Mona was angry. Who did Karayana think she was? Did she not care that they had all spent months worrying about her? Not even the servants that had been in the family as long as Mona could remember were good enough to wait on Karayana.
She roughly pushed aside the door to the study room and strode inside. Galron wasn’t there. Mona sat down by the window and leant her head back against the pane.
“It isn’t like you to daydream, Mona,” Galron said fondly, as he entered the room.
He made his way across to his desk, staggering somewhat under the weight of the two large leather-bound books he carried, and Mona rushed over to try and help him.
“No, no, child. I can manage, thank you.”
The books slid out of his arms and onto the desk, dislodging a neat stack of paper.
He put his hands on his hips and surveyed the mass of white that was now floating down to the floor, sheet after sheet.
“Oh dear, look at that now,” he said, shaking his head. “A whole morning’s work that was. Perhaps I should have accepted your help, hey?”
Mona was trying to catch the papers at the edge of the desk with her skirts.
“It might have been a good idea.”
She shuffled them all together and put them back in as neat a pile as possible, then bent to gather up the escapees. Galron stooped next to her, his knees cracking with the strain. He tucked his long grey beard into his belt with blue veined hands and then tried to grasp the papers with arthritic fingers. Mona smiled to herself. Dear old Galron, it seemed he had always been here, but his age was beginning to show now.
“Please let me do that for you.”
He smiled his thanks and slowly straightened up again. She pitied her father the task of telling him it was time to retire, as surely he soon must. It wasn’t just Galron’s body that was ageing; his mind was not as sharp as it once had been.
“So, how was your sister? Has she changed much?”
“Why don’t you sit down Galron?” she said watching him lean unsteadily on the desk. Holding his arm she lowered him into the old tattered armchair that was probably more ancient than its wizened occupant.
“Karayana has changed a great deal,” she answered, “I don’t know her anymore. Her whole outlook on life seems different.”
“Hmm. She will have experienced many things in the time she has been away and experience changes people. Opinions alter, as you discover more of life. What today seems correct to you, might within a few months seem completely wrong. You never stop learning. Without change, our world would soon fall apart at the seams.”
“You’re right, I suppose.” Mona sighed, considering his words. “I was expecting Karayana to be the same person that left us. She definitely isn’t that. She even eats differently.”
“How do you mean?” Galron asked sharply. Mona brought her eyes up to meet the suddenly intense blue eyes of her teacher.
“Well… she eats mainly bread and fruit. I ordered her favourite foods, duck, pates, portions of pheasant in cranberries. She didn’t even look at them.”
Galron seemed to ponder over this for a moment. Then his eyes glazed over once more.
“I think, Mona, we will leave your studies this afternoon. I must re-sort all of these,” his hand motioned towards the anarchy of papers, “and I don’t think your mind would be with me. Your sister has caused you some upset. Perhaps you could begin reading the poetry book I gave you this morning instead.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like some help?” Mona asked, slightly puzzled.
“No. But thank you for the offer. Off you go now.” Galron waved his spindly fingers towards the door, dismissing her.
“Father,” Briyden shouted, as Morden rode back into the stable yard. Morden reined Drasco in and looked over his shoulder at the direction of his son’s voice. Briyden was following him at a run.
“Father,” he said again, puffing slightly. Morden motioned for a stable hand to take his black charger and dismounted tidily, to stand in front of his son.
“What is it?” His temper had only just started to abate, and he saw the boy’s face drop as he spoke more gruffly than he’d intended. Quickly, he placed a large hand on the small bony shoulder next to him, and smiled down at the big brown eyes that could just be seen behind the long dark curls that were a law unto themselves.
“Tell me all, son.”
Briyden stretched his legs as far as he could, attempting to match his father’s stride.
“There is nothing to tell, Father. I was just wondering if we could have our strategy lesson now.”
Morden smiled. Briyden was so keen to learn the skills that befitted his station. If only the same could be said of his daughter.
“Come on then,” he said, “I’ll race you to the war rooms.”
The boy whooped with delight as Morden set off at a run across the stable yard, clearing the way of grooms and horses, who stepped swiftly out of the line of his charge. Slowing a little, he allowed Briyden to catch up and then overtake him as they entered the garden room.
“Slow down son, you have out run me,” he laughed, bending over to catch his breath. “We’ll have you running in the Olympiad by next spring.” He stood upright and tousled the curly head.
“Perhaps we should be more sedate inside the house, before your mother sees us,” he whispered conspiratorially.
