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THE FIRE IN THE AUDIENCE chamber had nearly died away when Athaya heard the faint slip of an iron latch. She turned around warily—half expecting that her father had returned with another admonition that he’d forgotten to deliver earlier—and saw the carved oak door swing slowly open, admitting a stream of mellow torchlight from the anteroom beyond. Athaya let out a quick sigh when she saw the familiar visage poking around the edge of the chamber door.

“Tyler,” she said, relieved. “Come on in.”

He closed the door, the latch slipping into place with a soft click, and sat down beside her on the mat in front of the fireplace. Red embers glimmered weakly in the darkness, and the captain’s smoothly chiseled features were only faintly illuminated by the crimson glow.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Athaya shrugged her shoulders weakly. “I’ve been better.” She leaned against him, thoroughly drained of energy. Tyler wrapped his arms around her and gently pulled her close to him, brushing the back of his fingers against her cheek. She closed her eyes and drank in the sweet smell of leather that clung to his skin.

“I’m so tired,” she moaned, curling up closer to him. The warmth of his body was soothing, and more than anything, she wished she could simply drift through the rest of the night right here, in his arms.

“Do you want me to take you up to bed?” he asked. Then, seeing the questioning arch of her eyebrows, he added, “Your bed?”

“Oh, you’re no fun,” she replied teasingly. She sighed, burrowing her head into the curve of his shoulder. “But even if we really could, I couldn’t. Not tonight.” She stifled a yawn. “It’s funny, though. I’m so exhausted I think I could sleep for a week, and yet I don’t feel like going to bed.” Athaya paused. “I don’t like the dreams I’ve been having lately.”

“Bad ones?”

Athaya nodded. “Nightmares. Heart-pounding, cold-sweat-running-down-your-back-type nightmares. I don’t know why. Probably because I’ve felt so frustrated lately. Kind of restless.”

Tyler frowned. “Why?”

“That’s the thing—I have no idea. All I know is that I want to get away from… something, I don’t know what. I feel as if all the walls are closing in on me, and there’s nothing I can do to stop them.”

“Does this have anything to do with why you went to that tavern tonight?”

“I suppose so,” she told him with a sigh. “I thought that blowing off some steam and having a few drinks would get this… this thing out of my system, whatever it is. I was feeling depressed this afternoon and figured maybe I could cheer myself up by winning a few crowns at the gaming tables.”

“And so you did,” he pointed out. “From a ruffian who probably wouldn’t have paid you anyway, and who sent two friends of his to knock you around.”

Athaya made a sour face. “Please, Tyler, I’ve been sufficiently scolded for that already. But I’m glad you showed up when you did.”

“So am I,” he said, suddenly more serious. “I was awfully worried about you. It wasn’t just foolhardy, your going off like that alone, it was damned dangerous. Didn’t that ever occur to you?”

She pulled away slightly, with a look of vague confusion on her face.

“Yes, but it didn’t seem to matter. It seems odd to say it now, but at the time, I really didn’t care what happened to me—if I ended up alive or dead. Oh, Tyler, please don’t look at me like that,” she said, seeing his expression of hurt and shock. “I wasn’t thinking clearly at the time. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s just that lately I feel as if there’s something terribly important I’m supposed to be doing, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is. I feel… lost most of the time. Confused. It sounds silly, but it’s been bothering me for quite a while now. Months, in fact.” Then, with a resigned half smile, she said, “I’ll wager it’s because of this whole disaster with Prince Felgin. This all started about the same time he showed up here last June. I guess I feel guilty about the way I acted, and my mind has decided to torture me about it until I make amends. Speaking of which,” she added reluctantly, “did Father tell you about our upcoming journey?”

“I’m afraid so. He mentioned it in passing on his way out. I’m supposed to go see him tomorrow morning to get the details. Or rather, later this morning. I think it’s after three o’clock.”

