Oria's Gambit
are
innocent.”
    She caught a flash of surprised gratitude
from Lonen, glad then that she’d stood up for him in that rare
moment of weakness. He seemed so strong, so fierce—even brutal in
his anger at times—but he possessed a tender heart under that
muscled chest.
    “ Something you detected in him all along,
hmm?”
    Ignoring Chuffta’s too-smug observation, she
forged on. “You’ve left this to me, Mother. Unless you wish to
reclaim your mask and your crown, in which case I’ll gladly step
aside for you, I need you to support me in this decision.”
    “So much of this is my fault, the result of
my many failures to act…” The former queen nearly chanted the
words, sounding like those prematurely aged out of sanity. Oria put
a finger to her temple, in lieu of putting her face in her hands.
Sometimes her mother seemed like her old self, her mind as incisive
as ever, then suddenly…
    Lonen brushed the sleeve of her robe,
carefully not touching her skin, but putting her on alert
regardless. He had an inquiring feel to him and an image formed of
a person tending to her mother. Was he silently asking if the
former queen needed a healer? She shook her head minutely, just in
case. Her mother was beyond help.
    “Then don’t fail to act now.” She said it
crisply, as her mother might once have prodded her, adding a nudge
of grien. “You promised to help me. This is how you can. I need you
to do this.”
    Rhianna lifted a tear-streaked face, her
sgath hanging about her like tattered rags. “I wanted so much more
for you, my beautiful and powerful daughter. You should have an
ideal match, a man who will treasure you and know you as you
deserve to be known, give life to your magic, bring you wealth and
glory, and provide you children. No one less than the most powerful
of Báran kings deserves you, not this mind-dead—”
    “Will you intervene with the temple or not?”
Oria cut her off as she should have done much earlier. No anger
wafted off Lonen, however—at least, not more than the dark,
brooding fury that seemed to underlie most of his thoughts. Had he
always been of that nature or had the war done that to him? An
intensely curious interest prowled over her that tasted distinctly
of him. No doubt he’d have more questions for her. Joy.
    Then disappointment crushed her relatively
minor aggravation.
    “I won’t do it.” Her mother lifted her chin,
an echo of the proud queen she’d been. “I won’t cooperate in
sending you to your doom. Not even to save Bára. The sacrifice is
too great.”
    “This is my marriage, my decision, my
life.”
    “Don’t ask me to help you ruin it. I love you
too much.” Her mother fulminated with dark sgath, much of it
reaching towards Lonen like the shadowy tentacles of the wyrms that
lurked in the damp cellars of Bára. Time to get him away from her.
No telling what her unstable magic could do, even as passively as
sgath typically worked. Oria had seen her mother blur those lines,
too.
    She set her teeth, keeping the flawless
façade of hwil . “I won’t ask it then. But I will marry him
and petition the council for the crown tomorrow. Will you support
me then?”
    Rhianna turned her face to the window, face
once again remote, seeing only the past. “I am not well.” Her voice
wobbled and she swallowed hard.
    “I know, Mother.” Oria’s heart thudded dully
with the pain of seeing her like this. For a while it had seemed
she’d recover, but lately she only seemed to fall further into the
depths of her mind, her sanity fracturing more with every descent.
“Don’t fret. I’ll visit you in the morning and we can talk.”
    Her mother didn’t reply, so Oria beckoned to
Chuffta, who flew to her shoulder. The winding of his long tail
around her arm gave her comfort.
    “ It was a bad day. Perhaps she’ll be more
lucid tomorrow,” he said as they withdrew. Lonen paced
stoically at her side, his emotions tightly reined, thoughts
unusually opaque.
    “ She was lucid

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