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Serial Part 8

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Lady Tyra Bardor lounged sipping her breakfast tea. She remembered her recent visits from her brother Ravan and her new acquaintance Joe Ryan of Xicon. While Tyra had never bothered with current events in her youth, now there were so many interesting things going on to hold her attention. Railroads linked cities, families expanded, alien creatures fell from the sky, and provinces found new ways to profit.

Tyra's brothers were grown men and Ravan had two children. Tyra was an aunt and she hadn't met Marna and Dash yet. One of many thoughts that brought a touch of sadness. She should have had her own children by now, but that wasn't to be.

Joe Ryan was a different story. Different species. Her human visitor had been quite small in stature and strange in shape, but had been kind and gallant. She had opened herself up to see what this human was made of, and he had not taken advantage. He had even shown remorse at having to lock Tyra in this tower, even though it was her well-appointed home and was quite necessary for her protection. It was a weird sort of ethics Tyra couldn't quite understand.

Tyra had so many questions, but Ravan was home in Bardor and Joe was at Soza Castle, up in the mountains north of the capital.

A distant rattle in the wall pulled Tyra out of her revelry. The dumbwaiter was on the move, heading up to her level. Tyra stood as it locked into place.

Joe had been the only one who'd used the contraption in years. Tyra's healers were long gone. Who had Joe told?

Tyra unlocked and opened the cabinet door. Inside she found a couple of travel bags and a note sealed in the Xicon brownish-yellow color.

She pulled out the note and resealed the cabinet. Someone would be along soon to collect her breakfast tray, but she was too curious to wait on the letter.

Lady Meredith briefly introduced herself and apologized for bringing bad news. "Marko has been poisoned and we are removing you to Soza Castle to ease his passing. Pack what you need and we will send an escort at lunchtime. Please do not alert staff, or the lady of the house will take action against us."

No. Not just as her life was returning to something tolerable. She couldn't endure more loss. Hadn't she had her share of pain for a lifetime? And Marko, was this another instance of his falling for dangerous men? Father had told Marko it would be the end of him.

Tyra tucked the letter under her pillow as Myra came to collect her tray.

"Can I get you something?" Myra asked. "Anything at all?"

Tyra shook her head and marshaled her expression. "No thank you, Myra. The tea was especially nice this morning. I am just stuck in my thoughts."

As Myra locked the door from the outside, Tyra started organizing her things. She left tags to send most back to Bardor but left gifts for the Soza staff who'd been kind to her. She left soft gloves for Myra. They would fit her well in a year or two. She left a scarf for Zusa and a bottle of mead for Uncle Max.

She made her arrangements as if she would never return, but left goodwill in case she was shipped back to the tower when her business in the mountains was done. She had relied on Soza healers for long enough that she was at their beck and call.

To her niece and nephew, Tyra sent her gramophone and records. They were her most dear possessions and she wanted them to stay in the family.

Tyra stowed her packed bags back in the dumbwaiter and lowered them down, hoping that fit the plan. It seemed more sensible than getting caught on the stairs with baggage.

A light tap at the door notified Tyra her lunch had arrived. Tyra met Hojon at the door and took the tray, not wanting to let him take note of the changes in the room.

"You're ready then?" Hojon asked. "Time is short."

Tyra left the tray on her table, pocketing the extra tea bags Myra must have sent. She followed Hojon down the spiral stairs. She was careful to move with grace, not wanting to attract attention. Her mind however was spinning with concerns. She'd never seen Hojon without Uncle Max, who reported directly to Lady Ravda. If this were a test, she was failing.

But if this was Tyra's last chance to make peace with Marko, she had to take it. Even if she didn't feel strong enough. Her anger tried to bubble up but she pushed it down.

They passed the kitchen and exited the delivery door. The sunlight was startling. It was midday and there were few clouds.

The waiting rock runner was a fast creature, a crested lizard in a tasseled harness. Tyra climbed aboard the waiting cart and strapped in next to the driver. "Ready." Hojon disappeared around the curve of the capital building.

The driver shouted, "Go!" and they were off, just before Zusa burst out of the door. 

The ride was exhilarating as they dodged through busy city streets bustling with mixed traffic. Wheels, huffs, boots, and claws made their way through the capital in the blaring sunshine.

Tyra expected the turn toward the rail station, but they sped past and continued out onto the northern road. It was another hour before they stopped for food at a small inn.

The leaf-wrapped quail was a treat, but Tyra caught herself nodding off twice. The excitement and the heat ebbed away, lulling her into a napping mood. She waved off the driver's concern. "I'll be fine as soon as we are moving again."

The innkeeper's children loaded up the cart with a food basket, waterskins, blankets, and a tent. It seemed Tyra was free of the capital and on her way to the Pyiz Soza mountains, a climb she'd seen in her dreams.

