Tessa Me’Cowyn paced from her window to her bed to the door. She pressed her ear to the varnished oak. She could hear clashes of metal on metal, shouts, screams, running feet echoing up to the corridor, growing closer, louder, ever more threatening.
Or was this finally rescue?
After weeks as a hostage in Readen’s keep, the elegance of the furnishings, the thick rug, the private bathing room didn’t make Tessa feel any less trapped.
She dropped into a chair at the table and pushed away her cold, half-finished breakfast. If she didn’t get out of here soon, she’d smother. She sucked a breath through her tight throat and looked toward the door. Who’s winning?
The door smashed open and splintered against the wall. One of Readen’s mercenaries stepped through. His unkempt hair waved wildly in his aroused Air talent.
Tessa jumped to her feet, knife in one hand, fork in the other. Her heart slammed into her throat. Her mind a startled can’t think, can’t think. She stared at his bloodied sword. She stared at the slow you’re- all-mine-little-girl smile spreading across his hard face.
She backed away. Her breath refused to come.
He followed, sheathed the sword, unbuckled the belt, let it fall to the floor.
She forced her feet to move, to get past him to the door. He stepped closer.
Her breath stuttered. She choked on his rank smell of sweat, blood, and battle.
“Watched you for days. You’re the prettiest of all the hostages.” His voice was low, harsh, gravelly with lust.
“I’m a protected hostage. If you touch me, the regent will kill you.” Her too-high voice squeaked in her ears. Tessa recognized him now— Dix Ward. He’d stared at her every time she went to the main hall at dinner. Stopped her in the halls with a too-friendly hand on her arm until she refused to go anywhere without one of the other hostages and started keeping her room locked. She swallowed the tiny bit of mois- ture left in her mouth and edged closer to the door.
“The regent”—the sneer was audible in his voice—“is too busy right now. Or off in his cellars again. He won’t be Regent long. We’re losin’ the battle. I’m takin’ what I can. Then I’m out of here. Maybe you’ll wanna come with me. Time to get a little closer so I can show you why.” He unbuttoned his tight breeches, moved to block her from the door, and grabbed for her.
Tessa slashed at him with the knife and jumped back. A line of blood beaded across the back of his hand.
He laughed, bringing his hand to his mouth. His tongue licked the blood. He thrust with his hips. “Such a little knife against this big sword.”
She ducked to the right. He moved faster. He seized her arm and slung her toward the bed. Tessa stumbled over his belt and fell on top of the sword.
She rolled away and grabbed the hilt with both hands, scrambling to get a knee under her, trying to jerk it from the scabbard.
He grabbed the scabbard. Tessa held on, and the sword pulled free. He laughed harder and tossed the sheath to the side. “Such a big sword for a sweet little bit like you. I’ve got a better one you can grab.”
Tessa braced herself on one knee, both hands tight on the hilt, and shoved the blade straight up in front of her just as he lunged. It cut up into his chest, buried almost to the cross guard. He looked down. His eyes widened in disbelief and filmed over with the opaque veil of death.
He let out a long breath. His knees collapsed. His body fell on her, flattening Tessa on her back. The sword pommel jabbed into her diaphragm. Her breath whooshed out.
Her face mashed into the hollow of his shoulder, and she couldn’t breathe. Her lips clamped tight against the welling blood from his dying heart.
She shoved. Hard. Her hands wouldn’t let go of the sword. They were trapped.
Tessa shoved harder, fighting for air. He was heavy. Too heavy.
Twisting to the side, she shoved again. Freeing one leg from her tangled skirt, she hooked it around his big thigh, pushed and pulled herself out from under his torso. The scratchy wool of his jacket dug into her cheek. His body rolled to its back. One arm flopped over and slapped loud on the stone floor.
The sword frozen in her hands, she stood, put her foot on his chest and pulled. It slid out of his chest with a horrible sucking sound.
