Paths of the Shadow

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The Champions

When the champions' names were announced, Kelena tore her gaze from Thadorn's tall, broad and striking figure, and instead looked shrewdly at her sister's face. Jadine was flushed with excitement, her lips slightly parted, her eyes sparkling... fierce emotion was in her face, but no tenderness, and this disquieted Kelena.

Despite what Jadine thought, she was not stupid. She knew her sister was going to marry Thadorn. It was an unexpected, but nevertheless appropriate match. Jadine would marry Thadorn Tionae, and go home, and if she forgot her odd books and the blood-chilling theories she sometimes shared with Kelena for lack of better companions, she could be happy. Kelena envied her. She wished she could go home, too; marry someone of the Rhasket-Tharsanae clans, and live in happy and respectable privacy, as her parents had, and their parents before them. A dazzling success in the city and a marriage to a famously rich nobleman seemed like a fantasy of a foolish child, now that they materialized in the form of dark and handsome Dankar Gindur. She didn't want him, and if she dared, she would have screamed it in her mother's face.

... His Grace himself descended onto the tourney field, lithe on his feet, golden of hair and so beautiful that he took Kelena's breath away. The winners of the tournament knelt before him, and he helped each of them to their feet, clasped their shoulders, and said:

"Well fought, brave men. I am thankful for the tourney that made me see your skills and appreciate your value. I need men such as you about me. I offer you a place by my side, in my personal guard, and I promise you, you shall rise high. What say you?"

The jouster merely inclined his head in thanks, too stupefied by his good fortune to put his thoughts into a coherent phrase, and the winning archer distinctly said, "there is no higher honor, Your Grace."

But Thadorn Tionae remained standing, solid and unmovable. "Your Grace," he said, "by giving me a chance to pledge my life to yours, you honor me beyond belief. But I am afraid I cannot accept your generous offer. I am the Commander of the Sea Guard in Rhasket-Tharsanae, and at present, without undue humility, I do not see who would replace me. I must humbly ask your leave to return home."

There was an intake of breath, and tension was high in the air, as if people were expecting an outburst of anger, or a fit of cold sullenness. But the young king smiled, and rested his hand upon Thadorn's shoulder once more.

"Good and loyal man!" he exclaimed. "I shall sleep easier, knowing the Sea Guard of Rhasket is headed by you, Thadorn Tionae. Still, I wish to honor you. How shall I do that? Gold you shall have, like all champions. But what else would you ask of me?"

For a moment, Thadorn hesitated. "Your Grace," he finally said, "this tournament was held in the honor of your upcoming marriage, may it be long and fruitful and filled with joy. If it is possible, I wish to be included among your wedding guests."

"Done!" called the king with an easy smile. "You shall have a place of honor at the table of my wedding feast."

Thadorn bowed low, and did not straighten his back until the king resumed his seat in the royal booth.

"He did really well, didn't he?" said Nog.

"Better than could have been expected," said Rohir.

"Thadorn is a great warrior," his eldest son contradicted him.

"A great fool, perhaps," snapped Hinassi. "And with his fool's luck, he pushed through. Much good it will do him, though, if he threw away a splendid opportunity of service at court."

"Oh, I don't know, Hinassi," Uncle Derrien said. "This boon he asked for, of attending the wedding... it was shrewd. To be seen at the king's wedding feast is enough to lift one from obscurity."

"I wish we could all go," said Hinassi, somewhat petulantly. Dankar, who shared their booth once more, gave her the most fleeting half-glance, and averted his eyes.

Later, after they all returned home and had a quiet luncheon, Hinassi insisted that the girls retreat to their rooms, to rest after the morning's activities. "You must give yourself a respite," she said, "or you will look tired and listless, and we cannot have that, can we?" Jadine tried to protest and said something about having things to do in town, but her mother cut across her with her usual disdain for the opinions of others. "Anything you might want to do can wait," she said. "And if you go out in this glaring sun, your skin will become red and freckled. This must be avoided."

