Kobinaru's Grand Theater was as grand as Veil had remembered. It had been several months since she'd attended a performance there, but she still remembered playing games with Grim among the columns. They would hide and try to find each other, or simply run around and try to catch each other.
But those were the games of seven-year-olds, and they were eight now. Her father, Duke Selfaeth of Kobinaru had told her many times over the past few weeks that it was time for her to start acting like a proper lady. Her mother, Duchess Casthene, had quickly reminded her husband that Veil and Grim were still children, and could hardly be expected to be proper all the time.
All the same, Duke Selfaeth had insisted that his children behave themselves on this particular night at the theater. At least those who would be in attendance. For some reason that Veil's father had failed to explain to his younger children, neither their mother nor their elder brother Seldorym would be attending the performance with them. It was because of some nonsense about official business for the heir, which meant Veil had no reason to worry about it. Seldorym was the only one who would have to worry about the court for the rest of his life. Veil just wanted to play.
They were walking up the granite steps of the front of the theater, the columns looming ahead of them, and Veil itched to push Grim's shoulder and dare him to chase her. But she wouldn't, not for all the-
She stumbled on the steps as someone bumped into her. "Bet you can't catch me!" Grim said with a giggle before taking off into the columns. Not an accidental bump then, but a challenging push, meant to call her to battle.
As she moved to run, her father put a hand on her shoulder and gently held her back. "Not you too," Duke Selfaeth chided, frowning at her. "One wayward child is enough for tonight. Your mother would never forgive me for losing track of both of you." He let her go then cupped his hands around his mouth, shouting up the steps toward the entrance. "Grimfaeth get back here! Now!"
Grim turned around and stuck his tongue out at his father. "Bet you can't catch me either!" He turned back to the entrance and sprinted, easily avoiding the grasp of one of the ushers standing at the door.
Duke Selfaeth let out a frustrated groan. "I swear your brother will be the death of me," he muttered. "Hopefully Seldorym isn't giving your mother any trouble. He was acting out today too. But thankfully he has a bit more composure."
"Where are Seldorym and Mother?" Veil asked, deciding she was curious after all.
"They left for Xarin this morning," Duke Selfaeth said. "It's time for Seldorym to begin his apprenticeship. He'll be studying in the King's court, under the royal tutors. Normally it would be my job to take him there, but Seldorym wanted your mother, so I get to be here with you and Grim instead." He smiled, a distant expression that only lightly touched his eyes.
Smiles were rare on Veil's father's face, something she had long gotten used to. He was usually too busy to play, too busy to do anything but work. She understood, as well as she could at her age, anyway. There was a war going on, and that meant the nobility were working almost all the time.
Despite his somewhat gruff demeanor, Veil had always loved spending time with her father. She looked up to him and wanted to have the respect that others showed him. The Ultakan people loved Duke Selfaeth, at least as much as they loved any of the nobles; though it did seem that more people were calling her names in public than they used to. She didn't understand what a 'Pale' was until Sharis had explained it to her a week ago. She knew she was a Fedain, but she didn't know why that was a problem for some people.
A lot of her friends in the nobility now traveled with guards wherever they went. She had thought it must be because of the war, but one of them had told her it was because the humans wanted to harm them. Not just the humans from Oligan, but the ones in Ultaka as well.
Veil didn't believe any of that. Most of the humans she met were nice. All of her servants treated her well, and the soldiers did too. And so far, Duke Selfaeth continued to travel without an escort. If he believed his people wanted to harm him, he didn't show it.
When they finally reached the top of the stairs, the human ushers bowed respectfully to Duke Selfaeth and then to Veil separately. The one who had attempted to catch Grim kept his head bowed slightly as he said, "I'm sorry I wasn't able to catch him, my Lord. I've been informed that he's making his way to your box."
"Please, there's no need to avoid my eyes," Duke Selfaeth said politely. "Stand tall, man. You are hardly the first one my son has eluded. He's quick, and smart, and he doesn't like to listen."
The usher looked up uncertainly, but when he saw Duke Selfaeth's slightly amused smile, he grinned appreciatively. "My boy is just like that, my Lord. Thank you for your understanding."
