Final two, and then I might do some epilogues at some point maybe, who knows? These are just to Wrap Things Up. Otherwise, I'm busy working on hammering out a better and more accurate model of the world for the next draft. Anyway: the end nears. Stop cheering.
It being the Archiwiliad, of course, there were still more fun and games to be had for people who really loved messy politics. The needlessly enormous doors of the Grand Hall had barely closed behind a still-stunned Awen’s back, steered by Gwenllian who was probably going to get her incredibly drunk, when Rhydian stood up again and waved for silence. Although even Rhydian didn’t quite have the authority to keep the multitudes quiet anymore, Gwilym noted; the noise around them only slowly rolled away after a minute or two of Silent Teacher Staring, and even then he suspected it was because everyone was basically hoping for more exciting pronouncements. Which, as it turned out, they got.
“Well, that was exciting!” Marged said happily to Gwilym’s left as the general hubbub began to die. “And there’s nice for her, not dying. Ooh, Gwilym! Do you still get to keep her?”
“She’s not a cat, Marged,” Gwilym said mildly, but with far less rancour than he’d have directed at anyone else, because Marged was just crazy and phrased things oddly anyway. “And I – hmm.”
Good question. Did he get to keep her now? She was no longer dying and no longer not a Councillor. That made things Slightly Trickier.
“I’ve no idea,” Gwilym said slowly. “I hope so.”
“Let’s ask Rhydian later!” Marged said brightly, ignoring the fact that the subject of their discussion was currently sweeping their section of the Hall with a pointed look. “Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll say yes. Here, hold the wool would you, dear? It’s a devil to untangle.”
Obediently, Gwilym took the wool and tried not to worry, although within seconds his fingers were woven together, with the result that when silence finally came to Rhydian both Gwilym and Marged were still trying to pull yarn off his hands.
“Now then,” Rhydian said easily, clasping his hands. “Before we continue, as we have you all here, we might as well open the second hearing of the day.”
“Third, really,” Marged said absently, pulling at the wool ball. “Are we counting Flyn?”
“Lady Gwenda,” Rhydian announced coolly, ignoring her, and heads turned. “Would you come forward, please?”
There was a pause. Gwilym tried not to grin, and failed.
“Councillor,” Gwenda said after a moment. The faintest trace of unease laced the uncertainty in her voice, but she rose and moved graciously to the front of the Hall where a Rider hastily provided her with a chair. Which was more than Awen had got, Gwilym noted with mildly indignant outrage. And she’d been tortured.
“Thank you, Sovereign,” Rhydian said briefly, sitting down and looking at his notes. The air in the Hall changed to one of expectant quiet. “Now, let’s keep this brief. These are copies of some Tregwylan weapons designs, this is a sword with a Tregwylan manufacture stamp taken off a dead Saxon by Alpha Wing Deputy Dylan Helygen, this is a copy of Tregwylan’s Phoenician Trade Agreement with a loophole in its wording that allows the sale of Cymric weapons to Saxons, these are the shipping manifests from Tregwylan for the last Half complete with Phoenician route and serial numbers and this – “ he waved a hand, and Gwilym noted who had just stepped forward and been given another chair – “is Hannibal, who has a copy of the official master book of Phoenician trading in the west, which can prove what those numbers mean.”
He dropped the papers and steepled his fingers, looking down at Gwenda over the top of them with a gaze like a lance. Impressively she didn’t flinch, which Gwilym would have. Gwilym probably would have fallen off his chair and cried, in fact. There was a muted background muttering from up in the balconies, and the atmosphere was abruptly more hostile than it had been moments before.
“Although I can summarise their meaning now,” Rhydian went on. “That you have been selling weapons to Saxons via a third party. Correct, Hannibal?”
“This is correct,” Hannibal said sorrowfully in his deep voice, and bowed. “And I apologise on behalf of my countrymen for it. They knew better.”
“Unnecessary, but greatly appreciated,” Rhydian told him, his voice softening slightly before returning to full flinty firmness to speak to Gwenda. “Now, Sovereign. Naturally, you have the right to speak in your own defence. I feel it only fair to warn you, however, that I am not in a particularly forgiving mood, and lying to me today of all days is not recommended. So? Are you in fact innocent of all charges?”
Everyone's jaw dropped. There was an extremely loaded pause. Marged even stopped knitting. It was unlikely that a Rider had ever been so candid with a Sovereign in an official hearing before; apparently, Awen’s words had really had a galvanising effect on the Council’s behaviour. Gwenda watched the dais, frozen in place.
“No,” she said at last, and looked up and actually met Rhydian’s eye, to Gwilym’s mild astonishment. “No, I’m not innocent of it. I only wish to add to the official record that I acted in the best interests of my City, to bring prosperity to my people. Trade is too important a resource to us to waste.”
“A lovely sentiment that your people will, I’m sure, treasure should Saxons ever sail to your doorstep with the weapons you created and sold them,” Rhydian said curtly. “Thank you for your honesty, Sovereign. My official finding is that you acted in the interests of your City over your country, and knowingly endangered Wrecsam, Trallwng and Casnewydd and ultimately Cymru beyond while you did so. This counts under the broad umbrella of Treason –“ Gwilym caught his breath, and heard half of the rest of the Hall do the same – “but, given your motivations and the severity of the offence, I’m prepared to be lenient. You can hereby consider yourself cautioned, and will be under observation for a period of no less than five years.”
Five years. It was a long time to be watched around the clock, Gwilym reflected; or, rather, to know you were being watched around the clock, and without any real regard for privacy. The general crowd noise returned, more than a mutter but not as strong as a roar, as Gwenda nodded her acknowledgement, her face carefully blank. And that seemed to be that. The Council rose, people got up and started to leave, and Marged turned an unusually gleeful face towards Gwilym.
“So exciting!” she said happily. “Did you know about that, Gwilym?”
“No,” Gwilym said, fascinated. “Although I knew she was unsavoury.”
“Ah, Gwilym. How diplomatic you are,” Erys laughed to his right. “Well, Iestyn’s having a good Archwiliad, anyway. That’s two problem Sovereigns and a new labourer scheme gone in Wrecsam’s favour.”
“Yes!” Marged said brightly, before once again trampling all over social niceties. “Now he just needs a good night’s no-sleep, Erys, he’ll be as good as new. Ooh, speaking of which, Gwilym, this way!”
“What?” Gwilym asked, vaguely alarmed as she grabbed his wrist and yanked him out of his seat. Erys was looking at her desktop, clearly trying not to laugh. “Are we going to sleep with Iestyn? Where are we going?”
“If it is me, I’m behind you,” Iestyn’s voice said mildly behind them, but Gwilym didn’t even have time for a witty comeback before Marged had yanked him into the crowd of milling people, all elbows and wool and excitement. And there was that to Marged – countries could have paid a fortune for her as a siege weapon. When she bore down upon a crowd, they were borne down upon and remained that way for a while afterwards. You knew where she’d been from the swathe of empty space and fallen passers-by.
