Edit May 2010: FFN decided to eat all the scene dividers so I'm having to go back and add them all in again. I'm also removing the review responses. NOTHING ELSE HAS BEEN ALTERED; if you've read this story before, you don't need to read it again (although you're more than welcome to).
Author's Note: Here we are at the beginning of the third book of the series. This one is going to be a little different to what you've seen before; I think from Numair's point of view this is the worst book of the series for him. I do put him through absolute hell, I must admit. There won't be quite so much fluffy humour in this book, just because from his perspective it's really not that funny. That being said, this is me we're talking about, so you can expect a certain amount of silliness to lighten the mood, and some more of the sarcasm that everyone seems to love.
On the subject of silliness, I'm mildly disturbed by the way everyone adored the last chapter of Power. You all loved my utterly ridiculous epilogue; this says nothing good about any of you, I hope you realise!
My focus for this book wasn't so much on the action – Numair was only peripherally involved in most of that anyway – but on his psychological reactions to what was happening. As I mentioned briefly in Wolf-Speaker, Carthak is Numair's own personal private hell. To go back to it must have had a staggering effect. And then to have his old enemy kidnap his best friend... And that's before we touch on the execution, or the Graveyard Hag, or Varice. It's not going to be a fun time for him.
So, here we set the scene; this takes place several months before the book itself begins. Numair's about to learn what will happen to him. Poor mage. Once again, this story is dedicated to all my reviewers; I also want to say thank you to Lady Grace of Masbolle, who has nominated Power to the Knighthood of Ficship competition; both my stories have been nominated now, and I still can't quite believe it. Thank you all so much.
Obligatory Disclaimer: Work it out for yourselves.
"You wanted to see me?" Numair asked as he entered Jonathan's study. The king looked up, his expression difficult to read.
"Yes. I assume you've heard about the proposed peace talks with Carthak?"
Numair snorted. "Everyone's heard about them by now. What about it?"
"I'd like to hear your thoughts."
"Honestly?" At Jon's nod, Numair took a breath. "You're wasting your time. I don't know what Ozorne wants from you, but I can't see him being remotely interested in a peace accord. We have nothing he couldn't try to take by force; he doesn't care about the lives of his soldiers. I suppose some sort of trading agreement might be necessary with the drought in Carthak, but a formal treaty doesn't make sense."
"In the past three years there has been a lot of evidence that Carthak is conspiring against us. Sinthya's plots came to nothing because he was too much a coward to continue once he'd been discovered, but the attack on Pirate's Swoop wasn't a small-scale plan. If we'd lost there, we'd have found that it was only the first move in a long and bloody war. If you take into account the Dunlath rebellion as well... Not to mention all the problems with immortals being unleashed throughout the Eastern Lands. Ozorne's not interested in peace, we know that."
"We know nothing of the sort. Carthak has officially denied all knowledge of any of these events," Jonathan replied in a neutral tone. "But your point is well made. The empire poses a threat to us, one we cannot hope to neutralise by force. To put it simply, Numair, we need to make peace one way or another."
"Then why is it Ozorne who's proposed to discuss peace? He's dealing from a position of strength. He has no need to make a deal with us, which is what worries me. Everything he does is always for his benefit; he has no other motivation. I can't see how he would benefit from this, but he will."
"So in your opinion there is no way that these talks can possibly succeed?"
"I'm reluctant to say 'never' about anything, Jon, but no, I don't see any chance of success. He's up to something."
"You knew him for a long time, didn't you?"
Numair shrugged. "I thought I did, once."
Jonathan hesitated, drumming his fingers on the desk. "I agree that this seems suspicious. Why now? We've heard nothing from Carthak since Dunlath. But we may have very little choice. I'm sending Gareth of Naxen and his son to head the delegation, and Lord Martin; they're the best diplomats we have. I'm giving serious consideration to sending Alanna, as well, to reinforce the message that they have the full backing of the crown."
"She'll love that," Numair remarked sarcastically, smiling slightly, before a faint suspicion stirred in the back of his mind. "Jon, why are you telling me this? You'd already made up your mind about the talks before you called me here. What does any of this have to do with me?"
The king looked at him, and he went cold at the expression in those blue eyes. He knew the answer before Jon even said anything. "No."