“Forget the time. I’m more than willing to stay up until all hours of the night if it means I can be alone with you for a while.” She began to caress the inside of his thigh with her hand, listening with intense delight as his breathing began to quicken.

Tyler swallowed and laid his hand atop of hers. “Unless you want to end up doing something we’ll both regret later, you’d better stop that.”

“I wouldn’t regret it,” she whispered, her eyes filled with suppressed emotion. Then, as a blanket of sadness settled over her face, she added, “It’s not being with you that I’d regret. It’s the consequences.”

“I know,” he said, sighing deeply. He tucked a thin tendril of hair back behind her veil. “But it’s just too risky. You’re the one who admitted that first, not me.”

Athaya nodded in reluctant agreement. “I can just see it now. I’d end up being one of those lucky young ladies who can conceive children just by thinking about it, and then where would we be? I’d be ruined for life and would have to be married off to someone deplorable like Felgin to hide my shameful condition, and you—you’d get drummed out of the King’s Guard in the blink of an eye. Assuming, of course, that my father didn’t have you tossed into the dungeons for a few decades first.”

Tyler said nothing, knowing he couldn’t refute a word of what she’d said. But Athaya knew that there were times, increasingly frequent times during the last year or so, when both of them wondered if the risk might be worth taking despite the inevitably disastrous results.

Athaya stared into the dying embers in the fireplace, their red glow almost gone. “Sometimes I wish we could just run away,” she said quietly. “I don’t care where. Just someplace where we could forget everything we ever were and everyone we ever knew and start fresh. A brand new beginning.”

“That would be one alternative,” he said, lacing his fingers between hers. “But it’s not exactly the most responsible one.”

Athaya rolled her eyes in frustration. “Please don’t start telling me again about how I have a duty to live a certain way and marry certain people just because of my position in life. I’ve been hearing that since the day I was born and I can take it from almost everyone except you.” She brushed an angry tear from the corner of her eye. “It hurts too much when you say it.”

“That’s because you know deep down that it’s true,” he said, looking directly into her eyes. “I’m not happy about it either. But you were born to a unique destiny, Athaya. Neither one of us can change that.”

“Good Lord, Tyler, you make it sound so damned philosophical.”

“I’m just telling you the truth, Athaya,” he said, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. “You wouldn’t want me to do otherwise, would you?”

She smiled wanly. “No, I guess not. Archbishop Ventan makes a career out of telling Father only what he wants to hear, and I certainly don’t want you being like that.”

Athaya gazed into his eyes and wondered how she had ever gotten through the days before Tyler had joined her father’s service three years ago. “You’re too good to me,” she said warmly.

He smiled and took her hand, touching it lightly to his lips. “I know.” Then, knowing that they were alone, he bent down and kissed her gently.

She turned to the side, accepting his kisses with eagerness. A tingling surge of happiness flowed through her, and she quickly forgot all about her troublesome family, her upcoming trip to Reyka, and her disastrous evening at the tavern. The only thought in her mind was the sensation of Tyler’s hand as it swept up and down the curve of her back and the tender touch of his lips on hers. Nothing else seemed more important at this moment than to feel the full weight of his body pressing down upon her. She rolled onto her back and gently pulled him toward her.

Just then, she was struck by a piercing rifle of pain through her head and neck as the rough surface of the mat dug into the tender wound on the back of her head. She arched her back and cried out a curse, sitting bolt upright. On her way up, her forehead struck Tyler’s with a heavy clunk.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” she said, with a tearful giggle, unsure whether to laugh at her clumsiness or cry out from the pain. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, she burst out laughing, a kind of relieved, tension-banishing laughter, and watched as Tyler looked at her with a curious expression of both frustrated desire and amusement.

“That wasn’t very romantic, was it?” she observed.

Tyler massaged his forehead, trying to determine whether or not he was going to develop a lump. “I’ve had smoother encounters.”

Athaya arched an eyebrow. “Have you, now?”

“What did you expect, my love? That I passed my thirty-fourth birthday without ever having been with a woman?”

