Unto the Most Illustrious & Revered Senate:
Greetings in the name of the Suav’en Jonan Drax.
I am called Shajar Thorne, a Baron of House Falcon.
I write this testimony in response to a request for information regarding Countess Ismene Yvarai and her brother, Count Tomas Yvarai. Although the events occurred almost a year ago to the day, the memories remain sharply clear in my mind. I regret that I am unable to deliver this report in person, but the particulars of it are still too painful for me to speak, and may remain so for quite some time. As the Senate well knows, as a result of these events, I have elected to take the black. My word, therefore, would mean very little when delivered on the Senate floor. I have given this written testimony to a trusted friend, who has promised to read it before the august Senators, omitting nothing.
I must warn you all: this is a cautionary tale told by a man who finds no shame in using words such as “honor” and “duty.” These words were taught to me by the man and woman who raised me. I use them without ridicule or irony. Tomas and Ismene Yvarai were no different than any of you. Indeed, no different than I. My testimony will, I hope, demonstrate this.
Please forgive me by opening with a recounting of my childhood. It will become important as we progress.
I shall be as brief as possible.
I grew up in Uliinsher, which borders my current holdings of Teravie. You are likely not familiar with the lands. They are quiet and pastoral. Nothing rare or valuable can be found there, and it lays off the main highways. As a result, it is peaceful, idyllic sort of place. I was raised by two honest and decent ven - Baroness Sophias Thorne and her husband, Baron Kilim Adrente. I realize such virtues are not recognized by many of the Senate, but in the back counties, far from the City, honor and decency are as valuable as steel and iron. There, the Storm rages fiercely, and one learns quickly to unite with your neighbors for survival’s sake. This engenders a strong sense of community I have not encountered in the city, and which may be alien to the city-bred among you.
I was raised without siblings of any sort.
As I grew towards adulthood, a stranger came to visit whose very presence caused even the livestock unrest
. Though I did not recognize him, Sophias and Kilim knew who he was. The pause in their eyes confirmed it. He was welcomed with all the hospitality our meager manor could muster, even though his arrival made the household
wary and worried.
Shortly after his arrival, I was formally introduced to this man as Baron Tomas Yvarai. I recognized the name. Even in the wilderness of Shan’ri, we had heard of the Prince of Rakes. I wondered what business he had which brought him to our residence. After all, I had no sisters for him to seduce, and Baroness Sophias invested all her energies into her playwriting. We were left alone to talk.
“I owe your parents a debt,” he began. “Especially your father. The particulars are not important, but I pride myself on paying my debts. Even though this debt was incurred before you were born, I will honor it. I have discussed the matter with the Baron and Baronness, and they agree with me. Therefore, I have a proposal for you: while you have no doubt been provided with the best tutors money can buy, there is only so much one can learn here. Come with me, and I shall see to it your education is completed. University, if you’d like. But more important than that, I can teach you secrets books and tutors cannot.”
He must have seen my astonishment, because he laughed then. His laughter was anything but easing to my confusion. Baron Kilim was yvestra to Baroness Sophias, so I did not understand at the time quite how he could have been owed anything - especially by Tomas Yvarai. Though, I assumed, if the debt was older than I, perhaps it was also older than their marriage. And here was Tomas Yvarai himself, in my parlor, offering to take me with him to the city and complete my education! I of course accepted his generous offer, and we were away within the fortnight. It was much, much later when I learned Tomas’ purse paid for my tutors in the country. For many years later, I wondered why. I would soon discover that some questions are best not answered.
I shall not bother with the details of my budding friendship with Tomas. Let it be said he was a true mentor to me. Without his influence, I doubt I would be the man I am today. For better or worse. I have to admit feeling a certain sort of connection to the man, for reasons I shall explain later. We were often taken for relatives while out and about, an assumption I (at the time) took great pride in. It must have been my youthful impetuousness that prompted me to ask about his sister. I kept asking to be introduced to the equally notorious Ismene Yvarai. Tomas, however, warned me away from her every time I asked. “She is a dangerous woman,” he would tell me, “You are intelligent, but that matters little. You are too innocent for the likes of her. She would seize upon your innocence and corrupt it. I would not be doing your parents any favors if I did not keep you from meeting my sister until you are ready.”
