Keri still wasn’t sure it was a good idea to get involved in the summit. Neither she nor Annit were properly part of the Village or Queen Iniri’s court, nor were they direct representatives of Blue. The only real reason for them to come instead of heading out to Wildwood with One-Eye-Green and avoiding the whole thing was that her family had asked for her. Annie had still objected, and Keri had agreed, especially after how her uncle had acted when Nivir had tried to invade, but apparently her mom and dad really wanted to talk. They’d brought cousin Sheryl, who was the one person she actually really missed from home, which was completely unfair.
So, she and Annie were grudgingly going along. At least Shayma had reassured them that Blue wouldn’t let them get forced into anything, and of course they were physically safe inside of Blue’s and Tarnil’s territory. She thought. Maybe. It depended on who else was in the party. Some of her relatives didn’t have half as much sense as they needed.
At least she got to see Annie in her clan outfit! It was even chilly enough to wear the surcoat, so she looked very stylish. Keri knew that Annit really didn’t think she looked particularly good, especially in comparison to Keri’s own looks, but the patterned outfit really was striking. Keri’s dress was boring by contrast.
She was mostly distracting herself from having to see her family again by watching Annie, waiting for Shayma to come and pick them up from a little room in Blue’s Tower at the Palace. Annie paced back and forth, fingers twitching now and again toward the place at her waist where she normally kept her bowgun. Keri was glad that Annie had ended up with a more potent weapon and was making some progress shifting her Class over, but that didn’t help much now. At least the room in Blue’s tower at the Palace was comfortable.
“Ready to go?” Shayma asked, popping in from nowhere instead of arriving by the door, but Keri didn’t blame her. She’d teleport everywhere too if she could!
“No,” Annie grumped. “But we might as well anyway.”
“I’m ready,” Keri said, touching her Source necklace and then grabbing Annie’s hand, the one that kept trying to grip a nonexistent weapon. “Let’s go.”
Shayma gave both of them a smile and turned to head back out into the Palace, this time normally. The building was enormous, and Keri probably would have gotten lost in it if it weren’t for Shayma, though she was pretty sure Annie knew her way. Even with their status as Shayma’s adventuring companions, they didn’t actually spend much time together outside of Wildwood or Blue’s territory.
They took several twists and turns, going through the long corridors and passing more people than they usually would. All the various delegations had actually filled out the Palace and made it less empty and echoing than the last time she’d been there, though it was weird to see the occasional non-human-kin. Their goal was a small conference room on the third floor, which was better than being summoned to Nivir’s suite, but then of course Shayma wouldn’t have stood for being summoned to a suite to begin with.
Her stomach was tight as they walked into the room and saw her mother and father in conference with Uncle Gerum. That wasn’t a good sign, especially not after the last time Gerum had seen her. Shayma went over to talk to them while Sheryl came running over to give her a hug, and Keri couldn’t help but smile. It had been over five years since she’d seen her favorite cousin and Sheryl looked good. Also heavily pregnant, her swollen belly bumping Keri before she stepped back and smiled.
“It’s so good to see you!”
“You too!” Keri beamed, ignoring the rest of her family for the moment, and gently put her hand against Sheryl’s rounded belly. “When did this happen?” She demanded, trying to think who she might have gotten married to.
“Um.” Sheryl blushed. “When you left, they ended up switching the betrothal contract to me. I’ve been married to Lucien for two years now.”
“What?” Keri stared at her. “Really?” Her guts twisted. It was all her fault Sheryl had ended up that way, even though she never would have been able to stand the man herself.
“Oh, he’s wonderful!” Sheryl said, laughing as she gave Keri another hug. “I’m actually glad that it happened. You’d be amazed at how boorish most of the peerage are! Or maybe not. You did leave, after all.” Keri just blinked at her, not entirely certain what to think of the news. She was glad that Sheryl was happy, of course, but it was hard for her to reconcile that emotion with the family mess she’d left behind. Not that she’d ever really known Lucien well, but still.