~     ~     ~

Marko woke up early which made his bed rest difficult. He would wake first as his human companions slept on, often cuddled together. They wrapped themselves in a heavy trail blanket to afford him what privacy they could in their current predicament.

On the third morning, Lady Chi woke second and caught him watching them sleep. Her perfectly round, deep black eyes stared into Marko with the presence and attention of a predator finding prey. But she didn't come after him. She just lay there, stroking Renz's hair with a gentle possessiveness.

Marko held her gaze briefly, then slid out of bed. He busied himself with his morning ritual, cleaning and changing for the day. He skipped the dulling powder for his fur. He did not need to pretend to be anything he was not.

Marko felt a dangerous surge of defiance. If Chi was going to judge him, then let him be judged. He dug to the bottom of his case and pulled out his softest silks. He left the shirt open at the neck but shaped his chest with a fitted vest. Marko was used to the slight compression and it calmed him.

As Marko strode back into the bedroom Renz yawned and stretched, challenging Marko's calm.

But Lady Vida had given Marko orders to befriend Chi, and it seemed like self-preservation to focus on her instead. "Lady Chi, would you like me to braid your hair?"

She smiled and nodded. "I would like that very much." 

While Renz was away fetching breakfast and Chi was returning from her shower with a hairbrush, there was a quiet tap at the door. Marko threw a blanket around him forming a cloak and stepped to the fabric hung wall that hid the call bell. Marko asked in a strained voice, "Who is there?"

"Suvira," was whispered back. But the voice wasn't quite right. Suvira's whispers were less breathy. The accent was wrong.

Marko shook his head at Chi as she approached the door on silent feet. Marko pulled the bell. Chi wedged her foot against the door as she unlocked it and slowly turned the knob.

"Quick," came the voice again, only risking a single word.

Chi released the knob and reset the lock.

Marko heard a small clink at the foot of the door and pulled Chi away, blocking her from the door and rushing them into the bathroom. After a minute they both relaxed.

Marko was perplexed. He'd expected an attack. "No explosion or gas. Maybe it was Suvira?"

Frantic pounding at the door a moment later suggested otherwise. Suvira and Ximena shouted from the other side.

Chi opened the door to find the two friends holding a third woman between them. She tried to break free but they held her tight.

Chi bent down and picked up a vial from the floor. "Did you leave this?" Chi asked the stranger.

The woman spat at Chi. Suvira pulled the woman's mane so hard she was staring at the ceiling. Suvira growled, "We'll take that as a yes."

Chi grabbed her medical bag and pulled out the bottle of escus extract, the poison treatment. She looked at the color. She smelled it. The sample from the kitchen was pure.

Chi unstoppered the vial from the door. The color was deeper with a hint of purple. She sniffed it. The smell was less sweet. Spicy.

Chi stepped forward and addressed the woman. "Would you drink this if I asked you to?"

The woman bucked and twisted, desperate to escape. Ximena tripped her and got her back under control.

Suvira reached for the vial but Chi replaced the stopper. "Her finger pads are purple. This antidote is tainted with poison. Take her to Lady Vida." Chi stepped back and slammed the door. She slipped both the poison and the cure into her bag.

Marko sank down the wall and sat on the floor. "Thank you," he said, just above a whisper. The diluted dose would not have killed him, but it would have made him quite ill. They were still in danger.

Chi knelt in front of him, round black eyes staring into him. "You're welcome. You saved my husband. I will always watch out for you." She reached out a hand and when Marko did not pull back she stroked his arm. "We'll be alright."

Marko nodded. "I believe you."

Marko replayed the incident. Suvira had been ferocious. She would have left Marko's attacker writhing in agony. Ximena had been fixed on her task of holding the woman and had not objected. There was no recognition or concern in their reactions. They did not know the woman and she was not a resident of the castle.

Chi was cold and calculating. She kept the intruder out. She sniffed out the poison. She proved the woman knew what she was delivering. She dumped the matter in Lady Vida's lap and held her anger until she slammed the door.

And now Chi had the vial. This creature had as much metal as Lady Vida.

~     ~     ~

Tyra lay dried flowers on the outdoor altar to the mountain spirits. The Báv Pyiz. Tyra would reach the castle tomorrow, but she had one more night to camp.

Tyra lay on a blanket near the cooking fire, resting in the dimming evening. The wind played with her mane and whispered to her. This was the night she had dreamed. She closed her eyes and whispered a prayer, knowing she would need her strength later tonight.

After a nap and hot potato stew, Tyra pulled a small cloth and a bowl out of her bag. Pyan, an attendant in the small camp, followed Tyra as she used the cloth to collect luminous fungus into her offering bowl.

When she had enough to act as a dim light, she returned to the fire and refilled the kettle with water.

"What are you doing?" Pyan asked.

