching.

"Open wax without cracking it," he repeated. "On a letter. I want to know what Gwenda wants to tell Lord Iestyn."

"I can't, and if you tell me you can I'll cry," Madog said curtly. "To be honest, I'm just going to give it to Lord Iestyn and then badger him to tell me. Easier all round."

"Good idea," Dylan said mildly. "Can we eat now? I'm hungry, and Menna owes me a meddeglyn."

Sometimes, Madog truly envied Dylan's attention span.