Tanis, looking as somber as the deepening night, had no sooner arrived at Flint’s shop than the dwarf hustled him back out the door and slammed it behind them.
“Where—?” Tanis protested, tripping on the fieldstone path that connected shop and street. His sword, which he had refused to be without ever since Flint had presented it to him, slapped in its sheath at his side.
“Never mind,” the dwarf snapped, hurtling along ahead of him. “Come on.”
The spring night was chilly, and few elves were out, but the two or three who were on the streets stared as the dwarf towed the half-elf down the lane before Flint’s shop, then across the mosaic of the Hall of the Sky and into a tree-lined path beyond. The scents of spring—earth, vegetation, and blossoms—filled Tanis’s nostrils, but he paid little attention to anything other than the dwarf’s head bobbing before him.
Finally, Tanis set his moccasined feet, grabbed a branch with his free hand, and refused to move until Flint told him their destination.
“We’re going to visit a lady,” the dwarf explained testily.
Tanis grimaced. “A lady got me into this mess, Flint. Are you sure this is such a good idea?”
Flint crossed his arms before his chest and looked as stubborn as his friend. “This lady knew your mother. I want you to meet her.”
Tanis, mouth agape, beheld the dwarf in confusion. “A lot of people at the palace knew my mother. What’s so special about this one?” he demanded, beginning to grow angry. “Is she a wizard? Can she bring my mother back from the dead? What’s the point, Flint?”
“Oh, leave that,” the dwarf replied irritably. “Would you rather sit in your quarters and mope? Or in my shop and mope?” Flint tugged at his arm. “Just come on, son.”
Tanis’s voice was mulish, and the dwarf knew there would be no strong-arming him now. “All right,” Flint said. “The lady was with your mother when she died.”
Tanis felt a quiver go through him. “She told you that?”
“No,” Flint replied. “I put two and two together. Now come on.”
Tanis reluctantly let the dwarf lead him again, albeit at a slower pace and without the arm-tugging that had accompanied the first leg of their journey. “Who is she?”
“A midwife. Retired, anyway.”
“Where does she live?”
“I don’t know.”
Tanis dug in his feet again. “Then how will we know when we get there?”
“Trust me.” The dwarf’s voice was curt. Flint resumed walking, and Tanis had to keep going or be left behind.
Minutes later, they emerged from the trees into the western portion of Qualinost, overlooking the site of the Grand Market. At this time of night, the open space was nearly deserted, of course. But on the other side of the park more rose quartz homes had sprouted, gleaming with a purplish hue in the blue evening light.
Flint accosted a middle-aged elf. “Can you tell me where I can find the midwife Ailea?” he asked, panting from the effort he’d expended so far.
“Eld Ailea?” the man repeated, looking from Flint to Tanis with a befuddled look. “Down that way.” He pointed. “Don’t waste your time. Hurry!”
“Come on, Tanis!” Flint said, thanking the man and trotting in the direction the man had indicated. “That one looked confused.”
Tanis smiled and jogged loosely to keep up with the short-legged dwarf. “I think he was wondering which of us was the father-to-be.”
Flint’s pace slackened. “Now that’s an interesting thought,” the dwarf said, grinning wickedly. “I wouldn’t mind dandling your and Laurana’s kiddies on my knee. ‘Uncle Flint,’ I’d tell them to call me …” He stopped teasing Tanis when he caught the glower on the half-elf’s face.
Soon they came to a crossroads. “Which way now?” Flint mused. He asked directions of an elven woman, strolling along the street with a basket of yarn. Wordlessly, she gestured with the basket at a tall, narrow house built of quartz, with a gray granite doorstep and matching window frames. The downstairs was dark, but a warm light glowed through the shutters of the second-level window.
Tanis hung back. “Flint, I don’t think …”
“Sure you do,” the dwarf said, and pounded on the door of the abode. He shoved Tanis in front of him and stepped back into the shadows.
They waited in the dark, the chill air making them shiver as they watched a lamp flare within the home and heard footsteps descending stairs and approaching the door. “Coming, coming, coming,” an alto voice sang.
