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The Herbalist Seer

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Early Autumn, Mean Fhomhair, 739 Branbridge

"So, will you be leaving the troupe now?" Turi asked, causing Atreus DePaula to blink at him a bit owlishly, before attempting a half-hearted glower. As Turi reacted to neither, Atreus slumped.

"I don't know," he said. Two years had passed since Rosarion had opened his eyes to the truth about Ellisander DeMarian, and the thin line between ignorance and treason. A little under two years since he'd left the Flame Champions to wander around the Realm with a group of tumblers.

Turi had offered to teach him a few tricks, but Atreus hadn't seemed able to get the hang of them, and more often than not, he and Rosarion, who'd be watching, had ended up trying not to burst out laughing at Atreus' attempts at mastering some of the 'easier' tricks Turi claimed to be able to perform in his sleep. Naturally, sometimes Atreus had been clumsy on purpose, just because it had felt good to be able to make the two people he cared about most in the world laugh.

He'd learned a lot as a Flame Champion, but never that. He'd never been taught how to set up a stage either, or how to get egg out of cloth, or how to clean fish. Less than a year after he'd become a full-fledged Flame Champion, Atreus had discovered that there were rather a lot of things he didn't know, and that he was eager to learn. He'd never given much thought to going back to being a Flame Champion, just like he'd tried not to notice how Rosarion grew a little weaker every winter, shivering in spite of being tugged in under three sets of blankets, with Atreus on one side and Turi on the other.

Over the years, Atreus reflected bitterly, he'd certainly become good at pretending that problems weren't there, and that they'd go away if he simply didn't pay them any attention. True, he hadn't acted clumsy on purpose all the time, but neither had he practiced as much as Turi had told him he ought to, if he wanted to become one of the Coins, instead of just a guest. In the beginning he'd told himself there'd be plenty of time to get serious about practice later; when Rosarion had grown worse, he'd felt it more important to spend what days were left with Rosarion, than trying to master the art of tumbling.

Maybe it was better that way. Maybe if he left, went back to being a Flame Champion, Rosarion's loss wouldn't hurt quite so bad. He definitely wouldn't have all those memories to face, returning to places where they'd traveled with Rosarion, seeing a grassy hill and remembering having made love there. If he left, the break would be cleaner, and the wound more quickly healed. With a bit of luck, he'd probably never see Turi again either ...

"I suppose you really only stayed with us for Rosarion," Turi commented.

"Stop talking rubbish." Atreus felt a headache coming up. "I'm staying. If you'll have me."

"Hm." Turi looked a little relieved, as if he'd actually believed for one moment that Atreus' answer would be any different. "You'd better find a way to make yourself useful then, if you don't want Bal to throw you out. I've been thinking, you know - Bal's said she wanted to add a comical element to our shows for a couple of months now. Maybe that's your chance."

"Do you really expect people to pay to see a clumsy tumbler?" Atreus snorted.

"No, but they might pay to see someone eating worms." Turi's grin came off weak and forced, but Atreus was still startled into a chuckle, followed by a wince at the memory.

"If money's a problem, I can ask my family for some," Atreus murmured, knowing that the situation would have to be very dire indeed for Ballentire to accept any money from him in exchange for allowing him to stay with the Coins.

Turi nodded, understanding. "I'm glad you're staying."

"I wish there was something I could have done to make him stay a little longer, too," Atreus said.

Turi remained silent after that, merely offering Atreus the small comfort of shared grief, and a living body to hold onto. Tamara found the two of them later that evening, asleep in each other's arms, with Simon sitting nearby, unwilling to wake them up only to confirm what they already knew. She covered them with a blanket, after deciding that it didn't look like it was going to rain, and told Simon to go home and come back in the morning.

Bad news, she knew, never grew any better if you waited to deliver it, but if you were lucky, it'd grow a little less bad, and a little more like a wound already in the process of having begun to heal.

*

Winter, Mean Gearran, 733 Branbridge

*

Over time, Rosarion's feelings for the man who was said to wish to marry his sister turned from open rebellion and dislike, into a reluctant kind of acceptance. Saralynne seemed unable to talk about anyone or anything else, and where once Rosarion would have sought refuge in the Flame Temple, with Elanna, he now stayed home, brooding about the unfairness of life.

