The Blending Enthroned: Deceptions

Chapter One

Sometimes I think that keeping this journal is a roundabout way of torturing myself. As I write about how Dislin Marne, governor of Eastgate in the empire of Gracely, told everyone about the invaders, I feel again the fear and disbelief I felt when it happened. Strangers had come over the ocean in ships, had landed near Eastgate, and then had proceeded to attack the city and kill everyone they could reach.

But it wasn't just the attack itself that turned everyone in the room pale. Governor Marne had said that the invaders couldn't be touched by talent, that the High talents in his city hadn't been able to stop them. That statement was where the disbelief came in, and it was also the basis for everyone's extreme fear. It wasn't possible that something or someone couldn't be touched by talent, and I wasn't the only one who suffered through a strong flash of helplessness. I know I wasn't the only one…

 

"I think we need to go into a few more details about exactly what happened," Lorand said into the deeply shocked silence filling the large room. "If those invaders have a way to keep themselves from being touched by talent, it might very well be possible to negate whatever method they're using. Governor Marne, were your High talents able to learn anything?"

"Too many of them learned how easy it is to die," Marne answered after taking a long drink of the water someone had given him. The man was a short step away from exhaustion, not to mention in pain from his wounds, but he and his companions couldn't be allowed to rest yet.

"Are you trying to say they died uselessly?" Tamrissa put in, for once speaking soberly and quietly rather than sharply cutting. "If those invaders are to be stopped before they kill everyone in this empire, we have to know as much as we can about them. If you didn't notice anything, maybe one of your companions did."

"It wasn't possible to notice things," one of the men with the governor said with a headshake, his hand and the cup it held trembling ever so slightly. "The invaders are beasts, animals, and when you see women and children being cut down along with everyone else it's hard to notice much more."

"But that's on a conscious level," Jovvi pointed out very gently, speaking to the assembly members as well as to the men who had come to ask the assembly's help. "Deep in our minds we do notice other things, but after a time of great stress we need help to reach those observations. If these gentlemen will allow the assistance, surely one of your Spirit magic members can reach the information."

"Of course we can," a woman said, one of the two other women in the assembly besides Antrie Lorimon. "Or, perhaps I should say I can do the job. Step aside, please."

It wasn't hard for Lorand to see that the woman was larger than Antrie Lorimon and very brisk in her movements. She had brown hair and brown eyes, an ordinary face, and a thin body that she seemed to be holding back from moving nervously in some way. Jovvi stepped out of the woman's way with a faint smile, and somehow Lorand suddenly knew that the assembly woman wasn't as strongly sure of herself as she pretended to be.

"Allow me to present Banta Fullnor, a member of our assembly," the big man called Cleemor Gardan said dryly. He clearly spoke to Lorand and his Blendingmates, the dryness of his tone apparently an attempt to apologize for the abruptness of the Fullnor woman.

"We don't have time for the amenities now, Cleemor," Fullnor told her fellow assembly member without turning to look at him. "We have a crisis on our hands, and we have to settle it as quickly as possible. Now, Governor Marne, this won't hurt at all so please relax as much as you can."

The wounded and exhausted man looked more disturbed than relaxed, an odd expression in his eyes. He stared up at Fullnor for a long and silent moment, and Fullnor was the one who broke the silence.

"Why are you fighting me?" the assembly woman demanded with annoyance clear in her voice and expression. "I can force my way through to your mind, but I don't know why that should be necessary. What are you trying to hide?"

"He isn't trying to hide anything," Jovvi said at once, taking one step closer to the two people. "He doesn't want to relive what he went through, and that's what he thinks you'll make him do. If you'll just distance his conscious mind from the memories, he won't fight you any longer."

"Why don't you mind your own business!" Fullnor snapped, turning her head to glare at Jovvi. "This is our country and our problem, so stop trying to mix in!"

"If the people here in your country don't solve the problem, then it becomes ours," Jovvi countered with a sharpness that surprised Lorand. The tone would have been more fitting coming from Tamrissa… "Instead of standing back and waiting for all of you to be killed before we do anything, we'd rather get involved now. And it's pointless for you to refuse to admit that you can't distance the man's mind from his memories. If you were able to do it, it would already be done."

"It isn't very intelligent to challenge someone on her home ground," the woman growled at Jovvi, fists closed tight at her sides. "If I decide to crush you I can do it, and the law can't protect you. You aren't one of us, so it doesn't apply to you."

"I don't think you want to crush me," Jovvi said calmly to Fullnor while Antrie Lorimon, Cleemor Gardan, and a few others began to protest what their fellow assembly member had said. "What you want to do is cooperate with everyone here to counter the crisis, not use the opportunity to advance your political plans. Only a mindless fool would jeopardize a country to gain personal aggrandizement for the short time it would last. Don't you agree?"

