Monday, 25 January 2010

Cymru - Chapter 30

The strange truth about Madog: he's impossible to write, I can't get a word out, struggle for days and then - suddenly, I have an immensely long chapter. Not sure what's going on there. Makes no sense. This chapter may or may not just end, therefore, since I realised how much of it there was and didn't read it back before posting. Ah, well. Madog, eh?


And there it was. Huddled below them as they swept around on the wind, clustering around both banks of the Afon Wysg as it fought its way through the most dangerous mudbanks in Cymru, the smoke drifting up from its seperated industrial sector in the south but never quite reaching the twisting streets that marked out the inns and houses. In all fairness to it it wasn't that bad; certainly better than a lot of Cities Madog had seen, particularly when Port Talbot entered the fray. But several days' worth of politics had left him viewing Casnewydd as a den of filth, and when not at full tide the Wysg was shit hideous. It didn't help.

He did like the seperate areas for industrial and private sectors, mind. That was good urban planning. It meant that the sprawl of factories, workshops and docks gave way to a sweep of shops, taverns and houses leading away from the riverfronts and up the hill to the Residence, a building that rather cleverly managed to be impressive in a modest way, rather than the in-your-face splendour of many Residences. It was also a gleaming white, making for easy sighting of the Landing Tower as the sun began to slowly set behind them. Madog marked the wind directions, gave the signal and dropped into his descent.

Fortunately, Flyn wasn't there as they landed, apparently content to wait to see them. A stable hand in depressingly formal robes stepped forward to greet him, catching Calon's reins and tickling her chin absent-mindedly.

"Good evening, Rider," he said. He was a pleasant-faced man in his forties, his Casnewydd accent so thick it could have cut glass. "Welcome to Casnewydd. My name is Aedd, and I'll be your stable hand if it pleases you."

"It does," Madog said, the long-practised words rolling off his tongue without any higher brain functions taking part. "Thank you," he added.

As usual, he and Dylan were the first off and ready to go. They waited in a quiet corner by the door as the traffic of people buzzed about them, Dylan apparently scanning the architecture of the ceiling and its pattern of cobwebs. Madog glanced at him, and thought about 'insights'.

"And he hasn't come to welcome us," he remarked dryly. "Should we be ofended at his lack of attention?" Dylan snorted, his roving gaze moving to a neat stack of wheelbarrows and pitchforks.

"Only in a general sense," he said diffidently. "I shouldn't think he welcomes anyone. Thinks he's above us. I'm hungry."

"Well, we're in time for dinner," Madog said absently. "So? Are you willing to actually come to this meeting, or have you decided that this whole process is below you?"

"Do you know, I'm torn?" Dylan said, grinning and actually looking Madog's way for a second before one of the native merod in the stalls caught his attention. "Because on the one hand I really want to hear him talk. But. I also want to find and talk to Awen."

"We're staying overnight," Madog shrugged. "There'll be time for both."

"True." Dylan stretched. "Hey, you want to hear an added level of complexity?"


"If Owain's gone rogue we may not be the only country wanting him."

Madog stared at Dylan.


"If everyone from the Phoenicians onwards wants to buy Riders these days, a rogue one will be shiny and attractive." Dylan's restless eyes switched to the stable they were leaning against. "It's so unlikely we won't kill him that I'm actually having trouble mentioining the possibility, whereas everyone else will be willing to pay him to fight for them, so he'll probably be in the market as soon as he realises. Everyone will be after him."

"It's best," Madog said carefully, "if I say nothing in response to that. It wouldn't give the people of Casnewydd a good impression of us."

"You don't anyway, you square," Dylan threw back. Madog sighed.

"Nor does your hair," he rejoined, his tone long-suffering. "Why does Flyn think he's above us, Dylan?"

"What?" Dylan glanced his way for the briefest of moments before examining a hay net. "I dunno. Old Family thing I expect; he thinks he should rule, we actually do but kind of don't, it annoys him, why are you asking me?"

"For your uncanny understanding of the world," Madog said neutrally, watching him. Dylan's grin seemed to be natural.

"I aim to please," he said, and then glanced at Madog, surprise flitting across his features. "What? You're staring, you freak."

"With that hair?" Madog said. "And you think I'm the freak?"

"Oh Madog," Dylan said, his voice deadpan. "You wound me so. Why? Why was I made to cry?"

"Shut up."

Everything was completely natural, completely normal, or at least normal for Dylan. Madog watched him. After a few seconds Dylan's gaze snapped back to him, and he gave Madog a Look.

"You're still staring, you socially deficient moron," he said. "What? What do you want?"

"Dylan," Madog said abruptly. "Is there some secret extra class of Rider that the rest of us don't know about?"

Dylan stared at him.

"How the hell should I know?" he asked blankly. "If there is it's secret, you complete retard, why would I-?"

"Because you're one of them," Madog said. Dylan snorted.

"Yeah," he grinned. "It's a Deputy thing. Owain was too, it's why he ran away from home. Don't turn your back, I've got a dagger ready and waiting for your throat. Then I'm off to help the Romans avenge themselves, they've got long memories."

"How do you know the things you do?" Madog asked bluntly. Dylan raised an eyebrow.

"I listened hard in school and did all of my homework on time," he said sardonically. "Seriously, now, what are you talking about?"

"You know things, Dylan," Madog said quietly. "You know you do. Politics? You've got the insider knowledge. New City? You know where to go and who to ask. New people? You know exactly which ones to trust and which ones to keep quiet in front of."

Dylan shrugged awkwardly, but Madog knew it was far from indicative of guilt. Most Riders squirmed when paid a compliment.

"It's a skill," he said. He was watching the activity of the people again; again, quite normal for Dylan. "An instinct, that's all -"

"And come to think of it," Madog continued, "it's always Riders you pick. Specific Riders. Like Aerona, who flew all across the country looking for Awen just to tell her specifically about the border warnings. Awen specifically. And of course, Awen herself."

"Madog," Dylan said, his tone bored. "Stop being weird. It's just a skill, and as you've pointed out, it's hardly unique to me."

"No," Madog agreed. "Which is sort of my point. Awen wasn't going to talk to us in Aberystwyth until she looked at you. Normally I'd ask if you'd noticed, but I really think you did."

"Yeah," Dylan grinned. "It's my animal magnetism. You mock this hair -"

"Dylan," Madog interrupted. "Is there some secret extra class of Rider that the rest of us don't know about?"

Dylan turned, and looked him fully in the eye. It was the second time in two days that had happened; Dylan must be growing up.

"Not that I'm aware of or part of," he said seriously, his voice low. Madog searched his face, but found nothing beyond an edge of alarmed concern. "Madog, where's this come from? Is this genuinely about Owain? Are you freaked out with Deputies now?"

"No," Madog said irritably. "I'm -"

"I wouldn't betray you," Dylan said, his voice intense. "I wouldn't, Madog. Ever. You do know that?"

Madog sighed, and mentally stepped back, pulling Dylan into a hug.

"I know," he said quietly. "I know."

"Group hug!" Glesni's voice said brightly, and abruptly another four pairs of arms wrapped themselves around them. There was a pause.

"I hate you, Madog," Dylan's voice said indistinctly from somewhere in the middle.


They were ushered in to see Lord Flyn almost as soon as they'd stripped off their flying leathers, presumably taking his final slot of free time before dinner. The room he met them in was, in Madog's opinion, unnecessarily ornate, a long wood-panelled affair with a carpet thick enough to swallow children and an enormous window at one end overlooking the City. The chairs surrounding the long table were generously cushioned, and seemed to be velvet-covered.

The fanfare that heralded him was opulent, too. Madog put on the most neutral face he could as they stood and a clerk stepped into the room, intoned "Lord Flyn, Sovereign of Casnewydd," and stepped aside.

He was almost as tall as Hannibal. That was always Madog's first thought; Flyn was generously over six feet, and his grey eyes viewed the world down the length of his half-Saxon nose, adding to the illusion. His expression was imperious as they bowed, the glinting smile that thanked them for the subservience uncomfortably edged with satisfaction, and he sat with the regality of an Emperor.

Madog's second moment of realisation was that a Casnewydd Rider had followed Flyn into the room, a broad shouldered man with curly black hair that was far more ruly than Dylan's, and was standing quietly against the back wall. That was interesting. He wondered what Dylan would make of it.

"Welcome, Riders," Lord Flyn said as they sat again. He even seemed tall sitting down. "I trust your journey was pleasant?"

"Very, thank you, Sovereign," Madog returned. "I am Leader Madog; this is Dylan, my Deputy."

"It's an honour, of course," Lord Flyn smiled, his gaze piercing. "And this is Leader Ioan of our Beta Wing, who will be watching over proceedings. I assure you this is no reflection on you, Rider. It's simply a security precaution my Alpha Wingleader has seen fit to put in place after this business with her Deputy."

"I understand, Sovereign," Madog said, throwing a Salute to Ioan, who winked and threw one back. "It's a sensible idea."

"Yes," Flyn agreed smoothly, only the tiniest flicker of his eyelids disagreeing. "Well then; to business, I think. Firstly, on the subject of Senedd operations, we have a proposal for the Open Floor."

"Any details yet, Sovereign?" Madog asked, picking up a pen and holding it ready over the relevant part of the page in front of him. Lord Flyn steepled his fingers and pressed them against his mouth, his gaze probing.

"None official," he said. "But, Leader, I understand that you've been experiencing increased Saxon activity around Wrecsam recently?"

The rage was intense, but somehow, Madog managed to hold himself back from launching himself at Flyn blade-first. Probably his twitch would merely look like battle anger at the absent Saxons. People had died. Madog had sifted through the bodies himself, the hideous process of laying out the dead and cleaning them up as best they could so that they could be claimed by their grieving siblings, children, parents. He'd helped move the charred remains of houses and possessions and people, trying to help the living salvage what they could to try to make a new life out of the shattered remains of the old. And this man had stood in the woods and talked to a Saxon, just in time for the raids to increase on Wrecsam, just when he wanted their support.

He stared at Flyn's probing, calculating expression, and wished to every god he had that he could have just killed him there and then.

"Yes, Sovereign," Madog said. Under the table Dylan's foot touched his, an invisible offering of support. Flyn nodded.

"My deepest condolences," Flyn said gravely. "We've been lucky down here; their apparent new enthusiasm doesn't seem to have come this far south yet."

"Thank you, Sovereign," Madog said. It hurt to say it. Flyn nodded, and there was palpable sympathy in his eyes.

"I intend to ask Lord Iestyn at the Archwiliad if he requires any extra aid," he said. "But we digress. I imagine you've encountered the dissenters in Wrecsam, too?"

"We have," Madog said. Flyn nodded again.

"Our proposal will help both of these issues, we feel," he said carefully. "But, as I say, we have no official details to share as of yet."

"I see." Woodenly, Madog wrote out the short notes onto the proposal sheet. "Thank you, Sovereign."