And so, the sisters spent the afternoon in the upstairs sitting room, which was small but as lavishly decorated as the rest of the house. Kelena took up her embroidery, while Jadine tried to immerse herself in several books in turn, before tossing them all aside in exasperation and beginning to walk from door to window.

"I looked forward to coming here, but now I wish we were home already," she said impatiently. "I feel like a prisoner."

Kelena's needle hovered in the air for a moment as she contemplated her sister. "You may go home," she said sadly, "but I have lost hope of that. Can you hear?" she strained to listen, and shuddered. A door was opened downstairs, someone descended in a rustle of silk, a few words were exchanged in a low voice. "It is him again, I know it is," Kelena whispered fervently. "Why did he have to fix his eye upon us? Why won't he let us be?"

Dankar Gindur did not stay long, though. Soon, their mother herself went upstairs and came into the room, looking buoyant. She was rarely in such a good mood.

"Daughters," she said, clasping her elegant white fingers together, "this is a great day for us all."

Kelena looked at her mother with sudden fear, yet Hinassi Kotsar said only, "the noble Gindur procured places for us at the royal wedding feast!"

"Did he?" exclaimed Jadine with the first display of real enthusiasm Kelena had seen from her since their arrival in the capital. "Did he really? Does this mean we are going, then?"

"Yes - yes, and it is a great chance for us to distinguish ourselves. We must go down into the city at once. Even our best clothes are too shabby for an event of such magnificence; new ones must be sewn with all rapidity. We must look our best... all of us... and especially you, Kelena," Hinassi turned to her younger daughter, who seemed to shrink in her seat.

"Me, Mother? Why me?"

"Because I believe," Hinassi said impressively, "that the noble Gindur has finally made his choice. I believe it shall be you, Kelena!" If she expected a display of joy on her daughter's side, she was disappointed. "What is the matter?" she asked impatiently. "You aren't going to let your stupid childish prejudices get in the way, are you? It will be a splendid match, better than I could hope for either of you. You will live in Aldon-Sur, close to court, and will be a very great lady."

Kelena nodded stiffly, hoping against hope her mother's ambitious plan might yet go awry.

She knew her sister always considered her vain, shallow and silly, yet something was changing within her. A mere fortnight ago, a match with someone rich and noble was without a doubt the height of her ambitions - and she would have given anything to attend the royal wedding. Now, she was willing to give it all up, if only it meant she could forget about Dankar Gindur forever and go home, safe and sound.

Still, she could not help but be affected by the splendour of the Great Temple, bedecked in exotic flowers from floor to its high vaulting ceiling. Colored panes were placed over the clear glass windows, and the place bathed in all the colors of the rainbow. By design, only one patch of white sunlight remained in the middle of the temple, exactly in the spot where the king and his bride stood facing each other, every eye in the crowd upon them. It is like a picture from a story or a song, Kelena thought. The king was all in white, apart from the trimming of his cloak, which was done in a pattern of blue and green waves. His golden crown glimmered brightly on his golden hair, and he had never looked happier. Princess Maviel looked radiant too, and resplendent in her many-layered gown of golden yellow satin, with intricate embroidery of leaves and trees upon it. She dispensed with the elaborate hairstyle she usually favored, and allowed her hair to fall upon her back in dark waves, soft and gleaming, only partly collected in twin braids that met at the back of her head. A stout, slightly balding yellow-haired man whom Kelena knew to be the king's uncle was given the honor of performing the marriage ceremony, in place of the king's deceased father.

"Do you, King Alvadon of United Tilir, Ninth of your name, take the Princess Maviel of Adrinor to be your wife and queen, now and for all time?"

"I take the princess for my queen," the king replied in a solemn voice.

"And do you, Princess Maviel of Adrinor, take our good king Alvadon to be your husband and your liege, now and for all time?"

"I take the king for my husband," the princess called out in her sweet clear voice, accentuated by foreign tones.

"Then I proclaim you man and wife." The king's uncle was a prodigious choice for the task, as his voice was deep and booming. "No force on earth or in heaven, in this world or the Other, shall separate you. May your union be joyful and fruitful and bring blessing to the land of Tilir."