All of which meant, though, that they actually caught up with Rhydian in the corridor beyond the Grand Hall as he was marching purposefully away to be busy and important. Marged elbowed her way after him cheerfully, and left Gwilym to apologise to the three bards and a cook she toppled into a side room.
“Rhydian!” she trilled. “We found you! Could we have a word? It won’t take long.”
He turned, along with half the corridor, and Gwilym paused mentally. Awen, he realised, had inherited an awful lot of mannerisms and expressions from Rhydian; unsurprising given that he would have been the main father figure to her in her formative years, and had taught her how to move and hide herself, and indeed they’d both had the same jobs. But it meant that suddenly Gwilym was reading him better than he had before, and using Awen as a measuring stick Rhydian had the look of someone who was suddenly wandering perilously close to The Edge, but was hiding it extremely well under a layer a mile thick of enforced calm.
“Maybe we should do this later,” Gwilym tried, but neither listened. Marged ignored him totally, and Rhydian smiled smoothly.
“Now is fine,” he said. “I’ve got a few minutes. Mared’s office is just over here, we can borrow that if you wish?”
“Smashing!” Marged declared and barged her way over to it. She still had a vice grip on Gwilym’s wrist, so he was yanked unceremonially after her. Rhydian followed, a very small smile on his lips.
The office was tiny, because it was filled with piles and piles of books that left enough space for about three people to stand abreast, or Marged and one other person. Rhydian led them in and sighed at the mess before perching on the edge of the cluttered desk and turning to face them.
“She never did keep anything tidy,” he commented, eyeing a stack of books teetering beside him. “And yet I can guarantee you she’ll have read every one. Twice. Anyway. What can I do for you, Sovereigns?”
Or what can I do for you, Marged? Gwilym thought, translating in his head. They were clearly only getting an audience with this incredibly stressed and strung out man because one of them was his ex. And he addressed it to her rather than them both; he barely looked at Gwilym, in fact.
“Oh, Rhydian,” Marged smiled fondly. “Your office, as I recall, was constantly full of files and dirty plates! You’re hardly one to talk.”
“Yes, well.” Rhydian rubbed a hand across his chin wearily, looking out of the window to his right. “Times change.”
“Not by that much,” Marged quipped cryptically, but ploughed on before either of them could fully process it. “Anyway! Awen. Gwilym was wondering if he still gets to keep her?”
“For the record,” Gwilym broke in quickly, “The phrase ‘keep her’ was not coined by me. Nor do I approve.”
“Clearly,” Rhydian said, and gave him a look of tired amusement. “Fear not, Sovereign, I know Lady Marged’s speech patterns well enough to spot them. And yes, you get to stay with Awen. Until it wears you out, I should stress. It’s not a contract you’re tied into.”
“I know,” Gwilym said, vaguely reproachfully, although the happy bubble of relief welled up inside him anyway. Marged giggled. “I wish you’d both stop trying to talk me out of this, you know. It’s woefully depressing.”
“Oh, they can’t help it, dear,” Marged said merrily. “Riders are all the same. Excellent! Well then, since you’re definitely with her, there are things you’ll need to know and do - tricky, Riders are, need special handling. Firstly, when you sleep – try to go to sleep before her. The body twitches when it’s dropping off, see, and nothing wakes a Rider faster than feeling you twitch, bless them. Makes them think you’re under attack, poor things.”
“If there’s nothing else, Sovereigns,” Rhydian said abruptly, standing; but then a curious thing happened. Firstly, Marged didn’t move, keeping her bulk in place as an effective roadblock. Secondly, when Gwilym tried to move, he suddenly lost all feeling in his hand as Marged tightened her grip on his wrist.
“The nightmares are the big thing to deal with,” she went on with gay abandon, as though she wasn't trying to amputate his hand. She didn't even slightly look at Rhydian. “And they’ll never really stop, even though she’s going to be inactive now. If you can catch her before she wakes that’s best – just whispering to her can work quite well. Otherwise you’ll want to develop a way of touching her that she’ll always understand is you specifically, that’s a good one! Druids can help.”
“Lady,” Rhydian said quietly, but for all that Marged looked at him he may as well have been dead, her conversation reflected entirely at Gwilym now.
“Oh, she won’t tell you what they’re about, by the way,” she trilled. “Bless them! But if she starts taking your pulse or checking your breathing after she’s woken up just let her. Let’s see, what else?”
“I have to be going,” Rhydian said, an edge of iron lurking under his neutral tone. Gwilym squirmed slightly.
“We could talk about this in the common room?” he suggested, and then finally clocked Marged’s expression. Beneath the cheerful exterior, a steel door had closed behind her smile, and abruptly Gwilym understood, and subsided.
“Never touch her or get too close while she’s dressing or undressing,” she continued merrily. “Bit of an odd one, but it does stress them out so, poor things. Probably because they’re so task-focused; very compartmentalised in their thinking. But, all other times, make sure you do touch her! Tactility is very important to Riders.”
“I’ve noticed that one,” Gwilym said weakly, and risked a glance sideways. Rhydian had his arms crossed over his chest, fingers gripping his elbows tightly enough to turn white, and was staring out of the window inscrutably. Gwilym looked back again.
“Yes, it’s a Wing thing,” Marged said, and giggled at the rhyme. “Oh, speaking of which – make sure you get on with them! Especially if they offer to groom you, definitely say yes. Let’s see… Well, communication is a bit of a battle, she won’t be naturally inclined to share things. Especially if she’s got it into her head that it’s something that can’t be helped and would only upset you. You’ll need to be quite firm on that. Although, don’t discount the possibility of allies! Talk to her Wing, especially her Deputy. They can tell you about things that are upsetting her.”
In the corner of Gwilym’s eye, he saw Rhydian’s head turning sharply towards them. He didn’t look.
“Don’t let her find out, though!” Marged was laughing. “She’ll order them not to otherwise. Now; the biggest problem area you’ll have is what she thinks she’s doing to you –“
“No it’s not,” Rhydian broke in evenly. “If I ordered her to, Sovereign, she’d kill you.”
There was a heavy pause. Birds sang outside the window, and a murmur of many people talking echoed in from the closed door.
“I know,” Gwilym said quietly after a second. “But she’d kill anyone if you ordered her to. That’s just part of being a Rider.”
“Oh, really?” Rhydian said, one eyebrow raised. There was a slight tinge of disbelieving sarcasm to his tone now. “So that’s fine? You’re happy with the knowledge that your partner would willingly assassinate you if someone else told her to? Regardless of your feelings for each other, regardless of the time you spend together?”
“If we weren’t together she’d still kill me if you told her to,” Gwilym said carefully. “As I say – she’d kill anyone if you told her to. Anyone at all. And as I say – that’s just part of being a Rider. But it doesn’t mean she’s therefore undeserving of ever having a relationship with someone.”
