The Blending Enthroned: Destiny

Chapter One

Driffin Codsent entered the living quarters of the warehouse with more relief than he would have wanted to mention aloud. He hadn't gotten much sleep lately and tiredness dragged at him, but lying down was out of the question. He simply didn't have the time for rest, and wouldn't have been able to sleep anyway.

"Still nothing?" Edmin asked from where he stood beside the table, the man's frown showing deep concern. "What can possibly have happened?"

"I don't believe this is happening," Idresia said from where she stood, in the cooking area of the room. "How can something affect every single High talent in the city?"

"I wish I knew," Driff answered the both of them as he walked to a chair near Issini Randos, who also looked deeply disturbed. "Every High talent in the city has somehow been put into a kind of stasis, and it just isn't possible to reach through to them. They're all in perfect health, except for the fact that they can't move or talk or probably even think."

By then Driff had collapsed into the chair and covered his eyes with his fingers, and Issini patted his arm.

"Their not being able to think is a good thing, Driff," Issini told him in a reassuring tone. "If they were aware of what was going on, they would probably be very upset."

"Going crazy would be more like it," Idresia corrected as she came closer, and then she, too, touched Driff's arm. "Here, drink this tea while your food is cooking. If you're not going to rest, then at least you have to eat."

Driff lowered his hands to see the cup of tea Idresia had put in front of him, and he reached for it gratefully. His body did need the stimulation right now, not to mention the food that was cooking. There was still so much to do…

"What about the Middle Blendings?" Edmin asked once Driff had taken a good swallow of the tea. "Do they think they can do anything?"

"It was all I could do to talk them into taking over some of the routine duties the Highs were seeing to," Driff answered, finding it impossible to keep the annoyance out of his voice. "They're afraid that they could be next to be struck down just the way the Highs were, and can't seem to understand that that could happen anyway. I had to point out that even the uninvolved Highs were taken the same, so just sitting around was no guarantee of safety."

"What we need is for you to be able to take charge completely," Idresia said with matching annoyance. She'd gone back to the stove, and now waved the large wooden spoon she held. "If you were part of a Blending you could tell people what to do, not waste your time talking them into it."

"Driff doesn't like the idea of being part of a Blending," Edmin commented, studying Driff from the chair he'd also taken. "I wonder if I might be so bold as to ask why."

Edmin's expression was no longer the complete neutrality it had been when Driff had first met him. There was open curiosity in the man's eyes, but the words he'd used would have allowed Driff to refuse to answer the question if he really needed to. Driff smiled to himself, then let part of the smile show through.

"It's not the act of Blending itself that I dislike," he replied, sending his tired smile to Idresia and Issini as well. "You may not understand just how close a bond there is between Blendingmates, but I do. I simply can't see myself Blending with others who don't include Idresia - or you and Issini, for that matter. If you aren't careful about who you Blend with, I've been told, you end up with less than you had alone rather than more."

"Yes, but - " Issini began, but a knock at the door cut her short. After the knock the door opened, and a man Driff didn't know put his head in.

"Sorry t' interrupt, folks, but this here's kinda important," the man said with a disarming smile. "Idresia, c'n I talk t'ya a minute?"

Issini left the table immediately to take the spoon Idresia held, which left Idresia free to go to the door. She stepped outside with the man, and it was possible to hear the words of a low conversation through the partially open door.

"The man's really excited about something," Edmin said softly to Driff. "Have you any idea what that can be about?"

"I don't even know who he is," Driff admitted after taking another sip of tea. "He's probably part of Idresia's spy network, and I can only hope that his news isn't bad. I don't think I can take much more bad news."

"No, I'm fairly sure it isn't bad news he's brought," Edmin said, now studying the doorway. "And there seems to be more than one something. Idresia was more surprised over the first something than the second, and now she seems to be giving instructions."

"I'm sure we'll find out what's going on as soon as she's through," Driff said, amused by Edmin's open curiosity and running commentary. Edmin was not the same man Driff had met only a short while ago, not as … controlled and repressed. Once Edmin had decided to join them, he'd done so wholeheartedly.

"I wonder if I might ask you a question, Edmin," Driff added as the thought occurred to him. "You seem to be doing better with your talent than other Middle talents in Spirit magic that I've met, and I'd like to know why that is. You haven't managed to join one of the training classes, have you?"

