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Lanre felt Maya’s approach as she reached the landing down the hall. He tried to regain his composure, but Aligh’s jovial mood fed into his own. It was going to be difficult for him to stop laughing before his grandfather did.
“Now there’s a sight worth seeing,” Maya said, smiling as she entered the room. “I was afraid the two of you had forgotten how to laugh.”
“You’d be laughing too,” Aligh answered, “if you’d heard the stories Lanre’s told me this afternoon.” He wiped a tear from his eyes with a trembling hand and gestured for Maya to come closer. “Apparently Baroness Nelain believes Chantal is a mass hallucination brought on by anxiety.”
Aligh began giggling again as Maya clicked her tongue. Lanre found her mind and used it to anchor himself, feeling the order like a balm to his nerves.
“It looks like the gossips have had a fine time today.” 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. His mood was sobering, and the king returned to business. “Did you discover anything else about the dragon, Maya?”
“Yes,” Maya answered as Lanre felt her mental shields fall. Although his grandfather could only hear her words, Larne saw the scene she described play out through her memories.
The girls were sitting at the beach eating lunch with Tricon looming in the background. Chantal ate without talking, watching as the waves broke against the shore.
“When I was at Tembar this morning, I heard something familiar,” Maya said. “I thought it sounded a lot like a Yekaran keening, but there hasn’t been a Yekaran living in Tembar for years.”
“No, there’s one there,” Chantal answered. “A big black Yekaran with a cream underbelly was brought in with two women about a month ago.”
Lanre felt Maya stiffen in her memory and heard Tricon’s gasp.
“Can you tell me anything about the women?” Maya asked.
“Not much,” Chantal answered. “I saw them once from a distance.” The girl paused, concentration creasing her brow.
“I heard something outside during my lesson. Gresha and I went to the window and looked out into the courtyard. The soldiers were chaining the dragon down.
“I thought it was strange because the dragon wasn’t moving. It was looking at the two women. One was tall with blond hair, and she was being held by Falcon, another of father’s creations like Brance. A smaller, dark haired woman stood behind them.
“Gresha pulled me away from the window. She said we were wasting time, and I needed to get back to my lessons. Then the howling started, and we didn’t get much done anyway.”
Maya’s shields returned as shock and grief struck him and his grandfather. Lanre felt his knees buckle and the sharp sting as he hit the floor, floundering in the torrent of his own emotions and those of his grandfather. Maya knelt by his side. She wrapped her arms around him, and he clung to her.
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, his heart eased enough for thought to return. His uncle had used her! Used his mother to force Borcon to surrender and then killed her in front of him. Why?
Grief gave way to anger, and it gave him the strength to compose himself. Ralic would pay, but for that to happen, they needed more evidence.
“Any word on Borcon’s condition now,” he asked.
“He’s lost his mind,” Maya answered. “He lashes out at anyone who tries to tend him and howls for hours.”
“Tricon’s reaction?” Aligh asked.
“As well as can be expected.” Maya sighed. “He didn’t show much emotion 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. “Was there anything to them?”
“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. He knew Aligh was angry, but he’d never heard the sarcastic lilt to his voice he’d used just now.
“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, my lord,” Maya said as she curtsied.
“I’ll join you
,” Lanre thought at her and nodded to Aligh. “If you will 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 thrown room.
“It’s not fair to be so harsh when you provided the fuel for several of the stories.
” He bit his cheek to keep from laughing at how quickly her brow creased and redoubled his mental shields. Her mind was a whirlwind when she was confused, 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.
” 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.
” he answered, chuckling mentally, and led her down the hall toward her rooms.
“In answer to your previous question,
” Maya said. “Ralic was raised as a prince in Rieont. Do you really expect me to believe he doesn’t know about the catacombs? They haven’t changed since Rieont 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’s 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 bare 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 to loose her the only way he knew how without bombarding her mind.
.”______________________________________________________________That's the end of the preview. For more information regarding the 2013 release of Right of Succession as well as various other articles, tutorials, and recipes, make sure to join me over at Diary of a Work-at-Home-Mom.
They touched down in the courtyard late in the afternoon. Maya helped Chantal steady herself as she dismounted.
“Thank you, friend,” Maya said, patting his long neck.
“Yes, thank you, Tricon,” Chantal added. She was nervous still. It showed in the uncertain curve of her smile, the way she wrung her hands, and she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “It was very exciting.” Chantal nodded, nerves adding sharpness to the movement causing the tendrils that came loose in flight to bounce around her shoulders.
“You are both welcome.” Tricon grinned, showing friendliness without exposing the rows of sharp teeth, and Maya was thankful for the consideration. She grew accustomed to Yekaran smiles long ago, but they seemed to unnerve Chantal. Maya understood. All those teeth, sharp as swords and almost as long, bared in such big mouths made it easy to forget the weren't the creatures from ancient Earth legend.
“If you’ll excuse me,” he continued. “I have much to attend to this evening.”
“Good evening, then friend.”
Tricon nodded and left them.
“Well,” Maya said, turning her attention to Chantal. “Let’s introduce you to the infants.”
“The infant Yekarans in the dragonry.” Maya led Chantal toward a plain door grayed with age. “Most of them went home with their parents the day they hatched.”
“What about the rest?”
“Their parents never came out of hibernation.”
Chantal’s expression softened and filled with sympathy. Maya knew the reaction well. There was nothing more effective in turning the hearts of those intimidated by adult Yekarans than the plight of those orphaned by the winter fevers and hibernation failure.
“Is this for my pairing with a Yekaran companion?”
Maya nodded and held the door open, allowing Chantal to enter first. “We’ll see if you can find a companion among the four here. There are others we can call if you don’t find a match today.”
She led Chantal through the narrow hallway. Maya loved visiting the dragonry, but she’d never enjoyed the decent through the Terran entrance. The press of walls so close unnerved her.
At the end of the long sloping hall, an old, worn door opened into a massive dome. The hall was an impressive sight just after the mass laying, filled wall to wall with glistening eggs. Today was underwhelming by comparison. The room was empty except for four hatchlings and the maids assigned to tend them until adoptions were finalized.
The size and growth of infant Yekarans never ceased to amaze Maya. First hatched, their heads reached halfway between a human’s knee and hip. These four were a week old, and one was nuzzling his nursemaid’s elbow, trying to hide behind her arm.
“They’re so small.”
Maya turned to Chantal. “Compared to the adults, yes they are, but they’re still plenty big from a child’s perspective, I can assure you.”
“You were four when you met Tricon, weren’t you?”
Maya nodded. “And I’m short now. Imagine how I felt then. He was only two days old and as tall as I was.”
“What do I do?” Chantal asked.
“Go to them, and see if you make a friend.”
“But I’ve never made a friend before.”
“You’ll know if one of them takes to you,” Maya answered.
Chantal hesitated, but after a moment, she set her jaw and walked toward the tiny dragons. Maya felt an ache deep in her chest for the girl. How sad to grow so near womanhood and have never had a friend. She hoped it would happen for her today.
A reddish male peeked out at her from under his nursemaid’s arm and then returned to hiding. A cream fellow and greenish brown female were too busy wrestling to notice Chantal, but a dark green female waddled to meet her halfway. As they reached each other, the Yekaran sniffed at the hem of Chantal’s skirt.
“Hello,” said Chantal.
The Yekaran cocked her head to the side, considering Chantal with amber eyes. She blinked and reared up to sit on her haunches. The dragon trilled and regarded Chantal again, eye to eye, before issuing a questioning squeak.
“I’m Chantal,” she answered. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
The hatchling extended her muzzle. Chantal reached out and caressed the hatchling’s nose before tickling under her chin. Overexcited, the baby wobbled and only managed to keep from falling by flailing too large wings.
Maya walked out to the two of them just as Chantal was asking the nursemaid for the hatchling’s name.
“Her name is Roggsha,” the maid answered.
