It took a few minutes, but with Rat lying with her in the luondo, Claudia was able to focus on her legs until they healed—another vital but unpleasant learning experience. They discussed the amazing potential of Claudia’s venom, while also considering some possibilities that would be good to test. Claudia could make the snakes bite if she tried, similar to controlling one of many complicated automatic muscles. She had the feeling the venom could either heal or kill, depending on her own intentions.
Soon after, Rat helped her to her feet and they slowly walked back toward the wooden stairs, built with massive wheels like an over-sized atheneum ladder. Once they were back to the surface, Claudia broke from Rat to meet Daliah, who waited near the edge.
“Mother, you’re out and about?”
“Yes, but are you okay, dear? I passed Brinne earlier…”
“It was hard training. Emotions ran high—although not really for her.”
She shrugged. “Well anyhow… someone asked me to introduce you. He was quite charming about it, too.”
With that, a young, tan boy with Sallith’s charcoal hair walked out from behind Daliah’s robes. He was still in the prim vest and pants of royalty, far more princely than his father was kingly.
“We never really acquainted ourselves,” he said. “I’m Cole Govoria.”
“I know,” Claudia said, looking away as the snakes watched. Although she could not blame a child for the actions of his father, she did not want to look Cole in the eye, just to be certain she didn’t turn him to stone.
“Shouldn’t you have your father around, or guards?” Rat asked.
“My brothers can read my thoughts. They’ll know if I’m in danger. As for my father, he doesn’t need to know about this conversation.”
“Should I wait somewhere?” Daliah asked, one hand reaching to her collar.
“Stay, please,” Claudia said, just as Cole was saying the same. She sighed. “What do you want?”
“I’d like to offer you some information,” Cole said. “I think it would express good faith, me telling you these things before I tell my father.”
“I will get to that. First, I knew Merrian. I assume she’s dead, or something similar, if you’re still here,” he motioned to Rat.
“How did you know her?” Rat asked.
“I always wanted to know more than what my father would tell me,” he said. “Naturally, we weren’t permitted outside the palace, except in very rare cases. In one of those times, I was able to meet her. Merrian was able to get someone to visit me on her behalf. It was this elf girl, named Yindel. She would enter my room and give me scrolls that told me more about my family line, or other things. Merrian and Yindel were my link to the outside world. I didn’t realize they were with this Ven Quari Elven Covenant thing.”
“What would Merrian stand to gain?” Claudia asked.
“Well, this elf girl, she always has this weird way of appearing. Now I think I know why. She had some sort of spell on her that allowed her to move through walls. I think they used that as a way to get spies in and out.”
“But who could cast the spells on them?” Rat asked.
“I suspect it’s the Fey,” Cole said. “I’ve studied the old tales that the cult are founded on—things that might be true.”
“I learned from Merrian,” Rat said, “that the Ven Quari want a shapeshifter. Do you know anything about that?”
Cole looked down. “I never asked, though I doubt Yindel would’ve told me anything about that.”
“Then what do you know?” Claudia asked.
“Long ago, before humans, elves, and the like came to be, there were Fey. Then, some kind of catastrophe destroyed all but two: Cloverra and Latalla. Cloverra loved Latalla, but Latalla grew lonely, being one of the only two living Fey. However, the Fey are beings who command the sixth and greatest rank of magic: Istel, with spells that mold living matter. That’s what makes the Fey so capable of changing its body. One day, Latalla was in such despair and loneliness that it cast the greatest Istel spell possible and destroyed itself, breaking apart into races like humans and elves. That is the Elven lore, even among the non-cult ones. We are all pieces of Latalla. A far simplified and less poignant version was used to claim the Latalla figure as a human deity later.”
“I take it the Chosen have some kind of role in this,” Rat said.
“Yes. Cloverra wants to restore Latalla. She doesn’t really consume others, she processes them. When enough individuals are absorbed, they are broken down and restructured into a new, infant being. That is where the Chosen come from. Bring enough of the Chosen together, and they will merge into a Fey once more, most likely Latalla itself. Cloverra is trying to create more and more Chosen, like dredging the pieces of a puzzle that were dumped into a river. When enough pieces are ready, Cloverra will bring its companion back.”
“That makes it sound like Cloverra and that Glaradalle elf want the same thing,” Daliah said.
“Indeed. The difference is discovering the ideal process. Cloverra played her part slowly, doing what Sallith experienced. Absorbing people out in the wilderness, remaining discreet. This, apparently, is too slow for the Ven Quari, or perhaps just the elven covenant. Glaradalle is new leadership, since elves live for hundreds of years, and he’s not mentioned in the scrolls I read. He’s not very patient for an elf, and it seems he wants to see the creation of a new elf-God soon. I don’t know how many Chosen that takes. Likely thousands. But Glaradalle sprung this trap to force Cloverra into acting. They will make it swallow every citizen of Mirek, pumping out likely hundreds more Chosen. Those Chosen infants will be raised in the now Elven city, all together in the same place. They will breed, creating more Chosen. It will be a massive leap forward in the goal to a second Fey, then perhaps a swarm of Fey repopulating the world and dominating it once more.”
“So what’s the point of telling us this?” Claudia asked.
“This information is readily available in the libraries here,” Cole said. “I know this is the center of magic and learning, but it seems like common knowledge—it was not restricted in any way. Yet Wisp did not think to mention any of these legends when we were at the dining table.”
“So he’s keeping things from us?” Daliah asked.
“He may have good reasons,” Cole said, shrugging a bit too hard, “but I thought you should know. I suggest acting normal, and if he continues to not say anything… well, let’s hope that’s not the case. I’d like to trust the… person… providing our refuge.”
“You are telling us this before you tell your father?” Claudia asked. “Nice try. You think I won’t check in with him to be sure, just because I hate him.”
“Please, don’t!” Cole said. “I’m not lying.”
Claudia looked to Rat, who raised an eyebrow.
“What? He knows I can read minds. He could keep his mind clear of any concerns over lying.”
“I’m telling you the truth. You’re the first to hear this.”
“It sounds to me,” Daliah said, “that you’re making a gesture.”
“Yes.” Cole took in a deep breath, held it for a bit too long, coughed, and tried again. “I think we need to set clear terms for after this is all over. When we’re safe, my father, myself, and my brothers are free to leave Mirek and go as we please, correct?”
“And you will not speak ill of us, or say anything to discolor his reputation?”
“I will speak the truth, and he will be remembered for it.”
“With too much revealed, it poses a threat to him and us. We could be tracked down.”
“Not my concern.”
“You…” Cole’s face reddened. “Not once has our father tried to use one of us to learn the thoughts or goals of the other. Not even for me… the troublesome one.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Claudia said, moving ahead.
“My father is an honest man!” Cole said, and he was a bit too close, causing the snakes to hiss. He cowered back, turned to the side.
“…are you afraid of me?”
Cole didn’t answer.
“If he were an honest man, you would not be calling him your father,” Claudia said. She walked, and Rat was forced to pursue. Daliah put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, parsing out apologies and explanations, assuring him that her daughter was not an unreasonable monster. Cole blinked and forced out a half-smile.
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