After hours traveling an area devoid of anything but fine red sand, Maya was relieved to see Tembar.  The temperature was rising, and she was tired, hungry, and thirsty after skipping her morning meal and leaving with just a flask of water in the interest of speed. She slipped her hand into her pocket, reaching for the container before remembering she’d drained it dry an hour before.

Tembar Castle was smaller than Reiont by half, only rising three stories with short turrets. It’d been the second one built after the crash, and few families had been willing to take their chances outside Reiont’s oasis. The stones were time darkened, giving it foreboding and mysterious appearance and leaving little doubt in Maya’s mind why this castle so fascinated traveling storytellers.

To the east of the castle, a village of fragile looking huts stood by an orchard in full bloom.  Maya watched young men mending the weathered roofs and figures bending in the fields.  Green and ripening in the sun, the fields spread out from the fortress; a stark contrast against the castle walls.  The life and activity in the village seemed out of place beside the still, decaying exterior of Tembar Castle.

Maya stumbled as she stepped onto firm ground and sighed, relieved to not sink with every move.  What she wouldn’t give to sit down for a moment or to have a glass of cold water.

A faint sound caught her attention.  Maya stopped, trying to place the bass rumbling as it grew louder and the pitch climbed into a piercing whine that shook the castle walls. She covered her ears, trying to block out the sound and ease the pain in her ears before the whine finally surpassed the human hearing range. Lowering her hands, Maya swallowed as hard as her dry mouth would allow and worked her jaw to ease the pressure in her ears as she considered the noise. It seemed so familiar up until the pain, almost mundane, yet she couldn’t think of what it could be. 

A huge hand caught Maya’s arm, and her heart felt like ice when the burly man who had seized her jerked her around. She thought he must be wearing some kind of horrid mask. Then she noticed the light in the compound eyes and the thing’s mandibles were moving. The traders’ stories were true! There were monsters roaming Tembar Flats, and she was about to be one’s dinner!

Maya twisted and jerked backward, trying to free herself from its grasp in a panic.  Her thoughts were swirling as fast as her heart pounded, and her breath was ragged.  How could something like this exist? 

“Stop,” the creature grunted.

Maya was shocked into stillness. It could talk! She looked down and finally noticed this beast was not only clothed, but it wore the uniform of a Tembar soldier. She tried to read the creature’s emotions to gauge whether it was actually one of Ralic’s servants she was hallucinating.  The reading was muted, and the attempt caused a nagging ache behind her eyes.

“You are not known here,” it said.

“I… I’m a messenger,” she stuttered.  It came out as a timid squeak.

“Speak,” barked the creature.

“It’s for Count Ralic’s ears only,” Maya answered.

Now that she knew she wasn’t breakfast, Maya felt sorry for the beast.  It seemed to have difficulty processing her request and lumbered toward the castle’s northern gate for help.

It led her into the courtyard where Maya heard the whine again.  It returned to a low rumble seeming to come from the Yekaran apartments, but the sound was reverberating off of a thousand surfaces and could be originating from anywhere on the grounds.  Besides, Ralic’s dragon died long ago.  Tembar hadn’t been home to a Yekaran for years.

Maya rebuked herself for letting her attention wander.  How would she accomplish anything if she couldn’t control her own mind?  She scanned the area for the arachnid since she’d lost track of his movements while she was distracted.  She found the grayish, fur-covered mass of the beast’s head bent over something about ten meters to her left, so she eased closer, trying to remain unnoticed.

The spider creature was speaking to the steward.  He was a small man, barely out of adolescence, yet he seemed unperturbed by the creature waving gruesome mandibles so close to his face.

While the two spoke, Maya looked about the courtyard.  She saw no other creatures, but she felt this was a normal sight for the citizens of Tembar.  Those about seemed healthy enough though weather-hardened and distrustful.  Perhaps the creature was born in or near the castle.  Surely it was a fluke of nature.  There couldn’t be others.  Could there?

The creature left and stalked back toward the gate, so she looked to the man.  He regarded her with an expression of distaste and boredom.  Maya felt uneasy, sensing nothing from him.  She pushed and found neither emotion nor obvious shields.

The young man bowed and turned on his heels.  He set off toward the main doors at an astonishing pace, making it difficult for Maya to keep up without running thanks to her short stride.  The youth pushed both doors open and charged through.  She managed to rush through and winced at the clamor they produced as they closed.

The steward led Maya up a stairwell not far from the doors and out onto the second floor.  They both continued down the corridor.  The steward stopped between a huge gap in the support columns and two enormous doors.  Maya could tell they were outside Ralic’s council room.  Each castle had such a room on the second floor for the master to hold council with his human vassals.  However, it was built so they could meet face to face with a Yekaran resident or ambassador when needed, speaking through the enlarged breezeway opening and doors.