“Hello, Roggsha,” said Chantal. “Would you like to be my Yekaran companion?”
“That’s a question best left to her parents,” Maya said.
“I thought she was an orphan.”
“Yes, but we find homes for them. These four are just waiting for the adoptions to be finalized. You can ask her parents if they’re willing to allow her to be trained as a companion when they come to take her home.”
“So she won’t live here at the castle?”
“Not until she’s an adult,” Maya answered. “There’s no reason to rob her of her childhood, and you will have plenty of opportunities to visit her.”
The door opened, and a woman with gray beginning to streak through her hair crossed to Maya and Chantal. “There you are!” she said. “Lanre told me I’d probably find you down here.”
“Sorry, Selah,” Maya answered. “We’ve just returned from a picnic out at the bluff.”
Selah waved Maya’s apology away. “No matter, dear. I’ve been told to tell you the king is asking for you and to help the young countess get settled in.”
“I see,” Maya answered and turned to Chantal. “This is Selah, Chantal. She practically raised me. If you’ll go with her, she’ll help you get settled. I have some business to attend before dinner.”
Chantal nodded and greeted Selah as Maya turned to leave. Continue to Chapter 5, Part 2.
Maya was chopping some of the greens for Tricon’s stuffing when she heard Chantal gasp. She glanced up to see the girl’s pale, horror stricken face. Maya looked to Tricon’s favorite hunting spot with some idea of what had Chantal so upset.
Sure enough, there he was, pulling out of a dive at the last possible second. When would he tire of doing that? He’d received two deep gashes along the underside of his tail when he cut it too close once as a youngling, and yet he persisted.
“He’s such a child sometimes,” she commented half to herself as she went back to preparing the greens.
“Tatia packed three large onions, I believe.” Maya waved toward the food. “Could you hand them to me, please?”
Chantal made a little humming sound and shook herself before lifting the basket lid. Maya watched as Chantal tried to find the onions and watch Tricon hunt all at once. She managed it soon enough and finally tore her attention away from Tricon once he began circling.
Maya knew from experience the most dramatic moment of the hunt was imminent, but she didn’t want to draw Chantal’s attention to it. The girl was skittish enough around him, afraid of his size and appearance. She didn’t need to see Tricon make the kill. There was too great a chance it’d reinforce the brute beast stereotype so many who didn’t spend time around Yekarans tended toward.
“Thank you,” Maya said as she accepted the onions. She caught sight of Tricon scooping a shralankce from the water as she started peeling the first one. Maya saw Chantal take one of the others and watch her movements closely before mimicking them. Maya waited until Tricon made the kill before bringing it to Chantal’s attention.
“What did he catch?”
Maya watched Tricon fly back toward the cliffs, remembering how strange she found the sight of a dragon carrying its prey the first time she saw it. Shralankce were odd looking creatures with their elongated bodies, disproportionate fins, and triangular heads.
“Yekarans call them shralankce, but our ancestors nicknamed them arrowhead sharks.”
“Will it feed him? It’s huge, but it seems small compared to Tricon.”
“The Yekar, for all their human-like qualities, are reptilian,” Maya explained. “They don’t need to eat as often as we do. A Yekaran of Tricon’s size normally feeds every three to four days unless they’ve been unusually active.”
Chantal peeled while Maya chopped in silence. Maya could tell Chantal was thinking over something. She was frowning with a far away look in her eyes, and Maya could feel the confusion and curiosity coming from her.
“So, have the Yekaran’s been more active lately?”
“No.” It was Maya’s turn to be confused. “Why do you ask?”
“Tricon said they’d eaten sea greens every day this week.”
“Oh.” Maya thought back for a moment. She’d forgotten about that part of the conversation. “When I say feed, I mean something substantial in dragon terms like the meal he’s getting today,” she explained. “Sea greens and other vegetables native to Yekara factor into the Yekaran diet more like supplements than meals. It’s all about the vitamins and minerals. It doesn’t do much in the way of easing hunger for them.”
“Why is it so important?”
“It supports their immune system,” Maya answered and reached for the last onion. “Disease, and disease related deaths, among Yekarans have dropped dramatically since humans started insuring there’s enough to go around when the Yekarans come out of hibernation.”
“So, it’s not because you’re expecting a confrontation with my father?” Chantal asked. Her eyes were downcast, and Maya could feel a confusing swirl of emotion coming from her. Anger, sadness, and disappointment were chief among them, but guilt was in there too.
“No,” Maya answered. “It’s just something routine to help them stay in good health.”
“What’s going to happen to him?”
Maya finished chopping the last onion and mixed it in with the greens. She thought about her next words carefully. Although she could feel the raw emotion rolling off the young girl sitting next to her, she didn’t have to be an empath to tell she was starting to feel guilty for turning her father in.
“It depends on the evidence,” she began as she went to the water’s edge. Maya bent and rinsed her hands before returning to the fire. “If there’s enough, a warrant will be granted. Tembar will be searched. A full investigation will be done, and he may be taken to trial.”
“I know that,” Chantal groused. “I meant if he’s found guilty.”
“I wish I could say, but there are so many ways a trial can go.”
“Fine,” huffed Chantal. “Tell me about these groups then.”
“What do you want to know?”
Chantal’s mouth moved as she started to form her response, but it turned into a squeak as Tricon returned with his cleaned and charred lunch. Maya had waited about serving Chantal and herself for this reason. His landing always kicked up a lot of sand.
“Good hunt, I see,” greeted Maya.
“More like kulling. It was a fracture pod there to aid this wounded one.”
“Ah well, good for you, and good for the pod then.” Maya giggled at the sight of Tricon rolling his large, brown eyes. She motioned toward the stuffing and drying greens. “The rest of your meal is over there.”
Chantal had taken out the bowls while Maya was distracted with Tricon and was ladling out the stew. Maya retrieved the canteen and dug around in the basket to find the spoons.
“How many groups are there?”
“Six,” Maya answered, taking the offered bowl and handing Chantal a spoon.
“Tell me about them.”
“There’s too much to tell in one afternoon. You’ll have to be more specific.”
“Give me the shorthand version.”
“Alright then.” Maya paused to think.
“There are Weather Watchers, like me. They can make minor changes in the weather here and there, and they’re responsible for taming the transition storms and taking the edge off the worst blizzards and droughts.”
Maya ate a few bites of her cooling stew. She watched Chantal consider the information. Maya continued at Chantal’s nod.
“Then there are the Water Keepers who have this innate sense of where the water is, and they always know how much is there. They’re in charge of making sure water gets where it needs to go.
“They do a lot of work with the Thermals, who are immune to burns from fire and can control fire and heat to some extent. They keep the wildfires under control and are a tremendous help training young Yekarans.”
Tricon snorted and chuckled, rolling a slice of the charred shralankce around the stuffing. “It certainly helps having trainers who are as fire retardant as their students,” he grumbled. Maya turned her attention back to Chantal before he took the first bite. She loved Tricon as if he was a big, scaly brother, but she hated seeing him eat. Unfortunately, she’d forgotten to say anything to Chantal.
The younger woman paled as Maya heard the distinctive sound of a Yekaran’s jaws tearing into meat.
“Then there are the Telepaths,” Maya continued, hoping to distract Chantal from Tricon’s table manners. “They’re one of the most numerous groups. No one’s sure why, but a lot of the scientists believe it’s one of the easiest mutations.” She shrugged.
“Telekinetics can move objects under a certain size short distances with their minds. It’s a quirky mutation and fairly rare.
“And finally, there are the Talent Seers. Their name's rather self-explanatory.”
“People with such power are everywhere?” Chantal asked. The look of horror was still there, but it was muted. “And, they’re born with it?”
“Yes,” Maya answered. “They are found and trained young. There are strict laws in place to govern the use of such abilities, and all those with them are schooled in the laws and consequences for breaking them.”
“And people with these powers, people like you, are afraid to cross these councils and their laws?”