Soon the door swung open, and Eld Ailea poked her catlike face out, gazing up at Tanis.
“How far apart are the contractions?” she demanded.
Her voice picked up an impatient tone. “How long has she been in labor?”
Tanis gaped. “Who?”
“I’m not married,” he said. “That’s part of the problem, you see. Laurana wants to …”
But Eld Ailea had spotted Flint. She looked from the dwarf to Tanis, and understanding dawned in her face. She swung the door open wider. “You are Tanthalas,” she whispered.
“Come in, lad. Come in, Flint.”
Moments later, half-elf and dwarf were standing in one of the most crowded homes Flint had ever seen. Tiny paintings in frames of wood, stone, and silver cluttered every horizontal surface, hung from every inch of wall space. The midwife had even fastened the miniatures on the back of the door to the street. Nearly all the paintings, of course, were of babies—newborns, toddlers, and young children. Some, for variety, were of mothers with babies.
Eld Ailea pushed her guests into cushioned chairs before the fireplace, the half-elf doffing his scabbard with Flint’s sword and leaning the weapon against the stone wall that encapsuled the fireplace. Then the elderly elf, waving aside their offers of help, made a new fire and bustled off to the kitchen to collect items for a late-night tea.
Flint picked up one painted miniature from a low, square table; it showed a newborn elf, ear tips drooping, almond-shaped eyes closed in sleep, tiny hands bunched, squirrel-like, under its chin. In the lower left was the scrawled initial “A.”
Ailea returned with a plate of dark brown biscuits with currant-and-sugar glazing. Flint closed his eyes and breathed; he smelled cloves and ginger. These delicacies would make up for the lack of ale, he decided. He replaced the painting on the table and noticed a few of the wooden toys he’d given the midwife scattered nearby.
“Ah, you found Clairek,” the midwife exclaimed. “The daughter of a friend, born just last month. And there”—she pointed at the other miniatures on the table—“are Terjow, Renate, and Marstev. All born in the last year.”
“I thought you were retired,” Flint commented.
She shrugged, and a lock of hair escaped from the silver bun at the back of her head. “Babies are always being born. And when someone needs me, I’ll not say, ‘Sorry, I’m retired.’ ”
Finally, after each guest had munched one of her feathery biscuits and drained a cup of black tea, Eld Ailea prepared to place the tea items on the small table, but it was too cluttered with portraits and toys. She spoke a few sharp words in another tongue and—Flint blinked—suddenly an open space just the right size was available among the miniatures. She placed teapot and biscuit plate in the spot, within easy reach of her guests, and sat on a low footstool. Both Flint and Tanis jumped up to give her their cushioned chairs, but she declined.
“This is better for an old lady’s back,” she said with a wink.
She gazed at Tanis as though she had been waiting for this moment for years, drinking in his features with her eyes, seemingly oblivious to the half-elf’s squirm. She murmured, “His mother’s eyes. That same lilt. Have they told you, son, that you have Elansa’s eyes?”
Tanis looked away. “My eyes are hazel. They tell me I have the eyes of a human.”
“As do I, Tanthalas,” Eld Ailea commented softly. The firelight flickered across her triangular face, and her eyes crinkled in gentle humor. “I also have the shortness of my human forebear. In a forest of elves that grow tall like aspens, I am … a shrub. But the world needs shrubs, too, I guess.”
She laughed gaily, but the half-elf looked unconvinced. She continued.
“I am part human, but I am also part elf, Tanthalas. I may be short, but I am slender—and that’s an elven trait. My eyes are round and hazel, but my face is pointy and elven. Look at my ears, Tanthalas—elven, yet I wear my hair like a human, to the consternation, I might add, of some of my elven patients.”
She laughed, and her warm eyes were liquid in the firelight. “Like humans, I am open to changes. Like elves, however, I have some habits that I will never modify—even if someone has the unmitigated gall to suggest a way that probably is better.”