"There will be a scream in the night. Do not be afraid. A cat will need help birthing her cubs." Tyra began unfolding washcloths and stacking them in a small basin.

When the kettle whistled, Pyan poured the boiling water over the clothes and used the back of a wooden spoon to make sure the clothes were soaked through.

It was not long before a scream pierced the quiet night, close by and up the curving road from camp. Beystan and Mae ran forward, pulling weapons. The guide and the guard stepped between Tyra and the pained wail.

"Tó." No. Tyra stood with her bowl of light and Pyan joined her with the basin. "She is in distress. We will take care of it."

Tyra approached the cave entrance she expected to find and began to hum. She slowed. Dropping to a crawl, Tyra moved forward, counting two heartbeats between each movement. Pyan followed in a crouch, tail out behind her for balance.

The cat hissed, very near. Tyra froze but continued to hum and added an occasional mewl. After a couple of minutes, Tyra moved a little forward and the bowl of light illuminated the three-foot-long cat.

Tyra wrapped warm damp cloths around her hand and let the cat sniff. In time she was able to wash the cat. Then her emerging cub, who seemed stuck.

Tyra dislodged the cub blocking its siblings and passed it back to Pyan who washed and wrapped the cub. There were three more, smaller than the first.

With each cub washed, dried, and returned to their mother, Tyra and Pyan backed out of the cave. Tyra felt the kiss of the wind as they returned to camp.

~     ~     ~

Marko paced the bedroom he'd been stuck in for a week. "Surely I can go down and meet my sister at the door." A runner brought word she would be here within the hour and he was anxious to make sure she was alright after the climb up the mountain.

Suvira shook her head. "And give away the ruse? You're fighting for your life, Marko. Sick as rotwood." She held out her dragonhead walking stick. "Your room is ready and you will need the cane and my arm to make the journey up the stairs."

Marko's eyes closed. His breath slowed by conscious effort. The ruse. "Alright." He marshaled his voice and his body, ready to play poison victim for the staff and his sister with his usual level of decorum. "But tomorrow I resume my duties. If I don't exercise, I will go mad."

Suvira nodded. "Understood. Let's just make sure Lady Vida is appeased. Besides, Lady Chi thought you should have an office that isn't the size of a closet."

Marko felt his shoulders stiffen and then forced himself to relax. "Did she now? Where did she get that idea?"

Suvira grinned. "Her idea, but we were happy to encourage it. If we are going to be here a while, we should be comfortable."

Marko was supposed to be here to assist Renz and stay out of sight. Not to play politics for his own sake. Marko didn't want to be installed as a person of rank. "I think we should be on our way." He needed to see what arrangements they had made.

Leaning on the cane and Suvira's arm, Marko made his way to his new suite. Marko greeted Pesh and Krimo on the way as they passed.

"I'm sure you're on the mend," suggested Pesh, nodding.

Marko told Suvira, "Pesh can remove stains and tailor a garment faster than I've ever seen. Krimo helps in the kitchen and has access to the cellar."

"Good to know." Suvira helped Marko up the curving staircase, pausing occasionally to look out the tall and narrow windows of dusty pink glass.

The suite was the sort of space expected when a youth returned home after an apprenticeship. The short entry led into a large room with a desk and bed, though three times the size of his office at the capital. Well appointed, but uncluttered with trinkets. A private, adult space with an attached shower.

Lady Chi was fluffing pillows and tossing them onto the bed. "Bright day, Marko. Welcome home."

"Thank you." Marko nodded his appreciation. "Very nice." Neutral beiges and browns with natural spruce made the space feel warm, an excellent choice for a guest room. It would allow Marko to add his house colors without clashing with Soza purple.

Marko pulled out a few blue and white pillows from his luggage and added a blue towel with a wave pattern to a hook by the shower. Just enough of a nod to his family to appear lived in.

Chi grabbed the basket she'd been pulling pillows from and turned toward the door. "Renz and I are taking the suite opposite. We'll move up tomorrow."

"Good," Marko replied.

"Is it?" Chi asked.

Marko looked into her black eyes, as fierce as ever. His pulse quickened and he moved his focus to the wall behind her. "It will be good to have a more secure location and to have you both nearby."

"Good," Chi replied. "Tyra should be here soon. Make yourself look scruffy."

~     ~     ~

Renz fidgeted on his stool in the salon where he and Kinzo waited for Lady Vida Soza to receive Marko’s sister. The new arrival took her time freshening up after her trip up the mountain, making them wait well over an hour.

Young Kinzo plucked at his lute, elegant but uninspired. Possibly as bored as Renz. At least the incense was lavender and not the choking truth drug the lady had used to greet Renz on his first day at the castle.