“The councils adopted harsh penalties for breaching laws and protocol long ago,” Maya answered. “None have crossed them more than once.”
Chantal seemed to consider the information for a moment and then nodded and focused her attention on her bowl of stew. She asked a question now and again, but mostly, she watched the waves roll in and crash against the rocky shore.
From some of the things Chantal said earlier, Maya knew the younger woman’s world view was torn to shreds by the day’s events. She remembered the feeling, and the conflicting emotion she sensed swirling around the girl, which reinforced her suspicions. Chantal was teetering on the edge of an emotional breakdown.
Those first weeks after coming to Rieont, Maya’s world was turned on its ear. She’d wanted to run home and hide so many times. Was it the same for Chantal? Was she tempted to return home, or did the fear of her father make matters worse for her?
If Maya remembered one thing more than the overwhelming desire to escape to the familiar, it was the attempts of virtual strangers to comfort her only made her long for home more. So she held her peace.Continue to Chapter 5, Part 1.
Tricon loved hunting from this spot on the cliffs above the picnic alcove. The view was perfect. It was one of the reasons he and Maya preferred this spot to any of the others within reach of the castle.
He scanned the waters, looking for the characteristic dark spot created by a pod of the large, black skinned eel sharks. The waters here were a favored hunting ground near the spring and fall transitions as they migrated. This time of year, they’d be making their way north to the cooler waters they preferred for spawning.
A glinting off to the southwest caught his attention. He focused on the spot and found what looked like a shadow dancing under churning waters. The area was free of crags that far out, so the chances of it being a shralankce pod were high. It looked like a small group feeding on a cloud of the translucent fish the humans nicknamed “bubble fish” for their tendency to inflate when threatened.
Tricon backed several meters from the ledge and took a running start into a gliding takeoff. He thrilled in the feel of the wind rushing over his hide. It was freeing, flying without a rider and saddle. He could make use of maneuvers he didn’t dare with Maya in less than full battle gear on his back.
Tricon pulled his wings in, folding them close to his sides, and went into a dive parallel to the cliff face. He plunged headlong toward the rubble left by the crumbled summit and waves crashing against the wall of ragged shards. A rush of primal emotion swept through him, and Tricon reveled in it before unfurling his wings again. They caught the updraft, and the membranes stretched almost painfully tight as Tricon missed impaling himself on the rocks by less than a meter.
He pumped his wings, enjoying the slight burn he was starting to feel from the day’s exertion. Transition had been bad this year, and it was a relief to no longer be grounded by torrential rains.
After a moment, Tricon was at a good altitude again, and he decided to play a bit before he pounced. He folded his left wing against his side and went into a roll. The spin was faster than anticipated, and he stretched the wing to abort. The result was clumsy, and Tricon decided it’d be best to leave the acrobatics until he’d fully recovered his strength after hibernating. He felt a minor strain, and knew he’d been lucky not to seriously injure one of his wing joints with such a wobbly pullout. It wouldn’t do to strand them all.
He’d have to make time to practice in the next few days. Otherwise, he’d embarrass himself during the celebrations surrounding Lanre and Maya’s wedding. Or worse, he’d embarrass himself and then be humiliated when he was too sore to move the next day.
Tricon turned his attention back to his prey. He was close now. The pod still resembled nothing more than a large, undulating shadow under sea foam, but he could tell it was a tiny pod. They were a social species, depending on large numbers coupled with heat and pressure sensing organs to compensate for being nearly blind, so such a small group was odd.
Once he reached the pod, Tricon shifted his weight and went into a lazy figure eight to observe the feeding shralankce. There was little chance of the creatures sensing his presence. Their sight was useless beyond a few meters, and the minuscule pod of five was easy enough to fly over while avoiding their dorsal heat and light sensors.
He regarded the five, looking for the weakest amongst them. They were probably part of a larger group, siblings broken from the main pod to help a sick or wounded brother.
What a pity. This wasn’t so much a hunt as it was a kulling. The shralankce were unsuspecting of threats from above now after centuries of diminished hunting since the humans crashed on Yekara. The challenge the word hunt implied wasn’t there. No, this was more like a service to the species. He’d butcher the injured, so the whole would return to the main pod.
And he was lucky, the weak one appeared injured instead of diseased. It favored its right side, and Tricon glided lower for a better look.
A chunk was missing from the right pectoral fin of a medium-sized male, and long, angry gashes slashed the ebony hide with red outlined in white. It looked like he’d gotten into the crags near the cove, likely due to the last storm judging by the freshness of the wound. Even if it managed to avoid infection, it’d be crippled.
Tricon dove.Continue to Chapter 4, Part 3.
Chantal followed Maya through the halls to the kitchens, her stomach grumbling at the thought of food. It seemed like years since she’d had a decent meal. As they reached the ground floor, mouth-watering aromas tickled her nose and caused her stomach to rumble so loud she was surprised it didn’t echo.
Maya pushed the kitchen doors open to reveal the activity and noise of Rieont’s kitchens. Chantal followed, watching the cooks. Maya apologized for interrupting before asking an elderly lady for a basket with enough food for two. The woman nodded and waddled toward the huge ovens on legs almost too thin to support her plump figure.
“Here,” Maya said as she took a couple Raesh cakes from the cooling racks and handed them to Chantal. “These will tide you over until we get where we’re going.”
“You sure?” Chantal asked. “They don’t look too happy.”
Maya turned her attention to the scowling kitchen hands preparing cakes for the ovens. The young women looked down and blushed under her gaze. “They can take them from Lanre and my share if they’re so worried about the number,” she answered. “It wouldn’t do for the king’s granddaughter to faint of hunger.”
The kitchen workers' blush deepened as they redoubled their efforts with batter and stuffing, and Chantal nodded before biting into the first cake. It was warm and soft, buttery and spicy, and she had to fight to keep from eating it too fast. They were a favorite of hers, served only on holidays and big events like coronations and weddings, and she’d never had one fresh from the oven before.
The old woman returned, struggling with the weight of the large basket she carried. Maya thanked her as she took the basket and shook her head.
“You’re trying to make me fat before my wedding,” Maya accused.
“Impossible,” the cook responded. “You’re too skinny.”
They chuckled and bid each other good day before Maya led Chantal out of the kitchens. They rounded another corner to find two enormous doors stretching floor to ceiling. Each was engraved with a snarling dragon, carved into the wood with intricate detail. They reared, poised to defend the orb they perched on; their serpentine tails curled around the sphere like a shield. The image was familiar, but Chantal couldn’t remember where she’d seen it before. Had her father mentioned it to her? He grew up in Rieont, so it made sense he would remember the carved doors.
The bubbling base voice of a male dragon began to throb around her as Maya pulled one of the doors open. Chantal saw Maya smile as they stepped out into the humming air. Other powerful voices joined in as the melody spread, and Maya added her soprano to the chorus while they strode across the immense courtyard toward a set of Yekaran apartments.
The complex door and most of the apartment doors inside stood open in the heat. Maya entered with a confidence Chantal found impossible to imitate. She had never been near a dragon, but she remembered seeing her father’s companion from a distance. Could something so powerful, so fearsome, be intelligent and friendly? Still unconvinced but overcome by curiosity, Chantal followed Maya into the gloom and through one of the open doors.
The apartment was little more than one very large, sparsely furnished room. A two-drawer chest stood in the far right corner; a lantern sitting on top provided the only light. An overstuffed mattress lay along the left side of the apartment with a well-grown Yekaran lounging on it as he watched them.
“Mein, mein Tricon. Mah eh gleo us es no.” Maya teased. Chantal’s eyes grew wide. She could not understand the words, but the language sounded familiar. Was this the Yekaran language? “Micht das mention jiu wo lai shuo’ aber scias ay’h veil trioblóid es statuatis mahti venias se undisonus.”
“Paentieo, Maya,” the dragon answered, exposing a row of glistening white teeth. “Venbat eh wenig vebat inithe.” Chantal gulped when his attention turned toward her and was surprised when he began speaking in Terran. “Who is this?” he asked.
