It was the sort of day in which one doesn't want to go anywhere. Rain pounded relentlessly on the roof and poured from the eaves and gutters. A wind was blowing down from the northeast, carrying no warmth with it. It was gusty and threw the rain sideways into your face, so that no matter which way you were going, you got utterly drenched.
Oren sat on the window seat, three stories from the ground, and raced raindrops down the windowpane. His lessons were done for the day, and he had no playmates. He'd already devoured all the books in the house at least three times over, metaphorically speaking, of course. Oren would have pestered Jax, the man-of-all-work, to build chair castles and let Oren slay him as the wicked dragon holding the beautiful cushion-princess captive, but he was busy taking care of the household accounts. Even the rotund and motherly housekeeper, Hild, was out for her half-day. So Oren was racing raindrops.
As he was cheering on the leftmost drop, which had been the underdog for quite some time and had forthwith decided it was time to put on a burst of speed and overtake its opponent, he smelled something unexpected. He turned towards the door of the room, with the distinctive odor of smoke in his nostrils. Flames were licking through the cracks in the door, creeping up the walls, and smoke was billowing near the ceiling. Of course there were no other exits, unless one counted the window, and although that thought crossed his mind, he knew that it was far too high up for him to have any chance of landing it safely if he were to jump – never mind the difficulty of opening the window in the first place.
The flames came closer. The heat became oppressive, as if the air was becoming thicker and heavier. Oren could scarcely breathe in: the air was so hot and dry that it hurt his lungs. The shelves on the wall came alive as the greedy fire slid closer, eating books, walls, and furniture alike. It became clear that there was no escape. He vaguely wondered if Hild and Jax had gotten out safely, and resigned himself to his fate. He could not keep from screaming as his flesh burned.
Temmec stood on the starboard bow of the ship, balancing against the sway of the sea, his hands clasped behind his back. It had been weeks since he'd been home, and he was ready to have a good meal and a good night's sleep in his own bed. It was always an interesting experience, travelling, but there had been too many inns and taverns along the course of the journey where he'd had small tickly bedfellows, and it was about time he slept somewhere where lice and bedbugs were completely out of the picture. He sighed, grateful that the long trip was almost over, and desirous of seeing his wife again.
When he had first met her, she had been the most beautiful woman in Marronay city, and the second most beautiful woman in Upnar province. No one of his acquaintance had ever been sure who had decided that she was only the second most beautiful woman in Upnar, but everyone agreed she was the most beautiful woman in Marronay, without question or competition. She had more than beauty, though: a sweeter, kinder person, it was said, had not lived in the city for a full hundred years. Tem was never quite sure how he had managed to win her affection, and always felt a vague sense of undeservedness, but it was universally agreed that, while he worshipped the ground she walked on, she also had eyes only for him, anyone could see that. And so, in due course, they were married, and that day a large proportion of the young men in the region, although invited to the wedding, refused to attend, preferring instead to drink their broken hearts away. He brought her to his big house in the middle of town and carried her over the threshold with all the proper ceremony – and promptly stumbled and almost dropped her, too busy gazing at her to have any thought towards watching his feet.
They were very happy together for a good few years – until she became pregnant. It was not an easy pregnancy, and she had to remain in her bed, by order of the apothecary, for the majority of those nine months. She weakened and became very pale. The apothecary was called to their house almost daily. He frequently bled her, explaining that it was bad blood that was causing the trouble. Tem spent sleepless nights walking the floor of his study, hoping she would recover soon, worrying that she would get worse, and cursing the yet-unborn child for its part in draining her strength. When at last the child was born, a son, any hope he'd had for her recovery died a dreadful death that day. It had been such a difficult birth, and in conjunction with her earlier weakness, the apothecary said, she would not be strong enough to leave her bed again, and in no wise was she fit to ever carry another pregnancy to term. In his anger and grief, Tem blamed the child. He refused to have anything to do with him. His wife was too weak to look after the infant, so he hired a wet-nurse and left them both in another part of the house. At first, he spent every waking moment at his darling wife's side, but when it became clear that his constant attentions were doing more to tire her than to help her, he threw himself into his work, and only allowed himself to see her for a half-hour every day, a time she looked forward to almost as much as he did. Tem also contracted the apothecary to visit and bleed her weekly, and instructed that he do all else he could to improve her condition. His son he put out of his mind entirely. For all intents and purposes the child became an orphan in his own father's house. He was certainly never allowed to see his mother – indeed, he was told he had no mother, and she was told, to prevent her from worrying, that the child had not lived – and Tem himself never interacted with the boy unless it was absolutely necessary.
