Friday, 27 August 2010

Cymru - Chapter 54


Her balance was perfect. She perched high above the ground, poised on the palms of her hands and the balls of her feet in an elongated crouch, her fingers resting flat down the side of the wooden beam to steady herself. Away to her left and slightly below her from this vantage point the curtains drifted on the breeze, the softly rustling movement of the cloth drawing her eye for a moment, predator-like, until her focus re-asserted and her concentration returned to her task. She ignored everything else. She didn't acknowledge the beginning of the gathering stiffness in her joints as she held position, the unyielding and uncomfortable press of the wood against her hands and feet; she paid no attention to the whisper of the breeze across her naked skin, sending a lock of hair sliding down her shoulder and away to dangle above the drop in front of her eyes. She breathed evenly, forbidding even the movement of her ribs from hindering her balance. And she waited, her mind given over to the equilibrium of the hunt -

Movement, below her and behind her, the friction of cloth on body. She remained immobile. The sound of another's breathing shifted from the undulation of sleeping to the shallower, quieter rasp of wakefullness, and the sound of movement came again, louder and longer this time, and she readied herself, waiting. There was a pause, and then a sigh, resigned, perhaps; and then the rustle of cloth being pushed away, a faint squeak of a quiet spring that made her quiver, changing the grip of her right hand, so nearly the one she -

A second squeak, deeper in tone and slightly louder than the first, and she moved. She leapt out into space, her right hand keeping hold of the wood and she twisted her body; there was a brief moment of freefall where nothing touched her but the wind and then the strain through her arm caught her, an ache that ran from hand to shoulder to side as her momentum pivoted her around and arced her beneath the beam. The prey - man - prey looked up, frozen mid-crawl, far too late to escape, and she let go in time to bring both arms into play as she pounced -

The impact was deceptively soft, but he stood no chance. The momentum of the strike knocked them both sideways, both twisting for the optimum position to land in; she held him close and let them roll, his weight moving on top of her as he fought to pull free, to hold her down, but she knocked one of his elbows out and pushed at the same time, spinning him round to rest on his back and slamming a forearm down over his throat to -

"I win!" Awen said brightly. "I'm bored, Sovereign."

Gwilym burst out laughing, one arm snaking around her waist and hugging her tightly. There was a pause, and then he managed to work the other free from between them, and it joined its partner.

"Did you just hunt me, you psycho?" he asked, richly amused. Awen grinned.

"Yes," she said, taking her forearm off his throat and resting it by his head instead. Her hair cheerfully fell forward, and got in the way. "It was fun. However, my official Union disclaimer is that it was a training exercise only and no actual harm or distress was in any way intended, and should not be inferred. Want to go again? Say yes! It'll be fun!"

"I really think you're mistaking how much fun you had for how much fun I had," Gwilym laughed, his pale eyes sparkling. "You're as crazy as ten bears, Awen."

"Ah, but ten fun bears," she said happily, sitting up. "You go out, count to ten and come back in, right?"

"And you'll be on top of the wardrobe this time?" Gwilym grinned, rising to his elbows. It was a good position; he was well-muscled across the shoulders, in Awen's view, possibly from all of the practice they'd once received on fishing boats. It had left its mark on him, certainly. He might not have had the muscular definition of a Rider, but the beginnings and the strength were definitely there. He was a nice... shape. "Am I going to regret returning your mental serenity?"

"Like nothing else," Awen assured him. "I'll accept if you want to leave. After you've gone out and come back in one more time."

"Before then?"

"I'd hunt you down and drag you back," Awen shrugged. "And I have underlings to help, you know, and they have to do as I tell them."

His hand rose, his fingers working into her hair at the base of her skull as he sat up, and Awen tried not to purr.

"You're massively unhinged," Gwilym said fondly, and kissed her. Awen sighed and melted into it, contentedly feeling the press of his body against hers, and she wished they could stay there forever -

The dread of what was coming soon flared up, and she pushed it forcefully aside. His lips slid from hers and she leaned her forehead against his and smiled.

"They're outside, you know," Gwilym said idly, his fingers caressing her scalp still. "Your Wing. If you want to see them."

"I suppose I should," Awen said, rolling her eyes. "Gods, underlings, eh? Maybe I can cut a corner and just ask Adara how the rest are."

"You can't, actually," Gwilym said. "Because, as masterful a plan as that is, it has one tiny little niggle; namely, it's reliance on Adara to be there. Which she's not."

"Oh, what?" Awen looked across at the door disgustedly. "Well, some Deputy she's turning out to be. Why the hell not?"

"She went to relieve the tension on her frazzled nerves by visiting Owain," Gwilym grinned. "In the way only a Rider can, I suppose."

"Yes, I suppose it's fair," Awen sighed gloomily. "I don't know, it just seems very self-centred."

"I doubt Owain agrees," Gwilym said dryly. "Want the rest of them in here? We have the power. We can make it happen."

"Typical Sovereign," Awen grinned. "It's all about power with you people, see?"

"Ha!" Gwilym said darkly. "Power. I told my chief clerk to get a sense of humour. So far his progress has been to produce one line that, if viewed from a different angle, was just another disapproving suggestion."

"But he's really very good at disapproving suggestions," Awen shrugged. "It makes sense for that to be the source of his humour at first. You'll just have to be patient, Sovereign."

"Easy for you to say," Gwilym said morosely. "You don't have to run a City-state with him. You know the worst thing? I wouldn't mind if he'd just give me useful suggestions, you know? Things of vital import that I need answers to! Instead, he's all, 'Oh, this is how we short-change the people we lead' and 'Look sire, a completely disgusting cloak you have to wear'."

"That is a problem," Awen laughed. "What do you need answers to, then?"

"Revolutions!" Gwilym said, aggrieved. "What do I do if my people revolt and come to shred me?"

"Shave your beard off and join in," Awen said promptly. "Be charismatic enough to become leader of the resistance. Take joy in the looks on their faces as they discover naught but an empty Residence, and then if you play your cards right they'll put you back on the throne."

There was a pause.

"You have a twisted genius, Awen," Gwilym said, admiringly. "That would actually work, I feel! And that's my new policy in such an event. Thank you."

"You're very welcome," Awen said indulgently. "It's almost worth starting a revolution now, isn't it? On a slow day, you know, not much else to do."

"I shall order Watkins to incite the masses," Gwilym nodded. "And... um... send my Riders on holiday to Caerleuad. Well, it's an hour, isn't it?"

"Speaking of which," Awen said quietly. The nerves flooded back adruptly, gripping at her heart and throat, and she swallowed. "How much time is left, now?"

Technically, as she was sitting on his lap she was actually above him; but it didn't matter. Gwilym had the most amazing way of holding her until she felt safe. She relaxed into his arms, her eyes sliding closed, and she savoured the feeling of him breathing against her.

"Five and a half minutes," he said softly, his voice warm. "And I imagine not a moment more after the trick I pulled with Eifion."

"He'll be outside the door with a bucket of cold water ready and waiting," Awen agreed, and sighed. She didn't want it to end. It was stupid, but the total uncertainty as to what was going to happen next clawed at her more painfully than riding into battle - that, at least, was something she could partly decide, something she could do something about. But she had no idea what would happen next now. She'd thought she was going to die. Now it was a mere option.

Whereas being with Gwilym was... a reprieve, from everything. She couldn't hide from him. He made her honest. It was addictive.

"My sister threw a bucket of cold water over me once," Gwilym said conversationally. "Accidentally, like. I think she was aiming for my brother, and I walked in the way. Then she was angry with me for getting in the way."

"Took after your grandmother, I feel," Awen said without thinking about it. "Although without the psychosis."