"I wish I could," Edmin answered ruefully with a touch of wistfulness. "Whatever facility I may have comes only from years of using my talent to survive among my former peers. It's been quite some time since I've been able to release the power, but I've somehow been able to … shield my doings from others with Spirit magic. I really have no idea how the thing should be done, so I would welcome the chance to correct any mistakes by attending one of the classes."

"You're shielding your efforts," Driff repeated, staring at Edmin and only just resisting the urge to gape. "You're completely untrained, but you can shield."

"Yes," Edmin replied, obviously amused by the way Driff - and Issini - stared at him. "That, I believe, was why the Noll woman had no qualms about allowing her brood to touch my father so blatantly. Am I to assume that my lone efforts are rather commendable? You two seem somewhat impressed."

"Rather commendable, he says," Driff commented to Issini with a small laugh, shock turning to delight. "I think it's a good thing he told us about this in private. If any of the Highs had heard him say it, he'd be running so many training classes that it would be years before we saw him again."

"Training classes?" Edmin echoed, his amusement gone behind confusion. "Whyever would I be running - You can't possibly mean - "

"I think he understands now," Issini said with her own amusement as Edmin floundered while looking back and forth between the two of them. "Yes, my dear, what we mean is that no one else has managed to … shield their efforts from others of the same aspect. Can you explain how you do what you do and how it works?"

"I'm not certain I can," Edmin answered, his brows high as he obviously struggled to accept what he'd been told. "What my shield does - I think - is keep others from knowing that I'm touching the power and actively using my ability. Other Spirit magic users know I have the same talent, but they don't seem to - Are you certain that no one else has developed the same ability?"

"No one I've ever heard of," Driff answered, speaking gently to soothe the shock he could feel in Edmin. "But the lack of others isn't all that surprising. Don't forget that commoners were forbidden to use their ability except for certain limited and well-defined tasks, and the nobility seemed to consider using talent as beneath them. Most of your former peers didn't have much ability, I'm told, so that's probably why they were happier not using it."

"Then I do have something of value to offer to the new regime," Edmin said, sudden delight replacing his former distress. "Anyone can plot and plan, but my ability at subterfuge was all I had to offer - until now. You have no idea how relieved I feel."

"That's what you think," Driff told him with a small laugh. "Until I found out how strong a healing ability I had, I felt exactly the same way. But the question still remains: do you think you can explain how you do that shielding thing?"

"I don't know," Edmin replied, the delight fading. "I've been doing it for so long that it's become pure habit. I'll have to think back to when I first developed the shield, and try to remember exactly what I did."

"I was about to offer the help of a High in Spirit magic," Driff said, his own good mood disappearing as he remembered their most serious problem. "Gensie would have loved to get involved, but she's as unliving as every other High. But that does remind me: I'll have to have someone check on that residence for the disturbed that some of the Highs were running. We can't afford to have those people walking around without supervision."

Issini seemed about to comment or ask a question, but that was when Idresia came back into the room and closed the door behind her.

"It certainly does help to be prepared, but it will be a while before we know how much it helps," Idresia commented. She'd apparently been about to return to the stove, but seeing Issini coming with a plate of food for Driff sent Idresia to the table instead to sit with the others.

"We've been waiting to find out what that man wanted," Driff said, nodding his thanks as Issini put a plate of cheese omelet in front of him. "And once you tell us your news, we'll tell you ours."

"There's definitely news," Idresia agreed, her expression puzzled as she looked around to see that all of her companions were amused. "But what news can you possibly have?"

"We'll tell you later," Driff said around a mouthful of eggs. "You first."

"Since the first part of this is really important, I won't argue about going first," Idresia said after the briefest of hesitations. "It looks like our renegade noble is starting to make his move."

"What is he doing?" Edmin asked at once, speaking the words Driff would have used if his mouth hadn't been filled with food. "Is there any indication of what his objective is?"

"He's started to send his men out from those other locations in groups of three, six different groups of three to be precise," Idresia answered. "Two of each group are fairly large in build, but the third is either short or slender or both. You remember that I added to the number of people watching Noll's men when we heard about the Highs being in trouble. I assumed that the Middle Blending helping us would be needed elsewhere, and I didn't want us to be caught short. I had twenty of my people in place, so twelve of them paired up and followed each of the renegade's groups."

"For pity's sake, Har, stop dragging it out and tell us what happened," Issini protested. "Or don't you know any details yet?"

"Four of the groups went to taverns, and the last two went to dining parlors," Idresia replied with an apologetic shake of her head. "I'm sorry to drag it out so badly, but the story is worth telling in detail. One of the two big men of each group went into the tavern or dining parlor alone, and a few minutes later the second big man joined the first. One of my two shadows was already inside the place, having gone in after the first man.

