The Blending Enthroned: Intrigues

Chapter One

I've discovered that writing in a journal is terribly habit-forming, and I'm not one who breaks habits easily. We defeated the Seated Five and came to terms with the invading Blendings from Astinda, but those victories just meant that our hardest jobs were still ahead of us. We could no longer deny the fact that we would be Seated as rulers of the empire, even if we still weren't terribly happy about the idea. A lot of changes had to be made, and with too many of those changes we were the only ones who would be able to accomplish them. Like letting the world know that we were the first Sixfold Blending… Adding the talent of Sight would not be like adding the balancing force of Spirit…

It wasn't necessary to have Sight magic to know that we would soon dampen the delight of many of those who now followed us. The question was, would the dampening go all the way to full drowning…?

 

Naran Whist sipped quietly from her cup of tea as she watched and listened to the discussion going on among her Blendingmates in the house they continued, for the moment, to occupy. It was still a thrill to realize that she was a full member of the group, an experience she'd never before had in her life. She'd always thought of herself as a complete freak, but now she not only had people she belonged among completely, she'd discovered she wasn't quite as unique as she'd feared.

A private smile curved Naran's lips, the tenor of her thoughts causing the amusement. The world held quite a lot of people who would have been delighted to find themselves to be unique, but that was only because they hadn't had her experience with the condition. Living all alone in a world filled with strangers, terrified that someone would find out just how different she really was… The time had been as far from pleasant as it was possible to imagine…

"What do you think, love?" Rion asked suddenly from his place beside her, his hand tightening gently around her own. "Do you see something that would affect our decision one way or the other?"

"I'm sorry, my love, but I'm afraid I was daydreaming a bit," Naran admitted with an apologetic glance for the others, her cheeks warming very faintly. "The woolgathering kept me from hearing the last of what was said."

"You're entitled to be distracted at the very least, Naran," Jovvi told her at once with one of those beautiful smiles. "Finding out you're not alone in the world after all must be a delight, but almost an overwhelming one after so long a time of believing otherwise."

"And if anyone should know how that feels, I'm the one," Tamrissa put in with understanding amusement. "It isn't fun to stand against the world all by yourself."

"Nor is it pleasant to be cut off from all the rest of humanity save for one solitary individual," Rion agreed with his own sweet smile. "I, too, have some idea of your feelings, my love, but not entirely. I was not left on my own at a very tender age."

"But Jovvi was, so she must have the best idea of what Naran went through," Lorand put in with clear commiseration for both of the women he mentioned. "I may not have gotten along completely well with my family, but I still felt myself a part of them."

"And I'm feelin' almost guilty," Vallant offered with an uncomfortable expression on his face. "Of all of us, I'm the only one who had a family he both loved and wanted to be a part of. With that in mind, I'm the odd one in this group."

"That's right, you are!" Tamrissa exclaimed with a wicked gleam in her eyes as she put a hand to Vallant's face. "My poor dear, the only one to be cursed with a loving family. How my heart goes out to you."

"Don't tease him, Tamrissa," Lorand scolded lightly with a chuckle as Vallant looked at her with narrowed eyes. "My family was fairly loving too, or would have been without the pressures put on my father by the nobility. If Vallant is odd, then I'm almost the same."

"Thank you, Lorand," Vallant said politely, pretending to be very formal while looking at Tamrissa coolly. "It obviously takes a gentleman to understand another gentleman's position. What a shame some ladies are bereft of all compassion for a man they've been claimin' to feel something for."

"Claiming?" Tamrissa echoed at once, that gleam still in her eyes. "I haven't made any claims like that, not as far as I can remember. Has anyone here heard me say anything like that?"

"No, not a soul," Jovvi answered with a laugh as Vallant bent a really stern look on Tamrissa. "But since we do need to make a decision, let's get back to what we were discussing. Naran, we were trying to decide whether to introduce the members of your link groups to our five-member Blendings, or to ask Dom Ardanis to send more of his people who might want to join a Blending. Everyone will need a wide choice, I think, so I'd like to hear your opinion."

"My opinion is that the question is more involved than that, and also less involved," Naran answered with a small laugh. "I know my response was no help at all, but that's because the situation is really two situations. May I explain?"

"No, Naran, absolutely not," Tamrissa answered dryly as everyone else nodded or urged Naran to continue with words of encouragement. "We enjoy being completely confused and in the dark."

"Now you're teasing Naran, Tamrissa," Lorand said with a good deal of surprise evident. "And it's just come to me that you've been doing a lot of teasing today. Has something happened to change your usual mood that the rest of us don't know about?"