Fortunately, he laughed rather than throwing her out for mentioning his murdered family in such tones, and then pushed her gently back down onto the bed, on her back.

"My grandmother wasn't psychotic," Gwilym laughed, kissing her forehead. "She was just evil. There's a difference. Want me to bring your Wing in?"

"Do you mind?" Awen asked nervously. "If you want to just -"

"Awen," Gwilym said, rolling his eyes. "Really. I love you. That Wing is part of that package."

He was ridiculously good, Awen thought as she watched him happily pull a pair of trousers back on and amble across to the door. Who embarked on a new relationship with nine extra people at once? Well; eight now, of course, but if Owain had grown old after three promotions and died in the songs as one of Cymru's most beloved Councillors Gwilym would clearly have happily counted him in as well. And it wasn't like they didn't all come with terrible emotional issues. And semi-frequent homicidal instability.

"Okay," Gwilym announced, pulling the door open. "Good news, you eight! You've all won a competition to come and see Awen in her natural habitat, although heads up, she's sort of in a hunty mood."

"Well, yes," Adara's voice said, preceding its owner through the door and confirming that she'd returned from Owain. Awen grinned and sat up. "You got off mildly with the drawing, you see."

And then she was in the room, and her eyes met Awen's, and the bantering comeback died between them in the emotion. Awen wasn't really aware of jumping off the bed towards her; she saw Adara's arms reaching out for her and the next thing she knew she was holding her so tightly it must have hurt, but Adara simply clung to her back, the leather of her uniform cold against Awen's skin. And gods it felt good to touch her again, to draw from that well of support. She closed her eyes against the tears that threatened and buried her face into Adara's shoulder, breathing in the smell of her hair -

"I missed you," Awen whispered, and felt the very slight tremor that suggested that maybe, just maybe, Adara of all people was trying not to cry as well. Other people were moving closer now, crowding in. "I'm - I'm sorry. Are you okay?"

"Fine," Adara said, her voice choked but smiling. "Really, I could not be better. Are you okay?"

"Yeah," Awen grinned, and the hysteria bubbled up again as it had so many times in the last week, making her giggle. "Yeah, I'm good -"

And then she was laughing too hard to really talk, because Adara joined in and made it worse. Breathing abruptly became difficult for them both, and they broke apart slightly, still holding onto each other but now with an inch between them, at least. Awen fought the laugh away and leaned her forehead against Adara's, dizzily.

"I missed you," she said again, more strongly this time. "All of you."

"Well, then, don't do it again, you crazy," Adara said sternly, brushing Awen's hair back. "Next time, remember it's not your fault. I suspect it'll be Meurig next time, by the way."

"Hey!" Meurig squalked indignantly. "What? Why -?"

"No, she's right," Llŷr sighed despondently. "And then Caradog. As a Wing we're just a Rubbish Men Special."

"But it will definitely be Tanwen before you," Awen said encouragingly. "Cheer up, menfolk!"

"But why me next?" Meurig said plaintively as Caradog calmly pulled Awen bodily out of Adara's arms as though she weighed less than paper and crushed her to his chest, wordlessly. "I'm so charming and fun."

"No you're not," Tanwen said, rolling her eyes. "Only Eluned thinks that, because she's too nice to think otherwise."

"I'll have you know there are times he annoys me," Eluned said matter-of-factly. "So who's between Tanwen and Caradog?"

"Llio, definitely."

"Am not!"

"Are too."

"Really, I think Adara has to be pretty high. She's a psycho."

"Would you let that go, now?"

"No! He's right! Clearly Adara will be next -"

"Wait, before Meurig?"



"No, definitely not."

"Are you okay?" Awen murmured softly to Caradog. She felt his sigh rumble through his enormous chest, and stroked his shoulder.

"I will be," he said quietly. Which meant normal volume. "It just - that scared me, Awen."

"I know," she said guiltily. "I'm sorry."

"Hmm." His grip tightened briefly, which in Caradog's arms was no joke. "I won't beg you never to do it again, Leader, because - you had to, I know, and it was the right thing to do. But... can't you warn us next time? Or something?"

"No," she said softly. "Because that would have made you accessories to it, and I wasn't taking you all with me. Sorry."

He rested his forehead against the top of her head and sighed again.

"I wish you weren't this good," he muttered. She didn't have chance to respond, though, because then Llŷr was there and pulling her away, and then Tanwen, and then Eluned and Meurig while Llio hopped from foot to foot impatiently and then Cei, and then finally they all broke apart, and Awen could see just how lost they were all feeling behind the smiles. The uncertainty was taking its toll on them, too, she thought. But she couldn't erase it. They were lost together.

The bedroom door clicked shut, and they all turned to see Gwilym striding back, smiling.

"Right!" he said merrily. "We have just shy of three minutes, and then Councillor Rhydian - who is patiently waiting outside, by the way - is moving in. Good news! No Eifion!"

"Hooray!" Llio said brightly. "I brought the make up, we'll need to touch you up -"

"You heard him say three minutes?" Awen said incredulously; but Adara was already pushing her back towards the bed, officially Taking Over as only Adara could.

"Just shy of," she said briskly. "So get going, Llio. Awen, sit, don't argue. Who brought clothes?"

"Everyone," Awen said flippantly. "I can tell because they aren't naked."

"Oh look, it's A Laugh A Line With Awen," Adara sniffed. "Llŷr, sort her clothes out. Sovereign, are there such mundane things as combs in this inordinately large and fancy room, or have you only been given ornamentation?"

"And hankies," Gwilym told her solemnly, ambling away to a drawer. "So many hankies. But I think I saw - oh, no, just socks. Hang on..."

There was a slight pause, while Llio appeared like magic before Awen's eyes and very carefully started examining her left cheekbone where Rhydian had hit her in the cells, while Cei serenely started laying out the brushes and pots. Eluned climbed onto the bed behind her and happily started detangling her hair.

"Ooh, not too bad," Llio said cheerfully, selecting the softest brush. "It's already mostly faded, and we can work with it to highlight your cheekbones. You'll look slightly more exotic than normal, probably, but that's fine."

"This bedroom is a big inefficient," Adara's voice proclaimed across the room.

"Tell me about it," Gwilym said, aggrieved. "Hang on, what's this one?"

"Right, keep still!" Llio chirped, and the brush whispered softly across the bruised cheekbone, avoiding hurting rather ably. "Meurig, is there any blue or green in there?"

"Blue or green?" Awen repeated. "I thought you said exotic, not reptilian."

"The tiniest amount on the other side to act as a low-light," Llio shrugged. "It's artistic."

"What about her eyes?" Caradog asked, peering at Awen's face. She tried not to squirm. "They're smudged. Do we have time to start again?"

"Nope," Llio said. She took the pot of green pigment from Meurig and very carefully lowered the brush so minutely to the surface of the powder that Awen could have sworn she only picked up three grains before sweeping it onto the other cheekbone, satisfied. "We'll smudge it more and make it smokey, it's fine."

"Combs! Yes!"

"A victory for proper bedroom planning! Eluned, catch."

"Adara got to go and play with Owain," Tanwen said, sitting at Awen's feet. "Can we?"

"Maybe later, if you're good," Awen said mildly. "But not you, Caradog. You have to go last."

"Hey!" Caradog exclaimed indignantly. "Why? What did I do?"

"Caradog," Awen said, pained. "Other people will want their turn, boy. You won't leave anything for anyone else to enjoy. You have to go last."

"That is fair," Llŷr said reasonably, sitting next to Tanwen on the floor with a pile of folded clothes on his lap. He'd gone for something quick, Awen noted, so it wasn't a uniform; instead he held what looked like a pair of blue and green checked linen trousers and a woollen top of some kind, things that she could easily pull on in - she glanced at the clock - a minute. "Also, you rush things."