Duke Selfaeth offered his hand to the usher, who took it with a look of pure shock. With a quirk of his eyebrow, Duke Selfaeth maintained contact and said, "you have a bit of a cold lately, haven't you? May I fix that for you?"
"Y-yes, i-if you are w-willing," the usher stammered. "I would be honored."
"The honor is all mine," Duke Selfaeth replied smoothly, "it is our duty to serve. We Fedain forget that too often, I think. When you get home, I want you to hug that son of yours close, and help him build a better future. Could you do that for me?"
The usher's face fell. "I'm not sure when I'll see my son again, my Lord. He's with the Order of the Mountain. He never quite grew out of being a troublemaker, you see."
"What is your son's name?" Duke Selfaeth asked.
"Tson. Altre Tson," the usher replied.
Duke Selfaeth nodded and finally released the usher's hand. "I am on good terms with Grandmaster Valkean. I will tell him of a father's concern for his son and ask him to give special attention on my behalf."
The usher nodded dumbly. "Thank you, my Lord. I cannot thank you enough. I am truly humbled by your generosity."
"There is no need to thank me," Duke Selfaeth replied. "Just visit your son when you can. Make the best of the time you have. It's all any of us can do."
Veil watched the entire conversation with rapt attention. She understood now, why her father was never afraid. She had seen many of these conversations in the past, but that had been seven-year-old her. Now she was eight, and wise.
Her father cared about the people he ruled over. He was a man of dignity and humility, who took the time to truly meet everyone he encountered. He was childlike in that respect, making friends easily with total strangers, even those who tried to put distance between them. He treated everyone like the individual they were, and they loved him for it.
Even his own children. She saw now that she needed restraint, the restraint that he put on her whenever she started to engage in activities against her will. She had let Grim goad her before, in a game of Catch the Thief, until he'd put a hand on her shoulder. It hadn't been a firm hand, and he had spoken to her mildly. Despite his urging her not to, she could've easily participated had she wanted to. Her father had given her the moment she needed to determine what she actually wanted, instead of following someone else's whims.
He'd done the same for Grim. He'd called after Grim, but he hadn't chased him, hadn't made a scene. Once Grim had made his choice, Duke Selfaeth had let him go, believing that his son was smart enough to keep himself from getting into real trouble. Or perhaps trusting him to get out of it.
Veil decided then that she wanted to do the same. To be strong in all her interactions, and to respect free will and the individual. Everyone deserved their moment of choice, to decide how they would react, and to take their own path. How could she ever decide for anyone else?
The acrobats had put on an amazing show. They were from southwestern Ultaka, where the great trees grew to staggering heights. While the Kobinaru Grand Theater was not nearly as high as the forest canopy where the acrobats normally practiced their craft, it was still high enough to impress the two eight-year-old's.
Veil tried to keep her enthusiasm in check but couldn't help but stare in awe at some of the death-defying feats performed above the stage. Grim didn't even bother to hide his astonished smile, his eyes gleaming with delight as he watched the men and women perform on nearly invisible ropes, making it seem like they could fly.
Veil envied his ability to openly display excitement. She didn't resent her brother for it. Quite the opposite, she fed on it. His ability to experience things fully was what made him her best friend. They had always been together, from the womb to now, and she was certain they would be best friends forever. She needed him. She hoped he needed her.
When the performance ended, Grim tried to pull his usual stunt at the theater and sneak behind stage. Veil knew in advance that he would try it, and she did what she thought her father would do, placing a hand on his arm. She expected him to pull way, but instead he simply gave her a funny look.
"What?" He asked.
"Do you really want to go?" Veil asked.
Grim nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, I want to climb on the ropes."
"Do they let you do that?" Veil asked. She had never seen him be allowed to do so, but that didn't mean that he had never done it. She didn't have her eyes on him all the time. That wasn't possible with Grim.
Veil hadn't planned on Grim getting caught, but their conversation had drawn the attention of their father, who had still been applauding for the show. He turned and picked Grim up, tickling him under the ribs as he said, "Oh no you don't. Not this time. You won't get away from me that easily."
"Dad, stop!" Grim squealed in fits of laughter.