“Too late. You were spotted,” Liasna said as she stepped from behind the dark green fronds of an enormous fern. Morden turned, and had to catch his breath as the light from the afternoon sun fell on his wife. It bleached the signs of age that had slowly made their way onto her face, and showed him the woman he had first fallen in love with all those years ago. Liasna smiled coyly up at him as she walked serenely forwards, twirling a tulip stem in her fingers. She doesn’t miss a thing, he thought, watching her. Her blonde hair fell unbraided around her shoulders, and her deep blue eyes, stared up into his with a hint of humour. A tug on his riding coat abruptly snapped him back to reality.
“Poor Briyden,” Liasna said, putting an arm around him. Her laughing eyes turned back to Morden, sharing his secret thoughts.
“So. Are you feeling better?” she asked.
“Very much so.” Morden smiled down at her, catching her about the waist, which he swore was as small as the day they’d been wed.
“Where are we going?” she asked, as she was propelled along.
“To the war rooms, Mother, for our strategy lesson.” Briyden skipped along now at her side.
“Well I don’t think I need accompany you there.” She stopped and disentangled herself from Morden’s powerful embrace.
“Your opinions would be very welcome, you know,” Morden said, hooking his arm back around her.
“I’m sure they would. But instead they must go to the kitchens where they will be needed in the preparation of your dinner. And don’t be late. We’re eating in the family rooms; I think we need to be a little more relaxed with each other.” Liasna stared at her husband, until she was sure he’d understood her unspoken message.
“We won’t be late Mother.” Briyden was eager to be off, and with a wistful smile for what the afternoon could have been, Morden followed him down the corridor.
Liasna made her way to the sanctuary of her rooms. Dinner was in hand and now she needed time to piece together her thoughts. She had to speak to her daughter. Knowing where she had been was of importance, but she must also tell her that her father had mailed Araevia. His plans for her had not changed.
Flinging open two doors, she stepped into her own small garden. A crystal fountain spouted water into the air, falling as bejewelled liquid on the semi-precious stones below. She took a deep breath and for a moment lost her thoughts to the drones of the many bees that were greedily gathering nectar in the numerous flowering beds. The sun gave a subtle heat to the spring day – a mountain heat, she thought. A small pang of homesickness spread through her chest. She turned to look back through the doors at the tapestry covering the far wall. White topped mountain peaks against an azure blue sky. The tips of crystal towers and a golden Eagle. The symbol of her people. She looked quickly away, swallowing an inconvenient lump in her throat.
A plain round cushion sheltered beneath a bench and she pulled it out, taking it to a circular lawn surrounded by tiny candles. Out of her pocket she drew a tinderbox and reverently lit each waxed wick until she was cocooned within a protective ring of orange flame. She placed the cushion in the middle of the lawn and sat down, legs crossed in front of her, hands resting lightly on her thighs. Trying to shift her thoughts away from her problem she breathed deeply and began to relax. The sound of the water became a mantra to follow, and she let it take her mind where it wished, through tinkling rainbows, sliding off sapphire ledges to fall into the dark reservoir below, creating a fine mist in the heat of the sun, a rising mist that engulfed her, swallowed her, drowned her… Liasna tried to draw breath in a panic, the mist infiltrating her lungs. She coughed and forced her chest to breathe. It took a minute for the fear to subside and for her lungs to fill with fresh air again. She sat back in shock. That had never happened before. Her legs shook as she stood, blowing out candles to release herself back into the garden. The water pitcher sat just inside the doors on a small table and she poured a glass of cool refreshment, sipping its contents carefully. Had she done something to anger the spirits of this house? Was her anger at the betrothal being punished? She sat for a long time, trying to make sense of her experience, trying to find a link. But there was apparently no link to be found.
Karayana woke with a jump. She sat up quickly, and looked around the room, trying to untangle her thoughts from the fragments of dreams that still floated around inside her head. A pounding at her chamber door startled her out of bed. Pulling a blanket around her to cover her nakedness, she hurried through, but at the last minute decided against opening it.
“My Lady,” a woman’s voice called back, “your Mother requests that you meet her in her rooms as soon as possible.”
“Thank you. Please tell her I will be with her shortly.”
Hurriedly, she dressed, and then undressed again as she realized she had been putting on her trousers and shirt. With a groan, she opened the wardrobe.
“There must be something in here that is comfortable,” she murmured, leafing through gown after gown.,
She sighed heavily and sat back down on the bed. Shutting her eyes she pointed her finger at the hateful dresses and swept her arm backwards and forwards. She peeped with one eye at the bright yellow dress that her finger had chosen for her, and resignedly got to her feet and put it on. As she left her bedroom her eyes fell on her cloak and she remembered her herb box. Crouching down, she retrieved it from a special pocket she had sewn into the lining.
