Chapter 1 Deception

Thalon held his wife Kelinal close to his side and looked out over the vale of Marekla. Thirty years had passed since he first stood at the entrance to the secret passage that led to the outside world before his first trek as an initiate merchant. Marekla had changed in those years. The terraced fields that had been no more than a light border around the level pastures of the vale two decades before, now extended well up the steep sides. Houses spread out from the central mount to the base of the rise in the east of the valley where the white shrine shone in the morning light.

There were signs that the policies established by the council had begun to fail. What would they do next to compensate for choices made more than a two decades ago in reaction to the abduction of Neril? Thalon shook his head with regret.

Kelinal glanced up at him. Tears stained her cheeks and reddened her eyes. "I'm afraid for you. Why must you go alone?"

"It is the order of the council. You know how Geran and Belil work together to sway the other council members to their will," he said.

"Belil is a spiteful woman. She never forgave Neragon for defying her and taking the Nameless One on trek. Geran's a match for her. I'm not surprised they married after Belil divorced Neragon. Their constant fighting is a scandal, and yet they are united in public."

Thalon nodded. He could wish that Kelinal had shown a little more unity with his own efforts to turn the tide started by Geran and his shrewish wife, but Kelinal seldom dared to speak in council, sensitive that she had not been born in Marekla.

"Watch after Makon," Thalon warned. "The ban against making trek until Lissa has been returned to Marekla has been hard on him. Tell him I'll return soon with his wife and their child."

"He shouldn't have married an outsider," Kelinal said.

"You were an outsider when I married you and brought you to Marekla," he reminded her.

"Things were different then."

He nodded but he didn't speak. The differences were a sore point between them. Kelinal had been Neril's friend before the younger woman had made the trek, now she did not even speak Neril's name aloud, following the law forced through the council after the abduction.

Geran had convinced the council that Neril's example could endanger other Marekla maidens and they had followed his demand that her name be banned and the Scroll of History and Prophecy that she had discovered in Saadena be regarded as a forgery. Kelinal had even pressed Thalon to stop making the pendants shaped like 'Leaves of Neril' that were so popular among the pilgrims in Timora.

He had convinced her that the jewelry had proved profitable, but he meant to honor Neril with the spear leaves of jade and peridot. Like Docanen, he made every pendant with a prayer for the day when the young woman who had inspired them would receive due honor and recognition as a saint from her own people.

Thalon saw the guide beckoning and gently put Kelinal away from him. "I must go now, take care my love."

He made the gesture of return, but his heart felt small and cold when he turned away from his wife and entered the mouth of the cavern. Normally the beginning of a trek would be marked with celebration by Mareklan traders and their families.

Today only one figure waited in the dim light of the first cavern. Neragon, Neril's father, had been banned from trekking by order of the council, who assigned him to guide others to the brink of the outside world.

Thalon lifted his hand in greeting and they walked toward the inky mouth of the passage. For the next five hours there would be no light to show them the way. Only guides initiated to secret knowledge could lead others through the maze of caves.

When the pale light of day through the cavern faded behind them, Neragon began to murmur the directions that Thalon had almost memorized. He wondered briefly if he could find his way unaided by a guide. Then he put the thought aside. It would take only one bad choice and he would be lost in the mountain.

As hours went by he steeled himself against the phantoms born in his light-starved mind. They wore familiar faces. Neril, no fearsome phantom, but a beloved ghost, seemed to float before him beckoning him to another path than the one Neragon followed. He saw the image of Sergon the last time they had met, shaking his head and begging him to leave Marekla and make his home in Timora. Only lately a caravan had returned with the report that the former Mareklan elder now held the post of High Priest of Timora, head of the Sacred Council.

Thalon pinched his nose, banishing the illusions that tempted him from the path of duty and concentrating on his immediate surroundings and the sound of Neragon's voice. Thalon would do as he had been directed by the council of Marekla, his family unwitting hostage to his performance.

He missed the sense of others moving along with him, their muttered jokes and complaints. Never in his memory had one man been sent on trek alone. The council called it a rescue. Thalon knew better.

After several hours the glow from the opening high on Mount Vald that marked the end of the passage relieved the darkness. Neragon stood at the entrance gazing out over the wilderness below. Thalon wondered at the memories that must be harbored in the old Mareklan's mind.

"You go to Timora at the will of the council, but I have a task for you to perform in Zedekla," Neragon said.

He turned back to a recess just inside the entrance of the cave and returned with his hands extended. In one hand he held a battered staff, in the other, a latticed ball of gem flecked metal.

Thalon recognized the close, dense grain and arcane markings of the staff. It had been Neril's. Few brasswood staffs remained in Marekla and each had been named. He had seen a likeness of the ball from old engravings. "It is the Orb of Irilik!" He hissed in surprise.

"I found it in Neril's pack after her abduction," Neragon said. "When I showed it to Sergon he said he had given it to Neril and that it it belonged with her descendants. He had the right to bestow the orb. You know who her descendants are."

"The two young princes of Zedekla," Thalon said.

Neragon nodded. "Neril received the staff from her grandfather when she made her trek. I have kept it since we lost her in Saadena. Take the orb and the staff to Neril's grandsons. It is time for them to receive these tokens and you are the only one I trust to perform this errand."

"But I am on an urgent errand to Timora."

"Take the path to Timora that leads through Zedekla," It will cost you a few days, but you owe this duty to Neril and her descendants."

Thalon accepted the orb and staff. Any brasswood staff had value to Mareklans, but this staff of Neril would be priceless to those who acknowledged her as a saint. The Orb that had been created to hold the Stone of Truth had sacred significance. "I will do as you ask. The sons of Carila and Tomak have more right to these tokens than any others."

Neragon twisted his lips in a wry grimace. "Belil will certainly lay claim to everything I of mine as soon as I have breathed my last. I would not have her rowdy brats touch them."

Neragon turned and retreated into the darkness of the passage as Thalon adjusted his pack and started down the mountain on his solitary journey.

By nightfall, he had nearly cleared the desert surrounding the great mountain that hid the vale of Marekla. He took the secret paths of the Mareklan Merchants through the mountains, avoiding encounters that might slow his pace.

Within three days Thalon reached the road that led from the hills of Tedaka across the rich plains of old Virdana toward the sea. Once he entered the settled lands where there were few Mareklan trails, he traveled at night. A single man traveling alone would tempt the brigands who preyed on travelers. He sheltered in coverts along the edges of steams or in hay stacks during the day once he reached the settled plains.

At last, the first light of morning, revealed Zedekla's towers on the horizon where the western sea reflected the faint light of early dawn. Thalon had spent a long night of constant travel, but he called on his reserves of strength and sped his pace.

By the time the matla sellers were frying their first fragrant rounds and calling out their wares on the corners of the city, he walked up the main avenue toward the palace. He drew stares and questions and a crowd began to follow him.

"Where are you camped?" "Where are your fellows?"

He shook his head and did not stop to answer questions. Even in the cosmopolitan city of Zedekla the sight of a lone Mareklan drew comment. A few urchins followed him until their mothers screeched and they turned back. The women knew the folly of harassing Mareklans, especially one a quarter again as tall as any ordinary man and armed with two staffs.

His height was his fame and the news of his coming ran ahead of him to the palace. When he raised his staff to knock at the great gate in the wall that surrounded Zedekla's royal residence, it swung open before him. Instead of being shunted to a waiting room by a servitor, the smiling faces of King Tomak and Queen Carila grreted him. The two young princes peered at him from the shelter of their mother's skirts, as alike as two lambs from the same ewe.

Tomak looked beyond Thalon with expectation. Marekla merchants rarely approached the palace. Usually they set up their trading stands and waited for royalty to come to them. But if Thalon had broken tradition, surely there would be more Marekla Merchants close at hand.

"I am alone, there are no others with me," Thalon quietly announced "I desire an audience with you. I am on an errand from Neril's father, Neragon." Carila put out her hand to urge him into the first courtyard beyond the stare of curious passers-by.

"Close the gate, Tomak," she told her husband absently once the Mareklan stood inside.

The King of Zedekla quickly complied, his broad shoulders making easy work of the task. A couple of servants scurried forward to help, but the latch had sprung home before they reached him.

"Your visit is timely," Carila said as she walked beside Thalon through the courtyard and entered the wide entrance hall. "Today at noon our sons will be given their life names. Come and take breakfast with us and tell of our other friends."

"I came to give gifts to your sons from their ancestor, Neragon," Tomak explained. "I must soon be on my way to Timora where other duties call me."

Tomak heard the note of fatigue in Thalon's voice and noticed the dust on his sweat-stained tunic. "I think our initial welcome should be short Carila. I doubt Thalon has traveled in the daylight since leaving Marekla. He must rest before we expose him to our lengthy ceremonies."

Carila looked at Thalon and smiled ruefully. "I can wait to hear more about our friends. Come, I'll show you to a quiet room close to the men's bath. I'll have a tray of fresh matlas and nuka juice brought to you."

The two young princes were speechless as they watched their mother and father speaking so familiarly to the Mareklan giant. They had seen the merchant before. They had visited the market place when he came as part of a trek that traded in Zedekla. In their boyish play, he was often the hero they wanted to emulate. To have him here, honoring their name day, reached beyond their expectation. One of them held out his hand to touch the staffs he carried and his brother stopped him with a warning hiss.

Carila glanced at her silent sons and smiled. She had watched them as they played their games and knew how much Thalon's visit meant to them. The tiny figures of soldiers and Marekla merchants that were kept on a table in their father's study were a constant temptation to them. The tales of their grandmother Neril, and her adventures with Thalon and Sergon, were their favorite stories. The High Priest never seemed to tire of repeating the story of how she became a saint.

"Will Sergon be coming to the ceremony?" Thalon asked.

Tomak shook his head. "My mother and father arrived from Timora yesterday. The High Priest must be present in Timora for the Day of Consecration. Farek and Ranila will officiate at the ceremonies."

Thalon frowned. He had hoped to speak with Sergon before he tried to convince Lissa to return to Marekla. Perhaps Sergon should be present in Timora when Thalon spoke to his daughter-in-law. It seemed likely she would heed her grandfather's counsel, but how could Sergon counsel compliance with the decrees of the council in Marekla. He had quit Marekla because of his dispute with their dishonor of Neril.

Carila led Thalon to the room prepared for him and he noted the unusually long bed. For once he would sleep in a bed where both his heels would be supported. "I would almost think you had anticipated my visit," he remarked.

"Sergon suggested we prepare a place for you when he last visited us," the queen revealed. "It is sometimes very useful to have the advice of a prophet."

Thalon nodded, but he felt too tired to think about the implications of Carila's words. She quietly closed the door and left him alone. After removing a change of clothing from his pack he headed for the bathing room only a few steps along the corridor.

Although he suspected that the palace contained other bathing rooms fitted out with the latest in Tedakan plumbing, he preferred a traditional bath like this, with a wide pool refreshed constantly from warm springs and cool streams. He lathered himself then washed away the soap with a couple of buckets of cold water before immersing himself in the hot end of the pool. The aches of his urgent pace were eased by the steaming water and he struggled to keep his eyes open. Finally he waded into the cooler regions of the pool where fresh, cold water gushed from a bronze pipe.

Toweled off and wearing a fresh loincloth and tunic, Thalon returned to his room and found the promised tray of matlas and refreshing nuka juice. Even his loving Kelinal could not have taken better care of him than Carila. She seemed very like her mother, Neril.

He lay back on the bed and fell asleep. He had long since learned to school his dreams when he needed rest and no hint of his worries tainted his sleep.

A knock at the door of his room woke Thalon and he quickly rose from the bed and belted his tunic. A servant stood outside the door. After one startled glance upward at his height, the man lowered his eyes. "The naming ceremonies for the princes will soon begin. King Tomak said you might want to attend."

"Please tell Tomak I will be there," Thalon told the servant. "I assume the ceremony will take place in the Shrine?"

"No, this is a family occasion and the ceremonies will take place in the royal chapel."

Thalon raised his brows. "Surely the people will want to greet the princes once they have been named."

The servant nodded. "The family will stand on the balcony that overlooks the main square when the ceremony has been completed and the names of the princes will be announced to all."

The arrangement surprised Thalon until he took note of the emphasis the servant placed on the word 'family'. The kings of Zedekla pursued an open policy with regard to varieties of belief and practice, following the example, Tharek the founder of Zedekla.

The cult of Orqu operated openly, claiming the ancient black pyramid as their worship place, but moderating their worship to fall within the limits of civil law.

Perhaps only a fanatic minority of the cult believed that the blood of Mareklan maidens should initiate new altars, but Thalon found it hard to accept any presence of the filthy dark robed priests of the demon. The brides of Zedeklan royalty were traditionally drawn from Mareklan ancestry, putting the maidens in jeopardy of their lives when the fanatics were active.

Although he questioned the increasing isolation of his own people who kept all their women within the confines of their caldera homeland, but the daughters of Zedeklan royalty were kept as virtual prisoners within the confines of the palace, lest any of them fall victim to the fanatics. If something could be done to eliminate the threat of the Orquian Cult Thalon would willingly give his life to the effort.

Realizing the futility of his dream, he straightened his tunic and picked up the Orb of Irilik and the staff of Neril. He would not let them out of his own hands until he had given one of them to each of the young princes.

When he arrived at the crowded chapel he had no difficulty seeing over the heads of others in front of him. Farek and his wife, Ranila stood on a dais beneath the globe of light that signified the Radiance, glowing as a reminder of the holy presence.

The ceremony proceeded as Farek asked his two grandsons to step forward with their parents. The former king had retired to Timora when the boys were born, but he still wore the air of unconscious authority that years of rule had instilled in him. He paused for a moment while deciding which of the boys would first receive his blessing. A careless nurse had dropped the cord that marked the ankle of the firstborn and no clue identified which twin had been born first.

Tomak seemed to urge one of the boys a little closer to Farek and the priest responded, laying his hands on the small head and pronouncing his name blessing with a sonorous voice that carried to the rear of the chapel. The name had been chosen by Ranila, his wife and fellow Shrine Servant after careful consideration and prayer.

"I name you Inrek, which is in the old tongue, Fearless. May you wear this name with honor and curb your courage with wisdom. You are of the loins of Tharek who carried both the staff and the stone. Heed the lessons of his life and you will have the presence of the Radiance to guide you."

Tomak nodded his pleasure with the name and Carila urged the other boy to take his brother's place in front of Farek. The sun had moved as the ritual continued and by some accident of architecture, a narrow beam of light suddenly poured through the dim chapel and illuminated the bent head of the second child while he waited for his grandfather to pronounce his blessing.

Thalon saw Queen Carila glance upward toward the beam, a secret smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, nearly destroying the solemnity of her expression. She almost seemed to expect this sign of favor.

Ranila handed her husband the piece of scroll cloth on which she had written the second name and he studied it for a brief moment before reaching out his hands and placing them over the boy's head.

"I name you Talek, which is in the old tongue, Wisdom. Wherever you are called to serve, you will seek the guidance of the Radiance. You are of the lineage preserved in Oliafed and brought to bless a new land. May you seek the best of whatever you are offered, and serve in humility wherever you are called."

Talek turned to his mother with a smile of wonder on his face when the blessing concluded. She smiled and reached for his hand. Tomak stood with his hand on the shoulder of the other son, Inrek. Thalon felt a whisper of alarm at the apparent choosing of favorites. Were the royal couple divided in their regard of their sons? It did not bode well.

The sun stood high when the princes left the chapel with their family and chosen friends and servants. Their younger sisters had been in the care of a nurse during the naming ritual, but as soon as the family stood on the balcony, Tomak and Carila lifted their daughters in their arms so that they could see the crowd gathered in the square below. Inrek and Talek stood at the front of the balcony on either side of their grandfather who announced their new names. The people of Zedekla filled the plaza with their cheers.

After receiving the enthusiastic approval of the people, the princes finally retired along with their family to the state dining hall where the long dining table had been set to accommodate more than a hundred guests for the name day feast.

The boys wore their new names a little awkwardly. The pet names and cradle names they had been used to were banned. At the feast they were often called upon, and frequently forgot to answer. Their younger sisters seemed especially fond of trying to confuse them. At last the feast finished and the princes preceded the company into the hall of council.

They sat in two seats set just below the thrones of their parents and received the gifts of their well-wishers. Thalon approached them last. Servants had already carried away a quantity of carefully chosen gifts, but both boys had kept their eyes on the Mareklan, giving only polite thanks for the other gifts.

The Mareklan walked forward with the staff and orb extended in his hands. When he neared the boys he saw that both of them had their eyes fixed on the staff. They ignored the beautifully crafted jeweled ball.

Thalon ducked his head slightly when he stood before them, the greatest obeisance any Mareklan would make to any but the Radiance. Then he paused and locked glances with first one boy, then the other. The suspense broke when he extended his hand and gave the Orb to Inrek. Angry tears mercifully obscured the boy's vision so he didn't actually see the moment when Thalon handed the staff to Talek.

Inrek wanted to shout that a mistake had been made, but he knew his father would be ashamed of him. Perhaps he could convince Talek to trade the staff for the ball. While he plotted a way to win the staff for himself, the ceremony ended and Tomak and Carila stood. Inrek knew he would not be able to hold back his tears of much longer.

He stood and made his way to a nearby corridor. The sound of footsteps betrayed that someone followed him and he ducked through the low doorway of a room he had never entered.

The door shut behind him and he found that the room had no windows. A glow came from a small point on the wall. Inrek forgot his chagrin in a rush of curiosity. He walked over and touched the glowing stone set in the wall. It had no heat.

He wanted it. The decorated dagger he wore at his waist could be used to loosen the stone. Somehow the stone grew dimmer as he worked to remove it.

He heard voices in the corridor outside and hastily shoved the small stone through one of the openings in the latticed ball. When he moved a tiny stud on the ball the lattice closed and the dim glow disappeared. Inrek waited until the people in the corridor passed by before he left the room.

He wandered into his father's study and reached for the tiny clay figures on the table. They had belonged to Tomak since shortly after his own name day, a gift from his grandmother who had purchased them from Neril. Inrek knew that he should only play with the figures with his father present, but he felt injured by Thalon's slighting gift. He experienced a curious thrill as he defied his father's will and began to arrange the figures in battle array.

He decided a storm would aid his chosen cohort. As he swept his hand over the figures representing the enemy, several of them fell from the table and broke as they hit the stone floor.

"Inrek, what are you doing?" Talek cried from the doorway.

Inrek gathered the other small soldiers in his hands and turned his back.

Talek tried to follow him and tripped over the small table, setting it off balance.

Tomak heard the clatter of the falling table as he walked along the hallway with Carila and Thalon. The trio of adults turned into the study and saw the boys standing guiltily in the midst of the evidence of misbehavior.

"What happened here?" King Tomak asked in a tone that made his small sons shiver.

"Talek stumbled over the table," Inrek replied, telling the truth in part, but knowing the import of his words would lay the blame on his brother.

"But I didn't break the soldiers." Talek protested.

Tomak felt chagrined to have his sons behave so shamefully in front of the Mareklan guest. "We will see who is lying," he said gruffly. "Come with me Talek."

Inrek stayed in the study and tried to restore the tiny soldiers to their accustomed places. Tears splashed down on his hands when he discovered that five of them were broken. He knew he had behaved badly, but he sensed his father favored him. The thought of falling from that status worried him.

Tomak led the way to a small door that Talek had never seen opened and stopped in front of it. "This is the chamber I use to test for truth. Go inside and tell me what you see."

Carila watched as the door shut on Talek. When he stepped out of the room a moment later he shook his head. "I can't see anything. It's dark."

Tomak sent a haggard glance at Carila. How could Talek be so far gone in dishonesty that he saw nothing of the Stone of Truth? "Go and find your brother. I think it is past time for you to meet with Judik for sword drill." his voice shook with emotion.

As soon as Talek quit the corridor Carila turned to Tomak "I can't believe he is a liar." she protested.

"We have the evidence. He could not see the Stone of Truth. You know what that means."

She stepped forward and opened the door of the room. Tomak laid his hand on her arm to hold her back but then he saw beyond her and gasped with surprise.

He had been dismayed and alarmed by the thought that Talek could not see the Stone of Truth. To fail to see the stone himself disturbed him far more.

"What is wrong, my love?" Carila cried when she saw his ashen face turn toward her with an expression of anguish.

"I can't see it," he said, turning away in chagrin. "I cannot see the Stone of Truth."

"If you cannot see it, it isn't there," Carila said. "I know your heart." She opened the door and peered into the dark room herself. "I trust I have done nothing serious enough to keep me from seeing it. There is no light in the room of judgment."

Thalon lifted a torch from a sconce near his head and held it up to light the way into the room. The king and queen followed him. Carila knelt and felt the surface of the wall. Her fingertips discovered the small pit left behind when the Stone of Truth had been pried away.

She turned to Tomak and gestured wordlessly to the evidence of theft. "We last used this room when we interviewed a tutor for our sons two months ago."

Tomak nodded. "We can't know how or when the theft occurred. Without the Stone of Truth, how will we know which of our sons will be worthy to rule?" he asked.

"Perhaps it is due time we learned to use our own judgment," Carila said. "Your willingness to believe the worst of Talek when the boy did not see the light disturbed me. Surely a father should rely on his own sense of truth to tell him the worth of his child more than an artifact, however holy."

Tomak shook his head at her reproof. "A parent can be confused by his own fond heart. Without the stone of truth to reveal which of our sons is worthy to follow me as king, there will be confusion and conflict when they come of age."

"Other kingdoms make do without such a guide," Thalon reminded him.

"Come into the study," Carila suggested. "We can discuss this problem while we piece together the broken soldiers."

"It won't be the first time I employed a bit of glue to mend them," Tomak admitted ruefully. I promised Neril I would keep them in good order when my grandmother purchased the set for me."

"I remember," Thalon said with a smile.

The saw Inrek's childish attempt to set the tiny soldiers in order when they opened the door. All of the damaged toys had been broken before, the new breaks following the lines of old cracks. Carila fetched a pot of glue and the three adults restored the tiny soldiers. As they finished sharp cries of childish anger rang in the corridor outside the room and the door rang to furious blows.

Carila stood and opened the door to reveal the red face of Prince Inrek, his small wooden sword raised to hit the door again. As soon as the door opened Inrek rushed toward his father.

"Talek won't practice fighting with me. After Judik finished sword drill, Talek went with Orlok to look at the map of Okishdu. I told him to stay and fight with me but he said I'd have to wait. Make him do what I want father."

"I'm sorry my son, but Talek has the right to choose what he wants to do," Tomak said as he smoothed his son's tousled hair. "He is your brother, not your servant. Some day one of you will be the king of Zedekla. When that day comes, the King may command his brother, but until then, you must be patient."

"Then I will be king and tell Talek what to do. Make me king father,"

Tomak laughed at his son's arrogant demand with no reproof in his eyes. Carila held out her hand to the child.

"Come with me Inrek and leave your father in peace. He must rule a kingdom and can't spend time ordering others to obey your whims." The Queen smiled at her son, but the firmness in her hand on his arm convinced him it would be wise to obey her.

When Carila returned a few minutes later the discussion turned to other matters. Thalon reported that only a few women of Mareklan descent remained outside of the hidden city. "We have refugees from Arqua and other outposts living in every available dwelling place in Marekla. I believe that even the people of Rubble Ford would have been required to join us, but in the past decade many of them have intermarried with Saadenan emigrants. It hardly seems worth the effort to force them to come back to Marekla. They have long since veiled their women to protect them from the gaze of strangers. I doubt there will be any maidens of Mareklan ancestry for your sons to marry when the time comes to choose their brides.

The sound of childish voices from the courtyard outside the study brought Tomak to his feet and he looked out on the sun-lit courtyard. From his vantage point he saw his two sons sparring. Inrek bore a small shield of red marked with a black device. Talek's colors were blue and gold. "Inrek is fit to be king," he murmured to Thalon as he watched the boy's bold attack.

A gentle movement at his other shoulder betrayed Carila's presence beside him. "See how Talek uses strategy. He wields his mind as well as his body. Already he has the beginnings of wisdom that will make a good king."

"This argument between you over the merits of your sons is unwise," Thalon warned the couple.

Carila echoed his thought, "The kingdom of Zedekla will be torn with factions when our sons come of age if we can't settle the question of descent of the crown. There are those who would welcome conflict."

Tomak nodded. Both boys were sturdy and fine. He still reeled from the realization that the Stone of Truth would not be available to direct the choice. "With Inrek as king and Talek as his chief minister, the kingdom would flourish," he said.

"Please, my love, no more argument," Carila pleaded. "For the sake of peace we must make a plan to decide which should be king,"

Thalon agreed. He kept his own counsel as to which prince showed the most promise, but he decided to advise his friends.

"The woman a man chooses to marry can have a critical influence on his life. Kelinal gentled and refined me. Perhaps it would be best if the choice of ruler were based on the choices they make in marriage. In the past Janakan matriarchs determined the choice of king by his choice of wife. After all, I've heard that your courtship began with trials that tested the fitness of the bridegroom."

Tomak chuckled. "I think in our case the test was only a formality."

Carila nodded. "I had determined who my chosen spouse would be, but I could not insist on my choice before he made some demonstration of his own intent."

"The demonstration proved of use to those in Janaka who wondered what qualified the prince of Zedekla to marry their princess," Tomak said. "When the day of choosing an heir comes, let the decision rest on which prince has chosen more wisely when he married."

Carila smiled her agreement and Tomak slowly nodded. Thalon could see from their expressions that each felt certain that on the distant day when marriage became a concern a concern, their favorite would use his intelligence and charm to win the heart of a woman who would make him the choice to rule the kingdom.

"I must go now," Thalon said. "I wish you well with your plans for your sons. It will be interesting to see which of them becomes the ruler of Zedekla."

"I have sent servants to provide you will fresh supplies," Carila told him. I pray that your errand in Timora will be accomplished soon."

They accompanied Thalon to the room where he had rested and waited while he refreshed his supplies. Near dusk Tomak led the Mareklan to an exit that would take him to the road without passing through the busy market square.

"I will listen to hear if any have heard of the 'Stone of Truth' as I continue my journey," Thalon told them, He shrugged to adjust the slight weight of his pack and set out for Timora.

Tomak pulled his beloved queen closer to him as he watched the tall Mareklan duck through the small doorway that would bypass the busy streets. The last rays of the sun fought through towering clouds that filled the western sky. It would storm tonight. A bolt of lightning in the west sent a jagged line of light across the sea and the waves tossed high. A sullen, violet light lingered under the lowering clouds and mist swirled through the streets. The black bulk of the ancient temple that the Orquians had claimed for their rites seemed to swell in the darkness.

The ominous scene reminded Tomak that there were rumors that the Orquians were once again practicing human sacrifice in the depths of the great pile of stone. Religious freedom remained a basic rule in Zedekla, but murder could not be tolerated. Rumors hinted that Orqu wanted Mareklan blood. Tomak turned away and saw Carila's gaze on the storm clouds. Forked lightning slashed through the sky and lit her face with pale blue light. Tomak felt a brief, sharp sense of fear.

What if I had never found her when Zadan abducted her? Indeed, the wife of a man could be the difference in his fitness for rule. He had proved that a hundred times. He thought of Olina, the Jaman duchess he had come so close to marrying. Her history had been one of ambition and betrayal. He sent up a prayer on behalf of his sons. Whichever became king, he hoped they both married wisely.

Chapter 2 Rebellion

Thalon pressed southward through the storm. Once Zedekla lay behind him, he put aside thoughts of the future of Zedekla's princes and focused on the trial ahead of him. He knew he would meet resistance to his errand to take Lissa and her infant daughter back to Marekla. Sergon, Lissa's grandfather, had been a Mareklan elder but his loyalty to the memory of Neril had set him against the policies of the current Mareklan council. Thalon doubted he would receive support for his errand from his old friend.

The rain that kept other travelers secluded in inns until the weather brightened, proved a boon to Thalon. He resented his errand, but he would just as soon have it finished. He gained the western gate of Timora after only a few days on the pilgrimage road from Zedekla.

The pilgrims who thronged the streets of the sacred city hardly took note of him in the diversity of the crowd. An Orenese Watcher strode by followed by his veiled harem, while a Janakan baron with battle tattoos covering most of his face passed in the other direction.

Thalon soon left the well-traveled avenues and found the modest street that concealed the entrance to the villa that Sergon had owned. He had bequeathed it to his grandchild after his marriage to Manchek's widow, Kemila.

Sergon had entertained Thalon at the villa many times since the day long ago when they had taken refuge with Neril from the Orquian bullies who had attacked the Mareklan enclave.

Thalon's hand went to the thong that bore a hidden talisman, a malachite carving of a spearleaf crafted by his friend Docanen. With a prayer for courage to face Lissa and convince her of the need to return to Marekla with her child, Thalon raised his staff to knock on the gate.

After several minutes passed with no answer, he took a detour to the gate of Dresla and Anget whose property joined with the rear of Lissa's villa but fronted in a more fashionable section of town.

This time his knock brought immediate response. A servant answered the door, followed close behind by Dresla. A smile of welcome lit her face and she looked beyond him. "Where have you set up your stand? Is Makon guarding it for you?" she asked.

"I have come alone," Thalon replied. "I must speak to you and Lissa privately." Anxiety replaced her eager anticipation. "I went to Lissa's gate but had no answer to my knock."

"She is napping with Serin," Dresla replied. "When Makon is gone, she finds her house too large and lonely and spends most of her time here with me."

She led Thalon through the entrance hall and into the central garden where he settled on the rim of a tiled fountain. "I tried to warn her about the loneliness a Mareklan wife must face. I remember how I resented the long absences of my father as a child."

"She knew that Makon would follow the trails as I and his other ancestors have done," Thalon reminded her.

She nodded, but sighed wistfully. "We both hoped that Makon would decide to settle here in Timora and act as a factor now that the Mareklan enclave has been closed. I will wake Lissa and tell her you have come."

As Dresla left the courtyard, a servant entered with a tray of fresh matlas, breadberries and nuka juice. Thalon thanked her and took a long draft of the cool astringent liquid while he waited.

Lissa entered the garden carrying her tiny child. When the infant saw Thalon, she put out her arms and crowed with glee.

"I'm surprised she remembers you, or perhaps she confuses you with her father," Lissa said bitterly. "After all, it has been two months since he last visited us."

Lissa's tone of voice warned Thalon. He took his infant granddaughter in his arms and considered his words. Sometimes a short, sharp shock could be better than a gradual letdown. "Makon has been restricted to the vale of Marekla until I return with you and your daughter. Geran has convinced the council that your marriage can't be considered binding unless you live in the valley. He will try to force Makon to wed his daughter Beral if you do not return with me."

Lissa's eyes grow large with surprise, then narrowed with angry resentment. "My mentor, Perilla, warned me of this. The Mareklans now put themselves above the law. You know that I married Makon by sacred covenant in the presence of a priest and two witnesses. If Makon marries another wife, he is no better than a Orenese Watcher with a harem."

Thalon could not answer her accusation. He had been appalled at the lengths to which the Mareklan council would go to enforce their policy that purported to protect Mareklan women from the cult of Orqu.

Lissa's hand darted forward and she probed at the neckline of his tunic, dragging forth the talisman he had hidden there. "You are a hypocrite and a coward! You were one of Neril's friends, yet you mutely stand by when she is damned as a heretic by your precious fellow Mareklans. Why should I immure myself among such fools. What is there for me in Marekla?"

"Makon loves you and is waiting for you to join him," Thalon reminded her.

"If he loves me so much, let him come to me. He is a healthy man in the prime of his life. I am a woman with an infant to care for. Which of us is better able to make the trek?"

Thalon could not answer her and she continued her attack. "Some believe that the streets of Marekla are paved with precious gems and that food can be gathered without cultivation or cooking. It is a pretty story, but I don't need to speculate about the laws that bind Mareklan women. For them, the vale of Marekla is no better than a prison."

Her angry voice had frightened her daughter and Serin began to wail. Lissa grabbed her child out of Thalon's arms and ran toward the gate that led to her house.

Dresla entered the garden and stood silently waiting for Thalon to respond to Lissa's accusations. When he simply shook his head and held up his hands, she moved forward and sat next to him.

"I believe that Lissa expected this to happen. Geran gave her an insulting lecture about her duties as the wife of a Mareklan when he last visited Timora. I think she is as much repelled by him as she is frightened by the thought of leaving Timora and never again seeing her family and friends. Do you blame her?"

Thalon shook his head, "I once supported the seclusion of Mareklan women, but Neril taught me the error of my belief that isolation is the only way we could defeat the schemes of the Orquians. All that I love and hold dear is in the vale of Marekla, but if it were not that my wife Kelinal cannot come with me, I would have followed Sergon's example and retired to Timora."

"Believing this, how can you demand that Lissa return to Marekla with her child?" Dresla said. "What of us, her parents?" She stood and turned away from him. "I cannot favor your errand."

Thalon regretted that he had been so blunt in approaching Lissa. It seemed that he had reached an impasse, but he must convince his son's wife of the need to leave Timora, even though his own preferences fought against the choice.

The tension that seemed to stretch between them broke when a familiar voice called out a greeting. "Thalon, it is good to see you. Where are the others of your caravan?"

Thalon leaped to his feet and extended his hand to Sergon who had entered the garden with his wife, Kemila.

"It is good to see you, old friend," Thalon exclaimed as the two men pounded one another's shoulders in the age old greeting of friends. "I have not had a chance to wish you well for your recent marriage."

Thalon moderated his voice when he turned to Kemila and offered his hand. She remained a lovely woman, although the years had etched their mark in her face. Her carriage remained that of a queen, although her reign had ended more than thirty years before when her son Farek had succeeded his father on the throne of Zedekla. Now her grandson, Tomak, reigned, and in time he too would step aside when one of his sons married and produced an heir.

"I have recently come from Zedekla and the naming ceremony of your great-grandsons," Thalon told Kemila.

"You must have traveled even more rapidly than other Mareklans," she said with a smile. "What names have been chosen for them?"

One of them received the name of Inrek, the other, Talek."

Sergon nodded at the names. "Tell me, did the one named Talek seem favored by his mother, and Inrek by his father?" the high priest asked.

Thalon felt no surprised that Sergon had guessed correctly. He simply nodded.

"It seems that Ranila has the gift of naming," Kemila said with a gentle smile. "The children are already firm in their characters. It is good that the Stone of Truth can be used to tell which will rule. Otherwise, I fear there would be conflict and confusion when the choice is made."

Thalon frowned. "The Stone of Truth has been removed from the wall in the testing room. Nothing is known of how or when it disappeared."

Kemila turned to Sergon and took his hand. "It is as you foresaw. I thought the dream you shared with me came because of your concern that one of the boys might follow the sad example of my son Zadak. Surely neither of Tomak's sons will repeat his villainy."

Sergon shook his head. "I cannot assure you of anything without further insight. I fear that those who flourish in confusion will take advantage of the situation to foment trouble in Zedekla's court."

"I made a suggestion when we discovered the theft," Thalon said. "When the boys come of age and have chosen their wives, let the Zedeklan council determine which has made the best choice of a mate. All of us know how important a good woman is to the success of her husband."

Kemila chuckled and patted her husband's hand with a fond gesture. "I can see why Sergon values your friendship. You have understanding as wide as your broad shoulders."

Sergon nodded but his eyes seemed vague. When Kemila had drawn Dresla away to speak to her he moved close to Thalon and murmured. "What gifts did you bring the boys for their naming?"

"Neragon led me through the caverns. He gave me a staff and an orb to give to his grandsons." Thalon answered in a low voice.

Sergon's mouth quirked in a wry smile. "He honors his ancestors with his honesty. A time will come when the orb and the staff will be used to save our people." The words were cryptic, but Thalon recognized the voice of prophecy and he knew he had done the right thing by taking the gifts to Zedekla.

Sergon's eyes narrowed when he remembered his first question. "Where are the other Mareklans?"

Thalon lowered his eyes, reluctant to put Sergon's good opinion of him in shadow. "I have been sent on a solitary mission. I am directed to return to Marekla with Lissa and her child, or not return at all. My wife, and Lissa's husband, Makon, are held hostage to my performance of the task."

Sergon greeted his announcement with sympathetic silence. Even Dresla could see how difficult it must be for Thalon. He faced exile from his family. She turned away and busied herself with gathering up the tray, leaving Sergon and Kemila to counsel Thalon without her interference.

When Lissa returned to the garden holding Serin, she looked around and tossed her head with anger. "Perilla has warned me about the conspiracy of Mareklans, but I never believed her until now. All of you are part of the plan. I thought I could trust you, grandfather, but now I realize that I am powerless without the help of my friends."

Serin had begun to cry again at the frantic sound of her mother's voice. Thalon made a cooing noise of comfort and the baby stopped crying and began to laugh.

"You have bewitched her," Lissa cried. "Take her then. Take her to your mountain and imprison her like a good Mareklan maiden. But I am Timoran. If Makon wants me, let him bring her back to me and stay here in Timora."

She thrust the baby into Thalon's arms and turned to flee from the garden before anyone could calm her frantic mind.

Lissa rushed through the small door that led to the villa where she lived and barred the door before her mother could catch up with her. Dresla turned to meet the astonished gaze of her guests. "In the months that Makon has been absent, Lissa has begun to listen to those who are troubled by the Mareklan denial of the Scroll of History and Prophecy and their refusal to acknowledge the sainthood of Neril. Perilla is their leader."

"She knows that I honor Neril," Sergon exclaimed, astonished at his granddaughter's accusation.

"You forget that she is a young woman who has been left alone with a new baby while her husband ventured into the southern forests where danger is a constant presence. He promised to return as soon as he had reported on his travels to the council. When Perilla raised questions, Lissa stored them up and expected that all her doubts would be answered by Makon when he returned. I cannot excuse her behavior, but I think I understand why she is overwrought."

"Shouldn't we go to her and explain our sympathy," Kemila asked.

"I think it is best if we leave her alone for a while," Dresla said. " She is a little high-strung and prone to imagine the worst in any situation. She will probably collapse in tears on her bed and weep herself to sleep. When she wakes up, she will be more amenable to reason."

Sergon shook his head. "You know her as well as anyone, but I think it would be well if someone went around to the front gate of her house."

Dresla nodded. "I would be grateful if you would go Father."

Sergon moved swiftly for a man of his years. Dresla sat down next to Thalon and reached for Serin. When her grandmother tried to take her, the baby turned her face away with a pout and clamped her tiny arms firmly around Thalon's great neck with a hiccoughing sob. Thalon patted her gently and she quieted. It seemed that only he could calm her. Finally, Serin snuggled in his arms and slept.

Thalon looked down on her and remembered Kelinal's tears when she had bid him goodbye at the cavern mouth. The conflict he faced burdened his heart. Lissa clearly resented the demand that she take her child to Marekla. He could not force her to go. In his heart he bid farewell to his loved ones and resigned himself to exile.

He pulled the sleeping child closer to him and kissed her round baby cheek, then he turned to hand her to Dresla. "I will go. When Lissa wakes up, tell her that I won't pursue the matter."

"Lissa isn't sleeping," Sergon's voice came from the gate that Lissa had barred against her mother only a short time before. "When I reached the front gate of her house, it stood open. It seemed strange to me that it would be unbarred. I searched the house and found that she has gone, her clothing chests are open and it seems she left in haste with only a few belongings."

"We must send for her father," Dresla said. "Anget will know what to do."

Sergon turned to Kemila. "I'm sorry that what I intended as a family visit turned into such a disturbing scene my dear."

Kemila gave a wry glance at her husband of two months. "You go find Anget. It will not be the first time you have had dealings with the head of the Peace Guardians. I will stay here and comfort Dresla."

"I'll go with you Sergon," Thalon volunteered. "I am to blame for this dilemma. Perhaps I can do something to resolve it."

They left the house and started up the street, but they encountered Anget at the turn of the road on his way home for the afternoon period of rest and prayer the Timorans called Enven.

"I have seen storms with fewer clouds than you wear on your faces," Anget jested when they met him.

"Lissa has fled from her home," Sergon said. "She left Serin behind."

Anget's genial smile faded. "I never expected her malaise to go this far."

"Did she give you any reason to think she might do something foolish?" Sergon asked.

Anget nodded. "I'm afraid she has fallen under the influence of a group of women who have decided to question the old ways, especially the harems of Orenon and the seclusion of Mareklan women."

"So, you have known of this Perilla and her teachings," Sergon stated.

Anget nodded. "We keep our eyes on any group who gathers in Timora for any purpose other than worship. Perilla of Zedekla started the group. Her husband divorced her for childlessness. She is wealthy in her own right and has purchased a large home here in Timora where she offers refuge to any woman who wishes to take advantage of her haven When she has them in her house, she preaches rebellion against male authority. Her words bear fruit when a woman has been beaten or put aside in favor of another woman."

"I am surprised you took note of them," Thalon said. "Surely you are more interested in those who threaten the peace and safety of pilgrims and Shrine servants than in the gossip of idle women. Is it your place to interfere with the followers of such as Perilla."

"As head of the Peace Guardians, Anget has the responsibility of keeping the streets of our sacred city free of strife and crime," Sergon said. "Sometimes his duties seem to interfere with freedom."

Anget paused and surveyed the crowd that had gathered in the street ahead of them. His eyes took note of every man and woman, their tone of voice and gestures. He frowned when he turned back to the others. "Just as there is no toleration of Orqu worship in Timora, no public secular protest is allowed in the sacred precincts that includes all of the vale. We have to keep our eyes and ears open, or soon the city would be a whirl of discontent and contention. As soon as Enven is over, I'll try to find Lissa and talk to her. For now, let us pray for her welfare."

When they entered the gate and went through to the garden they found Kemila and Dresla trying to calm an angry baby. Thalon reached for Serin and her face cleared from a whine to a delighted smile, her preference made clear.

Embarrassed that he should be so favored when he had caused her orphaned state, Thalon looked around guiltily while he cuddled her against his broad chest. Dresla gave a snort that of half impatience, half amused relief. "Until her mother returns, it seems that you are nominated to take care of Serin. She will be hungry soon and I know of no women in the neighborhood who are currently nursing. You will have to feed her with a suckle pouch."

Dresla left the others to discuss a resolution to the problem of Lissa's new allegiance and went to get supplies for Serin. When she returned with a suckle pouch full of milk, they were still unsure of what to do.

"We must have patience and say prayers for her welfare," Kemila recommended. "I may be past the age when I care to count my years, but I can still remember what is it like to be a young woman with everyone in charge of my destiny but myself. If we pursue her too assiduously we risk losing her entirely."

The bells for Enven rang. While the others sought their privacy to make their prayers, Thalon continued to care for his granddaughter. He remembered the youth of his own children when he had seldom been home to help Kelinal. Some men chose not to leave the valley and go on trek, but they were regarded as failures unless they were blind or crippled and had no choice in the matter.

At the end of Enven, Anget set forth to visit the house of Perilla with hope for a quick resolution to the problem of Lissa's abdication. He did not return until after sunset.

Dresla had invited Sergon and Kemila to stay and eat their evening meal with her, and Serin enforced Thalon's continued attendance with her clinging little arms which seemed unwilling to find any other comfort than his presence. They all looked up expectantly when Anget entered the room.

"Serin has taken refuge in the house of Perilla and refuses to talk to me," Anget said wearily. I can't believe she's in her right mind."

"We must leave you now," Sergon said. "I have the authority to order you to invade the house and bring Serin out by force, but Kemila has convinced me that it would be fruitless and might set a dangerous precedent. I am new in my office as High Priest and there are those who might use any action against Perilla as a cause to question my appointment."

Anget nodded. "There are always those who overlook the role of inspiration in the choice of a new High Priest. They speak of influence and bribery. It is especially sensitive since you married Kemila only a few years after Manchek's death."

"If any of them suspected that Neril herself prophesied that one day I would wed the former queen, I'm sure they would use that as fodder for their idle speculation," Sergon said.

Kemila raised her brows. "You never told me of this prophesy. Perhaps if I had known, I could have urged Manchek to be more careful of his life."

"It profits little to try to meddle with prophecy," Sergon assured her. "I only recalled and understood her words after I had recovered from my own grief at Manchek's death."

Kemila raised her hand to stop his protestations. "I have tasted of the vagaries of visionary abilities in my own role as a priestess and prophetess. I will not hold you responsible for not warning me of Manchek's death. There are things I have not told you lest you think that I pined for our union before it became a possibility. My heart belonged to Manchek while he lived."

Thalon lowered his eyes but not before meeting a chagrined glance from Anget. Sergon had a habit of frankness, but Kemila rarely spoke her thoughts. It seemed somehow intrusive that they were privy to her secrets.

"You must stay here with us Thalon," Dresla insisted when the Mareklan tried to put the sleeping baby down and slip away. "I doubt I will be able to deal with Serin if you leave, and I doubt you have anywhere else to stay."

Thalon nodded. He found that he enjoyed the sudden fierce affection of the baby girl. While he bid goodbye to Sergon and his wife, he balanced Serin in his arms and experienced a wave of sympathy for Lissa. Makon had hardly seen his child because of the rules made in Marekla.

Serin seemed to sense that her new protector would not leave her again for long when he tucked her in her cot for the night. After she fell asleep Thalon accompanied Anget to the Shrine and met with the leaders of the Peace Guardians to discuss the strategy to follow with Perilla's followers.

"As long as Perilla's friends avoid public demonstration, we should avoid confronting them," an experienced Guardian advised. "Some might argue that they are only women, but I fear nothing more than a vindictive woman."

Anget and Thalon could only agree.

Several days went by with no further word from Lissa. Dresla resigned herself to acting as an advisor to Thalon in caring for Serin. The baby would only smile and cuddle up to her when Thalon remained in sight. He had quickly learned the proper way to hold the suckle pouch to avoid messy spills and overfeeding. The occasional wet spot on his tunic from other causes no longer concerned him. He had become deft in caring for all his granddaughter's needs, even though he expected that any day Lissa would realize her folly in leaving her baby to the care of others and return.

Four days after Lissa's flight Anget returned home only minutes after leaving for his duties. Thalon hoped he brought good news. His hopes were dashed when he saw Anget's expression as he gestured for Dresla and Thalon to join him in the garden.

When they were seated on the wall around the fountain, he cleared his throat and wiped his eyes which swam with tears. "Last night, five women in pilgrim robes left Timora by way of the western gate. They included Perilla and Lissa. You might intercept them if you travel swiftly Thalon. Take Serin and remind her mother of who she is and what she has left behind."

"What if I can't find them?" Thalon asked while he deftly replaced the pad of absorbent moss wound in the tiny loincloth of the infant.

"Then you must do as she told you," Dresla replied. "Take Serin to Marekla and tell Makon that his wife wanders without her normal senses because of his absence." Her mouth drew into a line that tried to deny the sorrow and shame that filled her. She hoped Lissa wasn't in her right mind. How else could she abandon her child?


The plains east of Zedekla rose gradually toward the fault line that birthed tall mountains. Foothills huddled like sleeping dogs at the feet of the peaks that towered in serried ranks. As a storm from the sea rolled over the plains, people found refuge in their homes. Few would brave the pounding rain and the bright bolts of lightning that shattered the night sky.

At the haunch of one of the higher hills, beneath a cliff that rose precipitously to a ridge, the house of Bernin Woranclan and Fleya his wife seemed to defeat the elements with the light of a fire and the smell of good food.

Fleya smiled at Bernin as he folded his length onto the bench near the table. "Some people laugh at us when they see your gangling height and my short round body. Last winter in the market square at Talka, Old Mirda asked me if I was pregnant. I didn't answer her impudence. She knows how that question hurts me. She's jealous because we have this good farm and fine cottage. We have everything we want except a child. I always pray for a child to share our good life."

Suddenly Bernin looked up and hushed Fleya's prattle with an urgent gesture of his hand. The roar of the wind and rain muted as the gusting storm eased for a moment. A thread of sound, like a child's keening wail, sounded, then faded as the wind regained force.

"A child is lost in the storm," Bernin said. He stood and hurried to the hook by the door where his cloak hung. Fleya prepared a lantern and reached for her own cloak. She followed him as he went out into the wind driven rain.

The sound of the cries had come from the foot of the cliff that loomed near the edge of their farm. Bonat, the farm dog, rushed past the couple. Soon his frantic barking led them to the source of the cries.

A huge man lay in an impossible posture in a pile of fresh rubble that had broken loose from the lip of the looming cliff above them. Fleya stumbled over one of the stones that had hurtled down with him and stared aghast at his bleeding head. He lay close to death, but somehow he had twisted so that the child in his arms had been protected from the fall.

He took a blood-bubbled breath and looked up at the couple who bent over him. He seemed to see something in their faces that eased the frantic apprehension of his own countenance. He lifted up the tiny child who struggled in his circling arms and offered her to them.

"Serin." he gasped and released the babe as Fleya knelt and gathered the baby into her arms. Her yearning heart filled with gratitude when the infant stopped crying. The rosy mouth smiled and the little hands reached for her. She turned away from the dreadful sight of the dying man and hurried back to the warmth of the cottage.

Thalon watched the fat little woman scurry away toward the dim glow of her cottage door with Serin in her arms. Pain wrapped him in fire and ice. The great, gaunt peasant hovered over him and asked him if he could do anything to help. The man was nearly as tall as Thalon himself, but he couldn't have weighed more than his chubby wife. In the midst of his pain and despair, Thalon almost mustered a smile. Serin would grow to be a beauty, like her mother and her grandmothers. What a curious setting she would have in the care of this odd couple.

The peasant began to pray over him with humble pleading for his welcome by the Radiance and Thalon recognized the simple piety in the words. Serin would be raised by good people.

That thought succeeded where mere humor had failed. As darkness dimmed Thalon's sight, he finally smiled. A glow that severed him from pain and swallowed darkness. His soul fell upwards into ineffable shining.

When Bernin felt certain he could do for the fallen man, he returned to the cottage to fetch a shovel. "The man is dead. I'll bury him where he fell."

"What will become of the child?" Fleya asked as she cuddled the baby close to her ample breast.

"The little one is ours now," Bernin said. "We will name her Serin as he wished, but except in our home she shall be known as Breya so that none may guess her origin. Take the shawl she is wearing and hide it. It is Mareklan. The servants of Orqu would seek her for sacrifice if they knew how she came to us."

"My prayers have been answered." Fleya said with the same simple faith that Thalon had recognized in her husband. She bathed the little girl and dressed her in tiny garments she had prepared long ago and stored away when hope for a child of her own had grown dim.

In the following months Fleya stayed in her cottage and had her husband announce that they now had a child. Serin was so small, and Fleya so round, that others easily accepted the child as their own. Serin could not have received more love and care if it were true. Soon even Bernin and Fleya began to forget that she had not been born to them that stormy night. The grave of the man who had given his life to save her remained unmarked and overgrown at the far end of an abandoned field.

Chapter 3 The Choice

"Tomorrow our sons will come of age to become heir to my throne, and so far neither of them has given any indication of choosing a bride." King Tomak grumbled as he looked out on the courtyard where the two young men engaged in mock combat.

The scene recalled the day almost eighteen years before when Inrek had stormed into his father's study and demanded to be made king. The years that had passed had not confirmed that one or the other had the balance of virtues that would make him the indisputable choice for the crown in the eyes of the council. Even though Tomak still favored Inrek, Carila remained set in her opinion that Talek would be the better heir.

"Tomorrow we will tell them it is time to seek a bride and thus decide which will rule." Queen Carila said. "You would never guess to see them now, that when they sleep they are nearly identical."

Tomak nodded. "Yes, Inrek truly lives up to his name. He is courageous and quick. Talek is more cautious. See how Inrek attacks without thought for injury. What a battle leader he would make. If we used our ancestor's names, I would have named him Manchek after my grandfather, the hero of the Janakan campaign.

Carila smiled. "There is peace throughout the lands of the Alliance. Okagun is as good an ally to us as his grandfather Tagun was to the previous kings."

Tomak frowned. "Who can predict what might occur in the reign of the next king. It is just as well I have never had to lead our people to take up arms against an enemy. I doubt I would be capable of ordering them to risk their lives only to take the lives of others who are doubtless just as innocent of evil intent. Talek is too much like me, slow to come to blows and likely to use strategy instead of strength to win a fight."

"He lives up to the meaning of his name," Carila said with a secret smile of pride in her favored son's intelligence and skill.

"If Janaka were to fall into the hands of another mad ruler like Jagga, a battle chief, like Manchek, will be needed instead of a diplomat like me."

Carila smiled and followed him from the room and down the arched corridor toward the Hall of Heroes. No one watching their genial faces would guess how deep the dispute ran. Only the true love they shared had kept them from raising their voices and creating a rift that others would notice.

They linked their hands while Tomak read aloud the histories inscribed beneath the battered shields that hung on the wall. For the past two generations no shields had been posted. The reign of Farek had passed in peace with only an occasional skirmish with wild tribes from the northeast and the arrest of bandit gangs to remind them that violence and greed still remained.

"Okagun's wife has given birth to eight daughters but no sons," Tomak mused as he paused before Manchek's marred battle shield. "I fear that with the succession in doubt, there may be some upstart who will try to appeal to old hatreds and we will find ourselves at odds with Janaka once again. So far there has been no sign that murder is a tool the rivals for Okagun's throne are prepared to use, but the situation troubles me."

"You are borrowing trouble to prove your point," Carila said. "Why yearn for a king who will make a good battle chief when we can continue the tradition of diplomacy begun by your father."

The irritation in her voice gave it an edge that alerted Rosik, the king's aide, who had been quietly cataloging the collection of memoirs that formed part of the display.

"Whichever of your sons is chosen to be king, I am certain that the two of you will both abide the decision of the council," Rosik reminded them in a soft voice calculated to remind Carila that she had become a little strident. "As soon as the two young men realize that earning the crown depends on the wise choice of a bride, they will remedy their reluctance to commit to a suitable maiden. I do not doubt that when the time comes, they will present us with their prospective brides and the council will judge which has chosen best, and therefore which deserves the crown."

Carila gave the counselor a strained smile and urged Tomak to lead her out of the chamber with a firm pressure on the arm she held. They returned to the room overlooking the courtyard and saw that the sparring match still continued. They watched while the mock battle concluded in a draw with Inrek unable to defeat his brother's strategy and Talek unable to defeat his twin's audacious attack. The brothers laughed breathlessly and clasped hands. Their voices rose to the ears of their parents.

"When I am king I will name you my chief counselor and you may use your strategy to help me rule," Inrek said.

"When I am king I will name you my chief general and trust that you will drive all enemies from our borders," Talek countered with a laugh. "Tomorrow we will learn which of us will rule Zedekla when our father retires to Timora. This dispute will finally end."

Talek sheathed his sword and turned toward the balcony opposite the king and queen where several pretty girls had been watching the princes spar. Dariya gave him a wink even as she turned toward Inrek who walked toward the balcony with his hand raised in a salute.

Dariya's glowing glance at Inrek seemed to come from true devotion that belied the mischievous wink she had given Talek only a moment earlier. Talek smacked his head in self-mockery for the days he had spent enthralled by Dariya before he had finally realized the direction of her real intent.

She stood out among the women of the court who fluttered about the palace like bright butterflies. Tall, with wide shoulders and slim hips, she wore gowns that emphasized her stature with clever stitching that sculpted the cloth.

