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It was duty that brought her back, though she'd wished with all her heart to stay. She had her pride, after all; and the Queen had chosen her, Navarone Rishlauf, when she might have sent any other of the Wood Wise. Called her by name, had the Queen, and spoken kindly of her skill.

She'd spoken of other things, too. Of small shifts in the aether, tiny changes of phase; hints, no more than a breeze whispering against the ear of the Queen's Guard.

Whispers that wise and canny Guard took note of, and dispatched an apprentice to follow, far across the land, to the keleigh itself. There, the apprentice had stopped, whether from wisdom or fear, though the breeze he followed blew on, through—Beyond.

The keleigh was dangerous enough. The Barrens—well, and who knew what might have taken root in the wasteland on the far side of the keleigh?

Certainly, the apprentice was wise to turn back. No question that the Guard was wise, and asked Queen Diathen to send a seeker more suited to the terrain, and accustomed to facing risk.

Navarone's charge, from the Queen's own lips, had been clear: Follow the whispering breeze where it led, through the keleigh if necessary, and into the very Barrens. Scout out the source and learn what she might—safely.

"You stand high among the Wood Wise, Navarone Rishlauf, which wins you the right to this task. You go not as champion, but as the eyes and ears of your Queen. Go, learn, return. That is your mission."

Navarone bowed. "I understand, Ma'am."

"That is well." The Queen raised her hand and slid one of her own rings onto Navarone's brown finger.

"To show you the way home, should there be need. Go now. I look for your return no later than Naming Day."

Go she did, following the elusive breeze to the keleigh, through—and beyond.

It was Navarone's pride that she had quickly located the source of the whispering disturbance, and had studied them closely and well.

It was her shame that she had not turned toward home until the Queen's ring compelled her to do so, and that she had gone on leaden feet and with a heart that grew more desolate with every league.

She thought of casting the token away; of breaking the Queen's geas and returning to the land beyond the keleigh. It was pride, she told herself, and her honor, that kept the ring on her finger and her face turned into the sweet wind from home.

At the near border of the keleigh, she had abruptly stopped, as though that which tied her to—the Barrens, as the Fey had been accustomed to call the lands beyond the keleigh—as if that bond would break, and, breaking, shatter her.

Standing there, shivering, she had indeed slipped the Queen's ring from her finger and stood holding it in her fist, her body craning back the way she had come, while her rational mind pled honor, and obedience, and duty.

She had taken a bolt—she understood that, if she did not quite understand how, or when. Her appetite languished, and when she forced herself to eat—as duty demanded—the food tasted of ash and gravel. Reason told her that her only hope of healing lay in continuing onward to home. But her heart—ah, how her heart ached to return . . .

In the end, it was the trees that had ransomed her, whispering encouragement as she walked, trembling, beneath leaf and branch. At first, she had paused often, palms and cheek pressed against bark, drawing strength, and resolution. The more distance she put between herself and the land that was barren no longer, the firmer her step became, until she once again moved through the forests as a Wood Wise ought.

It frightened her, how close she had come to abandoning duty, and honor, and sense, and she pushed on, stopping for nothing, running now—away from the keleigh, and that which lay beyond, toward Xandurana, and her Queen, and the faithful discharge of duty.

Almost, she had tarried too long; her hesitations and yearnings had cost her time; time even one of the Queen's Wood Wise was hard-pressed to regain. Still, she arrived, as commanded, on the eve of the Queen's Naming Day. When the glass turned, it would begin to count the first hour of the morrow, but the last sands of night had not run out, quite, yet.

A flash of the ring gained her entrance to the Queen's residence, and a page, his aura an undistinguished blur of sleepy greys and browns, was summoned to guide her to the private parlor while one of the guard ran to alert his captain. They should have allowed her first to bathe, in deference to the Queen's honor, but the glass, after all, was quite near to turning, and the ring blazed hot and urgent on her finger.

The page rushed off, mumbling after wine and pastries, and Navarone stood in the center of the room, her legs braced wide and her boots planted solid against the living wood floor, awaiting her Queen's pleasure.

She might have settled on any of several carven benches and taken ease from her journey; there were no precious fabrics here to be affronted by the honest dirt of travel. In truth, she could not bear to sit. It was all she could do, honor notwithstanding, to be still and seemly; not to pace across the room to the windows that opened out to the east, where the glow off the keleigh would be a toothy violet blade sheathed in the sweet belly of the night.

Navarone took a breath, centered herself, clasped her hands behind her back, and recalled discipline. Her boots shifted against the floor; she stilled them; took another breath—and at long last discerned the approach of her Queen. She faced the door squarely and dropped to one knee, head bent, hands open, fingers pointed harmlessly at the floor.

"Rise." The Queen's voice was cool; her aura a ripple of silver-washed greens.

Navarone rose, slipping the ring from her finger and offering it on a calloused palm, her eyes averted. The moment stretched, and yet the Queen neither reclaimed her ring, nor spoke.

Cautiously, Navarone raised her eyes, and met a fierce amethyst gaze.

"We had despaired of your safe return," the Queen said.

Navarone glanced down at the ring blazing against her brown skin. "There was much to study," she whispered. "Much to learn."

"Ah." Pale fingers intersected her line of vision, plucked the blazing circle up and lifted it away.

"Come," the Queen said, slipping an implacable hand beneath her elbow. "Sit. You will tell me all that you have learned. The boy will be here with wine directly."

The Queen had not risen to rule because she was weak, or continued because she was a fool. Surely, a mere Wood Wise, exhausted, wounded, and troubled in her heart, was in no wise fit to disobey her command, no matter how gently spoken.

Dutifully, Navarone sat in the wooden chair she was led to, her back to the windows, and a thin table inlaid with bright enamel before her. Across the table, the Queen sat in a similar chair—dressed yet for court, Navarone saw suddenly, with only the crown set aside in deference to the hour.