She shook so hard she could barely stand. The clash of swords and yelling men outside her room receded. The room shrank till all she saw was the blood on the sword, on her hands.
Tessa stumbled to the spindly chair beside the table and rested her head on her knees. Her hands gripped the sword hilt like they were glued.
Gradually her breathing slowed, and her head cleared. She forced her fingers away from the sword and dropped it on the table. Blood stained the white cloth, blending with a spill of bright red preserves. Tessa stared at the sword, refusing to look at the body sprawled near the bed. She staggered toward the bathing room and scrubbed at the blood on her hands, her face, her throat. Tessa leaned over the water bowl for a long time trying not to shake, trying not to feel the blood that soaked her blouse, trying not to think.
She’d watched people die. Her mother—
But this time she’d killed.
Urgent need sent her whirling to the commode. She retched until
her stomach muscles could force nothing more out and sank to the floor. The cold flagstones pulled the heat out of her face, out of the image of the body lying twisted and still by the bed. Soothed the nausea that welled from the clammy, wet feeling of the dark purple splotches of blood on her fine blue linen shirt.
She tore at her clothes. Get them off. Get them off. She stripped, throwing everything in a corner. Holding a towel under the faucet, she soaked it and scrubbed her body everywhere she could reach, trying not to see the blood and the pink-tinged water dripping on the floor.
But he might not be the only mercenary roaming this wing of the keep. She forced herself back into the other room, breath coming in hard gasps. She froze. His body sprawled on the floor, blood seeping between the flagstones.
Biting hard on her lip, Tessa un-froze, grabbed the coverlet from her bed and threw it over the body. It missed his head, and his open eyes stared at her. The man would have raped her. He’d laughed at the sword in her hands, seeing only the beautiful face, the long silver hair.
Shaking, muscles quivering, adrenaline washing out of her, she pulled open her wardrobe, grabbed a tunic and split skirt and pulled them on. She fell into a chair. How did one ever get over killing some- one, even in self-defense? How could I do that? How did I know what to do when my mind couldn’t work?
Minutes passed. The yelling, the sound of battle faded to silence. The long sword lay on her breakfast tray still leaking blood into the splotch of bright red preserves. I’ll never be able to eat cherryapples again. Tessa forced her legs to support her and moved past the broken door into the hall. She had to get away from the body lying on her floor, get away from the blood, get away from the room that hadn’t even been a safe prison.
She ran. And smashed into a broad chest. Hands gripped her arms hard. Tessa screamed and fought, kicking, biting, struggling to get loose. Her chest was bursting, her throat tearing with frantic screams.
“Hush, lass. Hush. Do you na know me? Hush, now. It’s Cael, Tessa. It’s Cael. Hush, now. Tell me what’s wrong.”
She stilled and looked up at the broad, deeply lined face almost hidden by his leather helmet. “Cael. Cael.” She knew him. Cael, who had been her father’s armsmaster for years until he disappeared when she was twelve. Her body began to shake so hard she could only stand because he held her arms. “I killed him, Cael. I killed him.”
Cael pulled her to his chest, and she felt him jerk when he saw the body on the floor inside the room. “So I see, lass. So I see. I know him. He’s a bad one. You did good, Tess. You remembered what I taught you before I— You did good.”
He pushed her away from him, rubbing his hands up and down her arms. “Now remember what else I taught you. You do what you have to do, and then you move on to what you have to do next.” He held her gaze, matching her breath for breath until she began to calm, then let go.
Tessa staggered then caught her balance. She looked at his leather jerkin and helmet. “You’re one of Readen’s men. Cael, how could you be one of Readen’s men?” She stepped back.
He looked behind her down the hall. “I can’t explain now, Tessa. I have to get away before I’m found. Just don’t tell anyone you saw me. Except Krager. Tell him. But only him.” He touched her shoulder. “I was right, Tessa. And your father was wrong. You are extraordinary.” And he left her standing, staring after him, but calmer, oddly calmer.
