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Rated: ASR · Chapter · Fantasy · #1069000
One young woman's life is about to drastically change... Chapters 1 & 2
Chapter 1

It was cold, the sort of damp coldness that seeped into everything above ground. A thick fog blanketed everything in sight. Leona pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders, but it was soaked from the thick fog that veiled everything within two feet in an erie whiteness. She stamped her feet to keep the circulation up. Midnight, her horse, copied the movement, with four legs instead of two, snorting her disgust at the long wait.

“How much longer?” Leona whispered to her brother, Heath, who, like her, had dismounted from his horse. Really, there was no need to whisper, for the fog covered their voices.

“Father and Owen did say that they might be some time,” he reminded her.

“Impatient, little sister?” Reid, Leona’s other brother nearby, asked. “I remember someone yesterday saying she didn’t want to set one foot in filthy Carlek.”

“Who in their right mind would want to stand outside in this sort of weather?” she demanded. “Of course, we could leave you here, Reid, while we go on into the city to a warm meal and proper bed.”

“Very funny.”

At that moment, from across the river on whose banks they waited, there came a dull clanking, the sound muted by the damp atmosphere. The bridge was being lowered.

“About time,” Reid muttered, despite his teasing of Leona. They waited a few moments in silence, and then, through the fog, two horsemen appeared. One of them drew closer. It was Leona’s cousin, Owen.

“What took you so long?’ Heath demanded.

“We had to convince the guards that we were who we said we were,” Owen replied. He was casually fingering his knife.

“I hope you didn’t convince them too hard.”

“Would I do that, cousin?” Owen laughed. “Everything’s fine. Are you coming?”

They led their horses across the bridge, to where the remaining horseman and last member of their party, was waiting.

“I could hear you word for word from here,” Leona’s father, Rafael, said. She sensed his frown. “Let’s remember no one is supposed to know we’re in Carlek.”

“Of course, Uncle,” Owen said. “If you’ll all follow me, I know a back way to the citadel.”

They filed in through the city gates after him. Midnight whickered softly, and Leona put a hand on her neck to silence her. Midnight’s shoes, like the other mounts, were wrapped in cloth bags to mute the clip-clop sound horseshoes make on cobblestones. Silence was imperative.

Leona had last come to Carlek as a twelve-year-old, four years before. It hadn’t changed much, despite its Lord’s recent passing. The streets were still filthy and, because of the fog, deserted. Each house looked like its neighbour, so it was all too easy to get lost. Eventually, though, each street led to one point: the citadel, which was located in the very center of the city.

“We shouldn’t have brought her,” Heath was saying in an undertone to her father nearby. She edged closer. “Carlek is no place for a girl, especially not now. She should have been left at Ravenscroft with Allan.”

“Your sister is hardly a girl,” Rafael said in reply. “She knows how to use a knife and a bow, and you’ve taught her to hunt. All that is beside the point, though. Her presence is necessary.”

“But, this is a council of war, Father!”

Rafael was silent, and Leona could sense his displeasure. Heath hung his head.

“Forgive me,” he said. “Despite what you say, Leona is my sister, and I worry for her safety. I still don’t see –“

“You will see,” Rafael snapped. “Leave it, lad.”

The subject was closed. Leona moved away.

She hadn’t wanted to come. In fact, she could even forgive Heath for calling her a girl, if he had convinced her father to send her home. There was no fog hanging over Ravenscroft – the fields would be a dusty orange, and the poplars losing their leaves. The whole of the north would be ablaze with colour. She could be at home, hunting with the youngest of her brothers, Allan, or helping the farmhands with the harvest, instead of trekking for weeks through the Middle Lands to attend a council she would not be asked to sit on. She had no desire to meet with yet another noble, nor interest in talk of petty alliances and border disputes.

“I’ve always liked Carlek,” her cousin Owen announced from ahead.

Reid, who was walking with him, snorted. “Yes, I can see that it suits you marvelously.”

