My father, Quintus III of Varr, head of one of the great noble houses of Kryta, stared up at me as he died.
The bedchamber windows were thrown open, letting the warm Krytan breeze roll in from the fields and waterways that dotted the ancestral lands of the Varr, sending the thin gossamer curtains fluttering with the sound like bird’s wings. The breeze carried with the sweet scent of the distant vineyards, the distant roar of the falls, and the faint cries of the ever-present crows that roosted nearby. The old lord whimpered in his bed, as if suddenly afraid to let go of the life he’d already surrendered. His mind had fled eight months ago, and it simply had taken his body that long to realize it was already dead.
He stared at me as I lingered at the window, but I remained hesitant to draw closer to the tyrant’s deathbed. It was only when he frantically, if weakly, waved the remaining servants away to leave him alone with me and Maei that I deigned to draw closer. My handmaiden had been casting furtive glances back and forth between me and my father, no doubt once again assuming she knew me better than she did, and when I drew closer to the bed she gave a soft sigh of relief. Perhaps I felt that at the end there should be at least one Varr at the old man’s death, even if it was the one person he had hated most in life.
I stood beside the bed, letting the wretched man look up at his handiwork, his face ashen and his breathing ragged. He reached up, and I resisted the urge to pull away as I felt his weathered fingers brush my forehead, trail over my blindfold and all but tear it off.
He gazed up at me, trying to croak out some last word. I stayed silent, unmoving. I knew he wasn’t looking at me, not really, but the hallucinations must have been wonderful to him, given that he seemed almost caring with his last look at me. Almost like the father he should have been.
His eyes closed, and my vision darkened.
“Milady Kaede,” Maei said quietly, gently. Her vision was misty, fogged with tears, though I couldn’t imagine why – the old man had been as much a tyrant to the servants as to me. “He is gone.”
“I can see that.” I said, though I found I could not quite smile at the irony of my little joke. “Get my blindfold.” I ordered. “Let’s not keep the congregation waiting.”
She gingerly retrieved my blindfold from my father’s dead hand and tied the black cloth back over my blind eyes, sniffing now and again as if she were trying to keep from crying. I sighed in derision and gestured for her to lead the way out. Soon I’d be free of her and her snivelling, hopefully for good.
As we emerged into the opulent hallway I was immediately beset by the vision of a dozen others. Servants, physicians, friends of my father and the priestess of Dwayna who laid what I assume she thought was a comforting hand on my arm. Each of them was staring at me.
“My father is dead.” I announced, keeping my tone carefully sober. No sense in advertising the relief I felt. There were quiet murmurs from the gathering. “May Grenth shelter him.” I straightened to my full height and took a deep breath before all but shouting out my proclamation. “I am Kaede, daughter of Quintus, and from this day, the twenty-seventh of the Season of the Phoenix in the year 1313, till the day of my death; I am Lady of the House of Varr.”
An hour past dawn, I stood in the room where my father had died half a season ago. I was using Maei’s eyes the way another might use a mirror as I studied myself, going over my appearance for any imperfections I might have missed in my morning grooming.
I was tall, six-one, which was “too tall for a lady” as my father had sometimes said. My oft-criticised height perhaps ironically came from his side of the family, as my mother had been a slight, petite woman of modest height. From her Canthan ancestry I’d inherited my high cheekbones, slender build, pale skin and jet black hair, which I wore in a multi-layered braid that framed my face and hung down to just below the base of my neck. My eyes, which usually drew the most attention to anyone who saw them without their covering, had been a product of some strange twist of fate rather than any bloodline. They stared blankly ahead as I saw them through Maei’s eyes, milky-violet and as clouded as they had always been.
I had been born blind, my eyes as functionally useless as any ornament, and yet I could see. It had taken a priestess of Lyssa, a powerful mesmer, to explain what had baffled my parents; how could a child with pale, blank eyes navigate with the ease that I did?
It was a surprisingly simple explanation – I had been born with a natural affinity and considerable raw potential for the mesmer arts of illusion and sorcerous misdirection. Somehow, I had tapped into this potential and could see freely through the eyes of those nearby. I could see as well as the people around me, but alone I was left utterly blind. My parents had given me Maei when I was six to act as my eyes, though she’d only been a few years my senior, still a child herself and a boorish one at that. Apart from some of my more clandestine travels she’d been a constant companion, clinging to me like a cane clung to a cripple. Unwanted, but necessary.
“Varr, are you fina-wait, you’re actually going to wear that?” The voice drew me from my thoughts, and I directed Maei to turn to the newcomer as she tramped unceremoniously into the room.
“Baen.” I greeted curtly. “You were to wait in the main hall.”
“I did. For a bit anyway, but then I got tired of waiting for you to get all prettified.” She snorted. “You do realise we’re not going to one of your fancy parties, right?”
Baen Galmond might have been almost tall as I, but that was where the similarities stopped. Dark of skin with lines of smooth, well-defined muscle on her arms and shoulders that somehow didn’t look brutish, her face had a harder cast than mine with piercing eyes and lips that always seemed to hold the edge of a sardonic smirk. Her short cropped hair, as dark as mine, was cut into a ridge that ran along the top of her scalp and down to the base of her skull in a style that had always seemed primitive to me.
“I will dress how I please.” I snapped back, again wondering exactly why I considered this woman a friend. “And it pleases me to maintain at least some sense of grace when I travel.”
We both wore dark clothing, but Baen’s coarse leathers could hardly be compared to my fine silk blouse, riding skirt and thigh-high boots. Our respective sense of style – or rather Baen’s lack of one – had been a point of frequent contention between us over the years.
“Whatever.” She said, shrugging. “Are you about ready to leave?”
“Why the rush? Lion’s Arch will still be there.” I said, waving Maei away. The maid dutifully scurried from the room, leaving Baen and I alone. “It’s not like Orr can rise again, now can it?”
“It’s not the city I’m worried about.” Baen said, waiting till the door closed before continuing. “This Coalpaw isn’t likely to stick around for very long.”
“He’ll wait for us.” I said, using Baen’s eyes to retrieve my sword belt and tie it around my waist. “The report said three weeks, I think we can trust it.”
“The Order isn’t as sure as you are.” She said. “And if we mess this up we won’t be getting another shot for a long time. If ever.”
“Well the Order isn’t always right.” I said testily, and Baen snorted, though I couldn’t tell if it was in agreement or not.
“No, but if they think we’re messing up or being a little too creative on our first solo mission…” She trailed off, watching me as I holstered my ornate pistol and slipped my black satchel bag over my shoulder. “I don’t want to end up locked in the Chantry or on desk duty for the next year because you’re worried your belt buckles aren’t shiny enough.”
“You worry too much.” I scoffed, moving quickly now as I swept suddenly past her towards the exit. I smiled to myself, resting my forehead against the cool wood of the door. This is where it begins. “I’m waiting on you now. Shall we?”