"Shut up," Caradog said good-naturedly. Llio changed brushes and started on Awen's eyelids, helped by Cei. "I'm just naturally enthusiastic, you moron. Awen said."

"Did I?" Awen said. "There's diplomatic."

"Almost as diplomatic as sitting naked on the pointlessly lavish four-poster bed of a Sovereign," Adara said silkily, helping Eluned with the combs. "And he just told me about you pouncing on him, Awen. I'm extremely disappointed and unsurprised."

"I was bored," Awen grinned. "And he said he'd let me do it again."

"You'll find I did not," Gwilym declared. "But I accept that it's a risk. It's fine, you know, I'm really good at dressing."

"No!" Adara said. "It needs to be done, now! Keep going, Caradog!"

"Guys," Awen giggled. "Stop accosting the nice Sovereign."

"You'd better leave, then," Cei remarked, and he and Llio both sat back. "I think they're even."

"So do I!" Llio said happily. "What next?"

"Clothes," Adara announced. "Argh! Twenty seconds! Cease your banters and move, everyone!"

"Good grief, she's efficient," Gwilym murmured as suddenly Awen found clothes appearing on her body in a flurry of limbs and haste. "Please never give Watkins any pointers. I just couldn't handle it."

"You just point and shout," Adara advised him, as finally everyone stopped decorating her and stepped back. "And call people adjectives. It always seems to work for me."

"It's the adjectives," Awen grinned. "It confuses people into obedience. That, and she once removed a man's head with her bare hands."

"You did what?" Gwilym said, incredulously, and Adara threw her hands up.

"Can we please stop saying that?" she said, exasperated -

Someone knocked at the door, a knock Awen knew well, and she flinched before she could stop herself, the dread and the sick feeling of nausea rising up again. The Wing fell quiet, turning to look at it alertly, and Awen smiled. They'd all fallen into defensive poses, she noted. Caradog had even moved in front of her.

"Stand down, would you?" she said wryly, ignoring her heart hammering at her ribcage. "Look at yourselves, honestly."

"I don't know," Gwilym said doubtfully, striding over to the door as they all moved abashedly back. "It could always be Mental Uncle Dara, you see - Councillor! That's alright, then."

"That's the warmest welcome I've had into someone's bedroom for years," Rhydian said easily, marching on in. Alone, Awen noted, her mind suddenly on overtime to absorb the details. No one else with him, and a file in one hand with the big 'Classified' stamp on the front she knew so well, and his stride and smile easy and free while, of course, giving nothing away...

"My mother raised me to be polite-like," Gwilym grinned, closing the door. He was, Awen realised, fully dressed including torque once again. Caradog was good. "It's why I keep thanking Awen for saving my life every time she does it, even though she therefore suspects I may be a bit simple."

"Just half Erinnish," Awen shrugged, which mercifully Gwilym laughed at. She would have no idea if it had been a good joke or not until she mentally reviewed the conversation later - right now, she was far too nervous to tell. Rhydian grinned, and actually Saluted her.

"You're looking well!" he told her merrily as Awen returned the Salute cautiously. "Curiously so. And on the subject of which, Sovereign, I understand you halted Councillor Eifion before the end of his time?"

They locked eyes, both men managing to exude surprised innocence except for the unwavering gaze.

"Not at all, Councillor," Gwilym said, his tone the very essence of someone sad to learn they may have been misinterpretted. "You told me to count out five minutes, and told me to start."

"Did I?" Rhydian asked, vaguely astonished, apparently. "What did I say?"

"You said 'Five minutes, Sovereign. Off you go'," Gwilym told him. "I assumed you meant I was to begin the countdown."

"Bless you, no!" Rhydian said merrily in a passable imitation of Marged. "I simply meant you were supposed to leave."

"Oh I see," Gwilym said sorrowfully. "I do apologise, Councillor."

"Never mind," Rhydian told him. "Human error! We'll just have to be clearer next time."

There was a pause as their gazes remained locked for a moment more, and then Rhydian turned abruptly away and back to Awen, his expression back to its easy-going mask. Behind him, Gwilym clearly tried not to grin.

"Right then!" Rhydian said energetically, striding forward. "Sit, all of you. Particularly you, you're far too tall."

"Sorry, Councillor," Caradog grinned. They all sat where they were, mostly on the floor. Awen perched on the edge of the bed. Suddenly, she felt calm again; the same sense of alert tranquility she got before battle. This was it, then. No more waiting. She hated waiting.

"Now then," Rhydian said. "In a minute I'm taking you back to the Great Hall, we're just waiting to clear the hallways a bit. You've made yourself quite the fanclub, you know. You may need to sign autographs."

"Have I?" Awen asked, astonished. "Why?"

"Because you were right," Rhydian shrugged nonchalently. "And you called Gwyn a big girl's blouse, and he's been a bit dour and unpopular at people recently, so you know. Reflected karma. Here. This is the part I can't shout at you for publicly."

He passed her the file, and Awen automatically took it and started reading, the familiarity of the situation comforting. It was entitled 'Council Restructuring'. She raised an eyebrow.

"Gosh," she said. Rhydian snorted.

"Yes," he said idly. "Although it's not quite that dramatic, mind. It's more to do with the Low Council. We're adding ten new faces to the ranks, for - well, it's on the first page, you can see why."

...mostly to adapt the Intelligencer Network. Each new Councillor will have been an Intelligencer and will become the liaison, with the aim of having one Low Councillor per City-state within eight years' time. Until then each Liaison Officer will have to cover two or three City-states each. Their function will be...

"This is because of me?" Awen guessed.

"Ha!" Rhydian grinned. "Of course it is. Try not to fall apart again, would you? Restructuring the politics of a country around one person who isn't meant to affect it in the first place makes an astonishing amount of paperwork. Gwenllian is not best pleased."

"I can imagine," Awen sighed sadly. She passed the file back, and Rhydian happily tucked it under one arm.

"Now," he said briskly. "Keep that in mind as we go, please, since I can't remind you of it in front of everyone. And now we're going to the Great Hall. Come on."

They were having to restructure the Council because of her. It was incredibly embarrassing, really, although Awen found she couldn't feel too bad about it. The gods only knew it was necessary, and it would definitely make Ioan's life easier now that he'd be taking over in Casnewydd. Which he must have been.

Rhydian pulled the door open and strode out, his authority dragging her along after him. Awen quickly sprang to keep up, the Wing all filing along behind her. Outside, the Aberystwyth Sovereign's Quarters were filled with random people by now, far more than Awen had yet seen in them under ordinary circumstances; servants and clerks all seemed to be very slowly wandering past, suddenly, cleaning things that in no way needed cleaning or scribbling notes onto pads without actually looking at the paper. Instead, they all seemed to be very badly disguising the fact that they were trying to stare at her, wide-eyed and fascinated. It made her feel deeply uncomfortable. She ignored them and focused on Rhydian's back instead.

"Right," he said quietly over his shoulder as they paused to open the main doors. "We've told them all not to bow to you because you won't like it, but people do love to get carried away, so brace yourself."

"'Them all'?" Awen repeated, startled. "How many are we talking - ?"

"Quite a few, quite a few," Rhydian grinned and pulled the door open into a corridor whose edges had become a solid wall of people, held back at intervals by Riders. Awen stared, horrified. "Ah, excellent! Fewer than before. They must have gone to the Great Hall."

"Are you alright?" Gwilym chuckled in her ear as Rhydian strode forward and away. Awen stumbled after him, trying not to look at anyone.

"Well," she said evenly, "I knew I was going to be punished. It's just more of the same, that's all."

