Chapter 1 Best Laid Plans





Urgit leaned across the royal dining table and speared a spiced dumpling with his knife. He rolled the greasy portion around on his tongue and turned to Queen Ayarlan's daughter, Princess Carlan. He reached out to touch her pale cheek with his hand. She shied from him and turned her face away from his leering gaze.



Urgit swallowed his dumpling, then he spoke. "I think it is time for us to discuss a sealing of the alliance between the trading house of my father, Uguck, and the royal house of Elianin. I have begun to consider marriage."



Queen Ayarlan stiffened. "I think we must discuss your plans later," she said.



She clapped her hands and servants moved forward to clear the table. Urgit grabbed for another dumpling before the dish could be carried away, but Ayarlan rose to her feet and he was forced to follow her example.



King Carnat staggered to his feet, the last to rise at his wife's signal and stared vacantly around him. Urgit sneered at the addled royal with open contempt before turning to address Ayarlan. "Do not dismiss my troth for Carlan too hastily," he hissed in a tone calculated to tantalize the courtiers who lingered nearby. " I provide the luxuries and gold you crave in exchange for exclusive trading rights with Saadena. A marriage would strengthen the alliance between Saadena and Jama."



Anger roiled in Ayarlan but her face remained as still as stone. Urgit's pretensions must be averted. It was intolerable that her plans for her daughter would be frustrated by the ambitions of the Jaman trader. Urgit's attention to Carlan reminded Ayarlan that her daughter was old enough to marry. The princess would not be wasted on such as Urgit. She had been destined from her birth to be the key that would open the door to other courts.



As a royal princess of the ancient line of Elianin, Carlan would be fit mate for any prince in Okishdu. With a royal mating for her daughter, Ayarlan would be in a position to effect the plan she had developed years before when she had finally conceived a child by Carnat.



"Go to the gather hall and wait for us," she demanded. "I would be alone with my family."



Urgit and the other members of the court reluctantly withdrew from the dining hall until only Ayarlan, Carnat, and Carlan remained in the chamber. The king had settled back into his dining chair, playing with a piece of fruit in fuddled bemusement,.



"Carlan is becoming a woman, it is time to arrange a suitable marriage for her," Ayarlan announced. Carnat glanced up at her with a bleary grimace.



"She is only a child," he mumbled. He glanced toward the daughter Ayarlan had gotten by him. The frail girl was draped in Jaman gilt-cloth, her large eyes lined with dark color intended to add glamor. Instead, she looked like a frightened owlet, a pathetic copy of her mother as she gazed listlessly at the floor. Her red-gold hair was the only thing that gave an indication that she was his daughter.



"Carlan is in her seventeenth year," Ayarlan said. "I have decided she should marry Tomak, the Crown Prince of Zedekla. I want you to travel to Zedekla and arrange the betrothal. I have been saving a dowry for Carlan. Even King Farek will not sneer when he finds that we can offer him a royal bride with a regal dowry."



Carnat dropped his eyes. He had wondered why Ayarlan bothered to keep him alive once he had served her purpose and somehow begotten a child with her. Now he realized that he still had some place in her scheme for power.



He didn't want to think about the endless days that stretched in muddled sameness into a past he couldn't face. He wanted the haze in his mind deepened and reached for goblet in front of him which was still half-full with a solution of selan in wine. His wife knocked his hand from cup before he could lift it to his lips.



"Listen to me Carnat," Ayarlan hissed. "I want you to go to Zedekla and arrange a marriage between the princess of Saadena and King Farek's oldest son."



"I will go to Zedekla," Carnat repeated like an automaton, unable to resist her will. He stood and shambled toward the door.



Ayarlan turned to her daughter with eyes that glowed with anticipation for the day when she would begin to take over the reins of rule of all Okishdu. The means were waiting in her workshop. She had finally accomplished the goal of making selan addictive.



The process was costly and her supply was meager but a royal betrothal could be spun out long enough to give her the time she needed to create an adequate amount. The wedding of the heir of Zedekla would command attention from all the rulers and headmen of Okishdu. She would make certain they attended, every one of them. Her vision of what was to come filled her with exaltation.



When her daughter married Tomak, Ayarlan would subdue the leaders of Okishdu with tinctured wine and water and sweetmeats spiced with selan. Soon kings Tagun and Farek and all the other leaders of the alliance would give her the same obedience as the harvesters who scraped the fallen stones of ancient Saadena to harvest the drug that enslaved them.



"Come Carlan, our courtiers are waiting for you to sing to them in the gather hall."



Carlan glanced back to see if Carnat was to join them, but her father had crept back to the dining hall and was lifting the cup of drugged wine.



Carlan followed her mother into the gather hall and listlessly took her place behind the harp on the dais. "Sit up," Ayarlan hissed impatiently at the slump in Carlan's shoulders. Her daughter never ceased to disappoint her. She wished her child resembled her father less in her personality and had more of Carnat in her face. Although he had lost the youthful beauty that had once pleased Ayarlan, Carnat bore the unmistakable profile of the sons of Elianin, hereditary rulers of Saadena for nearly a thousand years.



Ayarlan wondered if their daughter would be fit to succeed her. Then she gave a sly smile. After all, she was still not beyond bearing another child herself. When she could command the kings of all the cities, she might choose another consort for herself. She wondered if Farek, king of Zedekla, and twin of her long lost beloved, Zadak, would make a fitting husband. He had a wife, but that could easily be remedied.



While Carlan sang another of her painful plaints about dying lilies and ebbing tides, neither of which she had ever seen in the arid valley of Saadena, Ayarlan began to plan Carnat's trip to Zedekla. She would have to provide a travel companion for him in addition to the guards and porters who would accompany the king. It must be someone she could trust.



She looked around. Alagad, her Orenese steward, took the hand of his plump little wife Perlin, and squeezed it fondly. He was the only man Ayarlan could think of who would be able to handle the task. Perlin and their two brats were his weakness. They would be Ayarlan's hostages against his ensuring the success of Carnat's errand.



She thought with brief regret of Jargin. Her former steward had disappeared one day not long after Ayarlan had killed Challan. He had taken along his crony Arcat. She had been unable to trace either of them and for a while her control of the guards and servants had floundered. Then Alagad had come and she was able to trust him with the mundane affairs of the palace while she perfected her formulas and trained her daughter to take her proper place as a princess.



Carnat shuffled into the room and slumped into his seat. As usual, he was dressed in a soiled, shabby tunic with tarnished braid. His graying russet hair hung in lank curls around his shoulders in the fashion that Ayarlan's courtiers insisted was current in the other cities. It was a pity that he was the only suitable person to present the betrothal offer. It would take several days to arrange proper attire for him and provision the caravan that would carry the dowry. It would have to be kept secret from Urgit.



The Jaman trader would be angry when he learned that his designs on Carlan had been frustrated. If he passed information about the dowry that would accompany Carnat to his cronies in the shadow world of Jaman crime it would mean trouble for the caravan.



The princess sang on, although her mother's sly, shifting gaze betrayed that her thoughts were far from the plaintive voice that rose over the harp music. Before Carlan had finished her last song, she saw her father stand up and meander from the room, careless of interrupting her performance.



Ayarlan grew weary of the droning of her daughter's voice. She stood and signaled the others to remain seated, all but Alagad. Her crooked finger summoned the steward and he stood to follow her.



Once they were inside a draped and windowless room with only a hand lamp to light the narrow space, Ayarlan indicated that he should secure the door. "What I am to tell you must be kept secret. If word of my plan is leaked to Urgit or his men, I will know it is you who have betrayed me."



"I have no truck with the Jamans," Alagad assured her. "What do you want of me?"



"You must form up a suitable force of men and lead King Carnat to Zedekla. I am sending him to arrange a betrothal between Carlan and Prince Tomak."



Ayarlan's plan startled Alagad but he maintained his obsequious expression. He despised Carnat. There were still servants in the palace who would have been willing to put Ayarlan in chains at the slightest sign from her husband. Yet he did nothing. The steward raised a finger to ask permission to speak. "I wonder if the king is well enough to make the journey."



"I trust you to take care of anything that must be done," Ayarlan said. "While you are away on this errand, I will keep an eye on your wife and children."



Alagad recognized the threat in her promise. "There is one difficulty in addition to the king's physical condition. His wardrobe would hardly stand the scrutiny of those who must accept him as a king."



"I will take care of that problem, but go now and arrange for the other matters. We must do this quickly or Urgit will become suspicious. You heard his presumptuous suggestion that he was worthy of my daughter's hand. He will not have her, but until I have secured another husband for her, I must be wary of Urgit."



Alagad waited permission to withdraw. He was Ayarlan's cousin but he disliked and distrusted her. He was as thoroughly snared by her threat against his family as any of the pathetic harvesters who daily gathered the moldy growth that was turned into selan, the basis of all wealth in Saadena.



Ayarlan finally looked up at him and frowned. "What is keeping you? Every hour that passes brings a greater danger that Urgit will discover my intent."



Alagad returned to the gather hall where Carlan was finishing the last of her songs. Most of the courtiers had slipped away once the queen had gone, but Urgit lingered, his squat body leaning over the princess as he turned the pages of her music book.



Perlin, Alagad's plump young wife was standing on the other side of the princess, somehow holding the Jaman merchant from making further incursions with the force of her will. "Come Carlan, it is past time I helped you into bed," Perlin urged when she saw her husband return to the nearly empty room.



Carlan sprang from her seat behind the harp, eager to be released from Urgit's attentions. She yawned elaborately and gave her arm to Perlin. The two women hurried from the room and Alagad put forth his hand to prevent Urgit from following them.



"You should have more patience in your courting," the steward advised Urgit. "The girl is clearly frightened of you."



Urgit studied the steward, judging his chances of pressing past him. He held little regard for any of Ayarlan's minions except the steward. The man was somehow related to Ayarlan. It might not pay to press the issue now against Carlan's evident dislike and Alagad's stalwart resistance.



Finally Urgit smirked and backed away from the confrontation. "I am sure that Ayarlan will realize the wisdom of a match between my house and hers. You should remind her that Saadena could fall like a rotten fruit to any force of arms if I withdraw my mercenaries."



Alagad watched the Jaman waddle away. He thought the queen's scheme to wed her daughter to Zedeklan royalty was bound to fail, but there must be some way to avoid wedding the girl to Urgit. He resolved to do whatever he could to aid Ayarlan's scheme for a royal wedding.



It was not easy for Alagad to find provisions for the expedition to Zedekla. There was nothing to spare from the rations provided to the harvesters of selan, even had the steward been willing to eat the residue of the mold that was left after the spores containing the drug were removed. The economy of Saadena was exactly balanced by decree of Ayarlan. The harvesters received selan residue as rations, with a careful measure of water that was barely sufficient to provide for survival. Alagad was loath to impinge on the supply to provision the men he had recruited for the adventure from among the palace guards. When he approached Ayarlan with a request for provisions he was surprised to find that she had already set aside plenty of food and water for the trek.



She also provided Alagad with several ornate sets of clothing for dressing the king during his visit to Zedekla. The steward tried to calculate the number of workers who could have been fed and clothed with the money that had been spent on the gaudy robes. He had come to Saadena to escape the endless machinations of the Watcher Guilds, but as he came to know Ayarlan, he felt he would have done better to stay in Orenon.



"Make sure three drops from this vial are put into Carnat's wine each day," the Queen instructed Alagad when she handed him a small bottle of concentrated essence of selan.



"It will be nearly impossible to take him across the desert if he is drugged." Alagad said. "If he were a young and healthy man, it might be done. As it is, he will stumble and bruise himself. It would not be a pleasant sight for the Zedeklans to see him in such a state."



He watched Ayarlan's face and when she seemed to waver he pressed his suggestion. "It may be best to stop the drug from now until we reach Zedekla. When we get to the city, I can dose his food to insure his compliance with your instructions. I have never seen any sign that he resists the drug or wants to be free of selan."



Queen Ayarlan considered his words. She had thought to have Carnat carried to Zedekla in a litter. But that would draw attention to the caravan that could not fail to alert Urgit to her plans.



"Very well, I will eliminate his dose for the next few days. He should be capable of making the journey by the time we have things organized. But as soon as you reach Zedekla, it is imperative that you give him the drug again. I don't think you will have any trouble with him. He is only too eager to drown his memory in wine and dull his intellect with selan." For a moment Ayarlan considered using some of her small store of the addictive form of selan on Carnat to ensure that he would be eager to take the drug again once he reached Zedekla, but she quickly rejected the idea. As Alagad said, the king had never resisted taking the drug since the day Neril had died. She would reserve her precious stockpile for the nuptial feasts.



The caravan assembled in the early morning hours three days after Ayarlan had set her plans in motion. Urgit and his mercenaries were still asleep, courtesy of a tainted bottle. The queen handed Alagad the bridal agreement with the names of Carlan and Tomak, Prince of Zedekla, written in ornate flourishes and gave him the key to the sturdy chest containing the dowry and promises of favorable trade. Alagad would follow her instructions as long as she held his wife and children hostage.



She watched the small caravan leave the valley of Saadena. Carnat shambled along, leaning heavily on one of the servants. Ayarlan turned to Carlan who waited at her elbow. She often missed her mentor, Carnat's mother, Challan. Perhaps she had been precipitate when she drugged the old queen. Carlan lacked interest in the skills her mother urged her to master. She was clumsy in the workroom, breaking retorts and spilling valuable drugs. Instead, she preferred to spend useless hours with her needle and harp, stitching sentimental couplets and playing mournful tunes.



There was too much of her father in the girl, but she was still young. If not willfully ambitious, she was malleable and never seemed to question her mother's plans for her. Sometimes it seemed to Ayarlan that she was the only person in Saadena with a will of her own.



She even missed the crusty resistance of Old Fedder, the chaplain. While he still lived in the city there had been whispers of rebellion among the people, and some of the guards claimed that they had seen caravans of Saadenans leaving the city. It was nonsense of course. There was no way they could have gathered sufficient water to brave the desert. Ayarlan was as careful as Challan to hoard water and account for every drop. She glanced down at the shuffling harvesters. It reassured her to see them laboring on in dull acceptance of their lot.



Carnat, the king of Saadena, had never ventured beyond the valley that had been his prison since the death of Neril, his beloved first wife. The trek through the arid desert was an agony of mind and body for him as the last dregs of selan left his system. He understood more keenly how his people had been kept enslaved in Saadena. These were the same sands Neril had walked when she came to the valley with the other Mareklan merchants.



Soon he would enter the land of Tedaka where she had made friends with the Headman and his wife. He yearned to seek out Doka and ask the Headman of Tedaka what had become of the infant daughter Neril had given into his care, but he feared the answer, and Alagad had set a course that skirted the Tedakan border, keeping well away from the city.



Carnat walked with his eyes cast down after they entered the boundaries of Tedaka and he saw the neat orchards and sturdy villages. The contrast between the citizens of Tedaka and the wretched population of Saadena remained a silent rebuke he could not bear.



Carnat suffered days of agony. The others heard his moans and weeping and turned their eyes away from him. For nearly eighteen years he had dulled the edge of mourning and self reproach with the ever present anodyne of selan. He shuddered as he once again came face to face with failure and acknowledged his abdication of responsibility.



At night he begged Alagad to yield and put the drug in his food, but Alagad stood firm. "When we reach Zedekla I will restore your portion of selan, until then I need you to abstain. We will not carry you. If you are drugged, you will be incapable of making the journey."



The memory of vanished years returned to Carnat with unmerciful clarity. He remembered his failure to protect Neril and their child from the enmity of Ayarlan. The evidence that Ayarlan had laid the snare that felled Neril had been clear, but he had retreated from seeking justice. The valiant struggle of Neril to survive until their child was born shamed him by contrast with his own cowardice. They had shared the days of wondering if their child had survived the trek out of Saadena. He retched by the side of the road when the unrelenting memories continued and he once again relived the day when Neril was buried and he had resigned himself to evil and had married Ayarlan.



He wondered that he, who had known the sweetness and strength of Neril, had let himself beget a child by such a monster as Ayarlan. The answer revealed the sorry truth that he was no less a monster than the woman he had suffered to live after he knew of her crimes.



If Alagad had not removed all weapons and knives from reach of Carnat, he would have destroyed himself to escape the relentless memory of his shame. He yearned toward their arrival at the embassy in Zedekla when Alagad had promised him he would once again be able to draw the veil of forgetfulness over the aching wound of his past.



At last the small caravan came to the verdant plains of Zedekla. Sturdy farmers argued and laughed together in the bustling villages and along the well-kept roads. Now and then a caravan of dalas, loaded with tasseled packs, were driven past on the way to the great market on the outskirts of the city. Other dalas strained to pull wagons loaded with wood and grain, urged on by Kumnoran teamsters in woolly hats.



As in Tedaka, there was a general air of prosperity. Even the brash Jaman beggar who accosted them as they entered the city on their sixth day away from Saadena, was well-dressed compared to the harvesters of selan. Zedekla was a young city compared to Saadena. It had been founded in the years after Saadena had been ruined by the folly of Marnat and the earthquake that had robbed the city of its rivers.



The palace was no moldering pile like the palace in Saadena. King Farek's palace crowned the headland near the sea. Towers tipped with dancing banners were manned by alert watchmen. Gardens and fretwork walls of golden stone barely concealed the presence of an alert and capable force of guards.



The caravan passed near the palace on their way to the Saadenan embassy. There was a festival air to the city that did not penetrate the stone walls and dark corridors of the embassy residence. Alagad knocked loud and long before a surly oaf dressed in shabby livery swung the door open and demanded to know why he had come so soon after the message announcing their imminent arrival.



Once Alagad convinced the doorkeeper to let them enter they found the air within was sour and stale. The staff had been reduced to three servants. Grimy corners and overflowing garbage bins gave evidence that the residence was usually in a far worse state.



Alagad sent a servant to the palace to ask an audience with King Farek and Queen Ranila before he supervised the preparation of the meal that would return the haggard king to his compliant state. Alagad found a curious satisfaction in watching Carnat beg for mercy. Ayarlan had directed him to give Carnat a dose of drugged wine as soon as they entered the embassy residence, but the steward was certain that a short delay would do no harm.



With his thoughts focused on the coming meal and the drugged wine that would return him to a state of uncaring, Carnat bathed away the layers of travel soil. He had never before experienced the luxury of such a bath. He remembered Neril's tales of her travels as he laved himself in the ample tub. The valves that had amused and fascinated Neril when she visited Tedaka twenty years before had come into common use in the homes of Zedekla. The embassy residence had recently been remodeled and plumbed. For the first time in days, Carnat experienced an alleviation of the physical misery that had afflicted him since he had been cut off from selan.



When Carnat returned to his room, Alagad helped him dress in a long tunic of blue zilka cloth with golden ornaments sewn around the neck and hem. He arranged the king's greying hair in the long ringlets Ayarlan preferred.



Carnat meekly accepted Alagad's ministrations. It was unlikely that he would spend more than a few minutes presenting the proposed betrothal. He expected to be dismissed from the court with either anger or laughter, if, indeed, they consented to consider his petition.



He was surprised when the servant returned with a tablet granting him a brief audience the following afternoon. "Will you give me at least a cup of wine with selan in it?" he begged Alagad.



"I will give you what you crave this evening," Alagad said with an impatient snap. "The meal is not yet ready and I have too much to do to cater to your needs." He hurried away, leaving the king alone and unsupervised. It seemed foolish to waste a guard on such a sot.



Left alone, Carnat wandered aimlessly through the embassy. Finally he settled onto his bed and tried to take a nap. He was accustomed to quiet. Other than the raised voice of Ayarlan when she was displeased, the haranguing and gossip of courtiers, or the maudlin songs of his daughter, the New Palace was quiet.



The busy life of the city of Zedekla teemed in the surrounding streets and Carnat could hear the sounds of music and industry even through the embassy's thick stone walls. Peddlers hawked their wares in sing song chants and buskers sang and shouted stories on every corner. There was laughter and a string of vulgar taunts when someone felt himself cheated by a conjurer on the adjoining corner.



Failing the comforting shroud of sleep, Carnat decided to distract his morbid thoughts with a ramble through the streets of Zedekla. He rose from his couch and changed from the ornate blue tunic to a simpler one of tan linen. Then he ran his hand through his hair to disarrange it from the careful curls. He tied it back with a length of cloth torn from the edge of the tunic he had worn on the journey.



Evading the servants who were busy in the kitchen, he ducked out the back door of the embassy. The scent of frying matlas drew him to the booth of a street vendor. A bold-eyed woman entertained him with a brash flirtation as she rolled a fresh-fried matla around a hunk of cheese. When he admitted he had no coin to give her, she insisted he take the hearty snack with her blessing in exchange for a kiss on the cheek. "You are a bonny man. Seldom have I seen such fiery hair."



He smiled at her generosity and wandered further into the city. Saadena smelled of musky selan but Zedekla smelled of everything imaginable. The ripe odor of garbage from an alley faded and was supplanted by the subtle perfume of a garden beneath the walls of the palace.



The ancient pyramid which had existed for unknown eons before the founding of Zedekla, loomed ominously in the distance, guarding a great stone plaza. It seemed empty of the priests of Orqu who had been rumored to carry out their foul ceremonies in its hidden depths.



A far different face was presented by the pristine height of the Shrine of the Radiance in another quarter of the city. Carnat looked up at the carving on the face of the shrine that represented three scrolls, one of them empty of characters. It was a painful reminder of Neril and the final loss of the Scroll of History that she had found after it had been lost for more than four hundred years. He ducked his head and took another street that led away from the shrine.



For several hours he ambled on a circuitous path that brought him back to the center of the city a few streets away from the embassy. Carnat stood across from the palace gates and watched the activity in the crowded square. Booths and stalls filled with produce and products tempted the strolling residents. A woman laughed with the sound of pure joy and greeted a friend. Three children played tag around the legs of their visiting pairs of parents.



An Orenese Watcher gave a sharp rebuke to one of his veiled wives when she selected yet another bracelet for her already laden arm. She grinned at him over her veil, her sparkling eyes coaxing the money pouch from his pocket to pay the jeweler. A strolling singer collected coins in his hat.



Then a long pure note sounded from the zole horn that hung in the gate tower of the palace announcing the evening curfew. The gates of the palace opened to discharge an orderly troop of men carrying torches and pikes. They were greeted with bantering calls but the citizens of Zedekla quickly disbursed as the night watch began their rounds.



Carnat looked around him and made a decision. He had come to Zedekla to offer his daughter as a bride to Tomak, the heir of this bounty. It was unlikely that his petition would meet with success, but at least he would not come to the palace in the same state he had lived for nearly half his life. With that resolve, Carnat returned to the embassy.



He caught the resentful eye of Alagad as he approached the front entrance of the moldering mansion and he smiled to himself. For two hours he had been free, and none of his watchers had missed him. "I was about to wake you for the evening meal," Alagad said as he hurried to meet the king.



The servants had prepared an elaborate meal for him, but Carnat smelled the odor of selan through the heavy spice. "I am not hungry, you can eat my portion if you wish," he told Alagad with an ironic smile. Carnat saw astonishment fill the face of Ayarlan's spy before he turned and climbed the stairs to his bedroom. There would be no drugs on his breath when he presented his petition to the Zedeklan court. If he was derided for Ayarlan's ambitions for their daughter, he would bear the shame with dignity.



Alagad watched Carnat retire to his room with consternation. Had he erred in withholding selan from the king? Then he shook his head. He was needlessly concerned. If Carnat meant to rebel, surely he would not have returned as docilely as a pet paka. The king seemed as placid as ever once he went to his room. To make certain he stayed in his room, two guards were set to ensure that he did not wander abroad again.



When morning dawned, the guards reported that the king had been quiet through the night. Alagad laid out another suit of elaborate clothing for Carnat and once again combed his hair into long dangling ringlets. He put the dowry chest on a long table in the king's room. It was a rich prize, filled with a selection of gold and Ayarlan's finest jewels along with an antique tablet that Alagad had found in the abandoned library. It would be safe in Carnat's bedroom while they went about their business in the palace. The room had a sturdy door with a solid lock. Alagad pocketed the key with confidence that the dowry was secure.



They left the dowry chest until after the agreement had been presented, but Carnat took the scroll that offered the betrothal. He walked with his eyes cast down, willing to let Alagad think he needed no drug to maintain his malleable state.



When they arrived at the palace, they were passed through several foyers, each provided with a couple of sturdy guards and a court official who examined and approved the invitation granting them an audience with the king of Zedekla. The interior of the palace mirrored the elegance of its gardens and towers. Instead of the gaudy mosaics of Jaman glass that decorated the newer rooms of Saadena's palace, the Zedeklan royal residence was reminiscent in many ways of the Saadenan library and other rooms that had survived the ruin wrought by the earthquake. Subtle carvings adorned broad corridors with scenes both pastoral and civic. Tharek, the ancestor of the royal house, had designed many of the public rooms. They showed a Mareklan fondness for patterned arabesques worked in the subtle shades of semi-precious stones.



When Carnat entered the foyer of the audience chamber followed by Alagad, he saw a crowd of people who seemed to stare then turn away and cover smirks with polite hands.



The garish color and lavish ornaments of his costume brought contemptuous notice no less than his dangling ringlets. It was evident that Ayarlan had been misled by her courtiers who had presumed to advise her on the latest mode of court dress in Zedekla. Only a few of the younger women were dressed in similar colors.



The men were dressed in subtle shades. They wore chains and badges of rank, but none wore gaudy golden ornaments that jangled and chimed with each step. Their hair was caught back in neat braids or cut even with clean shaved jaws.



Instead of shame, Carnat felt amusement. He was a parody of a man, a complete fool. One of the women caught sight of him and tittered. She was young and did not have the control of her emotions that marked the faces of the others who had gathered to seek audience with the most powerful man in Okishdu.



Carnat glanced around and saw that among the people waiting to confer with King Farek was a grizzled older man who seemed familiar. "Doka," Carnat said impulsively, as he remembered the Headman. It had been almost eighteen years since he had last seen the leader of Tedaka. The sturdy figure was a little larger around the middle, and his hair began a bit further back on his wide, square brow, but it was unquestionably the same man who had visited Neril and carried away their infant daughter.



Hearing his name, Doka turned and saw a man staring at him. It took several seconds for Doka to recognize the handsome young Carnat in the debilitated middle-aged man wearing a gaudy tunic and foppish ringlets of a bygone era.



Carnat walked toward Doka as if pulled by a magnet. Only Doka could tell him what had become of Caril. Alagad followed, eager to hear what Carnat had to say to the Headman of Tedaka's Council. Alagad had often traveled to Jama and Tedaka on Ayarlan's business but although he had seen the Headman once, he had never met him.



Doka knew what Carnat wanted of him. He had not visited Saadena since the day he had taken the infant Caril away to safety. He briefly considered telling Carnat that he had no knowledge of what had happened to his daughter. After all, the king had permitted the situation that had resulted in Neril's death.



Then Doka took pity on the man. It was said that Ayarlan had dominated her husband and was responsible for continuing the policies of Queen Challan, putting her greed ahead of the welfare of her people. She traded with a Jaman syndicate that had no qualms about the servitude of the harvesters. Doka was forced to acknowledge that he had done nothing to change the policies that rewarded her greed.



Although he refused to carry on the trade that supported Ayarlan himself, he had not scrupled to trade for selan with the Jamans who held the monopoly. He had refused to purchase dass and docil, joining Tagun and Farek in denying legal status to the addictive substances. Still, his conscience remained uneasy when he remembered the ultimate price of selan; the slavery of the harvesters.



"Do you remember me?" Carnat asked when he saw the vacillating expression on Doka's face. "Could you tell me what became of--"



"We should talk privately," Doka said, making a sign to one of his aides as he took Carnat's arm and guided him toward a small meeting room next to the audience chamber. As Carnat followed, he noticed that Alagad had been waylaid by Doka's companion and was being led off into a side corridor.



When they reached the privacy of the smaller room Doka hesitated. He was unsure of what he should tell Carnat in answer to the question he had not allowed him to finish where others might overhear.



Carnat cleared his throat and broke the tension between them. "If you know anything about Saadena, you will wonder why I am wearing this absurd costume and how I can afford to visit Zedekla at festival time," Carnat made an apologetic gesture at the ornaments on his long tunic. "My wife Ayarlan has pretensions to ally our house with that of Farek. She sent me with a dowry and a contract of betrothal. She wants to arrange the marriage of prince Tomak with my daughter. Ayarlan knew I couldn't appear at the court of Zedekla dressed shabbily, so she provided these robes for me." His lips tilted in a wry smile that acknowledged that he was far from a picture of elegance in his outmoded finery.



"I'm relieved that you are aware of the derision your ornate robes might inspire in those who know the true state of your city," Doka said stiffly. Then he felt a surge of conscience. He was in no position to bully Carnat. "But another subject concerns you. You wish to know what happened to Neril's daughter."



"Yes, I am afraid you will tell me she didn't survive the trip across the desert," Carnat murmured.



"She survived," Doka assured him. "Caril is a beautiful young woman, beloved by all who know her. If she has a fault, it is that she's slightly spoiled." He hesitated, then decided to tell Carnat everything. "I took her to Janaka and Tagun agreed to adopt her as his foster daughter. I left her there along with Tilla, her nurse, and an inheritance Fedder had provided in trust for her coming of age."



"Is my daughter the girl they call 'the foundling princess'?" Carnat asked, his eyes going wide as he recalled the gossip he had heard among Ayarlan's courtiers.



"Yes, had you never wondered at the coincidence of Tagun acquiring a daughter at the time you lost one?" Doka asked incredulously.



"Gossips say that she is Tagun's child by the woman who cared for her as a child and still has high rank in the palace," Carnat said.



"Tagun knows of the rumors," Doka said. "But rather than clear his name and honor, he and Tilla, the woman who has acted as your daughter's nurse and companion for many years, chose to let them go unchallenged. They were aware that to draw attention to Caril's true parentage could endanger her life."



"It is well that she has been protected and loved by others more worthy than I," Carnat said. "They are willing to accept the taint of salacious gossip rather than endanger her. I would not even risk challenging evil when I might have made a difference. I let my sorrow steal my manhood. The people of Saadena have had no joy of me and I have no joy in my life."



Doka wondered why Carnat was suddenly confiding in him, as if he could somehow offer absolution. "At least you have a daughter in Saadena to ease your misery," he said.



"Carlan is no comfort to me," Carnat admitted. "She is like a pallid shadow of her mother, reproaching me with my failure. King Farek will dismiss this betrothal contract without serious consideration. I wonder that I even dare approach him. The idea of a prince of Zedekla marrying a princess of Saadena is absurd."



Doka nodded "Farek would consider Ayarlan's daughter too young to contract a marriage even if she were otherwise eligible, but there are two princesses of Saadena, and Neril's child is well suited to be a bride for Prince Tomak. Whatever the crimes and failings of your ancestors, they were the sons of Elianin, the daughter of royalty in Kisdu before the migration of Irilik. You may be sure that Tagun intends to provide her with a magnificent dowry."



Carnat stared at the Tedakan, then he began to laugh until tears ran from his eyes. The idea that Ayarlan had provided him with the means to give Neril's daughter a princely husband was a surprising irony.



"Thank you my friend," he gasped. "I will make a minor change in the marriage contract I present to Farek. The names of my daughters are similar, even if they have nothing else in common."



A few simple strokes of a stylus that Doka carried changed the name of the bride. Carnat sealed the document again before following Doka back into the audience chamber. He looked forward to the interview with King Farek.



Carnat looked around for Alagad but he had not returned. It was just as well. If his interview with Farek went as he hoped, Ayarlan would be furious once she found out about his treacherous reversal to her plans. It would be best to keep her from discovering that Neril's child still lived.



Alagad had been surprised when the burly Tedakan had grasped his arm and hustled him away from Carnat and Doka. He thought of Perlin and his small sons and sweat stood out on his forehead. Ayarlan would not forgive him if he failed the task she had set him. At first it had seemed an easy assignment. Carnat had never given any sign of rebellion in the years that Alagad had lived at the Saadenan court. His contempt for the king had led him to carelessness.



He had been shocked nearly speechless to see Carnat strolling up the street toward the embassy the previous evening, his eyes shining with amusement and intelligence. For a moment Alagad had thought the man on the street was a double of the king. When Carnat entered the embassy and declined to eat the evening meal, Alagad regretted that he had refused him the drugged wine when they first arrived in Zedekla. But Carnat had been more clever than he would have imagined. Instead of flaunting his independence of selan and Ayarlan, the king had acted with meek compliance when he prepared to come to the palace. Now he was beyond control. What mischief might he wreak with none to guard what he said?



Doka's aide had shoved Alagad into a small room and shut the door, fastening it so that Alagad had no hope of escape through the entrance. He glanced around and saw a narrow window set with polished sections of translucent crystal. It resisted his initial efforts to open it until he discovered a catch and the hidden hinges that let the window swing aside, revealing a small garden court. Alagad judged the size of the opening. It would be close, but he was a small-boned man. He took off his tunic and tossed it through the window. Then he slowly fit his head through. His nose was bruised and his ear scratched by the time he succeeded, but he felt a surge of hope. He had always been told his head was too big for his body, but the disproportion now proved to be an advantage.



He writhed and twisted as he forced the rest of his body through the narrow opening. At last he fell into a shrub set under the window. He disengaged himself from the thorny branches and reached up to push the window shut. He braced it closed with his dagger, the hilt set against the window and the blade shoved into a gap in the stones of the embrasure.



He hurt in every muscle and joint but there was no time to waste if he hoped to find Carnat. He looked around to find a way out of the garden. A lattice gate led to another courtyard where a fountain danced in the center of a hexagon of arcaded windows.



He cautiously explored the space after fastening the gate behind him. The largest window was slightly open. He moved closer and glanced through the gap. He drew back immediately when he saw King Farek seated on a bench with a scribe nearby. An aide entered the room.



"Carnat of Saadena is waiting for his audience with you."



"I will see him when I have finished reviewing this document," Farek said. "I am curious to see what has brought him to Zedekla."



The sound of the splashing fountain was irresistible. Alagad was tempted to take the chance to wash his scratched and bruised upper body. Farek's tone had indicated Carnat would have a long wait. Caution was overcome by a need for relief and Alagad removed his tunic.



His childhood in Orenon had accustomed him to sea bathing, a habit he had sorely missed in Saadena where Ayarlan followed the custom established by her mentor Challan who instituted the use of scented sand instead of water for cleansing the skin of everyone but herself and her daughter. He had heard rumors that the queen's nemesis, Neril, had popularized the use of scented sand during her brief first trek. If the gossip was true, he had the Mareklan to blame for the misery of a generation of Saadena's courtiers and palace servants. He relished the cool water of the fountain on his scraped skin.



Carnat looked up when his name was finally announced. A servant led him down a well proportioned hall hung with the shields of Zedekla's heroes and opened a door to a room that seemed modest in size compared to the cavernous spaces of the New Palace in Saadena. A pleasant breeze wafted into the room from a partially open window that overlooked a small garden.



He saw the back of a young man enjoying an impromptu bath in the cool fountain in the center of the garden. A sudden memory of his own enjoyment of the hidden garden of his youth made him smile before he turned his eyes from the window and faced Farek.



Just as Carnat turned away, Alagad turned around and picked up his tunic. Glancing up, the spy saw Carnat's profile and dropped to his knees to crawl back to his listening post under the window.



"We seldom see representatives from Saadena in Zedekla," Farek said with cold correctness as he acknowledged Carnat's formal gesture of greeting. He wondered at the smile that lingered on the Saadenan's face.



"We seldom travel," Carnat answered. "I have come on an important mission. Your heir, Tomak has gained his manhood, but he remains unmarried. I have a daughter who has come to the age when a maiden should marry. We of Saadena have lost our former glory, but my daughter is worthy of Zedekla's heir."



Farek stared at Carnat, stunned by his offer. Saadena's princess was hardly more than a child. All he had heard led him to believe that she would mature into a woman just like her mother and grandmother. His face grew stern and he lifted his hand to dismiss Carnat without listening any further.



"Have you heard of Caril of Janaka, called the 'foundling princess'?" Carnat asked quickly before Farek could speak the words of dismissal.



"The child Tagun took as his fosterling when she was an infant?" Farek asked.



Carnat nodded.



"Yes," Farek said with a reminiscent smile. "I saw her in Timora last year. She was there with other members of the Janakan court. She attracted admirers whenever she appeared." Farek frowned at Carnat. "She is the opposite of everything I have heard of your daughter."



"She is the princess of Saadena I am offering in betrothal to your son Tomak," Carnat said.



"Impossible!" Farek snorted.



"If you know anything of my first marriage, you may have heard that my wife, Neril, was buried with our infant. That was a ruse to protect Caril from the spite of my mother, Queen Challan, and Ayarlan, my cousin. If you doubt the story I tell you, ask Doka. He was the man who carried Caril to safety."



Zedekla's king signaled his servant to bring the Tedakan Headman into the room. He ignored Carnat and studied the writing on several tablets while they waited.



Alagad had already crawled away from his crouched position under the window to the king's audience room and rolled through the gate that led to the next garden. He must return to the embassy residence and make certain that Carnat was prevented from proceeding with his plan. He had been astonished to hear Carnat's claim and he was certain that Ayarlan would blame him for the miscarriage of her plans if he could not prevent the arrangement between Farek and Carnat from proceeding.



The palace of Zedekla was like a maze. As Alagad searched for escape, Doka was summoned to the audience room. When Doka entered, Farek looked up with a smile.



"I have listened to a strange tale and received an interesting proposition from Carnat of Saadena," Farek said.



"If he claims that Caril, Tagun's foster child is his daughter, he speaks the truth," Doka said. "I carried the child from her mother's arms and gave her to Tagun. She would make a worthy bride to any man in Okishdu."



Farek was surprised, but he accepted Doka's warrant. "I will accept the betrothal if my son agrees," Farek said, turning to Carnat and offering his hand as pledge.



"There is a large dowry associated with the contract," Carnat assured Farek as he lifted his own hand.



"I could not accept a dowry from Saadena," Farek said, drawing back his hand. "I have heard that Saadena is little better than a slave camp. If Caril is your daughter, she is sufficient reward for the man who marries her. If you have any manhood in you you will take the dowry back to Saadena and relieve the misery of your people."



The Zedeklan king then turned away to speak to Doka. The rigidity of his back proclaimed his disdain for Carnat as surely as his words.



Carnat went red in the face with reaction to Farek's cutting dismissal. Then he slumped in dejected recognition of its justice. He faced the bitter truth. Neril must have known that he was too weak to protect their daughter or she would not have sent the infant away.



He straightened his shoulders and made his way from the audience room. For years he had rarely been free of the dulling influence of selan. Although his self-disgust was difficult to bear, he vowed he would never again let his mind be dulled into acceptance of evil. He would return to Saadena and take up the responsibility he had shirked for too long. But first he would travel in disguise to Janaka and see for himself the woman his daughter had become. He would not intrude on her life in Tagun's court. He would be a stranger, never hinting of the relationship he had forfeited with his cowardice.



Carnat returned to the embassy residence through the alley. A servant's hooded tunic hung on the washing lines beyond the scullery. Carnat grabbed it and hurried to his room. Long years of practice at picking locks in his youth had not grown stale. The lock on the dowry chest quickly yielded to a pin from one of the gaudy medals on his tunic. He hastened to change out of the showy court clothing Ayarlan had provided.



He remembered the charity of the matla seller the previous evening and was tempted to take a few coins from the chest. Then he vowed it would all be returned to the people of Saadena. The jeweled baubles on the front of his court tunic caught his eye. He ripped away several of the ornate medals and hid the tunic within the dowry chest. The decaying mansion that had housed Saadena's embassy for centuries had been designed by a student of the architect of the New Palace. It did not take long for Carnat to find a hiding place for the dowry chest behind a panel. The chest was heavy and he was sweating with the effort of his labor when he finally closed the panel. It should be safe until he retrieved it and returned to Saadena to reclaim his right to rule.



The raised voice of Alagad as he returned from the palace and questioned the embassy staff alerted Carnat. He pulled his hair back from his face into a rough braid, but tendrils of the russet curls resisted confinement. He concealed his tell-tale red hair beneath the hood of his stolen tunic and crept into the hallway. He pulled the door of his room shut with furtive silence and made sure the lock clicked shut.



Alagad was still below, but at any moment he might decide to search Carnat's room. The king sidled into the shadows at the far end of the corridor and searched for the hidden passage he guessed should lead down to the servant's quarters. In a short time he found a panel that yielded to his pressure. The narrow opening let onto a steep stairway. At the ground floor the exit was blocked, but at the cellar level it came out near the larder. Carnat hesitated. It would not be wise to go unarmed. He crept along the passage to the kitchen and discovered that the servants had all been called away to help Alagad with his search.



The knife he picked up from the kitchen table was not an elegant implement, but it was long enough to pierce a man and sharp enough to discourage thieves. He pushed it through his sash and opened a door that led to the yard. He was sure that at any moment he would be seen and the alarm given. His heart was pounding with excitement as he hurried up the alley and into the street.



Carnat mingled with the crowds as he wandered away from the regions around the palace. All Zedekla had once been walled, but now it sprawled far beyond the confines of the stone walls of the original settlement. He looked for a goldsmith in the row of small shops under the wall.



He found a shop bearing the golden crown that betokened a jeweler and entered. The master of the shop was selling a bauble to a lady while his apprentice arranged rings in a cabinet. Carnat sidled up to the youth, a villainous looking boy whose scarred hands witnessed his ineptness at the craft.



"I have a bauble for sale, should I wait for your master?" Carnat muttered. As he hoped, the hint of a wink caught the youth's interest.



"Wait for me in the alley back of the shop. The old man's an honest one. He'd have the watch on you quick as shout if he suspected stolen goods," the apprentice murmured.



Carnat waited, his knife scarcely concealed in his hand. In a short time the boy hurried into the alley. He stopped short at the sight of the weapon. "Don't trust anyone do you?" the apprentice asked.



"What I have here is worth ten enas, but I'll take an ena. I won't take less," Carnat said, displaying an ornament.



"If I'm caught, it could mean the whip," the apprentice argued.



"I'm down on my luck, but gold ornaments don't buy bread. This belongs to me, but you and I both know your master wouldn't believe my story. The watch won't bother you for this bit of gaudy," Carnat assured him.



The apprentice nodded. "You want the money in small coin don't you? I'll meet you in the Green Tree Inn on Elcona Way, near the western gate, at mid-day."



Carnat watched the servant return to the shop, then he set out to find his way to an armorer. None but a fool would risk the road to Janaka armed with a kitchen knife. When he offered one of his baubles in exchange for a used sword, he found the armorer less suspicious of the medal he offered than the jeweler's apprentice had been. The man seemed to recognize that he was familiar with quality weaponry. It had been years since he had held a long blade in his hands. It had been a brief fascination of his earliest youth when the ancestral weapons had still hung in the audience hall. Challan had eventually given most of them to her guards, careless of their antiquity.



He tested the balance of a blade and tapped it against the hardwood post that bore the marks of other such tests. It rang true, a sure sign of the best of weapons produced by the high art of the widow smiths. Few modern blades could match the quality for the price. A simple leather scabbard was provided with the sword and when Carnat ventured forth to find the inn where the jeweler's apprentice would meet him, he felt elated. He had earned the respect of the armorer, an unusual experience, He had used his wits with the apprentice and would soon have enough to pay for his journey to Janaka. For the first time in a long time, he felt like a man.



He sat with his back to the wall when he reached the inn. The apprentice might be delayed or even decide not to carry out the trade. Carnat fretted and felt foolish as he evaded the offers of food and lodging extended by the inn-keeper. He shuddered with relief when he saw the youth enter the inn with a furtive glance that located Carnat. Their transaction took only a moment. The youth was pleased with the ornament and the count of coins was only a few short. Carnat let the difference pass.



As Carnat sat in a secluded corner of the inn's common room eating a lunch of stuffed matla and fruit, he wondered how the prince of Zedekla would react to his father's news. He wished he had taken the time to meet Prince Tomak. If the prince kept the pattern set by his parents, he would be worthy of any man's daughter, but Carnat knew too well that the privilege of royalty sometimes turned the heads of royal heirs. He had heard that Farek had a twin who had been banished in his youth. It was proof that even Zedeklan royalty was subject to folly.



Carnat had been so eager to frustrate Ayarlan's plans and secure a royal marriage for his lost daughter that he hadn't stopped to consider the quality of the prospective suitor. He remembered how angry Neril had been at being forced to marry without her consent. Would her daughter be displeased to find herself betrothed to a stranger?



He pondered the problem until he caught sight of a familiar face in the street outside the inn. It was Ayarlan's spy, Alagad. Carnat pulled the hood tighter over his tell-tale hair and sidled toward the back exit from the common room. He left the inn through the kitchen door and kept to the alley. The eastern gate of Zedekla lay only a few streets away.



Carnat tried to walk casually as he joined the crowd flowing through the gate. It was a typical group of Zedeklans, diverse in origin and dress, but vociferous and friendly. He doubted any would remark or remember him in the confusion as he took the path that would intersect with the pilgrim road to Janaka.



Chapter 2 Well Met







From the comfort of his favorite chair in his private study, Farek studied the straight, strong figure of his oldest son. "I have been offered a contract for your betrothal and I am inclined to accept." The king watched Tomak's face for his reaction.



Farek's lip lifted with ironic amusement when he saw the faint grimace of distaste that curled Tomak's upper lip. "I had hoped you would find a bride without requiring my interference, but you haven't fixed your attention on anyone eligible. It is a pity that you were serving as an Elite Guard along the western pilgrim roads when we traveled to Timora for the Festival of Founding. There were many young women from the finest families of Okishdu at the festival this year."



"I'll marry when I find someone as fit for queen-ship as my mother," Tomak said with a charming grin, but he quickly assumed a serious expression. "There cannot be a match for me with a Mareklan maid as tradition demands. Since it is no longer required that I find a bride among the children of Irilik, I have plenty of prospects from which to choose. Why should you feel it necessary to play matchmaker?"



"The girl I want you to marry is Caril of Janaka, known as the 'foundling princess'," Farek told his son.



"But she is King Tagun's illegitimate daughter. Would you consider her a fit match for the heir of Zedekla?" Tomak demanded. "Surely there are other women who would be more suitable to become my bride."



"I have it on the best authority that she is of royal birth, but not a child of Tagun's. He has fostered her since she was an infant, but the rumors of her parentage are false and were spread to protect the truth of her origin. She was born to a prince and a Mareklan woman, making her doubly eligible to be your bride."



Tomak stood and paced the room. "I doubt you even know of this Caril, except by rumor," he complained. "I find it hard to believe you would so casually risk my happiness on flattering reports that may have no basis."



"I have not made my decision frivolously," Farek reproved his son. "I met the girl in Timora last year and find her to be an excellent prospect for your future queen."



"I've heard she's never been denied anything," Tomak said with a frown. He ran his fingers over one of the tiny figurines he usually carried in one of his pockets. "Gossip says she's spoiled and shallow. It seems a poor background for a queen. It is easy enough for a pretty girl to charm a man. It is a better test to find out how she treats her servants."



"I suspect the gossips are jealous of her," Farek said. "I'm certain you will find her both charming and unusually modest for a young woman of her station." Farek thought it best to let his son gain his own impression of Caril's beauty and spirit. Sons were rightfully suspicious of a father's praise for a young woman.



"Before I agree to marry Tagun's ward, I will go to Janaka in disguise and judge for myself," Tomak replied. "I would like to see how this princess you would have me marry acts toward ordinary men. I was lucky to overhear Olina berating her servants the night I had intended to ask her hand. She always seemed so ingratiating that her very sweetness almost seemed a fault. Fortunately, my eyes were opened before I made my pledge. I heard her screaming like a shrew when I arrived early at her home. It was some minor matter, but she turned her servant over to the jailer for misplacing a bracelet. It was both petty and cruel. When I asked her to reconsider, she turned on me in a fury."



"I wondered what brought you scurrying back from Jama this spring," Farek said with a rueful grin. He remembered his relief when the relationship ended. "Durek said he warned you Olina was a shrew."



"I thought my brother was jealous of my good fortune. I should have considered his warning more carefully," Tomak admitted. "Speaking of my brother, why must I bear the burden of marrying this princess? Let Durek marry her. In many ways he is more fit than I to be the king in your stead. It wouldn't be the first time in the history of Zedekla that an older brother resigned his rights to another."



"You refer to my twin brother Zadak?" Farek asked. Tomak nodded.



"He failed the trial of the testing room on our coming of age, " Farek said. "It doesn't happen often, but when it does, the prince who fails the test must step aside in favor of other heirs."



"What became of him?" Tomak asked.



"I don't know what became of my brother," Farek answered. "My father sent a servant to follow him. He joined a troupe of traveling players and mountebanks, but when they reached Orenon, he left the troop. Since then, there has been no trace of him. He was impetuous and not above lying to save his skin. Zadak was not worthy to carry Tharek oc Baroka."



Farek nodded when Tomak's hand went to the staff that concealed the fabled sword. The prince had earned the sword of his ancestors three years before when he had passed the test of fitness and joined the Elite Guard. The king stood and put his hand on Tomak's shoulder. "I have been blessed with several fine sons, but you are the eldest, the one I have chosen and trained to follow me. You have passed the test of your fitness to rule after me. I yearn for the day you produce an heir of your own and I can retire with your mother to Timora."



Tomak felt, as never before, the burden of being his father's heir. He was ever conscious of the ways in which both of his brothers excelled him. Durek was a natural warrior, devoted to the study of arms and the discipline of men. Tilek was bright and articulate. Only the accident of birth had given him precedence over them. He listened soberly as Farek continued to reason with him. "It might be different if we were like other kings, holding onto their thrones until they die, but I am eager to follow the example of my ancestors and resign the throne to you as soon as you begin to have a family. I am reluctant to command you to marry, but I will, if you don't take the prospect seriously."



"I will let you know my decision after I meet the princess," Tomak said.



"Very well," Farek said. Having met the girl, he was certain his son would find her more than merely acceptable. As soon as Tomak quit the chamber, Farek summoned Durek and confided his plan.



"She is worthy of him," Durek agreed, smiling as he remembered his first meeting with Caril. She had been reproving a dala driver for beating his lead animal. "I am not surprised that Tomak is cautious after his experience with Olina, but from everything I know of him, and what I know of her, they will soon overlook the fact that their marriage is much to be desired from their fathers' points of view and choose one another for completely selfish reasons. It will be an interesting marriage."



Farek smiled. "I trust your judgment. I thought Tagun's ward a most appealing girl when I met her last year, but you know Tomak's mind better than I do. I will anticipate Tomak's enchantment with her and make the offer. Choose my swiftest courier and send him to me within the hour."



Tomak, unaware that the plans for the betrothal were going forward, slept easily after making preparations for his journey. The courier carrying the betrothal began his run to Janaka before Tomak left the palace and took the trail.



Four days later Tagun received Farek's message from the hand of the courier. Three days remained before the festival to celebrate Caril's birthday. He opened the message, expecting to see some diplomatic reference to trade or suppression of bandits. Instead, he read that Farek had accepted a conditional bridal contract for Caril from her father.



It was like a blow to the heart for Tagun. He had long thought of himself as Caril's father. He had put off considering possible suitors for her hand. He had some vague plan that she would marry his heir, Okagun. They were close companions, sharing escapades since their early youth. It was hard to say which of them was most often the instigator of the adventures that had brought gray to Tilla's lustrous braids. Caril was a few weeks older than Okagun, but that was not an insurmountable objection to their marriage.



Tagun had not really thought of her approaching adulthood. With this birthday she would officially come of age. It was a time when most maidens married, especially those who were comely.



As always, when he had some concern that involved Caril, Tagun sent for Tilla. Tilla had aged well, Tagun thought as he watched her approach. There were only a few strands of gray in her glossy dark hair and both her height and the refinement of her clear features had given support to the idea that she was Caril's mother.



The gossip that hinted she was mother of Caril, had blighted her chances to remarry. Her sons, Fren, who was a year older than Caril and Barga, who was now captain of the palace guard, were aware of the truth about their relationship. Although they knew that Caril was not their sister, they regarded her with all the fond indulgence expressed by Tagun's sons who were not quite certain of her parentage.



"Why are you in such a hurry to have me come to you this morning?" Tilla asked. "I was busy making the final arrangements for Caril's birthday celebration."



"I've just received a message from Zedekla," Tagun said. "Carnat has entered a conditional contract of betrothal between Caril and Tomak, the prince of Zedekla."



"What right does he have to arrange for her marriage after all these years?" Tilla asked as her hands settled firmly on her hips, a message to any familiar with her that she was ready to quarrel. Then she saw the regret on Tagun's face and softened her tone. "It has come so suddenly. He has the right after all. As much as I wish otherwise, he is a scion of the ancient line of Elianin. There is no other monarch or leader in Okishdu who can so surely trace his royal ancestry."



Tagun's pleasant, plump face transformed into pugnacious rebellion. "We can deny knowledge that Carnat is any kin of Caril. After all, when I found her there was no note or other clue of how she came to me or who she was. Everything was implied or hinted by Doka's careful words."



"I have lived a lie for the sake of Caril's safety," Tilla said. "But I will not lie if Doka asks me to tell where we were when he brought her to me. Once it is known that she came from Saadena, and that Carnat claims her as his own child, her profile and curly red hair will complete the proof."



Tagun lowered his head like a corum bull and glared at her. "Her hair is not red, it is like dark wine."



Tilla shook her head. "It shines like a ripe nuka fruit when lit by the sun."



"I will consider the offer," Tagun reluctantly granted. "But which of us is to tell Caril. I hardly think she will like being given to a man she has never met. This business was handled poorly. If Farek wanted Caril for his son, he should have sent him courting. I suspect that neither of the young people will welcome this sudden scheme."



* * * *



Carnat had labored along the pilgrimage road to Janaka for nearly three days since leaving Zedekla. He rued the flabby body that resulted from his confined life under the thumb of Ayarlan. He remembered how his muscles had ached like fiery bands after the first day of walking out of Saadena. At least he no longer breathed like an old dala.



The first night on the road to Janaka, he had stopped at a small inn as sunset neared. When the innkeeper said he would have to share a room with ten other men, he was too weary to care. They slept on the floor, rolled up in their cloaks like sausage stuffed matlas.



When he woke in the morning he was tempted to stay at the inn for another day. He caught the eyes of a scruffy looking man who had shared his sparse sleeping accommodation. He almost reached for his hidden stock of golden ornaments to reassure himself that it was still tied safely in his sash. Then he reminded himself that would be just the clue a thief could use.



He was glad the goldsmith's apprentice had brought him old, worn coins in small denominations. If the small purse containing a third of the coins fell into the hands of a deft thief, it would still leave a reserve to pay for his journey. He struggled to his feet and after a brief wash and relief in the rude accommodations behind the inn, he purchased a supply of journey food from the innkeeper and took to the road again.



To see Caril, to see for himself that she had been beloved and pampered, was his goal. Perhaps he would see in her a resemblance to Neril, the young wife he had abducted and for whom he still mourned. His long years of drugged oblivion seemed compressed into mere weeks. The pain of his loss was still as keen as the day he had walked behind Neril's coffin.



The pilgrim road to Janaka led mostly uphill. At first Carnat's joints and muscles ached and he walked bent and hobbling like an old man as he had on the road from Saadena. Gradually the exercise of walking seemed to relieve the pain of his unaccustomed muscles. He felt a little proud of himself for persisting, but he knew that if he had selan with him he might have been tempted to take it. He was grateful he had been spared the choice.



While drinking from the shallows of a stream, Carnat saw the shadowed silhouette of his head in the water. A sudden disgust struck him for the long curls that had so pleased Ayarlan. Without thinking further, he took his knife and cut his hair. Glancing upstream, he saw a sheltered pool. Long habit, imposed by Ayarlan's control of water, had kept him from enjoying a bath in the inn. Now he finished his grooming by taking an icy bath in the pool. He nearly gave into habit and shaved, but with a bark of laughter, he felt the stubble that was beginning to cover his chin and decided to grow a beard. The rippled reflection that looked up at him from the pool bore little resemblance to the man who had left Saadena a week earlier. As soon as he had dressed, he buried the lank ringlets under a stone and continued on his way. It seemed that he had removed a great weight from his mind as well as his head.



After spending another night in a crowded inn near the fork of the Jama Road, he began to grow wary. The road was no longer busy with the commerce that flowed between Jama and Zedekla. As he approached the bridge over the Or he caught up with a group of pilgrims returning from Timora. They were accompanied by a troop of Elite Guards, well armed to keep bandits from the pilgrims.



After they had rested and eaten their noon meal, the pilgrims and their escort turned onto the road to Setalan and Carnat walked on alone. As the sun set and the glow of its going ebbed, there was still no sign of shelter. He heard footsteps on the trail behind him and turned fearfully to see who followed him.



"Hail traveler," the other man called. Carnat paused and for a moment his hand rested on the hilt of his sword. Then he dropped his hand from his weapon and waited for the young man to catch up to him. He was armed with nothing more than a knife at his belt and a weathered staff. There was something in the open face of the youth that laid his fears to rest.



The newcomer was simply dressed but there was something in his manner and the way he wore the journey cloak that suggested an uncommon background. "I am Ranek from Zedekla, traveling to Janaka to find a jewel fit for my mother's house," the young man said in formal tones. Tomak did not lie, he only used his second name and a poetic reference that was frequently applied to the search for a bride.



"I am Charak and I also travel to Janaka for a jewel. Once it was mine, but now it belongs to King Tagun. I have long desired to see it again," Carnat replied with a similar misleading allusion.



"It is late, and there is no sign of an inn. Would you share my night camp with me and take part of the watch?" Carnat asked after they had walked a little further together. He noticed that the younger man had shortened his stride to match his less vigorous gait and he felt grateful for the consideration.



"That small hill just ahead would make a good campsite," the youth said. "The trees and brush would conceal us, but we'd have a good view of any others who come along the road."



Carnat silently followed his companion to the base of the hill and bit back the groans that rose in his throat as they climbed the steep sided knoll. There was evidence that other travelers had found shelter there. A circle of stones around the blackened remains of old fires centered a grassy glade sheltered by trees.



"I think I will sleep better here than I did in the inn last night," Carnat said as he sat down and relaxed against a branch. It formed a comfortable backrest. "I haven't traveled much but it seems to me there should be more and better inns,"



The other man nodded, "Perhaps when the Peace of Tagun extends beyond this generation and the bands of vagrant thieves that infest the Janaka road are brought under control, the road will attract more travelers who have need of inns. Now, the pilgrims camp when they can't reach an inn to provide shelter, and you know the saying: 'farmer beware the pilgrim way where nights are dry and there's sun each day.' Even wild animals avoid those who make pilgrimage, and somehow, they usually have fair weather. The Radiance protects his servants."



After resting for a few minutes, Carnat stood and gathered a few branches, then laid them in the center of the circle of stones. When he reached for his flint, the young man stayed his hand. "The night is fine, I think we should avoid lighting a fire that could attract attention to our camp. I have matlas, journey meat and clean water sufficient for both of us."



"I have dried nuka fruit and salted fish to share," Carnat said as he opened the small bag he had filled at the last inn. He hadn't anticipated such a long interval with no place to purchase food. It would have been a long, hungry night without the share provided by his new companion. With his belly full and a sense of security that wholly depended on the trust he placed in the younger man, Carnat relaxed against the limber support of the branch and felt his eyelids grow heavy.



"I'll take first watch," the young man offered. Carnat nodded. He eased up from his comfortable seat and stood to roll out his bedroll. When he had completed the task, he glanced down at the pilgrim way.



"We have a good view of the road from here," he said. "The track seems well maintained, I wonder who cares for it?" It was an idle question and the other man made no reply. Carnat lay down. Once he was rolled up in his blanket on a bed of sweet grass, the King of Saadena welcomed sleep.



The soft snores of his companion reassured Tomak that the man was not a bandit's shill sent to lead him into ambush. He was surprised by the question the man had asked. It was generally known that the offerings collected at the shrines were used first to help the destitute, and then to maintain the shrines and pilgrimage tracks. Some who had little to offer in the way of goods, offered their services to the shrine and spent time each year keeping the track in good repair.



Although the royal house of Zedekla made generous offerings, Tomak's personal service gift was his membership in the Elite Guard which defended the roads in those regions where outlaws were so lost to decency that they attacked pilgrims. If Carnat was stranger to the custom of keeping the roads, he had come from somewhere beyond the lands Tomak knew.



The soft snores of the sleeping man emphasized the loneliness of their camp. The prince became aware that he had never been so alone in his life. As the heir of Zedekla's throne, he had always known that someone lingered just out of sight, alert to ensure his safety. Even during his service in the Elite Guard there had been an orderly to follow him around and guard him from harm. He had enjoyed the past two days of traveling without a cortege of attendants, but he had spent the night in crowded inns and there had always been someone on the road nearby. He had only been alone for a few minutes before meeting his current companion and the man was so deeply sunk in slumber that he hardly counted as a presence.



Tomak had yearned for solitude to consider his future. His disappointment with Olina had bruised his heart and he had delayed courting while he finished his service with the Elite Guard. He speculated on Caril's true parentage. His father said Caril was of royal birth, and daughter of a Mareklan woman, but only one princess had been born at the time and in the circumstances that would fit the description. That princess was laid to rest by the side of her mother while she was yet an infant. He could remember how sad he had been when word came that the first wife of King Carnat of Saadena had died.



Perhaps the stiry of the infant's death had been a ruse. If so, Caril must have been the daughter of Carnat's first wife.. Something more about the woman floated just beyond recall. He put his hand in his pocket and felt the small toys he always carried. He could not quite remember where or when he had been given the box of soldiers and the tiny Mareklan figures that had been his favorite toys throughout his childhood. The sound of a voice, the vision of dark eyes beneath fine brows sometimes haunted his dreams.



He looked out over the broad plateau that rose toward the mountains of Janaka. Far in the southeast there had been a faint glow from a town but as the hour grew late only the cool, pure light of the waning moon and pin point stars lit the plain. His memories of Olina had grown dim as well. He smiled ruefully as he recalled his outrage and hurt when he discovered her deceitful and shrewish character.



It had been only months since he had hurried away from Jama filled with disillusion and despair. The discovery that sweet-faced Olina was a shrew was not the first or worst of his awakenings. Once he was away from Jama and his infatuation, gossip had informed him that Olina's virtue was as shallow as her character. He would be cautious in giving his heart again.



The hiss of insects seemed to enhance the silence as Tomak's mind wandered to speculate about what he would find in Janaka. Was it possible that Caril's mother was the woman who haunted his memory? He touched one of his precious toy soldiers and seemed to hear a soft, laughing voice.



Trying to reach for the memory sent it into hiding. Where and when had he met the Mareklan woman who had put her likeness into his dreams? Finally he shook his head and stopped trying to recall the illusive image.



The older man was still deeply asleep when the stars indicated it was time to change the watch. Tomak took one last look over the countryside and made the decision to let the other man sleep. If he was the innocent he seemed to be, he would need the sleep. If he were a villain with ambush in mind, there was no reason to accommodate him by leaving him as solitary watch. Tomak took short naps for the rest of the night, waking now and then to look out over the quiet landscape.



Carnat woke as pale light fell on his eyelids. His young companion had started a small fire with dry twigs and it burned cleanly, only a small curl of smoke coming from the blaze and dispersing quickly in the breeze. The smell of cala brewing brought the older man upright.



"Ranek, you let me sleep through my watch," Carnat said.



Tomak split a matla into two parts and offered one to his companion. "Later today you can keep watch while I take a nap. You needed the sleep."



They talked casually as they took up their journey again. There were long silences when both were caught up in thoughts of what they would find in Janaka. Tomak found nothing unusual in the companionship he shared with the older man. His relationship with his father and his uncles had been rich with experiences as hunters and members of the citizen guard.



Carnat had lived a life of uneasy solitude. His few months of companionship with his father and the friendship with Fedder were inextricably interwoven with memories of Neril that were still too painful to examine. He had spent his life as a solitary man. His young traveling companion represented the son he was certain he would never have and he treasured the tentative friendship between them. They found a common interest when he admired the knife the youth carried. Both preferred the blades produced by the widow smiths who had manned the mines and forges during the long years of Janaka's clan wars.



It had been a time when men of Janaka were too intent on the practice and ritual of fighting to do anything else. It fell to the women to farm and work the mines. The art and craft of smithing bronze was carried forth by certain stalwart widows. None of them had achieved the mastery of Algire, the wizard smith who was said to have used magic to produce the blue metal swords that had become little more that legend with the years.



Carnat displayed his sword to his youthful companion and it was duly admired. Tomak did not volunteer to display the virtues of his staff, but Carnat felt that lapse was understandable. Few men enjoyed displaying an inferior weapon, even in friendly company.



They found an inn just as the day was ending in a sunset that transformed the clouds in the west into great fingers of fire. The only accommodation was a crowded sleeping room where bedrolls adjoined one another like a lumpy carpet from one end of the room to another. A group of pilgrims bound from Janaka to Timora was spending their first night on the road at the inn. They were a merry crew, not yet tired because their way had been an easy descent from the heights of Janaka.



Carnat and Tomak were asleep long before the genial banter of the pilgrims had faded. They were up early the next morning. After a hearty breakfast of spicy Jaman noodles and cala, they filled their belt pouches with journey food. Carnat insisted on paying for the food. He was conscious of the debt he owed his young companion for providing him with a night of undisturbed sleep on the previous night and his companionship on the road.



There had been three men at the inn who did not wear the blue and white of pilgrims. Tomak had noticed them, but he became concerned only when he heard a stone roll loose on the path behind them and turned to confront the three who were creeping up on them. They were still a few yards away, but as soon as they realized they had been detected, they started forward at a rush. There was no need to ask their intentions; two of them had raised clubs and the third had his knife ready in his hand.



Tomak lifted his sword staff level with his waist and without taking time to un-sheath the sword, ran to meet their rush. Carnat had barely wrested his sword from its scabbard before the melee was engaged. Somehow both of the men with clubs became the victims of their own weapons as the staff hit first one, then the other in their midriffs and doubled them over. The man with the knife would have had a choice target for his downward slash as Tomak passed near, but Carnat lunged and caught him with the end of his sword. It was only a glancing blow, but it opened a bleeding wound in the man's thigh.



Diverted, the man turned to meet Carnat and Tomak caught him a solid blow on the back of his head that sent him swooning to the ground. Then the prince turned to the other two men who were staggering to their feet. "Stay! You have lost your advantage. Only fools would risk their lives for such as the two of us are carrying." He nodded toward Carnat whose bloodied sword was raised over his head, waiting for Tomak's signal.



The men dropped their clubs, and obeying Tomak's gesture with his staff, sat down next to their unconscious confederate. Tomak tore lengths of cloth from one of their tunics and bound their hands and feet while Carnat stood over them with the sword to make certain they did not move. They were a mismatched crew, giving evidence of having come from several clans. The youngest of them had been born Janakan, evidenced by his hawk-like nose and a small battle tattoo, but he wore a Taleekan style tunic, the sleeves woven in one piece with the body. The other two might have been Zedeklans, but their motley dress reflected Jaman tastes. They were a typical outlaw alliance, with little in common but a shadowed past and greed.



"I could take you to Janaka and let you meet the justice they reserve for road thieves," Tomak threatened. "I think you would rather not spend the rest of your lives in the deep mines. Instead, I will mark you so that you will no longer walk among honest men without warning." He suited his actions to his words and with deft movements of his knife, he made shallow cuts on their cheeks that would be recognized by all as the mark worn by condemned thieves.



Then he did something that surprised Carnat even more than the summary dispensation of judgment. He took a small jar of salve from his belt pouch and treated the wounds of the outlaws. He tore several more lengths of cloth from the edge of the unconscious outlaw's tunic and bound their cuts. It was a curious combination of fierceness and concern.