“I guess that’s good?” She couldn’t be as enthusiastic as she would have liked, reeling as she was from both little Sheryl being pregnant and married to her old fiancé, but she wanted to be positive. She wasn’t sure she made it; the idea was just too weird.
“How about you and Annit?” Sheryl said, casting a look over at Annie, who was doing her best not to scowl.
“It’s been interesting,” Keri admitted. “More interesting lately, since I got involved with Blue.” Sheryl nodded at that, then leaned in conspiratorially.
“What’s it like?” She whispered, as if that would stop Blue from listening in on them. “What does Blue make you do?”
“He doesn’t make us to do anything,” Annit said, with a bit of a snap to her voice. “He asked us to join up with Shayma, and we have.” Keri suppressed a grin at Annie actually defending Blue. Her mood had improved so much since One-Eye-Green had arrived.
“Oh.” Sheryl blinked, a little taken aback. “I just thought…” Keri touched Annie on the arm and she unbristled ever so slightly.
“Well, you’re here to learn about Blue, aren’t you?” Keri told her. “He’s very fair! But he’s also kind of scary with what he can do.”
“I saw that last night,” Sheryl said with a shudder. “That such a place even exists is terrifying.”
“Really, Annie and I don’t have special insight,” Keri assured her. “We mostly work with Shayma. If you want to know about him, you have to ask her. Like mom and dad are doing.” Her parents actually seemed to be about done their discussion, drifting their way, and Keri shuffled her feet slightly before turning to look at them. She really didn’t want to talk to them, but she knew it was inevitable.
“Keri,” her mother said, and to Keri’s surprise pulled her into a hug. Uncle Bertram didn’t look particularly happy, but he didn’t say anything while her mom clung to her. Then it was her dad’s turn, and he practically lifted her up, which was very confusing! She had been expecting them to yell at her more.
“I haven’t seen you for so long,” her dad said, putting her down and looking at her. “How’s my baby girl?” Keri was practically speechless. She hadn’t been expecting anything like this at all!
“I thought you’d be mad,” she blurted out, then immediately regretted saying it, but dad just shook his head.
“We were for a while,” he admitted. “But that was years ago, Keri.”
“Oh,” she said, feeling very small and silly. Then Annie put her hand on Keri’s shoulder, and she straightened up. Things might be fine now, but they weren’t then, so she couldn’t unwish what she’d done. If she hadn’t done it then, it wouldn’t be fine now. “Well I’m good now! I’ve been doing really well actually!” She pulled back far enough to show them the Source hanging around her neck. “I even got a healing Source.”
“Oh, that is amazing,” her mom gushed, giving the Source an admiring look. “When we found out about the summit, we had to take the opportunity. It’s not like we have many chances to get out of Nivir, let alone go to Tarnil!”
“I suppose there aren’t,” she admitted. Even if her parents didn’t qualify for the throne, her dad was First Councilor and really couldn’t get out of the country.
“I’m glad we did though, and not just to see you,” her dad put in, the smile he was aiming her way sliding to something more serious. “It’s been too long since we had real discussions with our neighbors. You know how it is, probably better than we do! After all, you have an outside perspective.”
“Which we don’t blame you for, dear,” her mom hastened to assure her, sensing Keri’s tension at her dad’s statement. “All the marriage stuff, leaving, all that’s in the past. We won’t bring that up any more.”
“Oh,” Keri said. She had never thought that would happen, and she felt almost lightheaded with relief from a tension she hadn’t even realized she’d been carrying. “Good!” She added, feeling far more cheerful. Maybe she could even visit her family again someday!
“Yes, being here has given us an entirely new perspective on the state of things in Nivir,” her father said. “Especially since Tekaomi mentioned her talk with you.”
“Oh, she did?” Keri beamed, amazed that Tekaomi had remembered. Maybe it wasn’t that surprising since Keri was an Esox, but Tekaomi was a fourth tier!
“So, you know there aren’t many people with healing Affinity,” her mother began, trailing off and waiting for a response from Keri.
“Yes?” She said uncertainly, glancing back at Annie. Annie told her that she didn’t have any idea where this was going either with a brief lift of her eyebrow and Keri looked back at her mom.