Marko’s sister strode into the salon, as tall as her brother, but oddly thin. Where Marko was slender but healthy, she had the look of someone who had been deathly ill. Her muzzle was hollowed, showing the shape of bone underneath. Her deep blue dress clung to her body, nearly skeletal. Yet she was an elegant specter. She had none of the pockmarks, lumps, or balding patches associated with the landing sickness. Her fur was platinum blond, short but thick. When she spoke her voice was high, childlike.

“Bright day, Lady Soza. Gentlemen.” She bowed gracefully, stood again quickly.

“Bright day, Lady Tyra Bardor.” Lady Soza waved from her sedan. “I hope your journey was pleasant.”

Renz stared with interest. Bardor. Was she the daughter of the Lord Justice?

“My attendants have been kind. The lake is lovely this time of year.” No emotion touched her voice. Statement of fact.

“Though starting to get cold, I imagine.” Lady Soza stood and beckoned the girl closer. “Tell me, dear. How is my sister.”

Eyes narrowed. Ear twitched. But she stepped forward as requested. “Tolerably miserable. I don’t have any messages since I was dragged out of my confinement without warning.”

Lady Soza nodded. “I hope you will find the castle less restraining. Feel free to choose your favorite suite and ask the staff should you need anything.”

“Should I expect to stay a while?” Her head bend low and her voice strained. “I thought my brother only needed my attention until he passed. Perhaps he waits for my permission to die.”

“Stay as long as you like. You are no prisoner here, you may move around freely, but I will not send you back to my sister. She used you to compromise Marko. Sent him here to spy. That is why he is ill. That is why I cannot allow you to return to my sister’s household. Understood?”

Lady Tyra nodded. “I understand your position. Does that mean I owe you instead of Lady Ravda?”

“By no means.” Lady Soza waved a hand toward Renz. “Doctor Renz Banister of Xicon is your new patron. He insists you and your brother owe no one.”

Her narrowed eyes stared into his. “Indeed? Then thank you, doctor.” There was no relief in her voice. A tinge of sarcasm, perhaps.

Renz stood and bowed deeply. “I am honored that you have joined us, Lady Bardor. Are you ready to see your brother?”

~     ~     ~

Marko’s sister marched into the room, crossed her arms, and stood at a distance from Marko’s bed.

“Tyra?” Marko asked. “You’re here? How are you?”

Her tail twitched, but she was otherwise quite still. “I’m told I should say goodbye before you die. Are you waiting for my permission, brother? You have it.”

Renz cleared his throat. “Um, we’re pretty sure he’ll live.”

“Pity.” She turned and left.

Marko curled up against the wall with a pillow held tight to the side of his face.

Renz crawled across the bed to reach him and rubbed his shoulder. “Marko. I’m sorry. I don’t understand what happened.”

Marko shook his head, threw the pillow across the room. “I am an idiot. She still blames me and she wants me to pay. To hurt.”

“For what?”

“Her fiancé. She walked in on us.”

“He left her?” Renz guessed.

“She slapped me. Called me a whore. He beat her so badly she almost died.”

“Damn.” Renz leaned over and hugged him. “That’s terrible.”

 “I wasn’t strong enough to stop him. I should have said no when he came to me. I should have punched him in the face and taken the beating myself.”

“No. If he seduced you, don’t blame yourself. You could spend a lifetime thinking about the what-ifs.”

Marko shook his head. “None worse than Tyra hating me from her sick bed while her fiancé was stoned to death in the square.”

Renz froze. What could he say to that?

Marko pulled away, clutched another pillow. “Please. Go. I’m too ill to be seen.”

Renz nodded, then leaned his face against Marko’s back for a moment. “Let us know if you need anything,” he whispered.

Bardor. Marko Bardor, son of the Lord Justice who controlled Renz’s fate. A lord who probably believe his son had been poisoned because of Renz. And apparently, a lord who would have a man stoned to death for hurting his children. Renz swallowed hard.

When Renz stepped out of the room, he found Tyra leaning on the wall near the door. Renz eased the door shut. Best Marko not know she’d been listening. He was torturing himself enough.

The lady’s eyes were wide and damp. Her chest heaved but made no sound. Her fur twitched and then she ran from the hallway, a blue and white streak down the curving corridor.

Just as well. Renz’s own tears started then. He wanted to punch a dead man to death. He wanted to punch himself. No matter what he did, it seemed to hurt more than it helped.

~     ~     ~

Renz drafted a letter to Lord Bardor and Justice Richter. He explained the manipulation to free Marko from the blackmail and Tyra from her confinement. He claimed responsibility and insisted it was in the best interest of continued negotiations with Lady Vida Soza.

Renz was careful not to let on his awareness of Marko and Tyra’s relation to the lord justice. And to express his guilt over the lies he had spread. He closed with a hope that the continued negotiations would solidify soon, and that Lady Vida was a most gracious host now that she didn’t feel she was hosting a spy.