Tanis’s gaze reflected wonder and, Flint thought, loneliness. But when the half-elf spoke, his voice was bitter. “But your human traits are not those of a rapist, I’ll warrant.”
Eld Ailea winced, and Tanis had the grace to look embarrassed. The midwife excused herself to refill the biscuit plate, and when she returned, her eyelids were red.
“I am sorry, Eld Ailea,” Tanis said.
“I loved Elansa,” she replied simply. “Even half a century later, it pains me to think about what happened to her.”
She passed him the plate, which he handed to Flint without looking at. Then she resumed her seat and clasped her arms around her knees. Suddenly, Flint saw how she must have looked as a young elf in Caergoth—lithe and lively and wonderful. He hoped she could look back on a happy life.
“Tanthalas,” she said, “I had hoped someday to meet you again—to compare the man with the baby. I must say you are much, much quieter as a man”—and she laughed silently to herself—“but you also are less trusting, which is, I suppose, to be expected in any adult. But I can see that your life at the palace has not been easy. I hoped to learn something of you by talking to your friend here. I’m glad he brought you to me now.”
“Why didn’t you contact me before?” Tanis asked. His eyes were dark.
Eld Ailea sighed, reached for a spiced biscuit, and set small white teeth into the treat. She chewed and wiped her mouth with a napkin before answering. “I decided long ago that I would not seek you out while you were but a child, that because the Speaker of the Sun was set on raising you as an elf, seeing me could only be a constant reminder of your ‘other’ half.
Tanis, without taking his gaze from her worn face, groped for his tea mug and took a sip. Eld Ailea warmed the drink with a refill, and Tanis sipped again.
“I gave you your name, you know,” Ailea said. “It means ‘ever strong.’ I did that because I knew you would need great strength to live in an elven world. You may find, as I did, that you will have to live away from Qualinesti for some time before you can appreciate both parts of yourself.”
Tanis’s voice dripped contempt. “Appreciate the part of me that’s like an animal?”
She smiled. “I like to think that I have the best traits of both races. Remember, Tanthalas. You have a father who, yes, certainly, was a brutal, terrible human being. But through him, you are related to many other humans who, most likely, were much better than he.”
Tanis blinked. Flint could see that the old midwife had shed a new light on his viewpoint.
“I …” he stammered, then gulped down his tea in one swallow. “I’ll have to think about this.”
Eld Ailea nodded, and the conversation veered to other topics, especially the news announced at the palace that afternoon. As it turned out, Ailea had already heard.
“Lord Tyresian …” she mused. “I have heard that he is very … traditional.”
Flint queried, “Did you deliver him, too?”
Ailea shook her head. “Ah, no. Well, not exactly, young dwarf.”
Young? Flint shook his head, then thought that he probably was, in comparison to her.
“Why ‘not exactly’?” Tanis pressed.
Ailea hesitated. Tanis pounced. “It was because of your human blood, wasn’t it?”
Eld Ailea hesitated again, then nodded. “I’d have put it another way, but it comes to that, yes. I attended Tyresian’s mother early in her confinement; things seemed to be going well, and I had high hopes of her delivering a healthy infant.”
She trailed off. “And?” Tanis asked.
Ailea looked into the fire, her words lifeless. “Tyresian’s father came into the room and discovered who was attending his wife. He ordered me out, but I remained outside, near the home, in case I was needed after all. He sent for a full elf to stay with Estimia, but none was available.”
“When he learned that, he ordered the children’s governess to deliver the baby,” the midwife continued. “The poor lass had never attended a birth, much less actually delivered a baby. But Tyresian’s father—I could hear him shouting even through the rock walls of the mansion—said that any full elf woman would be better than a part-human.”
Tanis opened his mouth to say something, but Eld Ailea continued on. “Then I heard Tyresian’s mother screaming.” Ailea’s face contorted as though she were still at the scene. “I pounded at the door. I begged them to let me come in and help Estimia, but Tyresian’s father came outside himself and forced me away. He said he would have me arrested if I did not go away.”
“Interesting, considering Qualinost has no jail,” Flint noted drily.
