Chapter 3

The northern delta of the Erdydd river, Rydden

‘Where am I going?’

She managed the demand without sounding haughty enough to put the person she was asking on edge. When you asked a question as if the answer was imminent, she found she got much better results than when she let the question mark be audible, or when she showed fear. Although she was blindfolded, she knew she was trading the ship for land. She could smell the earth comingled with the salt of the sea, and in a moment she stepped off the wooden platform to feel soft grass beneath her feet. She deeply breathed in the crisp air. It was night – of course. She startled when the voice that answered her was not that of the man who had blindfolded her. It was his. He took her elbow and fell in beside her in that already familiar way while he said: ‘To a postal carriage. It is still the quickest way to move around in Rydden.’

‘And after that?’

She could almost feel him watching her, and she strained to keep a blank exterior. ‘To the Rydden king. Did you believe that we were just a rogue band of vampires and weres, with a few succubi to boot? I would have thought you’d know us too well organised for that. And considering what you were about to go do, not unexpected at all.’

‘The Rydden king?’ She did not know that Rydden had a king. She could remember no mention of one. Not in the way that she had actually taken it into account. Nor had her uncle, or the Ennion king. She was starting to get the feeling that it had been an oversight that could possibly turn fatal.

‘Well, if he isn’t, he is doing a very passable job of pretending to be one for the last few centuries.’

She was shocked at this outright subordination of social hierarchy, but more so because she heard people around her laughing in response. Although the elven king presided over a largely democratic body of council, he was nonetheless the most influential of them and came from a much respected royal house – to which she herself belonged. The elves were courteous, very sensitive of the necessary respect and honour given to such an esteemed member of their society. There were very few customs which shocked her, having studied them greatly in preparation for her upcoming marriage, but it rattled her to her core to hear one of the Rydden king’s subjects – apparently a powerful one – make fun of him. And his not so rogue band of cohorts joining in. She knew she should not be surprised that they lacked any sense of respect, considering the darkness of their souls, but still she was. Still she could not understand why they could nor would strive for betterment.

He stopped walking and she could hear the sound of a latch as he let go of her arm. She shuddered from the sudden release, her thoughts emphasizing how unnatural these creatures were to the world and the realisation that she was forced to be in their presence, be at their mercy to be used with whatever purpose that had spurred her abduction. She thought about taking off. Just start running. But before she had even thought about how long it would take –  if she surprised him – to take the blindfold off, he took her elbow again. ‘The door is open. Get in.’

The pressure of his hand in the small of her back was a not so subtle reminder that he would lift her in if she did not move swiftly. She reached with her hand to find the doorframe and climbed inside. She had heard of these carriages, but had not known they had them in Rydden. Probably taken the design from Ennion, where they were quite common. It would fit into their obsession with humanity. But it would be cruder, she imagined, falling short of Ennion’s sophistication.

When he climbed in after her, she felt her heart start pouncing in apprehension. It had showed in her form, obviously, since she could hear him grinning with amusement. ‘You could, you know, prizing yourself so much on your advancement and open-mindedness, wait until I actually violate your prisoner rights before you assume I will do something I somehow did not choose to do with the privacy of my own ship at my back, preferring a rickety carriage. The carriage which, by the way, is for your benefit and not mine.’

She gave him a scolding look, before realising he had no way of seeing that. ‘Your kind is what it is.’ she said calmly. When they had taken her and brought her to their own ship, she had simply been relieved that Rydden’s People seemed to adhere to the known guidelines for political hostages. They had mostly left her alone in the closed off cabin. But her situation had changed again, and she did not think she was transferred to a carriage with just the lead hostage taker simply for her benefit. There was a purpose that she did not yet know and it made her realise she had no reason to expect anything from these creatures. Their very nature was vile and perverted, but they did strongly cover recognition from the rest of the world. It implied that a man acting for his king would benefit from her being treated with the utmost courtesy. The absence of predictable possibilities left her unable to make up her mind at what was to come, and she hid her heightened unrest and fear behind a haughty exterior. This time she was glad he could not see her eyes due to the blindfold.

‘As true and unusable a statement if ever I heard one.’ He leaned over – she could hear the leather of the seats cracking, and she startled when she felt his hands to the side of her head, but he was only taking off the blindfold. When he did, she felt a rush of cold air against her eyes, and she opened them. The carriage windows were closed, but she could still smell the crisp air of the night sky and breathed in deeply.