Before she'd died, Elanna had declared him as fit to take over her duties as he could be, without her years of experience, which was the highest praise he'd ever heard from her. The Archpriest Julianus had taken him aside later that day, assuring Rosarion that nobody expected him to take on all the tasks of Herbalist right away, and that he shouldn't be afraid to ask for help if he felt he needed any.

Rosarion had felt perversely insulted by the consideration with which everyone at the Flame Temple treated him. True, he was young, yet Elanna had said he was ready for the position, and she ought to know better than anyone else. In doubting his suitability, people seemed to doubt Elanna's judgment and ability - which were just about the only things nobody'd ever dared to doubt about her before. Elanna had been headstrong and blunt, only while she lived, nobody'd ever suggested she was bad at her job. Doing so now that she'd died seemed utterly unfair to Rosarion, especially since his furious defense of her was brushed aside as an act of misplaced loyalty.

He'd hoped to find understanding at home, but his parents were too caught up in the prospect of a DeMarian husband for their daughter to pay much attention to their youngest son, and Saralynne was, while sympathetic, not willing to remain silent and simply sit still to listen to him for more than half an hour. Rosarion couldn't blame her for being occupied with more things than her little brother, especially since he'd barely spent any time with her in the last few months. However, he could (and did) blame Ellisander DeMarian for being the cause of Saralynne's lack of spare time.

If the Royal Duke noticed this, he gave no indication of it, until Rosarion found him waiting in his personal quarters, one of Rosarion's notebooks on Herbology in his hand. For a moment, Rosarion was too stunned to speak, not merely by Ellisander invading his privacy so casually, but also by the fact that Rosarion was, apparently, important enough to warrant Ellisander's attention.

"My congratulations on your new position," Ellisander said, placing the notebook back on the shelf where he'd taken it from. "Julianus told me he is sure you will make a most gifted Herbalist."

"I wish you a pleasant afternoon, My Lord, and I trust there is some compelling reason for this intrusion." Rosarion felt himself trembling, although he was unsure if his barely suppressed anger was directed at Ellisander or at Julianus. He'd liked to have been less civil and outright demand Ellisander to explain himself, but Elanna had cautioned him against letting his temper get the better of him. 'You don't need to be nice to anyone,' she'd told him, 'as long as you make sure to use the right title. People won't mind you being blunt, as long as you address them properly. It's silly, but it works.'

For Elanna, Rosarion mused sourly, it hadn't worked all that well, although he supposed it was true that, while people disliked her, they'd still put up with her. The position of Herbalist was not a very influential one, yet other candidates for it would have been easy enough to find. Most nobles employed at least one person skilled in herbology, although naturally, only the Flame Temple's Herbalist knew how to prepare the Potion of Truth. That knowledge would not be allowed to depart from the Flame Temple, which was why an apprentice was only taught its ingredients after he or she had almost completed the training, and had been confirmed as the next Herbalist by the Archpriest himself.

Rosarion found it hard to imagine Elanna as a young apprentice, as soft-spoken and pleasant as Saralynne or Holly DeKathrine. Perhaps she had simply bullied people even then.

Ellisander studied him, then inclined his head. "My apologies, Your Grace. Of course, I meant merely to wish to offer you my condolences on your loss, and to express my sympathy as well my complete faith in your ability to take upon you the work your predecessor fulfilled to skillfully before."

Try as he might, Rosarion could detect no trace of mockery in Ellisander's tone or expression. True, as the silence between them lengthened, a glimmer of amusement flickered in Ellisander's gaze as he held Rosarion's, but nothing indicated that Ellisander's words themselves had not been sincere.

"Thank you." Rosarion bowed back, a little stiffly. He'd thought Ellisander might smile at that, yet the other man's face remained neutral. "My Lord," he added, belatedly.

"It would please me for you to treat me a little less formally, in the view of the fact that I am, after all, to marry your sister," Ellisander said. "Your Grace."