Eld Ailea rose and selected a miniature of a pretty elven woman from the mantle. She brushed slender fingers over the uneven paint. “Tyresian lived, but Estimia died.”
She wandered around the room, Flint and Tanis following her progress in the firelight as she touched a frame here, a cheek there. When she arrived at the door, she swung around and said simply, “Tyresian’s father said the death was my fault.”
Tanis gasped. “How?”
She looked down and, suddenly officious, smoothed her loose gray skirt. “He said I must have done something wrong before he had a chance to order me away.”
“That’s absurd,” Flint snapped. Tanis nodded, his face angry.
Ailea nodded. “Yes, it is,” she said calmly. “I have my weaknesses, but incompetence is not one of them.” She returned to the kitchen with the mugs, teapot, and plate, and Flint followed her to help, leaving Tanis browsing through the baby portraits in the entry room.
“And his brothers,” Ailea added, handing Flint a dish to dry with a towel that apparently used to be a woven shirt of the sort she’d worn to Flint’s shop. “Why?”
“I’m curious about the third brother.”
“The Speaker said Arelas was sent away from court because he was ill, but he didn’t say what illness his brother had. Do you know?”
Ailea rinsed the teapot in a bucket of clear water brought in from a well behind the house. “I’m not sure anyone knows. He was fine until he was a toddler, but about the time he learned to walk, well, he changed.”
Flint looked up from under one salt-and-pepper eyebrow. “Changed? How?”
Eld Ailea’s voice took on the tone of someone used to telling stories to babysitting charges. “One day,” she said, “he, his brother Kethrenan, his mother, and I went for a picnic in the Grove,” naming the tree-shrouded area between the Tower of the Sun and the Hall of the Sky. “Arelas wandered away and got lost.”
“Did you find him?”
“Not at first. We combed the area, but it was as though the earth had swallowed him. We saw no sign.” She handed the teapot to the dwarf. “Someone must have found him, but we never discovered who. After three days of fruitless searching—Solostaran’s father must have called out nearly every soldier in Qualinesti—little Arelas was found sleeping on the moss in the courtyard of the palace one morning. He must have wandered in—or someone brought him in, past the guards—through the opening to the gardens. He had been covered with a cloth, to keep him warm.”
Flint gave the burnished copper teapot one last polish with a rag and placed it in the middle of the kitchen table. “He became ill?”
“Very. He had a fever when we found him. He hovered near death for days. I administered what nostrums I had. I used what magic I could, but I cannot cure. I can only ease symptoms. No one was able to help. Finally, the Speaker at that time ordered Arelas sent to an elven cleric outside Qualinesti.”
Flint leaned against a countertop as Eld Ailea sloshed clear water around the ceramic container she’d used to wash the dishes in. The conversation seemed to have reminded her of other things, for she continued to speak after she’d laid the container, upside-down, on the counter near Flint’s elbow. “Solostaran and Kethrenan were relatively easy deliveries—as easy as childbirth ever is, of course. But Arelas … even before he was born, he was not … right. He simply wasn’t positioned correctly within his mother. The birth took more than a day, and I finally had to use forceps to deliver him, something I try never to do.
“That time, however, it worked out fine,” she said cheerfully. “Nothing but a little cut on his arm, and it healed quickly, left only a scar. Just a little mark shaped like a star. It reminded me of the mark that I’ve heard some of the Plainsmen place on young men when they reach manhood.”
“Now, come, Master Fireforge,” she said briskly, placing strong arms on the dwarf’s shoulders and turning him around, “let’s see what young Tanthalas has been up to.”
They returned to the main room. Tanis stood next to an open cupboard near the front door. “You painted all these portraits,” he said, his reddish brown hair swishing against his leather jerkin as he turned.
“From memory, yes,” Ailea said, smoothing the braid that encircled her head and ended in the bun at the back of her head.
“Is there one of me?” His voice was gruff from his attempt to be offhand. Flint found himself hoping the midwife wouldn’t disappoint him.
“Not down here, no.” Tanis’s shoulders sagged at the reply.