"Next on the agenda," Flyn said neatly, glancing down at the paper before him, "we intend to ask the Union to consider allowing Messengers to travel to other countries sometimes. Erinn, for example..."

The rest passed in the usual cloud of tedious boredom tempered with Madog's own undercurrent of anger that he was fighting not to show. Finally, a clerk passed an extra sheath of pages stapled together to Madog entitled 'Internal Requests', and the meeting was ready to roll to a close.

"And these," Lord Flyn finished, flashing a brief smile, "are Casnewydd's internal requests as you can see. Do you wish to run through them?"

Which was a standard question that every Sovereign asked at this point, since this was the really boring technical bit that Riders didn't need to look at. It was tempting to make the bastard sit and outline every single new policy, but Madog decided against it. The Wing was tired, and hungry. Dinner was next. He wanted to find Awen anyway. And if he did go through every point in those papers in front of Lord Flyn, and spot something he didn't like, there was every chance he was going to start getting Angry.

"No thank you, Sovereign," Madog declined, his smile tight. "I think this ends my appetite for politics."

"An excellent choice," Lord Flyn said, his tone smoothly friendly. "Well, I'll have you shown to your quarters and see you at dinner, Riders! Thank you for coming."

He stood, several aides sweeping forward to tend to him, and the Wing followed suit.

"Enjoy your stay," Flyn said. Madog bowed.

"Thank you, Sovereign," he said, and Lord Flyn swept from the room, followed by his entourage and an impressively blank-faced Ioan. A clerk, a ginger-haired woman in her fifties, stayed behind, politely deferential.

"I'll show you to your quarters if you wish, Riders," she said, giving them a far more genuine than Lord Flyn's. "They aren't far."

"Oh, that'd be nice," Glesni said, yawning and stretching. "I think I just want to lie on a bed. Even if only for a minute."

"We'd be honoured, thank you," Madog told the clerk. "I'm Madog, by the way."

"Oh. Gwawr," the woman said, looking slightly surprised. "This way. We've already put the belongings you brought with you there."

She led them out and up, towards the top floor of the Residence, which was sort of exciting and exotic for the Wing. Practice in the Northlands was for Wing quarters to be around the middle, since the merod were stabled around a central courtyard halfway up the Residences instead of in Landing Towers. Here in the Southlands the merod actually lived in the Landing Towers, and the Riders slept on the top levels accordingly.

The quarters were different, too, but every bit as comfortable as back home. The Wing practically stampeded in as soon as Gwawr had the door open for them, leaving Madog to give her a ruefully apologetic smile.

"They're animals, I know," he said. "I'm so sorry. I promise they're housetrained, though."

"Oh, I've seen worse, Rider." She smiled. "Relax and enjoy your stay. Dinner will be in about half an hour, I should think."

"Thank you." Madog closed the door behind her, sighed, and nearly ran smack into Dylan as he turned around.

"Hello," Dylan said. "My name is Dylan and I'm standing here."

"Yes," Madog said. "Yes, you are. Other people would have chosen a spot that wasn't directly between me and the rest of the room of course."

"I'm an individual," Dylan said. "I'm hungry. I think Awen's going to find us."

"Here?" Madog said, glancing at the rest of the Wing. Glesni was now at full stretch on one of the sofas, placidly ignoring Caeron as he moved her legs out of the way and onto his lap as he sat down. Bronwen was already examining the gwyddbwyll set. Hefin and Medi were fighting on the floor. All in all, they'd very much made themselves at home already.

Which meant that if Awen did come in here it would be... weird. Wingleaders existed purely in a world of hierachies. Everyone was either someone they gave orders to or someone whose orders they obeyed. Alpha Wingleader, therefore, was, socially speaking, an odd job. You didn't have peers. You never entirely knew how to react with each other.

The answer to which was, usually, that you scrambled for anything that would establish who had seniority in any given situation. Here, it ought to be Awen, since it was in almost every sense her City. But in this room, with his Wing colonising, he'd be in charge. Another odd power struggle that neither wanted.

"Yeah," Dylan shrugged. "Probs. The fireplace is ugly. It's her City, she'll know we're here, unless she's really busy right now she'll turn up. Well done, btw."

"For what?" Madog asked, blankly. Dylan flashed him a grin before turning around and walking away, heading for the bedrooms.

"Not punching Lord Flyn over the raid comment," he said. "It was masterful. Get changed, you look like the arcane produce of a tramp and a bear."

"Offspring," Madog said, aware he sounded vaguely reproachful as he followed Dylan to the bedrooms, and the siren call of clean clothes. "Produce is for plants."

"Oh Madog," Dylan intoned. "So many puns, so little time."

"Shut up."

He opted for the formal-but-not-super-formal uniform and basked in the feeling of it against his skin, and five minutes later he was just sinking into a chair when there was a knock at the door. It was the sort of knock Madog didn't commonly hear on the doors of Riders; there was no hesitant, deferential reluctance, just a set of firm taps that proclaimed a bedrock of confidence behind them. Madog smiled, and went to answer it.

Awen grinned as door swung open, Saluting with her free arm as she leaned against the doorframe with the other. She looked, Madog noted, absolutely beautiful. Clearly her Wing had returned, and Expressed Their Feelings.

"Leader," she said pleasantly. He returned the Salute, and also noted the deferential title. "Welcome to Casnewydd! Has anyone implied you're a filthy Northlander yet?"

"Yeah, but it was Dylan," Madog sniffed. "So, you know, I'm not holding it against you guys. Come in, come in. Although I don't know why I'm inviting you, it's your City."

"Your room, for now," Awen shrugged, stepping inside. Her shoulder seemed better, Madog thought. "Although we will have it druidically cleansed tomorrow of heinous Northlander influences, because actually, we do all think you're filthy."

"It's Dylan's hair, isn't it?" Glesni said from the sofa, her eyes still closed. "We always have this problem. Things live in it."

"Dylan, for example," Awen offered solemnly, which was the point in the proceedings that Awen sold herself to Madog's Wing and got a round of applause. "Speaking of whom, I've not been hit with a witty comeback, yet. Where is he?"

"Getting changed, I think," Madog shrugged. "Or he may have passed out full-length on the bed much as Glesni has, there. It's been a long day. And politics were involved."

"Get Dylan to stab you," Awen advised. "It worked for me, I only did half of the Sovereigns this year. Could I have a word? It won't take long."

"Of course." Madog glanced at the rest of the Wing. "Watch this. Everyone, get out."

No one moved. Bronwen gave him the finger. Awen laughed.

"You see?" Madog said proudly. "Most disobedient Wing in the country. I really meant it. Come on; we'll use a bedroom."

He led her across to the door to the bedroom corridor and held it open for her, motioning her through ahead of him. Inside she paused, scanning the doors.

"Which is yours?" she asked.

"This one." Madog slipped ahead of her again and opened the door to his borrowed room, holding out an arm to gesture to it unnecessarily. "Do you want Dylan for this? I warn you, if you say no he'll probably sneak in and hide under the bed to listen anyway."

"Really?" Awen grinned. "Then I'm almost tempted to say no to see him try it. But yes - I need him too."

And Madog could have sworn that she glanced - for the briefest, tiniest moment - at the door to Dylan's room.

So, Madog thought as he smiled and kicked the door lazily a few times. Awen had made sure she knew where to find Dylan. Interesting.

Or he was seeing things that weren't there. It was a possibility. Dylan had seemed genuinely upset earlier.

"Stop kicking my door, you loser," Dylan's voice said now, muffled through the wood. "I know that's you, Madog. Learn to knock. You're an ingrate."

"I'm so sorry," Madog told Awen. "He's mentally retarded, doesn't know what he's saying. Open up, Dylan. Awen's here."

"I'm naked, and probably won't compare favourably to your Phoenician," Dylan called back. Awen looked at him, interested.

"You had a Phoenician?" she asked. Madog nodded.

"Yeah, last night."

"Canaanite or Nubian?"


"Lucky," Awen grinned. She paused for a second. "And was he -?"

"Oh yeah," Madog nodded solemnly as Awen laughed. "Yes, he was."

"He offered to show me," Dylan said, the door opening. His hair was wet, weighted down to being slightly more tamed than normal by the water, and he'd only thrown on a loose pair of pyjama bottoms, leaving himself bare-chested to the waist and giving the world a good view of the scarred, inked muscle. Ordinarily Riders on the border covered up; it wasn't a vanity thing, just a belief that people shouldn't have to see the price they paid for not fighting Saxons themselves. Riders were glad to pay it for them. But Awen probably looked much the same under her uniform, so the taboo was gone. It was a strangely bonding experience.

"Did you accept?" Awen asked now. Dylan grinned at her and shook his head, drops of water flying everywhere.

"Nah. Madog would have sulked. Doesn't like to share." He stepped back from the door. "Come into my boudoir. Have the rest of the Wing seen you?"

"Most of them, I should think," Awen said, moving straight to the window sill and hopping elegantly onto it. Madog sat on the bed. "But it's okay, I'm allowed out on my own these days, so they won't tell on me."

"Your Wing have done a good job on you," Dylan explained, his grin evil. "So by the time Madog goes back out there they'll have the make-up ready and waiting. Can I curl your hair?"

"No," Madog said sternly. "Because, you see, I under no circumstances want to look like you. Get dressed."

"I'm sexy this way," Dylan told him, but he got up and started hunting through his pack for a clean uniform anyway. "Gwenda's selling weapons to the Saxons."

Awen's breath hissed through her teeth.

"Is she?" she asked, her voice even. "This is going to be quite the Archwiliad to remember. Can it be proven?"

"I reckon." A pair of socks sailed onto the bed beside Madog from Dylan's searching hand. "With a bit of help from Madog's Phoenician."

"Hannibal?" Madog looked at him in surprise. "What? Why him?"

"Because," Dylan said, in the tone of an irritating child explaining something deeply obvious to a stupid child, "he wants an Audience at the Archwiliad, for something the Union doesn't need to listen to. If he's willing to supply evidence for us he won't get overlooked."

Madog bit his lip.

"I'm not sure that would be enough to convince a Phoenician to part with trading secrets," he said. "And anyway, wouldn't that make for a somewhat unreliable witness? It's basically bribery."

"Depends what we're asking for," Awen said thoughtfully. "What do we want here, route numbers?"

"And serial numbers," said Dylan, standing up with the rest of his uniform finally. "Look away, Madog. You need at least a month to forget."

"Shut up."

"Route and serial numbers are okay," Awen said, staring at the stonework beside her, thinking. "Those wouldn't help anyone sail them, which is what the Phoenicians really safeguard. If we're really lucky, he'll have a nice official handbook with the official route numbers laid out. Otherwise... we'll need to take some of the weapons from some Saxons..."

She trailed off. Dylan sniffed.

"You can look again, Madog," he said, closing his belt. "And I know you desperately want to. Her trading contract has a loophole, anyway, so it's already enough for a caution. What's Flyn been doing with Saxons?"