“No.” She slumped back onto her side, resting her head on her forearm. “Maybe you should have stayed with one of them. You have every right to try and find someone else. A good wife to take care of you. You deserve your own happiness, Tyler, especially since you can’t have it with me.”

“But I do have that with you! Don’t you know that by now?” He lifted up a lock of her hair and smoothed it between his fingers. “You know how much I love you, Athaya.”

“You do?”

“Come now,” he chided her softly. “I’ve certainly told you often enough.”

“Just keep on telling me. I’m afraid I need to be reassured of that all too often. And I love you, Tyler,” she added, “even though you’re much too old for me.”

Tyler tweaked her lightly on the nose and then reached over and plucked a cushion from a footstool next to the fireplace. He set the soft pillow underneath Athaya’s head.

“Better?” he asked.

Athaya nodded, and then clasped him by the shoulders, drawing him down to her. “Now… where were we?”

Their lips met, and soon the pain in her head was forgotten as she concentrated on living this rare, precious moment to its fullest. The room seemed much warmer now, despite the dying fire, and she could sense Tyler growing more desperate, more eager, with every fervent kiss and caress. As his lips brushed down her neck and toward her breast, Athaya knew she should stop him and push him away before it became impossible to do so. She promised herself that she would do just that… after one more minute. Just a few more minutes…

“Well, well. What have we here?”

In sheer panic, Athaya pulled away from Tyler with fearful violence and scrambled to her feet, wheeling around to face the direction from whence the disembodied voice had come. In the far corner of the room, lingering in the doorway, she saw a robed figure in the shadows of an oil lamp, and her first, terrifying thought was that Rhodri would waste no time in informing her father of the guard captain’s indiscretions with the princess. But then she noticed that it was not a blue-and-silver robe he wore, but a satin dressing gown, and her eyes burned at the mischievous, young face that grinned back at her with unabashed delight.

“Nicolas!” she cried out, shaking visibly with relief. “Don’t you ever, ever do that again! Do you hear me?”

Nicolas set down the lamp on Kelwyn’s mahogany table. In the darkened room, even the soft light of the oil lamp seemed harsh and unwelcome.

“Sorry, little sister,” he said. “But you two had better be more careful. What if I had been Father, or Durek—or even worse, Dagara-the-Dragon-Queen?” He put two fingers to the sides of his temples and wiggled them impishly.

Tyler got to his feet and brushed the patches of soot from his rumpled doublet. He reached over and straightened Athaya’s headdress for her, putting the blue veils back in their proper place, while she shook out the wrinkles in her skirts and rearranged the folds of her scalloped sleeves.

“That’s better,” Nicolas said, nodding with amused satisfaction. “Much less incriminating.”

Athaya shuffled across the carpet and sank down into her father’s oak chair. “This is so embarrassing.”

“Not half as embarrassing as it might have been if I’d walked in a few minutes later.” He leaned over and pecked his sister on one of her crimson cheeks. “It’s too bad, you know,” he continued with sincere regret, shifting his gaze from his sister to Tyler. “I can’t think of anything I’d like more than to sit up in the front row of Saint Adriel’s Cathedral and watch you two say your wedding vows.”

Tyler’s eyes took on a wistful expression as he gazed at the young prince. “Believe me, your Highness, there’s nothing we’d like better ourselves.”

Nicolas grimaced. “Come on, Tyler—it’s just the three of us. You can cut all the ‘your Highness’ stuff. I don’t go around calling you ‘Captain Graylen’ every waking minute of the day, do I?”

“No, but—”

“Well then, there you have it,” he said resolutely. “Consider that an order.”

Athaya propped her head up with her fists. “I’ll ignore the fact that only Kelwyn has the authority to give orders to the guard captain and go on to ask you what you’re doing here.”

“I just wanted to make sure you were all right. Which, apparently you are, given the healthy activity which I found the two of you engaged in.”