Dariya's main beauty lay in a wide, clear brow and delicate eyebrows. She wore her long hair pulled back to the line of her ears, exposing artful earrings. A dangling jewel usually hung at the center of her hairline. The effect called attention from her rather ordinary eyes and nondescript nose. A small pout pushed out her lips to balance her slightly prominent chin. The chin itself featured a dimple that narrowly escaped being a cleft.

After his initial infatuation, Talek's analytical mind had recognized the use of artifice and effort in Dariya's impression of beauty. Nevertheless, he had taken longer than he liked to recover from his disappointment that she preferred Inrek.

With simpers and giggles, the court maidens retired back into the palace and Inrek and Talek hurried to the armory to prepare themselves for the games of skill that would be held before the coming-of-age feast.

Soon a bright array of banners and pennons were carried into the courtyard. Two ranks of youths armed with shields and blunted wooden swords were drawn up opposite each other. One contingent wore the blue and white that marked them as Talek's men and the others were decked in black and red with Inrek's insignia marked on their shields.

From their balcony, the king and queen surveyed the preparations for the mock battle. Carila dropped her handkerchief, signaling the contest to begin. The melee that ensued proved to be more of a friendly brawl than a battle, but the young women watching from the balcony opposite the royal pair sighed and screamed with every stumble or blow.

Malisa, the princes' youngest sister covered her ears when an excited lady let out a shrill yell. She glanced at her older sister, Lafina, and rolled her eyes toward the nearby exit from the balcony. Lafina nodded and detached herself from a chattering courtier who had fast hold of the princess's arm while she exclaimed at the courage and grace of Inrek and Talek.

They tried to make their way through the noisy crowd, but grasping hands and eager attempts to engage them in discussions about their brothers delayed them.

"Where are you going?" Dariya asked.

"I am going to fetch my favorite kerchief," Lafina said. "I have decided to bestow it on the winner."

"I'll come with you Lafina," Dariya said, pushing herself between the two sisters and grasping Lafina's hand. "Malisa is hardly more than a child. Surely we will be back in time to see the end of the contest,"

Malisa stared with royal disdain at the encroaching flirt and Lafina shook off Dariya's hand. "I want to be alone with my sister," she said firmly.

Dariya winked at the princess. "I suspect you simply need to use the privy."

She turned back to another girl and giggled. "I think the cook put too much silska in the royal breakfast."

The small slander spread to the sound of arch laughter and Malisa became even more anxious to escape the press of over-scented, under-washed bodies. A gap in the crowd appeared just ahead of her and she grabbed her sister's hand and hurried through the doorway to the room within. When they were inside the palace, they quickly turned aside into a servant passage hidden behind a screen and waited in concealment for a few moments to make sure that none of the fawning female courtiers had followed them.

When it seemed safe, they hurried through the room and into the corridor. Once again they checked to see if they were followed before climbing to the central tower that overlooked the wide courtyard where the games were being held. With a disregard for heights that would have been familiar to their mother, they sat on the battlements and watched the melee.

"I never before noticed how many ninnies live in Zedekla," Malisa said as a particularly piercing screech reached them from the balcony they had recently deserted.

"They weren't so bad before they began to compete for our brothers," Lafina reminded her. "I can hardly wait until either Talek or Inrek is chosen heir apparent and the silly girls won't have to hang suspended. If any of them really had affection for either Inrek or Talek, they would focus on the one they care for and not wait until the heir is announced before they show a preference."

"I think Dariya favors Inrek but her uncle is guiding her. He wants to make certain she is the next queen, whichever twin is king," Malisa mused. "I think I'll look for a husband among the Janakan heirs if one of our brother's marries Dariya. She already treats the two of us as if we were her inferiors."

"I agree. She may be the prettiest of the contestants to be queen, but she 's loyal only to her uncle. I wish there were some way we could ensure that she doesn't get what she wants. If Inrek is named heir, she is almost certain to cozen him into marrying her. I'm not so sure about Talek. He smiles back when she flirts with him, but lately he avoids her company."

Malisa pensively studied the crowded balconies overlooking the game court and saw the gaunt form of Rosik, watching the mock battle from the small balcony outside his office. The melee ended and Rosik stepped back inside.

Malisa leaped up from her precarious seat on the battlement and grabbed her sister's hand. "Perhaps there is something we can do."

Lafina did not waste her breath in protest, but followed Malisa's pell-mell descent to the corridor below. When they came in sight of the counselor's door, they saw him securing the lock and preparing to leave.

"Rosik, please stop," Malisa called as she hurried after her father's chief counselor. The old man turned and waited for the lithe young princesses with a smile lighting his craggy face.

"What is so urgent child?" he asked when they skidded to a stop in front of him.

"Lafina and I are worried about the way the women of the court treat Inrek and Talek," Malisa said.

"I think the young women of the court are most attentive to your brothers," Rosik replied with a chuckle.

"Of course they are," Lafina said, "but have you noticed that none of them has risked showing a preference for either prince? They are waiting for the announcement of which is to be the heir. Meanwhile they make nuisances of themselves pretending to be best friends with Malisa and me."

"There's no genuine emotion in any of them," Malisa declared with a gesture of disgust.

Rosik considered their assertions and nodded at the justice of their charges. "Your concern is well founded. I hadn't considered this factor. Thank you for reminding me that political considerations can override affection when power is the prize." He bid the princesses farewell with a courteous bow and stalked away with unusual haste, anxious to confer with King Tomak and Queen Carila.

"I am surprised that you are late to our meeting," Carila teased when the counselor excused his hasty entry into the council hall.

"I have been conferring with some important advisors," Rosik said with a smile. "They cautioned me that there is intrigue in the court over the subject of which prince will be chosen as the heir."

"Who would dare advise you?" Tomak asked, his eyebrows raised in surprise. Rosik had been a fixture in the palace since the days of Farek, Tomak's father. Few would risk the implied criticism of advising him.

"Your daughters waylaid me as I left my room," Rosik said. "They told me that none of the young women of the court has shown a preference for either prince. Evidently they are waiting for the declaration of descent before they invest their emotions in the winner."

"I have noticed that Dariya, in particular, is prone to flirt with one of my sons at the same time she is holding the hand of the other," Carila said with a flash of irritation.

"She seems to prefer Inrek. She is pretty and seems quite intelligent," Tomak said. "A winning young woman, I would say."

"I doubt that the council would vote for the prince who chooses Dariya," Rosik said. "The girl is known to be extravagant in her tastes and cruel to her servants. It is no secret that she is under obligation to her uncle for his patronage."

"I did not know any of of this," Tomak said with a troubled frown.

"It is common knowledge, my dear," Carila told him. "Without her uncle's sponsorship, she would be unable to attend the functions at court. Only Semlik's purse could support her preference for the most elaborate clothing and trinkets. She has been served by five different maids and it is said she must pay more than twice as much as is usual to retain the reluctant services of the girl she currently employs."

Tomak frowned as he recalled his near betrothal to Olina who had also mistreated her servants. The last he heard of the Jaman woman, she had been charged with the death of the wife of an Orenese baron.

"If Inrek is infatuated with Dariya, we must do something," Tomak said. "Neither of our sons should be ensnared by a heartless adventuress with no real affection for him."

The discussion that followed found the royal couple in complete agreement as they worked out the details of the declaration that would be made at the dinner that evening. The young ladies who primped and paraded around the halls of the palace had irritated Carila for some time. They encroached on her privacy with witless gossip at every opportunity and treated the servants with disdain. Malisa and Lafina, were less pretentious than any of the other girls of the court.

"It's a good thing that my daughters are protective of their brothers or we might have overlooked this aspect of their courting," Carila mused.

Tomak nodded, "This clause we have added to the declaration should go a long way toward solving the problem." He turned to the trusted adviser who had been a confident of kings for many years. "Inform the council that all of them should be present at the dinner this evening."

Rosik nodded and excused himself to carry out the instruction, leaving the King and Queen alone in the council room. "It will be a challenge for our sons to meet the requirements of our decision," Carila said.

Tomak smiled. "It will be an adventure that will further prove their mettle."

Throughout the palace and the city of Zedekla beyond, groups of men and women met and exchanged rumors and hints about the coming announcement of Tomak's heir. Factions had formed that favored one prince or the other. Arguments continued long after the mock battle had been won by a narrow margin by the team led by Talek. Supporters of Inrek claimed the judges had been unfair. Some hinted darkly at bribery

Dariya's spiteful words about Malisa and Lafina were spread and twisted and taken as fact by the eager lips of gossips. Some hinted that emetics had been placed in the food of the losers of the mock battle.

A duchess from Jama had been taking wagers on the outcome of the choice, with side bets on the bride the winner would choose. Dariya found out about the betting and put up half the jewelry her uncle had provided to back her own chances at wedding the winner.

An air of almost frantic excitement filled the state dining hall when the hour neared for the dinner that would fete all the guests who had earned or could contrive to get an invitation. Extra trestles were set up to accommodate the crowd. At last the great doors to dining hall were opened and the guests poured in with a subdued roar of conversation and laughter.

The presence of the High Priest, Sergon, and his wife Kemila added luster to the event. They entered the room after everyone else had been seated and took their rightful places at the center of the head table. The sight of their glowing countenances silenced the gossip and speculation that had been rampant before their arrival. The table steward had no need to raise his wand and signal for quiet.

Sergon stood and raised his hands above his head while all others in the room bowed their chins to meet their upper chests. A moment passed in utter silence before the holy man began to speak the prayer.

"We come before the Radiance in supplication for a blessing on the house of Tharek, the bearer of the stone and the staff. We offer gratitude for the health of these two sons of Tomak and Carila. Let them go forth on their search for virtue and wisdom with hearts focused on the truth. May they find prizes worthy of their worth."

Sergon lowered his hands and sat down, but several seconds passed before others at the table realized that he had finished with his prayer. Tomak caught the eyes of his wife with a stare that mingled amusement and surprise. She nodded with a wry smile. Once again Sergon proved to be a prophet. He had given a perfect frame for their announcement.

The prayer may have led many in the dining hall to think that Sergon had reached his dotage and given to speaking nonsense, but to those who knew what would come at the end of the meal, his message had been clear and concise.

The finest pastries and freshest meats and produce had been procured by the royal kitchens. The dishes followed one another in profusion until even the healthy young appetites of Inrek and Talek were past repletion.

The final course had been designed by Sergon who remembered the event many years before when Kemila had served a similar dish to Neril and her friends at a dinner in Timora. Tomak smiled at the deceptively simple offering of fruit and cream. He had been a child at that dinner. For a moment his eyes dimmed with a sheen of tears as he remembered Manchek, but he caught the eyes of Carila on him and he smiled at her.

Molded ice, flavored and colored with fruit juice formed the fruit, a rare treat that seemed almost a wizard's trick. Even here, in the dining hall of the richest kingdom in Okishdu, it brought murmurs of delight.

Dariya had been too excited to eat and even if she had been tempted to sample some of the more tempting delicacies, her waist had been pulled so tight that she could hardly breath, let alone eat. Her bright eyes gleamed with expectation. The waiting had been long, but now she hovered on the brink of triumph, set to finally indulge in her preference for Inrek. She felt certain he had been selected heir on the basis of apparently impeccable evidence gathered by a servant to the King. Not only that, she would more than double the value of the jewelry she had pawned.

After savoring the last delicious spoonful of the shaved ice fruit, King Tomak sat back in his chair and removed a roll of scroll cloth from its pouch near his plate. When he stood, the voices of the guests, the clatter of dishes and servers, stopped. Silence heralded the announcement of which prince had been chosen as the royal heir.

"Years ago two sons were born to my queen, Carila. They were identical. The first born had a piece of red string around his wrist, but it had been carelessly tied and came off when the babies were together."

"Since then, our sons have grown and studied. Between them they have all the virtues, but only one can be King," Tomak paused and looked at Carila one last time to see if she had relented to his desire to name Inrek successor to the crown.

He received a small, distant smile that assured him that she still held her ground. He turned back to the waiting throng. "In one month the high council will meet to judge which of the princes will be named crown prince."

A hiss of surprise greeted the announcement and some lost track of the courtesy due the king and began to protest. The steward stamped his staff of office on the floor and silence once again filled the hall.

Tomak looked around and resumed reading. "The basis of the council's decision will be the woman each prince chooses to marry." At his words, a flutter of excitement ran through the hall. Dariya found several people staring at her with resentment. She preened as she waited for the king to continue.

"Wisdom, modesty and virtue will be among the qualities the council will consider. Furthermore, the future queen must not have been a resident of the city of Zedekla for at least five years."

Stunned silence followed the final words of Tomak's announcement. A moment later someone shrieked on a fading note and several young ladies rose and left table, their hopes blasted by the King's proscription of local maidens.

Dariya did not weep but grew pale and stared down the table at Inrek who shrugged when he met her tragic gaze. He averted his eyes and she quietly fainted.

"Dariya must have cared for you," Talek whispered to his brother.

Inrek's face hardened in a scowl. "If she had stopped flirting with you at any time up until this evening, I would have chosen her, even if it cost me a crown. I must set about this bride quest as soon as possible and old infatuations have no place in my plans."

Talek frowned at the thin smile that lifted the corner of Inrek's mouth, showing a slightly prominent canine tooth that gave him a wolfish aspect. Inrek seemed to take mean pleasure in Dariya's disappointment.

Murmurs of concern for their disappointed daughters and nieces from the sponsors of the hopeful maidens were followed by a bustle of men and women surrounding the princes and promoting the interests of rural cousins.

Semlik, Dariya's ambitious uncle, approached them. "Inrek, my grandniece Garla is the girl for you. She is at my country estate. Come with me now and you will see that she is the one to win you the crown,"

"Your Garla is still a child Semlik. Theoda, my granddaughter is a far better choice," General Bofar said as he grasped Inrek's shoulder and tried to drag him toward the door.

While Inrek tried to detach the doughty old man without damaging more than his dignity, others fought to get near Talek with similar claims.

Inrek brought some order to the men pursuing him by laughing and raising his hands.

"Enough. If you have a likely female in mind, leave her name and place of residence with my servant, Fremek. Tomorrow at dawn I will set forth on this most delicious quest for the best of all maidens."

Tomak resorted to having a zole horn blown to bring order to the mob. Then he raised his own hands and rebuked them. "If this turmoil continues, I will extend the requirement to read that no maiden with relatives resident in Zedekla may be considered as a fit wife for either of my sons."

His words ensured an immediate cessation of noise as the chastened courtiers retired from the dining hall. Sergon surveyed the scene with an ironic smile, but Kemila surveyed the room with stern reserve.

"I am sorry for this scene," Carila apologized. "We did not consider how much disturbance our announcement would create."

"I will not presume to counsel you," Kemila said, but her very expression made the queen feel embarrassed.

"Nonsense," Sergon chuckled. "You have forgotten the scenes that ensued when you were queen. It is one of the blessings of old age."

Kemila's face seemed to stiffen even more, if such a thing were possible, then the corner of her mouth wriggled as a memory came back and soon a hiccup of laughter followed.

"Sergon is right as usual, Carila," she admitted. "You have probably noticed a dent in the paneling above us. That row made this little disturbance of yours seem a mere annoyance. At the time I felt disgust for Manchek and his unruly mob of friends. They came quite close to burning down the palace."

"I think the victory party after the defeat of Jagga caused that dent," Sergon volunteered. "As I remember, we tossed Tagun, and his helmet that made the dent."

Fascinated by the revelations of past revelries, the royal family and their closest friends gathered closer, but Talek left the room soon after the announcement.

As soon as he could evade the eager flood of ambitious relatives, Talek slipped away to his rooms in one of the towers of the palace. He stood for nearly an hour looking out over the city and westward to the sea.

This scramble for a wife appalled him. He hoped to marry, and of course, wisdom, modesty, and virtue were important, but he knew from seeing his parent's marriage that those were not sufficient.

Even when Tomak and Carila were at odds, a tenderness in their touch and a look in their eyes that they shared with no others hinted at the love they shared. Could that felicity be found in a month of sifting through eligible maidens?

Talek had heard the story of the bridal test his father had passed to win the hand of Carila, but his mother had told him that she had chosen Tomak in her heart even before the testing began.

"Actually, I cheated," Carila had confessed. "I made sure he won all the contests, even when I had to invent one of them."

"Talek, would you talk to me?" His mother's quiet voice intruded on his thoughts. He nodded and she entered the room. "I can see you are offended by the means we've chosen to select an heir."

He waved his hand as if to dismiss her claim but she caught his hand and held it. "Hear me out. Your father has always favored Inrek. I love your brother, but I can see that with him as king, the country would be subject to his impulses and whims. You might be his counselor, but could you control his desire for action and adventure if he had an excuse to go to war when diplomacy would be a better choice? Tomorrow Inrek will begin his quest for a bride. You should make an effort to find someone as well."

Carila felt Talek's muscles stiffen under her hand and she resigned herself to failure. "I have prepared a pack for you. I will leave it here in case you decide to leave the palace."

She placed the pack on his table and then kissed his cheek before turning to leave. Talek waited until she left the room before he picked up the pack. He saw that it was sewn of simple cloth without adornment and well furnished with a set of pilgrim's robes and journey food. She must have prepared it ahead of time, knowing he would not want the pomp and attention that would attend Inrek's quest.

For a moment Talek felt a flash of amazement that she had anticipated even his resistance, then he shrugged. He would take the pack and leave the palace. If he did not go to seek a bride, at least he would avoid the pressure of his advocates who would surely begin to parade eligible maidens before him at every excuse.

Within minutes he had laid aside the embroidered finery of his feast clothing and dressed himself in the simplest and sturdiest of his hunting clothes. He replaced his supple leather slippers with a pair of well-worn boots in the Mareklan mode.

He stopped at the rack of weapons that stood near his door. First he selected a small obsidian dagger that would serve to shave him and clean small animals he caught to feed himself. The blade could be fragile compared to the jeweled bronze dagger he usually wore at his waist, but properly handled, it would serve as well or better.

He paused for a moment to consider the sword that had been a gift from Inrek on their last birthday. It had been made by a famous widow smith, but it had a jeweled hilt too gaudy for his purposes.

The last weapon in the rack hardly appeared to be a weapon. It looked more like a tent post. In fact, such staffs were sometimes used as a tent posts by the Mareklan merchants who had fashioned it.

Talek faintly remembered the events of his name day when the giant Mareklan, Thalon, had given gifts to both twins. The man had brought a jeweled ball for Inrek, a gift that should have pleased his brother. When Thalon had handed Talek the staff, he had seen that there were tears standing in Inrek's eyes. Talek had wanted to give his brother the staff, but something in the eyes of Thalon when he had bestowed the gift kept him from making the exchange.

There were other events of that day that he shied from remembering. His father had accused him of lying and sent him into a dark room with an impossible demand. His mother had intervened as usual, but it had been the first time he knew for certain that he stood second to Inrek in his father's affections.

The train of memory continued and he remembered a day not much later when he had gone into a deserted section of the garden with his staff and pretended to be Thalon in a battle with an enemy, using a windblown branch as proxy for his imaginary foe.

He had not realized he had been observed until he heard his mother's voice. "Most people think Thalon showed you a sign of disfavor by giving you this staff while your brother received a jeweled ball. But Talek, this staff is not a toy. No one may purchase a named staff of Marekla. It can only come as a gift. No ordinary metal can cut the wood. Only the hottest fire can burn it."

"Is it magic?" Talek had asked.

Carila had smiled and shaken her head. "The trees that yielded these staffs no longer grow. My mother carried the staff on her first trek."

"I guessed that it was the staff of Neril," Talek said. "It seems to be made of the same wood as the staff of Tharek oc Baroka, the royal sword."

"Tharek made the staff that houses the sword. You have often heard the tale of 'Tharek oc Baroka and how it came to be the sword of the king and his heir."

Since the day that Carila had caught him pretending to spar with a branch, Talek had often stolen away to practice his skill with the staff in the abandoned garden. He wished a Mareklan could instruct him, but Thalon never returned to Zedekla, and the other Mareklan merchants who came to the city never again presumed to visit the palace.

There were other memories associated with the staff that Thalon had given him. Talek picked up the staff of Neril and tested its perfect balance in his hand. If he had no will to seek a bride, then Inrek would have his chance to wield 'Tharek oc Baroka. "I hope he is worthy of his weapon," Talek whispered. For himself, the named staff of his ancestors would have to prove sufficient.

After Talek decided on the carrying the staff, he took a plain dark hooded cloak from his clothing chest. The light outside had faded. He should pass unnoticed in the gloom of dusk.

He looked back toward the hallways where sounds of celebration still sounded. The faint sound of footsteps ascending the stairs made him pause. Moments later his sisters, Malisa and Lafina appeared at the top of the staircase.

"Good, we've found you before you set out," Malisa said as they swiftly glided toward him with a grace bought with hours of practice. He remembered when they had bounded like young hounds, their skirts up around their knees.

"When did you become such proper young ladies?" he asked with a smile.

Lafina gave vent to a chuckle that would have dismayed her mistress of court deportment.

"Brothers never notice," she said. "I've already received three offers of betrothal."

"But you are much too young," Talek said.

"Even I have received an offer," Malisa revealed. "Just because you and Inrek have taken so long to find a bride doesn't mean other young men are so backwards."

"But other young men have my sisters to encourage them to thoughts of romance," he said with a small bow and a teasing smile. His cloak slid aside and revealed his journey bag.

"Mother said you were leaving, alone and without ceremony," Malisa said, bringing the conversation to the object of their visit. "Lafina and I have packed a few treats for you."

Although there were tears in his sisters' eyes, neither tried to dissuade him. He tucked their small offerings of dried fruit and sweetmeats into his pack and hugged each of them.

When he kissed their cheeks he tasted the salt of the tears they couldn't hide. The men who married them would be fortunate. He hoped he would do as well someday.

They accompanied him as far as the narrow door that led from the palace by the same path Thalon had taken years before. After clasping their hands and promising not to take unnecessary risks, Talek made his way through the modest exit. He swiftly left the city before the watch marched out of the palace gate and the zole horns sounded to begin curfew.

Within an hour of steady travel at a fast pace, he came to the main crossroads where the pilgrimage road from Janaka met the road to Tedaka. To the west, well behind him, lay the sprawling city of Zedekla, dominated by three structures; the gold and blue of the palace, the black of Orqu's temple, and the white shrine of the Radiance.

To the east lay the rich countryside of old Virdana that Inrek would probably search for a bride. In the north stood the great wall of mountains wherein lay the city of Janaka where his mother had grown to womanhood. To the south lay the shrine city of Timora

Talek held the staff loosely in his hand and wondered which way to turn, then impulsively he raised the staff and balanced it on his curled fist. With a flick of his fingers he gave it a spin and for the first time in his life, that he could remember, he left the direction of his future to chance.

The spin slowed and the narrow end of the staff pointed south before dipping and sliding to the ground. With a nod to fate, Talek lifted his pack and set off along the road to Timora. White stones marked the path and Talek walked late into the night following the pale track under the light of a full moon.

Chapter 4 The Quest

Inrek turned over in his bed and wrestled with his covers. Something disturbed his dreams and woke him. Soft sounds of weeping came from outside his door. His servant Fremek should have driven away whatever supplicant lingered there and Inrek lunged up from his bed prepared to give the man a scold, then he recalled that he had ordered Fremek to spend the night in the library with a set of maps and a list of names and villages. Tomorrow, when they set forth on the quest for a bride, Inrek would be well prepared to sample the offerings with efficiency and dispatch.

Finding a bride should not be much different from planning a successful military campaign. He had already ordered the steward to prepare provisions for his porters and a few Kumnoran teamsters who would be along to carry the heavier items on their wagons.

He relaxed on his bed again but the feminine whines and whimpers from the hallway kept him from falling asleep. He would have to handle the matter himself.

He flung back his covering and lurched up from the bed, stubbing his toe in the process. With an oath that would have shocked his father, he stalked to the door and grabbed the latch. In the darkness he caught his finger in the mechanism and the pain of the ripped fingernail sent his anger up another notch. By the time he opened the door, he felt ready to scream with rage. He stepped out of his room and nearly tripped over the huddled female who tumbled forward. He reached down and pulled the woman roughly to her feet.

The lamp in the hall had been dimmed with a cover of pierced stone and Inrek peered at the pale face distorted with woe. Long hair tumbled forward and covered her brow and eyes, but something in the pouting shape of her mouth and the dimpled chin reminded him.

"Dariya, by the demon, what are you doing here?" Inrek demanded.

"Save me!" she cried, flinging her arms around his waist and burrowing her head into his chest.

"Be quiet, someone could see you," he hissed. He brusquely detached her clinging arms and dragged her into the room before shoving the door shut and lifting the night shield from the lamp on the wall nearby. When he had adjusted the flame to burn brighter, he turned and looked at Dariya.

There were scratches and bruises on her arms and neck. Rips and stains marred her clothing. She wore no jewelry. Dariya pulled her hair aside to uncover her eyes, revealing her ears. The lobes were bleeding where her earrings had been ripped away.

"Were you assaulted by a thief?" he asked.

"No," she whimpered. "When my uncle Semlik found that I had wagered and lost half the jewelry he leased for me he tore everything else off me but my clothes and locked me in my room after emptying the chests and closets of all my clothing. He has gone to find an Orenese servant seller to make back the debt I owe him."

"It is illegal to sell servants in Zedekla," Inrek said.

Dariya sighed. "Semlik is not overly concerned with legalities. He has friends among the priests of Orqu. It is they who have contacts with the servant sellers. I shudder to think what the demon worshipers do with the servants they purchases."

"They would not dare to break the law with their old practices," Inrek protested. "My father has agents among them who make certain they stick to sacrificing dalas and other animals. You need not worry that you would have been sold for such a purpose. But tell me, how did you escape?"

"I made a rope from the braid on my gown and let myself down to the balcony on the room beneath mine," she said with a slight smile.

Inrek laughed and forgot his anger. "Well done, I would have paid a dozen enas to see you make the descent. It is something I would expect of my sisters, not someone like you. Even so, you were stupid to wager so much that you risk losing your freedom."

"I wagered that you would be named the heir," Dariya retorted. "I thought you had your father's favor."

Inrek smiled and reached out to lift her chin with a tender gesture. "I will be the heir. Your wager will be won and you can repay your uncle in a month. You only need to find a hiding place until I return to Zedekla with a bride."

Dariya pouted. Then she turned her head and nuzzled Inrek's fingers. Reflexively Inrek pulled her close enough to kiss her.

The few rational thoughts in Inrek's head concerned Dariya's probable fate if she were sold as a servant by her uncle. He uttered a curse when a knock brought him to his senses. Fremek's high voice penetrated the door.

"Hide behind the bed," Inrek hissed at Dariya.

As soon as she had scrambled out of sight, Inrek opened the door and scowled at his servant. "What is so important that you must disturb my sleep?" he growled.

"I went to Talek's room an hour ago to ask him for the maps of eastern Virdana he had borrowed from the library. He is gone. I waited for him, but I noticed that there were a few things missing from his room. The Mareklan staff he values so much is gone from the weapons rack, but sometimes he practices with it in the garden so at first I thought he was practicing before he slept."

"I am losing patience with this story," Inrek growled.

"When he didn't return, I made a thorough search of his room," Fremek said. "His cloak is missing along with his hunting boots. He stole the march on you!"

"By the demon!" Inrek cursed. "I should have guessed that he would sneak away while I made proper preparations for my quest. But what can he do with only a few hours start and no support train?"

Fremek shook his head. "You speak wisdom, master. Your brother will be a poor rival dressed in plain clothing and carrying a staff when you are arrayed in all the finery befitting a prince with a retinue to match your consequence. I am sorry I disturbed you."

"Think before you bother me again," Inrek replied. "Wake me as we previously arranged. I need a good sleep before I set out tomorrow."

As soon as he had shut the door on Fremek, Inrek went to the bed and reached for Dariya's arm. "Come, you must not stay here. It is mere chance that Fremek did not try the door and interrupt us. He is loyal to me, but not to the extent that he wold risk his own place. If I am found with a courtesan, my hopes to become heir are dead."

"I am not a courtesan!" Dariya hissed.

"What other fate awaits you," Inrek asked. "What other kind of woman would be here alone with me, only too eager to let me do as I please when you have no hope of marrying me?"

"I love you!" she cried.

"Be quiet!," he snarled. "Fremek may be lingering outside the door. He could decide to cast his fate with my brother if he thinks I am reckless."

"What can I do?" she whimpered. "I have nothing. If I return to my family, they will turn me over to my uncle rather than pay my debts."

Inrek dropped her arm and stalked over to his treasure chest. He shielded his movements from her while he worked the puzzle lock. He considered a few heavy gold chains and lifted a stack of coins, but the glitter of a jeweled brooch caught his eye. He had received it as a gift from Semlik; an ill-concealed attempt to influence his choice when Dariya still had a chance to win his favor. He lifted it and tested the weight of the gold, then added a few coins and closed the chest.

Dariya stood at the end of the bed when Inrek turned around. He tossed the brooch and the coins on the bed. "Take them. The coins can get you away from Zedekla with a new wardrobe in a closed litter. The brooch should buy you a place in Jaman society."

When Dariya saw the gleam of jewels in the ornament she smiled. "Semlik would be furious to know you've given this to me.

He said I should cozen you into giving it to me once we had wed, then return it to him."

She looked around the room. "Give me a token to remember you by. I like that bauble on the shelf near your bed. Surely it is nothing of great value."

Inrek glanced at the filigree ball she pointing to and for a moment he considered tossing it to her, but whenever he looked at the ball he found a source of anger against his brother. For years the ball had represented the slight that Thalon had given him when he bestowed the Mareklan staff on Talek and had given Inrek only a bauble. Over the years that resentment had given him the edge that had won him a firm place in his father's affections. Otherwise he might have slacked his efforts when they sparred or competed.

When he did not respond to her request, Dariya walked over to the shelf and picked up the jeweled ball.

Inrek shook his head when she rolled it in her hands and listened to the faint rattle it made when disturbed.. "Put it down, Dariya."

"Listen, there is something loose inside," she said. "It is broken, Inrek, but I don't mind. I like these old antiques."

He grabbed it from her and set it back on the shelf. "You are a greedy shant. I have told you no. Now leave."

"I will be in Jama if you ever want me." She bent down and scooped up the golden coins and gaudy brooch from the bed where he had tossed them.

When he had locked the door after her, he stared at the ball. It had been years since he had disturbed it and he had forgotten that it rattled. He sensed that he might be able to remember what made the sound, but he shied from making the effort.

He dropped his eyes from the lattice ball and restored the night shield to the lamp near the door. With darkness, the lingering odor of Dariya's perfume became more noticeable and he recalled her invitation to find her in Jama. "I doubt I could afford her," he muttered to himself before crawling into his bed and settling the covers.

Fremek had no need to wake him. Inrek woke and bathed before the servant came to knock on his door. "Bring me the wirra trimmed tunic I asked you to mend," Inrek ordered before the other man could speak.

"I have it here," Fremek answered, lifting the garment from under another tunic he had draped over his arm. "Do you think it wise to wear your finest clothing when you set out?"

"Word will run ahead with plenty of details of what I wear. I must begin well dressed," Inrek answered. "Have you polished my boots?"

"I thought you would ride in a litter and have no need of boots," Fremek explained.

"I do not plan to ride in a litter like an old lady and the wirra trimmed tunic is comfortable and cool. Polish my boots and bring them to me. You can eat your breakfast once we set out."

Fremek bowed his head and hurried away to do Inrek's bidding. He fumed at himself as he labored over Inrek's boots. He had originally been assigned to serve both of the princes when they returned from their Ritual Washing in Timora ten years before, but Talek never asked him to do anything he could do himself. Indeed, Inrek's demands for service soon took most of Fremek's time. Talek seldom called on him for assistance.

As a mother will love the child she tends daily, Fremek had begun to adore Inrek and resented Talek for dismissing his service. He tried to anticipate everything his young master might need, and he felt angry with himself for failing to realize that Inrek would wish to appear at his best when the caravan left Zedekla.

When Fremek returned with the boots, Inrek asked him to search for a missing buckle. Leaving his servant to search, Inrek hurried down to the family dining room where his parents and sisters waited for him to begin breakfast.

Fremek had cleaned the room the day before while Inrek sparred with Talek and he doubted he would find the buckle which had been missing for more than a week. Nevertheless, he began to search the corners and lifted chests and chairs away from the walls. Finally he bent down and peered under the bed. As he had expected, he saw no gleam of metal, but a piece of glittering blue cloth had been caught on one of the metal pegs that held the bed together.

Fremek retrieved the bit of fabric and examined it. A sly smile stole across his face. He had detected a scent when he had come to Inrek's room the night before, but he thought one of the coutiers had given Irek a gift of unguent. The idea that his master might be so bold as to entertain a woman in his room had not occurred to him. The small fragment could help him identify the dress from which it had been torn. He would keep his eyes open. Surely a garment made from such rich material would not be discarded for the lack of such a tiny piece.

He would watch for mends on dresses that matched the color and material of this scrap. In time he would know which of the women in the palace had spent time with Inrek, then he would have the means of insuring that Inrek never discarded him for another servant. In his hands he held his promise of security for many years to come.

No heir of Zedekla should break his vow of chastity, but who but himself and the girl who had attracted Inrek's notice would know that the prince had misbehaved?

Fremek began to whistle as he restored the room to order. If it were not for his unusual absence from his own room nearby, Inrek would not have dared the tryst. Surrounded by servants and guards, members of the royal family seldom found real privacy.

Fremek realized that Talek had completely escaped the net of guardians and servants that might keep him from betraying his vows of virtue. The thought of what use the young man might make of his freedom brought a sly smile to the servant's face. Perhaps he could promote his master's cause by dropping insinuations and hints in the ears of other servants. He might even displace the tryst that had taken place in Inrek's room to Talek's empty quarters by hiding the fragment of cloth in some corner and then bringing a witness with him when he 'discovered' it..

With that thought in mind, Fremek hurried down the corridor and climbed the coiling stairs that led upward to Talek's tower apartment. To his delight, he heard women's voices when he approached the door. Doubtless a few laundresses had carried Talek's clean clothing to his room. They would provide the audience he needed. He cupped the fragment of cloth in his hand and entered the room.

To his surprise, he found the two young princesses standing in the middle of the room. Malisa turned when he entered and he saw that her skirts were covered with a wide apron. A kerchief hid her hair. Lafina held a broom.

It gave him the perfect opportunity, and the best possible set of witnesses for him to work his mischief. "What are you doing in your brother's room?" Fremek asked as he sidled toward the bed where he could release the bit of cloth.

"We are cleaning Talek's room," Lafina giggled, waving her broom. "Inrek takes up all your time, and Talek doesn't like servants meddling with his things."

"It is hardly fitting for the two of you to work like servants," Fremek said.

"Our mother insists that we keep our own room tidy," Malisa said. "Talek isn't untidy, but he has neglected the sweeping and dusting."

"Let me help you move the bed if you insist on doing what servants could do better," Fremek said, moving closer to the space between the wall and the bed, his hand already opening to release the damaging piece of evidence.

"We have already moved the bed, and moved it back again," Lafina said with pride at their thorough cleaning. "We found a few borrowed maps that need to go back to the library along with a cap that his old nurse used to make him wear. From the looks of it, it has been behind the bed since he left her care."

Fremek closed his hand with a jerk before the fragment of cloth could slip through his fingers. "You are foolish to pretend that you are servants," he sneered. "It is fortunate that no others saw you here. Act the parts that fortune has given you, or those less favored will despise you for your folly."

He saw their shocked expressions and realized he had let his disappointment loose his tongue. He should not criticize them, even though he meant every word. Saying anything further would be folly. He bowed obsequiously and backed out of the room. He turned and started down the stairs when he recalled that they had mentioned some maps they had found under Talek's bed. Likely one of them had been the very map he had gone searching for the night before when he found that Talek had gone.

He felt reluctant to face the princesses again so soon after his embarrassing rebuke, but Inrek needed the map. He reversed his steps and returned to the room.

Malisa looked up with a frown. "Have you returned to upbraid us further?" she said.

"Please excuse me for my hasty words, your grace," he said with humble tones. "It is your right to clean your brother's room as a surprise for him when he returns. It shows your lack of vanity. I have returned to look at the maps you found. I think one of them shows a region of eastern Virdana where Inrek will extend his quest."

Placated by his apology, Malisa smiled and turned to retrieve the map. Lafina glared at Semek. "Why do you spend all your time taking care of Inrek while Talek's room grows dusty and unswept?" she asked.

"You said it yourself," Malisa reminded her sister. "Talek is too self-sufficient to welcome the constant attendance of a servant. It is not Fremek's fault if Talek values his privacy more than Inrek."

Lafina pouted, then she put out her hand in a gesture of forgiveness she had seen her father use to pardon those who were brought before him for judgment. Malisa giggled when she saw the formal gesture.

"I think you risk insulting Fremek," she whispered.

"No, no!" the servant exclaimed. "It is fitting for a princess to forgive as royalty forgives. It is the way a child of royalty should behave."

He hurried away, afraid to further ensnare himself in hasty words. He had never been comfortable with the easy ways of Zedeklan royalty. He had been trained as a servant in the court of Jama's Duke where standards of respect for one's betters were far more strict. He never suspected that the formality of the Jaman Duke arose from his knowledge that his antecedents were questionable.

Semek found Inrek in the courtyard inspecting the supplies that had been hastily assembled for his quest. "I doubt that we will need everything you have ordered to be packed," the prince said when Fremek joined him. "It will take more dalas than I had planned to carry such a load. We will be slowed down by all these tents and packs of food."

"We must go well-provisioned," Fremek said. "If you accept hospitality where you can give no return, resentment will follow you. When you become king, you may expect to be housed and provisioned by your subjects. It will be an honor for them, but remember, your brother has gone out dressed as a common man and will not make any demands on people. That alone may prejudice the council against you if there is any question of which has found the better bride."

Inrek scowled, but he had learned to trust the servant's judgment. "Very well. Take what provisions you think we will need. By the way, have you seen my sisters? They were up early and ate breakfast before I reached the dining room. I want to bid them farewell before we start out."

"Your sisters were busy cleaning Talek's rooms for him," Fremek said with a hint of spite in his voice.

Inrek laughed. Whatever Fremek may think of them, he loved the two girls he had seen grow from infancy into lovely maidenhood. "I'm certain Talek's room is the better for their efforts."

Fremek nodded grudgingly but he fingered the scrap of blue cloth he had intended to plant in Talek's room and wished the girls had been less assiduous in their cleaning. Now he would have to locate the woman and make certain she did nothing to compromise his master's chance to become king.

Mid morning came by the time all the provisions had been mustered, the dalas loaded and Inrek's train of quest companions assembled. Everyone felt impatient to set out. Only a few of the young men had chosen to ride in litters initially, and even they called for their valets to bring their boots when they saw that Inrek chose to walk.

Malisa and Lafina were among the family members who gathered to bid Inrek and his fellows farewell. Although he had no need of extra provisions, they had wrapped some of the same kinds of treats they had provided for Talek in small packets that Inrek could easily fit into a belt pouch. Tomak pounded his son's shoulders and gave him a brusque hug and Carila pulled him into a fond embrace. She might think Talek would make the better king, but she still cared deeply for Inrek.

"This is better than a hunt and almost as good as going to war," one of the younger men shouted to a friend over the hubbub of the crowd that had gathered.

"I prefer a hunt," his friend replied with a wry glance at the prince. "In this quest, only Inrek will return with a prize, and it won't be one he can share at a feast."

His jest passed from man to man and soon most of the young men were laughing at various replies to the complaint. Most of them had been unhappy to see their sisters and cousins in the city lose the chance to snare a prince, but they put on merry facades and laughed even harder than others who had not suffered disappointment at the feast.

Semlik tried to make his way to Inrek's side to ask him if he had seen any sign of Dariya. The courtier had not discovered her absence until an hour before when he finally went to take her from the room where he had locked her. The evidence of the twisted braid she had used to lower herself from her room prvied the only hint of how she had escaped. The servant-seller who accompanied him had suggested that she had probably taken refuge with one of the men of the court when he found that the girl had taken nothing with her.

Semlik had searched the palace in vain until a scullion recalled seeing someone sneaking up the servant passage toward the royal family's private apartments. His description of the tattered woman in a torn blue dress matched Semlik's last sight of his wayward niece. He knew of Dariya's preference for Inrek. After all, the foolish girl had bet half the jewels he had leased for her on Inrek's chances of becoming heir to Tomak. Perhaps she thought to find protection from him.

When a stiff-faced butler denied Semlik entrance to the private quarters of the royal family he bribed another servant to let him use the service passageways. His search proved fruitless. Enraged, he decided to confront Inrek directly.

Friends or family surrounded Inrek constantly and Semlik soon realized that he couldn't find a way to speak to the prince privately. Perhaps he should take his accusations of Inrek's involvement in his niece's disappearance directly to the king.

A glance at Tomak's face as he bid his son farewell made Semlik change his mind. The father would not believe any evil of his favorite son. Queen Carila might be more open to the idea that Inrek had a fault, but what could he say to her that would not leave himself open to rebuke?

He had enough sense to know that any mention of the servant seller would lead to his banishment from court. He had put Dariya forth as a girl with a wealthy family, with jewels and dresses provided by her own fond parents. If he revealed the truth of his patronage, any chance for further influence would suffer.

Fuming at his own impotence to claim justice in the matter, Semlik ceased his efforts to make contact with Inrek or any member of his clique. Perhaps it would pay him better to hasten to the country in the fastest litter he could hire and prepare to offer up his grand-niece Garla for Inrek's inspection. Although quite young, with a bit of padding here and there, some paint and a few jewels, she would be almost as pretty as Dariya, and far more malleable.

Similar thoughts formed in the minds of other men and women who had attached themselves to the court. Few questioned the decency of Zedekla's royal family , but the hangers-on who eked out a precarious existence on the fringes of power with bribery and gossip, were among the most vicious in Okishdu. A well-worn joke implied that most Jaman Dukes had graduated from the top level of Zedekla's secondary courtiers. It insulted both Dukes and courtiers.

A crowd had assembled to cheer the caravan that Inrek led on his quest for a bride. Few among them were members of the ambitious class who were in the city by courtesy of distant relatives on the council. There had been a quiet but frantic commerce in litters and porters to help the quest depart. They were eager to return to their country homes where possible candidates for Inrek's quest lived ignored because they were not lively enough for the capital. Suddenly virtue had become an asset and an the ability to converse intelligently no longer doomed a girl to failure. It seemed everyone had some quiet cousin who had been ignored.

The caravan kept a good pace for the first few hours of what remained of the morning. When the sun stood high and his belly began to grumble, Inrek called a halt near a pleasant copse where well grown trees offered shade. Servants set to work and a lavish picnic meal soon covered trestle tables. Replete after eating, Inrek did not insist on starting forth again until he rested. An hour or so later he urged his fellows to their feet, although some were clearly at the end of their stamina. Litter bearers were called forward and the weaker members of the company gratefully subsided onto the cushions of their carried chairs.

Inrek called a halt again when sunset made a fine display over the distant towers of the city. He felt disappointed that he could still make out the outlines of the palace against the sparkling golden bar of the sea, but they had started late and taken a long lunch. Tomorrow they would stop at the first large village he had marked on his map as a good place to begin his quest for a bride.

South of Inrek's campground, on the road to Talka, Semlik pressed his bearers to continue into the night. The litter he had hired to carry him into the country came complete with a boy to run errands.

Dariya had taken a tunic from the room of Inrek's servant before leaving the palace. With her breasts bound, her long hair tied back in a knot, and bangs cut to cover her injured ears and blackened eye, she felt confident that she could have passed even Inrek without being recognized. She had darkened her skin to complete her disguise. The competition for litters and bearers had given her the perfect opportunity to escape the city without spending any of the coins Inrek had tossed to her.

At first she had been terrified when Semlik hired the two bearers who had agreed to take her on as runner. Soon enough she realized that her uncle had no idea of her identity and her walk became a swagger that added more authenticity to her pretense than she realized.

Semlik called her to him and gave her an exaggerated description of his niece, urging his runner to keep a look out for the runaway. "She cannot go far without being caught," the courtier remarked to himself. "Any man who sees her will recognize her for what she is and turn her over to the nearest servant seller."

"She is a shant?" Dariya asked in a gruff, boyish voice.

Semlik nodded. "I should have recognized the type of woman she is before I wasted money on her. I made a fool of myself thinking she could capture the interest of one of the princes."

Dariya flexed her fingers and restrained the impulse to scratch out her uncle's bulbous eyes. "I'll tell the other runners I meet to look out for the woman you've described," she assured him, confident that no one would recognize her from the description Semlik provided, even if she were foolish enough to aid his search.

Before long the bearers finally refused to take another step. "There are plenty who'd be willing to hire our litter," one of them threatened Semlik when he tried to deny them payment. "We could be crippled if we continue in the dark."

Grumbling, he watched from the chair of the litter which they had placed on props while they set up a small tent where he could sleep. "I should have kept a litter of my own," he grumbled.

"If you had, your shant of a niece probably would have taken it when she ran away," Dariya said in a husky voice.

Semlik nodded and began to ramble on about the injustices life had dealt him, pouring all his woes into the apparently sympathetic ears of the runner. The bearers, weary to the bone with the pace they had kept through most of the day, ate a simple meal of matlas and cheese, then rolled up in their cloaks and fell asleep.

Dariya had a gift of listening to men; widening her eyes with interest in their rambling narratives, but she had never tried her skills on an older man before. Her muttered responses were calculated to flatter and encourage Semlik to continue his monologue. Finally, even he grew weary of his voice.

"You are a good boy. I doubt I've ever had a better servant," Semlik said after a long yawn. He reached into his hidden money pouch, revealing its location with the careless gesture, and handed Dariya a few coins. "Keep this between us. I do not doubt those bearers would rob me and take everything I own if they knew I carried this pouch."

Dariya helped her uncle make himself comfortable in the small tent and waited until she heard him snoring. An overcast sky hid the moon and stars. She felt certain no one saw her crawl into her uncle's tent and retrieve the heavy pouch he had hidden in a pocket in his right sleeve.

It seemed unlikely he would open it again until he had reached the safety of his home in Talka. She could run away with a small fortune, or she could risk continuing on in Semlik's company. If she ran, he would immediately check his money pouch. If she stayed, he might recognize her, but she would have the safety of traveling with men instead of venturing by herself through the countryside. The Elite Guard had made the pilgrim roads safe from bandits, but there were stories of outlaws preying on those who took less traveled roads.

After a few seconds of thought, she emptied the gold from her uncle's money pouch into a hidden pocket in her own stolen tunic and filled the empty pouch with small stones and shook it. It did not sound like a money pouch. She took several coins from her pocket and placed them at the top of the pouch. They clinked together when she shook the bag. Semlik did not fondle his money. He might not discover his loss for some time.

When morning came, the bearers woke and made an efficient fire, large enough to warm water for their cala, but small enough to keep from smoking and sending a tell-tale sign that might draw the attention of outlaws.

Dariya watched as Semlik made a brief gesture that tested the weight of his money pouch and breathed a sigh of relief when he gave a small nod of satisfaction. She ate her stringent breakfast of dried bread berries washed down with a cup of cala the bearers shared with her. Semlik had a packet of rich food, but he did not offer any of the delicacies to Dariya or the bearers, unwittingly healing a small breach between the servants that had begun the night before when the runner had stayed awake to listen to their client.

The bearers took up the rods that supported the chair and continued on their way toward Talka. Instead of walking ahead, where Semlik might begin to notice something familiar about her appearance, Dariya walked behind the litter. She did not see the shabby men who crept out of the bushes ahead of the first bearer and called for him to halt.

Semlik shouted for his bearer to ignore the peasants standing in his path and continue on. The peasants began shouting demands. Fearing discovery if she were captured, Dariya slipped into the bushes near the path.

She lowered herself onto her belly and crept forward until she drew near enough to watch what happened to her uncle. At first she heard confused shouts and accusations. Finally a harsh female voice shouted for quiet. "We were on our way to Zedekla to complain to the king when we saw you Semlik. What has become of our daughters and sons?" the woman demanded.

"You know the penalty for debt!" he replied. "You did not fully pay my taxes. I had no recourse but to sell a few youngsters to the Orenese."

"For ten years you have sent our children into other lands, but none have returned, even though the terms of service have passed," a man shouted. "Return our children to us, or return with us to Zedekla to be judged."

"Why should those who serve their time of service return to my estate in Talka when they have found places in cities like Jama and Orenon?" Semlik demanded. "You have no grounds to accuse me of any crime."

A howl of rage erupted from another of his tenants and it acted as a signal to his fellows. They rushed the litter. Some waved cudgels. Others stooped to pick up stones and sticks. Unwilling to suffer for their client's misdeeds, the bearers dropped the litter and fled back along the track.

Dariya did not see who threw the stone that killed her uncle, but the attack ceased as soon as he toppled from the litter and sprawled lifeless on the ground. As quickly as they had appeared, the peasants hurried away, casting looks of dread behind them.

The bearers must have lingered near enough to hear the end of the attack. They returned to the litter and moaned over the damage to its structure. "It will take hours to repair this strut," one of them growled.

"We should have waited for a better client," the other said. "What happened to our runner?"

"Those outlaws must have carried him away. He is a grubby boy, but clever. I think he'll free himself soon enough. What about this one, should we try and carry the body on to Talka?"

"From the looks of his tenants, we won't receive a friendly welcome," the other bearer said.

They rolled Semlik into a ditch and gave him a cursory covering of stones and earth. One of the men muttered a brief, almost apologetic prayer over the hasty grave, then they picked up their litter and headed back toward Zedekla.

Dariya lingered in the bushes until the sound of rodents scurrying in the underbrush assured her that no other humans were near. She considered her choices. She had come near enough her home that she could recognize the shape of the nearest hills. On the other hand, her family had virtually sold her to her uncle. She had passed as a boy for more than a day, and had profited well by the exercise. Jama remained a possibility. A true shant would not hesitate to make her fortune there.

"I am a thief, and a flirt, but in spite of what Semlik thought, I am not a shant," she told a bug that crawled over her hand. The grubby skin and broken nails from her recent adventures brought a wry twist to her lips. "I could always resort to Jama. On the other hand..." She patted the fat pouch that contained enough gold to pay back her wager with the Jaman gambler with plenty over to start a new life. She would not even need to pawn the jeweled brooch to live well for years if she ignored her debt to the Jaman.

Where should she go next if not to Jama? She recalled Fremek saying that Talek had started out early on his quest.

Dariya lay on her back and looked at the shy above. It reminded her of Timora's sacred lake that she saw on her visit to the shrine city two years before along with other pilgrims from Talka. Where better for Talek to seek a bride? She crawled from her hiding place and began the long walk toward Timora, certain she could use her wits to gain a prince.

Chapter 5 Pilgrims

When Talek began to stagger with fatigue, he stopped and made camp in a copse of trees not far from the pilgrim track. Sleep came swiftly, but only a few hours had passed when the first pale light of dawn woke him and he rose to continue his trek. He traveled along the pilgrim road, but kept the hood of his hunting tunic up to hide his face from the groups of pilgrims that he passed.

He and Inrek had visited Timora as pilgrims when they attained the age of shrine service five years before. Though they went to study and serve in the main shrine of the Radiance along with other young men and women from Zedekla, it had been a merry group, all young and eager to see new sights.

It had taken the procession of royal pilgrims six full days to travel from Zedekla to Timora, but after four days of relentless travel, Talek climbed upward to the notch that marked the northeast pass into the sacred vale and saw the distant spires of the main temple gilded by the light of late afternoon.

If he had planned to stay in the comfort of the royal family compound in the city, he would have pressed on. Less than two hour's journey would bring him to the city, but he chose to seek an ordinary pilgrim hostel. He heard the murmur of a nearby stream and decided to make camp one last time. It would be better to arrive in the city in the morning, rested and clean.

Talek made his way through a tangle of vines and bushes until he came in sight of a silver plume of falling water. A screen of foliage concealed a pleasant dell where the waterfall dashed into a small pool almost as blue as Timora's lake.

Grateful words of thanks and praise sprung to Talek's lips and he raised his hands in prayer. After cupping his hands and drinking of the crystalline water, he laid tinder for a fire and prepared a bed of branches. Finally he laid aside his travel stained clothing and slipped into the cool depth of the pool.

He felt tempted to linger, but the light had fading and he knew the danger of losing too much of his body heat to the water. He staggered to the edge of the pool with his teeth chattering and pulled a fresh loin cloth and tunic from his pack. He had just finished dressing when he heard screams and curses coming from the pilgrim track.

Talek grabbed his staff and scrambled through the overgrowth. When he burst through the last barrier of brush and vines, he saw three men in the gray and purple cloaks worn by Orqu's priests wrestling with two women.

One of the women was lithe and young. Her strength and will to escape had frustrated her would-be captors. The other woman was nearly as round as she was tall. Her hair gray and grizzled with age, but she gave no quarter to her assailants, biting and kicking the man who held her.

"Kill the old woman if you must," one of the demon's dogs shouted. "Take the girl alive. It has been too long since Orqu tasted the blood of a Mareklan."

Talek's forward rush caught the villains by surprise. He brought his staff down on the head of the largest of the men, sending him crashing to the ground.

Almost without pause, the staff whirled again, taking another man under the chin and sending him sprawling. The third man dropped his hold on the maiden and fled.

"Come with me, quickly, these rats usually travel in packs. That coward will soon be back with others." Talek said as he scooped up the bundles the women had dropped when they were attacked. He led them through the brush to the camp he had made only an hour before.

"Wash yourselves and drink." He told them as he swiftly rolled his pack together and scuffed over the evidence of his camp.

When he set out at a quick pace along the rocky bed of the stream that ran from the pond, they did not hesitate to wet their feet, but followed him until they came to a ledge where the foliage gave way to rocky ground. Talek gestured them to leave the stream. They left no tracks but the quickly fading moisture of their feet on the rocks. The old woman proved remarkably agile for her bulk, leaping from one rock to the next with no hesitation.

He urged them upward to higher ground while his gaze swept the face of the mountain on either side. Wherever the rock stood clear of vines and trees, cavities and crevices pocked it. Talek saw an area of darkness screened by a dense growth of nop trees and thorny bushes. Hoping that it was a cave and not merely a trick of the fading light, he led the women toward it.

At first he thought he had been mistaken, but when they explored behind the trees, they found a low cavity just barely big enough to admit them if they crawled. The cave widened out a little inside, but when Talek reached out and dragged the branches of the nop trees back across the opening little space remained.

"Serin, we are blessed by the Radiance," the older woman gasped as she hunched down near the mouth of the cave.

"Be quiet until we're certain they have passed." Talek whispered.

They huddled together in silence when they heard the muttered curses of a band of men making their way over the mountainside below them. Several men climbed up the rocks toward them. Talek whispered a prayer that their pursuers wouldn't notice the darkness that betrayed the opening of the cave. A stone rattled and they heard the cry of a man falling from the narrow ledge at their left.

"Blundering idiot!" a voice sneered.

"The Mareklan protect their own, Blar, but Bildug will make us account for our failure," came the voice of one of the original attackers. "All we have for our troubles are bruises and lumps. Why is the Mareklan woman here? I thought none of them had come out of their city since the abduction of Neril."

