Tara Geonette felt the change in the air as soon as she stepped inside the tower.
Nira Hawkcroft stood near the entrance to greet her. Tara had been gone a week. She had what she needed. The stone had not been easy to come by, but she had it. Even better if she could find more. A task for another day.
Nira looked nervous.
“What’s wrong?” Tara asked.
Nira bowed. “My queen. May we speak somewhere private?”
“Follow me,” Tara said. She led Nira up to her lab. She had a barrier on the door. Only she and Lysona had the ability to remove it and restore it. She waved her hands, sending the correct balance of fire and cold magic at it to dispel it.
She gestured Nira inside and closed the door behind them.
Her niece, Maline, no longer stayed in the lab. When she’d turned thirteen, Tara had given her a separate bedroom. Still on the same floor as the lab and Tara’s bedroom. She needed the girl nearby, of course, and still wanted her interactions with members of the order limited. She had a strict curfew for when she needed to be in her bedroom, and a guard was posted outside her room every night.
Keeping her locked in her lab had been problematic. As Tara understood now, the ritual would work better if Maline knew magic. Giving her a bedroom and sense of freedom had done wonders for her disposition, too. In the years since turning thirteen, the girl now seemed happy. Perhaps she’d finally finished grieving the death of her parents.
Tara had Maline learning alchemy from Lysona and novice magic from Andane. Tara had insisted Andane keep the training to restoration and some alteration magic. Safe enough schools of magic. She didn’t want Maline learning destruction or conjuration. She’d never need them. Like many Geonettes, she was naturally good with magic. Andane had been impressed, but nodded when Tara reminded him to keep everything novice level, no matter how quickly she advanced.
“What is it?” Tara asked Nira. She fought to keep annoyance out of her voice. She removed her traveling cloak, irritated she wasn’t in her bedroom, where she could take off her armor and slip into something more comfortable. Plus, the stone. She wanted to study it. She needed to be alone for that.
“I was too late,” Nira started. Her hands trembled. “I would have stopped it if possible.”
“Stopped what? Out with it,” Tara said. She let her impatience shine through. She didn’t have time for this spineless fear from a follower.
Nira swallowed. “Bedore was in Maline’s bedroom last night. We believe…” Nira cleared her throat. “We believe he…harmed her.”
Tara felt herself grow cold. “Harmed her? How?” Her voice was low, venomous.
Bedore wouldn’t have. He knew better.
Nira’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I found, in her room, afterwards, an empty bottle of wine. I put the bottle in your bedroom, in case you want to examine it. The glass is different. I haven’t seen the bottle before. I thought it might be something special.”
Why was she avoiding answering the question?
“HOW DID HE HARM HER?!” Tara roared.
Nira jumped. “I believe he was drunk and was…with her.” She was barely audible.
Tara stepped away from Nira and paced. He wouldn’t have. He knew better. She’d given him so many others to be with. He knew the rules.
She stopped, facing away from Nira so she couldn’t see any hint of weakness. Tara closed her eyes.
Her niece. Only sixteen. And if it was the bottle of wine she was thinking of? The one she had kept in the bedroom. What then? This changed much. The poor girl.
Tara turned back to Nira. “Where are my children?”
Nira brightened up. “Little Lysona is with Lysona. Madena is watching Tristand. They’ve been happy and good this week.”
“In her room. I forbade anyone to see her. I brought her breakfast this morning. She won’t tell me anything, but…” Nira swallowed. “She has bruises.”
“You said ‘we believe’. Who knows about this?”
“Just myself and Ciel. He was on duty last night. He told me Bedore ordered him to take a break.”
Nira dropped her eyes. “Ciel came and got me. He’d come back from his break, realized Bedore was still in the bedroom. The door was locked. He heard disturbing sounds. I sent him away. Said I’d check into it.” Nira shifted her feet. “I made sure Bedore didn’t see me when he left her bedroom. I told Ciel not to tell anyone and act like nothing’s happened. Thought it best.”
Tara nodded slowly. “Good thinking. You did the right thing.”
Nira had done the right thing, Tara thought. She considered her options.