“Would you please—”

“Yes, Athaya, I’ll be serious,” he said, appeasing her with a solemn, Dureklike expression. “I heard Father telling Tyler about sending you to Reyka and I followed him all the way back to his chambers trying to talk to him out of it. Unfortunately, all he did was glare at me as if he was convinced that I had something to do with your little excursion in town tonight. I have a sneaking feeling I should consider myself lucky that I’m not getting punished, too.” Nicolas threw his hands up in a gesture of futility. “After that, Dagara and Durek accosted me in the hallway outside of Father’s chambers and yelled at me for annoying him. Dagara ordered me to go to my rooms, and so, dutiful as always, I came straight here to see you.”

Athaya shook her head, bemused. “Careful, Nicolas. One of these days you’re going to get in as much trouble as I do around here.”

“Impossible,” he said, waving his hand in a gesture of dismissal. “You’ve already set an all-time Trelane family record.”

“Well, Father always wanted me to excel at something,” Athaya said dryly, unable to hold back a smile. Ever since they were small children, Nicolas had possessed a knack for cheering her up, no matter how despondent she felt. He lived within the same walls and dealt with the same people. Why was it that he always seemed to be in such high spirits, while she consistently looked for clouds on the horizon?

“I think it’s time we all got some sleep,” Tyler said. He couldn’t help yawning. “I have to be on duty again in just over three hours.”

The captain offered his hand to Athaya and pulled her up, while Nicolas picked up the oil lamp and trailed after them. When they had reached the anteroom, Nicolas unlaced his sister’s arm from the captain’s and wrapped it around his own. “Come on, Athaya, I’ll walk you to your rooms.” He glanced playfully at Tyler. “Just to make sure you get there with your virtue still intact.”

It was definitely the smell of smoke, thick and pungent. Athaya wandered through the deserted corridors of the castle thinking, Where is everyone? Why am I alone? The stones beneath her feet were hot, the walls black with greasy soot, and the faint odor of charred flesh lingered in the air. She followed the rancid scent, knowing she should flee and save herself, but compelled by some unseen force to see what lay ahead.

Then she heard the voices—wild, hysterical voices drowning in a sea of screams. Athaya began to run, stumbling over the hot, rough stones, but with every step she took she seemed to lose ground, pushed away from that which she knew she had to reach. But she struggled on, knowing that giving up and turning back would be a worse fate than whatever mystery lay ahead. Her breath was ragged and deep when she reached the heavy double doors to the Great Hall, and she flung them open effortlessly, as if they were made of driftwood.

A burst of boiling air seared her flesh. The Hall was completely enveloped in flames. Orange tongues of fire licked upward from the floor to the timber-beamed roof, making the spacious room look like the depths of hell itself. She could feel the heat, but her skin remained uncharred. She stepped into the room, brushing the strands of fire aside as if they were thin reeds. She ran ahead, stumbling over sharp bits of bone and limbs that were blackened and dried by the heat. The echoing screams were louder now, assailing her ears like a thousand angry church bells. “Athaya!” the voices wailed, half-mad with pain. “Athaya, help us!”

The center of the hall was not burning, as if surrounded by a protective circle of wards. Inside the circle was a crowd of people she did not recognize—strange, desperate faces crying out to her to save them. In the midst of them stood Tyler, calm and resigned, silently waiting for what he knew would come, what he knew she could not stop. Suddenly the wards dissolved, and the fire closed in, and Athaya saw the countless faces burst into flames and explode in a shower of boiling blood and flesh. And Tyler still remained, looking upon her with quiet courage, his face unchanging as the flames burned his flesh to black and turned his eyes to running, liquid streams. Athaya, spattered with gore, began to scream and scream, until she had no more voice left; then the flames came after her and viciously began to burn her, too.

Athaya awoke with a start, jolted back into consciousness by the vision. Her hands were shaking violently, and her gown was damp with sweat. It took several minutes for her breathing to relax into its normal rhythm, but after a few minutes she gradually realized that, despite her tortured dreams, there was no real danger here. No servants had come running to her bedside, so she must not have screamed aloud after all.