"Only Orqu knows. It seems we have failed to take the prize for now. Post spies on all the tracks leading to Timora. We have ten days until the day of sacrifice. If we can bring the prize of a Mareklan maiden to blood the new altar in Zimor, our reward will be worth the trouble."

The hidden trio heard the men scramble down the hill to their injured companion who received no sympathy as they forced him to stand and limp away with them. Talek watched as the Orquians headed away. He had seen six men, but he had no idea of how many belonged to the band or if they had set watchers on the track.

"We'll have to stay under cover until well after dark," he whispered. The women nodded and only the faint sound of their breath disturbed the silence. Finally a bird landed on a branch directly in front of the cavity and a mountain paka came snuffling into their hiding place, making a scrabbling noise on the stone when it discovered its error and turned its tufted tail to scurry away.

"It seems we are safe for now," Talek murmured.

"Should we stay here for the night?" the older woman asked.

"It is crowded, but I hesitate to make our way down the mountain in the dark," he answered.

"I had looked forward to a more comfortable bed than this," the girl said ruefully.

"Serin, were you and your mother going to Timora?" Talek asked.

"The name Serin is a pet name that only our family uses," Fleya said. "We haven't even been introduced to you."

Serin chuckled. "Mother, surely someone who saved our lives is entitled to call me Serin."

Fleya squinted at Talek who still wore the evidence of their ordeal in the grime on his clothing and marks on his face from huddling among the dusty rocks. Her caution dissolved with a smile and she nodded, "I agree. I am Fleya of Woran Clan. We're going to Timora so that Serin can receive her Ritual Washing in Timora's lake. Afterwards we plan to serve for two weeks in the shrine and study at the sacred library. Now that I've told you so much, tell us who you are."

"I am Talek. We must go to Timora early in the morning before the villains who attacked you return to make a more thorough search."

They shared a meal of matlas and dried breadberries washed down with sips from the flask of nuka juice that Talek provided. Talek huddled next the opening while the women arranged themselves on either side of the small cave. Soon the sound of gentle snoring came from the older woman. Talek could not see the girl, but he doubted that she had fallen asleep.

His heart seemed to bound inside his chest. In the past few hours he had met with more excitement than ever in his life before. He had validated the long hours of solitary practice with the staff, and he had met the dreaded fanatics of the Orquian cult and temporarily defeated them. All of that should explain the heightened sense of life he felt, but he suspected that Serin played a part in his inability to fall asleep.

When dawn began to lighten the sky, Talek slipped from the mouth of the cave and worked his arms and legs to relieve the pain of the cramped hiding place. The maiden emerged and stretched her arms after shielding a wide yawn with her hand.

"You must report the attack last night to the Guardians of Timora," Talek said.

"What of your brothers, the other Marekla merchants. Won't they help us against the Orquians?" Serin asked.

"You ask me that?" Talek asked. "The Orquians tried to capture you because they thought you are Mareklan."

"But I'm not Mareklan," Serin said, "I'm from the hills near Talka of the kingdom of Zedekla. My father could not make the journey with harvest so near."

"Neither am I Mareklan," Talek answered, hesitant to tell her more. "Our identities won't make much difference to our enemies if they catch us alone. Last night we had the advantage of surprise, but they could be laying in wait along the pilgrim road. I can see the city from here, perhaps it would be better if we struck out through the forest instead of returning to the track."

Fleya emerged from the cave behind them and found little room left on the narrow ledge. She peered down the mountain and westward to the far end of lake where the pale buildings of the sacred city glowed in the dawn. "I agree that we should avoid the track. Don't hesitate because of me."

Talek assessed the choices again. He would have hesitated to expose Fleya to the rigors of the wilderness, but she had already proved herself. Who could suspect that such a woman, old and round and full of words, could stay silent and keep up the rigorous pace he had set the night before? He turned and let himself down to the next ledge then held up his hand to help first Serin, then Fleya down from their hiding place.

They began their progress across the mountain. Fleya wielded a broad bladed knife against the worst tangles of vine and brush and they soon reached the foothills where wilderness gave way to orchards and gardens.

A tangle of paths screened by tall bushes bordered the neat plantations and the three travelers wound their way toward the city. A trek that would have taken only two hours by the main track took half the morning.

Talek led the two women to the verges of the forest near the north gate of the sacred city. He stopped when they were well into the protection of the trees where they stopped to rest and break their fast. Talek sat with his back against a tree and watched while Fleya and Serin prepared an ample meal. His gaze wandered over the fine features of the maiden, and he wondered at the differences between the two. Fleya had the blunt features and button nose of a Virdanan, but Serin's narrow, high bridged nose reminded him of his sisters, two of the loveliest maidens in Zedekla

He recalled how valiantly Serin had fought off the Orquians. She had shown quick intelligence in following his directions. A hope took root in his mind and heart. Perhaps he had found a woman who could fill the emptiness he felt when Zedekla's flirts had teased him.

After eating, while the women tidied away their dishes and pots, Talek's lack of sleep caught up with him and he dozed. The sounds of a flute woke him and he realized that they were closer to the edge of the forest than he thought.

He stood and quietly stole toward the sounds of people talking to one another. At the edge of the forest he peered through the leaves that protected him from sight of the track. A large company of pilgrims were passing along and were nearing the gate to the city. From their mixed appearance they came from several kingdoms and were met together for the first time. It seemed unlikely they would notice the arrival of a few extra pilgrims.

Talek hurried back to Serin and her mother. "Come, there is a group of pilgrims on the road. We can join them and enter into the city without drawing undue notice."

"Serin, your clothing is wrinkled," Fleya fretted. "Oh how I'd hoped we could arrive in good style. Here, wipe your face and comb your hair at least,"

The maiden smiled and submitted to her mother's anxious care without complaint. She met Talek's grin with a wink. The thought that had been planted an hour earlier bloomed into a full blown realization. The idea of a bride quest still troubled him but even if he did not win the kingdom, to have such a maiden as Serin for a wife would be prize enough for any man.

As Talek had hoped, no one seemed to take notice of them when they stepped from the side of the road and joined the others. Most pilgrims stopped for the night in the small inns that dotted the pilgrimage road, but there were always those who chose to carry the goal of simplicity to its ultimate expression of camping under the stars. More than a few pilgrims had spent the night in the forest outside the gate, taking care to leave no debris behind them when they woke and made their way into the city.

"You must be our guest in our clan hostel." Fleya insisted when they were well inside the gate and were making their way toward the main shrine. "I'm sure the elders would welcome one who has shown such service to clan members."

Talek accepted her invitation. "I will stay in the hostel to keep an eye on the two of you. I'm still wary of the men who tried to take Serin captive. First we must report the attack to the Guardians."

Fleya nodded but she still seemed uncertain, "What will we do if they try to take her again?"

"Be assured that I'll stand guard whenever Serin walks abroad in the city," Talek promised, happy to take advantage of Fleya's suggestion. He had come to Timora before as a prince of Zedekla. He had stayed with his grandparents who lived in deceptively simple luxury in the house reserved for the retired royalty of Zedekla.

As a prince, he had been surrounded at all times by careful guardians. He had yearned to spend time as an ordinary pilgrim, studying in the great library and serving in the rituals of the shrine. Instead, after he and Inrek had been given their ritual washing in the sacred waters of Timora's lake and blessed in one of the lakeside pavilion, they had been led from banquet to festival to reception. The round continued daily with only token appearances at the library and the shrine.

Woran Clan had established their hostel in a narrow side street near the center of the city. The hostel provided simple comfort and quiet. Many of the pilgrims staying there were elders, serving the shrine for a full year in celebration of attaining their sixth decade of life. Their calm dignity enhanced the sacred duty they had come to serve.

When they entered the gate, Talek noticed a small hut near the wall just inside the front entrance. When their host hurried forward to welcome them, he asked its purpose.

"We post a watchman there to guard the gate in unruly times," the host explained. "It has not been used for years."

"May I stay there?" Talek asked. "We were attacked by fanatic demon dogs of the Orquian Cult at the pass into the vale and I want to make sure they do not follow us here."

"You must certainly stay in the watchman's room if you are willing," the host insisted. I will send a message to the Guardians. They will want to interview all of you." He summoned one of his children and sent him running with the message for the Guardians.

Talek stepped into the hut and noted that it had been kept clean even after years of disuse. The furnishings were simple; a bench chest and a low cot of corum hide stretched on a wooden frame. He dropped his pack into the bench chest and accompanied Serin and Fleya into the garden courtyard of the hostel. The dormitories for men and women were on either side of the courtyard with the dining hall and chapel making up the side that faced the gated wall. Arched doorways and carved friezes along the lintels of the windows and second story balconies provided the utilitarian structure with an air of graceful elegance.

Talek glanced through the doorways of the first floor rooms of the dormitories and saw that they contained the baths and were otherwise used to hold supplies for the hostel and the baggage of the guests. There were no exterior windows as far as he could see. He approved the design of the hostel. It would be easy to control access from his post near the gate.

After Serin and Fleya had chosen their places in the women's dormitory, they returned to the garden courtyard and began to plan what they would do in the afternoon after the daily rest and prayer period that the Timorans called Enven. Fleya wanted to go directly to the shrine, but Serin expressed eagerness to view the original scrolls of Irilik on display in crystal cases in the main library.

Two of the Guardians of Timora interrupted their discussion. Anget had neared the end of his service as a guardian, but his son Anser had become head of the organization in his father's stead. Both men were tall and erect in stature, but Anser's eyes were calm and a slight smile lingered around his mouth. His father's years of experience fighting evil and the sorrow of losing his only daughter had graven lines in his face that gave him an aspect of permanent sorrow.

Talek saw the instant light of recognition in the eyes of the two Guardians as soon as they met him. Apparently they realized that he had a reason for the plain tunic and worn boots that were the only disguise he wore, because neither of them gave any sign that they were addressing royalty. "Are you the young man who reported an assault by Orquian fanatics?" Anser asked.

"I am the one they seemed to want," Serin said.

Anser looked at her with an expression of surprise. "A Mareklan maiden?"

"No, not at all," Fleya quickly protested. "This is my daughter, Breya Woranclan."

Anget had been staring at the girl but he looked away after a brief flash of hope died in his shadowed eyes. The girl had such a look of his lost daughter, but it had been nearly eighteen years since Lissa ran away, leaving her infant daughter in the custody of Thalon. Thalon had never returned to tell them how she liked her new home. When Anget asked Mareklan merchants about their kinsman, they stared at him in silence. Doubtless Serin had been raised with a disdain for her Timoran roots.

Wrenching himself away from unhappy memories, Anget asked a question of his own. "Did you hear any names mentioned when you fought them off?"

"They mentioned Bildug," Talek recalled. "I thought he headed their temple in Jama."

"Bildug has risen in the ranks of Orqu's cult," Anser said. "Our informants say he has become chief priest of the central region of the cult which includes Zedekla and old Virdana."

"They mentioned that they wanted my daughter as a sacrifice to blood the altar of their new temple in Zimor." Fleya recalled.

"This has evil import for the rulers of Zedekla," Anser said with a hard look at Talek. "The cultists who use the old pyramid claim that they keep the law and sacrifice nothing but animals. If Bildug is directing his minions to find young women, we can only assume that he is one of the fanatics who keeps the old ways."

Talek wanted to protest that his father kept a strict surveillance on the Orquians in his kingdom, but to do so would alert the two women to his real identity. He simply nodded and silently vowed to himself that he would follow up on the warning when he returned home to Zedekla.

"I think the demon's dogs tried to abduct you because by some accident of ancestry, you look very much like a Mareklan maiden, Breya," Anser told Serin. "It has been more than forty years since the cult intruded on Timora when they attacked the Mareklan enclave and tried to abduct Neril. We must alert our officers to keep watch. Would you like us to provide you with a guard?"

Serin looked from Talek to her mother. Fleya shook her head, and Talek spoke up. "I would appreciate your help. I will watch after Breya. Please recommend a man who I could hire to watch outside. I have surveyed the hostel and it could be made as secure as any fortress. The only entrance is through the front gate, and I will sleep in the watchman's hut."

Anser nodded. "We will increase our watch on the city gates and leave you to look after Breya, but if you notice anything suspicious, send for us immediately. I will send some men for you to hire to watch the hostel."

After the guardians departed, some of the other members of Woran clan who had kept a discreet distance during the interview moved forward and expressed their concern for Serin's safety. "It is a shame that the filthy cult of Orqu is not banned throughout Okishdu," one of the elders said.

"We must convince our rulers to make laws forbidding the worship of Orqu," an old farmer urged as his work gnarled fist pounded the edge of a rustic stone table.

"It is a double edged blade to forbid any form of religion," an elder from Zedekla replied. "Unfortunately, laws that forbid some religions in favor of others always result in the very thing they are set to prevent. If the servants of Orqu practice human sacrifice it is murder. There are laws against murder and those laws should prove sufficient."

"But the sacrifices are done in secret," a man named Urdurit, with the characteristic shaven head of a Jaman interjected.

"The men of Marekla have tried to protect their women and children in their mountain city, but what can the rest of us do? Four young women have been abducted on the Janaka-Jama road. Nothing has been discovered about who took them or what became of them, but there is no hard evidence that they were sacrificed. There is not enough cause to arrest the Orquians for the murders according to the laws of Jama, even though it is widely suspected that the cult has returned to its old practices."

Another man nodded. "Pontic Sendika should have crushed that pack of vermin as soon as he heard of the first incident. Instead, he let the infection fester, and look what happened. His own daughter has disappeared from the palace and it is rumored that she fell victim to the cult. We should follow the example of the Tedakans and Janakans who have outlawed the practice of Orqu worship."

"Because Tomak hasn't closed the foul temple in Zedekla, the Orquians think they can do as they will. I think the Zedeklans must answer for the way we were hunted down on our way to Timora," Fleya said. She widened her eyes and glanced around meaningfully.

Talek could not let Fleya's criticism of his father go unanswered."Freedom is a first principal to those who worship the Radiance," he said impulsively. "If we deny the freedom of others to worship within the bounds of law, we betray our own cause,"

"Here in Timora, where all the land is dedicated to the Radiance, there are no monuments to the invented deities of the Orquians or others," an elder added. "But Irilik himself said that there must be freedom to commit error. Those who bring their lives and hearts to the Holy One, do so voluntarily. A soul that has no choice is like a plant without roots. It may bloom, but it is only half alive."

The others nodded or shook their heads according to their own convictions. It seemed the problem had no simple answer.

"I agree with Talek," Serin said. "I would rather go under guard for the rest of my life than sacrifice the ideal of freedom." The bruises on her slender arms gave weight to her words.

The chiming of bells from spires throughout the city brought an end to the discussion. The bells signaled the start of Enven when rest and prayer were the only occupation of all in Timora except the Guardians who kept watch to protect the holy peace of the city.

Most of the guests of the hostel retired to the chapel to pray, but some chose to walk to the shrine where they would join other pilgrims in prayer in the great chapel. Fleya, Serin and Talek joined the group going to the Shrine.

His height gave the prince an opportunity to survey the crowd and he could see that everyone around them bore the same look of devotion as they quietly proceeded up the stairs that led through the statues of heroes and saints of past years. Near the top stood the pillar topped by a green jade leaf that represented Neril. He paused for a moment and touched the base of the pillar.

Somehow his rescue of Serin made him feel closer than ever before to the valiant woman who had been the mother of his mother. His other grandparents were all familiar to him, but Neril remained a mystery. What had given her the courage to challenge tradition and make the trek out of Marekla? How had she been chosen as the one who would discover the lost Scroll of History and Prophecy that had lain concealed for four hundred years in the royal library of Saadena. He had read the scroll that told of her adventures and the actions that had saved the people of Saadena, but the mystery remained.

His grandfather, Carnat the former king of Saadena, seemed a pleasant old man and Talek found it hard to imagine that he had spent almost eighteen years as the sodden pawn of the evil queen Ayarlan. When Carnat visited Zedekla with his wife Nara and their family, he seemed the best of fathers and husbands. Yet he had once lived through the tragedy of losing a child, then a wife, then nearly lost his soul when younger than Talek himself .

The pressure of the crowd moved Talek past the pillar and he realized that Serin and her mother were several paces in front of him. He entered the chapel after them and found a place for his prayer mat some distance from where the two women had spread their mats.

When he knelt and began the period of contemplation that would prepare his mind for prayer, he focused on asking for help in guarding Serin. The reminder of what had happened to Neril impressed him with the dangers that might threaten the maiden. Talek stilled his mind and sought the feeling of peace and understanding that would help him with his task.

The bells signaling the end of Enven caught him by surprise. It hardly seemed that he had spent two hours kneeling in meditation and prayer. He rose and returned the mat to the custodian of the prayer hall, keeping his eyes out for Serin and her mother. They had stopped to greet a friend from home who stayed in the hostel of another clan.

He waited by the door for the two women to finish returning their mats and took advantage of the viewpoint to once again survey the crowded streets outside the Shrine. Two men lurking in a shadowy corner watching the crowd caught his eye. Something in the expression in their eyes warned Talek that they were not legitimate pilgrims, even though they were wearing dingy robes that might have been white if clean.

Orqu's worshipers preferred to go unwashed anf filthy, a sign that made them easy to detect. Even though the men were apparently trying to keep from being noticed, the crowd around them had parted to avoid their proximity. Talek felt convinced they were Orquians.

He stepped back into the Shrine and intercepted Serin and Fleya. "Come, I would like to see some of the other rooms in the Shrine."

Fleya's eyes widened with surprise. "I'm not certain that we should interrupt the duties of the Shrine servants with such a request."

"We won't disturb them," Talek assured her. "They are happy to show pilgrims the parts of the Shrine that are not reserved to the high priests and priestesses. Most pilgrims are like you and think it an intrusion."

As if to demonstrate the truth of his statement, a woman in the robes of a shrine servant glided up to them and nodded her head in greeting. "Is there anything you want to see?" she asked.

"I would like to see the grave of Virda," Fleya ventured hesitantly.

"Come, it is in the second garden court," the woman said.

Talek brought up the rear as they followed the shrine servant through a tall arched corridor leading away from the prayer hall. He glanced back when they turned into another corridor and saw that no one appeared interested in their exit.

They were led into a walled garden. A simple tomb of stone marked with the name of Virda in the ancient script lay in the center of the garden. The stones of the tomb were marked with lichen and worn by the touch of thousands who had come to honor Virda. She had prompted Irilik to seek the Radiance when he had grown discouraged and seemed to have lost his prophetic gift.

"The story of Virda has always inspired me," Fleya sighed. "Thank you for letting us see the garden," she told the Shrine Servant.

"It is always our pleasure to share the treasures of the Shrine," the woman replied.

Serin smiled at Talek, speaking her thanks with her eyes. Finally Fleya looked up from her contemplation of the tomb and patted her ample middle. "I am ashamed to admit it in such a place, but I am growing hungry. Could we return to the hostel now?"

"Is there an exit that would take us out of the Shrine near the street of the freya flower," Talek asked the Shrine Servant.

She nodded and without speaking, led the way across the garden and into another wing of the Shrine. She unlatched a door that led out into a narrow lane. "If you want to use this door when you return to the Shrine, use this bell and someone will open for you," she said, showing them the carved flower that twisted under her hand to make a chiming noise.

"I would venture a Tedakan designed this device," Talek said with admiration.

The woman smiled and nodded. "Tedak himself made it."

Serin touched the stone flower with her finger, then looked around. "There must be many such things in the Shrine. How do you keep track of all the history?"

"For great events and prophecies, there is the library, but for such simple things as this, the stories are passed down from one to another of those of us who serve in the Shrine," the woman said.

Fleya patted her middle in silent appeal and they bid farewell to their gracious hostess. The fragrant odor of fresh baked matlas drifted into the street from the hostel and as soon as they entered the gate into the garden court Fleya quickly followed her nose into the kitchen, gesturing for Serin to follow her.

Talek waited with the other guests who had gathered for their evening meal in the garden. The fine weather encouraged the custom of eating in the garden except for rainy days and breakfasts. Some had purchased meals from street vendors and one of them offered Talek a skewer of roasted corum. He turned it down with a smile, hoping to spend more time with Serin.

In a few minutes Fleya returned to the garden with a tray heaped with freshly grilled matlas and meat. Serin followed with another tray bearing cups and pitchers of nuka juice.

The steward of the clan house raised his arms and everyone paused while he asked a blessing on the meal. While the pilgrims gathered around the stone table and begin to eat, a young woman entered the hostel and greeted the Jaman, Urdurit.

Her hair, ornately braided and curled, made a striking contrast to her father's baldness. "The market is as boring as usual. There is a rumor that a caravan of Mareklan Merchants is expected, but for now, there is little that attracts me. I did find one small trinket, but I'll need more coins to buy it."

While she spoke, she gazed around the garden with an air of ennui. Her large eyes, enhanced by the artful application of paint, encountered Talek and brightened with interest. Her smile widened to reveal beguiling dimples and she seemed to forget her father as she glided across the garden toward the young man.

"Hello, when did you get here?" she asked with a soft lisping voice. It made such a contrast to the nasal whine she had used a moment earlier that Talek couldn't help smiling. The Jaman girl responded to his smile by moving her shoulders. The robes she wore, cut as only a Jaman tailor could or would, parted to reveal a plump knee. The girl gave a pout as if surprised and leaned to cover her knee, revealing a view of her upper chest that made Talek blush.

The prince felt embarrassed by her flagrant flirtation. Even the women of the Zedeklan court were subdued compared to the young Jaman temptress. She sat next to him without waiting for an invitation and offered no thanks when she took a cup of nuka juice from the tray Serin offered.

"I see the hostel has finally hired some maids," she said dismissively.

"Our young friend is from Zedekla," Urdurit said with a wink. "Why don't you ask him about the gossip from the court, Tepera?"

"From Zedekla?" she exclaimed, making a quick survey of his clothing. He realized then that even the plainest tunic of a prince would be finer than most men could afford. The textiles of Jama were justly famed and the girl could probably estimate to the last coin the cost of everything he wore. She looked up into his face again, her eyes widening, her lashes fluttering just slightly, tempting Talek to laugh at her.

Serin and Fleya sat down on the bench that surrounded the fountain. He wanted to go and join them, but years of training in manners had left their mark. He would try to avoid giving offence to Tepera, but he would have to find some way to discourage her.

"Which of the princes did the King name as his heir?" Tepera asked him when she saw his attention wander.

Talek realized that the news of the bride quest couldn't have reached Timora yet. "The princes were told that the decision would wait until each of them chooses a bride. They have been given a month to find someone who will qualify."

"The girls in the court must be in a dither competing for their favor," Tepera said.

"The princes can't choose anyone who has lived in Zedekla for the past five years," he told her. "Prince Inrek has already set out for the plains and will carry his search from Janaka to Tedaka in order to win the crown."

"What of prince Talek?" she asked.

"He decried the method chosen to select a king. He'd rather serve as his brother's councilor than rush about the countryside in search of a bride."

"So Inrek is searching for a bride," Tepera mused. "Will he come to Timora?"

"He began his search close to Zedekla," Talek said. "I think he hopes to find his bride soon, and perhaps he will extend his quest to Jama," Talek said a silent prayer that he would be forgiven for stretching the truth.

Tepera looked thoughtful and stood up to go to her father. She whispered furiously but Urdarit shook his head and continued placidly eating his meal.

Finally, Tepera seemed to realize that she would not be able to convince him of whatever she seemed so anxious to convey. With an absent-minded backward glance at Talek, she hurried out of the courtyard.

Relieved to see the last of her, Talek turned to where he had last seen Serin sitting with her mother. He saw no sign of either of them. He stood and looked around, then wandered toward the kitchen to see if they were helping clean up of the meal.

"If you are looking for Fleya, she said she needed her rest and took Breya up to the dormitory to retire for the night," the steward said.

Talek left the kitchen and looked around the garden. The meal had nearly finished and many of the pilgrims seemed to be imitating Fleya's example. Some of them were stifling yawns.

Talek fought back a yawn, reminded that he had scanted himself on sleep for several days. If he planned to served as a watchman for Serin, he would need to be alert when they left the hostel. Since it seemed he would have to wait until morning until he saw her again, he made his way to the hut he had chosen and found a neat pile of bedding on the low cot. Had it been the steward who had provided for his comfort? He lifted a coverlet and found an edging of neat embroidery around the edge. A faint scent issued from the cloth and he thought he recognized the scent of freya flowers, the blossoms that were grown in southern Zedekla near Talka where Serin had been raised.

He smiled. Perhaps he had not been wise to let Tepera ensnare him with her coy conversation, but if either Fleya or Serin had thought to share these coverings with him then he still held a place in their plans for their stay in the city.

Chapter 6 Renewal

Dariya considered herself fortunate to be hired so soon after entering the inn at Geda on the road to Timora. The runner for a litter bound for the city had drunk himself into insensibility and the bearers were looking for a replacement. She quickly accepted their offer of employment.

For several days the strength Dariya had developed as a girl on a farm near Talka served her in good stead. She easily kept up with the litter and ran errands for the client as her job demanded. She felt clever about gaining the company of others on the way to Timora and being paid in the bargain.

The bargain turned sour as soon as the rear bearer wrenched his ankle in a misstep and indicated that Dariya must take his place. The tiny old woman in the litter could not have weighed more than a sack of grain, but after the first few steps, Dariya knew that she had vastly overestimated her strength.

After several hours Dariya staggered to a stop when Darad, the front bearer, called that it was time to rest. The dowager in the litter cried out a protest. "You said that you would carry me into Timora before sunset this evening, but we are not yet in the city."

Dariya gritted her teeth and held back the curse she wanted to scream. Her hands were raw and her legs were on fire with pain. After three hours of carrying the litter poles she felt ready to drop in her tracks.

"If you want to continue on into the city, you will have to walk," the front bearer said. Darad had begun to notice the lagging steps of the runner not long after they had made the change. A suspicion he had been nurturing from late on the second day of travel seemed to be confirmed. The 'boy' they had hired as a runner, was a girl.

As a father of girls himself he knew the kinds of mischief a child could get up to. His oldest daughter had once tried to pass herself off as a boy, and for her sake he looked on the runner with kindness instead of turning her away as soon as he began to suspect the truth. He admired the effort she had put forth to maintain the illusion when he had asked her to take up the poles of the litter, but the labored sound of her breathing had finally convinced him to end her ordeal.

"If you think I will pay you more to take me into the city, you are wrong" the old woman said. "Where is that young runner? I will have him carry my bags and complete the journey on my own two feet, but don't expect to claim your fee for this day's journey."

"You would be foolish to continue on alone with only one boy as company," Darad said. "We can make camp for one last time tonight and enter the city at first light."

The dowager grumbled, but since dusk darkened the sky she decided to follow his advice. "Very well, set up my tent," she said. "I will give you full measure for today's journey, but the contract stated that we would reach Timora in three days journey from Katha."

"We will bear you into Timora in the morning for the price we settled for," the bearer assured her. "We must rest now or you might have to take yourself into the city, baggage and all."

After they had eaten and the old woman retired to her tent, Darad drew Dariya aside so that the other man could not hear him. The runner had worked hard without complaint, even when overburdened by the task of helping with the litter. Darad judged others on the basis of his own integrity and he felt certain the girl had an honest reason for her ploy.

"I have guessed your secret, child," he murmured. "Surely you must be an orphan or the child of parents unwilling to let you come to Timora for your sacred washing. I honor your intent, but now that we are near the city, you should dress in pilgrim robes and go ahead. The other bearer has benefitted from your labor this day. He will be able to take his place in the morning."

"I have no robes to wear," Dariya said.

"If you like, instead of paying you extra for acting as a bearer this afternoon, I will give you the robe I had intended for my daughter."

Dariya quickly accepted his offer. Once again she had obtained her needs with no need to lighten the heavy purse concealed beneath her tunic. After providing her with the robe, Darad counted out the coins he had agreed to pay her to act as runner.

While Darad returned to the camp to excuse her absence to the other bearer, Dariya found a hollow behind some bushes where she changed into the white robe and blue sash that marked her as a pilgrim. For a moment she considered keeping the tunic she had removed, but it had collected tears and stains from her adventures of the past week. She rolled it up and shoved it deep into the underbrush. After raking her fingers through the shaggy bangs that concealed her features, she started down the road to Timora.

Before dark she entered the gates of the city and looked around. It had been two years since she had come to Timora for her Ritual Washing and she could not recall the location of her clan hostel. She stopped at a matla stand. "Could you give me the direction of Woran Clan hostel?" she asked.

"Go straight on toward the Shrine, then take the street to your right where you see a house with a yellow door and three windows."

When Dariya reached the hostel she found the gate still open. The hostel keeper welcomed her. "The men's dormitory is on the right."

Most of the pilgrims had settled for the night and Dariya felt a desperate need for a bath. She made certain no one saw her when she turned into the women's bathing room. After stripping off her robe and loincloth she immersed herself in the steaming water.

After washing herself well and drying herself with one of the towels the hostel provided for guests, she used one of the lengths of cloth to provide herself with a clean loincloth and once again bound her breasts. The robe was still relatively clean but she needed other items as well as a change once the robe became soiled. She resigned herself to making a few purchases the next day. She could use the coins she had earned as a runner and keep her stash from Inrek and Semlik intact.

The men's dormitory was a broad, open room with bunks in ranks along each wall and cots in rows on the floor. In the dark she couldn't determine which bunks were empty, so she settled for a cot in the corner of the room. At first the sounds of snoring bothered her, but the long hours of carrying the litter had exhausted her and she fell fast asleep.

The sound of voices woke Dariya and she opened her eyes and stared around, then quickly averted her gaze from the roomful of elderly male bodies in various stages of undress. She rolled off her cot, and keeping her eyes on the floor immediately in front of her, she made her way out of the dormitory and down the stairs.

She caught a glance of Talek across the courtyard and recoiled back against the wall. Surely he would recognize her if he saw her straight on. The door of the hostel opened only a few feet away, but the scent coming from the kitchen reminded her that it had been a long time since she had last eaten. She still needed to make a plan for her future. As long as she could avoid meeting Talek she would stay in the hostel. She slipped into the dining room and looked around for a place where she could sit and watch the door. A Jaman woman looked up and smiled. When Dariya sat down the Jaman approached her.

"Hello," she purred when she neared Dariya's table. "My name is Tepera, from Jama. I don't believe I saw you yesterday."

Dariya turned startled eyes to the young woman who leaned a little too close. With effort she restrained her laugh, cleared her throat and replied in a husky voice, "No, I came last night not long before the gate of the hostel closed. My name is Dar--nek"

Tepera took a seat next to Dariya and began to act as if they were long time friends. "There is little of interest in Timora, but I know where we can find a game of droka and some music that isn't a hymn."

"What makes you think I don't enjoy spending my time in the Shrine, praying," Dariya asked, curious that Tepera had mistaken her sex, but had quickly identified her boredom with worship.

Tepera gave Dariya a wink and nudged her knee under the table. "Something in your eyes tells me you are not as green as most beardless boys," she simpered.

Talek entered the room and looked around. Dariya lifted a cup to hide her face. He smiled when Tepera lifted her hand and waved to him.

Dariya mistook the meaning of the smile and looked at the woman who sat across from her. Could it be that Talek had become enamored of the Jaman? The prince would be easy prey for such a practiced flirt. It would be a disaster if Tepera snared Talek for simple lack of competition. Talek turned and left the dining hall and Dariya lowered her cup.

"Have you heard the gossip from Zedekla?" Tepera asked.

"What do you mean?" Dariya asked, afraid she would be told that there were warrants out for the arrest of the murderers of Semlik. The gold she had purloined from his pouch suddenly weighed heavy against her hip.

"It is said that neither Inrek nor Talek has been named as heir. The one who brings a bride back to Zedekla will win the favor of the council, and Talek has refused to find a bride."

"Who told you this?" Dariya asked.

"That young man who just left the room," Tepera confided. "He came recently from Zedekla. He must be a man of consequence."

"I am surprised you waste your time on me with such a prize in sight," Dariya replied.

"Jealousy can be a powerful motivator," Tepera giggled.

Dariya's ears burned for a moment at the thought of being used as a pawn in Tepera's game. She realized the direction of her thoughts and laughed aloud.

"What do you find so amusing?" Tepera demanded.

"You are wasting your time on that fellow," Dariya said. "He came from the hut near the gate. As you can see, the steward has hired him as a watchman. If I were you, I would waste no time in leaving Timora and finding where Inrek is conducting his quest. He must return to Zedekla with a prospective bride within a month. You have several weeks to conduct your campaign to snare a prince."

Tepera leaned back, speculation in her eyes. Finally she nodded and shoved back from the table. She made her way to her father, and this time she would not be denied.

"Inrek is searching for someone to become queen of Zedekla and I'm wasting away here in Timora!" Tepera whined as soon as she reached Urdarit. "I won't have it."

He glanced up at her, but continued eating.

"Did you hear what I said?" Tepera demanded, her voice rising to a screech. "We will leave Timora now. I must find Prince Inrek before he chooses a bride. Do you know any other girl who could better serve as Zedekla's queen?"

"But we've only been here for a few days," her father said. "I've waited for years to come to the Shrine and view the Scroll of History and Prophecy and read the other sacred writings in the Library."

"You saw the Scroll yesterday," she said.

She changed her tactics when she saw a tiny expression of doubt in Urdarit's eyes. "You know you never really liked to read. Would you let my chance to become the bride of a prince take second place to your selfish desires?"

The other pilgrims looked away, embarrassed to see Urdarit so easily manipulated by his daughter. Dariya lingered near the wall, sternly restraining her impulse to laugh when she saw the old man begin to melt under Tepera's sustained attack.

Soon the Jaman would be on her way out of Timora, leaving Talek vulnerable to her own attack of feminine wiles. Since he had not yet recognized her, it should be simple to find clothing that would show him that the Jaman had been mere brass.

Dariya looked around for Talek and suddenly realized her error in thinking that he admired Tepera. The prince paid no attention to Tepera's campaign to leave Timora, instead he walked away from the hostel with two women Dariya recognized from home.

She had seldom seen Fleya and her daughter in Talka, but they were a distinctive pair. Rumor hinted that the girl could hardly be the daughter of Bernin, the giant, and his little round wife, but those with kinder hearts said the daughter averaged the two.

Dariya had never lied to herself about potential rivals, and even without artifice, Fleya's daughter had real beauty. She also had a reputation for good works and wisdom and a combination of other virtues. If Talek had chosen to court her, he seemed set to win the judgement of the council.

Suddenly the idea of staying in Timora held no appeal for Dariya. Inrek had always been the twin she preferred. It would be better to be his wife whether he won the throne or served close to the king. She found Talek a little too reserved and prudish for her tastes. She silently wished him well of the girl from Talka and turned to watch as Tepera won her argument with her father.

Serin seemed a little shy of Talek as they walked away from the hostel, but her mother chattered on and filled the silence between the younger pair. "I think we'll walk toward the Shrine for morning prayers," Fleya said.

Talek had chosen to wear the white pilgrim robe his mother had folded into the pack she gave him. He enjoyed being able to wander along toward the shrine with other pilgrims and not receive a second look. Many had come to offer their morning prayers in the Great Shrine, but no one pushed to be first. It seemed as if a gentle wave of humanity moved up the steps and through the great golden gates of the shrine that always stood open, fastened back with living vines.

At times of offering a priest and priestess, sometimes the High Priest himself, would meet those who came to the Shrine. Today nothing obstructed entrance to the vast room dedicated to prayer. Men and women knelt side by side in close rows, nearly touching from the crowding, but all solitary in their considerations of their prayers.

Soft light entered the room through openings in the lofty roof. A great glowing lamp hung from a golden chain over the altar, symbolizing the Radiance.

Talek knelt next to Serin and bowed his head. Some in the crowd prayed aloud in soft sibilance, but most prayed silently. The Seers of Timora, distant as stars to most pilgrims, had known Talek since childhood, but never before had he felt the weight of holiness that flowed over him from the congregation.

He knew that many of those who knelt in the sanctuary were far from perfect, and he guessed that some did not give their full attention to their prayers, but he would not judge others who had taken the time to pray. Talek reached for a feeling of empathy for any who suffered and tried to summon compassion for those whose worries kept them from enjoying the full benefit of the gathering.

He forgot the pilgrims around him as he began the ritual of focusing he had learned in his youth and slipped easily into the state of contemplation and praise. It had always been a solitary process for him as he examined his soul for stain and reached for knowledge of how better to use the advantages his birth had granted him.

Today, for the first time in his prayers, he did not feel alone in his seeking. A spirit seemed to join his own. There had been times when he had experienced a brief linkage with the mind of his brother. It had usually been difficult for one of them to try to hide very long from the other.

This sense of someone joining in his meditation resembled that twin link, but better. As soon as he consciously noticed it, the feeling disappeared, almost as if the probing of his reason had destroyed the atmosphere of peace that encouraged the contact.

With regret, he opened his eyes and looked around. He met Serin's wide, surprised gaze. Something reached between them in that look. Talek bowed his head again and sought for the state of quiet contemplation and communication that he had known since childhood. He would be waiting for the contact.

Nothing happened until he nearly forgot his expectation, then he felt the subtle presence of another soul beside his own. He kept doubt and curiosity at bay with careful discipline and only the gentle sound of a bell signaling the end of morning prayer, coaxed him from the sweet communion.

He didn't look at Serin when he stood and joined the tide of pilgrims that poured from the sanctuary. She seemed equally shy of him. Fleya filled the silence between them with her chatter while they walked toward the clan hostel.

"I love the matlas made by the street vendors," Fleya confessed when she stopped for the second time to purchase another fragrant disk of fried bread. "It seems each one has a different recipe for the dough. I would never have thought of seasoning a meat filled matla with both savor spice and bitter herb. Do either of you want one?" she asked.

Serin and Talek shook their heads and glanced at each other. Food and drink were far from their thoughts. Each of them sheltered hope that the mystical feelings they had experienced in the Shrine that day could be repeated.

When they returned to the hostel, they found the Jamans packed and ready to depart. Urdurit remained disgruntled by his daughter's sudden decision to leave the city and pursue the Zedeklan prince.

Tepera haggled with two men her father had hired to help with their baggage. She had decided she should travel by litter instead of having the baggage borne in the shoulder slings of the porters. A large Peace Guardian, disturbed by the noise, headed toward the hostel with a serious expression on his face.

Dariya feared that if an officer of the law began to make inquiries, her disguise would be penetrated. She moved across to Tepera and touched her arm to get her attention.

"I have heard that a modest nature is one of the qualities that Prince Inrek will be looking for. If you encounter him on the road, he will think more of you if he sees you walking with your father instead of riding in a litter." Dariya glanced meaningfully toward the entrance of the compound where the Guardian questioned Talek.

Tepera took Dariya's meaning immediately. She stopped her harangue and agreed to walk.

"If I become the bride of Prince Inrek, you must visit me. I'll remember it that you helped me," Tepera said with a flutter of her lashes.

Talek assured the Guardian that there had been no intruders at the hostel while he watched and that the door had been locked throughout the night. Meanwhile, Serin and Fleya proceeded into the garden courtyard. Serin left her mother sitting on a shaded bench while she went to fetch something for her to drink from the kitchen.

Seeing a face that teased her memory, Fleya reached out and tugged Dariya's tunic. "Pardon me, but I think I recognize you, young man. I'm sorry, but I don't recall your name. My husband Bernin would know who you are, but he has a much better memory than I. Unfortunately, he stayed at home to bring in the harvest and I brought Fleya to Timora alone."

"I notice you have made friends with the watchman," Dariya said, relieved that Fleya failed to recognize her.

"He is no mere watchman," Fleya confided. "He saved my daughter and me from dogs of the demon who attacked us on the road. Don't be surprised if he returns with us to Talka in two weeks when our service in Timora ends."

She winked meaningfully and confirmed Dariya's suspicions. "Has he already asked for your daughter's hand?"

Fleya chuckled. "I doubt that either of them quite realizes what is happening yet, but the signs are clear," she made a little gesture. "An official betrothal will have to wait until we return to Talka. Breya would never marry anyone without her father's consent."

"Which she won't receive for at least two weeks, plus traveling time between here and Talka," Dariya mused aloud. Another scheme began to take shape in her agile mind. She had been warned by Fleya's partial recognition. She could not linger any longer in the hostel and she quickly made her excuses and looked for Tepera. It shouldn't be difficult to join the Jamans in their exodus, possibly with a profit.

Tepera had put great energy into convincing her father that they should leave the city as soon as possible, but as she gave one last lingering look at Talek who had just finished conferring with the guardian, she seemed about to change her mind. Dariya caught the direction of the Jaman woman's gaze and stepped close to her. "He is attractive, but even now Prince Inrek could be choosing a bride. If you would like, I will join my fortunes with yours. It will make the journey more amusing."

Tepera immediately accepted the offer. His youth made him ineligible for serious flirtation, and he seemed to lack any baggage which would indicate that he had taken the simplicity of being a pilgrim a little too seriously, but she found him amusing and he seemed well informed about Inrek's preferences. She could hardly ask for a better companion.

Urdarit made no protest at the news that the young man would be joining them. He had grown weary of Tepera and her sulks. A diversion would be welcome. He summoned the porters to lift their slings and led the way out of the gates of the hostel.

The little caravan turned a corner in the road and passed out of sight. Talek breathed a sigh of relief.

"I guess you're sorry to see her go," Serin said quietly. She had not spoken directly to him since their experience in the Shrine.

Talek shook his head. "I can show you how I feel about Lady Tepera. Come with me into the market. I saw something there that will help me explain. You mother might want to join us."

Fleya smiled. "I trust you to take care of her. After all, who better to watch after her? Don't be too long. I would like to visit the Scrolls before Enven."

The booth he took her to stood near the cross rod where flower sellers gathered. The proprietor had several pots of blooming bushes, and one elegant container which displayed a lovely lily. She also exhibited a rack of colorful artificial flowers made of painted fiber.

Talek watched Serin's face while she examined the woman's offerings. "Which of these flowers do you think is the most precious?" Talek asked

"The lily," she said.

"But these other flowers are brighter and this one is even decorated with gold paint," he said. He lifted one of the artificial flowers and waved it in the air. Sunlight glittered from the gilt on the edges of the petals.

"The lily is alive and growing. The fiber flowers are very nice, but they are only imitations," she said with a smile that showed she took his meaning.

"You are the lily, Serin. Tepera is like a fiber flower," Talek said. He handed the flower seller the price of the potted lily and carried it back to the hostel. Serin had been a little jealous of the attention he had shown Tepera and he knew it meant she liked him.

Fleya met them at the gate of the hostel and exclaimed over the flower. "It would look so fine in the window near your cot overlooking the garden. If you put it there, all of us can enjoy its beauty."

"What are your plans for the rest of the day?" Talek asked Fleya.

"I thought we would visit the library and view the Scrolls before Enven," Fleya said. "I have heard that evening is the best time to go to the Washing pavilions. It is a pity that Bernin was unable to come and bring Serin forth from the waters, now we will have to ask a stranger to preside."

"I have the authority to perform the ritual," Talek offered. "Last year I brought my younger sister forth from the waters after her Ritual washing." He saw the women exchange a glance. "I am presumptuous."

"No! I would rather have you bring me forth from the sacred lake than any stranger," Serin said, then she blushed at her eager words.

"Of course she would rather have a friend officiate in the ritual," Fleya assured Talek. "I would never have suspected that one as young as you held the priesthood required to conduct the ceremony. It is kind of you to make the offer."

They set out for the library and as usual, Fleya chattered while Talek and Serin walked in companionable silence. "I have looked forward to visiting the Library to see the Scroll of History and Prophecies of Irilik," she said. "Some say it is a forgery. I have heard that Mareklans turn their eyes away from the pillar of Saint Neril when they come to the offering. What do you think Talek?"

"The Seers have accepted the scroll as authentic," he replied. "I understand that prophecy foretold the errand of Neril. I will let you judge for yourself when you see all the scrolls together in the library."

"Oh, I believe the restored scroll is genuine," Fleya assured him. "As soon as a copy became available in our Shrine in Talka, my husband Bernin set himself to study it. He says it must be true, and so I believe."

Talek smiled a little ruefully. Like many in Okishdu Fleya let her belief rest on the assurances of another. He could have admired her childlike faith, but he suspected that had Bernin expressed doubts about the authenticity of the Scroll of History and Prophecy, Fleya would have declared it a forgery.

A line of pilgrims waited to view the scrolls of Irilik in their crystal cases in the great arched central chamber of the main library. Even Fleya's chatter moderated to an occasional murmur while they waited their turn to view the ancient writings of the First Prophet.

Although copies of all three scrolls were widely available, the antique originals of the Law, the Compacts, and the History created a sense of awe. Talek had a little learning in the archaic script, but most of the symbols on the ancient parchment were beyond his ken. He resolved to spend part of his time in Timora becoming more familiar with the language used by his forefathers.

To his surprise, Serin viewed the scrolls not merely as a spectator who saw their beauty. She whispered phrases from the writing to herself, apparently able to read the archaic script. "How can anyone doubt that this is truly the scroll that Irilik wrote?" she said after studying the writing.

"You read the words?" Talek asked.

Serin nodded. "My father spent much of his life studying, and he taught me as he learned. Sometimes it meant our farm produced less than it might have been, but I respect his efforts. I will share what I learn in Timora when I return to Talka."

"I think both of us will benefit if we study together," Talek said.

He kept his eyes moving over the crowd while they proceeded to the Shrine to celebrate Enven. He saw no sign of the dirty robes he had seen the day before, and Talek hoped his interview with the Guardian that morning had borne fruit. If he could relax his guard, he would be free to enjoy the company of Serin without fearing for her safety.

They obtained prayer mats and entered the crowded prayer room. They were not able to find a space large enough to accommodate more than two of them and Talek found places for Fleya and Serin, then another for himself not far away. He missed the sweet communion he had felt that morning as he knelt in prayer beside her, but he deepened his meditation and focused on his prayers.

When the chime rang ending Enven, Talek went in search of a priest and revealed his status as a Son of Irilik ordained by the hand of Sergon and received a bundle containing priest robes. Serin and Fleya waited for him at the private exit and they returned to the hostel to prepare themselves for the Ritual Washing.

Several of the other clan members accompanied them to one of the pavilions set at the edge of the great oval lake. Normally as blue as lattice stone, the lake now shown with an opalescent glow as the sky above took on the fiery shades of sunset.

The slight chill of the evening air had diminished the crowds that usually frequented the sacred waters. There were only a few waiting in line to take their turn on the steps that led into the lake.

Talek wore the robes he had obtained at the Shrine and Serin dressed in the long tunic tied with a matching white sash prescribed for the ceremony. Her long hair had been bound in a braid at the nape of her neck to keep it from floating free.

He took her hand and held it firmly while they walked forward into the wavelets that lapped the top steps. They stepped onto the next step, then continued down until they had reached water that reached up to Serin's shoulders.

Talek stopped her and raised her hands in his to begin the ritual that Irilik had initiated almost a thousand years before when the people of the exodus had first entered the vale of Timora.

When he finished the first part of the prayer, he squeezed her hand in signal that she should take the next two steps.

She drew a deep breath and stepped downward until water covered the top of her head. He caught her hand to help her up to stand beside him. She shivered with chill and emotion as he raised his hands to her head and spoke the final words of the ritual.

When they reached the shore Fleya rushed forward to wrap Serin in a dry robe. "I never saw anything so beautiful, your father couldn't have done any better!" Fleya said while she loosed Serin's braided hair and patted it dry.

Both Serin and Talek were silent. Once again, just as he had spoken the final words of the ritual, they had experienced the twining of souls that first happened in the Shrine that morning. The sacred moment had been too special to share with others.

After changing their clothing in the small rooms near the pavilion they returned to the hostel and shared a late meal with the other guests who had gone to the lake with them. Several of them reminisced about the day long ago when they had come to Timora to be washed in the sacred waters. The hour grew late and most had plans for the following day. Before long farewells were said when the men and women separated to their separate dormitories.

"What should we do tomorrow?" Fleya asked.

"I think I would like to do what we did today," Serin mused. "But of course we would spend the hours after Enven in the Library."

Talek nodded. He could think of nothing better for now than to spend his days with Serin in study and prayer. The day would soon come when he revealed his true identity and ask her to marry him. How would she receive the news of his rank? Would she rejoice at the privilege she would enjoy as the wife of a prince? He suspected she would not care about his titles and possessions. Perhaps she would be unhappy that he had kept his secret so long. Secrecy had nearly cost his father the hand of his mother.

As day followed day in the quiet study of ancient books and the order of ritual service in the Great Shrine of Timora, Talek and Serin were constant companions but never alone together. There were shared looks that added to the intimacy of thought between them. In the evenings they joined the discussions in the garden court. When Serin spoke, she often mirrored the thoughts in Talek's mind and heart.

Sometimes she startled him with her insights. One morning they had been studying the stories of the exodus from Kishdu and the adventures of Tharek when he founded the city of Zedekla. Afterward, Serin wanted to visit the map library but Talek preferred looking up an obscure reference in the annals of the Seers.

Serin accompanied him, but much to his surprise, when he showed her an unusual reference to the incarnation of the Radiance, she shook her head. "I think you have it wrong. I believe that Regnon referred to the land of Lamath's people in that passage."

"What do you mean?" Talek asked.

"We know that Lamath's ships did not land with the others of the exodus, but other scriptures indicate that when the Incarnation of the Radience is born, it will be to a couple who combines the three ancient priesthood lineages. This means that Lamath's people survived the separation. I have an idea where they must be. Come with me to the map library."

Fascinated by her theory, Talek joined her. Most of the maps they found showed only the central area of Okishdu with the lands from Orenon on the east to Zedekla on the west, Timora on the south to the clanlands of Kumnora on the north. It neared the hour of Enven when Serin found the map that she looked for. Tharek's symbol marked the margin of the little tattered map.

It showed a different view of Okishdu. For one thing, a southern coast had been indicated. It reached far to the south with nothing more than jungle for most of its width. Between the southern tip and Orenon, where other maps displayed an empty quarter, Tharek had drawn a vast delta where the river that drained Timora and the southern reaches of the Vald range separated into many strands. A symbol had been drawn over the delta and then scratched out.

Talek examined the map, then shook his head. "The coast south of Orenon is dangerous. This must be a symbol of warning. I have heard that sea monsters keep even the bravest sailors from venturing too far. In hundreds of years, no sailor who went south beyond the bounds has ever been seen again."

"Do you really think the word that Tharek scratched out stood for sea monsters?" Serin asked. "I think it more likely that it is the name of the land of Lamath's descendants. What better way to keep their land secure from Orenon's servant sellers than to spread such tales?"

"What made you suspect that there is such a place?" Talek asked her.

"Regnon writes of retrieving the Eye of Adanan after he traveled through the southern forests searching everywhere," Serin said. "Yet, when he found it, he received it from another priest. In the story of Tharek's life, he refers to the death of the priest who guarded the Eye of Adanan in Timora. I think it likely that Tharek preserved the oracle device and returned it to Regnon when he fled Garvok, the Hound of Marnat. Tharek mentions settling among a group of people for a while, but although they had a city and were not the people of the forest, he tells us little else about them."

"And from this you deduce the presence of Lamath's descendants in the delta?" Talek asked with surprise.

Serin nodded. "Have you noticed that the hats that the Mareklan merchants wear are made of reed? Once when the merchants stopped in Talka, I asked them where they got their hats. One of the younger men told me that they got them in the great marsh near the eastern sea. Another merchants seemed upset with what the younger man revealed. He quickly assured me that the hats were made near Zedekla."

Talek nodded. "You are right to think the younger man told you the truth. I know of no such hats produced near Zedekla. I had assumed they were a product of Orenon. The Mareklans are jealous of their secrets, with good cause. This information provides another clue to prove your case. What do you plan to do now that you have searched out this secret?"

"I think there is good reason that it is kept obscure," Serin said. "From the old records, we know that Yasa Dom will be born in obscurity. Somehow, a descendant of Irilik and Elianin, which includes the royal family of Zedekla, will marry a descendant of Lamath. Their first-born will be the Incarnation of the Radiance. No man has been told exactly where or when this will happen. The Scroll of Neril says that it will happen 'when the river runs again', but what does that mean? I am happy to find support for my theory, and pleased to share it with you, but I have no need to pursue the matter any further."

Talek approved of her decision. She had asked questions that he had never really pondered. Then, having found the answer that she sought, she decided it should remain hidden. The scholars he had known had a far different attitude, but Serin bore no resemblance to common scholars with their appetite for public vindication.

Chapter 7 Allies

Tepera wore sandals that owed more to fashion than function. After only a few hours of walking on their second day on the trail, she begged her father to stop the caravan and give her a chance to rest.

"If you would talk less you would not weary so quickly," Udarit said.

"My feet are hurting! I will cripple myself if I continue."

"We will stop in the next town and rent litters for the two of us," Udarit conceded.

"We should hire a litter for you and a double litter for Darnek and me to ride in until we are near Inrek's camp," Tepera countered.

Udarit had learned the futility of arguing with his daughter and he quickly gave in to her plea. Some might think it a scandal that Tepera preferred the company of a beardless youth to that of her father, but he felt grateful for the relief the youth provided. At the next town they found conveyances that met Tepera's approval and they continued northward in relative comfort.

For five days they kept in close company with one another, relieved only when they stopped to camp each evening and Dariya joined the bearers and porters around the campfire. There were tents set up for both of the Jamans, but Udarit never asked Dariya to share his tent, and everyone watched to see if Darnek spent the night with Tepera. Tepera's flirtatious sallies so wearied Dariya that she contemplated revealing her real status and giving the Jaman jade a shock.

When they stopped at an inn at the end of their fifth night on the road, they found the news they had been looking for. Inrek and his caravan had passed through the town the previous day.

"Has the prince found a bride?" Tepera asked her father when he returned from speaking to the innkeeper.

"He said nothing about it to the innkeeper," Udarit said.

"We will proceed immediately to find their camp," Tepera insisted. "Come, Darnek, get back into the litter."

"I think you would be better advised to leave me here and go on to Inrek's camp on foot as if you had walked all the way from Timora," Dariya said.

"The boy is right, my dear," Udarit said. "It may seem improper to those who do not know the true nature of your friendship with Darnek if they see you riding together when we encounter the prince and his company.

"What will I do without you to advise me?" Tepera pouted. "I have seldom enjoyed anyone so much. It is almost as if you were another girl I can confide in."

"You insult your friend," Urdurit chastised his daughter. "He has been a boon to both of us, but surely he has served us well and deserves to be given our thanks."

Dariya had hoped that Udarit would offer her something more substantial than his gratitude, but on the other hand, she had enjoyed riding in a litter and sharing ample meals along the way rather than spending the coins she hid.

She turned to walk away from the Jamans and their porters when Udarit called her back. He led her apart from the others and leaned his head close to confide in her. "I fear I might insult you sir, but I have noticed that you have no baggage. I think it is from another cause than a pilgrim's simplicity. You seem to be of too merry a mind to deny yourself comfort if you could afford the cost. Take these with my thanks."

Udarit lifted Dariya's hand and placed something in it. The clink of gold and the cool weight of the coins he gave her came as a happy surprise. Pretending to be a boy had been more profitable to her than all her months of primping to be a courtier under her uncle's tutelage.

For days she had avoided bathing lest she be discovered in her deception. As soon as she entered the inn she introduced herself as Darnek of Talka and asked if there were any rooms with private access to a bath.

