Paths of the Shadow

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A New Life

When Jadine missed her moon's blood once, then twice, she felt an unexpected surge of fear which had little to do with the thoughts of birthing a child. But there was exhilaration too, and she was careful to let it alone shine through her face as she placed Thadorn's hand on her belly and smiled.

"I am going to give you a son, my love," she said, and he beamed.

"I had hoped it would happen," he confessed, "but I didn't think it would be so soon."

"He was conceived on our first night together," Jadine said. "I know it."

"The first of how many?" Thadorn was half-teasing, half-serious.

"There shall be just one son for us," she said without a shadow of a smile, and Thadorn's face clouded.

"Why do you say so, my love?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "I know it," she said again, "I simply know it." He looked so uncertain, so thrown off balance by these words that she hastened to reassure him. "We will have girls, though," she lifted up a hand to touch his face, "and they will be beautiful as our son will be brave."

The crease between Thadorn's brows disappeared, yet still he seemed troubled. "It doesn't signify much whether we have one son and a dozen daughters, or the other way around..." he said. Jadine laughed.

"Is that the destiny you have in mind for me, my love? A litter of fox cubs? But no, it shall be a herd of fawns, for I belong to the Stag now." For the Tionae had a proud stag for their clan Spirit, whereas the Kotsar elected the fox, or as they claimed, the fox chose them in days too long-gone to remember. The Kamtesir, the third large clan of Rhasket-Tharsanae, had the lily as their sacred symbol. Long ago there were those who mocked the Kamtesir for being under the Spirit patronage of a dainty flower – until a famous warrior of the Kamtesir called Vykkar the Great rode into battle with a lily pinned to his breast. After the battle was over, he presented the blood-spattered lily to the king... it evaded Jadine's mind which king it was. One of the Alvadons, no doubt.

"As I said," Thadorn persisted, although it was evident he would have been much happier just to fall silent, "it does not signify much to me how many children we have, or whether they are boys or girls, as long as all are hale and healthy. What puzzles me is those claims you sometimes make, of just knowing something."

"You wouldn't pay any mind to it if these claims weren't true," Jadine said firmly. "Confess it, Thadorn. You know I'm not just a silly blabbering girl who swears she had seen her future husband's face in a mirror on a midsummer's night of full moon."

This seemed to have brought on another disconcerting thought. "Did you do that as well?" he asked. "Did you look into a mirror or a lake or stream, and see my face?"

"No," Jadine said softly. "I didn't need to. I knew that if there would be someone, it would be you. I have known for a while before we spoke for the first time, on that day when you won the wrestling match."

Thadorn's expression softened as well, and he took her in his arms. "I have known as well, my love," he said. "I have known it for years, without possessing any unusually clear sight into the future." He paused and kissed her tenderly on both eyes, then on her lips. "Now we had better get ready," he said, "or we will be late for Rogell's wedding."

To Rogell's wonder and delight, his silent admiration of Lya yielded the most satisfying results, soon after the marriage of his best friend. The fair maiden, who prior to that didn't treat him with anything more than cousinly cordiality, began to show a different, and far more agreeable side. She expressed her pleasure in his company, praised him for his bravery in thwarting a pirate attack, and turned a listening ear whenever he spoke. He only dared make timid advances at first, but when it became plain to him he is encouraged he took the plunge and asked for Lya's hand – and to his joy, was accepted. The betrothal was sealed, the wedding arranged, and two months after Thadorn and Jadine's wedding, Rogell and Lya were about to become man and wife as well.

Jadine no longer felt pity for the slender dark-haired girl. Her husband's distant cousin thoroughly relished her hour in the sunshine. True, Lya Tionae might not have gotten the man she wanted most, but hers was a nature that was apt to be content. As she stood by Rogell's side she looked perfectly ready to be happy with her new husband.

