Fireside Chat

Some definitions, since I’m dropping you in the middle here: 

a zhaun is the head of a clan in the Mendei, the mountain range in the south of Martagne.

a jaraun is the person designated as official heir to a zhaun.

a zhaun-jaraun is the acclaimed but unconfirmed heir to a zhaun. Ysaut-Gilliane would be considered the Queen-jaraun.

a talde is the group of close followers of a leader of some sort.

the Service, more formally the Information Service, is a branch of Martagne’s government that gathers information in many forms and for many uses and reasons. It is also responsible for gathering information to help protect Martagne against those who may be enemies of the Realm, such as the Brekken. As “Spymaster,” Damien Ring is the official head of the Information Service.

The Brekken are the invaders, and under orders from their governing body, the Directors, have twice broken all laws of honorable combat, attacking non-combatant targets without warning, slaughtering innocents in a heinous war crime. Her mother, Queen Gloriane, having been killed in the first attack, the new young Queen Ysaut-Gilliane has fled to the Mendei for shelter, only to narrowly escape a second cowardly attack on another non-combatant target. She and her talde are now sheltering in a new location.

* * *

Over time, Damien found himself in several conversations with the zhaun of Peyre, often late at night, over brandy and firelight. It seemed as if the man was deliberately seeking him out, and at first he wondered why. Then he realized that the conversation often turned in some way to Ysaut—but not in a way as if seeking information from Damien about her; but more as Isarn giving him information about himself. Almost as if… as if assuring Damien that his intentions were honorable…

In one conversation, Isarn told him, “My clan has served the Queens of Martagne for more than two hundred years. Queen Aurélie’s father was a Jenico of Peyre, as Gloriane’s was of Argider. It was through the Mendi that the Crowns of Martagne came to count their heritance through the female line. Gilliane’s father, Olivier d’Alvers, is the first in generations not of the Mendei.” He waved that away with a quirk of his sardonic smile. “No matter,” he said, the smile broadening, “by our laws she is Mendi. A Piedmontése father is no bar.” But the joke, once made, lost its humor as Isarn shook his head. “There was a loss,” he said ruefully. “He was a good man, and he loved Gloriane well.” He stared down into his drink, then abruptly tossed it back and set the glass aside.

“We spoke of spies, before,” he said, changing the subject. “Much of the information your Service receives from the Mendei comes from us. You’ve likely seen some of my folk in the offices of your Service. So we knew who you were—a smallish man with black hair and eyes pale as water, and a reputation for as deadly a hand with a blade as any have known.

“There were many Mendi in the Palais du Monde on that day. That is why we know what happened was no accident. The zhaun of Sal’zahar and his jaraun never came home. Others did.” He shook his head and looked at Damien under his brows. “You were seen with the young Queen, and then you disappeared. We found where you’d been, but not where you’d gone. We would have aided you in your flight had we known, given you shelter and protection.

“I knew who you were when we met on the hillside, you and your brown-haired Queen.” He shook his head again. “You came far too close to disaster that day. Leaving you, my talde met a Brekken patrol coming up through the northern pass as you left by the southern. They nearly had to come to blows to keep them from crossing further into Peyre.” Isarn bared his teeth at the memory, and Damien saw for the first time why the man held his clan at such a young age. “They thought us hunters, straying out of our holding. I showed them what it meant to face a clan with its zhaun still in rule.” He bared his teeth again, briefly, and the firelight caught the dark amber of his eyes and turned them lambent gold. “We disarmed them and walked them all the way back to their garrison commander. I told him who I was, and warned him to make sure his men knew how to read maps. The borders of Peyre are clearly marked, and they had strayed nearly half a league past them.” He bared his teeth again, not briefly, and his eyes narrowed. “I reminded him that they had agreed to honor the border, and that if his men encroached on my land again, they would be returned disarmed, barefoot, and naked.

“But if it happened a third time, they would not be returned, and he could seek them at the foot of the Mendei.” He stared into the flames for a few moments, the firelight picking out the lines of his face in sharp planes and angles, and then he looked down and the lines softened. He nodded to Damien and rose. “I’ll leave you to your peace, m’ser,” he said, and left.

Damien gazed into the flames for some time after, thinking of many things. Of the zhaun-jaraun of Sal’zahar, the one they called the Snow Leopard, and thought that here he had met the Wolf of Peyre—and found him far more deadly.

And felt far better about leaving his Queen in the man’s care when he left to take up his proper duties.

* * *