"We have such a room, but it is usually reserved for modest dowagers and shy young women," the innkeeper said. "We have a bath for men. Why waste your coin on such a luxury?"

Dariya glanced around and dropped her eyes while she made a vague gesture toward her robe below the waist. "I have an injury," she said in a pained voice.

"Ahhh," the innkeeper sighed in sympathy. "I can appreciate your need for privacy."

"Is there a tailor in the town?" Dariya asked.

The innkeeper shook his head. "We usually serve pilgrims and there is not much call for a tailor. I may be able to help you. One of the gentlemen following the prince wagered on the losing hand in a game of Droka with me last night and he left several tunics to cover his debt. My wife is handy with a needle and she could probably alter one of them to fit you."

"I'll take both of them if I like the cloth," Dariya said.

The innkeeper seemed delighted to oblige. "I counted it a bad bargain to take the clothing from the courtier, but I feared offending one of Inrek's companions."

The tunics proved to be well made of excellent cloth in discreet colors. Dariya pressed several coins on the innkeeper to pay for them. "I doubt they will need any alteration except the removal of this trim," she said.

"You are too generous!" the innkeeper protested when he saw the coins. I will accept two of them, and still come out well in the bargain."

"It is good to meet an honest man," Dariya said. "Could you show me to the room where I can bathe and dress before I eat?"

The innkeeper led her to a small room next to the bathing room. "There are towels and bed coverings in the chest," the innkeeper demonstrated.

As soon as the man had plumped the pillow on the bed and left the room, Dariya investigated the bath. Anyone who wanted to use pool had free access, but screens were placed between the portion of the bath to be used by women and that used by men. One small section had screens on either side providing privacy. Assured that she would not be discovered in her deception, either for the lack of some parts or the presence of others, Dariya dropped the pilgrim robe.

It had grown filthy with days of being used both night and day and she wadded it up and shoved it in a rubbish bin before lowering herself into the cool water of the private bathing area. She heard raised voices as several men entered the male section of the bathing room. From the sound of their voices she identified the bearers who had carried them from the town outside Timora. "That young man with the Jaman woman is a strange one," one of the bearers said. "He slept neither with the man nor his daughter, but he avoided us as well."

"You don't know your betters, Gada," his companion laughed. "The boy is too good for the likes of us, and by the look of it, too young for the likes of that Jaman shant."

"I still think there is something strange about him," the bearer insisted.

The sound of a body splashing into the water and the resultant wave that splashed out of the pool near Dariya convinced her that she had taken a risk by lingering to overhear their gossip. She would have to forego eating in the common dining room. She felt lucky that they hadn't detected her disguise.

She dried herself, dressed in the tunic that needed no alteration and returned to her room. Dusk had fallen and by old habit, she raised her hands and bent her head as if to pray, but instead of beginning her usual pleas for blessings and forgiveness, she dropped her hands and sat surrounded in silence. What good would it do such as she to appeal to any god? The list of her sins seemed to mount like a hill that threatened to topple.

She stood and paced the room, concentrating on furthering her place in life with her own efforts. She had been served very well by her own cleverness and it would surely serve her better to stop the pretense that any other cared about what became of her.

A knock came at the door and when she answered she found the inn keeper's daughter standing in the corridor with a tray of food and drink in one hand and the altered tunic in the other. "My father asked me to bring you your dinner and the altered tunic," the girl said with a simper.

The fawning way the girl looked at her irritated Dariya. She spoke a little sharply when she came into the room to set the food on the bench chest. "Please do not enter my room unless you are invited," Dariya said.

"But I must enter your room to clean it."

"I will tell your father to excuse you from cleaning my room while I stay here," Dariya said in a gentler tone. It would not serve her to alienate the girl.

"Father hinted at your injury," the girl said with pity as she glanced toward the botto of Dariya's tunic, then quickly averted her eyes with a blush. "Oh! I am sorry I mis-spoke!" she cried with panic in her eyes.

"Please don't apologize," Dariya said. "I have learned to live with being less than a man. You should not be concerned that I will punish your father for sharing my misfortune with you. He must trust you a great deal."

She knew she had won another advocate when she saw tears spring to the girl's dark eyes before she hurried from the room. The rumor might spread, but only to her advantage. It would explain her beardless state and keep women from flirting.

She ate the meal and set the tray outside her door. After lying down on her bed, she grinned up at the darkened ceiling and wondered what the morrow would bring. The Jamans had taught her about their luck totems during their time together. What had brought this extraordinary run of luck to her? She extended her hand to the heavy pouch of coins she had tied at her waist and the shape of the brooch that Inrek had given her fell under her fingers. Could this be the source of her good fortune? She had felt that Jamans were foolish to place their faith in objects they could carry, but there could be no question that since the terrible night that she had been divested of her jewelry and confined to be sold as a shant by her angry uncle her luck had been remarkable, but only after Inrek had given her the brooch.

Dariya opened the pouch and removed the brooch. A dim glow from the partial moon entered through the small window and the jewels in the brooch gleamed with dark fire. A conviction formed that as long as she had possession of the brooch, fortune would follow her. The conviction grew until she felt nearly invincible. She no longer questioned whether she would marry one of Zedekla's princes, she simply had to choose which prince it would be.

Two weeks ago there would have been no question of which she preferred. From the first she had preferred Inrek's boldness and daring. When her uncle had imprisoned her and she had escaped, she had not even thought of going to Talek.

She had sought help from Inrek, had even offered herself with no promises of marriage, and she had been bought off. If he had ever loved her, that love had died when it threatened to deprive him of a throne. Once she married a man it would be for life, and Inrek lacked stability. On the other hand Talek seemed to be besotted with Breya, the girl from Talka. If her father failed to give his consent for some reason, it could stop the wedding. Talek had favored her once. He might turn to her if Breya could not be his bride.

There must be some way that she could interfere with their betrothal. If she could somehow divert Inrek's interest to the other girl, the way would be open for her. Dariya wrestled with the problem, but she could see no way to obtain her aim. Dariya's plotting faded and dreams took the place of her scheming. They were uneasy dreams and she woke at first light grateful to escape their shadowed portents.

She rose and dressed in a fresh tunic then walked toward the common dining room. At the sound of familiar voices, she quickly stepped back into the corridor and concealed herself. The bearers she had traveled with were inside the dining room.

"We should stay here for breakfast, one of them said.

"Our customer might lose patience and decide he has more need for speed than for the space provided by our double litter," the other argued.

"At least bring some matlas and hot cala out to the litter," the first one pleaded.

In a few moments they had taken some food and cups of cala and exited from the inn.

As soon as she was sure they were gone, Dariya entered the dining room and selected a small table near the kitchen door. As she expected, she soon became the focus of the innkeeper's daughter who brought trays of food to Dariya for her choice of the best servings before taking them to the large trestle table where most of the guests took their seats.

She had been enjoying a particularly delectable piece of fresh fruit when a familiar figure entered the dining hall. She choked on the morsel and felt desperate enough to duck under the table before Fremek noticed her. To her relief, Inrek's servant glanced at her with no sign of recognition then crossed the room and took a seat at the end of the long table, turning his back to Dariya as he sat down.

"I'm surprised to see you here today," the innkeeper said. "Is the prince ill?"

"He is tired," Fremek said. "He is tired of the unending labor of looking into passably pretty faces and listening to the accounts of fond and ambitious relatives as they try to convince him that their daughters or sisters or nieces are paragons of perfection. He has decided to stay in the pleasant valley where we camped last night and summon petitioners to come to him."

"We will welcome Prince Inrek here in our inn if it is not too humble for such as he," the innkeeper said.

"I doubt he will favor you with his custom," Fremek said. "I come here to get away from his demands, but he has enough provisions for an army and it seems that every family with a bride to show brings him more delicacies than any ten men could eat. I dislike seeing so much going to waste."

"Perhaps you could sell the excess to my husband," the innkeeper's wife suggested.

"I would, if it were not so much trouble," Fremek replied. "As it is, I hardly have time to finish my tasks each day."

"You need a helper," the innkeeper said with a glance toward Dariya.

"If you knew of someone who could expedite the matter, I would welcome your help," Fremek said.

When the innkeeper pointed to her and Fremek swivelled in his seat to look at her, Dariya feared her game had ended.

"Would you consider taking on the task of distributing the prince's excess?" Fremek asked her.

"Wouldn't it be more proper to offer it to the local leaders for the relief of the poor," she answered, wanting to avoid trouble or a prolonged association with Fremek which would inevitably lead to her detection.

"We have already offered the council the excess for the poor," Fremek said. "They refused the offer, feeling that it would be foolish to accustom paupers to the delicate foods that have graced a royal table.

The innkeeper grinned. "As you can see, the youth will serve you well. A lesser man would have leapt at the opportunity to profit from such an arrangement. Darnek's first thought is for the poor."

"I am satisfied of his character," Fremek answered. "Come with me Darnek. We should work well together."

"I am not strong enough to carry the food and drink from the prince's camp," Dariya protested.

"I have porters in plenty," Fremek said. "What I need is someone to manage the exchange and account for the supplies. So far, we have had to resort to burning or burying what we could not use."

Dariya's strategy with men had rested on cajoling or outright lying to get what she wanted and she felt uncertain that men would take orders from her. On the other hand if she protested further she would risk raising the very suspicion she tried to avoid.

She reached under the table where neither of the men could see her hand and touched the brooch she carried hidden near her waist. Could this be yet another example of her extraordinary luck, or would she be caught in her deception?

"I will help you," she decided.

"You will be well paid for your efforts if you prove your worth," Fremek said. "Come with me to our encampment and I will show you what I require."

Dariya resigned herself to the risk involved. She stood after she finished one more bite of the fruit she had nearly choked on when she first saw Fremek.

"Will I have to remove my belongings from my room?" she asked.

"It would be better if you continued staying here in the inn," Fremek said. "The innkeeper is as honest as any man I have met, but his honesty won't suffer from knowing you are here where you can watch what he does with the food and drink. A rascal might recycle it back to the camp."

The details were obscure to Dariya, but she felt relief that she would not risk of encountering Inrek. Others might mistake her, but surely he would penetrate her disguise.

Fremek had walked into town, but he hired two litters to take them back to the camp. Dariya checked to make certain they were not familiar.

The pleasant valley Fremek had described had been turned into a scene more nearly resembling a battlefield. Bored with watching pretty women who were only interested in Prince Inrek, his companions had quickly taken advantage of the stay to organize tests of strength and nerves. Those who were not fighting with some form of weapon or disrobed to their loincloths wrestling, were on the sidelines laying wagers. The teamsters, ever game for a match, and many of the servants as well, had joined the audience.

"Those fools are going out to hunt," Fremek grunted, pointing to a group of men with bows in hand who were gliding into the woods at the edge of the camp. "I feared this would happen if we set up permanent camp. They are as likely to return with some teamster's dala as with a wild corum, and they are heedless that we are already oversupplied with game of every kind."

Dariya made some sympathetic noises and surveyed the camp for Inrek. The sound of a familiar laugh brought her eyes to a nearby copse of trees where she saw Tepera giving Inrek the full benefit of her ingenious tailoring. The Jaman girl no longer wore pilgrim robes and her jewelry could have supported a moderate household for several years.

"It seems Inrek has found someone willing to entertain him," Fremek said. "That one looks too bold to expect anything more serious than payment for services rendered."

"I came out from Timora with her and her father," Dariya said. "I assure you she is as ambitious as any maiden to become a queen."

"I doubt she would gain the approval of the council," Fremek said. "A girl very much like her seemed like a favorite to win the prince before the rules changed and those girls who were resident in Zedekla were barred from becoming brides of royalty."

Dariya stared at Fremek. "What is the lady's name?"

"Darrila, or Demima or some such. She is a buxom beauty with a fine high nose and a delicate chin."

Dariya nearly laughed aloud at the description. Her nose lacked distinction and her chin was bold enough to suit a boy. She hardly recognized the woman Fremek described. "Is she a native of Zedekla?"

"No, she is the niece of Semlik, an old villain from up in northern Virdana, or is it nearer Talleeka? In any case, he offered a country niece to Inrek, and I expect him to show up any day."

Dariya restrained her sigh of relief. Semlik's death had probably gone unreported. His estate would be in a turmoil by the time his heirs realized that he would never return from his sojourn in Zedekla.

Fremek led her to a long low tent that bustled with activity. Barrels of provisions and piles of fresh game and produce were stacked along the northern side of the tent. Fragrant steam rose from holes in the top of the tent and the clatter of pots rang in the air.

Fremek led Carila around to the west side of the tent where a pile of game and fruit nearly matched the fresh supply on the north. "This would have been carried off and burned or buried if I had not been able to deal with your friend the innkeeper,"

"The game could be preserved and the fruit dried," Dariya observed.

"Exactly," Fremek nodded. "It would be criminal to continue to waste it. I'll leave you here to make an inventory while I fetch some porters to carry it away."

"I'll require writing materials if I'm to make an accounting," Dariya reminded him.

"There is a supply of slates and scribing tools just inside the kitchen tent," he said.

Dariya found the pile of slates, but there were also several rolls of scroll cloth that were becoming dingy from disuse. She found a pen and took one of the scrolls with her to the pile of surplus supplies. She had learned to write and count as part of her training to attract a prince and she enjoyed the task of making lists and figuring the totals.

When Fremek returned an hour later with five burly porters, she had nearly completed the inventory. When Fremek looked over her shoulder he exclaimed with delight. "You are truly a hidden jewel, young Darnek. I expected nothing more than a rude count made with marks and simple drawings that I would have to translate into a document fit for Inrek's review. This will save me the trouble. Did I promise you an ena for your work? I'll gladly give you two."

In truth, he had not given her a figure when he first agreed to hire her. He named a sum ten times greater than what she had earned in three days of working as a runner for litter bearers.

Fremek went about his other business, leaving Dariya to supervise the porters. She had worried that they would question her authority, but they carried out their work with stolid efficiency and hardly a word of direction from Dariya. She walked beside them on the road back to the village rather than take the risk of hiring a litter.

When the porters had deposited the food in the rear storehouse of the inn, they accepted small coins from the innkeeper as payment for their help and turned to return to Inrek's camp. The innkeeper eyed the food and shook his head. "It might have been better if it were burned in the camp. What are we to do with all this meat?"

"There are vats of spices and honey with the fruit," Dariya said. "Your wife could hire women from the village to cut the meat into strips and soak it in spiced honey. The fruit could be spread on the flat roof of the stable to dry. If it doesn't rain in the next few days, you will have dried fruit to pack away in salt or sugar."

"I usually deal with simple food," the innkeeper admitted. "Would you show my wife what should be done?"

Dariya nodded. She had helped her mother preserve fruit by drying it, and she had a good idea of how to prepare the kind of sweetmeats served in the court. The method seemed self-evident.

The innkeeper's wife showed Dariya the deference due an agent of the prince and quickly followed her instructions. Soon two lines of women in aprons were cutting meat and fruit and mixing the spices into the honey. One old dame had definite ideas on how it should be done and Dariya did not argue.

The innkeeper's wife took some of the meat that had been soaking for a few hours in the spiced honey and tried roasting it. The delectable odor of the dish brought guests early for their midday meal. The request for extra helpings proved the success of the experiment.

At the end of the day, fruit under a covering of bitter weed to discourage birds and rodents covered the stable roof and the storeroom contained several vats of spiced meat. Those who had come to help shared the excess meat that would not fit in the vats after reserving some for the guests of the inn.

Dariya basked in the approval of everyone who learned of her role in converting Prince Inrek's surplus supplies into a profitable venture.

When she retired to her room that night after bathing, Dariya took the jeweled brooch she now regarded as her luck piece from the pouch near her waist and held it in her hand. She gave full credit for her success of the day to wearing the brooch. Tepera carried a luck piece and often repeated a little chant when she touched it.

Dariya examined the brooch for a clue that it had a name. It seemed very old and there were symbols graven in the back of it. She lifted the brooch closer to the lamp and tried to make out the meaning of the archaic marking. Finally she laid it aside and bent her efforts to removing golden threads from the trim from the renovated tunic. Twisted together, they made a fitting cord to tie the brooch around her neck. She made the cord long enough to let the brooch nestle beneath the binding cloth where it could not be seen.

She wondered what she would do if someone took it from her and her luck all vanished. As long as she kept it safe, her life would continue to flourish. Without it, she would fall and become once again nothing more than a pawn in the hands of strong men like her uncle. She vowed she would guard the luck token with her life. She fell asleep and dreamed of triumph.

Dariya woke to a knock on the door of her room as the innkeeper's daughter called her alias. She saw the door began to swing open just in time to pull her covering up to her neck.

"Oh!" the girl exclaimed when she saw Dariya huddled under her covers. "When you didn't answer, I thought you had gone out and I wanted to check to be certain."

Dariya wanted to scream at the girl, but she swallowed the impulse and assumed the husky voice she had been using since leaving Zedekla dressed as a boy. "It there some reason you have disturbed me?"

The girl blushed and averted her eyes. "Fremek is asking for you."

"Fremek!" Dariya exclaimed. "What does he want of me?"

"I could not presume to ask him," the girl said.

"Tell him I'll be with him shortly," Dariya said.

When the door had closed, Dariya leaped from the bed and began to dress. First the loincloth, then the band around her breasts with the lucky brooch firmly bound inside. She chose the second tunic and shoved her feet into the sturdy buskins that had served her well since she had pilfered them from Fremek's closet. She glanced down at them, wondering if he would recognize them, but they were a common kind sold in leather workers' booths throughout Zedekla. Her adventures during the past week or so had scuffed their polished finish into dull gray.

Perhaps Fremek had realized her identity. She tempted to try the window, but it had sturdy wooden bars set to keep intruders out and guests in until they passed the innkeeper and paid their bills.

By the time she had finished arranging her hair to hide her ears and brow, she had resigned herself to facing Fremek. She should be able to bribe him to let her go unreported to Inrek. After all, the prince's servant could hardly know of the gold she had pilfered from her uncle's purse before he had so fortuitously been eliminated. All her other gold had come to her through luck alone. Wearing a tunic as a woman couldn't count as a crime. She marshaled her arguments as she walked down the hallway toward the common room.

Fremek sat at the small table where she had been sitting when the innkeeper had introduced them the day before. When she approached, he looked up with a smile of welcome that treated her to a glimpse of the cracked tooth he usually tried to hide by pursing his mouth.

"The innkeeper has been telling me about your cleverness," Fremek said. "I told him originally that I would be angry if he tried to recycle the surplus goods to our camp, but I've sampled some of the spiced meat, and I'm eager to obtain a supply. Inrek is very fond of such things."

The innkeeper himself hovered nearby and leaned closer, "Old Murga worked as a cook in the palace in Zedekla until three years ago. She provided the recipe."

"How much have you put aside?" Fremek asked.

"We paid many of the workers with food, or we would have more," the innkeeper said.

Dariya spoke up. "According to Murga, to properly prepare the meat as is done in the palace, it will need to be dried and mixed with the dried fruit. It will be several days before the sweetmeats will be ready, but we can spare a vat of the honeyed meat for roasting until the sweet meat is ready."

"I will pay you well for a vat of the meat," Fremek told the innkeeper. "Perhaps instead of selling you the surplus, I could contract for the people of the town to prepare it as they have this other lot."

The innkeeper looked at Dariya who moved her chin to the side while her eyes frowned slightly. He turned back to Fremek. "We may have rain that will ruin the fruit before it can dry, or some of the meat may be spoiled before we can drench it. If such a thing happened, you would lose out."

Fremek nodded. He had seen the byplay between his agent and the innkeeper. It would be well to retain his services even if it meant a slight loss of profit. "Darnek, I have some tasks for you. We must send out messages throughout the land to bring ladies to our camp. You write well. I'll pay you to help me with the task."

If she accepted, Dariya would take the risk of returning to Inrek's camp, but Fremek had lifted his money pouch from his sash and let it fall into his other hand, using the sweet noise of gold and silver coins ringing against each other to attract her interest.

"Murda seems to have things in hand here in the village," the innkeeper assured her.

"Very well, could you bring the writing materials here to the inn so that I won't be distracted by the prince's companions?" Dariya asked.

"It would be easier if you came back to the camp with me where I have the lists and materials we'll need," Fremek said.

Reluctantly Dariya stood and followed him out of the inn where she found that he had already purchased the services of two litters with their bearers and runners. She glanced at the bearers and saw that she recognized none of them. With a deep sigh of relief, she stepped over the carrying poles of one of the litters and soon returned Inrek's camp.

The rowdy games of the day before had not yet started and only a few of the prince's friends were abroad in the camp. The odor of the latrine at the edge of the camp mingled with a stale mixture of sweat, smoke and rubbish.

"I'm surprised more of the men haven't gone to the inn to take advantage of the bathing room," Dariya said with an expression of disgust.

"Inrek's courtiers are still young enough to think that baths are a form of torture to be avoided unless a mother or a sweetheart drives them to it," Fremek said. "Inrek has had the stream diverted to fill a private bathing pool, but as you can tell, the others use an increase of scent if they notice the reek."

Two elegant tents of tasseled red zilka cloth glistened in the morning light not far from the prince's large tent and Dariya recognized the tents the Jamans had used on their journey from Timora. "I see that Udarit and Tepera are still here," she muttered.

"Inrek has not yet tired of her," Fremek smirked. "But soon he will find she is as stingy of her charms as any princess. I think her father already regrets his visit to our camp. Inrek won a game of Droka against him, and the stakes were high."

Fremek's quarters were near Inrek's tent, but he had hired a man to act as valet for the prince now that he had the responsibility of maintaining the entire camp. Fremek had set up his office on a hill near Inrek's tent, but away from the prevailing wind. Satisfied that she would not be in full view of the prince, and could avoid the worst of the stink, Dariya listened to the servant's instructions. She soon busied herself with scroll cloths, slates and scribing tools.

At midmorning she stood up to stretch and walked to the side of the tent where she could watch the camp unobserved. The trilling sound of Tepera's laughter rose up from the valley below and Dariya could see Inrek walking among the wrestling matches and melees that had started up again with the Jaman girl on his arm. A feeling of jealousy nearly overcame her caution. What would Inrek say if she stole into his tent that evening?

Fremek seemed to imply that Inrek used distance from the palace to indulge in forbidden appetites and apt to take his pleasure where he found it. Dariya doubted that the prince would risk his kingdom over a brief pleasure. Even if Tepera were willing, Udarit would not permit it.

Dariya saw Fremek coming up the hill and ducked back inside the tent to gather the messages she had completed. They were a simple announcement of the location of the prince's camp with the information that he would be conducting an examination of any damsels who presented themselves before the new moon in two weeks time.

She wondered how many families would respond. Most of the ambitious courtiers who had hurried to the countryside to fetch their rural cousins would probably find a way to reach the valley with their candidates within the week. Would they overwhelm the prince with gifts of food and other tokens meant to win his favor? Or would the influx put a greater burden on the provisions of the quest as well as the surrounding countryside. The question fascinated her and she surprised herself by coming up with solutions to problems that had not yet materialized.

She handed out the documents she had prepared to Fremek who examined them for errors, then nodded with approval for her work. "We have prepared enough messages to send to most of the major cities, but there are many smaller towns where a maiden might be hidden who Inrek might prefer."

"It might be difficult for him to find the best of them in such a mass of candidates," Dariya said. "Even more important, the jewel who would surely earn Inrek the crown may not be among the girls who come to the camp. For instance, there is a maiden named Breya Woranclan I knew in Talka who will probably never hear the news of the contest, yet she is the one girl I would have said would be acceptable to the council."

Fremek leaned closer. "What makes you think she will not hear of the contest?"

"I saw her and her mother in Timora only days ago," Dariya replied. "but her father stayed home in Talka to tend to the harvest. If a betrothal is arranged, it is he who must make the contract."

Fremek grew suspicious. "Perhaps she is your cousin or you have some other interest in her success."

"Where did Prince Talek go to find a bride," Dariya countered. She stopped short of telling Fremek that she had seen Inrek's brother with Breya. The girl's mother had indicated that they would not leave Timora for another ten days. In that time it might be possible to circumvent the match.

Dariya turned and went back into the tent, leaving Fremek to consider her message. A smile lifted her lips as she touched the lucky brooch at her bosom. Surely her totem had given her insight into how his mind would work.

Before noon, the tents of Udarit and his daughter were taken down and packed away. Litter bearers were summoned and Tepera made a laughing farewell to Inrek. "I will see you in Jama when you tire of this hunt," she called before ordering her bearers to carry her toward the north. Watching the departure, Dariya felt that another stone had been placed in the wall of security she constructed for herself.

She watched Inrek from the cover of a tent flap. He stood at the opening of his tent and looked after the departing Jamans with a forlorn expression on his face. His friend Aranak called out to him, "Why so glum Inrek? Soon the fairest flowers of Okishdu will begin to come to us for your review. How can you frown when for a week we have seen nothing but beauty and charm on all sides?"

"Fool! You know my brother left the palace secretly almost a day before I set out with my caravan. He could find a suitable bride and be back in the city while we dally in the countryside looking at pretty faces."

"I envy you the choice you have to make," Aranak said.

"How can I choose?" Inrek challenged. "If it were a fight or a hunt for boar, I would have no difficulty making a decision. But this is not a life I favor. I am weary of simpering maidens reciting poems and dancing to display their charms. I am tired of the mothers and fathers who break into my privacy to tell me about their desirable daughters. Whenever I favor one, such as Tepera, she is not suitable according to the standards of the council. The virtuous ones all seem prim and prune faced. I wish I could quit this search and follow Tepera to Jama where we could find a place away from her father. She may not suit as bride for the king of Zedekla, but she seemed warm and willing for a bit of fun."

Fremek bowed in front of Inrek. "If I might make a suggestion master, you are going about this quest in the wrong way."

Inrek turned to his servant with a frown. "How else can I find a bride except to search for one and see her for myself?"

"If I were you, I would retire to Jama and send forth the announcement that I had found my bride but had to make arrangement for the betrothal. Meanwhile, once courtiers no longer have hope of providing a royal bride, I would send out a man to find a young woman to serve as the Queen's secretary. It would be said that intelligence and virtue were the key requirements for the post, although it is poorly paid and the girl would be a servant rather than a member of the court."

"But my mother already has a satisfactory secretary," Inrek protested. "Lady Volura Dunik is not only well paid, but she is most definitely a member of the court. That fact alone kept her from consideration as my wife."

"The offer of employment would only be a ruse." Fremek said. "We won't be looking for a secretary."

Inrek stared at his servant for a moment, then he smiled. "I see. People would not care to recommend their own daughters to such a position, but they would be happy to recommend the daughters of others. The prettier the girl, the more likely her neighbors would be to want her out of circulation."

"I think we would find the hidden jewels, the ones most likely to meet the council's requirements." Fremek said.

"Who would you suggest should handle the business?" Inrek asked.

"I venture that I am the best qualified to carry out the task," Fremek said. "All of my relatives live in Zedekla and none of my cousins could possibly qualify to marry a prince. I will be completely without prejudice in making a choice of bride for you."

"Then proceed as you have suggested," Inrek said. "Have you sent out any of the messages summoning hopeful brides to this camp?"

"I had most of them prepared with the help of a young men I met in the village yesterday, but none of them have been dispatched."

"I will put my friend Aranak in charge of the camp. He has managed many hunts well enough, and we will head out for Jama," Inrek said.

Fremek hurried back to Dariya. "You must stop writing and help me plan. You must have heard that Inrek has taken my suggestion and will soon set out for Jama while I continue with the search for a bride."

"What of the spiced meat you promised to purchase from the innkeeper?" Dariya asked.

"He can send it to Zedekla," Fremek quickly said. "I would like you to continue as my agent in the matter. Take some porters and carry the honeyed meat to the capital when it is ready. There is a ready market for it there."

Dariya had wondered how she could make her way to the city while Fremek seemed to want her by his side. This errand would accomplish her aim, and she would profit from going to the city as Fremek's agent. She hid her smile of triumph and put her hand to her chest to feel the outline of the brooch that had yet again proved its worth.

Chapter 8 The Betrothal

More than a week after he had entered Timora with Serin and Fleya, Talek heard the distinctive sound of a Mareklan flute when they were passing the market square. He looked up to see the banners of Mareklan Merchants fluttering from a tall pole set in the center of a cluster of small stands.

A crowd had gathered, each person eager to see the precious items that were offered for sale. Other traders and merchants sold goods, but only the men from Marekla offered such strange and exotic items as fire fox muffs and Kempish jewels.

The rare and delicate works of art and craft drew Fleya's gaze. "I know I can't afford to purchase anything the Mareklans sell," she said, "but I would love to see the things they have to offer."

Talek nodded and led the two women closer to the corner of the market where the Mareklans had set up their displays. When they reached one of the displays, he saw a thief venture near and try to palm a small jewel. A swift hand caught the hand of the thief and twisted the treasure from his stealthy grasp with no further fuss.

"The merchant should have summoned the Guardians," Fleya said.

"The Mareklans need no guards or protection from others," Serin told her mother.

Talek nodded. "Each merchant is a trained combatant. When they travel from city to city, they use paths that are secret. Only the trusted few know where or when they will appear with their treasures for trade and purchase. Only fools dare steal from them. If mobs or greedy officials threaten them in any city, that city is shunned by the merchants for five years."

"I think every child in Okishdu is weaned on stories of the Mareklans," Serin said. "They keep our interest by maintaining their mystery."

Fleya saw one of the merchants looking toward Serin with a puzzled frown. Suddenly she grabbed at the girl's hand. "Come, there is a Jaman cloth merchant with bolts of zilka cloth on the corner over there. There is nothing to interest us here."

"We saw that booth last week, I doubt there is anything new," Serin said as she took a sidestep and evaded her mother. "Look, they have several pendants in the shape of spear leaves. My father gave me a little money to buy something in Timora. I think I will buy one of these as a reminder of Neril. Since reading about her in the sacred library, I feel a kinship with her."

Fleya blanched with apprehension, but Serin had already leaned over the stand to look at the display of jewelry. Most of the work consisted of simple tokens, meant for the poorer among the pilgrims. Some pendants were graven with a likeness of the First Prophet. Serin glanced up at Talek and back to the pendants with a little smile. She had only enough to purchase one pendant, but she could not decide between the an intaglio of Irilik in dark stone, or a leaf of dark green obsidian, the symbol of Saint Neril.

She stepped away from the stand and watched others make their choices. Perhaps one of the pendants she wanted would be purchased and her choice would be made for her. Talek signaled the merchant and purchased the pendant carved with the profile of Irilik. When he put it in his belt pouch Serin turned to her mother to hide her blushing face from Talek.

"I wonder what it was like when the Mareklans traveled as families. It must be a lonely life for the merchants now that only the men leave their city." Serin murmured to her mother.

Fleya clutched her hand, this time holding her next to her side in a firm grip. "Come my dear, there is no longer any need to linger here. It is apparent that Talek intends to give you one of the pendants you were looking at."

When Talek turned away to join them, the tallest of the Marekla merchants stepped forward and held up his hand to touch the staff that never left Talek's grasp while he guarded Serin.

"I am Thedonen, nephew of Neragon. I am the leader of this band," the man said. "You bear the staff of one whose name cannot be spoken by Mareklans. Years ago Thalon took the staff as a gift to a child in Zedekla. Another gift went with it."

Talek hesitated, then he replied in a similar vein, "My brother received the other gift from the hand of Thalon. I only suspected the value of the staff when I received it. Now it is dear to me."

Thedonen's eyes glittered with amusement and he nodded. "Welcome to our tent, brother of Marekla."

Fleya held her ground, refusing to enter the Mareklan tent, but Serin followed Talek as they were led behind the barrier that kept out the merely curious. The merchants glanced curiously at Serin but said nothing but words of welcome.

"We saw dogs of the demon, Orqu, on the track to the city when we entered Timora. Do you know why they are here?" Thedonen asked as he showed them the riches on display in the inner part of the enclosure.

"When my mother and I approached Timora we were attacked by three men dressed in gray and purple robes," Serin replied. "They seemed to want me for a sacrifice to their demon Orqu. I have no idea why they particularly chose me, although the fact that we were two solitary women might have been a factor. Talek saved us. When I saw his staff, I thought he was Mareklan."

"Before we withdrew our families to our home in the mountains, many marriages took place between the fair daughters of Marekla and the men of other clans," Thedonen said. "Perhaps you are the product of one such marriage. However your face is the image of one born in Marekla. You must ever be wary of those who wear the robes of Orqu's priests."

The merchants seemed to compete for a smile from Serin, urging her to choose some small thing as a gift. Finally she yielded to their urging. Passing over ornate and glittering pieces of jewelry, she chose a simple leaf shaped pendant of green crystal suspended from a delicate chain.

It shone with pure fire. Talek smiled at her choice and Thedonen winked at him. Serin, in trying to avoid more ornate jewels, had settled on the prize of the collection.

The jewel had been specially crafted by Docanen, the greatest jeweler of Marekla. None of the Mareklans would say the name of the symbol, a Blade of Neril, worked in emerald.

"You have chosen in an attitude of humility," Thedonen acknowledged as she let him fasten the chain around her neck. "Show this jewel to none but those you love and trust."

The bells of Enven rang out over the city, warning all that the time had come for rest and devotion while the sun blazed with its fiercest heat. Serin once again expressed her gratitude for the lovely gift and Talek pointed to several jewels and exchanged a signal with the merchant.

"We travel to Zedekla soon. If we can carry any messages for you, let us know." Thedonen said as Talek and Serin left the tent. Talek stopped to speak to him for a moment more while Serin joined Fleya who had grown red in the face and sweating with fear that the Mareklans would reclaim the child she had been given long ago.

As they walked back through the city together, Talek realized that the time had come for him to tell the truth to Serin. He could not bear the thought of her rejection when she found that he had deceived her, but the pretense could not continue.

Her beauty, wisdom and sweet humility attracted all who met her, but his own emotions were almost inexpressible. For the first time in his life he wanted to write songs and poetry in praise of a person instead of an idea. If he married Serin, it would not be in order to win the kingdom of Zedekla, but he could not imagine anyone more fit to be queen. He wondered how he could find a moment alone with her to tell her of his hopes and his real identity.

After they had visited the Shrine for prayer, Fleya stopped on the steps and waved her hand in front of her face to cool herself. "I must return to the hostel. I need my rest," she said. "Talek, Serin has told me that she would like to visit some of the other gardens within the walls of the Shrine. The sun at this hour is too hot for me. Why don't you and Serin visit the gardens while I rest at the hostel. Perhaps this evening I will feel more like visiting the library."

Somehow they found themselves alone in a garden built in memory of Tarsha, wife of the first prophet. The walls were covered with vines that bloomed with vivid flowers.

Serin and Talek wandered together, each too shy to say the first word. Finally Talek spoke. "I pray that your mother will be healthy again after her rest. Perhaps we should have returned to the hostel with her.

Serin smiled. "I think she knew we wanted to be alone together."

Talek reached out and they linked their hands and wandered toward the back of the garden where a bench overlooked a pool. Talek guided Serin to sit down on the bench and sat beside her. He reached into his belt pouch and removed the pendant he had purchased from the Mareklan stand.

"This is not as fine as the 'Blade of Neril' the Mareklans gave you, but I saw how much you liked it and wanted to give you a gift."

She held her head up so that he could place the simple braided thong of the pendant around her neck, then she picked up the pendant and turned it so that she could study it. Talek knew that the time had come to tell the truth, and he glanced down and nervously cleared his throat. "Serin, I am one of the twin princes of Zedekla," he said.

When Serin remained silent, he glanced at her frowning face and hurried to assure her. "I am sorry I kept silent for so long, but at first, I did not know I would come to care for you. Later I feared to face your disapproval of my pretense. Now I know I must tell you and risk your anger before I can speak my mind and heart."

Serin looked down at the profile of Irilik and nodded. "I should have guessed who you are. The signs are all there. Who else but a prince of Marekla would have had the right to borrow a priesthood robe and administer my rites of washing. Who else but a descendant of Tharek would have the same profile as the First Prophet, Irilik. I continued to think you might be a Mareklan in disguise for your own purposes, but our meeting today with the Mareklan Merchants convinced me you were not of their clan. Why have you avoided your royal relatives and stayed in a simple clan hostel. Why are you spending your time with a simple country maid?"

"I stayed near you at first because you and your mother needed my protection and I had no other purpose in Timora. If it were not for the need to let you know who I am so that there would be no deceit between us, I would have returned to Zedekla without revealing my identity."

She glanced up and took in the plain pilgrim robes that he had worn for their visits to the Shrine. "It must be very different from your life in the court of Zedekla."

"Not very different. My parents are not proud people. You will soon come to love my sisters. What you have come to know is really me, Talek. The title makes no real difference. In the palace I act in much the same way. I spend a certain amount of the day in study, far more than suits my brother Inrek. I can't deny that I have rich clothing and luxurious surroundings, but usually I prefer a simple diet and comfortable clothing unless the situation calls for something more ostentatious."

"Why are you telling me now?" Serin asked.

"I didn't tell you to impress or frighten you," Talek assured her. "I must be honest with you. I have come to love you and want to ask you to marry me."

"Surely you know many women better suited to be your wife. Someday you may be the king. There must be daughters of court officials who know far more than I ever could about how to conduct themselves in royal company." Serin lowered her eyes to her folded hands and waited for his answer.

"I have never met anyone better suited to be a queen. In some ways you remind me of my mother. More important, you own my heart."

She raised her head and turned to him with her dark eyes grave and he knew he had to tell her everything. "There is something more that you should know. Even if I did know a young woman who had been raised in the ways of the palace, she would be ineligible to be queen. The heir to the throne will be chosen on the basis of the woman he chooses as his wife. The decision will rest with the council. When I heard this, I fled Zedekla. I could not ask a woman to marry me for such a purpose. I wanted to find love if I ever chose to marry."

He saw Serin's eyes widen as she considered his revelation and continued. "Whatever merit a woman has, before I could marry her she must have my deepest affection as well. I didn't think such a thing could happen in such a short time. But it has. I want to marry you Serin."

Talek watched her face as he waited for her answer. Would she be insulted or honored. Did she feel the same affection for him or did her gentle nature keep her from giving him a rude truth. As she kept quiet his heart began to pound with fear that he had offended her.

Finally she spoke, "You have given me much to think about. I will talk to my mother before I give you an answer. I am afraid that I am too simple to be a suitable queen and you will be disappointed. But whatever my answer, I too have felt affection, and something more for you. We must speak to my mother."

They stood and left the garden and made their way through the Shrine. While they were descending the steps, Fleya rushed up to them.

"Talek, Serin, come quickly. The guards of the city have caught seven of the demon's dogs priests of Orqu just before they murdered a young girl. They have been taken to the Judgment Hall and we must serve as witnesses to ensure their punishment."

Fleya's excitement banished the fragile silence that had gripped Talek and Serin and they hurried after her. They made their way through the crowd surrounding the judgement hall with difficulty. Peace Guardians holding staffs topped with metal balls held back the curious and the angry from the gate. Talek used his strength with a quiet authority that moved others aside until he came near enough to speak to a guardian and show him the ring he kept concealed beneath his tunic on a thong around his neck. Within minutes they were standing before the three chief judges of Timora telling their stories.

"My daughter still wears the bruises inflicted by those fiends," Fleya said dramatically. Talek gave his version of events in a more factual manner, but he confirmed that the servants of Orqu had spoken of killing and sacrifice.

Last of all, Serin stood before them. "I saw the men who attacked us and I heard them speak of sacrificing me. If it were not for Talek, I am certain I would not be here to give my witness."

After hearing their evidence, the chief judge asked them to prepare to attend the trial as witnesses against the priests. "They have clever lawyers who will say that their actions were misinterpreted. The maiden they had in bonds is too frightened to give evidence. We think they threatened to take vengeance on her family if she testifies against them. It is their way. We need your testimony to assure that the villains won't go free."

"When will you hold the trial?" Fleya asked. "We must return to our home at the end of the week."

"We will hold the trial within the week," the guardian said.

"It's good to know that we no longer need to fear the Orquians," Fleya exulted when they returned to the clan hostel. "You have been patient with us Talek, but surely you will want to go and spend time with other young men of the city now that you know we are safe."

Talek smiled. "I have no desire to spend my time with any others. Think about what I have told you Serin. I will wait for your answer."

"Talek turned aside to his small room near the gate and Fleya pulled her daughter toward a quiet bench near the wall. "What is he talking about?" she asked urgently. "Is it as I have feared? Is he a Mareklan in disguise who wants to take you away from your father and me?"

"Talek is not of the Mareklans, but he wants to marry me," Serin answered. "I planned to ask your advice."

"I will talk to Talek, child," Fleya said. "Go and prepare yourself for evening devotions." Suddenly the chubby little woman seemed to gain in stature and dignity. She marched to Talek's room and knocked on the door. When he answered, she took his hand and led him back to the quiet bench by the wall. Speaking in a low voice, she addressed him.

"I like you Talek, you are a fine young man, but I must tell you that Serin is special."

"I knew that from the first time we met," Talek assured her. "What did she tell you about me?"

Bleya waved her hand as if anything he had to say cuold not compare with her confidences. "Serin is not the child of my body, but she is surely the child of my heart. My husband and I took her for our own as an infant. We think her guardian had intended to take her to the hidden city of Marekla when he fell to his death from the mountain in back of our farm. He was the biggest man I have ever seen, and he gave his life protecting her. He lived only long enough to say her name."

"Did he say his name?" Talek asked urgently, remembering that Thalon had not been seen in Zedekla since the day he gave the two princes their gifts from Neragon.

"We never learned his name. My husband buried him secretly. We named the baby he gave us Serin as he had desired, but we have always called her Bleya, fearing that the servants of Orqu would guess what she is and seek her life if they knew of her. We have protected her until now, but you saw what happened as soon as she showed her face beyond the borders of Talka."

Talek nodded.

"If you marry Serin, how will you keep her safe. You live in the city of Zedekla where there is a black altar. It would be dangerous to take Serin to Zedekla, perhaps you could come and live on our farm with us. It is good land, and we have no sons to farm it when we grow old," she said hopefully.

"I cannot go to Talka," Talek said. "I have other responsibilities that will not permit me to hide myself away in the country. I must live in Zedekla, but I can promise you that Serin would have all the protection possible from the walls of a royal palace as well as my devotion throughout her life."

"Are you some minor official or courtier come to Timora to play the peasant for a week or so?" Fleya sneered with anger at his rejection of her plan.

"I am the prince of Zedekla."

Fleya's eyes widened with happy surprise and she bounced up from the bench, then quickly bent herself in a curtsy.

"You need not bow to me," Talek protested.

"Oh pardon me, I did not mean to offend," she pleaded. "Why didn't you tell me. How could I know who you are your highness, and forgive me if I said anything against your father. The King is a wonderful man. Oh how happy I am. How happy Bernin will be when he knows who Serin is to marry."

Talek smiled with appreciation of Fleya's joy, but he still remained uncertain if she would be his future mother-in-law. "Serin did not give me an answer when I asked her to marry me," he protested.

Fleya waved her hand in dismissal and grabbed his hand to pull him off the bench and toward the common room of the hostel. Her shouts for Serin rang through the courtyard and brought the girl running.

"Oh my dear daughter, how happy! How happy! We must tell your father the news."

"I have not answered that I would marry him," Serin protested.

"Do you love him?" Fleya demanded.

Serin smiled and nodded, "Yes, I love him."

"Then you must marry!" Fleya proclaimed.

"I think your husband Bernin must decide if we can marry," Talek cautioned the woman. "I will leave for Talka to ask his permission immediately."

"But Talek, we must stay here in Timora until after the trial," Serin said.

"I am certain Bernin will give his permission," Fleya assured him. "I wish I had the means to send him a message."

"The Marekla Merchants offered to carry a message to Zedekla for me," Talek said. "I will ask them to stop by your farm and speak to your husband. They can bring me his answer in Zedekla. I will set the plans in motion for our wedding if he gives his approval."

Fleya labored over a message to her husband while Talek searched for the right words to send in his own missive. Although well read and a scholar, he had never written such an important letter. When he had finished sealed up his message he still remained unsatisfied.

He had made no mention of his status. He only stated that he had met Serin and wished to marry her and that the messenger who brought his request would wait for the answer. He almost broke the seal on his message in order to add more, but Fleya finally completed her letter and urged him to hurry to the market.

When he reached the market, he saw that the group of merchants were already preparing to depart. Each man wore a pack and carried a staff. They did not appear to be a force of fighting men, but Talek knew for himself that the staffs they carried were effective weapons.

Thedonen saw Talek and greeted him. "I am glad you have come to wish us well on our journey," he said.

"I came to ask you to deliver a message for me. It will take you out of your way as you go to Zedekla. I want to ask the father of the girl you met today to grant me her hand in marriage. Their farm lies at the base of the barrier mountains near Talka. There is also a message from the girl's mother for her husband." Talek took the message packets and handed them to Thedonen.

"You will require a reply to your application for the betrothal," Thedonen said. "We will divert our course so that we may trade for the fine wool of the hill region and I will meet you in Zedekla market square in the first day of the full moon."

"Thank you Thedonen. I would go myself, but the judges have asked us to give evidence against the servants of Orqu. We must ensure that they will not win their freedom."

Thedonen touched his staff to the one Talek carried, the greeting of a Mareklan to a Mareklan.

Talek returned to the hostel with a smile for all who passed him. He found Serin and Fleya waiting for him. "Will they take our messages?" Fleya asked.

"They took the messages," Talek said. "They are leaving the vale this evening. It is likely that Bernin will have our letters in his hands before the end of the week."

Fleya's eyes lit up and she turned to Serin. "We have been setting aside a little of the profit from every harvest since you came into our lives, my dear. We had expected to pay a dowry, but I doubt that Talek's family would expect such a token from such as us. The funds will better be spent to dress you as befits the bride of a prince. For the rest of our time in Timora, we must frequent the cloth sellers and seamstresses."

"Oh no, mother," Serin protested.. "I have my dower chest at home that I have been furnishing with things for my marriage. I would not want to waste the few days we have in Timora shopping. Who can say when I will return to study and pray. You should keep the money you have saved for your own needs."

"I will not be denied this joy," Fleya insisted.

Serin's eyes went to Talek with silent appeal and he smiled sympathetically. "Your mother wants to give you a fine set of bridal clothing. Perhaps it would be better if she made her purchases without your presence and you will be surprised with whatever she chooses."

Fleya frowned a little but looked up with a smile after thinking about Talek's suggestion. "I love to shop but Serin tends to dither. She refuses to dicker for a better price with merchants. Perhaps it is best if she continues with her studies. The two of you are as good as betrothed. I will shop while you go about your rounds."

The arrangement suited all of them. Fleya had a credit voucher secured in her belt pouch. It had been intended merely for the extra expenses she might encounter in Timora, but Bernin Woranclan had a reputation as a prosperous farmer and she soon obtained the means she needed for her pursuit of the finest cloth in Timora. She spent hours browsing through bolts of colorful zilka cloth and lengths of embroidered trim. She had seldom been so happy.

Their imminent betrothal brought a deeper bond to Talek and Serin. The sweet communion they had first shared more than a week earlier occurred whenever they knelt together at Enven in the Shrine. They searched the scrolls in the sacred and secular libraries with a special aim. There were tales of love and courting hidden among the stories of the prophets and kings. Talek told Serin about the contest for Caril that his father had won, even though another man had stolen his identity and she knew Tomak only as a common man.

Sometimes they disagreed over interpretations of events, and the spirited discussions that followed assured Talek that Serin would not give in to bullies. She made up her own mind and defended her ideas without becoming shrill. Neither of them felt the need to coerce the other to alter their opinion.

One morning they had been studying the life of Tharek, Talek's ancestor. "He should have accepted the crown instead of leaving the issue in the hands of his son and retreating to Timora when he resigned as Tyrant," Talek said.

"In his wisdom he set the pattern for all the kings who followed," Serin said.

"None of them have refused the crown," Talek protested.

"Every Zedeklan king has passed his crown on to his heir as soon as a grandchild is born. The one exception is your great-grandfather, King Fortek and an evil man influenced him to break the tradition. As a result of Tharek's example of leaving the kingdom to others and choosing the better path of study and worship, most of his descendants have done the same. There has always been a strong, hale, king on the throne of Zedekla, and your ancestors have provided Okishdu with some of its finest Prophets and Seers."

"It is a pity that Sergon is not in the city to meet you," Talek said. "He would enjoy your ideas."

"Is Sergon your ancestor?" Serin asked.

"No, when my great-grandfather, Manchek, died, Sergon married his widow, Kemila. At first it seemed a strange alliance, but they deal very well together."

"I look forward to meeting them," Serin said. "I hope they will not disapprove of your choice of a bride."

"I am certain that my family will love you. But even if they found my choice unacceptable, it would make no difference to me."

Serin laughed. "Perhaps we should just ask one of the shrine servants to marry us and then run away to the marshes east of Taleeka. You could fish and I could weave rush baskets. Our children would grow up with no worries about rank and other such problems of city folk."

"You would still want to see your parents, and I have grown rather fond of my own family, even my younger sisters," Talek responded with a laugh.

"They could visit us each summer and feast on fish," she teased.

"Would you really want to run away?" he asked, wondering if his own life would be better if he made such a choice.

"I would, except for visiting Timora every year, and visiting your family and my own, and traveling to see the far lands of Janaka and Saadena. I have even thought I would like to travel with a teamster and his team to far Kumnora," she mused, her eyes misty with dreams of venturing far.

"Have you never before left Talka?" he asked.

"I have seldom even been to Talka," she responded with a laugh. "I only went to the town of Talka when my mother or father had to stay at home and they needed me to help with the market stall where we sold produce from our farm."

"When we marry we will travel as you wish," he promised her.

"Even to Saadena, to see the grave of Neril?" she asked, her eyes wide.

"My grandfather, Carnat, is the Guardian of Saadena," he reminded her. "We will visit him and you can meet my uncles and aunts who are not as old as I am. My sister plans to marry a Janakan prince, or so she has threatened if my brother becomes king. We will travel to visit them."

"Aunts and uncles, soon nieces and nephews, what a wide-spread family you have," she marveled. "I have only my mother and father. Each was the only child of only children. It is a wonder I my mother gave birth to me with such a history. But they are excellent parents and truly all the family I have ever needed."

Talek felt surprised that she knew nothing of her true situation. She had a family as wide spread as his own if she were the grandchild of Thalon, as he suspected. When they had spoken to the guardians, she had addressed her grandfather and uncle. Sergon's dauther had been her grandmother. Surely she had other relatives among the Mareklans. He was tempted to tell her what Fleya had told him, but he would wait until a later time and give Fley and Bernin a chance to tell her.

"Tell me about Talka," he said.

"I thought a large town until I saw Timora. I know now that it is rather small. There is an inn where strangers sometimes come to stay, and we even see the Mareklan merchants once or twice a decade, but otherwise, everyone seems to know everyone else either by sight or by reputation."

"Have you ever heard of a man named Semlik?" Talek asked, remembering the courtier who had sponsored Dariya.

"He is the richest man in Talka. Some say he is a very wicked man who sells his debtors to the servant-sellers from Orenon. There is gossip that some who are sold to the servant-sellers are not debtors, but kidnaped girls. I think that is why my parents seldom allowed to go into town. My mother made certain to never leave me alone in Talka.

"Did you know his niece, a girl named Dariya?" Talek asked.

Serin began to shake her head, then she seemed to recall something. "I knew a girl named Dariya, but if she is Semlik's niece, it is a distant connection. She is the oldest child in one of the poor families that rented land from Semlik."

"A poor girl?" Talek questioned. "I knew her as a courtier in Zedekla."

"There must be another girl by the same name as the one I know," Serin said. "I met Dariya when we had booths next to each other at the market one summer. My father had been ill and my mother took me with her when the vegetables were ripe."

"Tell me about your childhood," he said.

"I will tell you, but when I've answered all you want to know, you must do the same," she said. At first she spoke of pets she had kept and her favorite haunts in the fields and woods. Under his questioning she revealed that she had taken on tasks that were unusual for a young woman, keeping accounts for her parents and helping in ways more usual for a son. As an only child, she had been her father's student as well as learning to be a housewife under Fleya's tutelage.

While Talek learned about Serin, another man questioned the innkeeper of Talka about the young women of the region. "I am looking for someone for an important position in Zedekla," Fremek said.

The innkeeper frowned. "Did Semlik send you? We have not heard of him in many days. Has his credit run so low that he is seeking new girls for the servant sellers?"

"I am looking for a young woman on orders of the prince," Fremek said.

A short man of wide girth moved next to him. "Are you one of the men with the Prince who is looking for a bride? I am Narakin, my daughter is a lovely girl."

Fremek had met the same greeting a hundred times before during the past few days while he had visited villages and towns seeking a suitable young woman for Inrek. Once again he told the tale that helped him weed out the ambitious. "The Prince has already chosen a bride. I am conducting a separate search. The queen needs a secretary."

"I'm surprised you would come so far for such a petty post," Narakin said.

The position is difficult to fill because of the requirements," Fremek said. "The girl selected for Queen's service will be treated as a servant and not as a member of the court, yet she must be both learned and virtuous. Do you know of any maidens who might qualify?"

"Would the girl chosen for the position have the opportunity to meet the princes?" Narakin asked hopefully.

"Perhaps, but only as a servant. It is a perfect situation for a young woman who is dedicated to learning and virtue but has no interest in material advancement."

Narakin turned to two of his companions and they nodded to their wives. They seemed agreed on something, but none of them volunteered to speak.

"I would be happy to pay for any information that proves useful," Fremek offered.

"You came at the wrong time my friend," Narakin said. "There is a maiden named Breya who would fit your requirements. She lives with her parents in the hills. Unfortunately, I believe she has gone to Timora to do shrine service."

Fremek recognized the name, but the man might have some interest in seeing the girl well placed. "What of your daughter? Would she enjoy working in Zedekla?"

"Oh, I think she would not serve too well in such a post. She has hopes of marriage soon, especially if you find that Breya is satisfactory for the position."

The others who were taking supper in the inn nodded their agreement. "They would like to see the last of Breya," the innkeeper murmured.

Narakin overheard his comment. "Not at all. It is true that some of the young men have fancied her, but she seldom came to town so she is not a rival to my daughter."

His wife spoke up, "She is tall, but much too slender. I don't think she would make a good farm wife. She would do better in the city as the queen's secretary if you have the patience to wait until she returns from Timora.

Fremek frowned, belying the elation he felt. It seemed he had been well directed by his young friend Darnek. Now he wished he had come directly to Talka as the young man had suggested. He passed the evening in the inn, but after the farmers who had recommended Breya left, he sought out the innkeeper to learn more about the girl. At first the man seemed reluctant to speak about her. Finally Fremek resorted to guile. "I heard that this Breya they spoke of is as ugly as a bucket and as skinny as a pole."

"The one who told you that lied," the innkeeper said. "It is true, as one of them said, that she is not like most girls from Talka. Now and then a beauty is born, but usually they are as stubby as most of the women in this part of Okishdu. I've traveled as far as Janaka and Timora in my days, and I can tell you I've seen few women who match Breya."

"Then why did the farmers and their wives seem so anxious to see her leave for Zedekla?" Fremek asked. "Does she cause rivalry among their sons?"