The bigger the child within her grew, the more restless Jadine became. It was greensickness at first, harshest in the mornings, somewhat bearable during the rest of the day. Her breasts swelled and ached, her waist lost its slender outline, her bladder was in need of relief several times during the night - and what annoyed her most of all, the milky-white delicate skin of her shoulders and upper back erupted in foul pus-filled boils. They ached and itched, and when ruptured, they burned, yet she still would have the burning over the throbbing. With the help of her clanswomen she punctured the ugly white heads with a fire-heated needle and washed the wounded skin with sea water, which hurt so much it made her clench her teeth, yet she didn't relent. And on her nights with Thadorn, it was now she who insisted all the candles should be blown out before they got into bed.

No matter how fat and ungainly she felt, her husband found her beautiful, and her passion for him grew in return. And no matter how fatigued she was, somehow she always found her way into his arms. His huge hands were ever tender when they touched her, and in the dark he would rest them on her stomach and whisper to his unborn son.

It was beginning to seem to Jadine that this would never be over and she would be pregnant forever when, like all things in life, it finally came to an end. It was a spring day, so warm it felt like summer already, and she was reclining on silk cushions in the house of her parents, lazily nibbling on some early strawberries. The baby's kicks and movements were less vigorous than usual, as though he was lulled to sleep by the warm sun and gentle wind.

"I cannot stand this anymore," Jadine complained to her mother, in absence of other listeners. She wiped a trickle of strawberry juice from her chin. "The wisewomen said this baby was due to be born a week ago, and I don't know what he is waiting for, because I sure am ready to – "

She stopped abruptly, overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of wetness in her lower regions. As she glanced down, she realized she is sitting in a puddle of fluid. Then deep pain knotted her from within, and she knew it has begun.

It was her first time, but Jadine knew no fear. She went out into the garden and told everyone to leave her alone. Their presence annoyed her as she paced back and forth, and knelt and rocked and breathed, and hugged herself and sang to her son. When Thadorn came running, flushed and breathless, she welcomed his presence, but she refused the assistance of midwives until the very last, when all that was left was only to catch the babe that slid out from between her thighs, wet and slippery, red of skin and red of hair and bawling loudly. The midwives wrapped the boy in swaddling clothes and brought him to her, and Jadine, laughing and crying, put him to her breast.

Later, she placed the boy in Thadorn's powerful arms. Her husband sat silent with awe and wonder, afraid to move a muscle so as not to hurt the baby. Jadine picked up his cloak and wrapped herself in it. Her own bloodstained clothes were discarded at some stage of the labour. When her son came into the world, she was as naked as he.

"Name him," Thadorn said in a voice hoarse with joy.

"Are you certain?" she hesitated. It was usually the privilege of a man to name his firstborn, especially with the Tionae. She took a deep breath. "Korian," she said. "His name is Korian."

No man between the desert and the sea had ever looked happier than Thadorn Tionae at the Motherhood ceremony held for Jadine and her firstborn. It is a tradition of Tilir that a new mother, in celebration of the life that was brought through her into the world, is given a special bracelet. The poor men carve arm-bands out of wood or beat them out of copper, and the nobles have delicate bracelets or even anklets made from gold and diamonds, but the design is always the same – the coil of a fruitful vine, heavy with grapes. The bracelet Thadorn had given his young wife was new silver, delicately wrought and beautifully sparkling, adorned with clusters of small opals set into the grape frame. As the bracelet was received, Jadine passed the boy into her husband's arms, and then each of the present, both of the Tionae and the Kotsar, held the boy and proclaimed him blessed, and predicted that he would have a great future as a man and a warrior. When the child became restless, he was turned over to his mother once more. Jadine went aside with her son and opened the front of her dress to nurse him, while the singing and dancing and drinking went all around them.

Not long after, a similar ceremony was held for Rogell and Lya's son, a strong healthy boy with a head full of black hair. The child was named Jorrel, and it was predicted – or rather, wished for – by both fathers that the two boys, like them, would grow up to be the best of friends.

