Gabriella lay awake in her furs, listening to the wet winter snow hit her window and slide down it, enjoying the fire popping in her fireplace. She wondered what would become of these Outlanders she had taken in and adopted. Between their speech and their strange habits and mannerisms left over from their own culture, she feared for them when the time finally arrived for them to leap from the branch and fly.
All that she could see for them in their future was perhaps a mercenary company, which would keep them together at the least. Gabriella could not envision them as merchants, for few had the savvy to bargain as a successful merchant had to. Nor could she see them as apprentices to any smithies, or servants, or any lower positions, for the culture they had been raised in had instilled in them a sense of pride equal to that of any born into a House; these children surely would never be able to bend at the knee or bow to another’s wishes. And what House would accept a girl servant who was mindmate to a zary’andu?
No, if it was nothing else than that one fact, she was convinced that these Outlanders were destined for something far greater than a life of subservience or the incessant traveling of a merchant. This continually brought her back to the idea of the formation of a company. They would have the choice of any Domain’s Royal Guard, or they could hire themselves out. They had all the making of a company, though they were far behind in the mastery of skills as yet, certainly. DarRic would become a master of the sword, and a formidable one at that; he now had to duck beneath the door frame where he hadn’t when he’d arrived here in this land.
She believed Ric’s talent lay in the mastery of another weapon, perhaps the bow. His senses were very sharp; he might have some ability as a tracker. He was also very quick on the feet, perhaps she would speak with a weaponsmaster about him at the Spring Market. Fiona Gabriella was not sure of. The girl seemed timid and sickened at the sight of blood, yet Gabriella sensed a strength in her, and a great compassion. She also kept her head in battle and did not give in to her emotions until after the danger had passed. Perhaps she would be a Healer, or a scout possibly.
Elise - such strange names these Outlanders used! They would have to assume more common names if they expected to escape notice. Escaping notice would be far more difficult for this group regardless of their mastery of any skills at all, for Elise had bonded to a zary’andu and that especially would never escape notice. Yet on the battlefield, this had proven an extraordinary advantage - if the sight of the legendary zary’andu by Elise’s side did not distract an adversary long enough to dispatch him, then certainly Elise could fall back on either her own skill or that of Fiaz’, for she was now quite gifted with the use of the bow, and of course, zary’andu were the most formidable opponents. She, too, Gabriella felt, would have to learn the use of the sword; to be accepted into an army, one must have more than one skill, indubitably.
But then there was the main advantage of this group were they to become a mercenary unit. Andrew. He would assume the rank of Sorcerer quickly in comparison to those who took many years to advance to that level of kyor’rashni, though Gabriella felt sure that he would advance beyond Sorcerer. That was only part of his appeal to a mercenary unit. A Mage was an advantage indeed, yet one with equal adeptness in kyor’rishtan was quite a prize. The immediate problem at hand was to progress her Outlanders to the point where they would be accepted to a mercenary school. Only those with promising ability already evident were accepted to these schools, and one had to be truly proficient to be considered eligible for entry. She would have to take care of that herself.
Their command of the language had progressed most promisingly, but.... Ah, but. They had the accent of no person in the Land, not out of the east, west, south, or north. Her own accent was recognizable in their speech, though not prominent. All of them needed to learn to speak flawlessly, without an accent of any kind, save that which they learned from her.
Her own accent was that of the North, usually mistaken for lowland nobility. This was an assumption that Gabriella was grateful for, for the true origin of her accent was much farther North than anyone would ever guess. In the literal sense, she was not even from this Land. She had been born and raised on the island of Tallasesh, as part of the caste that presided over the island. One of the many sons and daughters her father indifferently spawned by nearly as many women, she was quite far from the line of ascension to the governing seat and so she was accorded no special acknowledgment of her rank other than residence at one of the Imperial estates, proper schooling and training as befitted her station, and of course, the title of kestra, or kelestra as she grew older.
The people of this Land liked to indulge in the fantasy that they had successfully banished her people to the Island of Tallasesh all those Eras ago for their involvement in the downfall of the beloved High Lord Garan at Stonehold. Certainly her people had not been solicitous of the High Lord’s regime, yet never would they have conspired to seize him from his rightfully won Throne.
