Dariad watched Valeria picking at the grilled fish his cooks had prepared for her and sighed.
“You need to eat, Val,” he said softly.
“I know. I just don’t have any appetite.” She blinked away tears.
“You won’t do Salia any good if you collapse.”
“I’m not sure I’ll do her any good if I don’t. I’m so helpless!”
Dariad tapped his tongue against his teeth. She wasn’t wrong, there wasn’t much that she could do about Salia’s situation. Having said that Salia wasn’t the only one at stake here. Perhaps she just need reminding of that.Â “Then think about Alban. He doesn’t need you to collapse either.”
“You…” She looked down. “You’re right, of course.” She picked up her fork again and took a bite. “It is good. My compliments to your cook.” She ate the fish slowly, but at least she was eating it. “I need to apologise to the Warriors, don’t I? I’ve been making things hard for them.”
“Only if you mean it,” he said. “An insincere apology means nothing.”
“I…” She looked down, apparently thinking about that. “I think that I do mean it. I’m still not sure about humans, but I want to know what the Core is hiding from us. There’s something about the Water Warrior’s betrayal that it doesn’t want us to know. I have a horrible feeling about it.”
“I do as well. Karen should be awake soon. We’ll ask her and Alban when she wakes up. Ema told me she’d have been able to talk about if her heart friend had been there.”
“Yes, Alban said the same thing. It’s a puzzling thing. Did your father ever mention being – um – freer when he was with his heart friend?”
“No, but he was never in such a situation. Shall we go up and see if Karen is awake yet?”
Valeria scooped up the final bite of her fish and chewed, then nodded. “Yes, let’s.”
Karen was indeed awake and was sitting up in bed with her siblings and their heart friends sitting around her. She looked up and gave a wan smile as Alaryia led him and Valeria into the room.
“Your majesties, we’ve been waiting for you before I tell my tale.”
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Valeria whispered when Karen finished. She reached out and grasped the girl’s hands. “I had no idea. That poor boy, no wonder he went crazy.”
“I know.” Karen looked down. “But he knew what would happen if he succeeded and he still tried to destroy the Core. There’s no excuse for that.”
“From what you say he probably wasn’t thinking about that,” Alaryia said. “He probably wasn’t thinking anything at all. Extreme anger can do that to a person.”
“This is…” Kimi looked totally dejected. “I don’t understand… why… Are you sure it was true?”
“I’m afraid so,” Karen replied. “I can show in his majesty’s mirror if you want. The Core has a complex about humans that makes Queen Valeria’s look positively tolerant. If it weren’t for the fact that it needs us. It’d probably have tried to destroy Earth by now, or at least get rid of those of us with powers.” She stared at the wall.
“Well, that would be stupid,” Alaryia said.
“You know about that?” Karen stared at the goblin ambassador.
“I do. Most goblins know all about it via their parents.”
“The dragons know about it?” Karen sounded even more incredulous about that. “Yeah, it would be stupid – if it knew about it. It doesn’t. That’s not its fault, of course. When they created it, the Speakers gave it an imperative to do whatever it needed to preserve them and the world, but they gave it insufficient information. It sees humans as a threat, well actually it sees humans with powers as a threat. It knows the majority are no risk.”
“What doesn’t it know?” Valeria asked.
“Earth and this world are inextricably linked, your majesty. Humans with powers call themselves Astrals, and not without reason. There seems to be a star in this world’s sky for every Astral on Earth. Killing off all the Astrals would at the very least put out all the stars. I’m fairly sure it would do worse.” She glanced at Andrew with a sly smile. “And you’ll notice that there are a lot less than seven billion stars. About 100,000 we think.”
Andrew just harrumphed at that. Karen gave him a wan smirk in reply. Lydia however was frowning.
“Kaz, how do you know all this?” she asked. “From the warriors you fought along side two years ago?”
Karen shook her head. “No… well not exactly.” She scowled at one of the tapestries on the wall. “I know it from school. Brierthorne exists to educate Astrals.”
Lydia made a soft choking noise, while Andrew just stared at Karen blankly.
“Dad let you go there? Did he know?” he asked finally.
“Why didn’t dad send all four of us?” Lydia said simultaneously. “Training would have been useful.”
“He didn’t dare, the fact we’re quads would have drawn unwelcome attention. Anyway you were getting training from somewhere and he wanted to know where, Dan’s predicted affinity spread would be ob-” She broke off and clapped her hand to her head. “Oh, oh dear. I haven’t been thinking this through.”
“Thinking what through?” Lydia asked.
“Why did he pick you over me?” Andrew asked.
Karen gave Andrew a sideways look and another smirk. “I believe his exact words were ‘because he’s a gullible idiot’ when I asked him that.”Â She looked away from the speechless Andrew and back at Lydia, who was making choking repressed laughter noises. “The dark rider, I think he’s Dan.”
Lydia stopped laughing and her head jerked up to stare at Karen. “Based on what?”
“His predicted affinity spread and the fact that he hasn’t been around as much as usual, among other things.”
“But how would he have got dragged into helping this Dragon Lord person?” Lydia asked.
“I have my suspicions about that as well,” Karen said. “I’ve been nursing them for some time.” She looked over at Valeria and Dariad. “It must have occurred to your majesties as well.”
Valeria pulled a face. “That I only know of one human who could control dragons that way? It did, I dismissed it.”
Dariad nodded. “I didn’t dismiss it, but it would leave the question of why. Given his unusual position he’s already got us by the throat if he wants.”
“Who?” Lydia asked.
“Matthias Morgan,” Karen said. “King Indirian’s heart friend.”