“I rather think it does,” Rhydian muttered, looking back out the window, and Gwilym looked at him squarely.
“I think, Councillor,” he said as neutrally as he could, “that you’ve fallen into the same trap Awen does. The whole point of a relationship is that there are two of you, and with equal say. If one person knows what the risks are, and is fully versed in them, but makes the informed decision to stay anyway, then that’s their choice. It’s no less valid than the opinion of the other.”
He looked away from the emotionless mask Rhydian’s face had become and met Marged’s eye, who was beaming at him.
“You’re both too used to being in the role of protector,” Gwilym said mildly. “I think you both forget that there are some ways in which people don’t need protecting. In which we shouldn’t be protected. Emotional decisions like relationships definitely count in that category.”
“Well said!” Marged said cheerily, which had the fortunate effect of not leaving a big ringing embarrassing silence. “And all demonstrates my point, see? The stress of what she thinks she’s doing to you is what you need to look out for, and it’ll be fairly obvious because she’ll be all worrying and withdrawn and not herself anymore.”
She paused, and looked considering for a moment.
“I don’t know how to stop that, though,” she said, faintly puzzled. “I never worked that one out myself. But, you’re a clever lad, I’m sure you’ll have better luck! Although I think a big part of it is what they can and can’t say to you, poor dears. Can’t tell you they love you, see? That eats away at them. Make it clear that you know already and she doesn’t need to say, if you can.”
“I already do that one,” Gwilym offered, and Marged’s smile shone.
“Good!” she enthused. “Good lad. Let’s see, what -? Ah, be on the ball at telling her when you’ve made a mistake. She’ll think everything you do and say must be right, and honestly, Gwilym, honestly it’s a nightmare trying to argue with someone who is convinced you’re better than them. Oh, mind your kettle fellow with her – he’ll be very sniffy with her, and she won’t fight back. Advisors and Riders just don’t mix well.”
“Can’t I just fire him?” Gwilym sighed petulantly. “I hate the man.”
“No, you can’t,” Rhydian muttered. He looked exhausted by now, suddenly showing that strange older-and-younger appearance that Awen sometimes got.
“By the way,” Marged added solemnly. “She will definitely think this promotion is entirely a punishment, be aware of that. Oh! I knew I was forgetting something big. She’s accustomed to orders, both giving them and following them. Her entire world is a hierarchy of some kind. You’ll need to remember that.”
“She will never ask for comfort and affection,” Marged said sadly. “Nor will she try to take it from you, most likely. There will be days when she won't even be able to bring herself to touch you. Tragic, but there we are. She won’t want to bother you.”
Marged paused, and looked at Rhydian finally. His gaze was lost out of the window, and he didn’t notice.
“And remember,” she said clearly. “The time she tries to hide her pain from you is the time she needs you more than ever before.”
Gwilym watched them both for a moment, and then gently disengaged his throbbing hand from Marged’s grip. She let him, not taking her eyes off Rhydian.
The silence yawned.
“Thank you,” Gwilym said lightly into the massively emotionally charged atmosphere, and stepped toward the door with what he hoped was élan and not transparently a frantic attempt to flee the room. “I… will leave now.”
He did so, and as the door closed behind him he reflected that, on the whole, he was extremely glad Marged was on his side in life.
He ended up going to find the Wing, although only Adara and Llŷr were available having just returned from being awarded joint full Deputy status, so the three of them went to the kitchens to try to actually eat something and talk about how jittery they all were.
“Well, I for one am extremely jittery,” Gwilym declared as they settled onto benches in the eating area. “How are you two?”
“Dazed and confused,” Llŷr said, looking just that. He kept touching the new collar nervously. “And I really wish Awen was here to tell me to pull myself together. It’s amazing how it works when she says it.”
“I can try,” Adara sniffed. “Stop freaking out or I’ll thump you, you saddo. Any better?”
“Sort of,” Llŷr sighed. “Although I also wish she was just generally here, which your threatening insults cannot cure. Although I imagine you’ll still try.”
“I’m a good friend,” Adara nodded solemnly. “And stop touching that collar. You look like an amateur.”
“I am an amateur,” Llŷr said morosely. “What do I know about being a Deputy? My only role model was not a template to be copied.”
“Well, don’t think of it as being a Deputy,” Gwilym shrugged. “Think of it as being a leader, and copy Awen. She’s pretty good.”
“Pretty good,” she chuckled, and Llŷr grinned. “Yeah, there’s that. Although don’t entirely copy her, because if I have to undergo another day like this I shall scream.”
“No fear,” Llŷr snorted. “I’m sorry, by the way, Sovereign. About your family.”
Gwilym paused for a moment; but still, there was nothing. Sooner or later the whole thing was going to hit him and restart the grieving process all over again, he knew, but right now every time he tried to look for an emotional response there was just a big numb patch in his brain where the relevant parts had apparently taken the executive decision to go on holiday without leaving so much as a skeleton crew for cover. A pair of hands took his across the table, and he realised that both Adara and Llŷr had taken one each, watching him with concern. He smiled wryly.
“Thank you,” he said quietly. “It’s okay. I’ve mourned them already. And I suspected it wasn’t an accident for a while.”
“If it helps, Owain is in an unyielding amount of pain now,” Adara offered with her customary off-beat chirpiness. “I made sure myself.”
“Thank you,” Gwilym said mildly. “That’s very sweet of you.”
“Oh, it was my pleasure.”
“How much have you left for the rest of us?” Llŷr asked, shredding a chunk of bread with his fingers. “I mean, are we talking hours, days…?”
“Years,” Adara grinned evilly. “I did absolutely nothing life-threatening. Just excruciatingly painful. I sort of think Awen should get to kill him eventually by cutting his throat.”
“Hmm.” Llŷr looked up, considering. “Elegantly symmetrical, but far too quick, surely?”
“From whose perspective?” Gwilym found himself asking in morbidly horrified fascination. “I mean, from his –“
“Oh, no,” Adara said, waving a hand dismissively. “He’s a Rider, Sovereign. Or not, but he had the training. He can take a lot of pain.”
“Who’s this?” Aerona’s voice asked brightly, and quite suddenly she was nimbly dropping into the seat beside Gwilym and pouring out tea. From a teapot. Where had she even got it from? “Flyn or Owain?”
“Oh look, it’s everyone’s favourite pixie,” Adara said mildly, passing her the milk automatically. “Owain. Oh, which is a point – he brained you, do you want revenge?”
“I got it at the time,” Aerona giggled, accepting the milk. “I kicked him in the testicles. I’d quite like to take one of his fingernails, though, if I could?”
“Of course you can,” Llŷr said magnanimously. “You should also kick him again.”
“Can I kick him?” Gwilym was astonished to find himself asking. “Like, in the shin’s fine.”
“You can kick him in both shins, Sovereign,” Adara said warmly. “Indeed we encourage it. Wait; if you’re here, Aerona, Dylan’s not coming is he?”