Awen's eyes went dark. Madog felt himself getting tense just looking at her.

"Saxonia," she said, the edge of contempt just about audible, "has its own problems right now. And a lot of them. We don't have time for me to go into it now, but; Flyn has become best friends with a Saxon called Coenred, who is the ambitious power-hungry type. He's the king of a kingdom just over the border and a bit north of here."

"A kingdom?" Madog asked. "What -?"

"A lot like one of our City-states," Awen said, waving a dismissive hand. "The man who rules is very important to them. Anyway. In recent times Coenred has been a busy lad. He's seized control of the two kingdoms to the north of his and merged them all into one under his control. He basically rules the full length of the border, now. And for the last month, two months, he's redirected his warriors to the north."

"I knew it," Madog spat, venomously. Dylan's hands froze for a moment on the buttons on his collar. "Do you know he actually sat there, today, in that meeting room, and gave me his condolences?"

"I'm sorry," Awen said quietly, rubbing her eyes. Suddenly, for the first time, she seemed painfully young. "I should have seen this a long - anyway. I came to ask for your help, actually."

Madog stood, and walked across to her, placing a firm hand on her shoulder.

"It's not your fault," he said intently. "What do you need?"

She smiled, a hint of mischief sidling into her eyes.

"A diversion," she said.


It turned out that Dylan had been right, and before he could go to dinner Madog had been forced to fight off the rest of the Wing fussing over what he looked like. Fortunately, hunger and a few well-aimed orders had prevailed, and he'd managed to escape before it could turn into a three-hour session of beauty therapy and wardrobe choices. Awen, heartless bitch, had simply laughed and left him to take it. Which seemed unfair; the least she could have done was stick around for Wingleader solidarity, especially given that it was her fault. But then, she had a lot to organise.

The night air was cool, and a refreshing change from the warm, slightly dank atmosphere of the tavern as Madog and Adara pushed their way outside, followed by Riders of assorted Alpha Wings. The rain that had forced them to stay in Tregwylan the night before had apparently blown itself out back west, the night sky above Casnewydd a serene star-scene that was completely clear of clouds, allowing the moon's full benefit. Madog looked up at it as the door to the tavern closed behind them, abruptly cutting off the chatter of dozens of merrily raised voices. Would that much moonlight help, tonight? Or would that make it harder for "Owain" to escape? Well; Caeron could handle it. Hopefully Adara would manage to remember he wasn't genuinely Owain, and the poor lad wouldn't end up beheaded.

"Genuinely beheaded, though?" Madog said now, fascinated. "With just your hands?"

"Yes!" Llio said, and Adara smacked her upside the head.

"No," she said, throwing the giggling other members of her Wing a withering look. "They keep telling people this, and then I sound like a psychotic episode. Not my bare hands, I don't sharpen my fingers."

"Right," Madog said cautiously. "But, I note, you aren't explaining what you did use...?"

"No," Llio giggled. She'd integrated into Madog's Wing well; Emyr in particular seemed rather taken with her. Madog wasn't expecting them to be in separate rooms tonight. "She tries to avoid it, because then everyone knows she's a psychotic episode."

"What did you - ?"

"Cheesewire," Adara sighed, and Madog and Emyr's jaws dropped as the others laughed. "It wasn't... intentional, not really. I just happened to have some on me."

"You just happened to have cheesewire on you?" Emyr said, incredulous. They turned onto the final road up to the Residence, the walls looming above them in the moonlight, six hundred yards away. "Why on earth did you have cheesewire on you? I don't think I've ever had cheesewire on me under any circumstance, but particularly not in battle."

"I forget," Adara said vaguely, waving a hand. "But there we are, end of story, I'm not a freak -"

"Except," Caradog broke in slyly, throwing a massive arm about the width of Madog's head around his and Adara's shoulders, "you're glossing over the important bit. I've gone into battle with horseshoe nails in my pockets, see, but - I've never thought to use them."

"I had a head that needed removing, the cheesewire was expedient," Adara sniffed. "Screw you all. And I'd lost my sword. I'm creative."

"Don't you also have a killer bird?" Madog asked mildly. The Residence was closer now, and the adrenaline was starting to seep into his system, sharpening his focus as he tried not to look up at the walls. He wondered if Adara was feeling the same. Or Llio or Caradog; Awen had told them that they were going to pretend to chase Owain, but nothing more. He wondered if not knowing the reason behind it all took some of the tension away.

"Yes," Adara said. "But that's perfectly normal too. Lots of falconers have birds."

"Yes," Llio giggled. "But -"

"Is that - someone on the wall?" Emyr said suddenly, and the entire group looked sharply upwards, following his pointing finger, levity instantly evaporating. Madog's heart leaped.

Sure enough, the dim shape of someone wearing a cloak was carefully climbing up the Residence wall from one of the house roofs at its base, picked out by the moonlight. Madog hoped it was Caeron. If not, some poor cat burglar was in for the shock of his life.

"Owain," Adara said, stepping forward; like magic Llio and Caradog shadowed her movement, carefully sliding blades from sheathes. "Owain!"

The shout rang out through the buildings, Adara's voice echoing back as she moved, already scaling the nearest drainpipe onto another roof. The figure at the Residence dropped back down, rolling as it landed far too neatly and elegantly to be anything other than a Rider, and everyone sprang into action.

"Get the others!" Caradog was roaring at Llio, already following Adara; Llio fled back the way they'd come to the tavern. Emyr was moving toward another drainpipe, looking over his shoulder at Madog.

"Go!" Madog yelled. "I'll tell Awen!"

He turned and ran. The streets were well-kept, so there was no need to take to the rooftops himself; the adrenaline pounded through his veins, powering him on. It combined headily with the enormity of what he was doing. In maybe a minute, he was going to outright lie to a Sovereign. And not with any Union sanction. It was insane.

He didn't even notice the incline. The run was good, the action a soothing and familiar counterpoint to the situation. The cool night air burned his lungs, balm to the physical stress. What exactly would happen if the Union found out? Would the Union find out? If Madog was right, of course, about Awen and Dylan and all of the others, then presumably they'd understand the course of action. Or would they? Was it a step too far? Was involving Madog anyway a step too far?

He almost slammed into the doors, the guards watching him coming with astonished expressions only just getting them open in time - Madog thanked the gods for the uniform - and he skidded to a halt for an instant in the enormous entrance hall, looking around wildly. A clerk carrying a ledger gave him an alarmed look.

"Rider?" she asked. "Can I help -?"

"Leader Awen," Madog said urgently, as though there was a human being alive in Casnewydd who couldn't instantly identify Awen's name. "Where is she?"

"The kitchens, I believe," the clerk said. Madog liked her; she didn't waste time asking questions. "Quickest through that door, first right and keep going. You'll catch her if you hurry."

"Thanks," Madog said, and sprinted for the proffered door. He doubly liked the clerk. She'd sent him through the servants' passages, nowhere near as opulent as he was probably meant to see but a far shorter route. A man with his arms full of fresh linen scuttled out of his way as Madog all but flew past, his pounding footfalls echoing loudly on the stone.

The corridor seemed endless. Finally, Madog reached the plain wooden door set in the end and burst through it into the kitchens, a huge room lined with ovens and food bins and worktops and filled with benches and tables. One table was thronging with people folding napkins and polishing cuttlery, who looked up in alarm at his abrupt entrance, the door banging off the wall, but he ignored them. The noise the door made had activated the person he needed; towards the back of the room Awen had half-risen from a seat, opposite a clerk, one hand holding a file, the other dropping to her belt. Their eyes met.

"Owain," Madog said, and she leapt over the bench, weaving swiftly through the silently watching people. She still held the file. "We think we saw him outside, climbing up the wall."

"Anyone after him?" Awen asked, her voice sharp but calm, and Madog was suddenly in awe. Was he acting this that well? Nothing was wrong with her reaction. She was all commander, all Alpha Wingleader, urgent but in control and demanding the details. Actors couldn't act that well.

"All of both Wings by now, I should think," Madog said, pulling the door back open again as she approached. "Adara and Caradog just behind."

"Really?" The tiniest, briefest hesitation was visible in Awen's stride, and then the focus was back. "They'll get him. We need to get Lord Flyn."

Perfect. So perfect, Madog found himself reacting to it as though it was real.

"Sure?" he said. "I can get him if you want to join them."

"I'd love to," Awen said bitterly, finally reaching him. "But sadly I need to prioritise. This way."

And they were off again, Madog wondering if Awen had missed her true calling to take to the stage. She led him a different way, up several flights of unadourned stone stairs on which more than a few servants had to jump out of the way, although Awen threw an apology back every time they did it because acting aside she was still a Rider. By the time they reached the top of the sixth Madog's legs were just starting to ache, his breath finally coming noticeably more quickly, although both were easily ignored. They hurtled through another door and abruptly the colour scheme shifted back from grey and stone to red and wood, the servants' area giving way to the aristocratic part of the Residence. Awen sprinted to a grand oaken door opposite and hauled it open.

Inside were Lord Flyn's quarters. Madog was familiar with the set-up; there would be several suites of rooms for visiting nobles, a library, an office, a few meeting rooms. Various anonymous members of Flyn's personal staff were inside, all quietly busy, clerks and trumpeters and two burly-looking men who straightened abruptly at their fast entrance and looked far too guilty. Which probably meant they knew about Alis; indeed, it probably meant they had brought her up. Madog itched to kill them.

"Everyone out," Awen ordered, marching straight through. "All of you, right now. Go down to the kitchens, go."

The room cleared almost instantly. People didn't disobey fretful Riders. Madog resisted the urge to stab the two men as they followed, and locked the door quickly behind them as they went. Fortunately, the key to every room along the corridor was in its lock, so he turned them all as Awen strode down to the end to Flyn's bedroom, and then ran to catch up.

"My lord!" Awen hammered on the door. There was now no one in the corridor but them, but if he hadn't known that the entire situation had been orchestrated by Awen Madog would have been completely taken in. Her body was tense, twitching with every sound, her expression a stony mask dropped over urgency and anxiety. When there was no immediate answer from within her eyes whipped between Madog and the door, her shoulders tensing, only to relax very slightly with relief as Flyn answered.

"Leader?" his voice called calmly. "Is something wrong?"

"Yes, my lord," Awen said, the urgent seriousness back again in place of the relief. "I need you to let me in, right now."

"One moment." It was hard to tell through the wood, but Flyn's voice seemed to be grave but calm. Madog wondered if everyone in Casnewydd was a secret thesbian. Awen had put one hand, fingers clenched into a fist, onto the wall beside her head, and was actually tapping it slightly with impatience. There was a pause of a few seconds, and then the sound of a key turning in a smoothly oiled lock reached them, and the door opened.