"She might, if she came into Talka often enough for them to compete for her. As it is, she mostly stays out on her parents' farm. The young fools around here are more interested in a convenient girl than one who knows more than any of them when they dicker for her goods in the market place. They follow her with their eyes, but there won't be anyone having their fun with her until they marry. On the other hand, that lot that are so eager to have her go to Zedekla all have daughters. Being the only child of her parents, Breya has a nice inheritance to offer in addition to her other assets. It's too bad the prince has found his bride. She'd be fit for royalty."

"You sound half in love with her yourself," Fremek snickered, nudging the graying innkeeper with his elbow.

The innkeeper slammed down his cup so hard the pottery shattered on the table. "You sound like a filthy servant seller looking for a nice ripe shant fit only for Jama. I suspected something scurvy about you from the moment you came into the inn. You've paid for your bed and I'm a man of my word so I won't put you out of it tonight, but you'd best be gone when morning comes."

Fremek left the table with haste and made his way to his room. It appeared to be cleaner than most places he had stayed. Only the faintest odor of kitchen waste rose from the inn below and the bed was free of vermin. It spoke well of the innkeeper that he charged little for such comfort. It seemed likely that he had spoken the truth.

Noon had passed when Fremek finally made his way up the long track to the remote farm of Bernin Woranclan with the intent of making an offer for his daughter. He had been misled several times while trying to find a bride for Inrek, but none of the girls he had interviewed came with such high recommendations as Breya. If matters worked to his advantage and he earned the promised bonus from Inrek, he would have Darnek to thank for his good fortune.

Then he saw the man who walked from the fields to meet him as he neared the cottage. Surely this must be some oaf the farmer hired to do his heavy work. The gaunt giant had shoulders as wide as a dala yoke.

Fremek addressed the plodding rustic, speaking slowly and loudly. "Do you know where I can find Bernin Woranclan?"

"Welcome to my home. I am Bernin of Woran Clan."

The first words of the ungainly giant blasted Fremek's confidence. Could the daughter of such a man be a beauty? Fremek glanced behind him. The hill lay steep behind him and noon had passed. At least he should stay long enough to rest and eat. The appetizing scent of something baking came from the house. His stomach grumbled and he decided that the least he could earn for his trouble was a tasty meal.

"I have come from far away to speak to you," he said.

Bernin's eyes blazed with fear. "Has something happened to my wife or daughter? I knew I should have asked them to wait until I could go with them to Timora."

"I have heard that they were seen in Timora, happy and well," Fremek assured Bernin. "I have what I hope will be good news for you."

"Then welcome to my home. Come in and share my mid-day meal," Bernin insisted.

The food that Bernin served his guest was fresh and flavorful. He ate the vegetables in a spicy meat sauce and asked for another helping.

Bernin chatted while Fremek savored his meal. "It is well that you came by. I am accustomed to making meals for three people. My wife, Fleya, usually prepares our dinner, but I make the midday meals. For the past week and a half I have been forced to feed my dog the extra food when I forget and make too much. I fear he will become accustomed to sharing and Fleya will find out how foolish I have been."

Fremek paused with a vegetable an inch from his lips. "Does your wife have a terrible temper?" He asked.

"She is my darling dumpling and as sweet as a ripe nuka," Bernin protested. "But she does not like the dog begging at our boots."

Reassured, Fremek finished eating his second ample serving. Bernin watched him, astonished at his capacity. "Not even Fleya eats as well as you!"

"The food was all delicious, better even than the royal board," Fremek explained. The spice of hunger provided an additional goad to his appetite. He decided not to tell Bernin that he had been turned out of the inn that morning with a grudging excuse for breakfast because the innkeeper felt he had slandered Breya.

Finally he felt satisfied and he leaned back in his chair. "You have done me a good turn, Bernin Woranclan, and I have come to do you one as well. I have come to talk to you about your daughter, Breya. I have heard that she is both virtuous and wise. There is a position in the palace for such a maiden."

"She is also beautiful." Bernin said. "She is as lovely as a flower. I have never seen a more beautiful woman, except for my wife Fleya. They are the twin suns of my existence."

The elegance of the farmer's speech impressed Fremek. There was only a hint of the country burr. He was also relieved that his reasoning had been proved right. The people who had told him about Breya had vouced for her virtue and wisdom virtuous but few of them had hinted at her beauty, however, there had been an expression in the eyes of the women that suggested envy.

"Do you have a picture of Breya?" Fremek asked hopefully. Royalty were given to making portraits, but only a few country people had the means.

"I carved her likeness on the sandstone of the fireplace last year." Bernin stood and walked over to the carved stone that surrounded the hearth. "I have tried to draw her, but I am not good at sketching. It seems that I only get a good likeness when I work in stone."

Fremek followed Bernin to the hearth and looked at the curious decorations carved into the surface. Most of the stones at eye level seemed to be decorated with grotesque figures and faces, one that was frequently repeated showed a comic face as round as an apple. There were some excellent carvings of wild animals and flowers. Then Fremek saw the carving of a girl. The other images faded from his awareness as he studied the delicate features and winsome expression of the face.

"Is this a likeness of your daughter?"

"It is a very good likeness." Bernin admitted, almost embarrassed to claim the credit. "But a carving can't capture the gloss of her hair or the sparkle in her eyes. She has so many expressions. I plan to do others when I have time."

"She is lovely," Fremek said almost reverently. He had come to believe that none of the country women he saw could equal the courtly beauties forbidden to the prince. Now he realized that Bernin was right when he compared Breya to a flower. She was as lovely as the queen herself, and Carila was acknowledged a great beauty.

He returned to the table and sat down. Originally he had been reluctant to offer a royal betrothal to anyone until he could see the girl and interview her. Now that the obvious choice was Breya Woranclan, it seemed foolish to wait any longer. Perhaps some swain in Timora would win her heart and apply for her hand.

"I said I had come to do you a favor, and so I will," Fremek began. "I come from the royal palace of Zedekla. I wish to offer your daughter, Breya, an important post. Many have given their recommendations before I sought you out."

Bernin filled their cups again. "I would not be willing to have her leave us for mere employment. She can make her life with us until she marries."

"The post I offer your daughter is marriage to a prince. In the future she would become queen of Zedekla." Fremek made his offer with a flourish that convinced Bernin that it was no jest.

"Why do you come instead of your master, the prince?" Bernin asked.

"My master had many things to do that kept him from seeking a bride. I was given his trust to find the best possible maiden for him to marry. I am empowered to offer marriage in his name."

"Certainly Breya is the best possible maiden any man could wish. Is your master a good man?" Bernin asked. The question surprised Fremek. No others had bothered to ask about his master's character. His estimation of Bernin went up another notch but he paused while he considered his answer. Someone like Bernin might not understand the problems of a prince, the need for relief and recreation when the quest for a bride grew onerous. Without directly lying, Fremek put the best light he could on Inrek's character.

"The prince is strong and brave, but he was troubled by the need to find a bride. So many came forth claiming virtue and wisdom, only to prove lacking. He grew weary of the quest and the difficulty of choosing someone worthy to be queen. I took on the task of winnowing out the merely ambitious. My track has led to you. You must give me an answer."

Bernin hesitated. "I had hoped Breya would be able to choose her own husband. Still, she is at the age of marriage and there is no other that she favors. I will be sorry to see her leave us, but I know that sooner or later she must make her own life away from our farm."

"Perhaps it is best that you make the choice for her," Fremek counseled.

Bernin nodded. "I will accept your offer," he declared, "But only because I know that Zedekla is ruled by those who set their hearts on virtue."

Fremek took scroll cloth and scribing tools from his belt pouch and revealed a document already prepared with royal flourishes and archaic words. There were two spaces open and Fremek indicated where Bernin should sign and where write the name of his daughter. Bernin hesitated, asking Fremek questions until the servant nearly shouted with frustration.

When the scroll cloth was rolled up and deposited again in Fremek's pouch he quickly took his leave of Bernin and left the cottage. He felt giddy with relief. As he hurried down the track towards the crossroad he saw a band of Mareklan merchants approaching from the south. He was curious about their presence, but his quest for a suitable bride had already taken too much time and he was eager to return to Inrek with the news of his success. He hurried past the merchants with no more than a glance.

Thedonen was curious about the stranger's haste. By the look of his clothing, he was someone of importance in Zedekla. Thedonen signaled the other men in his group to stop and when they had circled, he addressed them. "The rest of you go on to Talka. I have messages for the farmer who lives up this track. I'll join you when I finish my errand,"

They turned onto the Talka track with the same steady pace that had brought them from Timora in three day's time. Thedonen turned aside and climbed the path. When he drew near the cottage, he noticed how well made it was. The doorway seemed unusually high, but when he knocked and the door was opened, he knew the reason.

Bernin looked at the Mareklan standing at his door and felt panic. For years he had carried a secret fear that someday the Mareklans would come to seek their own. Fleya had assured him that his fears were groundless. After all, she had said, who could know that Serin was not their own child. Even their neighbors believed it was so. In his fear he spoke brusquely,

"What do you want?"

"I have messages for you. This is from one I think of as a brother." Thedonen handed Bernin the marriage offer that Talek had entrusted to him. He watched the big man's face and saw a grimace of apprehension pass over his features as he read it.

"You must tell your brother that my daughter is already betrothed. A man left here a few minutes ago. He was carrying a betrothal agreement. Now, if you will give me the other message, I will bid you a good journey."

Thedonen handed Bernin the letter from Fleya, but the big farmer seemed distracted, and instead of breaking the seal and reading it, he shut the door in the merchant's face with no offer of refreshment or suggestion of reward for the errand.

Thedonen had never been subjected to such rudeness. He fought his temper as he turned away and hurried down the track. Why had Bernin been so unpleasant? It was almost unheard of for country folk to deny hospitality to Mareklans.

The daughter had been quite different. She was so like a Mareklan girl that her presence in Timora with Talek had made most of the men homesick for their wives and families. The thought of Serin gave him a possible answer. There had been no resemblance between the girl and the woman she had introduced as her mother. There was even less similarity to the rugged features of Bernin. That argued that the girl was not their natural child but had been adopted.

Suddenly the path of Thedonen's thoughts found a destination. Nearly a decade earlier Makon had married a granddaughter of Sergon from Timora and the council had demanded that the woman and her child be returned to Marekla. Thalon, sent to fetch them, had never returned with the child. If Thalon had chosen the shortest route between Timora and Mount Vald, it would have taken him close to the cliffs that loomed above Bernin's farm.

Thedonen turned and looked back. The foliage on the cliffs above grew dense except for a narrow slash of younger trees above Bernin's farm. With his eyes opened by his suspicion about Serin's origin, Thedonen could see the trace of a small landslide that had nearly grown over. It would take about twenty years for the gash to heal so much that it was hardly detectable.

Should he return to the cottage and challenge Bernin with questions? It was unlikely that he would get any useful information from the man. He was the type who grew more obdurate when pressed to give an answer. Perhaps his wife would be a better source of information. Thedonen decided that it would be rash to make accusations without further evidence. For now he would keep silent on the matter until he met Prince Talek in Zedekla and told him his beloved had been promised to another man.

Chapter 9 Trial

Fleya returned from yet another cloth merchant with two bolts of cloth for Serin to consider. Although she had promised to carry out her shopping for her daughter's bride clothing without interfering with Serin's program of study and prayer, there were some choices that foiled her intent. It would be foolish to buy two nearly identical patterns of pale blue zilka cloth with green and white embroidery, but Fleya could not decide which she liked best.

Serin indulged her mother, taking the task seriously enough to avoid making Fleya feel foolish. "This one with the ferns and feathers is delicate, but I prefer the pattern of night blooms and vines," she said after considering the two side by side for long enough to display real interest..

"Yes, of course," Fleya said. "I should have realized which is better in the shop. You must come with me tomorrow when I go to the brass merchant for your bracelets."

"I will be providing Breya with gold bracelets when we are married," Talek reminded his future mother-in-law. "Brass is pretty, but in time it stains and tarnishes."

Serin sent him a grateful look for his intervention. "Remember mother, when we leave for home we will have to consider the cost of transporting anything you purchase. I know the choice is wide, but it seems to me that Zedekla will provide an even greater choice."

Fleya nodded absentmindedly at their words. "If we don't go to the brass merchant, perhaps I can visit the lace shop tomorrow."

The whistled signal of one of the men Talek had hired to watch the gate when he first realized the need interrupted Fleya.. One of them always kept watch just outside of the open gate.

Talek looked up and saw Anget, the Guardian who had interviewed them immediately after the attempted abduction of Serin. He gestured to Talek.

"The Orquians will be tried tomorrow. If they are found guilty of the crimes they committed against the woman from Talka and her daughter, it will reinforce the charges that they were attempting to make a human sacrifice. Is there any impediment to appearing at the trial tomorrow?"

Talek shook his head.

Anget came close enough to speak privately. "You have asked the girl to marry you?" asked.

"I could ask for nothing better than to be her husband," Talek said with a fond glance at the two women at the table.

"From what I have heard, she could make you Tomak's heir," Anget said.

"I think both of us would prefer a simpler life than what royalty must live," Talek mused. "But no one would make a better queen than Serin."

"I thought her name is Breya," Anget said. His eyes went to Serin with a look of longing and Talek decided to provide an ample hint without disclosing everything he knew.

"She is named in honor of an ancestor." If Anget found hope in Talek's answer, he deserved the ease of an old sorrow. Soon the secret of Serin's origin must be told, but Talek's did not have the right to say outright that Anget himself was Serin's grandfather.

"I think it is nearly time for me to visit Zedekla," Anget said. "When you are married to Serin, Dresla and I will come to wish you well."

Talek nodded. "Are there any preparations we should make before we appear to give our testimony?"

"State the truth of what you saw and experienced," Anget counseled. "The Orquians have clever lawyers who have a way of twisting words. Sooner than you realize, they will lead you to doubt the evidence of your own eyes."

"I will warn Fleya and Serin to be simple and direct."

"You will be our most valuable witnesses," Anget said. "I will return tomorrow with several other guardians to provide an escort to the judgment hall. There may be an attempt to prevent you from giving testimony. I have posted men at the corners to watch for troublemakers, but it would be wise if you had someone inside the hostel to keep watch through the night. It is known that three of the witnesses are staying here."

Tagnet assured Anget that he had hired the men the Guardian had recommended. Anget nodded, then with one lingering look toward Serin, he left the hostel.

Talek returned to the table. "We will be going to the hall of judgment tomorrow. The trial is set and Anget has warned me that there may be attempts to stop us. We should not leave the hostel until the Guardians come to escort us through the streets."

Fleya's eyes lit up. "As soon as we have given our witness we can go home!" she rejoiced. "I will see my dear Bernin again in only a few days."

Serin seemed less thrilled at the prospect of leaving Timora. She looked at Talek and he reached for her hand. "The sooner you return home, the sooner we will meet again in Zedekla to be married."

She nodded with a smile, but a glint of tears moistened her eyes. "I know we will meet again to marry, but I dread the separation. I treasure the time I have with you, and I grudge every moment of our parting."

Her words echoed Talek's thoughts as they so often did. He pressed her fingers to reassure her before he turned to other matters. "We must be ready to depart as soon as the trial concludes. I have little to prepare, but I think the two of you will need to hire some porters to carry everything Fleya has purchased."

Fleya gasped and rose from the table. "I must make preparations immediately. I won't have any delay in our leaving. Just wait until Bernin sees how clever I have been in my bargaining."

While she bustled off to find the hostel keeper and hire porters, Serin and Talek sat and savored their time together. Once again their fingers touched and the world seemed to narrow to the two of them. Serin smiled, then chuckled. "How will we ever accomplish anything once we are married? I would happily just sit with you like this forever."

Talek nodded. "I suspect that we will have to treasure the time we have together. It has been my observation that married folk must strive for time alone, and it will be even more difficult if I become the king. My mother and father have a rule that I never understood until now. No one, not even one of their children, is allowed to disturb them once they have entered their private quarters. Any servant or courtier who ignores the rule has been dismissed from the palace unless one of their children had been injured. Only my father's chief advisor is permitted to knock on their door, and as far as I know, he has never done so."

Serin smiled. "I imagine it is a hard lesson for their little ones to learn."

Talek shook his head. "As babies we were kept in an alcove of their quarters, but once we could crawl, we were assigned to a competent nurse who knew how to keep us happy. Once we were weaned, the same rule applied to us as applied to any other resident of the palace. They have another rule that at least an hour a day is reserved for the family to be alone together."

"I look forward to meeting your parents," Serin said. "I think I will learn a great deal from the way they have managed to preserve their privacy."

"It is a pity I will not be able to meet your father before the day you come to Zedekla," Talek said. "I can see that he is a wise man from the daughter he has raised. I admire your mother, but I think that much of what I have come to love about you is a result of Bernin's training,".

"He is worth knowing," Serin assured him.

Fleya soon returned to ask Talek's help in procuring a Kumnoran teamster to carry her purchases. "The hostel keeper assures me that it will cost less to hire two dalas than ten men."

Talek relinquished Serin's hand and rose from the table. They exchanged one last amused glance before he went out of the garden courtyard in search of a teamster for Fleya.

When Anget arrived the next morning with two columns of guardians to escort them to the hall of judgment, the other guests of the hostel gathered to marvel at the display of tall armed men. Talek carried his staff, but it seemed unnecessary in the midst of a phalanx of protectors.

"We have seen signs that an attempt will be made to prevent you from giving testimony," Anget told Talek. "I had intended to bring a couple of men, but in consideration of the risk, I thought it better to increase my numbers."

Talek nodded. His sisters never went abroad, even in Zedekla, without their guards. He knew the need for caution wherever the demon's dogs were seen.

When they turned a corner and came in sight of the judgment hall, Serin gave a little gasp of surprise. A force of armed Guardians carrying shields and long poles topped with metal spheres surrounded the plaza in front of the wide door of the hall. The Guardians of Timora usually dressed in simple white tunics with blue sashes that made them blend with the crowds of pilgrims. Their display of force should keep the trial from being disrupted.

The men guarding the three witnesses joined their fellows, but Anget accompanied Talek and the women through the entrance corridor and into the room where the trial would be held. The room was empty of all but the witnesses and the lawyers of the seven men who had been taken into custody. The judges entered and took their seat on the wide bench and the witnesses took their seats on lower benches while they waited to be called. As each witness to the attempted sacrifice testified, the smooth- tongued lawyers of the defendants soon tied them up in contradictions. They led the witnesses to admit that they had not overheard the priests saying specifically that they would kill the girl they had taken.

Yes, she had been bound on the altar. Yes, knives had been waved around her head and she had been dedicated to Orqu. But no mark had been made on her body. "This ritual is merely a symbolic event," one of the priests claimed when he testified. "We are law-abiding men, and no human life is ever taken when we blood an altar. The girl knew our requirement and we paid her to participate. She would have been released after a token cut that would release a few drops of her blood to mingle with that of a dala we had purchased for the sacrifice."

"And what of the rumors that you purchase maidens from Orenese servant-sellers for the purpose of killing them?" one of the judges asked.

"No man can be judged on the basis of mere rumor," the priest scoffed. "There are rumors that the Mareklans have kidnaped children and carried them away to their hidden city. Do you imprison every Mareklan because of such gossip?"

One of the judges frowned and nodded as if she agreed with the defendant's charge. The priest stepped down from the witness stand and the girl who had been rescued from the sacrifice came forward.

She said she could not recall what had taken place. She had gone to the place of sacrifice under the impression that the defendants intended to hire her as a cook. They had given her something to drink and she had no memory of the events that followed.

When she had nothing further to add a judge dismissed her. Talek wondered why none of the judges had questioned her more extensively. Drugging someone without their knowledge should be enough to condemn the miscreants.

A smug certainty of success seemed to settle on the faces of the lawyers for the defense. The judges had not questioned any of the witnesses closely after the lawyers had succeeded in confusing their initial testimonies. Finally only Talek, Fleya and Serin remained on the witness benches.

The chief lawyer for the Orquians leered at them. His glance alone could be enough to anger and confuse a witness and he used it to good effect. He saw the anger and fear in Fleya's eyes and nodded with satisfaction when she approached the witness stand and stated her name and home place as requested.

"Tell us of the events that brought you to stand before this court," the chief judge said.

"I brought my daughter to Timora to receive her Ritual Washing and study the sacred scrolls when these louts attacked us," she answered stabbing a stubby finger toward the line of priests.

"Can you identify any of them for certain?" the lawyer asked.

"That big one on the end grabbed my daughter and that short one took hold of me," she said.

"Three men against two women, but you escaped?" the lawyer raised his eyebrows with a skeptical look toward the judges. "Does that seem likely? It seems to me that you assumed an attack when you were merely jostled on the trail."

"Did I get these from being merely jostled," Fleya cried. She raised her sleeves above the elbows revealing the dark purple centers and yellow edges of her fading bruises. "The skinny one told the others to kill me and take my daughter to be sacrificed."

"The bruises could have happened in a fall," the lawyer said. "You have heard the previous witnesses. They say that only a token sacrifice would be carried out.

"And what about their threat to kill me?" Fleya challenged.

"You have earned a reputation for exaggeration in the time you have stayed in Timora," the lawyer said. "I have interviewed shopkeepers and others who heard your boasts and stories. I suggest that this adventure you claim to have experienced is nothing more than a product of your imagination, meant to bring attention and sympathy. These men might lose their lives because of your lies."

"I am not lying!" Fleya cried.

"Please maintain your decorum," a judge reproved her.

The lawyer smiled and walked away from Fleya. Suddenly he whirled and pointed his finger at her. "Can you positively identify any of these men?"

"I only saw three of them," Fleya admitted.

The lawyer shook his head. "I suggest that you saw only the backs of them as they hurried past you on the trail."

"I saw their faces!," Fleya said emphatically.

"I have no further questions of this witness," the lawyer said. "I would beg the judges to consider her known tendency to embroider and exaggerate on every little thing that happens to her. Perhaps she does not even recognize her lies. She is a simple country woman, unsettled by the rumors she has heard."

Fleya glared at him, but the court attendant escorted her from the witness stand at a signal from the judges. Instead of taking her from the room as he had done with the previous witnesses, he led her to sit next to Serin and Talek

Serin next approached the stand and she gave her name as Breya of Woranclan.

"Tell us what you saw and heard that brings you to this court," the chief judge instructed her.

"Three men attacked us and tried to abduct me when my mother and I approached Timora," Serin said.

"You gave your name as Breya, but you are known as Serin," the lawyer said. "Why are you using a false name?"

"I have two given names," Serin said.

"Two names? It is a common thing for shant to have two names, and yet you come before this court as if you were an innocent maiden with no dark secrets in her past."

Serin remained silent since there had been no question but Talek started up in his seat. A warning signal from one of the judges stopped his impulsive objection to the lawyer's tactics.

"Why do you masquerade as a Mareklan when everyone knows that the Mareklans have imprisoned all their women and girls in permanent seclusion," the lawyer asked when Serin refused to dignify his innuendo with a response.

"The Orquians assumed I am Mareklan for reasons of their own," she said. "I have never pretended to be anything other than the daughter of my parents."

"You ask us to believe that you are the daughter of this woman?" the lawyer demanded. "Any man with eyes in his head can see that is impossible. She is clearly your accomplice in conspiracy. You were seen in close conference with the Mareklans who were lately in Timora. What did they pay you to give false testimony against their enemies?"

"I give my testimony against them because they assaulted me on the road to Timora," Serin said. Her eyes glistened with tears, but she did not let her emotions interfere with her reason. "I entered into no conspiracies, nor was I given any money for my testimony. I saw those three men when they tried to take us. I heard that man tell the others to kill my mother and keep me alive for sacrifice." Her finger stabbed at each of the men she recognized.

"This witness is not credible," the lawyer stated with a sneer. "She is clearly a shant hired along with her procuress by the Mareklans for the purpose of giving false witness."

Serin looked up at the judges when they dismissed her from the witness stand. Their expressions were bland and unreadable. Could it be possible that they were in league with the Orquians. Could such a thing happen in the highest court in Timora? She stumbled while returning to her seat. The tears that she had tried so hard to hold at bay had finally escaped and blinded her. Talek stood and guided her back to the bench where she sat next to her mother, welcoming the matronly arm that cradled and comforted her. She had tried to follow Talek's advice to tell the simple truth, but the lawyer had confused and distracted her. Had she somehow failed? The question tortured her as Talek rose.

He walked forward to take his place in the witness stand. When asked his name, he identified himself simply as Talek.

"Tell us what you saw and heard that brings you to this court," the chief judge said.

"I made camp near the road into the vale of Timora when I heard the screams of these two women and the shouts of several men," Talek stated. "I found them engaged in a battle. The women were being assaulted by three men." He pointed to the line of priests. "That man told the other two to kill the old woman and save the girl to be sacrificed to blood the altar in Zimor."

"Can you identify any of the other defendants?" the second judge asked.

"All of them were hunting us after I helped the women escape," Talek said.

"How could you know that if you were in hiding?" the lawyer scoffed.

"I wanted to be able to give witness against them," Talek said. "It felt it worth the risk of discovery to bring them to justice."

"Why have you concealed your true identity from this court?" the chief lawyer for the priests asked. "Is this not a form of lying? And if you would lie about such a thing, would you not lie about other things as well?"

"We know the witness's identity," the chief judge said. "His presence in Timora has been noted from the first day that he entered the city. He had no reason to announce his titles to the court since they have no bearing on the case at hand."

"No bearing?" the lawyer scoffed. "It is well known that the Zedeklan royalty despise the practice of the Orquian ritual."

"Only when it includes murder," Talek quickly responded. "Zedekla has practiced tolerance toward every cult and sect since the days of Tharek, but perhaps we were mistaken in permitting the rituals of the Orquians to continue. It is apparent to me that they have not changed their ways as we had hoped."

The lawyer returned to his fellows and began to confer with them, but before he could come up with other challenges to Talek's credibility, the chief judge polled his two associates and stood, signaling that the trial had concluded. "We declare the defendants to be guilty of the crimes for which they are charged. They will be taken to the place of execution in the wasteland east of the vale of Timora in two days and they will be punished as their actions merit.

"You cannot kill us," the chief priest shouted. "There was no murder proved."

The judge turned back to him. "In Timora, intent to murder is nearly as serious as the act itself. Conspiracy to commit murder has been proved. Your lawyers have proven themselves to be without merit as men. Instead of defending you by illustrating your innocence, they have attacked and slandered your accusers. They are banned from Timora henceforth. If they return, they will share your fate."

The Orquians and their stunned, silent lawyers were escorted from the room by a phalanx of Guardians. The chief judge called Serin, Fleya and Talek to stand before the bench. "The sentence against the Orquians will be announced publicly tomorrow morning. Anser has informed us that their supporters have infiltrated the city and will cause a civil disturbance. For the sake of your personal safety, it would be best for you to leave the city as soon as possible."

"We have only stayed this long because we wanted to give our testimony against the villains," Talek said. "Our plans to leave Timora are well advanced."

"Will you need an escort to guard your return to Zedekla?" the chief judge asked.

"It would be well to send an escort with the women," Talek said. "I will travel to the fork of the road along with them, but if we leave before enven begins this afternoon, I believe we will be able to avoid further trouble."

"I will give orders to Anser to provide you with an escort," the judge said. The judges stood and filed out of the courtroom and Talek and the women returned to the hostel surrounded by the phalanx of Guardians who had accompanied them to the judgment hall.

They found the teamster waiting with his two dalas as Talek had arranged. In less than an hour they had packed the goods on the animals to Fleya's satisfaction. A group of pilgrims planned to return to Zedekla that afternoon. After eating their noon meal, the caravan set forth surrounded by the Guardians. It made an impressive assembly and they passed out of the city and up the road to the hills surrounding the vale with no sign of trouble.

At first Talek and Serin walked together in silence. The thought of the execution, even for those who deserved to die, subdued them. The thought of parting from one another, even though it would be for only a few weeks was more depressing.

When Fleya questioned her daughter about her serious expression, Serin answered, "I have become accustomed to being with Talek every day. When I hear the sound of his voice, I feel joy. Now we will be apart and I already feel the loss."

"Don't think of the time you will be apart," Fleya urged, "Think of the years you will have with each other."

For the remaining few days that they had together as they journeyed to the crossroads, Tharek and Serin took her advice. Instead of thinking on the coming separation, they made plans and looked toward the future.

When they had reached the parting of the paths, Talek led Serin apart from the others. In the privacy of a small grove of trees he kissed her tenderly for the first time.

"I will wait for you to come to Zedekla for our marriage when the moon is new. Until then, remember that my heart is yours forever. There will never be another woman for me," Talek vowed.

"You know how I feel," Serin told him. "I wait only to have the approval of my father to give you my full devotion. If by some impossible chance, he denies his approval, I must do my duty to him. But whatever happens, I love you."

Serin heard the whistle given by the teamster as he started his animals along the track to Talka. "I must go, but take this token until we meet again. Lifting the chain with the emerald leaf the Mareklans had given her over her head, she placed it around Talek's neck. Then she smiled impishly. "It is a dainty piece of jewelry for a man. You may give it back to me when we are married and I am rich enough to give you something worthy to replace it."

Fleya called for Serin and she hurried away, turning once to smile and wave before a curve of the path hid her from his sight. A small shiver of foreboding passed over Talek. What if she could not marry him?

No, he would not give place to such a thought. Surely her father would honor her affection for him and let her come to Zedekla to become his bride. He picked up his staff and hurried on along the path to join the Zedeklan pilgrims who were already well on their way up the road.

All of them suspected his identity, but none of them presumed to address him as their prince. They exchanged speculation and gossip discreetly. tThe prince appeared to be betrothed to the young beauty from the country and waited only her father's approval. They had come to know the couple in the hostel and with such a bride, they were certain that young Talek would be chosen as the heir.

Two days after parting from Serin Talek saw the towers of Zedekla rising before him against the glow of sunset. Talek wondered if he should go to the palace and greet his parents first, or find Thedonen and make sure that Bernin had accepted him as a son-in-law. He wanted to know for certain that Serin could marry him. Turning aside from the avenue that led to the palace, he took the road that led toward the market place.

The banners decorating the stands of the Marekla merchants hung limp in the still air, like an omen of ill tidings. Talek dismissed his baseless fear and hurried toward the stands. He would not wait any longer to hear the news.

When Thedonen noticed Talek he quickly turned his current customer over to another of the merchants. The expression on Thedonen's face warned Talek.

"Come with me," The Mareklan said when he walked toward the prince. "There is a quiet eating house on this street where the matlas are very good. You can leave your pack and staff here with my fellows if you like."

"Bernin said no, didn't he?" Talek asked. "That is all I have to hear."

"That may be all you need to hear, but I need to talk to you. I understand how you feel, but there are other important matters involved. Come with me."

Thedonen took Talek's arm in his grasp and led him away from the tent and the curious eyes of others. When they entered the small food shop, Thedonen led him to a table in a quiet corner.

After they were served with a pitcher of chilled nuka juice and a couple of cups, Thedonen leaned close to Tharek and confided his worries. "I made haste to find the house of Bernin Woranclan. We made the trek in little more than three days, but as we came to the crossroads, I saw a man in fine clothing coming down the hill from the farm. He did not meet us, but I had a premonition of ill tidings. When I came to the house, Bernin greeted me with rudeness. He offered me neither food or drink and he replied to your offer with the information that the girl is already promised. It had taken place less than an hour before I arrived."

Talek listened to Thedonen's story but there seemed little point in staying any longer. He started to rise. "I am sorry to learn that Bernin greeted you rudely, but I hope you can understand how I feel about the loss of Serin."

"Wait," Thedonen urged. "I know you are suffering, but you must tell me what you know about Serin. It seems impossible that she is the natural daughter of either of the people she thinks are her parents. The mystery of her origin concerns me."

Talek felt he no longer had any particular interest in protecting Fleya's secret. "She is Mareklan. Fleya and Bernin found her in the arms of a dying man at the foot of a cliff. He lived only long enough to say her name. They buried him and kept her as their own. Fleya told me the truth when I asked to marry Serin."

"Why did she tell you the truth after keeping silence for so long?" Thedonen asked.

"She did not know I was a prince of Zedekla when I first asked for Serin's hand and she worried that I might not be able to protect her from Orquians. Now I wonder if it would have been better if I had never met her. If I had remained ignorant of her existence, I wouldn't feel this hurt and know that there is no happiness in my future."

"You disappoint me Talek," Thedonen said. "You saved her life. If you had not rescued her from the Orquians, she would have died. Isn't it better that you saved her and loved her, even to lose her to another." Thedonen's words affected Talek like a blow to the chest.

"Of course I am glad that she lives, even if she will not be my wife," Talek said. "I am sorry that I spoke from my selfishness. You have done what you could for me Thedonen, but now I must go to my parents and let them know I am safe. Serin will always be in my heart, but only you will know why I choose not to marry."

Once again Thedonen prevented him from leaving by grasping Talek's arm. "The man who left the house of Bernin is from Zedekla by the evidence of his dress. He is slight and shorter than most men of Zedekla. I suspect he is someone you've met. Please keep your eyes open. We must know what becomes of Serin. We won't interfere with her life, but she is one of us, and as you know too well, she could be in danger. I know what I ask of you is difficult. It will be painful to see Serin wed to another, especially when she lives near you." Thedonen watched the expression in Talek's eyes change from pained surprise to resignation.

"I'll do as you ask. I will try to discover the name of the man who marries Serin, and I will guard her without letting her know. It would be foolish for me to spend any time in her presence, but there are other ways available to a prince. Now, is there anything else you want of me?"

"No. I could tell you that time will heal, but it might be false advice," Thedonen said. "In true love time is irrelevant, and your love for Serin is not an infatuation. Her soul is what you find attractive, not only her beauty and wit,"

This time when Talek rose, Thedonen let him go. The proprietor of the shop had approached with a platter of matlas and savories. Talek had not eaten since noon, but his hunger for food had vanished.

When he left the shop he noticed that the sky over Zedekla filled with the fiery colors of an unusually beautiful sunset. It reminded him of the evening in Timora when he had first known that he loved Serin. Soon darkness would steal over the city better fitting his mood.

When he neared the palace he heard sounds of celebration. He entered through a private door and tried to go to his rooms without being noticed. He had gained the upper floors and turned into the stairwell that led to his room when the door next along the corridor opened and Inrek stepped out.

"Brother, why the long face? Have you failed to find a bride? Or did you even make an effort? You must congratulate me. I am betrothed to the most virtuous, the loveliest woman in the kingdom. She will come to wed me on the day of the new moon,"

Talek decided in that instant to join his brother's joy and not let the loss of his own love depress Inrek's celebration. "In truth I think that finding a bride to win a crown is the only way you would have agreed to marry," he joked with some truth. "Where did you find this paragon?"

Inrek had prepared a story to cover such questions. "After a long and arduous search that involved meeting hundreds of pretty girls-" Inrek gave an exaggerated wink, "I found her in a little town, like a gold piece hidden in a pile of brass coins. I saw her walking down a path in the hills and her beauty so bedazzled me that I went to her parents and asked for her hand."

"Give me a short while to bathe and refresh myself from my journey and I will join you in your feast," Talek said. He squeezed his brother's hand in fond congratulation.

"Speaking of your journey, where is your pack and your staff. Surely you didn't lose them."

"I didn't lose them. I left them with the Mareklans when I first entered the city."

"Ah, Mareklans. That reminds me. The jeweled ball the Mareklan gave me as a child will make a nice gift for my bride. Women like such baubles." Inrek turned back to his room to fetch the ball and Talek hurried back into the city.

"So you have remembered that you left something with us," Thedonen said when he saw Talek coming toward him.

"Your news so upset me that I forgot," Talek admitted. "My brother reminded me when I saw him. They are holding a feast to celebrate his betrothal. He met a maiden in the hills and felt so struck by her beauty that he immediately asked for her hand."

"So he will win the crown. I hope you are good friends and he will rely on you as a counselor," Thedonen said. "I have heard that Inrek is impulsive and brash. He will need your moderating influence when he becomes the ruler of Zedekla."

"Yes, but he is a good companion and his character balances my own which is too serious and slow to act. Only in one thing have I acted impulsively, and even my courting of Serin proceeded slowly compared to the actions of Inrek," Talek admitted.

"What does your brother look like?" Thedonen asked with sudden suspicion.

"If you see me, you have seen him. Asleep we are identical. It is only when we wake and our natures form our expressions that the difference is seen."

Talek's answer allayed Thedonen's fear that Talek's own brother had betrthed Serin. "Farewell my friend."

"I will try to find the identity of Serin's suitor," Talek assured him. "He may be attending the feast at the palace tonight."

Thedonen watched Talek walk away, so like a Mareklan with the staff in his hand and the pack on his back. It would have been fitting for Serin to have married Talek. Shaking his head with regret, the merchant turned back to his stand.

Chapter 10 The Nuptial House

Talek entered the feasting hall late, but he had taken time to compose himself and he hoped no sign of his sorrow showed on his face. Since he had not chosen a bride there would be no need for the council to choose between the princes. Inrek had won the right to become the heir by default.

King Tomak rejoiced to see the bond between the brothers continue even though Inrek had won the quest, but Carila could see that beneath the mask of content and cheer worn by Talek, a deeper, sharper emotion remained. She didn't think it Talek felt jealousy over the loss of the kingdom. She had been the one ambitious for Talek to succeed, and she knew how little he had liked the idea of the quest.

It was late when the feast ended, too late for Carila to question Talek about the time he had spent away from Zedekla. When his sisters, Malisa and Lafina asked him where he had gone, he changed the subject. Throughout the evening he had studied the guests. Now and then he stopped some of the smaller men and questioned them.

With the night of the new moon only two weeks away, preparations for the wedding involved the entire household. Plans were underway for a great feast for all the people of the city of Zedekla. The Nuptial Chamber in the Shrine of the Radiance underwent ritual cleaning in preparation for the wedding. The bride would arrive in a procession on the day of the marriage, and a fine house near the palace had been readied for her parents. It would be theirs to use when they wished. If they desired to stay in the city, they would live in the house. Otherwise, it would be available for future visits.

The tradition in Zedekla decreed that a couple could not live with in-laws until they had been married for a time. Even the poorest families found the means to provide a structure separate from the parents of the bride and groom. The house needed for Inrek and his bride would not be as small as those of the poorer classes, but it would be cozy compared to the palace. Inrek asked Talek to prepare the nuptial house.

Talek indulged himself by pretending that he would share the cottage with Serin and chose the furnishings accordinly. For many hours he dulled his heart break with the pretense as he searched the city for an appropriate house and looked through the attics and cellars of the palace for furnishings that had been stored away.

The house he selected for Inrek and his bride had belonged to a scholar who had left it to live a life of pilgrimage and shrine service. It had been built on on a hill next to the sea north of the city. Pleasant views were visible from all the windows. In the east, across the plains, a range of mountains rose along the horizon, pale as mist and capped with snow that blended with the clouds. The mountains of Janaka in the north were closer and other mountains rose in the southeast where rumor hinted that the city of Marekla lay concealed. To the south the land rose to the hills of Taleeka. But the western view across the sea to the pine studded isles of Arqua remained Talek's favorite.

Now and then while he worked at refurbishing the house, he would linger to look out over the rolling waves below. In the evenings he would have relaxed here with Serin and talked as the sky changed to the fire of sunset. Then the truth of his situation would intrude and he felt the pain grow in his heart and knew that he dreamed dangerously.

One day while shopping for some carpet in the market a sweetmeat seller with an offer to provision the prince's house approached him. At first he hardly recognized Dariya, but he had been one of the few who ever looked beyond her painted eyes and jeweled brow. Dressed in a tunic with a practical belt pouch at her side, he might have taken her for a young man.

"I am surprised to see you here, Dariya," Talek said.

The young woman seemed startled. "How did you know it is me?"

"I recognized your determined chin," he teased. Dariya's hand went to her luck token. It had saved her from revealing her face to him in Timora.

"How did a courtier become a sweetmeat seller?"

"It is an amusing tale," she said. "If you have time to eat a matla with me I will tell you how it happened."

They stepped into a nearby food shop where the volume of customers gave a good indication of superior products. The noise also covered Dariya's tale from curious ears other than Talek's.

"My uncle Semlik, who is actually more of a third cousin to my mother, if the truth is told, sold me to some Orenese servant sellers to pay his debts." With one hand she touched the lump beneath her tunic where her lucky token lay hidden. She could easily imagine what might have happened if she had not escaped from the room where Semlik had imprisoned her.

"It is against the law to deal with servant sellers in Zedekla," Talek said.

"Semlik held himself above the law. They probably intended me for an Orquian altar or a Jaman shant house, but I escaped."

"I offer my protection," Talek assured her. "You are exempt from the arrangement your uncle made. If any Orenese comes to claim you, he will be arrested."

"Oh Talek, how could I ever have preferred your brother, and now you will be neither heir nor have the wife of your choice," Dariya murmured sympathetically.

"What do you know about my choice of wife?' Talek asked her.

"There were pilgrims with you when you came back from Timora," Dariya improvised and cursed herself silently for her slip. Fremek had informed her that he had successfully concluded a betrothal with Bernin. If there had been no pilgrims on the road with Talek, she would be caught by her own words.

"Yes," Talek said with his eyes on his clenched hands so that he missed her immediate sigh of relief. "There were pilgrims with me on the road from Zedekla, and they must have seen how I felt about the girl I hoped to marry. I wonder how they found out that she had already been promised to another?"

"I have heard gossip, but I do not know the source," Dariya lied.

"Tell me more about your adventures," Talek suggested, changing to a less painful topic.

"After I escaped from the servant seller, I disguised myself as a boy and became a runner for litter bearers," Dariya said, choosing to tell the truth in case anyone identified her.

"I am surprised that you were not quickly recognized," Talek smiled. "You were always the most beautiful of the girls in the palace."

"Your mother and sisters excepted," she acknowledged.

Talek nodded. "How did you pass yourself off as a boy?"

"You are the first man who has penetrated my disguise," Dariya assured him. "Once I had bound my breasts and cut my hair to hide most of my face, the clothing I wore took care of the rest of my disguise."

Talek chuckled. "I wonder what Inrek would say if he saw you?"

"He would probably be the same as most men and think me nothing more than a slim young man," Dariya replied.

"How did you come to be a sweetmeat seller?"

"One day a litter bearer stumbled and I took over his poles. Within a short time I felt ready to die with fatigue. I found other employment as soon as possible."

Talek admired her ingenuity. Cast out without protection or refuge, she had provided for herself and found a profitable occupation. "You offered to provide me with sweetmeats. Do you have any samples?" he asked.

She pulled a packet from her belt pouch and offered him a taste. As soon as he bit down on the morsel he recalled pleasant memories of childhood celebrations. "Where did you get this?" he said. "A woman in the palace kitchen had a secret recipe for sweetmeats that she never shared. She returned to the countryside when became old enough to receive a pension. She must have had a hand in the preparation of this meat."

Dariya nodded. "I came across the woman you have mentioned. She is making a business of making sweetmeats, and I am her agent in Zedekla."

"You are a clever woman to recognize her talent," Talek said. "I have been assigned the task of preparing the nuptial house where Inrek will stay with his bride after the marriage. I will pay you well for any sweetmeats you can bring me. If I provide a supply of his favorite sweetmeats Inrek will be in my power." He rolled his eyes to emphasize his irony and Dariya laughed.

They somehow stayed together for the rest of the afternoon and Talek found her presence a pleasant anodyne for his wounded spirit. To most who saw them they appeared to be a couple of young men in close conversation.

When the afternoon drew to a close Dariya pressed her advantage. "I have begun to fear for my life, Talek. I may have been followed by Orquians who have discovered I escaped their intentions. You know how dangerous it can be to be a maiden with no protectors. I have a small room at a common inn, but I must find a safer refuge.

Talek had spoken to her about the house for Inrek and his bride. It stood empty, but it he had nearly finished the furnishing. It seemed a shame to leave Dariya in danger when she could use the small room in the house that had been provided for a servant.

"Come with me," he told her. "I think I can provide you with a safe place for a week at least while I think of a better way to offer you protection."

Dariya touched her lucky brooch and followed him, sternly suppressing a smile of triumph. She had often observed that people became fond of things placed in their care. She had made herself Talek's dependent. Now she only had to overcome his scruples and point out that there was only one legitimate way he could become her protector. If her luck held, she might become his wife before Inrek wed Bleya.

She felt disappointed at first when he showed her the house where she could take refuge. It was smaller than she had expected and situated far enough from the palace that she would only see Talek when he had reason to bring more provisions.

"Are you sure I will be safe here tonight?" she questioned.

Talek nodded. "One of the reasons I chose this house is its isolation. Few people even know that it exists. We had to cut away overgrowth from the path and clear away the nests of birds when we first approached it."

Dariya gave a little shiver. "I will accept your guarantee that it is safe, but what should I do about the cask of sweetmeats I concealed in the room of the inn? I counted on the income from selling it."

"I will come for you tomorrow and escort you to the inn. I think your fears of the Orquians are justified. Don't go out without me."

"I will stay here until you come," she promised.

Talek returned to the palace and his sisters teased him for the location of the nuptial house. He smiled and evaded their questions. Inrek's pranks on his younger sisters were notorious. They wanted a chance to get even with some annoying surprises of their own.

Talek's afternoon with Dariya had dulled the pain of losing Serin for a few hours. Evening came and he watched his mother and father while they sat together making plans for all that still remained to be done for the wedding festivities. Their rapport reminded him of the felicity he had experienced in Timora and his pain returned.

He had not yet discovered the identity of the man who had obtained Serin's hand from Bernin. Perhaps Dariya could help him solve the problem. He focused on solving the mystery instead of letting his morose spirit dull Inrek's good fortune.

In truth, only Carila seemed to notice Talek's quiet suffering. She had tried to talk to him, but he evaded her questions and pretended to be overcome with merriment to such an extent that she hurt the more for him.

He hurried the nuptial house the following morning as he had promised. Inrek had asked him to undertake the choice of bridal clothing for both of them. Ordinarily he would have objected to the extra burden, but he had found that any distraction kept him from dwelling on his loss.

Dariya greeted him with a hug. He could hardly take exception to the brief contact of her lips on his cheek. "I see that you took advantage of the bathing room," he teased.

"I reeked yesterday," she exclaimed. "It has been days since I last had a decent bath. There is no such thing as a private bath in the inn where I am staying, and under the circumstances, I could use neither the women's bath or the men's bath."

"You always did make an effort to be clean," he acknowledged. "Some of the courtiers are not so careful." Something different about her this morning reminded him of the beauty she had been famous for as a courtier. The faint, clean fragrance played a part in it, but something about her face and hair beguiled him.

"Can you wait while I resume my full disguise," she asked, gesturing to the top of her tunic.

His eyes followed her gesture and he blushed, then nodded his head. "I can wait."

Dariya smiled and left him in the main room while she went to the small room he had let her use. She had added subtle emphasis to her eyes and lips with paint that was easily wiped away with a damp cloth. It took but a moment longer to tighten the band that reduced her chest to more boyish proportions and drag the hair down to disguise her eyes and the ragged lobe of her torn ear. Touching it reminded her of Semlik and she grimaced. It seemed a pity he had died so quickly. When she had the power of a royal wife, she would seek out her enemies and make them suffer. She had so few enemies that it hardly seemed worth the bother, but the Jaman gambler who had betrayed her to Semlik stood high on her list along with the Orenese servant seller who had conspired with her 'uncle' to enslave her if she failed to wed a prince.

Talek gazed out at the sea and turned when Dariya joined him in the main room. She took his arm in a familiar gesture. He still thought of another woman, but time would heal his wounds and Dariya vowed to be there to provide him with affection when he finally realized his need for something more than a lost dream.

She found that she enjoyed his company more than she had expected as they made their way to the inn by way of a matla seller and a boot maker. Unlike other men, he had noticed the decrepit state of her buskins, and assuming that she did not possess the means for a new pair, he had insisted on purchasing boots for her. While they were at the boot maker's booth, he purchased a pretty pair of slippers for Dariya to wear at home.

When they left the booth she started and uttered a tiny, breathy scream while staring at the corner across the street. "I saw one of the men who has been watching me," she muttered to Talek when he turned to her. "He ran away when I recognized him."

"It may be too dangerous to go back to the inn," he warned her.

"I must. You forget, I have no livelihood without the cask of sweetmeat. I am penniless, and I don't want to be a burden to you."

He admired her independent spirit. "I will go to the inn with you but from now on you must never go alone into the city. I will provide a guard for you."

"People will talk if you provide me with a servant. I did not escape the servant sellers and live like a man only to lose my reputation and be called a prince's courtesan," she muttered angrily.

"I will find some way to keep you safe," Talek promised her.

Dariya hid her smile by ducking her head and letting her bangs fall lower on her face. The imagined pursuer had been an inspiration that already bore fruit. She had a high opinion of Talek's intelligence and it amazed her that he failed to see the implications of the promises he made.

They fetched the cask of sweetmeats and carried it back to the nuptial house with no further incident. Talek purchased the cask for a generous sum and promised to visit Dariya daily until he found another place of safety for her. After removing the top third of the sweetmeats to leave at the nuptial house he closed the cask and took it up on his shoulder.

"You are a good man, Talek," Dariya said with genuine feeling. "I will try to repay you by keeping this place tidy so you won't need to employ a servant. It is probably best that no one knows I am staying here."

"I will keep your secret," Talek promised. Once again she gave him a little hug and kissed him. This time her lips met his, but only briefly. It was a pleasant gesture of friendship, nothing more, he assured himself as he left her and returned to the palace.

He gave the cask of sweetmeats to the chief cook. "It should be reserved for the royal table at the wedding feast," he directed.

The next day when he visited with her, Dariya helped Talek with the choice of tunics for the wedding ritual. "I doubt that you will need to purchase an entirely new outfit for yourself," she advised. "Even a king's purse must be challenged by the expense of this event."

He acknowledged her wisdom and prudence. "I have only worn the tunic purchased for the expected announcement of the heir on that occasion," he reflected. "With new facings and a different belt it should be more than adequate, but Inrek would notice anything he had worn before. What do you suggest?"

Dariya delighted in the rich ornaments of royalty and had only counseled Talek to a thrifty choice because she knew it would reflect well on herself. "The bride will come decked in flowers and white on white embroidery. The traditional wedding garments are deliberately designed to obscure both the face and the form of the girl who wears them. It would be best if Inrek wears something bright and close cut to reveal his youthful strength. The collar should be high around the neck but open at the front to draw attention to the strength of his throat."

Talek laughed at her enthusiasm. "I have worried about this task for days, and you solve the problem in less than an hour. Come with me to visit the tailors."

"What will they think of me?" she protested.

"They will think you a fine figure of a youth who has unusually good taste in choosing royal clothing,' he assured her.

Dariya asked him to wait for a few minutes while she prepared for the outing. This time she reversed the process of the previous morning, quickly and skillfully adding shadows and color to her eyelids and reddening her lips. She draped her bangs over her eyes and ears, but she had practiced a little toss of her head that gave a quick glimpse of her features.

They set forth for the tailors at the same comradely pace they had used the day before, but to any man who followed them the sway of her hips would tell its own tale.

At the tailor shop Dariya made certain that the tailor and his assistants saw her face. Their smirks were evidence they recognized her as a woman. They kept their faces bland while measuring Talek for his brother's tunic but Dariya felt satisfied that their other customers would be treated to a detailed account of what they had seen. She had used the shop once or twice while she had been in Semlik's company and knew it to be a hotbed of scandal and gossip.

After leaving the tailor shop she coaxed Talek into visiting a few other establishments where she displayed a particular disposition to touch his shoulder and hug his side. Whenever she felt him stiffen, she knew she had pushed the limits of what he would accept and kept her distance for a while. It would not do to have him grow aware of the impression she meant to leave behind.

The gossip that began that morning flourished through the day. People in the streets smirked after Talek and Dariya, wishing the prince well with his new companion and taking low pleasure in the apparent fall of his moral defenses. The rumor spread like a dark stain among the lower ranks of courtiers when it reached the palace Some were confused about which prince flaunted a shant so openly, but the main questions were where he had found her, and where he kept her.

When it neared midday he resisted Talek resisted Dariya's plea to take their lunch from a vendor in the street. He had too much to do to linger any longer in the market streets, no matter how pleasant he found her friendly company. Taking a roundabout way to avoid several persistent followers, Talek led Dariya back to the nuptial house and quickly left her before she could express her thanks as she had done the day before.

When he returned to the palace and went up the corridor that led to the family quarters he heard his younger sisters arguing about the placement of a table in the room they shared. He put his head around the corner of their door. "Do you need a judge to settle your dispute or would you rather come to blows?"

They rushed forward and begged him to settle the problem, dragging him into the room with their arms hooked into his. "This table belongs to both of us but I think it would be better placed under the window where the sun will give me light when I write and sew," Lafina said.

"I want to put it near the clothing chests so that I can put my dresses somewhere other than on the floor or on my bed," Malisa countered.

Talek looked at the small table in question. His sympathies were with Lafina because he had a similar table in his room under a window and often used it. On the other hand, Malisa seldom wrote or did handwork. She was more interested in gardening and cutting flowers to brighten up the family quarters.

"Why not have another table, then both of you will be satisfied. While I searched for furnishings for the nuptial house I discovered a lot of small tables much like this one. I could go and get one now."

"We'll come with you," Lafina said. "There must be other treasures in the attic that we could use. I never thought to ask."

"First we must eat," Malisa said. "I'm famished from arguing."

After taking a quick meal of meat-filled matlas and pickled breadberries in the small dining room convenient to the kitchen, they wrapped aprons around their waists to protect them from dusty cobwebs and climbed the servant stairs up to the attic over the audience hall. Shrouded furnishings that had been set aside when preferences changed filled the wide space. Some of them were gifts that had been tucked away into the attic and never used.

"Look at this cabinet!" Malisa said. "If this were moved to our room we could put our clothing on the pegs and I wouldn't need a table to keep them off the floor"

Lafina burrowed through a pile of smaller furnishings she discovered in a corner. "These things look like they have never been used," she said, holding up an elaborate vase with a lacquered surface.

"Over the years many gifts have been given to the royal families," Talek explained. "We cannot sell them or give them away without risking offense to the original donor. I have found several treasures here that I used to furnish the nuptial house."

"I would love to see it," Malisa said. "If we promise that we won't lay a trap for Inrek will you tell us where it is?"

Talek hesitated. Her request seemrd reasonable, but he had promised Dariya that she would not be disturbed. "I will take you there a day or so before the wedding," he said. By that time he should have settled Dariya in another place.

"See what I have found." Lafina emerged with a beautiful small table in her hands. Mother of pearl inlay in the manner of Orenon and arabesques of golden wire that would have done credit to a Mareklan decorated the top and legs. The craftsmanship argued for different artisans, but the design had an integrity that indicated that the table had been the product of one master craftsman.

Talek took it from his sister and examined it for a maker's mark. When he finally discovered the insignia tucked in the joint of one of the legs, he gave a low whistle. "This is from the hand of Tharek!"

"Tharek? The same Tharek who founded Zedekla?" Lafina asked.

"I don't know how it came to be stored in an attic," Talek said, "but Tharek practiced carpentry for years before he took up his sword to lead the alliance against the Janakan raiders."

"This is a treasure that should be displayed and appreciated," Malisa said. "Perhaps you should take it to the nuptial house since Inrek will someday be king. He can use and enjoy it from the beginning of his marriage."