“At least I have some proof to my story,” she said, caressing the oak lid, “but then Mother probably doesn’t need it.”
Clutching her box in one hand, she left her rooms.
Karayana had forgotten how wonderfully full of light her mother’s rooms were. Taking a seat near the window, she avoided looking at two serving girls who would already know of the dining hall fiasco. She wondered what tale the gossip mongers had concocted to explain her absence. She smiled to herself, knowing that the truth would never even occur to them. Looking around, she realised her mother was watching her intently, but she said nothing until they were alone.
“I thought fish and rice might make a good lunch?” Liasna framed the comment as a question, but Karayana gave nothing away concerning the change in her eating habits.
Instead she tucked into the meal, saying nothing until she had finished.
“Mona had an early lunch brought to my rooms, but I wasn’t hungry at the time.” She tried to smile brightly, but with her mother watching her like a hawk, there really was no point.
“What am I to do?” she sighed, sinking back into the chair and pulling her toes up beneath the hem of her dress. “Should I just resign myself to a life of slavery with a stranger, or should I disappear again?”
Liasna looked at her daughter sharply, but Karayana avoided her gaze.
“My answer to that would be neither.”
“I have another option?” she asked hopefully.
Liasna sighed deeply and looked at her mountain scene.
“There must be another option. As yet though, I am unsure of what it is.”
Karayana stared at the floor.
“You must not run away again. Promise me that.”
“Mother, I don’t want to marry yet. I have learnt so much in so short a space of time. And there is so much more knowledge I wish to gain. I have potential in me to do good for a lot of people.” She met her mother’s eyes and thought she saw hope there, but it was quickly covered.
“Where have you been?” Liasna spoke softly.
“Not too far away, really.” Karayana paused, considering how much she could tell. “I wasn’t alone, but neither was I with a lover, as father seems to think. I met a man who offered to teach me things I could never have dreamed of doing. At first I thought him mad, but he offered me a roof over my head and I stayed. Everything he told me was true. I can do things, Mother, that you would hardly believe possible.”
Liasna’s look was unreadable.
“Who was this man? And what things can you do?”
Karayana again dropped her eyes.
“Mostly it is secret knowledge. But this isn’t.”
She handed her mother the little box and Liasna opened it to reveal a line of tiny phials containing different herbal mixtures. Her eyebrows rose, but she made no comment and silently handed the box back.
“That will not help your cause with your father.” Liasna warned.
Karayana nodded sadly in answer.
“I wish to speak to him. I want to tell you both as much as I am able. Even if it doesn’t help, I need to do it.”
Liasna watched her daughter trying to stem the tears and replace them with resolve. Pride flooded through her, along with a flicker of excitement at what her daughter’s story portended.
“I have told him to come to the family room for dinner. I thought it might be a little more private. Perhaps together we can find some middle ground with him.”
She squeezed Karayana’s hand and gave her a reassuring smile.
“Go and relax and get your story straight. Dinner will be at six o’ clock.”
Attempting to smile and look as if nothing was at all wrong, Karayana left for her own rooms and the solitude that she needed.
Turning into her corridor, she paused, puzzled. Had she heard something, a rustle of cloth perhaps? The passage was dim as two lights halfway along had gone out, but she could still see that nobody was there. With a shrug, she carried on. She had just placed her hand on the doorknob, when a blinding pain attacked the base of her skull and her knees buckled involuntarily beneath her. Blackness descended.
Mona read with one eye on her book and one on the room. She had nestled herself into the big fireside chair that she loved so much, arranging cushions to gain the optimum in comfort. Eagerly, she had awaited Karayana’s story, hoping all her questions would be answered. But Karayana hadn’t turned up yet, and the atmosphere in the family room was getting testy. Briyden was surreptitiously picking food from the table. Her mother was pretending not to notice, sitting opposite the fire, staring into the flames. In the chair matching her own, at the other side of the fireplace, her father was trying not to say anything, but Mona could see his temper brewing. What was her sister doing?
“Would you like me to go and fetch Karayana, Mother?” Briyden chirped up from the back of the room.
“No. You stay here, boy. Mona can go,” said Morden gruffly.
Mona closed her book with a sigh, and tucked it between the cushions for later. She glanced at her mother as she turned the door handle, but Liasna was staring grimly into the flames.
She hurried along corridors and up the back staircase until she reached the passage that led to Karayana’s rooms. It was in darkness, but right at the end she could just make out the open doorway. No light shone from the room, the only illumination coming from the moonlit window.
“Where are you?” she muttered in consternation. “Karayana?”
There was no answer. A cursory look around the rooms revealed nothing.