‘As I said, we are continuing by carriage from here on out, considering it is not a wise idea to keep an elf locked away from sunlight for too long during a journey. It will take three days and three nights of continuous riding via this method. But if we are well into the mainland, you can open the window.’

She did not answer, her back straight as a board. She kept her eyes on him, waiting patiently for the catch.

He lifted the corner of his mouth in a grin, leaning back against the pillows. There was an utter nonchalance to his pose, but she got the distinct feeling that nothing this man did was without purpose. ‘We will both have to give some to get some, princess. If you consider yanking that window wide open to hurt me, just remember that I could have left you in a dark cargo hold. And should you still be tempted, I would have you know that indirect sunlight will not proceed to kill me, only make me very, very angry. I will not only put the blindfold back on, but gag and tie you as well. For the entire duration, without breaks. So you best be staying on my good side. Do you understand me?’

His words, measured and deliberate, indeed belied his posture and when she met his eyes she realised he was dead serious. It made her fear him. ‘You are a vampire. You cannot abide any sunlight.’ she said, stating what she had all her life known to be true.

‘Do you wish to take me up on my words?’ he asked, unmoved.

She did not. She had taken an immediate dislike to this man, the way he treated his dangerousness uncaringly. He threw her off balance purposely, looking down on her. What his intention was with it, she could not grasp. She doubted both her own truth and his words after what he had just said. He might – had to be – bluffing about his ability to withstand sunlight to a certain degree, but he was still a creature of incredible speed and agility and would contain the damage before she had a chance to disable him. And she had indeed no wish for him to retaliate.

‘I do wonder what is going on in your mind.’ he said, looking at her studyingly. His words surprised her, for the first time since she had run afoul of him he actually sounded sincere. She turned her head towards him, but was not inclined to forgive. She had made that mistake already and it never ended well where he was concerned. She was not about to give him an inch of leverage.

‘Nothing much good.’ she answered him. ‘What will be happening once we arrive at the – palace?’ She hesitated before uttering the last word. To her, admittedly sparse, knowledge of Rydden and its people, they did not have the niceties Ennion had developed over their years of exponential growth and wealth. Rydden’s People coveted it, but had no means of arriving there on their own. It was probably why so many were drawn to live in the human lands. They had not as of yet brought this knowledge back, which was most certainly due to them not having been accepted in Ennion for that long and – luckily – the humans were naturally weary of them.

It was a country mostly consisting of rock formations, large woodlands and rough grasslands. She doubted even the humans had spared a moment’s thought at exactly how they lived in their own country. Considering so many wanted to leave it, it would be rudimentary more than luxurious. That was why the mentioning of an actually palace baffled her so. If they really had advanced their race beyond what was known to the elves and humans, they were even more of a threat. She realised she had never truly considered them a people. They did not possess any kind of proper name, being called after the land they inhabited. And that name had persisted from long ago, so long even the elves had forgotten it. But they were a threat. They had already been recognised as such – minimal civilisation and all, and now they were a threat to her personally. She wished she had taken the time to find more texts on them in the scholars’ library.

‘You will be our most esteemed guest, until such time the human king sees the importance of meeting the Rydden king, and you will be given back to him. There are things that need to change, and it is important that he recognises that duly, before my people are taken off this earth by elven intervention.’

‘I do not know what you mean.’

There was a long silence in which his golden eyes seemed to bore into hers. ‘I think you do.’ he answered, and she felt put in her place. Uneasily, she averted her gaze. She could not pretend she did not feel that Rydden’s People needed to be reined in, the humans protected. But she had come for a marriage. She knew that saying that aloud would not help her, though, because of her knowledge that her uncle had sent her for another reason. To this man, that would undoubtedly be the same.

She was not quite sure he was wrong in that.

‘Don’t worry. He will treat you just as cordially as I am.’ he said, which for some reason sent him grinning smugly.

She turned her head towards the window. She could sense the coming sunrise, and she assumed he could as well. As much as the light meant life to her, it meant death and torture to him. She was sitting on the far right of her bench, next to the window. He was opposite her to the far right of his. He had his legs leisurely stretched out before him, but she now realised that it was also next to the door. She wondered if he had baited her with the window to keep her in the spot where she could cause the least amount of damage. She would hate to have been manipulated that way, but she had the idea that nothing this man did was without bitter calculation. Would he ever really enjoy himself? More and more she felt that this nonchalant image was nothing more than that – a façade to hide his true self and keep her on her toes guessing his next move, trying to figure out the puzzle of him.

