Lanre felt Maya’s approach as she reached the landing down the hall. He tried to regain his composure, but his own worry and the contradictory mix of confusion, joviality, and underlying unease surrounding him had his control in tatters. Sleep had been impossible, so he spent the few hours he should have been napping digging through the papers Chantal had brought alongside Judge Marx. His fatigue after twenty straight hours awake with his emotions running high wasn’t helping.
He’d sent for Selah as soon as she returned to her duties for the evening shift and asked her to look for Maya. Anxiety and dread pulled at him as he waited for the information he prayed she had. He paced the throne room alternately tugging at his hair and giggling as he was hit with another wave of amusement from his grandfather.
“How can you be so giddy?” he snapped at Aligh.
“Have you heard some of these stories people have concocted?” Aligh asked, brandishing some papers. “Apparently Baroness Nelain believes Chantal is a mass hallucination brought on by anxiety.”
“Baroness Nelain thinks she’s cleverer than she is.” Lanre scrubbed his face with his hands. “Have you seen the report about those records Chantal brought? She saw Borcon being chained at Tembar! What do you think that means for my mother?”
“You don’t know that for sure yet, Lanre,” Aligh chided. “In my years, I’ve found little use in getting myself worked up, especially over matters for which I’d yet to get all the facts. It’s bad for the blood pressure.”
Lanre found Maya’s mind as she entered and used it to anchor himself, feeling the order like a balm to his nerves. Their eyes met, and he felt a flash of concern and sorrow from her before she redoubled the shield she provided for him and tightened the one between their minds. Dread coiled in his gut. If she was shielding from him, the news couldn’t be pleasant.
“It seems like the gossips have had a fine time today, judging from the whispers I kept hearing on the way here.” Maya shook her head. “They ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
“I suppose they will be when they hear the truth this evening,” Lanre answered.
“I’m sure they will,” Aligh agreed. “Did you discover anything else about the dragon, Maya?”
“Yes,” Maya answered as Lanre felt her gently lower the shield between them. Although his grandfather could only hear her words, Larne saw the scene she described play out through her memories.
A surge of anger with the realization his mother had been used as a hostage set his heart racing. His hands shook when he brought them up to his face. Shock and grief struck him when Maya told of Borcon’s tortured howling. Lanre felt his knees buckle and the sharp sting as he hit the floor, floundering in the torrent of his own emotions and Maya’s. She knelt by his side and wrapped her arms around him and began raising the wall between their minds once again.
He clung to her, his constant anchor in the world, thankful for the relief she offered from the grief of others even as he was lost in his own despair. Her hands smoothed through his hair as she whispered to him. What she said, he couldn’t understand, but her presence was soothing. He sobbed.
After what seemed like an eternity, thought returned. His uncle had used her! He used his mother to force Borcon to surrender and then killed her in front of him. Why? What did he gain by breaking a Yekaran mind? Was it just for his sick pleasure?
Grief gave way to disgust and then finally anger. Ralic would pay.
“Any word on Borcon’s condition now?” he heard Aligh ask.
Too exhausted from lack of sleep and emotional upheaval, Lanre leaned on Maya and listened.
“He’s lost his mind,” Maya answered. “He lashes out at anyone who tries to tend him and howls for hours.”
“As well as can be expected.” Maya sighed. “He didn’t react much while we were out, but he’s preparing to meet with the council regarding a course of action. Thankfully Borcon hasn’t drawn blood in his madness, so there is some hope.”
“What of the papers Chantal brought?” she asked.
“They contained details regarding mining operations mostly,” Aligh answered. “There isn’t enough there to be certain, but enough to suspect my dear son is enslaving his citizens and experimenting with explosives.”
Lanre shuddered, causing Maya to stroke his hair again. He knew Aligh was angry, but he’d never heard the sarcastic lilt to his grandfather’s voice before. He felt Maya send him a wave of love and reassurance, and he wrapped it around his soul like a blanket.
“Speak with Chantal, Maya,” said Aligh. “Find out if any new men arrived with the dragon. I want name and rank, but a description will do if nothing else.”
“As you wish, Sire,” Maya said, substituting a bow of her head for a curtsy since Lanre was still clinging to her.
He met her eyes, once again taking comfort in the loving concern he found in them. She swiped the tears from his eyes with her thumb and brushed his fringe back out of his face. He noticed a glimmer on her cheek. She’d been crying too. He brushed the tear away and pressed his forehead to hers.
“Thank you,” he whispered before rising shakily to his feet again and drawing her with him. She squeezed his hand in answer. “I’ll join you,” Lanre thought to her. He turned toward Aligh without releasing her hand.