The temple erupted in clapping and cheering, far louder than common politeness required, and the king gently took his bride's face between his hands and kissed her on the lips. Queen Maviel looked up at him, shyly and adoringly, and the innocence in her eyes nearly broke Kelena's heart. What wouldn't she have given to stand like this in front of everyone and say the wedding vows with a man she loved. He didn't have to be king. In her dreams, she couldn't clearly distinguish her lover's features, but he was always kind and generous as well as handsome and brave. She would have closed her eyes so as to picture it better, but she was too perturbed by the presence of the dark man who now stalked her family like a shadow.

After the ceremony was over, those who were invited to the feast formed a slow procession out of the back doors of the Great Temple and in the direction of the castle. They passed the Upper Esplanade on their way, and Kelena threw a longing look at her uncle's house, thinking of her comfortable little room with its books and cushions and harp. She wished she could remain there, alone and undisturbed; she ought to have felt flattered beyond words at being included in the select party that would attend the wedding feast, but fear turned any happy feeling to ashes in her mouth.

Their dresses were sewn in record time. Silk, of course; no other material would have done in the prolonged heat of the season. Her dress was dark purple, which enhanced the fairness of her skin and the gold of her hair, and made her eyes look almost lilac. Her sister wanted a red dress, but their mother wouldn't hear of it, so Jadine settled on a striking gown of emerald green embroidered in silver; it was, in Kelena's opinion, far too low cut, but she held her tongue. Jadine did look beautiful, though. She drew every eye to her as she had always done, it was plain to see.

Dankar Gindur was ever at Kelena's elbow, and his pleasant banter brought such a sense of doom upon her that she hardly paid attention to details of the castle - a place she had long dreamed of seeing. She was merely stunned by its enormity, its elegance, its many round turrets and towers and vast echoing marble halls and the silvery song of many-tiered cool fountains. They passed a hall in which the floor was made of thick clear glass, and colorful fish swam in a pool under it, forming an ever-changing tapestry.

Finally they reached the feast hall, and Kelena's breath was caught in her throat. She had never seen such elegance in a building; could not even imagine it existed. The walls and ceiling were all covered with mother-of-pearl and shone softly in a thousand different colors that changed every time she tilted her head. There was a raised dais for the king and queen, and a hundred small round tables lined along the walls - apparently, the number of guests was larger by far than was originally planned - with plenty of room for dancing in the middle of the hall. The sweet sounds of music, of harp and flute and delicate small silver tambourines, poured from a tall white balcony above, just near the ceiling, so that it seemed the melody came in from the sky.

Their party was seated in a respectable place, somewhere in the middle between the royal dais and the back of the hall. At a table just below the king's, Kelena noticed Thadorn Tionae, and envied him - not because he was seated so close to His Grace, but because he seemed so straight-backed and powerful and free. He noticed them too, she saw, and Jadine returned his glance.

Resolutely but without rushing, Thadorn got up from his place and came over to their table. He bowed, and was greeted warmly by Rohir and civilly enough by Hinassi. He solicited Jadine's hand for a dance and was graciously accepted. The dance floor began to fill with couples assembling in a spiraling chain traditional for the wedding dance.

"Ah," said Uncle Derrien lightly, mopping his brow with a perfumed handkerchief, "the day has left me fatigued, to be sure, but the young are ever tireless. Dancing is such fun for them."

Kelena saw her mother smile benignly, yet Hinassi's eyes were the eyes of a huntress intent upon her prey as she glanced meaningfully at their noble companion, and Dankar Gindur did not disappoint her. He turned to Kelena and gallantly said:

"Nothing shall make me happier than having you honor me with a dance."

After that, there was nothing to do but take his hand and allow herself to be led by him to the dance floor. His fingers were thin and strong and radiated dry warmth.