’You can open the window now.’ he said, surprising her once again considering his last statement had been an accusatory one.

She did so a little hesitatingly. She kept expecting something to happen although she did not know what that would be, keeping him in the corner of her eye. But he appeared uninterested. The window opened through a shutter that she could slot sideways. It was impossible to open far. Undoubtedly she could do something with it, after careful consideration and if they changed direction, but the threat he had made seemed far too large for something quite difficult to accomplish.

She breathed in the air deeply, and leaned out to see from which side the sun was rising. From it she gathered they were moving in a south-eastern direction. After a few moments she sat back down and looked at him. He was looking at her without an expression on his face. It was impossible to know what he was thinking. ‘Thank you.’ she said, although she did not like to do so.

He did not respond to it, closing his eyes and folding his hands behind his head. He knew in which direction they were going, and that he would be safe from any sunlight for hours. He was not afraid to show he knew that, either. Was he really just threatening her to keep her thoughts occupied on the unnecessarity of it? She would not put it past him. Every reaction up until now had been different than what she had been expecting. The only time he had sounded sincere was when he had spoken about her people’s plans for his. It seemed to be more than just the general hatred Rydden bore towards the elves.

She felt lost. Even the sunlight helped only a portion of that. What she wanted – to return to a world that was known to her – she could not have. She had been going to a different land to marry a man she had never met before, but she had planned for it. She had studied him and his people, his country. She felt secure in knowing that even though she would be surrounded by unfamiliar people, they would show her goodwill. That was taken away from her now, and for the first time in her life there was no plan, no path to take. She was shocked at how hard it was for her to accept that she was a prisoner. She knew she had to get it together, or she would be nothing more than a pawn.

Now that he had his eyes closed, she no longer resisted the urge to study him quietly. He was very tall. She was no short woman, but he was at least half a head taller, and very slender. He had dark black hair, which seemed long for a vampire. The others she had seen wore their hair at shoulder length at best, but his fell almost to his waist. His eyes had that unique colour of molten gold and she found it unsettling that such a depraved creature could have such a pleasing look. He looked like… almost, he looked like a dark version of an elven male. She knew that there were many similarities in their appearance, and in their abilities of the mind as well, but in him it seemed somehow more pronounced.

‘Musing?’ he asked.

She startled once more. She hadn’t realised, even though she was looking at him, that he had opened his eyes and was looking back at her. She could hardly pretend she was not, but that did not mean she had to answer.

‘I do wonder why the elven race is so afraid to show emotion.’ he said to her. ‘Are you afraid you are going to like it?’

‘Just because my people do not slather their inner thoughts over their actions, does not mean that we do not have emotions.’ she answered coldly. It was commonly said about her people, and she had anticipated having to explain herself much more once she was married to the human king, considering their differences in culture. But to be berated by a creature like this was something wholly different.

He lifted the corner of his mouth in a laugh. ‘You have been sitting there for three quarters of an hour just trying to reign it in. I know you have them, I asked why you are afraid to feel them.’

She shot him a hateful glance and turned fully towards him. ‘You have taken me prisoner against my will, held me in darkness and want to use my life as leverage to shoehorn your people into a world they never had any right to join, and you have the audacity to make it sound like I am in the wrong?’ She did not care that she was probably confirming the worst he thought of her kind. She did not believe that anything she said would change his mind on what he perceived her people’s motives to be. And she meant every word that she had said. She was struggling to keep herself in hand, to keep herself level and balanced, the way she knew she was.

He leaned forward and smiled. ‘That emotion would be called anger.’

That was it. She could not take his condescension anymore and lost grip of her carefully guarded control. She would show him anger. She upped from her seat and struck at him. Although his senses and reflexes were faster than her own, he had not expected it and she came quite close before he grabbed her wrist and then her arm, wrestling her onto the seat next to him, caught between the seat and the sideboard. He was looking at her as if he couldn’t quite get what had made her act so out of character for an elf, and then a calculating look started to come into his eyes, wondering if he could use it.

To dissuade him from it, and to reclaim herself from something she did not quite understand either, she said as calmly as she could pretend to be: ‘That would have been anger.’

He started saying something, but then shook his head and did not. He looked at her for some time. ‘Do not do that.’ he finally said.

‘I have already heard your threats.’ she found the strength to say coolly and pretend she was not afraid.