“Tricon, this is Chantal,” Maya said as she urged Chantal closer. “She’s Ralic’s daughter. Chantal, this is Tricon, my Yekaran Companion.”
“My greetings to you, Chantal,” Tricon answered with a bow before turning his attention to the basket Maya carried. “I’m guessing you’d like to fly out to the beach for your midday meal?”
“How’d you guess?” Maya answered, a smile turning up the corners of her mouth. “Chantal is to be paired with a Yekaran Companion,” she explained. “I thought it would be good for her to learn a bit more about your people before making the choice. Besides, I’ve never heard you turn down the chance for a good hunt.”
“God bless you,” he answered with an exaggerated sigh. “Any excuse to get away from Deligh for a while!” Maya giggled. “I’d love a little trip, but I’m covered in dust after helping the planters this morning. Would you mind if I took a moment to clean up?”
Maya nodded and moved out of the dragon’s way. Chantal wasn’t far behind and stood watching in awe as the large reptile rose from the mattress. His grace and the fluidity of his movements amazed her. She always thought Yekarans would be awkward, lumbering beasts with no more intelligence than a retesh. She’d been so wrong! Tricon’s presence, size, and appearance were intimidating, but he spoke and behaved almost as if he were human, a very large human.
She could feel the ground tremble as he passed. Maya seemed nonplused by her companion’s bulk and brute strength. Chantal wasn’t convinced of Maya’s sanity after finding her in the Wastelands – alone - and seeking an interview with a certain reclusive count, but she couldn’t believe her grandfather would put her in danger. Besides, humans and dragons worked together all the time, didn’t they?
Maya followed Tricon out of the apartment and motioned for Chantal to come along. She fell into step beside Maya, questions multiplying in her mind as her awe and fear seeped away.
“What were you saying before?” Chantal asked. “I didn’t recognize any of the words you were using. Were you speaking the Yekaran language?”
“I teased Tricon about making so much noise, and he apologized for getting carried away.” Maya answered with an amused smile. “And, yes, we were using Yekaran. It’s something of a tradition of ours to greet each other in the language.”
“How’d you learn it?” Chantal asked. “I’ve never heard more than snippets before.”
“It’s taught like any other subject, especially in the castles,” Maya answered. “But, I learned more from speaking it with Tricon and his family growing up. Weren’t you taught it?”
“No,” Chantal answered, unable to hide her disappointment. “But, Tembar doesn’t have many dealings with Yekarans, perhaps my father didn’t think it was necessary for me to study.”
Chantal started to ask another question, but she forgot what she was going to ask when Maya grabbed her arm and pulled her back. She started to protest, but the warning look on Maya’s face stopped her. The older woman nodded toward Tricon, and still confused, Chantal turned her attention to the dragon. The world seemed to slow for her as she watched.
He stopped at the other end of the courtyard, and as she watched, Tricon spread his wings. Folds of leathery hide spread taught between ribbings like huge fingers to reveal a wingspan of more than six meters. The drake’s massive head turned toward his right shoulder and his chest dipped toward the ground pulling air into his lungs with a nasal whine. Tricon opened his mouth and a plume of fire erupted from it to roll down the full length of his body, overheating the already oppressive air and filling it with the stench of scorched dust.
Chantal lowered the arms she’d raised to shield her face, blinking her eyes to clear them of tears. A thin layer of fog formed around Tricon’s glowing scales. It became difficult to dismiss the sight as her imagination when she heard the condensation hiss as it came into contact with the fire-treated scales. Tricon stood motionless until the last of the fog burned away, leaving the once dull, ruddy hide an amazing rose tinged gold gleaming in the sun. He pulled his wings back to his sides and proceeded to the wall where several saddles hung, leaving Chantal standing agape.
“What just happened?” she asked.
“Yekaran’s take fire baths,” Maya answered. “It conserves water while cleaning them more efficiently, and they’re largely immune to flame.”
“I meant the mist,” Chantal clarified as she turned toward the noblewoman, trying and failing to keep from glaring. Maya hadn’t answered her question, and Chantal doubted the woman was ignorant of the fact. “Where did it come from?” she asked and winced at the accusing tone.
“The air around us,” Maya answered. “This close to the Deep, it’s an easy trick for a weather watcher.”
“No!” Chantal whispered, taking a step back from Maya. She thought she’d escaped such beings once leaving Tembar Flats. “You’re the grand lady. You can’t be another monster like Brance!”
“I’m not,” Maya answered, raising her hands in a placating gesture. “I was born this way, as were many other Terrans. The mineral Ralic blames for making Brance the way he is causes some people to be born with abilities. So many in fact there are laws governing how those abilities can be used.”
Maya took a step toward her, and Chantal backed away. It couldn’t be true. She was lying. Everyone always lied to her.
“King Aligh isn’t the highest power in Tekar,” Maya continued. Her tone was pleading. Chantal knew the woman was trying to calm her down; she both welcomed it and resented her for patronizing. “There are councils whose only job is to train individuals to control their ‘talents’ and govern how they’re used. Anyone who dares break the laws the councils set in place are subject to the harsh justice they’re known for dealing out. Not even Aligh could protect me if I used my gift against another person.”
“How harsh?” Chantal asked.
“It depends on the offense,” Maya answered.
“If you tried to hurt me?”
“Best case scenario,” Maya began. “Unless you were endangering lives, it’d be a very long time before I saw the sun again if ever. Even if it was in defense of others, there would be a full investigation and tribunal, possible imprisonment, and likely heavy fines. ”
Chantal calmed somewhat. Maya seemed to relax in response.
“I have much to explain to you, and I will once we get to the beach. I didn’t mean to frighten you, and I swear I won’t use my abilities around you again if they make you uncomfortable.” She paused. “Well, unless a storm’s about to blow us all away. I do have some
sense of self-preservation, and I’m partially responsible for the safety of those in Rieont.”
“Is that what you use them for?” Chantal asked. “Protecting people from the transition storms?”
Maya nodded. “I can’t stop them, but I can weaken them a bit or cause enough of a shower to keep the crops from frying in a draught. It’s what people with my type of talent are trained to do. It’s the same with the other groups, especially the water keepers and thermals. Otherwise, it’s unlikely we Terrans would have lasted so long on Yekara.”
“What do you mean?”
“Did Ralic keep you from learning anything of our history?” Maya asked.
“My tutors focused on math and science.”
Maya sighed. “We’ll have to fill the gaps in your education later, but in short, yes. We’re not native to Yekara. That’s why utronumite affects us the way it does.”
“I’m ready, Maya,” Tricon called.
Chantal turned to see the dragon waiting. He had strapped a double saddle around his neck, just above where his wings and shoulders met. It was a marvel one of their ancestors had thought of a way to construct strong buckles the dragons could work with their claws.
“Can you trust me enough to come along?” Maya asked.
Chantal nodded. “But, I want some questions answered once we get there.”
“Sure,” Maya agreed and reached for the riding straps as Tricon eased down onto his belly. The stirrup was still just below Maya’s waist, but she slid her right foot into the loop and pulled herself into the saddle.
Chantal knew she wasn’t more than a few centimeters shorter than the diminutive woman, but she doubted she’d manage quite so easily. Maya seemed to notice her unease.
“It helps to put a hand to his shoulder for balance,” Maya suggested. “Make sure your foot is secure in the stirrup. Then, use it and the reigns to pull yourself up.”
Chantal nodded and wedged her foot into the stirrup. She found the reigns and hauled herself up, but she overbalanced when she tried to swing her leg over and barely managed to catch herself.
“It’s a bit more difficult than riding a retesh,” said Maya. “It takes everyone a few tries.”
Chantal tried and failed two more times before she found the balance she needed without head butting Maya in the back. Maya congratulated her before proceeding to instruct her in flying safety.