"When the second renegade's man walked in, he pretended that he and the first man were friends who hadn't seen each other in a while. The third, smaller man came in right behind the second one, but he pretended not to know either of the other two. The third man sat or stood by himself while the first two went through how-have-you-been and how-are-things conversations.

"After a couple of minutes, the first two started to tell each other how badly they were being taken advantage of by the new government. They were a couple of innocent victims being ground under the heel of uncaring tyrants, and their voices were loud enough that everyone in the establishment heard what they were saying. That, of course, was when the 'stranger' stepped forward to agree with what they'd said."

"The 'stranger' being the third of their group, of course," Driff said angrily, this time beating Edmin to the comment. "Don't tell me that the people listening believed them."

"Apparently the people listening were seriously concerned," Idresia confirmed, but she herself looked a good deal less than disturbed. "I still don't believe the good luck I had in picking people as watchers, but apparently the inside person did the same thing in every instance. He or she announced that the three 'victims' must be leaving out some important details, because no one else seemed to be having anything like the same trouble. Then he or she turned to the rest of the patrons in the place, and asked if they'd had anything like the same trouble or knew of anyone who had. That was when the listeners realized that no one else had had the same trouble."

"How did the three 'victims' take being interfered with?" Issini asked, a small frown creasing her brow. "They couldn't have been happy to have their little act ruined."

"They weren't happy, but there wasn't much they could do," Idresia replied with a headshake. "A hothead from one of the groups seemed to be ready to beat up on our man who interrupted whatever they were trying, but luckily there were off-duty members of the guard present. When the guard members got to their feet and stepped forward, the hothead changed his mind and simply stalked out of the tavern. Our man left by the tavern's back door, just in case the hothead was waiting outside for him."

"I believe I know what they were trying, but I have a question first," Edmin said, his expression thoughtful. "Did the groups return then to where they came from, or did they make another attempt elsewhere?"

"Actually, they did try their acts a second time," Idresia confirmed, looking at Edmin curiously. "My people switched places, so the groups weren't interfered with by the same man or woman. But they were interfered with again, so none of them tried a third time. They were so frustrated that they simply went back where they came from, probably to report and ask for new instructions. So now tell us, what do you think they were after?"

"In my opinion, they were trying to make people believe that the new government isn't as helpful and benign as everyone now thinks," Edmin said, looking around at all of them. "Noll has most likely decided to spread rumors that will circulate throughout the entire city, rumors calculated to cause unrest and doubt. Once the rumors and accusations have spread far enough, he undoubtedly plans to have rabble-rousers go out and fire up the populace to the point where they can be led in attack against some important point, like the palace. His own people will be hidden among the innocent, directing the attack without anyone being aware of it. Once the important point is taken, it will be his men who hold it."

"And that's something we can't let happen," Driff said, agreeing completely with what Edmin had told them. "There would have been trouble stopping a frenzied mob even with the help of Highs, but without them… If we don't want innocent people on all sides getting hurt, we have to stop Noll's plan as quickly and thoroughly as we can."

"I think I may know how we can do that," Issini said slowly, her gaze thoughtful and inward. "It all depends on how many people Har can produce, and how brave they are."

"Actually, I now have more than fifty men and women who are willing to help," Idresia said, her brows high. "Some of them are in it for the silver, but the rest just want to help us all keep what we have now. Most of them are as brave as they need to be, but only a few can be considered good enough fighters to hold their own against the renegade's men. I'm sorry, Ran, but sometimes bravery just isn't enough."

"Fighting ability will have very little to do with my plan," Issini said, her hand gesturing dismissal as she smiled. "I just realized that our best defense against what the renegade is trying will be the worst thing you can do to a man. As soon as I get a few more details ironed out, I'll tell everyone what I have in mind. In the meantime, what was the other thing that man told you?"

"Oh, yes, I almost forgot about that," Idresia said with a small start. "I don't know if I've mentioned it, but I have people watching the various approaches into the city. The renegade lost a lot of men when more than half of his force deserted him, and I didn't want to get caught unawares if he managed to replace those men."

"That was really good thinking, Idresia," Driff said with his brows high. "I hate to admit it, but the thought never would have occurred to me. I'll have to remember to give myself a commendation for putting you in charge of our spy force, but first I'd like to know how many more men the renegade now has."