‘You have barely even begun to hear them.’ he said. He pulled on the arm he was still holding and his strength was great enough to pull her up without any trouble. He left her almost upright, but not quite, keeping her at an awkward angle. ‘You will go sit back over there and do not stray a finger beyond your occasional high and mighty remark.’ He pulled her up even a little more. For some undiscernible reason, he smelled like something green and living. Grass of some kind. He brought his face close to hers and whispered to her, his eyes piercing. ‘Your blood may have crystallin, but part of it is undoubtedly blood. I always wanted to find out what would happen if I drink it. It would undoubtedly have some side effects on me, but the effect on you would be much greater. You’d become tainted, love. And maybe you don’t believe me, but do you really want to run the risk of something like me breaking your skin and taking your blood? Without the help of your family and friends to cleanse you from the impurity, for weeks – months, even?’ He looked at her. ‘Now, princess. How is that for a threat?’

She realised she had started trembling. Not even so daintily as that. Shaking. The thought alone terrified her and only now did she realise what these people could do to her if they really wanted to. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound would come from it.

‘Do you understand me?’

She nodded.

She let out a startled cry when he suddenly released her and she fell back against the sideboard. She looked up at him in disbelief. He looked down at her as he settled back against the back cushions, but his pose had lost all of its ease. ‘Now go sit back over there. You never did go for the window or the door, but at me, so I have no grounds to tie you up or put the blindfold back on. But anything at all, from now on, apart from sitting there quietly, will do you in.’

She almost said that she would like nothing more, but since she had done it of her own accord, there really wasn’t anything she could say about it. She felt her cheeks burning, but she could not recognise the emotion behind it. She found her bearings again and went over to the other side, keeping her gaze out of the window and away from him, with every bit of regality she could muster. His threat had shaken her to the core, and from his attitude she could see that he was looking down on her because she thought his kind so vile, and hers so pure, but she could not help it.

He had his hands behind his head again, but his eyes were open now. He was staring at some unseen point in front of him, and she was wondering if he was reconsidering the threat he had made. If perhaps he even felt guilty about it. He had no reason to doubt its effectivity, he had scared her good and proper. But it was somehow slightly possible that he was rethinking it on account of his earlier statement. That she should wait to get proof before discarding his kind as inherently and unavoidably evil.

Again she got the feeling that this man wanted something out of this carriage ride and he was now considering the fact that because of his temper, he might not get it. She was becoming far too curious to know what it was. He surprised her by opening his mouth again and asking almost purposely mundane, as if to salvage, but also with some genuinely sounding wonderment: ‘By what name do they call you? Noa?’

‘By my full name.’ she lied coolly.

He only raised his eyebrows slightly. He did not seem to be bothered by the response either and she did not know if she liked that. The only way she would know what he wanted from her was if she went along, and after a few moments of uncomfortable, expectation-heavy silence, she asked: ‘What is yours?’

‘Why do you want to know?’ he asked, as if it was a normal question to ask. The slight grin told her the tables were turned again. She could not stand the calm, the normalcy with which he acted, as if she was not his captive. She looked out the window again. She refused to play along further, and was prepared to live without the knowledge.

‘My name is Anorova Ashahel.’

By sheer force of will alone did she keep her face levelled, but yet again he seemed to be able to read her fairly easily. Although this was one reaction he had known beforehand, and had looked for it. ‘Not a name you would expect?’ he asked. It was a name very closely related to a common elven one. ‘High and mighty on your islands you can easily pretend that we are barely alike in kind, princess, but you will find it much harder here in Rydden, with the proof right under your nose.’

‘We are nothing alike. In fact, we could not be further apart.’ she said curtly, refusing to look at him, staring hard out the window.

‘Well, let us keep that discussion until later then.’ Anorova said.

‘We will not have this discussion, ever.’ Now she did turn her head to look at him.

He smiled unconcerned. ‘Don’t strain that self-control again. Don’t worry. We have plenty besides to talk about in the near future.’

‘And how is that?’ she asked.

‘You’ll see.’ Anorova Ashahel answered. As unnoticeably as possible, she sighed. She resigned to keep her mouth shut from now on. She was not going to give him any more ammunition, nor get him his wish of accomplishing something – whatever it was – on this carriage ride. His name did not matter, nor that stubborn, common rumour that the elves and Rydden’s People had similar origins. These people were darkness itself and they had abducted her because of their wish to be a threat to this world. Nothing he said or did could stray her from knowing that.