"Jovvi says my new mood is relief at surviving after coming so close to dying," Tamrissa answered with a small, faintly embarrassed laugh, sending her glance to everyone in addition to Lorand. "She also said the new mood won't last forever, and before you know it I'll be back to my usual sedately shy self. Won't that be a relief?"

"I'm still thinkin' about that," Vallant countered dryly, making the rest of them chuckle. "Meanwhile, why don't we let Naran get on with explainin' what she means?"

"To begin with, there's a situation we've spoken about, but not really thought all the way through," Naran said before Tamrissa could distract everyone with more teasing. "You've already begun to show others how to Blend, but so far there are only a double handful of other Blendings besides ours. All the rest of our people are in link groups, which we needed for fighting purposes. When are the members of those link groups going to be allowed to form Blendings of their own?"

"You know, I never really stopped to think about that," Jovvi acknowledged with brows high, seemingly as surprised as everyone else. "But you do happen to be right, so we ought to discuss the point right now. Link groups can be formed by any five people with the same talent, but Blendings should have people who have some interest in each other. Until now, most of our followers haven't had the chance to get to know each other."

"So that means we need to throw a really big party," Tamrissa said, her frown of concentration showing Naran that the Fire magic user considered the matter a serious one. "We introduce everyone to everyone else, and then they can all look into forming Blendings. If something comes up where we need the tandem link groups, ten new Blendings will give us the link groups as easily as link groups alone."

"That's a good point," Lorand agreed with an equally thoughtful nod. "There's no real reason for our people not to form their own Blendings, but what about everyone else? How and when are we going to show the people in the rest of the empire how to Blend?"

"It isn't goin' to be done all at once, that's for sure," Vallant said, his expression faintly vexed. "We'll have to start with the people here in Gan Garee, and then send teachers to the other parts of the empire. By then we might know how to handle the problems that come up."

"I agree that we need to do it a little bit at a time," Jovvi said as Rion nodded, both of them looking just as thoughtful as the others did. "A party is a good idea, Tamma, and we ought to hold it in the palace when we move in. But that still doesn't answer our question about your peers, Naran. Will we just be inviting your link groups, or as many others as Dom Ardanis cares to send?"

"Jovvi, you won't need to invite anyone with Sight talent," Naran pointed out gently, matching her smile to the words. "If you feel you'd like to be formal you can issue general invitations, but those who will be joining Blendings already know where it will happen – and they'll be at the party."

"Obviously we all have adjustments to make in our thinking," Rion said ruefully as the others reacted in different ways. Jovvi closed her eyes before putting her head back, Tamrissa shook her head with a sigh, and Lorand and Vallant groaned. "It never occurred to me that your talent peers would already know that."

"It's fairly clear that we all should have known," Jovvi said with a headshake of self-annoyance. "And the way you mentioned Tamma's idea of a party… Am I correct in assuming that it was a strong possibility even before Tamma mentioned it?"

"It was a strong possibility then, but it's a near certainty now," Naran agreed, examining the shadows again even as she spoke. "We'll also be turning over this house to the people from Astinda fairly soon, to let them get on with processing the former nobles. Our being here is only slowing the processing."

"And it's time we relocated anyway," Tamrissa put in with a sigh of accepting the inevitable. "If we try to delay any longer, most of our 'followers' will get so frustrated that they'll haul us bodily to the palace and toss us in. If we're going to do this, we have to do it right."

"And we've already decided we're going to do it," Jovvi agreed with the same kind of sigh. "That means any more foot-dragging is just plain silly, so let's stop talking and start doing. Does anyone have a reason why we shouldn't go to the palace right now?"

None of the others cared to put forward a note of dissention, which made Naran smile to herself. The shadows had already told her that the decision to go at once would most likely be made right now, but there was no need to mention that. Too much foreknowledge seemed to make people feel as though they were being manipulated by events rather than doing the manipulating themselves. Some events did force certain actions, but those actions were never the only options available. They were usually the best available, but some people still felt a need to choose second best.

Naran had no idea why that was, but when the others began to gather themselves together, she did the same. Something she did know about was one of the things that awaited them in the palace: her instruction on the best ways to use her talent would begin once they were settled. The thought filled her with more excitement than any of the others could possibly be feeling right now, which made her really wish everyone would hurry…

Jovvi waited beside Lorand as their horses were brought out of the stables, a million plans and necessities buzzing around in her head. It really didn't make much sense for them to hold off on taking up residence in the palace, and they'd decided to start things off right. Instead of using the coaches some of their followers had expected them to show themselves off in, their Blending would arrive at the palace on horseback. That informal an arrival should give the first hint that the new Seated Blending meant to institute changes…

"I wonder if anyone will realize why our 'escort' is so large," Lorand commented as he watched the horses being brought out. "Having our link groups with us probably won't excite much comment right now, but in a little while everyone will know who they are – and wonder why we feel we need the protection."