"Yes, of course I agree," Fullnor answered at once after taking a deep breath, her anger completely gone. "I was foolish to see this as an opportunity, and I won't make the mistake again. Go ahead and do what's necessary, I won't try to stand in your way."

"I appreciate your cooperation," Jovvi told the woman graciously while the other assembly members stared at both of them. Lorimon, Gardan, and the others obviously had no idea why Fullnor had done such a complete about-face, but Lorand was certain he understood. Jovvi had taken over the woman before she could attack, and now had the woman responding to reason rather than selfish desires for bettering her place in life.

Lorand knew that Jovvi would have had a fight on her hands if she hadn't done what she had, but he wasn't quite sure he liked what she'd done instead. A second or two went by while his mind considered the matter, and then he came to a conclusion that was mildly surprising. Taking over the woman's mind had been an invasion, but if the woman had attacked Jovvi then Jovvi might well have had to destroy the woman. Jovvi had chosen the gentler means of self protection, and Lorand found no willingness inside himself to argue the choice. The outlook was so unlike his usual one that it surprised Lorand, but he had no time to think about anything but what was going on with those who had brought news of the invasion.

"Governor Marne, my name is Jovvi Hafford," Jovvi said to the wounded man, taking Fullnor's place when Fullnor stepped aside. "I do have to make you relive what you went through, but you don't have to be aware of it. If you'll allow me to touch you, we can get the information we need without giving you added pain."

"I have no doubt that you can, Exalted One," Marne answered with a mirthless laugh. "I'm sure you can tell that I also have Spirit magic, and I'm strong enough to know that you're telling the truth. I also appreciate being asked rather than ordered to cooperate, so please go ahead. I don't know how much longer I can keep from passing out."

"I should be able to soothe and sustain you for a short while," Jovvi murmured as she looked down at the man. "After that you and these others will have to be allowed to rest, or we'll be in definite danger of losing some of you. Please describe as objectively as possible what the invaders look like."

"The invaders look like ordinary men, but I've never seen clothing like theirs," Marne replied, a small frown creasing his brow. "It looked as though they'd wrapped themselves tightly in leather that had small metal circles sewn all over it, and they wore close-fitting hats that were all of metal. They carried very long knives in leather sheathes that were just as long, knives whose blades measured three feet at the very least."

"Swords, what they carried is called swords," one of the other men put in, his tone thoughtful. "I remember reading about swords a long time ago, but I can't remember where."

"And they killed people with these swords?" Jovvi asked next as people muttered all over the room. "Did they hesitate at all, or did they just wade in joyfully and kill everyone they came across?"

"They weren't hesitant or joyful," Marne said, frowning again. "I hadn't realized it sooner, but they just went ahead and killed as though they were weeding a field. We tried to close the gates of the city against them, but they had already sent a number of their people inside the gates and they kept us from closing them. We should have closed the gates as soon as we sighted their ships, but it's been so long since we had to fight anyone at all…"

"What happened when your High talents attacked them?" Vallant asked after moving up to stop next to Jovvi. "How were the invaders able to fight off what was bein' done?"

"They didn't fight off the attack," Marne said with a shake of his head and a disturbed expression. "The invaders didn't even seem to know they were being attacked, and nothing anyone did affected them. Our Spirit and Earth magic people screamed that they couldn't reach the invaders' minds, and our Air magic people couldn't take away what they breathed. After that we all began to run in different directions, but it's fairly clear that the Fire and Water talents had had no luck either."

"That sounds like they were being protected by something," Tamrissa mused from where she stood. "What is there that can protect someone from the use of talent?"

"The only thing I can think of at the moment is a stronger talent," Vallant said with his own headshake. "But it doesn't sound as if that's what was bein' done. Did any of your Highs get the sense of a stronger talent bein' used?"

"If a stronger talent was involved, all of us would have felt it," Marne denied, all life having left his voice. "Our families and friends were cut down before our eyes, and all we could do was watch. If it hadn't been absolutely essential that we bring a warning to Liandia and the assembly…"

"No, please, you can't afford to be lost with the others," Jovvi said at once when the man's words trailed off into a sigh. "You were right to save yourselves and come here, and you'll understand that once you've had a chance to rest. Does anyone have any other questions?"

Lorand watched Jovvi glance around at the men and women of the assembly, but they all either shook their head or simply looked frightened. They seemed to be completely out of their depth, which suggested to Lorand that they were too used to playing politics and not enough used to dealing directly with problems.

"We'll have to try to negotiate with those people," one of the assembly members said into the silence, his gaze on nothing and no one. "And that's rather lucky, since negotiation is much better than warfare."