"His Grace should relax a little and stop brooding," Saralynne declared from the door-opening. Rosarion had neglected to close it behind him, too surprised at Ellisander's presence. "He's never going to snap out of it if you go acting all silly, too, Ellis."

"Lynne!" Rosarion protested, not too distracted by his sister's appearance to fail to notice the way Ellisander's face had been anything but neutral for a few seconds. In later weeks, he would regret having caught that glimpse that had told him that Ellisander DeMarian did, indeed, truly and deeply love Saralynne.

"Don't you 'Lynne!' me, Ro!" Saralynne scoffed at him. "I'm only doing this because I love you. I want you and Ellis to get along, not argue all the time and call each other by your titles."

"Fine. I'll try." Rosarion sighed. After sixteen years, he knew his sister well enough to know when not to deny her what she wanted. "But I'm not going to call you 'Ellis' as if I like you," he told Ellisander.

"In return, I suppose I shall have to forego the familiarity of calling you 'Ro'," Ellisander said, the corners of his mouth tucked up in a smile.

"Now that that's solved, why don't you come with us to the theater?" Saralynne proposed brightly. "It'll be good for you to get out."

Rosarion accepted, more because he wanted to annoy Ellisander than for any other reason. Saralynne was delighted, and that was nice to see. Ellisander, as Rosarion might have expected, showed no hint of either being annoyed or being delighted.

*

Early Autumn, Mean Fhomhair, 739 Branbridge

*

Rosarion DeLynne stared at the man he had been sworn to serve and then betrayed, only to renew his oath of service, not to the person for whom he had commited the first betrayal, but to his daughter, now the thirty-fifth Aristok, Kassandra VI. Beside him, Simon tensed, and Rosarion knew the painter shared his vision, the amphisbane still holding them both.

"Leary," Simon said, a pleading note in his voice that puzzled Rosarion.

Many years ago, he had accepted that his life would be brief, cut short by the disease that had claimed the rest of family, nearly six years ago now. He was grateful for the years he'd received, at first thanks to Ellisander, and later thanks to Turi and Atreus, but also thanks to Simon and Fay, and all the other people who'd made it their business to worry about him, for some reason.

"You know what pisses me off?" the specter asked. "Two years ago, you begged that bastard Ellisander to forgive you, but you never begged me for anything."

"Perhaps I didn't feel like I deserved anything from you," Rosarion whispered.

Ellisander had used him, even if Rosarion had been a willing enough tool, until that night in the dungeons of the Flame Temple. The debt that Rosarion had owed him had been, if not repaid, then erased, annulled by Ellisander's treason. Besides, Ellisander had forgiven him unasked for, simply as an act of ... kindness? Rosarion had never known the former Duke of Yorbourne to be a kind man, yet Ellisander had had a canny ability to see people's needs - and Rosarion could not deny that, that last time he'd seen Ellisander, he had been in need of some sort of closure, an ending to their relationship more final than a simple parting would have been.

He'd told himself that he'd gone to visit Ellisander because he'd owed it to Turi and Atreus, yet as he'd arrived, seeing Ellisander face to face, he'd known that he'd come for Ellisander, too. He'd known that, if Ellisander would try to 'corrupt' him, as Ellisander himself had put it - mockingly, but essentially correct - he might not be able to save himself.

And so, in the end, ironically, he was still in Ellisander's debt, for absolving him of all that he owed Ellisander, and allowing him to start a new life, at least for a handful of years.

"There's only one person who decides what you do or don't deserve from me, boy, and that's definitely not you." The specter huffed, and Simon guiltily hid a smile.

Rosarion coughed, feeling the amphisbane's embrace tighten, drawing him closer into the Prophetic Realm, and further away from his physical body.

"So, there. I forgive you." The specter looked at something over Rosarion's shoulder. "Just in time, too, it seems."

"Thank you." Rosarion didn't need to turn to know what, or who, had come for him. He was vaguely surprised at how calm he felt, though he supposed it might be partially due to the way he no longer felt any pain, or had trouble breathing. He felt free and ready - the tinge of regret he felt was for the ones he'd leave behind. They had each other though; that would have to be enough.