Whether he planned it that way or not–and I cannot say anything is coincidence or chance when considering the Yvarai siblings–I finally did meet Ismene Yvarai when Tomas had his now-famous duel with Lady Shara. Her elegance and beauty struck me as soundly as Shara’s Sword struck my friend. And wounded me just as deeply. Though Tomas warned us both away from each other, we could not help ourselves. She was wise and strong, and a thousand other things a man looks for in a woman. All of us have read the same poetry and pillow books. We know who she was. We shall not see a woman like her in a thousand years, no matter how hard House of the Fox may try.
I remember the day when our friendship became a Romance, and the day when our Romance became a liaison. The first step was during the long struggle in which they rose to Count and Countess. Under a tree watching the fires from their Enemy’s wine fields burn, she turned to me, her lips so close to mine. I could obey Tomas’ warnings no longer. When the siblings finally succeeded, I was so proud of them both. I felt honored to be included in their small family. It is true that Ismene was the first lover I ever had. It is also true that, our first night together, I wanted to give her the most precious gift I could. I offered to tell her my true name. I thought it would make her happy. She refused to hear it, though. “The only result of telling someone your true name is suffering,” she told me. She also swore me to secrecy regarding our liaison, though at the time refused to tell me why. This also gave me pause - after all, Ismene was anything but shy when it came to her affairs.
As I reached my nineteenth year, my parents reached a decision regarding my marriage. I had avoided the question as long as possible. At first, I was enjoying my time with Tomas too much to wish for the responsibility. Later, I did not want to leave Ismene. Finally, though, I could delay no longer. Sophias and Kilim had secured for me a good match, for which I was a dutifully grateful son. When I told Ismene, however… she was enraged. She felt betrayed. Having never been married herself, she could not understand that a marriage would not have interfered with our bond. The argument caused an emotion to stir in my heart that I had never felt before while in Ismene’s presence. I felt the terrible pangs of fear. Fear for her rage, and fear that I had lost her forever.
But as the months passed with my new wife, I found a kind of happiness I did not expect. She was as I: a child reared in the country, where matters of politics and intrigue are the stuff of literature and history. Those were happy years for me. And although I missed my adventures with Tomas and my nights with Ismene, I found the Courage to put them behind me and accept my new life.
After returning from a hunting expedition one day, I found Ismene had been by. She left a tenderly worded note, apologizing for her rash words and asking forgiveness. A forgiveness, at the time, I was only too glad to grant. The letter stirred old emotions in my heart. Emotions, I admit now, were never truly dead. A man can deny many things in his life. The love of a woman is something he can deny for only so long. Ismene and I resumed our liaison without my wife’s knowledge. For a month, our dalliance continued. Finally, I told Ismene my wife must know. She agreed. “Love and marriage are siblings who must never meet,” she told me.
It was only a few days later when I discovered my wife had been murdered. At the time, the violence seemed mindless, and mystified me. Senators, in this matter I admit, I was woefully blind. After reading the letters left behind by the Yvarai siblings, the truth of the matter is clear to me. I should have seen it that day. However, we are always loathe to believe those we love are capable of terrible deeds.
My wife’s murder was the beginning of a long year of tears.
Back in the City, Tomas had met a woman: the famous Kassana Valar. I need not repeat her reputation to the esteemed members of the Senate. Her personal Revenges upon those Tomas would consider friends and compatriots is well-known. I know now she kept her identity secret from Tomas for as long as possible–mystery always makes the best bait for the kind of trap she was setting for him–but in the midst of it all, they fell hopelessly and passionately in love. I know many will not believe it, but I tell you know, I recognized the light in his eyes when he spoke of her. As for her, I only met her once and the same light was in her eyes. My heart sang to see them together. I was happy that my adopted brother was in love as I. The only thing that kept my happiness from becoming complete was keeping my promise to his sister not to reveal the truth of our relationship to anyone. I know the Senate enjoys the old adage
about secrets being best kept in coffins, but I shall give you a new proverb: a secret is best kept behind a Falcon’s lips.