Flyn looked almost immaculate, much as he had at dinner. He'd taken off the torque of office, but he still wore the elaborate brocade tunic, blue with purple trim, and the knee-high leather boots that looked as though he exchanged them for a fresh pair every half hour to keep out the creases. His face was suitably serious but enquiring; but, as Awen pushed her way into the room past him, moving straight to the window, Madog saw Flyn's nostrils flare, just for a moment. He did not like a non-deferential Awen. Madog tried not to grin as he followed more sedately.

"All secure?" he asked Awen, who was running her fingers along the window seals, the file lying forgotten on the sill. She glanced back and nodded, tension still evident in every movement.

"As far as I can tell," she said. "But I want to be certain. My lord? Owain was seen a few minutes ago trying to break into the Residence."

"Indeed?" Flyn looked somber, his sharp eyes fixing onto Awen. "You believe I am a target?"

"I'd rather not find out, my lord," Awen said evenly. "I need to move you until we've found him."

"Very well," Flyn sighed. "I assume you're moving me to the Riders' Quarters, then? They're - "

"No, my lord," Awen said, and hesitated. Internally, Madog's interest was peaked. He'd assumed the same thing; where was she putting him? "He knows his way around them too well, and I want to be sure."

"I see," said Flyn, carefully blankly. "Then where am I going?"

"The dungeons," Awen said, and Madog froze, even his throat closing up in a sudden, desperate attempt not to laugh. And she was still looking perfectly natural. How was she doing that? How? She looked professional, tense, slightly regretful at the news but utterly convinced by the necessity for it. "I suggest you take down whatever bedding with you that will fit into your arms, my lord, because it won't be pleasant."

"I should imagine not," Flyn said sharply, his eyes trained on Awen. "I must protest, Rider. You cannot expect me - "

"I'd prefer you alive and discomfitted than comfortably dead, my lord, " Awen threw back levelly, with a bardic turn of phrase."I'd recommend the thickest blankets you have. It's cold down there."

"Rider," Flyn said, his tone quiet and dangerous. Madog's jaw nearly dropped at the challenge. Flyn had even taken a small step forward. "I am not going down to a room used to hold criminals, with no heating, furnishings or sanitation."

"Then the next time you build your dungeons, Sovereign, you may wish to remember to make them comfortable enough that you wouldn't mind spending time in one," Awen returned, and Madog was treated to a real-life example of When Height Doesn't Make You The Most Intimidating Person In A Stand-Off. Awen had turned to face Flyn fully and taken a step forward of her own; but rather than wasting any time trying to make herself seem as tall as him, she'd moved into predator stance, weight on the balls of her feet, ready to spring. Her hand wasn't quite moving to the hilt of the hunting knife in her belt, but her fingers were flexing beside it. And she'd just called him 'Sovereign'. In Rider terms, she'd just done the equivalent of raising her hackles, baring her teeth and snarling. "I repeat. I am not about to let you die for the sake of your material comfort. You are somewhat important, my lord."

Flyn continued the stare-out for a second more, and then turned away abruptly.

"Very well," he said, quietly, but Awen's last comment had been well-judged. "Thank you, Leader."

He pulled the quilts off his bed, Madog hastily taking them to speed things up which also helped to molify Flyn slightly more, and Awen chivvied them out. As they filed into the corridor Flyn paused for a moment, and turned back to the door.

"I'd best lock it," he said, pulling a key out of his pocket. "There are documents in there that had best not be seen before the Archwiliad."

"Go ahead," Awen said, her calm tone underlined with impatient anxiety as she glanced down the corridor. It was incredible. That was talent, Madog felt. And it was working. He saw the tiny glint of smugness in Flyn's eyes as he locked the door and pocketted the key.

The walk back downstairs was taken at a slower pace than their ascent, and went through the fancy part of the Residence rather than the servants' passages. It was still undertaken at a brisk walk, however, Awen marching slightly ahead of them and scanning every corridor and room they passed through with professional thoroughness. They arrived at the dungeons in surprisingly little time, and Awen vanished into a side room for a second to grab a key and a lamp.

"Only one free at the moment," she said, motioning them on. "This way. It's awful, but you'll have room to move around in, my lord. Most of these are just cupboards."

"A silver lining to every cloud," Flyn said placidly. "I presume this is a temporary measure, anyway?"

"Certainly, my lord," Awen said. They were approaching the end of the corridor, Madog noted, but they didn't seem to be aiming for any of the doors. He wondered what on earth Awen was doing with her Sovereign. "He was closely pursued. I'll be surprised if it takes as long as a few hours."

"Very well," Flyn said, and then even he looked around with sharp bemusement as they passed the final door. All that was left in the corridor was a round grating set into the floor. The mingled scents of sweat and blood and sewage were getting stronger. "Leader, we seem to have passed all of the doors."

"It's awful, as I say," Awen said, her apologetic grimace so good that Madog momentarily wondered if she'd forgotten all of Flyn's evil. "I'm sorry, my lord. But it's completely secure, and as I say, it's the only one that gives you room to lie down and move around in."

She crouched down and unlocked the grating. Madog fought his own lungs not to laugh. He didn't dare look at Flyn.

"Lucky you had it free," Madog offered, as deadpan as he could. Awen picked up the lamp and stepped down into the hole; it seemed a set of stone steps led down into the darkness.

"Previous occupants died the day before yesterday," she said, not looking back. "The charge was Saxon collusion, though, so don't be too distraught. Watch your step, my lord."

This time he did look at Flyn's face. His expression had frozen over, unnaturally blank. He knew who Awen meant.

It turned out that most of the smell in the corridor had come from this cell. Madog spread out the rich blankets onto the filthy straw in the corner as best he could in the flickering lamplight, and then stood back. Awen handed Lord Flyn the lamp.

"Well," Flyn smiled thinly. "Needs must, I suppose. Enjoy your hunt, Leader."

"If you wish, my lord, I'll bring you his fingers as punishment for the inconvenience," Awen said mildly, turning and making straight for the stairs, not stopping to bow. Madog followed, trying not to raise an eyebrow at the humour. "It would be my pleasure."

"You are generous to a fault, Leader," Flyn said wryly. "But please, don't trouble yourself on my account."

"As you wish, my lord," Awen said, leaping nimbly up the steps two at a time. "I'll be back as soon as I physically can. It shouldn't be long."

And she locked the grating back in place, turned, and strode away down the corridor. Madog drew level.

"What next?" he asked, his head still spinning slightly from the rush of locking a Sovereign in a death hole. "On foot or wing?"

"Wing," Awen said, leading him back into the servants' passages and onto a long spiral staircase. "Moon's bright tonight, so hopefully we'll get something. He took his meraden when he left, so presumably he flew in. If the others are chasing him on foot they'll need aerial support."

As they climbed, Madog watched Awen's back. The urgent tension was still there, now accompanied with the sort of dark purpose that he'd expect from a woman setting her sights on hunting down a man who'd betrayed her. And still, it was completely and utterly believeable. Unnervingly so. Almost enough to make him think that she'd forgotten the whole thing was a set-up.

So... how much of what he'd seen of Awen was real? That was a strange question that suddenly Madog found himself having to ask. If she was this believable when he knew for a fact that she was lying, how, technically, did he know she'd been telling the truth the rest of the time? It was an uncomfortable thing to think about another Rider. And paticularly another Alpha Wingleader.

But actually... Madog considered his Theory. If Awen and Dylan and Aerona and the gods only knew who else all belonged to some secret extra class, that no one else was ever supposed to know about... they must all be able to lie like this. They must have all been trained for it. After all, there was only so much anyone should be able to hide from their Wingleader. If Dylan could lie like this, like Awen currently was, then of course Madog had never noticed. This was acting so complete that you just couldn't see the cracks. Which made him feel a lot less like a complete tool for not noticing.

They waited until they were in the air, and therefore definitely away from anyone who could listen, before talking properly.

"Well, that went well," Awen called, her smile wry in the moonlight as they coasted onto a thermal. "I wonder if he'll forgive me."

"As soon as I tell him, you'll be Dylan's new god, you know," Madog grinned. "A cell? Leader! You have spirit when angered."

She laughed, the sound lilting and rich and completely devoid of all of the stressed anxiety and simmering anger of moments before.

"Poetic irony," she said. "I know. I shouldn't have. I was just going to make Ioan watch over him. Sometimes I have no willpower."

"I can't believe we've just done this, though," Madog said, watching Awen as best he could given that they were flying and wings kept getting in the way. "Seriously. What have we done? We just locked up a Sovereign without formally arresting him."

"I know!" she sounded almost dazed for a second, as though a heady rush of adrenaline was about to make her giggle. "Oh gods, what have we done? No. No, it's okay. It was necessary, it's sadly temporary."

"How long are we giving it, exactly?" Madog asked, glancing back down at the Residence. Awen made a choked sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob and leaned forward, resting her forehead on her enormous meraden's neck. He snorted, swishing his tail.

"I don't know," she said. There was a slight edge to her voice, as though she was fighting down hysteria. "I... oh gods. Give it an hour or so, I think. We'll meet up with the others, get him out, put him back, let him..."

She trailed off, and Madog wished suddenly that they weren't flying. The memory of Hannibal was sudden, and poignant.

Everyone has a breaking point, my friend. Everyone. But you'd never notice yourself reaching yours.

"Awen," Madog called seriously. "I'm about to ask you something incredibly important, one Alpha Wingleader to another. I need a completely honest answer."

Awen sat up wearily, steering her meraden gently into a smoother flightpath, and glanced across.

"What is it?" she asked. The control was slamming back into place in her voice, moment of weakness being pushed aside in favour of handling whatever he had to say.

"Are you okay?" Madog asked quietly. And just briefly, for one tiny, infinitesimal moment, he saw just how not okay she was.

And then she gave him a tired smile, and nodded.

"Yeah," she said. "Tired and stressed, but, yeah. I'm fine."

He didn't call her on it.

They flew in silence for a moment, and then finally, Awen started to laugh.

"What?" Madog asked, looking across. "Did you put rosehips in his bedding and have only just remembered?"

"Not quite," she chuckled evilly. "But I didn't fill up that lamp."


The cell in the ground was indeed dark by the time Madog and Awen arrived back again, three and a half hours later. Madog had been fully expecting them to return in half the time, but it seemed Awen really did have spirit when angered. She took a deep breath, exchanged a wry smile with Madog, and knelt down.

"My lord?" she called clearly. Her voice was steady, but tinged with weary disappointment. Madog unlocked the grating. "He's gone. You can come back up."

"Thrilling news," Lord Flyn's voice responded tightly. "With alacrity, please. When you say 'gone' -?"

"Escaped over the border, my lord," Awen said grimly. "Which explains a lot."

"I wish we knew what he was planning," Madog said, hauling back the grating with a shriek of metal on stone. "What on earth can he be doing with Saxons? And... why?"

"I generally find it best not to query the decisions of the clearly mad, Rider," Flyn said, rising out of the hole as fast as he could while maintaining his dignity. Madog stood as well.

