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Chapter 26: In Which Tongues Take to Wagging

Both Burgen and the old man drank too much wine that night, I didn't have any appetite, I ate as much as my stomach had room to contain and concentrated on not looking at Varemini. But my eyes wanted to see her, and when my mind wandered, they'd wander off in her direction. She sat only a few chairs away, yet she was as far from me as ever.

It was the first time I had seen the crown prince Joaquin and the first time I had laid eyes on his new wife. But it was she, rather than he, who struck me as remarkably familiar. Somewhere, I thought as I watched her boldly bow like a man, at some time, in some distant, deeply buried memory – I had met that woman.

How this could be, I didn't understand. I was convinced that I would have remembered meeting someone like her, even if she were dressed in rags with her hair disheveled. There was something memorable about her, something different.

It haunted me, the feeling of misplaced recognition. That, and that thing that clung to her. It was inside her, and surrounding her; it held her safe within its grasp, shapeless, colourless, yet terrible. She did not seem to notice it, she moved about within it, it was slowly sucking away her life, millisecond by millisecond, and she was unaware.

"She's a Wielder, isn't she?" I asked, raising my voice over Burgen's freshest boat of giggles. I hadn't said a word throughout the entire evening, and when the courtiers moved on to the lounge to sip sweet wine and read out poetry, I was left to decide for the three of us that it was time to say goodnight. Burgen, who could barely walk, was finding every single thing immensely funny, and kept apologising over and over that he was a terrible drunk. The old man was no better off himself, and he seemed too old to be so intoxicated. I was afraid he'd die on his way to his room.

So it was up to me to make sure each one of them found their way safely.

"Varemininini's no Wielder." Burgen's speech slurred.

"Pergam is," The Grand Master said. "At least, that'd explain a thing or two."

"She is?" Burgen found this immensely confusing for some reason. "But... but... then how'd she gettit on with ole Cooper? Eh? Unless they didn't —?"

I felt terribly cross with both of them. I personally don't like the taste of wine and I always had an unshakable suspicion that when people get drunk they only use it as an excuse to act drunk. "Why does the King hate her?" I liked her, of course, not just because I thought she was pretty, but inside this palace, any enemy of the King was immediately my friend.

"Ah!" The Grand Master exclaimed, waving his finger in the air. "First, there was that incident with her brother, Erich Pergam and Prince Joaquin." He unfolded another finger, holding up two. "Then she went off and somehow became Harlock's mistress and now she's married Daphour's only son and he knows it's all to spite him."

My opinion of drunkenness shifted slightly as I stared at the old man's red face. Although partial, it was the easiest information I had received from the Grand Master. He had been, all this time, so reluctant to offer anything out.

"What incident?" I was also starting to enjoy gossip; as long as it was other people's problems it seemed immensely interesting.

"You mean, that rumour?" Burgen wondered "Issit true?"

"Shush, shush," the old man cautioned us, "the walls have ears."

"Only rats' ears," I said with confidence. While as a rat I could actually hear every single noise throughout the palace, as a boy I had other senses that could tell me if anyone was about. There was no one in earshot.

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