Most every race and group had been insinuated at one point, but her people remained the favorite, for they bore the most differences and motives, mira’setzu and Keltoi notwithstanding. Gabriella’s personal opinion of that long ago calumnious unraveling of High Lord Garan’s rule, and ultimately his demise, was that the High Lord’s seditious cabinet members were to blame, both for insurrection and, more than likely, regicide. This was admittedly not a popular theory among other scholars, for it had been believed for Eras that Garan’s fall into ruin was primarily caused by her people, and so Gabriella’s contemporaries had no reason to conjecture further.
About half of this Land’s citizens were bereft of kyor of either sort, whereas perhaps one in five hundred of her own people were so impaired. Kyor had once been as prominent in this Land in the time of Garan’s reign, though kyor’rashni was less common than kyor’rishtan. In the previous few Eras before Garan’s reign, those people strongest in both or either kyor began to seek each other out and over time, fashioned a community of sorts. By the time of High Lord Garan’s reign over the Land, there were several Powers in the Land beneath him: the mira’setzu; the Keltoi; her own people, then called the Kyorics; and the rest of the human population, for long before had the Lost Race disappeared from the Land.
The Kyoric people were opposed to Garan’s rule over the entire Land, though from what Gabriella had studied of Garan’s policies, nothing seemed to directly offend or oppress any of the Powers at all. The Kyorics were soon infamous for their reprobation, and as history proved continuously, those with the most to gain or the most to lose are usually charged with heresy, or, as the Minister of Justice of Garan’s Court proclaimed in his sentencing of her people, “doctrinal diversity”.
She often wondered what had become of her family, or if they wondered what had become of her. She supposed that perhaps her mother, Kirenne, thought of her on Birthing Days when no Basket adorned her doorstep, yet Gabriella had so many siblings born of Kirenne alone that she thought certainly very few of them entertained thought of her at all. Or, if any, they assumed she was dead, for no one of the Revered Lines simply denounced their heritage and made their way in the world, and most certainly did no one, of Imperial Blood or no, no one ever left the Great Claw of Tallasesh for the Land of the Simple Folk to the south.
To be sure, none from this Land ever journeyed to Tallasesh, for any reason. Mothers frightened unruly children into obedience with tales and songs of the Peoples of the Black Kyor, who used their kyor powers to evil ends. It had taken Gabriella some time to regard these people as the same as her own, with a simple lack of ability representing the sole difference between the two. Her own people had considered the peoples of this Land to be disadvantaged, as one would an individual of low intellect, a half-wit, and therefore unworthy of their attention.
No trade was carried on between Tallasesh and the Land, though from time to time Gabriella had heard of adventurous trade ships of the mira’setzu threading the treacherous Talons to arrive on the coast of Tallasesh in pursuance of trade assignments. There were a few colonies of mira’setzu living on Tallasesh, remnants of failed excursions and ship wrecks, for the Talons that guarded the southern coasts of Tallasesh imposed a hazardous threat to any ship’s prow. The Tallasetians welcomed the mira’setzu, for they had never held quarrel with them, and certainly the mira’setzu were as honored a race as the Tallasetians themselves.
Gabriella felt some amusement at the temerity and arrogance of her people, assuming themselves a unique and separate race over the people of this Land. The mira’setzu and the Keltoi were the only peoples who could claim that privilege. The Keltoi had colonies on the Kellendori Downs, in Gilwith Valley, and south of Triador along the coast. Ker Ivan of Pendymonon claimed a small band of Keltoi inhabited his highlands, but Gabriella had found no traces of Keltoi dwellings. The major stronghold of the Keltoi population was deep within the massive Sivincil Forest, in the city of Jilithiel, though Jilithiel, if not Sivincil itself was often thought to be legend, for it was located so far to the North. Those who traveled the Land at all did not stray past the Central Forestlands or the lower Kellendori; those to the East traveled not past the borders of Pendymonon and Danyon, for rangers and bandits were plentiful and the Brillabarics guarded their borders and the Weary River jealously.