"Numair – "
"No. I am not going."
"Numair, listen to me. This isn't some sadistic whim of mine; I know you don't want to go. Ozorne asked for you specifically. Look at this." The king held up a sheet of paper. "This is an imperial decree absolving you of all past crimes and granting you freedom within Carthak as part of the Tortallan delegation. There are a few restrictions, naturally, but it is surprisingly liberal. He says it is a goodwill gesture, to assure us that he's serious about these talks. And it makes sense. You know Carthak well, you're familiar with the court, and you know Ozorne; in addition, you're good at politics and you know a lot about law."
Numair barely heard a word Jon was saying. There was a buzzing in his ears, and he felt very cold. The only thing he'd managed to absorb from what he'd just been told was that Ozorne wanted him back in Carthak. Fear threatened to choke him; Numair wasn't afraid of many things, but Ozorne was one of them. Memories that he'd buried years ago stirred, and he began to tremble, feeling his breath coming faster. "Jonathan. Are you completely insane?"
"Not in the least, I assure you. The document is legitimate, and as a Tortallan ambassador you are under the same protection as the others. No harm can come to you unless you break imperial law."
"I can't go back to Carthak."
"This is not open to discussion. I've made my decision."
"You don't understand. I'm not saying I won't go. I'm saying I can't." He was finding it difficult to breathe. All his old nightmares were crowding in on him once more; if he closed his eyes, he knew, he would see the dungeons again. He could almost smell the blood. "Please, Jon. I'm begging you, please, don't make me do this."
"I'm sorry, Numair, I truly am, but this treaty is too important." He added, more softly, "Besides, this way you can keep an eye on Daine."
Her name jolted him, dislodging the panic that threatened to overwhelm him. "Daine? What's she got to do with this?"
"The emperor keeps rare birds, I understand. Several of them have developed an unidentified disease; nobody there can heal them. He has heard of Daine's magic with animals and wants her to look at them. It's a request, not a demand; I cannot in good conscience say no, and she seems interested."
Those damned birds were the only things Ozorne cared about apart from himself. Numair supposed it made sense; but Carthak would be hideously dangerous, and he didn't want Daine involved. Then again, the instant she'd heard 'sick birds' he'd lost any chance he might have had of talking her out of it.
Jonathan sounded impatient. "Numair, don't be stupid. She'll be perfectly safe, and so will everyone else. This is a peaceful negotiation, not an invasion. What on earth do you think is going to happen?"
"You don't understand," he muttered, clasping his hands together to try and stop them shaking. Just the thought of returning to Carthak again terrified him. The imperial pardon made no difference; Ozorne truly hated him, and if he'd asked for him to return then he was planning to kill him. Numair had barely escaped with his life last time; he wasn't sure he could do it again.
"Then explain it to me."
"I... I can't. But... Jonathan. Your Majesty. Please, by every god, please don't ask me to go to Carthak again." He was prepared to go down on his knees and beg if necessary.
Jonathan took a deep breath, his expression showing reluctance for a moment before a hint of steel entered his voice. "I hate to do this, Numair, but I'm not asking you, I'm giving you an order. You will join the delegation to Carthak."
Under the circumstances, Numair decided that his reaction was perfectly understandable. He'd managed to hold himself together until he was back in his own rooms and the door had closed behind him; safe behind his private wards, he'd started shaking and struggling for air, and to his shame it had developed into a full-blown panic attack of the kind he hadn't had in seven years or more. When he could focus again, he'd decided that he needed to stop thinking and give himself time to accept it, and now he was so drunk he could barely remember his name. It wasn't really helping; the alcohol had blotted out everything except the fact that he was going back to Carthak and to Ozorne. He suspected there wasn't enough alcohol in the world to make him forget that, but he was prepared to give it a try.
Someone was knocking on the door. He stared blankly at the wood for a while, debating whether or not to open it, and decided not to. He didn't want to see anyone right now. Shaking his head slowly, he took another drink; by now he wasn't entirely sure what he was drinking. There seemed to be more empty bottles on the table in front of him than he could reliably account for.
The door opened somewhat hesitantly, which meant it would be Daine; nobody else was allowed through his wards. "Numair?"