Carnat gathered the cudgels and knife the bandits had used as weapons, and Tomak piled dried grass over them and set them afire with a tool that might have brought joy to any thief. Few possessed fire strikes, the strange rods of blue grey metal that would produce sparks when struck on flint. The bonds on the thieves were not so tight or well tied that they would long resist efforts to escape, but it was unlikely that they would break free in time to rescue the tools of their trade.



Carnat and Tomak set forth again, accompanied by the cries and curses of the men they had disarmed and marked. Carnat remembered his thoughts of the previous day when he had pitied his companion for his apparent lack of a sword. Few swordsmen could have so ably disarmed others without fatal results. He remembered how Neril had carried a broom handle when she ventured out of the palace. He had always been a little amused by her faith in the pathetic weapon. Now he had gained new insight into the real worth of a sturdy staff in the hands of someone who knew how to use it.



At midmorning they encountered a Kumnoran teamster headed toward Zedekla with a long caravan of ponderous dalas laden with tools and blades from Janaka. He was as merry as he was hairy, laughing with broad humor when one of the dalas gently butted Tomak and sent him stumbling backwards to land in the ditch that bordered the road. He offered his hand to help the prince to his feet and pulled it back just as it was most needed for balance.



Tomak tumbled back again, this time landing with a thump. Instead of jumping up to challenge the teamster, Tomak rubbed the dirt from his thighs and ruefully laughed at himself for falling for the joke. Carnat had to admire the way the young man handled himself. In his own youth, he would never have been so patient with crude oafs who valued physical humor more than manners. He might have mistaken the refusal to take offense at the teamster's joking for cowardice, but his young friend had already proved that he was brave in the face of real threat.



"Be ye Mareklan with that battered old staff," the teamster jibed. "Ah, no. Only Tharek himself could brag of being a Mareklan but not wear the patterned cape." He turned to Carnat. "Old fellow, tell me who are ye and where do ye go?"



"We have only been companions a day or so," Carnat explained as he helped Tomak to his feet. "I am Charak, and this is Ranek. Both of us are bound to Janaka to admire a jewel."



"If ye ask me, the greatest jewel in Janaka is a graceful lass with hair like dark fire and a tongue to match. Had I served her such a trick, she would have scorched my ears." The Kumnoran laughed uproariously at his own pun and the others joined in, but both were wondering if he was referring to the Princess Caril. Neither liked the idea that she had an unbridled tongue. For Carnat it reminded him of snatches of gossip he had heard but not heeded. For Tomak it reminded him too much of Olina, who had concealed her wrathful ways from him until it was almost too late. He dreaded the idea of marrying a shrew.



The teamster offered to share lunch with them. They agreed, sharing their matlas and dried meat in return for a bag of bread berries and a jar of nuka juice. It made a nourishing lunch and the teamster was good company once they grew accustomed to his broad sense of humor.



They parted, the teamster driving his dalas toward Zedekla while Carnat and Tomak continued toward Janaka. They passed another group of pilgrims headed down the road not long after bidding farewell to the Kumnoran. As the day wore on, the gentle descent the pilgrims had enjoyed was a grueling climb for Carnat and Tomak.



They had hoped to arrive in Janaka before nightfall, but as the sun set, they made camp in a sheltered thicket near the side of the road. This time Carnat took his turn as lookout. He woke Tomak while it was still dark. "I just saw a group of about ten men pass going toward Janaka, but they left the trail not far from here," Carnat whispered. "They wore motley clothing, and they were heavily armed. They seemed to have a prisoner with them."



Tomak had come instantly awake when Carnat touched his shoulder. "A band of robbers has recently preyed on travelers in this section of the Janaka road. I will follow them and see if I can find their stronghold," Even though he was no longer an active member of the Elite Guard, as Farek's heir, he was sworn to uphold peace and law throughout the allied lands. His summary judgment of the trio of thieves was part of that authority.



"I would go with you, but I fear I'd hamper your efforts," Carnat admitted. "I know you've slowed your pace these past few days to accommodate me."



"You go ahead," Tomak advised. "If I don't catch up to you on the road, take news of what you have seen to the captain of the palace guard in Janaka. I might be dead or a prisoner if I make a mistake in tracking the brigands."



Chapter 3 The Hostage





While his companion started up the road that led to the city, Tomak looked around him for signs of the band of men. Part of his training as a youth had been under the tutelage of Vodor, his father's game tracker. The grizzled Tedakan had been unrelenting in his insistence that his royal pupil learn to track as well as he did himself. It had seemed an impossible goal at first, but the day had come when Tomak had tracked his mentor to the covert where the tracker waited concealed. That day Vodor had given him the knife that now rode at his hip, concealed by the hem of his tunic.



The sign of a pebble overturned, its exposed underside still slightly damp from contact with the moist earth was the only hint of recent passage on a narrow track that led from the road. For some distance from the road the path was nearly overgrown with larger stones placed close enough to provide footing without leaving a hint of passage. Then several signs appeared in quick succession. Broken foliage and footprints carelessly left in soft soil betrayed the brigands' belief that they had been cautious long enough. Tomak moved swiftly along the track.



The foothills that led to the mountains of Janaka concealed many pleasant valleys. Many had been left empty by the years of war that had preceded the rule of Tagun. Tomak passed through the ruins of a fortress village peculiar to the hills of Janaka. Lines of trees at the far edge of the village marked the remains of an ancient orchard. Its tumbled, lichen stained walls gave mute witness to the years that had passed since humans had lived there. The track left by the band of armed men was clearly visible in the crushed moss that grew between the cobbles of the village lane.



He smelled the camp long before he reached it. Greasy smoke told of a careless cook. The rancid odor of poorly buried garbage added to the reek. Tomak left the track and made his way through the shoulder high brambles that tangled at the base of fruit trees. Ducking down, he carefully made his way toward the sounds and smells that marked the location of the camp.



Halfway through the orchard he came upon an old open cistern where water had been stored for the orchard. It was dry now, the intake ditch blocked by a small landslide. It could hide a troop of men if necessary. He made note of it and continued to make his way toward the bandit camp.



He stopped at the edge of the orchard while still well concealed in the brambles and surveyed the camp that lay before him. The brigands had taken over an old burial cliff. Tomak winced at the evidence of sacrilege in the pile of human bones and grave offerings they had heaped carelessly near their offal pit. The burial caves themselves showed signs of having been enlarged to accommodate the band of thieves.



Two men faced each other in the center of a littered clearing beneath the cliff. One was a tall man with burly shoulders dressed in a mismatched and food stained collection of rich clothing. The other was a short, chubby man wearing the white robe of a pilgrim.



Tomak recognized him as one of the pilgrims they had passed earlier. The voices of the men came clearly through the still morning air.



"I can't believe that Eldin Barclu would travel without gold. Yield your purse or I'll cut your throat and find it myself," the tall man threatened.



"You should have remembered the vows of Janakan pilgrims, Tull. We carry only food and drink and we trust in the charity of those along the trail. Your ambush was well laid and my companions will travel on, assured that I am with friends, but you gain nothing from capturing me."



"Others may make such a vow, but I know you too well to think you would ever be far from money. I may have abandoned your daughter and embezzled your bank, but you're a thief as much as I. We're two of a kind Barclu, but I hide in the hills and you walk in the open air, still free to cheat the unwary."



"You judge others by your measure, Tull. You would still be my son-in-law and partner if you had controlled your greed." The former banker stood a little taller as he rebuked the thief. Tomak admired his audacity in challenging the bigger man, though he feared the result.



"Reva will be happy to pay ransom for you, Barclu. I'll preserve your life for the sake of the gold you'll bring. I'm better off now than I was when I clerked for you. I dress like a king and take whatever I like," Tull gestured around him at the camp that lay against the cave-pocked cliff.



Tull cuffed the pilgrim almost casually, sending the chubby man sprawling into the littered dirt before summoning one of his men. "Take him to the cage and wait while I write a ransom note for you to deliver to Janaka. I think I'll ask his weight in gold. Keep him well fed."



The pilgrim struggled to his feet. Blood flowed from a ragged cut on his cheek where he had fallen on a piece of broken pottery. Tull laughed when he saw the blood that ran down his prisoner's face and stained the white of the pilgrim robe. He shoved Barclu into the dirt again as his crony approached with a length of rope. They tied the pilgrim's hands before leading him toward the mouth of a cave that backed the robber camp.



Even in times of peace there were some who chose to live by the sword, preying on those weaker than themselves. It was to defeat such brigands that the Elite Guard had been formed. For three years Tomak had been rigorously trained, but this was the first time the prince had been this close to a band of those he was trained to hunt.



His companions in the guards had begun to put their skills to practical use after their first year of training. He had often chafed at the restriction his father had placed on his participation in the raids on robber dens. He had listened eagerly to the tales of heroism shared by the others and despaired of having the opportunity to test his mettle.



But this would be a real test of his abilities. Tull's band was large and the evidence of refuse left in heaps around their camp suggested that they had kept to this valley for more than a year. It would be an act of stupid bravado to charge into the midst of the camp for the sake of a moment's vengeance on the burly chieftain. It had been drummed into the heads of the trainee guards that careful observation of the enemy was worth more than any other factor in a successful strategy.



Scouting the camp, Tomak discovered that a large group of refugees were restrained in a separate compound. He maneuvered close to the fence that surrounded the rude huts. They offered little shelter for the families kept in the enclosure. The adults and children wore looks of hopelessness and hunger.



A signal was sounded on a horn and the captives gathered in front of a gate. It swung open and Tull stood in the opening flanked by several of his men. "Have you made your decision Nara?" he addressed a woman who stood a little apart from the others.



"You say that if we continue to Janaka we will be enslaved and sent to the deep mines, what better do you offer us?" She asked.



"For yourself, I offer the position of consort. I will soon build a city to rival Janaka," Tull boasted. "Your people are needed to form the first of the families in my new city. I know of many who chafe at the false peace imposed by the alliance. They will welcome the existence of a city free of the restrictions against the cult of Orqu that other cities enforce."



"Which of us will serve as sacrifice when the priests of Orqu complete the altar they are building in one of your caves?" the woman challenged.



Tull revealed his broken teeth with a hard smile and reached out to touch the curling auburn hair of the woman who defied him. "You will be tamed Nara. You've received food and shelter since I rescued you and your followers. This is the last day I will give your people food until you agree to join us. We will give you water for two more days. After that, you will wish you had never left Saadena."



The presence of the Saadenan refugees presented a complication. Tomak knew of bands of brigands who used innocent villagers as human shields when they were brought to bay. He studied the walls of the enclosure after Tull had swaggered away with his bullies. They had been in place long enough for the green wood of their construction to begin to warp and bend.



The bands of tough vine that held the wood upright and kept the barrier in place had dried to dense solidity that would challenge all but the sharpest ax blade. For the hapless refugees it was a solid prison.



Tomak set his staff against one of the orchard trees. It seemed to be merely another branch, concealed as it was by the overgrowth. He darted from tree to tree, making a circuit of the camp and searching for a place where he might make an incursion.



He finally located a part of the fence that seemed vulnerable. The carelessness that seemed a hallmark of Tull's followers was betrayed by the rotting vines that had been used for this small section. Tomak lowered himself full length on the sod and slowly pulled his body across the cleared space that surrounded the fence. He sawed at the punky vegetation with his knife until he made a hole big enough to crawl through.



A tiny child, his great dark eyes prominent in his thin face, looked at him with solemn curiosity when he put his head through the opening. Before he could say anything, the child ran away. By the time Tomak had pulled himself into the compound, he saw the woman who had defied Tull hurrying toward him.



Nara had been surprised and frightened when her youngest child rushed into her hut and cried, "A man crawled through the wall, a big man with a knife." She had wondered how long Tull could keep his bullies from breaching the walls that were as much protection as prison.



The louts who had joined Tull often stood outside the barricade leering and calling rude invitations to the Saadenan women. Now she faced the prospect of facing one of them with nothing but a thick pottery bowl, the only weapon she could find. She smacked the bowl on one of the sturdy boards of the fence with a quick sure movement that left her with a couple of sharp-edged shards. She ran toward the back wall, hoping she would arrive before the villain did any harm.



As soon as she saw the young man who crouched in the shadow of one of the huts, she knew he was not one of Tull's thugs. His clothing, streaked with dirt from crawling under the fence, was still cleaner than the greasy tunics Tull's men wore.



He turned and looked at Nara and the look in his eyes confirmed her first impression. She made a decision to trust him. If he had cut an opening into the compound, he must mean to aid their escape.



"I'll bring the others. See if you can cut more openings," she said quietly before turning and moving swiftly away.



Tomak found several other places where his knife served to weaken the fence enough to provide small passages. He worked swiftly as the prisoners waited. When he had five openings ready, he peered through the loosely woven fence and inspected the cleared area beyond for guards. When he saw that it was safe, he crawled through one of the holes and dashed across to the overgrown orchard for a better vantage.



Just as Tomak had begun to think the coast was clear for an escape, an armed man turned into the alley between the enclosure and the bushes where Tomak was concealed. In moments the guard would round the edge of the orchard and catch sight of a child who was crawling from an opening. Another prisoner had already put his upper body through one of the gaps.



Tomak drew back his arm to fling his knife at the ruffian's chest but the man sat down, leaned his back against the fence, and dropped his head onto his folded arms. In a short time he was snoring.



Tomak cautiously moved toward the sleeping guard and knocked him senseless with the hilt of his knife. To any of the guard's cronies who might glance toward him in passing, he would appear to be enjoying a nap. Tomak breathed a silent prayer of thanks that he had not been required to take the man's life, then he signaled to the prisoners to continue their escape.



The people moved swiftly and silently from their prison. Tomak led the first group of refugees to the open space around the cistern. They were well hidden in the overgrowth. He assigned a couple of the adults to keep the children quiet before returning to the enclosure to check on the progress of the evacuation.



Nara had stayed inside the enclosure to organize the escape. Tomak gestured for her to gather the last of the refugees. She shook her head. He moved close to the enclosure where he could speak to her but remain concealed behind a hut. She walked toward him and leaned against the rickety structure. Speaking softly and keeping her eyes on the gate that faced the bandit camp she explained, "If we all leave, they are certain to notice and try to find us. They won't check thoroughly until tomorrow when they bring water. I sent my children out with the others. Return for us when you are certain the others are safe."



Tomak nodded. "I will give the cry of a desert hawk when I return. When you hear my signal, try to leave the enclosure. The brigands may use your people as shields if the Janakan peacekeepers attack."



"Take this and leave it with my oldest son," she said, removing a thong from her neck. It was threaded with a simple green stone pendant shaped like a leaf. She saw his look of curiosity. "It is the Blade of Neril, our saint," she explained as she gave it to him.



He grasped her hand in a show of fellowship and turned away to slip through the orchard and join the other refugees. He found Nara's children playing silently with others in the cistern. A small women stepped forward. "Where's Nara?"



"She stayed behind with a few others so that if the bandits look toward the enclosure they won't notice your escape," Tomak said.



"You must save her. Without her, none of us could have summoned the will to break free of Saadena. Better we die than raise our children to be slaves to Queen Ayarlan," the woman said with a grimace of disgust.



"I must go to the road and lead others to capture Tull and his gang," Tomak told her. "You can best show your concern for Nara by caring for her children. She gave me this pendant to give her oldest son, but I'm hopeful he will give it back to her before the day is over,"



"I am her sister Kana. I will make certain they are guarded," the woman said as she took the amulet from his hand. Others had gathered, curious to hear what he had to say.



"If I have not returned before the day ends, wait until the sun has set and make your way to the road. Go to Janaka and you will find protection. Tull lied to you when he said the Janakans would enslave you. I hope to return soon," he told them before making his way back to the road.



Carnat had proceeded slowly up the trail at first, hoping that his young companion would soon rejoin him. It was late morning when he came to the gates of Janaka with no further sign of the youth he knew as Ranek. Following the younger man's instructions, he climbed the winding street to the palace and asked for the captain of the guard.



Barga was preparing to accompany Princess Caril to the market place when news was brought that a traveler was asking for him. Caril, curious to see who had summoned her step-brother, followed him to the gate.



Carnat slumped wearily on a stone bench beside the palace wall, his face reflected his troubled thoughts about the fate of Ranek. He heard the clattering of boots on the stone of the passage and looked up to see a very large man followed by a tall girl. His breath caught in his throat. She was the image of Neril. Only her hair, an aureole of dancing deep red curls, and a golden glow in her eyes differed from what he remembered of her mother.



"You sent for me?" Barga challenged. Carnat, stunned by his first sight of the girl, found it hard to remember the errand that had brought him to the gates of the palace. He took a moment to collect his thoughts.



"Speak up man, I have other things to do than play at riddles with every stranger who enters Janaka," the guard captain reached out and shook Carnat's shoulder.



"Early this morning, I-I saw a band of men who had taken a pilgrim captive," Carnat stammered. "My companion followed them to discover their hideout. I've traveled since shortly after dawn to bring you the message. He told me to lead soldiers to our campsite where the trail might be discovered."



Barga considered the information briefly. "Wait here while I gather a troop of men. Interfering with pilgrims is intolerable." Then he turned and spoke gently to the young woman at his side, "I'm sorry Caril, but I can't go to the market with you now." Barga turned back toward the palace, but Caril lingered to study the traveler.



"I have seen few others with hair like mine," she said, touching one of her shining dark red curls.



"You must have an ancestor who came from Saadena," Carnat explained, his voice strained as he wondered that his daughter was among the first people he had spoken to in Janaka. He had pondered how he could see her without revealing his own identity. Now she stood near enough to touch, a tender look of concern on her face. Overcome by emotion, he slumped to the stone bench again and fought to hold back tears.



"You are weary," she exclaimed. "Rest here, I'll bring you refreshment while you wait for Barga. He is so eager to capture the bandits who have been preying on the travelers on the pilgrimage road that he forgot his manners."



Stepping into a narrow road that led to the market, she purchased fresh matlas and cool nuka juice with a few coins she had in her pocket. The vendor provided a small bottle of water and a towel at Caril's request. Then the princess hurried back to the weary traveler.



She offered Carnat the moist towel to wash his hands and cool his brow, then she tore the matla into smaller pieces and offered them to him. He had heard she was a spoiled, pampered princess. The words of the Kumnoran teamster implied she had a vicious temper, but she knelt beside him, a stranger, taking no heed of her fine skirt as she held the cup of juice for him.



"Take this with you," she said, wrapping another matla in her handkerchief and tucking it into his hand when they heard the troop of guards approaching.



"Come and show us where you camped last night," Barga said as he offered his hand to aid Carnat to his feet. He turned toward Caril and gave a fond scowl, "You will explain to Tilla why your skirt is stained with dirt. She's waiting just beyond the door."



The troop marched swiftly through the city to the gate. The incline hastened their march. Soon they came to the narrow pass that Carnat had come through just after breaking camp. He showed them where he had seen the band of armed men pass just before dawn.



One of Barga's men was a Tedakan tracker. He knelt and studied the verge of the pilgrim track. The trail had been marked so that they could follow it to where it broadened. From bits of crushed grass and snapped branches the tracker determined that a large group of men had passed and suggested their direction of travel.



"There's a ruin of an old palisaded village in that direction," Barga said when the tracker pointed to the southeast. "I hunted in this area with my uncle when I was young and we often camped there. There's an entrance into the valley from above, on the north side, and an opening where a stream leaves the valley."



He turned from conferring with the tracker and addressed his men. "Dewa, take your section and conceal them around the mouth of the stream south of the village. I'll lead the rest of the men to the head of the valley." He glanced at Carnat who was drooping badly from his long morning. "You stay here."



Just then Tomak came from the bushes nearby. When he saw Carnat with a troop of Janakan soldiers, he grinned. "So, you returned with reinforcements, just as I was thinking I'd have to take on the entire band of brigands by myself," he jested.



"I wouldn't have abandoned a child like you," Carnat returned with a crooked smile that failed to conceal his fatigue.



"Tell me what you saw," Barga said, brusquely interrupting their greeting.



"There is a large group of bandits that seems to have lived in the area for some time. They have established their camp in burial caves after desecrating the graves. Their leader is a nasty character named Tull who has ambitions beyond mere banditry," Tomak paused and Barga nodded for him to continue.



"The bandits held a group of Saadenan refugees captive. I helped most of them escape and hid them in an orchard between the ruined village and the caves where the bandits set up camp. Has there been much banditry in this area?" Tomak asked.



"There will always be thieves," Barga said. "Some steal because they are desperate, but others are too lazy to keep honest jobs. We've been bothered by this crew for nearly a year."



"What will become of the thieves when you capture them?" Carnat asked.



"It depends on what we find as evidence. More than likely, there will be plenty of stolen property at their camp. If there is evidence of murder, we will try to determine which of them are responsible and they will pay with their own lives. The others will go to the deep mines. The refugees are usually taken to the new settlements if they haven't been involved in murder or leading a raiding party. The wars of Jagga depleted our population and newcomers are always welcome."



"A nest of Orquian priests have set up one of their altars in the caves," Tomak added. "Tull has taken a pilgrim captive, a banker named Barclu, to hold for ransom. I'm afraid the bandits might use the refugees as shields when you attack."



Barga frowned as he considered Tomak's words. "Do you have any suggestions?" He asked. "You seem to be experienced with such matters."



"I will return to the camp and tell the remaining hostages that it is time for them to leave. Meanwhile my friend here could lead the other group of refugees out to the road while you and your men take up position for ambushing the bandits. When I've ensured that the captives are safe I'll light a signal fire. Look for my sign of three puffs of white smoke,"



Barga nodded and quickly gave orders to his men. Tomak led Carnat to the clearing around the cistern. With no further words to the Saadenan refugees, Tomak hurried up the faint trail toward the bandit encampment. He moved swiftly now that there was no longer need to be wary of leaving a trail.



When he entered the clearing where the refugees were waiting, Carnat glanced around him. The people looked thin but none seemed as starved as the harvesters he had observed as he left the walls of the palace at the beginning of his journey. He was certain none of them would recognize him as the king who had stayed hidden behind rock walls and selan fumes for more years than he cared to recall.



He was glad he had cut the lank ringlets Ayarlan had preferred him to wear. A beard obscured the bottom of his face after nearly a week without a barber's attentions.



The people looked at him expectantly, "I have come to lead you to the road to Janaka," he announced in a voice modulated to a low pitch that wouldn't carry past the clearing. "Please line up and make certain each child is supervised so they don't wander away from the main group."



"Who are you to give us orders?" a young woman asked with suspicion, glancing at Carnat's plain clothing and rough appearance.



He glanced around and saw that her uncertainties had ignited doubt in the others. Suddenly the identity he had taken such pains to conceal seem to provide the means to gain their compliance.



"I am Carnat, king of Saadena," he impetuously admitted.



"And I'm the queen of Tedaka, which has no queens," Kana replied with an ironic wink at the others.



The others laughed at the banter but their suspicions had been eased. One of Tull's thugs would not have had the wit to make such an outrageous claim.



"Lead on 'Carny'," one of the Saadenans said with a soft laugh that expressed nothing so much as joy in putting the robber camp behind them. Carnat turned and led the straggling group through the orchard and into the ruined village beyond. For the first time in memory, a king of Saadena was leading his people, and none of them admitted his identity.



As Tomak cautiously approached the camp of the bandits, he heard nothing to indicate that they had discovered the escape of most of their prisoners There were a few voices raised in petulant dispute over a game of chance and someone was screaming curses at a servant who hadn't responded quickly enough to a request for drink.



The stockade was silent, but Tomak could see a few people moving about through the gaps in the fence. He gave a hawk's cry and took cover near the escape holes. He noticed that the guard was still snoring where he lay slumped against the fence.



Nara, and the others who had stayed behind, joined him and they quickly and quietly proceeded to the cistern. He led them to the track that led to the road. "Take this trail to the north and you will find the others on the Janaka road," Tomak said.



After they had started on their way, he gathered a heap of dry grass, then knelt and started a fire with his fire strike. Soon there was enough flame for him to add some green wood that gave off a white smoke. He let it rise, then damped it with a wad of green grass for a moment.



Twice more he sent a ball of white smoke upward into the clear blue sky. Then he doused the fire with sand and ran along the trail to intercept the Janakans under Dewa, Barga's lieutenant.



Tomak joined them as they made their way through the orchard. "I'll lead you from here," he volunteered. Dewa hesitated only a moment before accepting his offer. Tomak was assured that neither the escape of the captives or the signal had been noticed as he neared the camp and heard the same careless noises of gambling and grumbling. He held up his hand to halt the men and consulted with Dewa.



"I would like to try to rescue the Janakan pilgrim. Give me a few minutes to work my way into camp before you begin your assault," he murmured. Dewa nodded and signaled his men to keep cover as Tomak made a dash for the shelter of the empty prisoner compound.



Tomak saw that the guard still lay quiet, his red cap pulled low over his face. They were close enough in stature and coloring that a substitution might pass unnoticed if he wore the cap pulled low over his own face.



Taking care to remain behind the bend of the stockade, Tomak grasped the feet of the unconscious guard and pulled him to one of the openings he had cut for the escape of the captives. He hit the man again to insure he would not wake as he was bundled through the gap into the stockade after his cap fell off. Tomak muttered a brief apology, ruefully admitting to himself that he would never forget his mother's training in courtesy.



He pulled the cap low over his hair and brushed some dirt over his clothing and face, darkening his jaws to imitate the stubbled chin of the guard. He debated whether to carry his staff or not, but the thought of going without a weapon convinced him it would be best to carry it. He twined a hank of vine around the staff. It would not do to have Tharek oc Baroka revealed too soon. Then he lounged into the camp area, yawning widely and covering his mouth with his hand, effectively concealing his face as the other men teased him with course suggestions about his conduct in the compound.



"Don't tell us you were gone so long just to pick a staff of fruit wood," one man jeered. Tomak growled a low laugh and lurched a little as he made his way toward the cave where he had seen Barclu confined.



The cave had a narrow entrance but widened out after a few strides. The cavity was roughly hewn to little more than the height of a man and twice as wide. A guttering lamp gave scarce light. The pilgrim sat on a low stool inside a crude cage of wood and vines.



"What kept you Agun, you lazy lout, I've been in this stifling hole for more than two hours without relief," the solitary guard said as he stood and approached Tomak.



Tomak did not answer but only grumbled and ducked his head as the guard cuffed him. Tomak sent up a prayer of gratitude as the surly guard left the cave and he was left alone with the prisoner.



His slovenly slouch disappeared as he hurried to the cage and wrenched the crude lock from the door. Barclu stood up, his eyes wide with fear. "Tell Tull he'll get nothing for me if I'm dead," he said.



"I'm not one of Tull's men," Tomak said. Then he spied a corroded sword that had been carelessly discarded in the corner of the cave.



"Can you use a sword?" he asked.



Barclu nodded and quickly adjusted his belt so that his robe rode higher, clearing his legs for action before he picked up the sword. Tomak doused the lamp, leaving only a dim light from the entrance of the cave to guide them.



The casual rough banter of the camp gave way to shouts of alarm. A narrow side passage to the cave was betrayed by a faint glow. Recalling that Orquians had built an altar in the caves, Tomak followed a hunch and tugged Barclu's robe as a signal to follow.



The narrow passage turned and a dull red glow came from just ahead. Two men huddled over the fire that burned beneath the ugly carved visage of the demon Orqu.



"Hurry or we'll be trapped in here," the taller figure hissed as his stubby companion stuffed a sack with the coins they had coaxed from the bandits. "We were fools to believe Tull."



"It wasn't just Tull's promises that convinced High Priest Bildug to send us to Janaka. The bandit has agreed that before he conquered Janaka, he would help us abduct Princess Caril to blood the altar in Jama," the shorter man replied.



The words of the Orquians had condemned them and Tomak strode forward, his staff held ready to reveal his blue sword. Barclu was close behind. "I arrest you for sedition and conspiracy by authority of the Elite Guard," the prince said as he entered the dim room, surprising the dark-robed minions of Orqu.



"I stand ready to witness against you," Barclu asserted as he blocked the exit.



The smaller man jumped back and took a dagger from his robe. Tomak thought he was going to fight them. But when the dagger flashed, the tall priest screamed his surprise as the cold metal dug into his chest. Tomak rushed forward but the pudgy man struck the bloodied knife into his own body and gave a ghastly laugh as he sprawled across the grim altar beneath the image of his demon.



Tomak was stunned. He had hoped to take prisoners, but the murder-suicide of the Orquian appalled him. He lowered his staff and stared at the gore that dripped down the crude altar and onto the stone floor.



"It is just as well," Barclu assured Tomak. "I know a trial might have been a valuable object lesson, but scum like these often win their way to freedom. I would not have our princess under their threat."



At any moment a robber might come into the cave to investigate the noise. Tomak doused the fire that guttered ominously over the bloody altar and led Barclu back toward the opening. The glare of daylight showed them the way to the entrance of the cave. When they glanced out, they could hear the blustering voice of Tull raised in challenge to his captors.



"Let me go or the banker Barclu will die. I have him prisoner and you won't take him alive if you refuse me."



"You have nothing to bargain with, Tull," Barclu said as he strolled toward the captive robber captain, his sword held casually in front of him. "I regret I've taken pilgrim vows and must leave your punishment to others."



"There were Orquian priests in the cave," Tomak reported to the captain of the guard. "They took their lives rather than face justice. We heard them say that Tull had promised to give the princess Caril to their High Priest, Bildug, to blood one of their filthy altars. I think that is sufficient evidence of treason to send any villain to his death."



"Then we have taken the lot," Barga said with grim satisfaction. He gestured to his men to secure the prisoners and turned back to study Tomak. The young man was dressed humbly but his strategy had been flawless. There was no doubt he had been trained as a member of some military group. His face wore the stamp of self restraint and intelligence. There was something in the line of his profile that reminded Barga of the Mareklan merchants he had seen, but it was unthinkable that a Mareklan would go about without the patterned cape and broad hat that was almost a uniform. It was not enough to carry a sturdy staff. His musings were interrupted by the business at hand. His men had rounded up all the bandits, including the groggy specimen they had found snoozing in the refugee compound.



The bandits fell to quibbling among themselves, trying to lay blame and find excuses for their presence in the corrupt company. After Barga ordered them to keep silent, they were bound hand to hand and foot to foot by strong tethers.



Dewa's men were given the duty of herding the captive brigands up the road. Tethered as they were, they would not be able to move as swiftly as their former victims. "Feed them and give them something to drink," Barga told his lieutenant. "Then bring them along to Janaka and confine them in Baron Kadro's fortress."



Barga joined Tomak and Barclu with the remaining guards. They passed through the abandoned fortress village and within a few minutes joined the group of refugees. The guards relieved the refugees of the small burdens they carried so that all could speed their journey toward the city. Any doubts the Saadenans had about their welcome in Janaka were eased by the kindness of their rescuers. Some of the older men wore battle tattoos, but whatever they had done in the past, they were respectful and friendly.



Chapter 4 The Memory of a Face





Carnat walked next to Barga at the head of the train of refugees. Each of them carried a small child whose short legs could not keep up with the group. Nara moved up to walk beside Carnat and find out more about him. "You must be Saadenan. Did your parents migrate from the city?"



"He's King Carnat, didn't I tell you?" her younger sister, Kana, said with a chuckle and arched brows that inspired the other refugees to join her laughter.



Her sister's joking reference to his identity as Saadena's king was not taken seriously by any of the other refugees, but Nara was not so certain it could be dismissed. She looked intently at the ragged whiskers and humble dress of the man at her side. It had been many years since she had last seen Carnat. After the death of Neril he had never left the palace.



The difference in height might be attributed to posture. The Prince Carnat she had known had always carried himself with an unconscious arrogance that seemed to add inches to his height. This man walked with a slight stoop, his shoulders held in as if burdened instead of held back in the posture of command.



Humility and age would also explain the differences in his face. His straight brows were not raised with an air of condescension, but lowered to shadow his eyes. It was the eyes that made her think this might well be the king of Saadena. When he looked up the trail to judge the distance they yet had to travel, Nara saw that they were golden in hue. She had only seen such eyes in two people; King Eliat, and his son Carnat. It was the distinguishing characteristic of the sons of Elianin, the royal line of Saadena. Other Saadenans had curly hair of colors that ranged from ginger to dark red, but their eyes were dark.



The last she had heard, Carnat was the willing tool of his wife Ayarlan. He was a drugged and sodden wreck who never left the palace to venture forth into his city. This man seemed to be older than Carnat, but once again, that was more an impression that came from his air of weariness and sorrow. Lines of unhappiness were etched deep on either side of his grim lips. It was not the grimace of arrogance she was so used to see on the face of Ayarlan, but a far different expression that hinted of heartbreak and despair. The new beard that cloaked his jaw and the shaggy graying red curls were easily explained by a change of grooming. A man might well try and change his appearance with such simple means if he regretted what he had been.



The refugees had been held by Tull for over a week, and before that they had taken several weeks to make their way from Saadena. Traveling with children had slowed their pace.



To avoid the watchman on Challan's tower, those who emigrated from Saadena were forced to take the southern route out of the city. It was a rugged course and only desperation could drive them to make the venture.



It was not beyond possibility that Carnat had somehow made his way out of Saadena and escaped the influence of selan and Ayarlan since the refugees had left the city. He could have set forth anytime within the past three weeks and still be here to meet them on the Janaka road.



Nara quickly dismissed a suspicion that he might be traveling as a spy for Ayarlan. It had been lack of courage and despair that had led Carnat to hand over his fate to his cousin. When Neril was alive he had given promise of becoming a true man. Nara spoke her thoughts aloud.



"If he is Carnat, then perhaps he is finally proving himself worthy of his first wife, Saint Neril," she said. The refugees made a gesture, touching the tip of the middle finger of the right hand to their thumbs to produce a narrow leaf-shaped hollow and touching their foreheads as they murmured Neril's name.



The obeisance startled Carnat. It was apparent that it had become an automatic gesture and he wondered how this honor done his first and only love had passed unnoticed by Ayarlan's overseers. His thoughts were interrupted by Barga's musings.



"When I was a young boy, my mother talked of a woman named Neril. She was near death but still had the strength of will to do something that few women would dare," he said. He fell quiet as he sensed the curiosity of the others. The secret of Neril's child was not his to share.



Carnat had many unvoiced questions. Ayarlan had made a dismissive reference to the reports of Saadenans leaving the city. It seemed an impossibility. How had these people with Nara found the water and food to sustain them in the desert? How had the men and women escaped the drugging effects of selan long enough to make plans. He remembered that Mirin and her daughters had been allowed to live in quarters near the palace where the influence of the drug was not as potent as it was in the lower parts of the city, but the other refugees showed no sign of debilitation, aside from being thin and ragged.



Ayarlan had complained that Mirin and her daughters had left their cave-like dwelling and become harvesters. The tasks that Mirin had performed, separating the drug bearing spores from the mold-like selan plants in tumbler barrels and preparing the residue for food to feed the harvesters, had been given to other servants. Her skills as a midwife and healer had been the greater loss. Their departure from the precincts of the palace had taken place shortly after the death of Fedder.



Faint memories compounded the puzzle. Ayarlan had complained that the weed-like growth of spearleaf was taking over every vacant place in the city. The worst growth surrounded the Shrine of the Radiance, making it inaccessible to the inhabitants of the palace.



The servants Ayarlan sent to destroy the plants had returned bearing painful wounds from the poison edges of the leaves. None of her threats would induce them to return to the task. Some chose banishment through the southern door rather than try to clear spearleaf. Alagad had suggested that they could burn out the plants, but an attempt to do so killed the selan in a wide area surrounding the site. At length, Ayarlan had decided to ignore what she could not conquer.



Carnat remembered that the harvester children had grown skilled in harvesting the leaves when Neril was their mentor. He had assumed that with the death of Neril, others had been as discouraged as he. She was the source of his desire to improve his life. His reach to become a better man had died with her. He flinched from the apparent answer to his questions. Others had not been as ready as he to abandon hope. They had taken the gifts Neril gave them and created a quiet revolution in their lives, well concealed from Ayarlan and her servants.



He walked in silence, lost in his memories. No one noticed his reticence. The road became steeper and they walked in silence, saving their breath for the climb.



It was nearly nightfall when the group entered Janaka. Barga detailed two of his men to lead the Saadenan refugees to an inn where they could stay the night and be fed. He reassured them that a place would be found for them to settle. Kana suggested they might live in the village near Tull's headquarters. It would prevent others from following Tull's example. Nods and murmurs of approval met her idea. Barga said he would present the idea to King Tagun.



Carnat and Tomak intended to follow the Saadenans to the inn but they were detained by Barclu, the abducted pilgrim. "I must return to my home and wait until another group of pilgrims take the trail. I still intend to make my pilgrimage, but this time I will make certain a few good men go with me to prevent any further problems. I was impressed with the way the two of you helped me and concluded the business with no loss of innocent life. Would you consent to go with me to Timora? I will be very generous."



"I won't be able to accompany you," Tomak said.



"I am also forced to refuse your offer," Carnat added. "Perhaps Barga can recommend someone to accompany you. Or perhaps, you could ask some of the Saadenan men to aid you. I am certain they would welcome the opportunity to see the sacred city and it would give them much needed income for setting up in their new homes."



Barclu nodded. "I still intend to show my appreciation for your help. If there is anything you need, at any time, come to my house in the second street of the third quarter. My family name is carved on the lintel."



"We need no reward for a service that any decent man would have been willing to perform," Tomak said with a smile. Carnat nodded his agreement, but he remembered the directions the banker had given. It might be useful to have a source of help in Janaka. He suspected that Tagun would not be happy to find that he had come to the city. Although he felt he had played a very small part in the rescue, he was willing to claim the friendship Barclu offered.



"Could you tell us how to find the inn where the Saadenans are staying?" Tomak asked.



"It is near the western wall, the fifth street in the second quarter. It bears the sign of a blue sword in honor of the wizard smith, Algire."



The banker assured them again of his willingness to aid them. Tomak nodded. His purpose in coming to Janaka might be difficult to accomplish. He intended to see the Princess Caril without the use of his title. Perhaps Barclu would prove useful after all.



Janaka was built on a radial plan. The main street that led from the southern gate to the palace wound up the hill in a way that accomplished two purposes, it made the climb less steep, and it provided a secondary defense if the gate were breached by enemies. Other streets were arranged like a spider web, each numbered according to its distance from the palace which stood on a prominence in the center of the city. Once the system was understood, it was a simple matter to find any destination.



Carnat and Tomak had formed a companionship on the road and there was no reason to seek separate accommodations in Janaka. The name of the inn seemed to be a sign of felicity. Their mutual appreciation of fine antique blades had formed a bond of friendship.



Tomak's service with the Elite Guard had been served in the southwest quadrant of Okishdu. He was familiar with Jama because of his romance with Olina, but he had never been further north or east. The barbaric splendor of the mountain city appealed to him although it was utterly different from the cosmopolitan air of Zedekla.



They had expected the inn to be crowded with the refugees, but The Wizard Blade, as the inn was named, was a vast building that had once served as housing for troops. The Saadenans were quartered in several large dormitories. The rooms that had been reserved for officers during the war years of King Jagga were still available for other travelers. Tomak casually paid for the best room in the house and Carnat found that he could have a private room for only a few of his small coins. It was barely larger than the cot that filled the center of the floor, but there was a lock on the narrow door.



After leaving their weapons and travel capes behind lock and key in their rooms, the men met in the corridor and went down to the dining hall. They heard the sound of laughter as they approached the hall.



The Saadenans had already eaten. With their hunger sated and a promise of decent homes and employment, they grew merry and began to entertain the other guests of the inn with songs that made light of their hard lives. The music added savor to the excellent meal, a spicy blend of vegetables accompanied by a roast corum and iced fruit.



Nara's sister Kana stood and began to sing another, sadder song. The words burned Carnat's heart with their pathetic truth. He bowed his head to hide the moisture in his eyes, but he was not the only one who had tears on his cheeks. The wailing notes of a zole horn and the plaintive chords of a fylk harp underlined the pathos of the words.







Saadena's prince saw a maiden fair



Neril of Marekla with night dark hair,



No honor kept his lust in line,



He seized the maiden fair and fine



He seized the maiden fair and fine.







Saadena's witch killed the maiden fair



So pale she lay with her wee child near



Queen Ayarlan took Neril's place



Her evil dooms Saadena's race



Her evil dooms Saadena's race







The song seemed to recall the Saadenans to their real situation. They were strangers in Janaka, now no longer completely without hope, but facing an unknown future. They had fled Saadena, but hundreds of their brothers and sisters still labored to fill the insatiable appetites of the queen. Jaman mercenaries had come to protect the production of selan. They had grown suspicious of the harvesters and guarded the passes that Ayarlan's small army had ignored. The steady trickle of refugees who had left Saadena since a few years after the death of Neril, threatened to end under the tighter controls imposed by Jaman troops.



The Saadenans sang no more. Parents called to their children and families sought their sleeping quarters. Some of them were still suspicious of the generosity of the Janakans. Tull had played the genial host at first when they encountered him. He had offered them the use of the huts in the compound and provided food and water. It was only after they had entered the palisade that he had shown his true face and made them captive. Would they wake to find that Janakan hospitality was yet another ruse?



Carnat and Tomak were both tired from a day of unexpected drama. Carnat was tempted to tell his journey companion about the fair princess who had greeted him and given him succor. He was proud of her. She was worthy of her mother. But caution intervened. He had found much to like and trust about the young man, but he had promised Caril to Prince Tomak. It would be unwise to raise the interest of other prospective suitors in the face of a royal expectation.



He knew he could not speak of Caril without glowing with pride and love. Ranek might misinterpret his interest in the girl. He resisted the temptation of talking about her and gestured his farewell before leaving for his small but blessedly private room.



Tomak rose early the next morning and found that the others who had entered the city with him were still asleep. He was grateful that he would not need to find an excuse to venture forth from the inn alone. It was his intention to scout the city, to make subtle inquiries about the princess. His sisters were never permitted to leave the palace unaccompanied by armed guards, but they were in risk of being abducted by Orquians if precautions were not observed.



The foul priests of the demon preferred to blood their altars with maidens of Mareklan descent. the royal house of Zedekla was notable for their Mareklan lineage. From the days of Tharek, the founder of the royal line, the brides of Zedekla's princes were born in the valley of Marekla or one of its few colonies. His own mother had come from the port of Arqua, a Mareklan outpost that gave access to the western islands, but his grandmother, Kemila, had been born in the Homeplace and had met and married his grandfather, Manchek, in Timora while on a merchant trek.



There was good reason for the princesses of Zedekla to be kept under careful guard, but he had encountered other customs in his travels. Olina had walked abroad in Jama with only one guard following at a discreet distance behind her. She had laughed at him when he had expressed fear for her safety. "My father would have the hide of anyone who dare to offend me," she had assured him. He knew it was no idle threat.



As Tomak made his way toward the market square, he sensed a festive air throughout Janaka. Banners and flowers decorated roofs and doorways. While he purchased his morning matla from a street vendor, he overheard gossip that explained the excitement. At dawn the next day, the princess Caril would observe her coming of age ceremonies at the shrine. Tomak was surprised that the event would inspire such wide spread celebration. Janakans were reputed to be practical and hard headed when they weren't finding an excuse to fight.



He was standing in the shelter of a small arcaded bridge eating his matla and drinking hot cala when he heard the sound of girlish laughter. He looked up and saw three maidens coming toward him over the bridge. Two of the girls were pretty, the third was beautiful. She reminded him of someone, but the resemblance eluded him. She was laughing at a remark one of the other girls had made and suddenly Tomak wanted her to laugh with that careless joy at something he said.



"I am a stranger in Janaka, are you the princess I have come to marry?" he asked, expecting another round of laughter. Instead the beauty with dark russet curls stared at him with gold flecked eyes wide with fright.



"Who are you to say such a thing to me?" she demanded with an imperious lift of her chin. The fire of her glance and the confident ring of her voice reminded him of the Kumnoran teamster's comments.



"I am Ranek, a traveler who came to Janaka to find a jewel. I meant you no insult, I was jesting when I said I had come to marry you," Tomak assured the girl. She flashed him a smile and yielded him the laugh that he had hoped for.



"Of course, you are a stranger, how could you know I'm the princess," Caril said with a dimpled smile that gave warmth to the perfection of her face.



Tomak took a step back, even though some intuition had dulled the edge of his surprise. None of his several sisters would have been allowed to wander the market in Zedekla with only a few other girls for company. They rode in palanquins, usually curtained so that none could see them.



Surely Barga had reported the presence of Orquians in the brigand camp where they had plotted to take the princess. It was reason enough to keep Caril from wandering at will through the streets with only two other girls as companions.



Tomak had worked himself up to giving Caril a reprimand for her free and easy way with a stranger when he saw the familiar figures of Barga and three of his men following the girls. He was relieved that he had seen them before he had made a fool of himself. He glanced back toward Caril and saw that she was studying him from under lowered lashes. He smiled at her.



"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers," Caril said with a small frown as she considered the problem. The young man was handsome and had an appealing smile, but she knew better than to encourage his acquaintance. The older man she had provided with food and water the day before had been a different matter. He had spent himself while performing a mission of mercy. It would be pleasant but unwise to stop and chat with this young stranger. The attraction she had felt from the first moment he had addressed her only increased the need for caution. She was given a lot of freedom, but she honored the few rules Tagun set for her. How could she manage an introduction when the youth was apparently a stranger in Janaka?



"Barga, what has become of your prisoners," Tomak said when he caught the eyes of the guard captain giving him a stern look.



"I thought it was you Ranek," Barga said. "They've been taken under guard to the old jail that used to be a baronial fortress. Caril's birthday celebration has delayed the trial. King Tagun will have all his energy devoted to his daughter's happiness. Only the king can condemn prisoners to death or to labor in the deep mines."



"Barga, do you know this man?" Caril asked, her eyes lighting at the thought.



"Yes my lady, this is Ranek, the young hero who helped us capture the band of robbers and save a large group of Saadenan refugees from the robber gang. Remember the man we met at the gate yesterday morning, the one who brought the message just as we were venturing forth?"



"Yes, he had red hair," she said, unconsciously touching her curls.



"This man was his companion on the road," Barga said.



"I am pleased to meet you Ranek," Caril said with another flash of her dimple. "Since we have now been introduced by a member of my family, I think it would not be improper for me to speak to you."



"Do you think it would be all right for me to walk with her, Barga?" Tomak asked.



Barga had always treated Caril as a younger sister even though he was one of the few who knew the truth of her background. Now he gave Tomak a relentless examination. It only confirmed the opinion he had formed the previous day. He liked what he saw. The young man had proved himself both intelligent and brave in the encounter with the brigands. Whether he might be considered a suitable companion for the princess was another matter. Finally Barga nodded. He felt there could be little harm in a casual acquaintance. Ranek was only visiting the city. It was unlikely that there would be any opportunity for the two young people to form an inappropriate relationship. He had worried about the threat posed by the Orquians. Another strong and wily man added to the party would be welcome.



After Barga had signaled his approval, the group set off toward the market place. Everywhere they went, Princess Caril was greeted with fond salutations for her coming birthday. The merchants seemed to vie with one another to produce clever gifts and tasty morsels for her to admire. Her attitude was friendly but judicious.



When one of the shopkeepers produced a shoddy length of cloth, more gaudy than good, Caril handed it back to him with a wink and a shake of her head. She gave no other sign that she found it unacceptable. The shopkeeper laughed. "I can always trust you to tell the fine from the flawed," he crowed. Then he handed her a ribbon of zilka cloth. It matched the color of her eyes, deep amber flecked with threads of gold. It was evident that he had meant it for her from the beginning.



Another merchant waylaid the party and asked the princess to judge the quality of a scent he had concocted. She lifted it to her nose and gave him a grave look that said more than words. His shoulders slumped in defeat. Neril stepped aside with the man. She had a few private, encouraging words with the merchant and left him eager to try harder to meet her standard.



Where the offerings met her favor, she bestowed a branch of artificial flowers made of bark which the merchants fastened over their lintels as a sign of her approval, When a food seller offered colorful vegetables sprinkled with a red spice and stacked on slim sticks for them to sample, she offered one in turn to Tomak and then laughed merrily at the look of surprise on his face when had tasted the fiery snack.



"Janakans like their food as hot as their winters are cold," she teased. "This is mild compared to some of our favorite foods. I give you fair warning, watch out for the red bits."



He took the joke in good grace. There was nothing mean in her manner and the warning would serve him in good stead. As they continued to wander from booth to booth, Tomak realized that her visit was an official event, however casual and friendly it had seemed when he first joined the group.



He admired this method of bestowing official patronage that left so few with damaged feelings. It would be well to recommend the practice to his parents when he returned to Zedekla. He was uncertain if his sisters could inspire the same air of indulgent affection in the sophisticated population of Zedekla that Caril so evidently garnered from her people. Nor would it be wise for them to wander so casually in the market place. Here in Janaka, where every citizen went armed, only a fool would attempt to harm the beloved princess.



There was one incident that betrayed another side to Caril's temperament. A Kumnoran teamster in a side street was berating the lead dala of his train and pulling at its ears. Caril strode forward and caught his elbow. "You great brute! Would you obey me if I cursed you and pulled your ears?" Her eyes flashed with indignation and the stern reproof in her voice made the teamster stop his harangue.



"I know no other way to get this great clumsy beast to move," he pleaded.



"Try this," she said. She reached into a pocket of the embroidered apron she wore and removed a few bread berries. Tomak gasped with alarm when she stepped closer to the great wooly head of the dala and extended the berries to within a finger-breadth of its mouth. The beast took one step forward to reach for the berries and Caril let it have a few. Then she handed the rest to the teamster who meekly took them and led the beast out of the alley, its caravan mates following behind.



Tomak caught a look of lingering approval in the teamster's eyes. He recalled the rumor that Kumnoran men value a fiery temperament in a woman above even beauty. Could it be that the young teamster had deliberately created an occasion as a bid for Caril's reproof?



It was midday when the party reached the end of the main market street. Caril turned to Tomak with the dimpled smile that teased his memory. "Would you care to return with us and eat lunch at the palace?"



She noticed his quick glance downward at his plain tunic and assured him of his welcome. "On fine days like this we eat in the garden. No one dresses for the event. Please come, I want to hear more about your encounter with the bandits."



Her plea was a reflection of his own desire to stay at her side. He felt that he knew more about Caril in the few hours they had spent in the market place than he had known of Olina in all the days he had wasted in Jama. "If you bid me come, how can I refuse," he answered.



His formal statement of acceptance brought a gurgle of laughter. "You would delight my governess Nefer with such elegant speech. She would say your manners are better proof of your quality than the clothing you wear. I thought she spoke cant. Now I see what she meant. If you intend a long stay in our city, I will ask you to be my official smooth-tongued courtier. I'll appoint you to be my instructor of propriety."



She slipped her hand beneath his arm and leaned closer to make their conversation private from their companions as they bent their path toward the higher reaches of the city. It was not the studied gesture of flirtation it would have been with Olina, but by its very artlessness it added to the burden of emotion that was beginning to take his breath away.



She was close enough that he could appreciate her scent, a blend of night blossom and spice bark that reminded him of the scented sand his grandmother, Kemila, preferred. The memory of the scented sand gave him a momentary sense of disorientation. There was something about Caril that resonated in his memory, but how could that be. Perhaps she had come to Zedekla and he had caught a brief glimpse of her.



"Have you ever visited Zedekla?" he asked.



"We passed through Zedekla when we went to Timora for my visit to the Pavilions of Renewal at Lake Timora last year," she confided. "I have never been so far from mountains before. It seemed quite strange to wake in the morning and see the stony ramparts I love reduced to purple triangles on the northern horizon, but the sea in Zedekla is lovely. Do you miss the sea?"



"I think mountains are very like the sea in their effect on the soul," he mused in reply. "Perhaps the people of Jama suffer from having a city set in low hills. They never have a view that expands their outlook."



"They could always look up," she reminded him. "When the sky is clear, especially at night, it has no peer for inspiring wonder. When it is filled with clouds, especially before a storm, there is both the power of the mountains and the movement of the sea. Jamans have no excuse from the nature of their city's setting. They are small in soul because their entire existence is based on taking advantage of the weaknesses of others."



Her statement held no hint of demure modesty. It was a considered judgment, and it was quite accurate. The sharp mind behind the dimples and golden eyes appealed to Tomak more than he had expected. There was something truly regal in her willingness to reveal a forthright opinion when most women would have given a more tentative answer and begged him to affirm what they said.



"I hadn't considered that idea before," Tomak admitted. "I would like to meet the teachers who have given you such wisdom."



"Please don't burden my governess Nefer with an accusation of wisdom," Caril said with another gurgle of amusement. "She has no peer in the field of comportment and would be most discomfited if she could hear me now. Young ladies do not discuss philosophy and politics with young gentlemen."



Tomak gave a sharp bark of startled laughter. Her voice mimicked the sound of a middle-aged spinster so exactly that he could almost see his own aunt Derila, a paragon of propriety who had become the bane of his sisters' existence.



Caril shook her head in mock reproof. "I assure you, it is no joke. Nefer has told me that intelligent discourse is the surest way to kill budding affection. Propriety would dictate that I speak very little, and then only in response to what you have said." Again the delightful laughter bubbled from her throat.



Tomak laughed with her, but he was struck by how accurately her words described the lessons his sisters received. Were most men such fools that they could not tolerate any conversation that did not mirror their own opinions? He had to acknowledge that Olina had captivated him with the fawning behavior Caril so aptly described.



Caril tightened her hold on his arm and pointed ahead. "In a moment we will see the palace."



Tomak had traveled widely in his years as an Elite Guard and wherever he went he had been confirmed in his opinion that there was no royal residence as fine as the elegant palace of Zedekla. The glittering towers of Janaka's palace challenged his complacency. Its setting at the top of the small mountain, with greater mountains framing it to the north, was unequaled for grandeur.



A bold hand had designed the splendor of the ranked towers with their banners dancing in the wind. On many of the towers, men in brilliant tunics stood watch with shining pikes. The smiths of Janaka had created metals of a hundred hues that reflected back the noon-day sun from bosses and medals that studded the stone walls in decorative patterns.



He found that he was staring slack-jawed at the spectacle when Caril poked him gently in the ribs to claim his attention. "It is more homey once you get inside," she assured him with a wrinkle of her elegant nose.



Nothing could have been in greater contrast to Olina's air of self importance over the gaudy palace of the Pontic of Jama, her father. But Tomak no longer judged Caril by the standards set by Olina. The princess was without peer among the young women he had met before coming to Janaka.



Perhaps some of his sisters might rival her in a few of her graces he admitted grudgingly. Thelina had been an acclaimed beauty since she was little more than a child, and the twins had merry eyes and ready wit that often poked fun at him when he grew a little pompous. He wondered if they had met Caril in Timora. He had been away from home and missed the gossip when they first returned from their yearly visit to the sacred city. He suspected they would have liked her. The spiteful gossip about Caril had come from such as Olina.



It surprised that the guard at the gate made no indication for him to leave his knife behind as he entered the palace. Then he realized that everyone in the group was armed. Even Caril wore an efficient looking dagger at her waist in a jeweled sheath.



He followed her and her companions through the main gate of the palace and into a side corridor. It opened into a pleasant garden where members of the court mingled with their servants in casual familiarity.



A table laden with savory and sweet treats tempted their appetites and tall ewers of fruit juice and water waited to refresh their parched throats. Soon Tomak and Caril had filled plates and mugs and settled themselves in a trellised alcove amid other young people. The others were naturally curious about the stranger the princess favored. They asked questions about his home and his background. Tomak decided it would do no harm to his anonymity if he admitted to having been a member of the Elite Guard.



That was sufficient to make him the focus of an admiring coterie of youths and maidens. None had traveled as widely as the Zedeklan prince although most had made a pilgrimage to Timora for washing in the Pavilions of Renewal at the edge of the sacred lake.



Caril led the way in questioning her guest. Even as she wondered at his knowledge, he was impressed by the cogency of her questions. Her interest in the political and geographical information he was able to provide was far more flattering than compliments on his appearance and status that had been the focus of other women who knew him as a prince. Most of the young women he knew seemed to have no more pressing concerns than the most becoming mode of dress and adornment.



They were engaged in a discussion about the effects of the Mareklan embargo of Saadena when King Tagun appeared in the garden. Caril caught his attention with a wave of her hand and Tagun's face brightened at the sight of her. She looked unusually lovely today, her face filled with a brightness that rivaled the glow of sun in her fiery dark hair. Tagun filled a plate and mug for himself and headed toward the group of young people.



As he drew nearer, Tagun noticed the humbly dressed young man sitting by the side of Caril. There was something in the way they looked at each other that worried him. Caril had always been friendly and interested in others, but there was a certain way a maiden turned her head and lowered her lashes over her eyes that he had never before seen Caril use.



Caril was usually innocent of feminine wiles. Her relationships with the young men of the court had always been straightforward. Tagun found a stone table where he placed his plate and mug. As he turned to greet his daughter he slipped his hand into the pouch that held the betrothal contract. He had promised Tilla that Caril would have some choice in the matter of who she married, but that was before he was confronted with this change in her. It would be best to stop the budding infatuation with the humbly dressed stranger before it went any further.



"Who is your guest?" Tagun asked her.



Tomak was tempted to reveal that he was the prince of Zedekla. He hesitated for a moment when he remembered that he had only met the princess a few hours before. It might be more prudent to conceal his true identity until he was certain that what he felt for her was not a passing infatuation. Caril took the decision out of his hands.



"Father, this is Ranek. Yesterday he helped Barga apprehend the band of robbers who abducted Barclu. He was a member of the Elite Guard. I hope it was right to invite him here," she said with a familiar smile.



Tagun ruefully admitted to himself that his foster daughter often used feminine wiles, but he had always been the target. Perhaps it was jealousy he felt when he saw her artless flirtation with the young man. Confused, he mumbled his greetings and turned away to greet others.



Okagun, Tagun's grandson and appointed heir, had also taken note of the young man who was so interested in his pretty young aunt and felt a flash of possessive jealousy. His feelings for Caril puzzled him. As he approached manhood he recognized that she was the nicest and prettiest girl he knew, but she treated him with the friendly indulgence that reminded him that he was her nephew. He made his way over to the bench where she was talking to the stranger.



The guest was telling Caril about the capture of Tull's gang of bandits the day before. Okagun forgot his protective feelings toward Caril as he listened to Tomak's account of the rescue of the Saadenans and Barclu the pilgrim.



"Are you the one who killed the priests of Orqu?" Okagun eagerly interrupted. "I saw their bodies carried into the crematory at sunset."



"No, they died by their own hands, or at least one of them did after murdering the other. They were more afraid of their fate if they were captured than they were of death itself."



"But you did rescue the banker Barclu. Tell me what happened," Okagun said. He stepped over the bench and wedged his narrow frame into the small space on the bench that propriety had dictated Tomak and Caril should keep between them. He turned his back on Caril and began to monopolize Tomak's attention.



Caril saw that her guest had become her nephew's newest hero and she was more than a little jealous of the intrusion on their conversation. She waited for either of them to acknowledge her, but Okagun's enthusiasm had swept away his usual good manners. She willed her guest to dismiss her nephew and look toward her, but he continued to satisfy the younger man's curiosity.



She was unnerved by the sharp shaft of annoyance she felt with Okagun who had always been her friend. Her momentary regret was eroded when they continued to ignore her. Ranek's face was hidden behind the back of Okagun's head.



She ducked to one side, and Okagun raised his hand to emphasize a point, once again cutting off her view. She cleared her throat to make a remark, but nothing but petulant objections to the way she was being ignored occurred to her. She felt it prudent to keep such opinions quiet. She remembered the doubt in Ranek's eyes when she had accosted the teamster. He could not know that it had become a game between her and the Kumnorans. They had explained to her that pulling on the ears of dalas was a common way of controlling and leading the stodgy beasts and she had explained that the sight would always cause her to fall into a temper. They seemed to like seeing her in a temper.



To make a fuss over being excluded from the conversation between Okagun and their guest could not earn any credit for her. Nevertheless, she sat and stewed and wished that something would happen to relieve her.



When Tagun beckoned to her, she found the excuse she wanted. She rose, but Okagun had grasped Ranek's hand and he was completely engaged in demonstrating a wrestling move. Neither seemed to notice her momentary pause to give Ranek a chance to say farewell. Strangely infuriated, she turned her back on both of them and stalked after Tagun, her deep amber eyes shooting golden sparks of emotion. Would Ranek even notice that she was following Tagun into the palace without saying good-bye. She turned toward the garden for a moment before stepping through the door and felt a stab of sorrow when Ranek lifted his gaze to follow her and she saw regret in his eyes. She wished she had insisted on quelling Okagun's enthusiasm in some gracious way so that she could speak to Ranek for one last time. Now that it was too late, her mind teemed with artful schemes.



Tomak watched Caril leave with Tagun and he wished he could follow her and set a time for them to meet again. He was bound to be polite to his young interlocutor by a consciousness of the importance of gaining Okagun as a friend. If he were rude to the heir of Janaka, it could have consequences far beyond the temporary frustration he felt at losing a chance for a final word with Caril.



He had seldom felt so burdened by the exigencies of being King Farek's heir. The only other time he had resented limits and demands of his office was, ironically, the moment when he realized that he might be bound to marry the princess Caril. Now that possibility had begun to assume the status of a much desired personal necessity. He regretted that he had not revealed his true identity. He had seen the way Tagun grimaced when Caril had touched his hand when she introduced them.



It had seemed a good idea to come to Janaka in disguise. Now it appeared in a different light. There seemed to be no guile in Caril's open nature. How would she receive the news that he had deceived her?



Finally, feeling that the youthful prince of Janaka had wrung him of every detail of his exploits the previous day, Tomak made his excuses and rose to leave. Okagun pressed him to stay. "You could room with me if you like," he offered. "You don't seem to have any current employment. I could appoint you to be my personal arms man."



Tomak smiled at the irony of the offer. It was the second time he had been offered an appointment to a position in the palace, although he was certain that Okagun was quite serious while Caril had been jesting when she said he could be her courtier. He thanked Tagun for the offer but respectfully declined.



Tomak meandered slowly through the streets while he pondered his reaction to Caril. It was not like him to become this enthusiastic so quickly. His romance with Olina had proceeded slowly. They had become acquainted in Timora when he was just a youth and somehow their visits to the sacred city always coincided. Afterwards he realized that she had plotted and planned every seemingly casual encounter.



His habitual caution urged him to rein in the galloping emotions the Janakan princess inspired. Perhaps she was not as guileless as she seemed. She might have met his sisters in Timora and seen a cameo likeness of him that Thelina carried. If so, she would have recognized him when they met.



He was widely courted as a prospective husband. It was one of the reasons he was so wary of young women and their ambitious parents. Tagun certainly had not recognized him, but if Caril knew his true identity, she would share it with her father. It would be interesting to see if there was any change in the way the Janakan monarch treated him when next they met. That would be the test. If Tagun remained distant and did not encourage the friendship, it would be proof that Caril was innocent of trying to entrap him.



Until Tomak knew if Caril was worthy of his growing regard, he would have to find some way to distract himself from thinking of her. Every sun-bright flower seemed to carry a hue from her glorious cloud of fire touched curls. The bronze and gilt of the decorations on the palace walls reminded him of her eyes. The supple trees that grew in great pots along the wider streets carried a hint of her graceful form. He raised his eyes to the sky to remove them from temptation and was reminded of her wisdom and intelligence. He wondered if he would ever again be able to look on mountains or sea or sky without thinking of what she had said.



His eyes were caught by another head of curly russet hair that was graying and somewhat lighter than Caril's and he was happy to find a distraction from his thoughts of the princess. The man he had met on the road was perched on the edge of a battlement at the top of wall not far from the palace. He hailed him. "Charak!"



Carnat did not acknowledge the greeting at first. He had almost forgotten the name he had given when he met Tomak on the trail. Finally the sight of the youth impinged on his awareness and he waved for him to come up and share his vantage point.



When Tomak was seated nearby, Carnat gestured to the view, "If you look down you see a rich city full of industry and healthy bustle. If you look a little higher, to the north, you can see beyond the walls to the mountains that form the basis of wealth for this city. In Saadena, no matter how high the prominence, there is only a weary decline both of people and land."



"I thought there were mountains on the east side of Saadena," Tomak said.



Carnat waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal. "Yes, there are mountains, but they are merely great dead heaps of stone that block the wind that would bring moisture from the eastern sea. They are another barrier to keep the harvesters imprisoned. The rivers that met to form the Comor were the lure that brought Saaden and his followers to that land. Without them, it is a desert."



Tomak frowned. His friend seemed to be in a dark mood. If he knew so much about Saadena, he might be able to provide some information about Carnat, the real father of Caril. Tomak regretted that he had not insisted on meeting the man before leaving Zedekla. If King Carnat had come on to Janaka, or somehow informed Caril of his coming and the offered betrothal, she might well have found a way to introduce herself. That was the question that would determine everything. Had Caril known who he was and put on a show to entice him, or was she as innocent, charming, and genuine as she seemed? His heart cried that she was true to the core. His mind begged for a delay to prove her and avoid heartbreak. Somehow he knew that if Caril proved false after he had given her his love, it would be far more painful than any other test he had faced.



"You seem in a dour mood my friend," Carnat said.



Tomak raised one corner of his lips in a wry smile. He decided to change the subject from kings and princesses. The other man had given him an opening with his musings on Saadena. "You seem to be knowledgeable about Saadena. The histories tell that it was once a great city. Most of our best roads were built by the imperial armies. Many of the other cities owed allegiance to the emperors of Saadena. I wonder how they came to have such power."



"Saaden chose the site for his city," Carnat said. "He was Algunagada's chief strategist before he rebelled against the tyrant and became a disciple of Irilik in the exodus. When the first explorers returned from the far reaches of the new land with reports and maps, Saaden recognized the strategic value of the fork of the two rivers. He chose it for his inheritance. For six hundred years, before the reign of Marnat, his descendants kept the trust, guarding and repairing the roads that led to Timora, the Shrine City."



Tomak nodded. The History of Irilik had been lost, but the legends of the Saadenan empire would linger as long as the pilgrim roads that Saaden had built as his gift to the Radiance.



Carnat saw that Tomak had some idea of the history of the empire and continued his story. "Saadena is built on what seems at first to be a plateau at the base of the mountains, but in reality, it is a man-made mound that links the mountains with the natural stone outcrop on which the palace stands. From the south it can be seen that the land is layered.. Each layer represents a city built, destroyed and forgotten until another city was built on the ruin. Now there is no longer any reason to rebuild. When Saadena is finally abandoned, as it seems it must be, the cycle will end."



Carnat's eyes had taken on a look of inner vision as if he could see not only the past eons and forgotten cities, but the present ruin. Tomak relaxed against the stone of the embrasure and listened.



"I wonder what Saaden would say if he could see what has become of the empire he established," Carnat mused. "For centuries the rule of the Saadenan empire was benevolent. Their wealth came from a toll on all but pilgrims who used the superb roads the armies built and guarded. Banditry and war were kept at bay by the power of the empire. Then pride entered the hearts of Elianin's sons. Marnat challenged the Seers and stole the scroll that contained the History of Irilik. After his crime, an earthquake changed the face of the land. The rivers that cradled Saadena were thrust apart. Marnat built the New Palace on what remained of his ancestor's home, but without rivers to carry the barges that had brought wealth to Saadena, and swift warships that kept other cities in thrall, Saadena's power waned."



Tomak had never heard that it was a Saadenan emperor who took the legendary History of Irilik. He was tempted to ask the other man how he had come by such a story, but his interest was in more recent history. "I've heard that the rulers of Saadena still pretend to imperial privilege even though their city is in ruins and their people flee at any opportunity."



"As the poverty of the land increased, pride drove the royal house of Saadena to continue their excesses," Carnat acknowledged. "Queen Ayarlan continues the tradition of waste, abetted by Jaman traders who control the drug trade."



"But what of Carnat, the king. What man would tolerate such a wife. Couldn't he see what was happening to his city and his people?" Outrage gave an edge to Tomak's question.