The mira’setzu, however, were ever more isolated from the rest of the Races. Most of the sole descendants of the Lost Race lived in the mountains and forestlands that sheltered the northwestern coast of the Land from the perilous, rocky waters between Tallasesh and the Land itself. Fright alone of the close proximity of Tallasesh kept travelers away from the mira’setzu populations of the North. The mira’setzu were all that remained of the famed Lost Race, from whose speech words such as mira’setzu itself, “little brothers and sisters,” came.
From ancient pairings of the Keltoi and the Lost Race sprang the mira’setzu. Mira’setzu were slight and slender, humanoid and vaguely Keltoi in appearance, and seemed tall children, as their name implied. They had the inherent powers of kyor which humans and Keltoi had to breed carefully to preserve. They also had jewel-toned irises, the kind of brilliant colors seen only in flower petals. They, as were the Keltoi, were talented craftsmen and musicians; they were also great seekers of knowledge: indeed, it was the mira’setzu who first explored Tallasesh thousands of Eras ago.
They circumnavigated the Land alongside the Lost Race, and were taught to use their many gifts of kyor by the Lost Race, techniques now lost even to her own people, and discarded as unimportant by the mira’setzu of today. The Lost Race, of whom most useful knowledge was gone, had begun shrinking in number slowly at first and then at an alarming rate until, as legend told it, they constructed great ships and left the Land, to sail the Way of the Waves. They were never heard of again, nor was any evidence found of them on Tallasesh or any of its islands, nor on the islands to the Far East, where the Children of the Sea were found flourishing.
Quite a bit of speculation was fostered upon the discovery of the Children of the Sea, some hundreds of Eras after the disappearance of the Lost Race. In the scrolls Gabriella had studied, it had been theorized that these islanders were the descendants of the Lost Race. About a third of the sea-dwelling peoples had kyor; those who were so endowed held some sort of position of authority or power. Their skin and hair had darkened, from generations of intense exposure to the sun and weather, it was thought. Scholars described with wonder the peaceful civilization, where no strife, no war, no battles ever occurred except those with the demanding environment.
Finally, after learning the history of the Children of the Sea, it was found that a small fishing village in what now was southern Danyon took it upon themselves to leave the Land and, more importantly, the bandits and marauders that had been threatening their survival, to sail to the rumored lands of the East. So the Children of the Sea were not the scions of the Lost Race, but simply of a time when other Dominions ruled the Land and kyor was far more prominent.
The mira’setzu refused to teach any of their knowledge of either kyor’rashni or kyor’rishtan to the surviving races; kyor was something they were born with knowing and so they seemed to take it for granted as one did eyesight and hearing. Gabriella had learned from personal experience in conversation with them that they struggled to keep apart from the other races because of the awe and reverence in which they were held, as the last of the Lost Race. They were a peaceful people who did not like to take part in the petty wars that the humans and even from time to time, the Keltoi, indulged in.
Gabriella had spent a great deal of time with the mira’setzu when she first arrived on the Land. That had been some fifteen Cycles ago, she decided. She recalled doubting her resolve once she had arrived, for she had been barely older than the eldest of her Outlanders, though she had been far more mature than they, if she dared say, for all that she had run away essentially.
She had not been alone, though it had been her idea. Sareen had fled with her. Sareen, her closest friend, had been a second or third cousin and had not quite enough of the Blood in her veins to be anything but Gabriella’s lady maid. Sareen had been unfortunate enough to catch the eye of Ker Kregdad, one of the highest nobles of the Court and Master of the eastern highland estates surrounding Cher’ Gondranaran, from where Gabriella’s father ruled half of the Cycle.
Ker Kregdad liked his women, (the word was heavily colored with scorn and indignation in her mind) he liked his women nubile, barely pubescent. Old enough that no one might raise a disapproving eyebrow in his presence, or discommend him, for in many of the Highlands, girls donned the dresses of women with the menarche. Young enough to be children, terrified little girls who had only put their toys and hair ribbons away last week to become women this week, fearful young girls who were easily intimidated....