He left her alone after that. He either sensed the determination in her mood or he would not get anywhere, because they rode silently for hours. At high noon he told her to close the window, as the sun was coming across it quite low, considering it was only the beginning of spring. A few hours later he told her she could open it again, and closed his eyes to get some sleep. From it, she gathered they would be travelling in this direction for a long while yet. She looked at him, knowing somehow that he was a light sleeper. If she stirred even a limb, he’d know it.

This man frightened her. Now that he had closed his eyes and his awareness of his surroundings had diminished to a low, she could admit that to herself. He scared her, in more ways than one. She hoped he would sleep for a few more good hours, because the last thing she wanted was him awake and talking again.

She had fallen asleep herself by the time he woke up, unable to hold her eyes open any longer despite her fears or her inner turmoil. When the carriage jerked to a standstill, she shot up, her heart pounding from the scare that came from the realisation she had let her guard down in a dangerous situation. It was fully dark now, she saw with a look out the window, which was still open. The moon shone through it, illuminating the carriage even more brightly than the lights in the corners.

Anorova Ashahel, who had not moved during the time she had been asleep – presumably – was regarding her somewhat mockingly after that stark reaction to waking up. ‘Once again I would ask you who was hurting you in any way for you to react so… overemotional.’ he said, deliberately pausing. She looked at him for a long time before haughtily reminding him: ‘You told me that you would taint me.’

‘I gave you a threat I would carry out if you assaulted me. Which I have not carried out because you have not assaulted me. It is not exactly what one would call innately evil. Or even slightly unreasonable.’

‘Just because you are on your best behaviour, or whatever passes for it, that does not mean that it is what you truly are. Sooner or later, that side will show, and that threat showed me exactly what you are capable of.’

Anorova Ashahel smiled wryly and his golden eyes shone dangerously when he let down his careful guard and said: ‘Darling, you have absolutely no idea what I am capable of.’ After a few moments of silence passed, he reached towards the latch of the door and opened it. ‘I thought you might want to stretch your legs for a few moments. Attend to some female business, perhaps.’ He did not move to be the first to leave the carriage. His look dared her to pass him, if she wanted to get out. ‘Don’t you?’

She determined for herself not to rise to his bait any longer. He was unpredictable, she had no idea what his immediate or ultimate goal was, and the possibilities were frightening. This day had scared her in many ways, and she knew instinctively she would only get through it by regaining her composure and keeping it. Staying as aloof as possible. So she got up, and moved past him to leave the carriage. She felt the wet grass beneath her feet, and for a moment resisted the wish to take off her shoes and walk barefooted through it. She closed her eyes to feel the wind caressing her body, flowing through her hair, calming her.

Her respite did not take long, within a quarter of an hour she found herself back inside the carriage, moving towards their intended goal. She had seen, when out getting some fresh air, that he had left the vampire portion of his guard with the dark wooded ship to continue via waterway. Those on horseback surrounding the carriage now were weres, perhaps some succubi, who could withstand both light and night. She had not discerned where exactly they were, although it would not matter if she had. There was no elven or human map that she knew of that listen Rydden structures or towns, just the outline of their borders. She wondered if there was a Rydden map. She wondered if there was any organisation to this country at all. She would soon find that out, though. She was starting to become curious about this so called palace, and the man who called himself the king.

Anorova Ashahel continued his conversations. He alternated between idle banter to pass the time, and more. She was getting better at discerning between the two, but came absolutely no closer to figuring out what it was that he wanted with her over the next two days. She was not going to ask him outright, even though she had to control herself a few times. Not only would it mean giving him power, or tipping her hand, but a part of her also feared the answer he might give. She never grew any easier around him. Somehow, he drew reactions from her she had never known were inside her and it took much of her self-control to keep them hidden from him. Luckily he did not push her towards any further lapses, but the memory of her having lost control so easily stuck with her as a dire warning.

Unsurprisingly, it was deep into the night when they finally arrived at the palace. She had the window closed against the chill and was now thankful that she had done so, because it meant being able to hide her curiosity. She affected not to care that they had arrived, nor in any hurry to be seeing this palace. It was true that she was not in a hurry to enter it, but Anorova Ashahel did not seem to be in one either. His eyes locked on her when the carriage stopped, and kept them on her until she finally consented and asked: ‘What is it?’

‘I do not want a scene.’ he said. ‘You may be elven, but fear can do strange things to a person. Noa, here is what will happen. We will go inside, and I will escort you straight to the room that will be your residence for the duration of your stay. You cannot leave it, but it has a lot of sunlight, and whatever you may need, I will make sure is provided. No one will touch or harm you, I give you my word. But there has to be some slight trust here.’