He left so long ago she’d almost forgotten him. She talked him into giving her sword lessons when she was ten. They kept at it for two years until her father discovered them, and Cael disappeared. She took a deep, stuttering breath and turned away from the carnage in her room. She had to think about something else, move on to the next thing like Cael said.
Wounded. There would be wounded. My blocked talents may make me useless as a healer, but I can still do triage and basic nursing. Tessa skipped over the thought that there would be more blood.
Tessa ran as fast as she could, stopped before she turned each corner and watched for Readen’s mercenaries, but she saw only a few dead bodies. Her stomach lurched each time. Four guards stood in the corridor at the bottom of the third stairway. They wore purple and yellow armbands—the colors of the guardian heir––Daryl Me’Vere’s colors. Her steps faltered, knees weak with relief. The usurper Readen was defeated.
The lieutenant caught her before she fell. “You’re Tessa Me’Cowyn, aren’t you?” His voice was so steady, so strong and sure, relief threat- ened to take her legs from under her. Daryl had won. The rightful heir was back and in control. “Your father is looking all over for you.”
“I’ll need to get to wherever the wounded are. And someone will need to send for healers.”
“They’ve probably already been sent for, but to be sure—“ He nodded at two of the guards who left at a run. “The wounded are brought to the receiving hall. We’ll take you there. Not good to be roaming these corridors by yourself. No telling who you might run into.”
Tessa swallowed. One of those no-telling-whos had already run into her. “There’s a body in my room. I...I...” Her tongue was thick, her words distant in her ear.
He nodded. A flicker of respect crossed the concern in his face. “I’ll take care of it.”
The doors to the huge receiving hall stood open. All she could see were wounded and dying. She saw no healers. None of the other girls who’d been held hostage with her were there. A few scattered servants helped the injured, doing their best. But they were overwhelmed and under-trained. She was all there was. And she wasn’t enough.
The keep’s steward, Lerys, stood, red-faced, arms flying, arguing with another lieutenant. “Guardian Roland won’t stand for these people bloodying up the hall. Send them to Healer’s Hospice. They’ll be taken care of there.”
Tessa couldn’t believe her ears.
The lieutenant was having the same problem. “You need to bring more linens, sir. And fresh. This pile of cleaning rags won’t do.” He gestured to the mound of cloth in the arms of the servant behind Lerys. Tessa recognized Elda.
Lerys stepped back half a step, palms out in front of him. “The guardian––“
Tessa stepped in front of him. “Guardian Roland isn’t here. No one’s seen him for two tendays, and these guards need help now.”
“Miss Tessa. You shouldn’t be here.” He turned to the lieutenant, his tone officious. “Have someone escort the holder’s daughter to her room. It’s not appropriate for her to be—“
She interrupted him. Fury scoured away any fear, any feeling of inadequacy. “Lerys. Bring everything you have. I’ll need pallets, sheets, even tablecloths. Whatever we can tear into bandages. I’ll need alcohol and all the herbs, tonics, and antibiotic salves you can find. These people are bleeding and dying.”
“All I have left are the good linens. I can’t have them all bloody and—“
Tessa turned to the tiny housekeeper standing just out of Lerys’s line of sight. “Melayne, you know what we need.”
The woman nodded and left in a hurry.
“You can’t just override my orders.” Lerys sputtered and spittle sprayed. He turned to the two guardsmen behind Tessa. “Take her to her room.”
They both shrugged. She was a holder’s daughter. She outranked the steward.
Tessa ignored him and turned to the room filling with wounded, cursing her blocked talent. She should be able to heal them. Instead, too many would die before the healers arrived. All she could do was sort out the most severely injured, stabilize them and be grateful that she never stopped studying despite her blocked talent. There was still much she could do, and right now it was triage that was most important. The healers won’t be long. Please, Adalta, let the healers not be long.
