Sephrenia sat by the fire, cradling a cup of tea in her hands and watching the flames without really seeing them. She was grateful that Vanion let her use his office as if it was her own, because otherwise she wouldn’t have a space to call her own except for her tiny bedroom. It had seemed enough in the long centuries before this, but now she found she needed more space for her thoughts. And Vanion’s office had a fireplace, which was useful at times.
One more Sparhawk in the long line of Sparhawks had entered the Order of Pandion Knights of the Church as a novice. Something assured Sephrenia this one was the one she had been waiting for. She was quite worried of her responsibility in educating this lad as was proper; luckily the lad seemed bright enough and there were many worthy knights around to learn from. She couldn’t yet tell anything to Vanion, so she had to manage her thoughts by herself. That Vanion had been the one they chose for Preceptor after Dargon’s death had been the greatest luck for her. Well, not so much luck as careful and discreet management by her (and occasionally her goddess), but since she had no say in the Order’s official matters, she had to admit to being lucky. Vanion had been one of her most talented, most clever and closest students, and a valiant knight and a loyal friend besides.
And it seemed he was growing to be something more. Of course Sephrenia knew of his boyish infatuation during his novice years – almost every novice had a terribly embarrassing crush on her at one time or another, but most of them grew out of it and settled for more proper and more genuine affection. Vanion seemed to carefully conceal all of his feelings besides the obvious loyalty and affection, but sometimes he let his guard down when he thought she didn’t notice. The auburn-haired knight had come to her in the night of the Preceptor’s election to tell her that he had been chosen, and he had knelt and kissed her palms and asked for her blessing, and received it, and then, still kneeling, he had looked up at her and asked: “Do you really approve, little mother?”
She had paused, watching him carefully, and searched for a deeper meaning in his words. “Yes, dear one”, she had answered. “With all my heart. If I had had a say in the matter I’d have chosen you.” The frown still hadn’t left his pale brow. “Will you help me with this? You’ve been here far longer than anyone, little mother, you know everything. I’d be pleased to have your guidance.”
She had smiled, and she smiled now, remembering. Vanion had been a grown man, in his early forties, well liked and respected within the Order and the Church, and here he was, begging for guidance from a slight Styric woman. He had always noted where the true powers lay.
“Of course, dear one”, she had said and kissed him on the brow. The look on his face just then had made her wonder if it had been a mistake after all. But he had said nothing, done nothing, and time had passed and they had found they liked each other’s company so much they didn’t mind sharing a space even without a reason.
Vanion came in still reeking of iron and sweat, although he had removed his armour and apparently had a quick wash before entering. His sword was still on his side, which made Sephrenia frown a bit, but he removed it almost absent-mindedly and set it aside before approaching the fire.
“Oh, good, you are here, little mother”, he said. “There is a political situation brewing in Elenia.”
“When isn’t there?” asked Sephrenia, smiling. “Do continue. Does it require your meddling?”
“It certainly seems to. The Council is trying to step on the toes of the Church again. They’re trying to get a law passed that the Knights of the Church could also be commanded by the secular authorities, of course using the King’s Champion as their lever. Patriarch Veston of Cimmura has asked for my support and, I expect, my fist on the Council table to put an end to this. Veston is too old for this kind of fight, although I have complete faith in him, of course.” Vanion shrugged.
“Sparhawk can’t take sides on this without risking his position. If they make King Aldreas sign the law, it’ll make us little more than a city militia. Of course Chyrellos will object, but the objection will come late – and the Church can’t meddle with how an individual kingdom deals with its affairs. Veston will need a strong voice in the Council against this folly. We can grant our help with any state trouble, but we must not be commanded by the state. We’re Church knights after all, defenders of the Faith and all such.”
“That didn’t sound too pious, dear one”, Sephrenia observed quietly.
Vanion laughed, a little embarrassed. “No, it didn’t. What irks me more is the potential loss of our independence. We have existed between the Church and the state for so long, navigating in between, and have managed to grow quite independent of both… not that I’d say so to either His Majesty or His Holiness. But I must go to the Council meeting and do something about this.”
“So it seems”, said Sephrenia. “Would you be terribly offended if I joined you? Something in this doesn’t sound right, and I’d like a closer look at it.”
“No, not at all, little mother”, said Vanion. “We’ll go first thing tomorrow. I need to get the details from Veston before the Council meeting.”
The next morning saw them sitting in Veston’s office in the palace, just a few corridors from the Council Chamber. The frail old Patriarch was still sharp-witted, but his voice was hardly more than a whisper and his hands trembled so badly he no longer could sign anything by his own hand. A young priest served him as a scribe.