"Flyn would have thought the opposite, you know," Adara said idly. "Because he was a great big ego."

"Yes, well." They turned a corner, and Awen found it was possible for the corridors to be even more packed. "It's the first time I've ever actually said this sentence, but I'm not Flyn."

"And I for one am grateful," Gwilym remarked, and in spite of how deeply unnerved she was with the situation Awen laughed, and suddenly the tension melted away from her. They were a shocked crowd, that was all. She could take that. She straightened her back, and lifted her chin, and moved forward.

"I owe Madog a pint now," she remembered thoughtfully. "He bet me I'd get purified."

"You didn't accept," Rhydian said without looking round, proving once and for all that he knew every conversation in the country. "But Dylan did."

"Oh, typical good-for-nothing Dylan," Adara said disgustedly. "Whereas Madog - also known as good-for-something Madog - has done himself proud."

"There's a nickname," Awen grinned. "I'll shout that at the Saxons next time. Although I doubt it'll have the same ring."

"As what?" Gwilym asked, amused. "What did you shout last time?"

"'Alpha Wingleader'," Awen shrugged. "They did not like that, I can tell you."

Rhydian laughed, not breaking stride, the sound immensely satisfied, and Gwilym smirked and shook his head. Awen recognised the expression. It was his 'Ah, Riders are so cute' face. She smacked him in the arm for it, and ignored his snigger.

There was a brief reprive from the crowds as they reached the Spiral Stairs and ascended a floor, probably because few Riders were willing to let people mill about on staircases when it presented such a large health and safety risk, but they were back in force again as they rejoined the corridors and were so thick around the Great Hall that the final few metres involved Rhydian actually pushing people out of the way. As they got to the doors, Awen felt the nerves kick at her again. What was going to happen next, anyway? Execution? Demotion to Guard? Tutor? Probably not, they wouldn't want her warping new generations of Riders, and she'd set a terrible example -

The doors swung open as the fanfare sang out, making Gwilym wince, and before she'd had chance to ready herself Rhydian was striding forward and Awen was hastily following, ignoring how clammy the palms of her hands had suddenly become...

The Hall was packed. It had been slightly filled beyond capacity earlier, too, but now it wouldn't have surprised her to have looked up and seen Riders forming human ladders over the balconies to watch. Every Sovereign was back, and every druid and every bard, and every member of the Low Council - ah, including Gwyn, whom she really owed an apology - and apart from Rhydian every High Councillor was already seated and waiting, Gwenllian drumming her fingers on the desk while Eifion gave everything he could physically see a withering glare. And the atmosphere was charged. The air felt thick with emotion, hundreds of people all leaning forward to see better, all standing on their feet and watching, the sussurration of their voices a low background hum. Awen glanced around them all once, instinctively gauging her surroundings, and then focused on moving to the right part of the floor. So far, she hadn't had to look at anyone's face. Ideally she wanted that to continue.

"Right!" Rhydian said briskly. "To your seat if you would, Sovereign - you lot, go and stand to the side. Awen, over there. So everyone can see you."

"Councillor," Awen sighed, as they all scattered. The spot where the chair that held Lord Flyn had been, then, she noted with objective approval. So that, yes, everyone could see her clearly, but she was sufficiently close enough to the High Council that she had to look up to see them on the dais. It was very efficient. The bastard.

She reached it and stopped, standing up straight and waiting impassively as Rhydian rounded the dais and reclaimed his seat. Here they went, then. Her body was now reacting to the situation like it did to battle; suddenly her senses were working overtime, telling her of the cold stone floor beneath her feet, the sweat on her back, the slight, lingering ache in her shoulders that Haf hadn't entirely been able to remove, the crowded presence of people around her, the continued muttered whispering, the faint scrape marks on the stones where the chair had been dragged away -

Rhydian stood.

"Sit," he commanded, and everyone in the room sat. Even Awen felt her knees bend. Rhydian smiled.

"Thank you," he said, his voice clear. "Now. Rider. Do you remember your Oaths?"


"Yes, Councillor," Awen returned neutrally. Gratifyingly she sounded completely steady. Rhydian nodded.

"Loyalty to the Union and to Cymru," he said. "Remember that bit?"

"Yes, Councillor."

"By all means," Rhydian said, waving a hand. "Explain your position on that."

"In an ideal world the two are interchangeable," Awen said. Her heart was hammering at her now. She gripped one wrist behind her back to hold herself steady. "But the Union is sadly not infallible, and ultimately the loyalty of any Rider is to Cymru, not an organisation."

"Not infallible?" Rhydian asked mildly. Awen groaned mentally. What did he want? Was she supposed to start shouting at Gwyn again?

"For all our strengths we're human, Councillor," she said, clinging to her neutral tone with both hands. "The Union included. And don't misunderstand me; I think the Union is an incredible institution that has done - and still does - an astonishing job at maintaining peace and order across a whole country without sacrificing freedom. And I personally don't consider it to have misstepped before. But if it does I think, therefore, that it's vitally important that someone corrects it."

"That someone being you?" Rhydian asked.

"This time," Awen allowed.

"Indeed?" Rhydian raised an eyebrow. "You wouldn't do it again?"

"I'd hope I wouldn't have to," Awen returned, wondering if she'd get away with a side-step. Probably not -

"But if you did?"

Damn. "Then yes, Councillor," Awen said quietly. "If I had to, and I were the best-placed person to do so, yes. I'd do it again."

"One feels compelled to point out, then," Rhydian said, steepling his fingers beneath his chin, "that you're as human as we are, Rider. For all of your considerable strengths. You felt we were wrong. Who's to say you were right about that?"

There was a pause.

"That was the risk," Awen agreed softly. "No one, Councillor. No one at all."

"Really?" He watched her for a moment, letting the loaded silence in the Hall stretch out. "That's it? That's your defence?"

"There's no other answer I can give," Awen said, smiling slightly. "Councillor, we're talking about the complexities of the human dynamic. Without meaning to become too philosophical, it's all ultimately subjective. All I can tell you is that it wasn't a decision I undertook lightly. And I took no pride in it. But yes; I'd do it again. Because within the boundaries of Union teaching and belief - if that's the framework of reference that we use - a very grave mistake was about to be made."

A quiet muttering broke out around the Hall as Rhydian watched her impassively. Awen stayed still, and held his gaze as clearly as she could. Where on earth was this going? She couldn't work it out. Everyone just looked serious or thoughtful or a mixture of the two; it was impossible to get a fix on prevailing opinion. Was she being given all the rope she wanted, here? Was that the point?

Mererid leaned forward, and Awen tried not to feel like she was fifteen again as she met her gaze.

"Rider," she said. She sounded stern, but she always did. "Could you summarise, for the benefit of those who weren't present in our previous meeting, what you consider that mistake to have been?"

"Without shouting at Gwyn," Gwenllian broke in, grinning, and ignored the Look she got from Rhydian. Awen winced, and quickly thought.

"It's a matter of subversion," she said at last. "Albeit unintentional. The purpose of the Union has always been to maintain the line between right and wrong. For everyone, on every level, but particularly politically speaking, because that's the level where the most damage can be done to society by the fewest people. Lord Flyn did things that no one, ever, should be allowed to do. And you were going to allow that."

"With conditions," Eifion broke in, his voice hard, and for the first time in her life Awen raised her chin and met his eye directly.

"Councillor, if the society is broken there is no point in defending it," she said clearly, hearing the words echo through the room. "If we aren't capable of maintaining ourselves as something good, something worthwhile, something better for longer than a fifty year stretch before the next self-inflicted war, then frankly, we should just take the border down now and bow the Saxons in. Because clearly, we don't deserve our independence."