"How do you negotiate with people whose sole aim is to kill you and everyone around you?" Tamrissa asked the man, and this time her tone was filled with impatience. "If you absolutely have to be a fool, please do it somewhere else."

"Young woman, you can stop that impertinence right now!" another of the assembly members snapped, his heavy face flushed. "Negotiation happens to be the best way to achieve anything, something you would know if you were a proper member of this assembly."

"Do you mean if I were a fool male like you two?" Tamrissa returned immediately, her tone sharp rather than defensive. "I happen to be fond of negotiation myself, but that's because I have experience with the alternative. I doubt if anyone here but my Blendingmates has the same experience, and you still haven't answered my question. How do you negotiate with someone who wants nothing but to kill you?"

The man's face went even more red, but despite his glare he seemed to be out of words. That made the silence unanimous again, which allowed Jovvi to take advantage of the lack of opposition. All five men put down the cups they were holding and leaned back in their seats, and a moment later they were all asleep - to Lorand's vast surprise.

"They should be taken to beds now," Jovvi told Gardan and Lorimon as she turned away from the wounded men. "And please remember that when they wake up they'll need strong support against the terrible depression they'll be feeling. If they don't get that support, they may not survive."

"I'll make sure they have everything they need," Lorimon promised quietly as she stared at Jovvi. "Am I mistaken, or do all of you intend to help us with this crisis? I think it's fairly clear we'll be needing all the help we can get, but why would you involve yourselves? Were you that impressed with the … warmly unique way we greet our visitors?"

"You think we ought to turn around and run for our lives?" Jovvi asked while Lorand and the rest of their Blendingmates smiled at Lorimon's question. "But if we do turn and run and your country is conquered, where do we run to next? The Astindans might take us in, but what happens when it gets to be their turn?"

"You're saying you're doing this for selfish motives, but I don't quite believe that," Gardan said, apparently taking the words from Lorimon's mouth. "Not unless you mean to do nothing but stand back and watch while we and our people go up against these invaders and take our turn with dying. Am I wrong in believing that you don't intend to just stand and watch?"

"We've discovered that we're bad at doing nothing," Tamrissa put in at once with an amused smile. "If those people really can't be touched with talent we might not be of much help, but the least we can do is try. Assuming you don't mind if we do try, that is."

"Don't you people understand anything?" the first man who had spoken about negotiating suddenly demanded, his frightened gaze now on those he spoke to. "You're not supposed to offer us help without demanding a terrible price first, it just isn't done! You're supposed to play politics no matter how many lives are at stake…"

Lorand felt embarrassed when he noticed that the man was crying, but the expressions on too many other faces lessened the discomfort. The fearful hope on all those faces was nearly painful, and the smile Antrie Lorimon showed was almost as bad.

"What my fellow assembly member means to say is thank you," Lorimon told them as she looked around. The five wounded men were being carried out of the room, but that wasn't what took her attention. "All our thanks are truly sincere - unless you do intend to ask a terrible price for your help."

"Would a cup of tea be too much to ask?" Tamrissa put in dryly, breaking the mood by making almost everyone smile. "Preferably without an attack by unknown forces coming first?"

The last of that comment brought out embarrassed laughter, and the man Gardan shook his head.

"The tea I can promise, but I'm not certain about the attack," he told Tamrissa ruefully. "We'll get an investigation started into who was behind that first attack, but we probably won't have the time to stay around to learn the results. I think that those of us who are going to Eastgate need to leave as soon as possible."

"I expect that you're right," Vallant agreed with the man, sounding just as rueful. "But since not everyone will be goin' with us, it won't hurt to try findin' out who dislikes us so much. Just to be certain it isn't someone who is goin' with us, you understand."

Gardan stepped closer to Vallant and Tamrissa to continue the discussion, and Lorimon joined them while some of the other assembly members began to make their way to a long table standing at the back of the room. Lorand also felt the need for some tea, but even more pressing was the need to speak to Jovvi. He began to step toward her, but found that she was already on her way over to him.

"If you're going to ask me how I put those men to sleep, the answer is I have no idea," Jovvi murmured as soon as she was close enough. "Do you happen to know how I did it?"

"Certainly," Lorand answered as he looked down into her beautiful but anxious eyes. "What you did was borrow my talent, something I'm sure about because I felt you drawing on it. The part I'm not clear about is how you did it."

"I wish I knew," Jovvi said with a sigh that Lorand had the urge to join her in. "Something like this shouldn't be possible, but we've just proven that it is. Do you think we'll be lucky enough to discover that we're imagining things?"