Carnat lacked an answer. He stared out over the range of mountains that stretched to the horizon. In the far distance he could see Mount Vald, monarch of mountains. It rose like a tiny triangle of amethyst on the horizon, southeast of Saadena.



His face was set in a sadness that touched Tomak. It was time for a change of subject and he decided to yield to his fascination with a subject that lay close to his heart. "I met the Princess Caril today. In all my travels I have not seen another to equal her beauty or grace. She seems to be wise and good-hearted as well. Yesterday, when the Saadenan refugees spoke of their saint, Neril, I remembered something from a long time ago. Today the memory was strengthened. Princess Caril resembles a woman I met when I was just a child. She was a Mareklan and she gave me a gift that I never forgot."



"You met Neril?" Carnat asked in surprise.



"I think it must have been Neril. Except for her hair and eyes, Caril seems very like the woman I remember. I was very young. I believe I told her she must marry me when I grew old enough to find a bride. Perhaps it is only my imagination."



Carnat was tempted to tell him that Caril was nearly the image of her mother. The revelation would not be prudent. He would have to explain how he had such knowledge. He intended to maintain his anonymity while he was in Janaka and he had already begun to worry that Nara realized who he was. If he spoke any more about Caril or her mother, it would provide further grounds for speculation. If others suspected his identity, the rumor might come to the ears of Tagun. It had been foolish for him to dwell for such a long time on the sins and shortcomings of his ancestors.



Silence settled between the pair of men. Neither could say more without revealing information that could compromise the stories they had exchanged when they first met. Sunset gilded the peaks with gold and red. The vivid color of the distant scene reminded both men of the lively, lovely princess who was known as Tagun's daughter.



Chapter 5 Misdirection







Alagad's search for Carnat had taken him all over Zedekla from the pilgrimage road to the waterfront where he lingered to savor the scent of the sea. Although he focused his attention on finding some sign of the missing monarch, the scenes of the city seduced his senses. If it were not for his family, held captive by Ayarlan, he would have left her service and stayed in Zedekla. No other city in Okishdu offered so much opportunity to a man of enterprise and cunning.



There was an air of industry and cheer that could not be found in any of the cities with which he was familiar. Orenon was weighed down by the heavy hand of the Guild of Watchers. Jama's magnates schemed endlessly over the income they derived from vice. Those not involved in trading drugs and women found wealth in factories and goods produced by slaves thinly disguised as bond servants. Saadena was dominated by Ayarlan and hardly deserved the name of city.



Fear for his family remained foremost in Alagad's mind as hours passed with no sign of Carnat. As soon as he realized he could not find the Saadenan king or the dowry in Zedekla, he returned to the embassy and ordered the men who had accompanied him to prepare to return to Saadena.



Once they left the city they made haste, stopping only for meals and minimal rest at night. As they traveled Alagad considered how he would present Ayarlan with the news he had heard in the palace. It would not do to introduce his information with an account of Carnat's disappearance. That sorry fact would be all too evident. He must begin with the announcement that the daughter of Ayarlan's rival still lived. Her existence must overshadow even the loss of the dowry.



He knew Ayarlan would seek revenge on her rival's daughter with all her cunning and deadly art. Although he felt there was no other course open to him, he had room in his heart to regret the necessity of preserving his own interests at the cost of another. His conscience was eased by the knowledge that Caril was well guarded in the midst of a powerful city and Ayarlan was encumbered by her alliance with Urgit. It would not be easy for the queen to find a way to damage Caril.



That she would try to do so was at the basis of his hopes for rescuing Perlin and their children. Otherwise, all her wrath would fall on him and his innocent family. He had hoped to make a better life by leaving his native city. Now he realized that by giving his service to Ayarlan, he had taken on the aura of deceit and evil that lay like a murk over all her doings.



The long climb to Saadena after they passed over the Com seemed to take ages. While he traveled, Alagad's mind rehearsed a hundred different ways of announcing the existence of Neril's daughter to Ayarlan. Finally he settled on the phrases he would use and he rehearsed them assiduously as they crossed the ridge that marked the boundary of the city.



The stink of selan, and the dull faces of the citizen slaves of Saadena, brought home his culpability for acting as Ayarlan's steward. He averted his eyes from the drudging harvesters and looked upward to the palace that loomed ahead of him. His chest was pounding and there was a sour taste in his mouth. He knew it was not from the rigors of their rapid march, but from trepidation at the task that would confront him as soon as he confronted the queen. Even now she might have been given a report that he was returning to the palace without Carnat. The thought spurred his steps. The innocent lives of his wife and children were in the balance.



When the caravan of men had at last reached the great gates of the palace, Alagad quickly left the others and mounted the broad stairs. A passing servant told him Ayarlan was in her workshop. A gasp of relief passed his lips. At least she was not waiting for him, ready to rage at him for losing his charge. Alagad knew she would not forgive him for delaying his message once she heard it. He hardly hesitated in his decision to brave her wrath by seeking her out in the workshop. It was the first rule of palace servants that the queen must never be interrupted while she was in the midst of her experiments. No matter what stinks or sounds might issue from the regions of the workshop and its cells, none was allowed to interfere.



He knocked at the door and opened it with no signal from the queen. Ayarlan looked up at Alagad with angry surprise and he blurted out his carefully rehearsed speech as if it were newly sprung from his anxious mind.



"Neril's child lives! Carnat contracted her to marry Tomak!"



Ayarlan glared at him in the half-light of the workroom, her hand clutched around a vial of some dark substance. At first his words seemed incomprehensible to her, then her eyes widened as she realized the import of his statement. She set the vial on the table in front of her with hands that shook with emotion and turned to face her steward. Her mouth worked, as if she could hardly summon the words that would acknowledge his message. Finally she spoke, her voice hoarse with anger, "What madness are you speaking?"



"Neril's daughter is living in Janaka as the ward of King Tagun," Alagad replied. "When Carnat presented the dowry and the betrothal to Farek, it was on behalf of his older daughter, not Carlan."



"You speak as if you were privy to the arrangement. Why did you not stop him?" she said with icy calm.



"Doka of Tedaka sent one of his men to waylay me and I only escaped in time to overhear Carnat's dealing with Farek from the courtyard outside his audience room. There was no way I could have prevented what took place. Once in the protection of the Zedeklans, Carnat was never seen again. He may have traveled on to Janaka to deliver the dowry and visit his daughter. I found no sign of him in Zedekla." Alagad explained.



He knew there were holes in his story, but essentially it was true. He could not say for certain what had become of the dowry, but it seemed likely the king would have traveled to Janaka to see his daughter. Alagad was a fond father and he knew that was what he would have done. He waited anxiously for the queen's reaction.



"Impossible," Ayarlan sneered. "I saw the child buried along with her mother. You are lying to cover your failure."



"I can only tell you what I overheard Carnat tell Farek. I don't know why he lied, if he did. He said that the princess was carried to Janaka by a caravan of Tedakans and a doll was buried in its stead."



Alagad held back a sigh of relief when Ayarlan's eyes widened until the whites showed all around. She had accepted his explanation. Her eyes narrowed again and she hurried forward, shoving him aside. "Bring a spade," she ordered him. "Meet me by the wall outside the east entrance."



Ayarlan knew the path to the garden well. Every step was poisoned by hated memories. She remembered the day many years before when she had followed Carnat and seen him release the hidden catch. The emotions that had roiled her soul on that day when she thought that her dreams of becoming his wife were blasted, were twin to the emotions she now felt as she hurried down the shadowed path to the wall that surrounded the garden. At first she could not find the carved flower that was the key to the door. Finally her frantic fingers located the carving and she twisted it. The door creaked open just enough for her fingers to slide into the narrow opening. She pulled the door aside and looked into the walled enclosure.



She had never been into the garden in the years since she first learned of its existence and watched the waters being drained away. She was not surprised to see that it was filled with the noxious leaves of spearleaf that had become such a bane throughout Saadena. Strangely, Neril's grave was easy to locate. Someone had cleared the spearleaf from around it and put up a simple soapstone marker in the shape of a leaf.



Ayarlan rushed forward and kicked the memorial plaque aside. She vowed that she would find the people responsible and make them sorry for showing honor to her rival. That would come soon enough. Now she would find out whether Carnat had kept a secret from her when she thought he was her tool and slave. If he could resist her will enough to deceive her, then others she thought in thrall might do the same. She must make certain that any others she brought under her control with her mixtures of selan were given a more potent dosage.



Alagad entered the garden with the spade and she directed him to open the grave. She paced and planned as he worked. At one moment she would deny that such a deception could have been carried out and she not know. Then she remembered the gossip she had heard about the Janakan princess, the speculation on why the girl had ruddy curls when Tilla, the woman gossip named the princess's mother, had the straight, black hair more common to Janakans.



"Come, see for yourself that I spoke the truth," Alagad panted as he knelt down and brushed the final few handfuls of dirt from the shrouded figure in the grave. He was grateful that the face of the dead woman was still covered by the shroud, but the tiny figure by her side had never been alive. He lifted the doll from the grave and handed it up to the livid queen.



"Fill the grave with some of these noxious weeds and leave it be," Ayarlan said as she threw the doll back into the excavation and stormed away from the site. All other plans gave way to one imperative. She would seek out the daughter of Neril and destroy her. As soon as possible, she must leave Saadena and go to Janaka. The means of accomplishing her goal seemed to flow into her mind as if some evil influence beyond her was in compliance with her design.



Alagad summoned one of the harvesters and gave him the queen's order. He did not stop to supervise the task and did not see the reverence with which the harvester summoned others and carefully filled in the grave and replaced the marker. Alagad had no thought but to ensure that Ayarlan did not harm his family. He hurried back to the palace to find Ayarlan and make certain she gave him credit for discovering the deception instead of including him in the storm of retribution that was certain to come.



He found her in the gather room with Urgit, the Jaman trader. He knew how angry she must be, but she was speaking to the Jaman with unctuous appeal that lay like a thin skin over the heat of her anger. She glared toward the door when Alagad entered, then nodded and signaled him to come near.



"I will be leaving for Jama this evening with our friend Urgit," she purred with deceptive calm. "Here is my seal. While I am gone, you will be given charge of my affairs here in Saadena. You have proved yourself to be reliable. When I return, I will release your wife and children from the spell I've put on them to ensure your performance."



Alagad hoped his face concealed his feelings when she revealed that she had already drugged his family in his absence. It was well that he knew that she would not risk losing them as warrants of his continued compliance. He steeled himself to stand quietly and listen as Ayarlan talked to Urgit about their journey. Once they were underway, he could find his family and release them from her drugs.



"I have never been to Jama," Ayarlan told Urgit. "I am weary of immuring myself here in Saadena. I have longed to visit your city. I must go now before the cold season begins or I will have to wait until next spring. Of course, this is sudden, but if our alliance is to grow," she paused and smiled at him with hideous false sincerity, "I must know more about your home and family."



Urgit's first words told Alagad how well he had been deceived. He used the formal language that Ayarlan required of her courtiers. "I am aware of the honor you pay me in considering my suit for Carlan. You will see that I am worthy of becoming her husband when you visit my city. Perhaps we could wait until I have the opportunity to prepare for your visit."



"It must be now or never," Ayarlan said with a gesture of finality. "There are other possibilities in the offing for Carlan. You have the status of a baron in Jama, but there are eligible princes in Zedekla and the Headman of Tedaka has sons who are yet unwed. If my husband were not indisposed, he might even now be offering Carlan for the consideration of Farek's sons."



Alagad was amused by the effect of the queen's words on Urgit. He clearly thought she was over-reaching herself and her daughter by mentioning the Zedeklan princes, but he could not be certain. Finally, he nodded. "I will take you to Jama as soon as you can prepare for the journey."



Alagad spent an anxious night wondering how he could find his wife and children and release them from whatever substance Ayarlan had used to drug them. Early the next morning he watched the caravan of Jamans leave the valley. Ayarlan and Urgit were carried in ornate litters, the bearers sweating with the effort of maneuvering the heavy palanquins on the steep trail.



Ayarlan had demanded an escort worthy of her royal status and had asked that every mercenary in Urgit's employ be called on to accompany the caravan. She suspected the Jamans might try to usurp her throne in her absence. Her justification for taking such a large force of men was the large chest of gilt wood she had filled with stones. She had given the weighty cargo a top dressing of gilt and glass jewels and told Urgit that it was Carlan's dowry, giving him only a brief glance at the contents so that he would not suspect the deception.



Fearful that the queen might find some reason to delay the journey and return to the palace, Alagad watched anxiously until the last porter in Ayarlan's train disappeared over the edge of the ridge. As soon as no sign of them remained, Alagad ran to find Carlan. She was the person most likely to help him find and restore Perlin.



When he had brought his young wife to Saadena six years before, she had befriended the lonely young princess. It was Perlin who had taught Carlan to sing and play the fylk harp and showed her how to wield a needle and create the embroideries she enjoyed. Ayarlan did not suspect the relationship that existed between her daughter and the wife of her steward. She was too busy with other concerns. When the princess was not actually with her, trying to learn the arcane arts of the workshop, Ayarlan left her daughter in the hands of servants and courtiers. They were willing enough to have their duties lightened by Perlin.



Alagad met Carlan as she was leaving her quarters. She started in fright when she saw him. "Has my father returned with you?" she asked. She had dreaded the thought of being forced to marry a stranger.



"Carnat took the dowry your mother provided and presented it to King Farek on behalf of his other daughter," Alagad said with sharp efficiency. "Your mother has left Saadena with the hope that she can interfere with his plans. I must know where she is keeping my family. She gave me authority but has guaranteed my behavior by keeping Perlin and our children under a spell."



"A spell!" Carlan exclaimed. "You overestimate her powers. Mother asked me to keep them subdued and concealed, but that was encompassed easily enough by inviting them to stay quietly in my rooms until your return."



"They haven't been drugged or imprisoned?" Alagad asked eagerly. "I'm sure that was the queen's intent."



"I know what she intended, but I couldn't drug or imprison my only friend. If you love Perlin, you will take her back to Orenon and never return to Saadena. You've served my mother well, but she can't tolerate anyone of strength and enterprise for very long. What will she do to you if she doesn't find the satisfaction she seeks?"



Alagad frowned and nodded. "You speak the truth. Please take me to Perlin and our children now. I will take them away, but not to Orenon, not after seeing Zedekla. I love the sea of Orenon, but Zedekla is on the coast of the Western Sea. Come with us Carlan. When your mother returns and finds us gone, she will punish you. Perhaps she will marry you to Urgit."



The sounds of thumping footsteps along the passageway stopped Carlan from giving him her answer. The noise heralded the appearance of Count Derinon, one of Ayarlan's most faithful cronies. "What are you going to do about the insolence of your mother's servants," the old man demanded, careless of interrupting their conference. "This morning I was forced to find my own breakfast. I left standing orders to be served my morning meals in bed," the old man spluttered.



Carlan cringed at the thought of being left alone in the palace with such as Derinon. Once again as in Challan's day, the sycophants who had been banned from all the other courts of Okishdu had found their way to Saadena where they fawned on and flattered the queen.



Alagad saw Carlan's reaction to Derinon's rude demands and acted swiftly to intervene. "I bear Ayarlan's seal and have the power to act for her in her absence," he said with a hauteur that caught the attention of the elderly fop. "The queen and I have decided that you and your friends are taking up too much of Saadena's sparse resources. Ayarlan has instructed me to send all of you on your way. I will provide you with adequate food and water for the exodus and an escort to protect you from bandits. Any who remain when she returns from Jama will be forced to join the ranks of the harvesters. I've heard it happened a generation ago. As I recall, you were one of those Challan drove into slavery until Dramnine was able to convince your uncle to rescue you."



Derinon winced at the memory of the weeks he had spent in the ranks of the harvesters. "This insult will not be forgotten," he sputtered. "I will go and warn the others, but this time we will not so easily forgive the rulers of Saadena for refusing us the courtesy due our birth. We know the queens of Saadena are witches. Now all will know."



It was an empty threat to Carlan and Alagad. If belief in the supposed demonic powers of Ayarlan meant that the useless courtiers hurried their leave, it played into their plans. Derinon was an effective and vindictive gossip. He would be certain that all his cronies heard the evil news that once again they had been dispossessed by a Saadenan queen. He gave a final hate-filled glare at Carlan and Alagad and hurried away to spread his fund of scandal.



"You have a talent for palace intrigue," Carlan told Alagad with a half smile. "You've been wasted here in Saadena. Come with me to the rooms where I have concealed Perlin, your family has worried about you."



Perlin gave a happy cry when she saw her husband and he was soon buried in the arms of his wife and children. Their happiness was good to see, but it reminded Carlan of how lonely she would be when they were gone. Could she ever hope for such felicity when her mother was bound to rule her life, and that of her husband as well?



"We must leave Saadena, the Queen will be furious when she returns and finds that I have driven away the courtiers," Alagad told Perlin. "I lost track of Carnat while we were in Zedekla but I diverted Ayarlan's wrath by directing it toward Carnat's older daughter, the child of his first wife."



"We will take Carlan with us," Perlin declared. She held out her hand to her friend.



"No, I must stay here," Carlan said. "If I go with you, my mother will not rest until she finds you and takes her revenge."



"Is there anything else I can do before we go?" Alagad asked several hours later after he had prepared the necessary provisions for his trek across the desert. They planned to leave Saadena by the dangerous southern route as soon as the last of the courtiers had taken leave of the valley on the northern trail.



Carlan hesitated, then she decided to confide in him again. "You have rid the palace of the courtiers, but I would prefer to be completely alone. Could you send the servants away as well. Most of them are harmless, but some are my mother's tools."



Alagad nodded. The servants who worked in the vast pile had congregated in the servant's dining hall for their evening meal. He let them finish their supper before announcing that they must leave the palace. There were grumbles and sour looks, but Alagad was known to be Ayarlan's cousin as well as her steward and none were willing to risk arguing with him. Most of them had been hoarding food and water against the day that they gave offense to the queen and were turned out to die in the desert. They made haste to gather their resources and leave before Alagad deprived them of the means to survive their exile.



When he shut the doors of the palace on the last of them the great gaudy pile of carved stone held the silence of a tomb. He glanced around at the ancient walls, the carved friezes depicting past glories that lined the echoing corridors. Finally he stopped at the door of Ayarlan's workshop. He feared to enter the prison where she kept the men and women she used to test her drugs. The wretches would have to be led out of the palace where they could join the pathetic ranks of the harvesters.



He held his breath against the stink of the workshop and hurried through to the prison. His knees sagged with relief when he saw the line of cells. All the doors were hanging open. Ayarlan had completed her experiments and cleared out the cells. He didn't care to speculate what she had done with her victims, but he felt his initial relief give way to fear. If the queen had finished the experiments, it could only mean she had found the formula she was seeking. He rushed back into the workshop and looked for the ledger she kept. He could not find it. He had asked few questions of the queen in the years he had spent in Saadena. He avoided seeming curious by an artful spacing of his inquiries. But he had built a good idea of her plans to dominate Okishdu once she had perfected a way to make selan addictive.



With a sense that all his plans to escape Ayarlan would prove vain, he left the workshop. He made a circuit of the palace, locking the many entrances both large and small, leaving only the southern door unlocked for his own exit with Perlin and their children.



He returned to his family and said it was time to leave the palace. There was weeping and vows of eternal amity between Perlin and Carlan, but both of them knew that the circumstances of their parting did not promise a future for their friendship. Carlan locked the door behind them as they headed down the trail. Then she turned and faced the phantoms of fifty generations of her ancestors in the dark and empty halls.



***



Ayarlan took care to foster a sense of awe about her supposed supernatural powers in Urgit. Jamans were the most superstitious of Okisdu's peoples. They excelled even the Watchers of Orenon in their devotions to any totem or luck charm that might promise them a winning turn at games of chance. It was easy enough to convince Urgit that she was a witch. She felt it was her only way to control the greed that might have led the Jamans to take over the harvest and manufacture of Selan with their force of mercenaries.



There were a number of ways to foster the illusion of dark powers. Orenon was the source of many tricks used by Orquians in their rituals. Ayarlan had staged several 'miracles' using such devices. Urgit had been most impressed when she appeared from beyond a dark curtain of smoke that left no trace of burning. It reinforced her claim that she was a chosen instrument of Orqu, the dark demon. In reality, she kept away from the dark priests and their superstitions. They accepted no women into the cult. Women were only welcome in their temples with their hands bound and their necks bared for the sacrificial sword. Since Urgit was ignorant of the specifics of the cult, he did not question her pretension.



During their first night on the trail they camped in luxury with no lack of wine and meat. Ayarlan moved confidentially close to Urgit as they ate together. "I must confess a secret I have kept for many years. I am a shape-changer. In service to my master," she made the forked sign of a demon worshiper, "I have often been called to go into the night as a spirit. If you should come to my room and find me gone, do not disturb anything. I will return, but the wrath of Orqu will fall on any who see me in my other form. If someone has intruded on my place, I cannot return there but must come back to Saadena." He listened to her with seeming skepticism but she smiled to herself when she saw him clutch at the amulet he wore around his neck.



Urgit believed every word Ayarlan said. In the years he had known her, he had come to realize that she had little in common with ordinary women. At first her cold ruthlessness had attracted him. He liked women who were large in scale. His first, and only true love had been such a woman; Thalana, a young Orenese widow. No other woman could compare to his memory of her. He had hated Mareklans with a rare and permanent passion ever since the morning when he had seen them stealing her away from the inn where he had gone to court her. Thalana would always be the sun that lit his memory. Where was she now?



Urgit caught himself and renounced the path of futile speculation. He had paid a fortune trying to trace Thalana. By now she could be a grandmother. A magnificent grandmother, towering over a brood the size of a small town. His gaze grew distant as he pictured the scene. Ayarlan spoke sharply to her litter bearer and drew Urgit back to the sour reality. He was to marry Carlan, that pale and puling child, but with the marriage he would gain power over Saadena. He would make certain he did not lose the chance by offending Ayarlan.



After two more days of travel they saw the smoky pall that lay over Jama except on days of strong wind. Glass and cloth, trinkets of brass and the finest wines and drugs in Okishdu poured forth from hundreds of workshops manned by servants purchased from Orenese servant sellers. Irilik had made slavery illegal in the Laws and Compacts, signed by all the clan heads of Okishdu, but Orenon and Jama were founded by men who had no loyalty to Irilik. They usually observed the forms of the major religion. It was unprofitable to do otherwise, but servant selling provided many benefits for the Pontic and his henchmen in Jama. The approach of dusk lit the smoke with reds that mimicked the finest Jaman wines. Urgit gave a sigh of relief as the stink of Jama reached him. Home was near at hand.



The litter carriers sped their steps as they sensed the end of their task. They carried Ayarlan and Urgit past the palace of the Pontic. It had been built by the same masons who had constructed Challan's watchtower in Saadena but that was the only thing the two structures shared in common. The Pontic's grand residence was built in the Zedeklan mode with delicate stone trellises and arcades offering elegant contrast to the svelte and powerful lines of the monumental walls and towers. Ayarlan's eyes were drawn upward to the carved pediment of a porch and she frowned. She had always thought that the palace of Saadena was impressive, especially since her aunt had added the looming watchtower which had been designed to imitate the watcher towers of Orenon. Now she reluctantly acknowledged that Challan's instincts had gone amiss. In contrast to the Pontic's residence, the palace of Saadena was an echoing ruin rudely accented by the awkward excrescence of the watchtower.



Ayarlan turned her eyes away from the Pontic's palace and straightened her back. When she had come into her own, when she was ruler of all Okishdu through the agency of her drugs, she would demolish the ancient palace of Saadena and replace it with another that would exceed any in the land. Restored in her own opinion, she began to make plans for her future. The existence of a rival for Prince Tomak in the person of Neril's daughter would soon be eliminated. For that, mere poison would suffice. It would be best to spend her limited supply of selan on taking control of Prince Tomak himself. Once he was held to her will, the world would be open to her.



The litter in which she was riding was lowered to the ground and Ayarlan looked around her at the courtyard of Urgit's home. She was relieved to see that he lived in a far less impressive residence than the Pontic. Urgit's taste ran to the most garish products of Jama. The walls were made of mud bricks covered with brashly vivid tiles. Compared to Urgit's house, Saadena's palace was dignified and spacious.



When Ayarlan was shown into the lavishly appointed guest chambers of Urgit's villa, she dismissed the servants who had been sent to serve her. They seemed puzzled, but Urgit quickly affirmed her strange request. He had little time to warn his steward of what to expect, but the man knew that to fail would be more than folly.



Summons to dine were dispensed to the other magnates of Jama. Urgit would enjoy gloating over the jealousy they were bound to feel when they saw his guest. Many had courted the trade in selan, but so far, the house of Uguck, with Urgit as the heir, had been the most frequently favored. The Pontic was ill and could not attend the supper. Urgit grinned his relief. This would mean that Ayarlan would have no rival for the head seat. Knowing of her stated allegiance to Orqu, a message was sent to the high priest of the demon cult.



With only hours to achieve social triumph, Urgit's steward spared no effort or expense. Runners were sent with gold and threats to procure the finest dishes and wines from food vendors throughout the city. Urgit approached the door to Ayarlan's room with confidence. The Pontic himself could not have excelled the lavishness of the entertainment prepared for the Saadenan queen. She responded to his knock by opening the door. She was dressed in robes of crimson and green with a tall crown of jade and carnelian set in gold. The luxury of her dress did honor to Urgit and he was gratified at her appearance. It gave assurance that she held him in sufficient regard to consider him a suitor for her daughter.



The guests stood to welcome Ayarlan and she had a brief glimpse of the throne she would occupy at the head of the table. Urgit was making a nice profit from his trade with Saadena she thought cynically. Then her eye was caught by the man who would sit at her left hand and she concealed her anger under a cold smile. This hulking man in dark purple robes could only be the Orquian High Priest of Jama. She had heard of Bildug. He held a bronze staff topped with a grotesque image with his his disfigured right hand. His third finger was missing above the first joint and two of the other fingers were bent and withered.



She had heard rumors of the wound that had become a central focus of his life and career. He blamed Neril. Ayarlan's initial displeasure at being seated next to the Orquian was swallowed by the gratification of sharing an enemy with him. The discovery that Neril had tried to defeat her, even beyond the grave, had burnished the old emotions that had led her to ambush the Mareklan wife of Carnat.



Bildug met Ayarlan's eyes and nodded. Twenty years before when he lost his finger to the blade of Neril, he had been a callow and stupid boy with the ungainly body of a man. Even then he had heard of the witches of Saadena. This woman had taken the life of his enemy and he both respected and hated her for the act. It should have been his hand, his mutilated hand, that had taken Neril's life. She should have blooded an altar of Orqu. But he had been in no position to seek retribution for many years after that night. His attempt at abducting the Mareklan had ended with the loss not only of his finger, but the ring of Orqu that marked him as a member of the cult.



He had convinced his brothers to set an ambush for the Mareklan caravan at the bridge over the Com. They had agreed on condition that he be one of those to crawl out on the precarious span of the rope bridge and cut the supporting ropes. Ordlik had fumbled the task and cut too deep. Both of them had fallen into the river far below. His youth and strength had stood him in good stead. Instead of dying on the rocks under the bridge, he had been swept down river to be washed ashore.



While he was dazed and drifting, Orqu had come to him and made promises. He had been shown his destiny and promised that he would live if he would dedicate all his effort to the cult. He had finally been dragged from the river and revived by an Orenese servant seller. For ten years he had served the man who rescued him and he had learned cunning and the dark wisdom he would need to truly serve his demon master. At last he had come to Jama and begun his service as a priest to the demon who had saved his life and given him a task.



When Ayarlan approached her seat she was glad of the high soles of her shoes and the looming crown that stood a hand-span above her head. It gave her some equality with the huge priest in his dark robes. When they sat, the advantage was lost. Ayarlan chose to ignore the priest as the meal proceeded rather than look up to talk to him. Although no words passed between them, a common passion motivated them. They hated Mareklans, particularly a young woman who had escaped their worst revenge by dying surrounded by love and care. The shade of Neril haunted both of them. If they had exchanged words they might have learned that both shared another goal, the destruction of Caril.



Bildug had learned of Caril's origin from distilled gossip, then he had caught a glimpse of her a few years before while visiting Janaka. Although she was still little more than a child at the time, her resemblance to Neril was evident. He knew that she was the daughter of the Mareklan who had ruined his hand. At any time he expected word from his henchmen who were working with a bandit gang to plan the abduction of Tagun's foster child.



While Bildug was quiet, his attention given to plans for the sacrifice of Caril, Ayarlan was feted by the other guests. Her distant manner to the Orquian did not disabuse Urgit of the idea that the queen and the priest were confederates, indeed, he was convinced that the two of them were involved in some deep plot and he determined to find out what it might be. Experience had taught him that intrigue was usually profitable to one who knew the secret others would keep.



After enjoying a sumptuous meal and the fawning attentions of the other guests, Ayarlan retired to her chambers and secured the doors. She stood at her window and watched the departure of the Orquian priest. It would not do for him to be present when she effected her plan.



The gilt wood of the supposed dowry chest burned quickly in the tripod braziers that were set about the room to provide warmth. The trumpery bits of jewelry and gilt 'coins' were quickly reduced to shards with a few strikes of the stones they had concealed. The stones themselves were piled in the center of the carpet where the chest had been. Her robes and jewels were wadded together to join the rest of the baggage she tied around her waist.



Ayarlan changed into the tattered robes she had concealed in the bottom of her baggage. A coating of plant gel on her skin mimicked wrinkles as it dried and crinkled. Rubbed into her hair, it dulled and roughened her dark hair to a mangy gray. A glance in the polished bronze mirror brought a cackle to her lips that matched her crone-like appearance. Bags of food and water-skins concealed beneath her robes along with her clothing and jewels altered her thin figure to the lumpy outline fitting her role of aging crone.



A gilded glass wine flask on the table near the window caught her eye. She had powdered selan with her. It was not the addictive kind she hoarded, but it was more potent and would act faster and longer. She suspected that it might be more acceptable to her proposed victim if it were presented as a gift. It was the work of a few minutes to empty her packet of selan into the flask of wine and stopper it firmly. She found a place for it, well padded by food packets in a capacious pocket.



She gave a last glance around the room before climbing through the window and letting herself down into the garden below. If her hints had worked, it would seem the dowry had been turned to a heap of stones when she had disappeared. Superstition would stay Urgit's hand from disturbing anything in the rooms for days as he waited for her return.



The most difficult part of her plan was leaving the house by night, unnoticed. The walls around the house were tall and the gates securely locked. She heard the marching steps of guards patrolling the perimeter. Her breath rushed out with a gasp of alarm when one of the men caught sight of her and demanded to know how she had come to be in the garden.



"I, I thought great Urgit would bestow of his plenty on a poor widow," she improvised.



"Great Urgit did not come to his present place by wasting his substance on every old beggar who accosts him. How did you come to be in the garden?" the guard demanded. He had grasped her grimy robes and held a brawny fist near her face.



"I sneaked in with the great crowd of guests who came to feast. Is there no small scrap for such as I?" she whined.



"Be glad that I let you live. I will keep your intrusion a secret if you promise to stay away."



"I promise," she squawked.



The guard gave a yank to still her tongue and hurried her toward the further end of the garden. In a few minutes she had been rudely ejected from the rear gate with a curse that warned her what would happen if she returned.



She left the city well before dawn lit the eastern sky. Her apparent age and poverty would protect her from the brigands who waited to waylay more worthy prey. She would beg for food and water if any accosted her. The thought amused her. She carried many valuable things on her person, but the greatest value lay in the flask of wine. It was her only weapon aside from the poison she intended for Caril, but well used it would be more than sufficient to her task.



Bildug was expecting a message from his underlings who were working with the outlaw, Tull. As time passed with no word from them, he began to fear that their plans to abduct Caril had gone amiss. After leaving Urgit's banquet to honor Ayarlan, he had prepared himself to commune with the demon. Sometimes Orqu appeared to him in dreams, always wearing the face that had been carved on the ring he had lost when Neril cut off his finger.



After tossing sleeplessly for an hour, Bildug finally resorted to a mixture of docil and wine that would eventually yield the apparition of the demon. He had made the discovery when he was still young and stupid. In those days he had often sought the reassurance that he was a chosen instrument of Orqu. Now that he had gained some wisdom and caution, he only resorted to the device when he could not summon up the demon otherwise.



He was in an expectant state, his mind racing, his body as still as stone under the influence of the dangerous mixture, when he saw the crone steal away from the city. Others would have dismissed the sight, but Bildug's docil-loaded senses vibrated with a sense that the slinking figure held some meaning that he must fathom if he were to truly serve Orqu. The secret of the old woman's identity hovered like a shadow just beyond his aching sensitivity. Then the threshold of his consciousness tipped into the land of illusion where he saw the face he knew so well. All thoughts of the mysterious hag were swamped by the ecstacy that rose like dark flame from his belly where wine and docil combined to overwhelm all volition.



There was no message for him but the well known feeling that he was the chosen of the demon. Hours passed as he sat stone still, his eyes staring unseeing at the desert where the wind was already filling the tell-tale footsteps of Ayarlan with blown sand. When his servant finally came to shut his eyelids and lay his body down to find the sleep that would bring him back from the trance, all memory of the crone had departed.



When Urgit sent his servants to wake Ayarlan at a late hour of the morning, they returned to report that there was no sign of anyone in her room. He hurried to the wing in which he had housed Ayarlan and lingered at the door, scraping respectfully at the panel rather than knocking. The smell of soured smoke, hours cold, seeped from the bottom of the door. With his heart pounding from dread, Urgit hurried along the corridor to the next room and opened a secret door that led to the queen's apartment.



The pile of stones in the center of the floor stopped Urgit from proceeding any further. He recalled Ayarlan's warning when she had confided to him that she was often called to wander in another shape. Had he already made too much of an intrusion on her room? Would she return to Jama and proceed with the negotiations for the hand of Carlan, or would the dowry forever be left in the form of rude stones? He backed out of the room and ordered that it be sealed against intruders. If only he dared question Bildug, the Orquian High Priest, about the matter, but superstition, never far from his gambler's soul, warned him against incurring yet another curse.



He wanted to return to Saadena with his mercenaries, but even that route was denied him. Challan had been explicit in her demand that the mercenaries accompany them out of the city. He did not yet have confidence that he could hold the city if he crossed Ayarlan. The rules against intruding on the sovereignty of cities were enforced by the Peace of Tagun. To challenge them would be foolish. He must be patient. Marriage to Carlan was the key to power. Once he had married the legitimate heiress of Saadena, he would bow to none. A grin turned up his lips. Even Ayarlan would find herself overset once the fool of a king had been removed.



The thought gave Urgit something to consider instead of the imponderable problem of when or if Ayarlan would return to the guest room he had sealed. If he could set an assassin on Carnat, not by blatant contract as was often done in Jama, but by a more subtle method that would be difficult to trace to him, his marriage to Carlan would more immediately bear profit. He left his house and made his way to the jail. He expected the stench that reached him from the wretched building and had come prepared with a scented mask. The mask also concealed his identity from the curious.



The jailer was not fooled, but he let Urgit think his secret was intact and addressed him by the polite form used for a stranger. "Sir, what do you seek? We have the usual assortment of Kumnoran teamsters who have lost their tempers once too often under the influence of wine and gambling disputes. There are several seasoned mercenaries recently put by because they failed to pay their innkeeper his toll. Are you interested in a forger? Perhaps an assassin is more to your taste."



"I am a charitable man," Urgit lisped through his mask. "I am seeking some old fellow who has fallen upon misfortune who would be willing to undertake an easy task for me in return for a modest stipend."



The jailer gave a half-smile and wondered what deep game Urgit was attempting to play. That it might go amiss was easy enough to predict. Although the magnate was wise in his own eyes, his entire fortune depended on his contract with the Saadenans which had been arranged by his father Uguck.



In his dealings with fellow Jamans, Urgit usually came up short. The jailer played a hunch and summoned his uncle. In appearance he fit the description Urgit had given of the prisoner he would like to buy. Careless in his dress and chary of bathing, Bodun gave no indication that it was he who made most of the decisions about the jail and other assets owned by his family.



He preferred to rule from the shadows and this made him a valuable spy. For more than ten years he had ruled his small kingdom from the corner of the jail lot after retiring as chief Jailer. He was as wealthy as any of Jama's magnates, but few could guess his worth from his ragged appearance and humble lowered head.



Urgit paid the jailer the usual fee for a servant purchased from the jail and led the old man to a nearby inn. Bodun gave a sign to the innkeeper who was one of his own men. When Urgit requested a quiet room where they could speak, they were given a room at the back of the inn where the dark, cramped quarters reassured Urgit that his privacy was well protected.



Bodun sat patiently waiting for Urgit to tell him his errand. The magnate wrung his hands and lowered his voice until it could hardly be heard through the mask. To order the assassination of one of Okishdu's rulers was a dangerous ploy. Even such an ineffectual nonentity as he knew Carnat to be, had the support of all his fellows. Since the all too recent days of Janaka's King Jagga, who had sought power through secret assaults, the worst crime one could commit was murder of a ruling head of government. Of course, Carnat was not in truth the ruler of Saadena. It was Ayarlan who made all the decisions, but Carnat was of royal blood.



"You hesitate, Sir," Bodun prompted. "What would you have me do for you? My gratitude knows no bounds now that you have rescued me. Would you have me rob for you? Swear a falsehood? Eliminate an enemy?"



"Could you do such a thing?" Urgit asked with a doubtful look at the old man.



"I am old, but with age I have gained wide experience. No task is beyond me, given time and money to carry out the planning and hiring of helpers."



"I want no other involved. This must remain secret between us," Urgit urged.



"I will ensure privacy, but what is it you want me to do?" Bodun begged.



"I want you to bring me a scalp," Urgit wheezed. His fear of discovery had closed his throat and he fought for breath. The scented mask smothered him but he dared not remove it.



"A scalp?" Bodun's voice rose in a whine of protest. "Do you think me a savage?"



"It will be proof that the one whose life I would see ended is truly dead," Urgit declared. Now that he had taken the first step, fear was overcome by his enthusiasm for the scheme he had conceived. "The hair on the scalp must be the color of a ripe nuka fruit. When you have obtained it, return to this inn and leave a message with the innkeeper. I will inquire on occasion to see if you have left word for me."



Bodun bowed his head and nodded with humility suited to his assumed identity. "If it is possible, I will find the one whose hair is orange-red and carry out your orders," he said.



Urgit tossed a bag of coins on the table. "When you have completed the task, there will be gold for you." He hurried from the room and took the side exit from the inn. As soon as he saw that the road ahead was clear, he removed the mask and gulped air. He was still too near the jail and nearly choked on the odor. He hurried away from the region, secure in the belief that his anonymity had been preserved. If the old man succeeded in killing Carnat, then no one could trace the deed back to Urgit. If he failed, which was more likely, it had not been a large investment of either time or money and there would be other opportunities for him to rid himself of the king.



Bodun returned to his office in a corner of the courtyard of the jail. His nephew, the jailer, joined him after making his rounds of the prisoners, accepting a few bribes and making a few threats where he thought bribes might be forthcoming. "What did Urgit ask of you," he queried.



Bodun shook his head and grinned. "Do not use his name. He thinks it was done in secret, and if we are to profit from his guilt, we must use discretion. He wants me to carry out an assassination. He tried to be very clever in giving me my orders. I am to bring him the scalp of someone who has hair the color of half-ripe nuka fruit."



The jailer whistled. "He aims high. As far as I know, none have such hair but the royal line of Saadena. Tell me, does he want the scalp of King Carnat, or Princess Carlan?"



Bodun shrugged. "It is said that Urgit hopes to marry Carlan, but I have heard whispers that Ayarlan intends her for one of Zedekla's princes, perhaps even the heir, Tomak. If Urgit knows of the queen's plans, and one would think he is best placed to know her mind, he may want to rid himself of the threat of potential rivals. Indeed, were I Urgit, I would want both the father and the daughter out of the way. He stands the best chance of any of wedding Ayarlan, although how he can be near the witch is more than I dare speculate."



"What will you do?" the jailer asked.



"I will bring him both scalps," the old man said with a smirk. "It will not be the first time I have exceeded my exact orders. Once we have Urgit sufficiently involved in these most awful crimes, his pockets will be open to us. In due time I will leave for Saadena to procure my proofs. Meanwhile, I must study the proper way to approach the matter. From what I know, both Carnat and Carlan are in the palace. It should be easy enough to accomplish my purposes when it becomes politic."



Chapter 6 The Reluctant Princess





Caril woke to her birthday slowly, clinging to the edges of sleep and the dreams that had sweetly haunted her. She had dreamed of a certain face. Once again she walked the streets of Janaka, laughing and talking with a young man whose smile warmed her soul, and whose occasional frowns made her heart tremble. She held on to the dream and tried to continue into waking. It slipped away and she was forced to acknowledge the shaft of sunlight that played on her eyelids. She turned her head away from the intruding light that had robbed her of the last sweet mists of her dream. A nagging voice of conscience tried to remind her that it was time to get out of bed and prepare for a busy day, but she banished it and savored her memories of Ranek.



Did she dream and think so constantly of him because he was a hero and a stranger? Yet she had met another stranger yesterday, the older man she had fed when she found him waiting wearily to accompany Barga. She had liked him, but he had not haunted her dreams.



She closed her eyes again to better recall the gloss of Ranek's dark hair and the way his mouth lifted at one corner just before he spoke. His eyes had seemed to look more deeply into her own than anyone she could remember. He had listened when she spoke, not with the amused patience of her father and Okagun, or the merely respectful attention that was due her station, but as if he truly valued what she had to say.



Caril frowned when she recalled the pique she had felt at poor Okagun when he had innocently taken the seat between them. She should have had the courage to interrupt the barrage of questions her nephew had poured out. Or failing that, she should have bid Ranek goodbye graciously and inquired about the possibility of further meetings. Instead, she had walked away with only a quick backward glance. He hadn't mentioned where he was staying and she was hesitant to ask Barga about him. Surely he would seek her out again.



She rose from her bed and walked to the window that gave a view of most of Janaka. Where was he now? Was he waking to wonder about her? Had his dreams been filled with the same sweet congress of emotions? Would he come to the palace and try to see her again? She was too lost in her musings to hear the sound of hurrying steps in the corridor.



Tilla gave a perfunctory knock at her door and bustled into her room. "Caril, why are you still wearing your night shift? Hurry, come get washed and put on your robes. We must go to the shrine. They will be waiting for us."



When Caril still stood as if dazed, staring out the window with dreamy eyes, Tilla gave a worried frown. She remembered the young man who had eaten with them the day before. He had been comely and courteous, but he had worn a plain tunic that marked him as a commoner. In Tedaka such things did not matter, but here in Janaka, rank had real meaning. It would be a sad thing if Caril lost her heart to someone of no importance. Something would have to be done to discourage the attachment. Tilla resolved to speak to Tagun. She hurried over to Caril and took her arm to lead her toward the bathing room.



Perfumed soaps and fragrant oils gave the steaming air of the bath a distinctive scent that hinted of the ceremony and celebration to come. Tilla fussed and primped and prompted, but Caril drifted through the regimen of grooming with a vague smile. Her gleaming dark red hair was coaxed into a crown of ringlets that framed her features. White flowers instead of jewels bedecked her brow and bosom. Pristine zilka cloth, as white as the snow on the far peaks, drifted in subtle folds over her slender body.



When she stood at the door of her room, ready at last to join her father in a palanquin that would carry them from the palace to the Shrine of the Radiance, Caril had never been more lovely. Tilla frowned. It was not the flowers or the delicate dress that gave the ethereal glow to Caril's features, it was the beginning of love. Tilla recognized it and rued it. They should have been more careful with Caril. Now her heart would be bruised when they took the necessary precautions and ended the budding relationship between the princess and her young hero.



It seemed that all the inhabitants of Janaka had come to the square in front of the shrine to greet their princess on her birthday. Within the Shrine Tagun took the privilege of his royal position and officiated at the rites that welcomed his foster daughter into the responsibilities of womanhood. He too noticed the dreaming expression in her eyes and exchanged a worried glance with Tilla. He led Caril from the sanctuary onto the balcony that looked over the main plaza in front of the Shrine. When Caril finally stood on the balcony and made the signs of accepting her new responsibilities, the acclamation sounded like thunder as the people below called out their approval, stamping their booted feet on the stone pavement.



Tagun grinned and Tilla felt her heart swell with pride. The infant she had rescued from Saadena had grown into a lovely woman. Tagun stepped to the front of the balcony and took Caril's hand in his. Turning toward the people, he held up his other hand in a gesture for silence. He hesitated for a moment. He hadn't consulted Tilla on his sudden decision, but the affection Caril had showed toward the vagabond boy the previous day had worried him. The look on her face this morning had confirmed his fears. It was time to divert her attention from the fledgling infatuation.



He cleared his throat so that he could be heard throughout the crowd. "Today we celebrate the coming of age of Caril. I have a special gift for her. The Prince of Zedekla, Tomak, heir of King Farek, has made an offer of marriage."



Tomak, standing at the edge of the crowd, was stunned at the announcement. His father had anticipated his answer to the offer of a betrothal. He was torn between a feeling of relief that the princess would be his, and chagrin that he had been preempted. His mixed emotions mirrored the crowd's reaction to Tagun's announcement.



At first they shouted their pride and approval that the heir to the most powerful throne in Okishdu had offered to marry their beloved princess. Then the mood of the crowd began to change in response to the expression of surprised dismay on Caril's face. The jubilant approbation faded as muttered questions ran through the square.



"Who is this prince who would steal our greatest treasure?" someone finally shouted. Others voiced the same question. Barga stepped forward and signaled his guards to keep order. The crowd dispersed into knots of gossiping citizens as the king turned away and led Caril into the shrine. The sweet smile that had lit her eyes and lingered on her lips when she first appeared on the balcony had been extinguished when she heard the offer of betrothal. Tomak wondered what she would say when he told her he was the heir of Zedekla's throne.



He had seen the expression of dismay and dawning defiance on her face when Tagun made his announcement. Had another man won her affections? Had Tomak deceived himself in believing there was a special bond between them? Something very like despair began to gnaw at his heart as he turned away from the shrine. She had not given any sign that she recognized him. Had she even noticed him in the crowd? His emotions refused to yield to his murmured mantra of calm. Hope and despair warred in his heart and mind as he returned to the inn. If only he had introduced himself to begin with instead of clinging to his anonymity, he would know for certain if her unhappy reaction to the betrothal was in his favor or a sign of dismissal.



Within the Shrine where she was changing from her white ritual dress to an elaborate robe of blue velvet embroidered with silver, Caril's emotions mirrored those that plagued Tomak. The offer of betrothal to a stranger, whether he were prince or not, had been like a rebuke from King Tagun. It would mean she would be required to marry and leave the beloved home she had rarely left since her infancy. She had spent her life trying to please her kindly and indulgent father. Now he seemed to expect her to marry and leave Janaka just as she had begun to taste the sweetness of romance that she had discovered when she met Ranek.



She dutifully submitted to Tilla's fussing as she adjusted a headdress of silver wire and lapis flowers that danced on the ends of tiny springs, but Caril's enthusiasm for the festivities that marked her birthday had dulled. Rebellion bloomed in her heart. Was she a corum cow to be traded for a bag of gold? She wondered what bride price had been offered by the Zedeklan king in return for allying his house to that of the king of Janaka.



Tilla watched as storm signs began to brew in Caril's expression. Perhaps it would have been better if she had been given the news in private. Perhaps if the handsome young man Caril had brought to lunch in the palace the day before had not put stars in the girl's eyes, there would been a better reaction to Tagun's announcement.



It had been too many years since Tilla's heart had been captured by the flashing eyes of her Tedakan sweetheart. She had forgotten how quickly emotions could take fire in a maiden's bosom. Too late she remembered the nights she had spent in joyful anticipation of seeing her beloved again. The prudence of age, wrought in the crucible of grief and loss, had misled her.



There were few cures for the quick infatuations of youth, but disillusion and disappointment could accomplish what interminable parental lectures failed to do. She must find if there was some evil gossip to stain the reputation of Ranek. He had presented himself as a hero, and he was as comely as any youth she knew, but surely there was something a little too good about him. The smoothness of his address was suspect in one whose unadorned tunic and lack of a decent sword betrayed a humble origin. Barga was not the one she should ask. He had all too evidently been drawn in by the young man.



Tagun waited anxiously for Caril to join him in the palanquin that would be carried through Janaka to the palace. He resented the necessity of sending his beloved foster daughter away to marry a stranger. On the other hand, she was his in trust. Her own father had made the contract that would marry her to Zedekla's heir. He had heard that the young man was a fine product of a good lineage. That was cold comfort to Tagun when he saw Caril's face as Tilla led her from the robing room. The stern set of her eyes and lips was as near a scowl as he had ever seen on her habitually happy features.



Tilla felt protective toward Tagun when she saw the misery on his face. She knew he would have been happy to have kept Caril near by. It had taken courage for him to even consider the betrothal arranged by Carnat, a father who had stood by and watched his wife killed by her enemy. She reluctantly took her place in the litter that was carried behind the royal palanquin. It was not her place to ride with the king and his daughter, she was little more than a valued servant. Would Caril say something to hurt Tagun, the man who had given her refuge and the true affection of a parent?



Caril kept silent as they rode through the city, smiling and waving to the people, her head held straight to avoid tipping the heavy headdress. Tears welled in her eyes, but she fought them back so that they did not run down her cheeks. They glistened, lending brilliance to her smile. Children tossed handfuls of flowers in the path of the palanquin and called her name. She would not show them her distress. Only her shock at the announcement had led her to show her rebellion openly on the balcony of the Shrine. She would not betray her emotions so publicly again. Her face ached with the necessity of smiling and denying the pain in her heart as the entourage proceeded on a looping route that took them through most of the city.



At last they came to the palace and the palanquins were lowered. Caril kept her expression from showing any distress until they had finally gained the privacy of the royal audience room.



When they were finally in private and she could speak her mind, she turned to Tagun. "Father, I do not want to marry the prince. I don't care if Zedekla is great and rich. I can't imagine a finer city than Janaka, or a better king than you. I have only begun to enjoy my youth. Don't take it from me for the sake of a stranger's ambitions."



"I have delayed telling you the truth for too long," Tagun said with a trembling voice. He reached out and caught her two hands with his own, holding them firmly to reassure her of his love as he revealed the secret he had kept from her. "I have no choice in the matter. Although I love you as my own, I am not your real father. Your father is a king of another city. It is he who has arranged the marriage."



"Oh, I know you adopted me," she said with a dismissive gesture, as if his confession had no bearing on their discussion.



"B-but how could you know?" Tagun stammered. It had been a secret so profound that even he had often forgotten that she was not his own daughter.



"Barga told me when I was about eight years old. One day he overheard some courtiers' children teasing me about the relationship between you and Tilla. Barga chased them away. He told me I was really a princess from another kingdom who you had adopted, but it had to be kept secret. I thought he was only trying to make me feel better. He saw that I doubted him and asked me some questions I had wondered about myself. My hair and eyes are different, and my face is not like either you or Tilla. Accepting that I was an orphan was the only way I could explain my coloring. I believed him."



"You must have suffered when you found that we were not your parents," Tilla said.



Caril frowned. "I never knew any other parents, and both of you have been as truly my parents as any I have seen. I was grateful that you had given me a home and your love."



Tagun and Tilla looked at each other with astonishment. Then Tagun began to chuckle and Tilla smiled with relief. For years they had both dreaded the day when Caril would have to be told the truth of her origin. The burden had increased as they let time pass without revealing how she had come to live with them. It made them feel a little foolish to know that while they had stewed and fretted about telling her, she had known all along.



"Why must I even consider marriage to a stranger?" Caril asked, returning to the cause of her affront.



"I wish I could ignore what Carnat has done, but it would be selfish of me to stand in the way of such an excellent match. It passes my understanding that King Carnat has offered a marriage contract to Farek, king of Zedekla, and been accepted," Tagun admitted.



"Your words betray your own doubt about the match," Caril said. Her cheek lost its dimple. Her eyes again became stormy and her mouth took on a firm line that the others had seldom seen. "I will not be bartered to a strange prince by a man I never met for a purpose I can only guess."



"I do not think there is any question of barter," Tilla protested. "The Zedeklan court is the wealthiest in Okishdu. They cannot claim the ancient lineage of Saadena's royal line, but the kings of Zedekla have always been the finest of men."



Her argument made no impression on Caril. "If Tomak had come to court me, it might have made a difference in the way I feel about this offer. As it is, I refuse to be married while I am so young!"



Tagun and Tilla looked at each other, then away. Both felt that it had been a mistake to present the betrothal in such an abrupt and public manner, but now it was too late to repair the damage. A rustle of grey zilka cloth from the corner reminded them that there was another witness to the scene. Old Nefer, the princess's governess, was an almost constant shadow of Caril. She moved timidly out of the shadows. "May I speak to you, my lady," Nefer asked.



Caril looked at her governess. The woman was one of the few people who could unfailingly irritate her with her constant prating on the subject of comportment. She was tempted to deny her permission to speak. But the corner of Nefer's mouth twitched as if she anticipated rejection. Caril sighed. She could not be deliberately cruel. She gave a little shrug of resignation and nodded.



Nefer straightened her shoulders and seemed to shed almost a decade of age as she lifted her chin proudly and began to speak. "I know it will be hard for you to believe, seeing me as I am, but I was once as young and beautiful as you are now. I refused to consider the marriage offers of those I thought unworthy of my lineage. My pride overcame my love for one of my suitors." The woman's voice faltered and she dabbed at her eyes with the corner of her handkerchief as painful memories were summoned up from her past.



"I was the only child of my parents and felt that I must marry well to continue their line. Now I am beyond the age of childbearing and the lineage of which I was so proud ends with me. I am a spinster, a husk with nothing to support me in my old age but a sense of duty. A woman has one choice in life. You must either be an old maid, or a wife."



Nefer's final words rung in the room and none could deny them.



"She speaks the truth, Caril," Tagun said reluctantly. "Having you near me has made me feel younger than I am, but I am a grandfather already. I would see you successfully married before I die."



Caril looked around her at the anxious expressions of the people who had raised her as if she had been their daughter. She looked at her governess, old Nefer, who was wringing her hands with nervousness after making her speech.



"I'll marry if it must be," Caril said at last. "But I will not be sold to the highest bidder, or mate with a man I have never met. There must be love when I marry. If Tomak wishes to marry me, let him come and court me. If he cannot win my heart, I must be free to find another man who suits me." she insisted.



"I will send a messenger to Zedekla and advise him of your request," Tagun agreed.



"Others besides the prince of Zedekla must also have a chance to court Caril," Nefer shyly added. "Why should she have only one man bringing sweet words and flowers to earn a smile." Her eyes held a distant look that hinted that she was remembering her youth.



"Very well, but I will not let every fool and scoundrel who covets her dowry apply for her hand," Tagun insisted. "After we have eaten our evening meal we will meet here and make plans."



As soon as he returned to his own rooms after the noon meal, Tagun sent a servant to summon Okagun, his heir. When the boy entered the room, Tagun studied his grandson. Although his tall frame was still slender with youth, Okagun was strong from the training he received. Okagun met his grandfather's eyes and smiled with the easy warmth that was one of his most appealing features.



Tagun wondered how he could introduce the subject of their discussion, but to his surprise, Okagun had anticipated his request. "I was surprised when you announced that Caril will be married to the Prince of Zedekla. Did you consult with her before you made a public declaration of the betrothal?"



"No, and she was not happy about it," Tagun admitted. "At first she said she was too young to marry, then she said she would like some choice in the matter. I've spoiled the girl."



"You know that's not the problem," Okagun said. "Centuries ago our people practiced bridal raids, but even then, both parties to a wedding had some choice in the matter. You may feel that it is safer for the wiser heads of parents to arrange a marriage, but most of the younger generation insist on having some say. I hope you won't be as high-handed when I'm old enough to be wed."



"You are old enough to marry," Tagun said. "In fact, Tilla suggested you might be the best partner for the princess."



"But she is my aunt!" Okagun said with a puzzled frown. "I know that it wasn't uncommon in former times to mix blood to preserve inheritances, but as much as I love and respect Caril, I would not like to marry her."



"She's not related to you in any way," Tagun snapped, upset that Okagun had so quickly dismissed his suggestion. "We've preserved the fiction that she was my child in order to protect the truth. There are those who might do Caril harm if they knew her real origin."



Okagun nodded, "Yes, I've suspected as much. But I have been raised to look on her almost as a sister. I hope the woman I marry is as beautiful and virtuous as Caril, but she's smarter than me. I know that shouldn't matter, but it makes me reluctant to play the part of suitor. As far as I'm concerned, no matter what her parentage, I'm her nephew."



"Tilla is both taller and smarter than me, but I've never thought of her as a sister," Tagun said impatiently.



"But you've never married her either," Okagun reminded his grandfather.



"I vowed I wouldn't remarry after the death of your grandmother, Selendra. That doesn't mean I can't appreciate Tilla's good qualities," Tagun sputtered. He wondered how he had been drawn into defending his relationship with Tilla. "You have led me astray of the question I meant to ask. Will you court Caril?"



Okagun shook his head. He didn't remind his grandfather of the young man, Ranek, who Caril had introduced to them the day before. There had been a look in her eyes when she looked at him that boded ill for any other admirer. "I prefer to keep the affection I have for Caril unburdened by the resentment she might feel if you press me to play the part of a suitor." he said.



Tagun nodded. His grandson's reasons were sound. There was no choice but to meet with the others to devise tests that would separate those who merely wanted a rich dowry or a position in the court from those who could be considered serious suitors.



There were six in the council that surrounding the small table in an alcove of the audience room when the evening meal was finished. Caril was determined to have some say in the matter. Tagun had brought Okagun with him and Tilla had asked Barga to add his insight to the question. Nefer had glided into the room as silently as a shadow and none denied her a place.



As the others discussed their plans, Caril's thoughts turned to the one she wished would sue for her hand. Would Ranek choose to join the list of suitors? She hardly listened as the others made suggestions. Hope that there was some return of the admiration and indefinable emotion she felt for the youth was mingled with fear that she had built a structure of fantasy around a few kind words and smiles. She had no experience in such matters. No other man had ever inspired such confusing thoughts and feelings.



One moment she found new evidence of his singular regard for her in her memories of the few hours they had spent together the previous day, then doubt would tumble the walls of her certainty that he reciprocated her affection. How could such tumult come from such small things. There was the way they had held hands, but she had been the one to initiate the contact. Perhaps he had only been held at her side by polite regard for her station. Was his smile as warm for every woman he met? To distract herself from her thoughts, Caril began to listen to what the others were saying.



"The man Caril marries should be healthy and strong," Tilla declared. "The children of a marriage owe much to the health of the parents." She glanced fondly at the tall son who had done so well on his own merits. Barga had become the captain of the guards without resort to using her influence.



"The man my daughter marries must have good sense and the beginning of wisdom," Tagun added. He was still smarting from Okagun's refusal to consider the match. "At least one of the tests should test his skills as a warrior. I know it isn't evident to most people, but I earned the respect of my people with this sword." He patted the scabbard of the Sword of Dorn which never left his side.



"What about wealth and birth?" Barga asked.



"If the man Caril chooses has no position of his own, I will provide a place for him," Tagun said with a glance toward the princess.



Caril's eyes sparkled as she divined the direction of her foster father's thoughts. He must have seen her fondness for Ranek and had worried about his apparently modest station. By making no requirements for a moneyed suitor, he showed her that her happiness was more important than the pride that had been such a burden to Nefer.



"I will let the rest of you discuss the qualities my husband must have," she said with a laugh. "But I will be the one to make the final choice."



Caril left them to their discussion and climbed to her private lookout in the tallest tower of the palace. She had found it when she was still a small child and Tilla had been distracted by some other matter. She called it her aerie. Kneeling at the narrow window that had been made for bowmen, she gazed out over the city of Janaka. Was Ranek somewhere in the tangled streets that were lit by glowing lamps, or had he journeyed into the mountains beyond?



She wondered if he thought of her. Had he been in the crowd that day? Had he heard her father's announcement of betrothal? A shiver ran over her skin as she thought of his reaction to the news. Did he care?



Finally she began to shiver in earnest. She stood up from her cramped position and slowly returned to her room. Tilla was waiting and began to scold her.



"I'm not a child anymore," Caril said a little sharply. Then she hurried to her friend and foster mother and hugged her. "I'm not a child, but sometimes I wish I were. You were right to be concerned about me. I stayed out on the tower too long and my feet are freezing. Could you send a servant to bring a heated stone for my bed?"



"I have one ready for you," Tilla assured Caril as she indicated the padded bump at the bottom of the bed. "I was afraid I would have to send it to be heated again before you returned, but if you hurry and prepare for sleep, it should still be warm."



It was an ordinary little kindness, but Caril suddenly realized how often her foster mother had made her life more comfortable. After she said her prayer and nestled her chilled toes against the warmth of the heated stone, she said an extra prayer of gratitude for the kindness and care of Tagun and Tilla and wondered once again about the mother who had given birth to her. She had lived in ignorance too long. Barga had been the one who told her the truth about her father. She would ask him what more he knew.



Long after Caril had sought the slumber that promised to bring more of the dreams she cherished, Tagun worked late preparing a message for Tomak of Zedekla. At last he was satisfied that his invitation to the Prince offered neither insult nor undue encouragement but would convey his own wish that Caril make the proper choice.



He summoned Barga to his study. Both of Tilla's sons would have made worthy mates for Neril, but Barga was already married and Fren had the same attitude of brotherly fondness that was a barrier for Okagun.



When the captain of the guard appeared Tagun handed him the message. "See that this is dispatched with one of your swiftest runners. When it is well on its way, post the announcement that Caril will choose her husband from qualified applicants."



"If the announcement is to be posted publicly, it will be necessary to sequester Caril," Barga advised. "Soon every vagabond in Okishdu will come to Janaka to try his luck with her. It would be both dangerous and unfair for other suitors if anyone can approach her on the street. The only safe place for Caril will be in the palace or in a well guarded palanquin."



"I agree with your precautions," Tagun said. "She will hate being confined, but it was her own choice that brought the need to guard her."



"We also have the threat of an Orquian kidnapping to worry about," Barga reminded him. "It will be difficult to ensure that the ruffian priests of the demon do not enter Janaka in disguise. It is past time that Caril began to act as a princess should." He spoke gruffly to conceal his mixed emotions. Caril's wanderings had been a source of worry for a long time, but he was sympathetic to her desire for freedom. Restraining her to the palace would be like caging a wild bird.



The next morning Tomak rose early and prepared himself for a visit to the palace. It was time to reveal his true identity. His father had judged him well in acting to send the offer of betrothal, but the expression he had seen on Caril's face when she learned of her father's plans for her was not encouraging. Would she forgive him for deceiving her. Would she resent him when she learned that he was the prince of Zedekla whom she was bound to marry? His thoughts troubled him as he made his way up the main thoroughfare toward the palace. As he neared the tall gate and approached the armored guard he noticed a commotion near the notice post at the other end of the square.



The guard at the gate was a stranger to him. When Tomak reached the gate, the man lowered his pike to bar the way and demanded to know his business. "I have come to seek audience with King Tagun and Princess Caril," Tomak answered.



"You and every vagabond in Janaka," the guard sneered.



"I am Prince Tomak of Zedekla."



"Oh, pardon me, your majesty, and I take it you are dressed so plainly because you left your good clothing at home," the guard said with a nasty smile. Then he shook his pike. "Be gone before I use this pike on your stubborn skull. If you want an interview with the princess you will have to wait your turn along with all her other would-be suitors."



"But her father has accepted my father's offer of betrothal. I heard him announce it yesterday at the Shrine," Tomak said..



"And the princess said no. She will make her own choice as you well know if you looked at the notice board," the guard said with a gesture toward the crowd.



Tomak saw it would do no good to argue. In time he would seek out Barga and reveal the truth. Meanwhile he might as well find out what was exciting so much attention. He shouldered his way closer to the board that held the message the others were reading. It was evidently freshly written, the parchment still gleamed ivory white, the large inked letters crisp and black so that they could be seen from some distance.



"At turn of the New Moon the Princess Caril of Janaka will choose a husband. Applicants for the hand of the princess will be tested for fitness at that time. Until then, the princess will be kept secluded."



Tomak was shocked to realize that even if he had been able to prove his identity, he would have no access to Caril until the contest. Why had she chosen to reject his betrothal and conduct such a hurly burly contest that could not fail to attract every fortune hunter and adventurer in Okishdu? How could her father permit her to risk her future?



His propriety offended, Tomak hurried from the regions near the palace. At first he thought that his best move would be to return to Zedekla and tell his father of the chaotic result of the precipitous offer. He berated himself for the caution that had kept him from declaring the truth about himself when he first met Caril. Then he remembered the Orquians and their mention of taking her as a sacrifice.



If he returned to Zedekla and the dogs of the demon were able to take her under the guise of being suitors for her hand, he would never forgive himself. It would be equally unthinkable for some rogue to win her. He was not sure if she gave the same welcome to others that she had extended to him, but he could not bear to risk losing her without putting forth his suit. If she chose another who seemed to have a higher rank, then he would know her heart was as false as that of Olina.



He would stay in Janaka and remain alert for any signs of Orquians. At the New Moon he would join others who put themselves forward to gain the hand of Caril. If and when he had won her hand, it would be time enough to tell her the truth of his identity and notify his father of his success or failure. The thought of failing to win her was too painful to consider. He promised himself that Caril would be his and put the matter from his mind until he could do something positive about it.



It would be several days before the message that Caril would welcome all comers as potential suitors reached the other cities and brought a flood of applicants. When that happened, he would mingle with them and make certain that none wore the trident tattoo of the cult of Orqu. Barga would listen to him if he had evidence of malefactors among the suitors who would throng the city once the news was spread.



Tomak decided to seek out the Saadenan refugees, especially Nara. He wanted to know more about the amulet she had entrusted to him at the compound. He was now certain that his suspicions about Caril's parentage were correct. He had dreamed again, and the face that had so long figured in his dreams had finally lingered long enough for him to recognize it when he woke. It was so like the face that haunted him since he had met Caril that he had no doubt of their relationship.



He remembered the offer he had made to marry the Mareklan, Neril. He could hardly have been more than five years old at the time. He was too young to be told the details of her marriage to Carnat. The news of her death had come when his thoughts of her were beginning to fade. Only the toys he treasured had kept the memory from being lost. The face of Caril had brightened and renewed the memories he had of her mother.



He found Nara and her sister Kana preparing to leave the inn where they had first been housed upon their arrival in Janaka. He offered to help them move their sparse belongings to the small house that Barclu had donated for their use. When he had finished arranging their furniture, they asked him to stay for supper.



While he shared their humble meal, he wondered how he could introduce the subject of Neril. Nara solved his problem for him. "I enjoy the variety of food we have to choose from in Janaka, but I long for a taste of spearleaf core. Bless Neril." She made the sign of the leaf he had seen her use before.



"Tell me about Neril," he said.



"Years ago a caravan of Mareklan merchants came to Saadena. Neril was one of them. While the others visited the palace and dined with the queen, Neril was lured to a hidden garden by Carnat, the prince of Saadena. She tried to escape and was badly injured in a fall. Carnat drugged her for the sake of the injury, but then he married her when she had no will to refuse." Nara was silent for a moment as she remembered the events she had witnessed. "I was called to come with my mother who was a healer. We were asked to witness the wedding. Eventually the queen discovered the garden and drained the fountain that had nourished it. She gave the couple a room in the palace and sent a servant to drug Neril. After Carnat discovered what was being done, he freed Neril and she loved him."



"How could she love him after all he did to her?" Tomak marveled.



Nara shrugged. "Neril was capable of more than most of us. She forgave Carnat but insisted that the first marriage had not been real. They were remarried. It was a different wedding from the first one. Anyone would see that both of them were happy. When winter came, she clothed us. More than that, she gave us the gift of spearleaf."



"I have encountered spearleaf in the wilds north of Timora. It seems a dubious gift," Tomak said with a grimace of remembered pain..