Still weary, Athaya slid out of bed and hobbled to the washbasin in the corner. She splashed the cool water on her face, but felt only more wet and not much better. Her mouth felt pasty and dry from the wine she had drunk the night before, and her skin felt sticky and in need of a decent bath.

But why Tyler? she asked herself. And why was he just standing there? Why wasn’t he in pain like the others? Why didn’t he scream?

She pushed that thought away, cursing her own mind for tormenting her so, and pulled the bell-rope for a maid to come help her dress.

“Ah!” Cecile cried out, plucking a black bishop from the chessboard. “You have lost one of your churchmen. Take care not to lose the other, Athaya, or you will have no one left to pray for the rest of your men when I snatch them, too.”

Cecile tucked a golden curl back inside her veiled cap and laughed musically as she placed the captured prize on her side of the board. As she waited for Athaya to make her next move, she touched the edge of a lace handkerchief to her forehead. Even in the shade of the courtyard’s crab apple trees, the August afternoon was growing hot.

Athaya studied her remaining chessmen, conscious that her opponent could best her if she didn’t begin playing more cautiously. Cecile was surprisingly good at the strategic game and showed much foresight and thought when making her moves. Athaya could not play carelessly with her as she could with most of the other court ladies and she found the game challenging enough to keep her mind off her other worries. She was grateful that Cecile had made no mention of the previous evening, even though Durek would not have failed to inform her of every detail in yet another attempt to persuade his wife to avoid friendship with the troublesome princess. But Cecile was much stronger than she looked beneath all her silk and lace and stood firm in her resolve to choose her own friends and not let her husband choose them for her.

Athaya was weighing the risks of attacking Cecile’s knight with her remaining bishop when she caught sight of a familiar, portly figure padding across the courtyard toward them wearing a black skullcap and cassock. “I see yet a third black bishop in this game,” Athaya murmured, watching the prelate approach. Because of his large frame, the hem of the robe rode a few inches above the ground, revealing two meaty feet encased in leather sandals. His hands were folded dutifully in front of him, hidden by billowing sleeves adorned with strips of black velvet. This stout figure was Archbishop Daniel Ventan, the highest-ranking clergyman in Caithe. All the souls in Delfarham were under his divine protection, and he strutted with an air of pride at knowing that he was charged with such a vital responsibility. Athaya had never understood what he had accomplished to merit such an honor—outside of doing virtually everything that Kelwyn asked him to—but the upper echelons of the Church were crowded with such men, so Ventan was hardly an exception.

“Good day, ladies,” he said, bowing his silvery head to them. “A fine summer day, is it not?”

“It surely is, your Excellency,” Cecile replied. “For all except Athaya’s chessmen, I fear, who are losing their battle quite badly. Will you join us?”

“No, actually I’ve come on somewhat more official business.” He turned to Athaya. “I will not take you away from your game for long, my Lady, but I would like to speak with you privately.”

Lord, what have I done now? she thought worriedly, rising to her feet. After lightheartedly cautioning Cecile not to move the chessmen around in her absence, she followed the archbishop to a secluded corner of the yard. His eyes were overly small for such an abundant body, and Athaya fidgeted nervously as the tiny gray orbs darted around the courtyard to ensure that no one else was nearby. She knew of only one topic which Ventan was inclined to be surreptitious about, and considering her precarious position with Kelwyn at the moment, she fervently hoped that her father would hear nothing of this conversation. She didn’t want to do anything that would cause her father to add to her already overflowing pot of troubles.

“Is something wrong, Archbishop?”

He smiled, showing a vast expanse of slightly yellowed teeth. “No, not at all. I did not mean to worry you, but I thought it best that we keep this between ourselves. I wanted to give you something.”

