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Chapter 24-A Forgotten Mask And A Grain Of TruthEdit

Iarna shivered as a snowflake drifted under her hood and touched her cheek. According to Graveren winter was barely even beginning to set in, and yet already it was colder than the deepest winter she had ever seen in Etake Vale. Graveren wrapped an arm around her shoulders as he saw the slight shiver, allowing his body, which was like a furnace thanks to his Bone-Monger physiology, to act as a barrier against the cold.

Iarna blinked, it was a bold gesture to be sure, but she decided to over look it and immediately began to walk closer to him. Graveren laughed, "It appears the winter is my friend Princess!" Iarna snorted, "You have a terrible friend." Graveren smiled, "Winter is indeed a terrible time in these mountains. You could go anywhere in the world and the winter would be neither as long or as cold."

"So what madness possessed your ancestors to build a city here?" Iarna asked through chattering teeth. Graveren took the chatter of her teeth as an excuse to wrap her in a hug. "Quit it," Iarna said half-heartedly. The heat was extremely pleasant after the frigid air. "You're cold," Graveren replied, "My body is a natural furnace and I refuse to let the frost have even a nibble of you. So quite frankly Princess, I'm going to hug you whenever you need it whether you like it or not. So enjoy the warmth."

He sighed and a huge cloud of steam erupted with his breath, "But I suppose if this is such an averse situation to you we can go back inside." Iarna placed a hand on his chest, "No, I think I can stand it out here a little bit longer. I like this garden, even if it is frozen." Graveren smiled and hugged her a little more tightly, "I'll have to get you a warmer coat Princess." Iarna smiled and pressed her cheek to his, savoring the warmth.

Prince Graveren had proven a remarkably kind and well-mannered individual for someone whose reputation as a monster on the battlefield had reached her ears even in Etake Vale in the far north. "You didn't answer my question," she smiled, "Whatever possessed your ancestors to build in such a horrid place?" Graveren smiled, "Well Princess, that's a story best enjoyed in a squishy chair next to a roaring fire."

Iarna snorted with a smile, "You're just trying to get me to go back inside." Graveren grinned, "Oh no Princess, I'm enjoying your arms around me far too much to want us to go back inside. However it really is a story best enjoyed by a fire in a comfy chair." Iarna stepped back a little and held him at arm's length with a sly smile, "How about this then, you and I stay out here, you tell me the story, and we go find a squishy chair and roaring fire later when I feel like having my servants listening in on every word and movement that passes between us to report back to my father?"

Graveren's eyebrows went up momentarily in surprise and then he smiled broadly, "Of course Princess, come, I know just the spot." She smiled and then before he could lead her away through the snow laden branches, "Oh and Graveren? Call me Iarna." Graveren smiled, "Of course Iarna." Iarna smiled and let him lead her down the snowy path.

A few moments later, they came to a small walled pavilion with windows shuttered shut. Graveren pushed open the door and ushered Iarna inside with a smile. Iarna raised an eyebrow as she saw the large pool of water and the wooden interior of the little pavilion. "What is this place?" she asked as Graveren pulled the door closed and they were engulfed in darkness. Graveren smiled over his shoulder at her and pulled a little canister from a pocket of his cloak, "The warmest place in Omashu."

He smiled as he ran a little stick from the canister down the side of the canister, causing it to ignite. He stuck the tiny fire stick to a torch and waved the little flame out as the torch burst to life. He smiled as he lifted the torch from its bracket, "It's also the most secluded place in the palace, especially during the winter." He walked around the room, lighting the rest of the torches and a coal filled brazier in the back of the room. He put the torch back in its bracket, "It takes a few minutes to warm up but when it does it'll feel like the height of summer in here."

Iarna sloughed off her thick coat immediately and looked over her shoulder at him, "Then I guess you'll just have to keep me warm until the fire gets big enough to do it." She sat down on one of the wooden benches around the pool of water, "Why is it so much warmer in here than outside?" Graveren smiled, "We're directly over the exhaust for the arboretum, so most of the heat down there runs right up to this spot." Iarna looked at him as he sat down, "You have an arboretum here? Where?"

Graveren smiled as he wrapped an arm around her and pointed to the ground, "It's actually in the mountain. Deep caves stay the same temperature year round, so we don't have to keep nearly as large or many fires going to keep our trees from freezing. We've got some lenses and mirrors to ricochet sunlight down through the other exhaust tunnels and some hot springs down there." Iarna blinked, "Is that why your ancestors settled here? The caves and hot springs?"

Graveren smiled, "Well, that's why they settled on this particular peak, but no, we settled here in the mountains for a different reason. Have you ever heard of Kimar?" Iarna raised an eyebrow, "The city of monsters?" Graveren nodded, "That's the one. It's somewhere in these mountains. We're certain of it." Iarna sat up and looked at him, "Your ancestors settled here because of an old legend?" A look of slight annoyance crossed Graveren's face, "No leggend Iarna. The beasts of Kimar were very real, and they were indeed monstrous to behold." Iarna didn't quite believe him, but she decided to go with it, "So they settled here because of the monsters? Were they trying to contain them?" Graveren's smile grew, "Oh no, Iarna, they were long gone before the people of Omashu ever got here."

"According to legend, the people of Kimar were the ancestors of both the Bone-Mongers and the Vampiri. That's why they were monsters. They could change shape however they pleased." Iarna raised an eyebrow as she settled back against him, "So you're trying to find something in the ruins?" Graveren smiled, a sleepy look settling across his face, "We haven't found the ruins yet. Legend has it that the power of Kimar could be claimed if its ruins could be found. The city's great Library is said to contain the secrets of the Kimarehto's abilities. If we could find that, we'd be unstoppable."