"You're probably right, Sovereign," he said, but Flyn wasn't listening. He had drawn himself up to his full and impressive height and had his eyes trained sharply on Awen, who had stayed on the floor and turned her posture into a full kneel. Madog waited for him to tell her to rise.

"I was planning on being exceptionally angry with you, Leader," he said, his voice quietly imperious. "But I find I haven't the heart. This must be extremely hard for you."

"Not as hard as it will be for him, my lord," Awen said neutrally. The edge of weariness remained, but was joined by a tiny dusting of humour. "But I believe we've had this conversation."

Let her get up, Madog thought incredulously. Lord Flyn barked a laugh.

"True, true," he said, stretching. "Well. I find myself suddenly in need of a hot shower, followed by a long bath. And then I believe I shall burn that bedding with extreme enjoyment."

And she was still on the floor. It was jaw-dropping. Dylan would have been pointedly rubbing his knees by now. Madog found himself having to resist the urge to physically pull Awen to her feet himself in shared affront.

"An excellent plan, my lord," Awen smiled, apparently supremely unconcerned with the staggeringly blatant power trip. "Would you like me to arrange for some bards to entertain you while you do? You could make an evening of it."

"Perhaps not," Flyn said, his lips quirking, and finally he looked away from her. "Rise, Leader. My bathroom calls to me."

"My lord." Awen stood and they strode down the corridor, away from the cell.

"On the subject of bards," Flyn said, looking at Awen, his expression slightly odd, "it strikes me that I haven't heard you sing in quite some time, Leader."

Awen glanced at him, surprised.

"No, my lord," she said thoughtfully. One hand caught her beads involuntarily. "I don't think I've sung for anyone in quite some time, though. I've been busy."

"A pity," Flyn said. His tone, Madog felt, was distressingly reminiscent of a stalker telling his victim how much he cared about her. "You do it so well."

"I remember hearing you sing," Madog mused as they re-entered the Residence and started up the main staircase. "A visit to the Union or so ago. What do you play, in all?"

"Anything with strings, really," Awen shrugged, which was as traditionally Cymric as it could possibly have been. Bards loved strings. If it had strings it was bloody god-sent. "Ill-advised in a job where I'm likely to lose my fingers, mind. I think I remember that, though. You treated my meraden for a broken wing bone in the same visit, so I think we swapped specialisms."

"How diplomatic of us," Madog said mildly. "And how fortunate it was me and not Dylan. As a marksman his trade would have been to shoot you in the eye at twenty paces."

"Deputies, eh?" Awen grinned. "A case study in social ineptitude, one and all. Anyway; I'm increasing your guard to having someone present with you at all times, my lord. I'm thinking you'll prefer this to living in that cell."

"Somewhat," Flyn said, his tone slightly guarded. "Although how inclusive is 'at all times'? Every time I sleep? Every time I bathe?"

"Yes, my lord," Awen said, meeting his arched gaze unflinchingly. "But I assure you, Riders have an extremely casual attitude to nudity, it'll be unobtrusive."

"Yes, I know," Flyn sighed. "It's well-documented, Leader."

It was. Madog had never understood the fuss surrounding it, either; but clearly it was a cultural thing. After all, four hours ago Dylan had unabashedly stripped off in front of Madog and Awen, and none of them had so much as blinked.

They arrived back at Lord Flyn's bedroom door which he unlocked with a small amount of satisfaction, apparently happy that no one had been inside for a quick rifle through his stuff. Or, Madog thought with venom, for a quick go on the girl in his cupboard that he was apparently saving. Not for the first time, he wished he could just stab Flyn.

"Right," Awen said as they moved in, crossing to the window sill and reaching for the file she'd left there earlier, a page paperclipped to the front fluttering in the breeze. "I'll send Ioan up now, or whoever he's got on schedule -"

She broke off and froze, one hand on the file, her body language shifting from 'normal' to 'alert' so fast that Madog was carried straight along with it, his stance altering and looking around the room before he even realised he had.

"What's wrong?" he asked, putting a hand on Lord Flyn's arm and moving in front of him slightly, the other fingering one of the swords at his back. Awen ran a hand down the window and it swung open easily.

"That was shut," she said, turning to face the room, and in an interesting First Discovery about Awen Madog noted, with the alert and fighting part of his brain, that her hand didn't naturally stray to the seven-inch hunting knife at her belt. He wondered if she preferred hand-to-hand fighting. "And we lost him for an hour or so before he went over the border."

The trouble with Awen acting this well, of course, was that she was pushing his instincts to the fore. Madog pushed Lord Flyn back against the wall with a hand on his chest to keep him there before he'd really thought about it, drawing one sword and watching Awen, ready. For her part, Awen moved straight to a chest of drawers and started opening them, one by one, searching for something inside.

"Leader?" Lord Flyn asked, alarmed. "What are you looking for?"

"I don't know," Awen said, tensely. She finished with the drawers and went to the wardrobe, flinging open the doors, her movements quick and terse. "But he can think. Idiot, yes, bloody retarded, but he can plan..."

"I don't understand." Madog could feel Lord Flyn's heartbeat under his fingers, and suddenly it was speeding up. "What do you imagine he's done?"

"Planted something, set something..." Awen finished tearing at the clothes in the wardrobe and spun around, her eyes scanning the room wildly before she moved to the bed, hauling the mattress off its frame. "If he needed to kill you, but couldn't find you... Plan B. He can plan."

"He was a Deputy," Madog said tersely. "It makes sense. We're back to asking what he wants, of course."

"Sovereigns, targetting Sovereigns." Awen dropped the mattress, her searching gaze fixing on the door to the en suite bathroom, and Flyn's heart accelerated. "First Aberystwyth, Gwilym dead -"

Madog's own heart nearly leapt into his mouth at the lack of honorific, and he hoped to every god listening that Flyn hadn't noticed. Fortunately, as Awen advanced on the door it seemed he was alternatively occupied.

"Leader, if he's not -" he started, and then the next few seconds seemed to happen rather fast.

Firstly, Awen opened the door. Flyn started moving forward as she did so, a protest forming on his lips that promptly died as someone hurled themselves out of the bathroom at Awen, shrieking and clawing. Madog slammed Flyn back against the wall as Awen twisted her body with the nimble grace of a cat, her arm shooting across adder-fast to catch the girl before spinning her off-balance and curling a leg around her ankles to bear her down to the ground. It was such a fast movement that even Madog almost missed it; but just before the girl hit the floor Awen caught her for a fraction of a second, diminishing the final impact. And then the girl went completely still, lying motionless beneath Awen, her arms twisted behind her back and face staring blankly at the wall.

There was a silence.

"Looks like you were right," Madog offered cautiously. "He must have a key. Another assassin? Like Lord Gwilym?"

"Good gods," Lord Flyn said quietly. His heart thundered under Madog's palm. Awen threw the shortest of glances up at them and then back down at - presumably - Alis. Madog felt vaguely sick. He could see the bruises from across the room, in every stage of colourful healing from deep purple to sickly yellow. And her eyes burned, hollow and dull and yet somehow intense.

"What's your name?" Awen asked evenly. There was utterly no response, no sign she'd been heard. Awen's voice softened slightly. "Can you hear me?"

Nothing. Awen sighed, and gently unfolded the girl's arms, laying them beside her head. It was oddly reminiscent of Hannibal the night before, but the difference in context was wildly depressing. Glumly, Madog wished he could have somehow packed Hannibal.

"Might as well be talking to the carpet, I think," Awen said, her voice compassionate. She climbed off Alis and carefully rolled her onto her back, stroking the backs of two fingers down the side of Alis' cheek. The expressionless face stared at the ceiling, unseeing. "How much do you want to bet she attacked the uniform?"

"She must have," Madog said wryly. "I doubt many people in these parts view you as a heinous bitch they need to fight. And I can see those bruises. He's had her a while."

"Yeah," Awen said quietly. Flyn stirred. His heart beat had settled slightly now that he didn't seem in danger of being found out as a hideous rapist, but Madog could still feel it racing.

"Can she not speak at all?" he asked, his voice concerned. Awen glanced at them, and back down.

"I don't think so, my lord," she said wearily. "Whatever he's done to her... it's too much. It happens in interrogations sometimes, when the lichtors are too heavy-handed. Her mind has closed."

"We could send her to the Union?" Madog suggested. "To the Urdd, specifically. A druid may be able to help her."

"Good idea," Awen said, scrubbing a hand across her face. "To be honest, it's all we can do. She's wearing rags, there's nothing to identify her. To my knowledge no one has reported anyone like her missing recently -" Clever touch, Madog thought; her whole family was currently in Union custody, of course they hadn't. "- so there's no one who can take her. And druidic help is pretty much her only hope. She's catatonic."

"And they can cure her?" Lord Flyn asked, his voice sickeningly hopeful. "It's possible?"

And oh, how Awen could act. Madog considered himself lucky that he was facing away from Flyn, so that he didn't stare hatred into the man's eyes and give the game away. But Awen glanced at Flyn again, upset, hesitating over how to phrase her response.

"It's possible," she said at last, reluctantly. "But - my lord, it's unlikely. I can't stress enough how few curably insane people attack Riders. And... there's nothing there now. Nothing left of her. Even if they can wake her up again, as it were, the chances of her memory being even functional, much less intact..."

Awen trailed off, and Flyn relaxed, just slightly, beneath Madog's hand. Madog had never wanted to hurt someone more.

"Let's get her out," he said instead of decapitating Flyn. He even sheathed his sword. "She needs medical help, too, and I'm sure it won't kill Menna to be useful for a bit."

"Thanks." Awen lifted Alis gently into her arms, apparently without effort. "Could you grab that file for me? It seems I'm doomed to leave the bloody thing. My lord?"

"Go," Flyn said. "Help her. And thank you both! It's been an evening to remember."

Yes, Madog thought as he gathered the file and followed Awen back out of Flyn's quarters. It had. And when the time came, he was going to take great pleasure in reminding Flyn of it.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Illustrated Scribblers: One-Up Mushroom

Madog's hard to write, this is what I'm doing to get around it. Yes, it's procrastination. I don't care.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Cymru - Chapter 29


The group of five Carthaginians sitting across from him were Displeased. Gwilym could tell. There were subtle clues, like the way they were all sitting, the slight frowns they had even as they tried to smile politely, the way they told him they were displeased. He almost wished he'd waited for Alaw to come back. She'd never seemed to like him overmuch either, but she didn't seem to like anyone; and anyway, she was his Alpha Wingleader. She had to protect him regardless of her personal feelings. The Union said so.

"We simply feel, Lord Sovereign, that such a long-standing trade agreement should be considered for a while before being dissolved," one of the Phoenicians said. He was a plump little man, with skin like burnt honey and a fastidiously clipped beard, the kind that looked as though he probably measured every hair. His voice was unpleasantly oily. "After all, this is a contract that has been extremely beneficial to both of us. Would it not be prudent to give it some thought?"