‘I am sorry.’ she answered. ‘I have none to give.’

‘That is too bad, because you do not have a choice in going in. I can tie you, blindfold and gag you. I can take a swing at you and throw you over my shoulder when you are unconscious. I can ask my force of weres to drag you in. I am hoping you are beginning to understand that the only choice I am offering is to go in with your dignity intact.’

‘And for you to have things go smoothly. Show everyone the power you have over an elven princess.’

‘Exactly.’ Anorova Ashahel said. When she just looked at him, he sighed dramatically. ‘Yes, I disgust you. I know. And believe me, you will hate me a lot more once you know me.’

‘I have absolutely no intention of ever getting to know you.’ she said.

‘That is too bad.’ Anorova said. ‘Because we will.’ He opened the door and ducked through it to get out. He reached back inside holding out his hand for her. She did not want to take it, but she had the feeling she had little choice in that as well. So she did, and let him help her out of the carriage. His hand was cool, but not cold. There was also a strength in them that surprised her. He had this familiar willowy build, yet his movements were direct, to the point, and powerful. No hesitation spoke from them.

She turned her head and drew in her breath in surprise. Before her a beautiful and large palace arose. Even under the night sky she could see that it was grand, far grander than anything she would have credited Rydden’s People with. Nothing of these people or this country that she had seen so far resembled anything like it. It was not in their nature to build like this, she knew that.

‘Did your people build this?’ she let slip before she could check herself.

‘No. We do not secretly harbour a love for engineering pretty things. This palace has stood here since long before we came to this land. It needed some care, but it does the job.’ Anorova Ashahel said.

‘Who were the people that came before?’ she asked. She did not know of any other race other than the three that populated the world now, and hers had populated this world the longest. Anorova Ashahel looked at her with a curious look in his eye, and some hint of amusement. She remembered now that he knew she was a scholar. ‘Nobody knows.’ he said.

He opened his arm to gesture invitingly towards the palace, even though there was no question in it. It reminded her that she was to come with him without causing any trouble, and she did not see another way out from it. She had not been able to escape when she was on the ship, or when they had transferred her to the carriage. Her chances in the middle of Rydden territory on foot with weres and vampires all around were none. She would find herself in the room he had allotted her.

So she started walking towards the palace, and he fell into step with her. He was not the only one, a selection of guards joined them. It was unobtrusively, but she felt crowded anyway. Anorova laid his hand on the small of her back, and as she turned her head to look at him, his eyes were already on her. ‘Remember what I said. Keep moving and everything will be fine.’ he said.

She took a deep breath unnoticeably, and almost stubbornly did as he said. She felt that they were walking forever. It was not the largest palace, but as Anorova put it, it did the job. She was walking through hallways and up stairs – mostly up. Until finally, he opened the door to a room that was an antechamber. It had a ladder that went up through a hatch. One of the weres went up first and opened it. Once again Anorova made a gesture leading her up first. She had little choice, so she did.

It was dark up, but from her shoes on the tiled floor she could hear that it was a large space. The were had already opened up another door and gone through it. A few moments later light shone through the opening. It should not come as a surprise to her that Rydden’s People could see better in the dark than her kind. Behind her Anorova had come up as well. This time she needed no prodding. She moved towards the light, her eyes adjusting a little to the dark. A small corridor connected to a final room. Thanks to the light, she could see this one.

It’s far wall was rounded, which made for an interesting shape to the room. The floor here was tiled as well, in an intricate mosaic pattern in white and different hues of blue. It was very sparsely decorated with a low bed, a desk and chair, and a cupboard. It had two windows, small but high. She had no idea which side they faced, but she assumed that enough sunlight would fall through them. Anorova Ashahel had not gotten what he wanted from his carriage ride, so his consideration during that trip had to extend itself further now, if he wanted to get in her good graces long enough to get whatever that was. And perhaps, as an afterthought, she considered briefly the possibility that he really did want to make her comfortable.

She turned around to look at him. Anorova was standing in the doorway. ‘You have had a long journey. Sleep. I will come by in the morning.’ he said.

She wanted to say something harsh, but could think of nothing that was not an open door and would sent him off grinning. So she said nothing, and Anorova did not even show the hint of a smile when he turned around and pulled the door closed behind him.

