Her words resonated through the room. She didn't yell or even raise her voice. She simply spoke in a tone practised over many seasons to convey her will to all who listened. It was the voice of the Earl of the Elk. It came with grace. It came with power. It came with authority. When it spoke, thousands of ven and veth alike heard and listened. Just as her appearance demanded attention, her voice demanded obedience. She was Dara Steele, Earl of the Elk.
Her guards stood at attention. Her herald, his smug expression still plastered on his face, left without another look back. The guards followed loyally. Their duty was to protect their lady, but they knew that tone of voice. She wished to be alone with the Baron. Truly private. Their unit had all but invaded the castle and none would endanger their mistress, even were she alone for a few moments.
After the others had left, Pen'reail shared a brief look with his valet. The veth showed some concern, but knew his place. He nodded to Pen'reail, bowed deeply, and left the room, closing the door a little louder than usual to declare to all in the hall that this door was not to be opened.
"Your valet," his mother began in a more moderated voice, "do you trust him?"
Pen'raeil remained silent, looking at the floor.
"He is a weakness and a distraction you cannot afford."
"Surely I am allowed my indulgences."
"Indulge as you must, but if he were to betray you for coin, how would you react? Demand Vrentae against a veth? Demand the blood of the one who managed to take your possession away? Pray tell me what law would protect you from the shame?"
She walked closer to him and spoke again, softer and gentler. "Your destiny is too great. Remember your ambition comes before all else. If not, your passions will be your undoing."
"Yes, Mother," he replied softly.
"I brought the food you requested. I understand that you only laid claim to your lands recently and that your crops have not yet borne fruit, but such dependence upon me will be frowned upon, both in my circles and yours. Do not make a habit of it."
"You attended the winter Althua hosted by Senator Adrente, did you not?" she asked while taking a seat on the far side of the desk. Pen'reail took his place at the desk as well.
"I did, Mother."
"And what are your thoughts?"
"There appears to be some tension between the fox and the wolf. I don't know the details as yet and I attempted to stay out of their politics while learning what I could."
"Wise. Anything else?"
"There appears to be some bad blood between the good senator and some people he believes are involved in the death of his wife. There was even a duel to the death."
"I heard as much. So how do you plan to use this to your advantage?"
"The senator has power. I will nurture his favour while it is convenient for me to do so. However, I will listen to the voices of his opposition. If the time comes for the good senator to fall, I will be in the background. Still, if it becomes necessary to discredit the senate as a whole, he could be a valuable tool. Until I am required to move, I will guide the hands of those in power."
His mother nodded thoughtfully. "And have you sworn fealty to any lords?"
Pen'raeil hesitated for just a moment before answering. "I have. My fealty was a resource I could barter with and in return I managed to secure protection from the renowned duellist, Miralia Adrente. The Vow binds her to my protection for the next two seasons."
"And you to hers. Remember that an Elk is only as good as their word. Also, what are you trying to conceal from me?" Pen'raeil looked at her in shock. "You hesitated before answering. You were thinking about how to word your statement so that you would not have to explain a certain event. Out with it."
"I swore fealty to someone at the beginning of the evening in ignorance. I later learned that their goals would not advance mine. I renounced my fealty in order to arrange the protection."
"Foolish boy! You should know better than to commit to anything that doesn't advance your plans! Not to mention the fact that you withdrew your word to a ven. Stupid, stupid mistake!"
"I believe it can be salvaged to work in my favour."
"I… wish to do this on my own. Please trust me in this regard."
She got up unexpectedly. In surprise Pen'raeil also got up and walked to her. Her hand moved faster than he expected and before he knew what had happened a sharp, hand-shaped sting came to his face where she had struck him.
Pen'raeil looked at her in shocked silence until she took his head in her hands and pulled him against her chest. "I'm so sorry, Vanglia," she whispered. "I only want what is best for you and your mistakes endanger you. Please understand that when I treat you this way it is for your own good. For the good of your destiny."
Pen'raeil put his hands on her shoulders and they stood there, in silence.
Pen'raeil's valet stood outside the door, keeping a silent vigil with the Earl's guards and herald until the baron opened the door from the inside. The valet entered the room and stood by the side of the door, awaiting instructions. The Earl walked to the door at a measured pace to rejoin her own servants. When she reached the valet she slowed down ever so slightly and ran her nails across his chest, smiling mischievously at her son.
"Our business is concluded and I will be leaving immediately. Do not escort me out, I will find my own way," the Earl said within earshot of her servants.
"Yes, your Highness."
Pen'raeil bowed deeply while she turned and walked away. Re-entering his study, he went back to his spot at the window and looked out, watching his mother leave. The valet made a motion to leave, but Pen'raeil stopped him. "Wait, Tony. Please close the door."
When the door was once more closed, Pen'raeil spoke:
"I love her, you know. I really do. I admire her and respect her. She has power and respect; grace and elegance. She is everything I aspire to be. I also cannot help but hate her. One day I will grant her greatest wish and destroy her, taking everything she owns and more and forcing her to declare that her son has succeeded her."
In silence Pen'raeil stared across his lands, plotting, planning.