An Exercise in Frustration (Pt. 3)

This is an ongoing companion piece to be read after completing the Snakesblood Saga. Because it takes place during the final chapter of the last book, it will be very full of spoilers. It’s also unedited first draft fluff… just for fun! Read at your own risk, and expect installments no closer together than once a month.

* * * * *

Firal stared at the placard above the doorway and wished she could shrink in on herself until she disappeared.

Councilor. Counselor.

She had misunderstood.

Rune stood beside her, no less tense, though she suspected his anxieties stemmed from a different source. At least he’d been prepared for this. He’d been the one to arrange this meeting, one she would have expected if they’d been discussing the same problems at all.

She should have asked. She should have clarified what he wanted to address.

He cast her one hesitant look before he opened the door and motioned for her to precede him.

The room on the other side reminded her of an infirmary more than a receiving parlor, though there were no desks and no one waited inside to greet them.

“Do we just sit down?” she asked in a whisper, unsure she wanted the answer. She would have preferred to run the other direction.

It would have been different if she’d had time to prepare. If she’d known this was coming, that this was what he meant by speaking with someone. Brant’s shaking branches, she didn’t even know what to expect. She was perfectly familiar with the concept, of course; as a healer, she was expected to aid with health of the mind in addition to that of the body. Such a role had never been required of her, though. The people of Core had prioritized improvement of physical health only, and after she’d taken leadership of Ilmenhith, such tasks would have been beneath her.

Rune led her to the simple padded chairs and motioned for her to sit, so she did. From how easily he sank into the seat beside her, she assumed his chair was more comfortable than hers. She sat rigid, perfectly upright, and gripped the small purse she’d brought with both hands. It hosted little more than a notebook, but everything she’d scribbled inside had struck her as important regarding the status of her people—if she could still call them that.

For whatever awaited them here, the notes would be of no use at all.

It was not long before a pleasant-looking woman in spectacles peeked around the corner. “Good afternoon. Are you ready? Come with me.”

Rune stood first. He offered a hand, but Firal rose on her own.

A mistake, perhaps, from the way the woman’s smile shifted.

Counseling. A shudder crawled down Firal’s spine at her own foolishness. Well, perhaps this was best. The sooner they sorted things out, the better.

Belatedly, she realized the woman had addressed them in her tongue.

The two of them followed the woman into a more cozy sort of office, with a couch and chairs and a low table stacked with folded handkerchiefs.

“You speak Old Aldaanan?” Firal asked as she chose a chair over the couch, lest they have to sit with her thigh touching his. Kytenia would be disappointed, but she needed a moment to recover her bearings.

“Yes. It was a specific request made by your husband.” A gleam lit the woman’s eye. “I have to confess I was surprised by the request for marital mediation. For a long time, Lord Kaim-Ennen was viewed as a highly sought-after bachelor. I suppose now we know why no one managed to win his interest. Tea? Either of you?”

“No, thank you,” Rune said.

Firal shook her head at the same time. She barely managed to keep a sour twist from her face. “And will your familiarity with him not interfere with your impartiality here?”

The corners of the woman’s eyes crinkled in a friendly way. “Impartiality is a mediator’s job, and I am well accustomed to working with people of high social standing. Which includes you, my lady. Don’t worry, nothing said here will leave this room, unless you choose to take it with you. Now…” The counselor sat across from them and drew a small lap desk onto her thighs. “My name is Setta, and as you have probably guessed, I will be the one serving as mediator and offering counsel on how to improve your situation. Why don’t you introduce yourselves? In your own words. Not how the Royal City sees or names you. Your name and your role, in your own eyes.”

Easy enough. Firal gripped her purse with both hands. “All right. My name is Firal Tanrys. I am a mage of Kirban Temple and I was queen of the Eldani half of Elenhiise Island before it sank.”
The counselor nodded. “And you?” Her eyes drifted to Rune.

“Rune Kaim-Ennen.” His words rolled free easily, devoid of doubt or uncertainty.
Firal gave him a curious look.

“And what do you do?” the counselor prompted gently.

“Whatever I please.”

The woman’s brows rose. “I see. So, how long have the two of you been together?”

“Together as in married?” Firal asked. “Or do you mean the time spent married and actually together?”

“Several months,” Rune added as explanation before Setta could clarify, “thirty or so years ago.”

Had Firal not had such practice minding her expressions, she would have cringed. “Our union wasn’t recognized by my people.”

“But it wasn’t nullified by mine,” he said with heat in his voice.

Firal motioned for him to settle.

The counselor only wrote a few notes. “It’s not unusual for mages who marry to become estranged, due to their longer lifespan. I’m sure you’re aware of that. This, though, sounds like unusual circumstances. A few months is not much of a foundation, and thirty years…” She shook her head. “You’re certain this is a relationship you want to resume?”

“This doesn’t sound very reconciliatory.” Rune leaned sideways in his chair, a pose Firal had come to recognize as irritation—or an attempt to be irritating.

“Because if you choose to pursue this path and try to improve this relationship, it’s going to be very difficult, and it would be better for everyone if we know this is what you want before we start. So, is it? Your goal is to remain married?” Setta replied to Rune, but her eyes were trained on Firal’s face. Asking for certainty. Promising an escape.

The unspoken suggestion made her skin crawl with a strange sense of guilt. It would be easy to turn away, to walk out, to find a new path. Kytenia would welcome her as a mage in the Grand College, and then…what?

What came after that, when everything was settled and all her dreams had been abandoned? She almost scoffed.