"Of course!" Gwilym said merrily. "Except I have been giving it some thought, you see. This is why I'm changing it."

"Lord Sovereign," said an elaborately painted woman from the end of the table. "We realise that, as a new ruler, you may have a need to... to make your mark upon your society, as it were. But our trading is surely a positive thing for your economy?"

"It was our understanding that overall Aberystwyth prospered from our relationship," the first nodded. Gwilym forced his smile to stay on. It wasn't their fault; they didn't know how the internal structures of Aberystwyth worked, and they were about to lose an extremely lucrative contract. And Phoenicians lived and breathed trading. It was central to their entire culture.

"In a sense," Gwilym said carefully. "Yes, it did. But I'm changing a lot of Aberystwyth's infrastructure and I'm afraid our trading patterns will be part of it. I must stress that we'll still be trading with you, though."

"Yes," the plump man said, unhappily. "But -"

"Murex dye is still on your list," another woman said down the table. On closer inspection she looked about sixteen, still slightly gangly limbs and large eyes, sitting next to a boy of about the same age; between them they had the sheets containing the new import and export lists spread out on the table while she scribbled furiously onto a pad of paper, the boy whizzing the beads on a small abacus with frenetic fury. "And you're planning on increasing your coloured wool production?"

"Jezanat," the man said, closing his eyes in a universal gesture of 'Daughter, please don't embarrass me...'. Gwilym grinned.

"It's fine," he said. "Yes, we are. Colours other than purple, too."

"Blue in Indo-Greece," the boy muttered, apparently to Jezanat, who nodded and scribbled something down. The adults looked glum.

"Will you do blue, my lord?" Jezanat asked. "I understand you have woad dyes?"

"Yes," Gwilym said. "We're going to start experimenting with other textiles, too."

"Silk," the boy said.

"Silk?" Jezanat asked.

"Yes," Gwilym said.

"Cotton," the boy said.

"Cotton?" Jezanat asked.

"Yes," said Gwilym, and blinked. "Er... do you realise I can hear you?"

"Forgive my children," the plump man said mornfully. "They have no social finesse. Hadagon does not talk to people. Twins."

He said it as though twins were a regular menace among Phoenician society. Gwilym wondered if identical sets of people ran naked through the streets of Carthage at night, knocking on doors and running away.

"I see," Gwilym said gravely.

"The Indo-Greeks have a caste system," Jezanat said, making another note and pulling out another sheet. "Their top caste use blue. They prefer silks. And pay a lot for it, in gold. We could, perhaps, have an arragement here? We'll give you two percent over market value if you use our company exclusively."

"Ten and I'll consider it," Gwilym heard himself say, and struggled not to let his own jaw drop at his own temerity. "Since I'd be limiting how much I could sell."

"Yes, good," the boy said, pulling extra papers out of his own robes. "That gives twenty four."

"Perhaps we should go for lunch," the plump man said gloomily as the painted woman beside him sighed. "Clearly we are extraneous."

"They're rather good, aren't they?" Gwilym marvelled. "Congratulations! Although I sympathise. Pushy aides are no fun."

"Already they have reworked our wage and tax system," the painted woman said. "And we thought, 'It will not work!' And then it worked. By now we merely take them to meetings, it seems."

"Produce down," Hadagon muttered. Jezanat smiled.

"Ah!" she said. "Then we'll offer twelve over market price."

"Why?" Gwilym asked. He may or may not have been even remotely competent as a Sovereign, but he was relatively certain that merchants were as likely to start offering additional money for nothing as Flyn to start tongue-kissing Marged and offering free daisies. And good gods that wasn't an image he wanted.

"You are buying much less produce," Jezanat said. "Textile-only ships can operate different routes."

And potentially they could send more ships, therefore, and have a higher turnover.

"Fifteen and I'll consider it," he said. Hadagon nodded. Jezanat beamed.

"We accept, my lord," she said. "Very well."

There was a brief pause in which the twins started writing and muttering things like 'Raisin wine' and 'olive oil' and 'Oops, too many zeroes' while the adults looked slightly bored. Gwilym took the opportunity to twiddle his thumbs. Sovereigns were meant to twiddle their thumbs, he felt. You had to embrace some stereotypes.

Finally both twins paused, looking at the same piece of paper, and then Hadagon slid it across to the plump man, who looked at it for a moment before sighing.

"Very well," he said wearily. "Thank you, Lord Sovereign. We accept your decision to change the trade agreement, and will happily work with a representative to create the new one with our generous offer here. But," his voice smoothed carefully back out into the neutral again. "Might I take this moment to discuss another possible commodity with you?"

The sudden change in focus in the room was so vast the tide had probably changed in the vacuum. The twins both left their papers alone and looked at Gwilym eagerly, almost vibrating with hopeful anticipation. The adults had lost their morose edge and were sitting up straight, polite and professional smiles adorning their faces. Five pairs of eyes watched him carefully. Gwilym fought the urge to squirm and look behind him to see if they were looking at something else.

"Yes?" he said. The plump man steepled his fingers, carefully.

"Before you answer," he said, his tone friendly but very slightly hungry, "I will assure you, I will pay more money than you can imagine having. I assume your reordering of your City-state is for social benefit?"

"Yes," Gwilym said, warily. What the hell were they going to ask for? Had Phoenicians developed a massive and arcane love of beeswax?

"All social plans require money," the plump man smiled, slightly oily again. "If you agree we will provide you with enough money to reform every City-state in your country. The good you can do!"

"Right," Gwilym said. It was at times like this he thought he might have an inkling of how Riders felt; some sort of primal instinct was prodding his hind-brain and suggesting that he might, in future, like to have a trapdoor installed below the chairs opposite his desk with a nice spiky pit beneath for occasions just such as these. "Er... what exactly do you want?"

"We would treat them well," the painted woman said. "I assure you. They would not be treated like slaves."

Gwilym went cold.

"Riders," the plump man said. "We don't ask for your best. Only those who are not needed. Perhaps any Wings the Union feels are not equal to their required standard. Even the children, although we would pay less for these."

"Riders are not for sale," Gwilym said. Somehow, inexplicably, his voice was completely steady and authoritative, which was very impressive since his mind was screaming in horror.

"Precedents count for much," the painted woman said. "And, as we say, we want none you would miss. We ask for no senior Riders, none of your active Riders -"

"Although if you did give us an Alpha Rider," Hadagon said, fingering his abacus lovingly. "The rewards we would give you. We could all retire, right then..."

It actually fractured his mind, trying to imagine selling Awen. The very idea of sending a Rider away from Cymru was so alien it was enough to make Gwilym want to chew through his own tongue.

"I don't - " Gwilym broke off and sighed, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. "I don't think you realise what you're asking."

"We realise you would have to approach your Union," the plump man nodded. "But -"

"No," Gwilym said firmly. "You really don't understand. The Union couldn't sanction this, because Riders don't actually belong to the Union. They belong to Cymru."

There was a polite pause in which five people stared at him politely.

"The country itself," Gwilym said, thinking fleetingly of what Awen's response would be to the suggestion of being sold to another country, and he fought down the hysteria. "They can only fight for Cymru. I'm not sure they can even leave. And anyway; we don't condone slavery, however they're treated."

Other than Riders on our behalf, his hind-brain whispered treacherously. Gwilym mentally put his fingers in his ears and ignored it.

"Lord Sovereign," the man wheedled, leaning forward slightly. "We are talking of so much money you could very literally pave your streets with gold -"

"Enough," Gwilym said, and even he was slightly afraid of himself. Some of them actually leaned back slightly. Gwilym was one.

"Anyway," he said brightly. "Who's for tea?"


The kitchens went better. As it turned out the cooks were headed by the jolliest husband and wife team Gwilym had ever encountered, a lively and round couple called Dai and Gwladys who had started when Gwilym's grandmother had been Sovereign back in the Wars, since which they'd become so firmly ensconced as part of the Residence kitchens that they'd been handed down to him with the crockery and the grandfather clock. Although unlike both of the latter they weren't revoltingly ornamental or sadly traditional. Instead they were merry and spherical and kept laughing at things, and almost everything seemed to be reminding them of his family. And Gwilym himself, apparently. As a child.

"And over here now," Gwladys was saying happily as she waddled over to the enormous brass flour bins, "are our enormous brass flour bins, see? See 'em?"

"I could hardly fail to," Gwilym nodded, who could hardly have failed to. Dai chuckled, his round cheeks red.

"I remember your dad falling in one!" he said, waddling up to and nudging his wife, who unabashedly nudged back, causing a minor nudging war that had several outlying areas of Dai and Gwladys see-sawing in front of Gwilym's eyes. "Eh? Eh? Remember that? Ooh, right panic we were in, weren't we? Didn't know where he'd gone!"

"No!" Gwladys agreed. "And the best part was - then we thought he'd suffocated! Ha!"

"What a jape!" Gwilym said merrily. "How did you find him?"

"Oh, well, your grandmother - Sovereign then, gods rest her, fearsome woman - knew your uncle had done it, so she hung him upside down by his ankles and beat him with the poker!" Gwladys wiped a tear of mirth from her eye. "Bless him. What happened to him?"

"Who? Aunty Sioned?" Gwilym shrugged. "He's living in Erinn. Although I didn't realise he'd pushed Dad into -"

"Oh, he hadn't," Dai said, grinning broadly enough to decapitate himself. "She was wrong. We found your dad after we tried to make the bread for the warriors; pretty much drained the bin in one go, and he managed to push a foot out of the spout. Good times. Good times. Although not for your uncle, eh? Eh?"


"I'd imagine not," Gwilym murmured. What a lot it explained about Aunty Sioned, too. Thank gods Grandmother Eurlys been long gone by the time he'd been sneaking about among fishermen with a box of bandages and a needle; she'd probably have made him eat them.

"And these very long tables here," said Gwladys, indicating the very long tables there, "are for the Court employees who don't eat in the main hall. And Riders of course; feel more comfortable back here, poor dabs. I remember you trying to sleep under one with a duck as a boy, our lord! Only came out after we tempted out the duck!"

"And over here," Dai continued, waddling on, "are the doors to the meat larders; in here, in here! Venison at the minute, look! I remember showing this to your uncle - other uncle, the crazy Erinnish one, what -?"

"Mental Uncle Dara," Gwilym supplied helpfully.

"The very same!" said Gwladys. "Had a full brace of hares hanging up at the time, he named them all and sang them a song. And then he put a scarf on a cow!"

"And then he tricked your mam into eating a sheep's eye!"

"Dead cow, like, hanging up there, it was."

"And then he pushed your dad into a flour bin!"

"Happened a lot, that, actually. Come to think, like."

"Anyway, back through here!"

They moved into another cold storeroom that smelled of salt and fish at a pace that might have felt like 'sweeping' to Dai and Gwladys, but was definitely no more than a gentle waddle.