One day, Ismene wrote me in a panic. She urged me to leave my own home and come to hers immediately. When I arrived, I saw her as I had never seen her before. Her hair was uncombed and her face as white as a spectre’s. She was speaking so quickly, I could barely understand her. And then she said something I could comprehend but not fully understand.
She told me, “Tomas intends to kill you.”
I could not believe what she was saying. I asked her why my friend and brother would want to kill me.
Her eyes were mad and red and ragged with tears. “Because we are lovers,” she told me.
“What?” I asked, shocked. “Why? Tomas is a dear friend! He should be glad for our happiness!” I demanded she tell me what had made her so upset, but she refused. I demanded an explanation. She collapsed in my arms then, weeping madly. It was only long minutes later that she spoke. The words still burn in my memory. I shall recount to you now what she told me as accurately as I am able to remember it.
“Ever since my first lover,” she told me, “we have made a… a Game. When I take a lover, Tomas has a Season to kill him. And I, the same for his.”
I could not believe what I was hearing. I began to wonder if true madness had befallen the woman I loved. “Ismene, I have been your lover for much longer than a Season and Tomas has not made any attempt to kill me.”
She sobbed. “I know. I know, dearest. That is why I swore you to secrecy about us from the start.” She began to weep and sob again and it took many minutes to calm her down enough so she could speak. “I don’t want to play, Shajar,” she told me. “I never have. But Tomas has something I want, I’ll never be happy without it. The only way I can get it is to win this Game.”
And it was at that moment that I first heard a certain
sound in her voice. It was at that moment I knew Ismene Yvarai was hiding something from me.
I took her in my arms. “And so I must hide from Tomas until Autumn passes?” I asked her. “That is easy enough, darling. But I will do it on one condition.”
She asked me what it was. I looked her in the eyes. “You must promise me, no more killing. Once you get whatever it is you need from Tomas, you’re done. It’s one thing to destroy an Enemy in Revenge, but this sort of cold-blooded murder does not become you, Ismene. You’re better than that.”
With that, she only cried harder. I did get her to promise, though.
And I heard that same sound in her voice again.
I was afraid now. Afraid that the woman I loved had gone completely mad. I was also afraid that she may not be mad and was speaking truth. If it was true, how simple and gullible I was. How these two had used me like a Spear on a Tivalti board. I did not know what to do, but I wanted to stay close to Ismene. I needed to watch her, to make certain her madness would not consume her. She refused to see any Apothecary, saying something about how her mother had died. I feared for the worse.
Ismene insisted I go. She assured me I would not be safe in her castle. And so, to ease her mind, until the close of Autumn, I dressed as a veth and worked for Tomas as a stablehand. I left behind my own valet to watch her and report on what he saw. If the Game was true, I thought the move would be too risky. But Ismene assured me this strategy would work, that Tomas would appreciate the maneuver once he found out. At the time, I did not know how deadly this Game was.
One night, a messenger came to me with a letter from Ismene. In it, she informed me that Baronness Kassana was dead. I was surprised to hear the news, considering I was so close to Tomas when it happened. Ismene told me the Game was over and I was safe to return to her. I was happy simply to be reunited with Ismene, but my happiness was soured by hearing of Kassana’s death. Perhaps this mad Game of theirs was true?
I returned and saw my love had returned to her glorious state. She was dressed in the same gown she wore on the day we met. Her skin smelled so sweet and her kisses on my lips made all my cares and fears evaporate like dew in the afternoon.
I surprised myself by asking her to marry me. She surprised us both by consenting. All that night, I felt I was walking in a dream. My mind only half-thinking. My heart pounding with a power I had never felt before.
We were married the next day. I had not even told Sophias and Kilim, who had always severely disapproved of my friendship with Ismene. I told no-one.
That night, lying together for the first time as husband and wife, impulse took ahold of me. I held her in my arms and bent over her until my lips were just brushing her ears. “Tomas,” I whispered.
She said, startled and confused, “Why would you invoke my brother in our wedding bed?”
I smiled. “No. My name. My secret name. It is Tomas.”
She was silent. Strangely silent. I feared I had somehow offended her.