"If anyone asks, we'll tell them," Tamma put in, looking back over her shoulder at Lorand. "I seriously doubt if everyone with a grudge has already come at us, and I'd rather be safe than sorry. If anyone dislikes the idea of us wanting to protect ourselves, they can just look the other way to spare themselves the discomfort of seeing what we do."

"But we'll try not to put it quite that baldly," Jovvi said with a smile for Tamma's obviously fading teasing mood. "We'll be doing other things to protect ourselves, and some of those things will be more upsetting than having our link groups following us around."

"If we're goin' to be surrounded by armies of servants, I think we have a right to know where they stand," Vallant put in, his tone a bit more reasonable than Tamma's had been. "We need to have our Blendin' entity check those people, and for that Jovvi especially needs her link groups."

That was the first of the things on Jovvi's list for doing as soon as they got to the palace, and one Jovvi wasn't looking forward to. Invading people's privacy left a bad taste in her mouth, but there was really no other choice. The usurping Blending had been poisoned more than once, and there was nothing to say that Eltrina Razas had been responsible for both occurrences.

"We're lucky there are so few servants left in the palace," Lorand said after nodding agreement with Vallant. "I'd just like to know what we're going to do if and when the former hordes try to return."

"Perhaps we ought to ask one or two of our other Blendings to oversee any additions to the palace staff," Rion suggested with the least bit of diffidence. "It won't be possible for us to do it all ourselves, after all, and the solution would help us a great deal if the members of the other Blendings aren't insulted by the request."

"That's a great idea, Rion, and I can't picture them getting insulted," Lorand said with a sudden brightening of a good deal of the gloom he'd been showing. "Those are people we've fought beside, after all, and interviewing the staff properly is something that will help keep us alive. On top of that, they can all use the practice at working in a Blending."

Everyone agreed with that, and then they separated to go to their respective horses. Once Jovvi was mounted, she waited until they were moving toward the road before she urged her mount close to Lorand's.

"I think Rion was afraid that his suggestion sounded too much like the way the nobility assigned tasks to underlings," Jovvi murmured to a partially attentive Lorand. "Your endorsement of the idea made him feel quite a lot better, so now it's your turn. What do you need to make you feel better?"

"If you're asking about what's bothering me, the answer isn't hard to put into words," Lorand replied, giving Jovvi the impression he groped for more than just what to say. "All those members of the former nobility deserve to be made to work for the Astindans, repairing the destruction they caused either actively or passively. The one thing I haven't come to terms with, though, is also sending along their children. I'm not sure that that's right."

Jovvi hadn't missed seeing the crowds of people around the house they'd appropriated, most of them the former nobles of the empire. The rest were guardsmen from both the empire and Astinda, and some of the former nobles were still trying to assert their "rights."

One smaller group, though, contained children of various ages, from young teenagers all the way down to infants in arms. The vast majority of those infants were being held by nurses, with only one single exception to that rule.

"I think I should have mentioned sooner that I've already spoken to the Astindans about that very point," Jovvi said, feeling a flash of guilt for having forgotten. "They really are men and women of honor, and don't believe in condemning those who are guiltless. Children can't be considered a part of what was done to their country, so these children are being examined with something else in mind: whether or not they've been ruined beyond redemption by the way they were raised."

"What do you mean by 'beyond redemption,'" Lorand asked, his disturbance clearly lessened. "Those children also aren't responsible for the way they were raised."

"Of course they're not responsible," Jovvi agreed with a touch to Lorand's arm. "But you have to remember that most of them have been shaped by that upbringing, and that majority will act just as their parents have. Neither we nor the Astindans have a place for people who think they were born to be deferred to and pampered. The children who see themselves that way will be put to work beside their parents, in the hope that they'll outgrow the attitude."

"And the rest?" Lorand asked, his emotions perfectly clear. He hated the idea of condemning children, and hated even more not being able to argue the need. "Are they also going to be put to work for the 'good of their characters'?"

