Excerpt: A Question of Counsel

Dead father. Imprisoned brother. Could it possibly get any worse?

“Of course it could,” Aeley Dahe answered out loud and threw her knife. The blade spun before lodging in the wood target on the dark red wall of the study. She leaned back against the creaking desk and pulled her knees up under her dark green gown. I could be just as dead.

She looked towards the window. Light spilled across the room in bright colours, shining through the large stained-glass pane. Her thoughts rejected it, straying to bitterness instead. Though some could say being the Tract Steward is almost like being a moving corpse. Our life isn’t our own.

Glancing at her father’s proud, painted image above the door, Aeley let her head thunk against the desk once, then a second time, to punish herself for the first. Without looking away from the painting’s empty gaze, she sought the decanter of gaffa nectar with one hand, her fingers snaking across the floor to the thick glass vessel. For the first time since her inauguration, she understood why her father appeared ragged and worn in his old years. She was only twenty-eight, but would the weight of responsibility age her faster?

Aeley sipped the sweet liquid from the decanter, comforted by its cool familiarity. Ever since Allon had attacked the village of Oly Valley, she drank almost as much as she dreamed about chasing him through his damaged estate. The sound of exploding walls haunted her sleep, waking her and leaving her feeling caked in the stickiness of blood and dust. Sometimes, she would stop in an empty corridor and wait to feel the earth shake beneath her, expecting to hear Allon taunt her. It was far from how she expected to spend her first months as Tract Steward.

And here I thought it might be easy, since I helped Father do everything towards the end. She snorted and took another drink. Winning the vote was the easiest part. No one in their right mind voted for Allon. Complete traitor. Not my problem now. He belongs to the High Council. I’m done.

Images of her brother in a dark, rank cell raced through her mind. Rumour indicated his punishment would be a life of labour, slogging at rocks in one of the Republic’s quarries. It was only fair, she mused, seeing as he intended to kill citizens of Kattal. He would spend the rest of his life serving them instead, his sweat and need for attention spent on providing for the homes and livelihoods of others.

So why did she still feel like his resentment and unpredictable schemes were not finished?

Reaching behind her back with her free hand, she pulled the knife from her belt and glanced at the wall. The beige wood planks covered the wall from floor to ceiling, crudely painted with different colours. Moments like this justified having it.

She stood and placed the decanter on the floor before turning towards the target. With a breath in, Aeley steadied the blade and focused on a bright red circle midway down the target. Allon’s face came to mind and with a breath out, she threw the knife. The blade hit the circle without spinning, stuck in the wood above her previous attempt. Throwing made her feel better. It was more helpful than admitting that fighting Allon’s guards and arresting him had left her shaken. People would think her insane instead of the composed, stalwart leader they expected. Appearance and perception meant everything.

Retrieving the decanter, she stood and stared at the target. The colours blurred as she drank.

A sudden, loud knock on the door made her jump and sputter, spraying the nectar onto the floor.

“Yes?” Aeley called and held one wrist to her mouth. She stopped before her wet lips brushed the fabric. Wiping her lips on the sleeve of one of her nicer gowns was not the best idea, especially with dinner so close. As host, she needed to remain clean and prim as much as she could. Hurriedly, she drew her fingers along her lips until they felt dry.

“Cook says dinner will be served shortly,” a muffled voice answered back.

Naturally. With a sigh, Aeley placed the decanter on the cleared section of her desk and tugged her belt back into place. After smoothing her dark blonde hair and then her skirt, she retrieved one of her knives, sheathing it before opening the door.

Haydin smiled, the wrinkles of his face pronounced around his eyes. “I thought I would escort you.”

Oh, Haydin, always the perfect gentleman.

“And I can’t help but accept. What girl could resist your charm?” Aeley slipped her arm into his, feeling the slight tremble in his frail body as they walked towards the dining room. His offer was outside his responsibilities as steward of the estate, speaking more to his love for the family than his position. To her, he was family, an uncle who had helped her father for most of his life. “What would I do without you?” she murmured, leaning her head on his shoulder.

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