“That is why, I think, your brother and I are so close. We share the same name. It was quite a coincidence when we first met, but as we came closer, I knew it was a sign we would be lifelong friends.”
She said nothing. Only stared at me. Then, she said, “Sleep now, my beloved. I have something I must do.” And she left the bed and walked away.
For the next week, I was in complete, mindless bliss. My happiness with her was overwhelming. I can scarcely recall any of the details. Days later, I woke one night with my head hurting and my stomach wrenching. Something was wrong. I felt poisoned. I found Ismene’s side of our bed was empty and I heard a weeping in the corridor. I crawled from my bed–my limbs limp and weak–and found her wandering naked through the cold castle. She was babbling. Blood and bits of her hair under her fingernails. I think she was in the place where Sua’ven dream, for when she spoke to me, it was in a kind of gibberish dream-speak. I brought her back to the bed and called for the Apothecary. He said giving her a poison to still her mind to sleep was dangerous. I spent all that night holding her in my arms. When she finally came to consciousness, she shoved me away. She was screaming. She ran away from me then, running through the halls of the castle. I spent hours looking for her but never did. Her father’s castle holds many secrets. It still does, I am certain. I have no desire to discover any more of them now.
The next morning was when I found the letters. Letters from all over Shanri. Letters filled with the rumors of an illegitimate child. Letters stained with her blood and her tears. In the morning she was well enough again, and I showed her the letters. She swore to me the rumors were false, that Lady Shara was simply trying to attack her with words since Swords had failed her. Like a faithful lover, I believed her.
It was another night of wandering and gibberish. My fears were forefront in my mind. I got no sleep that night. And the next day, Tomas came to the castle. Swathed in red and yellow.
When I saw him, my fears for Ismene were eclipsed. I know now that I have never been afraid of any man as I was of Tomas Yvarai that day. At the foot of her gates, he screamed Ismene’s name.
I wanted to go out to meet him, perhaps cool his temper, but Ismene begged me to stay inside. “He will kill you!” she told me. “Please, Shajar! Do not go! He will kill us both!”
I sent out my valet to speak to Tomas. Tomas killed him before the man could say a word. And so, I went into the courtyard behind the safety of her gate and spoke with him.
“Bring out the slut who calls herself my sister,” he commanded me.
I asked him, “What do you want with my wife?”
“Your wife?” he yelled. “Your wife?” He turned his head up to the windows, yelling at Ismene. “You lying harlot! You don’t know! I told you to find out his name. You did not, I know you did not!”
“What has she not told me?” I asked him.
Tomas Yvarai smiled at me then. I had seen that smile before. A gift he gave to jealous husbands and lovers. I felt my blood freeze in my bones.
“You are going to die, boy,” he told me. “I will find my way into my father’s castle through doors so secret even your… wife… does not know them. And then, I will kill you. But before you do, I will tell you a secret. And that secret will wound you deeper than any Injury my Sword can give you. And then, when you are cold and dead, I will kill your… wife. And there is nothing you can do to stop me.”
Then, he turned and walked away.
I ran up to Ismene and demanded the truth. She just stared at me, her eyes fully mad. I grabbed her by the shoulders and she ripped away from me, using her nails against my skin. She was deep into madness now. There was no rescue for her. I was to lose two wives. My only hope now was to make sure they did not both die to murder.
As night approached, I found my Sword. I also found Ismene there with it. She had regained some of her composure, a pure red gown hung on her slender frame. Her hair was tied up high above her head and she was holding my Sword. “You cannot defeat him,” she said. “You’ve never even fought a duel.”
I took the Sword from her. “I have your love to protect me,” I told her.
Her eyes swelled with tears and I thought she would cry again. But she laughed instead. “Yes,” she said, “you have that. I would murder Tomas a thousand times over to keep you safe. If I thought it would protect you, I would even kill myself. Tomas believed I would kill you to protect… you. He was wrong. There are some loves even the Prince of Rakes cannot understand. Death aplenty to keep you safe, even my own.”
“Hush,” I told her, putting a finger on her lips. “Do not say such things. I love you and could never be happy without you.”