"We haven't had much of that kind of luck lately," Lorand pointed out, letting himself take a deep breath instead of sighing. "It's fairly obvious that our list of new things has just grown, and we're going to have to tell the others about it as soon as possible. And we need to discuss again whether or not to tell these people how to grow stronger in their talents."

"And that won't be an easy decision to make," Jovvi said with a nod, understanding at once. "If those invaders really can't be touched with talent, making our new allies stronger won't accomplish anything. If the invaders can be defeated with talent, once the threat of their invasion is over we'll be back to dealing with the Gracelians."

"And the Gracelians are people who are obviously used to playing politics with everything," Lorand finished up. "If we give them a toe, they'll soon have the foot all the way up to the knee at least. The only possible advantage we have is that they don't like the idea of war. The need to avoid a fight with us should turn them reasonable - as long as they don't decide they can win a fight with us."

"Which brings us back to the question of how wise we would be to give them something that might make them believe they could win against us," Jovvi fretted, the point clearly bothering her. "We'll have to think about this for a while, and then maybe we can - "

Jovvi's words broke off as screams and shouts erupted from the back of the room, where the table with refreshments stood. Most of the assembly members were over there, and even as Lorand watched, two more people fell to the floor one at a time. There were others already down, but at least none of Lorand's Blendingmates was among them.

"Lorand, what's happening to them?" Jovvi asked in a shocked voice as another man screamed while falling bonelessly to the floor.

"They've been poisoned," Lorand answered savagely before heading for the fallen, his temper beginning to rise as it had never done before. "Dom Gardan, I'll need as many Earth magic healers as you can get, and that as quickly as possible. Two of those people are already dead, but we might be able to save the rest if we hurry."

Gardan and Lorimon had been staring at their fellow assembly members in shock, but Lorand's words seemed to galvanize them. Gardan ran from the room while two people came forward from the audience part of the room, and then Lorand had no attention to spare for anything but the fallen. A glance had told him which poison had been used, and he quickly explained to the two volunteer Earth magic users what had to be done before starting to use the procedure himself.

The next hour or so was a very long one for Lorand. The two volunteers were no more than Middle talents, and although the men seemed to have some skill in healing, what they didn't have was enough strength. Lorand reached out to his waiting link groups and tapped into their strength, then somehow spread the strength around. That act not only added to the volunteers' strength, but let Lorand work on more than one victim at a time.

By the time other Earth magic users hurried into the room, one more person had died but the rest had been stabilized. Lorand stepped back expecting to be exhausted, but he was no more than just normally weary. Antrie Lorimon waited next to Jovvi, and when Lorand joined them the Gracelian put her hand on his arm.

"Now we have even more to thank you for," she said, her voice almost fading to a whisper. "I can't imagine what you must think of us now, but I swear that this doesn't happen as a usual thing. Will - will they be all right?"

"Three of them are dead, and a fourth will probably never recover completely," Lorand answered with the weariness coloring his tone. "The rest should be all right, but there's something I'd really like to know: Were they the targets of this attack, or was it supposed to be us who died?"

"It can't possibly be your group alone that was the target of the attack," Antrie Lorimon said at once, her hand closing more tightly on Lorand's arm. "Those refreshments were meant for everyone, and there was no guarantee that you and your Blendingmates would eat or drink first. It looks like whoever is behind all this doesn't care if innocent bystanders die. That's more than simple dislike or ordinary resentment."

"And you still have no idea who it could be?" Jovvi asked, a frown of disturbance creasing her brow. "Someone like that would have to be completely insane, and that sort of insanity ought to be completely noticeable to those who aren't forbidden the use of their talent."

"We did have someone among us who was that badly unbalanced," Lorimon admitted slowly with her own frown. "The man did horrible things to a number of people as well as to his own Blending, but when we found out what was going on we stripped him of his position and his talent. He can't possibly be the one behind all this, not when he doesn't have gold any longer either."

"If he didn't find a way around all those drawbacks, you've got another of the same sort on your hands," Jovvi said with a headshake. "Since your own people are just as much at risk as we are, I would suggest that that investigation be started as quickly as possible. But now what's going to happen with Eastgate? Three of your people capable of Blending are dead, and more than half of the rest are probably in no shape to travel."

"If we have to we'll replace the dead at once, and then take the resulting Blendings with Cleemor's and mine," Lorimon answered with a sigh. "The three new major talents will have to practice with their Blendingmates on the trip, which will hopefully let them be of real help once we find the invaders. If we can't find experienced volunteers and the new major talents aren't of real help…"

The woman's words trailed off as she performed a small shrug, and Lorand didn't need to have her finish the sentence. When they met the invaders they'd need all the help they could get, and not having what they needed could well mean their defeat…