In the middle of the celebration, Jadine with little Korian in her arms walked over to Thadorn and Rogell, who looked deep in conversation with a clansman of hers, a young man by the name of Akira. It surprised her to see the three of them huddled together in such a manner, since she knew Akira was not exactly a bosom friend with any of the Tionae, although the intercourse between the two clans has been warmer ever since she and Thadorn married.

"What are you three talking about?" she asked in a would-be offhand way. To her surprise, she saw a frown on her husband's face, as if he'd rather not answer. Rogell, faithful sidekick that he was, naturally remained silent as well.

"I've had news from the south," replied Akira. "There has been some trouble across the Dust River again."

"Trouble?" repeated Jadine. "What kind of trouble?"

"Settlers," Akira explained succinctly. "Some southerners decided they would cross the border and set up some shacks and tents and call it a village by the name of... well, it doesn't signify much. The king, after asking leave of the Malvians, ordered some troops to march across the border and put it all to torch."

Jadine looked livid. "The Malvian savages are wreaking havoc in the south, and our king wastes strength on battling his own people?" she asked incredulously.

Akira shrugged. "It is the law," he said.

"They were putting themselves in danger," said mild-mannered Rogell. "His Grace did it as much for their protection as for anything else."

"We wouldn't need protection if we didn't show the savages we fear them," argued Jadine. "And how can the Malvians say anything about us being on the land that is supposedly theirs, when they constantly invade ours, and make claims on it?"

"The Malvian king insists he has nothing to do with the savage raids north of the Dust River," Thadorn spoke for the first time.

Jadine's nostrils flared. "And yet he will spare no strength in order to stop them," she said, rocking the babe in her arms. None of the men bothered to answer her. Before she was married, they might have been drawn into an argument, as Jadine was famous for her cheek; but she was only a woman now, only a mother, and the milky mist that settled on her since her son was born had dulled her edge. She was expected to be quiet and content, compliant and trusting of the judgment of others. She was supposed to wish for nothing but the safety of her family, the comfort of her home.

She was supposed to be something she was not.

That night, after the babe had settled down to a sound sleep, Jadine slipped out of the house. Thadorn was on guard duty and she knew he would not be back until morning. No one need ever know she had gone, and she wasn't even aware of where her feet were carrying her. She merely wanted to experience, once again, the fleeting freedom of a lone wolf or a seagull in the sky.

The town gates were closed, but this was never a hindrance to her. She had lived in Rhasket-Tharsanae all her life, and had her secret paths. Soon, she took off her sandals and carried them in one hand, treading lightly on the tightly packed wet sand. In the distance, she could see the faint lights of Thadorn's patrol ship, and smiled to herself. It was a calm summer's night, and she was a good swimmer. She could swim over and call to her husband as he paced up and down the deck of the ship. He would be startled; perhaps old legends would spring up to his mind, tales of the Daughters of the Sea, who were the offspring of the Great Spirit and the Great Water Mother. Today scholars would say it is profanity to think the Great Spirit had ever fathered children of flesh and blood, but folk up and down Tilir would not part from their old lore so easily.

She walked on. No, she would not dare to play such a trick on Thadorn; she might be taken for a smuggler, and that would lead to her capture and to awkward questions regarding what she is doing outside her bed at an hour like this.

And then she realized that she had made, without knowing it, the familiar route to Lafgar's cave. She expected him to be asleep, but there was still a fire in the small neat hearth he had built from stones polished by the sea, and he did not express the slightest surprise at seeing her standing there, although they have scarcely spoken once or twice since her marriage. He just sat there, playing a slow tune on a roughly carved wooden flute, and set it aside only when her silhouette blocked the moonlight and shadows danced on the cave walls, like in old times. A plain man he was, Lafgar, with his broad freckled face and straw-colored hair and his clothes that always smelled of goat, yet there was something imposing about him all the same, a quiet authority that was impossible to ignore.

"You needn't have come," he said quite calmly. "I never had much to teach you, and what I did have you took long ago and multiplied a thousand times."

"I did not come here to learn," said Jadine. She crossed her legs and settled down across from him, on the other side of the fire. The sand was fine and dry here, legacy of a thousand sea winds. "I came here to be still and quiet, to look into the flame and see waves, to gaze upon the waves and see fire, to read in the stars what had been and will be."