Duke Selfaeth stopped immediately, meeting his son's eyes. "As you command, Lord Grim. Now, how about we stop for sweets on our way home?"
"Yes!" Grim said. "Can we dance too?"
"I don't feel like dancing, but you can dance if you want to," Duke Selfaeth replied. "You can dance wherever you want. Just be careful, and don't get in anyone's way. Make sure you're polite."
"I will," Grim replied with a grin. "Can you put me down now?"
"Of course," Duke Selfaeth said, setting him down. "Let's stay together so we can go get sweets, okay?"
A panting man rounded the corner into their theater box before Grim could respond. He bowed to Duke Selfaeth, then handed him a folded piece of paper. "I apologize for the interruption, but this message came through for you just a moment ago. They said it was urgent."
Duke Selfaeth took the paper and raised it in acknowledgment, and the man bowed again before turning to leave. The Duke unfolded the paper and read silently, though Veil watched the myriad emotions pass across his face. Astonishment, worry, and then fear. She had never seen fear in her father's eyes.
"I'm sorry, Grim," Duke Selfaeth said, refolding the paper with trembling hands before tucking it into his pocket. "I'm afraid we . . ." He gulped back his words, licking his lips as if they were suddenly dry. "We can't stop by for sweets. We need to go home right now."
"Well then can I at least go see the-" Grim began.
"I said 'right now'!" Duke Selfaeth shouted. Grim recoiled from his father, eyes brimming with tears and fright. The Duke immediately crouched, pulling Grim in for a crushing embrace. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to get angry. We just need to go home right now, do you understand? Today I need you to listen."
Grim's little arms snaked around his father as tears streamed down his cheeks. He nodded vigorously, burying his face in the crook of his father's arm. The Duke's knees were shaking, but he picked up his son anyway, walking slowly toward the exit.
Veil was scared and confused, but she followed anyway. Wanting to ask what had happened, but afraid of what her father's reaction would be. He wasn't acting like himself, and she wondered if she had misjudged him earlier.
They didn't speak on the way home. Duke Selfaeth barely even said a word to the driver of their vehicle, but the way he continued to fidget with the folded piece of paper put Veil on edge. Something was wrong, more wrong than anything she had ever seen or felt. She only wished she knew what.
Grim had recovered from his emotional reaction enough to be smiling again, having found something outside the window to entertain him. He loved the lights of Kobinaru at night, especially in the rain. Storm clouds had rolled in overhead during the performance, but only a very light sprinkling had begun. It was enough to wet the pavement, and make it glow with the reflections of the electric lights lining the streets. The same glow was reflected in Grim's eyes, all the wonder in the world.
Veil wanted to see the beauty in it, but she was too concerned about her father. Was it something to do with the war? Duke Selfaeth usually didn't talk about the war, not where Veil could hear, anyway. At least not when he knew she was listening. But she had sneaked into his office and council room more than once to listen in on all the important conversations. She knew people were dying, though she still wasn't entirely certain what death was.
When they arrived home, Sharis was waiting to take charge of Veil and Grim. He had been assigned to be their tutor by the Church of the Blood two years earlier, though Veil didn't care much for him. He was too formal, too interested in old things. Veil didn't care about old things. She wanted to see all that was new. Nothing should last forever; life was boring that way.
"Please, Sharis," Duke Selfaeth said, "make sure the servants have them put to bed with a meal. I need them to get a good night's rest tonight. I need that, more than anything. Do you understand me?"
"Of course, Duke Selfaeth," Sharis said, bowing humbly. "If you'd like, I can attend to you after. Given the circumstances, I understand, but you do not look well, and-"
"See to my children, Sharis," Duke Selfaeth growled. Veil noticed her father's eyes were red, though whether from tears or stress she did not know, but she had never seen such anger in his eyes. "My children are your priority. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Duke Selfaeth," Sharis replied. "As you command."
"Dad, wait!" Veil cried as Duke Selfaeth started toward the main doors. He turned around in time to have her rush into his arms, hugging him tightly. "I love you, Dad," she said. "Whatever's wrong, it'll be okay. We'll work it out. That's what you and Mom always say."
