Valeria was talking to Alban when Raiâ€™s imp reached her. Her foster son had been begging her to give his weapons back when the sparkling creature shot through the window and hovered in front of her. She stared at it for a moment before holding out her palm for it to land.
â€œThat looks like Rai made it,â€ Alban said.
â€œYes, he did.â€ She closed her eyes and drew it and the memories it carried into herself. She jerked back and heard a loud crack. Alban grabbed her hand and pressed something soft against it as she opened her eyes. Blood was soaking through the white hankerchief he was wrapping around her hand and she realised the crack was from the crystal goblet she’d been holding.
â€œThat must have been a pretty bad message,â€ he said softly.
â€œIt seems Huldre is directly involved in the plots going on. Iâ€™d hoped I was wrong… It wasnâ€™t just coincidence you saw him talking to Maran and Sirin.â€
â€œI told you so,â€ Alban said mildly. â€œWhatâ€™s happened to convince you?â€
â€œAn attempted coup at Dariadâ€™s court. Mind control which has people believing lies over what a blood and truth mirror reveals,â€ she said. .
â€œOh that,â€ he said. â€œHow did Rai know about it?â€
â€œUh?â€ She blinked perplexedly before realising. â€œYou saw it via the bond?â€
He nodded. â€œHe murdered a dwarf for helping them and tried to frame them for it.â€
â€œSpeakers enslaving other speakers in defiance of everything we are.â€ She rubbed her forehead.Â â€œThe worldâ€™s falling apart since two years ago. Itâ€™s all the water warriors fault! Heâ€™s the only thing that changed.â€
â€œYouâ€™re wrong, mother,â€ Alban said softly. â€œThis is one thing that you canâ€™t blame on him. For one thing, the dragon knights first appeared two years ago as well. For another, the world has been falling apart a lot longer than that. Itâ€™s just the past two years that the symptoms have become obvious. If anything, Kyleâ€™s fall was a symptom, not a cause.â€ He finished bandaging her hand and looked down. His pale blonde hair fell forward, obscuring his azure eyes, but there was an edge of sorrow in his tone that suggested he was crying. â€œIâ€™ve said more than I should.â€
Valeria frowned at him. It was certainly more than heâ€™d said on the issue in the whole of the last two years, and the first time heâ€™d mentioned the traitor by name. She reached out and pushed his hair away to see that he was blinking back tears. â€œYou really need to talk about it, Alban. And not because I want to know what happened.â€
â€œI canâ€™t talk about it.â€ He wiped at his eyes. â€œWhat are you going to do about Huldre and Sirin?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know yet. Iâ€™ve only got a few people I trust unreservedly at the moment, so I donâ€™t dare arrest them.â€ She came to a decision and pulled his daggers from her desk. â€œYou can have these back. If they are planning a coup youâ€™ll need to defend yourself.â€
â€œAnd you,â€ he said firmly. â€œIâ€™m not letting anyone hurt you. What about my bow?â€
â€œIâ€™ll keep that. Itâ€™s not much use at close quarters anyway.â€ She considered what he said. â€œAnd donâ€™t get any ideas about getting pre-emptive. Thatâ€™ll make it worse.â€
He gave her a long look. â€œSo why is Rai spying on Caerdu?â€ His eyes narrowed. â€œHe isnâ€™t, is he? Youâ€™ve sent him after Karen! What the hell are you thinking?â€
â€œAlban,â€ she began but he cut her off.
â€œIf you hurt her Iâ€™ll never forgive you.â€
â€œI wonâ€™t have you spend your life as a slave.â€
â€œIâ€™m not a slave!â€ He looked away. â€œItâ€™s not like that all.â€
â€œI donâ€™t believe Darya would have betrayed the Core of his own free will. Iâ€™d known him since he was a baby, he wasnâ€™t like that. The water warrior must have made him.â€ She stopped as Alban made a soft choking sound that sounded like a laugh. â€œWhat?â€
â€œI shouldnâ€™t tell you this. The Core wonâ€™t like it, but Darya fell first. He was furious on Kyleâ€™s behalf. Kyle only fell when he found out what Darya had realised.â€
â€œWhat?â€ She shook her head. â€œWhat do you mean? What did he realise?â€
Alban swallowed visibly. â€œThat the Core…â€ He went white and collapsed to his knees, clutching his head. â€œStop please!â€
â€œAlban?â€ Valeria touched his shoulder. He looked up at her and she recoiled at the sight of blood leaking from his eyes.
â€œI-I canâ€™t tell you, mother. It wonâ€™t let me, and without Karen Iâ€™m vulnerable.â€ He passed out on the floor.
â€œKaren! Whatâ€™s wrong?â€ Lydia knelt by her sister. Sheâ€™d been practicing with her sword when sheâ€™d heard Karen shriek and had run into the other room. Sheâ€™d found Karen kneeling on the floor, Andrew already kneeling beside her. â€œWhat happened?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know! We were talking and she just screamed and collapsed.â€
â€œAlban,â€ Karen whimpered. â€œAlbanâ€™s hurting.â€
â€œQueen Valeria wouldnâ€™t hurt Prince Alban,â€ Eyvindr said. â€œNot even to get to Karen.â€
â€œIt wasnâ€™t her.â€ Karen got up and staggered to a chair. â€œIt stopped. I think he passed out, but it wasnâ€™t her. Something was hurting him because he tried to tell her something.â€
â€œIâ€™ve seen something similar happen to Ema,â€ King Dariad said from the door. He was holding a bracelet set, with a diamond, and a pair of intricate multi-bladed throwing axes.
â€œWhoâ€™s Ema?â€ Lydia asked.
â€œSheâ€™s the Earth Warriorâ€™s heart friend, one of the daoine – the earth haltia. She used to live here, but she left a few months ago. Just before then she tried to tell me what happened. Someone really doesnâ€™t want the details of what happened two years ago to come out.â€ He walked over to Karen and held out the bracelet and axes. â€œIt is my honour to return these to you, light warrior.â€
â€œThank you.â€ Karen reached out and took them. She slipped the bracelet onto her wrist
and looked at the axes. â€œThese are beautiful. Iâ€™m not sure weapons should be things of such beauty.â€ She gave Dariad a sly look. â€œBut all this makes me wonder if our memories were really wiped because we were traumatised, or someone didnâ€™t want us talking. Not that it makes much odds, Iâ€™m pissed off about it either way.â€
â€œIt does make me wonder,â€ he conceded. â€œBut itâ€™s speculation. The fact that Valeria has someone trailing you isnâ€™t. I think sheâ€™s ordered him to capture you.â€
â€œBecause of Alban?â€ Karen asked. He nodded and she pulled a thoughtful face. â€œPerhaps we should consider playing along.â€
â€œEh?!â€ Lydia exclaimed. â€œYou canâ€™t mean that!â€
â€œYes, I do. We need Alban and I together. This would be easier than trying to sneak in.â€
â€œYouâ€™re mad!â€ Andrew said.
â€œNo, Iâ€™m not. Just listen…â€