Once, he recalled, Elanna had lectured him about not underestimating the human ability to love, or the effect that love might have on a person. He hadn't understood her then, but he thought he did so now.

Perhaps he'd get a chance to tell her.

*

High Summer, Mean Luchar, 732 Branbridge

*

"You know, most people who are your age around here would be glad of a chance to spend some time outdoors, instead of being forced to spend it indoors, studying." Elanna glanced at a small bush of blueberries, frowned, shook her head and continued without picking any.

"Then why don't you ask one of them to go with you?" Rosarion knew his father would smack him if he'd hear his son talking to Her Grace Elanna Lowe, the Flame Temple Herbalist that way (or to any lady, for that manner) but he also knew that Elanna wouldn't care. Oh, she might find some unpleasant task for him to complete, some errant to run, and grumble about his lack of manners. The truth was that he already /did/ most of the work that came with her position and could be done by an apprentice, and Elanna lacked the cruelty to make up tasks specifically to punish him.

Something that needed to be done, needed to be done. Something that didn't need to be done, didn't. It was one of the few things he liked and even admired about her - the way she always managed to be practical and didn't put up with any nonsense.

"Because you are my apprentice, and they aren't." Elanna halted, seemed to consider for a moment, and bent down to pluck a small purple flower, careful not to damage the rest of the plant. "Now, why don't you look around for a nice place to eat our lunch?"

Rosarion grunted. He'd been feeling mostly indifferent when Elanna had told him that morning that they'd go gathering some herbs and plants and would return to the Flame Temple only in the evening, which was why he had to report to the kitchens at dawn, to collect a basket with provisions. Over time, the basket seemed to have grown heavier though, and Rosarion had to admit he'd be grateful for a chance to sit down. Eating some of the food should reduce its weight somewhat, too.

A 'nice place' proved easy enough to find - Elanna wasn't that picky, nor as ladylike as some of the women who'd come to call on Saralynne, once word had gotten out that she had caught the eye (and the heart) of Ellisander DeMarian, the Duke of Yorbourne.

"Now, talk," Elanna ordered, nibbling on a bread-roll and staring at Rosarion expectantly.

"About what?" Rosarion demanded. Elanna didn't much believe in making small talk; when they talked, it was most often about herbs or potions, or some other subject related to the position of Herbalist.

"About whatever it is that's been eating away at you for the past three weeks." Elanna shrugged. "You want to sulk, fine. You want to feel sorry for yourself, that's your choice. But if you're going to ruin a batch of burning salve, you'd better have a really good reason for being too wrapt up in yourself to notice it going bad right under your nose."

Rosarion winced. The incident Elanna referred to had taken place three days ago, long enough for him to begin to hope she'd forget about the matter and would have simply chalked it up to typical juvenile absent-mindedness. At least he'd noticed his mistake himself - too late to save any of the salve, but well before the unpleasant smell had gone beyond the room where Elanna had put him.

"It's personal," he grumbled. He'd thought he wouldn't feel hungry ever again, but the breadrolls smelled fresh and tasty, and he told himself that he certainly wasn't going to do Saralynne any good if he starved himself to death.

"Personal, huh?" Elanna snorted. "Girl or boy?"

"Neither!" Rosarion flared. He'd have expected that kind of assumptions from his parents, who were far too dazzled by Ellisander DeMarian's last name to pay any but the most superficial attention to their youngest son and his moods. From Elanna, he'd expected better.

Elanna sighed. "Rumor has it, the Duke of Yorbourne has his heart set on marrying your sister. And she has hers set on marrying him. The second, I could believe - plenty of silly ninnies in this city who can't see beyond the name and the status. Not," she added with a smile at Rosarion's furious glare, "that I consider your sister to be one of those. Ellisander DeLynne actually falling for someone though ... that part, I found harder to believe."

"Why?" Rosarion inquired. "Saralynne is beautiful, kind, intelligent - she's perfect."

"She's also your sister, boy. That means you will certainly not be marrying her." Elanna chuckled.

"I don't want to marry her! I just want her to be happy!" Rosarion bit in his breadroll, the taste barely registering.

