"Look, he's running away, just like the scared little baby he is." Gren's words and Clover's laugh followed Toff as he made his way toward Mother Fern's pottery shed. Toff's shoulders drooped and he breathed a heavy sigh as he trudged along.
"Get in here—we need the roots taken out of that and what you brought in last time sifted," Mother Fern grumbled as Toff walked into the pottery shed. "Tiearan is going to force the rain tonight and I want the sifting done before the dampness gets into everything."
"Yes, Mother Fern," Toff muttered and went to do as he was bid.
Tory stared at Ry. Ry handed the comp-vid to him so he could read the account himself. Tory was holding his breath, there at the end. "Cloudsong tried to level a judgment against Le-Ath Veronis, because Glendes wanted Uncle Shadow to marry somebody else to get heirs?"
"This is a huge mess," Ry nodded. "Glendes told Uncle Shadow he had to marry that woman to have heirs, only it turned out that her first husband had committed treason on Cloudsong and Cloudsong demanded compensation from his family. Taking on that woman's debts was part of the marriage agreement, so Cloudsong went after all parties, including Mom, since Shadow was one of her Inner Circle mates. I can't find any records that say the marriage was completed, just that the initial agreement was signed, leaving Grey House obligated for the debts. What I'm trying to figure out is how the crown prince was found alive later, when he was supposed to be dead. Nobody says anything about that—just that he magically appeared when the judge was telling Mom that all the profits from Le-Ath Veronis would be paid out to Cloudsong. And this was after Mom had given Uncle Shadow's ring back before he was supposed to marry the other woman. They passed judgment against Le-Ath Veronis when it wasn't even involved."
"That's why Cloudsong wasn't allowed into the Alliance—did you see that?" Tory turned the comp-vid around so Ry could see for himself.
"I saw," Ry nodded. "So that left the door open for Grey House a little while later, when Trell got blown to bits."
"I wonder what Uncle Shadow had to do to get Mom to take his ring back." Tory wondered aloud. "And then convince her to get a surrogate so Sissy could be born."
"Yeah—that must have taken some convincing, all right."
"Cloudsong still got a lot of gold out of it," Tory pointed out.
"Yeah. I saw that, too. I can't imagine that Cloudsong would be high on Mom's list, can you?" Ry was copying parts of the information into storage for his report.
"They'll never be allowed to join the Alliance—not as long as the Founder and the Twenty have anything to say about it. They denied their application in perpetuity."
"Which allowed Grey House to join the Alliance and replace all the taxes that Trell had been paying," Ry was following his brother's logic.
"At least we know now why Mom is still pissed at Glendes and Raffian Grey and won't set foot in Grey House," Tory sighed. "Should we tell Sissy?"
"We can let her read this herself—it's not like the information is hidden or anything. We found it, easy enough."
"True. Why can't we use mindspeech?" Tory was grumbling over one of his and Ry's favorite complaints. They wanted communication with their sister. And each other. Life would be so much simpler, that way. Their fathers had muted the ability—afraid it might be used to cheat on tests or get into trouble. Ry and Tory managed to be in trouble often enough, even without mindspeech.
"I can't tell him this is a fool's errand. I just can't. He's old and it would kill him." Brandelin sat before the fire in his younger brother's bedroom. They were in the King's palace in the capital city of Cloudsong. The palace was in disrepair, as was most of the planet. Brandelin knew it was shortsightedness on his father's part—he'd kept the wrong advisors around him during his entire reign and now Cloudsong was destitute. Brandelin looked up at Jenderlin, his brother, who stood before the fire, trying to warm his hands. A very cold winter had come to Cloudsong and much of the population was starving.
"He should never have gone near that rogue wizard—father has emptied the treasury trying to get back at Le-Ath Veronis. He believes everything that charlatan tells him, and Zellar blames the Vampire Queen for all our troubles. Zellar keeps assuring father that he has a way to destroy the Queen and her world and exact the funds he needs to keep Cloudsong from dying."
"He should have concentrated on bringing industry to Cloudsong instead of placing his hopes on joining the Alliance. Being a member of the Alliance brings no guarantee of profitability." Brandelin rubbed his forehead—he'd been getting more and more headaches lately.
"Look at Twylec," Jenderlin agreed. "They failed to diversify and when another Alliance world developed better technology, they almost destroyed themselves. The old Queen there invited Solar Red in when they offered to pay to set up their temples."