We call it the Blade of Neril," Nara explained. "She showed us how to cultivate the plant and harvest the leaves without suffering their sting. It nourished us and counteracted the drugging influence of selan. Our children began to grow to adulthood without becoming dull-eyed slaves. But an even greater gift was given by Neril, she taught us to read and write and know the Radiance. When she died, we lost more than a friend and a protector. She became our saint."



"What did Challan do to Neril?" Tomak asked. He had heard several versions of the story. Some said Challan had murdered the girl with her own hands. Others said she had fallen and died in childbirth.



"I believe it must have been Ayarlan who caused the fall that killed her," Nara said. "By the time Neril was injured, Challan was in thrall to Ayarlan. My mother noticed the change, but she wasn't certain Ayarlan had drugged her aunt. We were all caught up in the wonder of the new life Neril gave us."



"It must have been an awful blow to all of you when she died," Tomak said.



"We mourned her," Nara admitted, "but we felt that she was not really gone. The things she had taught us did not disappear with her death, and we found new ways to use her gifts. We learned to distill spearleaf juice to provide the water we needed to escape Saadena. Ayarlan's guards and Urgit's Jaman mercenaries pay no attention to the harvesters as long as they play the part of hapless slaves, but for many years we have been able to send forth small groups of refugees who settled far away from Ayarlan's tyranny. My husband made the mistake of raising his hand against a guard who had cornered one of the girls. She escaped, but my husband did not. He was killed."



Nara, remembering her valiant mate, bowed her head and wiped her eyes. Kana took up the narrative. "Before he died, the priest, Fedder, taught us that Neril's errand was foretold by the Seers of Timora. Through her the Lost shall be found and the people of Saadena shall be made free."



"You speak as if she was someone dear to you," Tomak said.



"She was. I was only a child, but I was fortunate to have her as a teacher. She made this little toy for me," Nara said, taking a tiny figure of a Marekla merchant from her pocket.



Tomak reached into his pocket and brought out a similar figure. "When I was a small child I visited my grandparents in Timora. I remember a Mareklan maiden who gave me this and sold my grandmother a box of tiny soldiers I wanted. I think it could have been Neril," he mused.



"It must have been," Nara said. "She was the last Mareklan maiden allowed to leave the Homeplace on trek. When she was abducted by our prince, the women of Marekla were completely sequestered in their hidden city. We learned this from Sergon, a friend of Neril's who visited her not long before she suffered the fall that eventually killed her. What do you recall about her?"



"It seems to me she looked a great deal like Princess Caril, but her hair and eyes were darker. I believe I demanded that she wait for me to grow up so I could marry her," Tomak admitted.



"Yes, her daughter resembles her. Did you guess that they were related?" Nara asked.



"I was told that the daughter of Neril had died and was buried with her," Tomak said warily.



"I was one of the few who knew the truth. Doka of Tedaka carried the infant away from the valley. When Neril died she was buried with a doll in her arms. Carnat feared what might happen if Challan or Ayarlan knew the truth. He was a weak man, but Neril loved him." Nara's eyes took on a distant look as the man the Saadenan's called Carny knocked at the side of the door which had been left open to catch the breeze. Kana invited him to come in and share their meal.



Tomak remembered the conversation he'd had with the older man on the eve of his first meeting with Caril. He had intimate knowledge of Saadena, but none of the other Saadenans seemed to know him before they had met near the village where Tull had kept them captive. Was 'Charak' an alias for someone traveling in disguise? If so, what did he hope to accomplish?



"I will keep the things you have told me in confidence. It would be well if you kept them to yourself from now on," Tomak warned Nara as the other man took a seat at the table.



Tomak's suspicion of 'Charak's' motives showed in his reserved manner as he greeted Carnat. He studied his companion of the road with more exacting attention. Was 'Charak' in league with the Orquians? Had he been sent to spy on the princess? It could do not harm to stay close to the older man until he was able to determine the reason he had come to Janaka. When they first met on the pilgrim road, he had spoken of a jewel that he had come to see.



Tomak was suddenly reminded that he had also used the euphemism of a jewel to describe his own errand. It would be a strange coincidence if the man named Charak had been referring to the same person. Tomak had been so involved in following this train of thought that he ignored Kana's request to pass a dish of matlas down the table.



The others joked about his frowning concentration and rallied a series of absurd suggestions about what might have taken him so far from their company. Kana winked. "I would not be at all surprised to find that his mind is filled with thoughts of Janaka's jewel, the Princess Caril. Every young man must be eager for a chance to win her hand."



Carnat's brows rose. He had heard of the notice posted at the door of the palace and had gone to see it for himself. It was folly to let every adventurer in Okishdu vie for the hand Caril. If only he had not set in motion the events that had led to this dangerous farce! Too late he realized that any daughter of Neril would share her spirit. He would never forget the anger in her eyes when she regained her wit and will and found that he had carried out a mock marriage with her while she was drugged with selan.



He tried to relieve his anguish by claiming that he had not really known what Caril's reactions would be. After all, she had been raised in Janaka, not Marekla. There were different expectations and traditions between the two cultures, but there was evidently little difference in the spirited independence of his daughter and her mother.



If only Tomak had come to Janaka and courted Caril. If only he could be a man like Ranek, the youth who sat across the table from him now, a little stern, a little too proper, but brave and good. Kana had told him how Ranek had helped them move their few possessions into the house and then stayed to rearrange the furnishings Barclu had provided. It was the kind of common kindness Carnat would never have thought of when he was a youth. Neril had tried to help him understand, and he flattered himself that he had almost learned the lessons she had to teach him before she had died and his courage had failed him.



Could such as Tomak, a prince raised in the luxury of a palace, understand the importance of such simple acts? The message Tagun had posted on the palace door suddenly seemed less ridiculous. "I hope you plan to participate in the contest for the hand of Caril, Ranek," Carnat said.



Tomak did not answer immediately. His eyes held a regretful look as if he feared he had lost something precious. Then he nodded. "I will do my best to win her," he vowed.



Chapter 7 Fraud Prince





In the wilds near the Or Bridge, a bandit glanced around to make sure he was alone, then he dragged a body from the tall marsh grass that lined the road and weighted it with stones. With little effort, he pushed it off the bank and watched it slide it into the greasy waters of the marsh. He knelt to gather up the clothing he had stripped from his victim but he was stopped by a rough hand that reached out and clutched his shoulder. He glanced up and flinched at the expression in the face of his burly chief, Zadan.



"What booty did you take, Skipe?" Zadan growled.



"Only the tunic and belt," the thief stammered. "Truly Zadan, he was only a courier." Skipe thrust a message packet toward the larger man.



Zadan's fingers dug into Skipe's shoulder until he gave a shout of pain. "I swear, he carried nothing else."



Zadan laughed wolfishly. "Remember what happened to Tolna. We may be thieves and liars, but never lie to me." He took the message packet from the other thief and tucked it into his belt pouch. He would wait to read it until he had returned to the privacy of his quarters in the midst of the camp. "Put some stones over the bloodstains you left near the bridge," he told Skipe. "Sloppy work like this will bring the Elite Guard down on our heads. You were told to wait until I gave the signal. I will consider the punishment you deserve for disobeying me."



Skipe ducked his head and hurried to carry out Zadan's demand. He had been a fool to kill the courier without orders. It was hardly necessary for the chief to mention Tolna. Instead of killing the rebel, or beating him, Zadan had betrayed him to the Jailer when they had last visited Jama. He had paid a fee that would keep Tolna in the worst cell of the infamous jail until he rotted. It was a fate that the robbers feared more than death.



Soon there was no sign that an ambush had taken place. Skipe returned to the trench near the pilgrim road where he was supposed to wait. He knew he had risked too much by leaving his covert hiding place to take the easy pickings of the courier. Zadan insisted on tight discipline among his men. When he had first taken over leadership of the gang, there had been many beatings until the lesson had sunk home. No actions were to take place without his authorization.



Skipe rubbed at his shoulder where Zadan had held him with his hard hand. The chief had been rough, but he had not seemed truly angry. Perhaps his punishment would be limited to a beating when they returned to their permanent camp on the edge of the marsh. He flinched at the thought. He would have deserted the gang long since but there was no denying that he had never seen such profits from thieving as he had since Zadan challenged the former chief and thrashed him.



Skipe settled lower into his narrow covert and batted away the bloodthirsty insects that hovered in a cloud over the dark waters of the marsh. There was noise of voices and footsteps on the road and he straightened up a little to see what was happening. A small grunt of disappointment gusted past his lips when he saw that it was only a group of pilgrims. They passed unhindered by the hidden thieves. Hours passed and it seemed that nothing but the whine of biting insects would disturb the silence of the marsh that hovered over the hidden men of Zadan's band. Some of them muttered curses, but none broke discipline.



The sun began to settle toward the horizon and it seemed the day would be empty of reward. Then a train of dalas, laden with packs of wool and led by a single armed Kumnoran started across the bridge. Skipe relaxed back against the bank with a sigh of disappointment, but Zadan signaled his men with the whistled cry of the marsh thit. Skipe heard the whisper of moving grass and knew that other men of the gang were creeping from their hiding places, still using the long marsh grass as concealment as they moved up behind the train of dalas.



He moved ahead of the other men, his knife at the ready. The ambush was swift and deadly. The Kumnoran teamster was taken before he had his bolika out of his belt. Once again Skipe committed murder. The body was hoisted onto one of the dalas and the train of animals was led over the rocky ground at the edge of the marsh to the robber camp. Two men followed behind to conceal the trail. A man who had recently joined Zadan's gang muttered at the seeming uselessness of the raid.



His objections were cut off with a rude word from Skipe. "Zhut! Zadan knows what he's doing. We've never lacked for a profit since he became boss." His words were proved when they reached the camp and the bundles of wool were torn apart. Tied gut pouches filled with docil root and dass tumbled out. The take was proof to the newcomer that Zadan deserved the respect and obedience the other men showed him. He had a knack for picking prey. The dalas were quickly slaughtered. After the haunches and loins had been hung to smoke over a low fire, their offal was buried in the same pit into which the body of the drug running teamster had been tossed,



Sunset ended the labors of the well run camp. Women handed out food and teased the men. Skipe was tied between two tussocks of marsh weed and Zadan wielded the whip. He left no deep welts with his blows. It was not a vicious beating, only an object lesson and Skipe was left with little more than a stinging back that would smart for a few days. After cutting the rascal loose, Zadan tossed him a packet of selan. It was a gesture that earned the leader a vow of gratitude from the man he had just finished beating.



While the other men celebrated their take by sampling the drugs, Zadan retired to the low hut he used as headquarters. Other men shared similar huts, usually three or four together. The few women shared another hut. Casual inspection of the camp would suggest nothing more than a random collection of hummocks in the marsh. Zadan had instructed his men to make dugouts in the turf, a task that had brought loud complaints at first, but they had used the redoubt for most of a year without detection. All of them were sworn with blood oaths that they would never reveal the secret camp or their companions.



So far, the strategy had worked. Zadan was aware that his career as the leader of the Or Bridge bandits would end if he relaxed his guard. He held the loyalty of his men by the thinnest of threads, their fear of his revenge, and their respect for his strategy. This last take was rich enough to silence complaints for a while.



Inevitably they would drink or gamble away their share in the booty and once again he would have to watch his back. For now, he could relax and try to find some way of freeing himself from the erratic existence of banditry. He cursed the day he had met Bodun, the Jaman who had seen his potential and bought him from the band of tumblers and players who had raised him. Bodun's schooling and introduction into the ways of banditry had proved profitable, but although the men of the robber gang regarded Zadan as their leader, every take was taxed by Bodun who seemed to have an uncanny knowledge of their successes. No doubt one of the men was Bodun's spy.



In time, Zadan expected to find out which of them earned an extra cut by double crossing his fellows, but even when he knew who it was, there was little he could do about it. Bodun would only find another skulk to aid him. It had been risky to attack one of Bodun's own caravans, but the men had been low spirited and the take had stilled their grumbles. He would make the loss good to Bodun with the profits he had kept for himself if he was ever asked to account for the attack.



Zadan relaxed on a low bench and looked around for something to read. He was a cut better than the men he led in at least one way. He had been taught to read and write by the leader of the traveling troupe he had lived with since his infancy. He feared that if he did not keep up the practice, he would lose even this difference. He remembered the tablet Skipe had taken from the courier. Light no longer filtered through the smoke-hole of his dugout so he lit an oil lamp on the bench near his bed and tried to make out the words on the tablet.



After struggling for a few moments with the subtle formal language, he was able to decipher the message. He put the tablet down and sat staring into the fire. There must be some way to utilize the information that Janaka's princess had not accepted the betrothal offer of the Zedeklan prince. The message hinted that she was willing to consider Tomak's suit along with any others who chose to court her.



If the message had reached Zedekla, Zadan's gang could have waylaid the prince who was sure to be richly dressed and carrying a bride price worthy of a princess. Perhaps they could send the message along with one of his men wearing the courier's tunic.



As soon as the idea occurred, Zadan discarded it. None of his men could maintain the masquerade that they were couriers. He would have to go himself. He scowled as he remembered the size of the man Skipe had sunk in the marsh. The livery of the dead courier would never fit Zadan's broad shoulders.



An image of Janaka's glittering palace rose in Zadan's memory. If he could not pretend to be a courier, there was no reason he could not pretend to be a suitor for the princess. Tagun's message indicated that the contest for her hand was open to all. It might give him access to the palace for long enough to carry off a truly worthy crime. And there was the chance that he might win the princess.



He bore no scars and his limbs were whole. No woman had ever denied him his way with her. It should be easy to don the face of propriety long enough to woo Caril. Zadan grinned at the thought of mingling with the elite of Okishdu who seemed to delight in reciting their lineage. The traveling troupe that had reared him had given him wide exposure to the petty nobility of the land. He had rubbed shoulders with barons and princes before he was old enough to shave, but he had never been inside one of the great palaces. This could be his chance.



Padmin the newest woman in the camp entered the dugout with a tray filled with meat and wine for his evening meal. She set down the tray and turned to him. When she saw the smile on his face, she twined her arms around his neck. "Zadan, is your smile for me?" she asked seductively.



He shoved her away impatiently and wolfed down the food she had prepared. When she ran her hand over his shoulder and under the edge of his tunic he caught her wrist. "Not now Padmin, I have work to do." He took the lamp from the shelf near the door and left the dugout. She watched him leave with sullen eyes but she made no complaint. Zadan was not an easy man , but she wanted to be accepted as his woman. He had purchased her freedom from the jail in Jama. That act alone deserved her loyalty.



Zadan climbed out of the camp to the rocky ground beyond. The flickering lamp lit the way to an outcrop where their treasure cave was located. He gave a sign to the watchman who guarded the entrance to the cave. "Go back to camp and enjoy yourself with the others," Zadan said. The guard was quick to obey. He had not grumbled when the duty was assigned, it would do no good and might earn him a place at Skipe's side during the whipping, but now he rejoiced in the unexpected boon.



When the man was gone, Zadan worked the lock that closed the sturdy door at the cave's entrance. Once inside, He shoved aside the piled packets of drugs and cleared away other obstructions until he reached a chest that contained clothing. Much of what they took after a raid was torn or bloodstained but these garments were whole and relatively clean.



He sorted through them and finally found several decent tunics that might help his henchmen look less wild. There were only a few things that were big enough to fit him. He lingered over one tunic that was ornately trimmed with gold braid. It had been part of a tailor's inventory. It might be made to fit him with touch of clever alteration. Padmin would know how to make it fit. She had worked as a wardrobe maid for a highborn lady in Jama before being jailed for some minor chicanery.



He closed the clothing chest and went to the back of the cavern. After setting the lamp down on a box of swords and knives, he moved several large rocks aside to reveal a small locked chest within a cavity in the wall. If he intended to vie with others for the hand of a princess, a few jewels could prove useful. He opened the chest and selected a few medals and a pendant to decorate his costume. Several handsome rings caught his eye and he tried them on his fingers. Even in the dim light from the lamp, they glittered brilliantly. He frowned when he noticed the grime on his knuckles and nails. The dirty digits made a poor setting for the gems. He searched around until he found soap and a comb among the booty.



He restored the jewel chest to its hiding place and left the cave. After securing the lock, he placed a few stones where anyone attempting to open the door would displace them. The man who had guard duty at the cave was unlikely to be in any condition to stand watch after sampling dass and docil with his fellows.



Zadan returned to his dugout and found Padmin lounging on his cot. She held her arms out to him but he dumped the clothing on her lap and ordered her to alter it to fit him as he positioned the oil lamp to light her work. He ignored Padmin's petulant scowl while he looked for a clean tunic and loin cloth in his clothing chest. Her emotional displays were as false as the paper flowers she wore in her hair. By the time he gathered what he needed, Padmin was sullenly stooped over the alterations.



Throughout the camp, men lay around the guttering camp fires, mouths agape and eyes staring. They were well gone on dass and docil. He had seen too many caught in the grip of the drugs to risk taking them himself. He headed up out of the marsh in the direction of a spring that provided the camp with fresh water.



When he reached the pool near the spring he took off all his clothing. It had been months since he had bathed and he was suddenly aware of the stink of his discarded clothing. His opinion of Padmin suffered another blow. How could she find him attractive with such an odor? He washed himself all over with the soap he had brought from the booty cave and used his knife to scrape away the beard that hid his lower face. His hair was greasy and lank and he returned to the stream and used up the rest of the soap to wash away the accumulation of ash and dirt. When he was satisfied that the grime was gone, he climbed out of the stream and dressed. He dragged the comb through the wild tangle of wet hair, jerking at the knotted snarls. It was a painful task, but finally his hair lay smooth on his shoulders. He pulled it back and tied it neatly at his nape with a bit of leather string.



It was chilly labor but in the days that he had been part of a wandering troupe of actors and acrobats, he had learned the value of cleanliness. It was the most important factor in presenting the appearance of decorum when they entertained the gentry. The effect of fine words and clothing could not overcome grime and stink.



When he returned from the stream bank and entered his dugout Padmin looked up from her mending and gasped. Her jaw dropped and she stared at him.



"Close your mouth and stop gaping at me," he ordered her.



"I'm sorry, but I hardly recognized you," Padmin said. "For a moment, I thought you were Tomak. You could be his older brother,"



"What do you know of the Zedeklan prince?" Zadan demanded.



"Last year I was in the service of the Pontic's niece, Olina. Tomak was courting her. Before she sent me to law for filching one of her bracelets, I saw the Zedeklan many times. He is a few years younger than you, but as I say, you could have been his brother."



"His brother, or possibly, the prince himself," Zadan mused. He absently reached out to fondle Padmin's shoulder. His earlier irritation with her had changed with her revelation. The woman he had called mother for most of his childhood had claimed at times that he was the son of a Zedeklan prince. That was only one of many stories she told him, so he had never given the idea any credence. Now he saw a new way to take advantage of the message from Tagun. Since the courier would never reach Zedekla, Tomak would not be summoned to Janaka. It was unlikely that anyone could dispute Zadan's claim that he was the prince of Zedekla. He would have open entry into the palace and perhaps even succeed in marrying the princess before his deception could be discovered. Tagun was said to be a fool for the girl. She could be the key that would set him free of Bodun's grasp.



"Tell me all you can about Tomak," Zadan told Padmin. "You must have overheard him referring to his family and home. No matter how small the detail, it might be important."



"He said little about himself, but Olina filled the servants' ears with every detail she knew about him," Padmin said. "They had been acquainted for years before he was inveigled into courting her."



Zadan listened intently as she recited the names of the Zedeklan royal family and told several anecdotes that only someone close to them would be likely to know. As the hour grew late, it was evident that Padmin had listened with unusual attention to the stories Olina had to tell. She seem to have been infatuated with Tomak herself. Zadan was a little irritated until he realized that it only worked to his advantage that she had been such an eager student of the Zedeklan prince's life.



As she spoke, Zadan felt he was coming to know Tomak. He couldn't know that Olina's version of Tomak's character had been formed by her own selfishness and pride. There was no mention of the prince's long years of careful training under the eye of a kindly but demanding parent or the service he had given to the Elite Guard. The bandit leader formed an idea of the role he would play that reflected his own character far more than that of Tomak.



When Padmin finally became so weary that her head nodded and she lost her train of thought, his own part in the charade was fixed. He would need only to recruit a suitable retinue from among his gang. They were a motley crew, and at the moment, every one of them was passed out on the ground, heedless of the cold and the insects that feasted on them. It was useless to do anything until the night had passed. Padmin had slumped to her side on the narrow cot and he left her there. Before bathing he hadn't noticed that the blankets reeked of old sweat and spilled food. He must mend his manners if he hoped to pass for a prince. He padded a bale with one of the tunics Padmin had been altering wrapped a nearly new cloak around himself and fell asleep in relative cleanliness and comfort.

He rose the next morning filled with zeal to begin the masquerade. He walked among the sleeping men and surveyed them. Several were a little less villainous looking than the others. Ironically, Skipe was one of the men he chose to form his retinue. He was a man who killed at the slightest excuse, but he had a guileless face that invited trust. As soon as Zadan could wake the men he had chosen with kicks and curses, he ordered them to bathe and dress in the tunics he had selected from the clothing chest.



Several days passed while he instructed them in the rudiments of etiquette so that they would not give the game away as soon as they met ordinary citizens. Failures were punished in ways that would not show on their faces. They were still not quite credible as courtiers when he decided that they must leave for Janaka. All his effort would go for naught if they failed to arrive in time to take part in the contest for Caril. He gave them dire warnings about the results of any petty thievery that might expose their fraud and ordered them to take a final bath.



He had packed several special items in his baggage including some magic tricks picked up in a raid on an Orquian temple. After giving instructions for his absence to his only trustworthy crony, Tagunk, Zadan set forth for Janaka.



The troupe of thieves spent the night in a covert near the city. Zadan debated whether he should wear his sword, a heavy Janakan execution blade from the days of King Jagga, or leave it concealed in the hideout. At last he borrowed a less distinctive weapon from one of his men and hid his own sword in a cleft in one of the rocks that surrounded the camp. After making preparations to appear properly regal in a tunic decorated with gold braid, he sent three of his men ahead to the city to announce the approach of Tomak of Zedekla.



Tomak was among the first to hear that a man claiming to be the prince of Zedekla was planning to enter the city in the afternoon. The men who brought the message were busily organizing a demonstration to welcome their leader into the city. Tomak was curious to see the man who claimed his name. He found a place near the gate where the pretend prince would enter. He expected to be briefly amused before stepping forward and revealing the ruse of the pretender.



When Zadan entered the city, he was greeted by a cheering claque who had been paid to applaud him. Tomak stared at the man in astonishment and felt a chill run over his skin as he looked into an older, harsher version of his brother, Durek's, features. There was enough resemblance to his own face that it would be simple for such a man to fool casual acquaintances into accepting him as Tomak. If he challenged the imposter himself, the two of them would be required to give proof of who they were. There was every chance that the other man, dressed in an elegant tunic and attended by a retinue of servants, would be acclaimed the prince.



In his haste to leave Zedekla in disguise, Tomak had deliberately rid himself of any telltale rings or seals. He had wanted to avoid recognition. He once again rued his decision to conceal his true name.



He tried to think of some means of exposing the imposter as he followed the gang through the streets to the palace. Only one day remained before the beginning of the contest for the hand of Caril. There was not enough time for him to send to Zedekla for proof of his identity. There were Zedeklans in Janaka, merchants and others whom he knew vaguely, but none of them would be able to tell for certain that it was he and not the other man who was truly Tomak. All of his new friends knew him by the name of Ranek.



Caril had heard the rumor that Tomak had come to Janaka. Hearing the acclaim of the crowd, she watched the approach of Zadan from her vantage point in the tower of the palace. From a distance she thought the richly dressed prince was the man she knew as Ranek. Joy lit her face. It was a happy surprise to learn that the man she thought she could love was the prince who had offered for her hand.



Then the procession drew near and she noticed that the man claiming to be Prince Tomak had a cruel, proud expression on his face. Leaning forward to see better, she saw someone in the crowd following the prince. It was a face she knew, a face so like the proud face of the acclaimed prince that they might have been brothers. Her heart fell. There would be no easy solution to her problem. She was certain Tagun would favor the prince in his suit for her hand.



In the crowds that followed Zadan on his triumphal entry into the city, there were two people who studied him with more than common interest. Ayarlan, disguised as an old woman, and Carnat, his hair clipped short in Janakan style, a short, graying beard concealing most of his lower face, stood unwarily next to each other for a brief moment until the shifting crowd separated them.



Just before the disguised queen was swept around a corner by the press of the crowd, Carnat caught a glimpse of her face and felt a chill of recognition. Then he dismissed the thought that the dumpy old woman with tangled gray hair could be his proud wife. The very existence of Ranek and the Zedeklan prince, as alike as twins, proved that faces could be repeated in different people. He wondered if he had a double, and if so, what the man might be doing at that moment.



As the troop of outlaws moved through the city, Ayarlan stayed close behind. The barbaric splendor of Janaka's towers seemed a fitting background to the hard-faced young man dressed in black and scarlet with ornaments of gold. She was certain he was the prince of Zedekla. None other could so closely resemble another prince, the murdered Zadak, who she had loved when she was young.



Ayarlan felt a wave of keen regret that she had grown too old to claim Tomak for herself. But then, who knew what might happen once he married Carlan. Perhaps he would prefer a woman with power and wealth to the pallid, sentimental fool her daughter had become in spite of all Ayarlan had tried to teach her.



Somehow she would take him. She looked forward to the challenge. It would give her a chance to test the power of her drugs.



Carnat disliked the prince on sight. In Zadan's arrogant features he saw something of his younger self. Neril had melted his careless selfishness, but he was certain he had been younger and more vulnerable when he had abducted the Mareklan maiden and married her than his hard faced royal scion. Having met Caril, Carnat rejected the idea of letting her fall into the careless, probably cruel hands of the man all accepted as the prince of Zedekla.



When Zadan approached the gate of the palace, Tagun was there to welcome him to the palace as a guest. It was not according to the rules he had set for the contest, but he justified the invitation on the basis of diplomacy. Surely it would be poor statecraft to refuse his hospitality to Zedekla's prince.



Zadan and his gang were given the best quarters in the guest wing of the palace. Tilla was suspicious of their roguish appearance and ordered that a close watch be kept on the group, but Zadan had warned his men before they left their hideout that any of them who were caught taking advantage of living in the palace would die. In the midst of more wealth than they had ever seen, they were careful not to hold even the gold cutlery in the dining room for longer than it took to cut their meat



Zadan had hoped to beguile Caril once he was in the palace but Tilla told Tagun it would taint the contest to give the royal suitor an opportunity to court Caril before others entered the list. Tagun reluctantly agreed. Although he had promised to let Caril make up her own mind, he felt it would be best if she made alliance with the rich and powerful prince of Zedekla instead of favoring an impecunious wanderer. Although the city inns were teeming with prospective suitors, he suspected that Caril had already determined the outcome of the contest. He would do everything he could to turn her thoughts to the prince.



When Carnat returned to the Inn of the Wizard Smith for his noon meal, he pondered the problem he had created by offering Caril to the Zedeklan heir. Tomak entered the dining room and sat beside him. "Have you seen the man who calls himself Prince of Zedekla?" Tomak asked.



"Yes, and I am frightened for the princess," Carnat replied. "I have enough experience of life to recognize a rogue when I see one." He looked across the table at Tomak. "You must have ties to the royal house of Zedekla. You look like the prince. Perhaps we could arrange to drug the prince and have you take his place."



Tomak laughed, but both of them knew it was a sad jest. Janakan security seemed casual to strangers, but anyone who knew Barga, knew it was unlikely that any defense of Tagun and his guests had been overlooked. Tomak had made a realistic assessment of the band of men surrounding the pretender. They were like a pack of wild dogs, vicious and barely under the control of their leader.



One of them resembled a sketch that was circulated among the Elite Guards. It was said that the man murdered as other men might cough or swat at a fly. If there were a way to prove that such a villain was among the imposter's retinue, the masquerade might be destroyed. Unfortunately, Tomak did not know if the sketch had penetrated as far as Janaka. He turned his thoughts to the only other means he knew of keeping an eye on the pretender.



"Tomorrow will be the first day of the selection. I plan to participate so I should get some rest," Tomak said. He rose and paid the innkeeper for his dinner.



"I wish you well Ranek," Carnat said. "I feel that the princess would be far better off with you than with that royal rogue from Zedekla."



The next morning long lines of men queued in front of the palace for the first test. At the arched gateway, the elderly and feeble were turned away by Barga who made a quick judgment of each man's health and strength. Less than half of those who had come to Janaka in pursuit of Caril's hand made it past the wary captain to gather in the courtyard.



Tilla, flanked by two of Barga's men to quell dispute, instructed each applicant to go through a series of movements. As a nurse and medicine woman, she could recognize the more subtle disabilities that betrayed a poor constitution. Some men complained that she was arbitrary, but they were those who had been unable to balance for a few moments on one leg or walk a narrow line from one door to the other.



Caril felt embarrassed by the crowd of men who stood like a line of dalas being sold by a Kumnoran teamster. She would let the others play at separating out the suitors, but her own eyes were trained to catch sight of Ranek. If he did not appear among those who sought her hand, the worst of her fears would be realized. If she had known where he was staying in Janaka, she would have made certain he knew of her preference for him. If he did come, she would make sure that he was not denied a right to try for her hand by some arbitrary judgment of Barga or Tilla.



When she finally recognized him her heart lifted from the depths to which it had fallen during the hours of the night when she feared he would not come. She concealed herself in a latticed arcade that overlooked the courtyard and followed his progress. If anyone tried to turn him back, she would step forward and end the foolishness. Meanwhile, she was curious to see how well he matched up to the other men who had come to court her.



Tagun supervised a test that required sharp eyes and good perception. A target of pale blue and red was marked with pale green circles. A bow requiring a strong pulling arm was provided. The bow was strung to send an arrow slightly off course. Keen perception and a good eye would be required to send the second of two arrows into the target. Many of the waiting suitors lost hope as they realized the scope of the eliminating rounds.



"This is a pitiful business," a burly Jaman said when he was sent away for having rotting teeth. "I expected a joust or some other feat of courage, not a picky search for a pretty boy to tickle the princess with his long lashes." His glowering glance took in the two young men who stood at either end of the dwindling line. There was no denying that they were attractive specimens, so much alike in the breadth of their shoulders and casually arrogant stance that anyone might have taken them for brothers.



The Jaman spoke too soon. The next test, reserved for the afternoon when lunch and a rest period had restored the waiting men, was a sparring match with Barga's best trained warriors. The contestants were well padded, but most of them limped away from the encounter, happy that the swords were made of wood. Both Zadan and Tomak acquitted themselves well. Caril knew she must watch to be sure that the man she preferred took no hurt, but she had flinched with every blow that had threatened to connect with Tomak's body, however padded.



Somehow he managed to parry every thrust. His wooden sword had moved as if it had a life of its own, darting and striking but without the brutal power that the prince displayed. Tomak won his matches on contact points alone. The prince won by driving his opponent from the area marked for the contest.



As evening approached, fifty men remained of the hundreds who had come to court Caril. At one end of the hall stood Zadan, proudly confident that with his stolen identity, and his natural abilities, he would win the princess. Tomak waited last in line for the final test of the day.



Caril entered the room and smiled at the line of men. "I am flattered that you would go through such an ordeal to earn my notice," she said, her dimple flashing. "There is one remaining challenge to pass today. I will go into the corridor at the end of the room and invite each of you to come in one by one." Her smile swept the line of men. Tomak hoped it was no illusion that her eyes had lingered a little longer on his face.



Tagun was surprised by her request. She had said nothing of her plans to him. He gestured to Tilla and they followed Caril as she stepped into the corridor. The first man to enter was Zadan. He had looked forward to meeting the princess face to face and he was pleased with what he saw. She was as beautiful close up as she had appeared from a distance. There was a lift of her brow that revealed pride and spirit.



It would be a pleasure to subdue her, once he won her hand. He rotated his shoulders to demonstrate the smooth play of his muscles as he stopped before her.



"I want you to lift yourself from the floor," she said. Zadan smiled into Caril's eyes with a look that had melted many women to his will. Caril felt a shiver of distaste at his blatant gaze but kept a pleasant smile on her face.



Zadan considered her request briefly, then he took off his tunic, revealing a hard, sun-bronzed body. He tucked the ends of his kilted loincloth to the side and inhaled deeply. The muscles of his broad chest rippled with power. Bending over, he put his hands on the floor and proceeded to execute a graceful handstand. Then he adjusted his position and put all his weight on one hand. He waited there for a moment, steady as a stone pillar.



"Thank you, you may go," Caril said. Zadan made a graceful recovery, leaping upright and stooping to gather his ornate tunic. When he swaggered out of the corridor through the far door Tagun clapped his hands once in brief approval.



"It is curious that a prince can perform like a professional acrobat," Caril murmured.



"I'm certain he has been trained in all the arts of a warrior," Tagun assured her. "He was un-excelled in the sparring." He wished he could deny that Ranek had performed equally as well. All of the combatants had used wooden swords provided by the palace guard, but the styles of swordsmanship of the prince and the other youth had been quite different. If he had not inspected the weapons himself before the sparring began, he would have said they were of different lengths.



One by one the other applicants entered and were given the same directions by Caril. Some seem puzzled by the request, but eventually most of the men performed some form of handstand. Sometimes it was only with difficulty that Caril held back a laugh. Finally Tomak entered.



"I wish you to lift yourself from the floor Ranek," Caril repeated for the last time, but this time her smile was more than mere formality.



"How high should I lift myself?" Tomak asked with a grin.



"Oh, about so high," Caril said, bending over to hold her hand a few feet from the floor.



Tagun frowned. She was asking the impossible. It seemed strange that Caril was posing a greater challenge for this young man than she had for any of the other suitors. Perhaps she meant to discourage him. After seeing the magnificent display of form presented by her first suitor, it would be no wonder if she had decided to favor the prince.



Instead of being discouraged by Caril's request, Tomak smiled and leaped nimbly into the air. "Is that high enough, my lady?" he asked with a smile.



Caril laughed. "It is higher than any other lifted himself. In fact, you are the only one who managed to lift yourself completely off the ground. Do not tell the others, but you have won the test."



Tomak smiled and bowed and walked away. He barely restrained an impulse to look back and grin at the princess. When he left the room he coughed into his hand to conceal the glee on his face.



As soon as the young man had left the room, Tagun protested. "Caril, the prince of Zedekla showed greater strength. Surely he is the man who won the contest."



"This was not necessarily a test of strength," Caril replied with a small smile. She had been unusually cheerful since that morning when she realized that Ranek had taken his place in the long line of applicants. She had watched the prince and Ranek through the long day of testing, and she found that their resemblance, so uncanny at first, grew less and less apparent. The superficial similarities of form and face faded before the differences in their characters.



Tagun looked at Tilla and shook his head. He had hoped that the heir of Zedekla would make Caril forget her infatuation, but she seemed determined to favor the younger man. He decided to ask Caril to join him at dinner that evening while he entertained the prince. Surely the eloquence the Zedeklan displayed would impress her. Tagun was disappointed when Caril sent a servant with the message that she had decided to retire early.



Zadan had looked forward to the dinner after Tagun had hinted that Caril would be present. When he found that he was seated next to Okagun instead of the princess, he was barely tolerant of the boy's questions. Still, it would pay to keep the good opinion of the heir of Janaka, although he expected he would soon supplant him once he had married Tagun's favorite.



Okagun sensed Zadan's impatience, even though the man made no obvious comments or gestures. It almost seemed that he was an actor, playing the part of a prince. Okagun grinned at his own imagination and set himself to try and entertain their guest as Tagun had asked him. He found himself wishing it were Ranek sitting next to him at the table.



The other candidates for Caril's hand who had passed the tests of the first day, were given quarters in the barracks that lay in back of the palace. They were fed the generous but plain rations of the palace guard. Tomak looked around the table at the other men who had come to court Caril. They were a varied lot, ranging from the gaunt young farmer from the hills of Taleeka to a plump and preening Jaman youth named Yonk who was quick to protest the lack of sauces at the table.



When the meal had finished, the men lingered and exchanged views. None of them had anything but good to say about Caril. Most had come to take part in the contest in the hope of gaining the dowry that Tagun would doubtless bestow on the winner. Some had seen the princess before they had decided to enter the list as a suitor. They included several Kumnorans who seemed to have few expectations of actually winning her hand, but who had enjoyed the privilege of speaking to her for more than the casual chafing they engaged in when they joked with her in the market place.



With one accord the other contestants had little good to say about the false prince. "It is unfair that he dines with her while we must eat this swill," Yonk whined.



"I think it is in our favor if she spends time with him," a Taleekan named Ezral countered. "She seems to have a lively wit and good taste. I would think the pompous prince would soon bore her with his self promotion."



"Women care little for what a man says or does," the Jaman countered. "I heard that Tomak courted Olina, one of our loveliest women. He broke her heart when he abandoned her, but did she forget him and turn her eyes to others? No. She still plots some way to win him."



Tomak was surprised at the Jaman's claim. "Surely the fair Olina has salved the hurt by turning to another man."



"Olina might turn to many men," Yonk sulked. "But if the prince of Zedekla wanted her, she would abandon all, even a husband and a suckling child, and flee to him."



The information did nothing to make Tomak regret his decision to quit Jama when he learned the truth about Olina's character. Surely a woman who would hold the bonds of matrimony and motherhood so cheap was not what he wanted. He could not imagine Caril doing such a thing.



A Tedakan named Bunda echoed his thoughts. "From what I have seen and learned of the princess Caril, she would honor the covenant of marriage even if her heart was torn. There are those who delight in evil gossip, and I have heard a few tales that do not do her credit, but they always originated in the small minds of those who were jealous of her beauty and charm. It will be a sorry thing if she chooses the bully prince. But even one such as he would be improved by marriage to such a woman."



One of the men had brought a hand harp and another produced a set of pipes. The rest of the evening was wiled away in minstrelsy. Tomak had a fine voice and a talent for poetry. While others joined in familiar songs that praised the heroes, saints and ladies of former times, he drew a slate and chalk to his place at the table that had been cleared and put down his thoughts about Caril in verse.



"Why are you frowning so intently over your slate while the rest of us sing?" Bunda asked.



The Jaman, Yonk, snatched the slate from Tomak and read the verses in a falsetto that mocked their sentiments.



"The fiery clouds of sunset are no rival to her ruby curls,



The gold and amber of her eyes shine with the light of sunlit pools,



What art could shape the lips that frame a glimpse of whitest pearls



Who could count the hearts wherein her image rules."



"Even your nasal whine cannot destroy the beauty of the words he has written," Ezral laughed. "Fetch a harp for him and let us hear him sing the poetry. That will tell us if he is truly a gentleman minstrel."



"I was only scribbling," Tomak protested. "I did not mean to make a public display of what I had written."



Yonk's lower lip stuck out well beyond his chin, "Do you claim that this is simply a minor effort, a mere trifle?"



Ezral laughed and aimed a cuff at the lively Jaman. "You are the one who tried to ridicule what he had written. Now you admit that it is true poetry and resent him for relegating it to a scribble. Come, Ranek, we must hear you sing your words."



Tomak took the harp and strummed some chords, there were plenty of well known melodies that might fit the meter of his poetry, but he recalled a song he had heard when he first arrived in Janaka, the song of Neril the Saadenans had sung. He would borrow some of the elements of that melody for his song of Caril and expand the words beyond mere praise of her physical attributes. He did not like to show off, but he had been challenged and he would meet the demand.







The fire of sunset lights her hair



Her eyes are filled with loving care



For all her subjects, low and high



She brings the thought of heaven nigh,



She brings the thought of heaven nigh.







Her profile pure shows her high race,



But loving laughter lights her face



No proud disdain defiles her glance.



Her smile invites my soul to dance,



Her smile invites my soul to dance.







Love has struck me with a dart



Her image rules within my heart.



If she chooses another, my heart will mourn



Be he low, or princely born



Be he low, or princely born.



Other contestants who had not been privy to the request that Ezral had made drew near as the rich tones of Tomak's voice gave a plaintive twist to the last phrases. They all shared the sentiment. Whatever their original motives had been when they came to Janaka, all had been smitten with Caril.



A few moments of silence followed the sounding of the last chord, then Yonk stood and faced the men. "I find it hard to believe Ranek's claim that he simply invented this song on the spur of the moment. Gossip says that the contest for the princess includes a literary challenge. It appears that Ranek has also heard this information and has hired a poet to make him look better in her eyes. I think it is only fair if we ask him to promise us that he will not use this song to woo Caril."



Tomak laughed. "I am surprised that you would accuse me of hiring someone to provide such a trifle. Any of you could surely come forward with similar songs if you were given a chance."



"You will persist?" Yonk shouted. "You will commit this fraud and win her under false pretenses?"



"By no means will I commit any fraud to win the Princess," Tomak rebuked the Jaman. "If you are so certain this song of mine is dubious, then I will gladly prove you wrong. I swear that I will not use this or any other poetry, be it my own effort or that of past masters, to win the favor of Caril."



"It is unfair to make such a requirement of you," Ezral protested.



"All of us should take a similar pledge," Bunda said.



"I will not require it of you," Tomak answered.



His generosity was noted by the other contestants. Only Yonk found anything suspicious in his vow, but Yonk had been raised to see hidden motives in every man's words. His Jaman mind was so subtle and suspicious that it deprived him of the joy of friendship. As the other men clustered around Tomak and begged him to sing again, Yonk retired to a corner and sulked. None of the others noticed that he had slipped the slate with Tomak's poem into his pocket.



The fifty men who had passed the tests of the first day gathered in the great council room of the palace the next morning. Zadan gazed around with avaricious eyes at the mosaics depicting the lands of Janaka. When the princess was his wife he would govern all this. He knew that Tagun had named young Okagun as his heir, but Zadan was certain it would not be long before none stood in the way of his plans to rule Janaka. Though it would inevitably come to light that he was not Zedekla's prince, by that time, he would have Caril as hostage and obstacles could be removed. He had not yet taken a human life, but Skipe would enjoy the task.



Zadan had joined the bandit gang only a few years ago after being instructed by Bodun. He now ruled over fifty hard men. Surely it would be less difficult to make himself ruler of a city of ordinary people. He had heard legends of the hardy strength of Janaka's warriors, and many of the men wore battle tattoos on their cheeks, but it was difficult to imagine true warriors letting a chubby little man like Tagun rule over them.



He noticed the young man known as Ranek talking to one of the remaining candidates. His men had told him that there was a rumor that Ranek had somehow won the test of strength set by the princess. Zadan dismissed the idea. He had been an acrobat before Bodun had prepared him for joining the bandits. From early childhood he had excelled in physical strength. Few, if any, could have excelled his performance.



Ranek stood out among the others. Zadan noticed that the younger man looked somewhat like himself and he wondered if he was yet another by-blow of Zedeklan royalty. Surely he had never been as callow as Ranek, he assured himself.



A page sounded a note on the zole horn that hung near the door and the room grew silent as Tagun, Barga, Tilla, and Caril entered. The king took his place on a dais with Caril seated next to him. "It is time to begin the second day of testing," Tagun announced. "There are wise men who cannot read and write, or do simple sums, and there are fools who can expostulate for hours on learned themes; however, you must know how to read and write to pass the next part of the test."



Significant glances were exchanged between Ezral and Bunda. They wondered how Yonk had known of this part of the proceedings. Some of those gathered began to protest the requirement, but Barga motioned and his tall guards took one step forward and lifted their spears slightly. The room was quickly cleared of those who could not meet the requirement. None of the Kumnorans had made the cut, but they left the room with laughter and a final wave of their hands toward Caril. She rewarded them with a sunny smile and a wink.



Several of them were familiar to her from confrontations in the market place. They knew of her tenderness for even such animals as the stolid dalas they drove, and deliberately brought her rebukes. She was sorry that all of them had been eliminated, but it was common knowledge that except for the family of sages founded by Tharek's companion, Fozli, Kumnorans disdained reading and writing, relying on their prodigious memories to keep track of family genealogies and the claims of commerce and honor.



Thirty-five men remained to follow the royal party into Tagun's library. Long tables stretched down the center of the room and the walls were covered by racks holding scrolls and tablets. Each man was shown to a seat well separated from others. Several slates and marking chalks were placed before them.



"Each of you must compose a missive telling why you should be given the hand of the princess in marriage," Tagun said. "You may use all the resources of this library in composing your answer. When you are finished, give your composition to Lady Tilla and go find other amusement until we announce the results of the test."



Yonk clearly his throat with a loud noise that brought all eyes to him. He stared at Tomak with a look that challenged him to keep the promise he had made that he would not use his poetry to charm Caril. Bunda gave a snort of disgust, but Tomak nodded. He needed no reminder of his pledge. The men took their places.



Tomak stared at the blank slate. All around him the other men were searching the resources of the library or busily writing. Soon the room seemed to hiss with the sound of chalk on slate but Tomak continued to gaze out of a window. Finally he took up his chalk and wrote a few words. Then he stood and took the single slate to Tilla.



Zadan watched his rival leave the room and felt triumphant. While still a child, he had memorized the roles of the plays presented by the traveling troupe. Now he let the most romantic of the speeches flow through his mind. He cynically patched them together in graceful prose. He had been happy to see the young man known as Ranek quit so soon. Glancing around him he was certain there was no other who could be a challenge to him. All the others had finished and handed Tilla their efforts before Zadan had filled his slates. After the final line he wrote. "I should be given the hand of the princess because her father promised her to the Prince of Zedekla."



His confidence in his superiority made him swagger more than usual when he walked up to Tilla and piled the slates before her. He gave her a broad wink, then strolled out of the palace and went to the marketplace with his men flanking him on either side. He enjoyed the servility of those merchants whose shops he chose to patronize. He liked being a prince. It gave far greater scope for his pride than being the head of a band of thieves.



Ayarlan shadowed Zadan's cortege, watching for her chance to invite him to partake of the wine she had drugged. As she watched the hard young man snub another shop keeper, she rued the years that separated them.



If only she had married such a man, they could rule the world by now. She recognized his kindred spirit to Zadak. His resemblance to her lost love proved her suspicion that Zadak had been of royal birth. She had never known for sure who had murdered him. Her thoughts of him brought back bitter memories of frustration and suspicion. She would not be cheated again.



Carnat also kept an eye on the false prince. He rued his contract with King Farek as he watched the progress of the company of men through the city. Wherever he went, the prince humiliated the merchants he encountered. In a loud voice he derided their merchandise and rejected their services. His henchmen laughed rudely at his jests. Only the richness of their clothing distinguished them from the louts who followed Tull. It was easy to imagine them lurking in darkness to take a stranger unaware. Carnat shivered with revulsion. He should have let the contract stand as Ayarlan wrote it, but he realized that even Carlan did not deserve such a fate.



In the palace, Barga and Tagun sat across a table from Tilla and Caril with the heaps of slates between them. They applied themselves to reading the results of the latest test. It was hard work. Some men who had tried to write their sentiments, should have left the room with the others who had admitted they were illiterate. At last twelve sets of slates remained in competition. They ranged from the heavy pile submitted by Zadan to the one slate submitted by Tomak.



"The prince is unusually articulate," Tagun observed as he weighed the slates Zadan had written.



"But Ranek has again won the test," Caril said, picking up the single slate and reading aloud what was written there, "I love Caril and would love her just as well if her father were a fisherman."



"There is no poetry, no allusions to the beauty of your eyes and hair," Tilla protested. She picked up the slate submitted by Yonk. "This piece of poetry by the Jaman is quite charming. He compares your curls to sunset and your teeth to pearls."



"Isn't he the plump one with sly eyes?" Caril asked. "I could not choose him, even if his poetry were his own. Ranek has used few words, but he has won my heart."



"It is a wise man who can state the core of the matter so succinctly," Barga said.



"But the prince of Zedekla should be the winner," Tagun said with his lip jutted out in pugnacious argument. "He excelled all others in effort expended and in his articulate phrasing. Whatever Caril says, I think he won the physical challenge as well,"



Tagun let the heavy stack of slates thump down on the table. "We will see what happens tomorrow when these twelve men meet in personal combat against each other. I look forward to seeing how the Prince will do. He was a member of the Elite Guard. There could be no finer training."



"Don't forget, Ranek also served on the pilgrimage roads," Barga said. "I'll lay odds that he will acquit himself as well in tomorrow's contest as he did yesterday and today."



"I know now that I would choose Ranek even if he had failed both tests," Caril admitted. "I won't subject him to any other. If I had known him longer before you announced my betrothal, Father, there would have been no question of my choice. It is unfair to let the other suitors continue to think they have a chance to win my hand in marriage. There will be no more testing."



"I wish you had made a different choice," Tagun said reluctantly. "But I agreed that you would have the final say. I will have Barga make inquiries about his activities since he came to Janaka. I will not allow you to wed a rogue. Do you promise that your betrothal to Ranek will be set aside if there is anything questionable about him?"



Caril nodded. "It is true that we know very little about him, and I am no more eager to bind myself to a villain than you are to see me do so."



"But he claims no exalted relatives, no prominent family," Tilla said.



Caril smiled. "I have seen enough of Ranek to believe that he is the best candidate for my hand. Whatever his parentage, he has more nobility than the proud prince of Zedekla" She held up the slate with its few but well phrased words. "Even though he wrote few words, they are eloquent. He told Barga he had served with the Elite Guard and his actions in rescuing Barclu would seem to validate that claim. Set Barclu to see what gossip he can find, but I am convinced it will be most mundane. If there is any fault in Ranek, it is that he is a little too reserved and proper."



"That is hardly a fault in a husband," Tilla protested.



Tagun spread his hands in a gesture of resignation. "If Barclu passes him, I will tell the heralds to announce that a decision will be given tomorrow. Now let's leave these slates for the servants to erase." He hoped that Caril would repent of her decision before the announcement was made the next day. It would be difficult to answer the questions that would arise if Carnat's contract with Farek were not honored. On the other hand, Tagun would not sacrifice his daughter's happiness for the slightest diplomatic considerations.



"I will keep this slate," Caril said, hugging Tomak's message to her breast.



"You will probably hang it on the wall of your room," Tilla teased the princess.



"Yes, I think I will," Caril replied with a saucy grin.



Later that day Tagun waited for the banker who had been rescued by Caril's chosen suitor to arrive at his private audience room. Several hours had passed since he had sent a message to the magnate asking for his information. Although Barga was in charge of the palace guard, Barclu had more sources of information. It was important for the innkeepers and merchants of Janaka to keep track of any rogues who visited the city. They had formed an association and hired investigators to mingle with the crowds and observe any who seemed set on swindling or robbing. It would not take long to determine if the youth, Ranek had betrayed evil inclinations.



Barclu was announced and Tagun looked up to see that the banker wore a solemn face. His emotions about Caril's choice had wavered from reluctant acceptance to hope that Barclu would have evidence that he was a rogue. Now that he saw the banker's bleak expression he felt regret. He did not want to see Caril unhappy, and she would be if her chosen suitor was denied.



"What evil report of Ranek furrows your brow?" Tagun asked.



"Ranek?" Barclu exclaimed. "The message from Barga said I should investigate the Zedeklan prince and a few other suitors including Ranek. I have found nothing to discredit Ranek. Indeed, he has behaved himself far more nobly than the man who bears the royal title. He has paid his debts without demur. The taverns have no knowledge of him because he spends most of his time with the Saadenans he rescued. When one of my men questioned the woman, Nara, she expressed gratitude for the help he has given them. He is, of all the suitors, the one I would welcome in my own home. If I had an unmarried daughter, I would solicit his interest."



"Then why the furrowed brow?" Tagun asked.



"I am sorry, but the report I have of the Zedeklan prince is less auspicious. He has not done anything overt, but with his attitude, he supports the depredations of his men. They leave the palace at night to frequent low taverns. They have filched from merchants and denied thefts that were openly witnessed by several people. They are bullies who belie the high position of their master. One cannot help but wonder why he tolerates their company."



"I had wondered at their rough demeanor, but I have seen many good men who could not conduct themselves well in formal company," Tagun said. "I am distressed to hear that they are not merely crude, but actually corrupt. Thank you for your report. It has been enlightening."



Barclu nodded, "I would have told you whatever my queries revealed, even it they had not been to the credit of Ranek, but frankly, I am happy to say my initial good opinion of him has been proved correct. I hope he is the man your daughter has chosen."



"You will learn her choice tomorrow, but I don't think you will be disappointed," Tagun said. He summoned his secretary who showed the banker out of the palace. For some time he sat at his desk studying the written report the banker had left with him. There could be no doubt. No misdeed or folly sullied the reputation of Ranek. He had only one, nevertheless considerable, mark against him. No one knew where he had come from or who his family might be. Some recalled that when he had come to the city he had been carrying a staff, but he did not wear the characteristic cape of the merchant clan. He had not ventured into the streets carrying the staff so perhaps it was only a straight piece of wood he had picked up somewhere along the trail to help him when the road began to rise.



With the evidence from Barclu, and the preference of Caril set against his own disposition to honor the betrothal contract between Carnat and Farek, two men who were too far away to argue with his choice, Tagun resigned himself to the prospect of Ranek becoming his son-in-law. He would have to follow through on his promise of providing a position for Caril's husband. The youth had seemed bright and had proved his courage when he helped apprehend Tull's gang. There was always room for an able administrator in the court.



Tagun began to grin when he realized the implications of the arrangement. If Ranek were appointed to be an official of the Janakan court, Caril would continue to live nearby. He would be able to watch her children as they grew. His last doubt that she had chosen wisely was erased. He called his steward to issue the statement that the contest had been decided and that on the morrow, Caril would indicate her choice.



Chapter 8 Abduction



The suitors who remained in the contest received the news that the winner had been chosen with varied emotions. Some had put their hope in the final contest of personal combat against the other finalists, but most had resigned themselves to the belief that the burly prince of Zedekla had won the princess.



Although there were conflicting rumors about the winner of the first contest, the suitors who remained in the library had noticed the impressive number of slates filled by the prince. Ranek, the only other suitor who seemed to stand as a serious contender, had apparently quit the field after a trifling effort of only a few words on one slate. Few could blame him. The restrictions Yonk had placed on him would surely frustrate most men from producing the appeal most thought Caril expected.



Throughout Janaka there was speculation about the identity of Caril's choice. There were wagers laid in the taverns, with the prince of Zedekla being a heavy favorite. Those who would have favored the man called Ranek, were usually not given to gambling. Nara and her family made Ranek's success a matter of prayer.



Zadan slept easily that night secure in the belief that he had won the hand of the princess. Not only had he presented what seemed a legal claim, but his performance in the tests had surely been superior to any other. His men were late to go to bed. They had made full use of their leader's popularity with the habitues of the taverns to procure favors for themselves. When they finally staggered back to their quarters in the palace, they added further to the bad reputation that Barclu had discovered. Many would be happy to see the last of the prince and his bullies. They hoped the wedding would take place in Zedekla to spare them further association with the unsavory crew.



Tomak found sleep as evasive as it had been after he first met Caril. Although he had not revealed his true identity to the princess, she had given him several indications that she liked him. The pleasure she had showed when he had guessed that she wanted him to leap into the air rather than perform some athletic feat was a hopeful sign. The sparkle in her eye when she looked at him assured him that she had forgiven him for ignoring her after Okagun had engaged his attention. Had she truly sought him out with her glances and given him smiles that were warmer than the smiles she bestowed on her other suitors?



His hopes rested on such frail ground. He and Caril had hardly had a chance to get to know each other before he was banned from the palace along with all the other suitors except for the fraud prince. Perhaps she would prefer to marry the prince of Zedekla because of his title and expectations alone. Olina would not have hesitated. Certainly King Tagun made no secret of his preference for the imposter. If Caril announced that she had chosen the pretender, Tomak would have to save her from the rogue, but he would not press his own suit. If she was willing to marry another after he had bared his heart with the words he had written on the slate, he would not accept her once he revealed his own identity.



His mind continued to wrestle with his emotions as the hours of darkness passed. One moment he would vow that if Caril chose another, he would himself forswear marriage and let one of his brothers become the heir to Zedekla. Another moment he would feel certain that the messages her eyes had seemed to send him guaranteed his success. Finally he rose from his bed and picked up his staff. If Caril chose the fraud, he might need to fight the imposter to prevent a marriage from going forth. He drew the glistening blue blade from its hiding place in the staff and began to practice the swordsmanship required by the unusual balance of the weapon. Tharek had left a long hilt when he first carved the staff to hide the sword. It counterbalanced the blade. Properly used, it made the sword more efficient than any other, but Tomak had not practiced with the sword since coming to Janaka. He moved about the room, fighting an invisible enemy.



He was concentrated on only two possible outcomes of Caril's announcement: either she would choose him, and he would joyfully accept her as his betrothed, or she would choose the imposter and he would have to fight. The distant sound of a corum bellow from the market stables brought his shadow fighting to a halt. What if Caril chose neither him or the fraud, but another suitor. He had liked and admired the Tedakan, Bunda. The Taleekan youth, Ezral was another who seemed worthy. Perhaps Caril had noticed their good qualities, and, disgusted with him for ignoring her when Okagun had caught his attention, had chosen one of them for her betrothed.



He was weary and confused, but at last he realized that nothing he did could change what Caril had decided. The message broadcast by the steward at the gates of the palace had clearly said that further contests would be canceled because the princess had chosen which of her suitors she would wed. Tomak washed himself and held up his hands in prayer. He prayed for a quiet heart and the strength to do whatever was required to serve the interests of Caril. If she chose other than himself or the fraud, he would wish her well.



In his own room in the inn, Carnat tossed restlessly, his mind filled with schemes. He had seen enough of his young friend, Ranek to know that he was fit for Caril's husband, whatever his background. The vain, cruel prince had openly boasted that he would win the princess. It seemed ironic that Carnat himself had been an instrument in bringing the bully to Janaka. When he tried to change the direction of his thoughts, he found himself worrying about his glimpse of the old woman whose profile and expression so closely resembled Ayarlan.



Not far away Ayarlan made preparations. Somehow she would induce the prince to take a sip of the wine she carried. It was not the addictive formula she was hoarding in Saadena. She relied on a quick result and had fallen back on one of the older formulas that would give her almost immediate control over the will of the prince. Now that Carnat had betrayed her aim by putting her enemy's child in place of her own on the betrothal contract, she must make certain that there were no further mistakes. The prince of Zedekla would be Carlan's mate.



She had planned to do away with Neril's daughter, and now that she had seen her, Ayarlan had no doubt that Tagun's alleged child was indeed Carnat's brat. The strict guard set on the princess to protect her from the importunities of her suitors barred Ayarlan from getting close enough to carry out her revenge. At least she would deprive her rival's child of the prize of Prince Tomak. When she held power over Okishdu it would be simple to do away with the girl.



The square before the palace was thronged as the sun approached its zenith. The suitors who remained in the contest for Caril's hand, stood in a row beneath the balcony. Zadan looked to the hiding places in the palace where he had placed his henchmen. They signaled and he nodded. While he was certain he would be the one chosen to marry Caril, he left nothing to chance. His quarters within the palace had been used to good effect.



Tagun and Caril, again flanked by Barga and Tilla, walked onto the balcony. A herald blew a signal on a zole horn and there was silence in the square. Caril stepped forward. "I have chosen," she paused and held out her hand to the young man at the opposite end of the line of suitors from Zadan. "Ranek, I will marry you."



Several small objects flew through the air toward the platform. Dense black smoke welled up from the floor of the balcony, hiding the princess and her family from view. Zadan acted the same as the others in the square, pretending confusion and concern but he uttered curses under his breath at his blasted hope that Caril would choose him. It was just as well that his confidence had not outreached his prudence.



When the smoke cleared, Caril was gone. Screams of fear and anger and shouts for action rang out as Tagun and Tilla rushed back into the palace and Barga summoned the guards. In moments the streets surrounding the palace boiled with armed men. Every shop and stall was searched. Citizens were willing to have their homes searched and they in turn joined those seeking Caril.



Zadan lowered his head as if in sorrow and walked away from the palace toward the south gate of the city. He ducked into an alleyway between two buildings and discarded the elaborate robes he had worn in the confidence that he would be singled out as the winner.



Underneath he wore a plain, hooded tunic. He bowed his shoulders and shortened his step. It was a simple but effective disguise. Without hurrying or otherwise drawing undue attention to himself, he left the city.



He followed the pilgrim road south until he found the marker he had left on a boulder that had rolled from a rocky ravine that opened nearby. He glanced behind him to make certain he was not followed and made his way up the ravine until he recognized the camp site where he had left his sword.



Zadan withdrew the heavy blade from the cleft and sat down to polish it while he waited for his confederates. Satisfied at last with the edge on the brutal bronze blade, he pulled the shoulder harness that bore its heavy weight over his back and shoved the sword into it. Although the sword was heavy, its weight reassured him. He made a quick meal of journey rations and began to pace. He could not rest until he was certain that his plan had been successful.



It was nearly sunset before his men appeared carrying a large sack. They laughed aloud with ugly gloating when they put it down and tumbled Caril out onto the ground. She was unconscious, the cause evident in the dark bruise that stained her brow.



"Did you have any trouble?" Zadan asked.



"It was easy," Skipe said. "Once I had secured her, we put her in the bag and carried her to your rooms to hide. We left the palace by way of the scullery entrance while the evening meal was being served and all the servants were gathered to gossip. We could have taken the old king and his woman at the same time with hardly any fuss if you'd given us a few more of the smokers."



"I only got ten smokers when we raided the temple of Orqu in Jama. They're too useful to waste," Zadan said. "In any case, the king is right where I want him to be, anxious to have word of his daughter, and doubtless willing to pay anything to have her returned. We'll wait overnight, then I'll have you take a message to Tagun. He's a fool about this girl. I don't ask much to ensure her safe return, only her hand in marriage and my appointment as his successor immediately. It's just as well the silly little fool chose someone other than me. It won't take as long for me to take power if I have her as my prisoner. Did you kill Ranek, the man she chose?"



"No, he was too quick for us" Skipe said. "There were soldiers everywhere. If we hadn't hidden in your rooms inside the palace, we would have been taken as soon as the smoke cleared. If you wanted him dead, you should have taken care of him." Skipe ducked away to avoid Zadan's blow.



The bandit chief let his henchman go without further reproof. Things had gone well. He had his prize. The young man Caril had chosen would not be difficult to find. Zadan looked forward to salving his pride by besting the other man in personal combat before ending the life of his rival.



The men began to prepare a meal of cold meat and matlas. The light had faded but they knew it would be dangerous to light a fire when they were so close to the scene of their crime.



"What will you do when the real prince of Zedekla appears and uncovers your game?" a henchman asked.



"It depends on whether he is more use to me dead or alive. That is always my creed," Zadan replied with a twist of his lip. "For example, this absurd princess rejected me, but that is of little account. I'll punish her for her lack of judgment when I'm her husband. It should be amusing. You, Skipe, go and make sure the camp is secure."



A few minutes later Skipe returned to the camp dragging an old woman dressed in rags. "I found this out near the road studying our marker. Do you want to watch me kill her?"



"I came with a gift for the prince," Ayarlan whined, holding up the flask she had brought from Urgit's house in Jama. "I saw him leave the city and I wanted to make sure he didn't return to Zedekla without sampling my wine. I am a poor woman with only a few flasks of fine wine to sell. If I gain the patronage of the prince, I will live in comfort instead of dying in the streets."



His days as a guest in the palace had sharpened Zadan's eye for fine things. He recognized the flask resembled one he had seen in Tagun's collection when the Janakan king had conducted him through the state rooms.



"Let her go. We will sample her wine before we decide what to do with her," he said.



"But this is a wine fit for royalty, your grace. Would you waste it on your servants," Ayarlan said as Skipe grabbed at the flask.



"I never taste anything given to me until the donor takes the first swallow," Zadan said.



Ayarlan nodded and lifted the flask toward her mouth. At the last moment she licked her lips, exposing the tongue she had blackened in anticipation of his request.



"Wait, you seem willing enough to drink," Zadan said. He grabbed the flask from her hand just before it touched her greasy lips.



"It is a fine wine," Zadan pronounced as he savored the rich vintage. "I will let you live, old woman. I need a servant to care for the needs of the princess. She is still sleeping or I'm sure she would greet you politely with the respect due your years." The other bandits laughed at his wit and brought out their own flasks to celebrate their success.



Caril recovered consciousness gradually. She heard the rough voices of her captors and kept still as they discussed their plans to hunt down the man she had chosen. "It shouldn't be difficult to find one puny youth and kill him when we bring the rest of the men up to Janaka," Skipe explained to a crony.



Zadan had slumped back against a rock, ignoring the discomfort of the sword that dug into his back as he was overcome with fatigue greater than any he had ever known. His eyes closed, and Ayarlan, crouched in the corner of two great boulders to avoid the attention of Skipe, smiled with anticipation. Finally all the men slept except for the man on watch. He made a circuit of the camp now and then and patrolled the path as far as the road. When he was out of sight, Ayarlan crept out of her hiding place and woke Zadan.



"Kill all the men in the camp, then return to me," she whispered as she slipped a dagger into his hand. He obeyed, not awkwardly or clumsily, but as gracefully as he was accustomed. When the watch returned, he had no clue that the blanketed figures no longer breathed. He looked around for Zadan and the old woman and saw them sitting next to each other. When he left for another circuit, Ayarlan gave Zadan further instructions.



"Kill the princess. When you are finished, follow me," she whispered. She was confident that he would follow her commands. Standing and stretching, she cast off the illusion that she was a crouched old woman. The night would be long and she was hungry. She turned her back on Zadan and searched the camp for something to eat.



Zadan quietly approached Caril but a small twig cracked under his foot. She opened her eyes to see him kneeling over her with his bloody knife poised to strike.



"No, don't kill me," she exclaimed in a small voice. It was little more than a gasp, but it was louder than the whisper Ayarlan had used to command him and he halted the descent of the knife just as it grazed her bodice.



For a moment Caril was confused, then she realized that somehow she had taken over control of him. For a mere moment she pondered what she should do. She could order him to attack the woman with the knife, but the thought of doing such a thing repelled her. She would not use the spell the witch had cast to do murder.



"Go back to the witch," Caril whispered. Zadan returned to Ayarlan who was searching the bandits. She had found several valuable baubles while looking for something to eat. It seemed as if some of them had been stolen from the palace. It surprised her to find that the prince's men were as light-fingered as any thief, but now that they were beyond caring what happened to the contents of their belt pouches, she would make certain nothing was wasted.



When Zadan came up to her, she ordered him to help her search the other men. The sound of approaching footsteps alerted her. Secure in the belief that Caril was dead, Ayarlan ordered Zadan to waylay the last of his men.



Caril was still lying as still as death and even if she had opened her eyes and seen the raised blade that threatened the man on watch, there would have been no time to warn him. The deed was done swiftly. Skipe fell near enough to her that she heard the sigh of his dying breath and flinched. He seemed to realize that she was still alive and uttered a wordless grunt but Ayarlan had turned away and Zadan was not capable of heeding his warning.



As soon as she was satisfied that all his men had died, Ayarlan directed Zadan to take up her baggage and the booty she had scavenged and follow her. The two of them left the ravine with its dreadful carnage and set their steps toward Saadena.



Several minutes passed before Caril felt confident that they would not return. She stood and scurried behind a rock, crouching lest one of the men had escaped death and saw her. She shook with fear and revulsion. When the witch led the prince away, she had experienced a brief moment of relief, but he might come to his senses soon and remember he had not killed her. She could not bear to stay in the campground surrounded by grisly corpses.



The fledgling moon gave sufficient light for her to find her way through the ravine and out to the road. She could see the dim moonlight reflecting from the pavement of the pilgrim road and hurried forward. Then she heard the sound of marching feet. A troop of men was coming down the road. She ducked back out of sight. Then she realized that if they had come to reinforce her captors, they might turn into the cleft where she was hiding.