Angrily, Gabriella suppressed her outrage. Sareen was one of the youngest daughters of a distantly related cousin, whose brood was so big that he’d very little resources with which to support them all, and certainly not enough to dowry her. Fearing for her future, Sareen’s father had appealed to Gabriella’s father, who agreed to have her sent to Cher’ Gondranaran as a lady maid. Gabriella had just come of age and dropped her skirts herself when Sareen arrived for training. She remembered feeling great relief and happiness that her new lady maid was not an older woman who would be appalled at her young lady’s outrageous habits, such as dropping rotten fruit on ostentatious and contemptuous lords and ladies in the gardens and courtyards from windows high above, or relinquishing her riding finery for boys’ more sensible riding attire once far enough into the wood to change without being observed.
Gabriella permitted herself a small smile as she remembered the mirth of long ago childhood antics, in which Sareen had been more than happy to participate after their friendship had taken root, which had been almost immediate. But it was as Gabriella’s lady maid at festivals and Imperial functions that put Sareen in the eye of Ker Kregdad. As soon as Gabriella realized the sudden and unusual interest Kregdad showed in Sareen, a mere lady maid and servant, was in taking with the rumors she had heard servants whisper in the back halls, she did her best to conceal Sareen from his sight. No easy task at banquets and other such revelries.
When Gabriella refused to allow Sareen to accompany her and began instead to bring other, older ladies-in-waiting, Sareen was hurt and, she seemed to recall, most unmanageable, until Gabriella finally explained what her reasoning was. Sareen had been raised in ignorance to the ways of nobles, and, she was sure, the habits of older, lecherous men. Gabriella had even heard from one of the Cook’s apprentices that Kregdad had even begun eyeing one of his own daughters with more than fatherly interest. That would explain Galina’s behavior last Gabriella had seen her, timid, withdrawn, and alarmed at the smallest sound, when before she had dropped her skirts, she had been a pretty, bright, laughing, and happy child. In fact, when Galina turned sixteen she was not even betrothed, though not for lack of offers, when all of her sisters were mothers at the same age.
However, even forewarned of Ker Kregdad, Sareen had the misfortune on the eve of First Winter Night’s Feast to pass him in one of the back halls, the servants’ halls, where few nobles ever walked, and though she tried to slip by unseen, a strong and meaty hand reached out and grabbed her arm. In desperation, she twisted free and ran back up to Gabriella’s quarters in the women’s hall, where he was not permitted.
Gabriella departed suddenly the next morning on a small excursion into the countryside, taking her lady maid and necessary entourage with her until Ker Kregdad departed for his estate. Thinking surely the man would forget Sareen through the winter, she and Sareen relaxed, for there was little reason for Ker Kregdad to leave the Highlands through the winter snows. Yet at the Festival of Blossoms, the first of the Spring Festivals, Ker Kregdad seemed to materialize in their path. She had not known the man to be strong with kyor’rashni, yet she would have sworn an oath that his appearance that day was through the manipulation of kyor’rashni. After Kregdad said politely that he would be most obliged if Gabriella would send her maid to him that evening when she was through with her, Gabriella drew herself, and her courage, she remembered, up and as icily as possible told him she had need of her lady maid this eve. And every eve. That perhaps he should choose another. And then she and Sareen walked calmly on, as though they had simply exchanged greetings with him, though they were each quivering with fear. How old had they been? Fifteen?
Knowing the wrath her father would visit upon her for her treatment of Ker Kregdad (one of her minor Cycles, of Imperial Blood or no, simply did not speak to such a highly influential and powerful man as Ker Kregdad in that way, and certainly not over the use of a mere maid’s services), Gabriella wasted no time. They left the festivities in the city immediately. Once back at Cher’ Gondranaran, Gabriella ordered their belongings packed and readied for travel, with a gold piece to serve as an incentive for forgetting the events of the evening for each servant who had had to be torn away from their own festivities to attend them.
At dawn’s first light they left for Ivorandy, the southernmost estate of her father’s, where to her most recent knowledge, only two of her siblings resided, Kendran and his wife Jarissa, and Aorin, neither of whom were favorites of Gabriella’s. Aorin and Jarissa both kept a proper Court, of course, full of gossip and intrigue and everything Gabriella despised, but they ignored her for the most part and never asked (to her face) why she so rarely involved herself in the happenings of the Court.