“Thank you for telling me.” She smiled at her. “You’ve shown me loyalty and wisdom in handling this.”
Tara opened the lab door. “I need you to stay silent. Tell no one else, including your husband, Peristair. Bedore cannot know that I know. Understand?”
Nira nodded. She seemed relieved.
“I’ll take care of this,” Tara said. She put her hand on Nira’s shoulder, to reassure her. It seemed the thing to do. She also focused her green eyes on her, with an intensity she hoped brokered a little fear. To reinforce the need for the secrecy.
“I will reward you for your loyalty to me. Now, go.”
Nira scurried away.
Tara looked around her lab. She needed to go see Maline.
She grabbed some healing potions, put the barrier back up on the door, and stepped into her bedroom. The empty wine bottle was as Nira had said. Special.
He’d drank the whole thing. Maline was lucky, if bruises were the only injuries she had. This had not been the test of the potion she had in mind. She’d added it to the wine, intending to give Bedore a glass or two over a few dinners to see how he reacted.
Now, she needed details. She needed to know how violent he’d been. She could adjust the potion from there.
Tara changed out of her armor and into a soft, black robe, with the order’s emblem high on the right shoulder. Her red hair stood out with the robe, with the emblem color pulling everything together. She thought herself commanding, yet approachable.
Edgard Ashcroft was guarding Maline’s bedroom.
“My queen.” He nodded.
“Leave us,” Tara said. “I’ll summon you when I’m finished.”
Tara waited for Edgard to disappear down the stairs.
She steeled herself and stepped into Maline’s room.
Maline sat by the single window, which was on the left side of her room. Late afternoon light pooled across her, giving her raven hair hints of blue, and adding warmth to her pale face.
As she’d grown, her face had taken on a long look, with delicate features. She always looked fragile. Today, more so.
The bruise on her left cheek stood out. Deep purple, it started near the corner of her mouth and extended up, stopping at the edge of her eyes.
She wore a simple dress, with short sleeves. Tara could see deep bruising on her arms. She sat cross legged in the chair, her legs tucked under the dress, out of sight. Tara imagined deep bruises were hidden there.
Maline’s hazel eyes greeted Tara’s with an emptiness she wasn’t expecting. She’d raised thralls with more life, she thought.
“I brought you some healing potions,” Tara said. She kept her voice soft. “They’ll heal the bruises.”
Maline looked back out the window.
“Come on,” Tara said. She walked closer to her and stopped. She knelt, so that she now looked up at Maline. A position of weakness. A position one might assume to calm an injured animal.
“They’ll help you feel better.” She held them out.
Maline gave her the empty eyes again, but took the two healing potions. She looked at them for a moment, as if considering if they were really healing potions, then drank them both.
She doesn’t trust me, Tara thought. Why would she? The experiments. And now, her boyfriend had…well.
Tara watched the bruises fade as the potions took effect.
“You promised,” Maline said. Her voice was raw, as if she’d been screaming too much and worn it out.
Tara thought for a moment. Promised? Ah, yes. She had.
“I know.” She looked down at the ground, as if ashamed. “I didn’t think it would take this long. I thought I could be rid of him by now.”
Maline’s eyes watered and Tara watched her lower lip tremble. “He…killed them. You promised he’d pay.”
“He will. I need…”
“And you…you sleep with him. You had his children!” She shrieked. Her voice tore.
Maline stood suddenly. Tara stood and stepped back to give her room.
She watched Maline pace back and forth. Her fists clenched and unclenched. The girl stopped in front of her bookcase. Tara had made sure to give her plenty to read. Histories of the Dwemer, her favorite subject, plus the history of High Rock, guides to other cities, anything she could that wasn’t teaching advanced magic.
Maline stared at the books. Tara watched her shoulders shake. The girl was trying to contain her rage.
Tara shifted herself in preparation. She wanted to feel balanced.
Maline threw the books at her with surprising force and accuracy.
Tara used a telekinesis spell to keep the books from hitting her, waving her hands subtly. She let the books come close, before diverting them to the ground around her.