Talek wanted to keep the table for himself. He wondered if Inrek could even appreciate such an artifact, but Malisa had only spoken the truth. If Inrek would be king, the table should be his. Perhaps his bride would understand its importance. If she were simply a pretty country girl, it might not appeal to her.

Serin would have understood its value both as a memento of a great man and an example of his craft. The memory of Serin reminded Talek that country girls could be both knowledgeable and wise.

Finally he nodded. "I will take it to the nuptial house for him. Meanwhile, we should summon several strong servants to carry this cabinet to your room."

"You have a gift for solving problems," Malisa said. She and Lafina threw their arms around him and hugged him with gratitude.

It was a normal reaction and previously he would have hardly taken note of their gestures of affection, but he remembered the hugs that Dariya had given him and recognized a difference. His sisters were artless, but their affection was real. Dariya's embraces seemed coy by comparison. Had Dariya changed much from the courtier who had beguiled him?

After supervising the placement of the cabinet in his sisters' room, Talek walked along to beach and climbed the hill to the nuptial house. He had expected Dariya to be inside, but she did not answer when he called. She might have walked along the beach, or maybe she needed something from town and risked her safety to go in search of it. He placed the antique table in a corner near a cushioned bench chest and left the house.

Talek walked back to the palace along the beach and thought about the relief he felt when he discovered that Dariya's absence. A sense of unease began to grow in him and he finally recognized the way he had let Dariya lead him. Nothing immediately required his attention and he took off his boots and waded out to a broad rock washed in the surf of high tide. He looked out to sea and thought about the past few days.

In his desire to find a distraction from thinking about Serin, he had offered friendship to Dariya and enjoyed her company. Now he recalled the words she had used in reference to his offer of help. There had been something about the way she had acted today that did not sit easy with him. The time had come to find some other situation for the girl that would not continue their association.

When he put his mind to discovering a plan, he reluctantly recognized the problems his thoughtless behavior presented. He would have to take someone into his confidence, but he soon realized how limited his choices were. He considered the people he could trust and realized that each of them would be burdened by having such a woman placed in their care. He would have to find a small house for her and provide her with an income until some other arrangement could be made. If anyone found out what he had done, they were bound to make assumptions about his relationship to her.

For a moment he wondered if he should offer her marriage, but the idea quickly faded. He would rather lose his reputation to the gossips than lose his freedom to Dariya.

For several days Talek avoided the nuptial house while he tried to find a suitable situation for the woman he had made his dependent without thinking of the implications. He tried to think of someone he could entrust with the task. Finally he asked his brother's servant, Fremek to find a small house and buy it. "I will give you the purchase price as soon as you show me the contract." Talek said.

"Do you want me to find furnishings suitable for a young woman?' Fremek asked with a knowing leer.

Talek nodded, unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for his request. Fremek's reaction reminded him of the way courtiers and servants had begun to act around him. He would enter rooms and the chattering would stop, but smirking stares would turn on him. He began to walk with his eyes cast down and talked to everyone but members of his family with an averted gaze.

Finally, only a day before the bride entered Zedekla and the wedding would take place, Fremek showed him a contract for a small house south of the city. "It should prove perfect for your purpose," the servant said. "It is very private and none will see you when you come and go."

Talek hastily gave Fremek the sum required along with an additional amount for furnishings. He would have to confront Dariya himself. He left the palace and walked along the beach for the first time in three days.

When he entered the house he found her sprawled on the wide bench chest that overlooked the ocean. She wore a gown elaborate enough for court and looked up at him with painted eyes.

"I thought you had abandoned me."

"I have found a place for you to live," he said.

"I like it here, why can't you give Inrek the house you found for me and I can stay here until we marry."

Talek shook his head. "I only offered you friendship and protection Dariya. I never meant it to go further than that."

She leapt up from the bench and confronted him. "You have no choice. You are an honorable man, and you know what they will say of me when they find that I am living in a small house that you provide. I am no courtesan. You cannot destroy my reputation this way. There is already gossip about us, but as yet, no one knows the identity of the woman you are hiding."

Her argument eroded his resistance. Perhaps he could do nothing but marry her. He avoided her glaring eyes as his gaze wandering around the room. At first he dismissed the sense of something lacking, then he realized what he missed. "Where is the small table that I left in that corner?"

"I thought you had brought to amuse me," she replied sullenly. "When you did not come for three days, I grew restless. I dressed in my tunic and took the table to the market and sold it to buy this gown."

Talek silently berated himself for being played for a fool. Finally he spoke in a quiet tone that belied the rage that simmered in his heart. "I should have remembered what you are, Dariya. The table is not yours to sell. It is a priceless artifact of Tharek, the first ruler of Zedekla. You must find a way to return it to me or I will accuse you of theft and you will be imprisoned."

"So this is how you treat your friends," she scoffed. "Where am I to find the funds to recover the table?"

"Return the clothing you bought, do what you must to return the table to me. If you still want to live in the house I have offered you, it is yours after you return the table. I will wait here for you tomorrow morning. After that, I want nothing more to do with you."

"You pious little prig," she screamed. "I was better off pretending to be a boy!"

"You can always return to your former occupation," he reminded her. "If I were a woman I think I would rather be called a sweetmeat seller than a shant. Pack and go. There are only a few hours left before Inrek and his bride will need this house."

He tried to move with dignity when he turned and left her, but as soon as he shut the door behind him he began to run. He bolted down the hill and along the beach with all the strength in his long legs, wishing that he could run away from the stupidity that let Dariya ensnare him.

Dariya threw open the door and screamed after him. "Do you know who Inrek's bride will be? Your Breya is his bride."

He thought he heard the screaming of a gull above the pounding of a heavy surf and ran on without hearing the sense of her words.

Chapter 11 Luck Token

Dariya slammed the door and paced the room. What could she do now? She had hoped to trick Talek into marriage, and she might have succeeded but for one small error. How could she have known that the loss of one little table would set him off? She should have realized her error when the pawn broker eagerly offered what seemed a princely sum.

She weighed the belt pouch where she kept her money. It had nearly doubled in weight with the addition of the money she had received for the table. She could leave Zedekla without returning the table to Talek and live a comfortable life on what she had in the pouch.

On the other hand, he might decided to pursue the matter if she fled. Where could she hide that Zedekla's power did not extend. Even the Watchers of Orenon would yield her up soon enough at the request of a Zedeklan prince. She shook her head, frustrated by the fact that she must return to the pawn broker and pay him back with interest if she wanted to retain her freedom.

She quickly assumed her disguise as a man, packed her belongings, and hurried into the city. After stopping at a modest inn and engaging a room, she walked across town to the street of the money lenders. It had been only a few hours since she had pawned the table and she entered the shop and looked around. She felt certain the pawn broker would display the table prominently, but she had not discovered it yet when the proprietor entered from his cubby in the rear of the shop and peered at her.

"I pawned a table with you a few hours ago," she said. "I have come to pay back the loan."

"I sold the table an hour after you left it here," he answered. "I paid you well for it, and young fops such as you seldom return to reclaim their goods"

Dariya nearly fainted at his words. The thought of Talek's stony face as he promised to imprison her made her panic. She wanted nothing more than to flee the shop and take to her heels for as far as she could run. Clutching the edge of a shelf, she fought to think of some way to avoid disaster. "Do you have another table like the one I sold you?" she asked.

"I doubt there are two like that in all of Okishdu," he assured her. "The Jaman who bought it recognized its worth. He often visits me when he comes to Zedekla."

"Then you know his name?" Dariya asked hopefully. She touched the lump the lucky brooch made beneath her tunic and waited while he pondered what to tell her.

"His name is Udarit," the pawn broker finally revealed. "He purchased the table as a gift for his daughter."

Dariya gave a silent prayer of thanks to the spirit of her lucky token and hurried out of the shop. How fortunate that she knew the man who had purchased the table. They had dealt well together. It should not be difficult to persuade him to return it.

The Jamans had stayed in Woranclan hostel when they visited Timora, but that had been a pilgrimage for Udarit. It seemed likely that he and his daughter had chosen to stay at one of the better inns or with a fellow Jaman.

Dariya went directly to the most opulent inn in Zedekla. The stucco walls were set with bosses of brass and bronze and two tall men with spears in hand stood on either side of the door. Dariya straightened her back and brushed down her tunic. She would not quite pass as a guest of such an establishment, but she looked well enough to be an upper servant.

"I have a message for Udarit, the Jaman," she told one of the guards.

"Give it to me and I will take it to him," the man replied.

"My master said I must give it directly to him," Dariya stated.

"He is not here now," the other guard said. "He went out with his daughter over an hour ago."

"I will return with the message this evening," Dariya said and walked away in the same deliberate manner she had used in her approach. Where would she likely find the Jamans at such an hour? Tepera would head for the nearest shops, but Udarit would more likely choose to visit the Shrine of Zedekla.

Remembering how Tepera ruled her father, Dariya turned away from the street that led to the Shrine and headed down a street of expensive shops. She soon recognized the bald pate of Udarit next to an elaborate headdress that must belong to Tepera. They were walking away from Dariya but she easily caught up to them.

She feigned surprise when she deliberately collided with Udarit. "I thought that you had returned to Jama!"

"We were there for a week or so, but Tepera wanted to come to Zedekla to see the wedding of Inrek," Udarit said with an annoyed glance at his daughter.

Tepera tossed her head, setting the bells attached to her towering hairpiece tinkling. "Inrek toyed with my affections for a while, but I could soon see that he meant nothing by it and turned him away. Are you not curious about the betrothal?"

"I was surprised that Inrek did not favor you with his troth," Dariya temporized.

Tepera tossed her head again, this time sending several of the tiny bells to the pavement. "I am the one who ended our association," she insisted. "What brings you to Zedekla?"

"I have been employed by Talek, Inrek's brother to find furnishings for the nuptial house," Dariya answered. "Someone told me that you recently acquired a small table that I might find interesting. I am authorized to offer you a good price if I like it."

"The table is not for sale," Udarit intervened when Tepera's eyes lit up. "It is a rare antique."

"You gave it to me, Father," Tepera pouted. "Surely it is up to me to determine if I sell it or not."

"You would be a fool to part with it," Udarit grumbled.

"You seem to be a man of discrimination, Udarit," Dariya said, wanting to avoid an argument between the two. "Perhaps you can advise me on acquiring some decorations that would please the prince and his bride."

Flattered by her interest, Udarit led her to the lower end of the street to the shops where antiques were sold. She feigned interest as he led her through the crowded premises of one shop after another. Soon he had purchased several articles for himself. In one of the shops Tepera idly ran her hands across a small chest of nop wood carved with a scene of Timora. Under her probing fingers, the top sprung open and she gave a cry of delight at the glittering jewelry revealed inside the box.

Dariya had been watching the Jaman woman and gasped when she saw what she had discovered. She touched the lucky brooch she kept hidden in her bosom and felt reassured to find it still in place. The brooch in the chest so nearly matched it that only closer examination revealed it to be a mirror image of the one she wore. The box was twice as wide as it needed to be to hold one of the pair and Dariya suspected that it had once held both of them.

"Father, I must have this brooch!" Tepera demanded.

Udurit shook his head when he saw the price of the piece. "I won't indulge you in such a pricey bauble. That is no small trifle."

"You've spent plenty on yourself," she muttered.

"Come, I am hungry," he replied brusquely. He seldom countered Tepera's desires, but he evidently had no intention of purchasing the brooch for her.

Dariya hesitated but Udarit turned a genial face to her. "Come take dinner with us and tell us how you came to such a high position in the palace."

He chose a garden tavern where the prices were high enough to limit the clientele to the wealthy. Dariya had only seen such fare when she had been a courtier. Udarit ate with good appetite, but Tepera pushed the food around on her plate and took hardly anything to drink. When Udarit rose to greet some friends who had entered the dining room and then hurried across to speak to them, Tepera broke her sullen silence.

"He balks at buying a brooch, but he paid plenty for that silly table he gave me yesterday."

"Would you trade the table for the brooch?" Dariya asked.

Tepera snapped her fingers. "In an instant."

"I want that table, but your father won't sell it to me," Dariya said.

"There is no need for him to know about the trade," Tepera muttered. "We have piles of his acquisitions back in our rooms at the inn. If you obtain the brooch for me, I will give you the table. It should be a fair trade."

Dariya looked up. Udarit had bid his friends goodbye and turned to return to the table. "Meet me at the servant door behind the inn tonight and we will make the exchange."

When Udarit had savored a morsel of spiced fruit and taken his last sip of iced wine Dariya rose and excused herself. "I thank you for your generosity sir. I will recommend you to the steward at the palace."

She walked away from the table and out of the tavern with decorum, but as soon as she reached the street, she began to run. Soon she arrived at the shop where Tepera had found the chest with the brooch inside. The door was shut and barred. All along the street merchants were shutting down for the evening.

Dariya hurried to a man across the street. "Do you know the proprietor of that shop across the street?" she asked.

The man nodded. "He shut down early this evening. A person from the palace came and purchased an important piece of jewelry for the royal family to present to the new bride."

"Was it a brooch?" Dariya asked, knowing what the answer must be.

"It was one of Gabbet's finest pieces, complete with a chest of nop wood carved with a scene of Timora."

There could not be two such boxes in a store so small and Dariya drooped in defeat. She would have been willing to pay every ena she had saved to purchase the brooch, but now there was no way she could recover it. Her hand went automatically to her concealed lucky token. It had brought her good fortune for weeks, but what good is luck without freedom.

She returned to the inn where she had left her belongings and secured the door of her room. She had not removed the brooch on its thong since she first fastened it around her neck. She moved slowly, reluctant to part with the token that had served her so well. Her silent appeals to the lucky brooch had replaced the prayers she had been taught to repeat as a child and to better effect. With a sense that she removed part of herself, she placed the brooch in a pretty brocade sash pouch she had purchased the previous day.

Grasping the pouch in her hand, she set forth for the inn where the Jamans were staying. She had not set a time to meet Tepera and she feared that she would have to hide behind the inn for hours before the other woman came to meet her with the table. When she turned into the alleyway behind the inn she saw movement in a shadowed area near the servant door and took a step backwards.

"Stop, I have the table for you," Tepera said urgently as she stepped from the shadows and held up a small hand lamp to illuminate her face. "Did you bring the brooch?"

Dariya slowly extended the hand in which she held the brocade pouch. She could still back out of the trade. All she had to do was turn and walk away.

Tepera forestalled her, rushing forward and grabbing the pouch. "Where is the carved chest that held it?" she asked.

"The chest cost extra, did you want it?" Dariya asked.

"I like the pouch better," Tepera said. "Father would have recognized the chest. Take the table, go!"

She shoved a large, wrapped parcel into Dariya's hands and scurried away. The servant door slammed after her leaving Dariya holding the table that had caused her all this trouble. For a moment she felt tempted to smash it in the alleyway and leave the shards to Talek, but to do so would be beyond foolish. She checked the parcel to make certain Tepera had not played her false, then fastened it and left the alley.

Vulnerable without her luck, she started at every noise and shadow as she made her way back to the inn. She had the sense that someone followed her. Footsteps sounded behind her, stopping when she stopped to listen.

She shook with terror when she finally entered her room at the inn. She set the wrapped table on the floor and made sure that both the door and the narrow window above her bed were latched.

She hardly slept, but rose before dawn to return the table to the nuptial house. She planned to leave it and go away without meeting Talek, but when she reached the house, she found it locked. Exhausted by her sleepless night, she settled down in a hollow at the base of a tree near the entrance of the house and fell asleep.

Talek woke up nearly as early as Dariya, but almost as soon as he had dressed, his mother called on him to make some last minute arrangements on the pavilion that had been built over the gate to the palace. "There are benches for the family, but there should be some seats for the servants that we will need have close at hand."

Talek had just finished arranging for the extra seating when his father asked him to talk to the chief of the palace guards. "When we welcome the bridal party there must be some provision to keep the curious at bay once the bridal train has entered the palace grounds. Please have Garad instruct the guards in what to do."

His sisters were next. They had sent someone to purchase a brooch in the city, but when it had been delivered it seemed that it had been one of a pair and the lack was apparent. "What can we do to make up for the disparity?" they asked, showing him the carved box and the brooch nestled within.

"I think you have earrings in a similar style, Malina. Why don't you bring them down here and we will see what we can do to make them fit in the other niche."

Malina ran up the stairs toward her room with her skirts flying. "I doubt that Malina's earrings will fill the space," Lafina said, "I have a bracelet that I think would do." She followed her sister and left Talek holding the nop wood chest with the brooch inside.

When his sisters returned with their jewelry he used the point of his knife to lift up the lining of the chest and make a different arrangement of the folds. With the bracelet and earrings added, it seemed to be a matched set. Malina and Lafina hugged him for his help. "I doubt that Inrek's bride will notice any lack." Lafina said.

A bell rang twice and the girls looked up. "The bridal wagon has come in view of the city watch," Malina cried. "We must take our places on the pavilion."

Carila swept into the room. "Come, we must welcome our new family member."

Talek held back. "I will leave you to welcome them."

Carila shook her head. "I won't leave you to mope in your room. We must have the family present."

"There is one last thing I must do to prepare the nuptial house. I only desire to do honor to my brother and his bride."

"Go then, but you must be here to give Inrek your felicitations when he has married or I will think the less of you."

While the other members of the family took their places on the pavilion over the gates, Talek slipped away through a door known to only a few and ran along the beach. When he reached the nuptial house he went to the front door and found no one there. He searched around the porches to see if Dariya had come and left the table. Finally he gave up the search. Despondent that his foolishness had led to the loss of a precious artifact, he walked around the house and stubbed his toe on a piece of rock projecting from the base of a tree. He leaned down to pull the rock away and remove the potential for someone else to suffer injury. Then he saw her.

Curled up asleep in the darkness of a hollow between the roots of the tree, Dariya looked as innocent as any child. Without paint and soiled by the earth that cradled her, she nearly eroded his defenses. The package she clutched in her arms was the right size and shape to hold the table. He had been harsh to her. Perhaps he had misjudged her.

He leaned over and gently shook her shoulder. Dariya started upward with a cry. "I've brought the table. You must let me go!" she cried as if she thought he would strike her.

He took the table and unwrapped it. "Thank you Dariya," he said when he had examined it and found it whole. "I know it must have cost you dearly."

"You have no idea what it cost me," she snarled when her hand reached for her brooch and she remembered what he had forced her to do. "I should have left Zedekla and tried to hide instead of paying what it cost me."

"Did you really think I would imprison you?" he asked, shaken by the fear in her eyes.

"Inrek would have done so. It seems I misjudged you," Dariya muttered.

"The offer of a house is still yours if you will accept it," Talek said.

"I will take it," she said. "I had hoped for more from you, but for now, I am desperate enough to risk the shame of being called a prince's shant."

"I won't expect anything of you," Talek said. "You must know that."

Dariya fell silent. Her hand reached for the absent brooch, but perhaps she didn't need it. Apparenly Talek hadn't heard her shouted revelation that Inrek would marry Breya. With that accomplished, his heart would be fragile. She had moved too impetuously. There would be plenty of time to insinuate herself into his life until he resigned himself to marriage.

"I will take you to the house I found for you as soon as I lock this in the nuptial house."

He hurried her along the beach, over the bridge that crossed the Com and up the dunes south of the city. The small house he showed her to was twice as big as the one she had shared with her parents and five other children.

He showed her how to work the puzzle latch of the door. "I have made arrangements for furnishings."

Dariya did not try to hinder him when he turned to leave. She smiled as she contemplated the inevitable results of their entanglement. Talek's sense of honor would compel him to marry her in time.

Chapter 12 Flight

Serin smiled with barely contained joy as the great wagon carrying her family lumbered toward the eastern gate of Zedekla, pulled by a yoke of plodding dalas. "Soon I will see him again," she whispered to Fleya.

Fleya grinned. "You seem to be smiling more than ever before. I thought you were a happy child, but I did not know you could be so joyous."

"I have been happy since we returned home and Father told us he had accepted the offer of marriage from the messenger of the Prince of Zedekla," Serin said with a grin.

Fleya patted her hand. "It was happy news for me as well. I like Talek. I know he loves you and will make a good husband. Love is important. Your father is still in love with me after all these years. He still thinks I am a beautiful woman." Fleya laughed merrily at the thought.

"You are beautiful Mother," Serin said and Fleya giggled again.

"In the eyes of those blinded by love I may be beautiful. But you are beautiful in the eyes of the world. It is a pity that you must wear that heavy veil and the draperies that conceal your beauty from the people of Zedekla until you marry," Fleya grumbled. "You must be hot under all of that embroidered cloth."

A loud snore interrupted their conversation and Fleya jabbed her husband with an elbow that was remarkably sharp for such a round little woman. "Bernin, wake up. What will people think if we ride into the city and you are snoring?"

Bernin yawned and stretched. He had napped as a means of avoiding the thoughts that had troubled him for since he had signed the betrothal contract. It was evident from the first few minutes of their return from Timora that both Fleya and Serin had expected him to sign a contract of betrothal to the prince of Zedekla. They were delighted when he gave them news of the arrangement, but they talked of Talek and their adventures with him in Timora. There were too many discrepancies with the story the prince's agent had told him.

When he tried to question Fleya, she always interrupted him or sent him on an errand. He had spent several days traveling to Talka to find a wagon and teamster with dalas willing to pull it. It was partly his own fault that a wagon was needed because he refused to ride in a litter and Fleya felt it would be undignified for him to walk to Zedekla. "You'll get all the finery I've prepared for you dusty and worn," she worried.

Bernin hesitated to ruin Serin's happiness by opening the possibility that there had been a mistake. The contract scroll had contained an elaborate name for the groom, concentrating on his lineage and rank. Perhaps the prince used a pet name. He devoutly hoped so. The agent of the prince had said that his master had tired of the quest for a bride and had left him to make the arrangements. The prince that Fleya and Serin had met was not engaged in a search when he went to Timora.

His arguments with himself did not erase the sense of impending disaster. He felt uneasy about the way Fleya had decorated the bridal wagon. He would never injure her feelings by telling her that he questioned the propriety of swathing the entire vehicle with yards of bright cloth and gilded tassels. It more closely resembled the cart of a troupe of traveling acrobats and clowns he had once seen on a visit to Talka than any bridal wagon he had ever seen.

She had even talked the teamster into wearing a tunic of purple and gold and letting her deck his two sturdy dalas with striped blankets and yokes of bright false flowers. For herself and Bernin she had chosen red and green. "It will set off the white of the bridal clothes," she insisted when he tried to protest.

Serin might have moderated her mother's excesses, but she had retreated into a dreamy state of sighs and secret smiles that insulated her against all other distractions. She stood patiently while Fleya draped her with yards of white embroidered lace and zilka cloth until she more nearly resembled a snow laden bush than a slender girl. Whenever possible she retreated to her room to dream and read.

Serin reached into her pocket where she kept the gift a messenger had brought only days after she had parted from Talek. At first she thought it was merely a gaudy toy and felt a little disappointed that Talek had sent her the bauble instead of a book.

Then she had wakened in the middle of the night and seen that a soft glow came from the ball. When she picked it up she discovered that the glow originated in tiny cracks where the lattice of the ball's first layer was not quite tight to the under layer.

In a moment she located a tiny stud that moved the lattice over the surface and revealed a brilliant shining from the interior of the ball. No warmth indicated a fire within the ball.

Touched with the feeling that there was something sacred about the light, she had moved the stud so that only a dim glow emanated from the gift before she put it back on the shelf over her bed. From hints in various histories she had learned that the Stone of Truth had been kept by Tharek and it seemed logical it had descended in his royal inheritance. She felt humbled by the thought that her beloved thought her worthy to receive such a precious item. In the weeks since then she had kept the ball in her pocket where she could touch it and think of Talek.

The gates of Zedekla swung open and the brightly bedecked wagon, piled high with Serin's trousseau, proceeded up the wide avenue leading to the palace. Crowds, barely restrained by palace guards, stared at the wagon confused.

"Clowns!" a child cried in delight.

Laughter and cheers erupted from the crowds and they watched with delight as the wagon passed. Mistaking their mirth for welcome, Fleya stood to wave. The wagon lurched and she lost her balance. Seeing his wife in danger of falling, Bernin leaped up and clambered across the wagon to grasp her hand just before she fell. For minutes she dangled while he tried to gain purchase on the boxes and bales of Serin's trousseau.

Finally Bernin pulled Fleya up and nearly lost balance himself when she threw her arms around him and pulled down his head to give him a grateful kiss. For a moment it seemed as if both of them would tumble to the pavement below, but in spite of his size Bernin's agility saved him. After a few quick steps while he found his balance, restored Fleya to her seat next to Serin and returned to the other side of the bench across the wagon.

The performance delighted the already hysterical crowd and their roars of laughter infected those still waiting to see the arrival of the bridal wagon. The merriment rolled like a surf toward the palace where the royal family waited to welcome the bride.

Serin felt puzzled by the laughter, but it seemed good natured and Fleya, thinking they were cheering her rescue and always willing to share a joke, waved and smiled. Bernin stared from side to side like a great puzzled hound. The teamster, sensing that he had somehow become part of a farce, gave into his Kumnoran love for a good joke and waved his feathered hat and bowed his head like the impresario of an acting troupe he had once seen in Jama.

When the wagon drew near enough to be seen from the royal pavilion, King Tomak peered down in surprise. "This can't be the bride's family, it's a wagon of acrobats come to entertain for the wedding."

Carila shook her head and murmured to him. "This is the girl that Inrek chose. Whatever the others are doing, she is dressed in white and veiled as tradition demands. Tell the officer of the guard to open the palace gates and get them inside before they realize the insult they suffer."

Inrek leaned forward from the pavilion and stared at the wagon below. "What is happening Fremek?"

The servant, seated on a low stool where he could not see the spectacle, shook his head. "I don't know. Perhaps some entertainers are amusing the crowd while they wait for the bridal wagon. All I can say is that you are in for a treat. Not only is the bride beautiful, her mother is a beauty as well, even more lovely than the bride."

"Did you see the mother?" Inrek asked as a horrible suspicion began to disturb his complacency.

"No, I told you. She was still in Timora when I found out about her. But her father said his wife was the loveliest woman on earth, and her daughter the second loveliest. He compared them to twin suns,"

Inrek grasped his servant by the nape of the neck and hauled him up so that he could see the wagon that had stopped below while the gates were opened. "Tell me what you see. Is that the father of the girl you chose for me?"

Fremek gazed down at the wagon, gulped and gave the slightest nod.

"You fool, if that is the mother of the bride, then what can the bride look like?" Inrek hissed. "What kind of child could come from such a match. I will not marry her, not even to gain the kingdom."

His sister Malisa clutched his arm. "Keep your voice down or we will all be disgraced. You made your choice, Inrek. We have heard nothing but your stories of how you found a beautiful country girl."

Inrek pushed her restraining hand away and jumped up from his seat. While the other members of the family descended to the courtyard near the gate to meet the bride and her family as their wagon proceeded through the gate, Inrek scrambled onto a ledge and leaped down into bushes at the base of a guard tower.

He had underestimated the height and instead of landing gracefully and making a quick escape, he fell sideways and banged his head. Dazed, he stumbled to his feet just in time to meet his mother's irate eyes.

"What is the meaning of this Inrek?" Carila demanded. "You are acting like a spoiled child. You could hardly wait for your bride to arrive, telling us how you met the girl and were so enchanted that you asked for her hand in the same hour."

"I lied," he snarled. "I was tired of the quest and Fremek found a girl for me. He didn't see her but accepted the word of her father who assured Fremek that she was second in beauty only to her mother. You have seen her mother. Can you imagine what her daughter must be? You can't expect me to marry a dwarf, a fat, ugly, dwarf!"

Carila took him by surprise, shoving him backwards with her hands on his chest. Startled and still not quite recovered from his jump, he stumbled and fell through the open door of the guard tower. While he still lay supine, his mother shut the door and locked him in.

Carila returned to join Tomak who welcomed Bernin and Fleya. At a signal from their mother, Malisa and Lafina took Serin in hand and led her toward the room where she would wait until the wedding in an hour.

"You must be tired and hungry," Carila said to Fleya. "This is no time to burden you with lengthy ceremony. Our steward will show you to a suite of rooms where you can rest and refresh yourself for the feast that will follow the wedding."

Tomak wondered at the change of plans which had called for midday meal in the palace that would introduce the families, but he had seen Inrek's awkward exit and he could hardly wait to find out what had happened. As soon as Fleya and Bernin were led away, Carila turned to him. "Your son is a fool!" she muttered. "He never actually saw this girl but left the choosing up to Fremek who followed rumor and made the contract without seeing the bride. Now Inrek wants to run away."

Tomak frowned. "Where is he?"

"I locked him in the guard tower. You must convince him that he has no choice but to follow through with the wedding."

He raised his brows and pursed his lips in a nearly soundless whistle of surprise. "I will speak to him. He must realize that we can't disappoint the people who have gathered for a wedding. They are in a good mood now, but our enemies would be quick to take advantage of any change in plans."

"I will try to find Talek and see if he will stand in for Inrek until you make him see reason," Carila said.

Tomak walked to the guard tower and unlatched the door. He found Inrek pacing inside the small space. His son whirled to confront him.

"I will not marry that creature!"

"Apparently you have no idea of her true appearance. For all you know, she may be a beauty."

"You have seen her parents!" Inrek scowled. "I won't take the risk."

"If you do not marry her we might have a revolution on our hands," Tomak warned his son. "People from all the lands and cities of Okishdu crowd the streets. I have received information that the servants of Orqu are seeking an opportunity to create trouble. You must go through with the marriage."

"I will think about it," Inrek lied.

Tomak nodded and turned to go, but Inrek saw his chance and ran toward the open door. Surprising his father, he shoved him aside and rushed past him. He raced across the courtyard to an opening that led to the servant passages that ran throughout the palace. Ripping off the elaborate wedding clothing as he hurried up the stairway to his room, Inrek hastily pulled a hunting tunic over his head and grabbed his bow and quiver.

He used another servant passage to leave the palace by way of the beach. Flinging open the door, he nearly crashed into Talek who had just come from settling Dariya into her new home. With a rough gesture he pushed his brother aside and scrambled down the embankment to the beach.

"Where are you going?" Talek shouted.

"I am going hunting," Inrek laughed as he leaped down the final few feet to the beach. "Take my bride, take the kingdom, and may you have joy of both of them!"

Talek hurried into the palace and looked for his parents. Did they know of Inrek's abdication? What would happen now? His mind ran like a hound seeking some solution to the disaster. He saw his father coming toward him down the corridor. Before Talek could speak about meeting Inrek, Tomak grasped his arm and led him into a small anteroom and shut the door for privacy.

"Talek, I must speak to you. It is a matter of grave importance."

"I saw Inrek leaving the palace. He said he was going hunting," Talek said. "What has happened to set him to flight?"

Tomak shook his head."My son, you must go immediately to the nuptial chamber of the Shrine and take your brother's place in the wedding."

"Am I to be his proxy?" Talek asked.

"You must marry the bride on your own behalf. Now that Inrek has run away, we are left with no groom and a city full of people who might riot if they don't see a prince married today."

"I will go after Inrek and convince him to return," Talek said.

"The Orquians are active among the crowd. If there is not a marriage and a wedding feast within the next hour, the crowds are primed to erupt in anger. You will be the one to make the choice, but if you refuse, I must call out the palace guard to protect your mother and sisters from a riot."

"They will expect to see Inrek as the groom," Talek protested.

"The two of you are physically identical. The people have been told that one of the princes of Zedekla is being married. Your mother would not let me name Inrek as the heir until the wedding took place. She still had hopes that you would find a suitable bride."

Talek thought of Serin, his love. She would be married soon and alredy lay beyond his reach. It was a hateful thing to marry for mere convenience, but he had nearly been tricked into marrying Dariya out of compassion. By marrying this unknown girl he might avert disaster. He had vowed that he could never love any other than Serin, but he could be decent and kind to the girl his brother had abandoned.

Finally he nodded. "I will do as you ask."

Tomak hurried Talek from the anteroom and rushed him along the shortest route to the tunnel that lay between the lower regions of the palace and the basement of the shrine. As soon Tomak left his son at the entrance of the Nuptial Chamber, he hurried back to tell Carila to prepare the bride.

Only three people were in the Nuptial Chamber when Talek entered. Two were witnesses, the old counselor Dosik and his wife. Sergon, dressed in the robes of a High Priest waited at the head of the altar. His eyes met Talek's sober gaze and somehow seemed to convey that they shared a joke.

Talek looked down and kept his folded hands on top of the altar. Did Sergon know of the substitution? Why had Inrek been so eager to flee this marriage? The questions filled his thoughts and he hardly noticed when another person entered the room.

Sergon raised his hands to begin the prayer of blessing and someone gave a little sigh from across the altar. Talek looked up and saw a woman so draped and veiled that he could not determine her shape and size. It could only be said for sure that she had come to the chamber expecting to be married..

Before conducting the ritual Sergon instructed the couple. "You will live together until life has ended for one of you, but if your love is blessed by the Radiance, that separation will be but a temporary parting. Be tender, be true. Be of one mind as you will be of one body to bring new souls to this life. Join your hands, left and left, right and right and face each other."

Talek felt the girl's slender fingers shaking with nervousness as he took them in his own. Compassion for this young stranger who had been abandoned unaware eased his feeling of loss. He wondered what she would think when she found that another had been substituted for the man she thought to marry.

"I call upon the Radiance to bond this union which shall not be broken by death or any exigency. Let no other affection interfere or come between you. Are you willing to vow that your heart will be true to this woman, Son of Irilik?"

Sergon turned to Talek and waited for his answer. Talek hesitated for a moment while he said a final farewell to his dreams. Then he spoke firmly and clearly. "Yes. I forsake all others, for now and forever."

The bride drew a trembling breath. When Sergon asked her the same question she answered without a pause in a voice made husky with emotion. "Yes, I forsake all others, for now and forever."

"Are you willing to share you home and love with children?" The priest asked.

"I am willing to share my home and love with children." Talek answered while fighting back the tears that had not yet yielded to his will.

"I am willing to share my home and love with children," Serin echoed, her voice a mere whisper as the thought of bearing Talek's children filled her with sweet yearning.

"If you are true to these vows, the Radiance will bless your marriage and you will have joy. By the power of my priesthood through Yasa Dom, I join you as man and wife," Sergon pronounced. He nodded to the witnesses. "Bring the registry."

Talek signed his name, then closed his eyes and prayed for strength to keep his vows while the bride wrote her signature. If only Serin stood across the altar. The vagrant thought slipped through his guard. He opened his eyes and willed the hope away. He had promised that he would forsake all others. He must find a way to fill his heart with all that he found good about the young woman he had vowed to protect and honor.

The witnesses took the register and signed their names beneath those of the bridal couple. The great doors of the Nuptial Chamber of Zedekla's Shrine swung open. Golden sunlight entered the dim room in a bright wedge along with the sound of thousands of people murmuring impatiently for their first sight of the bride and groom.

After a short walk from the altar to the porch that overlooked the square, Talek led the veiled bride out to the porch and turned to her. He took the corners of the veil and began to lift them slowly.

He lifted the veil from the face of his bride with no other emotion than curiosity. First her slender neck and then her chin and mouth appeared. A smile on the sweetly turned lips struck his heart with a blow of pain. Surely the nose and eyes would destroy the illusion of familiarity.

He paused, but the crowd below grew impatient for their first sight of the bride who had delighted them by arriving with what had appeared to be a troupe of clowns. They roared to see her entire face and Talek obliged them. For a moment he believed that his eyes deceived him. Then he knew that his imagination did not provide the familiar, beloved face its form.

"Serin, my love!" Talek took her in his arms for a final test of her reality. Serin met him with a kiss that seemed to melt his knees and take his breath. Satisfied with the results of the kiss, he felt too happy to question how this miracle had come to be. He looked out over the cheering crowd and waved the arm that didn't encircle his bride.

The crowd roared their approval of the glowing beauty of the girl who stood beside the prince. There had been a rumor growing that the prince had married a dwarf or a giant. Instead, she was a perfect complement to her husband. In every way a fitting consort for an heir to Zedekla's throne.

Dariya stood silent and stunned at a corner of the square. She was one of the few who recognized which prince had wed. She had seen Talek in the tunic he now wore only an hour earlier. Her anticipation at seeing Breya wed to Inrek and forever out of reach of Talek turned to ashes of resentment and anger. She turned and blundered through the rejoicing crowd. Heedless of her steps, she collided with a man in dirty robes.

He clutched her, refusing to let go of her when she tried to wrench her arm away. "You seem displeased by the wedding," he muttered.

"I would kill her if I could," Dariya vowed.

"Perhaps you will have your way," the man answered. "Come with me."

Queen Carila looked across the square from her seat on the pavilion next to Fleya and barely suppressed a gasp of surprise when she saw the bride. "Your daughter is lovely," she exclaimed.

"Surely Talek told you about her," Fleya said. "Perhaps he spoke more of her intelligence than her beauty. They spent a great deal of time in the library in Timora. I can tell you that my head ached with their scholarly disputes."

Carila glanced at Tomak. He closed his gaping mouth, barely able to conceal a surprise that matched her own.

"You seem familiar with my son," the king commented.

"Well of course!" Fleya exclaimed. "After all, I was there when the two of them fell in love. I know how much Talek cares for our girl, otherwise I would never have encouraged him, even if he is a prince."

Tomak stood and gave the signal for the feast to begin."We welcome all to celebrate the wedding of Prince Talek and his bride, Serin, henceforth to be known as Serina.

Servants poured from the palace carrying trestles and boards, followed soon after by others carrying platters and kegs. The long table went up quickly with eager hands helping to set everything in place. Appetites were barely held at bay while the great banquet was laid out.

Sergon ascended the steps to the pavilion next to his wife Kemila, with Serina and Talek on either side of him. He raised his hands over his head. Only the cries of infants too young to be quieted disturbed the silence that met his gesture. As soon as his blessing on the meal concluded the roar of massed humanity resumed. It was a jolly crowd, well pleased with the marriage of the prince.

A shorter table had been laid on the pavilion for the royal family and their guests. Questions about the strange events of the day were necessarily left unasked in the presence of the bride's parents who seemed unaware that there had been a substitution of the groom. Tomak found that Bernin had a surprisingly cultured mind and Malisa and Lafina kept Breya busy with their questions about Timora. Somehow they got the story of Talek's courtship out of her without alerting her to their own ignorance of the events.

Sergon and his wife Kemila were seated on either side of Carila. Kemila patted her hand. "We knew of this my dear," she said.

"She means we had corresponding dreams that confirmed that Talek would be wed instead of Inrek and that his bride would be of true Mareklan birth," Sergon murmured in words meant for the queen alone.

Carila stared from Talek to his bride. She slowly nodded. "Now I see what you mean. She could almost be my daughter, but her hair is straight. Who is she?"

"In time you will understand," Sergon said. "Fleya and Bernin raised her, and to Serina, they are her parents as surely as if they had borne her."

Carila's curiosity had been fueled by their hints, but for now she would have to be content. Talek had finally earned his father's approval to be heir. Her heart yearned after Inrek who had fled. What would he do when he returned to Zedekla and realized the treasure he had so impetuously discarded?

After a suitable interval of feasting, King Tomak led his family and guests back into the palace. The time had come for the young couple to set out for the nuptial house. According to tradition, the bride and groom would find their way to their first home dressed in disguises, lest the merrymakers assembled for the feast try to part them. There was some danger at a royal wedding since there were always malcontents who might use such an occasion to do real harm.

Talek had intended to use the path along the beach, but adventuresome boys had used small boats to gain access to the strand between the palace and the sea and they were singing bawdy songs that might embarrass his bride. He would have to lead her on a detour through the town.

He had prepared disguises for Inrek and his bride. Now he showed Serina to the corner of a cellar where he had hidden them.

"I will dress as an old man in these worn robes and pieces of fleece," he demonstrated the effect to her amusement. "You can take your change of clothing to that small room where you can have some privacy." He had chosen the disguise for Inrek's bride after seeing the success of Dariya's ruse and he wondered if Serina would so easily pass for a boy.

In a few minutes both of them had finished changing and when they saw each other, their laughter filled the cellar. "Pardon me old man, may I carry your bundle?" Serina asked in a husky voice. She had smudged a bit of charcoal on her cheeks to aid the impression left by the too large tunic with a raveled hem and battered buskins.

"What does a young ruffian like you want with my bundle," Talek squeaked in a parody of age.

"I'm not a thief," her husky voice protested. "I think we should go and join the people in the square. Perhaps we can find out where the prince and his bride are hiding."

Giggling with mirth, Serina followed Talek through a maze of dank passages. At last they came to a small door that led out onto an alley. Instead of walking away from the palace, Talek led her into the square beneath the royal pavilion above the palace gate.

Gangs of people were forming to go in search of the bride and groom.

"There is an extra prize for anyone who unmasks them," one man said. "Bildug, the chief priest at the altar of Orqu will give a gold piece for either of them, and ten if they are taken together."

Talek's light spirits suffered a chilling plunge. He remembered the name of Bildug. The Orquians who had tried to capture Serina had been under Bildug's command. If he headed the cult in Zedekla, the implications were clear. Serina would still be considered a fit sacrifice for the purposes of the dogs of the demon. Talek wanted to hug Serina close and protect her, but it would betray their disguise.

They joined one of the gangs headed towards the north of the city. What should have been frolic and fun had turned into a deadly manhunt by those eager to get the prize. The ordinary citizens of Zedekla quickly sensed the mood of the gangs. They took to their homes and stayed behind locked doors. None were encountered by the gang Talek and Serina had joined. When they came within a short distance of the coast, Talek stumbled and fell.

"Don't leave me, please, take me with you," he called in the shaky voice of an old man. Only Serina stayed, the others seemed eager to leave him behind.

"Are you hurt?" Serina asked anxiously as she tried to help him up.

"No, it was a ruse," he muttered. "I fell on purpose so we could get free of those jackals. Wait a few minutes in case they look back, then I will take you home."

The cries of the gang were distant when he finally led her up the path to the nuptial house. Talek left Serina concealed in a clump of tall reeds while he explored around the perimeter. There were no tracks but those that he and Dariya had made earlier in the day.

Reassured that they were alone, Talek brought Serina into the house and led her to the room that faced the west. The sea reflected the colors of the flame colored sky as the sun sank toward the distant horizon.

"I've never seen anything so beautiful," Serina sighed as she stood in Talek's arms looking out at the sea.

"I dreamed of standing here with you like this. When I chose the furnishing of this house I thought of sharing it with you. I filled the library with your favorite books," Talek told her.

"But I thought it was the duty of a close relative to prepare the bridal house," Serina said.

"It will come out eventually, I might as well tell you now," Talek said. "When my messenger arrived at your father's house your father told him you were already betrothed. Bernin treated Thedonen rudely, not inviting him in or offering him water or food. Thedonen had seen a small young man leaving the path that led to your house and your father confirmed that it was he who took the betrothal contract."

"But when we arrived home my father told me he had accepted the offer of marriage from the prince of Zedekla," Serina said. "I never dreamed he meant any other than you."

"So you came to Zedekla expecting to marry me?" Talek asked.

She nodded. She reached into her belt pouch and removed the lattice ball. "I thought this was a gift from you. I have cherished it."

Talek took the ball in his hands and gazed at it reverently. As the light faded from the room, the light that escaped from the cracks in the lattice glowed bright. "Do you know what this is?" he asked when he handed it back to her.

"I have a few ideas, but please tell me," she said.

"This ball was given to Inrek by Thalon, a Mareklan. Then it seemed merely a pretty toy, but now I can see that it is the most precious artifact in Okishdu. This is the Orb and the Stone of Truth. Do you know its story?"

"The Orb was created by Kumnor's smith to hold the sacred stone," she said.

"There is a mystery here," Talek admitted. "I doubt that Thalon would have given Inrek the Orb if it still contained the stone."

His eyes narrowed as he recalled an incident in his childhood that had always given him pain. "Once there was a room in the palace where truth could be tested. I was taken to the room and failed the test. From what I have gathered, there was a tiny stone set in the wall that would only glow for those whose hearts were pure."

"I can't believe you failed such a test as a child," Serina protested.

"My mother, then my father entered the room and found that the stone had been pried loose. It was never seen again. Yet here it is, restored to the Orb."

"The stone was there when I received the Orb," Serina said.

"I suspect it has been there for nearly eighteen years," Talek replied. He had always wondered why Inrek had despised the ball. Perhaps his brother felt some guilt that he could not face. Talek could imagine how such a thing had come to pass, but without his brother's confirmation, he would not speak of his suspicions.

Serina placed the Orb in his hand. "If Inrek had so little regard for such a sacred artifact, it should belong to you."

He shook his head. "Somehow I think the Orb is meant for both of us. I will ask Sergon what we should do with it when we meet him again."

"How was it that you came to marry me if your brother was the man named in the contract," Serina asked.

"I had resolved never to love again when I thought I had lost you," Talek told her. "I may have married eventually and tried to give my wife affection, but my brother refused to marry you within an hour of the wedding and my father commanded me to take his place. I did not know it was you beneath the heavy veil. I thought you were betrothed to the man Thedonen saw leaving your father's house. Now I realize it must have been my brother's servant, Fremek, that he saw."

"I wondered at the stiffness of your stature during the ceremony," Serina said.

"I had killed my hopes and dreams and prepared to do my duty toward an unknown bride," Talek confessed. "When I lifted your veil I felt like a man reborn. At first I thought I imagined your face."

Serina grinned at him through the charcoal dust that dirtied her cheeks and forehead and he pulled her close and brushed away the soot with his fleece whiskers. "You make a charming urchin, but I think we both could use a bath."

Talek felt assured that their privacy was inviolate. A sudden pounding at the door seemed ominous. He frowned and set Serina away from him. "Stay here. None should disturb us for a week at least, and certainly not at such an hour."

Chapter 13 The Journey

Talek peered through a small window set in the door but the darkness outside made it difficult to see anything more than the silhouettes of two figures, pale against the darker night. He opened the door and gaped with surprise. Sergon and Kemila stood on his doorstep, their white hair glowing in the faint light that came from the house. Their presence was such a surprise that at first he took no particular notice of the staffs that each of them held.

"Come in," Talek said. "I would offer you something, but I did not expect this visit."

"I would have been less patient with someone who disturbed me on my wedding night, but we have not come to visit," Sergon said. "We come to warn you. You must leave immediately. The priests of Orqu have hired a band of ruffians to burn the house and take you captive."

"We used the cover of such a band to make our way here," Talek said. The demon's dogs have offered an unseemly reward for us. But how can they know where we are?"

"Someone has betrayed you," Sergon said.

Talek knew of only one person who might have given them away. Dariya had once again revealed her character. "Should we return to the palace?"

Sergon shook his head. "You must leave the city. You and Serina have an errand to perform. Years ago you and your brother were given two gifts. You must seek Marekla and return the orb and the staff to Makon. I have foreseen that a day will come when Serina's father will give the gifts to a descendant of Neril who will visit Marekla.

"Did you know that the Stone of Truth has been restored to the Orb?" Talek asked.

Sergon shook his head. "When I gave it to Neril it was merely a pretty bauble. Now I can see why it has importance once again."

Kemila stepped forward and laid her hand on Sergon's arm. "The ruffians will arrive any moment. We have brought packs and your staffs, Talek. There is no time for delay. You must go with no further questions."

Serina had entered the hallway and listened to the exchange. "It seems our adventures have not ended. Which of the staffs is for me."

"Talek will carry Tharek oc Baroka, the sword staff of his ancestors. This other staff is for you, Serina. These packs contain what you need to make your journey."

Talek turned back and returned with a small table. "Take this with you. Anything else that perishes with this house can be spared, but this was made by Tharek. I paid a great price for it."

Sergon took the table and Talek locked the door behind them as they left the nuptial house. A lamp remained lit within. The latches should occupy their pursuers and keep them from following for a while.

Sergon and Kemila followed Serina and Talek down to the beach, but they headed back toward the palace while Talek and Serina struck out for the north as Sergon had directed. Behind them they heard the howls of frenzied men as they pounded on the locked doors of the nuptial house. Moments later a dull orange glow began to light the dunes behind them.

Serina stumbled and almost fell in the darkness. "Open the Orb, Talek. I must see where the path is."

"We can't afford to let them see where we are," he protested.

"Do you think that any of them could see the light of the Stone of Truth?" she asked.

He gave her the Orb. She opened it and cupped it in her hand to send a radiant stream of light ahead of them. Oblivious to the brilliant light that glowed from the beach and sea, the hirelings of Bildug spent their energy coursing back and forth through the overgrowth that surrounded the burning building.

Standing next to Bildug, Dariya watched the search. At first she was avid to see them find her rival and take her captive. Talek would likely die when he tried to defend his bride. It would leave Inrek as the heir and she might have a chance with him.

"You lied to me, woman," Bildug snarled when the search began to seem fruitless.

"You did not search the beach!" she cried. "They could have gone back to the palace. Someone must have warned them."

"No one could have known we were coming, unless they were a prophet," Bildug sneered. "Next you will tell me you saw Sergon coming here. You promised me a sacrifice, a maiden for my altar. If the prince's bride is gone, then you must take her place."

Before she could scream, Bildug stuffed a filthy cloth into her mouth. Before her hands were tied, she touched the empty place where the lucky brooch had once been bound close to her breast. She did not try to pray, that childhood habit had been swallowed in her superstition.

One of Bildug's henchman shouted and for a moment the demon's priest was diverted. Dariya dropped to her knees and crawled away. The rag stifled her cry when she tumbled down into the low shelter where she had waited for Talek earlier that day. Hunched with her knees to her chest and her back against the front of the hollow she hoped her soiled brown tunic would blend with the tree bark. The rough hand that grasped the back of her tunic ended her hope.

The bay that formed the outlet of the river Com was canted in a curve that led northeast. At first Talek and Serina kept to the strand between the cliffs and the sea. Talek was familiar with the shore, but he was not quite certain of the time. He wondered if he had missed the break in the cliffs that would provide an easy ascent before the tide rose. The waves washed around their feet when the light from the Orb shown on the piled boulders that marked the break.

Talek held out his hand and helped Serina as they climbed the rocks until they were high above the hissing surf. The coming day showed pale pink along the eastern horizon when they rested at the top of the cliff and caught their breaths.

Serina lifted the pack off her back and peered inside. "I hardly ate anything at the wedding feast and I am famished now. I wonder what Sergon and Kemila packed for us."

She lifted out packets filled with various delicacies. "It looks like they sent enough for us to live for days before we purchase more supplies.'

"We may have to," Talek said. "We are miles from the pilgrimage road from Janaka and the inns where we could purchase food."

Serina glanced around at the windblown brush. "I could gather breadberries and dig leather root if we get hungry."

"I doubt we'll come to that. Is there a flask of nuka juice in there?"

Soon she had spread a cloth and set out dishes. When she opened a packet of sweetmeat and offered Talek a taste he turned her down. "I doubt I'll ever enjoy sweetmeat again. I have been a fool Serina and I think you should know what happened. I suspect you will hear gossip once we return to Zedekla."

She looked into his shadowed eyes and felt fear strike her heart. What had he done to make him so ashamed? His first words seemed to confirm her worst fears.

"A pretty woman came to court a year or so ago. She flirted with both me and my brother. I think she always preferred him, but I for a time I felt infatuated with her." he gazed toward the south where the towers of Zedekla caught the morning light.

"You said your heart belonged to me," she murmured.

He heard her pain and turned to take her in his arms. "You have my heart, Serina. Dariya never did. Please listen while I tell you what happened between us."

She nodded.

"When the council said that the heir must not be married to a woman who had lived in Zedekla, Dariya's uncle sold her to servant sellers. Somehow she escaped and returned to Zedekla as a sweetmeat seller. She feared the servant sellers would recapture her. I offered her my protection and let her stay in the nuptial house until I could arrange some other place for her. She must have been the one who betrayed us to the Orquians."

"I can see nothing wrong in what you did," Serina protested. "You helped someone and they repaid you with betrayal. Why would she have done such a thing?"

"I suspect her of fostering rumors in order to force me into marrying her. When she realized I had taken Inrek's place-," he could not continue what seemed an absurd accusation, but the evidence seemed to support his suspicion.

Serina smiled and held his hand. "I hope all your errors are the same; a generous heart and a willingness to put another's welfare ahead of your own. I can't help wondering what happened to her when we were not found at the nuptial house."

Talek gazed toward Zedekla where the great dark pyramid that the Orquians claimed for their own glowed ominously in the red morning light. "Perhaps we should return to Zedekla and see if we can find her."

"Sergon gave us an errand," Serina reminded him. "The woman you helped seems clever enough to fend for herself."

Talek scratched his chin. "These whiskers are itching. I wonder if it's safe to remove our disguises."

"I'll keep mine," Serina said. "It's probably better for me to pretend to be a boy for the next few days until we are well away from Zedekla. I often wondered what would happen on my wedding night, but in my wildest imagination I never dreamed it would be like this." Serina's final word ended in a mighty yawn.

Talek nodded. "We should rest for a while. We have many miles to go before we reach our goal. Our first problem is finding Marekla. Sergon would not have given us the task unless he felt we could succeed. There must be a clue in the things we were given, but for now, I'm too tired to think of anything."

They found a dry glade where great trees had crowded out other growth and only soft grass and moss covered the ground. Serina fell asleep immediately on their spread cloaks, but Talek picked up the orb. As he looked at it, the colored jewels were muted and only the diamonds captured the light of the dawning day. Something in the arrangement of the gems seemed familiar. Talek remembered the hours he had spent with Serina in the map library. The design that appeared to be a mere decoration suddenly showed itself to be a map. Smiling, Talek put the Orb aside. Then he gathered his bride into his arms, and joined her in sleep.

Late in the day they woke and followed the sound of running water to a stream. After they had refreshed themselves and eaten, Serina glanced up at Talek and saw him studying the surface of the Orb.

"The sun is too bright to see the light of the Stone of Truth," she said. "You must have some other reason for staring at the Orb.

"These inset jewels form a map," he said. "It must have been engraved on the Orb after Irilik came to Okishdu. There must be some way to understand it."

"Is Sergon one of your ancestors?" she asked. "You seem to treat him more familiarly than I would ever dare."

Her question gave him the opening to tell her about her parents. For a moment he hesitated. Perhaps Fleya had told her the truth and he had no need to interfere. On the other hand, they were bound for Marekla to meet the father she had never known. The time had come for her to know the truth.

"Sergon is married to my great-grandmother, but otherwise we are unrelated within several generations as far as I know. What do you know about your family?"

"There is very little to tell," she said. "Neither my mother nor my father had any living relatives. Often they would joke that it was a miracle that I had come to them at all. Both were only children of two only children."

"Sergon told us we were to take the orb and staff of Neril to Marekla and deliver them to a man named Makon. Do you remember what he said then?"

Serina thought for a moment, her brows together as she tried to remember the High Priest's words. "He said my father would give them to a descendant of Neril," she finally answered. "But how would Bernin get them from a Mareklan? He has always avoided them."

"It was not Bernin that Sergon meant when he spoke of your father," Talek said. "Your mother Fleya told me how you came to them. It was a miracle. They found you in the arms of a dying man. His name was Thalon, the man who gave me the staff of Neril. He was your grandfather."