"Some people might tell you marrying a DeMarian will give her enough riches and status to be happy with that alone." Elanna shook her head. "I don't buy that. All DeMarians are trouble - history shows us that much. Still, if he loves her, and she loves him, that counts for something. Don't underestimate what love might make a person do, or not do. And don't think this is all mushy rubbish either."

"I don't," Rosarion lied. People respected Elanna, or at least her expertise when it came to herbology, but very few, if any, also liked her. From what he'd heard, she hadn't had a lover since she'd turned thirty-two, when her then-lover had left to join in a military campaign to Heathland. In Rosarion's opinion, that hardly qualified her as an advisor when it came to whether or not Ellisander DeMarian would or wouldn't make Rosarion's sister dreadfully unhappy by marrying her.

*

Early Autumn, Mean Fhomhair, 739 Branbridge

*

Looking up from the letter he'd been writing by the light of a sputtering candle, on paper of a quality as poor as the ink and quill he had been provided with by his jailors, a man with Flame-touched eyes and hair the colour of rich copper frowned as he attempted to decipher the sensation that had shaken his composure and drawn his mind away from the sentence he'd been meaning to put down.

After a few moments of thought, the answer to his question occured to him. It surprised him, and the fact that it did so in itself, surprised him at well. Rosarion DeLynne had only ever been his sister's mirror to Ellisander after all, and an imperfect one at that. Ellisander hadn't loved him, had barely even cared for the boy for his own sake. Rosarion had been useful, for a while.

The letters he'd so faithfully written Ellisander, painstakingly stripped of any contents that might be considered dangerous for the imprisoned DeMarian Duke to possess in order to prevent them from being confiscated by Gawaina DeKathrine, had been a welcome diversion, but nothing more. Anyone could have written them, and Ellisander would have enjoyed them none the more or less for it.

Of course Ellisander had written back; what else was there to do for him? Not that there were a great many subjects he could correspond about, shut off from the outside world as he was. True to his word, and to his honour, Ellisander had uttered no harsh words, no reproaches. He tried to find things to comment on in Rosarion's words, telling of the Spinning Coins and their travels. It became easier after the first three months, to at least pretend an interest in such simple and small affairs.

Certain names were never mentioned, by silent agreement. Saralynne's, obviously. Atreus DePaula's and Turi of Moleshil's, because Rosarion seemed not to want them to, and Ellisander saw no reason to.

Ellisander sighed, shoving away the letter that would remain unfinished, and the quill he was unlikely to ever use again. The candle flickered wildly, its flame nearly dying and blurring to his sight. He turned his back on it, facing instead the dark cell.

Seeing who was standing there waiting for him to notice her, looking exactly the way he remembered last seeing her, in a deep purple and red dress, Ellisander DeMarian was surprised a third time.

It had never occured to him that she, too, might forgive him.

*

Winter, Mean Nollaig, 735 Branbridge

*

Ellisander DeMarian looked up, frowning at the interruption of a quiet evening he'd intended to spend reading. Lately, he'd taken an interest in some of the previous Aristoks and their campaigns to expand Branion's territory, either by diplomatic means or by the sword. From what he'd read so far, Ellisander had to conclude that conquest by the word was by far the more effective of the two. A pity all of his own enemies were Branion, and no more likely to start a civil war than Ellisander was.

Although he preferred using subtlety over using brute force, Ellisander was not a squeamish man, or one who would scorn a method simply because it lacked elegance and finesse. When he saw something or someone useful, he found a way to make it his, and use it.

Some might call the Duke of Yorbourne a hard, cold man, lacking the passion that burnt in the Aristok - or rather, that passion that had burnt in the Aristok, for even if he'd recovered somewhat in the years gone by, Marsellus III would never again be the man he'd been when he'd married Ellisander's sister.

Ellisander had mourned her passing - dutifully, not deeply. They'd never been that close and besides, there were other things to occupy his mind. Once, they'd included another woman. She had never called him hard or cold, although her brother had called him both, and worse. And then she, too, had died, of the same disease that had claimed his sister, and hundreds of others, and he'd discovered that where before he'd possessed power and influence, he now possessed nothing.