She turned to the servant holding the cloths. “Elda, are these clean?” Elda nodded. “Then start tearing them into strips. Fold some pads.” The woman laid her bundle down and started ripping.
A young guard with a slashed abdomen lay on the floor just inside the door of the receiving hall. Tessa grabbed a strip from the servant, folded it into a pad and pressed it firm against his belly. She scanned the man beside him. Blood dripped down his chin from a deep slash across his cheek. “Here,” she told him. “Hold this here and press firmly. You’re better off than he is.”
“What do I do if—?”
“It’s not a deep cut. Just keep pressure on it till the healers come.” Tessa smiled her best you’ll-be-alright smile to take the sting out of
her words. She pressed a pad to his bleeding cheek and wrapped a bandage around his head to hold it. Then she moved to the next guard where Elda was already holding a large pad to a young woman’s chest. A bloody froth of bubbles seeped from the sides of her mouth and pooled into her hair.
Tessa swallowed a gasp and dropped to her knees next to the pale woman. She lifted the guardswoman’s icy hand, noting the blue finger- nails. An awful rasping sounded from the wound in her chest despite the pad Elda pressed against it. The too-young woman wasn’t going to make it until the healers came.
Tessa tried desperately to connect with Adalta. She tried forcing her consciousness down through the stones of the floor into the bedrock beneath the keep, into the tiny rivulets and streams that ran through the earth. She searched her mind and body for the faintest hint of connection to Water or Earth.
But she couldn’t pull the power up, couldn’t see the core of the wound, couldn’t feel what was needed to heal it. She should be able to manipulate the vessels, bones, and tissues—to realign, to mend. But the images skittered away as they always did.
Tessa opened her eyes. The woman’s eyes were fixed on her face, eyes full of fear and pain and questions. She tried to speak, and the words caught, choked off by the frothy blood that bubbled with every feeble breath. Then the fear and the pain and the questions were gone. Tessa watched bright red blood spill from the woman’s mouth, and after a long, long moment, pulled the edge of the sheet over the face no older than her own and fought the familiar upwelling of helpless shame. Shame was an indulgence she couldn’t afford right now.
She stood, staring down, clasping her hands together till they cramped. No use crying over my lost talents. She’s gone. And I can’t bring her back. Even with talent, I couldn’t bring her back now.
“Renewal,” she whispered.
“Renewal,” said Elda.
Tessa swiped her forearm across her damp eyes and looked for the next person who needed the little she could give. She went back to doing what she could, thankful she never stopped learning about the ordinary healing of herbs, salves, and wound care from whomever she could talk into teaching her on the Me’Cowyn Hold. Thankful they had dared to do so behind her father’s back.
The minutes it took the healers to get from the guild house to the hall seemed hours. Hours-long minutes of tearing sheets, pressing thick pads to bloody wounds. Hours-long minutes of washing and bandaging the less critical cuts and slashes she could treat without talent, of covering too many stilled faces. But the healers finally arrived. She directed them to the critically wounded. And she followed —bandaging and splinting, brewing aspirtea, applying antibiotic salves—until the healers finished the urgent cases and could begin to take care of the simple broken bones and lighter wounds.
There was only endless time bending over wounds, wrapping meters of bandages, emptying buckets of bloody water, and carrying pails of clean water from the kitchens. Endless time until Tessa stood up from the young man whose broken arm she helped healer Evya, the guild house mother, set. She staggered. Evya grabbed her before she fell.
“You need to stop. Get some water and some food. Melayne set some out in the little anteroom. She put several cots and pallets in there for us.” She looked at Tessa’s face. “Don’t object again. You nearly fell before I caught you. If I have to, I’ll give you an order.”
Tessa wanted to grin, but she was so tired she could only raise one side of her mouth. “I don’t know if you can order me. I’m not one of your healers.”
“Oh, I can give the order. I just can’t make you follow it. So consider it a strong suggestion from your healer to eat and rest. You’re exhausted, and your talent is so depleted I can’t even sense it.”