Ventan reached into his voluminous robes, pulled out a small leather pouch, and handed it to her. Puzzled, she unloosed the strings and shook out a slender purple jewel suspended on a silver chain. The jewel was about the length of Athaya’s little finger and slightly curved like the tooth of a wild boar.

“What’s this?” she asked, admiring the way the sunlight sparkled on the strange gem. The light seemed to give it life and filled it with an odd, pulsating kind of energy. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“It’s a corbal crystal,” he told her proudly. “They’re quite rare in Caithe. This particular crystal was given to me by a fellow bishop who had journeyed to Cruachi, where the gem is more common.”

“But why are you giving it to me?”

Ventan leaned close to her, as if he were somehow in fear of being overheard, even though there was no one within earshot. “The corbal is used to guard against the evil of wizards,” he said in a hushed tone. “As you know, the Lorngeld are abundant in Reyka, and when I heard you were to venture there, I thought you should have the crystal for protection. I… did not think it wise to give it to you in his Majesty’s presence, knowing his sympathy for their kind. He might have objections to your carrying the gem, and—”

“And what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” Athaya concluded, surprised by the archbishop’s rare display of intrigue. Ventan shrugged, but did not offer any argument.

“I only seek his Majesty’s peace of mind,” he said simply, drawing his fingertips together to form a steeple.

“Something he certainly never gets from me,” she murmured, turning the gem over in her hands. It looked like an indigo icicle, slightly transparent in the bright sun.

“I can understand Kelwyn’s sympathy for the Lorngeld, however,” Ventan went on, shaking his head from side to side. “They are, after all, his subjects, and their plight is extremely unfortunate. Just yesterday one of them came to me—a young man who works in the salt mines near Feckham. He was suffering from delusions and sporadic outbursts of violence. He almost struck off his wife’s head with an ax three days ago because he thought she was trying to kill him.”

“What was she doing?”

“Nothing. His wife swears she was merely cooking supper at the time.” Ventan clicked his tongue with futility. “Needless to say, she’s gone now. Took their baby girl and disappeared. Apparently she had no idea she was married to one of the Lorngeld. Not that there’s any way she could have known, mind you. The madness is often the only sign. But in any event, to make my story a short one, the young man’s father brought him in to me yesterday.” Ventan emitted a heavy sigh. “We’ve scheduled him for absolution tomorrow morning.”

Absolution. That term always grated on Athaya’s nerves. To her it was merely a less repugnant way of saying “murder.” But it had to be done. Athaya knew that as well as anyone. When the madness came upon them, the Lorngeld became extremely dangerous and had to be destroyed for the protection of everyone around them. Two centuries ago, not long after the Time of Madness, a bishop named Adriel had written a treatise on the Lorngeld espousing his views that absolution was their only route to eternal life. For his efforts in saving their souls and winning the Devil’s Children back to God, he had been sainted shortly after his death, and Delfarham’s massive cathedral bore his name to this day.

“Does this man understand what’s going to happen to him?”

Athaya asked quietly. Despite the heat of the afternoon, a cold shudder rippled down her spine as she thought of the unfortunate salt miner from Feckham.

“Yes, I explained it during his more lucid moments. He’s willing. It’s always better when they’re willing.”

Athaya looked away. Of course it is, she thought wryly. It certainly reflects poorly on the Church when the priests have to pin down their victims on the altar and shove the poison down their throats.

“And they have nothing to fear,” Ventan went on. “The kahnil works quickly and causes little pain. The next thing they know, they’re home with the Heavenly Father.”

If such a one exists, Athaya added inwardly. Her own feelings about God were mixed. She couldn’t honestly say she did not believe in Him, but she couldn’t honestly say that she did, either. But she was careful never to voice these doubts to anyone, with the possible exception of Tyler or Nicolas. Such a lack of faith would have only served to add fuel to the fire that Dagara and Durek, and sometimes Kelwyn himself, seemed all too eager to build under her.

“It is sad,” Athaya murmured, not knowing what else to say.