“Why cousin,” Owen said in hurt voice, “what a thing to say. Are you implying that I actually like greed, corruption, thievery and all the other lovely things that go on within the walls of this city?”

“In your case, I think it goes a little further than liking.”

Owen chuckled. “My secret’s out. It seems you know me better than I thought.”

As she had for the past three weeks, Leona felt left out of the conversations. At home, her family laughed and joked with her. When on the road, though, they automatically settled into a lifetime of traveling habits. They were hardened warriors, used to cold meals and sleeping on hard ground. Leona had been left to talk to Midnight. Midnight wasn’t the most well tempered horse, even at the best of times, and after a few days of either being ignored by her family or bitten by her horse, Leona had retreated into a sullen silence, breaking it only to make pointed complaints.

The street they were following had gradually been rising. Now, the citadel came into view – a great stronghold on a slight hill in the center of the city. Leona had seen it several times before, but still she paused to take in the sheer size and stubbornness of the most impregnable fortress this side of Harvor. It was not one single building, but rather a collection of seemingly random constructions that had been added onto over the centuries. At the pinnacle stood the mightiest fortress of all. It was a sham. Anyone important lived in the more insignificant outer structures, which, though not as grand, were more hospitable. It was here that Leona’s party headed.

Apparently, someone had been informed of their arrival. A groom, showing no signs of sleepiness despite the late hour, ran forward to take their horses, and someone was waiting on the steps to the entrance of the main building. Leona decided she had better speak to Midnight, in case her bad-tempered mount decided to have any ideas.

“Be good,” she said, leaning down to Midnight’s height. “There’s to be no biting, kicking, rearing or foolery, understand?”

Midnight snorted. She appeared to consider biting the groom as he went to lead her away, but decided against it.

The man on the steps came to meet them He was a small, thin man, dressed in red. He looked familiar.

“Lord Rafael,” he said to Leona’s father. “We expected you hours ago.”

“I opted for caution over speed,” Rafael replied. “You’re looking well, Mirrin.”

“Perhaps we should save this for inside, my lord,” Mirrin suggested. “There are many unwanted ears and eyes in this city, and I’m sure you’re as anxious as Lord Thayan to keep your arrival quiet.”

They followed him up the stairs and into the citadel. Leona remembered now who he was. When the old Lord, Talag, had been alive, Mirrin had been his chief chamberlain. She could only assume that Talag’s son had given Mirrin the same position. He was a fussy man, but he had always spoken kindly to her when she had visited.

The hallway inside was dimly lit by torches placed spasmodically every ten feet or so. The thick, red carpet underfoot muffled the noise of their passing. Leona imagined that was its sole purpose. The people around here weren’t noted for their comfortable furnishings and hospitality.

“I’ve never met Thayan,” Owen was saying from just in front of her, to Mirrin. “What’s he like?”

“A very broad question, my young lord,” Mirrin said, “and one with many answers. In many respects, he’s like his father. Talag was a great tactician and a man of great intellect. Thayan is much the same, but to a greater extent. Talag, however, made his thoughts known. He was an easy man for me to read, if you’ll forgive my saying so. Thayan, on the other hand, keeps his emotions hidden.”

“You should be a chronicler, Mirrin,” Reid said admiringly. “I’m sure you could provide us with a fascinating insight into the lives of the Lords of Carlek you’ve served under.”

“Either that, or a spy,” Owen said with a grin.

“How did Thayan know we were coming?’ Heath asked. “We took every precaution against it.”

“Our new Lord is no fool,” Mirrin said, “as I’m sure you’ll find.”

They had reached the end of the hallway and now stood outside a plain, unpolished door that looked just like many of the other doors they had passed. Mirrin paused to open the door and then ushered them through. “In here, please.”

They filed through, Leona last. She found herself in a large, open room, carpeted in a rich red. The walls were lined with colourful tapestries, making a pleasant change to the bleakness of the hallway. In the center of the room stood a long table, evidently used for dining. A fire burned in one corner, and from a chair in front of it, a man rose to greet them. A huge dog, that Leona had taken to be a fur rug, also got to its feet, its hackles raised.