Tessa turned away. She was too tired to pretend. It wasn’t depleted —she had no talent.
Tessa rolled to the edge of the cot, choking back a scream. She dragged a deep breath through her tight throat. She wasn’t smothering. There was no heavy, bloody man pinning her down. She was safe in the small anteroom adjacent to the receiving hall. Was she going to re-live the attack of that vile mercenary every time she closed her eyes? She untangled her legs from the blanket and sat, cross-legged, grounding herself as best she could without a connection to Adalta, ignoring, like always, the rejection she felt when she tried to connect to the planet.
Resting her head in her hands, elbows propped on her knees, Tessa let out her breath. How had she managed to kill her attacker? She should have been too terrified to move. Nothing in her sheltered life prepared her for such an experience. Yet she’d killed him.
She was so tired. She wished for her stepmother, to be held, to be safe in her arms. She felt less like the almost eighteen-year-old she was and more like the seven-year-old she’d been when her talents first failed her.
A light touch on her shoulder startled her. Healer Evya looked down at her. “Ground yourself, Tessa. And replenish your talent. You’re depleted. I still can’t feel any talent in your channels. Do that, and get some food.” Evya gestured to a table with bread, fruit, cheese. Beads of moisture dripped from several pitchers. “When you feel up to it we can use your help again.””
Tessa ran her tongue, thick with thirst, across her lips. “How long have I been asleep?”
“Several hours. Your father’s looking for you. He was surprised you helped with the wounded and concerned about you. I told him you were resting. He wanted you to know he moved your things to another room. He said there’s a dead man in your room. He’s trying to find out who rescued you and wanted to be sure you were alright.”
Her face creased into a gentle smile. “I didn’t know about what you faced, the man you faced. I wouldn’t have blamed you if you had collapsed and needed healing yourself. Nor would I have let you work so hard. That’s probably why your father didn’t think you’d be much help. But how can he not know how powerful your talent is?”
Tessa just shook her head, trying not to react. There was no talent there for Evya to feel. Just a void. An impenetrable wall of nothing-at-all. She stood, forcing a smile. “You’re right. I need to eat something. If you’ll excuse me?”
Evya stepped aside as Tessa headed for the table of food, ignoring the guild mother’s concern. She picked up a plate and reached for a piece of bread.
The image of a tiny bird overwhelmed her tired mind. Blue, with an orange breast and a short, sharp yellow beak. Its wing twisted wrongly, it lay in Tessa’s small seven-year-old hands. She watched her younger self feel her way into the tiny body, seeing the snapped bone, the torn muscle, felt the tightness in her forehead as she concentrated, moving the ends of the bone together, fusing them.
And again she felt the horror as the blood vessel burst, spouting crimson with every rapid beat of the tiny heart. She didn’t know how to stop the blood loss, the final convulsion that ended the bird’s life.
Her fault, just like her mother’s death. Tessa’s fault. She’d pushed too hard, demanded too much, known too little.
That was when her hair turned to silver.
Eleven years and the images were as powerful now as then.
She shook her head against the vision of her mother’s pale face as
the younger Tessa, the bird’s blood still wet on her small fingers, raged at her for dying. Raged at her unavailable abilities, her small helpless self.
That was when she lost her talent.
She made herself put food on her plate. There’d been no time to eat since her interrupted breakfast this morning when Daryl’s forces had attacked. Next to her Evya poured herself a cup of red juice. Tessa clapped her hands over her mouth, seeing again the image of the bloody sword lying in the bright red smear of cherryapple preserves.
Several mornings later Tessa closed the door to her room and started down the hallway to the smaller dining room for breakfast. She hoped she’d dawdled long enough. Hoped her father had finished and gone about his business elsewhere. She wasn’t up to seeing him. To let herself in for another rant on how to attract Guardian Heir Daryl Me’Vere just wasn’t what she wanted right now. Head down, taking small steps, she scuffed her feet along, delaying her progress even more. And bumped into someone.