"So far he doesn't have any more men, Driff," Idresia answered with faintly embarrassed amusement. "My people were watching for reinforcements, but instead they witnessed the arrival of two members of the nobility. It was a man and a woman on horseback looking somewhat worse for wear, but my people were certain about their origins. Forgive me, Edmin, but there's no mistaking the unconscious arrogance that members of the former nobility carry themselves with even when they're dirty and tired."

"No apology necessary, Idresia," Edmin answered with his own amusement. "Issini and I were both aware of the problem, which is why I agreed to that disguise as an old man. Shuffling along bent over was the only way to disguise my usual … thrust through life's unimportances. I take it that you're going to have the two people watched?"

"Actually, I arranged to have them intercepted and brought here," Idresia replied, a trace of uncertainty now in her gaze. "We can't afford to assume that they won't make trouble, not now with everything else going on, and if they happen to join the renegade and his family he'll have the worst kind of reinforcement: more and possibly better thinkers and planners. That would be worse for us than his getting more men."

"Yes, I'm forced to agree," Driff said after thinking about Idresia's decision for a moment. "At first I was going to say that we can't just arrest and detain those people when they haven't done anything illegal, but that rule applied before we lost all our High talents. No one can argue that we're in a state of emergency now, and if we're going to hold things together we'll have to bend a few of the rules."

"Bend the rules, yes, but not break them completely," Idresia said, her gaze now showing more certainty. "If those people have no interest in making trouble either alone or with the renegade, I mean to turn them loose again. I hope you two men will be able to tell me whether or not that's a good idea."

Driff exchanged a glance with Edmin, seeing the former noble's brief startlement before pleased pride took its place. It was fairly obvious that Edmin still wasn't used to being trusted, but his reaction clearly said that he intended to get used to that state of affairs.

"Well, Edmin and I aren't much when it comes to talent, but we'll certainly do our best," Driff said to Idresia in as pitiful a way as he could manage before turning to the other man. "Isn't that right, Edmin? We'll do our pitiful best?"

"Yes, we certainly will, Driff," Edmin agreed, apparently trying to sound as humble as Driff had. The problem was Edmin didn't know how to sound humble, so all his effort produced among the group was laughter.

"As long as you two meager talents are willing to try," Idresia said with amusement while Issini laughed aloud. "We do have to work with what we have, you know."

"Speaking of what we have to work with, we still haven't told Har our news," Issini pointed out then. "We don't want her thinking we're holding out on her, do we?"

"Aha, so you are holding out on me!" Idresia pounced with a mock frown so fierce that the rest of them chuckled. "Well, come on, out with it."

"You'd better brace yourself," Driff warned Idresia, only partially joking. "While you were getting your report on outside doings, those of us in here learned that Edmin can … shield his working with talent in some way. He's going to try to remember what he did to gain the shield, and then he's going to tell us how to do it."

"That sounds like a very useful thing to know," Idresia said, her brows still high even though she had stopped staring at Edmin with her mouth open. "Can we do anything to help you remember faster, Edmin?"

"I think I'll need a time of undisturbed quiet," Edmin answered, his amusement tinged with very faint embarrassment. "I considered asking for the help of another Spirit magic user, but I think we must first decide whether or not we want word of a shield to get out. Until things settle down and we have the High talents back again…"

"Until then we'll need all the help - and secret weapons - we can get," Driff agreed with a sigh. "I think your caution isn't overdone, Edmin, so let's - "

A knock came at the door to interrupt Driff, and Idresia rose to go and answer it. Driff quickly finished the last of the food on his plate, and only just in time.

"Our two newly arrived nobles weren't far from here when my people went to get them," Idresia said, still standing by the open door. "They'll be here in another moment, so let's get all meager talents ready, shall we?"

Driff joined the others in nodding agreement, even Issini losing her usual friendly and easy-going manner. Edmin was the only one among them who hadn't been to a training class, but he had had training in life when it came to dealing with the nobility. Now it was time to see if any of their training had been wasted.

In no more than the specified moment, two people were escorted into the room. They both looked dirty and very tired, but the man looked considerably more worried than the woman did. The woman held a large bundle close against her body, and the man's arm circled her protectively. The man took a quick look around, and then he glared at Idresia and Driff and the others.

"What's the meaning of this?" the man demanded, his voice harsh with fear-tinged outrage. "You people aren't the authorities, so I demand that you release us immediately."

Yes, Driff thought with a sigh. Definitely members of the old nobility. Just what we needed…