“Stay, Darg,” the man said. It was a flat, expressionless voice, but young all the
same. The dog obediently sat down again.

“It’s been too long, Thayan,” Rafael said, inclining his head.

“Indeed, it has,” the other replied. “I was still a lad, when we last met.” He stepped into the light, and Leona saw, to her great surprise, how young he was. He was certainly no older than twenty-five, younger than Heath. He wasn’t lean, like her brothers, but he didn’t have the flabbiness that so many nobles have from a lifetime of good food. He was only slightly taller than Leona - though she was tall for a woman – and not handsome, though his looks were regular. Certainly, he was nicer to look at than Reid, with his big mop of curly red hair and ginger beard. Thayan was clean-shaven, and his thick, dark hair was cut short in the fashion of the times. He also had the tan that those of the Middle Lands all seemed to have. Once, Leona had heard Owen jokingly say that the darker skin was the result of Carleks spending their lives buried neck-deep in the brown mud of the marshes that surrounded the city.
Somehow, everything about the young lord was the complete opposite to what Leona had been expecting.

“Please, sit,” Thayan said, motioning to the chairs by the fire. The dog Darg raised his head to look at them, his eyes flat and the fur on his back still raised. Owen and Reid both looked at one another. Reid took a step backwards. He wasn’t very fond of animals.

“No?” Thayan said with a faint smile. “Well, perhaps I can persuade Mirrin to bring us all refreshments. You must be greatly wearied after so many weeks on the road.”

Mirrin left the room as they all sat at the long table. Leona opted to stand. She wasn’t sure if she would be welcome.

“I trust Mirrin completely, but I am aware that your purpose in coming here – and in particular, arriving in the dead of the night – is to speak to me privately,” Thayan said once the door had closed. “Am I right?”

“It seems to me that you’re aware of quite a lot of things, my lord,” Owen said. His voice was light, but the air was suddenly tense with unspoken words.

Rafael broke the silence by putting his hand on Owen’s shoulder. “Peace, nephew.”

“I’m sure you’re quite welcome to your questions and your suspicions,” Thayan said, “as I am to mine. Now, to business? It’s a late hour, and I’m sure your daughter has other things she would rather be doing.”

Leona blinked. He hadn’t even looked at her, yet he knew of her presence and exactly who she was. She moved away and began to examine a tapestry on the far wall. She kept her ears open, though.

“As you know, your father and I had certain agreements,” Rafael began. “Many of the other Lords who sat on the Council weren’t aware of our… friendship. Now, of course, he is dead. I am here to reopen those agreements in the hope of renewing treaties between our lands and yours.”

Thayan leaned back in his chair, his face expressionless. “What do you have to offer me, Rafael,” he said bluntly.

“A simple thing – power. The Council will be held at the autumn equinox in a few weeks from now. The other Lords will take whatever opportunity they can to wrench your lands and influence over the Middle Lands and all of Valeria, from your grasp. If our holdings are united, they won’t dare make any rash moves.”

There was a pause.

“I am aware of their plans,” Thayan said softly, “and I have taken measures to prevent what you said happening. Do you have anything better?”

“Men,” Rafael said. “If a war should break out, Carlek by itself will not survive. Ravenscroft is the biggest holding in the north. With our support, your forces would be greatly increased. And certainly, war is a possibility. The southern people are becoming restless. Then there are the non-humans to consider.”

“What do you want in return?”

“I want complete access to the North Road and the Western Caravan way, tariff free. And several other things, that I’m sure we can reach an agreement on.”

At that point, Leona’s attention wandered. She wasn’t particularly interested in politics, though she could debate as well as her brothers. She turned her attention to the tapestry. It was Lennorish , and showed several armored knights in a hunt. Their ladies were watching from high up in a castle, waving their handkerchiefs. All of them looked like they had never had an original thought in their lives. Reid and Allan had often told her about the Lennors.