“Omph. Sorry. I wasn’t looking where I was going.” The speaker was a slender, auburn-haired woman, jacket over her arm, dressed in the split-skirt uniform of the Mi’hiru, riders and caretakers of the magnificent hawk-headed, flying horse, Karda. She was too slender, her face too pale, eyes too hollow.
“My fault. I wasn’t either.” Tessa reached to steady the other woman. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. I don’t look it, I know, but I’m fine. Just really hungry. I’m Marta, Sidhari’s rider.”
“Yes, of course you are. I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you at first. I’m headed for breakfast myself. May I join you?”
Tessa tried not to stare at Marta as they headed for the stairs. What- ever ordeal she had undergone at the hands of the defeated Readen Me’Vere in the hidden cavern under the keep had taken a terrible toll. Her skin was nearly translucent, her cheekbones too sharp. Tessa could see too clearly the blue veins and the outlines of slender bones in the hand that rested on her sword hilt.
Marta stopped suddenly, her head cocked as if listening to some- thing Tessa couldn’t hear.
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
Marta laughed. “Yes, and I’m not crazy either. Sidhari, my Karda, was telling me I need to talk to you. You’re Tessa Me’Cowyn, aren’t you? No one else has your lovely silver hair. So striking against your tea-with-a-little-milk complexion.”
“Oh, you’re one of the Mi’hiru who speak telepathically to her Karda. Why is your Karda concerned with me?” She ignored the comment about her looks. Beauty wasn’t an accomplishment—it just was. Comments on her looks had long since failed to affect her. Her beauty was her father’s tool. She hated it.
The two young women settled in one corner of the small dining area with their full plates. Tessa played with her food and watched Marta attack hers and signal their young server for more before she emptied the first plate piled with potatoes, ham, egg toast.
She finally finished and wrapped slender hands around her mug of tea. She tilted her head and looked hard at Tessa. “Sometimes I think I will never get enough to eat. I’m told until the new talent settles in, it will burn a lot of energy. I just need to keep eating. And grounding.” She took a sip of tea.
Tessa shook her head. “What do you mean, new talent? We’re born with all the talent we’ll ever have. Except for Readen, of course.”
“I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t know how much you know about what happened to me.” She raised a questioning eyebrow at Tessa.
Tessa knew Guardian Roland’s son, Readen, had taken Marta captive and held her in the hidden cavern below Restal Keep. That’s where he’d been when Daryl, the rightful heir, and his forces attacked and retook the keep that Readen usurped from his father and his brother.
She shuddered, unsure she wanted to hear about whatever made Marta look so ill. “It must be painful for you to talk about. You don’t need to tell me.”
“You have your own history with Readen, don’t you? Being one of his hostages couldn’t have been pleasant,” Marta said.
Tessa looked down and clamped her eyelids tight against the memory. It was several minutes before she could bring herself to speak, her voice soft with remembered pity. “I found one of the serving girls who didn’t get away from him in time.”
She couldn’t stop the shiver that ran through her or the sudden turn-over in her stomach. “I couldn’t do anything about it. I had no proof, and he was regent. No matter that he called us guests, I was a hostage with no power to call him to account. All I could do was find someone to take her to the healer’s house. They could heal her body, but her mind—”
Tessa looked across the table at Marta. “You know there are people who won’t believe you about him, don’t you? I’ve heard the denials already, and you haven’t even been asked to tell your story.”
“It doesn’t matter. Hopefully enough will. But Sidhari is insisting it’s important for you to know about the Itza Larrak, and about the way Readen has found to get power. She says you have a choice to make, and you need to know what I have to tell you.”
“A choice to make?” Tessa laid her fork on her plate and turned her head away. “Marta, I’m the only child of a powerful holder. The only choice I ever get to make is what to put on to wear in the mornings. And not always then. Just about any other choice— ” The disgust and despair she invested in the word choice were heavy enough to crack the flagstone floor. “Any choice I make not dictated by him has to be carried out with a lot of secrecy.”