"There is no will be," Lafgar contradicted her, picking up his flute again. "There is only might be. I thought I had taught you this years ago, child."

Child. This stroke a chord of memory she would rather lay aside for the time being; she shook her head obstinately. "And yet you were awake, waiting for me because you knew I would come, even though I did not know it myself. Go on, deny it."

"I will do no such thing," said Lafgar with one of his rare smiles. Challenging him was never any good.

"You will not tell me to go, though?" she asked with sudden trepidation.

"You are always welcome here," he said, drawing a few notes on his flute. "Yet why do not you tell me, Jadine, what is it that you see in the flames and waves and stars?"

She closed her eyes.

"I see fire," she said, "dark fire, and all-consuming; I see dark water, speeding up, crashing down. I see the glint of sun on steel, and the wet redness of blood. Yet I do not know what to make of it all." She balled her fists in frustration and opened her eyes. "I do not know, Lafgar."

He played another serene tune on his flute and fixed a fearless stare upon her.

"Then I suggest you put it all out of your mind," he said.

"Out of my mind?" she repeated incredulously. "Are you like all men now, then? Don't think of it, don't bother your pretty little head with it when you could be cooking meals for your husband or embroidering cushions or rocking your babe, because there is nothing you can do anyway."

"I did not say there is nothing you can do," Lafgar contradicted her calmly. "But you would do more harm than good, may the Spirits of the Sea and Sand and Forest be my witness."

Jadine looked at him furiously. "You know our king Alvadon is a good king," she said. "He is noble, he is generous, he is valiant. Yet he isn't enough to shield us from the treachery of the Malvians, from the wild tribes east and west, from the world that would have us torn apart. Being noble and generous and valiant is no good."

"Then what is?" inquired Lafgar, seeming mildly amused. He did not wait for an answer. "This is the last time we see each other," he said abruptly, "at least for a good long while," he added.

"Are you going somewhere?" Jadine asked, or rather, demanded to know.

"I'm going home," he said, and paused, "to the Emerald Mountains."

An expression of shock flitted over Jadine's face.

"The Emerald... but you always said you were from Opi-Kir."

"I was born there," he nodded, "yet my mother was from the West. Some of your kin must have been from there too, else how would you account for your gifts?"

"All gifts are given by the Spirit," said Jadine.

"That is true... though some places are favored more than others. At any rate," he got up now, sounding brisk, "come morning, Lafgar's cave will be empty, and not many here will remember me once the moon has turned."

"I will," promised Jadine, looking torn apart by an internal struggle. "But why must you go?" she burst out. "What are you – "

He raised a hand, and she stopped abruptly. "In good time," he said, "we might meet again. To find me, and perhaps other things that will matter more, all you have to do is go west and west and west, until you reach a place where the mountains touch the sky."

"I cannot go west and west and west," she told him, annoyed. "I am a married woman now. A mother."

"That is true," Lafgar shrugged. "You have no choice."

"I should have been born a man," said Jadine.

He laughed in his quiet way. "Perhaps it is all to the good the Great Spirit decided to make you a woman. Farewell, Jadine. We might meet again someday... or we might not. By now you should see clearer than me on that account."

"I see nothing," said Jadine. "Not about this."

He nodded. "So be it," he said. "Now hurry home, child. A rumour reached me that the Sea Guard will be changing shifts earlier than usual tonight. You don't want your husband to come home to an empty house."

No, Jadine did not want that, and she hastened her steps as she walked back across the wet sand, up until a place where she stopped and put her sandals back on her feet. The sun wasn't up yet when she arrived back at the empty house, crept slowly upstairs, and fell back to sleep to the sound of her baby's even breathing.

Next thing she knew, light was streaming in through the windows and Thadorn was shaking her gently by the shoulder.

"Wake up, my love," he said. "It is early, I know, and I would have left you in peace while the babe sleeps... but your sister is here."