Serina stared at him with wide eyes. Her hand came up to cover her mouth and her eyes closed as tears slipped from beneath the lids.

"Fleya should have told you," Talek said.

Serina shook her head. "I think she tried to tell me before we went to Zedekla, but there were always distractions. One day she took me to a corner of the pasture where a landslide had fallen from the cliff above. She stood for a while in silence and seemed to be praying. Then Bernin called us from the house. I thought it strange at the time when she took me back to the house again without telling me why we had been there to begin with. I believe what you have told me Talek, but I will always consider Fleya and Bernin to be my parents."

"You should," he agreed. "They have given their love to you since they first found you."

Serina frowned. "I told the court in Timora that I am not Mareklan."

"You did not lie because you did not know," he assured her. "I should tell you that your mother was Sergon's granddaughter, the name Serin honors him. I became part of his family by marrying you. You have already met other members of your family. Anget, the guardian who watched after us in Timora came out of retirement to make sure of your safety. He is your mother's father. Anser, his son, is your uncle."

"I felt that Anget showed us more than usual care, but I thought it was because you are the prince of Zedekla," Serina said.

"Not even the royalty of Zedekla would have merited such close attention," he assured her. "Would you like to meet his wife when we visit Timora again?"

"You have mentioned my grandparents, my father and my uncle, but what of the woman who gave birth to me? Do you know her?" Serina asked.

"Your mother refused to go to Marekla when Thalon went to take the two of you back to the hidden city. As far as I know, nothing is known about her after she gave you to Thalon. She left Timora suddenly."

Serina clenched her hands and gazed at them. She hardly knew what to say about the things that Talek had told her. Suddenly she had been given something that she had often longed for as a child; an extended family complete with all varieties of relatives. Yet they were not the comfortable playmates she had imagined in her youth. She saw something tragic in the story of her mother. It was likely that she had been very young when she gave up her child and abandoned her parents. The thought of dear Bernin and Fleya came to her and she whispered a prayer of gratitude that they had been the ones chosen to raise her.

She stood and shouldered her pack. "We should try to go a few more miles before we camp again."

She set forth in silence, walking several paces in the van. Talek respected her need for solitude while she considered the things he had revealed to her. They climbed steadily and he recognized the area. In a few more hours they would come to the Janaka pilgrimage road.

When they reached a band of forest, Talek suggested that theyshould stop for the night. "We could go on, but the light is fading and I think we should try to travel during the day."

Serina nodded. She turned to him and smiled. "Thank you for letting me think it all through. I have sometimes wondered why I am so different from Bernin and Fleya. I will never love them any less, but now that the two of us must form a family of our own, it is better that I know the truth."

While Talek started a fire, Serina spread their cloaks. Last year's leaves covered the forest floor making the surface springy and soft. A brook nearby offered an opportunity to drink their fill of cold water with no taint of the flask. After eating they bathed and began to explore another aspect of their love.

When they woke on the third day of their journey, they continued on until they intersected the Janaka road. Talek looked to the left and right and squinted at the distant peaks where his mother Carila had been raised as a ward of Tagun, Janaka's king. "It is said that Marekla is hidden in the heart of a mountain, but I doubt it is anywhere near Janaka. Somehow I must find the key to the map on the Orb."

Serina stood at ease, her fingers idly sliding along the staff of Neril while she studied the patterns incised on the shaft. "I wonder if these decorations have any meaning?' she asked.

Talek reached for the staff and stared at it. "Of course! These marks are the key to the map on the orb. That is why they were given together."

Serina leaned near and watched while he studied the repeated pattern of triangles and lines. At first there seemed only to be a similarity of design in the markings of the two objects but he found a place on the staff that was slightly indented. She would have taken it for just another notch on the battered staff but he lifted the orb and set it next to the notch. The arc of the notch fit the orb closely. He rotated the orb and showed her what he had seen. "Look, see how the patterns correspond except for these dotted lines and the triangles?"

She looked closer and nodded. "They do not repeat the same pattern. They are in a progression. I have seen this design before. It repeats the pattern on a shawl I found one day. Fleya said it was mine if I wanted it, but I should keep it secret from others. I used it almost constantly. I was only eight or so when I sewed the last piece into a purse. See, here it is."

Serina took the small purse from her belt pouch and held it up for Talek to see the pattern woven in the cloth. It was the same design that ringed Neril's staff. "I noticed that Thedonen wore a cape with the same weave, but at the time I did not realize the significance."

"All Mareklans wear such capes, but I suspect there is only one map keyed to them," Talek looked around. They were alone on the road, but at any time a group of pilgrims or traders could appear. "There is an inn south of here where we can eat our midday meal and try and make sense of this now that we know the key."

"Is it safe for us to use an inn?" Serina asked. "By now the Orquians might have made their way north to intercept us."

"It would be unwise for any Orquian to enter the land of Janaka. They are banned under the laws of Tagun. We will be safer in an inn than in the countryside," he assured her.

They packed away the orb and the tiny pouch and took up their staffs. Knowing that a sword was concealed within the staff that Talek carried, Serina shook off the fear that the mention of the Orquians had aroused. She was in country new to her and her eyes surveyed the horizon. Suddenly she stopped and stared toward the southeast.

"Talek, come back," she called to her husband.

He turned and saw her pointing toward the jagged horizon. "What is it Serina? Did you see someone?"

She shook her head. "Those mountains are like one of the repeated patterns."

Talek lifted his hand to shield his eyes and gazed where she had pointed. "I see Mount Vald and some smaller mountains. From here Vald is almost a perfect cone. From the west it has a flat top. It is so high that some call it the roof of the world."

Serina took the orb from her belt pouch and studied it, then looked up toward the line of mountains again. "This blue stone is the same color as Timora's lake at midday. I don't know when this map was made, but this green stone might be Zedekla. If this topaz represents Janaka, then this triangle of amethyst could be Mount Vald," Serina said.

"I think you are right about the amethyst representing the mountain," Talek studied the orb over her shoulder. "See this mark on the ball? It looks almost like an accidental scratch, but I think it was put there by the same person who set the stones. If it is a deliberate mark, it represents the valley of the Or river."

"Where is the Or?" she asked.

"It lies to the north of us. It is a good thing you stopped and studied the orb. We must head toward the Or bridge."

"If Vald is our goal, surely we can just head to the east from here." Serina reasoned.

"But the mountain is vast," Talek said. "If we come at it from the wrong direction we could spend weeks trying to find the entrance to the vale of Marekla. It is better if we follow the map prepared by Mareklans."

They started north on the Janaka road. They passed an inn and several groups of pilgrims but when night fell they were far from any inn. They camped that night and walked northward until midday. When they stopped to eat, Serina made the best of provisions that were growing stale. An hour later when they topped the rise that led down into the valley of the Or, they turned and surveyed the skyline. Mount Vald was less perfectly triangular, but from this angle the smaller mountains immediately beneath and next to it had been transformed into triangles. It was the same pattern as the first series in the pattern on the staff and the fabric.

"You were right Talek. This is the beginning of the trail that will lead us to Marekla," Serina said.

The Or was a sluggish river, barely flowing and filled with fetid scum. Otherwise there might have been a town where the river intersected with the road to Janaka. Instead there was only a long causeway that crossed the broad marsh.

The bank on one side of the marsh rose gradually to scrub land. On the other side it was steeper and lined with stones that had been washed into the channel by rare floods. The rocky bank suggested itself as a path the Mareklans might use and Talek and Serina turned off the pilgrimage road to follow it upstream.

The marsh seemed to be home to every variety of loathsome creature. Fat frogs fed on the huge flies that buzzed near the surface of the swamp.

"This place seems accursed," Serina said nervously as evening dropped a pall of darkness over the scene.

"It was a camp for thieves who robbed and murdered traders on the pilgrim road," Talek said. "We could camp here for the night, or we could go on for another hour or so with the help of the light in the Orb. There is a rise in the land ahead and the water should be fresher there."

"I prefer to spend the night on higher ground," Serina said.

With darkness the river had taken on an even more ominous aspect. Glowing shapes shifted over its surface. It would be easy to believe in haunts and evil spirits in such a place.

"I wonder why the Orquians have not chosen this place to build a temple to their demon," Serina said as she lifted the Orb to banish the darkness.

"The Orquians want to be comfortable and well fed. They thrive where there are masses of people who seek special favor, but who don't wish to pay for it with honest toil or talent. Orqu's priests give them the spectacle of bloody rituals and the promise of unearned prosperity. In a desolate place like this there are only frogs for a congregation."

Serina swept the light of the Orb over the swamp and the eyes of hundreds of small animals suddenly lit with reflection of the glowing globe. The gloom beyond seemed even darker in contrast to the light.

Talek began to tell Serina the story of his parents and the fraud prince who had camped near the Or with his band of robbers and thieves. The adventures shared by Tomak and Carila made them seem less intimidating as in-laws. Serina laughed at something Talek told her and the sound seemed to drive away the gloom.

They hardly noticed when the land began to rise and they left the marsh behind. Suddenly Talek stopped talking and stood still. A sound of splashing water and a gust of misty breeze forewarned them that they had approached the end of the valley. Hills rose around them and they climbed past a small lake that fed the Or. A slim waterfall fell into the lake, hanging like a pale wraith from the face of a cliff. The air felt fresh and cool.

"We will camp here," Talek said as he dropped his pack to the ground and stretched to relax his muscles. Serina followed his example. After they had eaten she touched the stud that closed the Orb. Soon they were fast asleep.

They woke early when the first light of dawn lit the cliff and lake with a faint golden tint. Unlike the sluggish river they had walked beside the day before, this section of the river Or was a clear stream rushing over rocks. They saw a group of bacals drinking at the edge of the lake. Suddenly startled, the bacals bounded away, waving their tails like small flags. Serina laughed and stood up and ran into the lake.

"What are you doing?" Talek shouted as he raced after her.

"I'm washing my clothes to get the stink of that vile river out of them," she called back, ducking herself until her head was under water.

He followed her example. For nearly an hour they played in the water. When they returned to shore, their clothing bundled in sopping heaps, they spread the clothes out on bushes to dry and dressed in fresh tunics.

They ate a huge breakfast of freshly caught fish, grilled over a crackling fire. They finished the meal with toasted ota shoots that Serina dug while Talek fished. Content and full, Serina leaned back against a grassy bank and watched while Talek scoured their cups and plates in the water at the edge of the lake.

Her eyes lazily scanned the surrounding mountains. Suddenly she sat up and reached for her purse. Looking toward Mount Vald, she glanced back at the second in the series of triangles. Once again the shapes of the mountains had shifted.

Now the central mountain appeared to have two peaks and the mountains near its base had seemingly grown taller as they approached them. There was one particular intersection that seemed to have significance because it was doubled in thickness.

"Talek, I think I have found the pass we need to take to get to the right side of Mount Vald," she called to her husband. He put the dishes aside and came over to kneel next to her as she pointed out the patterns she had discovered.

"We should reach that pass by the end of this day if we start out now. Or, we could spend the day here and leave early tomorrow," he suggested. She was tempted to accept the offer of another day of rest. Then she shook her head.

"It is clear weather today, but this is the season for storms. Tomorrow it might be more difficult to find our way," she decided.

Talek led the way out of the narrow valley. It was difficult climbing the cliff but there was a path, if one read the signs. At each crossroad or fork a triangle of some kind would appear. Sometimes it was a triangular notch in a large boulder, sometimes an oddly shaped branch of a tree that had been pruned and formed to the correct shape.

It was nearly noon when they reached the top of the steep incline. Looking back, Serina gasped at the view. Far below the Or wound its way toward the Janaka road.

"This trail would have been a challenge to climb in fog or rain," she said.

Talek nodded. "We were wise to push ahead. There is a mist coming up the valley now. We will stay ahead of it if we keep up our pace."

After a quick meal of roasted roots, they hurried on. They kept a sharp lookout for blazes on trees or marks on rocks that might mark the trail. Sometimes it was a difficult decision. The light had begun to dim when they came to the pass marked by the second series of triangles.

Much to their relief, the last rays of the sun revealed that the view through the pass was depicted in the third series on the staff and purse.

"There is a cave under that ledge on the mountain ahead," Talek pointed out. "We will have to climb to reach it, but the overhang will protect us if it rains tonight,"

Serina slumped and looked around. "Look, over here is a pleasant little dell. We could sleep here tonight and not be bothered with a climb."

She walked over to the small patch of grass and flowers and sat down, her muscles aching from the forced march. Talek gave in when he saw the pleading look in her eyes. He had slung his pack onto the ground and was opening it to remove their blankets when the distant roll of thunder sounded almost beyond their hearing.

Serina stood. "You were right. We'll climb to the ledge. I suddenly realized that this little hollow is so level and sandy because it holds water after a rain. If we sleep here tonight we will wake up soggy." She pulled her last reserves of energy up from hidden resources and followed Talek up the face of the rock to the ledge.

Great drops of rain were spattering the ground by the time they had prepared their camp under the shelter. Talek built a fire and they watched the storm increase in violence until the entire world outside of their niche in the rock seemed to glow with the eerie blue light of almost continuous bolts of lightning.

They finally slept when the fury of the storm settled into a monotonous pounding of rain. The sky was leaden when they woke and the rain continued in gusts. Peering out from their shelter, Talek saw that the storm had flooded the narrow floor of the pass to the depth of several feet.

"It looks as if we will have a day of rest whether we want it or not," he said when he returned to build up the fire with a few more pieces of the broken trees that littered the ledge. Serina made a face and pulled out the bada roots.

"I guess it was best that we continued on instead of staying by the lake. It is probably overflowing by now, and the cliff would have been impossible to climb. At least we are dry and warm and have something to eat."

"And we are together," Talek reminded her. "Only a few days ago you narrowly missed marrying my brother."

"What is Inrek like?" Serina asked.

Talek began to tell her about his childhood. "I was always a little in awe of Inrek. He is impulsive and eager to experience everything. As soon as I learned to read I would hide myself away with a book, but he usually found me before very long. It became a contest between us."

Serina built up a picture of Inrek as somewhat reckless and impulsive, yet easily bored. It fit with what she knew of his actions regarding the betrothal and marriage. If she had shared the adventures of the past few days with such a man, she would have turned around and returned to Zedekla or tipped him into the Or. She said nothing to Talek about her feelings since he evidently had a real affection for his brother.

In turn, she told him about her childhood. The long hours passed away easily because they were filled with the fascinating pastime of two people getting to know each other better. At nightfall the sky burned with glorious color.

"It will probably be a clear day tomorrow," Talek said with a smile as they cuddled together against the chill.

In the morning they could see that only a few puddles remained on the narrow floor of the pass, but the hollow that Serina had first selected for their camp had become a small pond. They took it as a good omen that they had chosen to camp high and dry.

After climbing down from the ledge they continued up the pass, sliding on small patches of mud now and then, but generally the rocky soil had absorbed the rain.

The path led them eastward and a little north. Now they left the hills and for several days they traveled southward over the rich lands of the upper Com valley. The Mareklan track avoided towns and farms, but the land was rich and there was plenty for them to gather and eat.

They reached the end of the valley on the sixth day after their flight from Zedekla. The sun neared the zenith and their stomachs warned them it was time to stop for lunch. They made another meal of trout from a stream that tumbled nearby and continued on to the notch that opened on a high plateau. Across the wide plain they saw the base of Mount Vald which seemed to leap skyward in a mighty thrust of stone.

"We should reach the base of the mountain by nightfall," Serina estimated.

"No," Talek said, "The distance is deceptive. It will take us at least two days to cross this plateau. Even here we should be able to forage for our food. We can save our journey supplies for a future emergency."

"You just don't want any more roasted bada roots," she teased him. " Very well, you hunt and I'll gather berries. I can tell you, this was not the life I expected when I married a prince." Serina's brows were drawn into a frown, but the lilt in her voice belied her words. Talek began to laugh and she hit his chest lightly with her fists in mock fierceness. "Stop that, you're going to scare away all the game."

The following two days were the easiest of their journey. Only two patterns of triangles remained in the series. As the afternoon waned on the first day they spent on the plateau, Serina decided they had gone too far south. They angled east and by nightfall the patterns made by Vald and the mountains behind it matched the next to last pattern. Only one pattern remained in the series and it was the most difficult to decipher. In the other patterns Vald had always been represented by the largest form. In the last pattern there was no large form that resembled a mountain.

"Perhaps it was made upside down to confuse those who found the secret of the patterns and came this far," Talek guessed, turning the staff and trying to make sense of the pattern in reverse.

"No, I think it represents the face of the mountain. See these lines on the edge that would meet if they were extended upward twice the height of the pattern."

Serina and Talek studied the face of the mountain. It seemed to present a blank front. Then the setting sun threw the shadow of another mountain on the face of Mount Vald and the pattern became clear. It was a little out of register and the difference worried Talek.

"Maybe we have wandered away from the right path again."

"No, I think it is because of the changing seasons. It would be logical for the shadow of the mountain to move a little to the north each day as winter comes. If the pattern represents the way the mountain looked at Longest Day when the year begins, we are almost exactly in line," Serina pointed out the details of the face of the mountain that the shadow had revealed.

Talek smiled and hugged her. "I couldn't have made this trek without you. You found the secret of the amethyst on the ball and you read the patterns better than I can."

"But if it were up to me, we would either be drowned by the side of the lake or swimming in my chosen camp spot when we came through the pass," Serina admitted. "We could not have made it without each other. What a tale we have to tell our children."

Chapter 14 Orphans

The next evening they reached the base of Mount Vald, but there seemed to be no further clue to the location of Marekla. Great cliffs stretched away on either side of them. They sat up late studying the ball and the patterns on staff and purse. Finally, frustrated in their attempt to penetrate the final mystery of Mount Vald, they made camp and slept.

When morning came they rose and began to dress. Talek bent over to make a fire for their breakfast, when Serina gave a cry. He looked up and saw that their camp had been silently surrounded by a ring of Mareklan men, each carrying a staff. Three men lowered the ends of their staffs to the earth.

"I am Thedonen," Thedonen announced in tones that indicated the formality of the meeting.

"I am Makon," another man said. Though his words were formal, his eyes lingered on Serina with a yearning look.

"I am Geran," the third man said.

Twelve other men carried their staffs at the ready, their arms flexed and ready for attack.

"Why have you come here," Geran demanded.

"Sergon sent us with gifts for Makon," Talek replied. "I bring Serina, daughter of Makon. She is now my wife,"

"How did you find your way?" Geran scowled. His formality had turned to a surly insolence that warned of his enmity.

"We were given the keys of finding Marekla by Sergon when he set us on this journey," Talek replied, sensing that it would be unwise to reveal the exact means they had used.

"Only those of Marekla may enter the city," Geran said. "You have brought yourself within the limits of our law. I could tell these men to take your lives."

"We might have turned away without finding you if you had not come to confront us," Serina replied in affront. "I had expected better of my people than to be treated as I was by Orquians."

Her taunt hit home and Geran's face grew red with anger. He turned to the other men and they gathered to confer. It was not a noisy argument, but there was a sense of dissension among them. Finally they returned and surrounded Talek and Serina again.

"We have voted and it has been decided that you may enter the city," Geran said. "What is your decision?"

"I came to meet my father," Serina said, turning to Makon and extending her hand. "Are you the one?"

Geran frowned at Makon, but the ties of blood and memory were stronger than the threat of Geran's displeasure. Makon stepped forward and took Serina's hand in his own.

"I am your father. For years we thought you had perished with Thalon. Will you enter Marekla with us?"

Serina gazed up at the mountain above. From her youth she had heard references to the fabulous hidden city of Marekla. Some said that jewels paved the streets and there was no need to labor or go hungry. She discounted the fables, but this was the home of her ancestors as much as Timora. For a moment she hesitated.

Serina looked around her at the men who guarded them. She had met Thedonen in Timora and he had treated her as a friend. Makon's eyes assured her that he thought of her as a beloved daughter and for a moment she was tempted to ask Talek to join with her and enter the mysterious city that was her birthright. Then she noticed the smirk on the blunt, hard face of Geran.

"I would like to see the city, but I cannot stay there. I have married a prince of Zedekla and my loyalty lies with him."

"Talek is a Son of Irilik, he would be welcome in Marekla," Makon explained.

"The law decrees that no woman may leave the city," Geran insisted. "Choose now. Enter Marekla with us or leave here and never return."

"May we at least take time to talk to my father," Serina said with a voice that betrayed her anguish. It seemed incredible that they should have come so far and endured such dangers only to be turned away.

"Makon and Thedonen will lead you away from this place for two day's journey as soon as you are prepared to go," Geran said. "First you must yield up the staffs you carry."

"My staff is Tharek Oc Baroka. I cannot yield it up to any but my heir," Talek stated .

"The staff I carry does not belong to me," Serina said. "It was given as a birthright to Talek from his grandmother, Saint Neril."

Geran turned his head aside to spit at the mention of Neril. "That staff was taken illegally from Marekla. It cannot be possessed by a blasphemer who supports the claims of the Forgery."

"I will return the staff, but only to Makon," Talek said. Geran seemed to swell with anger but Talek would not be bullied. He made the slightest gesture with his own staff and Geran widened his eyes in fear of the fabled sword staff of Zedekla's kings.

"It is a fitting compromise Geran," Thedonen counseled the older man. "You have no rightful claim to this artifact. Let it remain in the custody of Serina's father,"

"I will let the decision rest with the council," Geran said, turning his glowering gaze on the other men who surrounded them. Makon stood up to him.

"Has it come to this? The staff is the property of the heirs of the woman whose name you will not speak. If you hate her so much, how can you bear to touch the staff that was hers by right of gift and inheritance?"

"Hear the will of the council," Geran roared, turning his back on Makon and gesturing to the other men. "All who favor the return of this staff to the custody of the head of the council, so signal."

A few of the staffs rose wavering into the air. But Geran had for once overestimated his influence with the council of Marekla. Perhaps it was the memory of other injustices perpetrated at the behest of the bully. Perhaps it was the stalwart figure of the young woman who symbolized all that was now forbidden in Marekla.

"All who favor that the staff should be given to Makon, father of Serina, so signal," Thedonen said. Now the results of the voting were unanimous except for Geran. When he realized that for once the vote had gone against him, Geran scowled fiercely around at the circle of men, but they met him with stolid stares.

He swung around, his head low and so much like a corum bull that Serina felt a thrill of fear when he took a step toward her with his staff raised. Talek moved in front of her with Thedonen and Makon on either hand.

Geran hesitated and lowered his staff. "Go with these two traitors. If you give Makon the staff instead of handing it to me, you will find that Zedekla is banned from Marekla's merchants for seven years."

"Why should we cut off one of our main sources of profit because you failed to win the vote?" a querulous voice demanded from behind Geran. He swung back toward the other Mareklans and stared at their faces.

"Who dares question my dictates?" he snarled.

The other men were quelled by his surly demand. The members of the council averted their eyes from his threatening glare and the question was not repeated.

"I will give the staff to Makon when we are well away away from here," Talek said.

Serina turned and began to gather up the remnants of their camp, she kicked the ashes of their campfire aside, her hurried motions betrayed her anger and frustration. Ignoring the men, she shouldered her pack and started off across the plateau in the general direction of the pass through which they had entered the high plain.

Talek picked up his pack and followed with Thedonen and Makon, wondering when she would relax enough to realize that she had no real idea of where to go.

"She has the temperament of her mother, sweet and compliant up to a point, and after that, a force to be reckoned with," Makon said regretfully.

"It is just as well she is capable of such behavior," Talek answered. "When she was captured by the priests of Orqu, her fiery temper delayed the capture long enough for me to rescue her."

The men followed Serina for nearly an hour until her steps slowed and Talek walked a little more quickly to catch up with her. "I think you have taken us a little off course, but if you wanted to, you could use your pattern key," he whispered.

"You carry the staff," she reminded him, but he reached across to touch the belt pouch where she carried the little purse she had made. She almost stopped in her tracks as she caught his meaning and she began to smile.

"We could find our way here any time, couldn't we." she said. He handed her the staff of Neril and nodded.

"Yes, but I doubt we will ever return to Mount Vald. You met Makon, and we will give him both the Orb of Irilik and the staff of Neril when it is time to bid our guides goodbye."

"I will never see the city of Marekla," she muttered.

"I understand your frustration, but if you had gone into the city, you would never come out again. Is that a price you are willing to pay?"

"No, of course not. You promised to show me the cities of Tedaka and Janaka. After all, I married a prince and I will be a queen someday if I survive my honeymoon," Serina's banter proved that her angry mood had changed. When the others caught up with them they found her laughing. Serina let Thedonen take the lead and she began to walk beside her father.

At first they walked with a heavy silence between them. Finally Serina spoke. "Did you remarry when you knew Thalon would not return?"

"Geran had a daughter he wanted me to wed," Makon said. "I was forbidden to marry anyone but her. She is still without a husband."

"It seems absurd that you were not given a choice! Why is Geran able to tell others who to marry and what to do?" She asked. "He seems nothing more than a bully. Why do other Mareklans let him have his way?"

"Geran has never been granted the rank of trek leader or trainer of initiates. He has not been on a trek for many years. Most men think that is punishment enough," Makon explained.

"Then why has he gained so much power with the council?" she asked.

"He would be nothing more than an unpleasant bore without his wife, Belil. With her mother and sisters she has bullied and intimidated the women of the council to vote for Geran's policies. They are a numerous family and found husbands easily when they were young. Although you wouldn't know it from the matrons, the girls were quite attractive. It is only with marriage that men discover what termagants they are. Belil was married to the father of N-neril." He seemed almost to choke on the name of the saint.

"Neragon is the one who sent the tokens to Talek and his brother," she said.

Makon nodded. "When he died a few years ago Belil claimed all his property on the grounds that he had no living kin within the vale. She justified the theft on the basis of her prior relationship with Neragon."

"Did they have children together?" Serina asked.

He shook his head. "When Neragon returned from the trek without his daughter, Belil divorced him and married Geran. Orqu himself could not arrange a more demonic pairing."

"You make me glad I did not decide to enter Marekla," Serina said with a shiver of repulsion.

Makon walked in silence for a few minutes as they made their way through the rocky bed of an old, dead river. She could not remember passing such a barrier on their way to Mount Vald and she looked around. They were no longer bearing to the north, but were headed almost directly toward the line of their shadows on the ground at their feet.

"If we keep up this line of travel we will come out near Talka," Neril observed.

"This is the most direct route to Zedekla," Thedonen explained. "Since you will no longer have the staff, nor any reason to return, I doubt it matters if you know the quickest route to reach Mount Vald."

"Even if we tried to return, I doubt that Geran and his toadies would ever let us enter the city," Talek said.

"In some ways I am surprised that you even tried," Makon replied.

"We were under orders from Sergon to return the tokens Neragon gave to Thalon," Talek told him.

"Sergon sent you with the staff?" Makon raised his eyes to the staff that Serina carried. "You spoke of tokens. What else did the High Priest ask you to bring?"

"We will tell you when we part," Talek said.

When they camped that night Makon and Thedonen made their own campfire at a distance. Talek and Serina savored their privacy. As they lay together looking at the swathe of stars that spangled the sky, Serina turned to Talek. "Do you think Makon might be forced to yield up the Orb and staff to Geran?"

"I believe your father is stalwart man. He held out against marrying Geran's daughter all these years. In any case, Geran does not know about the Orb and I doubt that Thalon will reveal that he possesses it. Perhaps he will discover that the Orb once again contains the Stone of Truth, but that would only ensure his resistance to the bully. It is not for us to question what Sergon asked of us."

"He said that one day Makon would pass the tokens on to a descendant of Tharek. It seems evident that it will be one of our children," she mused.

He chuckled. "Sergon is old enough to look beyond a generation. I believe that he will become a Seer when his predecessors no longer hold the office. Perhaps he speaks of our grandchild, but don't forget, I have many cousins."

Serina gazed up at the sky and for the first time in her life she contemplated what it might mean to live so long that generations became insignificant. Sergon was her great grandfather, yet he seemed as active and inquisitive as any youth. Only his white hair and the net of wrinkles that etched laugh lines near his mouth and eyes betrayed his age.

She thought of Sergon's wife Kemila who was Talek's great grandmother. Her beauty seemed ageless. Serina touched her own smooth face and felt the high cheekbone beneath her skin, the flaring curve of her nostrils. It was only now that she finally realized the truth of her kinship with the Mareklans.

It was one thing to be told a story of her birth, quite another to understand the legacy of being a descendant of Irilik and Tarsha who were as young as almost a thousand years ago when they led their people in exodus from the far away land of Kishdu. Talek pulled her close and she left behind the thoughts that had stretched her mind to distances and years almost beyond her comprehension.

In early afternoon the following day, they began to travel through forested hills that led downward from the high plateau around Mount Vald. They made camp well before sunset near a frothing river where Thedonen andTalek began to catch fish while Makon and Serina harvested wild nuka fruit from trees growing along the banks.

"This is the last place we can cross the Opeta River before it plunges into the rapids that only end in the falls near Rubble Ford," Makon said. "We always rest and renew our provisions before attempting the crossing."

The early hours of the evening were spent salting down the fish and pressing juice from the ripe nukas. Serina was impressed with the skill of Talek who kept up with the other men in all their tasks. "You seem familiar with a variety of unexpected chores," she said when she found him mending a rent in his tunic.

"I was a member of the elite guard for two years," he explained. "My father insisted that Inrek and I learn to take care of ourselves in the field."

After eating a feast of broiled fish, roasted bread berries and ripe nuka fruit, they parted to their individual coverts of bushes. Talek and Serina soon fell asleep, but when she woke at the sound of a night bird calling, she saw the silhouette of one of the Mareklans standing watch. From this distance she could not determine if it was Makon or Thedonen. Even though she knew Makon was her father, he seemed more like a cousin of some kind. He was a kindly, sometimes witty companion she could respect, but when she thought of the word Father, she thought of Bernin.

The Opeta river was not as wide as the Com but the crossing was more difficult than Serina expected. Makon crossed first with a line of twisted leather root fibers strung out behind him. It was tied firmly around his waist, and it was well it was. Halfway across the river his foot slipped on the mossy surface of a rock and he was carried downstream on the raging current until he stopped himself with the help of the line which Thedonen had secured around a large boulder.

Instead of trying to regain his place on the rocks, Makon found his footing on the bed of the river and struggled waist-deep to the opposite bank where he waded ashore. When he had climbed well above the river, he secured the end of the line to a sturdy young tree. Their packs and staffs were attached to strips of twisted leather root looped over the line and finally a sling was provided for Serina. She had seen how the current had upset Makon and did not protest at being treated almost as a piece of baggage.

With a Mareklan on either bank, Talek waded into the river with one hand on the line and the other hand on Serina's sling, urging it along the line as he made his way toward the other side of the river. She tried to keep the sling from swinging and clung to it with a prayer on her lips when they passed the frothing cauldron where Makon had lost his footing.

When they were near the shore, Makon waded out and helped Talek move the sling along until Serina hung over dry ground. She let herself down and hugged both of the men in gratitude.

With everything but himself now safely on the far side of the river, Thedonen untied the line from the boulder where he had tethered it and used it to pull himself across the river. It seemed he would avoid the ducking Makon had received, but just as he reached the center of the river a young tree, uprooted from the forests above the ford, swirled toward him on the current.

With a leap he landed on a rock a man's length closer to the end of his struggle. The tree swept past him but a jagged root reached out to rip the shoulder of his tunic. He fell from his perch on the rock and tumbled head over heels to the end of the line.

Talek helped Makon pull him ashore. "You can see why we don't often use this route," Thedonen said with a grin when he finally stood on the bank dripping wet.

Serina nodded, her eyes wide at the risk they had taken. "I thought the route we took getting to Mount Vald was difficult. The secret hidden in Mount Vald is safe if all your paths are so hazardous."

"The founders of Marekla were very clever when they sought out the place for our home," he acknowledged. "I wonder if they ever thought that we could do as much damage to ourselves as any stranger."

Makon held his hand out flat. "Be careful what you say Thedonen. I am your friend and share your sentiments, but Geran's ears are keen."

Serina stared at the man she knew as father of her body. "You could not even speak Neril's name without stuttering, and even here where the four of us are allies, you seem to fear Geran's disapproval. A bully cannot succeed without the compliance of his victims."

Makon looked away, then he turned back to Thedonen. "My daughter speaks the truth. I have let the poison of Geran seep into my soul. Do you think it is too late for us to restore the integrity of Marekla?"

Thedonen shook his head. "I have waited a long time for someone else to speak up against Geran. Now that there are two of us, we can find others who have grown tired of his tyranny."

"Danonen does not approve of Geran," Makon said.

"Danonen is the high priest of the Radiance," Thedonen reminded his friend. "He could hardly approve of seeing Marekla ruled by the worst of its men and women. Perhaps he knows of others who would join us."

After the four of them had resumed their packs and staffs, the two Mareklans moved ahead, their discussions for the future of Marekla finally free to be more than veiled complaints against the status quo.

"I think Sergon must have seen the affect of our visit to Mount Vald," Serina said. "It appears that until they were sent to take us away from Marekla, neither man dared to speak out openly."

"There are usually at least eight men in a Mareklan caravan," Talek explained. "If only one of them is a willing tool of Geran, the others must be careful of their words."

The sky began to darken with threatening clouds as they came across the indications of a trail. "We have no tent," Makon said. "Usually we avoid villages, but there is no reason to soak ourselves if we can rent the use of a stable."

"Left or right?" Thedonen asked.

Makon shook his head. "We always cross this trail and go straight on to the plains. The closest village could be either way."

Serina studied the verges of the pebbled track. "There are fresh corum hoof marks headed to the left coming from the right. At this time of day it would mean that the herd was headed out to pasture. We should go right."

The Mareklans bowed to her superior knowledge as a farmer's daughter and turned north. Just as rain began to spatter around them, they saw the roofs of a village rise above the low foliage ahead of them. It seemed too small to provide the comforts of an inn, but an air of homely prosperity marked the tidy painted facades of most of the houses.

The rain came on fast and they had no time to be choosy about their lodging. Talek pounded on the door of the first house they came to, one of the smallest in the village with weathered paint and a shabby gate.

A young boy opened the door and stared at them. From behind him they heard a thready cry of an infant. "Did you come to help my mother?" the child asked.

"We came to seek shelter from the rain," Talek answered. "What ails your mother?"

The child could only shake his head. Serina pushed past the men and put her hand on the boy's narrow shoulder. She could feel his bones beneath the threadbare tunic. There was real poverty in this house. "Show me where your mother is."

The child turned and led her to a half wall dividing the small room. Thedonen and Makon followed Talek into the house and closed the door against the rising storm.

The moans of a woman and the infant's feeble whimper were the only means Serina had to guide her to the cot that hung against the wall.

The tiny house was cold and there was no lamp. Without taking thought for the consequences, Serina reached into her pouch and removed the Orb. She had grown familiar with the tiny stud that opened the lattice work and let the light shine out.

The boy and the Mareklans in the room behind her gasped with surprise at the brilliant glow. The scrawny infant on the bed stopped whimpering and gazed with wonder, but the woman took no notice of the light. Her skin was waxen with some disease that had stripped her of her strength, but there were smears of paint on her lips and eyes.

"Can you nurse your child?" Serina asked.

The woman stared upward at Serina but it seemed evident she saw only a vague silhouette. Her lips began to quiver. "I cannot. If I do, I will have no strength for myself," she whined.

"Is there a suckle pouch in the house," Serina asked as she lifted the infant and cuddled him to her chest.

"There's no milk. Bagen says he won't waste food on a child he didn't make." the woman's voice sounded more querulous than sad.

Serina left the woman and took the infant and the child into the other part of the room. She looked around and saw a leather suckle pouch crumpled on the edge of a shelf. "Please start a fire and warm some broth for the baby," she instructed Talek.

Makon gazed at the woman who lay on the cot. Serina, turned to hand the suckle pouch to Talek to be boiled, and noticed her father's fixed stare. "Lissa?" he whispered in a voice so filled with loss and pain that Serina felt her own heart melt with pity.

Then the import of his words sunk into her mind and she felt as if her world rocked on its base. Could this raddled slattern be the mother who had abandoned her? In Makon she had discovered a friend. If this was Lissa, how had she fallen so low?

Within an hour the house was warm with the fire Talek built and Serina offered broth made from the sweetmeat from the palace to the baby. The infant gave every evidence of having the strength to survive its poor beginning. After drinking his fill of the nourishing broth the boy played with an improvised toy provided by Thedonen.

In the other part of the room Makon questioned the woman. He kept his voice low to avoid being overheard, but the tone rang with sorrow. Lissa seemed to recognize him and there was something in her voice that took evil delight in telling him what had happened to her because he had left her in Timora and never returned. Serina caught enough of what she said to understand the tragedy that had taken place.

Lissa had followed Perilla from Timora with every expectation of getting her way with Makon eventually. They had taken refuge in Zedekla but women of like mind had kept them informed of events in Timora. For months Lissa had waited for word that Makon had returned with her child, her heart hardening against him as the time passed. Finally, in revenge for his failure to return, she had turned away from Perilla's stringent discipline and followed a life of easy pleasure in Zedekla.

"I was rich for a while," she bragged. "Then I had a run of misfortune. The jailer of Jama sold me to the servant sellers. It has never been easy since then."

"How did you come to this village?" Makon asked.

"I was sold to Bagen's wife as a helper while she gave birth," she answered.

"Where is his wife?" Makon asked.

She tightened her lips and turned away, unwilling to answer further questions. Makon bowed his head and returned to the others who were nurturing the children. "There is no trace of the girl I married in this woman. I may be judging her too harshly. She is ill."

"Do you know what lights this room?" Serina asked, pointing to the glowing Orb which she had placed on a high shelf.

Lost in his sorrow, Makon had forgotten his first amazement at the light that had sprung from her hand. Now he gazed up at the Orb. "I understood that the Stone of Truth was lost," he murmured.

"Somehow it has been restored to the Orb," Serina said. "It will be left with you when we part. It cannot be seen by those whose hearts are given over to the Liar. Lissa is blind to it."

"When will your father be home?" Thedonen asked the boy.

The boy looked at him uncomprehending. Makon leaned close. "Is Bagen your father?"

"Bagen bought me with my mother," the boy said. "I take care of the house and feed his animals."

"What is your name?"

"Brat, or fool," the boy stated with stark simplicity.

"When will Bagen be home?" Makon asked to cover his chagrin.

"Bagen will come with the snows," the boy replied warily. His hand plucked at the sleeve of his tunic and Makon's eyes widened at the scar on the child's wrist. It was an old scar, but only a few things could make such a mark.

"Did he burn you?" Makon asked the boy.

The child nodded. "I spilled the grain."

It was another simple statement that revealed a terrible oppression with its matter-of-fact tone. No woman of feeling could abide such treatment of her child. Serina's assessment of the woman who had been her mother hardened. There could be nothing of virtue left in Lissa.

Serina urged Lissa to eat some of the broth but she would not take anything to eat. Thinking the darkness covered her actions, she reached into a bag near her pillow and removed a docil root. Furtively but under the aghast eyes of the others, she drew a flagon of wine from under her bedding.

Makon reached out to prevent her from the deadly folly of mixing wine and docil root. Thedonen stayed his hand. "Her children starve and she spends her money for ugly drugs. She is beyond the pall of human thought. We must leave her to her folly."

The storm raged through the night, but by the time the night began to gray into the first signs of dawn, the nourishing broth had brought color to the infant's cheeks and strength to his limbs. It seemed that an adult who cared to satisfy his hunger would be all he needed to live and thrive.

A healthy man would have been stunned by the combination of docil root and wine his mother seemed to crave. Lissa had already ruined her health with the combination. When Serina checked on her she found her staring sightlessly up at the ceiling.

"Is she dead?" the little boy asked as he stared at the hollow human who was all he knew of a parent.

Makon shook his head. "We must leave her for others to care for," he told the child. "You must come with us and help us take care of your little brother."

The child looked toward the corner where Lissa lay. "Bagen will beat me if she dies," he stated with a worried frown.

"Bagen will not find you," Talek promised. "We are taking you and the baby far away."

Thedonen bent over Lissa and looked for a sign of life. She had no discernible pulse and her chest lay utterly still. He looked up and shook his head. "I cannot determine for certain that she is gone. Otherwise, we should bury her before we leave."

"It is still too early for the villagers to see us leave," Makon reminded him. "If we leave now, Bagen will have no idea of what happened to the boy. If we linger to take care of Lissa, I have no doubt we will have to answer for theft of a servant."

"This village is within the bounds of my father's law," Talek said. "No servant may be sold as a child. Only those who voluntarily choose to pay their adult debts can sell themselves."

"While we argue, the chance of leaving unobserved is passing," Thedonen said. "Would you want to subject this child to detention until Bagen's claims are dismissed?"

While the men argued, Serina gathered up the pathetic remnants of rags that passed as clothing for the children and bound them into a tiny pack that the boy could carry. She gave the child the pack, gathered up her own pack and bound the baby to her breast under her cloak . Picking up her staff, she took the Orb from the shelf and closed it before putting it in her pocket.

"If any of you care to join us, we are leaving," she said as she opened the door.

While she peered out to make certain that no one saw them, the men scrambled for their own packs and staffs. The small caravan set forth but they kept away from the path that would leave the marks of their passage as a witness to the villagers.

Cutting across the meadows where a stolid corum watched them pass, they rejoined the trail that only a Mareklan could follow. Makon kept up a conversation with the child. The boy was older than he looked, and wiser even than his years. He never gave any indication that he tired from the pace, but Serina called a halt after a couple of hours on the trail. While she fed the baby with the suckle bag and made a cheese filled matla for the boy to eat, the men discussed their new responsibility.

"We have saved two children from a desperate situation," Thedonen said. "Now what do we do?"

"I could take them to Marekla," Makon volunteered.

"Who would care for them when you go on trek," Thedonen challenged. "Unless you are finally willing to marry Geran's daughter."

Makon shook his head. "I doubt they would be better treated by Ganil than they were by Lissa. They would not be ignored and left untended. They would be nagged and beaten. It would be a choice between neglect and abuse."

Serina looked at Talek and spoke up. "These are my brothers. I would have them receive the same care I received as a child. I recognize these mountains. When I was young my father would bring me up here to graze our corums on summer pasture. Talka is not more than a day's march from here."

"Do you think Fleya and Bernin would be back from the wedding by now?" he asked, surprised.

"I am almost certain they will be," she assured him. "The ways of the city would soon stifle them. The corums will soon be calving and they will want to be there to make sure each orphan is attuned to a new mother."

"It has been a long time since a Mareklan took the trail along the cliff," Makon mused. "Will you show me where my father is buried?"

It was nearly nightfall the following day when they made their way down the trail that Bernin had used to take his herd to the upland meadows. A glow in the window of the cottage assured them that Fleya and Bernin had returned to their home.

Talek carried the little boy who had never been given a name. Serina paused to gentle the baby who had begun to cry. The door of the cottage flew open and Bernin peered into the dusk.

"What do you hear?" Fleya asked behind him, forcing her way past his bony hips and staring at the four people who were coming toward the house.

The baby gave another tiny whimper and the sound aroused Fleya to action. She shot past Bernin with a speed that astonished the Mareklans.

The light from the cottage shown on the faces of the visitors and Fleya gave a glad cry. "Can this be? We thought you were in seclusion in the nuptial house. There were rumors that the priests of Orqu had burned it down, but the king assured us you were safe."

"As you can see," Serina said. "But we need to rest and obtain help for these orphans we found."

"Orphans?" Fleya gasped, her voice a mixture of question and hope that told Serina she had made the right decision when she decided to visit her old home.

Bernin opened the door and watched with wonder as the caravan entered his home. As soon as Serina revealed the tiny face of the infant, Fleya reached out her arms and touched the downy cheek.

Bernin reached for the little boy in Talek's arms. "I will take this one. What is his name?"

"Sergik. His name is Sergik," Talek answered. Serina smiled and nodded.

Makon nodded his agreement to the name. There was undeniably something of Sergon in this child who had survived such deprivation and still retained the ability to see the Light.

It was the dinner hour and there was plenty for everyone. Little Sergik betrayed an amazing appetite. The baby visibly improved by the hour as his tiny cheeks filled out. By the time the Mareklans were shown to a loft and Talek and Serina settled into her old bedroom, there could be no question that in every way except a formal statement, Bernin and Fleya had adopted the two little boys.

Shortly after breakfast the next morning Thedonen and Makon made ready to return to Marekla. "We will see if there is any mention of Lissa when we are near the village," they told Talek and Serina as they walked with them toward the corner of the field where Thalon had been buried.

They were surprised to see a stone marker erected on the mound. "Thalon Grandfather of Queen Serina of Zedekla" was engraved in a familiar hand. At last Bernin had acknowledged the man who had died to save his grandchild.

Serina handed the staff of Neril and the Orb of Irilik to Makon. "Sergon said that in time you will pass these on to descendant of Neril in Marekla."

"A descendant of Neril in Marekla?" Makon said. "I can only wonder when that time will come to pass."

Chapter 15 The Captive

Thedonen drew Talek aside to speak to him and Makon took Serina in his arms and gave her a tentative fatherly embrace. "I am sorry that you had to see what became of Lissa."

"I am sorry for what she has become, but we have rescued my brothers and brought them to a home that will give them everything they need to grow and thrive. That gives me such joy that it eases the other pain."

"I will visit the village again tonight and try to take her with us. Her life has been terrible, but perhaps we can begin again. She may be nothing but the village shant, but the circumstances were extreme, and we are still married. I swore an oath before the Radiance to protect her."

"I hope she doesn't break your heart," Serina murmured. Was it evil of her to hope the woman in the hut had died. She shook her head and banished the thought. Let the Radiance decide what could be salvaged from that ruined life. There still might be a miracle like the one that had made her Talek's bride and led her to meet the family of her birth.

Makon looked from Thalon's grave to the house where Bernin patiently showed Sergik how to milk the corum cow so that his baby brother could have milk. He chuckled when the stream of milk shot past the bucket and into Sergik's face. The tiny child and the gentle giant laughed together, making a perfect scene of domestic felicity.

"Bernin always yearned for a son, now he is blessed with two," Serina said.

"Thank you for bringing me here and letting me see the kind of people who raised you," Makon replied. "Now that I know where you are, I will join any trek that visits Zedekla."

"Geran said there would be a ban on trading with Zedekla for seven years," she reminded him.

He gave a grim, determined smile. "He made a grave error when he pronounced that ban. The men have let him bully them in domestic matters concerning the vale because many of their wives are swayed by his wife and mother, but he has no authority over the choice of trade routes. If he tries to enforce his decision, I foresee the end of his power in the council."

Thedonen walked toward them and overheard his words. "You are right, Makon. I think Geran has overestimated his power because we let him have his way in many things that seemed unimportant to the men as long as it kept Belil and her cronies quiet. We will stand together against him. I predict that the vote against him over giving you the staff of Saint Neril will begin the change. Come, we must set our plans in motion."

Talek and Serina watched as the Mareklans walked away and seemed to fade into the foliage. Their patterned capes may serve as an arcane map, but they also provided excellent camouflage. Makon turned one last time to wave goodbye before they disappeared between the trees.

"Makon is a good man," Talek observed. "You are fortunate in your fathers and Fleya. Not many people can claim three such worthy parents."

They walked back to the cottage and found Sergik proudly carrying a bucket of milk toward the house. He had spilled nearly as much on his ragged little buskins and legs as in the bucket, but Bernin had never scolded him when he overshot the bucket. Instead, he had patiently corrected the grip of his hands and let him try again.

As soon as the child had delivered the milk to a smiling Fleya, she led him into the bathing room and showed him a neat pile of clean clothing. Serina recognized a tunic she had worn to help Bernin with the herd the previous year. It had been altered for the child

"I will show him how to get clean," Talek volunteered. "Sergik is old enough to want his privacy from women when he bathes.'

The baby cooed in a crib slung from the ceiling. Every time he waved his tiny hand the motion set the crib swaying. Tiny bells tied to the crib rang with the motion. He reached up both hands and waved them. Fleya responded with a gurgling laugh. "Oh he's a clever one. I can see he'll be a handful when he's old enough to crawl. It's a good thing he has a brother to help us keep track of him."

"Then you are willing to take on these orphans?" Serina asked.

"You could not have given me a better gift, my dear. Bernin and I were wondering how we could do without you," she admitted. "Do you know who their parents were?"

Serina nodded. "I know who their mother is. She is the same woman who gave birth to me. We found her in desperate circumstances. There is no way of knowing who their fathers are."

The telltale plural stopped Fleya from asking further questions. "Your little brothers! I thought they had a certain resemblance to you. You say the little boy is named Sergik, what is the baby's name?"

"I will let you and Bernin make that choice," Serina decided.

The door to the bathing room opened and Talek and Sergik emerged. They both wore impish smiles. Serina decided not to ask how it was that the boy was clean and dry, but Talek's tunic dripped around the edges.

They were tempted to linger in the cottage where there was so much joy, but Talek said his parents would be worried about them now that more than a week had passed with no word from them. Serina hugged Sergik and held the baby for a few minutes. It was hard to leave them, but she knew she could do no better for them than to leave them here in the home where she had been raised with love.

Before she would let them leave, Fleya pressed a bolt of cloth on Serina. "This was left with me by the Mareklans. It is good, sturdy fabric and as soon as you can, you should replace that ragged tunic your husband is wearing."

The young couple exchanged an amused glance. They would soon be in Zedekla where seamstresses and tailors would provide them with all they could ask, but the gift had been given in love and Serina decided to accept it. She tied it at the top of her pack before they gave one last round of hugs and set out down the track.

The path from the farm joined with a road that would lead to Zedekla after a few detours to other towns. Talek suggested that they should try to go overland, avoiding the towns where they might be identified.

"We know the signs that will tell us we are on the Mareklan path," he said. "If we follow them, we'll get there all the sooner. If we get lost-," Talek shrugged and they both laughed. The weather was fine and they would enjoy any time alone with each other.

They started north, following what appeared to be Mareklan signs. Without Makon and Thedonen to guide them, Serina and Talek made slow headway. It was late in the afternoon when they decided it would be better to camp than to lose their way entirely. They found a quiet dell in a forest with cliffs rising on one side and a sparkling stream to refresh their feet. After days of relentless travel, it was good to have a few hours to relax and enjoy their solitude.

Suddenly their peaceful idyl was shattered by a noise that could only be the anguished shout of a man. It came from the south where the mountains of Tedaka merged with the hills of Talka. There was silence again but Talek wondered what could have caused such a cry of despair.

He stood and peered into the darkness. "There is something in that voice that sounds familiar."

"If we had the Orb, you could search for the sufferer, but it is dark and we should wait until the sun rises," Serina cautioned. "It could be a trap to draw us into ambush."

If he had been alone, Talek would have investigated, but his first concern remained the safety of his wife. They doused the fire and huddled together for warm and comfort from the unknown terror that the night now held.

Talek spent an uneasy night waiting for the light of day to help him find the sufferer. They decided it would be wise to eat before searching for the man who had cried out the night before but their breakfast was disturbed by another agonized shout. They swiftly broke camp and set out to find the source of the cries. As they drew near a the edge of a ridge, they could make out words.

"Why are you doing this to me? I'm not an animal!"

"Inrek! It is my brother!" Talek muttered urgently as he ducked low and ran toward the edge of the hill where the land dropped steeply to a forested vale.

He peered into the trees below. At first he missed the cottage that lay concealed in the foliage. Then he saw movement and gestured for Serina to stay behind him while he investigated. He slipped over the ridge and moved from tree to bush with caution to keep hidden. When he finally had a clear view of the clearing ahead, he saw that Inrek hung in a net cage from the thick limb of a tree. A russet haired woman dressed in green came out of the cottage and carried a bowl of food to the cage.

Inrek growled at her and she held the bowl away. Finally his shoulders slumped. "Very well, Carine. If I must starve if I don't obey your rules, I'll beg. Please feed me."

"You are learning. Soon I might even let you out of the cage and put you on a leash," the woman crooned in tones she might use to a surly animal.

Talek wondered what could have happened to bring his bold brother to such a state. It worried him when he realized he enjoyed the spectacle. He pondered his reaction while he returned to Serina.

"I found my brother, the man you almost married. Some woman has captured him and is feeding him something that looks like gruel."

"Your brother Inrek?" Serina asked with a tone that balanced amusement with amazement.

"Perhaps we should go down and rescue him," Talek suggested.

"Won't he be embarrassed when we see him so humiliated?"

"Inrek may be proud and impulsive but he can be very practical. I imagine he will welcome us," Talek assured her.

They decided it would be wise to make some noise to avoid startling a woman able to take Inrek captive. Thus it was that Inrek heard the approach of two people singing a duet of the songs he had sung as a child. Carine came out of the cottage armed with a wicked looking long knife and watched the couple approach.

"Hello, I see you are trying to teach my brother some manners," Talek said cheerfully and Carine lowered her knife slightly from full guard to rest alert. She seemed to be well trained in the use of her weapon.

"Greetings Inrek, I am Serina, the woman you ran from." Serina grinned at the incredulous look on Inrek's face when he saw his brother's bride.

"How did you come to capture this particular wild animal?" Talek asked Carine as he poked a finger at his brother's thigh through the net.

"He came into the forest where my father and I are appointed game keepers. He raged through like a storm, killing without thought and leaving the flesh of his kills to rot. I tracked him and set a snare. It has taken several days, but I think I have almost tamed him," Carine's eyes twinkled with amusement as she spoke with pride of her catch.

"Do you think he is tame enough to take back to Zedekla?" Talek asked.

"Oh, I've grown to like him," Carine said with a mocking pout. "I was planning to train him to retrieve game."

"You captured me because I hunted," Inrek growled.

"I am not against hunting, only against the kind of witless slaughter you committed," Carine replied with a stern smile that seemed somehow familiar. "Why don't you share my hearth tonight with my other guests and I will see if they can be trusted to keep you within bounds in the future. I will even release you from the cage now that there are others here to make sure you won't try to take revenge. I might have to hurt you if you were so foolish." She brandished her knife with a meaningful gesture and Inrek flinched.

"I will observe your rules, Carine. Just let me down so I can wipe that foolish grin off my brother's face," he begged.

"For making that threat, you will not be let down until this evening and then only if you promise to mend your manners," Carine decreed. "Now eat your gruel. If you prove that you can act like a human, tonight you will have meat."

"I will take his parole if you let him out of his cage now," Talek offered.

"Very well." she nodded. "He needs a bath before I let him come into my house. You can take him to the spring house. There are towels and cloth to wrap around him. Toss me his tunic and I will wash it."

"I will wash it myself," Inrek muttered. "I'm not a complete fool."

Carine reached up and pulled a line and the net cage dumped its contents on the ground. Inrek rolled and rose slowly to his feet. He staggered when he tried to walk.

"Are you wounded?" Talek asked, concerned that he had taken pleasure when his brother might be injured.

"No, I just need to work my legs and arms for a while. She has kept me in that cage for the better part of a week," Inrek admitted. "I held out against eating or drinking for two days, thinking my fast would force her hand. I behaved in a manner that would disgrace our parents, but I failed to impress her with my curses and threats."

"How did she capture you?" Talek asked as he helped his brother walk toward the spring house.