Tessa looked back and forced herself to smile, willed her manner back into the perfect equilibrium expected of her. “I’m sorry. You didn’t need to hear that. But the Itza Larrak? That’s an old story. It hasn’t been a problem since shortly after the Ark Ship landed the orig- inal colonists here. The Larrak were defeated then. What do you mean by power? Readen has no talent. I’m sure you know that.”
“Let’s go out to the gardens. Roland may not be the best guardian, but I must admit, he created the loveliest gardens I’ve ever seen. I like to sit out there when I’m feeling overwhelmed by all that’s happened. And we won’t be overheard or interrupted.”
Tessa looked around Marta. “Oh, dear. Speaking of interruption.” Her father headed for their corner wearing an irritated scowl. As usual. She forced a pleasant look onto her face and sat straighter. Since the day of the revolt, she felt less and less anxiety every time she saw him. Killing the mercenary had its benefits.
With only the briefest nod to Marta demanded by civility he said, “Tessa, I know you won’t bother to do it yourself, so I made an appointment with the seamstress for you. You’re to be there in an hour. You need the final fitting for your dress for the reception.” His voice was a sharp swipe of impatience.
“What reception, Father?” Tessa’s shoulders slumped as if already dressed in her father’s expectations.
“Your uncle and his retinue arrive mid-tenday.”
“Oh? You’ve given up on Daryl, then?” Tessa forced herself to keep the anger out of her face. It was too much to hope that he’d abandon his plans to marry her to Daryl.
A flicker of emotion crossed his face. Frustration? He pulled her to her feet and out of Marta’s hearing. His grip pinched her upper arm. “Just be ready. I don’t know who Hugh will bring with him, but you need to show at your best. Daryl has called in all of Restal’s holders and heirs, too. I’m keeping my options open.”
He turned abruptly, made a slight bow in Marta’s direction, and walked away.
Tessa rubbed her arm where his grip bruised her. His options? He’s not scheming to marry himself off to the highest bidder. How can I ever get away from him and his breeding plans? She stared after his straight, tall, uncompromising back until Marta cleared her throat.
“I’m sorry, Marta. He can be very rude. Prime Guardian Hugh Me’Rahl is my uncle. I’m sure Father’s mind is busy cataloging all the talents of whoever might be in his retinue, searching for the best breeding prospect to marry me off to.” She blinked, hard. I can’t cry. I won’t cry in front of her. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Please forget it. Let’s walk in the garden. It can’t be much colder than this.” And she wasn’t talking about the temperature of the room.
She wrapped her wool shawl more closely around her as they stepped outside. It was still too early for the pale red sun to have warmed the garden. “I’m not sure what you need to tell me, Marta. I can see you’ve gone through a great deal. If it’s painful for you—”
Marta looked closely at her face. “I know it’s not my business, but he can’t make you marry someone you don’t want to, can he? Surely Restal Quadrant is not that—”
“I’m afraid he can. Restal is not like the other quadrants. Women are...restricted in their choices here. At least women of holder status. And my father is one of the worst.” She looked away, her voice soft. “He wasn’t always that way.”
The two women walked in silence for several minutes. The peace and quiet of the garden’s mulched beds hiding beneath the snow, finally worked their wonder on Tessa’s composure. “What is it that you need to tell me, Marta?”
“Sidhari says you need to know this so you can make an informed choice. And I’m sorry but she either can’t or won’t be more clear. I’m not sure which.” She bent down and touched a stubborn crimson leaf still clinging to its twig. She straightened and started to walk on. Tessa took a long step to keep abreast of her on the path.
“Only a few people know some of what I’m going to tell you, and I trust you’ll not share it with anyone else without great need. I am not native to Adalta. I come from an independent trade ship orbiting the planet—it has been for the last year. My assignment is, or was, to assess the resources and the markets of this planet, and to find a covert way to influence the laws and restrictions against advanced technology here on Adalta.”