To the left, the door opened, and here indeed came the boy with the promised wine, and pastries, too, though the scent of them made Navarone's stomach turn. He set the tray on the table and poured into hammered silver goblets, presenting the first to their Queen with a deep bow; and the second to her, with a bow only slightly less deep.

"Leave us," the Queen said to him. "I will call if I have need."

"Ma'am." He bowed again, not quite as steady as he might, and went soundlessly across the floor. The door closed with a small snick; it was all Navarone could do, not to leap up and wrench it open, run down the hall and across the courtyard—no.

She took a breath and waited for her Queen to taste the wine, then did the same, carefully.

As she had feared, the taste was dull and bitter. She lowered the goblet and held it between her two hands, leaning forward slightly in the warm wooden chair.

"Now," said Diathen the Queen. "Tell me."

"A new people is come to the land beyond the keleigh," Navarone said, trying with all her power to keep the yearning from her voice, to give her Queen the dispassionate and careful report she required.

The Queen frowned, and sipped her wine. "A new people," she repeated, with quiet emphasis. "Fey?"

"Not Fey," Navarone answered, with certainty. "Something—other than—Fey, my Queen, though formed similarly." She looked down into her glass, and saw her own reflection in the glossy surface of the wine. Had her face always been so stern, so thin?

"From whence do they come?" the Queen asked, the soft question a startling intrusion into her thoughts.

Navarone swallowed; forced herself to look up and meet that calm and canny gaze.

"It was of course a few days before I was able to understand their tongue," she murmured. "After their speech had become intelligible, I listened especially for whatever they might say of their homeland. It seemed that they would have themselves out of New London, my Queen, but I know not where that might be. One would sometimes look to the east as they spoke the name, so perhaps we might seek there."

"Or perhaps we might not," the Queen returned calmly. "What else?"

What else, indeed. Navarone sighed and found she wanted another sip of wine, ill as it was, to slake the dryness of her throat.

"They have built a large dwelling of deadwood and metal, two days' walk from the outside edge of the keleigh," she said, and held up her hand. "The land there is barren no longer, but lush with vegetation and vibrant with benevolent forces."

"Ah," the Queen said softly, and tipped her head, her eyes shrewd. "But these—new people. What more of them?"

Navarone inclined her head. "At first, there were perhaps two dozen of them, half to tend to the construction of the house and half to ready the fields and to plant. Once the house was under roof, there came another half dozen of a different bearing and style. These, I learned, were the great family whose dwelling it was; the others being only workers attached to them by a system of allegiance I do not yet understand."

Behind her eyes, she saw a flash of jewel-tones, shimmering and seductive. Her mouth dried and she sipped wine without tasting it.

"This—family," the Queen said, sharply, drawing her back into the present. "They mean to hold house a mere two days' walk from the keleigh? Do the emanations not confuse their abilities?"

Almost, Navarone laughed.

"Ma'am, they do not appear to be aware of any force beyond the goodness of the land itself, which is considerable." She moved a hand, in a meaningless, wandering gesture.

"Their . . . abilities . . . are not as ours," she said, in an attempt to clarify that which was surely unnatural. "According to my observations, they neither perceive the keleigh nor draw upon the power of the land." She cleared her throat. "This metal that they use—it is dangerous—corrosive." She pulled back her sleeve to show the scar, still livid against her brown wrist. "A moment's contact burns, and yet they handle it carelessly, and take no harm."

Silence. She dared to look at her Queen, and saw the amethyst eyes close—and open.

"What else?"

Navarone drew a breath, sighed it out, and met her Queen's gaze.

"Though they do not use the power of the land, the land rejoices in them," she said, steadily. "Their auras are . . .very beautiful. Potent." She sipped wine. "Intoxicating."

"Are they a danger to the Vaitura, to us, or to ours?"

Ah, the question. The very question, indeed.

Navarone placed the goblet very carefully on the table between them.

"It is possible that they are—without knowledge or intent—dangerous to the Fey. I—" She faltered.

"You," the Queen said, "are ill. Was this done to you?"

"Ma'am, it was not. I hunger for the taste—the texture—of their auras. It may be a peculiarity of myself alone. Certainly, now that I am returned, the effects must fade. In the meanwhile, I suggest that further study is needed."

"Do you?" The Queen's face was stern, the silvered greens of her aura flowed and flared in pale imitation of those others . . .. "Shall I risk another of my Wood Wise against this malaise?"

Navarone leaned forward, her hands open. "They spoke of other settlements, my Queen, sent out from this New London. The land beyond the keleigh is wide, and as I have seen it is largely recovered from the wars. If these new people are—numerous, it may be in our best interest to establish relations. That, we cannot know until we send another to spy them out, and perhaps an ambassador."


The Queen swept to her feet, and Navarone hastily scrambled to hers.

"We will speak again. Take you to the healers now, and submit yourself to their care until I send for you."

Navarone bowed; the mint-scented breeze of her Queen's passage kissed her cheek. There was a rustle, the sound of the door opening, and the pale aura faded from her senses.

She straightened, ears buzzing, and put out a hand to catch the back of the chair she had been sitting in. Abruptly, she could see them, those glorious, alien auras. Almost, she could feel them, taste them. Her kest rose without her willing it, hot and heady, as if she might indeed meld—

The door opened. She started, knocking against the inlaid table, the memories of magic shattered as her eyes flew open.

The captain of the night guard regarded her from hooded yellow eyes, and moved a hand, indicating that she was to precede him into the hall.

"The Queen sends me as your escort to the healers," he said, voice devoid of nuance; his aura scarcely a blue shadow against the aether.

"Of course," said Navarone, and sighed, and stepped dutifully forward.

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