Ismene made a sound, somewhere between a laugh and a sob. She took my face in both her hands, and pierced me with her gaze “No matter what happens tomorrow or the next day or the next, I want you to remember one thing. Never doubt it, ever. You, Shajar Tomas Thorne, are the only person I have ever truly loved.”
In that moment, staring into her eyes, I could see she was sane. And I knew she was telling the truth. It only lasted that moment, though.
Hours later, Tomas found us, Sword in hand. He said nothing. I drew my own Sword and attempted to parry his first strike. I failed and my blood found the floor. I attempted to parry his second strike. I succeeded, but failed to catch his riposte. Again, I bled.
I failed and failed and failed. He was killing me with tiny cuts. I had seen this before. This was the way he committed murder. He enjoyed it. Every cut reminded me that he could have killed me then. He did not need to say anything. I knew it. Had seen it before. Would never see it again.
As he prepared for the final blow, Ismene screamed his name. Her voice caught his attention for just a moment, and I struck. My blow was weak and poorly aimed and he parried it immediately, but the tip of my blade caught the back of his wrist and ripped flesh. His blood oozed out onto his hand. And Ismene began to laugh. “You lose,” she screeched. “You lose again!”
Tomas kicked me to the ground. The Sword fell from my hand. I could hold it no longer. I was his. I prayed to the Sua’ven for assistance, knowing my doom was only a moment away…
… but it did not come.
My eyes were closed and I opened them. I saw Tomas standing above me looking at the open wound on his wrist. Then, he looked at Ismene. Then, he looked at my blade lying on the ground alone. I did not need to hear what he whispered for I knew the word well enough. My wife, after all, was famous for many reasons.
He grabbed my blade from the ground and turned to Ismene. She screamed. I stumbled, trying to stop him, but my Injuries were to great. He stumbled then, falling to the floor. But he looked up at his sister as she laughed. And then, he grabbed her and they struggled for only a moment. As I watched them, they looked like lovers tumbling together in a violent game, each fighting to top the other. And then Tomas raised the Sword in his hand and thrust it down upon her. I heard the sound of steel and flesh. I heard the sound of the Sword piercing the wood below her body. I saw him put both hands on the blade and push it further down. And I heard Tomas screaming the word “Die!” over and over and over again. Ismene’s hands were at his face, ripping deep into his skin. And then, her hands trembled. And then, as she looked at me with an incomprehensible expression, they fell to her side.
And Tomas fell back. He slumped to the ground. His eyes were nearly dim. His breath was shallow and wheezing. And there, beside his sister, he died.
Her Apothecary treated my wounds. The Injuries Tomas gave me were many, but small, and I recovered quickly. I left the castle behind. Not even the best Swordsmith in all of Shan’ri could repair the damage done to my blade. I do not know what happened to their bodies. I assume the servants burned them, as is our custom. I left them both behind.
I have included with this testimony the entire correspondence between Ismene and Tomas Yvarai. I have read them all, and there is one, terrible conclusion I must draw from them. No doubt it is the same conclusion you shall draw when you have read them all. Some have wondered aloud at their strangely close relationship. Now they may see it for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
To any who have further doubt, I confronted Sophias Thorne at her home. I demanded she tell me the name she whispered to me at birth. After a long afternoon of questioning, she admitted she could not. She attempted to explain, but I did not need to hear it. I know now the truth about myself, that I have been nothing but a pawn in a blood-soaked game of lust, love, revenge and tears.
There are many who would cast judgment on Tomas and Ismene. I say to them that they do not see the walls of their own homes and the blood baked into the mortar which holds them up. Tomas was my friend and Ismene my lover and wife. I loved them both. What drove them to madness was not of their own minds, but an extension of the endless, bloody games the Senators play in that damned dome. I have been both a participant and a victim in those games, nearly driven mad myself. If you seek to find the cause of the Yvarai siblings’ madness, I suggest you might find it in your own hearts.
And now, my testimony has concluded. I intend to wear the black. I also, with the permission of the Senate, wish to no longer be known as Shajar Thorne. I relinquish all my lands and holdings to whomever has the strength to take them. I shall spend the rest of my days fulfilling my father’s blood as a roadman and landless Falcon.