~          ~          ~

Tyra was hesitant to see Lady Vida again so soon. Her chest still hurt from crying and she was nearing the end of her strength. But one did not just ignore their host.

The salon smelled of brima yáwyroú, the truth-tellers serum. A treatment Tyra had rarely experienced, but every time was memorable.

Lady Vida stood and held out her hands, a familial gesture. Tyra forced herself to approach and take the lady's hands. An intimate moment with a stranger while the incense took effect.

"Welcome to the mountains, child. I am glad you're here." Vida release her and they sat on floor pillows. "I hear you have visions."

Tyra signed. "Of course, you would ask that. Yes. I had a vision last month. The cat in the cave. I had no idea how such a thing could be possible."

Vida nodded. "You saved five lives last night. I am impressed."

Tyra ducked her head. "I knew what to do. I just lived the dream a second time."

Vida smiled. "Well, should you stay for spring, there will be many births to attend. A steady-handed aunty is always a treasure."

"I'll think on that." It would be a good way to earn her keep. "Marko seems to be recovering. He may need me to get through the winter." She looked into Vida's eyes, watching for a reaction. "He will make it through the winter?"

Vida's eyes gave only the slightest hint of distress. "I will not harm your brother and I will protect all who reside in my house. I have not seen visions of your brother in the coming year, but I hope he will stay and thrive."

"And this doctor who bartered our freedom. What kind of a threat is he?"

Vida smiled. "You assume he is a threat?"

Tyra scoffed inwardly. Why wouldn't she? "Marko only attaches himself to dangerous men. Perhaps it is the thrill, perhaps he is punishing himself."

"Well Lord Renz is a devious creature. Manipulative, possessive. Always thinking. He has grand plans and will see them through. But he would throw himself in front of a landslide for Marko. Only your father could match Renz's ire if something happened to your brother."

Tyra snorted. "Don't test me. I still have a lot of anger, but Marko is my baby brother."

"Then perhaps you can help me with something, being the eldest Bardor in residence." Vida stood and collected a censer and some unlit incense. "I am holding a woman who brought poison into my home and left it for Marko to mistake for ecrus extract. I need to know why."

Tyra stood in a swift motion, then wavered. "Tell me she is somewhere uncomfortable so I can sleep first."

Vida nodded. "She is in the damp basement under guard. She has waited a few days. She can wait a few more hours."

~          ~          ~

Marko entered the dining hall in the morning leaning on Suvira's cane. A cheer went up. Marko raised a hand in thanks and grabbed a nearby empty seat next to Joe.

"Good to see you out and about." Joe patted Marko on the back. "You had us worried there for a minute."

"I am glad to be back. What have I missed?" Marko loaded his plate with smoked meat and roasted vegetables.

"I'm heading out to see the construction site with Dzev next week. Ximena and Suvira have been receiving a lot of letters. Mostly personal. Lady Vida and your sister are thick as thieves this morning." Joe finished off his plate and grabbed a bread roll.

Marko spotted Vida and Tyra bend together, talking and eating in a rush. Thick as thieves. Interesting phrase. "The moon is waxing. Are you ready for the harvest festival?"

Joe nodded. "As ready as one can be for a fertility ritual under an eclipse. I have no idea what to expect but it should be a riot."

~          ~          ~

Vida led Tyra down the spiraling stairs into the basement, past the larder, cellar, storage, and armory. She stopped before a bolted door flanked by guards and lit the incense in the censer.

She signaled a guard and she unbolted the door, swinging it wide. Inside the short entry, Vida signaled Tyra to wait.

Vida turned the corner and in the first of three gated cells, the poisoner sat on an overturned bucket.

The woman looked up and spat in Vida's direction. "I don't have to tell you anything. Conspiring with humans to steal more land. Shame on you."

"Maybe not," Vida replied. "But the incense hasn't had time to work and you already give me bits of the story." She grabbed a hooked stick from the opposite wall and used it to hang the incense above the gate.

Vida stepped back, patting the stick into her hand like a baton. "Now we wait."

"For what? I don't owe you anything." The woman stood and banged her bucket against the gate.

Tyra drifted around the corner, moving in half shadow. In a whispery, childlike voice she called, "You owe me."

The woman dropped the bucket and squinted. "Who are you?"

"The Bardor family specter. You have harmed one of my own." Tyra swayed in the half shadows. "Who are you?"

"Ashra. Boust. But I don't believe you."

Tyra took a couple more steps forward, her eyes fully black. "Marko is my little brother. You answer to me. Were you paid?"

Ashra cringed. She tried not to speak, but it eventually came. "A job for my husband. On my family's land in Kannar. Refugees still have trouble finding work." She spat again in Vida's direction. "They're good people. They deserve better."

Tyra pulled her attention back. "Why didn't your family in Kannar offer your husband work without this dangerous favor?"