“No,” Aerona giggled. “I told him he needed to spend some quality time with Madog. He told me to tell you you’re an obstinate wench, though.”
“Tell him I’ll check my schedule after and see if I can spare any time for his opinion,” Adara said disdainfully. “Although it’s deeply unlikely.”
“Some days,” Llŷr said conversationally, “I reflect upon your good fortune to be a Rider, Adara. I just don’t see how you’d make any friends at all if you didn’t have a Wing.”
“Some days,” Adara counteracted over Aerona’s giggle, “I reflect upon your foolhardy nature, Llŷr. If I don’t beat you up for that, I can so easily convince Caradog to.”
“You can as well,” Llŷr sighed. “Anyone can.”
“My sister used to beat me up,” Gwilym volunteered. “When we were kids. When we were playing at being Riders, actually, so it’s nice to see that it was at least vocationally accurate.”
“Really?” Adara looked up, eyes bright with a sudden interest that was mirrored in Llŷr and Aerona. “You pretended you were Riders?”
“It was our favourite game for a while,” Gwilym grinned. “Actually, as I recall one of the Tutors would sometimes help us make fake Saxons out of straw bags and let us play with the wooden practice swords.”
“Oh, how lovely!” Aerona said happily, handing out tea. “Were you an Alpha Wing? I would have been.”
“More often than not,” Gwilym shrugged. “Let’s see… Bethan was Wingleader, obviously, and Iago got to be Deputy. Privileges of age, that. Well; and anger. Her specialism was with ranged weapons, I think. His was the rather fanciful idea that he was a druid at the same time.”
Predictably, the three Riders he was recounting this to fell about laughing. Gwilym grinned.
“Yes, he was a bit of an idiot, my brother, got to be honest,” he said reminiscently. “And I think mine was woodscraft.”
“Good for you!” said Aerona the Woodscraft Tutor brightly.
“It’s funny,” Llŷr said, smiling thoughtfully, “but we used to pretend we were normal people.”
“Really?” Gwilym laughed. “Did you all have jobs?”
“Totally,” Adara nodded solemnly. “I was a hunter, and Llio was my butcher. I think… was Cei a tailor?”
“That rings a bell,” Llŷr said comfortably, leaning on the table. Apparently the conversation was helping him relax no end. “Although I think Caradog decided he was a travelling wrestler or something. Oh, Meurig and Eluned were druids, remember? They used to mix mud and rainwater and whatever else they could find in a bucket.”
“Tanwen was a trader,” Adara nodded, “because then she’d ‘buy’ the contents of the bucket off them. Awen was a bard. Were you a farmer?”
“Yes,” Llŷr said, snapping his fingers. “Yes, I was. We used the stable cats as sheep.”
“That’s right,” Adara grinned; and then they both paused, as they mentally realised who was left.
“And Owain,” Llŷr said carefully, “was Mayor.”
“Oh good gods,” Gwilym stated. “Was there no way in which he was decent?”
“Well, you saw his face,” Adara said disgustedly, and Aerona’s giggle neatly broke the tension. “So, anyway, does anyone know who that man over there who looks distressingly like Dark-Haired Lord Flyn is?”
They all looked across, and Gwilym grinned. Gwenllian had apparently moved on from guiding Awen from room to room in order to claim the right to show a bewildered-looking Maelon around the Union, a girl of about ten sitting on his hip with her arms wrapped around his neck as she stared about her, wide-eyed. And his heart went out to Maelon. Gwilym recognised that totally overwhelmed look. He remembered wearing it.
“That,” he smiled, “is the newly-minted Lord Maelon, Sovereign of Casnewydd. Awen tracked him down.”
“Well, that’s because she has super powers,” Adara declared, sizing up Maelon across the room as Gwenllian led him in, gesturing enthusiastically. “Is he going to be upset that you’ve sentenced his father to a hideous death?”
“From the brief time I met him, I imagine he’ll buy me a drink,” Gwilym mused. “Mind you, he’s got a temper, and it’s quick to come and go. Really, really hates Flyn, though.”
“He looks so lost,” Aerona said sadly. “Can we go and say hello? I think someone should say hello.”
“I think Gwenllian is saying hello enough for the whole Union,” Llŷr murmured, but Gwilym extricated himself from the bench and stood.
“Which is why I shall save him,” he declared. “You need a run-up for Gwenllian. Be right back.”
“He saves everyone these days,” Adara said sagaciously behind him, and Gwilym snorted. It was possible, of course, that Maelon was actually going to knock him out if he’d been told the full, grisly extent of his father’s imminent demise, since the man was mercurial at best and Flyn was, after all was said and done, his father. Gwilym hoped not. Everything was wrapping up so neatly otherwise.
“I think that end might be the pastry end,” Gwenllian was saying as he approached. “Now, listen; they have the grain and flour bins down there, and currently there’s an Erinnish king visiting who likes to push people in, so mind yourself. Anyway – ooh, Gwilym! We were just talking about you. Sort of.”
“I have never pushed anyone into a grain bin!” Gwilym protested indignantly. “That’s Mental Uncle Dara! And if you’d asked I’d have warned you not to invite him.”
“Ha! ‘Sort of’ as in we were actually talking about you earlier,” Gwenllian said as Maelon gently lowered the girl to the ground. “I was telling Lord Maelon and Lady Delyth here about –“
Maelon stepped forward and hugged him, his arms tight and body tense, and Gwilym smiled.
“Thank you,” Maelon said quietly.
“- your sentencing of Flyn!” Gwenllian was saying cheerily. “And they were very impressed.”
“You know all of the details, yes?” Gwilym asked warily. “You do know how extreme it is?”
“Oh, I know,” Maelon grinned savagely. He stepped back and took Delyth’s hand again. “It made it all the better. My mother would like to thank you later, too, if you’d allow it.”
“Happily!” Gwilym said merrily. “Although all thanks should really go to Awen. Have you been told about that?”
“Of course he’s been told, bach,” Gwenllian said, rolling her eyes. “At least three times by at least three different people, not including my official explanation. We’re all going to spend the next Half talking about nothing else.”
“It’s a shame she won’t be my Alpha Wingleader,” Maelon said wistfully. “I would have really liked that.”
“They said we don’t have to run anymore,” Delyth said quietly, watching Gwilym solemnly with her huge child eyes, and everyone looked down at her. “They said we can stop now.”
Well that was heartbreaking, Gwilym reflected. What had happened to this family?
“That’s right,” he said out loud, and smiled, sitting on the floor so he was level with her. “You’re going to settle down now, in Casnewydd. Have you ever been there?”
She shook her head, mutely, and Gwilym nodded thoughtfully.
“Come to think of it,” he told her, “nor have I. But, do you see the three Riders sitting at that table over there?”
He pointed to Adara, Llŷr and Aerona. Aerona waved cheerfully, and impulsively, Delyth waved back, still unsmiling.