“I keep your painting in my room,” she added, and stepped efficiently to a stone stairway that led up from the entry room, left of the door to the kitchen.
Flint found himself exchanging a wordless glance with the half-elf as they marked the elderly midwife’s steps above them. It was well past midnight now, and the two had to rise in mere hours for the tylor hunt, but Flint would have died rather than hurry Tanis away now.
Suddenly Eld Ailea was standing on the bottom step, and Flint found himself wondering whether her magical skills included teleportation. She was remarkably quick-footed for someone several centuries old.
“Here,” she said, and handed Tanis a portrait encased in an ornate frame of silver and gold filigree, and a steel pendant on a silver chain. “The pendant belonged to Elansa. She gave it to me before she died.”
Almost reverently, Tanis took the painting with one hand and the pendant with the other, seeming not to know which to examine first. The half-elf’s greenish brown eyes looked wet, but it may have been the effect of the light. “So this is the face she saw,” the half-elf whispered, and Flint found himself turning away to stare into the fire. The smoke was to blame for his own misty vision, certainly.
Eld Ailea looked over his shoulder. “You were a robust infant, Tanthalas—remarkably healthy for one whose mother was so frail by the time he was born.”
Tanis swallowed, and Ailea continued, her voice barely audible to Flint, only several feet away. He wondered if that was the voice the old midwife used to sooth laboring mothers, to bring calm to colicky infants. “Elansa loved Kethrenan dearly, Tanthalas. She decided, early in the pregnancy, I think, that she didn’t want to live without her husband, but she stayed alive, hoping the baby was his.”
Tanis’s face grew hard. “Then when she saw me,” he said, “she knew the truth.” He tried to give the portrait back to the midwife, but she wouldn’t take it.
“No, Tanthalas.” Eld Ailea’s voice was gentle, but her hand was strong on his shoulder. “When she saw you, when she saw that face that you look at now, she seemed, I think, to change her mind. She roused enough to nurse her baby, but it was too much for her. She was simply too weak from all she had been through from Kethrenan’s death onward.” The midwife’s voice faltered. “She held you until she died.”
After a pause, during which none of the three met the others’ eyes, Tanis asked, “What about the pendant?”
Eld Ailea took it from him. “It’s steel, very valuable. Kethrenan gave it to her when they were married. She wore it always. I’ve considered it a blessing that the brigands didn’t take that from her. She seemed to draw from it what little strength she had during those last months.” She walked over to Flint and showed him the amulet. Ivy and aspen leaves encircled the intertwined initials “E” and “K.” Scalloping decorated the edges of the circular disk.
There didn’t seem to be anything more to say. Flint and Tanis were drooping with fatigue, and even the ostensibly tireless midwife looked weary. As if by unspoken agreement, the men gathered by the door to leave; Eld Ailea moved to retrieve Tanis’s sword from where he’d left it by the fireplace. She hoisted it in its scabbard, then hesitated, an odd look on her face.
“This sword …”
Tanis spoke proudly. “Flint made it.”
“Yes, I know,” she said, stammering slightly. “It’s beautiful. Yet …”
The dwarf and half-elf waited while the midwife collected her thoughts. She inhaled, and seemed suddenly decisive. “Flint.” Her voice was sharp. “Come here.”
Flint moved to her side, gazing worriedly into her hazel eyes. “Could you fasten this pendant to this sword?” she asked. “Would it ruin the weapon?”
“Well, certainly it can be done, and no, it wouldn’t hurt it, but …”
“Permanently? That can be done?”
He nodded. Her expression caught him; it was an unsettling mixture of urgency and fear. He pointed to an open swirl in the hilt of the weapon. “I could attach it there.”
Her hand closed over his on the sword’s hilt. “Then do it,” she urged. “Tonight.”
“It’s so late …” Flint hedged.
Eld Ailea grasped his arm. “It must be done tonight. Will you? Without fail?” So close to the midwife, Flint suddenly saw the exhaustion, the years, that her sprightly character normally overshadowed. He promised, and she relaxed her grip.