“Where now?” she asked the darkness. Then, with a sudden burst of inspiration, she set off at a run, a sly smile playing around her lips. Perhaps Karayana had a romantic rendezvous with Marti and had forgotten the time. After all, if she had been away for six months from someone as gorgeous as Marti, she wouldn’t be wasting time talking to her family, especially with a wedding to a virtual stranger looming over her. No, Mona would be making the most of the time she had.
She tried the courtyard garden first. It had always been her sister’s favourite. Then she checked the kitchen garden, but apart from a shocked gardener that she nearly fell over after rounding a corner too fast, it was empty.
I could try the barracks, she thought with a small thrill. She had never ventured there alone as it was slightly unseemly, but she was looking for her sister and needs must. Stopping for a moment to catch her breath at the iron gates of the military area, she suddenly spotted Marti hurrying towards the furthest building. Decorum forgotten she raced towards him.
“Marti. Wait,” she called breathlessly.
He looked round in surprise.
“Mona? What are you doing here?”
“Have you seen Karayana?”
He stared hard at her.
“Not since this morning,” he answered carefully.
“Oh.” Mona swept her hair back off her face and frowned.
“She seems to have disappeared again.”
“What?” Marti grabbed her arm without thinking. “Are you sure?”
“Well she didn’t turn up for tea,” she said, as she pulled his hand off her arm, “And she isn’t in her room, or anywhere else I’ve looked.”
He ran a hand through his hair thoughtfully.
“Hey Mart. You’ll be late again. Bram will have your guts.”
“Yeah. On my way.” Marti gave the disappearing soldier an exasperated look. “Mona. I have to go. Search the house. I’ll help when I’ve finished here. Your father will not be happy if she has gone again.”
Mona sighed. “That is something I know only too well.”
Marti tried to concentrate on the sword master’s voice. But somehow, it kept becoming a background drone, his internal thoughts calling loudly for his attention as they tumbled around his head. Where was Karayana? Would she have gone again without him? She hadn’t seemed too keen to run away this morning. Had something happened since then to make her change her mind?
“MARTI!” Bram shouted, his voice echoing around the high ceiling in the combat hall. Marti stood quickly to attention, as the sword master made his way towards him.
“Have you heard a word I’ve said?”
“No, sir.” Marti stared straight ahead, inwardly cringing. Bram stood and stared at him for a whole minute before turning away.
“Craddock,” he shouted. ‘Show Marti what he’s missed.”
“Yes, sir,” Craddock responded crisply, stepping forward to take the floor.
Marti groaned inwardly. Not Craddock. He was the best swordsman in the group. Marti knew he was heading for a severe beating and probably humiliation to boot. Bram was always good at punishments. Marti strode to the other end of the fencing area, pulling his mask down and drawing his rapier. Think, he chided himself, what had Bram been saying? It was some new technique he’d picked up in Cramer Province, but that was as much information as Marti’s muddled mind had taken in. Oh well, he was sure that Craddock would delight in showing him. He took up his position and fixed his gaze on his opponent, forcing all thoughts of Karayana to retreat.
Bram’s voice broke his concentration for a second, and Marti only just caught the aggressive lunge from Craddock. He had managed to wrong foot himself and for the next few minutes, all thoughts of anything other than Craddock’s rapier were extinguished entirely. By the time he brought the swordplay back to something like an even footing, he could feel a small bead of sweat beginning to trickle down his back.
He thought that he might be getting the upper hand. Craddock had stopped coming forward into him, and seemed to be defending heavily. Marti, at first puzzled, began to gain confidence, although a nagging voice in his head made sure that some wariness remained. Nevertheless, the next time Craddock gave ground, Marti was totally unprepared for his very alien line of attack. One minute, Marti was beginning a lunge straight for a spot that Craddock seemed to keep leaving unguarded, just below his right ear; the next, he’d thrown his hands in the air, as Craddock ducked swiftly to the left and then under Marti’s sword arm, ending up with his rapier touching the exact same spot on Marti. There were a few sniggers from the onlookers, as Craddock stood back and bowed to Marti, and then turned and went to stand in line. Marti lifted his mask, ducking his head to hide the flush of his cheeks, and started to follow him.
“I’ll speak to you afterwards,” Bram’s voice rang out. “Perhaps the rest of the lesson will be of more interest.”
“Yes sir,” Marti responded, and rejoined the line.
Mona didn’t know where else to look. She’d been into every room, and although she hadn’t searched thoroughly, she was sure her sister hadn’t been in any of them. Now she would have to take the bad news to her parents.
This was going to be a fun evening, she thought sarcastically.