“Yes,” Rune said. Again, the word came so easily, so certainly.

Firal almost hated that confidence, for all that it had been one of the things that first drew her to him.

“You want to remain married?” Setta repeated softly, inviting her to answer.

“It’s the most practical solution,” Firal said.

The shift in Rune’s expression was infinitesimal, but the way the fire in his eyes cooled tore at her heart in a way she’d never expected.

The counselor leaned forward. “That’s very pragmatic, but we aren’t talking about practicality right now. Is this what you want?”

Firal stared back and found her voice failed her.

Setta eased back in her chair. “Lord Kaim-Ennen, may I have a moment to speak with your wife in private?”

He gave no reply and merely stood, his demeanor stiff and formal. He did not so much as look Firal’s way as he silently excused himself from their meeting room.

The counselor watched him go and did not speak again until the door closed at his heels. “Lady Tanrys, I cannot help you if you won’t tell me what conclusion you want. Now please, be candid. What do you want?”




That was all she’d had to say. The word had been at the tip of his tongue, but he hadn’t been asked, and she…blight it all, she’d been the one to suggest this meeting, to look delighted when she’d heard he’d secured one so soon. Yet she couldn’t even tell the counselor if she wanted this?

Rune raked a hand through his hair and held his breath as he pushed through the front door and into the remaining sunlight. The waiting room was too still for him; he needed to feel the wind. It wasn’t strong in the streets of the Royal City, but it brought relief in a way he could not explain. He shut his eyes and focused on that soothing wind.

It called to him, sometimes. It and the sun on his face, the ground beneath his feet. But none of it answered the way it used to. Nothing did in the Royal City, held at bay by a barrier the city’s mages only sort of understood, but even outside it, the power escaped him in ways that were both frustrating and strange.

Yet it still called and called, begging for him to reach out and try to touch them, whispering his name—

“Lord Kaim-Ennen!”

His eyes peeled open as a new wave of agitation flowed through him.

The messenger offered a cheery wave. “His Majesty’s mages said you were down here.”

“His Majesty’s mages should mind their own business and respect people’s privacy.” Rune had always hated how readily the court mages used the tools at their disposal to track him about the city. He couldn’t help his magic or its source, but they could certainly help their nosiness and the king’s desire to keep him close at hand.

Vicamros the First had been the same way.

“Oh. Well, that’s something you can discuss with His Majesty, I suppose.” The young man gave a laugh, unfazed, and extended a sealed envelope. “The king has sent an urgent summons for you.”

Rune ignored it. “The King is more than welcome to have his authorized and unfettered mages send a Calling and then wait for a reply.”

“I believe he said he sent one, my lord, and so he sent this letter instead.” The youth offered the letter more insistently.

Agitated, Rune smacked it away. “Tell Vicamros he can take his letter and shove it—” The door beside him swung open and Rune spun to face the counselor. “—Into the correspondence box in the Gating office.”

Setta glanced between them, her smile tight. “Is this a bad time?”

“No,” Rune and the messenger replied at the same time.

Rune shot the young man a dirty look and snatched the letter out of his hand. “Tell Vicamros he can wait,” he said, a shade more gently than what he’d suggested before. “I’m doing something important.”

“Of course, my lord. We’ll see you at the palace tonight, then.” The messenger beamed at him and trotted on his way.

Tonight? Rune glanced at the envelope and fought back a groan.

The counselor led him back to her office without concern for whatever had just transpired. “We’ll keep things brief today, don’t worry. I have a few more questions for you, and then just a simple assignment you both may take home to read at your leisure. I assume the reading won’t be a difficulty?”

“Certainly not,” Firal said. She wouldn’t look at him as he returned to his chair, though her tone struck him as less steady than before. A curiosity for what had been said in his absence itched in the back of his mind, but there would be time for that.

“Good. Now.” Setta folded her hands in her lap, her little desk back on the table beside her. “This is, perhaps, the most important question I have. Mediation can improve many things, but the two of you are seeking reconciliation after an unusually long time, with very little ground work completed. What does reconciliation look like to you?”

Rune hardly knew where to begin. “There are probably a lot of things to fix.”

“Yes, that’s why you’re here. Do you have any examples?”

At least a hundred. He rubbed the back of his neck and thought of the way Firal had grown pale outside the door, her lips pressed so tightly shut that they’d lost all color, too. That was probably the worst of it. The silence she answered him with, any time something grew difficult. “We—” he started, though the word felt wrong the moment it left his mouth. No; it was hardly her fault. He corrected himself. “I…struggle with clear communication. And making myself approachable.”

“I assumed that would be a challenge,” Setta said.

Had she not just interrupted his short spat with the messenger outside the door, he might have questioned her impartiality, but he’d set himself up for that.

“I want a functional family.” This time, Firal spoke without hesitation. “Preferably one with as little strife as possible.”

“A family with children?” the counselor suggested.

Color rose in Firal’s cheeks and she faltered.

Well, his opinions mattered, too. “More children,” Rune said. “If possible. We already have one, and I’d like her to have a warmer upbringing than I… than we experienced.”

“Is this something you’ve discussed prior to today?”

“Yes, albeit a long time ago,” Firal stared at her hands as she rubbed patterns in the velvet of her purse.

“Good.” Setta smiled and reached for a stack of papers. “I’ll be frank with the two of you. Having a child now would be unwise. They tend to introduce more complications than they fix, but that does give us a reason to discuss one more important factor before I send you off with homework. Let’s take a moment to discuss intimacy.”

To Rune’s relief, he was not the only one who groaned.

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