"This is for the fish!" Dai said unnecessarily. "All sorts we've got."

"Cockles there, from Abertawe and thereabouts," Gwladys said, pointing with a chubby arm. "Fish here, mackeral, herring, bit of salmon - ooh, and there's the laverbread over there. Oh, and oysters. Crabs. I remember your brother chasing you through here with the crabs! Six, you were! Ooh, your sister was angry!"

"So angry! There was a girl who could boil a crab at twenty paces, eh? Eh?"


The ghosts of memory ran past Gwilym, barefoot and carefree and racing for the safety of the main kitchens, of his mother beyond. He swallowed, staring at the crabs in their vat, shifting lazily against each other.

"She could have at that," he smiled quietly. "It's possibly a silver lining to be thankful for that she never made it to being Sovereign. I imagine she'd have hung her children upside down and beaten them with metal bars too."

"Ah, stern woman, your grandmother," Gwladys nodded in a cloud of happy nostalgia. "During the Wars, of course, see, so she was a tough old bird. Well; until an assassin threw her out of that window. Then she went quite soft."

"Had to scrape her up to bury her," Dai said knowingly. "There was a job! And there were Northlanders hammering at the Gate as we did! Back we go!"

They waddled back into the bustle of the kitchens.

"And here are our giant grain bins!" Gwladys said, extending her pudgy arm at the giant grain bins along the wall. "Along the wall, there!"

"So I see," Gwilym nodded. "Dad ever fall in one of those?"

"No, but your Mental Uncle Dara dropped your sister in, once!" Dai chuckled, starting the nudging war with Gwladys again. They swayed back and forth. "Before you were born. Ha, we found her faster than your Dad! Screamed the place down, she did! Eh? Eh?"


"Good gods," Gwilym said alarmed. "Did she set fire to the grain? Or, come to think of it, Mental Uncle Dara?"

"Nearly did! Your mam had to peel her off his face!"

"And that's about it for the tour," Dai said happily. He and Gwladys both turned to Gwilym, standing identically with their hands clasped over their massive stomachs, identical smiles in place.

"Will you have a cup of tea and a slice of cake, our lord?" Gwladys asked. "Lovely cake, it is! Honey. Lovely."

"I'd like that very much," Gwilym nodded, grinning. "I have something I want to talk to you both about, anyway."

"Ooh, how exciting!" Dai said, clapping his fat hands. "I'll get the kettle on!"

"I'll get the cake!"

"Sit there, our lord! Won't be a tick!"

He had expected to sit on one of the very long tables, but instead they directed him to a small area near the main ovens and the fire that seemed to be the domain of the head cooks as they kept an eye on the cooking food. Four or five armchairs were there arranged in a loose circle, with a low table in the middle that bore the tea-ring scars of many a paned. Unsurprisingly the chairs were very comfy. Gwilym relaxed happily.

"Here we are, our lord!" Gwladys said merrily, arriving with cake, plates and a handful of cuttlery. "Here, have a big slice! Growing lad, see? And here's Dai with the tea!"

"Aye, quick I am!" Dai placed a teapot on the table, smothered it with a tea cosy that clumsily bore the message 'D loves G 4eva!' and, if Gwilym was any judge, Marged's stich-work, and followed it up with a stack of saucers. A junior cook had followed him over to contribute the cups and a milk jug. Dai didn't so much sink as plummet into a chair which screamed weakly beneath him, and then rubbed his hands as Gwladys took over pouring the tea. It was a time-honoured gesture. Mentally Gwilym took a bet as to what his next words would be.

"Well, isn't this nice?" he said enthusiastically. Mentally, Gwilym cheered.

"Lovely!" he said. "Right; I've come to give you both a new menu challenge."

"Ooh, a challenge, Dai!" Gwladys said, so excitedly she dropped her teaspoon. "I'm so excited I dropped my teaspoon!"

"Dropped her teaspoon!" Dai cackled. "She were that excited! What will I do with you, girl? So what's this challenge, our lord?"

"Well, I'm changing both the budget and the sources for our food," Gwilym said. "Which means we're going to be using far fewer foreign imports and far more local foods. I'm hoping to push up our sheep farming for one thing, so -"

"Lamb!" Gwladys said, a woman apparently transported to a blissful Annwfn. "Oh, the things I used to do with a bit of lamb, and Dai's ever so good with mutton and a slow pot!"

"Happy, you've made us," Dai said solemnly, misty-eyed. "To tell you the truth, our lord, in some ways we're quite traditional. We like making fancy food, but the monkey's never sat well with us."

"Makes a rubbish bubble-and-squeak," Gwladys sniffed. "And don't get me started on monkey in a cawl."

"Well, we're having no more monkey meat," Gwilym nodded. "Basically, I want you to show off Cymric food. Show everyone that our food can be at the same standard as theirs. We've drawn up a first list of all the foods we'll be buying now; have a look, and if you want anything else on there, or anything taken off, I'll have a clerk come down later today. Let them know."

"Oh, our lord," Dai said, taking the list reverentially. "You honour us, sire."

"But we'll have to experiment?" Gwladys said hopefully. "Try out some possibilities, isn't it? You'll want to approve of the new menu?"

"Absolutely!" Gwilym said merrily. "Sadly I may not have time for a tasting before the Archwiliad, but certainly afterwards. And you must feel free to try it yourselves in that time."

Gwladys almost squealed with joy, bouncing in her seat, which cried in protest. Dai held her hand tightly, his eyes definitely filled with tears.

"An honour, our lord," he said fervently. "An honour. We shall not let you down!"

And if everyone were that easily pleased, Gwilym reflected, the Archwiliad would be a breeze.


The Alpha Wing arrived back around mid-afternoon, so Gwilym took a break from Doing His Job to welcome them back and Be Nosy. The Landing Tower bustled with activity in a manner that reminded him of bees around flowers; it was a cheery sort of commotion in which everyone was diligently performing their set tasks while chatting away, apparently not overly bothered about being formal in his presense. Which was, Gwilym felt, the advantage of not being forced into hideous brocade cloaks all the time. Now that he'd learnt the trick life with Watkins was considerably improved.

The Wing landed neatly on the runway outside and walked in sedately. Alaw was already pulling off her flying leathers, the reins hanging loose around her meraden's neck for the stable hands who stepped smartly forward to catch them. To look at, she actually wasn't immediately terrifying, Gwilym reflected. She was short, only an inch or two taller than Aerona, although her build was stockier. Her hair was short and layered between her chin and collarbones, a tone somewhere between blonde and brown, and it framed a heart-shaped face that almost looked dainty until you saw her eyes. Which were blue, and looked through you, and plainly registered that they disliked what they saw. It was a disquieting expression on a Rider.

"Riders!" Gwilym said, smiling broadly as Alaw dismounted and pulled off her gloves. "Welcome back! Did you kill anyone?"

"None at all, my lord," Alaw said, dropping gracefully to one knee in the full Rider-to-Sovereign bow. Gwilym wasn't quite fast enough to stop her.

"Rise-" he said, too late. "Oh, damn. You know that upsets me."

"Yes, my lord," Alaw said expressionlessly, rising back to her feet. Her iron-hard gaze seemed to be fixed on a point some three metres directly through the back of his skull via his eyes. "But I'm afraid it's still protocol. Do you want a report now or later?"

"It's in no way urgent if you want to rest a bit first," Gwilym assured her, but Alaw's chin rose a fraction, her gaze steady.

"Not necessary, my lord," she said. "We haven't travelled far today. I'm ready now."

"Well, take twenty minutes," said Gwilym, who felt like a heel. Alaw had this effect on him even more than Watkins. "I'll see you in my study."

She barely took fifteen before the fanfare heralding her made him spill a bottle of ink on his desk and a faceless clerk intoned the 'Rider Alaw, Alpha Wingleader' title unnecessarily, as though Gwilym would have been unaware of the identity of a woman dressed in blades and leather and decorated with Aberystwyth livery. Watkins moved the papers serenely out of the way of the ink as Alaw entered and stood on the other side of the desk.

"You know it upsets me when you don't just sit down, too," Gwilym accused mournfully. Alaw looked at him, her eyes somehow suggesting disdain through their bland mask.

"My apologies, my lord," she said politely. "But I'm afraid it is still protocol."

"Oh." Gwilym sighed as Watkins efficiently mopped up the ink. "Well, please sit. Can I change it? I'm getting good at changing established things, just ask Watkins."

"Indeed, sire," Watkins droned, passing the ink-soaked towel to an underling, who scurried away with it. "However, Rider-Sovereign protocol is not entirely under your control."

"I was afraid you'd say that," Gwilym mused as the clerks finished and left the room. "Fine. Hello, Rider. Who wants what?"

"Well." Alaw crossed her legs elegantly, balancing a file on her knee with freakish supernatural Rider grace and running a finger down it. "Starting at the top: there's only one proposal for changes to the Senedd, from Casnewydd, but it's what we call an OFP - Open Floor Proposal. It's not an officially worked out suggestion ready for immediate vote. Therefore we've been given no details on it."

I have, Gwilym thought glumly. Bloody Flyn.

"Just from Casnewydd?" he asked aloud, and Alaw nodded.

"Yes, my lord," she said. "There are several proposals for activity between City-states, however. The border Cities all want some form of agreement whereby they either pay less tax or are given extra money for things like land trade and local businesses; it's to give people an incentive to live there in spite of Saxon raiding. Wrecsam in particular are aiming for making themselves an ideal place to start a business up, so that even when they move away the City will constantly be replacing them and thus maintaining the economy. In fact, one of Lord Iestyn's internal proposals is to offer tax incentives; they agree to stay for a certain amount of time, he lowers their tax."

"That's very clever," Gwilym marvelled. It really was. The border Cities had fluctuating populations - it was, after all, fairly difficult to do things like raising a family or buying food while searching for your kneecaps and watching the charred remains of your house blow away. People who lived there, therefore, tended to either be fiercely patriotic to the area, obsessively confident in Riders or a bit simple. Entrepreneurs were an ideal fourth category - if there was a chance for money business-people would raze entire cities with more glee and thoroughness than Saxons wishfully dreamed of. "But, what happens if everyone else does the same thing?"

"Part of their request is a ban to stop everyone doing just that," Alaw said, delicately turning a page. "Next - ah. Milford Haven. Lady Erys has created a scheme to promote the production and exportation of Cymric products, again through lowering trade rates and taxes and such. She's spotted a gap in the market overseas for our cosmetics, too, and so wants to expand that industry; I got the feeling that she's looking to Port Talbot to make the pots, but needs others to provide the beeswax. Oh, and honey. Honey keeps, and we have unusually good bees, it seems."

"Excellent!" Lady Erys seemed to be a woman after his own heart. Gwilym wondered if they could form a Local Produce club and wear badges and have sleepovers and things. "That's what I want to do here."