“Most of the time they sit around in their armour, showing off for their women,” Reid said. They were in one of the main sitting rooms at Ravenscroft. He was polishing his sword. “All that armour looks nice, of course, but it’s not very practical. It rusts, and men who have spent their entire lives in armour usually go deaf at an early age.”
“You’d like the ladies, Leona,” Allan said, grinning. He was leaning against the mantelpiece. Allan was her closest in age of all her brothers. His hair was blond, and his eyes blue. As children, he and Leona had been inseparable. “They sit around all day weaving and weeping over the men.”

Leona couldn’t ever imagine spending an entire day sewing or, for that matter, worrying over a husband who was perfectly capable of looking after himself. Reid and Allan, however, proceeded to tease her about it for the next few days, until Leona finally lost her temper and told them to find a war to fight in and never come back.

She missed Allan. He had been left behind to manage Ravenscroft, because it was harvest time, and also to provide Heath with assurance that someone would be there to watch over Aresana, Heath’s wife, who was expecting a second child. Not that Allan knew much about childbirth, Leona thought, with a smile. She wished that he were here or, better yet, that she was at home instead of this damp, dreary city.

The door opened and Mirrin stepped in, armed with a tray of light refreshments. A slender young woman followed him in. Leona couldn’t recall seeing her before.
She was one of the most beautiful women Leona had ever seen. Her hair was long and blond, and she walked with an almost unconscious grace. When she smiled at Leona, it was as though the room had suddenly grown lighter.

“Hello,” she said. “You’re Leona, aren’t you? I’m Elynna.”

Leona wasn’t sure whether to address her as a lady or as a servant. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Reid, his face bright red and his mouth open, staring at her. Even Owen, usually with such a flippant attitude about everything, had raised his eyebrows.

Elynna seemed completely unaware of them. “I know you must be tired,” she said. “May I show you to your rooms?”

“Of course,” Leona said gratefully. As she and Elynna walked out of the room, she sensed eyes following them, and couldn’t help smiling.

“Thayan informed me that you would be arriving a few hours ago,” Elynna said, taking a staircase to the right. “How was your journey?”

“Not very pleasant,” Leona said ruefully. “Fog seems to have covered half the Middle Lands. We slept on the roadside most nights, in the cold. And my brothers are terrible cooks. I had to teach them a few things.”

Elynna laughed, a ringing, bell-like sound that reminded Leona of waterfalls and flowers.

“I’m curious as to why they brought you along,” Elynna said, and paused. “Well, actually, Thayan is. He told me to ask you.”

“Believe me, I didn’t want to come,” Leona said. “I think it was my father’s idea. How did Thayan know we were coming?”

Elynna’s beautiful face turned serious.

“Thayan is a very clever man,” she said, voice sober. “You should warn your father and brothers not to underestimate him.”

It was an almost word-for-word repeat of what Mirrin had said earlier.

They reached the top of the stairs and walked along a narrow hall that was familiar. Elynna stopped outside a door to the chambers Leona had used on her last visit. She wondered who had remembered.

“Who is the other man traveling with you?” Elynna asked suddenly. “The one with the light blond hair. And –“ she smiled again “-this time it’s me who is asking.”

“He’s my cousin Owen,” Leona replied. “When my uncle died five years ago, Owen came to live with us. He’s like a brother to me. You should be careful – he can be charming, but really he’s an enigma. Is this my room?

“Yes,” Elynna said. “I’ll leave you to settle in, then. If you need anything, send someone for me. The men will probably talk until dawn, knowing them.”

“I will,” Leona said. “Goodnight.”

She walked into the rooms that had last housed her as a twelve-year-old girl, and closed the door behind her.


*



Chapter 2

Sunlight was streaming through the windows of her apartment when Leona woke suddenly. In the distance she could hear familiar morning noises. Someone was whistling, a page or a stable boy, perhaps – though if they had been anywhere near Midnight they certainly wouldn’t be whistling. There were hoarse shouts, and much laughter. She had forgotten that her rooms looked out onto the main servant’s courtyard.