She shivered slightly against the cold, and looked around the room once more. The furniture was much more in keeping with what she knew of Rydden’s People than the palace’s bare bones, indeed. She wondered what the purpose of the room had been, so high up. She assumed she was in the top of one of the towers, and also that the answer probably lay in the large room that they had come through. Would she see it, or would she have to remain here? The room was not small, but it was undoubtedly too small to spend precious months in. She shook her head slightly. Rydden’s People had preserved this palace as if to mould themselves into it, instead of it to them. But that was what they were. They had no clear identity, only that they took what they liked from others for themselves. All they were of their own were night dwellers and monsters. She felt, for a second, pity for them. Then she remembered that she was at their mercy, and a tender one it was if Anorova Ashahel was any indication. She wondered if his king was like him, or very different.

As she laid down on the bed she thought unable to fall asleep here, but when she opened her eyes again, the sun was streaming through the windows. Facing eastward, then. She got up, and because she had nothing better to do to kill the time, she explored her room a little. Outside she saw the same woodlands and forests she had seen from the carriage. She felt, more than she actually knew, that they were somewhere in the heart of Rydden. The room itself offered her even less information. The desk was empty, but the cupboard had the items she had packed up herself to bring to her new home. The ship had been a faster ride, then. She did not see a river, but it was not impossible that there was an inland sea somewhere and that it was a shorter ride away.

She startled when the lock clicked and her door was opened quite abruptly. A woman came in, bringing a tray of food. She looked at her for a moment, hesitant to say something. Yet as she attempted to do just that – because her good breeding practically forced her to, to ease her own unrest – the woman slammed down the tray. She looked at NoaAerial with such haughty contempt that the latter was startled by it. The woman walked out, straight through the door and closing it behind her with an audible thud. Her attitude had been so hostile that Noa did not know what to do with it. She had done nothing to this woman, had not ever met her before. She could not even begin to understand, and the contempt felt almost like a physical blow.

She sat down at the table, still confounded. But there was no rebuttal to be made to a closed door, nor would it be of any use if she wanted an explanation. And she was thirsty, and hungry. The woman, Noa contemplated, was most likely a succubus. She was not a vampire, and each were that NoaAerial had come across was a creature of quiet and even temper. If they had an opinion on the orders they so readily obeyed, they kept these to themselves. This woman, on the other hand, was tapping into a lot of emotions, and none of them kind. Noa had once read a study on the differing forms of evil that resided in Rydden, and of the succubi it was said that they fed on bodily energy, which was fuelled by strong emotions – lust and anger foremost among them.

While she ate, she could see from the window that it would take just a few more hours into the afternoon before the sun would no longer hit the window. And after that, full dark would set in. She had the horrific sensation of dread and anticipation at the same time. Waiting in a closed off room without anything happening was bad, but the knot in her stomach that betimes turned to fear made it hard to breathe and keep calm. She had never in her life felt this way. Torn within herself, and so strongly at that. Back at home there was nothing that would upset her, and it made her feel lost most of all. Inwardly she berated herself for not being able to handle a pressure that she was certain was not at all at its utmost already. How was she to make a life among the humans if she was so ill equipped a few days in?

It was the waiting, she knew. Waiting until Anorova opened his mouth and kept poking at what it was that he wanted from her. Waiting to arrive here. Waiting for night to fall. She assumed that books and writing material were within the reason he had mentioned as would be provided when asked. That would keep her occupied and distracted, but still it left the nights. Where night used to be a time of rest, now it would not. It was in fact the most dangerous of times.

Anorova would come out.

She did not check the door of her room, or explore it. She did not even try the door to get attention and ask for books to pass the time. She waited. It was no surprise to her that in a few hours’ time, there was a knock on her door.

As she stood up and turned around, the door swung open gently. He was leaning in the doorway, arms crossed, with that signature grin on his face. It irked her that he had purposefully positioned himself before coming into full view, considering he had had to push open the door. His grin turned into a broad smile and she bit back the words she had intended so as to not give him the satisfaction of getting a rise out of her yet again.

‘Will you be keeping to the doorway?’ she asked.

‘I am simply wondering how safe it would be for me to come in.’

‘I would assume you not leaving anything in your captive’s room which could maim or kill you is a given, or at least high atop the list of priorities when getting ready.’ NoaAerial answered. ‘It did not appear to me an unplanned, spur-of-the-moment endeavour, this kidnapping.’

Anorova laughed aloud now. ‘You are funny when you want to be.’ he said, his emphasis suggesting that he now knew something about her that no one else did. Needless to say that this did not go over well with her either. He stood up straight and the smile had gone. So quickly he could change from an annoying nuisance to dead serious. It had made way for what she was coming to consider his actual default look: a calculated determination. He walked in, closing the door.