"How should I know? Human sympathizer had it coming. We would have come for him anyway." Ashra pulled at her hair in frustration.

"We?" Tyra asked.

"The Forsaken Farmers. They will stand against all of you until they see real change. A real future for their children." Ahsra's voice strained and she sat heavily on her bed. "My children."

Tyra turned toward Vida. "Confiscate any equipment used to make the poison. Destroy the formula. Transfer the whole family to Kannar Province with what they care to carry. Anything left behind goes to their community. I will charge Kannar Province on behalf of my family."

Vida nodded. "It will be done."

~          ~          ~

Renz smiled and shook his head at the triangular folds of fabric. “Is this my size? I'll look like I'm wearing a tent.” He lifted the heavy folds of waxed brocade fabric and let the costume unfold. He couldn’t even tell which way was up, and it didn't help that the wax made it slick like a raincoat.

Marko paused in the doorway, arm half outstretched. “May I?” he asked.

Renz nodded. “Anytime, Marko. You don’t need to ask if you can touch me. I trust you.”

Marko righted the ceremonial robe and slid it over Renz’s head. “You shouldn’t say such things. A person could misunderstand.” Marko's hands were warm against Renz's skin.

Renz sighed. “I’m not talking to any person. I am talking to you. I want you to understand.” He managed to get his arms through the quilted sleeves, then laid a hand on Marko’s arm. “But I’m a poor translator if I can’t tell you how I feel.”

Marko shook his head. “You can’t mean you want a personal touch. A lover’s touch.”

Renz shrugged a shoulder. “Only if it pleases you.” When Marko opened his mouth to reply, his eyes fixed somewhere in the distance. Renz squeezed his arm. “Listen. I want you by my side. Not as my servant. That business is done. You owe Soza nothing and you owe me nothing. I want you to be my confidant. My friend. And yes, maybe my lover. If that frightens you, I’m sorry. I’m not making any demands or telling you what to do. But let me explain how I feel at least this once. I want you to be free to do whatever you want. The choice is yours. But I hope you want to be by my side.”

Marko shivered. He stepped closer and pulled Renz against his chest. “This feels dangerous. But I will stay. No matter the risk.”

Renz nuzzled against Marko’s chest, then straightened. “Take some time. Be sure. We'll talk again soon.”

Marko’s pulse quickened but his voice was smooth and serious. “I will consider my options tomorrow. We cannot miss the ceremony and Lady Chi needs you.”

“If I don’t trip over this darn thing.”

“It ties. I’ll adjust it. You will be as elegant as any nobleman.” He ran a hand over Renz’ hair. “And far more exotic.”

Renz closed his eyes. Exotic. He didn’t need to blend in. An impossible task anyway. He just needed to be noticed. To be present in the moment. “I will be noble. I will be exotic. I will not fall on my face.”

Marko nodded and gently pushed Renz back far enough to adjust the robe. He ran his hand across Renz’ back and felt him shiver. He found the ties and brought the garment in to fit. “You couldn’t tell me this while I was captive in your bed for a week?” Marko asked.

Renz laughed. “And make the whole situation more awkward?”

“Like waking up with you gone and Lady Chi staring at me with those big, black eyes.”

Renz wondered why it was Chi’s eyes that caught in Marko’s memory. Was it the seaming galactic depth? Renz had seen eyans with eyes nearly as dark and round.  But not unless they were angry or afraid. Do black eyes look like anger or aggression? Like a prowling cat? Awkward, indeed. “Sorry about that. She finds you fascinating, and sometimes she doesn’t know what to say.”

“What will she think of me now?” Marko froze for a moment.

Renz was surprised by Marko's apparent fear. “She will adore you. She threatened to write you a love poem and sign my name.”

“Lady Chi is extraordinary.” Marko's voice turned smooth and sensual. “Make sure she knows that tonight."

~     ~     ~

Renz was ready to leave the hot interior of the castle by the time Suvira arrived to usher them into the square. The ceremonial robes were thick and heavy and he wanted to be out in the cool evening air. Joe joined them on their way out, pulling at his neckline.

The robes the women wore were of similar design and shimmering with spiraling and woven patterns. Renz found Chi, resplendent in silver, and held her hand to his lips just long enough to make her giggle nervously.

The bonfires were spaced out a couple of miles apart in well-prepared campsites along the northern face. The one Lady Vida Soza presided over was a twenty-minute walk from the castle. Lady Vida led the parade of castle residents, followed by her husbands, children, cousins, and their families. Renz and his entourage followed after the relatives. Renz thrilled at the thought of joining the harvest ritual.

Children tossed dried leaves along the path which crunched under the feet that followed. Suvira explained, “They are lighting the path for the spirits to join the revelry. But also, the sound alerts the leaders to the progress of their followers. If there is a disturbance, they will notice.”