She moved deeper into the mass of huge boulders that lined the ravine. The men passed on, but now she was conscious of the danger of walking alone at night on the road to Janaka. She must work her way higher until she could find a place to rest for the remainder of the night.



She made her way around and up through the rocks, slipping and falling several times but persisting until she crouched at the top of the large rock that guarded the opening of the gap. The road stretched below. If her captor returned, she would hear him before he noticed her. She realized she had no weapon to defend herself and piled several large stones close within her reach.



Her head ached from the blow on her brow and she shook with cold. She heard the sound of a solitary man walking up the road toward Janaka, his footsteps clear in the silence.



She picked up one of the largest stones in her primitive armory and crouched, ready to launch it at his head. It was the Prince! She could see the shape of his head and the arrogance of his posture as he came closer. She had been gently reared and could hardly bear to kill the bugs that bit her, but she resolved to kill the Prince of Zedekla for what he had threatened to do to Ranek.



She rose and threw the stone with all her might. It sailed through the air toward the prince's head, but in the process she kicked a smaller stone and sent it skittering over the slope, revealing her presence. He ducked to the side and the stone hurtled over him, only a hand span from his brow. It shattered when it hit the stony road.



Caril stooped to get another stone and stood again. He would see her. He might kill her. But she would rather die than turn coward now.



"Caril! Is it you?" The shouted question revealed the true identity of the man she had nearly killed.



"Ranek!" Caril shuddered with fatigue and gratitude as she dropped the stone and clambered down from the high boulder. She took the final distance with a leap into his arms. He crushed her against him in exultant gratitude that she was safe.



"How did you get here? Have you seen the prince?" She asked breathlessly when he finally released her and set her on her feet.



"Barga brought me along with a troop of men. There was a report that indicated you had been carried out of the city. We passed this ravine earlier, but Barga didn't think the villains would make camp so close to Janaka and he proceeded down the road. I was suspicious of a mark I saw on the boulder near the gap and I decided to come back and investigate after we made camp. I'll take you back to Janaka now and send a messenger to tell the others that I found you. Where are the men who took you."



He put his arm around her to warm and support her. Caril's teeth chattered with shock as she tried to give her answer.



"It was the Prince of Zedekla and his men," she said. "A witch put a spell on the prince and he killed the others. He almost killed me." She shuddered and nestled into the haven of his warm arm.



"He isn't the Prince of Zedekla. He is an imposter." Tomak said.



"How do you know?" Caril asked.



"I am Tomak of Zedekla," he answered.



"How can that be?" Caril cried. "If you are truly Tomak, why did you lie and say you were Ranek?"



"When my father told me he had arranged a betrothal between us, I came to Janaka to see if I wanted to marry you," he explained. "I have been disappointed before when I came to know the true nature of a woman I thought I loved. I was wary of announcing who I was until I knew how you would behave to an ordinary man. Then, when I knew I was falling in love with you, I came to the palace to tell you who I was, but you had been sequestered."



"But surely Barga or Barclu would have carried your message to my father. He would have been glad to receive you."



" I had no way to prove who I am," Tomak said. "Once the imposter appeared, I was afraid you would be forced to honor the betrothal and marry a rogue."



"What would you have done if I had chosen him?" she asked, pushing back in his arms so that she could see his face in the moonlight..



His dark eyes glittered. "I would have found a way to expose him, but I wouldn't have forced you to accept the betrothal on my behalf. I will only marry where I am loved as much as I love." Her question had stiffened his spine and she felt him loosen his grip around her waist.



She hugged him closer and felt him relax when she murmured, "I love you. I would love you even if your father was a fisherman." Her allusion to the words he had written on the slate reassured him and he returned her embrace.



"I have a question for you," she said. "Yonk, the Jaman wrote a fluent poem that impressed Tilla with its rhyme of words like curls and pearls. Was it his own work?"



Tomak shook his head. "He demanded that I not use the poem I wrote the other day. I should have suspected that he wanted it for himself. It was a flight of fancy, but the words I wrote to you on the slate are real. I am sorry I concealed my identity and very nearly lost you."



They both fell silent. Each pondered the fragile but powerful emotions that had grown between them in the scant hours they had spent together. The intensity of the emotion that now bound them made their feelings of only hours before seem shallow and vain. "I only recognized the power of my love for you when I thought I would never see you again," Caril said.



"I must check to see if any of the villains who abducted you are still alive and able to tell us what has become of their leader," Tomak said. Caril was reluctant to return to the camp, but she knew that it would be better to stay close to Tomak in the scene of carnage than to linger alone at the head of the ravine. It was not just fear that the imposter would return that kept her close to Tomak. She picked up a a few of the shards from the shattered stone she had thrown at his head and resolved to help him if any of the men were still alive and posed a threat.



Tomak left her at the edge of the camp where she kept her eyes on the limp forms that lay about on the floor of the ravine, watching for them to move. He did not take long to return to her. "There are no survivors. We must find others to give us a clue of the identity of the witch and where she is going. As long as the fraud lives, he could be a danger to you."



They returned to the pilgrim road and started towards Janaka. Tomak heard the sound of a troop of men coming behind them and he pulled Caril off the trail and into the deeper shadow of a rock. "Hush, I borrowed a sword from Barga, but I would rather not try to fight if it will endanger you."



"I think this is where he was heading," Barga's voice came from the head of the troop.



Tomak stepped forward and hailed his friend.. "I found her. The villains who abducted her are back in the ravine, but they won't trouble anyone again. All of them are dead."



"Did you take them on single-handed," Barga marveled.



"I am not responsible for their deaths," Tomak replied. "Caril says their leader was put under the spell of a witch. She caused him to murder his men before leading him away. I intend to find him, but I think it would be best if we returned immediately to Janaka and let Tagun and Tilla know that Caril is safe."



Barga took his men into the ravine to cover the corpses with earth and stones while Tomak found some food and nuka juice in the supplies the troop had carried with them. He offered them to Caril who was faint with hunger. She had not eaten since breakfast and the strain of her capture was translated into an eager appetite. When Barga and his men returned, they set out for Janaka. Several men offered to help Caril by forming a makeshift litter with their pikes but she demurred.



Her hands were scratched and bleeding from the course surface of the rocks she had climbed. She hadn't eaten in nearly a day, and then too much, too fast. Her teeth were chattering with the cold, but with Ranek's - no, Tomak's, arm to lean on and his chest to rest against when they stopped to rest, she had never felt better.



When they neared the gate of Janaka they found Tilla keeping watch. She hurried forward to take Caril to the home of her own mother Rena which was close by, where she could cosset and comfort her. Caril parted reluctantly from Tomak, but she knew that Tilla needed to take care of her, as much for her own sake as for Caril's. Her foster mother had suffered many hours of fear and evil imaginings while waiting for some word to come.



The messenger who ran ahead of the others to announce that Caril was found found Tagun waiting at the entrance to the palace. "The false prince took Caril, but she is safe," he gasped.



Tagun was confused by his words. When Barka and Tomak appeared the king ordered both of them to his council room and shut the door against intruders. "How could Farek's son do such a thing?" Tagun asked them. "I offered him my hospitality. This is a serious matter."



"Farek's son was not the villain. The man who presented himself as prince of Zedekla was a fraud," Tomak said. "I am Tomak. I came to Janaka in disguise to see if the princess was a woman I was willing to marry."



"You should have warned us that the other man was deceiving us!" Tagun shouted. "We nearly lost her."



"I have no proofs of my identity, and it would have taken too long to gather proof from Zedekla before the contest took place," Tomak replied. "If I had claimed that I was the prince and the other the imposter, would you have believed me? It was apparent to everyone that you favored him. His fine clothing and haughty attitude had convinced you."



After a moment, Tagun shook his head. "I was willing to believe him. Only his final actions have convinced me that he was indeed a fraud."



"I've heard of a robber who might be the false prince," Barga said. "His band has been active near the bridge over the Or. While we were burying his men I found a token that was part of a shipment that was lost to the Or bandits."



"According to Caril the entire gang was murdered by their leader at the behest of the witch who had put a spell on him," Tomak said. "Until we know who the old woman is and where she took the imposter, we can do nothing."



Carnat had been lingering near the gate and followed Tilla as she hurried Caril away to a warm bath and a good meal.



"How did you get free?" Tilla asked.



"A strange old woman was brought into the camp. She gave the abductor a flask of wine. He slept, even though his sword was still in the halter on his back. When he woke, he was under her spell. She had him kill everyone, I woke in time to warn him off. Then she took him away."



As he listened to Caril's description of the old woman, Carnat remembered the hag he had seen on the day the Prince of Zedekla had entered Janaka. He had thought at the time that she was only incidentally similar to Ayarlan, now he recognized the truth. Somehow Ayarlan had realized that Caril was Neril's daughter. She would never rest until she destroyed her rival's child. Her abduction of the prince was no surprise. His wife had sent him to Zedekla to secure Tomak for Carlan. Alagad must have discovered his actions in Zedekla and she had taken the errand on herself.



It was time for him to acknowledge himself to Barga and warn him of the danger to the princess. He hurried to the palace and told the servant who answered his knock that he must see the captain of the guard. When the man seemed unsure, Carnat told him it was important to Caril's safety. That brought an immediate reaction and he was soon summoned to Barga's quarters.



Barga was tired but he greeted Carnat courteously "You message implied there is further danger to Caril. How did you get your information?"



"I am Carnat of Saadena, Caril's father."



Barga shook his head. "I'm beginning to think that hardly anyone I've met this past week is going under his proper name. How many other members of royalty have been wandering the streets in disguise?"



"I'm afraid that the most dangerous of all the disguised royalty is my wife Ayarlan. I suspect she is the one who tried to kill Caril. My first wife, Neril, was killed by Ayarlan. You were a lad, but you might remember your visit to Saadena with Doka," Carnat said.



"Yes, I remember, and now that you remind me, I can see you could be Carnat. I was a child when we met," Barga acknowledged. "But why do you think Ayarlan poses a danger to Caril?"



"In my distraction and grief after the death of Neril, I let myself be enslaved by Ayarlan. When I heard that Caril was alive and enjoying the care of Tagun, I came to Janaka to see my daughter. I haven't told Caril who I am, but I am sorry that I ever arranged a betrothal for her."



"But you still haven't told me where the threat lies," Barga interrupted.



"I'm convinced that Ayarlan has taken Tomak captive with drugs and intends him to marry Carlan. Sooner or later, she will discover that Caril still lives. Ayarlan will not rest until she takes revenge on me and on Neril's child. I must return to Saadena and confront my wife. I only hope the prince of Zedekla will be content to stay in Saadena with Carlan."



"The rogue who had his men abduct Caril is not Tomak. As it happens, your young friend Ranek, chosen of Caril, is the prince of Zedekla," Barga said.



Carnat's sorrow lightened when he heard the news. "I have come to respect and admire him. He truly is a prince, whatever his lineage. But if he is the prince, then who did Ayarlan abduct?"



"The man Ayarlan has taken is probably a vagabond and thief named Zadan," Barga said. "I will wait for your report with some interest. Is there anything you want me to do for you while you return to Saadena?"



"Guard Caril," Carnat pleaded.



"Of course we will protect her. I will send men with you," Barga offered.



"No, it is better that I go alone. If you haven't heard from me within the waning of the moon, I have failed," Carnat said. "Tell Ra-- Tell Tomak that I am pleased to give him my blessings. He was my choice for Caril once I came to know him."



Carnat returned to the inn and packed the few belongings he had acquired in Janaka. He tried to get a few hours of sleep before he set out on the road, but he found sleep was a fugitive easily chased away by his thoughts and plans. Finally he gave up the effort and rose to face the day. One last bath was a luxury he could not deny himself. He stood on the roof of the inn and looked over the city he had come to love. Here he had friends and a lovely daughter, it had been the scene of a happy childhood for Caril. He would gladly have stayed here, but he found that with his senses free of drugs he knew he had a responsibility to Carlan. The thought of leaving her to suffer the bullying ways of the fraud was unacceptable.



He left the city while the streets were mostly empty. Those few he met were eager to share the glad report that ran through the city. Caril was safe, her rescue had been effected by the man she chose, and wonder of wonders, that man was the true prince of Zedekla.



Carnat shared the joy of each person who stopped him to repeat the tale. It was good to be reminded that all was well with Caril. The felicity of her life would continue, he vowed. Ayarlan would not harm her. He was not sure what he could do against such a combination of personalities as Ayarlan and the fraud prince, but his life had been useless for too long. He was not yet too old to begin to be a man. He knew the secret ways of the palace. If he approached from the south, he might be able to enter the valley of Saadena without being seen.



He was not long on the trail when he heard a troop of men hurrying down the pilgrim road behind him. He turned, his hand on the hilt of his sword. Then he recognized Barga, Tomak, and ten of the burliest members of the palace guard.



"Stay friend and let us catch up to you," Tomak gasped. When they drew nearer, he explained his presence. "Barga told me that you are going to Saadena to confront Ayarlan and the pretender. I honor your decision to take responsibility, but my princess wishes to meet her father again and I promised I would be by your side and make certain you survive the confrontation. No one should meet such villains without the help of his friends."



Carnat's was happy to accept the aid Tomak offered. More than a day had passed since Ayarlan had departed with her captive rogue. He knew his ruthless wife would drive the drugged man relentlessly and he did not have the energy to follow apace.



"What army might your wife field against us when she regains the borders of Saadena," Barga asked Carnat.



"None. There is a palace guard, but if we approach from the south, it is unlikely they will see us. There is no need for an army in Saadena. Ayarlan trusts that the people will be kept quiet by the fumes of selan that linger about their homes. No invader cherishes our impoverished land. The Jaman drug merchants maintain a force of mercenaries, but they are also focused on the north."



"Then we need only plan a strategy to trap the villains. You mentioned the northern and southern tracks. Are there other roads that lead into the valley?" Barga asked.



"The valley of Saadena has only two practical entrances, unless someone wished to risk the ancient riverbed," Carnat said. "You and your men could guard both passes. I will enter Saadena and flush out the quarry."



"I will go with you," Tomak said. "I must make sure that Caril's enemies don't escape."



"I will join you," another voice said. They looked up in surprise to see Nara standing by the side of the road. "This is my fight as well as yours. I must return to Saadena and let my people know that there is a place for them in Janaka if they want to leave. The others thought you jested when you claimed the name of Carnat, but I remember you from my youth. I witnessed both of your weddings to Neril."



"I wondered if you remembered me, Nara," Carnat said. "I am happy to accept your help. You led a group of refugees away from Saadena and know the way better than I do. I came by way of Tedaka and the pilgrimage road from Zedekla. Surely it would not be wise for us to pass through Jama on our way to the valley of Saadena."



"I know a way," Nara said. "It is not an easy track, but it will take us to Saadena soon enough."



The small caravan set forth again under Nara's guidance. When night fell and they made camp, the men listened as Nara talked about Saadena.



"After Neril introduced the culture of spearleaf, we found that it counteracted the influence of selan. It meant we suffered more pain, but we were free to choose. More children were born as the harvesters added spearleaf to their diet. A number of our people have emigrated from Saadena in these past years using water distilled from the juice of spear leaf to provide for the trek over the desert. Those who remained were healthier than before, but Ayarlan's greed is boundless. Every improvement we made was met by a new demand."



Carnat nodded in sympathy while he listened to Nara. "I wonder that you didn't attack the palace and have done with us."



"Fedder taught us that Neril's work was not finished until the Lost was restored as the Seer foretold. He said you have some task that still must be performed," Nara explained.



"The 'lost' item that was mentioned by the Seers was the Scroll of Irilik," Carnat told her. "It was taken from Timora by my ancestor Marnat. It was destroyed when my father, King Eliat, was killed by a fire in the palace library. I suspect that Ayarlan or one of her minions set the fire, but I have no proof."



"Fedder said he gave a scroll to Doka of Tedaka to keep in trust until Neril's child came of age," Nara said.



"Neril and Fedder made a copy of the lost scroll," Carnat replied, "but I thought it was destroyed along with the original when the library was burned."



"Fedder said that you would complete the prophecy," Nara said. "We have long prayed that you would cast off your slothful indulgence in grief and break your thrall to Ayarlan. Neril taught us that Saadena would be renewed. As long as Ayarlan rules in Saadena, we must try to escape her tyranny. If you are brave enough to confront the queen, we may return and look to the day of renewal."



"There was something in the history about the duty of the Son of Elianin," Carnat admitted as his mind struggled to recall the memory. He looked around the circle of companions. "I must return to Janaka when we have finished with Ayarlan and see what Fedder gave in trust for Caril. When I talked to Doka in Timora, he mentioned something about an inheritance, but I paid him little mind. I was overcome by the fact that Caril was alive and protected in the court of Tagun. If it is as you suspect, I will carry out the vow my father made to restore the Scroll of Irilik to Timora."



For the first time since he met him on the road to Janaka, Tomak saw pride and purpose infuse Carnat. With a light of challenge in his eye and his shoulders squared with resolve, Carnat no longer seemed a pathetic old man. Nara noticed his change of demeanor and smiled.



"I often wondered what Neril found to love in you Carnat. Now I think I understand. I like you, but I might even come to admire you," she admitted.



Barga saw that his companions were full of questions for Nara and Carnat. He was curious himself, but he knew too well the penalty they would pay if they failed to keep their curfew. "The road to Saadena will take a toll of us. I think we should set the watch and get some sleep." The others recognized his authority and soon all of them but the watch prepared to sleep.



Chapter 9 Confrontation





Ayarlan drove Zadan relentlessly along the track to Saadena. Although she felt confident that Urgit would delay searching for her at first, his superstitions would weaken as time passed. She did not fear pursuit from Janaka. The abduction of the princess had been cleverly planned and executed. Even if they suspected the prince and his cronies of the abduction, Tagun would doubtless send an army against Zedekla and demand reparation. Ayarlan wondered if she should have waited and had her captive bury the others before they left the camp. It would not be long before buzzards marked the way to the massacre in the ravine, but her greatest fear was that she would lose control of the prince before they gained the safety of Saadena where her stores of drugs would soon ensure that he never escaped her influence.



She gloated about the death of Caril. Her murder at the hand of the Zedeklan prince would give Ayarlan one more token to use in her pursuit of power. The king of Zedekla would hardly ignore her when she hinted at the secret. She was exhilarated by the scope of her plans. It had been useful to leave Saadena and get a better view of the world that would soon be hers. Perhaps she would make Janaka her seat of rule. She had planned to replace the moldering ruin of Saadena's palace, but why stay in the desert city when there were other cities that were far more worthy of the grandeur of her new empire. She would wait until she had all under her hand, then make her choice. Perhaps she would rule from Zedekla with Tomak by her side.



Zadan plodded onward as Ayarlan drove him relentlessly. When she was hungry, Ayarlan directed him to stop. Whenever they ate, she gave him another dose of the drugged wine. When she was tired, she directed him to carry her. It was pleasant to sleep in his arms. She was tempted to have him carry her the whole way, but she had experimented on enough men to know that even the strongest of them had limits. She continued to walk at intervals so that he had some rest. Other than the brief sleep that overcame him when she gave him a fresh dose of the drug, he never slept. Even if her plans had somehow been discovered, they could not be overtaken.



Secure that she was safe from pursuers, Ayarlan concentrated on finding a course that would avoid Jama. It was easy enough to see the city from afar. The smoke of manufacture rose into the air like a dark stain on the horizon as. Ayarlan told her captive to stop and wait for nightfall before proceeding.



When it was late enough for them to go on, Ayarlan ordered Zadan to rise and carry her. In the darkness she might make a misstep and injure her feet. She had no such concern about the prince. He had proven to be surefooted and steady, even when darkness fell.



They were well past Jama when the sun rose. At the pace they were making, she expected to arrive in Saadena before two more days had passed. It was a pleasant journey for Ayarlan. There was no shortage of food or drink. She had made certain of that. As she rode along secure in her captive's arms she amused herself by sorting through the baubles she had taken from the thieves and dreaming of her triumph.



Her estimate of the time their journey would take proved faulty. She had given her captive the last of the drug with the expectation that the next rise would reveal the valley of Saadena. Instead, she saw only a great distance of desert when they reached the summit. At their current rate of travel, the drug would wear off before they reached the city. If she did not replenish her store of selan, he would soon be beyond her guidance.



Ayarlan glanced toward her enslaved companion and saw his expression tighten with vague emotion. "Hurry, take me up in your arms and leave everything else," she shrieked.



As he took her up she ordered him to run. It might kill him, she thought, but better to have him die than escape her control and turn on her. He would remember everything, including the death of his men and the girl. Who knew what revenge he might exact. She did not want to know.



Zadan began to run. At first it was not difficult. The distance seemed to fly by as the hour grew later. At last Ayarlan recognized the trail and knew that the city lay just ahead. She cried out for more speed.



He staggered up the steep slope, his great sword banging against his back and the queen clasped to his chest. Zadan's physical endurance was tested to the limit and he was staggering like a drunkard by the time Ayarlan ordered him to put her down at the gate of the palace.



"Follow me," she ordered him. She was annoyed when no servants answered her summons but she had keys to the gate and she quickly led him to a small guest chamber where he collapsed on the bed like a dead man.



After Ayarlan locked the sturdy door, she hurried to find Carlan and tell her of the prize. She found her daughter embroidering a floral banner in her room. "I've brought you a husband, and killed your rival while you sit here like a ninny with your needle," Ayarlan screamed. She tore the banner from her daughter's hands and ripped the fragile cloth into shreds.



The act of destruction seemed to calm the queen and she was pleased to see that Carlan had not begun to cry. "Alagad has disappeared and the servants have fled," Ayarlan said. "You must bring a sack of selan to the workshop and find someone to help you make a meal. Here is the key to the room where I've put the prince. You'll have to care for him. The Prince of Zedekla is more than a worthy mate for you. But until he realizes that he must do as we say, I will keep him under my control."



"I will do as you wish," Carlan replied, her quiet voice betraying no hint of anger at the ruin of her work.



After assisting her mother in the workshop, Carlan carried the drugged wine into the room where Zadan lay in exhausted sleep. The cost of his capture was revealed in the furrows of fatigue in his brow and the dark patches of sweat that stained his tunic.



He lay on his stomach, the only posture possible with the great sword still strapped to his back. Carlan could not leave him like this, still cumbered by his sword and covered with sweat and sand. She fetched a basin filled with cool water and a soft towel for washing.



Her tender fingers were bruised by the time she released the buckles of his scabbard and eased the heavy sword from his back. It took her twice as long again to remove his stained and stinking tunic.



He groaned and grimaced as she pulled it from his shoulders and a shiver of fearful anticipation ran through her as she used the moment to help him turn onto his back. As soon as he lay flat, he subsided again into the deep sleep of exhaustion. She dipped her towel in the cool water to wipe the dirt of travel from his face and torso.



While she worked, she marveled at him. She had met few men; her shambling drugged father, unctuous Urgit with his pot belly and greasy curls, the fawning courtiers who had found their way to Saadena when their habits grew too offensive for other courts, and the seldom seen harvesters who were gaunt with near starvation. Only Alagad had been in any way attractive, and he was her best friend's husband and beyond her reach. Any thought of him in any but a brotherly light made her feel uncomfortable.



Reaching out one hand, Carlan caressed the prisoner's broad shoulder. She had dreamed at times, but nothing had prepared her for the reality of this man's vital strength. Even sleeping, he made all other men she knew seem like frail shadows.



Blushing at the direction of her thoughts, she brought the blanket up to cover his naked chest before gathering up his soiled tunic and leaving the room. She locked the door on the treasure her mother had captured and walked down the long corridor with a new determination growing in her mind. She would gladly marry the prince, a prospect that had not appealed to her before she saw him, but she wanted her husband to be fully awake and not just another slave of selan like her father.



She woke her mother after preparing a meal with the help of the old cook and two maids who had been camped just beyond the palace. While she helped Ayarlan dress, Carlan mused about the future and smiled. Her mother glanced at her and gave a grimace of disgust at the look of bemusement on her daughter's face. "Go get changed for dinner and tell the prince to bathe, then bring him to the dining room."



Zadan woke from a long sleep and stared around him. His muscles ached and his throat burned with thirst. He reached for a flask of wine on a table near the bed. Vague memories stirred and he stayed his hand. He remembered one thing clearly. The last time he had taken wine from such a flask he couldn't stay awake. Steeling himself against the temptation of drinking, he slowly began to reconstruct the ordeal that had followed his drugged awakening.



He frowned as he remembered something of the bloody slaughter of his companions. His mind remained confused when he considered the fate of the princess. Had he killed her? He could remember approaching her with the bloody knife that had taken the life of his men, but then he was sent back to the witch.



He recalled being driven relentlessly across the mountains toward Saadena by the crone who had offered him the wine. He had carried her at night but seldom stopped for rest himself. He grimaced as he recalled the final frantic dash for the city when his heart had nearly burst at the strain at racing up hill with the old woman in his arms.



The memory of that final run with his sword banging against his back reminded him of the weapon and he realized he was naked except for a blanket and his loincloth. He sat up and glanced around the room. It was not a cell, the ornate tapestry on the wall and the fine corum wool of the blanket that had covered him indicated he might be a guest. The final evidence was his sword and scabbard that leaned against the wall. His eyes returned to the wine. Someone knew he would be thirsty when he woke. Only years of wariness had kept him from taking a drink of the wine as soon as he regained consciousness.



He stood and walked unsteadily to the door. It was locked. So, not a guest, but something more than a prisoner. He didn't know what the crone wanted with him. She had treated him as a dumb animal while he was drugged and he would kill her, but he could wait. She knew a powerful secret that Zadan decided he must learn. His sword could wait for the taste of her blood while he discovered more about the power she had to weaken men's minds and make them her slaves.



He wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and waited in silence until the key sounded in the lock and the door swung open. A young woman stood in the corridor. She looked at him with wide, frightened eyes. She could only be the daughter of the witch who had drugged him. Her features were like her mother's but softer and younger. Her hair was unusual, not the dark fire of Caril's hair, but brighter, like the skin of a nuka fruit when it was fully ripe.



She might have been attractive, if she were not so young and evidently a maiden. He had learned long ago to be wary of women who might have a protective parent in the offing. His adventure with the spoiled princess of Janaka had reinforced his prejudice.



"Come," she directed him. "I am Princess Carlan, I have prepared a bath for you and brought you some clothing to wear. We will dine with my mother, Queen Ayarlan, tonight."



He followed the girl to the cavernous bathing room and was tempted to laugh when she turned her head away at the first sight of his powerful torso when he dropped the blanket. She left the room, leaving him alone to bathe. Before stepping into the pool, he lifted a few handfuls of the water to his face and drank deeply. It was warm and scented, but it satisfied his thirst.



Zadan had kept up the practice of bathing while visiting Janaka, and now he found he liked the habit. He had heard of Ayarlan and the strict rationing of water in the city she controlled. It was a mark of her regard for him, or the prince she supposed him to be, that she had provided a bath.



When he finished with the bath and tried on the clothing Carlan had given him, he found that none of it was large enough to fit him. Only the loincloth, which would fit any man by the nature of it, was suitable. He tore the tunic at the side seams and pulled it over his head, then bound it with the belt. It was a lavish piece of clothing, brightly colored and sewed with gold and silver threads. Carlan looked up at him when he left the bathing room. Her eyes widened when she saw the way he had split the tunic to accommodate his chest, but when he saw her expression he misjudged the cause. How simple women were, he mused. The outer covering was all in all. He took her trembling hand and they walked up the long passages that led to the dining hall.



Ayarlan smiled when she saw her daughter leading the captive toward her. "You make a handsome couple," she said silkily as she reached out and caressed Zadan's muscular arm. "I have invited two of the servants to witness your marriage. As Queen, I have the authority to marry you. There is no reason to delay. We can notify Zedekla of the marriage later."



Once the servants arrived, bringing the registry with them, Ayarlan read the ceremonial phrases that bound her daughter to her prisoner and handed the registry to each of them in turn. "Sign you name beneath my daughter's, here," she indicated. Zadan complied, knowing she would not be able to decipher the signature until it was too late.



"Bring our food, then give us privacy," Ayarlan ordered the servants. When the meal had been set before them and the servants had departed, she filled Zadan's goblet from a special flask then poured wine from another bottle for herself and her daughter. She turned to the bride and raised her goblet to make a toast. "To the marriage of Carlan of Saadena and Tomak of Zedekla," she gloated.



Zadan laughed, startling the two women. He reached over from his seat next to the queen, grasped Ayarlan's throat in a cruel grip and lifted his goblet to her lips. "I am not Tomak of Zedekla, I am Zadan of nowhere, a vagabond and a thief. But now I will be ruler of Saadena, and with the secret you have shown me, soon I will rule all Okishdu."



Ayarlan croaked a protest and tried to wrench his grip away with her hands or twist her head aside. Zadan could not be moved. He wedged the edge of the goblet into her mouth and tipped it until the wine began to trickle from the sides of her lips. "Drink, or you will die," he ordered.



Ayarlan had only met two other people who equaled his ability to overcome her will. One was Challan, her mentor whom she had supplanted. The other was Zadak. As the drug welled around her teeth she realized that Zadan must be the son of the rogue prince. There was no other way she could explain their extraordinary resemblance now that Zadan had revealed that he was not Tomak. It was her last coherent thought before she closed her eyes and gulped down the red liquid.



The effect was immediate. Her rigid mouth grew lax and her eyes lost the brilliant coldness so characteristic of her glance. Zadan removed his hand from her neck and she slumped toward him. He pushed her away with a negligent shove, "Find a hole in the floor and crawl into it," he suggested. She slid off her chair and lay splayed on the ground like a discarded doll. Carlan gaped. She was astonished that anyone could challenge Ayarlan's will and win.



Zadan ignored the sprawling queen and stood. He picked up a plate in one hand and held the other hand out to Carlan with a courtly gesture. "Come wife, we will dine in our quarters where we may have privacy. It is time to begin our marriage," his beguiling smile and gentle tone made curious contrast to the rough words he had spoken to Ayarlan.



The princess glanced fearfully at the queen, but there was no sign that she had any cares other than a close, fascinated examination of the floor tiles. Carlan had avoided the cells where her mother carried out her experiments, and she had never ventured into the streets of Saadena to witness the harvesters. The sight of what her mother's drugs could accomplish held her motionless with apprehension. Zadan took her arm with a gentle but compelling hand and urged her to rise from her seat. She stood and picked up a plate.



She led Zadan along the laden table. "The corum roasted with bread berries and ota shoots is always well prepared," she suggested shyly, her voice quivering with an emotion that balanced between fear and the desire to please him. She cut a generous portion and put it on his plate.



Zadan chuckled and caressed her tender nape with his fingers, "You are a good wife, Carlan. What other delicacies do you recommend for our nuptial feast?"



To be solicited for her opinion, even on such a small matter as the selection of food, was a heady experience. When she reached across the table to pick up some meat tongs, Carlan avoided stepping on Ayarlan who was crawling slowly across the floor, looking for the hole she had been ordered to find.



Soon two plates were heaped and Zadan curled his fingers around the handles of two ewers of water and wine. Carlan looked back as she followed her new husband from the dining hall. Ayarlan had found a minuscule hole and was busily scratching at it, trying to enlarge it enough so that she could crawl into it.



Carlan felt a chill run along her skin. It might have been Zadan groveling there if he had not forced Ayarlan to drink the drugged wine. Some instinctive loyalty that had kept her tied to her mother, even when she was most vicious, seemed to wither and break like a rotten string. In law and emotion she now acknowledged another master. She turned her face to Zadan and smiled tremulously.



Ayarlan woke in the darkened dining hall and stared around her. The first pallid light of dawn touched the arched windows high in the wall of the chamber. She recalled what had happened many hours before. Carlan must have defied her orders and prepared a milder dose of the drug for her husband than what she had ordered, one that would induce sleep after a brief period of hypnotic obedience. Her fingers still ached from scrabbling at the floor, but not long after the rogue and Carlan had left the dining hall, she had fallen asleep.



Ayarlan hurried to her workshop for another dose of the drug. She fumed because it was not Tomak she had taken, but she began to realize that if Carlan's new husband had been stupid and greedy he would have killed her. That he had left her alive was proof that he was clever. After all, while not an acknowledged royal, he was very likely Zadak's son and Tomak's cousin.



Carlan was a fool, but her foolishness over the handsome rogue could work into Ayarlan's plans. Ayarlan's bones ached from hours spent on the cold stone floor. She vowed that she would have her revenge on Zadan in time but he had longed for someone strong and harsh to aid her in her plans to subdue the other rulers of Okishdu with her drugs. Zadan seemed to be the hard man she needed as an ally. It would be a challenge to see if she could work with him.



She looked toward the window and saw that the sun had risen. With a final twist of her spine to relax the knotted muscles, she left the workshop and hurried to her distillery where more dangerous drugs than selan could be found. She would try to make her peace with her villainous son-in-law, but if he resisted, he would soon no longer trouble her. Perhaps he would be the best one to test her limited supply of addictive selan.



Zadan woke and rose from the bed he had shared with his bride. He walked to the window and stood looking out over the city of Saadena as it shimmered in the heat of mid-day and watched the harvesters as they scraped selan from the fallen stones of the city. This had once been the greatest city in Okishdu. It would be so again, he vowed. Under his guidance, the gold and riches of Janaka, Zedekla, and all the other cities, would flow into the treasury of his kingdom.



He was pleased with his marriage to Carlan. She wasn't as pretty as Caril, but she was infatuated with him. He could woo a woman as well as any man, better than most, he assured himself. He would probably become bored with the fawning adoration of his wife, but after the rejection Caril had dealt him, it was balm for his ego to have another princess so eager to become his wife.



He saw her watching him from the sleeping alcove and gave her a smile that brought a blush to her pale face. He felt an emotion that was almost fondness briefly warm his heart as he looked into her glowing eyes. Carlan's piquant youth appealed to him. For a moment he thought of Padmin, the woman at the robber camp and realized how different the two women were.



Carlan gathered the bedclothes close and smiled up at Zadan. "My mother thought you were the prince of Zedekla. You made a fool of her, but I am glad you are not a prince. You are sufficient in yourself."



Zadan smiled again. She lowered her eyes and blushed. "I must go to the kitchen and get some food, and then I will see what things might be made to fit you from my father's closet," she said.



He trusted her. He smiled at the way she crept from the bed, clinging to a blanket so that she was covered more completely than she was when fully dressed. He laughed indulgently. She really was delightful. Perhaps he would not become bored with her. It would be interesting to see if she could claim his loyalty.



Carlan soon reappeared with a tray of food. She sampled everything herself to assure him that none of it was tainted with the drug that could remove his wit and will, then she disappeared again. When she returned a few minutes later, she was carrying a bundle of clothing. While he ate, she set to work, clipping seams, inserting gussets to widen and strengthen the material, and making other alterations. He admired the deft way she wielded her needle. She was quite clever. The thought warmed him. It was one thing to have a woman adore him. It was quite another to admire a woman who adored him.



"Come here, Carlan," he impulsively commanded.



She stood and walked to him, a fearful anticipation in the way she sidled closer. She fears me, he thought. It did not make him happy. "I only wanted to hold you on my knees," he explained, suiting his actions to his words. She curled against him like a young animal. He had tamed a young conyo when he was a child and Carlan reminded him of that time when he had been loved and trusted by his pet. The leader of the band of acrobats had killed the conyo, calling it vermin. The incident had taught him to harden his heart. Now Carlan seemed to be softening him.



He toyed with the bright curls of her hair that lay behind her perfect little ears. "Never be afraid of me. I will protect you. You need fear no one, not even your mother."



She relaxed against him, the tension going out of her and he knew he had spoken to her dread. It must have been awful to be the child of such a woman as Ayarlan. His mother had been crude and careless, but never actively evil. He hugged Carlan for a moment more, not as a woman, but as a young thing he had sworn to protect. Then he lifted her away and laughed. "Go back to your mending, or I must venture abroad dressed in nothing but my loincloth."



While he watched Carlan sew, Zadan made a decision about his mother-in-law. He did not deceive himself that she would be easy to conquer. Doubtless she had begun to plot against him as soon as she woke. He would let her live until he learned her secrets. He had a certain brutal knowledge of poisons and kept some in his pouch. He was almost grateful to the hag for showing him the potential of the drug she had used on him. When he finally learned all she knew, he would become the ruler of more than the dusty valley of Saadena.



Carlan was his willing guide to the various rooms of the palace. She believed what he had said about protecting her and it was only with an effort that he convinced her that it would be best for her to return to their quarters while he continued familiarizing himself with such important rooms as the armory. He was pleased by what he found in the weapon racks. A number of the swords had been made before the age of kings in Janaka. Several fine swords by nearly legendary widow smiths were hung among inferior blades. For a moment he was tempted to take one of them for his own, but he had grown used to the weight and handling of the execution sword and regretfully turned away.



He wondered what had become of the guards who should have been in the barracks. There was a dearth of servants in the palace. He would ask Carlan to summon more. It was not fitting that she injure her fingers and roughen her hands by continuing to do all the little tasks that were required.



Ayarlan surprised him by seeking him out as he took inventory of the treasury a few hours later. "Whatever you may have been, you are now my daughter's husband," the queen said. "Don't try to fight me, but join me in my plans. I have needed a strong man by my side, but I have been tied to a weakling."



"Where is your husband?" Zadan asked. "I had not heard that he was dead."



"I sent him on an errand that he bungled. Doubtless he is hiding to avoid my anger, but he is still the legitimate ruler of this city. You will not have complete power in Saadena until you have found Carnat and ended his life."



Zadan looked at her with eyes as cold and hard as slate. Finally he nodded. He admired her ruthlessness, but he would make certain that nothing passed his lips that had not been tested first in her mouth. "I will set one of my men to find your husband and make certain that none challenges my right to rule in Saadena."



Ayarlan smiled. The alliance with Zadan would be profitable. It would never be an easy partnership, but with Zadan at her shoulder, she could defy the increasing power that was exerted by the Jaman traders.



In Jama, Urgit had worried about the absence of Ayarlan. As days passed, he began to wonder if she were really the witch she pretended to be. One of the watchmen had come to him and reported that he had seen one of his fellows apprehend and release an old woman who had been lingering in the courtyard on the night of the feast in honor of the queen. He summoned the servant who had been implicated in the incident and questioned him.



The interview seemed to yield no useful information until the man recalled something he had seen that had puzzled him. "When the old woman turned away to leave the house, I caught sight of the gleam of something that hung at her neck. It was as if some monstrous creature had been turned to gleaming pearl and fastened there. I saw it for only a moment, but surely such an ancient, ragged hag could not possess such a jewel. It must have been a trick of the light."



Urgit scowled. He knew of such a jewel. It was the Orenese pendant that Ayarlan always wore. When he had asked her about it one night, she told him it was a representation of a sea creature. The pearl had been found in an oyster by one of the Orenese pearl divers many years before. It was said to have magic powers.



Had Ayarlan used magic to turn herself into an old hag, or had it been mere subterfuge, the same kind of trick that any Jaman woman might use to escape the house of a too urgent suitor? What reason had she to use such tricks on him? He finally braved the closed room where Ayarlan had so mysteriously disappeared. Where had she gone when she left his house? The questions teemed, each answer giving rise to a new question.



One of the obvious answers came immediately. Ayarlan had made a pact to trade with another of Jama's merchants. If such were the case, she would need to have Urgit and his mercenaries out of the way when her new customer came to make the trade. Perhaps she had already accomplished her purpose. Urgit hurried from the room and summoned the captain of his mercenary troop. "Prepare your men to leave for Saadena as soon as the sun rises tomorrow."



More than a day after Urgit led his men from Jama, Barga bid farewell to Tomak, Carnat and Nara. "I will set my men to guard the north and south passes as we planned. If we do not hear from you by tomorrow, we will assume that you require rescue."



Carnat approached the city with Tomak and Nara in the afternoon while the selan harvesters briefly rested from the heat of mid-day. "I will tell my people that the prophecy is about to be fulfilled," Nara said. "Their patience will be rewarded at last." She turned aside while the others continued up the steep slope to the palace.



Carnat unlocked the small south door that had seen the passage of so many exiles and led Tomak into the palace. This had been one of Challan's favorite ways of punishing servants. Many had regarded exile through the south door as a sentence of slow death, worse than execution.



Carnat whispered his memories to Tomak as they walked along the dusty passages. Tomak looked around and marveled at the age and decrepitude of the lofty walls. This vast pile of masonry had been old when the walls and roofs of Zedekla's palace were first being raised by Tharek centuries before.



As they left the older parts of the building and entered the gaudier halls that had been Marnat's gift to posterity, They heard a fylk harp being played. Carnat paused in surprise. He had grown accustomed to the dirge-like melodies Carlan preferred. This was a frolicking tune. Then he heard an even more unusual sound, Carlan's laughter.



A thin barrier of tapestry concealed Carnat and Tomak as they entered an alcove of the throne room and looked on the scene through narrow gaps in the fabric panels. Zadan lounged in the cushions of the throne with an indulgent grin on his face as Carlan sang. Ayarlan sat next to the villain, her face set in a frown.



Carnat was surprised by a painful realization that he loved the young girl who smiled as she sang. His drugged mind had denied her any share of his affection while she was a child, and once he had set his mind on seeing Caril, his younger daughter had been completely eclipsed in his mind. Now he saw that she wore a face similar to Ayarlan's in such unimportant details as the length and shape of her nose and her eyes, but in truth, there was little resemblance between the two women. The contrast became even more evident when Ayarlan lost patience with the jolly song Carlan was singing.



"Stop this foolishness," the queen snarled as she stood and strode toward her daughter. "Zadan and I have more important things to do than listen to your caterwauling."



"I have nothing more important to do than listen to Carlan," Zadan said. He stood and blocked Ayarlan with a gesture of reproof. "Bring me some wine, old woman, and hurry."



Ayarlan turned on him. "You simpleton, have you become besotted with this weakling? I hold the key to the secrets that will ensure our success, and all you can think of is dallying with your wife. She can do nothing for you. The secret formulas that will give us power are locked inside my skull."



"You have shown me nothing that I didn't already know. The secret of selan is the only thing I want in exchange for my patience with you. I paid well for that knowledge. Now fetch my wine," Zadan ordered, his voice quiet but hinting at the cruelty he would use if she foiled him.



Ayarlan turned aside and walked to the cupboard where wine was kept. Tomak and Carnat watched as she poured the wine and carried it toward her son-in-law. She had rubbed her fingers briefly along her upper lip while leaning over the cup.



"Drink first," Zadan ordered her as she presented the wine. She made a slight curtsy and raised the cup fully, washing her upper lip with the wine that nearly spilled at the edges. Zadan took the cup from her, satisfied that she had tested it. Carlan jumped forward and tried to dash the cup from his hands. He reacted impulsively, throwing her away from him against the wall.



The watchers heard her small cry as she crumpled to the floor after her head bounced against the stone surface. Drawing his sword, Carnat leaped from concealment. "Fool," the king shouted. "She acted to save your worthless life. There is poison on Ayarlan's lip."



Zadan frowned at the crumpled form of his wife. Then he turned to meet the challenge.



"I will deal with Ayarlan later, esteemed father-in-law. I wondered when you would return. You have saved me the effort of seeking you out. There cannot be two rulers in Saadena."



Zadan casually drew the immense sword from the scabbard that leaned against his chair and walked toward Carnat, who lifted his own sword in defense.



"Look to your daughter, Carnat," Tomak said as he stepped from concealment, carrying the staff that seemed to be his only weapon.



Zadan turned to watch him, a wry smile twisting his lips into a sneer. "I am overwhelmed with gifts. I missed making an end of you in Janaka. Hand him your sword, Carnat, I would not want to kill an unarmed man."



"My sword is Tharek oc Baroka," Tomak said. He signaled for Carnat to move aside and drew the glistening blue sword from its concealment within the staff.



Carnat turned his attention to Carlan. He hurried over to her, fearful of what he would find. Had his discovery that he loved and cared for her come too late? His failure as her father had led her to trust the villain who had so casually thrust her aside.



Ayarlan removed her dagger from her sash and rushed Carnat with a shriek of fury. She could not bear to see the expression of compassion that filled his face when he reached down to touch Carlan's head. She had long since abandoned all regard for her weakling husband, but she was jealous of the tender emotion that he had never displayed to her.



She had not considered that he was free of the drug and sturdy with the exercise of his journey. His hand caught hers before she could wound him. They grappled briefly, but Carnat soon disarmed Ayarlan and bound her to a chair with cords he ripped from the tapestry behind them. Ayarlan shrieked a curse and Carnat stuffed a piece of cloth into her mouth, binding it in place with another piece of cord.



He ignored the fight between Tomak and Zadan as he bent over Carlan. Carnat's worst fear was relieved when he heard a faint breath sighing from her throat. She was still alive. He gathered her limp body in his arms and carried her to a cushioned bench nearby. A beam of light from the high windows revealed the open wound that had been hidden by her bright hair. He ignored the clash of swords as he searched for something to staunch the flow of Carlan's blood.



Zadan had grinned when he first saw the straight, narrow sword Tomak unsheathed from the long staff. His own blade was heavy and hooked, meant for slashing and gutting. He had long ago lost count of the lives it had taken as he defended against challenges to his position as chief of the robber band.



He had hoped to seek out the rival who had bested him in the competition for the princess Caril. He had thought he would have to kill him quietly, by stealth. He roared his unholy delight in anticipation of a quick victory against the youth who faced him.



Tomak hardly remembered the early days when Tharek oc Baroka had been awkward in his grasp and his father's battle chief had tirelessly corrected him. Now it was like an extension of his arms as he held it before him, the rainbow ripple along the blue white blade betraying its origin in the star stone found by Algire, the wizard smith.



He tested his footing, and moved back from the rug that covered the center of the room to took his stance on the flag stones at the side. His apparent retreat brought a grin to Zadan's face, but Tomak used the brief delay to consider his position.



To the right he heard Ayarlan's vicious curses as Carnat subdued her, but Carlan remained ominously silent. He kept his thoughts from dwelling on the terror he had seen in Carnat's face when Carlan had fallen senseless to the floor, Zadan demanded his attention. The brigand's advance seemed swaggering and incautious, yet Tomak knew better than to judge his opponent too quickly. His sword was an impressive double handed blade, and Zadan betrayed a familiar and practiced grasp.



Tomak moved to the right, several meters from Ayarlan's muffled cries and canted his sword defensively.



Zadan moved forward, his stride lengthening, his arm muscles tensing, betraying his intentions moments before the great blade began to move in a powerful arc, impelled by the width of his shoulders. He felt a moment of regret that the contest would end so soon, but Tomak shifted his weight and met the blow with a counter of his own sword. Tharek oc Baroka ripped along the edge of the softer blade with a tearing sound that shocked Zadan's ears.



Zadan's weight followed his deflected blade, leaving his unprotected shoulder open to Tomak. The prince's lighter, counterbalanced blade was ready to take advantage of the opening, But even as his sword arced toward Zadan's side, the thought of killing a man slacked Tomak's arm. He had never shed blood, and gorge rose in his throat, making him falter. That hesitation saved the imposter's life.



Zadan pulled his sword around barely in time to defend himself, lurching backwards to compensate for the muscle wrenching twist. Tomak followed him, wondering at the failure of his will. If any man deserved to die, it was this villain who had plotted the abduction of Caril.



As he moved, he saw Carnat carrying Carlan's still form. There was blood on Carlan's pallid forehead from her husband's careless blow. The sight renewed Tomak's determination to end the contest soon. The princess was little more than a child. She had acted only to save Zadan's life from the poison of Ayarlan. Truly he was a rogue, deserving of death.



Carnat gave a sob and Tomak heard the despair in his cry. Carlan was almost certainly dead. It was this thought that steeled Tomak to shed blood, but his caution and distraction had already lost him the initiative.



Zadan moved swiftly to take advantage of Tomak's error. He planted his feet firmly and used his strength and reach to best advantage, bringing his sword about in a smooth curve that cut the air with a soft whistle. Tomak had no choice but to trust to the legendary strength of Tharek oc Baroka. He gripped the long hilt in both hands and braced himself. The two swords met, and Tharek oc Baroka sang, as Zadan's sword shrieked again.



The impact spun Tomak back but he completed the turn and sent his sword in a blurred but certain arc toward Zadan. This time mere accident saved the rogue's life. He had forgotten the rumpled rug as he moved back to gain room for another blow. His knees buckled as his heel tangled in the fringe, and he lurched, the edge of Tomak's blade met air where the rogue's head had been an instant before.



Zadan's skill as a tumbler saved him as he regained his feet with ease. He withdrew a few paces and stood, breathing hard and massaging his grip on the deeply notched sword he held.



'"A pretty sword for a pretty boy," he jeered, but the hint of doubt that appeared at the back of his eyes belied his taunt. Tomak said nothing. He moved toward Zadan, executing a series of light, sharp attacks that kept his opponent off balance and unable to bring the full power of his swinging attack to bear.



The prince analyzed the weaknesses and strengths of his opponent's defense, watching for a different angle of attack. Zadan lost patience with the nibbling attacks that seemed to mock him. He spun from a parry to an attack and charged Tomak again, using his superior weight to drive him back as their blades met.



For a brief moment they were face to face across the two swords. Is this how corum drivers feel when a bull turns and charges, Tomak wondered as Zadan's heated breath invaded his nostrils. In the next moment he used a twisting movement reminiscent of a bull driver to break free.



As the contest continued Tomak realized that his idle thought was not mere fantasy. Zadan was becoming increasingly feral, evidently unused to dealing with the prolonged strain of the fight. Doubtless he was used to easy victories. The next exchange of blows was more brutal, and Tomak began an extended spoiling attack to forestall any more serious moves by Zadan. He berated himself, as he forfeited an opportunity to strike into Zadan's momentarily exposed belly. Zadan grew more wildly aggressive, careless of his own safely as he tried to end the fight before his flagging strength betrayed him.



Tomak knew he had to end the fight, but once again he felt the dogging reluctance to be the agent of death. He felt shame at what he perceived as weakness. Had Tharek ever hesitated to draw blood with the sword he had taken from a Janakan warrior at the risk of his own life? What of Manchek, his grandfather, the great warrior who had ended the reign of Jagga. He tried to invoke their heroic spirits to give him the strength of will to kill Zadan. He failed. It was the ghost of another memory that betrayed him. Zadan laughed, and in his laugh there was an echo of voice of Durek.



His younger brother had frequently sparred with Tomak, using a style that uncannily resembled the strategy of Zadan. The thought of the other man's blood flowing out, draining away life in a red, staining flood, unnerved Tomak and weakened his attack.



Suddenly Zadan leaped back to seize a banner off the wall, and flung it at Tomak. In the precious seconds that it took to untangle his sword, Zadan charged him. Tomak dropped to one knee under Zadan's lunge, bringing his sword up like an long dagger, to drive into the chest of his foe. At the last instant of life left to Zadan, Tomak's arm wavered with his will, and the blade turned to make a deep nick in the arm of his opponent.



The imposter snarled and backed away as Tomak rose and faced him. Blood welled from the ineffectual wound and dripped on the rug, feeding Tomak's anger at his own hesitancy. Zadan's right leg was trembling slightly. The fight had gone far longer than reason could credit, and both combatants were tiring. Tomak silently cursed his failure of will to kill the man as they circled warily, then went on to rue the necessity of death as he parried another attack.



Zadan retreated quickly, keeping his distance and favoring his right arm. Tomak's interest was drawn to the wound. Why, indeed, was it necessary to kill Zadan, when a wound could stop the fight. Crippling him would stop this endless battle without the need to burden his over gentle conscience with the death of the rogue. Ignoring the objections that shouted dimly from the back of his mind, Tomak concentrated on the right knee as the easiest target.



Zadan was recovering some of his earlier boldness, and Tomak hastily schooled his face to hide his fatigue. When Zadan charged, Tomak simply leaped to the side, avoiding the slash of Zadan's sword as it whistled past his body. Then he sprang forward before Zadan could recover the stroke and caught the blades together, flinging his arms toward the ceiling, carrying the swords upward. Zadan sword flew from his hands, but Tomak kept his grip.



Zadan, unbalanced by the move, stumbled past. Before he could turn, Tomak slashed the tendon at his knee with almost surgical delicacy. Zadan tumbled to the floor just after his sword hit the stones beside the rug with a clatter. He scrambled after his weapon, trailing his injured leg behind him, but Tomak leaped forward and put the point of his sword through Zadan's hand, pinning it to the carpet. Then he kicked the bronze sword and sent it spinning across the floor until it hit the wall.



He jerked the point of his sword from Zadan's hand and the thief lurched up, then crumpled at the feet of Ayarlan who stared at Tomak. She had dislodged the makeshift gag Carnat had tied over her mouth and her breath whistled through her teeth as she drew a long breath.



Tomak expected her to scream but she surprised him by sneering. "Your brawling has ruined my rug. Who are you to burst in here unasked and battle the Prince of Zedekla." If she thought to summon some sign of regret by invoking the assumed name of her son-in-law, she was denied the small, mean pleasure.



"Nothing will save the rug now, your highness. I've quite spoiled it for further use," Tomak's grim smile did not warm his angry eyes. This woman was his enemy, and enemy to all he held dear.



"I am Tomak, and in a few days time, I will have the honor to marry Caril, your stepdaughter. She is alive, and waiting for me to return to Janaka for our wedding."



Ayarlan's eyes widened as she realized the import of his words. Then she nodded and slowly licked her upper lip.



"I will not be second to anyone in Saadena," she muttered as she slumped against the binding that held her to the chair. Tomak remembered then that she had rubbed poison onto her lip before handing the cup to Zadan.



Tomak turned to the rogue Ayarlan had chosen for her daughter. "Finish it," Zadan gasped. His eyes challenged Tomak and there was something in those eyes that cut the prince to the core. It might have been his brother lying there, bloodied and defiant. He recalled the story his father had told him of Zadak, the uncle who had failed the test of the Stone of Truth. In another kingdom where there was no such test, Zadak would have been king. If this rogue was Zadak's son, he would have had by right what he had tried to take by stealth.



"I've never killed a man. I won't start with you," Tomak said as he backed away.



"You think I want to live as a cripple?" Zadan sneered. "Hand me my sword and I'll take my own life." His voice was weak even as he tried to bluster.



Tomak tore a length of fabric from the skirt of the dead queen and began to bind up his enemy's wounds.



"Fool, as long as I live, you must fear me," Zadan gasped as the younger man bound his bloodied arm and leg.



Tomak made no reply. Zadan would think it was weakness that had made him stop short of taking life. Perhaps it was. Tomak stood from his ministrations and looked down on the man who had tried to steal his name. Again he found the resemblance unnerving.



"I spared your life because I couldn't kill someone who looks as if he could be my brother. I think too much of Durek to believe that someone so like him could be completely wicked." He would not tell the rogue that he might well be his cousin.



Zadan wheezed a laugh. "You may be right, there could be some fragment of righteousness hiding in my black heart. I might find virtues worthy of my new position as the husband of a princess. Unless you choose to abdicate Zedekla to one of your brothers, I will join you in the ranks of those who rule in Okishdu."



Carnat left Carlan's side only because she had regained consciousness and had pleaded with her father to find out what had happened to her husband. He stepped nearer when he heard Zadan's words. He looked down into the livid face of his son-in-law. "I will do everything I can to protect my people from another disastrous rule. Carlan will not be a pawn to your plans."



Zadan stared at the king he had dismissed as a weakling and a fool. His life had taught him to be a quick judge of men, but he had underestimated Carnat. "Where is Carlan? Was she hurt in the fall?" he finally inquired.



"She was hurt, but she asked for you. What shall I tell her?"



The rogue relaxed onto the floor and stared at the ceiling high over his head. He was too weak to laugh, instead he gave a small cough to clear his throat, then murmured, "Tell her that I need her."



Carnat returned to the alcove where he had placed Carlan. Her dark eyes were large with fear as she waited for his news. He wished he could have told her there was no hope, but at least he could offer her the gift of knowing the man she had chosen to love was still alive. "Prince Tomak has spared your husband's life. Zadan is wounded and wants you to come to him."



She rolled up her eyes toward a beam of light that broke the gloom of the distant ceiling. Raising her hands, she muttered a brief prayer of praise and thanks. Carnat wondered who had taught her to pray. It shamed him to know he had no part in her training.



"Please help me go to him," Carlan requested. Carnat supported her as she rose from the couch. She faltered with dizziness from the wound on her head, but she straightened after a moment and leaned on his arm as they moved across the throne room.



Tomak had called servants to help him. Ayarlan was rolled up and carried away in the bloodied rug she had seemed to cherish more than her daughter. Zadan had been carried to a bench where a careful arrangement of blankets concealed the worst of his wounds.



Pain and blood loss paled his face as he watched his young wife approach. She hesitated when she saw his weakness, then she straightened against the pull of her own pain and walked to his side. "I will send a servant to fetch some selan to help you bear the pain. Others will carry you to our chamber where I can care for you." She touched his face tenderly as she spoke. He nodded and closed his eyes.



Chapter 10 Renascence





Nara passed servants carrying an ominous burden wrapped in a blood soaked rug as she neared the gather hall and she rushed into the room and looked around fearfully. She sighed with relief when she saw Carnat standing next to Tomak whose tunic dripped with gore. "You are wounded!"



"Not I," Tomak gestured toward the bench where Carlan bent over Zadan, wiping the sweat and blood from his face with the fine cloth of her sash.



"Why is Princess Carlan caring for the rogue?" Nara asked.



"She is his wife," Carnat said with weary resignation at the evidence that Carlan accepted the choice of husband her mother had forced on her.



Two sturdy servants entered with a litter to carry Zadan from the room. The rogue bit back his cries of pain when they lifted him. Carlan lingered close by his side, her voice low and soothing. Her bright hair fell in wild disarray around her face and there was a bruise spreading across her blood stained temple, but her compassionate profile and the grace of her narrow figure as she leaned to whisper words of comfort to her husband revealed the beginnings of womanly beauty.



"Your people are asking for you," Nara told Carnat as a turn in the corridor concealed his daughter from his bemused gaze.



"Have they come to call me to account for my failure to protect them from Ayarlan?" he asked. "I will face them, and if they demand it, I will pay for my crimes of neglect in any way I can, but until I have returned the copy of Irilik's scroll to Timora, there is little I can do for them."



"They have borne with Ayarlan's cruelty because Fedder promised them you would someday overset her and rule them wisely," Nara said. "Come, they have gathered in the forecourt of the palace."



Carnat resigned himself to facing the harvesters. For all of his life he had avoided looking into their faces and accepting the full burden of his responsibility. He turned to Tomak, "Take the hallway at the end of that cross corridor," he gestured to the back of the room. "You will find a bathing room, the only one functional in this great heap of stone. Take what you need to cleanse and repair the damage to your clothing."



Tomak glanced down at his bloodied tunic and shook his head ruefully. "At the rate I am ruining what few clothes I brought when I started this adventure to see Caril, I will return to Zedekla in little more than a loincloth." He bowed toward Carnat and Nara with customary good manners before turning and following the king's directions.



Carnat looked around at the huge, empty space. It was the largest room in the palace and Ayarlan had decorated it with rich hangings and luxurious furnishings, but it had none of the elegance and comfort of similar rooms he had seen in Zedekla's palace. The excess of ornament only emphasized the emptiness of the room.



He straightened his shoulders and followed Nara. When he passed through the high doorway and into the grand corridor that led to the main entrance of the palace, he was struck by the lines of similar doors on either side, all leading to equally empty rooms. Aside from a few loyal servants, there was no one to occupy all this space but himself, Carlan, and her husband. The thought of Zadan furrowed Carnat's brow with worry. What would happen when the rogue regained his strength? His words to Tomak promised that he expected to become the king of Saadena. The food and water, arms and gold that Ayarlan had hoarded in the palace could provide a real position of power for the ambitious rogue.



Carnat knew he must return to Janaka and see for himself if a copy of the Scroll of Irilik had been preserved, but he must also make some provision for keeping Zadan from usurping the throne in his absence. The echoing sounds of his steps, resounding from the empty rooms on either side gave him the key. He turned to Nara and started to explain what he wanted to do, but she had moved ahead of him and was already opening the great door that led out of the palace.



The protest of the ancient wood as the door creaked open seemed to echo the feeling in Carnat's heart when he looked beyond and saw his people. "I will go and see to Carlan," Nara said, turning aside and leaving him alone. He stopped at the top of the broad staircase that led downward to the forecourt of the palace. Below him the mass of men and women looked up when he appeared.



At first all he could see was their ragged clothing and gaunt bodies. He had always known the harvesters were there, like a burden of guilt on the edges of his numbed awareness. Years before, Neril had tried to wake him to his duties, but he had failed both her and his people. He raised his gaze from the tattered clothing and worn hands and looked into their eyes. The crowd of harvesters showed no sign of the dull expressions Carnat had come to expect of those who lived with the miasma of selan. Nor did they scowl at him with the condemnation he expected. They waited with expectant faces for him to speak.



The intelligence and concern in their faces reminded him of how Neril's gifts had changed them in spite of the continued greed and malfeasance of their rulers. His heart felt humbled by their patient presence. For the sake of fulfilling the prophecies Fedder had taught them, they had continued to live under the yoke of Ayarlan's cruelty, waiting for him to wake from his long, self-indulgent haze.



"Ayarlan is dead," Carnat announced. The people had heard a rumor that the hated queen had died, but Carnat's confirmation of the report brought an excited murmur. He held up his hand to indicate that he had more to say. "I have discovered that a copy of the Scroll of Irilik, which I feared had been destroyed many years ago, has been found. Neril's errand from the Seers will be completed. I will take the copy of the scroll to Timora."



After the first joyful reaction to his words a woman called out, "And what of the little princess, Neril's daughter?" "We knew that she was sent away to safety. Have you found her and saved her from Ayarlan?"



"Caril, has been fostered by King Tagun of Janaka, and will soon marry the prince of Zedekla," Carnat said.



Once again the crowd erupted with happy exclamations. Carnat waited for silence and spoke of the thoughts that had filled his mind as he walked through the nearly empty palace. "It is not good for you to live in the city where there is no decent shelter from sun or wind. There is room enough for all of you here in the palace. It is large enough for everyone to find a place. I won't command you to leave the hovels where you live, but I invite you to share this place with me."



They stared at him in confusion as he turned and walked back into the palace, leaving the great door open behind him. He heard them moving about and murmuring behind him but as he sought out Carlan's room to see how his daughter fared. Nara had preceded him and met him at the door of the chamber. She put up her hand to bar him from entering.



"Carlan is shocked and shaken," Nara said, "but she seems to have suffered no great damage from her fall. I tried to get her to rest, but she is intent on nursing her husband. I've sent for my cousin Morla to watch over her."



"That should be my task," Carnat demurred.



"I don't think she'd welcome your help," Nara said. "You have an errand to perform that will take you away from Saadena. After Carlan has recovered her strength she might be willing to bear your presence. I think it best for the two of us to leave her to the care of others."



Morla hurried up the corridor and brushed past him. When she entered the room, the door was opened wide enough for Carnat to see Carlan washing Zadan's wounds. Her small pale hands betrayed her youth. Morla spoke a few words to the princess and was rewarded by a grateful smile as the woman began to help. Her quiet air of competence reassured Carnat that his daughter would be well cared for.



He was torn with the conflict of his duty but suddenly Carlan turned and saw him lingering near the door. She met his eyes with a cool dismissal that spoke more clearly than words that she did not welcome his presence. She turned her face away without speaking. It tore his heart to see her rejection, but he knew he deserved nothing better from her.



"Very well, I will do as you suggest," Carnat said wearily to Nara, "The sooner we join Tomak and the others and return to Janaka, the more quickly I can complete my duty to the memory of Neril."



"You will want to provide yourself with a change of clothing before you return to Janaka," Nara suggested. "I will join you later. Fedder left some records that I must secure."



Carnat was reluctant to enter the rooms where he had served his long, self-imposed servitude to Ayarlan, but Nara's words had reminded him that he must find something to wear when he appeared before King Tagun and asked about the scroll. He was passing the bathing room when he heard someone singing the song the Saadenan refugees had sung on their first night in Janaka. He glanced in and saw Tomak rubbing a towel through his hair while he sang. He paused and listened to the verses that condemned him.



"Saadena's prince saw a maiden fair



Neril of Marekla with night dark hair,



No honor kept his heart in line,



He seized the maiden fair and fine



He seized the maiden fair and fine.







Saadena's witch killed the maiden fair



So pale she lay with her wee child near



Queen Ayarlan took Neril's place



Her evil dooms Saadena's race



Her evil dooms Saadena's race."



Carnat must have given some sign of his distress as the song ended because Tomak looked up with a look of chagrin. Then the prince smiled and beckoned Carnat to join him. "I have composed a new verse to the harvester's plaint:



Saadena's king traveled far to see



The child of Neril, and she made him free



He comes to take his reign in hand



He brings new life to his sorry land



He brings new life to his sorry land."



"I wish it were true," Carnat said. "I have little to offer my people. At least I can share the hoarded treasures of Ayarlan with them. I offered to give them a home here in the palace. Will you go with me and offer suggestions for how the move can best be accomplished. I'm afraid I did not give much thought to the process."



"I will wait while you refresh yourself," Tomak said. "We have a long hike ahead of us before we see Janaka again. I promised Caril I would take care of you. Now that I have vanquished your enemies, I must give attention to your grooming." His lighthearted response cheered Carnat and reminded him that Caril would expect to meet him when he returned to Janaka. He took some time to bathe away the accumulated grime of his recent adventures and selected clothing that would not disgrace him when he was finally introduced to her as her father and not a chance-met stranger.



Tomak looked him over with an assessing eye after he had finished dressing and nodded his approval. "You are amazingly improved. I no longer feel uneasy about introducing you to my fiancee."



Carnat started to laugh and stopped suddenly, amazed at the sounds that had issued from his throat. Neril had taught him to laugh, but it had been many years since he had found any reason to do so.



"Come, it is time to sort out the problems of your new tenants and start on our journey," Tomak said. "Barga will wonder if we have all died at Zadan's hand if we do not meet him soon."



They found a group of harvesters standing in the great hall with a few pathetic piles of their belongings at their feet. They seemed puzzled about what to do next. At the sight of them, Carnat stopped and conferred with Tomak. "I have never studied to be a leader. What shall I do? It is long time since Saadena could be called a kingdom and I will no longer pretend to be king."



A man stepped forward and challenged Carnat's words, "I am Yegar, son of Talga, how can we live without a king? The Jamans will overcome us and make us slaves as surely as did your mother Challan and your queen, Ayarlan. Whether you call yourself a king or not, you must give us guidance now. You surely have some idea of where Ayarlan kept the water and food she hoarded."



Carnat turned to the man and those who surrounded him. "If we share what remains of the wealth of Saadena, we might find this is a place where we can live together. Your boldness in rebuking me belies to your fears of failing without a king. Choose a leader from among yourselves. You are no longer enslaved by selan and Ayarlan is dead."



"You must stay here and lead us until we know enough to lead ourselves," a woman called out. Others approved her words. Carnat was surprised that they were so insistent that he stay.



Tomak interrupted their clamoring pleas. "I am Tomak, prince of Zedekla." His words silenced them. They were curious about the man who had chosen to marry Caril. "There is still a task to be completed before Carnat can return to Saadena in good conscience. Are you children who need a father? He has said you can rule yourselves, prove him right."



The woman who had challenged Carnat moved forward in the crowd. "I am Binden, Yegar's sister. We are not children, but there is much we must learn if we are to survive without the overseers and guards Ayarlan employed. In years past we subsisted on the residue of selan and whatever water Ayarlan's minions chose to dole out to us. In the days since her servants were dismissed, we have gone without even that. The spearleaf plantations are over strained now that our children are forced to share their rations with us."



Carnat summoned her to follow him. He led Binden and a group of her friends to the larders and cisterns of the palace. The women took baskets from the shelves in the larder and filled them with food of every kind from the well stocked lockers and cupboards. Instead of satisfying their own hunger after they had carried food to the others who were waiting in the hall of the palace, they returned to the water room where they filled buckets and pitchers to satisfy the thirst of those who had assembled.