It alarmed her, and once again she was unable to hide her thoughts.

‘Don’t worry.’ he said. ‘I am not going to defile you. I know what your kind thinks of my own, but I’m not that desperate yet.’ What started out as a sneer, became something truly hurtful over the course of his words. Not to her – to him. Her thinking the worst of him had hit a nerve, had been insulting enough to penetrate his shield. She looked at him with a curious surprise.

‘I am sorry.’ she truthfully apologised. ‘But then again, I do not know you and no matter what your vision of hospitality or being reasonable is, you did take me against my will. So I suggest you put yourself in my place when making sudden moves.’

‘I did. It is not so bad.’ Anorova answered, and he did not appear to make a joke. He meant it, to her surprise. Of course that probably also meant he was trying to say something with it. ‘What do you think of your room?’ He crossed the floor to come stand in front of her as he spoke. Again she noticed how tall he was, having half a head on her. It felt intimidating, to be honest. It was not something she was used to, being tall herself.

‘It will have to do, will it not?’

‘You will come to find it has some perks.’ Anorova said, not elaborating. He walked to the chair at her desk and sat down. He had something regal about him, even when he did that. He was a man who assumed to be obeyed. It made her think about the king he was serving, and she wondered if he was in the same position as her. Being related to a ruler had its advantages. Words had an impact, both with her uncle and the people whom he led. But she had no real influence to exert. She had chosen the path of a scholar, and not that of a strategist or leader. The way Anorova Ashahel carried himself seemed to imply a larger confidence than just being a king’s right hand man. Like a right hand man who knew he was not going to be replaced no matter what he did.

‘When will I be meeting your king?’

‘It’s a tough question.’ Anorova said. He made a gesture inviting her to sit down and once again, she did not feel it really was a request. So she sat down, to get an answer. She had figured out quite early during their carriage ride that he would withhold one if she did not take up one of his ‘suggestions’.

‘He is usually working from dawn until dusk, and I do not believe he considers entertaining his guests necessary, in this case. So he will call for you when he wants to. I wouldn’t hold my breath.’

‘Which means that I will see you.’

‘Would that be so bad, now?’ he asked.

She preferred not to answer. It didn’t faze him at all.

‘What do you want from me?’ Noa decided to ask. She had tried discerning it throughout the entire carriage ride here and was no closer to an answer. Deciding to lay her cards on the table might work better.

‘I would like to know your opinion.’ Anorova said, as if that was supposed to explain things. ‘Your take on Rydden, humans, elves. Everything, really.’

‘What if I do not want to share my views?’

‘Then you don’t answer. But I don’t usually have to force people to speak their minds. Considering you are a scholar, and your tendency to dislike misrepresentation, I imagine you’ll speak up.’

‘And refusing your presence is not an option, I take it.’

‘I’m afraid not.’ Anorova said. ‘Consider it a clashing of minds. What other chance will you ever have to study one of Rydden up close? I would assume it irresistible for an educated person who has studied both her own and human races in detail.’

‘I do not wish to know your kind.’

‘Wilful ignorance is a sin to the elves.’ Anorova Ashahel answered to that. He was not wrong, and she wondered how he even knew this. Yet he had said it with the calm surety of a man who saw it for a fact. She wondered if this man, despite evidence to the contrary, was a scholar deep down as well. Or perhaps he had crossed the sea and lived among her kind, for whatever reasons. He was certainly versatile for a captain of a rogue band of mercenaries. She already had questions she wanted answers to, and she had a feeling she would as much be able to escape him here as she had during the carriage ride, no matter how much his presence still offended her.

‘I suggest you think on that. I’ll be back.’ Anorova said, getting up. He left her room without her saying anything in response. She knew he would not be back tonight, perhaps not even the next. But he would be eventually.

Her thoughts went to the mysterious Rydden kind. She had never even heard there was one, even though it was commonly assumed there was a hierarchy. The vampires that lived among the humans had mentioned some things here and there that had been translated into a footnote in her uncle’s royal library. As far as she could gather, she was offered a chance, through Anorova Ashahel, to learn about them. It told her that they were ready to go public with who they were, and that their king was about to manifest himself as a power to be considered in the politics of their world. She could deduct for herself why she was the one who was chosen for that task. But what to make of the Rydden king? Why now? And what, indeed, to make of his lieutenant?


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