And Eifion was frozen, staring at her transfixed, his eyes boring into her. Rhydian leaned forward carefully, and Awen looked at him instead with almost manic internal gratefulness. Somewhere inside her, her Inner Awen was screaming and throwing things at her. She didn't even have an excuse this time.

"Your view is that our society would have been broken?" Rhydian said neutrally.

"Compromised," Awen said. "You would have compromised it, and that invariably leads to destruction, yes. That would have destroyed public faith in the Union, and Riders in general. It would have told all Sovereigns, Nobles, Mayors and other positions of power that any schemes they wished to embark upon would not be stopped, whether Riders learnt of them or not. And it would have rather neatly informed all visiting envoys and therefore the wider world in general that Cymru is not the well-protected nation everyone, including ourselves, previously believed."

"Yes," Rhydian said, mildly. "I think you're right. Arguably, of course, that damage is now done anyway."

"I'd argue not," Awen said swiftly. She'd thought of that, and very much needed to make this point. "It was a split vote for one thing; but, more importantly, it was a misstep from the Union that was corrected by a Rider, not an external source. And if it isn't me next time, it will be someone else, Councillor."

"Very well." Rhydian glanced around the room quickly, the assembled crowds in the balcony, and then fixed his gaze on her. "Rider. You disobeyed several direct orders today and overturned an immensely important ruling in your nation's history, thereby placing yourself in direct control of the country's political direction - something which, as a Rider, you are expressly forbidden to do. Accordingly you will be stripped of rank and title and removed from the post of Alpha Wingleader -"

Good gods that hurt. It was like being punched. She'd been expecting it - she'd known it would happen, for gods' sakes, it would have been impossible to have gone back to her nice, comfortable life after this, and it had been unlikely anyway after Owain given how good Ioan's Wing was - but she very nearly recoiled physically. She loved being Alpha Wingleader. It was everything to her, and everything she'd definied herself by for so long -

People were talking, Awen realised, and forced herself to pay attention and get her breathing back under control. Everyone in the room seemed to be talking at once, not like an angry mob but just... talking to each other about it. Everyone had an opinion on it, it seemed. Rhydian raised an arm, and the noise stuttered to a halt.

"Rider," he said, still professionally shorn of emotion. Awen looked up at him, numbly knowing that she looked the same. "Your response?"

Maybe I'll stop crying myself to sleep three years from now, Awen thought, but there was an edge of suspicion creeping through the bitter haze. Rhydian was not normally sadistic. She bit back the pain, and considered an appropriate answer.

"I expected it, Councillor," she said neutrally, but apparently she wasn't allowed to side-step anything today.

"And are you happy with it?" he asked searchingly. She took a deep breath, and felt its loss. The automatic 'Yes, Councillor' died in her throat, unsaid.

"No," Awen said, steadily, her eyes on his hands instead of his face. "But I accept it."

"Good," Rhydian said, and sat up. "Now; concerning the matter of the Union and its actions earlier today, Rider, we find that your arguments are distressingly accurate. Where we should have acted with no mercy or hesitation we... compromised." A wry smile quirked his mouth, and he nodded to her. "And you're correct. A Union that does so endangers Cymru more than all of Saxonia. We have become what we swore we would defend against."

"I said that?" Awen said, alarmed. Gwenllian almost cackled.

"It was brilliant!" she said gleefully. "I made notes, I've got them somewhere..."

"You did," Rhydian said, giving Gwenllian another Look. "And you were right. There are things that, living here in the Union and away from the people of Cymru, we've perhaps lost sight of. And, of course, society will change. It does so away from us."

He regarded her for a moment more and then stood, elliciting immediate silence from the few people who had still been whispering to each other. Gwenllian stopped looking for her notes, even. Awen swallowed, and waited.

"We need someone to set us straight again," Rhydian declared, calmly and authoritatively into the silence. "To make sure the Union becomes what it should be again. You'll be promoted to Low Councillor immediately, with a mandate to -"

He didn't get any further, because this time the noise was deafening, people around the room and on their feet apparently thrilled with the proceedings and Awen didn't hear a single word of it. It felt like the bottom had dropped out of her stomach, or maybe just the world itself; the shock gripped her, shearing away any emotional response she might have had and leaving her incapable of doing anything but stare completely blankly at Rhydian. Their eyes met for a long moment, and then he started talking again, his voice completely lost under the furore.

"Well, as you can still see my mouth," he said, as Awen read the words straight off his lips. "You're a Liaison Officer, obviously. And you're covering Casnewydd, Wrecsam and Aberystwyth for now." His lips spread into a grin suddenly. "And you get to keep the Sovereign, obviously. As long as he'll have you."

Responses lined themselves up in her head, got bored as she didn't say them and left again. Rhydian laughed gleefully, watching her.

"But you weren't expecting this," he said, amused.

"No," Awen whispered, almost to herself. No, no she hadn't expected... this. It... no. No, she hadn't.

She couldn't feel her skin anymore. Was that bad? Was that a bad sign? Although, she'd noticed she couldn't feel her skin anymore, that was progress from a few moments ago at least -

Rhydian plucked a sheet of paper from the table in front of him and held it out, and Awen moved on autopilot to take it, her legs moving as though they'd forgotten what knees were. She took the page and stared at it blankly for a moment, until her brain got bored of waiting and started reading without her. It meant she was about halfway down the page before the content registered, and then she had to go back and do it again -

Masarnen Wing Promotion Status: Approved.

All members hereby promoted to Approval Officers, with licence to apply for any other positions they wish. Mandate to include the training, examining and certification of Wings and individual Riders of all ages once training is complete; age group specialisms are welcome. Primarily to be based in the Union but with frequent trips to the home Cities of the Wings under review to conduct examinations of prowess in a known environment -

Awen stopped reading, and placed a hand against the dais to hold herself up. All of them approved! They were staying together! And oh, Caradog was going to be pleased; he spent at least half his free time at home challenging random Riders to fights, now he got to do it as a job -

She glanced across the Hall to them where they were ecstatically jumping all over each other and hugging each other and - Awen's eyes narrowed - crying, at least in Llŷr's case. She was definitely going to call him a girl in a minute. Adara probably already had.

It was soothing, and helped to push aside some of the numbness. If he was as happy as he looked, actually, Caradog was going to be pretending he had something in his eye in a moment, Awen thought, moving back to her original position as Rhydian began the long call for silence. And Llio would be crying unabashedly because she had 'sweet' stamped on her forehead anyway, and Eluned would be jumping up and down a lot, and Adara wouldn't have stopped talking. And -

Good gods. She was a Councillor.

How the hell had that happened?

"If you could all wait until later to loudly shout your opinions?" Rhydian called above the noise, and it slid into being quieter not entirely instantly. He lowered his hands again as it died down to a mere background hum and nodded. "Thank you," he said, and smiled. "Which largely concludes this meeting. As I say, the posting is effective immediately so you'll need to go and sort out a new uniform next, after which I'll see you in my office. Dismissed, everyone."

He Saluted her.

"And thank you, Councillor," he said.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Cymru - Chapter 53

Having spent ages trying to write the next part of this story and it just not happening, I on a whim yesterday thought I should put the information I was shoehorning in into a different chapter for Madog to react to. Suddenly, I managed to write a chapter. Funny how these things work. It's fairly short, but gods damn it I just wanted it up so I could write the next bit now, so here it is. Enjoy, losers.