Tessa stumbled as if her feet stuck to the path. She stared at Marta, trying to wrap her mind around the words Marta spoke in such a matter of fact tone. Adalta was one of the diaspora planets, but it had been hidden from the rest of the colonized planets for five hundred years. When it left Earth, five people had stayed behind and sacrificed themselves to erase all trace of the ship and the planet they’d found. How had Adalta been discovered?
“I wouldn’t have told you that part except it’s important for you to understand everything that’s happened and is likely to happen. One of the other agents from the ship attempted to smuggle highly advanced weapons to Readen.”
Tessa stumbled again.
Marta reached out a hand and steadied her. “Probably in exchange for the rare heavy metals from Restal’s northern mountains. Readen was not only planning to wrest control of Restal Quadrant from Daryl but to move on Toldar, and perhaps even beyond that. With his father incapacitated, if his attempts to assassinate Daryl had not been thwarted, Readen might well have succeeded.”
The slaughter any advanced weapons could wreak against the simple bows and swords allowed on the planet—the thought was terri- fying. Tessa wrapped her wool shawl tight around her, but it didn’t help the icy cold that froze her. Everyone learned the history of the end day disasters that led to the diaspora from Earth on the Ark Ships. It was why such things were outlawed here. Warfare, fanaticism, xeno- phobia, and uncontrolled environmental disasters had devastated the home planet. Technology had become a curse Earth could not avert.
“Those weapons would have assured his success. Altan destroyed the one shipment we know of, and the agent responsible was badly hurt.” Marta stopped in front of a bush with graceful arching branches swollen with tight buds.
“But Readen’s been stopped. Daryl had him taken to the prison near the village of Ardencroft,” Tessa said. “What will they do now?” She thought for a moment. “And what does that have to do with me? That’s the concern of the guardians like my uncle and Daryl and holders like Father.”
The two of them walked on for a few minutes to a sheltered bench in a bend of the path. Then Marta stopped and faced Tessa. “I am still not used to talking about this next part. I’ve only told Altan and Daryl so far. But this is the reason they’ve asked Hugh Me’Rahl to come here —Readen has found a way to raise power that is not talent.”
Marta raised a hand, and Tessa stopped.
“You’ve seen at least one of the results of what he’s doing—the
young serving girl you helped.”
Tessa frowned, puzzled. What Readen had done to the girl was
beyond wrong. But what did it have to do with raising power? Cold seeped inside until she wasn’t sure she’d ever be warm again.
“Somehow he discovered how to use the energy of blood, sex, and death—even negative emotions—to gain power.”
Tessa reached behind her for the bench. She sat. Her memory of that girl, barely beyond childhood, overwhelmed her, and she fought not to empty her stomach on the mulched flowerbed beside her.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. Her throat burned. She swallowed and rested her head in her hands, elbows propped on her knees. “The girl —she’d been tortured. She had cuts all over her. Shallow cuts in places where the nerves are the most sensitive—intimate places. She wouldn’t speak. She was broken, her talent shredded.”
Tessa sat up and looked at Marta. “I’ve never seen anyone so terri- fied, so empty of anything but fear. He didn’t do that to you, did he?” Her throat tightened on her next words. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ask. Oh, shit, I shouldn’t ask that kind of question.”
Marta sat calmly, waiting for Tessa to compose herself. After a moment, she answered, her voice so low Tessa strained to hear. “He tried. But it was his minion who wielded the knives. The bond with Altan protected me, and Readen wasn’t able to touch me.” She looked straight into Tessa’s eyes. “Can you listen to the rest?”
“Why are you telling me this? It must be so painful for you.”
“As I said, Sidhari is insisting you need to know. The Itza Larrak— Readen released it from its cavern prison. And I don’t know if that is all he released.”