The wedding dance contained some rather complicated figures; each couple began at the outer end of the spiral, and was supposed to find itself in the very middle of it by the time the paces ended, while making all the gracious maneuvers accompanying the dance. It has been a while since Kelena did the spiral dance, and the presence of noble Dankar made her so distraught she felt clumsy. Thadorn looked clumsy - she noticed him with her sister a little ahead in the chain; he was obviously an inexperienced dancer, but Jadine's easy fluttering grace compensated for his bulky movements. Dankar Gindur, on the other hand, danced smoothly and effortlessly just as he walked and talked. He tried to engage her in conversation, but Kelena was too busy trying not to seem distressed and keeping her mind on the paces; she replied to her companion's discourse infrequently and not very eloquently. She half hoped and half feared he would find her dull.

He did not, apparently; because after the dance was over and he led her back to her place and they all had some cold oysters and a glass of iced wine, he declared he fancied a walk, and solicited Kelena to accompany him.

She felt harassed, like an animal caught in a snare. She would have refused, if she dared; she could have said she was too tired. But her mother looked at her meaningfully and said in a silky voice:

"Oh, I am sure a walk in the gardens would do you all the good in the world, Kelena. You appear flushed from the dancing."

She was flushed, but not from the dancing or the heat, and her heart felt like a fluttering bird in her chest when she was forced to take Dankar Gindur's arm and step out with him into the cool silence of the Inner Garden.

The Inner Garden was located within the castle walls, and in the summer provided a cool green respite from the heat that seemed to radiate from every surface. Elaborately designed tall hedges separated the garden into a hundred shady groves, and the soft thick grass underneath muffled every step when one wandered off the shell-lined walks. The music sounded softer here, a diminished presence, and the only light came from the bright half-moon and the myriad stars arranged around it in an imperceptibly shifting tapestry of diamonds upon velvet.

Dankar Gindur looked above. "The Maid is shy tonight," he observed, pointing at a constellation that was momentarily hid behind a silvery wisp of cloud, "she found the single cloud in the sky and drew it to her."

"It becomes her," replied Kelena, glancing up, and Dankar's well-defined mouth twitched in a satisfied smile.

"She needs no ornament to bring out her beauty," he said, and for a minute or two, they walked in silence. Then Kelena stopped abruptly, for behind the hedge nearest to them she heard voices that unmistakably belonged to her sister and Thadorn. She was about to speak or make her presence otherwise known, but Dankar Gindur gave her a meaningful look and slyly pressed a finger to his lips, and she wordlessly obeyed.

"You must have known," Thadorn spoke hotly and earnestly, "you must have known for a while now. I came for you; I entered the tournament -"

"You appeared civil to my family," Jadine put in with a trace of amusement, "that was a deed that doubtless required more effort than standing up against all those warriors."

"I never had anything against your clan," claimed Thadorn. "There is a breach between the Tionae and the Kotsar, I cannot deny it, but it runs so far back none of us can even tell how it started. It is beside the point, however. I care not for petty misdeeds of someone a thousand years past; I only care for you. I love you, Jadine, I have loved you since you were half a girl. I don't believe you have been blind."

The silence that followed those words constricted Kelena's heart so that she almost forgot about the man standing next to her. "I have not," Jadine finally said, in a voice softer than her usual tones. And again there was silence, tangible and strained. "You are sweet, Thadorn," Jadine said finally, "but I am not made for what you offer me. I cannot marry you."

"Why?" such pain and anger was conveyed in that short hushed word that Kelena's heart went out to him; she wished she could go to him, and press his hand like a sister... and warn him to walk away as fast as his feet could carry him.

"It will be better for us both," said Jadine with a tinge of sadness in her voice. "Trust me. You shall thank me before all is said and done."

For a moment Kelena expected to hear Thadorn's receding footsteps, but she should have known better. He did not waver so easily.

"I do not believe you," he said stubbornly, "do you not love me, Jadine? Say you do not, and I will go. But say whatever else, and I will stay."

And still the music played, sweet and insistent, and there were no more words from beyond the hedge. Then there was a soft wet sound that was unmistakably a kiss. Kelena blushed to her ears, belatedly thinking how badly mannered it was to stand there and eavesdrop in such a manner. Soundlessly, Dankar pressed a finger to his lips once more and motioned for them to get going. They slipped away as quickly and quietly as they could, and when they were safely on the opposite side of the garden again, he said:

"Well, it appears your parents will hear a very satisfying declaration before the night is over."