Carnat and Tomak could not deny their eager invitation to join the feast. Other harvester families arrived. The throng soon filled the four main audience halls as well as the entrance hall. The sounds of their voices banished the emptiness. There was plenty for all, but there was no waste. Long years of near-starvation had taught them to respect the new bounty.



Silence spread through the crowd. "It is Cigna and Miyan," a woman near Carnat murmured. He looked up and saw Nara standing at the entrance to the palace with a man and woman wearing the white and blue of shrine servants. The names seemed familiar, but he could not remember where he had heard them before.



As they passed through the room toward him, they stopped and spoke to first one, then another of the gathered harvesters. At last they came to Carnat and Tomak who stood to meet them.



"You have fulfilled the promise Fedder made," the woman said. "Many have faltered as the years passed. Many were driven into exile, but now we may rejoice."



"These are two of Neril's first students," Nara said when she saw that Carnat was trying to remember them. "They were the first to come to maturity without suffering the pall of selan. For many years, after Ayarlan drove Fedder into exile in the eastern mountains, they lived and studied with him."



"We have come to warn you," Cigna said. "From our refuge on the mountain we have seen a troop of men approaching over the desert. There is danger."



"There is danger!" another voice intruded. Barga had appeared at the door of the hall. He gasped for breath as if he had been running. "My watchmen at the northern trail head saw mercenaries approaching from Jama. I have instructed my men to stand ready, but we are greatly outnumbered. It might be safer for you if we concealed ourselves and let you parley with their leader. What would you have me do?"



"It must be Urgit and his mercenaries returning to bully my people," Carnat said. "I assured the harvesters that they were capable of ruling themselves, but this challenge comes too soon after they have gained their freedom. They need time to develop the means to defend themselves. What can I do to help them?"



"Barga and his men will be willing to help you if you stand and fight," Tomak said. "If we leave the harvesters defenseless, they will only exchange masters. Is Urgit any better than Ayarlan?"



"My men will follow your directions, but we cannot stand off the mercenaries by ourselves," Barga said, "You must find some way to involve your people in their own defense."



Carnat nodded. "I once heard it said that a few good men can hold this palace against a considerable force. Is it possible that untrained people could help drive away Urgit?"



Tomak nodded. "I have a plan, but it will require every man and woman who can bear arms. Do you think they will be up to the challenge?"



"If they could patiently endure the rule of Ayarlan, they should be capable of nearly anything," Cigna said.



Yegar had drawn near when Barga first appeared with news of the invasion. "We will do whatever you ask of us," he said. A chorus of approval met his words. He turned to the man who had followed Fedder as the spiritual leader of Saadena, "Give us your blessing Cigna."



The holy man waited for a brief moment for silence to fill the great hall as all the harvesters looked to him. Then he raised his hands and entreated the Radiance to be with them against their enemies.



After Cigna finished his prayer there was no lack of volunteers to help defend the palace. Men and women pressed forward to assure Carnat that they would give their lives if necessary.



Tomak leaped to a bench so that he could be seen. "I believe we can hold them off, but we must work quickly. Do any of you have experience of bearing arms?"



One of the women waved the scraper with which she gathered selan. "We have these blades." she said with a laugh of bravado.



Tomak smiled, then shook his head. "I passed a well stocked armory when I went looking for a place to bathe. We have spears and swords and bows enough for all of you, but we must hurry. He looked toward Barga, "How long before the mercenaries enter the city?"



"It will be less than two hours before they reach the trail head, unless they stop to make a meal before they attack." Barga replied.



"Pray that they are hungry," Tomak said. "Summon your men and bring them to the throne room to help me arm the people. Surprise will have to serve a major role in our strategy."



"I'm certain Urgit has no idea that the harvesters he despises are capable of defending themselves," Yegar said.



Tomak led a crew of men to the armory to assemble the weapons and Carnat led the way to the throne room. They quickly cleared the floor of any remaining furniture. There was no sign of the fight between Zadan and Tomak other than region of damp stone where servants had washed the pavement clean. Carnat instructed Yegar to tilt Ayarlan's ornate cushioned throne against the wall to provide a target.



Tomak proved his mettle as a leader as he organized the milling crowd of eager volunteers. Few of the men felt capable of handling a bow, but under Barga's tutelage, Binden ventured a few shots. She was soon surrounded by a group of women who were eager to be instructed. There would be little danger of wounding anyone, but it might be enough to bluff the mercenaries.



Yegar proved proficient with the spear. Tomak left him and a group of his friends practicing with Barga's men while he armed other men with swords and told them to practice yelling.



There was some progress but Tomak had begun to despair of having the ambush ready in time. Barga's watch appeared and told them their prayers had been answered. The mercenaries had settled down to partake of a meal and sharpen their weapons before attempting the steep slope up to the trail head.



When Urgit and his band of mercenaries entered the city four hours later, they were met with silence. From high in the watchtower, Carnat followed the progress of the Jamans. From his vantage point, he could see where Barga and his men were hidden, but they were well concealed from Urgit and his mercenary troop.



When Urgit drew near enough to hear his voice, Carnat hailed him from atop the tower. "Why do you come to my city with men in arms?"



Urgit gaped up at Carnat. At first he did not recognize the king, but the afternoon sun lit his hair and Urgit knew no other man with those fiery locks. Even touched with silver, they glowed like molten red gold. At first he was disturbed to see Carnat standing upright and challenging him, but anything was possible in the realm of a witch. He invoked the name he knew the king would fear.



"I come to see my lady, Queen Ayarlan," Urgit shouted belligerently. "Come down from there before you get hurt."



"Queen Ayarlan is dead. If you have business in Saadena, speak to me." Carnat replied.



Urgit hardly hesitated. "I am sorry to hear of Ayarlan's death. I know you must mourn her as I do. We made promises of trade and friendship that you must honor. Your daughter Carlan is betrothed to me."



"I hereby renounce any treaties you made with Ayarlan," Carnat declared "At this moment you are in the sights of my archers. The towers to your left hide my spear men. The door in front of you will open at my word and my swordsmen will rush out. Go away from Saadena now, or I will call forth the vengeance of my people."



Urgit laughed. Ayarlan had often bragged that she had removed both wit and will from her husband, and Urgit thought the king had lost his mind. He ordered his mercenaries to charge the palace.



Carnat dropped his hand in the agreed signal and the gates opened. Harvesters, armed with swords and spears, burst from hiding, their voices raised in weird chorus. The sight was so unexpected that Urgit screamed and turned to run. His hirelings, told that there would be no resistance, halted their charge and followed Urgit in his mad scramble to remove himself from the range of the spears and arrows that were falling close behind him.



It was a rout. The value of surprise had won the day. Neither Urgit nor his bullies suspected that none of the men who had pursued them had any experience of arms. Carnat watched the Jaman and his men retreat well beyond the lip of the valley. He called Yegar to man the watchtower and turned to address the others who had taken part in the charade. "You must decide between you how to organize your defense of the palace from henceforth. If we cannot hold the city with the resources we have at hand, we are not worthy to keep it."



The people cheered. For the first time in their lives, they were able to give voice to the fierce frustration that had plagued them for so many years as they waited for Carnat to fulfill the prophecy of Fedder. Urgit's men heard the tumult as they scrambled down the trail. They made signs against the demons that surely created the unearthly sounds.



Tomak supervised the storage of the weapons in the armory and went to find Carnat. The king was speaking to Yegar. "I will return, but I no longer want to live in the room where I misspent most of my life these past years. You will find documents there that will help you in the days to come." He led the enterprising harvester to his room and Yegar waited while Carnat located a plan of the palace that he had taken from the library before it burned. Soon Yegar and Cigna were busy in the great hall making room assignments. Only a few of the harvesters had been inside the massive walls of the ancient 'New Palace' before that day. They had never imagined the hundreds of rooms that lined the long corridors. Binden had appointed herself steward of the larder and her fair-handed treatment proved her worthy as the evening meal was prepared and distributed.



Everyone, including Barga and his men, joined in the feast of victory. When the meal was finished Yegar pleaded with Carnat to stay longer, but the king shook his head. He had been pondering how his people could proceed without a ruler. For years he had been a slothful drone, but long ago he had been a student of governments and history. He found his answer in a memory of something from the scroll. "Yegar, you and Binden, Cigna and Miyan will form a council. Choose three other worthy men or women to work with you. When there are disputes or decisions to be made, let the vote of the majority decide the issue. When I return and formally resign my rule, I will join the council as one of you, until then, you will be my lieutenant. You have as much experience as I in leading this people. It is time for all of you to prove that Neril did not waste her life."



Barga and his men went ahead with Tomak to the southern trail head while Carnat lingered to counsel Yegar. Nara caught up with him when he finally left the palace and started through the city toward the trail. She carried a heavily laden shoulder pack. As Carnat and Nara took their leave of the ancient edifice they heard the sounds of their people exploring the possibilities of their new habitation.



"I will carry your pack," Carnat insisted. When Nara yielded to his pleas and helped him sling it on his shoulder she sympathized with his groan of surprise at the weight of the pack.



"Fedder kept a record of the things Neril did for our people and the prophecies she made in her final days," she explained. "The earlier writings were recorded on a scroll, but after he left the city and hid on the mountain, he had no access to scroll cloth and ink. He inscribed the later records on stone tablets."



Carnat adjusted the strap on his shoulder and made no further complaint. They found the others waiting for them at the top of the trail at the edge of the valley. They planned to take advantage of the cool of night to pass through the worst of the desert. Barga paused and looked down at the city they had left behind. "I would never have believed that Saadena could look any worse than it did when I came here as a child, but it is even more miserable now. Someone should do something about the noxious weeds that seem to infest every space that is not covered with selan mold."



Nara shook her head and chuckled. "You see weeds but it is spearleaf. We call it the Blade of Neril. Those who live in Saadena regard it as a gift of heaven." Barga gave a grunt and turned to lead the way down the trail



Only hours before, Carnat had feared for the future of his people, but now he felt no hesitation at leaving them. They had proved themselves against the mercenaries and in their division of the hoarded food and water. Gluttony would not waste the resources that remained in the palace. They were not seasoned warriors, but they would fight to preserve their freedom.



Barga and his men were curious about the fate of Ayarlan and Zadan. After they camped that night, they were treated to Carnat's description of Tomak's fight with Zadan.



"Why did you let the pretender live? " Barga asked the prince. "That was no kindness to those who will yet experience his villainy."



"Killing Zadan would cut too close to my own throat," Tomak explained. He removed his sword from his staff to clean it thoroughly. He had wiped it after fighting Zadan, but there were still stains on the shining blue surface. He took a small vial of oil and a soft cloth from his belt pouch and began to polish the blade.



"Tharek oc Baroka," Barga breathed with reverence as he stood and came closer to examine the sword. "The best blade will fail if it is not properly wielded, but with this weapon, you could hardly fail. You said you didn't challenge the false prince in Janaka because you lacked credentials to prove your claim. This blade alone would have been sufficient proof."



Tomak flushed with chagrin. "I was a fool. I thought only of seals and other puny proofs of my identity. I should have known that Tagun and possibly all Janakans would recognize Tharek oc Baroka. All this wrangle could have been avoided if I had only stopped to think clearly."



"All was as it should have been," Nara said. "Zadan has been the agent of bringing down Ayarlan. If you had given your proof earlier and Ayarlan had kidnaped you instead of the fraud prince, today might have had a far less hopeful ending."



They had lingered nearly a day longer in Saadena than they had first intended. Barga set a rapid pace when they resumed their journey. They swung south to avoid the city of Jama on their return. Urgit and his men might realize that they had left Saadena relatively undefended. They returned to Janaka as they had come, by the rough track that bypassed the wider road that led to Jama.



A lone figure hobbled along the road they had avoided. Bodun cursed with every painful step. He had been careless. He had been unwise. The bitter truth was something no other man would dare force on him, but he used it as a whip to drive himself forward. The reins of his criminal empire had rested so easily in his hands. Gold and goods flowed like water into his network of warehouses. Few knew his identity, but now all was threatened by the defection of one of the few who knew his face.



The first warning that his plans were going awry had come with the reports from Janaka that Prince Tomak of Zedekla had seemed more a rogue than a royal. Bodun knew Tomak's nature. He had fostered the ambition of one of his nieces, Olina, when she sought to ensnare the prince. The description of Tomak that his spies had brought from the contest for the favors of the Janakan princess, Caril, did not fit with what Bodun knew of Tomak.



He had pondered the problem, distracted by other news from giving it his full consideration. One of his drug caravans had gone missing somewhere on the road near the Or. His confederates were sworn with a dreadful oath to abstain from raiding those caravans that were marked with his seal, but suspicion fell on Zadan, one who had given promise of becoming the most useful of his sworn men. A flood of courtiers and mercenaries from Saadena had wrested his attention away from the matter of the missing caravan. They told strange tales about Ayarlan's alleged orders. Had Ayarlan indeed returned to Saadena? Or had others usurped her authority in her absence?



Bodun sent for Zadan to report to him, but his messenger had returned, bringing Padmin who refused to answer his questions until torture and drugs had finally dragged forth Zadan's plot to pretend to be the prince of Zedekla. Bodun had been amused at first. He liked a show of ambition in one of his rogues, as long as it did not interfere with his own plans or go against his interest. He was less pleased when he discovered from Padmin that Zadan's men had murdered his teamster and robbed the drug caravan.



While he pondered what to do about his rogue servant, he heard that Urgit had finally tired of waiting for Ayarlan to appear and had taken a troop of mercenaries to subdue Saadena. Bodun could no longer justify his lack of action, but he lacked proper information. Where was Ayarlan? The queen was a key player and he had no idea of where she had gone after leaving Urgit in a superstitious muddle. Since most of the action centered in Janaka, she may have taken that road, but for what purpose?



Bodun was cynical with no belief in the luck charms so precious to most Jamans, but he trusted the fund of memories that added up to potent hunches. Somehow there was a link between Ayarlan and Zadan. Years before, his spies had told him of a man named Zadak, a clever scoundrel who had been found dead on the roof of Challan's workroom after serving as a watchman. The description of Zadak was so like Zadan, that Bodun was convinced that the older had been the younger's parent. He had noted Zadan's resemblance to the prince of Zedekla.



Speculations rose like bubbles from the fertile muck of accumulated gossip in his memory. He avoided putting faith in any of the stories, but they piqued his curiosity as he traveled, keeping his mind from dwelling on the aging joints that made his journey so difficult. If only he could trust another with this errand, but how could he explain his urgency or give words to the hunch that had driven him forth on the road to Saadena.



He saw the fires of an encampment as night fell on his second day from Jama. Another traveler might have hurried to share the light and warmth of the camp, but Bodun concealed himself in a rift until the night was dark enough to hide him from any watchers. His dun colored clothing blended with the desert soil when he finally moved stealthily toward the camp to discover who they were and what he might learn by lingering near to eavesdrop.



He heard the sound of muttering voices from the edge of the camp and dropped to his belly to crawl closer to the careless watchmen until he could hear what was said. "I won't be going back to Saadena, whatever Urgit orders," one man said.



"It chills my bones to think of what I risked for Urgit's paltry pay," his fellow guard replied. "It was the screams of the demon's spawn that followed us out of the valley."



"Do you think King Carnat was lying when he told Urgit that Ayarlan is dead?"



"Perhaps it was just a ruse the witch used to chase Urgit away," the other man replied. "Without Ayarlan's support, Urgit will soon have nothing. After we return to Jama and collect our pay, it would be prudent to look for another master.



"Not if he somehow succeeds in marrying the princess," the other man demurred. "Whoever gets the girl will be next in line to rule. A clever man might find a way of taking her. If Urgit finds a way to marry Carlan, he still might win his way."



"Will he, nil he, I have had enough of witches and weird foes. The army Carnat sent against us were bones with hardly flesh enough to make them move. I will not return to Saadena, whatever Urgit promises to pay."



Bodun inched his way along to another part of the camp perimeter after the two men lapsed into sullen silence. Slowly he built a picture of the events that had sent Urgit's troop of mercenaries fleeing into the desert. He considered how to use the information while he made a meal of supplies he had purloined from Urgit's tent while the drug merchant was sleeping only inches from his feet.



He despised Urgit, but the very weakness and superstition that made him such a puny character, made him an excellent pawn. If he could present Urgit with the girl, and the scalp of the king, he would put the merchant deeply in his debt. It would do no good for any Jaman to have a reformed Carnat ruling Saadena. Far better that Urgit gain his desire of marrying the princess.



Bodun honed his narrow dagger absentmindedly while he considered the notion. Before rolling up in his cloak for the rest of the night, he had decided on a plan.



The lone old man who made his way to across the northern desert seemed no threat to those who manned the watchtower in Saadena. Bodun appeared at the top of the trail-head a day after Carnat and his friends had gone. The stranger's threadbare clothing was ripped and his lips were cracked with thirst. The harvesters who manned the guard post did not hesitate to bear him to the palace and called Binden to succor him with food and water.



He let her tend him and listened to her casual conversations with the other women who brought bandages for his feet and ointment for his sun-burned skin. He probed with clever questions when they paused.



Binden saw no reason to use caution as she praised Carnat. "He has shared the palace with us and liberated us from the slavery of Ayarlan," she said. "It is all in fulfillment of Fedder's prophecies."



Bodun hid his disgust at finding that the harvesters had been freed of the influence of selan. Since none of them mentioned the role of spearleaf in giving them immunity to the drug, he thought it was the result of living in the palace, well above the pall of selan fumes that lingered in the lower parts of the city. Their freedom would end soon enough when he killed Carnat.



"I would thank Carnat for his gracious hospitality, but I fear he would not receive such a humble knave as I am." the old man said.



"He would happily receive you, I am sure, but as soon as we had put the merchant's men to rout, he joined his friends and returned to Janaka where his older daughter, Caril, will soon marry Tomak, crown prince of Zedekla."



Her revelation of the impending royal marriage made him drop his cup. If, as he suspected, the man Caril married was Zadan and not the Zedeklan prince, he would have a handy source of blackmail. Almost as he began to plot how to use the information, his hopes were dashed.



"Tomak came with Carnat when he returned to rid us of the witch. He will make a worthy husband to Neril's daughter, so fine and honest and brave he is. He is a wonderful swordsman. I did not see it myself, of course, but the palace servants say he was more than a match for the rogue, Zadan."



"Zadan?" Bodun croaked. "Who is Zadan?" He feared the answer would be that Zadan was dead.



"He is a near double of Tomak. We were not told much about him, but Ayarlan drugged him and brought him from Janaka, riding on his back. He seems quiet enough, and it will be many days until he recovers from his wounds."



"I have some small skill with remedies," Bodun ventured. "Perhaps if I visited him, I could help."



Binden laughed and shook her head. "None are trusted near Zadan but Morla, our medicine woman, and Carlan, the princess."



"The king's daughter?" Bodun asked. "Why would she be called upon to tend the wounds of a scoundrel?"



"We do not know how Zadan came to fight Tomak," Binden demurred. "Surely if he were truly a scoundrel, the prince would not have let him live. Or perhaps Tomak spared his life because he is the husband of Carlan."



As soon as he heard that Zadan had somehow married Carlan, Bodun knew that he would have to change his plans. He dismissed Urgit from consideration. Zadan was already bound to him and would be his pawn in the game to gain more power.



Chapter 11 The Lost Scroll





Carnat wanted to see if Fedder had truly given Doka a copy of the Scroll of Irilik as Caril's birthright, but his mind lingered on the problems faced by his people in Saadena. When they passed the pall that overhung distant Jama, he thought of the threat posed by Urgit and his lot. When others learned that Urgit had been turned away from the gates of Saadena's palace there would be many eager to take over the trade in selan. His personal feelings could not rule him in the matter because he hated the system of harvesting and refining the drug. He knew too well the price that was exacted.



On the other hand, if the people of Saadena were to survive, they must have something to trade. His revulsion at the use Challan and Ayarlan had made of the drug had to be set against the benefit selan gave to those in pain. If Ayarlan's secrets could be kept from spreading to others with the same evil intent, there seemed to be no reason to end the cultivation of selan now that spearleaf provided protection to the harvesters.



When he returned to the city he would have no right to demand what should be done, but he would advise the Saadenans to continue to gather the drug and destroy Ayarlan's workshop and her research. No one would be required to gather selan, but those who did would be compensated from the profit. As ideas for the future teemed in Carnat's mind, he began to wonder if it had been wise of him to tell others he would abdicate his rule. Then he remembered the way his people had looked to him for guidance, not because he was the king, but because Fedder and Neril, had believed in him.



Tomak watched Carnat's face as they hiked along together. He wondered what thoughts caused such fleeting expressions of regret and happiness. Finally Tomak expressed the thoughts that were uppermost in his own mind: "Our delay to face the Jamans will bring us back to Janaka later than expected. Caril must be wondering what became of us."



Carnat smiled at the mention of Caril. "She is very like her mother, but those who say she is spoiled are not entirely wrong. I doubt that she has often been denied whatever her heart desired. It will not go amiss for her to wait and wonder where we are. It will teach her better how much she values you."



Tomak smiled. "I doubt she can miss me as much as I miss her. She is surrounded by distractions, but the hours of walking across this wasteland have left me too much time to wonder if she will change her mind and decide that one of the other suitors suited her better. I even worry that she might be charmed by the words of Yonk, the chubby little Jaman who gave me so much trouble."



Carnat chuckled. "I heard that Yonk was seen taking a slate on which you had written a poem to Caril's beauty. Do you know if he used it?"



Tomak nodded. "He copied it down word for word. Caril detected his duplicity, but I confess that I am not quite in my right mind. I was relieved when the Kumnorans left the contest. I can't forget the recommendation of that brawling fellow we met on the road who told us she was the brightest jewel in Janaka. I have an impulse to hide her in the deepest recesses of my palace and keep her from the eyes of other men."



"I have heard that Zedeklan royals are careful not to let their women wander freely in the market place, and I can understand your caution in light of the Orquian threat," Carnat said. "But never let your jealousy deprive Caril of reasonable freedom. I believe my desire to keep Neril for myself was normal for an infatuated youth, but in capturing her, I nearly forfeited her love. It is not unusual to want to keep your loved one from others, but you will lose more than you ever gain if jealousy poisons your soul."



Tomak nodded. He remembered how offended he had been when he first read the notice board that invited all who would to come and court Caril. Even though he had been in disguise, he had wanted to have her bound by the agreement that would marry her to the prince of Zedekla without her consent. What if Tagun had not heeded her desire to have a choice and Zadan had presented himself and been accepted. Even now Caril might be bound by ritual and rule to a villain.



Tomak's hand clenched on the staff that hid his sword and he wished he had been able to bring himself to rid the world of one who had earned execution. He would always count his hesitation as a failure. His hero was his grandfather, Manchek, one of the heros of the war that had defeated Jagga, the Janakan usurper. He doubted that Manchek had ever hesitated to wreak justice on his enemies.



At last they saw the towers of the city of Janaka in the distance. Their plodding steps took on a quicker pace. When they entered the gates of the city, Nara took the shoulder pack with Fedder's writings from Carnat. "I'm going to find the other Saadenans and tell what has happened in our city. They may choose to stay here in Janaka, but my choice is clear. I will wait until the Scroll of Irilik is restored, then I plan to return to Saadena."



****



While days passed with no news of the expedition led by Barga, Caril spent most of the day near the window in the top room of the highest tower of the palace. Tilla worried about her silence and introspection. Okagun lost patience with her. "Your prince will find you a sad bore if you continue to mope like this after he returns from Saadena," he said after she had refused to play at darts with him.



"I can't help wondering what will happen when he confronts the fraud prince and the witch," Caril explained. She tried to be patient with those who urged her to dull the edge of her worries with mundane activities. They had not been with her in the dreadful death place. They had not felt the hot breath of Zadan in their faces as he prepared to plunge a knife that would take their lives. They had not nearly killed their beloved. She shuddered when she remembered how close she had come to hitting Tomak with the boulder she had thrown. Her mind was filled with grisly pictures of Tomak facing the larger, stronger, far more vicious man who had pretended he was the prince.



Finally she decided she would be better off to think of the future instead of dwelling on the memories that plagued her. The others noticed the change. "You could float quite easily if you gave a little leap to start you off," Okagun teased her. She laughed and consented to the game of darts he had been trying to get her interested in for several days. Then she spent so much time smiling into the corner of the room, dreaming of how she would greet Tomak on his return, that Okagun gave up with a groan of disgust and left her alone.



She returned to her aerie in the tallest tower as the day came and passed that they could have expected Tomak and the others to return if there had been no difficulties in their journey. She assured herself that if anything had happened to Tomak when he first confronted the villain, Barga would have hurried back with the report. Her eyes strained to see the first curve of the road that led from the south.



Somehow she missed that first warning, but she was the first to see the troop of men as they marched quickly up the winding road from the south gate of the city. Giving a glad cry that told all within earshot that she had seen her beloved, and that he was healthy and whole, she hurried down the stairways of the palace. She only stopped once when she saw a mirror and remembered to check her appearance. She saw the disheveled curls that danced with her impatience, but she did not see how bright her eyes had become and the way her gratified anticipation had burnished her cheeks with crimson. She ran her fingers through her hair as she turned and ran on.



She slid to a stop on the polished stone of the grand hall near the entrance and tried to compose herself as she heard the sounds of the great doors being opened. She couldn't maintain the facade of polite interest when she saw Tomak's face. She dashed toward him and he opened his arms.



"We had no word from you," she reproved him when their embrace finally ended.



"We came as quickly as most messengers might have made the trip," Barga said with a laugh as he ruffled the hair of the princess. "All is well. Ayarlan no longer troubles the earth, and Zadan has other things to concern him."



Caril asked what had kept the rogue from murdering Tomak but her timid query was lost in the noise as Okagun hurried into the room shouting eager questions.



"Was there a battle?" he asked hopefully.



"No, you couldn't call the skirmish between the Saadenans and Urgit's mercenaries a battle, but there was a wonderful fight between Tomak and Zadan," Barga said. "Since you see the real Prince of Zedekla standing before you unscathed, I hardly need to tell who won, but this isn't the time or place to satisfy your curiosity."



"You will tell me later, won't you," Okagun pleaded.



"I'll let Carnat here tell you. He was there," Barga said as he indicated the man who stood next to him.



Caril glanced shyly toward the stranger who was her father. Then she exclaimed "I know you!"



"Yes, you provided me with food and drink when I first entered Janaka," he said.



"You suggested I had Saadenan blood. Why didn't you tell me that you're my father?" she asked, unconsciously touching the russet curls that revealed their relationship.



"I didn't think I had the right. You are very like your mother," Carnat added wistfully. The tears that brightened his eyes bore witness that his love for Neril still remained.



"I wish I could have known her," Caril said and took a few steps over to her father. She hugged the man she had once disdained for offering her as a wife to the prince of Zedekla.



Tagun hustled into the room followed closely by Tilla and other members of the household. "I have heard that the king of Saadena has returned with Tomak and Barga. It is past time that I met him," he declared.



"I am Carnat," the man near Caril revealed. The ruler of Janaka took the measure of the man who spoke. He had expected Carnat to be an effete, overdressed scion of depleted nobility. Instead he saw a soberly dressed middle-aged man whose only indication of noble breeding was in the unconscious lift of his head and the line of his profile. Tagun decided to accept him. He hurried forward with his hand extended, "Welcome."



"I am glad to see you safe, King Carnat," Tilla added.



"I plan to renounce the hollow pretense of ruling Saadena," Carnat informed her. "I've turned my palace over to the people, but they have asked me to return and help them."



"You mustn't tell anyone about your abdication until after the wedding," Tilla protested. "It will be a grand occasion uniting three great royal houses because Tagun fostered your daughter and gave her due inheritance as if she were his own. Since you have little to offer, other than your royal standing, do nothing to diminish it until after the vows are exchanged."



Tagun began to protest her brutal honesty but Carnat smiled ruefully and raised his hand to stop Tagun's rebuke. "Her words are just. I have nothing to offer Caril but the faded luster of my ancestry. She is the finest flower of the house of Elianin."



His praise embarrassed Caril, but rather than protesting and risking further compliments, she changed the subject. "When will the wedding take place?" She asked as she took Tomak's arm in a possessive grasp. "I hope we won't wait long."



"First we must settle the question of where the wedding will take place," Tilla said thoughtfully. "Since Caril is both the flower of Janaka and the princess of Saadena, both cities have claim on the privilege. On the other hand, Zedekla's tradition is lovely. I saw their Shrine when I was a girl. You may want to be married in Zedekla."



"These are important matters to consider," Carnat interrupted with a small cough, "but I returned to Janaka with a primary purpose, to fulfil an oath my father made. Caril, did you receive a scroll case when you came of age?"



Tagun's face flushed when he realized his negligence. "I forgot to give it to her!" he exclaimed. "I put it away in the safest place I could think of when Doka gave it to me. With all the excitement about the false prince and the contest for Caril's hand I neglected my promise. I'll go and get it." The grizzled little king hurried away followed by his curious grandson.



"What is this about?" Caril asked.



"You were to receive a copy of the lost scroll of Irilik when you came of age," Carnat replied. "My chaplain, Fedder, gave it to Doka who gave it to Tagun to keep in trust for you,"



"But no copies were made of the Scroll of History before it disappeared from the sacred library in Timora," Tilla said.



"Neril found the lost scroll in the library at Saadena," Carnat explained. "She had been sent by the Seers who warned her of what the errand would entail without revealing the exact purpose of their prophecy. She helped Fedder make the copy before the library burned. My father, King Eliat, was preparing to return the scroll to Timora when he died."



Tagun hurried back into the room carrying a scroll case. He handed it to Caril who turned to Carnat. "Is this the scroll you seek?" she asked when she extended the embroidered case to him.



Carnat whispered a prayer as he untied the cap that closed the scroll case and tilted the contents into his hand. The covering of red brocade fell aside, revealing the creamy scroll cloth and archaic lettering of the scroll. When it was unrolled it was unblemished save for a faded inscription in the margin, the mad taunt of Marnat.



"This is the original Scroll of History," Carnat whispered, awestruck. "How did Fedder come to give it to Doka? Did he have an intimation of what would happen to my father?" Then he rolled the scroll and tipped it back into its protective case. "I must leave immediately to return it to Timora,"



Caril protested. "Surely this is one of the most precious and irreplaceable artifacts in Okishdu. The Radiance preserved it until now. You risk losing it if you rush off to Timora without a substantial guard."



Carnat looked around at the others and saw that all of them shared Caril's concerns. Hesitation and doubt warred with his eagerness to see the errand completed.



Tilla stepped forward and laid her hand on Carnat's arm. "I think I have the answer to two of the problems we face. You must restore the scroll when you can safely do so. On the other hand, we must choose a suitable site for the nuptials of Caril and Tomak. We could plan a procession to return the Scroll to Timora. There will never again be a greater occasion for a grand pilgrimage. What could be more fitting than a wedding in the Great Shrine of Timora joining the daughter of the woman who found the scroll and the descendant of the Seers who sent her on her quest. It is the only fitting answer to a marriage between these two who represent the greatest ruling families in Okishdu."



"Of course," Tagun said. "No one can object to a wedding in Timora." He secretly rejoiced that it might take months for such nuptials to be arranged. He would not yet lose Caril to her new home in Zedekla. The discovery that Tomak was her chosen had not been an altogether happy surprise. He had anticipated providing a position for Caril's husband and keeping the young family close at hand where he would have easy access to curly-haired grandchildren.



Caril gave a small disgruntled sigh and Tomak squeezed her hand in sympathy. He had looked forward to a marriage arranged with as much dispatch as practical. It would take several weeks at most to arrange such a match, given his mother's genius for managing ceremonies and festivities, but the pilgrimage alone would take more than a month at best. The other arrangements could take much longer.



Carnat clutched the scroll with a sense of being thwarted, then he eased his grip. Tilla's suggestion was both wise and practical. It would delay the delivery of the scroll to Timora, and his return to Saadena, but it was evident that the arguments in favor of the plan must overcome his reservations."Very well, I will wait until you have arranged to accompany me before I take the scroll to Timora."



Tagun had not become the King of Janaka by dithering. As soon Carnat capitulated, he hurried to enforce his decision. "Summon my secretary," he told Nefer. "Messengers must be sent to every city and major town, with the first going to Timora and Zedekla. Tilla must plan the procession and the wedding can be left in the capable hands of Queen Ranila, Tomak's mother. We will follow the routes of the main pilgrimage roads to Timora."



Carnat extended the scroll case to Tagun. "Would you return the scroll to safekeeping until we are ready?" Tagun nodded and took the scroll case in his hand, handling it with the reverence due such a precious remnant of ancient wisdom and inspiration.



Before Tagun left the audience room to carry the sacred scroll back into safe storage, He turned to the Saadenan king. "Please make yourself at home here. I am certain Caril would welcome the chance to become better acquainted with you."



Carnat excused himself. "I left the inn before giving the host adequate warning. He will think me a knave if I do not return and compensate him. But first I must go and tell the good news to my Saadenan friends." After clutching Tomak's hand in a gesture of glad support and receiving an embrace from Caril, he left the palace and walked down into the city.



He found Nara at her sister Kana's house where she was enjoying a reunion with her children. She heard him asking for her and met him at the door. The expression on his face puzzled her.



"You look like a man who has seen the Radiance," she said. "Your face reminds me of the expression that Fedder often wore after he left Saadena and lived as a holy hermit in the hills north of the city."



"Irilik's Scroll of History was not destroyed when Saadena's library was burned," Carnat said. "Fedder gave it to Doka to be given to Caril when she came of age. I have seen it. It is the original from the hand of Irilik. I will have the privilege of returning it to Timora."



"This is glad news," Nara said. "But tell me more. Come in and take a meal with us. The others will want to hear what you have to say." She opened the door wider and welcomed him into the house.



Carnat found the wide room filled with other Saadenan exiles. They had come to welcome Nara and hear her account of what had taken place when Carnat and Tomak had challenged Ayarlan. Now they pressed forward, eager to hear what Carnat had to say.



"All of you, sit down," Nara demanded. "Our friend has had nothing to eat and little rest since early this morning. Give him a chance to rest and sup before you hound him with your questions."



There was a lighthearted response to her words, but the men and women in the room took their places on the benches and chairs that had been assembled. While Kana provided Carnat with food and drink, Nara told them what she knew.



"Ranek, who rescued us from Tull and his gang, is truly Tomak, the prince of Zedekla. He came to Saadena in disguise in order to take the measure of Caril before agreeing to a betrothal. As you know, another usurped his name. All of you know what happened then. You have heard the gossip about how Caril chose the right prince and the rogue was taken away. As you suspected, it was Ayarlan who abducted the imposter."



"We set out for Saadena in pursuit. Carnat and Tomak entered the palace while I went to tell our people that the king had returned and intended to confront our enemy. Carnat can tell you the details of what took place, but when I returned to the palace, Ayarlan was dead by her own poison and Tomak had defeated the fraud who had taken his place here in Janaka as a suitor for Caril. He did not kill the man, but wounded him enough to keep him quiet for some time."



"Was it wise to let him live?" Kana asked.



"Ayarlan had married him to her daughter Carlan. There is no evil in the girl. If you could have seen the way she tended Zadan, not only with remedies, but with prayer, in spite of her own wounds, you would know why I reserve judgment on the rogue," Nara admitted. "I left both of them in the care of Morla."



"Did you tell Morla that the rogue had been an imposter?" Kana asked.



"There was no time to go into details," Nara replied. "The people had gathered at the palace as soon as I told them Carnat had returned. Once Ayarlan had been carried to the offal heap and Zadan was carried to Carlan's room, Carnat invited our people to share the palace and all its treasures with him."



"It was so empty and useless," Carnat explained. "It was no great thing I did to share with those I have oppressed by my inaction."



"Nevertheless, you did so. I returned to the palace with Cigna and Miyan and found everyone feasting on Ayarlan's hoarded food and water," Nara continued.



"You returned to the city with Cigna and Miyan!" Kana exclaimed. "That is most wonderful of all you have said. They vowed that they would not leave their hermitage until the prophecy of Fedder was fulfilled. My life here is comfortable, but only fear for the lives of my children drove me away from the city. I will return."



There was a murmur of assent from the others. One man stood and bowed to Carnat. "I had given up hope that you would wake and rebel as Fedder had promised. I will also return to Saadena, but not for a place in the palace. I would rather rebuild one of the homes that Challan destroyed to provide more surfaces for growing selan."



Carnat nodded. "You are free to do as you choose as long as you do not offend your fellows. Several men and women have stepped forward and proven their worth. Do any of you remember Binden and Yegar?"



"They would not come with us, even though they walked a narrow line and risked suspicion from the overseers." Kana acknowledged. "After my husband died in Ayarlan's workshop for daring to defy an order, I could not risk loving another such man. I feared for Yegar's life and would not marry him. Binden is like him. We are fortunate they survived."



"They not only survived, they were in the forefront of defending the palace against Urgit and his mercenaries," Nara admitted.



Carnat had finished his meal and gladly resigned himself to answer the clamor for a description of the confrontation. As he told the story, he delighted in recounting how Urgit and his men had fled before the armed harvesters. The Saadenans responded with laughter and cheers at his description of Urgit's stumbling haste to quit the valley.



One of the men shook his head regretfully. "How I wish I had been there. I will also return to Saadena. It is not the thought of sharing Carnat's bounty that lures me back to the city, but the thought of the freedom and challenge he has made possible. Neril gave us the means of obtaining our freedom from selan. Now Carnat has given us our freedom from Ayarlan and Urgit. The Jamans will doubtless remain an important source of revenue, but we can deal with them from strength. Return with us Carnat."



"I will return in due time," Carnat replied. "I have promised the others to do so, but first I must carry out my vow to return the Scroll of Irilik to Timora. Tilla is planning a great pilgrimage procession that will accompany me and provide security for the scroll. Caril is to be married to Tomak in Timora and I am expected to attend. It is strange that since I was freed of my dependance on selan I am nearly overwhelmed with possibilities and duties."



Nara looked around her crowded common room. The older children had remained at home to take care of their younger brothers and sisters, but most of the Saadenans who had joined her in leaving Saadena a month before were gathered around her. "How many of you would like to join Kana in returning to Saadena?"



There was an immediate response from a few of those assembled who raised their hands to show their choice, then the others began to look around at each other. Their welcome in Janaka had promised a good future, but as harsh as life in Saadena had been, it was their ancestral home. One by one hands went up. One man, urged by the man next to him to join the majority, shook his head. He slowly stood and addressed the king.



"King Carnat, I am Jiwar, brother of Yegar. I am tempted to join you in returning to Saadena. My heart yearns to see my brothers and sisters who were left behind, but some of us must stay here in Janaka. We need to establish contact with the exiles who have made homes in other parts of Okishdu. I have agreed to act as an agent for the banker, Barclu. My duties will take me to Zedekla and Taleeka. In time, if we develop markets on our own behalf, we will be able avoid dealing with Jamans or other intermediaries."



Carnat nodded. "You have chosen well. While we journeyed together, Tomak told me of the enclave of Saadenans in Zedekla. They have established a clan house where any of you would be welcome. In the future, without the restraints that have bound all of you to Saadena, you may rediscover the strengths that once built an empire."



His words shocked Nara and she turned to him with sudden anger. "I thought you had renounced your rule, and yet you speak of empire."



Carnat reached out and took her fisted hand which she had raised as if to strike him. "I speak only of the strengths of trading and maintaining the safety of roads and waterways, not of the arrogance and hubris that drove such as Marnat and Challan. Since I first left Saadena, my life has been in jeopardy more than once from the scoundrels who infest the countryside. Can you forget your sufferings at the hands of Tull?"



Chagrined, she gave an embarrassed laugh. "We have been weak for so long that we forgot what it is like to defend ourselves."



"You were stalwart in the face of Tull's demands," he reminded her. "I have seen our people take on the task of repelling Urgit's mercenaries with no more than a few hours of training. We are few, but from what I have discovered recently, Saadenans need not be ashamed of lacking either strength or courage. Jiwar will not be the last to go forth and bind up our scattered people."



It was soon evident that Jiwar was not the only one who preferred to stay in Janaka, but most of those who had gathered to hear Nara and Carnat decided to return with Kana as soon as practically possible. Jiwar's wife supported his decision, but two other women whose husbands had decided to stay in Janaka appealed to Nara to argue in their behalf that they had been too long separated from their families in Saadena. She demurred.



"I will stay in Janaka until I join the pilgrimage to Timora and have seen the prophecy fulfilled. You will not be alone here. Soon those you miss will be free to visit you, or you can visit them. You are no longer exiles, dependent on charity. We must not let fear bind us." Her words helped ease the controversy.



Carnat could not hold back a yawn and though he tried to hide it with his hand, Nara saw his weariness and stood. "It is late. We will meet again before those who have decided to return to Saadena leave Janaka."



Carnat was accompanied to the Inn of the Wizard Smith by Jiwar and another of the men who had volunteered to stay in Janaka. They were deferential at first, but his easy manner, no different than when they had known him by the mocking nick-name of "Carny" soon dispelled their awkwardness. He gave them a description of Tomak's fight with Zadan and the manner in which Ayarlan had died. When they bid him good night at the door of the inn, each grasped his hand in turn in a gesture of fellowship.



Gossip had carried the tale of Carnat's true identity before him. The inn-keeper welcomed him with all the honor due a monarch. Carnat settled his account for the night he had left without warning and requested the same humble room he had slept in when he first came to Janaka, but the host would not be denied the opportunity to show favor to the father of Princess Caril. He wanted to hear more of Caril's abduction by the fraud prince. The revelation that Ranek, the chosen of Caril, was actually Tomak, Prince of Zedekla, had already spread throughout the city. The young man had been a favorite from his first appearance in Janaka when it was known that he had rescued Barclu. Carnat's central role in the exciting tale overshadowed his status as Saadena's king. He was welcome in any house in Janaka.



The innkeeper quickly perceived that his royal guest was nearly exhausted. He left him alone in a comfortable room and waited for his other illustrious guest to appear. When Tomak came to the inn an hour later after bidding farewell to Caril, he gratified the host's curiosity with an account of the confrontation between Urgit's mercenaries and the harvesters. He was more circumspect about his own role in the adventure in Saadena.



The innkeeper was well satisfied. He was dealing with two modest men. Each would tell of the other's exploits if he could arrange to interview them alone. He would soon have the entire story.



Chapter 12 Assassin





Tomak was welcomed at the gates of Janaka's palace with all the ceremony due his rank as a prince and his prospects as Caril's chosen suitor. Tagun's own steward bowed to him and led him to the smaller dining room where he found the king and his foster daughter at breakfast. Tagun invited him to share the meal, and although the host of the Inn of the Wizard Smith had given Tomak a generous breakfast only an hour before, he accepted the invitation. He knew he was unlikely to eat much with his attention so distracted by the presence of Caril.



After a few minutes of frustrated conversation, with both of Tagun's table mates too lost in the messages exchanged by their gazes to make rational replies, the king was happy to see Okagun enter the room. His heir headed for the seat next to Tomak.



Without any pause to greet the prince, much less exchange pleasantries, Okagun began to question Tomak. "You must tell me what Barga meant when he said that he would have known you by your sword alone. I've never seen you carry a sword."



Tomak gave the boy an unfocused look and a smile, then he turned again to Caril. The princess, however, was just as curious as Okagun about the battle with Zadan. "What is Tharek oc Baroka?" she asked.



"You fought Zadan with Tharek oc Baroka?" Okagun exclaimed. "I thought it was only a legend. May I see the sword of the wizard smith?"



"I left it in the guard room when I entered the palace," Tomak said. "If you want to see it, I will fetch it. In my native city it is forbidden for a stranger to bring a blooded sword into the presence of the king. I had forgotten how casual Janakans are about such matters."



"For my sake, please fetch your sword," Tagun urged. ""It is the one sword that remains of several made by Algire."



Tomak rose from the table and made a nicely gauged bow to the each of the others before leaving the room to retrieve the staff in which his sword was sheathed.



"How does he do that?" Okagun asked. "I would surely fall on my face if I tried to give the exact bow that was proper to three separate people and then back from the room. Tomak makes it look easy."



"It is evident that he has been taught by a master of comportment," Caril said with a grin. "I will send Nefer to you for daily lessons. I still require her services if I am to match up to my future husband, but I am generous enough to share."



Tagun chuckled at the look of dismay on his grandson's face. "An excellent suggestion Caril. I had despaired of finding anyone with the fortitude to teach Okagun the manners he will need to deal with other kings and princes, and worse yet, their maiden aunts and second cousins. Nefer would do nicely."



Okagun slumped in his seat and stared morosely at the plate in front of him. He had heaped it with his favorite pastries, but now he had no appetite. He had feared the tiny, soft-voiced spinster who taught Caril propriety since he had first encountered her as a child. She never raised her voice to reprove him for his clumsiness. Indeed, her voice would grow quieter as the piercing quality of her gaze increased. Surely even Tharek oc Baroka was no more to be feared than the sharp eyes of Nefer.



The entrance of Tomak with his staff diverted Okagun from his unwelcome thoughts. "Where is your sword?" he asked.



Tomak grasped the lower end of his staff with his left hand and with a twist that released the upper section of the staff, he drew the sword with his right hand. The light that entered the room from a latticed window seemed to concentrate on the edge of the sword, revealing the coruscating gleam that was a trademark of Algire's blades.



"The sword never left Janaka before Tharek won it from one of Janaka's finest swordsmen," the king murmured. "Manchek, your grandfather, was a mighty warrior and worthy of his weapon. From what I have been told, you are a true heir of his sword."



Tomak eased the blade back into its unusual sheath. "I am not worthy of the title, warrior," he protested. "I have never carried my sword in battle, never rid the earth of an evil soul. Even with Zadan, who surely deserved to die, my resolve failed when it came to the point. I merely wounded him."



"Nonsense," Tagun protested. "The willingness to take a man's life is not the measure of a true warrior. From what I have heard from Barga, you showed unusual skill in planning the defense of Saadena's castle with little more than a few hours to prepare a group of harvesters who had no experience in arms. And what of your rescue of Barclu? That showed ingenuity and courage."



"What became of Zadan?" Caril asked.



"In a sense, he is now your brother. He is married to your younger sister, Carlan," Tomak said. "Ayarlan had abducted him, thinking him the prince of Zedekla. She married him to her daughter, but he was as devious as she, and soon had the upper hand."



"Did you know he was Carlan's husband when you fought him?" Caril asked.



"Yes, but he had tossed Carlan aside when she tried to prevent him from taking a cup of wine her mother had poisoned. While Carnat went to tend to her injuries, I fought Zadan."



"And what became of my sister?" Caril asked with a hand clenched to her heart. She had not really considered the fact of having a sister before this moment, but the revelation that the girl had suffered injury touched her soul.



"Although there was a bloody gash on her forehead that made Carnat fear for her life. Carlan was only stunned As soon as the fight was over, she limped to the bench where Zadan lay and began to care for his wounds."



"How sad," Tagun exclaimed. "So the poor young thing loves the rogue?"



"It would seem so," Tomak said.



"Then I am glad you didn't kill him," Caril declared. "If my sister is what you have described, then she is a tender-hearted, courageous girl. It seems she more resembles our father than her evil mother. I wish her well. Perhaps in time I could come to know her."



Tagun and Tomak exchanged glances that carried the same thought. If either had their way, Caril would never again be near Zadan. It was unlikely that a meeting with her sister would happen under such circumstances.



Okagun interrupted the awkward pause with another query; "What will become of Zadan and the princess if Carnat truly intends to abdicate his throne?"



"If Carnat does not abdicate and end the monarchy in his city, Zadan will eventually become the king," Tomak said. "I believe that is one of the reasons my friend decided to invite his people to share the palace and take over the government. He has witnessed the worst effects of selfish and ambitious rulers during the reign of his mother Challan and his second wife, Ayarlan. From what I observed of Zadan's character, he would follow in their path, using his power to oppress those he should protect. I inflicted some serious wounds on the rogue, but if he somehow recovers his strength before Carnat formally abdicates in favor of a council, I fear for Carnat's life."



"I think it is unwise to speak of such things in front of Caril," Tagun protested.



"Please father Tagun, I am no longer a child," Caril said. "If there is a threat to Carnat, I prefer to know about it. Perhaps there is something we can do to protect him."



Tagun frowned and tented his fingers on the table before him. He looked from Tomak to Caril. They stared back expectantly. Finally he rang the bell near his hand and summoned the servant who stood outside in the hall near the door. "Ask Barga to join us," he directed.



He said nothing more, but stolidly continued with his breakfast, cutting each portion exactly and chewing deliberately. When Barga was announced, Tagun set aside his plate and stood.



"Neither Tomak nor Caril is making much of a meal," he said. I suggest we adjourn to the green council room and discuss the issue Tomak raised. Okagun, in time you will be welcome in such discussions, but for now, finish your breakfast, and forget what you have heard."



Caril hesitated, but Tagun gestured for her to follow him with Tomak and Barga. When they had entered the small room that Tagun reserved for important discussions when secrecy was an issue, he dismissed the servant and secured the door. "As far as I can determine, what we say here will proceed no further unless you choose to speak of it. The possibility that Zadan would murder Carnat to obtain the throne of Saadena occurred to me as soon as I heard the rogue was still alive and had married the princess. Tell me Tomak, how did you wound him?"



"He has a superficial cut on one arm and I crippled him by cutting the tendon below his knee," he said.



Tagun frowned. "I have known men to recover from such a wound with no more damage than a bad limp. It depends on the skill of the healer who attends them. It will not stop him from plotting or hiring an assassin to do what he has not the strength or mobility to do himself."



"If I were Zadan," Caril ventured, "I would hire a Jaman to carry out the deed."



"It is unlikely a Jaman would reach Zadan to receive such a commission," Tomak said. "When we left Saadena, the harvesters had put Urgit's bullies to rout. Carlan and Morla, the healer, had Zadan in their care in one of the remote regions of the palace. I doubt that anyone, let alone a Jaman assassin would get close enough to conspire with Zadan."



"We cannot be certain that an attempt will not be made," Tagun mused. "There is one rogue I have heard of who has been known to murder on the expectation of being rewarded by the dead man's heirs. We know him by his work, and the report of some who were revolted by their ill-bought fortunes when his agents approached them after the death of their benefactors."



Caril shuddered and caught Tagun's hand. "I have always felt somewhat restricted by the rules governing my behavior. You should have told me of this jeopardy. How can you risk yourself by mingling with your people when there are such men abroad?"



Tomak was filled with mixed emotions at the sight of her concern. He had decried her easy access to her people, yet he also admired the sense of freedom Tagun encouraged. He reached out his hand and cupped it around Caril's nape. "There are few assassins, and the penalty for regicide is severe."



Tagun shook his head. "The likelihood that Carnat will be the target of the unknown assassin will increase greatly as soon as it becomes known that Ayarlan is dead and Zadan has married Carlan. He is the perfect type of victim the assassin chooses. We must begin immediately to guard Carnat. The news of Ayarlan's death will have reached Jama with Urgit and his men."



"Yes, but do they know that Zadan has married Carlan?" Caril asked.



"As far as I know, the first a Jaman would hear of the marriage would be when the news is carried from Janaka," Tomak said.



Barga had been quiet while the others speculated. Now he stood and began to pace. Tagun and Caril recognized the action as a preface to a declaration from the normally succinct captain. When Tomak opened his mouth to speak again, Caril squeezed his hand and he fell silent.



Barga stopped pacing and looked around at the others. "I will gather all the information I can about the potential assassin. From what I recall, he sometime masquerades as a woman. He has taken advantage of crowds to murder publicly when pursuit was inhibited by the mass of people. He prefers to use stealth and clever poisons. I will not wait until the news of Zadan's marriage reaches Jama. The assassin may already be among us. I will alert the guards at the gate to take note of any strangers who might fit the description. Meanwhile, there must be some way we can put a personal guard on Carnat."



"He is insistently modest," Tomak said. "After taking it into his head that he must resign his rule and bestow his power on a council of the harvesters, he eschews any show of personal aggrandizement. Unfortunately, he has set me up as some kind of model, and for most of the time he has known me, I was pretending to be a common man."



"I think you enjoyed the freedom of your guise," Caril said. "It must be wonderful to be free of servants for a few days. I feel obligated to accept the services of Nefer but I would gladly forgo them."



"I will choose a man to be Carnat's guardian," Barga said. "It will be a hard position to fill. Meanwhile, I will do my best to keep our modest guest alive. Could you prevail on him to move into the palace?"



Tagun shook his head. "I have tried, but he feels somehow obligated to the innkeeper at the Inn of the Wizard Smith."



"Perhaps we can place someone as a servant at the inn," Barga mused. "I will keep you informed of what I am doing."



"Meanwhile, Caril and I might be able to help," Tomak said. "We will seek out Carnat and spend time with him. He can hardly take exception to the guards and servants who accompany Caril."



Tagun and Barga nodded in concurrence and the king stood to indicate that their meeting had come to an end. In the days that followed, Tomak and Caril were often in the company of Carnat. When he visited the Saadenans, they accompanied him. As they came to know Nara better, they decided to trust her with their concerns for Carnat's safety. She in turn invited Jiwar into their confidence. He was eager to help them. Without Carnat's awareness, he was soon surrounded by a net of caring conspirators who made certain he was never left alone except in the privacy of his room in the inn.



With responsibility for Carnat lightened, Tomak and Caril were sometimes left alone to pursue their courtship as the other members of Tagun's household responded to Tilla's direction. One morning Caril asked Tomak to follow her. She wore a dress of plain cloth that had seen better days. She led him to the palace chapel then she took his hand and urged him toward a small door behind the chaplain's stand. It opened onto a narrow stairway that coiled upward into darkness.



The way was dusty and the chitter of bats might have disturbed a timid maiden. They climbed for some time before a dim glow ahead of them betrayed an opening. Caril stepped out onto a narrow walkway that led under the eaves of the chapel tower. "It's been some time since I came here. It seems narrower now," she mused as she looked down over the palace court far below.



Tomak kept one arm firmly around her waist and wrapped the other hand around the sturdy low lintel of the doorway behind them. He had a lurching sensation in his middle as he contemplated the drop. But he had a similar nook near the stairway that led down to the beach from the palace in Zedekla. He recognized that Caril had a hunger for privacy as great as his own.



"Tilla and Nefer used to become frantic when I disappeared. They soon realized that either Barga or Fren, his brother, always knew where I could be found," she explained.



He was nervous at the thought of her balancing alone so high above the pavement below, then he remembered how she had crouched on a rock and nearly killed him with a stone. She wasn't a biddable girl. Their marriage would be interesting. The thought made him smile, but he breathed easier when she finally tired of surveying the world beyond and decided to return to a safer altitude.



Next, she led him toward her favorite bower in one of the garden courts. They found Okagun there, his ever curious mind ready with new questions about Zedekla and Tomak's adventures as an elite guard. Caril listened as Tomak tried to satisfy the curiosity of the younger man with stories of his past exploits. He caught the look in her eye and knew that she enjoyed learning about him this way. He had to admit he was more willing to share his youthful follies with another youth than with the girl who often kept him tongue-tied when he considered that she would soon be his wife.



Ten days after Tagun's messengers departed with the news of the recovered Scroll of History and the plans for the pilgrimage and wedding, Bodun arrived in Janaka. He came unnoticed past the guards at the gates who had been alerted to watch for Jaman men and women. None took the widow with a cane supporting her faltering step for an assassin.



Bodun had waited at the now abandoned covert that had been Zadan's camp for two days before joining a band of returning pilgrims. There were enough of them that his light gray dress blended in with the others in their dusty white robes.



Bodun sought out Canga, a matla maker. She was a blowsy woman who did more trade in gossip than in the bread she carelessly prepared on her greasy griddle. Some stopped and gave her a coin simply to hear current scandals they might have missed.



Bodun had used her services before on visits to Janaka, and she, unaware of how damaging her stories might be if given to those with evil intent, responded to his questions with pride that her information was so current and reliable. She did not recognize Bodun. It had been more than a year since he had visited Janaka, and then in the guise of a glass merchant.



"Ah yes, we have kings aplenty in Janaka now. Not only Tagun, but Carnat as well. Of course, the Saadenan, though he is father to Tagun's fosterling, keeps himself separate from the other royals, and no wonder!" Canga rolled her eyes meaningfully.



"There is bad feeling between Carnat and Tagun?" Bodun probed. His task would be much easier if he did not have to find a way into the palace.



"Not so much that, but the Saadenan spends most of his days with the exiles he rescued from Tull. You would think he was an ordinary man, not a king at all. He walks about the streets just as you or I might do." The woman gave Bodun a nudge just above his long grey skirt. "He's a handsome one! Twice a day he comes by here on the way to visit the Saadenans. He buys my matlas, as if that is what I really sell, and thanks me like the gentleman he is."



"Then he does not live with the Saadenans?" Bodun asked.



"He is the prize guest of Jerin, the host of the Blue Blade. He calls his house, 'Inn of the Wizard Smith,' but the sign is a long blue blade. Wait a bit old woman, I could take you there when I finish this last bit of dough."



"I must seek out my grand-daughter in another sector of the city," Bodun whined in a falsetto voice. "I wish I could sample one of your matlas, but alas, I have no spare coins."



Canga scowled. The old woman had distinctly given her the impression that she was interested in information and willing to pay. She had heard the clinking of coins at the same time the old witch had asked her first question. Then the widow pulled her hand out of her belt pouch and displayed two bronze Jaman luck pieces. They were the kind of totems collected by such old wretches who suffered from various ailments. It was an honest mistake. Canga turned her back on the 'widow' and forgot the incident as soon as another customer happened by.



Bodun hated the hobbling gait he had set for himself, but it was profitable as well as prudent. He was stopped three times and given alms as he made his circuitous progress toward the Inn of the Wizard Smith. He knew the hostelry well. It would be unwise to let the inn-keeper see his face. Even with the disguise of a woman's dress and the other artifices he had made to change his appearance, the man might remember him.



He was within sight of the inn when the distinctive auburn tint of Carnat's hair caught his eye. The Saadenan king was heading directly for him. Bodun cursed his lack of preparation. It was broad daylight on a public street. There were enough people to recognize him and give chase if he tried to murder Carnat then and there, and not enough to provide cover. He stepped back into the shadows of an alleyway and watched Carnat stride past. Although Bodun had not seen him before. He could be none other than the Saadenan king. Only the direct descendants of Elianin had those bright locks and golden eyes.



He thought at first that he might follow the king, then he thought better of the plan when a suspiciously alert man passed in the king's wake. Bodun was an expert at detecting bodyguards, and while the man following Carnat was not quite in the mode he expected, it was better to be cautious. The gossiping matla seller had indicated that Carnat usually passed her twice a day. Since she was not ambitious, and the best market for her gossip was over by early afternoon, she must mean that Carnat returned to the inn well before nightfall.



Bodun felt the weight of the alms coins in his pockets. He was tired and hungry and surrounded by the enticing scent of Janakan barbecue. He would enjoy his wait by resting and filling his belly. By sunrise tomorrow the deed could be done and he would be out of Janaka and on his way home before the alarm could be raised.



He searched the nearby food shops until he recognized a boy who worked at the inn. The youth was a lazy lout, a braggart who was as eager to tell all who were willing to listen of his familiarity with the wealthy and highborn guests he served. He was easily led to tell Bodun the particulars of Carnat's accommodation.



"He has the suite of rooms at the front but he only uses one of them. He always slips me a coin when I leave him fresh linen each morning," the boy revealed.



"Does his servant treat you well?" Bodun asked.



"He has no servant, but does everything for himself. Some of the guests would try and use me as their servant, though little good they get of it! He has higher rank than any, but he takes care of himself, not at all what one thinks a king would be. I tell you, old mother, if I were king of Saadena, I would have a hundred servants and never raise a hand to help myself." The boy patted his hair to draw attention to the way he had styled it in the manner of Carnat.



Bodun was glad of the information, but heartily weary of the slothful servant. He paid for the boy's pot of beer with a gesture that took his hand over the lip of the container. None noticed the pellet he let fall into the dark liquid. It would keep the servant out of the way for the rest of the day. He waited as the youth began to yawn and slur his words. Then he stealthily removed a key from the servant's pocket.



He planned to kill Carnat while he slept. It might be a day or more before anyone thought to break down the door and discover his death. It would be best if the death seemed natural. Carnat had reached an age when some men suffered from mysterious deaths after exertion or excitement. Bodun had a wealth of poisons in his belt pouch, but none fit his immediate plans for the death of Carnat.



He hobbled away from the food shop and sought out the herbalist. While he kept the old man rambling about the efficacy of various remedies, Bodun filched a pot of black spider ointment. It was a sovereign remedy for the joint aches of old age when used externally, but if ingested, it caused the heart to stop. As a cover for his theft, he paid for a length of nava leaf, imported from the distant southern forests and guaranteed by the herbalist to help with insomnia, then he left the shop and made his way back to the inn.



While Bodun was purchasing the nava leaf, Tomak received a message inviting him to meet with Tagun. He hastily donned a tunic loaned to him by Okagun. It was short on him and not quite wide enough to reach the points of his shoulders, but the few articles of clothing he had brought to Janaka were becoming worn and were torn from the adventures he shared with Caril.



When he entered the room, Tomak saw the backs of five men dressed in Zedeklan palace livery. Tomak quickly recognized something about the stance of the man talking to Tagun. This was no mere messenger! His suspicion was confirmed when the man turned his head and glanced at the door.



"Father, why are you traveling in disguise?" Tomak asked as he rushed forward to take his parent's hand.



The other men turned their heads and Tomak saw that two brothers had also traveled to Janaka dressed as royal messengers. "I couldn't wait patiently in Zedekla. I refused to delay until a troop of men was assembled to guard my royal person," Farek admitted.



"I will fetch Caril so you and my brothers can meet my intended wife," Tomak offered.



"That's why we're here, you oaf," Tilek, said.



Tomak grinned at his younger brother's barb. Tilek never spared his brothers from his sharp tongue but he was a great-hearted youth who could be counted on for support whenever there was real trouble to be faced.



Caril had followed Tomak when he was summoned and she waited just beyond the door. When Tomak brought her back into the chamber, Tilek groaned, "I was afraid she was the one you caught. I saw her in Timora last year and I was going to offer for her hand as soon as she came of age. Believe me Caril, there's still time to change your mind. I'm a prince of Zedekla, I'm much smarter than my brother and generally acknowledged to be better looking."



The others laughed at his comment and Caril decided to go along with his joke. "I'll remember your offer if I find that Tomak is less than perfect. On the other hand, I've rather set my heart on becoming Queen of Zedekla. What do you suggest?"



Tilek pretended to consider several options as his mobile face twisted through a range of emotions. Finally he threw up his hands in defeat. "He may be dumb, but he's virtually invulnerable. I'll just have to be satisfied with worshiping you from afar."



Durek, Tomak's next brother in order of birth, stepped forward and took Caril's hand. "Don't let this infant bamboozle you. Remember, if Tomak proves unsatisfactory, I'm next in line to be king. My older brother looks intelligent, but we could tell you stories that might dim that image. At least the two of you will have good-looking children. And with you as their mother, they have a chance to be clever as well."



Farek chuckled at the joking exchange then he turned to Tagun to explain the purpose of his visit. "I brought my chaplain Rutor and Meliat, librarian of the Zedeklan Shrine. They suggested that it would be wise to inspect the scroll and make a copy before it is removed from safe keeping here and taken to Timora. The teachings contained in the Scroll of History must not be lost again."



"My chaplain made a similar suggestion but he isn't confident in his scholarship of the ancient script," Tagun said.



"Could we help in any way?" Caril asked.



"Do you write well and rapidly?" Rutor asked hopefully.



"She is quite a scholar," Tagun bragged. "Her governess often complained that she had to urge her to leave her tablets and scrolls and pay attention to the other accomplishments expected of a princess."



"Tomak and Tilek also have a gift for writing," Farek added. "In my youth, I was praised for my ability as a scribe"



"Then I suggest we find a suitable place and begin as soon as possible," Rutor said. "One copy of the scroll would have been a minimal requirement, but several would be even better. We must never again lose the precious teachings of Irilik's prophecies and history."



Durek, aware that his particular skills might best be employed in another direction, spoke a word or two to his father before leaving the room to search for Barga whom he had met in Timora the year before in Timora.



When Durek left the room he took note of a tall, red-haired man approaching the door. He recognized him as Carnat, the Saadenan king and nodded to him. He lingered just beyond the door, curious about the Saadenan's errand in the palace.



"We could have used Durek's help, even though he's not much of a scholar," Tomak said. He looked regretfully after his brother and saw Carnat waiting hopefully at the entrance to the chamber.



"Welcome, King Carnat," Tomak said. "You have met my father, and this is one of my brothers. They have come with their chaplain and librarian to make another copy of the scroll."



"May I help," Carnat asked. "I spent several years trying to organize the library at Saadena before it was burned and I learned some of the ancient script when Fedder first began to translate the scroll."



"We welcome all who are willing to help, particularly if you have knowledge of the ancient script," Rutor assured him.



Tagun nodded to Carnat. "I was going to send someone to invite you to join us, but you anticipated my message. I will have a room prepared for you, it is best for you to stay here in the palace while we work on the scroll."



Carnat nodded. "I will be happy to move into the palace tomorrow, but I could not disappoint my host at the inn tonight. He has planned a special dinner in my honor. I am relieved to receive your invitation. I am weary of the innkeeper's constant adulation when I have done nothing to deserve it."



Outside in the corridor, Durek was happy to hear Tagun's offer of hospitality. Having satisfied his curiosity, the prince went in search of Barga.



Tagun led the others to the library where Rutor surveyed the open, well appointed chamber with pleasure. "I can see there are plenty of tablets and blank scrolls. My colleague and I will examine the Holy Scroll. One of us will dictate and the other check for accuracy. Those of you who have volunteered to help should form teams. One of you will make a copy while the other proofreads what you write. We must ensure that no error taints the copies."



There was an air of expectancy as Tagun carried the scroll case into the room and laid it gently on a long table in front of the priests.



Rutor raised his hands in the gesture of prayer and the others bowed their heads while he invoked the blessing of the Radiance on the task ahead of them.



Caril closed her eyes and recognized a sweet and shining presence hovering nearby. She had sometimes felt it before, but she had never been able to identify the entity that had come to comfort her from earliest childhood. Tears flooded her eyes as she sensed that it was the spirit of her mother, come to witness this fulfillment of the prophecy made by the Seer of Timora twenty years ago.



"Maker of All, through the gate of Yasa Dom we approach your holy throne. We invoke the blessings of skill and care and insight on our task. Let our tongues and hands be tools for your purpose. Amen."



Rutor carefully took the scroll from its case and unrolled it on the long table. The years had treated the ancient writing kindly. The scrawl made by the royal thief who had thought to destroy the power of the prophecy with his theft was barely visible but Rutor glanced up at Carnat when he made out the words of triumph Marnat had written.



"It was stolen to suppress its message," Rutor said. Carnat nodded.



"We can begin when the copyists are ready," Rutor announced when he and Meliat had determined that the scroll was indeed the work of Irilik. It took only a short time to prepare the fresh scrolls the scribes would use. Then Rutor began to read the scroll of Irilik.



"In the twelfth year of the war between Renon and Bagnin, a new force arose among the people of Kishdu. Algun was a mighty leader. The kingdoms of Kishdu fell before his armies.



At the gates of Renon false priests pronounced a prophecy to suit their own ambitions and Algun was named Algunagada and proclaimed to be a god.



The Eye of Adnan gave warning and the power of the Radiance touched me. I woke to a dream of destruction and knew that a great punishment would go forth among those who worshiped Algunagada in the valley of Renon.



The star the false prophets hailed as a sign of his divinity would scorch the earth with fire and destruction. I warned them, but they sought my life and I fled from the tent of the god-king. It was again as it had been in the days of Valranagada when decrees were sent forth that all should worship him. The temples of true worship were destroyed at Algunagada's word. The stones were broken to make the basements of his altars.