“Two of them come from Casnewydd,” Gwilym told her companionably. “Although it’s not their fault, and we mustn’t hold it against them. Even when you hear their accents.”
She giggled finally, and Maelon squeezed her hand, smirking.
“I’m from Casnewydd, you know,” he said in dry reproach, and Gwilym shrugged, unrepentant.
“And we try not to hold it against you,” he nodded somberly, and Delyth giggled again. Gwilym looked back at her, and smiled. “Would you like to meet the Riders, though? They grew up in Casnewydd, so they can tell you all the fun places.”
“Okay,” she said shyly.
She partially hid behind Maelon as they crossed the kitchen, though, and possibly would have stayed if it hadn’t been for Aerona. Who, of course, worked with children. And had Enthusiasm, which was like enthusiasm but more so. Somehow, she knew how to project exactly the right amounts of energy and kindliness to seem fun and nurturing at the same time.
And then, finally, halfway through Adara’s spirited explanation of how to make the cooks in Casnewydd's kitchens give you free cakes and these tiny pastry things with lamb and mint in them that taste like great big deliciouses, apparently, Awen arrived.
The sight of her actually made him catch his breath. Llio had outdone herself with the make-up earlier, leaving Awen’s elfin bone structure looking genuinely Otherworldly and ethereal, and now she was clad in the new dark green of the Low Council, the knot works and embellishments embroidered on in gold thread. The body of the uniform, predictably enough, was as close to the sleeveless, high-collared, close-fitted leather of the Alpha Wingleader standard as she’d been allowed to get away with, the colour the only change; dark greens in subtly different shades had been draped across her slender body, the cut somehow making it look almost like light through a thick forest roof while imperceptibly emphasising the curve of her waist. The boots now reached her thigh, however, laced with the gold embroidery, and the collar was more intricate than he’d ever seen. Which was, Gwilym realised, because Councillors didn’t wear embroidered collars. They wore torques. But Awen –
-was wearing one, actually. It was slim and unadorned, a single band of gold that lined the seam between collar and jerkin, with a clasp that twisted shut at the front. Gwilym smiled, and wondered how much of a battle it had been just to get her to agree to that much. One day she’d be promoted again, and on that day they were going to need to knock her out if they wanted to get a proper torque around her neck. And then they’d need to weld it in place before she woke up.
He stood and walked towards her without really thinking about it. As he neared Awen looked up and saw him, and her smile could have lit up the room.
“Feeling better, now?” Gwilym grinned, striding towards her, and Awen snorted.
“No,” she said dryly. “I feel like I’m in costume –“
He pulled her close and kissed her. He couldn’t help it. It had been a busy few hours, and anyway, Awen looked astonishing. He felt her laugh against his mouth, but predictably, she didn’t pull away.
“- in one of Aerona’s games,” she finished, when Gwilym finally let her, contentedly standing in his arms. She nodded pleasantly to someone over his shoulder. “Councillor.”
“Good, isn’t it?” Gwenllian said cheerfully in Gwilym’s ear. “There’s a coat coming, too, but it takes time for the wardrobe people to make these things. That one’s only a prototype.”
“It’s amazing,” Gwilym smiled, brushing a strand of loose hair back from Awen’s face. It was all loose still, in fact, apart from the two front braids; clearly, Eluned had yet to catch her. “What’s the coat like?”
“Long,” Awen shrugged, and looked vaguely mutinous. “A compromise. They wanted me to wear robes.”
“Really?” He finally looked away from Awen, and stared at Gwenllian. “Robes? You thought that would work?”
“No,” Gwenllian grinned. “I wanted to see her argue. Although I needn’t have bothered, in the end, because she argued so well over the torque anyway. But look, Awen! New Sovereign! Although not yours now, bach. Come back here and meet him once you’re done, he likes you.”
She wandered away again. Awen’s watchful gaze settled on the group by the tables, but her arms settled contentedly around Gwilym’s neck. It was an astonishingly open display of affection from her, he noted happily.
“I assume you’ve spoken to him again, now?” she said conversationally. “Started explaining the important staples of Sovereignty, such as mutant birds and dancing ninjas?”
“Of course not,” Gwilym said, rolling his eyes. “We only got as far as nubile food tasters. It’s a complicated business, you know, there are nuances.”
“I’m sure,” Awen said, and narrowed her eyes. “Adara is telling that small girl the best ways to smuggle rosehips into the main laundry rooms in Casnewydd. Why is this?”
“Um.” Gwilym weighed up his options, and decided that, on the whole, honesty was probably the best policy for him. “Well, that’s Lady Delyth, who is very overwhelmed and I don’t think really understands the concept that she’s safe now, so –“
“So you thought Adara was a good idea?” Awen asked, one eyebrow raised. “The child will be a delinquent within the Half. And it’s nearly over.”
“Children these days,” Gwilym said gravely, shaking his head, and got smacked in the arm for it. “Are you not free now, by the way? Gwenllian said you were to come back –“
“No, actually,” Awen grinned. “I came to fetch you and deliver you unto the clutches of the Morgannwg family, who would like to meet you. To say thank you, don’t worry. You should only need one bodyguard.”
“You’re using your ‘I’m only half-joking’ tone of voice,” Gwilym said nervously. “Why would I -?”
“Oh, well, the son’s alright,” Awen shrugged, and the mischievous edge of that playful streak she had was visible. “It’s just the women, that’s all. They could defend the whole border if the Union ever wanted to go on holiday.”
Reluctantly, Gwilym released his happily tangled grip on Awen’s waist.
“Will you be there?” he asked, as she took his arm and began steering him to the door. “I mean, can I go safe in the knowledge that I can employ my normal self-defence mechanism of jumping behind you if they turn, or is this an ordeal I must face alone in order to prove my worth as a hero?”
“Ha!” They entered the corridors and fell into step easily, Awen automatically slipping back into her informal formality with him. Kitchens were ‘backstage’ in her view, it seemed. “I will be there only for as long as it takes to push you into the room and slam the door. And I will be hiding behind you for even that brief encounter, because they like you.”
“What, but not you?” Gwilym asked, amused. “Why don’t they like you?”
“Well, I tortured their son, for one thing,” Awen muttered. “Slight faux pas, that, when trying to make friends. And my previous Deputy helped to rape the sister, and killed the grandmother. And gave killing the mother a damned good go. Oh, which is a good point – brace yourself. It’s not a pretty sight.”
“Ah.” Gwilym sighed. “Well, I shall console myself with the thought of you giving Flyn the same injuries.”
“You’d be wrong to do so,” Awen told him, leading him down a new corridor. They were heading for the medical centre, if Gwilym was any judge, which he wasn’t. “For two reasons; firstly, you specified that Flyn was to have the same treatment as Nerys. The grandmother.”
“Which was different?”