She lay there for a few moments, but after several weeks of having nothing but a thin blanket separating her from the ground, the bed felt too soft. With a sigh, she got out of bed and began to dress. A few minutes later, she left her apartment behind and went in search of the dining room. A helpful servant girl directed her to the room of the night before. She found it empty save for her cousin, who was eating a bowl of porridge.

“Morning,” he said, nodding at her.

Leona briefly spoke to a servant about her breakfast and sat down opposite Owen. “Where is everyone?” she asked.

“Sleeping,” he said with a grin. “I have better things to do, though. How do you feel about a day in the city?”

“I haven’t got anything better planned. Why?”

“I’ve got a few errands to run, and I also want to pay a visit to a certain merchant friend of mine.”

“Anything’s better than sitting around here,” she said.

The servant entered with Leona’s plate of ham and eggs. Leona began to eat in silence. She never quite knew what to say to Owen. She had once been told that she looked even more akin to her cousin than she did Allan. Though his hair was pale blond, and hers reddish-blond, their faces were of the same shape. Too often, Owen had been referred to as her brother instead of Reid or Heath. She didn’t mind, though. Owen was like a brother to her, though, of course, he could never hold the same place that Allan, for instance, held, and she could never talk to him as she did Allan.

“How did the negotiations go?” she asked, more out of a need to make conversation than mere curiousity.

“Nowhere,” Owen replied. “We’re likely to still be talking by the time the Valerian Council comes around in a month. I think your father vastly underestimated Thayan.”

Leona sighed.

“Never mind, little cousin,” he said in a mocking voice. “I’m sure there are several handsome young lords here who are desperate to make your acquaintance. You can fill your days by breaking hearts.”

Leona shot him a filthy look. “You’re very close to getting a plate of ham in your face,” she threatened.

“Why, cousin, what a thing to say. I’m deeply hurt.” He grinned at her, and Leona couldn’t help returning the smile.

Leona finished eating her breakfast and they left the dining room together, her cousin leading. He took a right turn, as Elynna had the night before, but instead went through another doorway.

“Where are we going?” she asked when he led her to a part of the citadel she had never been into. The hallways were no longer carpeted, and the few rooms they passed were bare of the luxurious furniture she was used to seeing.

“We’re taking the servant’s gate out into the city.”

“What on earth for?”

He grimaced. “I have a special reason for avoiding your brother at the moment. I borrowed something of his that he values highly. Once he discovers it missing, he’s likely to get very angry and come looking for me.”

“Oh,” she said delicately.

“There’s another reason. Thayan’s sure to have people watching the main gate to follow us. My business with my friend is of a delicate nature, and I don’t want to have to dodge spies through the streets of Carlek.”

They descended a flight of stairs and entered the courtyard Leona was sure her rooms looked out on. All variety of servants bustled about in the sunlight, busy with errands and chores. A herald dressed in bright green passed, muttering to himself. A group of maids had gathered together and were giggling and laughing over some unknown joke. To Leona’s surprise, no one so much as looked at Owen and her. Then she realized that she was wearing her country clothes that she wore at home. Without fine garments, she looked just like one of those maids. The thought offended her, for some reason.

It was a pleasant day. There was no sign of last night’s fog, and a brisk breeze carried with it the pleasant smell of food cooking from the lower markets. Leona breathed in deeply, feeling the bad mood of the previous evening evaporate. At that moment she almost tripped over a stray chicken, which had escaped from its pen. There was a squawk and several feathers went flying.

“I’m so sorry, my lady,” a servant girl said breathlessly, diving in front of her and scooping up the hen easily in her arms. She straightened to meet Leona’s gaze. She was slender and dark, not particularly noteworthy in appearance, but it seemed there was something familiar about her strangely shaped face. Before Leona had time to open her mouth and ask where she had seen the girl before, her cousin had grabbed hold of her arm and pulled her after him once more.

“She knew who I was,” Leona said as he quickened his pace.