His smile faded, "If it weren't for the White Hunt, we'd have long since found it." "Who?" Iarna asked an eyebrow going up in impatience. Graveren rubbed her shoulder, his energy seeming to leave him more and more every second, "The White Hunt. They've got some kind of fire magic and they're truly fearsome warriors, even by my standards. Thankfully they only come out in the winter, but they know winter warfare better than anyone, so they're," he yawned, "very difficult to fight, and they slaughter," he yawned again, "anyone attempting to go deeper into the mountains." He yawned even wider and slumped suddenly, "Oh, I'm very sorry Iarna, I'm feeling very sleepy all of a sudden. If I nod off, it's (yawn) nothing personal."

Suddenly Iarna smiled broadly and straddled him, a knife appearing in her hand as Graveren's mountainous strength abruptly finished deserting him. His eyes widened as she laid the knife to his throat, "What?" He knew his heart should be hammering, but it refused to speed up as Iarna leaned a little closer to him, "Oh do stay awake a little bit longer Graveren, I've got some questions I want to ask you, and I want some honest answers."

Graveren felt as though a fog had settled over his mind, "Blood magic," he said slowly, "You sneaky, sexy...damn, that's kinda hot actually." Iarna sighed in exasperation and then said in what was obviously a forced sweet voice and smile, "And that's first on the list, why are you so attracted to me Graveren? It can't just be that I'm pretty. So what is it? My father's power? Some deluded notion about reuniting the Empire?"

"And I know you're not this sweet," She continued, "I can smell the lust on you every time you look at me and I could smell the blood on your hands the minute we met." She gently dragged the knife along his jaw line, not drawing blood but letting him know it was there, "Your reputation has reached all the way to Etake Vale, I know how dangerous and brutal a fighter you are. So why are you putting on a nice act in front of me?"

Graveren smiled weakly, "It's honestly a little of all of that, and so much more." She pressed the edge of the knife against his throat, not cutting him but adding a little pressure, "So what is it Graveren? My looks? My power? What is it you want from me?" The corner of Graveren's mouth twitched up in a crooked grin, "Your looks and your power?" He snorted derisively, "You think either makes the slightest difference to me?"

Iarna lifted the blade slightly away from his throat a dubious look on her face, "Go on." Graveren chuckled, "Honestly Iarna, I couldn't say what drew me to you. There's just something about you. Maybe it was the way you cut down that suitor that wasn't worthy of you at that ball two years ago, maybe it was the way we danced. Maybe it was the music or the conversation or the wine or any number of things." He sighed, "And I'm being nice to you because believe it or not I reserve my power for the battlefield and I actually do want you to like me."

He chuckled, "You seemed quite fine with my attentions when I was wearing a mask. Maybe I should try that again..." Suddenly a mask made of bone erupted over his eyes and Iarna's jaw dropped as a memory she had nearly forgotten forced its way to the front of her mind, "Nimini?" Graveren smiled, "Nimini. You weren't informed of the wedding, so you probably never realized that the negotiations for it started as soon as I was able to get back here to talk my grandfather into it."

Iarna stared in shock, "You...you..." Her eyes turned deep violet, "You didn't tell me?!" Graveren shrugged, "I probably would have been executed or imprisoned for gate-crashing if I had told you then, and we would never have been able to talk your father around if he had known I was the one he chased off that night." Iarna sat back and closed her eyes, remembering vividly her father's fury as Nimini had gone tumbling off her balcony backward in shock, blood gushing from massive wounds torn open by her father's blood magic, "How did you survive?"

Graveren smiled, "I'm a Bone-Monger Iarna, my body has enough blood in it for ten men my size. I was able to patch myself up and head back to Omashu before the sun came up, and that was after I got away from your father's guards." Iarna scrunched her eyes shut, trying to tell herself it wasn't true, but finding it very difficult. Nimini was one of her family's best kept secrets. If word got out that the crown princess had been caught consorting with some nobody in her chambers, even if nothing had happened and said nobody had been killed for daring to consort with the princess, it would have been the scandal of the century. Nobody except her father and two guards who had been sworn to secrecy on pain of extremely torturous death knew.

She opened her eyes and looked at him, he certainly looked like Nimini, and he even sounded like him now that she was made aware of it, but still, "Take off your shirt." She demanded, "Wounds like those would have left scars, let's see your scars." She leaned in very close and stuck the point of the knife beneath his jaw as she looked him right in the eye, "And if you're lying to me, I'll kill you without a second thought."

Graveren reached up and undid the buttons of his shirt as Iarna allowed some blood back into his arms. She sat back as she felt him undo the last one and she nearly fell from his lap as she saw the huge white stripes across his torso from where her father had ripped half the flesh off his torso in a single stroke. Then Graveren began to hum the first tune they had danced to and Iarna dropped the knife as she realized he was telling the truth.

She put her hands on the huge scars, "Oh gods, Nimini!" Graveren smiled with a gentle smugness, "The one and only." He ran his hands up her sides and pulled her a little closer to him, "Can I be utterly infatuated with you now? Pretending not to be is a real pain in the ass." She laughed as she saw his polite facade crumble to reveal the wisecracking teller of tales that had swept her off her feet two years previously and suddenly leaned forward and kissed him, "Yes, you can be infatuated with me now."

Next Time: Behind The ShadowsEdit

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