Dylan was practically clawing at the Council Chamber door like an abandoned puppy by the time Madog quietly eased himself out through them, trying not to disturb the incredibly important conversation within. It was so embarrassing, Madog reflected. The ante-chamber was fairly large, and currently lined with unnerved-looking Riders of all levels, talking quietly to each other through the shock and trying to work out which way was up; but Dylan was totally irreverent. As the door clicked softly shut again he leapt forward, fuelled by his frustrated desire for knowledge, and made a spirited attempt to seize Madog by the lapels, a move only thwarted by his not wearing any. It meant he ended up gripping Madog's shoulders and pinning him to the door instead.

"For the love of gods, what is happening?" he all but screamed. Madog blinked. "Eifion's taken her! Where! Why! What's going on?!"

"I..." Madog stared at him for a moment, the wildly untameable hair, the frantically roving eyes, the still-haunting scarring, and sighed. He pulled Dylan into a hug, ignoring the tension. "Indulge me for a moment."

Dylan's response was an interesting half-mewl, half-hiss of frustration, but he did as he was told, his forehead dropping petulantly to Madog's shoulder before his entire body went still. Madog stared blankly across the ante-chamber, not seeing the Riders as they all watched him hopefully for news. Awen's speech had shaken him to the core. He'd spent the last few days already thinking she was beyond amazing at this job; now he knew she was. And... she'd been right. And he'd known that. And he could never have done that.

"What's happening?" Dylan pleaded. He'd probably never been this out of the loop before, Madog thought. "What did she say? What did they say? What are they saying now?"

"She said they'd failed Cymru," Madog said, astonished.


"She said she'd saved it from them because they were about to turn us into our worst nightmare," Madog carried on, dazedly. The chamber had gone silent, everyone listening, and he realised the door was open and his words were carrying into the hall beyond, and the ears of the crowds out there. Dylan had frozen in his arms. "She said they'd forgotten whose side they were on. And that they were letting Flyn stay because it was easier and they didn't want to fight. And that they'd done so in front of the Audience envoys, who were going to go home and tell the world that the Union was weak and ineffective, so they'd know they could now try attacking Cymru. And that... that they'd damaged Cymru more than the Saxons ever could, and that the Council had become as bad as Saxons."

"Good gods," someone said faintly. Dylan very nearly wrestled himself free and stood back a step, staring at Madog. It was such unexpected behaviour that Madog nearly just stared back at him blankly, but he caught himself in time. Everyone was shocked. Everyone was expecting someone in authority to take charge and tell them what to do; but he knew for a fact that every Coucillor was currently sitting in the room behind him asking themselves where they went wrong and each other what to do next. Which meant the Alpha Wingleader collar was the only authority anyone was going to see for a bit. He couldn't afford to fall apart.

With an effort, Madog pulled himself back together, and watched with immense pride as Dylan visibly did the same, picking up his cue.

"That's the worst report ever, boy," Dylan sniffed. "But fine. What did they say?"

"Well, Gwyn made the classic error of telling her she didn't understand the threat the Saxons represent," Madog said wryly, and grinned as Dylan burst out laughing. Around them, the silent, nervy Riders started to calm down a bit, more fascinated than horrified. "To which Awen's response was to outline his easy career in which he never fought a day in his life. No one knew where to look."

"I'll bet," Dylan grinned evilly. "So? What else?"

"Well, once she'd finished they all basically agreed with her," Madog recounted, running a hand through his beard distractedly. "Except - funny story - you know that meeting you, Awen and Aerona had with Rhydian?"

He did, it seemed. Dylan's eyes roved the wall and doors behind Madog quickly.

"Thought so," he said solemnly. "That's why Eifion?"

"Yes," Madog said, shaking his head. "For five minutes."

"Say again?" Dylan's eyes whipped onto him, limiting their range to a brisk search of Madog's face only.

"Eifion gets five minutes with her," Madog said, savouring the sentence and all that it meant. "And then Lord Gwilym gets three hours, because Rhydian reckons he's the victim. While in the meantime... the Council try to work out what to do next."

"Ha!" Dylan shoved the fingers of both hands into the mass of curls on his head, looking on average up at the ceiling. "Right. Okay. What are they thinking? What's the debate so far?"

"Non-existant," Madog said grimly, glancing at the door. "They're just analysing her arguments at the moment. I think they're trying to get a grasp of how much damage control is needed."

"Yes," Dylan said, staring upwards. He seemed to be thinking fast. "Ha. Yes. Witnesses, that's the trouble. What they do next has to take that into account, so everyone gets the right impression. That's lame paint. She can't be Alpha Wingleader now."

"Can't she?" Madog asked, bewildered. "I think she's just proved she should never be removed from station ever again."

"Oh, Madog," Dylan said, patronisingly. "One day when you're older, you'll understand. Alpha Wingleaders are supposed to just seem noble and strong and as thick as planks, like you."

"Dylan," Madog said wearily. "I am certainly not above smacking you into a wall right now, intense situation or no."

"When are you?" Dylan asked morosely. "You abuse me so. I'm right, though, you dystopia. You aren't really meant to have a personality in your Sovereign's eyes, remember? You're just supposed to be a direct line to Union opinion. Now everyone knows Awen thinks like an individual and reads diaries and you're not allowed to do that because everyone says so. It's a damaged rep. No good for Alpha Wingleader."

"Damn." He hated it when Dylan was right. It encouraged him. Madog sighed, and rubbed his eyes. "Academic, though, I take it."

"If she's not purified," Dylan nodded, turning and scanning the silent crowds of Riders behind them for no reason Madog could fathom. "Yeah, she's dead in a few days. Limits the options, though, because whatever they do with her needs to be public and symbolic."

The world was watching, Councillors. And it would have to watch the consequences. Madog winced.

"What do you think, then?" he asked. "Hasten the execution?"

The ambient temperature dropped a few degrees.

"Maybe," Dylan said indifferently, waving a hand as though the whole thing was simply an academic exercise to him. Madog wasn't fooled. "Probs. Or make a big point of demoting her to somewhere quiet and out of the way of politics, somewhere in the Union itself. A Guard or something, like. It's a problem, though."

So were the Riders listening. He could feel the emotions, riding high on the words of their conversation, and they were Not Happy. Awen had forged a support structure out of every Rider in the country, it seemed, but it wasn't helping right now.

"You know, all you do is tell me problems these days," Madog said disapprovingly, putting his hands on his hips. "I thought getting a girlfriend would cheer you up."

"Oh, because I'm the realist," Dylan said, putting on his best put-upon, long-suffering tone. "Don't worry, Madog. You're a Wingleader, you're meant to be as thick as a pla-"

Smacking Dylan upside the head was always so satisfying, but it was even better than normal by dint of being Necessary For Public Morale. Madog grinned as Dylan yelped and leapt back, the tension in the room abruptly winding down a notch or two at their informality.

"I told you," he said sternly. "And I don't mind finding a runway to push you off. Now: what's the new problem you've decided on?"

"Madog!" Dylan rolled his eyes, rubbing the side of his head just out of arm's reach. "It's not my problem, plank boy! Gods, I hate you -"

"Dylan," Madog said evenly, his eyes on the ceiling, and Dylan huffed.

"Fine," he said, rolling his eyes. "Awen was right. That's the problem. Even if they demote her to show that they are Anti Alpha Wingleader Deviance, the reputation of the Union is still broken because they were willing to let Flyn go in the first place, like losers. Okay? Are we done? Can I go now?"

"No," Madog said automatically, but his heart wasn't in it. Dylan, damn his eyes, was right again. Awen couldn't stay as Alpha Wingleader now; they'd have to demote her. But if they did, it basically cemented the image of the Union being an intransigent corporation of idle bureaucrats who cared more about their own status than anything else...

"You're a loser, too," Dylan declared off-handedly. "I'm hungry, Adara ate all of my snacks. Can we go?"