“If you’ll,” he started to say, but his voice seized. He cleared his throat and started again. “If you’ll excuse me, Grandfather, I have some minor affairs to attend to.”
“Very well, Lanre,” Aligh agreed. “Tell Raman I am not to be disturbed. I need to rest for a while.”
“Do you need a hand to your quarters, Grandfather?”
“I am not yet so feeble I cannot walk to the next room myself,” Aligh snapped.
“My apologies,” Lanre offered with a bow. He turned toward the door and left with Maya. “He’s becoming unpredictable lately. I was only trying to help.”
“Do you blame him?” Maya asked. “You’ve been treating him like a child lately. True, he’s getting older. His health is beginning to fail, but he’s not helpless.”
“I just don’t know how to act around him sometimes. Whether he admits it or not, he does need help from time to time.” Maya nodded but remained silent. “You shouldn’t be so hard on the gossips, you know.”
“What do you mean?” Maya asked, turning her dark eyes to him for the first time since they left the throne room.
“It’s not fair to be so harsh when you provided the fuel for several of the stories.” He was bombarded with a whirlwind of emotion as Maya’s hold on her mental shields slipped. He rolled his eyes at his own thoughtlessness. She always lost her grip on them when she was preoccupied with a puzzle. He tugged on the shield between their minds, and she strengthened it. Her mind was a whirlwind of sorrow, anger, guilt, anxiety, fear, and confusion, and he wanted no part of that storm just now. He pressed his hand to the small of her back as he led her up the stairs.
“Baroness Nelain asked the guards if a young woman had arrived today. They told her no one but Caprie entered the castle.”
“I thought I’d forgotten something.”
He watched a flush spread across her cheeks and down her neck. The physical manifestations of what he felt so easily from others never ceased to amaze him.
“If they persist, you can always say she entered through the catacombs. It is the truth, after all.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “but how would she know about them unless she was shown?”
They reached the third floor landing, and Lanre paused. “Chantal’s quarters? Or would you prefer to freshen up after your trip to the bluff?”
“My quarters, please,” Maya answered. “I understand Aligh has planned something of a banquet to welcome Chantal. It wouldn’t do to attend still windblown and gritty.”
“Certainly not,” he answered. The chuckle he sent her sounded watery even in his mind as he led her down the hall toward her rooms.
“In answer to your previous question,” Maya said. “Ralic was raised as a prince in Reiont. Do you really expect me to believe he doesn’t know about the catacombs? They haven’t changed since Reiont was built.”
“You have a point.” Lanre paused for a moment. “And you’ve found a major flaw in our defenses. I’ll have to speak with Grandfather about correcting it.”
“It’s a pity we’re always so concerned with defense these days.”
“Some of us more than others.”
Maya turned to him so quick he winced, half expecting to hear her neck creak. He hadn’t meant to allow the fear he’d felt earlier let anger seep into his voice, but mental tone was difficult to control. Seeing her eyes wide with fear, he wished he’d spoken aloud, but this wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have openly in a hallway.
They walked in silence until they reached Maya’s room, and he led her inside. She waited until he closed the door before letting her expression slip.
“Lanre,” she said. How could she make one word mean so much?
He pulled her into his arms, trying to comfort her and make her understand at the same time.
“I spent the better part of the morning looking for you,” he said. “I was going to ask if you could spare the time for a picnic in the garden.” He leaned down to whisper in her ear, pouring the terror he’d felt into his voice. “No one knew where you were!”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. Maya trembled in his arms, and she pulled back, looking up at him with wide, tear-rimmed eyes. “I was so sure, and I couldn’t trust he’d keep to Tembar. I couldn’t bear the pain not knowing was causing you and Aligh.”
A tear fell, and he wiped it away.
“Why couldn’t you tell me?”
“I knew you couldn’t confront him,” Maya answered, “not without some sort of proof. I don’t know what I thought I could find, going to him as I did, but I was certain I’d find something.” She sobbed, and he pulled her to him again. “That I found anything was pure chance. I was so naive!”
Maya clung to him, and he stroked her back. Time slipped away as he let her cry herself out.
“I didn’t want to worry you,” she whispered.
Lanre lifted her chin, and she watched him with those big, dark eyes he loved so much. He took her face in his hands and wiped her tears away with his thumbs.
“We’ve been friends for most of our lives,” he said. “In a few days, we will be married. Your concerns are mine, as mine are yours. We’re meant to share them.”
Maya nodded and lowered her gaze to the floor. Lanre leaned his forehead against hers.
“Please, don’t leave me again,” he pleaded. He kissed her then, showing her the love he held for her and his fear of losing her the only way he knew how without bombarding her mind.
Continue to Chapter 5, Part 3.