"She set a snare on a game path. Once she had caught me, she walked behind me with that great knife of hers until we were near the cabin. When we came in sight of the cabin I tried to turn on her. Before I knew what had happened, I was looped up in that net cage. She triggered it as soon as she saw me hesitate and begin to turn around."

"A dangerous woman to cross," Talek mused, trying to keep any hint of amusement out of his voice.

Inrek nodded. "I give you my word that I will not try to trick her again. I will keep parole," he vowed.

A soak in the hot spring water inside the spring house was an experience that both of them enjoyed. Inrek washed his filthy tunic until it was almost threadbare but he was grateful to leave it to dry on a rack outside the spring house and borrow Talek's spare tunic.

They returned to the cottage and found Carine and Serina busy sewing new tunics for all of them from the bolt of cloth Fleya had given her daughter before she had left the farm the previous morning. Talek squatted and took up a needle to help. After a momentary hesitation, and a challenging glance from Carine, Inrek joined the sewing circle.

They kept busy until noon when Carine stood and stretched and wiggled her fingers. "I seldom sit so long just sewing," she admitted. "I'll prepare something for us to eat."

Inrek gave her a pleading look and she laughed and nodded. "Don't worry, I'll make meat and matlas, not gruel."

After eating, Carine saw to her other duties but Inrek joined Talek and Serina as they hemmed the necks of the tunics and pulled threads to make fringes on the raw edges instead of hemming the cloth. The cloth was the finest corum wool, woven in Marekla in a design that imitated the tunics of the merchants with a subtle difference. Serina and Talek quickly realized that the triangular patterns were too regular to be of any use in finding the way to Mount Vald, but Inrek was enthusiastic when he withdrew to the loft with his tunic and returned wearing it and tying a belt around his waist.

"I could pass for a Mareklan," he said, lifting Talek's sword staff from beside the door and posturing with mock fierceness.

"It would give you little joy to do so," Serina muttered dourly. Her brother-in-law reminded her of Geran in some ways.

"What do you know of the matter," he challenged, piqued by her negative statement.

"We have traveled to their home and nearly became permanent residences of their hidden city," Talek said, knowing his casual reference to the events of the past week would provoke his brother's curiosity. "Did you think we had spent the past week searching for you?"

Inrek nodded. Serina saw the glint in Talek's eye and added to his story. "After narrowly escaping from the Orquian mob when they burned the nuptial house, we were instructed to perform an errand by Sergon."

Inrek sneered with doubt and Talek picked up the tale. "We scaled cliffs, survived storms, challenged a body of Mareklan elders, forded the Opeta at the risk of our lives, rescued two orphans and found them a new home."

"And then we heard the howling of a man in pain and rescued you!" Serina ended the tale.

"Your bride has a sense of humor," Inrek observed to his brother. "Tell me the truth about how you found me.

Talek raised his arm to the square and stared his brother in the eye. "I swear that everything we said is true. Even if I had wanted to come in search of you, would I have brought my bride into the wilderness so soon after our wedding?"

The oath and the question confounded Inrek. He stared from Serina to Talek. "The more you speak, the more you confuse me. I thought the girl Fremek betrothed me to is named Breya and her father and mother were that clownish couple who rode with her on the bridal wagon."

"Breya is the name Bernin and Fleya gave me when they took me from Thalon's dying grip," Serina revealed, ignoring his spiteful jab. "In truth, I am the daughter of a Mareklan named Makon and his wife, the grand-daughter of Sergon."

"She is as much a child of Irilik as any bride of our ancestors," Talek said.

"I believe you, but surely there is more. You two do not act like strangers with one another. Did you meet before you wed?"

"I had courted Serina in Timora, and asked her to marry me," Talek said. He took Serina's hand in his and they exchanged a loving look.

"But she came to Zedekla to marry me!" Inrek insisted.

"Your servant Fremek presented your betrothal contract to Bernin less than an hour before my agent attempted to give him mine. Serina only knew that she was betrothed to wed a Zedeklan prince, and of course, she believed I was the one."

Inrek settled onto a narrow chest bench and studied his brother and the girl he had refused to marry. "My fit of anger fit right into your plans," he grunted. "I merely provided a nuptial gift. Will you return it now that you have married my brother?" He turned to Serina with a teasing smile.

"Do you remember what you sent me as a nuptial gift?" Serina asked.

Inrek rubbed his chin and tried to recall what trinket he had found at hand. "The little latticed ball, the one that Thalon gave me?"

"It was the Orb of Irilik, the key to the location of the city of Marekla," Talek said. "Somehow it contained the Stone of Truth. Can you think how that came to be?"

Inrek looked away from his brother. Talek's question contained a challenge and it worked on memories long buried. Finally he looked up with an expression of chagrin. "I pried a glowing stone from a small dark room and hid it in the ball-the orb. Where is it now? I am half afraid to find if I can see it."

"Sergon said we must return it to Serina's father in Marekla along with the staff of Neril," Talek said. "That was the errand he gave us after warning us that the cultists intended to burn the nuptial house and capture Serina to use as a sacrifice."

"It seems that I was just a pawn in Sergon's arcane scheme," Inrek muttered.

"I doubt that Sergon planned these events," Serina said. "He has a gift of prophecy to see what must be done, but all of us acted of our free will. Talek agreed to marry me, thinking me a stranger, because you had run away. There was no coercion but his conscience. He thought I was betrothed to an unknown man and made a sacrifice for the sake of duty."

Inrek stood and clapped his brother's shoulder. "It is just as well you married her. I prefer a woman less intelligent than I. It would be worse for me to have a pious wife than an ugly one."

Serina sighed and stood. Her thoughts echoed Inrek's in a way. She felt heartily glad that he had run away, not just because her heart was already given to Talek, but because Inrek seemed to be something of a fool.

"You should have chosen Dariya," Talek said. "She is sly without being wise and I doubt anyone would accuse her of piety."

Inrek shook his head. "I wonder if I'll ever win the woman who has captured my heart."

Just then Carine entered the cottage and his head turned to watch her with such an expression of longing that Talek knew the truth. The woman who had captured Inrek's heart was the same who had captured him in a cage and punished him with gruel. It was such a delicious irony that Talek was tempted to laugh aloud. Instead he stood and followed Serina who left the cottage and stood outside in the sun.

She turned to him with a smile and took his hand. From inside the cottage they heard Inrek greet Carine with a request for gruel. "I think he's come to like it," Talek said with a chuckle. Serina held her hand to her mouth to suppress a giggle and soon they were holding on to each other, shaking with silent laughter.

All of them were dressed in their new tunics when they sat around the table in Carine's cottage to eat the evening meal. Glancing from the two princes to Carine, Serina saw a resemblance that was quite remarkable. The twins had curly hair, like their mother, Queen Carila, with red highlights when light shone through the waves.

She had so recently become aware of the shape of her face that betrayed her Mareklan heritage that she could not miss the same signs in Carine. Carine's hair was lighter than that of the men, but it was curly and had a hint of red. She could almost be their sister.

Serina was tempted to ask Carine about her mother and father, but they were speaking of hunting and it seemed intrusive to introduce the subject. Inrek found the other woman's knowledge of the forest fascinating. Everything she said proved that Carine had more intelligence than Inrek. Her piety was witnessed when she raised her hands and blessed the meal with a simple, heartfelt prayer. Misled by these indications that were in direct opposition to Inrek's professed preferences, Serina dismissed her initial impression that her brother-in-law had fallen in love with the lovely forest guardian.

The four of them quickly cleaned up after the meal. The night was clear and they decided to make their beds outside under the stars instead of trying to decide how to share the tiny loft in the cottage. The moss-filled mats Carine provided were far better beds than any the other three had known since they left Zedekla.

The next morning the two brothers and Serina said farewell to Carine and began the trek to Zedekla. They set a leisurely pace as Inrek demanded a full narrative of their adventures since the wedding. Talek gentled his account of Lissa, leaving Inrek with the impression that she had merely been ill unto death instead of wallowing in addiction. They did not refer directly to Mount Vald by name, but otherwise, he eventually knew almost everything of what had happened.

"So you see, Inrek, your impulsive refusal to marry Serina has cost you a grand adventure such as those we dreamed of as children," Talek said. "Not only that, but I gained a lovely wife."

"Serina is pretty, and I am certain she has every quality that you find desirable in a woman, but I confess that I am happy that she is yours," Inrek admitted. "I have found another woman worth winning."

"Where did you find her, tell us about it," Serina urged.

"Can't you see he is speaking of Carine?" Talek chuckled.

"But she stalked him and captured him and forced him to eat gruel. Worse than that, she is pious and far more intelligent than he," Serina said with a grin of irony. "How can you think she is the woman he loves?"

Inrek laughed at her chaffing comment and acknowledged he deserved it with a wink. "Yes Carine is all you say, but she is the one I wish to marry and maybe someday I will win her heart."

It was a merry trio that made their way into Zedekla late in the afternoon. Talek and Serina had put on their disguises, less for fear of the the priests of Orqu and more for the freedom of walking through the crowded street without being recognized as royalty. Inrek had entered the spirit of their masquerade and had tied his cloak around his hips like a skirt, binding his head with a strip of cloth and bending over a little like an old woman.

"Be a good child and I will buy you honeyed matlas in the market square," he piped in a high falsetto voice that set Talek and Serina shaking with suppressed laughter. Mingling with the crowds in the square, they soon heard the gossip that spread about them.

For the price of a meat-stuffed matla and a jug of nuka juice they had a fine place to sit in a small booth and listen to the rumors of the common folk. "What has become of the two princes?" Inrek asked a fellow diner in his falsetto whine.

"Inrek went off to hunt as soon as the wedding was finished and missed all the excitement that followed the feast," the man said. "They say a reward was offered for Talek and his new bride. It was the Orquians. We've burned out their temple and freed the captive maiden they were preparing to sacrifice."

"We saw the pyramid just an hour ago when we entered the city," Talek said in a wheezing bass voice.

"Aye, I think that only the Radiance would be able to destroy that old place of evil," another diner said. "We piled brush at all the entrances and set it on fire. The demon's dogs spilled out like ants from a burning nest."

"You'd think the king would be happy with what we'd done," a third man grunted. "Instead, they posted guards on the entrance and kept everyone away.

"What became of the Orquians?" Talek asked.

"Most of them were rounded up and kept for trial, but I hear the worst of them escaped. The priest who had offered the reward for the capture of the prince and his bride got away. The maiden they nearly killed was witness of his crimes and she's well guarded now to keep her from harm."

"Do you know the name of the maiden?" Inrek asked.

"They haven't told her name, but she was a friend of one of the princes," a woman volunteered. "Some say she is his shant."

"Do you believe such gossip?" Talek asked, almost raising his voice to its normal tone in his outrage.

"Of Inrek, maybe, but not of Talek," the woman assured him. "That boy is so innocent I have no doubt his bride is still a maiden."

Inrek choked on his matla, whether with laughter or anger, Talek couldn't be certain. He pounded his brother on the back and they rose and pulled Serina after them before their cover could be destroyed by their own outrage and laughter.

They made their way to the palace and avoided the great gate that had swung open to admit Serina and her parents. They finally entered through an obscure entrance in a garden near the eastern tower. A hidden corridor gave access to the set of rooms the princes had used as children. Inrek straightened his clothing and went to find his parents.

With the nuptial house in ruins, Talek showed Serina to the suite they would share as a married couple. It remained sparsely furnished, with little more than a bed and a couple of chests, but a distinctive small table stood under the window that gave a view of the sea.

Serina leaned down and traced the design of shells and golden wire that had been set into the carved wood. "I never knew that Tharek was a carpenter," she mused.

"There are many things you will learn about your new family as time goes by," Talek murmured. "I hope you are not disappointed that I am not nearly so innocent as the gossips seem to believe."

She giggled and turned to face him. "I think we have both learned a thing or two in this past week. It has been an amazing adventure in more ways than one." She pushed him away and gave him a stern look. "I have a question to ask you that will bear on my future happiness in this great pile of stone."

It was growing dark and Talek did not see the twinkle of humor that lifted the bottoms of her eyelids in telltale crescents. He straightened and waited for her inquiry as she drew out the moment. Would she ask him about Dariya and think that they had been more to each other than friends? Was she overwhelmed by the size and splendor of her surroundings.

"Where can I bathe?" It was such a simple question that at first he thought it was merely a preamble to something more serious.

"Talek, I have been walking for days without a chance to immerse myself in water and scrub with good strong soap. Where in this palace can I find privacy and hot water?"

He reached up and pulled a lever on the wall. In a moment a couple of faces peeked around the door. It was not the servant he expected, but Lafina and Malisa.

"We heard the bathing bell ring. Come Serina, we will take you to the women's baths," Lafina said.

Malisa looked at the pack that was all of what was left of Serina's belongings as far as Talek knew. "Fortunately your trousseau had not yet been carried to the nuptial house when it burned down. Mother had it put away in storage. We have gowns that will fit you until you unpack your clothes."

With Serina in the charge of his sisters who treated her like a delightful new toy to dress and play with, Talek left the suite and went up to his old room in the tower. He gathered an armful of clothing from a chest, making sure to include the necessities of courtly grooming, and returned to the suite. He had no doubt that by the end of the next day it would be fully furnished, but for now he found it more than adequate. He chose clothing to change into after his own bath and tucked the other clothing into one of the chests.

By the time Serina was delivered; clean, combed, scented, and dressed in one of Malisa's gowns, Talek had dressed in one of his favorite dark tunics. It was midnight blue accented with a narrow braid of red twisted with gold that without his knowledge, accented the red glow of his hair.

His parents stood to welcome Talek and Serina when they entered the great dining hall filled with so many smiling, friendly faces that Talek began to believe that not all the favor he had received had been based on speculation that he might become the heir. There was one face that caught his eye and surprised him with her presence.

Midway down the table, Dariya stood next to a dowager who was known to be something of a dragon with the maidens put in her charge. If Dariya wore paint on her mouth and eyes, it had been applied with a far more subtle hand than usual. Talek had no doubt that it was she who had betrayed the location of the nuptial house to the Orquians, but under what duress? Until he knew more, he decided to reserve judgment.

The dinner was as delicious as any he had tasted, but the spice of long hours of walking on the road to Zedekla enhanced Talek's appetite to appreciate the savory offerings even more. He did not partake of the sweetmeats however. Their scent had come to signify betrayal.

There were many questions asked about their recent adventures, and Serina and Talek took turns recounting what had happened. By mutual agreement they did not mention the location of the city of Marekla in Mount Vald, and they did not identify the woman from whom they had rescued the children as Serina's mother.

Finally Queen Carila noticed the drooping lids of her new daughter-in-law. It was early according to the habits of the palace, but Carila murmured to her husband Tomak who stood and brought an end to the meal.

Grateful for the respite from the eager questioners, Talek and Serina stood and made their way to their new quarters. After he locked the door and checked to make certain that the servant door had been latched as well, Talek helped Serina with the ties that fastened her borrowed gown while she struggled to suppress a wide yawn.

"It isn't always like this," he said. "Most evenings only the family gathers in the small dining room."

"I really don't care what duties and responsibilities I must bear to be with you," she countered. "As long as we can spend the nights alone."

In the great assembly room below, Inrek still gave an account of his own adventures. Now that Talek and Serina were safely out of the way, he changed a few of the details. Indeed, it was he who had captured a raving beast, a wild yellow wirra who threatened the life of a gamekeeper's daughter. In gratitude for his bravery, he had been encouraged to stay as a guest of the gamekeeper.

Dariya made her way to the near edge of the admirers around Inrek. Fremek, lingering in the shadow of a nearby column stared at her with a puzzled frown. He felt a strange sense of familiarity with her that had nothing to do with the memories he retained from the days when she had been the reigning beauty among the courtiers. There was something about her chin. She must be close relations with the young man, Darnek. He had waited for the youth to report on the results of their sweet meat business. Perhaps he would ask Dariya if she knew him.

Chapter 16 The Heroine

Talek and Serina went down to breakfast late the following morning but they found Queen Carila and King Tomak waiting to eat with them. Talek glanced at his wife and clasped her hand. "Be patient my love, it seems we are in for a lecture," he murmured.

He had known this moment would come, but he had hoped for more time alone with Serina before the reins of government were transferred to his hands. He showed her to a seat across from his parents and took the seat next to her. Servants entered with a choice of foods and they selected an ample meal. As soon as they were served, the servants left the room and Tomak stood and secured the door.

After lifting his hands in a blessing on the meal, Tomak sat down and began to eat. "I'm sorry you had to wait for us," Talek said.

Carila smiled. "Your father had something to eat early this morning, but I only woke a while ago myself. Inrek kept us captivated for several hours with his tale of killing the wirra and saving the gamekeeper's daughter."

Talek exchanged a look with Serina and she held her hand over her mouth to stop a giggle. Tomak looked at the two of them and shook his head. "I take it that the events were not quite as Inrek described?"

"If Inrek cares to tell you what really happened, I will leave it to him," Talek said. "For now, I will only say that it was not a wirra that we saw in a cage at the gamekeeper's cottage and the captor was a young woman."

Carila's expression was puzzled for only a moment, then she raised her brows and smiled. "I would like to meet the young woman Inrek met in the forest."

"I think he would like you to meet her, but once again, I must defer to him," Talek said. "I noticed Dariya at the welcome feast last night?"

"She was rescued from the demon's dogs before they could kill her as a sacrifice. Is there some reason for us to exclude her?" Tomak asked.

"There were only three people who knew the location of the nuptial house," Talek replied. "I think I can be confident that my mother did not tell the cultists where it was. I felt sorry for Dariya when I thought she needed a refuge. Until I could make other arrangements, I let her stay in the nuptial house."

"She might have been careless in coming and going," Carila mused. "It was unwise for you to let her stay there."

"I can see what a fool I was," he acknowledged. "On the other hand, she seems to have made a deliberate attempt to make it seem that I had more in mind than friendship."

"What evidence do you have?" Tomak asked.

"There is gossip in the city," Serina said, willing to state what she knew for herself. "We heard the rumors when we returned to Zedekla."

"What do you think we should do about her?" Tomak asked.

Talek thought for a moment while the others finished their meal. "My first impulse would be to accuse her of betrayal, but the evidence is scarce. As mother says, she might have only been careless. I can see that it would throw oil on the fire of rumor if we suddenly excluded her,"

Tomak nodded. "It is such matters as this that can cause trouble for kings. You let pity for Dariya lead you to an indiscretion. There is no way to prove whether she actively conspired to let others know the location of the nuptial house. It is fortunate for you that Sergon came to your mother and said he must see you."

"I actually wavered," Carila admitted. "At first I wanted to protect your privacy, but he soon convinced me that his mission was urgent and told him where to find you."

"It is helpful to have a prophet in the family," Tomak said with a half smile. "On the other hand, we lost touch with the rumor mill this past month. If not, we would have heard of the gossip about Dariya and learned that there were fanatics in the dark pyramid."

"I thought you avoided gossip," Talek said.

Tomak shook his head. "I wish I could ignore rumor and insinuation. It will be wonderful to turn my reign over to you and retire to Timora where my duties would be sweet and sacred. Have you ever wondered why some of the worst rascals in Zedekla are courtiers?"

"I thought you were ignorant of their character," Talek admitted.

"At least half the courtiers are here to keep them from making mischief where I can't see what they are doing," Tomak said. "Do you remember Semlik, Dariya's uncle?"

"Dariya claimed he sold her to servant sellers from whom she had escaped," Talek said.

"He might well have done so," Tomak said. "It would not be the first time he has sold people illegally. When he did not come up from Talka for the wedding, we sent one of our trusted men to see what other mischief he might be up to. A messenger came today. Semlik's body was found in a shallow grave under a bush. He had rocks and a few coins in his money pouch. On the other hand, we know that Dariya was dependent on her uncle. Now she has plenty of money to maintain herself. There could be a relationship between her sudden wealth and the death of Semlik."

"Not if Dariya is being sponsored by another man. If the gossip in the town links her name with Inrek, it will be assumed that he is paying her way," Carila reminded them.

"Could there be someone else involved," Serina asked. "I remember the reputation Semlik had in Talka. It seems unlikely that one man could do so much evil without accomplices."

"We have at least three problems here," Tomak said. "Would you outline them for me Talek?"

"It seems that the murder is the most urgent matter," Talek mused.

"Are you certain it was a murder?" Tomak responded.

"What else could it have been?" Talek asked.

"What was the cause of his death?" Serina asked. "He might have died of natural causes and then been robbed. There are some who are desperate enough to commit such an act."

"If someone had robbed a dead man, surely they would have taken everything and not merely left him with a purse weighted with rocks and enough coins to jingle if he shook it," Carila noted.

Talek looked around and saw that he was expected to begin again with his list. "We cannot begin to find his killer until we know if he was killed, or if he died a natural death. The presence of the pilfered money pouch would indicate that the robbery took place not long before he died, or he would have discovered the deception."

"Therefore we are dealing with one crime for certain, the robbery," Serina said.

Talek opened his hand to her, "That is one thing we know for certain. Semlik was robbed shortly before he died. I would suggest that it happened the night before the day he died."

"What makes you think he died during the daytime?" Carila asked.

"If he had died, or been killed in the night, it is less likely that he would have been buried. The shallow grave indicates an attempt to hide the body rather than a decent burial. The robber had already taken what he wanted so I doubt he was the killer," Talek said.

"You say 'he', but the theft could as easily have been committed by a woman," Serina reminded her husband.

Tomak lifted a roll of scroll cloth from the table. "I will read the exact account that was sent to me: I have located Semlik, but he is dead. His body was dug from under bushes by dogs and dragged onto the path several leagues from Talka. I came upon the dogs with the body before they had done more than tear at his face and hands. The only wound evident on cursory examination was a cut on his scalp from some missile or blunt instrument. When I searched the ground nearby, I found several sturdy cudgels and a stone that could have been the means of death. Upon searching the body, I found a pouch filled with rocks with a few coins near the top which had been secured to the victim's belt under his robes. It was still tied when I discovered it. The other matter is now mute. Children sold to the Orenese servant seller, Oarga, were returned to their parents."

"Where is Oarga?" Talek asked. "If he thought Semlik had betrayed him, he might have had him killed."

"It is unlikely an Orenese would arrange for someone to throw a rock," Serina said. "The presence of the cudgels and the rock make it seem that his tenants had finally had enough of his evil doings and mobbed him as he returned from Zedekla."

Tomak nodded. "That was the conclusion my agent suggested. The problem of finding out who was actually responsible for Semlik's death can be left to the elders of Talka."

"Has anyone located the litter bearers who carried Semlik to Talka?" Talek asked.

"We only learned of the death today," Tomak reminded him. "You are right to suggest that the litter bearers would be valuable witnesses, as well as their runner."

"Which brings us back to Dariya," Talek said. "When I discovered her in Zedekla she was disguised as a boy. She told me that she had found work as a runner for a couple of litter bearers after escaping from the servant seller."

"She might have known where Semlik kept his money pouch. It would have been easy enough for her to pilfer it while he slept if she was runner for the litter he hired," Carila said. "But wouldn't he have recognized her?"

"When I saw her I didn't recognize her at first," Talek admitted. "She wore her hair over her forehead and had somehow reduced her figure to boyish proportions."

"If you had trouble seeing through her disguise, I think it unlikely that Semlik would have known her," Serina said "It seems we should keep Dariya ignorant of our suspicions until we have some real evidence that she might have committed a crime."

"Is there any small task you could ask her to perform that would keep her busy in the palace?" Serina asked Caril.

"She has excellent taste in choosing clothing," Talek admitted. "It was she who chose the tunic Inrek wore for the wedding."

"If so, she would have been one of the first to know that you were the bridegroom instead of Inrek," Serina speculated. "Perhaps the cultists turned on her when she wasn't able to deliver the two of us to them."

Tomak leaned back in his chair and cupped the back of his head in his hands with his elbows sticking out on either side. He grinned at the others. "You have received your first lecture in ruling Zedekla," he said with satisfaction. "In only a small portion of a morning, you have sifted through evidence and rumor and come up with a likely answer to a difficult problem. It is noteworthy that both of you contributed to finding a solution. I have been curious about Dariya since first learning that she was the tool of Semlik's ambitions. My only concern with keeping her active in the court where we can keep her under observation is that she might entice Inrek."

"Inrek has someone else in mind if she will have him," Talek reminded his father.

"I hope the gamekeeper's daughter will balance his impetuosity," Carila said.

"Talek warned me that we were about to receive a lecture when he saw both of you here this morning," Serina revealed with a mischievous glance at her husband.

"What do you know about succession in Zedekla?" Carila asked her.

Serina paused while she remembered her long discussions with Talek in Timora after she had learned of his royal rank. "When a ruler of Zedekla has raised an heir and that heir and their mate have a child, the current ruler retires to Timora to serve in the Shrine and study the sacred scrolls and the chronicles of the saints."

Carila nodded. "In almost four hundred years there have been only a few exceptions to the pattern. When the royal pair did not produce a son, one of their daughters married a man who was accepted as the heir. As you have seen this morning, we decide many things by discussing them with each other. Therefore, the king and queen are joint rulers. That is why it seemed so important to choose the son who chose well when he married."

Tomak looked from Talek to Serina. He had been very disappointed in Inrek's decision to flee from the wedding, but it would have been a tragedy if these two had been parted by the strange coincidence of Fremek's bargain with Bernin. The way they were able to work together bore witness to the love they shared. He cleared his throat and reached for Carila's hand. "It is our hope that you will be blessed with children in due time. When you present us with your heir, we will follow our parents to Timora. Meanwhile, you will meet with us each morning before I meet with the council. When it is time for us to leave Zedekla, I am confident we will have no regrets."

Talek had hungered for his father's praise for many years, yet now it seemed a piece with all the other blessings that finding Serina had brought him. "We will try to fill your places when the time comes, but I can already see it is no sinecure to be king of Zedekla. Do you usually involve yourselves in such matters as murder and theft in distant regions?"

Tomak shook his head. "Our rule is based on a complex network of loyalties and dependencies that stretches back to Tharek. In theory, the elders of each town have full jurisdiction over their people. When their judgments are harsh, they may be appealed, but at some cost, not always monetary. I have sent men who appeared before me frivolously on pilgrimages or ordered a fine of labor or products. In the case of Semlik's death and the theft of his money, the jurisdiction falls within my responsibility. One of the aspects of being a courtier is that they come directly under my law. For those who are good and worthy men, it annuls the petty annoyance of being preyed upon by greedy local magistrates. On the other hand, for those who think it gives them license to offend against decency, such as Semlik, I have direct access to punishing them for their misdeeds. In fact, I would soon have either imprisoned Semlik or fined him so heavily that he would have been impoverished."

"What is to be done about the dark pyramid?" Serina asked. "Talek explained that you have practiced tolerance of various cults and sects as long as they do not offend against the law, but the local people were enraged by the latest incidents. We were told that they had built fires to smoke out the fanatic demon's dogs who hunted us."

"I suggest we either pull down the pyramid or close it off permanently," Talek said.

Carila looked at Tomak who rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I think we should close all the known entrances to deny the fanatics any venue for further offenses, but I hesitate to tear down such a structure. I will undertake to map it. If we know of every room and hidden corridor, we will be able to prevent a repetition of what has happened. I have heard that such a map exists, but I have failed to find it."

A discreet patterned knock at the door brought Carila to her feet. "It is time for Tomak to meet with the council. Meanwhile, Serina and Talek, we should plan what we will do about Dariya."

Unaware that she had become the subject of royal surveillance, Dariya made plans of her own. Inrek had returned from his wanderings, and apparently unattached. He had mentioned a gamekeeper's daughter, but only as a beneficiary of his courage. Talek had resisted her ploys, but she knew from experience that his brother had fewer scruples. She had once been foolish enough to offer herself to him for nothing more than his indulgence and affection, but she would hold out for higher stakes now that she was welcome in the palace and no ban kept him from marrying a member of the court.

Other than Serina, who was safely married to Talek, Dariya believed she was without peer among the young women of the palace. She would lay her trap for Inrek carefully. This time there must be no error.

She had another goal; the recovery of her lucky token, or its twin. She had been shown the wedding gifts and quickly recognized the box that Tepera had coveted. The brooch that matched her own must be within. Serina did not seem to wear much jewelry and Dariya doubted she would keep close guard on her possessions.

She waited until she could corner Talek's bride alone in the women's bathing room and addressed her directly. "Do you remember me? We met in Talka."

Serina turned and tried not to stare at the woman she had been discussing with her in-laws that morning. "I think we met at the market in Talka some time ago. Are you Dariya?"

She had taken a moment to recall the girl from Talka in the polished, painted courtier in front of her. She was certainly not masquerading as a boy. Her curves were enhanced by the Jaman cut of her gown and her face was painted, but with a subtle hand that might deceive a man, and possibly most women. A fine chain hung with tiny pendant gems enhanced her high, fine brow.

For a moment Serina experienced a flash of jealousy. She would never have such ease in wearing the zilka cloth and jewels that were the normal wardrobe of her new role. In nothing but a bathing tunic with her hair hanging like a black curtain down her back, she felt like the country lass she was. Then she remembered her advantage, Talek had chosen her. This woman had nearly trapped Talek into marriage, but he had avoided her snares. Now he feared that Dariya would exercise the same power over his brother with a less desirable outcome.

Serina had learned early to face danger with calm when a dog had cornered her in the yard of the cottage. Now she recognized the same sense of threat. Some bent energy in Dariya reminded her of Geran, a bullying confidence that would disregard the claims of good.

She kept herself from flinching when Dariya linked arms with her in a familiar manner. "We will be good friends and I will show you how to get on in the court. You need to take advantage of your position. Let me show you how to dress and which jewelry to wear. That thing you wore at dinner last night, did your mother make it for you?"

"Yes, she spent hours sewing my trousseau," Serina replied.

"They may be well enough for Talka," Dariya said with an expression that was not quite a sneer, " but this is the most fashionable city in Okishdu. You badly need my help."

Resisting the urge to pull away and protest that she felt her best advice would come from Queen Carila or one of Talek's sisters, Serina let Dariya lead her to a chest where several gowns were displayed. "I have taken the liberty of asking your servant if I could make you a gift of a few gowns. See if you don't prefer these to the dowdy things in your trousseau."

Serina wanted to slap Dariya for her arrogant dismissal of the clothing Fleya had worked to hard to prepare for her wedding. On the other hand, she could not deny that the simple lines of the gowns Dariya showed her were appealing. Swallowing her chagrin, she let Dariya lower one of them over her head and waited while she tied various bows and adjusted the fall of the skirt.

The polished bronze mirror gave a warm tint to the reflection Serina saw, but she couldn't deny that Talek had spoken the truth about Dariya's talent for clothing. This gown was not cut along the same daring lines as the one Dariya wore, but it flattered her.

"Thank you," Serina said, trying to keep any hint of rancor from her tone. "I cannot accept this as a gift, but I will pay you for it and keep it."

"I'm sure we can alter most of your other gowns to have a similar effect," Dariya assured Serina. "I seem to have a knack for such things, and I don't get much practice in my current situation."

Serina wanted to refuse. If she followed Dariya's suggestion, she would have to take the woman to the suite she shared with Talek and let her paw through the contents of her clothing chests and cupboards. On the other hand, she would achieve the very thing they had been discussing this morning. By the time Dariya finished with her suggestions and alterations, they might have word from the king's agents who were investigating the robbery of Semlik.

It was irritating to have Dariya grab her arm again in a familiar grip as if she were best of friends and confidantes as they climbed the stairs under the somewhat astonished gaze of Talek's sisters. What would they think of this apparent alliance?

Reminding herself that it was not pleasure but duty that had led to the association, she avoided Malisa's eyes and led Dariya to her suite of rooms. When she opened the door, Serina felt confused. The sparse furnishings of the night before had been supplanted by a collection of beautiful and comfortable chairs and cabinets. She recognized only one item of furniture. The lovely little table made by Tharek still held pride of place under the window overlooking the sea.

Dariya walked over to the window and gazed out at the horizon. "You are fortunate to have this view. My room looks over a vegetable plot," she pouted.

She reached down to trail her fingers over the little table and the corners of her mouth descended into an arc of unhappiness. "This is a costly little piece," she jeered, forgetting for a moment her friendly pose.

"It was made by Tharek," Serina explained.

"Yes, I know," Dariya said. She seemed to recall her errand and glanced up with a suddenly transformed expression. "Come, I'm not interested in the family antiques. I want to see your gowns and jewelry and decide what can be done with them."

Resigning herself to spending the next hour or so with Dariya, Serina opened the bench chests and cabinets where her trousseau had been stored. They had been packed with petals of night blossom and the scent rose up like a memory of home.

"This won't require much alteration," Dariya said, removing a rose colored dress of shimmering zilka cloth. "Try it on for me and I'll see what needs to be done to make it presentable."

Serina was shy at first, but Dariya was so matter of fact about removing ruffles, gathering a pleat here or indicating a dart there on the gowns as Serina tried on one after another, that she soon lost her reserve. Those that Dariya felt would require the least work to make them attractive were set aside for immediate alteration.

"I can have these two ready for you by this evening. I think you should wear the blue one," Dariya said. "What jewelry do you plan to wear?"

"Malisa and Lafina, Talek's sisters, gave me this set of jewelry," Serina said, picking up the carved nop wood box and working the puzzle lock. "It should go well with the blue dress."

Dariya stared at the brooch for only a moment, then nodded. "Why don't you try them with the dress and see how they look."

As Dariya had expected, the earrings and bracelet gave just the right touch, but the brooch was too much on the simple bodice. "You should wear the brooch with a thicker material than this light zilka. Perhaps a heavy brocade would suit it better," she advised. "Oh look, the pin is loose. I could take it out and have it repaired for you."

Her knuckles were nearly white with her grip on the brooch even though she kept her voice light and casual. "Why don't you leave it with me to do."

"We'll see," Serina said. "Give it to me now so I can lock it away with the matching jewelry."

Dariya set the brooch into the box and watched while Serina twisted the puzzle lock and set the box on a shelf high in one of the cabinets. She now knew where to find the brooch and she felt confident that Serina had accepted her as a mentor and friend.

She carried the two dresses back to her small room and quickly made the necessary alterations. She hummed a tune she had learned from the litter bearers who had used it to mark their pace. It helped her place the neat stitches quickly as she sewed. As soon as she finished, she hurried back to Serina's suite and knocked on the door. When no answer came, she slipped inside. Placing the dresses on the larger bench chest where they were less likely to crease, she hurried over to the cabinet where Serina had placed the box with the brooch inside.

She was tall for a woman, but not as tall as Serina. The edge of the shelf was just slightly beyond her reach. Cursing her luck, she looked around to find a step stool. The only piece of furniture light enough to carry was the little table under the window.

It seemed sturdy enough to hold her weight. She picked it up and started back toward the cabinet when the door swung open.

"I thought you knew better than to try and steal a table," Talek said.

A flush started up her neck and reddened her cheeks. "I-I wasn't taking it," she stuttered.

"Then what were you doing with it? And what are you doing here in my brother's room?"

"Inrek?" she gasped.

He laughed. "I thought you could tell the difference between us."

"I wasn't expecting you here. After all, this is your brother's room," she reminded him.

"What business have you here?" he challenged.

"I am a good friend of his bride, Serina. We were children together in Talka. I altered some gowns for her and was preparing to put them in the cabinet. I'm not quite tall enough to reach the shelf."

"You were going to use that table for a ladder," he laughed. "Come, I will lift you and there will be no risk of breaking something valuable."

She set the table down and held out her arms for him to lift her. He set his broad hands around her narrow waist and lifted her high enough to obtain her object, but of course, she could not take the brooch while he was there.

"You are forgetting, I said I wanted to put away the gowns," she giggled.

Inrek stared at her, forgetting his purpose for lifting her and seeing only her full red mouth. His hands felt they would burn with the heat of her waist beneath his fingers. It was easy enough to let the zylka cloth of her dress slip through his fingers as she slid down in his loosening grasp.

Once he had held her and kissed her in the dark. The memory of that moment erased what remained of his scruples and he pulled her closer, seeking her lips again.

"Not here, you fool," she hissed.

Inrek blinked and suddenly dropped her. He shook his head at the folly of his actions.

"We can meet somewhere later," she suggested.

He turned and walked from the room. Without stopping, he walked down the stairs deliberately and entered the men's bathing room. Pulling off his clothing, he waded directly into the coldest part of the bathing pool. He stayed there until his lips were blue. "Carine, I am sorry, Carine," he repeated.

Dariya quickly retrieved the little table and stood on it. In moments she had removed the brooch from the box and fastened the puzzle lock. Clutching the brooch, she stopped for only a moment by the two dresses on the chest. The fragile fabric of the blue dress yielded easily to a tearing motion near the bottom of the skirt.

When Serina dressed that night, she noticed that the skirt of the blue gown was torn and wore the rose dress with the emerald Leaf of Neril on the golden chain that Theoden had given her.

She was surprised when Dariya showed up at dinner wearing a scarf around her neck. It seemed to bulge slightly where it crossed at the point of her neckline and now and then as the meal proceeded she reached to touch the place where the scarf crossed. The effect was so like a country woman with her luck charm concealed beneath her clothing that a niggling suspicion was born in Serina's mind.

Dariya flirted openly with Inrek, but he avoided her eyes. Talek noticed his brother's behavior. There was something of guilt in the look Inrek wore. Had Dariya already succeeded in compromising him?

It was a relief to both Serina and Talek when Tomak stood and ended the dinner. Once again they retreated to their rooms without waiting to converse with others in the gather hall.

"Did you see how Dariya acted?" Serina asked.

"What about Inrek? There is something going on between them already. I thought you were going to keep her busy," he retorted.

She hurried to the cabinet and brought down the carved box. In a moment she had opened it. "Look, the brooch is gone. I'm certain she took it."

"What evidence do you have that it was her?" he asked. "I doubt she could reach it on that shelf."

She glanced around the room, her eyes lighting on the little table under the window. He saw the direction of her gaze and reached over to pick it up. The pattern of leather stitches on the soles of Dariya's shoes had made a mark on the surface, but lacquer had protected the delicate inset from damage. He examined the legs and found they were still intact. "It's a good thing Tharek was as good a carpenter as any ever known. Otherwise, this table would be broken."

"So you think she used it to get the box?" Serina said.

"Yes, I recognize the marks made by her slippers. I wonder if she took it for herself or to sell."

"I believe she is wearing it tonight, but hidden beneath the scarf she wound around her neck," Serina told him. "She may be planning to sell it."

"I wonder how many things she has stolen and pawned since she began to live here?"

"How many things have been reported stolen?" Serina rejoined. "It would be unfair to blame her for anything more than the things we can prove."

They knew that time would be their enemy if Dariya's assumed accomplice planned to meet her tonight. Hurrying down the stairs together, they entered the gather hall and saw Dariya standing near Inrek. She had a smile on her face and her hand was on his shoulder. The other hand touched the slight bulge beneath the scarf around her neck.

Inrek scowled and moved away from her. She looked up and saw Talek and Serina in the doorway of the room. She slowly turned her head. The King and Queen were entering from the far side of the room. A fat courtier blocked the way to the only other exit. Dariya lifted tear-filled eyes. "It doesn't work. It isn't lucky."

She walked toward Serina and Talek as the tears began to slide down her cheeks. "It hasn't been the same since I traded it to Tepera," she muttered. "This one is the left hand one. It only causes pain."

Recognizing a person at the end of her sanity, Carila moved toward Dariya. Tomak hurried to put himself between them.

There was very little fuss. A few courtiers and council members glanced up to see the King and Queen, the Heir and his bride, and the latest popular heroine of the people leave the room together.

"Give me the brooch Dariya," Serina said.

"You gave it to me to have the pin mended," Dariya replied in a rote manner.

"A message came for me this evening," Tomak murmured. "You were the runner with the litter bearers when Semlik was killed."

"I only took his gold, I didn't kill him," Dariya put her hand in the scarf and removed the brooch. "It was my good luck that showed me how."

"We will keep you under house arrest until we decide what to do about your thefts," Carila said. "You have abused our hospitality and betrayed our trust."

They escorted her back to her room and Tomak locked the door. "We will discuss this in the morning," he told the others.

At midnight a slender figure slid down a rope of knotted zylka cloth torn from an expensive dress. With hardly a sound, Dariya jumped to the balcony beneath the window of another room and ducked inside. In a moment she exited wearing a weathered tunic.

When she slipped away from Zedekla before dawn, she held her hand over the solid pouch of gold at her waist. "This is the only luck I need for now," she assured herself. Her path led east to the crossroads. In a few days she would be in Jama. Tepera lived in Jama where gambling was common. With lies or stealth, by any means, Dariya intended to regain her luck.

Chapter 17 Rogue Reunion

Dariya's escape was met more with relief than concern when Tomak told the others about it the next morning over breakfast. "She is unlikely to return to places she is known." Carila said.

"She mentioned the name Tepera, when she was rambling last night," Talek said. "We met a Jaman girl in Timora who used that name. Perhaps Dariya plans to try and find her."

"Jama?" Tomak asked. "It seems a fitting setting for the minx. At least if she goes to Jama we won't have further need to worry about her presence in Zedekla's lands. I hope this is the last we hear of her."

"I somehow doubt she will fade into obscurity," Carila cautioned.

Carila's forecast of further tidings from Dariya sent a chill over Serina's shoulders and she shivered but didn't offer any comment. She was relieved to have the woman gone, but what mischief might she get up to with no one to watch her? The discussion turned to Inrek's situation.

"I'm sure Dariya tried to make a fool of my brother," Talek said. "But Inrek resisted her. I think his mind is on Carine."

"What do we know of her?" Tomak asked the others.

"She is as opposite from Dariya as you could imagine," Talek said.

"She is a lovely girl, but more interested in the welfare of the forest than the state of her dress," Serina added.

"Do you have any idea of who her parents are?" Carila asked her son.

Talek shook his head. "She seemed somehow familiar, as if she has Mareklan in her background. In some ways she looks a little like you, mother."

The sound of a servant knocking at the door diverted them from asking further questions. Tomak gave the signal that their breakfast hour had ended and they all rose to go about their various pursuits. Inrek met his father at the door as he left the room.

"I'm leaving Zedekla this afternoon. I must ask your pardon for going away so soon, but I will not stay here while Dariya is in the palace."

"Dariya left last night. I doubt we will be troubled by her presence for some time," Tomak assured him.

"Could it be that you have a hankering for hunting?" Talek asked his brother with a wink.

"You know I won't be hunting anymore," Inrek said. "But I plan to seek a quarry in the forest."

Serina had come up behind the two tall princes and linked elbows with her husband while she smiled up at Inrek. "Give our greetings to Carine."

Inrek blushed and smiled. "I only hope she will agree to talk to me. But I won't give up easily. I went to hunt, but I was captured, and I remain her slave."

"I will pray that things work out for you," Talek told him. "I liked her, particularly when I saw that she took no nonsense from you. Far better Carine than Dariya."

"Dariya!" Inrek made a face and shook his head. "She is brass and Jaman glass to Carine's gold. You know, in those last hours of my captivity, Carine seemed almost to like me."

Tomak and Carila gave their wayward son their blessings as he set off that afternoon. He had dressed in relative simplicity, carrying a pack and a few defensive weapons. It was strange to see him without a hunting bow, but they approved what they had heard of the young woman who had won his heart.

When Inrek approached the clearing where Carine held him captive, he heard the sound of an ax. Carine was home! He couldn't wait to see her again and present her with his troth.

He stepped into the clearing and circled the cabin to the wood pile. He expected to see the graceful form of Carine. Instead he saw a very different figure. The wielder of the ax was a burly man with tangled graying hair and a grizzled beard. As soon as he heard Inrek's startled gasp, he raised the great Tedakan axe he wielded and lurched around to face the prince.

"What business have you here?" the man challenged. He took several awkward steps toward Inrek, revealing a bad limp.

"I came to see C-carine," Inrek stammered.

"How do you know my daughter?" the forester challenged.

"Did she tell you of the capture she made?" Inrek asked.

The man looked him up and down with a sneer that twisted his mouth. "So you are the Zedeklan princeling who laid waste to the forest. Carine told me how she dealt with you. I warned her there might be retribution when you returned to Zedekla and told your parents of the humiliation she made you suffer. She didn't want to leave but I sent her to a place where you have no authority."

"I didn't come for retribution. I've come to offer her an honorable marriage," Inrek explained while he kept his eye on the wicked edge of the Tedakan ax.

"Marriage? You offer Carine marriage?" the forester lowered the ax and burst into a bellowing laugh.

"There is nothing funny about my affection for Carine," Inrek protested.

"Do you know who I am and what I was to your precious mother and father, the king and queen of Zedekla?" the forester asked with a leer. "Did they tell you about the brigand Zadan who pretended to be a prince and kidnaped your mother when she chose another?"

Inrek grinned, "You are the Fraud Prince? Of course! I should have realized why Carine seemed so familiar. She is very like my mother. You married Carnat's other daughter didn't you. What became of princess Carlan?"

"Speak that name with more respect you puppy!" Zadan scowled. "Carlan deserved to be queen of Zedekla as her mother intended. Perhaps if she had married Tomak and had been pampered in a palace she would have survived. Instead she shared my privations without complaint for more than two decades before the strain became too much for her. I buried her in the glade at the top of the hill last autumn."

"I'm sorry to hear she died," Inrek said. "Carnat seldom speaks of the past, but I could tell he felt concern for Carlan. He kept her whereabouts secret because you feared your outlaw cronies."

"You're a bright boy," Zadan said. He laid down the ax and gestured for Inrek to follow him into the cabin. A roasting paka turned on a spit in the stone hearth. A dish of pungent wild greens topped with a lump of dough caught the sputtering fat before it could ignite in the glowing coals beneath.

It was simple fare but well received by the prince who tucked into the food with hungry delight when Zadan invited him to share his supper.

They could have been father and son as they began to reminisce about hunting and fighting. Inrek asked Zadan to give his version of the kidnaping of Carila and soon both men were roaring with amusement at the misadventures that had nearly made Zadan the king of Saadena.

"Was Ayarlan as awful as I've heard?" Inrek asked.

"Worse," Zadan scowled as he remembered the frantic run through the desert with Ayarlan carried in his arms. "No one could hate that woman like I did. But even I will wish her residence on only the second level of hell because of the turn she served me. Without Ayarlan's connivance, I would never have married Carlan. I wasn't good for her, but I loved my wife as I never thought I could love a woman. She bore me seven children, but only Carine, the second, survived. So now you know why it is ridiculous for you to think you could marry my daughter."

"I don't follow your reasoning," Inrek said.

"You are cousins. You share a grandfather. That is a connection too close for even the inbred scions of Zedeklan royalty."

"We may share Carnat as a grandfather, but as you know too well, our grandmothers were very different. My grandmother was Saint Neril. I won't offend you by mentioning the name of Carine's grandmother."

"Then there is a half a degree of difference, and a great difference it is if all I have heard of Neril is true," Zadan conceded. "I can see you are determined in your suit. I wouldn't mind seeing my daughter take the place her mother should have had. But I'm not so certain Carine would welcome the life of a royal princess."

"So you have no objections to seeing me marry Carine?" Inrek asked.

"I will be interested in seeing how well you fare with your question," Zadan laughed. "She is a willful wench. A Jaman would lay odds against your success in wooing her."

"That may be, but I can hardly woo her if I can't speak to her," Inrek said. "Are you willing to tell me where you've hidden her?"

"She has gone to over the border to Tedaka to visit friends of Carlan. It seemed the best way to put her beyond your reach," Zadan grunted.

The two men, more similar in nature than either guessed, parted as friends the following morning. Zadan had prepared a rough but adequate map that showed the most direct way to the city of Tedaka from the forest clearing.

"Don't tell everyone what you seek in Tedaka," Zadan said. "They are a proper, nosy bunch of prudes. They helped me find this work, but I avoid them whenever I can. This pass I marked for you was used by Mareklans. It will cut nearly a day off your journey."

Zadan pressed Inrek to accept the wicked looking Janakan sword that hung from a tasseled belt over his hearth. "I haven't used it for a decade. But it is a fine weapon, fit for a prince."

Inrek shook his head. "It looks too heavy for me." In the light of morning it was easier to remember that his father's blood had been spilled by the bandit's sword. But that was long ago and he was convinced that Zadan no longer carried a grudge.

The weather held clear and fine for Inrek's journey and his eagerness to see Carine added length to his stride. He noted the trails of animals. The deep print of a yellow wirra's paw near the stream where he stopped to fill his water skin filled him with a yearning to hunt and confront the predator, but he was after a sweeter prize.

It was near sunset of the second day that he entered the city of Tedaka with its sturdy homes and bright gardens. The Shrine shone pink in the fading twilight. A final shaft of sunlight lit the green emblem that shown from a pillar in front of the shrine and Inrek's heart lifted with pride at the honor done to the name of Neril. Tedakans were among the first to acknowledge Neril as a saint for her role in saving the people of Saadena and restoring the lost scroll of prophecy.

It was in this mood of exaltation that Inrek came to the walled garden of the small home where Placine, the widow lived. He heard people speaking within the garden and immediately recognized one of the voices as Carine. Instead of knocking on the door of the house, he pushed open the garden gate and looked in a window. He saw the stooped figure of an old woman supported by the graceful, sturdy figure of Carine. Inrek stopped and listened to their conversation before either of them noticed his presence.

"Do you think the Prince will hate me for what I did?" Carine asked Placine.

"Why are you so concerned about his feelings for you?" the old woman said.

"I shouldn't care. He acted like a beast when he entered the forest. But after I had trapped and tamed him I could see his humanity return. Then, when his brother came, I could see that he was capable of humor and affection. His brother's bride is beautiful. I can't imagine how it must have hurt Inrek to know that he could have had her for himself," Carine confessed.

"Do you think he covets his brother's wife?" Placine asked.

"Oh no, in spite of the things he did, I believe that at heart he is honorable. I'm sure he would not violate his brother's trust, and even if he would, Serina has eyes only for Talek," Carine said..

"Have no fear that I covet my brother's wife. I do covet his happiness," Inrek said as he stepped out of the shadows and into the light of a torch at the door.

Carine stared at him and her cheeks took on a ruddy glow that owed nothing to the flames of the torch. "Have you come to punish me?"

"Only if offering you my heart is punishment," Inrek said in a rare rush of poetic feeling.

Placine beckoned to Carine. "Come inside. I can see that the prince has had a long and wearying day. I will take him to my son's home to spend the night."

"I'm sorry I bothered you with my worries Placine," Carine apologized. "Apparently I mistook Inrek's intentions."

"That is evident," Placine said with a little frown. "But we will examine his intentions tomorrow after Desta has spoken to him."

"Desta, the Headman of Tedaka?" Inrek exclaimed. "I met him in my father's court."

Placine arched her brow and gave him a tight-lipped smile, "Yes, he told us of the wedding when he returned a few days ago. It seems there was some confusion about which prince was destined to marry Serina."

Inrek blushed and turned to Carine. "You know I am sometimes impulsive, but you saw that for Talek and Serina, the result of my impulse was a happy one. I want what they have, and I think you are the only woman who can give it to me."

"You may speak to Carine tomorrow, young man," Placine chided him. "Come now. I will show you the way to Desta's home."

Inrek followed her, looking back once to share a smile with Carine before the garden gate closed. The old woman mumbled. "Not proper, you are cousins. If your parents knew who she was they would send an army to separate the two of you."

"I am not the prince royal," he reminded her. "My brother may have to live by the strictures tradition and propriety decree, but I am free to follow my heart."

"Nothing good can come from such a pairing," Placine warned him. "If you really love Carine, you would leave here in the morning and let me deal with her feelings of betrayal. Both of you are young, there will be others who will catch your eye and make a far more suitable match."

Inrek refused to argue with her. She was bogged down in a web of prejudice and tradition. He nodded, placating her with easy evasion. Indeed, her obstruction added a bit of piquancy to his pursuit of Carine.

Desta was a little too much like his sober mother to make Inrek feel at ease. Although the meal the Head man and his wife provided was excellent, and the bedroom where he spent the night was furnished with clever conveniences for his comfort, he had been far happier with the rough hospitality of Zadan.

Inrek worried about what Placine would say to Carine. He tossed and turned in spite of a mattress that was more comfortable than any he had used. As soon as the first pale light of dawn filtered through the crisp curtains covering the windows of his room, he rose and took advantage of the bathing room. The household was still quiet when he put on his pack and slipped away. Tedakans were early risers and there were already men and women in the streets, but if they noticed him, they were discreet.

Discretion, modesty, cleverness, a hundred other virtues marked the people of this land and he could barely tolerate them.

He stood outside the gate of Placine's little cottage, considering what he would do next. If Placine had converted Carine to her own point of view it might make it difficult to win his goal. Just then the garden gate swung open and Carine appeared. She wore a traveling cloak and was adjusting a pack on her back.


She whirled and gasped. "Inrek! Placine said you had agreed to leave Tedaka without seeing me," she said.

"She suggested that I should leave you if I really loved you. But I don't hold by her idea of love. What did she tell you?"

"Come, follow me. Placine was still sleeping when I left, but she will be up and about soon. I don't care to argue with her any more." Carine led the way up the road toward the gate of the city, holding silence until they were well beyond the wall. Finally she slowed her pace, then stopped and turned to Inrek.

"Placine is a wonderful woman, and I know she only wants what she thinks is best for me, but it is not what I want. Do you understand?" Carine looked at him and he nodded. "She is bound by old ideas and superstitions. She worries that we share a grandfather, even though otherwise we are completely unrelated."

"I love you Carine. I went to the forest to find you and I met your father. I told him I would ask you to marry me, and he approved."

She reached out to take his hand, and he used her hand to pull her into an embrace. For a long time they stood together by the side of the track. By now he would have kissed another woman, but with Carine it was bliss just to hold her close and feel her breath against his neck. Finally she looked up into his eyes and smiled. "If we plan to marry we must either return to Tedaka and ask Desla, Desta's brother, to help us, or we must find another priest."

"I have had enough of Tedakans," Inrek said. "If we hurry, we can be at your home by night-fall. As your father, and by my authority as a prince of Zedekla, Zadan can marry us. It won't be a spectacle, but it will be all we need to join our lives together. Are you certain this is what you want? We could return to Zedekla and live in luxury, but I prefer to stay in the forest as apprentice to the forester and his daughter."

She reached out and took his hand in hers and all his worries vanished. "This is what I want. I would not want to live in a palace. I have had enough of living in a town after only a short time in Tedaka. Nothing could make me happier than to stay in the forest and raise our family there."

Inrek hadn't been thinking of a family when he asked Carine to marry him. His mind began making pictures of their future together. The palace in Zedekla would not suit her. Far better the same setting where they had met. Their children, sturdy boys and graceful girls in homespun tunics, would not be tempted by the vices of the city.

Placine was old, but her eyes were sharp enough to see the silhouette of the couple on the rise beyond the city walls. She shook her head and turned back to her kitchen. She had tried to warn each of the headstrong young people about the problems they would face. Perhaps she should send a message to Zedekla about the folly Carine and Inrek were attempting. Did Tomak and Caril have any idea of the ancestry their son shared with the girl he had chosen?

Finally she shook her head. It really wouldn't matter what council and cautions others gave them. When they had been together in her garden the day before they both wore a look she had seen too often to ignore. They would challenge the world together and refuse to heed what wiser people told them. Only time would tell the price that would be paid.

Next book: The Gold Mask