Gabriella had chosen Ivorandy because it required the most time in travel, which would hopefully discourage her father, (who had probably forgotten her name and possibly who she was until the situation with Ker Kregdad), from sending retainers after her. By the time she and her entourage arrived, she was sure her father had forgotten. Some time after her arrival, however, her brother Tamond, second in line for the Seat, sent a letter requesting her to send her lady maid Sareen to Cher’ Gondranaran to be presented as a gift to the household of Ker Kregdad, and that another lady maid would be sent in Sareen’s stead.
Surprised that such action would be taken over an eccentric old man’s desire for a pretty face, which was not something hard to find, Gabriella replied that she had no maid Sareen, that she had discharged her from her service and knew not her whereabouts. This worked for a time, until her brother Kendrick and his wife unexpectedly departed for a visit to Cher’ Gondranaran. Shortly thereafter, Gabriella received word from her father, her father, who demanded that she and Sareen return to Cher’ Gondranaran so that Sareen could take her proper place in the household of Ker Kregdad as originally requested. And so that she, Gabriella, could don the skirts of a young girl for the next Cycle in hopes that this might allow her the time to mature into an adult, so that she might learn to behave as one. It was signed Dammeron Avribarr, Watcher of the Waves, Father of the People, Imperial Emperor of Tallasesh. This was an Imperial order.
After much deliberation, she and Sareen arranged to return, readying once again their entourage, having their belongings packed again. After the first night of travel, she and Sareen stole away from the camp, around the sentry who was half-asleep at his post. She knew not how her guards explained her disappearance, though she and Sareen had contrived to make it appear as if they had been abducted.
They had ridden hard some days to the west, where they stayed in a mira’setzu fishing village on the coast. They masqueraded as sisters of a minor House who had run away from fixed marriages with old senile men and tried to act as though they hadn’t a sensible thought in their heads. Though they worried that the mira’setzu would wonder how they continued to have the coin to pay for their lodging at the Inn of the Thundering Waves since they were runaways, their story worked for a time. Until the village Empath requested an audience with them at her cabin.
When Gabriella and Sareen arrived at the Empath’s cabin, the Empath introduced herself as Sanza ra’Malveri, which in the Old Tongue, she said, meant “Shifting of the Winds”. It was a name for a prophetess, for her parents had each more than just a touch of the Gift of Prophecy and her grandmother had been the Village Prophet in her day. However, when Sanza herself came of age, strong in the Gift of Prophecy, another had assumed the position of Village Prophet and the Village Empath had died and not named a successor. Hence, because of her equally strong abilities of Empathy, she stood here now, some thirty Cycles later, looking at two nervous human children whose boat would sink fast if they didn’t patch up their holes.
She fixed a large, bright, red-violet eye on them and settled back in her chair.
Sareen cleared her throat nervously and glanced back around at the cookware and paintings on the walls and other trinkets that adorned the tables and surfaces of the cluttered little cabin.
Gabriella took a deep breath for courage and said coolly, “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
Sanza ra’ ’Malveri raised an eyebrow and said, “That’s quite all right, child, you don’t have to be sure of what I mean.” She smiled some and added, “Most folks aren’t sure of what they themselves mean, much less what other folks mean.”
Strange to be called “child” by a mira’setzu woman whose height stopped at Gabriella’s chin. Strange also not to be addressed as Kelestra, or even the My Lady that those who did not know your identity used. Gabriella drew herself up and asked, “What are you suggesting?”
“Suggesting?” replied the portly Empath. “Why, nothing t’all.” Sanza ra‘Malveri studied her and Sareen for an instant longer and then stood up and waved them to cushioned, mira’setzu-sized chairs.
“Tea?” she said as she mixed tea and honey into a small kettle of water that had been heating over the fire. From her brisk tone, Gabriella did not think they had a choice in the matter. She and Sareen chose seats near the fire.
“So. I understand you have been here in the village for some three weeks now.”