Brandelin blew out a breath at his brother's assessment—Solar Red was a brutal religion that engaged in torture and sacrifice. It was outlawed by the Alliance and had been mostly destroyed by the ASD. "I'm glad they never approached father," Brandelin shuddered. He knew, as did his brother, that their father might have been persuaded to allow Solar Red to set up their temples on Cloudsong—for the right amount of money.
"Brandelin—we have to be careful where we talk and what we discuss," Jenderlin said softly. "Father's mental state is not stable. He would not hesitate to imprison either of us, especially if Hedris brings the information to him."
"Hedris." That word said it all, in Brandelin's opinion. It had been Hedris, acting as the judge in the Le-Ath Veronis matter who'd brought this fate down on all of them in the beginning. He hadn't been satisfied with Brandelin's rescue from the fire and explosion. He'd still demanded money from the Queen of Le-Ath Veronis. The money was paid, but Zellar's appearance and Cloudsong's complete downfall followed quickly.
No other worlds wanted to do business with Cloudsong after the trumped up charges were leveled against both Grey House and Le-Ath Veronis. Hedris had attempted to extort money by manipulating Cloudsong's legal system. His efforts backfired, and once the money he'd demanded had run out, Cloudsong became a bankrupt world. They had nothing to offer to the non-Alliance planets and King Kenderlin, who still chose to listen to Zellar and Hedris, had embarked on an attempt to exact revenge against Le-Ath Veronis and its Queen.
"Do you think Zellar is being truthful—that he has a contact, now, on Le-Ath Veronis?" Jenderlin was still worrying that bone of information.
"That old liar—you can't sort out his truth from fiction," Brandelin snorted. "Surely even Hedris can see that all Zellar has done is empty father's personal accounts. He hasn't produced a single bit of evidence that he's done anything for father and it's all illegal anyway. If the ASD finds him, he'll be connected to father and to Cloudsong. It will destroy what little is left."
"It's too bad the Alliance doesn't know that Zellar still lives," Jenderlin pointed out. "I think there would be a larger price on his head, otherwise."
"Are you thinking about letting them know?" Brandelin lifted an eyebrow at his brother.
"Not on your life. I'd like to rebuild this planet someday, as your advisor." Jenderlin bowed to his brother, who was the crown prince and destined to be king one day.
"And I would have to lean heavily on you," Brandelin agreed. "If there is anything left to rebuild."
Zellar? Gren's mindspeech was always tentative when he contacted the god. Zellar had introduced himself that way to Gren—Gren had allowed his mind to wander—something which Father Tiearan had warned him against. Gren had been rewarded instead of punished—Zellar inserted images into Gren's mind. Images of distant worlds and wondrous things. I am the god of the dark worlds, Zellar said and then began instructing Gren.
Zellar had shown Gren how to tap into the core of Le-Ath Veronis and pull energy from there to do all he wanted or needed. The first time he'd caused the ground to shake beneath his feet but that had subsided quickly. Now that Gren was successfully tapped into that power, it was his to command.
What is it, my favored son? Zellar's reply sounded sleepy, but he never failed to compliment Gren in some way.
The poison weed was discovered, my lord. Tell me what I should do next?
Zellar paused for a moment. Perhaps I should leave that to you and see how inventive you can be, my child. Bear in mind, your target must be eliminated before he reaches adulthood. Otherwise, the Queen will destroy you and all the others. That promise was made fifteen years ago. You tell me that he is nearing his eighteenth birthday. Destroy him before then or I will not be able to help you.
Gren wanted to smash things. The god was leaving this to him? He'd made a vow of nonviolence to Father Tiearan. Now, Zellar wanted him to take care of this? Toff's eighteenth birthday was in four months. Gren's followers would balk if Gren told them to do what he'd told Haldis and Sark. Just the thought of his two best soldiers, sent off to a prison planet to die had Gren cursing. He knew the profane words; some humanoids who lived alongside the Halves and Fulls were well versed in cursing. Gren had listened carefully and then sought out meanings to words. He wasn't stupid. Perhaps that was what the god was counting on—Gren's intelligence. This was a test. Gren squared his shoulders and swore to come up with a way to rid his village of the baby-faced eunuch.
"Your reports, please." Morwin didn't waste any time, asking for their reports the moment Ry and Tory sat down at their desks. Ry handed his to Morwin as the Dwarf passed between both desks. Tory handed his in reluctantly.
"Young sir, you seem to be holding back," Morwin admonished Tory.
"I went in the wrong direction, instructor," Tory stared at the top of his desk.