Flint parted from Tanis at the Hall of the Sky. The half-elf continued north to the Speaker’s palace, and Flint went on home, carrying his friend’s sword.
The dwarf spent the next two hours doing as the midwife had asked.
Miral made almost no sound as he passed the pair of black-jerkined guards posted outside the Speaker’s private quarters at the palace; the guards hailed him and waved him on. At ease in the darkness, with only occasional torches to pain his eyes, he made his way quickly down one corridor to the stairwell. But instead of going down to the courtyard, he climbed the steps to the building’s second level.
He paused at Xenoth’s quarters, hearing the adviser’s roisterous snoring even through the door, then slipped by Tanis’s door, which stood slightly ajar, revealing a dark and empty interior. Miral imagined the half-elf was out walking the tiled streets of Qualinost, agonizing over the day’s developments.
In succession, the mage passed Porthios’s and Gilthanas’s rooms, until he arrived at Laurana’s. A light shone beneath her door, and he heard pacing within.
He knocked softly. The footsteps stopped, then approached the door. Laurana’s voice was low. “Who is it?”
“It is Miral, Lady Laurana. I apologize for bothering you at such an unconscionable time, but I need to speak with you.”
She opened the door. Miral caught his breath, as he did almost every time he saw the young princess. She was resplendent in a robe of watered silk. The aqua color brought out the glitter in her ashy hair and the coral tones of her curved lips. Momentarily, he fell speechless; then he chided himself for his lack of control.
“May I talk with you in private, Laurana? It’s about the Speaker’s announcement of your betrothal.”
Laurana’s exotic green eyes widened, and color rose in her cheeks. “Certainly … but not here.”
“No, of course not,” Miral said smoothly. “In the courtyard, then? I would not want to disturb anyone. This will not take long.”
She thought, tilting her head to one side. “Give me time to dress. I will meet you there in ten minutes.” Then she closed the door.
Well within the appointed time, Laurana, now more suitably garbed in a cloak and gown of dove-gray satin, was seated on a stone bench in the courtyard—the same bench that had witnessed the archery contest between Porthios and Tanis so many years before. But now the pear and peach trees stood bathed in silver light from Solinari, and the scent of blossoms was almost cloying. The steel door in the two-story marble edifice gleamed in the moonlight. She pulled the cloak tight around her.
Miral paced along the tiled path before her, his red robe appearing nearly black in the deep of the night. He seemed agitated. His hood had fallen back slightly, revealing pale features and the elf’s almost colorless eyes.
“What is it, Miral?” Laurana prompted gently. “You said it had something to do with Father’s announcement.”
“I … I wanted to offer my condolences.” The mage dipped his head. “I know that you prefer Tanthalas to Tyresian—which, I might add, shows considerable taste on your part.” He smiled engagingly, and she followed suit. “Tanthalas is by far the more suitable for one such as you, regardless of his … violent … heritage. I am certain that you could keep his uncontrolled tendencies under rein, my lady. After all, not all humans are savages, and I have long been impressed by Tanthalas.”
Laurana felt flustered, unsure how to sort the mage’s combination of praise and condemnation of Tanis. “Thank you, but I don’t see—”
“There is one even more suitable for you.”
Laurana felt a look of amazement cross her features before years of court training took over and she forced her face to go blank. When she spoke, her tone was carefully neutral. “And who is that, Miral?”
Laurana was on her feet before the word had stopped echoing in the night air between them. “You!” she said weakly. “Oh, I don’t—”
Miral’s tones were urgent. “Please hear me out, Laurana. If you reject me, I will never mention it again. I swear.”
Laurana thought wildly, trying to figure out how her father would handle such a delicate situation. Miral had been a faithful member of court for years, and he had won her father’s favor long ago for his service to her Uncle Arelas. In a similar situation, Solostaran, she knew, would give the mage time to speak.
“Please sit down, Laurana. This won’t take long.”
She sat. She had thought Tyresian too old for her, and Tyresian was only the same age as her brother Porthios. The mage, on the other hand, was decades older than that. “I am too young to marry, Miral.”