"Certainly not," Madog said archly. "We're staying to learn the fate of our friend, you social reject."

And then his brain caught up and smugly underlined the word 'friend' a few times for him, and Madog felt old suddenly. She was a friend, he realised wearily. He'd never had one before. There were always other tags to apply, a hierarchical stage to observe, or just a lack of the correct shared affinity. But he liked Awen. She was a friend.

"I want everyone's assurances they heard that," Dylan was saying, looking around at the nervously-smiling Riders assembled in the room and watching them. "You all heard him call me a social reject, yes? Everyone heard that verbal abuse?"

"Of course they did," Madog said. "And they agreed. Now-"


The snarled fury of the voice echoed in from the corrider, sliding in through Madog's ears and freezing his blood, making his fingers clench involuntarily by his sides. All eyes snapped to the door into the hallway where the movement of Riders frantically getting out of the way arrived in a wave, and Dylan spun around and gripped Madog's arm, pulling him to one side of the door -

"Follow him in!" Dylan hissed as the angrily striding footsteps approached. "It's okay; go behind him, he won't notice you."

"In that mood?" Madog said, his voice low. "You think I'm risking that?"

"Then go now!" Dylan said. "Quick! Be in there already! We need to know what's happened!"

Bloody Dylan, Madog thought. Responding to him when he suggested plans with that urgency was a conditioned response, and it over-rode his fear of Eifion long enough that Madog found himself darting back to the door and slipping inside the Council Chamber just before Eifion himself arrived in the ante-chamber. Someone was talking, Madog noted over his hammering heart. It was a Low Councillor, whatever she was saying punctuated with an expressive arm gesture every three words, but he didn't listen. A few people looked his way as he grabbed the arm of the Guard Rider standing beside the door and pulled her quickly to one side, ignoring her startled, questioning look -

The door slammed open with a reverberating crash, slamming through the space the Guard had been standing and into the wall behind it, and Eifion strode in like the wrath of the gods, his rage lending him a youth and speed that didn't belong in his aged frame. He bore down on the dais holding the High Council like a hurricane, silencing the rest of the room.

"Thanks," the Guard Rider whispered, beside Madog, squeezing his arm, and then crept away to close the door again. He barely heard her, his eyes on Eifion. You watched Eifion when he was merely bored. Now he was incandescent.

"Eifion," Rhydian said carefully, leaning forward. "Is there - ?"

"He started counting," Eifion snarled, his eyes almost bulging, "while we were still here!"

The silence oozed.

"Ah," Rhydian said. No one else even breathed. "So -"

"So I hadn't started!" Eifion roared, flecks of saliva flying from his mouth, visible in the sunlight. "And yet he stopped me! And will you allow this?"

Dangerous, Madog thought dizzily. Rhydian was only tacitly in charge of the Council, not its actual head; challenging that now...

"No," Rhydian said calmly. "We'll speak with Lord Gwilym."

"Good," Eifion hissed, triumphantly, taking a step back toward the door. "I won't -"

"But there's a problem there, bach," Gwenllian said, leaning forward suddenly, and Madog found that, somehow, his chest could get tighter. "When you say you hadn't started, do you mean that -"

"One strike," Eifion said coldly, his pale eyes trained on her venomously and warningly. Gwenllian nodded.

"That's a start, see?" she said. "The sentence was passed that Lord Gwilym would time out five minutes. By the time you get back down there that'll be up, now."

The silence was toxic, and so thick it could have strangled a horse. Madog felt light-headed, and realised he hadn't breathed in a while. In his mind Gwenllian was suddenly lit up and surrounded by happy bluetits and blackbirds while flowers grew at her feet. Who went against Eifion? Good gods! She must have been semi-divine herself, Madog considered dizzily. She was just smiling serenely now, taking the full force of Eifion's lancing glare as he focused all of his hatred onto her, and -

Eifion drew himself up, the rage apparently converting into the cold of winter, and he stared at the Council for a long moment.

"I see," he said at last, and Madog tried not to shake at the sound. Eifion was terrifying beyond all reason, he felt. How Gwenllian wasn't fleeing the room was anyone's guess. "Then I suppose I shall have to be content with a caution for Lord Gwilym. Am I needed here?"

"You'd be invaluable," Rhydian said neutrally, lifting a page of notes and scanning it briefly. "We've a lot to discuss now, we could use a full High Council."

"Very well." Eifion walked back to the dais, his walk suddenly sedate and composed, but Madog could see the cold fury in every movement. Quickly, he darted back to the door, and before Eifion had retaken his seat to face the Chamber Madog slipped outside again, the relief as the door clicked closed behind him almost overpowering -

Dylan was standing two inches away from his face, watching him brightly.

"Well?" he asked chirpily. "Why anger happen?"

"I loathe you," Madog declared, and pushed Dylan away. "He only got to hit her once. Lord Gwilym counted from the point Rhydian told him to, apparently. For which he'll get a slap on the wrists, but that's it."

Dylan burst out laughing, and a low mutter rippled out across the room and into the corridor beyond.

"Owned!" Dylan crowed. "Oh, he's good, this one! And he said he couldn't do politics?"

"Repeatedly," Madog grinned. "He's a natural, I think. I give him ten years until everyone just votes him into being Monarch or whatever it was Flyn wanted anyway."

"Yeah," Dylan said contentedly, and turned to lean against the wall beside Madog, his pose the extremely relaxed state of a man who hadn't just been in a room with a wrathful Eifion. "So you know your Phoenician?"

"Would you stop calling him that?" Madog asked wearily, moving off the door and leaning back too. The focus had moved off them by now, he noted; the Riders in the room and beyond were all discussing Awen's rescue from Eifion's clutches in astonished mutterings, leaving Madog and Dylan to just stand around and Be Authoritative. "He has a name, you ingrate. What about him?"

"I found out what he wanted from his Audience," Dylan grinned, and Madog couldn't help but smile fondly. "You know sugar?"

"I'm aware of its existence," Madog shrugged.

"Well!" Dylan said emphatically. "He said he wanted to talk about beet sugar specifically to the Union, which I thought was odd because it's a boring conversation topic and they already trade small amounts of sugar here so what could he want -"

"I refuse to believe your reports to Rhydian are this bad," Madog interrupted. Dylan snorted.

"Only marginally clearer," he said, in a rare moment of complete honesty. "Now listen, young man. Sugar is a very expensive crop, and so the best stuff comes with a guarentee that it won't go rotting within a fortnight, right?"

"I believe you."

"Good, you should, I'm excellent. Now, Hannibal, turns out, owns a very successful company."

Madog thought of the silk ropes.

"He's very rich," he nodded thoughtfully.

"Yeah," Dylan grinned. "Except you're wrong. He's not very rich. He's very rich. Know why?"

"No?" Madog offered.

"Trading standards!" Dylan said gleefully. "He started with his sister, and they decided that the surest way to business success was to be different from the rest of the market, right? So people would remember them. So firstly: no slaves."

From the very beginning. Madog grinned.

"He did tell me he didn't approve of slave trading," he said reminiscently.

"He doesn't," Dylan confirmed. "His sister wrote a paper on the merits of free labour for a surrounding economy, apparently. And it worked out for them; trading in slaves is labour- and resource-intensive because, you know, feeding and that, so running commodity ships is faster and easier. And more lucrative, if you sell right. He clever man."

"He is," Madog said thoughtfully. "Okay. So what -?"

"Well," Dylan said, in the tone of a serial gossip. "There's the thing! That's only part of the mandate. No slaves, and high quality. They run a lot of food ships, and that's the back bone of the business because they're so good at it. They can put high guarentees on their food not rotting immediately. Do you know what a Phoenician trading city is?"