“Wait here for a moment,” the steward said.  He pulled one door open, disappeared through it without waiting for an answer, and took care to close it behind.  Maya listened, trying to block out the whinny of a spooked retesh rising from the courtyard.  She heard an exasperated tenor voice followed by the sound of breaking glass.  A girl Maya hadn’t noticed before flinched at the sound before trying to disappear into the wall as she swept.

The steward returned.  A ragged gash now marred the skin above his right eye.  His expression and voice were indifferent as he told her the Count would see her before releasing the heavy door and stomping back down the hall toward the stairwell.  She walked through the opening and heard the girl yelp and the steward bark an indistinguishable order before the door closed with a bang.

The room was furnished more as a study than Maya expected.  The windows were covered by thick curtains of a dark color she couldn’t make out in the dim light of half-spent candles.  A glittering at her feet caught her attention.  It was the remains of a glass bottle below the dripping fringe of a wine-stained tapestry.

Count Ralic sat behind a large desk piled high with scattered papers, ancient books, and scrolls, pouring over a report.  The man matched the castle.  He was a pale man with ebony hair and surprisingly well built.  She’d always assumed Ralic would be as lanky and frail as his brother, Brannon, had been.

Maya stifled a cough in the smoky room, forcing her shoulders back as she tried to hide her unease and make a show of confidence.  The count looked up from the papers and rose from his seat.

“Who have we here?” he asked.

“Greetings, Count Ralic,” Maya answered, pushing her hood back to reveal her face.  His eyes grew wide as he recognized the gold circlet pinned into her hair.

“Grand Lady Maya!” he exclaimed in surprise and motioned her toward a chair across from his desk.  “To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asked as he returned to his seat.

“I’ve come to bring a message from your father,” she answered.  “It’s strange I’ve never met you before during the sixteen years I’ve lived at Reiont,” she added as she sat.

“I’ve always kept to myself,” he said with a shrug.

Maya cleared her throat.  “If you’ll pardon my asking,” she began.  “What happened to the creature outside?”

“Creature?” Ralic asked, looking stunned, though Maya could sense no surprise.  She wondered if the steward had told him of her encounter.  “Oh, you must mean Brance.  No one really knows.  You know the effects of utronumite on Terran systems, do you not?”

“I should say!” she answered.  “After all, I’m to marry your nephew before the week is out.”

“Yes, Lanre does have a rather strong talent, doesn’t he? Telepathy, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Poor thing,” Ralic answered.  “He must take after his father.  My brother always was the sickly type, and I’ve never seen a healthy looking telepath.  They’re all skin and bones and sleep-sunken eyes.”

“Actually, most say he’s the image of Aligh as a young man, though he has his mother’s coloration,” Maya answered.  “He’s trained all his life to cope with the emotional barrages of castle life, and he manages well.”

“I can see Aligh has made a good match with you,” Ralic answered.  “You speak with more than respect for my nephew.”  He cleared his throat. 

“You asked about Brance.” Ralic leaned back in his chair, idly scratching at the stubble on his jawline. “He wasn’t born the way he is today.  The midwife or his father would have probably killed him if he had been.  No, most think he found a spider somewhere under the castle and ate it.”

Maya felt her eyebrows rise at the explanation and immediately smoothed her features. It was a wasted effort, however. Ralic made a dismissive gesture.

“He was one of those children who’d put anything in their mouths.  The springs that irrigate Tembar Flats have some of the highest concentrations of utronumite in all Tekar.  It still doesn’t seem possible, but his DNA was fused with a spider’s when he was a toddler.”

“A transformation in a fully developed boy!” Maya exclaimed in utter shock.  “Why wasn’t it reported?  I-it’s unheard of!”

“And have the boy live the rest of his life in a laboratory?” Ralic answered, raising his eyebrows in a show of concern Maya couldn’t sense.  “In any case, I’ve been researching the cause and any possible means of reversing the effects.”

“I seem to remember hearing stories about your abilities in the sciences,” Maya answered.  “I wasn’t aware you were still experimenting.”

Ralic shifted; unease radiated from him.  “Nothing like I used to,” he answered.  “I mostly played with equations in the evenings to keep my skills sharp until this with Brance happened.”

“You’ve not returned to your former studies in your quest for a cure?” Maya asked.

“Even if I wanted to, there are no books on the subject in our library,” Ralic answered.  “I’ve been working with what I can remember, but I must confess I don’t remember much.”

“Still, something like this should have been reported,” Maya continued.  “What if it happens again because people aren’t warned?” She scoffed. “Well, other than the storytellers’ versions of him stalking the Wastelands as a ravening beast.”

“What good is warning people going to do?” Ralic asked.  “Has warning a child not to put things in their mouth ever stopped them from doing so?  Besides, the necessary utronumite concentrations only exist here and in the Water Watcher’s Council Hall.  Water Watchers aren’t trained until they are ten at the earliest and our catacombs have been closed off.” 

Maya started to protest, but Ralic raised his hand to forestall anything she had to say.  “To our understanding, there is no longer any danger of another incident such as the one which transformed the boy.”