Ventan obliged her with a nod. “Indeed. But that does not alter the fact that they are a doomed race, scorned by God. That is why I simply could not condone your marriage to Prince Felgin, much as Kelwyn urged me to do so. Had such a marriage actually come about, I fear that it would have led to disastrous consequences.”

I’ll say, she thought to herself. But she was not thinking of Felgin the wizard, but of Felgin the self-righteous boor who succeeded in doing nothing but bringing out the worst in her—something she was sure he’d regretted doing ever since. And now that she thought about it, she did recall that Ventan tried to persuade Kelwyn that the marriage wasn’t a good idea. Curiously, it was the only time she could think of when the archbishop had not acquiesced to the king’s wishes, and that alone was proof of how strong his convictions were on the subject of the Lorngeld.

“Caithe simply cannot make alliances with kingdoms where wizardry is allowed to run rampant,” he continued, suddenly filled with resolve. “Courting such a danger would be unnecessarily foolish. And soon Kelwyn will have to realize that many others besides myself and Prince Durek disagree with him. I don’t expect him to have much success with the Curia. I have already spoken to several of the other bishops who have arrived for this council, and they are all quite adamant about retaining the sacrament of absolution. I sincerely doubt that Kelwyn will be able to abolish it, as he hopes.”

“Strange that Rhodri doesn’t seem overly enthusiastic about helping him, either,” Athaya mused aloud. She had always found it quite odd that as one of the Lorngeld, Rhodri was aloof, and at times even hostile, toward his own people, as if their fate was somehow their own fault. But then, Athaya reasoned, how could he possibly do anything on their behalf when current canon law forbade the teaching of magic to the Lorngeld and made it heresy to shelter any wizard from absolution?

Any wizard but Rhodri himself, Athaya reminded herself. Being the king’s advisor certainly had its privileges.

At the mention of the wizard’s name, Ventan’s fleshy lips turned down in distaste. “I’d be surprised to hear that Rhodri cared about anything except himself,” he said snidely. “Oh, Kelwyn’s told me often enough that without Rhodri we’d still be enmeshed in a civil war, but I just can’t believe that he gave magic to the king for such a noble reason. He’s rich enough now, so perhaps that was the reward he really wanted.” Ventan furrowed his graying brows. “But I have the feeling he still wants something more.”

Athaya held up the glittering purple gem and grinned mischievously. “Does he know you have one of these?”

“I never actually mentioned it,” Ventan said. Then, with a sly arch of his brow, he added, “But have you ever noticed how irritable he gets whenever we’re in the same room together? Frankly, I’m sure most of it is because he despises me, but some of it’s because of this.” He pointed to the ring on his left hand. “The diamond is surrounded by tiny corbals. Rhodri knows it, but he’s too proud to ask me to take the thing off.”

Athaya laughed, strangely pleased at the image of the powerful Rhodri being at the mercy of a simple piece of crystal. She briefly fantasized about someday finding enough corbals to make an entire necklace—something she could wear whenever she wanted the ever-watchful wizard to keep his distance.

She slipped the gem around her neck. “I feel safer already.”

“The crystal is most effective in bright light,” Ventan told her. “It seems to function poorly in darkness, although it does not totally lose its power.” He handed her the leather pouch. “Keep this. The pouch is lined with velvet so you won’t scratch the crystal’s surface. They are somewhat delicate and do not work well if scratched or damaged.”

“Thank you,” she said. “It was kind of you to think of my welfare.”

“I shall leave you to your game of chess, then. No doubt Lady Cecile is anxiously waiting to continue, and if I may be so bold as to observe, my Lady, I think it best that you get out of this direct sunlight. You look somewhat pale.”

Too much drinking the night before does that to a person, Athaya thought, surprised that she didn’t look worse than she did. But she thought it best to keep her depravities from the archbishop and, after thanking Ventan again for his crystal, returned to the welcome shade of the crab apple tree.

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