"Kelena?" Jadine rubbed the sleep away from her eyes. It has been a year since she saw her sister; since they were both married, the only intercourse between them was by gradually dwindling correspondence. "When did she arrive? And why is everything so quiet?"

"She asked it to be so," Thadorn said. "Why, I do not know," he added with a frown. "She was waiting on the doorstep when I got back from duty, all wrapped up in a cloak that hid her face. There was no one else with her, and she begged of me and my parents not to tell anyone she is in town – not even your mother. I fear there is some sort of trouble, Jadine. You had better see her at once."

Jadine wanted to dress first, but Korian began to squall in his crib, and she picked him up and brought him to her swollen breast. The child sucked lustily, and her milk came in with a rush and squirted into the little mouth, which gulped it down eagerly. The other breast leaked milk as well, and Jadine reached for a folded soft cloth to prevent the milk from dripping all over her nightgown and sheets.

"Tell my sister to come up," she said to Thadorn as she reclined on the cushions, embracing her babe.

Kelena did not look happy. It was obvious she chose her plainest clothes for traveling, so as to be less conspicuous, yet still her cloak looked more expensive than most of what Jadine owned. There were dark shadows under her sister's eyes, and her face was pale.

"What happened?" Jadine asked bluntly. Kelena cast down her eyes.

"I had nowhere else to go," she said quietly.

"You ran away," Jadine said sagely. It was not a question.

Her sister looked up again, anguished, tormented. "I couldn't take it any longer," she said. "Yet he is looking for me, I know. He will find me."

Jadine made a sound that was half exasperated, half commiserating. "You haven't told me yet what made you leave, yet somehow, I am not surprised. Don't worry, you can stay here while we think what to do next, and none of us will breathe a word."

Kelena let out a tremulous sigh. "Then there is still a chance I might not have to go back to Aldon-Sur," she said.

"Not unless you want to," Jadine promised, and her eyes were piercing when they bore into her sister's. "Or... perhaps you feel you have to? Are you with child? Tell me the truth."

"No," Kelena took a deep breath, and went on bravely. "I'm a maid," she said, "and I am likely to remain that way until I die."

This left Jadine dumbstruck. "I do not understand," she said. "Are you saying Dankar never – "

"Never," said Kelena vehemently, "nor did he express the slightest wish to."

Jadine shook her head. "I would never have thought," she said, "from how vigorously he pursued you..."

Kelena's mouth twisted in uncharacteristic bitterness. "You would never have thought," she repeated. "That is precisely what he was after."

She gave a brief, succinct explanation that left Jadine speechless.

"This..." she shook her head. "This is humiliating. I don't know how you have put up with it even this long."

"He will murder me if he knows I told someone," Kelena lifted her tormented eyes so that they were level with her sister's. "He killed his first two wives."

Jadine was clearly unimpressed. "Let him try to hurt you," she said. "You are mistaken, Kelena - you needn't hide, not here where you are surrounded by friends and kin. You must let all stand by your side. Thadorn will protect you as well, and all the Tionae with him."

"Mother will be mortified to have this tale go beyond our clan," murmured Kelena.

"It needn't, if this bastard of a Gindur has an ounce of sense. You promise him to keep his secret, he arranges a quiet separation and writes down that he renounces all rights on you, and that is all. Your disjoining will be complete and you can go on with your life, while he can find himself another victim."

Jadine consciously made it sound simple and straightforward, although she knew Dankar Gindur is a dangerous man. She instantly saw Kelena wasn't fooled, though. When she looked into her sister's eyes, she saw fear.

All through breakfast, Jadine was vaguely annoyed by the solicitousness Andorn and Faelle expressed towards Kelena in every gesture. It was as though they already guessed, however vaguely, what was going on, and were feeling certain smugness at the looming dissolution of the glorious union the Kotsar have made.

During the day there was a knock on the door. Kelena, who sat immersed in some little sewing task Jadine gave her mainly to keep her from fidgeting, leapt up trembling and bounded upstairs, before Jadine could say it was probably only Rogell, come to exchange a few words with Thadorn before the beginning of his shift.