Sareen, wide-eyed with trepidation, shot a look at Gabriella, who said nothing. She did not need to, for Sanza went on.
“I have heard many stories of your adventures. It is, of course, a small village, you see, and in this one, gossip has been honed, you might say, to an art,” Sanza said with a small hint of apology which was rather contradicted by the sharp, beady eyes that she fixed on them.
Gabriella decided that however warm and motherly this woman’s manner was outwardly, she missed nothing. They would have to tread cautiously.
“I have heard that you girls ran away from your House to avoid undesired marriage-matches. I have heard that you are masquerading as Ladies and that you are only maids run away in their mistresses’ likenesses. I have heard, too, that you have run away from cruel husbands and also that you are hiding here because you killed them and the Imperial House and City Guards are searching for you to bring you to justice.”
The mira’setzu Empath turned from the kettle again to measure their reactions, and then smiled in that motherly fashion as she reached for three brightly colored mugs hanging from hooks above the fireplace. She reminded Gabriella of a nursemaid who knew that her charge was lying and was manipulating the conversation, knowing the child would give himself away soon, waiting for the accidental admission.
“However and whyever you left is not so important, for you are here now, and you did well both to think of bringing the amount of currency you did and also to shelter in a non-Human village, for this is certain to be one of the last places your retainers are likely to search for you. Perhaps my question, and yours, too, should be, what will you do when your coin is gone? As Ladies, you’ve no marketable skills, especially not in this humble fishing village. Nor, I think, are either of you of the temperament to apprentice yourselves. You certainly won’t find husbands here in this village, for rather obvious reasons. What will you do?” Sanza asked as she set their tea down gently on the small, intricately carved wooden table in front of them.
“We aren’t going back!” Sareen burst out, to Gabriella’s great irritation.
“No, of course you aren’t, dear. Possibly that may not be an option at this point, anyway,” the Empath said soothingly as she patted Sareen’s hand with a small one of her own. Gabriella fastened a cold glare on Sareen. Killed their husbands! Why, she wasn’t even betrothed, nor was Sareen likely to become so at any time soon, yet that outburst seemed practically an admission of guilt for a crime never committed! When they left this smelly fishing village, Gabriella would teach Sareen a little of diplomacy; specifically, when to keep one’s mouth shut!
Sanza ra‘Malveri sat down with her tea in the comfortable, well-used looking chair across from them and settled back into it, regarding them somewhat dubiously. Then she said, “Perhaps we should begin again.” She smoothed gray wisps of hair back from her child-like, yet slightly wrinkled face.
“I will tell you something else I have heard. Just two days ago, I was walking back from Tarpenny’s fruit fields with blackberries for this tea here. Cream? No? I always take cream with blackberry tea. As I was walking back home to the village on the Chelvarian Road, a great cloud of dust rose on the hill behind me. It was a single rider, and that rider stopped his horse to speak with me. A soldier. Not a mercenary type, mind you, but a real soldier. Of the Imperial Guard. He told me he was searching for word of two young women believed to have been kidnapped by marauders. A Lady of House Avribarr and her companion –”
Gabriella’s blood turned to ice in her veins as the Empath continued, “I told him I had heard of no such happenings in my peaceable village, but I would assuredly keep my ear to the ground for any word.” Sanza paused. “I did not tell him of the two Human girls who were staying in my village. It is not necessary for a person to know everything. I thought it mere coincidence that two young women arrived in my village not many days after the soldier told me the two Ladies disappeared. And certainly you were not here under force, nor, it seems, against your will.”
The Empath lowered her intense red-violet gaze as she sipped her tea. “But I soon thought to myself, these girls in my village rather match the description I was given: one a Lady, who walks with the carriage of a Lady from any House, who holds her head high in defiance when she is nervous,” she fixed her eye on Gabriella, who was trying to control the beating of her heart and the sweat rolling down her back.
“And,” continued the Empath as she turned to study Sareen, “the other girl acts as a lady’s companion ought, timid, with her eyes downcast, unassuming, always a step behind her mistress, never the first to speak....” Sanza trailed off pointedly as she took another sip of tea.