The ambiguity of his words was not lost on Kelena, but she made herself face him boldly.

"We shall all be happy for Jadine," she said.

"Just so," he nodded. "Would you care for another dance?" he asked casually. "After the middle courses are served?"

"You honor me, noble Gindur, but I fear I shall be too tired by then."

"You can call me Dan," he suggested, unabashed by her refusal. Kelena looked at him, faintly shocked. She could never presume to use this address with a man so little known. He seemed to read her face like an open book, and was amused. "Ah. We in the city have grown too used to familiarity, I'm afraid. Let us go back, at any rate. Another cup of iced wine wouldn't go amiss in this heat, don't you think?"

... At night, back in the comforting solitude of her room, Kelena tossed and turned restlessly. The sparkling black gaze of Dankar Gindur's eyes as he bent over her hand in his leave-taking was before her. She would delude herself no longer; there could be no doubt now that she was the object of his attentions, and he certainly put on a very good show of playing the gallant lover with her, yet something was amiss... she couldn't even tell what, and it unnerved her.

Before dawn, she heard Jadine creep quietly out of her room and go downstairs. She was used to it by now. She knew her sister visited the Halls of Learning; what she could possibly find to do there every day, Kelena had not the slightest idea. Jadine made a point to return in time for breakfast every day, and her moods at table were ever shifting. Sometimes she was complacent, almost unusually docile, sometimes she fell into fits of irritation, as if such a commonly expected filial duty as breakfast with her family was annoying beyond words.

There was no point in trying to fall asleep now. Kelena got up and put on one of her morning dresses, a simple light blue linen that made her look sweet and innocent and perhaps a little girlish, though today she looked older than her sixteen years. Her face was pale, and there were blue shadows under her eyes.

The early hour made her surprised to hear a knock on the door, so brisk and rapt that it could only belong to her mother. Hinassi entered, elegantly dressed and wide awake and with a triumphant smile on her lips.

"You are ready to go downstairs, good," she said, measuring her daughter with a critical stare. "I presume you heard the front door open just now?"

"I thought it was Jadine coming back from her walk," said Kelena with a sense of foreboding.

"Ah," her mother said coolly. "I assume Jadine won't return until breakfast time. Thadorn Tionae is expected as well. You have guessed everything is settled on that account, have you not? Thadorn took your father aside at the wedding feast and asked for Jadine's hand. They are to be married in Rhasket soon after we return home." She shrugged, faintly disapproving. "It is not a disgraceful match, of course, but your sister could have done better, if only she was cleverer."

"Jadine appears... fond of him," Kelena said cautiously.

"I assume she is, because what other inducement could there be for her to marry him?"

"I think half the girls in Rhasket would have gladly married Thadorn," said Kelena with unusual firmness.

"In Rhasket," her mother repeated derisively. "Perhaps. Well, to your good fortune, you need never make your home in Rhasket again."

Kelena's face went from slight pallor to chalk whiteness. She knew what her mother was going to say; knew who must be the early visitor sitting downstairs.

"The noble Dankar Gindur came over as soon as he could reasonably suppose we were awake," her mother went on, the grin of vicious triumph prominent on her face once more. "His purpose was to talk to your father and ask for our approval of you and him joining in marriage."

"And what did Father say?" Kelena asked in a small voice. She had a vague notion of her father understanding her true inclination better than her mother.

"What did he say?" Hinassi didn't appear to understand the question. "What could he say? The noble Gindur - Dankar, we may call him now - was very gracious and charming, and the proposal was made in a very respectful manner. Of course, there was nothing left for your father to do but embrace him like a son."

Kelena's heart missed a beat. Her fate was sealed and done, then.

"Now come downstairs," her mother said briskly, "he is waiting. I understand your... perturbation of spirits," she added, "but do try to seem a little less confused and a little more excited. And pinch your cheeks. Your betrothed will want to see some color in your face."

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