"Heard of them," Madog shrugged. "But - well, aren't they cities built in other countries? Run by Phoenicians, used as trading ports, built on foreign soil?"

"Yeah, largely," Dylan nodded, scanning the carpet. "They're what the Phoenician Empire is made of. They only have, like, three cities of their own. Their empire is commercial, see. Anyway; the idea is, they own the city and run it accordingly as a massive trading port. They have deals and things with the farmers and landowners and such that live around the city, so each one produces a few specific commodities that the Phoenicians will own and can then sell on, but then that's it. Phoenician city, foreign country. Which is strange to you and me, Madog, but it just goes to show it would be a funny old world if we were all alike."

"Stop feigning wisdom and finish the damn story," Madog told him. Dylan Saluted irreverently.

"Phoenicians have been asking to build a trading city in Cymru for centuries," he said. "We said no because we have no space and anyway, that was the Wars. We've been very territorial for a long time, because we're all very dominant and need castrating to calm us down. But Hannibal uses trading cities a lot because that's how he operates his produce business, see? See? He only transports any given foodstuff, like, two hundred miles or whatever. Less time at sea equals less time to rot. People pay him more money for the quality. Clever, see? Ahhh."

"Yes," Madog said cautiously. "But I'm positive you haven't yet explained -"

"No, I haven't, shut up," Dylan said. "He wants to sell sugar here, right? Sugar beet would grow in our soils. So, he wants a trading city here to do this."

"What?" Madog stared at him. "Surely he knows we'd never agree?"

"Of course he does," Dylan said, rolling his eyes. "So he hasn't asked for one. He's adapted it. Because, you see, what he cares about here is the sugar, not the city all to himself. So, he wants a trading scheme with a City - or town, as long as it has a port he's not picky - whereby he will give them his sugar beet and and plans for the processing to get the sugar and his brightest smile and maybe a quick session in bed with him since he's so highly recommended by you, and then they will sell it exclusively to him, for which he will never pay below minimum market price. And it's sugar, it's a good price. And then he sells it on. See?"

"Wait, so..." Madog stopped, thinking. "So he'd entirely control the Cymric sugar trade? We'd produce it, but couldn't sell it amongst ourselves without him?"

"Exactly!" Dylan said brightly. "Which literally doesn't matter, because it's sugar! It's a luxury additive that only Courts could afford anyway! Also, he'll be the one selling the excess on to Erinn or wherever. Good earner for him, excellent earner for the unemployed farmers and distillers of Port Talbot and Pen-y-Bont."

"Good gods." Madog thought about it. "That's... pretty good, actually. Will the Council say yes?"

"No," Dylan said. "Because they already have! Ha! Yeah, it's going ahead."

"I think I might throttle you," Madog told him conversationally, and received an unabashed grin. "Or maybe I'll just trade you in. The Councillors in there do not know which way is up at the moment. I'm sure they'd let me."

"Oh Madog," Dylan intoned. "But who would you cry to then?"

"Anyone else," Madog declared; but his eye was drawn, hawk-like, to the movement at the entrance to the corridor, and as he watched the petite figure of a Rider shouldered it's way surprisingly efficiently into the room -

"Aerona!" Dylan said brightly, standing up from the wall and reaching out to her. "Awesome! What's happened?"

"Massive news!" she exclaimed, bounding across and into his arms. She was out of breath, Madog noted, her eyes wide and filled with an irrepressible urgency. A silence in the assembled Riders had followed her in, and they all watched intently at her words. "Seriously! It's Awen -"

"Is she alright?" Madog found himself asking sharply, and Aerona barked an incredulous laugh, short and shocked.

"She's been purified!" she said, and the entire world crystallised around them all, transfixed on the impossibility of what Aerona had just said. "He did it! She's fine!"

The whispering began, spreading backwards from the room, and this time Eifion himself probably couldn't have stopped it.

"But... how?" Madog found himself asking blankly. "That's not... that's never happened before."

"I know!" Aerona said, and laughed, the sound of sheer relief. "And it was intensely traumatic, it really was. But it's done! She's safe again!"

"My gods." Madog stared at her. "That's incredible."

"Yeah," Aerona giggled. "The Wing are all there, anyway - oh, except Adara, who has gone to see Owain. We might need to hastily get approval for her, actually. But she's back to normal again now! Or, well, in one sense."

"Madog," Dylan said suddenly, his voice urgent, and Madog glanced at him. He was scanning the far wall, his scarred eyes lightning-quick as he thought, his grip on Aerona tight. "You have to go in there, right now, and tell them."

"Really?" Madog said, eyeing the door in trepidation. "With Eifion in that mood?"

"I know," Dylan said, and actually looked at him. "But you have to go and tell them! I think there's another option we haven't considered. But you have to tell them before they decide anything, quickly! Important, boy! Go!"

"Some days," Madog told Aerona levelly, "I can't quite work out which of us is in charge after all."

He put his hand on the door handle as she giggled and swallowed his nerves down.

"I hate you, Dylan," he muttered, and went in.

"... quite the issue," Rhydian was saying, his head in one hand. "It's the publicity of it, Gwen. It has to happen in front of everyone who was at that trial, back in the Great Hall, with all due ceremony and officiality, because it's going to be all about the message."

"Yes," Gwenllian said calmly. "I just think it has to be the right message in that case."

Gods, Eifion was looking at him... Madog fixed his eyes on Rhydian instead and strode purposefully towards the dais. It was like magic; suddenly every eye was being drawn to him, fixing on him as he went. He hadn't quite reached the middle of the room when Rhydian finally looked up at him.

"Leader," he said calmly. "Do you have something to add?"

"Rhydian," Gwenllian muttered. "It's not Open Day on Alpha Wingleaders giving us their opinions, bach."

"Gwen," Rhydian said wearily, and Madog found he was suddenly seeing a lot of himself and Dylan there. "Leader?"

"I have news, Councillors," Madog said, halting where he was. The middle of the room was fine! No need to get too close to Eifion. "Awen has just been purified."

He might as well have dragged in a foreign dignitary, stripped them naked and made them dance. Half the room suddenly exploded into speech, more than loud enough to hide the abrupt silence of the other half, who stared at him in astonishment. Rhydian sat bolt upright up on the dais, the weariness falling from him like a cloak, while a good three or four of the Alpha Wingleaders threaded their way swiftly past the seated Councillors and out of the room. Madog drew in a deep breath and waited, silently. Any second now...

"Councillors," Rhydian said clearly over the noise, and it died away. He looked down at Madog, suddenly all authority. "Thank you. Leader: are you sure?"

"I was told by someone who was," Madog nodded. "And I trust her to have brought the right news -"

"And who was it?" Eifion asked sharply. Madog ignored the stab of adrenaline.

"Aerona Celynnen," he said, and a quiet ripple of approving muttering quickly spread through the room. Madog wasn't surprised. She was an Intelligencer, after all. For all he knew she played gwyddbwyll with them all on a daily basis and won.

"Very well." Rhydian sat back in his chair, clearly thinking. Mererid actually smiled at Madog.

"Thank you, Leader," she told him. "Your information is appreciated."

"We owe you a pint!" Gwenllian said brightly. "Pub later? Although you have now complicated things, you bastard."

"I both accept and apologise, Councillor," Madog said, Saluting. "Next time I'll send Dylan if it helps. You can throw things at him."

"Can and will," Gwenllian grinned. "That'll make up for not swimming. So, children? Her death is no longer inevitable. In the short term, obviously."

"No," Rhydian said clearly, and looked at her. "The right message, hmm?"

"Sound," Gwenllian grinned. "I was hoping you'd say that."

Saturday, 14 August 2010