Chantal found the thick leather belts attached to the back of the saddle and secured herself. The riding skirt made it cumbersome, but the feeling of being held in place made her less nervous about flying atop a great beast she’d just met.
“As ready as I’m going to get,” said Chantal. “I think,” she mumbled.
Maya nodded before leaning toward Tricon’s massive head. “Take it easy today, friend. Chantal’s never ridden before.”
Chantal heard him snort and saw his horn tipped frill move as he nodded. Under the saddle, the muscles of Tricon’s long neck flexed. She could feel the movement and hear the plate-like scales scrapping against their sheaths on the saddle’s underside.
A startled squeak escaped her throat, and she clutched the reigns like a lifeline when his weight shifting off his forelegs rocked them backward. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. The safety straps held fast without giving in the least, and it was reassuring.
Within seconds, the great shoulder muscles bunched behind the saddle, and Tricon leapt. The air was forced out of Chantal’s lungs causing her to grunt as the force of it surprised her. Tricon unfurled his wings and began pumping the air.
Five strokes had them above the castle walls, and he kept climbing higher. It was amazing and dizzying all at once, but eventually, dizzying won out. Chantal closed her eyes until she felt their flight level out before peeking again.
It was as if everything dropped away. Nothing existed except the three of them and the sky with the forest rushing by beneath them and the mountains ahead. It took Chantal a moment to remember to breathe.
Tricon carried them over the forest and two mountains. The second summit had sheered off in places, leaving an intimidating cliff sheltering a stretch of beach beneath. Once they were over it, Tricon glided around in a gentle circle.
The Yekaran brought them around to what looked like a makeshift picnic area with a fire pit and three boulders long since polished smooth by the waves arranged like benches and one dragon sized plate. As they neared the ground, Tricon shifted his weight and backwinged into a soft landing that left him ankle deep in the sand.
Chantal undid the straps with a minimum of fumbling once he’d settled down onto his belly. She swung her leg over and misjudged the distance to the ground. Luckily a sandy beach was a much more comfortable place to fall than a paved courtyard, and tumbling onto her rear from the back of a fully-grown male dragon only damaged her pride.
“Are you okay?” Maya asked.
“Nothing’s hurt,” Chantal answered as she scrambled to stand. She busied herself in removing as much sand as she could while Maya climbed down. Then she helped Maya pull the basket from the saddle bag. How had she missed Tricon taking it from Maya?
Chantal followed Maya toward the fire pit and the two oblong stones placed to either side of it. She heard Tricon shift behind them and looked back to see him fumble with the saddle buckles as he grabbed onto one of the slender branches of a scraggily tree with his tail. It pulled away from the tree with a snap, leaving a gaping scar behind. Tricon freed himself of the saddle and stowed it in a cubby hole of a cave.
Chantal giggled at the sight of Tricon using the branch like a backscratcher over the area the saddle occupied a moment before. It never occurred to her they probably weren’t the most comfortable things for a Yekaran to wear. Apparently it itched after a while.
“Help me clear this,” Maya said, and Chantal pulled her attention away from the dragon. She hadn’t noticed from the air, but the fire pit was full of debris washed in with the tides. Maya had knelt to begin clearing it, and Chantal stooped to help.
Several loud snaps sounded behind them. Chantal guessed Tricon decided to use his backscratcher as kindling, and the fact was confirmed when they finished clearing the site. He was waiting for them with one fore claw holding the branch in six pieces. He dropped them into the pit.
Maya pulled a long match from the basket and used it to light the dried leaves she used as kindling. Within minutes, they had a small fire, and Tricon had retrieved an old looking metal spit kit from one of the small caves and washed it in the ocean. Chantal and Maya assembled it, and soon the little kettle packed in the basket was hanging over their growing fire.
“Why don’t you gather yourself some sea greens, Tricon,” Maya suggested.
“I’d rather not,” answered the dragon. “We've had them for seven days straight.” Chantal watched, somehow surprised dragons were capable of whining like human children. “Your choice: fried, baked, or stewed,” he continued in what Chantal guessed was an impression of someone.
“Did you think I wouldn’t notice your flame is off color?” Maya scolded. “You’ve been pawning off part of your share on the younger ones again, haven’t you?”
Chantal blinked at the sight of Tricon lowering his eyes as he nodded like a guilty child. Her focus bounced between the dragon and Maya. She was thunderstruck and confused. Was this what the relationship between companions was like?
“If I know you, you’ll want to have a good hunt this afternoon,” Maya continued. “You’re going to need enough of a flame to cook your kill. That will lower your utronumite levels even more. A nice salad will replenish your supply, but I want you to gather enough for me to make a stuffing for you.”
Chantal marveled at the nerve it must take her to scold and lecture such a large, powerful being. Then she saw the look in Maya’s eyes soften. There was a concern there that spoke more of a familial relationship than one of an owner toward their beloved pet.
“If something does happen, I want you to have a strong blue center. It wouldn’t do to set a bad example,” she teased.
“I suppose you’re right,” Tricon agreed. Then, he turned toward the water. He scooped out two large piles of the long, thick plant and placed them on the third polished bolder that reminded Chantal of a dragon sized plate. He gestured toward Maya in a way that seemed like the Yekaran equivalent of a bow. His expressions were difficult to read, but she was almost sure he was being cheeky. She was still trying to puzzle out the scene when he took to the air once again.
“You seem very comfortable around him.”
“Of course I am,” Maya answered. Chantal felt uneasy as Maya considered her with a frown. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“He’s so big,” Chantal said. “So powerful.”
“Oh, he’d never hurt me,” Maya replied as she stood from where she’d been sitting on the opposite bolder. Chantal watched as Maya walked over to the greens Tricon had left behind. “We’ve been friends since he was two days out of the shell.”
“Oh?” Chantal sighed. “You’re older than he is then? I got the impression it was the other way around.”
“That depends on your point of view,” Maya laughed as she sorted through the greens. “In human terms, he’s twelve, but Yekaran’s mature at a different rate than we do. For them, being twelve-years-old translates to roughly twenty-six.” She stopped to regard Chantal with a smile.
“Will you stir the stew Chantal?” Maya asked. “After that, you may want to watch Tricon. He’ll start his hunt soon.” Continue to Chapter 4, Part 2.
Maya led Chantal to the second level. Sunlight flooded through the enormous windows lining the hallway. The thick glass panes were removed a week before to create a breezeway to relieve the early summer heat.
“I can’t see the Wastelands,” Chantal whispered.
Maya looked back at the girl who had fallen still, staring out over Rieont’s southern lands. The emotions she sensed in Chantal were conflicted: joy and sadness, hope and loss, with fear covering it all. Maya remembered feeling much the same way when she first came to Rieont sixteen years earlier. She placed a reassuring hand on Chantal’s shoulder.
“It’s so strange,” said Chantal. “I could always see the Wastelands from my window.” She laughed. “I used to think it the world’s edge as if nothing existed beyond.”
“It’s an easy thing for those who live in castles,” Maya answered, “forgetting a world lies beyond the horizon.”
“I am happy to be here,” Chantal said, looking over at Maya. “Everything’s just so different.”
“I understand,” Maya answered. “Believe me.” She squeezed the girl’s shoulder. “You get used to it after a while.”
“Well, the forest is beautiful.”
“That it is,” Maya agreed. “Come now. I want to see your grandfather before his meeting with Elder Conciliate Caprie.”
Chantal nodded, gulping, and followed. A very large man stood guard outside the throne room. He looked straight ahead, and his expression was hard. Any who didn’t know the man behind the scowl would think twice before approaching him, but Maya had known him from her childhood.
“Good morning, Raman,” she said as they approached. “Would you tell the king I’m here with a guest he’ll wish to meet?”
His eyes raked over Chantal; assessing her as they did any new visitor to the king. Maya glanced back at the girl, noticing her gaze had fallen to the long sword Raman wore at his side. She turned back to the guard as he bowed before entering the room beyond.