Those who refused to worship Algunagada were sacrificed on the altars of his worship halls. My heart was sore because of the wickedness of Algunagada. I retired to a mountain with my servant, Tedak, to find the will of heaven. While my cries ascended, a voice came to me. "Lead those whose hearts are pure from Kishdu and I will give you a new land."



Then I saw that though clouds hid the sun, there was a shining on the face of the mountain. I hid my eyes and begged the presence to let me gain the trust of the people so they would follow me.



"I will prepare the way for you and the honest in heart will know that you come from me. Take the stone that lies beneath your foot. It will be a sign of my presence."



The light departed and it was as night to my eyes as I looked around. My servant had come to find me and it was he who first saw the stone that glowed with the light of holiness. He fixed the stone to my staff and we made our way down from the mountain.



Those who were true at heart could see the glowing of the stone, but the wicked and weak who worshiped the tyrant could not see the light. Thus the believers were divided from those who bowed to Algunagada. Many gathered, drawn by the light of the stone of truth: generals and merchants, poor men and princesses sought the Radiance..



I was warned by an oracle that I should leave Kishdu by sea. Ships were prepared for our passage before the skies over Kishdu began to burn.



Rutor's voice had become husky and he stopped reading. The others looked at him and saw tears rolling down his face. "What troubles you?" Tomak asked the chaplain.



"It is not trouble, it is joy. Until now, the story of the sacred stone was only a myth. It has not been seen since Irilik divided his inheritance."



"Is it the illumination that shines in the testing room?" Tomak asked. "I can remember seeing it at my coming of age ceremony."



"Yes, you saw it," Farek said, "For that reason you will make a good ruler of Zedekla when I retire to Timora. But these are things of which we should not speak."



Rutor nodded. "I am sorry for the digression from our work. We will find that many other sacred stories are confirmed as fact as we continue the translation."



Prince Durek found Barga easily once he left the state rooms of the palace. The guard captain's deep voice resonated though the corridor of the guard tower. It was nearly time for the change of watch so Durek stepped aside into an alcove and watched the troop of men march forth, their dark capes and pleated loincloths brightened by the medals and bronze breastplates of Janakan warriors. Some of the older men wore battle tattoos on their brows and cheeks.



Barga followed behind them at a less militant pace. He was dressed, as befit his rank and function, in a black tunic with the insignia of his family and rank embossed on either side of a golden torque that encircled his neck. It spoke highly of Tagun's regard for him that he was thus marked as the king's life man. Only dishonor could cause the removal of the wide band. If Barga remained true to his pledge he would wear the torque when he was buried.



Durek fell in beside the guard captain. They had a brief acquaintance and had not exchanged correspondence, but they shared a bond of loyalty, shrewdness, and a fundamental respect for the rule of good men. Durek wore no torque, but it was understood that when his older brother took the place of his father as king of Zedekla, Durek would have the ordering of the king's guard and be his brother's closest advisor if war threatened Zedekla.



"I was surprised to see King Carnat without a guard," Durek said when Barga's immediate duties had been discharged.



"He is a surprisingly modest man. We have tried to keep our eyes on him, but it is not easy. Although he is seldom left unsupervised, the best we can hope for is to prevent assassins from entering Janaka."



Durek gave an ironic grunt and Barga responded with an exasperated laugh. "I know, the best assassins are those least likely to be recognized by my men. I'm about to have the Saadenan king transported bodily to the palace whether he pleases or not."



"It will not be necessary," Durek said. "He has volunteered to help in copying the scroll Neril found. King Tagun asked him to stay at the palace and he agreed that he will remove here tomorrow."



"What keeps him from doing so now?" Barga asked.



"His host at the inn has obliged him to attend a supper," Durek replied.



Barga scowled. A sense of foreboding had hovered over him since early that morning. He traced it back. He had first felt it when he had caught sight of an old crone hobbling into the city at the rear of a group of pilgrims. Her light gray dress did not quite fit in with their white apparel, though the dust of the road had done much to dim the original snowy purity of the pilgrims' robes. A little later he had caught sight of the same woman listening to Canga. It seemed strange that a stranger would so immediately find the best source of gossip in Janaka. Was it because Ayarlan had come to Janaka dressed as an aged crone that he was so sensitive to the sight of another such, or was there some basis for the vague suspicion that itched at the back of his mind? One of his best men was detailed to follow Carnat that day, but if the crone was indeed the unknown assassin, she would find a way past any but the most expert. He turned to Durek and decided to confide in him.



"I have an errand for you. I'll give you something less distinctive than that courier's livery you wear so well. I want you to linger around the Inn of the Wizard Smith and keep an eye out for an old woman in a pale gray dress. If you see her, come for me. If she approaches Carnat, detain her. Meanwhile, try to convince Carnat to stay here in the palace."



Durek nodded. He intended to convince Carnat to stay in the palace. Barga's errand would fit in nicely with his own intentions.



Bodun was familiar with the plan of the inn from previous visits to Janaka. It had been a barracks long before and the private room that Carnat slept in had been occupied by the head of the brigade. In the process of creating an inn, the renovators had also created a warren of passages for the use of the servants. All of the former officer's quarters had been provided with alternative entrances, usually concealed behind a panel, through which various amenities could be discreetly delivered and slops carried away.



The assassin had expected a guard posted at every entrance while Carnat was in residence and had been prepared to provide a diversion. The smoker he carried would have emptied the inn quickly enough, and provided him with cover while he entered, but the smoke irritated his lungs and it would waste his resources.



He crept up the stairs and turned right at the top, counting the entrances with his fingertips extended in the darknesss until he located the door that led into Carnat's suite and paused. He had seen the king leaving the inn only a few hours earlier, and according to what he had learned of Carnat's habits, he would not soon return. Bodun gripped the catch that would release the servant door and entered the room.



Carnat had drawn the shutters over the high windows, a task easy enough for the tall king, leaving the room in a darkness nearly as profound as that in the passage. Bodun cursed. He could not alter the shutters without using a stool and possibly betraying that he had been in the room. He resigned himself to the delicate and time consuming task of finding his way about the room by touch alone.



Logic alone directed him to the corner where the bed was placed with a low chest next to it. Bodun was tempted for a moment to search for the missing dowry that rumor said Carnat still possessed, but even Carnat was not such a fool as to leave a quantity of gold unguarded in the room of an inn.



Bodun turned to the other side of the bed where a table held an ewer of water and a basin. There was a cup and plate set close to the edge near the table. A quick test with his finger proved that the plate was clean, indicating that the room had been cleared of the remains of Carnat's breakfast and dishes were laid in anticipation of his return.



Working steadily so that none of the poison would spill, Bodun coated the surface of the plate and cup with the poison. Any food or drink that Carnat took from the dishes would be sure to kill him in a manner nearly indistinguishable from natural death.



Satisfied that his trap was set, Bodun returned to the door that led into the passage. With a whispered exclamation of impatience, he discovered that he did not know which of the ornaments on the door would unlatch it. He twisted first one rosette and then another. The latch was simple enough from the outside, but then, it was not meant to blend with the decor. In time he would discover the secret, but perhaps it would be better simply to walk out the front door. In mid day it was hardly likely he would be noticed, much less stopped. He was warned away by a flare of light that flashed through a knothole in the entrance door. There was no time to find the catch that opened the servant's door. He backed away and took cover in the next room of the suite.



"This is the king's room, sir. Is there anything more I can do for you," the innkeeper asked as he opened the door.



"I am satisfied that you have done quite enough," Durek said ironically. He lifted his lamp and looked around. Nothing had been disturbed from the way the room had appeared when he had visited earlier that day, but he had spotted a woman who resembled the hag Barga had described making her way into the servant's door some time earlier.



Durek sensed that his quarry was near, but at this point containment seemed a better strategy than trying to flush the rat. He finally left the room and turned the key in the lock.



Inside the room Bodun let out his breath and considered his options. If someone were suspicious enough to search Carnat's room, then they most likely had put a guard on the slops door at the side of the inn. Perhaps the entire setup had been a trap for him. His mouth formed a grim smile. There were a hundred places to hide in the inn, especially if one was not too dainty to share space with vermin in the attics or cellars. He was safe enough where he was for the moment.



He worked his narrow frame into a niche and began to doze. Just before he began to dream, one final thought made him smile again. His aims would be advanced by the wait. He could hardly scalp Carnat and still maintain the illusion that the king had died a natural death, but he could clip a lock of the king's distinctive hair after Carnat had succumbed. It would provide Zadan with the proof he would demand that it had been Bodun and not nature that had relieved him of an unwanted father-in-law.



He woke with only a momentary disorientation at the sound of a door being opened. It was the entrance door of the main room of the suite. The lamp had been lit, but Bodun was out of line of sight of the room. The sound of the steps that crossed the floor betrayed the presence of an adult male. It was not the searcher from earlier. This man walked to the edge of the bed and gave a sigh of relief as he sat down. It must be Carnat! Bodun came fully awake. He strained to listen and relaxed when he heard the gurgle of something being poured. Was it the basin or the cup? The sounds that followed encouraged him. There was a gurgle and then a crash and the lamp guttered out.



Bodun wriggled his way free of the niche and made his way to the figure on the bed. The dim light revealed a tall slender body that he expected. He had no doubt that it was Carnat when he ran his hand up the still-warm body and found the same distinctive cropped curls that the king wore. He sheared off a small lock of the hair. He would not need much to prove his case with Zadan and if he took more, it would be noticed by those who investigated the death.



This time, when he tried to find the latch on the door he discovered it on the third try. Luck seemed to stay with him as he tried the slops door at the rear of the inn. It opened easily and there was no one guarding it, although there were two suspiciously military looking men at the front of the alley where it let out onto the main street. No one had thought to guard the gutter where the slops ran down into a sewer that led out of the city. Bodun scurried toward the sewer opening and slithered into the narrow gap. If the guard near the road heard the sounds in the alley,he would most likely dismiss them as the usual vermin of the night.



Life in the foul regions of Jama's jail was a good preparation for sewer running but when Bodun reached the grate that led into the open countryside a mile below the city, he was eager to wedge the closure open and crawl out. He stumbled up the hill and clawed at the sodden skirt and blouse that had provided him his disguise. Free of them, he writhed in the dewy grass until most of the feculence had been wiped away. The night was chill, but he stuffed the discarded clothing under a rock and hurried down the hill to a cache where he had hidden a set of clothing more than a year before when business had taken him to Janaka. As he covered his shivering, naked limbs with stale but clean clothing he congratulated himself on his foresight.



It was a fine night in the Janakan foothills as Bodun made his way south to the covert camp near the Or. Once again he had proved that being old and ugly was no handicap when one was more clever than anyone else.



In Janaka Durek returned to the Inn of the Wizard Smith yet again. He had come to the inn for the first time to deliver the message that Carnat required his clothing and other belongings to be transferred to the palace. He returned a few hours later to follow up on the suspicion that the old woman seen entering the inn had been the assassin.



He returned with Barga the third time. The guard who had been left to watch alley behind the inn reported the scarcely audible noises from the alley a few hours before. Barga examined the sewer entrance and found a shred of light gray cloth that matched the dress of the woman he suspected of being the assassin in disguise.



He turned to Durek. "It would seem our assassin has gone down the slops hole. I wonder what we will find in Carnat's room."



It seemed an incredible way to escape notice, but the stink of the sewer opening was not as foul as the sight of the foolish inn servant sprawled on the bed where Carnat would have slept if he spent the night in the inn.



When they summoned the innkeeper he hurried up to the room with a warning. "I do not wish this matter to frighten my other guests. If you had been more zealous in your inquiries, this could have been prevented."



The man continued his litany of mixed blame and pleading as he entered the room but the sight of the long, slim form with its tousled cap of short curls stopped him short.



Durek picked up the broken lamp that had been knocked to the floor by the final desperate flailing of the dead man's hand. The cup, still holding a small amount of liquid, had spilled most of its contents on the bed near the other hand. Barga handled it gingerly as he picked it up and smelled it. "The odor is faint, but I suspect it will tell us the cause of death."



He held it out to Durek. "Black spider ointment!" Durek said. "It might have deceived us if we were not on watch for such a trick and if the victim were old enough to make a seizure plausible.



"But Odvut is only a youth," the innkeeper protested. He burst into noisy tears. "The boy was lazy and loudmouthed, but he was my sister's son."



"Why would he be here?" Durek asked.



"I sent him to run an errand but when he finally returned he was drunk," the innkeeper said. "I told him he could use the empty suite for the night."



Durek pointed to a small detail they had nearly overlooked. Barga grimaced as he took the meaning of the missing curls. "Proof for the heirs that the deed was done. It must have been too dark for the assassin to notice that he had killed the wrong man. A lock of Carnat's hair would have been worth a kingdom. I wonder what the assassin will think when he sees the hair in daylight."



Durek turned to the innkeeper. "You argued with me earlier when I said that Carnat could not not keep his appointment with you."



"It would have shamed me to have a regicide here in my inn," the innkeeper said. "but why did Odvut have to take the sting meant for one of his betters. How can I tell my sister that her son has died?"



"I will tell her," Barga said.



When Durek and Barga reached the modest home of Odvut's mother they saw her looking out the window with an anxious expression. When she saw Barga she began to cry. "It is my son! I heard there was a murder at the inn. I knew when he didn't come home on time that something was wrong. Was the wound awful? Can I see him?"



"You would think he had fallen asleep. There is no mark on him," Barga told her.



"Truly?" the woman asked, her face lifting. "I will go and dress him for the funeral." She gathered linen and herbs and hastened away, bent on her final service for her son.



At the palace, Carnat waited with others for Durek to return. He was still uncertain of leaving the inn without fulfilling his appointment to dine. The prince's argument had been potent: "If you are killed, Caril and Carlan will be the next target of the assassin."



Polite conversation failed to ease the strain and Carnat and Tagun finally stood and left the room to keep watch from the rampart. When they saw Barga and Durek coming, they led them into the small council room where the others waited to hear their report.



"It was a good thing that Durek convinced Carnat to remain at the palace this evening," Barga began.



"Then all is well?" Tagun asked.



"A young man died when the assassin mistook him for the king," Durek said. Shocked silence greeted his statement.



"Who was it?" Caril asked. "Is there anything we can do for his family?"



"The innkeeper's nephew took advantage of Carnat's unused room and drank from a cup tainted with deadly poison."



"Is the assassin still in Janaka?" Tomak asked.



"He evidently escaped by using the sewer opening where the slops from the inn are dumped," Barga said. "The outlet is down the mountain, well away from the pilgrimage road."



"Can we let our guard down," Caril asked hopefully.



"No, but we can apply realistic safeguards to those who are threatened," Durek said. "There is evidence that the man who killed the inn servant is known for a particularly vile practice of assassinating on speculation that heirs will welcome proof of the crime and pay accordingly. At the moment Carlan is Carnat's heir and Zadan might be seen as a client."



"If you know that much, surely we can find some way to stop him," Tagun said.



Barga shook his head. "Evidence from other cases hints that he is from Jama. Whether he is young or old, a tool, or the center of a ring of vice, we cannot tell. But thanks to Durek, Carnat is still with us."



Carnat turned to Barga and raised his palm in the sign of oath. "I give you my pledge to avoid careless exposure to danger while I am am in Janaka. We have work to do that will keep us all in the palace until the time for the pilgrimage arrives. Is there anything we can do for the family of the boy who died?"



Barga nodded. "There will be a funeral for him in three day's time. I suggest we honor his loss with our presence. It may compensate a little for the loss to his family. The following day, the Saadenans who have chosen to return to their city will depart. I would go with them if I could, but my responsibilities here make that impossible, someone needs to watch Zadan."



"I could go," Tomak said with a look of regret toward Caril.



Durek stepped forward. "I will go. I have seen the person we believe to be the assassin. He was wearing a disguise, but I think I would know him again."



Barga clapped Durek's shoulder in approval, "You have an eye for such things. I could not choose a better man to go to Saadena."



Farek seemed surprised, but then he nodded. "I approve your plan," he said.



"Durek should remain in Saadena until after Carnat returns from Timora and the transition to rule by a council is completed," Barga said. "When there is no longer any basis for Zadan to inherit by right of his marriage to Carlan, the danger of assassination will greatly decrease."



"But he will miss the pilgrimage!" Caril exclaimed.



"Then you will be able to tell me about it," Durek laughed. "I will be popular with all of you when I finally return to Zedekla. I am known to be a good listener."



His quip brought laughter to relieve the tension in the room. Soon enough they remembered the death of the innkeepers nephew and were sober once again.



Secure in the belief that he had obtained indisputable evidence of Carnat's death, Bodun returned to Jama. Few had noticed his absence except Padmin. She did not rejoice to see him return. He noted her expression of disgust when he clasped her to him.



"You must bathe before you touch me again," she warned him. "Have you been groveling in a kennel?"



"I have been ensuring my continuing fortune," he gloated. Holding her fast with one wiry arm, he reached into his belt pouch and withdrew a lock of hair. "What is this you see?"



She squinted at the dull brown curl he held. "You clipped a dog?"



"Fool!" he spat. "Look at it in the sun."



He held the lock up and it caught the light. That was when he first looked at it, expecting to see the ruddy gleam of Carnat's hair. Somehow, the stench that rose from his skin seemed even worse when he realized the truth. He recalled the tall, thin, brown-haired servant from the inn with his hair cropped short to imitate the fashion of a king.



Chapter 13 The Rival





Zadan turned in his cot and gazed out the narrow window toward the top of the ridge that marked the boundary between the vale of Saadena and the desert beyond. It was all he could see of the city that Carlan would inherit if Carnat died and Caril married the prince of Zedekla.



He could hear the sound of hammering somewhere below him in the palace and gritted his teeth. If he waited too long to take control of the city, it might be impossible. Every day the harvesters made further changes in the palace to accommodate themselves. Only a fool such as Carnat would have issued the open invitation for his people to invade the royal house.



Morla entered the room with the cheery greeting he had grown to hate. "How is our leg today?" she chirped. With more strength than he liked to see in a woman, she jerked the pillows from under his upper body, pushed the blankets down to expose his healing wounds, and began to prod.



He grimaced and locked his lips together. He knew he should be grateful that her strength and skill had saved him from losing the use of his leg, but it was hard to summon gratitude when his resentment burned so bright. Morla had moved into next room on the day he was carried here after his fight with Tomak. He never had a moment alone with Carlan.



The thought of his wife seemed to summon Carlan. When had he ever found her less than beautiful? Now his love filled him like a strange, strong flower bud, opening with tender force. It was for her that he wanted to rule Saadena. He wanted the power and wealth that had been hoarded by Ayarlan so that he could travel and show his princess all the wonders of Okishdu. He wanted to dress her in embroidered zilka cloth and display her beauty in the other royal courts. She deserved the riches of life after being denied for so long.



"He is healing better than I expected," Morla pronounced. "Bring me my small knife. It is time to cut the stitches that held the edges of the wounds together."



"Wouldn't it be better to wait until you are certain the flesh is whole?" Carlan asked.



"If I wait too long, the line of stitches will be like splinters and the demons of infection might return to plague him," the healer explained.



Carlan nodded and drew near enough to take Zadan's hands in a firm grasp. She shut her eyes and turned her head, reluctant to watch. "I could fetch some selan for the operation," she volunteered when the first touch of the cold knife made Zadan flinch in spite of his resolve.



"This is not worth dulling his mind," Morla said. "It will take longer for you to get the drug than for me to snip the stitches."



Zadan wanted to curse the woman, but Carlan would be hurt more by his words than Morla. Instead of the pain he expected, there was a series of tugs and stings along the line of his wound. Morla finished the work with grunt of satisfaction. "It looks good. In a day or so, we will let you up and you can start practicing to walk again."



She gave a tug at the blanket that mercifully hid the puckered flesh of Zadan's wounds and turned to Carlan. "From henceforth, you may have the care of him. I have others to look after. I will move my quarters to the small anteroom near the second audience hall."



Carlan's grasp on Zadan's hands tightened, "What shall I do if he weakens?"



Morla laughed, "He is as healthy as a corum bull except for these bothersome cuts he had. Feed him what he is willing to eat, unless he eats it all and leaves nothing for you. Binden is in charge of the kitchen. She knows what you need and will send someone with food. I am more worried about you than him. Rest when you can. I have seen you touching your forehead. I am worried about your wound."



"I am not in pain." Carlan gave a little giggle, "It is only vanity. I try to arrange my hair so it will flatter me."



Zadan frowned. He had tried to forget about the way he had flung her from him when she tried to save his life. Carlan's bruised brow and the cut in her scalp were usually hidden beneath a loop of hair. Now he noticed how often she reached up to pull the loop in place. It was not vanity, but compassion that motivated her. "Pull your hair back and wear it as you always did," he demanded.



Carlan nervously put up her hands and gathered her bright tresses back to reveal her brow. There was no longer a great lump near her temple, and the cut had closed and begun to heal, but the final stages of healing had marked her with a yellow bruise. Zadan knew from past experience that it would fade in a few days.



"I need to remember what I did to you," he said, pulling her close and hugging her to his side. "I should have listened when you warned me against Ayarlan's treachery."



Morla grunted and turned to leave them alone, shutting the door behind her with an audible thud. Were Zadan's words sincere, or simply meant to charm Carlan. Morla had done her duty as a healer, but she sometimes wished she had not done so well. The rogue would never have the same lithe pace that she had noticed when Ayarlan first brought him to Saadena, but he would regain mobility in time. From the look of him, he was familiar with the importance of working the muscles of his body.



Morla had been asked to join the council, but her duties as healer, on top of her care of Carlan and Zadan, had kept her too busy before today. Now that her duties were lightened she could help with the burden of government.



Yegar was bent over a plan of the castle he had found in the rooms once occupied by Carnat and Neril. He looked up and grinned at Morla. "Have you finally left Carlan alone to care for her wounded rogue?" he asked.



She nodded. "They are an unlikely couple, but I think she has the greater strength where it matters. I am concerned about him."



Yegar frowned. "I thought he was healing well, or you would not have left him with her."



"He is healing better than I had hoped," Morla said. "Within weeks he may be well enough to attempt the journey to Jama. As husband of Carlan, he would have the right to lead mercenaries against us. Can you spare a man to watch him?"



Yegar shook his head. "Once Zadan has gained the use of his leg, he could easily overcome any of us. We could mount an armed guard, but I will try to think of some other way to solve the problem."



The signal drum in the the watchtower ended their discussion. Yegar tossed aside the stylus in his hand and rushed from the room. Morla raised her hands in prayer and begged the Radiance to spare them from an invasion.



Hours passed in suspense. A caravan had been spotted from the watchtower, but their exact numbers and intent were not yet known. The harvesters who had been practicing with arms had gathered at the summons of the signal drum that Yegar had installed on top of the watchtower.



In his room, Zadan lifted himself high enough to see the trail head, but there was nothing to be seen but the scurrying forms of the trail watch. Instead of holding their stations, they were running down into the city, leaving only two men behind. He growled and pounded impotently on his cot. Given another week, and practice with walking, he might have led this gaggle of inept fools in a reasonable resistance. He had heard of the rout of Urgit's mercenary band, but he had no doubt that it was Barga's men and the advice of Tomak that had led to victory.



The first men of the watch to reach the city were not fleeing in terror, they were smiling and calling to others. "Our friends and brothers from Janaka are returning!"



The word spread through the city and soon a welcoming crowd had assembled in the forecourt of the palace. The exodus led by Nara had been the largest since the first small bands of refugees had begun to filter out of Saadena, and their return was eagerly awaited.



Carlan stacked pillows behind Zadan's shoulders so that he could watch the trail-head when the first of the returning exiles arrived. They came by pairs and trios, and family groups, their shoulders bent under the stress of carrying well laden packs up the steep trail. From this distance there was little to distinguish them until one appeared walking alone. Zadan clenched his fist. It was Tomak!



He watched the exiles begin down the trail into the city, the Zedeklan prince in the rear offering a helping hand to a child who had fallen behind. Then they all proceeded beyond the limits of his view and he was left with a vision of the empty trail head. Even the watch had deserted their post leaving those who manned the signal drum to call all who had not heard the news. They had a view that would warn for hours if any enemies were seen.



At first glance the Saadenans welcomed Durek by his older brother's name. Then they noted the difference and were confused. Those few who had seen Zadan looked nervously at the visitor. Kana saw their confusion and stepped forward to introduce the prince.



"This is Durek, brother of Tomak," she called so that all could hear her. "He has come to train us in the use of arms and to help us prepare for the day of Carnat's return."



Zadan heard her words and smiled grimly. So it was not the proud prince who had wounded him who stood below. It was his little brother. It was almost an insult, but one he would use to his own advantage. He called Carlan to him and took her hand. "I am certain the prince will want to meet me, but let me have a few days to recover. I would like to at least be seated when we meet. The outer room where you and Morla slept can be used as our antechamber where I can greet the prince when I am ready."



Carlan seemed delighted by the idea. She jumped up and left his side. "I will move my cot in here."



He would not take back what he had asked of her, but he was punished for his pride by the sight of her struggles. "Call one of the harvesters to help you!" he exclaimed as she tugged at the heavy cot which seemed stuck fast in the door frame.



"They are all feasting to celebrate the return of the exiles," she said. "I see what caused the problem. I should have tipped the bed on its side to get it through the opening. Have patience, my love. I will soon have everything arranged."



He leaned back and watched her, his wonder at her determination growing as she wrestled the balky bed out of the door frame and turned it on its side with a clever use of leverage from a nearby bench. She had laid a long runner rug under the area where the heavy piece of furniture landed. Zadan would have picked it up and carried it, but Carlan braced her back against it and pushed with the strength of her young legs. It slid along the runner slowly with no further difficulty.



When Carlan had tilted it again and it landed right side up next to his own cot with only a narrow gap, she turned up her face with a glowing grin of triumph and he laughed. "You are amazing," he said. "Now come and lay down. There is room enough for both of us now."



"Not yet," she replied. "I must bring in the mattress and make the bed, then rearrange the furniture in the other room."



"Bring in the mattress, but do not bother with the other things for now," he said. "It has been too long since we were alone like this. My wounds have healed and I am a man in love with his lovely wife."



Carlan blushed and ducked her head. "It is m-mid-day," she stammered.



"And there is a lock on our door," he reminded her.



Music and song filled the forecourt of the palace. Binden had ordered benches and tables to be carried out of the palace. Sturdy cloths from Ayarlan's hoard were spread on the wide stairs to accommodate the overflow so that all could gather for the feast of welcome.



The shadow of the high walls shaded the celebration from the heat of the afternoon sun. Durek was given the seat of honor with members of the council on both sides of the long table. It was a new experience for him. He had always been willing to yield the center of attention to one of his brothers. When Tomak was not available, Tilek usually held that place by reason of his ready wit and conversation.



Now that he found himself in the position of cynosure, he wished that Tilek was at his side to divert attention from his own slow answers. He was a man of thought and action who had difficulty with polite conversation. He was afraid to bring shame on Tomak and his father by stammering or saying something too blunt. Worse yet, he might appear to be proud if he did not reply quickly enough to those around him.



Morla sensed his discomfort. She had been taken aback at first by his amazing resemblance to Zadan. She now understood why Tomak had been unable to slay the rogue. Durek was younger than the imposter, but the breadth of his shoulders and the set of his nose and jaw were enough to convince her that there was some close family tie.



She engaged the prince in conversation, leading him from topic to topic so that all who were sitting near them were informed of the things they wanted to know without badgering him with questions.



Durek knew what the healer was doing and was grateful for her assistance. When the meal was finished, he stood and held his arms wide in a gesture of submission. "You have heard I am a prince, I am a student of arms and strategy. I have some small knowledge of trade. but I am here to be your servant. I have been asked to do this by Carnat who would also be your servant."



While crossing the desert, Durek had struggled to find the right words to announce his purpose in Saadena, and had rehearsed them again and again so that he would not stutter. He hoped he had not given his speech in a way that was too stiff or pompous or that the intent would be misunderstood. There was silence as the crowd waited for him to say more. Then he lowered him arms and bowed his head, fearing that he had failed. The sound of cheering and clapping erupted around him and he looked up to see smiles on every face. He turned to every side and raised his fists in a sign of triumph and the roar of approval doubled, resounding back from the stone walls.



Zadan lay with Carlan sleeping peacefully in his arms. He had listened to Durek's speech which the prince had pitched to reach the furthest reaches of the forecourt. Carlan shifted in his arms and made a tiny sound when the air rang with the sound of the accolade from below.



Zadan growled like a threatened wolf. Who was this royal pup who bragged of being expert in arms and trade? How had he so quickly won the favor of the people? If only he had not been tied to his bed by his wounded leg Zadan would have made a challenge for Carlan's sake.



Carlan stirred and sat up. "What troubles you, my lord?" she asked.



He grimaced and growled, "Why do you call me that?"



Carlan blushed and smiled shyly, "You are my lord. The Radiance is Lord of all, but you rule my heart and body. I was resigned that my mother would wed me to some fat merchant, or worse yet, skinny Urgit. but she brought you to me."



Zadan hugged her for her healing words. He admitted part of the canker that ate at him. "She thought I was a prince. Instead, I am as common as dirt."



Carlan gave a little giggle and snuggled closer to him. "You cannot convince me that you are any common man. There is no other like you."



"Then you approve what Ayarlan did in bringing me to Saadena?" Zadan asked.



"I don't approve of the way she tortured your body and rode you over the desert. I cannot mourn her death."



"Not a very loving thing to say about your mother," Zadan mocked.



Carlan shivered. "I doubt I ever loved her. She was a vicious woman who saw in me nothing more than a pawn for her game of power."



Her words dug a little deeper into Zadan's shallow conscience than he liked. Was he any better than Ayarlan? He assured himself that all his ambition to rule in Saadena was for Carlan's sake. His musings were interrupted by the sound of someone knocking at the door of the outside room. Carlan straightened her clothing and stood up. "Our solitude is ended. I will tell them you are indisposed."



Zadan watched while she washed her face and combed her hair and closed the door behind her as she left him alone. There were voices from the outer room when she opened the door. He recognized Morla's all too familiar tones, but there was a deeper, masculine voice that he recognized from the speech a little earlier. It must be Durek, the Zedeklan prince. Something in the deep toned voice reached into his gut. He wished he had not directed Carlan to close the door. He strained to hear the words that were exchanged but the sense of what was said was lost in the dense wood of the door.



Morla had been curious to see Carlan's reaction to Durek, but the princess gave no sign that she noticed the uncanny resemblance between her husband and the prince. She welcomed them into the room and apologized for the disorder. Morla stopped her with a raised hand.



"I am amazed that you were able to move that heavy bed. I should have known that you would want to share a room with your husband once he was able to--," the healer flushed and caught herself. Fortunately, the prince had not lingered to listen to their exchange. He had lifted the tilted bench that Carlan had used to shift the bed frame and carried it over to the wall. Once there, he looked out the window that gave a view over the city.



Carlan turned her head to hide the bright blush Morla's careless words had brought to her cheeks. For a moment there was an embarrassed silence between the two women but Durek appeared to take no notice. He leaned out the window and surveyed the area below. "I was surprised when I was told that the harvesters had driven off a troop of mercenaries, but this is a superb fortress. Is there a plan of the palace I could study?"



Morla remembered seeing Yegar with a drawn plan earlier that day. "After your interview with Zadan, I will take you to Yegar. I believe he has what you need."



Carlan shook her head. "You cannot see him today," she said. "My husband is indisposed. Please come back in a day or so."



Morla wondered what game Zadan was playing. It would be weeks before he would have the strength to challenge Durek on any grounds. A day or so would make no difference. She shrugged her shoulders. "I will visit you each morning anyway. He can tell me when he is prepared to meet our guest. Before we leave, I will give you a hand to straighten up in here."



Durek helped Carlan move a small table and smiled at her when the task was finished. "You remind me of my youngest sister, Medana. She is more interested in archery and escaping her governess than in the womanly arts my other sisters study."



She blushed and he felt embarrassed. He turned toward Morla and was struck by the contrast with the almost childish form of the princess.



Morla was a woman. Her frame was spare from a lifetime of subsistence on spear leaf and wild food but he could envision her as a mother with a child in the shawl she wore around her shoulders..



Durek looked away, a blush rising on his cheeks. Tomak had been pursued by cunning women like Olina since he was barely old enough to pluck his beard, and Tilek was a practiced flirt, attracting women with his lively eyes and honeyed words, but Durek had resigned himself to a long bachelorhood. Women paid him little heed, and he paid them less. The emotions he had felt since first meeting Morla were unfamiliar and a little frightening. Alarmed at himself, he became brusque.



"I must go and find the plan of the palace and speak to Yegar about the armory," he suddenly announced. "I'll find my way, Lady Morla. No need for you to interrupt your work."



Morla glanced up from tucking in the edge of a coverlet, but the large Zedeklan was already half-way down the stairs, only his wide shoulders and dark hair could be seen.



She turned to Carlan with her brows raised in a questioning look. "Lady Morla!" she repeated, confused.



"He is a prince," Carlan said. "You must admit, you have given him the impression that you are a person of importance in the palace. To him, you deserve respect and that is how he shows it. I suspect he likes you."



Morla shook her head. "How could you say such a thing? I am so plain and you are so lovely. If he had interest in anyone, it would be you. Although I doubt he would ever show it because his integrity is self-evident. He is so handsome, every inch a prince. Do you not think so?"



Carlan shrugged. "He seems so young, almost callow. He has some small resemblance to my husband, but Zadan is a man, not a boy." She smiled, lowering her head.



Morla laughed. "Some small resemblance! They could be twins. I think it must be the reason Tomak spared Zadan."



"Then I thank the Radiance for the happy accident that made it so," Carlan said. "I know what you think of Zadan. You have cared for him without stint, but it was duty, not fondness that made you work so hard to save him from disease and disability."



"Perhaps he is better than I thought. He must have some good in him, or you would not be so devoted," Morla admitted.



"I have intimate knowledge of what real evil is," Carlan said. "Zadan is not like Ayarlan and Urgit. Such as they love nothing but themselves. Once, when she was tired and in a confiding mood, my mother spoke of a watchman who served here many years ago. She spoke of loving him, but there was only frustration, not sorrow, in her voice when she told me how he died,."



"Carlan!" the sound of Zadan's urgent summons interrupted their conversation.



Morla impulsively hugged the princess. "Your wolf is growling," she teased.



Carlan giggled and took the healer's hand. "Thank you for being here. I feel I can call you my friend. I have only had one other friend."



Morla nodded. "We are friends." She hurried from the room and shut the door behind her, surprised by the keen pleasure she had experienced when Carlan named her friend. Unlike the princess, she had never lacked for friends. In the years of struggle and patience while the harvesters waited for Fedder's prophecy to ripen, they had drawn together in mutual support. What would their new prosperity do to that sense of brotherhood? Already, petty disputes over minor matters such as number of rooms allotted for each family had begun to take up most of each council meeting.



Morla went down to the room she had set aside for her use when the harvesters had taken possession of the palace. It was well situated for her needs. Originally a small anteroom, according to the scale of the palace's grand audience halls, it was more than ample to provide both living quarters and a clinic for her patients.



In her absence, two walls had been constructed to partition off the area according to directions she had left with Yegar. She approved the result. A sleeping couch and tripod for cooking and heating had been set up in her private room and there were pillows and blankets provided for her comfort. The one high window provided light and air.



In the clinic there were benches that could be used for cots in case of epidemic or battle wounds, let the Radiance prevent, she quickly prayed. Cupboards and drawers, still wearing the gilt of an arabesque design that betrayed their origin in one of the guest suites, provided ample storage for her remedies and various splints and bandages. An old woman looked up at her when she glanced into the corridor outside where a bench had been placed for waiting patients.



"Oh, Selda, are you ill?" Morla asked, hurrying to help the elderly woman to her feet.



"Nay, I am sent to help you," the widow tittered. "Imagine me, outliving Ayarlan and coming here to be a healer's helper."



"Do you need quarters?" Morla asked. "I have room enough to set up a cot for you within my bedroom." She opened the door and showed the old woman her tidy quarters.



Selda laughed again. "I rattle like a verga seed in the great echoing room they've given me. Better we exchanged. Soon you will be marrying and getting children. This is cozy enough for a maiden, or an old widow like me, but hardly fitting for a member of the council."



"I hope we will never fall into the errors of pride and rank like those we hated as our masters," Morla said.



"Nevertheless, we should exchange. Let's do it now before the others become accustomed to finding you here. I learned something of nursing from Mirin since the selan no longer clouded my mind, bless Neril!" she made the sign of the blade and Morla followed suit. None were more devoted to the memory of Neril than the adult harvesters who had been rescued from their living death by her gift of spearleaf.



Morla would never have suggested the exchange herself, but Selda became insistent when she saw the healer wavering. "My room is just up the stairs from here, but it is a flight of stairs that taxes my old legs," her voice wobbled in an almost convincing quaver.



Morla laughed. "Old fraud! You could run up and down stairs all day with little problem. I think there is merit to your plan, and I do respect your skills. If you had been a few years younger, I think Nara would have left you in charge of Zadan."



"Age has some advantages," Selda said with a wink. "I do not like that rogue and it is well I did not have the care of him. He looks too much like the watchman who watched Neril with a gaze that no man should use on a married woman. It was the first thing I noticed when my selan daze was cleared. I disliked the watchman and rejoiced when he died."



"But Zadan looks almost exactly like Prince Durek," Morla said.



"Not at all," Selda replied. "The prince is gold, inside and out. The other is like Jaman brass, an imitation of real gold."



The old woman had named the thing that Morla could not quite voice. She thought of her earlier conversation with Carlan. The princess could not see that the essential difference between Zadan and Durek was not age or experience, but quality. She gathered up a few personal items and followed Selda to her new quarters.



She was surprised to see that the space Selda had been assigned was spacious but many scrolls were stored around the room. "No others were bold enough to claim the room where King Eliat slept," Selda explained. "Just as none have ventured into the wretched workroom where Ayarlan concocted her poisons."



"I hope someone has thought to lock the door of that foul hole," Morla said. "The secrets of Ayarlan should die with her."



Selda shook her head. "Fear has kept most of us from even entering the corridor."



Morla frowned. As soon as Zadan began to walk, he might know enough to begin the quest for some foul substance that would imprison men's minds as selan had imprisoned the harvesters. "Bring a lamp. If no one else will cleanse the workroom, I must."



The two women approached the dim corridor that led to the abandoned workroom and sensed the miasma of evil that seemed to linger in the air. Morla straightened her back and grasped Selda's hand. "It is only the stench of her experiments. Ayarlan has gone where she can never harm anyone again."



"If I believed in demons, I'd think to find her here, dancing in the ashes of her victims," Selda whispered. "Thank the Radiance for Fedder and the truths he taught us."



Morla welcomed the presence of Selda and her mordant sense of humor. It somehow diminished the dreadfulness of the workroom and the cells that lay beyond, now mercifully empty. They emptied drawers and cupboards of poisons and drugs. Some few had other, kinder uses than what Ayarlan had wanted from them, and Morla stored them in her ample belt pouch to augment her own supply of remedies. She hesitated over a large pot of black spider ointment, then she consigned it to the growing pile of dass and docil, perga bane and other poisons.



"Look for notebooks or scrolls," she told Selda. The old woman found a cache of scribbled notes and some Orenese curse scrolls written in archaic language. She piled them on the heap of poisons. The two women worked methodically, stripping the cupboards and shelves, trying to overlook nothing that might be used to harm another. Even the pots and dishes that had been used to contain Ayarlan's experiments were consigned to the mounting pile.



"What do we do with all these things now that we have gathered them?" Selda asked.



"Bring me that length of linen that was hung over the passage to the cells," Morla directed. She poured oil from the vat that Ayarlan had used to fuel her retorts over the linen and coiled it around the base of the heap. The lamp she had brought to the workroom was burning low, but there was enough wick left for her to push it into the oil-soaked cloth.



"Hurry, follow me," Morla said. She grabbed Selda's hand and rushed from the workroom just as the wick burned down to the level of the cloth and fire exploded around the tools and materials of Ayarlan's dread art. She closed the heavy door and locked it.



"These walls are stone and will not burn," Morla said. "The high window overhead will provide enough air to keep the fire going. When it is done, we must come and make certain that nothing usable remains."



In her tower room, Carlan smelled the burning drugs. For a dreadful moment she feared that some fool had started up the experiments her mother had left behind. She rushed from the room and found a window that overlooked the roof of the workroom. The column of dense black smoke that rose from the vent eased her fear.



Someone had done what she had intended. They had laid waste to the workroom and cleansed it with fire. Tears of gratitude welled in her eyes. Now she could honestly deny Zadan when he asked her to continue Ayarlan's research or provide him with the products of her mother's obsession.



Morla realized she had acted without thinking of consequences when they heard the signal drum ring out the fire call from the watchtower which overlooked the workroom. She hurried to the base of the tower and called to the men overhead, "There is nothing to fear. I am burning Ayarlan's workroom for the safety of all. Stay clear of the fumes."



Yegar, Binden, and the other members of the council raced to respond to the call of the fire warning. They were waiting for Morla when she reached the bottom of the stairs. She repeated her reassurances to them. "Nothing will be damaged beyond the workroom wing."



Yegar frowned. "This should have been discussed with the rest of the council. You may have destroyed substances that could have helped us against our enemies."



Selda moved to confront the younger man. "You have never known what it was like to lose your wit and will to selan. There was nothing we destroyed that should have been saved unless you wish to carry on the heritage of Ayarlan. Would you have us preserve our freedom on such a basis?"



Yegar shook his head. "No, I should have seen to clearing out the workroom long before this. But was there no other way than burning to cleanse the room?"



"I'll admit I acted precipitously," Morla said. "But once we had piled Ayarlan's hoard of poisons and drugs in the center of the room, I realized that they must be destroyed as soon as possible. We could not store them or put them on the refuse heap. The means were at hand to burn them, so I did."



"You did well," Cigna said.



Miyan nodded. "The possibility that another would carry on Ayarlan's work has worried us."



Durek silently observed the discussion. He admired Morla's quick thinking and practical action. He had known her for less than a day, but with each encounter, his feelings for her mounted



After the evening meal, Durek accompanied Selda and Morla to the workroom and surveyed the blackened circle of stone in the center of the floor. The broken remains of the pots and bowls were scattered among the ashes, but the fire had done its work. Nothing usable remained of Ayarlan's equipment. They swept the last fragments into a bin and Durek carried it to the refusel heap with Morla.



Durek wanted to tell her how he admired her for acting to destroy the workroom when others dithered with indecision and fear. His mind raced, but his tongue stumbled. He started to speak but fell silent.



Morla told Durek about the scrolls she had found stored in her new quarters. "Apparently, after he died, no one disturbed the quarters that had belonged to Eliat, the old king. No one suspected that Eliat had collected such a wealth of scrolls in his quarters. I would like you to come to the room tomorrow and help me make an inventory."



"As you please," Durek agreed with a grave face. He could hardly grin when she was discussing such serious matters, but his heart seemed to expand in his chest and he felt like dancing and singing. He would not have to find an excuse to see her in the morning.



They were not able to begin the inventory until nearly noon. Yegar was anxious to begin formal training of a defense force and kept the prince in the armory for hours. Morla was busy with her own tasks. Although Selda was perfectly competent, most of those who came to the clinic wanted to see the healer, not her assistant. When Morla finally bandaged up the last scraped knee, she went to the armory and found Durek. He had drawn up a schedule for training but Yegar was enjoying the company of the prince and had embarked on another project that would require his assistance.



"I will meet you here tomorrow morning, Yegar," Durek excused himself when he saw Morla waiting. "I have business with the healer."



Morla led him to the room where Eliat had lived. It was a vast room with old hangings that draped over rows of makeshift shelves. In every nook and cranny scroll cases were stashed and stacked, except for one corner where Selda had cleared a space for the her sleeping couch and a tripod for heat and cooking.



Morla held up a lamp while Durek examined a few of the scrolls. He whistled through his teeth as he viewed a precious illuminated manuscript. "This is written in archaic language. I am no scholar, but I have seen such scrolls in the treasury of our library in Zedekla. For now, it is probably best to leave them where they are until someone with better skills than I can examine them. I heard that the library of Saadena was destroyed when Eliat was killed, but apparently the king used his own apartment as a repository for some of the more valuable scrolls."



"King Carnat was also a scholar in his youth," Morla said. "Yegar tells me there are many interesting and valuable scrolls and tablets stored in his room."



"If what I have seen is an indication, the great library of Saadena is not entirely destroyed. I doubt Carnat knows of the treasure his father kept here. Do you mind sharing your living space with the scrolls until an expert can make an assessment of their worth?" Durek asked.



"Perhaps someday, when I marry and bear children, this would make a comfortable home for a family with partitions for privacy," Morla replied. "Until then, I need little more than the corner Selda cleared."



"Then you plan to marry?" Durek asked solemnly, afraid to ask which of the men he had met might be Morla's suitor. Perhaps Yegar was the chosen man. Suddenly he liked the leader of the council, a little less.



Morla quickly restored his good opinion of Yegar by laughing and shaking her head. "I have been too busy to choose a suitor, but of course, someday I would like to have a family. I'm afraid I am too bold and bossy for most men."



Durek was so eager to disabuse her of the idea that his tongue tripped up and he only grunted. Morla rescued him by suggesting it was time to visit Carlan and see if Zadan was ready to receive him.



Zadan was sleeping, fatigued from spending the morning working his body relentlessly. He had discovered that the days of inaction had stolen much of his flexibility and the injured leg, though no longer infected, was as painful as a wound when he tried to flex it. In spite of the pain, he had put himself through hours of hard work. Carlan had found a crutch for him and he had limped from one side of the room to the other until he collapsed on his bed and fell asleep.



Carlan opened the door to welcome Morla and Durek into the anteroom of her chamber. "Are you ill?" Morla asked when she saw the drawn features and sad expression on Carlan's face.



"I am afraid Zadan will injure himself," Carlan said. "He is intent on walking again, as soon as possible. What can I do?"



"Let him have his way," Durek advised and Morla nodded. "Once a wound has healed, it is important to begin working the muscles. It is likely that Zadan will tire before he can harm himself."



"He is sleeping like one dead," Carlan exclaimed.



"Then let him sleep," Morla said. "He will learn to moderate the demands he places on himself. From the look of him, he knows how to care for his body."



"When we cleaned out the workshop I found Orenese charm scrolls. Did your mother teach you how to read them?" The healer asked, determined to divert Carlan from her concerns about Zadan.



"No, my mother didn't teach me, she had Fedder, the old Chaplain, teach me the archaic letters. I only studied with him a short time before my mother's demands drove him into hiding, but I was forced to read the scrolls my mother had obtained."



"We need your help," Morla said. "Your grandfather kept many ancient scrolls in his room. We have only recently discovered the hoard, but there is none among us who can determine what value they might have."



Carlan looked toward the room where her husband lay asleep. She had spent the morning worrying about his zeal to recover the use of his leg and then worried even more about the depth of the sleep that followed his exercise. With Morla's assurance that he would probably survive his self-imposed torture, she looked forward to some diversion from her anxious watch. "I never liked the task of translating the means of causing others pain and death, but I enjoyed the language itself. If you would like, I could examine some of the scrolls."



"None here is more entitled to study them," Durek said. "Your father is helping to translate the Scroll of Irilik from the archaic language while they wait for the pilgrimage to be organized that will return the scroll to Timora. It would appear that the two of you have something in common."



Carlan looked confused. Morla realized how little the princess had been told of the events that had taken her father back to Janaka. Their conversations in the days that had followed Zadan's fight with Tomak had mostly to do with the immediate concerns of the sickroom. "I will check to make sure Zadan's wounds are still healing well, then you must come to my room and tell us what you can about the scrolls.



Carlan unlocked the inner door and checked to see that her husband was still fast asleep before showing Morla into the room. The healer was soon satisfied that his exertions had not disturbed the wounds. He did not stir at all as she performed her usual prodding examination. "I doubt he will wake for several hours yet," she told Carlan.



While they returned to the room below Durek told Carlan about the plans to return the Scroll of Irilik to Timora whence Emperor Marnat had stolen it four hundred years before. "Three kings and their chaplains, as well as any of their children who can help, are gathered in King Tagun's library to translate the scroll. I am not a scholar like my brothers so I volunteered to help by coming here to Saadena."



Carlan nodded. "Fedder angered my mother by teaching me some things from Irilik's scroll. It was one of the reasons he was forced to leave the city. Once she was satisfied that I had a rudimentary understanding of the archaic script, she saw no further use for him. It would be a wonderful thing to share the effort of translating the holy scroll." She paused, unsure. "Is my s-sister helping?"



Durek laughed. "My older brother could not be excluded from the work, and where Tomak is, she is. But Caril has a good mind and Tagun bragged that when she was a child she usually preferred reading to the other lessons her governess imposed."



Carlan's eye lit with pleasure. She had never before taken much note of Caril's existence. Now she was intrigued to think that her sister had much in common with her. She wondered what other similarities they shared and questioned Durek.



"I think you have much in common," he admitted. "You both have the red curls that show that you are children of Elianin, though hers are dark and yours are fair, and you both love men who are not nearly good enough for you."



Carlan saw by his eyes that he was jesting with her but she balled up her little fist and hit his arm in protest. Then the three of them burst out laughing. It was like a holiday from all the worry she had borne.



She was entranced by the store of scrolls. Handling them with the care due their age and value, she examined one after another. "What a wonder our library must have been if this is just a sampling of its contents," she said. "For now, it might be best to leave them here. When the library was burned, the shelves and racks were destroyed. It is like a great barn with no place to store the scrolls."



"Should I move out of this room?" Morla asked.



"It would probably be best for you to stay," Durek said. "You can lock the door, and because you might have need to store medications, none will question that need. I think it is best if we keep this to ourselves. When Carnat returns, he can make other plans."



Carlan looked around gravely. "I once heard Urgit offer my mother a scroll that might contain some secret she had overlooked. The price he quoted was impressive. If Urgit or his like suspected this collection existed, they might send thieves to steal the scrolls."



"I will warn Selda against betraying the contents of the room," Morla said. "It is time for me to return to the clinic. I can speak to her there. Durek, would you accompany Carlan back to her quarters?"



Durek turned to watch Morla leave them and Carlan smiled. It was evident the prince admired the brusque healer. "She is a wonderful woman," she prompted as they walked along the passage toward the rooms she shared with Zadan.



"Yes, I've never seen her like before," Durek replied. "I wish I were a man of graceful address and I could find a way to tell her what I think of her."



"Have you never courted a woman before?" Carlan asked.



"With brothers such as Tomak and Tilek, what woman would look at me? On the other hand, I doubt I have ever offered any encouragement. Somehow, before I met Morla, marriage was not a destiny I sought for myself," he admitted.



"You have known her only a couple of days," she said. Then she remembered how quickly she had set her hopes on Zadan and sighed. "It doesn't take long sometimes. I will help you if I can. You seem to have no difficulty talking to me."



"That is quite a different matter," Durek said. "At first you reminded me of my younger sister Medana, and I have so often scolded the scamp that I felt no shyness with you. When I speak of practical matters to Morla, my tongue is free enough, but how do I reveal what is in my heart?"



Carlan laughed. The merry sound of her voice carried up the stairs to the quarters where Zadan lay awake and sullen, having called her name without reply since waking a few minutes earlier.



Durek mimicked the words he might speak to Morla, "Oh precious one, your teeth are pearls, your eyes are opal fire. Be mine, marry me."



Carlan laughed again. "But sir, how can I leave my potions and responsibilities? Do you suggest I run away with you and count all well lost for love?"



"You are laughing," Durek accused. "Have I made a fool of myself?"



Zadan seethed behind the door that he had partially opened at great cost to his aching limbs. Was this the shy young creature he had vowed to love? Were all her sighs and modest blushes merely tricks? Was she no better than Padmin? He waited for more wounding words and heard the worst.



"Oh prince Durek, say such words and the woman you love will be tempted to follow you wherever you choose."



Zadan was curious to see his rival. He pushed the door closed until only a crack remained. It was just enough to give him a view of Durek as he came up the stairs. Having taken one long, astonished look at the prince, Zadan shut the door quietly and locked it. Then he turned to the polished bronze mirror that hung near the door and confirmed his suspicions. Durek was as like him as if they had shared the same womb.



The differences were a result of the years and experiences that separated them. Durek bore no scars to mar his perfect face. He had the healthy complexion of an active man, but not the incipient grooves of too much time spent squinting his eyes against a harsh sun or frowning at the ills of life. He walked with the same unconscious arrogance that characterized Tomak. He is what I might have been if I were a prince. Zadan thought. He shivered with rage and frustration. How could he blame Carlan for being charmed by Durek.



After bidding farewell to Durek, Carlan unlocked the door and found Zadan still lying in his bed. He was breathing hard and his skin was flushed. She touched his forehead and kissed his cheek and engendered such confusion in his soul that he nearly shouted aloud. He continued to feign sleep as she went about the mundane tasks of straightening the bed and preparing a bowl of rich soup to tempt his appetite. He knew she had sometimes gone without to make sure he had all he wanted.



Her continued acts of quiet devotion added to his pain. She was young and inexperienced. The flirting of the prince must confuse her, especially when the youth wore such a familiar face. He decided to forgive her, but his hatred of Durek burned all the brighter.



Durek did not visit again during the following days. He was satisfied that while the rogue was immured in his inner room by his own choice, there was little chance for mischief. The prince spent hours each day on the task of training twenty of the harvesters to act as a regular unit of guards and watchmen. There were fifty other men who trained as a militia to augment the regular troops at need. He spent his evenings with Morla as often as possible.



Carlan's encouragement had given him courage and as time went by he managed to express his growing affection for the healer. She was charmed by him, but their responsibilities delayed any firm commitments.



Zadan worked his body relentlessly. His arms and shoulders, always powerful, grew in strength to compensate for the loss of flexibility in his leg. When he consented to let Durek interview him, he vowed he would stand and walk to greet his rival. His mind was busy seeking some strategy to eliminate the prince.



An open duel was out of the question. There was no way for him to win such a contest. If he wounded Durek, all Carlan's sympathy would go to the prince and he was not willing to make himself the victim. He must find a way to take Durek unawares.



He would humble himself and make Durek accept him as a friend. Then he would seize the opportunity to ambush him when he least suspected treachery. With his method decided, Zadan realized that he was ready to face his nemesis.



When Morla appeared to examine him that day, he surprised her by opening the door for her. He limped with a lurch when he crossed the room and sat down on the edge of his cot, but he walked and that was impressive to the healer. "I must give you credit, Zadan, although I wish I could say it was my own skill that made this day possible."



"I am ready to receive Prince Durek," he said. "He must have questions for me."



"He is busy with the militia this morning," Morla said. "But I believe he will have time to see you after the midday meal. I will tell him you want to see him."



Zadan was tempted to pace while waiting for Durek to appear, but he did not want to overtire himself. He must not let his facade of friendly helpfulness crack and show the feelings he harbored. He sent Carlan on an errand, afraid that if Durek gave his wife a fond look it would strain his self-control.



When Durek came at last, Zadan greeted him as he had planned, standing on his feet with his hand extended. Durek accepted the gesture and pulled up a chair to sit down.



"Welcome to Saadena, Durek. I have heard of your work to secure our defenses," Zadan said after sitting down.



Durek nodded. "They are good men, hardened by hardship. It is not difficult to teach them discipline, but they seem reluctant to accept the reality that someday they may have to take a life to save their own. Perhaps you have some suggestions."



Zadan thought of the men he had known who would murder for a loaf of bread, and others, like Skipe, who murdered for the fun of it. He shook his head. "I have no remedy for the problem, but I think that when they face the test; when their homes and families are threatened, they will do what they must."



Durek nodded. "Yes, I think you have the right of it. Perhaps you could help us with our training. From what my brother said, you are a master with a sword. Had he not been armed with Tharek oc Baroka, you might have put an end to him."



The prince's frank admission astounded Zadan. "He admitted as much?"



"Tomak thinks little of himself," Durek said. "He thinks he is a coward and sometimes a fool. He is not certain why he spared your life. He thinks that I would have succeeded in separating you from your head, but I doubt it. I've sparred with him too often to underestimate his skill."



Zadan laughed. His facade of friendliness cracked in an unexpected way at the young prince's frank words. "So you doubt you could have killed me?" he asked at last.



"Like Tomak, I have lived a life that up to now has shielded me from the need to kill a man. I can't say what I would do when put to the test." Durek candidly answered.



"I have often been put in a position where I was forced to choose between my own life, or that of another," Zadan said. "Perhaps if I had been born a prince, I would have avoided the necessity. Now, thanks to your brother, I am no longer much of a swordsman."



"Then perhaps you can aid us in another way," Durek said. "I am trying to develop a full plan of the palace. We have a good idea of the extent and layout of the rooms in the additions made by Marnat four hundred years ago, but the older wings and the basements are a maze. The harvesters have a superstitious fear of the dark labyrinth below. I have no time to spare, or I would do it myself. Do you think you could help me map those regions?"



Zadan nodded. "I am familiar with such situations and the dark has never held the terror for me that other men feel. When do I begin?" The possibility that such a task would give him an opportunity to trap Durek was its greatest appeal.



"The sooner you get to work, the sooner the work will be finished," Durek said. He laughed. "That is a common saying of my tutors, but I've seen it proven often. Can you begin tomorrow?"



"Come for me as soon as you eat your breakfast," Zadan said.



* * * *



Bodun came to Saadena the second time with a mute servant. Kolus was huge, with arms like a corum's hind quarters. Once he had been a bully and had tried to kick the old man who lingered in a secluded alley near the jail. The removal of his tongue and a few basic truths about the danger of raising his hand, or any other limb, against Bodun, had tamed him.



The guards at the trail-head remembered Bodun from his previous visit and Binden welcomed the Jaman as an old friend. Durek, who was on watch for just such a man was misled by the welcome the Saadenans extended.



Binden found a place for Bodun and his companion in the kitchen where the Jaman soon acquainted himself with the situation in the city. He was dismayed to find that Zadan was still confined to his quarters. He stayed well away from the attention of the Zedeklan prince.



He had resigned himself to failure and a fruitless trip when Binden entered the kitchen and summoned him. "Today Zadan will finally venture forth from his quarters. He has been given the task of exploring the lower portions of the palace. I would like the two of you to take him his midday meal. No others are willing to go into the basements of the old wing."



"How will we know where to find him?" Bodun asked.



Binden thought. "I will send word for him to leave a trail of thread behind him when he ventures forth this morning. It will keep him from losing his way, and it will help you find him. Meanwhile, the two of you must come with me and carry supplies to the militia who are practicing on the slope beyond the trail-head."



Bodun wanted to protest the morning task, but he had enjoyed Binden's generosity and decided it would not be politic to draw her suspicion when he was so near his goal. He took his place behind her with Kolus in his stead, carrying most of Bodun's load as well as his own. In several hours he had a rendezvous with Zadan and would call him to remembrance of the blood oath he had taken in lieu of death in jail.



Zadan appreciated Binden's suggestion of laying a trail of twine once he began his exploration of the deeper regions of the palace. Scuttling noises warned him of the presence of vermin that fled before his lamp. In places the walls leaned precariously and some had fallen into heaps of stone. He was reminded that an earthquake had destroyed much of the palace hundreds of years before. He made no attempt to mark his route on the slate Durek had provided. If his plan was successful, it would not do for anyone to know the way he had taken.



At midmorning he came to a row of doors that seemed intact. A brief survey of the first room assured him that the door was still well hinged and sturdy. It was time to effect his plan. He retraced the twine and cautiously entered the armory where he had left Durek studying the plans for reinforcing the defenses. The prince had indicated that he planned to spend the morning on the task. Zadan was satisfied that no one had seen him enter. He coughed and caught Durek's attention.



"I have discovered a treasure trove in the basement of the old palace. You are the only one here fit to judge its worth," he said.



Durek hesitated, but the lure of a treasure outweighed the self-appointed duty of completing the defense plan. He stood and stretched. "I will go with you. Wait here while I tell Yegar that I cannot accompany him to review the militia."



"You need not delay the review," Zadan said. "The place of which I speak is not far from here. You should be back in plenty of time."



"I had hoped to escape that particular duty," Durek grinned sheepishly. "Very well, I will investigate the trove you have found. Then I must return to stern duty." He strapped on a fine widow smith sword.



"I hope we encounter nothing worthy of such a blade," Zadan said. He had armed himself with a long knife. Surprise must be his best offensive.



Zadan followed the tell-tale thread, quickly leading Durek deep into the bowels of the old palace. At the beginning of the corridor he lifted the lamp and indicated the door that he had left ajar. "This is the place. I will hold the lamp for you and you can see for yourself what I have found."



Durek stepped within the room and waited for Zadan to follow him with the lamp. Instead, he was rudely pushed and fell forward on his hands and knees. The door slammed shut behind him and he heard the bolt slam to. Instead of trying to stand immediately, he rolled onto his knees and looked up toward the grid that covered the small opening in the door. Zadan leered in at him with a look of glee.



"Is this revenge for the wound my brother gave you?" Durek asked. His voice was calm. He knew it would be counterproductive to lose his temper or rage at the rogue.



"The wound your brother gave me?" Zadan spat. "That was a prick compared to the wound you intended. Can you deny that you have wanted my wife?"



Durek stared at Zadan. "Your wife? You think I covet Carlan?"



"I heard your honeyed words," Zadan accused. "I heard you speak of her opal eyes and pearly teeth. You thought I was asleep, but I discovered your intent."



Durek thought at first that Zadan had gone mad. Then he remembered the jesting conversation with Carlan when she had encouraged him in his pursuit of Morla. How could he convince Zadan that it was not the princess he desired, but the sturdy healer. He could but state the truth in a way that would not offend. He sensed that Zadan would never believe him if he told him the girl seemed more like a younger sister than a potential mate.



"Carlan would never look twice at me," he said. "You are the man she loves. I discovered that early and never risked rejection. Have you not noticed that I wear Morla's leather band about my wrist? It is poor jewelry for such as you and I who have seen the gems of Janaka, but it is precious to me as a sign of our betrothal."



Zadan peered through the grid and caught sight of the banded wrist Durek offered for his inspection. Morla's distinctive mark, with white cord worked into the black leather, confirmed Durek's claim. It seemed impossible that the prince could pledge himself to the healer. She was the antithesis of Carlan, blunt and bold.



He heard a familiar voice hailing him from the cross passage. "Zadan! At last I've tracked you down. You remember me, and my mute servant Kolus?"



"What brings you here Bodun?" Zadan challenged. He wondered if Durek would try to summon help. It would be the worst thing he could do. Another royal scalp would not come amiss to the assassin.



"I have come to remind you of your obligations and to offer you a fair exchange. I will provide you with the scalp of your inconvenient father-in-law in return for the old terms you have already accepted," Bodun said.



"And if I refuse to be your tool?" Zadan challenged.



Bodun laughed. "I have you cornered in a place where none need ever hear of you again and Urgit would be only too pleased to marry your widow and keep my terms. Which will it be?"



Zadan's thoughts raced. If he accepted Bodun's terms, he would keep Carlan and lose his freedom. If not, he risked his life and perhaps his marriage when the truth of his perfidy was revealed. "I will never be an assassin, like Kolus," Zadan said. He reached behind him and released the bolt on the door that held Durek captive. Then he backed down the corridor, drawing Bodun and his bully along in his wake until they were between him and the door where Durek had remained significantly silent.



"Assassination is a capital offense," Zadan needlessly reminded the crime master.



"I have survived very well as an assassin," Bodun replied. "Now which is it to be for your young bride? You or widowhood and Urgit?"



Zadan put the lamp he held on a projecting beam. He saw the door swing open slowly but he did nothing to betray the presence of Durek who had emerged from the room with his sword in hand. "I think another choice is in order. Would you prefer to fight me, or Prince Durek?" The long knife was suddenly in his hand.



Durek was not concerned with chivalry. As soon as the mute lifted his weapon and began to turn, the prince cut him down with one well placed blow. The eerie gargle of the man's tongueless mouth was the only signal of his death. Bodun, resorting to his favorite strategy, tried to escape after feinting briefly with his knife. Durek caught him with the upswing of his sword and the assassin parted company with his head. His eyes retained an expression of disbelief for seconds afterward.



"Should we take them up and display your handiwork?" Zadan asked. "Their presence will witness the kind of man I am."



Durek shrugged. "You made a choice to release me. I count that more than the temporary madness inspired by your jealousy. The assassin and his accomplice died at the hands of an authority empowered to carry out such executions, and I bear no grudges. This is as good a place as any to conclude this bloody business. We will put them in the room you chose to be my tomb and have an end of it."



Zadan picked up the lamp that guttered on the beam nearby. "I will light the way while you take Bodun's body, then I will help you with Kolus."



He opened the door wider and held up the lamp. Bright glints of metal shown back at him from bales stacked along the further wall. He gave a snort of self disgust. "Look here, but for Bodun, I would have immured you with a treasure. We must find another place to store our villains."



Durek, still a little shaky from his deadly task, began to laugh and Zadan joined him until the corridor rang. At last they calmed and faced the business at hand. They dragged Bodun and his bully to the furthest room and made certain of the lock before tracing the twine up to the sunlight. Only a few of the harvesters were brave enough to return with them to the room where Zadak had built a luxurious prison stocked with half the wealth of Saadena. None were bold enough to venture into the dark room beyond where Bodun and his head remained forever slightly separated.



Chapter 14 Pilgrimage





In Janaka, the work of translating the Scroll of History and Prophecy from the ancient script continued almost without interruption. Even when those gathered for the work broke for meals, the topics of discussion were found in the revelations of the scroll. Tomak and Caril felt their affection deepen into love as they shared the holy work.



It was an exacting task and should have been tiring, but all those who shared in the transcriptions found extra stores of energy. Only the zealous care of Tagun, who insisted that they retire to their beds each night and eat regular meals, kept them from spending late nights in the library. Tilla complained of the time Caril spent in translating when she should have been attending fittings for her bridal clothing.



Tagun soothed Tilla's ruffled feelings by finding a maid who was almost a twin to Caril in height and proportion to serve as a stand-in for the princess. "Just think of how pleased and surprised Caril will be when you present her with her new clothing," he cajoled. Tilla smiled her pleasure at his suggestion.



Barga and his men remained alert while Tilla and her helpers continued their preparations for the pilgrimage. As the time for the procession drew near, the scholars working in the library were conscious of the impending deadline. Tomak and Caril wrote a copy of the scroll from the dictation of Meliat while Tilek and his father Farek worked from the dictation of Rutor. Carnat acted as proof reader for the priests because of his training in the ancient script. On the day before the procession was to depart for Timora, the final sections of the copies were finished. Tomak put down his pen and stared across the table at Caril. Both of them grinned with joy.



"We'll leave one copy here in the library of Janaka, and take the other to Zedekla," Rutor declared after consulting with Farek and Tagun and receiving Meliat's approval. "The original might be damaged or destroyed and these precious truths must not be lost again."



Nara had conferred with Rutor about the scroll and tablets Fedder had written which she had brought from Saadena. He had assigned her to make a copy of the story of Neril and had given her a special errand to perform with one of Janaka's finest jewelers.



Caril observed that each day after translation and copying was finished, Carnat and Nara spent time together talking about his plans for Saadena. She noticed the way they spoke and listened to each other because it was the way she and Tomak talked when they weren't working on the scroll.



When she realized that Tagun and Tilla acted much the same way, with a quiet confidence and connection that went beyond friendship, a gleam appeared in the eyes of the princess. She began to make plans of her own.



Although the others in the palace were filled with joy at the completion of the translation and anticipation for the coming pilgrimage, Barga was worried. He visited Tagun and explained his concerns. "I have not yet heard from Durek. I had hoped that he would give some indication of Zadan's loyalties. We must assume the rogue is in league with the assassin and further attempts will be made on Carnat and Caril."



"What of your inquiries in Jama?" the king asked.