Yet the young man who stood on the doorstep was unfamiliar, and clearly not of the Provinces. His clothing, though dusted by a long ride, was fine and well-made in the latest fashion, and the long dagger on his hip had splendid amethysts gracing its pommel. The most prominent thing about him, though, was his paleness. His hair was pale, and the skin of his face, his eyes and his hands. Yet he was without a doubt a handsome man, and his air was strong and vigorous, despite his mild well-bred manners.

"I probably have the honor of seeing Jadine Tionae, wife of the valiant Thadorn," he said with a polite bow. "I am Emmet of the Nimedor."

He didn't have to say more to introduce himself. The Nimedor were one of the most influential clans in the capital, and at least one seat was reserved for them at the King's Council at all times.

"To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?" Jadine asked briskly, suppressing a smirk at the thought of how much her mother would have groveled before this man, if only she had the chance.

"I came to see your sister," was the direct reply of Emmet Nimedor. Jadine hoped she managed to keep her face impassive.

"Kelena is in Aldon-Sur," she said matter-of-factly. "I don't know what made you think she – "

"Please," he interrupted her mildly but firmly. "I know she is here, and so does Dankar. I need to see her."

There was no use in pretending anymore, so she placed her hands on her hips.

"And what do you need to see her for, pray?"

"To convince her she must return," Emmet said.

"Oh, must she?" Jadine no longer hid her irony. "What will happen to her if she does?"

Emmet looked genuinely surprised. "What would happen to her? No, listen, I know there are some horrible rumours circulating about Dankar, and I'll grant you this, he is a quick-tempered man, but he is not unkind... nor is he without understanding. He would never begrudge his wife a visit to her family, even if she didn't bother to let him know. He only hopes Kelena will return in good time, in a fashion proper to a lady of her rank."

Jadine squinted in suspicion. "And what is your connection to Dankar that he sends you here, to be his eyes and his voice?" she demanded. "Are you kin?"

"Not directly, although there is a certain bond of blood between the Nimedor and the Gindur," told Emmet, "but Dankar and I are friends. He would trust me with his life."

Jadine scrutinized him. Is that the way of it? She wondered. Light and dark, sunshine and shadow? Emmet looked as though he could be a few years younger than Dankar, yet there was an ageless maturity in the fine lines of his face.

"Friends," she repeated. "Close friends, I presume?"

"More like brothers," Emmet readily replied. "I owe my life to Dankar... which is a story of its own, though I'm afraid I would bore you with the details."

"How very considerate of you," Jadine said icily. "But if you and Dankar Gindur are such intimate friends, perhaps I need not gloss over certain details of his, ah, private life that my sister revealed to me in confidence." When Emmet did not protest, she went on. "I confess my sister and I were never particularly close. We are too different, I suppose. Yet she is my only sister, and I am not prepared to sit back and allow an unworthy man to make use of her as an ornamental mask, when she is a girl of warm feelings, made to be happy and to bring happiness to others."

"You are being unfair to Dankar," insisted Emmet Nimedor, "but at least your frankness makes it easier for me to explain myself. He might not have a burning passion for your sister, yet he is grateful for and appreciative of her qualities as an excellent wife. As a friend and companion, she means a lot to him. He said his vows with her; she is under his authority and protection. Naturally, he expects her to come back."

"Would you come back?" Jadine shot at him. "If you were her?"

For the first time, Emmet looked faintly uncomfortable, yet he had no opportunity to give an answer to this, because all of a sudden, Kelena's footsteps sounded down the stairs. She was standing there, pale and frail and resolute.

"I recognized your voice," she told Emmet. He didn't answer, merely made a bow, staring at her intently.

"I will go with you," she said in a horrible quiet voice. Jadine turned and looked at her sharply.

"Why would you?" she told her sister. "You have nothing to fear here."

"I..." Kelena hesitated. "I do not fear."

Jadine snorted. "You have always been a lousy liar."