“No need to be nervous,” Maya said. “He’s a good man with a kind heart.”
“King Aligh or the guard?” Chantal asked.
“Both,” Maya answered.
One heavy wooden door swung open, and Raman waved the girls inside.
“The king will see you now, ladies.”
“Thank you, Raman,” Maya said and moved through the door he held open with Chantal following close behind. The room was immense and decorated with tapestries illustrating monumental events in Tekaran history. Across the room, King Aligh sat dwarfed by his throne.
Maya curtsied before the dais. Following Maya’s example, Chantal curtsied as well. It was a clumsy attempt.
Aligh nodded his recognition, a motion noticeable only by the change of light shining off his silvered hair. His appearance grew more unkempt by the day; he refused to have his beard trimmed or his tunics taken in. The tunic’s light material hung from his thinning frame, his skin had grown sallow and dull. However, his dark grayish green eyes remained unchanged, shining out from under heavy brows.
“Your majesty,” Maya began. “I’ve come about a matter of some importance.” The older man straightened and raised his brows. “It seems Count Ralic had a child he neglected to mention. This young woman is his daughter, Chantal.”
“Are you certain, Maya?” Aligh asked. “I seem to remember a boy child and him dieing at the same time as Valera. Am I wrong?”
“No, sire,” she answered. “They both passed…”
“If you please, your majesty,” Chantal broke in and curtsied again. “My mother’s name was Annadel Richards. She and Count Ralic were married in a private ceremony at Tembar Castle.”
The king seemed to notice Chantal for the first time. His brow knit as he scrutinized her, searching for any hint of relationship.
“She does look like Hitrata, doesn’t she?” he asked.
“Yes, she has her eyes,” Maya answered.
“Come here child,” Aligh called with his arms outstretched. She walked forward and kneeled at his feet. He shook his head and reached out to her with trembling hands. “Stand up, darling, and give your old grandfather a hug.”
Chantal stood, beaming, and threw her arms about the elderly man. She clung to him fiercely, tears of relieved joy streaming down her face. Then, as if remembering the king’s age and frail appearance, she loosened her grip and stepped back.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I didn’t hurt you did I?”
The room’s heavy wooden doors swooshed open and banged into the wall as a tall gentleman rushed through them. He stopped almost immediately, his head snapping around to glare at Maya. She gulped, knowing she’d been caught as she watched him stalk toward her.
“Good day, my lord,
” she thought at him as contritely as possible and dropped into an exaggerated curtsey.
“Where have you been?
” he snapped through their mental link. Maya’s eyes fell to the floor as she tried to think of how to respond. “The Wastelands! Tembar Castle! You spoke to Ralic!
”he shouted in her mind.
” Maya thought, a sheepish expression spreading across her features as she realized too late she’d let her shield slip. “Don’t worry, Lanre.
“Why exactly shouldn’t I worry? Someone attacked my mother, and we don’t know who is guilty. Yet, somehow you think it’s okay to sneak out of the castle without a guard!
“He won’t do anything
“How do you know?
” Lanre asked. His silent mouth curled into a mischievous grin. “I’m the telepath after all.
” Maya nodded toward Chantal and Aligh. Neither seemed to have noticed Lanre’s loud entrance. “Have you noticed what I brought home?
” he asked. “What of her?
“She’s Ralic’s daughter.
“But I thought...
“So did I,
” Maya answered, “but something happened when I tried to read her. Something clicked, and I saw images of a younger Ralic as if I was a child sitting on his knee.
” Lanre asked. His shocked expression matched his mental tone. “How’s that possible. Empaths can’t go that far.
” Maya answered, “but it happened. Maybe it’s something like our connection,
” she mused. “She could have some level of telepathy. Tembar Flats does have a high utronumite concentration.
” Lanre agreed. “Still, I’d feel better if I could see for myself.
Maya raised her right hand and touched the tips of her fingers to her forehead. She bowed and extended her hand toward Lanre as if giving him her thoughts. She felt the familiar buzzing warmth of Lanre’s mental probe, and she opened her mind to him, closing her eyes to keep from going cross-eyed.
The crushing rush of information was the fastest and easiest way to give Lanre the entire story, but it was disorienting for her to watch the memories flash over her field of vision. Seconds later the buzzing stopped as Lanre retreated. Maya opened her eyes again and began rebuilding her mental walls.
” he asked. There was pain and hope in his expression making it clear he still clung to the belief Kalie was alive and feared he would be proven wrong.
“I’m not sure,
” Maya answered. “That image is all I got, and I was afraid to ask before. She’s already half terrified. I wanted to bring her to Rieont, not frighten her away from it.
. We’ll have to take it easy with her then and not push. But, we can’t wait too long. Not if what she said is true.
“I’ll speak with her,
” Maya answered. “She’s beginning to trust me, and meeting Aligh has made her relax a bit. She came to testify against Ralic. It won’t be long before she opens up.
” he agreed. “I’ll leave her in your hands then. Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll go meet my long lost cousin.
“Don’t call her by name,
” Maya answered as a thought occurred to her. “Our ability to talk like this isn’t widely known. It may be best to let Aligh introduce you.
“Oh, thanks for reminding me,
” Lanre blushed. “It does disturb people when I respond to things they haven’t said yet, but they all think so loudly.
“That’s why you have me, dear.
Lanre smiled, laughing mentally as he agreed, and turned back toward the throne. Maya followed as he walked to the head of the room where Chantal and the king were engrossed in a conversation about her mother and the late Queen Hitrata.
“Good morning, Grandfather,” Lanre said before turning to Chantal. “And to you madam…”
“Chantal Virchow,” Aligh answered for her, “of Tembar.”
“Of Tembar?” Lanre asked making a good show of innocent curiosity. “Isn’t she rather young for Ralic?”
“Don’t be daft,” Aligh chided. “She’s Ralic’s daughter, not his wife.”
“Ah, much more appropriate,” Lanre answered. He bowed and kissed the back of her hand.
“Thank you,” Chantal answered.
“What brings you to Rieont?”
“I’ve come to report unlawful activity in Tembar,” Chantal answered. She looked to Aligh as if to apologize for not saying so before.
“Shouldn’t you report this to your father?” Lanre asked. “It’s his jurisdiction.”
“I-I know,” she said as her gaze fell to the floor. “But, my father’s the criminal to be reported.”
“Ralic?” Aligh asked growing serious and leaning forward. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, Sire,” answered Chantal. “I saw him with my own eyes and found records of other suspicious activities.” She pulled a collection of folded papers from one of her deep pockets and handed them to the king. Maya breathed a sigh of relief at the sight. She’d forgotten about the papers until Chantal mentioned them and feared they’d been thrown into the fire along with the girl’s peasant disguise.
“Oh my.” Aligh sighed as he read through the documents. “I must ask you to stay here, Chantal,” he continued after a moment, “at least until an investigation has been completed.”
“I hoped you’d say that,” Chantal answered. “Father knows I left, and I suspect he knows why. He’s had his guards hunting for me.”
Aligh nodded and handed the papers over to Lanre. “Take those to Judge Marx, Lanre. Ask him to review them and prepare a hearing. Then, see a vacant set of rooms is prepared for Chantal.”
“Of course,” the prince answered. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
“Didn’t you have a matter of some urgency to discuss?” Maya asked as Lanre turned to leave.
“It can wait,” he answered with a mischievous grin and hurried out the door.
“That boy has more mood swings than ten pregnant women,” Aligh said shaking his head before returning his attention to Chantal. “Has your Yekaran companion been settled?” he asked.
“I don’t have one,” she answered. “I’ve only seen two Yekarans in my life.”
“How sad,” he commented. “Wonderful creatures, Yekarans.” His eyes brightened as he turned to Maya. “You should take Chantal to meet the orphans while her rooms are being prepared. Perhaps she’ll find a companion after all.”
“Excellent idea,” Maya agreed.