For once, Numair wasn't very pleased to see his student. He didn't want company at the moment, and he certainly didn't want her to see him like this. "Daine," he replied levelly. Unlike a lot of people, he seldom lost the ability to speak or walk when he was drunk, no matter how much he had; it was only the change in his mood that showed him to be intoxicated. When he drank, Numair lost his sense of humour and turned morose and cynical, becoming depressed and unpleasant to be around; one reason he seldom touched alcohol.
"You missed dinner. Is everything all right? Jon said you seemed strange when you left him..."
"Hah. That's one way of putting it."
She stood and stared at him for a long moment. "Are you drunk?"
"What gave it away?" he asked sarcastically, topping up his glass.
"I've never seen you drunk before," she said uncertainly.
"Stop it, Numair. What's wrong?"
"What could possibly be wrong? My returning to Carthak is such a wonderful idea that I can't understand why I never thought of it before. It will be a lovely holiday for me."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"No," he snapped. "Would I be sitting here by myself if I wanted to talk?"
A flicker of hurt crossed Daine's face before her jaw tightened. "I'll leave you to it, then," she said stiffly, turning away. He almost let her go, but he hadn't quite drunk that much yet.
"Daine, wait." She stopped, but didn't turn around. Sighing, Numair put his drink down and rested his head in his hands, closing his eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm not a nice person to be around when I'm drunk. It's not personal, I promise. I shouldn't be taking it out on you. I just... I don't know. Don't go. Please."
Turning her head, Daine looked at him sideways for a long moment and hesitated before coming back into the room and closing the door. Silently, she sat down opposite him, and after a moment he began to talk quietly with only the faintest slur to his voice.
"I had an unpleasant shock earlier. I assume Jon told you he's sending me with the delegation. Ozorne's asked for me to go back, and I don't know why, and... it frightened me. More than frightened, really. I can't deal with it yet; I need time to think about it, and I can't at the moment. I don't want to go back. I'd almost rather kill myself than go back there. Drinking isn't helping, and I shouldn't have done it, really. I'm not a nice drunk, as you can see." He rubbed his eyes, feeling very tired and afraid.
After a long moment Daine reached out and touched his hand; opening his eyes, ignoring the way the room spun, he focused on her face. "It's all right. I know why you don't want to go back – well, most of it. Seeing you like this was just a shock."
He tried to smile. "This is why I don't drink much. It turns me into someone I don't like. I'm sorry, magelet."
"Are you scared?"
"Yes. I don't know what's going to happen. But I'll be all right; I just need time to think things through. You could do me a favour, though," he added, changing the subject.
"Don't let anyone come and wake me up tomorrow. I'm going to be very hung over and I'd rather be left to recover in my own time."
She giggled. "Is a hangover really that bad?"
"When you've drunk as much as I have tonight, yes. I suppose that's one thing I shouldn't be teaching you, so consider this an object lesson. Don't."
"All right." She stood up and paused. "It might not be that bad," she said comfortingly. "I'm going, too, if that helps."
"Actually, it does," he replied, summoning a smile. "I can't think of better company." That was true, as far as it went. He was going to be desperately worried about her the entire time, but he would miss her terribly if she wasn't there and there was nobody else he would rather have at his side. Just talking to her had made him feel a little better; besides, he had a plan of sorts. Apparently not all drunken ideas were bad. Once he was sober, he would contact Lindhall and ask for help. "It's late, Daine. Go to bed. I'll be all right when I've sobered up. And thank you for coming to check up on me."
This isn't much like the Numair we all know and love, is it? I think under the circumstances he's entitled to a little bit of a breakdown, though. It won't last long. You won't get to see him contacting Lindhall again; I couldn't get it to sound right. But I'm working on it, and it will probably end up in that collection of one-shots I've been talking about.
I know, Jon was being very harsh. But he's a king, and that's what he has to do. I assure you, he hated doing it.
I liked the idea of Numair becoming a totally different person when he was drunk. Originally that was going to play a larger role, both in this book and in Realms of the Gods, but I overlooked one thing; drunk and unpleasant Numair is a real pain to write. So this is probably the only time you'll see it. It's not in character for him, but that's sort of the point. The next chapter will be the start of the canon material, several months after this prologue, by which time I assure you Numair will have fully recovered and be only mildly stressed out instead of a total wreck.
Let the games begin!