Oh, those he'd bound to his service remained loyal as ever; why should they not, when he'd made sure they depended on him for so much more than simply their pay, or their position? But the satisfaction, the contentedness with knowing he controlled them had faded. To have the realm itself served up to him on a platter, with worried ministers humbly begging him to accept it, that had given him a first taste of what might restore his balance, enable him to forget and move on.

He had tried to decline, of course. It would never have done to act too eagerly. In the end though, he accepted. One week later, the most urgent matters having been dealt with, he'd gone to see what remained of Saralynne's family. Rosarion. The boy who'd disliked him at first sight, and would always be putting up with Ellisander, rather than respecting him, or resenting him covertly.

If Ellisander had ever made a mistake, he rather thought that saving Rosarion had been it. In his own way and for Saralynne's sake, he'd grown fond of the young man, and at the time, he'd thought that having a Seer of his own might prove to be useful, but Saralynne was dead, and Julianus had made it very clear that he did not expect Rosarion to do anything other with the Potion of Truth than to brew it for those Seers who were strong enough to enter the Prophetic Realm, as Rosarion was not.

Normally, Ellisander would have cut his losses by now; broken, useless tools were only good to be thrown away if they couldn't be mended, and Ellisander had allowed Rosarion time to heal for almost two years now. Perhaps, Ellisander reflected, it was simple pride. He liked to think he knew what people needed, what made people tick, but obviously, he didn't know enough about Rosarion to drag him completely back to life. Saralynne's memory would always stand between them, binding them together, yet also keeping Ellisander from fully seeing through Rosarion, and thus fully controlling him.

Rosarion was bound to him, true. However, the reverse was true as well. Had things remained as they had been two years ago, Ellisander might have changed that, but with Marsellus taking an interest in being Aristok in more than name again, Ellisander had been forced to step down, and act like he didn't mind losing one of the two lifelines that had tided him over when Saralynne's loss had seemed too much to bear. Releasing Rosarion had never been a real possibility after that.

Ellisander sighed, realizing that while he'd sought to distract himself with a book, he'd only lost himself again in thoughts that led nowhere and served no purpose whatsoever. He also realized that there had been the sound of a knock on his door - a distant part of his mind had noticed, but at the time, it had felt unimportant. He opened his mouth to call out and indicate that he was awake and available for whomever wanted to see him at this late hour, but to his surprise, the door was flung open before he could do so.

"Are you deaf?" Rosarion demanded. He looked extremely pale, and appeared to have been completely soaked by the rain that Ellisander had not heard falling. His boots and dripping cloak left a wet trail on the floor as he walked in.

"Not that I know," Ellisander replied coolly. "Are you trying to catch pneumonia?"

Rosarion blinked, as if he wasn't even aware of the fact that he'd started shivering. "No. I just wanted to talk to someone."

"And of all people, you chose me?" Ellisander drawled. "I'm flattered, I'm sure. Now, get into some dry clothes. I'm sure that whatever it is you want to discuss with me can wait a few minutes."

"Would it kill you to be nice, every once in a while?" Rosarion demanded, sagging down in a chair without even getting rid of his cloak first. Before Ellisander could think of a suitable riposte to that, Rosarion added: "I've had a vision."

Ellisander considered, then decided he might as well humor Rosarion. At least the young idiot had chosen a seat near the fireplace; Ellisander had allowed the fire to die down when he'd been on his own, but now he walked over to the hearth and tossed some new wood on the fire. If Rosarion wouldn't get into dry clothes, the least Ellisander could do was to try and get the clothes he wore right now a bit dryer than they were. Ill, Rosarion would be of no use to him at all.

"Why did Julianus send you to tell me? And why wasn't I informed that there would be - "

"Julianus doesn't know," Rosarion interrupted him. "The vision was mine alone."

"You ... " Ellisander added up the facts quickly enough. "You fool! Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

"I'm a trained Herbalist," Rosarion pointed out. "You're not. I know what I'm doing. Believe me, I have no intention of courting the Shadow Catcher. Now, do you want to hear this, or not?"

Ellisander licked his lips. The question, as Rosarion must know, was no question at all.

"Tell me," he ordered. "Tell me everything."

And so Rosarion did.