“I know,” he said shortly. “There was always the chance someone would recognize you. Thayan’s sure to have set more people to watching you than the rest of us.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded, but at that moment they reached the gate. Owen lowered his gaze as they passed the two guards posted nearby and adopted the attitude of a menial servant busy running an errand. It still amazed Leona how he could blend in so easily, even after years of seeing it happen. They passed through without attracting any notice and then joined the throng of people in the streets beyond.

Carlek was the closest thing Valeria and the Middle Lands had to a capital as far as population went. The crowds were like a huge torrent of water, all seeming to move in one direction – the opposite of the way Owen and Leona were going. It would have been all too easy with the jostling and shoving for Leona to lose sight of Owen before she could blink, and she was glad he was still holding her arm. Women armed with baskets and wailing children; farmers from beyond the marshes driving dog cards to the markets; soldiers trying to keep some semblance of order; and many, many commoners surrounded them. Every now and then, a hoarse cry could be heard above the intense noise: “Make way! Make way!” and the crowd would part to allow a noble’s litter and entourage to pass through. It seemed to Leona that they had barely moved. Their progress was irritatingly slow. She was getting a little tired of the pushing every time a litter passed, and began to wish that Owen had spoken to Thayan about having an armed escort.

The crowd in front of her once again parted for yet another noble’s passing, and Leona was pushed up against a fruit stall. Then Owen’s fingers dug into her arm sharply.

“Red Priests,” he hissed. Leona turned to look in the direction his gaze was fixed, and saw a procession of about a dozen red-robed men moving towards them in a strange, swaying gait in the space the crowd had provided. Much of the noise had ceased, and she noticed that many of the people surrounding her had lowered their gaze to the ground.

“Don’t look at them,” Owen muttered, his face averted. “To make eye contact with a Servant of the Unknown is a first sin.” To her great surprise he turned around and began a heated discussion with the fruit seller over the price of pears. For a moment, she had been sure that he was worried, but he seemed perfectly fine. Since when was he interested in pears, though?

She couldn’t help looking at the Red Priests out of the corner of her eye. They all looked exactly the same, with shaved heads and the same bizarre gait that had first attracted her eye. Their hands were clasped beneath the folds of the red robes. The priest leading carried an iron bell, which he swung occasionally. It clanged occasionally – a hollow, eerie sound. Several of the priests in the procession looked over the crowd with disdainful, superior expressions. One even seemed to look her way, and for a moment Leona’s heart pounded painfully in her chest. Then he glanced in another direction.

When the priests had passed, the chattering began once again, and the crowds moved on as though nothing had happened. Owen pulled Leona down a side street, and she found she could breathe again.

“What are they?” she asked. The street they followed was almost deserted, save for a lone old man leading his donkey and cart.

“They claim servitude to an unknown deity,” Owen replied. “It’s all a ploy for power and fear, really. When the old Lord ruled, they had considerable influence over the Middle Kingdoms. I’m surprised Thayan hasn’t disbanded them. He seems a civilized enough fellow.”

“Why can’t one look at them?” she asked as they passed the man and his donkey. “It seems a little ridiculous to me.”

He snorted. “Men like the Red Cloaks don’t need rational reason for the things they do.”

“I’ve never heard of them before.”

“Be glad you haven’t,” he said shortly. “Their long arm doesn’t reach into the north. It’s one good reason for my living with your family. I have a special reason to avoid them, in case they recognize me. And no -” he said as Leona opened her mouth, “-I’m not going to tell you, so don’t ask.”

“That explains your sudden interest in pears, at any rate,” she said with a grin.

They walked in silence. The street they followed was dirty, and the few people they passed had their cloaks pulled up, as though they had no intention of being recognized. Rats foraged in gutters and bins, and several stray dogs skulked in the shadows. It was not a friendly neighbourhood. Leona couldn’t shake the feeling that unseen eyes were watching, and she drew closer to her cousin.

At some predetermined point, Owen stopped and motioned for Leona to do the same.