She opened the door into the family room, and took a deep breath before entering to face her father. Morden was standing in the shadows by the open window. Liasna stood up quickly looking hopefully at Mona. She stared at her Mother, trying to look sorry instead of showing the hurt and betrayal that was beginning to gnaw inside her. Liasna turned back to stare at the fire, her knees sinking, seemingly of their own accord, until she was sitting in the position she had been in when Mona left.
“I presume you have come to tell us she’s not there,” her Father’s voice rumbled out of the shadows.
“I’ve searched everywhere, Father,” Mona said quietly. “There is no sign of her.”
She stood awaiting a great explosion of wrath, but the room stayed quiet, too quiet.
Mona walked up and put a hand on her Mother’s shoulder. Morden strode past them both, making for the door.
He stopped and looked at his wife.
“She is so unhappy. Is there no other way to secure an export route for Ebrocia?”
“Do you really think I would give my oldest daughter away if there was any other way?” Morden’s tone was clipped.
Liasna looked away, shamed that she had never considered her husband may have looked for an alternative.
“I am going to alert the guards. She hasn’t had time to get too far.”
She nodded and clutched Mona’s hand.
“We will find her, Mother.”
Liasna smiled up at her, but she looked unconvinced.
“Where are you, Karayana?” Marti muttered furiously. He was not in the best of moods. Craddock was a good swordsman, but Marti was definitely next in line. He shouldn’t have been beaten so easily.
A search of the perimeter wall had given him no clues, and surely she couldn’t have just strolled out through the front gates like she did last time around? He retraced his steps until he got to the rounded guardroom at the front entrance. Miles Toto stood leaning casually against the wall, rolling a smoke.
“Hey, Miles. How are things?” Marti called as he approached. Miles had been a good friend to Marti’s older brother when he had still been alive. He could be trusted.
“Marti! Long time no see. How are things in the training barracks? Do they work you hard?”
“Don’t suppose it’s changed much since you were there.”
“Oh, that bad then,” Miles shook his head with a grin, whilst lighting his roll up. “You wait until you’re out in the real world, lad, then you’ll know about hard work.”
“Sure, this looks like a real rough deal to me.” Marti said with a smile. “ Has it been a quiet night then? Anyone coming or going?” Marti tried to keep his tone casual, but Miles wasn’t fooled.
“What are you fishing for, lad? You up to something?” He peered at Marti with a threatening look that they both knew was all fake.
“Actually, I’m looking for Karayana. She hasn’t been through has she?”
Miles laughed, “She’s only just home, Mart. I don’t think she’ll be going again just yet. Has she stood you up? Is that what it is?”
Marti sighed, “No.” He raised his hands in the air and looked resignedly at Miles.
“I’m just looking for her, that’s all.”
Miles nodded his head sagely, “Ok. But you be careful, lad. Don’t let that heart of yours rule your head.”
Marti set off back through the front gates.
“Hey, Mart.” Miles called after him.
“If I see her, I’ll say you’re looking.”
Marti waved and turned back towards his barracks. There didn’t seem much point in searching any more in the dark. He’d have to hope that Mona had had more luck.
He entered the barrack gates to a mass of men and horses.
“Marti, there you are. Back on duty, now.”
“Sir.” He saluted in surprise and set off back to his rooms to retrieve his uniform. His room mate, Brett, was pulling on his sword belt as he opened the door.
“What’s going on?” he asked hurriedly, donning his riding boots.
“Your friend Karayana’s done a runner again. We have to go find her,” Brett said, scowling. “When we do find her, see if you can persuade her to stay put this time, mate. I had a great date lined up tonight.”
Marti said nothing, his mind working frantically.
“See you out front,” Brett called as he left.
“Yep. Two minutes.”
Why hadn’t she waited? Where had she gone? Suddenly Marti knew. He pulled off his riding boots and changed them for a lighter walking boot. He pulled on his arrow pouch and bow, belted on his best sword and swung his green cloak over the lot. Snatching up a bag, he stalked off to the kitchens. No one was about and he managed to procure some basic rations to last a few days at least. Now for the hardest part. Slipping past his comrades would not be easy. The moon was bright tonight, almost full, and he had to cross the courtyard to get out of the barracks. He worked his way through rooms, glancing out of windows, collecting information on how many groups there were. Near the gate, one group of foot soldiers were making ready to leave. Quickly, he slipped out of the nearest door and ran to the back of the troop, neatly stepping into line. The soldier next to him gave him a strange look, but Marti smiled and shrugged and then looked pointedly ahead. At least step one had been easy.
<<< Chapter 1 Chapter 3 >>>