Human heads nodded. Renz didn’t like the level of paranoia that suggested. Not that he should be surprised after the death threats, truth drugs, and other manipulative measures he had experienced living as a tribal leader for a short time.

Hearty smells reached them about the same time they rounded a bend and saw the fires rising ahead. A great bonfire clung to the edge of the cliff face. Renz knew it was visible from the university across the valley far below. Separate cooking fires stood at a careful distance from the pyre. Meat, onions, and potatoes stewed in open caldrons.

Tables were laden with sweetbreads, fruit, vegetables, and kegs of drink. The kegs were unlabeled except for colored stripes. Suvira pointed the kegs out to the humans in the party. “Avoid the purple and black. Dangerous for you. The red is cinnamon and honey. The yellow is ginger-club. The green is rich and earthy, the traditional drink for the circle toast. Do not drink too much and do not accept drinks from strangers.”

Joe grabbed empty tankards and began passing them out. “Any other instructions?”

Suvira grinned. “Have fun. Go wild. Don’t wander.”

Lady Tyra Bardor joined them and took a tankard from Joe, holding his hand for a moment before turning to choose the rich and earthy brew. Joe followed her lead and Renz followed him.

Lady Vida Soza led the circle. “We beseech you, Lady Moon. Light the dark months and bring forth a glorious springtime. We beseech you, Lady Soil.  Freshen and revive our valleys in the coming year, that the bounty of your children may flow forth. We beseech you, mountain spirits. Join our dance and bind our lives together, that we might flourish and grow.”

The traditional drink was thick and tasted of a damp pine forest. It tingled but lacked a harsh burn.

Voices around the circle raised in a song to the mountain spirits. A couple of flutes joined in, followed by a dulcimer.

The children were rounded up and given bowls of stew. Attendants walked them back toward the castle, singing and clapping to the beat.

Lady Vida walked around the edge of the circle, touching each guest on the shoulder, welcoming them. She stopped with her hand on Tyra. She gestured widely to the circle and Tyra drained her drink before she swung into the open center, the first to dance.

Ghostly sounds raised in the distance and joined the music. The wind howled and the fires snapped. Tyra bent, spun, reached, a lithe specter undulating with the music. She reached out and pulled Vida back into the circle. Vida grabbed Dzev. Each new dancer in the circle pulled another spectator into the ring until the participants all swirled and spun and collided with each other. The dancers squealed and shouted in excitement.

The scene darkened as the world drifted between the sun and the moon. Eclipse. The music and the howling winds grew in volume. The firelight danced and flickered against speckled blackness.

Renz felt a massive gust of wind push him into Chi. Around them, the others seemed to be flung together by the wind in twos and threes. Elated, they moved against each other to the rhythm.

A hand caressed Renz across the back, but no one was there. A trick of the wind? Hallucination? Chi moved against his chest. He bent and kissed her, both moving with the song and the wind and the crackling flames. Again, the hand caressed his back, but no one was near enough to touch him. He shivered.

Renz pulled Chi with him back to the tables. They were beaded in sweat. Renz got them two fresh tankards and they watched the circle from outside. Revelers danced, sparred, writhed together. At the center of it all, Tyra whirled and reached and whipped her tail. The only one who stood alone, she seemed to be dancing with invisible spirits.

Renz scanned the revelers for his team. Suvira and Marko flanked Joe, holding a Soza woman at a distance as she tried to pull Joe against her. The woman gave up and pulled Marko away with her instead. Suvira moved to block Joe’s view of them. Her moves were rhythmic and enticing. Joe pulled her toward the center, circling Tyra at a close distance.

Above, the moon made its slow reappearance. A sliver became a crescent. Renz began to see shapes in the wind. Shimmering ribbons of vague reflection. He set down the tankard and pulled Chi’s from her hand. It could be something in the drink.

The wind howled and the pyre leaped. Renz heard a voice in that angry wind. It called his name and lashed his face and hands. Nipped at his ears. “Renz. Rejoice. Rejoice,” the voice commanded. Chi kissed him then. Backed him against the table and moved against him. Fear and ecstasy.

~     ~     ~

A couple of hours of revelry was hard work. Tyra leaned on a table and took long deep breaths before finding her way into Marko’s path. It was time to talk. Tyra knew she’d been cruel.

Marko’s eyes darted to her face, her hands, and then the ground. He expected an attack. Invited it. Not that she’d given him any reason to think otherwise.

She stepped closer. Held out a hand. “Truce, brother of mine.”

Marko took the hand firmly. Held it in both of his. “Tyra,” he said. “I don’t know if you can ever forgive me.”

She closed her eyes for a moment, showing him her trust. “I don’t know, but I am done with anger. Nateo scarred us both.”

When she opened her eyes again Marko was watching her. “I would have done anything to trade places with you. To protect you,” he said.