“I’m not sure exactly how to say this, but — well, Tekaomi is getting on in years and Nivir doesn’t have many good prospects for fourth-tiers. Tekaomi was favorably impressed with you and said you were actually fairly advanced in levels…”
“I’m level forty-one,” Keri told her. Most of those levels had come from healing people after the various battles, but a few of them had come from heading out into the wildwood with Annie and Shayma. Actually, she’d gotten more levels recently with the addition of One-Eye-Green, who had a tendency to grapple things much larger than herself.
Beyond that, her Skills were growing in unusual directions. Between the Primal Source and the occasional comments that Blue dropped, through Shayma, she was starting to feel out her own path in healing. Tekaomi’s interpretation of healing Affinity had been based on the nourishment of rain and water, but Keri’s was leaning in the direction of, well, Blue’s knowledge.
Knowing there were so many parts to the body, that there were incredibly small creatures that helped and harmed, that the difference between poison and cure was the dose – and when Blue had mentioned that offhand she could practically feel some of her Skills realigning – meant that she had a different approach than anyone else. She didn’t know if that meant she could get to fourth tier, but it did mean that Tekaomi’s advice hadn’t been as helpful as she’d like. Oh, Tekaomi knew a lot about adventuring, but when it came to healing, they were a lot more different than Keri had ever thought.
“There you go, you’re in sight of third tier already,” her dad said. “We were hoping we could convince you to come back to Nivir and work on trying to make your fourth tier.”
“Um,” she said, and wasn’t really sure how to take that. She glanced back at Annie and then looked around for Shayma, since she didn’t want to answer it right away, if at all. Shayma was keeping Uncle Bertram and the rest of the Esox retinue at bay, but Sheryl was still nearby, and she put in her own plea.
“Lucien and I are just worried about Nivir. Without a fourth-tier, how can we be really safe? How can my baby be safe?” She asked, which was just completely unfair.
“At the moment,” Shayma said, coming to her rescue as she popped across the room in one of her short-range teleports, “Annit and Keri are in debt to Blue.”
“Which we’d be willing to buy off,” Uncle Bertram interrupted, calling across the room as he hastened after Shayma. Shayma, for her part, ignored him.
“Regardless of what Keri is willing to do, she will be leveling up with me so there is no need to rush things.”
“But we can provide more—” Uncle Bertram kept arguing, until a glance from Shayma and a flicker of Presence silenced him. That gave Keri long enough to think it over, because while she didn’t like all the political stuff, she had been raised with it, and wasn’t stupid.
“I’m not saying no, but I’m not saying yes either because I can’t,” Keri told them. “Annie and I need to square things with Blue before we make any real decisions.”
“If you people decide to get on Blue’s good side, you don’t need to worry about fourth-tiers or whatever,” Annie said bluntly. “Tarnil sure doesn’t.”
“Annie’s right,” Keri agreed. “The friendlier you are with Blue, the less you need to worry about the future.” Her dad still looked hesitant, and she gave him another hug. “I’ll think about it!” She promised. “But I can’t give you an answer right now.”
“But,” her mom started, and this time it was Annie who cut her off.
“The more you try to convince her now, the less she’ll listen,” Annie told her, and her mom’s face made a complicated, unhappy expression.
“Maybe we can talk about other things? Like what plays are at the theatres, back in Nivir? I haven’t had the chance to go to one for ages.” She couldn’t really call it home, but she still missed it sometimes.
“Very well,” her mom said, then shook her head and smiled at them. “Why don’t we sit down?” That relaxed things a bit, and Sheryl looked grateful to have that part over with. Keri knew that they’d never really accepted Annie, and probably never would, so this was maybe as close as they’d get.
Despite what she’d said to her mom she couldn’t see any way that she could turn down the offer, in the end. Maybe delay it for several years but, if Nivir needed her, she wasn’t going to turn her back on it. Which didn’t mean she was stupid; it was obvious that they wanted to control her and thought they could do it since she was part of the royal family. Maybe they thought they could even pry her away from Annie, which would never happen. She would make sure of that. When she did go back, she would make sure that Blue was behind her.