“I would have to conclude that you are those same girls who are... missing. Whether or not you have been kidnapped, or run from justice, these are trivial matters. If I should hazard a guess, I would say that whatever be the circumstances, you want not to be found, yes?”
Gabriella nodded stiffly.
The Empath nodded too, seeming satisfied as she set her mug of tea down.
“The soldier I spoke to was only a runner, ahead of his detachment. He told me to make my village aware of the situation and that his detachment would pass through some time from now to conduct a search,” the Empath told them gravely. Sareen whimpered but Gabriella felt her mouth fall open. This was... unprecedented. It did not seem right, somehow. A detachment of men? A detachment would never be deployed to search for an Imperial princess thought to have been kidnapped by marauders, which was how she and Sareen had arranged to make their disappearance look. Companies skilled primarily in tracking and searching, companies with mages, would be dispatched to follow trails of bands of rangers and marauders, not troops whose competence lay in matters of battle and war....
“Did the – runner – mention a reward?” Gabriella asked weakly.
“No, child, he did not,” said the Empath gently.
Sareen was looking at Gabriella, clearly scared speechless. She had a right to be, thought Gabriella vaguely, for she was only a maid, a lady’s companion. At this point, the best that might happen to her was that she would be sent home to her family or given as a drudge to Ker Kregdad, and if Gabriella’s father was in such a temper as his actions seemed to indicate, then Sareen likely would be imprisoned or perhaps executed for treason or crimes against the Empire. Her father was a very proud man, to be outdone by no one, most especially one of his daughters, whom he probably couldn’t remember which of his succession of wives had borne.
If troops were looking for her and Sareen, then their ploy of kidnapping had not worked for long. These troops were searching for them with likely clear orders of apprehending them and taking them into their custody until they could be deposited into the hands of the Cher’ Gondranaran Guard. This was not a rescue mission. Gabriella was scared not only for Sareen now, but herself as well.
Sons of Emperors had rebelled and been arrested in the history of the Empire. Depending upon the degree and extent of the rebellion, they had been shunned and ridiculed by all for a determined period of time. Some had been banished to far away, isolated estates, never to leave without permission, or made to work as servants for a period of time left to the Emperor’s discretion, and others disinherited and disowned.
In other more unfortunate cases, such as Merdon, First Son to Emperor Tevvron, some had been beheaded publicly. Other more unfortunate children of the Empire had been imprisoned, or simply announced dead, their cause of expiry never known.
As far as Gabriella knew, in the thousands of Eras of the Empire, only two of those children had been daughters, Jehanna of the Red Banner, and Darienne GoldenHeart. They were both commanders in battle – what was Gabriella? What would they refer to her as? Gabriella Emptyheaded? Perhaps she was vain but she did not want to spend the next few Cycles of her life as a serving wench, nor did she want to be banished to some remote farm to be a farmwife’s apprentice, slaving from dawn to late eve. Or worse, to go to Ker Kregdad’s household in Sareen’s stead! Her father had a most volatile temper and something of a cruel streak, and to look a fool for not being able to control a daughter....
The Village Empath had sheltered them for a few days, for fear that they may be accosted. She said that anyone in the village may have heard from the runner after she spoke to him, and some less worthy might think to rid the village of them, since many were suspicious of Humans and preferred to live as separately as possible.
Before she hustled them onto a mira’setzu trade boat headed for the Northern colonies of the other Land, she told them that under normal circumstances, she would not have interfered in the affairs of Humans, but the night after she spoke with the Imperial runner, she had a Foretelling concerning the two Ladies staying in her village. Upon escaping the grasp of the Claw, one would shape Glory in her hands, one would run from it. One would wield a Key to the Future, one would Defend the Key. And only one would.... The Empath never finished her prediction, saying instead that some things no one needed to know. Sanza told them that she had had many predictions in her years, yet few of them had been so strong and importunate.
The short, motherly Empath urged them to accept passage on the ship to the Land, for she felt that danger of some sort awaited them if they stayed in Tallasesh, though she could not say what kind of danger or how much. The very idea of leaving Tallasesh was staggering, yet if it had been Foretold that they would leave Tallasesh, there was nothing to be done. A Foretelling could not be altered, one could not simply do the opposite of what was Foretold, for any actions one made at all would simply be one step on the road to fulfilling it.