The Duke inhaled sharply, his voice ragged as he replied, "I know, dearest. I know . . . Now, you be a good girl and go with Sharis. I'll talk to you in the morning."
Veil let her father go, but still she worried. This was not the father she knew, and she wanted him back.
If only Mom was home. She would know what to do.
For the first time in Veil's short life, she had trouble sleeping. Sharis had offered to tell her a story, but she had declined. A story would distract her from thinking of how to help her father. That was the most important thing. The only important thing.
Instead, she waited until her servants had settled her in and checked on her a few times to make sure she was still sleeping. Then, as quiet as a mouse, she slipped from the covers and moved to her wardrobe. She chose clothing that was easy to move in, one of the many outfits she used for playtime instead of the courtly dresses she often wore. This wasn't the time to look pretty.
She dressed in the dark, knowing that her handmaiden was waiting in the antechamber at the Duke's orders. If Veil lit the lamp, she would give herself away and ruin her whole plan. She had sneaked out of her room many times before, when her curiosity got the better of her. But more than curiosity fueled her now. She needed to find out what was wrong with her father.
Once she was ready to go, she made her way back to the bed and rearranged her pillows so it looked like someone was still underneath the covers. She had never tried this particular tactic before, but she had once read about it in a book. She hoped it would work if the handmaiden decided to check on her again.
Creeping toward the door to the antechamber, she took hold of the handle and pulled it open a crack. Light streamed in, and Veil made sure to stay out of it until she could get a view of the next room. Her handmaiden was sitting at one of the tables and reading a book, completely oblivious to the door opening behind her.
Veil slowly pulled the door open a little wider, stepping through the crack and into the antechamber. She kept her hand on the door, closing it slowly, then moved to her hands and knees and crawled behind the nearest high-back chair. If her handmaiden heard the click of the door closing or her shuffling across the floor, she gave no sign of it and simply continued reading.
Veil took a circuitous route around the room, staying behind furniture as much as possible as she made her way to the door leading out to the hall. She bumped into a table once, not hard enough to injure herself or make much noise, but still she paused, listening for any reaction from her handmaiden. After catching her breath, she closed the last of the distance to the door.
She steadied herself against the door and used the handle to pull herself upright. She slowly opened it, using just as much caution as she had with her bedroom door. As soon as she had enough room to move through, she slipped into the hall and gently closed the door behind her.
Breathing more easily now, she picked her way carefully down the dimly lit hall. During the day these halls were kept brightly lit and inviting, but there was no reason to keep the lights on while most of the palace was asleep. Only an occasional wall-mounted lamp was lit, providing plenty of shadows for Veil to hide within.
There were more guard patrols than she expected. More than she was used to from her previous forays. By her best guess, they had tripled. Only her father would have given an order to increase the guard, and Veil made a mental note to speed up at every patrol from which she hid.
Eventually she reached her father's study, which was under guard by grey and black uniformed military personnel. Duke Selfaeth had always trusted a private security force, refusing the offer of King Hashayn to have military forces stationed at the palace during the war. Still, Veil was aware of what the uniforms meant, as two military officers stayed in the palace anyway. To now see six soldiers standing outside her father's room was mind-boggling.
The Duke's sitting room next to his study was unattended, and Veil made her way there. The door was locked, but there was a trick to it if you lifted the handle in a certain way. Seldorym had taught it to Veil and Grim several years earlier, and Veil employed it now, slipping into the room undetected by the guards just down the hall.
She moved immediately to a table against the wall shared with her father's study and removed a vase from it before climbing on top. This allowed her to reach the ventilation shaft that ran through the wall. The grate protecting it was unattached at the bottom, another thing Seldorym had revealed to his younger siblings. Veil lifted the grate enough to be able to start climbing into the ventilation shaft, then pulled herself up and in.
The only part of the entire mission that she couldn't do quietly was closing the grate after her. No matter how many times she had seen Seldorym do it, or even Grim, who had mastered the trick a long time ago, she simply couldn't angle her foot correctly to keep the grate from slamming up against the wall once it was no longer resting against her legs. But she tried anyway, and once again failed. She winced at the sound of thin metal clattering against hard wood paneling, then paused to see if she could hear any sign of someone coming to investigate the noise.