“But not to be promised. Isn’t that what you are with Tanis? Promised? Betrothed?”
Unbidden, Miral sank to the bench next to Laurana.
“I first saw you, years ago, when I came here at Arelas’s urging. You know my story?” Laurana nodded, not trusting her voice. She was suddenly aware of how quiet and deserted the courtyard was at night. She tried to remember whether the guards patrolled the courtyard as well as the interior of the palace.
“You were just a tiny girl—but what a girl! I’ve never seen such perfection. A bit spoiled, it’s true, and a bit more of a tomboy than I found attractive in an elf girl of noble blood, but perhaps, I thought, such vigor came from being born of the bloodline of Kith-Kanan.”
Laurana edged away from the mage, but his hand shot out and caught hers. He was stronger than she’d ever imagined. And his eyes … Oddly, she could see them quite well in the dark, even within the gloom of his hood. Fear cast a cold grasp around her spine. The mage’s voice continued, cutting through the silence of the Qualinost night.
“I loved watching you, Laurana. I volunteered to tutor you, even though it meant taking on that dolt of a brother of yours, Gilthanas. And Tanis. I loved and trusted Tanis, you know. For after all, weren’t you two being raised as brother and sister? What threat could he be to my suit, when it came? Then I found out yesterday how wrong I was about Tanis.” Miral’s grip tightened, and Laurana made a sound of protest. The sound broke her fear, and she rose to her feet, the mage seeking to drag her back.
“Wait!” the mage hissed. “Laurana, choose me. I may not be all powerful, but I am a stronger wizard than people think. Ultimately, I can offer you more power, more riches, than Tyresian and Tanis put together, if only you will be patient.”
Laurana, heart pounding in fear, broke away and retreated several steps. Miral rose slowly to his feet. “What is your answer?” he asked eagerly.
All thought of court decorum flew from Laurana’s mind. All she could think of was escape. Alienating the mage was of no concern now. Flight was. The Speaker would never keep Miral at court after he heard of tonight’s events.
“Leave me alone,” she demanded, drawing all her strength together, investing her voice with as much power as she could. “Leave this court. If you are gone in the morning, I promise I will not tell my father what has transpired. You will escape the humiliation of being removed from court.”
The mage stood, and she turned and strode through the moonlight toward the door. Behind her, she heard the mage mumble a few words, and she broke into a run. Mere feet from the steel doors, however, the spell burst within her brain, and she stumbled and fell in a faint.
She awakened in the corridor outside her room. Two palace guards, one carrying a lamp, gazed down on her with worried expressions; her head and shoulders rested on Miral’s lap. She looked up, confused. “Miral?” Laurana looked around. “How did I get out here?”
“I was passing along in the corridor when I heard your door open,” Miral said silkily. “I knew the day had been a grueling one for you, and I hastened to you to see if you were ill or needed help. You fainted as I approached. Don’t you remember?”
Laurana lay back weakly. “I … don’t remember anything. I recall walking around in my room, and then, suddenly, I was here.” Yet, she thought, it seemed as though she were forgetting something important. She shook her head, unable to think.
The mage’s clear eyes were fathomless. One hand dipped into the pocket of his robe and emerged with a small packet of dried leaves. “Pour this into a cup of hot water, my lady. It will ease your mind and help you sleep. I will send a servant to you with the water.”
She waited, still trying to collect her thoughts, then nodded. Miral and one of the guards helped her to her feet. Then the mage disappeared down the hallway. She stood in her doorway, with the guards looking anxiously on. Down the hallway, Lord Xenoth’s door suddenly opened and the adviser—curiously enough, fully clothed—peered out. Laurana ignored him, still annoyed by his unceasingly closed-minded treatment of Tanis and Flint.
Her irritation with the adviser vanished as she tried to clear her thoughts. Something, some memory, seemed to be niggling just out of her reach. What was it?
Well, whatever it was, if it were important, she’d remember it later. She bade the guards good night and shut herself in her room again.