Ten years later, Temmec Derion stood with his hands behind his back watching the harbour draw nearer, eager to see his dearest. Even in her weak state, and even though she was no longer the most beautiful woman in Marronay, he still worshipped her, and today's half-hour with her had been long in coming. A dinghy was soon put over the side of the ship for those going ashore, and within half an hour he was standing on solid ground. A seaman was instructed to send his luggage to his address, but Tem would not wait himself for transport; he was in too much of a hurry to see his wife. Twenty or thirty minutes' brisk and impatient walk through the town and he was standing in front of his house. Or rather, what was left of his house. Only a scorched stone skeleton remained; the rest was ash and rubble. The walls stood up like blackened teeth. Neither roof nor floors were left – the fire had completely gutted the place, and taken all the furnishings with it.
Tem stopped a passerby. “What happened here? When did this happen? Tell me, did anyone make it out alive?” He was visibly shaking.
The man had a sympathetic look on his face as he answered. “Not but a week ago, m'lord, the whole place went up in smoke. I didn't see it myself, but I heard. The wee boy screamed, something frightful – it was that piercing, you could hear it right down at the harbour edge.”
“I don't care about the boy! What about my wife, man?” Tem demanded.
“No-one knows, m'lord,” replied the man, “some say one fellow did make it out, but I haven't heard who that was, or where he went; but none of them's said anything about no lady, begging your lordship's pardon.”
“You're sure no-one mentioned her?” he pleaded.
“Very well.” he turned away, dejected. Inside of an hour, his entire life had crumbled away like the walls and floors of his once-house. He couldn't care less about the child – even the servants merited more regret than the boy. His one concern, the sun whose warmth he had revolved around, his focus for thirteen years – she was gone. She had been the jewel he prized more than anything else the world could offer, and now she was his no longer. On an impulse, he moved toward the heap of stones and ash; he told himself he was just looking to see if anything was left.
As he approached the place where the front door had been, he thought he saw something fluttering in the breeze. It seemed to be stuck to the inside of the wall just through the door, a place it could not be seen from the street. Tem, intrigued and curious, came up to it. It was a note, pasted to the wall, and it was addressed to him. It read:
To my Lord Temmec Derion, by the hand of Ejax Ortrin:
Pursuant to the aims and goals of those who consort
with the Family Hanach, and also being individually
desirous of incurring and inflicting quantities of misery
and anguish in your Lordship, I took it upon myself to
deal appropriately with you and your Lady. By the
agency of my comrades and myself, and with the full
knowledge and approval of House Hanach, your home,
your wife, and your son now lie in ashes, dust, and slag.
I also take this opportunity to resign most heartily from
your employ, which I trust will not be overly inconvenient
to your Lordship.
The cheek of the man: to flaunt his wife's death, and then to add, “Oh, by the way, I'm not working for you anymore – so sorry!” - it was not to be borne. Tem tore down the paper and crumpled it in his fist. He would take his revenge on Hanach. He would take his revenge on all the Greater and Lesser Houses. And when he was done, they would each bow before him and swear their allegiance to Derion House. Jax Ortrin was but a minor player in this game, a simple hired assassin, not worth worrying about in the slightest. Tem would cut down the tree at the root; the branches would take care of themselves.
Some months later, in the city of Adrin, a meeting was quietly taking place in an upper room of the noisiest, most disreputable tavern in town. The theory being, of course, that the louder the drunk men downstairs were, the less likely it was that the meeting upstairs would be overheard.
“You have heard, I suppose, of his – ahem – actions in the past few weeks?”
“Oh, yes. I have, indeed, my lord. It would be difficult to avoid hearing about him, I think.”
“And you have heard that the Family Royal wish to avoid – ahem – unnecessary bloodshed, I presume.”
“I have, yes. Please come to the point, my lord.”
“Very well, very well. The Family Royal would be grateful if they could – ahem – procure your services in this matter.”
“The point, my lord; I am losing patience.”
“Be not hasty, sir! The point, as you say – ahem – is that they wish you to, if I may, put a point into him – ahem.”
“Leave your puns at the door, I beg you, my lord; they make your meaning less clear, if such a thing were possible. Do you mean that they wish me to seduce him? Or that they wish me to kill him? Answer me straight, if you are able.”
“Ahem – they do not mean you to seduce the man, no.”
“Then they wish me to kill him.”
“I am not – ahem – permitted to say so. However, if he were to – ahem – perish suddenly, I think you may find a large quantity of – ahem – gold in your coffers within a very short period of time.”