“And of course everything is absolutely illegal, if you look at it closely enough”, wheezed Patriarch Veston, pushing some papers towards Vanion. “They have gilded and polished it to the point of deceiving the less suspicious ones, but they know they don’t stand a chance. If you say you won’t recognize the order and tell them to turn to the Archprelate to get the Church’s point of view, I think they should yield.” Vanion looked through the papers, nodded a few times at some of the more suspicious parts, and thanked the old Churchman for the information. Sephrenia had stood back so as not to insult the old man with her presence, but she saw how the young priest glowered at her. When they were leaving, the priest turned to the old man and began to mutter enraged words at him, but Veston lifted one shaking hand and said: “I trust in him. If he thinks he will need her, she’ll go in, Styric or not. Just let it be, Annias.”
Sephrenia sighed a little but pulled her white hood on her head and followed Vanion to the Council Chamber. The Elenes and their prejudices. Strictly speaking she probably shouldn’t be there, but then again there wasn’t a law against her presence, either. Vanion whisked her inside with a gesture to the guards, and she settled by the door where she could observe and not be too obvious. The blue chamber was sombre, and its current inhabitants did nothing to make it cheerier. Sir Sparhawk, the Champion of the King, a greying man in his early sixties, was sitting pointedly further away from the oak table than the others. The three other members of the Council lifted their eyes from a document on the table like children caught in mischief.
“We didn’t invite you, Preceptor Vanion”, said the sly, snake-like Baron Rothar. His receding hairline made his brow seem enormous and gave him the false impression of wisdom.
“Patriarch Veston authorized me to speak for himself and the Church on this matter”, said Vanion, not bothering to sit down. He leaned over the table to catch a glimpse of the document. “You do know that what you’re trying to do is against the treaty”, he said, and deftly caught the piece of paper from under their noses and began reading it. “As by the State of Elenia… the command of the Pandion Knights of the Church… precedent… You know, Rothar, you’re wrong there. There is no precedent on this. The Order supports itself and commands itself, and it takes orders from no-one else. Sir Sparhawk here is not a precedent, since he isn’t directly subordinate to His Majesty. What would help you understand the difference?” He straightened, pushing his heavy black cloak aside so the movement revealed his large sheathed sword for a moment. He didn’t need to put his hand to the hilt.
“We have need of your knights”, whined a fancily dressed younger councilman from behind Baron Rothar.
“Then you’ll need to bring the problem to me, and simply ask for help”, answered Vanion with the sort of kind, explaining voice one uses for children and simpletons. “So. What seems to be the problem?”
There was a sudden, embarrassed silence.
“…Yes?” Vanion prompted. He was enjoying the situation immensely.
Baron Rothar drew breath and tried to assume a commanding posture. “You Pandions have grown too self-assured these last years. We – the Council of the King – believe you’ve become too powerful and need to curb your…”
“Our what? Meddling with the affairs of the state? You’re leeching the treasury, Treasurer, for your own ends, as I could tell by your clothes alone. And since we’re the military force in Elenia, we’re bound to interfere if we see anything disturbing the King’s Peace. If you can show me any other unrest I should be putting my knights against, please do so – otherwise let me do my job as I see fit.”
“You’re making our work difficult”, whined the Treasurer.
“My heart bleeds”, answered Vanion with a straight face and a level voice. “Now, if there was anything else besides this folly – “ he tore the paper he was holding – “I’d like to hear it now. If not, I have work to do. No? I thought so. Don’t make me come here again.”
Sir Sparhawk winked an eye to him when he turned and strode out of the door still holding the torn pieces of paper in his hand. Sephrenia followed him still covered by her hood.
“What do you think, little mother?” asked Vanion once they were outside the palace and about to ride back to the Pandion castle.
Sephrenia was quiet for a while, then dropped her hood and smiled at him. “You didn’t even thump the table? You’re starting to learn, dear one. And no, I don’t think there was anything more than a desire to dip into the royal treasury or minding a bit of someone else’s business in the king’s name… but I’m still a bit worried. You should be careful around them, dear one.”
“I always am, little mother”, Vanion said touching her shoulder lightly. “I’ve been around them many years now. No outside influence, then? Just young King Aldreas being his own indecisive self?”
“Probably…” Sephrenia felt a little unsure, but let the thought drop.
That night she sat by the fire again, cradling her perpetual cup of tea, and watched the flames. Vanion sat by the table doing paperwork; the rustle of the pen on the paper was almost drowned out by the crackling of the fire. She noticed he had stopped writing only when he came to sit beside her.
“Now tell me, little mother – you came with me just to make sure I didn’t stab anyone, didn’t you?” he said softly, with a teasing edge in his voice.
Sephrenia smiled at him. “That too”, she admitted. “In effect I just came along to listen to you speaking politics. You seem to enjoy it so much.”
“Occasionally”, he admitted. “Mostly when I get to tell people what they should do.”
“You’re a bully”, she reproached.
“Guilty as charged”, he said, bowing a little. “But that’s why you love me, isn’t it?”
She started a little at that and then she saw his face. He was watching her with a small smile on his lips, his eyes calm and confident: he knew. There was no need to hide it now from him.
“Yes, dearest one, that’s one of the reasons”, she said quietly, before taking his face into her hands and kissing him fully on the lips.