“I wish I’d more time to speak with you, child,” Aligh said as he took Chantal’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “But I am expecting an ambassador from the Yekaran Council.”
“I don’t want to distract you,” Chantal answered.
“Never a chance,” he reassured her. “I look forward to seeing you this evening.”
Maya’s stomach ached, reminding her she’d skipped the morning meal and it was midday. Then, it occurred to her Chantal mentioned she’d run out of supplies the day before. How thoughtless she’d been in her haste! If she was hungry after several hours’ fast, how much more would the girl be after a full day.
“If you please,” Maya interrupted. “Perhaps Chantal and I could take our midday meal along the coast.”
“Yes, of course,” Aligh agreed. “Fair journey to you, and don’t be late for the evening meal. The discovery of my only granddaughter is cause enough for feasting.”Continue to Chapter 4.
The remainder of their journey passed quickly. Chantal exuded a sense of excitement, joy, and curiosity Maya found intoxicating and helpful in her own fatigue. It felt like days rather than the few hours it had been since she left Reiont, and it now seemed she would likely be too busy getting Chantal settled for either of them to have a nap this afternoon. She knew the feeling of being a bird trapped in a gilded cage, but what must it feel like to see the world for the first time?
As they trudged toward Reiont, Chantal asked question after question. Does King Aligh have a long white beard? Is he grumpy in the morning? How old is Prince Lanre? Would she be welcome at Reiont? Did she know any Yekarans? Were they nice or as mean as they looked? Was she scared she’d be stepped on? Maya answered each question as well as she could while they hurried toward the relative cool of McLay’s Forest.
Chantal’s questions quieted when they entered the forest. Maya could feel the younger girl’s unease in the dimming light and foreign surroundings. She assured Chantal they were almost to the castle, but quickened her pace nonetheless. It was nearing midday, and there was much left to do.
Before long, the girls came upon an ancient tree devoid of leaves. Maya told Chantal they’d arrived and was rewarded with a confused expression. Grinning, Maya grasped one of the “tree’s” branches, feeling the moss covered metallic surface, and pulled down. Once again, the neglected joints had corroded and refused to budge. Chantal watched her with an upraised eyebrow and poorly hidden smirk.
“The lever’s stuck,” Maya explained. “Help me.”
Still looking unconvinced, Chantal took hold of the branch and the two pulled together. The hinge finally gave way with a grating groan, pulling moss from the “trunk” and startling a small cloud of tiny insects into flight. The two batted the insects away from their heads as the passage opened. Chantal’s hands stopped mid-swat when she caught sight of the trap door in the path.
“Don’t know if I would have found that,” Chantal said. “The mechanism is much different from the one at Tembar.”
“It’s an older design,” Maya answered, pulling the box of matches from her pocket in preparation. “Tembar was built a couple of decades after Reiont, when the population grew too great for this castle and before we were willing to spread out.” She turned and led Chantal into the passage. After a morning in the open, the smell of earth and mold was overwhelming. “Joshua Marx was long dead by then. Tembar’s catacombs were designed by another engineer.”
“Joshua Marx?” Chantal asked. The questioning look on her face became apparent as Maya lit the remains of the torch she’d used back before dawn.
“You haven’t been taught much of our history have you?” Maya asked. She snapped her mouth shut as her eyes went wide. She hadn’t meant to say that out loud, and she felt her face grow hot. “We have to close this,” she said indicating a rope pull attached to the trap door.
“Of course,” Chantal answered and reached to grasp the rope. It was outside her reach as she stood on tiptoe. Dust showered down around her as Chantal jumped and caught the rope. The door started to close by centimeters under her weight. “Did dust begin to fall before Chantal grabbed hold?”
Chantal’s feet finally touched the steps, nearly causing her to overbalance when the door’s progress stopped. Maya placed the torch in the sconce and joined her, knowing it would take the both of them to drag the door the rest of the way since they’d lost the advantage of gravity.
Both girls strained, digging their heels into the step fronts for leverage. By the time the last rays of daylight were extinguished, both girls were dripping in sweat between the day’s heat, their efforts, and the warmth of the torch. The two stood for a moment, panting to regain their breath.
The acrid smoke from the torch wasn't helping. Maya pulled the handkerchief she'd used to filter the air earlier in the morning from her pocket and tore it down the middle. She handed half to Chantal and used the other to cover her nose and mouth.
“We need a bath before we see anyone,” Maya said once she regained control of her breathing.
“I wouldn’t say no to one,” Chantal sighed. “It feels like I haven’t had a bath in weeks.”
“All the more reason,” Maya teased. “Come on.”
The passage, an old escape tunnel included when the castle was first built, twisted and turned to disorient any who attempted to use the route to infiltrate the castle or escape from the dungeon. However, for those who knew the correct path, it was a short walk from the entrance to the exit in the surrounding forest.
It was mostly forgotten and neglected over the years. The documents Maya’d found buried in the library said the passage roof was over two meters high, but the roots of the trees above trundled down into the tunnel several centimeters in their search for water before turning until they found the walls or floor. Maya was a small woman, but she still had to crouch to avoid becoming tangled in the mass or setting it on fire with the torch. Chantal didn’t have the torch to contend with, but her loose curls caught and snagged on the roots.
Maya led the way through the catacomb’s twists and turns, finding it much easier than the morning’s trip. She grinned to herself. Her mother’s old advice, “Know it backwards and forwards,” came to mind. She’d always hated seeing those words written in her mother’s rough hand following a letter where she’d complained about her studies.
Maya realized they were both running on little more than adrenaline. She wondered how sore she’d be in the morning, and she hoped Chantal was actually as healthy as she appeared after several days in the Wastelands. At the least Chantal would be sore and prone to the chills for the next few days with the burn she’d sustained. If it was worse than she let on, she could collapse as soon as the adrenaline wore off or spike a fever overnight.
Maya gave the torch to Chantal as she grasped the lever. She instructed Chantal to stamp out the exhausted torch and leave it behind. When the light was gone, Maya pulled the lever and stepped back as the wall slid open. She waved Chantal through, mouthing to her not to move out of the cell, before she followed. Once she was through, Maya took hold of the sister lever, which was covered in a disgusting slime mold after the transition rains, and turned it. She dried her hand on what remained of her handkerchief as the slick passage door closed once again and stuffed the soiled and fraying scrap of cloth back into her pocket.
She looked at Chantal, who seemed daunted by the discovery they’d entered the castle dungeons. Maya had been obliged to use her empathic senses to navigate in utter darkness earlier in the day, but torches now hung in sconces every few meters. The light was dim, but they could hear the prisoners mumbling and faintly make out a few of them moving in the cells down the hall from the unused cell they stood in. Most of the men here were petty thieves and conmen, though there were a few with violent tempers they were either unable or unwilling to control. Maya laid a comforting hand on the younger girl’s shoulder and nodded for her to follow. Then, she eased to the door and peered around to see who was on guard duty. Jahr’s name was on the rotation list, but that didn’t mean he would be the one sitting by the door. However, she could see the familiar young man with a boyish face darting around inside the guard booth.
He was practicing sword drills, likely daydreaming of future days and more exciting assignments. She didn’t think he would notice them sneaking past the guard station, so she began to creep toward the far door.
They kept as quiet as possible, trying to avoid attention. However, Maya noticed the prisoners’ weary, wild eyes follow them down the corridor. She tried to ignore their gaze and encouraged the natural distrust of what they saw with as powerful of a mind graft as she could produce.
The sound of water from the previous day’s rain dripping from the ventilation tunnels echoed rhythmically around them. A murmured cry for rose from the cells, but it was too faint for Maya to understand. Before she realized what was happening, loud pleas and filthy, reaching hands surrounded them.
“Please, it was all a mistake,” cried one man. “I never stole anything, let alone a child!”
“Angels!” one crazed looking old man cried, falling on his face. “My day of freedom’s come at last!”