Maline ran out of books and threw one more object. Instead of diverting it to the ground, Tara used telekinesis to pull the object into her hand. The old Dwemer cube. The one she’d given Maline four years ago, as part of the final test.
Tara looked at the cube for a moment and thought. She needed to handle Maline carefully.
She held out the cube to her. “I’m glad you still have it,” she said. “Amazing how they don’t seem to age, isn’t it?”
Maline stared at her. She seemed unsteady on her feet, and unsure of what to do next.
Tara sighed and lowered her arm. “Sit. Let’s talk.” She pointed at the long couch across the room, by the fireplace. It was furthest from the bed, too. The poor girl. Stuck in the same room where it’d happened. She needed a new bed. She couldn’t be expected to sleep in the same bed it’d happened in. Tara would have the bed replaced as soon as she left.
Maline sat on the couch without a word. Tara held out the cube again. Maline took it and slowly turned it over in her hands. She kept her eyes focused on the cube, refusing to look at her aunt.
Tara sat next to her, close, but with some space. Best not to crowd her.
“This will help you feel better,” she said. Without waiting for a response, Tara waved her right hand and performed a calm spell. It seemed the kindest thing she could do; remove Maline’s anger. Suppress all her emotions. Perhaps it could give her a sense of peace and relax her enough so she could sleep later.
Mostly, it’d settle her down enough for Tara to get answers.
“I’m sorry. I truly am,” she said. She kept her voice soothing, matching it to what she used with Lysona and Tristand when they needed it.
Maline kept turning the cube over in her hand.
“I haven’t explained my plans to you,” Tara continued. “I need one more thing from Bedore. Then, I can keep my promise. He will die.”
Maline stopped turning the cube and looked at her. Her eyes were sad, but also tired. The calming had worked.
“He said things. He said…” she paused. “He said you ordered him to kill Mom and Dad.” Her voice was low. Still raw. A warning was in the tone.
Tara thought back to the last time they’d sat together, with the cube in Maline’s hands. The promise. Maline’s tone then, the look in her eyes. A look that matched many Tara had given. Given time, Tara suspected Maline could become a great conjurer. Someone who enthusiastically studied the dark arts. Some interests ran in the family.
Tara put her arm around Maline and pulled her close. Maline rested her head on Tara’s shoulder. The spell had been strong enough. She should have been resisting Tara’s comfort. Good. Now, to word things right.
“He was supposed to bring you to me. Your mom and dad wanted me to teach you magic,” she lied. “He was just supposed to pick you up and bring you here. Your dad was my big brother. I’d never want anyone to hurt our family. Our blood.”
Maline seemed in thought. Tara ran her fingers lightly through the girl’s hair, soothing her like she did little Lysona, when she had bad dreams.
“Then why haven’t you killed him already? Why do you let him be so…close to you?”
Tara sighed, as if she was acknowledging a great burden.
“You know how I said our family was special. You and I are special?”
“Bedore’s blood is special, too. I need it. That’s why I’ve had his children.”
Maline shivered. “But…”
“Also, some say a person should keep their enemies close. Better to track them. And take them by surprise.”
Maline went quiet, thinking. They sat silently for several minutes. Tara kept stroking her hair. She performed another calm spell on her. She needed the girl a little more pliable.
“I need you to tell me exactly what happened,” she said, keeping her voice gentle. “I know it’s painful, but I have to know everything. It’ll help me.”
Maline shivered. “I…I don’t want to remember…”
“I know,” Tara soothed. “The details will help me keep my promise to you.”
Maline stiffened. “Really?”
“Yes. I’m working on a special potion, just for Bedore.”
Tara cupped her hand under Maline’s chin, gently lifting her head, so they looked at each other. She gave her a smile.
“After you tell me everything, I’ll have Lysona give you something to help you sleep. You won’t have any nightmares.”
Tara nodded towards Maline’s bed. “I’ll have that burned and a new bed brought to you, too. You never have to see that again.”
Maline’s eyes betrayed how tired the calming spell made her. Some fear flickered, but the spell was winning. She placed her head back on Tara’s shoulder.
“Okay. Just this once,” she said.
Tara listened and formulated her plans.