“Even after I blamed you. My brother the saint.” She didn’t mean the sarcasm that touched her voice. He dropped her hand and dodged her attempt to reach for him. “I’m sorry, Marko.”

He shook his head, stepped further away. “I used to take the blame. I know that’s wrong. He deserved to die.”

Tyra’s focused somewhere past him, her voice distant again. “He was brutal. He would have met the same end eventually. I just wish I had seen it soon enough to spare us both.” She turned and drifted back toward the castle.

Tyra sighed to herself, exhausted. At least Marko was out of danger and they could build a new relationship. He had risked his life. Bountiful Water only knew what he'd traded to the humans to plead their case.

Tyra tried shaking her head to banish the thoughts, but they persisted. What exchange had Marko made with the humans? What would they really owe this Renz of Xicon who played at innocence but bested Lady Vida in her own domain?

~     ~     ~

Exhaustion from the prior night's revelry left eyans and humans alike desiring a long rest. Leftovers, pastries, and tea waited for anyone who ventured out of bed before noon, but the first real sit-down meal was a late luncheon in the afternoon.

The den of noise and activity in the dining hall was greater than Renz's first evening at Soza Castle. Children ran around singing rhyming songs. People moved from table to table, exchanging stories.

Renz felt a pull on his sleeve and turned to find Tyra very close, looking down on him from her full height. "Bright day, Lady Tyra." Renz followed her to a table near a corner.

"Bright day, Lord Renz." Tyra sniffed at the pitchers on the table before pouring each of them a ginger-club. "How was your first Soza harvest?"

"Powerful. Enchanting." Renz began loading his plate. "The ritual was well-organized and you led the dance beautifully."

Tyra nodded at the recognition, but her voice became more distant. "Did you have any visions this autumn?"

Renz could only think of one thing that might qualify. "Perhaps. A raven-haired daughter for Chi."

"How many cubs do humans have? Will they come in the spring?" Tyra asked.

Renz blinked. "Usually one, sometimes more." He tried to calculate in his head. An Eydan year was longer than an Earth year. "Yes, I would guess late spring." Renz brow furrowed. How hard were the winters in the mountains? If Chi were pregnant would it be safe to stay? She was the expert to ask. "Are there a lot of births in the spring?"

Tyra nodded. "Yes. It is the time for new beginnings. There will be many this spring if you have your way."

His way. Renz puzzled. Was it the construction she was asking about? "I hope we can break ground on the observatory. We don't have a schedule yet."

"And my brother and I?" she asked, looking down at him with dark, round eyes.

Renz swallowed hard. "That is up to you and Marko to decide. You have no debts to Soza and short of returning to the capital, you can do whatever you want."

She nodded and took a long drink. She began pulling apart a pastry. "And my brother. What does he owe you?"

Renz had the sense that nothing was the wrong answer. Her veiled anger needed soothing. "That is for Marko to decide. He saved my life twice. Chi and I saved his life twice. I've made him an offer as an equal. He is deliberating, but the choice is his."

"How much will you be imposing on Bardor Province? What is the real cost of our freedom?"

There was the rub. "Only that of trading neighbors with mutual interests, which we are. I am not taxing your family. I expect the Lord Justice would have my head for such a thing."

Tyra looked doubtful, but her eyes returned to narrow slits in sparking circles. "What possessed you to strike such a deal?"

Renz leaned closer. "My rage at the threat on your brother's life. A rage that could not be denied, as I was drugged at the time. Seeing you both safe was the price of my continued patronage for Soza innovation and expansion."

She inclined her head and smiled. "Interesting trade. Everyone wins. Why should I believe such a story?"

"You shouldn't." Renz raised his glass. "You should find other sources."

Tyra raised her glass. "Oh, I will." She drank and then stood, heading for Ximena.

~     ~     ~

Lady Vida was enjoying her ale and Kinzo's gentle strokes on her arm when a runner approached and handed her a message with a blue seal. She handed the boy a pastry and read. 

Intolerably rude, visitors this late in the day without warning. "Tell us when they are in sight of the castle," she told the boy. "And how many."

She stood and found the triplets huddled together nearby. "Darlings. Company is coming. Open the northern cavern suite and the adjacent rooms." Let's find out if fisherfolk are claustrophobic.

Vida moved passed Zar, Nar, and Vara and they scurried out.

Vida strode to the mantle and turned back to the hall. She took in a slow deep breath. What was the right tone for a possible invasion, possible reunion? "The Lord Justice Arror Bardor will be upon us in an hour. Finish your meals and prepare for company."

Marko and Tyra were the first on their feet. Marko held out his hand and Tyra ran to grab it. They fled the hall.

"One hour," Vida repeated. The last time Vida had seen Arror Bardor, their children had been fighting. One roar from him was enough to shake a person to their bones.

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