“We’re nearing the house of a Karthian merchant by the name of Zamed, an old friend of mine,” he said. “Most likely he’ll completely ignore you, which is what I’m hoping for at first. I’ll spend most of the visit talking with him about completely normal subjects. When I cough, I need you to distract him and his household. Understand?”

“Why?”

“I’ll tell you later, little cousin. In the meantime, just play along. I’m not going to tell you anything more, because you shouldn’t be involved in this as it is.”

She nodded. “What are you looking for?”

“I told you I can’t reveal anything more, Leona,” he said reprovingly. "Are you ready?”

The house of Zamed of Karthia was located in a part of the city most sensible people would keep away from. It was a dirty grey building, adjoining several other abandoned structures nearby. Owen stepped over the street gutter to reach the front door. He didn’t knock but rather pushed the door open, explaining to Leona as he did that, “Zamed conducts his business at the front of the house. It’s more in the nature of a shop, so he doesn’t expect niceties to be observed.”

They entered a dimly lit room. Leona noticed immediately that it was in stark contrast to outside. A deep, luxurious carpet covered the floor, and several divans were situated around the room. At the far end, a curtain of silk veiled the entrance to another area beyond. It was oddly exotic compared to the decorations of the citadel, and Leona realized that Owen’s friend must be a very rich man indeed.

A thin servant with bronze skin had appeared from the room beyond, bowing.

“How may I help you?” he asked, voice slightly accented.

Owen returned the bow. “I am an old friend of Master Zamed’s,” he said. “If he’s home, I’d like to see him.”

“Ah,” said the servant. “I will tell him of your arrival.”

There was no need, however, for at that moment a large, fat man emerged from within the silken curtain, a beaming smile on his dark face.

“You old rogue. What you doing here?” he demanded, coming forward to engulf Owen in a mountainous embrace. “Last I saw you, you rob me of one hundred silver mares.”

“I’ve come back for more,” Owen said in a mock serious voice. “All your friends told me how generous you are with your purse, Zamed.”

“Indeed, they did, did they?” Zamed’s smile broadened. He was truly an immense man, one of the biggest Leona had seen, yet he only came up to Owen’s shoulders. It was his huge, bulging belly that made the difference. His skin was dark, as was his hair and beard. He was dressed in a robe of iridescent green, and he wore several gold bracelets and rings. Leona had never seen a Karthian before, and Zamed was truly a sight to behold.

“What you doing here?” he repeated, one arm still over Owen’s shoulders. “Here, sit down, and my servant will feed you up. You too thin, you know.” He practically forced Owen onto a divan, still beaming, and continued to chatter. “What you doing in Carlek? You tell me yourself too many people hate you here for you to visit. And who is this fine young lady? She your wife, yes? I tell you years ago you should marry. Finally you take Zamed’s advice, but she too thin, too. Ah, but no, she look like you. She your sister, perhaps? But you never tell me you have family.”

“My cousin,” Owen said, grinning. “And, no, I haven’t got a wife yet. I can still remember the last poor girl that you suggested.”

Zamed’s face took a wounded expression. “She like you until you show her that knife trick. Then she run screaming. Now, when I visit to Nar Kadak, she keep away from me. Kirzak, bring our guests some food. They are too thin, I tell you, too thin. They will waste away unless we help them.”

Zamed waited until the servant had disappeared. Then he lowered his voice. Almost all traces of the accent disappeared, and he suddenly seemed less foreign. “What are you doing here, my young friend? The Priests will kill you if they find you.”

“I’m staying with my uncle at the citadel,” Owen replied. “There are other, more significant things to worry about than the Red Cloaks. I need some information.”

Zamed leaned back, his face beaming once again. “But of course. You’ve come to the right person. Information and beans are my specialty, though the beans, of course, are just a side trade. What do you need to know?”

At that moment, though, the servant Kirzak returned with another serving girl, armed with plates of food. Owen cleared his throat and coughed slightly.