Sareen was horrified at the idea, of course. Leaving the Empire to go to the Land of the Simple Folk? Sareen had thought that a bit drastic. So had Gabriella, for one could always find a place, a village, a town, even one of the Upper Isles, in which to hide from the Imperial Guard. Yet it had been Foretold, and there was no way around it. In the end, Gabriella had convinced Sareen in a most unethical manner, to her way of thinking. She had told Sareen that the Imperial Guard might be in the village any day, tomorrow, even, and she did not want to see Sareen imprisoned. She had added that the Foretelling did not suggest that they leave Tallasesh forever, so they should be able to return after they fulfilled the prophecy. Which was possible; one never knew with Foretellings.
They sold their mares in the village and gave some of the money to Sanza ra’Malveri, keeping the rest in hopes that the mira’setzu in the south could exchange their currency for the currency used in the Land of the Simple Folk. Gabriella asked Sanza to circulate a rumor about the village that she and Sareen had met two mercenaries on the road whom they were quite taken with, that they had sold their horses and boarded a ship bound for Northeastern Tallasesh, where they planned to marry once they arrived. She hoped this would distract her father and perhaps dispel his ideas of tracking them down to punish them, and certainly of presenting Sareen as a gift to Ker Kregdad... Ker Kregdad liked his women unspoiled.
Before they boarded the trade ship – the only trade that occurred between the two lands was between the mira’setzu colonies – they said their good-byes to Sanza. Sanza’s childlike face was most solemn, her jewel-toned eyes grave as she gave them each a letter of reference from her to mira’setzu she knew and trusted in the colonies on the Land, so that they would have a place to stay and friendly faces to live among for as long as they needed. Touched, Gabriella and Sareen both hugged the small Empath and thanked her. Sanza told them it had been an honor to know Ladies of Imperial Blood, which made Sareen flush with pleasure, for though she did indeed have Imperial Blood flowing through her veins, and had even the look of the House of Avribarr, she was rarely awarded the acknowledgment of the fact, being so far from the Line of Ascension.
So they boarded the ship, which smelled of fish, leather, sandalwood and spices, animals, and body odor, all mingled with the slightly salty scent of the sea. Gabriella had been aboard several ships in the past, but Sareen had never been on a sea ship. River ships were altogether different, for there were no great waves. Sareen grew ill immediately and remained so for the entire voyage, keeping to their cabin below deck, coming out only to stumble to the galley for food, which never seemed to stay down long enough to have been worth the effort. Gabriella loved the wind and the sea spray and stayed on the deck whenever she was not in the way of the crew. She marveled at the expertise with which the crew maneuvered the ship through the Talons; few ships were able to thread the Talons successfully.
Upon arrival, they were hastily ushered off the ship with an emerald-eyed mira’setzu delivering to them their few belongings with a slight bow. Sareen, who felt better the longer they walked on land, was nevertheless as scared and nervous as Gabriella. The events that had taken place had not quite sunk in until they set foot on this Land, where they knew no one, where they were foreigners, refugees. And very much alone. They wouldn’t be able to live among the mira’setzu forever, certainly.
She hated herself for having thrust her and Sareen into this predicament. That the situation had largely been forced upon them soothed Gabriella little. She could never have given Sareen away as a toy to be molested by lecherous Ker Kregdad, yet surely there had been some other answer other than the impetuous course of action that had brought them to the Land of the Simple Folk, never to return home, stuck now in the middle of a prophecy which they could not ignore but must instead endeavor to fulfill.... Surely there had been some other way....
Gabriella shook herself, amazed at the turn her thoughts had taken her. She had not thought of Sareen in some Cycles, with rather good reason. Not a pleasant retrospection.
One to shape Glory in her hands,
One to run from it.
One to wield a Key to the Future,
One to Defend it.
Gabriella mused over the prediction. She had always thought it was Sareen who was to shape Glory and wield the Key, yet thinking now of her Outlanders, Gabriella wondered.