"To separate... there would be an uproar. Mother and Father would be grieved. I... I cannot do this to them. This way, at least I am respectable, and I have connected myself in a way that brings honor to the clan. I shall try and be content with my lot," Kelena said, and the bravery in her voice was entirely missed by Jadine, who thought she had never met such a coward.

"Suit yourself," Jadine said briskly. "I confess, I cannot see the point in coming all the way here if all you do next is running back, but the decision is yours."

At these words, Kelena looked up and reddened with anger. "The decision was never mine," she said quietly. Then she turned to Emmet. "Will you be able to escort me back to Aldon-Sur?"

"As soon as you wish to go," he told her, "although perhaps it may be advisable to trespass upon the hospitality of your parents for just one night."

Jadine watched intently. A look of understanding – however perverse it might have been – passed between Kelena and her husband's friend. There was an odd contrast between their faces. Kelena was fair, but her face was a sun-kissed rose, her hair a field of ripe wheat. Emmet Nimedor was pale and crisp as snow. That he was Dankar's lover, Jadine had no doubt. Yet there was something compelling about him all the same.

After Kelena made herself ready and went to the house of their parents, Jadine sat still for a long time, brooding, Korian on her breast once more. It was not in her nature to grieve for others, but Kelena's behavior, uncertain, fearful and blundering, was like the sting of a bee stuck under her skin. It irritated her, and she could not get it out, no more than she could pretend she didn't notice it. It must have taken all her courage to run away and come here, she mused. Yet what good did it do, if she would just go back? She could not pretend she didn't see her sister's point, though. Dankar Gindur was not a man to trifle with, and it took courage to stand up to him... courage that Kelena never possessed.

It would have made more sense if their roles were reversed; Kelena was much better suited to marry someone she had known her whole life and live quietly at home, while Jadine would have done well with a brilliant connection that would allow her to stay in the city and perhaps be of some influence at court. Yet fate chose to toss its dice differently. At least I have Thadorn, and the babe, and the promise of more children, Jadine told herself. Yet to her, it could not be a source of complete satisfaction as it would have been for Kelena.

The events of the next few days put the plight of her sister out of Jadine's mind somewhat. It was announced up and down the country that King Alvadon is going to sign a treaty with Malvia, giving the Malvians access to lake Trygven, the most important water resource of the water-deprived south. Enormous pipe lines were going to be built to carry the water across the southern border – all at the expense of the Tilirians.

"I do not understand," Jadine shook her head in disbelieving outrage. "What do we gain from this?"

"Peace," said Thadorn, with the air of a man who does not believe his own words.

"Peace?" Jadine repeated mockingly. "Yes, the Malvians shall give us peace... because they are in no position to attack us. We have a better army than them, sharper swords, stronger spirits. But why should we give them gifts?"

"The Malvian king proclaimed he will make his best effort to get the wild tribes under control," said Thadorn.

"He will never do that. The tribesmen do not recognize his authority, and he won't bother enough to impose it by law of sword and blood."

Thadorn sighed. "You are right," he finally said. "Yet it is easy for us to speak of this, safe behind the walls of our house. King Alvadon was under tremendous pressure from Adrinor, Selfinor and Letaria to sign this treaty. The conflict our borders are fraught with is bad for trade, it makes travel unsafe, it isolates Tilir..."

"Would that it really isolated us," said Jadine, "then we would have to answer to no one. We should answer to no one. We are an older people than the Letarians or the Adrinorians; long before Selfinor was even settled, we were masters of this land, even though we had no true kingdom yet. Our heroes walked the earth and the Great Spirit smiled upon them, and it is here where He still dwells, even though his children might be hidden in lakes and streams and forests. We have lost our pride, and if anyone thinks that will bring us peace, they are deluded."

Thadorn took hold of her hand. "Your love of this land does you honor," he told her, "yet there are some things which are far above our station. Politics are not our province, Jadine. Our task is to stay here, unseen and unheard of, part of the people doing their work... doing their duty."

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