“Which was worse.” Her smile was a bitter, mocking thing. “She held out for eleven hours, just shy of. There’s a silver lining to that now, at least.”
He’d probably pushed his luck to the limit today of publically throwing his arms around Awen and kissing her and such, Gwilym reflected, so he settled for reaching out and gripping one set of her beads briefly. It was one of those magic Rider gestures that always seemed to work, and possibly it did now; she glanced at him, a smile tugging at her lips, before resuming her casual explanation.
“And secondly,” she continued, “it won’t be me doing it, sadly.”
“Really?” Gwilym looked at her, surprised. “Why not?”
“Because,” Awen said carefully, “I’m not the Alpha Wingleader anymore. It’s out of my jurisdiction, as it were.”
“Oh.” He hadn’t thought of that. “I hadn’t thought of that. So who is doing it?”
“The Casnewydd Beta Wingleader,” Awen said, and grinned. “Until he gets here, anyway. Then he’ll be Alpha Wingleader, which will be a hell of a shock for him, poor lad, but there we are. His name is Ioan,” she added. “And he’s good, you’ll like him. Very thorough.”
“Excellent,” Gwilym declared. They reached the medical centre’s arched doors and the Guard Riders stepped aside, staring reverentially at Awen, who seemed not to notice. “How is he with angry people? I ask with particular reference to angry Sovereigns.”
“Masterful,” Awen said, waving a hand. She moved to the door of a private room. “He even carries a small supply of stress balls and soothing bags of crushed lavender. Right. Brace yourself.”
She knocked, and waited. After a few seconds, the door opened –
-and it was the child who’d tried to kill him, Gwilym realised abruptly. The memory flashed into his mind’s eye, unbidden; the music faltering over the throng of voices, the cloak whirling, the scream of Awen’s chair against the floor, an arrow suddenly in her hand and in front of his chest, quivering, and at the other end of the hall a boy’s face frozen in terror –
Gwilym blinked, and realised that they were both staring in horror at each other.
“Gareth!” Awen said jovially across the embarrassingly tense silence. “Can we come in? Iona wanted to meet Lord Gwilym.”
If anything Gareth actually managed to go paler as he focused on Awen, but he moved aside and pulled the door open. And, admirably, Gwilym felt, given the circumstances, managed to speak.
“Rider,” he told the floor. “Sovereign.”
And gods the Casnewydd accent was weird, Gwilym thought as they stepped into the room. It was the same accent on all of them, and yet depending on who was talking it transformed from a quirky slant to a blunt vowel-mutating drawl. It was tricky to tell from just two words, but Gareth seemed for fall into the latter category, bless him. Awen was definitely in the former.
“Ah, Sovereign!” a sharp voice said, warmly. Gwilym looked up.
Iona was propped up in the bed, and looked, as Marged always liked to say, like she’d been ‘in the wars’, also Gwilym was given to believing that if that was indeed the case it had probably been ‘the Wars’. She seemed to be more bandages than woman, although given that the areas of woman he could see seemed to be either bruised or generally withered from pain and abuse, Gwilym supposed it was a good thing. Both arms were heavily bandaged, in fact, presumably because of their terrible injuries. He’d managed to carefully avoid really absorbing any details so far. He had a sinking feeling that was about to change.
Iona herself, though, in spite of the fact that she was half mummified, had an eye full of blood and was possibly still liable to die, seemed fairly cheerful, and after only a single glance at her piercing gaze Gwilym thought he could already see Awen’s point. The woman looked to have the sort of inner strength that, in civilisation’s darkest hour, could be used not so much to man the barricades as to stand in for them.
“They said you were handsome,” she grinned. Her teeth were broken. “But, I always did like an Erinnish man. Got the accent?”
“Sorry,” Gwilym said. “Not in Cymric, anyway, I can’t even fake it without sounding Roman or something.”
“And that’s the introductions done,” Awen said dryly. “Good! I need to go, and be shouted at a bit more by Councillor Rhydian.”
“He isn’t done yet?” Gwilym asked, aggrieved, and she laughed.
“Not by half,” she said. “He might even hit me again, if he’s in a particularly bad mood. Anyway –“
“They said he’s going to be tortured,” a voice said, and Gwilym turned to get his first look at Alis Morgannwg.
She was sitting by the window on the wide windowsill seat, her knees drawn up to her chest and her arms wrapped around herself. Her clothes were clean, but shapeless and over-large, trousers and a jumper that swamped her. She didn’t look away from the window, and her hair hung down and hid the side of her face that they might have seen anyway, but it wasn’t hard to guess the state she’d be in. About an inch of skin showed at her wrists, and Gwilym winced at the finger-shaped bruises slowly fading there.
“Flyn?” Awen asked. Her tone was her normal, light, talking-to-official-people-with-the-shields-up tone, no additional gentleness or pity. Gwilym marvelled at it. “Yes, he is. In the same way your grandmother was.”
Alis’ snort of laughter was hard, and grim, and immensely satisfied.
“Good,” she said, nodding jerkily. “Yes. Good. I want to watch.”
“That can be arranged.” Awen crossed over to the window and stood the other side of it from Alis, leaning easily against the wall. “If you want, there’s a chance you’d be allowed to do some of it.”
“Yeah?” Alis moved her head slightly as she glanced at Awen, before the window drew her back. “Yeah. That would be good. What?”
“Well, castrating him for one thing,” Awen said casually, rubbing a probably-still-aching shoulder. Alis laughed harshly, and Gwilym noticed Iona’s satisfied chuckle. “There’s a long line of people requesting the honour, but you’d certainly get to queue jump on that one. Otherwise… let’s think. Oh, you could burn him a few times. That doesn’t require any special skills.”
“Dislocating elbows,” Awen sighed. “That’s tricky.”
“I noticed that,” Iona remarked cynically from the bed. Gwilym winced. Please, he thought; please let no one else start listing horrific injuries.
“Can’t we burn him all over?” Gareth asked suddenly, and proving in Gwilym's head that the boy was a macabre sadist who needed a good whipping, although as someone who'd nearly died by Gareth's hand he probably wasn't objective. “Burn him alive?”
“No.” Awen gave a wry smile, and glanced at Gwilym. “Lord Gwilym was the one who passed the sentence, and he was very specific that Flyn should suffer ‘every nuance’ that your grandmother did. Which also means he'll be shipped back to Casnewydd for it, so that we can employ the same cell in the ordeal.”
“Ha.” Iona grinned up at the ceiling. “Good man! It’s perfect. I wanted to thank you for that, Sovereign. I think it’s the best result I could have asked for.”
“You’re very welcome,” Gwilym nodded. “Although I’m thinking I missed a trick now. I should have also ordered a string of attractive people to surround him as he’s being castrated whose role it is to simply point and laugh.”
“Can I do that?” Iona laughed, and then winced. Probably a broken rib or two, Gwilym reflected glumly. “Mind, laughing isn’t easy for me right now. Worth it, though.”