She heard only one voice, coming from the other side of a vent further down the ventilation shaft from her. It was her father's voice, though she couldn't make out any of the words yet. He seemed to be alone, which meant he was likely talking on a communicator. The long-distance visual communications devices had been one of the best things to come out of the war, or so her father always said.
Having waited sufficiently long enough to be sure no one had noticed the noise she'd made, Veil moved closer to the conversation. She approached to the very edge of the vent, allowing her to see her father through the slits. He was pacing, a glass in one hand-filled with some dark liquid Veil didn't know- and the communicator in the other. As Veil approached, the screen of the communicator flickered, signaling a new conversation.
"Do you have any updates for me?" Duke Selfaeth asked. Veil didn't recognize the woman on the communicator screen, but she wore a white uniform of some sort. She tried to remember what that meant. Military police? Department of Domestic Investigation?
Now that Veil was closer, she could hear the voice of the woman on the communicator, though she had to listen carefully to hear all the words.
"Duke Selfaeth, my condolences on your-" the woman began.
Duke Selfaeth cut her off with a snarl. "I don't need your sympathy right now, Kivtharel. I need answers. And don't you dare make this about rank. I came to you because you are a friend, and I wasn't certain I could trust anyone else."
"And as your friend, Sel," Kivtharel replied, "you have my support. You were not the only one who lost family today . . ."
Veil gasped, surprised by the strange words. Lost family? Was Kivtharel referring to Grim running off at the theater? Was father really still upset about that? No, that didn't make any sense. What was Kivtharel talking about?
"Do you have any answers for me, or not?" Duke Selfaeth asked.
Kivtharel sighed. "As you wish. No, nothing conclusive yet. I am still getting regular updates from the team leader. He's a good man; a human, but diligent. The best I can tell you is that they don't think it's Oligan."
Duke Selfaeth inhaled sharply. "You're saying it was one of ours? Our people did this?"
"The data is still inconclusive, Sel," Kivtharel replied, "there's still a high chance it was an accident. We don't know why the transport derailed, why the explosion happened. It may not have been a bomb, it could have just been an acci-"
"Just find out who killed my wife and son, Kiv," Duke Selfaeth growled. "I have to know why they died. I have to know, Kiv. Don't you understand? I have to know . . ."
Veil had been too stunned for words at first, but as she watched her father break down in tears, she couldn't contain her emotions anymore. She began sobbing, curling up as much as the vent would allow, her tears muddying the slight coating of dust beneath her.
She heard her father's voice again. He had regained some measure of control, and there was only a slight tremor as he said, "I have to go, Kiv. My daughter is here, I can hear her crying. I need to help her."
"Please, Sel," Kivtharel said, "if there's any help you need beyond the investigation, just let me know."
Duke Selfaeth ended the conversation and walked over to the vent. "I know you heard that, and I'm sure it's very confusing," he said softly. "Do you think you can make it back to my sitting room?"
Veil nodded then realized that her father couldn't see it. "Yes," she said weakly.
"I will meet you over there. It'll be faster than trying to get this vent off the wall," Duke Selfaeth replied.
Veil made her way back the way she'd come, emerging from the vent on the other side without caring how much noise she made. Her father was already there by the time she arrived, and he helped her off the table she'd used climb into the vent. Then he hugged her, picked her up, and carried her to one of the large arm chairs by the fireplace.
He sat down, keeping her in his lap, as he stared at the empty hearth. "So, did you understand what I said?"
"Mom and Seldorym are dead," Veil said. "That means they're not coming back. That means they're somewhere else."
"In the Church of the Blood," Duke Selfaeth said, "they teach that the dead are preserved in the blood of their descendants, and the blood of everyone they healed. Your mother and brother both live on in us, and in Grim. But they live on in so many places, because they helped so many people. They're not gone, they're just not going to be around quite as much anymore, and not in the same way as before. They're still here, you understand?"
Veil buried her face in her father's chest and sobbed, "but I don't want them to be dead!"
"I know," Duke Selfaeth whispered, crying along with her. "I know, it's going to be okay. You and I, we're going to get through this. And we'll help Grim, and he'll help us, and we'll all get through this together. One way or another."
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