Maya knew Ralic was lying about something, but she wasn’t sure what it was.  Had he pushed into the forbidden sciences again, or was he simply hiding information?  As much as she wanted to know, she didn’t push further.  It wouldn’t serve her purpose for Ralic to discover her real reason for being here, and she knew he wasn’t a fool.  She decided to fake belief and concentrate her efforts on the information she’d originally come to obtain.

“I shall give the king your assurances when I report the incident,” she said.  “I’m sure he will allow Brance to remain in your care, especially given your scientific background.  Though, he may wish to send a few scientists to aid you.”

“Any aid would be welcome,” Ralic answered.  “You said you had a message from my father?”

“Yes,” Maya answered.  “Your father believes Princess Kalie was attacked two months ago, but he also believes she wasn’t the real target.”

“Who then?” Ralic asked.

“Prince Lanre, King Aligh,” Maya paused, trying to push deeper into his emotions, “you.  He believes someone wants to overthrow the Virchow line.”

“Why?” Ralic asked, radiating more unease than the controlled fear or concern Maya expected.  “The house of Virchow has reigned since the crash with only the odd bid for power from time to time.”

“That’s likely the case again,” Maya said.  “It’s probably some dissatisfied regent or other.  Still, these things can become bloody if left unchecked.”  Maya paused, trying to feed Ralic a feeling of unconcerned trust in her.  “Whatever it was happened on your land.  Have you heard anything that could help us in the investigation?”

“I wish I could help, my lady,” Ralic said, leaning forward.  “I really do, but I’m afraid I know nothing of my sister-in-law’s disappearance.”

The rush of emotion from the count was overwhelming and set Maya’s head spinning.  She gulped.  Had she pushed too hard?  Could he have noticed the emotion graft?  There was no report of Ralic having telepathic abilities, and she prayed he hadn’t somehow developed them as she feigned belief.

Maya could sense something not quite right.  She knew he was hiding something, but there was no way to discover what it was without giving herself away.  For the first time in her life, Maya wished she’d been born with telepathic abilities. 

A chill overtook her as realization struck.  She’d picked up on Lanre’s desire to speak with Ralic!  He could push beyond the surface emotions; she couldn’t.  Maya berated herself for her foolishness.  She’d been trained to resist such influences, and she hadn’t recognized this one until it was too late.

“What makes Father sure Kalie was attacked?” Ralic asked, startling Maya out of her private reverie.  “Yekarans have been known to lash out at their closest friends in the throes of madness when it comes upon them suddenly.”

“Borcon?  Mad?” Maya asked, shocked by the accusation.  “He was always in perfect health.”

“I meant no insult,” Ralic said.  “As with humans, Yekarans can be driven to madness by a traumatic event.  They could’ve as easily been overtaken by a blizzard, and something happened to Kalie.  I know the bond between dragon and companion.  Losing such a friend is enough to break anyone.”

“Surely we would have found something.”

“Was there really nothing left?”

“Unfortunately not,” Maya answered.  “It was snowing, and the Yekarans were sluggish.  By the time they arrived, nothing was found but fresh powder.”

“I’d heard as much from the men who came to inquire, but it is hard to believe such a large party could disappear so utterly,” Ralic answered. “It seems we may never know what happened to poor Kalie.”

A sense of smug pleasure caught Maya’s attention. Her heart fluttered, knowing only one reason Ralic would be happy they could never find the truth.

“Thank you for your time, my count,” she said.  “Your father sends his reassurances Kalie’s attackers will be caught.”  She looked down at her hands, blushing with disgust at what she was about to say.  Yet, she realized the necessity of the message.  “However, there can be no guarantees of anyone’s safety in the best of times.  Therefore, I’ve been sent to inform you Aligh officially named you as his secondary successor several weeks ago.  He would have sent word sooner if not for the transition storms.”

“I wish no offense to you, my lady,” Ralic said.  “But, I hope the day never comes.  You deserve better than to be saddled with a man old enough to be your father.”

As Ralic met her eyes, Maya fought the urge to recoil. His manner revolted her despite his handsome face. How could he be the son of Aligh Virchow? Only his thick head of dark hair and light green eyes spoke of the kinship. There was a strange feel to his manner as he rose from his seat.  The feeling was utterly foreign to her.

“I regret I will not be able to attend your wedding due to failing health,” he said.  “I’m afraid my lungs simply cannot take the rough summer winds.  Do tell Lanre I wish you both all the happiness in the world.”  He offered her his hand.  She took it, and he kissed her knuckles.  Her stomach lurched at his touch. 

“I must wish you farewell,” he said.  “I’ve several projects to oversee.”

“Farewell, Count Ralic,” Maya managed as they rose.

“May I show you out?” he asked, offering her his arm.

“Thank you,” Maya said as she accepted, praying she could maintain an unconcerned facade until she was safely away from Tembar.

Continue to Chapter 2, Part 1
 


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