Leona had been sitting there only half aware of what was happening. For a moment her mind remained blank, and then she realized the importance of what he had just done. “Cousin,” she said in a wavering voice, “How much longer will you be? I’m not feeling very well at all.”

“Perhaps the heat?” said Zamed sympathetically. “You should visit my lands to the south, young lady. I tell you, some days it so hot, the flies wilt, and the camel, he pants. But we find it no problem –“ he stopped abruptly, for Leona had fallen to the floor and was gasping. She gagged and motioned at the neck of her chemise and shirt.

“Air, give the lady air!” Zamed shouted. “Quick, a fan, Kirzak.”

The thin servant dashed away and came back with a huge fan made of dried leaves. Leona continued to cough as though her life depended on it. The serving girl had dropped her tray and was now leaning beside her, also trying to loosen her overshirt. By this time Leona was indeed starting to feel short of breath after all her coughing, and her face was burning from the lack of air.

“Water!” Zamed cried triumphantly, and tried to pour some into her mouth. Most of it went over her face, though a little trickled down her throat, which she choked on it. Finally, the servant girl loosened her shirt, and Leona saw no reason for further discomfit. She began to breathe normally again. She tried to see where Owen was, but the three Karthians were blocking her view.

“You better, yes?” Zamed enquired anxiously. “This Valerian air, it bad for you – too much dust. Perhaps we take you to a room where you can lie down?”

Leona nodded. With both servants’ assistance, she stood. Zamed led the way, hovering back anxiously every time Leona so much as paused for a breath. They went through the veil of curtains, and into the darkened room beyond. Leona laid down on a divan while Kirzak fanned her and the servant girl waited in attendance.

“Yes, you stay here until you better,” Zamed said. “Kirzak, you and Keisa stay with the lady. I will be with my friend.”

It was a perfect ruse, Leona realized as she lay there. Neither of the two men had trusted the servants, but they needed to be sure there was no chance of them being overheard. She wondered how Owen had known all this before he had left the citadel and asked her to accompany him.

She waited in silence. Both servants looked at one another occasionally, but no words were exchanged. The fan continued to wave up and down and, in spite of herself, Leona began to feel sleepy. She had her eyes closed when Zamed returned.

“You feel better, yes?” he said loudly, making her jump and jerk awake. “Your cousin is ready to leave.”

Leona managed a polite thank you to the servants, and Zamed ushered her out. “You are very good,” he whispered to her as they entered the main room. “You even fool me, and I am not an idiot.”

Owen got to his feet from the divan he had been sitting on. “I must thank you for your kind hospitality, Zamed,” he said, bowing to the merchant. “Our meeting has been most beneficial.”

“You will visit me again? I am a poor, lonely, fat man, and your company pleases me. Your cousin, too – you will bring her?”

Owen grinned. “I don’t think Leona’s company pleases your servants, whether they be honest or not. We’ll have to see. For certain reasons I have to watch my step and the places I visit.”

“Of course,” Zamed said seriously. “You be careful, now, my young friend. And next time I see you, I want your wife to have fed you up. You are still too thin.” Once again he embraced Owen warmly and then, to Leona’s surprise, enfolded her in his arms her too. He even seemed a little emotional to see them go.

Once they were out on the street, Owen laughed. “I like that man.”

In spite of herself, Leona had found that she liked the Karthian too. He was different to anyone she had ever known, and certainly a man of many emotions. “Did you find out what you wanted?” she asked.

“After a fashion. My real reason for going there was to give Thayan’s spies something interesting to report. They've been following us since we left the citadel.”

“What?” she said incredulously. “Then all that act in there was for - “she paused, searching for the right word - “entertainment?” She felt as if she had been sold out, somehow.

“Not exactly,” he said. “It’s painfully obvious that Zamed doesn’t trust his servants, and your performance came in handy. Just think, little cousin, by the time this day has ended, Thayan will know what a brilliant actress you are. You’ll have his undying admiration.”

“Oh, shut up,” she muttered.

*

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