"My men followed our most likely suspect, but now the man has slipped from view. He could be in Saadena conferring with Zadan, or he could be among the throng who plans to join the pilgrimage. There is no way to clear every individual who chooses to don the white and blue of a pilgrim. Don't forget, he made his last attempt while wearing a woman's dress. We cannot search every pilgrim, male or female, who matches his description, for weapons and poisons."



"But you have reported no trouble for the past week or so," Tagun reminded him.



"I can only say that no sign of the assassin had been seen in Janaka after Carnat moved to the palace. It has been easy enough to keep Carnat safe when his days revolved around the routine of translating the sacred scroll."



Tagun stood and paced, a sign of his perturbation. "You must find some way to ensure Carnat's safety before the pilgrims gather at Janaka's shrine in the morning to receive the blessing of the high priest."



"I have thought of a plan, but Tilla will not approve. She wants the procession to appear as a grand celebration with people of all ranks mingling on the pilgrim road. She warned me against making too much a show of my men, but it is forbidden for pilgrims to go armed. I want to arrange my men in a tight formation that will surround the the royal members of the procession.



"Do what you must," Tagun said, "but you have the right of it. Tilla will not like it, but she will like even less if an assassin finds his mark."



Barga returned to his office near the armory. A man was slumped wearily on the bench near his door. At first Barga hardly recognized the travel-stained garments and sunburned features, but the size and shape of the figure was unmistakable. "Durek!" he cried. "What news do you bring?"



"Give me water and food and you will soon be relieved of your concerns," the prince said with a weary smile.



An aide hastened to answer Barga's orders while the captain helped Durek into his office. "You must have run most of the way to weary yourself this way," he said.



"I knew I must reach you before the procession began," Durek replied. "The assassin and his accomplice are dead."



"Zadan?"



Durek shook his head. "It was another. Zadan has the makings of a decent man. He was offered a kingdom by the assassins, but betrayed them into my hands. I think his wife will be the making of him. There is other news, but this I share with you alone. The name of the assassin is Bodun, his accomplice Tolus. They approached Zadan when they thought he was alone and offered him a royal scalp. I executed both of them on behalf of the powers you and Carnat invested in me. We placed their bodies in a remote cellar and concealed the deed from the others in the palace. A trove of lost treasure was discovered and in the excitement, no further queries were made about the villains."



Barga raised his hand to Durek's shoulder in a gesture of comfort. It was evident the prince was still shaken by the necessity of taking human lives. "You and I and Zadan are the only ones who need to know the details if the miscreants are buried where they won't be found. You have relieved me of a great burden. Go and sleep and prepare for the pilgrimage. I will tell Tagun that you have discharged your vow."



Durek nodded. His concern about what happened in Saadena would continue, not because he had killed the assassins, but because when the moment came, there was not an instant of hesitation on his part, and when the deed was done, he felt no regret. Surely Tomak would have suffered pangs of remorse. It only proved to him that his brother was more fit to rule Zedekla than he could ever be. He stumbled wearily off to the bed Barga provided and slept until the sound of bells and zole horns woke the city before dawn.



When the rising sun shone on the plaza in front of the Janakan Shrine it was filled with white robed pilgrims waiting for Tagun to bless the errand. Most of the citizens of the city were prepared to join the procession that would return Irilik's Scroll of History to Timora. Those who remained behind turned out to bid the others farewell with showers of flower petals and cheers of encouragement. There were palanquins only for the old and crippled. All others walked, as pilgrims had done for centuries.



The procession left the city in ordered ranks with the priests and kings going in the vanguard. Tagun, Farek and Carnat, the three kings of Okishdu, took turns bearing the sacred scroll in a case of gold inscribed with the name of the prophet Irilik. They were surrounded by young men with eyes alert for any who might try to damage or steal the precious artifact or attack the royal party. Tomak and his brothers were joined by Barga and Okagun and a host of other sturdy youths who had taken a special vow to protect the scroll. Caril walked in their midst. Usually she walked with Tomak, and he learned to school his emotions when she spent a few minutes with others. He noted with approval that though she joked and exchanged teasing remarks with his brothers and her cousin, she never flirted with any other man. She reserved her intimate confidences and special smiles for him.



Barga was relieved that there was no longer an urgent need to watch for the assassin. The men he had alerted to guard the kings were spread in a greater circuit with general instructions to maintain the peace.



Tilla's preparations had been thorough. Near the end of each day of travel, a well appointed campground came into view. At each stop more pilgrims joined the throng. The swelling ranks of eager celebrants had been anticipated and none went hungry, none feasted. All ate the journey bread and meat washed down with water that was the traditional fare of pilgrims.



"This is a costly enterprise," Tomak said to Tagun as he looked over the throng that already exceeded the greatest armies that had ever been gathered in Okishdu.



"Among the arrangements Tilla made was the agreement of the owners of those lands we traverse to provide for us while we are on their soil. Your father was generous and I received an unexpected donation that can be credited to you. The banker Barclu, one of the wealthiest men of Janaka, gave a substantial offering."



As they approached the plains of Zedekla, where they would present the second copy of the scroll to the Zedeklan shrine, Carnat became silent and distracted. Finally he sought out Farek. "Could I visit the room where the Stone of Truth is kept while we are in your city. I must know if my heart is pure before I take the risk of returning to Saadena. I have done evil most of my days. I must be sure I am worthy to assume the task of helping my people."



Farek had come to like and respect the man he had once despised. "You may visit our testing room. I think it would be well for Caril to take the test as well. It will give her confidence that she will make a fit queen of Zedekla."



It was autumn and the fields had been harvested. The spread of tents before the gates of Zedekla was greater than the city within the walls. Tomak and Caril, Carnat and Nara, and Tilla and Tagun accompanied Farek when he went to find his queen and show the others into the chamber where the Stone of Truth was kept.



Caril and Carnat had expected a large stone in a special setting, instead they entered a room that seemed lit only by a tiny hole in the wall through which sunlight streamed.



"I can't see the stone," Caril announced with a deep sense of sorrow.



"What do you see?" Tomak asked.



"There 's an inscription around the walls. Do you see it Carnat?" Caril asked.



"I see the inscription in the light from the hole in the wall, but I have also failed the test of seeing the stone of truth," her father murmured with sorrow for his failure.



"There is no hole in the wall," Tomak told them. "The stream of light you see comes from the Stone of Truth. This is a sacred experience and must not be told to others. There are those who would counterfeit what they have seen. Some claim that they see a large stone glowing like the moon. It seems that the more profound their darkness, the more elaborate their lies. There is no light in this chamber except the light provided by that tiny stone."



Carnat returned to the camp with a serene smile on his face. His doubt had been laid to rest. With such a tool to use in choosing her rulers, it was no wonder that the city of Zedekla continued strong and wisely ruled through the centuries.



The pilgrims from Zedekla added a third to the size of the throng. They no longer walked the roads, but formed a sea of joyful humanity that surged over fields and built temporary bridges over the rivers. The human tide following the royal families of Janaka, Zedekla and Saadena were joined by people of Taleeka and Tedaka. Doka had joined the pilgrimage with his family and other pilgrims. He conferred with Carnat about the future of Saadena as they walked together.



Doka's wife, Placine, told Caril about Neril's visit to Tedaka and a firm friendship grew between the graceful princess and the plump little grandmother in the days it took to reach the sacred vale of Timora.



At last they topped the last rise and the great oval of the sacred lake gleamed like a turquoise in the valley below. On the far shore, the city of Timora glistened in the morning light. By midday the kings were at the gates and a line of shrine servants streamed from the city, their voices raised in a hymn to the Radiance. The pilgrims heard the familiar melody and joined in singing. It seemed the very earth gave voice as the song rose from the multitude that stretched for miles along the shores of the lake.



As a son of Elianin, as foretold in the prophecy of Irilik, Carnat was given the honor of bearing the scroll into the city and up the main way to the sacred library. His hands trembled as the song ended and a profound silence accompanied his progress. There was suddenly a whisper of comment from every side and he sensed movement beside him. He glanced to the left and saw Nara. She bore a white staff topped with a foot long piece of deep green jade carved in the shape of a notched leaf. It was the Blade of Neril, created by the hands of Janaka's finest craftsmen to honor the saint.



Carnat had never been in Timora, but the way to the shrine and the library lay clear ahead of him. It was the only path not obstructed by crowds of smiling people. Mothers and fathers held their small children aloft to catch a glimpse of the return of the Lost Scroll, the History and Prophecies of Irilik.



While he climbed the steps of the shrine, Carnat saw two people come from the back of the shadowed porch of the shrine. They were ancient and only the shining bald pate and wispy beard of one of them told that they were a man and woman. They stepped toward Nara and accepted the symbol of Neril from her hand.



"The Lost has been found. Let all honor the one who made this day possible," the man said in a surprisingly strong voice. He carefully climbed a scaffold set against a pillar of white stone and slipped the end of the staff into a slot cut in the top of the pillar. The staff slid down until only the green jewel was visible.



"You have come a long way Carnat, husband of Neril," the ancient Seeress said with a smile. Her husband joined her and they turned back toward the library. Carnat followed them into the great chamber where crystal cases enclosed the other scrolls. The empty case stood open, waiting to be filled. Carnat slipped the scroll from the golden case and carefully unrolled it on the flat surface that encompassed its entire length. Then he stepped back while officials of the library lowered the long lid of joined crystal that would protect the ancient writing while leaving it visible for study and copying.



As evening fell, a long line of pilgrims continued to file past the complete set of scrolls. Scribes were already busy making transcriptions of the History of Irilik. Those who had helped in the copying of the scroll in Janaka were invited to dine with the High Priest Manchek and his wife Kemila. Tagun asked that Barga and Durek be included and was quickly accommodated. He could not name the service they had done, but his voucher was sufficient to guarantee their welcome.



Tomak greeted his grandparents with fondness and introduced Caril.



"Welcome Caril, I imagine others have told you how you resemble your dear mother," Kemila said as she took the offered hand. "She had a pure and shining spirit. She was both brave and beautiful."



"And enterprising," Manchek said with a fond chuckle of remembrance. "When she came to Timora, every person with a claim to fashion wanted one of the serpent skin sacks of scented sand she designed."



An old man standing nearby gave a little laugh. Caril turned toward him, wondering where she had seen him before. He was dressed in the robes of a member of the Sacred Council but he carried a Mareklan staff. It was the staff that tweaked her memory. "Sergon?" she ventured. "I have not seen you since I was a child. You used to visit me and tell me stories."



The old Mareklan nodded. "Yes, Caril, I wanted to make certain you had some idea of who your mother was. The stories I told you were true. Neril was a young woman worth knowing, especially by her child." He turned to Tomak. "Perhaps you remember me. I have long known that you would someday find a woman to match your first love."



Tomak blushed as he remembered again his childish demand that Neril should marry him. She had stamped her image on his memory. His fingers went again to one of the tiny toys he habitually carried. He would share them with Caril and their future children.



Sergon turned and found Carnat in the group. "I forgive you, as I know she did. There was a destiny laid on her. Even though I thought I had saved her from the fate the Seers had pronounced, I only delayed the day of reckoning."



His words brought tears to the eyes of most of those who heard them. Manchek broke the mood of gravity. "Let us remember her with joy."



Those like Sergon and Carnat who had shared significant parts of Neril's life, responded to the questions of the others. Sergon's humor set them laughing as he told about her adventures on the trek.



Nara took a serious tone when she described how Neril had clothed and fed the people of Saadena with her gift of spearleaf. "But more than the food and clothing, her greatest gift was the restoration of our hope. Fedder prepared a scroll that told all he knew of her life and contributions to our people. The Council will decide whether it deserves a place in the Hall of Sacred Memories."



When the evening was drawing to a close, Caril drew near to Kemila and requested a brief audience with her. The future happiness of Carnat and Tagun continued to weigh on her mind. As she followed the high priestess into a small chamber where they could have a moment of privacy she gave a brief prayer.



"What is your request Caril?" Kemila asked after the door was shut and they were alone.



"After the death of his wife Selendra years ago, Tagun vowed not to remarry, and he has kept his vow in virtue even though others assumed I was his child by Tilla. I honor him for the sacrifice he made, yet the gossip has kept Tilla from finding a husband. I know they would both be happier if they shared holy bonds instead of an unsavory reputation that cheapens their integrity."



Kemila smiled and nodded but she did not interrupt as Caril struggled to put her further thoughts into words.



"On the other hand, my father Carnat needs a wife to help him as he undertakes the rehabilitation of Saadena. I know he and Nara are fond of each other, but perhaps neither dares hope their affection is returned. I have a plan, but I need a wiser head than my own to tell me if I err," Caril admitted.



She told the kindly woman her plan and Kemila smiled and nodded. "It might succeed. I've observed the couples you've described and I agree that a nudge in the right direction might be all that is needed to provide for their happiness."



The next morning dawned fine and clear. A smile lingered on Caril's lips as she bathed and was helped to dress in the robes of a bride. She exclaimed with delight over the fine embroidery and design of her gown, gratifying Tilla with her praise.



Then she returned to her room and fastened the lock, shutting herself in. When Tilla came to remind her that the palanquin that would carry her to the main shrine was waiting, Caril said she wouldn't leave her room.



"But I thought you were eager for this marriage," her foster mother said with exasperation.



"Bring Carnat, Tagun and Nara and I will consider coming out of my room," Caril said through the grilled opening in the sturdy door. Tilla hurried away, a crease of concern etched into her brow. It would not do to have Caril come this far amidst all the expectations of thousands of eager supporters and have cold feet at the brink of the nuptial chapel.



The four people met outside Caril's door soon after. "We're here, just as you asked," Tilla called.



"Good, then I am going to ask each of you for a gift on my wedding day. Both my father's have need of good women to help them. Both of them have such women near at hand. I will come out of my chamber if Carnat will marry Nara and Tagun promises to marry Tilla and take away the shame that stains her honor. You can exchange your vows after I marry Tomak."



The four of them looked around at each other with chagrin.



"I'm waiting," Caril reminded them.



"You can't force affection," Tilla said with studied calm. Her air of unconcern was belied by her busy fingers which nervously pleated and picked at the fragile lace of her handkerchief.



"She couldn't force my affection for you, my dear," Tagun said as he took her hand and held it in his calloused grip. "As you know, my wife Selendra is always in my memory, but she would not begrudge my happiness."



"I would not marry you just to please another, even one as dear as Caril," Tilla replied.



Tagun persisted, his well known obduracy serving him well. "Please marry me, not because Caril wishes it, but because I love you."



Tilla turned a radiant face to him but she could give no coherent answer through her quivering lips. Fighting back tears of joy, she bent her head to meet his brow and nodded. He took her in his arms and nodded at Caril who watched them through the grill. "Thank you."



Carnat, encouraged by Tagun's success, moved closer to Nara and reached for her hand. "I feel the same about you Nara. I had thought my life nearly over, but now I realize that with you as my wife, I face a future of challenge and joy." He touched Nara's bent head with a tender gesture that spoke as clearly as his words of his affection.



There was silence for a moment. Tilla regained her composure and looked toward Caril. "We accept your conditions and will marry, as you ask. Now you must come out of your room and prepare for the wedding."



"Nara has not spoken for herself," Carnat reminded the others.



"I cannot accept the condition," Nara said hesitantly. "I have grown fond of Carnat, but I still need time to be sure of him. I have young children who still honor the memory of their father. I can't risk the possibility of a bad marriage." Her glance at Carnat was anxious, but he nodded and squeezed her shoulder gently to show that he took no offense from her words.



"Nara is right," he admitted. "It has been a short time since I was forced to forsake the false comfort of selan and began to take responsibility for my life. I still need to prove myself worthy of another good woman. I failed Neril, I must be certain I will not make the same mistake again."



"But what of Caril's refusal to come out if we don't agree to her terms?" Tilla wailed. She was answered by the clicking of a lock as Caril prepared to open the door.



Caril extended her hands to Tilla. "I have already accomplished more than I had hoped. I am sorry to have caused you additional worry Tilla, but I am glad you agreed to my demands. In truth, if you had been obdurate, I would have given way. I truly love Tomak and nothing would have kept me from our wedding today."



"You are a minx," Tilla pouted, but there was a twinkle in her eye and she nestled close to Tagun's side. "How can we carry out your demand of marrying so soon? I have spent countless hours over every detail of your nuptials. There is no time to make a change."



"Kemila has advised me," Caril said. "Since you are a widow, the robes and veils of a young bride won't be needed for your ceremony. There will be provisions made for us when we reach the Shrine."



"She is as wily as her mother," Carnat said in mock complaint as Caril linked arms with her two kingly fathers and hugged them to her. "Tomak should be warned."



The people who gathered to witness the marriage of the Prince of Zedekla and the Foundling Princess were treated to the sight of two blushing brides and their happy grooms stepping out of the nuptial chapel of the Great Shrine and waving their arms from the balcony. The sight was greeted with hearty approval by the pilgrims from Janaka and the cheers of the people rang through the city and into the countryside beyond.



Tilla had made provision for the wedding feast with no thought that she would be an honored guests. Meats and breads and fruits of every kind, delicacies from the sea and desert and exotic tidbits from the southern jungles made a bounteous spread that was plenty for the multitude. For this one meal of celebration the pilgrims were absolved from their rule of simplicity.



It was not yet dusk when the two brides were led away from the feast by two of Kemila's several daughters. The high priestess had provided bridal bowers for both of the couples. After a ritual bath in the Janakan clan house and dressing in simple robes of embroidered zilka cloth, Caril and Tilla were taken to separate destinations. Tilla was taken to a cottage hidden away in one of the orchards that surrounded the vale. Caril wondered what she would find when she finally reached the place the Kemila had chosen for her nuptial retreat. A maiden scattered a trail of night blossom petals behind the covered palanquin that conveyed Caril into the countryside.



Curiosity gave way to the fatigue of the long exciting day as the palanquin proceeded long after Caril had expected it to stop. Her head fell back on the pillow and she dozed. She came awake with a start when the litter was lowered.



One of her attendant maidens grasped her hand to keep her from stepping off the narrow track when she left the litter. She had been carried to a rocky promontory that overlooked the sacred vale. A rustic rock hut with a roof of nop bark balanced on the brink of the overhang.



Caril was led into the low-ceilinged room. There were only two openings; the door through which she had entered, and a wide window that overlooked the lake and the city beyond. A fire of nop wood warmed and scented the air. The furnishings were simple; a table with two chairs, a set of shelves that held a number of covered containers, and a wide couch spread with the finest of bed linens and puffy quilts.



Caril turned to thank her attendants and found herself alone. How had Kemila known of her love of small, high places? There could be no more perfect place than this to spend the first days and nights of her marriage. She wondered how long it would take for Tomak to follow the trail of petals to this aerie above the lake. Would he linger at the feast? Worse yet, would he be so fascinated with the company of friends and old comrades who had come to see him married that he would forget the purpose of the festivities?



She knew her fears were foolish. She stilled her spirit by sitting on one of the carved chairs and gazing out the wide window. The sound of a waterfall in the woods behind the hut tempted her to explore, but she did not want Tomak to come and find her gone.



On the lake below bands of golden light danced across the deep blue surface of waves as they caught the last rays of the setting sun. A movement on the mountainside caught her eye and she rose with joy. It was Tomak, tracking the path of petals to find her. She greeted him with open arms and when he finally released her from his embrace she said"I had begun to wonder if you lost your way."



"Nothing could have kept me from finding you Carila." She looked at him for a moment with confusion then smiled. "I had forgotten that in marrying a Zedeklan prince I changed my name. But I think the sacrifice is worth the prize."



For three days the bridal couples stayed in seclusion while the pilgrims who had accompanied the scroll to Timora visited the shrines and libraries and purchased small mementos of the pilgrimage.



Docanen and Thalon, friends of Neril's on the trek, had set their stands up in the market square and provided leaf shaped pendants worked in green stone strung on thongs as well as tiny golden scroll cases and leaves of gold or green gems strung on fine chains. Even the most humble of the pilgrims could afford to purchase the smaller pendants and before long their stands were the center of a crowd.



"I was fortunate that I listened to you last year when you designed these amulets and suggested that I make an ample supply of them," Docanen told Thalon as they unpacked more of the jewels.



"I had a dream of Neril wearing such a necklace. Now I believe it was a visitation to prompt me for this trek," Thalon said.



"She always had a good sense for the market," Docanen reminisced with a smile. Neither man thought it strange that a saint would care about merchandise. After all, she was Mareklan, although the two men were among the few of their people who still used her name and acknowledged her sacred status.



Garen and his cronies had been filled with anger when they saw the cargo Docanen and Thalon brought to Timora in their packs. They predicted disaster. Now their own stands were bare of custom as the pilgrims eagerly purchased the tokens they had derided.



Geran's hesitated over asking permission of Thalon to adapt some of the green jewels he had stocked to the design that had proved so popular. He had been the first to criticize Neril's friends for honoring her, but it was becoming evident that he would have no profits if he did not follow their example. As he pondered his problem, a passageway opened through the crowd surrounding the stands and the newly married Prince of Zedekla and his bride approached the Mareklan merchants.



"She might have been my daughter," Geran sullenly asserted as he watched Carila.



"Never," Thalon said. "Carila reflects the best of both of her parents. I wondered if Neril ever loved Carnat. Now that I see Carila, I believe she was the child of a great love."



He knew his words would aggravate Garen. The failed suitor had tried to bully Neril into marrying him. He had done everything in his power to remove the memory of Neril and her works from Mareklan history. Even her name was becoming anathema among those who followed Garen's lead.



Carila noticed the glowering presence of Geran and felt a shiver run down her back before she looked quickly away and smiled up at Thalon. "Sergon told me you were a friend of my mother. It was you who carried the great snake around your neck at Rubble Ford."



Thalon rubbed his neck as he remembered the weight of the huge reptile they had used to purchase their passage. "What other tales did that old rascal tell you?" Thalon asked. "I suppose he told you how she defeated me at a game of Droka and won my obsidian blade?"



Carila smiled and nodded. She liked this huge man with his friendly grin and easy ways. He would be worth cultivating as a friend. Many were shy of her royal status. It would be even worse now that she had married Tomak. "You must visit us whenever you are in Zedekla. I would have you as a friend."



"Of course I will be your friend." Thalon said. "In the name of that friendship I would like to present you with this necklace. I dreamed of Neril this past spring. I think she meant this meeting to occur." He showed her a beautiful spearleaf of carved sapphire hung from a serpentine gold chain.



"It is a gift worthy of a princess," Tomak said. "I'm sure this is the finest of your selection Thalon, but my sisters will never forgive me if I don't obtain something like it for each of them. Name your price."



Thalon laughed, the tenor sweetness of his voice ringing through the marketplace. "I recall a similar scene that took place nearly twenty years ago between Neril and your grandmother Kemila. I will accept whatever price you name."



None of the gem quality necklaces had been sold because most of the pilgrims had limited funds and settled for more humble materials. Tomak glanced at his wife's face. His decision was made.



"I refuse to pay less than the price of an oda of prime Zedeklan land for any of the jewels I choose."



Thalon breathed a sigh of relief. It was a generous price but not beyond the purse of those who appreciated jewels of such quality. He and Docanen quickly displayed their finest work. As Tomak made his selection, Carila spoke to the merchants.



"Kemila mentioned the packets of scented sand that became a fashion when Neril visited Timora. Is it possible that one of you still sells them?" Carila asked.



"Yes, the market for snakeskin bags of scented sand has remained small but steady," Docanen told her. "Strangely, it is here in Timora, where water is plentiful and even the most humble home has a bathing room that the sand sells best. I have two packets left."



"May I purchase them?" Carila asked.



"No, Thalon gave you the necklace. I insist on making gifts of scented sand to you and your husband," Docanen said.



Carila glanced at the growing pile of jewels her husband was selecting as he considered the desires of sisters, aunts and cousins and she decided that the merchant would have an ample profit even if he gave her the sand. She nodded and accepted the fragrant packets.



Thalon's tall young son, Makon, was making his first trek and it might have been supposed that Prince Tomak and his lovely bride would keep his attention. Instead, he looked away from the royal couple when he heard the sound of Sergon's voice. It wasn't the retired Mareklan he was interested in. Sergon's granddaughter, Lissa, was the object of his searching gaze. He had met her only briefly, but he was already fascinated. He wondered if she would be willing to return to the Homeplace someday. If not, perhaps he would follow Sergon's example and make Timora his home.



He glanced toward Geran who constantly urged that all women of Marekla descent should be hidden in the Homeplace. He doubted that Lissa would welcome confinement in the valley. He caught sight of her braids, artfully twined with flowers that matched her gown and all thought and worry was swallowed up in emotion.



When the royal couple finally quit the marketplace, Geran slammed his staff against the ground and spat. "The nameless one is honored and a clever counterfeit has been accepted as scripture. When we return to Marekla I will tell the council of this travesty. No true Mareklan will accept the forgery."



Thalon glanced around at the other merchants and saw the indecision in their faces. The twenty years that had passed since Neril had been captured in Saadena had made a mark on the valley they called the Homeplace. Geran cultivated a deep resentment for the rejection Neril had dealt him. With the aid of Belil, his wife, Geran had found a power base in the council.



Thalon wondered if he and Docanen would be forbidden to create and sell the spear leaf pendants that had proved so profitable on this trek. He saw Docanen glance nervously toward him and felt sorrowful resignation. Even such a stalwart as his old friend was cowed by Geran's bullying.



Thalon was the only Mareklan merchant who dared to defy Geran and attend the ceremony in the Shrine that evening when Neril's name was entered formally in the lists of those who were accepted as saints. Her history, written by Fedder and preserved by Kana, with additional commentary provided by Sergon, was accepted in the sacred library.



Sergon and Thalon listened to excerpts from the record of the life of Neril read by the Seeress. It was an unusual event for one of the Seers to speak publicly, but this was an occasion that warranted the honor. The woman reading looked up before beginning the written record and referred to her own memories. "I met Neril when she came to Timora on the Day of Consecration that year. She brought scented sand to the shrine and presented it to us. She was a lovely young girl, shy and filled with wonder at the sight of the great throng gathered to worship." The Seeress smiled, her elderly face radiant with the memory.



She turned then to the notes Sergon had made about the trek. He had given them into the keeping of the Shrine to be kept along with the scrolls that Fedder had written of the way she had come to Saadena as part of a Mareklan merchant band. The old chaplain had not spared Carnat or himself in the story of how she was trapped and drugged and put through a false ceremony of marriage in the hidden garden of the palace.



Sergon's tears were wet on his cheeks as he once again considered how Neril had overcome such a baleful beginning to her life in Saadena. Crippled and alone, she had ventured forth to clothe and feed the harvesters of selan. She had defied the power of Queen Challan who held all others in her fearful scheme and she taught the harvester children about the Radiance.



Carila had heard some of the story from Carnat and others, but she stood a little straighter when she heard of how her dying mother had sent her forth in the arms of Tilla. She had been granted two mothers whose examples of love and duty would serve her well as a wife and queen.



Carnat stood without weeping. Instead of mourning, he was remembering the days and months of his time with Neril. For the first time in nearly a score of years, he was elevated above the remorse and self disgust that had nearly crippled him. The symbol chosen to symbolize Neril's sainthood seemed fitting in every way. The clear green of the slender jade leaf caught the light of torches and seemed to flicker like green flame. Exalted by the experience, Carnat was hardly aware of those who pressed around him to listen to the voice of the Seeress as she ensured Neril's place in Okishdu's Sacred Chronicles.



Nara reached for Carnat's hand. She recognized the warmth she was beginning to feel for the lonely man at her side. It had not taken Carila's mischief to reveal the love she felt, but Carnat was far from being free to return her love. He would never escape the burden of his abdication to Ayarlan, but the work he had begun at restoring freedom to his people would go far to heal the pain. She could wait. Meanwhile she was happy to share his devotion for Neril.





Chapter 15 Homecoming





Within a week copies of the History and Prophecies of Irilik were made for shrines in the principal cities and towns as scholars congregated in the library to insure that scrolls made by the scribes were accurate in every detail.



The bridal couples prepared to return to their homes. Carila and Tomak were still making discoveries and although the days were filled with joy, both of them had strong and decisive personalities that sometimes clashed in a test of will.



On the morning chosen for their departure Carila took one last look around the cozy room and spent several minutes gazing out over the lake to the sacred city. Tomak had confided in her that his family owned the hut and he had used it as a hunting lodge in his boyhood. "Will you promise me that we can return?" she asked.



He looked away, then met her eyes. "You know it will be different for us now. When we visit Timora in the coming years our days will be filled with ceremonial duties. It is traditional for the rulers of Zedekla to stay in the family home near the Shrine."



She bowed her head and did not argue. Her attitude softened him more than tears or pleading ever would. He had become accustomed to her quick and sometimes tart replies. "We will find a way to spend time here alone," he said.



Carila smiled. "Thank you. You will not be sorry you have granted me this boon. I know too well that we both have enemies. I have seen the footprints of the men who guard us when I visit the waterfall each morning. We buy our seeming privacy at the price of hours of our servants' faithful service."



Tomak smiled. "I should have known you would understand my concerns. I promise you I will do everything I can to lighten the burden of royalty."



Instead of letting servants carry her down the precarious path in a litter, Carila had chosen to walk since the first day they had ventured forth. She kept the pattern as they left their bridal bower and set off to meet Tomak's family and the Janakans who had gathered on the road below. She carried a compact bundle and left Tomak to carry a larger package.



When Tilla saw them she gave a scandalized exclamation and summoned Nefer. "Take the package away and tidy Lady Carila's hair," she directed.



"Nefer is no longer my governess," Carila gently reminded her stepmother. "We have many miles to travel this day. We shouldn't try to tame my curls so early in the journey."



"I have provided a palanquin for you to ride in," King Farek said.



"Nefer is old, let her take the litter. I would prefer to walk with Tomak, if that will not displease you," Carila appealed to her father-in-law.



Farek preferred that Carila should be carried to Zedekla in a covered palanquin, a mode of travel used by his wife Ranila, and their daughters, but when he glanced at Tomak for support, he realized that his son backed Carila's choice. "Very well, Nefer will ride."



At first the younger members of the group outpaced their elders. After a few hours of trading quips with her brothers-in-law and Okagun, Carila dropped back to walk with Tagun and Carnat to listen to their discussion of the problems Carnat would face after he returned to his city. Durek was tempted to join the two kings, but he had already decided to return to Saadena with Carnat. There would be plenty of time for them to talk while they made their way westward after the parties were split.



Tomak, tiring of his brothers' playful jibes, dropped back to walk with his father. There had seldom been a better opportunity for the king to share his wisdom with his son. Sometimes they joined the other kings. Carnat had agreed with Tilla's plan that he would wait until he was back in Saadena to formally resign his royal title. It was already evident, however, that he would not be allowed to resign leadership. He was humbled by the expectations of his people and sought every chance to get advice from Farek and Tagun, two men who had proved their merit as leaders.



They did not hurry their pace. At night tents were erected to provide privacy for the various royal couples. Many of the others slept in large common tent, and the young men bedded down near the campfires, murmuring late into the night.



Their elders did not complain, indeed, it was the only way to keep the youths from ranging far ahead during the day. After a late night, Okagun and Tomak's brothers were glad to keep the slower pace set by the royal palanquins. Okagun, especially had reason to slow his pace. He spent much of his time with Tomak's sisters; Thelina, a beauty with every grace to make him want her for his queen, and Medana, a sprite who kept him laughing. He was thoroughly confused by his conflicting feelings for the sisters, but there was time enough, he thought, to enjoy Medana's wit while thinking that Thelina would receive his addresses.



Farek often walked by the side of the litter that carried his wife, Queen Ranila. Although she was hidden from view behind the curtains of her litter, one of her hands was usually visible, held by Farek as they talked.



The time Carila spent with Tomak's parents reassured her that Zedekla would become the home of her heart. The example of his parents proved that love could mellow and grow deeper once it no longer burned almost painfully bright.



While the pilgrims rested on the day before they reached the fork in the road that led into the hills of Tedaka and Saadena beyond, Durek approached Carnat with Barga and offered his services to the Saadenan. "I have come to love your people," the prince said. "One in particular has won my heart. I will make Saadena my home until my brother Tomak has a greater need of me."



Tilek had followed Durek and when he heard his brother's offer to serve Saadena, he volunteered his services as well. Carnat could hardly summon the words to thank them for the offer.



When he hesitated, Barga mistook his motive. "They are excellent men," Barga told Carnat. "Both Tilek and Durek have prepared to serve with the Elite Guard, but I believe your need is greater."



Carnat assured the princes of his gratitude. "The arrogant courtiers who fawned on my mother Challan and my second wife, Ayarlan gave me the idea that royalty are haughty and proud. It continues to surprise me that the greatest among you are the least burdened with false pride. I welcome your help. I know virtually nothing of how to defend my people."



Carnat and Nara were joined by Durek and Tilek when they took their leave of the others at the fork in the road that led into the eastern hills. The brothers hunted small game and gathered roots and fruits as they passed through the wilderness, providing well for the small party of travelers and gathering provisions for the passage over the desert that separated Saadena from other lands.



The final journey over the desert surrounding Saadena gave Carnat time to wonder if Tilek would regret volunteering for duty in the vale. His experience of other cities made him sensitive to the deficiencies of his home. He rejoiced that the harvesters of selan no longer shambled numbly about their tasks. Instead, they seemed to exhibit the same purposeful spirit he had admired in the farmers of Zedekla and the woodsmen of Tedaka.



Carnat had been gone for little more than two months, but there were noticeable changes in the city. They had removed any of the rubble that did not yield a sizable surface for the growth of selan and used it to build tidy cottages and mend the rutted, ruined roads. Even the sound of their scrapers was different. It was rhythmic and brisk, providing a background for harvest songs.



The Shrine, long neglected by order of Ayarlan, shone white from recent cleaning. When he approached the door, Carnat heard the sound of splashing water and found that the ritual fountain had been restored. Cigna, dressed in the white and blue of his calling, was instructing a class of children.



Tilek could not know of how profound the differences seemed to Carnat. He was accustomed to industrious, happy workers and the shining whiteness of a Shrine. His eyes were drawn to the ruined remnants of the great bridge towers and other evidences of the earthquake that had nearly destroyed the city hundreds of years before. A line of men, dressed in motley portions of armor, were parading along the ramparts of the palace behind an officer Durek had assigned to the task before he left Saadena.



Although Tilek saw much to indicate that their skills were needed, Durek was impressed with the improvement they had made since he had first organized the guard. His interest lay in another direction for the moment. He could see a familiar figure walking toward the new cottages with a basket on her arm. It was Morla. He grabbed his brother's arm. "Come, there is someone you must meet."



They bid farewell to Carnat and hurried to intercept the stately healer. Tilek was surprised by his brother's eager pace. Durek had been reluctant to speak of the time he had spent in Saadena but Barga seemed to share some secret with Durek that Tilek burned to know. There was also the matter of the leather band that Durek wore on his wrist. When questioned about its significance, he had become, if possible, even more taciturn. Now they were rapidly approaching a tall, spare woman whose loose, smock-like dress gave little clue of her shape.



"Morla," Durek said when they had drawn close enough to speak. The woman turned and her ordinary features were transformed. If possible, the look of rapture she exchanged with Durek outshone the look on Carila's face when she emerged from the Timoran Shrine as Tomak's bride.



"This is my brother Tilek, but ignore his flattery. Remember, you are promised to me."



"You have my promise, but your brother will have my ears if he can find words to flatter such as I," Morla replied, her dark eyes gleaming like opals as she laughed.



Tilek, for perhaps the first time since he was a stumbling toddler, failed to find a ready reply. When he finally collected his thoughts they sounded artificial and insincere. "I want nothing more than to praise your beauty."



Morla and Durek collapsed into each other's arms and laughed together. Morla would not tell her beloved of how she had suffered from his absence. She had become certain that once he returned to Janaka he would realize that it was mere infatuation that had led him to give her his promise. He had returned to Janaka alone, and more than fear for his faithfulness, she feared the dangers of the trail. Now he was here, whole and by her side.



When he approached the palace, Carnat turned aside from the lane that led to the main entrance and moved toward the garden he had not entered since Neril had been buried there. It was time for him to make his peace with the shame and despair he had experienced at her loss. Nara walked at his side and reached out to touch his hand, giving silent assurance that she understood his hesitation. When he drew nearer, he saw that the door to the garden stood open. Kana and her children stood in the entrance, blocking his sight from what lay beyond. When she saw him, she beckoned and moved aside.



He stopped and stared. Then he moved forward, hardly believing what he saw. The garden his mother, Challan, had destroyed had been restored. Once again the fountain splashed in its midst. Spear leaf was still dominant in the corners of the garden, beyond the mist thrown up by the sparkling waterfall, but the fresh green of other rare plants and flowers, sprouting from seeds that had long lay dormant, carpeted the area around Neril's grave. Soapstone plaques had been set in a wall that curved in a semi-circle at the head of the mound.



Carnat stopped to examine them and turned to Kana. "Where did you find these engravings?"



"When we were excavating rubble to restore the fountain we found a stack of them. No one knows who made them, but they seem to illustrate the adventures of Neril."



"I made them," Carnat confessed. "I thought they had been destroyed by my mother's servants when she sent them to divert the fountain. Thank you for preserving them."



"They make a fitting memorial for Neril. Will you make others to show what she did for us?" Kana asked.



"Of course," Carnat assured her. He looked around the garden again and noticed a small house built close against the opposite wall of the garden. It was nearly hidden behind a dense growth of new vines and had escaped his notice at first.



"Who inhabits that house, and why was it built in the garden?" he asked.



"After you left to return to Janaka, we held a meeting of the harvesters. You have given us the castle, but those who knew of your story thought you would be happier living away from the scene of so much unhappiness," Kana explained. "We decided to build this house for you and your family. Carlan and Zadan have already moved into one of the bedrooms."



Nara stopped to visit with her sister while Carnat warily approached the house. He had wondered how to approach Carlan when he returned to Saadena. She had clearly dismissed him when he had left for Janaka and he knew he deserved no better from her. His heart yearned for another chance to love her as a father should.



As he pondered how to address her, Carlan appeared in the doorway with Zadan close behind. The crippled rogue leaned on a crutch and his powerful body was gaunt with the effects of recovering from his wounds. "Welcome to your humble home," he said with a wry grimace.



Carlan raised her hand to his arm and pressed it. He shook his head. "Forgive my poor manners. Carlan is trying to train me to be more civil."



"Welcome Father. We've been waiting for you to come and wish us well on our new enterprise," Carlan said. Carnat looked at the small pile of belongings that lay next to some packs in the entrance hall. His heart fell as he realized that Carlan was planning to leave Saadena.



"Please do not go yet," he entreated her. She hesitated on the threshold, looking toward Carnat who stood with his hands extended to her, finally she left the shelter of her husband's arm and stepped forward, taking Carnat's hand as a sign of forgiveness.



"We must leave before the snows close the passes to our new home. We're going to the wilderness on the borders of Tedaka and Zedekla," Zadan explained as he hobbled over to join them. "I've decided to become a woodsman. I've heard there are caves where we can spend the winter."



"But you are still weak from your wounds and Carlan has never been out of Saadena," Carnat protested. "It will be several more weeks before the snows close the passes. It has been a warm autumn. I have only recently begun to value Carlan as I should."



Carlan felt torn between her urge to leave Saadena and all it represented to her, and the chance to test Carnat's pledge that he valued her. She looked toward Zadan and waited for his decision.



"Tomak's brothers have come with me to train the harvesters in self defense. They will need to return to Zedekla before the winter comes. It would be safer if you waited and traveled with them," Carnat urged.



"Durek has returned?" Zadan asked. He smiled ruefully and turned to Carlan. "I have too many enemies to reject such an offer. We will stay a little longer."



Nara hastened to help them move their luggage back to their room. "I want to get to know you while I have the chance," she told Carlan as they carried a pack between them. "I avoided the palace for many years, but when I was happy when I heard that Perlin had befriended you. She is a good woman."



Soon the paltry belongings Carlan had packed were restored to the closets and chests in the room she shared with her husband. Nara asked the princess if she could help prepare the evening meal.



Left behind with Zadan, Carnat could find little to say. "You seem to be recovering well enough," he ventured.



"It is a wonder I can walk," Zadan growled. "Without Carlan's constant care and Morla's knowledge of healing, I would have been a dead man or a complete cripple. As it is, I am half the man I was."



"Do you love my daughter?" Carnat asked.



"She is my life," Zadan said.



"We have our love for Carlan in common. That is enough to go on," Carnat said. He noticed that Zadan's hands were clenched on the back of the chair he used to support himself. He was weary but unwilling to let down while there was another to witness his weakness. Carnat excused himself, "I must go and see how Yegar has proceeded in my absence."



Zadan chuckled, "You will be surprised. Durek must have told you that we found a lost treasure and from what we have seen of it, it was stolen from Queen Challan, and I think Morla has a secret of her own to share with you."



"No, I did not know about the treasure," Carnat said. "Durek is a young man of remarkably few words. This boon will go far to keep us fed and clothed this winter now that Urgit and his fellows have withdrawn their trade."



"They will return, but with Durek as your captain, you have little to fear," Zadan replied. "He is a good man."



Carnat was surprised at Zadan's opinion of the Zedeklan prince. He saw the line of pale compression that surrounded the rogue's lips and knew he was struggling to stay upright. "You'll have to tell me how you came to that opinion later."



Carnat heard the voices of Nara and Carlan coming from the back of the house accompanied by the odors of cooking. It would not be long before he was called to eat and he was eager to visit the palace. His words to Zadan had not been merely an excuse to leave the room.



He left the house the harvesters had built for him. It was small and made of rubble, but as he stepped over the threshold and out into the garden, he felt that he was leaving his home. It was a good feeling to have a home. The vast pile of masonry that had been built by his ancestors had never given him the feeling.



He was hailed from an upper window of the palace. He looked up and recognized Morla, with Durek at her side. "Come up, we have something to show you."



Her merry smile banished his hesitancy to enter the palace. As he walked toward the great eastern door he noted changes that had been effected in his absence. The garish ornaments of Marnat had been removed and the fine carving of an earlier era revealed. The door was open to the air and light but reinforced against the chance of another invasion. Once he had entered he saw that the renovation extended into the great hall.



The dissonance of Challan's gaudy taste in furnishings had been banished. Garrets and cellars had been searched and antiques from another era salvaged and refurbished. There was no sign of the trumpery of garish Jaman furniture, but two fine virdanan rugs were spread along the stone floor at the foot of the great staircase leading upwards to the former royal quarters.



Bemused, Carnat climbed the stairs. When he reached the upper floor he paused. To his left he heard hammering. The noises were coming from abandoned library. He walked across the hallway and hesitated. He had never visited the library again after the death of his father, but the sounds from within gave promise of the same renascence that had taken place in the rest of the palace. He opened the door and looked in.



He had expected the faint odor of old smoke, but the keen smell of fresh-cut nop wood met him. Three men were busy on scaffolds. They were attaching shelves to the high walls and a fourth was making a chest. Long rows of tablets were laid out on the floor in a part of the room that had not yet been reconstructed. He was tempted to go in and examine them, but Morla's voice caught his attention.



"Come King Carnat," she caught his right hand and Durek took his left arm. They propelled him out of the library and led him to a familiar door. He stopped at the entrance and would go no further.



"This was my father's room."



"Yes, and you must tell us what to do with your father's treasure," Morla urged.



"My father had no treasure but the library," Carnat said. A fresh shaft of pain assailed him at the thought of the great loss.



Durek did not bother to plead with the king. He used his considerable strength to urge him through the door of the room and turned him to face the crowded bins and shelves. "Your father knew what was best in the library, and from the looks of this hoard, he kept it near at hand."



Carnat moved forward, drawn by the lure of the gilded scroll cases and the faint odor of aged scroll cloth that he knew so well. Morla guided him to a chair and presented him with one after another of the scrolls. Now Carnat recalled his father's long established habit of visiting the library. This was the cream of the collection. Only one precious scroll had failed to catch Eliat's scholar's eye and that was the scroll Neril had found, deliberately concealed among lesser documents.



"How did you know the value of these scrolls?" Carnat asked.



"Carlan looked at some of them and told us they were valuable," Morla replied. "Fedder taught her the archaic language before he left the city. Her mother wanted her to be able to decipher charm spells she had purchased from the Jamans."



"Who ordered the restoration of the library?" Carnat asked Morla, a dawning suspicion lighting his eyes.



"I thought it would be fitting and made the suggestion to the council," Morla replied. "These are my quarters now, and I expect I will soon share them with a husband. It is past time these scrolls were restored to their proper place. The workmen tell me it will take another week before the library is ready to be used."



"That should be time enough." Durek smiled, his arm circling the healer with a telling gesture.



Carnat stood and extended his hand. "I see now that it was not just zeal to train a militia that made you so willing to return to Saadena, Durek. You both have my full support and best wishes. I am pleased with what you have done, Morla. The restored library will be a fitting memorial to my father. I'm certain he would wish no better."



Morla shyly ducked her head and accepted Carnat's hand. "I am your servant," she murmured.



"Not my servant, but my colleague. From what I have seen, you hardly need me to lead the council," Carnat said.



"We need you," Morla affirmed. "Tonight we will meet to give a report of our stewardship. Yegar is a good man, but he is a bit of a bully. Cigna and Miyan would like to be released from their responsibilities so that they may devote more time to their work at the Shrine. Even if you formally resign your throne, you should be named to a permanent post on the council and your influence would continue to be respected."



"But I have done nothing to earn their respect," Carnat said.



"You are a descendant of Elianin and none can deny the words of the Prophet," Durek said. "Until the river runs again, her lineage will lead the people of Saadena."



Both Morla and Carnat were surprised by his pronouncement. Durek saw their surprise and smiled. "I am not known as a scholar, but I remember the key points of what I hear. You must retain a position of leadership in Saadena, Carnat. In years to come, your sons and daughters will see the fulfillment of the prophecy."



Carnat frowned. "Carila will be queen of Zedekla, and Carlan has resolved to leave Saadena with Zadan. It seems that the prophecy might fail."



Morla laughed. "You are not a doddering old man Carnat. I have seen the way Nara looks at you. She has the potential to bear you a full quiver of sons."



"But she rejected me in Timora," Carnat said.



"Well she should!" Morla replied. "From what she told me, she was coerced by Carila. You have time enough to sweeten her attitude. Tell her pretty things about her eyes and teeth. That was how Durek won my heart."



It was Durek's turn to blush. Then they all laughed.



"I will leave you in custody of my father's treasure until the library is completed," Carnat said. "Then I intend to celebrate both your marriage, and the restoration. Now I must go and practice what you have taught me."



When Carnat returned to the small house in the garden, he was greeted by Carlan who smiled at him with a sweet expression that warmed him like the morning sun. How had he ever thought her plain? Even in the plain smock she was wearing, she had a delicate and regal beauty.



Zadan sat on a bench near the entrance to the house. He watched Carlan with unfeigned fondness. When he noticed Carnat he reached for his stick and stood. "I'm afraid I gave you a poor opinion of the healer when you saw me earlier," Zadan said.



"He spends the afternoon in rigorous exercises to restore his flexibility and strength," Carlan explained. "When you first came, he had just finished a round of calisthenics that would challenge any man."



"I had the impression you were on the verge of leaving when I interrupted you," Carnat said.



"When I leave here, I will carry what we need," Zadan explained. "What better way to practice for the journey?"



Carnat nodded. Having made the journey himself, he understood too well what challenges Zadan would face. "How well do you know Durek? You seemed to greet his return with favor."



"As I said. He is a good man," Zadan said. "A far better man than I am, if I'm honest."



"Then you will be happy to know that at the end of the week we will celebrate his marriage to Morla," Carnat said.



Carlan giggled and skipped over to hug her husband. "I knew the prince would speak when his other concerns were cared for. Morla is my friend. We must be here to rejoice with her when she is married."



Nara appeared at the door of the house with a cloth in her hand. "The meal is ready and I have presumed to invite myself. Carlan has a way with seasoning that would make verga root delicious."



Carlan's smile faltered, then returned with a touch of grim irony. "I gained a fine appreciation for herbs in the workroom of my mother," she said.



"Morla told me of another skill you learned," Carnat said. "I am proud of you for being able to recognize the worth of the things she showed you. Thank you for keeping the secret of your grandfather's hoard."



Zadan looked from Carnat to his wife and scratched his chin. "I knew of your grandmother's hoard and was tempted as I have never been before when I first caught sight of it, but what is this? Was there yet another lost treasure to be found?"



Carlan nodded. "I fear I am a true child of my father and grandfather. Reading has been my secret yen since I was very young. If I had known that Eliat had stored such fine scrolls in his room, I would have immured myself and died of hunger before coming out for food and water."



"Scrolls!" Zadan exclaimed. "You discovered a treasury of scrolls. Why didn't you tell me?"



Carlan ducked her head and blushed. "I made a promise to Morla, and I thought you would mock me for being a scholar."



Carnat exchanged a look with Zadan. The story of the great pile of slates he had submitted in the quest for Carila's hand was best concealed. Carlan would not want to know that he had been a prodigious scholar in such a cause. Instead the king simply said, "I'm certain you will find your husband shares your enthusiasm. I will give you a few of the scrolls as a wedding present. I've done nothing to celebrate your marriage."



Nara coughed to draw their attention. "However well we have seasoned the meal, it will taste better hot than cold."



They settled around the table in a congenial group. Now that the secret was out, Carlan was eager to discuss the scrolls. From what she had seen, she confirmed Carnat's estimate that Eliat had saved the best of the collection.



"He had many years to make his selection," Carnat said. "Challan dismissed him as a bumbling fool and made no attempt to supervise his visits to the library. I was harsh in my condemnation and never guessed that he was saving such a treasure."



Zadan asked if he could view the scrolls and it was significant of how far he had grown in Carnat's estimation that the king did not object. "The library is being restored. On the day that Morla marries Durek, we will dedicate it as a memorial to Eliat and remove the scrolls from the room she will share with her husband. We can use your help."



Nara looked around the table and knew this was a rare moment. She approved Carlan's decision to leave Saadena. As long as Zadan remained in the city, there were those who would remember what he had done when he abducted Carila and later challenged Tomak. The list of his crimes had not yet been compiled, but for any one of those she knew of, he might have been hung in Janaka or Zedekla. Durek had intervened with the council when the issue had been discussed and had vetted the rogue. The prince was a man of few words, but when he spoke, he was convincing.



When the meal was finished, Carnat walked to the palace with Nara. Her children met them on the path. Her son took Carnat's hand and aimed a stream of eager questions at the man they loved and trusted after he had helped rescue them from Tull.



Carnat had promised to meet with the council that evening and he parted reluctantly from Nara's family. It occurred to him that it would be a fine thing to look forward to returning to them each evening when his duties were done.



Nara's quarters were in the old palace but the council met in one of the state rooms near the great door. Morla met him in the corridor outside the room and noticed his worried look. "Remember, they look to you to give them approval or counsel. You have met other kings, borrow from them when you enter that room."



Carnat smiled and straightened his shoulders. He kept an image of Farek firmly in his mind when he followed her into the presence of the council. Yegar sat at the head of the table but he rose and took another seat as soon as he saw Carnat. Cigna smiled with genuine welcome. Carnat nodded and smiled in a way he had seen Tagun use as he took his seat.



"I have seen enough to know that you have been zealous in the service of our people," he announced, holding up his hand to stop Yegar from interrupting.



"As most of you already know, Durek has returned with me, along with his younger brother Tilek. They will continue to organize our defenses and train the guard and militia. I think Durek should serve on the council with us. All who approve please make the sign."



Yegar hesitated only momentarily as the others raised their hands, then he joined their unanimous vote of approval. As soon as the vote was taken, Morla stood and slipped away. She returned a minute later with Durek. Carnat was listening to Yegar who had compiled an exact report of every infringement of the rules the council had passed.



Carnat listened patiently, then he signaled silence and raised his eyes in thought. Up until recently there had been few complaints, but as the harvesters gained a sense of their independence, there was more conflict. "It would be well to establish another forum for minor problems," Carnat said at last. "I suggest that Cigna and Miyan be in charge of offenses against the sacred law, as found on the scroll of the compact in the Shrine. This would not be in addition to their seats on the council, but in lieu of meeting with us."



Cigna smiled and Miyan signaled her approval of the suggestion. Yegar raised his hand to make a protest. Carnat nodded to the man he had appointed as his lieutenant. He recognized that power had become a little too precious to Yegar.



"It would be unwise to distribute the power to judges beyond this council," Yegar argued. "We must not lose the counsel of the Shrine Servants."



Durek leaned forward and caught Carnat's eye. The king nodded and the prince sorted out his words with deliberation before proceeding. "I was about to ask that infringements of the military rules be left to the commanders of the militia and the guards. Yegar and the rest of you are busy people with much to do. If you must pass judgment on every petty matter, your time will be wasted and the community will suffer."



Yegar was stymied. If he contradicted Durek's words, he implied that his time and talents were not of value to the city. Morla gained Carnat's approval to speak.



"Why should the council be concerned with every dispute and petty crime that violates our laws? We can appoint a judge and let him decide. If his judgments are disputed, the council will hear them, but if the judgment of the council concurs with that made by the judge, the miscreant will receive a doubled penalty. My helper Selda would make a good judge. She has wisdom and compassion, but she won't be swayed by sentiment."



Carnat nodded. "We will vote on Morla's proposal. First, who approves of having a separate judge who will be responsible to the council?"



The vote was almost unanimous. Yegar did not raise his hand, but when Carnat asked for the opposing vote, he abstained.



"Who approves Selda as our judge, providing she is willing to serve?" Carnat asked.



Yegar grinned. "Selda is my aunt. This will bring honor to our family." His hand was the first and highest in the unanimous vote. He volunteered to fetch her and introduce her to her new duties.



When he had left the room Carnat turned to Morla. "Was it wise to choose Yegar's aunt as judge?"



Binden smiled. "I doubt he'll have undue influence with her. She had barely escaped the influence of selan before she took both of us in hand and reared us. You are a remarkable man, Carnat. I had begun to doubt there was any need for you to return to Saadena, but in a few hours, you have strengthened and clarified our task. I propose we nominate you to a permanent post on the council and name you Guardian of Saadena." Her eyes turned to Durek and Morla. Carnat suspected a friendly conspiracy.



"We should wait for Yegar and Selda before we vote on the matter," Carnat said. The work of the previous hour had wearied him, especially the delicate business of dealing with Yegar in a manner that would not make an enemy of the man.



While they waited for Yegar to return they relaxed and exchanged observations on the construction in the palace. Pelaga, one of the members of the council chosen from those who had returned from Janaka, was given credit for much of the work. "I liked what I saw in Janaka, but I did not feel it fit our city," said.



"I studied the old plans that Yegar showed me. Much of what Marnat added was merely layered on top of older work. When we removed the tarnished remnants of his dubious legacy, we found much of the older work intact."



Yegar returned with Selda and as soon as they were seated, the old woman announced her acceptance of the office of judge. She chuckled. "Those scamps who give me little heed when I call them to account will soon rue their disrespect."



Binden presented her proposal that Carnat be permanently appointed to the council with a special title to distinguish him from the others. Yegar surprised Carnat with his quick consent to the idea.



"I'm sure there are other matters to discuss," Carnat said. "But Durek and I have come a long way today. We will meet again tomorrow in a public meeting and I will formally submit my abdication as king and accept your offer of a post as Guardian." He looked around and caught the eyes of the others. "I do this by fiat. My final act as monarch."



There was applause for his announcement. Many days had ended late while the council failed to reach agreement. Carnat had learned to lead his people.



When he left his home with Zadan and Carlan by his side the next morning He found the passage to the palace crowded with people. They cheered him as he walked to the top of the stairs under the great doors of the palace from which his ancestors had ruled for nearly a thousand years. He stood beneath the ancient crest of Saadena that had been revealed by Pelaga's patient craftsmanship.



When he raised his hands silence fell. "My people," he began. He stopped for a moment, his sight obscured by tears. He waited for his composure to return. "My people, I come before you to resign my reign and accept another office in your service. I am no longer king, but servant. From henceforth I will serve on the council that directs the government. I have been asked to take the post of Guardian."



Cigna stepped forward and extended his hands to cover Carnat's head. There was no precedent for the ceremony. For a hundred generations men had been named king and emperor in Saadena, but never before Guardian. Cigna's words were quiet, for Carnat's hearing alone. "This day was named in Fedder's prophecies. You will serve your people, and your sons and daughters will serve them after you until the river runs again."



When Carnat raised his hand in the oath sign the crowd shouted in affirmation. Binden had worked late into the night to plan the feast that followed. Carnat mingled with his people. He saw Carlan and Zadan standing at the side of the crowd and knew a moment of sadness. There was so little time left before they made their way out of Saadena. He found Nara and joined his daughter and her husband.



"I guess it's official now," Zadan mused. "I'm glad. Now that neither of your daughters can be used to gain the throne, my own head sits more easily on my neck." He would not tell Carnat of Bodun's threat that Urgit could replace him if he failed to agree to the assassination plan.



For an hour Carnat mingled with his people, but at last the lure of Eliat's trove drew him into the palace. Morla was in her clinic and gave him the key to her quarters. He spent an hour or so trying to make an inventory of the hundreds of stacked scrolls but it soon became evident that he could spend months on the task and years if he tried to make copies of the treasures the collection contained.



He knew now what his life's work would be. He locked the door and turned toward the library. The workmen had returned to their tasks and he ducked under the scaffolding and began to study the tablets that had been laid out on the floor. His excitement grew. He recalled Fedder's anxious efforts to divert him from his sorrow with the challenge of cataloging and cleaning the tablets that had survived when the library was burned. He was late to the task, but thank the Radiance, he had not waited until it was too late.



Chapter 16 Exile





Soon Zadan was strong enough to leave Saadena and Carlan began the final preparations for their journey. On their last night in Saadena, Carnat asked Zadan one last time to reconsider leaving the city. The rogue shook his head. "You know what I was, and what I will be again if I don't make a new start. Carlan has managed to convince me that any attempt to reproduce her mother's success with selan is doomed. Ayarlan bragged that all she knew was locked in her brain, but if I stay here, I'll probably try to duplicate her discoveries."



"We must go," Carlan said with a note of finality in her voice. She had rejoiced when the workroom burned, but as usual, her mother had lied. Zadan must never know that his wife could easily recall the formulas that she had learned at her mothers knee. By some strange quirk, she had inherited her grandmother, Challan's, remarkable memory. It was not Ayarlan who had kept the secrets of addictive selan.



Carnat looked at the two of them. They were an unlikely couple. Zadan had reverted to the rough tunic of a commoner and even with his wounded leg, he was physically imposing. Carlan's dress of pale yellow gown of zylka cloth showed signs of wear. She had pulled her hair into a knot at the top of her head.



Instead of giving her the illusion of maturity, it exposed her delicate jaw-line and shell-like ears. Her dark amber eyes were wide with silent appeal for her father's approval of her scheme. Carnat saw fear in the back of her gaze.



"I'll do what I can to help you," Carnat said. "I know Doka, headman of Tedaka, which abuts the wilderness lands. I could accompany you and see you settled for the winter. I need to visit Zedekla on a matter of my own." Carnat saw the anxiety ease in Carlan's eyes and knew she was grateful that he hadn't argued with her decision to leave Saadena.



Carnat wanted to retrieve the dowry that lay concealed in the embassy in Zedekla. With winter coming and no immediate income from selan, it could be exchanged for food and tools. The council had voted to keep the treasure discovered by Zadan and Durek as a treasury that would support the economy of the city in the years to come.



Tilek was eager to return home to Zedekla before winter closed the passes. Durek had elected to stay on in Saadena with his bride. His responsibilities on the council and as captain of the guard and militia would not allow his absence at the same time that Carnat was away from the city.



Although he walked with a limp, Zadan bore a heavy pack when they bid farewell to a crowd assembled to wish them well. The three others carried less but they were grateful to find a place to camp after their first day on the steep trail to Tedaka.



That night they talked by the campfire after Carlan had settled into an exhausted sleep, Carnat began to gain insight into the son-in-law he had once despised. Tilek listened, for once silent while Zadan mused about his childhood.



"I was raised by a troop of traveling entertainers, but I never knew my father. My mother was an acrobat and dancer with the troop. She told me several stories over the years to explain how I came to be. First she claimed to be the widow of a Janakan warrior. Later she said I was the result of a liaison with a Zedeklan prince. Later still, she said I was her sister's child."



"Then you never knew your father?" Tilek asked.



Zadan shook his head. "I decided it didn't matter who my parents were. I left the troop when she died and didn't need my support any longer. You can guess what followed."



"You became a thief and a murderer," Carnat said with a frown.



"I'll admit I was a thief, but I've never killed a man who didn't challenge me first, I won't count those I killed under Ayarlan's influence. You would have been the first exception to my rule against murder, Carnat. When I thought you were the only thing that stood between me and the kingship of Saadena, I planned to kill you."



"I can hardly judge you," Carnat said. "For nearly eighteen years I let myself be unmanned by drugs with the excuse that I was overcome by grief. Fools make excuses. I hope Carlan hasn't married a fool. I'm sure you hated Tomak for crippling you, but he made it impossible for you to continue as a criminal. Someday you may thank him."



Zadan grimaced as he extended his leg and examined the scar. "Prince Tomak is a self-righteous prig who couldn't even bring himself to bloody his sword with my death."



Tilek made a sound of protest, but Zadan's wolfish grin dared him to speak aloud. The prince decided to abstain. He recalled his own ridicule of Tomak's propriety.



"I love your daughter, Carnat," Zadan said, "and I don't mean the arrogant Janakan brat who plays chess with the hearts of men. Carlan is worth two of Carila. She knows what I am, but she's willing to follow me into exile and poverty. Carila will never face that choice."



Carnat's hand reached out to Tilek in the dark to show he did not share Zadan's views. Their eyes met in accordance. They could have argued the worth of Tomak and Carila or point out that in choosing Tomak, Carila had turned her back on the man she thought was a prince, but the royal pair had thousands of advocates and many powerful friends. Carlan and Zadan had only each other.



Zadan lightly caressed the pale cheek of his sleeping wife with a tender look in his eyes, then he dropped his hand from Carlan's cheek and put another chunk of desert brush on the fire. "We'll let you know how we get on," he said, "but I want your promise that you'll let us live in obscurity. I've made more than a few enemies in my days near the Or bridge. If they knew where I was, they would seek me out and my death could be the least that they would threaten."



Tilek and Carnat raised their hands in oath that they would not betray him. Zadan nodded with a wry smile. He had come far from being a brat with no father. Now royalty guarded his secrets.



Snow dusted the gray buildings of Tedaka when the small party approached the city. Headman Doka welcomed them and offered the hospitality of his home.



"We'll spend a few nights here for Carlan's sake, but we must find shelter in the border wilderness before the first big storm," Zadan said.



"One of my sons is a forester in that region. We expect him to visit soon. He would be your best source of information," Doka told him.



Doka's wife, Placine, took Carlan under her care. The first thing she accomplished was a significant addition of warm, practical, clothing to the young woman's sparse wardrobe. "I've long since outgrown these things and my daughter-in-law is too tall to wear them," she explained as she displayed several outfits off winter-worthy clothing. They were in sober colors but each had trim that gave a touch of color and grace.



Carlan looked at the gift with yearning but shook her head. "I cannot ask my husband to increase the load he carries."



"It is nothing," Zadan insisted. "I am only sorry that I couldn't provide for you myself. If I had the means you would be clothed in velvet and brocade. The least I can do is carry the gifts that Placine has offered."



As soon as Desta appeared and agreed to accompany them as guide, Zadan insisted that his wife and he would leave the next day. Doka produced some simple household furnishings and a few good tools as parting gifts that Desta would carry to relieve burdening Zadan further. Carnat murmured a prayer for their safety as the couple took the trail to the mountains with Desta as their guide



"I'll send someone to help her when the baby comes," Placine assured Carnat as they watched the little caravan dwindle with the distance.



Carnat turned to her astonished, "If I had known she was carrying a child I would have insisted they stay in Saadena."



"Perhaps that's why she didn't tell you. Don't worry. They'll take care of each other. The people who live where they are headed keep their distance most of the time, but when there's trouble, there are no better neighbors for helping out," Placine said.



Tilek easily found ways to amuse himself in Tedaka as they waited for an escort to Zedekla. It was too late to risk the trails with only two men. Even in Tedaka, late fall brought robbers to plague solitary travelers. Two weeks later a caravan of Tedakans carrying fuel to Zedekla was ready to depart. The road ran south of the mountains where Carlan and Zadan had chosen to make their home. The peaks already gleamed white with early snow.



When he finally reached Zedekla the prince assured Carnat he would find welcome at the palace. He sent Tilek on his way and turned aside to the Saadenan embassy. A far different aspect greeted him from the first time he had entered the aging building. The embassy was now staffed by a family of Saadenan refugees who had long made Zedekla their home.



They had avoided the embassy during Ayarlan's wretched reign, but they had volunteered their services when they learned of her death. Now the embassy shown with care and cleanliness. Bushes and flowering plants softened the outlines of the entrance. They welcomed Carnat as their king, and when he demurred and explained that he was now only a member of the council, their welcome grew even warmer.



After making certain that the dowry chest remained undisturbed, he bathed and dressed in fresh clothing in preparation to visit the palace. He was not kept waiting, but was shown directly to Farek's private study where Farek stood to greet him warmly then quickly sent an aide to find Prince Tomak and Carila.



Instead of being kept waiting for his daughter in the public chambers where the king made his judgments, he was led to a comfortable room in the family quarters and provided with refreshment of his favorite cheese-stuffed matlas and fresh nuka juice.



"I'll take you to Carila," Tomak said when he entered after only a brief delay. "Sometimes she likes to get away from the press of so many fond relatives and ambitious courtiers."



Tomak led Carnat to an older section of the palace where a steep stairway coiled up the walls of a tall tower. At the top there was a low door. Carnat caught his breath while the prince gave a patterned knock on the rough wood of the entrance.



A moment later Carila opened the door and gave a gasp of pleased surprise when she saw Carnat. "I was just thinking of you," she said. She grasped his hand and pulled him into a small room she had made cozy with rugs and coverlets. There was a round lamp to represent the Radiance over a simple altar with a kneeling stool. A Blade of Neril carved from jade sat on a window sill where it caught the afternoon light and gleamed soft green.



"I came to Zedekla to retrieve the dowry from the Saadenan embassy where I hid it after Farek refused to accept it," Carnat explained. "The king suggested it would be better used to improve the lot of my people. Happily, I can do so now."



"You came just in time to be the first to hear my good news," Carila said with a smile. "I believe that by the time we hold the harvest festival next year, you will be a grandfather."



"How did you know?" Carnat asked, astonished. He was certain Carlan's condition was known to only a few.



Carila laughed. "Trust me, a woman knows. I wonder if my child will be a boy or a girl. Will it look like a Saadenan or a Zedeklan. Queen Ranila tells me that several sets of twins have been born in her family. What if I have twins!"



Tomak had been standing with his mouth hanging open as she spoke. His astonishment solidified into a frown of displeasure. "Knowing you might be carrying our twin sons, you risked your neck climbing up to your aerie?" he demanded.



Carila's face froze as if he had slapped her. Tomak shook his head and ruefully reached for his wife. "I'm sorry for my temper, but please be more careful. You are dear to me. It hurts my heart to think of you injured in a fall. I can't help recalling how you mother died."



Carila laid a hand on his cheek and accepted his apology with one of her own. "This was the last time I intended to come here until my children are old enough to climb here with me. I am no longer a girl. High places and steep climbs will only be a memory for me from now on until I give birth. But really Tomak, don't set your heart on twin sons. I'd be content if my first child is a little girl."



Carnat shared their mingled laughter, but his eyes were caught by the glowing jade leaf. He seemed to see a tall young woman holding the hands of two sturdy boys. She smiled at him and tears flooded his eyes. It might have been a foreseeing of Carila with her sons, but the hair of the radiant woman in the vision was dark and straight, the eyes-- Neril!