“I’ll have it arranged,” Awen said, her tone dry. She straightened, and looked at Alis. “And I have to go. But; Alis. I can now officially extend to you the Union’s thanks for helping to bring about Flyn’s conviction. We couldn’t have done it without that file you got.”
And finally, Alis turned and looked at her, and Gwilym stared. As suspected, she was bruised; a black eye had faded to shades of greenish-yellow, the lid still slightly swollen, a dark purple mark still prominent down her cheek and across her clearly broken nose. There was a stitched cut healing across her forehead. And all of that was only his second thought, because before he had chance to notice it he saw her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said unsteadily, watching Awen. Awen bowed to her.
“Thank you,” she returned, her voice still so easy. How was she doing it? Gwilym thought, dazed. He wanted to tiptoe around Alis, as though she was made of glass. He was definitely going to offend her, he just knew it.
“Before you go, Rider,” Iona said suddenly, “I owe you an apology.”
Awen stiffened slightly.
“No you don’t,” she said neutrally, and moved towards the door, and Gwilym moved automatically. He sprang against the door and flung his arms across it, halting her mid-stride with one eyebrow raised in exasperated amusement.
“No,” he told her as she opened her mouth to speak. “You’re doing it again, you emotional cripple. Listen to the nice lady.”
“You have been spending far too much time with Lady Marged,” Awen told him, shaking her head, and sighed, turning back to a chuckling Iona. “I’m serious. You really don’t.”
“Do you even know what I’m apologising for?” Iona asked, amused.
“Do you remember that I tortured your son?” Awen returned wearily. “Seriously. You owe me nothing.”
“You didn’t hurt me, though,” Gareth offered. “And you got me out.”
“Oh, which reminds me,” Awen said, glancing back at Gwilym. “You have in your employ two extremely sadistic and retarded prison guards who don’t provide their prisoners with basic medical attention.”
“Good grief, have I?” Gwilym asked, mildly. “I shall fire them forthwith, as soon as someone tells me who they are.”
“You came to get us out,” Iona said, quietly, and Awen went still, defeated. “You came in to get us out, Mam and me, having saved Gareth and ready to get Alis, and do you remember what I said to you?”
“Yes,” Awen said, and Gwilym wondered in fascination what it was. “And you were in a staggering amount of pain, and had just discovered that your mother was dead, and had been betrayed by a Rider. Really. I don’t hold it against you.”
“You should,” Iona said shortly. “None of that is an excuse.”
“Yes it is,” Awen sighed. “I’ve had far worse shouted at me, and by far worse people. You were understandably angry, and I’m thick-skinned, don’t worry. But I appreciate the thought.”
“Hmm.” Iona regarded her for a moment, and then sniffed and leaned back against her pillows, closing her eyes. “Best I’ll get, I suppose. Alright. Go, then.”
“Thanks,” Awen muttered dryly, and she bowed to Gwilym as he realised he was still plastered melodramatically across the door and removed himself. “Sovereign.”
Once she’d gone, it was Alis who asked.
“What did you say?” she said, her voice distant. She was watching the countryside out of the window again, but her shoulders were less hunched, her back slightly straighter.
“Nothing I’m proud of,” Iona said shortly. “Gareth, get the Sovereign a chair, boy. Don’t just stand.”
“Sorry,” Gareth mumbled, and pulled a chair over to the bedside. He was just so… meek, Gwilym thought glumly. He was finding himself irritated by it. His mother no longer had any fingernails and couldn’t use her right arm and his sister had been beaten, raped and kept in isolation for days, and both of them seemed to have twice the spine. Even his dead grandmother seemed to be stronger than him. Whereas all Gareth had done was, lest anyone forget, try to commit murder. Gwilym was having to fight the urge to tell him to man up or get out.
“Thank you,” he said instead, and then settled for ignoring him while settling on the chair. “So, do you have any plans, yet? For after this?”
“No,” Iona sighed, and smiled. “Too many factors at the minute. They might have to amputate my right arm, still, we don’t want to rush Alis, we don’t know how much is left for us back home…”
“You should move,” Gwilym nodded sagaciously. “Have a fresh start. Have you considered Aberystwyth? It has a beach and no Saxons. Does Casnewydd have a beach?”
“No,” Iona laughed. “Just dangerous mud-flats. Does Aberystywth have a giant roof over its market square?”
“No,” Gwilym said sulkily, and then brightened up. “But, can I interest you in an impressive new healthcare scheme paid for by the City?”
He could, as it turned out. The path of the conversation was predictable from there.
Eventually, the weirdness of the day found him dodging an angry Mental Uncle Dara demanding the chance to punch Flyn and retreating to the Wing Quarters where he ended up standing outside on the balcony with an astonishingly pretty Adara, watching the evening sun sinking towards the horizon. The rest of the Wing had finally returned, and touchingly, Gwilym now seemed to be fully integrated; Meurig had offered him a game of gwyddbwyll, and Llio had tried to do his make-up. He was vaguely wondering if he could get some sort of honorary uniform.
“And then they whip you just to be sure,” Adara was saying amicably, finishing a horrifying and distressing story about their collected childhood that Gwilym had mercifully managed to miss most of the details from. “Although I’m relatively certain that’s only been policy since Eifion got promoted way back whenever. Ooh, there’s a happy thought – he can’t hurt Awen anymore! Directly.”
“Can’t he?” Gwilym asked, surprised. “Councillors have immunity?”
“Well, of a sort,” Adara shrugged. “Their punishments needed to be voted on, and the others aren’t psychotic crazies who’d happily feed their mother her own feet, you see. Unofficially. Damn. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Startlingly, I don’t intend to tell,” Gwilym grinned. “And I heartily agree. I saw his face with Awen earlier.”
Fingers touched his arm, and Gwilym glanced across. Adara was looking at him intently, her impeccably made-up eyes burning.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice low and intense. Gwilym smiled, threw caution to the wind and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. Riders were tactile creatures, he reflected fondly, as evidenced by Adara’s response being to lean into him; although it was probably good that he hadn’t tried it before now, when she would probably have removed his arm.
“You’re very welcome,” he said gently. “Although really, I still owe her. I’ve only saved her once compared to her twice saving me. There’s a discrepancy.”
“It’s her job, you deviant,” Adara said, rolling her eyes. “Honestly, it’s like you’ve never been to this country.”
“I mostly grew up in Erinn under a madman,” Gwilym said proudly. “This makes me exotic and attractive to people, and has long been a boon to my sex life.”
“No,” Gwilym mused. “I always hoped it would, but actually I think it just made me a tourist everywhere. Prospective partners just offered me guidebooks.”
Adara laughed, somewhat cruelly, Gwilym felt, given that Riders famously had fantastic sex lives in which they never had to worry about getting someone to actually agree and stop shouting ‘Help!’ after the first smile. Although that part probably did happen to them, come to think of it, but only on the battlefield, and that really wasn’t the same at all.
