“Are you certain you will be safe traveling alone?” Ralic asked as they neared the northern gate. “Certainly my father didn’t send you all this way without at least one guard or your Yekaran companion.”
"Given the possibility of an attack against the line of succession, we thought it safer to travel in the guise of insignificance,” Maya answered; pleased her hours in the castle library were proving useful. Ralic’s brow wrinkled, and Maya answered the obvious question before it was asked. “King Louis XVI of Earth’s France thought to outwit his enemies by fleeing in such a disguise, but in carrying a guard, he gave himself away.”
“Then why risk wearing your circlet?” Ralic asked. “Everyone in Tekar can recognize that particular trinket. Why you instead of a messenger or even just a post bird now the weather’s cleared?”
“I came as a show of trust and as an olive branch,” Maya answered. “After what passed between you and your father before, he thought something as impersonal as a missive or messenger would seem accusatory, especially given the close proximity of Tembar to Reiont.” She smiled, picturing her love’s many rants about his inability to travel to Tembar himself. “Lanre would have come himself, for he is eager to meet you, but Aligh has come to rely on his help much these past few years.
“As for the circlet, how else would you have known me?”
Ralic roared with laughter, causing Maya to jump. She never expected the feared count of Tembar to find anything amusing, let alone such a simple statement. The sound seemed unnatural, but his laughter was genuine. However, she couldn’t quite tell if he was laughing at her words or some private joke.
“Well put, my lady,” he said. “Yes, Father made a good choice with you indeed. You’ll make an excellent queen.” He touched his forehead lightly with his right hand, bowing to her in the Tekaran custom. “Health and happiness be with you, Lady Maya.”
“And to you,” Maya answered, pulling her hood up once again. She turned and walked through the open gate and out into Tembar’s open lands.
Before long, the firm ground of Tembar gave way to the Wastelands’ sands. Maya barely noticed the change as she hurried along, lost in thought. She’d taken a risk she knew would infuriate Aligh and Lanre today, and for what? What real proof did she have other than her word? Tembar offered little other than more questions.
She’d been such a fool! What would she tell the king? What could she tell Lanre? Even if no one else missed her, he would have. She’d have to tell him the truth of what she’d done. It was impossible to hide anything from him anyway. He’d be furious with her for leaving unprotected, but it was far too late to change what she’d done. Maya hoped he hadn’t already raised the alarm. Oh, how she wished she’d never left her quiet little village. Life would be so much simpler.
A peasant girl came into view as Maya topped the dune. She appeared very young, just coming into womanhood. Her clothes were in tattered layers, her face was dirty and caked with sand, and her long red curls were a tangled mess. It looked as if she’d wandered in the Wastelands for weeks despite what bits of her fair skin showed looked to have just the beginnings of a burn. She seemed strong and healthy nonetheless as she stood before Maya with her feet planted to the ankles in sand. Maya could see anger in the child’s face as plainly as she could feel it burning in her.
“Traitor!” the girl screamed and charged at Maya.
Startled, Maya stepped back and tumbled down the dune she’d just climbed. The sand cushioned her fall, but the impact still jarred her already sore back. Her world spun as she rolled and bounced until she finally skidded to a stop.
Groaning as she looked back up the steep dune, Maya expected the girl to come crashing down on her head. However, the girl stood halfway down, staring at Maya with her mouth hanging open. Maya gagged and pulled at the clasp of her cloak where the fall had nearly ripped it off completely. She got to her feet and began to shake her clothes free of sand while keeping a mental eye on the girl’s movements. Maya could feel the girl trying to reach her without falling too, though now her actions seemed motivated by embarrassment and fear rather than anger. Maya didn’t feel she would pose a threat again, so she ignored her until she decided to speak.
“I beg your pardon, my lady,” the girl began. “I saw you coming to and from Reiont and Tembar and assumed you were spying for Ralic.”
“Now why would you think such a thing?” Maya asked.
“I know he’s had people in Reiont working for him before,” the girl answered. “I saw one come in not long back, and I know he’s planning something regarding Reiont…” She trailed off and started picking at her nails. “I don’t know what exactly, but from the looks of these, it’s nothing good.” She reached into a pouch tied at her waist and pulled out the thick corner of several pages folded together.
“And just what are those?”
“I managed to snatch a good chunk of his records before I left.”
"How'd you get into his records?" Maya asked. "You're a little young to be a serving maid, and I doubt he's allowed any cleaning staff in his office for years by the look of it."
"I was allowed to go and look for him there after I finished with my lessons for the day," the girl answered. Her hands fiddled with the rough material of her tunic, and she shrugged before raising her chin. "I went in under the pretense of wanting to take the midday meal with my father."
“You’re telling me you’re his daughter?” Maya asked, gently pushing at the edges of the girl’s mind. She found a flood of images: a younger Ralic looking down at her, the count holding out a brightly wrapped package, and countless others. Just before the connection broke off, Maya thought she saw a large, dark-colored Yekaran being chained in the castle courtyard.
She felt like she’d been kicked in the chest, and she tried to swallow around the lump that had just formed in her throat. Was that Borcon? Had Kalie been betrayed by a spy in their midst? All at once, it felt like her heart started beating again and raced to make up time, and the sensation left her gasping for air.
“We weren’t aware Ralic had any children,” she said half under her breath.
“He wouldn’t mention me,” the girl answered. “My mother didn’t exactly want to marry him, and he was rather disappointed I was the only child she managed to produce for him. He wanted a son and got stuck with me.”
“What were you planning to do with those papers?” Maya asked.
“Think me an ungrateful daughter if you will, my lady,” the girl said, “but I was on my way to report him to King Aligh.”
“Just how long have you been out here?” Maya asked. “And what is your name?”
“My name is Chantal, and I’ve been out here three days,” the girl answered.
“What happened to delay you so, Chantal?” Maya asked. “Tembar Castle is almost in Reiont’s shadow.”
“The night I ran away was remarkably dark,” Chantal answered. “I got lost. Ralic sent others like Brance to bring me back once he noticed I’d left, and I got turned around running away from them.”
“Well, I’m tired, parched, and feel like my stomach’s trying to gnaw on my backbone, so I know you must be as well,” said Maya. “What say you to following me back to Reiont to deliver your information and have a bite to eat?”
“That sounds wonderful,” Chantal agreed with a smile.
Continue on to Chapter 2, Part 2.