"The others will be adopted by people in Astinda who lost their own children to the madness of the invasion," Jovvi answered, wishing with all her heart that she was able to ease Lorand's distress. But his strength had grown beyond her ability to touch, so he would have to find his own easing… "Our people would have to make room for extra mouths to feed, and there would always be a resentment against those children from someone. In Astinda their new parents will be told only that the children are orphans, so they now have a chance to be raised with love. And there is going to be an exception to the general rule. Did you see that one well-dressed young woman holding an infant?"

"How could I miss it?" Lorand asked, glancing over his shoulder at the group they'd passed. "She stood there glaring around at the world as if daring anyone to take the child she held."

"That's because she doesn't yet know she'll be the sole exception to having to give up her child," Jovvi told him, finally finding a reason to smile. "The main Astindan Blending has already examined her, and found that the usual attitudes of the nobility haven't taken well in her. She has very little respect or liking for the rest of her class, and she loves her child fiercely. She'll be sent out with the next group being taken to Astinda, but she'll be separated from the others almost at once. She hasn't been separated now for her own protection."

"Yes, the rest of those stiff-necked fools would blame her for the way she was treated, and would certainly consider her a traitor." Lorand nodded distractedly, his agreement clear. "So at least that's one saved, out of – how many?"

"There are a few others who also won't be forced to do the backbreaking work," Jovvi said, sighing over the same picture that Lorand now looked at inwardly. "Some of those people are more victim than noble, and the Astindans hope to find a way to reverse the way they were ruined. But as far as the rest goes… Lorand, we have to find a way to keep our own people and their children from turning into the same kind of parasites. If we don't think of something now, it's bound to happen."

"Yes, people do commit the worst horrors in the name of love, don't they," Lorand agreed with a matching sigh. "I wish I could say I knew exactly how to stop it, but I don't have the first clue. Hopefully something will come to one of us once we settle down into a routine."

Jovvi nodded and let the conversation drop, but her mind still worried at the need along with a hundred others. There was so much that had to be done, all of it important if not downright crucial. Jovvi had been losing sleep over the worries, a lack that looked as though it would continue for a while…

The ride to the palace was uneventful, as was actually entering the palace grounds. The day was a bit overcast, promising rain for some later time, but Jovvi didn't ask Lorand about the rain. The temperature was still warm enough that the Astindans probably would make no effort to give the former nobles shelter from the rain, and Lorand didn't need that to worry over along with the rest. Lorand was a beautiful human being, and Jovvi sometimes felt that he was more aware of the suffering of others than she was.

"At least we won't have hordes of people waiting to attack us with demands," Lorand murmured as they drew rein in front of the main entrance to the palace. "The guardsmen we left here are still at their stations, so no one should be inside but the servants who were left after we faced the former Five."

"I've definitely learned to be grateful for small favors," Jovvi agreed, dismounting without waiting for anyone to help. "And for the fact that there are still stable boys here."

In point of fact there were a lot of stable boys, all rushing out to take the reins of their horses. Even so not all of the horses would be taken to the stables at once, not with almost seventy-five people in their party.

"I thought ten boys would be enough," Vallant said after letting his reins be taken, looking around at the sudden flurry. "I left orders to have the boys be here when we arrived, but it looks like some of us are still goin' to be takin' care of our own horses."

"Some of the guardsmen are coming over to help," Lorand told Vallant with a smile of amusement. "And let me say how grateful I am that you dislike seeing to your own horse. I may be better at it than you are, but I don't like doing it any more than you do."

"Now that I know how to do it, I'm more than willing to let others have the honor," Tamma put in with her own amusement. "It's nice to know I can take care of myself if the need arises, but the rest of the time I prefer to be lazy."

"A perfect description of my own feelings," Rion agreed, voicing a small laugh as he took Naran's hand again. "I'm pleased no end that I'm able to look after myself, but prefer to leave exercising the talent for a time of need. And as soon as we've settled in, I even mean to learn how to cook."

Tamma immediately announced that she would join Rion in the cooking venture, and everyone, including members of the various link groups, put in their own opinions as they moved into the palace in a group. The guardsmen on duty remained at their posts outside, and the guardsmen they'd brought with them were off helping the stable boys with the horses.

The halls they walked through looked as deserted to Jovvi as they had the last time their Blending had entered the palace. With very few servants and no guardsmen that was to be expected, of course, but Jovvi still disliked the … almost brooding atmosphere. Something would have to be done about that as quickly as –

Suddenly a man appeared out of a nearby doorway, a man who was a complete stranger to them. He held a long knife in each of his hands, and he screamed madly as he began to run in order to close the few steps between him and his chosen targets: Jovvi and her Blendingmates.