“You’re bloody weird for a Sovereign, you know,” she said merrily, and winced. “Unofficially. Argh. I keep saying things to you.”
“When I first met you you glared at me solidly for half an hour,” Gwilym told her darkly. “And your bird. It did not settle my post-assassination nerves, I can tell you. Saying things is a vast improvement from my angle.”
“Goodness, did I really?” Adara said mildly. She stepped away from him, leaned an arm out over the parapet and whistled. There was a pause, and then a bird with a wingspan as long as a door swept upwards and onto her arm as though she’d just summoned one of Rhiannon’s messengers from Annwfn. Gwilym stared at its mad eyes. “Sorry about that. Bad day at work, you know how it is. This is Gwenhwyfar.”
And before he could scream or run away she transferred the red kite to his shoulder, and Gwilym froze while trying not to bow under the damn thing’s weight. She carried it on her wrist? No arm-wrestling Adara, he vowed mentally. Ever.
“She’s amazing,” Adara was saying affectionately, running the back of a finger obliviously down the bird’s breast. “Hand reared; she’s about three now, I think. She was the first I trained myself.”
“Well done,” Gwilym swallowed, staring at the talons, entranced. They were the length of most people’s fingers, he was sure of it. “Er… my brother told me once that if you look them in the eye they’ll peck your eyes out…”
“Did he?” Adara said, her tone expressing in no uncertain terms what she thought of Iago’s intelligence in the matter of birds. “So if he’d sat on a bear’s shoulder would he have tried poking it in the eye?”
“Probably,” Gwilym sighed. “He was a bit of an idiot, got to be honest. She won’t, though?”
“No,” Adara snorted. “She just… stares like a predator, that’s all. Some people find that a bit unsettling when they first see it.”
Gwilym looked at Gwenhwyfar, who glared imperially back.
“Yes,” he said distantly, after a moment. “I see it. If I were smaller and furrier she’d have eaten me by now, but she won’t because of the luck of size.”
“Exactly,” Adara grinned, stroking her again. “She’s a wild animal. Although she’s a big softie really.”
“You’re totally going to be a crazy cat lady when you’re older,” Gwilym told her, and Adara laughed. “By the way: congratulations. Really. The collar suits you.”
“Oh shut up,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s a nightmare. I had to submit to an hour of beauty therapy for the purposes of Morale. Caradog and Eluned still have hold of Llŷr. I now understand Awen’s pain.”
“In fairness you look amazing,” Gwilym offered, but predictably this was brushed aside. Someone who’d never know what they looked like would also never care one way or the other.
“An hour,” she repeated darkly. “It’s the one torture Eifion’s never found. Anyway: what’s your favourite colour?”
“Green,” Gwilym said. “Why?”
“How do you feel about religion?”
“Er, I’m old-fashioned and liberal,” Gwilym said. “Why?”
“What do you think are the three most important things in a relationship?”
“Um.” He thought for a second. “Honesty, fair communication and support. Why?”
“How old were you when you went travelling?”
“Seventeen,” Gwilym shrugged. “Thereabouts. Why?”
“Why did you go?”
“Oh.” He thought about that, too. “Because I wanted to learn. About people. About me, about… everything. I wanted answers. I ask a lot of questions, you see. Primarily: why?”
“How do you feel about Cymru?”
Gwilym paused, and glanced at Gwenhwyfar’s disinterested hauteur.
“If I give the wrong answer will you sic her on me?” he asked suspiciously, and Adara grinned, although like a shark and so not comfortingly.
“Definitely!” she said brightly. “How do you feel about Cymru?”
“I love it,” he said honestly. “I loved travelling, but I think I was only a month away before it started calling me back. And for all our problems, we compare extremely favourably to just about every other nation I went to. We embrace change.” He shrugged. “That’s the most valuable attribute a nation can have, I think. It’s why I want to get a university here, because as soon as we do…”
They watched the mountains, rolling and rising away from them, gilded by the late sun.
“The things we will do,” Gwilym said quietly, smiling. “The things we will achieve, Adara. There’ll be no stopping us.”
Her smile played softly across her face for a moment, and she nodded slightly to herself. Gwilym relaxed. She didn’t seem to be about to throw him over the balcony, anyway, so he guessed he’d gotten away with it.
“Why?” he asked, and Adara stirred out of her happy country-loving reverie.
“Why did you do the clinic?” she asked.
“Oh you sound just like my father,” Gwilym muttered. “Because the poor have to labour just to live, and so need their limbs intact more than the rich. Because they were suffering and dying otherwise and I could do something about it. Why?”
“Why do you like helping?”
“Because we should,” Gwilym said blankly, so shocked he forgot to ask why. Adara grinned.
“Old-fashioned and religious,” she said, apparently to herself, or maybe her bird. “I remember. Is it just that, though? Duty?”
“Definitely not,” Gwilym snorted. “Because it’s not duty at all, it’s right. But I like doing it anyway. I like it when people are happy. I believe people deserve to be happy. Why?”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-six and three quarters. Why?”
“Do you want children one day?”
He groaned and rubbed a hand over an eye.
“No one is going to stop asking me this,” Gwilym said glumly. “Gods. Right now, no. Maybe one day. I don’t particularly care if they’re mine genetically, though. Why?”
“Do you like being a Sovereign?”
“Really?” Adara looked at him, apparently vaguely alarmed at the news that someone should be experiencing job dissatisfaction. Gwilym shrugged.
“No,” he said wryly. “My Extremely Vague Long-Term Plan is that I manage to hammer out a working model of democracy, set it up in Aberystwyth and then leave to become a lecturer in my university. Or I might become a clerk and follow Awen about for the rest of my life. Or join your Wing as a mascot and masseur.”
In the strongest sign of acceptance he’d had from her so far Adara’s face actually brightened slightly at the last sentence, which gave Gwilym a lovely warm glow as though she was a teacher who’d just told him he was a Very Clever Young Man.
“Why?” he concluded. Adara regarded him thoughtfully.
“You’re anti-torture,” she stated mildly. Gwilym looked at her.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “Why?”
“Does it bother you that Awen is a torturer?”
“Ah.” He ran his free hand through his hair, the other currently being weighed down by a bird. “Well, it’d be a lie to say I was fine with it.”
“But,” he sighed. “I know her. I have a very good idea of the kinds of methods she’d use. You told me yourself, before, that she very rarely has to actually hurt someone. And it’s not her fault.”
“Hmm.” Adara watched him for a moment and then nodded, satisfied. “Good good. I’m a great big hungry, I wonder if there’s food yet…?”
And that seemed to be that. She wandered back into the lolfa, leaving Gwilym vaguely confused and with a one-and-a-half metre bird on his shoulder. He stared after her for a second and then snorted, and turned back to the vista below.
“Riders,” he told Gwenhwyfar, “are totally insane, aren’t they?”
She gave a low, whistling call, and Gwilym took it as agreement.