"Indeed?" Alaw looked up at him, her face completely neutral. "I thought we had no proposals this year."

"Ah," said Gwilym. Well, best to get it over with. "Yes, about that. I threatened to punch Watkins. Do you need to arrest me?"

Alaw stared at him.

"No, my lord," she said after a moment. Her face hadn't moved a milimetre, but her voice had a very, very subtle edge to it that suggested she might, possibly, maybe, be trying not to laugh. "No, I'll waive it. Might... I ask why?"

"I went mad with power in your absence and murdered every servant with their hair parted on the wrong side," Gwilym said. "But his is parted in the middle, so..."

Alaw looked down, her face still immobile, and Gwilym decided she was definitely trying not to smile, there.

"And he was being obstinate," Gwilym admitted. "He wouldn't let me change anything. And he looks like a kettle."

"Logic I can only fail to argue with," Alaw said, looking placidly back up. Somehow, the disapproving look in her eyes seemed softer. "I take it, then, that we are now addressing the Archwiliad?"

"If I'm allowed," Gwilym nodded. "In between ducking in my presense Watkins tells me I need to ask the High Council?"

"Yes, my lord," Alaw nodded. "And I would be astounded if they declined. Very well. Next... ah. Aberhonddu want Llangors, Caerdydd and Abertawe to join efforts on a bear cull, since there have been more attacks than usual. Caerdydd want to use the Wings to do it."

She flipped carefully through the pages and pulled out another.

"And on the subject of which," Alaw continued, "there are a few requests for using Riders. That one, and the Archipelago. Several Sovereigns - including Lady Marged, actually - are wanting the Wings to spread their patrols out over a wider area to keep the trade ships safe until they reach Erinnish waters. They want to encourage sea trade with both Erinn and Dál Riada. And, indeed, the rest of Alba."

"Marged wants that?" Gwilym asked, surprised. Somehow he hadn't really expected that kind of snappy thinking from her. But then, that was definitely unfair; dappy as a brush Marged may have been, but she was a successful Sovereign most of the time. And this was a suggestion that Helped Others.

"Yes, my lord," Alaw nodded. "Although I should add that she's also asking for another holiday."

And the world was back to normal again.

"I see," he grinned. "Okay. Anything else?"

"One more in that category," Alaw said. "Lord Flyn would like the Union to consider the idea of allowing Messengers to carry external messages. To Erinn, for example."

Gwilym blinked. "Really?" he asked, more or less to himself. Technically it was a good idea, he supposed, but it could mean nothing good when requested by Flyn. "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course, my lord." Alaw looked up from the papers, her hands going still in her lap.

"What do you make of Lord Flyn?" Gwilym asked.

"He's an effective Sovereign," Alaw said after a pause only just about big enough to be noticeable. "He's a gifted politician. Skilled at getting what he needs."


"Certainly. Not entirely without reason, though. He's an intelligent man."

"Yes," Gwilym mused, thoughtfully. He wondered if he was supposed to be talking to Alaw about this. There was a good chance he was about to lose an eye. "I wonder what he might need long range communication for."

"It's a question, my lord," Alaw nodded carefully, and hesitated. "My lord - would you mind if I spoke freely?"

"Good gods, no," Gwilym said mildly. "Unless it's about me. You're only allowed to tell me that I have brilliant ideas and am dazzlingly attractive."

"I'll bear that in mind, my lord," Alaw said neutrally, but the disapproval softened again. For Alaw it was the equivalent of screaming with laughter, so Gwilym congratulated himself. "But I was going to talk about Lord Flyn."

"Ooh, brilliant!" Gwilym beamed. "I hate him, how about you?"

"I don't trust him," Alaw said flatly, which for her meant she loathed him. Her eyes were disapproving again. "He's intelligent, yes, but he's also ambitious, manipulative and amoral. He knows how to work the system. I'd almost be tempted to advise you to vote against anything innocuous he suggests, protocol or no, except that my doing so could well be part of a plan. He's that clever. And I don't like how he treats the people who work for him."

"Yes," Gwilym said glumly. "That was my take as well, damn his eyes. What about Gwenda?"

"Similar, but subtly different," Alaw said. "I think - same results, different motivations. She does like being in power, and she's got an iron grip on that torque, but the things she does are ultimately for her City. Her City, mind, not her country," she added, the disapproval almost poisonous. Typical Rider, Gwilym thought with a grin. "Whereas Lord Flyn's actions on behalf of his City ultimately serve the purpose of keeping himself in charge."

"So together they form a horrifying multi-headed beast," Gwilym nodded, and Alaw very nearly smiled. "I see. I shall make a note to spit in Flyn's tea at the Archwiliad, then."

"My lord?" Alaw's eyes had hardened over again, as stern as flint. "I understand there was an assassination attempt on you two days ago."

Word got around, it seemed.

"Yes," Gwilym said, and his admittedly limited experience of Riders threw up a flag. "Right, I'm banning you right now from feeling guilty about not being there or something," he said sternly. "I mean it. I know what you people are like. It could not have been your fault any less."

Alaw sighed. "I appreciate the thought, my lord," she said. "Sadly I don't have that much emotional control over myself. Do we still have the assassin?"

"No," Gwilym said, shaking his head. Bloody Riders. "He - I wonder how much of this you know yet? - he was forced into doing it by the ex-Deputy of the Casnewydd Alpha Wing, so Leader Awen sent him to the Union partly to keep him alive and partly as a witness."

He hadn't thought it was possible for her eyes to go harder, but somehow Alaw upgraded from 'flint' to 'diamond'.

"If it isn't Awen who finds him he'll be lucky," she said darkly. "Do we know why he wanted you dead?"

"Well," Gwilym said, scratching his head, "apparently it's because I'm pervasively influential. I know!" he added to her raised eyebrow. "I only get to rule when I threaten advisors with physical pain! It's not what I'd class as pervasive. Although I suppose it is fairly influential."

"I think," Alaw said carefully, "that we can probably discount the theory that he was riding to the defence of Watkins."

"Well, okay," Gwilym allowed. "But only because that happened afterwards. Oh, by the by, you're sitting on the Top Table at mealtimes for the rest of my life."

"You're as generous as you are dazzlingly attractive, my lord," Alaw said neutrally. From her, it was possibly the funniest thing he'd ever heard. He laughed, and Alaw pulled out the next sheet of paper. "Very well. I suggest then, my lord, that we finish going through these, you give me an overview of our new proposals and then we fly for the Union. It'll be best to see the High Council as soon as possible."

Which basically translated to Gwilym going to the Archwiliad a day and a bit early and thus getting to run around the Union like a child. He grinned.

"Good idea," he said.


It turned out, though, that the procedure of getting to the Archwiliad was quite possibly the most hasslesome of Gwilym's life to date. It couldn't just be him; he had to go in the State Carriage, with a small entourage of clerks and aides and such, an Announcer whose sole function seemed to be to just walk around announcing his name in a monotone at every corner and his full Alpha Wing, all wearing the uniform that Gwilym mentally labelled 'The Really Really Smart One' and looking generally resplendent. And, of course, the bloody sodding trumpeters. He really, really hated the trumpeters.

The actual landing was the worst part. The High Council all turned up to oficially welcome him and Look Bloody Intimidating, which put Gwilym at a distinct disadvantage given that he then had to endure the shriek of the trumpets behind his head and maintain his composure. As he walked toward the Council, Councillor Gwenllian's red-and-black image moving forward to greet him, two merod moved alongside him, Alaw and her Deputy. They all halted, and Gwenllian bowed.

"Sovereign," she said warmly. "Welcome to the Union. I hope your stay will be productive and enjoyable."

"Thank you, Councillor," Gwilym smiled, bowing back. They were the only Riders you were allowed to bow to; he wondered if he could bow to them all. "I hope so too."

She flashed him a grin, and Saluted formally to Alaw.

"Welcome home, Rider," she said. Alaw Saluted back.

"Councillor," she said, and Gwenllian turned back to Gwilym and officially Lowered The Tone.

"Well, if you're ready, Sovereign, I'll show you to the tavern," she said brightly, instantly dissolving the formality and causing Gwilym to burst out laughing. Behind her Councillor Rhydian sighed.

"I'm so sorry, Sovereign," he said wearily. "This is why we don't normally let Gwenllian do the greeting. We're actually quite a professional outfit."

"First time to the Union, I'm sorry, but the man needs a drink," Gwenllian declared. "He'll need to know where the taverns are. It's important information."

And that seemed to be that. In spite of all of Councillors Rhydian and Dyfan's protests Gwilym found himself marched away to the Spiral Stairs and given about twenty seconds to marvel at them while being towed down and along a lower corridor before arriving at a fully stocked and functioning tavern, right in the middle of the Union. It was pleasantly full; two bards were playing a duet in the corner while tradespeople of all kinds relaxed at the tables, the low chatter not changing as he walked in. There were Riders too, Guards and Messengers mostly but with the odd Tutor here and there, unwinding between shifts. Otherwise, the room had been carefully decorated to look as much like a normal tavern as possible, with wooden beams crossing the ceiling between the sunpipes holding bunches of dried herbs to add to the atmosphere.

"Good, isn't it?" Gwenllian asked jovially as they pushed their way to the bar. "Not my favourite, but it's sound. What are you having?"

"Just a mead for now," Gwilym said, looking around himself. "How many taverns are there here?"

"Loads," Gwenllian nodded. "More than thirty. We're a bit like the Archipelago, since there's no way out unless you fly. Means people like their leisure time. Oh, you wanted to add to your proposals?"

"Yes," Gwilym said, pulling out a bar stool as Gwenllian did the same. "Sorry. It's only an internal thing -"

"Oh, that's fine then," Gwenllian said dismissively, waving a hand. "Yeah, you can have that. Rhydian will be going over it with Alaw with a fine-toothed comb as we speak, so if you're trying to steal the country, tough."

"Well, I considered it," Gwilym grinned. "But I decided it wouldn't be worth the effort. I'm a lazy megalomaniac."

"My favourite kind, oddly enough!" Gwenllian grinned, and passed him a tankard. "You'll probably just have to present it all to the Alpha Wingleaders once they get here, and they'll be fine with it. Know any good drinking games?"

"You know, I never really saw my father very much," Gwilym said. "So he never gave me much advice. But 'Never Try To Out-Drink A Rider' was, funnily enough, one piece he did give me."

"Ha!" Gwenllian raised her tankard. "No spirit, boy! The trick isn't to out-drink me, it's to keep up through entertainment! Know any good ones?"

"Yes," Gwilym said, fumbling in a pocket for a pack of cards. "Fine. And might I say, Councillor, you're a terrible influence?"

"You're not the first man to say so, Sovereign," she answered, her eyes sparkling. "Cards? Sound! What is it? How do we play?"

"We always just called it Gareth's Game," Gwilym shrugged, and smiled. "Right. First card: red or black?"

He didn't remember the rest of the evening that well.