Maya glanced around, and saw Jahr stop his sword drills. She grabbed Chantal by the arm and pulled her into a side passage to another block of cells. They pressed as close to the wall as they could. Maya held her breath as she watched the adolescent stomp by them.
“Quiet you crazy old fools,” Jahr called. “There are no angels here.”
Maya took advantage of the boy’s turned back and pulled Chantal back to the main passage. They trotted down the last few meters and through the guard station, Jahr’s yells fading behind them.
Maya couldn’t wait to reach the women’s baths. She felt disgusting, and she had no idea how she would explain her condition to anyone they happened to run into. Besides, a little warm water and a scrubbing sponge would help ward off the aches and pains she expected. The midday meal would be served soon, so there was little chance they’d be discovered unless Lanre or Selah had raised an alarm over her absence.
The baths’ door was down the hall, almost at the foot of the southeast stairwell. Maya pushed the door open, walked through, and held it ajar for Chantal. The girl froze just inside, so Maya barely managed to close the door without hitting her.
“It’s enormous,” Chantal whispered, “more than twice the size of Tembar’s.”
Maya looked around the room, trying to see it through Chantal’s eyes. She’d grown accustomed to the castle years ago, but she could still remember the awe she’d felt when she first saw the place. They were standing in the wide dressing area. Several wooden partitions stood more than two meters high in front of them, each surrounding one of the eight large bathing pools.
She could already feel the warmth emanating from them and longed to sink into one of the large pools. However, she knew a visit to the storage and laundry rooms off to the side would be necessary before she could enjoy her soak.
“You won’t need those clothes anymore,” Maya said as she walked toward the stack of wood in the corner. “So we might as well burn them. “We could never get all of the sand out of the material now, anyway.”
“I agree, but I don’t have anything else.”
“I’m sure we’ll find something here in the store room,” Maya answered, taking wood from the stack. “Girls your age tend to tire of clothes or outgrow them well before they’re worn out, and I know there are five or six of us not much bigger than you who don’t have younger sisters in Reiont. I’m sure we have more dresses your size than you could wear.” She knelt to stack the wood in the fireplace and pulled out her box of matches and the last soiled bit of handkerchief. She struck a match and used the handkerchief for kindling before standing again. “Okay, let’s see what’s there.”
She led Chantal over to the storeroom and opened the door. Chantal gasped as row upon row of dresses, blouses, skirts, underclothes, and shoes arranged by size came into view. Maya walked to one of the racks. There was her old plain brown riding skirt, white blouse, and high leather boots she’d outgrown several years before all placed together. She pulled them from the rack to show to Chantal, but the girl was still standing by the door.
“I’ve never seen so many gowns,” Chantal said.
“Oh, there’re lots of young ladies here,” Maya answered. “Too many sometimes, I think,” she continued under her breath before holding up the outfit again. “What do you think?”
“What is it?” she asked, pointing to the skirt.
“It’s a riding skirt,” Maya explained. “They’re cut like loose-legged breeches to allow a lady to ride without sitting sidesaddle, but lots of women use them for long treks or outdoor work. The material’s thick, warm, and takes years to wear out.”
“That’ll work,” Chantal said and took the clothes from Maya.
The girl stepped behind one of the partitions to get started while Maya went to the rack just outside the laundry room. As she expected, the dresses she’d sent to be washed a couple of days before had been cleaned, dried, and were hanging there waiting to be picked up. She chose one and hung it over one of the partitions. Then, she returned to the dressing area. She unpinned her hair and laid the pins and her circlet beside her box of matches on one of the tables and retrieved two towels from the closet. Maya hung one over Chantal’s partition and pulled down the discarded disguise at the same time.
“Oh my,” Chantal said, “this is much better than what we had back home. The water was always freezing, even in summer.”
“Natural hot springs surface here,” Maya explained just before she tossed the sand-infused clothes into the fireplace, “so the water’s always warm. Don’t worry; you’ll get used to the smell.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Chantal returned.
“The smell of sulfur’s a small price to pay for hot, running water in the dead of winter.”
“You’ll get no arguments from me,” Chantal said amidst the loud pops of rapidly heated sand coming from the fireplace.
“Hurry now,” Maya said as she stepped behind the partition surrounding the pool she’d chosen. “There’s much to do before day’s end.”
“I am, but it may take a while,” Chantal answered. “I think sand’s found its way into my pores.”
“Well, make sure you get clean,” Maya chuckled as she slid into the pool. “I’ll have to wash out my dress before we leave anyway.” She dove under the water and dampened her hair. Then, she took the scented soap from the shelf and scrubbed herself until her skin tingled. She let the slight current sweep the grime away and reached for the cake of soap. Maya lathered her hair well and dove again to rinse it clean before climbing out of the pool.
She dried herself quickly and dressed. Then, she retrieved her dress and cloak, taking them to the pool’s edge instead of the laundry rooms. She knew the laundry maids would be at the washtubs, and she didn’t want to attract attention.
She refused do anything to create a scandal. It was bad enough many thought the prince too young for rule, she wouldn’t have them thinking even she would show him distain. She washed out the dress and cloak before hanging them over one of the drying racks in the outer laundry room.
Maya returned to the dressing area, expecting to find Chantal waiting, but the room was empty. She sighed. She didn't want to lose any more time, but decided to give Chantal a little longer. A warm bath was a luxury enjoyed by few outside Reiont and a couple other castles built over hot springs, and it was her first. So, she found a jar of the hair softening salve kept in the cabinets and worked a small dollop into her curls. She picked up a polished wood comb and began to work the tangles out of her hair before pinning it up around her circlet.
“I feel like a new woman,” Chantal sighed as she appeared from behind the partition. “Now, if only I could work with my hair the way you do with yours.”
“You can’t do your hair up?” Maya asked, putting the last pins in her hair.
“It just gets bigger and bigger the more I try,” she answered with a helpless shrug.
“I’ll have to teach you,” Maya said and motioned for Chantal to sit on one of the benches. “The lessons will have to wait though, I’m afraid. Right now we need to hurry, so I’ll just pull it up for you.” Chantal sat down and held very still while Maya worked the salve into her hair and eased the knots loose.
“If you’ll forgive me, how old are you, Chantal?” Maya asked as she worked.
“Sixteen,” Chantal answered.
“Turning in a parent who is breaking the law would be very hard for anyone,” Maya said. “I can’t imagine doing so at your age.”
“It is.” Chantal’s voice cracked on the admission. “But then I saw
what he was doing, not just to the people he was to protect but to their children
.” There was disgust in her voice, and she rubbed at her face and sighed. “What kind of person would I be if I ignored that?”
Maya paused in pulling the mass of ringlets into a basic knot. Suddenly her hands were shaking, and dread tightened her gut. “What exactly was he doing?” she asked.
Chantal twisted her fingers together. “Let’s just say Brance, that humanoid arachnid you saw at Tembar, wasn’t an accident like Ralic says,” she answered so quietly Maya almost didn’t hear her.
Her heartbeat thundered in her ears as Maya fumbled with the hairpins. Ralic had returned to his genetic manipulation studies? What else had he done? If what Chantal said was true, it seemed obvious he was experimenting.
“You… You saw this?” she stammered.
Maya’s throat tightened, and she had to blink back tears. What had he done? Her hands shook as she pushed the last pins into Chantal’s hair. She swallowed hard and cleared her throat.
“I’m done,” she said. “Come. I’ll introduce you to your grandfather.” Continue to Chapter 3.
Ralic led Maya back into the courtyard and past the steward, who had ignored the still dripping gash above his eye. The young man regarded the two with an unreadable expression. Maya turned away, unable to look at him. His lack of concern about the long line of drying blood was only slightly less disconcerting than his total lack of emotion. Meeting the steward both shook her faith in her admittedly weak empathic talent and had her stomach roiling. She’d never met anyone like him before, and being around him frightened her. How could someone feel so little? Did he really?
“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.
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?”
“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 those 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